REVIEW: Zombieland: Doubletap.

Zombieland: Doubletap was written to be Zombieland’s sequel — it seems to exist more for the actors to have a nice time and for the fans of the first film to relive the Good Old Days™ than try to be a sensationally moving film. While the first movie was accidentally pioneering in its genre, Doubletap makes no promises. It is nothing visionary, but works its simple, nostalgic charm enough for it to be fun and fresh. It is the ultimate tribute to a classic film.

In 2009, Jesse Eisenberg hadn’t been in The Social Network yet, and La La Land was but a stray thought to Damien Chazelle who had only finished directing his first movie. In 10 years time, the actors have reached loftier calibers, each one becoming Academy Award nominees and winners. And although the script isn’t the most emotionally complex, they play their parts perfectly, regardless of how vast and complicated their recent roles they’ve grown to fill are. The characters of Zombieland still fit seamlessly from out of the time capsule, despite the decade of change and progress in between.

Horror elements improve the comedy; the underlying morbidity of the tragic demise of humanity helps the banality of some of the more cliché jokes become more palatable. New characters also add a kind of sparkling appeal and novelty to a plot that’s structurally a copy of the first film. Madison, played by the magnetic Zoey Deutch, is simply a trope with a singular note, and yet Deutch makes the note hit bright and spectacular. Although the other new characters contribute to the movie’s success, Madison, with her effervescent denseness, is so obviously the standout element amongst all else.

Much of the comedy in Zombieland: Doubletap stems from Zombieland itself, deriving jokes that often stroke the fourth wall with a kind of impish wit in reference to its predecessor. The movie can certainly be enjoyed as a stand-alone, but it’s main purpose, it’s true blood, can only be recognized in conjunction with the first film. It is full of details written in for the amusement of old fans, with a keen enough self-awareness about its intent that it does falter when it comes to the delivery either. While Doubletap may not be an inspiring, original film, it is an excellent commendation of Zombieland. Enough of the components are there, and given enough heart, Doubletap is fun to watch. It is enjoyable, uncomplicated, and the end credits are killer.

REVIEW: The Goldfinch.

There’s a layer of abstraction to any film that uses source material from a book, but The Goldfinch pulls the casing off the bullet. There is an idea of a great, inflicted pain, evidence that something significant has happened. And there is a tender wound, somewhere, because we’re holding the shell casing of that hurt. But none of it is palpable.

The film develops as a succession of events after Theodore Decker’s mother is killed in an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, dividing its narrative between his childhood and adulthood. We come back in iterations of clarity to significant scenes as the narrative expands, watching the dust settle in the aftermath of the bombing again and again. Some parts of the film are slow like this, dwelling on memory as Theo does over the course of his life. Other times, the movie plays out like a supercut, in a series of incidents that seem to be only tied together by voiceover and poor symbolism.

There are a few moments in The Goldfinch that seem purposely paced, slow, and beautiful. The sequence of Theo’s life idling in the deserted outskirts of Las Vegas feels more personal than the rest of the film. Here, his character is developing and growing, as static as his grief might be. And with little distraction from outside forces, we become more intimately attuned to the feelings of the young Theo. His unhappiness is apparent, his boredom is tangible, and the friendship he develops with Boris has a natural, fresh progression with a soft sincerity.

Aside from the plot, the cinematography is beautiful all around — detailed with a strangely opulent look to it, even when the are scenes removed from anything glamourous. The Goldfinch frames shots with elegance; it is pretty, but lacks substantial depth in Theo’s adulthood narrative. The characters present in his later life are underused and underdeveloped.

Towards the end of the movie, the more the plot unfolds with lofty revelations and supposed emotional intensity, the more absurd it begins to feel. And the more it tries to reach for catharsis in the last stretch of the film, the more it becomes another incomprehensible event. The significance is lost somewhere in the disconnect between what is happening and what we should be feeling. The Goldfinch is clean, pretty, but a letdown as it feels like a continuous waiting for something to finally work.

Just as the character Hobie had taught Theo to recognize fake antiques by running his hands along the wood, we can touch this film, feel it, and know what it lacks to make it genuine.

REVIEW: Climax.

With films like Black Swan, Suspiria, and now Climax, dance is a staple in horror, both sublime and dangerous. Some kind of magnetism exists to the art, an incredible fascination with the primal power behind the lofty, elegant institutions of dance. Climax is already a bit stripped down in this sense – there is no renowned ballet school, no classical compositions to be centered around. Instead, the film is focused on a diverse dance troupe, and the pace is set from the first major dance sequence to be erotic, sensual, and chaotic.

Climax feels like an amalgamation of limbs and sound, as if it were a strange animal pulsating with bass and red lights, with a feral energy that doesn’t stop until the party’s over. There isn’t really a script, and it was noted by the director Gaspard Noé that most of the scenes were improvised, shot linearly, over the course of only a few days. It feels organic and crude, surreal in some ways and too real in others.

The cinematography is unusual, with brutally long takes, and the camera primarily focused on the mesmerizing choreography and disorientating scenes that almost seem to amount to nothing. If there is supposed to be a story line, a significance behind everything that unfolds over the course of the movie – then it’s lost to a special echelon of hell that spills across the screen.

At first, the film starts off like any other onscreen party: a bit hedonistic, a bit messy, full of drama and gossip and dancing. The audience is exposed to the private problems and personal relationships between the members of the troupes through cuts towards the different characters at different points during the party.

Things are amplified when the group realizes that their sangria had been spiked with LSD, and all pleasures and desires reach unthinkable magnitudes before turning dangerous. Dance is melded with violence and paranoia, and the scenes turn into an unending, bizarre, sensory surge. While this feeling is nearly normalized by the end of the movie, a few scenes we see through the eyes of some of the only coherent characters are the realizations of the nightmarish reality.

Climax is a polarizing film, strange in composition and delivery, but undoubtedly powerful. It’s a movie that is difficult to make sense of with the traditional parameters of good film-making, and is probably most aptly described as a bad trip – perfectly filmed as such, and unforgiving in how far it takes the viewer down a path of indistinguishable pleasures and pains. The ending reveal almost feels insignificant in comparison to the trauma of the rest of the movie.

While beautifully shot and unmistakably special, Climax is difficult to watch and reads more like an abstract exploration of the moraless, raw side of the human condition than an actual plot. It’s interesting, it’s an experience, and it’s probably a masterpiece in its own genre, but it is definitely not for everyone – maybe not even for most people.

REVIEW: Greta.

Greta begins like an upscaled lifetime movie, with bouncy music played to the streets of New York, montages of beautiful temperate days in the park, homey cooking scenes, a cute dog – the sweet introduction to the film is a bit undermined, however, by its reputation.

Frances, an ingenuous Bostonian, finds a handbag on the subway and resolves to return it to its owner – her roommate, Erica, notably reminding her in Manhattan they usually call the bomb squad for an unattended bag. Nevertheless, the well-intentioned Frances follows the address found on an ID card to a quaint, scenic house and meets Greta, who is seemingly sophisticated and French, mother-like, charming, and isolated. They bond over their individual loneliness as a friendship is built upon the understanding of loss.

However, about twenty minutes into the film, the movie drops all its horror elements with an inelegant slap of screechy violin music and Chloë Grace Moretz gasping as if she were in a B-movie. Surprise is lost to the speed in which the film rushes into the thick of the story, barreling through its hour and a half runtime with poor pacing.

Underneath its artful glaze of cinematic appeal, Greta is brimming with the clichés of frantic music and jumpy cuts. It’s applied heavy-handed at times, less like a varnish of ingenuity and more like space to fill the shallowness of the characters, the plot.

Isabelle Huppert carries most of the film, almost all of Greta’s horror imbued into one sinister person, and it’s impressive that outside of soundtracks and camera angles, she is the sole source of terror. Greta is largely devoid of any fantasy elements, any secondary antagonists, any other fear that is not Greta herself – near comically deranged and frighteningly pervasive in Frances’ life. The suspense is from her honed act of psychopathy, the delivery of her lines. The tension is from the deliberateness of her obsession.

There are moments not quite explained, disposable characters tossed aside, overly theatrical scenes executed wildly, and the film suffers from the lack of subtlety or wit and a directorial grasp outside of just its visuals. While not bad enough to be entirely campy and not good enough to be spectacular in its genre, Greta is still strangely palatable.

Despite all of its flaws, the style in which Greta combines delicate cinematography with a hammer of horror elements banged into anywhere that fits is, surprisingly, enjoyable and interesting. Without reading too much into the plot or picking at the seams where the film unravels, Greta can still be satisfying in an uncomplicated, indulgent, slightly satirical way. Like a McDonalds milkshake – not necessarily good but whatever.

REVIEW: Boy Erased.

After reviewing Beautiful Boy, Boy Erased seems to follow as another dose of a dysphoric mood. They are films of similar tones, based on memoirs, iterations of the same loneliness growing up and the tremendous struggle of an unfamiliar new world. The films are similarly understated in many ways, often slow and cyclic, but Boy Erased properly gives us significance where it is needed, emotion where it is craved, and a genuineness that is never lost.

An impressionable Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) only wants to reconcile his faith and his sexuality, to live in his realm of familiar things despite a lingering discomfort that’s been tucked away. He’s a basketball player, he has a cheerleader girlfriend, works part-time at a car dealership, on his way to college — and now far away from his old life, he begins to occupy another significant space, another world that becomes more corporeal as time passes.

But nothing is certain, and when Jared is unwillingly outed to his parents, he still has an earnest conviction that he is able to shed this sin. He dutifully agrees when his father (Russell Crowe), along with with other higher ministers of church, suggest that he participates in Love in Action, a gay conversion program.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a film similar in topic, where the titular character Cameron is characterized by her rebelliousness, skepticism, and an overall faith in herself during her time at conversion camp. But here we differ in that Jared is compliant and eager to please, if not to change. He is a good son, one who sits expressionlessly supportive of his father’s ordainment as a Baptist minister and his vows to eliminate homosexuality. After his first day at Love in Action, he tells his mother he’s excited for the things to come — maybe even believing this sentiment himself.

Boy Erased’s importance comes from Jared’s delicate uncertainty and the fragility of his worlds. His parents are conservative and misinformed, but do ultimately care for him. He believes in his faith, but has a doubt that he cannot shake. The film presents itself in a fairly reserved manner, not explicit in the way it condemns the program staff or his parents. But slowly, we grow to see the way Love in Action is sinisterly manipulative, emotionally taxing, built on the basis of a poorly worded handbook — the same time that Jared also begins to realize the flawed chassis of its goals and who he is.

We go back in time to understand the things written on Jared’s “moral inventory” of past behaviour. In flashbacks, we see that sometimes, he was thrown into a violent confrontation with his sexuality, dangerous and non-consensual, with the collateral aftermath of shame. And other times, it was gentle, soft moments of clarity that changes the way Jared connects his two realms of being at his own pace. The way he consolidates his worth is slow, highlighted by painful moments of realization during his time at Love in Action and, in retrospect, outside of it.

The film climaxes after the abuse of one of the kids at Love in Action, when Jared is called upon to perform an exercise of confessing his sins and channeling his anger, the upsurge resulting from Jared’s gradual development into certainty in his own skin. This resolution is foreshadowed when Jared’s mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), tells him the first time she drops him off to call her if he ever needed to. And above her husband, above rule, above God, his mother rushes to Love in Action, puts program leader, Victor Sykes, in his place, and drives off with her son when Jared tearfully calls her. In a very beautiful moment, his mother gives him her love and support as foremost, above all.

Boy Erased is not without its flaws. The secondary characters lacked development; from the astute Gary to the solemn Sarah, we seldom saw more of their inner world, our cinematic gaze fixated on Jared. Even for Jared himself, things were kept subtle, difficult to decipher his exact thoughts —although it often seemed like he didn’t quite know either, filled with conflicting ideas and doubts, a mess of diverging ideals pooling together that clarifies with his growth. Despite its tonal softness, Boy Erased finishes on high hopes, carried by the relationship between Jared and his family as well as the terrific job done by the cast, giving just enough to avoid falling flat.

REVIEW: Beautiful Boy.

Beautiful Boy is like an idea of a great film, a summation of perfect things – virtuous moral, talented cast, a story with a capacity for emotion as deep as the ocean. It’s posed as an indie centrepiece in the film industry, especially anticipated with leads Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell. But Beautiful Boy, as a sum, is not as magnificent as its separate parts, playing everything a little too safely to hurt, a little too cleanly to feel. The gorgeous visuals and honest dialogue is lost to a sterile mood, a story that’s been overly delineated into clean lines.

As far as addiction memoirs go, this film is on the tamer side, almost feeling inhibited. Some of Beautiful Boy’s appeal is, however, its muted tones, the cyclic styles that the film runs in during its one hundred and thirty-nine-minute duration. It’s almost tiresome, the anticipation of everything falling apart, the highs and lows amid a sunny L.A. backdrop or the dark corner of a bathroom stall. The feeling of an emotional disconnect, the weight of a cyclonic helplessness seeps onto the screen as we follow Nic’s father, David, and his attempts to understand the rise and falls in his son’s addiction and recovery. Just like how David had told a young Nic in the airport in one scene – “Do you know how much I love you? If you could take all the words in the language, it still wouldn’t describe how much I love you. I love you more than everything” – Nic is his sun, as if he were heliotropic, moving in the same motions day and night.

The film isn’t dramatized in the sort of voyeuristic pull that watching a disaster unfold has like in some other drug films. There is a layer of abstraction that comes from Beautiful Boy being primarily focused on David and his otherwise idle life, with shots of rolling green lawns and kids’ swim meets. It’s the kind of complacency that drove Nic to crystal meth, an all-American boy with a suburban emptiness, a lethal boredom, a hole to fill. This mood is perfect in Beautiful Boy.

But for the moments where Beautiful Boy is supposed to emerge from its staid nature with the capability for heartache it has, it feels like a tick box on pain. Timothée Chalamet plays Nic with sensitivity that’s powerful, simultaneously a crude driving force and an acute fragility in each scene, with Steve Carell alongside, growing into his role the longer the film plays on, becoming more and more certain as David with each iteration of Nic’s relapse and recovery. Yet as a whole, Beautiful Boy feels not quite there. Despite a few significant scenes, there isn’t enough for it to rise from the consistent white noise of gloom that drowns the film.

Maybe this is its intention. The film has some rough edges carefully stripped away from the original written memoir, turning it into something more refined and clean and easy to digest. If it wanted to be more accessible, more focused on the particular struggle of loving someone already long gone, more soft-spoken and hopeful, then Beautiful Boy has accomplished that. Otherwise, it feels as if there is a loss of depth, a film that only treads in the shallows, waterlogged, when it was given an ocean.

Check out Beautiful Boy at Michigan Theater.