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Out in Theaters: ‘COCO’

Perhaps I am dead inside but I can’t scrub free the feeling that Coco hits all the right notes but still feels like the same old song. Pixar, the studio responsible for such masterpieces of modern animation as Wall-E, Toy Story, Up and Monsters Inc., appears more than ever to have sold out, peddling mediocre stories lathered in an admittedly marvelous coat of digital paint. We all knew this day was coming at some point, Disney’s acquisition of the once smallish, creatively independent studio renowned for delivering one stunner after another a warning sign of impending doom. I remember an age where I used to anticipate a new Pixar film just as much as a new Batman film. My how the times have changed. Pixar has quite simply become formulaic and Coco, while charming, loaded with delightful music and animated with the immaculate medium-pressing precision that Pixar is known for, just feels rote.

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Out in Theaters: ‘THE BFG’

Our eyelids flow in the same direction as the Frobscottle bubbles in Steven Spielberg’s paperweight adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved The BFG : down. All the chartreuse-tinted whizpopping, electric neon dream-wrangling and slime-smelling snozzcumber buffets in the land can’t ameliorate The BFG’s nominal narrative offerings. Though Spielberg admirably ditches the chaotic whirligig of headache-inducing parade of non-stop action that defines much modernized children fare for something less expository and more steeped in otherworldly awe, his knack for forging wonder has receded like the gums of a past her prime monarch leaving us with a rather unremarkable, but ceaselessly shiny, icon of 21st century nostalgia pop art. Read More

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Out in Theaters: COP CAR

Succinctness in the contemporary thriller is a rare and precious virtue. In the case of Cop Car, the brute simplicity of the narrative and visuals make for a dread-filled, inexorable ride through an experience of unadulterated suspense and brutal humor. 

Cop Car begins innocently (though worryingly) enough: two pre-teens cross an empty expanse somewhere flat, sun-drenched and dry; one is reciting increasingly bad swear words, which the other repeats, laying out the dynamic of their relationship that will lead, inevitably, to what comes next. They spot an apparently abandoned cop car in a lonely copse and dare each other to get closer, until they are not only sitting in the front seats but driving it – slowly at first, then egging each other on to hit the 100mph mark. The film cuts to moments before: Kevin Bacon, who we learn is the sheriff, parks the same car where they will find it, and begins a bit of “cleanup” work just outside of hearing range; when he returns, the car is gone, and so the chase begins. Read More

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Out in Theaters: LILA & EVE

Lila & Eve has the typical makings of a Lifetime Films production: sudden, out of context tragedy, crappy justice systems, female vigilantism, and unlikely friendships forged by way of grief. Starring Viola Davis as Lila, a mother who has lost her son in a seemingly accidental drive-by shooting, Lila & Eve is a film that can’t quite grasp a perspective and stick to it. Directed by Charles Stone III, most notably known for Drumline, his latest summer release falls short of being a thriller, yet has plenty of mind-numbing, shoot-’em-up action. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ANT-MAN

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I’ve always wondered where our preoccupation with size came from. Maybe cause I’ve never been the biggest, or because I’ve always been more taken by the diminutive: as a self-entitled critic, attention to detail is my craft. Fortunately for movie-goers, so it goes for the folks at Marvel and Ant-Man director Peyton Reed. This edition’s got a new musk, and underneath that an exoskeletal husk of comedic explosion and graphic excitement that rivals its full-sized super-compatriots. With Ant-Man, the folks at Marvel forgot how to make a superhero movie as usual, and pumped out one of the best Marvel adaptations yet. Read More

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21 Shows I'm Watching/Have Watched in 2014 RANKED

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Because people won’t read it unless you rank it, I’ve decided to lay out all the new or ongoing shows I’m watching or have watched this year. As a criteria of sorts, I’m only including shows of which I’ve watched all the episodes of and am up to date on. So nothing that I’ve just taken a peek at, watched an ep here or there, or any shows that are already over and done with.

So even though I’m desperately trying to get in on The Wire, it’s not included on the list. Breaking Bad wrapped last year so it won’t earn a spot here. I’ve been making my way through Freaks and Geeks but that also won’t claim a listing. And though I have my eye on Masters of Sex, Halt and Catch Fire and Ray Donovan, amongst others, I haven’t gotten to them yet so again, ineligible. Likewise, I’ve seen the first episode of The Strain but can’t anticipate what the rest of the season will hold so it’s on the outside looking in.

In addition to ranking the shows based on my personal preference, I’ve also thrown in a favorite episode from the last season that’ll give you a taste of the better elements of the show. I’m sure there will be much disagreement so feel free to join in on the discussion and tell me where I’m wrong.

21. Modern Family (ABC)

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Though not as contrarian as its first seasons seemed to be, the newest episodes of Modern Family keeps up the elements of the show that works, even while laying on thick some of those that don’t. Ty Burrell as Phil remains the biggest draw in a show that’s really hit or miss depending on who’s onscreen (I could do with less of the white Dunphy kids.) Though it may be a touch too family-friendly and borderline castrated at times, the stable of writers do manage to tactfully slip in a fair share of guffaw-able double entendres. Best ep: “A Hard Jay’s Night”

20. The Americans (FX)

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This FX original sees a pair of Russian spies living undercover in American in the height of the Cold War. Everything about their lives are a manicured lie, all the way down to their marriage. Having kids though has thrown a wrench into the works and, in this second season, has become an obstacle that cannot be overlooked. Featuring strong performances from leads Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, it’s a ballsy thriller that probes ideas of loyalty, allegiance and sacrifice. It may not be a show that’ll immediately win you over but it’s consistently solid and will have you coming back to check in with this morally ambiguous deuo. Best ep: “Trust Me”

19. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

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After an overrated first season, this second year of Netflix’s most popular show reigned in the more bombastic elements to showcase a smaller, quieter prison character drama. It may be running dry on back story and certainly seems like a show with an inevitable end of the road, so any audience best grow used to this kind of baby-stepping, but in narrowing the scope, the writers have showcased a knack for making those small moments matter. So long as the side characters continue to be fleshed out, Piper continues to grow and change, and that willy Alex manages to keep sticking her nose into things, Orange is the New Black should continue to be a compelling journey worth taking. Best ep: “Thirsty Bird”

18. Parks and Recreation (NBC)

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Everyone is forced to watch at least a few cable network sitcom and I’ve place my chips with Parks and Recs for good reason. Although it took a few seasons to really get off the ground, Parks has really hit a stride over the past few years, one that has been admittedly disrupted by the painful departure of Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe. Still, with a crew that includes Ron Offerman, Chris Pratt, Aziz Ansari, Adam Scott and Aubrey Plaza, a writing team with an armada of pun-heavy and visual gag-laden comic beats, and Amy Poehler as the relentlessly enthusiastic Leslie Knope really holding the show together with an iron-strong grip, Parks and Recs continues to represent the best of cable. Best ep: “The Cones of Dunshire”

17. American Horror Story (FX)

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With each season going down a whole new rabbit hole, American Horror Story is really like nothing else on television. Grotesque, eerie and lead by a great female cast, Coven may have skimped on some of the more insane elements that earlier seasons provided, but it certainly told the most complete, well-rounded story yet. Jessica Lange returns again, largely because Horror Story quite frankly has some of the best roles for women in all of television, and she simply knocks it out of the park. Series regulars Sarah Paulson, Frances Conroy and Evan Peters all feature heavily contributing to this being a fully compelling, if not always perfect season of a show that’s really off the map. Best ep: “Go to Hell”

16. House of Cards (Netflix)

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Netflix hit a nerve with the first season of House of Cards and has now followed it up with an equally bombastic second season. This jet black political thriller sees witness to Kevin Spacey‘s bottom-feeding Frank Underwood skillfully scaling the political ladder. It’s at once deeply unsettling and completely captivating; a tragic yet true satire of the American political system; and yet, it’s impossible to look away from. We find ourselves rooting for that cold, callous politician just to see what is he capable of, despite his crusty, false demeanor, and tricksy, nay evil, deeds. Underwood’s long-con quality of scheming is something that only a show released on Netflix’s “all at once” timetable can legitimize and keeps us from halting the automated onslaught that is “Play Next”.  Matching Spacey step for step is Robin Wright, the under-sung, impossibly cold shero of the show who balances the whole thing out like tea to crumpets. Best ep: “Chapter 22”

15. Sons of Anarchy (FX)

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Though it’s had a bit of a spotty history in the past, this most recent season of the motorcycle drama brought big change and some huge moments for long-time fans. Season six was quite simply a game-changer and although that meant many “Oh shit” moments, all of the big beats felt earned and inevitable. Nothing speaks more to the fact that violence begets violence than a show about gun-running and all the tragic side effects that go with it. Best ep: “Aon Rud Persanta”

14. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX)

It kind of blows my mind that It’s Always Sunny has been on the air for nine seasons but, well, I guess I’m getting old. I remember watching the first season and laughing my ass off, becoming a committed fan from there on out. And thankfully, the gang has not disappointed. Though they’ve stumbled a few times over the past couple years, season nine really ratcheted things up, adding new elements to a premise that refuses to quit. Charlie Day might still be my favorite but goddamn if all these guys aren’t the funniest comic actors working. So long as they keep making them, I’ll keep watching them. Best ep: “The Gang Saves the Day”

13. Homeland (Showtime)

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The saga of Carrie Matheson and Nicholas Brody made the first season of Homeland an impervious guessing game, fleshed into something even more strange and organic in season two and has morphed into a whole new realm of star-crossed lovership with Showtime’s latest season. Though there were some missteps this season; one which was all about not being ready to let go; they aptly course correct in the closing moments, offering some of the most haunting, soul-rending television you could hope for. Best ep: “The Star”

12. Silicon Valley (HBO)

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Mike Judge returns to the sardonic workplace drama with Silicon Valley, a show that showed immense potential that paid off more and more as the season drew on. Nerds get a bad wrap with shows like The Big Bang Theory (spare me) and Silicon Valley shows them in a whole new light: in their crippling aversion to the spotlight. Even with only eight episodes for this first season, Kumail Nanjiani came out of thin air to become one of the funniest characters of the year. If they keep piling on the jokes like they did with the last episode (which featured the best running dick joke of the year), we can look forward to a very fortuitous second season. Best ep: “Optimal Tip-To-Tip Efficiency”

11. Legit (FX)

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Jim Jefferies is an Australian comedian who just doesn’t give a fuck. His brand of stoner-playboy comedy is entirely his own and when afforded the creative freedom to really take the show into whatever direction he sees fit, we the audience are rewarded with an oft-kilter, unapologetically hilarious and often emotionally resonant dramedy. Like Louie, you never quite know where any episode is going to go but you can always expect some memorable quirk from Jefferies and his competent co-stars Dan Bakkedahl and DJ Qualls. Best ep: “Love”

10. South Park (Comedy Central)

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As politically astute, satirically sound and completely absurd as ever, South Park is a testament to Trey Parker and Matt Stone‘s enduring brilliance. Though the seasons have been getting shorter and shorter, each episode is still as pointed and thorny as ever, refusing to spare anyone or anything in its quest to take a stab at the ridiculousness that is the world and its various systems and characters within. This season had a four-episode arc that turned disdain for Black Friday culture into an all-encompassing, truly epic Game of Thrones satire. Keep keeping on boys. Best ep: “The Hobbit”

9. Review (Comedy Central)

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An out-of-left-field home run from Comedy Central, Review is a simple enough premise: a man takes requests to review not movies, books nor food but life experiences. The result is unspeakably comical. Andy Daly owns the role of Forrest MacNeil as he charges into various life outings, each of which becomes a part of his character progression, building into a layer cake of laughs. It’s unlike anything else on television and so single-mindedly funny and wholly original, it’s a challenge not to bust through all nine episodes in one go. Best ep: “Orgy: Road Rage”

8. The Leftovers (HBO)

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Damon Lindelof‘s latest outing may have just started, but the first few episodes have been mighty impressive and intensely intriguing. The Leftovers follows the events of a small town after 2% of the entire Earth’s population suddenly, inexplicably disappeared into thin air. The third episode alone will be enough to reel in most new viewers, as it plays like a kind of full narrative film with a ripping three-act structure and a killer performance from Christopher Eccleston. Percolating with mystery and some already complex, rounded characters, The Leftovers looks like it may fill the sci-fi-lite gap left by Lost four years back. Be warned though, Lindelof has already stated that if you’re only around to figure out why everyone off and disappeared, you might as well stop watching now. Best ep: “Two Boats and a Helicopter”

7. The Walking Dead (AMC)

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What a divisive year The Walking Dead has had. While many thought the splintering of the group led to less “action”, it meant an increased focus on character development, especially between factors that had not previously interacted. It was a great way to trim the fat and center the show on what really matters: us caring about these people. Sure AMC’s zombie make-up continues to be the pinnacle of horror effects the movie world over but if we don’t care when they chomp into a survivor, it’s all for naught. Season four did a great job at making us care. Best ep: “The Grove”

6. Broad City (Comedy Central)

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Forget Girls, Broad City is the sacrosanct, feminist NYC chic comedy you need to watch. Adapted from their popular web series, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer‘s Broad City is through and through hilarious, taking stabs at cultural norms and flipping our expectations of girls gone wild on its head. In the same vein as Obvious Child or Frances Ha, Broad City is new-age feminist hoopla that happily celebrates how gross it is to be a girl in all its charmless glory. Best ep: “Fattest Asses”

5. Louie (FX)

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Louie is brilliant for many reasons. First of all, it’s not really a comedy. Not really. It’s what Judd Apatow‘s Funny People wanted to be. It’s about the trials and tribulations of a comic. More than that, it’s about the trials and tribulations of being a man. Most of all though, it’s about the trials and tribulations of being a human. Uproarious when it needs to be, poignant when it wants, Louie is as philosophical a show as you can get. More importantly, i’s unafraid to go to rather dark and unexpected places and take on some serious issues, when it’s not making doo-doo jokes. It might not be for everyone but everyone should give it a taste. Best ep: “So Did the Fat Lady”

4. True Detective (HBO)

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True Detective is easily the biggest “cult” hit of the year, complete with a rabid fan-based that’s poised and ready to attack if one lodges even the smallest complaint at the show, so I’m gonna approach with caution. Did True Detective have some of the best performances of the entire year? Yes. Did it feature some truly outstanding sequences? Absolutely. Was it always “must watch” television? Not always. I mean, let’s be honest, it took a while to warm up to the plot, which was devilishly slow for the first few eps. But by the fourth episode, with that impractically amazing long shot, I was in it to win it with all the rest of you. Matt McCougnahey and Woody Harrelson both deserve buckets of praise and then some, a complicated pleasure to watch from the very first moments. But once the plot thickened, it was impossible to look away from the story they were a part of as well. Truly an achievement but still not the absolute best of the year, I’m waiting in the wings to see what creator Nic Pizzolatto is able to pull off next. Best ep: “Who Goes There”

3. Sherlock (BBC)

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Sherlock, Sherlock, Sherlock. The whole fake death thing may have seemed a bit like jumping the shark to some but only a show written with such smarmy shlock and simple smarts could make you feel silly for ever doubting them in the first place. This most recent season of Sherlock oddly enough turns out to be the best yet, with all three of the monumentally lengthy “episodes” offering something new to the ongoing relationship between Holmes and Watson while ratcheting up the tension to ridiculous degrees. To not watch Sherlock is to do yourself a disservice. Get on it. Best ep: “The Sign of Three”

2. Game of Thrones (HBO)

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I make no secret of the fact that I’m a total Game of Thrones nerd so it ought to be no surprise that this one debuts so high on my list. From the impossibly thick stable of characters to the absurdly impressive sets, locations, props and costumery, to the movie-quality visual effects and a hallmark for killing off every character you care for, GoT shows a genre-defying willingness to go where no show has gone before. Nothing is sacred, everything is fluid. If you’re not willing to change, you won’t last long in the world of Westeros just as you won’t last long as an audience member. But what cements the whole thing is show-runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss‘ ability to keep everything together while also making the show their own beast, and the while pacing the sprawling affair masterfully as they mount George R.R. Martin‘s magnum opus like the great dragon masters of lore. Best ep: “The Mountain and the Viper”

1. Fargo (FX)

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An astounding product from start to finish, this FX series masterfully takes the tone of the Coen Bros 1996 classic while bringing new (implausibly more interesting) characters and relationships into the fold. It’s an epic piece of cinema on the small screen, adroit in every department. Writing, directing, acting, you name it, it’s top notch here. Martin Freeman, Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Keith Carradine, Adam Goldberg, Glenn Howerton, Oliver Platt, Key and Peele all offer career best work with Billy Bob Thornton throwing down a show-stopper as the show’s professional antagonist. It’s a must see in the purest of forms and one I would urge you all to seek out immediately. Best ep: ALL OF THEM!

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So if we go ahead and tally up which networks take the cake in this best of list, we’d have:
FX (7), HBO (4), Comedy Central (3), Netflix (2), BBC (1), Showtime (1), AMC (1), ABC (1), NBC (1)

Obviously, I’ve dedicated a good chunk of time to watching my shows and would urge you to steer me towards anything that you would think ought to rank on this list. So there you have it. What would you add?

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SIFF Capsule Recap #1 (ZIP ZAP, HELLION, JIMI, FIGHT CHURCH)

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According to the rules of the Seattle International Film Festival, reviews for most films need to be kept to brief capsules (75 quick words of glory) until their respective local release. So in my pursuit to oust my opinion without breaking regulation, I will be blasting out capsule recaps for the coming weeks. So, short and sweet reading for you, much more time to see movies for me. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Fight Church

dir. Daniel Junge, Bryan Storkel (USA)

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Christians may preach turning the cheek but this bunch is all about turning said cheek to a bloody pulp. Following a group of otherwise devout pastors who prove their devotion to Him cage-style, Daniel Junge and Bryan Storkel‘s documentary offers a peek into a fascinating world that you would have never suspected exists but fails to cement a sense of imminent purpose beyond surface-level intrigue. Probably would work better as a short than full length doc.  (C)

Hellion

dir. Kat Candler star. Aaron Paul, Josh Wiggins, Juliette Lewis (USA)

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Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) stars as newly widowed father Hollis to exuberant (in a fire-starting sort of way) sons Jacob (off-to-a-strong-start newcomer Josh Wiggins) and younger, innocent but corruptible Wes. Ships turns towards rocky shoals as the pitfalls of young fraternity sail towards bleak recompense and ultimate tragedy. There’s enough heartbreak in Kat Candler‘s cheerless drama to go around and soulful performances to match, with this dusty no-man’s land of bum-fuck wherever offering a poignant peek into the languor of plain’s living, with all its scuzzy fruitlessness and paths towards damnation. (C+)

JIMI: All is By My Side

dir. John Ridley star. Andre 3000, Imogen Poots, Hayley Atwell, Burn Gorman, Ruth Negga  (UK)

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A thoughtful mess but a mess nonetheless with Andre 300 laying down an unexpectedly solid turn as the pre-Woodstock Hendrix. His take feels closer to imitation than anything but it’s certainly outside the customary league of rappers-turned-actors one might expect. Director/writer John Ridley paints a picture of un-famous (and slightly infamous) Jimi with a rounded view, giving us a glimpse of a performer who few knew and may not have even known himself, but the faulty editing seeks to sabotage the movie at every turn. (C)

Zip Zap and the Marble Gang

dir. Oskar Santos star. Javier Gutiérrez, Raúl Rivas, Daniel Cerezo, Claudia Vega, Fran García, Marcos Ruiz (Spain)

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Familiar even in a foreign language (it’s Spanish), this child-lead romp is formulaic but still largely charmed. The premise follows a group of social outcasts who band together at a tortuous summer school to reclaim the lost treasure of the school’s misunderstood founder. It’s kinship to Goonies and Harry Potter means a readily consumable family feature but it lacks the magic and awe-striking wonder of a great adventure movie. (C)

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Out in Theaters: NYMPHOMANIAC: PART 1

“Nymphomaniac: Part 1”
Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgard, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark
Drama
118 Mins
NR

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Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Joe, a woman looking back on her life with deep-seated scorn, hounding for condemnation, beaten and broken. We meet her lying on the knotted facade of a cobblestone street corner, caked with dark, unexplained bruises, limp and abandoned like a dove craddling a broken wing. To the head banging tune of Rammstein‘s thumping German heavy metal, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) spots Joe crumpled under a gentle but deadly snowfall. After attempts to contact the authorities are met with threats of her fleeing the scene, he takes her home for some bed rest and a steamy cup of Earl Grey.

Upon his bed, she finds in Seligman’s comfort a private confessional for her laundry list of lustful sins. Seligman is her priest, her unwavering forgiver, her absolver of indecencies past and present. From the first chapter of her life of loose sexual morals, Seligman is compassionate and curious towards Joe. It’s a first contact moment, like an alien interviewing its first human. The only way he knows how to approach her is by relating her carnal conquests to the deft arts of fly fishing.

Seligman seeks to understand the instinctual explanations behind her erotic urges, quickly transforming into a dual supporter and therapist for Joe. As she attempts to rap off her worst transgressions,  Seligman is there with a sound interpretation of why she’s not really to blame. Their offbeat relationship is entirely unique, a perversely complex dance of savior and saved, all anchored by Gainsbourg and Skaarsgard’s wonderfully grounded pair of performances.

While Gainsbourg prattles off her top of the charts, worst of the worst list of dirty deeds like a dark fairy tale narrator, Stacy Martin guides us through the experiences firsthand. From the inklings of her sexual self-discovery to her playing a game of “who can bang the most dudes on this train ride,” Joe is a force of nature and Martin’s fearless performance paves the way for her undying depth of character. Though the older, more embittered version of Joe brews with regret and self-hatred, young Joe is full of life. She wants the whole world of men, in every shape, size and color.

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Joe’s sexuality is her weapon and she wields it like a long sword. Having managed to completely divorce sex from emotional connection, as her list of suitors grow so does her heartlessness. Eventually managing entire relationships by the roll of a dice, Joe gets tangled up in a hysterical middle chapter led with brutish force by an unbound Uma Thurman. It’s been years since Thurman has put her name to something so iconic and unforgettable. And in a film stuffed with fantastic performances, hers is an implausible highlight, impossible to ignore. Her brief vignette brings humor and hardship to the table, serving them up as the same dish, indistinguishable and essential as one and the same.

In this marriage of comedy and tragedy, Trier mines the unparalleled success of Nymphomaniac. Captured through an admirable stripped down cinesphere of grubby locales and queued with a truly bipolar score, the technical aspects surrounding the film are a deft house of cards. Without cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro‘s grim but provocative pictures, the uninviting hospitality of Trier’s landscape would lose its oddly captivating appeal. In a way, Joe’s scarred humanity is a victim of circumstance, a product of his European bleakness.

Through all, Joe’s often brutal, cold mentality is accented by Trier’s uncharacteristically warm and understanding direction. For all her self-deprecation, we’re left wondering what to make of her tidal wave of remorse, especially in a patriarchal society. Would an older gentleman display such penitence? Obviously not. Is her unscrupulous vaginal record the fault of her ice queen mother? A few hours in, we haven’t yet pinpointed the source of Joe’s despondent temperament but we’re beginning to understand. And though old Joe may be depressive, Trier’s film most certainly is not.

An oddball combination for sure, it’s truly a wonder that Nymphomaniac works as well as it does, especially considering that this is only the first part of an ongoing saga (and you definitely feel the punch of a truncated story). One might have thought that nearly five hours of sexual confession (and one montage of penises) is too much. After seeing the first two hours though, all I can say is bring on part 2.

A-

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Out in Theaters: BAD GRANDPA

“Bad Grandpa”
Directed by Jeff Tremaine
Starring Johnny Knoxville, Jackson Nicoll, Greg Harris, Georgina Cates, Kamber Hejlik, and Spike Jonze.
Comedy
92 Mins
R

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Oh Jackass, your combination of filthy jokes, raunchy slapstick, and hidden-camera non-sequiturs are as amusing as they are tasteless. This mixture is the defining factor and key draw for Jackass fans since the days of the TV show that gave the franchise it’s start. Bad Grandpa has this sophomoric concoction in spades, and for those who are willing to suspend their seriousness and not scrutinize the themes to closely, it’s great entertainment. Unlike previous Jackass incarnations though, Bad Grandpa is not a jumbled collection of skits: it has a plot line and defined characters, and dare I say, more depth than any of its predecessors.

 The characters of Bad Grandpa aren’t (completely) unique. Johnny Knoxville reprises his persona as Irving Zissman, foul-tempered and lecherous grandfather who’s penchant for horrible pickup lines, over-the-top geriatric foibles, and deviant public sexuality has proved over and over again to be genuinely disturbing to average bystanders and hilarious to the franchise’s fans. Across from him is Jackson Nicoll who plays Billy, an impressionable youth with tragic prospects and an unchecked mouth, an enfant terrible whose one-liners and crude banter come off as innocent and misguided to anyone not in the joke. With the exception of scattered actors and jackass co-conspirators who help the pair set up their jokes, the true stars are the odd-couple and the confused, sometimes-disgruntled, and always unsuspecting public who get to watch them up close.

The story, although modeled after the sincere and heartbreaking comedy Paper Moon in ’73, starts at first as a vehicle for Zissman and Billy’s raucous stunts and gags. Zissman’s wife Gloria, a frequently raunchy co-conspirator in the other Jackass films played by Spike Jonze, has just died, leaving Zissman finally free to spread his aging oats. Simultaneously Zissman’s daughter, who it is established by Billy in the opening scenes is going to jail for being a crack addict, drops Billy on Zissman in the middle of Gloria’s funeral with instructions to take the boy to his irresponsible father to be taken care of. Although Zissman initially resists, the two eventually form a bond through constant public japery at bystander’s expense and frequent back-and-forths revolving around their unlikely comradely.

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What distinguishes this from other Jackass films is it’s very conceit of being plot driven. Typically, the lewd pranks Zissman pulls give fans comfortable distance because of their temporary nature: Knoxville does the Zissman bit, the Jackass boys get a good laugh in, and then they cut to a totally unrelated skit. In Bad Grandpa, Knoxville has committed to his role. Zissman, although crude and obtuse, is a character, has a personality, a history, and a future in this film. For all of his vulgarity, he has moments that seem altogether sincere and as his journey with his grandson Billy progresses, you can feel a real connection. It sheaths the normally unconnected jokes in the duo’s inner life and provides a level of depth that, although not enough to constitute character growth or definition, is not nearly as shallow as other Jackass conceits.

The hidden camera jokes in this framework are both the reasons that the film was made and the situational action that moves the internal relationship between Billy and Zissman forward. As such, the real people and their reactions have real impact on the arcs of the scripted characters. These bystanders, comedic “marks”, typically fall into categories: the gullible mark, the disgruntled mark, the apathetic, and the laughing co-conspirator who, although not completely aware of what’s going on, is still in on the joke.  They instigate, they get angry, they play along, and their jaws drop in disbelief, and in many ways they steal the gag. The line between pranker and comic victim becomes blurry in several scenes, and these add a level of enjoyment that suggests the incredible work involved in producing these scenes.

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All of this – the responsive characters, chemistry, and the wonderful cross-section of American life that Knoxville, Jeff Tremaine and co. were able to film – make for nimble comedy. They have not lost any of their spirit or their awful taste, but the movie feels more mature somehow than the wolf pack that Jackass typically focuses on. The gleeful defiance against the mundane day-to-day that their pranks rely upon feels more refined and the moments of bonding and feeling between Zissman and Billy feel very honest and genuine. From golf courses to junior beauty pageants, the two fail social convention and blunder through any event they find themselves in. Yet, the self-deprecating drama Knoxville and Nicoll embark on seems earnest and heartfelt, and that makes the regular Jackass tropes shine brighter in Bad Grandpa.

Jackass has never pretended seriousness. They consistently play the buffoon and perform painful and self-deprecating stunts to shock bystanders and get belly laughs from audiences. Bad Grandpa is an evolution on the Jackass formula that is quite welcome – almost needed. Knoxville and Nicoll play their roles wonderfully and the gags, the writing, and the concepts didn’t miss a beat. It’s flinch-worthy in plenty of ways, and it has some jokes that don’t fall as well as others. The majority of the jokes are polished and without imperfection, and it feels like Knoxville is coming into a second wind.  What it offers is generously entertaining and an hour well spent, and despite it flaws, it is a fun with something really worthwhile to give.

B+

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Out in Theaters: ESCAPE PLAN

“Escape Plan”
Directed by Mikael Håfström
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, Faran Tahir, Amy Ryan, Sam Neill, Vincent D’Onofrio and 50 Cent.
Action, Mystery, Thriller
116 Mins
R

There’s a lot to be said for how entertaining a shoot-em up picture can be if handled with tact and the right people. Escape Plan dispenses with tact and focuses entirely on the “right” people, serving as a vehicle for the film’s stars to get into fights and be brooding, tough-guy stereotypes over a page-one rewrite of Escape from Alcatraz. Crass in all the wrong places, Escape Plan is a superficial viewing experience that takes the prison break formula to its extreme, both in plot elements and in believability. Where it should soar in scope, it exploits its star power, avoiding “setting the scene” or providing any action sequences that are even on par with the films that Escape Plan tries to emulate.

The film stars Sylvester Stallone as a prison break-out expert who literally wrote the book on reinforcing prisons alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger as his later accomplice, Jim Caviezel as their diabolical warden, and Vincent D’Onofrio as Stallone’s business partner. D’Onofrio and fellow cast members Faran Tahir, Amy Ryan, Sam Neill, and 50 Cent barely get a couple one-liners each on screen in a film focused entirely on Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s conflict with Caviezel, which isn’t terribly surprising. It’s obvious this is a B-movie, one that seems to exist entirely so that Schwarzenegger and Stallone can remind fans that they’re tough action heroes, even though both are in their sixties. The casting is rife with stereotypical roles that are never fleshed out, and even for a pulp film the portrayals are pretty shallow.

Stallone, we’re told, has made a living for the better part of the last decade breaking out of prisons and writing about prison security as part of his partnership with D’Onofrio at the security firm they jointly own. When a job comes Stallone’s way from the CIA to break out of a private prison where the “worst of the worse” are held, Stallone signs up after about a minute’s hesitation, only to discover that he’s been set up. He meets Schwarzenegger in this supposedly state-of-the-art successor to the black box prisons America utilizes and the rest of the movie is them using ingenuity, their muscles, and all the guns they can find to get out of the place alive. No elaborate stage-setting here, just Schwarzenegger and Stallone as they face the worst excesses of American imperialism. Their back stories and even names pale in importance in comparison to their stoicism and prison beat down skills.

The film deals with a number of surprisingly dark topics – private prisons, prison brutality, lack of transparency and accountability, American imperial overreach – with cavalier and fascicle levity, the themes serving as shallow reasons for the two aging stars to get themselves into a hard spot they have to punch and shoot their way out of. The formula of a prison break has been given much higher stakes here than in many previous iterations – Stallone is an expert on prison breakouts and the prison he’s at is the best private prison for the worst (read: mass-murdering, insane, anti-American) prisoners. While this would tow the line for a lot of B-movie criteria if it were more tongue-in-cheek or even slightly more visually descriptive, instead we’re left with a simple treatment of extraordinary problems without the assurance of a campy joke or at least some amusing action thrills.

The problem that this film has as its core is that it pretends to take itself seriously and then fails to deliver on its gravitas. Instead of embracing it’s camp and going over the top, the fight scenes and prison breakouts are remarkably commonplace to the genre and feel muted. The strongman act that both Stallone and Schwarzenegger have made wonderful and storied careers out of needs to be balanced by overwhelming action – typically violent – that these silent-types end up employing in the pursuit of their goal. Escape Plan falls short in this regard, making you wait instead for the one shot that reminds you of Rambo or whatever film you’d rather be seeing these stars in. There are a lot of problematic depictions of Islamic inmates and of gender dynamics that are a little too phobic and regressive for discerning tastes, and if they’d only made the action more intense and the setting a little better, it might have started to compensate for these foul-breathed shortcomings.

The prison, pitched as an ultra hi-tech Panopticon, is aesthetically unimpressive. With block names like Babylon and an aspiration to present the best prison ever built, you’d think they’d have spent a little more effort on the spectacle. Instead, you get Plexiglas boxes on stilts and prison guards who, despite their black face masks, look more like mall cops then deadly security contractors. The visuals and set pieces don’t have the kind of hellish quality you’d expect from a place where the most dangerous international figures are housed. Even the other inmates barely looked like they belonged in Oz, much less in the Alcatraz of the War on Terror era. The styling of the place wouldn’t cut in in the 80’s films that Escape Plan wants to be like, and that apparently no effort was made to bridge that gap is disappointing.

Even when those moments come up, the moments that the film was made for – Schwarzenegger machine-guns a bunch of goons, the villains gets their comeuppances, and Stallone delivers the beat down of the movie to the head guard – aren’t as satisfying when taking the movie in as a whole.  The explosions aren’t as big as they should be, the final lines aren’t catchy enough, and the fighting scenes are so poorly executed that you never really feel like the heroes are in any danger. Sure, they may have had torture to put up with, but they were never so broken down that they didn’t have the upper hand against their over-maniacal and wonderfully incompetent jailers. That the film shortchanges audiences in those smaller, establishing scenes lessens the glory of the moments that were the most visceral, leaving all but the most ardent Stallone/Schwarzenegger devotees feeling stiffed.

You want to like a film like Escape Plan if you’re into low-budget action films, but they didn’t put in enough effort to sell the premise and they didn’t make the action scenes extravagant enough to compensate for that lack of scene-setting. It lacks enough camp to B-movie homage and is not bold or funny enough, unintentional or otherwise, to be a regular B-movie. This is the kind of film that would go straight to DVD if it had other stars then the ones it has, making the many missed opportunities for action or spectacle hurt even more. If you have to see everything that Schwarzenegger or Stallone has been in, you’ll see this anyways. If not, do yourself a favor and rent Predator or First Blood instead.

D

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