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.

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.

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.

Marnie insert

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.

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.

Lost River bike

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.

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.

Tomorrowland insert

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.

I complain a lot about mainstream action movies. While people try and talk me down with endless chants of “It’s just a dumb action movie!” and “you’re not supposed to think about it!” I’m sitting there thinking about plotting, characterization, camera movement, editing.

It’s not something I can help, it’s just part of my programming. And usually, as part of these lessons about how I’m being a big nitpicking butt, people almost inevitably ask “what do you want?” As of this Tuesday, I have yet another answer I can respond with, another one of those rare, glittering action movies that actually cares about the things I care about.

Yes, everything you’ve heard from the legion of excited fans and critics losing their goddamn minds on the internet is true. Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller’s long awaited fourth installment in the decades-old series, is amazing.

It isn’t just the best action movie of the year. It’s one of the best of the decade. And it will almost undoubtedly remain so. Not just because the action is fantastic, inventive and spectacularly choreographed, but because of how Fury Road posterdeceptively smart it is. Yes, despite appearances of being a brain-dead orgy of explosions and testosterone, the script under Fury Road‘s hood is a surprisingly well put-together precision instrument, full of wonderful detail and characterization.

It’s one of those oh-so-rare scripts, that actually respects its audience, telling the story through dialogue and character rather than dumping exposition in our laps like we’re excited puppies who can’t sit still and need everything spoon-fed to us. In a mainstream summer genre action flick, that isn’t just unusual. That’s a goddamn miracle.

Our story begins with Max Rockatansky, former highway cop turned post-apocalyptic wanderer, now rocking an epic “I quit” beard and looking much more like Tom Hardy than Mel Gibson.

After a brief chase Max is captured by a group run by the warlord Immortan Joe, and turned into an unwilling blood donor for one of his legion of Warboys. Meanwhile, one of Joe’s lieutenants, Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, steals Joe’s harem of “wives” with the intent of smuggling them to a mythical “green place” across the wasteland in a stolen big rig. Inevitably, Max and Furiosa cross paths, and team up to escape Joe and make it to freedom.

Some people have been calling Fury Road mindless fun and low on story, two claims that upon further inspection seem so far from the truth that they can only see the truth on a clear night through a through a decent-sized observatory telescope.

Fury Road is assuredly NOT low on story. What it’s low on, if anything, is ham-fisted exposition that tells us the story when it should be showing it to us. Even beyond the basic chase narrative, Fury Road is actually chock full of story, full of small details that clue you in on characters motivations and back stories, that inform you about the world and how it works. The movie rarely gives you information by just having one character talk at another. It gives it to you in ways you have to look for. It gives you dots, but leaves you to connect them.


For example, what precisely is going on with Immortan Joe and the Warboys is never spelled out in plain English for the audience. But if you know what to look for, and don’t mind actually thinking for half a second, you can figure it out.

And the fact that the movie lets you is a sign of the respect that George Miller and his co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris have for their audiences. They aren’t living in constant fear of alienating their viewers like so many Hollywood writers are. They don’t view their viewers as mindless dolts who need to be led on a leash from one bit of plot-important exposition to another. They let you do the work, because they have faith that you can.

And in doing so, Miller and co have crafted a world that seems more alive and layered than most other cinematic worlds I can name. There’s so much little detail, turns of phrase, customs, costuming choices, that are only there to add detail to the world we’ve been thrown into. And it never seems arbitrary, it all seems to somehow make sense. When Max asks one character if he’s a “black thumb” all you need to do is look at the context and consider the phrase, and how we use “green thumb” to deduce that this is a term for mechanic.

Miller and others have crafted a world here that you’ll want to revisit, precisely because it feels more packed with potential stories than the friggin’ Discworld. Mark my words, every gang or clan we meet over the course of Max and Furiosa’s escape across the wasteland has a story just waiting to be mined.

That’s what we call world building through dialogue, people. And it is so rare these days that if you could sell it on the open market, that line alone would probably cost more than my house.

This guy. THIS GUY.

Of course, you’ve already heard much made about Charlize Theron’s next-gen Ellen Ripley turn as Furiosa, and how Tom Hardy’s quiet, burned out, almost vulnerable at times Max makes the perfect foil. The one who really astonished me was actually Nicholas Hoult as Nux, the Warboy who initially uses Max as his “blood bag.”

As much as Fury Road is about Furiosa and Max, it’s almost about Nux, giving him his own surprisingly interesting and complex character arc. All of the characters feel more fleshed out than you’d expect. Even supporting players like Joe’s muscle, Rictus Erectus, and Joe’s freed “wives”get enough little character moments that they all feel real, rather than just stock cut-outs.

So the script is great. The script is fucking incredible. How’s the action? Fan. Goddamn. Tastic. As you may have heard, the vast majority of the stunt work, pyrotechnics and car crashes in the film are real, brought to the screen with a minimum of CGI. It’s all beautifully shot and skillfully edited, and Junkie XL’s pounding score gives the action scenes an intense rhythm that captures you and never lets go.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t quiet moments. There are actually a lot of them. My fear going in would be that the movie would actually live up to its “120 minute car chase” hype and be a numbing, non-stop barrage of sound and fury, one that would eventually deafen the audience and leave the movie a kind of noisy, unpleasant ordeal. Happily, that isn’t the case. Fury Road knows just how to pace out its action so as not to wear out the audience, breaking things up with quieter scenes so we can catch our breath.

Guys, this is one for the books. This is one of those movies that comes along to remind us what action movies can and should be, to give us a new standard against which they should be measured. It’s smart, it’s creative, it respects its audience, and it kicks ass like you wouldn’t believe.

Oh, what a day. What a lovely day.

It took me somewhat longer that expected to get to Avengers: Age of Ultron, the finale to the “second wave” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and the informal beginning to Summer Movie Season for this year. In the time since it hit screens, Ultron has been a tad divisive, and people continue to argue about it on forums, Twitter, and nasty messages left on bathroom stall walls. The argument has been on two fronts: the first being the actual quality of the film, the second being the possibly troublesome gender politics behind a scene involving Scarjo’s Black Widow.

The gender politics debate is ongoing, and something I’m still in the midst of considering, having finally seen the film. As for the quality debate, I knew almost immediately after the credits rolled that I stand with the side arguing that while Age of Ultron is definitely fun, oftentimes clever and an all around solid entry in the MCU, it’s also as clunky and badly formed as main baddie Ultron is when he first appears as a shambling mess of parts that don’t quite fit together.

Age of Ultron posterThough there is a lengthy lead-up involving the team mopping up what appears (for now at least) to be the last remnants of HYDRA, the action really gets under way when Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner use an artifact from the previous Avengers flick to create Ultron, a peacekeeping AI intended to bring about world peace. Of course, Ultron goes the way of pretty much every fictional AI ever developed and immediately announces his intent to bend humanity over his metal knee and make it think about what it has done.

From there, about a million different characters and plot threads weave in and out of each other as the Avengers try to stop Ultron from destroying the world, even as internal tensions threaten to tear the team apart.

As critics before me have pointed out, Ultron‘s biggest failing is an over-stuffed script crammed to the brim with new characters and action set pieces. Even though the franchise already has a dearth of characters to draw on, writer, director and fanboy messiah Joss Whedon uses Age of Ultron to introduce a whole whack of new blood to the MCU, and very few, if any of them, seem to get much screen time.

First there’s the twins, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, arguably the most important and developed new characters besides Ultron himself. While Elizabeth Olson and Aaron Taylor-Johnson both get some good scenes in, they only just feel interesting and developed enough that I want to see more of them.

Paul Bettany also makes his debut as the friendly, cape-sporting android Vision in the third act, and boy howdy, did he feel like he didn’t need to be there. I like that they brought in the character and all, and Bettany certainly feels right in the role, but both his character and what he brings to the table powers-wise feel so woefully underdeveloped that the whole thing screams missed opportunity. We never get a sense of what his powers even are beyond flying, smashing stuff and occasionally shooting a laser from his forehead, which is a shame since his actual powers of density control (which allow him to phase through solid objects or become an ultra-dense immovable object) could have been used for some really great visuals.

Age of this guy

The look of the film over all felt very cluttered and unfocused. Fight scenes often have multiple characters elbowing each other for room in the frame, and the 3D (as usual) makes things look so much more messy than they should. I feel like this is yet another one of those movies that will look better on the small screen and CHRIST am I getting tired of saying that about effects blockbusters.

Another thing that kept bugging me about the visuals was the editing, which often has this disjointed feeling, like certain shots were missing. Nothing huge, just small insert shots during action sequences. As a result, things often feel jerky and chaotic, two qualities that you don’t want in your action scenes, despite what anyone tells you.

But back to the script. Even with the burden of new characters to support, Age of Ultron bears the signs of a lot of hasty re-writes, missing scenes, and other behind the scenes problems. Plot beats will feel either unnecessary or like they aren’t there when they should be.

I completely believe it when I hear that this flick has like an hour of extra footage that got left on the cutting room floor for time. It feels like there’s a lot of connective tissue missing, which makes it feel rushed and disjointed overall. Sort of similar to that editing problem I mentioned. It isn’t smooth or streamlined in even the vaguest sense and while the plates more or less are kept spinning, they aren’t kept in the air with anything I’d call grace.

Age of Ultron WidowBut then again, there’s a lot to like. The dialogue is quick and snappy with Whedon’s trademark landslide of zingers and jokes, and there are enough fanboy geekout moments that I giggled like a child on numerous occasions. James Spader’s Ultron is a treat to watch, playing that old “serious villain who occasionally breaks character for a snarky one-liner” fiddle so hard the strings superheat and melt through the Earth’s crust.

Series regulars like Chris Evans, Robert Downey and Chris Hemsworth all feel comfortable and at home in their roles, trading jibes and kicking ass just like we expect them to. The action scenes work as much as they feel cluttered and busy, and there are some great action beats in there. There’s a great little sub-plot with Hawkeye, too, the only downside of which is that it makes any hope of an adaptation of the wonderful version of the character that Matt Fraction wrote in his fan-favorite Hawkeye series basically impossible.

Everything you liked about Avengers is back for the sequel, and it feels just as much like pure nerd-porn as ever. It’s just messier nerd-porn, nerd porn that’s maybe taking on too much and flying too close to the sun. It needs less of everything, less script, characters, maybe even take out an action scene if it means giving the thing some more breathing room.

In the spectrum of the Marvel Studios canon, Age of Ultron sits somewhere in the middle. It has enough fun to put it above the solidly “meh” entries like Thor: The Dark World, Incredible Hulk and the Iron Man sequels, but it is bogged down by enough script issues that it it gets left in the dust by the proud, magnificent stallions of Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the first Avengers.

As a start to Summer Movie Season, it does what you want it to, delivering fun and laughs, but I have a feeling Age of Ultron is already set to be overshadowed as the king of 2015 blockbusters……

A good friend of mine sold me on The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears as a modern throwback to Giallo horror films: Italian-made flicks usually from the 70s and 80s known for their lurid sexuality, rampant stylization and plots usually so batshit insane, you could use them as high-quality fertilizer and produce roses red enough to inflame the passions of the most prudent of stuffy librarians.

These kinds of throwbacks and homages are something I usually struggle with, because, even when a movie manages to perfectly emulate an older style or genre, my question is then “Ok, now what?” It’s great if you can produce a film that looks exactly like a 70s grindhouse ‘sploitation movie, but if I wanted that, I would just watch the genuine article. If you’re going to emulate something it should be for a reason – throw a clever deconstruction in there, or at the very least some kind of commentary or message.

Strange Color posterI still can’t decide if The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears breaks this rule or not, to be honest. If anything, I think the film succeeds almost as a satire of Giallo’s stylistic excesses by taking them to such an extreme that the film becomes a surrealistic barrage on the senses. It constantly bombards you with formal devices and stylistic quirks until it becomes akin to the last fight scene in The Raid: an exhausting, mind-numbing exercise in lack of restraint. In this, the film is extremely divisive, and reviews either sing it as a stirring tribute to Giallo or an un-watchable, pretentious mess.

For my part, I’m on the fence. On the one hand, it is at times superbly atmospheric, and has some really beautiful camera work, sets, and imagery. On the other hand, the film has absolutely zero stylistic restraint, hitting you with every device and quirk it can think of, funky angles, colored lighting, split screen, zooms, rotating images, kaleidoscope effects, and practically the whole thing is shot in extreme close-ups, usually of someone’s eye. Oddly enough, though, there wasn’t a split-focus diopter shot. It does have all or at least most of the typical Giallo trappings, but the styler overall is turned up past eleven an into some theoretical number that modern math hasn’t reached yet.

The plot, for its part, is prettymuch Giallo through and through. After our protagonist, Dan, returns home to find his wife missing, he begins investigating her disappearance himself, with a stern police detective on his heels who himself suspects Dan of foul play. While searching for clues. Dan comes across the strange denizens of the apartment building where he lives, most of whom feel the need to relate their own tale of woe, which all could be the plots of Giallo films in themselves.

And I’m sure it all means… Something. The film flits in and out of being full-on impressionistic, with an almost nightmare logic of repetition and visual double-speak. There’s some kind of plot involving a secret S&M/murder club behind the walls and the police inspector possibly being traumatized by having seen a vagina as a small boy (Shock! Horror!) and if you were to watch it with a group of friends everyone would probably have a completely different idea about who or what the killer turned out to be in the end. I kept imploring the film to drop me some kind of hint about just what the hell was actually going on, but whenever I did I felt like it met me with a condescending European sneer and called me a boorish oaf before continuing on it’s merry, oblique way.

So if you’re into movies that leave you with clear, concise answers about what exactly it is you just saw, this one may not be for you, since it’s honestly about as impenetrable as a concrete wall. A very well-adorned concrete wall, mind.

Strange Color insert

If nothing else, the film replicates the (stereo)typical look of over-designed everything in Giallo films. There isn’t a single window that isn’t a big, rounded, stained-glass art installation, not a single door handle that isn’t carved to look like a tree branch or a cleverly disguised phallus. The mise-en-scene is about as striking and in-your-face as the formal elements are, so you can’t say the film is inconsistent at least.

But the problem is that it’s all just too damn much. I kept begging the film to slow down, take a breather, maybe have some nice, simple shot-reverse-shot, maybe a simple pan, anything other than the storm of clever cuts and lurid frames it keeps going for almost the entire film. As much as I can appreciate the atmosphere and how visually striking the film can be at times, it’s just an overload that goes too hard on the visuals, the narrative obliqueness, the… everything.

It gets to the point that you can’t see the trees for the forest, in a manner of speaking, and every stylistic element is jostling with each other for our attention so much that the whole thing just becomes a blur, and an exceptionally unintelligible blur at that.

While I do think The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears is interesting, it’s more interesting as an example of rampant excess than anything else. Which is a shame because if that style were toned down significantly and maybe just a tiny bit more transparency added to the story, we’d have a pretty fun, atmospheric little Giallo throwback on our hands, something akin to Berberian Sound Studio, maybe. As it is we’re just left with an example of how do over-do something, and I learned that the last time I tried to make a grilled cheese sandwich and wound up with a new doorstop, thank you very much.

With the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, summer movie season has officially begun. It’s one of my favorite times of the year, because one of the kinds of movies I like best, and feel most comfortable and confident assessing critically, is being catapulted at audiences worldwide like flaming boulders at an invading barbarian army.

With one hand, I shall smite the unworthy like a vengeful God, denouncing their crass, dumb boorishness. With the other, I shall hold aloft the chosen ones, the examples that prove that not all summer blockbusters are crass, dumb and boorish.

Over these offerings shall I sit in judgment, a stern but fair arbiter, sorting the wheat from the chaff, the worthy from the unworthy.

But until then, there’s fuck-all for me to watch. Nothing in the theatres, nothing new on Blu-Ray. So this week, I present to you a desperation move: Nightflyers, a frankly godawful 80s sci-fi horror flick that has fallen into such obscurity that even I hadn’t heard of it until recently. It has, thankfully, been uploaded to YouTube, in a sign that not even the film’s copyright holders could be bothered to give even the smallest fraction of a shit.

So what’s the hook, then? What makes this bargain-bin fodder worth digging up?

nightflyers posterGeorge R.R. Martin. Yes, that’s right. Nightflyers is based on a novella by a pre-Game of Thrones Martin. How much it has in common with the source material is something I’ve yet to find out, but let’s take a look and see if Nightflyers is something Game of Thrones fans or general Martin devotees should look into.

Our protagonists are a crew of scientists en route to the supposed site of a mysterious alien entity. To get there, they’re aboard the Nightflyer, a cargo ship captained and crewed by one man, Royd, who appears to them via hologram. While Royd and Miranda, who is one of the scientists, are striking up a relationship/potential romance, several mysterious incidents take place as the scientists learn more and more about Royd and the Nightflyer’s strange past.

Those watching Nightflyers expecting a work covered in Martin’s signature moves and motifs, or what the popularity of Game of Thrones has made him known for at least, will probably be disappointed. There’s nary a gratuitous sex scene or naked woman to be seen anywhere, so Last Starfighter fans looking for Catherine Mary Stewart to show some skin are bound for a let-down. None of your favorite characters die, but that’s more because the characters are, on a whole, so bland and underdeveloped that picking a favorite would be like picking your favorite shade of off-white paint.

Not that anyone’s that bad – the cast is actually all right, with appearances by John Standing, who would play Jon Arryn’s corpse years later on Game of Thrones, and The Shredder/Uncle Phil himself, the sadly departed James Avery. But none of them ever registers something as ambitious as a real personality. The closest we get is Miranda, Catherine Mary Stewart’s character, who initially gets set up as an Ellen Ripley style badass before becoming a fairly generic and agency-devoid female lead in the second half.

The closest thing to a Martin-ism is when Royd is revealed to be the gender-swapped clone of the Nightflyer’s previous captain, intended to be her son/companion/lover. Oh there you are, George! Wasn’t sure you were gonna show up, and really the intention of incest (or clone-cest in this case) must be the George R.R. Martin equivalent of a quick Stan Lee cameo in a Marvel movie. Just a quick hello to remind you what you’re watching.

Nightflyers insert

As a George R.R. Martin property, Nightflyers only bears the faintest stamp of what Thrones fans would recognize as his thumbprint, so for the most part Nightflyers is forced to survive not as a Martin property but as one of the countless 80s space-horror movies that sprung up in the wake of Ridley Scott’s Alien.

And in that regard, boy does it suck. It definitely has that “adapted from a book, or novella in this case” feeling, with hints of a much larger and more developed universe occasionally popping in to tantalize us with the promise of something more interesting than what we’ve got here, which is mostly a cramped, poorly paced slog. Plot points will come out of nowhere, you’ll think you’re seeing the climax on at least three occasions, and the whole alien entity thingy that the movie initially seemed to be about quickly gets forgotten for an oh-so-original rogue spaceship AI plot, with a slightly Freudian twist.

Stewart narrates a lot of it in this dry monotone, like she was auditioning for Metroid: Other M a few decades too early, and even if she had put a bit more nuance into the performance, narration is something that rarely works in movies for me. It almost always feels like a cheap way to deliver exposition without having to weave it into dialogue organically. There are exceptions, obviously, but I can’t think of many.

If the film has one feather in its cap, it’s the set designs and effects, which are rather nice. Though, admittedly, the low-quality Youtube version probably did the film’s visuals a lot of favors. The sets have a sort of artsy, surrealistic vibe to them, lots of backlighting and flowing panels and such. There’s a tiny bit of makeup and gore action going on, the best effect probably being when the prissy British psychic has his head exploded by a laser.

There’s a reason you’ve never heard of Nightflyers. In the face of other, slightly more interesting Alien ripoffs like Forbidden World, Creature or Christ even Critters fucking 4, it isn’t hard to see why this thing never went anywhere. I mean jeez, at least Creature had Klaus Kinski in it for God only know what reasons. It’s very likely that in the next few years some company like Shout! Factory will pick up the rights to Nightflyers and re-release it, with “From the Creator of Game of Thrones!” on the cover, but I’d give it a pass unless you’re a hardcore Martin devotee or just a fan of really unremarkable 80s sci-fi horror.

The idea of a film festival that specializes in animated films is something I think a lot of people could get behind. It seems like more animation studios open up locally every day, and there’s certainly enough enthusiasts of the animated arts around that they alone should make the idea a no-brainer.

Though I didn’t get to spend as much time as I wanted to at Le Miaff, the Montreal International Animation Film Festival, what I saw both in terms of content and organization impressed me, and really the only major disappointment of the weekend was the number of empty seats I saw in screenings. It’s my hope that this will change in future years, and that Le Miaff will only grow in scale and attendance.

In the mean time, the fest’s second iteration showcased a lot of great films and shorts, so let’s take a look at what you missed.

Chaperone posterThe Chaperone

Like you see in a lot of other fests, feature screenings at MIAFF were often preceded by a short film, and one of the highlights both of the shorts selection and the fest as a whole was Fraser Munden and Neil Rathbone’s award-winning short The Chaperone.

The true story of a school dance that erupted into a full-on brawl, The Chaperone is one of those films for which the words “dizzying” and “kaleidoscope” can be aptly applied. To say nothing of “fun”, “awesome” and “kickass.” The short is a mixture of styles, telling the story of a violent confrontation between teachers and a gang of unruly bikers in rotoscope animation, live action, puppetry and even a little stop motion for flavor.

The film is in many ways a tribute to how much creativity, variety and flare you can cram into ten minutes or so, and there’s a pure joy for the medium on display that is honestly rare to see. A lot of the other shorts I saw were so dead-set on being thought-provoking and artful, The Chaperone‘s sense of joy and playfulness with not just storytelling but the very mediums it was working with was refreshing in the extreme. I spent the entire screening with a smile on my face and led the applause when it was over, that that really says it all.

108 Demon Kings

While most of the films at MIAFF were either dramatic or comedic in nature, 108 Demon Kings stood out as really the only action-adventure film, which is what drew me in. Don’t get me wrong, laughs and human drama are always good, but sometimes you just want to watch one dudes kicking each other in the head for an hour and a half.

In the tradition of classic Shaw Bros martial arts dramas, 108 Demon Kings is a kung-fu epic set in ancient China that tells the story of a plot to seize power, thwarted by a band of outlaws each sporting their own unique weapons and fighting styles. Plot wise, it delivers pretty much everything you’d want, action, comedy, and kung-fu treachery in generous proportions.

The problem, however, is the animation. 108 Demon Kings is a mix of 2D, 3D and live action, with environments mostly made up of cell-animated drawings, with characters brought to life by actors in full costume, with their heads and faces replaced with CGI animations. And. It’s. CREEPY.

There’s something deeply unnerving about a stylized CGI head on what is clearly a normal human body, in an uncanny valley kind of way. Oftentimes the movements of the actors will seem disconnected from what their faces are doing. Add in some not-amazing dubbing, and it often feels like the characters heads are on one page, their bodies on another, and their voices in another library two towns over. I don’t know why the creators of the film chose this particular style, but it drags the whole movie down and makes for an experience that was often more distracting and unsettling than it should have been.

Magic Train poster

Magic Train

Le Miaff’s programming schedule boasted films from all corners of the globe, with Joe Chang’s Magic Train coming out of China. The film is really a collection of shorts, told around a loose framing story of a young girl on a train bound for who-knows-where.

Like The Chaperone, Magic Train is an eclectic mix of styles and moods. One minute things can be cell-animated and deadly serious, the next it can be CGI and much more playful, and it’s really this variety that works best for Magic Train. It serves mostly as a showcase for the scope and variety of Chinese animation, that it isn’t really a genre in and of itself like anime, but rather that it can play to a whole score of different tempos and styles.

The downside to that is that not all of the shorts in the film are great, and there are definite high and low points. But then that’s usually the case in anthology films. But I’m pleased to say that Magic Train is contains more high than low, and will probably get you interested in Chinese animated films enough that you’ll start searching for more.

Tarzoon: Shame of the Jungle

Very few film festivals go without at least one controversial entry, and Tarzoon is about intent on creating controversy as any film I’ve ever seen. A relic of 60s animation, Tarzoon is an early example of adult animation, though I’m not sure “adult” is the word I’d use for it. The film is in many ways one long, drawn out dick joke. Not even a joke, really, just a series of reminders that dicks are a thing that exist. The humor on display is about as low-brow as one can imagine, and absolutely not everyone’s cup of tea. Myself included, if we’re being honest.

I think Tarzoon functions best as a relic more than a film. It’s a record of the comedic stylings of 1960s France and Belgium, a kind of museum piece that demonstrates what low brow cartooning was before Mad Magazine and Family Guy. In that, it’s a success, and an interesting thing to see. But view at your own risk.

Whenever a new horror film comes out and starts garnering rave reviews from people in the know, my reaction is usually to have my eyebrow thrust skyward with the force of an Apollo rocket. I’m not generally a fan of modern horror movies, which is to say I hold them in the same regard as I do garden slugs or Jake Busey. And yet, people kept telling me I HAD to see It Follows, an indie horror film with a killer hook and great execution, that it would turn me around on modern horror movies and restore my faith.

It didn’t.

It isn’t bad, the hook is definitely killer and it has some interesting formal elements as well. But it’s also a bit muddled, tries to be retro and modern at the same time, and, for my money, doesn’t go deep enough with its central idea.

It followes posterThe hook is pretty simple: the monster is an STD. After a round of the old backseat boogaloo with her boyfriend, teenager Jay finds herself pursued by a mysterious entity that appears as normal people, sometimes people she knows, walking steadily towards her with a glassy stare. The entity can appear at any time and if it catches you, as the now ex-boyfriend tells her, it kills you. The only way to get rid of it is to sleep with someone else, passing it on to them.

As horror movie hooks go, it’s direct, simple, and clever. STD’s have always been sort of lurking in the subtext of a lot of horror movie monsters, and It Follows is one of the few I can think of to come out and take the sexual/disease element out of the shadows and make it part of the actual text of the film rather than subtext.

Similarly, the monster itself, if it can even be called that, is extremely simple. No fangs, no claws, no jumping out and going “arglebargle” (except for one scene), just someone that no one else can see walking towards you with a blank expression, carrying with them the subtle implication that if they catch you, that’s your ass. I tend to find stuff like that scarier than the usual jump scares, and indeed It Follows can be damn chilling at times.

The problems really are in the execution. The film seems to be sorta going for a retro vibe, very much in the vein of classic Wes Craven or John Carpenter. The film could – almost – be set in the 70s, everyone drives old cars and watches 40s sci-fi movies, at one point the characters go to a movie in this gorgeous old movie palace with a live organist, and modern conveniences like cell phones are almost totally absent. The soundtrack is even this actually really good synth affair.

The problem is that the 70s affectation feels sorta half-assed. In the face of all the retro-isms, this one character (a completely pointless one who could have been cut from the movie entirely at almost zero consequence) is always reading on this weird clamshell e-reader. The photography is also extremely crisp and modern looking, which often puts the look and sound of the film at odds. Whenever that retro soundtrack kicks in I thought to myself “Wow that sounds awesome. But it doesn’t fit what I’m looking at at all”. Perhaps had they gone full House of the Devil and made it look convincingly like a 70s horror movie, as well as sound like one, this discrepancy could have been avoided.

It Follows insertOn the subject of photography, the camera work is very deliberate, with a recurring motif of 360-degree pans, but I still can’t quite tell if they worked for me or not. On the one hand, it’s nice to see a film pay enough attention to its camera work to even have a motif; on the other hand, the recurring pans felt a bit over-used and heavy handed.

On the scripting side of things, It Follows often feels muddied and in need of some refining. There’s that aforementioned pointless character, and I got this nagging sense that the film never quite knew what it wanted to say on the heady issue it was engaging with.

It Follows had a really great opportunity to say something really important and profound about the way we deal with STD and STI sufferers as a society, and while it is true that the film can be seen as a statement about how we demonize them, I kept waiting for the film to go that extra allegorical step.

The movie also sorta betrays itself in certain ways, especially during one scene where the monster’s existence is made plain to Jay’s friends after it sneaks up behind her and grabs her hair (in a kind of lame looking effect) and throws the resident beta male out of the way. Admittedly the old ‘is she really just crazy’ shtick is a bit played out, but I think the film might have functioned better over all if it focused on Jay’s private battle instead of surrounding her with a Scooby Gang of friends, highlighting the stigma of isolation and shame that STD sufferers still face all too often.

So is It Follows everything it’s cracked up to be? Probably not. It wades half-heartedly into the retro aesthetic pool, but its unwillingness to go all the way makes things like the Casio soundtrack and 70s paraphernalia more distracting than enjoyable. Similarly it feels as though the film just doesn’t go deep enough with the STD allegory it seems to be trying to be, and as such feels more exploitative than profound. Not that there isn’t room for exploitation, but with the hype this film was garnering I was frankly expecting more.

Hype is probably this film’s worst enemy, really, and I think once the chorus of praise that currently surrounds It Follows dies down and people can just stumble upon it with no expectations of brilliance, it will be more able to make an impression on people.

It took me a while to warm up to the Fast and the Furious series, and even now I’m not sure why I’ve come to begrudgingly enjoy them, or at least some of them. I mean – they aren’t good. There are better car chase movies, better fight movies, better ensemble casts. And yet I went to the latest installment, Furious 7, on its first week in theaters. I’ve become a fan of the series, somehow. I’ve come to like some of the characters. I’ve learned to appreciate the ever-bigger car related action sequences. I’ve drank the Kool-Aid, basically, and this week I plunked myself down for another cup. And I enjoyed myself, if we’re being honest. But also if we’re being honest, Furious 7 is still only a decent action ride, bogged down by a trainwreck of a script and saved mostly by some great action sequences and fun performances. It isn’t the worst action film I’ve seen this year, nor is it the perfect-ten a lot of my peers are saying. It’s just a fun enough action movie with a lot of the same problems the series has always suffered from.

The action starts almost immediately after the finale of Furious 6, with Deckard Shaw, the brother of Furious 6 baddie Owen Shaw, vowing revenge on Dom Torreto’s crew for putting his baby bro in traction. After FINALLY catching the timeline up with Tokyo Drift, killing series regular Han, Deckard sets his sights on the rest of the crew.

Furious 7 posterBut then Kurt Russel’s mystery G-Man, Mr. Nobody, shows up with an entirely different plot in tow and tasks Dom and the gang with retrieving a computer program called God’s Eye. The hacker then can control it, with the idea that Dom takes it out of the hands of some baddies and then uses it to track down Deckard.

So for reasons that should be obvious, Furious 7 clearly went through a whole whack of what we can only assume were major script revisions partway through shooting. While the reasons were entirely understandable, the result is still a goddamn terrible script. What starts off as a basic Dom vs. baddie with a revenge motive kinda deal suddenly morphs into this entirely different storyline when Russel’s character literally drops into the movie with a whole new plotline that feels like it was probably taken from a spec script for Furious 8. From then on, the whole middle of the thing feels like watching two plotlines wrestle, as Dom & co. track down the God’s Eye program, with Shaw occasionally just popping up to go “Oi! I’m in this movie, too, you forget about me?” It’s this ugly, shambling Frankenstein monster of a plot where motivations can change from scene to scene and we’re never quite sure what everyone’s endgoal is.

One minute Michelle Rodriguez’s character is giving this big impassioned speech and, by all appearances, walking out of the movie to “go find herself,” then she just shows up again three scenes later like nothing happened. One minute Dom’s only goal is to protect his family and the next he’s off on some completely unrelated fetch-quest that came right the heck outta nowhere. It’s all over the damn place, and while I’m sure the scriptwriters did the best they could with the bad situation they were put in, the long and short of it is that the script feels like several different story ideas stitched together, and badly.

To the film’s credit though, it does still do a remarkably good job balancing the ever-expanding cast of characters, and everyone gets at least one scene to add to their sizzle reel. Ronda Roussey gets a decent fight in, The Rock gets some fantastic scenes and one liners, adding to the demand that his character just get his own damn movie already, and Tony Jaa’s character… Actually, sorry can I take a moment aside for a second?

Furious 7 tony


How the bloody hell did it take TWELVE YEARS for Tony Jaa to show up as the designated martial-arts henchman in an American action movie? Or in an American action movie in ANY capacity? Did he just not want to do any before? Because seriously, when the movie lets him do his thing, he kicks a lot of ass, and if this is the start of him finally getting more roles and recognition here in the west, I am all the way aboard.

Ok, anyway, back to the review proper.

The one sad exception to the decent handling of the characters is Lucas Black’s cameo as his character from Tokyo Drift, which is noteworthy mostly for how he literally ages ten years in between shots. It’s too bad, I kinda like the dude for some reason and I hope the reports of him getting a bigger role in future installments prove to be true.

Another thing a lot of people have been remarking about is how respectful and mature the film is about the departure of Paul Walker from the series and addressing the specter of his death that hangs over virtually every frame of the film. Without spoiling anything, it’s all pretty true. Walker’s departure from the franchise is done about as respectfully as you can imagine, and his send-off is, if nothing else, extremely earnest, heartfelt and well-handled.

Furious 7 rock

Furious 7 delivers what we’ve come to expect from a Fast and the Furious movie at this point: car stunts and chases galore, most of them done in practical effects and a soundtrack that punishes speaker system with a cacophony of explosions and engine revs like Christian Grey for electronics equipment. There’s extended montages of scantily clad bodies in exotic locales, delivered with the furious editing of a rap video, and at least 10 per cent of the shots in the film start on some anonymous woman’s ass as she goes about her business. You get what you were expecting, in other words.

However, we need to be honest with ourselves that it still isn’t great. The script is a nightmare – a nightmare with an understandable origin, but a nightmare nonetheless. The stunt sequences rank as some of the best in the series, however, and a lot of the stuff at the periphery is a lot of fun. However, Furious 7 still comes across as a bit of a mess structurally, just a mess with some genuinely fun stuff haphazardly nailed to it.

Roundabouts six months ago, a friend and I set out to see Luc Besson’s Lucy during its theatrical run. We hadn’t seen each other in a while and were chatting so merrily that we accidentally went to the wrong theatre.

When we found out our mistake, we shrugged it off and decided to sit through Woody Allen’s empty confectionery Magic in the Moonlight instead. The less said about that one, the better.

For a long time after, I didn’t have much interest in going back and giving Lucy a watch, under the sneaking suspicion that that anecdote would prove to be more interesting than the movie itself. But after hearing that it wasn’t actually that bad, I decided to take a look.

Surprisingly, Lucy did turn out to be more interesting than the story behind that mishap. The problem is that while Lucy is definitely interesting, it’s mostly interesting for how it fails.

Scarlett Johansson stars as the titular Lucy, a woman who receives superpowers after the bag of drugs smuggled in her abdomen ruptures. Yes, Lucy is perhaps the first movie in history about how drug smuggling leads to God-like power and the reshaping of human knowledge. I guess we really are running out of ways to give people superpowers, but turning Maria Full of Grace into a sci-fi action thriller seems like an odd way to go.

Lucy posterAfter being forced to smuggle a bag of a new designer drug, the bag leaks massive amounts of the drug into Lucy’s body, causing her to unlock previously unused portions of her brain, first turning her into a hyper-intelligent killing machine with perfect control of her own body, and eventually into a powerful psychokinetic who can do basically whatever the script calls for. So it starts out as La Femme Nikita and ends up as Akira.

Even in a genre movie landscape where Marvel movies regularly bend the laws of plausibility and physics over a chair and go to town like it’s the last day of spring break, Lucy feels like an anachronism in just how much it’s built on science so soft you could melt it on a broken radiator.

Like that Bradley Cooper thing from a few years back, Lucy is built around the whole “humans only use ten percent of their brain” thing, and while I’m usually perfectly fine accepting whatever made-up pseudo-science a genre movie can throw at me…..come on, really? We’ve known that that’s patently untrue for like a million years. But Besson and Morgan Freeman’s scientist character both seem perfectly fine believing that a human with just ten more percent of their brainpower can control radio waves or go into peoples’ memories, or change their hair color by sheer force of will.

Even for someone as indifferent to realism in movies as me, Lucy spends most of its run time straining my suspension of disbelief like my belt at a buffet. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a problem if Lucy didn’t seem to be trying to present itself as the next hard science genre odyssey, the next Interstellar but with more gunplay and Yakuza thugs.

It seems so convinced of itself, and while usually a movie playing the completely ridiculous with conviction is something I can get behind, in this case I was distracted by the sound of Neil Degrasse-Tyson having a breakdown just off screen.

And to add further problems, when Lucy essentially enters God-Mode in the second half or so, unlocking powers of telekinesis, omniscience and even bloody time travel, the movie seems to have no clue what to do with all the big ideas that it just dumped all over the table.

A new character is brought in to hang around Lucy for no reason that ever seems properly explained, solely because we need someone to be endangered now that Lucy can dispatch any threat with a flick of the wrist and we need a way to generate tension.

Lucy insert

The finale is meant to be some kind of epic, transcendental revelation about the nature of reality, the universe and everything, but it all feels like half-baked nonsense passed off as profound insight. Something about time being the only unit of measurement and one plus one not being two and a USB stick made out of stars.

And the thing that kinda bugs me more than anything else is that when Lucy isn’t trying to be so damn smart textually, it’s actually pretty damn fun formally at times. An early sequence actually uses symbolic editing, where non-contextual images are intercut with the action to create a kind of visual metaphor.

When bad guys are closing in on Lucy pre-transformation, Besson will cut to footage from a nature show of cheetahs stalking a gazelle. That’s interesting! That’s using editing techniques in ways that most mainstream blockbusters don’t, that’s using a different kind of toolset than we’re used to seeing!

Sure it may be a bit obvious, but it’s something new. Once in a while, Lucy will break out little formal touches like that that at least feel like someone was trying to bring something new to the table.

In a better movie, with a better script, little touches like that would have gone a long way, but in this case they just feel frustrating because they get swallowed up by a mediocre script bogged down by pretension and big ideas it has no idea how to handle or communicate properly.

Even though Lucy is, at the end of the day, something of a mess, I can’t fault it at least for being ambitious. I mean how many action thrillers from recent memory can you name that end up with the hero uncovering the secrets of the universe and becoming some kind of leggy super-diety?

And maybe with a better script, Lucy could have been something. But alas, all we’re left with is a confused jumble of ideas and action-set pieces occasionally lived up by some formal charm or decent effects work.

For a long time I believed, elitist scum that I was, that there are really two kinds of Ghibli movies: the ones Miyazaki himself did, and everything else. But really, I was wrong. There’s the ones Miyazaki did, the Isao Takahata ones, and everything else.

Takahata’s Ghibli movies aren’t really like any other Ghibli films, or any other anime movies in general. They have their own pace, their own mood, their own way of doing things. They’re almost uniformly not the kind of movies I’d recommend for kids, and not just because they’ve been known to involve the firebombing of Kobe and magical animal scrotums.

By the same coin, I think his films are the most likely of Ghibli’s repertoire to have trouble connecting with North American audiences. His latest film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, might just be the best example of this yet, a breathtakingly beautiful movie, but one I can’t shake the feeling won’t quite work for a lot of people.

After a bamboo cutter finds a tiny woman in a bamboo stalk not far from his home, he takes her home and presents the “princess” he has found to his wife. Shortly thereafter, the princess transforms into an infant child that the couple resolve to raise on their own.

Later on, the bamboo cutter finds gold and silks inside bamboo stalks in the same grove he found the girl, and decides that heaven is telling him that the girl must be raised as a true princess in a resplendent home in the city. He takes the girl and his family to Tokyo and she is trained as a lady and finds herself faced with suitors and increasing pressure from her father to enter high society, whether she wishes to or not (she doesn’t).

Princess Kaguya posterThe thing that will strike you about Princess Kaguya right from the start is that it’s just darn pretty. If this movie were the daughter of a wealthy businessman in The Stars My Destination, it would be shut in a windowless room in an undisclosed location for most of its life (shout out to my classic sci-fi peeps).

I’m not sure what you’d call the art style, somewhere between impressionistic and minimalist, modeled after emakimino, Japanese scroll stories and sort of a precursor to comics in a Scott McCloud kind of way. The extreme background will often be a blank white, figures will be minimally detailed, and the whole thing has this extremely hand drawn kind of look to it.

It’s incredibly striking, and a definite deviation from what Ghibli fans would recognize as their usual style. Like the narrative itself, it’s simple, effective, and beautiful in a disarming sort of way.

Speaking of the narrative, we’re in full-on fable/fairy tale mode here, which is where that disarming aspect comes in, and where I start to feel that some people may not be totally able to connect with the film. See, this is old-school fairy tale storytelling here. Characters will develop previously unmentioned superpowers like they were pre-crisis Superman, and the ending….well, I won’t spoil things, but odds are it won’t be the ending you expect, or the one you want.

Overall, it’s pretty melancholic as films go, slow paced and lyrical. Which isn’t a bad thing, by all means. If you can move to this film’s rhythm, it’ll take you on a hell of a dance. But I get the sense a lot of people won’t quite be able to match the tempo, and will end up sitting on the sidelines sipping punch with the chaperones.

For one thing, as I mentioned before, I wouldn’t really recommend it for kids. At least not most kids. If you’ve got an exceptionally patient, attentive, open-minded eight-to-ten year old, they’ll probably be able to watch it without falling asleep or fidgeting the whole time. Which again, is NOT a knock against the film, but against the attention span of the youth these days.

Princess Kaguya insert

But I think a lot of grownups are going to have trouble connecting with Princess Kaguya as well, and that’s not because of any fault of them or the film. I think North American audiences have a certain set of ingrained expectations about how fairy tales are supposed to feel and play out, blame Walt Disney if you must, but really it goes further back than that.

They expect clearer resolution, they expect clear cut heroes and villains, and especially these days, they expect it to move faster. Look, I don’t want to say that it’s “too foreign,” but let me put it this way: this definitely is a fable from a different culture, one with a different set of rules than what you’re going to expect coming at it from a North American perspective.

It’s gonna take turns that seem to abrupt to you, throw you sudden curve balls that dial up the culture shock and make it a bit hard to fully connect to the thing. I wouldn’t call it alienating, but I think it’s gonna throw people who aren’t as immersed in Japanese cultural norms when it comes to storytelling in myth and fable for a bit of a loop.

Even more so than Takahata’s other works, I think that The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a film I’d recommend more for anime and foreign cinema buffs than the kinds of people I usually direct towards Ghibli films, that being people looking for something to watch with their kids that’s a shade deeper than Disney or Dreamworks fare. And I wanna say for the umpteenth time that that isn’t a mark against the film, I just think it’s playing to a more specific audience than other Ghibli movies.

And that’s ok, we need more movies like that, broad appeal gets dull after a while. Just be forewarned that you’re getting into something a little different.

If you’re firmly a part of this film’s ideal audience, you’re in for a breathtakingly beautiful film. But sort of like Jim Jarmusch or Wes Anderson, I can appreciate that some people might just not be of the right mindset to appreciate what this film has to offer, not because something’s wrong with them, more because they’re walking to a different beat. If it were live action, it would be a Criterion Collection movie, and if you know what that means, there ya go.

I have a feeling that by starting his career on District 9, Neill Blomkamp may have done himself, and the rest of us for that matter, a bit of a disservice. After coming out of the gate with one of the most original, inventive, thoughtful, and just all-around good sci-fi films of the decade, Blompkamp followed up with Elysium. Elysium sucked. Mostly because it just wasn’t District 9. Where District 9 felt fresh and new, with a nuanced perspective and an interesting lead, Elysium felt like a collection of broad clichés, posing as an allegory for the wealth gap built around a shockingly generic turn by Matt Damon. The hope was that Elysium was a misstep, a slight stumble in what would otherwise be a great career for Blomkamp, and that he’d be back up to old form soon.

But now, with his new film Chappie receiving a critical paddling virtually across the board, we may have to accept a very uncomfortable truth: that Blomkamp was never the director we really wanted him to be, the golden boy who would deliver us a bright new future of intelligent, thought-provoking sci-fi that also kicked ass, finally cementing the idea that fun and intelligence aren’t mutually exclusive when it comes to sci-fi blockbusters. Because as you may have heard, Chappie isn’t great. Just like Elysium, it strings together a collection of shallow observations and allegories with a fairly dull collection of performances, with the mechanical designs and effects being the only thing worth remarking on.

chappie-posterA few years into the future, a brand-spanking new robotic police force is rolled out onto the streets of Joburg, bringing down crime rates and bringing up “cliched monotone robot voice” rates. The creator of the robots, played by Dev Patel, isn’t satisfied however, and imbues a busted robot with true AI, creating a thinking, feeling robot named Chappie. Of course, this all happens at the same time as Patel being kidnapped by a trio of criminals played by South African rave rappers Die Antwoord, whose influence throws Chappie’s future into question. While all this is happening, Hugh Jackman lurks around in the shadows, plotting Chappie’s downfall.

Given the film’s pedigree, I went in expecting Chappie to at least offer something approximating a discussion on the dangers, ethical and otherwise, of creating a truly sentient AI. But then again, I could walk into a Burger King expecting haute quisine, too. The problem is that all the elements are totally there for Chappie to actually be the nuanced look at a loaded topic I want it to be. Prince Zuko is totally set up to be the idealistic dreamer who creates something without fully considering the consequences of ethical ramifications of his actions. He even panics, and tries to control Chappie when the reality of what he’s done dawns on him. But at no point does he acknowledge that he may have acted in haste, that maybe he should have slept on it, or written a pros and cons list for bringing about the greatest technological achievement since the invention of the wheel.

By the same coin, Wolverine could totally have had legitimate fears and concerns over Chappie’s creation, because after all the prospect of an AI a billion times more intelligent than a human and capable of unraveling fundamental secrets of life with a stack of Playstations is pretty goddamn scary. But the only reason he hates Chappie, and all of Slumdog’s robots is that their development cuts into the funding of his own robot, an ED-209 ripoff controlled by VR. He never has a legitimate or understandable viewpoint, he’s just some mean Australian dude who got screwed out of some money.

No real questions are raised, no issues are addressed or ethical quandaries grappled with, just another noble, lovable robot messiah who faces down two-dimensional evil with catchphrases and childlike naivete.

Chappie insert

Maybe I wouldn’t be so cynical about Chappie, if it weren’t also littered almost as much Sony product placement as The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I mean, thank GOD Chappie had the amazing processing power of the Playstation 4 and the intuitively designed Sony Vaio laptop to help him discover the secrets of consciousness. Without these fine products, that evil, multinational mega-corp would have won out over individuality and free thought! Thankfully, Chappie doesn’t lean too hard on any kind of anti-corporate message, otherwise the product placement would have made the whole thing feel more disingenuous than my OKCupid profile.

But on the topic of commercial products dropped into the movie for no real reason… Why is Die Antwoord in this movie? I mean, really. They even go by their stage names, and are basically just playing versions of, what I assume, are already their Joburg gangster personas, and given the fact that they also provide a healthy chunk of the soundtrack, Chappie often ends up feeling like one of those high-concept music video movie album things, like Interstella 5555 something Kanye West would do.

As an action movie, it works well enough. Guns get shot in slow-motion, things explode, but the thing is that Blomkamp has set me up to ask that his movies be more than just action fests. District 9 had ideas, it had allegories, it had interesting and nuanced characters, it addressed the social ramifications of its central idea. Chappie never dares to go as deep, content to wade in the ideological kiddie pool. It even has the gaul to make motions toward some kind of religious allegory, carefully positioning Chappie and Sonny Kapoor into theological positions, with Chappie pointedly asking his creator why he was put in a body that will soon break down and die. But the problem is they never go anywhere with it, they never take it anyplace interesting.

“See, see!?” says the film, “The troubled relationship between Chappie and his creator is just like the theological questions grappled with by people of faith!” “Well great, movie”, says the audience, “Where you gonna take this next then?” At which point the film gives a panicked stare and goes “Oooh look Chappie’s got a rubber chicken isn’t it cute?!”

What happened, man? What happened to that horizon we were promised in 2009, of awesome sci-fi movies with intelligence and wicked cool action? What happened to the guy who was gonna deliver us from Avatar, and Michael Bay’s Transformers? Did we just put District 9 and Blomkamp on a pedestal they weren’t ready for? Would we be kinder to Chappie and even Elysium if they weren’t standing in the shadow of their predecessor? Maybe on all counts. But whatever the case may be, Chappie still doesn’t amount to a very good movie. As more than a couple of critics have suggested, just watch Short Circuit and the Robocop remake back to back and save yourself the let-down.

I’ve probably lamented before that we live in a film culture (and really, a culture in general) where novelty is a commodity. We crave new ideas, new takes, seek out new angles like a geometry professor who wants to be famous, but realized too late that he picked the wrong field for that.

This is why when someone like me hears the phrase “Iranian vampire movie,” we make that little interested noise that normal people make when they hear “free booze” or “willing sexual partner.” And make no mistake, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is interesting, not really because it’s the first vampire movie to come out of Iran, but because it is in layman’s terms “holy moly hot dippity damn where have you been all my life GOOD.”

Sheila Vand stars as a mysterious unnamed vampire stalking the streets of an Iranian city who crosses paths with Arash, a wayward kid with a junkie dad and a penchant for dressing like James Dean. Really, it goes where you would expect, the two fall in love (or something approximating love) while Arash’s life crumbles, in part due to the girl herself. Really, the love story aspect of the thing is secondary to the interwoven arcs of Arash, the girl, and several other assorted lost souls.

So right off the bat, Girl Walks Home is pretty. This isn’t director Ana Lily Amirpour’s first rodeo, but it is her first feature, and damn can this woman shoot a scene. The camera glides around in smooth, beautiful long takes, never obtrusive but never idle.

The lighting, oh dear sweet lord, the lighting. The film is a symphony of light and shadow, with some achingly beautiful shots lit with such flair and precision that the shadows are basically a character in their own right.

It reminds me a lot of early Jarmusch, around the era of Stranger than Paradise or Down by Law, and not just because of the sexy black and white. There’s a poetry to the imagery in this film, this delicious quality that results in virtually every frame being a work of art in itself, and people are probably gonna be dissecting it for years. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tony Zhou were doing an Every Frame a Painting video on it in the near future, and he’s gonna have a lot to work with.

The cast is technically an ensemble, but really this is Sheila Vand’s show, and she owns every second of it. I don’t think I’ve seen another actor in recent memory who has such a flair for subtlety of expression. With just the oval of her face and the barest of eye, brow and mouth movements she can move from predatory hunger, sorrow, malevolence, and ecstasy.

She’s at once beguiling and alien, an outsider looking in. It’s a masterful performance, in every sense. The other actors all do terrific jobs, but the whole thing really hinged on Vand’s performance, and thankfully she blows it out of the water.

Another thing that reminded me of Jarmush is how important music is to the film. A Girl Walks Home has already gotten a lot of attention for its music, and deservedly so. The score is this wonderful fusion of gothic, spaghetti western and pop/rock.

A lot like the camera work, it’s flexible, soaring when it needs to into Morricone inspired horns and choirs, and other times mellowing out into thumping minimalist beats. And for all that variety, it always works. It never feels out of place or ill-fitting.

The hype around the film has really come from its cultural roots. People don’t bring this movie up as a cool vampire movie, but rather a cool Iranian vampire movie. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. But one of the things I like most is that the film itself doesn’t fully take part in this.

While the film wouldn’t function nearly as well if it were completely taken out of its cultural context, it doesn’t trade on its cultural origins. It doesn’t bank on exoticism, which would have easily led to it feeling exploitative or tacky.

It’s an Iranian film, yes, but it’s more concerned with being a horror film, a film about fathers and sons, about culture, about youth, about love. The film gained hype for being Iranian, but when you really watch it you realize that the novelty of its origins aren’t something the film is at all interested in capitalizing in.

And really, it’s deeply unfair to qualify this as an Iranian vampire movie. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a vampire movie, a fantastic one, one that is also Iranian.

Would the film function as well were it set somewhere else? No, probably not. There’s doubtlessly scads of subtext and allegory packed into this thing that I didn’t pick up on. But it functions magnificently whether you pick up on that or not.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is playing at Cinema du Parc right now as of the time of this posting. If you’re a film buff, regardless of whether or not horror or genre films are your bag, you need to go and see this. This is fantastic, beautifully executed film making, rich with meaning and achingly, magnificently cool.