The Visit

hack-fraud filmmaker shames literally everyone, including self


Oh dear, oh dear, oh dearie me. I wanted a horror film, and for my sins, they gave me one. Of course, in this case the word “horror” has to carry almost tangible sarcastic connotations. The horror genre doesn’t need defending, obviously—but to call this unmitigated piece of shit a horror film is nothing but a cruel charade. Still, you can’t say it’s off message though: it’s certainly psychologically and emotionally painful for the audience to sit through.

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Black Mass

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Black Mass is a film about impressions, though none but Depp’s “Whitey” Bulger are particularly good. I’m not just talking about the overall poor quality of the Boston accents in this film, particularly Cumberbatch, who despite his best effort, is unable to conceal his identity as a Brit for more than a few words at a time. Black Mass as a whole is a sleepy, overly self-serious impression of a Scorsese-style gangster flick, with neither the style nor substance it needs to tell the bizarre and fantastic story of Bulger’s dealings with the FBI. Instead, the film is a insipid slog through the events of Bulger’s life, and seems completely disinterested in making anything other than a regurgitation of the same material covered in other, better gangster films.

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Famous Filmmaker : Forgotten Film | Francis Ford Coppola : The Cotton Club

If you are an admirer of Francis Ford Coppola’s work, watching The Cotton Club may be a strangely familiar experience. It hits all the beats one expects it to hit, and characters and even entire scenes appear on screen for what feels like a second time, even on your first viewing. There would be a strong argument that this film plagiarized directly from The Godfather if Coppola had not made both films. Iconic sequences such as the shooting of Corleone, and the newspaper montage scene that follows exist within this film in an almost copy and paste fashion. The films are about the same types of people, and feature many of the same central themes. The Cotton Club should just be a inferior rip off of The Godfather, but Coppola is such a deft filmmaker that is difficult to care that we have seen much of what this film has to offer before.

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Despite the similarities, there are reasons to watch this film instead of simply re-watching The Godfather. Coppola is a true master of lighting within his films, and The Cotton Club is among the best examples of this. This film draws heavily from Noir style lighting and framing, offering up some excellent shots of the central protagonist and others paralleled with long, well defined cast shadows. Coppola’s use of cast shadows from blinds, curtains, and various other materials on shots of the actors give this film a classical Hollywood feel, despite this being a film from the 80’s.

The Cotton Club centers around a Jazz club in Harlem, sharing the same name as the film, and tells intertwining stories relating to the club, though the film primarily focuses on local trumpet player Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere). Dwyer’s life takes a sharp turn at the start of the film when he inadvertently saves the life of Dutch Schultz, a mob kingpin who takes Dwyer under his payroll to repay the favor. However, things become complicated when Dwyer becomes sexually involved with the Dutchman’s girlfriend. If this were all the film is about, it could be considered one of Coppola’s best works. Unfortunately, The Cotton Club is plagued by a seemingly endless number of subplots, ranging from Dwyer’s brother’s tradition to a life of crime, to separate stories related to race and class, as well as a romantic arch plot thrown in. It is a little hard to process everything at going on, but this is perhaps the only legitimate criticism I have of the film. The acting is all top notch, even though Diane Lane won a Golden Raspberry Award for her performance in the film – something that is seemly incomprehensible compared to the caliber of acting associated with contemporary winners of this honor. The Cotton Club isn’t quite a perfect film, though it is hard to compete with some of his other works. That said, it is still a very competent and enjoyable movie, well worth a watch for any fans of his other works.

Also, this film has Nick Cage in it. So what’s not to like about it? 

Rating: 4 out of 5

American Ultra

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Despite its marketing campaign, American Ultra is not a stoner film. Instead, the characters and ideas within the film appear to be more half-baked than anything else. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell, your average under-achieving stoner, who spends his days getting high, working at a convenience store, and talking about a comic series he would like to write but never does. He lives with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), and while the two have decent on-screen chemistry, the fact that she is so interested in him is baffling to the audience until they are well into the film.

The premise is that Mike is a sleeper-agent for the US government but doesn’t know it, and when CIA officials decide to terminate the ‘ULTRA’ program he is part of, he must run around a small town with his girlfriend trying to survive with little more than instinct and whatever makeshift weapons he can cobble together. While this premise promises a slick, unlikely hero action-thriller, instead it just slogs along, regurgitating things that have been done better in previous films and adding new material to this Bourne-style premise, but still never seems to hit the mark. 

As the film starts, American Ultra establishes itself as part of a long tradition of lazy writing that often pervades bad movies. In rapid-fire succession, Ultra incorporates some of the worst impulses of bad screenwriters. The film is told in the form of a pointless frame narrative, immediately diving into an exposition dump in which Eisenberg explains his character’s backstory, motivations, and relationship with Stewart. He’s planning on proposing in Hawaii, but they miss the flight thanks to one of Mike’s anxiety attacks. On the drive home, he apologizes and explains that he thought he could overcome the anxiety attacks. This is the first of many times that characters feel the need to explain what’s happening on-screen directly to the audience, undercutting any effective moments in the film by assuming that we’re having trouble understanding the remarkably straight-forward story. This is all coupled with how insane all the characters act, but the movie takes itself too seriously for these actions to seem comedic.

While there is a lot to be critical of, there are a few small things to like here . The auxiliary cast is full of actors I enjoy–Tony Hale and Walton Goggins in particular–some of whom give decent performances or ham it up to the point of making this film almost entertaining. A few of the jokes in the film do hit, but this seems more due to Eisenberg’s acting chops than anything else. The one thing I did genuinely like about American Ultra is the cinematography. Though the action scenes are fairly boring, this movie is actually quite pretty in parts, and shows that at least a few people working on this film were determined to make it a good one.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Afterschool: Never Forget

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In all of our lives, we must constantly deal with the omnipresent question of what is real and what is fake. Never has this clash of realities been more relevant than with the dawning of the internet. It’s a tool that presents us with unlimited power and knowledge, but also in that comes the herculean task of deciphering it all. In the hands of a young person, this can be both crushing and mind altering at times.

Antonio Campos in his 2008 film, Afterschool, presents us with this struggle in the form of his protagonist Robert, a young boy sent off by his family to a wealthy New England boarding school. During his time there he preoccupies himself with what he calls “little clips of things that seem real”. In his mundane life, he sees these videos of violence and sex as a portal through which he can glimpse something authentic. In many ways, they alter his young mind’s understanding of what is real in the first place.

While filming some stock footage in one of his school’s hallways for his video class he discovers something far realer than he could have ever expected when he discovers the two most popular girls in school as they suffer a horrible reaction to rat poison laced cocaine and die right in front of his eyes, one bleeding out in his very arms.

This tragedy obviously causes quite a few ripples throughout the school. As much as everyone is torn up about their deaths, what truly seems to bother everyone is how lost they are in actually understanding and dealing with these girl’s untimely demise. Most of all the reaction of the school and, in particular, its principle, Mr. Burke, deftly played by Michael Stuhlbarg, seems most perplexing and cold.

Mr. Burke recognizing Robert’s position in the school’s video class gives him the responsibility of making the memorial video for the girls, in the hopes that it would help him deal with their graphic deaths. Along with this the school pushes everyone to go see the school counselor and talk about how they feel, then in most cases get handed a prescription for whatever pill will handle the symptoms of their internal traumas without actually addressing it. Robert as the one to first find the girls is sent to speak to Mr. Virgil. He is obviously quite out of sorts with the whole ordeal. He talks about the videos and the violent porn he watches and how he finds a reality in them that’s fascinating. An authenticity that’s missing from his own life where, as Mr. Virgil tells him, the school had been told about the dead girl’s drug problem and did nothing to help them, in the interest of keeping their rich parent’s money and support going.

Once Robert finished putting the video together for the memorial, he shows it to Mr. Burke who asks, “Was that serious Robert? That was the worst thing I’ve ever seen”. The video wasn’t quite what the school had hoped for. With no music, shaky camera work, and the raw sense of reality that Robert has been searching for through countless Youtube searches. It didn’t try to provide the false sugar coated narrative the school hoped everyone would guzzle down. Instead of idolizing these girls with cheap condolences and ignoring the elephant in the room that they are responsible for allowing things to escalate so far into tragedy, Robert’s video portrayed the reality of that elephant and all its unsightly blemishes. The school and those around him wouldn’t stand for this, though. They aren’t interested in the truth they’re just interested in the most convenient reality where they print “Never Forget” all over the memorial stage and paint it as just another forgettable tragedy. Nothing to learn here, just move on, take another pill. Robert does and so does everyone else, just like Mr. Burke and Virgil reminds Robert, “It’s everyone’s fault” “It’s no one’s fault”, forget.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Famous Filmmaker : Forgotten Film | Steven Soderbergh: The Informant!

Though this will be Steven Soderbergh’s first appearance as the featured director in this series, I can all but guarantee this won’t be his last. Throughout his career he has worn so many different hats directorally, ranging from thrillers to pulpy action flicks to intimate dramas, though Soderbergh does seem to have a penchant for making great docudramas, among them the oft overlooked 2009 gem, The Informant!. While this film is recent enough that it still exists in public memory, and was financially successful, this film is often overlooked when discussing Soderbergh’s extensive and diverse filmography. In addition, it is a movie that I feel is sorely under-seen, despite it being a terrific piece of cinema.

The Informant

Right off the bat, Matt Damon fits perfectly in the role of Mark Whitacre, a biochemist turned businessman working for ADM, a food processing mega corporation located in small town Illinois. Mark is almost instantly one of the most likable character I have ever seen in a movie. He is worldly, intelligent, motivated, and idealistic without seeming naive.  Mark has a childlike sense of wonder and seems to be equal parts imaginative and thoughtful. However, Mark is also just a touch paranoid, and when the FBI is called in to investigate the potential contamination of a compound Mark frequently works on called lysine, he immediately starts blabbing company secrets, concerned that this investigation might turn up some unsavory actions that Mark was forced into by his superiors.

As it turns out, ADM, along with most other lysine distributors international, have been engaging in price fixing. Since this could potentially be a billion dollar lawsuit for the government, and Mark has made the mistake of being the only person to leak this information, he is somewhat willing pushed into becoming an FBI informant to gather intel for this theoretical lawsuit. However, things start to take a bit of a turn later in the investigation, as Mark starts to worry about his job security after he likely sends all his friends and co-workers to jail. Coupled with his now ever growing ego, based on all the attention and acclaim he is receiving from the FBI for being a whistleblower, Mark starts to make a streak of increasingly questionable decisions as the investigation draws to a close, shedding double on the once unquestionable scrupulousness of his character.

Though this film often times feels like a “small” movie, it is among my favorite Soderbergh films. The screenplay is fantastic, all the dialogue is snappy and tight, and Matt Damon delivers some one liners that I still remember to this day from my initial viewing of the film on its release. The supporting cast is stellar, and full of comedians who rarely seem to make it to the silver screen like Tom Papa and Joel McHale. If you haven’t gotten a chance to see this film, try to work it into a viewing one weekend. Though I wouldn’t exactly describe it as a must see for everyone, I find it hard to picture anyone disliking this charming film.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Famous Filmmaker : Forgotten Film | Christopher Nolan : Insomnia

This will be the first in a weekly series of articles aimed at unearthing the often great films of well known directors that are rarely discussed when considering their filmographies. While the goal of this series is to raise awareness and draw attention to these films, it will also serve as an opportunity to recommend some really terrific movies that have sadly been overlooked in recent years.

Insomnia

Fifteen minutes into Nolan’s third feature length film, it seems apparent why this is the least discussed movie in his filmography. Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) and the other guy are two LA detectives called up to the small town of Nightmute, Alaska to investigate the brutal murder of a 17 year old girl. The film has all the markings of a typical slow paced detective thriller, substituting the dim streets of Los Angeles for the well lit backdrop of the rural Northwest in summer, where there is daylight twenty four hours a day. However, while tamer than his later works, Insomnia still reflects Nolan’s penchant for twists within his films, as the film shifts focus as Dormer descends into madness and paranoia. Dormer is under review back in LA for potentially unsavory actions he took while conducting investigations back home, and matters are made worse when he is forced to cover up a murder he commits while pursuing his Alaskan suspect, all while losing night after night of sleep to the harsh, blinding Alaskan sunlight.

Nolan is often lauded for his keen visual style, and though traces of this can be seen in his previous films Memento and The Following, Insomnia is his first aesthetically stunning work. Due in no small part to Nolan’s career long cinematographer Wally Pfister, Insomnia is a spectacular in its visual coherence, as the camera work perfectly captures the mounting psychosis of Dormer as his sleeplessness drives him to the point of delusion. Pfister’s mark on the film is not limited to solidifying thematic ideas, the action scenes within Insomnia are tense, and kinetic, though one chase scene across a port used by Alaskan logging companies seems stand out as a definitive high point.

In addition to Insomnia being Nolan’s most cohesive film, as it avoids the unresolved, lofty ideas that have proved themselves to be an underlying issue in his more recent films, there are myriad reasons to give this film the viewing it deserves. The script is strong and tight, drawing heavily from the Norwegian Insomnia that inspired this fantastic remake. Though Pacino shines in the majority of the film, Insomnia has a stellar auxiliary cast, including Hilary Swank as a naive Alaskan cop, and Robin Williams delivers a terrific performance as a local crime writer who becomes intertwined with Dormer as his sanity and morality slip through his fingers. I am the first to say that I am not a huge Nolan fan, but Insomnia is by far my favorite entry in this generally beloved filmmakers admittedly impressive filmography, and definitely well worth your time.

Rating: 5 out of 5