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The Witch (2015 Sundance)

18 Feb

Zombies and Vampires may come close, but no horror archetype has been represented and caricatured in cinema quite like that of a witch. From The Wizard of Oz to Harry Potter, to Monty Python, we have been enchanted by the mysterious figure. I walked into the “The Witch” thinking I had seen just about every form of witches out there. I was so wrong.

Directed by Robert Eggers, and based of the real-life accounts of 16th century New England puritans, The Witch tells the story of a small puritan family who have recently been banished from their immigrant village on account of religious blasphemy.  William, Katherine, Thomasin, Caleb, Jonas, and Mercy must now fend for themselves by raising a farm in the middle of a forsaken (and possibly haunted) swampland. Without the aid of any nearby villagers, the family is faced with a terrifying ultimatum: either grow food or starve to death.  When crops fail to sprout however, William (Ralph Ineson), the family patriarch, suspects his children have been involved with witchcraft and dabbling in occult affairs. Members of the family then begin one by one to descend into a terrifying spiral of religiously-fuelled madness and savagery.

Part supernatural horror, part paranoid thriller, The Witch is a genuinely spooky take on the occult and the terrorizing effects religious devotion can have on one’s psyche. Thankfully, it is a meticulously crafted as it is terrifying, making The Witch the most artistically minded horror since 2014’s Under The Skin.

The Witch is one of those rare films you just don’t watch but experience; you can feel the sense of impending dread seeping out from the screen as you watch characters slowly peel back the mystery and evil that exists within the nearby woods. Boasting an immaculate production design that effectively recalls the early 1600’s, the film accurately recalls a time and place when religious paranoia fueled all aspects of life.  The film’s dialogue is even written word-by-word from historical transcripts and rendered by the actors in heavy, old-english accents. This kind of attention to detail might throw some viewers off (especially those with an aversion to period pieces) and the slow timing during the film’s first act ensures only those with a bit a patience will brave the film’s nightmarish climax.

This film is dark – extremely dark – figuratively and literally, (I doubt some scenes will even be visible when screened in a lightened room) which adds immensely to its haunting quality. Dimly lit landscapes covered in impenetrable greys add a surreal and menacing atmosphere. With one hell of an unsettling score, The Witch creates subtle psychological tension from the things we don’t see onscreen rather than relying on tiring jump scares.

 

Bottom Line: The Witch is a throwback to the great horror films of the 70’s, but delivered in such a visceral fashion that the ultimate effect is hard to shake off; I literally had dreams (nightmares?) about this thing weeks after seeing it.

 

Rating: 8/10 

Film Recipe: The Wicker Man (1973) + The Shining (1980) + The Exorcist (1973)

The Hateful Eight (2015)

31 Dec

There is a moment during The Hateful Eight where a character quietly explains the difference between “justice” – wherein the facts are weighed and criminals are given a fair and lawful trial – and, “frontier justice” – where criminals are often shot dead in a fit of rage. “Justice” is orderly and carried out with logic and ensuring the least amount of harm as possible, while “frontier justice” is brutal, chaotic, and fuelled by emotion.

It’s obviously clear Quentin Tarantino is an advocate of the latter kind. 

The writer/director’s 8th film appropriately titled The Hateful Eight is essentially three hours of his signature, in-your-face, badass-to-the-limit screenplay. You know, the kind where you can just feel the narrative tension escalate with each passing moment. Where you know – without a doubt – things are going to get ugly, but you can’t seem to guess how or when.

Taking the form of a post-Civil War western set along a snowy Wyoming trail, The Hateful Eight starts off with two bounty hunters who just happen to cross paths with each other. Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson at his best), who is en route to a town called Red Rock when his horse dies, seeks the help of cowboy John “The Hangman” Ruth (an equally impressive Kurt Russell) who is transporting outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock where she will be tried and likely hanged. Domergue has a pretty price on her head, explains Ruth. A whopping $10,000, which makes The Hangman suspicious by default of any passersby including Warren and a drifter named Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims to be the new Red Rock sheriff.

In the world of the wild, wild west, one man’s word has a lot of weight, and the ability to trust fellow travelers or not can spell life or death on the frontier. Take into account the rampant racism between divided factions of the war that are still bubbling, and you have the ingredients for a suspenseful witch-hunt of a mystery. “One of them fellas is not what he says he is” says The Hangman as he tries to measure up each character’s motivations.  It’s in this climate of paranoia and racial tension where The Hateful Eight thrives. Every man (and woman) is looking out for him/herself and unlike Tarantino’s last film Django Unchainedit’s not so easy to tell the good guys apart from the bad ones.

There are essentially only two locations in The Hateful Eight: the harsh exterior of the winter trail, and Minnie’s Haberdashery, a sort of makeshift-inn for trustworthy travelers. In the hands of another director, this kind of a film with such minimal set pieces could feel like an eternity – especially with a running time of 3 + hours (case in point: The Turin Horse). Tarantino’s masterful writing however, flows effortlessly from one scene to the next. Though it clocks in at a whopping 187 minutes, Tarantino lets us get to know each character over the course of many small-talk conversations throughout the film’s first half. Quentin himself gives us a brechtian half-time voiceover, where he brings the audience to speed and chops up the narrative structure before throwing us headfirst into the film’s more violent and insanity-ridden second half. Such a postmodern interruption comes off a bit too jarring for a western, but part of The Hateful Eight’s fun lies within its unpredictable and often bloody surprises.

Shot in “Glorious 70mm Ultra Panavision” (an odd choice for such a minimalistic film), the film looks absolutely stunning in each and every shot. True, Quentin has scaled things back a bit from his epic and sprawling Django Unchained, but every frame here feels utilized within its 70mm space.  Performance-wise everyone is on-point, with Jennifer Jason Leigh being the lead scene-stealer. Supporting work by Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, James Park, Demian Bichir, and a few captivating moments with Zoe Bell, Channing Tatum, and Gene Jones are icing on the cake.

It’s true that all the major players in The Hateful Eight could have been instruments of “justice”, with all the criminals and do-gooders taking their rightful roles. But what Tarantino knows only too well is that watching everyone’s attempt at carrying out the good ol’ fashioned “frontier justice“, well…. it’s just a hell of a lot more fun.

Bottom Line: A throwback western that’s 100% Tarantino, The Hateful Eight is a heavily plotted, hitchcockian thriller that sizzles with anxiety and great performances throughout its lengthy runtime. 

Rating: 8/10

Film recipe: That opening scene in Inglorious Bastards – nazis + cowboys, + Seven Psychopaths + Rope + No Country For Old Men 

 

TOP FILMS OF 2015!

30 Dec

Another day, another list.

This time, I’m counting down my favorites from the year – as per tradition – in a video format. I saw 125 total feature films from 2015 and decided to focus on narrative feature films (although my favorite documentary is mentioned at the end) released through either a WIDESPREAD theatrical run or some VOD/DVD platform from Jan 1 – Dec 31, 2015.

Hope you all enjoy.

 


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/150186808″>Top 25 Films of 2015!</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/tylerreed123″>Tyler Reed</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

Anything you think I missed out on this year? Let me know in the comments below. Here’s to another terrific year in cinema.

STAR WARS: The Force Awakens (2015)

18 Dec

In many ways, the massively anticipated, Disney-approved STAR WARS reboot/sequel/franchise launch was a huge success simply because it wasn’t a complete trainwreck.

Director and longtime George Lucas fanboy JJ Abrams (Super 8, Star Trek) seemed to hold all the cards in his hand leading up to the release of Episode 7. He had somehow managed to wrangle up original cast members Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher. He had been given a massive 200 million dollar budget. With over a month to wait, pre-sale tickets literally broke the fandango site. Abrams had even managed to keep even the slightest of plot details under lock and key and prevented any major spoilers from being leaked online – a miracle when considering the amount of attention the project had receiving for years among Star Wars obsessives.  With so much pressure riding on his shoulders going into the project (including a pricey 4 billion dollar investment in LucasFilm by Disney), there was one statement that resonated on the lips of studio executives, diehard fans, and casual moviegoers everywhere since the film was announced in 2012: JJ better not mess this one up.

And what a better way not to mess things up than by taking the risk-free approach of sticking to what has worked before? By rehashing old franchise elements, while still giving the fans just enough new material to keep speculation high for future films, Abrams has seemingly rescued the Star Wars franchise from the tragic misfire of Lucas’ prequels and repacked it for both old and new audiences.

The Force Awakens picks up 30 years after the events from The Empire Strikes Back. A signature pre-film crawl gets us caught up to speed: though the empire run by Darth Vader is gone, an uprising called the First Order led by a mysterious Rylo Ken (Adam Driver) threatens the balance of the galaxy. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher reprise their iconic roles as Han Solo and Leia respectively, but it’s the new generation of protagonists: a scavenger (Daisy Ridley), ex-stormtrooper (John Boyega) and pilot (Oscar Isaac), who bring fresh character dynamics to the franchise. Princess Leia is now a military captain who is leading a group of rebels now called “The Resistance”, and Jedi Master Luke (Mark Hamill) has gone AWOL with the only map showing his existence given to a resistance leader named Poe. There are a couple new baddies too: notably Rylo Ken and his assistants General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie).

Abrams had been in the blockbuster game long enough to know what works and what doesn’t, and he delicately mixes several classic Star Wars ingredients (fighter dogfight space battles, planet-destroying weaponry, climactic lightsaber duels, grunting humanoid creatures, the Millennium Falcon at lightspeed, etc.) into a story-driven setting. Though the Star Wars community has been rampant about their disdain for spoilers, the plotting of The Force Awakens is nearly already spoiled by previously existing films. Too much of the narrative backbone is simply comprised of throwbacks that seem to be lifted straight from the original trilogy (someone is being held prisoner and tortured by the bad guy, someone is searching for a droid, someone is trying to take the shields offline, someone is having daddy issues, etc.); what new material we get is either mostly propelled by direct character exposition or set up mcguffin-style in a payoff that doesn’t quite reach its full potential. And then we have the many plot holes to deal with (that link is loaded with spoilers FYI).

Still there is a lot of fun to be had in The Force Awakens. The set design and look is fantastic, there is a solid amount of carefully-placed humor, and the new cast members act circles around the older ones (who sometimes feel like a forced cameo stretched too thin). It’s a solid setup into what will inevitably be the biggest franchise in movie history. Yet, somehow it feels that The Force Awakens knows it will never outgrow the original trilogy’s shadow, so it might as well be a fun tribute to the older film’s legacy.

While it’s clear that Abrams has a passion and loyalty for the original material, he also seems to have innocently duplicated existing story structures without toying too hard with any new narrative ideas. But who can really blame him? If history does repeat itself, then we will indeed have a long and lucrative lineup of sequels, spin-offs, and video games that can flesh out the risky, new narrative material (personally, I’m most excited for the Boba Fett spin-off where our protagonist has an existential crisis after realizing he is a clone and his life has no meaning).

It’s true, Abrams hasn’t pissed anyone off by copying the stuff that worked so well 30 years ago, and presenting it repackaged here for a new generation. But The Force Awakens does little to exceed expectations for the viewer who wants to see more than the nostalgic salute to an older era of cinema.

Bottom Line: By sticking to basic and proven blockbuster tropes, while having respect for what the diehard fans want, JJ Abrams has ensured that Star Wars will remain a culturally relevant and money making entity for years (light-years?) to come.  

“You hear that Chewie?….. That’s the sound of a 250 million-dollar opening weekend…”

Film recipe: A New Hope + Guardians of the Galaxy + Empire Strikes Back 

Rating: 6/10 

Joy (2015)

14 Dec

The Bradley Cooper/Jennifer Lawrence duo are at it again with the appropriately-titled Joy, the latest from dramedy favorite David O Russell.  Following the true story of Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), the Long Island entrepreneur and inventor of the self-wringing “Miracle Mop”, the film tells Joy’s story from childhood through the eyes of her grandmother (Diane Ladd). Through a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, we learn about Joy’s struggle to live up to her grandmother’s idealistic matriarchal expectations of self-reliance in the heavily patriarchal world of entrepreneurship. We follow Joy as she falls in love, has children, divorces, and comes to terms with the responsibilities and stress of single parenting and domestic life. In one of the most outwardly cinematic feminist statements of the year, Joy pits our titular character against a series of men – an apathetic ex husband (Edgar Ramirez), a distant father (Robert DeNiro), and a new business partner (Bradley Cooper), all whom – despite their goodnatured intentions – prove to be obstacles preventing Joy from sharing her invention with the world.

Always one for writing characters first rather than heavily-plotted stories, O Russell starts things off fairly quickly by giving us a rushed introduction into who’s who in Joy’s unique family. There’s her caring grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), and her TV-loving daughter Terry (Virginia Madsen) who’s married to a shop owner Rudy (DeNiro), who’s daughter from another marriage, Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm), is also in the picture. It’s a lot to take in during the first scene, but Russell’s characters deliver their snappy dialogue to us so effortlessly and convincingly that we get a real sense of how this personable but ultimately dysfunctional family operates. Unfortunately, the frantic energy of the first act dissolves by the film’s midpoint, where Joy reaches out to successful retail tycoon Neil (Bradley Cooper) for a helping hand. From this point on, Joy mostly turns into a standard underdog-overcoming-adversity piece that’s high on conventional dramatic tropes but low on Russell’s signature wit and humor.

Performance wise, there is nothing in Joy we haven’t really seen before. Jennifer Lawrence does a solid job and the leading lady, giving just enough nuances to show that her character is a real person and not some inhuman superwoman, but her interactions with the others seem distant and forced. Cooper’s character is easily the least developed, with none of the enjoyable quirks that made him so fun to watch in Russell’s previous works American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook.  

Fortunately, the script never goes into cringeworthy territory (remember I Heart Huckabees?), but it never ends up fully redeeming itself by the film’s close. The most frustrating thing about Joy is that it doesn’t feel nearly as inspired as it ought to be; by keeping things safe and accessible, David O Russell seems to drift slightly away from his typically rich and complex knack for storytelling.

Bottom Line: By toning down his distinctive dark humor, Joy gives us a conventional but still entertaining Cinderella story that feels robbed of reaching its greater, more complicated potential.  

Rating: 6/10 

Film Recipie: The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) + The Fighter (2010) + Erin Brockovich (2000)

Doomsdays (2015)

12 Dec

It seems to be common knowledge these days that we are on the eve of an apocalypse. Global warming, international wars, and the probable pandemic outbreak of some killer disease will certainly spell the oncoming death of humanity. However no event could be at catastrophic as reaching “peak oil”, a theoretical moment in the future where Earth will depleted of all it’s oil resources.

If civilization is bound to die soon anyway, why not try and live it up? That’s the exact attitude which embodies the two protagonists of Doomsdays. Billed as a “pre-apocalyptic comedy” Eddie Mullins’ debut feature film examines the lives of two apathetic but cynical hipsters/freeloaders/ criminals/vagabonds/alcoholics who decide to spend their remaining time on earth by illegally partying at other’s expenses. And by “illegally partying” I mean breaking, entering and residing in stranger’s empty countryside homes. Most of Doomsdays features Bruho (Leo Fitzpatrick) and Dirty Fred (Justin Rice) devouring stolen food and booze to their hearts content while completely trashing every home they come across – all without giving a single fuck.

It’s the kind of shocking, ethically questionable setup that feels like it was taken straight from A Clockwork Orange, but Mullins’ characters are so determined to live by their strange moral code (one running gag features a character who not only refuses to drive, but he is committed to destroying every car he sees) that they do everything so nonchalantly together it becomes darkly funny.

Our colorful duo comes across a few interesting characters during their journeys, including an adventurous younger boy named Jaidon (Bryan Charles Johnson), an angry homeowner named Ronnie (Neal Huff) and a “tourist” named Reyna (Laura Campbell). Fitzpatrick and Rice both give compelling performances and show off their character traits flawlessly; Bruho is prone to having sporadic fits of anger, while Dirty Fred lives up to his name and has a tendency to seduce women with his French. Doomsdays is not only a great character piece, but it’s also the funniest thing I have seen all year. Mullins has a great comedic knowhow and the unpredictable WTF action that takes place through the clever framing of cinematographer Cal Robertson is absolutely hysterical.

Strangely, the tone becomes a bit too silent, cynical and sterilized at times so that it slightly undermines the brilliantly funny writing (think something like Michael Haneke directing a script from Noah Baumbach). There are a few moments when the breaking-and-entering schtick runs a bit thin, but for the most part, the film works like a charm and just becomes more engaging as it progresses along to its odd but satisfying climax.

Bottom line: With characters that feel alive and energetic, Doomsdays is a hilariously creative indie comedy that doubles as a weird examination of apocalyptic apathy. 

Dirty Fred likes to think out of the box.

Rating: 9/10 

Film recipe: Borgman (2014) + Buzzard (2015) + Clerks (1995) 

Kung Fury (2015 Short Film)

7 Dec

In December 2013 a little home-made trailer hit the internet. It was part of a Kickstarter campaign for Kung Fury, a 80’s themed passion project of director David Sandberg that promised action, ultra-violence, dinosaurs, time travel, nazis, renegade cops, and of course, lots of synthesizer music. The internet went crazy and donated three times the amount Sandberg was asking his fans for.

I’m not sure if the world was ready for it, but Kung Fury was released into the world wide web earlier this year and short films haven’t been the same since.

Story-wise, Sandberg delivered his promise of a renegade cop (also played by Sandberg) who goes back in time to stop Adolf Hitler, aka “Kung Fuhrer” (Jorma Taccone) from mastering the art of kung fu and taking over the world. Along the way our protagonist gets help from some friends named Triceracop (Erik Hornqvist), Barbarianna (Eleni Young), Hackerman (Leopold Nilsson), and David Hasselhoff.  It’s a borderline insane story premise, but Sandberg’s passion for the ridiculously campy and fun 80’s aesthetic ensures Kung Fury excels in it’s execution.

Kung Fury is all about the excitable, sheer joy one gets while immersed into the action-packed films of the 80’s. By milking each campy moment to the max, Sandberg creates a fast-paced hilarity-fuelled spectacle that’s packed to the brim with nostalgic, unpredictable surprises. Sadly, the story gets thrown out during a hectic and rushed third act, leaving fans with just enough of a tease to demand the possibility of a full-length feature.  In short, all things are possible with Kung Fury. 

Bottom Line: This crowd-funded short delivers campy, self-aware fun, and a kick-ass attitude, well-deserving of its dedicated cult following. 

Rating: 9/10 

Film Recipe: Drive + Turbo Kid