OUTFEST 2014 Round-Up: Tom at the FarmThe Foxy MerkinsSalvation Army, and more

by Dan Schindel

The 2014 iteration of Outfest, Los Angeles’ premier LGBTQIAetc film festival, has now come and gone. For 10 days, West Hollywood was abuzz with new movies that explore all manner of non-heteronormative characters, topics, and ideas. Here are capsule reviews of the feature films we caught at the fest:

Click here to read Dan’s entire dispatch from Outfest 2014

The Claire Denis Retrospective

by Matt Hughes

Claire Denis is a woman of few words, so I shall use that as an excuse to introduce this retrospective briefly. Though I have seen all of Denis’ features now, it feels to me that we barely know each other, that the more we learn, the more we know we do not know of each other, that if we were to see each other at a bar I would not say hello for fear of sounding a fool. She is the type of person with whom you sit by a campfire, and feel as if you must tell her everything you know, but you know that she already knows it all.

Click here to read Matt Hughes’s full retrospective of the entire filmography of director Claire Denis.

REVIEW: The Purge: Anarchy Thrills While Critiquing the Kills

by Andrew Johnson

“It’s not about catharsis… it’s about money,” a character says at the beginning of The Purge: Anarchy. He might as well be talking about the film itself (and all the inevitable sequels). Last year’s horror offering The Purge was a sleeper hit that ended up making over twenty times its budget at the box-office, so it’s hard not to view Hollywood’s insistence on churning out a follow-up within a year as anything other than a frantic cash-grab. Yet surprisingly, the high concept premise – in the future, America institutes an annual 12-hour period in which all crime is legal – is strong enough to remain thematically resonant. The Purge: Anarchy isn’t just the best mainstream film of the summer; it cements the series’ status as one of the most timely and unfortunately necessary cultural satires of the past few years.

Grade: A-

Click here to read the rest of Andrew’s review.

Stop Making Sense Still Burns Down the House 30 Years Later

by Monica Castillo

Break out the hair gel and your brightest blue and pink eye shadow, we’re going back to the synth-heavy future of the ‘80s to take in a Talking Heads concert. You heard me.

Now available on iTunes and making its way around the country on a theater tour, Jonathan Demme’s film with Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne looks deceptively simple as a standard concert movie. But Demme’s much more talented than that, and Stop Making Sense is no mere concert movie. He makes use of the spectacle, intercutting between on-stage and off-stage cameras to jump from long shots of the full band to individual portraits of musicians, before sidling up close to Byrne’s sweaty face in mid-solo. It’s an experience you won’t get in the cheap seats at the back of the arena.

Click here for the rest of Monica’s look back at Jonathan Demme’s definitive concert movie.

REVIEW: Mood Indigo Manages To Be Just Quirky Enough To Be Charming

by Zeba Blay

There are levels to twee, and there are indeed levels to how much twee a person can withstand in one sitting. Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo often comes dangerously close to exceeding the limit, but there is something so deliciously intriguing about the film in spite of its mincing romance that ultimately makes it more than tolerable.

Grade: B+

Click here to read the rest of Zeba’s review.

REVIEW: Planes: Fire and Rescue Crashes and Burns in Slightly  Less Fiery Fashion Than Its Predecessor

by Josh Spiegel

The primal, terrifying, and damaging power of fire is no stranger to Disney animation. It’s not difficult to remember the scene where Bambi’s mom is killed by an unseen hunter, but Bambiclimaxes with a massive fire that lays waste to the forest that was once so serene, lush, colorful, and inviting to a young buck. Similarly, the climactic moment of the final sequence of the underrated Fantasia 2000, scored to Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” depicts the lava-fueled fire from a previously dormant volcano destroying all in its path, including the spritely figure that caused the land nearby to come to life with lush greenery. There are more examples–such as the climax of The Lion King–that could be cited here, but the point is this: Disney animation has not shied away from showing kids and adults alike what fire can do and how scary it is. These films’ finales excel primarily because they don’t condescend to the crowd, or aim to please only children.

But now, we have Planes: Fire and Rescue, which moves closer to the ground to the so-called “World of Cars” than its predecessor did. Like Bambi and The Lion King and Fantasia 2000, this unnecessary sequel to last year’s Planes isn’t meant to shy away from the unquenchable and unstoppable nature of fire. Unfortunately, this is a film that’s so squarely content at being a movie just for kids, instead of appealing to a more universal crowd, that it never rises above the dull and uninspired.

Grade: C-

Click here to read the rest of Josh’s review.

REVIEW: A Talented Cast Can’t Save Sex Tape

by Daniel Carlson

The most frustrating movies are not those that are outright bad, but those that come so close to being good, only to fail. They find themselves bumping against good ideas almost without trying, only to forget them or wander away in search of something nonsensical. Such is the state of Sex Tape, directed with dishwater visuals and a feeling of fatigue by Jake Kasdan from a limp screenplay credited to Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller, and Kate Angelo (who also receives story credit).

The story’s premise is thin but almost promising: a loving couple, Jay and Annie (played by Segel and Cameron Diaz), film themselves having sex and accidentally give the resulting video to friends and family. Yet the film doesn’t explore the fallout from this, or follow through on its few fleeting attempts to tease out a story about the intersection of technology and sexuality in modern couplehood. Instead, it’s all about the wild pursuit to get the videos back in the right hands. The video could be anything, so Sex Tape is really just Random Chase Scenes With Swearing. Additionally, there’s only so much padding that the filmmakers can put in before things start to wrap up. As a result, the story keeps introducing new twists and antagonists every few scenes, then dropping and replacing them. It stretches to fill 90 minutes of screen time, yet feels so, so much longer.

Grade: D+

Click here to read the rest of Daniel’s review.

REVIEW: I Origins a Half-Baked and Purely Guilty Pleasure

by Tomris Laffly

The multi-talented actress/writer Brit Marling has become an integral part of an independent film brand through her recent artistic collaborations with filmmakers Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij. With high-concept, budget-conscious titles such as Cahill’s Another Earth and Batmanglij’s The East as well as Sound of my Voice (Marling stars in and shares writing credits with their respective directors on all three), we have come to expect a glaring common denominator from the products of this brand: a steady, pseudo-brainy suspense that eventually leads to a borderline ridiculous twisty revelation. It would be easy to shrug these showy efforts off, if they weren’t as polished and fiendishly entertaining as they were (with the sad exception of the dreadful Another Earth). And with Cahill’s I Origins (in which Marling stars, sans a writing credit), the struggle between the temptation to mock and submit oneself to ostentatious pleasures has never been greater. Through its nearly 2-hour running time, I Origins will give you many reasons to hate its guts (hipster scientists, anyone?). Yet again, if only it weren’t so damn ambitious and entertaining.

Grade: C

Click here to read the rest of Tomris’s review.

Should Superhero Movies Be Animated Instead?

by Michael Mirasol

With the latest trailer of Big Hero 6, another superhero movie has entered the fray, though this time it will be fully animated, as compared to ongoing trend of having these comic book creations filmed in live-action. But as more and more superhero story lines continue to get re-imagined (even rebooted) as films, I wonder if it would be better to keep them animated rather than fleshed out.

It’s not that superhero stories don’t work out well when in live-action, as anyone who has seen The Dark Knight will attest to. Some of the genre’s most memorable movies portray the best known superheroes, who are usually based on certain notions or qualities on which human truths can be revealed and compelling stories can be built on. Superman and Batman have theirs based on their versions of altruism, the former based a hopeful nobility while the latter on trauma and desperation. Spider-Man is the web-slinging everyman trying to make due. Hulk is our childish alter-id. Hellboy and the X-Men just want to fit in.

But there are many other superheroes in the comic book universe who come to exist out of shallower concerns, created out of the need to see what a being can do than why they should be. Heroes such as Green Lantern, Thor and Doctor Strange. They wield amazing powers, but exist in an age where CGI has made the amazing ordinary, which is nowhere potent enough to command adult interests through nearly two hours in a theatre.

Click here to read the rest of Michael’s piece.

Documentarians and Their Subjects

by Charles Bramesco

Midway through his heart-palpating new Roger Ebert chronicle Life Itself, director Steve James ‘fesses up to a slight documentarian’s faux pas. In a voice-over narration, James notes that he and Ebert enjoyed a friendly relationship prior to the start of production for the documentary. While explaining that Ebert flouted critical orthodoxy by freely hobnobbing with the filmmakers and performers whose work he frequently dissected, James mentions that Ebert was among the first vocal champions of Hoop Dreams, James’ breakout doc about a pair of inner-city ballers who make a rocky shift to an upper-echelon prep school’s basketball program.

It’s possible that James owns up to a mild conflict of interest at that specific time in an effort to locate some vague thematic cohesion between Ebert’s work and his own. But more likely is that James acknowledges the connection for the same reason as anyone attempting to build a legitimate account of true-life material: it builds credibility. What James doesn’t consider is that maintaining the divide between himself and his subject might be a bit overrated. Far more fascinating things become possible when a documentarian gets out from behind the camera and stirs the pot himself.

“Conflict of interest” are the three dirtiest words in any journalist’s vocabulary. Ethos — the notion that whoever’s doing the talking on a given topic knows what he or she’s saying, says it without bias and can therefore be trusted — has long been the lifeblood of all nonfiction work. If that sense of impartial authority becomes compromised, all that’s been said can be thrown right out the window. Ulterior motives lurk behind every word when a reporter can’t be trusted to write objectively on his or her subject. Documentary films that violate that line in the sand between filmmakers and those in front of the camera sneak into multiplexes on occasion, too.

Click here to read the rest of Charles’s piece on the relationship between documentarian and subject.

REVIEW: And So It Goes Nowhere Of Interest

by Andy Crump

Once upon a time, Rob Reiner made good movies. Scratch that: he made great movies. Thirty years ago, he made This Is Spinal Tap in his very first outing as a director. Two years after that, he madeStand By Me. A year after that, he made The Princess Bride. And two years after that, he decided, on a whim, to straight-up reinvent the romantic comedy genre with When Harry Met Sally, which to this day represents the gold standard of what films in its category are capable of. The Rob Reiner of the 1980s had verve, wit, and gusto. He had something to say.

But the Rob Reiner of today has none of these things, at least until you put him in front of Martin Scorsese’s camera and nudge him into losing his temper. The intervening years between his heyday and 2014 have been rough; Reiner’s sardonic, knowing humor has worn down and given way to a proclivity for lightweight schmaltz that feels decrepit even when centered around the young. His new film, And So It Goes, at least sidesteps that latter problem by focusing on the old, but the film remains frustratingly confined by its otherwise airy, insubstantial storytelling qualities. It’s a lazy, easy, thunderously dull movie from a veteran talent who’s capable of more.

Grade: D

Click here to read the rest of Andy’s piece, and the downfall of Rob Reiner.

BLU-RAY REVIEW: Deadly Eyes

by Jake Cole

1982′s Deadly Eyes has all the hallmarks of a cheap, exploitative horror movie. It establishes itself with a scientific lecture on adaptation before defining its main cast as a bunch of horny high school kids. Then it leaps across town to a dock where steroid-infused corn simply sits out in the open as a health inspector notes its rodent infestation but not, as it happens, the fact that these rats are ‘roided-up freaks of nature. When the food supply is destroyed, the rats, naturally, begin to eat people.

Oh, I’m sorry, I should have mentioned: the rats are played by costumed dachshunds.

Film: D+
Video: C
Audio: C-
Extras: B

Click here to read the rest of Jake’s review.

REVIEW: Video Games: The Movie Pushes All the Wrong Buttons

by Daniel Carlson

It takes a certain mix of hubris and willful ignorance to begin a documentary about video games with a quote from Gandhi. The bluntly titled Video Games: The Movie, after an introductory montage of gameplay footage (one of the many that pads the film), transitions to a title card that announces: “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” The tone is one of people who banded together to cure a disease or survive K2, not mass-market Donkey Kong to the children of Baby Boomers, but then, Video Games: The Movie often goes out of its way to be somber, painting its subjects as those who’ve overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to get to where they are today. This feels like a random overreach on the part of director Jeremy Snead until you realize that several of the film’s interview subjects — game designers and producers and actors — also served as executive producers. This is not a film that investigates a scene or subculture. It is, from start to finish, a strained, superficial, ugly piece of pure PR that consistently turns its gaze from anything that could resemble a question or opinion about the gaming industry.

Grade: F

Click here to read the rest of Daniel’s negative pan of the new documentary.

7 Troubled Productions That Ended Up Being Great Anyway

by Jake Pitre

By now, the fact that Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was shot over twelve years is essentially a common household piece of trivia. Of course, this longevity was by design – it tells the story of a family over the course of as many years as a couple’s son grows up. Not every long film shoot is intentional, though. Making movies is hard. Whatever the behind-the-scenes reasoning, some shoots last far longer than they were meant to, and some never leave development hell. Instead of pointing out the biggest disasters, however, I thought I’d count down some of my favourite success stories. Movies that went through all kinds of trouble getting made, but managed to turn out great in the end. Here are seven triumphs of filmmaking that made all the arduous mess worth it.

Click here to read the rest of Jake’s list.

Caesar No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil: The Humanism of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

by Kevin Ketchum

“Somewhere in the universe, there must be something better than man.” The iconic tagline for 1968’s Planet of the Apes is alive and well, almost 50 years later. Seven sequels and two attempts at a reinvention later, Matt Reeves has delivered the best film in one of the most storied franchises in history since the original, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Where most blockbusters relish in action and encourage audience engagement through applause for set pieces, Reeves’s film sets itself apart by giving every act of violence, or even just the threat of it, terrible consequences. It’s a beautifully crafted meditation on nothing less than the very meaning of murder, a Shakespearean tragedy, and a sci-fi retelling of Cain & Abel.

Click here to read the rest of Kevin’s essay.