film.avclub.comDark Web has more sadistic, inventive fun with Unfriended’s online-horror premiseWhen Unfriended hit theaters in the technologically primitive past of three years ago, it looked like a brand-new kind of movie. Unfolding exclusively across the LCD canvas of a terrified teen’s desktop, this ingenious ghost-in-the-machine potboiler spoke a distinctly modern language, telling its hoary horror story of revenge from beyond the grave through Facebook photos, instant messages, Google searches, chat windows, YouTube clips, and the overlapping din of a group Skype session. Unfriended didn’t invent webcam horror any more than The Blair Witch Project created the found-footage genre. But it did fiendishly exploit how we communicate and even how we process visual information today. It was a fright machine for the multitasking, screen-dependent now.
film.avclub.comZoe is the dopey sci-fi love story that doesn't know it's creepy In the near future of Drake Doremus’ sci-fi inanity Zoe, androids (called “synthetics,” because it’s that kind of movie) have become ubiquitous, but true love remains scarce as ever. Hip and good-looking people turn to the Machine, a computer matchmaker that’s basically OkCupid, or gobble up 100 mg doses of the euphoric drug Benysol, which simulates the feeling of falling in love—both products of a company called Relationist, the market leader in such things. Its latest promises to be a game-changer: a line of next-generation, super-realistic synthetic life partners with glowing white goop for guts, programmed with real memories à la Rachael in Blade Runner. The genius behind these enamo-robots is Cole Ainsley (Ewan McGregor, with glasses and very close cropped hair), a roboticist whose marriage fell apart after he and his ex-wife were given a low score by the Machine. Working late hours at the lab, Cole toils away at a male prototype (Theo James) that’s been implanted with some of his own memories, while his assistant Zoe (Léa Seydoux, with ’60s bangs) watches longingly.
film.avclub.comMcQueen is an intimate look at a larger-than-life fashion iconAsked recently to describe Alexander McQueen to a friend with little knowledge of fashion, the best I could think of was to say, “He basically gave Lady Gaga her entire aesthetic.” That’s, of course, an overly simplistic way of looking at it, not least because Gaga isn’t the only one whose approach to sartorial risk-taking is heavily influenced by the late British fashion iconoclast. Rising quickly from a protegé of fashion editor Isabella Blow to creative director of Givenchy and owner of his own label, McQueen rose to prominence during a period where not just models but also fashion designers were becoming celebrities in their own right. He had an undeniable talent and a knack for getting the fashion gatekeepers that his work was designed to piss off to write him checks anyway. And he hated it—hated being famous, hated being respectable, hated pretty much everything but his dogs and working in his studio with the close-knit group of colleagues who were his only real friends.
film.avclub.comWeekend Box Office: The Rock misses that big jump after allSometimes it feels like Hollywood is just one giant recycling center: In goes the existing intellectual property, out come the sequels, remakes, reboots, and adaptations. So it’s a little sad when a movie not based on something people already love flops, if only because it could hurt the chances of execs investing more regularly in original ideas. Skyscraper, the movie where The Rock jumps off a crane into a really tall building, is about as unoriginal as “original” visions get. As a mediocre action movie, it didn’t exactly “deserve” to become a giant hit. All the same, the film’s underperformance this weekend threatens to send the wrong message to a studio system already reluctant to bank on anything without built-in appeal. Maybe audiences could just tell that it wasn’t going to be very good, and weren’t simply rejecting a blockbuster without a franchise brand.
film.avclub.comThe Night Eats The World is a zombie movie with more on its mind than brainsIf the zombie apocalypse actually happened, what would you do? Presumably, your first priority would be to get somewhere where you’re not in immediate danger of being eaten. And most zombie stories revolve around just that: a survivor’s (or survivors’) quest to find safety. But Dominique Rocher’s feature debut The Night Eats The World, based on Pit Agarmen’s novel of the same name, asks a follow-up question: Then what?
film.avclub.comDaveed Diggs blends comedy, drama, and a portrait of Oakland in the impressive BlindspottingIf the recent Sorry To Bother You presents a head-trip, music-video vision of trying to get by in Oakland, California, then Blindspotting offers a more grounded tour of the city, addressing some of the same or related problems: racism, gentrification, systemic oppression. Given the proximity of the two movies both at Sundance and in general release this summer, Blindspotting has every opportunity to look more staid, earnest, and traditionalist in its approach to the subject matter. As it turns out, this may be why such a small-scale, sometimes predictable drama can still feel, at times, downright revelatory: It crackles to life without a surfeit of surface flash.
film.avclub.comJoe Dante, Keith David, and Jello Biafra kick off our coverage of the Fantasia Film FestivalTwenty-two years into its run, the Fantasia International Film Festival is the grande dame of North American genre film festivals. And like any institution, it has its milestones—Fantasia was the first festival to screen Takashi Miike’s work in North America, and arguably launched the J-horror trend internationally—and its traditions, chief of which is the much-discussed meowing that fills the space between when the lights go down and the movie starts up. (That was launched either by a series of short films or a stray cat that snuck into a screening, depending on who you ask.) It also has its veterans, those who have risen through the ranks from volunteers to staff—and sometimes even back again, in the case of one former volunteer coordinator who’s moved on to a new job, but came back this year as a volunteer.
film.avclub.comImprobably but amusingly, Hotel Transylvania 3 notches a series bestIn the third installment of the animated franchise Hotel Transylvania, Dracula (Adam Sandler) takes a Bermuda Triangle-bound ocean cruise with his vampire daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez), accompanied by the undead Frank (Kevin James), wolfman Wayne (Steve Buscemi), invisible man Griffin (David Spade), and mummy Murray (Keegan-Michael Key), among other monsters and creatures. Given the Halloween-centric origins of the earlier films, this change in location essentially makes Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation the Christmas Ape Goes To Summer Camp of the series, or perhaps the cinematic equivalent of “The Monster Swim.” With such unpromising origins, it’s pleasantly baffling to discover that not only is Hotel Transylvania 3 easily the best film of the series, but it also feels more at home thematically on a cruise ship than its predecessors did at a haunted Transylvanian castle.
film.avclub.comJoaquin Phoenix limits his movement and kicks the bottle in Gus Van Sant’s uneven new biopicPlaying a quadriplegic represents a challenge for any able-bodied actor, but it must be particularly frustrating for someone like Joaquin Phoenix, who uses his body no less expressively than he does his face and voice. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot largely confines Phoenix to a motorized wheelchair, though he’s playing a man—the late cartoonist John Callahan—who was known for zipping around the streets of Portland, Oregon so recklessly that he often wound up being hurled from his chair after hitting a bump or a curb at high speed. All the same, involuntary stillness makes the strongest impression here. Even when Phoenix is acting mostly from the neck up (plus very limited use of his hands), he manages to convey the physical actions that Callahan would take if he only could; there are times when one can almost see him flip a table or throw a glass across the room, when all he’s actually done is tense his brow.
film.avclub.comEighth grade sucks. Eighth Grade doesn’t.Middle school is a nightmare. It’s like prison with homework, or a pitiless social experiment. For three very long years, half-adults with raging hormones and underdeveloped empathy glands prey on their peers, pouncing on any weakness, securing through cruelty their own place in the Darwinian pecking order. You don’t graduate from middle school. You survive it, if you can. Eighth Grade, the directorial debut of comedian Bo Burnham, has been made with a bone-deep and clear-eyed understanding of this unfortunate chapter of adolescence, and just how hard it can be for all but the most adaptive and impossibly popular. But the commiserative insight comes with an accompanying gust of warmth. What makes this coming-of-age film special is that it’s at once harsh and humanist: a perceptive, realistic comedy about tweenage life that’s also rich in compassion, that scarcest of junior-high commodities
film.avclub.comThe Rock’s Skyscraper promises stupid fun, but falls shortDwayne Johnson, who recently played a brawny ex-Special Forces primatologist in Rampage, gets a backstory that’s almost as good in Skyscraper: His character, the Ahabically one-legged safety consultant Will Sawyer, used to be an FBI agent, until his left shank got blown off in a botched hostage rescue. Dusting off his undergrad comparative mythology books, writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber sends our hero off to relive and scale this trauma (this time with his own wife and kids in peril) as he swings and climbs his way up the Pearl, a Hong Kong super-high-rise that makes Dubai’s real-life Burj Khalifa look like an old New York tenement. It’s 3,500 feet tall, very shiny, and topped with a spherical chamber that operates somewhat like Star Trek’s Holodeck, though its only real purpose is to set up an abstract, Lady From Shanghai-inspired funhouse finale. We’re told the Pearl is “the safest super-tall structure in the world.” But towers have been a recipe for disaster since the Book Of Genesis, and this one falls easily to sabotage by a crew of international, mostly Eurotrash mercenaries.
film.avclub.comGus Van Sant, Jonah Hill, and Jack Black reveal their all-time favorite moviesGus Van Sant’s newest film, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot, tells the story of cartoonist John Callahan, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who became a quadriplegic after being in an auto accident when he was 21. Ahead of the film’s opening this Friday, we spoke with Van Sant, and stars Jonah Hill and Jack Black, who revealed their all-time favorite movies.
film.avclub.comA look at Casino through the eyes of Ace RothsteinLast week, I rewatched Casino, Martin Scorsese’s 178-minute glitz epic about the rise and fall of the mob in Las Vegas in the 1970s and ’80s—a movie that wrestles with its own conspicuous excess. The needle-drop montages, the zillion costume changes and killer suit-shirt-and-tie combos, the physical and verbal violence that makes up roughly three-quarters of the scenes. Scorsese’s interest in machismo has usually been chalked up to runtishness and childhood asthma, growing up as an indoor kid in the post-war Bronx; regardless, his characters are often outsiders with an insider’s take. That’s true of Goodfellas’ Henry Hill, a vicarious gangster with too much Irish in him to ever become a made man, and of Casino’s protagonist, the Jewish bookie Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro). But also of the characters Leonardo DiCaprio plays in The Departed and The Aviator, both also recently revisited in a minor Scorsese kick. And, obviously, Gangs Of New York. In a body of work that’s as weighed down with Catholic influence as Scorsese’s, the ultimate “not one of the guys” story would be the New Testament. Hence those two subversions of the ’50s historical epics of his childhood, the awe of church and Cinemascope: The Last Temptation Of Christ, in which the blond and blue-eyed Jesus of Catholic kitsch wrestles with human needs, and the underappreciated Silence, in which an emaciated Jesuit wonders what it would take to be Christ.
film.avclub.comJack Black and Jonah Hill on getting the chance to work with Gus Van SantGus Van Sant’s new biographical film Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot, based on the memoir of the same name, tells the story of cartoonist John Callahan, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who became a quadriplegic after being in an auto accident when he was 21. Starring opposite Phoenix are Jonah Hill and Jack Black as Callahan’s AA sponsor and best friend, respectively. We spoke with Black and Hill at the premiere of the film about their involvement in the project and working with Van Sant.
film.avclub.comEven with a much bigger building, Skyscraper falls way short of Die HardOn this edition of Film Club, critics A.A. Dowd and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky sit down to discuss Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s latest star vehicle Skyscraper, the newest addition to Hollywood’s vast stable of Die Hard knockoffs, with the action in this entry taking place in The Pearl, a building that comfortably dwarfs Nakatomi Plaza. Unfortunately for audiences, Skyscraper doesn’t take full advantage of its setting, instead confining the action to a few of The Pearl’s 250 floors, and opting for shoddy visual effects that never convey the scale of the building or give the impression of danger.
film.avclub.comA helpless teen is banished to a country she doesn’t know in What Will People SayIt’s hard not to feel empathy for a child who finds herself abruptly sent back to a birth country she doesn’t even remember—that’s why a path to citizenship or legal residency for DACA recipients has comparatively broad bipartisan support, even as every other element of immigration policy remains deeply polarized. Which is worse, though: being deported by heartless government goons, or getting banished by your own family? What Will People Say, the sophomore feature from Norwegian-Pakistani filmmaker Iram Haq, dramatizes the latter scenario, loosely based on Haq’s own nightmarish experience as a teenager. Most people in this circumstance at least have friends and relatives who are fighting for them; seeing your trust betrayed by those very individuals constitutes a special circle of hell. Indeed, it’s so blatantly distressing that What Will People Say ultimately can’t do much more than generate reflexive outrage. What people will say is, “That’s not right,” but precious few would require the help of a movie to reach that conclusion.
film.avclub.comMamma Mia! Here We Go Again with more brain-dead ABBA karaokeHere we are again, back in Greece, enchanted land of weathered baby-blue everything and swarthy fishermen who smack their chests and shout “Opa!,” for another two hours of watered-down soap opera and ABBA karaoke. What did these creators of catchy ’70s Europop par excellence do to deserve not one, but two dull jukebox musicals? The storyline of the 2008 box-office hit Mamma Mia! (adapted from the long-running stage musical) barely accomplished its intended task of linking two-dozen ABBA hits into a plot; it had a Greek island setting, a wedding, and a bride-to-be (Amanda Seyfried) who wanted to know which one of her mom’s old flames (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård) was her real father. Arriving in theaters a full decade later, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the title of which should be taken as a warning, knows all too well that its target audience wants more of the same. Heck, some of the songs (“Dancing Queen,” “Waterloo,” “Mamma Mia,” “The Name Of The Game,” etc.) are recycled from the first film. They should have called this one Money, Money, Money.
film.avclub.comWeekend Box Office: America celebrates independence with funny superheroesHaving presumably gotten its fill of hot dogs, fireworks, and the summer heat, America spent much of the post-holiday weekend in a darkened, air-conditioned auditorium. Which is to say, the box office boomed in the aftermath of Independence Day, moviegoers flocking to films big and small. One studio in particular had reason to celebrate, and it was, of course, Disney, whose monopoly over the world’s biggest big-screen brands continued to pay off nicely, Solo’s soft impact aside.
film.avclub.comNon-actor Paula Niedert on being the odd woman out in the Elliott familyThe Elliott family—that’s Chris Elliott, Paula Niedert, and their two daughters, Abby and Bridey Elliott—is collaborating on a film for the first time. Written and directed by Bridey, Clara’s Ghost follows a self-absorbed showbiz family over the course of a single evening as they deal with personal demons. Niedert, the only member of the Elliott family who hasn’t made a living as a performer, makes her acting debut with the film. In this clip from our interview with the family, Niedert talks about entering this new world.