Movie reviews

Best thing you’ll see all week: Mom and Dad

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Oh, the stress of life in an upper middle class family! It’s the stuff of horror movies, I tell you! The cringeworthy Better Watch Out plays it straightish and comes out poorly, partly for the weak cast. A young psycho takes his babysitter hostage and gore ensues. A far better example is McG’s over-the-top style and lead actress Samara Weaving’s unwavering commitment in the very tongue-in-cheek and just horrific enough The Babysitter. I suppose you could put Get Out in this category as well. All is not well among the comfortably affluent! But by far the best example is the wickedly funny Mom and Dad.

Writer/director Brian Taylor was half of the Nevaldine/Taylor duo responsible for the Crank movies and the Ghost Rider sequel. Their absurdity showed an unabashed self-awareness, from the writing to the editing, and everything in between. If you didn’t want to see Jason Statham attaching jumper cables to his nipples, you could go watch a Transporter movie. If you didn’t want to see Nicholas Cage peeing fire, you could go watch a Spider-Man movie. These guys were doing action movies on their own terms: bold, energetic, ridiculous, and juvenile. But most of all energetic.

Brian Taylor’s first solo project, as writer and director, is Mom and Dad. It’s a sort of latter day version of The Crazies, but with a subversive subtext about the frustration of parenthood. Before the crazies arrive, Taylor wants you to know he’s here to observe the way each generation falls out of touch with the next. “Would you mind not Facebooking when we’re driving together?” the aggrieved Selma Blair asks her snotty daughter in the car on the way to school. “It’s the only time we have together.”

“Facebooking?” her daughter mutters derisively.

Before you groan when I tell you Nicholas Cage is in this, let me point out that the problem with Nicholas Cage is movies that don’t know how to use him. That’s not an issue with Mom & Dad where his tics and outbursts and random bodyjerks are a perfect fit. What if Nicholas Cage was your dad, his midlife crisis in full bloom? And then what if what happens in Mom & Dad happened? Now we’re talking the stuff of horror movies. To Selma Blair’s credit, she keeps up.

Before Louis CK cemented his legacy as the guy who whipped out his dick, he had a great bit about his kids being assholes. This frank insight into the frustration of parenthood was nearly unique. Who calls their kids assholes? Who does that? Mom & Dad, a keen and energetic jolt of social satire, does that and then some.

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Worst thing you’ll see all week: Hostiles

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If you like ponderous emo Westerns that consist largely of tearful goodbyes and somber burials to teach characters Valuable Life Lessons that culminate in a career Indian killer redeeming himself by disemboweling a racist during a standoff that pits Federal authority against property rights, look no further than Hostiles!

It’s not enough that the script is a facile examination of the brutality of the American West and the treatment of Native Americans. Hostiles is sometimes even shot ineptly. In one conversation between Ben Foster and Christian Bale, the camera is positioned in such a way that it looks like Bale is talking to a tree. He might as well have been, given how the cast is squandered. Writer/director Scott Cooper has made a career of squandering talented actors. Jeff Bridges stuck in a schmaltzy country music yarn in Crazy Heart, then Casey Affleck and some other people in the forgettable Out of the Furnace, then Johnny Depp in vampire make-up to play mob informant Whitey Bulger in Black Mass, and now a cavalcade of solid actors putting on period garb to play characters who talk about their feelings while Christian Bale whisperacts hard enough to nearly pop that vein under his eye.

Cooper seems to have been watching The Searchers. He seems to think he’s written a Blood Meridian. He seems to think he’s shot a Revenant. No such things have happened. At the end of the movie, during the eighth or ninth tearful good-bye, Christian Bale says a tearful good-bye to Rosamund Pike. Then she gets on a train. Then he waits for a bit before getting on the same train. You know that awkward moment when you say good-bye to someone but then realize you’re both going the same way, so you futz around to kill time and let the other person get ahead? It’s like that caught on film. At least it looked that way. What probably happened is the character made some sort of decision, or maybe he got on a different train, or maybe the editing was just screwy. But if a movie can’t even sort out the departing schedules of its main characters, it’s got a long way to go before it conveys any Valuable Life Lessons about how racism was/is bad.

Worst thing you’ll see all week: Beyond Skyline

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Beyond Skyline is a fitting sequel to Skyline in that the only interesting thing that happens happens at the end. I don’t mean the last part of the movie. I mean the end of the movie. The very very end. The moment when it’s over. In the case of the first Skyline, there was a body-swapping twist that made no sense, but was at least an intriguing premise. But then the credits rolled. Something similar happens with Beyond Skyline. By the time it’s over, it would have you believe you just watched the origin story for a Terminator style resistance to the alien invasion. The John Connor character is someone I would like to see in action. She reminds me of what brothers Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner did in Wyrmwood: Road of the Damned. Bianca Bradey goes from a damsel in distress to unique zombie warrior. Is that what’s going to happen to the magical superbaby in Beyond Skyline?

Who knows, because now the credits are rolling and there was never any of the Aussie ingenuity, sass, and glee that made Wyrmwood so good. Instead, there was a blue blur of unimpressive special effects, some awkward practical monster costumes, a misguided attempt to science the shit out of the alien invasion, and a painfully generic raucous rock track with the lyric “I’m a fuckin’ American!” or something that sounds like that. The first movie mainly took place in someone’s apartment on Wilshire Boulevard, because shooting out on Los Angeles locations is expensive. The sequel would have you think it’s going to splurge on downtown Los Angeles locations, but then it literally crashes onto an Indonesian fight movie, complete with the guy from the Raid movies. So it turns into that, with lots of fight scenes for no good reason. Beyond Skyline even decides to do a little kaiju in the ruins because the ruins are here, so why not? Frank Grillo is gamely on board as leading man. Betty Gabriel, the mesmerizingly mesmerized maid from Get Out, has a thankless role, once again literally losing her mind. A cool Australian actor named Callan Mulvey plays Dennis Hopper from Apocalypse Now. There are also some other people in the movie.

The best part of Beyond Skyline is the handful of outtakes that play over the credits. When one of the stuntmen in an alien suit can’t quite finesse what he’s supposed to be doing with his dumb alien claw gloves and an alien plasma bomb, Frank Grillo affectionately teases the poor guy. “You’re the stupidest fucking monster I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says, laughing. “I’m just saying, you’re gonna blow us all up.” Grillo turns to the camera, grinning, holding a fake baby in one arm because there’s a plastic alien battle doo-dad attached to his other arm. He’s having the time of his life and for the briefest of moments, I’m glad I’ve seen Beyond Skyline.

Worst 80s movie you’ll see all week: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

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(This review was written for one of my Patreon review requests. If you’d like to compel me to watch and write about movies like this, please check out my Patreon campaign.)

I have no business telling the guys who invented the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles what they did wrong, but I’m going to do it anyway. Hey, comic book guys from the 80s, when you invent a team of superheroes, the superheroes should be different from each other. For instance, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Avengers, the Incredibles, or the Justice League. A team of superheroes shouldn’t be four copies of the same thing. Even Charlie’s Angels always have at least one non-blonde. But the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are four of the same hero. That’s not how heroes work. That’s how bad guys work. Bad guys are all indistinct copies of each other. Heros should be the opposite as sure as white hats are the opposite of black hats. Heroes should represent individuality while bad guys represent conformist masses.

But these four turtles have to wear colored bandanas so you can tell them apart. There’s the orange one, the red one, the blue one, and the purple one. Even the color scheme is a big fail for leaving out a primary color in favor of two secondary colors. I eventually noticed that each turtle uses a different weapon. The red guy uses two sais, the blue guy uses katanas, the orange guy uses nunchucks, and the purple guy uses a staff. For me, watching the 1990 movie for the first time, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle is just a color and a weapon.

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Best thing you’ll see all week: Wheelman

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Locke is a tough movie to pull off. Just a guy in his car, on the phone, dealing with a personal crisis. Watch him make difficult decisions. Watch him take responsibility for his own bad choices. Watch him troubleshoot his own life. Baby Driver is an easy movie to pull off. A kind-hearted getaway driver getting into car chases, meeting a cute chick, and going on a heist. Watch him drive really fast. Watch him listen to catchy music. Watch him brood furiously into the camera. That Locke works and Baby Driver doesn’t speaks volumes about the difference between Tom Hardy and Ansel Elgort.

Wheelman is a little of both. It accepts the challenges of Locke, but embraces the simplicity of Baby Driver. One of its smartest choices is putting Frank Grillo in the driver’s seat. Visually, he’s ideal leading man material. That immaculately unshaved jawline, those intense sunken eyes, that wild hair refusing to behave. As an actor, he’s got just the right mix of hardened tough guy and soft-hearted dad. He’s the city and the suburbs, Hollywood and Sundance, drinking buddy and heartthrob. And he’s finally got a whole movie to himself, literally in the driver’s seat. A lesser movie would have made this about a tough criminal. But Wheelman insists on also being about a father, which gives the movie a lighter touch and ultimately a ton of heart. By the time it’s over — about ten minutes too late, but it’s earned a lot of goodwill by then — Wheelman is more Locke than Baby Driver. Daddy Driver.

First-timer Jeremy Rush shows fine instincts by shooting the movie with the same intimacy as Locke. Contrast this to a structurally similar movie called Getaway, which stays with Ethan Hawke as he drives through a souped-up thriller, which gets splashier and sillier the longer it goes on. Selena Gomez is along for the ride, which tells you all you need to know about Getaway. But Wheelman knows a car going fast is never as cool as a car going fast driven by someone you care about. Add someone who matters to the passenger seat and now you’re giving Locke a run for its money.

Best thing you’ll see all week: Happy Hunting

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Let’s talk people lost in a desert, literally and metaphorically. In recent movies, there’s Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch, in which the lovely Suki Waterhouse is exiled into a morally parched wasteland to learn hard lessons about revenge, cannibalism, and family values. It’s a deliriously messy swirl of post-apocalyptic aesthetics with a fantastic female lead. Waterhouse holds her own against Jason Momoa, Jim Carrey, and even Keanu Reeves struggling with some of the worst dialogue since Point Break. Mad Maxine. There’s also Grave Encounters director Colin Minihan’s It Stains the Sands Red, one of those rare horror movies more concerned with character development than horror. It’s a wickedly clever variation on the buddy road trip, with zombie mythology standing in for a woman’s bad choices constantly two steps behind her. Brittany Allen’s comedic but poignant performance drives the movie across the desert through sheer force of will, with a little help from vodka and cocaine.

These are both uneven movies, definitely worth watching, but neither comes together as well as Happy Hunting.
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The best thing I’ll see all week: Let Me Make You a Martyr

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You can tell right away from the title that Let Me Make You a Martyr is trying something, well…different. Think of the title as the movie warning you beforehand. Hey, it says, this might not be for you. It’s probably right. It’s probably not for you. It’s alternatively pretentious, awkward, and indulgent. I mean, come on, who names their movie Let Me Make You a Martyr? But I loved it.
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The most videogame thing you’ll see all week: Open Grave

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It is a dark and stormy night. You wake up among a pile of bodies in the bottom of an open pit. You have no memory of who you are or how you got here.


You have a ring of keys. You have a Zippo lighter.


You find a gun. It’s loaded. A woman throws a rope down to you.


The woman is gone. There is a house in the distance with the lights on. You hear people talking inside.


You are at the house. The front door is unlocked.

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Worst thing you’ll see all week: Armed Response

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Aliens is one of the easiest templates for a low budget sci-fi thriller. Just gather some sci-fi props, secure a shooting location, and figure out what to do for your monster. In the case of Armed Response, these are, respectively, an RV, a warehouse and, uh, they’re invisible. The invisible monsters bit is a great way to save money. Or you can also just pretend something infects or haunts some of the characters. Now they can be your monsters. To its credit, Armed Response splurges on a couple of bad CG sequences late in the movie involving ghostly arms. Literally arms. Not weapons. But actual arms. That’s your reward for sticking with it. Continue reading →

The cruelest thing you’ll see all week: Killing Ground

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The basics of Killing Ground are as old as Deliverance. So, uh, 1972, I suppose? When you’re out in the wilderness, beyond the range of a 911 call, it sure is scary that some psycho could try to get you! In the absence of civilization, there is no check on murderous chaos, right? Dog eat dog. Survival of the fittest. Plenty of movies play on this fear. It’s often crass, but effective. Backcountry and Blue Jay are recent dingy little horror movies to that effect. Wild brought it up in a wonderfully unexpected way. Australia’s brutal contribution was Wolf Creek, a horror movie with an uncompromising serrated edge so effective that it spawned a (not very good) sequel and a TV series (that I have no desire to see).

First-time Australian filmmaker Damien Power revisits the same territory in Killing Ground. It’s nothing if not familiar. When you’re out in the wilderness, beyond the range of a 911 call, it sure is scary that some psycho could try to get you! But Power ruthlessly stakes his own claim. Continue reading →

Worst thing you’ll see all week: A Ghost Story

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If you’ve been waiting for an opportunity to watch Rooney Mara eat pie for ten minutes, you’re in luck! Arty director David Lowery has returned from his stint making a movie in which things happen (the Pete’s Dragon remake) to bring us this eulogy to anything happening. A Ghost Story is literally a story about a ghost, which opens up a lot of possibilities. None of them are explored. Instead, everything and nothing happen, leaning mostly in the “nothing” direction. The minutes pass like years, the hour like a millennia, and yet there are still a few scenes to go. Then you don’t get to read a fortune cookie. Roll credits.

A Ghost Story is pretentious, ponderous, and curiously boxed into a very square aspect ratio with curved edges. I think it’s supposed to invoke the time someone made you watch slides of their vacation. The movie also invokes getting stuck in the kitchen at a party while some boorish hipster with overalls and pierced ears spools out his penny-ante nihilism. It invokes it by making it actually happen. The guys just goes on and on and for some reason the scene doesn’t cut. It’s enough to make you long for the pie-eating scene.

A Ghost Story is in limited release. Not limited enough.

Best thing you’ll see all week: Shimmer Lake

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You know that trick where you ask someone to spell “most”, then you ask them to spell “boast”, then you ask them what they put in a toaster, and then they say “toast”? Which is wrong because — gotcha! — you put “bread” in a toaster. It’s a dumb mental trick that plays with how your brain anticipates information. It sees certain things and then pre-loads itself based on your ideas of structure and patterns. It gets ahead of itself because it has spent your life accumulating expectations. Shimmer Lake is an intricate exercise in structure and expectations. It’s also one of the tidiest and most fiendishly clever crime thrillers since Fargo. Continue reading →

Best short thing you’ll see all week: Curve

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In the movie Curve, Dancing with the Stars dancer Julianne Hough gets trapped in a car wreck while a psycho killer stalks her. Her leg is stuck, so she isn’t going anywhere. This makes things pretty easy for the psycho killer, but there’s still about an hour of movie left, so a bunch of stupid stuff happens. The Curve I’m talking about is not that one.

This Curve is a short film by Tim Egan, an Australian cinematographer whose short didn’t quite make the cut in ABCs of Death 2, so it was chucked into a B-side release called ABCs of Death 2.5. Having already seen 52 ABCs of death, of which maybe 10 aren’t terrible and 3 or 4 of those are actually good, I didn’t have it in me to watch another 26. I might have to rethink my decision after watching Egan’s latest short film, Curve.

Curve is a horror movie about friction. Literal friction. The principle of physics governing the movement of two surfaces in contact with each other. But being a thoughtful horror short, it’s not really about what it’s about. I’d say it’s a metaphor for the human condition, but of course I would, because I’ve taken a few too many undergraduate philosophy classes. Some habits are hard to shake. Still, I can’t help but think that Curve is to short films what No Exit is to the theater. But unlike a production of No Exit — those characters are so annoying — Curve is mesmerizing, memorable, and ultimately slick. And it only takes about ten minutes of your time.

You can watch Curve in its entirety right here on Vimeo.

The thing most like Afghanistan ’11 you’ll see all week: Sand Castle

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It might sound trite to relate this war movie, written with keen insight by someone who served during the invasion of Iraq, to a videogame. But consider that the videogame in question was also written by someone with keen insight into the wars America has fought since 2002 (actually, since 1965).

I’m going to list a few facets of our situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each of these is a part of the story in Sand Castle and a gameplay mechanic in Afghanistan ’11. It’s going to sound disjointed, so you’ll have to trust me they come together as a narrative in both the movie and videogame.

Here goes: Continue reading →