Category Archives: Reviews

Eye in the Sky (2016)

What is the cost of fighting terrorism? That is the broader question looming over Eye in the Sky. Directed by Gavid Hood (TsotsiEnder’s Game), the film narrows this problem down to the scale of one single drone strike in Kenya. After trailing these terrorists on the East Africa Most Wanted list for years, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) leads a mission to selectively bomb the house they are meeting in. Unfortunately, there are strict rules of engagement in this situation and before any strike can be launched she needs the permission of General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, Harry Potter) and several politicians who have conflicting viewpoints.

Drone strikes and questions of their legality and morality have been highlighted in the news recently and Eye in the Sky displays the complexities and minutiae that are inherent in military missions. A major theme of the film is responsibility and blame. Who really makes a decision that, while killing terrorists, could risk harming innocents? Is it the pilot who pulls the trigger? The Colonel that gives the order to fire? The general or several politicians that defined their rules of engagement? The film implies that responsibility is held at each point in the chain of command and the aftermath of these decisions is felt by everyone. One of the most interesting points brought up in the ongoing discussion is about the larger implications of casualties. If they kill one child to save 80 people from a potential suicide bomber, will the British government become reviled? Is vilifying the terrorists in the media worth allowing a bombing to occur? Again, the movie smartly avoids providing direct answers to these questions and is impressively balanced in portraying each opinion.

Every factor, political, moral, or legal is scrutinized.
Every factor, political, moral, or legal is scrutinized.

Furthermore, the film explores how political involvement in the military matters can undermine their efficacy. Beyond morality, each politician in the film considers the political impact of the bombing. How will this affect their career? Their party? In one case a ranking politician asks to a dissenting voice, “Will you be the one who has to go on morning news shows to explain this?”. The film shows how these considerations cripple the politicians with indecision as they continually “refer up” to avoid culpability, despite the time-sensitive nature of the operation. When they begin to rely on predictive damage models to make their decisions, the question of reliability of data is also raised. How much of these models are based on fact and can they change if a ranking military official wants them to? The films shows the desperation that can be created by indecision at a critical moment.

Eye in the Sky is primarily a film about these ideas but it does however have brief action scenes in Africa. Barkhad Abdi of Captain Phillips (He is not the Captain now) plays their man on the ground. Hood deftly uses these scenes to contrast the political risks with the dangers agents in that position take trying to fight terrorism everyday. For the the most part they are well staged. The only flaw is many of the effects are obviously computer generated and can break the otherwise successful immersion.

When decisions are finally made, the film avoids simple resolution. The actions taken – and the actions not taken – play out and the consequences are felt by all. Did someone “win” the arguments? Was the mission successful? What does “success” even mean in the this scenario? As the credits roll, these are the questions that linger over the characters and the audience. Eye in the Sky, succeeds by raising these questions and enforcing the uncertainty of any possible answer.

4/5 stars.

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! can be seen as a spiritual successor to Dazed and Confused or even a continuation of Boyhood. Like Dazed and Confused, the film is about someone starting school, only this time it’s a college freshman in the 1980’s rather than a high school freshman in the 70’s. Jake (Blake Jenner) plays the main character moving into the off-campus house exclusively for members of the baseball team and the movie shows the events that take place during the 3 days before school begins. Like most of Linklater’s films, there is no clear plot. Instead, the camera moves along with the characters as they go about their lives.

Linklater is known for producing naturalist performances. Each character feels believable but unfortunately not often likable. The director’s favorite archetype has always been the outsider artist who spends his time philosophizing about their true purpose in life, but most of the characters here don’t fit into that mold. All of the leads are Jake’s baseball teammates and their hyper-competitive nature turns their home into a fraternity house of concentrated testosterone. Many of the actors appear conspicuously old and there is even a Matthew Mcconaughey look-alike spouting lines similar to his famous role in Dazed and Confused. Actually, almost all of Jake’s teammates are mostly repulsive versions of that character. Predatory, egotistical, and creepy. The characters, though well realized, are shallow and their dialogue quickly devolves into what some may call “guy talk”. By that i mean each conversation is either about one-upping each other or objectifying women. The rest of their time is spent playing juvenile pranks on each other that, while occasionally funny, do nothing to grow the characters.

Lots of great songs come out of this convertible.

The period is well realized. It’s clear that Linklater knows this era (he was about the age of the characters during this time) and has lovingly reproduced it. The call-outs to Space Invaders, pinball, and vinyl records are appreciated but overabundant. The camera unnecessarily lingers too often on the titles of games, TV, or movies, overeager to mine nostalgia. The music is used similarly. Linklater has a great ear and assembled a soundtrack out of the best of the 80’s featuring The Knack, Blondie, and a particularly hilarious moment when the characters sing along to Rapper’s Delight by the Sugarhill Gang. The only downside is that when the music – and the energy it brings – are missing, the scenes are are noticeably lacking. Its absence exposes a lack of compelling characters.

Despite these flaws it’s hard to fault the technical aspects of the film. The story, while aimless, is well paced and is never boring. When Linklater does finally choose to add depth to Blake’s teammates, they quickly show potentially redeeming qualities. It’s a shame that these instances are rare amidst their standard superficial pursuits. Linklater has never been a filmmaker to manipulate his characters. His camera observes rather than judges and in this way he has achieved his goal. He’s accurately and affectionately portrayed the characters that he was interested in. Unfortunately, to the rest of us these characters are more often grating than appealing and Linklater’s craft can’t overcome that hurdle.

3/5 stars.

Hardcore Henry (2016)

From B-movies in the 70’s to comic books in the present, blockbusters have always been influenced by the media their creators grew up with. Finally, enough time has passed that the generation that grew up playing video games is sitting behind the camera. Many films have played with flourishes that reference video game aesthetics (see any movie by Neil Blomkamp), but now we have the first film where the main inspiration in every feature, from craft to story, comes from interactive entertainment. Hardcore Henry, directed by Ilya Naishuller, is an action film shot entirely from the first person. Henry wakes up being literally put back together by his wife with no memory of his past. Before he can learn what has happened to him, they are attacked by a cartoonishly evil Kurt Cobain-esque villain who kidnaps Henry’s wife. The rest of the film is Henry trying to kill the bad guy and save his wife, aided by the help of a mysterious man (or men?) named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley; District 9).

And that is everything you need to know about the plot. Actually, it’s more of a setup than anything else. Taking a cue from many video games, Naishuller uses the barest of narratives because the film isn’t about the story, it’s about the spectacle. And that spectacle is fantastic. The first person perspective increases immersion and causes you to wince with each blow directed at the camera. It’s especially effective when Henry is getting thrown from planes, trains, and exploding automobiles. The stunts are always exhilarating even if they stretch believability. How does someone thrown off the roof of a moving van because it was blown up by a grenade fly through the air and land on the end of a motorcycle? Who cares. It looks cool.

Up close and personal.

This irreverent tone gives the film a winning playfulness except for the moments where it descends into juvenility. The film brands itself as “HARDCORE” and isn’t satisfied with just action in that regard. It has to be about hard guys doing hard guys things and it uses blatant misogyny to break up the adrenaline. Women in the film are relegated to being strippers, hyper-sexualized ninjas, or hollow plot devices sometimes literally used as props or background dressing. These instances aren’t frequent, but their casual nature is appalling. It’s a shame that the gleeful violence is tarnished by these adolescent male tendencies when the stunts are exceptional and deserve to be seen in theaters.

Many of the set pieces could be called direct adaptations of video games or video game trailers. The opening credits are played over a gruesome montage of slow motion kills bathed in red lighting that clearly imitates the initial Killzone 3 teaser. Later scenes pull from famous levels found in popular first person shooters. The sniper scene from the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is recreated here from the abandoned concrete building right down to the ghillie suit. The stunts only falter when rather than introduce a new set piece, the film just throws in more enemy henchmen (which ironically is a common complaint in video games). Even though these stunts are not always novel, the translation to a new medium creates a fresh, frenetic energy and the film happily revels in that chaos.

4/5 stars.

Midnight Special (2016)

Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols’ fourth feature and his first attempt at a (comparatively) big budget film that might have some mainstream appeal. His previous films were small character dramas and that DNA is still present here. Like Take Shelter, the movie stars Michael Shannon dealing with a supernatural problem. This time however, the question isn’t “Is it real?” but rather “What does this mean?” and “How do we prevent others from destroying it?”. Shannon plays a dad hiding from the police with Joel Edgerton (The Gift) as he takes his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) to a special location. We soon learn that Alton has supernatural powers evidenced by the beams of blue light that shoot out of his eyes. He is able to tap into radio frequencies, pull down satellites, and cause earthquakes. Their mission is to get him to Florida before something happens and before the government, believing him to be a weapon, finds them.

The clear influence here is John Carpenter’s Starman. Like that movie, this is a chase that is more interested in sentiment than science. The film manages to convey the love Alton’s parents have for him by contrasting them with others who only view him as a messiah or future destruction. They care for Alton the boy, not the supernatural being. This also serves to increase the stakes and the tension throughout. Lieberher is particularly believable as Alton. He shows the unnaturally calm confidence of someone who fully understands the situation which makes his simple lines seem profound. Yet, he still betrays his youth in the way he needs his parents for support. The music also recalls Carpenter’s signature scores and a slow piano melody transitions the mood from frantic chase to solemn duty. Even the special effects are homage. The blue beams of light mimic the glows of the sliver spheres in Starman. This along with other flourishes are deliberately old fashioned but never become garish or distracting.

Family is at the heart of Midnight Special.

Nichols wisely chooses to obscure many details of the plot. Background information including how Alton was born, how he grew up, and the full scope of what his powers can do are either only hinted at or largely ignored. The audience, as well as the characters, are left wondering what led to his current state. The time period is muddled too. Shots prominently feature CRT televisions and few modern gadgets are shown to prevent dating the film. In doing so, Nichols has edited out the exposition that bogs down many other science fiction films (see Interstellar) and focuses on the heart of the story – a family trying to save their son. That is, until the ending.

How the film closes may leave viewers unsatisfied. Up to that point, the cryptic details heightened the intensity, but as the film reveals itself the suspense is quickly deflated. The ending may prove too literal for some wanting something closer to 2001 and noticeably undermines the mystery that preceded it. Still, the sense of wonder and hidden potential present in the film create ample tension and intrigue to entice.

4/5 stars.

Get a Job (2016)

Ah, the millennials. They just can’t seem to make it work, can they? Get a Job, directed by Dylan Kidd (Roger Dodger), is a comedy about a group of young people trying to find their first jobs. The movie was apparently shot in 2012, but due to distribution issues was only released this weekend in very few theaters and on VOD rather than the wide release expected for a movie playing to this broad of an audience. Miles Teller plays Will, a recent grad who starts his first day doing video production at LA Weekly only to learn that his job as been eliminated. His girlfriend Jillian (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect) asks him to “step up” and find a job. unlike his pot-smoking roommates, while his old fashioned “work your way to the top” dad (Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad)  unexpectedly finds himself in a similar situation. The movie also features various subplots about Will’s roommates attempting to find their own first jobs and this is one of the reason the film falls apart.

The film feels overstuffed, despite its 82 minute runtime. It’s clear that this movie has gone through several overhauls in the editing room to create  something releasable, but their attempts have failed. None of the plot threads are given enough time to allow the characters to grow, so the climaxes have little effect. There is also dialogue referring to scenes that didn’t make it into the final cut which leads to a film that feels entirely jumbled together. Even with the 4 year wait, Get a Job still plays like an early version.

Making a good movie is the hard part.

The “comedy” script fails to produce any laughs. The writers were obviously targeting a Superbad-like movie, especially with their casting of Christopher Mintz-Plasse, but fail at creating both the likable characters and the humorous situations. The cast here is extremely talented and has done great work in other projects, but the script and editing don’t give them anything to work with. Cranston and Kendrick are the highlights, but even they can only do so much given their material and they aren’t featured enough to make an impact. Instead the jokes oscillate between trite and obscene and the language is both juvenile and crass. Alison Brie plays a hiring manager whose only lines are sexual advances that are both unwanted and unfunny. To put this in context, the film’s idea of comedy is her character trying to watch Will urinate for his drug test. Get a Job‘s humor never rises above a repulsively vulgar attempt at a Judd Apatow comedy.

Furthermore, the tone is absolutely inappropriate for the target audience. Starting right from the opening shot, Get a Job never loses its “kids these days” perspective. The film’s introductory montage posits that all of the characters’ problems are caused by their everyone-gets-a-trophy upbringing and that they can’t make it in the “real world” until they “toughen up”. Then, at the last minute, it doubles back and tries to claim, in a well delivered but unsubstantiated speech by Kendrick, that the younger generation doesn’t need the structure or direction of their parents to be happy. With no true, original, or even consistent insights to offer, the film fails at both skewering millennials and at uplifting them.

Totaling all these troubles, it’s clear that distribution issues were the least of the film’s problems. The 4 year wait apparently did not provide enough time construct a developed story and also outdated it as the economy has improved since filming. In retrospect, placing it on hold was actually the right decision because the movie has nothing to offer to any demographic. Get a Job is positioned as a film of and for the millennials but feels like a movie written by their disapproving grandparents with jokes by an obscene Seth Rogen knockoff.

1/5 stars.

Son of Saul (2015)

Directed by first timer László Nemes, Son of Saul focuses on a subgroup of prisoners called Sonderkommando who were forced to help Nazis in their usage of gas chambers during WWII. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is one of these prisoners and during the first third of the film he performs his duties, including moving corpses and cleaning bloody gas chambers, without disdain or disgust. The single expression he shows is one of pragmatism, not horror. This continues until his priorities shift after he finds a certain body. Saul discovers his illegitimate son’s body and does everything he can to hide it from cremation so he can provide a proper burial.

The film focuses almost entirely on Saul. The camera closely follows him and there are very few cuts, similar to the shooting style of Birdman. Furthermore, Nemes chose to use the Academy ratio (not widescreen). Typically, using this technique in the modern era implies unnecessary nostalgia on the part of the filmmaker as was the case with The Artist, but here it is effective. Nemes uses the smaller area to create a strong sense of location. At any moment it feels like there is something chaotic occurring just off-screen, but we can’t tell because our focus is on Saul – literally. The backgrounds, particularly the most explicit ones, remain blurred and out of focus. These techniques successfully create a world beyond the frame of the film and show the banalization of tragedy. Dead bodies aren’t in focus because they’re not special and how can they be with so many around?

Yet the formal strengths of the film are undermined by its narrative turns. As Saul becomes increasingly desperate and endangers others to ensure the proper burial of his son, he becomes almost hypocritical. He takes risks that could potentially harm the escape plans his peers have worked so hard to execute just to save someone that has already been lost. And after sending hundreds of bodies to the incinerator, what makes his son’s body special? There is the famous quote by Joseph Stalin that “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” but here Saul’s actions only appear selfish, not tragic, and any small payoff that could have been produced is crippled by a cheap, cop-out of a conclusion.

Son of Saul recently picked up the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Despite the Academy being averse to gruesome subjects, they have consistently shown they love movies about the Holocaust. Why? Maybe because it’s morally unambiguous. Maybe because it’s a time when the US was completely in the right and played the hero. Or maybe it’s just that people are too afraid of backlash to criticize a film based on the Holocaust, fearing that others will think they are belittling one of the greatest tragedies in history. It’s important to note that the film and its subject, no matter how important or sensitive, are separate from each other and criticizing one does not equal criticizing the other. Son of Saul is another example of a historical drama overrated by critics, likely due to its subject matter.

3/5 stars.

Knight of Cups (2016)

“My life is like a Call of Duty campaign on easy. I just go around and fuck shit up.” Yes. That’s a real quote.

Terrence Malick’s newest film continues the downward trend started by 2012’s To The Wonder. The film follows Christian Bale playing a character that may or may not have been given a name. In fact, I can’t name a single character in the movie despite having just seen it as none are memorable or remotely developed. Bale appears to be a successful Hollywood screenwriter that gets sucked into the excesses of Tinseltown while dealing with some inner turmoil. What exactly is that turmoil? It seems to have to do with the loss of a younger brother and conflict with an authoritative father. If that sounds familiar, it is. This was the main thrust behind the significantly superior The Tree of Life (one of my favorite films) and there are glimpses, however brief, of the emotional intimacy found in that work. Unfortunately, these instances are too few and infrequent to carry the film.

Knight of Cups does break into new territory with its subject matter though. Malick’s films are always told using a childlike sense of wonder and imagination with many of the main characters being children. This style continues but is now applied to adult emotions, namely lust and hedonism, as well as seedier environments. Bale’s character moves through strip clubs, exorbitantly wealthy parties, and numerous partners in his descent and while this provides an intriguing contrast, it is never fully utilized. Any potential is squandered through the meandering of the narrative.

“See the palm trees? They tell you anything’s possible.” Also a real quote.

At its worst, Knight of Cups plays almost like self-parody. Every Malick trope is here. Vaguely spiritual whispered voice-overs? Scenes of frolicking on a beach? Majority of the film takes place at dusk with the sun behind the character’s head? Check, check, and check. All of these aspects have been successful at times in his previous movies, but the difference here is that there is no cohesion between the scenes. These films are becoming increasingly like grab bags of thoughts taken randomly from Terry’s bedside notebook and spoken by talented actors over beautiful imagery. Unfortunately, the stunning visuals and vague hints at depth are no longer enough to carry a film this unfocused. There are only so many scenes of a character reaching out of the window of a moving car to do hand jives while a pastor philosophizes that an audience can take.

2/5 stars.

The Witch (2016)

The Witch, or The V V itch as the opening title reads, starts with a family on trial in front of their fellow plantation workers. They are banished from their home for incorrectly preaching God’s word. Headstrong, the father moves his family away and starts farming to survive on their own. They seem to be successful until something goes wrong. The infant goes missing and the family is wrecked with grief when they are unable to explain their loss. They can’t reconcile their misfortune with their religious beliefs and the loss creates cracks in the foundation of their lives.

The strength and originality of the film comes from its focus on relationships and beliefs rather than the supernatural. Living in the 1600s in a puritan, extremely orthodox family, the characters have deeply held beliefs about God, Original Sin, and the Devil. To them, Witches are as real as droughts and famine so when bad things start happening, they look for someone, or something, to blame. The Witch uses this finger pointing to create an atmosphere of distrust. Much like the horror classic The Thing, the question isn’t “who’s going to die next?” but rather “who will they believe?”. This adds a moral complexity to the storyline that elevates it well above other similar movies.

4/5 Stars.

Love (2011)

What matters most in life? What can we truly not live without? These are the questions Love, made in 2011 by director, cinematographer, and production designer William Eubank and produced by music supergroup Angels & Airwaves, attempts to answer. The movie follows both a civil war soldier searching for an unidentified object found in the west and Lee Miller (Gunner Wright), an astronaut in the International Space Station.  How they connect is revealed much later. Miller is by himself in the ISS with the intent to return to Earth soon until his mission control informs him that they do not have the resources needed to bring him back. He later sees explosions on the surface of Earth as all communication ceases. Alone with no idea what happened or why, Miller spends the next years coping with his solitude. Intercut between these storylines are what appear as interviews with regular people sharing their perspectives on life. These short interludes offer simple, but insightful comments on the human condition from varying perspectives.

Shockingly, the movie was made for only $500,000 with most of the sets built in the backyard of Eubank’s parent’s home. Despite what that would imply, the cinematography, particularly the lighting, is exceptional. Eubank uses the blinding light of the sun along with the colored switches of control panels to great effect, at times coating his lead in extreme shadow and contrast.

Love makes overt references to both Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris. The structure reflects parts of 2001, but the themes, thankfully, draw more from SolarisLove can even be viewed as a spiritual successor to Solaris. I say thankfully because I am not a fan of 2001. While I can’t give it enough compliments for it’s visual design and special effects, like many of Kubrick’s films, it’s emotionally empty. Solaris and Love instead focus on longing for a human connection. As the isolation continues, Miller starts hallucinating and imagining others to reduce his solitude. Eubank uses this longing—the need to connect with another—and applies it to all of us. This is what makes Love resonate. It’s setting is extraterrestrial, but it’s interests, as evidenced by the ending, are human.

Even though it will leave many confused or unsatisfied, the ending is true to Eubank’s goal. He is not interested in the details of a single story, he’s interested in the feelings that drive every story. The emotions that make people continue in life. Viewers that can focus on his goal rather than their own plot resolution needs will leave the movie smiling. Combined with a pulsing electric score, also provided by Angels & Airwaves, the ending carries Love to an inspiring, thematically-appropriate conclusion and makes a firm statement on the value of human connection.

4/5 Stars.

Pure Pwnage Teh Movie

When I first saw the trailer for Pure Pwnage Teh Movie, I was nervous. Having grown up with the web series and later watched the Canadian TV show I was worried not that the movie would be unfaithful to the spirit of the original works, but rather that the original show was now outdated.

For those unfamiliar with Pure Pwnage, it was a webseries launched in 2004 (pre-Youtube) about a “pro gamer” named Jeremy (Jarrett Cale) filmed in a documentary style by his brother and total noob Kyle (Geoff Lapaire). Most of the humor was tied to gaming culture at the time and some of it wasn’t what we would now consider politically correct. I was afraid that the movie continuation of the series I had fond affections for would appear crass and outdated, much like the 2011 release of Duke Nukem Forever. Thankfully, I was wrong.

The movie picks up a few years after the web series (the less well received TV series is now non-cannon) with Jeremy and his best friend FPS Doug (Joel Gardiner). I won’t spoil the details of their current situation, but suffice to say that the film manages to stay true to the characters while completely subverting your expectations of them. Jeremy and Doug decide to enter a tournament to win money and now have to learn League of Legends, the current hottest multiplayer game. To their dismay, LoL is a team sport meaning they have to learn to interact with other human beings which doesn’t come naturally to Jeremy. The film follows them as they form a team, train, and compete in the tournament.

The best part of the film is just how effortless it seems. The actors know the characters so well that they always feel believable, despite the silliness of their antics. As they progress, we get various callbacks to the webseries and, dare I say it, even character growth. BBC film critic Mark Kermode has a “6 laugh rule” for comedies. The idea is that if a comedy can make you laugh at least 6 times, it is worth your attention. While watching Pure Pwnage Teh Movie, I probably passed 6 laughs within the first 5 minutes. The film actually plays on the outdated nature of the original series and mines the differences between gaming in 2004 and gaming in 2015 for an endless supply of jokes. That being said, there are some major caveats. In order to fully enjoy the film you need to have seen the web series and be at least somewhat familiar with video games. But if you meet that criteria, you’ll spend the 90 minutes with a huge grin on your face and leave with a sudden desire to run with a knife or spank your monitor. GG guys, GG.

5/5 Stars.