After learning that the controversial "Only God Forgives" was opening at Liberty Hall this weekend, I immediately set out to contact the publicity house, movie studio and distribution house that are promoting the movie.
It is, after all, one of the most talked about films of the year, ever since getting booed at the Cannes Film Festival this past May — the same festival that awarded its writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn the top directing prize two years earlier for the stylistic noir-thriller "Drive," starring Ryan Gosling.
Gosling teamed up with Refn again, except this time, according to most critics, the results aren't as impressive. The main charge that has been levied against "Only God Forgives" is that it is a hyper-violent revenge flick that is completely devoid of substance or subtlety. Nobody is doubting the aesthetic beauty of the film's stark colors and formal composition, but what does it add up to?
Justin Chang from Variety called it "visually arresting but distressingly empty." Sasha Stone wrote on The Wrap: "But what his film amounts to, in the end, is the careful work of a serial killer. Refn isn't literally killing women, but he's indulging in one bloody killing after another, and practically licking the knife afterwards." Richard Corliss from Time said: "The collision of violent spasms and art-film ennui leave the viewer’s brain bloody but unfilled."
And then there's Hollywood gossip blogger Jeffrey Wells who didn't mince words in his article "Stink Spreads All Over," calling the film "a (bad) macho fantasy — hyperviolent, ethically repulsive, sad, nonsensical, deathly dull, snail-paced, idiotic, possibly woman-hating, visually suffocating, pretentious," adding, "I was repelled by this film in ways I didn't know I could be repelled."
Now I would never take anything Wells says seriously, but I have to admit, I am way more fascinated by films that are this divisive than I am by many of the safe, middle-of-the-road "prestige" pictures that get trotted out during Oscar season. In fact, two of my favorite films to defend are the misunderstood "Speed Racer" — an energetic, groundbreaking movie that created a layered un-reality where objects and people aren't governed by the same rules as we are — and Tom Green's "Freddy Got Fingered," a bizarre surrealist comedy that could be on display in any serious modern art museum and that Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel would be proud of.
Wait: I did use the word "divisive." Yes, it's true. "God Only Forgives" isn't without its supporters as well. They just aren't as emphatic as its detractors.
David Rooney from The Hollywood Reporter says the movie is "the kind of cine-cultural scavenger hunt that Quentin Tarantino has undertaken with far greater depth and diligence." Luke Y. Thompson of Topless Robot wrote: "... this is the greatest specific [David] Lynch impersonation I've ever seen."
There's always an exception, and in this case, "Only God Forgives" has one very emphatic five-star review, from Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, who calls the film "an emotionally breathtaking, aesthetically brilliant and immensely violent thriller set amongst U.S. expatriates in Bangkok."
Depending on how well you can predict major plot points before they happen, you may have already figured out from the preponderance of quotes from other writers that I wasn't able to see "Only God Forgives" in time for my deadline. I got a whole lot of "I'll see what I can do" and "I'll forward your request along," but not one person involved with the movie stepped up with a press screening, a DVD screener, or even a link to view the film online.
It's almost as if The Weinstein Company's Radius label, who bought the film after its notorious Cannes premiere, didn't want me — or any other critics in the Kansas City area for that matter — to see "Only God Forgives." But if the old adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity is true, then who cares?
Certain movies — take the $42 million opening-weekend haul of "Grown Ups 2" for example — are critic-proof. Is "Only God Forgives" one of them? Radius is banking on it. And if this is their marketing strategy, so be it. I've read quite a bit about the movie, and I'm still going to see it this weekend because controversial movies are infinitely more interesting than safe ones, even if I end up disliking them. How about you?
The only controversy surrounding the immensely charming 2001 French film "Amelie" is that it somehow didn't win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film that year. Granted, it was beaten by Bosnia's clever, topical dark comedy "No Man's Land," but these days "Amelie" is considered a modern classic! I still rank it as one of the best movies to show to someone who think reading subtitles is too much work.
Liberty Hall's Film Church program continues Sunday with the movie that immediately launched Audrey Tatou into the world's consciousness as the cutest woman God ever created. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's lovely "Amelie" sees the world through her eyes, and even in the most depressing of circumstances, it's always a wonderful place to be. Only the most hardened of hearts will fail to be charmed by this delightful comedy. The movie shows at noon, and is accompanied as always by an optional brunch and bloody marys.
If you are a film fan and you live in Lawrence, this week is full of great opportunities to geek out.
A double-feature charity screening of Joss Whedon-related fun called Can't Stop the Serenity is showing at 7 p.m. Friday at Liberty Hall, with proceeds going to benefit the women’s rights organization Equality Now.
Seven years before he helmed the monster hit “The Avengers” for Marvel/Disney, writer/director Whedon (famous for his “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” TV series) made a sci-fi western called “Serenity” that flew under the radar of those not in “the know.”
“Serenity” is a fast-paced, clever spin on the space-adventure genre, adapted from Whedon’s short-lived TV show “Firefly,” it and holds up well. Back in 2005 when it was released, star Nathan Fillion (playing a wisecracking Han Solo-like spaceship captain) was virtually unknown, but an older generation of fans now know him as the title character on ABC’s “Castle.”
Following “Serenity” will be all 43 minutes of “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” a funny trifle with singing superheroes and villains. Whedon dreamed up his project, starring Fillion, Felicia Day, and Neil Patrick Harris, during the 2007-2008 writers strike, and as a “just for fun” diversion, it’s way more entertaining than it has any right to be.
Lastly, season one of the online gaming comedy-short Web series “The Guild” — starring Day again, but having no other Whedon connection other than an increasing amount of Whedonverse cameos — will screen as a bonus.
“Frances Ha” opens at Liberty Hall this weekend, and there has been a lot of media talk calling it a modern-day kind of “Annie Hall.”
The film was directed by Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Greenberg”) and is reportedly way sunnier in disposition than his usual fare. Greta Gerwig (Baumbach’s real-life girlfriend) stars as a flighty young woman from New York who seems to wander aimlessly through her life.
It's shot in gorgeous black and white, and I’ve been hearing the dreaded word “quirky” thrown around a lot.
Comedies aren’t usually as polarizing as “Frances Ha” has been, but Gerwig’s title character — a ball of unfocused energy — is turning heads in both ways.
“World War Z” has been the subject of lots of bad buzz. From a ballooning budget to reported re-shoots, the Brad Pitt-produced adaptation of Max Brooks’ best-seller has long been troubled. The final product, however, isn’t a disaster at all — as long you’re not expecting it to be anything like the book.
Director Marc Forster shoots “World War Z” — which is about a sudden zombie-like virus that takes over the world in a matter of days — in a more realistic fashion than most zombie movies. It’s way more “Contagion” than “Dawn of the Dead.”
After grounding the story emotionally with Pitt and his family (Mireille Enos from AMC’s “The Killing” plays his wife), the chaos kicks in with some well-staged scenes of zombie panic that put the audience in the middle of the confusion.
Before there is barely time to process what’s happening, former United Nations man-of-action Pitt is whisked away to travel the world and figure out how to stop the pandemic.
“World War Z” has a couple of loose ends from a plot standpoint, and it’s not at all realistic that Pitt would be able to traverse the globe and be everywhere important at just the key moment. But Forster succeeds in making it a very tense film without the aid of any “Walking Dead”-style gore. This is a PG-13 movie that wrings maximum tension out of its life-or-death situations, with nothing less than the future of humanity at stake.
At noon Sunday, Liberty Hall celebrates the one-year anniversary of its Film Church movie/brunch series with a double-feature of early Quentin Tarantino movies.
“Jackie Brown” and “Reservoir Dogs” showcase the decade-defining filmmaker before he became obsessed with revenge fantasies. Despite the fact that every lame heist movie in the '90s ripped off these films (and especially “Pulp Fiction”) to the point of parody, they still hold up.
Tarantino’s ear for great dialogue and expert plotting make “Reservoir Dogs” a treat, and “Jackie Brown” contains the two most soulful performances in the Tarantino canon — from Pam Grier and the Oscar-nominated Robert Forster.
Lawrence resident and obscure-movie aficionado Adam Jeffers offers up “two colossal hours of king-size videotainment” at The Bottleneck on Tuesday with another edition of his homegrown, awesomely strange Trash Nite. This edition of the weirdest and best parts of otherwise terrible movies is a tribute to Japanese monster flicks, or Kaiju.
Jeffers is calling it "Big Meanies," and the whole program — featuring clips from no-budget oddities like 1987’s “Ganjasaurus Rex,” 1994’s “Saurians,” and “King Kung Fu” from 1976 — is edited together like an '80s cable access show, complete with camp-tastic commercial breaks.
The trailer showcases a lot of really, really bad "special" effects and "actors" wearing cheap rubber monster suits. In one clip, the filmmakers couldn't even be bothered with an entire costume, so it looks like they strapped a couple of scales on a guy in a business suit and filmed him with an exaggerated perspective and added some Godzilla sound effects. The show starts at 9 p.m. and, as usual, it’s completely free!
Tom Cruise usually exerts a good amount of quality control over his projects and has for decades now. When he takes a starring role, he comes on as producer (often hiring the director) and is very involved from tip to tail in the entire creative process. In short, all you need to do is look at his track record to see that he works really hard to make sure his movies are, at the least, entertaining/thrilling to a wide audience.
That's part of the reason why "Oblivion," his newest big-budget, sci-fi adventure movie, is such a disappointment.
Writer/director Joseph Kosinski wrote what would become "Oblivion" eight years ago. In the meantime, he directed tons of TV commercials and became familiar with CGI special effects. This led to his feature-film debut "Tron Legacy" for Disney and now this.
Lensed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda, "Oblivion" looks stunning, especially in IMAX. It has an epic scope, as Cruise and his teammate/girlfriend Andrea Riseborough watch over a fleet of drones and mining machines tasked with draining the Earth of its resources after an alien invasion devastated the planet. They work in a station mounted impossibly high above the clouds and are nearing the end of their mission and looking forward to joining the rest of the human survivors on one of Saturn's moons.
Starting with a "mandatory memory wipe" and the dream sequences Cruise's character is plagued with, we know something is horribly wrong about this premise, but "Oblivion" never amps up the dread factor. Instead, it leads the audience along with incredibly obvious clues so that by the time it starts revealing it's "twists," we are way ahead of it. (Blame the spoiler-heavy marketing, too.)
But plot holes and mismanagement of suspense aside, "Oblivion" fails because it establishes an interesting premise and then abandons its characters as soon as things get complicated in favor of a typical "save the world"-type action story. If Kosinski really wanted to make a sci-fi movie in the spirit of early classics like Chris Marker's "La Jetée" and Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris" as he has mentioned, then he should have engaged more fully with his characters' personal crises and not added Morgan Freeman and "Game of Thrones" actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau to muddle things up, brooding around in "Matrix"-like outfits with capes and making big, dumb speeches.
"Oblivion" isn't a total loss, but it is disappointing not only to see the film abandon the interesting sci-fi issues around its central love triangle (Olga Kurylenko plays a woman meant to be mysterious but, again, it's painfully obvious from the outset who she is) but also see it devolve into a series of hackneyed action-movie cliches, including some really insulting third-act dialogue. It would be interesting to find out if Tom Cruise's role as producer made him decide to alter the original script to appeal to a wider audience or whether Kosinski had these well-worn plot devices built in from the beginning.
On Thursday, April 25, The Granada is hosting the free premiere of "Dire Digest," a horror anthology featuring six different filmmakers and a combined cast and crew of over 80 people who nearly all have ties to KU.
Kansas University graduate Aubry Peters is the producer of "Dire Digest," and he's been making short films since 2005 after getting involved with KU Filmworks. His network grew from there, allowing him to make a feature film and eventually recruit the talent for this one.
"I went to five other friends of mine and told them all to write short horror stories that they thought we could actually produce," he says. "I always loved 'Tales from the Crypt' and the old 'Creepshow' movies and wanted to do a horror anthology like that. Once we had our script together, we started casting and finding crew."
After the free Granada screening, Peters hopes to travel the festival circuit and eventually find worldwide distribution for the film. Thursday night before "Dire Digest," two other local short films from filmmakers Kai Winikka ("Black Friday") and Tristan Noelle ("Mahi") will also have their premiere.
Liberty Hall continues its brunch Film Church series on Sunday, April 28, with Peter Bogdanovich's breakthrough 1971 film "The Last Picture Show." Based on the Larry McMurtry novel and adapted by he and Bogdanovich, this plaintive, character-driven ensemble classic features Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, and Cybill Shepherd in early roles as high school seniors from a Texas small town in 1951.
The crisp 35mm black-and-white cinematography (yes, Liberty Hall will be showing a 35mm print) lends a wistful, nostalgic vibe to "The Last Picture Show," and Oscar-winning performances from Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman only deepen the heartbreak. Liberty Hall's Maggie Allen will provide a brief introduction to the movie, and 715 Restaurant will provide brunch. The doors open at 11 a.m. and the film starts at noon.
Trash Nite is ‘Wrasslin”, Film Church goes Italian, and ‘Hansel & Gretel’ follow trail of body parts
While Hollywood is turning out big missed opportunities and non-funny duds like last year's "The Watch," starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill, it can be refreshing to look elsewhere for comedy kicks.
On Jan. 29 at The Bottleneck, Lawrence resident Adam Jeffers will screen the fourth edition of his original Trash Nite anthology, "Wrasslin'". This special presentation puts together footage from low-budget wrestling-themed features "No Holds Barred" (1989), "The American Angels: Baptism Of Blood" (1989), and "Grunt! The Wrestling Movie" (1985), all tied up in a lovingly edited package like a mid-'80s local TV broadcast, complete with wrestling-themed commercial breaks.
Did I mention that this "two piledriving hours of wrestling ridicu-mania" is free?
I spoke to sleep-deprived local B-movie aficionado Jeffers about Trash Nite and "Wrasslin'," which is a spin-off of Horror Remix, a regular monthly feature at The Bottleneck:
Eric Melin: How do you choose the movies to spotlight in Trash Nite and how do you choose what to edit/leave in?
Adam Jeffers: Usually I come across a movie that I'm so in love with that I have a burning need to show it to/inflict it on as many people as possible, then I base an entire theme around that one film and watch hours and hours of footage for the sake of trying to fill out the show. As far as the films go, I'll edit out anything that's not absolutely crucial to the main plot or doesn't make me laugh. The previous Trash Nite shows had been two main films, edited to about 40-45 minutes each, with a much shorter intermission film and commercial breaks, but "Wrasslin'" has three main features, so editing those down to fit the time frame was much more difficult. Some decent moments have gotten the axe, but I've enjoyed the challenge and I think the end result will be a lot more satisfying. Either way, the audience will get their money's worth. It's free, by the way.
Eric: What impression do you want to leave with first-time Trash Nite attendees?
Adam: I stayed awake until 5 a.m. every night this month editing "Wrasslin'" so while I may look insane or on heavy medication, I am actually very approachable, and the only reason I put myself through this was to share with you, the audience, two wonderful, unforgettable hours of the best trash I could possibly dig up. Because I love you, Lawrence!
Eric: What is it about wrestling movies that makes them so perfect for this kind of treatment?
Adam: Movies tend to exaggerate reality, and professional wrestling is a sport that builds itself around an already-exaggerated reality, so movies about professional wrestling really play up the impossible. They take an already ridiculous premise and turn it into trash-movie heroin. Watching these films, I was actually so entranced by the way professional wrestling was portrayed that I tried to watch a couple of actual WWF matches from the mid-'80s. I was really disappointed; they seemed incredibly tame. But I do find I have a greater respect for the sport now, regardless of whether or not admitting this makes me less attractive to women.
The Film Church series at Liberty Hall continues its Sunday-at-noon series of classic cinema with the 1988 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film, "Cinema Paradiso." Giuseppe Tornatore wrote and directed this heartwarming and semi-autobiographical tale that is maybe the greatest love letter to classic cinema ever made. (Although I'd argue that Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" may creep up on it as time goes by.)
This eminently nostalgic movie is told in flashbacks, as a prominent film director returns to the small Italian village for the funeral of the local projectionist and reflects on his post-WWII childhood. As a young boy, the projectionist took him in and became a father figure, teaching him important life lessons and the wonder of cinema.The poignant moments of his life, including his first love, are all punctuated by the movies and life at the local theater.
"Cinema Paradiso" is very approachable, and only those with the most hardened of hearts could dislike it. As a foreign-language film, it also serves as a very good introduction to world cinema. Those who might be intimidated by subtitles or against seeing movies that contain them would do well to use "Cinema Paradiso" as a starting point, especially since this presentation will be on 35mm, and Liberty Hall is serving brunch, and bloody marys.
Also at Liberty Hall this week is "Rust and Bone," a gripping psychological drama starring Marion Cotillard as a whale trainer injured in a freak accident that changes her life. While dealing with her complete loss of self-confidence, she begins a relationship with a brooding single father (Matthias Schoenaerts) who makes money in underground fight circles.
"Rust and Bone" is a quiet, intimate film from director Jacques Audiard, who made a big splash in 2009 with the wrenching prison drama "A Prophet." Cotillard's performance is internalized and subtle and while she was nominated for a Golden Globe, perhaps that subtlety was why she was passed over in the Oscar race. Audiard's film doesn't have a twisty plot, but it goes into all kinds of unexpected places emotionally, especially considering that Schoenaerts seems completely devoid of outward feeling for most of the movie.
Lastly (and, yes, there is a reason its last), we have "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters," a dumb splatter-fest that knows it's dumb but doesn't quite have what it takes to round the corner into the "clever dumb" category. Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton are the brother and sister team from the Grimm fairy tale, only they bear rifles and Gatling guns and dress in long, leather coats and tight pants like they just walked out of "The Matrix."
Directed by Tommy Wirkola, who also made the Nazi zombie splatter-fest "Dead Snow," this film is rated R for all manner of exploding heads and dismembered body parts, which provide the movie's only memorable moments. Wirkola knows he's got something ridiculous on his hands, but the script still needs a lot more winking humor to succeed as an action comedy. At just under 90 minutes, "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" is mercifully short, but the complete lack of anything surprising makes it still kind of a chore. If you pay for the 3-D version, you might have to duck a couple of times to avoid flying limbs, but that's about all it's worth.
Along the way to becoming the fun, disposable piece of Hollywood trash that "Jack Reacher" is, it has a scene or two that may turn the stomachs of those still reeling from the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn., last week.
The camera takes the point of view of a rifleman's telescopic gun sight as he surveys the innocent people strolling along in a park. It intermittently lands on various people — a young girl, a businesswoman, a man on a bench, a twentysomething baby sitter — before the gunman opens fire, killing five.
The audience I saw the film with gasped out loud and then got very quiet. The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary was still too fresh and it was a wake-up call to the audience, in a very effective and efficient way might I add, to our culture's complete and thorough addiction to guns. The movie goes out of its way to condemn this type of violence, of course, but it was tough to watch at first.
What was also interesting, however, was tracking how my own complicated personal feelings about the subject were negotiating with the movie's simple good vs. evil construct as the movie continued forward. "Jack Reacher" is based on the popular book series by Lee Child about a mythic figure, a mysterious ex-Army investigator who lives by his own moral code and dispenses justice outside of the law — a brute with a heart, if you will.
Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie's rousing slice of mainstream entertainment doesn't take itself too seriously, especially because it seems at least partially designed to strategically up Tom Cruise's tough guy quotient as he turns 50. He does a terrific job keeping the plot tense, the romance simmering, and the action exciting in an old-school kind of way. He’s also good at lightening the mood when things start getting too dark.
Cruise is up to the task of embodying the brooding 6-foot-5 best-selling book character even if he doesn't have the physical stature to back it up, and Robert Duvall, Rosamund Pike, and Richard Jenkins provide ample backup. In a weird bit of stunt casting that mostly works, legendary German film director Werner Herzog plays the film's baddie. Herzog is not much of an actor, but his alternately soothing and menacing voice does most of the heavy lifting.
Gradually, despite the appearance of a shooting range later in the film, "Jack Reacher" overcomes its eerie early parallel to the most recent awful public shooting and becomes what it is: a skillfully plotted, disposable mystery that may serve as a launching pad to a new franchise for Tom Cruise.
Writer/director/producer Judd Apatow's "This is 40" is many things, but mostly it's a messy and consistently funny movie filled with bitter truths and anxieties about middle-aged life. It's easy to forgive movies that ramble as much as "This is 40" does when they keep supplying laughs.
Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann reprise their roles from 2007's "Knocked Up" (which cemented Apatow as a new comedic powerhouse) as Pete and Debbie, a married couple struggling with the idea that they aren't getting any younger. Besides using his real-life wife Mann in a lead role, the couple's daughters are back as well. At times, the movie feels like a behind-the-scenes peek at the Apatow household, but it's precisely his astute personal observations that make the movie so truthful and funny.
"It doesn’t feel that personal, mainly because the more specific we go about details of our world, the more anyone who saw the movie said, 'Oh, that exact thing happens to me every day," Apatow said recently. "It became universal as it became more specific.'"
To that point, there are certain things about "This is 40" that ring so specifically and absolutely true to my experiences that it feels, at times, that the movie was designed personally for me. Like Apatow's last effort, the bitter "Funny People," "This is 40" feels a little long and it's main conflict isn't as specific and easy to identify as most movies (inner malaise and dread are hard to externalize), but it's overflowing with hard truths and relatable moments — the kind that the best, most hardcore of stand-up comedians can zero in on. With his talented crew of regular players (Jason Segel, Melissa McCarthy, Lena Dunham) and some new additions (Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Megan Fox, of all people), Apatow does the same thing in "This is 40."
Liberty Hall continues its Film Church series this Sunday, Dec. 23, with a 35mm showing of director David Lean's classic 1957 Academy Award-winning Best Picture "The Bridge on the River Kwai." In theory, you may think you don't like two-and-a-half-hour prestige pictures from Hollywood's most indulgent period, but Lean's movie is hugely compelling. Plus, in 35mm, it will be gorgeous to look at as well.
This World War II work camp drama is a monumental battle of wills with lots of ambiguity and no clear cut good guys and bad guys. It features a durable William Holden, one of Alec Guinness' best performances, and the last great role of Japanese Hollywood import Sessue Hayakawa's long career.
The doors at Liberty Hall open at 11 a.m. "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is showing at noon, and brunch and bloody marys will be provided by 715 Restaurant.