Sixth Annual Cinefessions Summer Screams Challenge – Robert's List

I can't believe it's already time for the Sixth Annual Cinefessions Summer Screams Challenge. This is an annual horror/sci-fi viewing contest held every year in June where film fans compete to watch the most genre film/TV possible. There are weekly bonus themes/screenings, plus a checklist of genres (listed below) to earn even more points. This is always a lot of fun. Bolded entries match the weekly theme; *'d entries are the featured films.

The List

  1. Harbinger Down (2015) IMDB (3 June) *
  2. Wonder Woman (2017) IMDB (6 June) While Diana is a fantasy superhero, this plot centers around an attempt by the Germans in WWI to use chemistry to create an unbeatable gas weapon.
  3. Hausu (1977) IMDB (8 June)*

The Checklist:

Watch a sci-fi or horror film from each specific sub-genre:
— Apocalyptic or Post-Apocalyptic Film (Film, Year)
— Black and White Horror or Sci-fi Film (Film, Year)
“Natural Horror” Film (Film, Year)
— Slasher Film (Film, Year)
— Steampunk Horror or Sci-Fi Film (Film, Year)

Watch a sci-fi or horror film with these people/companies in the following roles:
— Writer – Stephen King or Clive Barker (Film, Year)
— Director – Andrei Tarkovsky or Fritz Lang (Film, Year)
— Production Company – Dark Castle Entertainment or Platinum Dunes (Film, Year)
— Composer – Richard Band or Harry Manfredini (Film, Year)
— Cinematographer – Peter Suchitzky or Guillermo Navarro (Film, Year)

Watch a sci-fi or horror film that fits into the following categories:
— Watch a Horror or Sci-Fi Film from Danny Peary’s Cult Movies Books or Scott Tobias’ New Cult Canon List (Film, Year)
— Watch a Horror or Sci-Fi Film from The Asylum (Film, Year)
— Watch a Film from Taste of Cinema’s Best Sci-Fi Soundtracks or Thump’s Best Horror Soundtracks (Film, Year)
— Watch a Horror or Sci-Fi Found Footage Film (Film, Year)
— Watch a Rape & Revenge Film (Film, Year)
— Watch a Horror or Sci-Fi Film Directed by a Woman (Film, Year)
— Watch an Animated Horror or Sci-Fi Film (Film, Year)
— Watch an Anthology Horror or Sci-Fi Film (Film, Year)
— Watch a Horror or Sci-Fi Film Adapted from a Novel (Film, Year)
— Watch a Horror or Sci-Fi Film Released by Vinegar Syndrome or Severin Films (Film, Year)

Optional (for an additional 3 bonus points each):
— Watch a Horror of Sci-Fi Film Once Normally, then Again with a Commentary Track (Film, Year)
X Watch a Movie in Theatres (Wonder Woman, 2017)
— Read a Sci-Fi or Horror Graphic Novel of at Least 50 Pages (Book, Author)
X Read a Sci-Fi or Horror Novel, or a Book about Sci-Fi/Horror, of at Least 100 Pages (Audrey's Door, Sarah Langan) (3 June) Amazon
X Play at least Two Hours of any Horror or Sci-Fi Video Game on Console or PC. (Friday the 13th (2017), PC)

Points: 16


Two Show Day: The Hairy Ape & The Glass Menagerie

Last Wednesday, I went into NYC to see two productions of older plays. One of them, The Hairy Ape by Eugene O'Neill, is rarely performed; the other, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, is performed rather frequently. Both productions are radical reimaginings of what the authors had in mind for the expressionistic, dream-like dramas about identity in the greater world.

The Hairy Ape at the Park Avenue Armory was a stunning production. You walk into this gigantic steel shell of a theater covered in fog, through the playing area, over the rotating treadmill for the set pieces, and up into the bright yellow seating to watch the show. Then the lights come down and the production is not joking. Every inch of that gigantic space is used. Anything made of steel is the same bright yellow as the seats and stairs, but is manipulated beautifully by the lighting design to be any color of the rainbow at any given moment. The scenes rolled one into another, for better or for worse (I’m not a fan of how the stairs in the audience were used to kill time between longer scene changes, but at least they kept the action going). Bobby Canavale was a perfect Yank and I doubt I’ll see another production of the play that feels so modern despite its age.

The Glass Menagerie at the Belasco was a trip. I did not know when I picked my seat that I’d be a few feet away from the staircase the actors entered and exited from throughout the performance. Act I is performed with the houselights on and most of Act II is performed to candlelight while rain pours onto the stage. The set is so minimalistic that I heard people complaining before the show began. It’s four chairs around a kitchen table, a milk crate with records/the glass menagerie/the yearbook in it, and a prop shelf right at the proscenium arch you could see if you sat house right. These choices forced the audience to listen to the words onstage and it made the text feel immediate and real.

Madison Ferris is the best Laura I’ve ever seen. This is a strong Laura who knows why she does not feel safe going out in the real world but fears being that strong in front of her overbearing mother (Sally Fields giving a masterclass in Tennessee Williams). I found myself drawn to Laura even when she wasn’t talking (the cast, save the Gentleman Caller (Finn Wittrock, playing a very different character than I was used to seeing from him), was onstage almost the entire show) to watch her play with her records, polish her collection, or read the yearbook. This is where Laura showed herself. Every time she interacted with her brother Tom (Joe Mantello hitting all the beats and believably transforming between young ambition/frustration and mature nostalgia), she was safely seated in her own little corner of music and art and life. 

This is not a traditional production, but it is my favorite production I’ve seen. I’ve always viewed “A Memory Play” as an invitation to present The Glass Menagerie in different ways. This is a different production, for sure. Ferris’ Laura doesn’t have a limp, because Ferris is an actor with muscular dystrophy who uses a wheelchair to get around. This Laura is painfully aware that she cannot hide unless she literally hides from the world. Tom is significantly older, meaning we’re actually viewing this production from his perspective years later. Who knows how realistic we’re supposed to believe it all is? Can he only remember the orange kitchen set and Laura’s milk crate of belongings? Or is that all they had in the cavernous apartment? Was Amanda an older mother who couldn’t have a job outside of the house, or does Tom just remember her that way? And, frankly, I love that this production stressed the introductory monologue bit about The Gentleman Caller being a symbol and a realistic person. He’s a symbol to everyone except for Laura, who grows to believe he is real and really interested in her. I don’t like all the staging choices (I found the rainstorm onstage to be a distraction, to be honest) but I loved the interpretation of the text. We’re playing with memories and clearly this Tom only remembers the most bombastic moments of this year with his mother and sister in the apartment.

Regarding seating for both productions: the cheap seats are fine for The Hairy Ape as long as you are house left; house right, you’ll want to avoid 1 or 2 in a row as the giant shipping crate set piece used in every other scene has a solid wall, blocking off some of the action (I was in K3 and only couldn’t see the very back corner where, at most, one actor could stand). The ushers were also offering alternative seating for patrons who might struggle to walk up the stairs for the stadium seating, but I couldn’t see where those people were placed. The ushers were incredibly helpful navigating all the steps, especially when the fog was so thick upon entrance. The seating is steep enough that you won’t be blocked at all by the person in front of you (three steps between each row). 

The Glass Menagerie is probably best in the Orchestra. Mezzanine might not be bad (Balcony is a no-go for sure), but I was struggling to see everything in the candlelight scenes from the fourth row of the orchestra. The staircase the actors use is house right, so if you sit in the front row or on the right aisle you have to keep your bag under your seat and your feet tucked in. I feel house right or center is better just so you don’t risk losing some of Laura’s moments played by the proscenium arch; house left is best if you’re more interested in watching Tom deliver his monologues. The show has a lot of discounts the day of so it’s not hard to get a good orchestra seat for the full price of a mezzanine seat (or cheaper). They also offer rush for the very front row every day and the stage is not so high that it would be an issue to sit there.

Academy Awards: A Star Should Be Born: Auli'i Cravalho's Unstoppable Performance

There is a lot that can and should be said about the Academy Awards on Sunday. It's wonderful that Moonlight won Best Picture. Despite winning Best Actor, Casey Affleck received an icy, at best, response from anyone he attempted direct contact with throughout the ceremony. Jimmy Kimmel's worst bit--bringing "tourists" into the Kodak Theatre--is mercifully overshadowed by the chaos of the Best Picture announcement. 

But, for me, the biggest takeaway is what should be a young actor's a star is born moment.

After a brand new intro written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, 16-year-old Moana star Auli'i Cravalho took to the stage to sing "How Far I'll Go." This was Cravalho's debut performance in a film and it was a voice-acting role. For many, this is the first time she will be seen live, in the flesh, and it's on Hollywood's biggest night. That's a lot of pressure.

Then a few minutes into the performance, one of the backup dancers hits her in the head with a large prop and she doesn't even flinch. She doesn't miss a note, doesn't get flustered, a delivers the best song performance of the night.

Cravalho is already an unflappable pro at 16. If that performance does not sway casting directors for film, television, and theater to give her a chance, the industry isn't just.

Thoughts on the Academy Award Nominations

The big story for me is still the Academy Award nominations and what they actually mean for the state of entertainment.

Spoiler alert: We still have a LONG way to go.

This is the first time since I began writing about film professionally over ten years ago that I face a specific dilemma about the Oscar nominations. There are two major contenders for Best Picture and other big ticket categories I refuse to watch. 

I firmly believe that we, as a cinema viewing audience, need to take a stand with our wallets. If we blindly support films helmed by problematic people, we continue their careers far longer than they should last.

It's not that I have no interest in the plots or subject of Manchester by the Sea and Hacksaw Ridge; I have no interest in supporting the careers of Casey Affleck and Mel Gibson.

Mel Gibson's circumstances are better known. I haven't supported his work since his aggressive, anti-semitic and incredibly sexist tirade against the police. "Sugar tits" is iconic for being such an absurd attempt at getting out of trouble, but it points to greater issues with his level of respect for women; Passion of the Christ told you everything you needed to know about his attitude towards Jewish people.

Casey Affleck's issue is, sadly, not as well-publicized and points to major issues with attitudes in Hollywood and the Academy Awards. He was accused of sexually and verbally harassing women on the set of I'm Still Here, that awful Joaquin Phoenix not-documentary from 2010. That's not okay and should give people pause on supporting his work as more reports of a continued pattern of behavior emerge.

Now this is hardly the first time the Academy Awards looked past terrible behavior from privileged white men to reward work in film; Roman Polanski didn't win his Best Director Oscar until decades after her fled the United States to escape jail time for statutory rape charges. What is troubling is another could-be Oscar contender that became DOA because of similar abuse allegations.

Sundance buzz does not always equate to Oscar gold; it's not a common occurrence. Yet, the rapturous reviews for writer/director/star Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation seemed guaranteed to set up momentum for awards season. The quality of the film is pretty inconsequential when the narrative is right and Parker had it all in the bag. 

Then his court record from the 1990s emerged and destroyed his career before the film's wide release. Parker and a teammate were accused of raping an intoxicated student while they were in college. Parker claimed the sex was consensual, while his victim said she was drunk and therefore couldn't consent. Non-consensual sex is rape, period. Parker was acquitted on the charges while his teammate was found guilty (and appealed the decision and had the case thrown out by prosecutors).

How is it that Nate Parker, a black actor, had his career destroyed by decades old charges while Casey Affleck, a white actor, had much more recent charges ignored to lead him to potential Oscar gold? 

It's not just the abuse narrative and Oscar campaigns that connect these two stories. Parker and Affleck both were incredibly dismissive and said tone deaf things about the allegations against them while promoting their films. The difference is entertainment writers actively pursued the story for Parker and largely let it slide away for Affleck. That's an interesting choice.

It seems writers weren't, as a whole, really willing to go after Casey Affleck until after Mel Gibson got his big Hollywood redemption arc with six nominations for his war movie Hacksaw Ridge. The one-two punch of sexist, problematic behavior lit a fire under a much more docile-to-white-people narrative to create more clickbait stories.

I'll leave it for you to put together the pieces. Race appears to play a role in awards season even when the work could be a contender. Just think back to how much crap Mo'nique got for not campaigning for Precious and how many interviewers just assumed Gabourey Sidibe was an innercity nobody with below average intelligence to play the lead in the same film. Now compare it to the typical white actress questions related to fashion, the challenge of playing someone SO DIFFERENT from themselves, and blanket praise for actresses like Brie Larson and Jennifer Lawrence who roll their eyes at the traditional awards campaigns and appearances.

The Oscar nominations aren't all bad. I'm quite fond of most of these lineups, even if they don't come close to lining up with my own ballot. Arrival, Fences, and Hell or High Water, and Moonlight are excellent nominees. I don't mind Hidden Figures or Lion, either. La La Land is the likely Best Picture winner, which is unfortunate but easily explained by Hollywood's fondness for films that wink and nod at Hollywood and entertainment culture. 

I'm a huge fan of Original Screenplay where should-be Best Picture nominees The Lobster and 20th Century Woman earned the right to say "Academy Award Nominee" in their marketing. Visual Effects recognized the consistently magnificent work of Studio Laika as well as the best new character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Doctor Strange's cape. Documentary feature is incredibly strong (even if you accept made for TV documentary O.J. Made in America as a film) and Costume Design is the most contemporary crop of nominees we've seen in a long time (the oldest entries are set in the 1920s, followed by 1940s, 1960s, and modern). And it's always worth celebrating when the Academy goes all in on a queer film like Moonlight, especially a queer film from a non-white perspective. 

As for my own lineup, I literally have only one shared nominee, Moonlight, though my top choice The Lobster snuck in for Original Screenplay and Zootopia snagged its obvious nod for Animated Feature. 

Running down the list, I'm pulling for:

  • Moonlight in Best Picture,

  • Denzel Washington (Fences) or Viggo Mortenson (Captain Fantastic) for Best Actor,

  • Ruth Negga (Loving) or Isabelle Huppert (Elle) for Best Actress, 

  • Mahersala Ali in Supporting Actor,

  • Naomie Harris in Supporting Actress (both from Moonlight),

  • Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) for Best Director, 

  • Yorgos Lanthimos and  Efthymis Filippou (The Lobster) for Original Screenplay,

  • Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi (Hidden Figures) for Adapted Screenplay,

  • Bradford Young (Arrival) for Cinematography,

  • Madeline Fontaine (Jackie) for Costumes,

  • Steve EmersonOliver JonesBrian McLean, and Brad Schiff (Kubo and the Two Strings) for Visual Effects,

  • Eva Von Bahr and Love Larson (A Man Called Ove) for Makeup and Hairstyling,

  • Mica Levi (Jackie) for Original Score,

  • Lyn Manuel Miranda's "How Far I'll Go" from Moana for Original Song, 

  • 13th for Documentary Feature,

  • My Life as a Zucchini for Animated Feature

  • Jess Gonchor and Nancy Haigh (Hail, Ceasar!) for Production Design, 

  • Sylvain Bellemare for Sound Editing,

  • Bernard Gariépy Strobl and Claude La Haye Sound Mixing,

  • Joe Walker for Editing, all from Arrival.

I haven't seen enough of the short and Foreign Language nominees to form opinions.

But then we go back to my initial issue. Since I won't see Hacksaw Ridge or Manchester by the Sea, I can't REALLY judge the categories they appear in. The films exist and are supported despite the issues with the main men behind the campaigns. They could split all their shared categories in a tie and sweep everything else and I wouldn't be able to form an opinion one way or the other. 

I still won't see them, though. I'm not backing down from that. Vote with your wallet and the entertainment industry will learn. 

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter Review (Film, 2017)

You know that feeling when your hopes are dashed, no matter how low the hopes were? When a series that started out on a bad foot redeems itself in later entries and then falls right back into all the old problems for its "final" entry? And how that final entry definitely leaves the door open for a reboot that's technically part of the series even when titled The Final Chapter? That's where I am with Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.

I will not defend the cinematic Resident Evil series as good. I won't even defend the game series as good (though the newest entry is quite entertaining in an absurdist, self-parodying kind of way). Aside from a few choice moments (not even entries) throughout the IP, Resident Evil survives on name alone. I fully admit I'm part of the problem with my consistent purchases, and I won't apologize for it, either. Some people have mediocre sports games; I have a longstanding mediocre as a whole horror game series with interesting lure and iconic imagery.

The new Resident Evil begins with a recap of the entire series. Remember all the characters who lived, died, and lived again? Remember the horrible premise of a corporation actually trying to end the world to somehow earn more money and cleanse the earth? Remember the total destruction of characters you loved from the game series rewritten into fractured pastiches of other characters who aren't as interesting? Remember Milla Jovovich being so damn compelling as an actress that you can almost go along with how ridiculous the whole series is? That's what the film starts with.

And even then they don't stay consistent within the film's own universe. Forget about fidelity to the games; this one doesn't even stay true to its own random choices. The Final Chapter replaces the iconic Tokyo crosswalk infection start with a twisted little gag involving a mountain climbing lift and a sick child. The film shows just enough to make you wonder why they didn't commit to showing the whole sequence or just reuse the far more effective versions from previous entries.

From there, we enter a world where Alice (Jovovich, bless her heart, doing strong work in another bad horror film) is now cooperating with The Red Queen (artificial intelligence from the evil Umbrella Corporation that has actively tried to kill her in the previous six films) to release a magical and previously unmentioned airborne antivirus that will destroy all infected cells. Alice has 48 hours before the surviving human enclaves fall. She must, once again, reenter the Umbrella Corporation facility to take on the same old human enemies, the same old traps (including the laser grid), and the same terrible looking CGI cerebus to maybe save the world possibly or not. I don't know. By the end, even this plot doesn't exist anymore.

Here's how I justify enjoying the Resident Evil series. I love a good bad horror film. The previous entries, starting with the third, are so simultaneously ridiculous and well-executed that I can sit back, relax, laugh, and jump out of my seat throughout the runtime.

None of that joy happened in The Final Chapter for me. The editing was so frenetic, so driven by inconsistent and poorly timed slam cuts into slightly different angles of the same action sequence that I couldn't tell what was happening within a scene. The new infected monsters made no sense and the actions of pretty much every established series character, save Alice, were inconsistent within the film, let alone within the context of the series. All I can say in its favor is the film had good sound, and the menacing score is the only effective and consistent device in the entire film.

I applaud the success of the Resident Evil series. I appreciate any attempt to maintain continuity in a series that runs this long. I just cannot get behind what The Final Chapter put up on the big screen. It's bad in all the wrong ways.

La La Land Review (Film, 2016)

Writer/director Damien Chazelle has an interest in music. In all three of his feature length films, he explores drama surrounding musicians in beautiful, loving detail. La La Land is his first musical and, hopefully, it won’t be his last. He has the potential to be one of the great movie musical directors if he can find just the right balance of nostalgia and innovation in his future work.

I will level with you right away and say I don’t like La La Land. I have issues with the structure of the narrative and the balance between original music and book scenes. I’ll also point out that, before I began devouring every horror film I could get my hands on as a child, I exhausted my local video rental stores’ supplies of movie musicals and already was performing regularly. I also teach musical theater at this point. I know about book structure, balance, and tone when it comes to this genre.

If I think of La La Land as a film with music, rather than a film musical as advertised, I start to like it more. The musical sequences are my favorite in the film, but I’m rather fond of the story being told, as well. I just wish the two elements—the throwback fantasy of a big Golden Age musical and the quiet drama of a couple falling in love and struggling with their careers—were more fully integrated.

The opening fifteen minutes of La La Land writes a check anything shy of a fully sung movie musical wouldn’t be able to cash. Frankly, the only time I've seen this level of set-up work with such a clearly defined color palette and style is he Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and that literally is a sung through musical.

The film opens with a stunning sequence of all the would-be stars of Hollywood stuck in traffic, breaking out of their cars and taking to the streets to declare their passion for the arts. This is followed by another wonderful musical sequence in our protagonist Mia’s apartment, where her three actor friends sing and dance their way through an appeal to get Mia to go out to an industry party.

The original songs by Justin Hurwitz and theatrical composing team [Benj] Pasek and [Justin] Paul are wonderful. “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” instantly became one of my favorite songs from a musical, the opening song “Another Day of Sun” had me laughing and dancing along in the theater, and “City of Stars” has been stuck in my head for weeks. That’s a sign of a good musical score.

The issues come in when you begin to examine what, exactly, the story of La La Land deals in. You have Zeb, a jazz musician, and Mia, an actress, falling in love over their parallel dreams. They actually just talk past each other the entire film and provide no compelling argument for actually falling in love.

Zeb spends the entirety of the movie explaining why everyone else is wrong about every art form, including a particularly cringe-worthy scene where a privileged white man explains why every other approach except for his idealized, glossy historical interpretation of jazz music is wrong. Forget about him claiming the one true answer to a genre that is defined by improvisation and reinterpretation of familiar themes; he is the only person talking during a jazz club performance. Zeb and Mia are the only white people in the jazz club and he believes that he can use the black musicians as props to explain his outdated and woefully inaccurate interpretation of “true jazz” all for the purpose of wooing a romantic interest. It’s disgusting.

Let’s just say my favorite non-musical scene in the film is modern jazz superstar Keith reading Zeb to ash over his outdated and arguably offensive interpretation of jazz. I cheered out loud and applauded as Keith became my favorite character in this all-too-brief scene of oratory destruction. Tell me that story, instead.

Mia is nowhere near as upsetting a character to parse through. She just makes a lot of bad choices. Her first and biggest bad choice is listening to anything Zeb says and being charmed by his musicianship and sassy retro wardrobe. I don’t like Zeb and I don’t have to. I know you don't see every aspect of Mia and Zeb's lives in the film, but you see enough to know that Mia is not putting the work in to be a successful actor. Show me one scene of Mia in an acting class or, more likely, crashing a workshop and I'll believe that she has any reason at all to complain about never getting a part. Zeb doesn't need to prove his craft since he repeatedly shows off his beautiful piano chops; Mia doesn't show off her skills in any similar scene until I already gave up on her being serious about any choice in her life.

But here’s where interpretations of La La Land could and should differ. Does Damien Chazelle want you to like Zeb at all? Or Mia? Or Mia and Zeb together? Or any of these characters that are little more than stock types inspired by big Hollywood dreams? Or even believe they deserve the dreams they're chasing if they do nothing but complain?

Even when the film falls to indie clichés rather than Golden Age Musical clichés, there are no original ideas here. The story is all too familiar, allowing the mind to drift and actively engage with what is being presented. That, in itself, is perhaps the most accurate portrayal of jazz in the film; Chazelle sets up the arrangement of themes and you start spinning them into the narrative and tone you want. I think it's Chazelle's actual intention in the film based on his far more nuanced work in Whiplash and fairer evaluation of jazz in Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.

When La La Land is great, it’s some of the best cinema I’ve seen in recent memory; when it’s bad, it’s pretty insufferable. This is definitely a case of heightened expectations being unreachable for a knowledgeable filmgoer. I know too much about traditional and modern musicals to be swept up in nostalgia or the few departures from the rote musical romance formula. The year that also gave us Sing Street, Swiss Army Man (which is a musical and will be addressed here soon), and the initial release of The Lure (that killer mermaid musical getting its official US release in February) cannot honestly celebrate La La Land as something new.

It is technically well-made, the acting is great, and the score is catchy. That’s not a bad thing to go see, but understand that this film will not, as one of my students said about Dear Evan Hansen (Pasek & Paul’s new Broadway musical), cure your blindness, file your taxes, and take the SATs for you.


Best Films of 2016

2016 was a great year for film. I didn't get to the theater nearly as often as I had in the past, so much of my interaction came from home viewing. What I managed to see was a beautiful mix of unique voices presenting unfamiliar visions of the world we live in.

Let's get to it. Here are the 10 best narrative films of 2016. That's a big caveat: I wound up pulling documentaries from the list for the first time in years to celebrate cinematic fiction on its own. Just be aware that Audrie & Daisy and 13th were on this list for a very long time.

10) Midnight Special

As I said in my review, I would rather see a sci-fi film try something completely different and maybe not stick the landing than another by the numbers mediocre "this is sci-fi" film. Midnight Special is a fascinating character study within the context of a sci-fi thriller. The MVP? Michael Shannon. His performance never lets you forget the stakes of the film and constantly pulls you through a bizarre premise.

9) The Handmaiden

If you told me Chan-wook Park would finally be recognized in the United States in 2016, I wouldn't have believed you. His work, outside of cult classic Oldboy, has been so routinely ignored by critics in the past (Oldboy got its footing here on home video, and largely for its bizarre and shocking imagery) that I thought nothing would change that. Stoker was supposed to be his big break, and that was slept on. 

The Handmaiden is not my favorite Chan-wook Park film, but it is a great film on its own merits. It's a beautifully designed and paced old school grand dame mansion thriller reset in the Japanese-occupied Korea of the 1930s. The MVP? Park's mastery of body horror and human sensuality.

8) 10 Cloverfield Lane

I straight up hated Cloverfield. The film actually made me mad with its blatant disregard for the needs of the audience--the camera shook too much to see what was happening, the narrative played fast and loose with geography, and the perspective of effects was atrocious.

The whole concept of the first film works so much better in 10 Cloverfield Lane. The sequel is a chamber play about a young woman saved from an unseen exterior threat by an unstable survivalist. She has to weigh out her options: try to survive under the oppressive rules of a dangerous captor inside a safe physical environment or face almost certain death in the apocalypse that let her be pulled into the man's bunker to begin with. The MVP? Production design. This kind of bottle episode scenario grows old way too quick if the environment becomes stale, and production designer Ramsey Avery and set decorator Michelle Marchand II layer enough surprises in the retro-futuristic underground bunker to keep your interest.

7) Other People

Writer/director Chris Kelly takes an indie film standby--a not so successful artist returns to his childhood home because of family crisis--and breathes new life into it. Other People is the semi-autobiographical story of an SNL writer who returns home after a failed pilot and a messy breakup to take care of his mother, who is dying of cancer. The difference is this film is a beautiful dark comedy finding laughs in the absurdity of relative success and the gossip culture of stereotypical small towns. The MVP? The one-two punch of Molly Shannon and Jesse Plemons incredible performances as the mother and son duo laughing until the end.

6) Zootopia

Zootopia is a joyous animated story about tolerance, dreams, and just being a good person. It's the most fun I had with a film this year and the message is important. While I don't think Zootopia is the best animated film of the year (Kubo and the Two Strings, April and the Extraordinary World, My Life as a Zucchini, Miss Hokusai, and Your Name work better as animated films, for me), I do think it's the best film that happened to be fully animated this year. The MVP? The backstory. The layers of society created through various animal personalities that our lead, an adorable little bunny who wants to be a police officer, shakes up through intelligence and determination is better defined than any other narrative world of 2016.

5) Deadpool  

Deadpool is a great superhero film. It's fun, it's entertaining, it's funny, and it doesn't overstay its welcome. The structure is by the numbers superhero origin story, but the execution is anything but predictable and tired. It looks great for something shot on such a comparative low budget and genuinely made me want more when the credits rolled. The MVP? Split decision: Ryan Reynolds was born to play Deadpool; Julian Clarke's editing is a masterclass in pace, comedy, and precision. 

4) The Witch

The Witch is one of the most period accurate horror films I've ever seen. It's stunning to look at. Everything feels so real that a narrative relying on the social, rather than religious, implications of the existence of witchcraft in colonial times is totally believable. That opening sequence of excommunication, journey west, staring into the promised land of an open field, and what happens to the youngest child will haunt me for years. The MVP? Casting directors John Buchan, Kharmel Cochrane, and Jason Knight found the perfect combination of young actors and older veterans to create a perfectly believable family torn apart by uncontrollable outside forces.

3) Moonlight

I can only hope that when Moonlight earns its much-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Picture that the film gets another run at the theaters. This beautiful indie drama tells the story of Chiron as a child, a teenager, and a young adult growing up in Miami during the height of the war on drugs. Each section of the film is filled with wonderful actors taking on various recurring and new influences on Chiron, who himself is played wonderfully by three actors, the MVPs of the production:  Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Alex Hibbert.

2) Krisha

Don't ask me how or why Krisha hit me as hard as it did. I sat there screaming at the screen like a midnight showing of Rocky Horror on a first viewing. Krisha is as indie as indie film making gets these days, but has such a warped voice and perspective on the family drama that you'll feel like even the most well-worn cliches are brand new. The MVP? Brian McComber and his original score; he had me at drumsticks dropping in a song, being picked up, and played again as part of the scoring of this beautifully bizarre little indie dramedy. 

1) The Lobster

From the creator of Dogtooth comes a deeply touching heartfelt dark dystopian comedy about a man who has 45 days to find true love in a government run hotel before he is transformed into an animal of his choice, a lobster. The Lobster is wild, bizarre, thrilling, depressing, uplifting, confusing, hilarious, disturbing, and everything in between in equal measure. There is not another film like it and I like that. The MVP? Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos and writer Efthymis Fillipo are a creative team like no other and flex their well-trained muscles in their first English language feature.


Midnight Special Review (Film, 2016)

There's a recurring theme in my writing about genre cinema and I stand by it again and again. I would rather see an ambitious film try something new and come up a bit short than a more traditional film not do anything interesting at all.

No one can fault writer/director Jeff Nichols for not taking risks. In his five features so far (including potential Oscar spoiler Loving), he has a knack for tackling huge, earth-shattering issues (literal and figurative) with a laser focus on subtle shifts in human emotion as people fight for stability in their lives.

Midnight Special marks Nichols' third collaboration with star Michael Shannon, and it is once again a fruitful partnership. Shannon plays Roy, the father of a boy with a special gift. His son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), is able to tune into and manipulate broadcast frequencies with his mind, and produces a strange glowing sensation from his eyes that brings people on an emotional journey of understanding and compassion. Roy kidnaps Alton with the help of a state trooper (Joel Edgerton) to bring him to a specific set of coordinates on a specific date that might hold the key to understanding Alton's powers.

That alone is enough fodder for a traditional sci-fi coming of age/reconnection drama, but Nichols isn't done there. Roy kidnaps Alton from a cult that believes his powers are communications straight from God. The government is also after Alton because he's decoded high level government intel that was shared, word for word, by the cult through e-mail. Roy is smeared as a dangerous kidnapper of a white child to bring Alton in for government research, while the cult sends out a pair of vigilantes with a large arsenal of weapons to bring Alton back for what they believe is Judgment Day.

Midnight Special is old-fashioned sci-fi with no easy answers. There is never more than a cursory attempt to explain Alton's powers because the source of the power is unimportant to the narrative. This is a story about sacrifice, betrayal by all levels of organized gathering in society, and a family trying to reconnect against all odds. It just happens to feature a child at the center who can tear down entire buildings or knock out government satellites.

Michael Shannon is extraordinary in the film. One can only imagine the strangeness of the subject matter is keeping him from easy and consistent inclusion in awards for 2016. Roy does not have many lines, and he doesn't need to in order to convey what's really going on. This is a portrait of a man desperately trying to save his son without alerting the child to any possible danger he faces.

It clearly hurts everyone who truly cares about Alton to take the necessary precautions to keep him safe. Every single time the child is going to enter the world during the day, he has to wear dark blue sports goggles to block out the sun. He has to wear construction grade ear muffs to help silence the noise from the never-ending frequencies entering and exiting his consciousness at night. Every window he'll encounter has to be blocked out with cardboard and, for maximum safety, he is usually covered in a blanket or sheet to block out external stimuli. If these precautions aren't taken, Alton unleashes the full force of his powers and becomes quite ill.

No one wants to see their child suffer. No one wants to see their child exploited. No one wants their child manipulated, or imprisoned, or tormented for the greater good. For Roy, it doesn't matter if his child is a prophet, a weapon, or something less than human; Alton is his son, and he will fight to the death to protect him.

Nichols envisions these huge action sequences that are focused entirely on the human element. When Alton accidentally makes meteorites fall from the sky and crash into a gas station, he is never lost in the action. We are forced to stare at Alton as Roy chases after him, confronts him, and carries him away to safety. All the while, high quality spectacle is happening around them. Ask me to describe what the explosions looked like and I couldn't tell you; ask me to go into detail about how Roy confronts Alton about leaving the van and I can tell you everything.

If the ending of the film is a bit of a letdown compared to the tense build up, it's totally forgivable. Midnight Special takes a shift towards that fantastic that makes sense when you reflect on it.

The final action sequence is beautiful, but does hit a certain emotional sameness that feels just a bit out of place compared to the rest of the story. It lingers just a bit too long on pretty to really drive home the catharsis in the moment.

I'm totally okay with Jeff Nichols taking a bit of a victory dance moment in this sequence. The quality of acting and consistency of the vision mostly carries it through. The final scenes afterwards are the perfect length and pace to wrap up the loose ends and justify hanging on so long to Alton's big moment. The film is literally and structurally building to this moment and Nichols delivers something worthy of congratulation and self-indulgence. It's a living dream that impacts reality and makes sense in context, if not in the moment.

Midnight Special, for all of its strange sci-fi elements, is a film about moments. It's almost like a really good tabletop game. There are different players playing by different rules trying to reach their win condition by a set deadline. No one is guaranteed a victory, but, realistically, only one win condition can happen. The only consistent element is the immediacy of moments in the lives of humans impacted by something beyond our understanding and how we chose to react. That alone is worth embracing this strangely quiet sci-fi epic.

Mary Warren Knows Things Now (Concept Scoring for The Crucible)

This was perhaps my favorite demo from the original pass at scoring for The Crucible. Mary Warren's Theme was pulled straight from the Tituba Theme that didn't sit quite right with me. A nice low drone combined with those chiming bells would stay, but not nearly as pretty and orderly by the time I rewrote the score.

SD Media Episode 1: 12.30.16

2016 was a hell of a year: wild, unpredictable, enlightening, terrifying--you name it, we felt it.

Let's kick 2016 to the curb with the first ever SD Media podcast episode.

Topics discussed include: La La Land, Krisha, Swiss Army Man, Thumper, Linea the game, Intralism, One Mississippi, and Keanu.


Krisha Review (Film, 2016)

When John Waters raves about a film, you take notice.

When John Waters raves about a film that you can stream instantly with Amazon Prime, you click play as soon as you can. The kind of film John Waters raves about is rarely the kind of film that you can watch without jumping through hoops.

Krisha is John Waters' top film of 2016. It's easy to see why once you start watching it. Writer/director/supporting player Trey Edward Shults brings together a cast largely comprised of his own family to tackle the awkwardness of the holiday season better than any film I've ever seen. Krisha is clearly a low budget film, but it is so polished with such wonderful performances from a cast of presumably non-actors that you'll be filled with renewed hope for what independent cinema can be.

Krisha is about Krisha (played by Shults' aunt Krisha Fairchild), an exile from her own family. She arrives late on Thanksgiving to make the turkey, reconnect with her estranged family, and win back the trust of the most important person in her life. Nothing goes right throughout the entire film, set up perfectly when Krisha can't even remember which house she's supposed to go to.

Krisha Fairchild glows onscreen. This is one of the most dynamic debut performances I've ever seen. Fairchild's face is expressive without ever going too broad for the screen. She's a sympathetic presence despite the many disturbing flaws that are revealed throughout the film. All it takes to hook you into the story is the opening shot of Krisha staring into the camera, fighting back tears. Fairchild and Shults clearly have a wonderful, trusting relationship to be able to push each other to such extremes for the sake of his debut feature.

Shults edits Krisha to perfection. The variety of shots captured in the relatively limited set of a house, a backyard, and the corner of the block is impressive. As Krisha becomes lost throughout Thanksgiving, the camera starts following the action in unsettling, less polished ways. Her relative sobriety and perception of the events and relationships shifts constantly between familiar and alien framing and focus in the edit. The house is constantly alive with action, similar to the layers of backstory and subplots in James Joyce's "The Dead," yet you never get distracted too long from the lurking, tragic, and menacing presence of Krisha.

The strangest element of a weird suspense/drama/comedy/character study film is Brian McOmber's original score. The music is wild. There's one scene punctuated with the sound of drumsticks dropping, being picked up, and used again as a major component of the score. The music seems so out of sync with what's going on because it's meant to be the audible manifestation of Krisha's fears, anxiety, and building rage. You know nothing good can come of this Thanksgiving celebration very early on when McOmber's scoring for the opening sequence is closer to a slasher film than a quirky indie drama. It's wild, inventive, and totally unpredictable scoring that adds so much depth and interest to some of the more common plot threads of the film.

I cannot recommend watching Krisha enough. When it's good, it's good; when it's bad, it's absolutely fascinating. And to be fair, it's never bad. The worst thing you can say about Krisha is that some scenes are a bit too familiar for what is otherwise such a fresh spin on this kind of family reunion drama. Even then, it's nice for something to feel familiar in a film that is so determined to push you away from the screen so you understand Krisha's struggle with her family.

Krisha is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Orwell Review (Game, 2016)

Orwell is a point and click adventure game about the future of government surveillance. In the near future (2017, to be exact), The Nation has instituted a series of policies to reduce criminal activity. Surveillance cameras cover every inch of public space and potential offenders are treated as aggressively as actual criminals. The Nation also has a secret surveillance system, Orwell, that you have been hired to investigate for. You play a literal outsider. The Nation actively recruits hackers from outside of the country to keep Orwell a secret as long as possible. You communicate exclusively with a government agent tasked with granting access to personal intelligence for potential suspects. In this case, you are trying to find the perpetrator behind a deadly bombing in a public square and are immediately granted access to all personal files on a previous offender involved in a protest.

Orwell EvidenceI will give the team at Osmotic Studios a lot of credit. Orwell is a stylish, thrilling narrative filled with hours of extra content. You uncover facts relevant to the case and persons of interest by reading articles, websites, transcripts of phone conversations, emails, and text messages. These artifacts exist to build the world, not necessarily to provide direct answers to the case in question. Potentially relevant evidence is underlined and clickable, but entire artifacts exist in the game that never provide more than flavor text.

The result is an incredibly immersive world you'll want to read about throughout all five episodes of the game. The story of The Nation in turmoil over the direction of national security is immediate enough to feel relevant without clearly preaching for or against the necessity of such technology. Obviously, you don't tackle the subject of Orwell without criticizing those methods, but the game is nowhere near as proselytizing as Papers, Please (which worked beautifully in that context).

Like last year's Her Story, there is a clear, linear narrative to open up here. Also like Her Story, you are not given a lot of guidance on what to look for. You eventually start to parse through the artifacts in an anticipatory way, scanning past irrelevant or blatantly false details in profiles and text to get to evidence that proves your case. Then you hit a dead end where nothing else opens up and have to go back through dozens of files to find the scrap of evidence that opens up the next treasure trove of surveillance. It's a fever dream of minutia that works as well as it does because of the incredible writing in the game.

The game has a simple, artistic style that doesn't distract from the story. You view everything through your computer system in a familiar series of browser and PC file folder controls. A web develops in the bottom left of the screen, showing you the myriad of connections between activists, terrorists, professors, businesses, and the government itself. Each name is linked to a detailed profile that breakdowns everything from name and location to interests, complaints, and relationship statuses.

Orwell Web

The challenge of Orwell comes from learning more than you can use at a given time. There are chunks of clickable evidence in early episodes that are not relevant to case files until later in the game; unfortunately, if you cannot assign "data chunks" to a profile during an investigation day, you cannot assign them at a later date. Relevant information is lost because you cannot meet the threshold of labeling a dot in the web a person of interest to the case. Only select profiles can receive information beyond name and connections in the web; the rest cannot be updated. You start to obsess so much about the people who can't impact your investigation directly that you lose sight of clues that help you best focus your energy in the final chapter.

The difficulty curve perhaps ramps up too late in the game. It is not until the final chapter that you have a physical limit on how much data you can upload to Orwell. The prior four chapters let you upload every possible combination of evidence provided without a consequence worse than a snarky comment from your government agent. The limitation, justified by the sudden necessity of in-game time, is jarring and frustrating. This does enhance the narrative, but adds extraneous "win" conditions to a game that is otherwise so open to exploration and interpretation.

Orwell is a must play for indie game fans and anyone who loves a good mystery/thriller. Osmotic Studios developed one of the best modern text-based adventure games. The commitment to world building above all makes this as rich an experience as you are willing to make it.

Orwell is available on Steam, with a demo of the first complete chapter available on Steam or IndieDB.

Pokémon Sun/Moon Review (Game, 2016)

The Pokémon series is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary. Many events were planned leading up to the November release of the latest main series video game entry, Pokémon Sun/Moon. Sun/Moon shake up the formula with new gameplay elements, a much easier to follow objective path in the main storyline, and more customization options than ever before. You and your mother have moved to the island paradise of Alola from the original Kanto region. Pokémon culture has developed in an entirely different way. Instead of gyms to test your might in every town, trainers are given Island Challenges. These challenges pit you against the natural and cultural elements of Alola. In a forest, you dig up ingredients for a potion. On top of a volcano, you participate in a dance ritual with Pokémon. Each challenge leads to a final battle with the Totem Pokémon, a larger, more powerful version of creature you encounter in the wild.

Beating the Totem Pokémon rewards you with a Z Crystal. These Z Crystals represent each of the 18 Pokémon types, allowing you to power up specific moves for each type in the combat system. These moves can only be used once in battle, but are far more effective than the moves in their natural state. Additional Z Crystals grant special moves for special Pokémon, like Pikachu or the starters for this generation.

Pokemon Moon Island ChallengeThe replacement of the gym system adds a breath of fresh air to an increasingly stale format. Fighting one Pokémon (who can call on assistants) rather than a carefully constructed (and often trolly) team of Pokémon allows for more flexibility in battle. You should be able to use at least one Pokémon in your preferred party which will have at least one move that works against the Totem Pokémon. You are also warned repeatedly about what you will face by the local non-playable characters. Additionally, the location tells you what you're up against. A volcano will have some connection to fire like a cave will have a connection to ground/rock Pokémon.

Pokémon Sun/Moon is clearly intended to be an introduction to new players of the game. The mapping system has never been easier to follow. Sure, the game still includes its typical dead ends funneling you in a specific direction, but the map itself actually has clear markers for your target destinations. You can see the entirety of the map from the beginning; you just don't have access to what buildings are there until you physically enter the region. More NPCs than usual offer clear advice on gameplay and elements like Pokémon Refresh and the Poké Pelago exist to make your game easier.

Pokémon Refresh is genius. You can interact with your party Pokémon whenever you want outside of battle to feed them, pet them, and make them love you more. Pokémon that love you and are full will make better moves on their own to avoid attacks or stay in battle. Further, you can heal any status condition after battle with various grooming and medical tools. You don't need antidotes and paralyz heal outside of battle anymore, saving you money for better equipment to use in the game.

Pokemon Moon TimePerhaps the strangest element of Pokémon Sun/Moon leads to the need for such advanced equipment. To differentiate the games in a brand new way, the Sun and Moon titles have opposite time settings. When it is daytime in the real world, it is nighttime in Moon; Sun matches our actual clocks. Character interactions, available Pokémon, and shop availability in the new Festival Plaza are dependent on in-game time. There's even a species of Pokémon that evolves different depending on the time of day--Rockruff. Rockruff always evolves into Lycanroc, but it will only evolve at night for Moon players (the midnight form, a werewolf) and at day for Sun plays (the midday form, a wolf).

The time is a fun twist, but a frustrating one, as well. I really am not built for all night gameplay sessions anymore and found too much of the game off limits during the day in my copy of Moon. The screen also gets noticeably darker during the in-game night, making it harder to see everything.

The level of freedom, flexibility, and customization has never been higher in a Pokémon game. TMs--the technical machine moves that you must discover and learn to advance through water, air, tree, and other obstacles in Pokémon games--are gone. You have access to companion Pokémons that you can call for a ride through obstacles. A Lapras provides a slow paddle through the vast seas, while a Machamp will literally carry you in his arms while he shoves large boulders out of the way. Each of these rides has a fast and slow speed that impacts their abilities (a full speed Taurus will smash through boulders, a slow Stoutland will sniff out hidden items, etc.). Further, your party Pokémon become happier while you ride on the companion Pokémon, improving their performances in battle.

Not sacrificing your precious move slots (still limited to 4, plus the Z-move option) to break through obstacles means building more efficient teams than ever. You can build the team you want to build with the Pokémon you find, and they can all gain experience at the same time from the building. You are outfitted straight away with an Exp Share and an interactive Rotom Pokédex to guide you through the game.

The Poké Pelago gives you even more customization options. You develop islands by collecting Poké Beans, the food you can feed the Pokémon in Poké Refresh. The Pokémon in your boxes can then go to these islands to harvest beans, relax in hot springs, level up their base stats on gym equipment, cultivate berries to use in the game, and hunt for hidden treasure in caves. You can literally set your boxed Pokémon to train for 99 sessions in the gym to raise their level/HP/attack stat/etc. while you continue your journey around Alola. It's genius. You can train multiple teams at once without doing EV training or breeding/hunting for specific traits.

Pokemon Moon Customization

Then, of course, there is the character customization options. You have a choice of eight stock avatars of different skin tones and genders (only male/female, but at least there is a playable female character to start). From there, you can spend money in the salon to choose a variety of hair colors, eye colors, and hair styles to better match your ideal character. You can also visit the various shops of Alola to customize your outfit from shoes to hats and everything in between.

Once you complete the main game, a bunch of new missions open up for you. Essentially, you can spend a whole lot of time going through the most beautiful Pokémon world to date, unlocking more catchable Pokémon and gameplay modes along the way. All of the existing Pokémon will be available through trade once the Pokébank opens up next year, further expanding the variety of gameplay.

Pokémon Sun/Moon benefit immensely from a push to bring in new gamers. The fun of Pokémon games is not banging your head against the wall, trying to figure out what magical combination of events need to happen in what order to get past an obstacle that is physically not large enough to block the one path you need to advance but blocks you anyway. The fun is exploring the world, building your party, and interacting with a rich history of lore, characters, and challenges in an advanced game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.

The new features that streamline navigation while maintaining the puzzle elements of which Pokémon best serve what challenges keep loyal players like me coming back. Pokémon Sun/Moon is easily the best main game entry to date and will keep any interested player occupied for hours and hours of playtime.

Let's Be Evil Review (Film, 2016)

I have a soft spot in my heart for school horror films. Maybe it's my proximity to education (working in educational theater for over a decade now, subbing in schools, getting my certification in order) but the subgenre offers a very twisted, socially conscious nightmare consistently. Let's Be Evil PosterLet's Be Evil is no exception. Essentially, a new pilot program for the future of education in the United States is set up in a secret facility. Children deemed to have extraordinary mental capabilities live and learn with augmented reality glasses and the guidance of Ariel. Ariel is an artificial intelligence program loaded with the schedule and course material for the students that grows and expands based on the studies of the students. Three adult chaperones are hired to ensure the safety and security of the small class of students, but something starts to go wrong when the children begin interacting with outsiders.

The screenplay covers a lot of ground in an efficient way. We're dealing with a narrative tackling many sides of the education debate at the same time. Should students have more of a say in what they study? Are long hours of school with demands for constant advancement through evaluation efficient? How much of schooling should be dedicated to teaching our children to be productive members of society in addition to learning curricula?

Writer/star Elizabeth Morris, writer/director Martin Owen, and writer Jonathan Willis tackle all of this with their first person augmented reality school horror. Once the chaperones enter the facility, the narrative is told entirely from the perspective of the AR glasses. The feed jumps between the three chaperones, providing them information on the facility, the students, and each other as they navigate a foreign world.

Let's Be Evil Style

The facility in Let's Be Evil is kept in total darkness. All light is artificially produced through the AR goggles. They are the only way to function in the facility. The metaphor of these children literally being kept in their darkness for the sake of a better education is a major element of the plot without being addressed. We're seeing the story of three adults trying to navigate a world mastered by children who haven't seen light for years. The children will have the advantage intellectually and physically, but not socially.

So much of Let's Be Evil is so well done that it's easy to forgive the creative team for missing a bit on the ending. Part of what makes this horror/sci-fi/satire so great is the assumption that the audience is smart enough to understand the film. You are always given just enough information to follow along; the rest is open for interpretation. The final twist, though, creates a bit of a paradox that severely limits individual interpretation.

Still, after the recent arthouse trend of exploitation and sexualization of artificial reality characters (Ex Machina and Her being the most widely-seen examples) because they're not really women (so straight up ogling is technically okay (I wish there was a more mature way to state I'm rolling my eyes right now, but there you have it)), it's quite refreshing to see AI and new technology treated as what it actually is: a tool. Ariel and the AR glasses have a certain personality to them and are obviously interactive, but everyone in the film treats them as convenience, not slave. The emotion question is handled beautifully, and Ariel itself refuses to humanize herself without acknowledging these quirks were programmed in.

Ultimately, the suspense and terror of Let's Be Evil comes from the reaction to new technology in an educational setting rather than humanizing and then demonizing computer programming. There is no scapegoat beyond human ambition and failings in this film. The core of this story has been told in many variations before in settings all around the world; never has it felt more immediate, honest, and believable as it is covered in Let's Be Evil. I'll take a great film with a slightly off ending over a manipulative excuse to alienize desirable or malicious traits on computers and children because that's safer.

Let's Be Evil is currently streaming on Netflix.

The Neon Demon Review (Film, 2016)

The Neon Demon is, perhaps, Nicholas Winding Refn's most linear, straight forward story to date. A 16 year old name Jesse (a breakout role for Elle Fanning) from Georgia arrives in Los Angeles to be a professional model. Her natural beauty is so great that she receives everything she wants. Her presumed innocence is her greatest strength, but quickly transforms into a weakness during her meteoric rise to stardom. When the wide-eyed newcomer proves herself smarter and more self-aware than everyone around her, she becomes a threat. The Neon Demon PosterThat doesn't mean that The Neon Demon makes a lot of sense; none of his films do. This is just an easier story to follow because of the well-tread linear arc to the inevitable conclusion.

Nicholas Winding Refn has made great strides in his style and mastery of film since his breakout hit Drive. His voice is an intentional series of contradictions. His stories are dark, twisted fairy tales of violence and sexual fantasy told in supersaturated shades of magenta and cyan. He's playing with noir in the literal shades of red/blue 3D glasses, but forcing the eye to view his stacked frames as flat cartoons of human suffering. His plots are simple, but his exploration of humanity and the depths people sink to survive in big cities is dense, complex, and utterly rewarding to parse through on multiple viewings.

The Neon Demon plays in unpredictable ways with our expectations of the superficiality of the modeling industry. This 16 year old, instructed to lie and say she is 19 by her agent (a wasted Christina Hendricks--there's no reason the agent couldn't have appeared in more than one scene, especially one realized in such a remarkable way with so little screentime), is wanted for nothing more than her physical beauty. She is young, she is fit, she is beautiful--these are her only sources of worth. Her beauty is so pure, so precious, in the artificiality of Hollywood that everyone who sees her wants her.

The Neon Demon Red

Jesse is a fascinating character. In Elle Fanning's capable hands, she is everything you want her to be and everything you fear. At first, you pity the sweet orphaned child making a go of it in Los Angeles. Her introduction is as a corpse, dripping blood and staring blankly at the camera on a closed set. Despite the poor quality of the photos, she is instantly signed because of her perceived naiveté in appearance as contrasted by the Lolita, mythic fantasy of her modeling capabilities.

Jesse tricks you in every scene without losing your sympathy. She is the victim and the mechanism of the fashion industry. You think people want to take advantage of her because they do; you don't think that she is knowingly playing into their whims. She is perfectly humble and unaware until she has the opportunity to destroy anyone standing in her way with a blunt statement of truth.

The Neon Demon CharactersWinding Refn still struggles with crafting believable supporting female characters if sex is on the table. Jena Malone is incredible as makeup artist Ruby. She instantly falls for Jesse and offers to be her protector in the industry. She is also a stock predatory lesbian character, sucking her lip and clearly going after Jesse every chance she gets. Her repressed desires manifest in the strangest sequence to ever appear in one of Nicholas Winding Refn's films--straight up necrophilia.

Other supporting characters have more material to work with, but don't particularly rise above symbols of the fashion industry. Gigi (Bella Heathcote) is the reigning queen of the fashion industry and Sarah (Abbey Lee) is the fading star. Heathcote and Lee do solid work when the material is there, but they rarely have the chance to do more than serve as commentary on the toxicity of fashion.

The Neon Demon has many voices, but the hardest turn to reconcile is the third act. Suddenly, the film takes on a strange mix of myth and slasher as the models turn on each other in a shocking action sequence. There are many myths and stories spurred by a young woman too beautiful for this world and The Neon Demon borrows from all of them in violence so graphic it shifts to absurdity. Then the film continues on into far more desperate and disturbing territory designed to show how numb the industry is to the discarded girls who just aren't wanted for work anymore.

I have to inject myself here to be clear on my opinions. I quite like The Neon Demon in the same way I found myself drawn to Only God Forgives. They are flawed and fascinating experiments in genre, tone, and expectations. They are fantasy thrillers with slasher and mythological elements driven by such a unique understanding of color and artistic framing that you don't want to look away. The original scores become their own character in the stories, and the actors often take the backseat (usually literally, but not this time) to modern video art as a cipher for cinematic thesis.

If nothing else, The Neon Demon is another fascinating film from Nicholas Winding Refn; not amazing, not terrible, just something beyond the capabilities of the thumbs up/thumbs down mindset that still defines modern critical perception.

The Neon Demon is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Yoga Hosers Review (Film, 2016)

Kevin Smith is clearly having fun with his recent films. Both Tusk and its followup, Yoga Hosers, are filled with the off-beat humor, strange plots, and stranger characters you would expect from his early independent features. Yoga Hosers, in particular, showcases a sense of levity not seen in many years. This is grand achievement considering the enemy, the big bad monster, of his newest horror/comedy is the last vestiges of the actual Nazi party from World War II. Yoga Hosers PosterColleen (Lily-Rose Depp) and Colleen (Harley Quinn Smith), the two sarcastic teens from Tusk who pointed eccentric French-Canadian investigator Guy Lapointe to the home of the serial killer who kidnapped a podcaster and turned him into a humanoid walrus, are still working in the same convenience store. It's owned by Colleen's father. They take frequent breaks to play original and cover punk rock music with a 35 year old drummer in the backroom, drawing the ire of customers. Then people start dying in and around the store and the girls have to take an interest in something besides their strip mall yoga practice.

Yoga Hosers is a cross between HeathersScott Pilgrim vs. The World, and a Troma horror film. Kevin Smith captures an eerily accurated, disaffected, social media-obsessed teenage voice in the two Colleens. The two teens are so believable that all the nonsense that follows with internal murders (the perpetrator enters one end and comes out the other), the Canadian Nazi Party (led by Haley Joel Osment), and yoga as a combat technique is grounded in honesty.

So much of Yoga Hosers intentionally makes no sense. It's almost a musical horror film about teenagers fighting 70 year old Canadian Nazi technology because the songs the Colleens sing and eventually battle to are narratively relevant. The girls are filed with too-cool retro video game references that fight their inability to leave their cellphones and Instagram accounts alone, except for RPG-styled character sheets introducing every other character in the film. The CGI in the fights is pure cartoon, but the prior video game imagery establishes that as a relevant and believable choice for the could-be insanity of the Colleens following a traumatic event.

Yoga Hosers Slider

The entire time I watched Yoga Hosers, I just kept thinking how cute the film is. It's adorable. Everything about the Colleens--their friendship, their relationship with their bosses/father and step-mother, their calculated cool personas--is just so sweet. Depp and Smith are a wonderful pairing that take on the challenge of headlining such a bizarre film and match the presence of standout castmembers like Natasha Lyonne (as the gold digging stepmom), Justin Long (as strip mall yoga instructor Yogi Bayer--pun intentional unless he's talking to legal counsel), and Tony Hale (as the too cool, too emotional father). Because you believe in their relationship, you take the rest of the film in without question.

The appeal of Yoga Hosers comes down to this: if you like the early Kevin Smith films and can handle a gentler style of dialogue, you'll love Yoga Hosers. It's every bit as bizarre, hilarious, and unpredictable as the Jay and Silent Bob films, only geared down to believably star two disaffected high school sophomores. It's worth watching just for the sheer absurdity of the last step of the Canadian Nazi Party's master plan and their off-kilter target for global domination.

I never thought I'd be trapped in a scenario where I have to describe a Nazi horror/comedy as cute, but here we are. Yoga Hosers is cute, funny, and disturbing in equal measure.

Coming Soon: Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy Game by Telltale

This is not a drill. Telltale Games, creators of The Walking DeadGame of Thrones, and other fine adaptations of popular nerdy entertainment, have officially announced their adaptation of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. The game will be in the adventure style you've come to love (well, I love it, but some people don't and that's their problem) and broken up into five chapters. The first chapter comes out in 2017 for digital download on PC, consoles, and mobile devices. There will also be a special edition disc release in retail stores with the first chapter included and a download code for the rest of the season. Fans of Guardians of the Galaxy have no excuse not to grab this one.

Check out the teaser trailer below.


And the full press release:

SAN RAFAEL, Calif., Dec. 1, 2016 - Award-winning developer and publisher of digital entertainment, Telltale Games, along with Marvel Entertainment, today announced an interactive episodic game series based on Marvel's iconic sci-fi franchise Guardians of the Galaxy. The first of five episodes in Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series will premiere digitally in 2017 on consoles, PC, and mobile devices.
"The energizing blend of humor, emotion, teamwork, and full-on sci-fi action-adventure of the Guardians provides an enormously satisfying space to explore through Telltale's unique style of interactive storytelling," said Kevin Bruner, Co-Founder and CEO of Telltale Games. "In Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series, players will take on multiple roles within the ragtag band of heroes, and take the pilot's seat in directing their escapades around the universe. We are always honored to be working with the best creative partners and storytellers in entertainment, and working with Marvel on this series leaves us excited to share what we've been developing when it premieres in 2017."
"With story at the core of everything that Marvel creates, who better to team with than master storytellers Telltale Games," said Jay Ong, Senior Vice President, Games & Innovation, Marvel Entertainment. "Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series fully showcases Marvel and Telltale's rich legacy of storytelling, and fans will find themselves immersed in an original, character-driven narrative. As part of our strategy to establish a new standard for Marvel games, this is certainly among the great titles to come."
The series will also be coming to retail as a special season pass disc, which will include the first episode in the season, and will grant access to the subsequent four episodes as they become available for download via online updates. Specific platform details are yet to be announced.
Revealed today on stage at The Game Awards 2016 in Los Angeles, you can watch the announcement teaser trailer on YouTube:
For more information on Telltale Games, visit the official website, Facebook, and follow Telltale Games on Twitter @TelltaleGames.


About Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment, LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, is one of the world's most prominent character-based entertainment companies, built on a proven library of more than 8,000 characters featured in a variety of media over seventy-five years. Marvel utilizes its character franchises in entertainment, licensing and publishing. For more information visit © 2016 MARVEL

About Telltale, Inc
Telltale is a leading and award-winning independent developer and publisher of games for every major interactive platform from home consoles and PC to mobile and tablet devices, and is the pioneer of the episodic delivery of digital gaming content. By successfully developing games as an episodic series and frequently releasing in the format of a game season, they create longer consumer engagement than traditional games for each release. Founded in 2004 by games industry veterans with decades of experience, Telltale has quickly become an industry leader with numerous honors and awards from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, BAFTA, SXSW, the IMGA, and more, as well as being named Studio of the Year across multiple years. Telltale's reputation for quality has been established across more than two dozen different product releases over the years with recognition and acclaim from publications like IGN, The New York Times, and Variety, including over 100 "Game of the Year" awards from publications like USA Today, Yahoo! Games, Wired, Spike TV VGAs, E!, Official Xbox Magazine, The Telegraph, Metacritic, and more. Telltale is a fully licensed third party publisher on consoles from Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, and also publishes games on the PC, Mac, iOS, and Android-based platforms. For more information visit

Press Release © 2016 Telltale, Inc.

Doctor Strange Review (Film, 2016)

Doctor Strange is the latest Marvel Studios tentpole designed to push the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a new direction. Until this point, Marvel Studios' films have denied the existence of magic. The Thor films, as well as the use of characters like Scarlet Witch and The Mandarin, attempted to work around the blatant magical elements with bizarre pseudo-science explanations that worked to varying levels of success (and mostly failure). People will believe men can fly in robotic suits built out of scraps in a terrorist hideout, but not in a woman's ability to manipulate the universe with spell casting. Doctor Strange VisualsFrom the moment we meet The Ancient One in Doctor Strange, we know magic is now officially canon in the MCU; it's glorious. Everyone involved in all levels of the production clearly has a wonderful time embracing the freedom of possibility where the very laws the films are built on can be ripped apart with a hand gesture and a ring. Visually, Doctor Strange is one of the most captivating and memorable Marvel films to date.

The plot is a pretty standard superhero origin story that acts as a vehicle for spectacular visual effects and fight sequences. Doctor Stephen Strange is a gifted surgeon with a massive ego problem. Sure, he can precisely perform microsurgery on the brain stem of a patient without the proper guiding equipment to ensure everyone's safety, but he callously disregards the well-being of patients who cannot expand his fame and standing in the world of medicine.

It all comes to an end when a car crash (caused by him texting while driving like an idiot (it seems redundant, but you need to see his terrible driving in action to believe it before the phone even comes out)) leaves both of his hands incapable of the precision work he once lived off of. He journeys halfway around the world to find the temple of The Ancient One. She literally opens his mind to magical abilities he never imagined possible that could easily heal him or even save the universe. Not all of The Ancient One's students choose to use these gifts for good and some are determined to give up our autonomy on earth for immortality from the hands of a dark force in an alternate dimension. The selfish Doctor Strange is forced to choose between his own success and the salvation of all mankind as magic can only be focused and spread so far by one person, however powerful.

With so much working for it, it is a great shame, then, that Marvel Studios once again decided the world was not ready non-white superheroes onscreen. Yes, they pop up now and again in the MCU. Iron Man brought along War Machine. The newest Avengers outing gave us the long-awaited introduction of Black Panther. Thor had Idris Elba as Heimdell and the supporting ensemble of Ant-Man was the most diverse of the big screen efforts. Their newest series for Netflix, Luke Cage, is an unabashed celebration of a black superhero and is arguably the most cohesive and stylish original series to date.

Doctor Strange CastingBut why, in 2016, when every Marvel Studios' film goes to number 1 regardless of quality at the box office, did Marvel decide that The Ancient One had to be rewritten as a white Celtic woman? Tilda Swinton is wonderful in the role, but her presence in what is clearly a Buddhist temple, fighting with magical fans in monk robes and a shaved head, is a distraction. Cast an Asian actress if you want the female/male dynamic between The Ancient One and Doctor Stephen Strange, but stay true to the origin and culture of the character. There are issues with Doctor Strange as a series that are made so much worse by whitewashing The Ancient One and his culture.

If there is room for creative recasting in this universe, it stands with the title character himself. Doctor Strange is a problematic character representative of some of the worst character types in comic book history. The trope of a powerful white man gains abilities through the absorption of another culture is damaging on face value. Benedict Cumberbatch, like Tilda Swinton, is very good in Doctor Strange; the issue is not the quality of performance. The issue is Marvel Studios had the ability to fix a major black mark on their record by casting a non-white (preferably Asian) actor as the lead in this superhero series based in East Asian mysticism and instead, once again, cast an existing and popular white star for safety. It's lazy and disappointing.

It's even more disappointing in the context of the film's only major Asian actor. Benedict Wong plays Wong, the guardian of the mystical library of The Ancient One. He speaks with a thick accent, is obsessed with knowledge and rules, and is incapable of showing any emotional reaction not driven by discipline. It's stoic monk stereotypes foisted on the only speaking, visible representation of the culture Doctor Strange pulls its mythology from and it makes the focus on two pale, white, British actors playing with magic all the more jarring.

It doesn't get better for Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mordo, The Ancient One's second in command. While he gets to speak in complete sentences, he is very much playing an angry black man type. He is so obsessed with the rules that anytime anyone steps out of line, he completely overreacts with an inappropriate level of anger. It is so jarring and disconnected from the rest of the film that it draws more focus to how inappropriate the casting and character types in the film are.

Doctor Strange PosterDoctor Strange is a perfectly enjoyable superhero film. I count it among my favorites in the MCU. The casting issue that controlled the critical discussion from the first press release is just unavoidable when you see how poorly the Celtic instead of Asian Ancient One change is implemented.

It feels like half of Tilda Swinton's dialogue is dubbed to cover for issues Marvel Studios might not have been aware of until after the cast was announced. This is the only place where the voice over technique is used and it's not limited to jumps between the various planes of magical existence, a device that could have worked. Once this concept falls apart, the rest of the casting and characterization issues are really hard to look past.

It is always possible to enjoy a film you have issues with. There is no such thing as a perfect piece of media in any form.

Doctor Strange made me feel alive in the theater. I felt that sense of awe and sublime that my professors once told me those massive 20-plus foot wide canvases of the unsettled West were supposed to evoke. I could not predict where the story would take me next, who would land on what side of the conflict, and how the good guys would ultimately stop the destruction of earth from a power the earth draws upon to run. The only thing I can take issue with is a series of poor decisions at the pre-production level that rise and fall like the currents throughout. The film is absolutely worth seeing with an understanding that different casting choices could have made it even stronger.

Doctor Strange is currently playing in theaters.

Where We Are Now

The past few days have been an unpredictable explosion of emotional intensity and range for people in the United States of America. Any presidential election will create tension, but the intensity of this campaign--the baggage it brought up from the past, the rhetoric of a candidate and his supporters, the hatred, the disgust, the blind rage at a system already gamed to favor the very people complaining about the political establishment they believe the other major party candidate represented--has been draining to say the least. Disheartening is a better word. But we must move on.

I work in educational theater programs in schools throughout the year. I'm working on getting my paperwork in order so I can have my own high school English classroom or Theater classroom for the 2017-18 school year and have an even bigger impact on the lives of my students. I make it a point not to force my political opinions on students. It's not right or proper; it's, frankly, against my contracts. It doesn't stop some other teachers from actively harassing students about their support for the losing candidate, but that's a separate issue that I'm carefully trying to navigate over the long teacher's convention weekend.

But you find ways to teach them about how the system works.

You tell them about how this is not the first time a candidate won the popular vote but lost the election. You pull up other historical comparisons to make the contemporary historical and reinforce cross-curricular learning through an extracurricular activity.

You tell them that it's okay to be upset. It's okay to grieve. It's okay to feel like the system failed them. These are all valid thoughts and feelings.

But then you teach them what to do with this.

You stress the importance of building up whatever political party they choose to support from the local level up. I can point to how, despite the national results, my area of NJ finally swung back deep blue in a major way, from my home town through my congressional district. I do not frame that as a positive or negative--they can pick it up through context clues but not tie it to my own rhetoric--but a simple statement of fact. In this area, the Democrats were well-organized and did a better job gaining support than other parties.

You teach them how to advocate for themselves and others. You stress the importance of contacting their local representatives by phone and letter over topics that matter to them. You explain why candidates and parties alike raise funds before, during, and after elections and what choices they can make to best support their own beliefs.

Most important of all, you teach them not to give up. You can never give up. You cannot run away from incendiary rhetoric. You cannot run away from a political fight. Hate does not disappear because you ignore it; it festers and grows into something monstrous that cannot be beaten by simply taking the high road. It must be brought to light and cured with inescapable tolerance, love, and compassion for our fellow people.

As a theater educator, I interact with a wide range of students with different beliefs and identities. There's a big crossover, for example, with GSA organizations and Drama Clubs. Those are the students I worry about the most. I saw the fear in their eyes yesterday.

I saw them terrified to stand tall in front of their classmates who taunted them with the election results because they thought it was funny to pick on the gay kid, the trans kid, the Muslim kid, the other kid that our president elect has a plan for.

This is not acceptable.

On Tuesday night, as the election results became clear, I saw myself faced with two choices: flight or fight.

You know if you follow Sketchy Details that I have been stepping away from this site. It is hard to run with everything else going on in my life. My energies are being spent elsewhere and, to be perfectly honest, I was kind of overwhelmed with all the negativity over every broadcast medium to find the initiative to explore fictional worlds from an academic criticism perspective.

On Tuesday night, my instinct because of the rhetoric stoked against reporters, against the media, against intellectuals by the president elect's campaign was to shutter Sketchy Details, scrub the internet as best I could of my name and brand, and hide my association with any website that might attract further negative attention under an administration that believes Putin's Russia is a goal, not a warning.

By Wednesday morning, I knew that was selfish.

I cannot run. Neither can you. If we hide and stay silent, we lose. If we engage, if we fight back, if we make sure that the horrendous negativity that bolstered this campaign to the White House is never forgotten or ignored, we can force change.

I know I'm one voice. I'm one voice who criticizes the portrayal of fictional women and minority voices in genre entertainment, but I still have a voice. I will use that voice.

And I know that I have a lot of the privileges that put me in a safer place than many others. I am white. I am male. I am straight. The things that pull me in the other direction--my mental illness, my asexuality, my unsteady financial situation--are not visible deterrents. I pass as the status quo, and I've used that status quo as a battering ram against stubborn students and school administrators who refused to get the "treat people with respect" message from people who don't have that level of privilege in the past. It's a powerful tool to look like the establishment and despise what the establishment is built on and stands for; it's a tool I cannot abandon out of fear, frustration, or despair.

Sketchy Details is not a political blog. I will not be covering the news cycle from now on. But the act of writing, of taking a stand against deep-seeded animosity and hatred towards others, is a political act by its very nature.

I will not surrender my voice. I will not hide. I will stand strong, pen in hand, and hold on, day by day. I will do it for my students, I will do it for my country, and I will do it for myself.

Just an Update

Hi all, I know Sketchy Details has been rather inactive.

I am trying to decide what direction I want to go with the site at this point.

Here's the long and the short of it:

  • Working on Songs for a New World reminded me of how much I truly love performing. Honestly. I have not felt so happy and fulfilled in quite some time. The energy I would normally dedicate to researching, drafting, editing, and perfecting posts for Sketchy Details and other sites was funneled into that production and, temporary and fleeting as a short run of live theater is, I felt a sense of pride and passion so strong that no one could derail my mood (and there was someone actively trying to from within the production).
  • I am wading through the red tape of forms, deadlines, phone tag, and shipping delays of getting all my English teacher certification paperwork authenticated and approved for the state of NJ. I want all my stuff lined up correctly and approved before I take the mandatory 24 hour course that puts me at the minimum level of certification to A) apply for full time teaching positions and B) enter a more weighty and significant teacher certification course with a better chance of employment in the end.
  • I'm actually going to be officially paid by the school I work for sound and lights for the first time in 11 years. The sound stipend was added in for the fall play six years ago (I think? it's early). I've been doing the lights unofficially (but with program credit) for three years on a high tech board no one else would learn and being paid with a cut of the box office, which is unfair to the program and the students. Now that it's official, there's a set amount of pay, there's a paper trail, and I can start negotiating for better equipment, rentals, and reimbursement for training. I can teach students how to design lights the way I've been teaching them for years to score and design sound for shows and lead them into another possible career path in theater. It's awesome. Now to get on them for a makeup and hair stipend...
  • I'm stressing out already over the production of Assassins I'm in. The good news is it's super organized, the production staff is nice, and I only rehearse once or twice a week until two weeks out from the show. The bad news is that we're short two ensemble members and they've already cancelled my first rehearsal because it looks like they don't even want to start working on ensemble songs in a SONDHEIM SCORE until they have all the cast members in place to figure out exactly who is singing what part. I knew I should have just auditioned for the Balladeer and stressed out about memorizing that part on top of teching The Crucible two weeks before Assassins later on. Stupid me being responsible and not over committing.
  • Halloween is coming quickly and I'm behind on props. I can get them done to my standards, but it's very piecemeal right now with giant swaths of props going up all at once rather than trickling out day by day. When I'm done editing this increasingly longer than I planned post, I'm going outside to hang up all the lights, cut out everyone who needs to be cut out (rather than everything, as inanimate and non-gendered living things like trees will be completed Sunday), spraying a ton of insulation foam, covering a bunch of other props in joint compound, and shaping forms for ghosts to be completed as time permits this week. It's a lot, but it's going to be awesome. Did you see the photos of just the backdrop yet? It's sick.

Nightmare Before Christmas Pumpkin Jack Backdrop

So where does that leave Sketchy Details? I don't know.

I love writing. I also love theater, teaching, and creating. I need to find a balance.

I will get some content up celebrating horror in honor of Halloween.

I will see and review big and little films leading into the awards season.

I just don't know with what frequency this site will update anymore. I won't make promises either. I love what I do here, but my life is pulling me in a very different direction now.

Thank you for everyone who has supported Sketchy Details and all my years of focus as a writer. It truly means a lot.