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Horrid Henry

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So, between Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry and M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, 2017 sure has me kind of turnt on narratives about sexual abuse to young girls that are written and directed by men absolutely unqualified to write about these topics. They’re not entirely clueless and there are elements of it that they illuminate, but in the overall narrative, they end with some extremely grievous final notes on the matter and that leaves a shockingly bad taste in my mouth watching these movies. However, while Split apparently houses some genre work that I spied well enough that I might be somewhat interested in re-watching and evaluating it someday, I have absolutely no desire to ever put myself through The Book of Henry again unless somebody is willing to sit down and roast the movie with me*. It’s a miserable experience alone.

And the fact that this movie has such a well-meaning but toxic male savior-esque attitude about rape is only the half of it. That’s not the main thing The Book of Henry is about nor is it the only thing wrong about the movie. It has been said by many people by now, but let me repeat, there is not one narrative element of The Book of Henry that doesn’t sit me down and wonder “who on Earth thought this movie was a good idea?” The answer is clearly present in how much Trevorrow and company dedicate their efforts in the craft, right down to Michael Giacchino trying to give the sparkliest imitation of mid-90s Amblin’ family fare that only 90s kids like I would get, forever a sign of how cursed we are as a group. Trevorrow and his crew are dedicated to providing us to the most amiable Rockwellian blanket atmosphere making this feel like a warm family story, totally ignorant of the fact that the script Gregg Hurwitz is fucking psychotic.

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That script’s duotagonists are the titular precocious 11-year-old Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) and his “struggling” single mother Susan (Naomi Watts who has made damn sure we will remember her 2017 as the year of Twin Peaks and not this shit). I put “struggling” in scare quotes because she insists on continuing to work hard as a waitress and driving a very distressed looking automobile, but Henry is gifted enough intellectually to turn her paychecks into hundreds of thousands of dollars thanks to stock-brokering over a goddamn payphone at his school. He’s also apparently intelligent enough to crush a kid’s dreams of being an Olympic dodgeball champion in the classroom in a manner that apparently impresses his middle school teacher for appealing to her existential crisis, despite clearly deflating a child in her care.

Henry’s a fucking asshole. Like, flat out. And the movie thinks we’re going to be rooting for him when he begins elaborating on a plan to discreetly assassinate his next-door neighbor Police Commissioner Glenn (Dean Norris) that we know Henry can and will execute. Even with the knowledge of Glenn consistently abusing his step-daughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler), even with most of the movie told through the wide-eyed perspective of Henry’s younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) whom Henry protects from school bullies, all as emotional blackmail, Henry is so repulsive as a human being in his judgmental attitude towards his mother struggling to find a way to function as a mother figure despite Henry ripping all financial agency and maternal responsibility from her life, superiority complex towards his kids, and the clear psychopathy in his leap from “try to appeal to authorities or superiors who can help Christina and fail” to “I’m going to shoot this man to fucking death” in less than a week. Mind you, when you’re trying to appeal to your principal to help someone, you’re not going to get anybody on your side busting into the door with “Goddammit, Janice”.

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Even before we approach the middle development of the film where it takes a narrative turn that flips this at-first terribad Radio Flyer reboot (and mind you, Radio Flyer was already garbage) upside-down and incapable of figuring out what direction it can go with its story, Trevorrow is clearly interested in providing the most treacly nostalgic child’s wonder treatment of this material that is wildly inappropriate by any means, sun-dappled cinematography and directing the cast to be as casual about the shit that has to come out of their mouth as possible. Watts looks like she’s suffering the worst of it and wants to bail ASAP, while Sarah Silverman looks like there’s absolutely no bit of this she will take seriously, giving the sloppiest Amy Winehouse impression I could witness top to bottom. And when one looks at Hurwitz’ previous work*, which includes runs on the Batman comics and thriller novel series about genetically-modified hyper-intelligent assassins, I don’t know how anybody thought he was worth the benefit of the doubt on writing this movie, it reads on paper like just another one of his thrillers but if he sent it as a Peanuts story commission and wasn’t laughed out of the building.

It’s really hard not to turn this into just “this moment sucked and this moment sucked and so did this one” like I really really want to. Not only because of spoilers but there are so many miscalculations – from Silverman kissing Lieberher to a talent show montage crosscut with a climax that ends up wildly Brooksian in tonal whiplash all the way down to the final resolution the movie provides in the end – so all I can do is just give you my horrorstruck stare at what kind of movie everybody was ok with and how frustrating it is that people actually believed in this as wholesome and worth delivering to a family audience. Fucking miss me with this shit, don’t ever talk to me or my son ever again.

Man, J.J. Abrams is definitely not my ideal director of Star Wars: Episode IX, especially if The Last Jedi does a hell of a lot of work to move the new trilogy far beyond. But The Book of Henry is the most engaged time I’ve had watching any of Trevorrow’s three movies and at this point I’m glad to take anything out of the possibility of a Star Wars film by this guy.

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*Seriously, I gotta make a commentary for this movie. It’ll be to The Book of Henry the exact opposite of what Roger Ebert did to Citizen Kane.
**The way I got Hurwitz’ CV was from looking through his Wikipedia page, which reads heavily like a man trying to impress me, including non-sequiturs about going undercover in cults and swimming with sharks and sneaking into demolitions ranges with Navy SEALs. I would not be surprised if he wrote his own wikipedia page and if so, he sounds exactly the sort of dude who’d introduced himself by saying “I went to Harvard AND Oxford” and thus exactly the sort of dude who’d identify with Henry and want us to find him impressive.
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The Emoji Movie

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The arc of O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s character of Dan Pinto in director Matt Spicer’s film Ingrid Goes West begins and ends with “gullible vaper who loves Batman”. There is next to nothing in Spicer and David Branson Smith’s screenplay that gives him any real sense of depth or inner personality beyond being a vehicle for the protagonist, Ingrid Thorburn (a perfectly-cast Aubrey Plaza), to manipulate in her quest for the acquaintanceship of social media personality and photographer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olson). And what Jackson does with the character is a frank miracle, injecting his own casual personality into such a paper-thin character in a measured sense not only to make his eager infatuation with Ingrid feel charismatic and genuine as well as the Batman element to turn from what could have read as just an annoying running gag into an endearing part of Dan’s personality, but to also make it believable that he’d be at once frustrated and willing to aid Ingrid even when Spicer and Smith’s script go way off the rails into a third act that just seems out of the realm of escalation the movie established before. Jackson turned an underdeveloped side character into one of the most enjoyable personalities in film in 2017 and that’s somebody who has the third-most screentime (possibly less).

Plaza leaves him behind in a role that Spicer and Smith are much more generous towards: given that it’s the central personality of this whole study, Ingrid’s psychology is something the viewer gets a lot more access to than is probably comfortable but the movie doesn’t demand sympathy for her so much as establish her as a mentally broken figure in a world all but happy to leave her in the distance between Instagram screens and let Plaza ride on that with the rope it gives her. And Plaza doesn’t showboat it – she knows simply by utilizing her facial muscles, she can imbue a frightening darkness to mix into her character’s sadness and loneliness. She can turn all of her wide-eyed attempts to re-assess her status with Taylor as a “friend” into both transparency and something inhuman. Her attempts at seduction towards Dan and slightly frazzled acts of “calm” around Taylor and her fatigued husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) are all sycophantic without wanting to be. And in the end, Plaza can turn this premise of cyber-stalking within desperation into a tragic portrait of a very tragic character without wanting to be on Ingrid’s side.

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There is however a point where Spicer and Smith try to skew the movie towards Ingrid’s sympathies in a foot-shooting way with Billy Magnussen playing a version of Freddie Miles to Ingrid’s Tom Ripley that is so sociopathic and intolerable you want to beat him to death. And there’s no way that’s not on purpose in a premise where what Plaza does is no less descipcable and dangerous towards everyone in the movie herself (she’s the one who imposes violence into the film and she does it in her very first scene). In any case, Magnussen is the closest anybody else in the still great cast comes to reaching Plaza and Jackson’s level and it still doesn’t seem to touch their work.

Anyway, I seem to have went through all that without mentioning that Ingrid Goes West is in fact a comedy. The kind of cringe comedy that makes one find themselves in the line between vomiting or laughing and, while I am in fact not familiar with Plaza’s work in Parks & Recreation, I would like to think it’s a well-known fact that she can provide comedy like second-nature to her. I also haven’t seen The To Do List, but I’d imagine Ingrid Goes West is a sober version of that premise – witnessing Plaza frequently embarrass herself and put herself in positions that could only end badly due to her lack of social development.

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In any case, some of that comedy wants to sharpen itself into social satire of different sorts and I can’t see Ingrid Goes West making it all the way through on those aims. It functions perfectly well in recognizing how social media – namely Instagram – allows us to totally wipe our hands clean of people needing true connections around us and how it enables self-destructive behavior in people who don’t know better. But anything beyond that loses gas, it’s not interested in finding a visual mirror to the flashy and superficial style of that online celebrity style (or even in selling the drabness of Ingrid’s life previously) and the portrayal of Los Angeles living within Taylor and Ezra is stereotyped and shallow in a manner that I don’t think the movie is really aware of (it’s only through Olson and Russell that we get a true sense of lived-in atmosphere and inner conflict within their characters).

3/4 of the main cast are all Hollywood royalty themselves and, while Ingrid Goes West doesn’t need to be self-aware like that, it leaves a lot of avenue to comment on privilege and how Ingrid loses her mother shortly before the film, but then that’s just me commenting on what the film isn’t rather than what the film is.

In the end, the cast does so much more heavy-lifting for the movie than they should but the fruits of their labor is visible on-screen. They can’t turn Ingrid Goes West into a deepened cornucopia of millennial commentary the way that the script wants to be, but they provide a group of people who do have their own lives surrounding the one perspective we are tied with that leads to more psychological juxtaposition and they provide one hell of a great comedy/thriller. If functioning brilliantly as genre piece and character study is all you can do, that’s not nothing and 2/3 is still a win in my book.

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Issa Ghost

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The nicest thing about A Ghost Story is the fact that, given the recent revelations of Casey Affleck’s behavior, I don’t have to look at his face for the majority of the movie given how novel (without being ridiculous) the concept is of him playing a ghost by wordlessly walking around in a bedsheet. It’s even nicer to discover that there’s the possibility that his double David Pink (who also was the art director for the film so figures he might have liked to spend time underneath that sheet during reshoots and pickups) potentially takes up more screentime as the titular ghost than Affleck does.

That is, in fact, not the nicest thing about A Ghost Story. It’s just a fun joke I wanted to open up on*. The nicest thing about A Ghost Story is how director David Lowery undertook it upon himself to make a very patiently meditative picture using as little words (and possibly sounds, the soundtrack is a very deliberate but sparse element mainly taken over by Daniel Hart’s warm intellectual blanket of tones that makes up the film’s score) to try to attempt Lowery’s personal version of The Tree of Life, a reflection on the status of our personal presence in the greater wheel of the universe and the interminability of how it keeps rolling despite our insignificance and how it’s still a pretty wonderful thing to be around.

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And the great thing about that being the nicest thing about A Ghost Story is that it’s highly reflective of the film as a whole. It’s a cohesive thing rather than just a whole lot of great stuff. Like, the depressed laconic performance of Rooney Mara’s central to the first quarter (maybe? I don’t think she remains in the film very long) as the widowed spouse of Affleck’s character is not just a great arc of the story in its own right but the very seed in which the plot builds out of the self-contained block of emotional grief – complete with the infamous long-take pie scene which would obviously be divisive but I found incredibly generous as a visual and temporal gag (the payoff made me nearly laugh except the friend I saw the movie with was unamused), a very telling character moment, a tonal reset for the picture to let us know how far our patience can go, and indisputable evidence that Mara has definitely never eaten a pie before in her life if she thinks it works like that.

Or how indisputably beautiful and sharp the darkness of Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography is, providing both visual melancholy and a haunting atmosphere in such an essential manner to A Ghost Story getting away with its paced explorations of the Ghost’s lingering that I find it to be more irrevocably tied to the film being made than the cinematography of Pete’s Dragon or Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, both also really lovely looking films. Those movies feel a little more divorced from the fact that they look good than A Ghost Story, where it matters in the details of the frame that we can witness what’s happening because there’s almost no other way we’re going to receive information.

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Hell, there’s even a more show-offy effects sequence involving a singular shot in which we watch the Ghost watching Mara exit the home in three different fashions with nary a cut in sight and the whole thing doesn’t feel like an effects showcase to me, but an efficient manner of having us and our guiding character feel the quickening perception of time slip right past us, only adding to the feeling of insignificance in a desperate manner. It’s all just more to wrap into the world’s self-reflective attitude.

Indeed, it’s funny that I feel the audacious attempts at cosmic commentary towards the Ghost’s sudden death and reflections of his life before and his widow’s life after are akin to Malick’s masterpiece, because it’s the closest I find in Lowery’s filmography to his independent personality coalescing into a film. It doesn’t function as a Malick homage this time, though the influence is there, it finally feels like a complete key into understanding what Lowery looks for in a film and his voice.

It is with great dismay that while it’s possibly the David Lowery movie I love most, I’m not convinced it’s not also Lowery’s worst (it’s not even my favorite Tree of Life copy with Twin Peaks‘ Part 8 being the best thing of 2017 period) and it’s kind of because by the second act – the one where its ambition is bigger than its stomach – it loses track of itself except in repeating its beats in a Macro scale. Which isn’t a bad thing, especially when a movie whizzes right on by as quickly as A Ghost Story does and the visuals don’t stop having a tangible distinction between the settings (kind of, there’s never any doubt that we’re in the exact same spot the whole movie) and time periods, but it stops being revelatory at that point.

No, the real shitty point and potentially the reason I’m least responsive to the moments after it is during a central party scene in which reliable ol’ Will Oldham turns up and delivers the clumsiest clunky moment in the whole movie, giving an eye-rolling monologue on-the-nose about what the movie is trying to say and it’s upsetting because of how elegant Lowery’s storytelling has been up until that point. Like, my dawg, believe in your movie.

Let’s not dwell too long on such a blemish, because A Ghost Story remains one of the more fascinating movies I’ve had the pleasure of watching during such a somewhat underwhelming summer, with much to think about and the certainty that I’ll be rewatching it many times over and over. Potentially with skipping that monologue.

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*another great joke I like to make: how the ghost goes MAGA at one point in the film that you’ll know when you watch it. Can’t trust them white ghosts.
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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

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I don’t really have a rebuttal against all the observations people have used as criticisms toward David Leitch’s 2017 action film Atomic Blonde. Yes, its narrative presentation is overcomplicated. Yes, it’s aggressively stylized to a degree that will probably put off anyone who is even slightly reticent to the cartoon theme park presentation of end-of-Cold-War Berlin. And of course, the big one – it all seems to be in service to a scheme that is less than the sum of its parts. I understand the frustrations that presents and how it might cause an unhappy viewing experience, but my only possible response is… that kind of is the point?

Far be it from anyone to assume that we get depth from a sensory popcorn summer movie (and Atomic Blonde is absolutely not all that deep), but we have here a surprising character study told largely not only via the overlabored layering of the story (including a frame narrative that serves no other purpose than to establish the unreliability of it all) but the very broad stylization no different than the likes of John Wick. Which is appropriate.

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You see, Leitch was a part of the two-man team that directed John Wick (uncredited alongside the credited Chad Stahelski, who directed Wick‘s 2) and it seems the aspect of that film that covered Wick’s one-track mindedness and emptiness of soul came from Leitch, though he also kept around the ability to frame and cut (alongside editor Elisabet Ronnaldsdottir) amazing action sequences that really sell the brutal toll MI6 and the Cold War take on agent Lorraine Broughton’s (Charlize Theron) body. More than functioning as just a film stacked with action setpieces, those setpieces are meant to be full of stress and impact, all the more so that when we watch Lorraine suffer through bruises and struggle to stand, we know just where that hardship comes from.

And what does Lorraine, MI6, and company get for all of this pain and the body count she leaves behind and the overcomplication of her mission to find a stolen list of undercover double agents for the West end of the Berlin Wall? Practically nothing. The story based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City (which I have not read and thus can’t say how close it follows that work) is close to the end of the Cold War as the Berlin Wall is about to collapse. There’s no reason for the US, UK, West Germany, and East Germany to take their fight for land to the bitter end and yet here we are witnessing Lorraine, MI6 rogue David Percival (James McAvoy), and other agents violently looking to get on top of others at a point where their efforts will not matter in the least.

How can they push themselves through this nihilistic uncertainty? Well, that’s where the style comes in and how they sell themselves into it. Not only does Lorraine manage to make it out on top of her constant fistfights, she also makes it look way too good from her incredible outfits designed by Cindy Evans from the blood red stilettos she weaponizes early on to the cold white overcoat she dons swinging around her as she whips and swings around police officers. Nevermind the way she has to give a different context to her story within her interview with superior officer Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA officer Kurzfeld (John Goodman), repeating exactly what we just saw but with an amount more insincerity than we would have received just witnessing the events.

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Or Percival, who is energized by McAvoy clearly having the time of his life, just eagerly shedding as much “English” behavior in himself as possible so he could slip into the wonderfully carnivalesque hedonism of this wonderland blue Berlin surrounding (captured by Jonathan Sela going a bit too high on the color correction but still retaining a sharp and bold style that makes the film eye candy to a fella like me) and dressed like if Eminem was a military officer. If Atomic Blonde wants to establish Berlin as a fantastical state of mind, McAvoy is its perfect anchor into that state, other than its astonishingly enjoyable needle drops of 80s contemporaries.

There are characters in Atomic Blonde whose biggest functions are to express anxiety at the pointlessness of it all and end of casualties for their lack of conviction unlike Lorraine or Percy and that’s the thing. Even if this brutal hard conflict full of blood and bruises is just days away from ending, it’s still the days that count and a dizzyingly fight for survival. It’s the kind of tired darkness that inhabits a John le Carre novel but it doesn’t feel miserable thanks to having the energy of a punk rock concert and I’m thankful for it for that. It’s the sort of feeling when you’re just trying to dance to forget how hopeless your life is.

There is purpose to the mission still and to what Lorraine does and the twisty tangles behind discovering that true purpose is understandably frustrating but that can’t help but aid Atomic Blonde‘s needs to be a truly fatigued spy story where it takes harder work to think about it than its worth without losing an ounce of that excitement. It’s the type of thing that keeps it being a fun movie while establishing that spy work is not fun.

So anyway, I said Atomic Blonde wasn’t deep and I still maintain that it isn’t. And I do hear all the complaints out. But it feels so much more intelligent as a popcorn film than I think people are giving it credit for and at the very least, nothing negates the fact that Leitch has supplied yet another feature’s full of phenomenally tangible fistfight setpieces from a stairwell one-shot to an audacious backdrop of Stalker in a cinema. Near the end of a disappointing summer, I’m about prepared to call this my favorite movie to come out during it and a valuable attempt to salvage it.

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I’ve Got a Blank Space, Baby, and I’ll Write Your Name

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It’s really really tough to approach Death Note with an open mind, though I try, and I don’t mean it in the same way everybody else does. Much as I am indeed a fan of the original manga and anime series revolving around the notebook that can kill any person whose name is entered on it, it is simply as a casual one and I was more than open to a new take of the story. But I’ve never really been fond of Adam Wingard’s style of horror (of which Death Note is only cursorily such) and while I’m interested in what he could do without his partner-in-crime Simon Barrett at the pen, teaming him with Jeremy Slater – writer of the disastrous Lazarus Effect – is something I’d imagine to be an even worse scenario than Wingard/Barrett. And the result feels emblematic of the problems I have with both authors.

Slater’s is easier to identify, the guy has such an impatient want to do everything possible at once with a story that he can’t actually recognize his limitations or streamline them into a singular narrative. To be fair, this is one of my biggest problems with the original Death Note source but this adaptation is much more concentrated being in 101 minute form and so it stares at me in the face harder. The movie will glance for two seconds at infamous serial killer “Kira”‘s cult-like following and then forget about it for an hour. Or leap a whole step in developing the relationship between Light Turner (Nat Wolff, a grievous Achilles heel for the part) and Mia (Margaret Qualley) enough that we could buy it as anything more than puppy love that stemmed out of their involvement in the “Kira” murders and vigilante justice partaken by Light’s Death Note. There’s an even bigger leap with the animosity between Light and detective L (Keith Stanfield) as L confronts Light with nothing more than circumstantial evidence despite the movie insisting he’s smarter than that.

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The biggest sign of Slater’s inability to make a decision on what he wants Death Note to be is the fact that it starts off feeling like it’s ready to turn into an irreverent gore-a-thon at the first death, a messy decapitation, and the few following after, but suddenly (and you can pinpoint exactly when the moment is because it fades to black right before) wants to be a seriously cliched mystery thriller of wits between two characters where Light is simply not compelling enough to make it an interesting fight (L on the other hand has moments that seem like a whiplash of logic on paper but Stanfield valiantly makes them work as much as possible – there’s only two scenes where I think he fails).

Making it even less interesting is Wingard’s unfortunate inability to treat the material with anything more than an attitude that “this is a ridiculous premise so we’ll just make it all seem dumb”. His continued insistence on treating his films with a detached sense of irony (as is the case in You’re Next and The Guest) only leaves me as a viewer with a frustrated lack of obligation to give a shit about Light’s struggle to stay ahead of the investigation running after him and Mia, headed by his father (Shea Whigham, the only other good presence in this movie besides Stanfield, this time by embodying his own arc about a father desperately trying to keep his son in his life). I don’t think it’s an accident on his part to focus more on Light/Mia than Light/L and make the former relationship so absolutely unbelievable in its lack of chemistry or sincerity to do anything more than make a punchline of its extremely contrived and conventional third act, but it is a big mistake that invalidates the hour and a half I spent watching. The glibness might have been tolerable early on when full of splashy gore effects for every sudden death, but at its climax, the movie ends up infuriating.

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Let alone how much of the movie feels like Wingard is ashamed of his work, what with the matter of having Ryuk (motion-captured by Jason Liles; voiced by a disappointingly neutral Willem Dafoe), the Shinigami Death God attached to Light’s Death Note, be forced into a corner as much as they can to cover up the effects work and having almost no involvement in the plot proper except to be a red herring. And then there’s still the matter that this is aesthetically one of the least interesting things Wingard ever made. Despite a nostalgic light opening montage and a wonderfully gruesome middle aftermath setpiece, almost everything else in the high school scenes is shot flatly beyond arbitrary Dutch angles. It’s ridiculously boring to look at otherwise and the most only other inspired moments in the film aesthetically are retreads of better scenes in Wingard’s filmography (the climaxes of The Guest and Blair Witch, both I’d daresay the only great moments in his career and both better movies than Death Note). The only time it gets to feel like it has personality is with needle drops that undercut the moment so abruptly it just reminds me of Wingard in the studio, giggling “this is such a dumb story”.

It may be a dumb story, but you made it. You directed it. You made decisions that establish its lead character as a totally idiotic fool and took it in terrible creative directions when there were obviously better paths to take. Being surprised that Death Note is being ripped apart for a movie where it feels like the director didn’t care whether it was good or bad is like being surprised when you drop dead after writing your name in the Death Note.

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The 2017 Popcorn Frights Film Festival Short Films

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Another year, another summer’s end, another return to O Cinema Wynwood with the upcoming Third Annual Popcorn Frights Film Festival, right here in Miami, FL. And that means more features moving up from last year’s 16 to a whopping 21, including a section dedicated to Florida-based production entitled Homegrown. And full sell-outs by this point with every opening night feature, though that’s no reason not to take a chance on the rush line.

And that means more shorts, so same as last year – courtesy of co-founders and co-directors Igor Shteyrenberg and Marc Ferman – I’m gonna be giving a quick look at almost every one of them to tell you what to expect between 11 – 17 of August.

And looking back at it all, there’s even more variety than last year, enough to promise there may be something for every single type of horror-goer and nothing less than decent overall. It’s exciting to think about who will respond to what over the coming week, so allow me to introduce each one.

Great Choice

Great Choice (dir. Robin Comisar)
Playing Friday 11 August 7 pm before Tragedy Girls

Great Choice has a Catch-22: on the one hand, Carrie Coon is so well-known in 2017 as a face that the structural exercise can’t surprise us the way I would love it to (this would have found its home on Adult Swim at midnight). On the other hand, Coon’s performance (against a very foreboding Morgan Spector) really sells the cosmic horror of the thing and I wouldn’t trade her out of this for the world, salvaging even the out-of-step ending. Even if Coon wasn’t in the short, Comisar has provided us with the outstanding kind of physical video experimentation – mixing in and out of aged television textures with colors like a bad photograph and sharp arresting high definition in 1.78:1 (breaking out of TV’s 3:4) like if an Everything Is Terrible! video collapsed and threatened to crawl out of the screen and suck you in. Wart of an ending and all, this is probably my favorite short of the lineup (Buzzcut and Hell Follows gives it a fight).

THE THIN PLACE

The Thin Place (dir. Alexander Mattingly)
Playing Friday 11 August 9 pm preceding Jackals

Mattingly has a very good sense of timing and spacing to create terror but my one major gripe is the ending and I don’t think it would have bothered me as much if what preceded it didn’t impress me. For one, it seems too abrupt after nearly 15 minutes was spent with Arlene (Lindsey Shope) trying to find out what’s happening to her daughter Maddy (Kelsey Blackwell) and it’s more interesting drama than it deserves to be, with Blackwell’s delivery of Maddy describing her headspace when the creature (Faye Davis) stalking their home abducts her are unsettling. Maybe if the plot was a bit more thin, that ending wouldn’t have bothered me but I hardly think Mattingly and Hemphill should remove anything from a tight 15 minutes. And then there’s the real killer: Mattingly and S.T. Davis do outstanding things with the shadows and spaces for a low-budget production. Our first look at the creature is a great bit of “what was that?” unfocused movement in the far end of a frame that feels like the scare you get seeing something from your peripherals. And all the other teases of the creature between that moment and the ending are just as crawling and alarming as you could hope for. And then that ending shot is so underlit as to be anticlimatic. And that’s heartbreaking for what a great thing Mattingly and Davis had going. But ending on a bad note hardly ruins the whole song.

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Die! Sitter! Die! Rupert (dir. Lee & Sam Boxleitner)
Playing Friday 11 August 11:30 pm preceding Terrifier

Well, I’m not gonna pretend the movie is at all bad. It’s a perfectly fine work of horror craft, especially in its gruesome though clearly budgeted treatment of the trashy gore people would want out of such a premise. But it’s also exhaustingly sadistic. And I don’t know if removing the early subplot of the mom’s chemotherapy and the lead’s hard financial times would have made it feel less mean-spirited but it would have gotten rid of a lot of wasted runtime for a motivation we kind of don’t need for something like this (You don’t need to be broke to find $12,000 for one night’s work enticing and by the middle mark it’s very clear that she’s motivated by fear for her life). Either way, I’m still a sucker for hard reds and blues in horror and Rupert’s a very imposing presence by Boxleitner himself – less grotesque than one would expect a grown man pretending to be a baby, but still frightening from how in control he is – so there’s no room to call this a failure in anyway. I’m just not the audience for it.

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Buzzcut (dir. Mike Marrero & Jon Rhoads)
Playing Saturday 12 August 5 pm as part of the Homegrown program

It’s nothing Sam Raimi hasn’t already perfected, but not even Raimi has been reaching that apex since 2009 and Marrero and Rhoads get closer than any episode of Ash vs. Evil Dead. It’s a fantastically dense short for its length, frenetically establishing the rapture, the cannibal demon monsters and making it all seem so elliptical to Jane’s quest to get a haircut. The semi-episodic nature, the punk rock needle drops (although there’s one song choice that isn’t broad enough to work for me), and Kelly Jane’s frustrated no-nonsense performance as a foil to all the madness makes this 9 minute feature have all the efficient excitement of a feature without feeling like the joke went on for too long. It also gets points by me for making a very sex positive portrayal of an lesbian relationship without getting male-gazey about it despite two men directing, so right on.

Midnight Service

The Midnight Service No. 2 – Home Invasion (dir. Brett Potter & Dean Collin Marcial)
Playing Saturday 12 August 5 pm as part of the Homegrown program

The first of two internet document episodes, this one a pseudo-documentary produced by our local Borscht Corporation (who also produced Great Choice) and based on the testimony of NY-based comedian Kat Toledo on her possible break-in encounter with the missing delinquent Quincy Lemon and the alleged brushfire that occurred right outside the Everglades home she was house-sitting but had no clue about. And despite the extremely neat and structured manner Potter and Marcial (there is no credited editor so I assume they’re responsible for it) present this multi-tiered and mysterious tale, I can’t say I have a clear picture on everything that happened. Maybe that’s intentional to give us a bunch of pieces and see if we can make them fit together, but I would assume that the creepy atmosphere wants us to find at least some supernatural answer within it. In any case, it’s also fantastically gorgeous both in its representation of nighttime interiors and its landscape photography of the watery greens of the Everglades (again, no cinematographer credited) so I can’t say I wasn’t highly enjoying it.

Primal Scream

This Wooden Boy (dir. Rodney Ascher)
Playing Saturday 12 August 5 pm as part of the Homegrown program

Yet another documentary internet episode for the Homegrown program. I think short format fits Rodney Ascher much better as a documentarian. An episode of the new Shudder original series Primal Screen, the 30-minute runtime forces the director/editor to include more narrative and thematic focus than the tangle of his popular features Room 237 and The Nightmare. Not entirely focused, since its still floating between several different stories of fears of dolls and dummies in a freeform manner that doesn’t clarify between three similar adult narrations (plus Ascher’s habit of adding in unnecessary tv/film clips appears here in the form of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal) but it clearly draws a throughline between pop culture in television (capturing the Screen part of the show title) to the public consciousness to the psyche of its subjects fearing all of these dolls. It’s a very sharp and interesting watch, aided by Ascher’s direction of recreations using black negative space to sell the subconscious memory aspect of these recreations.

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Fierce (dir. Izu Troin)
Playing Saturday 12 August at 9 pm preceding Mayhem

So I’m not 100 percent on the story being a parable for workplace aggression and the dog-eat-dog world of corporate work (it seems to only function in the bookends of the short rather than the actual meat of the protagonist’s hunt), but I am always 100 percent on watching some new animation and this French production is pretty detailed in both the shocking gruesomeness of the violence – splatching red against the otherwise muted browns and greys – and the sort of smeared, outside-of-the-lines style of the thing has enough shape to establish who is where and already gives a feeling of visual momentum before the chase even truly begins. And that’s without even acknowledging the interesting artistic choice of having the frame constantly moving in a fluid manner as though in a handheld camera. A short that wants you exhausted and catching your breath by the end of it.

CURVE

Curve (dir. Tim Egan)
Playing Sunday 13 August 11:30 pm preceding The Endless

Oh boy, was that anxiety-inducing. A simple premise – a girl (Laura Jane Turner) is trapped on an impossible incline with an abyss below and one leg already broken – and enough time to make it feel unbearable and hopeless, no less thanks to undetailed design of her apparent prison and the depressing gray palette of the whole thing. It’s nothing but an exercise in patient fear-building and nihilism and it’s an extremely effective one at that for all of its limited resources.

A KNOCK ON THE DOOR

A Knock at the Door (dir. Katrina Rennells & Wendie Welldon)
Playing Sunday 13 August 9:30 pm preceding Better Watch Out

A subtle and short throwback to scary tales of domesticity being violated (particularly a famous classic sci fi feature), helped out by a sense of physical place for the house in which nearly all of the 8 minutes of the story takes place, only breaking out to establish the behavior that should be setting off a red flag for our man Nick (Drew Jenkins) and then for a final beat showing what’s to come. It’s pretty straightforward and gets the tension going enough for its final beat (no real climactic payoff but there’s a gotcha moment), which is good work for a horror short to accomplish.

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Fucking Bunnies (dir. Teemu Niukkanen)
Playing Sunday 13 August 11:30 pm preceding 68 Kill

Wow, “Fucking” seriously translates in Finnish to “Saatanan”? That’s gnarly, I love the design of the title. I also can’t help loving the short, which is not remotely “horror” – at no point does the genial demon-war-painted face of Maki (Janne Reinikainen) come across as threatening, even when he’s holding a kitchen knife joking about his killing his new neighbors (and I think superintendent) Rami (Jouko Puolanto) and Kirsi (Minna Suuronen). Nor do I think Niukkanen wants it to be, Puolanto’s off-put anxieties about Maki’s Satanic lifestyle is clearly meant to be in the wrong and the result is a pretty funny short that’s a lot more layered about cultural differences than meets the eye (the patronizing way Rami greets the Senegalese janitor with “Jambo”, a shot where Rami practices ejecting Maki that is framed to look like him lecturing an immigrant family). It’s actually so pleasant that I only really don’t care for the sudden needle drops of black metal, probably meant to push the viewer into feeling as apprehensive as Rami which I don’t think we need. But then I’ve never been a fan of Finnish black metal (Norway represent!), so that might just be my own bias showing much as Rami’s.

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Couples Night (dir. Robert & Russell Summers)
Playing Monday 14 August 7 pm preceding Lake Bodom

There is nothing to comment on negatively in the least – the performances are all broadly fitting for their characters attitude, one couple being as sinister as you can be without it being scary and the other being manically pleasant in an alarming one – there’s just also not much for me to praise with a short. I don’t want to call artless, but it isn’t visually interesting. Not that it needs to be to work out in the end as a fine little brief comic gag to whet some horror movie appetites. We’re not looking for something weighty here.

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2AM (dir. Huseyin Hassan)
Playing Monday 14 August 11 pm preceding Happy Hunting

So, let’s just toss aside the fact that we have an idea where this story is going from square one when its established that our protagonist Alex (voiced by Mark Kenfield) is looking through an asylum and absolutely know how it’s gonna end the moment Dr. Hattaro (Akira Bradley carrying the human element as the only amicable face we see the whole movie) align our understanding of the plot a third into the 15 minute short. Despite that, it’s still a really excellent execution of such a recognizable plot type, provided by a whole 15-minute uncut first person point of view that sinks us into Alex’s clear descent into madness (something Hassan really wants to sell as Alice in Wonderland esque, but I didn’t find that necessary). What really impresses me is how seamlessly the ghostly presence of Nichola Jayne’s character can pass in and out of frame, alongside the sound mix helping us feel surrounded by the things that haunt Alex’s walk into the truth. It’s basically “you are here” experiential horror, done no differently than the infamous playable teaser to the cancelled Silent Hills and that includes being as well-done and very entertaining.

HELL FOLLOWS

Hell Follows (dir. Brian Harrison)
Playing Tuesday 15 August 9:30 pm preceding Psychopaths

Now here’s some really daring stuff: something that gives Great Choice a run for its money. Harrison, in the span of 10 minutes, provides a very genuine anti-genre short: those genres being yakuza and revenge. Much of it is the anticipation towards a certain revenge being taken, carried by the paced duel performance of Iba Takuya. But it’s so stylized – in a coldly metallic black-and-white for the majority of the runtime and a frenetic jarring editing manner including overblown (and sometimes recognizable) needle drops to keep us disoriented and on-edge – that it’s still exciting to be in anticipation for the very thing our narrator Ishimatsu is dreading. It essentially feels like what you’d get if Tsukamoto Shinya was told he could have one long monologue scene for his short film (which is dishonest of me, there’s much more going on here narratively than that including a wonderful climax in bold color) and decided to make it the most electrifying thing ever out of spite.

THE TICKLE MONSTER

Tickle Monster (dir. Remi Weeks)
Playing Wednesday 16 August 7 pm preceding It Stains the Sands Red

Another great little teaser. Some great cutting to make a novel idea both amusing and tense at the same time, but some of the underlighting within the final minute where the scares are being heightened becomes more frustrating than frightening and the opening shots within the room are too well-lit to make that feel deliberate. Still a fantastic pay-off in the end.

IMEDIUM

iMedium (dir. Alfonso Garcia)
Playing Wednesday 16 August 9:30 pm preceding Still/Born

So, iMedium is my least favorite kind of First-Person Camera Movie… the kind that knows there are things within the style that it cannot possibly communicate within the aesthetic so it has to break away and cheat it frequently. In spite of that, iMedium is actually really damn good. In fact, I say it’s the best first-person camera movie I’ve seen since [Rec], meaning that Spanish people are way better at this thing than Americans. It’s heartbreaking because I think it could get rid of both the app element of the plot and still keep its derangement, especially with director/editor Alfonso Garcia’s finger on the emotional beats, Jesus Velez’s ability to sell the amateur quality of the story without making audience’s have to squint to see what’s on-screen, and Jose Bermudez’s on-edge performance, none of which really demands that the movie be FPC. It could have stood proudly on its own without that camera phone crutch.

THE CLEANSING HOUR

The Cleansing Hour (dir. Daniel Leveck)
Playing Thursday 17 August 11:30 pm preceding Dead Shack

This is pretty funny. Not really bellylaughs funny, but from the moment at the end of its stone-faced opening montage that it actually establishes this supposed exorcism to be an internet hoax phenomenon by “Father” Lance (Sam Jaeger) and Drew (Neil Grayston) with the assistance of aspiring actress Heather (Heather Morris). All three central performances do an adequate job – Jaeger at selling Lance’s insincerity, Grayston at being his exasperated foil – to bringing enough levity to the material that the overly polished and labored production feels self-reflexive as a comment to the falseness of sensationalist videos, but it’s all on Morris at switching to grisly demon mode once it’s clear that something inside her is going off-script that re-establishes the stakes while The Cleansing Hour is clearly trying to parody this sort of exploitation. It’s not particularly intelligent parody nor laugh out loud, but it’s entertaining enough to breeze past its runtime on to a sharp final beat.

And there you are. The short film line-up of the Popcorn Frights Film Festival. Hope to see you there starting this Friday!

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This Very Minute

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I haven’t seen his debut As Tears Go By, but everything about Wong Kar-Wai’s sophomore feature film Days of Being Wild feels like the beginning of the famous Hong Kong filmmaker’s style being coalesced* and this doesn’t make it feel amateur in the slightest. In fact, it’s really impressive how this quickly Wong was able to develop his cinematic personality based on a sedate patience, lilting airy romanticism so ephemeral that it mirrors the characters’ inability to consummate their love, and an ability to visually distinguish colors while making them feel as muted as the characters that are surrounded by them (another reason that Days of Being Wild feeling like the beginning of true Wong is that it was his first work with one of his most famous collaborators, cinematographer Christopher Doyle). What’s especially impressive on Wong’s part is his confidence in establishing for the majority of the brisk hour and a half film, that he’s able to provide a violent third act development that is shocking enough to really make the whole thing feel like such a deliberate break from his modus operandi. Obviously, I have almost all of his filmography behind me to contextualize the scene in question, but I feel even if I had only seen Days of Being Wild as my first Wong Kar-wai, that moment might have pulled the rug out from under me. Wong has a talent for that.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself by talking of the ending first. There’s a story preceding it – kind of two, but it’s hard not to claim it’s not just one story with different perspectives. The one that’s truly “guiding” the film is the aimless flirtings of bad boy casanova Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) or ‘York’ as his English name as he roams through Macau in 1960 preying on the heart of the young worker at the local stadium Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung) and the relationship – which is presented with Su’s voiceover to establish as the point of view for the first 20 minutes – is cut through so quickly that it already feels so long past and like a scattered memory by the time we get to Yuddy’s new girlfriend, a taxi dancer who goes by many names like Leung Fung-ying, Lulu (which she gives Yuddy), or Mimi [which she gives to Yuddy’s best friend Zeb (Jacky Cheung**)]. Yuddy clearly doesn’t have any care for the devastation she clearly left Su in when she confronts him one night for her things or to the disposability he makes Lulu feel and this apathy doesn’t feel like a performance but instead something that stems from his lack of knowledge of who or where his true mother is and thus his inability to come up with any real identity or life for himself. This also fuels his own antagonistic nature in his crime dealings with his closest mother figure, prostitute Rebecca (Rebecca Pan).

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Leslie Cheung, whose suicide in 2003 left the feeling that his life was no less conflicted than Yuddy’s, embodies the self-destructive nature using only body language while having a stonewalled expression on his boyish face for every grievance his victims give him and it ends up being layered and telling in spite of Yuddy’s in-text intentions. And Wong graciously gives Leslie room to have that uncertainty redefine Yuddy as a character, including moments where he looks himself in the mirror and dances to Wong’s usual preference for Spanish tunes. Obviously, even the several names of Carina’s character reflects Yuddy’s struggle for identity.

Meanwhile, there is Su Lizhen’s side of her story after the break-up and the pacing is more generous to her returns to Yuddy’s place and the police man Tide (Andy Lau**) who tries to console with ambiguity over his intentions with her romantically than it was with in the rushed opening sequence of her time spent as Yuddy’s girlfriend. And Maggie is wonderfully empathetic drenched in rain in such a sorrowful manner surrounded by the beautiful black and blue of the streets of Hong Kong, a very modern touch to a semi-period piece. That modernness is one of my favorite things about Days of Being Wild, the ability of Wong and Doyle to use its sense of place and time to give it a very now feeling – most particularly evident in the moments between Su and Tide where the repetition of their encounters and the circular walk they take as Andy plays a frustrated stoic audience to Su’s fears of solitude is the closest thing such a fluid film has to being a structure. Su’s clearly such an open character that Wong would later return to her throughout his career the way Richard Linklater takes Jesse and Celine around life, which makes her sudden departure from the film forgivable if still disappointing.

Then when the film moves over – through clear narrative logic on both Yuddy and Tide’s part – to the Philippines for its final act, it teases a serenity in the characters’ eventual encounter (especially in the colors being less severe there) only for it to be viscerally explosive and the opposite of fulfilling for everyone involved. And that’s a very bold thing for Wong to do early in his career, interrupting the otherwise patient manner of his storytelling to pull in fist fights and gunshots that are exciting but only solidify Yuddy’s complete lack of control for his life. But it’s also something I’m thankful for, as the deliberate nature of it very clearly established Wong as a figure who could easily flip back and forth between eroticism, melancholy, and tragedy without broad tonal shifts. That sort of versatile elegance can only be praised when it comes to a contemporary filmmaker.

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*And this is not just because of the fact that it’s the first part in an informal trilogy – though not that informal since Maggie Cheung plays the same character in all three – by Wong including In the Mood for Love in 2000 and 2046 in 2004.
**Despite having the same birth surnames, Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, and Jacky Cheung are not related at all. Guess it’s just the Chinese version of Smith. Likewise for Carina and Andy Lau.
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Apes! Together! Strong!

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Its conclusion is obviously less than a month old and there’s the test of time by which I swear most of my movie opinions on and I’ve clearly always been high on the hype before there was even a final chapter being filmed, but I still have no qualms in making the hyperbolic statement that the prequel/reboot trilogy of films for the famous Planet of the Apes franchise – 2011’s Rise of, 2014’s Dawn of, and now 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes – are the best popcorn movie franchise of the decade, possibly of the century (the only real competitors for that title is Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and the Bourne franchise and they’re both hindered by their most recent installments because disappointingly weak). They are surprisingly intelligent enough to trust their audience, they give such dignity to the characters inhabiting the roles to make the drama feel full of weight in the present tense rather than reminding us of what’s going to happen in the main franchise, and this is all done partly thanks to the very tippity top state of the art effects working so wonderfully in fleshing out our central characters in this film that, when we sink right into the story of escaped Ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his clan’s struggles to find a safe haven for them in the midst of the human’s killing each other out, we’re not really registering that we’re looking at digital air. We’re witnessing full-grown beings with their own emotions and inner commentary.

So, a full-on salute to both Serkis’ always incredible work as an actor inhabiting CGI characters, for his translated physicality and the subtle expressiveness of his face, playing just a powerful emotional anchor before the work of Weta Digital, which has evolved long since its early days with Serkis embodying Gollum, has provided us with no just Caesar as a compelling and emotive protagonist against heavy odds, but a whole damn race of apes with their own distinctive personalities (again with the help of a game cast) largely expressed in their physical wear and their gestures. I don’t believe Lake (Sara Canning) has more than maybe 15 minutes of screentime but she’s recognizable enough that there’s a good hour between when we leave her in the first act – as Caesar and others leave the main Ape tribe to seek vengeance against the militaristic humans who threaten to exterminate them – and when we see her again for the third act. And she’s just a new character, that’s saying nothing of the ones we already knew since Rise, like the wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), the loyal and weary chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary), and the tough and brave gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). All three accompany Caesar on his quest to find the deranged Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who hunted for the tribe and left enough damage to have Caesar seeing red.

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It’s also mostly thanks to the fact that director-writer Matt Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback (both returning from Dawn) know well enough the characters that producers (and former writers) Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver created in Rise to cash in on all of the emotional attachment we’ve invested in the characters and their quest to find peace in a world that devolved into chaos because of their sudden existence. This is a movie where the cost of their struggles starts to take a toll on Caesar in particular and it crushes War for the Planet of the Apes with a feeling of cold devastation, accented visually by a harsh white and blue palette provided by cinematographer Michael Seresin. It’s a landscape of winter suffering and often does Caesar and his friends’ journey end up with a checkpoint where they have to kill or watch somebody be killed from afar, abandoned to die in the uncaring landscape, a matter that begins to does not mix with Caesar’s desire for vengeance for the better and informs the character study that War for the Planet of the Apes becomes for most of its first half.

Aye, there is indeed a clear difference between the first and second half and that comes when they find the base of the Alpha-Omega faction that the Colonel leads (with the help of a sadly traumatized talking chimpanzee named Bad Ape played by the comedic Steve Zahn to try to translate as much of that character into levity without undercutting the sobriety of the film) and the movie becomes much better than the sometimes meandering preceding hour for it. The movie turns into a prisoner of war escape drama of the likes of The Bridge on the River Kwai – Pierre Boulle wrote the source novels for both Bridge and the original Planet of the Apes so that connection had to come eventually – and a battle of wills and motivations in the face of violent conflict and war, most especially aided by Harrelson giving the exact sort of performance I WISH with all my heart Marlon Brando had given in Apocalypse Now, espousing all his fatalistic attitudes on war and mercy in an attempt to psychologically breakdown Caesar and his role as a leader. It’s a frighteningly present embodiment of soldier psychology put on Circus Maximus and also a deft ability to turn an exposition dump of a role to a formidable antagonist.

But the second half’s also where Michael Giacchino shines in his orchestrations, gleefully evoking all the epicness of this grand finale to Caesar’s fateful journey. And before then, Giacchino is a boon to reminding us that this is bombastic effects heavy popcorn drama, not bogging us down in its misery. Giacchino’s presence helps make a dark movie so palatable and coaxes Reeves and all by earning the very optimistic final note that War for the Planet of the Apes leaves us on with all the finality that the movie already implied. Because sometimes the most entertaining movie can be the one that treats its characters and their efforts with dignity and that dignity that translates to the Planet of the Apes preboot trilogy is only its own reward.

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Dead Men Tell The Same Ol’ Tales

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I don’t think a single person in the world asked for another Pirates of the CaribbeanPirates of the Caribbean movie. Hell, I don’t think a single person asked for it back in 2012 when Rob Marshall’s sloppy Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides made good on Disney’s threat to continue past the original trilogy. Hell, I’m sure half of the people who received Pirates sequels when they asked for them in 2006 and 2007 kind of ended up with a regret that they existed to dilute and complicate the enjoyment of the original Curse of the Black Pearl, one of the most fun and surprising summer blockbusters of my lifetime. It would only make for Walt Disney Pictures and Johnny Depp to want to keep hanging by that successful thread during one of the most tumultuous periods of their respective careers (which Disney has since recovered from but I don’t think Depp’s ever will). And the honest truth is that much like On Stranger Tides has mostly faded from others’ minds, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales will do so as well and this is despite being a much better movie than the sequels that preceded it.

That’s not a high bar.

Anyway, the way Dead Men Tell No Tales gets to being that “best sequel in the franchise” is simple, they repeated the narrative steps of Curse of the Black Pearl. Like that’s it. They took every single narrative step that the one great Pirates of the Caribbean movie pulled and retread them all again. Though the way they retread those steps are inarguably weaker, for one re-establishing our ol’ pirate scalliwag “Captain” Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) once again abandoned by his crew (but without the messiness of mutiny and all) and having him recruited by a young man wishing to free somebody he loves from imprisonment amongst the pirates. That young man is Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) and he wants Jack’s help finding Poseidon’s Trident to free his father, previous hero Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) from the curse Jack actually put him under three years ago to save Will’s life – the curse that made Will the Captain of the accursed ghost ship The Flying Dutchman. Alongside them is a young scientifically minded woman Carina Smythe (Kaya Scodelario) who is also in search of Poseidon’s Trident and her father, evading pursuers accusing her of being a witch (which makes little sense but whatever) while Jack is evading the revenge of undead Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) after Jack gets rid of his compass.

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So basically Thwaites and Scodelario are playing the same roles Bloom and Keira Knightley (also returning as Will’s old love Elizabeth Turner) played in the original Pirates trilogy and while Scodelario is barely better at establishing agency than Knightley, Thwaites is far below Bloom. And Bloom’s no De Niro. It’s some very vanilla acting overall, only salvaged by Depp finding a lot more comfort in having Sparrow become a tricksy puck rather than the lead and Bardem’s spitting anger. Even Geoffrey Rush is done with this, in his mandated return as pirate rival to Sparrow, Admiral Hector Barbossa.

I’m not 100 on the logic of Salazar and his crew’s return, but that’s fine because that crew makes up the first time in a while where the frequently undead (because when does this franchise ever not have undead pirates?) actually play with the horror imagery, having them half present and fragmented and grisly but in blue paleness to their skin is sure enough to give children the creeps enough to pass as a Disney film, while Bardem knows how to turn that handicap on his character into an anchor for his acting, much like Bill Nighy before him as Davy Jones. And while it goes without saying that directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (of the fellow sea-faring picture Kon-Tiki) are not Gore Verbinski in their popcorn filmmaking ability, there’s a lot in this film to make for a pleasant enough diversion from the very labored script (I personally think Barbossa gets the worst of it with an element tacked on that feels absolutely unearned despite how long we’ve been acquainted with Rush in the character, but there’s also the possible contender in Royal Lieutenant Scarfield played by David Wenham, who seems so arbitrary and second-banana as a threat compared to Salazar). There’s their action sequences such as the wonderful rescue of Jack and Carina from execution early on, particularly in a very theme-park-ride esque shot involving a guillotine on Jack’s head that feels like a Looney Tunes moment. There’s the wiliness of a flashback in which Jack shows his sea skills that turned Captain Salazar in for dead. Rønning and Sandberg know their way around over-the-top physics in an action scene, save for a very underwhelming and forgettable CGI climax to remind us that this is of course a summer tentpole (in 2017… a disappointing summer to say the least).

There’s nothing about this that screams a necessary watch. Like I said, nobody asked for this movie to exist and I think the world would keep right on turning if it didn’t. But Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a return of the franchise to some kind of quality and however minute that amount may be, it has to count for something.

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Going Unclear

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So, the very first and obvious thing I could figure out from having seen Louis Theroux’s 2015 documentary My Scientology Movie is that Theroux has seen The Act of Killing.

The very premise of My Scientology Movie feels like an attempt at using the film to self-indict somebody in the form that Joshua Oppenheimer did in his infamous documentaries on the 1965-66 Pancasila Youth massacres. Early on, the film establishes that Theroux is actually unable to get any actual access to the very controversial and very secretive Church of Scientology and that’s the basis of Theroux trying to recreate one thing – the make-up of the Church of Scientology and their regular process – and trying to actively capture something else – the Church’s outright attempts to obstruct him and his film. He does the second thing aptly as My Scientology Movie is full to the brim with conflicts between Theroux and some representative of the Church, normally with an amusing standoff of cameras with each party demand the other stop filming. And to be fair, that’s more than enough to portray just how oppressive and bullying the Church’s tactics are, but you get the point well before the halfway point in this very short movie and the amusement certainly doesn’t last as long as the end of the second time that same old woman and her “I’m just freelance” cameraman pop up.

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See, the problem with Theroux’s approach as opposed to Oppenheimer’s is that at no point in the film is it very clear who his actual target is meant to be. Is it the actual Church of Scientology given how he expresses an intention early on to cast people as big faces of Scientology such as David Miscavige and Tom Cruise to re-enact allegations of violent behavior on their part? Or is it Mark Rathbun, the former official of the Church, that had walked away under clear hardships on his life since and spoken out against the church’s cruelty over? Rathbun is there as an advisor and informant that practically co-directs most of these re-enactments of beatings and abusive behavior that Rathbun claims occurred (and claims to have been present during), but something about Theroux’s attitude during the film and insistence on accusing (fairly) Rathbun’s own involvement in these actions despite Rathbun’s clear anger at that makes My Scientology Movie feel like, in lieu of its inability to get deep inside The Church’s dealings, to instead use Rathbun as a window for those dealings in more ways than just the one he consents to.

And, I don’t know, using Rathbun in that fashion (especially at the moment where we actually witness his family being implicitly threatened near the end) just seems shitty on Theroux’s part. By the end of the movie, it’s clear that Rathbun certainly has some issues of paranoia and anger management and he’s probably still more than a little bit stuck in the mindset of a Scientologist despite his breaking away from the Church, but he’s also graciously getting involved in Theroux’s project in the hopes that it would spread awareness of what kind of harmful practices the Church indulges in. He’s literally Theroux’s only link to these going-ons and it feels like punching yourself in the face to alienate Rathbun like this.

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Granted, My Scientology Movie doesn’t entirely seem to know how to approach itself and Theroux doesn’t feel anywhere near as confident as he did in his most famous documentary work The Most Hated Family in America. He’s chasing his own tail and between poking and prodding at Rathbun and John Dower’s direction of the film (indeed Theroux is not the director) is at times dropping and forgetting about the re-enactments it wants to stage instead for more moments of Theroux and another member holding cameras at each other for so many senseless minutes as to numb myself to the Scientologist’s bullying. It doesn’t help that My Scientology Movie assumes you’re already well-enough informed on Scientology practices and doesn’t spend any of its much-wasted time informing us on what the Church’s ideology is. Maybe Theroux felt that was unnecessary with a much definitive portrayal provided by Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief but that’s still quite a leap assuming your audience would have already watched another film.

In the end, the whole thing just feels like a great big bucket of flop sweat, so much work and pain and anxiety that Theroux and company have put themselves through only to not really come to any revelatory conclusions and only deciding to stop at a moment when it feels clear that they didn’t really have much of an end-game, just aggravate people who could sue them all into an assisted suicide. Not even Theroux’s portrayal of being targeted or stalked feels entirely correct, as a sudden appearance by an actor who has long been known for being crazy is somehow misread as a direct attack rather than just an infamously not-well person acting out.

Perhaps My Scientology Movie would feel better if it felt funny or like it was worth anything in the end of it all, but instead it just feels like Theroux and Rathbun just hired a few people to get locked inside a room and shouted at and there’s really no conclusions or results to be figured out from what they re-enacted. Just a bunch of abused kids. Theroux didn’t shine any further light on the Church of Scientology’s dealings than even the infamous South Park episode “Trapped in the Closet” and when a cartoon feels more in-depth than your documentary… how is that not supposed to be a disappointment?

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