Friday, October 2, 2015

Fantastic Fest 2015 Movie Review: ASSASSINATION CLASSROOM

Assassination Classroom.
Director: Eiichiro Hasumi.
Writer: Tatsuya Kanazawa, based on the manga by Yusei Matsui.
Actors: Ryosuke Yamada, Masaki Suda, and Ninoyima Kazunari. 

Sometimes you hear of a movie's premise, and you think it must be a joke. That's what Assassination Classroom is like when I first heard of it.

The basic premise is that a powerful yellow tentacle creature who destroyed 70% of the moon is now threatening to destroy the Earth by March. But for some strange reason, he makes a bargain with the Japanese government: he will become the teacher for the misfit class 3E from Kunugigaoka Middle School, and teach them in the ways of assassination so they can attempt to kill him thus averting the earth's destruction. It also doesn't help that the teacher, named Koro Sensei/UT aka "Unkillable Teacher," has a big smiley face as a head and can move at Mach 20 speed, create clones of himself, and fly.

What makes this movie work is how serious the characters are regarding the situation. Not only that but through the course of the movie you end up caring about the characters and the relationship they have with Koro Sensei. That's pretty weird because, you know, he wants to destroy the earth and all of that but the movie commits and sells you on the bond.

While Koro Sensei is this vibrant and colorful presence both literally and figuratively, the kids in the classroom all fall into some broad stereotype of a school movie. You have the sensitive protagonist in Nagisa (Yamada), the cool badass kid sitting in the back of the classroom, Karma (Suda) and various bully jock types and then mostly background characters.

On the other hand, the movie is drop dead funny. There's just something so funny about a teacher who is helping a classroom of middle schoolers try to figure out how they can kill him. There are so many times when the students are trying out crazy plots on how to kill him, botching them all, yet all the while Koro Sensei is praising them for their ingenuity.

The movie does struggle a bit to find its plot beyond the premise. The main antagonist proves to be a little random and out-of-nowhere and never seemed like a convincing threat. In addition, since this is part of an ongoing series and there was a sequel already announced, this felt more like a pilot than a full-fledged movie. Hopefully that can be corrected next time around.

Still, Assassination Classroom does have a lot of sweet moments that show Koro Sensei's humanity and the bond that he develops with his students. He is a committed teacher that not only wants to teach them how to kill him but also how to be successful, well-rounded adults, hell he even flies all of them to different parts of the world. This figures in greatly because they are considered societal misfits that won't amount to anything so him choosing the class to mentor is a very rebellious and subertive act.

Despite the few complaints Assassination Classroom is one of the best times you could have in a theater this year. It's surprisingly full of heart and it makes you root for the slightly demented creature that will destroy the planet.

Fantastic Fest 2015 Review: THE DEVIL'S CANDY

The Devil's Candy.
Director and Writer: Sean Byrne.
Actors: Ethan Embry, Shiri Appleby, and Kiara Glasco. 

The Loved Ones was one of the most famously hard to find movies out of the festival circuit in the 2009-2010 season. Director Sean Byrne has been away ever since, but thankfully he is back with The Devil's Candy, which is his second movie and his first American production. It's a much more coherent effort with amazing performances by the cast, and one of the heaviest soundtracks in recent memory with cuts by Pantera, Slayer, and a score by the drone metal legends, Sunn 0))).

The story revolves around a struggling metalhead artist, Jesse (Embry), who moves into a new huge house in rural Texas with his wife Astrid and his equally metal-obsesssed daughter, Zooey. As it goes, this also happens to be the site of a couple of murders, and of course, once they move into the house, Jesse's work turns to the more macabre and disturbing. What's worse is that the son of the former residents keeps coming around because the voice in his head is telling him to do some unpleasant things.

But this is not a simple haunted house movie. Byrne manages to employ his knowledge of horror to bring a much more interesting version of a story we've all seen before by mixing aspects of demonic possession, haunted house movies, and even early 00's Japanese movies. And despite the fact that we still follow a nuclear family, the fact that it's a young couple with a tattooed metalhead dad feels fresh because you don't ever see those kinds of characters on screen.

Not only are the characters and their dynamics unique, but the plot itself is surprising. Most genre fans should be able to tell where the story is going but there are still a few left turns along the way that keep the movie compelling. Visually, the way that the Texas farmlands are shot it makes them a lot more scary even during the daylight.  He also manages to get an amazing performance out of Embry, who thankfully has had a genre career revitalization in the last few years shedding his boyish charms and embracing something darker.

The movie's themes about artistic ambition are some of the most interesting ones. As a struggling artist, Jesse tries his hardest to make ends meet and has to accept bland commissions for banks. But when he becomes more possessed and channels the dark energy of this spirit, his works are messed up but full of life, with him losing track of time. Any artist can relate to the freeing sensation, and the je ne sais quoi when you are just compelled to create something, and it flows from you as it if were instinctual.

Once he starts getting attention from a gallery owner, you see how unintentionally neglectful Jesse can get. This is the weakest part of the movie, if only because the gallery and its owner are such obvious "Satan" allegories, causing him to be late to pick up his daughter in order to secure a gallery show. You know that's a huge deal because as you can see, Jesse has a huge bond with his daughter and it ends up being maybe one of the coolest dad-daughter relationships seen in a long time

And while some of the visual symbolism might be a little too on the nose, it's a tiny problem in an otherwise excellent movie with awesome cast and a creative story around it. He's become a much more assertive director and the movie is the better for it. Look for the last shot of the movie and tell me it's not a memorable scene.

With The Devil's Candy, Sean Byrne shows that his time spent in between movies was not wasted. Let's just hope that he comes back sooner than later.

Fantastic Fest 2015 Review: BONE TOMAHAWK

Bone Tomahawk.
Director and Writer: S. Craig Zahler.
Actors: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons and Richard Jenkins.

Bone Tomahawk shows why we need more movies in the horror western genre. While not being a straight out horror movie, it features some of the most terrifying moments in recent memory.

This is a stylish and gripping movie that shows the brutality of the wild west. Featuring the awesome ensemble cast, the movie tells the story of this quartet of men, Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell), his deputy Chicory (Jenkins), John Brooder (Fox), and Arthur O'Dwyer (Wilson) all with their own baggage heading out into the wilderness to attempt to save a group of people including O'Dweyer's wife, Samantha (Simmons) from a cannibal tribe of Native Americans.

Impressively directed by first time filmmaker S. Graig Zahler, he makes some very peculiar and fascinating scene choices, quickly cutting away from the action to a bush or a mountain. This helps give the movie a very distant and cold feeling to it. Which is exactly what the characters experience. Despite the fact that they are out in the hot plains, this wilderness out there is cold and unflinching and merciful. It's a place where death is common as it is brutal.

A big part of the movie is actually spent with the main quartet and they really tie the whole film together. Matthew Fox steals the movie with his portrayal of Brooder whose very violent ways against people, especially Native Americans, is the source of a lot of trouble within the group. It doesn't help that he has a thing for Samantha.

Once O'Dwyer's leg is injured and he starts to slow down the party, there are some very serious conversation about what to do with him ranging from amputation to death. But O'Dwyer's not the type of man to give up and the movie goes from a rescue movie to one dealing with themes like willpower and perseverance against all odds.

And the odds here are some of the scariest cannibals you hope you never have to meet. They're designed in a way that could be criticized as being demonizing and vaguely racist -- at one point someone gets scalped -- but the tribe is meant to represent the harshness of the frontier life where nothing comes easy, and everyone is trying to kill you for just existing.

Speaking of the tribe, this movie features one of the top kills of the year and it caused quite the stir with the audience. But also the action sequences here are the types that are so chaotic and they're shot in a way that you never know what to expect, and it is fantastic.

Apart from Fox, the rest of the cast is doing a passable job but Kurt Russell's performance isn't anything new but Richard Jenkins disappears into Chicory so well it was hard to tell it was him for a long time.

Bone Tomahawk is an accomplished movie. There's very little fluff here and there, and despite the fact the characters are wandering for most of the movie, each scene feels vital. Having a cast with great chemistry helps as well as masterfully shot action sequences. Can't wait to see what Zahler does next.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Fantastic Fest 2015 Review: FOLLOW

Director and Writer: Owen Egerton.
 Actors: Noah Segan, Haley Lu Richardson, Olivia Grace Applegate and Don Most.

Sometimes all it takes is for one thing to go wrong and your whole life can disintegrate around you. With first-time director Owen Egerton's Follow, we (pardon the pun) follow this idea to the most extreme. In what is a relatively small and intimate movie, it nevertheless is a stellar showcase of lead actor Noah Segan as the increasingly unhinged Quinn Woodhouse.

Quinn lives a pretty frustrated life as an artist trying to make a living off his art but works as a bartender to pay the bills. He lives with his girlfriend Thana (Applegate) who we see is a bit extreme. She is always talking about staying together and Quinn following her wherever she goes all with a devilish grin, hinting at something darker.

A few days before Christmas, Thana surprises Quinn with a very messed up gift and after he passes out, he finds himself with a dead girlfriend, no memory of what happened and now must figure out what to do with the body.

This is really a descent into madness for one man and clocking in at a lean 74 minutes, the movie wastes no time in setting up the premise and getting to the action. Even though we don't spend a lot of time with Quinn you get to really understand his character and while you definitely can't condone his actions they all make sense. Over the course of five days and increasingly bad decisions, we see a mild artist transformed into something completely.

The biggest joy of the movie is seeing Quinn's transformation. His gaze becomes increasingly manic, his demeanor grows a lot colder, and he becomes more sadistic as he tries to understand Thana's motivations and figuring out what she was really like. While this is definitely a dark movie, there's also a lot of humor that comes from Quinn not knowing what the hell to do which helps break up the tone of the movie.

While this is a mostly one-man act, the leading ladies are mesmerizing, and it will be exciting to see them in other movies in the future. Haley Lou Richardson plays Viv, Quinn's co-worker at the bar, who has got a crush on him, and she is so cute and charming. Applegate plays Thana so perfectly. From the first scene, you know something is not quite right with her but you can't put your finger on it.

If there was a big complaint is that Thana's motivation and character could have been fleshed out more. Given that she is the instigator of the plot, it feels important to get a better grip on her. The various flashbacks paint a clearer picture but it never feels enough.

Coming from a first time director, Follow feels very confident in its direction and storyline and it makes an impressive showcase for its lead actor.

Fantastic Fest 2015 Review: THE MARTIAN

The Martian.
Director: Ridley Scott.
Writer: Drew Goddard, based on the book by Andy Weir.
Actors: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Michael Peña.

The premise of the The Martian is a pretty simple survival movie. Matt Damon's Matt Watney gets stranded on Mars by his crew-mates from the Ares III mission after an emergency evacuation and must now figure out how to survive with a very limited supply of resources with help coming at its earliest in four year's time.

Director Ridley Scott takes this premise and makes the most of it with this movie based on the novel by first-time author Andy Weir. With Damon's very hilariously dry humor what would be a totally dire situation is actually much more life affirming. Rounded out by a large ensemble cast with a lot of famous actors, this is the best Scott movie in a long time.

During the movie we follow three sets of groups, first is Watney as he jerry-rigs the hell out of the NASA camp that was left behind to survive with what is left. Then there's the crew that accidentally left him behind led by Jessica Chastain's Commander Lewis who is on their way back from Mars early. Then, back on Earth we have NASA big wigs Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor), Teddy Sanders (Daniels), and Mitch Henderson (Bean) who are all trying to navigate logistics, bureaucracy and science itself to try to rescue Watney.

Damon holds his own during his sections of the movie. We see that his character is very intelligent and coincidentally happens to be a botanist which is how he figures out how to plant crops on Mars. But equally important is his up-beat attitude and sense of humor. While no one could really understand what being marooned by yourself on a planet four years away from home would feel like, it's not crazy to assume that keeping one's mental health stable. When he does video journals he's cracking jokes all while spouting off seemingly-legit scientific talk and even starts billing himself as international pirate by the end of the movie.

This is also one of the few movies that could be said that 3D is a must. There are many overhead shots of the planet and the 3D makes the planet seem much more daunting and beautiful at the same time. Shot in Jordan which has red deserts, this version of Mars is one of the most beautiful that's been put on screen. In addition, to that there are scenes with dust storms and out in space that benefit greatly from the added depth.

Going off the cast list, it would be easy to assume that the relatively well-known would be distracting but they all bring their own strengths to make the movie stronger, for example Kristen Wiig brings her really dry comedic talent to her character while Jeff Daniels seems to be channeling his Will McAvoy from The Newsroom. 

The biggest problem of the movie is how it's forced to pass time. There are so many title cards telling us X months or weeks have passed and then there's various montages throughout the movie that get repetitive. It is totally understandable to use these devices given how long the story is, but it gets tiresome by the time the movie ends. And many of the characters have a tendency of being very thinly portrayed and they all fall into some kind of "mission crew" archetype with peppers of individuality thrown here and there ,but it's not quite enough to make any of the Ares or NASA crew feel like fleshed out characters

Despite it's 141 minute run time, the movie is still exciting with plenty of action sequences that are entertaining to watch. All of the actors come together to make a stronger movie while not being overly flashy, there's some of the best use of the 3D in a long time. Plus, the script by Drew Goddard is strong with it's emphasis on the will to survive and persevere. Simply put this is one of the best space movies in a long time.

Fantastic Fest 2015 Review: HIGH-RISE

Director: Ben Wheatley
Writer: Amy Jump, based on the novel by J.G. Ballard
Actors: Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans, Elizabeth Moss, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons.

Ben Wheatley is one of best genre directors. His movie Kill List is still regarded as one of the best horror movies of the new century and most recently he blew everyone's mind with the pychedelic Field In England. But those have all been pretty low-key and low-budget affairs with mostly unknown actors.

But now Mr. Wheatley is stepping up his game and recruiting A-list actors like Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans, Jeremy Irons and Elizabeth Moss while adapting J.G. Ballard allegorical novel, High-Rise. 

Set in an a vague 1970's England, the movie follows Hiddleston's Dr. Robert Laing as he movies into a self-contained high rise apartment building. Meant to be the first of five buildings, it truly has everything from a grocery store, pool, gyms, gardens. Among the residents are the anarchic documentarian Richard Wilder (Evans), his neglected wife, Helen (Moss), and socialite, Charlotte Mellville.

Despite being plagued by structural issues, the community of the apartment is already well established. There are very specific rules to follow and not unsurprisingly, people have quickly started making cliques based on what floor you live in. As it stands, the poorer residents are in the lower levels while the richest, including the architect Thomas Royal (Irons) have extreme luxury such as a well-manicured garden and even a horse.

The movie mainly follows the decay of this micro society as a tragic death brings to light the disproportionate power structure within the apartment building. Seemingly over night, the apartment devolves into a Lord of the Flies-esque with resources becoming scarce and people turning violent on each other.

In the wake of the years-long economic crisis we have been in, the Occupy Wall Street movement and the disappearance of the middle class this feels like a very contemporary movie and the allegory really works. There are literal class wars after everything goes to hell in the apartment building. And while the movie's dialogue gets a little too on the nose about its themes, there's some truly horrifying scenes that show just how easy it is for society to go down hill when there's no order. There's even some very trippy scenes when things get to their lowest that show the mental toll

And while this movie is billed a Tom Hiddleston movie, this is through and through Luke Evans' movie. The man is a powerhouse as the slightly unhinged Wilder. He is charming as hell and the way he takes command of the room is impressive. He is one of the people that lives in the lower floors and so always has a chip on his shoulder and doesn't want to obey the rules and becomes a source of trouble for the ever-crumbling society.

With this bigger budget, Wheatley's direction is in top form here. He takes from everything that he's done up to this point and combines horror, comedy and psychedlia seamlessly to create this mindbending tale.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Fantastic Fest 2015 Review: ANOMALISA

Directors:  Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson.
Writer: Charlie Kaufman.
Actors: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan. 

Whenever Charlie Kaufman makes a movie, people pay attention. And with good reason. While his
movies maybe a little dense and heavy with metaphors, they are always visually stunning with some heavy themes he tries to deal with. Collaborating with stop-motion animation director, Duke Johnson, Anomalisa is the Kaufman's first entry into animation.

For the majority of the movie, we follow Michael Stone (David Thewlis). He's quite the expert and legend among this weird customer service industry that reveres his words; they buy his book and even has groupy-type of fans. Thing is, Michael is a really unhappy person. To him, the world is the same, everyone looks and sounds the same.  Everyone, even his family, all sound like Tom Noonan.

When he goes to a customer service convention in Cincinnati, he starts going through a breakdown when he meets Lisa (Jason Leigh). She doesn't sound like Tom Noonan for one, and she's this interesting person to Michael despite not knowing why. And isn't falling in love a little like that? Where the person is so special everything else fades to the background and you can't quite put your finger on it, but it works.

This being a puppet-centric movie, it's interesting to note just how well designed and technically accomplished the animation is. Despite their faces having a very obvious split, he puppets all look and feel like real people. They breathe despite not being built for that function, and the way they move leaves the uncanny valley behind. Because of this everything that happens in the movie feels like a true punch to gut. There is one particular sex scene that is one of the most heartfelt and honest scenes seen on a movie screen in a long time.

Visually, the movie is as creative and surreal as a Kaufman movie can be all the while being very mundane. Nothing stands out, everything looks seemingly beige, everyone is the right kind of polite, the hotels all have that very generic hotel look, even the city itself looks boring. But then there's all of these touches that add bits of humor and humanity. Times like when you can't get your key at the hotel to work or the water can't get to the right temperature in the shower. Being at odds with its protagonist, the movie tries to find the human in the mundane.

Anomalisa  is one of those movies where it feels wrong to write a review after only seeing it once. In the broadest of strokes, the movie tries to tackle love, the inexplicably of attraction, and how one views the world. On the other hand, it's a very personal story and heartbreaking story about an unhappy man wandering through the world. But that's kind of the beauty of these movies.

On one side, Michael is a terrible person. He calls up his ex-girlfriend who lives in town and she sounds like Tom Noonan, but you hear her dialogue, and even after not seeing each other after ten years she is still so hurt by their break up but all he can see is a generic individual. But then when he experiences his first meeting with Lisa, you root for him because it truly is an exciting thing to feel.

Anomalisa is truly a beautiful moviegoing experience. The amount of heart that the movie has coupled with the technical complexity of the animation makes this movie the best of two worlds. It's a movie that needs to be seen with a group of people to talk about and then re-watched over and over. And that's what great movies should be like.