Paranormal Activity (2007) (R)

Sometimes you just have to give credit where credit's due. "Paranormal Activity" is no such exception. Although it plods along in high mediocrity for the entire movie and its dependency on the found footage genre actually gives way to some fairly ridiculous moments of "art" meets "homemade", the movie can be seen as the reinvention of horror. It is no surprise that the franchise has gone on to make sequel after sequel—none matching the original success and acclaim of the first movie. When you are pumping out an easy to make, cheap horror movie, it would make sense to create as many as possible while people are still going to see them.
So while "Paranormal Activity" takes a huge cue from "The Blair Witch Project", it is by no means a classic horror movie, instead, just a middle part of what we could consider two masterpieces: "Blair Witch" and something yet to come. It's only an evolutionary stage, but that doesn't mean that it does not bear watching; because, amidst all its sins and voyeuristic intentions (what horror movie is really free from that?), it is very watchable and just the right amount of creepy.
This is the kind of movie you watch when you want to get freaked out. It's like a roller coaster, you get on, you have fun, you get off, and then you forget about it, because it was just entertainment.
As many horror movies do, "Paranormal Activity" masquerades as truth. This is the evidence from the San Diego police department that Oren Peli just has access to because he's...I don't know...awesome? Not really bothering to tell us why we are watching, the movie drops us in on the very middle of a conversation that Micah and Katie have been having. This couple is average in every way, well, in every white way. Sorry, this movie is not about racism, but there's sure to be a good college paper in there somewhere.
Anyway, they have a really nice house even though it looks like neither of them works, and Katie is being haunted. Oh yeah, probably should have mentioned that. Ever since her childhood, she has felt this presence following her around and so Micah, in a typical "I'll fix it, honey" way, has bought a digital camera and is going to film them during the night to see if they can capture the paranormal activity—ha! That's the title!—for study. It doesn't take long before creepy noises show up on the camera and Katie decides that she's going to call a paranormal expert to check out the house. The guy shows up and proclaims that she's probably being haunted by a demon, not a ghost, and this is out of his area of expertise so he peaces out.
Micah is left thinking that calling a demonologist would only exacerbate the situation and as a he-man—he is often seen manipulating Katie and putting her down—no one but he could possibly figure out what's going on.
Micah is the stupidest character in horror movie, but somehow not as annoying as Katie.
Two things bother me here: as someone whose name is Micah, the pronunciation of the name is so weird and consistently pissed me off. But that's a personal issue. Katie is just so passive, so whiny, and Katie Featherston is such a bad actor that she doesn't really pull off the role convincingly. Which is why  it can never compete with "The Blair Witch Project". I found the actors in "Blair Witch" completely convincing, but in "Paranormal Activity" you are always aware that you're watching something manufactured.
The extremes of bizarre behavior are consistently used just for scares: like baby powder on the floor and keeping the door open while you sleep. Really? It doesn't seem logical in any fashion. Then again, this is a horror movie, so logic is far away.
This isn't to day that the movie is crap, because it's not. The movie is highly enjoyable and I actually will probably watch it again because it short and sweet and does everything that it should.
But that doesn't mean that it's a great movie, or even close.

Score: ★★½

Secrets & Lies (1996) (R)

I don't think that telling a secret or revealing that I've been lying has ever felt good. Coming out of the closet, for example—#gayagenda—was probably the single most terrifying thing I've done my whole life; and it never felt good. So when it comes to a movie like "Secrets & Lies", I find it hard to sympathize with a group of secretive people who have arguably ruined each other's lives finding resolution by telling the truth....or should I say SPOILER? In essence, the movie then becomes a children's tale of not lying to your parents and it's almost patronizing at that.
Still, with the acting at its highest screech caliber and the music at its most heart-plucking evocative, the piece is an easy success with the sentimental audience, which I'm usually a part of. This time, not so much.
The movie begins at a funeral, which is a good indicator that we're not going to be buckled into a comedy. This is "realism" at its most bleak, but still optimistic...go figure. There are three distinct story lines: Maurice Purley (Timothy Spall) and his wife Monica (Phyllis Logan), Cynthia Rose Purley (Brenda Blethyn) and her daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), and Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). Because the film is so intent on focusing on these three characters—Cynthia, Maurice, and Hortense—it will come as no surprise to understand that they're somehow related, pun intended. Cynthia and Maurice are brother and sister who begin the movie estranged from each other. It's been at least a year since they've spoken. Both feel that they are not responsible for making the first move to reunite. So they sit in stagnant melancholy, pining for their sibling, and the film wallows in their misery almost pleasurably.
Maurice is charming. He's a photographer who is at the top of his game, mainly because of how well he handles his clientele. Turning even the most unpleasant situation into a wallet-sized memory, Maurice is the nicest character in the movie. His wife, Monica, is the stereotypical overriding woman. She screams and yells and then kisses and makes up. Perpetually suffering from "lady problems", Monica can be seen as a representation of gender roles gone sour. It's not very pleasant to watch.
Cynthia is going to pieces. An unstable woman constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, she finds herself weeping through most every scene and her high pitching shrieking voice and screams of "sweetheart!" only made my teeth be set on edge. This is, without a doubt, one of the most annoying characters. She is so pathetic that I wished I could reach through the screen and throttle her. A violent reaction...whoops! This is a drama, I'm supposed to be crying. Cynthia's relationship with her daughter is not great, well, it kind of sucks. The two get into shouting fights regularly and often lie or just fail to speak well, so communication lines are broken and we have to sigh because there they go again!
Lastly, Hortense, the black sheep of the movie. A black girl who has just suffered the loss of her mother—the funeral scene the movie opens with—she decides that in the wake of being left along with no parents, she will try to reach out to her birth mother. Oooooooh, intrigue.
Well, naturally, we can see where this is going. Since there are only a few main female characters we can slowly eliminate each one until we're left with only one choice: Cynthia. No surprise then, when fifteen minutes late Hortense stumbles across the name Cynthia Rose Purley and her attempted reunion begins. One problem: Cynthia is white.
A story like this has emotional potential, but I fail to see it harnessed. "Secrets & Lies" plays out like a theater production, and not in a good way. Like a botched highschool production with high quality actors and music. The point is, that each high and low is more grating than the last and the nexus of all things hysterical appears for one last dinner party.
It's like a murder mystery got thrown into a blender with "A Room With a View". The result is never enjoyable.
Mike Leigh is talented and he's proved this much before, "Secrets & Lies" does not show any of his powers. The only great thing to escape the movie is Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Every scene she's in, every line she gives is simply amazing. Paired with the screaming Blethyn, she holds her own and manages to outshine everyone, even by being silent.
I think the movie fails to recognize that some interpersonal ties can be shattered beyond repair and that telling the truth sometimes hurts the teller more than the listener. In this case, everything ends nicely and smoothly and there's a "wow, who would have thought?" moment in the final few seconds. It's all so sugary sweet that it makes me a bit nauseous.
The only good thing that "Secrets & Lies" can provide, is an excellent material for a college paper on gender roles in film...but that's it.

Score: ★★

Bowling for Columbine (2002) (R)

I probably don't agree with everything that Michael Moore believes in, I'm not sure anyone could. His politics seem to be all about the people in some altruistic sense, yet he is always on the prowl for big corporations to take down. In "Bowling for Columbine" it's the NRA and the media itself, which is why the movie seems to meander a bit and fall back into Moore's earlier work as a reprise instead of an entirely new venture. I may not agree with everything that Moore thinks, but I do like his movies because, whether an invoker of hatred or a political activist, Moore is unquestionably talented.
I think a lot of the success of his documentaries lie in how he presents himself. Most of the time, Moore is lumbering on screen, a figure of no particular grace and often a sharp remark ready to fire off. His interviewing style is deceptively tricky, focusing everything on what was said and what was meant by that. Most of the time his subjects—the ones his disagrees with—are turned into jabbering fools, some just walking away from the camera and ignoring him altogether. In each and every scene, Moore gives the camera a power that most documentarians do not, they expect the power to come from the action or the people. The camera is just as much a figure in "Bowling for Columbine" as the interviewees are.
The movie might suggest that the entire length will be dedicated to the events surrounding the Columbine shooting in Colorado; but that's not the case. In fact, the actual footage concerning the Columbine tragedy make up possibly only ten full minutes of the film, the rest is about the society that brewed up the situation.
Moore is making a claim that America is tailoring children to be in a constant state of fear and that violence is a rational answer to this fear. We are being controlled by the media to believe we are at war constantly.
The NRA presents itself as an American tradition that hinges on the freedom of the free world. Without guns, we will eventually become slaves to the government, that nasty, evil machine that wishes to chew us up and spit us out. Now, make no mistake, Moore is no fan of the government and I suppose if you were really to think about he harshly critiques everyone in power, the likelihood that he is suggesting an anarchist society is relatively high. Still, it means a lot if, coming from this man, you have an idea that maybe we're not being stringent enough in the way we treat, educate, and control guns.
Moore is not lobbying for gun control laws because he himself has a history with firearms and maybe it would be hypocritical to change his way of thinking. Instead he tries to ask a question: "Why are Americans so freakin' obsessed with killing each other?". He compares America's history of gun violence to other countries and keeps coming up with a staggering realization: by almost 10,000 gun related deaths a year, America is the most violent country (in this arena).
Possible reasons? Ethnic population, violent history, etc. Moore debunks each one so swiftly that it's impossible to call it successful. He sweeps aside of the counterarguments to make way for his points leave the critical thinker wondering where his research is coming from.
Yet Moore is a powerhouse of a filmmaker and one hell of an interviewer. I think anyone who meets him seems to underestimate his potency and love for a good, ol' fashion shame fest. One such moment includes him taking two victims of the Columbine shooting to the K-Mart headquarters to ask why bullets are still sold in stores. As a matter of showing their point, one of the survivors buys out all of the ammunition in a local store. Objectively, this does not really accomplish much in the film; but officially, it was the starting point for K-Mart's removal of all ammunition from its stores.
Moore completely understands that he's juggling a hot topic because when discussing guns, the tempers are likely to fire off without warning. As such, he never really takes as firm of a stance as his other movies do and he movie then becomes about the media.
We all know that we are conditioned to fear, or maybe we should realize this. Moore's point is hammered home so strong that it is almost uncomfortable that he should use 9/11 footage in order to present himself as a rational mind in a chaotic world.
By the end of "Bowling for Columbine", nothing concrete was established. I did not have a revelation, not that it had to happen in order to make the movie great. Moore's sidetracking makes "Bowling for Columbine" seem like a sequel to "Roger & Me" and a prequel to "Fahrenheit 9/11". I don't think it's as successful as either of those movies.
Powerful? Yes.
Well-done? Absolutely.
Special? Probably not.

Score: ★★★

Suspiria (1977) (R)

"Suspiria" walks the balancing act between cliche and terror and it makes us ask the question "Which came first, 'The Exorcist' or 'Suspiria'?" William Friedkin laid claim to the soundtrack design that "Suspiria" relies so heavily on, but it does not mean that everything Dario Argento accomplishes belongs to "The Exorcist"'s just impossible to not reference. Also coming up is "Rosemary's Baby" which came before either Freidkin or Argento and, indeed, it would seem that Polanski's horror--including "Repulsion"--influences the film a great deal.
We can then see the baton being passed from "Suspiria" to "The Shining" and then to "The Conjuring" for they each influence each other's work in such surprisingly visual ways. Ah, but maybe that's just the beauty of the horror genre compared with others. It's so limited to scares and atmosphere that you can literally trace its genesis in development, something harder to do with a broader gender like "drama".
Anyways, that's just me talking. Let's get into it.
The movie begins with an acknowledgement of something kind of stereotypical now in horror: a dance academy. It's these places of female power that imply virginity (the heroine's usual white dresses find it hard to argue with this) that usually unfold in some nasty fashion. It's visually quite Poe, the most poetic thing is the death of a young girl. But Argento takes it a step farther: the most frightening thing is the poetic death of a young girl.
Set in Germany, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) has been accepted to a very prestigious dance school and she leaves her native America to go study. On the night of her arrival, a storm has come and the streets are flooding with water. It takes her forever to get a cab and by the time she gets to the school, she is drenched. Buzzing the doorbell, Suzy is sent away by a voice on the intercom and as this commotion of trying to find a hotel room and surviving the storm is going on, a figure emerges from the school. It's another girl, who seems to be spouting madness before running away into the forest, seeking refuge at a friend's house, which only ends badly for both of the women.
Argento sets up the mysterious quite quickly and the music by "The Goblins" only adds to this. The "Tubular Bells" wannabe soundtrack is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the movie, besides its stunning visual show.
The film itself is coated in blood, red being something incredibly important for the color scheme of the movie. There's hardly a single scene that goes by that doesn't scream out in bloody colors. It's actually quite beautiful and the constant pans and zooms make it feel like there is a motion to the movie that helps it pass quickly.
Something has go amiss in the academy and it seems like Suzy will be the one to find it out with the help of one of her new friends, Sara (Stefania Casini). Odd events keep transpiring like the appearance of godly plagues of insects of more murders most foul.
"Suspiria" is nothing startling of frightening, but exceeds instead with its execution of visual intoxication. If it were possible to become drunk on a film, this would be one such example. The colors are vibrant, the sets are elaborate, and the camera is keenly aware of everything going on. I suggest watching this movie twice: once to soak in and the second time to look at the background at watch every little intricacy occurring.
Argento, much like his setting, plays "Suspiria" out like a dance.
Sure, there is a problem--with most horror movies--of the female persuasion being too stupid and too inquisitive for their own good, their innocence being the only thing that saves them. But as a revision of older themes and tropes, "Suspiria" is simply a delight.
Intense, beautiful, and almost immaculate in design.
Any horror collection would be incomplete without this film.

Score: ★★★½

Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992) (R)

Nick Broomfield is no Michael Moore, though he would really, really like to be. He lacks the acerbic wit, the dry speech, and the drive to uncover the truth or humiliate anyone who tries to stop him. Sure, those items are in place for "Aileen Wuronos: The Selling of a Serial Killer"; but Broomfield becomes whiny by the movie's end, something that we never see from Moore.
As a documentary, "The Selling of a Serial Killer" works quite well, mainly because its source material is so electric and Broomfield makes sure that we all realize its exploitative nuances. There is a sensationalism that goes along with "The first female serial killer in the nation!" and the media pounced on such a story. What Broomfield fails to acknowledge, even as he critiques the figure of the press who are making monetary profit off of his subject, is that he is no different than all of them. Even if the aim of the documentary was never to make money; but just to enlighten an audience, then Broomfield is still guilty of emotionally and intellectually manipulating the frenzy to his benefit. In the end, the movie is educational about Wuornos, but its message is heavily confused and the paranoia exhibited becomes dulled.
For paranoia is a huge part of the movie and can never be erased from its core; yet it takes us a long time to get there. Most of the first half of the movie is eaten up with introduction of figures and reconstruction of Wuornos' past life. That being said, the characters that come out of the woodwork for Broomfield are nothing if not entertaining. There's Aileen herself, who ranges in stability on screen and there is a crystal understanding for why she was such a magnet for the media sensation. Her antics make her a perfect reality star candidate. Her lawyer, Steve Glazer, if anything challenges her place as the oddest figure in the movie. He has fashioned himself a bizarre humanoid companion that he calls his imaginary friend and often can be seen playing the guitar, making up songs about his current predicaments. One notable ballad goes "I'm a public defender...". Lastly, but certainly not leastly (if that's even a word), we have Arlene Pralle who adopted Wuornos before her first trial. This is the mother and, like Glazer, she too has her share of oddities like raising wolves.
But there's a sense of money that the film cannot escape, mostly because it enjoys detailing the struggles the film crew faced trying to get an interview with Aileen, or Lee as Broomfield is incessant on calling her. First there's the demand for $25,000 which later becomes only 10 grand. This is paid to Lee so that they can have an interview, but when you consider that the movie's actual interview time with Wuornos is so limited, it takes some of the thunder out of the storm.
Glazer and Pralle both ask for money for their cooperation and eventually become more and more withdrawn figure of the film until finally Broomfield unleashes his conspiracy theories about how Lee was treated. I'm not sure if he even considers her guilty for the murders of the seven men, or if she is just a victim to her surroundings, both physical and mental.
The one thing I didn't care for in the movie is Broomfield's carefree manner, and the way he likes to patronize and antagonize. This can be seen when he goes to the maximum security prison where Lee is being held and refers to the prisoner by her nickname, "Lee". This is a smart man and obviously he's just trying to provoke someone by responding to "who are you here to see?" with "Lee" instead of "Aileen". It does not surprise me then that so many doors got shut in his face and although the movie tries to make it seem like these are grave missteps in the judicial system, I can't help but assume that it's actually because Broomfield is so unlikable.
That being said, his movie is very solid and the theories, although wild, seem supported. It's not something that I'll remember for a long time or ponder over, but I am glad that I saw it.

Score: ★★★

Watership Down (1978) (PG)

I think a lot of people stumble onto animation and just assume that it's tailored for kids. They see drawn people or animals and immediately brand the style as "childish", which is frankly unfair. Then there's this curious thing that happens when an animated movie does not fit into the stereotypes they've constructed...the movie is seen as deceitful. I mean, why would they animate the movie if it wasn't meant for kids? There are few exceptions to the children's genre of animation, one of them being "Watership Down" which isn't an adult's movie, but certainly would disturb your toddler if they saw it.
The movie concerns rabbits at its basest level. Rabbits, which have a thousand enemies and their own rich folklore and way of speaking. They construct warrens for themselves and form militias, they pillage, they foresee the future. In many ways, this sounds like something out of a fantasy or an opera; but "Watership Down"somehow makes it all seem fairly know, besides the whole talking rabbit thing.
Hazel (John Hurt) and his pal Fiver (Richard Briens) are out one day eating grass and clover when Fiver has a vision. He prophesies the end of the warren by envisioning blood covering the field like water. It's enough to disturb him wholly and he goes to the chief to ask that the warren relocate itself so as to escape the grisly death that may await it. Fiver and Hazel are shrugged off; but Hazel is so moved by Fiver's tenacity that he decides it would be best if they move out. Coming with them are a handful of other rabbits, including Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox), one of the officers of the warren.
Now out in the woods and the wild, the rabbits are subjected to the elil. Enemies are all around and each one wants to kill the rabbits quickly, for food or for sport. Essentially, you will not find an animal that doesn't have some sort of grudge against our white-tailed, speedy little heroes and heroines.
So fraught with danger and the political commentary that begins when you start militarizing bunnies, "Watership Down" can be seen as a survival story, the cruel tale of mother nature, Frith, and the Black Rabbit.
"Watership Down" shows blood and I think that's one of the reasons that most people find it so shocking. There is genuine loss here, loss of blood, loss of innocence, and loss of life. Richard Adams's book was much more explicit at certain moments, particularly involving some of the gender issues that arises and the power structure of the patriarchy (it's there, I promise you, I'm not just being a snob) and Martin Rosen finds a way to condense all these suggestions into something a little more digestible. He's not as forward as Adams, but it is a good adaptation of the book.
The animation itself ranges from fairy tale to gruesomely realistic and everywhere in between. It's not as crystal clear as something from Disney might have been; but that allows it to inhabit the space where children are not necessarily the only audience watching the movie.
Sometimes the movie can drag, just as the book did, and some moments are glossed over too quickly and seem to serve no purpose. But by the end of the movie when the sentimentality creeps in, it does serve an emotional moment. It's quite a pleasant and satisfying ending.
I'm not sure that anyone else could have taken the book and turned it into something so original, unique, and well-down with animation. For that, "Watership Down" is floating by itself in a sea of magical fairies and signing brooms.

Score: ★★★½

Synecdoche, New York (2008) (R)

From the mind of Charlie Kaufman...that should be enough to entice any normal moviegoer into pausing when perusing through the list of possibilities. Yes, Charlie Kaufman is brilliant, nuanced, genius, self-interested, and generally sensationally original. You can't deny that "Synecdoche, New York", Kaufman's directorial debut, is anything less than the sum of all of these.
The movie begins as theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is putting on the newest of his creations. He seems to be becoming bored with his success and great acclaim. It's hard work being a talented artist, so he sinks into a pocket of what he considers to be mediocrity and the rest of the theater world considers to be brilliant. He's not really testing himself.
Ever the germaphobe, Caden finds himself getting concerned with a continuing series of troubling symptoms including blood in his urine and stool and the appearance of pustules and odd veins all over his body. As the viewer, we wonder why he's not more concerned with the sudden problems that arise. It starts Caden off on a roller coaster of self-depreicating, self-loathing, and self-examining that eventually leads him to make a conclusion: it's all about death.
While this is going on, Caden's wife Adele (Catherine Keener) decides that she has had enough of their romance and takes their daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein, who manages to be both annoying and adorable) to Berlin for a "vacation". After she doesn't return and starts her own life as an artist, Caden is left snatching at the fraying threads of something he wants to call life. He plunges into despair for a meaning, searching, searching, searching, but never finding. It's this horrible sensation that I think a lot of us have faced: trying to equate meaning with existence and never being fully able to without relying on some supernatural force. It's quite depressing actually and Kaufman doesn't shy away from it.
Therein lies the problem. Because the movie is so invested in seeing a character stretched to the breaking point again and again, it becomes a little redundant and monotonous to see Caden break down and sob because of the many things that go wrong in his life...and let me just say, Kaufman does his best to treat Caden like shit.
In the theater, there's a perky young girl named Hazel (Samantha Morton) who works at the box office and has more than a little crush on Caden. She tries to seduce him many times, but it seems written in the stars that these two should never be together. The romance just dissipates.
As the movie continues, Caden becomes increasingly more hell-bent on returning to his daughter Olive and restoring their relationship; but that seems impossible.
Then Caden receives a grant and is told to make something impressive. He places himself under the pressure of making the best, most genuine, truly true play that anyone could possibly imagine. He recreates an image of New York in a warehouse and fills it with actors who would play out an entire day. Rehearsal runs for over twenty years; but you shouldn't let that concern you because the movie plays with chronological time and surrealism so much it's difficult to understand what we should take as literal and what is Kaufman twisting the system to his liking.
One such example is Hazel's house, perpetually on fire for decades, but never burning to the ground. It's kind of humorous and also kind of pointless.
Caden eventually realizes that he cannot possibly try to finish the play because it's a work in progress, though he desperately wants to find a conclusion and leave his mark on society saying "yes, that's mine, and I'm truly proud of that". He wishes for immortality through art; but you need to only blink a few times before you start to see Kaufman in Caden.
As a movie about the failure to produce a work of art that truly represents everything, Kaufman does his best to live through his work as a failure as a success. It's this kind of logic that makes your brain start to hurt that is typical of Kaufman movies and it only becomes exacerbated when the play Caden is putting on starts to cast actors of the actors so as to better recreate the situations.
Fluidity of roles takes over and soon they start to play each other and the camera weeps for the situation. How lonely! How lovely! How beautifully incoherent!
The last half of "Synecdoche, New York" is a masterwork, painful to watch and impossible to tear your eyes away from. But the first half is hateful and even more painful. It doesn't do any good to see a man brought to his wit's end by situations out of his control if the commentary is about the preservation of life through art. To me, Kaufman as God is unusually cruel.
That being said "Synecdoche, New York" is exactly what it should be, the longing of a successful piece of art, never quite sure of itself.
As an idea and a emotional meditation and a weepy Sunday afternoon, mid-life crisis movie, "Synecdoche, New York" is perfect. As anything else, it fails to deliver; but you cannot critique its attempt or its originality, just its execution.

Score: ★★½

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) (R)

It begins with a wink, a sly flirt to the audience, a taste of the insanity to come. It's as if Bette Davis has descended the stairs and is beckoning the viewer to buckle up for a bumpy night; yet nothing in "Mad Max: Fury Road" is ever as dignified as Davis' anti-heroine. The newest addition to the "Mad Max" franchise relishes in its insanity, found in acts of violence and cars exploding against each other. It is embodied in the bizarre, the unexplained, and the post-acocaylptic—which simultaneously feels the most genuine and the most inaccurate representation of the future yet. It takes an odd and talented, twisted director to be able to firmly define his work with such glorious contradictions; and George Miller is just the man. For an almost forty year career, his films are few and far between and aside from the "Mad Max" series, Miller is also the reason for the "Happy Feet" movies...yeah, go figure. That bears no importance to this movie, but it's kind of a fun trivia fact.
View "Fury Road" as a breath, a single breath. You take it at the beginning and hold it until your lungs burn and your eyes feel ready to pop out of your skull. It's almost too much, and often exceeds its own expectations thusly. That's not always a good thing, keep in mind. Miller's commitment to his own world is attractive as an ideal, but not as a visual or intellectual treat. "Fury Road" can often be repulsive, vile, sensationalized in the worst way, and nonsensical to the point where it's almost laughable...ah, but that's the point. Miller's bone-crunching, metal twisting, blood-spurting violence is almost enough to convince the audience of the severity of the situation.
The movie begins with a perfectly icy monologue from Max (Tom Hardy), who seems to have lost his marbles and his earth. This blue marble has long since turned to a dust bowl because of the greed of mankind and the need for expansion and power. Radiation has crippled the population and now the mads rule.
An evil leader named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) has made a capital city with a monopoly on the one necessary resource to survive: water. He lives in esteem, fear, and resentment from his subjects; but what are they going to do? After all, he is their life supply. Mr. Joe has made himself a harem of beautiful women who have bred him an army of white, often disfigured men. The women that get born are suggested to be recycled back into the system to make more men. It feels like a cesspool.
On one fine morning Max, haunted by flashbacks and voices, is captured by Joe's men and brought to the city. He puts up a good fight; but cannot overcome the masses of numbers.
Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is one of Joe's chief hunters/gatherers and she is sent out to retrieve resources from a neighboring city, no doubt already pillaged by Joe's goons. En route, she takes an unapproved detour and thus incites the wrath of the entire militia. Joe suits up and goes after her.
A lonely henchman named Nux (Nicholas Hoult) is determined to get approval from Joe, so he brings along Max, mainly as a fuel supply for his own failing blood, to track down and brink back Furiosa.
There's the setting: let the madness ensue.
All the characters mingle, weave, destroy, and assimilate each other's miniature story arcs. Miller's story as actually a delight to watch for this reason because it manages to leave you helpless to know what happens next. The rug is constantly pulled from underneath the viewer.
But it is not a faultless movie and as an intellectual commentary, which is a large part of the film, it doesn't quite satisfy my wantings. There are flirtings with feminism which don't quite flesh out, nuances about oil and water that aren't met, and other simple moments that don't feel like they belong. This is a movie that should be completely devoid of all campy sentimentality, yet it does its way in for a few moments.
Small fries in comparison with the real reason to watch the movie: the action. Yes, this is a gut-wrenching action movie and yes, it is lovely! The action sequences are by far and above the best and most ridiculously insane of anything that has been brought to screen thus far. It dwarfs the CGI attempts of superhero movies by giving its audience a taste of the steampunk orgy of monster trunk chases that it seems to be identified by. Even beyond that, the film is beautiful to look at. John Seale makes the desert look more sensational than he did for "The English Patient". It's a tremendous achievement from a technical standpoint so for that, you can't argue with the movie's appeal.
In terms of its analysis, does it really matter?
No, not really.
Miller is so swift, so adept at managing the on screen mayhem that you can forgive pretty much any sin that bobs to the surface. It is a staggering achievement and should only be regarded as such.
I live, I die, I live again!
I watch, I think, I watch again!

Score: ★★★½

Report (1967)

I don't think people give short films the respect that they deserve. These are full narrative, experiments, and questioning pieces that manage to take the emotional experience of a film and condense it. If anything, this must be harder. Take "Meshes of the Afternoon" for example. It's perhaps one of the best films ever made, and yet it doesn't take much effort to watch because of its length.
Then you have "Report" by Bruce Conner. This movie attempts to detail the media and societal emotional reaction to the assassination of President Kennedy.
For the first half of the movie, which is only six minutes long, the movie concerns the shooting to the death of JFK. The second half is about the pre-shooting pomp and circumstance, when the irony and grief is thick. The newscaster talks about Jacqueline Kennedy's dress and the secret service detailing; but there is an air of doom granted by the viewer's mind.
Certain editing tricks help Conner play with certain emotions. One repeated image is of Mrs. Kennedy trying to open a car door. Other times, it's almost nauseating the way that Conner splices film together because it's dizzying, and not in a good way.
When the film is referencing the Kennedeys appearance and the beginning of the parade, the film takes moments from the media that have nothing to do with Kennedy's assassination. Most prominently, there is a bullfighter montage which ends fairly gruesomely for the bull.
But it's all making a point, at least that's my opinion. It's all trying to insult the media for ever trying to sensationalize the death of our president. Yet here's the problem and Conner is very aware of this: we have to rely on the news, but it's part of a bigger, more vile machine.
The last image of the film has a young woman sitting at a desk, no doubt for a commercial of sorts, and she presses a button on the console in from of her. The camera zooms in to see that the button says "Sell" and then it cuts to black.

Score: ★★★½

Cyclo (1995) (Not Rated)

"Cyclo" is a quintessential 90s movie, and I mean that in the best possible way. It it reminiscent of "Amores Perros" and "Nashville" and even "Mean Streets"; but it is its own movie. It's a tapestry movie, one that attempts to look at many lives of many people throughout the running time of the movie without really condoning or disregarding any of their actions.
The movie is et in Vietnam where a young man who owns a cyclo (Le Van Loc) is just going day to day, trying to raise money. Both of his parents are dead and he now lives with his two sisters and his grandfather, all of them work all day long to help with money; but this isn't easy living. His grandfather pumps tires, his older sister carries water, and his younger sister shines shoes—this isn't illustrious or clean. The first half of "Cyclo" is the more powerful because it crackles with life. Director Tran Anh Hung finds a way to make all the elements of a family and neighborhood fit together into a chaotic, yet very genuine snapshot of life.
The plot gets moving when one day, our protagonist has his bike stolen from him from a gang and he returns to the boss lady—who lends him the cyclo—for guidance after he gets the crap beaten out of him. Then he gets taken into the underworld as we shall call it, the crime sector of Vietnam. A mysterious man (Tony Chiu Wai Leung) is given the responsibility of taking care of and keeping an eye on the young boy and he does so very silently. This man is a poet and we often hear his poetry in a voice-over narration. It's imagery heavy and often beautiful, rarely coherent.
To detail what happens next would be kind of unfair because not much happens in the movie. The characters are pushed farther and father until it seems like madness spreads like fire through the film, until it eventually simmers down and the film returns full circle. Yet Tran Ahn Hung makes sure that his emotions are never screechy nor are his actors given something to do that it is impossibly cliche. It's a very well-measure movie, even if it is hard to understand what it's trying to accomplish.
The cyclo driver's sister (Tran Nu Yên-Khê) gets involved with the poet and she becomes a prostitute of types, letting old man give her fetishes to perform. The movie jumps from the sublime to gritty and back so quickly that it often doesn't work fact, a lot of this movie doesn't.
Sure, there's a cultural difference; but "Cyclo" doesn't need a whole lot of explaining unless you are really trying to grasp every facet the movie has to offer. Instead, the viewing experience, is similar to grasping at smoke. It's almost like Terrence Malick, but maybe a little grittier than he ever was.
The anonymity of the movie, none of the characters being named, gives the film a little "everyday" feeling that I'm sure was intended.
As the movie progresses, we begin to see changes in the characters and the narrative importance is passed on like a baton from one character to the other. If you expect closure of any kind, don't bother, this is a true artsy movie and it reeks of that "foreign feel" that average audiences complain about. 
All that being said, it's a beautiful, complicated movie; but one that doesn't demand and command your attention. The plot meanders, the dialogue goes silent, the music's an experience, but nothing you can't get from an assortment of other movies.
It's bizarre and well done.

Score: ★★★

Pink Flamingos (1972) (NC-17)

John Waters' "Pink Flamingos" is one of the best worst movies...or so it was sold to me. It's an exercise in bad taste, repulsive, nauseating, and so self-important that you could almost just think that it was all about something deeper than face value; but I kind of doubt that. The movie is a cult classic in the worst sense of the word, because in the cold light of day, the grievances that the film presents can not be analyzed as any sort of social commentary...they don't deserve that. It's just a movie about shock.
I think something to keep in mind is that I watched "Pink Flamingos" completely sober in the middle of the day. I'm not sure if this was the right decision or not; but I think it was one of the more illuminating choices that I've made. "Pink Flamingos" is nothing if not a recipe for midnight showings and drinking games; but as far as cinema goes, hmmmm...I would maybe say that it's mislabeling to even say it as such.
Here we have to pause and explain the difference between critical and enjoyable movies. If I'm being a snob, I watch a movie and think pretentious thoughts throughout and then consider myself to be more important than I am. As a moviegoer, if the plot doesn't have holes, if the film is well-constructed all around, I like it. But there has to be something said for a movie that tries to cross boundaries of accepted visual horrors, because it's no longer trying to be a crowd pleaser, it's definitely aiming on making a statement and whether that statement is "fuck the system" or not, who knows?
"Pink Flamingos" begins observing a remote pink trailer in the middle of an abandoned field. Divine (Divine) has been deemed the filthiest person alive and now has to flee from the law. She has shacked up with one of her admirers Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce) and her son, Crackers (Danny Mills), as well as her egg-obsessed, mentally ill mother Edie (Edith Massey).
Her neighbors, the Marbles (David Lochary and Mink Stole) are annoyed, no enraged that Divine has continuously been called the filthiest person alive and they want to take the title from her. It becomes a battle between who can do the worst thing on screen. The Marbles have a scam going where they kidnap girls, have their manservant rape them, and then sell their babies to lesbians. Wow, charming and sweet, right?
Divine, on the other hand, is just a grotesque personality. She puts steaks in her underpants and preaches the mantra "Kill everyone now!" which while slightly amusing with all its implications kind of pales when the amount of blood and sexual vagrancies finally fade.
For a movie made 40 years ago, there are still some things that "Pink Flamingos" does that film makers today would be unwilling to make. If that sounds like your cup of tea, go on, you filthy pervert.
The movie's narrator is a curiously comical voice who seems to relish and condemn the acts of both the Marbles and Divine. Yet this is not enough to make a commentary on media and society...maybe I'm beating a dead horse with that idea—poor choice of words.
As the Marbles become more determined to knock Divine from her podium, she decides to take matters into her own hands. It becomes a shit show, and really I mean that in the most unfortunately literal way.
For some the movie is a masterwork, but for me it's just shock factors lined up after each other. It's sensationalized and maybe that's good for some; but for me, the B-movie standard of it was a little indigestible.

Score: ★

Ex Machina (2015) (R)

Robot movies inhabit a bizarre sub-genre of science fiction movies. Sure, artificial intelligence has been around for a long time in literature and television; but these films that surround A.I. often try to make some bold statement about humanity and sentience. "Ex Machina" is one such movie and it follows in the vein of "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" and "I, Robot"; but I'm not sure that it really brings anything drastically new to the sub-genre it so desperately clings to.
Ever since HAL, there has been the desire to make robots in film better than the single, red light unblinking on the dashboard of a spaceship. HAL's presence in "2001" was immeasurable even though it is only a light and a voice. Compared with that, the accomplishment of Alex Garland pales; but no one is saying he's the next Kubrick...or they better not be.
"Ex Machina" is the debut directorial movie from Garland and it reeks of "debut-ness" if I can make such a word. It's ballsy, beautiful, and not entirely thought through. The plot suffers from simple holes that could have been easily filled, the logic behind the movie is close to non-existent, and it never makes you gasp even though it leads you up to that point many, many times. In short, it's just a lightning's strike away from being genius and it falls short by so close a margin.
The movie begins with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) literally winning the lottery. He works at Google, oh, I'm sorry, Bluebooks, the biggest search engine company in the world. This lottery concerned involves a trip to go meet the creator of Google—dammit!—Bluebooks. So he packs up his bags and goes to where the lush forest meets the icy tundra (seriously, no idea where this guy is) and he meets Nathan (Oscar Isaacs), the bro-iest software engineer and code writer you will ever meet. This hermit of sorts lives in his billion dollar mansion and drinks himself into stupors like every hour is happy hour. Then he works out like crazy, pumping iron and boxing, We rarely see Nathan dressed in anything other than sweats and an undershirt; but when you're a genius who lives by themselves, I guess it's alright to be a little slack in the fashion department.
Upon meeting Caleb, Nathan lets him know that he's got a big secret; but shh, don't tell anyone. This magnificent creation is no surprise to the viewer since, uh, it's in the name of the movie and on all the posters. Unless you wandered in on your way to "Age of Ultron", you probably knew where this one was going. Robots! Ah, yes, that's right.
Nathan has brewed up an artificial intelligence and he wants Caleb to help him test it, give it the ol' Turing test, which is a phrase constantly thrown around in the movie. Naturally, Caleb consents and he meets Ava (Alicia Vikander) who is both pretty and a robot...she's a pretty robot.
Then begin the sessions in which Caleb asks her questions and like you might have assumed he starts to form an attachment to the machine, because, well, boobs. Not really, Ava is charming and sweet and her dialogue perfectly walks the tightrope between human and robot.
Yet there's something else afoot in the billionaire's mansion and after mysterious power outages start to trap Caleb in rooms, he finds that Ava is willing to impart a little wisdom: beware!
It's fairly obvious from the start that you should watch "Ex Machina" as a thriller first and a bold, intellectual sci-fi movie second. As a thriller, it works surprisingly well, since you have the perfect setting for suspense. As an innovation, it is less successful.
The actors all perform very well considering that the script they are given is nothing original. The story itself contains no surprises, no real shock, and no gut wrenching violence that was actually needed to make the film enjoyable. "Ex Machina" takes a lot of cues from "Under the Skin" because it's trying to provoke the same thought; but it cannot and, thus, we need blood.
Still, the movie bleeds some, and at times it's almost enough to make us forgive the sins of the lazy writing. Every plot point is steady, every turn is smooth, it's very well-paced and very, very, very safe. What's amazing about this is that, all narrative faults taken into account, it works as a suspense piece.
Garland makes sure to provide commentary about gender and the nature of machines vs humans with how he pairs most every session Caleb has with Ava with a nature shot of the beautiful terrain. "Ex Machina" is ripe for analysis, though I think that venture would be fruitless.
It's a crowd-pleasing movie disguised as an art-house project; but don't hold that against it. It's trying its best and sometimes this makes for wickedly good watching and sometimes it doesn't.
Gleeson is incredibly likable, Isaacs is just douchey enough, and Vikander brings a subtlety to her performance that makes it enjoyable. All-in-all, "Ex Machina" is rock solid entertainment; but not an experience or a revelation. I look forward to seeing what Garland can do next because he has the potential to create a true masterpiece; but this wasn't it.

Score: ★★★

Man Bites Dog (1992) (NC-17)

"Man Bites Dog" is a curiously experimental film about the human condition. God, how pretentious! I mean, how many movie reviews start out like that? Like really, how many? I'm not going to go count the all...also, I had no idea how to start, so welcome to my rambling.
The French mockumentary provides us with a look at the sub-genre that we never got before, how disturbing it can really be. When you think about the vagrancies presented on screen as fact, it's almost impossible not to get a little chill run up your spine, particularly because of the care-free and laissez faire way in which it is introduced to the story. Murder is just another day in the park and the filmmakers, a trio of students, make the right decision by not allowing themselves to make an commentary or answer about what could provoke such a, to quote Lydia Davis, variety of disturbances.
The movie begins with a murder. A woman walks past a man on a train and he wraps a wire around her neck, pulls her into a room, and kills her. The film makes it seem like this is just going to be France's version of a Tarantino flick, but no, the very next scene reveals it as a documentary, albeit a fake one.
Benoît Poelvoorde (all actors play themselves in the movie) is a killer, but this isn't "Henry: A Portrait of a Serial Killer" because Ben seems to get some sort of glee from killing. It's his favorite thing. We get no scenes implying that he is compelled to do it or that it is morally destroying him. No, he just kills and he kills a whole lot. The amount of bodies that appear on screen or disappear into rivers are almost too many to count. Ben is a busy boy.
Then there's the filmmakers, lead by Rémy Belvaux, who also is the man behind the concept of the movie. Rémy and crew follow Ben around and wait for him to strike and slowly but surely the observer gets pulled into the action. There is no such thing as an unbiased viewer and Rémy soon finds himself helping out with the murders and covering up bodies for Ben, who cannot seem to be contained.
Described like that, "Man Bites Dog" seems like a real horrorshow (Kubrick would have appreciated the movie, I think), but the film's care-free approach to topics that most certainly deserve more severity leaves the viewer wallowing in Ben's world and eat the dogma he spits out.
It's almost more disturbing that there is no vile recoiling occurring here until the last few scenes in which everything crumbles.
"Man Bites Dog" does not want us to believe in its truth, and I think that's what helps the viewer distance themselves from the movie. This isn't "The Blair Witch Project" though it most definitely is the father to the horror film, because it likes to leave a little space where logical thought can penetrate the realistic way the film is shot.
Take for instance a moment when two film crews meet, both following men who kill men. This is sort of the introspective moment that truncates all the film's emotional power. It's zany and slightly funny and ends bloody; but hey, it was entertaining.
Of course, maybe I'm missing everything and the film is really a commentary on what we find enjoyable. After all, the filmmakers are convinced that making a movie about a man devoid of morals will be worthwhile. Why would that be, if they didn't feel like their movie could sell?
Naturally, the film ends the only way it could; but I don't think that it's a predictable movie. "Man Bites Dog" is scary because it is about the insane people that live on the corner of your street or sleep in your house as children.
Perhaps it's a little too sensationalized; but that doesn't stop it from being ground-breaking.

Score: ★★★