Fantastic Fest 2016: Wrap-Up

A summary of this year’s Fantastic Fest

Ah, Fantastic Fest! It’s kind of like a comic-book convention, except with Elijah Wood instead of cosplayers, and there’s always some guy right in front of you in the line to the men’s room singing “we are the flesh” to the tune of “We Want the Funk”. (That would be me.) The Critics’ Code requires an end-of-festival writeup, including a complete list of films ranked by personal preference. In that spirit, I bring you this:

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Fantastic Fest 2016: Day Two

The latest from Studio Ghibli and Ana Lily Amirpour, and more

Day two gives us a new Studio Ghibli co-production, the latest from Ana Lily Amirpour, and more.

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Fantastic Fest 2016: Day One

The latest from Denis Villeneuve and Chan-Wook Park, and more

Day one brings us the latest films from Denis Villenueve and Chan-Wook Park, and more!

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TV Good Sleep Bad, episode 12: “The Prisoner & Masters of Horror”

Two fantastical takes on the electoral process still somehow manage to seem more realistic than Donald Trump or #Brexit

Good morning, citizens! Numbers 15 and 16 present a new episode of TV Good Sleep Bad, the cult TV podcast that will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered!

In this episode, we discuss:

The Prisoner 1.02*, “Free for All” (1967): Number 2 encourages Number 6 to run in the upcoming Village council elections. But our hero soon learns that so-called free elections are just another form of mind control in the Village.

* According to the A&E DVD boxed set.

Masters of Horror 1.06, “Homecoming” (2005): Soldiers killed in action in Iraq come back to life…to exercise their constitutionally-guaranteed right to vote. Which might not be a good thing for the incumbent administration…Starring Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager).

Next month: Cyber City OEDO 808 and Danger Mouse.

TV Good Sleep Bad, episode 11: “Rick and Morty & The Outer Limits”

Mad science runs amok as a feckless suburbanite goes to extreme lengths to improve his golf score, and a cancer patient turns into a human jellyfish

It’s time for another episode of TV Good Sleep Bad, the cult-TV podcast that is not born into this world fumbling for meaning! It was created to serve a singular purpose which it will go to any lengths to fulfill!

(Well, not any lengths, not really. I don’t think we would have shot someone for the opportunity to watch Sapphire and Steel.)

In this episode, we discuss:

Rick and Morty 1.05, “Meeseeks and Destroy” (2014): Morty convinces Rick to let him lead their latest adventure, one that ultimately results in him being trapped in a restroom with a lecherous jellybean. Meanwhile, Rick gives the other Smiths a little something to get them off his back: magical creatures who exist only to help them improve their lives. But things take a dark turn when they can’t help Jerry take two strokes off his golf game.

The Outer Limits 1.15, “The New Breed” (1995): A terminal cancer patient injects himself with his future brother-in-law’s body-repairing nanites, but things go disastrously wrong. Starring Richard Thomas (The WaltonsItThe Americans) and Peter Outerbridge (ReGenesis).

Next month: Masters of Horror and The Prisoner.

Time Lapse

The perfect example of why one shouldn’t rely on concept alone to drive a film.

time lapse
United States. Directed by Bradley King, 2014. Starring Danielle Panabaker, Matt O’Leary, George Finn, Amin Joseph, Jason Spisak. 104 minutes. 3/10

Many science-fiction writers seem to find endless fascination with the mechanics and “rules” of time; Bradley King’s feature début, Time Lapse, shows what happens when that fascination fails the serve the story. The script (co-written by King and BP Cooper) focuses on a trio of roommates–starving artist Finn (Matt O’Leary, Brick), his girlfriend, aspiring writer Callie (Danielle Panabaker, Arrow/The Flash), and their ne’er-do-well mutual friend Jasper (George Finn)–who discover that their recently deceased neighbor (John Rhys-Davies) built a strange machine, bolted it to his living room floor, and pointed it at their apartment.

The contraption turns out to be a device which, at 8pm every evening, takes a Polaroid photo of their shared living room…as it will appear twenty-four hours in the future. The gang wastes little time coming to a consensus on how they can use the camera to their benefit: Jasper bets on greyhound races based on information he sends through the photos, while the creatively-blocked Finn recreates the paintings his future self places in the camera’s field of vision. This probably can’t end well, can it?

Actually, King and Cooper have struck upon some intriguing ideas; pity they’ve put so much effort into constructing their puzzle-box film that they almost completely neglected the personalities they created to solve it. The characters move through the plot like figurines on a track, never deviating from the path the narrative requires them to take; the filmmakers devise a couple of token conflicts to drive the drama, such as a love triangle and Jasper’s textbook-psychotic bookie (Jason Spisak), which utterly fail to bring the personalities to life. Their behavior runs the gamut from dull to dumb. In fact, film’s final twist depends on them to be so stupid that they fail to deduce the most obvious solution to a mystery established in the film’s first 15 minutes–and which the audience will figure out the minute the filmmakers introduce it.

Even the most skilled ensemble would experience difficulty with such material, but the core cast seems consistently confounded. The relationship between Callie and Finn particularly suffers from the complete lack of chemistry between Panabaker and O’Leary. I can just about believe in a world where television stations broadcast dog races and a bored millennial can paint an elaborate and complete–if utterly pedestrian–work in a couple of hours. But I can’t believe that Callie and Finn have known each other for more than maybe a couple of weeks, let alone been together long enough for their relationship to have gone sour. The supporting ensemble does a bit better. Spisak and Sharon Maughan deliver thankless performances as glorified environmental challenges and exposition-delivery devices, better than the film deserves. King should face criminal charges for wasting Rhys-Davies, who delivers a stronger performance in a single still photograph, holding a sign reading IF YOU CAN READ THIS IT’S TOMORROW, than the three lead actors combined.

Time Lapse narrowly squeaks by a classification of “complete waste of time” by dint of the occasional thought-provoking idea or bit of cleverness…but it’s also the perfect example of why one shouldn’t rely on concept alone to drive a film.

TIME LAPSE poster.


It may seem unfair to constantly judge Synchronicity in the light of its obvious influences, but by constantly going out of his way to invite those comparisons, writer/director Jacob Genry leaves the viewer little choice.


United States. Directed by Jacob Gentry, 2015. Starring Chadrian McKnight, Brianne Davis, AJ Bowen, Scott Poythress, Michael Ironside. 101 minutes. 5/10

Few ideas in science fiction tantalize or intrigue like that of time travel. But let’s get real: if it were possible, what would we actually do with it? That question has an obvious answer, succinctly summed up in a line of dialogue in the last act of Synchronicity, the latest film from writer/director Jacob Gentry (The SignalMy Super Psycho Sweet 16): we’d use it to get laid.

Admittedly, that’s probably not how the film’s protagonist, Jim Beale (Chadrian McKnight), thinks of it. Beale and his two assistants (played by genre stalwarts AJ Bowen and Scott Poythress) conduct cutting-edge research on time travel through the creation and manipulation of wormholes, but they depend on venture capitalist Klaus Meisner (Michael Ironside) for financing. Matters complicate further when Abby (Brianne Davis), a raven-haired gothic bombshell with a mysterious connection to Meisner, enters the picture. Beale quickly falls for her, and she seems to reciprocate…but mysterious forces seem to conspire to keep them apart. In order to learn the truth and win Abby’s heart, Beale makes a snap decision that could prove to have disastrous consequences.

Synchronicity’s publicity makes much of comparisons to Dark City, whose influence manifests most clearly in the film’s “future noir” imagery and puzzle-box plot construction. If you can forgive the film’s depopulated locales (presumably due to the low budget, although it does add to a lovely eerie atmosphere throughout), the occasional crummy CGI, and what I’ve dubbed “That Ubiquitous Blue Filter,” Synchronicity certainly looks good. Similarly, its plotting impresses with its cleverness.

Yet its lack of thematic depth and world-building keeps Synchronicity from standing beside influences such as Dark CityBlade Runner, and (less obviously) Donnie Darko. It may seem unfair to constantly judge the film in the light of its forebears, but by constantly going out of his way to invite those comparisons, Gentry leaves the audience little choice. The odd, retro-futuristic devices and dystopian trappings look nice, but they’re only there for show. Similarly, The film has little insight or substance to say about human relationships, and doesn’t seem particularly interested in thought-provoking philosophical flights of fancy. That’s not to say the it’s all style and no substance, but what you see is largely what you get. Like too many “puzzle movies,” once solved, it gives the viewer little reason to tackle it again.

That all being said, Synchronicity has enough in its favor to justify a look see. McKnight and Davis work as the leads, possessing enough chemistry to make a romantic subplot even if you can’t imagine their relationship lasting much past the end titles. But the real MVPs are the support players, especially Ironside, who seems to relish the chance to play a somewhat different kind of villain. Bowen also turns in a strong performance, proving once again why he’s the go-to guy for movies like this. Composer Ben Lovett also deserves special mention for his score; while retro analog-synth-based scores have become all the rage over the past few years, he delivers one of the few truly distinct examples of the form since It Follows.

As much as I enjoyed Synchronicity, it sadly seems destined to obscurity. It doesn’t distinguish itself enough to merit eventual cult classic status.

synchronicity poster

The Lazarus Effect

Yet another horror movie about bringing the dead back to life that turns into a routine slasher film.

The Lazarus Effect
United States. Directed by David Gelb, 2015. Starring Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Donald Glover, Evan Peters, Ray Wise. 83 minutes. 3/10

As long as people have been dying, others have sought to bring the dead back to life. The Lazarus Effect follows a team of scientists led by Mark Duplass (Creep) and Olivia Wilde (House) as they test an experimental serum intended to aid in the resuscitation process…but which unexpectedly brings a dead dog back to life.

Of course, any movie that starts with the return of an animal corpse to the land of the living must then address the question “When do we start human trials?” But between the revival of the dog and the death–and subsequent resurrection–of one of the scientific team, director David Gelb and screenwriters Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater try several approaches to the material, including philosophical meditation on the ethics of science (that’s not to say the science isn’t complete bullshit) and conspiracy thriller.

Sadly, the filmmakers dispose of these after very little development. The plot eventually settles onto the path of a slasher film, because of course there’s no way you’re going to travel back across the veil that separates death from life without turning evil for no appreciable reason whatsoever. The kill scenes don’t particularly entertain, and to add insult to injury, the team of highly-educated scientists seem to start taking stupid pills about halfway through the film. (Note to self: I really shouldn’t formulate plans to murder someone who has demonstrated the ability to read my mind while I’m in their presence.)

At least Gelb has a good, albeit largely wasted, cast. Duplass was probably born to play a scientist whose good intentions and ambitions outpace his actual ethics, and who has a bit of an issue in dealing with people. Wilde does well in both “counterpoint to the emotionally distant guy” and “homicidal monster” modes. Donald Glover (Community) and Evan Peters (American Horror Story) are fun to watch as junior members of the team, even when the plot reduces them to clichéd protests. Ray Wise, playing a shadowy corporate raider, suggests an entirely more interesting film in his single scene and three or four lines.

Unfortunately, none of these are good enough reasons to actually slog through the film. Leave this one alone; you’re better off with the more thoughtful Phoenix Project.


Retro Review: The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Bowie we see in this weird sci-fi film is more genuine than any other persona he’d adopt over the course of his career.

United Kingdom. Directed by Nicolas Roeg, 1976. Starring David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry, Bernie Casey. 139 minutes. 7/10

David Bowie scored his first hit single in 1969: “Space Oddity,” in which Major Tom flies to space and doesn’t come back. Over the next few years, Bowie would continue in an overtly science-fiction-inflected vein, creating characters like Ziggy Stardust and developing a musical version of 1984 (eventually aborted). By the mid-’70s, you could probably be forgiven for assuming he actually did come from another planet. The logical progression of his image would then be to play an alien in a movie; with his unnatural hair coloring, emaciated frame, angular, androgynous features, and permanently dilated right eye, he certainly looked the part.

Legend posits many actors either considered or approached to play the title role in Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’s 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earth: Peter O’Toole, Robert Redford, Mick Jagger, even author Michael Crichton (Roeg’s first choice). In retrospect, however, the character of Thomas Jerome Newton–an alien from a dying, war-scarred planet who comes to Earth in a desperate bid to save his people, only to become tempted and corrupted by the vices of humanity (alcohol, television, and sex: note how Newton’s true form lacks genitals and most orifices)–could only be played by David Bowie.

In a sense, the film could serve as a thinly veiled biography of Bowie, who’d become rich and famous seemingly overnight, who possessed a lucrative brilliance…and who also developed an addiction to cocaine. (Indeed, Tevis later came to realize that the story served as a metaphor for his alcoholism.) Bowie approaches the role with a specific naïveté, that of the artist who wants to act but has no real idea how to go about it. Constantly zonked out on nose candy, able to interact with the world around him but not feeling part of it, the otherworldly alienation that Bowie/Newton exhibits isn’t an act.

An auteur who made his bones under Roger Corman and came into his own as a filmmaker in the wake of the French New Wave, Roeg complements Bowie’s performance (or lack thereof) with the perfect aesthetic sense and set of visuals. Having perfected the art of hazy, hypnotic, mildly psychedelic atmospherics with 1971’s Walkabout, he gives the flashbacks to Newton’s home planet a sense of having been filmed on location after the apocalypse. He gives the film a steady, deliberate pace, always keeping emotional distance from the characters even in their passionate moments.

Roeg’s distinct, singular vision of the film has its drawbacks. Candy Clark, playing a hotel housekeeper who becomes Newton’s lover, careens wildly between “embarrassing” and “atrocious.” Roeg often employs symbolism too obscure for its own good, and occasionally falls prey to self-indulgence. Most notably, at nearly two and a half hours, the film is at least 30 minutes too long, and particularly drags during its final act.

Yet, ultimately, The Man Who Fell to Earth serves as an important document of what David Bowie represented, and–perhaps inadvertently–who he actually was during this stage of his career. Bowie contained multitudes–Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, the Goblin King, the sophisticated crooner of Let’s Dance–yet in a very real sense, the Bowie we see in this weird sci-fi film is more genuine than any other persona he’d adopt over the course of his career.

R.I.P. David Bowie (David Robert Jones) 1947-2016

The Man Who Fell to Earth poster

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Only time will tell whether the first Star Wars film in ten years is the herald of a new golden age or a dead-end, but right now, we’ve every reason to be optimistic.

United States. Directed by J.J. Abrams, 2015. Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie. 135 minutes. 9/10

On October 30, 2012, the Walt Disney Company announced its acquisition of Lucasfilm Ltd. With that purchase came a drive to develop the Star Wars intellectual property into a shared “cinematic universe” à la Marvel Studios’ MCU. Three years later, The Force Awakens–the first Star Wars movie of the Disney era, the first of a new planned trilogy, the first not developed by George Lucas–is finally available for mass consumption. The waiting is finally over. Is this the beginning of a new golden age, or are we doomed to repeat the prequel era?

Well, it’s like this. Having been almost eleven years of age when Fox released the film that wasn’t yet called A New Hope, J.J. Abrams (director and co-writer of The Force Awakens, as if you didn’t know) belongs to the first generation that had the mythic scope and narrative structure of Star Wars imprinted on the part of his brain that tells him how to properly tell a story with moving pictures. Because he’s a fan, he knows what a Star Wars fan wants out of a film billing itself as “episode seven,” the official successor to Return of the Jedi.

And what a fan wants from such a film is to get the same vibe, the same sense of wonder and excitement, that they had the first time they saw Star Wars (or The Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi). Whether Abrams succeeds is up to the individual filmgoer; Star Wars fans tend to have intensely personal relationships with the series. But he damn well gives it his all. Other reviews make much of how Force Awakens replicates the plot beats of the original trilogy, particularly New Hope. This isn’t a weakness; to the contrary, it’s a necessity. For better or worse, mythic adventure is a formula. Rules must be followed.

At any rate, it’s not as if simply “rhyming” the beats makes Force Awakens a remake of New Hope. Yes, Episode VII begins with the required elements: the “A long time ago…” caption, the STAR WARS logo receding into space, the opening crawl, the downward pan. From that point forward, Abrams doesn’t bother trying to George Lucas’s (Irvin Kershner’s/Richard Marquand’s) visual style. Even when he employs dissolves and wipes, Force Awakens looks like a J.J. Abrams film: more modern and kinetic and, yes, plenty of lens flares. BB-8, a spherical practical-effects marvel who has as much personality as any human character, sums up all the strengths of Abrams’ visual aesthetic in one concise, adorable package.

This extends to the script, which Abrams developed with Lawrence Kasdan (perhaps Lucas’s best screenwriter-collaborator, with apologies to Leigh Brackett) from an early draft by Michael Arndt. The lead characters have more depth than their counterparts in the original trilogy, a crucial element in the success of the main villain, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. Let’s be honest: as menacing as Darth Vader is, that’s more on the design and the performances of Dave Prowse and James Earl Jones than on the writing. Thankfully, Driver accepts the challenge and rises to it, bestowing a terrifying intensity and humanity to match.

There are no dud performances in what must be one of the strongest ensembles of the year: future films seem secure in the hands of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac; Andy Serkis reminds us how he became the go-to guy for performances like this; Domhnall Gleeson and Gwendoline Christie make surprisingly good Nazis. Yet the film’s MVPs are veterans Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew, both of whom are too old for this shit but pull it off anyway. Ford, in particular, looks more interested in his surroundings than he has in a long time.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens represents a new era for the series. It’s far too easy to be cynical about Disney’s plans for the property, planning to release a Star Wars movie every year (currently alternating Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow’s Episodes VIII and IX with standalones like 2016’s Rogue One) as long as fans care to see them. Only time will tell whether The Force Awakens is the herald of great things to come or a dead-end, but right now, we’ve every right to be optimistic.