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Out in Theaters: ’20TH CENTURY WOMEN’

Mike Mills’ 3rd feature film takes him to the tail end of the groovy seventies where a pubescent boy is raised by a freewheeling mother and two other women whose help she enlists. Though nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Comedy, 20th Century Women is a loose-lipped drama first and foremost; an exploration of youth and young manhood through the lens of budding feminism. That it hedges in a good lick of ha ha’s only sweetens the experience. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘THE NEON DEMON’

Nicholas Winding Refn name-drops Kubrick within the first five minutes of The Neon Demon (“redrum” is the name of a model’s deep-velvet lipstick) but it’s Dario Argento’s 1977 masterwork Suspiria that Refn imitates most. Our heroine, Jesse (Elle Fanning), is not unlike Jessica Harper, a bright-eyed newcomer who must contend with jealousy and suspicion at every turn as carnivorous huntsman, barely camouflaged, hiding in plain sight, hover around her, awaiting her virginal offerings. Their expectant gazes, unsettling and derogatory. There may be no supernatural element waiting in the wings but the characters of The Neon Demon are equally inhuman. Read More

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Out in Theaters: YOUNG ONES

Note: Reprinted from our 2014 Sundance Review

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Sprawling future Western quais-epic Young Ones offers a poignant deconstruction of sci-fi and western films, an allegorical gaze into a murky future that strips both genres down to the studs and builds them up as one.

Brother of Gwenyth and Godson to Steven Speilberg, Jake Paltrow successfully brokers this moody, panoramic vista of draught dystopia by juxtaposing elements of hi-fi tech against the dust bowls and wind storms of plains livin’. Technology has taken great bounds forward, providing the illusion of solace to a society brought to their knees by perpetual thirst, but with water in such scarcity, this Western shanty town is on the brink of extinction. Life nectar that it is, water has become the new oil, a cherished commodity that’s become even more rare and necessary, a cause for showdowns and scuffles.

Opening on a brutally tense standoff between hero Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon) and two grubby water thieves, this expertly-realized world could conceivably be post-apocalyptic, sparsely occupied by a patchwork of desperate characters milling through stretches of sand-blasted country on a hunt for their next water source. Had it been such, it would risk bearing a striking resemblance to Cormac McCarthy‘s dystopian cannibal-drama The Road (which star Kodi Smit-McPhee also featured in) but we soon learn that Ernest and son Jerome (Smit-McPhee) are not alone. They live in a desolate settlement built of stacked shoddy boxcars complete with black market baby sales, dry-lipped, sandy-haired beggars, and its own class of elite citizenry.

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Ernest, a haunted, recovering alcoholic, has fruitlessly tried to convince the mob-like watermen to run a direct line to his desolate town but has been shot down over and over again. There’s life in the soil, he’s convinced. It, much like he, just needs another chance. Shannon sells haunted meditation, a character trait he’s perfected, and his watchful relationship with milquetoast son Jerome is a strong emotional platform for the narrative to rest on. Since The Road and Let Me In, McPhee has sprouted into an almost unrecognizable teenager but rather than fiddle with stodgy angst, his ‘becoming a man’ progression is a hat-tipping throwback to the Westerns of old.  

Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning play a young couple with their own update on Western boilerplate anchors. Hoult is willy and unscrupulous and Fanning, a housemaid dissatisfied with washing dishes (with sand, naturally). With Shannon and these three talented young actors, Young Ones lets the grit and speechless contemplation pile high, as any decent Western should. Better still, the landscape upon which this three-chaptered tale unfolds is so articulately designed that it feels as pronounced and occupied as Tatooine (in the original trilogy of course.)

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Like a Neill Blomkamp film, Young Ones soars when it’s building atmosphere. Stuck in the sun-bleached desert, we’re still acutely aware of the world at large. Radios blare affected sales announcements. Pack donkeys are phased out and replaced with Big Dog-style robotics. Supersonic jets boom overhead, ripping the sky from LA to NYC. In other parts of the world, processing plants synthesis water with nuclear technology and smartphones fan out with conceivably inventive new wave tech. The world may be moving forward but, for all we’ve seen, humanity has stepped backwards.

A riveting series of chapters of once upon a time in the future west, Young Ones spins a unique take on clutching onto one’s manifest destiny. Rich with morose mood, towering metaphors, and dusty, dusty atmosphere, just watching will leave you parched.

B+

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Out in Theaters: THE BOXTROLLS

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The Boxtrolls
, Laika Studios‘ third outing, sees more of the fledgling studio’s highly-demanding, signature stop motion animation come to life onscreen, flush with smart, though not game changing, camerawork and charming characters aplenty. Directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi with a script adapted from Alan Snow‘s “Here Be Monsters”, The Boxtrolls follows a orphaned boy growing up with in underground society of steampunk, gadget-friendly trolls, unfairly maligned by society overhead.

Isaac Hempstead Wright (Game of Thrones) is Eggs, so named because the box that clothes his is an old eggs box. This is SOP in Boxtroll world. A squat-faced troll with a high heel on his box is called “Shoe”. Oil Can has an oil can on his box as Fish’s box, you guessed it, has a doodle of a fish skeleton. Blink and you’ll miss the troll named “Fragile.” Adopted by this society of cardboard-wearing, nonsense-talking troglodytes, Eggs joins his brethren trolls on missions to hunt down useful garbage from the city streets above but must be careful to avoid the vigilant net of Archibald Snatcher. For years the city has commissioned Snatcher to hunt down and capture all the Boxtrolls, assuming an incident in which a baby went missing was on their three-fingered hands.

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Those first handful of minutes spent with Eggs, Fish and Shoe are without words and are nonetheless quietly moving. Similar almost to Wall-E, the absence of language doesn’t alienate us from these characters so much as let us get to know them from an emotional perspective. They goobly gook their way through things, like mute children. Without all the chatty chatty, we become fast friends with these ruckus-causing nocturnal hermits through their actions and their innocence.

As Snatcher, Sir Ben Kingsley – in nearly unrecognizable voice work – chews through scenery like it’s bubble gum. He pontificates evilly, obsessed with the one thing in the world that he cannot have: power… or is it cheese? It’s confusing because in the world of The Boxtrolls, they go hand in hand. The city leaders, The Men in White Hats, sit around and consume imported cheeses like they’ve just finished a stint on Survivor. Rather than sign the proposition for a new children’s hospital, they dine on a foreign Gruyere or a odorous bleu. The jabbing political undertones laid throughout are as subtly hysterical as Snatcher’s sole mission to access the revered tasting room, even though he is dangerously allergic to cheese.

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Strange, singular character motivations like that work so well for Boxtrolls that we almost forget to care about how this story has been told a thousand times before. Snatcher is the perfect movie baddie just as his philosophical sidekick Mr. Trout (Nick Frost) is the perfectly muddy moral compass. Frost’s bumbling yet well-meaning character is responsible for an unmatched percentage of the laughs. Even with sparse screen time, he whips the comedy into shape like the folks in Paranorman never could.

Missing though in The Boxtrolls is the dark palette that had defined previous Laika efforts Paranorman and Coraline and with it much of the really next level visual flourishes. In Paranorman, the sky turns to breathtaking streaks of neon purple and afterlife green. In Coraline‘s third act, the claymation world comes to piece in bits and strips and it makes for absolutely stunning work. In Boxtrolls, the environs stagnate and fail to provide a sense of artistic progress. Further, there’s really only three or four settings for the entire film. In their sandbox, they play beautifully. I just wish there was more to the sandbox.

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But that’s because this time around, Laika has moved the focus onto the characters, who look better realized than ever before. They’re much less choppy, almost to the point of appearing to be the work of CGI. Surprisingly in this case, with more precision comes more charm. And though The Boxtrolls is an unequivocal step up from the visually stunning but emotionally lacking Paranorman, it unfortunately doesn’t come close to the crazy heights of Coraline. Perhaps I have an unfair appraisal of Coraline (the first time I saw it, I pulled an unprecedented move and immediately watched it again) but you need a ladder to heaven to achieve such animated perfection. Though still in the shadow of that artistic behemoth, Boxtrolls is one of the finest animated films of the past few years.

B+

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Out in Theaters: MALEFICENT

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Maleficent
, starring Angelina Jolie‘s cheekbones and Elle Fanning‘s bleach blonde mop and shit-eating smile, is a movie designed for young, dim-witted children who fancy bright lights and high pitched voices and don’t yet understand the word “story”. It’s a retelling by way of obliteration, with debut director Robert Stromberg taking sledgehammer swings when he would have benefited so much more from the nuance of a scalpel. From the very first minute, it’s a total slog, a tonal nightmare. There wasn’t one moment where I wasn’t waiting for it to just end.

Up until Maleficent, Stromberg was a viz effects guy with a whopping 94 credits to his name. No wonder this is more spectacle than substance. Taking a page from the book of George Lucas, everything in front of us feels green-screened through and through. It’s FX prequel effect at its most barbarous and boring. Watch people act against CGI, on CGI sound stages with CGI effects. You can just feel the lifelessness waft over you.

With credits like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Hunger Games to his name, Stromberg may know how to paint a pretty picture, but he has no idea how to tell a story. In the comic world, there are artists and there are writers. Knowing your place is key. Stromberg has no idea of his and Maleficent is the 200 million dollar proof.

The story starts in the most precocious of ways with a young Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy), horned and winged, fluttering around an entirely computer animated set. She’s a “stop to smell the roses” kind of girl but somehow she’s also in charge of things around these fairy parts. Called upon by Ent-like creatures, she encounters the equally pubescent human Stefan (Michael Higgins), an ambitious peasant, and quickly harbors an unlikely friendship with him. For you see, humans and fairies are totally not cool with each other. Because the king is a dick, or something.

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The long and short of it is Stefan (now Sharlto Copley) – in a Lord of the Rings, “all men are corruptible” sort of way – also turns out to be a grade-A toolbag and slices and dices Maleficent’s wings Benihana-style in order to take succession as the new king. Why the old king was willing to trade his throne for a pair of wings (meant to prove Maleficent is dead) is beyond me, as is the fact that no-one seemed to question the legitimacy of Stefan’s claim once Maleficent – soon after – pops back into the picture. It’s like everyone involved has a short term memory of about 17 seconds. A telling sign of Linda Woolverton‘s lifeless scripting skills.

Blah blah blah, Maleficent curses baby Aurora (Fanning), King Stefan goes into uber-depressive vengeance state, sends daughter off to the woods to live with rebel fairies to skirt spindle-charged curse. Because no one uses spinning wheels in the woods, duh. The turn though is that Maleficent watches young Aurora grow, harboring untold affection towards the child she has already doomed.

Earlier live action adaptations of similar style have used the “untold” preamble to attempt to flesh out characters that we know little about – see Oz or Huntsman (which themselves are almost – but not quite – as bad as this). Maleficent pulls from a very different page, contradicting the source material at every clunky, heinously predictable turn. Maleficent herself – played by a Jolie who sorely needs to eat a pizza – isn’t a complex character, she’s just another naive woman wronged by a douchey dude. Welcome to Disney 101.  

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In a way, Maleficent could have been a worthy successor to Frozen, in that it shares a similar shift away from an ideology in which a woman’s only savior can be the man. But it’s done so poorly here, and telegraphed with the cheapest, cheesiest brand of phoning it in that you’ve left hanging your head if not throwing your worthless 3D glasses at the screen. There are no characters here, there’s no story. It’s nothing but a 90 minute cash grab…in TECHNICOLOR! The only magical spell it casts is making an hour and a half feel like three hours. The only curse, having to sit through it.

It’s so far from the Sleeping Beauty that we know that when Aurora inevitably does go down for the count, she’s more Napping Beauty than Sleeping Beauty. Seriously, bitch dozes for about a scene and a half. And when Jolie strips down to a leather-mama Michelle Pfeifer Catwoman get-up, y’all know it’s go time. As in, just get up and leave the theater. There’s nothing to see here.

In a movie where every single character is a moron and everything feels like a chew toy, there is nothing of worth to be found. It’s like a bowl of porridge with no raisins or brown sugar. Just lumpy, cold, and pathetic. And what may be the worst crime is just how low the bar seemed to be for this project. There were no aspirations here that they failed to reach. It wasn’t a swing and a miss. Just a lazy bunt. It’s just blah; purified, sparkly blah. It’s like having the nerve to go on Iron Chef and bake up the blandest form of yellowcake adorned with rainbow sprinkles. You have literally the biggest resource in the world right in front of you and you aim for nothing. What a joke.

F

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Jake Paltrow, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Elle Fanning Talk YOUNG ONES

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In this final installment of talks around 2014’s Sundance, we touch base with the creative brains and cinematic brawn behind Young Ones (full review here) – a dystopian future Western that pits mechs and humans against draughts and standoffs. A bit like slamming The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in the midst of Tatooine, Jake Paltrow‘s sophomoric effort is a fascinating and engaging experiment in genre that worked wonders for me. Joining him, stars Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Elle Fanning helped guide us through why they came to the movie, what it was like working under the heat of a South African sun and the use of modern day robotics in Young Ones.

Q: Talk about what inspired the film and what were some of the stylistic influences?

Jake Paltrow: There were two particular news articles. One was about moving the capital of Yemen due to a lack of water, in the next ten years. And another one was about the driest town in the world in Chile. There’s a story about all these people who stayed behind because of these odd personal reasons and needing water to be pumped in. And I’ve always been interested in robotics and I spent time in 2008 with Big Dog at Boston Dynamics. Anyway, I was very interested in trying to do a story with a robotic character that would work and explore its sentience, it had some sort of soul, or it would be a character, a character that would have some sort of sense itself. And those two things came together and it went from there.

Q: Talk about how you sort of fused some of the stylistic elements, the science fiction with the Western bounds?

JP: That sort of just happened. I don’t know if that was such a premeditated thing, it just came together. Giles, who photographed the movie, and I really didn’t look at very few things we talked about. We talked about Silent Night, the only one we ever talked about, the way it was lensed I think. We loved that movie, it looked so great. But we were always trying to do our thing beyond that.

Q: How did you select the instruments, the electronics vs. the harmonica?

Nathan Johnson: A lot of that was working with Jake, we would sit down and we talk out ideas, stylistic references. And we pulled out music boxes and harmoniums, and we were talking a lot about wind actually, and the idea of wind instruments and what it sounds like when wind blows over something, and just that point where it turns into a tone. So we thought that was kind of interesting. The idea of combining traditional orchestral instruments with these wind instruments and also these synthetic elements just piqued our interest and felt maybe part of the world this place was in.

Q: What did it feel like to live through this movie, the people who worked in it.

Michael Shannon: Well, it’s really disturbing to think about what might be heading our way. But at the same time, we are making a movie. Now, in NYC we’re much more afraid of water than not having water. So it’s all relative.

Q: Can you guys talk about what first attracted you to the role?

Elle Fanning: Well, I read the script a really long time ago. I was twelve when I first read it. And I met Jake for the first time and we went out to lunch. And I thought I was something that I’d never read before, and right when I read it, I thought ‘Oh my God, I have to do this’. I knew that for my character specifically, I’m really into details and all the little things and quirks of Mary or any character I do, and I knew with her I could put a lot of those in there. And after talking to Jake, he was so open to those. We spent so long on that hot pink nail polish color. We were picking it out, the right shade, “That’s too salmon, that’s too hot”, that was a big deal. And I love that, I like picking out the details, and I just love Jake and the movie so much. So that’s kind of, the nail polish drew me to it.

Kodi Smit-McPhee: I was also kind of really attracted by the nail polish. No, I was also with the project for a long time, it went through a lot but then it got through again. And I was in LA, just Skyping Jake, reading the script again, did my tape, sent it off, and next thing I was in South Africa melting.

Nicholas Hoult: The script was the most original thing I’d read for ages but also that Flem role was the most interesting, with all the dynamics he had with each other character from the film, and I was fascinated by him, it was really well written. That’s the reason I wanted to do each scene. And I had the same experience that Elle had with nail polish, but I had a fake tan. So I got to wear a lot of that.

MS: It’s kind of like what we were talking about earlier. It was relevant and it was a story that needed to be told. I don’t think a movie’s gonna fix a problem but beyond just reading something from a newspaper, if you put it in a movie, it may have more of an emotional resonance, it may inspire someone to do something. It did occur to me when I read it that that might be one result, yes.

Q: Why did you choose to use chapters versus acts?

JP: We talked about that a lot, we talked about approach, acts or chapters. The third thing that really inspired the movie, besides those articles and interests in robotics, were the SE Hinton books that I revisited. I reread those books when I was writing, I hadn’t read them in such a long time and I loved them so much and I loved them again as a kid. And I loved the way a science fiction book version of those books could feel like. So I was really leaning towards that. And those books were always sort of short and I thought how could I make this movie feel like one of those short books. And so the chapters thing, I thought it was a way to keep the entertainment relevant, that you would know that you were moving into the next thing. You close this story, move into Flem’s chapter, you could get more energy back as an audience. I think to try and entertain, certainly the chapters had to do with books, but we do play with parts and acts at other points to. And the important thing at the end, in a way it is to sort of, the movie, even though the performance is sort of naturalistic, has this sort of storybook element to it, and I liked the idea of sort of ending it. I mean, I look at the movie and I feel like it’s a tragedy, and I like revisiting these characters and seeing them all as a little bit removed from the movie.

Q: The science fiction elements felt really organic when they came into the story. I thought it was a really bold choice to create classic western meets futuristic science fiction and I wonder were there things about it that you were worried wouldn’t work?

JP: Everything. The way we did the simulation, we had two puppeteers and that was one of those things, the movie, I’d prepped once before and it didn’t happen, and so we got down to South Africa we started doing it this way, but we never had a complete proof that this would work. We’d done it once before, in Spain, and it seemed like it would work perfect, so we kept moving that way. But we hadn’t really tested it, doing a whole movie, so we just kept going, thinking it would work. But sometimes it felt like every single thing just wouldn’t work. It was 115 degrees the first few days of shooting, it felt impossible to get through the day, literally just taking it one step at a time. We felt like we’d never get through the shots. Sequences like that were very worked out, so we knew we had to get that amount of shots to make the scene work, so we somehow adjust. I really credit Mike. But truly we felt like we couldn’t even finish it. It was a very difficult movie to make and we were so far away. I’d never been in a situation where you couldn’t shoot because the lights would go. And then the lights would go, and you’d be standing there saying ‘Well that’s it’. And they’d go and drive seven hours to Cape Town to get new lights and come through the next day. We didn’t have a schedule where we could get things picked up, certain people get dropped along the way. Thinking, what do we have, what do we have? Trying to fit everything together, and somehow we got lucky, or at least seemed to.

Q: What was the idea behind the plane in the film.

JP: That was just the idea that there was a world going on around the movie, this sort of supersonic passenger jet is back, the new Concord is back and they’re flying from LA to New York in 45 minutes or whatever it is, and there’s this whole world where in fact, you know our world has this sort of regressive nature to it, and the rest of the world is great. You know, a world where Google Glass, or the next, all those sort of things are happening, all those utopian urban things, people migrating from urban areas from rural areas, all that is going on, just not where these people live. So that was the idea, that there’s a big world out there.

Q: From a production standpoint, the robot you used, was that on loan from the military?

JP: No, it’s totally fake. The torso is made of fiberglass tubing.

Q: Did you try and get the actual robot?

JP: Oh yes, I tried. They were great, but there was no way to do it. They’re developing. Now they’re on to Cheetah, and all these things. I mean it was a fascinating experience to spend time with them to do this test, but in the end they’re not a movie tool. They have much bigger fish to fry.

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