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Monday, April 23, 2018

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 224

Ice Cream Man #4
by Martin Morazzo

Mother Panic: Gotham A.D. #2
by Tommy Lee Edwards

 Redneck #12
by Nick Pitarra

Darth Vader #15
by Elia Bonetti

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Sunday, April 22, 2018

AFF 2018: Best of the Fest - Short Films

Perhaps my favorite thing about going to film festivals is the unique opportunity to see short films. Shorts are such a wonderful format for telling a story and are often more engaging and memorable than their feature counterparts. This year at the Atlanta Film Festival I had the opportunity to see over forty short films; here are some of the best of the bunch. Please visit the websites and support these filmmakers by seeking out their work and following what they do next!

directed by Christopher Winterbauer, USA, 19:45
Official Site

This short takes place in a weird version of 1995 in which boys and girls are fitted with a collar that monitors their sexual progress and only comes off once they've reached specific levels. For Wyrm, "popping his collar" means having his first kiss, and he's only got two days left to do it or face being the only kid in his grade that still has a collar. This one is hilarious, super stylish, and really clever. It's full of color, but utilizes every tool available to make this world as deadpan as possible, and the results are memorable and laugh out loud funny.

基石 (Fundamental)
directed by Shih-Chieh Chiu, Taiwan, 7:10
Official Site

This animated short tracks a young man's relationship with religion in an abstract but wholly recognizable way. He fears the judgment of the priest and so babbles in tongues to try to fit in, feels guilty about masturbating, and gets stuck in a cycle of guilt and asking for the church's forgiveness in the film's especially effective climax. Fundamental is smart, funny, and frightening all at once, and the animation style and strong editing are perfectly suited to tell this story.

Tête à Tête
directed by Natasha Tonkin, United Kingdom, 7:41
Official Site

The concept is simple enough: a family struggles to connect with each other while their phones dominate their lives. The animation style is super unique though, using black and white stop motion for the faces, hands and objects while their bodies and the setting are all in color and use life size models. It's eye-catching and works perfectly when it uses this style to portray phone activity visually, at times even having the Instagram posts create a literal wall between the characters.

Negative Space
directed by Max Porter & Ru Kuwahata, France, 5:30
Official Site

This stop-motion animated short tells the story of a man whose connection with his father is explored through their shared love of carefully packing a suitcase before a trip. The narrator shows us the various techniques–what to fold and what to roll, how to keep shoes from dirtying up the clothes underneath, etc.–and the animation that portrays it all is lush and fun. The real treat here is how this simple idea grows into larger, beautiful concepts, like the suitcase's contents acting as waves on a beach, or the car that the father leaves in pulling the zipper closed on the suitcase for the next trip. The ending of the film is poignant and touching, and shows that even something as mundane as packing a bag might be a cherished key to remembering a loved one.

directed Sara Litzenberger, USA, 2:49
Official Site

This lovely animated short aims to explain why we still don't have a clear picture of Sasquatch: because he's very picky about how he looks in photographs. Undiscovered is cute, funny, and ingenious. The animation style, reminiscent of the comic Lumberjanes, is gorgeous and smartly minimalistic, and the vocal performances are just perfect. This one is super fun!

Dream Phone
directed by Kendra Lohr, USA, 3:43
Official Site

This experimental short (which you can see in its entirety above) is a wild tribute to the weird look and feel of old dating board games and PSAs. The animation is comprised out of a mix of archival footage, magazine clippings, and scribbly drawings and the blend is mesmerizing and super fun. It's narrated by the theme songs from these bizarre games and voice overs from these and PSAs: "When you open the door, will your mystery date be a dream or a dud?" There's an odd sense of fantastical romance throughout that's really interesting.

directed by Sam Gurry, USA, 1:07
Official Site

This micro short is described in this way: "I was in a bowling league in third grade where I routinely rolled my ball into the next lane and ate a lot of cheese fries." This perfectly describes the fun of this one, which is animated with LPBA (Ladies Professional Bowling Association) trading cards from the early '90s. It plays a lot like a music video, with the music being a dirty recording of a punk song all about making strikes and spares. This is one minute of film that I could watch a hundred times and shows the sheer enjoyment that experimental filmmaking can provide.

Arlo Alone
directed by Nicole Dorsey, Canada, 16:28
In a future in which strong UV radiation prevents people from leaving their homes, Arlo grows increasingly lonely despite her constant texting and video calls. After an accident, her health insurance sends an "emergency contact," a woman trained to take care of someone in place of an actual friend or family member. Arlo Alone is excellently designed and performed, and sits firmly in the camp of classic science fiction. In many ways, it is reminiscent of Black Mirror, and has some interesting ideas I haven't seen before.

Souls of Totality
directed by Richard Raymond, USA, 18:44

On the day of the recent Solar Eclipse, a cult prepares to "exit this plane" during the cosmic event. A woman and her partner's excitement for the event is dashed when she is given the responsibility of staying behind to guide the next group for the next eclipse. It's an interesting concept on its own, but the ending of the film which consists of a long take that was literally filmed during the eclipse totality as the light dims and returns is both stunning and incredibly impressive. Talk about only having one chance to get it right!
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Friday, April 20, 2018

AFF Review: WAITING FOR DAVID unveils the present day impact of the Branch Davidian cult

Cults are something that we as a society seem to be fascinated with; just look at all the attention that Scientology's celebrity membership gets, or Tarantino's upcoming adaptation of the the Manson Murders, or 1974's Helter Skelter, which is still the best selling crime book of all time more than forty years later. We all often eat up these news stories of someone escaping, or when the worst happens and people end up injured or dead during the chaotic last days of the cult. Waiting for David, directed by first timers Karin Oleander and Emelie Svensson, dives into a subject not often broached, though: what happens to those cult members after those headlines?

At its core, the documentary follows Clive Doyle, a follower of the Branch Davidian cult of David Koresh, and one of the survivors of the stand off and fire that claimed the lives of 76 people in 1993. Clive's daughter was one of the many children that died in the last day of the siege in Waco, but Clive is still a loyal follower today; in fact, he believes that at some point Karesh will literally rise from the grave to return to his flock.

Waiting for David begins with a very sympathetic look at this old man and his friend, who live together watching movies on VHS and methodically compiling information from thousands of books on herbal remedies just to have something to do. Over time, however, the film gradually adds in interviews with other survivors, most of which are very critical of what was happening under the guise of a new religion. It seems that Koresh was using his power as the leader of the cult to have sex with many of the women, often having children with them, and in some cases the women were very, very young. This is where the film gets especially interesting.

Clive, whose deceased daughter may have been one of the girls raped by Koresh, must find a way to reconcile this with his admiration and worship of the man, and this is where a lot of his sympathy goes out the window. He claims that when a girl beings menstruating, she's ready to bear children and its her own decision to have intercourse or not with who she wishes. This is obviously problematic to say the least, but it creates an even more fascinating look into the mindset of a cultist–did he believe this before, or is it something he's had to make himself believe because of what happened?

Waiting for David is a very well crafted documentary that is engaging from start to finish. The subject is, on its own, a very compelling one, but the number of interviews Oleander and Svensson were able to capture–including one with one of Koresh's sons–really ups the ante. The use of animations to explain some of what happened in Waco works well, and the archival footage and audio recordings are entrancing and expertly edited. The only real issue with the film is its length: at a mere 41 minutes it just barely makes the Academy's cutoff for a feature, and feels more like a long short film. Although making Clive the center of the story is a smart move, the movie could have easily balanced it with more material on the history of the cult itself–how it was formed, how Clive got involved, his relationship with Koresh, etc. Perhaps an intercutting between these two things might provide a fuller picture of why Clive still believes while still giving the gut-punch revelation of his troublesome reasoning.

Even so, it is an absorbing 41 minutes and a fantastic film. I look forward to seeing if Oleander and Svensson expand on this story or move onto another subject, but either way I'm interested!

Waiting for David premiered last night at the Atlanta Film Festival. You can find more information about the film on it's official website.
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Thursday, April 19, 2018

AFF Review: RBG is inspiring and entertaining

For better or for worse, we find ourselves living in a version of America in which celebrities are politicians and politicians are celebrities. In the last few years, one of the surprising additions to this group is the 84-year old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has amassed a huge following in her later years from young progressives. It's not surprising, then, that now is the perfect time to do a deep dive into her history and achievements as the world wonders how much longer she'll stay in the Court.

RBG begins brilliantly with an intro that knows its audience well; while we cut from low angle shots of angrily pointing statues, we hear the voices of political commentators espousing the evils of a woman that sits on the Supreme Court. From there the film shows Ginsburg as the icon she has become, working out to stay fit while hip hop music plays under the credits. 

The film smartly uses Ginsburg's 1993 senate confirmation hearing testimony as the backbone of the narrative as she tells the story of her life. This is a clever narrative device, as it sets up the story to lead up to this turning point when she would become a Supreme Court Justice. It also shows us some familiar faces at the hearing, including Joe Biden who was chairing the committee. We get a little background on her childhood, where we hear for the first of many times that she's "not much for small talk" before diving headlong into her journey towards the Supreme Court.

Where RBG succeeds best is in its blend of the personal and political story of the woman, and the touching and long-lasting romance between herself and her husband Marty. His support of his trailblazing wife is admirable, but the documentary never strays too far from showing how hard Ginsburg worked on her own to achieve all she has. From raising a child while attending law school (as one of something like 9 females in a class of 500 at Harvard) and taking care of a very ill husband, the film makes it clear that she was something of a real life superhero.

The story of her rise to the Supreme Court is a fascinating and inspiring one. RBG shows how she followed in the footsteps of Thurgood Marshall, taking on cases that could go to the Supreme Court and affect progressive change, one step at a time. Ginsburg argued in favor of equal benefits for women and men and equal pay for starters, winning the grand majority of the cases. President Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. in 1980 and, thanks in part to the campaigning of her husband and friends, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 by President Clinton. RBG also tracks how in recent years she has become something of a progressive icon, and the film has some fun showing some of the "Notorious RBG" memes and SNL sketches that have come out of this support.

Regardless of the historically important information presented, sometimes documentaries like these can play out like an hour and a half of CSPAN, but RBG uses a number of techniques to keep it consistently interesting and entertaining. The film creates compelling scenes of some of her cases by overlaying text dramatically within the setting of the courtroom while recordings play in the background. It is also edited and structured in such a way that it never gets boring, as there's always another case, relationship, or idea to explore, and the interviews with family, friends, and even adversaries fill in these bits quite nicely.

While the film is largely a cheerleading piece for the 84-year old Justice, it doesn't shy away from the bits that might make liberal viewers cringe a bit. This includes her surprising friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who could apparently always make her laugh despite their polar opposite interpretations of the constitution. It also touches on her controversial words on Trump during his campaign, of which even some of her supporters said were grossly inappropriate coming form a Justice of the Supreme Court.

All in all, RBG is a great documentary about an important figure in the women's rights movement and modern lawmaking. It is crafted with a clear respect for her many achievements while always aiming to uncover the true woman underneath the legend. I'm not sure that we'll see another documentary this entertaining and exciting this year, and given that it comes out in early May, might just be the perfect Mother's Day movie!

RBG is directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West and was produced by CNN Films and Storyville Films. It releases to theaters on May 4th. Learn more on the film's official site.
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Monday, April 16, 2018

AFF Review: TULLY is surprising and charming

On its face (and from the marketing materials), Tully looks like a sort of fairy tale for new mothers: after the exhausted mother of her third child, Marlo (Charlize Theron), is gifted a "night nanny" Tully (Mackenzie Davis), her life suddenly turns around and becomes fun again as she's able to do it all. It looks a bit like the opposite of Marlo's initial worry, that the night nanny will try to take over her family "like one of those Lifetime movies that ends with the mother walking with a cane." There's an element of that kind of escapism in the movie, but only for a while, and Tully goes so much deeper than that.

First, the most obvious thing to note about the movie is its honesty. The difficulty of motherhood is portrayed with a clever and casual reality, especially in the new mother montage that cuts sharply from one late night feeding mishap to another, from spilling some freshly pumped breast milk to accidentally dropping her phone onto the infant that's just fallen back asleep. The movie is unflinching in its commitment to not hiding these trials, and it often results in a humor that hits right at home; a great example is when Marlo takes off her shirt at the breakfast table (her son just spilled his juice all over it) and her daughter innocently comments, "Mom, what's wrong with your body?"

As much as that humor comes from the page–the film is written by the always sharp-witted Diablo Cody–Theron's performance is what truly makes the film something special. She embodies the character of Marlo perfectly: embattled but desperate to find some way to be the wild, open-minded partier of her youth amidst a lack of sleep and the difficulties of raising a special needs child. She's funny and charming, and it's impossible not to fall in love with her. It doesn't hurt that Mackenzie Davis is absolutely perfectly cast as the titular Tully, too; as director Reitman said after the screening, she has "infinitely curious eyes" that make her innocently youthful questioning of Marlo's depression a comforting presence rather than an obnoxious one.

Tully is a much more complex film than it first appears. What could have been a simple studio comedy about how to be a good mom becomes, in the hands of Reitman and Cody, something more interesting and surprising. I didn't expect to make comparisons of this movie to something like The Babadook, but the two actually have a lot in common about finding a new identity and building relationships with your children, especially when they are having developmental issues.

What especially sets Tully apart, though, is that it pulls off something that few films do: it subtly hides its themes inside another story, not to be revealed until its surprising climax. I'd be crazy to ruin it, but suffice to say that it takes a turn that suddenly makes the film's central ideas seem to float to the surface of what you've just seen. It's almost two movies in that way–one about sharing the load and youth bringing life back into a tired existence and another about how our identities change as we transition from childhood to adulthood (or parenthood, in particular). Both work well, but when laid on top of each other as the movie brilliantly does, it feels a little like magic.

There's almost a sort of trilogy here, as this is the third collaboration between Cody and Reitman: from the sudden onset of adulthood in Juno to the putting off of adulthood in Young Adult to the complicated, messy look at that transition in a less exaggerated way in Tully. For my money, Tully is the best of the three and manages to be exceptionally mature without losing any of the magic charm that these two always seem to produce.

Tully is written by Diablo Cody, directed by Jason Reitman, and stars Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis. It opens in theaters on May 4th.
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Best covers of the Week, Vol. 223

Action Comics #1000
by Mike Allred

 Mister Miracle #8
by Mitch Gerads

 Rumble #5
by Gabriel Hernandez Walta

 The Spider King #3
by Simone D'Armini

Batwoman #14
by Dan Panosian

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Sunday, April 15, 2018

AFF Review: YAMASONG: MARCH OF THE HOLLOWS is an impressive puppetry showcase

For one reason or another, Atlanta has become a home for the puppetry arts; from the Center for Puppetry Arts to the ever growing Late Night Puppet Slam at DragonCon, it's a scene that continues to surprise me with its breadth and uniqueness. That's why it is particularly exciting to have a puppetry feature film play at this year's Atlanta Film Festival, and Yamasong: March of the Hollows does not disappoint.

The film tells an epic tale; it begins with the narrator (Bruce Davison) explaining how he left his war-torn world through a portal to start a new one, creating a race of clockwork robots called "hollows" on the planet Yamasong. Over time, the leader of the hollows, Yari (Whoopi Goldberg), decided to become like her creator and make a new race herself by converting the planets living organisms into mechanical hollows for her army. For their hubris, the hollows were locked up in a prison moon, but Yari creates an innocent hollow named Nani (Abigail Breslin) who is able to bypass the prison's security. Nani escapes and becomes intertwined with a terrapin warrior named Shojun (Nathan Fillion) just before Yari herself escapes and war breaks out on the planet once again.

Sounds complicated, right?

One of the biggest pitfalls that fantasy films encounter is to create too much too fast, confusing the viewer rather than engaging them. Luckily for us, Yamasong creates a rich mythology without ever feeling overly complicated or difficult to connect with. That's not to say the world it establishes is simple; far from it. There are several interesting races, from the robotic hollows and warrior terrapins to goat-like creatures that live in the mountains and "tricksters," aliens that live on asteroids surrounding the planet. The world-building is impressive and at times quite exciting to dive into.

The puppetry itself is splendid; the looks of all the different creatures is unique, each crafted with careful detail. Most surprising though is that the film succeeds at creating extended martial arts action scenes with puppets that work just perfectly. It's not just a punch here and a kick there–the fights are elegant and dynamic, full of flips, dodges, flying around on other creatures and generally making you forget you're watching puppets jump around. The Asian-inspired score adds a lot to the action, as does the admirably crafted sound design that never misses a beat.

The story of March of the Hollows, a sequel to director Sam Koji Hale's short film Yamasong, is a fun and engaging one that rivals that of other standalone fantasy films and is reminiscent of Studio Ghibli films at times. The clear themes revolve around family as nearly every character is trying to relate to their father, mother, sibling, or child in one misguided way or another.

Of course it's impossible not to mention the stellar voice cast of the film, which boasts great performances from Whoopi Goldberg, George Takei, Malcolm McDowell, Bruce Davison, Ed Asner, Peter Weller, and Freida Pinto in addition to its leads Abigail Breslin and Nathan Fillion. Their talent and variety in vocal style really brings the fantastic world of Yamasong to life.

Despite its relatively short running time of 95 minutes, there are a few spots where it tends to run a little long; there are a fair amount of shots of characters looking around or thinking that just feel a bit prolonged that probably could have been cut a bit shorter. That's a minor quibble, however, and overall the film left a very positive impact. Given that Hale and co. have managed to create a mythology and arguably a new genre–Puppet Martial Arts Fantasy–I'll be very interested to see what he and his team move onto next!

Yamasong: March of the Hollows had it's world premiere at the Atlanta Film Festival on Sunday, April 11th. You can find out more by visiting the film's official site or Facebook page.
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