30-for-30: Believeland

'Believeland' movie poster

Release: Saturday, May 14, 2016

[Netflix]

Directed by: Andy Billman

Imagine growing up in a city where you’re taught, almost assuredly from at least the eighth grade onward, that losing is a reality you must accept, simply based on some silly geographic lottery that you were thrust into at birth. Surprise! You’re from Cleveland, and your acclimatization to watching your sports team(s) losing is best done sooner rather than later. You’re not a loser, but you’re going to have to get used to the idea of losing.

Believeland, Andy Billman’s portrait of a city synonymous with bleak winters and even bleaker sports seasons, speaks to the harsh reality of being born and bred a Clevelander, and it doesn’t hide the fact that life is viewed just a little more pessimistically in these parts. Yet the film itself isn’t pessimistic and doesn’t beg for pity. In fact it does quite the opposite, demanding respect for a steely, hard-working community patiently waiting for the black cloud that had descended following the 1964 NFL Championship, the city’s last big W, to finally let the sun shine through.

The Fumble. The Shot. The Drive. Red Right 88. The Block. The Trade. The Move. The Lip. Are breaks in the cloud even possible?

Perhaps the film’s poster, bearing some of Cleveland’s most painful trials for all to see, is also the best way to describe Believeland: a series of vignettes that anyone watching around the Cleveland area would likely find a test of endurance. To everyone else it’s a laundry list of bad things that have happened. And, as is poignantly observed by Scott Raab, a native and novelist serving as a casual narrator as he regales us — and his son — at a local diner about all the ways in which his favorite teams have let him down: only Clevelanders will be able to look back and kind of laugh this all off. “That’s Cleveland.”

The story of the woes and the worries, of the pitfalls of being ever the optimist in a place that doesn’t reward optimism takes an interesting turn with the introduction of respected business man and former New York ad executive Art Modell, who in 1961 assumed operations of the Browns organization. A series of unpopular moves put Modell squarely in the crosshairs of passionate fans, who began viewing him as a villain rather than the savior they hoped he would be. It didn’t help matters that Modell didn’t strike anyone as a sports guy; he had no knowledge of the game though his business acumen was rarely questioned.

The firing of coach Paul Brown (the franchise’s first and namesake head coach) turned heads but didn’t earn him anywhere near the animosity his handling of star fullback Jim Brown did. Brown, who was exploring a career in acting on the side, had missed a week of training prior to the ’66 season from production delays on The Dirty Dozen which greatly upset Modell, who publicly threatened him with fines for each day he would continue to miss. Brown decided instead to retire.

Two Browns down; the rest to go? As fate would have it, in a way yes they would. As Modell had a lot of clout developing in Cleveland, he also had invested in repurposing the city’s old Municipal Stadium, agreeing to let both the football and baseball franchises (the Indians) sublease the space. Unfortunately after several fiscally disappointing years Modell became disillusioned with Cleveland as a prosperous venture, and, in an effort to save face decided he would try to move the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, Maryland. The news of course was enough to set light to an already crackling fanbase, a fanbase that had been growing restless for some time.

Despite a referendum in 1996 that ultimately allowed Cleveland to retain the franchise name, the Browns still faced deactivation for another three years (’97 – ’99). Meanwhile, Modell was busy introducing the Baltimore Ravens, to a decidedly torn fanbase who were simultaneously glad to again have a pro football team to back, but still aching over the loss of their beloved Colts (who relocated to their current city, Indianapolis). Indeed, one of the most heartrending moments of the documentary finds fans tearfully saying goodbye to their players on the last game of the ’95 campaign, a game they managed to win. There were few celebrations though;  instead violent confrontations and security staff at the game were assaulted by particularly unruly fans. Empty rows of seats were uprooted in the stadium and tossed onto the field. It came to symbolize the very antithesis of what a sporting environment should be.

Thus ‘The Move’ occupies a major spot at the table when it comes to all the perceived wrongs done unto the Cleveland faithful, representing quite possibly one of the darkest periods in their history. It makes the acquisition of recent burnouts like Tim Couch and Johnny Manziel pale in comparison. The latter especially may have been an embarrassment in its own right, but it was no back-stabbing like the one everyone saw Modell’s collective anti-‘land strategies as. But ‘The Move’ isn’t what ultimately defines Believeland, although it is all too easy to construct the argument that this documentary is designed almost as if to pardon self-loathing sports freaks.

The advent of LeBron James, and particularly the results of the 2016 NBA season*, go a long way in suggesting what Cleveland may have to offer the world going forward. A hugely promising, explosive power forward out of Akron, Ohio, James had been all but prophesied for greatness. Yeah, okay, so I guess we need to tack on ‘The Decision’ to that list of grievances, but the narrative has since evolved from one of bitter resentment to renewed enthusiasm and belief once more that Cleveland’s relevance is only a matter of appeasing The King with the hands he needs to rule a forgotten kingdom.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

LeBron Jamesland

* The 2016 NBA Finals featured a re-match of last year’s Finals, between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. After an historic 73-9 regular season record, largely on the back of a virtuoso regular-season performance from shooting guard Stephen Curry, the Warriors shocked the world by failing to clinch their second consecutive title when they ran into the powerhouse that was LeBron James and a healthier Cleveland Cavaliers squad. Because of the results, Billman has stated that he is going to offer an alternative ending to Believeland to reflect the fact that James has finally, finally put an end to that championship drought in the nation’s most cursed sports town. Stay tuned for a quick blurb on my thoughts over this edit. 

Recommendation: Believeland speaks to the loyalty of fanbases and it ties the obsession with sports into the economic health of a city in intriguing and often heartbreaking ways. It might not be enough to sway those who see Clevelanders sports fans as rabid people with too much anger, but it just might be enough to entice those curious about the state of things in a city that doesn’t on the surface seem to have much to offer. I found this to be quite an interesting take on sports history and the way those closest to sports teams choose to interpret that history. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 77 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.espnfrontrow.com; http://www.espn.com 

The Neon Demon

'The Neon Demon' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016 

[Theater]

Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn; Mary Laws; Polly Stenham

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Elephant in the room: there are more lines of dialogue in Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film than there were in his last. That wasn’t enough to stop The Neon Demon from scoring Refn his second-straight booing at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is still delicate as fine china when it comes to plot but this is Refn as I like him: at least somewhat accessible. Booing him this time seems more like a ritualistic exercise than a just reaction.

Cautionary tale about a teen who puts her high school career on hold to take modeling gigs in Los Angeles epitomizes the Refn-ian vision: lots of bright, pretty colors colliding and compensating for the stark lack of light elsewhere on screen (i.e. each time there’s an alley, a corner or anything capable of throwing shadows); a heightened sexuality that frequently veers into the perverse before fully tipping over into depravation. Most characters stare more than they speak, their inactivity designed to draw attention to form, not function. A psychosexual soundtrack courtesy of regular collaborator Cliff Martinez.

Yeah, so . . . about that staring obsession. Unlike in Only God Forgives it actually serves a purpose here. The pulpiest bits of the story concern the danger young Jesse (Elle Fanning, who celebrated her 17th birthday during filming) finds herself in when she becomes the object of a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone)’s affections. Jesse’s natural beauty starts posing a major threat to other models, specifically Sarah (model-turned-actress Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), women terrified that their time in the spotlight is quickly coming to an end with the arrival of such an angelic, naive presence. Long, lustful stares carry a tension that’s more palpable than it is logical: are we really supposed to believe one of these women is better looking than the other?

Passing glances evolve into death stares as Jesse catches the eye of Alessandro Nivola’s brutally cold fashionista. If haughtiness is an indication of expertise, this guy has had all the experience. Refn, self-described as a pornographer, remains steadfastly committed to the physique: cameras ogle over Jesse’s long legs and Rapunzelian hair constantly. As we transform from viewers to voyeurs, we become haunted by this combination of wanting to stop watching but being physically unable to do so. There’s just something so watchable about The Neon Demon, an obsession to know more that gave me flashbacks of the 2011 haunting beauty that was Drive.

Refn may still be a few challenging movies shy of earning comparisons to contemporary provocateurs like Gaspar Noé and Lars Von Trier (a fellow Dane), but here he is, persisting anyway. Once again the world as he sees it is a brutal, cruel construct, a jagged jumble of broken hearts and heinous acts carried out in the name of self preservation. Malone’s necrophiliac tendencies demonstrate the depths to which these women will sink to obtain whatever it is they perceive Jesse having over them. (What that was was never clear to me but then again, it’s been awhile since I last thumbed through an issue of Vogue.)

The Neon Demon doesn’t break much, if any, new ground in its exploration of the vacuum of happiness that is the fashion industry. It’s neither a history lesson nor a revelation. Perhaps the movie is best when we consider the specifics of the clichés, like how Keanu Reeves takes a stock character and turns him into something we come to fear or the metaphorical beauty of Jesse’s fall from grace landing her at the bottom of an empty pool. Or how uncertain we are that her fellow models are even human. Given the potency of this hallucinogenic trip, it’s safe to say that in 2016 Refn is found reaching for his 2011 highs rather than stooping to his 2013 lows. Thank the neon demons for that.

Recommendation: The Neon Demon represents Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s most female-driven film so far. Some have dismissed this as a sexist, sadistic bit of pretense but that’s overly harsh. It may not be the most original film, nor one where we get all the answers to life’s problems but on the basis of its twisted, mesmeric visuals, The Neon Demon is further proof that Refn is a director to keep an eye on going forward. A great leap forward for the young Elle Fanning, as well. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “She’s a diamond among a sea of glass.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Central Intelligence

'Central Intelligence' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 17, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Rawson Marshall Thurber; David Stassen; Ike Barinholtz

Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber

I guess it’s pretty difficult making an action-comedy work. Just because A Big Johnson and A Little Hart can save the world doesn’t mean they can save this movie from becoming a centrally unintelligent, uninspired, unfunny mess.

Prior to seeing what Rawson Marshall Thurber actually came up with, I would have put money down on Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Kevin “I’m Determined to Blow Out My Vocal Chords by Screaming” Hart becoming the next big buddy-cop duo. And then the asinine but paradoxically laugh-free story happened to me and I’m not sure I want to make that bet anymore. I could put that money to good use somewhere else, like the laundromat I desperately need to visit.

Central Intelligence does have at least one thing working in its favor: the anti-bullying sentiment driving everything forward. We start the film at some high school pep rally in 1996 where we’re introduced to Calvin Joyner (Hart) and Robbie Weirdicht (Johnson). While Calvin faces a serenade of a thousand cooing high schoolers who view him as Mr. Most Likely to Succeed, Robbie, a fairly obese kid, faces humiliation as he gets punk’d in front of the entire student body thanks to a couple of goons who find him singing and dancing in the shower in the men’s locker room.

Flash-forward to the present and Calvin, whose life looked promising post-high school graduation, is jaded by the way things have turned out. He’s now a mid-level accountant at some firm, has a gorgeous wife named Maggie (Danielle Nicolet) who’s happy in her job and they’re both still child-less. So I was kind of confused by what exactly his complaint was, other than that he’s going to feel awkward at the 20-year high school reunion coming up when he has nothing interesting to say about himself. (Isn’t that everyone’s fear when it comes to these things?)

Speaking of, whatever happened to that Robbie Weirdicht? The day before the reunion Calvin receives a friend request from someone named Bob Stone through Facebook and, as people do these days, decides to invite the stranger into his life a little by accepting the request. (Speaking of life, I love the way it works today because not only are social practices like sending virtual friend requests and ‘Poking’ being integrated into our movies but they’re serving as crucial plot points.)

Soon enough the two are meeting for beers in real life — thus moving up a notch in the social hierarchy — and, oh, what do you know, ‘Bob Stone’ is actually the one-time-tormented Weirdicht, sans the flab and afro; now Rock-ing the physique of someone who has just turned a career in pro-wrestling. After getting to know ‘Bob’ by watching him handle four punks on his own in the very bar they’ve been hanging at, Calvin can’t believe how much different Weirdicht is. Believe it, Calvin. Robbie Weirdicht is now Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Central Intelligence is a melting pot of action-comedy clichés. It smothers Hart and Johnson’s on-and-off-again chemistry under an avalanche of ludicrous plot developments that implicate ‘Bob’ as a wanted fugitive responsible for the death of his former partner (Aaron Paul). As amiable as Johnson is, he just can’t make us believe any of this post-high school stuff is real. Amy Ryan, playing a CIA agent named Pamela Harris isn’t very effective in convincing us that ‘Bob’ is a real threat. Of course, that’s a really huge Johnson so who knows what’s actually going on.

I’d get over the poor story if I was being compensated in laughter, mind you. Surprisingly and despite all the imaginative bullshit that goes on as far as “saving the world” is concerned, the film lacks creativity in providing the humor. Any concern over that one time Robbie got bullied gets lost in the dust of silly action sequences that detract from what could have been a potent message about maturity. Instead, Central Intelligence kind of just fails the mission on all fronts.

Screen Shot 2016-06-25 at 3.45.40 PM

Recommendation: Uninspired, lazy, ultra-disposable. Pretty much the three qualities you don’t want in your action-comedy offerings. Central Intelligence promises much with its inspired casting but does aggravatingly little with it. A good one to check out as a rental if you’re one of those who simply have to see Kevin Hart in everything (like, I guess, me).

Rated: R

Running Time: 114 mins.

Trivia (because it’s more interesting): Central Intelligence marks the first joint-venture between Warner Bros. and Universal Studios in 20 years, the first since Twister

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Independence Day: Resurgence

'Independence Day - Resurgence' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Roland Emmerich; Nicolas Wright; James A. Woods; Dean Devlin; James Vanderbilt

Directed by: Roland Emmerich

Nothing brings a tear to my eye faster than knowing that Earth’s mantle is going to be safe, at least until the next ill-advised blockbuster sequel. I really felt more for the core of the planet than I did for the core group of humans at the heart of this underwhelming summer spectacle.

You might get away with arguing that Independence Day: Resurgence is simply more of the same, and that’s everything the film needed to be. And I get some of that. While we don’t have Will Smith back (too expensive), we see many favorites return: Jeff Goldblum and Judd Hirsch as the Levinsons; Bill Pullman as the former President; Vivica A. Fox (the exotic dancer mom, remember?); and a particularly odd scientist is back, too (thanks trailers, for spoiling that one). More of the same though, in this case, just means more: more CGI, more indecipherable chaos, more gimmickry that tries to evoke the past (see Patrick St. Esprit’s stand-in for James Rebhorn’s Secretary of Defense Albert Nimziki).

For a fleeting few minutes, Resurgence shows its mettle: the invasion of Earth is, once again, astonishingly cool. And eerie. And the tagline for once fits: “we had 20 years to prepare; so did they,” only “they” in this case refers to the wizards responsible for all those nifty visual effects. The hellfire that lights up our skies somehow looks even more ominous this time around; watch as landmarks the world over are uprooted like twigs and repositioned miles away. We don’t get the chess game that resulted in gigantic fireballs engulfing major cities but we do get one hell of a Mother Ship, which, in a particularly memorable shot, is shown clamping down on at least a quarter of the planet like a massive leech. They apparently have an interest in the molten core of Earth, which they’ll drain for energy. Obviously that’s not good news for us.

The problem with ‘more-of-the-same‘ in this case is that familiarity déjà vu creeps in much too soon. Resurgence will never be appreciated on its own merits, but rather how far the apple (spacecraft?) did or did not fall from the tree (outer space?). Comparisons may be unfair, but they become less so when a director decides that humanity once again needs to come together like all the colors of the rainbow to fend off another alien invasion. Talk about some shit luck. It took everything we had in the ’90s to stand our ground, to establish Earth as the only planet that really matters in the universe. And here we are again, shaken by the scary thought that maybe it just ain’t so.

At least Emmerich, with his team of writers, has the sense to try and cover for the mistake made in setting up an almost identical invasion — no small thanks to the overly familiar shot selection — by setting the mood much more pessimistic. President Lanford (Sela Ward) seems to be a symbol of hope and unity at the start but she’s soon overshadowed by former President Whitmore’s moroseness. “There’s no way we’ll win this time.” Not with that attitude you won’t. Poor ol’ Prez; he’s been haunted ever since by the last encounter and now can’t really go out in public. So his daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe), who happens to be a fine Air Force pilot herself, dedicates much of her time looking after him. But that benevolence only runs as deep as the script; soon enough not even Monroe is capable of making us believe she’s the President’s daughter.

The plan of attack, drawn up by General Adams (William Fichtner), is shades of grey different from the international united front we launched last time. We’re going after the Queen this time instead of a rogue ship stationed just outside our atmosphere. The goal is to distract this supremely large otherworldly being (no, seriously, think kaiju large) from obtaining a spherical orb/macguffin that ties in to some larger intergalactic story, one that, cosmetically, feels ripped straight out of Men in Black but in concept fits better into Star Wars mythology. (Oh, there’s a cool cross-over idea: Men in Black 4: Star Wars Independence Day.)

Returning characters are given the juicier parts. Unfortunately, few of them share any significant screen time together. Giving those with more experience more prominent roles is an age-old practice that just means we get to spend more time with Goldblum’s David, which is far from a bad thing. Now a revered, distinctive member of the human race, even his dad trusts him more. And no one is telling his David to shut up. In Resurgence a larger spotlight also falls upon the personnel working inside Area 51. The base, once-upon-a-time a secret and mythical location, has since been designated as Earth’s Space Defense Headquarters. And of course President Whitmore has a few wrongs to right, so he jumps back into an aircraft to do his civic duty. On a less welcomed note, Liam Hemsworth replaces Captain Hiller’s sidekick Captain Jimmy Wilder with little enthusiasm; while Jessie T. Usher plays Hiller’s son all grown up. There’s some sort of alpha-male struggle between the two but it’s added in, also digitally, just to give the actors some lines to read. Very little of what they say to each other actually matters.

In fairness it wasn’t scintillating dialogue that defined the classic that came before — yes I’m calling it a classic — but rather an overt but not misplaced sense of American pride. After all, it was the product of American filmmakers and events took place on and around the Fourth of July. In Resurgence, though, the fire just isn’t there. There’s no Whitmore rallying cry. There are only mutterings from a jaded man who can’t seem to believe all of this is happening again.

It’s all numbing special effects stuff that impresses upon us how far technology has come in the last couple of decades. It’s less of a championing of the human spirit as it is a competition to see who has the bigger laser, the bigger home base, the smarter individual beings. Resurgence is pretty brainless. It’s certainly redundant. But I guess there’s no denying the visual grandeur, or the scope of Emmerich’s ambitions, even if all that adds up to is proof that there’s nothing bigger than the greed consuming Hollywood studios who think blockbuster sequels will save us all.

Recommendation: Independence Day: Resurgence is yet another of those sequels that few earthlings asked for. (I certainly didn’t want it.) The ridiculousness of it all threatens Michael Bay, which is to say the film tries to upstage the competition with brute force via CGI saturation. Too bad it forgets that a) humans will always remember their first alien invasion and b) they will always want Will Smith back. In ID4: 2 spectacle trumps all. Even if that means screwing up the alien mythology. Will there be more? Of course there will be. You can take that all the way to the bank, provided it’s still there. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “They’re not screaming. They’re celebrating.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

New Cops

'New Cops' movie poster

Release: Monday, February 15, 2016 (online)

[YouTube]

Directed by: Timothy Morton

Timothy Morton’s New Cops has a cozy home-made feel to it and while the low overhead is certainly noticeable it doesn’t stop us from having a little bit of fun with these guys.

Morton’s latest, a project six years in the making, premiered on February 15 on NoBudge.com, a screening venue for independent film where a new short or feature film is added every Tuesday. The brainchild of independent actor and filmmaker Kentucker Audley, who has been running the show since 2011, NoBudge has become testament to what can be accomplished on practically zero-dollar budgets (hence the site title).

New Cops finds Morton playing a man in a funk, someone sleepwalking through his every day existence while experiencing bizarre yet fulfilling dreams every time he goes to sleep, where he enjoys the power and prestige that comes with being the President (of what exactly, I was never sure. Of the nation? Of a company? Does it matter?) One afternoon his friend Chet (Jimmy Kustes) shows up asking for a couch to crash on for a couple of days while a storm blows over at his house.

Soon enough Chet proves to be quite the nuisance as he tries to rope Tim into various schemes such as passing off neighborhood junk as usable on Craig’s List, and scamming fast food joints with expired coupons. If that wasn’t enough, it’s been several days since Tim has seen his girlfriend and he has not a clue as to her whereabouts, though he suspects she’s with another man. As his real world problems start to seep into his idealized existence, Tim is forced to take action in the only way he knows how: hire a private detective (David Maloney) to do the President’s dirty work.

New Cops, a title derived from a TV show Tim likes to watch, struggles to make a lot of sense. Given that its protagonist seems to spend more time in a dreamlike trance than out of one, I can let the lapses in logic and unexplained (or poorly conceived) developments slide. There is a lot of charm to the awkwardness and dialogue is largely improvised, giving conversations a natural flow, even if that flow is interrupted regularly by some jumpy editing.

Morton’s latest is a fun, creative slice of mumblecore cinema that explores the frustration of a man desperate to overcome self-esteem issues and it often does so to comic effect. It’s a strange adventure that interrogates the very nature and significance of our dreams.

Recommendation: While there are many issues I have with the film on a technical level, overall I think this is a fairly successful experiment that I have no trouble recommending to others who appreciate and actively support micro-budget independent cinema. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 52 mins.

[No trailer available; sorry everyone.]

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Baskin

'Baskin' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 25, 2016 (limited)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Can Evrenol; Ogulcan Eren Akay; Cem Ozuduru; Ercin Sadikoglu

Directed by: Can Evrenol


This review is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. It’s another underground foreign film that I have heard few, but interesting, things about and I’d like to thank James for the opportunity to talk about it.


Eye-gougings. Keyholes in foreheads. Buckets of frogs and portals to Hell. Welcome to the mad, blood-soaked world of Baskin, the debut feature from Can Evrenol, one of only eight Turkish films ever to receive distribution in North America. If you want the truth, there’s no good way to prepare yourself for the craziness that awaits once you decide to enter, and given its incredibly nasty conclusion, perhaps only the most ardent of gore hounds will emerge unscathed from the visceral stylings of this extended version of Evrenol’s 2013 short film of the same name.

Baskin (Turkish for “police raid”) centers around a squad called upon for back-up at a remote location where they encounter a scene so shocking it puts even the most heinous of FBI and DEA crime scenes to shame, a blood-splattered dungeon inhabited by the film’s big bad, a satanic cult leader referred to as Father Baba (Mehmet Cerrahoglu, whose rare skin condition mostly affords the character his creepiness). This nameless pit is an infinitely grim place where torture and misery run rampant and to which the majority of the production budget was clearly funneled. Unfortunately it’s also one of the only bright spots in a film constantly drowning in its own mess.

Thematically, it’s tough to get a sense of what Evrenol is trying to convey here. (Satanic cults are hazardous to your health; try to stay away from them, mmmmmkay?) Overt religious imagery does not on its own constitute thematic depth or innovation. Granted, not every horror flick has an obligation to deliver the goods in symbolic fashion, but if they have any interest in staying competitive, they must then rely much more heavily upon the novelty of the story being told, not to mention whatever evil lurks in the shadows. In the case of Baskin, the story’s not quite solid enough to justify the work we have to put in to make sense of what’s going on. As for the villain? More on that later.

One of the cops in this group is the young Arda (Gorkem Kasal), who to this day struggles to overcome haunting memories from his childhood. He possesses some kind of telepathic ability that’s never properly explained, giving Evrenol free range to implement extremely interruptive flashbacks that kill the momentum being built in the present. If it’s Arda’s perspective from which we’re meant to derive any meaning here, it’s not established enough to make any impact. If we’re meant to be watching this all play out from the otherwise omniscient camera angles, those aren’t employed effectively enough either. In short, we’re left with a confused point of view that doesn’t improve even when we descend into what appear to be the bowels of the Underworld.

If there’s one thing Baskin excels at it’s shock value. The violence is so great so as to threaten comedy, but fortunately it stays on just the right side of exploitative. Torture never descends into parody, though it’s so nasty you’re desperate to force out a fake chuckle or two. At the heart of the evil is Cerrahoglu’s hooded Father figure, a vile creature who explains to his captives that Hell isn’t necessarily some place you go to. It’s “something you carry with you” at all times. Father Baba is an unequivocal nightmare, one of the more original-looking and genuinely terrifying villains in recent memory. James Wan may conjure up some good scares in his haunted houses but he could learn a thing or two about creating truly nasty baddies.

Indeed, if there’s any real takeaway from the chaos that becomes Baskin‘s slide into total depravity it’s that first-time actor Cerrahoglu has a promising future, should he decide to pursue acting further. He makes for a truly unsettling presence in a film that struggles to create much in the way of suspense and intrigue. There are some interesting ideas at play, including telepathy, but none of it is capitalized on with a story that prefers ambiguity over logic and coherence.

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 11.24.36 PM

Recommendation: Baskin is somewhat of an extreme film, though comparisons to contemporary boundary-pushers like Gaspar Noé and Tom Six might be in themselves extreme. Can Evrenol’s film certainly can be looked at as a depressing, nihilistic work and its denouement gives viewers the same sense of hopelessness that John Carpenter’s The Thing gave audiences decades ago. Though this is neither body horror nor the kind of dread-inducing cauldron that Carpenter’s picture has been cemented in history as, nor is it quite as gross as Human Centipede, Baskin sits somewhere in the middle — a purgatory of nastiness that is likely going to struggle to find a fanbase. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 97 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Now You See Me 2

'Now You See Me 2' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 10, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ed Solomon; Pete Chiarelli

Directed by: Jon M. Chu

The implausible Now You See Me sequel — yes, this is a thing — is a magic trick you can see right through from the very beginning. For all the entertainment it seeks to provide, the film delivers an equal dose of numbing visual effects that do nothing but obscure any theoretical cinematic magic wand-shaking under the blinding lights of confused, contrived, utterly lazy storytelling.

Three of the Four Horsemen are back. And no, not from vacation. Well, it was kind of like a vacation. Since the events of the first, the pompous pranksters — J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) — have gone into hiding after exposing the unethical business practices of one Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) and fleecing him out of millions of his own easy-earned cash. (Much like director Jon M. Chu has done to us, minus the whole money coming easy part). Isla Fisher’s Henley Reeves, seemingly jaded by the realities of becoming part of the global underground society of illusionists called The Eye, is nowhere to be found. She’s better off.

Uninspired tale finds the group once more answering the call of FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), who, now firmly in control of his puppets (remember that twist?), has this big spectacle planned out during which they’ll expose a tech wizard’s . . . unethical tech-ing practices, some bloke named Owen Case (Ben Lamb), who in no short order becomes nothing more than target practice when it’s learned that the film’s actual villain is Daniel Radcliffe’s even bigger tech geek Walter Mabry.

What does Mabry have to do with anything? I’m glad you asked, because it gives me the opportunity to rave over the next rabbit Now You See Me 2 tries to pull out of its hat. Turns out, Merritt has an evil twin named Chase who works for Mabry, and in one of many underwhelming action sequences he manages to capture the Horsemen and take them to Mabry’s lair (muahaha!), where they’re informed of a high-risk but high-reward job, likely the trickiest task they will have ever pulled off. Do they have a choice? In an exchange that confesses the depths of this film’s Oscar-baiting screenplay, the Horsemen are told they either “do this or die.” Well, I don’t know about you but I’m inspired.

In the meantime, Mabry’s been busy trying to bring about the downfall of the Horsemen from afar, hijacking the aforementioned show by letting the public know that, hey, yeah, remember how Jack Wilder died? Well, he didn’t really. Also, Rhodes is a two-faced cop and is working with the Horsemen. Be outraged, people. Be very outraged. As a result, Agent Rhodes suddenly becomes Agent Rogues when he and the rest of the magicians find themselves scrapping to clear their name all while trying to eliminate the threat of Mabry.

It’s not exactly the most original conceit, but this new globetrotting adventure could have spawned a genuinely exciting mystery thriller if put in the right hands. Co-writers Ed Solomon and Pete Chiarelli were not those hands. Their story, one that at least adheres to the spirit of reckless abandon established in the original, leans entirely on the magic of post-production tinkering, and with Chu’s terribly flat direction further promoting contrivance and convenience, Now You See Me 2 quickly wears out its welcome.

Not helping matters is a runtime that eclipses two hours and a couple of surprisingly annoying performances from Lizzy Caplan, who plays Fisher’s “replacement” Lulu May — because there has to be a Horsewoman, obviously — and one half of Harrelson’s performance as the evil twin Chase. ‘Harrelson’ and ‘annoying’ don’t seem like they belong in the same sentence but then again the guy is a consummate actor. He really can do and be anything. As to Caplan, someone should have taken away the fourteenth Red Bull she was guzzling before stepping on set. This is way too much team spirit for a movie not named Bring It On.

More irksome than Harrelson’s sinister side and Caplan’s insufferably peppy presence is the film’s knack for reducing living legends like Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman to cardboard cutouts. Neither Caine convinces he’s this bad of a dude nor Freeman of his ever-complicated backstory. You could defend this as an exercise in allowing actors to have some genuine fun while collecting another paycheck. There’s no shame in putting together a supergroup of talent like this for a bit of escapist entertainment but Caine and Freeman couldn’t look more bored.

Now You See Me 2 pulls gimmicks and cheap tricks left and right in its quest to prove editing can on its own sustain a story. The approach suggests the filmmakers think audiences won’t know the difference between ‘real’ magic and clever camerawork. It’s actually pretty insulting.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.48.20 PM

Recommendation: Eyeballs, get ready to roll. Now You See Me 2 takes the worst tendencies of its predecessor and magnifies them. I can handle cheesy films, and NYSM2 is certainly cheesy but it’s more problematic in terms of convincing us that what’s happening in front of us is real. The irony of that is pretty hard to reconcile. This is the epitome of surface gloss hiding no real depth. With that in mind I can’t recommend watching this one to anyone who felt the first one was kind of silly. What follows is much sillier. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “Hell will look like a day at the spa once I’m through with the Four Horseman.” / “You had me at ‘Hell.'”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

'Popstar' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 3, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Akiva Schaffer; Jorma Taccone; Andy Samberg

Directed by: Akiva Schaffer; Jorma Taccone 

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping represents the strongest extended skit Andy Samberg has developed since his SNL days. Despite the contrived manner in which conflict is resolved, Popstar stays fresh, rarely succumbing to its own silliness as it takes aim at the vapid culture surrounding top-brand pop artists in today’s music industry.

Of course it’s Samberg to whom we’re indebted the most. As he has volunteered himself as the honorary jackass, the simultaneous pro- and antagonist leading the charge in another satirical stabbing at the entertainment industry, he stands to lose the most. He plays Connor Friel, a name that just has to be modified for the stage — Connor4Real. So cheesy it just has to be fattening. Samberg thrusts himself into the spotlight as an ultra-successful, Billboard 200-topping artist whose morbidly obese ego won’t be lost on those who lap up anything with Kanye’s name on it . . . or maybe it’ll appeal even more to those who can’t stand him, I’m not entirely sure. (Don’t let the title fool you; this is a shakedown of the entire music industry, not just pop stars.)

Taking the form of a mockumentary, this feels like something you might catch on VH1, though you might have to tune in at 2 a.m. to get the fully uncensored version. It introduces Connor and his childhood friends Owen and Lawrence (co-writer/directors Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, respectively), the guys with whom he had found early success since his days with The Style Boyz. As the story develops, so do the tropes: the meteoric rise to fame, the fall from it, the varying degrees of success experienced by each former member thereafter.

We pick up in the present as Connor is preparing to release a follow-up to the sensation that was his debut album, Thriller, Also. Unfortunately said follow-up, Connquest, gets released to scathing reviews and in no short order it’s deemed a massive failure, even commercially. (Figures for the week are something in the thousands, as opposed to the predicted upper-hundreds of thousands, bordering on millions.) Before it’s all over Connor will be bidding embarrassing adieus to his agent (Tim Meadows), his girl (Imogen Poots), his dignity, even the loyalty of the only other remaining member of The Style Boyz.

That’s before he realizes the rift between the Boyz is the very thing that’s holding him back from true stardom. That’s before the epiphany hits: ‘gee, maybe I’m as much at fault for the fall out as the others. Maybe it’s time I humble myself.’ So they get back together again — a veritable bromantic moment that actually carries some weight thanks to the well-established personalities — for a reunion show/finale guaranteed to inspire Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus to step up their game.

The picture is not only energetic and engrossing (and ruthlessly satirical, in case that wasn’t obvious), but it’s efficient, clocking in at under 90 minutes. Popstar is poignant in the way it captures the various personalities in their natural habitats. Connor’s surrounded by his lavish worldly possessions (think: MTV’s Cribs); Owen can always be found behind his keyboard(s) and Lawrence, disillusioned by the entire music industry, opts for a more rural lifestyle. Now he lives on a farm, tending to his crops. (Pssst, it’s a Judd Apatow production so you know that ain’t okra.)

Even if the execution is largely by-the-numbers, the personalities are larger than life, and it is Connor’s that we’re concerned with the most. Ultimately it’s the only one that really matters.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 8.56.52 PM

Recommendation: I’m unsure if there are any real takeaways from this comedy; you know, other than what any well-adjusted adult already knows to be true of certain celebrities. The vanity surprises no one here and as a result this isn’t exactly the most revelatory satire you’ll come across. To Popstar‘s credit, there’s no lecturing or condescension. It’s kind of a warning siren for stars on the rise Justin Bieber: don’t be a douche. Fans of Andy Samberg/SNL need apply.

Rated: R

Running Time: 86 mins.

Quoted: “Ever since I was born, I was dope.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Paul G — #5

Paul G logo

Last time we were here, Paul was rocking a sweet silver hairdo, the trademark of famed music producer Jerry Heller whom he portrayed in his second collaboration with director F. Gary Gray. Let’s actually take a look at his first experience working with him in the excellent crime/hostage thriller The Negotiator, where Paul takes on the role of a sniveling man caught up in the crisis as one of the hostages. I believe this was the first exposure I had to the actor, so there are two great reasons to check out this dramatic outing.

Paul G The Negotiator

Paul Giamatti as Rudy Timmons in F. Gary Gray’s The Negotiator

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Crime thriller/action/drama

Plot Synopsis: In a desperate attempt to prove his innocence, a skilled police negotiator accused of corruption and murder takes hostages in a government office to gain the time he needs to find the truth.

Character Profile: A two-bit con-man with a penchant for confrontation, Rudy Timmons finds himself amidst a tense stand-off between hostage negotiator Danny Roman (an excellent Samuel L. Jackson) who has been set-up by members within the Chicago Police Department, possibly within his own team, to look like a murder suspect. Rudy, a sniveling little dweeb, establishes himself quickly as among the more vocal of Roman’s hostages, insistent he be let free and get as far away from this  situation as possible. Roman, unable to trust anyone, counter-insists that he stay right where he is. And in spite of rising tensions between him and the armed man whose credentials remain dubious throughout, Rudy finds himself playing a crucial role in getting to the bottom of this conspiracy.

Why he’s the man: While Paul may not factor into proceedings physically as much as the likes of his talented costars in Jackson, Kevin Spacey and David Morse, he nevertheless makes his presence felt. Ever good at playing that “sniveling little dweeb” type, Rudy’s transition from thorn-in-the-side to quasi-sidekick is exhilarating and that largely comes down to Paul G’s fairly solid grasp on the situation at hand here.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.watchesinmovies.info 

The Conjuring 2

'The Conjuring 2' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 10, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: James Wan; Carey Hayes; Chad Hayes; David Leslie Johnson

Directed by: James Wan

The horror event of the year has arrived and no one is safe. Not the Warrens from nightmarish visions; not the British family whose home turns into a petri dish for malevolent spirits; not James Wan from criticism. I don’t want to spoil anything and say it’s all going to be okay for everyone, but at least for Wan it will be. He’s back with a fresh set of haunting images in The Conjuring 2, a literal spiritual sequel to the 2013 smash hit that found real-life paranormal activity investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) coming to the rescue of an innocent Rhode Island family.

The Conjuring established itself as elite horror in terms both commercial and critical, raking in roughly seven times its production budget ($20 million) in American box office receipts alone. Though Wan relied heavily on the jump scare tactic to rattle audiences, he compensated for familiarity by developing characters that were, for once, well worth embracing, particularly in the Warrens. The net effect? These people have become endeared to us, and now in their second outing, we dread what lies ahead because now we too are experienced.

It is true: The Conjuring 2 is really just more of the same stuff. Instead of the Perrons we are introduced to the (very British) Hodgsons. We watch as another family is torn apart without mercy. But isn’t that what we wanted anyway? Back then it became apparent, and fairly quickly, that audiences were willing to pay to become highly strung-out. And while we’re on the subject, let’s dispel a myth: the mark of a good horror film is measured by the stress it induces rather than how many times it physically startles you; if you want something scary, watch a war film or this year’s American presidential elections.

Did we not want a supernatural tale that feels undeniably human and that satiates, via convincing special effects and odd camera placements, our morbid curiosity for what on the surface appears to be demons rising from the underworld? How would it not be fair for us to anticipate another signature exorcism (with apologies to William Friedkin, of course) to wrap things up? The fairly familiar beats The Conjuring 2 delivers are everything we asked for. And then some.

This is less of a retread than you might think, and its foundation isn’t built upon dollars and cents. There’s a legitimate reason we’re going through this again. The haunting in Enfield represents another terrifying case file in the Warrens’ infamous career. There’s a sophistication about proceedings absent in lesser, cheaper offerings, the sort of B-flicks that would be more fun if they weren’t so painfully obviously rushed off the assembly line. Wan, a director who lives, eats and breathes horror, seizes the opportunity to delve further into the lives of the paranormal investigators and to provide a cinematic experience that could go on to be as difficult to forget as its predecessor.

Once again he uses love, not hate, as a driving force. We already know how capable the Warrens are — their many decorated shelves back home are testament to years of dangerous, grueling work — but this time they’re genuinely vulnerable, with Lorraine having a difficult time ridding herself of visions she’s been having since their Amityville days. Her husband’s concerned though he remains keenly aware of the hippocratic oath that binds them to their duties. That’s not the only moral conundrum addressed. The Warrens’ public image comes under fire when skeptics start coming out of the woodwork, including a live television debate that incenses the Warrens and, later, Franka Potente’s Anita Gregory, who challenges the pair directly over the validity of any of their claims, past and present. Media also play a role in creating, even influencing, perception.

The Enfield poltergeist (incidentally the project’s working and far superior title) is a being of exceptional power and takes as much pleasure in tormenting the Warrens as it does single mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor). O’Connor, saddled with the unenviable task of mimicking Ellen Burstyn as she bears witness to severe behavioral changes in younger daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe), commits to the single-mom archetype with ferocity. Fortunately for her, her story takes a backseat to how the Warrens respond to the latest call. This particular phantom takes on many forms, both clichéd (an old bitter man named Bill Wilkins) and more novel (green-eyed nuns and crooked men who move like the Babadook). While the evil is diluted somewhat by flimsy justification — Bill just wants the family to stop squatting in his house — its physical appearance is more than enough to disturb.

As was the case in The Conjuring, where we got to know the Perron family to the point where fate and consequence actually meant something to us, this is so much more than a ghost story. The spotlight falls more intensely on the Warrens this time around. Now it’s less about their expertise as it is about unwavering faith, about the deep love and trust these people have in one another. The Enfield case has haunted England ever since 1977, and manifested as one of the Warrens’ most notable challenges, if for no other reason than how personal everything became. Lorraine is convinced taking this job could spell disaster, and she pleads with her husband that, if they are to visit, they’ll operate in a more observational capacity rather than going fully hands-on. Of course, none of that matters when push really comes to shove.

I’m with Lorraine here. I’m not sure who else is, but I can’t be alone. I’m perfectly okay with playing the part of observer. I’d rather not get my hands dirty. Sitting back and watching lives fall apart amidst typically dull England weather is emotionally taxing enough for me. Touché, James Wan. You’ve made me believe sequels to horror films actually can be good.

Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 5.29.02 PM

Recommendation: Highly anticipated horror sequel manifests as a potent elixir featuring dramatic, thriller and even romance elements that help steer it away from films cut from the same cloth. As someone who has yet to experience the Insidious franchise, I can’t say whether these are Wan’s best efforts, but there’s little use in denying he has officially established himself as the go-to director when it comes to big-budget horror. This was so good I personally see no reason why a third and fourth couldn’t be produced. Like, I am actually asking for more for once. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “It’s so small and light!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com