The Vintage Revisits: The People Under The Stairs

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Now no longer a Moviepass member, podcasts predominantly dictate my film watching decisions. The Next Picture Show podcast, run by former Dissolve critics, upon the release of Get Out in March paired it with Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs. While Stepford Wives is the more direct link, they chose the 1991 adventure horror for its racial themes which are very specific to its era. It’s still an odd choice because as much as I love Wes Craven, he is a hit or miss kind of guy. People Under the Stairs falls somewhere in the middle, not the masterpiece of Scream or the trashy mess of My Soul to Take. It’s unique that it’s not particularly scary and more satirical. At the same time being told from a child’s perspective as he tries to escape the maze of a boobytrapped mansion, it becomes a weird violent Home Alone alternative. Within this genre mishmash, there’s a lot to dig into even if it’s not all fully realized.

In the black slums of Los Angeles, a 13-year-old Fool (Brandon Adams), his sister and sickly mother are about to be evicted from their dilapidated apartment complex by their evil white landlords. Family friend Leroy (Ving Rhames) enlists Fool’s help to rob those same landlords who are reportedly hoarding mounds of gold in their creepy house in the suburbs. The robbery goes sour fast and Fool finds himself trapped in a house that’s more concerned with breakouts than break-ins as there are cannibals in the basement, a mute in the walls and a porcelain doll of a daughter being tortured in her own bedroom. This is a film filled with so many strange details, it’s difficult to cover in a brief summary. What’s important to know is that the landlords referred to as Man and Woman in the credits are Reagan era allegories and they’re into some fucked up shit. Podcasters Tasha Robinson, Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias found the metaphors quite blatant while for me as the credits rolled I turned to my boyfriend and said: “what were the people under the stairs supposed to stand for?” It’s a very clear generation gaps as Craven’s film is preying on the 80’s conservative, moral standards of the Republican-run government who preach purity but happily disenfranchise minorities. This shines clearest with the performances of Man and Woman played in extremely broad strokes by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie who are dolled up to be incestuous surrogates of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Their greediness and racism which is more overt than the white liberals in Get Out are very real for that time especially when the LA riots would happen only a year later.

Out of all the obstacles that Fool faces in the house, the titular people under the stairs are the least imposing which is what contributes to the flaws of this film. If I were to rank the threats it would go Mommy Dearest Nancy Reagan, simpleton Ronald Reagan in a gimp costume, the Cujo Rottweiler named Prince, abject poverty and lastly the Romero-esque zombies lurking in the basement dungeon. The Reagans are enough of a menace with the Woman’s bitchy white woman stares and the Man IN A FULL GIMP LEATHER DADDY GET UP running around with a shotgun hunting down a child. They are more effect villains due in part to how the film is shot. The initial breaking and entering is a daytime occurrence and a majority of the story takes place in an afternoon. This isn’t a dark and shadowy mise en scene, there’s a lot of light pouring through windows, a reminder that there is a world outside of this prison. Because of that choice, the powder-faced mutants in the basement look cheap and silly because we can see them too clearly. The Reagans look like normal people but behind closed doors are the ones to fear.

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So we’ve got the political commentary, the parts that are intended to be scary but then this is also a poorly planned children’s film. I know not all films with a young protagonist have to be then geared towards children but even with murder and cannibalism, the tone has a playful energetic mentality that would appeal to a 13-year-old audience. It’s that Goonies spirit of treasure and adventure but misplaced here when there are more grounded stakes. Yet at one point when Fool and the mute Lost Boy, Roach (Sean Whalen), are being chased by Prince, Roach releases a trap door that shoots the dog down two floors and through the kitchen that might as well be accompanied by a slide whistle. Craven wants to have his cake and eat it too by making a Little Rascals and a Dawn of the Dead crossover but gets so muddled when you have this little kid saying the word “fuck”.

I know Wes Craven is a director capable of making horror movies with deep seeded messages. I consistently return to Last House on the Left, a brutal rape/revenge narrative but with clearly expressed commentary on 60’s counterculture and the Vietnam War. I respect his interest in branching out and wanting to talk directly about race but being a white man doesn’t make him the best candidate to do so. This kind of winking at the camera tone he would nail down a few years late with Scream. I wouldn’t say The People Under the Stairs is a failure (Ving Rhames in a movie is nothing to scoff at) yet the social awareness lacks a deep comprehension and the metaphors come off as half-baked in a 2017 perspective. Of course, the curiosity I end this review on is, is Vampire in Brooklyn any better?

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Going Ape For Kong

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Maybe it was just me but I wasn’t completely psyched for a new Kong movie. Large CGI mammals whether they are singing jazz in Jungle Book or surviving ship wrecks in Life of Pi look either too fake or too cheesy. I’m always hyper aware that they’re not real and I’d prefer filmmakers to use an actual tiger. Now there’s no 100-foot ape Warner Brothers could have pulled as a practical Kong but the key phrase in the title Kong:Skull Island would be the latter half. While Kong is the center piece of this lost island in the South Pacific, there’s so much more there than the titular ape. The military and science expedition that arrive may have been welcomed by a fierce swipe of Kong’s hand wiping out most of the team but there are far worse species lurking in the jungle that they must worry about and that’s where the fun begins.

It’s hard not to notice the huge push to distance this adaptation from Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong. Jackson’s goal was to remake the film from his childhood and make it a rightful epic. It’s truthful to the 30’s setting but has the edition of all creatures on the island namely dinosaurs as Kong’s adversary at least until man proves to be the real foe. There’s the odd woman/ape romance with the blonde heroine which elongates the plot into this 3 hour plus narrative. Skull Island first move is to scrap the time period that character is so entrenched in. It’s 1974 and Vietnam is wrapping up. It’s blatant that the filmmakers are going full Apocalypse Now with the visual imagery of the rising sun, helicopters dropping bombs and Samuel L Jackson’s war hungry Colonel Packard is a clear Kurtz parallel. Besides being the breath of fresh air by including the new decade that has funky ties and classic rock, Kong is a perfect allegory for Vietnam as this expedition, well intentioned or not is ill-prepared and unable to stop the force of the ape. This is also a movie that moves at a clip. They deliver a tight 2-hour action movie that wastes no time, giving you visual confirmation of Kong in the first five minutes. It’s a welcomed decision in my opinion because I don’t need a drawn out story. It’s an island with monsters, most of these people won’t make it out alive and I’m here to see their fight for survival. The downside of cramming in all these set pieces as well as characters (if you’ve seen the amount of actors’ names they fit on the poster you know), any emotional growth is thrown to the wayside or when attempted, doesn’t work. The few times to breathe and allow these character moments between the hired tracker Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and anti-war photographer Weaver (Brie Larson) comes off as pointless. The ones who come out best are the biggest swaths of performance like Jackson or John Goodman who plays the crackpot scientist Randa who initiates this mission.

I may be saying the writing is a bit hollow but that’s not why you go see a blockbuster such as this. You’re there for the spectacle and Skull Island definitely delivers. With DP Larry Fong who is the real star here, creates breathtaking 360 battle sequences like Kong taking down helicopters, giant bamboo spiders that squash unsuspecting soldiers and the Skullcrawler attack in the elephant graveyard. The pristine special effects make the action such an immersive experience, something I can’t wait to see again and oggle. I, of course, am drawn to all the bizarre creatures designed to inhabit the island. While I can take or leave a mammal, I love me a CGI reptile because dinosaurs are forever. Moving away from the traditional T-Rex look Jackson went for, here it’s a Cloverfield, skeletal beast that charges at people on its two legs. Weird as hell but fascinating to behold. Even when not in the trenches the neon lighting choices of Vietnam, accentuating the cool British ruggedness of Hiddleston are much appreciated. From costumes to production design to special effects, all beautifully recreates both a specific time as well as a whole new place that time forgot. I’d hope you’d get something this good with such a massive budget.

This is a studio movie through and through. It moves and sounds like one with its protest rock soundtrack and obvious build up to a sequel/Marvel-esque world building. It has the pitfalls of film by comity, lacking a distinctive directorial drive but goddamnit if it isn’t a hell of a lot of fun to watch. We got the auteur Kong already and while you can feel the ambition, it’s still a slog. I’ll sacrifice a romantic storyline for well-shot explosions and beast battles. The anti-war, pro-environmental message come through naturally without the grand statements. The setting and scenario are strong even if there are too many characters to rightfully establish a lead. The movie knows how to have a good time. It’s comedic, it’s dark and it promises me more Godzilla in my future which is all I’m asking from any movie. I could care less about superheroes, this is the cinematic universe I’ve been asking for.

Taking Woodstock

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Ang Lee may be reprimanding me for not seeing the Woodstock documentary but he sure is doing an amazing job replicating the epic hippie explosion that is the iconic 1969 concert. Taking Woodstock is one of the most authentic period pieces I’ve encountered as Lee scans the backed up country road of Volkswagons and drugged out dancing girls I actually had to question if I was watching actual archival footage. The environment that is the sleepy town of White Lake before then and during the festival is what makes this movie so intriguing. You watch in wonder at how these events all fell in place. Lee exquisitely expresses the serendipity of one family’s need to save their failing motel and the entire counterculture movement coming together for something magical.

In the middle of this unexpected backdrop is Elliot (Demitri Martin), the closeted son of the motel owners and the acting president of White Lake’s Chamber of Commerce that bends the rules to have his permit applicable to Woodstock. He is the audience surrogate to experience the wonderment without ever seeing a band play. It’s also about coming into his sexuality in this suddenly accepting environment while under the watchful eye of his Russian immigrant parents (played by Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman). Martin is quite an odd casting choice due to his meager acting experience at the time. He may not be at the level of the stacked cast surrounding him including Jonathan Groff, Liev Schreiber, Emile Hirsch and my personal favorite Dan Fogler but his awestricken innocence is what the role calls for. Even if he doesn’t have all the acting chops, the colorful cast is what makes the film really pop as the film’s focus is the behind the scenes talent and not the musicians on stage. The parents who accommodate the youthful hippies as well as assimilate into their lifestyle plus the entourage of Michael Lang’s (Groff) concert coordinators are the hardworking backbone of the event and bring anecdotal life to the setting.

In 2017 the movie goes down somewhat bittersweet. You watch this narrative of peace and love prevailing and yet where we are now, it feels like the grumping old white men who didn’t want the concert to happen still won out. There’s a scene where Elliot is at the town bar and amidst a dance party, is kissed by the guy he’s been crushing on and the whole crowd cheers. It feels like such a progressive moment in a movie set in 1969 but the LGBT community is still fighting for their rights nearly fifty years later. Lee is aware of the depressing beauty of this situation as one of the concert organizers played by Mamie Gummer says “Perspective shuts out the universe, it keeps the love out.” Individual bias and selfishness creates the most roadblocks. At a moment where we are witnessing a majority of our government in favor of tax cuts and money more than human rights, it’s a reminder of our inability to move forward due to greed and personal gain. Lee is inviting you to appreciate this concert that stood for freedom and solidarity but gives some perspective on its impact or lack thereof. I watch this and would love to believe that the half a million twentysomethings in attendance remained progressive people of change throughout the decades but probably some of them voted for Trump. The world is pretty cruel but at least there are instances of bliss to show us the magnificence we are capable of if we act in harmony.

Nearing The End of An Era: You Guys Remember Resident Evil?

In case you weren’t aware or you have a more refined taste in cinema, a new Resident Evil movie is on the horizon, the Final Chapter we’ve all been waiting for.Well, at least I am as I’ve been more dedicated to this series than most. Why do they keep getting made you might ask? Well they make some money overseas, probably boost video games sale and keep Milla Jovovich employed. As we near the ending of this neverending, mindless series I underwent an intense two day rewatch to remind myself why I’ve stuck it out all these years.

Resident Evil (2002)

 

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Big Gun!

 

I don’t use the phrase “guilty pleasure” often because I unabashedly love so many movies that most deem “bad” and feel no shame in stating that. The entire Resident Evil franchise though is genuinely terrible yet every two to three years I find myself marathoning in preparation for the next installment. Their brand of bad comes from its lack of originality, upon every rewatch I am reminded of their general blandness. They’re objection based stories (get from A to B like the video game), there’s action set pieces in between (none too spectacular), there’s always a “Boss” character to beat then it ends on a cliffhanger that will never be followed up on. They’re so simplistic and that’s why I like them so much. They’re “exist in the background” kind of films that I can watch mindlessly. It’s not like they’re dumber than the Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th, they’ve just got bigger budgets and flashier/poorly aging special effects. What gives this series most of its distinction is mutated badass Alice played by Milla Jovovich who knows how to look sexy with a gun and can round house kick Doberman Pinschers. Somehow this now six part franchises has maintained a presence over the span of 15 years and keeps me loyal as if I’ve been brainwashed by Umbrella itself.

I did not start playing the video games in which the series was based on till after the third installment aka Extinction. As much as fans can complain about adaptations, it’s not like the Capcom games have a well of rich characters and storylines to draw from. Anderson adapts mostly from the basic premise of the zombie outbreak and a team sent to discover the cause. I find it strange that they opt to not use any of the original characters in 2002’s Resident Evil but Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine aren’t particularly iconic. Alice is a solid alternative as her waking up with an erased memory makes for a blank slate to the situation, perfect as an audience surrogate. We journey with her and a pack of military grunts through the chambers of the underground Hive facility that houses the outbreak.

Typically out of the series, the first is always cited as the best. I think that’s debatable because the later films take more visual strides as they have larger budgets and more advanced technology to work with. This film has the most memorable sequences that would be continuously copied in the later sequels because studios are too lazy to develop anything new. The first is the opening scene in the office where the systems go haywire. It contains no one we’ll encounter later in the series and is such a stand alone moment but is the only scene that has any tension. It’s regular people being essentially trapped and murdered by the technology they work for. The second being the hallway of bone cutting lasers that no matter what, always looks cool. Otherwise, this movie is mutant dogs (a recurring obstacle that they flog to death), the Playstation graphics monster and your garden variety zombies.

It’s a mediocre start but in its defense the films don’t get worse, they just ride that average wave. It sets a bar of stupid action movie with minimal character development or story progression in general. You know what you’re getting into so you can leave at any point or if you’re me you’ll stick it out till this train runs out of steam. Hey, I’m on board for the long haul, baby!

 

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)

 

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Two Guns!

 

Apocalypse is the most direct of all the RE sequels primarily taking place just days after the T-Virus breakout. We’re given a new slate of characters, some good (handsome Umbrella soldier Olivera (Oded Fehr) and fan favorite/rival heroine Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory)) some forgettable (Weather Girl Terri Morales (Sandrine Holt)) and some bizarre (Wise-cracking comic relief from Mike Epps plus Jared Harris who was convinced to be in this). It’s a predictable video game plot in this case save a little girl and take her to a safety but they try to throw in some emotional entanglement which is never their strong suit. Alice’s sister experiment was the other survivor from the Hive (Matt played by Eric Mabius) who is now a giant ugly man mutant called Nemesis and like the name implies, he’s got a bone to pick. Annoyingly this film relies heavily on flashbacks to constantly remind you of Alice and Matt’s kinship, thankfully a tactic the later films dropped.

One of Apocalypse’s biggest issues is that it feels so compelled to connect with the first film and doesn’t trust its audience to remember a movie that came out two years prior. As I marathon this franchise, I’d pick this to be the weakest of them all as there’s little that I could name as spectacular as far as action or horror goes and this is coming from a series I’ve already deemed deliciously average. There is at least an expanding of scope as the setting is elevated from underground facility to the streets of Racoon City (which look suspiciously like a Canadian metropolis). Jovovich still carries the movie as her running down skyscrapers in mesh tops is what makes this journey worthwhile. Her breathy voice and cocked eyebrows are getting used to selling the preposterous dialogue. There is a sincerity in the tone that is unmatched by modern meta-standards. Don’t worry, the series keeps straight-faced till the end and at least after Apocalypse you can only go up.

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)

 

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Machete!

 

Or you can go West. Extinction takes a Mad Max-ian approach to a franchise that never quite found its own visual style. Out in the Nevada desert, Alice meets up with a caravan captained by Olivera and Claire Redfield (a new video game character for each installment) played by Ali Larder. Set up in Apocaplyse Alice’s superhuman powers begin to grow so not only being a kung fu master and gun expert, she has telekinesis to blow up zombie-fied crows (yeah, that’s a pretty dumb creature). I always found the beige desert setting a turn off aesthetically (props to Apocaplyse being blue) and was bothered that so much time had passed from the last story (i>Extinction jumps roughly two to three years forward). You start getting the sense this is an aimless series, struggling to connect to the larger Umbrella conspiracy. To its credit, the games have equally no logic to what this corporation has to gain from all its experimentation now that most of the earth’s population is undead. But as a liberal, I am on board with the villainizing of privatization.

This one has the best zombie fight with the showdown in Las Vegas, Alice gets to parade her new skills and everyone else gets to take cover in the sand-covered city. Fewer flashbacks here but heavy on references to the first film, simulating scenes we’ve now seen dozens of times. Every other movie we have to be reminded of the laser room. Even with being so homage-laden, number three comes out swinging with a high caliber final Boss (mostly due to great special FX makeup) and some epic battles. Ending with a promise of hundreds of Alice clones, how can you go wrong!?

Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)

 

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Imagine This In 3D

 

As Paul WS Anderson returns, Afterlife brings RE into the 22nd Century. What becomes evident in just the opening credits is that substitute directors for Apocalypse and Extinction (Alexander Witt and Russell Mulcahy respectively) had nowhere near the artistic talent of Anderson who can make schlock look good. Not that he has a signature style because like every RE film, it’s ripping off something else and here it’s decided to take the form of The Matrix ten years too late. The world of Umbrella becomes sterile plated glass buildings and antagonist Albert Wesker is a dead ringer for Agent Smith. For god sake, they use Bullet Time! This particular aesthetic doesn’t last very long much like the battalion of Alice clones we were promised in Extinction. After a well-choreographed action sequence (one of many as this is Anderson’s specialty) of dozens of Alice’s slaying faceless Umbrella employees, a bomb is detonated so they all die leaving us with only the real Alice, how convenient.

It’s almost as if the concept of clones was too much of an overload to try to integrate them into the story. Instead, kill them quick so we can get Alice and amnesia-fied Claire (Ali Larter) to a prison filled with survivors who need to get to safety. Resident Evil: Prison Break Edition along with a director upgrade also has all its zombies who’ve run stale get reimagined as alien mutated zombies. We now have tentacle flower faced zombies which are quite unsettling and I buy as a further mutation considering how much Umbrella loves their experiments. The 10-foot Axeman that breaks down the prison walls, he’s harder to explain away. He may be a bewildering anomaly but he gives Claire a time to shine as she battles him in a water spraying shower room combat.

What accompanies being new generation RE is that this film was intended to be seen in 3D and not the Avatar “look what amazing enhancements we can make with this technology.” It’s more in the vein of gimmicky 1980’s Friday the 13th Part 3 3D where weapons swing in slo-mo towards the screen. It slows down just so you can “ooh” and “aah” at its marvel. Silly techniques aside, Afterlife is such a step up because Anderson is so skilled in directing action as he knows how to make a zombie shoot-em-up exquisite. He’s the piece that makes this series whole and why the latter half of a double trilogy reins superior.

 

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012)

 

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Yes To All Of This

 

This is what I’ve been waiting for. All the bullshit stripped away. Anderson delivers the purest and best of the Resident Evil movies. Retribution delivers on everything I’ve wanted from this series. Superior special effects, an array of battles involving creatures that exist only in your nightmares and lots of great hairstyles. No need to be emotionally invested in the characters or worried about any kind of stakes, it’s just Alice reunited with past favorites, fighting her way across simulated terrains to escape Umbrella’s Russian testing facility.

This is also the definition of a video game movie. Ten minutes in, Wesker is remotely broadcasting to Alice and her new partner Ada Wong their mission. It’s so blatant, having no interest in a plot with substance, a front the other films attempt. That’s not to say there are no flourishes. Thanks to having the same production crew carry over from Afterlife, there’s the improved stylistic continuity. The opening credits are one of my favorite moments of the entire series as the siege on the ship Arcadia is played in slow motion and backwards to an amazing score by TomandAndy which is reprised throughout the journey. Both the double Axeman fight and the infamous Uber Licker making his triumph return from the first film, look phenomenal. Plus instead of playing the same simulations we’ve seen in every sequel (laser room, waking up in the shower) we get this great alternate universe sequence where Alice wakes up in suburbia, married to Olivera and has long hair! It has a very Zach Snyder Dawn of the Dead feel but I like that we get to see former characters in a setting that isn’t the cold concrete walls of Umbrella.

I don’t care if I get shit for this but Retribution is epic and the best of the series at least until Final Chapter tells me otherwise.

 

The Vintage Revisits: Gaspar Noé Before He Was Gaspar Noé

I know awards season is off to a hot start with La La Land sweeping the Globes and Ryan Reynolds and Andrew Garfield kissing their way into our hearts (still doesn’t effect my feelings on Silence). With all the noteworthy movies of 2016 I have left to see (c’mon 20th Century Women, get on that wide release) I’m also embarking on an exploration of French cinema thanks to the birthday gift from my boyfriend Steven of Alex West’s academic genre book “Films of the New French Extremity”. West (co-host of one of my favorite podcasts The Faculty of Horror) covers a lot of ground starting with a brief history of France then honing in on the early 90’s cinema that pushed the limits of sex and violence on screen, how that blossomed into a booming horror subculture in the early/mid 2000’s and how it changed cinema both in France and abroad. The first movies the book tackles are the early works of divisive director Gaspar Noé. While most are familiar with his shocking piece Irréversible, West breaks down his previous works, a 40 minute short Carne and its full-length sequel I Stand Alone. Before reading this chapter I watched these two films, ready to take a dive into a filmography I never thought I’d traverse.

Carne (1991)

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Gaspar Noé is a director known for pushing the boundaries of what one is comfortable watching. This short of extreme cinema juxtaposes the forbidden delicacy of horse meat (known as Carne) with the taboo subject of incest. The story follows a butcher specializing in said meat who is left to raise his only daughter, when she hits puberty his lust rises to the surface. Since it’s from the perspective of the butcher the content is treated so nonchalantly that it makes the French seem like real perverts. I appreciate the style of the yellow saturation, hard edits and nontraditional angles. It often comes off as pretentious but you have to admit, it grabs your attention. Not for the faint of heart, the intense visuals included horse slaughter and vaginal birth. Carne doesn’t sway me toward admiration for Noe, I respect his unique cinematic language. He always presents something interesting whether or not I can stomach it.

I Stand Alone (1998)

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After praising Carne for its art house creativity and reminding me what I appreciate about Gaspar Noé, its full length follow up I Stand Alone is more of what I hate about him. In this sequel, Noé duplicates the same camera movements, color pallet, etc as he continues the story of the destitute butcher. Carne had a third person perspective as it documented the aging horse meat butcher who after assaulting a man he thought molested his daughter, loses his shop, all his money, and right to see his daughter and once released shacks up with a barmaid. The 40 minute short ends with him and his now pregnant lover relocating in the hopes of starting a new life. I Stand Alone picks up immediately but now with a first person perspective as the entire film is spent listening to the stream of consciousness thought of this butcher. It turns out his prospects were not a rosy and unable to find work in his field he feels suffocated by his new wife and her mother and seething with hate he decides to return to his hometown to reclaim what was once his.

 

If these particular themes were dormant in Carne, particular French concerns grow as the scope of the narrative enlarges. Carne while very French is a more intimate and niche as a depiction of perverse, forbidden fruits whether is be horse meat or incest. Here, the Butcher serves as a greater representation as France itself which especially in 2016 America can also ring true. The Butcher is a fifty-year-old straight white man who is accustomed to everything going his way because just like America, the country was built to serve that demographic. With a criminal record and no job, his privilege has been stripped along with his independence and respect. He becomes a ball of hate as he blames everyone around him for his misfortunes. He hates his wife for being the breadwinner so he beats her, he hates the Arabic man who has taken over his shop (though most of the town seems open to being racist) and he hates the manager of the slaughterhouse who won’t give him a job and decides he should kill him because he’s “a gay.” The Butcher feels he’s done everything right and that he deserves his place in society to be restored, unable to accept the changing of the times.

 

As much as I appreciate Noé’s sharp social commentary, I can’t say I enjoy spending 90 minutes in the head of a misogynistic, homophobic bigot. It was bad enough before I had to hear him wanting to sleep with his daughter. I emphasize the stream of consciousness aspect because for the entire run time there is this unbreaking voice over of this man pontificating about all the injustices and what he plans to do about it which he babbles on and on about. It’s so repetitive and if you took out the VO, it’s mostly scenes of a guy walking down the street and sitting in his room. There’s little of anything interesting happening and you’re stuck listening to the racist Trump supporter type talk himself in circles. Noe “spices” up the third act when the butcher has reached a boiling point in his hopelessness and decides a proper last hurrah before he murders the man who won’t give him a job would be spending the day with his daughter. Then commences a horrific dream sequence as he imagines a brutal resolution where he consummates with his daughter and attempts a murder/suicide which even as a fantasy fails terribly. Sure this drama is more exciting than “old man sits alone ranting” but it’s neither feel good cinema nor the fun fucked up Tarantino stuff we’re used to in the states.

 
I Stand Alone is the sequel you never ask for and dearly wish it didn’t exist. I have no doubt Noe made this piece as a deromanticizing of French culture. He shows the hideous beast filled with mistrust, xenophobia and raw hate lying under the surface of a country known for love and beauty. The Butcher constantly proclaims his adoration for Paris believing he is a true Frenchman but the city we see is dreary and bankrupt. Noé achieves what he set out to depict but that doesn’t mean it’s something I want to watch. It’s the duality of the objective to subjective opinions I struggle with as I’m writing, the same dualities in which one can view the beauty and strife of France but much like the Butcher sees what he wants, I shall interpret this movie as the queasy and toxic narrative that is. I hope to not encounter it again anytime soon.

 

Top 10 Films of 2016

What a year! The highs, the lows, the crippling fear of what 2017 will bring. That’s what movies exist for, to escape the dread of the outside world no matter how damaging that can be. I started listening to more political podcasts so really doing my part. Still there’s nothing more fun than looking back on the year that was and if you’re keeping track, I went from two female directors on my Best Of list last year down to none and I put that on Hollywood!

10 Train to Busan

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The South Korean popcorn zombie movie that you might have missed is the best incarnation of the genre since Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead. Adding some flavor to your commute, Busan is undead Snowpiercer mixing it up with some new zombie rules and a lively cast of travelers/victims.

Fences

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Pennsylvania represent! Fencesis amazing if you’ve never seen Fences. August Wilson’s writing is masterful making a tightly contained family drama so gripping. Even if it’s not the most cinematic, Washington adapting the play for the screen makes it accessible to those unable to catch a live production (we can’t all live in New York, dad). Viola Davis gives the most natural, grounded performance, outshining giving us the best phrase of 2016 “Out Denzeling Denzel”.

8 London Road

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This experimental musical is Sweeney Todd meets My Favorite Murder meets The Office and that’s all I want from every movie. Catchy songs recounting gruesome murders is my jam and plus it’s funny. Also there’s one scene with Tom Hardy which of course isn’t enough to fill the Tom Hardy size whole in my life but I’ll take what I can get of that big weirdo.

 

7 The Nice Guys

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It’s the year of the Gosling and who would have thought his perfect counterpart would be Russell Crowe. 1970’s Los Angeles never looked so good. Once again more murder mystery which I’m on board with set on the familiar vintage streets of my neighborhood. Leave to Shane Black to make an amazing slapstick neo-noir and it doesn’t even have to be Christmas themed!

 
6 Hell or High Water

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Just thinking about this movie I can feel that Texas heat and dust rising as the two bandit brothers speed away from a bank robbery. The film balances social commentary with heist all with gorgeous cinematography by Files Nuttegens. Who knew it’s hopeless sensibilities would ring so true as we start 2017.

 
5 Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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If Sam Neill’s greatest achievement is playing opposite of dinosaurs (twice!), his second would be his role as foster dad on the lamb with the most idiotic runaway in all of New Zealand. Taika Watiti has proved to be one of the greatest comedic directors out there right now, so much so that I’ll watch his Thor movie because Wilderpeople is so good. I hope to see more of young Julian Dennison as well either as an actor or a rap star.

 

Jackie

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Pablo Larraín’s portrait of a grieving widow in the highest position in the United States has lingered with me ever since viewing it and not because I can’t stop doing impressions of Portman’s outrageous affectations. I don’t love the performance but I’m completely enamored with the operatic beauty and tragedy of the 1960’s expressed with all its flaws in this film. It single-handedly makes smoking cigarettes and the musical Camelot really cool.

 

3 OJ: Made In America

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Did I mention I love murder? I initially scoffed at the idea of sitting in a theater for an 8-hour documentary yet once I started watching the ESPN series, I couldn’t help but binge it, much to my boyfriend’s chagrin. Even if you’re not a sports fan, it’s a fascinating piece about the history of racial tension in Los Angeles and America as a whole and the final chapter is one of the most surreal true life stories I’ve ever seen.

 
2 La La Land

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I am completely sold on Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as America’s Sweetheart. Why La La Land made it so high on my list is not because of the songs or the choreography, it’s because I fell in love along with them. I felt like I was sitting in the Rialto watching Rebel Without A Cause waiting for that first kiss. Their chemistry is so believable which is what made the ending so heartbreaking. As much as I don’t want my movie going experience to end in a gut punch, it was so well executed that I’m willing to take that abuse with the many rewatches to come.

 

1 Green Room

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This movie has managed to stick with me since April as one of the most visceral theater experiences I’ve ever had. Rarely have I found myself holding my breath in hopes that characters will get out of the dire situations they find themselves, and trapped in a Nazi punk bar is the pits. The unpredictability of who would make it out alive and who would succumb to gnarly, unthinkable deaths has kept Green Room present in my mind throughout 2016. It’s a cinematic thriller and a perfectly made splatter fest. RIP Yelchin.

Honorable Mentions:

Best Use of A State Nobody Likes: Moonlight

Best Messy, Bizzare Passion Project: Rules Don’t Apply

Best Use of 80’s Music/Aesthetic: Sing Street

Best Inspirational Film Even Though Our Country Is Still Super Racist: Hidden Figures

Best Death By Fire Movie: Manchester By The Sea

Best Kate McKinnon Movie: Ghostbusters

Best White Girl Movie: Edge of Seventeen

 

And don’t worry my most anticipated movie of 2016, wasn’t that bad. Happy 2017!

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Wrapping Up the Holiday Season: Sing Review

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Illumination as an animation studio has solidified itself this year as makers of cute and harmless children’s cinema. If Disney/Pixar is the gold standard in terms of animation quality and compelling content whether it be emotionally gripping stories or innovative worlds, Illumination falls a tear above Dreamworks who took a nose dive with the more raunchy Shrek and Madagascar franchises. It’s summer fare Secret Life of Pets had some interesting sequences with a sausage party dream sequence and underground sewers of unwanted animals but was a traditional Toy Story plot. Sing has a save the (fill in the blank) narrative but exploiting the popularity of talent competition programs like The Voice, America’s Got Talent and other shows your parents watch. The anthropomorphic animals that inhabit this world from afar look like Zootopia as predators and prey coexist in leather jacket, Converse attire but immediately you realize there’s no logic to this universe so no use overthinking it.

 

If you’re watching Sing it’s because you enjoy Top 40 covers of songs that will be very dated in 10 years and yes, I’m one of those people. There’s also part of me that realizes Shrek annoyingly popularized the use of contemporary hits in children’s films and feels like a cheap appeal to kids with recognizable songs. The film relies more heavily on your emotional response to songs than having to do any work of their own. They even use Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, notably covered by Rufus Wainwright in Shrek as a pivotal beat. If you want the most proof that it’s a humiliating endeavor, having to hear Matthew McConaughey as a Koala sing the chorus of “Call Me Maybe” made me slump in my seat.

 

That being said, the voice performances are one of the film’s strengths. McConaughey gives a surprisingly lively performance as the theater owner down on his luck. Seth McFarland, who VO is old hat for him, is obviously over the moon to play the Frank Sinatra-style crooning mouse. It’s an expansive cast as the film is made up of these mammalian performers that converge for the competition. All the principals which includes a gangster gorilla (Taron Egerton), pig housewife (Reese Witherspoon) and an angsty porcupine teenager (Scarlett Johansson) get enough screen time to complete their arcs which are often difficult when cramming in so many characters. They all felt developed enough to have their own movie but also work in these small doses. The animators have fun with how animals of all different shapes and sizes would interact, giving each many quirks that make up the comic relief more than verbal jokes. The koala’s absentminded assistant is an elderly iguana with a glass eye and is the most delightful as a reptile in existence for pure comedy. Nick Kroll’s Austrian dancing pig serves a similar purpose yet they criminally underuse him.

 

This kind of movie exists as a fluff piece for families to take all the rowdy kids to during the holiday season especially those too young for Rogue One. Illumination probably makes enough money off of Minions that they can fund any project they want that will have a big opening weekend and a mediocre response by critics. Like many others, I saw this with friends who didn’t want to sit through the heaviness of Fences and the more indie Oscar films like La La Land hasn’t expanded to the mainstream theaters of the mid-Atlantic towns in which I spend my holiday vacation. This movie thrives because people like me have little to choose from. I don’t fault it for that and as I said I’d describe it as harmless. I found the giggling Japanese Akitas and spandex clad frogs adorable. I’ve sat through much worse films geared to a variety demographics and sure this is a calculated studio effort to tap into what the masses respond to which is Katy Perry and piglets it’s at least less obnoxious than Minions.

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