Most critics have to shift through plenty of films that are not so pleasant to see. Film Festivals at times can feel like you’re running a marathon. Except instead of running you are testing your own butt’s strength seeing how long it can sit in a seat without getting sore all while having to endure some awful films. Luckily there are a few diamonds in the rough that can be plucked out.
The Chicago Critics (the real ones unlike me) pick out those diamonds for the general public to see in the historic Music Box Theatre once every summer. The Music Box is a multiplex that is dedicated to the true lovers of cinema who would rather have Tyler Perry dressed as Madea yelling in their face for over an hour than see a masterpiece like 2001: A Space Odyssey on the small screen let alone their telephone.
This is part one of my collection of pictures I was able to see and my thoughts on the films I hope to one day get access to ahead of time like my colleagues amongst me.
MASTERPIECE, GREAT, REALLY GOOD, GOOD, MEH, BAD, TERRIBLE, INDESCRIBABLY BAD
Morris from America:
Quite often we see coming of age comedies follow the same tropes. The protagonist falls in love with a girl, gets his heart-broken, doesn’t usually fit in and indulges himself in drugs along with other vices which he later learns doesn’t make him happy ultimately arriving at the conclusion of how he should grow in life. Most times these dramatic devices come across as boring predictable studies where we see ourselves for the millionth time within a character where much like most of our lives is not very interesting. Writer/Director Chad Hartigan incorporates the same elements that’s present in coming of age films but without the feelings of guilt, judgement or pretension. It simply works through marvelous writing that one can tell comes from the mind of an idealist who’s always happy to show everyone the excitement he feels.
Morris from America is a film that resounds with Hartigan’s enjoyment. Hartigan creates a character reflecting his own childhood through the eyes of a 13 year African-American boy named Morris, played charmingly by Markees Christmas, a young YouTuber in real life who doesn’t carry around the fictitious weight that many young professional actors would perhaps bring to the table. Played alongside him is his father Curtis portrayed by lovable funny man Craig Robinson (The Office and Hot Tub Time Machine) The supporting cast consists of Morris’ love interest Katrin (Lina Keller) and his hip German teacher Inka (Carla Juri) known from the gross out dramady Wetlands.
Morris is placed with the unpleasant task of not just simply being moved out of his neighborhood but placed in an entirely different country altogether. Now living in Germany due to his father coaching a soccer team, Morris tries to blend in to a foreign land as an American hip hop gangsta wannabe. In his adventures he stumbles across a love interest who introduces him to a world of late night debauchery. To my great pleasure the film never depicts drug or alcohol consumption amongst minors as negative traits but rather natural ones that we all encounter in our journey of growth. Every joke hits its mark. Every character has their own unique trait. Nobody feels like a shallow resemblance of themselves. Morris from America certainly had the trappings of being yet another wacky coming of ager with the slight twist of being set in Germany as its main punchline. Through Hartigan’s writing and Christmas chewing up the scenery with all the fun he was having alongside Robinson projecting his lovable fat guy every man persona, the team delivers a very consumable popcorn comedy that follows the conventions of its genre in a non condescending way leaving me delightfully happy until the very end. Morris from America will be releasing wide on August 19th.
FINAL RATING: REALLY GOOD
A go to high school health class prevention picture. Goat stars Ben Schnitzer as Brad Land along with Nick Jonas as Brad’s brother Brett. Adapted from Land’s memoir of the same name Goat begins with a brutal encounter where Brad is left half beaten to death in the middle of a corn field after giving a ride to a group of young hooligans. Months later Brad decides to face his fears of being a coward by subjugating himself through a substantial amount of college hazing nightmares in order to join a fraternity his brother is a member of. The thematic element of the pointlessness of masculinity revolving around an endless cycle of torment is redundant in this film to the point of tedium. Ninety minutes of Goat is a constant barrage of excessive drinking, vomiting, fecal matter, blood, homophobic slurs and dialogue consisting of nothing more intelligible from its brain-dead characters other than “dude” “fuck” or “bro”.
The movie tries to shock its audience by presenting the raw grim reality of college hazing techniques yet loses its point when it repeats itself for the hundredth time within twenty minutes of the picture. Everything is shot the indy drama go to style way – with a handle pseudo documentary tone placing the audience in the middle of the action, testing their limits through its nauseatingly sick shaky camera movement, observing what we can sit through until we can stomach what Brad is enduring no more. This film is like Animal House if it was made in the style of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. When Brad reaches his revelation by the end of the picture we are left not being surprised or caring for him as we don’t know much about Brad or anyone else. None of the characters are remotely identifiable as they all sound the same throughout David Gordon Green, Andrew Neel (who’s also the director) and Mike Robert’s hollow screenplay. Instead of saying something deep or resonant about hazing we simply have a story about victims and perpetrators with nothing more to express.
FINAL RATING: BAD
Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World:
If the title of the film itself didn’t give it away this indeed is a Werner Herzog film. Herzog intercuts his usual techniques of heavenly scores coupled together with his interview subjects providing a glimpse into Herzog’s philosophical mind. Lo and Behold doesn’t provide any new information regarding the age of the interrnet that we live in. That’s not its goal however. Lo and Behold is merely an examination into the theories of how such a technology has changed our lives for the better or worst and where it can lead us down the road. It interviews the pioneers of the internet as well as those who desperately had to escape current society living their lives as hermits because of radiation sickness from the electronic waves that the internet transmits into the atmosphere on a consistent basis.
Like most of Herzog’s work he dives into this project without the intention of giving his viewers solutions nor structure. Lo and Behold is an existential film regarding our reliance on technologies importance in the universe between now and the future. Its questions range from can we survive in a society without the internet? What will civilization be like decades from now? Can machines love? Would it be safe for machines to love? The most common type of queries that could be found in the works of a Phillip K. Dick novel. Herzog decides to drift his film into theory uninterested in providing elucidation contributing an overall enjoyable if not very profound picture. This time Herzog’s desire for making a film without much preparation presents itself too heavily where its drift in philosophy doesn’t lead the film to any sort of consensus regarding its broad ranging topic at hand. It just seemed like a flick where the director pointed the camera, interviewed some people and attempted to cut something that resembles a moderately interesting film.
One could argue the word “Reverie” is within the title itself meaning there is no rhyme or reason to its messy structure but rather a simple collection of interlaced apprehensions. Herzog’s standard narrative path of “shoot first ask questions later” leads the picture into a standstill at times stumbling over its own fascination in opposition to how it fascinates its audience. Luckily Herzog’s usual ambiguity proves itself victorious where we witness the overall insecurity we collectively feel with the internet’s tight grip on our everyday lives leaving the film ending with the radiation poisoned recluses perhaps living the most free lives of all the subjects of the documentary within the walls of their own prison.
FINAL RATING: GOOD
My Blind Brother:
People are always competing with one another. In some rare cases one can use a mental or physical handicap to his/her advantage in order to unfairly gain access to others heartstrings gaining unwarranted affirmation. Robbie (Adam Scott) uses his literal handicap of blindness influencing his dominance above everyone shutting others out yet playing his role as a humble man with an awe shucks attitude to the point where he even believes in his own bluff. Everyone buys his boyish wounded but still strong puppy dog like charm… except for his bother Bill (Nick Kroll) Even despite running along a marathon with Adam, Bill receives no credit from others for his effort. Poor Bill even looses a girl whom he had a one night stand with inadvertently to his blind baby brother inducing a love triangle raged comedic adventure filled jealousy between the two men driving the film’s charming apologue.
As intelligent comedies do, My Blind Brother allows its audience to laugh at something that is taboo without drawing a controversial line because of its well-rounded characters and standard comedic directorial style which works to its advantage. My Blind Brother plays its proscribed themes without ever making itself known through writer/director Sophie Goodhart’s carefully constructed if not somewhat formulaic screenplay. Goodhart uses the usual setup delivery punchline formula but it’s in the film’s overarching themes of love where it radiates. Each joke is handled with tact and grace providing a familiar yet consistently funny heart warming romcom that knows how to have fun with its slightly off limit humor by displaying itself through a Judd Apatow like charm. Thanks to Nick Kraul’s purposefully dry delivery as the misunderstood son, Jenny Slate’s performance as the lovable if not a bit bewildered young woman and Adam Scott playing with our emotions by being such a likable yet simultaneously vain individual the cast brings their characters just the right amount of energy to make the movie shine completing what could otherwise have been an average directed comedy about sibling rivalry.
FINAL RATING: REALLY GOOD
You know those parties where you’re not having fun at all but are obligated to stay out of peer pressure? Through various bits of people yelling obnoxious nonsensical drunken party language throughout the course of nearly an entire picture Joshy attempts to make its audience feel as confused as Joshy himself portrayed by Silicone Valley star Thomas Middleditch. What better way to start your comedy than our heroes girlfriend hanging herself than fast forwarding to months later where a group of men baby snort, smoke, drink, yell, dance and flirt in a house for the next two hours. Joshy attempts to seek catharsis by forcing a group of vastly different people to connect with one another despite their individual abnormalities. The only moment where I found any genuine moment of connection between these guys is when the gang decides to succumb to their dorky friend’s request of a “dungeons & dragons” like role-playing game. Jodi (Jenny Slate) injects a refreshing female comedic perspective in the film that thankfully breaks up some of the pointless screaming machoism mostly provided by Eric (Nick Kroll) and Greg (Brett Gelman).
When reaching the film’s climax unravelling a conspiracy between Joshy’s parents true thoughts on how his girlfriend’s suicide truly transpired, Director/Co Writer Jeff Baena overreaches between two completely different tones going from a buddy drinking comedy into a dark disturbing drama. Buddy comedies can often be very enjoyable films. Take for instance any film between Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder or the works of John Hughes. They’re fun when they have something to say. In this case Joshy attempts to say something about how we need to grow out of our childhood even as adults so we can take hold of our own responsibilities. During its attempt Joshy lost itself throughout its pointless party scenes. Baena creates a movie that lays itself dormant in its course language and excessive use of “woos” and drugs that made me just want to put the beer down halfway through the film. It’s the example of how not to make a bromance.
FINAL RATING: BAD
War on Everyone:
Catering a love letter to seventies cornball grit cop drama with two corrupt but lovable characters, Irish filmmaker John Michael McDonagh directs a picture blistering with energy that ultimately fizzles itself out halfway into its running time through comedic repetition. Mostly known for his flicks in Ireland The Guard and Cavalry, MdDonagh comes to the U.S. to tell us the story of two bent cops that you can’t hate but love. Alexander Skarsgård makes a wonderfully different turn from his usual calm characters to a fire cracking hair-trigger filed nut ball coked up detective Terry Monroe. By his side is the equally funny Michael Pena as Bob Bolaño who is the calmer cop with a jokey sidekick persona.
By trying to collect off of the crimes of others our two anti hero’s attempt to bank on a million dollar robbery. They send their informants, a coked up unreliable drug dealing scumbag named Reggie (Malcolm Barrett) along with his pal (David Wilmot) to give the cops a tip they need on the gig. Before they know it the two detectives have stuck their noses in someone’s business that they shouldn’t have gotten involved with in the first place luring them into a powerful criminal underworld beyond their comprehension. Through various tricks of the visual trade, quick cutting, constant moving cameras, a high contrast ratio, MdDonagh provides a contemporary image to many of the cop shows you’d stumble across in the 60’s. Eventually all of the untrustworthy cop jokes run their characters thin wanting me to learn more about them other than being bad at their job. The plot finds its usual genre spots, drug dealers, lavish pool side houses, turning in their badges, seedy basements, shootouts and whatever other crime film cliché you could point a stick at. War On Everyone is worth taking a look as it does the rare task many comedies fail at which is being consistently funny while providing a mostly original spin on an overused concept. If only it had more beyond its initial idea with a moderately good execution I could give it a stronger recommendation.
FINAL RATING: MEH
Into The Forest
When the world ends how will it be? Most movies depict the end of times through insurmountable amounts of destruction. Director Patricia Romeza known for I’ve Heard The Mermaids, When Night is Falling and Mansfield Park takes the more subtle approach where simply the only incident that ceases civilization is a permanent power outage. Thanks Com Ed… Unlike the novel of the same title by author Jean Hegland that spends a rather significant portion of its story explaining why the world ended we just know things came to a stop similar to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. We don’t know why it happened and figuring out so would be futile to the story under the guide of Romeza’s adaptation of Hegland’s novel. The movie is about two teenaged sisters who live together without the aid of any older authoritative figures making their survival all the more troublesome. Their love for one another is the main focus of the picture which ultimately is the very element that will keep the two alive.
Bringing these two sisters to life from the screenplay is Ellen Page who plays younger sister Nell and Evan Rachel Wood playing older sister Eva. Nell is the more calm collected type who is wise beyond her years with Eva being more reactive. The two learn how to grow as individuals through a crumbling house as its infrastructure fails over time. They survive on small rations of food and having to deal with each others flaws. The film is shot with a cold blue pallet highlighting how even in such a dissonant world harmony can be found through the love we have for each other. Into The Forrest plays like a montage of memories carefully gliding its way between scenes much like Eva’s dancing in a cerebral state making us wonder the whole time on a subconscious level if indeed what has transpired with the power outage truly is a worldwide ending phenomenon.
At times the relationship between the sisters would creep their way into overly familiar dramatic territory. Eva is always angry or anxious, Nell has to calm her down. In other instances the film can become overly familiar with its predictably bland supporting characters. There’s the loving boyfriend with a sexy Irish accent played by Max Minghella and the incredibly creepy store clerk played by Michael Eklund who you know is going to do something really bad the second you see him in the story. The supporting characters lead their audience into scenes that feel like cliché ridden filler for the sake of providing breaks between Nell and Eva’s relationship arc of the story that don’t serve much purpose to the overall narrative. Digressing from the film’s flaws Into The Forrest is a heartfelt account of two siblings trying to support one another under extreme circumstances that rarely feels like its forcing its sentimentality leaving us with a resonant picture even if it may not be a particularly deep one.
FINAL RATING: GOOD
It’s very well-known to any cinematographer not to shoot white walls and known to any director to understand the tone of your picture. Another Evil is another film that doesn’t understand how to decorate a set nor does it know what its film is trying to say or how it should feel. It’s lost much like our two protagonists of the story Dan (Steve Zissis) and Os (Mark Proksch) are. It starts out like a horror movie where we witness a demon haunting Dan’s house one late night. Trying to protect his family and having no idea where to turn he hires a ghost hunter. The first one to aid Dan’s family is Joey Lee (Dan Bakkedahl) an ill-mannered slob who primarily comes off like someone conning Dan for a quick buck.
In comes Os who for better or worse gets the job. With Dan’s family out of the house until the whole ghost problem can be taken care of Dan and Os engage in a mumblecore style film that’s more about Os’ awkward personality in trying to seek a friend out of his new client in opposition to a horror film. The movie enjoyably meanders itself along for a considerable half of its story where we get to feel a degree of sympathy for Os yet receive no real characterization let alone interest in Dan who comes across as almost too much of an everyday man. When the film reaches its third half its tone goes completely off the rails into a psychotic thriller. Another Evil plays like the first draft of a film student’s screenplay rather than a noble effort from a filmmaker trying to attempt something different with the paranormal category.
If Another Evil stuck to its banter between Os and Dan perhaps it could have been an enjoyable comedic mumblecore horror film that was about its characters rather than focusing the third half on its plot giving the audience something refreshing. Through Writer/Director’s Carson Mell’s misdirection normality rushes the movie’s final moments through the door with an end scene that’s oddly reminiscent of the duly half-baked Bubble and Red State. The cinematography has a level of simple camera placement providing very little thought of framing, composition or production design. It’s lazy cinema at its finest. Sadly if it was a paranormal film that stuck with its middle act structure it could have capitalized its mediocrity as intentional artistic reasons rather than cowering away into standard cinematic horror conventions. Much like its forgettable protagonist or story Another Evil will probably be placed alongside the shelf of every other straight to video film you can find in a Wal-Mart. It is my hope that Mr. Mell’s next outing proves more thematically victorious as I see a hint of potential for him.
FINAL RATING: BAD
Hunt for The Wilderpeople:
Campy seventies television cultural vibe permeates the atmosphere in Taika Waititi’s Hunt for The Wilderpeople. A coming of age tale that plays itself like a child’s version of The Fugitive. All of the thriller genre tropes accompany the film; two men on the run Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) and Hector Faulkner (Sam Neil). They hide from the authoritarian figure hunting them down in the face of a ruthless child protective services officer Paula (Rachel House). Their manhunt begins when Ricky runs away from his foster home not wanting to live with Hector when Hector’s wife Bella (Rima Te Wiata) passes away. Sometime after Hector stumbles into Ricky the two become wanted men due to a misunderstanding with a group of hunters who stumble across the missing boy. Against Ricky’s better judgement he inadvertently explains his absence to the hunters making it sound like Hector molested him. Through various cop chases Hunt for The Wilderpeople is far more occupied creating a comedic thriller opposing to a coming of age tale.
New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi introduces an interesting angle to a familiar story of childhood growth where it is the child himself that assists the adult in maturing. Sam Neil with his usual gruff nature growls his way around a character where you can see that beneath his skin lays a vulnerable man who has made a mistake in his past for which he has paid for the remainder of his life. With an inability to read or write Ricky teaches Hector how to become literate while still having a healthy love/hate relationship with the old man. Waititi creates a pop culture vibrant film (filled with Terminator references) that allows us to grow with his characters and love them to the very end, specially for all of their faults. Hector is an ex con who’s late wife took him in despite his previous manslaughter charges. Ricky is a young kid who is an enormous trouble maker that didn’t need discipline but rather understanding from the adults that have come into his world. The only one who truly was empathetic to Ricky was Bella. She was the glue that held the two together. Upon her death Ricky and Hector must learn to not only trust one another but love one another. Seeing them grow and learn from each other in the most irresponsible way by running from the police and putting their lives in danger is a stimulating breath of fresh air brought to an overplayed genre.
Hunt for The Wilderpeople very much knows that it doesn’t want to be a coming of age film nor a thriller. It decides to straddle the line between both genres while mocking the conventions of most flicks you’d see during the grind house era by combining quick red cuts, a techno like soundtrack and sweeping epic helicopter shots hi lighting the lush New Zealand landscape (insert Lord of The Rings reference here), around our main characters journey. The chemistry between the two protagonists is touching. Ricky’s optimism ignites some much-needed inspiration within Hector’s usual pessimistic persona. Nobody learns how to become a better person but rather a happier person which is far more interesting than a story about those who are always morally right. Hunt for The Wilderpeople plays with diverse colors ever so subtly as it shifts in the beginning from being bland in a washed out color palette where we visualize how Ricky see’s the adult world to red when Bella dies presenting an unknown future to white resembling a sign of hope by its end. We never truly grow as adults but always learn how we need to grow up throughout our lives is the underlying theme found in Wilderpeople radiating a true resonance to its audience that very few films effectively do. With Director Taika Waititi combining a movie that mixes together action, humor and heart together in such an intricate effective manner it makes me excited for what Waititi will do with what is obviously going to be his biggest challenge to come… Thor: Ragnarok.
Hunt for The Wilderpeople received the audience award at the 4th Annual Chicago Critics Film Festival along with best narrative feature audience award at the Independent Film Festival of Boston, San Francisco International Film Festival and the Wisconsin Film Festival.
FINAL RATING: GREAT