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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: BRIGSBY BEAR is a love letter to fandom

The Lonely Island, the comedy trio made up of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone, are best-known for their Saturday Night Live shorts and satirical, off-color films like Hot Rod and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. But with Brigsby Bear, which debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the laugh-a-minute trio attempted something new:  producing a touching tribute to fandom and fan filmmaking.
Directed by fellow SNL crew member Dave McCary and starring cast member Kyle Mooney, Brigsby Bear kicks off in an underground home where the young James Pope (Mooney) lives with the people he believes to be his parents, Ted and April Mitchum (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams). His only connection to humanity beyond them is a part-educational, part-Doctor Who, part-Teddy Ruxpin children’s show called “Brigsby Bear”. James is what you would call a superfan, taking part in message boards and filming YouTube videos with his theories regarding the show. He hoards an entire library of episodes, past and present. To say it’s his life would be an understatement, particularly given that James’s parents won’t let him leave the house due to “toxic air” that could kill him.
One night, James’s entire world changes when the police raid his home and reveal to him that he’d been kidnapped as a baby and held hostage for his entire life by Ted and April. As James returns to his biological family (played by Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, and Ryan Simpkins), who he’s meeting for the first time, he struggles to adapt to the real world or accept the fact that Brigsby Bear was never really a popular television show, but merely a trick his captors played to keep him entertained and educated while he was locked away. So he does what any well-adjusted, eager fan would do: he decides to continue the show as a feature-length film he’ll make himself.
Brigsby Bear feels almost like a strange mash-up of RoomNapoleon Dynamite, and Be Kind Rewind.  On the Room end of things, there are serious moments about the psychological impact of a person being sheltered for his entire existence, which comes pouring out of James at intermittent points. He doesn’t understand how to interact with his new family, nor does he understand basic things we take for granted, like movies, or even the fact that any media at all exists besides Brigsby Bear.  It sounds silly, but McCary and Mooney (who is also the film’s co-writer) mine this material for an extensive amount of pathos, while also playing up the sweet and innocent nature of the character in a comedic fashion.
Mooney’s performance as James echoes something out of Jon Heder’s iconic role from Napoleon Dynamite, but never quite devolves into parody in the same way. The movie lives (and never dies) on his performance. If one could imagine a figure like that existing in our real world, surrounding by the trappings we know, Mooney brings that to life. James is a relateable figure, but never feels like a caricature, instead reflective of some of the more earnest elements of hardcore fandom. Lastly, on the Be Kind Rewind side, the latter half of the movie centers on James’s quest to create his own fan film and the friends he makes in the process of bringing his vision into reality.  Much like in Michel Gondry’s film, the devotion, care, and legitimacy of James’s creations are clear, regardless of the budget or experience behind the amateur filmmakers.
Brigsby Bear never would have worked if it was a film of judgement. While James often receives quizzical looks from his biological parents and acquaintances, he’s never the subject of ridicule by the adults in his life or the teenagers he meets by way of his sister. The latter, I think, is particularly interesting, because 20 years ago, the science fiction fan would have been lampooned or bullied or treated like an outcast. But here, he’s befriended by the popular kid at school, who also happens to like Star Trek and sees a hip irony in the material James loves. Truth be told, Brigsby Bear feels like it’s going out of its way to remind the audience that passion for a fictional property or universe is no less legitimate than a devotion to anything else. In fact, it’s these things we love that shape who we are.
Brigsby Bear never overstays its welcome, running at a lean 97 minutes, and provides some genuinely warm-hearted escapism for even the most cynical among us. It’s a charmingly off-kilter debut for McCary and fingers crossed that The Lonely Island keeps aiming their development interests towards these kind of exciting and unexpected directions.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Kyle's Comics Picks - August 15th, 2017

It's your mid-month look at what's coming this week in comics. There's a few things that catch my eye, so let's get right down to it. As you can tell, I'm just going straight down the Diamond list.

Dead Inside Vol 1 - John Arcudi is always a favorite, and I never got a chance to read this jail-based murder mystery. It looks cool, as most things he does are. Seriously, Arcudi is probably the most underrated mainstream talent working.

Aquaman #27 - I quite like where Dan Abnett has been taking this book, expanding on Arthur's core cast and worrying less about the complicated mythos that could be inherent in the character. Once Stjepan Sejic came on board, it went to a whole new level. One of DC's better efforts right now.

Sandman Special #1 - The idea of these Kirby-based specials has been very appealing, though very little of the main stories (modern day creators taking on classic Kirby concepts) have been able to even remotely stand up next to the reprints that fill out the issues' back-halves. But, I have some hope for this one, not only because of Steve Orlando and/or Jon Bogdonove's involvement, but it's a lesser piece of the Kirby canon and one that's probably easier to take your own spin on without ruffling feathers.

Metal #1 - The big Scott Snyder/Greg Capullo reunion. If this is as bonkers as the preceding prelude issues, this may continue an interesting path of superhero writing for Snyder, likely owing more to the big event comics of that publisher's history rather than his own previous work on Batman. The spoilers that are out there for this one will probably send speculators scurrying to the shops too.

Southern Bastards #17 - The best Image book is back, at least for this week. I can't quite remember where things left off, but I keep hoping the daughter is gonna get her revenge on that football coach, or maybe that crossbow guy will. If I'm that engaged in it, somebody is doing a good job.

Spy Seal #1 - A fun riff on the work of Herge, filtered through Rich Tommaso's sensibilities. This is unlike anything else on the Image roster and should be celebrated as such. If you're looking for a globe-trotting, carefree kind of tale, this comes highly recommended. Gorgeous art throughout.

Mage: Hero Denied #1 - Lots of people are excited about this one. I don't know a thing about it, but if Chuck Forsman tells me it's good, I'm going with that guy's opinion.

Silver Surfer #13 - Not the biggest Dan Slott fan, but it's hard to deny the sheer pleasures derived from this pairing with Mike and Laura Allred. One of Marvel's singular highlights of the past few years.

True Believers Kirby 100th: Captain America #1/The Eternals #1 - More Kirby reprints, this time focusing on a pair of Cap stories, including the landmark first Simon-Kirby issue - still a wonder of action and panel breaking. That's accompanied by a reissue of one of his more intriguing third Marvel era creations.

Ultimates #100 - One of these days I'll get caught up on Al Ewing's Ultimates. I just thought the numbering here was pretty funny given how little carry-over there is from one era of this team to the next, even down the continuity itself.

Furari - The late Jiro Taniguchi's 2011 release hits US shores, a quiet and contemplative tale of a cartographer strolling through Edo-era Japan. This sounds right up my proverbial alley.
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Monday, August 14, 2017

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 191

 Bitch Planet Triple Feature #3
by Valentine DeLandro

Excellent illustration and great retro design and typography in one super fun package!

 Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye #11
by Javier Pulido

Pulido's cartooning is always a blast, and the weirdo concept of the plaid blending everything together perfectly matches this series' tone.

Sandman Special #1
by Paul Pope

Paul Pope on Golden Age DC superheroes with a cosmic touch? Sign me up!

Vampirella #5
by Valentine DeLandro

I know it's only August, but I'm already getting in the Halloween mood. This one is frightening and beautiful, and makes DeLandro more than worthy of two entries in this week's article!

 War For the Planet of the Apes #2
by Jay Shaw

Shaw is known for his clever concepts, and this one is no different; it's smart, eye-catching, and works perfectly with the title design of the book.

Winnebago Graveyard #3
by Alison Sampson

This cover has so much going on that it's hard not to get sucked into deciphering it's mysteries. Well done!

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Sunday, August 13, 2017

QUICK TAKE: Wind River

The Buzz: Taylor Sheridan, who starred in Sons of Anarchy, is one of the few actors to successfully make the leap to a behind-the-scenes profession. In 2015 he wrote his first feature film, Sicario, which netted him an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. In 2016 he followed that up with Hell or High Water, a modern western starring Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine, and also garnered more awards attention. In 2017 we see Sheridan make the leap to directing. Wind River, Sheridan's first major directorial effort (he also wrote the movie), is a mystery/thriller set in a remote Native reservation in Wyoming. The movie stars Elizabeth Olsen as an FBI agent dropped in to assist in solving the rape and murder of a young woman living on the reservation. 

What's Great About the Movie: The concept behind this movie is an important one: the violence against Native women, the lack of resources to successfully prosecute these cases, and the lack of justice for the families impacted by this violence. It seems to be a recurring theme in Sheridan-penned films that the location of the film feels like a character itself, which is definitely the case for Wind River. The film highlights the bleak, desolate living conditions and the chilling, life-ending cold of the surroundings. I wouldn't be surprised to see cinematographer Ben Richardson (known for his work on Beasts of the Southern Wild) garner some award consideration for the way this film is shot. 

What's Not-So-Great About the Movie: Wind River has two major problems, one of which I could get past and the other I couldn't. The one I could live with is the way the mystery is unraveled in the film. The film feels like a thriller/mystery but doles out the story in a way that is fairly anticlimactic; the FBI follows tracks over and over again until they randomly happen upon a resolution, which feels like it comes out of the blue and is mostly told via flashback. The other major flaw in this film, which I think undermines it completely, is the casting of Jeremy Renner as the lead role. Olsen's role as an out-of-her-depth FBI agent works. But Renner's casting and character doesn't make sense (it's not a fault of his acting). He tells the FBI, the reservation police, and everyone around him how to solve the case, makes wistful comments about the hard truths of living on the reservation (even though he does not), and plays the hero at every turn. Sheridan ties the character into the story by giving him a history in which he marries a Native woman and loses his daughter to violence, but it still feels like his presence in the film undermines the point. We also get very few lines or involvement from any Native women, which again feels like it misses the mark in a movie theoretically about them.  

Final Verdict: There are some great things in this film, but it feels a bit overwrought in the dialogue and underthought in the casting and creation of characters. While so many movies look great on paper and fail in execution; this is the rare opposite case - everything was done as well as it could have been, but the core concepts of the movie's casting and dialogue brought it down several notches. 

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Friday, August 11, 2017

Review: LADY MACBETH Is A Bleak Portrait of Privilege and Power

It is easy to take a glance at Lady MacBeth and assume you're in for a fairly typical period drama. Set in England in the mid-1800s, director William Oldroyd and cinematographer Ari Wegner capture the gorgeous costumes and the restrictive ceremony that goes into putting them on, the lonely creek of the film's isolated estate, the chill beauty of rural England. The film is casually restrained, long period's of silence establishing a sleepy - quite literally, for our lead - routine. Its opening minutes feel very familiar. But Oldroyd and writer Alice Birch, adapting a 19th century Russian novella, slowly make it evident that we're watching something much darker than your typical period drama. From the abuse heaped on innocent housemaid Anna to the manipulative sadism of Alexander to his new bride, Katherine, they make it clear that there's a corruption in this household. What isn't immediately obvious is the precise nature of that corruption -- and it is there that Oldroyd and Birch find something brilliant and unsettling.

In Lady MacBeth, Katherine (Pugh) is a newly wed young woman come to the rural estate of her new husband. There, she enters into a literally loveless marriage with a husband who doesn't want her and a father-in-law who blames her for that every morning. Her only company is Anna (Naomi Ackie), the housemaid who wakes her every morning and attends to most of her needs. Two events shake up her sad, dull life: Her husband and father-in-law leave the estate for business, and a brutish new groomsman, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), arrives and tries to force his way into Katherine's affections. In her affair with Sebastian, Katherine finds some degree of freedom, but it is destined to be short-lived with the domineering men in her family soon to return home unless she takes some fairly drastic steps...

It is difficult to take a character from sympathetic to sympathetically monstrous, but Florence Pugh (The Falling) manages to do just that. She has a chillingly vacuous quality at the start of the film that seems like a symptom of the repression of her spirit going on in this house, but slowly reveals itself to have much darker layers. Because she seems so much like an empty vessel at first, though, much of her characters comes through in her interactions with the rest of the cast.

Cosmo Jarvis' role is fascinating, starting off the hyper-confident working class lothario who finds his newest victim to be a bit more than he can handle. Jarvis' cockiness starts off grating, even vicious in his treatment of women. But in Katherine, Sebastian has met his match, finding a woman who refuses to be shamed or submissive, and the audience realizes well before he does that Sebastian is neither strong enough nor emotionally stable enough to handle a relationship like that. I was fascinated by his rocky relationship with Katherine, which allows Pugh to play passionate... but mostly finds her playing piqued and demanding, a smart choice that tells us a lot about what she gets out of this relationship.

Likewise, Naomi Ackie's Anna, the film's only true innocent, is a good sign of who Katherine is well before the rest of the world catches up. Ackie is the only one who is with Pugh through the beginning, and the story modulates itself almost completely off her performance. Indeed, two of the film's most memorable scenes are wordless... and belong completely to Ackie, who can convey the injustices of the world without a word like few other actors. This is Ackie's first role in a feature film, and I was enormously impressed at how much she did with a very slim role.

Lady MacBeth is a Russian nesting doll of privilege and cruelty. In the beginning, it seems like it will be a feminist parable, a story about a young woman taking back her own life and livelihood through any means necessary. But Birch and Oldroyd slowly upend expectations, demonstrating that for all that she was put upon by the men in her life, Katherine was not without considerable privilege herself. She's happy to take power away from her husband and father, but sharing it with the rest of the abused household? What seemingly begins as a woman's fight for freedom quickly becomes a much more chilling story about what people in power will do to stay in power, the small rural estate a potent synecdoche for wider systemic issues.

This, of course, makes Lady MacBeth a pretty rough watch at times, particularly given its violence to its black cast. The film consciously works to strip you of people to root for and flip your sympathies. It actively invites you to forget and marginalize its most innocent character,  It may look like a period drama, with all the beautiful cinematography and gorgeous costumes that entails, but this movie has the bleak, beating heart of a truly twisted psychosexual thriller. It's nasty, brutish, and short, the kind of movie that could attract some of the same audience - and some of the same criticism - as Gone Girl, but I think Oldroyd and Birch found an interesting way to use modern intersectional feminism to breath new life into old class struggles. Come for the gorgeous period trappings; stay for the brutal societal critique.

Lady MacBeth is out now in select theaters. Written by Alice Birch adapting Nikolai Leskov's 1865 novella "Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District," and directed by William Oldroyd, Lady MacBeth stars Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, and Naomi Ackie.
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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Do You Have Superhero Movie Fatigue?

Superhero Movie Fatigue -- it's everywhere! Symptoms may include a chronic inability to develop interest in even the raddest Thor: Ragnarok trailer, cynicism in the face of the pure joy of the afrofuturistic design of Black Panther, and a tendency to self-diagnose with superhero movie fatigue and write thinkpiece after thinkpiece after thinkpiece about it. If you or someone you love is suffering from Superhero Movie Fatigue, life may seem hopeless, summers, joyless. Well, we here at GeekRex have studied the disease, and we have some good news and some bad news for you: On the upside, Superhero Movie Fatigue may not actually exist; on the downside, the problem may be far, far worse than you thought.

First, a confession: I sometimes think I myself am coming down with superhero movie fatigue. Each new Marvel Studios movie I see, once a yearly event I greatly anticipated, ultimately leaves me feeling... fine. Not particularly good, not particularly bad, just... okay. DC is a mess, despite the success of Wonder Woman, so I'm hardly anticipating Justice League. And, let's be honest - I like a number of Valiant Comics, but even I'm hardly excited at the prospect of a Bloodshot film, and I'm an easier sell than most for that kind of thing.

So, this essay is personal. I still like superhero films. I want to see what Taika Waititi can do with them, and I'd much rather see Deadpool 2 than, say, Live Free and Die Harder or another Avatar. And yet, I haven't rewatched Doctor Strange since I saw it in theaters. I left Spider-Man: Homecoming with little more than an urge to rewatch Sam Raimi's superior Spider-Man 2. Raimi's film has worse effects, weaker banter, less of the high school connection I typically so enjoy with the character... but it has something that makes me keep coming back to it while Marvel Studios' more faithful take fades rapidly from my memory.

But I was also inspired to write this by conversations I've had or seen in film discussion groups on social media, both from critics and from more casual viewers. I was always a little uncertain in those conversations. I both like superhero movies and am clearly growing fatigued with some aspect of them, but at the same time, I would disagree strongly with their language. They often would talk of a glut of superhero films, and my reaction was always the same: A glut? Really? Just a couple years ago, there were more Westerns, widely considered a dead genre, released theatrically than superhero films... and as long as other films were still getting financed and released, it's not as if there's a law saying you must see Guardians of the Galaxy 2 or Suicide Squad. It seemed odd to complain about a handful of movies you don't plan on seeing coming out each year. And yet... I felt the same way!

Well, about some of it. Because I noticed something odd. The idea of superhero fatigue wasn't just something that was brought up in the conversation around superhero films. The same language - sometimes even down to the word superhero - was being used by many of my savvy cinephile friends when talking about movies that didn't really, well, fit the bill. What is it, I began to wonder, that linked Spider-Man: Homecoming - a movie that is by and large fairly critically well-received and enjoyed by audiences - with something like The Mummy or Transformers: The Last Knight to these viewers?

At first, I thought that what we all had was, in a way, 'Bad Movie Fatigue'. But that doesn't quite work, in my opinion, for a few reasons. Bad movies have always existed, and while they may cost more and take up a bit more of the national conversation today than twenty years back, let's not pretend like the 2000s or any decade prior was full to bursting with cinematic masterpieces every summer. Hollywood has always tossed good money after bad and hoped we wouldn't notice until the box office had been recouped and the next piece of trash was on our screens. Beyond that, many of the films that so fatigue us are actually quite popular, both with critics and with audiences. While popularity and even critical acclaim are hardly the same thing as quality, that does suggest something else. But if it isn't quality, what is it? This is where, I think, the problem began to metastasize.

Look, there are some people who just don't like superheroes. That's fine. But it's hard to imagine being truly fatigued - that is, going from loving superhero movies to no longer caring or being interested in them - off a handful of films each year, not all of which you will see. But the trends started by Marvel Studios, the 'universification' of film franchises? That is rapidly becoming omnipresent. It's not just that Marvel puts out two films a year and DC puts out two films a year. It's about 'The Conjuring Universe' going toe-to-toe with 'the Universal Monsters Universe', about the potentially upcoming 'The Fast & The Furious-verse' and needing to outperform the already-announced Transformers spin-offs, all of which are gunning for Disney's throne with the join Marvel and Star Wars Superfranchises. 

In a Superfranchise, every film is a half-finished ad for the next film rather than a story in its own right, a neverending daisy chain of almost-finished arcs asking you to tune in next time. In a Superfranchise, the real big bad is always hovering at the periphery; what you're seeing now is just eternal prelude to the Big Event. The Superfranchise is safe and samey -- there will be no Black Widow film because it's not 'on brand' for every other film in the Superfranchise. Regular franchises have long since earned, if not respect from the critical establishment then at least a grudging acknowledgment that they weren't going anywhere. But what Marvel Studios ushered in when Samuel L. Jackson appeared at the end of Iron Man to talk about 'the Avengers Initiative' is not a franchise, just like Wal-Mart or Amazon, the modern superstores, are not merely 'big box' shops like Barnes & Noble.

This helps explain another persistent issue I have with the normal 'superhero fatigue' model of the discussion: Why don't normal audiences seem to be feeling it? My parents hardly like superhero movies, but they've never claimed to be fatigued, and they'll still see them the way they will any movie: If one becomes dominant enough in the cultural conversation, they'll check it out. The rise of the Superfranchise helps explain that, too; they don't know that there are 18 more Marvel movies and 12 more DC movies already planned, announced, and cast. They haven't heard about the massive marketing blitz, or noticed the easter eggs promoting upcoming #content, or realized that the reason the end of the movie felt so disconnected was because it had to set up a sequel and two spin-offs that are already under production. For those who keep up with film news, these moments are the long, naked arms of producers and marketers moving pieces around the board in lieu of genuine story; for those who are largely disconnected, it's just an off moment in an otherwise engaging spectacle. An avid bookstore shopper might notice the rapid closure of first indie stores and later big boxes in the face of Amazon; a casual consumer just notices how low the prices are.

If you're at all like me, then I don't think you have Superhero Movie Fatigue; you have Superfranchise Fatigue.The hand of studio meddling has become much more naked to us all, visible in the samey visual style and board-setting storytelling decisions. It may have started with Marvel Studios, but it has grown to envelop franchises as disparate as Universal Monsters and The Fast and the Furious. To me, that's bad news for us all, because that will be a much, much harder trend for American film to buck than the kinds of clothes the heroes of our beat-'em-ups wear
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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Kyle's Comics Picks - August 8, 2017

With the Summer entering its waning days and SDCC now past us, I thought I might try my hand at an regular/irregular column, taking a stab at comics that interest me. And maybe you. Because I'm lazy, I'm not bothering with cover art or anything of the sort. Hey, it's my article, I can do whatever I want!

Hellboy and the BPRD 1955: Secret Nature - Another Roberson co-written Hellboy comic. His current tenure as the flashback/continuity guy for this property has been a little mixed, with both good (1953, The Visitor) and less satisfying entries (1954, Rise of the Black Flame). But I'm never not going to be curious about a Mignolaverse comic. This is a one-shot.

Mister Miracle #1 - The reunion of Tom King and Mitch Gerads, the latter is one of my favorite current artists - whose approach reminds me of a cleaner Alex Maleev, an appeal which may only be mine, but I do enjoy it quite a bit. Their last Batman collaboration was a hoot.

Justice League of America #12 - Steve Orlando is one of the better dialogue writers in superhero comics, and this issue brings back Ivan Reis and looks to be a fun tribute to the old Sword of the Atom concept. Sign me up.

Kill Or Be Killed #11 - I'm way behind on this Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips opus, but what I've read up to finally got its hooks into me with its 7th and 8th issue. Worth a look, as always.

The Wicked & The Divine #30 - I'm also behind on this, but I'm sure it's still good, which they've all been - except for that magazine issue.

Marvel True Believers Specials - Marvel's last-minute Kirby anniversary effort is worthy of note just because of the sheer appeal of the material it reprints. This week it's a selection of giant monster stories, one of which features star of the big-screen Groot, and another pair representing some really fun Thor comics. For a buck each, you can't lose.

Palookaville #23 - Seth finishes off Clyde Fans and keeps on with an autobio story in the backend. Great low-key cartooning as always I'm sure.

Neonomicon h/c - On the "let the buyer beware" front, here is Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows' prequel to their widely praised Providence. It's well-written, as most Moore things are, but it's also pretty gruesome and hard to bear - far moreso than the majority of his catalog. It's the only comic I ever returned to the store for fear of having it on my shelf. But you may be more risk-averse than I.
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