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SXSW: M.F.A.

MFA-movieShortly after we are introduced to Master of Fine Arts candidate Noelle (Francesca Eastwood), she is raped by a classmate.  When she confronts him the next day, he denies doing anything wrong and winds up dead in a mostly-accidental way.  Somewhere during the events that caused Noelle to be a victim of sexual assault and a murder suspect, she snaps.  Formerly introverted and a loner, Noelle starts going to frat parties in order to seduce and murder other rapists who, due to a faulty system, got away with their crimes.

It will not be surprising to anyone who has seen the excellent documentary The Hunting Ground (or really, anyone who has attended a post-secondary institution) that despite her school having reported no sexual assaults at all, it is all to easy for Noelle to find rapists to kill on her college’s campus as she goes full vigilante.   In carrying out a series of increasingly violent kills, Noelle has no real fear of being caught even though she knows the police are closing in.

Eastwood is INTENSE in M.F.A.  Like, maybe more intense than her father has ever been, and that’s saying something because that guy’s face is frozen in a permanent, angry, “Ima kill you” sneer.  She is the best part of this movie and while she can’t make Noelle relatable, she keeps the audience on her side throughout the film, and that is no small feat in the face of her bloody killing spree.

M.F.A. offers an interesting twist on the typical slasher flick, and Noelle’s numerous kills are well-executed and, as is traditional in the genre, get more gory as she goes.  If nothing else, M.F.A. calls attention to the conversation we all should be having, namely why so many women are being sexually assaulted on college campuses and why the colleges are in many cases turning a blind eye to the rapes, or even discouraging victims from reporting these assaults!

The scary part about M.F.A. is not Noelle, it’s that the rapists and the evil administrator who blames the victim and covers up assaults are all too real, and are on your campus, or your friend’s, or your daughter’s.  We need to find an alternative solution, other than murder, so that a campus rape stops being a standard part of a Saturday night frat party, and so that when a college claims to have had zero rapes it’s not because the administration successfully intimidated and discouraged all potential complainants.  No more sexual assaults should be swept under the rug.  M.F.A. helps to shine a light on the problem.

 

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The Fate of the Furious

1488423016_80f557346e9c57a769fa41a2b284345aAs a movie franchise adds new instalments, we expect (and even demand) that the stakes get higher, that the setpieces get bigger, and that the payoff be greater when our heroes win in the end. Normally, the need to maintain some level of realism constrains the film in some way. Not so with the latest entry in the Fast and Furious franchise.

The Fate of the Furious is absolutely ridiculous from start to finish. There is only one law of physics in this world, and it is this: our heroes must succeed.  So if for Vin Diesel to win a race, a car needs to go faster in reverse than in drive after doing a 180, then that’s what is going to happen. That is always part of the pact that action movies (and action sequels in particular) make with their audience: accept the rules being bent now and again and in exchange, receive that elevated payoff I mentioned earlier. By and large, we are willing to accept that sort of thing in service of those higher stakes I mentioned. What sets the Fate of the Furious apart from most movies is that it doesn’t bend the rules at the climax; rather, it breaks them in the opening sequence. Right from the start, we know that absolutely anything goes, and it just gets more ridiculous from there.

If, like me, you can accept that in the service of entertainment  then you will enjoy this movie. On the other hand if, like Jay, you have no tolerance for big, loud, dumb action movies then you will want to choose some other form of entertainment. Because Fate of the Furious is among the biggest, loudest and dumbest movies ever made. It is also among the most gleeful, and I thoroughly enjoyed every over-the-top set piece, each of which is spectacular in its idiocy.

The Fate of the Furious is exactly what it aims to be, no more and no less. It was never going to reach the emotional heights of Furious 7, and it was never going to bring something fresh to the genre. It is a fun experience (especially in 4DX, which made this movie even more of a rollercoaster ride) but ultimately it’s a flashy, forgettable movie. Which may otherwise have been enough if I had not just seen Baby Driver at SXSW and been reminded how great an action movie can be when it is truly innovative instead of a formulaic eighth entry in a franchise that was all style, no substance right from the start.

The Fate of the Furious gets a score of six Lamborghinis on ice out of ten, with the caveat that if you have a time machine then jump to June 28 and see Baby Driver instead.

 

Going In Style

going-in-style

Am I having a senior moment?  For the life of me, I still cannot remember the name of this movie without looking it up.  I can always recall the “Going” part but then it gets muddled in a lot of different ways – “Going Out In Style”, “Going All The Way”, “Going Out On A Limb”, “Going For Broke”, and on and on.  I mention that because the first impression given by the title, i.e., generic, forgettable, and lazy, is a good summary of this film.  Along those same lines, with how generic it is I am not one bit surprised to have just discovered this is a remake of a 1979 movie starring George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg.  I guess I am about 65 years too young to remember that one, even though I was alive when it came out.

I think I am still about 65 years too young to find the 2017 version tolerable.  And that’s a shame for three reasons: (a) Academy Award Winner Michael Caine; (b) Academy Award Winner Morgan Freeman; and (c) Academy Award Winner Alan Arkin.  I absolutely love each of those old guys.  They are endlessly charming even when they phone it in.  And they are totally phoning it in here, probably because they knew that even at 100% effort this movie would still suck.

If you absolutely have to watch this movie, you will not suffer all that much.   You may giggle once or twice and you will feel good despite your cold-hearted cynicism when [SPOILERS] they get away with the heist [/SPOILERS].

But why would you watch this shitty film when, if you want a movie about getting even with those evil banks, you could watch Hell or High Water, which just came to Netflix and is not only a fantastic film, it also has Jeff Bridges in the curmudgeonly old guy role to tick that box.

Or if you want to be charmed by Michael Caine, you could watch any movie Chris Nolan has directed in the last decade (literally).  And for an instant Caine fix while deciding which Nolan film to pull from your DVD collection, I present Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon trading Michael Caine impressions in The Trip.

Morgan Freeman?  Since you can catch him in basically any movie ever, it is almost guaranteed that you can be charmed by him in a much better film (but be sure NOT to resort to Ben-Hur).  If I had to pick only one, it would be The Shawshank Redemption – that is peak Mo-Free on display as an old criminal with a heart of gold.

Alan Arkin?  Argo and Little Miss Sunshine.  The perfect grumpy old guy double feature. It’s just so easy to find something better to watch.

That’s the problem with Going In Style.  There are so many superior options, you have to wonder why anyone even bothered, other than Caine, Freeman and Arkin who I hope got paid at least as much as their bank-robbing characters did.  See?  I can’t hold anything against those guys, not even this terrible movie.

 

SXSW: A Critically Endangered Species

a-critically-endangered-species-F64922.jpgOnce in a while I wish I had a more literary mind.  When I write, it’s pretty direct and while I used to attempt subtext I’ve pretty much given up on it at this point – too much effort for too little payoff.  But that’s for my writing, where no marks are given for artistry.  All that matters is the end result.

Whereas for Maya (Lena Olin), the protagonist in A Critically Endangered Species, artistry is all that matters.  She’s a very successful writer, possibly too successful in that she has decided her best work is behind her and she will kill herself rather than crank out any more mediocre books.  Her last project is to select a young male writer to inherit everything and safeguard her work after her death.

She holds tryouts that inevitably include detailed examinations of the applicants’ work, and with one notable exception end in sex.  The field is quickly narrowed to two finalists, a showdown between intellectual and sexual appeal.  For Maya’s part, she takes pleasure in sex but she obviously does not get pleasure or happiness from anything else, and sees no value in her life aside from her work.  The beautiful but muted shots of northern California are a good match for Maya’s melancholy state of being.

Which candidate wins is incidental.  The process is what matters.  Just as incidental is the fact of Maya’s imminent suicide.  Refreshingly, this is not a moral examination of Maya’s choice.  The focus of the movie is the competition between two very different suitors and the discussions between them about some very interesting writing.  The movie is extremely well-written and writers Zachary Cotler and Magdelena Zyzak deserve particular praise for producing so many stylistically different pieces of poetry for the applicants to read and defend against Maya’s criticism.  The acting is spot-on as well, giving us main characters that are both well-written and well-executed.

A Critically Endangered Species is heavily intellectual and took less than five minutes to go over my head as far as literary analysis goes.  Even so, it was extremely interesting to take in the poetry and the discussions that followed each piece.  This is a different sort of movie than I’m used to, and while I would have found the difference refreshing on its own, the quiet excellence of this film is what really made a lasting impression.   Added to that, if you have more than a passing interest in literature (which for me basically starts and ends with comic books), then A Critically Endangered Species is not only a good movie, it’s an intricate discussion piece that should rub you in a few different ways at once.  Which may be what Maya was searching for all along.

 

SXSW: Mayhem

mayhem-F71173.jpgI’m not sure if it was because Mayhem stars Steven Yeun (Glenn from the Walking Dead), or because of the bass-heavy soundtrack and quick cuts that almost have a sound to them, or because the theatre showed a George Romero anti-texting ad just before the movie started.  One way or another, Mayhem almost immediately reminded me of the Resident Evil franchise.  That’s probably NOT the franchise that director Joe Lynch was hoping to emulate, and may be taken as an insult, but I don’t mean it as one.  It’s a great match for the movie’s frenetic, claustrophobic, satirical look at an office building full of potential murderers and murder victims.

Let me explain.  In Mayhem’s universe, there is an airborne disease that removes people’s inhibitions, and if you’re infected then your eye turns red.  From that short synopsis I hope it’s clear that if you are at all eye-phobic (like Jay is) then you should stay far, far away from this one.  There is a lot of eye-rubbing going on in this office building and surprisingly, people are not freaked out with it, given that everyone in the building clearly knows all about this disease.  But they are not troubled enough to leave the building before it gets quarantined and some actually have plans to use the disease for their benefit, as a “legal loophole” of sorts.  FOR MURDER!

[lawyer rant] As a lawyer, I have to point out the precedent the schemers intend to rely on isn’t actually a loophole but rather an obviously wrong decision that would be overturned on appeal and/or disregarded in future cases.   And since the office building in which the movie takes place is a law firm, they really should know better because this lawyer knows that those relying on the “loophole” are all going to prison for a long, long time.  [/lawyer rant]

There’s plenty of blood and gore galore in Mayhem but the slick, tongue-in-cheek presentation makes the gore palatable and entertaining, to the point you will wonder whether you’ve finally been 100% desensitized to violence.  I mean, it’s almost certain I was desensitized long ago but I’m telling myself my tolerance for Mayhem’s gore was a result of not being invested in the characters.  Even Yeun’s character wasn’t compelling to me because he was kind of a sleazeball.  But then again he was a movie lawyer, so that’s to be expected.

I’m a little miffed that all movie lawyers are sleazeballs.  Mainly because you never see movie doctors being dishonest.  At worst they are addicts but they get to be honest addicts so they’re still one up on movie lawyers.  Maybe it’s finally time for me to write that screenplay about the dishonest doctor who was tricking his patients but then gets caught by the handsome honest lawyer and just when you think the doctor is going to use a loophole to get away with it, the lawyer totally shuts him down, he really makes the doctor look like an idiot for even trying, and in winning the case he also wins the love of his beautiful co-counsel and everyone lives happily ever after (other than the evil doctor who gets exactly what he deserves).  It’s going to have something for everyone, except for doctors who don’t deserve anything as I think we’ve already established.

By the way, Mayhem is a generic but entertaining thriller that looks far more polished than it has any right to on an indie budget.  If you can relate to an office revenge tale, or just hate lawyers, then keep an eye out for this one.

 

 

 

Ghost in the Shell

ghost-in-the-shell-scarlett-johansson.jpgFor a movie whose very title references souls and finding meaning within glossy shells, Ghost in the Shell is unbearably hollow.  The packaging is nice but there is nothing underneath. At all.  It will leave you with a number of questions but none of them will be existential.

The first question is how uncomfortable should you be that in what I’m guessing is future Japan (judging from the robot geishas and the right-hand drive cars), basically everyone is white and speaks English. The answer, as always with Hollywood, is VERY.

The next question is how much are you allowed to take inspiration from classic sci-fi (and also shitty sci-fi) before you’re ripping people off. The answer is NOT THIS MUCH OBVIOUSLY YOU LAZY BASTARDS. Ghost in the Shell drops us into a grimy, dark, rainy future full of 3D billboards. To describe it as drawing from Blade Runner is too generous. There are elements of other fictional futures as well, like the Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic, and even Tron (lightcycles!). While this movie looks great at every turn, the total lack of originality left me cold.

Next question: does it count as good acting when Scarlett Johansson convincingly plays a Ghost_in_the_Shell_Scarlett_Johansson_2_aeac805303d6c795b51ea920f763a012.pngbeautiful but emotionless robot? As always, the answer is DEFINITELY YES AS LONG AS SHE RSVPS from the Hollywood Foreign Press and PROBABLY SINCE WE NOMINATED ENOUGH BLACK PEOPLE LAST YEAR WE HAVE A 5TH SLOT FOR A WHITE IN 2018 from the Academy.

Bonus question: does it count as nudity when a nipple-less female robot fights while basically naked? That’s a tough one but after much thought, the answer is SHOWING NIPPLES MAY AT LEAST HAVE DISTRACTED THE AUDIENCE SO THEY DIDN’T WONDER WHY THE ROBOT THAT CAN TURN INVISIBLE DOESN’T JUST STAY INVISIBLE ALL THE TIME DURING FIGHTS.

Obviously, lots of questions were raised by Ghost in the Shell, but none of them engage in anything interesting. Instead of the mundane, the film could have delved into questions like what are the attributes that make us human, whether memory is vital to identity, or why are we as a society unable to ascribe value to function in the same way we do to beauty.  Elements of those interesting questions are present in Ghost in the Shell but the film seems incapable of dealing with them. That is Ghost in the Shell’s biggest failing and the reason it gets a score of four glitches in the Matrix out of ten.

 

SXSW: Paris Can Wait

paris-can-wait-F72057.jpgI’ve been to France twice and would go back in a heartbeat if we got the chance.  It’s a beautiful country with so much history, and their climate is warm enough that their spring feels like summer to Canadian visitors like us.   And above all else, the food in France is wonderful – the French do gourmet dining as well or better than anyone else in the world.  Eleanor Coppola seems to have similar feelings in France but instead of wistfully looking at pictures of Paris (which is what I’m doing right now), she got to work and made her own chance to spend time there, by writing and directing Paris Can Wait.

One thing that is readily apparent is Coppola’s background in documentaries (most if not all of which have chronicled her family members’ films).  She captures some beautiful shots of the French countryside and intersperses some well-shot photographs into the movie (courtesy of Lane’s character’s convenient hobby).  The photos were a good way to show off the food, and Paris Can Wait features so much delicious-looking food.

I can’t fault Coppola for taking the opportunity to sightsee in France on other people’s money, and tagging along on the journey was enjoyable even though there is nothing particularly memorable about it.  Diane Lane plays the same role she always does as the hopeful and optimistic woman who is taking stock of her life, Alec Baldwin appears for about five minutes total as Lane’s husband before jetting off and leaving Lane with his business partner (played by Arnaud Viard), and that basically takes care of all the speaking parts in this movie.

Paris Can Wait is simple and straightforward with no surprises.  You get exactly what you’d expect, which may or may not be a good thing.  I think you will enjoy this movie if: (a) you like traditional by-the-numbers rom-coms; (b) you are a member of Diane Lane’s fan club; or (c) you wish you were in France eating gourmet meals that cost 800 Euro and up.

If you’re not in that last category yet then get there!  My advice?  Instead of reading about romantic comedies, take a date and your chequebook to a Michelin-starred restaurant immediately (preferably one that brings individual carts to your table for the cheese and dessert courses, like we were treated to at Guy Savoy).  And then post your food porn pictures in the comments (bonus points for pictures of the carts in all their glory)!

 

SXSW: Porto

porto-F70243.jpgThe loss of Anton Yelchin somehow seems larger as time passes.  As you probably know, he died tragically about a year ago, crushed by his own (faulty) car as he checked his mail.  The outpouring of grief from his peers was massive at the time, and the more I learn about him, the more I get it.  He was a glue guy, an artist, a student of film, a true professional.  He made everything easier for those around him.  Those sentiments were echoed by Gabe Klinger during the Q&A for Porto at SXSW.  Porto is Klinger’s first narrative feature and he freely admitted how much Yelchin helped everyone involved and made the project better, because of Yelchin’s vast knowledge of and experience in making movies.

Technically, Porto is an interesting movie because it was shot on three different types of film: 8mm, 16mm and 35mm.  And it IS film, none of this was shot using a digital camera, and the movie feels better for it.  There is something about film that digital can’t match yet – a depth, a richness, and a darkness.  All those elements are appropriate for Porto, which is a story of intense love and loss, and the film types neatly indicate which time period we’re currently watching.

Porto’s lack of continuity makes a conventional story feel a bit more unconventional, but it also leads to repetition.  I wondered during the film whether that repetition was a consequence of Yelchin’s death but it appears to have been an intentional narrative choice, since a little post-movie research shows that filming was complete before he died.  The fact that a few details were added, or the scene extended, helped explain the repetition but I still found it to be a distracting choice.

That distraction was a minor one, especially considering the great chemistry between Yelchin and Lucie Lucas that’s on display here.  The leads’ performances make Porto worth watching.  Yelchin and Lucas have a spark that makes the audience feel the allure and power of this very brief relationship, and that in turn makes us understand why they still reminisce about their short time together.  I am sure Lucas deserves as much credit for that as Yelchin, as she’s his equal on screen.  Still, it’s hard not to focus on Yelchin since this might be the last time we see him, and I am struck by how much I took his effortless performances for granted until he was gone.

 

 

SXSW: Colossal

colossal-F71894Other than a major difference in size, Godzilla and a drunk have a lot in common.  They both stumble around erratically, they both have a temper, and they both wreck a lot of stuff.  Though Colossal does not feature Godzilla, presumably due to licencing issues, it does feature a giant monster terrorizing an Asian city (though this time it’s Seoul, Korea instead of Tokyo, Japan).  As you’d expect, the monster’s appearance is big news, so even Gloria (Anne Hathaway) hears about it eventually.  It takes a while for her though because of how drunk she got the night before.

Gloria’s got a lot of problems.  She’s just been kicked out by her longtime boyfriend for drinking too much and she’s been unemployed for way too long.  She’s got no direction and no prospects, so after losing her relationship and place to stay, she heads to her hometown and meets up with her childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis).  Since Oscar owns a bar, Gloria stays there all night drinking, and a giant monster appears in Seoul about the time she’s stumbling home the next morning.

Colossal is different than I expected, which is not a bad thing.  Writer/director Nacho Vigalondo has created something unique, something much different than any kaiju movie I’ve ever seen.  Colossal is slow paced and focuses largely on people, not monsters, and the characters’ personal growth (/lack thereof) is a very important part of the story.  I don’t want to say more about what Colossal is or isn’t, as I think trying to figure out this movie is part of the fun.  There are definitely some surprises along the way, and those were high points for me.  It’s always interesting when a movie takes an unexpected turn and Colossal offers a few of them.

In support of the unique story, Hathaway and Sudeikis both deliver excellent performances, and the quality of those performances is why this movie works so well.  Seeing Gloria and Oscar reconnect after all these years, discovering each other as adults, is something we can all relate to but we soon learn that the stakes are a little higher here, because Seoul is in peril every morning.

Colossal is set to be released in North America on April 7, 2017.  If you’re interested in seeing a different kind of kaiju movie, one that is more character study than city-destroying rampage, then Colossal is worth watching.

SXSW: The Ballad of Lefty Brown

the-ballad-of-lefty-brown-F71455The Ballad of Lefty Brown starts from an interesting place. Writer/director Jared Moshe was curious about the bumbling sidekick in John Wayne movies, the guy who functioned as comic relief. That archetypal character could not do anything right, so why did someone like John Wayne choose to have a bumbling guy like that as the one watching his back?

Lefty Brown is one such bumbler. Played by Bill Pullman, we join Lefty late in life, near the end of a lifetime of sidekicking for a Montana rancher who has just been elected to the U.S. Senate.  Lefty would be at a loss anyway due to his mainkick, but things are made much, much worse when the rancher is ambushed and murdered by a cattle rustler that he and Lefty were tracking.

Pullman is very believable as Lefty, a sad-sack who believes he contributed to, or at least could have done something to prevent, the death of his idol and only friend. Other characters, including many familiar faces, come and go but serve mainly to advance the story. Unfortunately, we don’t get to know them as much as I would have liked, but this is Lefty’s story for once so it would be cruel to complain that he got too much screen time!

The landscape is beautifully shot, and the cinematography really emphasizes Lefty’s isolation. He’s literally in the middle of nowhere for most of this movie, and even when he’s accompanied by others that feeling of isolation remains.

Because of the rancher’s death, Lefty has to assume the leadership role, and as we spend time with Lefty we get to learn why the rancher was willing to place so much trust in Lefty. It’s an enjoyable journey even though, paradoxically, the movie plays out like a typical western because the rancher’s death makes Lefty the lead with a sidekick of his own. But I like to think that the rancher knew all along what our stand-in hero Lefty was truly made of.

If, like me, you’re intrigued by the concept and are in Austin TX this week then you have one more chance to see The Ballad of Lefty Brown at SXSW, on March 15 at 2 p.m.