Thursday, September 29, 2016

[Review] Goat

Goat begins with a slow-motion sequence of flexing, shirtless dudes egging on an unknown subject, then it cuts to Nick Jonas shotgunning a beer and snorting cocaine (yes, you read that right) at a college party. These opening scenes merely set the tone for this hazing horror story.

After being robbed and brutally assaulted one night, the reserved Brad (Ben Schnetzer) decides to pledge to Phi Sigma Mu--a fraternity that his rowdy brother Brett (Jonas) belongs to--in hopes for a sense of belonging, protection, and tight friendships. But it doesn't go as expected. Let's just say things get real ugly as soon as the "Hell Week" initiations begin and the hazing ensues.

It skips the lighthearted pranks and launches straight into the humiliating and nauseating side of stuff. If we're being real - it's sadistic torture. Mentally and physically. Disturbing cult rituals. As intentionally difficult as Goat is to watch, it remains completely enthralling. Directed by Andrew Neel and written by David Gordon Green, the film is a critical exercise in toxic masculinity and loathsome tough guy-isms, as well as an exposé of the illusion of unity when things are pushed too far (way too far), and the crap that people will succumb to under peer pressure and a desire to fit in.

The film also works well as a character study of the two brothers, prompting role reversals and resonant arcs, especially as they realize that their frat "brothers" are no better than the white trash punks who jumped Brad. And you're probably wondering how pop superstar Nick Jonas fares in not just his first feature role, but one that also happens to be a gritty little indie flick. Well, he does a pretty damn good job. It's not quite as natural of a fit as some of the other performers here, but it's impressive nonetheless. Speaking of, the ever-busy James Franco makes a bold appearance (or at least one of his clones does) as the frat's slaphappy former leader. He was probably only on the set for about 15 minutes for his scene, but he strolls in and absolutely crushes it.

Goat is harrowing, provocative, and urgent--especially considering how some of the dark and atrocious corners of college culture are beginning to be spotlighted more in the headlines.

( 8/10 )

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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

[Review] April and the Extraordinary World

Co-directed by Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci, and produced by the creators of the excellent Persepolis, this animated French sci-fi film April and the Extraordinary World has a lot on its mind.

In an alternate universe to 1940s Paris, the city runs on burning coal, and scientists are being captured by dark forces in order to research weapons for government. The brilliant April (voiced by Marion Cotillard) is a chemist living in secrecy with her talking cat Darwin. Spies, conspiracies, a search for parents, and the creation of a vital serum propel this twisty plot.

The smooth animation is constructed with crisp lines of meticulous detail. And fittingly, the backdrop of Paris along with its rulers are rendered in hazy greyscale, while the citizens and main characters are accentuated with beiges and deep reds, as if they're the only signs of life in a drab dystopia. The film certainly lives up to the "extraordinary" in its title. Tinged with a steampunk aesthetic and sci-fi eccentricity, the story sweeps into distinctly realized settings with frenetic chases and booming action. It's not afraid to get weird, either. The second half contains talking lizards that look like Dinobots. Seriously.

The narrative floats by with an ecological bend concerning energy and resources, as well as a hypothetical revisionist spin on technological developments. It's also an ode to the important powers of invention and innovation. April and the Extraordinary World didn't make me laugh super hard, nor did it strike heavy emotional gears like some of the bigger animated films from this year, but its wholly unique vision makes it worth the experiment.

( 7.5/10 )

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

[Review] My Blind Brother

Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate, and Adam Scott are the sticky love triangle in Sophie Goodhart's mildly funny comedy of sibling rivalry, My Blind Brother.

Bill (Kroll) is the self-described "lazy and resentful" brother, playing second string to the overachieving, beloved-by-parents, marathon-running champ Robbie (Scott), who happens to be blind. The competition between them ramps up even more when they both fall for a bubbly yet self-loathing woman named Rose (Jenny Slate), who's in the process of trying to sort out her life.

This is definitely a funny cast, which is why it's sort of disappointing that they don't really flaunt their comedic chops much here. Sure, there are a few good chuckle-worthy jokes along the way, as well as some dreadfully awkward moments, but nothing really hilarious. What the film does do well, though, is forming these characters, especially as jealousy games ensue, and keen observations on pre-judgment, guilt, selfishness, regrets, and intensely mixed feelings arise. The narrative essentially becomes a character-driven exploration of pity and superficiality. Zoe Kazan also contributes an amusing supporting performance as Rose's blunt roommate, and I would've liked to see more of her in this.

There's a third act twist that is both poignant and highly revelatory. It's a solid reveal that makes you re-think everything in the story up until this point, and it also breathes a new sense of dynamics between these two brothers. And no--the twist isn't that Robbie isn't truly blind or something. Come on, this isn't the Stevie Wonder story! Anyway, My Blind Brother is a film that grows on you and goes the distance during its heartfelt conclusion. But as far as recent brotherly dramedies go, it doesn't quite reach the hilarity and tenderness of the overlooked and underrated Mark and Jay Duplass film, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (2012). However, I'd rank it alongside Jeff, Who Lives At Home (another Duplass bros film). So if you like the those films, you should check this one out.

( 7.5/10 )

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Monday, September 26, 2016

[Review] The Magnificent Seven

Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) is fully game for this gleefully wild retelling of the Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven (1960) story. Stacked with a revamped cast, we're blessed with: Bounty Hunter (Denzel Washington), Gambler (Chris Pratt), Sharpshooter (Ethan Hawke), Assassin (Byung-hun Lee), Outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Warrior (Martin Sensmeier), and Tracker (Vincent D'Onofrio). And thankfully, it's all a rootin' tootin' blast.

A despicable fella named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, thoroughly unlikable) is besieging towns and slaughtering locals. When Emma Cullen's (Haley Bennett) husband is brutally murdered in cold blood, she makes a proposition to a ruggedly smooth man in black (Washington), who rounds up a diverse bunch of highly skilled ragtags for a near-impossible mission to end Bogue's tyranny.

The opening of the film gets off to a shaky start, but as soon as I saw Denzel Washington's mutton chops grace the screen, I knew everything was gonna be alright. This film saddles up as a complete crowd-pleasing exertion of unabashed ownage. Fuqua reaps an unruly, violence-ridden environment where everyone is ready to pull a trigger at any second if someone so much reaches for a whiskey flask (or blinks). Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if the babies were stashing revolvers in their diapers.

The well-staged combat scenes warm us up as we witness the crew showcase their prowesses and eventually utilize them in the heat of battle. Amusingly, the gang of seven even compare their kill counts, Gimli and Legolas style (Lord of the Rings). Everything climaxes in an epic non-stop shootout. It's such a rowdy, savage, and elongated sequence that it almost becomes comical (in a good way) as countless bullets whizz by, dynamite explodes, and blood is spilled in an all-out frenzy.

Like most ensemble pieces in this fashion, some characters get more shine and development than others--although they all still leave more of an impression than most of the Suicide Squad. At the forefront, Denzel Washington's Sam Chisholm leads the way with his undying charisma as the story's noble hero, while Chris Pratt carries over his quippy action chops from Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy. Vincent D'Onofrio rolls out like a mix between Nick Nolte and Winnie the Pooh. The soft-spoken ball of fur recites scripture while jamming axes through unsuspecting skulls. Ethan Hawke plays a haunted sniper with a shotgun, and it's cool to see him reunite with his Training Day co-star. I also have to mention Haley Bennett's character--she's no pushover or damsel in distress, and she plays a significant role in the film which likely amounts to a star-making performance.

So if you want to see Martin Sensmeier take a bite out of a deer's heart, Byung-hun Lee swiftly fling knives at derogatory southerners like it's nothing, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo clear out an entire saloon by himself, then this movie is for you. Of course it isn't a new tale (were you expecting it to be?). But with a firm grip on Western cinematic traditions, The Magnificent Seven (2016) is an entertaining and well-paced adventure that gets the job done, and then some. It's hard to believe that someone would go see this and not have a fun time. Pardon me--I meant a rootin' tootin' blast.

( 8/10 )

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Thursday, September 22, 2016

[Review] Our Little Sister

The ever-consistent Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda follows up Like Father, Like Son with Our Little Sister, another sweet and low-key tale of complicated familial dynamics.

Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino Kouda (Masami Nagasawa), Chika (Kaho) are three sisters living together in their grandparents' home. Early on, they learn that their estranged, runaway father has passed away. So they travel to the funeral with no real strong feelings, but in the process, they meet and befriend their 14-year-old half-sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose) and all of their lives are changed.

Given the premise, and the fact that this is a film that begins with a funeral and ends with a funeral, it's not as melodramatic as you might expect. There's a light tone of gaiety with some gentle humor mixed in. But it is still very meditative and observational, as the (now four) sisters reflect on their father's life and what they know about him, while also attempting to fill in the blanks for what they don't know about him. Inherent rifts subtly rise to the surface as new information is revealed, and as the siblings attempt to reconcile the conflicts regarding their different mothers.

Along with all the great performances, the film is crisply shot and impeccably framed, displaying some beautiful changing-of-seasons scenery--especially the views of white Spring blossoms and colorful falling Autumn leaves. It's also backed with an elegant, moving musical score. A few scenes float by where it seems like not much is happening (the small talk effect), and that can be a bit trying over the film's two-hour plus length. That said, we feel like we really know these people by the end.

At its heart, Our Little Sister is a patient and touching portrait of sisterly bonds.

( 7.5/10 )

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

[Review] The Dark Horse

"Stability. Stability. Stability."

Thankfully, this multi-award winning New Zealand film has finally seen its US release. Directed by James Napier Robertson, The Dark Horse tells the real-life story of a truly unique character named Genesis "Gen" Potini, who's portrayed terrifically by Kiwi actor Cliff Curtis.

Genesis (Cliff Curtis) is fumbling homeless man. His backstory is mostly kept a mystery early on, but we do learn that he's a legendary chess player (nicknamed the titular The Dark Horse). Amidst his struggles, he finds purpose in teaching a local chess club for troubled kids, in hopes to take them to the championships games. All the while, he attempts to steer his nephew (played by James Rolleston, who starred in Taika Waititi's wonderful coming-of-age film Boy) away from a local gang.

Shot very matter-of-factly with handheld camerawork, The Dark Horse carries a deep sense of clout and realism. Storywise, it feels like a gritty and heavier (and R-rated) version of a Disney underdog flick like the recent McFarland, USA or Million Dollar Arm. And that's not a bad thing. Layered with pathos, the tone successfully navigates between lines of feel-good and tragedy. The narrative deftly deals with some tough and affecting scenes of violence and bouts with mental illness, while also displaying glimmers of hope and determination for all the characters involved.

We're rooting for Gen in every single way, and it definitely helps that Cliff Curtis gives such an excellent tour de force performance. It's nuanced, emotional, and believable. He certainly earns the accolades. He also drops some of the best chess-applying-to-life monologues since "The Wire".

Much like Genesis Potini, this diamond in the rough of a film deserves a chance.

( 8/10 )

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

[Review] Other People

Other People, not to be confused with last year's pleasant rom-com Sleeping with Other People, stars Jesse Plemons--you might know him from "Friday Night Lights", "Breaking Bad", or the latest season of "Fargo" (excellent). The film's director Chris Kelly has some notable award-nominated comedy writing credits to his name, including Funny or Die, Onion News Network, "SNL", and "Broad City", which is why it's so odd that his debut feature film is so stale.

For a burgeoning comedy writer, David (Plemons) doesn't seem very funny. But he's going through some shit--he's fresh off a breakup with his boyfriend (Zach Woods) of five years and has now returned home to take care of his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon) who's battling cancer. Oh yeah, and ever since David came out as gay, his dad (Bradley Whitford) has been a complete a-hole.

The film has an awkwardly cold opening. It just kind of stumbles into situations without establishing much setting, premise, character, or mood. The narrative feels like it's trying to operate as a dramedy, but it isn't humorous or dramatic. It's just kinda there. And when you view it as a subtle character study, it's not engaging or insightful enough to resonate. In fact, David is painfully bland.

It's gotta get better right? Well, the film does seem to find some personality after the 30 minute mark when the comedy finally begins to bite, much thanks to David's hilariously morbid and frank grandpa (Paul Dooley), and a scene where Joanne gets delightfully loopy after going overboard on the pot. The drama also starts to affect as the story examines the various ways people grieve and attempt to cope while seeing a loved one suffer. Molly Shannon anchors some powerfully poignant scenes of emotional whirlwinds as Joanne's struggles and frustrations with chemo treatments peak.

Unfortunately, David remains pretty bland. (David's sister is only in the film for like three minutes and she's still infinitely more interesting than he is.) It's to the point where you know the film would be way better if it was told from any of the other characters' perspectives--Other people, I guess.

( 5.5/10 )

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Monday, September 19, 2016

[Review] Bridget Jones's Baby

12 years since the last Bridget Jones picture, Renée Zelwegger reprises her role as the belovedly fumbling, quintessentially British heroine in Bridget Jones's Baby--a film that's way better than any later romantic comedy sequel has any business being.

The just-turned-43 Bridget is still single and looking to rejuvenate her love life. In the meantime, she's ready to let loose for a weekend of smanging. Between a wild hookup at a music festival with dashing American stranger Jack (Patrick Dempsey), and a romantic night with old flame Mark (Colin Firth), yep--as the trailers showed--she gets pregnant. And no one knows which guy is the father.

As you'd imagine, many shenanigans ensue, a messy love triangle forms, and juicy dilemmas and dizzying pro & con lists are stuffed into our face. Now, a debacle like this is nothing new, but the story is nicely told here in a welcomely charming and sentimental manner with plenty of laughs and heart. The humor is deliciously awkward and effectively embarrassing--a few moments made me squirm and sink down in my chair. There's even an amusing subplot about Mark being a defense attorney for a protesting punk band (basically a Pussy Riot stand-in), which aids the narrative's underlying themes of liberation and empowerment. Not all of the humor lands, though. Some of it is pretty outdated. I didn't really need to see another "Gangnam Style" dance scene in 2016.

The cast is consistently ravishing, however. Zelwegger is excellent in the central performance, both as a source of comedy and emotional overload. There are some great supporting roles from Bridget's spunky co-worker (Sarah Solemani) and her gynecologist (Emma Thompson, who drops a hilarious line about trying not to fart during yoga). Dempsey and Firth engage in some good old-fashioned brodown tension. They each have their moments of winning hearts over, which of course adds to the film's major conflict (although you might find yourself rooting for a certain one). And even if you think you've predicted the outcome, you'd be crazy not to want to see how this thing turns out.

Nowadays it seems that rom-coms need to be *subversive* in order to get critical praise, but a film like Bridget Jones's Baby captures the magic of memorable rom-coms from decades past, and it reminds us why so many people adore this genre when it's done well. Sure, the tropes are familiar, but they stay true--you can't define love with algorithms and survey matches, and life just doesn't always go as planned. (Does it ever really?)

Oh, Bridget!

( 8/10 )

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Thursday, September 15, 2016

[Review] Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Over the past few years, New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi has quietly been pumping out under-appreciated indie gems like Boy and What We Do in the Shadows. And now, before the buzzworthy writer-director makes the big Marvel blockbuster leap with next year's Thor: Ragnarok, he gives us the hilarious and majestical romp that is Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Donning an "All Eyez On Me" jacket, Ricky (Julian Dennison), a foster kid who's "a bit of a handful" moves onto a farm to stay with the caring aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and the cantankerous uncle Hec (Sam Neill). Just as Ricky gets settled in, sudden tragedy strikes. So, with child services threatening to take Ricky back, he and Hec run off into the woods while a national manhunt ensues.

The film is exotically shot under vibrant sunlight amidst scenic views of the New Zealand countrysides, green forests, and sublime horizons. It even exhibits some Wes Anderson-esque whimsy with the glorified zoom-ins and still shots of quirky mundanities. There's a constant thread of wonderfully dry humor weaved in throughout, whether it's the chuckle-worthy dialogue and deadpan deliveries ("Tupac's this really cool rapper and he's like my best friend.") or the madcap sight gags. Ricky is a straight-up amusing little big fella, especially as he plays foil to Hec's stone-faced reticence. Dennison and Neill (Jurassic Park) both yield greatly endearing performances.

Given the film's effervescent and freewheeling nature, it's only fitting that the over-the-top events are splashed with a spunky and versatile soundtrack of plucky folk songs and rollicking synth scores. And as wildly fun as the story is (you'll love the overt Lord of the Rings tribute), the script also makes sure to hug at the heart as Ricky and Hec's inevitable bonds come to fruition, most notably during an affectionate conversation presented in one of the later chapters.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a sweet coming-of-age adventure about finding a sense of belonging in unlikely places. Go on the hunt for this rare film, because it's one of the year's best.

* 9/10 *

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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

[Review] Tallulah

Written and directed by Sian Heder, Tallulah is an impressively well-wrought dramedy about a taken baby. As warm as it is poignant, this must-see Netflix Original film highlights a couple of magnificent performances from Ellen Page and Allison Janney (who were daughter and stepmom in Juno).

Tallulah "Lu" (Page) is a young vagrant living out of an old van. One day, she happens upon a neglected toddler and decides to nab her away from her alcoholic mess of a mother (Tammy Blanchard). With no parenting experience (or money), Lu enlists the help of an unlikely subject--her ex-boyfriend's mother Margo (Janney), who's dealing with some problems of her own.

The narrative avoids going the madcap screwball route and anchors itself in a genuinely dramatic tone that still leaves room for a good amount of comedy. As expected, Lu becomes immensely attached the baby. "Isn't she just the weirdest coolest thing you've ever seen?" But of course--heavy conflicts and legal obstacles loom as the "MISSING BABY" headlines begin hitting the news.

Ellen Page is absolutely fantastic in this, immediately embodying Lu with dimension, sympathy, complicated humanity, and a blunt sense of humor. Allison Janney is great too, entering full serious mode--miserable, stressed, and assertive with an underlying soft spot. The two of them shine together on screen as Lu and Margo clash and bond and go through emotional whirlwinds.

Along with diving into a sudden bout of parenthood (like, extremely sudden), Tallulah is a bittersweet display of interesting and richly-developed characters going through hard times and hoping to turn their situations around. In an always pleasant trait, the film even breathes life into the secondary characters, whether it's the apartment doorman (Felix Solis) or the case's social worker (Uzo Aduba, "Orange Is the New Black"). The film has difficulty resolving things and it leaves a couple of loose ends, but sometimes that's the nature of a story like this. In many ways it reminded me of the Oscar-winning South African film Tsotsi.

Anyway, go watch Tallulah. Actually, watch Tsotsi too. Right now.

( 8/10 )

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

[Review] Morgan

In his directorial debut, Luke Scott (Ridley's son) crafts Morgan, an artificial intelligence based sci-fi flick that's an awful lot like last year's brilliant Ex Machina but with less complexity, style, and intrigue. It's like the film showed up late to the party wearing the same thing as someone else.

Lee (Kate Mara) is a high-profile troubleshooter tasked with investigating an "accident" that occurred within a top-secret lab that's housing a bioengineered child who goes by Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy, great in The Witch). And by "accident" I mean Morgan snapped out and stabbed someone in the eyeball. After a full assessment, Lee will be faced with the decision to spare or terminate Morgan.

Early on, the film drops enough exposition on you to make your own brain malfunction. The tone is glacial, detached. and frankly boring. Fortunately, things get a boost when an ornery doctor played by Paul Giamatti enters to perform a psych evaluation, which allows Giamatti's intense acting chops to go face-to-face with the eerie and unhinged Morgan. It still can't help but feel like Ex Machina déjà vu, but at least we get to hear Giamatti repeatedly yell "SHOW ME HOW YOU FEEL!"

In addition to the Giamatti scene, Anya Taylor-Joy is virtually the only other player that keeps this film from being a throwaway. She injects a certain vulnerability and heart into Morgan, rendering the being as more dimensional and human than the actual humans (perhaps by design). Taylor-Joy is definitely a major talent. Boyd Holbrook (Gone Girl, "Narcos") is completely wasted. And "Game of Thrones" alum Rose "You know nothing Jon Snow" Leslie is as bland as can be in this.

The narrative fails to present any unique dilemmas or deliver any new ideas or payoffs. Instead, it warps into a blur of choppy action and experiment-gone-wrong tropes. That said, it isn't the worst thing in the world to watch Morgan go around and beat the living crap out of people.

( 6/10 )

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Monday, September 12, 2016

[Review] Sully

Sully sees Tom Hanks teaming up with director Clint Eastwood for a retelling of the "Miracle on the Hudson". Like many people, I had my reservations about this film. Given that this was such a recent and well-covered story, what more is there to say? Is there any aspect of suspense or surprise? And considering that Captain Sullenberg is widely recognized as a hero for safely landing a damaged plane in a river where all 155 passengers survived with minimal injury, why is the dude getting grilled in the notably drab trailer? Well, it turns out that the film actually does a so-so job of diving into the behind-the-media drama, and an even better one at portraying the landing and rescue mission.

Early on we meet the humble and dedicated Sully (Hanks), as well as his co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart). The non-linear narrative alternates between three periods: The events leading up to the flight, the actual flight & water landing, and the aftermath involving an NTSB investigation that insists Sully had better options--which puts his reputation, career, and peace of mind in jeopardy.

The procedural stuff does feel a lot like the 2012's Flight but without the alcohol. And it's frustrating (by design), as the film attempts to place doubts in our heads (and Sully's) about the Captain's decision while the investigators relentlessly try to blame him for something... anything. At one point I was just waiting for Tom Hanks to yell "WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!" Of course, the film is at its most compelling during the second half when we begin to meet the Flight 1549 passengers and witness the intense, highly detailed, and well-executed sequence of the remarkable landing.

It's no surprise that Tom Hanks is solid as Sully, but it isn't a role that quite screams *Oscar nomination* like 2013's Captain Phillips. Hanks and Eckhart do make a good duo though, and their mustache game is strong here. Thematically, the film celebrates the valiant effort of many different people coming together and doing their best to avoid a tragedy. There's also a bit of commentary on the computer simulation vs human element, along with some hints at post-9/11 fears. What went through onlookers' minds when they saw another low-flying plane cruising through the city?

The film would've been a complete drag had it pushed toward two hours, but thankfully it clocks in at about 96 minutes, which is crucial because it doesn't go too overboard on the padding. However, the phone calls between Sully and his wife (played by Laura Linney) come off as really generic, and the series of after-climax scenes play more like a redundant recap than a smooth resolution.

So, despite some clunkiness, Sully is a fairly serviceable based-on-real-events tale that could've ended up a lot worse.

( 7.5/10 )

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Friday, September 9, 2016

[Review] Don't Think Twice

Brilliant comedian, performer, and filmmaker Mike Birbiglia gave us the deeply personal one-man show turned feature film Sleepwalk With Me in 2012. He follows that up with Don't Think Twice, an improv-themed comedy that will make your belly jiggle and your heart sink.

The story revolves around an improv group called the Commune, comprised of very funny and neurotic souls: Miles (Birbiglia), Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), Allison (Kate Micucci), Lindsay (Tami Sagher), and Bill (Chris Gethard). Things get shaken up when Jack (the group's standout) lands a gig with "Weekend Live" (a stand-in for "Saturday Night Live").

First of all, this film is hilarious. As you'd expect, the script (or non-script) is filled with some killer comedy, whether its within the sketch scenes or the narrative itself. The laughs-per-minute volumes are high, and the humor is biting, fresh, well-seasoned, and inspired. It contains that magical energy that occurs when a bunch of quick-witted people are in the same room together. But there's also pathos mixed in with it all, especially during the story's second half. The troupe should be happy for their comrade's success, right? Well, given the group's own individual aspirations and tight-knit team mentality, it's only natural that tensions, insecurities, self-doubt, and jealousy arise. Birbiglia tackles these conflicts with uncomfortable observations and unflinching insights. It's honest. It's human.

What happens when your collaborator moves onto bigger and better things and you're left in the dust? What happens when your understudy surpasses you and gets what you've been trying to achieve your entire life? What happens when you've faced rejection so many times that you're forced to confront the idea of your passion coming to an end? What happens when you run out of material?

It's quite depressing, really. But the sympathy isn't a one-way street here. I mean, we can't hate on Jack for rising up and accomplishing his dreams. He faces problems of his own, too. There's the spotlight pressures of staying afloat in the cutthroat entertainment industry and not blowing his opportunity on a primetime stage. And though he'd like to share a piece of the pie with the crew he came up with--it's not that easy. "Just focus on not getting fired this first year," the producer tells him.

The cast is terrific across the board, and the ensemble of characters are nicely developed, even considering the film's brief 90-minute runtime. The charismatic Keegan-Michael Key shines as the group's emerging star (the Obama impression is always on-point). Mike Birbigs holds it down with his underlying anxieties and the bitterness of someone whose window for a big break is narrowing while his general direction in life is uncertain, especially as he approaches 40. Gillian Jacobs is great during the sketches and gives a show-stopping monologue during the film's catharsis.

Don't Think Twice is a definitive depiction of the improv world, as well as a touching look at ambition and desperation, success and failure. It's amusing how it shares many of the same themes and truths as this year's uproarious Lonely Island showcase Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. It's also true that these two films happen to be the best comedies of 2016. I'm not joking.

* 9/10 *

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Thursday, September 8, 2016

[Review] The Fits

Anna Rose Homer makes a striking directorial debut with The Fits, a unique and difficult-to-categorize psychological drama about adolescence, seen through the eyes of a young girl.

11-year-old Toni (Royalty Hightower) is a confident and athletic boxer. One day at the rec center, she glimpses upon a dance drill class and decides to join the squad. Seems like a typical coming-of-age competition flick, right? Wrong. Things get real weird when Toni's teammates sporadically begin to have seizure-like fainting spells in a pretty dramatic and contorting manner.

It's strange, mysterious, and ambiguous. What exactly is causing these episodes? Unsafe water?Cooties? It Follows but for kids? Puberty hysteria? ("It's pretty much happening to all the older girls.") A metaphor for the first period? ("It hasn't happened to any of the boys.") The latter two are my guess. But even those doesn't fully fit, because the teachers aren't even sure what's going on. That said, all the adults in this film are relegated to the peripheral, sometimes even blurred or chopped out. If it weren't for their clear voices, it'd be the equivalent of the grownups in "Charlie Brown".

Every frame is exquisitely shot, radiating with lyrical verve--kinetic and poetic. The film is minimal with dialogue, and instead takes a quiet, naturalistic, observational approach of curiosity. What initially appears to be a run-of-the-mill rec center, takes on a singular magical realism quality, while the sound design still intently captures the grit of all the echoed claps, steps, bounces, and punches.

A few scenes in the The Fits don't really push the story forward and they can come off as a bit repetitive, even given the whoppingly short 71-minute runtime. And the film might just be too lo-fi and abstruse for some audiences. But either way, Anna Rose Homer and Royalty Hightower are names that we'll probably be seeing more of in the future.

( 7.5/10 )

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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

[Review] The Meddler

Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, and J.K. Simmons are the spunky cast in The Meddler, an indie dramedy that's a great companion piece to this year's post-midlife crisis romp Hello, My Name is Doris.

The nosey, recently widowed Marnie (Sarandon) has just relocated in LA to hover over her daughter Lori (Byrne, awesome as always). The TMI-slinger constantly bursts into Lori's house announced, mines for personal details, and sends her at least 100 text messages a day. Basically, she needs a hobby. But unfortunately for Lori, the hobby Marnie chooses involves playing matchmaker.

Marnie's intrusive audacity makes us squirm and provokes secondhand embarrassment, but we have to believe it's part of some grieving, overprotective process. (At one point, she asks Lori to let her know whenever she goes somewhere and when she gets home--after seeing a story about a serial killer on TV.) So, along with the poignant undertones and emotional beats, there's plenty of juicy and awkward comedy to be found here--whether it's a slapstick sequence where Marnie shoves clumps of Marijuana into her mouth before being pulled over by the cops, her baby boomer antics with new technology, or the running gag of the soaring Beyonce ballad that plays on repeat in her car.

Around the midpoint, Marnie becomes interested in a charming fellow named Zipper (J.K. Simmons). I thought the story might take on an Enough Said scenario (a wonderful film that you should check out if you haven't), but writer-director Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) never spends too much time on any of the multiple subplots. However, this is a fitting choice given the spirit of Marnie--making The Meddler a scattered yet delightful and magnificently performed character study on love, loss, and attempting new things amid changing times. At age 69, Susan Sarandon has never been better.

( 8/10 )

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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

[Review] Mia Madre

Margherita Buy is a solid force in Nanni Moretti's sorrow and humor filled melodrama, Mia Madre. But it's John Turturro's comical turn that keeps things afloat and eventually steals the show.

Margherita is a meticulous, no-nonsense film director. But any control over her personal life begins to unravel when she's forced to deal with her mother's deteriorating health and poor prognosis. If that isn't difficult enough, an American actor played by John Turturro comes aboard for Margherita's latest film, and the guy is an absolute nightmare on set (which is actually really entertaining).

It's slowly-paced and un-engaging at times, but the second half displays some nicely emotional moments. The hospital scenes with Margherita and her mother are certainly poignant, as are the ones of her attempting reconnect with her own daughter. In a contrast to that, the film's humor escalates when Margherita and Turturro's tense Director/Actor relationship finally hits the fan in a hilarious scene where Turturro stops and yells "This dialogue is SHIT!" and then goes on to brag about how he's worked for Stanley Kubrick--only to have Margherita fire the proclamations back in his face.

Mia Madre ("My Mother" in case you haven't brushed up on your Italian) is a decent if somewhat minor exploration of the different shades of maternal ties, as well as the tough act of balancing a career when the messiness of life (and death) hits. Also, filmmakers and performers; they're nuts!

( 6.5/10 )

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Monday, September 5, 2016

[Review] Mechanic: Resurrection

First off, this movie is terrible. However, there's still quite a bit to enjoy about it. If that doesn't make sense, well, that's because nothing in Mechanic: Resurrection really makes sense. But if you want to see Jason Statham slam a guy's face into a flaming hot grill and then leap onto a passing hang-glider from a sky ride, then this is for you... as long as you can nap through all the painfully underwhelming parts.

A few years after the events of 2011's The Mechanic, Jason Statham returns as the cold-blooded, globetrotting assassin. This time around, he needs to save the love of his life (Jessica Alba, in utter damsel in distress mode). He's also tasked with taking out several more corrupt villains that he must frame as accidents, one of which includes an eccentric arms dealer played by Tommy Lee Jones.

Tommy Lee Jones' aesthetic of loud patterns, flamboyant shades, and a notably aggressive soul patch might be worth the price of admission alone. That said, the dialogue here is so stilted that it'd probably be better if this were a silent film. The extended non-action scenes where Jason Statham isn't busy murking somebody are a complete bore. (Statham doesn't seem too thrilled by them either.)

Jason Statham and Jessica Alba's lack of chemistry is almost laughable, especially because the filmmakers somehow thought people came to see a "love story". This whole plot could've been axed and nothing of value would be lost. In fact, the movie itself is just way longer than it needs to be. And while the major setpieces are good and violent and packed with patented Statham brawls, they're too few and far between. The intense combat sequence / throwaway scene ratio is very non-satisfactory.

( 4/10 )

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Saturday, September 3, 2016

[Review] The Phenom

Ethan Hawke, Paul Giamatti, and Johnny Simmons star in this low-key, unconventional flick that involves baseball--but isn't really about baseball. In fact, there's hardly a single pitch thrown.

The Phenom scouts the tendencies of a major league pitcher named Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons) whose anxiety causes him to hit a wall on and off the field. He's then sent down to the minors where he begins therapy sessions with a sports psychologist (played by Paul Giamatti). Turns out, many of his issues stem from his overbearing "piece of work" father (Ethan Hawke).

Hawke is beyond scummy here as a mentally abusive macho dude, donning a crew cut and trashy tattoos that stick out of his unbuttoned shirt. We definitely dislike the guy, but Hawke plays the part incredibly well. His chops are so riveting that he completely steals the show. Simmons is solid at the center, while Giamatti is believable in a role that surprisingly doesn't call for his trademark yell.

The film is a meditative slow-burn, rooted in underlying drama and character studies. It also poses some thought-provoking questions about types of upbringing, pressure, mental health, success and happiness (or lack of), as well as the inner-workings of the unique lives that professional athletes lead. The headiness is driven home with stylized zoom-ins and sequences with red tunnel vision.

No motivational speeches or heroic homeruns amidst flashing lights will be found here, but audiences searching for a decent curveball (sorry) may want to give The Phenom a shot.

( 7/10 )

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Friday, September 2, 2016

[Review] Blood Father

Iconic actor and general maniac Mel Gibson makes a grizzled return in the uneven but entertainingly brutal Blood Father.

Within the bronze desert rust, we meet the M.I.A. Lydia (Erin Moriarty) who has been dragged into her boyfriend's drug cartel activities. After she gets into some deep shit, she calls upon her estranged father--a tough ex-con tattoo artist battling alcoholism (played by Gibson). The two troubled souls reunite and go on the run, while Feds and gangsters are coming straight for their heads.

Early on, the film has a rough time establishing a consistent tone. Its serious edge gets interrupted with some flat attempts at humor and embarrassing dialogue. During an awkward scene where Lydia is high as a kite and horribly playing a clarinet, she actually says "You must be tone deaf." The script also seems to have completely disregarded the 'show don't tell' strategy, as it contains a couple redundantly expository scenes of Lydia just telling her dad long stories about how she ended up where she is. Even worse--one of the stories she tells is what happened in the opening scene of the movie, so we've literally already seen the dang thing. With all that said, there are some amusingly memorable lines that cut through the nonsense, like when Mel Gibson yells "I'll see you on the inside you chickenshit motherfucker!"

An odd bunch of characters make up the supporting cast, but unfortunately they don't add much. William H. Macy plays Gibson's sponsor, and he's a bit too campy. Thomas Mann from Me & Earl & the Dying Girl is an oblivious motel worker and it's just bland and disappointing. Grungy southern gothic regular Dale Dickey (Winter's Bone, "Justified") makes an appearance, and the film really could've used more of her. Michael Parks plays a raspy white supremacist, and he gives a cheesy heavy-handed midpoint monologue about not running away from your problems that concludes with "Can you dig it?" I would've only accepted that line if Shaq was saying it.

As flawed and ridiculous (the not-good ridiculous) as this thing is, the unflinching hardcore action is enough to make you roll with the bad stretches. A wicked escape sequence from a Sicario-occupied motel is a particular highlight. There's also a shootout in the barrens that might bring about "Breaking Bad" flashbacks. And the last 15 minutes pack some hellacious, pulpy mayhem that I won't spoil.

Erin Moriarty was pretty good in a small part during this year's Captain Fantastic, but here she brings a Lifetime-y essence that's frankly cringeworthy to watch. As for Mel, he's solid as a rock here. It's an ideally gruff yet hearty role for him. One might even view it as a referential redemption plot. Maybe.

( 7/10 )

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