“Why Him?”

LOUISA: 1 STAR MATT: 2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Why Him?” exists solely to milk unsuspecting holiday audiences out of their entertainment dollars — dollars that could (and should) be spent better elsewhere. The film is flat, monotonous, unfunny, and after the first 15 minutes, runs out of steam rapidly. It’s a slam-dunk, tried-and-true formulaic idea for a movie, but there’s nothing new nor exciting in the way of actual humor. When you resort to a gag about dousing people in moose urine at a Christmas party, it’s time to give up.

In the classic rehashing of the “nobody is good enough for daddy’s little girl” scenario, all of the stereotypical characters you expect are checked off the roster here. Slightly ditzy mom (Megan Mullally)? Check. An insignificant significant other (Zoey Deutch)? Check. Wisecracking teenage brother (Griffin Gluck)? Check. A just-for-laughs oddball minority sidekick (Keegan-Michael Key)? Double check (Cedric the Entertainer). Uncomfortable, awkward ‘celebrity’ cameos (Richard Blais, Elon Musk, Gene Simmons) obviously inserted solely for the ‘recognizable giggle’ quotient that they elicited from my audience? Check.

Bryan Cranston steps into the clichéd role of overprotective dad Ned and James Franco is the socially awkward / weirdo boyfriend Laird. In an attempt to update the story and make it current (yawn), Laird is a Silicon Valley billionaire who designs video games and lives in a secluded, offensively lavish mansion in California. The actors are talented and play well off each other as an odd couple, but both men deserve far better material than this pointless piece of junk.

The movie frequently confuses vulgarity with comedy, so buckle up for several extended and dreadfully unfunny bits of gross-out humor. The majority of the attempts at jokes seem paltry and out of place (an extended bit about a broken Japanese toilet is truly scraping the bottom of the barrel), but the real reason why this movie is so awful is that it’s simply NOT FUNNY.

One star is far too generous for this dreck; let’s just consider it my Christmas gift to the filmmakers.

MATT SAYS:

A super-talented cast including Bryan Cranston, Keegan-Michael Key, Megan Mullally and James Franco headline “Why Him?,” an afterthought of a film that has been dumped into theaters for audiences seeking mindless fare. For those with low standards, the movie is sure to please. For the rest of us, however, “Why Him?” fails to clear even the very low bar of our expectations set by the trailer.

“Why Him?” was apparently the brainchild of Franco’s buddy Jonah Hill, but Hill apparently couldn’t be bothered to actually write it, having assigned that task to a couple of no-talent hacks who manage to waste the movie’s cast. Cranston and Mullally are Ned and Barb Fleming, a midwestern couple who are surprised by their daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) when she invites them out to Palo Alto, California to meet her new boyfriend, Internet millionaire Laird Mayhew (Franco). Ned has a hard time adjusting to the idea of his daughter dating the oddball, hipster Mayhew who has a colorful vocabulary mostly consisting of variations of the “F” word and who lives on a vast estate. Supposed hilarity ensues as Mayhew and Ned Fleming butt heads.

While it’s always a pleasure to watch these actors, they are weighed down by a pedestrian script and concept that is well beneath both them and the viewer. The movie is stuffed full of cameos that make little sense and don’t serve to move the story forward. Having someone famous from the culinary, business, or music world appear just to say “hey, look at me!” isn’t interesting or inventive and it encourages audience recognition laughs, a supreme annoyance and a clear violation of the Moviegoer’s Ten Commandments.

“Why Him” has a plot that is completely by-the-numbers, the characters are rote and the resolution predictable. It wouldn’t have taken much to improve this movie, and given the acting talent involved I’m surprised that more effort wasn’t made to do so.

“Nocturnal Animals”

LOUISA: 4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Tom Ford is quickly cementing himself as one of my favorite film directors, a man with such an impressive, original eye for visual beauty that it’s almost unfair to others who work in the medium. His gorgeous direction is filled with unparalleled finesse and ingenuity, making his films true works of art; it’s amazing how a clothing designer can so flawlessly shift from the world of fashion to the world of film. Ford is a true visual artist with not only an impeccable eye for stunning moving portraits, but he’s a talented screenwriter as well.

Ford effortlessly and skillfully balances two very strenuous narratives within one lurid, complex tale. The film, based on the Austin Wright novel “Tony and Susan,” tells the story of divorced couple Susan (Amy Adams), an art gallery owner, and Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a writer. When Edward sends Susan a copy of his latest manuscript (the novel titled “Nocturnal Animals”), she begins to discover a somber truth about herself, her previous relationship with Edward, and the torment from consequences that fester after a decade of resentment and regret.

Ford seamlessly weaves three different timelines for his characters: the early years of their relationship, present day disappointment, and the fictional story within the story. The constantly shifting timeline is sure to leave many viewers confused, as this is a smart film that’s made for moviegoers who pay close attention and relish every seemingly insignificant detail on display. Fans of Refyn and Lynch will love this film.

The most dark, suspenseful tale is the actual plot of the novel: a man named Tony (Gyllenhaal) is traveling on a deserted road with his wife and daughter (Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber) when a group of hillbilly punks and their alpha trash leader Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) run them off the road. Something painfully tragic occurs, and Tony enlists the help of morally ambiguous West Texas detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) to track down his family.

Shannon is absolutely magnificent in this role; he’s unusually subdued, dynamically forceful, and incredibly powerful. In fact, every single performance from the ensemble cast is a true standout, from Adams’ hauntingly cold artist to Gyllenhaal’s dual role as a weak charmer as well as a desperate, grieving family man.

The cinematography (by Seamus McGarvey) is provocative and visually dazzling, filled with textural images that you’ll want to reach out and touch. This is a dark, haunting and insanely gorgeous film. The remarkable original score by composer Abel Korzeniowski is appropriately macabre and angry yet elegant, a fitting complement to this very grim mystery.

“Nocturnal Animals” is a stylish revenge thriller that’s violent and shocking, but it’s not pointless or careless with its characters or subject matter. This is an intensely distressing and disturbing tale of brutality that blurs the line between reality and fiction.

The constant shift in tone, story and timelines can be a bit messy at times, but it’s also what makes this film so compelling. It’s a striking, bleak exploration of the human condition and the ways we find to cope with our massive failures in life and love, as well as our role as a protector of what’s important in both.

“Manchester by the Sea”

LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Let’s just get right to the point here: in “Manchester By The Sea,” Casey Affleck is as great, if not even greater, than you’ve heard. The movie itself is not.

The film, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, tells the story of Lee Chandler (Affleck), a sad sack of a man who returns to his sleepy Massachusetts seaside hometown after the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). In a surprise twist, Joe has made Lee the sole guardian of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee finds himself unable to emotionally deal with the new circumstances and becoming a guardian coupled with the loss of his brother become nearly too much for him to bear. Because of a tragedy in his past involving his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), he’s forced to confront his darkest demons in an attempt to rise above the struggle.

The film is a devastating, emotional exploration of sadness and the challenge of coping with tragedy and crushing grief. Lonergan and his actors truly understand the grieving process and as result, the story feels authentic and human. The film is packed with more realism than sentimentality, and the screenplay is more observational than original. There are more than a few plot points that scream ‘gimmick’ rather than credibility, and what should be a deeply personal male melodrama at times comes across as a bit standoffish.

This is Affleck’s movie to be sure. His nuanced, heartbreaking performance is absolutely the very definition of ‘Oscar caliber.’ Never does it feel sensational or showy; he creates a pathetic, dejected man who is struggling to adapt to meaningful male bonding through family tragedy. The supporting performances from Hedges and Williams are top-notch too, with both actors delivering scene after scene of agony, pain and emotional torment with a masterful balance of tenderness.

Make no mistake, this isn’t a fun movie to watch: it’s aching with honesty, packed with complex layers of raw, bitter emotion that are painfully stripped away to the core as we watch.

While it’s a genuine look at the grieving process, I wanted this movie to be so much better than it actually is. I feel Affleck’s incredible performance is clouding everyone’s opinion of this film and if they’d simply take a step back, they’d notice the multitude of aspects that don’t work, like classical music used for the score and the poor direction that feels more like a Robert Altman rip-off than a sincere, original style.

Even so, it’s one worth watching simply for the lead performance.

“La La Land”

LOUISA: 4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I can see why the film industry is going ga-ga over “La La Land,” the latest film from “Whiplash” prodigy director Damien Chazelle. The film is full of aspiration and ambition, but it’s also loaded with non-inclusive Hollywood insider and industry jokes. It’s not nearly as great as the Hollywood elite types have lead you to believe, it’s just that they enjoy having their butts kissed when awards season rolls around. I’m not saying this is a turkey because it’s not: it’s just not one of those exceptional movies that will change your life. Folks who work in the industry or those who live (or spend a lot of time in) Los Angeles will still find much to delight in.

The film tells the story of struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) and determined jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). The pair have a requisite meet-cute and soon fall in love. The film takes us on a whirlwind song-and-dance filled journey of their romance. The film plays homage to the classic, iconic studio musical movies of the 40s and 50s and is brimming with peppy musical interludes and energetically choreographed dance numbers. The original songs range the gamut from iconically great, like “Audition (The Fools Who Dream,” to forgettably mediocre, like “Another Day of Sun.” But there’s so much sweet nostalgia on display that it’s hard not to find yourself instantly enchanted.

The fact that Gosling and Stone aren’t great singers (or great dancers) just makes it all the more charming. The two leads seem all the more honest and authentic because they aren’t the most proficient dancers or singers; their flaws only add to the credibility and realism of the story. The novelty of this whimsical experiment does wear off a bit more quickly than I’d like, but the irresistible performances and abundant chemistry between the leads will surely please any romantic.

The film is confidently directed by Chazelle (the showy, incredibly ambitious opening musical number is a real stunner in its technical proficiency and visual choreography; I still can’t stop thinking about how I watched it in complete awe with my jaw dropped). The bright, contrasting costumes in primary colors create an overall dreamlike quality, with some scenes cleverly looking like they are part of a colorized black and white film.

Pursuing your dreams isn’t easy, and the path is often filled with unexpected (and unwelcome) bumps and turns. “La La Land” is well-versed in artistically exploring the joy and pain of following your heart and your steadfast ambition. It accurately conveys the pain of a bittersweet failure with the contrasting elation of finding your success, as well as the reality and regret of what could have been. Dreamers never stop dreaming, and Chazelle does a great job blurring the line between reality and fantasy as a coping mechanism for his characters’ real-world failures. There are some gorgeously realized fantasy scenes where our minds are allowed to run as wild and free as Mia and Sebastian’s daydreams.

This is a film that’s filled with glorious movie magic and blended with a modern hipster vibe. It’s an unabashedly romantic ode to the City of Angels, and its imperfections make it all the more enjoyable. Here’s to the dreamers, lovers of music and movies, and fondness for a good old fashioned romance.

 

“Office Christmas Party”

LOUISA: HALF STAR


LOUISA SAYS:

It’s easy to get suckered in by “Office Christmas Party,” a movie with a who’s who cast of accomplished comic actors and a fun sounding holiday theme. You’ll want to buy a ticket because you expect laugh-a-minute escape. Don’t. This dreadful, unfunny ‘comedy’ is one of the worst movies of the year.

When obnoxiously uptight tech company CEO Carol (Jennifer Aniston) decides to shut down the underperforming branch run by her flaky brother Clay (T.J.Miller), he rallies the troops to host the Christmas party to end all Christmas parties in an attempt to close a deal that will save everyone’s jobs. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that mayhem quickly ensues, and the epic party rapidly spirals totally out of hand. This movie feels like nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse for the filmmakers to set up shop and throw an epic party with a huge studio budget.

Jason Bateman and Olivia Munn, two actors who are obviously hell-bent on proving that they’ll do anything for a paycheck, play office lovebirds is the most completely awkward, ill-fitting way possible. I never once believed their romantic inclinations and instead saw two people who were super uncomfortable to even be in the same room together.

Rob Corddry and Vanessa Bayer are wasted and confined to irritating supporting roles, akin to being punished by being made to sit in the corner for trying too hard at making goofy faces. The usually amusing Jillian Bell is far off her game as a two-faced pimp and Courtney B. Vance would probably like to forget everything he is forced to do in this movie.

Kate McKinnon, god bless her, is the only saving grace in this film — but even she can’t make jokes about parrot secretions and HR handbook violations funny enough to warrant more than a few polite chuckles.

This movie is altogether dreadful, rotten, and is stuffed with lame, stale jokes that continuously fall flat. All you need to know about the quality of the jokes here is that the funniest bit is a one-liner about farting and cheese.

There’s absolutely zero reason for this movie to exist. It has no point, it’s grossly uninteresting, the actors have no chemistry, and the plot is paper thin. This party is one big, boring yawn, and I sure wish I had turned down my invitation before it was too late.

“Busanhaeng (Train to Busan)”

LOUISA: 4.5 STARS MATT: 4.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

It’s not too often that I leave a movie wishing it had been longer, but oh how I wanted “Train to Busan” to go on for at least another hour. Maybe two hours. This is one of the most well made, exciting, emotionally engaging zombie movies I’ve seen, and it’s a must-see (in particular) for fans of the genre.

This South Korean zombie horror thriller is best described as a mash-up of “Snakes On A Plane,” “28 Days Later,” and “Snowpiercer.” Most of the action takes place on a crowded bullet train, creating an ideal sense of urgency with an overly claustrophobic setting for a zombie epidemic. The train is a safe place from the terror that’s consuming the rest of the country, but of course an infected person makes their way onboard: and all hell soon breaks loose. The idea of a zombie outbreak onboard a packed train is one that doesn’t exactly cover much new ground, but it’s a highly entertaining concept and is exceptional throughout in both storytelling and filmmaking.

The frentic story is skillfully realized through thrilling action sequences from director Sang-ho Yeon. Not only is the film exciting, but it’s also visually impressive and looks and feels gorgeous — not an easy feat when things start going from bad to worse. Much worse.

What makes this movie work is that it’s genuinely emotionally charged. I was fully invested in all of these characters, none of which come across as mere disposable caricatures. Every passenger we meet feels authentic and sympathetic, making every unpredictable and shocking plot twist all the more distressing. There were plenty of times where I had a physical reaction, either by audibly gasping or feeling as if I had been punched in the gut. I give an enormous amount of respect to the actors here; they are accomplished across the board and their work in this film is truly exceptional.

Seok Woo (Yoo Gong) is a divorced dad accompanying his daughter Soo-an (the phenomenal Soo-an Kim) to see her estranged mother. Rounding out the group of survivors are a teenage athlete (Woo-sik Choi) and his girlfriend (Sohee), a selfish businessman (Eui-sung Kim), alpha male Sang (Dong-seok Ma) and his pregnant wife Sung (Yu-mi Jeong). This makes for an eclectic, engaging group of strangers that are forced to band together in order to persevere in their new world reality.

There’s a not-so-subtle message reminding us to be kind to each other and the film touches on mild political commentary about Korea’s class system, but it never once feels preachy. It’s a fast-packed, tightly crafted, bloody tale of redemption in the face of a total loss of humanity.

This is international cinema at its finest, and “Train to Busan” ranks among the very best in the zombie genre.

MATT SAYS:

I thought the zombie horror-thriller had been done to death. With “Train to Busan,” Korean filmmaker Sang-ho Yeon conclusively proves that there’s still life in the genre.

Easily the best zombie movie since “28 Days Later”, “Train to Busan” opens with hedge fund adviser and father Seok Woo (Yoo Gong) trying his best to avoid having to deal with his young daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim) on her birthday. Seok is a bit of an a**hole, both in business and in his personal life. It’s only when Soo-an tells her father that the only thing she wants for her birthday is to go to the city of Busan to be with her mother that Seok finally relents and agrees to take her there by train.

Moments after the train pulls out of the station, the entire country quickly erupts into chaos as a mysterious disease causes a massive zombie outbreak. As the virus spreads on the train, compartment-by-compartment, Seok, Soo-an, and their fellow surviving passengers (including the amazing Dong-seok Ma) must figure out how to contain the virus on the train and, eventually, fight their way through car after car filled with zombies.

What makes “Train to Busan” great isn’t that it’s new and different; it isn’t. There isn’t much in “Train to Busan” that you haven’t seen before. Why the movie succeeds – often spectacularly so – is that it’s a particularly effective and seamless mash-up of other films that improves on much of its inspirational source material. “28 Days Later” is well-represented, but so are “World War Z,” “I Am Legend,” “REC,” and non-zombie movies like “Snowpiercer” and “The Mist.”

Director Yeon is especially effective at his use of space; although most (but not all) of the action is confined to the titular train, the movie continues to evolve and use that environment in new and different ways that never get repetitive. As with most well-done zombie pictures, the film’s best moments are born from the relationships between the characters, which are exceptionally well-developed.

“Train to Busan” is without question one of the best genre films of the year. You should make a point of seeing it.

“Rogue One”

LOUISA: 2.5 STARS MATT: 2.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I sense a great disturbance in the force.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” the first of the new Disney owned “Star Wars” back story assembly line films, is as underwhelming as it gets. I wanted to like this movie. I really, truly did. As a standalone film, it’s just plain boring. As a Star Wars film, it’s nearly unrecognizable.

I knew something was going to go horribly wrong from the film’s opening 30 seconds, which manages to deliver an instant letdown to longtime fans. A sluggish and unnecessary prologue kicks off this chapter like a drab version of a dramatic made-for-television movie. The movie starts off on the wrong foot and quickly careens off a cliff and into a whirlwind of mediocrity, swiftly reaching the point of no return. It looks and feels cheaply watered down, from the murky brown cinematography and the inferior CGI of actors’ faces to the abysmal, ill-fitting musical score by Michael Giacchino (the distracting, clashing music is by far the worst thing in this movie).

This poorly conceived money grab tells the story of a group of Rebels who band together and go rogue to steal the plans to the Death Star. The film’s timeline takes place before 1977’s Star Wars, so there are lots of mildly amusing Easter eggs for die-hard fans of the franchise. Adding in a few nods here and there will surely elicit a few knowing giggles from geeks everywhere, but these little references are a poor mask for what’s simply a dull, lifeless movie.

There’s no spectacle, there’s no drama, and there’s no suspense. We all know how the story will eventually end, and this movie doesn’t make enough effort to ensure its fable is compelling or the least bit interesting.

It’s hard not to compare this one to J.J. Abrams’ far better “The Force Awakens,” especially in its casting. The diverse cast felt organic and natural in Abrams’ movie, whereas the diversity in “Rogue One” feels forced and phony to the point where it’s borderline laughable. I appreciate that science fiction films in particular lend themselves to diversity, but when it’s obvious to the audience that certain actors were hired mostly because of their ethnicity, it comes across as more offensive than inclusive.

The elephant in the room is the ghastly showcase of some of the year’s worst acting, from Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera (flashing his trademark stink eye while delivering hoarse-voiced dialogue without an ounce of emotional connection), the general unpleasantness emanating from Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso (competent enough as usual, but better suited as a soap opera actor than big budget movie star), the gross overacting (translation: a lot of angry yelling) from Ben Mendelsohn (Krennic), the dead-eyed Mads Mikkelsen phoning it in as Galen Erso, to a notably detached and wooden performance from the usually composed Diego Luna (as Cassian). While I appreciate the attempt from Alan Tudyk to add some much needed humor, his voicing of droid K-2SO just comes across as a pathetic and desperate C-3PO ripoff. The worst of the bunch is Donnie Yen as blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe — he rarely reaches the low, low bar set by incompetent high school thespians performing in the year-end senior play.

Poorly edited with bumbling animated effects and elementary in its writing, I’m sad to say that I wasn’t even entertained by “Rogue One.” I’d rather have been taking a nap during the majority of the movie, and it will be the only “Star Wars” film that I won’t see for a second time in the theater (yes, I even saw “The Phantom Menace” twice). What’s lacking is that epic feeling, a sense of distinction and importance: something that the Star Wars universe should do — and usually does do — so incredibly well.

Granted, the last fifteen minutes of this film are freaking fantastic, and I guarantee it will leave you with the most amazing movie high as you exit the theater. But nothing can forgive the boring, tedious and strained scenes leading up to the endgame.

“Rogue One” is worth a rental, but just barely. It’s the most disappointing movie of the year.

MATT SAYS:

The first “Star Wars” expanded universe/spin-off movie is finally here, you guys! I was very much looking forward to “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” but I’m more than a little bit disappointed in the result.

In “Rogue One,” Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is the estranged daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) the architect that built the Death Star. The Rebel Alliance, led by Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) reaches out to Jyn and taps rebel pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to accompany her on a mission to connect with Jyn’s former guardian and protector, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Saw knows how to find the plans to the super weapon, which the Alliance hopes may reveal a way to stop or destroy it before the Galactic Empire is able to use it to dominate the galaxy.

“Rogue One” adds some meat to the bones of the story we already knew from “A New Hope.” The problem with it is that there’s not that much meat – and what we are fed doesn’t taste very good. The first 90 minutes of the film are primarily devoted to introducing new characters and worlds in the Star Wars universe – some of whom we glimpsed through the trailers to the film. But none of these characters are that interesting, and (with the notable exception of the last one) the worlds aren’t that imaginative or special. After spending most of the film getting to know these people, it’s hard to react with anything other than a shrug. Sure, they look cool – but so what?

“Rogue One” doesn’t really come into its own until the last 30 minutes or so, when we get to see the beach planet battle that’s teased in the posters and trailers. The battle is mostly well-done, but the actors that are asked to carry the weight of the last quarter of the movie are clearly not up to the task. That is to say that the gravity and effectiveness of the battle is weighed down by the mediocre-to-terrible acting of Jones, Luna, and their compatriots. It’s fun to see some new and old Star Wars tech in action, sure, but it’s not as fun as it could have been if the movie had more emotional weight.

The film is at its best when it’s feeding us Member Berries. I won’t spoil any of them for you, but it’s fair to say that the Disney/Lucasfilm people harvested a whole crop of Member Berries for “Rogue One” and I will say that they taste… pretty good. For those of you who aren’t “South Park” fans (shame on you – you’re missing out), what I mean by this is that there are enough Easter eggs in this movie for “Star Wars” fans to make the world’s largest omelet. I won’t spoil any of them for you, but the problem with Member Berries like these is that while they are sweet and addictive, they are ultimately unsatisfying. Wasn’t the point of the spin off movies to try to tell new, different stories in the “Star Wars” universe? If so, “Rogue One” fails on that count.

If you’re a “Star Wars” fan, you’ll clearly want to see this movie. And you’ll love how those Member Berries taste. But “Rogue One” isn’t going to win over any new fans, and doesn’t make a convincing case for how this universe can be expanded to tell new and different stories.

“The Edge of Seventeen”

LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

The marketing campaign for “The Edge of Seventeen” will undoubtedly cause a bit of damage to the film’s box office and audience scores, marking a true disservice to this insightful, character-driven dramedy. If you’re expecting your average laugh a minute, R-rated teen sex comedy, think again. This is an astute (and candid) exploration about a suffering kid just trying to make it in her angst-ridden teen world.

The film took me back to the late 80s John Hughes era because it truly gives an accurate portrayal of all that sucks about being a seventeen year old girl. It’s rare that modern coming of age films are packed with such well written wisdom and authenticity. It’s also refreshing to see that the more things change the more they stay the same, with a younger generation dealing with the same problems all of us once suffered through (and survived).

Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is a neurotic, awkward high school junior who decides her life has fallen apart when her popular jock brother Darian (Blake Jenner) begins dating her longtime best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). To a 17 year old, this feels like the end of the world. Nadine suddenly feels as if she can’t rely on anyone and begins to act out with those closest to her, including her needy widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick). She begins to form a friendship with the thoughtful and charming boy next door Erwin (Hayden Szeto) and her sarcastic yet wise history teacher (a beautifully understated Woody Harrelson).

The secondary characters all play nicely off the lead character, and Steinfeld gives an effective performance as Nadine. She manages to make a total melodramatic jerk likeable and sympathetic, which is no easy feat. Being a teenager sucks, and she conveys that with an impressive, perceptive sophistication.

The typical teen film clichés are all present, from the popular kid’s party debacle to an embarrassing missent sext to the realization that the nerd boy is (surprise!) a real sweetheart while the hot crush guy (double surprise!) isn’t so nice after all. In fact, there aren’t many plot surprises here, period. The real surprise lies with the film’s honest, frank dialogue and situations.

The film is slow to start and hits several speed bumps along the way (including some attempts at humor that flat-out bomb and a few too many overplayed, tearful spectacles), but overall it’s authentic, wise and reads as a completely real and genuine look at why growing up is so hard.

“Christine”

LOUISA:  3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Christine” dramatizes the tragic true story of Florida television news reporter Christine Chubbuck, a young woman who, in the summer of 1974, pulled out a gun and shot herself in the head live on the air. While the biopic is based on this grisly and horrific event, it never feels too exploitative towards its subject and instead offers a glimpse into the personal life of a seriously damaged and depressed human being.

Rebecca Hall has been almost universally lauded for her lead performance, and rightfully so. She is perfectly cast as Chubbuck, portraying her with an insecure, off-putting and confrontational style. She is completely believable as an overly ambitious yet troubled and insecure young woman living with untreated depression, a condition that’s accurately reflected in her awkward, slouched stance and sudden temper tantrums directed at her child-like mother Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), perfectly coiffed anchorman crush George (Michael C. Hall), and boss Michael (played by the phenomenal Tracy Letts, who also gave another one of the most memorable performances of the year in “Indignation“).

Letts and Hall play perfectly off each other, and the very best scenes in the film are when the two argue over his insistence on more sensational, bloody, and juicy stories in an attempt to bring in higher ratings. There’s only one tearful scene where Hall succumbs to some over-the-top overacting, but she manages to maintain a steady pace throughout most of the film — not an easy feat when the most effective aspects of this nuanced performance are the things that are left unsaid.

Antonio Campos directs with a sharp, focused style that’s packed with retro visuals and an impeccable attention to period detail. The film looks like it was shot in the 1970s, with cinematographer Joe Anderson lending a handsome look through soft, muted lighting and a straightforward color palate of orange, gold and brown. The look of the film accurately reflects the uneasy feeling of the film; you can sense the overwhelming angst, dread, and despair, and this movie is designed to make the viewer feel uncomfortably distressed. Unfortunately, the disappointing script (written by Craig Shilowich) clashes with the direction, and the film suffers from mediocre, uninspired writing. So much more could’ve been done with the story, and the film could’ve been great if only it had a better screenplay.

The brilliantly framed and directed final sequence of “Christine” is a real scene stealer, and one that reminds audiences that they just actively participated as a willing voyeur by watching a version of a true horror movie. There’s so much tension in the final 3 minutes that my pulse was racing, I instantly felt queasy, and I broke out in a sweat. With the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” theme song making a prominent appearance, it’s the perfect commentary on not only the sexist newsroom culture of yesteryear, but the “if it bleeds, it leads” media culture of today.


Matt was unavailable for review.

“Population Zero”

LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Population Zero” is the very definition of subversive, clever filmmaking. Borrowing heavily from the found footage and true crime documentary styles that are so popular at the moment, the film uses its platform with considerable ingenuity — especially considering the subject matter. The line between fact and fiction is blurred to the point it’s barely recognizable: and viewers better be prepared to pay close attention to every little detail. Film literate viewers will likely see the movie’s major twist coming early on, but the majority of my film festival audience didn’t (which in itself made for a very fun q&a after the credits rolled).

The movie explores the terrifying idea and compelling scenario of a technically true loophole in the U.S. Constitution that was first proposed in a 2005 Georgetown Law Journal article by Brian Kalt, a Michigan State University professor and legal scholar. The loophole creates a potential “zone of death” in Yellowstone National Park, wording that could allow anyone to get away with a crime (including murder) in a certain area of the park. This film seeks to find the truth in the story of a triple homicide that occurred in this zone in 2009, a heinous crime where the killer willfully confessed to shooting three men in cold blood — and walked away a free man.

Real-life documentarian Julian Pinder leads the search for more answers, providing himself with an overly self-indulgent lead role (his screen presence is not at all commanding). He has an uncomfortable wooden delivery and persona, making it impossible to forget that he’s a filmmaker first and not much of an actor (the film is co-directed by Pinder and Adam Levins). The repetition throughout the film is more than a little tedious and quickly outstays its welcome, even in the film’s brief 84 minute run time. You’ll quickly get a sense of extreme déjà vu  that’s compounded by the constant images of rolling clouds, black and white photographs of the crime scene, video footage of the jailhouse confession, talking head interviews, and cheesy voiceover narration that continues to state the obvious as if the audience is dumber than a sack of hammers.

As more and more clues are slowly uncovered, the filmmaker eventually becomes the subject of the story. This is where the film rapidly devolves into a pseudo thriller as well as a preachy platform to convey an anti-fracking message (that manages to be both on point as well as pointless). As Pinder’s quest for the facts begins to expose more and more dark conspiracies and intrigue, the film dares (and at times straight up taunts) the audience to seek and find the truth in the story, leaving many to ask “is this real or not?

Without giving away any spoilers, this low budget film takes a grand idea full of thoughtful complexity and executes it exceptionally well. “Population Zero” isn’t perfect but there’s much to admire in its ambitious spirit, and it’s certainly a shrewd, rebellious work of art.

THIS FILM WAS SCREENED AND REVIEWED AT THE 2016 NAPA VALLEY FILM FESTIVAL

Matt was unavailable for review.