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Stranger Than Fiction - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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March 11th, 2017


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10:16 am - Stranger Than Fiction
It's another big batch, this time with some excellent documentaries!

ARQ: Groundhog Day meets Edge of Tomorrow? I'm in! Ren and Hannah had a wonderful night but then they wake up the next morning and masked thugs burst in and tie them up. What do they want? Also what is that weird machine called the ARQ and what does it do? Spoilers, it causes a time loop. This is a time-loop movie. And a very clever one, where each loop twists the story in a new direction. I'd recommend going in knowing as little as possible for maximum surprise factor. There's a dystopian backstory and no one has apples and blah blah evil corporation something something resistance bloc, there's nothing new there but I appreciate how writer-director Tony Elliott delivers exposition to the audience on the fly, allowing that story—which is key to the story of Ren and Hannah—to develop in the background while you're more concerned with the characters trying to stay alive within each loop. It looks damn good for being low-budget (under $2 million, so not super low-budget, but, hey, nice special effects), and it's got a nice, thumping score. Overall, very solid time-loop film with few glaring flaws. Well done, Orphan Black writer. B+

Midnight Special: So there's this boy, and he's got these weird powers, like he can hear radio signals or something and he shoots light out of his eyes or whatever, and so his dad kidnaps him from a cult to deliver him to, uh, some mysterious location because of reasons. That is the whole movie. He is trying to get his son to a place, and the FBI is in pursuit, and Adam Driver adds a tiny bit of lightness to these incredibly somber proceedings. There's barely a sense of character, though the performances are all good, and nothing is explained, though the lingering shots and swelling music believe you should have emotions about all this nonsense. I don't exactly know what I am supposed to care about in this movie, but it is...well made? It has one or two cool moments? B-

Jiro Dreams of Sushi: A Japanese octogenarian serves the best sushi in the world in a ten-seater in a subway station. Unbelievable? Believe it! This documentary profiles Jiro Ono and his three-star restaurant (that is the best, Michelin only goes up to three, and it means you should actually fly to Tokyo just to eat there), where he serves very simple sushi—fish on rice, nothing fancy—that wows customers. It's difficult to imagine how amazing this sushi must be and believe it's worth the price and hype, but David Gelb shows us how that might be. Like the food, the answer is simple: Jiro has spent decades perfecting his craft, and he refuses to use anything but the best ingredients. It's a neat look at sushi, but there's also an interesting story surrounding his two sons, the younger who opened a spin-off and the older who stands to inherit the original. Both know they can never live up to the standard set by their father. The doc doesn't delve too deeply into that turmoil and the possible tragedy of being forced to follow in their father's footsteps, but you can drown your angst in sushi. B+

Tampopo: In the first—and possibly only—ramen Western, a cowboy hat-wearing truck driver named Goro helps a widow named Tampopo turn her ramen shop into the best ramen shop in town. That's it, that's the movie, and it's an absolute delight, as it uses various tropes common to the spaghetti Western and recontextualizes them with gusto. Ramen is serious business, it turns out, and Goro will not rest until every aspect of Tampopo's ramen shop is up to snuff, nay, over snuff! Nobuko Miyamoto is adorable as Tampopo, who shows great progress and proves that a woman can be a ramen chef. Writer-director Juzo Itami is not content with this simple ramen tale, though, and occasionally turns to completely unrelated scenes about food, be it executives ordering French food or a class on how to eat spaghetti. They're like very entertaining commercial breaks! The whole movie plays as an ode to ramen and food culture in Japan, and what it lacks in plot complexity it more than makes up for in warmth. B+/A-

Oculus: There are so many ways to make a shitty movie about an evil mirror, and Mike Flanagan avoided all of them. Karen Gillan plays a woman trying to prove that said mirror is an evil mirror responsible for the horrific events that befell her family eleven years ago. She enlists the help of her brother, newly released from a mental institution. Flanagan tells the past and present stories in parallel and masterfully creates constant tension in both. This whole movie is basically dread as you wait for terrible things to happen; there are very few jump scares. It's almost more of a psychological thriller at times, especially when the characters question what really happened when they were kids. The setup is great, and I love that the central characters are brother and sister. Once the mirror starts going full evil, though, the movie becomes a little harder to follow, as the past and present stories merge in confusing ways; like the characters, we're not sure what's real. It's a neat effect, but it leaves the viewer without enough footing to know what the stakes are at any given moment, and because the mirror's powers aren't fully explained, Flanagan can get away with pretty much anything. I have mixed feelings about the ending, which works beautifully on one level but also...well. That is a fuckhead mirror, I tell you what. B+

The Sixth Sense: Remember when M. Night Shyamalan was an unknown breakout talent with a promising career ahead of him? With a potential Shyamalaissance happening, I revisited his debut, in which a child psychologist helps a young boy who sees dead people. Although it's sometimes called a horror movie, the "horror" aspect doesn't really show itself until halfway through, and there aren't many scares. The famous twist ending seems quite obvious on a rewatch, but like the best "twist" movies, there's much more to the movie than that, and watching with that knowledge gives you a new, enriched experience. Because the relationships between Malcolm and Cole and Cole and his mother are strong and compelling independent of any supernatural occurrences, and they lead to big emotional payoffs in the end. The Sixth Sense is a slow, deliberate film that takes its time and engages in very few theatrics (not including scenes of actual theatrics). It's visually interesting and full of soul. Also souls. Dead ones. B+/A-

Paper Towns: In this John Green adaptation, Quentin Jacobsen's lifelong crush is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl named Margo Roth Spiegelman, who, as high school draws to a close, takes him on one wild night of adventure...and then disappears. It was a hell of a night, and he thought they really connected, so of course he wants to find her. His best friends—who have much more personality than Q, who's pretty bland—are right behind him. Like the book, the movie has three distinct sections with very different feels, and it doesn't totally achieve narrative cohesion. The story just goes...where it needs to go. That being said, most of the changes made are for the better. It's a good, watchable cast, who humanize their characters into more than a collection of quirks, and that's part of what the story wants to dig into, the people we are underneath what everyone else sees. But because it doesn't have a drive of its own, it doesn't reach those profound truths as effectively as it could. Despite all that, it has some good moments, especially among the friends. B/B+

Sound of My Voice: After enjoying The OA for the most part, I decided to check out Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij's previous eforts. Their debut has strong OA vibes, as it centers around Brit Marling as a mysterious woman who has a wild story to tell: she's from the future. And now she has a cult to nurture and command and...save? Peter and Lorna infiltrate the cult to make a documentary about her and expose her as a fraud. But is she? Like The OA, there's a lot of dramatized silliness and pretentious philosophizing but also moments of real emotion and tension. Does she know what they're doing? What's her endgame? And is Peter getting in too deep? Marling and Batmanglij keep twisting the narrative, sometimes adding seemingly random elements that don't pay off till later, but meanwhile they've got you questioning everything, not the least the very nature of faith and belief. It all builds to an ending that's surprisingly satisfying, plus a great Hot Chip song. Also: bonus Constance Wu! B+

Sneakers: I've been wanting to rewatch this childhood favorite for years, and, boy, does it ever hold up. An incredible cast, quotable dialogue, classic scene after classic scene, a James Horner score alternately breezy and agitated. Robert Redford leads a team of misfits hired to test security systems, and then they stumble upon a codebreaking device that's worth killing for. This movie is incredibly nineties in its hacker sensibilities—at one point a former CIA agent freaks out over the impossibility of thwarting an ELECTRONIC KEYPAD—and that only adds to its nostalgic charm now. It has elements of '70s conspiracy thrillers but it also has a great sense of humor. Honestly, on a rewatch, I can recognize some of the flaws—underwritten characters, plot contrivances, unclear shadiness—but I don't care because two decades later I still fondly remembered nearly every moment of the movie. A-

The Autopsy of Jane Doe: One night a father-son coroner team gets a Jane Doe. They perform an autopsy. Things get weird. From the director of Trollhunter comes this spooky little horror film anchored by strong performances from Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox, not to mention Olwen Kelly as the unnervingly unmoving corpse you're always expecting to move because, you know, horror movie. Initially the movie is more of a mystery, as they're trying to determine her cause of death. All of this is tense because, you know, horror movie. The suspense builds and builds, the dread deepens, and then at a certain point, the terror becomes relentless and things get fucked up. It doesn't all make sense, but it makes enough sense to be fairly clever, and there's also enough to the two main characters to give the film some depth. B+

The East: Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij are really into cults! And this time Brit Marling is the one infiltrating the cultish eco-terrorist group The East. She's working for a private intelligence agency, which is a thing, apparently. The East have announced planned attacks on corporations, so her agency wants to protect their corporate clients. Brit discovers that this group has some very strange habits but their hearts are kind of in the right place? These corporations have hurt people! The system is broken! Brit gets deeper in and of course her loyalties become conflicted once she begins to like these terrorists. It's disorienting how much more mainstream and accessible this movie is compared to Sound of My Voice and The OA. It isn't filmed in that same dreamlike style, and it's genuinely suspenseful and thrilling at times. Plus it has an unambiguous ending! B+

Green Room: A punk band plays for a bunch of neo-Nazis but when they stumble upon a dead body, they're trapped in the titular green room and have to fight for their lives. Things get pretty gruesome. The movie starts out innocently enough, and it'd be amusing to show this to someone who thought it was just about some down-on-their-luck punk band until AAAAHHH MACHETES AND ATTACK DOGS AAAAHHH. We don't get a great sense of who any of these characters are as individuals, but the actors make us care about them anyway. It's in a lot of the little interactions and dialogue that show both the tightness between the band and the tightness between the neo-Nazis trying to kill them. Anton Yelchin is particularly good, and Imogen Poots as an ally has several stand-out moments. Not to mention Patrick fucking Stewart as the neo-Nazi leader, who calmly orchestrates the mayhem (even though I didn't understand a lot about the situation and who all the various characters were). Green Room is violent and tense, and it has a fun push-and-pull rhythm to it so that nothing ever feels predictable or stale. It's a well made, nasty little thing. B+

The Shallows: There are a lot of bad shark movies. This is not one of them. Blake Lively plays Nancy Adams, a woman taking a break from medical school to grieve her mother the only way she knows how: SURFING (on a meaningful beach, it's very sweet). We get to know her, we get to like her, the shark attacks, and the games begin, and goddamn. Director Jaume Collet-Serra knows the rules and does not show the shark for a while, which only makes the carnage we don't see even scarier. Blake Lively has to carry the entire movie, and she's great; it helps that her character is a competent badass. She has to take care of herself, she has to strategize, she has to figure out how to get help, get to safety, and/or kill the goddamn shark. The premise never gets stale; Collet-Serra keeps the tension up and knows when to throw in some shark mayhem. But it never feels gratuitous. Even though that shark is a jerk. Overall, though, what makes this movie so thoroughly enjoyable is that the protagonist is far from helpless, and we believe in her ability to survive. B+

Anomalisa: Michael Stone is a sad, lonely man with a wife and son. He is a motivational speaker giving a talk at a conference in Cincinnati. He is also a puppet. Charlie Kaufman has written some of my favorite movies, and there's certainly no other screenwriter like him. Here he employs a curious premise: Michael perceives everyone around him as the same. Visually, they generally look different to the audience, but aurally, they sound the same. To him and us. This is most obvious when it comes to the women, who are clearly voiced by a man. The actual action of the movie could all have been done as a live-action film, but this little quirk is easier to accomplish in stop-motion animation (even though it continues to be disorienting how mundane and realistic all of it is). Thus, when Michael finally hears a new distinct voice, it's as pleasant and reassuring and wonderful to us as it is to him. We automatically like Lisa because she sounds different, vibrant, not the same we've been hearing. What follows is human and awkward and beautiful and aching and haunting and I did not 100% fall for this movie but there's something unique here. B+

Friday: After really digging Straight Outta Compton, I wanted to check out F. Gary Gray's well-regarded debut. Friday is about the things that happen on Friday. Ice Cube just got fired, so he's got nothing to do. Chris Tucker wants to get fired up (ie, high), especially because he needs to pay a drug dealer $200. Also there's a bully in the neighborhood and hot women. Basically nothing happens in this movie and I did not laugh once. With the exception of a few folks like Ice Cube and Nia Long, everyone overacts and no one feels like a real person. It's a slice-of-life film for a life I am unfamiliar with, so I know I'm not the target audience here, but the general tone and style did not work for me. The broad strokes throughout allowed no real build-up to the dramatic climax, which wants to be a big character moment. Anyway, at least now I have a better appreciation of "Bye, Felicia!" B-

Morgan: After seeing The Witch, I wanted to see Anya Taylor-Joy in more things. After seeing Ex Machina, I wanted to see more creepy, intelligent science fiction movies. And here is Anya Taylor-Joy in a creepy science fiction movie! Yes, I left out the "intelligent" on purpose. The titular Morgan is a genetically engineered person (an "it" rather than a "she," to some people), and Kate Mara has come from corporate risk management to assess the project after a violent incident. The movie superficially addresses the "Is she human?" question, but it's not really as interested in Morgan as you might think, seemingly more focused on the protective family of scientists that's formed around her. It's kind of slow without being tense for the first half, and when it inevitably switches to being more action-oriented, the transition is abrupt and doesn't feel earned. The ending did kick it up a notch for me, even though it opens up a lot of questions. This movie has some good performances and some decent ideas, but the execution is lacking in so many ways. B/B+

Victoria: Victoria is a Spanish girl in Berlin. After a night at the club, she runs into a foursome of "real Berliners" and takes a liking to one of the guys. It's a chance encounter, but it will change her life forever. The hype surrounding Victoria is that it is a 138-minute movie shot in a single take, and as a technical achievement, it's astounding. What's even better is that the gimmick serves the story: we are trapped in this situation just as Victoria is, and experiencing the events in real-time makes it all hit harder, even if some moments and scenes go on a tad too long. We are privileged a bit though because she doesn't speak German, so the subtitles tell us things she doesn't know. Luckily, English is a common language (there's so much English dialogue it was ineligible in the Best Foreign Language Film category). Victoria demands a healthy suspension of disbelief (the fact that a young woman would blithely hang out with four strange men at four in the morning is ludicrous, but it tells us something about Victoria) and a lot of patience, as the first half is largely getting to know the characters, building up to probably the best scene in the film, where you realize you just kind of enjoy spending time with these people. But things take a turn in the second half—optimally this movie should be watched without knowing anything, but it's the second half that drew me to the film in the first place so I was waiting for it the whole time, and I feel like I have to promise you it's worth the wait. Victoria is a unique cinematic experience. B+/A-

The Sessions: John Hawkes plays real-life disabled poet Mark O'Brien, who at the age of 38 decides he would like to finally experience sex and enlists the help of surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene, played by Helen Hunt. This unusual but straightforward summary may lead you to expect something raunchy and/or crass, but this movie is anything but. It's super funny and sweet! It helps that Mark is such a charming, likable, self-deprecating character (Hawkes is perfect), and on top of that, William H. Macy as a friendly priest provides some comic relief as Mark's spiritual support. Hawkes immersed himself in Mark O'Brien's work, and writer-director Ben Lewin is a polio survivor himself, so the portrayal of disability is handled very sensitively (he says as an able-bodied person). But while the story could have become disability porn (in more ways than one), it's far more about the simple human connection that forms between Mark and Cheryl (Hunt is also excellent, having to convey more of her interior than Hawkes despite displaying more of her exterior). Cheryl's husband feels underwritten and more of a plot device, but I liked all the other characters' relationships with Mark. This movie has so much heart and tenderness and empathy. B+/A-

Pet: Dominic Monaghan plays Seth, a socially awkward loner (complete with Weird Voice You Only Hear in Movies), who becomes obsessed with former classmate Holly, played by Ksenia Solo. He stalks the hell out of her, and it's sometimes unclear whether we're supposed to think he's being cute or creepy. Holly thinks he's creepy, so he kidnaps her and locks her in a cage. As you do. So on the surface this movie sounds like misogynist torture porn, but halfway through the movie becomes something entirely different. Something really really fucked up. The twists are kind of absurd, but Monaghan and Solo give good performances (although it may not seem like it initially, this is Solo's place to shine). There's something off about the tension at times, but the film is visually interesting most of the time, with a few striking shots. Did I mention this movie is fucked up? It's fucked up. B/B+

The Girl on the Train: Paula Hawkins's bestselling novel is tough to adapt because it's largely internal, and while the opening scenes of the film attempt to bring this across by allowing the three main characters to deliver voiceovers, the film then drops the device entirely, finding ways to force them to vocalize their thoughts to someone. Rachel is an alcoholic divorcée who voyeuristically observes Megan from the train while trying to avoid seeing Anna, her ex-husband's new wife. One day, she sees something that angers her, and that very night, she gets super drunk and Megan disappears. Coincidence?? Emily Blunt makes Rachel more sympathetic (and pathetic) than the book version, but overall the characters are far less developed, and for a thriller, it seems to lack a real sense of tension and suspense most of the time, though that may simply be because I just finished the book a few days ago. It feels hollow and empty in comparison. B

Weiner: Anthony Weiner was once known for being a passionate politician who fought for the right things. Then a sexting scandal forced him to resign from Congress. But a couple years later, he ran for mayor of New York and decided to document his comeback...but his attempt to gain control of his narrative went awry when another sexting scandal hit. Weiner is alternately funny and uncomfortable, as it replays all our favorite jokes but also shows us the human toll it takes on Weiner and especially his wife, Huma Abedin (who purportedly did not give her permission to be featured, making this all even more uncomfortable). It's a great behind-the-scenes look at how a campaign tries to navigate a scandal in the face of a media force that does not (or refuses to) understand nuance—in the grand scheme of things, a sexting scandal is a small transgression and should it reflect on a politician's ability to effect social change? Yet this is no Anthony Weiner puff piece either; it's clear he has some self-destructive tendencies and does not always behave appropriately, much to his wife's chagrin. Weiner is entertaining and compelling, with moments of vulnerability that will make you think about how we view public figures. B+/A-

Xanadu: The film that inspired the Golden Raspberry Awards is bad, folks. It makes little to no sense and I spent most of the movie yelling, "What is happening??" or "Why is this happening??" Olivia Newton-John plays Kira, a literal Greek Muse (this is not explained for over half the goddamn movie, though it is fairly clear when she comes to life from a mural of nine dancing sisters) who inspires an artist played by a terrible actor, and also Gene Kelly. There is disco, there is roller skating, there are interminably long and irrelevant musical numbers, there is—I don't even want to spoil it because it is just so out of nowhere. The special effects are ridiculous and the costumes are totally eighties and the plot is incoherent...and yet, despite the occasional moments of dullness, the movie is so in-your-face with its sincerity and heart that it's entertaining to watch. Plus there is some great choreography at times, courtesy of Kenny Ortega of High School Musical fame! This movie is a fucking trip. I have been forever changed. C+/B-

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters: Welcome to the world of competitive gaming, where hot sauce king Billy Mitchell holds a decades-old high score on Donkey Kong...BUT HERE COMES A NEW CHALLENGER! Director Seth Gordon takes us inside this weird pastime and uses the Donkey Kong rivalry as a narrative backbone upon which so many characters' lives hang, including Walter Day, video game referee. After establishing how it all works, Gordon brings in Steve Wiebe, family man who decides, hey, let me try to beat this guy's world record. What follows is unexpectedly gripping and compelling as we root for the underdog (Mitchell, though he doesn't seem like a total asshole initially, simply a man proud of his accomplishments, emerges as the film's villain [though apparently this is not an entirely accurate depiction]). Gordon treats his subjects with seriousness rather than mocking them for their obsession with a classic arcade game, and when other players talk about how difficult it is to play and the skill involved to be a champion, it's not meant ironically. It's a marvel that it works, and the story that unfolds is absolutely as exciting as that of a scripted film. A-

The Gift: Simon and Robyn buy a beautiful new home in the suburbs for a fresh start after some unspecified issues (to be specified later in the film). But more important are some new issues: Gordo, one of Simon's old high school classmates, wants to reconnect and is...very clingy about it. Unsolicited gifts, awkward dinners, sincere letters, etc. Simon thinks it's creepy; Robyn thinks it's sweet. Writer-director Joel Edgerton (who also creeps it up as Gordo) keeps things suitably tense and off-kilter, though sometimes the movie feels a bit slow and repetitive. It gets more interesting halfway through as secrets are revealed and motivations become more clear, but criticisms of the final moments are valid, as it takes a rather distasteful turn, albeit one that tries to play into the film's possible themes. Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall give strong performances, though. B/B+

Ouija: Origin of Evil: Is Mike Flanagan responsible for the best prequel of all time? At the very least, he has to be responsible for the most dramatic increase in Rotten Tomatoes rating from original (7%) to prequel (82%). I never saw the original and I feel I'm better off, as it would have spoiled some of this film anyway. And this is a good horror movie! Set in L.A. 1967, it follows a widow and her two daughters who run séances ("What's a scam?" asks her younger daughter). Then the older daughter brings home a Ouija board, and the younger daughter starts talking to their dead father. And/or some other folks. This movie ain't called Origin of Evil for nothing. Flanagan crafts a strong period piece with great performances all around, and he generally eschews jump scares and theatrics until the end, relying more on building dread and tension, which he's proven to be adept at. This is a solid classic horror movie with assured direction. B+

Tickled: All New Zealanders David Farrier and Dylan Reeve wanted to do was make a documentary about the curious underground sport of competitive endurance tickling and Jane O'Brien Media, the corporation that ran it. They didn't expect to be immediately met with extreme homophobia, harassment, and legal threats. Farrier and Reeve dig deeper, and what they find is not pretty at all. While there's a short interlude with a perfectly happy tickling fetishist, the crux of this tale is about exploiting young men and ruining the lives of anyone who stands in the way. It's like a goddamn conspiracy thriller or horror movie, but REAL. Farrier and Reeve are pretty sneaky and engage in some ethically dubious recording, but this story is unreal, with lots of twists and turns. They take us with us on their investigation and help put the pieces together, and even if they're unable to wrap everything up tidily, it's a powerful, scary experience. Strap yourselves in, folks. A-

Next up: so many great movies I missed in 2016!
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From:spectralbovine
Date:March 17th, 2017 05:48 am (UTC)
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Stephen Tobolowsky! His voice is, indeed, his passport.

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