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Saturday, December 30, 2017

Harper's Top Five TV Shows of 2017

Before I get into it, I have to preface by saying that, of course, I haven’t seen everything that came out this year–I’m just starting the highly acclaimed Handmaid’s Tale, and there are a number of other shows that are still on my watch list. I feel like I did watch far more TV than in past years though, so here’s my distillation of my favorite shows of 2017!

(Mild spoilers for the shows on the list!)

5. Halt and Catch Fire

While I’ll admit that the middle of this final season of one of my favorite shows dragged and felt like it didn’t know where to go, the last three episodes of the season are arguably the best the series has ever had. After the first season’s quest to build a better computer, the second’s exploration of the birth of online communities, the third’s online transactions and antivirus software, this season focuses smartly on the birth of the search engine as the characters in turn are searching for their ultimate purpose. For me, Halt will go down as a show with some of the richest characters in all of TV, and the resolution this season provided was as emotionally heartbreaking as it was satisfying and exciting.

Best Episode: 8 - Goodwill

In maybe my favorite episode of the series, after an incredibly sudden and tragic event, the core cast gathers to try and pick up the pieces of their lives.

4. Master of None

I liked the first season of Ansari’s Netflix show last year–using each episode to explore a topic within the framework of a romantic sitcom was clever and even hilarious (https://youtu.be/QNBLMkCCTH0?t=6m55s). The second season steps up in a major way, taking this idea to the loftier heights of a great Italian romance. Ansari continues to play with form here, using the platform to explore a love of classic Italian cinema (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hmu3Mhrta08) in a way that feels perfectly in line with his character, and beyond that has some brilliant setups for the individual episodes: I’d watch a feature film that crosscuts between Dev’s Tinder dates like episode 4 in a heartbeat. Even more than that, the season gradually evolves into a larger romance story that is both gorgeous and poignant. The step from the first to second season was staggering, and it’s hard to imagine how the third could top it.

Best Episode: 10 - Buona Notte

The season finale deals not only with the resolution of Dev’s difficult romance, but also the sickening revelation of a co-worker and friend’s sexual predation, and both are dealt with excellently.

3. Twin Peaks

What year is it?  After a 25 year break and some contractual hurdles, the legendarily weird show returned, and let me tell you–it was weirder than ever. The essentially 18-hour movie spends 16 of those hours teasing audiences with hints of the original series while also diving into and expanding the overarching mythology of the show in ways the original never could. I don’t think a show has ever been as simultaneously exciting, frustrating, and terrifying, or has compelled me more to start taking notes while watching. It might be difficult at times, and it requires a hell of a lot of background if you haven’t already seen the first two seasons and the movie, but holy shit that last episode. The ending of the season (series?) will stick with me until my last days.

Best Episode: 18 - What is Your Name?

As the complicated resolution of the Good Coop vs Bad Coop conflict comes to a close, Lynch and Frost literally revise the central premise of the show, and the consequences are shocking and haunting.

2. Mr. Robot

Granted, I just finished this season before making this list, but damn was it good. While the second season was confusing and largely middling, the third refocuses on a central conflict between Elliot and Mr. Robot as they both find themselves in over their heads with the Dark Army’s terroristic plans. This season boils down the complex economic ideas of the show and gives each of the central characters important and interesting things to do. On top of that, it continues to be shockingly ambitious, especially for a USA show–it was hard enough to believe that the first season goes through with it’s world reshaping climax, and this season goes so, so much farther.

Best Episode: 5 - eps3.4_runtime-err0r.r00 

This incredible 44-minute one shot episode (yeah, I know it’s really 31 shots stitched together) takes us from another day at the office to panicked attempt to stop an attack to a full scale riot in one seamless motion, and it’s hard to describe how insanely intense it is.

1. Legion

If you told me an X-Men show would top my list a year ago…but under the guidance of Noah Hawley (whose third season of Fargo narrowly missed being on the list as well) there wasn’t anything else that even came close. The first season of Legion is one of the most inventive and beautiful shows I’ve ever seen. Although you’d never know this had anything to do with Marvel’s mutants, the show centers around David (Dan Stevens) whose mind-bending powers make him a target from shadowy military organizations and the underground mutant resistance. From the show’s outstandingly stylish production design that lends it a ‘70s feel to the incredibly innovative sound design, Legion successfully jumps around from great idea to great idea in a way that feels like how David’s mind must work. Each episode was incredibly thrilling to see where it would go next, and it somehow managed to get me invested into the entire cast of strange characters in the meantime. I cannot wait to watch this season over and over again!

Best Episode: 7 - Chapter 7

This episode unbelievably moves from silent movie to Italian Giallo and is both graceful and horrifying while doing so!

Runners Up:
Fargo, Rick and Morty, American Vandal
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Monday, December 25, 2017

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 210

 Batman: Creature of the Night #2
by John Paul Leon

 Cinema Purgatorio #13
by Kevin O'Neil

Rasputin: Voice of the Dragon #3
by Mike Huddleston

Underwinter: A Field of Feathers #3
by Ray Fawkes

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Friday, December 22, 2017

Review: Instead of seeing DOWNSIZING this weekend, do something else, anything else

This review is full of spoilers, just a warning for those averse, or those who actually want to see this movie...which I advise against.

In an attempt to get a balanced look at the year, I brave a number of terrible films. While I try to limit my intake, just for my own sanity, I still found myself absorbing a number of turkeys like the ambitious but often laughable A Cure For Wellness, the try-hard and never funny The Lego Batman Movie, and up to this point the year's biggest flop, Universal's dead-on-arrival The Mummy.

But to be frank, none of these films enraged me, none of them made me so perturbed that I spent two hours watching them, none of them made me question the actual intentions of their respective creative brain-trust as much as Alexander Payne's latest, Downsizing.

Now, I'll say this, I typically like Payne's work to some degree - there's a touching element of humanity present even in his most outlandish concepts. I still firmly hold that The Descendants was one the least appreciated efforts of the not-very-good 2011 Oscar season, and I think it's still criminally under-discussed today, especially as one of George Clooney's finest performances. But even with a very consistently steady hand behind the camera, sometimes things can just go wrong.

And lord, let me tell you, Downsizing doesn't get a damn thing right.

Actually, that's not true. It has a pretty decent idea that acts as its germination. The oft-told cinematic struggle of the world simply not being to support its continually booming population has been a go-to stratagem for satirical and politically minded film-making stretching back to Soylent Green, and that old chestnut rears its head here. In an attempt to stave off that quagmire, a group of Norwegian scientists craft up a way for humanity to shrink itself and create newer, smaller communities within secure facilities across the world. Basically the idea is, if you're smaller, you'll utilize less resources (food, clothing, utilities etc...), even down to luxury items. This is a standard of living where anyone can afford a mansion, and diamond rings cost a pittance.

This is what blue collar slaughter house foreman Paul Safranik (Matt Damon) steps into after he and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) agree to "get small" once they get a chance to see a pair of old friends who have already done the same. Figuring this might be their chance to get ahead, they attempt to go through with the procedure. The catch is, in the middle of the process, Audrey backs out after Paul has already been minimized. And so Paul must start all over again: dating, a new career, new friends and neighbors, and try to find a new purpose.

It turns out Paul's calling in life is to be the grossest example of white saviordom I've seen in a film in some time.

You see, there's three pressing issues here with Downsizing. The first, Paul is an unbelievably boring character with no real personality traits to speak of. He's basically a blank slate for the plot to happen to. Yes, he has a former career path that he turned away from and an interest or two; he seems to like to cook, for example, but other than that, as a viewer you learn nothing about this guy. There's a moment where he complains to his upstairs neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz), about the noise emanating from the parties he's throwing. Dusan scolds him for shouting like a crazy person in a previous encounter, but there's nothing inherent in Paul's character that would indicate he'd ever act like that. Some of this is due to Matt Damon, never the most exciting actor, being a bit miscast. Here the blandness that's always been an underlying facet of his performances comes to the fore - and you spend the entire film wondering why we couldn't have followed Wiig's character instead.

The second glaring problem with Payne's latest is through the introduction of the film's key supporting character Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a former revolutionary who now works as a cleaning woman after being snuck into the same facility that Paul resides in. This is where Downsizing goes from being an aimless film about a sad-sack divorcee learning how to cut loose, to a movie about how a white guy can find his true calling in helping otherwise helpless immigrants living on the outskirts of society. It's so patently blatant that once you realize Payne is heading this direction, you just want to scream "No man, stop!". And if that isn't bad enough, Chau's character as written and as performed is, as the kids like to say, pretty problematic. There's a thin line between authenticity and caricature that takes a skilled writer and then an actor to be able to thread. I have no doubt that Chau, Thai-borne of Vietnamese immigrants, is doing what she can with the unfortunate material given here. The problem is that when her accent is paired with writing that portrays her as someone that doesn't understand the difference between a medical doctor and a physical therapist, or leaden lines when she questions Paul about the "8 different kinds of fucks", she ends up on the wrong side of the authenticity/parody divide. That the film often treats her as an object of derision, despite the fact that she's the only character with any real definition at all, speaks to how completely misguided everything about Downsizing is.

Which returns us to the third issue, it moves like absolute molasses. By the time it moves into it's final third, with Paul, Ngoc and Dusan all faffing about with a group of cultists at the original downsized colony I just wanted the torture to end. By that point, Payne has given up on any pretense of trying to say something (whereas the first two-thirds are spent with him jumping from theme to theme, such as income inequality from the viewpoint of middle America, class conflict, overpopulation, racial divide) and instead decides to tie a bow on the whole thing by calling it a love story, which has the most unintentionally funny ending of all time. Payne clearly wants you to think Paul makes a key decision regarding his future, the choice of staying with Ngoc or going with the cultists underground, because he wants to stay with his newfound paramour. But the way it's paced and framed, it looks like the biggest factor in making up his mind was the length of the walk.

All that to say, this is a film that cannot even get its pivotal emotional beat right, just imagine how badly it bungles everything else. I really hate this movie, so much. 

Instead of seeing it this weekend, how about you take in something else while you're spending time with the family over the holidays? Perhaps you'd enjoy Netflix's fine series The Crown? Or maybe the more cinematically adventurous of you could check out the excellent Call Me By Your Name? Dunkirk came out on Blu-ray this week too, you can't go wrong with that. 

Basically, life is too short. Watch good stuff. This might be the lowest point of a really bad year for Matt Damon, and that year includes The Great Wall.

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Thursday, December 21, 2017

Review: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME will catch you off guard

Romance films are a tricky thing to get right. I've said the same about horror films, and I think it's doubly true here. Littered with a landmine of tropes, cliches, and even unfair expectations (when we liken something to a Nicholas Sparks movie in my household, it's never a flattering comparison), the label itself almost feels like an obstacle to overcomeItalian writer-director Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name, an adaptation of the novel by Andre Aciman, sidesteps all of that. It's a film composed of a series of small, often disarming moments that may leave you unprepared for the bruises that will stay with you after the credits roll.

Call Me By Your Name is a coming-of-age story featuring the summer romance between the 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and visiting grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Elio's life mostly looks like something out of a dream: he summers in Italy with his scholarly parents, eating (and sometimes doing other things to) fresh fruit off of the vine, reading, practicing music, and relaxing in the sun. Though the film is set in the 1980s, it's not what you'd expect; apparently the '80s in the Italian countryside was a more picturesque aesthetic than I'd have guessed (Hammer can even make awkwardly dancing to The Psychedelic Furs look great).

When Oliver first enters Elio's life, his presence feels mostly like an arrogant intrusion. He takes Elio's room, ignores invitations, and abruptly ends conversations by saying "Later" and walking away. This sets up an interesting, adversarial vibe between Elio and Oliver. That flirtatious rivalry simmers as the summer continues, and Elio begins to experience self-doubt, insecurity, and even disgust with himself for the more awkward of their interactions, which eventually begin to engender a romance between the two. 

A movie like this rests on the performance and chemistry of its leads, and both Hammer and Chalamet's performances are incredible. Chalamet in particular has a way of making himself seem and feel small and uneasy in the wake of Hammer's dominance, while taking on a completely different persona when trying to assert himself with ladies his own age, and yet another, and perhaps the most fragile temperament, when he is alone. 

The surprise performance of the film comes from Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Elio's father. Though his role is small, it's both exuberant and pivotal in setting Call Me By Your Name apart. Elio's relationship with his parents projects pure comfort. He's affectionate with them both, especially for a 17-year-old, and open about his feelings. While my biggest critique of the movie would be that it doesn't always feel like director Guadagnino is completely in command of the sexual beats of the story he's telling (for the most part, he is, but at the most intense moments the camera often pans away in a manner that feels out of sync with the incredibly intimate nature of the film), Guadagnino knows exactly how to infuse the paternal elements of this story. 

What I love most about Call Me By Your Name is the lack of judgement or even presumption of judgement by Elio's parents. It even feels, at times, like Elio's parents have a tinge of jealousy for his youth and openness. They aren't interested in sitting him down for An Important Talk about how he defines his sexuality, nor does Elio seek their approval. They simply discuss Elio's relationship for what it is and offer the wisdom and support they can. It's not a scene that mirrors reality for many, which is part of what makes it such a cathartic and even hopeful experience on screen. 

It's kind of extraordinary that a film about a multilingual 17-year-old with vast wealth, extremely liberated parents, and a guest like Armie Hammer lounging around in short shorts by his pool for the summer manages to feel so personal. But the energy of Call Me By Your Name is improvisational, inviting, and warm. It's easy to get drawn in by its promise of growth and acceptance in exchange for a little bit of pain. 

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Monday, December 18, 2017

The GeekRex Podcast Episode 149: The Last Jedi

This week we talk about (what else?) Star Wars: The Last Jedi. We dig into what we like, what some of us think doesn't quite work, the new characters and diversity in the Star Wars universe, and what our hopes and thoughts about the future of the franchise holds.

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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Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 209

 Hellboy: Krampusnacht #1
by Adam Hughes

Head Lopper #8
by Andrew MacLean and Jordie Bellaire

Bettie Page #6
by Scott Chantler

Redlands #5
by Vanesa Del Rey

Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil #3
by David Rubín

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Review: STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI, ambitious but unwieldy

Hey, it's time to review the new Star Wars, a movie you're probably going to see anyway! As someone who really doesn't hold much affection for the Star Wars franchise, my love of The Force Awakens really shocked me. Not only did it end up making my end of the year 10 Best Movies in 2015, but it also was what I still think of as a pitch perfect blockbuster - one that breathed new life into that universe, introduced nuanced and compelling characters, and looked pretty terrific while doing it. I couldn't have imagined a situation where I found myself caring about where the plight of the Jedi and their ragtag companions could possibly go, but yet somehow JJ Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy and company all pulled it off.

In the between time, I had to suffer through Rogue One, but it was okay, because I knew Rian Johnson would be at the other end of that tunnel to cradle me in his bearded embrace. His The Last Jedi, which picks up literally within moments of the end of The Force Awakens, paints a picture of a struggle that never took a breath. The Resistance, led by General Leia, find themselves in the middle of a back and forth with General Hux's First Order. Hux, truly the bitchiest member of this new iteration of the Empire, gets into a humorous bit of dialogue with a solo Poe Dameron scouting just ahead of a charge of bombers who are attempting to lay waste to the First Order's colossal Dreadnought. While this event will set the stage for what drives Poe, Finn, Leia, a few new additions to the cast, and the entire Resistance itself, it's also probably the last time audiences are held subject to the standard light and dark side debate that has populated these films as a rule. It was the accepted line of thinking that the guys dressed in black are bad, and the scrappy underdogs in white, and various lighter shades are the good guys.

Well, Mr. Johnson was going to have none of that, as The Last Jedi is a film all about the debate of what lies between those two extremes. Not every character necessarily approaches moral grey tones, but even those characters that are what we deem to be inherently "good" or "bad" are faced with conflicts that drive a question into the morality of their cause. A daring choice for the world's most popular blockbuster series, but when Johnson (who both writes and directs here) centers in directly on that theme, The Last Jedi does something that is all too rare for the Star Wars series: introducing new notions within the sphere of its seemingly impenetrable worldview, and new ways of how we might conceive the two warring factions and the people that have to work for them and the little people who find themselves under their boot heel.
But, as a caveat, the further away the filmmaker gets from this novel approach, the less effective the film becomes. This can be seen clearly in the division of narrative between the three major protagonists of The Force Awakens. Each hero from that last outing, Rey, Finn, and Poe are given their own slice of the film within which to work, and it's clear where in each of the three that Johnson's interests chiefly lie.

Rey's storyline, the most effective of the trio, finds her making contact with the long-lost Luke Skywalker in an attempt to bring him back into the fold of the Resistance, and in turn determine her own place within it and The Force itself. Additionally, this is where Kylo Ren, the wayward son of the now deceased Han Solo and Leia, is directly involved - and if this series does nothing else, it absolutely, 100%, proves to me that he is the most unique and well-developed character of the Star Wars universe. Here, he is basically the mouth piece for Johnson's vision of this struggle, and every scene he and Rey share outshines everything else that surrounds it. We knew Adam Driver was a compelling and nuanced actor, even before this film began to roll, but the surprise here is just how well Daisy Ridley is able to match Driver's well-known intensity.

Luke plays a sort of middle-man between them, and it's not a stretch to say this is surely Mark Hamill's best outing in the role. He's given a good deal of meat to chew on as a bearded, reclusive version of the previous trilogy's central hero. The most welcome element on hand is just how effectively Hamill carves out this elder version of the character and stands separate from any temptation to make him the "Obi Wan" of this entry. From the emotional beats he presents, and the general sense of stubbornness throughout, you can conceivably believe this is the man that Luke grew into.

Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron gets a lot more to work with this time around. Rather than just being the very likable, handsome pilot guy, he's now the Commander of the Resistance fleet and our POV within the machinations of their operating order. Through his story, we spend most of our time with Leia, as well as Lauren Dern's purple-haired Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo. In this way, Poe's end of the tale works as a counter-point to the ongoing struggle between Hux and Kylo Ren. In both cases, we see the inner-workings of office politics and their respective power struggles. Poe is faced with issues related to the chain of command, especially in times of crisis - there's a not too subtle influence of Battlestar Galactica present here. It is an arc that is mostly effective, though somewhat truncated by its proximity to the least compelling storyline of the film.

Which brings us to poor old Finn. Finn, who occupied an exciting space within The Force Awakens (that of the faceless Stormtrooper turned hero), is saddled with what is basically a gigantic fetch-quest and the on-boarding of a new character in Kelly Marie Tran's Rose Tico, a member of the Resistance who volunteers to help him on this side-mission that feels like it lasts 10 years. Not only are the sequences they are involved in the least exciting of the entire affair, but they also are the stretches that rely the most on green screen and iffy special effects, neither of which are Johnson's specialty. One of the troubles here is that Finn basically is static throughout, and he's grafted to what is basically a non-entity in Rose. A character, who in theory, fits right alongside the themes that are being developed in all three storylines to some degree, but the execution of the character is the thing, and Rose never seems to grow beyond "earnest" with a connection between these two that feels rushed to say the least. There's a lot of tell here, and nowhere near enough show.

And to briefly get back to the subject of Carrie Fisher, her return here is bittersweet, as her passing last year does indeed echo within every scene she appears. But thankfully, she is the centerpiece of two of The Last Jedi's most touching moments, one that is especially artful and the other overflowing with emotion, striking a nerve in a moment that is sure to choke up audiences.

Despite the script's occasional lapses, there is at least some worthwhile study for the cinephiles in the crowd, as the stark contrast between the Abrams approach: with his wide environmental vistas and shots that are mostly at eye-level with his actors vs. that of Johnson who takes a slightly more "up from the ground" viewpoint, with much of the action occurring inside somewhat claustrophobic settings, makes for a unique point of comparison between two very different filmmakers. It's not that I expect much auteur imprint, but it's nice to get a hint of the artist behind the camera, which is apparent in both instances, and likely where a lot of the rewatch value will be found where this reviewer is concerned.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a tale of one really great "A plot" and character progression, and a pair of solid and undercooked storylines, respectively, that are tied together as a sort-of "B and C plot". The good news is that by the time the movie enters its climatic final moments, it hits a pretty good groove before the credits, though the way it comes together isn't exactly graceful. On the whole, it's an outing that could have done a little more with less, and while Johnson and company are bursting with ideas (some of which defy expectations), they don't all work and the overly bloated running time of 152 minutes is a testament to that fact. The truth is, there's an entire segment of the film that could have been excised completely from the script and not much would have been lost.

When it works, it really works, but the fat overwhelms it all too often. Johnson acts as a sort of caretaker to the concepts and characters introduced in 2015, and to his credit, he gets them from one end of the film to the other without any major hiccups (save for Finn); but with that said, I find myself far more enthused to see Abrams pick the baton back up for Episode IX and close out what he started.

Oh, and by the way, the Porgs are terrible.

But I know you're not going to.

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Review: Antonio Banderas Gives SECURITY Some Gravitas

The "Weathered Old Man Reclaiming His Masculinity" action genre has proven to be one of the more surprisingly durable trends of the last few years as many of the talented male leads of the 90s have aged out of their traditional roles. I doubt the makers of Taken knew that the trend they were restarting would last years, would outlast their own surprise franchise, and yet here we are. 2017 saw the genre reach what will likely be the high artistic watermark of its modern incarnation with Logan, the surprisingly mournful send-off for the Wolverine franchise, but most films in the genre have been... well, awful, to put it politely. From Tak3n's gibberish action to the dull bloat of the Expendables movies, the genre is reasonably popular but undeniably struggling. But fans of the genre looking for something considerably lighter than Logan's elegiac tone still have at least one 2017 winner to check out: Security.

In Security, Antonio Banderas plays Eddie Deacon, a veteran struggling to readjust and desperate for work. He agrees to take a job as an overnight security guard at a mall, but when a young girl shows up in the middle of the night, begging for help, he breaks the rules and lets her in. She's pursued by Charlie (Ben Kingsley), a mysterious but brutal gang leader seeking to capture the girl. Eddie refuses to let him in, and is forced to lead the mall's other overnight guards in fending off a midnight massacre in their mall. It's Assault on Precinct 13 in a mall, and while it lacks the casual brutality or the cops and crooks team-up of Assault, it's still a solid siege movie.

Security strikes something of an odd tone at times. Banderas' character is in some ways surprisingly grounded, his pain early in the film almost palpable. He's a man of honor coasting through a world to which he's struggling to readjust. But the other security guards are an almost comedic group, from goofy post-frat-bro Vance (Liam McIntyre) to silent bad-ass Ruby (Gabriella Wright). And Kingsley's gangleader is a scenery chewing pulp monster, a calm and collected murderer and player without a semblance of remorse; his gang is even more colorful, at times seeming ported in from a more adventurous action movie like The Raid. His axe-wielding flunky has a particularly fun sequence, though . The intersection between earnest gravitas, simple comedy, and broad pulp doesn't always entirely work, but when it does, it gives Security something extra to stand on its own. 

A large part of the reason the movie works is because, despite the less-than-clean action and some uninspired use of the mall location, is - surprisingly - the character work. Security gets us on Banderas' side immediately. Banderas gives what begins as a surprisingly muted performance - there's no "I have a particular set of skills" chest-thumping in this one - as a good dude struggling to readjust to civilian life after years in the military, and that's something the script manages to get across in a few short scenes. Eddie Deacon is not a proud man, but he's not an anti-hero; he genuinely comes across as a relatively normal guy trying desperately to do the right thing, and that's a rarity in this kind of film. He's more John McClane than Bryan... Taken? Bryan Takesman? Whatever, Liam Neeson.

The film's action also helps set it apart, though not always in a good way. Security largely eschews the brutal violence of Liam Neeson or Hugh Jackman by handcuffing Banderas from the get-go. He has no weapons, and his enemies largely travel in packs. Instead, he has to adapt to the mall, turning sections of the movie into a weird, bloody Home Alone -- albeit a Home Alone with surprisingly real emotional consequences. It reminded me at times of You're Next, the brilliant 2011 home invasion horror film that found an unlikely hero in the midst of a horrifying scenario. But Security lacks the cleanliness of You're Next, particularly when it comes to the action. You're Next, as a horror film, could set up some gruesome, heart-wrenching twists and moments of incredibly visceral violence, while Security largely sticks with bog standard action beats. The scenarios of those beats are varied, the characters within the scenarios are often solid, but the actual filming of the action is too close-shot and choppy to really land with the impact they need to.

Security is, in a lot of ways, a mish-mash of a lot of things that just shouldn't work together, but combined, it's an entertaining and appealing - if undeniably slight - action movie. Banderas has always been a strong, personable screen presence, and in a way, he's doing the reverse of what Neeson did in Taken: There, Neeson dialed back the depth of those expressive eyes, while Banderas actually amps his soulfulness up considerably. This isn't the charming, roguish Banderas of some of his more famous roles, but it feels like a surprisingly earnest attempt at a more mature action role. Security has its fair share of problems, from choppy action to some occasionally bizarre tonal leaps, but ultimately, Antonio Banderas remains a compelling, charismatic leading man, and he can bring a lot to even a fairly slight film.

Security is out now for rent on streaming services like Amazon Video. Written by Tony Mosher and John Sullivan and directed by Alain Desrochers, Security stars Antonio Banderas and Ben Kingsley.
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Monday, December 11, 2017

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 208

 Bug! The Adventures of Forager #6
by Mike Allred

 Dept. H # 21
by Matt Kindt

 Gravetrancers #1
by James Whynot

Harrow County #28
by Tyler Crook

Rumble #1
by David Rubín

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Atlanta Film Critics Circle names GET OUT Top Film of 2017

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out, this year’s top film according to the AFCC. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

Atlanta Film Critics Circle Announces Annual Award Winners
Atlanta (Dec. 2017)--Co-founded in 2017 by longtime Atlanta film critics Michael Clark and Felicia Feaster, the Atlanta Film Critics Circle (AFCC) has released its awards for this year’s top films, performers and other stand-outs in a host of critical categories.

Jordan Peele’s debut film effort, Get Out, a blend of horror and social commentary, was the winner as the top film of the year for its insightful transposition of issues of race to the horror genre, followed by Christopher Nolan’s skillful, galvanizing Dunkirk, about that definitive WWII battle, and a rousing throwback to the technical proficiency and style of classic Hollywood cinema.

Winners in the Top 10 film category were a blend of established talent like Steven Spielberg for The Post, horror/fantasy vet Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water and Nolan (Dunkirk).

But in addition to notable works by some of Hollywood’s heavy-hitters, 2017 also signaled the rise of some promising newcomers including actress and first-time director Greta Gerwig whose coming-of-age dramedy Lady Bird, centers on a Sacramento teen headed for college who continually clashes with her emotionally-paralyzed mother (AFCC’s Best Supporting Actress winner Laurie Metcalf); writers Emily V. Gordon and comedian Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick, based on Gordon’s real-life experience with a life-threatening illness; and Jordan Peele, a former member of the comedy duo Key and Peele, who delivered a stunning testament to black fear of the white power structure told through the eyes of a young black man meeting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time in Get Out.

Newcomers and indie and Hollywood stalwarts alike defined this year’s AFCC acting winners. British actress Sally Hawkins delivered a complex, emotionally resonant performance as a mute woman in love with an amphibious creature in The Shape of Water while Laurie Metcalf, perhaps best known for her turn on television’s “Roseanne,” offered a tragic, nuanced performance as a deeply flawed mother in Lady Bird. Longtime film and theater heavyweight Willem Dafoe won a Best Supporting Actor nod from the AFCC for his performance as a harried but decent Orlando, Florida motel manager in director Sean Baker‘s poignant treatment of characters living on society’s margins in The Florida Project. Heralded for his exceptional turn as a brilliant, sophisticated but romantically inexperienced young man falling in love for the first time, 21-year-old Timothée Chalamet was recognized by AFCC for his heart-wrenching performance in Call Me by Your Name.

In addition to these awards, the AFCC each year recognizes a performer, writer or director in the AFCC Breakthrough Award dedicated to exceptional emerging talent in the film industry.

This year’s Breakthrough Award winner was Jordan Peele for his remarkable dexterity in moving from comedy to profound social issue horror in Get Out. This year’s runner up for the Breakthrough Award was Timothée Chalamet. Says AFCC co-founder Michael Clark, of the Gwinnett Daily Post, “the nomination process for our ‘Breakthrough Award’ alone speaks volumes about the diversity in our group. The finalists were the director of a cutting-edge, socially aware horror/thriller and an emerging young actor starring in a tragic romantic drama. I’m proud to have co-founded a group with such a collective keen eye on blossoming talent.”

“This has been an exceptionally good year to be a film critic” says AFCC co-founder Felicia Feaster whose work appears in Atlanta magazine, Burnaway, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Travel Channel, “with a host of remarkable films that engage with very relevant social issues and also propel the art of filmmaking forward by reinvigorating a genre like monster movies in The Shape of Water or the war film in Dunkirk. The AFCC has already demonstrated a knack for identifying notable talent, both new and established.”

Full list of AFCC winners:

TOP 10 2017 FILMS
1. Get Out
2. Dunkirk
3. Lady Bird
4. The Shape of Water
5. Call Me by Your Name
6. The Florida Project
7. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
8. The Big Sick
9. Baby Driver
10. The Post

Timothée Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name

Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water

Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project

Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Christopher Nolan for Dunkirk

Jordan Peele for Get Out

Tie: Jane and Kedi

BPM (Beats Per Minute)


Hoyte van Hoytema for Dunkirk

Jordan Peele for Get Out

Composed of a dynamic mix of Atlanta-based critics working in newspaper, magazine and online journalism, the newly launched Atlanta Film Critics Circle solidifies Atlanta’s status as a Top 10 film market with a robust media presence and a booming film production industry. Georgia is currently number 1 in feature film production over any other market according to FilmL.A. Inc.

Co-founded by Michael Clark and Felicia Feaster, founding members (in alphabetical order) of AFCC are: Ed Adams (Kaleidoscope Reviews), Christopher Campbell (Movies.com), Michael Clark (The Gwinnett Daily Post), Jake Cole (Slant.com), Jim Farmer (Out on Film), Felicia Feaster (Burnaway, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Travel Channel.com), Matt Goldberg (Collider.com), Jonathan Hickman (Newnan Times-Herald), Curt Holman (Creative Loafing, Living Intown Magazine), Will Leitch (New York Magazine, Paste Magazine, The New Republic), Emma Loggins (Fanbolt), Michael McKinney (the CW), Steve Murray (ArtsATL), Kyle Pinion (Comicsbeat.com, GeekRex.com), Eleanor Ringel-Cater (The Atlanta Business Chronicle), Gil Robertston (Kaleidoscope Reviews), Matt Rodriguez (Shakefire.com), Elijah Sarkesian (Outtakes ATL), Josh Sewell (Times-Georgian, Douglas County Sentinel), Jeff Stafford (ArtsATL), Dean Treadway (Movie Geeks United), Jim Vorel (Paste Magazine), Steve Warren (InSite), Drew Wheeler (Athens Flagpole).

For more information about AFCC or our annual award winners, please contact Felicia Feaster at ffeaster@bellsouth.net

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart stars in the AFCC Best Foreign-Language Film award-winner BPM. ©Céline Nieszawer/The Orchard
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Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review: Guillermo del Toro crafts his best English-language feature with THE SHAPE OF WATER

Guillermo del Toro is a master stylist of neo-gothic intrigue and supernatural thrills, and with his best work, combines those two elements into satisfying forays into otherwordly cinema. No one will ever say the Mexican-born filmmaker is lacking in visual lushness where his films are concerned and those efforts produced in his native language are perfect examples of what happens with del, Toro perfectly executes that acumen for haunting imagery along with a captivating sense of storytelling. Cronos is one of the more creative spins on the vampire myth of the last few decades, The Devil's Backbone is a better Hellboy movie, in tone and spirit, than the actual Hellboy films he made, and Pan's Labyrinth is a full-stop, probably should have won Best Picture, masterpiece.

It's when he takes a spin at films in English where things get dicey. To be fair, I don't particularly think it has anything to do with the language that's at issue; as the troubles in this area are mostly set in his choice of projects in the first place. Being within the purview of blockbuster entertainment over the quieter, artier kind of films that del Toro actually excels at, leaves him at a distinct disadvantage even when it's a project that he originates like Pacific Rim. But what this career path has carved out for del Toro is something that can simply be labeled as: Spanish-language del Toro: Good!, English-language del Toro: Bad! Or to be less pedantic, EXTREMELY hit and mostly miss.

With The Shape of Water, I'm happy to announce that he's cracked the code a bit. It seemed like he was finally embracing the trappings that make his best work shine with 2015's Crimson Peak, and The Shape of Water sees that confidence come to full fruition with what is indeed, the strangest romance of the year.

Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, a really quite excellent (when is she not?) Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute since birth, part of the cleaning staff at a high security US Government research facility. Elisa loves to watch movies with her closeted artist neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), work alongside her coworker and friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and frequently masturbate in her bathtub. It's this latter detail that immediately grabs hold of you, not in a way that is necessarily gratuitous, but more in the sense that it's an unflinching look at a woman's appetite for sex, and a woman who is also in her 40's at that (if we're to take the actresses' age to be at all indicative of the character's, a dangerous assumption I admit). It's a refreshing blast of honesty right at the outset of the picture, and makes a powerful statement of intent and boldness.

From there, we're introduced to the ruthless Colonel Strickland, who brings with him a recent rainforest capture that he deposits within the facility that Elisa and Zelda work, this amphibian man (Doug Jones, playing a direct descendant of the same inspiration of design that gave us The Creature from the Black Lagoon and perhaps more pertinently Hellboy's Abe Sapien) quickly becomes the subject of experimentation by the sympathetic Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who has his own plans for the creature, and brutal torture by his initial captor. Elisa befriends the creature during his cleaning rounds, and this quickly blossoms into something wholly unexpected, if you hadn't looked at a poster, or a trailer or any of the marketing materials or interviews tied to the film. The fallout from this quickly burgeoning relationship create shockwaves through each character's life, in varying ways.

As noted above, del Toro's sensibilities toward creating picturesque settings is on full display here, and it's arguable that this technical day-dream of a world that he and DP Dan Laustsen breathe life into is utterly arresting from the first frame. From the moment, Elisa walks out of her apartment and perpendicular to the movie theater she and Giles spend their nights above, the viewers is engulfed in a environment that feels ripped right out of the most idealized 1950's day dream, while also set apart just enough from reality to feel within step of del Toro's oeuvre. While waiting for the bus, there's a man sitting on the same bench with a balloon and a whole birthday cake. He plays no part in the film except to add to the coloring that surrounds Elisa, but it's hard not to wonder while you're watching, "what's going on with that guy?". The Shape of Water is filled with little details like that from the outset that adds a wicked three-dimensionality that is irresistible.

Beyond its stylistic pleasures, the other great joy on-hand is the narrative's generally propulsive nature and just how effortlessly it shifts from genre to genre. What begins as a flight of fancy, turns into a bit of a horror film, then becomes a romance, shifts to a Cold War spy thriller, then a heist feature, then becomes a horror film again, and finally turns into an outright fantasy. That del Toro is able to allow these disparate tones to sit alongside one another without the sense of an awkward fit is a testament to the filmmaker himself, a avowed fan of "low-cinema" and his full-fledged embrace of the unique theme on hand.

The Shape of Water is, at its core, a love letter to being an "outsider" and the feeling that you simply do not have a place in this world, no matter what your social status may be. This applies to basically every major character within the film's core cast, from the creature himself, to Elisa whose physical limitations have crafted her own perspective, to Giles' own struggles with his sexuality in a repressive time, and Zelda is a black woman in the 1950's...say no more. Even the white males, Dr. Hoffstetler and Col. Strickland are faced with their own sense of existential dilemma and struggles of morality, with Strickland being particularly a stand-out focus of the film in a way that's wholly unexpected. This is the rare film of this nature that actually spends a good deal of its running time to develop its antagonist and give its audience a sense of understanding of just what external and internal pressures drive him to make the awful decisions he makes. We even get backstory for the kind of candy he eats! That's some attention to detail!

If there's an area that could have used a little more work at the scripting stage, it's sadly within the central romance itself. While the principal ideal that drives both Elisa and the creature together is a very intriguing one, even when you describe it in isolation, in context and as presented here, it feels a little light-weight. It's as if, del Toro, a bit impatient to get right to the good stuff, basically just assumes you will be along for the ride when Elisa is instantly attracted to him, and then a little longer down the line moves their relationship into the physical. Some important connective tissue is missing to make this torrid love affair one that's a bit more earned, and to some degree there's a sense of discomfort because the creature is given very little personality of his own beyond a few longing looks and gestures towards Elisa. There's a thin line between this being an even-footed human/non-human pairing, and one where the human is nearly taking advantage of a creature ripped from the safety of his natural home. One can only assume this was a sacrifice of a reasonable running time, but it seems an odd choice in that it critically injures the central conceit of the entire work.

Provided you feel like you can connect those dots yourself, or just get over the unearned nature of this unusual love story, you'll be treated to a nice display of craft, and while it still falls short of his earlier triumphs, it's a step in the right direction for the Hollywood expansion of del Toro's unique vision of the world that lies just underneath our own.

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