Mike Cahill is one of the most ambitious filmmakers in the business. His debut feature, Another Earth, was a riveting, thought-provoking science fiction drama that utilized an ingenious premise and emphasized tortured central characters looking to better themselves. That film also starred the glowing, powerful Brit Marling, who has worked on terrific features like Sound of My Voice, Arbitrage, and The East over the past couple years. Their latest collaboration, I Origins, is an uneven, strangely compelling film that far exceeds its own ambition. It’s a film measured by its central character’s stubbornness and resilience toward finding scientific answers in a world that acts in callous, mysterious ways. That man is Ian (Michael Pitt), who studied as a molecular biologist for his doctorate. He loves the idea of human eyes acting as not only true signifiers of self due to their originality, but also as a way to disprove religious believers who insist that there is a Creator who individually makes every human being. 
His work focuses on the development of irises over the millennia and the transformation from eye-less organisms to the most sophisticated form of sight on this planet. He coordinates with his lab partner, Karen (Brit Marling), a fledgling student that aims to unravel the mysteries of the universe alongside Ian. She’s a loyal, intelligent woman that is equally as stubborn and introverted as Ian can be, hiding her emotions and letting science dictate her days. Ian’s obsession with eyes, however, leaves Karen doing most of the work while he tracks down a girl he met at a party that fascinated him. She had gorgeous eyes that made him idolize her, and a strange encounter with the number 11 leads him to discovering her work as a model. He finds out her name is Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), and they immediately rekindle their love and get married. 
The story then moves to Ian discovering that his child may have irises similar to a recently deceased man in Idaho, only then for him to realize that Sofi may indeed have the same eyes as a young girl in India. It cannot be true. As his friend Kenny (Steven Yeun) says, “That’s scientifically impossible.” No logic points to irises being repeated over time, unless that establishes some sort of connection with the mind and soul. Karen even asks at one point if the eyes act as a window to the soul, something that she would’ve previously thought implausible but now grows steadily realistic. The dichotomy between science and religion has been tackled more appropriately in better films, like Robert Zemeckis’s underappreciated classic Contact. There, Jodie Foster’s character experiences what can only be deemed a spiritual encounter in a wormhole since no one else saw what she did. Here, the film uses simplistic notions of both religion and science undermining the other, only to realize they can work together. 
The performances at the heart of the film elevate the jumpy, haphazard material. Michael Pitt is a quiet, formidable force in every role he takes, providing a gravitas to the most middling scenes. He acts well alongside Brit Marling, a wonderful presence that makes the most of what becomes a small, supporting role after a strong introduction. Astrid Berges-Frisbey is marvelous as Sofi, giving the character a dramatic heft despite minimal development. She acts as more of an idea rather than an entity herself, but she assumes an occasionally thankless role with tact. Cahill’s film asks for intimacy to draw out the tension in the script. This mostly means that the romance between characters takes up the meat of the story and that the intrigue of the central idea falls to the wayside. It’s a shame since there are philosophically strong questions to be asked in a new way from his ideas. He’s a talented, bright presence behind the screen, and even if I Origins fails to fully achieve its ambition, it’s an inconsistently noble effort. 
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)

Mike Cahill is one of the most ambitious filmmakers in the business. His debut feature, Another Earth, was a riveting, thought-provoking science fiction drama that utilized an ingenious premise and emphasized tortured central characters looking to better themselves. That film also starred the glowing, powerful Brit Marling, who has worked on terrific features like Sound of My Voice, Arbitrage, and The East over the past couple years. Their latest collaboration, I Origins, is an uneven, strangely compelling film that far exceeds its own ambition. It’s a film measured by its central character’s stubbornness and resilience toward finding scientific answers in a world that acts in callous, mysterious ways. That man is Ian (Michael Pitt), who studied as a molecular biologist for his doctorate. He loves the idea of human eyes acting as not only true signifiers of self due to their originality, but also as a way to disprove religious believers who insist that there is a Creator who individually makes every human being. 

His work focuses on the development of irises over the millennia and the transformation from eye-less organisms to the most sophisticated form of sight on this planet. He coordinates with his lab partner, Karen (Brit Marling), a fledgling student that aims to unravel the mysteries of the universe alongside Ian. She’s a loyal, intelligent woman that is equally as stubborn and introverted as Ian can be, hiding her emotions and letting science dictate her days. Ian’s obsession with eyes, however, leaves Karen doing most of the work while he tracks down a girl he met at a party that fascinated him. She had gorgeous eyes that made him idolize her, and a strange encounter with the number 11 leads him to discovering her work as a model. He finds out her name is Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), and they immediately rekindle their love and get married. 

The story then moves to Ian discovering that his child may have irises similar to a recently deceased man in Idaho, only then for him to realize that Sofi may indeed have the same eyes as a young girl in India. It cannot be true. As his friend Kenny (Steven Yeun) says, “That’s scientifically impossible.” No logic points to irises being repeated over time, unless that establishes some sort of connection with the mind and soul. Karen even asks at one point if the eyes act as a window to the soul, something that she would’ve previously thought implausible but now grows steadily realistic. The dichotomy between science and religion has been tackled more appropriately in better films, like Robert Zemeckis’s underappreciated classic Contact. There, Jodie Foster’s character experiences what can only be deemed a spiritual encounter in a wormhole since no one else saw what she did. Here, the film uses simplistic notions of both religion and science undermining the other, only to realize they can work together. 

The performances at the heart of the film elevate the jumpy, haphazard material. Michael Pitt is a quiet, formidable force in every role he takes, providing a gravitas to the most middling scenes. He acts well alongside Brit Marling, a wonderful presence that makes the most of what becomes a small, supporting role after a strong introduction. Astrid Berges-Frisbey is marvelous as Sofi, giving the character a dramatic heft despite minimal development. She acts as more of an idea rather than an entity herself, but she assumes an occasionally thankless role with tact. Cahill’s film asks for intimacy to draw out the tension in the script. This mostly means that the romance between characters takes up the meat of the story and that the intrigue of the central idea falls to the wayside. It’s a shame since there are philosophically strong questions to be asked in a new way from his ideas. He’s a talented, bright presence behind the screen, and even if I Origins fails to fully achieve its ambition, it’s an inconsistently noble effort. 

Grade: ★ (out of 5)

As human beings, we use roughly ten percent of our brain’s capacity. The only mammal more advanced than that is the dolphin, which can use twenty percent of its brain and scan the oceans with sonar more powerful than anything created by man. So what could happen if a human had the ability to access 100% of their brain capacity? That’s the central premise of Lucy, Luc Besson’s absurd film revolving around a drug smuggling ordeal leading to a manic force in the form of a badass Scarlett Johansson. How far the film extends the central theme of the story is remarkable, growing increasingly incredulous and ridiculous to the point of nonsensicality. If the story focused on Johansson’s titular character actually turning into a dolphin when her brain hits 20%, the film would feel the same tonally and conceptually. But to start the story, Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is studying in Taiwan and with her boyfriend Richard, who’s involved with shady deals. He’s been paid $1,000 to take a briefcase to a businessman, no questions asked. 
Lucy is sent as his “surrogate,” handcuffed to the locked case not knowing what could possibly be inside. Inside the building, armed men sense something is wrong, grab her, and take her to Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). He’s a ruthless man that kills without remorse and has riot shields on hand in case things ever go south. You know how businessmen can be. Lucy, trapped and powerless, opens the case on Jang’s instruction and finds four bags of a blue powder. It’s a synthetic drug called CPH-4, based on the chemical released within a pregnant woman’s body that gives the baby the power to grow bones and form itself. CPH-4 isn’t a sexy name, though, since they want to sell the drugs on the streets in countries like Germany, France, Italy, and the United States. In order to do so, they need to smuggle the drugs across half of the world, and the only way to do that quickly is through people. Lucy is knocked out and prepared to board a plane before she is beaten by her captors, releasing the drug in her system through the bag in her abdomen.  
She gains the ability to read minds, control matter, time, and space, and basically do everything you can possibly imagine. The biggest problem with a premise like this is that there is innately no external conflict for a character as almighty as Lucy. The film, then, should internalize the conflict in order to maximize the empathy from the audience toward the characters. But Besson’s film focuses on the sizzling action and pizazz that comes from a woman who can kick ass and have the powers of a god. That may sound riveting, but it becomes exhausting and monotonous when the action looks particularly hokey and contrived. These are scenes that have been achieved far better and creatively in films like The Matrix and even other Besson films like Taken and The Fifth Element. There’s a car chase at the beginning of the film’s third act that is exciting and tense, but once again, it becomes rudimentary when the audience knows that Lucy will obviously survive since she understands how everything in the world works. 
The central idea, quite simply, turns out boring. The film attempts to elaborate on the internal battle for Lucy losing touch with humanity but fails to communicate that strongly enough to the audience. She cries when calling her mother despite no longer feeling physical pain and she kisses a man before saying that he acts as a reminder. Of either her past emotional self, or the need for the story to have a love interest. Johansson plays these elements fine enough even if the film’s first thirty minutes ask her to overact to the point of cheesiness. She’s the only acting force behind the film, so her character being thinly sketched makes the audience wonder why exactly they are watching a film centered on her. What’s worse is that the film creates wonky rules based around real-world physics and reality that makes the premise even more implausible and frustrating. Since we don’t understand Lucy as a person and all of her capabilities, the film can make up everything as it goes along. I suppose if I had the mental capacity of Lucy herself, I would be able to understand all of the film’s absurdity and mindlessness. 
Grade: ★★ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

As human beings, we use roughly ten percent of our brain’s capacity. The only mammal more advanced than that is the dolphin, which can use twenty percent of its brain and scan the oceans with sonar more powerful than anything created by man. So what could happen if a human had the ability to access 100% of their brain capacity? That’s the central premise of Lucy, Luc Besson’s absurd film revolving around a drug smuggling ordeal leading to a manic force in the form of a badass Scarlett Johansson. How far the film extends the central theme of the story is remarkable, growing increasingly incredulous and ridiculous to the point of nonsensicality. If the story focused on Johansson’s titular character actually turning into a dolphin when her brain hits 20%, the film would feel the same tonally and conceptually. But to start the story, Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is studying in Taiwan and with her boyfriend Richard, who’s involved with shady deals. He’s been paid $1,000 to take a briefcase to a businessman, no questions asked. 

Lucy is sent as his “surrogate,” handcuffed to the locked case not knowing what could possibly be inside. Inside the building, armed men sense something is wrong, grab her, and take her to Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). He’s a ruthless man that kills without remorse and has riot shields on hand in case things ever go south. You know how businessmen can be. Lucy, trapped and powerless, opens the case on Jang’s instruction and finds four bags of a blue powder. It’s a synthetic drug called CPH-4, based on the chemical released within a pregnant woman’s body that gives the baby the power to grow bones and form itself. CPH-4 isn’t a sexy name, though, since they want to sell the drugs on the streets in countries like Germany, France, Italy, and the United States. In order to do so, they need to smuggle the drugs across half of the world, and the only way to do that quickly is through people. Lucy is knocked out and prepared to board a plane before she is beaten by her captors, releasing the drug in her system through the bag in her abdomen.  

She gains the ability to read minds, control matter, time, and space, and basically do everything you can possibly imagine. The biggest problem with a premise like this is that there is innately no external conflict for a character as almighty as Lucy. The film, then, should internalize the conflict in order to maximize the empathy from the audience toward the characters. But Besson’s film focuses on the sizzling action and pizazz that comes from a woman who can kick ass and have the powers of a god. That may sound riveting, but it becomes exhausting and monotonous when the action looks particularly hokey and contrived. These are scenes that have been achieved far better and creatively in films like The Matrix and even other Besson films like Taken and The Fifth Element. There’s a car chase at the beginning of the film’s third act that is exciting and tense, but once again, it becomes rudimentary when the audience knows that Lucy will obviously survive since she understands how everything in the world works. 

The central idea, quite simply, turns out boring. The film attempts to elaborate on the internal battle for Lucy losing touch with humanity but fails to communicate that strongly enough to the audience. She cries when calling her mother despite no longer feeling physical pain and she kisses a man before saying that he acts as a reminder. Of either her past emotional self, or the need for the story to have a love interest. Johansson plays these elements fine enough even if the film’s first thirty minutes ask her to overact to the point of cheesiness. She’s the only acting force behind the film, so her character being thinly sketched makes the audience wonder why exactly they are watching a film centered on her. What’s worse is that the film creates wonky rules based around real-world physics and reality that makes the premise even more implausible and frustrating. Since we don’t understand Lucy as a person and all of her capabilities, the film can make up everything as it goes along. I suppose if I had the mental capacity of Lucy herself, I would be able to understand all of the film’s absurdity and mindlessness. 

Grade: ★ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

unfinishedagenda: put theater release dates in your posts kthx

I’ll do that for major releases, but limited releases are difficult since that opening date may be the one locally but not where most people are. I’ll see what I can do!

Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Empathy is a rare achievement in film, something that needs to be hard-earned and justified in the framework of the narrative. Wish I Was Here makes the audience care about its characters because of their importance to the film’s emotional core. The story rarely wanders away from the paths of the characters, only occasionally meandering down paths that feel a bit unfocused in terms of their breadth and reach. Zach Braff’s film is a bit easy on its characters, too, particularly its central character played by the aforementioned writer-director, but the supporting crew rounds out a film that touches on love, life, death, and the struggles of living toward one’s dream. It’s never a fully cohesive film, but it works because of those themes and the way they tie together in a joyous celebration of life. Even in the wake of loss, love and living life to its fullest must persist. 
The film centers on Aidan (Zach Braff), a married actor with two kids struggling to survive in an economically trying time. His wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), works in an office making all of the money for the family while Aidan struggles to find acting gigs around Los Angeles. Their kids, Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) and Grace (Joey King), attend a Jewish private school because of the money their grandfather, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), puts toward their education. When Gabe’s cancer comes back from remission, he decides to put his money toward alternative treatment instead of funding the kids’ education. This puts Aidan in a troubled state, causing him to start homeschooling the kids while trying to find sustainable work. His brother, Noah (Josh Gad), is no help with any of us, a genius that lives in a trailer that his mother gave him before she died. Him and Aidan deal with constant torment from their father who seems disappointed in everything they do. 
Life is difficult. That seems to be the gist of Braff’s work over the years, articulating that in different ways by emphasizing the nature of death and the way that life has an aimless nature to it all. Inherently that shouldn’t work in a narrative film since there needs to be a driving thematic force reinforced by surrounding subplots and ideas. Aimlessness doesn’t work that well with that concept. But somehow Braff pulls it off as writer, director, and actor, proving capable on all fronts by showcasing the tumultuous and haphazard way we live life on a day-to-day basis. There’s a scene that shows the way that Braff links ideas, with him discussing his wife’s work and how much she seems to love it, and then cutting to her disgruntled at work and dealing with borderline sexual harassment from a cubicle partner. Nothing is as good or as happy as anyone seems to make it. 
The performances are sublime and the dialogue thought-provoking. Braff creates an urgency around his character and his hope to reform his life; unfortunately, he doesn’t follow through impactfully to make the character fully change. Patinkin and Hudson are exceptional in their roles. Gabe is a complex character with regrets and a sadness about how much he feels he has failed his family; Patinkin is an expert at these roles and excels. Hudson is a surprisingly strong, subtle force that creates her own strength from providing guidance for a family when the father doesn’t seem to be taking full initiative. The child actors, particularly Joey King, are marvelous. The film’s writing never fully brings together every idea, but tackles death with emotional heft and gravitas. The most important thing about Wish I Was Here is that it’s a compassionate film about compassionate characters. It’s far from perfect, but it cares. That’s rare in today’s cinema, and its ambition is impressive through all of its faults. 
Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

Empathy is a rare achievement in film, something that needs to be hard-earned and justified in the framework of the narrative. Wish I Was Here makes the audience care about its characters because of their importance to the film’s emotional core. The story rarely wanders away from the paths of the characters, only occasionally meandering down paths that feel a bit unfocused in terms of their breadth and reach. Zach Braff’s film is a bit easy on its characters, too, particularly its central character played by the aforementioned writer-director, but the supporting crew rounds out a film that touches on love, life, death, and the struggles of living toward one’s dream. It’s never a fully cohesive film, but it works because of those themes and the way they tie together in a joyous celebration of life. Even in the wake of loss, love and living life to its fullest must persist. 

The film centers on Aidan (Zach Braff), a married actor with two kids struggling to survive in an economically trying time. His wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), works in an office making all of the money for the family while Aidan struggles to find acting gigs around Los Angeles. Their kids, Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) and Grace (Joey King), attend a Jewish private school because of the money their grandfather, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), puts toward their education. When Gabe’s cancer comes back from remission, he decides to put his money toward alternative treatment instead of funding the kids’ education. This puts Aidan in a troubled state, causing him to start homeschooling the kids while trying to find sustainable work. His brother, Noah (Josh Gad), is no help with any of us, a genius that lives in a trailer that his mother gave him before she died. Him and Aidan deal with constant torment from their father who seems disappointed in everything they do. 

Life is difficult. That seems to be the gist of Braff’s work over the years, articulating that in different ways by emphasizing the nature of death and the way that life has an aimless nature to it all. Inherently that shouldn’t work in a narrative film since there needs to be a driving thematic force reinforced by surrounding subplots and ideas. Aimlessness doesn’t work that well with that concept. But somehow Braff pulls it off as writer, director, and actor, proving capable on all fronts by showcasing the tumultuous and haphazard way we live life on a day-to-day basis. There’s a scene that shows the way that Braff links ideas, with him discussing his wife’s work and how much she seems to love it, and then cutting to her disgruntled at work and dealing with borderline sexual harassment from a cubicle partner. Nothing is as good or as happy as anyone seems to make it. 

The performances are sublime and the dialogue thought-provoking. Braff creates an urgency around his character and his hope to reform his life; unfortunately, he doesn’t follow through impactfully to make the character fully change. Patinkin and Hudson are exceptional in their roles. Gabe is a complex character with regrets and a sadness about how much he feels he has failed his family; Patinkin is an expert at these roles and excels. Hudson is a surprisingly strong, subtle force that creates her own strength from providing guidance for a family when the father doesn’t seem to be taking full initiative. The child actors, particularly Joey King, are marvelous. The film’s writing never fully brings together every idea, but tackles death with emotional heft and gravitas. The most important thing about Wish I Was Here is that it’s a compassionate film about compassionate characters. It’s far from perfect, but it cares. That’s rare in today’s cinema, and its ambition is impressive through all of its faults. 

Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Sex Tape is mostly tame and harmless, a promising film with two likable comedians that fails to flourish in its second half. Modern comedies often attempt to tackle raunchy premises because quieter laughers usually go unnoticed in today’s landscape. A film about a sex tape is pretty much as loud of a concept as possible. For that reason, Sex Tape should be far funnier than it ends up being, mostly digressing into awkward conversations that depend on long pauses and physical humor that grows tiresome by the conclusion. Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz have both achieved success over the past decade in mainstream comedies; the former has Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I Love You, Man while the latter has Bad Teacher and The Other Woman. Yet here, their combination cannot seem to shape a coherently funny story. It’s simply that a shocking premise fails to produce laughs alone and needs a hilarious set of characters and jokes to accompany the plot. 
The film centers on Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Jason Segel), a married couple with kids that misses the spontaneity of their earlier days. They no longer have sex like they used to, they are preoccupied with their jobs, and they can’t seem to balance their everyday life to make sure they find happiness. Their kids often remind them of their unrest, with their daughter jokingly asking Jay about the point of life only to follow it up by saying that him and mom are unhappy. Annie is caught up with selling her “mommy blog” to a company run by Hank Rosenbaum (Rob Lowe), and on her way home from a meeting decides to get a night alone with Jay. She sends the kids off with their grandmother while the married couple hopes to rekindle their passionate fire. But they fail and fail again, until Annie thinks of a seemingly ingenious idea: how about they film themselves having sex? They do it and, thanks to Jay’s music job that involves him syncing gifted iPads to his own to provide them with his playlists, the video goes out to their friends. 
The rest of the film involves their exploits to erase the video from everyone’s devices. It mostly hinges on their ignorance to how technology works in today’s age. They fail to understand what a remote wipe is, how videos can be copied, and how videos are uploaded to servers. To nitpick the film’s thin premise is trivial, though, since Sex Tape doesn’t exist to provide a realistic plot. Instead, it aims to provide the audience with set pieces that embrace the absurdity of these characters and their actions. On that part, it delivers fairly well in the film’s first half. They visit their friends Robby (Rob Corddry) and Tess (Ellie Kemper) who are celebrating their 12th anniversary and join them on their adventures. This leads to Annie visiting Hank’s house, which might be the finest moment in the film. Rob Lowe’s performance is ridiculous and hilarious, a man with a very strange Disney obsession and a hankering for the days of old. More specifically, the days of recreational cocaine use.  
The film is funniest, as most are, when its comedy gets specific and unique. The problem with most of the film is the broadness of the second half, with the vague exception of a strange comedic cameo in the final moments that provides an inconsistently amusing bit. The product placement grates on the material, too, with Apple playing a hefty role in many of the film’s scenes. But Segel and Diaz are talented, enjoyable comedians that make the most of the material. As it runs a bit thin in the set-up for their sexual frustrations, they bring out the humor in the strangeness of it all. The supporting cast is game and varied, with Corddry remaining one of the most consistently hard-working supporting actors in comedy today. Yet Jake Kasdan’s film cannot help but fall into the traditional traps of mediocre comedies: it fails to engage past its thin premise and falls flat in delivering a compelling story. It’s mostly weak in humor and sporadic with its jokes. Sex Tape is likable and somewhat amusing, but ultimately uneven and tepid in its laughs. 
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

Sex Tape is mostly tame and harmless, a promising film with two likable comedians that fails to flourish in its second half. Modern comedies often attempt to tackle raunchy premises because quieter laughers usually go unnoticed in today’s landscape. A film about a sex tape is pretty much as loud of a concept as possible. For that reason, Sex Tape should be far funnier than it ends up being, mostly digressing into awkward conversations that depend on long pauses and physical humor that grows tiresome by the conclusion. Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz have both achieved success over the past decade in mainstream comedies; the former has Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I Love You, Man while the latter has Bad Teacher and The Other Woman. Yet here, their combination cannot seem to shape a coherently funny story. It’s simply that a shocking premise fails to produce laughs alone and needs a hilarious set of characters and jokes to accompany the plot. 

The film centers on Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Jason Segel), a married couple with kids that misses the spontaneity of their earlier days. They no longer have sex like they used to, they are preoccupied with their jobs, and they can’t seem to balance their everyday life to make sure they find happiness. Their kids often remind them of their unrest, with their daughter jokingly asking Jay about the point of life only to follow it up by saying that him and mom are unhappy. Annie is caught up with selling her “mommy blog” to a company run by Hank Rosenbaum (Rob Lowe), and on her way home from a meeting decides to get a night alone with Jay. She sends the kids off with their grandmother while the married couple hopes to rekindle their passionate fire. But they fail and fail again, until Annie thinks of a seemingly ingenious idea: how about they film themselves having sex? They do it and, thanks to Jay’s music job that involves him syncing gifted iPads to his own to provide them with his playlists, the video goes out to their friends. 

The rest of the film involves their exploits to erase the video from everyone’s devices. It mostly hinges on their ignorance to how technology works in today’s age. They fail to understand what a remote wipe is, how videos can be copied, and how videos are uploaded to servers. To nitpick the film’s thin premise is trivial, though, since Sex Tape doesn’t exist to provide a realistic plot. Instead, it aims to provide the audience with set pieces that embrace the absurdity of these characters and their actions. On that part, it delivers fairly well in the film’s first half. They visit their friends Robby (Rob Corddry) and Tess (Ellie Kemper) who are celebrating their 12th anniversary and join them on their adventures. This leads to Annie visiting Hank’s house, which might be the finest moment in the film. Rob Lowe’s performance is ridiculous and hilarious, a man with a very strange Disney obsession and a hankering for the days of old. More specifically, the days of recreational cocaine use.  

The film is funniest, as most are, when its comedy gets specific and unique. The problem with most of the film is the broadness of the second half, with the vague exception of a strange comedic cameo in the final moments that provides an inconsistently amusing bit. The product placement grates on the material, too, with Apple playing a hefty role in many of the film’s scenes. But Segel and Diaz are talented, enjoyable comedians that make the most of the material. As it runs a bit thin in the set-up for their sexual frustrations, they bring out the humor in the strangeness of it all. The supporting cast is game and varied, with Corddry remaining one of the most consistently hard-working supporting actors in comedy today. Yet Jake Kasdan’s film cannot help but fall into the traditional traps of mediocre comedies: it fails to engage past its thin premise and falls flat in delivering a compelling story. It’s mostly weak in humor and sporadic with its jokes. Sex Tape is likable and somewhat amusing, but ultimately uneven and tepid in its laughs. 

Grade: ★½ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The Purge: Anarchy is either one of the most absurd, fascist films ever made or a vapid, gruesome piece of filmmaking. I think it’s the latter, but the filmmakers certainly make an argument for the former. What we are given is a sequel to a film that squandered its seemingly ingenious premise surrounding a futuristic America: that for 12 hours each year, every crime is legal (including murder). This allows for the country to prosper economically, socially, and financially. Except for the poor, of course, who are the targets of these purges headed by the wealthy aiming to create some sort of population control. This latest feature in the twisted world of the Purge focuses on multiple arcs: a couple (Zach GIlford and Kiele Sanchez) driving home as their car breaks down right before the Purge commences; a former sergeant (Frank Grillo) who aims to get revenge on the man who killed his son; and a mother (Carmen Ejogo) and daughter (Zoë Soul) who wait in their locked-up apartment as assailants break into their complex. The mother and daughter are working class, their father is dying, and they are struggling to survive in many ways. 
All of their stories intersect. Not naturally, but because the story demands it and doesn’t care to explain how a city as big as Los Angeles can allow for all of these people to cross paths so neatly. The biggest problem? These characters, however engaging they sound on paper, are pointless. The story wants to explore the depravity of Americans, using these humanoid-like protagonists as a means of looking at the way we would act if given the ability to senselessly kill without punishment. That involves a man mowing down people with a mini-gun mounted in the back of a semi-truck and rich people paying exorbitant sums of money to hunt individuals or kill them with machetes. There’s a really strange obsession with murder by big knife here. The characters encounter many of these violent moments, meaning they should add up to a big revelation, either developing the central protagonists or providing the audience with a new idea about this world. But that seems a bit too logical.
The film is one of those rare breeds that consistently tells the audience that it’s making commentary on issues when in reality it’s all smoke and mirrors. Writer-director James DeMonaco took authorial duties in the first film and this latest feature, but there’s nothing that signifies a singular vision here. The direction is muddled and inconsistent in its jumps from naturalistic close-ups to haphazard action shots. The sound in the theater had substantial problems for most of the film’s opening moments, but that couldn’t disguise the discordant exchanges of dialogue between every character. It’s clunky and formulaic without a care for deepening characters or letting the audience learn from visualization. Instead, everything must be explained! The filmmakers working here, including mega-producer Jason Blum (famous for the Paranormal Activity films, amongst many other horror films of late), have created a product that delivers lowest-common denominator storytelling, deriving elements from insanity and incomprehension rather than development. 
There’s something to be said about the manner in which homelessness, poverty, and government control are treated in The Purge: Anarchy, if only to demonstrate the failed attempts at mixing commentary and satire. I admire a major film that attempts to articulate something about societal issues. Yet the film demonstrates that America is full of have and have nots and that the haves are grotesque pigs while the have nots are lost causes. The main character of the sergeant, played by the competent Frank Grillo (who really tries his best with terrible material), gets redemption when realizing that participating in the Purge is part of the problem, but none of that is shown on screen. That’s storytelling 101. And Michael K. Williams pops up as Carmelo Jones, an enlightened extremist that aims to stand against the NFFA (New Founding Fathers of America). He’s ridiculous. Which makes me think that maybe the film is merely here to act as a spoof of social commentary itself and satirize the very nature of the narrative. And then, as the credit sequence rolls, a dubstep remix of “God Bless America” begins. How poetic. 
Grade: ★½ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

The Purge: Anarchy is either one of the most absurd, fascist films ever made or a vapid, gruesome piece of filmmaking. I think it’s the latter, but the filmmakers certainly make an argument for the former. What we are given is a sequel to a film that squandered its seemingly ingenious premise surrounding a futuristic America: that for 12 hours each year, every crime is legal (including murder). This allows for the country to prosper economically, socially, and financially. Except for the poor, of course, who are the targets of these purges headed by the wealthy aiming to create some sort of population control. This latest feature in the twisted world of the Purge focuses on multiple arcs: a couple (Zach GIlford and Kiele Sanchez) driving home as their car breaks down right before the Purge commences; a former sergeant (Frank Grillo) who aims to get revenge on the man who killed his son; and a mother (Carmen Ejogo) and daughter (Zoë Soul) who wait in their locked-up apartment as assailants break into their complex. The mother and daughter are working class, their father is dying, and they are struggling to survive in many ways. 

All of their stories intersect. Not naturally, but because the story demands it and doesn’t care to explain how a city as big as Los Angeles can allow for all of these people to cross paths so neatly. The biggest problem? These characters, however engaging they sound on paper, are pointless. The story wants to explore the depravity of Americans, using these humanoid-like protagonists as a means of looking at the way we would act if given the ability to senselessly kill without punishment. That involves a man mowing down people with a mini-gun mounted in the back of a semi-truck and rich people paying exorbitant sums of money to hunt individuals or kill them with machetes. There’s a really strange obsession with murder by big knife here. The characters encounter many of these violent moments, meaning they should add up to a big revelation, either developing the central protagonists or providing the audience with a new idea about this world. But that seems a bit too logical.

The film is one of those rare breeds that consistently tells the audience that it’s making commentary on issues when in reality it’s all smoke and mirrors. Writer-director James DeMonaco took authorial duties in the first film and this latest feature, but there’s nothing that signifies a singular vision here. The direction is muddled and inconsistent in its jumps from naturalistic close-ups to haphazard action shots. The sound in the theater had substantial problems for most of the film’s opening moments, but that couldn’t disguise the discordant exchanges of dialogue between every character. It’s clunky and formulaic without a care for deepening characters or letting the audience learn from visualization. Instead, everything must be explained! The filmmakers working here, including mega-producer Jason Blum (famous for the Paranormal Activity films, amongst many other horror films of late), have created a product that delivers lowest-common denominator storytelling, deriving elements from insanity and incomprehension rather than development. 

There’s something to be said about the manner in which homelessness, poverty, and government control are treated in The Purge: Anarchy, if only to demonstrate the failed attempts at mixing commentary and satire. I admire a major film that attempts to articulate something about societal issues. Yet the film demonstrates that America is full of have and have nots and that the haves are grotesque pigs while the have nots are lost causes. The main character of the sergeant, played by the competent Frank Grillo (who really tries his best with terrible material), gets redemption when realizing that participating in the Purge is part of the problem, but none of that is shown on screen. That’s storytelling 101. And Michael K. Williams pops up as Carmelo Jones, an enlightened extremist that aims to stand against the NFFA (New Founding Fathers of America). He’s ridiculous. Which makes me think that maybe the film is merely here to act as a spoof of social commentary itself and satirize the very nature of the narrative. And then, as the credit sequence rolls, a dubstep remix of “God Bless America” begins. How poetic. 

Grade: ½ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a tremendous achievement in filmmaking, one of the most intimate studies of childhood I’ve seen. The film, shot since 2002, centers on Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a 6-year old boy at the beginning of the film who ages over the years to be an 18-year old adult by the film’s conclusion. Chronicling his trouble in a divorced home, he lives with his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), as the former attempts to find a stable home for her children without a father. Their birth father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), is a fun-loving man who cannot take responsibility for his actions. He takes his children out to ballgames, spoils them to no end, and frustrates both the mother and the children over the years with his consistently inconsistent dependency. Mason deals with the ramifications of his actions throughout the years, seeing his family split into two distinct universes and handling that divide as many children of divorce do in the changing landscape of the family. He must handle two parents, two lives, and two sets of emotion. 
The film has earned its distinction as one where the actors mature on screen in sync with their characters. That cannot be true enough. Hawke and Arquette look young and vibrant in the beginning and matured and stable by the conclusion, with Hawke growing cleaner, grayer facial hair in the film’s second half. Arquette’s Olivia lives through multiple heartbreaking marriages that not only devastate her children, but her hopes at achieving success in her personal life and career. The turmoil weighs on her younger-looking face in the film’s beginning moments and takes its form near the end. Time is marked in the film by a unique identifier: the 2000s are mostly marked by the greatest hits of the era. Coldplay’s “Yellow” opens the film as it shines a light on Mason’s world awakening to us, while tunes like “Soak Up the Sun” and “Crazy” remind us of the strange divides we had in popular music. They also properly define the changing years and tell the audience that, yes, these characters are genuinely aging in front of us, even if that’s incredulous in every way. It’s simply unprecedented and awe-inspiring to see it captured on screen.
Ellar Coltrane is the film’s guiding light, the marker that gives us a pulse on the film’s magic. He sprouts from a young, wide-eyed boy to a complicated, compulsive teenager over the film’s 165 minute running time. This is a dense, deeply felt feature that thematically weaves through Mason’s life. Coltrane explores the nature of a boy growing up and the mixed emotions that they face: how can a woman love an abusive drunk of a husband and let him treat her children like garbage? How can a boy love a girl and deal with her moving away to another college while trying to maintain their relationship? How can Mason know whether to drink beer at a younger age without a father figure there to guide him in the right direction? Coltrane is not a perfect actor, but he doesn’t have to be. His character is full of imperfections due to the innate nature of growing up; there’s an unpredictability to the way life works particularly at a young age. Therefore his actions and feelings never need to be enacted in the way film language usually articulates. He’s allowed to be confused and insecure with the way he feels and acts because that’s the breadth of this story. 
Linklater remains one of the great humanistic voices in modern film, having tackled the greatest romance in the history of the movies with the Before trilogy and mixing independent and mainstream films throughout his career with ease. What he’s able to do here and done before is address the most relatable issues in life as if they are new and perfectly adjusted to the characters. He has Mason deal with peer pressure and bullying with single scenes, Olivia handle the struggle of children growing up in a broken home along with spouses and their drinking problems, and Mason Sr. spending time with children that he rarely sees and an immaturity that constantly nags at him. The film progresses methodically at its own whim and ebbs and flows with the mysterious path that life takes us down. These characters transform before our eyes physically and figuratively, growing into better, stronger individuals. Every character introduced as a central force gets an impactful arc. 
The reason Boyhood is such a towering, beautiful, articulate feature is partially due to my connection with the story and its themes. I grew up with Mason, seeing people plant signs for President Obama and hearing music transform for a new generation. There was hope and optimism, frustration and pessimism, and every other emotion that grows from a tumultuous country that still remains one of the greatest in the world. The film is a celebration of American life and independence, a fierce evocation of the endless ability for change and betterment. I love every element of Linklater’s vision, using his traditional long takes during conversations while using different digital and film lenses throughout the feature to show the way the world has changed, both in front of and behind the screen. It’s something that shouldn’t have been accomplished: these actors were not linked by money but by their emotional connection the story and its importance. Boyhood is a masterpiece that will be celebrated for years to come. It’s the best film of 2014 thus far. 
Grade: ★★★★★ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a tremendous achievement in filmmaking, one of the most intimate studies of childhood I’ve seen. The film, shot since 2002, centers on Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a 6-year old boy at the beginning of the film who ages over the years to be an 18-year old adult by the film’s conclusion. Chronicling his trouble in a divorced home, he lives with his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), as the former attempts to find a stable home for her children without a father. Their birth father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), is a fun-loving man who cannot take responsibility for his actions. He takes his children out to ballgames, spoils them to no end, and frustrates both the mother and the children over the years with his consistently inconsistent dependency. Mason deals with the ramifications of his actions throughout the years, seeing his family split into two distinct universes and handling that divide as many children of divorce do in the changing landscape of the family. He must handle two parents, two lives, and two sets of emotion. 

The film has earned its distinction as one where the actors mature on screen in sync with their characters. That cannot be true enough. Hawke and Arquette look young and vibrant in the beginning and matured and stable by the conclusion, with Hawke growing cleaner, grayer facial hair in the film’s second half. Arquette’s Olivia lives through multiple heartbreaking marriages that not only devastate her children, but her hopes at achieving success in her personal life and career. The turmoil weighs on her younger-looking face in the film’s beginning moments and takes its form near the end. Time is marked in the film by a unique identifier: the 2000s are mostly marked by the greatest hits of the era. Coldplay’s “Yellow” opens the film as it shines a light on Mason’s world awakening to us, while tunes like “Soak Up the Sun” and “Crazy” remind us of the strange divides we had in popular music. They also properly define the changing years and tell the audience that, yes, these characters are genuinely aging in front of us, even if that’s incredulous in every way. It’s simply unprecedented and awe-inspiring to see it captured on screen.

Ellar Coltrane is the film’s guiding light, the marker that gives us a pulse on the film’s magic. He sprouts from a young, wide-eyed boy to a complicated, compulsive teenager over the film’s 165 minute running time. This is a dense, deeply felt feature that thematically weaves through Mason’s life. Coltrane explores the nature of a boy growing up and the mixed emotions that they face: how can a woman love an abusive drunk of a husband and let him treat her children like garbage? How can a boy love a girl and deal with her moving away to another college while trying to maintain their relationship? How can Mason know whether to drink beer at a younger age without a father figure there to guide him in the right direction? Coltrane is not a perfect actor, but he doesn’t have to be. His character is full of imperfections due to the innate nature of growing up; there’s an unpredictability to the way life works particularly at a young age. Therefore his actions and feelings never need to be enacted in the way film language usually articulates. He’s allowed to be confused and insecure with the way he feels and acts because that’s the breadth of this story. 

Linklater remains one of the great humanistic voices in modern film, having tackled the greatest romance in the history of the movies with the Before trilogy and mixing independent and mainstream films throughout his career with ease. What he’s able to do here and done before is address the most relatable issues in life as if they are new and perfectly adjusted to the characters. He has Mason deal with peer pressure and bullying with single scenes, Olivia handle the struggle of children growing up in a broken home along with spouses and their drinking problems, and Mason Sr. spending time with children that he rarely sees and an immaturity that constantly nags at him. The film progresses methodically at its own whim and ebbs and flows with the mysterious path that life takes us down. These characters transform before our eyes physically and figuratively, growing into better, stronger individuals. Every character introduced as a central force gets an impactful arc. 

The reason Boyhood is such a towering, beautiful, articulate feature is partially due to my connection with the story and its themes. I grew up with Mason, seeing people plant signs for President Obama and hearing music transform for a new generation. There was hope and optimism, frustration and pessimism, and every other emotion that grows from a tumultuous country that still remains one of the greatest in the world. The film is a celebration of American life and independence, a fierce evocation of the endless ability for change and betterment. I love every element of Linklater’s vision, using his traditional long takes during conversations while using different digital and film lenses throughout the feature to show the way the world has changed, both in front of and behind the screen. It’s something that shouldn’t have been accomplished: these actors were not linked by money but by their emotional connection the story and its importance. Boyhood is a masterpiece that will be celebrated for years to come. It’s the best film of 2014 thus far. 

Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an intimate film based around emotion and character. It’s also an $170 million blockbuster that could get away with blowing a lot of things up with special effects. But instead, it mixes the two to demonstrate that blockbusters can be emotionally charged narratives that engage with special effects in every frame. Who could’ve known? The previous film in the series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, achieved critical and box office success in 2011 and revitalized a series that looked dead after the horrid 2001 Tim Burton reboot. What Dawn does is use the world-building from the first film and puts it on the back burner to interact with the characters in this landscape. Like other great sequels (in what, I presume, will be a trilogy with the next film closing out this narrative), the film doesn’t advance the central plot so much as set the emotional table for the other films and provides immense insight into the world.
This is a ravaged world with seemingly no hope: apes dominate after the virus started in the first film expanded to the ends of the Earth. Humans have abandoned central hubs and instead find refuge in any place they can, surviving for the past decade while the virus eliminated all signs of life. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is one of those people. He lost his wife and protects his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has a knack for sketching. Ellie (Keri Russell) is a smart woman that’s dating Malcolm despite the complications of being some of the last human survivors. The leader of their group, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), is a determined leader that knows there’s little hope for survival. He finds something in the dense forests in San Francisco, though, that could assist their survival: our power generator located at a dam. The only problem? Apes run rampant in the surrounding area, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), who decides to let the humans work despite their aggression toward each other. Koba (Toby Keddell), a violent ape, aims to stage a revolt to assert apes’ domination in the new world order. 
Caesar is the hero of this story. That’s one of the most remarkable things the film accomplishes. He’s front-and-center, has more development than the human characters, and the actor playing him delivers a deeply felt, personable performance. It’s vital to the film’s effectiveness, and Serkis is the primary reason Dawn works. He’s advanced the work he put forth in the original by navigating the world as a determined leader with few options. He must protect his tribe but also find a way to live in this world without going to war. The special effects that exist around these characters is some of the most remarkable motion-capture I’ve seen in film, enhancing the already impressive work used in the original. These are lifelike, humanistic characters that feel, act, and think just like their human counterparts. The humanity within these primates may sound like a fairly simple thing to accomplish through special effects, but the internal battle between Caesar and Koba is remarkably staged. It’s all impressive. 
Dawn doesn’t just depend upon its special effects-heavy characters and narrative, though. While its human characters are often pushed to the side for long periods of time, characters like Dreyfus shine because of their loss. Almost every human alive in the story is genetically immune to the disease that has killed most of the world’s population, and Dreyfus is one of many men that has lost his family in the process. In a moment when they have electricity and he brings up photos on his tablet, he sobs uncontrollably at the sight of his family. Then, in an instant, he’s primed and ready to lead his people. That weakness has no place in the outside world. Oldman captures this just like you’d expect a seasoned veteran, with composure and restraint. His performance is subtly effective. Reeves’ direction behind the camera is leaps and bounds ahead of his work from Cloverfield, emphasizing the emotional heft and complexity of the story. This is a tale of triumph and tragedy and the beginning of the end. Caesar’s struggle in the film’s conclusion emphasizes the marked connection between the two races: that they both have outliers that can make their species seem compassionless, when in reality they care deeply about one another. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is weighty, lofty entertainment, an ambitious summer film amidst the gluttony of blockbusters. 
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an intimate film based around emotion and character. It’s also an $170 million blockbuster that could get away with blowing a lot of things up with special effects. But instead, it mixes the two to demonstrate that blockbusters can be emotionally charged narratives that engage with special effects in every frame. Who could’ve known? The previous film in the series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, achieved critical and box office success in 2011 and revitalized a series that looked dead after the horrid 2001 Tim Burton reboot. What Dawn does is use the world-building from the first film and puts it on the back burner to interact with the characters in this landscape. Like other great sequels (in what, I presume, will be a trilogy with the next film closing out this narrative), the film doesn’t advance the central plot so much as set the emotional table for the other films and provides immense insight into the world.

This is a ravaged world with seemingly no hope: apes dominate after the virus started in the first film expanded to the ends of the Earth. Humans have abandoned central hubs and instead find refuge in any place they can, surviving for the past decade while the virus eliminated all signs of life. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is one of those people. He lost his wife and protects his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has a knack for sketching. Ellie (Keri Russell) is a smart woman that’s dating Malcolm despite the complications of being some of the last human survivors. The leader of their group, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), is a determined leader that knows there’s little hope for survival. He finds something in the dense forests in San Francisco, though, that could assist their survival: our power generator located at a dam. The only problem? Apes run rampant in the surrounding area, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), who decides to let the humans work despite their aggression toward each other. Koba (Toby Keddell), a violent ape, aims to stage a revolt to assert apes’ domination in the new world order. 

Caesar is the hero of this story. That’s one of the most remarkable things the film accomplishes. He’s front-and-center, has more development than the human characters, and the actor playing him delivers a deeply felt, personable performance. It’s vital to the film’s effectiveness, and Serkis is the primary reason Dawn works. He’s advanced the work he put forth in the original by navigating the world as a determined leader with few options. He must protect his tribe but also find a way to live in this world without going to war. The special effects that exist around these characters is some of the most remarkable motion-capture I’ve seen in film, enhancing the already impressive work used in the original. These are lifelike, humanistic characters that feel, act, and think just like their human counterparts. The humanity within these primates may sound like a fairly simple thing to accomplish through special effects, but the internal battle between Caesar and Koba is remarkably staged. It’s all impressive. 

Dawn doesn’t just depend upon its special effects-heavy characters and narrative, though. While its human characters are often pushed to the side for long periods of time, characters like Dreyfus shine because of their loss. Almost every human alive in the story is genetically immune to the disease that has killed most of the world’s population, and Dreyfus is one of many men that has lost his family in the process. In a moment when they have electricity and he brings up photos on his tablet, he sobs uncontrollably at the sight of his family. Then, in an instant, he’s primed and ready to lead his people. That weakness has no place in the outside world. Oldman captures this just like you’d expect a seasoned veteran, with composure and restraint. His performance is subtly effective. Reeves’ direction behind the camera is leaps and bounds ahead of his work from Cloverfield, emphasizing the emotional heft and complexity of the story. This is a tale of triumph and tragedy and the beginning of the end. Caesar’s struggle in the film’s conclusion emphasizes the marked connection between the two races: that they both have outliers that can make their species seem compassionless, when in reality they care deeply about one another. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is weighty, lofty entertainment, an ambitious summer film amidst the gluttony of blockbusters. 

Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)

Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Snowpiercer is one of the best films of 2014, a kinetic, gripping piece of science fiction that’s always involving. Bong Joon-ho establishes himself as one of the brightest talents working behind the camera, a man with the ability to thrill behind character drama alongside violent action that holds meaning. It’s a rare, brilliant mix. The film centers on Earth in 2031, where a failed global warming experiment leads to the world freezing over and all life ceasing to exist. A lucky few boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels the world in the span of a year with a growing class divide amongst the citizens onboard. The back of the train is comprised of individuals without money, simply attempting to live in the horrid conditions provided to them. Most of them don’t remember what the outside world looks or feels like: there are no windows, most have been on the train for roughly 17 years (besides the babies born post-apocalypse), and they are fed protein blocks that look like gelatinous blobs of blood. Their lives are full of starvation, hard work, and fighting for survival.  
Curtis (Chris Evans) is fed up. He wants to make it to the front of the train to reached the fabled Engine, which somehow keeps the train running at all times. It provides them with water converted from the ice outside and the essentials needed to keep the ecosystem running on board. Along with Edgar (Jamie Bell), a young man born on the train near its inception, and Gilliam (John Hurt), a wise old man without most of his limbs, they attempt to advance past the soldiers and to the front of the train. Others include Tanya (Octavia Spencer), a woman whose child is taken to the front for an unexplained purpose, and Nam (Kang-ho Song), a man addicted to a drug made of toxic waste called Kronol. It’s a highly flammable substance that Nam and his daughter, Yona (Ah-sung Ko), use as currency in exchange for helping the passengers advance through gates. The former developed them himself and the latter is psychic, having the ability to see through the gates to warn them of what’s to come. 
There have been other revolts, all failures. The previous insurgents were killed by the guards, something that Mason (Tilda Swinton) often reminds the members of the tail section. She adores Wilford Industries and everything that it stands for, idolizing its creator who lives with the Engine. Wilford is a demigod to the people near the front of the train despite the ridicule and doubt he faced from outsiders for his invention; those people onboard are wealthy and reserved their spots to live just as they used to before the scientific experiment went wrong. Joon-ho instills plenty of commentary within that struggle to emphasize a class divide between rich and poor. It’s riveting. Curtis and Edgar talk about how they forget what steak even tastes like or what their mother’s faces look like. Imagine being denied the simple joys of life, and that is the way they live. While that conflict emerges, there is a fundamental attack on naysayers of climate change and the way that technological advances can backfire on us. The central premise isn’t overly far-fetched considering how far the world is going to combat global warming. 
While that may make the film sound heavy, there’s one important element to consider: the film is a blast. The action is staged appropriately and masterfully keeps within the narrow confines of a train. Every room feels as if it’s crafted by a brilliant designer who just so happened to know how thrilling the rooms would be in a film. Snowpiercer kicks ass and uses its characters as vehicles for caring about the action. These are properly defined people who believably live inside this train. They are emotionally ravaged, mentally exhausted, and physically lean. And they are ready to fight for their lives. Evans is great in the lead, particularly in a late moment when he delivers a moving monologue about his first moments on the train. Swinton is impressively unique, too. The action is fast-paced and brutal, with the film remaining uncompromising in what it shows; blood and graphic violence ensue because it needs to in the context of the narrative. Snowpiercer is a unique breed of actioner: it’s a tiny blockbuster set entirely on a train, it’s ridiculously ambitious in narrative scope, and it has a story that makes the audience care. It’s great filmmaking. 
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

Snowpiercer is one of the best films of 2014, a kinetic, gripping piece of science fiction that’s always involving. Bong Joon-ho establishes himself as one of the brightest talents working behind the camera, a man with the ability to thrill behind character drama alongside violent action that holds meaning. It’s a rare, brilliant mix. The film centers on Earth in 2031, where a failed global warming experiment leads to the world freezing over and all life ceasing to exist. A lucky few boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels the world in the span of a year with a growing class divide amongst the citizens onboard. The back of the train is comprised of individuals without money, simply attempting to live in the horrid conditions provided to them. Most of them don’t remember what the outside world looks or feels like: there are no windows, most have been on the train for roughly 17 years (besides the babies born post-apocalypse), and they are fed protein blocks that look like gelatinous blobs of blood. Their lives are full of starvation, hard work, and fighting for survival.  

Curtis (Chris Evans) is fed up. He wants to make it to the front of the train to reached the fabled Engine, which somehow keeps the train running at all times. It provides them with water converted from the ice outside and the essentials needed to keep the ecosystem running on board. Along with Edgar (Jamie Bell), a young man born on the train near its inception, and Gilliam (John Hurt), a wise old man without most of his limbs, they attempt to advance past the soldiers and to the front of the train. Others include Tanya (Octavia Spencer), a woman whose child is taken to the front for an unexplained purpose, and Nam (Kang-ho Song), a man addicted to a drug made of toxic waste called Kronol. It’s a highly flammable substance that Nam and his daughter, Yona (Ah-sung Ko), use as currency in exchange for helping the passengers advance through gates. The former developed them himself and the latter is psychic, having the ability to see through the gates to warn them of what’s to come. 

There have been other revolts, all failures. The previous insurgents were killed by the guards, something that Mason (Tilda Swinton) often reminds the members of the tail section. She adores Wilford Industries and everything that it stands for, idolizing its creator who lives with the Engine. Wilford is a demigod to the people near the front of the train despite the ridicule and doubt he faced from outsiders for his invention; those people onboard are wealthy and reserved their spots to live just as they used to before the scientific experiment went wrong. Joon-ho instills plenty of commentary within that struggle to emphasize a class divide between rich and poor. It’s riveting. Curtis and Edgar talk about how they forget what steak even tastes like or what their mother’s faces look like. Imagine being denied the simple joys of life, and that is the way they live. While that conflict emerges, there is a fundamental attack on naysayers of climate change and the way that technological advances can backfire on us. The central premise isn’t overly far-fetched considering how far the world is going to combat global warming. 

While that may make the film sound heavy, there’s one important element to consider: the film is a blast. The action is staged appropriately and masterfully keeps within the narrow confines of a train. Every room feels as if it’s crafted by a brilliant designer who just so happened to know how thrilling the rooms would be in a film. Snowpiercer kicks ass and uses its characters as vehicles for caring about the action. These are properly defined people who believably live inside this train. They are emotionally ravaged, mentally exhausted, and physically lean. And they are ready to fight for their lives. Evans is great in the lead, particularly in a late moment when he delivers a moving monologue about his first moments on the train. Swinton is impressively unique, too. The action is fast-paced and brutal, with the film remaining uncompromising in what it shows; blood and graphic violence ensue because it needs to in the context of the narrative. Snowpiercer is a unique breed of actioner: it’s a tiny blockbuster set entirely on a train, it’s ridiculously ambitious in narrative scope, and it has a story that makes the audience care. It’s great filmmaking. 

Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Tammy is an embarrassing misfire for Melissa McCarthy. She’s an actress that won the goodwill of many with her hilarious supporting performance in Bridesmaids, and followed suit with leading performances in Identity Thief and The Heat. She essentially works better alongside a group of strong comedic actors and within stories that don’t rely on her for narrative drive. But here, her husband Ben Falcone is writer, director, and co-star (albeit briefly) and shines a spotlight on a boring slob of a character about who I never really cared. There’s a genuine lack of comedy within a film that so desperately wants people to laugh; the jokes are dissonant and constantly fall flat. It feels like that type of comedic failure that comes along in every comedian’s career, yet it’s surprising how early McCarthy’s is coming. That’s primarily because her type of humor appealed more broadly over her previous efforts due to the people surrounding her, and now the work feels more forced and less amusing. The schtick has grown old. 
The story centers on Tammy (Melissa McCarthy), a woman that has just about everything go wrong in her life. She loses her job at Topper Jack’s, a fast food joint that takes itself a bit too seriously, her husband cheats on her with the neighbor, and her car breaks down after hitting a deer while she rocked out to music. She heads a few houses down the street to her mother’s (Allison Janney) house, telling her that she’s going to skip town and start a new life. Her grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon), decides to join her on that adventure, providing the car and money to get them along. Despite her mother’s objections, they head off and try to begin anew. Pearl is a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed woman that’s sexually promiscuous and adventurous. Tammy must deal with her shenanigans, which leads to a run-in with an older gentleman, Earl (Gary Cole), and his son, Bobby (Mark Duplass) at a dive bar. The older two have sex, the younger two bond, and they each cross paths while Tammy and grandma try to find their way. 
The plot is flimsy like cardboard and dry like sandpaper. The story meanders and often follows whatever path Tammy takes, even if that fails to move the story forward or allow character progressions to happen naturally. The dialogue is repetitive and too straightforward, explaining every nuance of the story and allowing nothing to the imagination. It’s impressive how empty the experience becomes as it reaches its conclusion. Almost all of the supporting characters have no life, merely existing to push along Tammy and her development. What’s so dull about that element is the fact that Tammy is such an unrelatable character. She’s an energetic woman that certainly provides life to each scene, but McCarthy can’t redeem the contradictory nature of her person. Take, for instance, the fact that her husband has committed adultery and she says it’s a sin and can’t fathom that idea. But she had an ice cream man fondle her while also lusting after a new man, and that’s funny, so I guess it’s okay. 
The film champions Tammy’s stupidity, mining it for laughs and deriving the heart of her character out of her lack of knowledge. Her insolence knows no bounds, spitting on fast food on her way out of her firing and calling people assholes when they don’t deserve it. That’s not a very likable character. She mistakes Cheetos for Lay’s, patterns for both pairs and galaxies (I know that makes no sense, but Tammy thinks it does), and doesn’t know who Mark Twain is. The character’s obliviousness to life around her is unnerving in how much joy the writing couple finds in it. The alcoholism at the heart of Pearl’s character is also offensively drawn, mined for laughs because drinking excessively and ruining your life is funny! When the story attempts to redeem the character, it never feels sincere. Neither does Kathy Bates’s lesbian character in the second half, who acts as a sage that delivers wisdom while also liking to blow stuff up. Tammy may be nonsensical and derivative, but it’s also unexpectedly something else: painfully unfunny. 
Grade: ★½ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Tammy is an embarrassing misfire for Melissa McCarthy. She’s an actress that won the goodwill of many with her hilarious supporting performance in Bridesmaids, and followed suit with leading performances in Identity Thief and The Heat. She essentially works better alongside a group of strong comedic actors and within stories that don’t rely on her for narrative drive. But here, her husband Ben Falcone is writer, director, and co-star (albeit briefly) and shines a spotlight on a boring slob of a character about who I never really cared. There’s a genuine lack of comedy within a film that so desperately wants people to laugh; the jokes are dissonant and constantly fall flat. It feels like that type of comedic failure that comes along in every comedian’s career, yet it’s surprising how early McCarthy’s is coming. That’s primarily because her type of humor appealed more broadly over her previous efforts due to the people surrounding her, and now the work feels more forced and less amusing. The schtick has grown old. 

The story centers on Tammy (Melissa McCarthy), a woman that has just about everything go wrong in her life. She loses her job at Topper Jack’s, a fast food joint that takes itself a bit too seriously, her husband cheats on her with the neighbor, and her car breaks down after hitting a deer while she rocked out to music. She heads a few houses down the street to her mother’s (Allison Janney) house, telling her that she’s going to skip town and start a new life. Her grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon), decides to join her on that adventure, providing the car and money to get them along. Despite her mother’s objections, they head off and try to begin anew. Pearl is a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed woman that’s sexually promiscuous and adventurous. Tammy must deal with her shenanigans, which leads to a run-in with an older gentleman, Earl (Gary Cole), and his son, Bobby (Mark Duplass) at a dive bar. The older two have sex, the younger two bond, and they each cross paths while Tammy and grandma try to find their way. 

The plot is flimsy like cardboard and dry like sandpaper. The story meanders and often follows whatever path Tammy takes, even if that fails to move the story forward or allow character progressions to happen naturally. The dialogue is repetitive and too straightforward, explaining every nuance of the story and allowing nothing to the imagination. It’s impressive how empty the experience becomes as it reaches its conclusion. Almost all of the supporting characters have no life, merely existing to push along Tammy and her development. What’s so dull about that element is the fact that Tammy is such an unrelatable character. She’s an energetic woman that certainly provides life to each scene, but McCarthy can’t redeem the contradictory nature of her person. Take, for instance, the fact that her husband has committed adultery and she says it’s a sin and can’t fathom that idea. But she had an ice cream man fondle her while also lusting after a new man, and that’s funny, so I guess it’s okay. 

The film champions Tammy’s stupidity, mining it for laughs and deriving the heart of her character out of her lack of knowledge. Her insolence knows no bounds, spitting on fast food on her way out of her firing and calling people assholes when they don’t deserve it. That’s not a very likable character. She mistakes Cheetos for Lay’s, patterns for both pairs and galaxies (I know that makes no sense, but Tammy thinks it does), and doesn’t know who Mark Twain is. The character’s obliviousness to life around her is unnerving in how much joy the writing couple finds in it. The alcoholism at the heart of Pearl’s character is also offensively drawn, mined for laughs because drinking excessively and ruining your life is funny! When the story attempts to redeem the character, it never feels sincere. Neither does Kathy Bates’s lesbian character in the second half, who acts as a sage that delivers wisdom while also liking to blow stuff up. Tammy may be nonsensical and derivative, but it’s also unexpectedly something else: painfully unfunny. 

Grade: ½ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Begin Again celebrates music unlike any modern film I’ve seen, insisting that it has the ability to move people more so than any other craft. How ironic then that it’s presented as a film. The film’s original title, Can a Song Save Your Life?, captures the essence of the story more directly, but both titles have similarly affecting meanings. They both refer to the film’s central character, Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a disgraced music-business executive that created his own record label back in the day with popular artists under his wing. But the music industry is changing and his way of doing things was pushed to the side. That might be because of the work itself, yet it seems to lie more within his raging alcoholism and familial issues. His daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), dresses like she needs a father to tell her what’s not acceptable while his ex-wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener), raises her alone. Dan’s life is in ruins and he’s prepared to find a way to make that end. 
Then he finds Greta (Keira Knightley), a nervous musician on stage at a bar after being pushed by her friends to show her talents. Greta plays a quiet song with a guitar that doesn’t excite the crowd, but Dan sees an arrangement happening and the potential bursting within the music. The film sets up this piece of the narrative over a 20-minute span, using these three minutes as a way to introduce the characters and how they were both pushed to this moment. It’s a smart storytelling tactic by writer-director John Carney, allowing the scene a wider perspective to demonstrate the utter despair both of these people feel in their lives. Greta’s similarly down on her luck, having come to New York with her boyfriend, Dave (Adam Levine), who launches a singing career and begins to reach stardom. They used to sing together, recording videos of duets and working in tandem for writing. Now, he’s beginning to sell out and craft songs that push aside all they’ve done. After he cheats on her, she feels lost and prepared to head home to the UK. Then she runs into Dave. 
He hatches the idea that they should record an album outdoors during the summer in New York City. It’s a concept album at its most extreme, capturing the turmoil of the city while simultaneously using natural sound stages to let the music work for itself. Carney’s film develops as a simplistic one by nature, yet it defines itself by the eccentricities of the characters and their interactions with music. Take, for instance, a moment when Greta prepares to leave a clichéd post-breakup message on Dave’s phone while drunk. Where the scene could’ve had her character emotionally fall apart, she stands strong and comes up with a genius idea: to write a revenge song and leave that as the recording. The scene captures that song in full and lets the audience marvel at the strength of the character and her best friend always by her side, Steve (James Corden). There’s another scene where everyone is gathered at a party and Steve says that no one can resist dancing to the song about to be played. Naturally, everyone freezes and fights the urge to dance. It’s one of the happiest progressions I’ve seen, speaking volumes about the infectious nature of music and the way it brings out the innate happiness in all of us. 
The performances here are terrific. Ruffalo in the lead makes his character a likable drunk, one we despise for his weakness of character while also loving his ability to create music out of nothing. He’s a creative genius stuck in a rut that makes his personal life a nightmare. He brings humor and compassion to what could’ve been a one-note, fake man. Knightley is equally affecting. A scene near the end of the film shows her love for music overpowers her love for a man, demonstrating her strength as a musician. The film surprisingly avoids romance when it can; this isn’t a romantic comedy, nor is it a music tale mixed with romance like Once (a superior film). Instead, it’s a film that shows the love we all have for music, and the way that these people care about that work so much more than a romantic relationship. The supporting performances are strong, Carney’s direction is fluid despite clunky elements structurally, and the ending is moving and whole. Excluding the credits sequence that tacks on far too much for the story, Begin Again is a terrific look at the power of music. 
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

Begin Again celebrates music unlike any modern film I’ve seen, insisting that it has the ability to move people more so than any other craft. How ironic then that it’s presented as a film. The film’s original title, Can a Song Save Your Life?, captures the essence of the story more directly, but both titles have similarly affecting meanings. They both refer to the film’s central character, Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a disgraced music-business executive that created his own record label back in the day with popular artists under his wing. But the music industry is changing and his way of doing things was pushed to the side. That might be because of the work itself, yet it seems to lie more within his raging alcoholism and familial issues. His daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), dresses like she needs a father to tell her what’s not acceptable while his ex-wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener), raises her alone. Dan’s life is in ruins and he’s prepared to find a way to make that end. 

Then he finds Greta (Keira Knightley), a nervous musician on stage at a bar after being pushed by her friends to show her talents. Greta plays a quiet song with a guitar that doesn’t excite the crowd, but Dan sees an arrangement happening and the potential bursting within the music. The film sets up this piece of the narrative over a 20-minute span, using these three minutes as a way to introduce the characters and how they were both pushed to this moment. It’s a smart storytelling tactic by writer-director John Carney, allowing the scene a wider perspective to demonstrate the utter despair both of these people feel in their lives. Greta’s similarly down on her luck, having come to New York with her boyfriend, Dave (Adam Levine), who launches a singing career and begins to reach stardom. They used to sing together, recording videos of duets and working in tandem for writing. Now, he’s beginning to sell out and craft songs that push aside all they’ve done. After he cheats on her, she feels lost and prepared to head home to the UK. Then she runs into Dave. 

He hatches the idea that they should record an album outdoors during the summer in New York City. It’s a concept album at its most extreme, capturing the turmoil of the city while simultaneously using natural sound stages to let the music work for itself. Carney’s film develops as a simplistic one by nature, yet it defines itself by the eccentricities of the characters and their interactions with music. Take, for instance, a moment when Greta prepares to leave a clichéd post-breakup message on Dave’s phone while drunk. Where the scene could’ve had her character emotionally fall apart, she stands strong and comes up with a genius idea: to write a revenge song and leave that as the recording. The scene captures that song in full and lets the audience marvel at the strength of the character and her best friend always by her side, Steve (James Corden). There’s another scene where everyone is gathered at a party and Steve says that no one can resist dancing to the song about to be played. Naturally, everyone freezes and fights the urge to dance. It’s one of the happiest progressions I’ve seen, speaking volumes about the infectious nature of music and the way it brings out the innate happiness in all of us. 

The performances here are terrific. Ruffalo in the lead makes his character a likable drunk, one we despise for his weakness of character while also loving his ability to create music out of nothing. He’s a creative genius stuck in a rut that makes his personal life a nightmare. He brings humor and compassion to what could’ve been a one-note, fake man. Knightley is equally affecting. A scene near the end of the film shows her love for music overpowers her love for a man, demonstrating her strength as a musician. The film surprisingly avoids romance when it can; this isn’t a romantic comedy, nor is it a music tale mixed with romance like Once (a superior film). Instead, it’s a film that shows the love we all have for music, and the way that these people care about that work so much more than a romantic relationship. The supporting performances are strong, Carney’s direction is fluid despite clunky elements structurally, and the ending is moving and whole. Excluding the credits sequence that tacks on far too much for the story, Begin Again is a terrific look at the power of music. 

Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website. 
Third Person is like a broken wrist: it’s limp, disjointed, and bothers the viewer for every minute of its existence. Paul Haggis seems to be desperately reaching for the success he achieved with Crash, the 2006 Best Picture winner that stands as the highlight of his career. That Oscar vehicle worked on a tremendous level emotionally and brought together an impressively deep cast into a coherent, thematically sound narrative. His latest film, about a writer that’s struggling with his latest work, feels omniscient and self-aware like its title suggests, only it doesn’t recognize how incoherent it really is. The film’s protagonist, Michael (Liam Neeson), is stuck in a hotel in France writing his newest book while being haunted by a voice saying, “Watch me.” The first scene painfully screams details about his character: there’s a pill bottle on his desk!; there’s alcohol!; he takes off his glasses because he can’t concentrate! The camera cuts between each of these moments multiple times, emphasizing his supposed drug addiction while simultaneously repeating details that could have been explained in half the amount of time. 
Anna (Olivia Wilde) arrives at his hotel room after being flown there at Michael’s whim. She wants him to read her short story, but before that happens they make love on the bed while she receives mysterious texts from a man named Daniel. Meanwhile, an American businessman named Scott (Adrien Brody) is in Italy to steal designs from fashion houses. He goes to a bar to grab a beer (something that he painfully cannot find and when he does, it’s warm, much to his chagrin) and meets Monika (Moran Atias), an attractive woman who leaves a bag with 5,000 Euros in the bar by mistake. Or was it? Scott tracks her down to give her back her bag, but she notices the money is missing; it’s for her daughter, she says, to get her back from wherever she is. It sounds like a kidnapping story, and Scott gets swept up in the beauty of the woman without realizing that he might be getting conned. The other story follows Julia (Mila Kunis), a woman that mistakingly left her child alone to almost suffocate in a dry cleaning bag, being forced to live a normal life while leaving the boy with his father, Rick (James Franco). 
If these stories don’t sound connected, you’d be onto something. The link between the three stories is muddled and confusing until the third act twist, which seemingly explains everything that’s been discombobulated. Haggis’s film, however, reveals an embarrassingly lame explanation that neither thrills or challenges the viewer; instead, it insists that it’s logically sound and connected. What becomes so frustrating as a viewer is not that the link between these stories isn’t readily apparent, but that we have to stumble through such hackneyed, contrived dialogue and scenes in order to get there. If we’re supposed to buy that Michael is a talented writer, then why could we care less about his words and the impact they are supposed to have? As he writes, “White. The color of trust,” followed by other short, incomplete sentences, it isn’t thought-provoking. It’s a poor excuse for blatantly pointing out symbolism and giving the viewer very little to imagine themselves. 
There aren’t strong performances in the film as much as there are strong actors attempting to perform melodramatic material. Third Person never earns the loud, bombastic scenes it repeatedly brings on the audience; it’s frustrating to see an actress as talented as Olivia WIlde subjected to such vulgar, schizophrenic traits as her character has. James Franco and Mila Kunis are asked to cry and yell a lot, never giving us subtlety when we need to ground these characters in some reality. Based on the structure of the film, though, that last element may be a bit excusable. And Neeson is a good actor when provided with dense work, but the story allows everyone else to experience what he should be, leaving his character tragically empty. That may be intentional, but as a hero it leaves the audience cold. Basinger and Bello pop up in small roles but only exist to spur on the thematic obviousness of the subplots. As writer and director here, Haggis never creates a sound narrative; instead, he provides the audience with an absurd, misguided ending that frustrates rather than compels. Third Person is an underwhelming failure. 
Grade: ★½ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website

Third Person is like a broken wrist: it’s limp, disjointed, and bothers the viewer for every minute of its existence. Paul Haggis seems to be desperately reaching for the success he achieved with Crash, the 2006 Best Picture winner that stands as the highlight of his career. That Oscar vehicle worked on a tremendous level emotionally and brought together an impressively deep cast into a coherent, thematically sound narrative. His latest film, about a writer that’s struggling with his latest work, feels omniscient and self-aware like its title suggests, only it doesn’t recognize how incoherent it really is. The film’s protagonist, Michael (Liam Neeson), is stuck in a hotel in France writing his newest book while being haunted by a voice saying, “Watch me.” The first scene painfully screams details about his character: there’s a pill bottle on his desk!; there’s alcohol!; he takes off his glasses because he can’t concentrate! The camera cuts between each of these moments multiple times, emphasizing his supposed drug addiction while simultaneously repeating details that could have been explained in half the amount of time. 

Anna (Olivia Wilde) arrives at his hotel room after being flown there at Michael’s whim. She wants him to read her short story, but before that happens they make love on the bed while she receives mysterious texts from a man named Daniel. Meanwhile, an American businessman named Scott (Adrien Brody) is in Italy to steal designs from fashion houses. He goes to a bar to grab a beer (something that he painfully cannot find and when he does, it’s warm, much to his chagrin) and meets Monika (Moran Atias), an attractive woman who leaves a bag with 5,000 Euros in the bar by mistake. Or was it? Scott tracks her down to give her back her bag, but she notices the money is missing; it’s for her daughter, she says, to get her back from wherever she is. It sounds like a kidnapping story, and Scott gets swept up in the beauty of the woman without realizing that he might be getting conned. The other story follows Julia (Mila Kunis), a woman that mistakingly left her child alone to almost suffocate in a dry cleaning bag, being forced to live a normal life while leaving the boy with his father, Rick (James Franco). 

If these stories don’t sound connected, you’d be onto something. The link between the three stories is muddled and confusing until the third act twist, which seemingly explains everything that’s been discombobulated. Haggis’s film, however, reveals an embarrassingly lame explanation that neither thrills or challenges the viewer; instead, it insists that it’s logically sound and connected. What becomes so frustrating as a viewer is not that the link between these stories isn’t readily apparent, but that we have to stumble through such hackneyed, contrived dialogue and scenes in order to get there. If we’re supposed to buy that Michael is a talented writer, then why could we care less about his words and the impact they are supposed to have? As he writes, “White. The color of trust,” followed by other short, incomplete sentences, it isn’t thought-provoking. It’s a poor excuse for blatantly pointing out symbolism and giving the viewer very little to imagine themselves. 

There aren’t strong performances in the film as much as there are strong actors attempting to perform melodramatic material. Third Person never earns the loud, bombastic scenes it repeatedly brings on the audience; it’s frustrating to see an actress as talented as Olivia WIlde subjected to such vulgar, schizophrenic traits as her character has. James Franco and Mila Kunis are asked to cry and yell a lot, never giving us subtlety when we need to ground these characters in some reality. Based on the structure of the film, though, that last element may be a bit excusable. And Neeson is a good actor when provided with dense work, but the story allows everyone else to experience what he should be, leaving his character tragically empty. That may be intentional, but as a hero it leaves the audience cold. Basinger and Bello pop up in small roles but only exist to spur on the thematic obviousness of the subplots. As writer and director here, Haggis never creates a sound narrative; instead, he provides the audience with an absurd, misguided ending that frustrates rather than compels. Third Person is an underwhelming failure. 

Grade: ½ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Science fiction adventures rarely focus on characters as much as Earth to Echo. It’s a surprisingly resonant feature that emphasizes the togetherness and foundation of friendship vital to overcoming adversities in childhood. At times, its ambition reaches the heights of iconic children’s adventures like The Goonies and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (to which comparisons are almost necessary, since the film borrows heavily from those ’80s classics in both structure and theme). Yet the film ultimately settles on a story that doesn’t want to deliver a strong social message that its opening moments allude to, nor does it aim to make profound realizations about technology and extra-terrestrial life. Instead, it’s a straightforward tale about loners growing up in the same neighborhood that face the end of their life as they know it: not the end of the world, but the end of their friendships.
The trio at the heart of the story spends every waking moment together: Alex (Teo Halm) is a foster child that feels isolated due to his parents having a new baby; Tuck (Astro) has an abrasive older brother that gets the family’s attention while they focus on moving away; and Munch (Reese Hartwig) is the techie nerd that loves dearly but couldn’t act normal if his life depended on it. They are all likable presences primarily because they are kind-hearted kids who focus on helping and supporting each other. One sweet moment has Munch saying that he can’t lie to his mom because, after her divorce, she’s had enough men lying to her. The boys soon find out, however, that the time spent in their neighborhood may be short-lived due to the construction of a highway over the area of land on which they live. These construction workers won’t let them know why it’s happening, just that it is and they need to move soon or else they’ll be forcefully evicted.
Before their last night, they discover that people’s cell phones are acting up and showing a digital map to some place in the desert. Their curiosity spikes. They decide to take a journey to discover what exactly this is, soon finding parts that help them put together a mechanical alien that they name Echo. This extra-terrestrial is hurt and needs help getting back to his ship. They discover that there are others out there looking for Echo and hoping to use him for scientific research to understand why these aliens are on Earth. If the premise sounds like science-fiction, it’s surprisingly a character-driven effort that emphasizes melodrama over large visual effects. That may be a disappointment for some, but upon viewing it’s a refreshingly balanced take on a topic that we’ve seen many other times, and in better films, I might add. But the characters make the film: Hartwig brings Munch a tenderness and compassionate insight that goes past the whacky sidekick persona usually employed in children’s movies. And the decision to have the make-up of the group be a foster child, an African-American, and an overweight outcast shows the increasingly changing landscape of the American family. 
Yet despite the film’s ambitious first half set-up, the second half is marked by a lack of emotional and narrative drive. The story bogs itself down in plot points rather than actual stakes for the characters and their actions, leading to a distanced viewing that feels inconsequential. Science fiction can usually comment on society in some affecting way, which the first ten minutes promise remarkably: the inconsiderate destruction of human lives at the cost of a freeway is a stark realization of our times and the necessity to expand. But that promise falls away with disregard for that social insight in favor of Echo-driven storytelling. The film will certainly please kids and hit the right comedic notes for both the little ones and adults. Most importantly, despite its narrative and tonal flaws, Earth to Echo cares deeply about its characters and their friendship. However distant it may seem emotionally in its second half, there’s a shred of compassionate storytelling that feels refreshing amidst much of the pessimism in mainstream film. 
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

Science fiction adventures rarely focus on characters as much as Earth to Echo. It’s a surprisingly resonant feature that emphasizes the togetherness and foundation of friendship vital to overcoming adversities in childhood. At times, its ambition reaches the heights of iconic children’s adventures like The Goonies and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (to which comparisons are almost necessary, since the film borrows heavily from those ’80s classics in both structure and theme). Yet the film ultimately settles on a story that doesn’t want to deliver a strong social message that its opening moments allude to, nor does it aim to make profound realizations about technology and extra-terrestrial life. Instead, it’s a straightforward tale about loners growing up in the same neighborhood that face the end of their life as they know it: not the end of the world, but the end of their friendships.

The trio at the heart of the story spends every waking moment together: Alex (Teo Halm) is a foster child that feels isolated due to his parents having a new baby; Tuck (Astro) has an abrasive older brother that gets the family’s attention while they focus on moving away; and Munch (Reese Hartwig) is the techie nerd that loves dearly but couldn’t act normal if his life depended on it. They are all likable presences primarily because they are kind-hearted kids who focus on helping and supporting each other. One sweet moment has Munch saying that he can’t lie to his mom because, after her divorce, she’s had enough men lying to her. The boys soon find out, however, that the time spent in their neighborhood may be short-lived due to the construction of a highway over the area of land on which they live. These construction workers won’t let them know why it’s happening, just that it is and they need to move soon or else they’ll be forcefully evicted.

Before their last night, they discover that people’s cell phones are acting up and showing a digital map to some place in the desert. Their curiosity spikes. They decide to take a journey to discover what exactly this is, soon finding parts that help them put together a mechanical alien that they name Echo. This extra-terrestrial is hurt and needs help getting back to his ship. They discover that there are others out there looking for Echo and hoping to use him for scientific research to understand why these aliens are on Earth. If the premise sounds like science-fiction, it’s surprisingly a character-driven effort that emphasizes melodrama over large visual effects. That may be a disappointment for some, but upon viewing it’s a refreshingly balanced take on a topic that we’ve seen many other times, and in better films, I might add. But the characters make the film: Hartwig brings Munch a tenderness and compassionate insight that goes past the whacky sidekick persona usually employed in children’s movies. And the decision to have the make-up of the group be a foster child, an African-American, and an overweight outcast shows the increasingly changing landscape of the American family. 

Yet despite the film’s ambitious first half set-up, the second half is marked by a lack of emotional and narrative drive. The story bogs itself down in plot points rather than actual stakes for the characters and their actions, leading to a distanced viewing that feels inconsequential. Science fiction can usually comment on society in some affecting way, which the first ten minutes promise remarkably: the inconsiderate destruction of human lives at the cost of a freeway is a stark realization of our times and the necessity to expand. But that promise falls away with disregard for that social insight in favor of Echo-driven storytelling. The film will certainly please kids and hit the right comedic notes for both the little ones and adults. Most importantly, despite its narrative and tonal flaws, Earth to Echo cares deeply about its characters and their friendship. However distant it may seem emotionally in its second half, there’s a shred of compassionate storytelling that feels refreshing amidst much of the pessimism in mainstream film. 

Grade: ★★ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Anonymous: What are your thoughts on the mumblecore film movement? Have you seen Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture?

I think that mumblecore film has the potential to be exciting: Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Drinking Buddies, and Your Sister’s Sister are all examples of the genre working well. Characters can thrive under the emphasis on dialogue and muted direction, but at the same time in the wrong film can be grating. I’ve seen a lot of festival films that are so boring when trying to be that genre. If the story works for that type of filmmaking, then it should be used. The Duplass twins have shown that wonderfully.

And no, I haven’t seen Tiny Furniture, but I’ve been meaning to get around to it. Dunham’s an exciting voice on TV. Girls is divisive, even for me, where I’ll go from loving it to finding it annoying over the span of an episode, so a film of hers is compelling by nature.

Anonymous: Who are a few understated directors that you really enjoy?

To name a few, I’d say Richard Ayoade, Denis Villeneuve, Asghar Farhadi, Noah Baumbach, Jeff Nichols, Derek Cianfrance, Lynne Ramsay, Sarah Polley, and Richard Linklater. Those are directors with very understated approaches to their work. Obviously there are more I’m failing to realize, but that’s a good start.