Review: Unfriended

unfriended

Unfriended takes a deceptively complicated premise and uses it to craft one a compelling story that has you on the end of your seat until the final moment. Yes, I know the moment people heard about a horror movie told entirely on Skype between a group of teenage friends, the eye rolling commenced, but seriously – this flick does a lot of things right.

The story takes place one year after the suicide of Laura Barnes, a girl who was ruthlessly bullied and humiliated online by her classmates. On the anniversary of her death, a group of friends, hanging out in a Skype session, begin receiving strange messages from her various social media accounts. They initially brush it off as a troll looking for laughs, but it soon becomes apparent that this infiltrator has an agenda, and can’t easily be silenced or ignored.

The entire film takes place in real time, and is told through the computer screen of one of the characters. Through videos, chat logs, the Skype window, and Facebook, we not only get the events at hand, but also learn the background of the story and its characters pretty seamlessly. Through the skilled execution, what alternately could have been clumsily handled thorough unnecessary verbal exposition is instead told through a series of browser windows and gives exactly what we need to accept and understand the scene as it plays out before us. At first glance, the premise might seem a little gimicky, but the way it pulls everything together is incredibly effective.

Particularly noteworthy is the way it builds suspense. As the story goes on, this group becomes more and more on edge as the mysterious visitor becomes more and more unpredictable. Tensions rise, tempers flair, and a great sense of suspense is created. Dread builds as the characters begin to understand just what this presence has access to, and the lengths to which it will go to get what it wants. And though you don’t necessarily get the life stories of any of these characters, you get exactly what you need to understand who they are and their relationship to one another.

It’s not just the storytelling method that makes this film work – Unfriended is just the latest entry into a time-honored horror tradition. You see, horror has long been an arena of consequence. Films, legends, folk tales – so often it comes back to warnings and stories telling of consequences for our actions. Not straying too far from home, fearing the dangers of the wilderness, taking care to preserve one’s morality. Unfriended is great because it takes that concept into the technology age, creating a new warning for sins of the modern world. The message stays the same and is eternally relevant – beware the dangers of forces unseen – but the method has evolved into something distinctly millennial. Seeing this enduring notion told in a way so distinctly of this time is part of what makes this film work as well as it does.

It’s easy to brush this movie off based on its premise, but I promise – this one is well worth your time. It works not only for the skillful execution of its set-up but also in the fact that at its core, it is really just another example of a time-honored story that has turned up in horror for decades. The film is great – scary, suspenseful and effective, and a hell of a way to bring the supernatural to a modern touchpoint. A cautionary tale for the modern age

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Review: It Follows

If you haven’t yet caught up on the buzz surrounding It Follows, get on it. The film is well-paced, thoughtful, well-acted, and really damn scary.

The premise is fairly simple: This thing (ghost, demon, monster, curse – take your pick) is transmitted through sexual contact. You sleep with someone carrying it, it gets transferred to you. You are pursued, slowly but surely, until this creature catches up. It can take the form of anyone it wants, familiar or unfamiliar. If it catches up to you, you’re dead. The only way to get rid of it is to pass it along to some one else. But not so fast – you’re not done. Because if that someone else dies, it circles back to you, and so on down the line.

Its latest recipient is Jay (Maika Monroe). Her new relationship is getting serious,and when she decides it’s time to take it to the next level, she winds up with much much more than she bargained for.

The film stands out for many reasons, but partly because writer/director David Robert Mitchell avoids many of the classic pitfalls of horror writing – particularly when it comes to characterizations. Jay and her circle of friends are all written believably as teenagers – no broad stereotypes, no flat, under-developed personalities. They are likable and we understand their motivations and their place in the world. They’re more like the real people you grew up with and less the Hollywood facsimiles that you all wished you could be. They’re fantastic.

This could easily have been a jump-scare fest, and while those flicks can be fun, this one resonates much more deeply, eschewing the cheap scares and instead inspiring an intense sense of dread. It really makes for a more hard-hitting and engrossing experience. Mitchell crafts something here that is an intelligent, well-paced piece of horror, building gradually and never cashing its chips in too early.

When your antagonist is a creature that walks fairly slowly, and can look like anything it wants, everyone is a suspect. And I mean everyone. As the film progresses, you become more and more aware of the fact that the characters are only ever so safe, and that somewhere offscreen, this being is slowly, steadily making its way toward them. I’ve never been so fearful of the extras in a film in my entire life. Anyone in the background, anyone simply walking through a shot could be coming for us. There are some deliberate fake-outs, but even more moments where you find yourself just scanning the shot to eliminate possible threats.

By the time we roll into the third act, you are positively white-knuckling it in your seat. The theme and dreadful nature of inevitability gradually wear you down until you are completely on edge. It hits you in much the same way Romero’s Dead films do. One zombie is nothing, several are manageable, but there is a tipping point at which suddenly “I’ve got this under control” becomes “Oh, fuck.” Same thing here. Something walking toward you isn’t terribly threatening, until it starts closing the distance and you run out of room to escape.

It also works because it leaves everything so unexplained. At its core, the set-up is blissfully
simplistic. We don’t know what this thing is, and we don’t know what rules it follows, outside of what we experience through these characters. We don’t know its origin, or its purpose, and frankly, we don’t care. The only relevance here is Jay and how this thing is impacting her. The drama and the constantly increasing tension lie in watching these characters react and cope with this undefined Thing that is relentlessly pursuing them.

It Follows is a thoughtful and terrifying film, and one that delivers something complex and intelligent. It’s a dread that grows over the course of the story, and stays with you as you leave the theater, watching every person you pass on the street and checking every dark alley for something (or someone) out of place.

Review: The Lazarus Effect

Sometimes a horror movie comes along that defies your every expectation. Sometimes, you are surprised, and instead of getting the drab, by the numbers film that was advertised, the film you walk into is considerably more intelligent and interesting that you were initially expecting to give it credit for. Sadly, The Lazarus Effect is not that film. Instead, it’s a film that makes a lot of interesting promises at the outset, and then devolves into an unoriginal, barely coherent mess by the time its 90 minutes are up.

Mark Duplass and Olivia Wilde play Frank and Zoe – scientists developing a serum to regenerate brain tissue and give medical professionals a bigger window in which to safely bring patients back when they die on the table. An initial experiment on a dog cadaver not only brings it back to life, but they find that it is regenerating cellular and brain activity at a very fast pace, and even activating new parts of the brain. When they try to replicate the results, Zoe is electrocuted and killed. Naturally, the best course of action is to try the serum out on her, and naturally, she doesn’t come back quite right.

At first, the story plays with some interesting ideas. Writers Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater set up an exploration of theology vs science, promising to delve into the mystery of what happens to us when we die. But the story ignores all of the more intriguing premises established and just goes for every cliche in the book. Though certainly watchable, it doesn’t deliver on any of the promises that it sets up in the first act, and doesn’t even succeed in being an entertaining scarefest. It telegraphs every turn, every jump and every development a mile away, and fails to offer anything we haven’t seen a thousand times before.

The film is mired in flawed logic, unrealistic courses of action and tons of horror movie cliches. I don’t need my horror movie science to be spot on – I know we’re all here for fun, but I do demand my scientist characters actually behave like scientists, and everybody knows you never bring a newly-resurrected dog home as the family pet the night he suddenly regains life. Duh.

This kind of shoddy logic continues through the film, and by the finale, it’s as if the writers were rolling dice to see which tired trope inject into the plot next. Hallway lights begin clicking off one by one (at multiple points), a creepy red ball rolls out of nowhere – you name it – you’ve seen it all before. There is even a record player in the lab for the soul purpose of scaring the audience during the finale.*

Though incredibly underutilized, the cast is a major point of strength for the film, particularly Duplass and Wilde. Despite being saddled with crap science and questionable motivations, they still have a couple of chances to let their innate charm break through and you get a small window into the lives and minds of these characters. It’s not nearly enough time, but it’s sufficient to get you on their side. Donald Glover, Evan Peters and Sarah Bolger round the team, though their characters are given considerably fewer opportunities to be more than stage dressing.

One of the major frustrations is that The Lazarus Effect introduces all these ideas about the death experience, about science and the unexplainable, about what happens to you after you die, and then completely fail to cash in. The result of Zoe’s resurrection has very little to do with the afterlife in the way the writers set it up early on. All of the interesting ideas get dumped in favor or a more pedestrian approach. Director David Gelb shoots it as a possession flick – blacked out eyes, creepy grey veins, supernatural powers, but it is really just a poorly realized, horror version of Lucy. Zoe comes back from the dead, the abilities of her brain are magnified by this serum, and for whatever reason, that turns her evil.

It’s one of those movies that you can sense started out a lot smarter than it ended up. There are so many tangents at play that don’t wrap up cleanly and you really feel like the script went through so many cuts and revisions that it can’t even identify itself anymore. Which is a shame – I would have liked to have seen the movie they hinted to early on in the film. Instead, this is just a garbled mess that takes no ownership of itself, and instead just plays it safe (and boring) at every turn.

*Though, that offered some accidental entertainment – when the record player scratched to life in an attempt to shock the audience with a poorly-placed jump scare, my brain interpreted the scratch as a gigantic fart noise. Farts are funny.

Review: Predestination

Predestination offers up everything I love about low budget sci-fi. An intriguing film that doesn’t really have the luxury of relying heavily on crazy CGI shots, so instead, has to rely on the substance contained within its premise. Developing worlds and characters and letting them exist within the confines of their own reality, while It is within these confines that some of the most fascinating stories are told: Primer, Sound of My Voice and Take Shelter are just a handful of recent films that have captured the imagination despite a limited budget. These stories are made all the more rich by the fact that the story is front and center, and Predestination happily stands among them.

Predestination tells the story of a temporal agent (Ethan Hawke) who jumps through time at his bureau’s behest, stopping major and tragic crimes before they can be committed. The film opens with a short, action-filled prologue before settling in to a simple story of a bartender (Ethan Hawke) chatting with a one of his patrons, John (Sarah Snook) – a cynical, yet fascinating man who offers to tell him a wildly unbelievable story. The bartender agrees, and off we go.

John begins his story by revealing that he grew up in an orphanage, as a girl named Jane. Jane was a lonely, isolated child; she always knew that she was different, in some way, from the other children. Fighting and space travel interested her, and she always experienced a difficulty functioning in society and making connections. A lonely childhood segued into a difficult and often tragic adulthood thanks to a few very specific events.

Eventually, points A and B connect, and we jump back into the time travel story, with John’s past and future finally becoming one with the action-filled prologue we saw early in the film. John has had a great wrong done to him, and the nature of Hawke’s time travel bureau is the ability to set wrongs right again. And he offers John an opportunity that is just too good to pass up.

The thing that I have always loved about the Spierigs’ films (Undead and Daybreakers) is their ability to construct narratives within a fascinating premise. This is science fiction that, while not always super-polished, injects something unique into the landscape and offers up intriguing stories and engaging characters. And Predestination is no different. Sure, there are plot wrinkles that never quite get ironed out and a few bumps along the way, but they never derail the story or take away from the experience. Here, we have an examination of time travel itself, coupled with an incredibly fascinating character that the audience immediately (and gladly) empathizes with.

John’s story is compelling and grab’s the audience’s attention from the get-go. The awesome thing is that, even though you know this is a time travel movie, and even though it opens with an exciting segment before we settle in to storytelling at the bar, you are completely fascinated by John simply telling his story. The time travel component eventually picks up again, and it is equally fun, but even if it didn’t you would still be on board with the film, just on the basis of John laying his life out on the table for all to see. You connect with
his emotions, with the events of his life, with the person that he has become over the course of his journey. 

Sarah Snook plays the role brilliantly, portraying both the younger Jane, as well as the older, more cynical John. She fantastically gives a performance that conveys the individual aspects of each side of the character, each at a different point in a life, while still retaining a common core that connects each time period into the same persona, defying the boundaries of gender, while making the character(s) at once unique and united.

Predenstination is a shot of sci-fi that plays with the rules of time travel in an entirely new way. Your mind is going to bend in ways you didn’t think possible, and each new turn and revelation is another new and exciting moment. This is much more than a time-traveling Minority Report. There are moments and aspects of the film that you will be turning over in your head long after the credits roll. Predestination is a film that examines not only the nature of time travel, but the nature of personhood and of what makes us who we are.

Review: The Incredible Selma

Selma is a pivotal film – one that records a vital moment in American history and the importance of a movement. A film that has particular cultural significance and relevance given recent events in this country, and a story that serves as a reminder of how far we have come as a society, while also whispering just how far we have yet to go.

Somehow (and I don’t get it), this is the first theatrical film we have seen based on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The fact that he has been portrayed in minor roles in hundreds of films and has been the subject of television movies, yet has not yet been the subject of a feature himself, is baffling. But now that it is finally here, it is a brilliant piece, and one that you should be viewing as soon as humanly possible.
The approach taken by writer Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay doesn’t span the entirety of King’s life as is typical in biopics. Instead, they wisely choose to hone in on one very specific event – the march in Selma, Alabama, to protest the unfair and unreasonable voting restrictions that kept Black residents away from the polls and unable to exercise their constitutional right to cast their vote.
The approach is fantastic, allowing the audience ample opportunity to understand the character, persona and historical importance of MLK and other pivotal leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, but not going so broad so as spread itself too thin and take away from the impact of the story itself. 
One of the things that really makes Selma shine is the way it takes Martin Luther King, Jr., a monumental historical figure, and humanizes him. Not by making his deeds and contributions less important or by tearing him down, but by letting the audience see him as a man, rather than as a legend. We see his fear, his doubt and his sadness. We see him facing impossible odds and working the situation to the best of his ability, understanding that he didn’t have all the answers, much like anyone would. 
David Oyelowo is stunning in this role, giving King all of the grandeur and energy that we have come to know him for, lighting up a room and engaging his audience with his powerful and compelling powers of speech. But Oyelowo also imbibes him quiet moments where, though there might not be much dialogue, we get a small window into his soul and his humanity. The rest of the cast is equally incredible, with great performances Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson, Wendell Pierce and Keith Stanfield. 
The thing that really struck me when watching Selma was the fact that watching this film gave the events more of a realistic, relative place in history for me. Which isn’t to say I was unaware of them, but more that the film gave them a greater sense of context. Like all of us, I grew up learning about Martin Luther King, and the Civil Rights Movement and all of the good that those brave men and women did. But it always felt as if they had transpired long ago. Though the events of the Movement were only about 25 years old, give or take, they, along with King seemed much bigger than something that could possibly be that recent. But because I was a kid, and these were events that I had not seen myself, in a time and place completely foreign to me, it seemed much much farther away. It didn’t seem as relatable. It didn’t seem as real. It was a chapter in my history text book, and could very well have happened 100 years ago, rather than 20-something or even 30-something.
Watching Selma, I was astonished as it finally dawned on me just how recent these changes were made. Which isn’t to say that the events of the Movement or the people involved were forgotten – just that by the time that I was learning about them, they had already grown impossibly big. 
Selma gives them a grounded context, but also a humanizing factor, reminding the audience just how recent and important these events were, and that their ripples are still being felt today. Specifically when coupled with the too recent memory of the events in Ferguson, in New York, and across the country. Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and others are reminders that, as far as we have come from the 1960s, the fight isn’t yet over. 
It is impossible to watch Selma and not overlay the events of recent months, and that is a good thing. Though the events depicted in the film are historical, they are still completely relevant. Watching the crowds scatter in the film under the overly-forceful weight of an angry police mob, you immediately call to mind the Ferguson footage that you were watching on the Internet just months ago. Selma serves as a beautiful portrayal of a great man and the important, life-changing work that he and his colleagues did to make the world better for thousands, and reminds us that the job is not yet done. It is a beautiful film that informs, educates and speaks.

Farewell to the Harvard Exit

The Harvard Exit Theater has officially closed its doors. Set in a century-old building that started out as a women’s club, there were really few theaters like it. Ballrooms had been transformed into auditoriums, concessions set up in the building’s lobby, and nightly viewings of some of the best offerings independent film was putting out.

My first screening there was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I was a recent transplant to Seattle, still getting to know my way around. The theater was a magical place – nestled on a little corner just off Broadway on Capitol Hill. Beautiful old building, two screens, and great experiences.
Many more films would follow. Take This Waltz, a double feature of The Spectacular Now in the upstairs auditorium, finishing just in time for me to sprint downstairs, grab a soda, and settle in for Blue Jasmine, the astounding, gut-punching experience of seeing The Act of Killing when it played there for Seattle International Film Festival. Too many films to remember, really.
The Harvard Exit was one of my havens. I spent time living in the Capitol Hill and Eastlake neighborhoods, and it was the perfect pop-in stop on my way home from work. So easy to grab some popcorn and hit the 5:00 show. Though I always did think it was terribly unfair that it didn’t serve the same awesome vegan cookies as its sister cinema The Egyptian, about a mile away. Despite that minor flaw, it was the perfect neighborhood getaway.
Even if I wasn’t particularly jonesing for whatever they happened to be showing – you know how sometimes you just want to go to the movies, and you don’t really give a rat’s ass about what you see? The Harvard Exit was one of my go-to venues for when that urge struck. Because it fed that need, they were always showing something interesting, and whatever I saw would rarely be a waste of my time. Good old Cinema Healing at its finest. 
I was in the audience on Thursday evening for one of the theater’s final shows (The Theory of Everything). The theater was as full as it was on any opening weekend, with people seated on the main floor and in the balcony. Congregating one last time to get lost in a story as you can only do within the confines of a darkened movie theater. 
An era has ended, but many fond memories remain. As much as this theater will be greatly missed, I’m glad we were all there to give her a proper send-off together. 

Favorite Stuff from 2014

As we bid a fond farewell to 2014, it is obviously natural to reflect on the year behind us. And as common as it is, I’ve never been much into making year-end lists. It always seems like a good idea, and I might even plan to do it, but at the end of the day, I have a really hard time sitting down and deciding the top 10, top 20, top whatever things in exact, precise order in which I liked them. It’s a great idea, but it is just not in my DNA.

So instead, I slapped together a list of stuff that I was excited about over the past year. Films that I was so excited to see and that I am happy were part of the year and are now a part of film history. Not your standard top 10 list, but my way of celebrating everything that we got to enjoy this year.
So here we go – in no particular order, because ordering them would have made my head explode:
Only Lovers Left Alive – Jim Jarmusch’s contribution to vampire fiction is one for the ages – much like the love affair of the characters that he created, and that Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton brought to life. The film is beautiful, hypnotic and charismatic, and with two of the best performances of the year. A favorite topic of vampire fiction making its inhuman characters feel all the more human, and this film achieves this brilliantly.

Guardians of the Galaxy – If 2014 brought us nothing else, remember that this was the year that saw James Gunn, the guy who wrote Troma films and made Slither, RULE the summer with the impossible-sounding story of a group of outcasts (that included a tree and a talking raccoon) take on untold evils and save the galaxy. One of my very favorite Marvel films to date, Guardians upended everyone’s expectations and delivered a fantastically fun movie. Great characters, hilarious writing, and some really great moments. James Gunn forever!

The Babadook – One of the most genuinely frightening horror films that I have seen in a long time, The Babadook definitely holds the title for Most Frightening of 2014. And with good reason. It earns its scares through character development and and emotionally driven plot, and expertly builds tension over the course of the story. I love horror that centers on an emotional core, and the relationship between Amelia and Sam is a perfect focal point around which to craft this story. Jennifer Lynch delivered something that is not only scary, but deeply compelling. She is a welcome addition to the horror scene, and I am certainly looking forward to seeing more from her. 

Snowpiercer – This ones one of the best surprises of the year – not because it was great (we had already heard that), but because TWC decided to release Bong Joon-ho’s cut of the film, instead of butchering it for American audiences as they had originally intended. I was so happy to have the chance to see the full cut of the film, which was brilliant. Great story, thoughtful themes, and incredible performances. Chris Evans, John Hurt, Allison Pill and especially Tilda Swinton contributed greatly to what was an instant sci-fi classic.
Frank – Michael Fassbender gave a stunning performance in this film, despite doing it from behind a gigantic fake head. The story of an aspiring song writer who crosses paths with a unique band that he believes to be destined for stardom, Frank explores themes of creativity and inspiration, and what it takes to make something truly great.

Cheap Thrills – This flick blew my mind in a very “What the Fuck” kind of way. It’s crazy dark, over the top and heart wrenching, and all in the span of about 90 minutes. The story of just how far would you go for money has never been told like this before, and the result is nothing short of jaw-dropping. Insane, surreal, highly inappropriate, hilariously dark – Cheap Thrills is so wrong in all of the right ways.

Chef – This film was a welcome surprise. For a story with relatively little conflict, it really manages to convey a lot about creation, art and the satisfaction that comes from doing what you love. Jon Favreau got back to a very personal place on this one, with the story of a chef who decides to burn it all down and start again, finally getting back to the root of why he came to love his art in the first place. John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale turn in some great supporting performances

Under the Skin – This film was a perfect marriage of sci-fi and art film. Telling a familiar story in a very unique way, this film is one that stayed with me long after I left the theater, and impacted me tremendously while I was watching it. The stunning visuals, the hypnotic use of sound came together to enhance the story and make it come alive in a unique, stylish and mesmerizing way. Utterly beautiful.

Boyhood – If I were a numbering person, rest assured that Boyhood would be in the top spot (but I’m not, so it’s kind of in the middle, for no good reason). I can’t make a damn decision about the rest of the list, but this was, by far, my favorite film experience of the entire year. Boyhood was a marvel. A cinematic wonder. Not just for the way it came together over the course of twelve years, but for the way it quietly and elegantly contemplated life. The events we go through that will shape our lives and who we will grow into, regardless of whether or not we understand their significance at the time. Boyhood reflects so quietly on a great many things – memory, parenting, growth and development, the modern family unit – and it does so in a very timeless way. We watch this film and remember what we were like when we were Mason’s age, but we also reflect on where we were in our own lives when this story was taking place. Music cues and world events cast the story in a specific and relatable light. And moving forward, future viewers will still be able to connect with the enduring legacy of just what it means to grow up and become that adult version of yourself. Few films have ever captured the human condition quite like this one.

Obvious Child – This film was a welcome addition – to 2014, to romcoms, to the face of women in cinema. Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate took the shattered pieces of many stories that have come before this one and crafted something completely different. Something honest, something real, and something much needed. The beauty of Obvious Child is the fact that it allows the abortion issue to exist free of the issue itself. It is distilled down to its real essence, which is simply a woman making a choice. And this film allows that woman and that choice a place in the cinematic landscape. It doesn’t have an agenda, it has no interest in trying to tell anyone what to do or to preach its point. Instead, it elegantly and gracefully allows this character to exist, and simply to be. And this perspective is something that has been really lacking in cinema, so to have it included to eloquently is a welcome change.

Nightcrawler – Another stunning performance. I never Jake Gyllenhaal could be so damn creepy! Holy shit!

The Raid 2 – I didn’t think it was possible for a film to come close to kicking as much ass as
The Raid, but Gareth Evans proved me wrong. The Raid 2 was a worthy successor in almost every regard. It in no way eclipsed the first film, but brilliantly expanded upon it, taking a simple premise and unfolding it into a monumental crime epic. With a ton of ass kicking, stabbings, broken bones, etc. The film was incredibly stylish, character driven, action-packed, and so much fun.

Delivery: The Beast Within – Though not the scariest film I saw all year, Delivery packed in some great moments and a phenomenal ending. But more than that, it found a way to take found footage – a concept that is on the brink of running its course – and use it innovatively to tell a story in an engaging and realistic manner. Against all odds, it is easy to fall in to this story and to connect with its characters. The cast is great, and the filmmakers took extra pains to make the found footage approach a well-integrated part of the storytelling mechanism, rather than just a gimmick wedged in. Highly recommended for horror fans.

Whiplash – J.K. Simmons deserves all of the praise being heaped upon him for playing the teacher from hell. It is a brilliant performance in a stellar film. The final scene is worth the price of admission alone – fast-paced, well constructed, brilliantly edited.

Jodorowsky’s Dune – Sad, inspiring, unbelievable, creative, mind-blowing – Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary on a film that never happened, yet a film that has lived in the minds and hearts of its creators and fans everywhere for years. A failed adaptation that came so close to being, only to slip away in the final stages. For decades, fans of Dune, of Jodorowsky, of sci-fi have wondered just what that film would have looked like, had it actually come to fruition. This documentary is as close as we will get to seeing that piece of magic, but its existence and its story is magic in and of itself. Hearing Jodorowsky discuss his plans and share his vision and seeing his excitement grow as he discusses his ideas is inspirational and magic.

Grand Budapest Hotel – I’ll take any opportunity to dive into Wes Anderson’s weird little world, and visiting the Grad Budapest did not disappoint. It was fun to see him playing in a more comedic setting, and the story was wonderfully captivating. Someday, I hope I can use a gigantic ladder to break out of prison.

We are the Best! – A tiny film from Sweden about a group of teenage girls who decide to start a punk band from scratch resonated with me in amazing ways. I loved these girls. I wanted to be these girls. I wish I had figured out all the stuff I figured out later when I was their age. They possessed an awareness and bravery that was absent from my adolescence, but that made them heroes in my eyes today. For every moment where you felt wrong and lost, We are the Best! reminds you just who you want to be.

On The Interview, Notoriety and Expectations

Dear World,

Stop shitting on The Interview. It might not be your cup of tea, and that’s fine, but let’s cut the snarkfest, shall we? Here’s the deal:

It has been a fascinating couple of weeks. While the cyber attacks on Sony were reprehensible and have caused significant damage to the company and the people who work there, the results have, no doubt, been interesting. And I don’t mean the gossipy crap found in emails between executives. Fuck that shit. No, I mean Sony’s reaction to the hackers’ demands. A Seth Rogen comedy suddenly had the power to start an international conflict. It’s absurd, and watching the past couple of weeks is almost the stuff of a satirical comedy itself – a series of stranger than fiction moments that, until they actually became a reality, you would only expect to see onscreen.

The fact that in the face of unfounded threats of violence, the chain theaters balked, and Sony made the idiotic decision to pull the film. In the aftermath of being called out as idiots and weenies by all of Hollywood, the President of the United States, and the entire Internet, they reversed their decision, working with small, independent movie houses (a moment of applause for them, please, because those guys are the heroes in all of this) and a handful of VOD services to bring The Interview to viewers on Christmas Day.

The Interview now finds itself in a difficult position. What had started out as just another film being released on the Holiday slate now has importance. Significance. Weight beyond being the latest in a string of comedies from a pair of successful filmmakers. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have now made something that people are clamoring to see on more than just the basis of trailers, stars, or their track record in film. The Interview is now a cultural touchstone in our history.

This position of significance is an exciting one, for sure, but also a daunting one. As moviegoers and critics alike are finally able to see the film that has caused so much fuss, opinions are varying widely. Understandably so – it’s a silly comedy and it’s not going to be for everyone. Had it been released without causing an international incident, it would have had fans and detractors, just like This is the End, Knocked Up and Superbad.

But the frustrating part of watching this unfold is that now, this innocuous film that, until recently, was just another holiday ticket, is now being held up to an impossible standard. I am seeing more and more snark circulating as people fail to see what all the fuss was about.

“Blagh, blagh blagh…and it wasn’t even that good.”

“<fart noise>…it really isn’t even that funny.”

Whaaaaaaaaa….wasn’t even worth seeing!”

You’re certainly entitled to your opinion, and you are, of course, not required to like the film. But let’s keep it in perspective, okay?

The Interview should be evaluated like any other movie, free of the craziness that surrounded its release. This film is an important and fascinating chapter in history, and we will all be able to look back years from now and remember that Christmas all when all of that insane shit when down with North Korea over a silly movie where Seth Rogen put something up his ass.

Which isn’t to say the film failed – I enjoyed it. It was well acted and funny and topical and I had a good time. I look forward to seeing it again. And that certainly isn’t going to be everyone’s opinion – nor should it. The beauty of art, and specifically of comedy, is that it is never going to appeal to everyone. We all have our own tastes and different pieces will appeal to some, but not to others. It’s the way it goes.

But keep it all in perspective. This was never about the quality of the movie. Hackers didn’t get all pissy over The Interview being such a powerful and amazing film, and movie goers didn’t defend it because they expected it to be a particularly enlightening piece. This was about being able to make the decision to see and judge the film for yourself, and not have our art censored by masked assholes on the other side of the world. 

The fact that it was controversial doesn’t in some way guarantee an impossibly brilliant movie-going experience. The Interview is what it was always going to be – a fun comedy mocking two world powers in a fun and juvenile way while I laugh and sit there and eat Junior Mints. And really, that’s all it needs to be. The explosive situation surrounding it is its own story, so please leave it there when you walk into the theater, or bring up the VOD service. And whatever you think of the film, be happy that you had the opportunity to watch it and to form that opinion, as you always should have.

Review: Soulmate

Soulmate is an interesting film, though a bit deceptive. If you are expecting a tense, suspenseful ghost story, you would be better served looking elsewhere. What Soulmate does offer is an interesting, though occasionally flawed, examination of loss and grief.

The film opens with the attempted suicide of Audrey (Anna Walton), a recently widowed woman consumed by grief over the loss of her husband. She is saved by a family member, and after being released from the hospital, decides to stow away to a remote house in Wales. She hopes that the solitude will help her to pick up the pieces and find herself again. But she isn’t in the house long before she begins hearing noises – footsteps and rustling in the locked third floor room lead her to believe someone may be living there in secret. A discussion with the landlords reveal the matter might not be that simple. The former owner of the house died under sudden circumstances many years ago, but the evidence at hand is indicating that he hasn’t left the house at all.
You would be expecting, at this point, that Audrey would embark on some sort of a mystery, perhaps trying to learn more about the spirit in question and finding some way to put him to rest – interspersed with all kinds of scenes of things going bump in the night in this isolated cottage. It’s a tried and true favorite among ghost stories, but Soulmate chooses a different route. It’s one of the things that makes it interesting, but is also one of its (acceptable) flaws.

What happens instead, is she makes contact with the spirit, Douglas (Tom Wisdom), a lost and lonely soul who has been stuck on Earth ever since his death. He grieves the loss of his own life, just as she grieves the loss of her husband’s. The two form a bond, and through this friendship, Audrey finally begins to confront her loss and work past her depression.

This is what sets Axelle Carolyn’s film apart from the standard ghost story. It offers both a venue for this character in mourning to open up her grief and to deal with it. It also offers a different take on the concept of a lost spirit. Rather than a wandering soul or a ghost trapped in the moment of their death for all eternity, it approaches the concept of a haunting through the lens of depression and loss.

Part of what sells this so well is the fantastic performance from Anna Walton. She inhabits this character perfectly, conveying her profound grief and sense of loss. Her performance lends the film a sense of emptiness, which, in turn, adds to the isolation and haunted atmosphere. Because even though this isn’t a scary story, it is absolutely the story of a haunting – but one that is more focused on Audrey and the circumstances of her life than on the house itself. Whatever lies within the walls of the cottage is nothing compared the the ghost of her husband, who, though unseen, hovers around her in an almost palpable fashion. She carries his memory with her and the pain that it gives her is tangible.

It doesn’t work 100% of the time; the film is centered around a solid premise, but unfortunately, it occasionally suffers from its low budget (particularly in the effects department) and isn’t as tight as it could be. A few scenes feel overly long and poorly paced, but they do little to derail the emotional resonance of the film. Despite its flaws, it is an interesting addition to horror cinema for the way it approaches ghosts and tries to shine a new light onto a well-told story.