PETE TRAVIS’ DREDD — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Dredd is a nasty action movie, supremely stylish at all times, unexpectedly funny (though in a very dark fashion), unrelenting with its pyrotechnics and blood-splattering, and for the better part of its quick yet lethal run-time, the film reminds you that sometimes it’s possible for an ultra-violent, hard-R endeavor to be both artistically fascinating and consumer friendly. Flamboyantly directed by Pete Travis (Vantage Point) and crisply written by Alex Garland (Ex-Machina, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go), this is an explosive piece of filmmaking that continually shreds on repeated viewings, dipping into exploitation realms and subversive genre-busting sometimes in the same scene, with the all-forward-momentum plotting involving Judge Dredd (the perfectly cast Karl Urban) taking on an army of drug-dealing goons, all of whom work for a psychopathic boss named Ma-Ma (wonderfully vile Lena Headey), inside of a 200-story high-rise living space where the only law is death. There are some seriously gnarly bits in this film, all of it gruesome yet strangely beautiful in a dark, grungy, tripped-out fashion.

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That’s because the real star of Dredd is the film’s bold and brilliant cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire, Rush, Trance, Snowden, Antichrist); this movie is eye-popping to such a degree that numerous shots require immediate rewind POWER because of how insane they are. The drug-induced slow-motion sequences are transfixing, and to be honest, visually intoxicating; I had never seen anything like it before I had experienced what they did in Dredd. Olivia Thirlby was also very memorable as Dredd’s rookie-partner with a special secret; Garland is adroit in layering surprises into his narratives. Released in 2012 to surprisingly excellent reviews yet anemic box office results, there’s been talk of a sequel by this film’s rabid fan base, with some signs pointing to a follow-up potentially happening in the near future. Original Judge Dredd creator John Wagner served as a consultant on the film, despite the fact that the filmmakers took an all-new approach to his iconic material. Comparisons to The Raid are inevitable and apt.

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GOODFELLAS: A Mini-Review by Joel Copling

**** (out of ****)
Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino.
Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi, based on the book by Pileggi.
Rated R. 148 minutes. 1990.

As far back as I could remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.

These words, both a fond reminiscence and an ominous foreboding, open Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, a brutal epic that takes inventory of the blue-collar mafia of Brooklyn from the point-of-view of an associate and rising star, Henry Hill. But Scorsese’s film, adapted by the director and co-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi from Pileggi’s book on the subject, never shies away from the fact that the people at the forefront of their narrative are bad, very bad, people. They are members of the Cicero crime family, headed by Paul or “Paulie” to those who know him intimately, and Hill’s mentors are Jimmy Conway, a truck hijacker, and Tommy DeVito, a psychotic ex-armed-robber without a conscience. The film tracks nearly 15 years of history, from the family’s involvement in the Air France Robbery of 1967 until the moment that Hill, played with alternating but nuanced arrogance and eagerness by Ray Liotta, entered the Witness Protection Program after turning family secrets into the Federal authorities. In between, Scorsese and Pileggi approach the gangster epic as an American story, avoiding most of the temptation in a “just the facts, ma’am” approach for something more character-based, while still adopting the forward style of a biographical picture. Hill meets Karen, a tough, spirited, opinionated, independent woman who finds it galling that Hill doesn’t call after their first night together, and Lorraine Bracco’s performance is the film’s good-hearted center, even as Karen becomes embroiled with a thinly veiled lifestyle she’s not stupid enough to think doesn’t exist. These are intelligent people, doing their job, and when you’re a man, your job is your honor. The cast is uniformly stellar, with Robert De Niro offering slick professionalism as leader-of-the-pack Conway and a reliably fire-ball Joe Pesci as DeVito, a man whose sense of humor is accentuated by a lack of remorse and a guttering violent streak. Michael Ballhaus’ live-wire cinematography swerves in and around these violent lives, keeping in time with Thelma Schoonmaker’s sleek editing. Goodfellas is a great film, Scorsese’s finest, and the reason might be that he approaches the end of this particular story grasping a tragic sense of the easily avoidable.

ENTERTAINMENT (2015) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

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A 40-something man wearing thick glasses and an expression of general indifference enters an earth-bound airplane, the interiors of which are wide and desolate. He squats down in the middle of the abandoned vessel and stares out of one of its many windows. Once back outside, it is revealed that the man is on a tour of an aircraft boneyard. So begins ENTERTAINMENT, the fourth feature from writer/director Rick Alverson (and first since his excellent Tim Heidecker-starring break-out, THE COMEDY). A man, deteriorating slowly by the day, walks alongside the remains of the world and its industries, which are disappearing at a much more alarming rate – an integral theme introduced in this first sequence that will compel the rest of the sparse though affecting narrative to come.

Gregg Turkington stars as the man in question, a comedian whose name is only vaguely hinted at a couple of times, but who we can nevertheless assume is intended to be Turkington’s most widely-known persona Neil Hamburger, who is touring the Mojave Desert playing shows in the seediest of venues, bringing along a clown (Ty Sheridan) as his opener and attracting only pure vitriol along the way. But to be fair, the comedian himself invites such outrage; his act is straight-up anti-comedy, and any form of unwanted audience participation is met with projections of his own ugliness. Let’s put it this way: one can hardly blame the woman (Amy Seimetz) who throws her drink onstage following a tirade of the most toxic variety for which she is the sole target.

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But this is a Rick Alverson film, and predictably, what we see of Turkington offstage is far more disturbing than what he exhibits to the public. The frequent, unanswered phone calls to his daughter, awkward visits with his cousin (John C. Reilly), dream visions of himself as a cowboy in white, and addiction to late-night Mexican soap operas hardly scratch the surface of this man’s complex psyche. There are insights into what lies within that will keep even the most seasoned horror fanatic up at night, including but not limited to nocturnal encounters with strange men and pregnant women in sleazy restrooms. One may never feel truly at ease in a public place such as this ever again. Where Hitchcock claimed hotels, showers, and mothers, Alverson’s got bathrooms, backyard pools in the Hollywood hills, and comb-overs.

It would be difficult for me to not at the very least admire the director’s unique, even necessary vision. Based on the two features of his I have seen, his approach can be surmised as pushing comedy – and indeed, the notion of what is “entertaining” and what is not – to its breaking point, pushing it so far in that very direction that it becomes an utterly horrifying spectacle. It’s a bit more difficult to pinpoint this one than as was the case with the director’s earlier work, coming off much like a Lynchian examination of self-exile and untreated mental illness, but therein lies the key to accessing its madcap brilliance. It’s not easy, but it is genuinely distinctive.

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Lorenzo Hagerman handsomely lenses the comedian’s trek across the barren wasteland, his stunning widescreen frames capturing not only the desert landscape in all its expansiveness and the insignificance of man when posited  within it but also the subtle grandeur of Turkington’s naturalistic features when wallowing in the utter dourness of solitude. A single frame can contain so much sadness and even some kind of cosmic terror, absolutely fitting for a film with this much to say but which appears, on paper, to be so much more simplistic than it actually is. Alverson’s history as a musician serves him well once again, with the film’s pivotal moment arriving a little over the halfway point when the comedian ventures out to the middle of the desert to record a video with a couple of young(er) YouTubers, but walks away – into what else but complete and utter nothingness – before the camera can even start rolling. Leah Devorah’s “Animals in the Zoo” scores this scene, which encapsulates what the film is really about as well as its last frame does, and it is one of the most personally affecting I’ve happened upon in recent memories. Without going into too much detail, it leaves me speechless and then some.

ENTERTAINMENT delivers on what we claim to expect out of most movies but in a consistently unconventional manner. It has a few awkward laughs, it’s got bucket loads of tension (Michael Cera’s brief appearance inspires enough pure discomfort to supply an entire, separate film on its own), and even features a sort of empathetic melancholy. I think the reason it won’t sit right with a lot of people is because it approaches cinema as a mirror into the soul, and dares to reveal things about ourselves that we would never hope to admit to. We react because deep down, we understand, and Alverson knows it. Oh, does he ever.

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This is as important a study of depression and suppressed anxiety as any, portraying the inevitable breakdown following the latter of the two with such painful realism that it may be wise to take a couple breathers throughout. I sure needed them. As much as this is initially structured to be some kind of endurance test committed to celluloid, it offers more than enough points of resonance to justify the amount of patience that it requires. Many will surely dismiss it as being a film about nothing, or merely a critique of showbiz and the plight of the artist, which is about as redundant as you can get. Alverson’s cinema is about vicious cycles contained within a distinctively American context; the dream is dead, as are we, but we’re still here. Lost souls, wandering about, searching for purpose, and surrendering to ourselves when we find nothing.

The inverse of THE COMEDY until it isn’t; one senses the comedian feels some kind of regret for his actions both on and off the stage, unlike Heidecker’s Swanson who feels nothing at all because he doesn’t have to, but like that character he feeds the void rather than challenging it. The “Animals in the Zoo” scene is perhaps the most difficult because it seems for once that Turkington may be looking inward, and yet in the end he chooses to ignore the notion, and thus “order” is restored. Alverson’s characters have always scraped by sluggishly, only this time, he finds real sadness in the excursion. This is a largely subconscious work of art, open to a certain number of reasonable interpretations that will no doubt transform across a variety of individual spectators, and one with a substantial enough emotional palette to support the full weight of its cynical outlook on the world as we know it. There’s plenty of truth here, and very little of it is pretty. It isn’t often that a non-genre outing is significantly more effective than the majority of horror films, but here we are. At the end of time, the end of emotional honesty, the end of entertainment itself; this is what Trish Keenan must have meant when she pondered where youth and laughter go. And like the late Broadcast vocalist also said, let them know.

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James Gunn’s Super: A Review by Nate Hill 

Before James Gunn got all famous and whatnot in the Marvel universe, he made a few dark, perverse little gems that aren’t for everybody, but have to be seen by those with the right sense of humour. Slither was his low budget, brilliant schlocker, and here with Super he takes a stab (literally) at the superhero genre, albeit in his own off kilter and unsettling way. Rainn Wilson, who is off kilter and unsettling himself, is our sad sack protagonist, a dreary nebbish named Frank Darbo, married to a troubled hottie (Liv Tyler) who is way out of his league and adorned with baggage. We soon learn that Frank is very disturbed, when his favourite TV superhero (Nathan Fillion in a brief cameo) informs him he must adorn cape and costume himself in order to fight the injustice in the world. His name? The Crimson Bolt. His weapon of choice? A great big crescent wrench, which he uses very generously to dole out his own extreme brand of justice. His motto? “Shut up, crime!!” (I laughed every time). He’s an unconventional ‘hero’ to say the least, most of his good deeds consisting of brutally attacking citizens with said wrench for minor infractions like butting in line at the cinema, an uproarious scene if your sensibility is twisted enough, but then that’s the jist of the whole thing. His longterm goal is to get Tyler back from the clutches of evil drug kingpin Jacques (a hilariously chatty Kevin Bacon), and prevent as many crimes as he can along the way. He ends up causing far more damage than he means to fix though, an awkwardly psychotic tornado of unwarranted violence and delusions of grandeur. Things get more out of hand when he aquires a spitfire of a sidekick named Bolty, played by Ellen Page in a performance that’s right out to lunch and then some. Page plays her to the deranged hilt, cackling like a maniac at her own violent antics and getting super uncomfortable with Wilson in the bedroom (seriously… one messed up scene). Gunn can always be counted on to hire interesting actors, so be on the lookout for Linda Cardellini, Andre Royo, Gregg Henry and Michael Rooker as Bacon’s lead thug. A lot of what happens here is awkward, cringey stuff, the chronicle of a misplaced and sad little man under the impression that his life has some preordained meaning, as delineated by the red suit. It’s a thin shroud to hide the worthless and pathetic existence he has lead so far, and as such it’s kind of a depressing thing to bear witness to. But rejoice in how darkly hilarious it is as well, because there’s plenty of pitch black humour and perfectly timed comedic moments that spice it up. Gunn understands people and the way they talk (a trait so often lacking in writers), and even with concepts so out in the stratosphere beyond normality, his characters still have their feet on the ground and seem realistic. A treat, if a sourly bittersweet one. 

PETER BERG’S HANCOCK — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Peter Berg’s unique and oddly enjoyable superhero movie Hancock is one of the more idiosyncratic $150 million summer movies that has ever been released. It’s a film that completely divided critics, but one that audiences seemed to enjoy, as it grossed $650 million worldwide (its relatively small 47% decline in its second weekend is interesting to note, but the film was released essentially at the apex of star Will Smith’s box office popularity). This is a tough film to discuss without divulging any spoilers, and there is a “twist” that shouldn’t be revealed or even hinted at, even if the misleading trailers did their best to ruin it. And while the film is certainly flawed and not all that it might have been had certain things not changed from the original, genre-busting script, Hancock still scores big points in an overcrowded genre, and stands apart from all of the Marvel clones due to its scrappy attitude, edgy tone, and rambunctious visual personality. Vy Vincent Ngo’s original screenplay that served as the basis for Hancock was called Tonight, He Comes, and was at first a directing project for Tony Scott; i can still remember reading the script when I worked in his office and being thoroughly blown away. But because the project was so offbeat and massively original (a drunken superhero falls for a suburban housewife and ignores everyone’s cries for help), the film never got off the ground in its original form; directors like Michael Mann and Jonathan Mostow would also step up to the plate before moving on. But then Mann, who stayed on Hancock as a producer (and who also makes a sly cameo during the opening act), recruited Berg, who had taken over the directing reins on the action-thriller The Kingdom (another project nearly directed by Mann), and brought Breaking Bad writer/creator Vince Gilligan on for some rewrites. What ended up being released on screen was something that really hadn’t been attempted before, and it was because Berg and his creative team rooted the film in the real world, complete with jittery, hand-held cinematography (which proposed a challenge for the CGI artists) and satirical humor that Hancock feels unlike any other man-with-special-powers movie that’s been released.

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The tech package to this film is really extraordinary, with Tobias Schliessler’s dynamic and gritty camerawork catching stuff on the fly, and while the film does suffer from swirling CGI-vortex in the sky syndrome, the effects work is generally witty and snazzy, with some cool flying effects, and nifty location shooting that was seamlessly blended with the mostly photo-real digital additions. And for once, the impact that a flying supherhero would make when they land on the ground is actually addressed(!) Smith brought the perfect sense of cocky-swagger to the role of Hancock, who happens to be a drunk, a womanizer, and a foul-mouth. He thinks it’s funny when he breaks things and doesn’t have much regard for personal property or the city he’s supposedly protecting. He behaves in the way that a superhero would probably behave if there really were such things as superheroes in real life. What Berg and his writers craftily did was set the film in the real world and treat the narrative almost like a dark comedy.

Not so much concerned in satisfying the more obvious conventions of the genre (again, at the risk of spoiling anything, I hesitate to reveal too much about the film’s plot), the filmmakers were more interested in the character of Hancock, and two people who cross his path: Ray, an idealistic PR executive (played with zeal by scene-stealer Jason Bateman) and his ultra-sexy wife, Mary, played by Charlize Theron. After saving Ray’s life, Hancock employs Ray to help him make over his image. The public is sick of Hancock destroying stuff, even though he is a good crime fighter. They’re sick of his boozy shenanigans, and Los Angeles, his home city, is tired of paying the clean-up bill after he does things like hang a couple of gangsters on the Capitol Records building by the front end of their SUV or smash traffic signs on the 405. Hancock goes to prison in an effort to show people that he knows he’s been bad, but once inside, he’s compelled to leave when the city needs his help yet again.

And while there is certainly a big twist that changes the film in a major way, it’s what Berg didn’t do with this film that excited me the most. After an amazing opening act, the middle section is a bit of a mixed-beast, but damn do I love act three, which apparently is the spot where people have problems. I admired the decision to down-play the typical superhero/super-villain climactic battle and make the film more about intimate character moments and emotional decisions rather than wanton destruction. That’s not to say that Hancock doesn’t deliver in the typical action-movie smash ’em-up fashion that you’ve come to expect from a Will Smith 4th of July blockbuster; lots of shit gets blown up and thrown around and all of it is done with polish and skill. It’s just that there is more going on in Hancock on a thematic level than you’d ever expect from a film like this.This is easily one of the more subversive and original blockbusters that’s been put together, and if it’s not all that it might have been, I’d rather see something like this than another vanilla-flavored rehash of the same-old same-old.

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JAMES GRAY’S WE OWN THE NIGHT — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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I love cop films. It’s one of my favorite genres. I respond instinctively to the films of Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Sidney Lumet, Brian De Palma and many others who have explored the time-honored traditions of cops, criminals, familial love, good and evil, and moral ambiguity. James Gray, the director of Little Odessa, The Yards, Two Lovers, and 2014’s criminally underrated The Immigrant, is one of my top directors to keep an eye on. He’s a New York filmmaker through and through, and while critics have been slightly cool to him on these shores, his reputation in Europe has cemented him as one of the most distinct voices in cinema working today. He loves the trappings and traditions of old-school American genre films, constantly showcasing ethically compromised lead characters, honest and corrupt cops, Russian mobsters, declining families, and hot-headed male characters. The Yards seemed to have been channeling The Godfather in its shadowy depiction of the bonds that bring families together, and how those same bonds and rip a family apart. Some of that same thematic ground is explored in We Own the Night, which is easily Gray’s most commercial picture to date, and while the film isn’t perfect, there is much to recommend in this stylish, dangerous, hot-blooded crime thriller. A simple story of two brothers on opposite sides of the law, We Own the Night is refreshingly un-self conscious and square; it’s a crime film that tells an A-to-B-to-C story that you’ve seen before but not through this prism. Joaquin Phoenix, in another blistering performance, is a nightclub manager named Bobby, whose top-cop father Burt (Robert Duvall, sage as always) has little use for. Eschewing the family calling of becoming a police officer, Bobby would rather swagger through a night club, blow a line coke off his girlfriend’s ass, and mix-it up with drunken clubbers. Bobby’s brother, Joseph (Mark Wahlberg, well cast in these types of roles), is a hot-shot in the police force, making a name for himself as the leader of a strike team set to take down the Russian mobs who have started to take over the drug trade in the city. It just so happens that the club that Bobby manages is owned by the Russian mob, and it’s not long before Bobby is forced to choose sides. He can either work with the police in taking down the group of people that employ him, or subvert the police and his family by staying loyal to the gangsters. Mix in Eva Mendes as Bobby’s smoking hot girlfriend (the film’s opening scene is genuinely sexy and quite startling in its overt sexuality) and you’ve got the requisite ingredients for a gritty cop thriller, which is exactly what We Own the Night becomes.

 

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Gray has structured his tale through three amazing set pieces — a coke-house raid/shootout, an astounding car-chase during a pounding rainstorm, and a near operatic climactic shootout set against the burning, extra-tall weeds of New York. Gray handles the various action sequences like a skilled vet (there’s more “action” in We Own the Night than in Little Odessa and The Yards put together). But it’s the tremendous car chase that warrants special praise. Shooting the entire sequence with a subjective camera and no artificial music, the audience only knows as much as Bobby during this harrowing chase, as the camera never leaves the back seat and front seat of the car. We peer through the front windshield as the wiper blades clear away the torrential downpour, allowing glimpses of a jack-knifing tractor-trailer truck and other vehicular destruction. With gangsters firing shotguns at Bobby’s car, the scene is all white-knuckles and sweaty palms. You’ll be even more amazed to know that all of the rain was created with computers, as the seamless blending of all of the different elements in this bravura sequence is simply astonishing. It truly is a car chase that you’ve never seen before. The shootout/raid that precedes the car chase is violent, gritty, and nasty–exactly what a shotgun fueled shoot-out would be. And the ending exudes a dreamy quality that ratchets up the tension to considerable effect. The film isn’t perfect. There’s one major plot development that’s a bit hard to swallow, and some of the dialogue is a bit on the nose, but never bad. The themes that We Own the Night explores are familiar yet thrilling; after all, when will stories about loyalty and deception ever feel new again? The story has an old-school feel to it, which may be the reason why by the end of the film, you may feel that all you’ve been watching is a standard issue cops and robbers actioner. But the conviction of the performances, especially that of Phoenix, help to conceal some of the story cracks with passion and energy. And one big surprise involving Wahlberg’s character was a welcome addition to the narrative. In the end, We Own the Night may be a tad predictable, but that fact takes nothing way from the overall entertainment value. Gray seems to take his time in between projects, but I’m really hoping his output remains steady. He has a laid-back, unfussy style with a clear understanding of character and plot mechanics. And what he lacks in originality during We Own the Night he more than makes up for with his vivid shooting style (the excellent, gritty cinematography is courtesy of the talented Joaquin Baca-Asay) and his unwavering dedication to making everything seem atmospherically alive and immediate. The 1980’s setting peppers the film with a seedy flavor that you don’t normally get a chance to see on screen. Rather than reinventing the genre with narrative tricks like The Departed or upping the style ante to the extreme the way Michael Mann’s Miami Vice did, We Own the Night is content to be a solid entry in a classic genre, a film that shares more in common with Sidney Lumet’s oeuvre than anything else. See it for Phoenix’s intensely animalistic performance and the directorial verve that Gray displays all throughout.

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Red 2: A Review by Nate Hill 

More of the same, baby. That’s a good thing in this case as we rejoin ex assassin Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and his merry band of morons for another set of high caliber swashbuckling, this one even sillier than their first picnic. The key is in the deadpan humour, which is served up with all the relish needed to make something so fluffy work. Most of the eclectic cast is back for second helpings, and the ones who caught bullets are replaced by even more bankable names and familiar faces here. Moses, his girlfriend (Mary Louise Parker, finally aquiring her sea legs when it comes to warming up to the carnage) and loony old friend Marvin (John Malkovich) find themselves thrown headlong into an arms race to find a deadly super weapon before it’s either detonated or aquired by very dangerous people. Leading them along is a frazzled ex MI6 spook and mathematical genius (Anthony Hopkins in silly mode) who has seriously lost his marbles. On their tail is scary CIA psychopath Jack Horton (Neal McDonough nails yet another heinous villain role) who brandishes his silenced pistol with the same verve he uses to flash that icy grin, the last thing you see before the shooting starts. Helen Mirren returns, as does her beau, played again by Brian Cox and his teddy bear worthy russian accent. Other newcomers include Korean superstar Byung-Hun Lee as an agile and pissed off assassin out to get Moses, Catherine Zeta Jones as a foxy russian femme fatale and Professor Lupin himself David Thewlis as a snooty arms dealer called The Frog, but not for te reasons you might think. When actors of such skill and notoriety show up in these, it really makes everything else worth it, even if the plot is somewhat up in the clouds, and the mad das, rat race tone can get a bit too loopy. These pros always keep it grounded when they need to, both with shooting and acting prowess. This one can’t quite keep up with how much fun it’s predecessor was, but it’s certainly more than adequate, especially to see Hopkins, a man of trademark gravitas, give an out of left field (and his mind, really) turn worthy of Jim Carrey and not without a few disarming third act surprises.