REVIEW: It Follows

27 03 2015

It FollowsIn his soon-to-be classic modern horror film “It Follows,” David Robert Mitchell can even make a pronoun terrifying.  The word “it,” when standing alone in American slang, has referred to an appealing aura of sexuality dating back to Clara Bow’s 1927 romantic comedy “It,” which popularized the phrase “It Girl.”  But for Mitchell, “it” becomes practically a proper noun, one that refers to a haunting specter that stalks down a teenage victim after being passed on through sexual intercourse.

“It Follows” speaks the subtext that runs through a great number of films in the genre, turning implicit punishment for carnal impropriety into a tangible STD horror story.  Maika Monroe’s college-aged protagonist (or, dare I say, the “final girl”) Jay Height gets the story going by swapping fluids with her older boyfriend, Hugh, and subsequently contracting his condition.  Through this exchange, Jay becomes the main target of “it,” a spirit that can inhabit any body and is dead set on taking a victim, unless she passes the burden to someone else.

The story and premise almost sound comical when laid out in terms like those above, especially considering that Jay stubbornly and irrationally refuses to transfer the evil spirit.  Yet Mitchell’s impeccable technique make laughter practically unthinkable in “It Follows.” The film is far too unnerving to allow for such sentiments to bubble to the surface. Mitchell puts the typical, derivative offerings of horror to shame as he creates a work that stands as one of the best executed films in recent memory irrespective of genre. He combines the psychological madness of “Martha Marcy May Marlene” with the all-out bodily terror of “Black Swan” for one bone-chilling experience.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 26, 2015)

26 03 2015

The Armstrong LieDocumentarian Alex Gibney is not only one of the most prolific directors in his field; he is also one of its most incisive.  Gibney tends to gravitate towards two extremes in his choice of subjects, macro level exposés of corrupt institutions (Enron, the Catholic Church, the U.S. military) and portraiture of fallen men (Jack Abramoff, Eliot Spitzer).  Many of his documentaries contain elements of both, but none blend them better than his 2013 work “The Armstrong Lie.”

The film plays somewhat like an ESPN “30 for 30″ documentary (a series to which Gibney has contributed) yet with a killer twist.  Gibney’s initial premise for a documentary on Lance Armstrong began as an adulatory one, filming his improbable comeback with a rosy lens.  Then, a few years later, the approach changed thanks to the shocking revelation of Armstrong’s duplicity and doping.

Gibney then sits back down with the footage and examines how Armstrong was able to hoodwink him and the rest of the world.  Remarkably, Armstrong himself sits down for another interview with Gibney to bare his soul, too.  These interrogations, along with other extensive investigative reporting, constitute “The Armstrong Lie,” one of the most fascinating confessional documents ever produced.  It is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because Gibney puts himself in the shoes of the average viewer to tell it, trying to comprehend how we all fell victim to his deception.

As it turns out, Armstrong is basically the sporting world’s incarnation of Jordan Belfort from “The Wolf of Wall Street.”  He cheated with performance-enhancing drugs since the beginning of his remarkable run of Tour de France victories and essentially brought about his own demise with a cocky “victory lap” in 2009.  The sport of cycling needed a celebrity figure to drive interest, so the authorities looked the other way and became complicit in his scheme because they wanted him to be real.  As Armstrong says in the film, “It pays to believe in winning at all costs.”

Lance Armstrong’s story ultimately becomes a sort of microcosm for society as a whole.  He is just the latest hubristic male leader for whom power does not beget responsibility to a higher standard but rather rapacious recklessness.  Armstrong’s actions never take into account the potential effect on cancer patients, cycling fanatics, or anyone at all who ever looked to him as a symbol of hope and perseverance.  “The Armstrong Lie” does feel somewhat incomplete because Gibney assembled it in the immediate wake of Armstrong’s admissions, although it could definitely lend itself to a sequel to see if Armstrong has actually learned a lesson.

REVIEW: Magic Trip

25 03 2015

Magic TripIn the interregnum between the Beatnik era of “On the Road” and the hippies of “Inherent Vice,” there was Ken Kesey and his Merry Band of Pranksters.  The writer, best known for the counterculture classic “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” rode around the country with a group of pals in a bus called “Further.”  They sought the creation of art and the consumption of drugs – it was the mid-1960s, after all.

Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood’s “Magic Trip” documents their odd voyage, though not with the usual talking heads and ex post facto interviews.  The directors got their hands on the 16 mm footage that Kesey and company shot on “Further” and construct most of their nearly two-hour documentary out of the raw material, which had previously been unseen by audiences.

Admittedly, this is a film that will appeal most to those familiar with Kesey’s work and are curious to learn more about the man and the time that spawned them.  “Magic Trip” often sags under the weight of its embarrassment of riches; after all, those who want to learn more should be able to experience as much of it as possible.

But even for those unfamiliar with the author or the circles in which he ran, “Magic Trip” still provides an excellent document of what it was like to be on the fringes of society before the tumult of the decade pushed more people that direction.  Gibney and Ellwood also do a brilliant job depicting their drug usage, crafting a brilliant sequence of words and images to accompany audio footage of Kesey’s first LSD trip.  And, mind you, that partaking was not merely recreational.  It was sponsored by the CIA.  What a time.  B+3stars

REVIEW: Citizen Koch

24 03 2015

Citizen KochDirectors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin sell their documentary “Citizen Koch” as an exploration of the effects of the 2010 Citizens United case, which allowed an almost unlimited flow of corporate money into electoral politics.  The lawsuit, which began with a piece of propaganda disguised as a documentary called “Hillary: The Movie,” radically altered our democracy.

“Citizen Koch” attacks the decision reached in Citizens United yet is not all that different from the film at the center of the case.  It claims to be a piece of journalism, but it is really just a thinly-veiled partisan attack.  Poorly researched and selectively presentative of the facts, Deal and Lessin commits what is, in my mind, a cardinal sin of documentary filmmaking.  Rather than elevating the discussion to move beyond party divisions, they simply work to entrench partisan-infused rhetoric.

“Citizen Koch” crosses its wires on indignation for Tea Party’s racially charged rhetoric with the power of Citizens United.  They have every right to be angry, and I’m probably just as scared as they are of the prospect of “President Ted Cruz.”  But going after them for their oratory technique seems erroneous, and it detracts from the integrity of their argument on the whole.

Furthermore, Deal and Lessin make an overly simplified claim that Citizens United created the Tea Party.  I know for a fact that such an assertion is incorrect, as I knew parents of friends who started attending their rallies in 2009.  They also ignore the fact that Democrats are benefitting just as much from Super PAC spending, which became essentially unlimited as a result of the decision, as Republicans.  But based on the amount of time they devote to attacking the Koch Brothers’ puppet Scott Walker, anyone watching the movie with no knowledge of the issue would assume it was only the GOP exploiting the groups.

If Deal and Lessin really cared about ending the role of big money in politics, they would have made a film that did more than just preach to the choir and pander to the left.  Instead, they veer wildly off message to take potshots at Republicans for easy points.  This sham of democracy in this country will only continue to get worse if more films like “Citizen Koch” continue get a free pass for their ridiculous masquerade of non-fiction cinema.  C-1halfstars

REVIEW: Kingsman: The Secret Service

23 03 2015

Earlier in 2015, Matthew Vaughn hit a nerve with many movie fans when he took a giant crap on the face of reigning blockbuster king Christopher Nolan.  “People want fun and escapism at the moment,” said Vaughn in an interview, “I think Nolan kick-started a very dark, bleak style of superhero escapism, and I think people have had enough of it.”

I take issue with his statement for a number of reasons.  First of all, it just reeks of bitterness over Nolan’s success; the total worldwide gross of Vaughn’s combined filmography does not even come close to equaling the haul of “The Dark Knight Rises.”  Second, it implies that serious action films are shoving lighter fare out of the market on both the level of the corporation and the consumer.

For me, I tend to prefer Nolan’s films because they so boldly test the boundaries of what our entertainment can be.  But at the end of the day, I do not want to live in a world where I cannot kick back and enjoy a blissfully funny, irreverent, and exciting movie like Matthew Vaughn’s own “Kingsman: The Secret Service.”  There will always be a place for well-crafted entertainment that knows the role it wants to play and fulfills its duties with gusto.

Vaughn’s film, co-written with his frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, strikes a rarely found balance between spy movie classicism (like a Bond flick) and outright parody (a la “Austin Powers”).  They find the right times to shift gears, and the result is an experience that plays like all the fun of two movies for the price of one.  Overall, I found myself reminded of the hero’s quest of Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars” hybridized with “Agent Cody Banks” (throwback – bet you haven’t thought about that movie in a while).

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REVIEW: Goodbye First Love

22 03 2015

Goodbye First LoveIt’s easy for cinephiles like myself to put foreign cinema on a pedestal, praising it as superior to what the American system churns out year after year.  Much of that praise, however, comes from sampling bias.  Usually, a film has to be pretty good to cross the pond and make waves in the United States.  A visit to a movie theater in France will realign romanticism with reality.  For every “Amour” or “Blue is the Warmest Color,” they have two or three generic, culturally specific studio films.

I say this not to associate Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Goodbye First Love” with such bottom of the barrel but merely to make a point that not every French film is Palme D’Or quality.  Her third feature is artfully made, sure, but it has the sophistication of story that I would associate with a Nicholas Sparks adaptation.

The film follows Lola Créton’s Camille as she falls for Sebastian Urzendowsky’s Sullivan as a teenager, a romance stifled by his imminent departure to find himself in South America.  After he takes off, she seeks to fill the void he left behind – because, obviously, no woman is complete without a man.

Créton does a good job highlighting her character’s insecurities and susceptibility to the affection of the opposite sex.  Hansen-Løve just spends far too long registering her longing.  “Goodbye First Love” could have used less sentimentalism and more bold directorial choices, like that strange aquatic frolicking montage set to “Music for a Found Harmonium” (prominently featured at the close of “Napoleon Dynamite”).  C+2stars

REVIEW: Ride Along

21 03 2015

If anyone ever wanted to know what a mash-up of “Training Day” and “Monster-in-Law” would look like, “Ride Along” exists for their viewing pleasure.  Ice Cube stars as Office James Payton, an elder statesman trying to scare away a potential spouse for a loved, protected younger sister.  In order to vet his potential brother-in-law, Kevin Hart’s pint-sized Ben Barber, James gives him a taste of a day defending the law.

Their antics are nothing particularly noteworthy or hilarious.  “Ride Along”is a film of mild ambitions that results in only the most modest of payoffs.  The irony of featuring Ice Cube, the rapper who famously sang expletives at the police, playing a law enforcement officer has already been mined by “21 Jump Street.”

The film is only worth watching for Hart, who does his best to elevate all of his scenes.  The now seemingly ubiquitous star is a fun-sized Chris Rock with the falsetto of Chris Tucker, and the burst of energy he brings to “Ride Along” makes him rather endearing. Perhaps I sympathize with him innately, since I reside at the lower end of the height spectrum myself.

Personal feelings aside, Hart gets a nice showcase out of an otherwise forgettable film.  I might rewatch “Ride Along” if it happens to be on cable while I get my oil changed, but I doubt the scenario ever occurs where I’ll voluntarily rewatch this mediocre comedy. C+2stars


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