dakota access pipeline protest

As the Sioux of Standing Rock persevere in their legal battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the promoters are resorting to violence to disperse peaceful protesters.

Energy Transfer Partners’s private security attacked the protesters with pepper spray and dogs on Saturday, near the camp set up by indigenous activists in Southern North Dakota. The same day, the company bulldozed sacred burial grounds on private land.

A video report from Democracy Now! shows a group of persons trying to disperse the crowd with dogs and pepper spray. We can see several protesters who have clearly been maced in the face and a man showing the bloody dog bite on his arm.

Activist Martie Simmons, who was present, tweeted that six protesters, including a pregnant woman were bitten. Four private security guards and two guard dogs were injured, according to the local Sheriff’s Office (Morton County). The nature of the injuries suffered by the dogs and the guards were undisclosed but eyewitnesses affirm that the dogs were out of control, and bit the guards too.

Police say they received no reports of injured protesters.The sheriff’s office confirmed there was no officers present at the confrontation.

Indigenous resistance to the DAPL

Standing Rock’s Sioux tribe has organized opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline ever since the project first became public two years ago. The trajectory of the pipeline is set to skim their reserve and cross the Missouri River twice, causing concerns about water contamination and protection of cultural heritage sites.

Thousands of indigenous people from the US and Canada responded to the call of the Sioux of Standing Rock and set up camps near the Missouri River. Over a hundred tribes are represented in what became known as the oil protest camps, what could be one of the biggest assemblies of Indigenous Peoples this century. Non-native activists also joined the ranks.

Meanwhile, the Sioux of Standing Rock are suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for fast-tracking construction permits without consulting them.

The DAPL is a $4.88 billion pipeline that should conduct half a million barrels of crude oil per day from the Bakken Oil fields of North Dakota to Illinois. The pipeline will be just under 1900 km long and run through four states.

According to the Chairman of the Sioux Tribe of Standing Rock, Dave Archambault II, the pipeline threatens the lives of the people on the reserve and of the millions of people living downstream on the Missouri River, as well as ancestral Sioux sites.

“We never had an opportunity to express our concerns. This is a corporation that is bulldozing through,” Archambault told Democracy Now!.

His tribe is currently challenging the permits of Energy Transfer Partners in federal court on the grounds that the promoters did not adequately consult First Nations. They called for an emergency, temporary stopping of the construction on Tuesday, claiming that the company is already desecrating their burial sites. The federal court will announce its verdict on September 9th.

A Canadian Company

The DAPL is co-piloted by the American company Energy Transfer Partners and the Calgary-based Enbridge. Enbridge is no stranger to controversy, as it was recently forced by Canada’s federal court to give up on the Northern Gateway pipeline for similar reasons.

The $7.9 billion pipeline meant to export Albertan petroleum to the west coast had first been authorized by the Conservative government, despite the strong opposition of the native communities near its trajectory. However a federal appeal court revoked the permits in July, ruling that the Enbridge had not adequately consulted the affected aboriginal communities.

In 2015, Enbridge broke records by racking up $264 000 in fines from the National Energy Board, mostly because of safety and environmental hazards. However, the NEB ended up cancelling most of the fines due to lack of evidence.

Enbridge incidentally made the news today for acquiring Spectra Energy. The $37 billion transaction, if it is approved by appropriate authorities, could make Enbridge the biggest player on the North American market of energy infrastructure.

cat mccarthy feminist sailor burlesque

Hello faithful readers! I don’t know if this is going to make me seem like more or less of a narcissist but I am going to be writing a monthly ASK CAT column for Forget The Box.

While I don’t claim to be a real expert on anything in particular, I do know that I am real. I have been through a lot in my life and can use my experiences to help you with any question you throw at me.

I will answer you blatantly and honestly, without a filter, and completely from the heart. I will answer anything from questions about Sex, Dating, Politics, Art, Feminism, Activism, LGBTQ issues, Drugs, Culture, or anything else you can think of.

Email your questions to Cat@ForgetTheBox.net and I will answer them ASAP in a monthly blog entry. (“Ask Cat” sounds like “Ass Cat” when said out loud)

I threw this idea out there to my Facebook friends and responded to the first six questions I received (my friends are f*cked up). Here are the first three, with three more to come next time:

Dear Cat, what are your thoughts on art expression over personal issues with waste? I feel a calling to do a photo shoot in a giant tub full of blue cheese for the sake of art because I feel like the Buffalo chicken wing of life. My problem is I can’t convince myself to waste all of that blue cheese. I recall some of your work with the Wesley Willis song “rock n roll McDonalds” and how you were able to incorporate food into the act. Some of the fries never made it to the mouth. How do we approach artist feats like this and overcome the guilt?

– Micheal

cat mccarthy ronald mcdonald clown burlesque

Hi Micheal! As you know I am very much against the issue of food waste in this world, I am a big activist for dumpster diving and Food Not Bombs, using food that would have otherwise been thrown away to feed the hungry. It is also true that I often use food in my performance.

It’s a catch 22. I want to make a comment on shitty corporate food and the accessibility of vegetables and healthy stuff, but still feel bad for wasting. I am a hypocrite when I throw out rotten leftovers or put compost in the trash, I am even more wrong when I ejaculate burgers and toss perfectly good french fries into an audience, half to be smushed on the floor, or smash a 100 cupcakes on my body dressed like Marie Antoinette, cover myself in galloons of pudding in response to Bill Cosby, rub donuts on my boobs dressed like a cop, or dressed like Colonel Sanders throwing chicken at someone who is texting.

I make comments about greed, consent,corruption, body image, and corporate waste with my art. My vision is to participate in the bad parts of society on a stage so people can become aware of the abject horror of reality, kind of like John Waters. It’s like there must be sacrifices made for the revolution to be a success.

wet dreamland pudding buffalo infringement

Nobody is perfect all the time, myself definitely included. Of course I feel bad about the fries on the floor when there are hungry mouths to feed. I guess where I was coming from with that is the food I was “feeding” to people is shit food with no positive nutritional value anyways, so I feel less guilty about that.

I fully support the idea of you submerging yourself in blue cheese, make sure it’s the good kind. Buy it, and put yourself in a claw foot tub in the middle of an art gallery. Lay in in naked, submerged.

cat fashionHave plates full of chicken wings, carrots, celery, pizza, all the vessels for blue cheese. Invite people to dip in your tub, see how long it takes, see how far they will go for blue cheesy goodness. Will they lick it off of your body? People are obsessed with that shit. People also get weird in the name of art.

Document the entire thing. The exhibit ends when the food is gone, nothing is wasted, and you can probably get a pizza shop to sponsor you. I once wore a dress sponsored by Mr. Pizza. It was a collaboration with Melissa Campbell called Upper Crust Punk, we literally bit every slice of pizza. It was a cathartic, gross indulgence in the name of fashion, there was a spittune. I was empowered by food.

When we made the PBR corset, some of the PBRs were dumped down the drain because they couldn’t physically drink anymore damn PBRs and there was a deadline. It was a sin! If I was there I would have shotgunned every single one of those PBRs, waste not want not,bro. Let them eat blue cheese! Let them scrape it off of your flesh!

Dear Cat, what happened last night? I know I showed up at the bar with $1.25 in quarters, the last shot I took made me black out, and I know I fell off my bike mounting on the way home because of a bruise on my arm and a scratch on my face. I think you were there dressed in white.

– Darren

Hi Daren! I remember seeing you at Nietzsches last night for the Stripteasers weekly bar show, I was dressed in white because we were doing a tribute to Prince and I was a crying dove.

What I assume happened is that people bought your fine ass some drinks, since the bar is cash only. You then were too drunk to bike and should have left your bike at the bar and gotten a ride home or walked.

Or perhaps you were abducted by aliens and drugged, not remembering the experience. The bruise and scratches were from the alien probing, not from a bike fall like you initially thought. Maybe I wasn’t there at all and the “girl in white” was some kind of extraterrestrial being.

I cannot let you know for sure what happened to you, but am happy you made it home safe with minimal damage. Stay safe dude! Use the buddy system in the future. Or be like me and get a trike, I never fall off that thing when drunk riding!

Cat cycling (3)

Dear Cat, I think that you are the cat’s meow! Were you always fearless or did you work up to it?

– Melissa

Hi Melissa! Thank you for the amazing compliment, you too are the cat’s meow! I think have always been pretty fearless (sometimes stupidly fearless)! My parents are amazing and taught me to only speak my mind and fight for what I believe in.

As a little kid I was the one who stated the blatantly obvious. I was a little feminist, fighting to play football with the boys. I love myself and fight for those who are afraid. It’s important to be strong and never give up on important things.

I am also a constant work in progress, I know that I continue to grow and learn each day. I can’t say I’m fearless. I definitely get afraid of walking upstairs from basements, that feeling that something evil is coming up after you to pull you down the dark rickety stairs is real.

Got a question for Cat? Ask it: Cat@ForgetTheBox.net

Dark City header

I remember back when I started writing FFR, a time that now seems so long ago that in my memory I wrote on stone tablets, that my goal was to showcase the lesser-known, the obscure, and weird. Of course, times change and I started ruining Forget the Box’s carefully cultivated image of trendy urbanism with mainstream movies and Japanese superheroes. But back in those halcyon days, and even since, I’ve always had one movie stashed away for a rainy day, a special occasion. My favorite movie, in fact. Alex Proyas’s 1998 sci-fi noir, Dark City.

So why now? What’s so special about this FFR that I’m ready to break out so treasured a piece of my own cinematic DNA? Well folks, it’s because this FFR is my last. After many wonderful years at FTB, I’ve decided that it’s time to hit the road, and that I should leave you something a little special before I go.

Dark City posterDark City is one of those movies where the less you know going in, the better. It’s built around a mystery, and one of its greatest pleasures is not knowing where it’s going next, and holding on for dear life as it takes you around twists and turns with neck-snapping speed. But I have to say something, so let me try and boil it down as much as possible.

Rufus Sewell plays John Murdoch, a man who awakens in a hotel bath with absolutely no idea of who he is, where he is, or how he got there. And to make matters worse, there’s a dead hooker in the hotel room with him, because the only thing worse than waking up next to a stranger is waking up next to a dead one.

John naturally runs for the hills, and soon finds himself pursued by multiple parties, including a hard boiled policeman, a psychiatrist who seems to know what’s going on but couldn’t be more nervous and shifty if he were played by Peter Lorre, a woman who claims to be his wife, and a group of mysterious pasty men in trenchcoats.

The city he’s in is a bleak, perpetually dark art-deco burgh somewhere between the Gotham and Sin City, and the more he discovers about what the bleeding hell is going on, the less it all seems to make sense.

Even to my untrained mind, back in my teen years before my film appreciation had fully blossomed into what it is now, I knew that Dark City was beautiful. The film’s sets, costumes, props and atmosphere are all stunningly realized, bleak and breathtaking at the same time. The city itself is as much a character as Sewell or any of his castmates.

Speaking of which, the supporting cast is a who’s who of talents. Jennifer Connelly, despite a somewhat underdeveloped role, is able to pull of a perfect mix of strength and vulnerability as our hero’s wife. William Hurt is pure deadpan sardonic wit as the police inspector on Murdoch’s tail, and Richard O’Brien is the picture of sinister as the main villain, Mr Hand.

The only weak spot is a pre-Jack Bauer Kiefer Sutherland as Doctor Schreber, the man with the answers. Sutherland overplays it more than a little bit, affecting a weird, halting accent almost throughout. He’s fun to watch, but you have to acknowledge that his performance is more than a bit too over-the-top.

Dark City insert

A lot like Gone Girl, part of the fun of watching Dark City for the first time is having no damn clue where it’s going next. What seems to start as a straight-up noir mystery turns again and again as more new and outlandish concepts are added to the mix.

And Dark City literally never stops ramping up, coming to a glorious head in the third act, when director Alex Proyas suddenly tears every single brake out and the film explodes like the ending of Akira into a massive…….well, you really just have to see it for yourself.

I can see how for a lot of people, this slow shift from slow-burn noir mystery to something else entirely might be a bit jarring. I can understand that the vast shift from subtle to explosive might be a bit too much. But for me, the ending of Dark City is still more wonderful and mind-blowing than that of Fight Club or The Matrix, maybe because it’s such a jarring shift from the comparative sedateness of the majority of the film. A bit like Cabin in the Woods, it’s like the film suddenly decides to get the proverbial party started, ending on the bang to end all bangs.

For me, Dark City is one of the all-time great under-appreciated films, a visually gorgeous, mind-bending genre thriller that dares to go all-out for the finale.

I think I’ve said all I can really say without giving too much away, but I’ll leave you with one piece of advice: watch the Director’s Cut. The major difference between it and the theatrical version beyond one extra scene is that an opening monologue delivered by Kiefer Sutherland, imposed upon the film by braindead studio execs fearful of audiences being too confused, is cut from the opening scene like a tumorous mass, and the experience is greatly improved for it.

And on that note, it looks like my work here is done. I’d like to thank Forget the Box for allowing me these few years of hopefully coherent ramblings, and especially my predecessor, Stephanie Laughlin, for offering me the chance in the first place. Special thanks also go to my many hard working and long-suffering editors, as well. In a lot of ways, this is where I really discovered that writing about movies is what I want to do for a living. I found my voice here, built up my confidence as a writer, and for that I’m truly grateful.

Starting very soon, I’ll be joining Screenrelish.com as a regular contributor, and hopefully you’ll all continue to follow me there, and wherever else the future takes me.

Horor anthologies header

Closing out Fantasia this year on A Christmas Horror Story, an excellent anthology horror flick, put me in the mood to go back and revisit some old favorites of the genre. Anthology films are always a tricky beast, you’ve got to have the right balance, combining the films in a way that makes them compliment one another, and it helps if there’s a decent balance of quality. Modern efforts like V/H/S often feel lackluster in this department, with maybe one decent segment standing shoulder to shoulder with lackluster ones, like a successful, attractive salaryman stuck in an elevator full of leprous drifters.

But good examples are out there, though for the most part one has to look back a few decades to find the buggers. So on this week’s FFR, I thought it would be fun to look back at some of my favorites.

Tales From the Crypt (1972)

Tales posterThe original Tales From the Crypt is far from the first anthology horror film, but it’s the earliest one I can recall seeing and one of the more looming classics of the genre. Far removed from the TV series that would bear its name, Tales feels far more classy than you’d expect. No pun-spewing skeletons here, friends.

While other films on this list would revel in the four-color pulp of their comics inspiration, Tales is pure old fashioned English Gothic, opening the strains of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (the stereotypical “spooky horror music” you’ve heard the opening bars of a million times) and mostly featuring tale of stuffy aristos and upper-class twits getting what’s coming to them. There’s a killer Santa, a modern re-telling/re-spin of The Monkey’s Paw, a fourth-wall break at the end and Zombie Grand Moff Tarkin.

It may not have the buckets of blood and and cheesy fun of some later entries, but Tales From the Crypt is a fun and atmospheric movie that doesn’t get revisited often enough.

Creepshow (1982)

Creepshow is probably the best known and best remembered horror anthology of the 80s, arguably the one that kicked off the craze. Directed by George A. Romero himself and written by the one and only Stephen King, Creepshow gleefully embraces all the pulp and color of EC horror comics, crafting a gross, fun, colorful horror experience that often prompts as many laughs as it does scares.

The cast is full of recognizable faces, all of them clearly having the time of their lives. Ted Danson, Leslie Nielsen, Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau and even Stephen King himself make appearances as conspiring lovers, evil corporate magnates, hapless hillbillies and vengeful cuckolds.

There’s a sense of pulpy fun that pervades almost every segment. While other anthology horror films at the time often seemed dead set on being scary as possible, Creepshow devotes just as much energy to being flat-out fun, with plenty of grossout moments, cathartic kills and loving reverence to horror tropes. Like Tales From the Crypt, most of the stories are about awful people getting their just desserts in silly, over-the-top poetic justice, and you’ll probably find yourself cheering more than once.

Body Bags (1993)

Body bags posterMade towards the end of the horror anthology craze, John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper’s Body Bags is doubtlessly the least well-known movie on this list. Hell, I hadn’t even heard of it until the good folks at Scream Factory did a terrific Blu-Ray re-release.

Body Bags spins three yarns, featuring a cast so expansive I couldn’t possibly list it here. For me, the most memorable performance is by far John Carpenter himself in the framing story as a morgue worker who introduces us to the various key players of each tale. He’s clearly having more fun than should be allowed in polite society, mugging for the camera as he doffs formaldehyde martinis.

The stories themselves are all great fun, one an atmospheric little slasher story, one a tale of a hair implant gone wrong and one about a baseball player (played by some guy named Mark Hamill) who receives the eyes of a serial killer after his own are lost in a car accident, which naturally imparts the killer’s murderous impulses on him.

Body Bags may not be the best horror anthology ever, but it’s a fun, often overlooked little gem that makes for a great watch with some friends.

Trick ‘R Treat

For my money, a lot of recent attempts at reviving the horror anthology for modern audiences aren’t much worth looking at. I never really got aboard the V/H/S train after being thoroughly unimpressed by the first entry, as you may have gathered by that bit about the drifters in the intro. But then there’s Trick ‘R Treat, a brilliantly crafted collection of Halloween horrors that remains head and shoulders above any other recent anthology films.

The stories that make up the film are beautifully balanced, each one subtly crossing over and feeding into the other. There’s a Halloween prank gone horribly wrong, a button-down killer trying to dispose of a body while his apparently oblivious son keeps getting under foot, an old man menaced by the film’s sack-masked poster child, and Anna Paquin as a stereotypical good girl who draws the attention of a masked vampire.

The stories are all beautifully interwoven. There’s never more than a couple going on at once and there are enough connections between them to make the whole thing feel nice, cohesive and well-planned. The makeup effects are top-knotch, with the film’s mascot Sam standing out as a terrifically designed and conceived character.

From the opening sequence that effortlessly evokes early John Carpenter to the wonderful creature feature that is the closing tale, there literally isn’t a weak moment in Trick ‘R Treat, it all comes together beautifully to deliver the kind of fun, spooky experience that Halloween movies were meant to be.

Deathgasm header

Being the upstanding crew that they are, the folks at Fantasia saw fit to extend the festival by an extra day, giving me and others time to catch up on some of the more popular films we may have missed the first time around.

While I could have used this opportunity to check out Attack on Titan, I elected instead to hit up two of the smaller releases from this year’s line-up, Deathgasm and A Christmas Horror Story. Both films are Fantasia to the bone, fun, gory, clever crowd-pleasers that kept me entertained throughout and left me smiling. So for my last piece of Fantasia 2015 coverage, let’s take a look back at these two gems.

DeathgasmDeathgasm poster

Since Peter Jackson burst onto the scene with Braindead and Bad Taste, New Zealand splatter flicks have garnered a rep for being fun, gloriously low brow exercises in excess and black humor. Deathgasm, which takes this formula and adds a whopping infusion of Heavy Metal antics, might just end up being one of the best examples of the burgeoning sub-genre, a definite future cult pick and a must-watch for metalheads and horror fans alike.

After our hero, lonely metalhead Brodie, is moved out to a small New Zealand town, he befriends the only other metal fan for miles, Zakk, and starts up a band. But when the two find a set of mysterious pages of music clutched in the manic grip of a burned out former metal legend, they inadvertently unleash hordes of demons on the town. Demons that only they, naturally, can stop.

Deathgasm is an archetypal Fantasia movie, drenched in gore, full of tongue-in-cheek humor and tripping balls on its own manic, gleeful energy. The gags come hard and fast, the soundtrack is a constant barrage of roaring chainsaw engines and squealing guitars and it’s basically impossible not to have barrels of fun with the thing. It’s a cult tour-de-force, already bound for a place of honor in the collections of cult horror aficionados.

If there’s any one thing that kept coming back to bug me, it’s the films depiction of women. Specifically Medina, the popular girl who strikes up a romance with Brodie and joins him in the demon-slaying antics of the last act. She reminded me a lot of the female lead from Some Kind of Hate, a film I thought far less of. Both fall into a few stereotypes that I’m growing increasingly weary of, and which continue to not go away despite our best wishes.

Both are dating the resident bully when the movie opens, in flagrant defiance of prettymuch everything we learn about them later on, but almost immediately fall for the hero. At best it’s a bit of juvenile wish fulfillment, the attractive popular girl who likes bad boys but falls for the hero as soon as she sees what a sensitive soul he is and yada yada yada.

Based on what we learn about her, it seems completely unlikely she would ever have be dating the bully, but character consistency takes a back seat to how well she can serve as a fantasy for introverts and quiet types. Of course, “juvenile wish fulfillment” is basically Deathgasm’s log line, but that doesn’t totally excuse the film from engaging in this tired trope.

Also, in both cases, the female lead has metal bestowed on her by the male lead, implying that metal is an entirely male domain into which women must be led. And that just ain’t true, man. Tons of women find metal on their own, the same way as men do, and it would be nice to have seen this rather than portraying metal as something inherently foreign to women. Deathgasm sorta makes up for this by implying that by the end of the film, Medina has become more of a metal expert than Brodie, though.

But these problems aside, Deathgasm is still tons of fun, and I look forward to revisiting it in years to come.

A Christmas Horror Story

Anthology horror is something that keeps trying to make a comeback, with efforts like the much-seen V/H/S series and the under-watched gem Trick R’ Treat. A Christmas Horror Story is the latest film to try and rejuvenate the old formula, and arguably one of the most successful at recapturing the feel of classics like Creepshow and Body Bags.

Weaving multiple tales of Christmas-themed terror together, Christmas Horror Story is a rollicking good time at the movies. Like Deathgasm it’s gleefully gory but combines that with some terrific ideas and execution from the group of writers and directors who brought it to life.

As is always the case in anthologies, there’s a clear favorite, in my case the tale of a group of teens filming a project on a series of murders in their school. This story thread cleverly subverts expectation in a lot of ways, keeping the audience on their toes by subverting and conforming to horror tropes in equal measure.

Christmas Horror Story

At times I found myself a bit underwhelmed by the creature effects. While competently brought to the screen, the creatures of the film (including a murderous changeling and everyone’s favorite Christmas Demon, the Krampus) felt like they were missing something in the visual department. They aren’t as eye-catching as Sam from Trick R’ Treat, for example.

But there’s still a hell of a lot to love about A Christmas Horror Story. It’s smart and fun, packs a few great surprises, and if nothing else gives audiences the chance to bask in the glory of Shatner in what could be called the framing story.

Now, someone get to work on an Easter-themed horror anthology flick so we can complete the trilogy.

And with that, my Fantasia 2015 coverage comes to a close. I’d hesitantly call it the best iteration of the fest I have yet to attend, and can’t wait to see them try and top themselves next year.

Lupin header

We’re into the last week of Fantasia, and our coverage here at FTB is almost at an end. But it’s not over yet, and here’s three more reviews from my Fantasia experience.

Director's Commentary posterDirector’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein

Sometimes, a really, REALLY good idea is all you need, and Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein does indeed have a really good idea at its core. The film takes Terror of Frankenstein, an almost entirely forgotten 1977 Frankenstein movie and creates an entirely fictitious director’s commentary for it.

In the world of the commentary, the film took on a cult following after a serial killer cut his way through the cast and crew of the film over several years after the production wrapped. The director and writer, two of the only survivors, are now recording a new commentary shortly after the killer’s execution, and over the course of the recording, all the old baggage comes to the surface, bringing new revelations along with it.

On paper, Director’s Commentary is actually kind of brilliant. Taking the DVD director’s commentary and turning it into a way to tell a story in itself is a really interesting idea, and you have to wonder why it took so long to hit on. It’s a really clever example of remix culture, one that will probably have some imitators in the next few years. For good or ill.

The only serious problem arises in the execution. Of the two actors performing the film (there’s also an appearance by Leon Vitali, one of the actual actors from the original film, playing an alternate version of himself) one isn’t quite up to the level you’d really want, often coming off a bit too hammy. There’s also a lot of silence where we’re just watching the original movie, and it would have helped the authenticity of the thing if they’d thrown in a lot more of the usual director’s commentary babble to fill the time between major revelations about the story. But still, it’s a really interesting film. A really solid idea that just needed another ten percent in the execution.

Lupin IIILupin poster

I’ve never really been into the Lupin III series, the ridiculously long-running anime and manga franchise about the grandson of legendary French thief Arsene Lupin. What I am into is Ryuhei Kitamura, the maverick director who brought us Versus and Aragami. Kitamura’s films have a swagger, a kind of rock and roll confidence to them that appeals to the angry teenager in me, the one who still thinks that Katana plus trenchcoat is the most rockin’ combination ever.

So when I went in to his new live-action Lupin III movie, it wasn’t for the source material. It was for the style. And style is something the film has in abundance.

Kitamura’s signature over-the-top action, the nonchalant, sneering “cool guys” who can cut a truck in half while maintaining the kind of facial expression that says “this is as exciting to me as waiting in line at the bank.” It’s all there for fans of his to appreciate.

Problematically though, it’s also frequently buried under a lot of really choppy, incoherent editing. I’m not who’s responsible for this, but the action scenes frequently wound up frustrating for me to watch, because the flow and geography of the action scenes often got completely and utterly lost in a storm of quick cuts that seemed hastily put together.

And then there’s the Engrish. Oh ye gods, the Engrish. Again, not sure who’s idea it was to have half the dialogue in the film spoken in awkward English by the mostly Japanese cast but much like that dodgy editing, it just felt distracting and weird.

Is it still fun? Of course. You’ll probably have a fun time watching it. Is it Kitamura’s best film? Absolutely not.

Ninja The MonsterNinja the Monster Poster

With a title like Ninja The Monster, you probably already have an idea of what to expect. Something akin to Aliens Vs. Ninja perhaps, an over-the-top action fest full of gushing blood geysers, about as tongue in cheek as something Noboru Iguchi might do. And yet when you watch the film, you quickly realize that that isn’t the case.

A slow paced, moody affair, Ninja The Monster sees a samurai and a ninja team up to escort a princess through a forest plagued by monsters. Of course, the samurai is distrustful of our broody ninja hero, and they stand as much chance of killing each other as they do being killed by the monsters.

Speaking of the monsters, I throw the phrase “big pile of CGI” around fairly willy-nilly sometimes. It’s refreshing for once to see a movie where that description is entirely accurate, however.

The creatures that menace our heroes are some kind of slime or water based monsters, big floating blobs of liquid that occasionally coalesce into a monster-like shape. As creatures go, it’s fairly dull, and the fact that they’re never really explored or exposited upon goes a long way to making them the most boring part of the film.

I will give it this, though, it’s a lot better assembled than I expected. Given I was expecting something schlockier and cheaper, it was a pleasant surprise to see how much care went in to the compositions, atmosphere, and mood.

Cop Car header

Though the last week of Fantasia is upon us, the coverage must go on! Here are three more reviews from what I saw this week.

The Interior

A few years back, I saw at Fantasia a sweet, quirky little movie called Doomsdays. It was exactly the kind of movie you go to a film festival to see: one made entirely out of passion and overflowing with charm, creativity, rock-solid formal elements and built a simple but staggeringly effective script.

The Interior is this year’s Doomsdays. It’s everything I just mentioned and more: a profound example of how a committed indie filmmaker can take a budget a major studio would blow on craft services and use it to trounce most major studio films in terms of both form and storytelling. It’s funnier than most studio comedies and scarier than ANY studio horror film of the past decade.

Interior

 

What begins as an office comedy in the vein of Office Space or Haiku Tunnel suddenly morphs into an alone-in-the-woods horror film as James, a downtrodden office worker, retreats to the woods after receiving a fatal diagnosis. But James soon finds he isn’t as alone as he thinks he is, as a series of odd occurrences escalates into a terrifying ordeal

On paper, The Interior seems impossible to pull off. A wacky comedy that morphs halfway through into a horror film? That kind of sudden tonal shift just shouldn’t work. And yet it does here, better than you’d believe. The comedy sequences are hilarious, full of quirky characters and biting dialogue. The horror sequences, by contrast are completely terrifying, exemplifying the “less is more” approach to horror that seems to have gone completely extinct otherwise.

Director and writer Trevor Juras expertly builds the tension over the course of the latter half of the film, taking us through pitch-black sections of forest only sometimes illuminated by James’ flashlight, almost constantly resisting the urge to have something jump out and go boo. But it never does. We keep waiting for the jump scare, the payoff we’ve been trained to expect by years of awful horror movies. But it never comes, because the tension isn’t just a prelude to a cat jumping out or a knife wielding maniac suddenly pouncing from the underbrush to show us his stabbing technique. The tension is the point.

The film, ts should also be mentioned, is staggeringly well-filmed. When James enters the woods the camera takes on this beautiful objective quality, gliding through the woods, not focusing on anything. The focus is as deep as the Marianas Trench, allowing us to take in these full, beautiful frames of untouched wilderness, beautiful and daunting at the same time. During the Q&A, I was knocked for a loop to learn these scenes weren’t even filmed using Steadicam, just a hand-held camera with a counterweight, and it’s clear that the DP, Othello J. Ubalde, has the steady hands of a brain surgeon.

I hope to heck that The Interior gets a distribution deal if it hasn’t already, because this is the kind of film that needs to be seen by as many people as possible. It’s a direct counterpoint to so many of the awful, toxic ideas plaguing not just horror films but cinema at large.

Cop Car posterCop Car

Oh hey, speaking of indie films that completely show up major studio films: Cop Car, a film for which expositional dialogue is a foreign entity and yet still tells a story so well it hurts.

The film focuses on two young boys who, after running away from home, find a seemingly abandoned cop car, which they naturally take for a joy ride. Of course, the car is owned by the corrupt local sheriff, whose drug connection is bound and beaten inside the trunk, putting him in a hell of a hurry to get the car back.

From the first few lines of dialogue, Cop Car is telling us everything we need to know about who the characters are and what they’re about, without the kind of awkward exposition you’d normally get. The film trusts us to put the pieces together from dialogue, characterization and by watching the performances themselves. This goes for both the boys and the sheriff, played by Kevin Bacon. We’re never told exactly what kind of seedy doings the sheriff is up to, but we know it involves drugs and the need to quietly dispose of multiple bodies. And that’s really all we need to know. We’re given all the relevant info we need about the entire cast organically and then left to put the pieces together for ourselves.

If it hadn’t been for Mad Max: Fury Road, Cop Car might have been the only film that I’ve seen all year that does this properly, but now we have a duo of organic storytelling movies heavily based around cars and the rapid conveyance thereof, and I’m more than ok with that.

Some kind of hate posterSome Kind of Hate

Here are some things you just don’t do in a story about self-harm. Eroticize it. Fetishize it. Make it a source of power. Some Kind of Hate does all three, turning a serious problem faced by countless depressives and turning it into a fetishized gimmick, producing a repulsive film in the process.

The protagonists are the students of a kind of camp/cult for wayward teens, one of whom swears to kill his bullies for tormenting him. To his “rescue” comes the ghost of a previous camper who was killed by her camp-mates, who cuts herself to inflict identical injuries on her victims.

While Some Kind of Hate COULD have been an interesting and thoughtful look at self-harm and depression, it remains teaspoon shallow throughout, using cutting as a gimmick for a blandly presented ghost/killer.

Cutting and self harm becomes a source of empowerment for the killer, a problematic depiction of a real issue that is never corrected. Cutting isn’t shown as self-destructive but rather as a source of power or agency, and that dangeous association between self-harm and power is never counteracted, even in the finale when the heroes defeat the killer by – guess what? The film even has the outright gall to depict a quasi-lesbian scene between the ghost and the female lead in which cutting takes on an erotic element as razor blades across the thigh result in what for all the world appear to be orgasmic gasps. I would have thought it was a general rule that you DON’T MAKE SELF-CUTTING SEXY, but there it is.

One person I spoke to found this interestingly transgressive, but there’s two problems with that reading. One: transgression is only relevant when it has a point, when it’s stripping away a taboo and forcing us to talk about something we aren’t. The scene in Some Kind of Hate just feels like cheap titillation, an out of nowhere spoonful of lesbian eroticism that exists only to excite the audience. And second, some things shouldn’t be transgressed against for a very good reason: because they’re harmful and toxic. And the sexualized depiction of self cutting fits “harmful and toxic” to a tee.

Some Kind of Hate is a repugnant, ugly movie and that’s as much as deserves to be said about it.

Alice and Hana header

The Fantasia Film Fest is already nearing it’s midway point, and man, has it been a good one so far. While my FTB co-horts are off covering indie horrors and moody, introspective character pieces, I’ve been happily chewing away on Asian films and cinematic oddities, so let’s dive in.

Assassination-ClassroomAssassination Classroom

I’m not as plugged into the anime/manga scene these days as I was a decade or so ago (the tubes started chafing me), but I gather that Assassination Classroom is something of a big deal these days. How the live action movie (evidently the first in a series) holds up as an adaptation of the manga and anime is something I can’t comment on, but as a complete layman to the series, I can say it’s a heck of a lot of fun. It’s a prime slice of Japanese absurdity in the vein of Takashi Miike, but maybe with a touch less satirical wit.

The film, which tells the story of an alien who teaches a homeroom full of delinquent kids bent on killing him for a reward put up by the government, bears all the earmarks of an adaptation of a larger work, which is the biggest problem the film has. Characters who seem like they should be important come and go, plot points and important items are dropped in out of nowhere, giving the film that feeling of being condensed that you get with a lot of these kinds of works. It also doesn’t entirely have a proper ending, leaving way too many loose threads for me to excuse.

That aside, it has a lot of charm, humour, and surreal visuals that kept me consistently entertained.

The Arti: The Adventure BeginsArti poster

But speaking of movies over-packed with too many characters and story elements, here comes The Arti, a Chinese fantasy adventure brought to life by a combination of intricate puppet work and CGI that walks the line between Wuxia epic and Japanese role-playing game.

I don’t make that last comparison lightly, by the way. The Arti feels very influenced by stuff like the Final Fantasy series, combining martial arts mythology with a metric ton of lore, magical locales, creatures, and increasingly outlandish character designs. While Assassination Classroom more or less held up under the weight of the story it was trying to tell, The Arti feels smothered by all the lore, characters, sudden betrayals, macguffins, and flagrant deus-ex-machina.

Which is a shame, because it’s definitely an interesting film to watch purely on a visual level. The design and implementation of the puppets that make up the film’s cast is at times astonishing, and the copious amounts of CGI actually doesn’t look half bad alongside the puppet work. But it still feels ridiculously over-written in some cases, and under-written in others.

The Case of Hana and AliceThe_Case_of_Hana_&_Alice-p2

From two movies over-packed with story and suffering for it to a film light on story but heavy on charm, we turn to The Case of Hana and Alice. The film focuses on Alice, a teenage girl who finds herself in a new school and neighborhood, who befriends her reclusive neighbor on a quest to unravel a school mystery involving a supposedly dead classmate.

While this is the basic premise of Hana and Alice, the film seems less concerned with the plot as a whole so much as the scenes that make up the film. For long stretches, the quest at large will sort of drop by the wayside for infectiously charming scenes of simple character interaction, comedy sequences, and atmosphere. And throughout these sequences, I never felt myself growing bored or yearning for a return to the main plot.

I think this comes from the fact that the film is loaded with characterization. The cast rarely feels two-dimensional or hollow, everyone is bursting with character, which makes watching them interact and bond continuously fascinating. It’s a ridiculously charming, enjoyable little movie, one that kept me smiling and entranced virtually from the first frame until the last.

RoarRoar poster

I don’t think I’ve seen a movie quite so perplexing in a long time. Roar, a 1981 oddity of a movie that was recently re-released and picked up by Fantasia, is like some weird, tone-deaf mashup of a nature film and a home invasion horror movie. A hilariously All-American family comes to join the patriarch, a nature… scientist of some kind, in a house in Africa where he lives with over 150 lions, tigers, panthers, and other assorted big cats, in a mad scheme to prove that big cats and people can co-exist in the same habitat.

Of course, the family arrives when dad is out, leaving them to get menaced by their new housemates. The film was the demented brainchild of its stars, Tippi Hedren and Noel Marshall, who conceived of the film as a way to raise awareness about the hunting of big cats and to cast them in a new, less threatening light. But in the process, Marshall and co. accidentally managed to craft more of a horror film than anything else. Especially if you’re aware of the fact that the big cats in the film’s feline cast were mostly untrained, Roar is a tense, sometimes terrifying experience. Watching Hedren, her real life daughter Melanie Griffith, and Marshall’s two sons run from big cats that very clearly want to do them no small degree of bodily harm is often more unsettling than anything I’ve seen in Fantasia’s actual horror film crop this year.

Of course, the horror element is often underscored by the bouncy, happy-go-lucky soundtrack that seems to suggest we should be finding all of this terribly amusing. Tell that to my clenched buttocks during the screening. Roar may not technically be a good film, but it is a fascinating one. It’s intriguing to see how colossally misguided and unaware of itself it is. I’m sure you could do a really interesting post-colonialist reading, the thesis statement being “white people are just so goddamn silly”, but sadly, I haven’t the room for that here.

Kung Fu Killer header

It seems like in the last few weeks that the lumbering walrus that is summer finally reared its head and dropped its heaving, sweaty bulk on the people of Montreal, because MAN has it been hot lately. Thankfully, the Fantasia Film Festival is here to give us the perfect excuse to stay inside, bask in air-conditioned comfort and take in the latest cinematic delights they’ve brought us this year. I’ve only been able to take in two films so far (curse my need to work and write) but judging from Fantasia’s first offerings, we’re in for a good three weeks.

Miss Hokusai

Even though I’m not much of an anime watcher these days (at least when it comes to series) I always make a point of checking out as much of Fantasia’s anime content as I can, and this year the fest started on some, with Miss Hokusai making its North American Premiere.

Miss Hokusai PosterMiss Hokusai tells the sorta true story of O-Ei, the daughter of a famous Edo period artist. For the most part, the film is a fairly light slice-of-life affair consisting of short vignettes taking us into daily life in the period, O-Ei’s troubled relationship with her father, and her close bond with her younger sister.

Where Miss Hokusai feels a bit muddled and off-topic however, is the odd paranormal/ghost story sub-plot that sees O-Ei, her father, and his student helping a local courtesan with a ghost problem. It’s the best example of the only real problem the film has, which is a bit too much variety for its own good.

The soundtrack, for example, will alternate between contemporary rock and soft, period-accurate woodwinds and percussion instruments, giving the film an unpredictable, almost discordant soundscape. Similarly the sudden switches between slice-of-life drama and paranormal spook-ery may leave a lot of audience members confused about what the aim of the movie really is.

This isn’t helped by the fact that the episodic nature of the narrative makes it somewhat hard to get swept up in the narrative. Maybe if there were one vignette less, so the rest could feel more fleshed out, perhaps this problem would be lessened.

That being said, Miss Hokusai is still a perfectly pleasant and enjoyable experience, and got Fantasia 2015 off to a great, if inoffensive start.

Kung Fu Killer

If there’s anything that says Fantasia more than anime, it’s Donnie Yen kicking someone in the head, and Fantasia delivered that on Day 2 with Kung Fu Killer, a Hong Kong beat ’em up that delivers exactly what you want it to: action, style, melodrama and intense Donny Yen faces.

Kung Fu Killer poster

Yen plays Hahou Mo, a former martial artist serving a prison sentence for killing a man in a duel. But when a mysterious serial killer starts tracking down and killing martial arts masters, Mo is brought in to help the Hong Kong police bring the killer to justice.

Kung Fu Killer is a definite crowd-pleaser, since it gives you exactly what you want going in. The fight scenes are fast paced, well shot and full of style, the pace stays brisk and to-the-point practically from the word go, and Yen does what we all know and love him for: kick ass and look intensely off into the middle distance while swearing revenge for this, that or the other thing.

The one problem is that for a gritty martial arts flick, Kung Fu Killer seems too reliant on digital effects, greenscreening and wirework. Not that there’s anything wrong with “wire-fu” in general, but in a contemporary-set Donnie Yen vehicle, focused more on grit and realism than Wuxia movies, the few uses of wirework seem out of place and distracting.

And that goes double for the film’s post-production visual effects, the most egregious example being a terrible looking CGI boat jump. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t a stunt I’ve seen done for real in at least a dozen movies. Who knows, maybe they had a good reason not to attempt the stunt for real, but the sudden CGI took me out of the moment hard.

But these gripes aside, I had a lot of fun with Kung Fu Killer. The action is solid and the melodrama thick enough to cut with a knife, which kept the audience sufficiently amused, and I was right along with them.

If nothing else, watch it for the villain’s hilarious lack of any subtlety when it comes to facial expressions. He’s like the Chinese Matt Smith, in every second shot his face is contorted into some weird cartoon-approximation of what a normal human expression looks like and it’s hilarious and endearing every single time.

Genisys header

Watching the Terminator franchise has been like watching the trajectory of a half-brick flung with wild abandon by a carefree, callow youth. It began with an explosion of power and from there, the sky was the limit as it soared towards the heavens, unchained and free. But then gravity took hold and the flight towards glory was replaced by a tremendous fall, leading to the half-brick landing in old Mr. Macduff’s birdbath and left to be horribly mistreated by neighbourhood crows.

So it is with the Terminator movies. The glory days of the first two films are behind us, now replaced by shame and crow droppings. Terminator Genisys, the fifth film in the franchise, is out in theatres now. I can’t say for sure if it’s worse than Terminator: Rise of the Machines, the other low-point of the series, but it nevertheless represents another crushing failure of an attempt to bring the franchise back to its former glory – a confused mess with only passable action and a script that desperately wants you not to notice the tanker-truck sized holes at the very centre of the thing.

Genisys posterOur story begins with Kyle Reese, now played by the ever-dull Jai Courtney, being sent back in time on his mission from the first film: save Sarah Connor, mother of legendary resistance leader John Connor, who just saved humanity from extinction at the hands of Skynet. Reese goes back in time, only to be immediately attacked by a liquid metal terminator and rescued by Sarah, already in badass T2 mode, and her pet terminator “pops.” When Sarah was a child, it seems, her parents were killed by a terminator, and pops rescued and raised her, having been sent back in time by parties unknown.

You’ll notice that “parties unknown” part right at the end there. Important detail. One of the many, many problems plaguing Genisys, is that spoiler alert, that big question mark… never gets really addressed or explored, despite it being the inciting incident that set the whole movie off. Who sent back that terminator that killed Sarah’s parents, and who sent back Pops, are questions the characters dwell on for all of two lines of dialogue. To say nothing of who sent back the liquid metal terminator played by Byung Hun-Lee that menaces our heroes in the first act.

Now, it’s absolutely fine to have the inciting incident of your film be a mystery. Many great films have been built on this premise. But the problem with Genisys is that not only is it not answered in the film itself, it’s never addressed or brought up again. The writers give no indication that they have a solution in mind for the mystery and, in fact, sweep it under the rug as quickly as possible in what feels like a desperate attempt to hide the fact that have absolutely no idea what’s going on. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe the writers of Terminator Genisys know exactly what’s happening, and this is an attempt at setting up mysteries for the sequel to explore, if there is one.

And yeah, that’s a valid strategy. Guardians of the Galaxy never reveals the identity of Star-Lord’s father and why he was taken from Earth in the first place, after all. But the difference is, in the case of Guardians, we’re given hints and indications that there’s at least some plan for what comes next. It’s brought up multiple times, we’re given some information about Quill’s father to feed speculation, etc. Genisys, on the other hand, seems desperate for you to forget about the whole question, paying it the most token of lip service before dropping it entirely and never mentioning it again. It doesn’t feel like a mystery so much as something they never bothered to write.

Genisys insert

And Genisys is full of stuff like that, logical gaps that we’re expected to ignore, but which bring the whole affair crashing down the second you start fiddling with them. It’s like a Jenga tower five minutes into the game.

So does it at least look pretty? I suppose, but… look. I don’t like ragging on a film’s special effects because a) I think how photo-realistic an effect looks isn’t as important as how visually interesting it is, and b) I’m aware that low-quality special effects are a symptom of the fact that the VFX industry is critically broken, but don’t you dare try to mention that in public. But I have to say this.

Guys. Hollywood. Digital recreations of younger actors? Doesn’t. Work. It didn’t work in Tron Legacy and it doesn’t work here. I refer of course to one of the film’s most touted scenes, where the now aged Arnie squares off against a recreation of his younger self from the first film, accomplished with CGI and a body double. And it looks awful. Seriously, stop trying to do this effect, the technology just isn’t there yet.

Besides that, the action is at least competently staged, and there are some interesting visuals, especially once the actual villain of the film is revealed about midway through.

But Terminator Genisys is just the latest in a long line of lazy summer action blockbusters that expects us not to care. To “turn off our brains” and just enjoy the explosions, blithely ignoring the fact that it has half a script at worst, and one full of half-explained or completely unexplained gaps at best. The time travel mechanic that drives the plot is fuelled by nonsensical babble about “nexus points” and alternate timelines that wants you to believe it makes some kind of sense, when really it just feels like the technobabble in a bad Star Trek episode: a bunch of fancy sounding words thrown at a problem until it goes away.

It doesn’t respect its audience enough to expect them to ask questions, trying to skirt by with a script as sound as a house cards made of wet saltines. It cynically tries to placate fans with references and call-outs to previous films, hoping to distract us from its awfulness with fan-service. And I didn’t even talk about the dull performances, the reduction of Sarah Connor to an eye-rolling, squeaky-voiced bore chafing under Pops’ psuedo-parental figure, the stuff they do with John Connor that’s guaranteed to have fans frothing, and how utterly wasted JK Simmons is in a bit part that goes nowhere.

We deserve better. Terminator fans deserve better, general audiences deserve better.

Fantasia 2015 preview header

The three weeks that make up the Fantasia International Film Festival are always my favorite of the year, twenty-one heady days of filmic delights and unwise dietary choices broken up only by manic writing sessions and bleary-eyed journeys home on the night bus. This will be my fifth year covering the fest, my third for FTB, and already I can feel the pure Dionysian joy that awaits me.

The main release of the 2015 schedule has yet to happen, but the fine folks at Fantasia have already released more than enough of what’s to come to get me and every other film nerd salivating with anticipation, and this week on FFR we’ll be looking at some of the highlights of this year’s Fantasia line-up.

Assassination Classroom

It wouldn’t be Fantasia without something delectably weird and inimitably Japanese, something that by all sanity shouldn’t be a live-action film, but somehow is. I’m sure we’ll get several such films at Fantasia this year, but the one that’s caught my eye so far is Assassination Classroom.

Based off the hit manga and anime, the film centers on an all-powerful alien lifeform that comes to Earth, partially destroys the moon, and…..becomes a homeroom teacher. Naturally, the Japanese government places a reward of 10 billion yen to any student who can manage to kill the alien before it destroys the planet, meaning every student has come to class armed for war.

So it’s basically Great Teacher Onikuza meets Battle Royale with a grinning, yellow, be-tentacled monstrosity at its center. Yep, that’s a Fantasia movie all right. And I’m DOWN.

The Hallow

What’s that now? Practical monster effects? Congratulations, with those three words you’ve piqued the interest of every old-school horror buff worth his or her salt, myself included.

The Hallow looks like a classic creature feature, playing on well-worn but still rich themes of nature and old world monsters and myths wreaking havoc on the lives of us ignorant city folk. In this case, a married couple move to a remote village in Ireland, only to be warned by the local Scary Older Gentleman to stay out of the woods, lest they disturb something best left to itself. Naturally, they don’t, and much screaming ensues.

The Hallow is already garnering great reviews from its run at Sundance, and should be drawing additional attention for its director, Corin Hardy, who will sit in the director’s chair on the long-gestating remake/reboot of The Crow.

Deathgasm

Want something that’ll get a Fantasia crowd pumped? Get something loud as a piledriver, gory as a weekend internship at a slaughterhouse, metal as Optimus Prime’s ass and involving at least one chainsaw.

Deathgasm looks to be all those things. Coming out of New Zealand, home of such favorites as Brain Dead and Housebound, Deathgasm looks like the quintessential “Hall Theatre Midnight Screening” experience. This is the movie you go to see with a raucous audience of devoted gorehounds and metalheads, the movie Mitch Davis spends five minutes gushing over before the screening, God bless his heart.

The director, Jason Lei Howden, already has an impressive resume working on big Hollywood features in the digital effects department, and with such experience under his belt I think we may be looking at a festival favorite with this one.

Big Match

Past readers will recall me being a bit cynical about Korean films in the past, harumphing at the gray and blue action thrillers and raising an eyebrow at the period dramas. Korean film is something that I have a hard time connecting with, for one reason or another, but Big Match looks more up my alley and may just be the film to turn me around.

Zombie, an MMA fighter, is thrown in the clink on suspicion of kidnapping his coach and older brother. But just as quick, Zombie is released and finds himself a pawn in a city-wide board game masterminded by a mysterious genius.

Big Match looks, above all else, fun. Bright and colorful, not-too-serious, and with plenty of well-choreographed stunt work and fight scenes. I’m sure there will be more than enough dead-serious political action thrillers out of South Korea at Fantasia this year, but Big Match looks more my speed.

Miss Hokusai

Of course, it wouldn’t be Fantasia without anime, and this year’s fest will be opening up to the tune of Miss Hokusai, the story of Oei Hokusai, daughter of famed Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, who produced woodblock prints during the Edo Period.

What draws me to this film most is the director, Keiicha Hara, a relatively recent talent who got his start on the Shin-Chan movies. Miss Hokusai also comes from Production IG, a studio whose watermark is usually a stamp of quality, and who have previously wowed me with efforts like Giovanni’s Island and A Letter To Momo at previous Fantasia Fests.

INSIDE OUT – Pictured (L-R): Fear, Joy, and Disgust. ©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

The last couple years have been a bit rough on Pixar, the prestigious animation studio which has spent the last two decades plucking our heart strings and hogging all the animation Oscars. (Including the ones they didn’t deserve. Looking at you, Ratatouille) After Brave came out to middling reviews, production on what was to be their next feature, The Good Dinosaur, suffered several stalls and delays. But with the recent release of Inside Out, Pixar is finally back, storming across the animated landscape like the Riders of friggin’ Rohan. And let me just be the latest in a long succession of people to say Christ Alive, it’s good to have you guys back.

Inside Out is about as monumental a return to form as Pixar fans were hoping for. It’s a film that exemplifies everything that made the studio great: stunning animation, emotional complexity, narrative depth, and jokes more legitimately funny and clever than anything you’ll find in any of the supposedly ‘adult’ comedies plaguing theaters right now.

Inside Out posterInside Out stars the anthropomorphised emotions of a pre-teen girl named Riley, who live inside Riley’s adorable little noggin dictating her thoughts and actions. There’s Joy, the bubbly, perky lead (Amy Poehler), the downbeat Sadness (Phyllis Smith), the snooty Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Nervous Fear (Bill Hader) and angry… Anger (Lewis Black). When Riley and her family are moved to a new town, Riley’s “core memories,” the glowing spheres that drive her personality, are lost, sending Joy and Sadness on an adventure to get them back and return the now depressed and unstable Riley to normal.

Inside Out, as a lot of people have pointed out already, hits a lot of familiar spots on the old Pixar bingo card. A character who symbolizes a child’s childhood innocence threatened by the encroaching onset of maturity? Check. A bickering duo cast out of their natural environment and forced to learn to co-exist? Check. Themes of personal loss and abandonment? Oh, lordy that’s a check. Really, the only thing that keeps it being the most quintessentially Pixar movie ever is the lack of the patent-pending “Manic third act chase sequence.”

But as much as we like to smugly point out Pixar’s favorite recurring motifs and ideas, it’s also impossible not to love them, and Inside Out is proof. Just TRY not to laugh at the clever, subtle “this one’s for the grown-ups” jokes (“I saw one really hairy guy, he looked like a bear”) and while you’re at it, try not to cry at the emotionally devastating Second Act finale. Yes, these are well-worn conventions, but remember that Pixar has been using them so often that at this point they wield those conventions like Inigo Montoya wields a fencing foil. And the six-fingered man? That’s you. Prepare to feel things.

But what leaped out at me, what I think Inside Out does better than perhaps any other Pixar movie before, is the baffling amount of respect it has for its audience, especially when it comes to the finale. Inside Out is built around a very simple, very powerful central idea, and no I’m not going to spoil it. It’s the lesson that both Joy and Riley have to learn as part of their respective but intrinsically linked emotional journeys.

Inside out insert

What’s great, for me at least, isn’t as much the message itself as the fact that the characters, and by extension the film, never completely spell it out. Nobody has any tearful monologues where they reiterate the lesson they’ve learned and apologize for the mistakes they’ve made. The film, instead, trusts us to understand what’s going on through contextual clues and simple observations.

When the climax comes, Joy never once says the words “I’m sorry”, or elaborates on what she’s sorry for. She doesn’t need to, because the film knows that the audience already understands what’s going on with her, character-wise. We know what lesson she’s learned and how she’s grown as a character, and so do the other characters in the film. It’s non-verbal communication of ideas, themes and character growth. In a film aimed primarily at children, this kind of refusal to talk down to or hold the audiences hand, carefully guiding them to the central message of the film like an overly-cautious tour guide, is so much rare than it should be.

If there’s any one thing I can fault Inside Out for it’s that among the cast, Mindy Kaling’s Disgust feels notably under-used. Her fellow supporting cast members, Anger and Fear, get their share of gags and even whole scenes to make them stand out as characters. They get clear roles to play in the narrative. Disgust just sorta seems to be there to sneer and make sarcastic remarks. She’s fun, but I kept finding myself asking why she was there. She’s like Predator 2 or funnel cake sticks. Enjoyably, but not especially necessary.

I realize that not every supporting character can have time to get their moment in the sun, but Disgust feels she’s the only notable player in the film who gets short-changed, and in an otherwise terrifically well-rounded cast, that hurts, especially since Kaling’s considerable talent feels somewhat wasted.

But that’s me grasping, really. Inside Out is the film Pixar fans have been waiting for since the closing credits of Toy Story 3. Where Cars 2 felt shallow and commercial and Brave solid but uneven, Inside Out is everything Pixar have made us come to expect from their work. Visually stunning, complex, funny, and with the feeling that the writing has become even more mature and complex than ever.

what we do header

I’ve been watching a lot of vampire movies lately, and a lot of shockingly good vampire movies at that. Between Only Lovers Left Alive last year and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night just a few months back, it’s seemed like vampire movies have been enjoying a bit of a renaissance lately.

It’s as though all the talented directors of the world gathered together to snatch vampire films back from clammy hands of Twilight, rescuing an entire genre from mediocrity in a daring mission. What we do in the Shadows arrived a bit late, however, forcing the other movies to awkwardly wait while it applies its camo paint and checks its rifle, which is the kind of awkward-humorous scene you’d expect from the film itself.

Written and Directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, What we do sits about as thoroughly in that little sub-genre of post-modern vampire media as you can get. Like Buffy, Jessica Abel’s graphic novel Life Sucks, Only Lovers and countless others, the film casts its vampires less as fearsome and mysterious creatures of the night and more as isolated, temporally-displaced, socially crippled misfits, living at odds with the century they’ve somehow escaped impalement and sunlight long enough to see and puttering about their daily lives like any other gaggle of New Zealand flatmates.

The film is structured in a mockumentary style as an unseen camera crew follows Clements’ Vlad, final1.indda former bloodthirsty count long past his glory days, and his two flatmates: Waititi’s Viago and Jonny Brugh’s Deacon. There’s also technically Petyr, an ancient, near-feral Nosferatu type who lives in the basement and sadly doesn’t get much screentime. The film follows the group through their nightly comings and goings as a few new additions to the household threaten the stability of the group and at the same time force them to adapt more to the new century they’ve been trying to avoid.

The make or break for a lot of people on this film will be their receptiveness to that oh-so-UK style of awkward, uncomfortable “Cringe” humour that a lot of us met for the first time in The Office. The awkward pauses, the stammering improv dialogue, the painful awkwardness, it’s all there in spades.

For some people, this is the absolute height of comedy. For others, it’s just painful and awkward and not particularly sidesplitting, and if you’re in that second category, you’d better just accept that this movie isn’t for you. For my part, this style of humor isn’t normally my bag but I still managed to get a good chuckle or two out, even if some of the gags had me wincing just as hard.

“Oh goody, a masturbation joke, how lovely,” spoke Thomas, his voice dripping with sarcasm like slime from the flanks of shoggoth. And oh what’s that, Vlad’s arch-enemy, only referred to as “The Beast” is in fact his ex-girlfriend? Great, didn’t see that coming. I roll my eyes and sneer at a lot of the gags, but I can’t deny that Celement and Waititi have some pretty sharp comedic chops, even if their style doesn’t always work in my case.

Another thing that may leave audiences a bit divided is the structure of the thing. What we do uses the mockumentary style as an excuse to structure the film less like an A to B story-line with clear narrative thrust and more as a series of scenes or sketches with the skin of a narrative strung across them, like Buffalo Bill’s laundry line.

Characters and sub-plots will come and go, only existing for one or two scenes and not really contributing much or leading to any great pay-off. Petyr, the Nosferatu downstairs, is perhaps the best example, which is a shame since I somehow found him among the most interesting of the cast. Maybe it’s my weakness for Nosferatu-style vampires or What we do insertthe subtle humour that actor Ben Fransham brought to his few scant scenes, but I was genuinely sad when his part in the film came to a premature end.

The film has a very wandering vibe, not so much focused on larger narrative as it is with individual scenes and exchanges. Bear in mind, there’s nothing wrong with this, and a lot of great comedic films are done this way. Plus, when it comes to the Cringe Comedy movement, that’s prettymuch the name of the game most of the time.

If this style of comedy is already your bag, you’re probably ready to roll with this. If not, again, this may not be the one for you.

One thing that did definitely jump out and grab me by the neck is overall look and production design. The sets and costumes all look really terrific, and when the main characters recount their origins, it comes with period-style art depictions of their “younger” selves, and the art department did a damn convincing job of replicating the look of renaissance art, biblical illustrations, and that sort of thing.

In the same fashion, the effects department out-did themselves with the extensive wire-work and even a rotating hallway scene. These sequences, I found, are among some of the funniest in the film, mostly for how they almost always spring upon us out of nowhere to reminds us what we’re watching, like the snarling animal fights that pop up in The Fantastic Mr Fox.

In one scene, a heated exchange suddenly has the quarreling vampires thrust into the air before awkwardly and quite literally backing down. Moments like that are a great example of simple special effects being used for great comedic effect, and they were some of the highlights of the film for me.

As I’ve stressed on at least two occasions now, What we do in the Shadows is walking to the beat of a very specific comedic drum, one that not everyone can get in step with. If Cringe humour doesn’t work on you, and you can’t appreciate the canny post-modern deconstruction of vampire tropes, the flick may leave you as cold as one of its undead stars. If you’re in the right audience, though, and can recite whole scenes from The Office and Flight of the Conchords by heart, congrats, you have a new favourite movie.

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It was with a sense of melancholy that I lowered my ever-widening behind into the seat at Cinema du Parc before the screening of When Marnie Was There. The future, in case you didn’t know, is uncertain for Studio Ghibli, the renowned animation studio that produced such classics as Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro. With the retiring of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, what comes next for the studio is hazy and uncertain, with no new films announced at the time of this writing, and implications looming that When Marnie Was There might just be the final Ghibli film.

Like many North Americans, I discovered Studio Ghibli late in the game. I want to say my first Ghibli film was Mononoke, and not Spirited Away, which served as an introduction to both Miyazaki and Ghibli for many of us here in the West. But it was long ago, and memory is unreliable. No matter where and when Ghibli came into my life, what matters is that it was important. Like so many others, Ghibli showed me what animated films were capable of, perhaps even more so than the great and mighty Pixar, who, by the time Ghibli really caught on in North America, had already been sitting on their throne so long they’d worn a comfortable ass-groove in the upholstery.

Marnie posterGhibli films, and more specifically Miyazaki films, taught me things. They challenged me to understand characters I may not initially like or agree with. They showed me beauty and humor and sorrow. They were an important part of my coming into my own as a film buff – and now it may very well be over. Miyazaki and Takahata have seemingly retired and Miyazaki’s son has proven himself unable to properly follow in his father’s footsteps. Ghibli has employed other directors in the past (and is doing so in the case of Marnie) but thus far, none of them have been able to capture that Ghibli magic.

The spectre of Ghibli’s potential closing hangs over When Marnie Was There. Like an 18th century sailor press-ganged into service, this film has been pushed into the role of Ghibli’s swan song, their coda, their final bow. As such, reviewing it is… Tricky. I’m torn between viewing the film as just another Ghibli movie and viewing it as the FINAL Ghibli movie. My brain keeps ricocheting back and forth between seeing the film on its own merit, free from context, and seeing it in the role its been forced into, and the context that looms over it. In either case, though, the results aren’t good.

When Marnie Was There is the story of Anna, a depressed, socially withdrawn girl sent to live with her aunt and uncle in the country, in the hopes that clean country air will cure her asthma. After having trouble fitting in with the local kids, Anna meets Marnie, a young girl who lives in a mysterious house isolated by marshlands. Anna and Marnie become friends, despite growing evidence that Marnie is not all that she seems, and that strange things are afoot.

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For the first half hour or so, When Marnie Was There completely had me. Having dealt with these problems myself, tales of depression and social withdrawal always strike a chord with me. The quiet, lonely, self-loathing Anna resonated with me as a character, and I was eager to see how the film would treat these issues. But then in prances Marnie, blonde haired and bedecked in lolita fashion (in the Japanese sense, not the Nabokov sense), giggling with every alternate sentence and pulling Anna by the hand into whimsy and vaguely homoerotic bonding that incited giggles from sections of the audience.

When Marnie enters the film, it ceases to be about Anna and her depression and becomes a game of how long it can possibly take Anna to guess that Marnie is obviously not what she appears. How many strange occurrences can she take in stride, how often she can fail to ask the burning questions any sensible person would ask in the situations she’s thrust into.

Rather than driving the story herself, Anna is pulled along through the rest of the narrative by this golden haired doll-girl. They don’t form a friendship: Marnie declares Anna “her precious discovery” and Anna immediately goes along with it. There’s no sense of her coming out of her shell or grappling with the crippling social anxieties she showed a scene before. Marnie just appears and takes over her life, sweeping us from an interesting and nuanced character piece into a sweeping, schmaltzy melodrama capped off by a contrived revelation better suited for a daytime soap.

Marnie insert 2I began to grow frustrated with Anna’s sudden lack of agency or reasoning power, started hating the film for its reliance on sentiment rather than character and intrigue. How is it that meeting Marnie is the catalyst that sparks change in Anna? Was a whimsical blonde who stands on the prows of boats really what was missing? Why does Anna immediately become infatuated with Marnie, and open up to her in a way she hasn’t before?

In Princess Mononoke, you can understand how the introduction of Ashitaka brings change and reform to the world. In Castle in the Sky, you can see how Sheeta and Pazu draw strength from each other. But there’s never any sense of an actual relationship between Anna and Marnie. Marnie seems, quite intentionally at that, to be on an entirely different wavelength from Anna. Her half of the conversation feels pre-recorded, like she could be speaking to anyone. Marnie doesn’t form a bond with Anna, Anna gets caught in Marnie’s wake, sucked along like a piece of arm candy. I got a sense more of the bond and connection between Totoro and Satsuki and Mei, and Totoro didn’t even speak.

And since the relationship between Anna and Marnie is what drives the plot, this and Anna’s stout refusal to get the picture makes the film alternately dull and frustrating. The music soars and tears flow and I feel empty inside, completely uninterested in the characters and their relationship. If anything, I yearn for the days before Marnie flounced into the film and Anna’s emotional turmoil felt like the core of the film.

When I try and view When Marnie Was There as a film in its own right, it comes up as merely harmless. Melodramatic fluff straight out of a dime novel tear-jerker, something Nicholas Sparks would cook up, perhaps. But as the potentially last Ghibli film, all I want to do is stamp When Marnie Was Here into the dust and bury it so that I can go play the previous year’s one-two-punch of emotional and thematic depth (The Wind Rises) and artistic vision (The Tale of Princess Kaguya).

When Marnie Was There‘s worst enemy is its context. If the rumors prove to be untrue and Ghibli rises again to produce more films, this one can join the ranks as a pretty but ultimately toothless B-entry in the studio library. But if history does make this the last Ghibli film, and this was really the last time I’ll ever get to see that blue logo precede a new film, When Marnie Was There is frustrating for how much of a shallow note it ends the Ghibli legacy on.

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Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, is a movie I’ve had my eye on for a while. Actors turning to directing has led to some great movies before, and this is an actor who’s been hanging around with Nicolas Winding-Refn, so my hope was that maybe some of Refn’s talent rubbed off on Gosling. Or if not talent, his propensity for wearing bath towels as pants when filming and ability to look like some kind of hipster slug, because the world needs more weirdness in it.

Watching the slow news drip about Lost River was truly fascinating. First that weird teaser came out, with then-Dr Who star Matt Smith screaming at us to look at his muscles, then the much more coherent main trailer that made the film look less like a bad art-school project. Then the news broke that the film had become the whipping boy of Cannes 2014, getting booed and mocked by pretty much everyone there. What the hell WAS this thing, I thought to myself. I had to find out. I had to see for myself.

And now I know. It’s a first-time film by a freshman director with a lot of connections. It’s a pool of talent, improperly marshaled. It’s an orchestra full of talented people with a conductor who isn’t quite ready yet. But let’s start at the beginning.

Lost River posterIain De Caestecker is Bones, a despondent resident of Lost River, a middle-America town on the brink of collapse. His single mother, Christina Hendricks’ Billy, is struggling with the fallout from a predatory loan and the town is seemingly caught in the grip of Bully, a local tough played by Matt Smith. Billy takes a job at a seedy club run by her banker, while Bones draws the ire of Bully, putting himself and his girlfriend Rat, played by Saoirse Ronan, in danger.

Almost from the first scene, Lost River feels like a weird sorta melange of styles. Some scenes will have this very documentary-ish sorta feel, all natural lighting and hand-held camera work. But then we’ll switch gears and be looking at beautifully framed slow-motion shots.

Some times the set design will have this almost Tim Burton gothic feel (right down to featuring a giant skull mask pulled directly from Batman Returns) and then in the blink of an eye characters will be walking down this sterile, mono-chromatic hallways that looks pulled from THX-1138.

And don’t get me wrong, some of it’s beautiful. There are some breathtakingly gorgeous shots in here, and the editing is top-notch as well. But the problem is it all feels somehow hollow. The film as a whole feels pretty, but at the same time fumbling, awkward.

I think a lot of this comes from the cast, who come across as aimless, but not in an intentional way. De Caestecker just seems to be doing a bad Ryan Gosling impersonation, staring poutily into the middle distance but without any of the slow-burn intensity that drove Drive….pardon the pun. Saoirse Ronan is playing the “artsy indie movie girlfriend,” kind of vacant and cold and never presenting any credible reason for why she’s with the main guy at all. Matt Smith just sorta prowls around trying to come off as threatening, but never really making it work as a legit figure of menace. If any villain in the film really works, it’s Ben Mendelsohn as Dave, the banker/club owner who serves as the threat to Billy.

On that subject, there is one part of the film that did actually resonate with me. Growing up raised by a single mother puts you in a very odd headspace if you’re a guy, especially if you’re the oldest/only child. You’re ostensibly the only man in your mother’s life, so other male figures sorta become threatening and foreign, and you can see Ryan Gosling’s experience with this a bit in Lost River. There are scenes where I can identify with Bones’ protectiveness of Billy, with his sense of dread at Dave’s advances. So that, at least, struck a chord with me.

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But for most of the film, Lost River‘s American Fairy Tale vibe didn’t quite work the way Gosling seems to have wanted it to. In Drive or Only God Forgives, the imagery felt suffused with a kind of meaning, a potency. Here the dreamy tone and imagery feels like an affectation most of the time, like an imitation at the surface level.

There’s some of that magic there, and Gosling’s ability to capture the kind of apocalyptic disintegration that’s sweeping small towns across America is definitely noteworthy. If he’d focused on that rather than weave in quasi-surrealist images and moodiness, this could have been great.

But instead we’ve got a lot of very pretty images that feel trite and hollow. Gosling has a lot of talent at his disposal in the film, a cinematographer who can produce a great shot, a composer who can turn out a haunting, beautiful score, actors who can theoretically turn out a great performance, but they all feel like they’re wandering.

I never got a sense of what Bones was about, never felt a motif emerge in the varying styles of camera work or visual design. It never felt like it really meant anything, like it became something besides a mood piece. And as a pure mood piece, it’s pretty good, but we need more than that.

Drive felt like a deconstruction of the action movie hero, and the action/crime movie in general. Only God Forgives felt like a movie about someone with a crippling fear of forward momentum. What is Lost River about?

I’m not sure, and I don’t really know that the film does either.

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If very few casual filmgoers pay attention to who directed the films they go to see, even fewer pay attention to the writers. This is a shame, because knowing who wrote a given film can tell you just as much about what you’re in for as knowing who directed it, in a lot of cases.

For example, if people knew, as I do, to treat the phrase “written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci” like a giant red flag with accompanying marching band, door to door awareness campaign and PBS after school special saying “don’t go see this one” then a lot of spectacularly bad movies wouldn’t have made the soul-destroyingly high amounts of money that they did.

And speaking of writers to look out for, Damon Lindelof. Lindelof is perhaps best known for being the driving mind and main writer for Lost, and has since gone on to write or at least have a sticky finger or two in the writing of Prometheus, World War Z, and now Tomorrowland. While Kurtzman and Orci’s signature moves include gaping plot holes and the kind of awkward, stammery humor that makes me want to take a nap in a cement mixer, Lindelof is a different beast. Oh yes, the plot holes are still absolutely there, but Lindelof’s favorite game is to make the audience wait a million years while withholding as much plot-important information as possible, teasing us with a mystery to the point of frustration and then finally revealing it to be something either nonsensical, patently ridiculous or some combination of the two.

tomorrowland posterWhich is exactly what’s been done in Tomorrowland, the new film directed by the talented Brad Bird and based on the Disney theme park attraction of the same name. The film focuses on a young girl who is given a glimpse of a secret world created as a kind of city-sized think tank, where the greatest scientific minds can gather to develop their inventions and ideas without the constraints of politics, money and presumably ethics boards and any kind of accountability. Somewhere out there a despondent games writer is frustratedly deleting a word file marked “Bioshock 4 Story Outline.” Getting back to Tomorrowland, our hero Casey must enlist the help of Frank, a bitter inventor who was kicked out of Tomorrowland for reasons unknown.

That’s the bare bones setup, at least, the frame on which the story is hung like so much laundry. But the thing is, that’s not the actual plot. There’s more going on, some crisis that Frank keeps hinting at, some larger end goal that needs to be accomplished, and given what I just told you about how Lindelof typically operates, you can probably figure out that a) the movie spends the first 90 minutes or so spinning its wheels, refusing to tell us anything and chiding us when we, through Casey, try and get some answers and b) that when we finally find out what’s going on it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense and critically undermines a large chunk of everything we’ve seen up till that point.

There’s a scene where, upon asking for some simple answers, Casey is told by Frank “Stop asking questions, can’t you just have a sense of wonder?” and he might as well be looking dead into the camera at this point. Christ, there’s even a scene where the little robot girl that selected Casey and Frank to get in on this whole adventure pretends to shut down when Casey starts asking very simple, reasonable questions. Not for any discernible reason we ever learn, either.

The first 90 to a hundred minutes of Tomorrowland are a theme park ride, a series of distractions and light shows meant to distract us from the fact that, since we have no clue of the stakes, the larger goals at hand, what it’s all really working towards, we don’t have any reason to care about any of what we’re seeing. And then when we finally do learn what it all has been about, it turns out to be nonsensical, confusing, poorly explained and more than a tiny bit preachy.

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People who saw Tomorrowland before I did described it as having a great first two thirds, and then falling apart in the end, but I don’t really think that’s the case. What I think is happening is that once you find out the actual plot, you start to look back on those early days of ignorance with a fond nostalgia. It’s like looking back at the days before you had to pay taxes or wait in lines at government offices. How wonderful and simple it all seemed then, you think, forgetting the fact that nothing interesting ever happened to you.

And what makes Tomorrowland watchable, with all its blatant Lindelof-isms is seeing Brad Bird occasionally break the surface before a slimy tentacle emerges after him, fixing around his neck and dragging him back down while it mumbles something about the mystery box. The premise is sound and rich with storytelling opportunities, and a lot of the visuals, action sequences and sight gags are fantastic. The end result is like when you have a friend who’s really great and awesome and can do great things, but they’re stuck in a toxic, oppressive relationship with someone who just wants to drag them down into their own mediocrity.

But hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Lindelof isn’t to blame for all of Tomorrowland‘s failings. Brad Bird, as much as we’d like to deny it, is only human. It’s entirely possible that the problems with Tomorrowland are as much his own fault as Lindelof’s.

We’ll probably never know. But the end result, either way, is a visually dazzling, often extremely clever movie that makes you wait for most of its run-time to reveal that the engine driving it is actually a rube-goldberg machine consisting of old wind-up toy parts held together with scotch tape and optimism.