Monday, February 3, 2020


(Originally published at Audiences Everywhere on 3/27/15

Richard Kelly is smarter than you. Let me backup for a minute. Director and screenwriter Richard Kelly turns 40 on Saturday, and in the fourteen years since he entered the feature film business, he’s only made three films. While he’s carved out a niche for himself in the cult movie circuit, he’s never achieved the kind of critical praise or budgetary freedom his contemporaries have been afforded. Since his last film was released in 2009, Kelly has seen two films languish in development hell (Corpus Christi and Amicus) while an untold number of screenplays, including an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, have never made any movement towards production. With his small, visually diverse, and intellectually stimulating body of work, Kelly is one of the most interesting filmmakers in the industry, even if his grand ideas don’t always hit their mark. Comprised of a medley of influences ranging from Terry Gilliam, Kurt Vonnegut, Phillip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler, Richard Matheson, and T.S. Eliot, Richard Kelly’s films manage to strike a unique, undefinable tone and defy the boundaries of genre in a way that’s rarely seen outside of literature. If he’d chosen to write novels instead of screenplays, there’s a strong chance Kelly could have been the heir apparent to any of the aforementioned names (save Gilliam). But as a maker of films and not novels, his work is messy, and at times self-indulgent, in a way that many critics and audience members reject, and in a way that I can’t help but admire.
While far from perfect, each of Kelly’s films feels like he explored the ideas to their fullest potential, as if he was never going to make another movie again and wanted to get everything he had up on the screen. Does that make for a good director? A good screenwriter? In most cases it doesn’t, but in Kelly’s case I think it does. Because even with his weighty concepts, odd stylistic decisions, and penchant for pushing the narrative past the audience’s patience threshold, Richard Kelly can see past the bullshit of high-school drama, Hollywood, politics, and domestic issues and capture the post-modern soul of America. So why hasn’t he made a film in over half a decade? Because Richard Kelly is smarter than you, smarter than me, and smarter than most of Hollywood’s movers and shakers. We like our films to be neat, categorized, and to be judged by how effectively plot points can be traced from A to B. Our narrative cinematic history, less than 100 years old, is still mostly bound by our basic understanding of the novel. But Kelly pushed beyond that, attempting to do what his modernist and post-modernist influences did with fiction and bring that to film. While I certainly don’t want every film to attempt that, I am after all bound to certain narrative traditions, it would be a shame if Kelly didn’t get a chance to continue to make films the way only he can. We put a lot of stake in auteur theory and perfection when it comes to directors and screenwriters, but I also think there’s a lot to be said for those wonderfully imperfect artists who swing for the fences and let the bat go flying. So Happy Birthday, Richard Kelly; we’re eagerly anticipating your next film.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Pandora Cinema/New Market Films
Pandora Cinema/New Market Films
Richard Kelly’s first feature film is also his most approachable, which is why it’s his most watched (even from a cult film standard). For many teenagers in 2001 and the decade after, Donnie Darko was top-notch filmmaking, regardless of whether the film’s twisty time travel rules were easy to follow. A mix of music video sensibilities and existential science-fiction, Donnie Darko was visually cool, quotable, and a badge of cinematic honor for angsty teens who knew where to find a Hot Topic. In fact, I thought it was so cool that when asked to bring in and read our favorite poem during High School English, I chose Donnie’s poem (yes, I was that guy). But is Donnie Darko still cool, complex, and all the things we once thought it was?
The time loop at the center of the film’s story is still twisty enough to give audiences a pause, and the personal wormhole is still one of the most unique visuals used to explore the subject. But with the growing popularity of time travel in pop culture within the past decade, the film may seem far more straightforward than it once did. But the personal journey Donnie faces, the end of the world he’s faced with, is so personal and small in scale that it seems almost lyrical, especially compared to the much larger canvases Kelly used in his later films.
A lot of what Donnie Darko gets right comes from the casting. Not only does it feature a memorable supporting cast comprised of Patrick Swayze, Drew Barrymore, Seth Rogen, Jenna Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Beth Grant, it also helped to make Jake Gyllenhaal a household name. Gyllenhaal’s performance, while later cited as a textbook definition of emo, is also deeply affecting. Donnie’s morose romanticism, darkly comedic timing, and slightly unhinged world-view made him a post-millennial Holden Caulfield. While parts of my feelings on the film are trapped in nostalgia, Donnie Darko remains one of the best explorations of high school in the early millennium and the ennui of suburbia. Its literary depth, plot points, and interactive website that are left to unpack after the film’s conclusion are evidence that, even from the beginning, Kelly was interested in more than film existing in a 2D space.
Southland Tales (2006)
Samuel Goldwyn Films/Destination Films
Samuel Goldwyn Films/Destination Films
When Southland Tales premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006, it was booed, and when it was released in theaters, it was critically panned, earning only a little over 350 thousand of its 17 million dollar budget. In some ways it’s easy to understand why. Southland Tales is a gonzo and unfocused takedown of the patriot act, gas guzzling, and Hollywood that straddles the line between good and bad movie like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
In statements made to Variety and British public service station Channel 4, Kelly referred to the film as “a musical in the post-modern sense” as well as a “strange hybrid of the sensibilities of Andy Warhol and Phillip K. Dick.” The story, made up of animated comic panels, news briefs, ads, musical numbers, and action movie aesthetics, centers on the final three days before the end of the world. The narrative shifts between the interconnected stories of an actor with political ties (Dwayne Johnson), a porn star with prophetic visions of the future (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a cop whose soul has been split into two by a hole in the space time continuum (Sean William Scott) and a disfigured Iraq war veteran (Justin Timberlake) who quotes the Book of Revelations and T.S. Eliot. Weaving in and out of the already complicated plot are side stories and glorified cameos played by the likes of Amy Poehler, Kevin Smith, Wallace Shawn, Jon Lovitz, and Mandy Moore.
Clocking in at 159 minutes (and that’s with a studio-mandated edit) Southland Tales is overly long, and yet not long enough to fully explore all the ideas Kelly puts out. But the ideas that aren’t in the film are part of what makes Southland Tales such an interesting experiment. The film is only comprised of Chapters IV, V, and VI of the story, while the first three chapters were published as comic books. While the film itself can still be followed, the comic books, online story material, and soundtrack comprised of original songs by Moby create a multimedia experience unlike anything that had ever been attempted before or since. In an ambitious stab at allowing form to mirror content, Richard Kelly is concerned with dimensional travel on a narrative level, while also creating a movie that creates an experience outside the 2D screen. There’s part of me that thinks the film is a great work ahead of its time (I’m probably one of the only people in the world who owns a Southland Tales t-shirt), and part of me that thinks it’s an ambitious failure. In either case, there’s no doubt that Southland Tales is transdimensional.
The Box (2009)
Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures
Based on Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button” (which was made into a Twilight Zone episode in 1986), The Box is Kelly’s most commercial film. The setup is simple yet engaging: A couple (played by Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) receives a box from a mysterious stranger (Frank Langella). The couple is told if they push the button housed inside the box, two things will happen. They will receive one million dollars, and someone they don’t know will die. The short story is a rather straightforward morality tale, and for the first 40 minutes, The Box seems relatively restrained. But after those forty minutes, the plot of the short story concludes and Kelly leads viewers into a complicated tale of a higher intelligence experimenting and running tests of human morality to determine whether they are worth saving. After the satire and bright color palate of Southland TalesThe Box is a strikingly humorless affair, with an ending that didn’t sit well with most audiences.
There are parts of The Box that are expertly paced and tense, but as the film’s themes become weightier some of that tension dissolves, though the film does become more interesting. While it’s clear that Kelly is more restrained with this studio-driven film, The Box is still driven by Kelly’s fascination with dimensional travel (the afterlife in this case) and literary references. It’s The Twilight Zone by way of Sarte. (No Exit plays heavily into the film.) While the fate of the world is still at stake, as it always is with Kelly’s films, The Box’s scale and personal interest in its characters feels more akin to Donnie Darko but without the memorable performances to elevate it.
What I find most interesting about this film, released at the end of the first decade of the millennium, is how it feels connected to Kelly’s other films. Richard Kelly’s career is inextricably linked to the tragedy and aftermath of 9/11, and its bearing on his films is inescapable. Donnie Darko, released in October of 2001, directly deals with a plane crash; unveiling the corruption of those in power, Southland Tales is defined by the Iraq War, Patriot Act, and Bush Administration; The Box considers humanity’s place in the world, our selfish interests and predilection towards greed and consumerism. And as our world moves past the decade defined by 9/11 and into new conflicts, Kelly’s career has rather aptly stalled. Richard Kelly’s films form a thematic trilogy of post-9/11 America, one just as messy, interesting, tragic, and alluring as our own millennial culture.


(Originally published at Audiences Everywhere on 3/18/15)

LunopolisReleased in 2009
Director: Matthew Avant
Genre: Science Fiction
Virgil Films & Entertainment/Walking Shadows
 Summary: In this conspiracy-centric mockumentary, a group of documentary filmmakers investigate a radio phone call from a man claiming there are people on the moon who are watching us. When photographic evidence leads the filmmakers to a time machine, powered by a mysterious gem, they find themselves caught in a web of secrets and on the run from the powerful Church of Lunology.
Overview: I don’t put much stock into conspiracy theories, but I find them to be engaging “what ifs” nonetheless. Conspiracies about the moon have circulated for decades: Was it faked with footage shot by Stanley Kubrick? Why haven’t we gone back in the years since Neil Armstrong first set foot there? Are there beings living on the moon? Lunopolis takes all of these theories and blends them together, spinning ideas so ludicrous and imaginative it’s impossible not to commend the efforts of writer/director Matthew Avant. Not for one minute of the faux-doc are the theories believable, but it’s so ambitious in its concepts that it’s nothing short of engaging.
The film is split between found-footage of the filmmakers, roughly animated exposition, and History Channel style talking heads elaborating on the conspiracy and Church of Lunology. It’s an interesting mix of formats, but it also creates some unevenness in the film’s tone and pacing. The acting in the found-footage bits seem unnatural and forced in parts. But there’s such a great sense of paranoia and the ominous forces behind the scenes that the acting quality isn’t particularly distracting. Where the film really shines is in its animated backstory and talking heads. It is in these moments that we learn in 2012 a group of astronauts from a privately owned enterprise will travel back in time to the moon, where they will colonize it and repopulate it. From there these moon people use their time machines to influence the earth, averting certain disasters in order to avoid the end of the world. People from George Washington, Susan B. Anthony, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Mark David Chapman are all revealed to be time travelers who aided this mission. Every odd event in human history, from the pyramids, Atlantis, and UFOs, is the work of these moon people. Toss in the secondary narrative about the inventor of the time travel device achieving immortality and founding a cult, and you’ve got a truly mental sci-fi story. And I won’t even get into the twists, which alone make the film worth revisiting.
Lunopolis’ ideas clearly exceed its budgetary limitations. And while there are parts of the film I wish were more polished, it should also be recognized that this is film not built on the power of its direction, cinematography, or acting, but purely on its ideas. While Avant hasn’t directed a film since this one, I’d love to see what he could do with an expanded budget (National Treasure 3 is just waiting in the wings for this guy). Lunopolis is a celebration of science-fiction and conspiracy theories where each conspiracy we’ve circulated for years is canon and tied to a larger narrative. So dig deep into the annals of Netflix and dig up Lunopolis, you’ll witness something you won’t soon forget.


(Originally published at Audiences Everywhere on 3/16/15

Overview: A group of teenagers are followed by a deadly entity that is passed on through the act of sex. 2014; RADiUS-TWC; Rated R; 100 minutes.
Let’s Talk About Sex: The marriage of sex and violence is nothing new within the horror genre. The sublime exploration of pleasure and pain lends itself quite easily to tales of things that go bump in the night. Many ‘80s horror films, which It Follows clearly takes inspiration from, were built on this relationship. But where director/screenwriter David Robert Mitchell’s film differs is that it never feels exploitative. Nudity and gore are used sparingly, not for the pleasure of the viewers and their fantasies, but rather in service of the narrative. As a result, the film creates an honest portrayal of the sex lives, awkward flirtations, and relationships of fully-realized American teenagers, instead of creating a porno whose characters’ only purpose is to get fucked and die. Central protagonist Jay, played by the delightful Maika Monroe, is sexually free but the film never takes the low road of slut-shaming her. She isn’t a character built to sexually perform for an audience (in fact, she never appears nude) but a character the audience can identify with. Remarkably, Mitchell has made a film that uses sex as a central plot device, but doesn’t actually focus on the sex acts, rather the unease that can result from it.
It Builds: It Follows is a slow-burn exercise in horror, far more reminiscent of the pacing found in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, than break-neck speed we see in most recent horror releases. Mitchell is invested in the overall horror of the narrative and creating a constant sense of unease, rather than the minute by minute jump scares. You’ll likely find yourself sitting there with sweaty palms and a knot in your stomach and not know exactly why. While there are a few jump scares and a few instances where teenagers make stupid decisions, as is par for the course, the film successfully breaks down clich├ęs. The majority of the film takes place in daylight, or overcast skies, proving that horror isn’t only effective in the dark. The film is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, who conveys a sense of familiarity with the Michigan setting. This setting, coupled with the young cast’s fantastic performances, feel like places and people you’ve known, especially if you grew up in the eastern or mid-west parts of the U.S.
The true standout of the film is the soundtrack composed by Rich Vreeland (Disasterpeace) who, like a mix of Vangelis and John Carpenter, creates a score both appropriately haunting and at times, inappropriately jarring. It’s a soundtrack with a tempo that doesn’t always gel with the scene’s action, allowing the horror to be suggested even when the images evoke serenity. It’s truly a genius work of art, and well worth owning on vinyl.
It Climaxes: The heart-racing third act is evidence that horror movies don’t need 3D to make their audiences duck and cower. The climax’s success is largely because Mitchell avoids inviting fatigue by using the most frightening moments too early. Smarter still, It Follows resists providing a third act explanation for the entity. While most horror films can’t resist a deflating backstory, Mitchell knows that the most successful aspect of horror are the things that can’t be explained. But that doesn’t mean the film is without answers or meaning. While it’s easy to state the film is an allegory for STDs, it’s also something far more complex than that. It Follows aims to capture sexual anxiety, in the form of the willingness to engage in the act, and the questions of what comes next. When Jay and another character ask each other if they feel different post-intercourse, they both reply no. Yet we know they’re lying. The whole film is built on that adolescent notion of feeling different afterward, of being haunted by something younger and older than oneself. It Follows is a beautiful, intimate, and transformative experience that will leave you shaken.
Grade: A


(Originally published at Audiences Everywhere on 3/13/15)

Yesterday, the entertainment world was rocked by Liam Neeson’s statement that he will likely be retiring from action movies in two years at the age of 64. Neeson’s action movies of have become a box office staple during the dead winter months, as well as an adequately distracting bridge between summer movie season and Oscar-bait season. Word is that studio heads are already in a panic as Liam Neeson action movies account for 15% of the annual global box office. Of course Ed Harris will have the villain roles under lock for the next 30 years, but there’s a hero-sized void that’s going to need to be filled. The power vacuum we’re going to see as a result of Neeson’s absence will be unprecedented. No doubt, names like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, and JCVD will make power plays to reclaim their old positions. A number of wrestlers will throw themselves in the ring but they’ll likely just be casualties in the end, their bodies used as mortar in the service of a new empire. Toss in a recent upstart like The Gunman‘s Sean Penn and a loose cannon like Nic Cage and Hollywood’s going to have a blood bath on their hands. You can forget about youngins like Kellan Lutz or Liam Hemsworth. Action is an old man’s game and if we’re going to have any semblance of order we’re going need someone with experience, someone who stares at death in the eye and growls, “Not yet, you sonnaofbitch. Not yet.” We’re going to need someone like:
 5. Tommy Lee Jones (68)
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures
Jones is the most obvious successor to Neeson. As a fellow Oscar Nominee, Jones is capable of the same caliber of performances as Neeson, which also means he’ll have no problem phoning it in when the time comes. He’s proven time and time again that he can deliver the necessary gravitas to pose an intimidating threat without even uttering a word (remember him at 2013’s Golden Globes Ceremony? Chills). He’s also dabbled a fair share within the action genre. If anyone can lead a Taken reboot it’s Jones. Sure, he’ll probably hate every second of it but he’ll look awesome doing it.
4. Helen Mirren (69)
Summit Entertainment
Summit Entertainment
Mirren is a damn fine, classy dame who also has a great sense of humor. She may have won an Academy Award for Best Actress in 2006 but that didn’t stop her from taking a role in the Bruce Willis action movie RED and its sequel. But Mirren deserves to be more than a supporting character. Action films not directed by James Cameron are notoriously known for their weak female characters. Send Mirren, armed with two katanas, into any goon filled warehouse and watch her go to work. Out of any name on the list, Mirren’s action movies would be the most entertaining.
3. Gene Hackman (85)
20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox
If there’s anything that can pull Gene Hackman out of retirement, it’s an action franchise. Has there ever been an actor who can so easily move between unassuming and threatening? Whether he’s playing the protagonist or villain, Hackman always packs a punch with his performances, and it’s time for him to take that skill literally. Sure he’s getting up there in age and we can’t expect him do the kind of hand-to-hand action sequences we see Neeson perform, but I think The French Connection III: Rumble in Brooklyn sounds right up his alley.
2. Sidney Poitier (88)
Wiki Commons
Outside of Blaxploitation films, the action genre has always been lacking in black actors. Who better to right that wrong than the man who was the first black to win an Academy Award for Best Actor? Poitier has received some of highest honors possible for anyone to achieve (including the Presidential Medal of Freedom), but has he taken a dive out of a helicopter with guns blazing? I don’t think so. Have him team up with Denzel Washington, fall in love with Pam Grier, take down a villain played by Samuel L. Jackson, and let the cash flow in.
1. Kirk Douglas (98)
For years we’ve watched Michael Douglas own the spotlight while his father has been relegated to the realm of classic old Hollywood. Well it’s time Kirk Douglas returned to the throne. When it comes to action movies, age has proven to be irrelevant and at 98, Douglas is just reaching his prime. The guy has been fighting off rumors of his death for the past decade. If we’re going to be real about this, Spartacus was kid stuff, it’s time for Douglas to get modern. I say, strap some brass knuckles on those wizened hands, arm him with a nail studded baseball bat and let him loose in the middle of a newly-minted penal colony. That’s right folks, daddy’s back and he came to play. Now come and take your medicine.


(Originally published at Audiences Everywhere on 3/11/15)

In 2009, Time magazine named Neil Blomkamp as one of the 100 Most Influential People of the year. He was hot off the success of Best Picture nominee District 9, and any movie franchise he wanted was his for the taking. If he’d announced he was going to take on the Alien franchise then, nerd fandom would have likely shit themselves with excitement. The guy was the rock star of science-fiction world, and instead of throwing his lot in with a familiar property he decided to stick to developing his own original ideas. This was a decision I respected a lot, given my thoughts on directors taking the opportunity to develop original stories before getting swept into multi-year contract obligations. But three years later we got Elysium.
I stand by the opinion that Elysium isn’t a bad film, but it’s a heavy-handed, unevenly scripted disappointment. Blomkamp’s reputation took notable blows, doubt began to sink in that maybe this guy was a one hit wonder. Still, I kept the faith. One mediocre movie would not destroy a career. Even the greats had their pitfalls. When Chappie’s marketing began in earnest, I wasn’t impressed by the trailer, but I was confident Blomkamp had learned from his mistakes. On the heels of Chappie’s release came the Alien 5 concept art and the subsequent announcement that Blomkamp would be entering Xenomorph territory with Sigourney Weaver. I was excited to say the least, and was certain that one of my all-time favorite film franchises was in good hands. If 20th Century Fox was trusting Blomkamp with this property then he surely had big things in store for us. Then I saw Chappie. Full disclosure, when I decided to write about my hopes for Alien 5 and defend Blomkamp’s career, I had yet to see Chappie. The optimism that I once had still remains. Yes, it’s been beaten by a two-hour contender for what will likely be one of the worst major releases of the year, but my optimism still remains. Let me tell you why.
TriStar Pictures
TriStar Pictures
I’ve read enough of the recent interviews with Blomkamp to know that he is a fan of the Alien franchise, that he has a great admiration for the source material. That fandom is a good place to start. After all, it’s far better than being stuck with someone who isn’t really invested or knowledgeable about the property. His alleged plans to stick close to Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens gives me a lot of confidence. While I enjoy Alien 3 (the Assembly Cut, thanks to suggestion by fellow writer Diego Crespo) and Alien Resurrection has its moments (nothing that has Ron Perlman in it can be completely bad), I don’t really care if Blomkamp pulls a Superman Returns and removes Alien 3 and Resurrection from continuity. Sure, it’d be nice if he found a way not to do that, but at the end of the day, I want a good Alien film. If forging a new timeline is what it takes to make that happen, then so be it.
But fandom can only take Blomkamp so far. After all, I don’t want him to lean so heavily on the first two films that he’s just catering towards nostalgia, but with more CGI and vehicle flipping (I’m looking at you Terminator: Genisys).  Blomkamp has said he has story ideas for Alien 5 that he’s worked out with Sigourney Weaver, which brings me to the script. Blomkamp isn’t a particularly good screenwriter. District 9 had a good script, but it was also based off a short film and Blomkamp has spent the rest of his career borrowing heavily from those themes and that design aesthetic. Where Blomkamp shines is in concept and ideas. He’s the guy you want to see “story by” and not “written by.” It’s clear from Blomkamp’s concept art that he has some fantastic ideas for the Alien universe, now he just needs a screenwriter to help him translate those ideas into character arcs that make sense and plot points that aren’t contrived. For as many faults as Elysium and Chappie have, the ideas are good. In Blomkamp’s ideas I trust.
On the directorial side of things, I’m thinking, make that praying, that Blomkamp will step away from relying on his design trademarks. I think his special effects always look great (WETA is top dog), but they’re also starting to take on a degree of sameness. I want an Alien film to look like H.R. Giger’s art, instead of the not too distant future of Johannesburg, South Africa. I think it’s time for a Neil Blomkamp film to not immediately look like a Neil Blomkamp film. Sure there will be recognizable aspects, but it’s time for him to prove his imagination can stretch outside of his own head and into other worlds. As much as I hate to say it, I think that studio involvement may be necessary with Alien 5. Blomkamp has resisted doing studio franchises for that very reason for years, but he’s getting in his own way. 20th Century Fox has really turned itself around since Tom Rothman left (just look at the Apes franchise now) and I think Blomkamp is going to need its help, and I think producer Ridley Scott (who may be sleepwalking at this point, I’m not sure) is going to need its help. It’s time for Blomkamp to get more collaborative than ever before, and after Chappie’s box office performance last weekend, that seems like something we can rely on.
20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox
I consider myself an optimist about most movies, at least until I see one or two trailers. I think Blomkamp, for all his faults, still has a lot to say and a lot to contribute to the science-fiction genre. Raising him to the heights he was at in 2009 was likely premature (every critic who has referred to him as an auteur can sit on that absurdly early assessment). And tearing him down so suddenly after Elysium was also premature. While I reject the notion that critics have purposefully tried to tear down Blomkamp because of Alien (I doubt their investment in it has that much weight), I do think it’s too early to write him off. Even after leaving Chappie with a migraine, I thought to myself “Yeah, I’ll see his next film, and I’ll be there opening day.” I want Blomkamp to be as good as we all thought he was after District 9, and I want Alien 5 to breathe much needed new life into his career. Sure, there will likely be problems with it. You know he can’t resist a third act mecha-suit battle, so expect Ripley in the Power Loader. And you know he won’t abandon Sharlto Copley, despite his questionable acting abilities and inability to shake his accent. But I firmly believe the film will be an upswing for him, his first steps towards earning that “From Director Neil Blomkamp” title. And if he brings back Newt as an ass-kicking adult, well that’s worth a few extra points in my book.
So chins up fans. We’re getting a new Alien movie, and I don’t see how it could be worse than AVP: Requiem.