Double Feature: Embers (2015) & Free Birds (2013)

Next up in the double feature quite a mix. First is a 2015 independent drama called Embers, which I’ve heard nothing about before but post-apocalyptic sort of stories appeal to me so I wanted to check it out out of curiosity. Second is probably one I should’ve watched in October for Canadian Thanksgiving however, what the heck, right? We have 2013 animated film, Free Birds.

Let’s go!

Embers (2015)

Embers

Director and co-writer: Claire Carré

Cast: Jason Ritter, Iva Gocheva, Greta Fernandez, Tucker Smallwood, Karl Glusman, Silvan Friedman

After a global neurological epidemic, those who remain search for meaning and connection in a world without memory. – IMDB

Its hard to pinpoint where Embers falls. In one sense, it talks about a world that actually would be pretty scary and it looks at both spectrums of living in a post-apocalyptic world where you create new memories every single day or even more frequent than that and really not knowing anything. Isn’t that what some of us would hope for? Complete bliss from all knowledge? You wouldn’t remember your problems a few hours later but then you also wouldn’t have that long lasting human relationship because you wouldn’t even be able to build or think about those fleeting moments, let alone remember them. Is it emptiness or bliss in that case? However, on the other side of the spectrum is the quarantined who do remember but they don’t have the freedom to live outside the routine. They have memories but they are merely surviving and not really living.

Embers

 

Embers takes on various perspectives from its scattered characters in this area. There’s a young child wandering aimlessly, a teacher who is researching something endlessly, these two meet and they form a bond as one of the endearing moments is him teaching the child how to ride a bike. There is a couple who is together but then their lack of retaining memories separates them. There is an angry rebellious young guy who runs around wreaking havoc to be caught up in something more but not retaining that memory helps him to not even know what happened just moments or hours ago.

With that said, Embers has some decent performances and some nice moments and the shots and setting are filmed very nicely, however, the story itself is disjointed. Is it to match the world that they have created or maybe the story just skims the surface too much to have a resounding feeling? There is some thought-provoking depth that you can see but it never feels enough to feel immersed into the movie.

Free Birds (2013)

Free Birds

Director: Jimmy Hayward

Cast: Woody Harrelson, Owen Wilson, Dan Fogler, Amy Poehler, George Takei, Keith David

Two turkeys from opposite sides of the tracks must put aside their differences and team up to travel back in time to change the course of history – and get turkey off the holiday menu for good. – IMDB

Free Birds is the perfect example of how some movies just don’t work and have no humor because its not my thing. However, according to the 17% Rotten Tomatoes score, I’m actually not the only one. First off, the voice acting here is fine as expected with Woody Harrelson, Owen Wilson and Amy Poehler at the helms. Its really the content of what this is and the jokes and dialogue that doesn’t work for me. In many levels, it was just really dumb. I have a peculiar humor so sometimes things like this just aren’t my cup of tea. I turned on Free Birds has background while I was working on something and its all so weird and feels rather unoriginal.

 

Turkeys going back in time to stop turkeys from turning into a tradition for Thanksgiving dinner seems a little odd. There might be some chuckles here and there but for the most part, I spent a lot of time just hoping it would end because it felt really boring and uninspired. I’m going to keep this short. It didn’t grab my attention all that much and the premise isn’t all that interesting to me. Its rare I feel so indifferent about animated films. I guess it was bound to happen eventually, right?

Have you seen Embers and/or Free Birds?
What are you thoughts?

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Double Feature: Southpaw (2015) & Miss Sloane (2016)

Welcome to the next double feature. I rented Southpaw and Miss Sloane on discount on Play Store last month. Two very different films and two very different feelings about it however both heavily reliant on their main character.

Southpaw (2015)

Southpaw

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Lawrence, 50 Cent, Naomie Harris

Boxer Billy Hope turns to trainer Tick Wills to help him get his life back on track after losing his wife in a tragic accident and his daughter to child protection services. – IMDB

If there is one word to describe Southpaw, it would be disappointing. It isn’t particularly a bad film as the performances were great. Rachel McAdams did great for what it was. Jake Gyllenhaal was fantastic and I absolutely love Forest Whitaker who is an underrated actor. The girl who played the daughter was Oona Lawrence and that arc was decent.

However, the flaw lies in the fact that Southpaw is pretty much another Rocky story in many instances and we already had Creed recently that was much more engaging. It didn’t help that Southpaw was a little too dramatic at parts but never made it feel very exciting to watch. Seeing the stellar cast being in this uninspired script truly was a lackluster experience.

Miss Sloane (2016)

miss sloane

Director: John Madden

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Alison Pill, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Stuhlbarg, John Lithgow, Jake Lacy

In the high-stakes world of political power-brokers, Elizabeth Sloane is the most sought after and formidable lobbyist in D.C. But when taking on the most powerful opponent of her career, she finds winning may come at too high a price. – IMDB

Miss Sloane was a movie that I went in with no idea of what the premise is. I have heard good things about it and I have enjoyed Jessica Chastain. Miss Sloane is such a vibrant character wrapped up in a tough and ruthless shell. She is strong and strategic in all her plans and for all the reasons, it makes us wonder on what she has under her sleeve even in the most desperate of situations but it is what makes her compelling to watch.

Miss Sloane, just as the title implies, is truly based on Jessica Chastain and how she takes on the role and she did an outstanding job. As we navigate through her way of life and the little things, while she isn’t exactly a character you would cheer for because of her lack of ethics and morals in some of her decisions, every part whether planned or not comes into play and that gives full credit for the screenwriters doing a fine job at giving it a good pacing that keeps everything moving and finding a balance to learn just enough about Miss Sloane and keeping enough to make everything make sense and surprise when it falls into place.

While Miss Sloane isn’t typically the movie that I would watch, I’m glad that I did because it was absolutely awesome. Gripping, compelling and full of twists and turns around every corner. This one is a must see.

Have you seen Southpaw and/or Miss Sloane?

Fantasia Festival 2017: A Taxi Driver (2017)

A Taxi Driver (2017)

Director: Hoon Jang

Cast: Kang-ho Song, Thomas Kretschmann, Hai-jin Yoo, Jun-yeol Ryu

A Taxi Driver is Korean drama that is based on a true story. It becomes apparent at the end that parts of it particularly related to the said taxi driver especially beginning and ending may be fictionalized mostly because this unnamed brave soul deserved the recognition and yet has never been found since the event. Before we jump too far in, A Taxi Driver is the retelling of how a taxi driver down on his luck decided to take a job to drive a German reporter to Gwangju in 1980 without realizing what was actually happening. The German reporter Jurgen Hinzpeter is an actual person and does have a recording of a clip here made in 2015 before he passed away in 2016 thanking his brave friend who he never got to meet again because he had given a fake name and phone number. This story is a retelling of his story. The best comparison of A Taxi Driver would be to Argo except this is a story about men walking into Gwangju as outsiders and leaving as insiders.

A Taxi Driver starts off in the most lighthearted fashion as we watch this taxi driver drive down the road happily singing along to a song. He makes judgmental comments about university student protesters blocking the road and causing the decrease in clients. Its pretty much an everyday feeling of seeing this man. In fact, it is done so well that it feels like we can connect with his character immediately. Whatever the first half an hour of the film felt like would not prepare you for the rest of it. There is no doubt that the tone gets much more serious as expected with the material and incredibly dramatic but all done effectively. Many will know Kang-ho Song from Korean monster movie, The Host however, its been over a decade and his acting has elevated into this emotional performance as taxi driver, Sa-bok Kim.

The director and the script both hit exactly the right tones. A Taxi Driver is a longer film however, there is only a few moments where we will notice a little drag. This film is about the uprising and seeing how the media released under government and what really happened had a huge discrepancy. The events are ruthless and this movie captures those heartless and confused, not to mention angry and frustrated moments very well as while this is set in a political background, the uprising itself is really talked about in broad strokes but rather focuses on the civilians and these two men who eventually bond together despite their backgrounds to take this hidden story to tell the world. Dramatization in slow motion was also used in parts to accentuate. A Taxi Driver turns into a heavy movie very quickly. It is also a tense experience as we follow these two men escape. However, the script and director adds in car chases to make it more gripping also.

As mentioned before, Kang-ho Song delivered an outstanding performance. However, we have to also acknowledge the great performances by Thomas Kretschmann as Jurgen Hinzpeter. Their parts together truly make this film have their moments as they both struggle to communicate due to language barrier and we see their communication and views align and they understand each other more. The performances overall were truly outstanding and the younger cast, Jun-yeol Ryu takes on a university protester also takes on a supporting role that truly connects as well.

A Taxi Driver is a fantastic movie filled with great performances and the retells a tense, gripping and emotional time in Korea when they struggled for their nation’s democracy.

Fantasia Festival 2017: Fashionista (2016)

Fashionista (2016)

fashionista

Director and writer: Simon Rumley

Cast: Amanda Fuller, Ethan Embry, Eric Balfour, Alex Essoe, Jemma Evans, Alexandria DeBerry, Devon Bonnee

A woman who uses clothes as an emotional crutch discovers her life isn’t as ideal as she thought… – IMDB

Consumerism is a thriving issue to look at. The addiction of it all and here lies the centre of what this drama and mystery thriller is all about. As the words opening the movie at Fantasia, Fashionista takes you into a world of addiction, sex and rock and roll. Simon Rumley directs and writes this film in a non-linear fashion and films it mostly in that non-linear way. Experimental and unique and the texture of it all is also incredibly independent. It is one of the reasons that Fantasia Festival is such a wonderful experience as we get to see these special pieces of cinema and dive into worlds and film-making styles that we don’t usually get exposed to. Fashionista’s strength lies in this originality of its non-linear presentation. It makes its audience work hard to piece it all together throughout and draw their own conclusions. The majority of it makes sense and the final act will generally resolve most of your suspicions. It sends a message about consumerism and the addiction of one person possibly in an irrational way. Simon Rumley does a great job and capturing the emotions and making very artistic shots.

Its hard to talk about Fashionista without giving praise to its cast. Amanda Fuller takes on the role of April, a woman who lives a dream owning a vintage clothes shop with her husband, Eric ( played by Ethan Embry). She loves clothes and is addicted to its touch and fabric as we quickly learn. She goes through many outfits throughout the movie, something like over a hundred. Amanda Fuller embodies April very well as she is believable in showing us her addiction and as her life falls apart, the reliance on these superficial things in her life. Her behavior shifts easily with every scene especially as she finds out that her husband is having an affair. None of this is spoilers as the trailer shows it. This hops her into another phase in life which enters rich bad boy Randall (played by Eric Balfour) that takes her for another trip filled with sex. Of course, all this is jumbled as the film presents snippets of Randall in the first act and makes us wonder what his whole deal is. Both Ethan Embry and Eric Balfour play great supporting roles here. Their characters are different and in turn as the story unfolds gives us a different feeling.

However, Fashionista does fall short with a less than engaging first act. It takes a long time and spends a little too much time emphasizing on the marriage breakup. Perhaps it is to make sure we connect with April more to feel her pain and her reliance and release with her clothes as she has almost orgasmic reactions when she is with them. It creates a mesmerizing snapshot however it is done a little too much. Some parts of the slow first act could’ve cut down to make this a more compact experience. Not to mention that the fragments were a little much. While well-timed such as keeping the injection of a mysterious woman played by Alex Essoe delightfully short but enough to make us wonder her connection to the rest of the fragments that doesn’t seem to go together. Fashionista truly picks up as Eric Balfour enters the scene and takes us on another journey, similar but different and possibly a little more thrilling. It teases us with a few events and when the entire piece falls into place, it offers up a lot of tension but leaving space for still some mystery.

The rock and roll part is a cornerstone of Fashionista. Its carefully selected music that transitions from one scene to the next or highlighting a certain event or moment. However, it also is these moments where the music is overpowering. Perhaps it is to make sure it overwhelms to emphasize the emotions and become more involved with the story. Unfortunately, it is one of the situations a few moments in we wished that we were watching this at home and we can turn down the volume or later on, whether the movie would voice its story better and be more thrilling and experience using silence instead.

Fashionista is a unique experience, highlighting an important message about addiction to consumerism. It is worth viewing simply for the fantastic performance from Amanda Fuller and its original concept of non-linear storytelling filmed in a non-linear way. It is a thrilling experience however it falls short due to a slow first act and overwhelming musical moments that took away from the movie more than it added. Less is more comes to mind in terms of that criticism. Fashionista is a worth a watch for all its outstanding elements however, perhaps more suitable as a home experience.

Fantasia Festival 2017: Better Watch Out (2017)

Better Watch Out (2017)

better watch out

Director: Chris Peckover

Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould, Dacre Montgomery, Aleks Mikic, Virginia Madsen, Patrick Warburton

On a quiet suburban street, a babysitter must defend a twelve-year-old boy from intruders, only to discover it’s far from a normal home invasion. – IMDB

Home invasion films have been done to death. Honestly, there have been some hits in the last few years but its been a while that we have been thoroughly impressed. Maybe the exception would be Hush. This year’s Fantasia brings us the Canadian premiere of a home invasion film with a Home Alone twist previously called Safe Neighborhood but recently retitled Better Watch Out. It is directed by Chris Peckover who also was attending the festival to present his film. A perfect addition to the Festival as it fit perfectly in the Christmas in July theme. To further explain the Home Alone point, this features a boy and his babysitter as their Christmas night just got a lot more ominous as they realize that the house is being invaded.

Better Watch Out is a fantastic twist on the home invasion concept. It keeps up well with the intensity while offering more than enough laugh out loud black comedy moments. If surprises you with its characters who truly show off their true nature to stay alive. Its a fun ride with so many unexpected moments and what you probably won’t usually see with this one. The cast is also full of familiar faces. In a shorter role but done so well are the parents played by Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton. They bring in a fun performance full of laughs and witty remarks. The big performances here are however with Luke, the twelve year old son played by Levi Miller (recently in Pan) who has a crush on his seventeen year old babysitter, Ashley played by Olivia DeJonge (recently in The Visit). In true John Hughes love that Chris Peckover talked about afterwards, this was where we saw a lot of awkward teen comedy as the early moments saw Lucas trying to get attention.

It is hard to talk about this one without ruining your experience so lets just say that Better Watch Out does a great job at executing the twist and then letting everything fall apart and come together. While some parts do get a little overboard, there is so much to love in the dialogue and the intensity, the black comedy and the clever characters and twists that makes this one a must-see. You’ll be surprised over and over again and when you finish this, you may want to go back and figure out those details you missed the first time around. Better Watch Out is a home invasion movie but also a perfect addition to the non-traditional Christmas movie that will make you want to watch over and over again because its not only fun but so incredibly clever. This one is a must-see!

Better Watch Out will be in theatres in October on limited release and will land online some time in December.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

valerian and the city of a thousand planets

Director: Luc Besson

Cast: Dan DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Sam Spruell, Kris Wu, John Goodman, Ethan Hawke, Rihanna

A dark force threatens Alpha, a vast metropolis and home to species from a thousand planets. Special operatives Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe. – IMDB

Adapted from a French comic series titled Valerian and Laureline, Luc Besson’s latest piece takes us on a sci-fi adventure to Alpha, the City of a Thousand Planets where we follow the adventures of two young agents and partners, Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline. Luc Besson heading back to a sci-fi premise and seemingly calling back to The Fifth Element days is an endearing thought. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a visually stunning adventure full of new aliens and characters to discover, perhaps more so for those that have not read the source material. While filled with great performances what does let  down the overall experience is the story itself being adventurous and fun but slightly predictable.

The performances here focus mostly on Cara Delevingne’s Laureline and Dan DeHaan’s Valerian. As a team, they work together well and while on missions, there is a friction and conflict they have as Laureline fights for her recognition and importance. While some of their dialogue feels cheesy and oddly out of place, they have a certain chemistry that helps in certain ways. It adds in some laughs here and there and their bickering while overused in movies does help ease in some relaxing moments between the action. There are some bigger names here as well such as Clive Owen as the Commander who gets taken by an alien race that was deemed to have been destroyed. While not a huge role, he excelled at commanding his scene. What is also a nice face to see here is Kris Wu, a young actor that appeared earlier this year in XXX:The Return of Xander Cage, who gives a good performance while in a supporting role as well. Aside from that, Ethan Hawke has a cameo role that draws similarities to Jack Sparrow’s free spirit and this leads to Rihanna who is really showing off as a performer more than she is an actress as she dazzles us with a beautiful on-stage transformational dance which is followed shortly after with an emotional scene that falls short from its intentions.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets does lack depth in its story. Perhaps the length of over two hours did more harm than good, as there was a certain level of suspense in the beginning however, the ending became increasingly predictable. What does make this flick worth your time is how Luc Besson brings this world to life in every single way. The City of a Thousand Planets is fascinating to discover at every corner and the effects are done incredibly well. While some may complain about the drawback of having too much CGI, this is a strength in creating this fictional fantasy world. The action and technology here makes those moments feel like we are immersed in great adventures as Valerian and Laureline go on their own mission. It almost feels like we are in a video game. The best example is when Valerian’s gun can shoot platforms as he vaults through a gap with all these fantastical creatures that are both beautiful and dangerous simultaneously.

Overall, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has its flaws. It is meant to be a popcorn flick that will dazzle its audience visually with its beautiful and mesmerizing world along with its action-packed sequences. There is no doubt that this one has decent cast that delivers even with a story that lacks depth however it is a fun and entertaining flick.

Fantasia Festival 2017: Free and Easy (2016)

Free and Easy (2016)
Director: Jun Geng

Director: Baohe Xue, Benbin Gu, Gang Xu, Liguo Yuan, Xun Zhang, Xuxu Wang, Zhiyong Zhang

When a traveling soap salesman arrives in a desolate Chinese town, a crime occurs, and sets the strange residents against each other with tragicomic results. –IMDB

A peddling monk, a soap salesman, a reforestation ranger: What do these three characters have in common? Add in a God-loving man who is seeking for his disappeared mother, a jack of all trades kung fu instructor and a tough landlady. Throw together two cops who really seem to be both careless and clueless and this creates the mix of a 99 minutes Chinese movie set in desolate area in Northeast China. Free and Easy is an odd piece altogether. Is it trying to be comedic with its dry  humor? Or is it a societal statement about the world we live in pushing those into paths they don’t really choose no matter how good or bad they are? Perhaps, its a crime story when one of the characters die. Just like the story its telling, maybe the genre also steps somewhere in a grey area.

Free and Easy is however an interesting piece of cinema to talk about. With so many characters on screen, we mostly focus on the soap salesman and the monk at the beginning. The cops are the other end of the spectrum as they truly feel useless in their positions or simply bored. They talk constantly about things they probably shouldn’t and then they also take antibiotics like its candy. Not the authorities that we’d imagine them to be. In a community like this one, desolate and forgotten, even the cops are useless, it is a statement on how everyone has their own way to fend for themselves and survive day to day. They are thrown into circumstances that we eventually realize aren’t quite them however, it is all a sense of digging out that part of them that they need to live. The soap salesman and monk eventually have some insightful conversations throughout the movie that truly point us into knowing them more. Just as the reforestation ranger obsesses over who cut down his trees and we start seeing his mellow character go through a myriad of reactions to the situation. However, with the amount of characters here, the focus moves quickly through them. Their personalities, their facades, their conversations, their tricks all come together as what defines this world because we never know any of them well enough to know their history or even their story. We only know what they are now and those few days in this desolate area.

While, Free and Easy slowly progresses its story and it feels disjointed throughout the majority of it and there isn’t really a character to bond with, one of the best aspects is its landscape and cinematography. The way that the director composes their shots, capturing the wide angles and pulled out space. It truly expands on the desolate and emptiness in this area. Perhaps, it also is done to create a parallel for these characters who each have their own issues and all don’t seem to keen about what life they are in now. No one truly seems happy. However, the scenes here truly capture so much atmosphere and is structured carefully to capture exactly what it wants and hides some of the details off screen. One of the best scenes do go to one of the cops confronting four of the characters as they keep moving on and off screen.

Honestly, there isn’t a lot to say concretely about Free and Easy. The story needs a little more work particularly for the pace they are going at. The sound design is nice and the cinematography captures so much of the atmosphere and the area despite it being desolate and empty. The characters are plentiful but never fleshed out. The dry humor definitely is there however, it never seemed to work enough although humor is rather subjective. Free and Easy is a statement piece about society, at least from the first watch, it definitely seems to be leaning the most in that direction. Its a lot of reading between the lines and listening to the dialogue and conversations. Its a movie for those that enjoy dry humor, slow-paced and reading between the lines.

Personally, this doesn’t feel like a movie that I was meant to like. I do think for its vagueness in many of the issues, it makes it more thought provoking to figure out what they are trying to say. What message is it all about? I’m honestly kind of in between with this one.