Best of 2017 So Far!

Land a’ goshen, the year’s half over already! How the F did that happen? Well, we’ve watched 161 films so far this year. Whew! Which have been the best? The new episodes of both Planet of the Apes and Spider-Man would’ve made the cut, but our judges said July releases didn’t count, so….let’s have a look at what did.

1. Get Out

You want to know the fears and anxieties at work in any modern population? Just look at their horror films.

You probably knew that. The stumper then, is what took so long for a film to manifest the fears of racial inequality as smartly as does Jordan Peele’s Get Out – an audacious first feature that never stops entertaining as it consistently pays off the bets it is unafraid to make.

2. The Survivalist

 Lean, mean futuristic science fiction that feels unsettlingly like reality, The Survivalist ranks among the best dystopian films in recent memory. And as writer/director Stephen Fingleton creates an utterly plausible and devastatingly grim future, the film marks a first time filmmaker with an awful lot to say.

3. It Comes at Night

Deep in the woods, Paul (Joel Edgerton, solid as always), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) have established a cautious existence in the face of a worldwide plague. They have boarded their windows, secured their doors, and enacted a very strict set of rules for survival.

At the top of that list: do not go out at night.

But what are the dangers, and how much of the soul might one offer up to placate fear itself?

In asking those unsettling questions, It Comes at Night becomes a truly chilling exploration of human frailty.

4. The Beguiled

Snugly hidden near the fighting in Confederate territory, a girls’ school takes in a wounded Union soldier. Delicately shifting allegiances, power struggles, competition, longing, fear, and danger waft between the columns of Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies.

Sofia Coppola develops a languid and ornate atmosphere, punctuated where necessary to create a sense of dread and urgency. Her cast is uniformly excellent, their commitment to character leading to a finale that’s as devastating as it is inevitable.

5. Logan

Bloody and bleak, tossing F-bombs and the franchise’s first flash of nudity, Logan is not like the other X-Men.

Logan relies on themes of redemption – a superhero’s favorite. Director James Mangold pulls ideas from Children of Men and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but his film reminds me more of The Girl with All the Gifts. (If you haven’t seen it, you should.)

The point? The children are our future and Logan’s real battle has always been with himself. Almost literally, in this case.

6. Baby Driver

Start to finish, the soundtrack-driven heist flick Baby Driver has a bright, infectious charm – and you can dance to it.

The beats offer more than a gimmick to ensure the flick dances along – the tunes getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) has buzzing through his ear buds give rhythm to his impressive high speed antics.

The game cast never drops a beat, playing characters with the right mix of goofiness and malice to be as fun or as terrifying as they need to be. For all its danceability, Wright’s film offers plenty of tension, too.

7. Hounds of Love

 Driven by a fiercely invested and touchingly deranged performance from Emma Booth, Hounds of Love makes a subtle shift from horrific torture tale to psychological character study. In 108 grueling minutes, writer/director Ben Young’s feature debut marks him as a filmmaker with confident vision and exciting potential.

No doubt, events get brutal, but never without reminders that Young is a craftsman. Subtle additions, such as airplanes flying freely overhead to contrast with the theme of captivity, give Hounds of Love a steady dose of smarts, even as it’s shaking your core.

8. Raw

 A vegetarian from a meat-free family, Justine (Garance Marillier, impressive) objects to her new university’s freshman hazing ritual of eating a piece of raw meat. But once she submits to peer pressure and tastes that taboo, her appetite is awakened and it will take more and more dangerous, self-destructive acts to indulge her blood lust.

Writer/director Julia Ducournau’s has her cagey way with the same themes that populate any coming-of-age story – pressure to conform, peer pressure generally, societal order and sexual hysteria. Here all take on a sly, macabre humor that’s both refreshing and unsettling.

9. Norman

 Writer/director Joseph Cedar skillfully creates an utterly fascinating character in Norman (Richard Gere), who maneuvers through an equally intriguing web of politics, friendship and desperation. And Gere, as good as he’s ever been, makes it feel authentic.

It’s a performance that should not be forgotten come award season, and it anchors a smart, detailed film as compelling as any political thriller, yet as familiar as your last little white lie.

10. The Blackcoat’s Daughter

 Winter break approaches at a Catholic New England boarding school. Snow piles up outside, the buildings empty, yet Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton) remain. One has tricked her parents for an extra day with her townie boyfriend. One remains under more mysterious circumstances.

Blackcoat’s Daughter behaves almost the way a picture book does. In a good picture book, the words tell only half the story. The illustrations don’t simply mirror the text, they tell their own story as well. If there is one particular and specific talent this film exposes in its director, it is his ability with a visual storyline.

Pay attention when you watch this one. There are loads of sinister little clues to find.

11. Split

 A transfixing James McAvoy is Kevin, a deeply troubled man harboring 23 distinct personalities and some increasingly chilling behavior. When he kidnaps the teenaged Casey (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy) and her two friends (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Suva), the girls are faced with constantly changing identities as they desperately seek an escape from their disorienting confines.

The split personality trope has been used to eye-rolling effect in enough films to be the perfect device for writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s clever rope-a-dope. By often splitting the frame with intentional set designs and camera angles, or by letting full face close-ups linger one extra beat, he reinforces the psychological creepiness without any excess bloodshed that would have soiled a PG-13 rating.

12. Free Fire

 Imagine if the entire 93 minutes of Reservoir Dogs took place in that last act shootout among the pack.

The noteworthy fact about Free Fire is not that it has a ballsy first act, but that the entire film is a third act. With scarcely a word of context, we’re rolled into an empty warehouse just in time for a shootout to begin, and there we will stay until the film concludes.

There is a barely controlled, very funny, incredibly bloody chaos afoot here, and it is a wild and entertaining sight to behold.

13. Colossal

 Colossal could also describe the height of writer/director Nacho Vigalondo’s latest concept, but despite some shaky interludes, it’s one worth the investment. Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis make a compelling pair, and as secrets of the film monster’s history are revealed, Vigalondo lands some solid satirical blows about self-absorption and personal demons.

Perhaps best of all is how Colossal works out of the conceptual corner it backs into. Much like the Koreans who keep coming downtown no matter how often the monster appears, Vigalondo is committed to the end, delivering a strange but satisfying in-the-moment fable.

14. The Lovers

 Credit writer/director Azazel Jacobs for turning the romantic dramedy inside out, weaving sly writing and touching performances into a thoroughly charming take on the resilience of love and the frustrating struggle to pin it down.

The Lovers is sneaky in its casual nature. Through subtle storytelling and stellar performances, it finds meaning in places rarely explored this effectively, and a gentle confidence that frayed emotions can still bond.

15. Guardians of the Galaxy 2

 Is that second mixtape ever quite as awesome as the first? Rarely, and that’s the Catch-22 of the original film’s surprising blast of space zaniness. While we never saw that one coming, this new one arrives with weighty expectations.

No, Volume 2 can’t match the ruffian charm of the first, and there are some stretches of not-much-happening-here. But James Gunn’s sequel shares a lot of heart, swashbuckling visuals and more than a few solid belly laughs.

Yes, we did like these, too:

 

 

Mr. and Mrs. Vegas

The House

by George Wolf

It’s a simple formula, really: D = sO2.

A comedy’s desperation is equal to the speed at which the outtakes start rolling, squared. Which means The House is mighty desperate to send you home laughing.

There’s plenty of talent involved, but it’s a film held together with barest of threads, as if the prompt for writers Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien (from the very funny Neighbors films – so what gives?) was merely to round up some funny people and hope they do funny things.

Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler are certainly funny, and they star as Scott and Kate Johansen, who start to panic when their daughter Alex (a curiously bland Ryan Simpkins) is accepted to Bucknell University.

They can’t afford Bucknell University.

Teaming up with their crazy, Vegas-loving friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) the Johansens open a secret neighborhood casino, kicking off a wave of uninspired riffs on stuffy suburbanites acting all Soprano and shit.

Cohen, making his feature directing debut, leaves plenty of contrived loose ends behind in search of the next forced gag. Fred and Barney may have pulled off a similar premise for 23-minutes in an old Flintstones episode, but The House is built on a less than sturdy foundation.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

 

 

Evil Twin Powers…Activate

Despicable Me 3

by George Wolf

I’ll be honest, it took a little research before I remembered anything at all about Despicable Me 2 that wasn’t a minion.

And even when those little yellow scene-stealers got their own movie, the result was surprisingly mediocre.

The entire franchise has been memorable only for being so easily forgettable. So how’s part 3?

It’s fine.

Steve Carell returns as the voice of Gru, the super villain-turned good guy who’s now teamed up with wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) for double the secret agent heroics. And, their three adopted daughters are back to say “fluffyyyyyyyyy!’ and other adorable things.

The family ties get more tangled when Gru meets his long lost twin brother Dru (also Carell), who convinces him to return to the dark side and steal a massive diamond from an 80s-obsessed baddie named Balthazar Bratt (South Park‘s Trey Parker).

The writing and directing teams are full of animation vets who have been at least some part of every film in this franchise, so it’s little wonder DM3 can’t find ways to revitalize the brand. It doesn’t really want to.

While all the films have been pleasantly amusing, part 3 may actually land the greatest number of solidly funny gags. The “minions in prison” sequence is an inspired hoot, and an 80s dance-off between Gru and Bratt keeps silly going long enough for a decent payoff.

But again, while the latest Despicable Me will satisfy the kids with its frenetic zaniness and give the parents some escapist smiles, it might raise a question once part 4 comes calling.

“Which one had the twin brother again?”

Verdict-3-0-Stars

Wolf in the Hen House

The Beguiled

by Hope Madden

In a mist-laden Virginia woods, pre-adolescent Amy (Oona Laurence) mushroom picks her way to uncovering a wounded Union soldier. Sure he’s a bluebelly, but she can’t leave him there to die, can she?

Amy helps him back to Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, the isolated boarding school where she, Miss Farnsworth, one teacher and just a handful of pupils are waiting out the Civil War.

The Beguiled marks a return to critical favor for writer/director Sofia Coppola, who won best directing honor at this year’s Cannes Fest Festival for her adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel.

Few frame delicate, ornate beauty quite like Coppola. She has found quite a palette with this film – the draping trees, columned porches, foggy woods, the tender grace of the school’s inhabitants.

The film is a study in restraint, and probably the most conventional film Coppola’s made. She abandons the sexual hysteria of Don Siegel’s pulpy 1971 adaptation, creating instead a chamber piece lush with decay and longing.

From his first words at the school – “Corporal John McBurney, 66th New York, grateful to be your prisoner,” – Colin Farrell’s wounded deserter is a likeable mystery. Is he earnest or manipulative? A good guy, or a wolf in the hen house?

Clint Eastwood’s performance (easily the best thing about Siegel’s version) was immediately creepy and scheming. Farrell’s slightly more of a blunt instrument. He’s less conniving, more primal –vulnerable and explosive, sometimes in the same breath.

He’s met his match, though, in Martha Farnsworth – Nicole Kidman. Coppola’s script is crisp, and no one delivers a passive aggressive barb quite as skillfully as Kidman.

Like her girls, Martha carries a lived-in weariness that weakens her to this attractive distraction from the war. But she is a survivor, an instinct she hopes to bring out in her charges as well.

The cast is uniformly wonderful – Kirstin Dunst, in particular. Coppola is fascinated by the internal power struggle as well as the morphing moral and emotional factors at work here. As patriotism battles Christian compulsions in the beginning, so competition for the Corporal’s attention evolves into fear.

The film makes a sharp turn with the inevitable explosion of impotent male dominance. As sudden as it seems, Coppola’s languid approach earlier in the film ensures that each character’s inner motivations and interpretations are clear – without the hackneyed flashback or interior monologue Siegel resorted to.

The result is a bewitching film – beautifully acted, gloriously filmed and haunting.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing

Baby Driver

by Hope Madden

Start to finish, the soundtrack-driven heist flick Baby Driver has a bright, infectious charm – and you can dance to it.

It needs to be good, though. The third film in as many years about a mixtape, a rag-tag gang and a dead mom, this movie needs to bring something genuinely mesmerizing.

If there is one thing writer/director Edger Wright knows how to do, it’s propel a film’s action. That’s hardly his only talent, but few excel here quite the way he does. Scene to scene, set piece to set piece, he makes sure your eyes and your ears are aware that things are moving at a quick clip.

Never has this been more true than with Baby Driver.

Wright edits in time with his expertly curated mix tape, creating a rhythm that keeps his lead dancing, his film moving, and his audience engaged.

The beats offer more than a gimmick to ensure the flick dances along – the tunes getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) has buzzing through his ear buds give rhythm to his impressive high speed antics.

Baby is the one constant in the teams Doc (Kevin Spacey) assembles to pull off his jobs. A reluctant participant making good on a debt, Baby keeps his distance from the crew – whether it’s the oily Buddy (Jon Hamm, marvelous as ever), his sketchy girlfriend Darling, (Eiza Gonzales), or the straight-up psycho, Bats (Jamie Foxx – glad to see you in something worthwhile again).

Of course, the tension comes in when Baby tries to leave the robbery biz behind, egged on by feelings for the cute waitress at his favorite diner (Lily James).

If you’ve ever seen a movie, you’ll know that getting out is never easy.

Wright’s agile camera keeps tempo with his killer playlist. Whether back-dropping romance at the laundromat with gorgeous color and tongue-in-cheek visual call-backs, or boogying through back alleys, on-ramps and highways, Baby Driver is as tasty a feast for the eyes as it is the ears.

The game cast never drops a beat, playing characters with the right mix of goofiness and malice to be as fun or as terrifying as they need to be. For all its danceability, Wright’s film offers plenty of tension, too.

Like much of the filmmaker’s work, Baby Driver boasts a contagious pop mentality, intelligent wit and sweet heart.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

I Don’t Want to Go Out – Week of June 27

Oh, the bounty that is home entertainment this week! Loads of stuff – most of it mediocre – but one brand spanking new option that kicks all manner of ass.

Here’s what you can find in new home entertainment. Click the title for a complete review. And as always, please use this information for good, not evil.

The Bad Batch

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

T2: Trainspotting

Verdict-2-5-Stars

 Chips

Verdict-2-0-Stars

 

Power Rangers

Verdict-2-0-Stars

 

 

 

Stars, Stripes & Appetites

The Bad Batch

by Hope Madden

Three years ago, Ana Lily Amirpour dazzled moviegoers with her sleek and imaginative vampire fable A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

The film tells of a solitary female figure and the surprising impact of unlikely companionship. Amirpour called the film a “vampire western.”

If you haven’t seen the film (and you should, immediately), but you like the premise, then Amirpour’s follow up The Bad Batch might also appeal to you. It mines a similar vein, although the context is a bit more merciless.

The film’s provocative opening of mostly voiceover under credits introduces the concept of the “bad batch” – unwanteds. Drugs, immigration, petty crime – it’s never clear what this batch has been up to, but we know where they’re going. They’re headed to a quarantined expanse of arid Texas desert no longer considered part of These United States.

Once the images on screen take form, Amirpour creates an atmosphere of dystopian terror that the balance of the film never quite reaches again.

Newest resident Arlen (Suki Waterhouse – very impressive), realizes just how Mad Max this can get moments after gates are locked behind her. In a breathless and brutal piece of cinema, we are introduced to one of two communities thriving in this wasteland.

The Bridge People are hyper-bulked up, ultra-tanned cannibals represented by Miami Man (Jason Momoa). (They may not have access to steroids, but they’re certainly getting a lot of protein.)

The second community of Comfort offers a colorful, almost habitable environment led by charismatic leader The Dream (Keanu Reeves).

With these two communities, Amirpour moves very clearly into metaphorical territory, ideas she underscores nicely with strategic use of the American flag.

One version of America sees the vain, self-centered “winners” literally feeding on the weak. The second may seem more accepting, but it pushes religion, drugs and other “comforts” to encourage passivity.

It’s a clever but unwieldy storyline, and Amirpour has trouble concluding her tale.

She has a great cast, though. Joining Woodhouse, Momoa and Reeves are flashes of Jim Carrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Diego Luna and a host of the freakish and intriguing.

Amirpour has such a facility with creating mood and environment, and though the approach here is different than with her debut, she once again loads the soundtrack and screen with inspired images, sounds and idiosyncrasies.

Her opening sets such a high bar – one she fails to reach again – and her finale feels too conventional for this character and this world. They’re fairly slight criticisms, but with a filmmaker of such amazing talent, they can’t help but be a let-down.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

Face Off

by Cat McAlpine

I have many fears.

I am afraid of heights. I am afraid of the dark. I am afraid of deep water. I am afraid I will never realize my potential, or that the car I just passed on the side of the road really did need my help, or that I’ll never get out of debt. I am afraid of how big the universe is and how small I am. The usual.

But the fear I encounter the most is my fear of small spaces.

I’m not afraid of being crushed. I’m afraid of not being able to get out of a small space, and then being probably crushed. Or suffocating.

This fear manifests in many places. On the tube in London, a crowded car would remind me that all of those hot, sweating bodies were stuffed in a tiny tin can, that was then stuffed into a cement tunnel.

Concerts are typically a non-starter. There’s nothing worse than being mocked by a glowing exit sign from the middle of a writhing crowd of bodies.

Given my litany of fears, you’d think I’d never leave the house. But I endure. And I push myself to confront my fears. I swim in lakes and cross rooms without turning on the light.

I just do it all while a very loud voice in my head screams “OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD YOU’RE GONNA DIE”.

When my friend, and local filmmaker, Michelle Hanson asked me if I’d be willing to be decapitated for her upcoming horror film, I didn’t realize I’d be confronting my greatest fear.

“A cast of my head?”

“Yeah!”

“Oh my god yes! Can I keep it?”

A few weeks before we were set to do the live face cast, (They call it this. Is there a dead face cast? Don’t tell me.) Michelle sent me a video via email. “Here’s the process. Watch this and let me know if you have any questions.”

I didn’t watch the video. I worried it might freak me out.

A few days before the cast, a friend asked me who was coming with me. I had planned to just meet Michelle there.

My friend looked nervous. “I’m NOT claustrophobic and I had to hold someone’s hand the whole time I got mine done.”

“I’m sure it will be fine” I told myself. The little voice had started to whisper “But what if you diiiieeeee?”

When I entered the prosthetics space, a small rented room lined with monster heads and spare limbs, I gave myself a few minutes to settle in. Then I dropped my bomb.

“Hey, I didn’t want to freak anybody out, but super casually I’m actually really claustrophobic.”

The room went silent as Michelle, and the two face-technicians (sure) stared at me in horror. Then there was a flurry of questions and pointers.

“Didn’t you watch the video I sent you?”

“It will probably be fine, most people are fine.”

“Let us know if you start panicking.”

“How claustrophobic?”

“It will take 30 minutes, tops.”

And then one of the technicians said something truly terrifying.

“Here’s the thing. If you freak out, its gonna take us just as long to get the thing off of you as it will to sit and wait until it’s dry. So you might as well just wait and not ruin the mold.” This man clearly had no fears.

No way out.

I tried to play it cool. I am not sure if this was successful or not. But I smiled and lightly joked as they taped a trashbag to my shoulders, glued on a bald cap, and vaselined my eyebrows.

face2

“Okay, so we’re gonna cover your face in this goo-“ I don’t remember what any of it was called now, my inner voice was screaming, “- and then we’re going to put this cast material over that. As soon as it’s dry, we’ll take it off. When we cover your nose, just take one deep breath, and then blow air out of your nose really hard, and you should be able to breathe.”

Should. Be. Able. To. Breathe.

So I played it cool up to that point. And I played it cool as the technicians smeared by face with goo the consistency of clay. They covered my ears and I realized I couldn’t really hear. They covered my forehead. And then they covered my eyes. And the thick goo started to roll down my face. As the sludge crested my cheeks I lost it.

“Okay, uh, I’m gonna need to hold someone’s hand.”

face5

I heard a distant, under water “How you doing?”

I couldn’t move above my elbows, so I simply gave a weak thumbs up. Michelle’s small hand had found me, and was giving a reassuring pat.

And then my mouth was sealed. And my cheeks. And my nose.

“Are you gonna cover the nostrils?” One technician asked.

“Uh…. No. I think I’m just going to fill in around it.” The other answered.

Still_alive

I’d been snorting out air like a wild horse, in a desperate attempt to keep clay from blocking my airway.

I realized I hadn’t asked how I was going to get out, but it was too late. I was buried alive. Every once in a while a technician would come by and tap on the cast to see if it had dried. I couldn’t hear them approach, but when they tapped on my face, it sounded like dirt thudding on the lid of a coffin.

“HELP!” the voice screamed. “I’M STILL ALIVE IN HERE.”

They told me the whole process would take about 30 minutes. I was there for an hour and a half. I didn’t ask how long I was entombed. I don’t think I want to know. But eventually, after many weak thumbs up and hundreds of nostrils-only breaths, I heard tearing.

They were cutting away my fake face.

face6

I want to say that when they peeled away the cast and goo, I was reborn. I was without fear or doubt. I had conquered claustrophobia.

But I’m sweating right now just thinking about it.

I don’t know if you can conquer a fear. Maybe you just have a string of terrifying experiences in mosh-pits and crowded elevators. Maybe you just have to find someone to hold your hand, and live to tell the tale.

That head better look fucking awesome.