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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review: BPM (Beats Per Minute) Finds Passion in Protest

"He lived his politics in the first person," is a memorable description given to one of BPM (Beats Per Minute)'s fallen activists, but it is also, in some ways, the film's mission statement. There are essentially three main threads running through BPM. In the first, we follow ACT UP Paris, an AIDS activist group, as they execute protests and public events; in the second, we watch the ACT UP members have heated, intensely personal debates in a rented classroom where they plan their protests and craft their message; in the third, we follow two veterans of ACT UP Paris, Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), as they pursue newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois) romantically. But these three threads cannot be easily disentangled. Sean and Nathan meet in protest, and Sean's heated, confrontational persona in the meetings is informed by the spreading illness we see throughout his romance. Sean, like everyone else in BPM, lives his politics in the first person, because he is aware that his life or death, his love and sex, are fundamentally political in the system he's in right now. BPM is, at least on some level, about the struggle to change that system. The fight to allow someone to choose politics rather than be political.

The performances in the film are roundly fantastic, but I want to single out Nahuel Pérez Biscayart. Biscayart has to carry, in a way, both the film's procedural drama and its personal drama, and they require two very different sets of skills. In the more procedural aspects of the film, Biscayart is a furious queen, a rambunctious but charismatic protestor who has long since learned that there are some people who simply aren't worth his time and stopped trying. His romance with Nathan, on the other hand, is tender, a sharply earnest portrayal of two men finding each other amidst tragedy and snapping back at the limitations AIDS may have put on their lives. The movie is never more thrilling than when Sean is out and about, getting in someone's face, but Biscayart manages the subtle transition from aggressive to desperate very well. He's a magnetic performer in a role that could have so easily slipped into cliche.

That said, there are parts of the film, and Biscayart's arc, that feel more complete than others. When BPM is focused on ACT UP's big, messy group discussions - like an early scene in which the group must jump from discussing a friend and founding member of the group who has passed away to discussing protest strategy and philosophy - it is riveting in a way few things I've seen since Selma have been. The romantic drama, on the other hand, doesn't work quite as well for me, if only because "romantic tragedy in specter of HIV" is an all-too-familiar drama that I don't think the film personalizes as strongly as it does some of its other threads.

But, despite some of those limitations, I think the romance in the film is well worth watching. Just as writer/director Robin Campillo brings an authentic energy to ACT UP's discussions and events, he finds a few gorgeous moments of specificity in the relationships. Despite a few stretches in the back half that felt generic, Sean and Nathan's relationship is nevertheless far more sensual than I'm used to from gay romance, more along the lines of the explicit intimacy of 2011's romantic masterpiece Weekend rather than something more sanitized. A great example of this comes in the film's first sex scene, which is awkward and fumbling, featuring characters having to negotiate what they're comfortable with and what they like, as they do in real life. It's an uncomfortable familiarity that feels profoundly honest.

Part of what helps BPM shine is the film's lively editing, which jumps casually between planning meetings, execution, celebration, and romance. Particularly in the film's first half, Campillo and editors Stephanie Leger and Anita Roth cut for pace and energy. There's a fabulous momentum to the film's more hectic opening scenes that mirrors the thumping energy of the techno music they all dance to together after their protests. While much of the film belongs to Sean and Nathan, the editing often puts us in the shoes, or the head, of other members of ACT UP, from Thibault to minor supporting characters in the organization. Campillo, Leger, and Roth have created a film that feels alive in a way I almost never see.

Right now, we are in a time of increased social activism -- protest, as has been said, is the new brunch. There's a constant debate over how much is too much, how far is too far. Right now, at the onset, any protest - or at least, any protest by people of color - is too far for millions of Americans. But just as damning is protest that gets ignored completely. Part of the tension of BPM is between Thibault's desire to maintain their allies in government and research and remain respectable enough to be able to work openly and Sean's realization that people are dying who don't have to be, and any system that allows that to happen should be burnt down, not appeased.

So, "He lived his politics in the first person." As we have a renewed national discussion about protest, identity politics, and healthcare, BPM serves as a powerfully emotional reminder that for many people, life is politics, unfortunately and inescapably. Many of the activists working with ACT UP didn't want to spend their time learning the science and medicine they needed to advocate for themselves, but they were forced to do so by a society that ignored them until it was too late. They don't enjoy getting arrested for vandalizing a pharmaceutical company withholding the results of a drug trial, but it's certainly better than dying.

BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a lively, enthralling drama. Like a shapeshifter, its meaning and purpose and even style changes over the course of the film, a story that, like its characters, has so much to say and an unwavering knowledge that it doesn't have enough time to say it all. But, like its characters, BPM makes the most of that time, and it left a powerful impression. BPM (Beats Per Minute) is at once somber and energetic, romantic and tragic, heartbreaking and life-affirming. It's an all too human portrait of men and women living their politics in the first person, and it has never felt more relevant.

BPM (Beats Per Minute), also known as 120 Beats Per Minute, is out now in limited release, and will reach the Atlanta Midtown Art Cinema at Friday, November 17th. Written and directed by Robin Campillo, BPM (Beats Per Minute) stars Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and Arnaud Valois.
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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: JUSTICE LEAGUE, a choppy course correction for the DC movieverse

Trying to write about Warner’s most important film of the year (not symbolically, but in a dollars and cents fashion) Justice League, is an almost surreal experience. I’ve spent the better part of four years writing articles about its casting, its up and downs, its re-writes, its re-shoots, and now it’s finally here as a living, breathing exercise in film craft.
The question of whose craft in particular is a notable one. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice director Zack Snyder oversaw all of the initial principal photography on this sequel that brings together Batman, 2017’s biggest action star Wonder Woman, and the subject of Lex Luthor’s early experiments in branding: Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg. Sadly, terrible circumstances forced Snyder to leave the production before reshoots were set to begin just ahead of post, and Snyder and the studio enlisted former Avengers front-man Joss Whedon to come in, knock out the reshoots that he himself wrote, and then oversee the final edit and vfx.
This unlikely marriage is not a graceful one, with more than its fair share of shaggy dog elements, but when the book is closed on it all – Justice League is largely a pretty fun time and the needed corrective this franchise has been desperate to receive. Not even Wonder Womanworked this hard to pivot the entire DC Films canon into a different, but welcome, tonal direction shift.
The story of Justice League is no great stroke of genius, it’s your standard superhero template. After coming face to face with a Parademon, Batman and Wonder Woman realize they’ll need to pull together the metahumans they’ve been keeping tabs on (please don’t ask me how this connects to Batman’s appearances in Suicide Squad) to fight a particularly garish looking CGI-version of Steppenwolf. Taking a page out of the “collect the stones” uber-premise of their chief rivals, this take on the Apokoliptian General is aiming to combine the three existing Mother Boxes that were individually hidden in ancient times by the Amazons, Atlanteans, and the tribes of humanity (all three of which had previously resisted him). Thanks to the civil strife that has appeared in the wake of Superman’s death, the world is again ripe for Steppenwolf’s return, prompting Batman and Wonder Woman into full recruitment mode. But will it be enough?
The premise as presented is solid and straight-forward, if pretty safe, which is fine. It’s relatively clear that Whedon cut quite a bit of the film down to its barest essentials. There’s one mention of Darkseid, Apokolips is only hinted at, and if you didn’t know better, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking Steppenwolf was basically a lone agent. Just about all the other New Gods stuff, which presumably did exist in one form or another, was subject to the cutting room floor – including my favorite part of Batman v Superman, the “Knightmare/Batman in the desert/Flash travels to the past to warn him” sequence. It’s okay, Steppenwolf is deadly dull anyway, and it’s pretty clear Whedon (or whomever deserves that credit) realized that and the film takes a much tighter focus on the Leaguers and their interactions with one another.
One of my disappointments with the Avengers films, especially the first, is in how much time is taken to find ways to create conflict between teammates, eventually leading to a movie where the entire point is that conflict (a movie I liked a lot, but I digress). As the DC side of building this type of universe basically began with that conflict, this allows Justice League to luxuriate in the budding friendships between all these characters. It’s not quite what I’d call a “hang-out film” but there are times when it starts to butt up against it. Though a lot of the praise there needs to be heaped on Ezra Miller’s take on The Flash.
There was a lot of side-eyeing from fandom when it was announced that Miller would play the big screen version of Barry Allen, particularly from fans of his small-screen counterpart. But if there’s an MVP of this entire affair, it’s 125% Miller. With a constant sense of exuberance, enthusiasm, and a nice helping of deadpan, The Flash livens up just about every scene he’s in, be it his growing friendship with the forever boring Cyborg, getting tongue-tied around Wonder Woman, trading barbs with Aquaman, and his slight mentorship with Batman – Barry Allen is easily the most fully-formed character on screen and gets the most benefit from the film’s need to introduce three other heroes and induct them into the team before the action really begins. I can see why Flashpoint is being made a crucial film within the upcoming slate.
Aquaman doesn’t quite make as much of an impression, though he gets a few nice action beats and there’s nothing here that hurts his case as a solo film star. He also gets the movie’s funniest moment towards the kick-off of the third act. Cyborg though? Forget about it. Ray Fisher has the bad luck of having to play straight man, with an undercooked tragic backstory, while also looking like a cgi nightmare. I spent a good deal of the running time wishing Martian Manhunter was taking up this spot instead.
And yes, Gadot is still excellent, and well suited as the leader of the team, more or less. You could tell there was a man behind the camera though, as we get maybe just a few too many shots of her backside that we were spared in her own outing earlier this year.
But despite its individual parts, some better than others, the real core of the film is in how it attempts to meld Snyder’s action-centric chops with Whedon’s whip-smart ear for dialogue. Again, for the most part, it works. There’s a few insert shots that were clearly added by the latter to pump in just a little more levity, and sometimes there’s a few noticeable hitches in that process, such as slight differences in Affleck’s facial hair or weight, or the occasional flashes of green screen usage within an otherwise fully exterior sequence, but it’s a surprisingly smooth process, except for two clear issues.
  1. Henry Cavill’s digitally removed mustache is incredibly distracting when it appears, which is mostly in fleeting shots, but the movie actually opens with a full-on longer take where Cavill’s face looks like a cartoon. Not a great foot to start out on.
  2. Snyder and Whedon seem to have different conceptions of Batman in mind, with Snyder’s take playing a bit rugged and younger, while Whedon is pitching him a bit more tired and aching to hand off the reins to the new generation of heroes. These warring visions of Bruce Wayne never quite gel, and Affleck’s weight fluctuating between the two only serves to widen this gap. There are points where he just starts to look ridiculous in the suit, and if it wasn’t obvious already, it’s painfully clear that Batfleck’s time is coming to an end.
Not much can be done about the latter, but the former is bit of a shame, as this is the movie where Superman is finally done some justice. The color gradients on his suit are pumped way up, he gets to actually smile a number of times, and even crack jokes with his new teammates. This is the Superman you’ve been waiting to see on the big screen and Cavill finally gets to showcase just why he really is a perfect fit for the role. If you can look past the digital chicanery that crops up for him every other scene, Superman fans have a lot to look forward to.
In all, Justice League serves its purpose in transforming the formerly grim and gritty DC-verse into a brighter, more hopeful place – it’s not even subtle, it’s outright stated in the film’s text. It’s a mixed bag, but never not entertaining on its own terms. It doesn’t quite hit those same sublimes as Wonder Woman‘s middle act, but there’s a lot of pleasure to be gained in watching these heroes pair off and shoot the breeze. It’s the funniest DC movie, it has my favorite Superman in action moment on film maybe ever, and it paints an exciting way forward for the entries that will follow in its wake.
Also, for better or worse, this is the rare blockbuster I look forward in trying to analyze and get an even better sense of how its two filmmakers blended together. One of those examples where the process may be more intriguing than the finished product.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

BAFF 2017: BORLEY RECTORY delivers unique style and creepy history

According to their website, Carrion Films aims to celebrate "the neglected aspects of British folklore and British gothic." Their newest film four years in the making, Borley Rectory, certainly does just that, but additionally seems to celebrate a unique cinematic style that emulates and pays homage to horror films of the silent era.

Borley Rectory examines the strange and varied history of the long destroyed house of the same name in Essex, in particular the infamous hauntings that happened there in the late 1920s. The building was called the "Mount Everest of haunted houses" and there are records of over 2000 paranormal occurrences. Borley Rectory became well known in the popular press due to the writings of famed paranormal investigator Harry Price, who wrote two books on the topic and was writing a third when he died.

What truly sets the film apart from other recountings of supernatural activities is its extraordinarily unusual style. It's a little hard to describe, but essentially it aims to look and feel like a silent film, with a hefty dose of careful and creepy animation blended in. It seems like many of the sets are just genuine photos of the house, with the actors placed inside. The animated rain, fog, and ghostly activity work very well with the shaky black and white film look, and all of it works together to create a cinematic experience unlike anything I've seen before.

Fans of the recent Conjuring series will find lots to love here as the film explores the fascinating story of real life paranormal investigation, and how the true family dramas surrounding the supposed ghosts are sometimes even stranger than the ghosts themselves. Price's strategies and methods are entertainingly portrayed, and what he and his cohorts experience is creepy and fantastically visually represented.

More than that though, I found myself really enjoying the film as a huge fan of the equally bizarre 1922 documentary Häxan. Borley Rectory seems to draw from Häxan's unique blend of documentary recreation and weird supernatural embellishments. The look of the ghosts as they blend in and out of the foggy exteriors and flapping window curtains perfectly captures the odd sense of what experiencing something like this in real life must feel like, and there's a tension in the exploration of the mystery that would've been hard to fake.

Borley Rectory seems like it could have been an intensely labored over short film; instead, we get this astonishingly unique feature film that defies categorization. It does something that is rarely accomplished: to tell a fascinating story in an equally fascinating way, and is worth seeking out for anyone interested in an important piece of paranormal history and a fun movie experience!

Borley Rectory is directed by Ashley Thorpe and is showing on Saturday, 11/18 at 8pm at the 7 Stages Theater in Atlanta, Georgia as part of the 2017 Buried Alive Film Festival. Learn more about Borley Rectory at it's official website.
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Monday, November 13, 2017

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 204

 American Gods: Shadows #9
by David Mack

Bug! The Adventures of Forager #5
by Mike Allred

 Jenny Finn #1
by Mike Mignola

Puppet Master: Curtain Call #1
by Robert Hack

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Saturday, November 11, 2017

BAFF 2017: WHO'S WATCHING OLIVER is a horror fairy tale

I'm not a fan of the torture-porn horror subgenre, generally. To me, the best horror films are those that create a genuine unease in the viewer by digging into a real issue by way of a horrifying situation. The Descent looks at the strength of female friendships and their changing dynamics while in a dark survival situation; The Thing portrays the dangers of paranoia and mob rule under the guise of an outer space monster movie. Gore and torture, on their own, don't do much for me, and are typically a cheap and lazy way to get a scare. I will, however, make an exception when a movie fails the torture-porn test but excels at making something unique and entertaining despite that, and that is exactly what Who's Watching Oliver does exceptionally well.

Who's Watching Oliver, directed by long time camera operator/cinematographer but first time director Richie Moore, follows a young man, Oliver (Russell Geoffrey Banks, also a co-writer). Oliver is a British man living in Thailand who may have some kind of developmental disorder. His days are very regimented: he goes through his morning routine, sits alone at a bench at a nearby amusement park, then goes to a bar where young women hang out. When each night he takes one of these women home with him, they are surprised to find themselves tied down, assaulted, and ultimately killed, all while Oliver's heinous, controlling mother (Margaret Roche) watches and barks orders from a computer screen.

On paper, the setup for Oliver's rather motivationless killing spree falls flat, but its the film's unique twist that makes this something more. Over time, the shy and awkward Oliver meets and falls for the equally disturbed Sophia (Sara Malakul Lane), who sits with him at the amusement park every day. From this point forward, it becomes a twisted kind of romance, with Oliver struggling to hide his murderous nightly activities from Sophia while keeping Sophia's existence a secret from his mother, who would surely have him kill Sophia on the spot. At times, this triangle is a funny little dance, but it mostly plays as a kind of fairy tale in which Oliver must escape the control of his overbearing mother and find a way to share every part of himself–including his bloody past–with Sophia.

This rather unique blend of genres is aided by the excellent and expressive cinematography. Moore has clearly honed his craft acting as camera operator for films such as The Hangover sequels and the recent Gold, and that experience is put to good use here as he explores the often surreal environments of Thailand. The film is often beautiful, which nicely contrasts the gritty and gross scenes of murder and bodily dismemberment. It doesn't hurt that the central location, a strange Thai amusement park, lends a dreamy, colorfully fairy tale look to the whole affair. The soundtrack often utilizes big band jazz, which also adds a fun and unique atmosphere to the film.

The central performance of Banks as Oliver is impressive; the handsome co-writer transforms himself into the hunched weirdo character consistently and quite convincingly, and you may find yourself sympathizing with him despite the awful things he does. You may feel this even more so due to the over the top but fitting performance by Roche as the mother. Roche gives her a controlled sense of bitterness and her foul mouth will make you as uncomfortable as Oliver himself is. While Lane is a bit of a one-dimensional love interest, she does a good job of portraying the surreally perfect partner for Oliver.

I don't think the film's story necessarily justifies the cruel actions that Oliver and his mother take on many innocent women–I think this could have been done a bit more tastefully in an era where we are all much more conscious of the way women are portrayed in film, and these moments are never done tongue-in-cheek as the romance angle often is. Still, the totally unique nature of the film's tone and experimentation with genre combined with its excellent production values make it a worthwhile watch and a pretty one-of-a-kind experience.

Who's Watching Oliver is directed by Richie Moore, and is playing at the 2017 Buried Alive Film Festival in Atlanta, Georgia on Saturday 11/18 at 4pm at the Seven Stages Theater. Learn more about the film from its official Facebook page.
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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Review: THE SQUARE is a masterwork of satire and class conflict

Ruben Ostlund's latest, The Square, hits on a topic that I think is key to understanding what divides society currently. Not to say this is the defining point of why the haves and have nots feel such direct antipathy towards one another, nor do I believe that other factors such as racial and cultural differences should be cast aside when analyzing social strife. But I'm often perplexed when I think about people who have told me how scared they were to drive into certain neighborhoods or how people I've been in a car with have automatically locked their doors and rolled their windows up when we roll through those same areas. I'm perpetually befuddled by this, but it's a real fear that people of a certain socio-economic class have of their neighbors who are not quite as fortunate as them. 

Class conflict is a real, driving divider within our country, and as Ostlund himself formulates within his own essay on the topic on-screen, it exists just as openly across the Atlantic.

Of course, this isn't all he aims to do, it's really just the defining thesis. To no surprise for those who were big fans of his 2014 festival stunner, Force Majeure, The Square is equally funny in that sort of quick-witted and satirical Armando Ianucci-esque way the filmmaker is ever so adept with. But rather than delving into a sharp parody of the political, as one might expect given the larger theme at play, The Square utilizes the trappings of high art as its target for...not quite ridicule, but more a sense of deconstruction. It's a film that squints its eyes a good deal at the extravagances of modern art, while also wielding its potential as a weapon for making greater statements about the world at large. This is a finely honed machine that hits a perfect blend of thoughtful and intellectual commentary, while also being impossible to pry your eyes away from, minute by minute.

This year's winner for the top prize at Cannes, The Square opens with its protagonist, a Modern Art museum's curator named Christian (Claes Bang), coming off a potential bender on his office's couch, straight into an interview with a journalist named Anne (Elisabeth Moss). He's immediately asked a question regarding a recent art installation's write-up of which he was responsible and it's clear right away from his rambling, basically incoherent answer, that he has no idea what he's talking about. The interview ends awkwardly and the film moves on from there, but that opening moment acts first volley for Ostlund, as the doubting journalist attempts to cut through the "intellectual" art expert's bullshit, for lack of a better term. It's a beat that sets the stage for the conflict to come within Christian's next few days.

On his way to the office the next day, Christian falls for a scam, and both his cell phone and wallet are lifted. At the same time, he's in the midst of the opening of a new art exhibition entitled "The Square", with it's concept being that inside this 8 x 8 square on the ground, we are all on equal footing and no request for assistance can be refused. A beautiful sentiment, and one that Christian completely ignores as he becomes all consumed for the hunt for his lost possessions, which he tracks to a lower-income apartment building across town. But of course, rather than attempting to knock on individual doors to discover who may have lifted these items, he decides to throw flyers in the mailbox of each apartment, blindly accusing everyone of the theft, hoping to get the thieves to fess up. This in turn, makes life ever so much more complicated for the strangely likable, but also troubled member of the bourgeoisie as more and more the events that occur in the fall-out of all of this consume his mind and workday life.

Ostlund digs deep into making Christian a full-fledged, breathing figure, and while we spend the majority of the film's time with him, there's never a moment you want to turn away. Much of this should be attributed directly to Bang's performance, for sure the best I've seen the this year from a leading actor. But Bang imbues this potentially loathsome figure with a sense of humanity, and often, relatable emotions, while not putting you on his side. It's a towering realization, covered under the cloak of slight looks, gestures, and a healthy dose of absurdity.

That latter notion may be where some viewers become a bit challenged by what Ostlund's aims are. There is a particularly quizzical moment where, previously only seen in glances prior to, Terry Notary appears as a real-life art immersion experiment portraying a gorilla in the wild. Even after viewing that sequence in full and its wild conclusion, it was difficult to get a firm grasp at first on just what the filmmaker was trying to say. Of course, taken in retrospect, it's another piece of the larger puzzle regarding the idea that we as a society are not only a prejudicial species, but also one that is also inherently afraid of assisting others lest we in turn come to harm. The Square is filled to the brim with these types of moments that drag at what we perceive as the providence of only the highly educated, and in turn reflects that very same thought process onto the viewer itself. "Yes, it is very funny that 20 piles of dirt is considered art, but what does that say about us that we think that?", and our conflicted feelings about Christian throughout are equal to that task. 

It's also a film where those piles of dirt get accidentally demolished by a janitor, and Christian won't give his condom away to a sexual partner to throw away for fear she'll use it to impregnate herself. His fears about those he considers of a lower class stratification are loathsome, but because of how well we get to know him, it allows us to at least understand how that kind of perspective is formed at a sort of nascent stage, and how in turn it can be rectified for the betterment of all. Needless, to say, nary a moment is wasted, no matter how humorous, and there are plenty of those if that's what you're looking for.

It's the kind of movie-making I can't stop thinking about and taking apart, much like this year's earlier mother!, but unlike that film, there's no doubt that I'm absolutely in love with this one. Make something this incisive and cutting a priority as soon as you can. I'm fairly certain it's the best film I've seen this year.

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Monday, November 6, 2017

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 203

 Port of Earth #1
by Andrea Mutti

 Supergirl #15
by Stanley 'Artgerm' Lau

 Fantomah #2
by Djibril Morrisette

Mister Miracle #4
by Mitch Gerads

1985: Black Hole Repo #1
by John Bivens

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