Mistress America

Some directors can make two perfect movies in one year. Noah Baumbach is not one of them.
Movie Review #1,028


If you’ve seen “Frances Ha”, you know that Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach are a damn good team. You wouldn’t think so from just watching “Mistress America”, though. This is their third feature together, and while I still do hope there are many more to follow, I also hope that the two decide to put some more thought into their coming films. “Mistress America” is more of a blueprint for a character study than a complete work. Seeing that this is Baumbach’s second feature film of 2015 (following the brilliant “While We’re Young”), it seems probable that he wasn’t spending as much time, effort, or thought on “Mistress America”.

“Mistress America” is about a smart, shy, brunette college freshman, and her dumb, talkative, blonde soon-to-be-stepsister who is about ten years older than her. But if we’re using the word “about” to say “this is the story the movie is trying to tell,” then it’s admittedly difficult to use that word. I guess it’s “about” dialogue. There’s lots and lots of dialogue here, and frankly, it may as well just be monologue. For better or for worse, Greta Gerwig is the star of the show. Okay, so she’s not that likable of a character. She’s naïve. She’s self-absorbed. She’s a stereotypical blonde airhead whose only talent seems to be not shutting the hell up. In a nutshell, she’s a woman in her late twenties who stands a sufficient response to the question, “What do you get when you cross a stereotypical high school drama queen with a New York City socialite?” Sometimes the results of this characterization are absolutely hysterical because she’s not the least bit self-aware. Other times, her lack of self-awareness doesn’t seem to change the fact that she’s completely annoying.

The best thing I can say about the movie is with regard to its script. What Gerwig and Baumbach have crafted matches the same level of optimistic, free-spirited cleverness that they met in “Frances Ha”. The dialogue here is at times priceless. Beyond that, however, it’s barren. Trying to find the plot in “Mistress America” is like a really convoluted version of Where’s Waldo?. You’re not just trying to look at a drawing of a crowd and find Waldo hidden somewhere in there. Instead, you’re watching video surveillance of Times Square and trying to figure out where Waldo is as thousands of people hustle and bustle around the area. With that said, if you can actually find the plot in “Mistress America”, then I applaud you. I certainly couldn’t.

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The Walk

Utterly terrifying and Zen-like at the same time.
Movie Review #1,027


“The Walk” is practically the cinematic equivalent to an oxymoron. It’s deep, intense, mature, and terrifying, but at the same time, it’s buoyant, uplifting, wholesome, and peaceful. Director Robert Zemeckis’s most memorable films are those that can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of age. Curious, he’s made this sort of film in the middle of every decade since the ’80s: “Back to the Future” in 1985, “Forrest Gump” in 1994, “The Polar Express” in 2004, and now “The Walk” in 2015.

Zemeckis captures the essence of the true story on which “The Walk” is based. Our subject is Philippe Petit, marvelously and charismatically portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Petit became a sensation in the 1970s when he staged his “coup”–that is, walking on a high-wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. It wasn’t just the walking that captured audiences, though; it was everything else he did on the high-wire. Lying down on the wire, walking backward on it, and more. This is a man who is not afraid of death when he walks the wire, because to him, this is life. It’s because of this that when we finally see Petit walk the high-wire, the experience is as Zen-like and cathartic as it is terrifying. We connect with our own instinct that the moment he steps on the high-wire, he is risking death. But we also identify with Petit, who feels that once the steps on the wire, the worst is behind him.

And the worst, to him, is the fear of getting caught. The midsection of the film covers Petit’s move to New York City to set up for the coup. It’s this much of the film that is most flawed. True, there are some tense moments here–most especially when Petit and an acrophobic accomplice hide in an elevator shaft, so as to avoid being noticed by the security guards patrolling the top floor of the World Trade Center. But these moments are far and few during this third of the film. In fact, “The Walk” often oversimplifies the difficulty Petit more than likely faced in reaching his goal. While shopping for a radio at a Big Apple electronics store, Petit and his guys are speaking to each other in French. They drop the word “accomplice,” and that catches the attention of the employee working the counter. It just so happens that he knows French, that he is French, and that he wants to join Petit’s group of accomplices. In an earlier scene, Petit shows his briefcase full of wire-walking equipment to a customs agent, explaining that he is going to string a high-wire between the towers and walk on it. The officer simply laughs and says, “Good luck.” I am reminded of a scene in “Airplane 2: The Sequel”, where a group of Middle Easterners carry large assault rifles through a metal detector and manage to not set it off; moments later, an old lady with some sort of metal in her purse sets the detector off and is violently patted down.

Flawed as it may be, “The Walk” is a great movie and deserves to be seen. Maybe the greatest thing about it is its cinematography. This is not a movie you watch on DVD, and it’s not one you watch on Blu-ray unless your TV is at least as tall as you are. As someone who fears nothing more than heights, I nearly vomited at the IMAX 3D showing, which I dared myself to go to. I was writhing, wincing, and peering at the screen through the gaps between my fingers, so much that I swear the old couple behind me thought I was having a seizure. I could have easily walked out (no pun intended), but I didn’t. It’s the epic cinematography that gives you the sensation of being there, and at the same time, keeps you watching at all costs.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailers

Just a few hours ago, another Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer surfaced online.  It’s not the most exciting trailer we’ve seen for the movie, but it is pretty damn exciting.

And why?  Because it’s the most revealing trailer to date.  You might’ve noticed (although I honestly didn’t until seeing the newest trailer) that a lot of the past trailers seem to use the same footage.  I gotta say, it’s about time we see an interaction between two of the three new leads.  Almost a year ago, we got our first look at the new movie, which is roughly 41 days away as of my posting this, but if you want a better and more exact idea, there’s a website called HowManyDaysUntilStarWars.com that can tell you just that.  (Note: the countdown on the website assumes that the movie comes out at 12:00 am on December 18th.  A great many of us are seeing it at 7pm on December 17th, so just subtract 5 hours from what it tells you, and then you’ll have a better estimate.)

I love what Lucasfilm and Disney are doing here.  They’re giving us a closer look at the movie, but not much closer.  They know that we’ve been waiting for the movie so long that just an interaction between John Boyega and Daisy Ridley is enough to put us in a fit of excitement.  I don’t know about you, but the fact that we don’t know a darn thing about the plot, other than the names of characters that will be showing up, triples the anticipation I am feeling.

What’s so awesome about the world today is that if you’ve never heard of Star Wars, your cultural literacy is probably worse than someone who doesn’t know who Shakespeare is.  And if we’ve seen Star Wars, we have stories about seeing it because when you’re getting your first taste of George Lucas’s saga, you’re not just watching a movie; you’re living an unforgettable experience.  I can recall at least half of the many occasions on which I’ve watched the original, and my parents have vivid memories of seeing it in theaters.  My mother saw it sitting in the front row.  Since I decided to order my tickets almost 24 hours after they’d gone on sale, I will be seeing the newest entry in the front row as well.

I’m getting a little off track, but I guess this post is sort of a stream-of-consciousness.  And let’s be honest, you’d be doing the same thing if you were a movie blogger.  Admit it, you’re as excited as I am, maybe even a little more.

Anyway, here’s the new trailer.  Again, it’s not my favorite, but it’s still pretty doggone awesome.

And, just for kicks, here’s a timeline of all the other awesome teasers and trailers we’ve seen so far for The Force Awakens.

Teaser #1 (November 28, 2015)

Teaser #2 (April 16, 2015)

International TV Spot (August 10, 2015)

Trailer (October 19, 2015)

Seriously, if the movie doesn’t reach or exceed the bar it’s setting, then I’m just going to go on my merry way out of the theater and pretend Disney doesn’t exist.

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A short, sweet, wonderfully honest and funny dramedy.
Movie Review #1,026


“I like being old, young people are stupid.”
Elle (Lily Tomlin) in “Grandma”

“Grandma” is a significant volte-face for writer-director Paul Weitz. You don’t expect this kind of small-scale, wonderfully honest dramedy from the guy who directed “American Pie”, not to mention “Little Fockers” or “Admission”. None of those even begin to compare with “Grandma”. Few Hollywood-tailored films do. Its $600,000 budget and 78-minute running time offer perfect affirmation that less is more. And that’s just the first thing that’s perfect about this movie.

The titular character is Elle (Lily Tomlin), a lesbian who lost longtime partner four months ago and has just ended a meaningless relationship with her rebound. We can be sure that there’s enough on her plate already when her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), enters with another dilemma: she’s unexpectedly pregnant, she doesn’t want to have the baby, she’s scheduled an abortion for late in the afternoon, and she needs $630 to pay for it. She can’t use her credit card because her mother confiscated it. She’s afraid to ask her self-absorbed mother, and frankly, so is her grandmother. Her grandmother has just paid off all her debt and made a wind chime out of the shreds of her credit card, and now she has about fifty bucks to her name. The baby’s father refuses to have anything to do with the situation. Elle and Sage set out on a road trip to raise $630, only to watch the obstacles compound even more.

“Grandma” is unabashedly progressive. It covers abortion and, to a slightly lesser extent, lesbianism in an entertaining and candid light, but does not appear to take sides on either. How you view these issues on a left-right spectrum does not matter. The film doesn’t want us to care that these are politically controversial subject matter. They’re components of the plot and characters–those are what the film wants us to care about. Frankly, it’s pretty difficult not to care when the characters are this likable. Julia Garner’s performance is the paragon delivery of a teenage character, defined no less by her wisdom than her impulsive behavior. However, it’s Lily Tomlin that really knocks it out of the park here. Her unforgettable performance as the titular character deserves an Oscar. The sweet, brutal honesty in her accord with Sage terrifically complements the sarcastic remarks she makes to most other characters throughout the film. Her asshole personality makes for the most quotable film in years. If you want an idea of how much she stands out in “Grandma”, I implore you to watch the trailer…and then, of course, the movie.

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Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension

The idea of “saving the best for last” fails exceptionally once again.

Movie Review #1,025


“The Ghost Dimension” sounds like the kind of subtitle you’d give a fan made movie. Then again, a fan would know instantly that it’s a bad title, because the “Paranormal Activity” franchise has never been about ghosts. It’s been specified many, many times throughout the series that there is a difference between demons and ghosts, and that the characters are dealing with demons, not ghosts. I guess “The Demon Dimension” just doesn’t sound cool enough. To me, it sounds sort of like a psychedelic biker B-movie from the 1960s, but let’s be honest, is something about the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club truly any less sophisticated than the sixth and final entry in the “Paranormal Activity” series?

There’s another reason that this isn’t a fan made movie, though. A fan made movie would actually have some clever and imaginative ties to the first film, and perhaps some of the others before it. That’s why we know Jason Blum is not a fan, and if he is, it’s because he’s the producer. There are three links between “The Ghost Dimension” and its predecessors: it takes place in the same house where Katie and Kristi (the two sisters whom the previous films follow from childhood to adulthood), it features a demon called Toby who was Kristi’s imaginary friend in the third entry, and it involves filming supernatural occurrences on a camcorder. Producer Jason Blum claimed that this film would answer questions posed throughout the series and essentially bring it full circle. But oh what a gullible person I am. I actually believed him. It’s a major lie. Just about any “Paranormal Activity” film will answer all the questions that were posed throughout the series. That’s including the first film, which, naturally, posed all the major questions and passed the buck to its sequels to answer them. That’s also including the 2014 entry, “The Marked Ones”, which was a spinoff and was hardly related to the series at all.  “The Ghost Dimension” is basically the “Halloween III” of its series, except that “Halloween III” actually was a decent B-movie, despite being utterly irrelevant to the two prior films.

It’s amazing how easily you can destroy art with just four writers. Not that you’ve even heard of them, but Jason Harry Pagan, Andrew Deutschman, Adam Robitel, and Gavin Heffernan have screwed this one up big time. They’ve set this movie around Christmas time to make us feel like we’re legitimately watching a family’s “home movies.” But don’t expect Hollywood to treat this like an independent movie that you can appreciate because you feel like you’re there with the characters.  Expect a fascist glorification of 3-D moviemaking, where all authenticity quickly finds itself with the same fate as Father Merrin at the end of “The Exorcist”.  You might even want to throw yourself out a window over the fact that not only does the movie show the spirits that haunt the house, it brags about this on the poster.

We’re not the only ones who suffer by watching this movie.  The movie cost $30 million to make, which is more than 1.5 times the budgets of the previous five films combined. It still hasn’t made that money back worldwide, and in North America alone, it has yet to make ⅓ of its budget back. Remember when the first movie was a huge sleeper hit, and made over $100 million in North America alone? Yeah, it’s a good thing the series is ending here, because it ain’t making that kind of money again any time soon.

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The Martian

Ridley Scott’s most imaginative sci-fi film to date.
Movie Review #1,024


Nothing can put a hole in your career like the death of a beloved brother. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the kind of direction Scott’s films took after the death of his brother, fellow filmmaker Tony, in August 2012. He immediately went from the sci-fi/creature feature gold of “Prometheus” down to the dumps of “The Counselor”, a film that I never want to see again, that I feel reluctant to call a film, and that still remains one of stupidest, most confusing pictures I’ve ever sat through. His next film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”, is so spectacularly dumb that I find myself laughing too hard at the mere mention of it.

“The Martian” is Ridley Scott back in his element. It’s an incredible film that I hate to complain about, but I must anyway: the ending is a bit too implausible. But even that one evident flaw works its advantage, because it’s the sheer implausibility of this film that makes it so damn exciting, and makes the final half and hour the best thing we’ve seen in a movie all year. Hell, the whole film works because its plot is so implausible and yet so interesting. Hollywood loves happy endings, and it works to the advantage of “The Martian”, where the inevitability of a good denouement is matched by its utter unpredictability. Watching an astronaut in space as we did in “Gravity” and “Interstellar”–both great in their own respects, but not nearly this good–is one thing. They’re trained. Even if they’re just in space for the first time, they know space far better than the average human. Watching Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a botanist for NASA, finding himself stranded on an unfamiliar planet with little resources, that’s something entirely different. The way Scott captures it, you’ll be on the edge of your seats with your heart beating at hypersonic speed.

The script is by Drew Goddard. We’re familiar with his humorous approach to science fiction, thanks to “Cloverfield”, “The Cabin in the Woods”, and “World War Z”. However, his witty comedy works better than ever in “The Martian”. This isn’t a comedy per se, but it certainly does not take itself so seriously. That’s some of what makes it so great. We’re watching a movie that tracks a guy dying in space, and yet it’s fueled largely by dialogue–a sardonic brand which seems to lessen the gravity of the situation. Matt Damon’s character fits him like a glove, and the performance he turns in is surprisingly realistic. In fact, he has my vote for the year’s most lovable movie character. His positive attitude, his sarcastic sense of humor, and his methodical application of science make “The Martian” a beautifully genuine experience. You don’t get that combination in the movies, and you only really find it on TV if you’re watching MythBusters. Except “The Martian” is meant purely for entertainment, and it does one hell of a job at that. How many sci-fi movies have you seen that feature disco music not just as a soundtrack but as a primary subject of the film? You might say zero, but I urge you to watch “The Martian” and that will change. Every moment of the movie is a strong realization of how much you love the film. And in the end, when the aptly chosen Gloria Gaynor song “I Will Survive” plays over the credits…well, that just tops it all off.

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It has been decided. Paolo Sorrentino is this century’s Fellini.
Movie Review #1,023


Had “Youth” been crafted by the likes of Hollywood, it would be just another brick in the wall—another nail in the coffin of comedies about grumpy old men who become more wistful as they reflect on the past. On paper, that’s what the plot is about, but to paraphrase the late, great Roger Ebert, it’s how it’s about, not what it’s about. The “how” shows through incomparably in the brilliant screen coupling of Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in this film. This is a rare film where drama is lifelike and comedy is natural, although to term it a comedy-drama is practically an insult; a rare film cut from no cloth but that which the director—who proves now more than ever to be the 21st century’s answer to Federico Fellini—wears so gloriously.

Caine and Keitel play, respectively, a retired composer and a veteran filmmaker. Naturally, music and film play an important role in the film, as do the two men’s appreciation of life and reminiscence of their youth. It’s no accident that we appreciate this film as we would beautiful music, and as an authentic, enchanting slice of life. Thus far, it is the most lifelike and lively, the most observational and exquisite, the most poetically cinematic experience of the year. As beautiful as the script and its delivery by the cast are the sight and sound of the film. David Lang has created an exemplar of simplistic beauty. Lang is far from a household name, but I pray that that will change in due time. As a regular to the director since 2004, Luca Bigazzi’s cinematography goes without saying. His visual capture of “Youth” is reason enough to appreciate cinema as a fine art. “Youth” is intended as a followup to Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty”. Maybe his previous film didn’t quite convince you of the director’s genius. His newest, however, will.

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Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers

The best “Halloween” sequel.
Movie Review #1,022


We can appreciate the first four sequels (well, minus “Halloween III: Season of the Witch”) for their continuous expansion of the Michael Myers mythology, but “The Curse of Michael Myers” doesn’t seem to expand the series so much as flip it on its head. Finally, we have a movie that focuses on how the town of Haddonfield, Illinois is affected by the memory of Michael Myers. Some fear he’ll return, while some think that this time, he’s dead for good. And there are radicals on either end. There’s a group of townsfolk rallying on Halloween night, hoping to ban any celebration of Halloween because of the deadly Myers attacks associated. And on the other end, there is a cult that blends in with ordinary people by day, while at night assisting Myers in ridding all of his family. It just so happens that his niece Jamie Lloyd (introduced in the previous film) has given birth on October 30, 1995. Naturally, he and his followers go after both mother and child a day later.

Director Joe Chappelle places Tommy Doyle at the center. You might recognize the name if you’ve seen the first movie enough times. Remember that neighborhood kid Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) was babysitting for in the original “Halloween”? That was Tommy Doyle. He hasn’t featured in a “Halloween” film nearly as prominently as he does here, but his leading role is something we can expect. This is, after all, Paul Rudd’s debut role, and whether it comes as a surprise or not, his talent does show.

Practically every bit of corniness in the previous sequels, is replaced by the genuine horror of the first movie. Even though some of “The Curse of Michael Myers” features an intense amount of gore–and some damn good editing to keep it out of NC-17 territory–it’s not the gore this time that makes the movie so much fun to watch. It’s the fact that, for the first time in 17 years, the story is actually scary. Better yet, it’s clever. I wouldn’t say that Joe Chappelle is as savvy a director as John Carpenter was when he set out to helm the first “Halloween”, but he certainly does know a good horror film. 1978’s “Halloween” was notable for its frequent homages to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. A scream queen played by Janet Leigh’s daughter, a detective named Sam Loomis after Janet Leigh’s onscreen boyfriend in “Psycho”, and much more. Likewise, Chappelle seems to have his sights set on Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”. A kid named Danny who has the power to hear voices. An unmistakable nod to the ax-in-the-door scene. A seemingly kind old woman who suddenly turns on the protagonists, and another homage to the Room 237 scene that is, in fact, set in Room 237 of a sanitarium. Of course, “The Curse of Michael Myers” deserves no comparison to “The Shining”. It’s not that great. But it is pretty great indeed.

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Jason X

Quite possibly a major influence on the career of Uwe Boll.
Movie Review #1,021


When a guy like James Isaac decides to make a movie about Jason Voorhees terrorizing people in space, you feel a burning urge to question the guy like a customs agent. I can cut somebody some slack when they’ve obviously lost their mind, but Isaac is so lazy that he clearly didn’t like trying to find where he must have used it last.

Of course, we know where he last used his noggin. ‘Twas 1991, when Isaac was the project supervisor for David Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch”. And before that, the dude who designed creatures in “The Fly”, “Gremlins”, and “Return of the Jedi”. All of which, by the way, are great films. I guess “Jason X” is, too, if you look at it as a comedy. And quite often, you have to wonder if that was the intention. You don’t make a screenplay this self-aware for no reason.

You’re already at the third paragraph of this review, and undoubtedly, you’re still wondering the same thing as you were in the first sentence: just why might Jason Voorhees be in space? It’s quite interesting, actually. See, when you have a serial killer on the loose, the first thing you want to do is bring him (albeit without removing his mask) to a scientific laboratory so you can find out just what makes him tick. I mean, that’s what you do if he’s constantly regenerating. Right? And let’s be honest, you can kill him for the purpose of studying his ability to regenerate, but it’s safe to assume that he won’t regenerate in the lab and kill everyone in the building. Right?

Wrong! Jason kills everybody in the building. Spoilers, I guess. Anyway, Jason follows one of his victims-to-be into some sort of scientific freezer where he is frozen and is not discovered until 2455, when a professor and three of her students decide to look at this part of the building. I’m surprised it took this long for them to finally do some spring cleaning. I guess we just have to assume the most logical: that people did, in fact, go into this part of the building many times during these 455 years, and they did, in fact, notice the body, but up until now, all of them just let out a dismissive “eh” and walked out to visit some other, more interesting room in the building.

So anyway, when the students discover the body, they decide to load it onto their spaceship, because apparently they’re just visiting on Earth; apparently “Earth One” is too polluted to live on, so “Earth Two” was created. I think we can all agree that “WALL-E” showed this a lot better. You may not have seen either movie, but please just smile and nod. Or do anything, except defend “Jason X”.

I wouldn’t defend it myself if it weren’t so damn funny. The climax alone takes the cake. The “Friday the 13th” series has shown some clever ways of distracting Jason, but nothing beats setting up a virtual reality in another part of a spaceship, effectively convincing him that he is back at Camp Crystal Lake with two girls in sleeping bags begging him to smoke pot and have premarital sex. I don’t know what part of that scene made me laugh the hardest: the enthusiastically spoken line “We love premarital sex!”, or the sight of Jason effortlessly wailing the teenagers in sleeping bags against a nearby tree. It’s not every day you see that happen on Earth, let alone in outer space. These scenes don’t make the movie memorable as a whole, though. Part of me wonders if it’s a source of inspiration for Uwe Boll, but then again, part of me also wonders if Uwe Boll would remember the movie. That said, if you do indeed wish to remember doing the time warp, “Jason X” is a no-go.

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Keep Cinemaniac Reviews alive!

Hi, everybody!

Just wanted to let y’all know that I added a “donate” button to the sidebar, as many, many people have urged me to do. If you’re feeling generous, then I implore you to donate and help me keep my blog alive and running.

Why should I donate?  My blog had its “heyday” from the third quarter of 2012 through the second quarter of 2013, and publicity has dropped significantly in the time since.  To give y’all a sense of what that looks like, I averaged 82 hits per day in 2012, but have averaged 44 per day (a 46% drop) over the past ten months.

Where will my donations go?  I’d previously said that 100% of donations will be used for movie tickets, but as I look back at my stats, I am noticing that there is virtually no correlation between the number of movies I see in theaters and the number of views my site gets.  Therefore, I’m taking a much more straightforward (and much less foolish) route: 100% of every donation will be recorded and used for advertising.

Thank you greatly.


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