Anyway, since it has been so long since my last Movie Reviews post, I've seen more than I've reviewing, not much of particular note, although the documentary "Our Nixon" was particularly, eh, what's-the-word, timely. I did find it interesting that Ehrlichman, Halderman and Chapin basically walked around with Super 8 cameras recording as much as we do with our camera phones these days, while they were organizing the Watergate and Ellsberg break-ins and cover-ups and scandals, and-eh, all the other shit. I will say that they seem, smarter and less diluted in their worshiping of Nixon than Trump's minions, but of course, you can actually make a decent argument for Nixon, since there were a few accomplishments in his Presidency. The best film I've seen was the Czech New Wave film, "Daisies", which I might write about sooner than later, elsewise. A couple other scattered indies from earlier this decade, "The Exploding Girl" and "Falling Overnight", were pretty good especially the former. One of the real interesting ones was "Generation Iron", a documentary about body building that was built as the spiritual sequel to "Pumping Iron", which is one of those movies that I kept meaning to get to, but something kept getting in the way. It is a perversely fascinating sport, how they basically shape their bodies like it's clay or sculpture. It's bizarre and fascinating and scientific, and makes me find it even more bizarre that Vince McMahon once tried to take the sport and promote it to kids. Yeah, remember that weird thing? What the hell was he thinking? (Sigh)
Anyway, no more stalling, let's get to this long-delayed edition of our MOVIE REVIEWS, starting with the Oscar-Nominated features "Doctor Strange", and "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children"!
DOCTOR STRANGE (2016) Director: Scott Derrickson
(Sigh) Okay, which Marvel is this?
Another one, I've never fucking heard of! (Sigh) You know what we really need, is a "Brenda Starr" movie! Seriously, all the damn superheroes and reboots of comics, where the hell's our "Brenda Starr, Reporter", movie! No, not the Brooke Shields one, I mean, a real one! A reboot of that would be awesome! (Sigh)
Anyway, "Doctor Strange" the latest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a term that I really wish I didn't have to use, and the Doctor, Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an actual doctor, and really named Strange. Anyway, Dr. Strange is a high-profile and uber-talented brain and neurosurgeon, who, thanks to, stupidity, gets in an accident, He loses several nerves in his hands and struggles through recovery, despite the best efforts of Christine (Rachel McAdams) his ex-girlfriend and fellow doctor. This leads him to seek out an alternative method of healing and on the advice of a mysterious guy named Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) who survived a paralyzing spinal injury, he goes to Kathmandu and seeks out The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and she teaches him, um,- well, she's basically Morpheus and this whole world is basically "The Matrix" with the rules of "Inception" at play, which I guess means, the who MCU has-, oh for fuck's sake...- anyway, He ends up learning, something spiritual, I'm not even pretend to understand it, but basically, he has the power to, do anything it seems. Create time loops travel to other dimensions, etc. etc. Hey, do we need the rest of the Avengers if we have this guy, he seems pretty good? Apparently he only fights people from other dimensions who are attack Earth in our dimension or universe, or something,... Look, I'm not gonna say it makes any sense while watching it either, but you know, I bought into it. Doctor Strange is one of the more interesting characters Marvel's put out there. I'm not sure why or how he's so willing to abandon his practice just to be a mystic wizard, essentially; I mean, he can still be a consultant and a doctor, not just a surgeon. Plus he can astral project himself into another dimension, so he can talk to the dead before they die, while they're on the operating table. Anyway, he has to stop, Kaecillius, (Mads Mikkelsen) who's a former protege of The Ancient One, who began to distrust him and turned to her rival, Dormammu, who's close to taking over Earth, and to be fair, there's some pretty good battles and special effects here. I mean, it's not that far progress from what "Inception" did, but it was all still really amazing. There's a lot of good technical craft in the film, and Cumberbatch is well-cast here, as is Swinton. Chiwetel Ejiofor has an odd role as a fellow Ancient One protege named Mondo, who becomes disillusioned after a liar reveal about The Ancient One comes out, (Oh, and I'm introducing new rule, half-stars off for bad unnecessary and stupid post-credits scenes, and this movie has, one, and a half of them.) Honestly, I guess, in hindsight, everything gets so bogged down in it's ultimate mysteriousness regarding the world, the powers, the universes, etc., that it's a lot to take in, and in hindsight, I can think through the flaws and really question more, but still, "Doctor Strange" is one of the better and more interesting Marvel films in a while, and has a fascinating character at it's center. I wish I understood more of it, but, can't have everything. It's more impressive to absorb and behold than it might hold up as a story, but, I think that's worth a lot when it's done this well.
MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN (2016) Director: Tim Burton
I have several thought in regards to "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children", a couple of them, were one that I personally couldn't escape. The first one is Tim Burton. Now, I know people watch Tim Burton movies, not for the plot or the story, but for the visuals, this is annoying as hell to me, 'cause I usually just feel like I'm getting something that looks pretty but has so little substance to it that I find myself cold. But, this is the first time I genuinely started coming to a different possible concluding thought, "Is Tim Burton's visual style, actually any good?"
I know it's got an appeal, but is it actually good? I'm told it is, and things like the pop culturization of some of his properties like "Beetlejuice" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas", constantly try to inform me that it is, but, actually, is it? I'm not sure anymore. Honestly, I never did understand the appeal, and I usually disguarded that to being not something I liked but could appreciate on it's own, but maybe not. Maybe I've overestimated it all this time. Maybe not, it's hard to put myself back to when he started with his unique look and tones when he first started making films, although I rarely thought any of those films were any good, and now that there's clearly works of art out there that might be partially inspired by his work, like this latest, "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children", based on a chidren's novel by Ransom Riggs, maybe we should re-evaluate and reconsider Burton's aesthetics.
"Miss Peregrine's..." is set up almost as perfectly for Burton's eye as "Sweeney Todd..." was, except it's all of the bad traits of Tim Burton. The dying parent, the normal character entering a mysterious world, the older character informing about the world, that many don't believe,- oh God, this movie basically started with "Big Fish", which is by far Burton's worst and most atrocious film, (And to those defend that one, seriously, what the hell? That movie's terrible. And the reveal at the end is stupid, 'cause it doesn't change anything, in fact, if anything it makes it worst. The whole thing is about the son trying to love the dying father no matter whether his stories are true, and then, after he accomplishes that, they decide to make it all true, and that's somehow magical, better? What the fuck!?) and then tried to turn it into "Alice in Wonderland".
This one is about, a mysterious home for children who have certain abilities that make it difficult to go along in the outside world. One's invisible, one sets things on fire, one makes things grow quickly, one projects images in his eyes,... the only real important one is Emma (Ella Purnell) who can fly away when she doesn't wear lead shoes. The place is overseen by Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) who can turn into a bird, naturally. Anyway, the main character, Jake (Asa Butterfield) hears about this place from his dying grandfather, (Terence Stamp) and he's determined to prove that the stories weren't made up. And at some point, when his parents (Chris O'Dowd and Kim Dickens) take him to this island, he gets transported back to the time period, which was WWII era, and the other Peculiar Children want him to stay. Also, there's a bad guy played by Samuel L. Jackson, although he should've been played by Allison Janney, who has one memorable scene in this movie that's almost makes it worth watching.
Basically what these kind of movies boil down to, is whether or not you buy that the world this character's going into, is worth saving, or believable or worth caring about. It's a difficult story to pull off, and filmmakers have been screwing it up since "You Can't Take It With You", Frank Capra's worst movie, (And a terrible play) and I guess I can appreciate the effort, but look at something like "Avatar", at least, for the first ninety minutes before that film got stupid, it really created a world, a universe, interesting rules, interesting characters to care about, really high stakes, visually, something amazing that we hadn't seen before or much of since, It took it's time to earn it's trust, and did it well with the new world and getting us to care and imagine it. This home for peculiar children, it's-um, um, well, apparently somebody's idea of a legitimate fantasy world, not mine, but, somebody's, I guess. Maybe it works in the book, but visually, it doesn't do it for me. It is a lot to ask me to care about these characters that this boy cares about, because his dead grandfather cared about them, and that may or may not all be in the boy's head, and it's not even particularly visually interesting, even by Burton standards. I'd rather see him make "Dark Shadows 2" than this, at least that was a kaleidoscope of imagery that was so over-the-top and random that I was at least interested to see whatever it was that was on the screen next.. I get why it appealed to him, but Burton has a tendency to only storytelling-wise be as good as his material anyway, and I have doubts that this was ever really good material. People proclaim the book to originally have very Burtonesque traits and while that's probably true, I wonder if those traits are worth anything. The problem with most of Burton's lesser works is that he's often trying to be strange, just to be strange. Maybe there's an interesting story or reason why his characters are strange, but half the time there isn't and the other half of the time he barely focuses on that aspect. Another motif in his storytelling, and more importantly this firm belief that magical fantastical stories can be real. Which is plausible, you can certainly claim that they're real in his mind, but that doesn't necessarily translate as well to others. This doesn't translate in adaptation well. I have no desire to ever give a damn about any of these characters and frankly, blame the original material all you want, Burton should be able to fix that at least, and he didn't.
10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Well, this movie is apparently a sequel to "Cloverfield", a movie that, this film has basically nothing in common with and has nothing to do with. And if anything, knowing the movie is a sequel means that, it gives away the big dramatic plot-twist mystery of the entire film, 'cause we have the knowledge of the first movie; so making this a spiritual successor, was in fact completely detrimental to anything the movie had going for it. (Tongue click, mocking double thumbs up) Good job there, Producers! (Tongue clicks, eye roll) Who did produce this anyway? (Checking IMDB, sighs, rolls eye) J.J. Abrams. I don't even know why I'm surprised.
Okay, admittedly there is a reason for this; basically, the movie was not developed as a sequel to "Cloverfield" but is positioned as a spiritual one. (Explain that process) This originated as a script called "The Cellar" that a couple young writers named Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecker got on the Blacklist at some point. Abrams bought the rights, found a talented young first-time filmmaker to make it, and even got Damien Chazelle, yes, that Damien Chazelle, to do some touches on the script. So, basically this film, coincides with "Cloverfield", or at least taking place in the universe, but yeah, this is essentially the kinda of thing that lead to horrible multiverse fan-fiction.
So, how's the movie as is? Well, it probably suffers a little, oddly enough from being over-budget. The movie, takes place almost entirely within on room, The main character is Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who gets into a car accident and awakes in the bunker of Howard (John Goodman), one of those, well, Amy Nicholson's review on MTV.com, and by the way, she's quickly becoming one of my favorite movie reviewers, describes Goodman as a conspiracy madman; I'm not sure I agree with that characterization. He's clearly not mad. Maybe in some version of the script it was, but, well, A. We know what universe we're in, so we know he's not entirely wrong, but B. there's a lot of indication that he might know and be more prepared than some for the upcoming events. He created a pretty-good bunker designed to survive for quite a while in case the outside air is toxic. He does have a lowly assistant, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) who I believe helped with the building of it, and works on the systems and food. She's already injured by the accident, and there's definitely clear signs that something went wrong, and something's wrong outside, but eventually there's clues that it might not be what Howard claims. Basically he's being slightly over-protective for something that probably needs a lot of protection from, however it might not be the right approach. Of course, I don't know what the best course of action is when a cloverfield takes over Manhattan either, so.... If this was, just an unrelated decent, indy film with good actors and no obvious-in-the-title forced marriage to "Cloverfield", which btw, I actually did like as a movie enough to recommend, eh, I'd probably give this a pass, but not a big one. There's clearly talent all around, but ultimately the film just seems average. I can think of about half a dozen similar locked-in Indy horrors off the top of my head, and it's, about average comparatively, some better, some worst, although I do like the indications the ending leaves and makes me, somewhat curious about what could be a next chapter to this story. It's also not terribly written. You have some smart characters, who are prone to making mistakes in the situation, but I can't think of anything off-hand that was particularly dumb that they did.
One of the things that surprised me about the film's popularity and success, was a minor push for John Goodman to receive an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor. To that I have to ask, uh, why exactly? Um, I-eh, well, it's not like John Goodman gives a bad performance here; he never has and probably he never will, but I'm struggling to see why people thought this was a special performance, especially for Goodman, who, has probably given us undeservedly overlooked Oscar-worthy performances in films going back to "Barton Fink" and "Born Yesterday", (And I didn't even like that "Born Yesterday" remake, but he was damn good in it). I fail to see why this was special. I would've nominated him for "Red State", but I thought of this performance, which is good; everybody's good here by the way. It's an okay ensemble horror piece, but I can't think of other better roles he's done in the recent past.
JASON BOURNE (2016) Director: Paul Greengrass
I can't imagine anybody making a bad Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) movie. The character is just too interesting for that to truly happen. Hell, I didn't even hate "The Bourne Legacy" and that had nothing to do with "Jason Bourne". And I didn't even want this movie, the trilogy was pretty complete as it, and was damn good. I didn't think I needed or wanted a new "Mad Max", either, so, why not give "Jason Bourne" another shot, and once again show us of how smart and intelligent this franchise is. Sure, it's been awhile, but, like Tom Ripley, there's probably an infinite amount of stories you can do with this character, and numerous way and times to look on him and see what he's doing now. The big conflict, is simply the fact that Bourne is the ultimate wild card. A trained CIA assassin, who's capable of taking down the country with the information he knows, except for the fact that he doesn't. He's got amnesia and is only gradually learning why he is so unusually capable and skillful at killing people, and evading capture and death himself. This one, now 14 years after the events of the last film, Bourne is a drifter in Europe, mostly doing some under the radar things like bare-knuckle boxing to earn money and evade capture, which makes sense. They're still aware and keeping an eye on him at the CIA, but he's basically a sleeper cell who isn't activated, until he is. This time, by Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles, returning in, what has sadly become her most memorable film role, huh. Remember when she was the Julia Roberts? Wow, that didn't pan out, did it.) What's she doing, well, something bad. Basically, she's become a freelance hacker, and is hacking into the CIA, because, alas, they're doing something stupid, restarting the Treadstone Program that created Jason. She's public enemy number one, and Bourne is the only one who can do anything, so he's suddenly activated. Also, his father's involved, (Gregg Henry, in flashback) 'cause apparently, not only was he the reason he was recruited into Treadstone, he, in some manner was involved in creating it. Naturally, the CIA, led this time be Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and this time, there's somebody underneath, who, instead of killing Bourne, is intrigued by the possibility of using him and having him return to the CIA, Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander). So, instead of the normal cat-and-mouse CIA vs. Bourne, we have a differing story of Cat vs. Cat, fighting over the mouse, who, neither one of them can necessarily catch. There's also a, let's called him a hybrid Assange meets Zuckerberg character, Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) who's made a deal with the CIA because he runs a Cyber Security Program, that...- well, if you've seen much of the news on this, you probably know where that's going, but that's fine. There's also a second wild card, just known as Asset (Vincent Cassel) a fellow assassin who wants to kill Bourne,for personal reasons. This is the weakest of the Matt Damon-led "Jason Bourne" but it's still not a bad one. It's highly entertaining, there's some great double-crossing and sideways manipulation from all fronts, the action scenes are still as good as ever, including a really elaborate car chase sequence through Las Vegas that's epic, and Jason Bourne is as fascinating an enigma as ever. Did I need, this movie, no, but I don't really any James Bond either other than "From Russia with Love", "Goldfinger" and "Casino Royale" in my mind, so, why not a new Jason Bourne story? This is a fun, delightful entertaining popcorn movie, and nothing more, and surprisingly, considering how many big action movie are out there now, especially with superhero film, you don't actually get that kind of fun film that often. Wonderful breath of fresh air, "Jason Bourne", don't know why I ever doubt this franchise. Remind me never to do that again.
STORKS (2016) Directors: Nicholas Stoller and Doug Sweetland
The first thing I think about with "Storks" is how it gave me a gigantic literal migraine headache. This amalgam of a movie, is truly painful to sit through. It is both, way too long, and yet, edited with Michael Bay-esque quick cutting nonsensical pace, that everything goes by you too fast to react to it. It's-, (Sigh), well, it's the plot from "Monsters, Inc.", it's the conceit of "The Secret Life of Pets", well, not really, but dumb enough-, I mean, close enough. It's the insider jokes of "Shrek", it's the third-wall breaking jokes of somebody who liked "Community" way too much and doesn't understand when to fucking stop, the zaniness of "The Emperor's New Groove", the random pop songs of a Dr. Suess movie, plus ten or twelve other things. On top of all that, it's just, noise. It's, big-eyed computer animated characters going through their computer-animated adventure because-, um, well, just because. I mean, they know all the steps of a good movie, and some concept of how to put them together, but the end result, is something so soulless. It's robotic. It's animation on cruise control. It's every horrible thing that people think about when people talk about how animation is quote-unquore, "Just For Kids". That what this movie feels like, like a bunch of people trying to make a movie for kids, and think that because it's for kids that there's nothing else you need to do. (Sigh)
Alright, so "Storks" once upon a time, only delivered babies. Now, they deliver everything else after one stork decided to get out of the baby delivering service and became, well, essentially, just Amazon drones. I'm-, I'm not even kidding. They work for Hunter (Kelsey Grammar) who runs Cornerstore.com, a stork delivery service that delivers everything, excepts babies, after an incident involving a stork names Jasper, (Danny Trejo) who lost the beacon for the address of the Orphan Tulip (Katie Crown) who's now 18 years old, and a detriment to the success of the store, and now, Junior (Andy Samberg) is supposed to fire her, in order for him to become Boss, but instead, doesn't and this leads to her opening a letter for a baby request from Nate (Anton Starkman) the young son of workaholic parents Henry & Sarah (Ty Burrell and Jennifer Aniston) and now, they have a baby to deliver on the down-low and Junior's arms in a sling, but luckily, she's invented a few flying machines, that sorta work.
The humor in this movie, it's-, very self-referential, but not in a way that's funny. It's just all very quick, and not quick enough for us to laugh. I think it's because there's not enough time and energy on the characters, and-, well, even then, I'm not sure some of these jokes would work. There's one funny sequence where Junior has to fight off a bunch of penguins, all of them try to fight silently to not wake the baby, but other than that, it's just a hodgepodge of references. Jokes are thrown in everywhere whether they're needed or not, there's a few really annoying characters and some jokes are just surreal for the sake surreal jokes. I feel like it's trying to be a Zucker Brothers movie like "Airplane!" or something, but it's also trying to have a heart and make some grand statement about babies, being, I don't know, wonderful? (Sigh) Do kids even get this joke now? In the internet age, I think even the younger, younger kids don't buy the stork thing, and...- (Shrugs) I don't know. This film was the brainchild of Nicholas Stoller, who's most know for live-action comedies, like directing "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and it's
You know, "Inside Out" makes me cry every time I watch it. "Anomalisa" was inspiring to me on a personal, visceral level, "Kubo and the Two Strings" showed me storytelling genius that I didn't think was possible, hell, even "Zootopia", which I wasn't even a fan of was trying hard, really hard to inspire and change minds and confront the ills of the world at large and you can see it on the screen that somebody cared and gave a shit at what they were putting out onto the world. "Storks" just makes me wish I was watching one of those movies instead. This is painful. I wasn't kidding about the headache, this movie made me take two Excedrin when I was watching it. This doesn't feel like it was a desired project or that care was put into the idea, or that somebody who has created some genuinely funny films in the past was involved with it. It's not even that the jokes aren't funny, it's that the movie doesn't make me want to laugh. I feel like I've seen this before, many times before, come up with a cute generic concept. Cars, birds, planes, storks, and then, throw in a bunch of jokes, the human outsider, the evil corporate boss-, there's literally nothing here that I haven't seen somewhere else before and done better and with more meaning to it. That's the biggest crime, and especially for an animated movie, I never once felt that this movie was made with any emotional pull to it. There's a standard of animation that you have to meet now, and this is just not acceptable. It's a first draft idea, that's not fleshed out, enough. It's jokes instead of storytelling. It's a parody/spoof of, nothing in particular. It's just sound and noise signifying nothing. And if that's all you want it do, just shut up your damn kids who, the ones too young and on too much sugar to get any of the jokes for another ten years then fine, but why not that entertain them with something actually great and important and gonna be remembered and looked back on fondly when they become adults instead?
THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016) Director: David Yates
I'm sorry, we're we asking for a new "Tarzan" movie? Actually-, no strike that, this isn't even Tarzan, this is a new Greystoke movie, technically. I've never fully been able to finish that "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan" film from the early eighties, that's mostly famous now for people who hate Andie MacDowell and like to point out that Glenn Close dubbed her voice in it, because she couldn't pull of a British accent. And because Robert Towne's dog received an Oscar nomination for it. (Dead serious, look it up!) I don't remember liking or getting much of that film. Tarzan's one of the most iconic of film and literary characters, and yet strangely, there aren't that man good version of him. In either form actually. There's actually quite a few Tarzan novels, but, I can't find too many people who really recommend more than a couple of them and film-wise, eh, well, there's the Johnny Weismuller movies, that, kinda fit into the same camp appeal as say, "King Kong", but, I'd argue there really hadn't been a really good "Tarzan" until the Disney film came out, which I consider one of Disney's most underrated animated films. But, that was an interesting take on Tarzan, and one that seriously benefitted from being animated. It's one of Disney's most technically amazing hand-drawn pieces of animation. It provided a new look and take on the Tarzan story, and the animation, especially when he's swinging through the trees, is just spectacular. Really gives us this amazing sense of a human who's become not only an ape, but a human who's mastered the ways of being an ape.
This film? I have no idea why this exists. It's a mess to begin with, and then trying to make sense or care about any of this...- So, John Clayton, aka Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard, who I will concede is great casting.) is now, a the proper Fifth Earl of Greystoke, It's ten years after him and Jane Porter have left the Jungle and now apparently, the Natives-, which is already a bit of a red flag in a Tarzan story, but I double-checked, there are a few stories where Tarzan's got Natives in it. 'cause this one takes place in the jungles of the Congo, which, again, I'm tipping my head at, 'cause geographically that's a stretch, but alright, and there's a Belgium envoy, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, because of course it is) instead of working on building the modern infrastructure and there's a Colonialism parable, blah, blah, blah, and he's persuaded to go back, because of the enslaved treatment of the Natives there, by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) who is a real guy in history by the way, not from the novels, so, take that for what you will, and whatever universe this is. And there's also a native leader, Chief Mbongo (Djimon Hounsou, who really deserves better) who makes a deal with Leon for the diamond as long as he gets Tarzan, because he has a grudge. (Sigh)
There's both a lot going on here, and not much at all going on here. A lot of plot, without really any, history we have with these characters. You know, what this feels like? This feels like watching a straight-to-DVD sequel to an old movie, that you haven't seen the first one of? So, it's like an entire new cast, and extra characters you don't know about, and because it's Tarzan, we're sort supposed to know, but you actually don't. I mean, this movie is about a gratuitous nude scene away from that, which come to think of it, why not have one; it is Tarzan? In fact, that's one of the problems, it doesn't seem or look like Tarzan. I know there's quite a few other Tarzan tales, but-, there's a reason we don't recall them offhand. In terms of sequel novels, they're not exactly "Huckleberry Finn", you know? Anyway, the pointlessness of the need for this movie is only matched by my inability to care about anything on screen. It's a Tarzan movie that's about anything, but Tarzan, and not much that matters after that. Tarzan's a character who lived his entire life, thinking he's one species, to find out he's another; he's one of the most interesting characters in the 20th Century literature, truly. And, here he is, with, none of the aspects that make him Tarzan, being prevalent?! I don't get it.
DON'T THINK TWICE (2016) Director: Mike Birbiglia
I think some people don't fully understand what exactly, Improv, is. They know, it's making up things off the top of your head, but there's more to it than that. It's an art form in or itself, and a distinctly American one at that, created by legendary names like Severn Darden, Del Close, on the stage in Chicago that would become the Second City. Yet, the most famous thing that people recognize as Improv, "Who's Line Is It Anyway?" not only comes from Great Britain, but is probably not the best place to truly learn the art form, or what exactly Improv is. It's not simply a matter, of making stuff up, you're still creating a scene. And then, refining it; it's a writing style above anything else. It's also an acting exercise, with specific rules and games, and there is a structure involved. It takes practice. "Don't Think Twice" is not only a good general rule for Improv, but also probably the best film I can remember about the performers of the art form. Granted the only other one I can think of, was a rare 2007 film called "Sketch" that I had to judge for a film festival, and did not give a good review to. The movie begins with this brief lesson in sketch, it even shows rare footage of one of my favorite classic Second City sketches being performed, "Football Comes to the University of Chicago", which was about a coach trying to teach football to high-end academics who hadn't played the game. (I had that sketch on a CD as apart of a Second City Anniversary book that I eventually gave to my cousin as a gift. This film about a New York City sketch troupe,) This group, is called "The Commune" and it's current roster includes, Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) Miles (Mike Birbiglia), Allison (Kate Micucci), Lindsay (Tami Sagher), Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bill (Chris Gethard). The group is fairly well-known and popular, Miles is the leader, Samantha the emcee, and while normally, they're doing well, Jack, who's also Samantha's boyfriend, has a tendency to suddenly burst into some of his impressions and characters, which sounds like something that's normal and okay, but if you actually know sketch comedy, it isn't. During one show, when a "Weekend Live" scout is on-hand, Jack goes into his Obama. This angers the group, but it gets him and Samantha auditions, and Jack makes the show, forcing him to leave the long-time upstart group. Soon enough, he ends up becoming a pretty big star on the obvious "SNL" stand-in show, and the group's dynamics begin to crumble. For one thing, one of them is more famous, and now the audience comes to see him redo the sketches and characters from the show. For another, others in the group are either more devoted to sketch and/or are more obsessed with being famous than others. Outside the stage, the group is close, but perhaps not as close as they thought. Miles still lives, in basically a dorm that's he's furnished out of his parents' basement, and he takes some of his female students there at times, and constantly begs Jack to get a writing gig. Allison is a cartoonist who's been creating a comic book for years, but is too shy to send it in. Bill's in his '40s and after his father has a life-threatening motorcycle accident, begins to shift his priorities away from the group. Samantha and Jack's relationship also begins to get strained as his level of fame rises, and she realizes some truths about the relationship that Jack can't see at the moment. Lindsay's a bit of the odd-one-out, since she actually comes from a rich background and doesn't really need the money or fame, but seems to choose the life of an Improv actor anyway. Eventually, one by one, the group becomes doomed to dissipate and end. The film was directed by Mike Birbiglia, a stand-up comic, who found some success as an actor sneaking into the post-Mumblcore scene, before finally breaking as a comic with his TV Special "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend", but it was his directorial feature debut, "Sleepwalk with Me" that I first noticed him, a seriously underrated film about a very down-on-his-luck stand-up comic, who suddenly becomes popular after devoting more to his craft which including talking about his life and his girlfriend played by Lauren Ambrose. "Don't Think Twice" is essentially another movie about what happens when a comedian becomes famous and dealing with that fame, and if I have to choose, I probably prefer his first films, but both of them are really good comedy-dramas on the subject. This is a really great actors' film and the actors who are all skilled in sketch are all really strong. Gillian Jacobs in particular, has one scene, that, I know, in my mind, doesn't technically work within the universe of the film, mainly because I do study this field and no what would happen if a situation like the one she's in would've actually occurred but, it's so touching and sad. She's alone on stage, performing as the rest of The Commune have not shown up for what's inevitably their last show, and suddenly she talks about how bad her day's been, and when it seems like she's about to explode, she instead, begins an Improv, a one-person Improv, where she's playing all the parts of all the other troupe members, and the scene is that she's fallen down into a well, and despite everything being wrong, she keeps telling everyone that she's fine, and that things are okay. This is the kind of scene that works on so many levels, it's a great monologue, it's a great acting scene, it's a great scene to teach people how to use one's emotions to be creative,... it's just beautiful. I honestly didn't know she had that scene in her. "Don't Think Twice" both celebrates Improv and also shows the more straining and difficult side of being in that part of the entertainment industry, especially when, unlike most of your heroes, they're never actually gonna achieve the success and fame that one might dream of. Every couple years, I always try to coax one of my friends, who is trained in Improv and I've worked with, to screw both of our current jobs and lives and start a troupe somewhere. You'd think a film like this would be a deterrent from that idea, but oddly, it's actually inspiring enough that I wouldn't be surprised if more Improv troupes come out of this film.
LONG WAY NORTH (2016) Director: Remi Chaye
So, there's a popular term within certain film analyst circles that I generally don't use, "Uncanny Valley". For those unfamiliar, (raises hand) it's a term that dates back, to the '70s and usually is used in reference to how robots can seem more humanlike in appearance, and how, at some point, they become, too humanlike and creepy to some, but most of the time now, this is a terms used to reference animation, specifically computer-generated animation, particularly when it comes to human characters being depicted through human animation. And the reason, I don't use that term, is, that, I don't get it. People keep telling me, it's a thing, and they keep showing me examples of how exhibit A is creepy, or the human characters in this animated film or that animated film are too disturbing, or whatever....- but, I usually disagree. No, check that, I've always disagree. I genuinely don't know where they're coming from with this. Maybe I'm just more willing to accept it, whatever it is, because animation is essentially world-building and if they create a world where the characters look like that, than that's fine with me, and considering I can barely write my name legibly, I'm generally impressed by computer animation. I love, the human characters in "The Polar Express" or "Beowulf," or whatever. So, I-eh, I never understood this claim or phenomenon. That said, "Long Way North", might've come the closest to ever changing my mind. "Long Way North", the debut feature from French animator Remi Chaye, who's most know for being the Head of Story on Tomm Moore's "The Secret of Kells", is-eh, interesting. I can't tell exactly what I don't quite enjoy about it, apparently, something he did, was remove the outline of the images, which allowed the colors to pop off the screen, especially the gold and yellows conflicted with the browns. The movie is both too muted and too bright, especially considering it's use of shadows, and I don't know why that is. Maybe the flatness of the face, for what otherwise seems like it could've been hand-drawn rotoscope'd look, but, the approach is just, somewhat off at times. This is almost the first time I can say I sorta understand what an "Uncanny Valley" effect is. That said, "Long Way North", is an intriguing animated feature. I think technically we're calling this a French film, but it takes place in Russia, around the 1880s. St. Petersburg. Eh, my Russian history was a bit weak, but I do know that, this was a pretty aristocratic and lavish time for Russia, right after the era of Alexander II, who made several reforms to the government after the Crimean War, and then, his son Alexander III took over and started screwing everything up, but we're talking about explorations, interestingly enough. And at this point, there was one mythical journey left, and that was the Northwest Passage. See, the journey to reach the other side of the world, was a big one, and after Columbus, found out that, "Oh, shit! There's two fucking continents in the way, can't go that way, so straight off the edge of the planet is gonna do it." (paraphrasing) The next thing to figure out, was, if there was another way. Now, the common one that people tried to find, was, the Northwest Passage, which on one hand makes sense, going over the top of the globe is less distance than across two fucking Oceans, the problem, that they inevitable found out, was that, it was fucking cold. (Also, the Northwest Passage is too hard to penetrate, you gotta maneuver around several small islands and the water's turning to ice...- it's a mess. So, it's not uncommon, for a ship, to get lost up there, and here, one ship does that, the Davai, which is captained by Oloukaine, and has been missing from it's North Pole expedition for two years. Sacha (Christa) is his young granddaughter who's determined to find him, and believes that he took a different path than the one everyone else believes they did. There's a reward out for him, but after, running away from a ball, literally, and hiding out by the Sea, getting some work as a waitress, which is itself daunting, since she's an aristocrat to begin with, so she has to prove herself, for as a young woman with hard labor, and then, when she finally gets somebody, Captain Lund to go out in the death of Winter and seek out the Davai, she has to earn herself as a sailor. I'm of two minds on this film, I'm definitely recommending it, it's too interesting to not recommend, but I do suspect that there's a better story to tell than this. It's structure like an action-adventure story, but the story tends to meandering mostly through the inner journey of Sacha as she discovers what she can and can't do. It's simple, but I guess it's fine. The animation is pretty, it just seems and feels like something's awkward about it, and I can't quite put my finger on why it bugs me, but, it does. I actually wonder if this wouldn't have done better and been more interesting as a live-action movie, in fact, I can think of a few that aren't that dissimilar., both versions of "True Grit" come to mind, and a sea story of this nature, would probably be interesting in live-action. In animation, I think it loses a lot of the mythic qualities that would make it exciting oddly enough. I'm not gonna pan it for that, but I still mostly look at "Long Way North" mainly as a missed opportunity.
OPERATION AVALANCHE (2016) Director: Matt Johnson
Let's get the obvious out of the way, NO THE MOON LANDING WASN"T FAKED OR STAGED! And any and all who make idiotic arguments to the contrary, should be beaten to death with a very large moon rock! (Mocking tone) "Look, look, the flag is waving!" NO IT FUCKING WASN'T, that's not the actual footage, it wasn't shot on a soundstage and yes, we went back several times! Five other times to be exact. Oh, and just to get this bit of annoyance from the movie "Operation Avalanche" out of the way, the feather and the hammer was not dropped on the Apollo 11 mission, it was dropped on Apollo 15, by David Scott! (Frustrated sigh)
Look, I don't think the filmmakers of "Operation Avalanche" believe any of the conspiracy junk that has been popular on the moonlanding, in fact that they brought that up and some have tried to claim that that footage was also faked, tells me that they probably know better than anyone how real it was.The thing is, I bring it up because I know the wrong people will probably note this film as some existential example of how it wasn't fraudulent, or some bullshit like that, so.... Outside of that, thought dripping in my head throughout the film, I kinda enjoyed this. Shot, partly with some dubious filmmaking, which included the filmmakers going to NASA disguised as a documentary film crew, "Operation Avalanche" was Matt Johnson's thesis film, where him and co-writer Owen Williams star as, eh, Matt Johnson and Owen Williams, low-level CIA agents who go undercover to NASA, as documentary filmmakers, to seek out, a Soviet spy. There's a little art imitating life imitating art here. They had previous worked on a secret mission to check whether Stanley Kubrick was a spy, because of him having made "Dr. Strangelove....", they convince their superior to go undercover as bumbling NET Filmmakers, (Oh, that's an old reference nobody will get besides me, uh, NET or National Eductaion Television, was what PBS was called before 1970.) Anyway, they don't necessarily find the spy per se, but they do find out that NASA doesn't have the ability to land on the moon for another four years, and they run into a plan Operation Avalanche" an idea to fake the landing on a soundstage, if for some reason NASA couldn't get this done in time and beat the Russians. And since they're already filmmakers and pretending to be filmmakers, they start undertaking the task. Shot with lots of improvised dialogue and some liberal usage of footage, the movie, seems believable enough as a little spy thriller, and as a comedic backdoor satire, a la in the vein of say, somewhere between "Argo" and "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind", where you're seeing outrageous but plausible in the entertainment world. Actually the film that this movie most reminded me of was Shane Carruth's "Primer", which, is a movie that, I've made no secret that I consider pretty awful, but aesthetically, it fits. It feels like it was shot on a shoestring and involves a lot of conspiracy and mystery between the two young main leads who are in over their head, but thankfully, it's actually based around a reality that's not entirely, in their own head and involves characters actually doing something. "Operation Avalanche" is a pretty neat idea that's executed way better than it probably should be. I probably know a little too much about this to fully be engrossed, at least as I would probably prefer, but, it's a first film, still in college for them, and they overachieved; I'll give them a pass.
DANCER (2016) Director: Steven Cantor
Man, I used to think I really enjoyed documentaries about dancing, but the last few I've run into have left me colder than I'd prefer....
Anyway, Sergei Polunin. If your me, than you've never heard of him either. If you're a practitioner of modern dance and ballet, you're probably infatuated with him. I understand why. He is the bad boy wunderkind of the modern dance world. By any measure, he's one of the greatest dancers alive, and has been for years, and he's still only 27. "Dancer" is an interesting documentary, 'cause essentially it's about being young and at the top of one's profession, and how, straining that can be. The Ukrainian-born Sergei, came from a broken home, but had joined the Royal British Ballet at age 13, and had become the company's youngest and most popular soloist and principal at age 19. He's also, a bit of a handful. He's a rebel, full of tattoos, a partier who's admitted to taking drugs before several performances, including cocaine and LSD, and at some point, he left the Ballet, almost randomly, causing an international incident in dance circles, for him to suddenly turn up in Russia, where he won a reality show contest and became the head of the ballet there. He's also more intrigued by pop music than most, he even has tattoos that reference P. Diddy. He's probably most famous to the general public because of a Youtube video, made by David LaChapelle that shows Sergei daning to Hozier's "Take Me to Church", which made him a viral superstar. That video was supposed to be his retirement from dancing, and he was 25 when he did that. I think what the movie is trying to get at, more than anything, is to profile somebody, who is just, both naturally brilliant and trained better and harder at a particular artistic craft and seeing them react to being in such a desirable and envious position, while still remaining so young. He's 27 now, and I can't help but to think about several other people in certain other artistic mediums who were also considered the best in their field at the youngest of ages, and a lot of them didn't survive, literally, that age. I kinda understand that. Especially for somebody like a professional dancer who's been working at his craft since he was a kid, so for most of his life, the transition to adulthood is a tricky and bumpy one, especially for a career that's usually, pretty short to begin with. Sergei's behavior, doesn't come off as much surprising to me nowadays as it, as it is, really just good timing and instincts to document Sergei at this time. The thing is, I don't really know how interesting Sergei actually is? They try to really show just how unique he is, and he is, he is unique, but, he is still 25, and there's not much else to him. He's got a lot of life to live and hopefully there will be much more to it in the future. He seems like the kind of person, who as long as he's around will be doing something fascinating and expanding on the art in some inventive, creative ways, if he continues to be a "Dancer". As a film however, I'm not quite sure how great or interesting it is. Sergei's a guy with a lot of life left in him, and I'm sure that life will eventually make for an amazing and exciting film. For now...., I was mostly indifferent and bored, and for now, I'd rather see him dance, than hear about his life.
MOUNTAIN MEN (2016) Director: Cameron Labine
Most of the reviews I can find about "Mountain Men", are, eh, fairly, eh, brief. Positive, negative, there's not too much to say about; it's just a nice little Indy that's not that bad and not that great. And there's not that much to talk about with it. It's about 90 minutes. The performances are okay. The story's cute. Directing's fine. Writing's fine. Nothing special. As you might imagine, when it comes to movie reviews, these are the annoying ones to write. Anyway, the film is basically a two-hander with two brothers, Cooper (Chace Crawford) and Toph (Tyler Labine). They're from Alaska, Toph has stayed behind and has mostly become a town loafer, a local DJ who doubles as a weed dealer/user or vice-versa depending on the day. Cooper went out and gone to New York, and has mostly tried to run away from his humble beginnings. Their father started going a little nuts a couple years earlier and went up to a mountain cabin, and apparently went missing a few years earlier. That's where the two brothers end up going for the weekend, and things happen and they talk to each other about their problems and life. They're Mom (Christine Willes) who's moved on and gotten remarried, Toph's girlfriend Leah (Britt Irvin), just found out she's pregnant, Cooper's dumped his girlfriend and is preparing to take a job on the other side of the world..... There's some misadventures as well, typical ones that force them to be stuck there on top of the mountains with no phone around them, etc. It's all well-made and well-constructed, plot-wise, story's interesting enough, and both Crawford and Labine are quite good. Labine's brother Cameron wrote and directed the film, his second feature after "Control Alt Delete", which I haven't seen. (Shrugs) Like I said there's not much to be said about the film, but at the same token I can't think of any reason not to recommend it either. It's a nice little comedy-drama Indy film that's made with some ideas and passion behind it, and there's nothing wrong with it. I doubt I'm ever gonna think about it again, except maybe when I catch up Tyler Labine's series, "Deadbeat", which is a pretty good show too btw; it's on Hulu. But for what it is and what it was trying, it succeeded, and-eh, yeah, I'm running out of other things to say about it, so we'll end this review here.
JAFAR PANAHI'S TAXI (2015) Director: Jafar Panahi
So, Jafar Panahi, is apparently still making movies. That doesn't seem like a particularly strange statement unless you're aware of who he is, and the fact that he's breaking the law by doing this. Since 2010, Jafar Panahi, after planning to make a movie about the Iranian Government, which, you might recall, that was a tempestuous time in Iran, and it's not like it's government has ever been friendly to artistic types to begin with, and despite Panahi being one of the greatest and most successful and renowned filmmakers that Iran has ever produced, and believe it or not that's quite a longer list than you think (Hell, I've argue on several occasions that the best filmmaker working today is Iran's Asghar Farhadi) he was put under house arrest for six years and refused to be able to make a movie for 20. That has, amazingly not stopped him. This is his third, of four movies that have so far been made under this bad. I've seen, the documentary "This is Not a Film", I haven't caught "Closed Curtain" yet and "Flower", which is purportedly being directed by his son, is still in development. He's not allowed to leave Iran by the way and shoot a film somewhere else, so he's stuck there, and has apparently gotten a job as a taxi driver. 'Jafar Panahi's Taxi', or in some circles it's called "Taxi Tehran" or just "Taxi", shows Jafar, as a taxi driver. The film is shot using three hidden cameras placed on the dashboard of the cab, although based on some of the passengers' reactions it's only somewhat hidden, and those who recognize him figure he's up to something, while others, are probably indifferent. Or possibly just plants. The opening scene of "Taxicab Confessions: Tehran Edition", (I know, I couldn't help it; I live in Vegas, if there's something good and successful that manages to come out of here, I plug it.) involves two customers, a female teacher and a male mugger, who get into an argument over capital punishment. However, this scene already seems questionable, it's confirmed by the next passenger, who not only recognized Panahi, he also recognizes the two passengers as actors. This guy sells pirated DVDs, mostly of American movies and TV shows, but he throws in some art house fair as well. There's a sequence involving two older women traveling with a goldfish that's a reference to Panahi's first film "The White Balloon", which I haven't seen, so that went over my head. Although he brings in a female lawyer who's still lawyering even though she's coming up to the bar association soon, presumably to soon be stripped of her license. She mentions my favorite Panahi film, "Offside" which, like "...Taxi" was shot on and at a real location, in that case, a World Cup Qualifying soccer game, and focused on the women who got caught trying to dress as men to attend the game and were held in a temporary holding cell until the game ends. There is one other filmmaker in the cab, his granddaughter, who's making a movie for school with her little camera phone and has to abide by the government rules on what's appropriate to film, and gets annoyed at a young man she was filming, who didn't behave correctly by giving a bride and groom they happen to run into, back the money that fell out of their pocket. She's adorable and precocious. Panahi, is by all accounts, a terrible cab driver, but it's what he's doing, and the camera's rolling. The last shot of the movie, I genuinely can't talk about, and cannot tell if it was real, or if it was added for the end of the film. Oddly, one of the least memorable parts of the movie, was when Panahi drove a man and his wife to the hospital after he suffered a major motorcycle accident, and he insists on recording him with a camera phone, unaware of Panahi already recording, in order to make sure his wife gets everything after his death by recording his will. Ether way, it gives us a startling reminder of just how dangerous what Panahi's doing, and to some extent, how hopeless those are who are trying to stop him from making movies. Panahi's best gift is his instinctual sense of exploring and examining empathy of it's characters, not only for himself but of others, and yes, riding around in a taxi, you find interesting people who talk a lot. He's not the first to come with the idea, Jim Jarmusch's masterpiece, "Night on Earth" did that as well. "...Taxi", is not that good, but it's probably a more interesting and impressive film, if nothing else for the fact that it was made at all, but also because of what it shows, and because it has a lot more to say, but it's how it says it that's amazing. This film would still be great if it was shot by someone other than Panahi, and told the same story, but I don't think another filmmaker would've made this film. No other filmmaker would be placed in such a position to think about making this film, and nobody in that position, other than Panahi would probably have the balls and guts to do it.