Trust Pixar to bravely and almost effortlessly tackle a subject as delicate and demanding as the human soul. They already kinda did in 2015’s Inside Out (the movie where feelings have feelings), which acts as a nice companion piece to Soul, a brilliant metaphysical stunner in every sense of the word and one of the most ambitious, rewarding films of the year. Jamie Foxx stars against type as Joe, a middle aged high school band teacher who always hoped to make it big as a jazz musician. When he finally nails a gig with a hotshot artist (Angela Bassett), he has an accident and goes into a coma before he can make the venue, hurling his soul into the great beyond where he furiously fights to make it back earth-side, but it’s more complicated than all that. He finds himself chained in mentorship to a dysfunctional soul (Tina Fey) who could never get the entry process right and hasn’t lived a single incarnation on earth. Together they traverse the gorgeously surreal lands beyond our earthly realm and eventually earth itself in a search for Joe’s body, a reason for Fey’s wayward soul to transition into earthly life and the very meaning of existence itself. Much like Inside Out, this takes on deep themes in a disarmingly lighthearted manner while still managing to be emotionally affecting enough that it doesn’t feel sappy or inconsequential. Joe literally learns that life isn’t about finding meaning or purpose, but that the meaning and purpose are there in the simple fact that there *is* life. The visuals are incredibly trippy and abstract in the realms beyond earth and beautifully photorealistic in a stunningly rendered New York City brought to life in painstaking autumnal detail. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross compose a reliably ambient and almost dark hued score that is something we haven’t ever heard in a Disney film and aside from Foxx and Fey’s solid lead voice work, listen for others including Richard Ayoade, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Questlove, Wes Studi, June Squibb and more. Pixar has gotten staggeringly mature and creative in ways I never thought possible since Inside Out and now Soul, this is a complex, wonderful, visually stimulating, wittily written, philosophically engaging piece of art and one of the best films you’ll see this year.
Alcohol and the culture, customs and traditions surrounding it have permeated society to a saturation point over the years (cinema included), whether we want to admit it or not. I myself am a bit of a self proclaimed lush, and as such I always gravitate towards films that tackle the issue head on, whether the context be cautionary, celebratory, purely unbiased anthropological study or other. Beerfest, Leaving Las Vegas, Flight, Barfly, 28 Days, A Star Is Born. They’re as varied and illuminating as in any sub-genre stable and now we have Thomas Vinterburg’s Another Round, one of the best films of the year and one that manages to do a carefully calibrated dance between comedy and tragedy while showing us the shortcomings, shattered dreams and collective woes of four high school teachers from Denmark, with the focus resting primarily on Mads Mikkelsen’s Martin, an introverted, emotionally stunted man who was perhaps not always this way, but the years have made it so. He and his three buddies decide during a booze soaked night out to follow in the footsteps of an unconventional philosopher who says that any human being will fare better in life with an average of 0.5 blood alcohol level… 24/7. This little experiment proves invigorating at first when each of them finds themselves a little looser, a little more effervescent in both their work and personal lives… until such an endeavour inevitably careens towards a downward spiral, for each in gravely different ways. The thing is, alcohol is a bandaid, not a magic curative elixir for all problems psychological and interpersonal. One can use at first, even at as benign a level as this experiment suggests, but the incremental nature of how it affects our bodies soon takes control and self destruction can be imminent. We see Mikkelsen’s already inert marriage detonate like a dying star, his younger colleague can’t act appropriately around his wife and young children anymore and their older friend seems to suffer from some kind of repressed pain that he and the film are too scared to even unpack, it’s so bad. I don’t want anyone to label this as a ‘midlife crisis’ film because that’s a cheap and patronizing term; anyone at any point in their life can not be okay and their struggles shouldn’t be relegated to labels like that. These are simply four human beings who naively experiment with alcohol and realize that not only will excessive use *not* fix their problems, it will emblazon them further into the forefront of their psyches and force out a fierce reckoning from each, whether they’re ready for it or not. Some are, some aren’t, and that’s the beauty of this narrative. Mikkelsen has never been better, he’s got that observant subtlety we’ve come to know him for but there’s also a vivacity and deepest emotional burn to the work that is a new and mesmerizing formula from him as an artist. Also he’s rocks some dance moves I never expected him to have in a joyous, blessedly cathartic ‘jazz ballet’ sequence near the end that nails the film’s desire to be thoroughly bittersweet but ultimately uplifting. Like the best cocktails, the mixture has to be in utmost equilibrium or the flavour is off. The same can be said for a film that wants to bridge genres or simply evoke multiple complex emotions at once: Another Round is jubilant, compassionate, loving yet doesn’t shy away from the dark, bleak and dysfunctional corners of life, using alcohol as a narrative avatar to unearth what was already there in its human characters. Masterful film.
Now this is how you do a monster movie. Blood Glacier is a terrific Euro-Schlock horror about scientists at a remote research station in the snowy Austrian Alps who discover a spectacularly troublesome micro-organism that arrives in the glacial thaw and stirs up all kinds of cryptozoological shit. The thawing out of creatures from ice, research station and gooey prosthetic effects will draw obvious comparisons to John Carpenter’s The Thing which are of course fair, but the biological modus operandi of the organism differs from that of The Thing and this film finds its own suitable groove. Here’s the hook: this life-force invades the cells of multiple creatures at once, stores the genetic data and creates multifaceted hybrid creatures, so you get a big ass fox/beetle cross, a strange goat/human fucker and wood-bug lice things the size of basketballs that attach themselves to humans like face-huggers and devour their heads. The special effects are obviously limited somewhat by budget but are still incredibly creative, blessedly free of CGI and elaborately slimy enough to be aesthetically pleasing. The human actors/characters are an interesting bunch, as the research scientists join forces with a German family unlucky enough to be hiking in the area and go postal on these pseudo-Lovecraft aberrations which Mother Nature has hurled forth at them. A word of caution though: if you have trouble watching animals in pain, getting hurt or killed onscreen you may want to think twice. The research camp has a dog (similar situation to The Thing) that passes away in the kind of heart wrenching, hyper-emotional sequence I haven’t seen the likes of since Will Smith sang his pupper to permanent sleep in I Am Legend, it’s a tough scene for animal lovers to fight through. This is an impressive effort though with a very cool premise, extremely creative monster effects and a cool wintry atmosphere to boot. God times.
An ice fishing trip goes horribly wrong for Michael Rooker and his family in Hypothermia, an impossibly cheap winter Schlocker that I probably wouldn’t have bothered with had it not had Rooker in it, but here we are. It’s not that this film is bad on ‘low budget B-horror flick’ terms, it’s just that it commits one cardinal sin that can assuredly either make or break a creature feature: it’s monster is unforgivably lame. Rooker and his cutesy pie middle class family are on their annual ice fishing family holiday when they realize that some sort of giant fish man thing is stalking them from under the ice, and are forced to band together with another rowdy father son duo to survive, and kill this walking filet if they can. Rooker is clearly the only professionally trained actor here and is very good, but he always puts in 110% no matter the material, one of the reasons I’m such a fan of the guy. The rest of the cast.. not so much. This is the kinda thing that plays on SyFy channel at 2am for us night owl schlock aficionados to drowsily absorb, and it would be a perfect example of that done successfully… if it weren’t for this godawful, clunky and outright embarrassing monster they’ve made. Having a low budget is no excuse either; you can make a pretty convincing ‘fish man monster’ with little to no funds using elbow grease, prosthetics and ingenuity. Check out Blumhouse’s Sweetheart from this year for proof of that, which has a terrific fish-man monster and couldn’t have had much higher budget than this. I’ve included a picture of this thing and don’t bawk about spoilers because it’s just not even impressive enough to spoil, it looks like the Lego version of Swamp Thing or some shit. This could have been a decent monster flick if they’d, you know, bothered with the actual monster, but they didn’t and as a result the whole thing kinda buckles and capsizes in the ice like multiple characters do in the film. Lame.
Here’s a hypothetical for you: let’s say you’re a middle aged male widower mourning the loss of your severely mentally ill wife who shot herself mere months ago, in front of your two young children no less. You’re grieving, your kids are all kinds of fucked up, and you’ve decided to date again. Your new young girlfriend has recently been rescued from a whacked out, abusive doomsday cult and is adjusting to normal life again with utmost fragility. You take a vacation to a secluded ski lodge in the winter, thinking it will be nice for your equally traumatized children and girlfriend to get some bonding time in. Now… in this scenario, all things considered, how would it be responsible, intuitively practical or remotely advisable in any way whatsoever to take off and leave your kids alone with this girl for an extended period of time? The Lodge is based around this premise and while it’s very well acted, shot and quite atmospheric, the entire film didn’t work for me because I just couldn’t bring myself to take stock in such a ludicrous narrative gambit such as this. Richard Armitage is solidly haunted as the father, Riley Keogh an unsettling porcelain waif as the disturbed new girlfriend, Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh capable as the two kids. Alicia Silverstone (of all people) gives the best performance of the film in her quick turn as the ailing mother, I didn’t think I’d ever give high dramatic praise to the Clueless girl but here we are, she owns her cameo with disconcerting resolve. This film’s issues aren’t with acting, cinematography or even music, which are all exemplary. It’s the script that doesn’t ring true, and offsets the entire thing. Besides the dad leaving them alone together (facepalm), the kids pull some weird shit on the girlfriend that spurs the horrific final act into motion. I mean I know these kids aren’t in their right minds, they’re grappling with life and death at a young age etc etc, but they *still* should have intuitively known better, on a deep level, than to pull the kind of cruel, damaging stunt they do here. I think every beat in the story after the mom’s suicide just felt false, discernibly orchestrated and hollow to me, and the film majorly loses its way before it even has a chance to get going past the prologue. Misfire overall.
In always game to give a B movie a day in court but it’s gotta at least put in a game effort and ‘4GOT10’ (whatever the fuck that means) is just the film equivalent of an hopelessly flaccid penis. It’s also called “The Good, The Bad & The Dead” on some posters which is marginally more coherent and is a good indicator of how dumb and dead on arrival this thing is. It’s sad because it has a great cast, who for the most part are stuck moping, drawling, clawing their way through terminally bloated scenes with nary an editor in sight and spewing scant, anemic dialogue. Johnny Messner is a terrific actor who seems to be permanently stranded in this kind of fare of late, which isn’t always the worst thing (paycheque is a paycheque) but not even his engaging presence can do anything for this hastily cut turd. He plays some sort of ex convict who awakens in the desert with amnesia, surrounded by dead guys, guns and cash. Some kind of deal clearly went south and it gets worse with the arrival of a corrupt scumbag sheriff (Michael Paré) who tries to finish Messner off and steal all the leftover cash. Also eventually on scene is a bored looking Dolph Lundgren as a rogue DEA enforcer, Vivica A. Fox as his blathering station chief, Danny Trejo as the angry cartel boss who I guess was trying to facilitate the deal and all kinds of other forgettable cutouts. This film makes the grave and silly mistake of introducing each character with a freeze frame title card like ‘the outlaw’, ‘the enforcer’, ‘the sheriff’, ‘the braud’ (I’m not even kidding on that one) etc and I don’t know about you but I fucking hate that obnoxious stylistic contrivance, it was never cool and certainly still isn’t now. I realize that these actors have families to feed, mortgages to pay off and whatnot but like… could they have at least aimed a *bit* higher than something as wantonly awful and as this? Like… I’ve participated in entry level student film productions that were literally better than this, this crew should all just quit their profession and work at McDonald’s if that’s the way they’re going to behave. It’s tragic and embarrassing, and this is from someone who loves watching an endless string of B grade trash just to see actors I like. It doesn’t even make that cut, and you should avoid it lest risk slipping into a diabetic fugue state at the sheer cinematic malnourishment this fucker exudes.
You think your family has dysfunctional issues around Christmas, try spending a supernatural road trip to nowhere with the Harringtons in the hidden gem holiday horror flick Dead End, a clever, gory, darkly hilarious and altogether deranged piece that should have gotten way more attention. This family has packed up to head to the in-laws for Christmas dinner and headed out onto a shortcut off the interstate that proves to be anything but convenient. In fact it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere except in one never ending straight line cutting through a vast forest, and soon they are preyed upon by a mysterious lady in white (Amber Smith) and a sinister black hearse that glides through the night. Mom and dad Harrington (Ray Wise & Lin Shaye) constantly bicker about nothing in particular, their son and daughter (Mick Cain & Alexandra Holden) are also at each other’s throats and soon the rising tension of being lost in an endless netherworld of road and trees really starts to put a collective damper on this clan’s capacity for Yuletide cheer. This is low budget and as such has a down to earth, tactile and modest feel to the special effects but where it really excels is in script and acting. The dialogue is impossibly juicy, intimidatingly sarcastic and relentlessly funny. Each cast member goes through a complete mental breakdown at some point in the story and the manic meltdowns one might experience in a heightened situation like that eerily mirror those of simply being forced to eat Christmas dinner sat with your relatives. Ray Wise and Lin Shaye are old pros and have a blast going absolutely holiday bonkers in their roles, they are both known for being kind of larger than life and outlandish in their portrayals (he works for David Lynch frequently, she’s a longtime Farrelly brothers collaborator) but this little unknown indie horror might just showcase both at the height of their scenery chewing glory. It’s a spooky, atmospheric little piece that has just the right amount of holiday themed black comedy without veering into actual Christmas movie territory and still retaining a mostly horror-centric flavour. Great film.
Alright, the Bruce Willis space movie. Breach (aka AntiLife) isn’t terrible, it’s just not super inspired or original and if you go in with your nose already turned up at it, well that’s on you bud, you silly cinephile you. However, if you’re a periodically undemanding moviegoer who enjoys a nice schlocktastic cheapie once in a while you may just get a kick out of it. This thing riffs on everything from Doom to The Thing to Pandorum and if you don’t have expectations higher than Bruce Willis and Johnny Messner clearly got while filming their scenes then you’ll have just as much fun as the two of them clearly did. So it’s sometime in the future and earth has been all but decimated by a plague, the remnants of humanity are packed into a giant space station and hurtled towards a distant exoplanet called ‘New Earth’ under the stern, hambone stewardship of The Admiral (Thomas Jane). Most of the passengers slumber in tranquil cryogenic sleep save for a barebones maintenance crew managed by Willis’s once great colonel turned disgraced alcoholic janitor. They’re watched like a hawk by a military man (Timothy V. Murphy) that Willis literally refers to as a ‘space Nazi’ (to his face), but somehow a doomsday zealot manages to smuggle some freaky alien parasite onboard which quickly begins infecting the crew and turning them into ink spewing, putrefied space zombies. Willis and his team that includes Cody Kearsely, Corey Large, Callab Mulvey, Continuum’s Rachel Nichols and scene stealing Messner are stuck fighting off legions of what I suppose would count as the undead in a way but they’re more like a hive minded organism, really. Willis is cool here and actually looks like he’s having a modicum of fun compared to other B flicks he’s recently done. He also plays against type as kind of a reverse action hero and I never thought I’d see the day he plays a character that gets referred to as a ‘lover, not a fighter.’ Jane only has a few atypical military A-hole scenes but he fires off his lines with glib, cavalier flair and I find it hysterical how intensely he insists on wearing his pitch dark tinted aviator shades *indoors*, in a dimly lit spaceship no less. Look, it’s junk, I won’t call pretend it’s a great film, but as an avid lover of cinematic junk food it did the trick for me, and I had fun with it.
I doubt you’ll see a more gruesome, harrowing, WTF horror film this year than Shawn Linden’s Hunter Hunter, a sly deconstruction of several sub-genres including the wilderness creature feature, breathless survival thriller and serial killer suspense tale. It’s orchestrated around a simple premise that evolves into something not so simple until the final act takes a battering ram to the audience’s nerves and expectations alike and you sit there as the credits roll frantically looking for your heart pills before you slide off the couch in full coronary. Somewhere out in the bush a man (Devon Sawa), his wife (Camille Sullivan) and their daughter (Summer H. Howell) live a rugged, simple life as off the grid fur trapper survivalists. One year a rogue wolf returns to their line and threatens to eat both them and their livelihood unless they can track, hunt and kill it before it does the same to them. Only thing is, there’s something way worse than wolves out in those woods, something each family member will come face to face with in a series of white knuckle horror sequences that generate true suspense thanks to nervy, close quarters editing, tension soaked acting from all especially Sullivan and a spooky, atmospherically earthy score by Kevin Cronin. Most of the film is a clever blend of chills, dark humour, scenery and mystery… until that ending rolls around and it goes completely berserk, hog-wild, deranged and etches a fucked up, primally violent conclusion into the viewer’s psyche. Not many films have the big ol’ nuts to pull an ending like this off, but this one does it with grinding, cheerless yet stylish confidence set to a soundtrack song I can’t find on google, but it’s a cool one. Director Linden is responsible for one of my favourite hidden gem films, a metaphysical, Dark City-esque noir from circa 2007 called Nobody, and I always wondered what he’d follow it up with, if ever. Hunter is a lean, mean, bleak, pitilessly cruel picture in all the best ways, and quite the effective, aesthetically pleasing horror film. Just bring your barf bag and your anxiety meds and you’re all set.
To properly absorb the fascinating, highly emotional, metaphysically challenging piece of introspection that is Tara Miele’s Wander Darkly you’ll have to literally turn off the part of your brain that processes films in a linear, logical and systematic fashion. That’s not to say it’s some super abstract art installation on celluloid like some filmmakers traffic in, this is a discernible story simply refracted through a prism of unconsciousness, largely taking place in a realm different from ours, and the way that one observes it should be adjusted accordingly. I hate to use comparison all the time but it does help a bit in understanding the journey you’re about to embark on so picture something like Michel Gondry by way of Terence Malick and you’ll have some notion but, as always, this is a singular piece all its own and one of the most impressive, affecting films I’ve seen all year, starting with a performance from Sienna Miller that redefines the idea of acting for camera itself. Her and Diego Luna play a thirty something couple who have just had a newborn baby and are looking forward to their lives ahead.. until a brutal car accident changes everything all in one moment. Moment is the key word for how the film progresses after this even because the only way I can describe the narrative flow employed here is a series of ‘moments’ untethered from any sort of structure or beats. Most of the film takes place in a sort of purgatorial realm between worlds where we wonder if she’s dead, or he’s dead, maybe both of them are or perhaps they’re just stuck in the gauzy limbo between life and death. In any case they find themselves thrown into an elemental algorithm of shifting memories, hazy recollections and free flowing subconscious experience, revisiting keystone moments along the path of their relationship involving their issues as a couple, the baby coming into the world, her fight against mental illness, their stormy relationship with her parents (Beth Grant and Brett Rice, both superb) and a whole nebulous cluster of defining events in their lives distilled into moments, here one second and gone the next. It’s a disorienting, waking-dream experiment and I’ve never ever seen a story told quite like this on film, I promise you what they’ve done here is utterly unique and singular. There are transitions between scene to scene that happen with the kind of surreal fluidity where I didn’t even notice there *was* a transition until halfway through the next moment because it just felt so… elemental. Sienna Miller gives an award worthy performance here and then some, she bares all in an emotionally naked, psychologically raw and disarmingly vulnerable piece of performance that I’m still thinking about days later. Director Miele uses aforementioned transitions, an angelic score by Alex Weston and intuitively placed editing to make this something simultaneously out of this world yet also so human, so relatable and so down to earth despite being lost in the clouds of non-traditional storytelling and profound ambitions. One of the best films of the year.