IR Film Review: SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2018 [Park City]

The texture of Sundance lies in its diversity. While not as independent as before with the likes of Amazon, IFC and Netflix permeating the ranks, the voices still ring true although maintaining the mystery takes a little more intention.

The Death Of Stalin The basis of the end of Stalin here finds its tone in the aspect of a comic book which gives the characters a heightened sense of style. Of course the aspect that the film is in English with English speaking actors is the first adjustment. Once that suspension is accepted, the farcical nature of the power struggles take on an almost sardonic tone. Steve Buscemi chews the scenery unlike recent memory with bald cap in full view. The language, which is again not period specific, turns the manipulation into a sarcastic ballad. Jeffrey Tambor uses his comedic relay to good foil as the Deputy Secretary. Michael Palin plays a subtly sharp member of the cabinet. Olga Kurylenko is underused as a piano player whose note causes a sense of unfolding in the ranks. However it is Simon Russell Beale as Berria, the largest manipulator of the bunch that gives the film a sense of groundedness and drama while furthering the comedy. Weirdly it is his misplaced or lack of compassion that makes his comeuppance work with a sense of the tragic and gives the film’s resolution its soul.

Wildlife Carey Mulligan has always been luminous but considering her penchant for period movies always can seen sometimes muted in her performances as a form of underplaying. Here it is brimming at the surface giving her performance a sense of both vivaciousness and dread. Her highs and downfall are beautifully tragic and poignant. The film, set in 1950s Montana but shot in Oklahoma, is directed by actor Paul Dano (“Little Miss Sunshine”, “There Will Be Blood”) and co-written by Dano and Zoe Kazan. That mixture truly makes both sides pop. Jake Gyllenhaal (also a producer), more rarely seen, gives the film completely to Mulligan, even though his trademark intensive nature comes to bear in some scenes. However this is Mulligan’s movie and one of her best to date (even considering “Mudbound”). Central to the story is the POV of Gyllenhaal & Mulligan’s son Joe (played by the exceptional Ed Oxenbould) as he watches the disintegration of an American family. The greatest aspect is that all the character’s actions seem organic if flawed…the feelings simple but complex.

Piercing As part of the Midnight selection, the twist or necessity of the concept is usually key. The concept of a serial killer in his mind, methodical and precise, predicates the idea of what is going on within this character’s head but there is something a bit more seductive going on here. Christopher Abbott plays killer Reed with the restrictive element of an obsessive compulsive ruled by voices. The reality is that you can’t tell if what is actually going on is real or in his head. Is the story a projection of what he wants to happen or simply an extension of that. As Jackie, Mia Wasikowska shows an innate darkness combined with a playfulness that keys to one of her first grown up roles. Like Elle Fanning in “Neon Demon”, the proof is in the layers and shows that an evolution is happening. The basis is a novel written by Ryu Murakami has certain fetishistic trappings for sure but the ideal is that these two adults may in fact want to do what they are doing and enjoy what is happening to them. Director Nicolas Pesce it seems sees this film in certain ways it like a Grindhouse movie though the edges are very slick and even the construct of the city is mired in artificiality. However the scene that sells it employs the 70s ballad “Bluer Than Blue” which more than speaks to the characters’ abject state of being.

Studio 54 While there have been movies made on the aspect of Studio 54. hearing it from one of the creators in Ian Schrager who along with Steve Rubell masterminded this “lightning in a bottle” club that still entrances NY to this day gives it much more credence. The music and certain club photos are unmistakeable but it is the rise and fall from power and the motivations, many of them are asked about head on of Shrager as well as of one of the silent partners that make this an interesting watch for fans of NY lore. The power structure and even the thinking, including the drug use and skimming, which is never fully admitted to on camera, hangs there in the ether. It was a time of excess where the idea of what 54 was seemingly got away from its creators. But in certain moments, despite anything behind the scenes, good or bad, there was a sense of euphoria. The small vintage interviews really define it…one being Rubell’s glee in hanging with two of the drag queens downstairs as well as an “Off The Wall” era Michael Jackson speaking candidly about being able to lose himself on the dance floor at 54. There was a genuine happiness and ease with Jackson in that moment which, considering his life, is a wonder to behold.

The Happy Prince Rupert Everett seemingly disappeared in many way from the screen after his late 90s surge including his films with Madonna and Julia Roberts. The immediate perception is that he sequestered away in Europe starring in theater but the effervescence in all he did is something missing from today’s character work…a balance of the comedic and the real. With “The Happy Prince” about the latter years of Oscar Wilde who was shamed because of his homosexual affairs and cast out of certain constructs of society because of his dalliance with a male royal, Everett, writing and directing as well, examines a man with a gentleness of heart who tried to deny the status quo. Everett’s Wilde is not a cautionary tale but merely a tale about someone with great talent wanting to live the life the way he wanted to without apologies. Again, the texture could be interpreted in that this is the way Wilde saw his life versus those he loved. Everett presents Wilde, warts and all, from singing on top of tables to his final moments telling stories painting ideas that only Wilde could. “The Happy Prince” is not a masterpiece but knows its subject through and through and tells his story with a generous amount of heart balanced with a layer of pain.

By Tim Wassberg


IR Film Review: MAZE RUNNER – THE DEATH CURE [20th Century Fox]

The essence of “The Maze Runner” folds into the idea of isolationism against all odds. What the trilogy and this part in particular points to is that only through sacrifice and loss can the true battles be won. Thomas may be the savior that possibly has the cure but it is those who ultimately push their lives to the breaking point that really shine. Thomas Brodie Sangster brings a soulfulness to Newt that even in dark moments seems to shine through. While melodrama does have possibility here, it is sometimes in lingering too long on a scene instead of simply letting it be. Rosa Salazar, former indie film darling, who takes on the mantle of “Alita: Battle Angel” next summer, plays in the background here but it is her unrequited love and allegiance for Thomas that shines through. Dylan O’Brien, like many Batman types before him, has to keep the plot flowing which is inextrictably linked to Teresa (Kaya Scodelario). While the path to absolution is not an easy one, the inclusion of certain break and run sequences while interesting in terms of action interplay adds little. The opening train rescue though keys in the best of Old Western with the new Fast & Furious mentality. Ultimately an ending for the saga, the epilogue speaks well to the reasoning of the trajectory though ultimately the balance of what it means to escape from The Glade is lost. Thomas is supposedly the Chosen One but is it just by fate or sheer will.


By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: DEADPOOL [20th Century Fox-IMAX]


The beauty of “Deadpool” is in the irony of its existence..and even further in its notion of success which it rightfully earned. It should have not happened like this…but it did. “Deadpool” is not a great movie but it hit it just right. It works because it loves what it is. It is both snarky and unbelievably honest. The script has faults and the third act is fairly weak but Ryan Reynolds is a force of will where this character is concerned because he knows the thoughts of Wade Wilson in and out. It is about making fun of your own shortcomings. And that shows why Ryan is ultimately awesome and unbelievable deserving of this. Like “Guardians Of The Galaxy” which paved the way for this film, it is that bursting heart and its paradox that drives it. The opening title sequence perfectly encapsulates this the longer you think about it. “Angel Of The Morning” by Juice Newton is the most unexpected choice but so perfect with these images of death in still life. Deadpool is the harbinger of death but yet the song talks about leaving against your better will. That is what Wade has to do. If you think about it, the same can be true in other Marvel properties. It permeates with Tony Stark & Pepper Potts. When Tony’s place is destroyed in “Iron Man 3”, what resonates is Pepper screaming for him against her better sense. But here the love story despite the action package is utterly front and center in the story. Deadpool as a force of nature plays against it breaking the 4th wall. But, in a sense of reality, it is all that matters. And that is perhaps what Hollywood doesn’t understand about the success. The reason “Deadpool” bashed records this past weekend is simple. The love story. It crossed genders and age brackets. As dysfunctional as it is, love drives everything here. Wade Wilson is an asshole before for sure. But so was Han Solo. So is Starlord. That is why we like them as guys and the girls fall for them. Because there is always redemption. And that is an attractive story to tell.


The meta thing is simply a device to show how human Wade wants to be. He loves Wham and Voltron and he falls for a prostitute who is a hell of a woman. The story itself, if you look at it, is such a bunch of tropes that it seems to be making fun of itself yet beyond Deadpool himself, the story mechanics are not really that clever. Again the irony of it lies in its reality. Granted this was done for half or less of what these films usually cost. Oddly enough, in more ways than one, “Deadpool” to a lesser extent, reminds me of early 90s superhero movies before they became big. Dolph Lungren as The Punisher for example. The films of Cannon. There is a purity in them despite obvious production shortcomings.


Beyond these points, you have to examine the underdog nature of what the film is as well. Having met Ryan Reynolds over the years for various movies, including “Green Lantern”…even that movie (which didn’t connect with audiences), he was so earnest in trying to make it whatever it could be. But what people need to always remember is that this was the guy who made “Van Wilder” and “Waiting” (with Chris Pratt’s better half Anna Faris who herself is a force of nature if she ever got the right breakout role). Ryan made it happen. I remember also doing interviews for “Wolverine: Origins” where Deadpool was introduced. The fact that he could come back and make that character new again is 1000 to 1 shot if not more. At the time, I though Taylor Kitsch was the one going to break out as Gambit because there was a bad-ass movie in there. Channing Tatum doesn’t have that same danger that Kitsch had then. Reynolds, apparent in the movie right before this [“Mississippi Burning”], found that right groove. Whoever leaked that test footage, whoever planned it, nailed it right and thereby created Hollywood lore. Wonderful to see. Don’t explain why it happened. Just be glad it did. Love, being yourself and going for broke conquers all. Especially with Morena Baccarin. Period. Deadpool is laughing for all of us.


By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: 31 [Sundance 2016]

31_8054The aspect of horror and how spectacle fits into the undeniable formula is the thought process that Rob Zombie can always skew but play with. With the new structure of the studios, it is harder and harder to make the film you want. It either has to be huge, undeniably indie or have an angel investor. Or you can do the crowdfunding approach. It worked for Zach Braff…and it definitely takes you back to your roots but it begs the question: what do the investors get in return? Usually with a lot of these approaches, there is a ton of gimmicks in playing to the crowd. You got to have a hook. What “31” has to its strength is a blessing of characters (more on the villain side) that keep it moving. The problem is that the backing superstructure is pretty weak. Now granted, most of the people seeing this film are not going to be looking at that. The one thing that Zombie can definitely do is set a scene. The ending of “Devil’s Rejects” optimizing the song “Freebird” is over the top and exhilarating on many levels. Here, both the beginning and ending have bookends that really set tone, both with music and editing. Zombie’s use of freeze frame is an art and always harkens his films back to the Grindhouse circuit. After the screening, he did make reference to growing up in carnivals among the carnies so that notion of a gypsy existence very much rings true here. Sheri Moon Zombie gets the female vigilante role and busts it out, going for gold. You know she feels safe to do whatever is necessary and she goes for it. The dialogue is what it is since it is working towards an end game. It is more for the theatricality of it then anything else. The revelation of the movie is Richard Brake who plays Doom31_5313head. You’ve seen him in a ton of films and music videos as well as “Game Of Thrones”. He is the movie. His character has little motivation but his sheer presence, intelligence and physicality simply pummels off the screen. This character is doing a job, albeit a violent one, but he loves it. Every time he is on screen, nothing else can dominate it. You can build a new horror franchise off this character. No masks. Pure and simple. The weak spot is the meaning per se of the game itself. Malcolm McDowell, a longtime favorite of Zombie’s, takes on a maniacal role but the chemistry on it is not quite right. He gambles with two older ladies on the results of the game but their inclusion seems neither motivated or essential. The sequences essentially take you out of the movie. The other villain including a murderous midget dressed up like Hitler, two maniacal brothers with chainsaws and a girl/boy team that is all about beauty and the beast by way of a maniacal mix of “The Munsters” and the nihilists from ” The Big Lebowski” is interesting but despite an inkling doesn’t make a story connection. There is a small one with “beauty” but it is never really optimized. Again, the movie doesn’t necessarily need to be that deep. On one side you have a powerful villain presence and some good style but on the other side a fairly weak backbone in terms of concept. But the element of it balances a bit and ending is still pretty bad ass.


By Tim Wassberg


IR Film Review: ANTIBIRTH [Sundance 2016]

Antibirth4When you look at the structure of teen angst and rebellion, it is always interesting to look at the progression of both Natasha Lyonne and Chloe Sevigny. I saw Natasha at one of the first parties I attended at Sundance in a private house around 1997 partying with Eddie Furlong. Chloe I originally ran into when she had that infamous run of publicity with Vincent Gallo and “The Brown Bunny”. What these two girls have always known how to do is take risks though neither has truly broken out into mainstream fame. Sevigny has had more success due to the HBO fuel of “Big Love”.

Antibirth3In the new movie “Antibirth” which premieredin Sundance’s Midnight section, there is a possibility for sure but the hand of director Danny Perez is truly not steady enough to balance the tone and make it both horrifying and riveting. How it begins definitely has potential. These two bad ass chicks who are self destructive in their own personal kind of way almost have the necessity of “Thelma & Louise” for a new misshapen generation. The chemistry is palpable. These girls could do some damage if they really wanted to. The background of a desolate wasteland (obviously the tax rebate heaven Michigan in the winter) specifically help situations. Actually too much profanity and incessant drug use (specifically by Lyonne) dull the situation. It would have been better if she went harder (and did less…say heroin). It would become a signal of almost nihilism and a point of no return.

Antibirth2However as soon as the film passes its 1/3 point, it has shifted to become focused on Lyonne who is trying but not controlled enough. Sevigny is better but she disappears literally for most of the movie. The revelation as Lyonne becomes pregnant and starts to transition into the movie’s twist could even feel more isolating if it was shot better and honestly, stayed with a less fantastical. It takes on an almost carnie tone. “Antibirth” has a possibility of hard core sci fi that could have truly transcended optimizing the right score. The last five minutes starts to show that and a wider narrative idea but it is squandered, as though the director thought “this is cool” but wandered too much. It’s too bad because his leading ladies were undeniably up for the challenge, just not used to the point they should have. Their car banter is a small glimpse into what might have been.


By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: SISTERS [Universal]

Going up against “Star Wars” is a monumental task but what allows a great functionality within “Sisters” at times is that it knows what it is. Like a more mature version of “Superbad”, it is ultimately about two best friends in real life [Tina Fey & Amy Poehler] (playing sisters here) and how they anticipate each other. The best parts of this comedy is just when these two are riffing in a scene and not trying too hard to sell the story. The story arch has to move along of course but it is during the more non-forced scenes you get a sense of what still makes these two so effective. They are aging and it is apparent but their enthusiasm and love of the work is still there. But first the story to set it up. Amy Poehler plays Maura who is a the straight laced always responsible sister who never got to let loose. Tina Fey is Katie, the happy go lucky one who had more sex than she could count accordingly to her diary in high school. This is a little bit more of a role reversal for the two and it is great at the beginning watching Fey fly her freak flag. The woman has a bent of sexuality that is just hiding beneath that surface that she doesn’t let peak out too often. When she uses it, it is very palatable with her type of comedy because it is tongue-in-cheek but she is also getting a kick out of it.

Unlike the way “Baby Mama” functioned, their bantering like when Fey is trying to get Poehler to ask a cute neighbor to the party feels just right, especially when Fey is making hand signals just away from where Poehler can see. The best part is when they are trying on clothes wearing them the wrong way on purpose because the physical comedy is really  dead on. When it actually gets to the party, the set up almost undermines it and what should be the blow out seems more anticlimactic. The all stars come in with Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch and the overplayed (who believes he’s channeling Belushi) Bobby Moynihan keeping the party moving as Poehler attacks her pent up issues with her guy and Fey plays the party mom without going nuts. The side quips with drug and alcohol peddling bits by John Lequizamo and John Cena help because they are supposed to be the grounding force but the bits are too disjointed. The big build up to Poehler’s bound-to-go-wrong sex scene works and gets the laugh but in many ways, the movie (despite its verbal vulgarity) never quite hits extreme physical gags say of “Bridemaids”.


Jason Moore, famous for “Avenue Q” on Broadway and the first “Pitch Perfect”, keeps the pace moving and lets his girls run amuck but it still feels in the safe zone. The mother/father/daughters/granddaughter subplot and the losing of jobs is handled almost too hamhanded with the ending pretty much petering out in the essence of a happy ending. That is all fine but if you are doing a fairly hard R, there is more to be done. The supporting players actually get to do most of the questionable bits to varying degrees of success. You can see the Animal House just wanting to come out. The drugs are there but it seems like…safe. The two leads as talented as they are, are great to watch but you seem to get a feeling that they are playing nice, when all you want them to be is bad. But then again, they still have to clean it all up in the morning.


By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Reviews: AFI FEST 2015 [Hollywood, California]


The cross section of a film festival in Hollywood always integrates with the aspect of the real versus the aspect of the weird. Life is always about how change reflects exactly what is going on in present day, whether it be political, economical or social, especially in texture of horror but sometimes in fantasy. That is true of AFI FEST 2015.

Southbound The progression of an anthology film is about maintaining a steady through-line as a narrative progression. The beginning of this tale with wraiths stalking two men running from a sin they committed but ultimately finds them stuck in a time loop is the best because it shows complete lack of control without overwhelmingly resorting to gore or cheap thrills. The second one similarly with an all female rock group really gets the blood boiling at times but peters out in the final moments. However it is the middle story with a simple guy stuck in the middle with one of the girls from the previous story where the rhythm really clicks. The problem is that once that pinnacles there is really no place to go. The requisite two stories afterwards simply feel like epilogues. This speaks to the impact of the earlier stories but the importance of any anthology is finding where that balance is.
The Mysterious Death Of Perola This film is much more of an art piece compared to the previous film but what this has to its advantage is that it is literally a two hander with a husband and wife filming a couples movie about isolation where the two people never really exist. It starts as minimalist with beautiful framing but slowly but surely disintegrates into something much darker. The film itself is at many points self indulgent committing itself to many cinematic tropes but at the same time there are moments of sheer delight and cinematic texture that really connect. Made in Brazil, there is kind of a new wave texture that very much sings when taking into account certain superstitions of the old world. Ultimately the woman’s story is more affecting than the man’s story although his motivations are unclear. This exercise is not really about story but a sense of ambiance which it achieves while still trying a bit too hard.
Tale Of Tales This is one of the films I wanted to see that at Cannes but arrived one day too late. Director Matteo Garrone does have a certain voice but the essentials of what he is doing is always a slight bit off (by design of course). His second film: “Reality” I saw at a previous Cannes and his opening shot there reflected why “Gomorrah” overall was a such an affecting picture. However “Reality” was even more affecting once you knew the actual story of its leading man. “Tale Of Tales” is about Garrone’s descent into fantasy and metaphor with three interweaving stories. All dwell in notions of selfishness. One story is about a woman who wants a child so bad she will do anything to get it. The second is about one of two sisters who becomes an analogy of the true consequence in wanting to be young. The last one is about a princess wanting something so bad having to realize that you had the power all along. To try to describe the twists which takes these characters to where they end up is too complicated to begin to explain. However there is a wistfulness and a world created here with giant bugs, ogres, twins born of a dragon and a queen transformed into a beast. Again all are overarching metaphors with a dark sense of comedy to them (much like “Holy Motors” but with a less perverted persistence). Garrone has a very steady sense of self with a neo realist view of subjugated motivations that eventually lead to enlightenment.
Baskin Sometimes a film’s reason for being lies in its ability to show an existential crisis in the most physical way. Here, it is embodied by a police chief and his protege with their team on a seemingly routine night. The discussions are fairly almost Tarantino-esque in their base nature especially examining each of these men and their inherent flaws through gallows humor. Reality tends to shift and, like the earlier film “Southbound”, turns into a textured loop after they are called for back up to a scene that turns into an accident. The crux of the movie becomes a bloody dissertation of a limbo where a talisman of sorts examines each man’s unwillingness to come to terms with their own shortcomings and, by extension, mortality. The protege begins floating backwards and forwards in his own perception as well as time which is not all together clear (this is Turkish horror by the way). By the final gotcha, the narrative tends to do nothing but inhibit more questions, specifically that the protege is simply bound to make the same mistakes as those before him.
By Tim Wassberg