Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016, dir. David Green)

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I was 7 years old when I first glimpsed the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As I was flipping through the channels one summer morning I came across the opening credits of the series. I remember having trouble remembering the four nouns of the title, referring to them as simply the Ninja Turtles. Eventually, being an imaginative DIY-er, I made a mask out of a piece of purple cloth and re-purposed a green backpack and taped together cardboard paper towel tubes, and I spent hours in the backyard acting out the stories I saw. In 1990, my sister won advance screening passes via the local Fox Kids Club to the TMNT film. I loved the Turtles. But it hasn’t been something that has stuck with me, they’ve never had the complexity that makes me want to revisit them often.

The most recent film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, is the follow up to the successful 2014 reboot. The new film finds the Turtles continuing their life underground in the daytime while protecting the citizens of New York City during the night. After Shredder escapes from police custody, our heroes find themselves pushed out into the spotlight and their group goes through the inevitable existential questioning found so often in superhero sequels. Added to the mix this go round are Stephen Amell as the hockey stick wielding Casey Jones and the mutants Bebop and Rocksteady (played to perfection by Gary Anthony Williams and WWE’s Sheamus). Plus, Krang the Brain and the Technodrome make the slightest of appearances for the third act.

Out of the Shadows is not a great movie, but it is a big improvement on the 2014 film. One of the biggest complaint, and one I shared, about the first was that it was too April O’Neil focused with the Turtles in the background. For the second film we get a lot of time with the heroes with April being featured alongside them in a sort of sidekick partnership with Casey Jones. As previously mentioned, Bebop and Rocksteady are perfect recreations of their cartoon counterparts. They are buffoonish henchmen who bumble through their job with Shredder always on the edge of ending their lives, but strangely keeping them around.

My biggest issues with the film come from the overflow of content in the script and how a lot of these plot points aren’t able to be developed. Krang is the biggest example of someone who shows up in the first act to get the plot rolling, vanishes until the third act, and ends up just being a CGI punching bag so the film can have the big finale battle in the skies over New York City. Another problem I had was that right from the start of the film, April O’Neil uses her sexuality to get access to important information to the plot. It doesn’t come up again, but it is a rough start for her character. April has never been a character who flashed her midriff or seduced men. She’s an experienced reporter and it’s a shame that her opening moment in the film were so reductive.

The Out of the Shadows will feed that nostalgic itch of people who grew up with the cartoon series. It is also a big, loud dumb summer blockbuster but maybe a little less than other films under the Michael Bay banner. It’s considerably shorter than Transformers and their ilk, so that gives the Turtles a greater sense of energy and movement towards the finale. I don’t have expectations that we’ll ever have a deep, meaningful Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, it was a concept developed as a parody of ninja comics in the mid 80s. But what has been made is a very fun, light movie.

Warcraft (2016, dir. Duncan Jones)

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Few video game properties come to the table with a such a dense lore and mythos as Warcraft. I never really played the original real-time strategy Warcraft games, but I did put about two years worth of time into World of Warcraft, even grinding two characters to the level cap of 90 at the time. During those two years of play, what I enjoyed most was the exploration aspect. Every time my character entered a new zone it was exciting to see what monsters lay in wait, what treasures there were to find, and it was always great to spend time seeing all the beautiful design put into the world. The film Warcraft was announced ten years ago but has languished in development until the last couple years. After a decade of development, what did we end up with?

Warcraft, directed by Duncan Jones, tells the stories of the war between the human and the orcs of Azeroth. As a result of a demonic plague, the orcs construct a portal that brings them to the world of Azeroth. Souls are needed to open the portal again and bring the orcs who stayed behind. The humans immediately want to drive the orcs back and thus the war begins. The cast is filled with many confusingly similar bearded men and some beautiful animated motion capture orcs. Also, Paula Patton is a half-orc with some very distracting tusk prosthetic.

Warcraft is an utter mess of a film. This rests entirely on the screenplay which failed in something that should have been easy. The IP has thousands of years of established lore and they picked a very meaty chunk of that history. The only work the screenplay had to do was character development and it completely fails. Instead, the film is constantly jumping from location to location never allowing us to really get to know or care about the characters. The dialogue is also painfully cliched. As a knight is leaving a curious mage behind in a mystical library he turns around to utter, “And while I’m gone…try not to touch anything” followed by the mage causing a minor accident. None of the dialogue differentiates the characters or gives you a sense of who they are.

The look of Warcraft also always been exaggerated and cartoonish. This does not translate well into live action. The entire look of the Alliance armor and much of the architecture is cringeworthy. The orcs look wonderful, though. The cgi used for the other side of the film’s war is exceptional and the facial expression that comes through is quite an achievement. The orcs are also far and away the most interesting part of the film and we do not spend enough time with them. It’s essentially a 60/40 split in my opinion between humans and orcs.

For viewers unfamiliar with the world of these games, I can only imagine what a confusing, mind boggling film this must be. I have a passing familiarity with many of the characters and bits of history so I was able to feel my way through events in the film, but even I had moments of confusion about who was who. There’s an emphasis put on the importance of Durotan’s newborn orc son which will play strangely to newcomers. Easter eggs abound for the fans, which is no surprise, but when the core of your narrative is near impenetrable to people who have never played the game you have problems. Sadly, if the acting had been more over the top, a la the Dungeons & Dragons film, Warcraft might be a fun “bad” movie, but everyone is so dull and uninteresting. And worst, it’s almost as hard to tell the litany of bearded white men apart as it is the orcs.

Duncan Jones is not a bad director. His debut feature, Moon, is one of the best independent films of the last decade. His mainstream follow up was Source Code, not a terrible film but fairly forgettable. He is thankfully returning to his roots with Mute, which he calls a follow up to Moon. What he presents us with in Warcraft is very confounding. The only conclusion a viewer could come to is that Jones struggled to bring his own stamp to the film, and it was inevitably overtaken by studio notes and the marketing department. What we’re left with is a film that so desperately wants to be the start of a new franchise but doesn’t have a hook to bring in the audience you need to do that. The film is doing amazingly well in China so there may actually be more. Let’s hope they put character first and use those individual, interesting personalities to help us care about the lore, not the other way round.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016, dir. Nicholas Stoller)

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In the last 15 years, the Apatow film troupe has become a dominant force in American film comedy. We won’t go a year anymore without one or two films produced by Apatow and starring one of his regulars (Seth Rogen, James Franco,etc.). And it is very understandable that the viewing public has gotten to a point where they feel a bit..annoyed at a perceived repetitiveness in the work being produced. I’ve managed to watch a large number of these films, not due to a strong love of Apatow’s work, but due to that previously mentioned prevalence in our culture, and I’ve come away with some mixed thoughts and feelings about them, Neighbors 2 being a prime example.

Neighbors 2 continues the conflict between Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) with Teddy (Zac Efron). This time a sorority moves next door just as Mac and Kelly have gone into escrow on their house in preparation for a new baby. The sorority is led by Shelby (Chloe Moretz) and they all end up in a series of comedic set pieces where characters go over the top and slapstick comedy ensues.

Much of Neighbors 2 is a retread of the first. We just have a new organization, this time made up of young women, who are causing the exact same sorts of problems. Mac and Kelly enlist their friends for help. The couple deal with their own feelings of inadequacy as parents. Thematically they are the least interesting part of the film. From a larger perspective, this is almost a meta-commentary on these actors being pushed aside for the more interesting ideas and themes that come out of what Zac Efron and the sorority members are doing.

Hands down, it is Teddy, Efron’s role, that makes the film worth watching. I wouldn’t say I am a fan of Efron, his choice in films has led us down very different paths. But here he is presenting an examination of the very type of person is likely perceived to be. Early on, we have a scene between Teddy and his former frat brothers from the first film. Everyone is growing up with steady jobs, careers even, and now getting married. Teddy still works at Abercrombie & Fitch and, due to the criminal record he got from the first film’s exploits, has a difficult time finding work beyond customer service. While the film plays this for comedy, Efron manages to bring some levity into these circumstances. Teddy is a dudebro still clinging to his past while everyone around him is moving on. He doesn’t cling to his fraternity days for a sense of glory, we are very quickly shown he wants to be part of a family.

The story of Shelby and her sorority is also set up right away with a ton of empathy. In an orientation meeting for an established sorority on campus, Shelby learns that by-laws make it impossible for women to throw parties so they are forced to attend frat parties. A visit to one leaves Shelby turned off by the exploitative nature of these parties towards women and she ends up finding some strong friendships among fellow female party goers. This is the impetus for their move next door to Mac and Kelly. By the end of the film, I didn’t have much sympathy for Mac and Kelly who, if we look at the generational lines laid by the film, would be the characters I was expected to side with. They are my contemporaries experiencing many of the same life changes I am.

However, Shelby and her friends’ struggle to carve out a piece of the college experience that represents their ideals of female empowerment and to not be viewed as “Hos” for the “Bros” is a much stronger theme. There is a moment in the film where Teddy begins to reminisce about the parties he threw and quickly realizes women were literally labeled “hos” at every single one. His personal realization is played both for laughs and with some poignancy. While he and Shelby are only separated by a handful of years, ideologically and sociologically, they were light years apart. Never once is Shelby’s point of view used to lampoon social justice or feminism, the sorority sisters are funnier than the older characters and evoke a greater sense of empathy.

Neighbors 2 will not change your life. It will likely make you laugh a number of times. What I came away with was a sense of freshness to the Apatow films. Director Nicholas Stoller is responsible for what I believe is the criminally overlooked Forgetting Sarah Marshall, another film that deals in a grown man not blaming women for his problems, but learning to admit his own part in why a relationship crumbled. These films are often marketed with an emphasis on the slapstick, over the top, gross out humor present in them. But given a chance, I think you’ll find something much more thoughtful and refreshing than presented in the marketing.

Holidays (2016, dir. Various)

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Valentine’s Day (written & directed by Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer)

St. Patrick’s Day (written & directed by Gary Shore)

Easter (written & directed by Nicholas McCarthy)

Mother’s Day (written & directed by Sarah Adina Smith)

Father’s Day (written & directed by Anthony Scott Burns)

Halloween (written & directed by Kevin Smith)

Christmas (written & directed by Scott Stewart)

New Year’s Eve (written by Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer; directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer)

These days the horror anthology is quite popular. I’d say their revival started with 2007’s Trick R Treat, though in the low budget independent world they never went away. Some popular recent ones have been The ABCs of Horror 1 & 2, V/H/S 1, 2, & 3, A Christmas Horror Story, and Southbound. You know what they all had in common? They’re mostly awful. You get a good segment here or there, but it’s not a complete collection of great horror. I can see the appeal of this type of movie. In the YouTube age, short form entertainment is in high demand so many viewers probably sit down with the mindset of “If I don’t like this in fifteen minutes I’ll be seeing something else”.

Holidays is another horror anthology that suffers from this problem, and has some of the worst segments I’ve seen in a modern horror anthology. The bookending stories are terrible and in particular Kevin Smith’s contribution is pointless garbage, that he also manages to also shoehorn his untalented daughter into. The concept of Holidays is just that: Holidays. Each horror short is themed after a particular holiday. Lots of potential, eh? Of the eight short films included here there are only three good ones. Those three are really good though. Worth paying money to sit through the five other pieces of crap?….ehhhhh.

Let’s be positive though. We’ll talk about the good stuff.

Easter is from the writer-director of The Pact, a pretty decent horror film from a few years back. He knows how to pace things, he knows what ambiguity is. He takes horror seriously and doesn’t view it as gory comedy, like some others in this collection. Easter goes to some really weird places and it leaves us with lots of questions. On the surface we get a very silly monster, but the things he does and says overcome his silly nature and make him really creepy and unsettling. You’ll think about this one more than most of the others.

Mother’s Day is a little predictable. And it’s the second film in the anthology to deal with an evil pregnancy. St. Patrick’s Day also features an unwanted pregnancy but ends on such a stupid, ridiculous note you’ll want to get your tubes tied (snake with a pompadour, really movie?). Mother’s Day is about a woman who gets pregnant every time she has intercourse and has had two dozen abortions. Her doctor can’t figure out why she is so overly fertile so she sends the woman to an isolated commune for holistic healing. Like I said, the plot is pretty predictable but at least the acting and directing show some skill.

Father’s Day is the best film in the collection. Like seriously, turn off the movie after you watching this one. They get progressively worse. Father’s Day is about a young woman who receives an audio cassette recording from her deceased father. Turns out he didn’t die like mom told her. The recording leads her to the last place she saw him and she retraces his steps. This is actually a horror film. It has character development. It has a plot that we can’t predict and a resolution we don’t see coming. It doesn’t think horror stories are one big bloody joke. There’s no gore. It ends in a really really ambiguous way.

Horror anthologies have a shitty trend of thinking the only way you tell horror stories is to make them into jokes with gore. That’s not scary. Horror should be the opposite of comedy. Comedy is set up and then pay off. Horror should be 90% set up and then most of the time not even give pay off. That’s what makes it horror. You don’t get the clean resolution so it gets stuck in your brain and creeps you out every time you think of it. I recommend those three segments, so if you can somehow find them separately online or can get someone to pay for your rental of Holidays watch them. But skip every other segment in this collection.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016, dir. Dan Trachtenberg)

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Out of nowhere, in March of 2016, J.J. Abrams announced a sequel to Cloverfield had been made in secret. Cloverfield was a found footage movie released in 2008 under similar secretive methods. And I hated the original, mainly because it was yet another found footage movie. It had characters who made stupid decisions that merely happened so that the next plot point was possible. It lacked a meaningful resolution and didn’t even leave things ambiguous enough to think about after the film was over. So, you could say I was cautious about 10 Cloverfield Lane.

10 Cloverfield Lane has incredibly loose ties to the original, and I wouldn’t even call it a sequel, more of a distant relative. It’s not found footage (thank god!). It has characters making intelligent decisions. It has themes and layers of plots and even an ending with some ambiguity. Its story is clearly focused on Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young woman running from her fear about a relationship who ends up, after a car accident,  trapped in a survival bunker. She’s told by the owner of the bunker, Howard (John Goodman) that he rescued her and that outside the bunker there’s been an attack on the entire nation. These claims are backed up by Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), a contractor who helped build the bunker, that yes, something bad did go down. Claims are made that the air is toxic and everyone is kept locked up inside. But there’s more going on here below the surface.

The film was the first major feature from Dan Trachtenberg. I’ve been following Trachtenberg since way back in 2007 t0 2012 when he was a part of the Totally Rad Show, a web series that reviewed popular media of all kinds and was a sort of inspiration to me. I was very happy with the work our director delivers. Every actor delivers a believable and nuanced performance. The film is full of clever camerawork and pacing, that never comes across as showing off. Everything here is a completely solid piece of tense thrilling film making.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the big star of the show. One thing I look for in actors, to really see how good their performances are, is to watch them when they are not the one talking in a scene, when their job is to react. Winstead gives a perfect emotional performance and has a quite a few scenes, the majority of the third act for instance, where she only gets to emote and react. It reads as very real and honest. John Goodman was given a tricky role, he has to play someone we need to trust and believe while simultaneously being unhinged. Up until the final moments of the film it is impossible not to have an internal debate about what is really going on with his character.

The plot has three very clear levels: what is going with Winstead’s character emotionally, the interpersonal conflicts between the three characters in the bunker, and the larger global situation outside the bunker. All three are developed wonderfully, given just enough that each deserves. Where the original Cloverfield came across as a glorified amusement park ride, this picture knows character development is key so that when the bigger, spectacular elements start happening we actually give a damn what happens to the people on screen. In an age where we have films that end in citywide killfests, it’s refreshing to have a movie approaching the same world ending subject matter in such an isolated, quiet way.

Keanu (2016, dir. Peter Atencio)

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I honestly never thought much good would come out of MadTV. The series debuted when I was 14 and it quickly became that show I watched the first half hour of until SNL came on at 10:30. Key and Peele weren’t in that original line up, they came around by the time I was in college and lost interest in watching any of MadTV. I was a little surprised when Comedy Central announced in 2012 that Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele were getting their own series I was pretty surprised. Not anything against them, I just didn’t think of MadTV as producing anyone or any material that was all that lasting. I was very wrong.

Now that their five season run has wrapped, the duo is trying to bring their distinctive comedy style to the big screen. Their first outing is Keanu, a very strange little film that is deeply inspired by John Wick. Peele plays Rell, fresh off a break up who is encouraged by his friend, Clarence (played by Key) to get himself together. Rell’s relief from grief comes in the form of an adorable kitten he names Keanu. What he doesn’t know is that Keanu has ties to both the Mexican and Los Angeles crime cartels and this send our two protagonists into a comic-ly absurd tribute to action movies.

It is very obvious that both men and the director love movies. Early on, Rell is making a calendar featuring Keanu in iconic film scenes each month. Posters cover walls referencing 1990s action and gangsta films. When Keanu is taken by Cheddar (Method Man) he’s renamed New Jack. Two murderous brothers are featured throughout the film and they harken back to both Boondock Saints and the early work of Robert Rodriguez. However, this is not a parody of those films but more a tribute mixed with the banter of Key and Peele.

The key to the film lies in the interaction between our leads. Key and Peele have such excellent chemistry together that I could sit through a long drawn out dialogue just between them and be perfectly happy. The film even manages briefly to recreate the road trip moments from the television series. They also play with the idea of “blackness” for a large majority of the film. Both men have addressed through their comedy how being biracial was a challenge to them growing up. In Keanu, they must journey into Blip territory (all the people who got kicked out of the Bloods and Crips) to a strip club with a rather unfortunate name. Once inside, they have a conversation about how to talk to the people their and they devolve into movie studio “blackspeak”. So, while tipping their hat to early 1990s crime films they enjoyed they also take time to acknowledge the absurdity of the portrayal of “black thugs” on the screen.

The film does have its lulls and can sometimes feel like a sketch from their series drawn out for too long. The third act gets very messy and lacks clear plot focus. There are a couple character setup to be the villains who fizzle out and the film pulls someone out of left field to serve as the big bad of the climax. Our main characters get satisfying endings, though a romance subplot feels forced onto us but isn’t too terrible. Keanu is a great first outing in feature films for Key and Peele. I think they have a lot of potential, given some more tighter plotting, to produce some very watchable and re-watchable comedies.

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016, dir. Bryan Singer)

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Back when the first three X-Men films came out, I opted to skip the third. X-Men: Last Stand wasn’t being directed by Bryan Singer and I’d heard very mixed to negative things. My roommate at the time did see the film in the theater and tried to convince me it was the best X-Men film of the three, I wasn’t buying it. Years later, I finally saw the Brett Ratner helmed flick and was proven right. It was dreadful. Too much crammed into too small a movie. So, when X-Men: First Class, directed by Matthew Vaughn, came out I approached it with trepidation only to be pleasantly surprised. The follow up, Days of Future Past, felt like a nice compliment and I enjoyed having X-Men in period pieces. It’s very different than most of the other comic book films out now. This led to me being pretty psyched about an 80s X-Men movie incorporating the villain Apocalypse.

X-Men: Apocalypse has a lot of plots going on. It continues the ideological struggle between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, it gives us the origins of our favorite X-Men (Cyclops, Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, Storm, and more), it picks up some loose threads from way back in First Class, and it features the ancient mutant Apocalypse whose plan is to…well, um…I’m not quite sure. Lots of elements work in this film, but the weakest of them all is Apocalypse, portrayed by Oscar Isaac. Isaac does the best he can with the material he was handed but it’s very generic, nondescript villainous motivations. Apocalypse wants to cleanse the earth of all humans…because why? He doesn’t like them, he believes mutants are superior, but there’s no idea given as to what would happen next if he succeeds.

Apocalypse, while I love him visually, is a very complicated character in the comics. I honestly cannot tell you a single one of his plots or plans and I have read multitudes of stories featuring him. He’s become a stand in when you need a big evil mastermind villain in an X-Men story. Characters produced by stories he’s been featured in have been much more interesting then the big baddie himself. Archangel, Caliban, Psylocke, Genesis, and more have all been touched by Apocalypse and become very interesting. I highly recommend Rick Remender’s run on X-Force that did some amazing things with Apocalypse, but mostly with the characters that surround him. The film opts to combine elements of Apocalypse, The Shadow King, and the incredibly obscure Living Pharaoh to try and make him a villain that pulls you in.

When you look at the third act climaxes of the previous films, very rarely are they world ending events. The Cuban Missile Crisis from First Class probably comes the closest. For the rest of the series the stakes and conflict are all about the future of mutant-kind. Villains plot to wipe out all mutants or trigger the mutant x-factor in all humans or unleash an army of mutant hunting robots. Hell, even The Last Stand kept things focused on one location and with a threat that only affected mutants. This is what has set apart the franchise from many of the other comic book series. To now have a finale that involves the very foundations of the Earth being cracked apart and a blizzard of CGI chaos cause X-Men: Apocalypse to feel very dissonant with the rest of the series.

Not even the Horsemen of Apocalypse are all that interesting. Storm (Alexandra Shipp) comes the closest but I suspect she’ll get more development in a subsequent film. Angel and Psylocke are cardboard cut outs with only hints of actual personality, a shame. Magneto is likely the one villain everyone will love, and I do agree Michael Fassbender brings much more to the character than we would expect from this film. However, I don’t feel that we’ve seen Magneto progress as a character since First Class. Once again, we go through the same beats of tragic loss, mindless revenge and anger, moment of clarity, and then parting ways/til we meet again. The promise of a Brotherhood of Mutants at the end of First Class was never fulfilled and the character feels stuck in a rut. Even a solo Magneto film could do a lot to grow the character because it is tiring seeing Charles and Erik argue the same points over and over.

What’s good about the film are the new kids. I previously mentioned Storm, but the rest are great as well. They don’t get enough screen time and we can hope, that if another film is greenlit, we have them featured front and center next time. Evan Peters as Quicksilver continues the actor’s track record of being wonderful in everything he does. The first act of the film is bloated with plot and they do manage to come together, it just takes a while and is hard to keep yourself interested when everything feels so disconnected. This is due in part to Bryan Singer being such a weird director. In all his films there are some really brilliant moments, even here we’re treated to some great set pieces, but they’re surrounded by really dull movies.

Singer has said he is taking a break from the X-Men, and after four films that is probably a good idea. Many people thought the lesson of The Last Stand was that only Singer knew how to handle these characters. But the real lesson came from First Class, that they just required someone who understood them fundamentally and was willing to take risks (changing the time period of the film). The X-Men are not the easiest comic book franchise to adapt to film and I think a pair of fresh eyes, that are allowed to play and experiment, as we saw with Deadpool, could produce some great films.

The Lobster (2016, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

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I knew I had read literature that fell into the genre of magical realism, but it wasn’t until I read One Hundred Years of Solitude the summer of 2004 and followed that up with a ravenous consumption of Jorge Luis Borges’ short fiction that really came to understand, and in turn fall in love with, the genre. Magical realism is a style of storytelling that presents a normal world where there are extraordinary occurrences that the populace views as simply mundane. This is often used as an extended metaphor to be dissected and explored,usually a commentary on our own perspectives of the world. There are many everyday practices that to alien eyes would pop out as bizarre and unreal, but for us it’s simply life.

The Lobster falls strongly into the category of magic realism, without it become a “cute” gimmick. The film tells the story of David (Colin Ferrell), a divorced man who must stay in a hotel for singles for 45 days and find a partner. If he is unable to find a partner he’ll be transformed into the animal of his choice. In David’s case, he chooses a lobster (They stay fertile their entire lives). There is an eclectic cast of characters that we watch interact, with moments of brilliant dark comedy and painful heartrending tragedy. The film has a very defined split as David makes a drastic decision about his place in the Hotel as well as the society midway through.

This is the second film I’ve viewed from Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director. His breakout film, Dogtooth, explores the nature of family units focused on a couple who have kept their adult children locked up on the property for their entire lives. It balances the same comedic tones and horrific violence, but I think The Lobster elevates that to a masterful level. It also continues the director’s work examining the cultural norms of Western society, in this instance the concept of falling in love in the modern era.

Personality is absent from every character in the film. Conversations are monotonous and devoid of emotion. A character is violently punished for self-pleasure and his reaction is fairly muted for what happens. Characters fall in love and barely crack a smile. Characters die and are killed and everyone essentially walks away with a shrug. There’s no room for sentimentality in the world, dating, marriage, and having children are like business transactions. It is expected and frankly demanded of everyone in the world of the film. David is faced with a choice of severe sentimentality at the film’s conclusion and as I simmered on it afterwards it struck me that by not committing this act he would show the strongest sense of individualism in the entire film. So while, the culture around him is unsentimental he would possibly conform to it in the end.

What is most interesting are the “rebel” group in the woods, whose leader (Lea Seydoux) imposes a system of rules between the other loners, especially no physical or romantic contact. We see the bloody results of a simple kiss and worse is implied. While the Leader believes she is shirking the status quo of required relationships, she is actually creating a parallel system of dogmatic social norms that are punished with the most extreme methods. This leaves us to wonder if individualism is even a workable concept in this world.

The couples that do end up together are driven by the requirement of a match up of defining characteristics. David is nearsighted and seeks out a partner who shares that trait. Another character is saddled with a limp (the result of trying to find his mother who was turned into a wolf after a failed matchmaking attempt). Yet more characters present themselves this way: She has chronic nosebleeds, he has a pronounced lisp, she is emotionally distant, she loves butter cookies. Even in the film’s credits a multitude of characters are named by their defining trait. Almost the way, when filling out an online profile for a dating service, you would highlight aspects of yourself that you want to present, aspects that are intended to provide others with a definition of you.

Lanthimos is exploring the way people form romantic relationships in our current era. If you look at the business of matchmaking, whether it is OKCupid or speed dating or Match.com, people are boiled down to their essentials. Personality is near imperceptible and a person’s true nature is impossible to convey through these methods. But Lanthimos isn’t happy to simply comment on technology’s relationship to our relationships, he goes deeper, to the very core of why anyone ends up with anyone else. Characters lie about their defining trait in desperation to end up with someone else. The Hotel guests routinely arm themselves with tranquilizer guns and hunt the band of guerrilla Loners in the surrounding forest. And the Loners in turn sneer at those foolish guests who stupidly pursue companionship. All of these characters are deluded and define themselves based on cultural expectations, whether in conformity or opposition to. The Lobster ends on a suspended note, blatantly letting us stew on what happens next. Is their any way to succeed in this world, or is the best you can hope for to become a lobster?

The Nice Guys (2016, dir. Shane Black)

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Shane Black is one of the fathers of what would become the 1980s buddy cop genre. His addition was Lethal Weapon, written when Black was 23 years old. Black’s career experienced a slump in the 90s and early 2000s when he wrote and directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. With this film, Black returned to play with the genre he helped create while poking fun at the movie industry. Some critics disliked the self-awareness of the picture even though it had very sharp, funny dialogue. The Nice Guys has found a nice middle ground, where it plays with genre conventions while also delivering a self-contained mystery film.

Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a grizzled private investigator who specializes in helping young women and girls deal with creeps. This crosses his path with who he believes is a creep, Holland March (Ryan Gosling). March is actually a fellow private eye, except he’s a buffoon. The two, along with March’s precocious early teens daughter (Angourie Rice) become embroiled in a mystery that involves the death of a porn star, an enigmatic college student on the run, and the Detroit auto industry.

The Nice Guys does a lot right. It balances being a 1980s buddy cop film set in the late 1970s, as well as being a variation on the film noir genre. There are a lot of failures in the film. Our protagonists are very flawed, as every good noir should have, and they comically fumble and deal with more serious dramatic character flaws. Healy is a man who goes to violence as his first resort and has to deal with a challenge to that way of thinking. March is more of the comic relief, but has his own guilt about the way he’s raised his daughter and how he caused his marriage to go to ruins. The balance between these two and the lynch pin of the entire film is Holly, March’s daughter played by the remarkable Angourie Rice. If this film had been made in the 1970s this is the Tatum O’Neal role.

The mystery is complex and labyrinthine, but with enough clues being delivered through dialogue that a viewer can figure things out as they go. The film does present a hyper-realized 1970s. Driving down Hollywood Boulevard we see posters for a litany of films from the era, characters read newspapers talking about the gas crisis and Los Angeles’ severe smog. In the end, not much of these elements add to up to anything life changing. The resolution of the mystery is fairly straightforward, but keeping in line with the down endings of traditional noir. What The Nice Guys does provide is a fun alternative to the more overblown CGI-fests that typically flood our movie screens this time of year. The film is an enjoyable throwback to a style of film not made often.

Midnight Special (2016, dir. Jeff Nichols)

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

You wouldn’t be wrong if you mistook Midnight Special for a peer to the early film works of Steven Spielberg or akin to something like John Carpenter’s Starman. It’s a film that wears its inspirations close to its heart without becoming a pastiche like Super 8. The shot of a 1972 Chevrolet Chevelle speeding across the wilderness of the Gulf is intended to evoke the sense of the familiar, like a movie you would come across on a Saturday afternoon that you remember from your childhood.

Midnight Special is the story of Alton, an eight year old boy, who is held up as a messiah figure by a religious cult in Texas. He’s kidnapped by his father (Michael Shannon) and a family friend (Joel Edgerton). They embark on a multi-state race against the religious cult and the U.S. government, both of whom have ideas about what Alton is and what he knows. The secret of Alton is something that will change the world’s understanding of the universe, but he had to reach a location in the Florida Everglades by a certain date or his purpose will remain a mystery.

There is very little modern technology present in the film which adds to its timeless feel. Alton reads early 1980s DC Comics during the road trip. A bank of payphones play an important role in bringing a character into the fold. This is a film that, while obvious not in the 1980s, makes you question that face throughout. Adam Driver, as an NSA analyst, comes across as the role Richard Dreyfus would have played had this been made thirty plus years ago. A moment near the end of the film involving a military roadblock of an important access road immediately rang familiar in my head as something out of Close Encounters.

It’s very obvious Nichols is a fan of that and Spielberg’s earlier films. But where the two men split is in the way they portray wonder. Spielberg has his famous slow push in on the awestruck face of a character. Nichols plays things very subtle, which is not always a positive. While, we never feel pushed into sentimentality about the characters there is a sense of distance with them. Withholding a more profound connection with the characters can be frustrating, but in other ways Nichols’ creating an absence of details can add to the mystery. Early on, Alton’s father stands before a man with a gun drawn. The man is in a chair pleading for himself. The scene ends without a resolution. Halfway through the film we learn the man is still alive and never shot. The way it is played works as a surprise and deepening of the mystery that draws us in further.

Nichols is a director intrigued with messiah figures. In Take Shelter (2012) he presents us with a potentially schizophrenic visionary, making us question the reality of the main character’s point of view. He subverts our expectations in the finale of that film and leaves us asking lots of questions. Midnight Special feels more straightforward. We are never meant to question the unearthly power of Alton and see evidence of it from early in the film. This messiah is a tragic figure and I started to view the film through the lens of a story about parents dealing with the death and loss of their child. In the end, our characters are left changed, their faith reshaped. We never truly learn the details around Alton and we are in the survivors’ shoes. Left to wonder about the purpose of this world we inhabit.