Archive for June, 2016

*Note: This review was originally published during coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

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On paper, the story of “Swiss Army Man” is full of promise: like the deranged blend of “Weekend at Bernies” and “MacGyver”. A shipwrecked and desperate man (Paul Dano) is about to commit suicide when he spots a dead body (Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on shore. The body’s utility becomes essential for survival, and he strikes up a friendship with the corpse as he searches for a way home.

But it becomes apparent, very quickly, that directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert and only interested in using their film as a delivery mechanism for 90 minutes of juvenile body humor. This is a film in which most of the critical plot developments hinge on flatulence and erections.

The Daniels seem to be actively fighting against letting their movie become inadvertently good, making sure to throw in some gross-out gags every few minutes to interrupt what could have otherwise be a beautifully-shot, musically-inventive, psychologically-ambiguous piece of surrealist pop.

What makes “Swiss Army Man” truly offensive is that there’s the bones of a very different, and very interesting film under the layers of asinine filth. Instead, a considerable amount of indie talent is squandered.

Grade: D

*Swiss Army Man opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 1.

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The horror genre so often relies on quick scares over storytelling that its films are typically disposable: a bundle of jumpy reveals with immediately diminished returns.

That’s why, when a horror movie comes along that both frightens and entertains it can feel like a singular emotional event, playing ping-pong with the senses as the audience trades shrieks of terror with nervous, relieving laughter.

After what felt like an eternity of the genre being dominated by shallow torture-porn, it’s heartening to see horror in the midst of a quality renaissance. Your mileage may vary, but look no further than indies The Babadook and It Follows, as well as the more mainstream Conjuring franchise for evidence of what an innovative and thoughtful horror director can do.

The latest in the latter series is The Conjuring 2, a continuation of the haunted house investigations of true life ghostbusters Ed and Lorraine Warren. The film picks up with the couple at the tail end of their most famous case, the Amityville massacre and subsequent haunting of the Lutz family, before skipping across the pond for a dramatization of the Enfield Poltergeist, which saw a family of Londoners tormented by bumps in the night.

Part of what makes the Conjuring films work is the savvy use of the Warrens as protagonists, played by Patrick Wilson and Bates Motel’s Vera Farmiga. Like its predecessor, the film splits its time between a ghost-weary family and their spiritual exterminators, who themselves are increasingly weary of the toil their work takes on them.

Farmiga, in particular, shines in Conjuring 2. Her Lorraine Warren is equal parts exhausted by and leery of her visions, which have turned increasingly dire of late as she sees repeated manifestations of a demon that appears to have her husband in its crosshairs. She’s prodded to assist in the London case by an insistent Ed and her own nagging sense of responsibility, but her uncertainty underscores the fear that this time, maybe things don’t work out so well.

Better still is the clever, almost sleight-of-hand directing of James Wan, who ironically birthed the Saw franchise that came to represent both the highs and gratuitous lows of the genre. In Conjuring 2 he is considerably more subdued, and the film is better for it, as the camera slowly and fluidly tip-toes down hallways and around corners, forcing the eye to dance along the edge of the screen anticipating the slightest manifestation of otherworldly menace. He’s also unafraid to stage one of his most effective sequences in daylight, the calling card of a confident and disciplined horror director.

The case itself packs less of a punch than the Salem-adjacent goings on of the original film. And Conjuring 2 breaks its winning streak of practical effects for a few instances of unconvincing and ineffective CGI. But for fans of the genre, and casual moviegoers looking for a fun scare, you’d be hard pressed to find a better offering in theaters this year.

Grade: B+

*The Conjuring 2 opens nationwide on Friday, June 10.

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*Note: This review was originally published during coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

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It’s easy to imagine a parallel universe in which Anthony Weiner successfully repented of his sins (or never committed them in the first place) and won an unlikely victory in the race for mayor of New York City. In that universe, one can only speculate on what could have been in the embattled politician’s future.

The contrast between that once-bright vision and Weiner’s corresponding fall from grace, is made all the more Shakespearean in this searing, at-times-uncomfortably intimate documentary, which tracks the meteoric rise, fall, resurgence and crushing implosion of an American political career.

“Weiner,” the film, is shot with astounding access to Weiner, the man’s, inner circle. That access was no doubt expected to chronicle a much different, and much more positive, outcome, and it makes the inevitable trainwreck all the more daunting as it approaches.

But the film also succeeds at humanizing a man who became a national punchline. Weiner is shown here as passionate, energetic, sympathetic and deeply, deeply flawed. The film juggles the laugh-out-loud humor of a campaign in crisis with the profound sadness of watching a family and marriage nearly torn apart by scandal.

That no other politician would allow this level of exposure, combined with the singular drama of Weiner’s personal story, creates a documentary experience with few equals.

Grade: A

*Weiner opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 3.

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Laughing at the hollow excess of celebrity is always fun, and funner still when celebrities get in on the joke. That’s the comedy essence of ‘Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,’ which takes the irreverent antics of The Lonely Island and expands their viral-video pattern to fit a feature-length mockumentary.

Andy Samberg stars as hip-hop musician Connor “4Real” Friel, an overt homage to Justin Bieber (whose documentary Never Say Never serves as a rough template for Never Stop Never Stopping) with a backstory akin to Justin Timberlake. Connor rose to fame as part of a boy-band trio Style Boyz, but has since surged as a solo act and is on the verge of launching his sophomore album and a new world tour.

The documentary style allows for winking testimonials by the likes of Usher, RZA and Carrie Underwood, who heap praise upon Connor’s career while making not-so-subtle digs at the vacuousness of America’s music industry. For example, Simon Cowell praises Connor’s decision to place a giant, LED-emblazoned, Daft Punk-esque helmet on the head of his DJ. A similar move, Cowell deadpans, would have allows Zayn to stay in One Direction for years.

There’s a lot of layers to that joke. And the level to which those layers amuse you is a decent litmus test for how much you’ll enjoy the film ‘Popstar,’ which zooms in on male genitalia for several minutes and which includes a song that likens passionate lovemaking to the military efficiency that resulted in Osama Bin Laden’s death.

That the film works at all is a credit to the charismatic charm of Samberg and his Lonely Island partners Akiva Schaffer and  Jorma Taccone. There’s also more celebrity cameos in this film than a Lakers playoff game, used in increasingly amusing ways that deepen the cynicism of a movie that mocks the cult of celebrity.

Grade: B+

*Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping opens nationwide on Friday, June 3.

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