mmaggiano

IMDb member since November 2005
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Reviews

Suspiria
(2018)

Simply one of the worst opening scenes I've ever seen, budget or no budget
The edits and shots of the opening scene to 2018's "remake" of Suspiria come from the JJ Abrams school of 'just any shot at all, and just keep cutting'. This is what Gordon Willis called 'dump truck directing'. When this dump-truck of shots and cuts is done with a budget by professionals, it's more of an abomination than when it's done by amateurs who can't help themselves. It creates an impression of 'quality'- we see the production values on screen. But no amount of money in the world can make this scene, as is, come off as anything but the worst of what comes out of the "prestige cable" mill. When a director and an editor take the budget and hard work of other filmmakers and make this what comes out of the other end of that process, it's nothing but a disgrace.

Ixcanul
(2015)

Exceptional naturalism
Ixcanul is a practically flawless work of naturalistic cinema. Much has been said about the cutural specifics of the film, but not enough about Ixcanul as an argument for the vitality of naturalism, in an era that has been blinkered with frivolous spectacle. The movie treats its audience as adults, never telling them what to think or feel. It's beautifully lit and composed, subtle, thorny and complex. If you can find nothing engaging here, it's hardly the fault of the film.

Mandy
(2018)

$6M Worth of Eye Candy and Deliberate Camp
The narrative, character and dialogue in Mandy are stripped down to a kind of deliberate camp and pulp that it could have been written by an incompetent storyteller, and then maximalist lighting and color grading has been applied with $6M. This is likely done on purpose, but any purpose in making it beyond profit and yum-yums for those who hanker for retro-pulp and saturation knobs set to 200% - any purpose beyond that fails to exist. As a reviewer I'm usually with the kind of believer that the arts should have something-somehow worthwhile to say (historically and politically that's a wide range of believers, from hippies to tweedy professors to ordinary folk) and I will shunt any discussion of art-for-arts-sake or deliberate camp as a kind of yuck vs. yum discussion: I may find such art tasty or not, but any disagreement about that kind of work is a matter of pure taste. It's easy to see how a sketch parody or a 1-panel comic meme about Mandy might instantly have more to say than Mandy itself does. Yes, cinematic freak-outs, midnight movies and deliberate camp can absolutely be great fun, but so can frozen yogurt, or your drug of choice for your midnight movie viewing- it's mere taste.

Looking at this and feeling around for ironic purpose is a tough sport, especially the kind of deliberate camp here, done by professionals with a budget measured in millions. It often reduces to watching the nearly-crippling decadent kinks that a director and his flock need to finish. Did they really need all that equipment? How precious. Sontag's Notes on "Camp" must come to mind here, and I'll finish my brief thoughts on this movie in communication with that essay. I might differ from Sontag in saying that deliberate camp can have as its purpose a kind of ironic or farcical statement, however unstable. Sontag may not have disagreed, depending on how one interprets the Notes' seeming conflicts. Mandy certainly has the ready-made characters and the style-over-substance of camp. But at any rate, just as one can differentiate naive camp from deliberate camp, one can differentiate between deliberate camp as 'mere taste and detatchment for dandies', versus deliberate camp as 'dethroning and detatchment '. Foppery and insurrection don't overlap much. With Mandy's mock-dramatics yet responsible artistry and too-quality cinematography, it must be mere taste. Mandy is a quality version of what you wanted if you wanted more vaporwave/oversaturation/formal lighting, 80's pulp, Nic Cage, metal, fantasy, action, horror and thriller. It's stripped of anything to straightforwardly say or anything to ironically feel. It's camp as flavor. Don't confuse that with even the simplest things camp can do in dethroning seriousness.

Blade Runner 2049
(2017)

Visually perfect, but not quite a new classic
Having seen the film twice, I'm amazed by the cinematography. One would be hard put to find a single bad shot in the film, and the editing is unobtrusive. I found the long, slow, contemplative nature of much of the movie to be very fitting, and even exhilarating in the sense that it wasn't rapid-cutting superhero trash.

Unfortunately, there are also a few flaws. The narrative has some carelessly convenient jump-aheads, and some plot holes or story logic problems. At this point this is a consistent pattern with Denis Villeneuve- staggering visuals and narrative stumbles. Second, the sound design has been compromised by a BRRRONNNGG noise that plays through quite a few scenes and feels like a cheap manipulation.

Mother!
(2017)

A satiric allegory
For those of you wondering about the sacrilegious content of this film, in my estimation, this film is ultimately critical of humanity as a whole (and therefore all religion), and not specifically critical of the Abrahamic religions, although it uses an often profane and shocking allegory about humanity's corrupt misinterpretation of the Old and New Testaments to get at its critiques of humanity.

That said, not only am I going to write a 8/10 review of a movie that everyone seems to 10/10 LOVE or 1/10 HATE, but I'm also going to talk about this contriversial ironic allegory without using spoiler-examples to explain my points. I must love down-votes.

mother! is, without doubt, the most aggressive movie that Aronofsky has written and directed. Though many of his movies have either profane content or intellectual challenges, this one is shocking for people of the Abrahamic religions en masse, and it has a layered intellectual challenge to it.

The first challenge, for anyone seeing the movie without prior knowledge, is "what the hell am I watching?". Neither absurd/surreal movies, nor allegorical ones usually come with A-list stars and a name director, let alone anything this cruel and grotesque. And here I will spread the blame for people's mid-movie anger on two causes: 1) The film was sold as a horror movie in some quarters, which is the latest example of a battle that's been raging between filmmakers and suits for decades: don't misrepresent a movie in marketing for short-term opening weekend gain and long-term bad word of mouth. Nearly anyone who went to this movie in order to get a horror-genre fix left infuriated. 2) The fact that American audiences react with indignant cries of "pretentious crap!" when they don't immediately understand a movie can be blamed on both individual closed-mindedness and insecurity, AND on Hollywood conditioning audiences to expect easily-understood wish-fulfillment. You don't have to search real far to find the user reviews reacting to all of this. (Tangentially, we need more articles saying "Hey, *none* of us immediately understand challenging movies, and we're not supposed to understand them immediately, so would you please stop being mad and insecure about it?")

That said, allegory itself has been derided for being a narrative form with a low ceiling: either the allegorical correspondences and analogies are off, or the didactic intent is for the unsubtle browbeating of the unsophisticated. I'm not sure that I can blame viewers for reacting to the allegory as a form, or this one as heavy-handed, though I think the movie rises above these problems. Here is where the second layer of intellectual challenge happens in mother!, and where it is most diabolical: 1) allegory dates as far back in the Abrahamic religions as you care to go, and allegorical interpretation (sometimes forced) has been practiced by scholars in those religions for centuries. Therefore allegory is a fitting form to use to criticize humanity's willful misinterpretations. 2) The movie's allegory is chock-full of challenging (or if you please, blasphemous) ironies that amount to something akin to a 21st century Gnosticism. 3) The allegory here is NOT in a point-for-point correspondence, but asks the audience to abstract a bit since there are several analogies running in parallel here, and they interact in a fairly unstable Moby Dick kind of way (sometimes the whale is just a whale). Combine these three things with the profane content of the film and you have a work that is profane in the way that all great satire must be, and in the way that may prevent it from being received more comprehendingly. However, I think it should be received in this way: the target of attack here is human interpretation; the attack is on what kinds of behavior humanity will excuse by willfully interpreting their own religion until they get what they want the answer to be. This mother ultimately objects and the audience like the humans in the movie say "But mom.... dad said I could!".

As for the other filmmaking elements beside the narrative, they are flawless.

I'm grading mother! at 8/10, with the main flaws being that the didactic side is (necessarily) heavy-handed, and that the movie probably wouldn't wouldn't sustain more than two viewings worth of interest.

La La Land
(2016)

Fundamental problems with conflict and story logic. Music is hit or miss. Tons of motion blur.
In Whiplash, Chazelle's first feature, excellent cinematography, editing, music and design combined with great acting and gripping scenes. However, it was marred by some serious disconnects with realism while purporting to be essentially realistic: some of the character psychologies and story logic were stretched too thin. Ultimately, one could enjoy the acting and the edit/shot rhythms, and forgive the flaws.

Those same flaws from his first picture absolutely devastate La La Land, and they aren't counterbalanced by much more than two very good set pieces (Gosling and Stone's number while he walks her to her car, and Stone's audition number).

There is not an interesting conflict in a scene for the first ninety minutes of this movie. Much of the early tension is based on two good-looking 'characters' who "don't like each other", and on them coincidentally running into each other a few times. ALL of the later conflict between the two main characters hinges on conveniently concocted scene logic that boils down to fighting and breaking up instead of simple solutions like a) sending a text or b) getting out of a work thing or c) saying "I'll see you in a few months". The logic flaws and wholly unearned story points are so bad that it's not really a story; it's more of a unpolished frame to hang a bunch of set pieces on. It intends to be a string of pearls.

But when half of those set pieces are mediocre, particularly the opening number, one is left with uncomfortable waits between the good parts: the story and characters are nothing, and half of the scenes neither deepen the story nor wholly delight. It makes you aware of your butt on the chair in the theater.

Maybe worst of all is this movie's attempt to do with motion blur what Easy Rider did with lens flares. The difference is that 'avoid lens flares' was just a rule about 'professional' cinematography that was broken by a few rebels in the right movie for that. Motion blur is a fairly upsetting thing to look at, let alone on a big screen for shots that last two or three seconds, repeated seven or eight times in the movie. One of them is quite effective: up to some palm trees, 180 degree twist, and back down to the leads as they walk around a fountain. And there are some simple whip pans that are too fast to be upsetting. But this leaves multiple medium-speed motion blur pans, and the movie loses more than it could gain, multiple times, by breaking this rule. (If you feel that there is no 'rule' that says not to do long motion-blur shots when they don't add anything, I'll grant you your point, and counter by saying that the movie looks hideous and nauseating during those shots)

Westworld
(2016)

Huge budget, tired tropes with a few good ideas, F- writing TV porn
A few opinions on how to think about big budget film/TV.

Here's what a huge budget can get you: 1) Production value: Great work on design, camera/lighting, editing, FX, VFX, sound and music; competent-to-good acting, writers who know story structure, and who can make a plotboiler. "What's gonna happen next?!?" I have deep respect for the filmmakers in these fields, but with talented people, these results are generally reproducible at will. The budget for Westworld is $100M before advertising for 10 hours of content (with plenty of repetition of locations and even shots). 1a) Good looking people naked, some of them famous. 1b) A bunch of squibs and muzzle flashes and bashed-in heads and so on. 2) All of the above plus marketing/PR which will give you an instant fan base. I doubt it will give a long-lasting one.

Here's what a huge budget will not get you: 1) a sci-fi trope newer than "are these things people?" which traces back to the 1930's at least, and has been done in too many movies/TV to count, and could use a rest for a decade or more. 2) new ideas, new points of view on thoughts, emotions, insights; wisdom. Westworld has a few, but not enough, and it's mostly done in dialogue and nowhere else. 3) audience engagement that goes beyond plotboiling. Plotboiling gives you a buncha surprises (no spoilerz!!!) and no lasting value. 4) any of the above well-expressed through picture, design, sound, etc.

Most of the actual scene-by-scene writing is on a level with an afterschool special from back in the day: moralizing without complexity, and with a bunch of fan service to go with it. Although there are not many people vocally disagreeing with the show, those who are complain about pretension and shallowness. I agree. Since I'm loathe to accuse shows of being pretentious, let me specify: here we have sophomoric and hackneyed philosophizing about human nature/personhood coupled with quotations from classic literature and music (plus sex, violence, plotboiling and moralizing). If you can't come close to Blade Runner or work a new angle that works, don't do it.

I will disagree on complaints about the acting: I think any imagined problems here are results of the ultimate shallowness of the show, plus the fact that those who play host bots are required to play a person/thing that is sometimes rigidly following their programming, and sometimes not. I think they are doing quite well there, and the deficits are inherent to the show.

If only the show disobediently, willfully and intelligently went away from the 'program' the way those hosts do.

First Dates with Toby Harris
(2011)

The Art of the Scene in Character Comedy
Across twenty-four five minute episodes (each being one scene), First Dates with Toby Harris is consistently pitch-perfect, subtle and raw by the moment, amusing without being farcical, and well-balanced between the foibles of the main character and others. The variety across the episodes is satisfying.

The premise (a sad sack's first-date history) has been done in many ways, usually poorly, by other programs. Here it catches fire.

Genre-wise you might call this character comedy or social satire, since it's the sort of progress-free, learning-free repetition of human folly that is akin to Curb Your Enthusiasm, albeit in gentler and more realistic form. Points here for working in a perfectly natural genre that is severely under-used.

The Butler
(2013)

Historically interesting and effective melodrama
This is a moving chronicle of a semi-fictionalized White House butler as seen through the civil rights movement. It has a fantastic montage (or maybe more like a series of intercut scenes) of the black staff at the White House and the Freedom Riders in Alabama. It was one of the more amazing intercut sequences I've seen. I teared up twice during this movie. Whitaker is great.

This movie is also an over-the-top melodrama. It is so melodramatic that, even given the subject matter, I'm calling it melodramatic.

So I think a 6 is about right.

The movie is a biopic/history series of events, with a few threads tying it together. But given the subject matter, I can't really fault it for not having a more traditional structure or conventional dramatic arc.

The World's End
(2013)

5 genres in 1!
The World's End doesn't know if it's an ensemble R-rated comedy, a middle-age crisis movie or an action sci fi dystopia movie.....

and you will be glad it doesn't. The movies sets out to create a weird blend of genres and succeeds.

Some of the disagreement in the user reviews can be explained by noticing that the movie is something of a satire or farce, and what it does well does not require us to take the characters, tone or plot seriously. It uses its monstrous hybrid of genres and tones to unseriously bat around a few serious ideas. This rubs some people the wrong way. Too bad for them, really.

Inside Llewyn Davis
(2013)

A 1960's folk musician, as told through Bronze Age literature
For those of you who are considering seeing this movie, a few thoughts:

From my point of view, the user-reviewers who didn't like it missed out on the subtleties and complexities of character and tone. A movie's not obliged to follow the same form as most, or tell a story we've heard before.

There's odd, dry humor that percolates through it, as you might expect from the Coen brothers, but this is their more serious side.

Unlike many of their other movies, this has a more sincere warmth to go with the darkness, the oddness, and the intelligence.

It's a rich, sad, dark winter's tale. It's the kind of stiff drink of storytelling that would not be out of place in the Bible or Gilgamesh or other classic literature. It's about a man stuck in a time and place and manner of being, as he hits up against the limits of what is possible for him, and often is his own worst enemy.

See this when you are in the mood for more nutritious entertainment, and feel free to give yourself just enough distance from the main character that you can have a good look at what makes him human.

The music is great, and it's all live performances.

Upstream Color
(2013)

Challenging, flawed, puzzling, poetic
Short version: Upstream Color is a good-but-flawed, puzzling, poetical, unusual movie. It's not easy to watch or digest, but will give you plenty to think and feel.

Users have noted how flawed this movie is while (unkindly- cruelly even) rating it low. Some very good critics (Zacharek among them) have given it lukewarm reviews. There is some truth to what they say. It is hard to follow, artsy-fartsy, and pretentious (as in: intellectual ambition failed, as separate from artsy-fartsiness). How severely to penalize an American movie in 2013 for these three flaws is an open question. For me, not one of these flaws, or all of them together, is as ugly as any one of the flaws we get most often in our movies, whether big-budget or indie or in between. It's not based on a franchise, it's not a vehicle for celebrities, it's not a recycled-story excuse for special effects or tear-jerking, it's not quirky and too cute by half, there's no particular exploitation of sex or violence, and the relatively happy ending is probably too troubling (in my interpretation) to call tacked-on, facile or restorative.

Upstream Color is a good, unusual movie with a lot of unusual flaws. Piecing the story together takes place across the entire movie. The characters are the sort of two-dimensional types that are necessary for an allegory, especially one that's puzzling, lyrical, metaphorical and maybe deliberately inscrutable. you might love this movie. You might hate it. You will not have the same old movie experience.

Before Midnight
(2013)

Before Midnight
Before Midnight is the third of three movies, shot about a decade apart each, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as lovers with a very push-pull dynamic. It's not necessary to see the first two movies to follow Before Midnight. The movie features long takes (sometimes not cutting for 10 minutes at a time) the story takes place over a day, and dialogue and naturalistic acting are paramount. There's a complexity to their characters and relationship that refuses to fully romanticize or demonize them. It's something of a realist romance in (deliberate) contrast the beautiful settings. Careful viewers will notice a handful of ironies that ground the romance in reality. I won't give examples here, or go into the details that keep me from giving this a 9 or 10 as many critics do. The movie is the proverbial breath of fresh air, though. I'd say that the main weakness of the movie stems from its strengths, in that when artists set out to make something so true to human nature (as opposed to fluffier rom coms or Nicholas Sparks movies) it's easy to hear the (few) false notes that are played. There are very few; and unless you're jonesing for a mere-nonsense 'entertainment' movie, this movie should appeal to practically anyone.

Berberian Sound Studio
(2012)

Difficult to rate
As nearly every professional critic mentions, this movie is more of a cinematic freakout than a story, though there's enough story to grab on to. Is it good? Is it self-indulgent with a whiff of pretension? Is it cryptic enough to leave you without an easy answer? Yes, yes and yes. It isn't really a horror movie, except for in a psychological, David Lynch way. I would say that the main weakness (and here's the mild spoiler) is that it gives us yet another metadramatic "Is it real? Is it a fantasy? A dream? Is he insane and it's all in his head? Is it about filmmaking itself?" kind of thread to pull on. And I think that thread is threadbare this decade. It's been beat to death. This said, I half-expect to change my score to a 3 or a 9 after I eventually see this movie again. It's so weird that I'm not even sure if it's good, lousy or great.

In a World...
(2013)

A 5, but a promising 5
Not at all bad, but not great or memorable. Given her talents and experience, it seems that Bell might have done better with her first feature if she'd made a sketch-driven comedy, and saved a comedy with a serious side for a later outing. As it is, there aren't enough of the funny bits, while more or less everything about the serious side falls flat.

The dramatic elements, the depth of the character and writing, the framing and composition, the social satire; they're all pretty slight. The tone shifts back and forth between a sort of pure-laughs comedy (Anchorman etc) and a serious comedy or satire (some Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach etc). The clash inherent in this tone shift undercuts the serious side rather forcefully. If that weren't enough, the serious elements in themselves are pretty sophomoric.

However, it is enjoyable and warm-hearted, and Bell shows some chance of a better outing in the future

All Is Lost
(2013)

All Is Lost
All is Lost is a predominantly realistic movie about a lone sailor's struggle to stay alive on the Indian Ocean across multiple days, and through very plausible moments of good and bad luck. It is a far more unique foray into what a movie can do than most of us have seen in a long time. It's an antidote to both fluffy sentimentality and heartless, mindless effects movies. This is a one-character movie where we know very little about that one character's life on land, just enough to capture our imagination and curiosity as to who he is when he's not fighting for his life on a 39' sailboat, alone at sea, in a tempest. The metaphoric nature of those last phrases are brought out in the movie subtly enough for us to carry them with us through the movie, and never in a heavy-handed or sophomoric manner. Furthermore, the man's a good sailor but not a great one, which lends to both the realism and the subtle and assured storytelling virtues of the movie. Lastly, it's also one of the few movies where if you like the trailer, you will certainly like the movie.

Fruitvale Station
(2013)

Important and well-made, yet flawed writing
In an American film industry of recycled ideas, sequels and nostalgic masturbation over things men liked as kids (comic book movies, toy movies, etc), I have to give this a 7 for its importance, its freshness and its premise of looking at the man's life from several angles in 20-24 hours. Where I have to lower it to 7: some of the acting is mediocre at best, but that may very well stem from the main problem. That problem is the writing, which is sophomoric in the irony with which it portrays everything the main character does that day. Everything is seen through a lens of "but he dies later!" in a forced or melodramatic way, such that it's hard to see the story as a true portrait.

Saturday Night Live
(1975)

40+ years of teleprompted and safe sketch comedy, far more often than not
What promised well from the early seasons has become, more seasons than not, a safe and homogenized sketch comedy. It's basically the McDonalds of TV sketch that has pushed worthier competitors out of the way for years.

Performers and writers are basically encouraged to ruin sketches with one-note repetition/dragged-out premises, breaking character (essentially on purpose) and smug self-satisfaction... and all of this in the least interesting way possible. What could have been an American version of the avante-garde sketch-breaking started with Monty Python has instead evolved into the pettiest of petty irony "lol I'm in a sketch" onanism; professional 'high school pep assembly' sketches.

The teleprompter-life-support terrible acting that has plagued the show since the 80's or so deserves its own separate paragraph.

The next part may be tough to talk about in a year as politically polarizing and maddening as 2016 is, but I'm nothing if not willfully oblivious: The sketch and satire has picked a direction instead of bravely throwing punches at all valid targets. However, due to the nature of most kinds of satire, from the Ancient Greeks onward, this political directionality itself is forgivable, even if the occasional punch in the other direction would be more intellectually honest. But far, far worse is that instead of an open-minded, sharp, liberal satire, it has chosen, especially in the last 15 years or so, a sophomore-level, party-line Democrat 'satire'. So instead of leading in their own particular apologize-to-no-one way that satirists should do (and as South Park does and The Daily Show and Colbert Report almost always did- they are not always right, but they are always satirists), they follow the party line.

Instead of the 2/10 that I'm giving for the occasional good sketch, would you find it reasonable to give a 1/10 to a show that has for 40 years: had essentially its pick of the litter on writers and performers; had a decent budget; has cornered the market (merely by being first to market) on the national attention that no other show of its kind has come close to rivaling; and for all that has given us a batting average of good/rewatchable sketches somewhere around the 5% range?

Everybody Wants Some!!
(2016)

Why these choices?
If you're going to make a movie about Texas college baseball jocks in 1980 (especially jocks on the most successful team on campus), you're obliged to do something to let the audience know WHY those players are the most gentle, open-minded college jocks they have ever, ever seen. It can't just go unexplained, or it beggars belief. The movie is not intended to be a farce, quite clearly.

Even the two most aggressive guys (the great batter and the manic pitcher) are ultimately adorably harmless. This is not how it works. Their conflict at a practice without coaches should end in a fistfight when the manic pitcher won't shut up after getting beat. You don't run your mouth at a teammate after getting hit on. The manic pitcher's outburst in the bar should also be far, far uglier, and it should end in a real fight. And the stuff that comes out of their mouths most of the time should be filthy as hell. I am NOT objecting to "gentle comedy" as a genre. I'm objecting to the total lack of appropriate set-up in this one, and the ensuing unbelievability.

And I'm not faulting the characters for being horny, drunk 21 year olds (played by mostly 30 year olds, for putatively some good reason, but really because 21 year old actors wouldn't be able to handle the house of cards Linklater has set up here). I don't think that young men are monsters for getting laid and drinking on a free weekend before college. (There are complaints about this movie from some corners of the internet that have "liberal puritan double-standard" written all over them. I am not coming from that corner.) But having played college sports myself, and known other college athletes at the time and since, this is the LEAST awful group of 16 college jocks that I can possibly imagine, and the movie is set in 1980 Texas. They may as well be unicorns.

I understand that this is supposed to be a gentle, philosophical comedy, and I have no problem with that in theory. I would definitely watch a movie where a given collection of jocks are great human beings, just out of the sheer creative audacity of seeing where that goes, and the things you can do with genres that depict an idealized world. But I don't want to watch idealized college athletes (or any other group) unless I have some damn reason to know why there aren't horrible human beings in that mix of 16 guys. The answer can't just be "because the genre is gentle, thoughtful comedy". Give me something with a piece of verisimilitude that I can hang onto. 16 golfers at Brown in 2016 have worse people among them than this.

So, oddly akin to The Revenant or Boyhood, the movie doesn't work as realism, nor does it work as something heightened; on top of that it has 1-dimensional characters. I don't want to see Acclaimed Director, the movie. Every movie must stand or fall on its own.

ULTIMATELY MORE IMPORTANTLY, this weekend-before-college movie (like any slice-of-life type of movie) will sink or swim on the quality of the bits, the moments, the character sketches. If each scene or moment is golden, all is forgiven, and it lives on in the way that The Big Sleep or Short Cuts or Day for Night or The Big Lebowski are great movies. In those, perfect scene-by-scene charm wins the day. Truth through Beauty.

But in this particular movie, some of the bits, scenes, characters etc. are very good, while others are wholly bland, vague and threadbare. Could 'philosophizing jocks' get it right some times, and wrong some times, and just have some sophomoric marijuana ideas sometimes- sure, yes, why not? BUT EACH one of those scenes of 'philosophizing jocks' has to be somehow really interesting without feeling overly polished, or phony, or done to death, or otherwise uncharming. It's a pure fancy-footwork kind of storytelling art. And half of the bits/scenes in this movie have two left feet.

This is the second movie in a row from Linklater that is not about real life or real people but purports to be, while using facile characters and after-lunch philosophizing. The first, Boyhood, was a full-throttle melodrama with a grand gimmick. This one plays one sport with the equipment of another: College Hump-or-Die movie rules, but with handmade character comedy gear. If you don't see this, let me ask you one question: WHAT is it that makes the main character Jake a SPECIFIC person who hits it off with Beverly, another specific person, besides the genre fulfillment of 'the two sensitive people find each other'??

Nothing. Nothing but Blake Jenner and Zoey Deutch saying the lines with talent. Can you say that about Say Anything, or are those two characters specific as hell, and therefore a response to the High School Hump-or-Die movies, and not just a mutant version of one? Heck, college farce Animal House, the ultimate Hump-or-Die movie, has more to say than this movie does.

I'm now positive that Linklater is one director when working with actor/writers Hawke and Delpy, and quite another when he's not.

Krigen
(2015)

Realism and complexity
A War (Krigen) is a realistic drama about a Danish commander in Afghanistan, his unit, and his family back home, focusing on several key decisions that the commander must make, both in Afghanistan and back home in Denmark. Using naturalistic lighting, unobtrusive straight cuts, and a mix of stationary camera and hand-held, A War examines the moral complexities of asymmetric warfare and military justice. There are no easy answers, but there are spectacular natural performances from all of its cast. The sum total of these parts is an engrossing and seamless minimalistic movie, and another success from Tobias Lindholm. The Oscar nomination for A War is well-merited.

Conventional
(2015)

A dark comedy debut that's minimalist and pitch-perfect
Karen Gillan's writing/directing debut is an absurd dark comedy about a b-movie horror actress who can't get roles anymore and resorts to horror conventions to make a few dollars from appearances and autographs... and so on. The grotesquerie on all sides, the humor, and the perfect tone of the short all indicate that greater things may be to come from Gillan as a writer/director/actress.

The framing, horror lighting, restrained hand-held camera, and assured shot sequences prove that Gillan and cinematographer Zach Voytas partnered well. The combination of that partnership with Gillan's mature writing style and her acting prowess make Conventional far more than a small-channel youtube find. It's a hidden gem and a great dark comedy short.

The Revenant
(2015)

Endurance, Cinematography... and Zero for Story
The Revenant's story is flat and difficult to accept as realistic or mythic. It may be magic realism but that doesn't make this particular story an effective narrative- its strengths lie in the visual trip it takes you on. However, what story it does have ruins that visual trip, unlike in the best works of Malick or Tarkovsky, where the natural imagery and the dreaminess better compliment the narrative, and vice-versa.

It's not realistic, despite being 'based' on a true story, because it keeps the main character alive past all biological possibility. (For those who would quibble with the 'true story' factor, the actual story of Hugh Glass doesn't have the main character defy death ten times over. Furthermore it's a 'true story' of a mountain man doing something extraordinary. This usually means it's a tall tale.)

And if Glass' death-defiance is meant to subtly show the main character as a kind of undead or supernatural being (or ambiguously or liminally so), that idea is not developed interestingly. Even worse, if Glass' endurance and death-defiance are supernatural, then his determination is irrelevant and the theme seems to be: 'family love powers magic revenge'. That's an F for story to me. I suppose that there could be some sort of grand allegorical meaning, but since the story doesn't work on the literal level, that potential is irrelevant to me.

Although others may see it differently, the highest score I can give a narrative film with a zero for story is a 3 out of 10. I find it sadly amusing that after Birdman, with its examination of the perils of ego, Inarritu follows with an egomaniacal stunt of his own.

Anomalisa
(2015)

One good metaphor does not stretch to 90 minutes
This padded-out feature would have made a very good short. There are good scenes, and ideas worth considering, but absolutely not enough of them for a feature. The stop-motion and design are great, but it has problems on the story/art/intellect side because of stretching the run time past what the story/themes can bear.

Too many of the scenes (whether attempts at exploring the humdrum, or attempts at absurdist conflict) subtract more than they add to the whole. The main metaphor of a Fregoli delusion well-represents a kind of mid-life crisis, but it also loses quite a bit in flattening out the mid-life crisis into a general alienation (granted, with a mix of older existentialism issues, and newer ones such as 'personhood as illusory'). In a short film, this bare-bones metaphor would have enough of a poetic quality to work. But here, when the story is stretched out, we are constantly reminded of the lack of particulars. And at some point, not telling us more about the main character and his problems is just coy or frigid on Kaufman's part.

I should note that I have no problem with the main character being unsympathetic, nor the attempt at exploring the humdrum side of life in many scenes, nor the film's plot/conclusions being flat/troubling/puzzling, nor scenes that aren't always "entertaining". But those scenes have to do something besides show you that dull dialogue imitates dull talk in life. And if Kaufman was interested in tone/lyricism, theme, and irony OVER human particulars (and therefore other things that art can do), he was obliged to take careful, un-self-indulgent account of what the story could sustain. For the second film in a row, he hasn't.

I see why, on the the business side, this CAN'T be a $3M short when you can make a $10M feature instead. But this has no bearing on whether the feature has problems. And I understand why a lack of human particulars is fitting for puppets (and how from an ironic, existentialist and behaviorist point-of-view, we might be more puppets than we care to admit), but a few modern ideas don't automatically make 90 minutes worth of story.

The Man in the High Castle
(2015)

High production values. Decent premise and pilot. Terrible acting & writing.
The pilot episode is solid, and the production values are very high. And although this might be enough to hook some people, the first three episodes are riddled with moments of terrible writing, acting or both, that grow more frequent along the way, culminating in episode 3's The Marshall character, which is laughably atrocious melodrama and seems to come from another show entirely. It's as if a generation of superhero movies (good and bad) have primed the audience/filmmakers to a point where a show with this high of a budget would dare try a character this ridiculous, and in a show that wasn't supposed to be 'camp'.

The occasional bad shot or edit is also present in each episode, as when Julianna throws the man off of the bridge, with terrible, unbelievable action and shots; or a few edits that jump or don't match, for no particular reason.

Altogether, this show is in a dangerous area where it starts well enough to hook you (especially if you like the alternative history/sci fi premise) but falls apart very quickly.

Bone Tomahawk
(2015)

Bad whatever the director's intention.
The movie is admirable for being an indie production, especially a Western/horror with an unusual sub-genre (a lost tribe of 'people').

That said, I don't know what the director was trying to do, and I think it's bad regardless. Was he trying to make pulpy, tongue-in-cheek fare? It fails at the sort of humorous winks that would make that work. Was he trying to play it gritty and straight-ahead? It's ham-fisted. Was he trying for a weird mix of these two things? ...probably, but that isn't what jars me.

What jars me is that every element in the movie is a mix of sometimes good, sometimes competently shrug-able, and sometimes incompetent. I will say that the lighting is generally good (with some conspicuously forced lighting here and there), and that the flat characterization is acceptable in a film of this genre.

BUT, the story logic, the dialogue, the acting, the shot/edit/sequence decisions, the sound design-- they're often sub-par or terrible. If these were all good to great, the weird tone of the picture wouldn't bother me. As it is, the tone is just another semi-competent choice at best.

I believe that the fan support for the film exists because the fans of the genre are starved for content. For this, and for executing an indie Western at all for $1.8M, I will give the director credit. But on its own merits, this is not a good or even fully competent movie.

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