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.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Fantastic Fest 2015 Review - THE WAVE

The Wave.
Director: Roar Uthag.Writers: John Kåre RaakeHarald Rosenløw-Eeg.Actors: Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, Jonas Hoff Oftebro, Fridtjov Såheim and Edith Haagenrud-Sande.

Disaster movies have this very American slant to them. There's something about the gratuitous destruction of a city or a building that feels ridiculous in that big MURICA kind of way. But Mother Nature doesn't just pick on the land of the free.

The Wave explores the very real threat of huge waves caused by rockslides that threaten the people living the fjords below. Beyond being interesting as a concept, The Wave is a very human story told on the background of a large disaster.

The movie follows Kristian, a geologist who monitors the mountains for seismological activity. At the beginning of the movie, he is in the process of leaving his position for a more lucrative job at an oil company and uprooting his family. His family is all trying to adjust to the move, but they're all supportive if not a little sad about leaving their home.

On the last day, however, there's strange activity with two sensors within the mountain indicating that something is not quite right. It's probably not too hard to guess what will be coming next, but the dread and anticipation are still nerve-racking up until the point the wave hits.

For one, the cinematography is gorgeous thanks to the shots of Norway's landscape. They're all shot in a way that makes them seem imposing and beautiful with an otherworldly vibe. All of this makes the fact that the mountains are fragile and could come down and wreck havoc on the town at any moment. The special effects of the movie are surprisingly good and would make Roland Emmerich happy. There are tons of wide shots that give you a good sense of the scale of the wave and how small the town and the people in it look by comparison.

There's something about the relatively smaller scale that makes the movie unique. Since we're following the one family everything feels much more tense. A big staple of disaster movies is getting big shots of anonymous extras dying. In The Wave, that's not quite the case, and it makes any of the deaths that you see on screen actually carry weight and mean something.

As far as performances go, the MVP of the movie is Ane Dahl Trop who plays Idun, Kristian's wife and, through a series of events, is paired up with the oldest son, Sundre (Oftebro). As the manager for the only hotel in Geiranger she must be a calm leader and try to save as many lives as she can all while dealing with her role as a mother and having to make some really tough decisions along the way.

The Wave is a great entry in the disaster action genre. It features great lead performances, top shelf special effects and a story that's small in scope but it has a lot of heart.

The Wave screens again on Monday, September 29th at 9:00 pm

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Netflix Instant: Movie & TV Picks

The weather is finally cooling down ever so slightly but still it's still humid as hell here in Dallas. Let's watch some movies in a nice and cool living room. This week's picks are all pretty weird genre fare.

Look, this one might not have the best reviews, but this is a Joe Dante movie so it's a must-see in my book. The story deals with a guy whose girlfriend dies in a freak accident and when he finally moves on, his ex comes back from the dead to mess stuff up. 

One of the first movies that made me think about cinema in a deeper level, this crime thriller by Christopher Nolan features stellar performances by Al Pacino and Robin Williams. The movie takes the grizzled detective played by Pacino who after being accused of tampering with evidence takes a case up in Alaska where there's no sunlight for a 3 months out of the year. 

This is one that I have not seen nor will I ever but I hear that it's insanely good. My reason for skipping it? There's dog-related violence and I just cannot handle any kind of animal violence in movie. The movie is about stray dogs who after being abused amass an army and go after their human tormentors.