2016 in Horror Films, Mid-Year Report (The Best) – Part 2

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With as little ado as possible, I now present the other half of the horror films that have impressed me the most since January. As with the previous list, these are in no particular order, although the final two bear the distinction of being the two most recent films I’ve screened. Let’s get to blurbing!

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They’re Watching — What do you get when you let two of the creative masterminds behind SpongeBob Squarepants loose in the horror genre? Turns out you get something truly quirky, weird, goofy, sort of stupid and thoroughly entertaining: whoda thunk it? Jay Lender and Micah Wright’s horror-comedy sends the crew of an American home renovation show to a tiny, backwater Eastern European village, where they run afoul of the sinister locals, a possible witch and lots of unnatural things in the woods. The film is pitched and realized as a nod to Sam Raimi’s classic Evil Dead and it works like gangbusters, especially once we get to the SFX-heavy finale. Never less than fun and frequently rather brilliant, this was one of the biggest surprises of the year.

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Emelie — On the surface, this tale of the proverbial bad babysitter seems thoroughly old hat and moldy but it’s actually quite tense, intelligent and genuinely unsettling. We see how deranged the titular character is right off the bat, which lends an immediate queasy jolt to all of her interactions with the children. It’s the classic case of knowing there’s a bomb, under the table, ready to explode at any moment. While I wouldn’t call Emelie Hitchcockian, per se, let’s just say that writer-director Michael Thelin gets a lot closer to that celebrated real estate than most. The Tudors’ Sarah Bolger does some truly frightening things as evil Emelie and the kids are likable enough to make us care. Another film that should have received a theatrical release but went straight to VOD.

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The Gateway — For his sophomore film, writer/director/cinematographer Jaron Henrie-McCrea opted to make what I consider to be a front-runner for horror film of the year, which is really considerate of him. The premise behind The Gateway (aka Curtain) is so simple that it might sound stupid, at first: a burnt-out hospice nurse rents an apartment where any curtains hung in the shower mysteriously disappear. She decides to find out where they go and absolutely metaphysical mayham ensues. The logline may seem like the setup for a lame punchline but what Henrie-McCrea does with it is nothing short of genius. To say almost anything would potentially spoil some amazing twists and reveals, so suffice to say that this microbudget marvel is worth a watch and we’ll leave it at that. A strange, delightful companion to last year’s equally twisted Motivational Growth.

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Freaks of Nature — Another film that I expected to be a silly goof, Freaks of Nature won me over so completely that I ended up watching it again a few days later. Fun, good-humoured, full of smart themes, loaded with quotable dialogue and featuring a simply terrific cast, this tale of a small town that happens to be populated by uneasily coexisting humans, vampires and zombies and is then, in turn, invaded by aliens, is the definition of a crowd pleaser. The characters are charming and empathetic, old pros like Denis Leary, Keegan-Michael Key, Joan Cusack, Bob Odenkirk and Patton Oswalt turn in instantly memorable performances and the laughs are both earnest and just raunchy enough to suit the material. The rare film where the teenage characters actually feel like teens and not like thirty-year-old actors. Suffice to say, I liked this one a whole lot.

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Pride + Prejudice + Zombies — Despite being a fan of both Jane Austen and zombies, separately, I did not expect to enjoy this particular mash-up in the slightest. I gotta say, though: it ticked every box off my personal score card for big-budget, multiplex horror fare and then some, especially when compare to something like World War Z. Lushly filmed, very smartly written (the not-so-subtle battle of the sexes themes reveal surprises at every turn), full of great action sequences with decent enough CGI effects and quite a bit of grue (for a PG13 flick), I found myself constantly entertained, intellectually engaged and a little sad when it was over. With tongue just enough in cheek (through cheek?) but with an obvious reverence for the source material, this is a modern(ish) update that really works.

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Scherzo Diabolico — Anyone who’s been a regular reader of The VHS Graveyard will know that I hold auteur Adrian Garcia Bogliano is no small regard: truth be told, he’s a major deity in my personal pantheon of modern horror filmmakers and someone whose projects I await like a kid on the last day of school. Every film has been markedly different and this little jewel keeps the trend running. A put-upon, low-level lawyer finally reaches his breaking point and decides to kidnap his boss’ daughter in order to throw the alpha asshole off his game. The plan works, to a point, and then it doesn’t: the eventual blowback brings to mind the works of Chan-wook Park and earns this a resounding place at the horror big kids’ table. The title is Italian for “Diabolical Prank” but this is all treats, no tricks.

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10 Cloverfield Lane — Full disclosure: I was never bonkers over J.J. Abram’s original Cloverfield. While I always admire a good giant monster flick, that one came with a bit too much nausea-inducing 1st-person POV and obnoxious characters for my taste. I liked this kinda-sorta follow-up (Abrams produces but doesn’t direct) quite a bit better. In fact, when the film is just Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman and John Gallagher Jr. feinting around each other in the bunker, it’s kinda-sorta amazing. The “other stuff” is handled well, without a doubt, but those tense early-to-mid scenes are where the film really shines. To my mind, it’s still obvious that this is two films “stitched” together. When it’s done this well, however, I really can’t complain.

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Clown — Once upon a time, a couple of jokers named Christopher Ford and Jon Watts had the cojones to post a trailer for a movie called Clown online and attribute said film to horror maven Eli Roth. Thing is, Roth had nothing whatsoever to do with the film, which also didn’t exist in any form. He was impressed by their temerity, however, so we flash-forward to the actual product, written by both, directed by Watts and presented by Roth. Is the destination as good as the journey for the little creature feature that could? Absolutely. Not only is Clown the very best killer clown movie ever made (call it the Citizen Kane of clowns, if you will), it’s also one of the very best horror films of the last few years, hands down. Clown is pure, old-school, slow-tracking-shot glory, full of outrageously gory kills, a genuinely kickass origin story and a supremely sympathetic, tragic hero. This isn’t a horror-comedy, ala Stiches or Killer Klowns From Outer Space: this tale of a father who dons an old clown costume and starts going through “ch-ch-changes” is pure, skin-crawling, not-afraid-to-kill-off-the-kids, flat-out horror. Essential.

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Green Room — Some might argue that Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to the gut-punch that was Blue Ruin doesn’t exactly qualify as horror. Fair enough. Close your eyes and imagine that you’re trapped in the back of a run-down bar, in the middle of nowhere, weapon-less, with a mob of bloodthirsty neo-Nazis pounding down the door. Sounds horrifying, right? Fair enough. Featuring one of Anton Yelchin’s final performances, a truly surprising serious turn from Alia Shawkat and Patrick Stewart as the most polite, sublimely evil skinhead in recent memory, Green Room is throttle-to-the-metal action, as fist-pumping and head-banging as it is genuinely sad and tragic. Once again, Saulnier shows that there’s no one better when it comes to depicting deperate folks at the end of their very last ropes. Extra points for a truly kickass soundtrack.

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Carnage Park — And here he is again: good, ol’ Mickey Keating. Two films in one year and they both landed on my mid-year best of list…suffice to say, I’m starting to think that this low-budget auteur is the bee’s knees! Capturing not only the blown-out look but also the heat-mirage morality of ’70s-era drive-in fodder, Keating brings us a simply dynamic tale of a pair of lowlifes who rob a bank, take an innocent hostage and drive into the desert, where they all run afoul of a looney-tunes former war hero who’s decided that sniping unsuspecting folks on his own twisted “amusement park” wasteland is as good a form of therapy as any. The performances are pitch-perfect, with Ashley Bell and Pat Healy being easy stand-outs, but it’s really all of the little, marginal details that make this so special, including what I’m pretty sure are some subtle allusions to the original My Bloody Valentine. At this rate, there’s every chance that Keating’s next film, Psychopaths, will also end up on this year’s best of list: when yer hot, yer hot!

2016 in Horror Films, Mid-Year Report (The Best) – Part 1

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It’s now time to take a look at the twenty horror films that have impressed me the most in the first seven months of this year. For the sake of space, we’ll break this up into two separate parts, although there’s currently no real order to any of the listings.

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The Witch — The Witch was hyped so early and so hard (it had steady buzz and good word of mouth from its festival debut early last year) that I assumed it was all but destined to be a disappointment. Rather than being disappointed, however, I was completely entranced by this subtle, genuinely unsettling tale of eldritch evil in the years right before the infamous Salem witch trials. Until the suitably Argento-esque finale, the film plays its cards fairly close to the vest and is all the stronger for it. It’s a strangely old-fashioned kind of a film and rises above the cookie-cutter competition quite poetically.

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Baskin — This batshit crazy Turkish export starts out like a sub-Tarantino cop goof before taking a hard right turn in to pure, unadulterated Fulci madness. For stronger stomaches, this tale of a group of SWAT officers finding the literal door to Hell is really one of the very best modern-day Itallo-horror homages and features some truly gorgeous cinematography, along with some of the best use of colored lighting since the glory days of Dario Argento. It might not be a nice film but it sure is an impressive one. Let’s hope that this heralds the dawning of a new era in Turkish horror.

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Ava’s Possessions — I expected a lightweight time-waster but ended up with an impressively smart, skillfully made little sleeper that manages to equate binge drinking with demonic possession to rather wonderful results. The titular young woman awakes after being exorcised of a particularly pesky demon and must then put together the very shattered pieces of her formerly normal life, piecing together what happened bit by bit. At times, the film almost plays like a straight-faced Beetlejuice (no mean feat) but the serious themes are never overtaken by the dark whimsy. Suffice to say that I was constantly surprised, which rarely happens.

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High-Rise — My early pick for one of the year’s very best films, Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of Ballard’s classic novel is just about perfect. Everything from the film’s immaculate, Kubrickian production design to the mannered performances from top brass like Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons and Elisabeth Moss serve to pull you in to this tale of social upheaval and disintegration in the confines of a luxurious, high-rise apartment building. Not a shot is wasted, nor a line tossed away, which is pretty much par for the course with the British auteur. Grab a dog leg and enjoy!

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Darling — Quickly earning a reputation as the hardest working filmmaker in the indie genre scene, Mickey Keating follows up last year’s impressive Pod with this even better Repulsion homage. Darling is an immaculately made little psycho-drama that uses gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and an absolutely mesmerizing performance from Lauren Ashley Carter to pull us into the warped world of the title character, as she descends into complete insanity. By turns shocking and oppressive, Darling is never less than razorwire tense, from the first frame to the unforgettable finale. Mark my words: Keating is one to watch.

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Hush — While I didn’t love Mike Flanagan’s Absentia, I was quite taken by its follow-up, Occulus, giving me high hopes for his next film, Before I Wake. With that film trapped in a distribution nightmare that might rival its fictional content, however, Flanagan’s next film ended up being this concise, streamlined home invasion/slasher. Suffice to say, I liked this one quite a bit, too, with a few reservations. This nailbiting chiller about a deaf-mute woman menaced in her home by a masked, unnervingly mannered intruder works best before the bad guy removes his mask and starts talking but it’s never less than completely self-assured and packs a real punch. There are moments and scenes, here, that are nearly on a par with Carpenter’s original Halloween and that says a whole lot, in my book.

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Nina Forever — Boy meets girl, falls in love. Girl dies. Boy meets new girl, falls in love. Dead girl emerges from the sheets, bloody, whenever boy and new girl have sex. Despite this one little complication, new girl is still determined to make it work with the boy (and the dead girl). The only problem, however, is that the dead girl doesn’t like to share. By turns twisted, sentimental, oddly erotic and genuinely horrifying, Nina Forever was another surprisingly strong sleeper that used a great cast to tell a rather unique tale extremely well. Extra points for this one debuting on Valentine’s Day and for its consistently twisty, thorny plot twists.

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The Invitation — Before a final reel twist that’s both obvious and satisfying, this examination of grief and “getting better” is a thoroughly harrowing dive into the mind of an emotionally shattered father who just can’t get over the death of his son, despite his ex-wife’s seeming ease at doing just that. The whole house of cards comes tumbling down at a dinner party where truths are laid bare, secrets are revealed and we learn that one person’s sense of closure may just be the beginning of another’s madness. Although not completely a horror film, in the standard sense, the constant feeling of dread and paranoia keeps this firmly in the “chiller” side of things. Smart, thought-provoking and all but guaranteed to provoke after-screening discussions.

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Anguish — I expected this to be another bargain-basement possesion film (I’ve seen way too many in the past seven months, trust me), so was more than happy when it revealed itself to be an effective little indie chiller, instead. Sharing more than a few similarities with Vincenzo Natali’s equally effective Haunter, Anguish revolves around a teen girl who ends up “sharing” her body with the consciousness of another recently deceased teenager: when the dead girl doesn’t want to leave, things get decidedly scary for the living one. Remarkably subtle and grounded by a genuinely affecting lead performance, this is thoughtful, low-budget horror at its finest. Pity this never received a proper theatrical release, since I found it to be pretty much on par with the critically-vaunted It Follows, if not a bit more consistent.

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They Look Like People — Although never technically a horror film, this was, easily, one of the most nerve-wracking, disturbing films that I watched all year. Writer-director Perry Blackshear’s full-length debut details the efforts of a laid-back, totally nice guy (the impossibly likable Evan Dumouchel) as he supports his increasingly paranoid, wackadoodle best friend (the excellent MacLeod Andrews). The crazy friend is convinced that monsters (wearing human masks) walk among us, ala They Live. Is he really insane, however? Just what, exactly, are those weird things over in the shadows…? The final fifteen minutes are a master-class in sustained, white-knuckle tension that found me glued to the edge of my seat and unable to tear my eyes from the screen. A micro-budget mini-marvel thay deserves a wider audience.

Coming up next: the other half of this humble little list. Stay tuned, friends and cyber-neighbors!

2016 in Horror Films, Mid-Year Report (The Worst)

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With June now behind us, we’ve officially reached the midpoint of 2016: what better time to take a look at the best and the worst horror films released in the first half of the year? As part of my goal to see as many 2016 horror films as humanly possible (both wide-released big budget affairs and straight-to-VOD indies), I’ve managed to screen 66 of the 113 released films thus far. I’ve still yet to see a few of the wide-released studio horror, such as The Neon Demon, The Conjuring 2 or The Shallows, but a 58% viewing ratio makes me confident enough to be able to provide a (fairly) decent appraisal of what’s out there.

While I’ve managed to see plenty of good films and even a handful of great ones, there have also been plenty of stinkers in the batch. These have ranged from creatively bankrupt, cookie-cutter snoozers that jump on whatever happens to be the trend of the moment (witch and possession/exorcism films are currently “it” in this game of tag) to thoroughly inept exercises in bad filmmaking. I’ve seen films that were laughably bad and films that failed to even check that particular box off their lists.

Out of 66 films, however, there were always going to be some bad apples: that’s just the law of averages. There were also lots of exceptional films and we’ll get to those, too. With no further ado, then, here are my thoughts on the sixteen films that I consider to be the worst horror films of 2016 (thus far). For purposes of brevity, I’ve tried to restrict my thoughts to a sentence or two. There is also no particular order to the list below, although certain films were certainly worse than others. Will any of these make it on to my ultimate Worst of the Year list? Only time will tell but I’ll tell you what: a few of these are early and easy contenders.

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Restoration – Written, directed by and starring one of my favorite actors (Zack Ward), this managed to be one of the most aggressively stupid films I think I’ve ever seen. New home owners find a teddy bear in the walls and mass over-acting ensues.

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Uncaged – 1st-person-POV horror, teens and werewolves should have been a great combo but this overly earnest indie just limped around for a while, waiting for someone to put a (silver) bullet in it. I’ll stick with Teen Wolf, thanks very much.

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Sacrifice – A rather dumb take on The Wicker Man, minus any of that film’s genuine mystery or otherworldy allure, Sacrifice is more of a mystery than an actual horror film. This snoozer about ritually-murdered bodies found in a peat bog is also much more interesting in theory than it ever becomes in execution.

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Fairlane Road – I never like to unduly shit on indie horror films but it was hard to find anything to extoll in this particular instance. This tale of a nephew going to see his loner uncle in the desert unfolds pretty much how you expect it to, right down to the “twist” ending, devoid of anything approaching a surprise and full of some downright amateurish performances.

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The Offering – Combining lame “Americans in a scary foreign place” films with even lamer possession films and adding dumb cult elements, for spice, The Offering is sort of like making a gumbo with rocks, dirt and spider webs and then expecting it to taste like anything but muck: it won’t. Another film that seems to think foreigners are inherently creepy, just, you know, because.

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Sacrament – This tale of crazy, small-town Texan carnivores and their cult-like ways had its heart in the right place (hell, Texas Chain Saw’s Marilyn Burns even makes an appearance!) but not much else. If intentions were outcomes, however, this would have been a real gem.

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JeruZalem – Another aggressively stupid film (another 2016 theme?), this managed to squander the colossally rad idea of a Biblical catastrophe befalling modern-day Jerusalem by saddling us with obnoxious characters and at least 666 jump scares too many. The 1st-person-POV was explained via Google Glass, which was clever, but almost everything else was painfully vanilla and remarkably tedious.

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Smothered – I really wanted to like this film and its genuinely clever concept (real-life horror icons get picked off, one by one, at a sinister trailer park) but one thing held me back: it’s a complete and total mess. Helmed by Dukes of Hazzards’ John Schneider and featuring lots of all-in performances, this was clearly a labor of love but, unfortunately, not of brains.

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The Forest – One of few 2016 horror films to receive wide distribution in multiplexes, The Forest is also one of the year’s very worst films: go figure. Cobbling together a moldy fruitcake out of tedious J-horror clichés, childhood trauma tedium and the bizarre notion than elderly Asian people are absolutely terrifying for no reason whatsoever (is there a name for that phobia?), The Forest looked good but was completely hollow and pointless, like a wax banana.

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The Boy – Another wide-released horror film, The Boy was another complete stinker: before the obvious twist turns the film into a complete joke, we’re left with a fairly standard “young woman in a creepy house where doors open and close film” crossed with a very standard “creepy doll” film. Neither “fake” film is particularly interesting but they’re both better than the “real” one, by a wide margin.

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He Never Died – I didn’t hate this oddball horror-comedy but I sure as hell didn’t love it, either, especially when it wasted both an original concept and Henry Rollins as an immortal flesh-eater. There’s some genuine pathos and dark humor that gets completely obliterated by tone-deaf cornball comedy and eye-rolling indie-action dumbassery, which kind of hurt my heart.

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The Before Time – Paint-by-numbers found-footage horror that did nothing interesting with its Southwest desert location whatsoever except show us yet another shot of someone being dragged backwards by an invisible “something.” Throw in an entire cast of hateful, obnoxious “characters” and this was a complete chore to finish.

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Dusk – Very rarely do I hate films but I actively hated this dunder-headed bit of idiocy by the time the credits rolled. This is definitely a mystery/thriller, rather than a horror film, but that’s easily the least of my beefs with it: the entire film is predicated on a twist that is so awe-inspiringly awful and stupid, it almost needs to be seen to be believed. Almost.

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Forsaken – Another painfully bad, generic possession/exorcism film, this gem revolves around a priest who purposefully gets his wife possessed by a demon in order to cure her illness. Pretty sure his HMO won’t cover that.

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Mark of the Witch – This wanted to be a nod to Itallo horror-surrealism but was saddled with a pretty awful lead (and I’m being rather kind), along with a fairly terrible script (again, kind). Lots of nice visuals and evocative cinematography, however, so not a complete wash, I suppose.

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Martyrs (remake) – This glossy, generic remake of the genuinely powerful and important French New Wave of Horror classic is a complete enigma: never as disturbing, graphic or impactful as the original (the entire mind-blowing cosmic implications of the gut-punch original finale are reduced to a dumb action scene, for one thing), Martyrs (2016) seems to exist solely for those folks who simply can’t stomach the original but want to know what it’s about. Couldn’t they have just Googled it?

Coming up: the best horror films of 2016…so far, that is. Stay tuned!

5/4/16: Art Imitating Strife

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If you really think about it, apple pie and baseball aren’t the things that most folks would readily associate with the good old U.S. of A…at least, not for the past forty years or so. Truth be told, I’m not sure that either of those oldies-but-goodies would even make the top ten list these days. There is one thing, however, that I’m willing to wager would make just about everyone’s list, one particular aspect of this country that has come to define us for the past few decades more than any others: we are a nation living under the shadow of an absolutely insatiable political machine.

This is not, of course, to make the case for the United States being the most politically savvy country on this particular interstellar ball of rock, water and gas. Not at all. Rather, we are a country completely obsessed with the notion of politics not as a great unifier but as the ultimate divider. Americans have developed an “us against them” mentality that has turned political parties into virtual religions, each with their own zealous acolytes dedicated to spreading the “good word” and stomping out all rivals.  Politics and political campaigning have become such a part of our cultural DNA that they no longer have their own “seasons”: we seem to be inundated with political information, via the 24-hour-news-cycle, on a daily basis. Nowadays, we don’t have presidential election campaigns every four years: we have one, constant, political campaign that’s been running non-stop since the early ’80s.

As we find ourselves in the midst of one of the nastiest, most contentious, presidential campaigns that the country has ever known (by comparison, the George W. era almost seems quaint), it’s hard to turn in any particular direction without getting smacked in the face with some sort of hard-line rhetoric, political scandal or screaming pundit. As with any big societal issue, however, one expects pop culture to spring back with its own rejoinder, add its voice to the conversation. Where, then, are the big political films about this chaotic era? Where is the multiplex fare that makes voters go “hmm”?

Turns out, one of the better, more incisive and cutting films about this current mess we call American political campaigning already came out…back in 2011. With the foresight of a modern-day Nostradamus, House of Cards creator Beau Willimon (who had extensive experience working on Democratic political campaigns, including Howard Dean’s 2004 run for the White House) wrote a play, back in 2008, entitled Farragut North. Several years down the road, Farragut North would be adapted by Willimon and co-writer/director George Clooney as The Ides of March (2011). In the process, they would craft a political thriller that manages to be more prescient five years down the line than it was at the time it was actually released. How’s that for a neat card trick?

Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) is the kind of golden-boy politician who says all the right things, flashes a million-dollar-grin at the plebes and seems as far-removed from most career scumbags as humanly possible. He comes across as a pie-in-the-sky idealist (shades of ol’ Bernie) but that’s just the kind of difference that’s currently setting him up as the Democratic front-runner for the current primary season. You see, Morris’ only serious challenger, Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell), is one of those “business-as-usual” types (shades of ol’ Hillary) and it seems that the Democratic voter base is primed for a system overhaul. Public popularity aside, however, DNC management just doesn’t see the idealistic Morris as a viable alternative against whatever Republican gets the nomination: they’re rather go with the tried and tested Pullman rather than easy-target Morris (sound familiar?).

Despite his own party’s power games, however, Gov. Morris seems to be fairly well-regarded by all. Perhaps no one person idolizes him more, however, than his second-in-command staffer, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling). To Stephen, Morris isn’t just his latest employer: he’s a force for good, an agent of change that will wipe all the bullshit away and start us out with a clean slate. Paul (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) might be Morris’ campaign manager but no one is more of a zealous booster than ruthlessly loyal Stephen.

After a series of big wins (most instigated by Stephen’s sly political maneuvering and pitbull-with-lockjaw tenacity), Morris is looking increasingly like the shoe-in. When a misguided attempt to reach out to another senator (Jeffrey Wright) with a large delegate base ends up producing the exact opposite result, however, Stephen and Paul have to go into crisis-control mode. Senator Pullman’s sleazy campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), makes overtures towards Stephen once it seems that the Morris campaign boat is headed straight for an iceberg: imagine a large rock sailing towards a pristine, crystal-clear picture window and you have the basic idea.

Besieged by all sides, both “friend” and “foe,” Stephen only has one clear compass left: his unwavering belief in and support of Morris and his campaign. When Stephen finds out something scandalous about Morris, however, something that threatens to tank his worship of the man in an instant, his whole world threatens to crumble around him. Will Stephen be able to separate the man from the message or is this just cosmic proof that every politician, at heart, is really a self-serving scumbag?

Right off the bat, The Ides of March should be instantly familiar to anyone who’s happened to catch any of Willimon’s House of Cards series. In tone, style, intent and message, there’s a whole lot of crossover here: hell, they even both deal with politics as filtered through the Democratic Party, a further similarity that’s too glaring to miss. Where House of Cards often falls into the trap of upping the melodrama to almost Shakespearian levels, however, The Ides of March is consistently more grounded and level-headed.

Like House of Cards, The Ides of March is a brisk, busy piece of work, stuffed to the brim with political minutae, realistic Machiavellian scheming and plenty of sturdy, if not overly showy, performances. There’s a sense of verisimilitude here that certainly speaks to Willimon’s extensive political background: like the best police or medical procedurals, you get the idea that Willimon knows what he’s talking about and that kind of trust goes a long way towards keeping you in the film’s clutches.

As usual, Clooney is a thoroughly charming, disarming presence: appropriately serious and imminently “presidential,” yet possessed of the ability to slip effortlessly into cold, reptilian evil, it’s a role that fits his style to a tee. For his part, Gosling does what he does best: cold, unemotional detachment broken, ever so often, by jagged spikes of pure, steely focus. While Gosling’s style tends to dampen nearly all of his big emotional moments (like it usually does), his performance is consistent, strong and essential to the film’s inner dynamic.

On the support side, we get something of a smorgasbord of small, indelible performances. Marisa Tomei is pitch-perfect as the journalist who considers loyalty to be a four-letter word. Hoffman and Giamatti don’t do much that we haven’t seen before but each actor manages to imbue a role that could’ve been nothing more than plot device with an underlying sense of sadness that’s both striking and subtle. Evan Rachel Wood’s Molly might be a bit of a thankless character (as are most of the female characters that aren’t played by Tomei, to be honest) but she brings a perfect blend of naivety and ambition to the role that helps to balance out the almost feral machinations of everyone around her.

In many ways, The Ides of March strikes me as a much better version of another recent political thriller, Austin Stark’s The Runner (2015). Where The Runner tended to wallow in the worst aspects of shows like House of Cards and Boss, however, The Ides of March takes a much calmer, more nuanced approach. It’s the difference between fire and ice, between a long, overwrought speech and a quick, cutting glance.

From a film-making perspective, The Ides of March is as sturdy as its performances. The script is strong, Clooney’s direction is typically self-assured and the film has a rich, burnished quality, thanks to cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s stellar camerawork. If the score can, at times, get a little overblown (this is Alexandre Desplat, after all), it just as often falls away to complete silence, an impressive detail in a cinematic world where leading musical cues are as common-place as product placement. The name of the game here is “subtlety”: Clooney and Willimon aren’t as interested in spoon-feeding you the info as they are in handing you a fork and telling you to dig in.

Thematically, there’s a lot to process here but the basic take-away is actually pretty simple: be careful who you choose to elevate to godhood. No human is infallible and people, by their very nature, will let you down. Fall in love with a politician’s policies, with their strategies and their plans for the future. Believe wholeheartedly in the message but be very, very careful about the messenger. As the old saying goes, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The unspoken notion, of course, is that any and all power will corrupt, to some extent. As poor Stephen finds out, we’re all only human, when all is said and done, and humans have been doing some pretty terrible things ever since we climbed out of the primordial ooze. Spend a day watching campaign ads and you’ll realize that we’re still up to the same tricks.

5/3/16: Twain of Consequences

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If you’ve ever gotten really wrapped up in a good book or story, you’ve probably wondered what happened to the surviving characters after the last page has been turned.  Do they continue to live on, experiencing life and having adventures that you’ll never be privy to? Are the unwritten/unseen adventures as good as what made it to the page? Could they possibly be better? Or is this the proverbial case of the unseen tree in the woods: if we’re not reading, do they cease to exist?

Working from this basic question, filmmaking siblings Aaron and Adam Nee offer up Band of Robbers (2016), a droll, indie-crime caper that wonders, aloud, what would happen if Mark Twain’s classic rapscallions Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were a couple of young roustabouts in our modern era. Lest they get lonely, the Nees have also brought along old friends like Becky Thatcher, Muff Potter, Aunt Polly, Sid Sawyer and, of course, that old ne’er-do-well, Injun Joe. When all’s said and done, however, do these timeless characters survive their modern makeovers or is this one of those “better in theory” type of deals?

Tom Sawyer (co-writer/director/editor Adam Nee) and Huck Finn (Kyle Gallner) are childhood best friends who are pretty much attached at the hip until life sends them down two very separate paths. Tom ends up joining the police force, where he navigates around both the disapproving eye of his stern aunt, Lt. Polly (Lee Garlington), and the over-sized shadow of his over-achieving half-brother, Det. Sid Sawyer (Eric Christian Olsen), all while keeping the most ridiculously sunny disposition this side of Mary Poppins. For his part, Huck has chosen a life of crime and spent a stretch of time in prison. As he nears his release date, Huck has no family, no friends, no real relationships and a huge question mark over his future.

The old friends reconnect when Tom picks Huck up from prison and whisks him straight away to a thoroughly pathetic “welcome home” party that doubles as a meeting for Tom’s latest brilliant idea. To whit: he wants Huck to join his “Band of Robbers,” which includes perpetually bleary Ben Rogers (Hannibal Buress), eager-to-please Joe Harper (Matthew Gray Gubler) and squeaky-clean Tommy Barnes (Johnny Pemberton), who just happens to be married to Tom’s old girlfriend, Amy (Maria Blasucci).

Tom’s plan is a complex, convoluted and fairly nonsensical one that involves ripping off a pawn shop in order to steal a hidden fortune in gold that has, according to Tom’s source, “Muff” Potter (Cooper Huckabee), been left there by none other than the nefarious killer, Injun Joe (Stephen Lang). The plan is a harebrained one, sure, but it still ends up going to shit in some pretty spectacular ways, mostly centered around Tom suddenly acquiring a wet-behind-the-ears, rookie partner, Becky Thatcher (Melissa Benoist). When the dust clears, Tom, Huck and their bumbling “band” must avoid not only the long arm of the local podunk police force but also the murderous attention of Injun Joe and his partners. Throw in some love lost and found, old wounds healed, old friendships reconciled and destinies fulfilled and you might have something that would make ol’ Samuel Clemens crack a grin.

If it were possible for films to skate by on nothing but a fresh concept and good intentions, Band of Robbers would be a massive success from start to finish. Indeed, the vast majority of good will that the Nees amass here is usually centered around the clever ways in which they manage to insert Twain’s various creations into the fabric of what turns out to be a fairly hum-drum caper film. Devotees of the original source material will be able to play a pretty fun little game of “Spot the Reference/Character,” which adds a little replay value to the proceedings, along with creating a fairly immersive world for Tom, Huck and their cohorts to play in.

The performances are generally enthusiastic, which gives the film a nicely propulsive quality, although some actors/characters fare better than others. At the top of this particular pyramid sits Kyle Gallner’s nicely understated take on Huck Finn and Stephen Lang’s all-in performance as one of the literary world’s greatest villains. Completely unrecognizable (I actually had no idea it was him until the end credits), Lang seems to be having more fun than the entire case combined and it’s pretty easy to give yourself over to the film whenever he holds the reins (which is, admittedly, not often enough). For his part, Gallner gives us a fairly standard “troubled dude with good intentions” but the performance is nuanced and Gallner is charismatic enough to make it work.

We also get sturdy performances from Gubler (quickly becoming a modern-day, genre film go-to-guy), Garlington, Olsen and Huckabee, all of whom run the gamut from suitably grounded to outrageously over-the-top. At the very least, however, each one brings enough individuality to the portrayals to make the characters seem (at least superficially) like fairly well-rounded creations. We’re not talking the typical Andersonian “cast of dozens,” mind you, but the aforementioned actors do a fine job of keeping us in Band of Robbers peculiar little world.

Less successful, unfortunately, are Hannibal Buress’ odd, spacey performance as Ben (was he actually stoned during the shoot, on cough medicine or a combination of both?), Adam Nee’s thoroughly grating, obnoxious take on Tom Sawyer and poor Melissa Benoist’s completely wasted take on Becky Thatcher. Buress’ performance isn’t as much of an issue due to his relative lack of screen-time but Nee is in roughly 90% of the film and he’s all but impossible to ignore. When working in tandem with Gallner and the others, Nee’s spastic performance feels, at the very least, tethered to something. Whenever he’s allowed to dominate the proceedings, however, he Hoovers up scenery like some sort of human-shaped black hole, giving everything a hectic, rushed and unnecessarily madcap feel that seems at odds with the rest of the film’s tone.

Perhaps no one gets the shorter end of the stick than Benoist, however, whose Becky Thatcher is such a non-entity that she might as well wear a big sign that says “Plot Device” around her neck. Where the original Becky was a more than suitable firebrand foil for Tom Sawyer, this version is just a moon-eyed, bumbling green-horn, a character who exists only to complicate the already complicated caper and serve as a standard-issue love interest. Hell, Becky’s “big” moment comes when she reveals that she asked to be Tom’s partner because she “sensed that he was headed for big things.” It would probably be easier to forgive the waste of a character if Benoist (so good in Whiplash (2014)) didn’t throw her all into the thankless character, giving her a giddy, effervescent quality that absolutely deserved a better outlet. Maybe next time, Melissa.

More than anything, however, Band of Robbers suffers from being simultaneously too familiar (despite that great central concept) and too disjointed and manic. When the film works, it works just fine. When it doesn’t, however, it actually becomes something of a mess. Take the pawn shop heist, for example, which should be one of the film’s primo setpieces. Instead, the scene devolves into a seriously unfunny mix of silly situational comedy, exaggerated performances and sub-Ritchian, overlapping dialogue. It was tiresome practically from the point it began, grinding the entire film to a halt at just the exact point when it should have been reaching take-off speed.

This sense of missed opportunities is repeated ad infinitum, right down to the ridiculously lackadaisical way in which the film dispatches its one legitimate threat (suffice to say that low stakes are but another constant issue here): it’s the notion that cutting off loose ends is much easier and less time consuming than tying them into neat bows. It’s a bit of a shame, too, since the film generally looks and sounds top-notch: at times, cinematographer Noah Rosenthal’s camera-work even approximates the arty loveliness of the Nees’ obvious influence, Wes Anderson, although it’s never more than a surface touch, at best.

Ultimately, despite its good intentions and handful of genuinely smart stylistic quirks, Band of Robbers never really makes good on the inherent interest of its premise. Rather than being something fairly original and new, this is just another zig-zagging crime caper about odd-couple friends who must set aside their differences in order to pull off one last, big haul. If that sounds familiar…well, it certainly is. There are plenty of films worse than Band of Robbers and an equal amount that are much, much better: problem is, no one ever stood out by standing in the middle of a crowd. I think ol’ Tom Sawyer would agree with that, too.

5/1/16: This Kitten’s Got Claws

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In many cases, you never know quite what you have with a movie until you’ve actually sat down and watched it. Sure, the poster and teaser trailer might have given you some idea of what to expect but there’s almost always that “aha!” moment where all is actually made clear. After all: you know that all of those famous floating heads must be in the film somewhere but what are they actually doing?

Take, for example, the advance poster for Keanu (2016), the inaugural, big-screen starring debut from sketch-comedy mavens Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. One look at the poster would have us believe that the film centers around the terminally mild-mannered duo laying waste to everything around them, all in order to save an adorable kitten in a do-rag. Once you actually get into the film, however, you quickly come to realize that it’s actually about the bumbling duo laying waste to everything around them, all in a desperate attempt to save a kidnapped kitten, who just happens to sport a do-rag for most of the proceedings. Wait a minute…

This, of course, is not only needlessly reductive but downright mean: Keanu might offer up exactly what’s advertised but it does so in such a buoyant, jubilant and bighearted way that you’d have to be a literal monster not to be charmed. Think of this as the goofy, nerdy little brother to Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007), a little brother raised on Nickelodeon shows, ’90s-era bullet ballets like Bad Boys (1995) and Con Air (1997) and enough Mountain Dew to kill a rhino. Silly? Without a doubt. A blast and a half? You know it!

Concept-wise, this loads a bunch of comedy/action tropes into a blender, hits puree and pours out the frothy results for instant audience enjoyment. Our heroes, Clarence (Key) and Rell (Peele), are the kind of meek, vanilla nice guys who make Mr. Rogers look like Max Cady, by contrast. Clarence, an avowed George Michael fanatic, seems completely oblivious to his neighbor, Spencer’s (Rob Huebel, oozing slime like a garden snail) smarmy machinations regarding his wife, Hannah (Nia Long). Rell, for his part, has just suffered a painful breakup and chooses to sooth his inner turmoil with copious amounts of weed purchased from next-door-neighbor Will Forte (doing his best K-Fed impression).

Change comes to the best friends in the form of the ridiculously adorable titular kitten, an escapee from the drug warehouse massacre that opened the film in full-on John Woo mode. Rell falls in love with the little fuzzball when it shows up on his doorstep and instantly finds a reason to not only stop moping around but to fully embrace life again. When the dynamic duo returns home from a movie and finds Rell’s house ransacked and Keanu missing, however, they’ll need to embrace their inner tough guys (well…relatively speaking, at least) and rescue the little guy. Along the way, they’ll tangle with the notorious 17th Street Blips, get dosed with a dangerous new designer drug, stay one step ahead of the lethal Allentown Boys, find love, earn some street cred and prove that nice guys can, in fact, finish first.

From the jump, Keanu is a thoroughly ridiculous, silly and absurd film: make no bones about that. The kicker is that everyone involved is so good-natured and all-in that it’s impossible not to get swept along for the ride. Praise must go to stars Key and Peele, of course, since the whole enterprise would quickly sink without their impeccable timing and genuine sense of camaraderie but the film is full of little touches that prove it’s more than just an extended skit from their show.

Like the aforementioned Hot Fuzz, part of the key to Keanu’s success is that it genuinely likes the moldy old tropes and cliches that it skewers left and right. This isn’t a case of derisively mocking cheesy buddy-action films: this is about pointing out the inherent absurdity of said cliches while simultaneously celebrating them. To that end, we get copious slo-mo gun battles, shell casings falling like snow and assassins so badass that they refuse to die, no matter how many rounds you pump into them. We get the obligatory car chases, tense promises of torture and a pounding soundtrack to highlight all of the gleeful carnage.

The difference, here, is that Key, Peele and their frequent TV collaborators (director Peter Atencio and co-writer Alex Rubens) are smart and skillful enough to weave plenty of surprises and sly commentary into this otherwise familiar tapestry. We get the expected plot point where Rell and Clarence need to impersonate tough guys in order to infiltrate the Blips but the scene pays-off pretty spectacularly when Key’s Clarence mugs so virulently that he becomes a cartoon-version of a gang-banger. Add to this their chosen gang monikers (Techtonic and Shark Tank) and you have a great gag that finds new ways to explore an old concept.

This upending of expectations manifests itself in ways both subtle (notice how the drug-packers in the opening scene are all scantily-clad guys rather than the underwear-clad women that are usually par-for-the-course with this type of thing) and in-your-face (every single bloodthirsty killer in the film appears to be as head-over-heels in love with Keanu as Rell and Clarence are) but it all has the effect of keeping the audience on its toes. Even if we recognize the basic set-up for a joke, chances are the filmmakers will find some way to subvert or modify it.

Despite how thoroughly charming and fun the film ends up being, however, Keanu is certainly not without its share of flaws. 100 minutes is a fairly long time for a silly, breezy comedy and there are plenty of scenes that could have benefited immensely from some judicious editing. In particular, a set-piece that contrasts Rell and Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish) trying to deliver drugs to an upscale party while Clarence waits outside and teaches the Blips to love George Michael starts off great, with plenty of big laughs, but ends up going on forever and becomes something closer to annoying. Call it too much of a good thing but plenty of this could (and should) have ended up on the cutting-room floor.

There are also frequent dead spots in the film, usually at any point that doesn’t feature Key, Peele and the kitten as the main focus. When the trio are together, they’re pretty much unstoppable: Key and Peele have such a natural, unforced chemistry that they handily sell each and every interaction, whether sweetly sentimental or delightfully demented. When it comes to the rest of the cast, however, the results can be a bit more hit-and-miss when they take center-stage: Forte, in particular, is so one-note and stereotypical that he wears out his welcome shortly after his introduction…and this is from someone who thinks he’s one of the best comic actors of this era. Ditto Method Man, whose steely Cheddar (because he played Cheese on The Wire, dontcha know?) never seems like more than a stock character type.

In the end, however, most complaints about this will be more quibbles and nitpicking than anything major: Keanu comes out of the gate with a very specific modus operandi and, if you’re on its wavelength, I’m willing to wager you’ll love it. From the scene where Rell and Clarence roll into slo-mo battle to the tune of George Michael’s “Freedom” to the fist-raising bit where Keanu saves the day, this is a film that knows how to deliver one crowd-pleasing moment after the next. Keanu may not be the most original film out there but there is one claim it can make: it is, without a doubt, the best action-comedy about a kidnapped kitten in a do-rag and tiny gold chain that you will ever see. That, my friends, you can take to the bank.

 

The 88th Annual Academy Awards: Who Will Win, Who Should Win (Part Two)

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And now: the final part of my Oscar predictions, as we approach the kick-off to the big event.

Best Animated Short

Bear Story

Prologue

Sanjay’s Super Team

We Can’t Live Without Cosmos

World of Tomorrow

What Should Win: World of Tomorrow/Sanjay’s Super Team

What Will Win: Sanjay’s Super Team

Right up until I actually saw Sanjay’s Super Team, this seemed like another one of those grudging “can’t stop it” categories. After all, Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow is the obvious winner, a smart, moving and powerful examination on the basics of humanity that says more in its 15 minutes than most films say in two hours. Bear Story was an amazing, intricately made expose on the subtler evils of fascism, while We Can’t Live Without Cosmos was a bittersweet look at friendship, set around the trappings of the Russian space program: both were good but, compared to World of Tomorrow, just didn’t have the big vision and reach. Prologue? Way too strange and head-scratching, despite some amazing visuals. I figured that Sanjay’s Super Team would win simply for being the resident Pixar offering: combined with its superhero focus, that seemed unbeatable. And then I actually watched it. Let’s be clear: World of Tomorrow is a phenomenal piece of art, deep, moving and important. Sanjay’s Super Team is, likewise, a deeply moving bit of art with the added benefit of a visual style that, for lack of a better word, is next-level. The short will win and it will absolutely deserve it, despite a lot of very worthy competition.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Mad Max: Fury Road

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared

The Revenant

What Should Win: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared

What Will Win: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared

Up until I actually watched The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared, I was fully prepared to give this to Mad Max, part and parcel. The Revenant was truly impressive (that bungled scalping…shiver…) but, like the rest of the visual effects, a little to organic to really stand out. Mad Max, on the other hand, was a virtual cornucopia of varied makeup, a cast of thousands with a thousand different looks, style sand quirks to go with it. Case closed.

Not quite. Turns out that not only is The 100-Year-Old Man Who…one of the best, most original and flat-out funniest films of 2015 (maybe the best: I have some serious re-evaluating to do), the makeup effects are equally impressive. Just the aging makeup of the lead character, alone, puts this over the top (the actor is in his mid-40s, in real-life, yet realistically ages from his twenties through to hundred across the span of two hours). Add in all of the really great historical figure impersonations (the Stalin, Bush and Reagan ones are spot-on) and you have a nominee that upholds excellence in every measure of the category. For me, this is an absolute no-brainer.

Best Original Screenplay

Bridge of Spies

Ex Machina

Inside Out

Spotlight

Straight Outta Compton

What Should Win: Ex Machina

What Will Win: Inside Out

Caveat: I never got around to Spotlight, so if that was the best script, I defer to more knowledgeable souls. Of the remaining four, it’s a bit of a shoving match. To not put to fine a point on it, Straight Outta Compton had a terrible script, one of the most tone-deaf, obvious and awkward of the entire year. The film might have had its share of problems but the script was absolutely at the top of the list. Bridge of Spies was a consistently twisty, thorny screenplay, yet wasn’t always as clear as it could’ve been: perhaps one needed a scorecard to tell the players during the event but one shouldn’t need the same for a fictional cinematic adaptation. Inside Out has a really smart, sensitive and mature script, with a profound insight into not only childhood but depression, mania and other mental conditions. This seems like a lock and I wouldn’t complain in the slightest.

For my money, though, Ex Machina had the best, most subtle and most intriguing script of the bunch. The ideas were less conventional than the others, the dialogue was smart and the big questions that were raised had a genuine sense of impact and importance. Perhaps it speaks more to my particular sensibilities but this was the film that I found myself returning to the most (of the nominees) and I credit that in no small part to the excellent screenplay.

Best Supporting Actor

Christian Bale, The Big Short

Tom Hardy, The Revenant

Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight

Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Who Should Win: Tom Hardy, The Revenant

Who Will Win: Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Since I only saw two nominees here, my opinion probably won’t carry much weight. Of the performances I saw, Hardy did a phenomenal job portraying a true cretin with just enough self-doubt to prevent him from becoming a sub-human monster, while Rylance subtly portrayed a wry, unflappable spy with a charming mixture of understated humor, stoicism and grim acceptance. I lean towards Hardy, here, although either one seem equally worthy.

In the grand scheme, however, is anyone really going to beat Sly here? Not only does his return performance as Rocky tick off pretty every box on the Academy’s “What We Like” list, it also “corrects” the error of never awarding him a trophy for his initial go-round with the character. They’ll see it as proper and that’s probably as good a reason as any.

Best Supporting Actress

Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight

Rooney Mara, Carol

Rachel McAdams, Spotlight

Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Who Should Win:

Who Will Win: Rachel McAdams, Spotlight

Despite my intentions, I only ended up seeing one of the nominated performances, which is a real shame. Despite enjoying Jennifer Jason Leigh’s full-blooded, foul-mouthed and vilely exuberant performance as the condemned centerpiece in Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, it was still a pretty cartoonish performance and devoid of much nuance or shading. A great performance, mind you, but the kind I would consider one of the year’s best.

Of the ones I didn’t see, I’m going to pull McAdams’ name out of my magician’s hat. I’m not sure how much love Spotlight will see at the Oscars but all reports have indicated that McAdams was a pivotal point in the film’s acting ensemble. At this point, however, it’s definitely a coin toss.

Best Picture

The Big Short

Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Room

Spotlight

What Should Win: Mad Max

What Will Win: The Revenant

At long last, the main event. I ended up screening five out of the eight Best Picture nominees (I didn’t get to Brooklyn, The Big Short or Spotlight, unfortunately), so at least this will be a bit more informed than the Supporting Actor/Actress categories. I enjoyed Bridge of Spies but never found it more than a pleasant diversion: call it Spielberg-lite (very lite), an enjoyable film but altogether forgettable. The Martian was duly impressive when it stuck with the core idea of Damon lost on Mars but became too conventional and rather uninteresting whenever it left the Red Planet and returned to ground control. The Room was an impressive, tense rape/abuse analogy that suffered from the same basic issues as The Martian: when it left the confines of the titular location, the film became much more familiar and infinitely less spectacular.

This leaves us with the final two in the running: Inarritu’s ode to vengeance, The Revenant, and George Miller’s return to the wasteland, Mad Max: Fury Road. Quality-wise, both films are on par, for different reasons: they’re both fully immersive, in their own way, are the furthest things from spoon-fed multiplex pap and demand that audiences keep up if they want the full experience. They’re both technical marvels, The Revenant utilizing nothing but natural light and adverse weather conditions to produce an unparalleled vision of the unforgiving natural world, while Mad Max throws everything (including the kitchen sink) at the screen in an overwhelming successful attempt to portray a world spun completely off the wheels.

At the end of the day, this will be a contest decided by two very different, yet equally exacting, takes on the art of filmmaking. Will the Academy award Inarritu’s hell-and-back approach to filmcraft or will old master Miller finally get recognition for a truly stunning, outsider career that’s managed to spring like Lazarus from the dead? Can Inarritu score back-to-back Oscar wins or is that one lottery ticket too many?

When all is said and done, my gut instinct tells me that The Revenant will end up standing tall. Production narratives have as much to do with a film’s Academy success as anything else and, regardless of what one thinks about the actual film, there’s no denying that The Revenant is pretty much a one-of-a-kind production. I would, personally, rather see Mad Max take the prize but I just don’t think that’s in the cards.

Perhaps I’m wrong, however. One way or the other, we’ll all find out soon. Happy viewings, friends and cyber-neighbors!

The 88th Annual Academy Awards: Who Will Win, Who Should Win (Part One)

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Things can always be different. In most cases, they should be different. At the end of the day, however, especially when it comes to awards shows, we can only really deal with what’s in front of us. Taking a look at this year’s Oscar nominees, there’s a whole lot that I would do differently. For one, there’s a lot of female directors that should have been on the list this year (Marjane Satrapi, Shira Piven and Celine Sciamma spring instantly to mind). There are at least a bakers’ dozen of extraordinary films and performances that weren’t so much as nominated (Kristen Wiig, Slow West, Girlhood and Bone Tomahawk are all on the “shafted” list this year). As I’ve said before, so shall I say again: do Academy voters actually watch more than 10 films a year?

All of that being said, we’ll deal with what “could’ve been” in a future post: at this time, we can only examine what was nominated, for good and bad. I did my best to see as many nominated films as I could this year but, as always, there were plenty that slipped through the cracks: Carol, The Big Short, Anomalisa, Mustang, Brooklyn and 45 Years were all films that seemed immensely worthy and right up my alley: unfortunately, we just never ended up being in the same place at the same time. Cest la vie, I suppose: after all, that’s what Mop-Up March is for.

In that spirit, here’s the first part of my educated (or not) guesses at what might tickle Academy voter fancy this Sunday. Part Two will follow later, including my guess at Best Picture.

Best Live Action Short

Ave Maria

Day One

Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)

Shok

Stutterer

What Should Win: Stutterer

What Will Win: Shok

This ended up being a pretty tough category due to the consistent quality of the nominees. Ave Maria was fun, if rather slight, and benefited from being the only truly lighthearted one of the bunch. Day One and Alles Wird Gut were intense little micro-movies, bolstered by great performances, if unrelentingly grim. Stutterer ended up being my fave of the bunch: the Irish/UK production was visually dazzling, had a really neat central conceit and used the proper proportions of giddiness and internal suffering. I’m pretty sure that nothing will beat Shok, however: this Kosovoan production is a 21-minute descent into almost abject misery with a climax that (literally) took my breath away. Nothing about this short is fun, in any way, shape or form, but it absolutely deserves to be seen. I’d rather see the more hopeful Stutterer take the trophy but Shok is, arguably, the most deserving.

Best Documentary Short

Body Team 12

Chau, Beyond the Lines

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness

Last Day of Freedom

What Should Win:

What Will Win:

This is one of those categories where I didn’t see enough nominees to make an informed decision. Neither of the two shorts I saw really blew me away: Chau was uplifting and well-made but thoroughly conventional and obvious, whereas Last Day of Freedom had a great, important central concept but lost me due to the stylistic affectations (skittery, animated line drawings that distracted from the powerful story). If I had to guess, Chau seems like the kind of short that the Academy tends to favor but this could really go to any of them, I suppose.

Best Sound Mixing

Bridge of Spies

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What Should Win: Mad Max

What Will Win: The Revenant

For me, this is technically a toss-up between the unholy cacophony of Mad Max’s never-ending apocalyptic din and the all-encompassing stillness of The Revenant’s purgatorial chill. While I lean towards the more chaotic side of the spectrum, I think that The Revenant’s momentum will make this an easy lock. Nothing about the sound mix in either Bridge of Spies or The Martian really stood out, although I can’t comment on Star Wars, as that was one of the ones that got away.

Best Sound Editing

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What Should Win: Mad Max

What Will Win: The Revenant

See my above reasons for Sound Mixing, with the added caveat that I really like the sound editing in Sicario. Despite that, however, I still think Mad Max and The Revenant are the two to beat.

Best Visual Effects

Ex Machina

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What Should Win: Mad Max

What Will Win: Star Wars

With its seamless blend of physical effects and CGI, Fury Road was an all-encompassing experience and my easy pick for Best Visual Effects of the nominated films I saw. While Ex Machina was impressive on a smaller scale, I find it hard to believe the Academy will give it much love. The Martian was nice but certainly nothing special, while the effects in The Revenant (barring that terrifying bear attack) were so organic that they never really stood out. All of that said, however, I don’t think that anything will beat Star Wars in this particular category: with so few nominations, tossing it the VizFx statue seems like a no-brainer.

Best Costume Design

Carol

Cinderella

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

What Should Win: Mad Max

What Will Win: Cinderella

Although it might seem as if I’m just picking Mad Max in every category, that’s not quite the case. In this example, as with the above, I genuinely think it was the best of the best. With its unique vision of end-of-the-world-couture and a seemingly endless variety of eye-popping outfits, this (to me) is what costume design is all about. Nothing about The Revenant’s costume design really stood out for me, although the organic authenticity was certainly impressive. All of this being said, the Academy really can’t pass up a safe bet and I’m sure that Cinderella’s ball-gowns and fairy-tale fashion will fit that bill to a t.

Best Production Design

Bridge of Spies

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

What Should Win: Mad Max

What Will Win: Mad Max

This is another category where I just can’t see a lot of competition. The period detail in Bridge of Spies was just fine but certainly nothing special: ditto the science-factual details of Scott’s The Martian. The Revenant looked consistently lovely but seemed rather sparsely designed, barring the handful of scenes in villages and way-stations: it’s overriding strengths were the huge, endless outdoor vistas and that gorgeous natural light. Of the four films I saw in this category, only Mad Max sported the kind of meticulous, exacting attention to detail that’s necessary to make an utterly fantastic world spring to gritty life. I could definitely see The Revenant taking this home, especially if it sweeps, but I still think Mad Max is the most worthy candidate.

Best Film Editing

The Big Short

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Spotlight

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What Should Win: Mad Max

What Will Win: The Big Short

If you think about it, Mad Max is really one big, two-hour car chase: that’s a film where editing is not only important but pretty much the sink-or-swim pivot. Not only is the film always coherent and spatially easy to follow, the integration of physical effects and CG work is nothing short of seamless. In a perfect world this would be a lock. That’s not to say that the editing in The Revenant wasn’t seamlessly fluid, mind you, or that any of the ones I didn’t screen might be equally worthy. As far as what will win, however? My money is on The Big Short (which I didn’t screen), which has amassed quite a bit of pre-awards buzz and feels like an all-around safer bet for the Academy.

Best Cinematography

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Sicario

What Should Win: The Revenant

What Will Win: The Revenant

Just like last year, there may be several viable choices in the Best Cinematography category but there’s really only one front-runner: Emmanuel Lubezki’s work in The Revenant is pretty much what awards were created for. While The Hateful Eight brought 70mm film back to the masses, it just didn’t do as much awe-inspiring stuff with its vistas as The Revenant did: Tarantino’s newest might smoke lots of the competition but it’s at least a half-step behind Inarritu’s survival chiller. In any other year, either Roger Deakens’ work in Sicario or John Seale’s heart-stopping cinematography in Mad Max would be solid locks for the pole position. As any good Highlander knows, however, there can be only one: this year, The Revenant looks to lop a lot of heads.

Best Original Song

“Earned It,” Fifty Shades of Grey

“Manta Ray,” Racing Extinction

“Simple Song No. 3,” Youth

“Til It Happens to You,” The Hunting Ground

“Writing’s On the Wall,” Spectre

What Should Win: “Til It Happens To You,” The Hunting Ground

What Will Win: “Writing’s On the Wall,” Spectre

Despite having seen none of the nominated films, I did manage to listen to all of the individual songs. “Earned It” and “Simple Song No. 3” are both rather forgettable tracks, each one falling into the category of Muzak for one reason or another. “Manta Ray” is a great song but seems too brittle and spare to really go anywhere. Personally, I found Sam Smith’s “Writing’s On the Wall” to be the most banal, middle-of-the-road tune of the bunch, just the kind of forgettable anthem that seems aimed at most Academy voters. Only Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens to You” struck me as a song suitable for both on and off the screen. I’m predicting that Smith wins by a landslide, naturally.

Best Original Score

Bridge of Spies

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What Should Win: The Hateful Eight

What Will Win: Star Wars

As far as I’m concerned, this category is one of the easiest of the bunch: not only was Ennio Morricone’s score for Tarantino’s Western one of the very best of the year, it was one of the very best of the illustrious composer’s rather incredible career. Menacing, thrilling, driving and as integral to the film as any of the visual components, Morricone’s Hateful Eight scores is one of the rare bits of filmic music (just like his Good, The Bad and The Ugly score) that’s just as good off-screen. Among the others, I found Thomas Newman’s score for Bridge of Spies to be just about the most generic, forgettable one of the year, while Johann Johannsson’s work for Sicario was nothing spectacular. That being said, this is a year that sees legendary composer John Williams nominated for a Star Wars film: in Vegas, they call that a “sure bet.”

Best Foreign Language Film

Embrace of the Serpent, Columbia

Mustang, France

Son of Saul, Hungary

Theeb, Jordan

A War, Denmark

What Should Win: Theeb, Jordan

What Will Win: Son of Saul, Hungary

Yet another category where I only got to see one entry but I’m a lot more confident calling a winner in this one: there really hasn’t been buzz for any of the nominees save Son of Saul and that looks set to win by a landslide. That being said, I absolutely loved Theeb and would be overjoyed if that decidedly old-fashioned Western (by way of Lawrence of Arabia) were able to surge ahead and take the prize. Biggest disappointment, here, is not getting to see Mustang, which I’m pretty sure is absolutely amazing.

Best Documentary Feature

Amy

Cartel Land

Look of Silence

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Winter on Fire

What Should Win: Cartel Land

What Will Win: Amy

While the worst thing that I can say about any of these entries is that Oppenheimer’s Look of Silence was a disappointment (for me, at least) and a step down from his unforgettable The Act of Killing, the clear winner is Cartel Land. Amy is a well-made, sad look at a popular public figure (hence, my assumption that it will win) and is much less politically-thorny than the Nina Simone biopic, while Winter on Fire hews a little closely to previous nominee The Square. Cartel Land, on the other hand, is a fiercely original, terrifying and massively thought-provoking look at the war on drugs that arrives like an anvil to the face and instantly eliminates the competition. I feel the same way about Cartel Land that I did about The Act of Killing: it should be required viewing for every citizen of Planet Earth.

Best Animated Feature

Anomalisa

Boy and the World

Inside Out

Shaun the Sheep

When Marnie Was There

What Should Win: Anomalisa

What Will Win: Inside Out

While I didn’t get to screen Anomalisa in time for the awards ceremony, I have no doubt that Charlie Kaufman’s puppets-in-crisis drama is nothing short of next-level amazing. The very fact that a film like that is nominated in the Animated Feature category makes this year’s selections rather intriguing. Of the others I saw, Shaun the Sheep was a disappointment, being the first Aardman film that didn’t completely charm me. I can’t see anything stopping Inside Out, however, and there’s nothing wrong with that: this genuinely incisive look into childhood emotions and the terrifying joy of getting older and letting go of your youth is the rare “kids” films that’s aimed as squarely at adults as it is wee ones. It’s a genuinely lovely film with a positive message, great voice acting and lots of fun setpieces: I’d be a complete Scrooge if I tried to crap on its rainbow.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Big Short

Brooklyn

Carol

The Martian

Room

What Should Win:

What Will Win: The Big Short

In this particular category, the only films that I got a chance to screen were The Martian and Room: ironically, I had the exact same problem with both films. To whit, the movies are much better when they’re smaller and more contained: when it’s just us and Mark Watney or us and Joy and Jack, both The Martian and Room are virtually airtight. Once they’re expanded to larger canvasses, however, the films lose their impact and become altogether more generic and familiar. From what I understand, The Big Short did a good job of not only compressing a lot of information into its two hours but also in educating its audience on various difficult concepts and terminology. On face value, that seems like a pretty admirable job to me but, as always, my sincerest apologies to the unscreened.

Best Director

Adam McKay, The Big Short

George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant

Lenny Abrahamson, Room

Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

Who Should Win: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

Who Will Win: Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant

While there may be five individuals nominated here, this particular race is really only about two: Miller and Inarritu. Both longtime auteurs produced staggeringly difficult, singular works, each with more obstacles to overcome than most filmmakers deal with in their entire lives. While Inarritu’s production travails on The Revenant have entered the public zeitgeist in a way not seen since Francis Ford almost lost his marbles in the jungle, I’m Team Miller on this one, all the way. Inarritu used minimalism and natural order (along with an exceptionally game cast) to craft a chilly piece of brutalist art, whereas Miller turned overriding chaos into one of the most beautifully orchestrated, choreographed and riveting pieces of thrash-pop we’ve ever seen. It’s the difference between fire and ice: I’m all about the fire on this one.

Best Actor

Bryan Cranston, Trumbo

Matt Damon, The Martian

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs

Eddie Redmayne. The Danish Girl

Who Should Win: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Who Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

I only got a chance to screen The Martian and The Revenant so, again, my apologies for a slightly uninformed opinion here. As usual, Damon was massively charismatic, the kind of matinee idol who can easily carry a film on nothing more than his “aw shucks” bearing and goofily endearing grin. That being said, there also wasn’t anything here we haven’t seen from him in the past: it’s a great performance from a great actor but it never struck me as the best of the year. As far as DiCaprio goes, we’ve all heard the narrative of woe, by this point: nearly frozen to death in the frigid wild; forced to eat steaming animal liver, puking it back up in the take that actually makes the final cut; crawling through icy cold water for days on end; taking a bite out of a living fish…if Olivier thought Dustin went a bit overboard, wait’ll he gets a load a this guy, eh?

The thing is, DiCaprio is great in The Revenant for more than his ability to go the extra mile (literally). He does a lot with a relative scarcity of dialogue, slipping into the strong, silent antihero (ala classic Eastwood and Bronson) with a surprising ease: it’s like we blinked and Jack suddenly became a man. He’s always 100% invested in the character (obviously) but he brings that investment to all the small things, as well: the expressive eyes and skittering glances…the constant, realistic pain and reactions to the elements…those rare moments where peace and calm slip across his face before being brushed aside. If the point of a Best Actor nomination is to award the actor who gave us the most immersive, fully-formed and complete character interpretation of the proferred group, I’m pretty sure that DiCaprio fits that definition. Go ahead: give Leo the damn trophy, already.

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett, Carol

Brie Larson, Room

Jennifer Lawrence, Joy 

Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Who Should Win: Brie Larson, Room

Who Will Win: Cate Blanchett, Carol

This, alas, was a category where I only got to screen one film, making my ultimate analysis a bit of a dice toss. I thoroughly enjoyed Brie Larson’s portrayal of the imprisoned mother, however, so I don’t feel bad tossing all my support behind that. She’s always been a great actress (Short Term 12 was absolutely amazing) and her performance here is full of subtle moments and quiet gestures that say more than a thousand lines of dialogue ever could. It’s a difficult role, emotionally, but Larson turns in a pretty stunning performance. All of that being said, however, I have a sneaking suspicion that Cate Blanchett will actually win this particular award. Call it a hunch, intuition or just the notion that Room may have been a bit too small to gain as much attention (despite its Best Picture, Director and Actress nods) but I just have a feeling. I could also see Charlotte Rampling taking this, although 45 Years was another film that didn’t seem to receive as much attention from the Academy.

Stay tuned for Part Two, faithful readers.

11/30/15: Tubby Little Cubby All Stuffed With Fluff

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If nostalgia is a drug, then nostalgia for the beloved things of one’s childhood must be a triple-dipped, skull-peeling hit of the purest intoxicant in history. We tend to view our childhood favorites through the rosiest of spectacles for many reasons but I like to think that the most prominent is also the simplest: we hold the movies, TV shows, music, pop culture and culinary delights of our childhood up as examples of the pure, undiluted joy that comes from youth. Before we learned to be cynical, snarky and dismissive, before we developed “guilty pleasures” and ironically “liked” things, we were simpler, more naive and quite a bit easier to please. It’s a convenient lie that children are universally accepting of whatever crap is put in front of them: in reality, they’re just a lot less afraid to look like idiots.

Once one is removed from childhood nostalgia by some distance, however, re-examining those childhood loves can be a bit tricky. Fart jokes, inane songs and talking animals are pretty much par for the course with kids’ movies but, several decades down the line, those particular cinematic affectations are a bit more of an acquired taste. It’s tempting to look down at our childhood loves from a more “adult” perspective and laugh at our immaturity while still pining for those innocent, pure emotions of our youth. It’s tempting, of course, but it still does them a disservice. Rather than give these old favorites the equivalent of a golf handicap and a lifetime pass, is it actually possible to re-examine them and determine their respective merits?

As a youngster, I had a set group of rotating favorite films, many of which I would watch not only day after day but, at times, multiple times during the same day. Of these many childhood favorites, few resonated with me as much as Walt Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977). If I watched that remarkable little film once during my formative years, I probably watched it at least a hundred, if not a thousand, times. Thirty-some years later, however, would this little gem still mean as much? Is The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh nothing but a sad, wistful reminder of a simpler era or does it still possess the same ability to delight modern children as it did those of us who grew up in earlier eras? Is there really a place for the “tubby cubby” in our modern world?

For the uninitiated, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh details the travails of the titular stuffed bear and his woodland friends as they pass the time in their magical home, the Hundred Acres Wood. Created by British author A.A. Milne in the mid-1920s, Pooh and his friends would go on to capture the imagination of generations of children in the fifty-some years between their creation and the vibrant Disney adaptation that we currently discuss, becoming iconic childhood figures along the lines of Paddington Bear, Babar or Charles Schultz’s legendary Peanuts gang.

Characterized by a sweetly philosophical, gentle tone, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is the very antithesis of frantic, overly manic kids’ movies, landing somewhere closer to a more subdued version of the aforementioned Peanuts. The adventures detailed here-in are about as far from the complicated machinations of modern animated films as possible: Pooh needs to find honey; Pooh gets stuck in Rabbit’s door and needs to get out; Owl’s tree falls down and he needs a new home; Tigger needs to find out what, exactly, he’s good at. No self-referential layers of meta-commentary here, nor allusions to popular culture of the era or anything transitory: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh deals with the most basic of emotions and tropes, such as the need to help others, the importance of sharing, the importance of friends, the bittersweet feeling of leaving your childhood loves behind as you get older. While many animated films claim to be for both parents and their children, that’s usually more perfunctory than anything else. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is one of the few children’s movies that is just as impactful to parents as it is to their progeny…even more, perhaps, similar to the recent Inside Out (2015).

There’s not a lot of chaos here, controlled or otherwise, but the film also doesn’t need it. It’s the difference between listening to an orchestra perform a classical piece or listening to a prog-thrash band ratchet through several time changes in the span of minutes: they both serve their purpose and there’s a time and place for both. A frantic, slapstick pace just doesn’t suit this kind of thoughtful, contemplative material. There’s a reason why Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh became a minor hit upon its release: Milne’s creations may be the single best example of Zen philosophy ever committed to film, animated or otherwise.

How does The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh hold up to other “Golden Era” Disney classics? Remarkably well, as it turns out. The voice-acting is superb across the board: I’ve never imagined Pooh as being voiced by anyone other than Sterling Holloway and I never shall. Likewise for Paul Winchell’s exuberant Tigger, John Fielder’s quivery-voiced Piglet, Junius Matthews’s blustery Owl and Howard Morris’ whistling Gopher. These are the definitive versions of these characters, as definitive as Lugosi’s Dracula or Karloff’s Monster. The songs are strong and, likewise, indelible: I don’t think I’ve ever got “Pooh’s Theme” out of my head since the first time I heard it and the “Heffalumps and Woozles” setpiece stands as my very favorite animated sequence ever, aside from “A Night on Bald Mountain.” And “The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers”? Try and get that little worm out of your brain.

The animation style ably mimics the actual illustrated stories, leading to some truly lovely images, not least of which are the many times when the stories bleed back onto the page (and vice versa). Aesthetically, The Many Adventures of Winnie Pooh is easily one of my favorite Disney films: something about the look and style proves as calming, today, as it did back when I was a child. It’s also a perfect example of “form” and “content” meeting in harmonious unity: despite being comprised of three separate stories, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh has a flowing sense of continuity that’s practically fluid.

Needless to say, I loved the film as much upon my recent viewing as my prior ones. Stripping away all of my resident goodwill for the movie, however, there’s still that all important question: is The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh really a great film or does it just mean a lot to me? With as much impartiality as I can muster, I’m going to come down on the side of a genuinely great film.

For one thing, the film is actually a lot deeper than I gave it credit for when I was growing up. Upon this recent viewing, lots of little details and notions popped out at me that I never really considered before: Pooh is actually a really selfish, self-centered character and kind of a jerk, lovable demeanor or not; Eeyore is clinically depressed, yet completely accepted by his friends; the introduction of Tigger is framed like a horror movie (this was a big revelation, actually); there’s something strangely subversive about Rabbit drawing faces on Pooh’s butt in order to make his derriere fit the accommodations; Eeyore giving Piglet’s house to Owl is a really shitty move but Piglet going along with it is an act akin to sainthood or Communism, whichever you prefer. Like I said before, that’s a lot of subtext for a kids’ movie.

The single most important reason to ascribe greatness to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, however, is also the simplest: 38 years after its release, the film still feels fresh, timeless and like it has something to say. These notions of friendship, sacrifice, unity and melancholy resonate just as much today, if not more: as an adult, I’ve had a chance to live with all of these feelings and emotions for decades and, yet, I relived them all when I sat down to watch the film again. Any film that can consistently make you feel, year in and year out, decade in and decade out, is something special: in every sense of the word, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is special.

As mentioned in the beginning, nostalgia can be a hell of a drug: it can blind us to the inherent deficiencies of things we used to hold dear, reducing any attempt at critical analysis to a simple shrug and “Well, I liked it when I was a kid.” Not all of our past loves will pass the “smell test,” so to speak, especially if we’re being brutally honest with ourselves. When you find a childhood love that does, however, like The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, my advice is to hold on to it for dear life. A life without cherished memories like this, you see, is really no life at all.

 

11/27/15: Fists of Funny

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Is there such a thing as a perfect roller-coaster? While opinions may vary, I think there are a few key aspects that just about anyone can agree on. A perfect roller-coaster should have a balance of climbs and falls, straight shots and zig-zags: a roller-coaster that consists of one long, steady climb and a corresponding fall may be a great endurance test but it makes for a pretty poor roller-coaster. A perfect roller-coaster should feature plenty of surprise twists, turns and sudden swerves to the left and right: when done right, the only thing you should be anticipating is that big, final plunge into the abyss right before the cars stop and your heart thumps back into your chest. Perhaps most importantly, however, a perfect roller-coaster should be short and sweet. There’s a subtle (but definite) line between pummeling your senses and red-lining your adrenaline  and being reduced to a quivering pile of bodily functions on the blessed pavement. The perfect roller-coaster should leave you shaken, giddy, a little unsteady on your feet and eager to jump right back in line and do the whole thing all over again.

In this spirit, writer/director/actor/tour de force David Sandberg’s 30-minute mind-blower, Kung Fury (2015), might just be the perfect cinematic roller-coaster. Over the course of its short and sweet run-time, Kung Fury wastes not one single minute and features not one wasted, repetitive or unnecessary frame. The effect is like mainlining Pixie Stix and Red Bull, a jittery, explosive and relentlessly inventive trawl through the very best of ’80s-era junk culture, all filtered through a brilliantly absurd worldview that allows for Triceratops-headed police officers, machine gun-wielding Valkyries riding giant wolves and massive, sentient, blood-thirsty arcade games. Kung Fury is what might happen if a teenage metalhead’s Trapper Keeper doodles suddenly sprang to life and it is, quite frankly, rather amazing.

Taking place in a 1985 version of Miami that most closely resembles the neon-and-pastel insanity of Grand Theft Auto, Kung Fury details the adventures of the titular hero (ably portrayed by Sandberg in a genuinely funny, flat-as-a-pancake delivery) as he attempts to travel back in time and stop the evil Adolf Hitler (Jorma Taccone), who has dubbed himself the “Kung Fuhrer” and plots to take over the world with his endlessly impressive kung fu skills. Since this is an ’80s parody, we get all of the standard tropes: Kung Fury is a renegade cop who refuses to be teamed with a new partner after the death of his last one (even though Erik Hornqvist’s Triceracops seems like a perfectly nice, polite dude); he’s got a tech-savvy helper (Leopold Nilssen’s outrageously mulleted Hackerman); the picture quality is constantly marred by static and missing footage; the main bad guy has an army of thousands of heavily armed, killers, none of whom could hit the broadside of a barn if their lives depended on it (which they always do); the acting ranges from amateurish to studiously awkward. Basically, if you grew up on ’80s action/kung fu films (or pretty much anything put out by Cannon), this will be the best kind of deja vu.

While Kung Fury is endlessly fun, full of the kind of giddy, stupid thrills and setpieces that pretty much every comic book/superhero/mindless action film aspires to, one of the most impressive aspects of the production is how damn good the whole thing looks on a ridiculously small budget. After crowdfunding failed to produce enough funds for a full-length, Sandberg and company opted to turn their idea into a short. The whole film was essentially shot in the Swedish filmmaker’s office, utilizing green screens for everything, and budgeted on such a shoestring that they only had one, shared uniform for the scene where Kung Fury wades into an ocean of Nazis. It looks cheap, of course, but by design, not accident. When necessary, the film is as fully immersive as any mega-budget Hollywood blockbuster, stock-footage wolf or not.

Since part of the sheer, unmitigated joy of the short is giving yourself over to its particular brand of lunacy, I’ll refrain from spoiling much more, although I could probably list my fifteen favorite moments and still have enough leftover material for at least fifteen more. Suffice to say that if you’re a fan of absurd fare like Danger Force Five, ’80s action films or bone-dry humor, Sandberg’s Kung Fury should steal a pretty massive piece of your heart. With a promised full-length version over the horizon (featuring no recycled footage which, in and of itself, is kinda mind-blowing), I have a feeling that we’re all going to be seeing a lot more of Sandberg and his inspired brand on insanity.

I still think that the perfect roller-coaster is a short, sharp shock to the system. I’m more than willing to let David Sandberg prove me wrong, however: if nothing else, Kung Fury has handily earned him that right. Too much of a good thing? Bring it on.

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