REVIEW: The Bad Batch

21 06 2017

Fantastic Fest

I watched Ana Lily Amirpour’s “The Bad Batch” late at night as the fifth movie in a single day at Fantastic Fest – and there was still one after it – so my grasp on its granular details is admittedly not as strong as usual. Yet experiencing the film in a state of altered consciousness where I had to fight against my body’s impulses to understand what was happening in front of my eyes feels oddly fitting.

“The Bad Batch” unfolds in a richly textured dystopian Texan wasteland where even the crows do battle. The authorities leave the condemned Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) to fend herself in this wasteland where she almost immediately becomes aware of its perils after a group of cannibals take her arm. Talk about initiation by fire!

From there, the film follows Arlen’s search for revenge and answers in the unforgiving territory. But Amirpour’s interests do not lie in mere plot progression. She’s all about exploring textures, details and atmospheres – far more than in the flat, staged tableaus of her debut “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” The film amounts to more than just a series of thematically interconnected music videos. “The Bad Batch” is a sustained two-hour trip, wildly unpredictable, utterly gonzo yet completely controlled. I’ll have to revisit it in a more composed state of mind, although a part of me does wonder if that will tinker with its delicate chemistry. B+ /

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REVIEW: Results

10 06 2015

ResultsAndrew Bujalski’s comedy “Results,” which revolves around a number of characters in the fitness business, recalls far too many of my own workouts.  That is to say, it starts strong with a big burst of energy that fizzles out fairly quickly and then plods along at a moderate pace.

Bujalski primarily follows three characters: rich schlub Danny (Kevin Corrigan), who wants to gain the ability to take a punch, hires hardcore trainer Kat (Cobie Smulders) from a gym owned by the toned Aussie Trevor (Guy Pearce).  Their relationships are in constant flux, moving well beyond provider-client and boss-employee over the course of “Results.”  Individual scenes are well-written and directed, but they fail to unify because Bujalski never decides on a protagonist.

Bujalski is far more successful at finding hilarity in mundanity than he was in 2013’s “Computer Chess,” and he certainly demonstrates an incisive understanding of how ulterior professional and romantic motivations cloud judgment and communication.  Even as it sags somewhat in the back half, “Results” still entertains with these moments of insight into its characters and how their appearances reflect but also belie their personalities.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: A Million Ways to Die in the West

2 06 2014

According to Seth MacFarlane, there are a million ways to die in the west.  Too bad not a one of them could have come to put me out of my misery while watching his dreadful new film.  It doesn’t just miss the mark of Western comedic great “Blazing Saddles;” MacFarlane pretty much misfires on laughs altogether.

A Million Ways to Die in the West” amounts to little more a bloated reel of MacFarlane kvetching about everything in his life.  At first, it just seems like a long-winded way of setting up the perilousness of the primitive civilization he intends to mock.  Yet after about 10 minutes, it becomes clear that MacFarlane is never going to shut up.  The experience becomes akin to being locked in a room with your annoying friend that can only speak in the form of complaints – for nearly two hours.

MacFarlane’s relentless pessimism is so pervasive that it overpowers the rest of the cast.  Only Neil Patrick Harris, cleverly employed here as a cocky cuckold with a finely-kept mustache, manages to entertain in the slightest with any wit.  Charlize Theron, as MacFarlane’s pseudo-love interest, coasts through the film on autopilot and never really sparks.  Amanda Seyfried and Liam Neeson are mentally checked out as well, but they’re playing such familiar roles that it really doesn’t seem quite as egregious.

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REVIEW: Gangster Squad

7 01 2013

Gangster SquadThere were two clear paths to success for “Gangster Squad.”  The first would be to follow the “L.A. Confidential” pattern and take a hardboiled approach to period criminality.  Writer Will Beale crafts his screenplay with various neo-noir elements: the post-war moodiness and shadiness, a little bit of moral ambiguity, and of course, the femme fatale (Emma Stone’s red-haired dynamo Grace Faraday).

The second, and perhaps more reasonable, template would have been Brian DePalma’s 1987 “The Untouchables,” a movie that shares quite a few similarities with Ruben Fleischer’s “Gangster Squad.”  There’s the borderline insane crime lord of a major city who just happens to be played by a two-time Oscar winner (Sean Penn now, Robert DeNiro then).  Because of that de facto tyrant’s chokehold on that city, a team of top law enforcement officials is tasked with bringing him to his knees.

The only difference is Eliot Ness and the Untouchables stayed within the boundaries of the law.  Josh Brolin’s John O’Mara, Ryan Gosling’s Jerry Wooters, and the rest of the titular merry band of extralegal avengers have no such regard for the rules.  They go outside the law to stop a man who is above the law.  But in such a drastically different detail, little new conclusions are ultimately reached.

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REVIEW: Avatar

23 12 2009

It takes more than just gumption and chutzpa to get up on one of the world’s biggest stages and declare yourself king of the world; it takes conviction.  When James Cameron did just this at the Academy Awards in 1997 after “Titanic,” it was shocking to some and bombastic to others (I’m too young to remember the occasion).  What had he really done to gain the title “king of the world?”  What separates him from the dozens of directors who stood in the exact same place as he had?  What is the legacy of “Titanic” other than a firm position in the highest echelon of box office performance and a hefty loot on Oscar night?  According to IMDb, it is now the lowest rated of the five Best Picture nominees that year.  From what I understand, the movie electrified the people and was simply too popular to ignore.

Fast forward 12 years to today where James Cameron has just released “Avatar.”  If he got up on national television and screamed, “I’M KING OF THE WORLD,” I just might buy it.  His latest project is one fifteen years in the making, and he may have just sparked a revolution in cinema.  “Avatar” is breathtaking moviemaking at its finest, with astonishing visuals that are designed to do more than just floor you.  They engulf you and transport you to Pandora, a land of untold beauty complete with its own indigenous people, language, and wildlife, for an exhilarating ride and fascinating experience.

I knew the effects would be a slam dunk victory for Cameron, but I had my doubts about his ability to craft a story after “Titanic,” whose melodramatic plot I can usually summarize in one sentence (Leo and Kate have a lot of fun and the boat sinks).  Much to my surprise, Cameron actually constructs a very engaging story with undertones about the dangers of imperialism.  Cynics might call it the Smurf County production of “Pocahontas,” but the story still feels fresh even though it is a bit recycled.  Jake Sully (Sam Worthington of “Terminator Salvation” fame) is a paraplegic Marine who is torn between the two competing human forces on Pandora after he develops a special bond with the native Na’vi.  The scientists, led by the sassy cigarette-smoking Grace (Sigourney Weaver), want to discover how the Na’vi think in order to live in harmony with them.  The military operation, commanded by the hulking Colonel Quatritch (Stephen Lang), works in tandem with the financial side of the project, run by a thundering businessman doing his best Ari Gold impersonation (Giovanni Ribisi), to figure out the best way to get their hands on the bonanza underneath the sacred tree of the Na’vi.  They would prefer relocation but are not afraid to resort to subjugation if the natives prove to be a handful.  While Jake tries to serve two distinctly different agendas, he becomes quite taken by the Na’vi and the way they live in cooperation with nature – and not to mention quite smitten by the Amazonian Neytiri (Zoë Saldana).  Soon, the two forces tugging for Jake becomes not scientists vs. military but Na’vi vs. humans. Read the rest of this entry »