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Big Trouble in Little China

A Mildly Successful Adventure Comedy
There's no such thing as a present-day John Wayne, but "Big Trouble in Little China", a mildly successful adventure comedy, provides good argument for why Kurt Russell could be considered a present-day John Wayne, if you imagine Russell in the 1980s and if the present day is, cough cough, 1986. He's got the look, the money, the power; his manner of speak, drawling, unwaveringly masculine, suggests more heroic brawn than quick-witted brains. But we like him anyway: he's an all-American hero who takes himself much too seriously. There probably isn't a better type of movie hero, unless we're talking about an unheard of one like Lisbeth Salander. Then we're talking.

For now, though, I'll settle (sporadically, that is) for the bonkers fun of "Big Trouble in Little China", which is partially a comedy, an action movie, a kung-fu flick, a distant cousin of "Indiana Jones", a labyrinthine fantasy. It's uneven to say the least (we can agree that the action is terrific, yes, but what about the film's all-too-obvious inability to develop its characters?), but there is plenty of enjoyment to be had, so long as you leave your logic and bitterness at the door and turn the word improbable into likely. Because "Big Trouble in Little China" is like "Danger: Diabolik" — you either figure it to be "Mystery Science Theater 3000" worthy or an irresistible exercise in pulp insanity. Personally, I'd go with the former.

Much of the ruckus in San Francisco's Chinatown has to do with Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), a quasi-macho truck driver who finds himself in a pit of trouble after his best friend's (Dennis Dun) green-eyed fiancée (Suzee Pai) is kidnapped by a Chinese gang. The gang, however, isn't your run-of-the-mill pack of bandits looking for trouble because it's fun — they, in actuality, are the henchman of Lo Pan (James Hong), an ancient sorcerer seeking marriage to a green-eyed Chinese girl in order to bring his aging body back to youthful flesh and blood.

Fortunately, the film doesn't sabotage itself with unneeded side plots or drivel pieces of dialogue needed to explain outrageous events. It's a chase movie with Hong Kong action movie instincts, going out to save a kidnapped girl and concluding by saving the said girl. The supernatural elements of "Big Trouble in Little China" are entertaining in a low-budget, 1940s B-movie kind of way, and the fight sequences are impressively choreographed. John Carpenter, having a ball, keeps things visually scrumptious, the tone matching in its manic gusto. Russell is perfect for this kind of material, charmingly bumbling, crafty when it comes to quick escapes and logistical battle tactics. Funny is the way Dennis Dunn's kung- fu master character is the real hero of the movie, though Russell, being 1986's present-day John Wayne, is too big-headed to notice. Kim Cattrall makes for a spunky love interest.

But I suppose "Big Trouble in Little China"'s biggest problem is how weightless it is, how nothing feels as though things are really at stake. Because the screenplay develops its characters by introducing them and not much else, we hardly get to know them, deciding who we like simply based on the power of their one-liners. The plot is rather been-there- done-that, despite the masterful telling of it all, and the supporting performances from Lo Pan and company are never quite campy enough to shape them into the Bond-esque villains they set out to be. But no matter. "Big Trouble in Little China" is meant to be lightweight action fantasy, and, for the most part, it succeeds. Just don't expect anything other than Russell's classic heroism to stick around in your head.

Hannah and Her Sisters

A Startling Character Study
Life is one giant human comedy, and Woody Allen understands, and portrays, this fact better than any living American director. I prefer him when he's trying to make a comedy comedy ("Manhattan Murder Mystery", "Sleeper"), but there's no denying just how proficient of a writer, of a director he is when it comes to studying the complex relationships between lovers, friends, family. "Annie Hall" remains immortally wise, "Manhattan" blindsidingly poignant. He hit his stride during his professional (and personal) relationship with Mia Farrow (lasting in the movies from 1982-1992), "Hannah and Her Sisters" acting as the era defining tour-de-force that broadened his horizons as a writer as mischievously observant as his idol, Ingmar Bergman.

Told in three stretches over a two-year period, "Hannah and Her Sisters" begins during Thanksgiving and ends during Thanksgiving, both dinners held at Hannah (Farrow) and her husband, Elliot's (Michael Caine), impressive New York apartment. Acting as a plot device in similar spirit to the Cookie of "Cookie's Fortune" or the Alex of "The Big Chill", the interweaving stories, in some shape or form, connect to the perpetually frazzled blonde.

As the film opens, Hannah, along with her sisters, are facing particularly difficult periods in their lives. Normally happily married, Hannah and Elliot's union begins to hit turbulence when Elliot suddenly finds himself obsessed with his wife's earthy sibling, Lee (Barbara), with whom he begins having an affair. The neurotic Lee, in turn, is currently living with a much older, antisocial artist (Max Von Sydow) she no longer finds physically or mentally arousing.

While Lee's guilt thickens, Hannah, in the meantime, is forced to act as the emotional net for her basket case sister Holly (Dianne Wiest), an ex-cocaine addict who jumps from career to career while attempting to also make it as a Broadway actress. Her failed jabs at a normal life eventually settle, however, when she begins dating Mickey (Woody Allen), Hannah's hypochondriac ex-husband.

"Hannah and Her Sisters" kicks off as warm as any one of Allen's other comedies, but as its observational progression toward character study oblivion becomes more apparent, the film turns voyeuristic — it's as though we're a fly on the wall, catching glimpses of these imperfect people at their most imperfect times. Notice how the vulnerabilities of the characters never lose their prominence even when they're putting on friendly façades for strangers, how Allen draws such subtly profound characterizations that it becomes increasingly effortless to understand these people so well it's as though we've known them since they were children. Long after "Hannah and Her Sisters" closes does one begin to realize just how masterful of a writer Allen is; he can cover up his genius with his neuroses all he wants, but to make a cast of characters feel so multidimensional in the scope of a single film is an astonishingly difficult task — for Allen, it's duck soup. He's the perceptive one in the room.

It's as if he's known people like these before. Hannah is the kindhearted success story whose need to nurture sometimes hinders her own personal growth; Lee is the intellectual who doesn't quite know where to focus her potential. Holly is the type that fantasizes about what her life could be like rather than trying to make much needed changes; Mickey closes himself off in a bubble of fear because he doesn't want to admit that a mundane life is something okay to live. Perfectly cast, the ensemble feels like one large extension of Allen's consciousness.

"Hannah and Her Sisters" is a saga of failed attempts at moviedom happiness, combining comedy and heartfelt drama with startling pathos. The characters here aren't merely characters but people, people with ticks, little confidence, doubts. How Allen so successfully pens them all I can hardly understand — just let the film do the talking instead of me.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

A Terrific Addition to the "Mission: Impossible" Franchise
Action directors are underrated filmmakers. Sure, they're better equipped when it comes to their brawn, not their brain; but to make a shootout, a car chase, a skyward explosion, and/or a fist fight look and sound convincing is much trickier to helm than a particularly savory round of conversational chess. Some are better than others - you cannot (under my watch) blurt out that Michael Bay is as skilled as Joss Whedon - and the "Mission: Impossible" franchise, which made its debut way back in 1996, has fortunately been blessed with the best throughout its long run.

It's welcomed Hitchcock successor Brian De Palma, Hong Kong action legend John Woo, sci-fi king J.J. Abrams, animation mastermind Brad Bird, and, for 2015's "Rogue Nation", Christopher McQuarrie (director of Tom Cruise vehicle "Jack Reacher", co-writer of "The Usual Suspects" and "Edge of Tomorrow"). And as if the franchise is cursed with the greatest luck of any ongoing series, "Rogue Nation" is the finest addition to the blockbusting array. Cheekily dubious, vigorously thrilling, and lip-smackingly jubilant, it's an actioner of the highest quality.

If the missions of the past were already impossible, consider the mission of "Rogue Nation" to be the most impossible: right off the bat, the IMF is dissolved, a terrorist organization known as the Syndicate becomes an overnight sensation, and Ethan Hunt (Cruise), along with his loyal groupies (Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Jeremy Renner), become wanted fugitives after refusing to comply with the CIA's orders to disband. Normally, Hunt would follow orders, being the good guy that he is - but the destruction of the IMF is one big, messy misunderstanding; it's the result of too many sabotaged missions, at the hands of the previously unknown Syndicate, no less. Knowing full well that the U.S. government isn't fully aware of the situation, Hunt's crew decides to leave all ethics behind, band together with Ilsa Faust (a fantastic Rebecca Ferguson), a British agent who can't seem to be trusted by anyone, and take down the organization once and for all.

I've only described a portion of the plot, mostly because "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation" is so ingeniously intricate and because the film's much better when you go in completely unaware of what to expect. It's such a successful action movie that I can hardly remember the rant I delivered to a bunch of horrified friends over the current state of the genre a few days back. I suppose that's the magic of the movies: pessimism can be completely flipped on its back so long as the film doing to the persuasion is fresh enough to cajole.

But the "Mission: Impossible" series has always maintained a certain kind of enrapturing, no doubt because of the continuous changing of the directors and the consistent unpredictability of its plots, its action sequences. Only remaining the same is the idea of Hunt and associates battling modern-day evils. The rest is all lovable pomp and circumstance, smartly rendered and action-packed (but not too action-packed). Cruise is the only actor who can really head a movie like this (his name and demeanor alone are synonymous with blockbuster sass); the opening, which sees him clinging to the side of a passenger plane as it takes off, would seem ridiculous anywhere else but works here because Cruise is merely there.

I won't go in depth regarding the action sequences (all head-spinningly gripping), and I won't go in depth praising Rebecca Ferguson (who will certainly become a leading Hollywood player in the near future) - that would cause the review to go on for pages, and time should be spent going to the theater instead of sitting in front of a computer. "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation" is a rare fourth sequel that proves further evidence as to why the "Mission: Impossible" franchise is doing it right: whereas Marvel is breaking us down with their multiple-superhero-movies-a-year-for-more-money! attitude, the sporadic reintroductions to Ethan Hunt and his adventures only get better with age - they're flashy, but not annoyingly so.

Django Unchained

Another Argument for Tarantino's Crazed Genius
It is a preposterous meeting. It's past midnight, in the darkest part of the forest, on a brittle winter evening. Traveling by horseback from a nearby auction, in which they purchased a handful of slaves, the Speck Brothers (James Remar, James Russo) are traders of infamy, their cruelty reflected in the way they force their newfound property to travel by foot, barely clothed. The journey is slow, brutal, its stagnant pacing suddenly interrupted by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German ex-dentist currently making a living through bounty hunting. One could ask how Schultz, sans GPS (let alone technology), is able to track down the Specks in this dense Texas forest in the middle of the night — but I won't go there.

Having caught wind of one of the Specks' purchases, Django (Jamie Foxx), Schultz has sought him out in hopes to gather information about the Brittle Brothers, for whom he has a warrant. Django, it seems, has such a terrifying past regarding the siblings that forgetting their faces is an impossibility; Schultz, figuring that the slave is the man he needs to get the job done, frees him and shoots his owners. The two then embark on a risky journey, beginning with the eventual killing of the Brittles and ending with an unexpected, bloody dose of catharsis. The catharsis, dangerously, comes in the form of the daring rescue of Django's long-lost wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is currently owned by sadistic plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Quentin Tarantino is, if not the greatest filmmaker of his generation, a provocateur. Excess is better than suggestion, so it's a relief that Tarantino likes to work in broad strokes instead of meticulous, celluloid shaded pointillism. Ever since he introduced himself to the world with 1992's groundbreaking "Reservoir Dogs", Tarantino's diverse filmography has done nothing but portray just how risky of a filmmaker he is, how he's matured, how he's gotten so comfortable with pushing boundaries that boundaries eventually become little black dots on the horizon as he rides off into the sunset in his godforsaken Pussy Wagon. That being said, "Django Unchained" is, without a doubt, his most love-it-or-hate-it film. Those who hate it will despise how it surrounds the sensitive issue of slavery with pulp flavor and violence used jokingly instead of with weight; but those who love it will relish Tarantino's dialogue (and slippery as ever), the glowing performances, the spaghetti western setting, the in-your-face treatment of it all.

As much as I loved "Django Unchained", it's easy to see how it could offend the easily offended. The splatter is more plentiful than it was in "Inglourious Basterds" (it's more reminiscent of the unrelenting carnage of "Kill Bill"), N-words abound, and cruelty becomes a language more common than English. But Tarantino, despite having a blast with his story, uses the splatter as a call-to-action, the N-word as an authentic part of the dialect the many racist characters spit out, cruelty as a reminder that times in pre-War South were nothing but long washes of atrocious bigotry and violence. The most controversial scene in the movie (and there are many), comes in the form of a crude fight to the death between two slaves, enforced by DiCaprio's Candie. As inhuman as the scene is, however, Tarantino's goal isn't to entertain but to melodramatically develop Candie's character — as a man only the Devil could rival, the hatred we feel for him is so strong that when the fiendishly bloody first ending (there are two) arrives, it feels justified; it's as though Tarantino is giving a face to all the psychopathic slave owners of the past we never got to know, presenting us with an unspeakably barbarous reconfiguring of our past while poking slight fun at the monstrous ignorance and savageness of our ancestors.

More impressive is how Tarantino can deliver such slick historical commentary while still managing to slide in hysterically funny sequences and moments of unrefined beauty. His best use of comedy comes early on during a KKK meeting: the members, planning to attack Django and Schultz following a sour meeting with a plantation owner, spend most of the grouping arguing about the tiny eyes holes in their bag masks rather than intelligently coming up with a foolproof plan. The scene, over-the-top and reflective of the idiocy of the time period, works as yet another satirical punch Tarantino executes with effortless mastery. His cinematographic delicacies fondle the Southern landscape in grande scale, mirroring the epics of John Ford and Howard Hawks; the way he surrounds the slaveowners with eye-catching affluence only reminds us that wealth wasn't always something to be desired, especially if you received it in vomit-inducing ways.

Stronger is the cast, the smallest but most extraordinary of his films. After winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in "Inglourious Basterds", Waltz gives yet another bravura performance through a similarly minded, silver-tongued characterization that allows him to deliver monologue after monologue and never lose our attention. Foxx is menacingly silent as a slave on an explosive path of retribution, Washington touching as his long-suffering wife, Samuel L. Jackson first-rate as Candie's psychotic right-hand man. But best is Leonardo DiCaprio — giving one of his finest performances here as the menacing Calvin Candie, he frighteningly goes back and forth between charming and fearsome; he is the best on screen villain in years.

"Django Unchained" is many things: it's a reinvention of the Western (or, in this case, the Southern), a splendid character piece, and another argument for Tarantino's genius. He plans to retire at 60, but such a statement is easy to ignore — filmmakers as brilliant as Tarantino are so few and far between that a world existing without anticipation for another one of his films doesn't seem like a very fun place to live.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

A Superb Whodunit
Lisbeth Salander is the kind of character that would normally be cast aside as the female counterpart to our testosterone infused hero, appreciated but still under-appreciated all the same. But Salander doesn't live in the constraints of your average thriller: she exists in the kind of thriller that only rarely dives headfirst into theaters, the kind that snakes along the wet pavement with effective grit while The Prodigy plays in the background and cigarette smoke suffocates the misty air. She's not a sexy Angelina Jolie but a deceivingly sexy goth-punk, bleached eyebrows and all. Underweight and independent, we're immediately drawn to her: she's a heroine that doesn't look like a heroine but ends up saving the day and stealing the show.

In the Swedish adaptation of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (unseen by me), Salander was portrayed by Noomi Rapace with, as Roger Ebert puts it in his review of the film, "unwavering intensity". In the American adaptation, released in 2011, she is played by Rooney Mara with ferocious authority, calm and cool in the most dangerous of situations, deadly when she needs to be. Mara disappears so completely into the role that it will be hard, I imagine, for most audiences to succumb to her powers in a different role without referring back to this one.

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" would already be an excellent murder-mystery if it relied on story alone; its stunningly structured characters (and the cast playing them) work as additional shots of caffeine that give the plot enough staying power to keep our interest for the 158 minute running time (which zig zags along with the agility of a rabid cheetah). It's unconventional, moodier than your average Chris Nolan foray and more misanthropic than your misogynists, misandrists. But the cynicism is intoxicating, as if David Fincher reconfigured the glamorization of death in murder ballads and threw them onto the screen for us to inhale. Yet "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" doesn't tread into contrived darkness; it strolls along cloaked in convincing darkness, so hypnotizing because it knows the brutality life has to offer and doesn't just stand by like a victim. It wants to fight back, setting fire to the past and coming alive in the treacherous electricity of the present.

Though the film is entitled after its central heroine, the lead of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", in actuality, is Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), the newly disgraced co-editor of "Millennium" magazine. Having just lost a libel suit against tycoon Hans-Erik Wennerström, he plans to take a much-needed vacation, gather his thoughts and figure out where his now-controversial life will be headed next. At least, that's where he thinks he's going: after hiring Salander (a gifted hacker) to conduct an extensive search on Blomkvist, business giant Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) invites him to his barren island home and proposes the unproposable; if Blomkvist investigates and eventually solves the 40-year-old murder of his grandniece, Harriet, he will exchange unreleased information about Wennerström that could give Blomkvist's career a much needed needle to the chest. Complications arise, however, when Blomkvist and Salander join forces and dig deeper into the Vanger family's shocking past; there, they find long buried secrets better kept unearthed than out in the open.

The leads of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" are not of Tom Cruise clean-cutishness but of fragmented Max Rockatansky depressiveness, committed to bringing justice to the corrupted nooks and crannies of the world but hardly able to provide closure to their damaged psyches. That's what makes the film so tremendously sensational; while the story magnetizes with its abundance of second guesses, false leads, and red herrings, the leading characters are compelling enough to work as fragile individuals who could head a meaty character study without all the sin-infused iciness. Throughout the course of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", Salander is raped, Blomkvist shot, tortured, stalked; Salander tells horror stories of her past, while Blomkvist continuously puts his life on the line for his career. But consider that Larsson's original material doesn't allow them to become victims of their own tragedies (Salander gets satisfying revenge on her rapist more methodical than Beatrix Kiddo could have ever dreamed, while Blomkvist repeatedly regains composure after having his world shattered over and over again). They are survivors. Craig and Mara are outstanding.

More poised to get under your skin than most films, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is an unforgettable experience, from the eery crackling of Fincher's atmosphere to Mara's staggering transformation. A must.

Manhattan Murder Mystery

A Lovable Mystery-Comedy
"I don't know why you're not more fascinated by this! We could be living next to a murderer," Carol Lipton (Diane Keaton) emphasizes to her doubtful husband, Larry (Woody Allen). Larry isn't so convinced: "New York is a melting pot: I'm used to it!" When put in the situation of having a murderer live next door, there are two kinds of people: there are (1) the bored who decide their life could use a little fluffer, deciding to solve the mystery themselves, like a modern day Miss Marple, or (2) the fearful who figure it would be best to mind their own business and let karma stop by sometime in the future.

Trouble is, Carol is of the first category, Larry of the second. She can't rest until she really knows what's going on; Larry, however, would rather go to work, come home for dinner at 5:00, stay up until the late hours of the evening to catch a forgotten classic on the classic movie channel, and continue the same routine for the rest of his life, spicing it up in safe ways when the occasion arises. But Carol has a mind of her own, and Larry, being played by Woody Allen (in which case meaning Allen is basically playing himself), is much too weak of a figure to stop her Nancy Drew madness.

Who can blame her? Here's the situation: as the film opens, Larry and Carol bump into their aging neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. House (Jerry Adler and Lynn Cohen), who proceed to casually invite them up for coffee. The two are dull, but sweet: reaching old age, they have already purchased twin headstones, filling their days with blissful uneventfulness and hobbies like stamp collecting. Larry finds them pleasantly boring; the invitation was polite, sure, but neighbors are meant to be neighbors, not friends. Yet just as he's stating this sentiment to the kooky Carol, the unexpected happens with brute force. The following day, Mrs. House is announced dead. She had a heart condition.

Larry is surprised but figures it to be another tragedy in the cruel game of life; Carol, on the other hand, is suspicious. Mrs. House never mentioned having a heart condition (strange considering she felt the need to discuss her hysterectomy only minutes into conversation). Mr. House must have murdered her. So she decides to do a little investigating herself, and, as it turns out, something is amiss. One point Carol, zero points Larry.

These days, Woody Allen seems to travel back and forth between meaningful work and more passable fare. Critics flock to his old-age unevenness like a group of hungry vultures, but I've always enjoyed what he has to offer. When he's taking a break from changing the lives of his audience and having fun for a change, it's infectious (most of the time). "Manhattan Murder Mystery" is his finest, dare I say it, "lightweight" project. I could be biased, considering I watched the majority of his most famous films when I was too young to really understand their meaning, but over the years, "Manhattan Murder Mystery" has always stuck with me the most. Is it the contagiously humorous repartee between Allen and Keaton (in their first film together since 1979's "Manhattan"), the obvious homages to film noir(you can't beat "The Lady from Shanghai" playfulness of the ending) and Agatha Christie, the likable supporting performances from Alan Alda (the likable best friend type) and Anjelica Huston (the superiorly cool female figure), the New York setting? I can hardly decide, but Allen's deft combination of whodunit antics and absolutely hilarious exchanges makes every single thing about "Manhattan Murder Mystery" an unequivocal delight. And because he's realistic, of course he slides marital trouble and middle-aged discontent into the mix; it's the only way such an exciting story could exist in real life!

With a luminous Keaton by his side, a truckload of his best lines ("Claustrophobia and a dead body - this is a neurotic's jackpot!"; "I can't listen to that much Wagner. I start to get the urge to conquer Poland."), and an unabashed sense of fun, "Manhattan Murder Mystery" is Allen at his best: confident, sensible, engaging, and uproarious.

Camp X-Ray

A Minor But Successful Project Highlighting Kristen Stewart's Subtle Talent
Kristen Stewart is growing up. Not by posing for "Playboy" like a tired '90s sitcom dolly, not by undergoing a nail biting scandal, but by taking on film roles that at once amplify her talents and provide yet another reason to forget about the sh-t-stained days of "Twilight". Popular opinion suggests that we should tease her for her lip-biting habit, her emotional flamboyance as obnoxious as — ahem — Keanu Reeves; but I've always thought of her as a next-big-thing in the making. She's a sort of Hollywood rebel, drawing us in with her naturalistic acting style and then managing to punch us in the gut with her ability to undermine comfortability.

Since the incredibly bad vampire franchise ended in 2012, Stewart's been on a mission; not wanting to end up a forgotten figure of teen mag past, she's lined up movies that stretch her ability and head in the opposite direction of Hollywood phoniness. She began with the unevenly received "On the Road" (2012), then continued with "Camp X-Ray" and "Still Alice", finally hitting her stride with 2015's stellar "Clouds of Sils Maria", which won her the French Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Having been enormously impressed with her characterization in the latter, I sought out "Camp X-Ray" in a sort of daze, thirsty for more risk taking from the under-appreciated actress. Though hardly as much of a success as her other game-changing films, "Camp X-Ray" is a well-acted character study that gives her a role that, once again, places her directly out of her comfort zone and results in another excellent performance.

She plays Amy Cole, a recent Army recruit stationed in Guantanamo Bay as a detainee guard. Originally, Cole joined the service in hopes to make herself into something more than the other nobodies of her small town; but as she gets used to her new line of work, she begins to realize that not all things about the military are as black-and-white as she once figured them to be. Through her monotonous duties, Cole unexpectedly strikes up a friendship with one of the detainees, the charismatic Ali (a memorable Peyman Moaadi), who hails from Germany and doesn't seem to be the sort of bad guy she had once imagined to be locked up in such an infamous prison. Her fellow guards have no time harboring cruelty to the men they so furiously monitor — but Cole, more sensitive than she ever thought, begins to realize that her unwanted sympathies may end up hindering what's expected of her.

The writing/directorial debut of Peter Sattler, "Camp X-Ray" is a humanistic drama snug in all the right places, stirring the pot of military ethics and questioning just how far the government has gone to ensure the safety of the United States. Sattler, though, doesn't dwell on controversy, instead touching upon red-button topics with soft grace; subtly bringing up xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia, he allows the viewer to see the situation through Cole's eyes (which happen to be lined with affinity and dubiousness). For the most part, his minimalist screenplay hits all the right notes, save for the last ten minutes, which make for a rather disappointing ending; his directorial style, unaffected and observant, exquisitely suits the material. Stewart's skillful solemness complements his quirks.

"Camp X-Ray" finds its faults in the staginess of it all; though it would be a strong play if stage-bound, it doesn't have quite enough fire to capture our interest for nearly two-hours. But what it has to say along the way, supplemented by the compelling forces of Stewart and Moaadi, is enough to make it solid. I just wish Sattler wouldn't have chosen the easy way out during the final act and had instead taken a route less traveled.

Cat People

A Visually Stunning But Emotionally Hollow Erotic Thriller
Though widely regarded as one of the finest horror films ever made, the original "Cat People", released in 1942, always struck me as a visual masterpiece luminous to the eyes but cold to the touch. It liked to hide in the shadows, keep its menace restrained, its mood gothically opulent; but when it placed fear directly in our line of vision it forgot to match emotionally, emitting a shallow kind of dread felt more cerebrally than physically. Horror should pump in our veins, causing us to look over our shoulder the second the film closes. Yet despite being called a horror film time and time again, I've never much considered "Cat People" to be one. Instead, I've figured it to be a grotesque fantasy of bloodlust and erotica, inventively packaged but too empty to make much of a lasting impression.

Its remake, a 1982 fear-fest directed by Paul Schrader and starring Nastassja Kinski, is similar in its ability to optically arouse but remain intrinsically hollow. Whereas 1942's "Cat People" stimulated our sights with hypnotizing darkness and noir-tinged doom, the 1982 version conversely stupefies with its richly saturated colors and sexual heat. The original had a small budget to work with, director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca perhaps accidentally making things visually unmistakable for the purpose of making up for monetary deficiencies. But Schrader, given larger financial opportunity, is able to work on a much larger scale, providing us with a more plentiful plot, more ocular risks, more enigmatic intrigue. I can hardly say if it's superior to its '42 counterpart — they hardly resemble one another, one restrained, one indulgent — but "Cat People" is an artistically formidable fantasy mostly worthwhile. If its overwhelming inability to do anything besides look great wasn't such a pressing issue, it could be considered a masterpiece.

But the storyline doesn't allow us to become emotionally invested; conceptually marvelous yet unmistakably outlandish, it is difficult to do anything besides stare, mouth agape, unable to grab onto anything happening on the screen. Because it has to do with The Cat People, a race of centuries past so far evolved that, as of 1982, they resemble sexy humans who literally have an animal deep inside them. But things aren't as simple as they used to be: years ago, when The Cat People were still dominant cats that laboriously reclined on tree branches in windy red deserts (shown in the form of a prologue), mating would come in the form of a female sacrifice from a nearby village. Now, though, the race is almost completely extinct, save for Irena (Nastassja Kinski) and her brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell).

In the first few minutes of "Cat People", the two are meeting for the very first time — and while the impish Irena, sensuous but virginal, remains an innocent figurehead, Paul makes for a more sinister presence, not because he's a Shakespearean villain in the making but because he's more aware of his heritage than Irena is. In everyday life, The Cat People look like anybody walking down the street; but when in the throes of an orgasm, they transform from sexy human to black panther, killing their human mate in the process. Paul understands his threat to society and isn't afraid to utilize it; Irena, on the other hand, is afraid to unleash the beast that resides within her.

The anxiety comes to a head, however, when she falls into the life of Oliver Yates (John Heard), a mild-mannered zookeeper who instantaneously bills her as the woman of his dreams. With her sexual nightmares looming in the background (and not to mention her brother, who wants to embark on an incestuous relationship like all Cat People before them), Irena just might have to accept who she is — at a price.

The plot is less preposterous the less you think about it; this is, after all, the kind of film that thrives on eccentric chills that trickle down the spine, expecting us to come along for the dangerous ride and forget about any sort of question we might have. Thanks to Schrader's knowing handling of the material (he treats most of "Cat People" like an erotic art house picture, which is more fitting than something akin to a more conventional horror movie), the film doesn't face many concerns when it comes to structure. The problem with "Cat People" is its futile characterizations, which allows for interesting characters more fascinating to look at than to actually care about. Irena is fearful for what will become of her, but because the screenplay is more interested in giving Kinski ample opportunity to smolder, never is the impression quite made; Paul is maleficent, but it's unclear where his villainy will go. And Oliver, taking over Kent Smith's role from the original, is drawn out blandly. The actors are all lensed brilliantly — it's a shame they all remain so one- dimensional than even the more erotic elements of "Cat People" are slightly unexciting.

But when John Bailey's cinematography isn't seducing our eyes, Kinski makes for the best thing about the film. A better actress than Simone Simon, she makes it impossible for us not to look at her; her full lips, sphinxy eyes, and Audrey Hepburn-like demeanor makes her a lithe sex object far too knowing to be exploited — she is magnificent. And for the most part, so is "Cat People". But it's so devoid of any kind of emotional interior that any sort of reaction is kept hidden. Fear? Arousal? Allure? It all wants to be there, but "Cat People" remains a devastatingly beautiful film without a heart.

Ms .45

An Unforgettable Revenge Drama
The girls-with-guns fetish is a major erotic element in the exploitation genre, so much so that it's hard to imagine a one-sheet movie poster for a low-budgeted action flick without one. The most notable, including (but not limited to) "They Call Her One Eye", "Foxy Brown", and "Hannie Caulder", were bonkers revenge beasts that pushed the boundaries of already boundary pushing territory — and 1981's "Ms. 45" is arguably the sensational peak of the juxtaposing subgenre. The third film of exploitation-to-slightly-mainstream sensation Abel Ferrara ("Bad Lieutenant", "Body Snatchers"), "Ms. 45" is an explosive portrait of a serial killer, disguised as a luscious ode to the earlier, more substantial revenge flicks of the 1970s.

Though it has Ferrara's greasy fingerprints smeared all over it, "Ms. 45" is Zoë Lund's show — an ethereal beauty with looks just as comparable to Lauren Bacall as they are to an alien women from a distant planet, Lund plays Thana, a mute seamstress who lives alone in a dumpy apartment on the bad side of town. Day after day, she and her female co-workers are harassed by street punks who catcall with underlying threat. While her peers have the ability to flip the bird at a potential predator or throw out an insult to make the message clear, Thana is forced to remain quiet, giving most the idea that she likes the constant coos.

One particularly rough day, she is raped at gunpoint in an alleyway by a sadistic masked goon, who gets away before she can contact the authorities. Beaten up and understandably traumatized, she barely makes it up to her apartment. Only seconds into gathering her thoughts and understanding the reality of the situation, though, she finds herself in the presence of yet another attacker, who coincidentally hid in the flat during her horrifying walk home. He too proceeds to sexually assault her, but he doesn't get away with it — while under duress, Thana grabs a nearby glass fixture and slams it against his head, killing him instantly.

A few paranoid encounters later (though none of them nearly as serious as her prior two damaging experiences), Thana goes from silent victim to femme fatale, embarking on a path of revenge with eyes set only on the male sex. Only she doesn't murder in self- defense — she targets men violent toward women, men showing care for women, and men just walking around and, you know, being men. Like Catherine Deneuve in 1965's "Repulsion", she is little more than a maniac on the loose; but her bloody journey is one of extreme piquancy, unjustifiable yet magnificently cathartic. Thana's quest acts as a sort of metaphor for the crushing societal norm of male dominance, playing out like a potential scenario if women stopped taking unwanted come-ons and didn't let rape become an undiscussed taboo, thus avenging the wrongs done to them by a culture that accepts inequality.

But this is only a passing analyzation, considering "Ms. 45" was made as a violent exercise in cinema, laced in sadomasochism, gritty street danger, and visual eroticism. N.G. St. John's screenplay is extremely simplistic, setting up an abundance of climactic scenarios and allowing Lund to do most of the heavy lifting; and aside from a myriad of visual exultations (the rainy noir texture of Thana's first moonlit mass killing, the shot reminiscent of Woody Allen's "Manhattan", the harrowing finale, which is a slow-motion account of a massacre at a Halloween party during which Thana masquerades as a killer nun), Ferrara mostly does the same. Lund's expressive face, lit with, as Janet Maslin puts it, "exoticism of the fashion-magazine kind", tells a story all on its own, beginning with a meek innocence and morphing into something savage akin to Jean Gillie in "Decoy". It's impossible to take one's eyes off of her otherworldly facsimile. So simultaneously virginal and deadly, it makes her actions all the more terrifying.

Ridiculed upon release, it's a blessing that "Ms. 45" finally received the notoriety it deserved after Drafthouse Films put a spotlight on its low-budget shocks once again in 2013. Though hardly a masterpiece, it is an exploitation piece of the highest quality, unforgettable and thoughtfully made.

Minnie and Moskowitz

A Subversive Romantic Comedy
Minnie Moore (Gena Rowlands) doesn't believe in the movies. As a girl, she fantasized about finding a Prince Charming in the shape of Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable, living in a fancy house, and having kids the neighborhood could wince in jealousy over. But now Minnie's in her late 30s, fully aware that the man of her dreams probably doesn't exist. She swears that she's gotten used to the fact that reality isn't so rose-colored and things can't always turn out the way you want them to; but once you're a romantic you're always a romantic, and deep down, Minnie still finds herself hopeful that someday her Bogie will arrive on her doorstep.

Seymour Moskowitz (Seymour Cassel) is a free-spirited valet with no great ambitions in life, contented drifting from town to town, from bar to bar, causing ruckuses and speaking his mind. Ponytailed and handlebar-mustached, he has no problem with the judgmental world or his rotten temper, which seems to escalate from zero to sixty through the slightest provocation: bar fights are a norm in his life. But despite the ever mounting flaws that seem to continuously tarnish his character, he's a good man, just a lost one.

By chance, these two misfits meet after Minnie endures a particularly awful date; the man who took her out, a demented widower, nearly assaults her in a parking lot after she flatly rejects him. As if he's magnet for action-packed situations, Seymour flies to the rescue, knocking the date out and speeding away with Minnie in his beat-up pick-up truck. For Seymour, it's love at first sight; but for Minnie, this long-haired, hairy-lipped time-bomb is a red flag, not a Gable. Seymour, however, isn't the kind of guy that gives up a good woman when he sees one. So he spends the rest of "Minnie and Moskowitz" trying to win her over — and with their identical lonely hearts, it might not be so difficult after all.

"Minnie and Moskowitz" is John Cassavetes' warmest film, a quirky romantic comedy frequently raucous (Seymour has a quite a mouth) but also endearing, hopeful, lovable. The characters finding love aren't of Doris Day/Rock Hudson perfection but of damaged confidence, both completely lost in this game called life. It's a rom-com so real it's hard to even call it a rom-com, with the story unforced, the eventual marriage hasty enough to make even us have inhibitions. Minnie and Seymour are not conventionally likable (she's untrustworthy to the irritating max, he's so hot-tempered it's a wonder anyone talks to him), but because they're so much better together, their union is one of rare affection that suggests they really do love each other, though not in the way Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard taught us. Cassavetes dedicated "Minnie and Moskowitz" to the people who married for love, not comfort, and it's a worthy sanctification.

His other films are extraordinarily realistic, mostly telling stories of middle-aged people facing a cruel case of mid-life crisis blues. Here, it's the opposite: the middle-aged people face a cruel case of mid-life crisis blues before they find romance; and after they find their special someone, they are renewed. They become whole again after years of trying to find themselves. With its mostly improvised dialogue and no-holds-barred performances, "Minnie and Moskowitz" should be uncomfortable. But being the voyeur to a trial of love is an easy job, and Cassavetes lets his optimism shine through. Rowlands and Cassel are terrific.

Jackie Brown

An Absolutely Brilliant Character Piece
Look at Jackie Brown talk. Look at they way she's the fuel behind the conversation, a driving force one intellectual level above her verbal opponent. How, when in trouble, she doesn't collapse under pressure — instead, she, cigarette in hand, talks from the side of her mouth with striking sass, at once condescending and commanding. How she can merely lift an eyebrow in sly disdain and scare the sh-t out of the person sitting across from her. She's tough. She's smart. She's sexy. She's … Jackie Brown.

To most, Pam Grier is an action heroine, a Coffy, a Foxy Brown, or a Friday Foster; she's the Queen of Blaxploitation — hell, she is the blaxploitation movie. But she's a cult favorite, a black Angelina Jolie of an era forgotten by most. And after the subgenre ended in the late 1970s, things changed for the leading lady. Most movie executives had no idea what to do with her (too resilient to be tossed aside as a meager love interest, too arousing to convince as a matronly, sexless authority figure), so she spent the majority of the '80s and '90s philandering around in thankless supporting roles that could hardly capture her brassy appeal.

So Hallelujah Quentin Tarantino noticed her past highs while working as a video store clerk before he became the boy wonder of the independent movie: giving her the role of a lifetime, "Jackie Brown" is the movie Pam Grier was born to star in. Not cheap, not badly written, not supported by a bundle of terrible actors, not hastily directed, she no longer is the best thing in a bad movie (a characteristic most of her best films kept in their chest pocket for everyone to see); she's the best thing in a great movie, and by 1997, it was about time.

In "Jackie Brown", Grier is as badass as Coffy ever was, but she's also quite a bit wiser, a tough cookie all grown up. Jackie is 44-years-old, a stewardess for the worst airline in America, and makes a disappointing salary of $16,000 a year. She's had trouble with the law before, but in her middle-age she's become much more methodical about her criminal actions, preferring to keep things low-key enough to keep herself happy and the cops oblivious. Currently, she acts as a smuggler for Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a corrupted arms dealer so closely monitored by the ATF that he's forced to work with an odd assortment of runners for the sake of keeping business afloat.

Things turn sour one day when, en route to work, Jackie is stopped by a couple of ATF agents, who find Ordell's dirty money and a few ounces of hard drugs in her handbag. She spends the next few days is prison, eventually finding bail through Max Cherry (Robert Forster), a worn-out bondsman. Following her release, the ATF presents her with two options: she can either (1) avoid jail time and direct them to one of Ordell's schemes by acting as a courier once again or (2) go directly back to her jail cell and forget that they ever offered her such a deal. The scrappy Jackie chooses option one, but she's never been one satisfied working alongside the law or following the orders of a street smart but academically winded guns dealer. So she comes up with her own plan: double-cross both parties (telling the heat she's going to betray Ordell,, telling Ordell she's going to betray the heat), run away with $500,000, and buy a one-way ticket to Spain and start life anew, with lavishness.

Whereas all of Tarantino's films deal with violence as part of the aesthetic, "Jackie Brown" trades pulp fervor for insanely sharp exchanges of dialogue, the only carnage occurring offscreen while the characters size each other up and entertain us with their canny games of one-oneupmanship. Much of his mainstream success depends on the ruthlessly funny intrigue of "Pulp Fiction" and "Kill Bill", but look closely — while not so tongue-in-cheek, the cunning "Jackie Brown" quite possibly delivers his finest screenplay, so endlessly amusing that there are a number of moments that call for near inescapable applause. The climactic money exchange, conceived in the same style as 1956's "The Killing", is so ingeniously drawn that I found myself laughing in delight, not because so much of it's humorous (which a lot of it is), but in disbelief. Call Tarantino an idiot savant of the cinema all you want — but he's brilliant.

Equally brilliant is the accomplished cast — with no obvious supporting characters, the performers are of equivalent importance in pushing the lustrous plot forward. Grier is a sensation as the titular character, a victorious combination of sexy and too da-n tired; Jackson is as threatening as he is inexplicably winsome. Forster provides an amiable straight man who loves Jackie too much for his own good, De Niro is lucrative as Ordell's dim-witted, raging partner-in-crime, and Bridget Fonda, who gives the most uproarious supporting performance (in a movie of unlimited uproarious supporting performances), is hilarious as Ordell's pot-smoking, surfer-girl mistress.

It's less grandiose than Tarantino's other movies, but "Jackie Brown" is a masterpiece nonetheless, with a screenplay dressed to kill and a leading lady ready to smack all the Julianne Moores and Sandra Bullocks out of the picture and provide a leading lady to be reckoned with. If you're as smitten with the film as I am, you'll know what I mean when I say I never wanted it to end.


A Welcome Change for Marvel
While the last few Marvel movies have been worthwhile, they've also steadily destroyed the sense of wonder I once felt when the fad was still fresh during 2012's "The Avengers". Being entertaining is never a problem when it comes to these movies, but being somewhat familiar is increasingly recurring. How many times can Captain America & Co. face a foe that seems unbeatable, "surprisingly" destroy him, and cause major damage to a nearby metropolitan city along the way? I hate to be a cynical critic, but I'm not so sure I can watch another "Iron Man" movie without liquidy bitterness swirling around in my psyche, castrating any fun to be had. Marvel has become so big, so stake-less, so predictable. I'm not necessarily asking for a blockbuster that calls for the death of the hero; I'm asking for a blockbuster that presents us with something big and predictable but also, cough cough, new-ish.

So when the trailers for "Ant-Man" mandatorily began to adorn cinema screens earlier this year, there wasn't a feeling of antipathy nor excitement; I figured it would be nothing more than yet another chance for Marvel to make some more dough and introduce a character that contributes nothing new to the already crowd-attracting assembly line of high- budgeted dazzlers. I wasn't planning on seeing it in theaters, but what do you know: on this hot summer afternoon, I purchased a ticket and found myself dumbfounded. "Ant- Man" is an abnormally fun 'hero-based actioner that presents us with something we haven't seen before (while, there I go again, also remaining big and predictable).

I suppose it has something to do with Paul Rudd, a charming actor playing a hero who finally isn't a wunderkind but an everyman attempting to redeem his wrongs. When we first meet Scott Lang, he is being released from prison (back in the day, he acted as whistleblower to his massive corporate company and slyly burgled some goods), barely able to make ends meet. He wants to be a success for his daughter, who lives with his ex- wife (Judy Greer) and her humorless fiancée (Bobby Cannavale), but, unable to pay child support, is shut out. So he turns back to his thieving ways, aided by his former cellmate (Michael Peña) and crew.

His first robbery comeback takes a strange turn when the house targeted does not contain a safe full of money but a safe than contains a mysterious super-suit; Lang, hardly thinking, grabs it in a hurry. He comes back home, tries it on, and finds himself shrunk to the size of an ant — as it turns out, the home did not belong to some random bystander but to Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man. Pym, you see, has been watching Lang for years, figuring he would be a fitting successor. The position is in dire need to be filled, considering Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), the new head of Pym's company, has designed a similar suit being planned to be used for, you guessed it, evil. Like all men in his position, Lang is reluctant — danger comes fast and hard, after all — but he's at a point in his life where he has nothing to lose; he can either become the new Ant-Man or face more jail time. It's hardly a question which option he chooses.

While watching "Ant-Man", I found myself pleased with how small in scale it is. Gone are the GIGANTIC BATTLES, the HULK SMASHES, the OUTRAGEOUSLY POWERFUL VILLAINS; since Ant-Man is, you know, the size of an ant, most of the action takes place (with lovable playfulness, I might add) on, in, or around water pipes, toy train sets, carpets, and ant colonies — the visual changes from "The Avengers" and its cousins are enormously refreshing. And isn't it great to bask in the company of a villain not a robot nor a Shakespearian fool but simply a corporate head honcho hungry for control? The film is an assembly line of lightweight thrills, and it's a change worth celebrating. It's nothing new, but at least it's attempting to do things differently this time around.

I would assume an "Avengers 3", probably including Ant-Man, will come around sooner than a sequel; but I hope it doesn't end up that way. I've had enough of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (though it'd be more accurate to say I need a break). More of Scott Lang and his cohorts will do just fine — it's time to make some room for transition, and it's a relief that Marvel seems to be headed in the right direction.

Ex Machina

A Sci-Fi Triumph
The directorial debut of Alex Garland (the writer behind "28 Days Later" and "Never Let Me Go"), "Ex Machina" is one of the most ambitious films of the year. Draped in metallic interiors and dankly cool exteriors, it is a sci-fi tale of extreme minimalism, its simplicity making its captivating ideas seem booming, life-sized. Questioning what we've come to know about technology and making the idea of artificial intelligence an unsettling reality, "Ex Machina" is at once distressing and wickedly smart, by turns cunningly provocative and subversively satirical.

The movie opens in the banal headquarters of Bluebook, a search engine corporation in the same category of Google. Leading programmer Caleb Smith's (Domhnall Gleeson) mundane workday is suddenly interrupted by an announcement — he has been selected, as part of a companywide contest, to visit idiosyncratic CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) at his sheltered, mountainous home. He is to spend a week there, no interruptions and no sudden flights out.

Upon arrival, Nathan reveals that he is in the process of perfecting a new kind of artificial intelligence, not in your average Siri form but in the embodiment of a humanistic android. Caleb will be the living, breathing partner in a Turing Test that will decide whether or not Nathan's machine will prove effective in the material world. The robotic invention in the process of analytical refinement is Ava (Alicia Vikander), an extraordinarily complex machine that may turn out to be much more perceptive than Caleb, let alone her creator, ever expected (or wanted).

With only three main cast members (four, if you count Sonoya Mizuno, who turns eyes but never speaks a word), "Ex Machina" feels claustrophobically minimal in its every move, with few actors, few ramifications in its set design (mostly consisting of futuristic deco), and few plot points to complicate the intricate details of the story. Reminiscent of the slow burn sci-fi of last year's "Under the Skin" (which I mistakenly underrated), "Ex Machina" dazzles in its understated elaborations, its mysteries building and building until it reaches a bloody (but not unexpected) conclusion.

As the film glides along, it grows ever apparent that Nathan is not really who he seems and that Ava has a lot more on her programmed mind than sitting through quaint little tests with a strawberry blonde sad sack. The way "Ex Machina" twists and turns about can sometimes be predictable (it's clear from the start that it's impossible to trust any sort of revolutionary AI), but never is it any less than fascinating. The conversations between Caleb and Ava are edged in an underlying mist of erotica and magnetism — while it's obvious that Caleb has an attraction to the android, his understandable incapacity to show it makes their relationship all the more tense, one of mutual yearning and objectification. The exchanges that go back and forth between Caleb and Nathan, however, are compellingly passive aggressive: whereas Ava remains an awesome question mark throughout the entirety of the film, the bond between Caleb and Nathan is immediately apparent. It is one of distrust, paranoia; while it seems as though they are equals at first glance, their kinship is more relatable to 1972's "Sleuth", in which Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine played a puzzling game of one-upmanship where the hero of the film (shockingly) didn't win the battle of wits.

Isaac alternates between a charismatic façade and a bullying one, always ensuring that he stays the wiser; his ability to maintain a villainous undertone, though, is what makes Isaac's performance so great. It, at first, is hardly blatant that he shouldn't be trusted, but something about his body language, his manner of speak, suggests otherwise. Gleeson resonates as a mild-mannered protagonist perhaps too in over his head to pull off any wanted attempts of heroism, but it's Vikander that runs away with the film. While she provides the most simplistic performance in "Ex Machina", Vikander has the difficult task of appearing robotic and humane. Her characterization is something of a wonder, making Ava simultaneously sympathetic, blank, and vaguely threatening.

But while "Ex Machina" is an acting triumph, it will stay long in the memory for its quips about modern technology. We've become so heavily reliant on our digital counterparts that part of one's soul will forever belong to a social media app or a search engine, never to be brought back. "Ex Machina" ponders how far we will go with our advances before it's too late, before man becomes machine and the human population transforms into nothing but a memory. This is science fiction at its best: nominal but immensely stirring in the way it gains relevance into the lives of the viewer.

It Follows

A Horror Classic in the Making
The first time I watched "Halloween" was all the way back in October 2012, on Halloween night, to be exact. I was fifteen-years-old, had never considered myself to be a horror fan, and didn't have a clue what made the film such a hit among slasher buffs. Midway through the harrowing climax, my sister, who had gone out trick-or-treating all night, crept up to the living room's back window and banged on the pane as hard as she could. That should have been the fright of my life, but "Halloween", as it turns out, is so scary that a quick jolt hardly compares to the lasting disturbia of its nuts and bolts. Everything about it is straight out of a hyper-realistic nightmare you might have had after a night of anxiety attacks — the score, the acting, and of course, the sight of Michael Myers' mask are still enough to cause me to collapse into a puddle of yesterday's confidence. And despite the fact that the film is really and truly an exercise in horror, the scene that has lasted with me the longest is the final scene, which, after a few seconds of regrouping, cuts to a shot of Laurie Strode's lawn from the view of the balcony. There, the body of Michael Myers (recently shot) should have been strewn. But after barely recovering from her attack, Laurie peers over the ledge and finds him gone. On the loose. Ready to kill. Again.

When putting my movie watching history into consideration, ambiguity is the tool that seems to make a horror movie work for me. My personal favorite, "The Blair Witch Project", was such a masterpiece because the fear was never fully explained, despite seeing monstrosity after monstrosity occur before our very eyes; and in other excellent works, such as "The Innocents" or "The Babadook", the villain on the prowl is kept invisible, while we collapse in fear over the mental detonation that befalls its protagonist.

Horror is one of the few genres that rarely seems to work — because the main goal is to scare, much of the plot points have a similar air, even the gems ringing with a sort of depressing familiarity. And considering the genre has been around since the 1920s, it seems to be, especially as of late, increasingly difficult to make a chiller completely new and completely disturbing.

Finally, we have a mood piece worthy of the hype: "It Follows" is one of the best, if not the best, horror movie of the 2010s. It takes the best of Carpenter, the most subdued of Argento, and the ghostliest of Romero and makes for the most outrightly ominous terror train of recent years. It sticks with you — no, scratch that: it follows you — for much too long, individual scenes as impactive as the aforementioned finale sequence of "Halloween". As of right now, it may be denoted as a terrifying indie sensation that pushed past its low- budget constraints and broke the ground. But in twenty years, it might be a golden egg horror buffs gaze upon like a stack of one-hundred dollar bills, the knight in shining armor that saved the genre from completely collapsing into hardly seen independent fare.

The monster stalking the premises is not an axe wielding murderer or a snaggletoothed demon but a soulless entity who menaces a victim at a time. The victim in "It Follows" is Jay Height (the wonderful Maika Monroe), a blonde college student whose life is turned upside down after spontaneously having sex with date. The guy (Jake Weary), it seems, did not undergo the act as a deed of passion but as one of necessity. He is being staked by the previously mentioned ghoul, who follows him, like a zombie, wherever he goes. Like an STD, the fiend seems to travel from victim to victim through intercourse — but if the person on the receiving end of the devilish transfer is killed, it goes right back to its previous owner. It's a cycle of the most vicious quality, making life a living hell for anyone touched by the curse. Jay, a heroine in the same spirit as Laurie Strode and Dana Polk, isn't content passably sitting like a helpless victim, doing everything she can to survive and figure out to end the problem, her clueless friends in tow.

In concept alone, "It Follows" is intriguing to the highest caliber, but execution is what makes a film what it is and David Cameron Mitchell is an auteur of enormous potential. Some scenes have the specificity of a severely darkened Wes Anderson flick, others drowned in uncomfortably colorful dread only found in the finest Bava. He's intensely concerned about texture and sound — the tone, unrelentingly gutted by dread, is threatening enough to cause the Blair Witch to back off; the score, emulating "Halloween" and the chamber stealth of an Ennio Morricone scored giallo, sends a rippling effect of panic through the body. If it were flatly shot, "It Follows" would be frightening, but not emotionally stimulating. And because Mitchell's dynamic is so saturated and so eerie, we don't solely jump in fright at the nearest cat-at-the-camera scare; we feel so blatantly terrorized that we become certain that maybe it's following us.

Ghostly, stylish, and deliriously terrifying, "It Follows" is a classic in the making, a supernaturally subtle piece of uncompromising power. It renews what we've come to love about the horror genre, injecting much needed adrenaline in the long suffering brand. More, please.

Perché quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer?

A Solid Giallo
Stylish, alluring, and agreeable, "The Case of the Bloody Iris" is a straightforward giallo less notable for its dexterous offings and more for leading lady Edwige Fenech, the inarguable queen of the genre. While never reaching the orgasmic heights of other masterpieces of the era (most helmed by Dario Argento and Mario Bava, of course), "The Case of the Bloody Iris" is still a splendidly fun (albeit gory) murder mystery that embraces its ridiculousness and makes up for convoluted time with sophisticated design and worthy blood-soaked set pieces. It's an admirable time waster, a slasher dressed to the nines in pre-De Palma swank.

As in all gialli, a gloved killer wrapped in sharp black is mercilessly butchering physically beautiful young women for kicks, this time in a luxurious high rise apartment. Days after two women are murdered in a twenty-four hour period, models Jennifer (Edwige Fenech) and Marilyn (Paola Quattrini) move into one of the victims' apartment, hardly worried about the room's sordid past. "Life goes on," Marilyn scoffs, as if wishing to jinx herself into murder mystery oblivion. But it doesn't take long for the pair to realize that such things can hardly be laughed off, especially when considering the building itself seems to contain a number of shady characters easily able to commit such heinous acts. Suspects include a stereotyped lesbian neighbor, a misogynistic old woman that lives with her disturbingly deformed son, and even Jennifer's love interest (George Hilton), an architect with a crippling phobia of blood. And it doesn't help that Jennifer's maniacal ex-husband (Ben Carra) enjoys spending his days stalking his former wife instead of making a living.

In order to fully enjoy "The Case of the Bloody Iris", one must disregard the horrendous dubbing, the severely stiff performances, and the regularly asinine script — because this is a film about style and Edwige Fenech, not much else. (Those expecting the normal amount of generous giallo gore will be sorely disappointed.) The first murder is exquisitely shot — with hardly a word of dialogue to spare, it follows a comely blonde from a telephone booth to her apartment building's elevator, where she winds up slashed to death after the passengers depart one by one. Clearly inspiration for Angie Dickinson's gruesome offing in "Dressed to Kill" (which is miles better), the scene sets the tone of the film: absurd but competently suspenseful. Because much of the film is absurd — Jennifer's religious cult back-story is unneeded and contains a gratuitous orgy scene (hardly graphic) more laughable than tantalizing, and her bad habit of wandering away from safety in a time of danger is maddening — but, for the most part, "The Case of the Bloody Iris" classes it up while later '70s peers of the "Black Christmas" mindset didn't. It cares more about how it appears than how it builds intellectually, so thank God it looks like the chic second cousin of "Blowup" or some other mod infused character study.

Best of all is Edwige Fenech: never have I seen her in one of her famous gialli (those were directed by Sergio Martino, and I'm still in the process of trying to find a copy to view), and this film gives an idea as to why she is an underground legend. With her cat eyes, voluptuous figure, and jet black hair, it's impossible not to stare at her, mouth agape and all. One can hardly call her a fine actress, but Fenech has presence, a characteristic hardly found in other giallo women like Barbara Bouchet or Ida Galli. The camera clings to her composure almost passively; she can turn a poorly executed scene into a work of art by merely acting as its center. Maybe her films with Martino are better, but "The Case of the Bloody Iris" is a giallo minor but palatable.

Paper Towns

A Satisfying Adaptation
The teen movie is having a comeback. And I'm not talking about something distantly related to "Clueless" or "Mean Girls": I'm talking about the teen movie that actually says something, like how John Hughes made our hearts ache and how "Flirting" (which I consider to be the finest teen movie ever made) reminded us that youth is an at-once arduous and preciously sacred time. Nothing's better than when movie executives get hit over the head and realize that the years of a teenager are not Bella and Edward moneymakers, making the correct decision to instead let someone like John Green have his say instead of Betty Thomas.

Because one could say John Green is the new John Hughes, an author who seems most content when promoting weepers defined by immensely lovable, quirky characters put into situations dire in their conception but life-changing by their end. Granted, I'm no expert: my only contact with the author comes from last year's excellent adaptation of "The Fault In Our Stars" and my recent reading of "Paper Towns"; but recurring in his works is a considerable amount of heart, a rarity in a day and age of Instagram fed vapidness. "Paper Towns" is timely, heartrending. Not cancer-stricken or tragic like "The Fault in Our Stars", it captures the last few moments of high school and the mishaps that can emanate from first love in an affecting, authentic way. That's Green for you.

This time around, the young man living the last few moments of high school and suffering from the mishaps that can emanate from first love is Quentin "Q" Jacobsen (Nat Wolff), an eighteen-year-old who has his entire life planned out. He's the kind of guy headed to a prestigious college in the fall, the kind of guy who gets excited by the idea of getting married and having kids. He's a square, but he's a square by choice — he's contented while the other kids seem to perpetually undergo serious bouts of angst.

There's only one person in his high school that makes spontaneity seem exciting, that person being Margo (Cara Delevingne), his neighbor and longtime crush. She's one of the popular kids, getting her kicks palling around with the jocks and the pretty girls; but she's hardly innocuous, a nonconformist whose outwardly exuberant persona makes her a hit because everyone has an image of the person she really is on repeat. Quentin idolizes her.

So imagine his surprise when Margo, who he's hardly talked to since they kidded around in their childhood days, shows up at his window one night, asking for a great favor. She has designed a revenge plot meant to harm the people who have scorned her throughout high school (most notably her ex-boyfriend and ex-BFFs), and she fathoms that Quentin, being the square he is, would benefit from a night out as a getaway driver. He reluctantly agrees, and the twosome, looking like a pair of twee rebels, embark on a journey around the city that provides Quentin with the greatest night of his life and yet another reason to love Margo Roth Spiegelman with all his heart. But the next day, she disappears as if she never existed.

The rest of "Paper Towns" details Quentin's quest to find Margo and profess his love for her, deepening his friendships with longtime cronies Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith) while also learning a little bit about himself. The entire concept sounds very after school special, but Green is much too heartfelt and witty of a writer to make the story do anything besides tug at our heartstrings and make us unexpectedly guffaw like it's no big deal. The transition from book to film is a smooth one, conquering the difficulties of finding the perfect cast and ensuring that the best moments in the novel are characterized on the screen as we would want them to. Granted, some of my favorite things in the book are omitted, like Quentin and Margo's SeaWorld detour and Radar's love for Wikipedia parody Omnictionary, but I can live with it, especially considering the ending the film provides is much more satisfying than the novel's abrupt conclusion. So it's good that the moving yearning of "Paper Towns" stays one and the same on camera and on paper, bearing the same sort of urgent poignancy that hits us in spots we'd be too vulnerable to admit.

And the performances are well-tuned: Wolff excels as an unconventional leading man, and Delevingne, the fashion world's new Kate Moss, gives a surprisingly earnest characterization. Supporting Abrams and Smith appeal, with Halston Sage and Jaz Sinclair inviting as their love interests. "Paper Towns" is exactly what fans of the novel want it to be. Just don't expect another "The Fault In Our Stars". It would be too much, and "Paper Towns" is too down to Earth to cause immediate dehydration of the eyes.

Cookie's Fortune

An Underrated Altman Ensemble Piece
Robert Altman can be many things. He can be warped, sarcastic, biting — but he can also be affectionate and understanding. His best films often combine these characteristics with slippery perfection, especially when putting the satirical "The Player" or the balmy "Thieves Live Us" into consideration. I, however, prefer him when he's gazing upon his characters with head-shaking fondness. Certainly, "Cookie's Fortune" isn't comprised of saintly characters — but unlike "Short Cuts" or "Nashville", only a few of the players are wholeheartedly f-cked up, giving us less time to analyze potentially devilish psyches and more to relish the tight, almost familial bonds between the ever compelling characters. It's one of his most impeccably entertaining films.

Set in a minuscule Southern town defined by colorful people, sweaty heat, and catfish, in that order, "Cookie's Fortune" details the sudden death of Jewel Mae "Cookie" Orcutt (Patricia Neal), an elderly widow tired of living alone and tired of her mundane life. So without much thought, she grabs a gun out of her impressive arms closet, flops onto her bed, places a pillow over her face, and shoots herself in the head.

Her niece, Camille (Glenn Close), won't have it. A wannabe playwright with a fondness for cranking up her every emotion by a few thousand notches, she is disgusted by her aunt's carelessness: it will bring shame upon the family, and, most notably, it may even upstage her upcoming play. Consumed with dramatic audacity, she arrives at the scene and decides it would be best to make the suicide actually look like a murder: why not? She runs around the house pretending she's a giallo fiend, breaking windows, stealing valuables, eventually running out the back and throwing the gun into some bushes like Joan Crawford might have during her 1950s-set film noir years. She persuades her dimwitted sister, Cora (Julianne Moore), to go along with the charade, not realizing that covering up a suicide isn't just some cutesy thing mercurial nieces do for fun. It could lead to, you know, trouble.

Immediately, Cookie's best friend and confidant, Willis (Charles S. Dutton), is locked up at the local sheriff's office under suspicion, Cora's estranged daughter, Emma (Liv Tyler), keeping him company while also utilizing the opportunity to have closet sex with her cop boyfriend (Chris O'Donnell) to pass the time. No one, including the men who arrested Willis in the first place, believe he's the murderer — which casts further suspicion onto Cookie's weirdo nieces.

But "Cookie's Fortune" isn't a conventional crime movie, preferring to use its titular figure's sudden offing as a way of throwing the Mississippi set town off course and seeing how its residents handle the travesty. Anne Rapp's screenplay always retains a certain sort of comic lushness that makes the intersecting situations ceaselessly delightful while also maintaining a sort of broad realism. These people certainly could exist — not all realism based films have to be dirt-on-the-ground miserable — and "Cookie's Fortune" is all the more fun for it. Close is a bundle of laughs, delivering off-color lines like an unintentional comedy pro, Neal ensuring why Cookie was such a vital part of her town's life. Dutton is one of Altman's sweetest scene-stealers, and Tyler, in a terrific performance, is a consistent pleasure as a free-spirit that seasons the oft conservative setting of the film.

Most consider "Cookie's Fortune" to be minor Altman, but I think it's underrated Altman. He regularly goes deep with his films, finding ways to mirror the lives of his flawed characters with our own. But "Cookie's Fortune" is such a delicacy because it's breezy, amusing without any existential kinks. He sets scenes with a sort of nostalgic reverie, figuring that small town America isn't all "Twin Peaks" and can still preserve the same sort of complicated magic of a '70s era sitcom. We watch the characters converse wanting to be a part of their community, either because the friendships seem everlasting or because the disdainfulness is comical rather than harmful. Most would want to get out of the town "Cookie's Fortune" sets itself in right away — not me. I'd like to hole up there for a while, collect my thoughts and have conversation about the good things in life instead of the high drama that shapes the metropolises of America. Lightweight Altman may not be everyone's favorite, but I tend to prefer a grizzled filmmaker when he's enjoying himself. So maybe "Cookie's Fortune" is an accidental masterpiece — it's an underrated moment in his lustrous career.

The Skeleton Key

A Well-Made But Familiar Gothic Horror Movie
I love how the movies portray the backwoods of Louisiana to be wet, gatored-out danger zones of Voodoo, gas station dwelling creeps, and crumbling mansions — it's overtly ridiculous, but I'll be the first to admit that sometimes a little fried Southern spookiness is unbeatable. 1964's "Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte" emphasized madness and tangled itself up with Tennessee Williams-esque melodrama; 1981's "The Beyond" seemed to act as one big, inconceivable nightmare only cautioning Northerners to stay away from the South. Isn't it great how a setting can go from being a point of interest to a secondary character in a matter of seconds? How Gothic terror can seem slightly creepier as long as spells, potions, and psychological collapse are involved?

The movie doing the Louisiana-based pigeonholing this time around is 2005's "The Skeleton Key", a shadow infused but ultimately safe horror movie that greatly depends on the star quality of Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, and John Hurt (the latter two hamming it up with the former emulating Deborah Kerr or Claire Bloom). It's passably entertaining, but there's something very been-there-done-that about it, either because of Hudson's character's unwillingness to hear out the handful of helpful hints to get out of the stereotyped Southern backwoods or because the "big reveal" is less shocking and more wince-inducing.

Hudson convinces as Caroline Ellis, a young caretaker hired to serve the dying Ben Deveraux (Hurt). The victim of a crippling stroke, Ben cannot move or speak, but something in the air suggests that something other than mere bad health was responsible. The Deveraux household, it seems, has a long history, a history involving death, Hoodoo (not Voodoo), and other supernatural occurrences. Most, in their good senses, would get as far away from possible from the eerie, decaying mansion. Not Violet. Despite the fact that the matriarch of the home, Violet (Rowlands), is a suspicious figure, despite the fact that Caroline's skeleton key opens everything in the house besides a shady room in the attic, despite the fact that locals warn her that the Deveraux estate is not one to be trusted, she goes out of her way to not only commit to job, but also to solve the mystery that surrounds her new job. Tsk tsk.

The biggest problem with "The Skeleton Key" lies in the fact that most people with common sense would leave its ghastly backwood setting in a hasty sprint — Caroline, on the other hand, figures it would be best to put her life on the line for the sake of curiosity. But curiosity kills cats, and "The Skeleton Key" works on a premise we never quite believe. There's no way someone in Caroline's position would stay as long as she does. I wouldn't. And as the film spirals into a disturbing ending that puts its lead heroine in grave danger, we aren't thrilled, rather smirking that this wouldn't have happened if she would have just let her intuition shut up for a second.

But "The Skeleton Key" is made with a great deal of competence, and that, that, I can admire. It's B-movie material, but because Softley pretends it's better than it is, scares do make their way onto the scene and are delivered effectively. The mansion is a perfect balance of Gothic chilliness and candlelit spooks, seemingly gorgeous by day; the way Hurt's silent performance is completely made of unfiltered dread only awakens our own. And Rowlands, chewing the scenery like a "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" era Bette Davis, is a deliciously theatrical villain. I just wish "The Skeleton Key" was more original; while well-made, it's nothing we haven't seen before.

Hysterical Blindness

A Mixed Bag of a Comedy-Drama
Seeing Uma Thurman play a genuine, sensitive woman is a strange thing for me. Everyone (including myself) knows she's a terrific actress — but as a Tarantino die-hard obsessed with "Kill Bill" (I've legitimately seen "Vol. 1" at least thirty times), I'm hardly used to her portraying a woman capable of carrying on a soul-baring conversation without cutting someone in half with a Hattori Hanzō sword. Perhaps I should see what else she's capable of before I start making assumptions — so I suppose "Hysterical Blindness", an HBO TV-movie for which she won a Golden Globe, is a good place to start.

Thurman is Debby Miller, a thirty-ish, '80s bound, New Jersey bred, lonely heart in the process of sinking into the suppressed life of an old maid. She's desperate for love — she and her best friend, single mom Beth (Juliette Lewis), parade around seedy bars looking for potential suitors like a second job — but as her low self-confidence is more up front than her immense good looks, she turns most men off, finding herself in a plight of one-night-stands instead of meaningful relationships. She's torn between continuing her search for Mr. Right and completely giving up; she still lives with her mother (Gena Rowlands), and still holds onto a low-paying job she most likely got in her early twenties. Eventually, Debby finds a possible mate in Rick (Justin Chambers), a seemingly nice guy she met during one of her late-night escapades.

The hysterical blindness of the title derives from a condition that causes its victim to temporary become visually impaired after a long period of unresolved stress. Debby, so mind-numbingly obsessed with her lack of a love life, experiences the bizarre phenomenon, twice in the film (once in the beginning, to develop her as a neurotic leading lady, and once toward the conclusion, as a dramatic high point that begs her to consider what the hell she's doing with her life).

Directed by Mira Nair, "Hysterical Blindness" is a drama frustrating in its inability to stay earnest throughout its length. Most of the film is moving, well-acted, but Nair, against good judgment, feels the need to include "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" repeatedly in the soundtrack as if to make the impression that we're watching a sappy woman's world drama more spurious than sincere, to render Debby and Beth as stereotypically New Jersey as possible to make their desperation even more desperate. Thurman and Lewis are so broadly drawn that it's a relief that they stir our emotions during their more dramatic scenes — there, the acting school vulgarity disappears and we finally feel like we understand these women.

It's irritating that "Hysterical Blindness" is so regularly prodded by fakery, because, at its realest, most truthful, it momentarily turns into a movie rich in its passion. It's at its best when focusing on the relationship between Virginia (Rowlands) and her new boyfriend, Nick (Ben Gazzara). Both in their sixties, both numbed and used to their discontent, the love they find together is unexpected and exciting; Rowlands and Gazzara, in a mini Cassavetes reunion, are deeply touching. The side-plot makes for a good contrast between that of Debby and Beth — they would do anything to have a meaningful romance, and while they wander around various taverns, Virginia, who has been a waitress the majority of her adult life, simple finds someone by being herself. The scenes between Rowlands and Thurman are palpably wistful, their mother-daughter bond so thick that it's less of a familial pairing and more of a friends-forever partnership that guarantees the other that when the going gets rough, sticking together will hardly be an action in question.

"Hysterical Blindness" is mostly a mixed bag, a sometimes poignant, sometimes obviously calculated comedy-drama that hits home at its best moments but feels like leftovers from an actor's previous vie for an Oscar nomination that didn't quite make it at its worst. But the cast does well with the uneven material, especially Rowlands, making "Hysterical Blindness" decent enough to make even the most cynical of viewers take a look at the world around them and wonder just how many people live to love, throwing their happiness away when they can't quite find it.

Taking Lives

An Implausible But Engaging Serial Killer Thriller
I like Angelina Jolie. Something about her (possibly her fiery eyes, her sensuous lips always slightly curved into a subtle smirk) diffuses with self-assured sexiness that makes her a leading lady who doesn't have to do much to convince us that she's a smart, sanguine toughie always sitting above everyone else. Even in meandering material like "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider", we're enraptured by her magnificence, which luminously finds itself at new heights with the blazing personality that becomes her.

A film like "Taking Lives" is the kind that Jolie does best: a thriller without much of a brain but seems to be better just because Jolie is there. In every heroine role she's ever had, she's appeared strong and courageous, gutsier than the men around her and more adroit than the doubters who pine against her. In hindsight, "Taking Lives" is the type of film most likely to be played during a "Lifetime" serial killer movie marathon special event — but like the majority of suspense movies that repeat on "Lifetime", there's a sort of compulsively watchable energy about "Taking Lives", not hugely ambitious but not dumb enough to make us feel bad about enjoying ourselves. It's throwaway, but at least we're having fun, right?

In "Taking Lives", Jolie portrays Illeana Scott, an FBI agent brought into Montreal to help apprehend Martin Asher, a murderer who gets his kicks by stealing the identities of his victims after he grotesquely kills them. Scott is a profiler of the highest common denominator, with an unconventional skill set; her new co-workers have a hard time taking her seriously, an understatement considering she greets them for the first time lying with a smile in an open grave, later on showing that she best understands the people she's investigating by squatting in weird positions in the areas they committed their crime. But she's not faux spunky like an embittered Temperance Brennan. We are immediately taken with her.

The killer's streak is hindered when James Costa (Ethan Hawke) is brought in for questioning. Costa, a local art dealer, happened to be at the right place at the right time and witnessed Asher partaking in one of his heinous crimes. Lucky for the detectives, he as a good eye and great artistic ability: he is able to draw a near perfect, detailed sketch of the murderer. Problems arise, though, when Scott, slipping out of her reserved knowingness, develops feelings for the witness.

"Taking Lives" moves along as a good, maybe even great, serial killer movie until it abruptly reaches a twist ending either predictable or implausible — I'm not sure which adjective is a better descriptor. While you might be guessing who the murderer is way ahead of time, however, you won't have much of an idea how they're going to catch him, and since the climax of the movie is outrageously over-the-top (and one could say satisfying), the preposterousness not only is forgiven — it's also accepted as part of the insane plot, which threatens to fly off the rails but remains engaging against all odds. And anyway, you can't put down "Taking Lives" for being ludicrous while turning around and calling "Dressed to Kill" ludicrous but saying it's OK because it's stylish. No. No.

The film has since become a forgotten fossil of the 2000s, but don't pass it off as an average blockbuster that never was. Jolie is as entrancing as ever, Hawke a plausible normal-guy-caught-in-a-bad-situation, Rowlands a shifty-eyed marvel as Asher's paranoid mother. "Taking Lives" is perhaps more fattening than I would like to admit, but I don't mind dumbfounding thriller fun, as long as I'm kept on my toes and the atmosphere's decent. Here, you've got everything. What more could you want?

Don Jon

An Agreeably Offbeat Directorial Debut
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has worked as one of Hollywood's most talented young actors for years now, so it's a relief that his writing-directing debut, "Don Jon", is not a vanity project but a tender, funny romantic comedy stimulatingly unconventional. Not playing himself like Woody Allen always did in his best movies, Gordon-Levitt swaps his public easygoing appeal with the greasiness of a New Joisey guido with an addiction to porn. Such a male lead would normally be reprehensible, but Gordon-Levitt, as it turns out, is a writer who pens with a great deal of heart, turning his titular Don John into an anti-Prince Charming sympathetic instead of crude.

In "Don Jon", he is Jon Martello, a 20-ish player who only cares about, as he puts it, his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, and his porn. He sounds like the perfect candidate for a "Jersey Shore" reboot, but Jon is much more than some hulking no-brain ready to annoy the hell out of Snooki Polizzi — as a porn addict, he, despite having one-night-stands like it's his job, is unable to make an emotional, let alone physical, connection with a woman. He figures porn is better: he can lose himself in the distanced vulgarity.

When out with friends one night, he spots Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a shapely blonde who instantaneously has him wrapped around her finger. She doesn't want to be another one of his single night flings — she wants to court, to put off sex in favor of dates, to meet each other's families, to get to know one another. Not because she's been burned before, but because she, like Jon, has an addiction: romantic comedies. She wants to be a real life Sandra Bullock, finding love in the most unexpected of places. Normally, Jon would be put off by such silliness — but Barbara is much too irresistible to let down. Problem is, his addiction is still riding strong, hindering any kind of growth in the relationship; and when he meets Esther (Julianne Moore), a damaged middle-aged woman who seems to understand him better than anyone else, things begin to get out of hand.

For being such a short movie (a mere 85 minutes), "Don Jon" feels vast, having a lot to say and packing in quite a bit of obligatory rom-com charm. But unlike most rom-coms that rely too heavily on that rom-com charm, Gordon-Levitt digs deeper, analyzing the nature of addiction and how it can affect nearly every aspect of one's life, whether it be through a romantic relationship or a familial one. He's subtle about it, never becoming a preachy artist standing on a soapbox warning about the dangers of porn. "Don Jon" is so far beyond the other additions to the genre because it makes a good case to try to understand a character; even the secondary players seem rounded, not cutout (a risk considering the over-the-top NEW JOISEY flightiness of the majority of 'em).

Gordon-Levitt gives an expectedly monumental performance, returning back to earth whenever he threatens to tread into Joey Tribbiani 2.0 territory, but the real stars of the film are the women, particularly Johansson and Moore. Johansson rarely gets the opportunity to let her comedic chops shine, but in "Don Jon" she goes all out, humorously embodying the blonde, gum-chewing, manicured, monotone Jersey girl with just enough credibility to win us over. Moore, as Jon's second love interest, is unrefined and sexy, playing a woman old enough to raise eyebrows but pushing doubts out of our judgmental windows through reasonable affinity.

"Don Jon" is a satisfying project for a major talent — Gordon-Levitt has proved himself in his acting for years, and here we finally get to witness him directing and writing like it's no big deal: it seems natural, proper. Now that we've seen what he can do with the rom-com, it's only inevitable to want to see what he does next. This is a small movie, a diamond in the rough: one can only wonder what will happen if he does something bigger.


An Unforgettable Descent Into Misery
The American Dream, from the '60s standpoint, was supposed to be a fantasy lived by Lucy and Ethel and the Bradys. But "Life", "Vanity Fair", and "Photoplay" tended to stretch the truth for the sake of eye catching imagery, all red lipstick, picnic baskets, Ford convertibles, and not much else. And while Debbie Reynolds and Dick Van Dyke told us how we should be looking, acting, feeling, the rest of the world shifted in its mindset, going from years of repression to a sudden soul searching state of disillusion, increasingly thrown off course by the sexual revolution, Vietnam, and Watergate. I'm sure some of the period's population was decently happy, but a time of changed attitudes and values can only lead sights and sounds into places unexplored before, unsatisfying at their revelatory peaks.

"Faces", a defining film in the astonishing breadth of the daring '60s, grabs The American Dream by its lapels and throws its ideals down a life-sized paper shredder, screaming in our faces that Doris Day and her well-off friends lied — adorable romantic misunderstandings and colorful lifestyles is not the America America knows. It's just a drippingly chintzy version of one. So with its grainy, 16 mm black-and-white, emotive actors, and innate directorial style (courtesy of auteur John Cassavetes), "Faces" is one of the few films that convincingly captures the hardships that lacerate everyday life, placing each and every one of its characters at the center of a crisis and watching, unsparingly, how they handle it.

Following the disintegration of a fourteen year marriage over the course of a series of drunken nights, "Faces" examines Richard (John Marley) and Maria Forst (Lynn Carlin) as they attempt to navigate their loose vulnerabilities after Richard suddenly announces he wants a divorce. The proclamation makes perfect sense to Richard — he's been cheating on his wife for years (the film opens with a boozy get-together that sees him and his friend entertaining a couple of prostitutes) — but the exclamation nearly tears Maria in half. Though she's been unhappy for far too long, there's an underlying feeling that she really does love her husband, and while the union has run its course, she doesn't want to be alone in this cold, cruel world.

They spend the next few nights figuring out what's going to become of them, growing increasingly depressed and increasingly retrospective, pensive. Richard busies himself attempting to shack up with a hooker without a heart of gold (Gena Rowlands), Maria fogging out her loneliness with her female friends, gradually meeting a hippie (Seymour Cassel) well-meaning but damaging in his unrelenting positivity. By the end of the film, the Forsts don't find themselves freed by their lack of marital responsibility — hanging over their heads is a question mark drenched in sleeping pills and liquor, wondering aloud if all there is to look forward to in life is misery.

"Faces" isn't the kind of film made for the pure sake of enjoyment — most, including me, would much prefer to sit through a two-hour Bond adventure than a depressing, jarringly styled character piece — but its blunt truthfulness and knee-jerking performances make it a tour-de-force rewarding in its mesmerizing account of a world more authentic in its bare bones anguish than most. Never has Cassavetes settled for anything less than honest, so it's only fitting that the majority of his films throw his characters into a pit of chaos and sees where they land. In his most famous moment, "A Woman Under the Influence", he details the dissolve of a housewife's psyche, taking her marriage down with her; in "Love Streams", he throws curveball after curveball at characters so lost in a maze of depression that it's only reasonable to predict that they'll never make their way out.

"Faces" is the movie that first bolded and underlined his filmmaking style, pulling out massive emotional punches and drawing out visceral performances from his stock of actors. His movie-making instincts are difficult to love at first glance — but after getting to know the situation and the people, the shaky camera, documentary-like, heightens the gutsiness of it all, adding to the dire circumstances that befall nearly every scene. As we analyze the ensemble of "Faces", split in half most of the time, a sense of impending doom slithers along the cracks of the ceiling. None of these characters are stable, so much so that we can only ponder if they will die naturally or if they will inflict wounds upon themselves to make their demise come quicker. The women of the film, Rowlands and Carlin, cover their sorrows with fake laughs and unconvincing smiles; Rowlands makes the case that her character has always been that way — she plays a prostitute, therefore used to irrepressible gloom — but Carlin goes on a downward spiral resembling Monica Vitti's mental deterioration in "Red Desert", absorbing but absolutely gut wrenching. The men, Marley and Cassel, seem more in control: but it quickly becomes apparent that their masculinity can only cover so much ground before their weaknesses begin to present themselves loudly.

At 147 minutes, "Faces" is demanding to sit through, sometimes tedious. But, like in all of Cassavetes' movies, there is so much depth to the lack of glamour that we're left torn up, perhaps longer than we'd like to admit. Because the Technicolor world isn't real — the 16 mm one is, and it's hard to accept.

Clouds of Sils Maria

A Stunning Character Study
There comes a point in the life of a middle-aged actor when young self-confidence turns into wrinkled doubt. With the exception of the Meryls and the Daniels, a lack of relevance can mean roles suited to complement the likes of more exciting, recent actors — the fame captured earlier, perhaps by an Oscar or a culturally significant movie, can eventually mean nothing, as magazines get tired of your face and the public finds a new personality to live vicariously through.

Film doesn't touch on this issue very often — the actor generally needed for the philandering generally is a has-been themselves, thus unwilling to play the part — but the best examples, like Bette Davis' career shattering "All About Eve" or Gena Rowlands' underrated filmography peak "Opening Night", work so well because the actors playing actors going through a prolonged existential crisis seem to be putting a part of themselves into the role, whether they mean to or not. It can be difficult to admit that you're Bridget Fonda and not Jennifer Lawrence.

Juliette Binoche, one of the greatest actresses of her generation, has never seemed to face career troubles in the way Joan Crawford did in her fifties, the way Ava Gardner did the second she turned forty. Binoche, if anything, has become more engaging of a presence as she ages, continuously drowning herself in challenging roles that only cement her status as a transcendent talent. Her films generally aren't blockbusters, but so respected she is among cinephiles and critics that she, no doubt, will live on as a legend (though she, in some ways, already is). She, unsurprisingly, give one of the finest performances of her career.

As Maria slips through the cracks burdening the sidewalks of the real and the fake, "Clouds of Sils Maria" grows stronger, more tumultuously mysterious. A fascinating drama of clinking façades, subtle insecurities, and confessionals, the film has all the makings of a juicy backstage drama, but Olivier Assayas, in a career highlight, chooses profound subtlety over soap operatic ticks. Dialogue covers the premises like a silk blanket draping a leather love seat, ever traveling, but details, minute or revelatory, flesh out the compelling slabs of character exposés and make them thrillingly human. Reminiscent of the performances that adorned the films of John Cassavetes, the figures in "Clouds of Sils Maria" leave their innermost insecurities out for us to feast on.

The dynamic between Binoche and Stewart is what makes "Clouds of Sils Maria" the masterpiece that it is — Assayas' writing provides them with immensely intelligent conversations to chew on, but such cerebral passages can only mean something when in the hands of performers delicate with their material and knowing of their abilities.

Toward the beginning of the film, Binoche, short-haired and covered in Chanel, looks like the embodiment of glamour, the kind of star that covers "Vogue" and doesn't seem human or emotional in the process. Scenes later (when the film transitions into a more secluded setting), her hair shortens into something mannish, her makeup cleaned off, her clothing meant for comfort rather than looks. This transformation is fundamental in the believability of the film, as it strips away all distractions and really showing us how Maria (and possibly Binoche) feels inside — worn out, defenseless, melancholy.

Stewart, as Maria's assistant Val, never undergoes a conversion as jarring as Binoche. But the way she stays a grungy, enigmatic figurehead of Maria's faith makes her an intellectual counterpoint to the apprehension of her employer. As the relationship between Maria and Val begins to fog out the rest of the noise seen earlier in "Clouds of Sils Maria", the more potent the film becomes. In exquisite scenes set in the barren, titular region of Sils Maria, Maria rehearses for "Maloja Snake", she as Helena and Val as Sigrid. The sequences are so thoroughly convincing and so vague about when they're ending that we begin to question the reality of the situation — how much does Maria see in Helena, how much does Val see in Sigrid, and vice versa?

"Maloja Snake"'s story is nearly parallel to that of Maria and Val. Though Maria doesn't quite see her assistant in the romantic way Helena fancies Sigrid, she depends on her. She has few friends, hardly interacts with the public, and isn't quite sure how to express herself outside of acting. With Val, an old soul more mature than her age would suggest, she is able to voice her hesitations loudly, without a filter. But it is suggested that Val isn't as fond of Maria as Maria is of her: she humors her through deep conversation, but how much of it does she consider to be a part of her job and how much of it is she actually invested in? The way Val remains an ambiguous figure throughout the film makes her all the more fascinating: when she disappears like Lea Massari in "L'Avventura" toward the conclusion, we can only speculate her existence. Stewart, who won the French equivalent of the Oscar, sledgehammers any questions regarding her acting talents. I've always found her to be a magnetic presence when without "Twilight" in her clutches, and films like "Clouds of Sils Maria" suggest an actress uninhibited and unafraid.

One of the best films of the year, "Clouds of Sils Maria" further proves why Assayas and Binoche are incomparable talents of the silver screen while also giving Stewart a reason to flip off the haters that have marred her career for so long. While the film is understated, don't expect it to leave you any time soon. It is haunting, icy, and full of questions. It ain't "Mulholland Dr.", but it ain't "All About Eve" either. It's a classic in the making, a gem in the filmographies of all the talents involved.


A Winningly Subversive Romantic Comedy
"Monogamy isn't realistic," Gordon Townsend (Colin Quinn) declares to his daughters, Amy and Kim, after his wife files for divorce. This statement, repeated by the girls in a robotic chant, is sickeningly funny — such an announcement sounds odd coming from the mouths of two kiddos under ten — and while we laugh, we can only wonder what effect it will have on them in the future. We know their childhood is going to end up more than a little messed up, and we know that a parent who finds cheating to be a natural part of life isn't the best figure to have around.

So decades later, we're surprised that the sentiment has lost all meaning for Kim (Brie Larson), now married with a stepson and a child on the way. But Amy (Amy Schumer), expectedly (based on the abrasive promotional posters for the film), keeps the quote up on a flashy banner in the inner workings of her pessimistic brain. She's a maninizer (ensuring none of her one-night-stands stay the night), a hard drinker (she oft finds herself in bars when the going gets rough), and an opponent of, you guessed it, anything even resembling monogamy. By day, she works at a sleazier version of GQ, S'Nnuff; by night, she's the trainwreck we expect her to be.

During a meeting at work, she is hastily assigned to write an article about Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), a sports doctor whose clients include LeBron James, Tom Brady, and a bunch of other heroes I can't remember the names of because I watch movies, not athletics. She is hesitant (she was only given the task because of a vocalization that she hates sports, her editor (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton) believing it would be an interesting angle), but Amy, being the charmer she is, handles the situation like a pro; until she "accidentally" sleeps with Conners and "accidentally" falls for him. Such a situation terrifies her — she has never been in a serious relationship — but, like all decent romantic comedies, it becomes obvious, and desired, that the two will ultimately become the pair Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine always wanted to be.

"Trainwreck" has a plot line found in most romantic comedies you can think of (boy meets girl, boy dates girl, boy loses girl, and then boy, getting a hold of what he's missing, wins the girl back over), except the gender norms are reversed and the girl is the one with all the baggage while the boy waits for her to sort things out. A person as quick to pass off rom- coms as me would normally rip apart a movie so predictable, but as a huge fan of Schumer (I've watched "Inside Amy Schumer" since its debut), I expected things wouldn't be cheesy but subversive, knowing, whip smart. And we get exactly that.

Schumer has never been afraid to embarrass herself — consider a sketch from her show this year, a black-and-white homage to "12 Angry Men", was a star packed debate trying to decide just how fuckable she was — and in "Trainwreck" she goes all out. She introduces herself, just minutes after the flashback in which her father throws out the monogamy line, with an embarrassing walk of shame. She continues the shame with a drunken voice-over. And then we find out that she's been sleeping around while still dating a devoted giant portrayed by John Cena of all people. We shouldn't like her, but Schumer is a lovable woman, not because she's disarmingly perfect like Meg Ryan but because she's so unafraid to put herself out onto the table and make fun of herself.

Some of the film is personal: she really does have a sister named Kim, she really does have a father with MS, and she really does have vaguely unhealthy living habits (though her writing dramatizes the notion). Schumer's disarming honesty is what makes her such a refreshing comedienne. Unlike other brilliant comics in her category, the raunchy Sarah Silverman and the borderline offensive Chelsea Handler, Schumer is so appealing because she mixes shock with intimate layers that may or may not suggest vulnerability. In "Trainwreck", her self-deprecation only goes so far — there comes a point in which her character completely breaks down in realization that her lifestyle only hides deeper troubles. It's this kind of tearful candor that will make Schumer a game-changer in her generation.

Technically, the film is a Judd Apatow movie (he produced and directed it), but this is Schumer's ballgame, and she knocks it out of the park. Her screenplay is as frank as it is hilarious, the characters exquisitely characterized. Giving great parts to comedy usuals Quinn (foul-mouthed) and Vanessa Bayer (grinningly scene-stealing), while fleshing out roles to unexpected players like James (sublime as Conners' BFF), Swinton (wigged out, tanned, done up), and Brie Larson (the straight-woman), she gives her supporters as much of a chance to shine as she does herself. Co-star Hader provides an exceptional performance as the love interest, so good that we're reminded of charismatic talents of the yesteryear rather than the personality-less heartthrobs Matthew McConaughey used to specialize in.

The buzz surrounding Amy Schumer these last few months is timely and well-deserved — as a comedian on the rise for too many years, it's awesome to see her develop into a talent big enough to murder the big screen. She's always formidable in her TV sketches and her stand-up routines, but "Trainwreck" is the film that's going to turn her into something besides a Comedy Central find. This woman is going places.

Death Proof

Subpar Tarantino Is Still Better Than Most
The idea of making a modern exploitation movie is a novel one — the frowziness of the era's heyday is mockable, but can quasi-specific homage actually work as a feature film? The MADTV Funkenstein and "Mighty Peking Man"-esque Prehistoric Glamazon Huntresses sketches suggested that periodical skits were good enough; it's easier to turn around and watch "Switchblade Sisters" or "Coffy" anyway. So it's ballsy to make a new kind of exploitation movie: the 1970s are over, after all, and grindhouse cinemas no longer exist. You've got to have a great deal of intelligence (and filmmaking strength) to pull off such risky reverence.

Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino achieved the impossible in 2007, releasing double- feature "Grindhouse" worldwide like it was no big deal. Both edited as if they were pieces of sh-t Jack Hill or Russ Meyer spliced together, both cheap looking, both subpar when putting the directors' filmography into perspective, Rodriguez's zombie ridden "Planet Terror" provided us with joyous action-horror while Tarantino's "Death Proof" voiced a similar spirit to that of "Vanishing Point" and "Two-Lane Backdrop". Neither film is terrific, but hard to deny is just how successful "Grindhouse" is at making, well, a modern exploitation double-feature.

"Death Proof" has always been my favorite of the two, maybe because I've always figured Rodriguez to be Tarantino's less-talented but still-talented brother-from-another-mother or maybe because I have a weakness for exciting car stunts and female characters with the personality of a p-ssed off Tura Satana. Ironic is how "Planet Terror" payed homage to the bad and, in the process, seemed bad itself, while "Death Proof" went out with the same goal in mind and ended up being a good film — perhaps this is because Tarantino is incapable of making something of pure shoddy quality, or because his screenplays provide nothing except quotable rivers of dialogue.

"Death Proof" involves a psychopathic stunt driver (who goes by the name of Stuntman Mike) who, while not reliving his glory days, cleverly kills women with his car, which has been built specifically to withstand the fatalities of outrageous crashes. For the first half of the film, he sets his sights on radio host Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) and her wild pals, who, sooner or later, meet up with him in the worst way possible; the second half finds him stalking stuntwoman Zoë Bell (playing herself) and her posse — a bad decision if their ever was one, considering Bell's belligerence and the ruthlessness of her tough-as-nails friends.

Many cite "Death Proof" as Tarantino's worst film, and it's understandable, considering the hugely ambitious scopes of his others, the bigger budgets, the more high profile ensembles. "Death Proof", cheaply made, girl centric, dialogue driven, straight-forward, hardly has the staying power of "Pulp Fiction" or "Inglourious Basterds" — not because it's average, but because it's low-key, a break from epic exercises in directorial glory. He's having fun, not rewriting history — it's brave for someone as high profile as Tarantino to step down from the high heavens of celluloid fame and make something simple, something most would call an novice's masterpiece.

But I shouldn't be calling "Death Proof" brave — it's not a stretch, just a gem of small scale values. The nearly all-female assembly is tremendously cast: not a part, with the exception of the inexperienced Bell, does anything besides heighten Tarantino's babes-with-cars vision. The first ensemble, comprised of Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, and Jordan Ladd, incite big laughs with their low-class values, their unexpected demises hurting because we want to see more of them. The second, however, positively lights up the screen: Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead have remarkably chemistry, with Thoms acting as a fiery, loud-mouthed presence. Russell is persuasive, but the women that eventually avenge his violent attack are what make "Death Proof" such an unparalleled treat. The final car chase, which sees Dawson, Thoms, and Bell racing after the madman, is riddled with '70s styled adrenaline: in an age of action aided by CGI, it's a pleasure to see that Tarantino would rather stick to the guns of the past instead of taking the easy way out.

Snaky, funny, and bracing, "Death Proof" is a minor Tarantino project (the only one, as it turns out) that serves as a reminder as to why Tarantino is such an immortal talent — even when he's taking break from being the best of the best, he's still one of the best.

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