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Saturday, September 24, 2016

The GeekRex Podcast Episode 132: Movie Club #6 - Close-Up

The GeekRex Movie Club returns with Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up! If you haven't seen this brilliantly meta docu-fiction film, it's available on Amazon–give it a watch and have a listen to our thoughts on how the film explores the relationship between documentary and fiction and cinephilia, as well as a healthy dose of background on Iranian cinema.

You can listen below, or subscribe on iTunes to never miss an episode! If you like the show, or have any comments or ideas, we'd love to hear them! Check us out on Facebook or Twitter. See you next week!

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Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review: THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (or how Kyle came to a greater understanding of Chris Pratt through crisis)

Picture the scene...

The title team, a group of oddly paired gunmen, has gathered to come defend the town of Rose Creek from the machinations of ruthless industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), a murderous businessman who in a grand statement in the film's prologue, mixes religious fervor with financial gain and plays like a sort of Old West Donald Trump figure in that moment. With the team finally assembled, a standoff occurs between these "magnificent" rogues and the thugs hired by the villain to keep watch on the town and his prospective growing empire.

Between them you get the typical tough guy posturing and threats of violence. Before the hail of gunfire begins, Chris Pratt's Josh Faraday says the following to one of the chief minions:

"And you'll be murdered....by the world's greatest..lover". 

He says it with this exact same inflection, and some level of pain on his face. The line is clearly supposed to be played for laughs, but Pratt's expression tells a different tale. One of an actor struggling with something that he knows isn't funny, but has to deliver it anyway. This micro-form of existential crisis stuck with me for far longer than I should admit.

For the next hour-plus, I was struck with questions. "Did Pratt and Antoine Fuqua ever have a discussion about the pacing of this line of dialogue?" "Did they both know it was terrible?" "Was this screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto's idea of humor? I know he's never a funny guy, so why did he attempt it here? Did anyone try to stop him?" "How did this make it through multiple drafts? Why didn't he co-writer Richard Wenk step in?" 

I envisioned an excited Chris Pratt, at the premiere of the film, his anticipation turning to dread as the scene he had long forgotten about in between his busy sci-fi filming schedule (Passengers and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2) was about to rear its ugly head. His hands tighten on the grips of his seat, and as the words are uttered out of the 22 ft tall projection of his own visage, a cold sweat breaks across his brow. He turns and looks at his wife, the comedic-actress Anna Farris, and gives her a look that could make a 1000 Starlord fans sick with worry. Perhaps he even mouthed a silent, "I'm sorry". 

No one else would know, except perhaps whoever was seated to Farris' left, perhaps Denzel Washington. Did he see this bit of non-verbal dialogue? Did he think that Farris just didn't like the movie? Did this irreparably damage his and Pratt's relationship? Speaking of relationships, did Farris lose respect for Pratt in that moment? Or did she feel a greater connection to him than ever before having recalled her own laugh-free involvement in the Key and Peele film, Keanu

The screening ruined and Pratt returned to their abode a broken man....a sad sack version of the actor, with puppy dog eyes, sitting on the couch, thinking of all the different types of lines he could have improvised. Fighting back angry tears his played all the possible scenarios in his mind, all the sorts of machismo he could have conjured, had he not been shackled to a dour dramatists' attempt at "being funny", and the director given him any freedom at all to stray from the script. The rage palpable in his fists, he chucked his copy of True Detective Season 1 (because why would you own Season 2?) into the garbage. It was a moral victory, and a small one at that, but the next time he saw Pizzolatto in town...perhaps at The Ivy on business lunch, he'd be sure to greet him in a sneering fashion, with the only thought in the back of his mind, "I got you back, asshole!".

He looked forward to the filming of Avengers: Infinity War, as he so desperately wanted to sit down with Robert Downey Jr and talk shit about Pizzolatto. He relished the thought of the snarky, and smooth like a bottle of Aqua Velva, Downey unraveling tales of how he "fixed Perry Mason" and did it in a way that the writer didn't even know it was happening. Pratt would sit rapt in attention at the thought of one of his peers utterly triumphing in this way, though he was instantly crippled with self-doubt once this scenario played out in his head: "I'll always be known as the replacement Marvel funny guy, the not-Tony Stark of these damn movies! And I'm doing them for the next decade???"

The crushing weight of the world collapsed onto his head, and he curled into a ball on the couch, with only Farris to comfort him or perhaps pity him, massaging his muscular shoulders. Chris Pratt was, in that moment, the world's loneliest man. Adored by millions, but unloved by the most important person in his life: himself.

In that moment, I became Chris Pratt. Would I be funnier? Would wealth and fame follow? Or was this a simple case of mind-meld to the point that Pratty (as I like to call him now) was experiencing my own thoughts and fears? Perhaps he woke up in the middle of the night worrying how he would write a review of this very film and then quickly turn back over with shrug: "movie review??". If he starts a blog in the next few weeks, now you'll know why.

After I woke from this daze incurred by less than 10 seconds of the film, I tried my best to enjoy the rest of The Magnificent Seven. It's solid. It hits basically all the same beats as the Kurosawa original (and brutally pales in comparison) but it's hard to screw up this basic formula. It makes some attempts at diversity in casting, though it's that surface level kind of thing where the Asian guy is really good at knives and the Native American can't speak fluent English until he suddenly can, and eats raw meat for ceremony at the drop of a hat.

But there's still some fun to be had, and it's quickly paced, so it doesn't feel like it ever overstays its welcome (which is a feat for a 2 hour movie). Washington, Sarsgaard, and D'Onofrio all look like they're having fun, Sarsgaard is especially hammy in a way that kept me attuned to the goings on. There's a bit of a character revelation towards the end that I think undermines a lot of what made the Kurosawa film so great, and defined its protagonists as purely good and mostly selfless, but up that point, if you need a cinematic escape, this will do the trick. Just don't buy into the hype that it's some kind of critique on Trump's America.

But really, I wish they transplanted this to another time period altogether, just to freshen things up a tad.

Oh, and it ends on a line that's much worse than the fever-dream inducing bit above. The word magnificent is definitely used.

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Monday, September 19, 2016

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 144

Black Hammer #3
by Dean Ormston

Ormston has managed to recreate the feel of classic pulp sci-fi in a modern way with these covers, and I think this is my favorite so far.

 Carnage #12
by Michael Walsh

A clever and well-executed horror concept, just in time for the beginning of the Halloween season!

 International Iron Man #7
by Alex Maleev

I love the bright, primary color palette used here, and the vertical action works perfectly for a cover.

 Invisible Republic #11
by Gabriel Hardman

I like the framing here, with the focus on the top right with a distant perspective on the left. Nice warm color choices as well.

 Seven to Eternity #1
by Jerome Opeña

The combination of western movie poster and pulp science fiction works phenomenally here!

Vision #11
by Mike Del Mundo

Unsurprisingly, Del Mundo knocks out another fantastic concept that makes you wonder, "How has nobody done this before?"

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Friday, September 16, 2016

Review: KICKS is a magical inner-city odyssey and a striking debut

Every few years, there's a film whose major aim is to underline the plight of the inner-city, and they can be a hit or miss proposition dependent upon the filmmaker and the authenticity of voice that lies behind each script. Sometimes you get Do The Right Thing or Fruitvale Station, sometimes you get Crash or Dangerous Minds.

Kicks filmmaker, Justin Tipping, making his debut with this long-look at the struggle of inner-city youth and the essential form of masculinity that it takes to thrive and in some cases, survive, in the impoverished streets of San Francisco and Oakland. Tipping grew up in a neighborhood just like the one the film's protagonists walk through daily, and has a deep understanding of just how important the presentation of wealth is to these young men, who can just as easily be on the edge of a severe beating as they can be surrounded and adored by a bevy of women. It's a thin razor's edge that separates the two, and Kicks skillfully executes a first-person look at this, at-times, tragic way of life.

At the center of the film, is as you can imagine, a pair of shoes; a 1985 set of Air Jordan 1's. Brandon (Jahking Guillory), a small-framed, bushy-haired youth, who holds a remarkably strong resemblance to Jaden Smith (which the film makes mention of), is at the bottom of the food-chain among his teenage crowd. To demand respect among his peers, to whom hip-hop culture is the center of their universe, Brandon understands that his "shoe-game" has to improve from the worn-down low tops that he wears at school and the basketball courts that he frequents with his two best friends, the overweight jokester Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace) and the handsome Rico (Christopher Meyer). In turn, Brandon scrimps and saves, and despite not having enough to buy the shoes of his dreams at the store, a man in a van comes along like magic and imparts the shoes in question. With these new "kicks", Brandon finds himself talking with girls, and even able to produce some freestyle to himself, where before he was never able to improvise with his friends.

Sadly, within a day, Brandon gets "jacked" by a local crew of toughs, led by the vicious Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), and is left a broken-shell, having to wear his mother's slippers just to get around after Flaco takes those prized Nikes. With revenge on his mind, and a former felon uncle (Mahershala Ali) in Oakland who he hopes can provide some assistance in finding his nemesis, Brandon strikes out on a cross-city trip of discovery with his two friends, where not everyone will make it out in one piece.

One of the admirable traits of Kicks is that it doesn't take a villainous tack with its antagonist, or paint its lead as an admirable hero undergoing a trial that's any worse than anyone else. Instead, both Brandon and Flaco are multi-faceted characters with definable flaws but also traits that make them relatable. Brandon is quick to put his friends at risk in order to parlay with his uncle, or when he's on the verge of his prized possessions, even when it requires them to enter the lion's den. On the other hand, Flaco is a father who much like Brandon, doesn't have anything and has little to really give to his son beyond a roof over his head and a toy for him to play with. They're both victims in a vicious cycle that values flashy material possessions and shows of manliness, and the two are ever intertwined, all the way down to allowing live firearms to lie beside your sleeping child in the same bed. No one is really to blame, unless everyone is (and I mean everybody), and really it's a societal mindset that produces heartbreaking situations just like this; where a young boy is exposed to violence and in turn, increases the likelihood that he will in turn become part of that same never-ending struggle. Kicks registers because it is so visceral in its presentation.

Beyond its cultural concerns, Kicks is also a gorgeously executive piece of cinema. Tipping frames picturesque looks at the urban topography within California's northern metropolis, making the city a central figure in the film's machinations. He also is willing to slow the action down on-screen, just as things begin to ramp up in-story, to highlight the joy on his characters' faces in the middle of whatever group-activity they may be engaged in. In addition, he strikes chapter breaks of a sort between scenes marked with the names of hip-hop artist and a song selection that echoes a sense of Brandon's internal struggle. It's a brilliant narrative conceit, that not only highlights the value of hip-hop in every aspect of the film itself, but also as a way to roll out a pretty excellent song selection and soundtrack.

In a way, the film plays like a sort-of inner city version of Beasts of the Southern Wild, where an imaginary figure is set in a central role, and driving its protagonist through their odyssey toward their end-goal. For Kicks, Brandon constantly sees visions of an astronaut, who acts as a sort of "guardian angel", especially in the early portions of the film, when the dreaming teenager needs him most. It appears at various points, particularly at moments of change for the character. It's an impressive visual, with some shots looking like a Storm Thorgerson album cover, but the film doesn't quite identify the connection between the source of the apparition and why its central figure is grasping onto it as a source of inspiration. A bit of research will quickly clear up any questions on the "why an astronaut?" point, but if there's one slight flaw in the film's approach, it may be that lack of outright clarity. Then again, a little ambiguity never hurt anyone.

With strong performances all around, an authentic approach to the material both in front of and behind the camera, beautiful cinematography, and a sense of tension that never lets up until its final shot, Kicks is one of the strongest debuts I've seen in years and a standout among 2016's cinematic crops.

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REVIEW: BLAIR WITCH mostly does what a sequel should

Honestly, you don't really need to read the reviews to figure out if you'll be a fan of Blair Witch, which is technically the third in a series but is basically a de facto sequel to the 1999 found footage horror film that was made on a shoestring budget and went on to rake in $248 million worldwide. Your best litmus test for Blair Witch is how much you enjoyed the first film, The Blair Witch Project - beyond the viral marketing, originality of concept, or cultural influence it had, but how much you'd enjoy sitting down and watching it today. If you were a fan of that experience, you'll likely enjoy this one.

The gist of this film: it uses the found footage angle again, this time featuring footage of James, younger brother to The Blair Witch Project's Heather, who thinks he's spotted video footage of his sister, still alive, in those woods. A group of friends joins him to see whether she's still there and what happened to her in the years since. The group, of course, becomes lured into the same trap Heather and her group encountered in the first film, fighting for their lives to escape. 

Sometimes Blair Witch feels, in fact, a bit like a reboot of the original as much as it feels like a sequel. Some of the broad strokes of the plot are the same, but that's not really why it feels like a reboot (in fact, the characters all feel pretty different). It feels like a reboot because it captures the feeling of the original film, pressing the same notes of dread. While diving into that feeling, this movie also does a little bit to expand on the original mythos here and there, mostly in the form of the where instead of the who. In Blair Witch, the woods themselves, rather than what's lurking inside them, feel like the biggest threat. If you've read House of Leaves, you'll understand how the house  felt like a menacing character, constantly changing shape and endangering the people within it. The woods in Blair Witch serve a similar purpose, enveloping those inside by distorting reality and time. 

It also, in spite of the bigger budget, relies on the shaky cam method of the original, which may actually be a turn off for those with motion sensitivity (one of the people with me almost vomited mid-way through the film, only making it to the end after downing a Dramamine). And my biggest criticism of the film is the 10 minutes it spends somewhere in the mid-to-back half of the film where characters are just running, running, and doing more running. Motion sickness aside, it looks as unclear and as shaky as you'd expect, and at a certain point I began to feel my mind wander, wondering when we'd get back into visibility mode, where I'd feel like an engaged viewer again. 

The performances here are fine, mostly good-not-great. There aren't as many distinct character moments as there were in the original, and the two characters playing locals who join James' search felt a little too cartoony at times. Brandon Scott's portrayal of Peter, James' childhood friend, is probably the standout of the bunch, adding some much needed levity. 

While The Blair Witch Project suffered a little bit from hype and the parodies that followed it, it was on the whole a very original and influential film that did a lot with very little. Blair Witch is certainly not groundbreaking and will probably be less remembered as a result, but it does a great job of cloning and elaborating on the spirit of the original. Use that first film as your litmus test and let that help you decide whether this one is worth catching. 

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Monday, September 12, 2016

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 143

 All-Star Batman #2
by Declan Shalvey

I love the negative space and the look of the massive, cracking wings looming in the darkness. A unique look at Batman!

Black Monday Murders #2
by Tomm Coker

I love the craggy, film noir look of this one, and it works even better combined with Hickman's design sensibility.

 Doom Patrol #1
by Brian Chippendale

I really dig the complex abstraction here that hides Robotman as the central figure. It makes me want to stare at it for hours looking for other characters and ideas. Gorgeous and unique colors for a cover as well!

 Doom Patrol #1
by Nick Derington

I couldn't help but include the regular cover as well–it captures the abstract, dada feel of the team, and I love that the title is so minuscule and off center, as if that's less important than the pop art illustration.

House of Penance #6
by Ian Bertram

I may have highlighted every cover from this series so far–they are so good! Bertram nails a sense of movement within horrific imagery that somehow transcends the usual Victorian portraiture of this kind of horror book.

 Lady Killer 2 #2
by Joëlle Jones

Jones continues to hit this 60's housewife magazine feel with a bloody violence effortlessly blended in so well. I like the framing of this one particularly.

Scarlet Witch #10
by David Aja

Aja is such a master of the form; his ability to craft a cover with such perfect framing and integrating the titles in a novel, stylish way is nothing short of incredible. Love it!

The Forevers #1
by Eric Pfeiffer

The crispness of the silhouettes works excellent as a contrast against the fiery painterly background, and I love that the illustration leaves room in the right places for the title and credits.

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let me know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Friday, September 9, 2016

Review: 1973's 'The Spook Who Sat By The Door' Is Essential Viewing Today

Typically, mainstream films about revolution have a fairly fine line to walk. Obviously, some revolutions - namely, the American Revolution - are good, but advocating for violent revolution from an otherwise seemingly stable society is, aside from that one instance, never portrayed as the right decision. Sure, you can revolt against an actual dictator, often in the form of an alien invasion or a far-future dystopia, but against a functioning society that is typically viewed as flawed but not actively monstrous? Nonviolence isn't just the first response, it's the only moral response.

Except... well, is it?

In 1973, Hogan's Heroes actor Ivan Dixon directed his second of two feature films: The Spook Who Sat By The Door. Adapting a 1969 novel by Sam Greenlee, the movie follows Dan Freeman, a brilliant young black man who gets an opportunity to join the CIA when they're forced to integrate. After graduating from a program that tries desperately to fail him out as one of the best students the CIA had ever seen, he is made Top Secret Reproductions Manager Section Chief -- basically, he watches over the Xerox machine. He puts in years at the CIA, and when the time is right, he finally leaves to take a position as a social worker in his hometown, Chicago. Unbeknownst to his former handlers, however, Dan is a revolutionary in the guise of a bookworm, and when he arrives in Chicago, he quickly begins recruiting gang members and training them in counterintelligence and guerilla warfare. The goal? The violent overthrow of white supremacy.

Remarkably, this isn't a point of anguish, for Dan or for any character in the film. At no point does the film step back to reproach Dan's anger, or suggest that some white people are good, therefore white society deserves to survive. Nor does the film suggest that white people are irredeemably evil. Instead, The Spook Who Sat By The Door puts forth an idea that filmgoers, both today and at the time the movie was made, might find fairly radical: A good person defending a corrupt system out of a need for stability is just as much a problem as the people actively abusing that system.

One of the most shocking things about the movie is that at no point are the white people here as cartoonishly indifferent to life and morality as, say, the Capitol in The Hunger Games or the front of the train in Snowpiercer, two of the other only major modern films to advocate the violent overthrow of a society. While the white people here do purposely try and hold black people down, most of it is through everyday microaggressions, the myriad minor indignities that help them subtly reinforce their own supremacy in day-to-day life. There are people in the film, both black and white, who are pretty good people, who are close friends with our lead... but when the chips are down, they want to stay comfortable rather than be equal, and, as Dan says, "This is not about hating white folks. This is about loving freedom enough to fight and die for it."

The Spook Who Sat By The Door is almost frighteningly relevant today. The film's real Revolution kicks off, after all, after the police shoot an unarmed young black boy from behind, killing him. As protests threaten to turn into riots, the police respond by firing into a crowd and bringing attack dogs. Police begin arresting anyone who looks 'suspicious' - read: black men - and then they call in the National Guard, all while the media writes puff pieces about the police helping grandmothers cross the street rather than reporting on the abuse. You could remake this movie in a post-Ferguson America and ultimately change very little.

Indeed, the film The Spook Who Sat By The Door most resembles is Gillo Pontecorvo's timeless 1966 masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers, a blisteringly realistic docu-drama about Algerians taking up urban guerilla warfare to free their nation from French rule. Algiers unquestionably has more resources and experience behind it, but the core conceit, the in-depth look at urban revolution of a people fighting to be free, remains. And Dixon's film is driven by the kind of rage that can't be faked -- and offers up some of the most jaw-dropping scenes of riots and urban American violence I've ever seen on film. There's an added urgency for American audiences to see it happening on American streets, the aftermath of American sins. Dixon more than made the most of the budget he had access to.

But, sure, it is not a big-budget movie. The sets often look quite cheap, for instance, and some of the pacing, particularly early in the movie, feels a lot like place-holding to pad things out a bit. And yet, by the end of The Spook Who Sat By The Door, I was absolutely enraptured. The drama might be a bit stilted and its ambition might outpace its budget, but Ivan Dixon found a phenomenal leading man in TV vet Lawrence Cook. Cook's career as an extra and bit player helped him sell Dan's nonthreatening nature; this is a guy who has to be smarter and angrier than everyone around him without ever letting them know, and Cook pulls that off perfectly. And the few times he does lose some control, Cook invests the dialogue with an anger that feels earned and genuine; you really feel that there's something roiling beneath the surface as you get to know the character. Take this exchange, which he has with a friend from college who has become a cop:
"We have to maintain law and order or we might as well be back in the jungle."
"The ghetto is a jungle, always has been. You can not cage people like animals and not expect them to fight back someday. It's always been an army occupation here, with police badges and uniforms. You and me, a cop and a social worker, we're the keepers of this goddamn zoo."
"Streets have to be safe."
"Safe for who? You're here to protect property, not lives."
While the budget for the film doesn't appear to be very high, a great, insightful script and a couple good performances are affordable fixes that help make The Spook Who Sat By The Door stand out. While the film doesn't necessarily offer any actual solutions, it's a powerful release valve for racial tensions, a smartly-made plea to understand the frustration felt by so many of our citizens. As a fantasy, it is bleak beyond imagining, but Ivan Dixon never undersells, betrays, or judges the righteous rage behind it all. White audiences at the time were worried that it would incite black audiences to riot - a familiar refrain repeated in 1989 for Spike Lee's masterpiece, Do The Right Thing, and again in 2015 with Straight Outta Compton - and had the film pulled from theaters, but (in addition to being almost staggeringly condescending) that misses the element of fantasy, rather than advocacy, behind any revenge narrative.

The phrase 'the spook who sat by the door' refers to a practice made by companies in the early days on integration, in which they would hire a single black person and station them near the entrance, so people could see how 'diverse' they were without actually giving up any power or giving the person any actual responsibility. Here, though, Ivan Dixon subverts that idea. The spook in question refers also to the term's other, less derogatory meaning: A spy. He sits quietly at the door of the institutions of American power, learning everything they have to offer. And when things start to go wrong for them, they never once realize that they created the instrument of their own downfall.

The Spook Who Sat By The Door was initially released in 1973, and after decades as a 'lost' film was finally released on DVD in 2004. In 2012, the Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry to be preserved for future generations as a vital piece of American cultural history. 

It is currently available to watch on YouTube, though I have no idea if it is a legal stream.
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