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Monday, June 30, 2014

From the Mouths of Filmmakers: David Lowery

David Lowery
By David Lowery and Joshua Handler 

Recently I've been disturbed by the amount of people who don't seek out independent films, non-English-language films, and classics.  So, I asked the filmmakers or distributors who I believe to be the most original voices in the industry to submit responses to four questions about if/why they think indies/non-English-language films/classics are important to view and how they've been influential on their careers.

The response below is from David Lowery, director of AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS. David also edited or co-edited critically-acclaimed films UPSTREAM COLOR, SUN DON'T SHINE, and PIT STOP and directed "Pioneer", a short film that won SXSW.

Do you feel that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view independent and world cinema and why?/Do you feel that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view classics and why?
It's strange to even consider this question, because I feel like the answer - a resounding yes! - is such a given that I can't immediately grasp the concept of a filmmaker, much less a filmgoer, who would consign themselves to such a narrow channel of motion picture experiences. It's not so much that it's important (although it certainly is) or that it's a matter of cultural breadth (though it's that too) - if I were to posit an argument in favor of independent and world cinema (and again, I hate to think that it would even need an argument), I would do so on the grounds of simple enjoyment. If you like movies, go see more to them! And don't stop at indie and world cinema. Dig into history! 
How has viewing indies and films from around the world helped you as a filmmaker?
Certainly, but so has watching summer blockbusters. You learn from everything. Is the ratio of great foreign films to great Hollywood efforts disproportionate? Sure, but that's in part because the US really only imports the cream of the crop. There's plenty of swill that never sees these shores, and that's a luxury we get to take advantage of. There are also lots of great foreign films that don't get released here, and tracking those down can be fun and exciting. But to get back to the question at hand: yes, it's certainly helped, and I can't imagine a version of me that didn't obsessively watch independent and world cinema in my formative years (to say nothing of me now).
What's one American indie and one film not in English that you would recommend that film-lovers or young/aspiring filmmakers see?
American indie: A double feature made up of two back-to-back viewings of Steven Soderbergh's SCHIZOPOLIS, the second time though with his commentary track. 
Non-English-language: UGETSU by Kenji Mizoguchi. I pick this one because I just saw it for the first time myself and can't believe I'd never seen it before. Absolutely beautiful.
The next response will be from Marshall Curry, two-time Oscar-nominated filmmaker, director/producer/editor of POINT AND SHOOT.

Roboapocalypse Turns 3!

By Joshua Handler

Dear Readers,

Today marks the anniversary of one of the wildest journeys I've ever been on.  It has now been three years since Roboapocalypse was founded.  Each year, this site grows exponentially.  The support from the film community has been overwhelming and I would like to thank all of the film festivals, PR firms, studios, distribution companies, publicists, and filmmakers who have helped to make Roboapocalypse what it is.

Over the past year, I've made quite a few changes.  You may have noticed that not one review has been posted of a film that I've given below a 3/4.  Because I am a filmmaker, first and foremost, I have an obligation to support my fellow filmmakers and by writing negative reviews, I hurt them.  Don't mistake this for lenience, as I still hold movies to the same high standards that I always have and am always completely honest when writing a review.  I still view movies I dislike (in the past year, I saw 200 films, a chunk of which were terrible), but simply choose not to review them.  My time is better spent supporting filmmakers than hurting them.  I'll leave the negative review-writing to the people who do this as a full-time job.

Another change is the amount of interviews I've been conducting.  I've always had opportunities to conduct interviews, but it's just in the past six months that I've had any real desire to do them.  Through talking with filmmakers from around the world, I've learned an enormous amount about them and their respective films and hope you have too.

While the number of mainstream films I've reviewed has increased over the past year, that doesn't mean that Roboapocalypse will not still be dedicated to independent and world cinema.  Roboapocalypse has been, and forever will be dedicated to shining a spotlight on films that need recognition.

I want to give a special thank you to John Wildman, David Ninh, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.  No two people or organization has been as supportive of Roboapocalypse as them.  Aside from being kind enough to give me press accreditation for the New York Film Festival and reserving me a complimentary ticket to cover just about any event at FSLC that I've wanted to cover, John, David, and FSLC as a whole have just been great people to work with and be around.  They're incredibly generous and kind, and I cannot thank them enough for everything that they've done over the past year.

I also would like to give a special thank you to Adam Walker and Jenny Jediny from Film Forum and Harris Dew from IFC Center for their continued very generous support.

And, most importantly, thank you to you, my readers.  There would be no Roboapocalypse without you.  While Roboapocalypse may not be the biggest blog out there, it is going strong thanks to you.  If reading one of my reviews gets one of you out to see a movie you wouldn't have seen or known about before, I'm doing my job.

As always, I encourage you to leave comments on any reviews or articles.  Let's build a community.  Happy movie-going!

Joshua Handler
June 30, 2014

From the Mouths of Filmmakers: Intro

By Joshua Handler

Recently I've been disturbed by the amount of people who don't seek out independent films, non-English-language films, and classics.  So many of these people are aspiring filmmakers and it terrifies me that the people who want to carry on the art form of film don't care about what came before them or about the other voices out there.  This is not to say that it is bad to view blockbusters and mainstream films.  As you've likely noticed by the past few weeks worth of reviews, I love a good blockbuster as much as anyone else.  That being said, I believe the most original voices come from the indies and foreign films (and let's be real, many people will start directing indies), so I asked the filmmakers or distributors who I believe to be the most original voices in the industry to submit responses to the following questions:
-Do you feel that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view independent and world cinema and why?
-Do you feel that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view classics and why?
-How has viewing indies and films from around the world helped you as a filmmaker?
-What's one American indie and one film not in English that you would recommend that film-lovers or young/aspiring filmmakers see?
An overwhelming number of people have agreed to submit responses.  For the first week of responses (I'll publish one each day through Thursday, then continue through the next few weeks), I'm featuring those of David Lowery (director of AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS and editor of UPSTREAM COLOR), Marshall Curry (two-time Oscar-nominee, director/producer/editor of POINT AND SHOOT, Rodney Ascher (director of ROOM 237), and Sumyi Khong Antonson (Vice President of Marketing & Distribution for Drafthouse Films). 

Happy Reading!  Let me know what you think.

Friday, June 27, 2014


Courtesy of Radius-TWC and The Weinstein Company
2014, 126 minutes
Rated R for violence, language and drug content

Review by Joshua Handler

Bong Joon Ho's Snowpiercer is an odd beast and one that holds up very well for repeat viewings.  It features a near-perfect mix of exhilarating action sequences, phenomenal performances, smart plotting, and heart.  The film takes place in 2031 A.D., 17 years after the Earth froze over.  A chemical was released into the atmosphere that was meant to control global warming, but it ended up freezing the Earth, causing the surviving humans to board a train that would run eternally.  The poor are in the back of the train, the rich in the front.  After being mistreated for years, the people at the back end of the train begin a revolt, headed by Curtis (Chris Evans).  Their goal is to get to the front to control the engine.

What makes Snowpiercer the visionary masterpiece that it is is the direction of Bong Joon Ho.  The sense of imagination and excitement that he brings to each and every scene makes watching Snowpiercer a visceral experience.  Unlike most action films, Snowpiercer only has 20 minutes of exposition before exploding into an action sequence so exciting and well-executed that it would serve as the climax in most other films.  From there on out, the tension increases scene by scene, train car by train car, the action becomes more intense, and the drama becomes more riveting.

Snowpiercer is emotionally involving, which is to the credit of Bong Joon Ho, co-writer Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead), and the pitch-perfect performances from the entire cast.  Chris Evans, best known for his performances as Captain America, has never been known to be a serious dramatic actor.  However, Snowpiercer might change that.  Evans brings a sense of pain and gravitas to Curtis.  He's been scarred by the world of the train and he brings this pain to every scene.  In the latter part of the movie, he delvers a monologue (the monologues, usually pace-killers, are nearly as compelling as the action sequences) that he nails.

Tilda Swinton also gives a standout performance as Mason, a maniacal woman who tries to keep order in the train.  Swinton gives her kooky, jittery performance a dark dose of humor.  Every word she utters, every hand gesture she makes is perfectly placed.  Swinton, like always, inhabits this character (originally written for a man) and makes Mason her own.  It's yet another performance of hers that nears perfection.  Bong regular Kang-ho Song, Ah-sung Ko, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, and Ed Harris round out the supporting cast and all give memorable, deeply-felt, colorful performances.

Kyung-pyo Hong's cinematography is inventive, utilizing unusual camera angles and shooting the action so that it's always coherent.  The graceful, yet forceful score by Marco Beltrami (The Hurt Locker, 3:10 to Yuma) underscores the action very well, and Steve M. Choe and Changju Kim's editing gives the film a tight pace and makes the action sequences balletic.  Stefan Kovacik's art design and Ondrej Nekvasil's production design bring the world of the train to glorious life.

Overall, Snowpiercer is a wild filmgoing experience that's tightly-plotted and brilliantly-acted.  Many directors don't transition well into English, but Bong Joon Ho transitioned quite beautifully.  Snowpiercer is a film that both arthouse and mainstream moviegoers will appreciate and enjoy, and I cannot wait for everyone to get a look at it.


Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Courtesy Third Party Productions
2014, 90 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin's The Notorious Mr. Bout is an entertaining, unbiased look at "Merchant of Death" Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who rose to notoriety during the 1990s and 2000s before his arrest in Thailand in 2008 during a sting operation.  Bout was extradited to the United States in 2010.  The film largely tells its story through Bout's home videos.  Gerber and Pozdorovkin had incredible access for this film, as everyone under the sun, including Bout's wife, gave interviews.

What's most admirable about this film is that it never necessarily makes Bout look like a "good guy" or "bad guy".  Many filmmakers would go out of their way to vilify Bout, but Gerber and Pozdorovkin are smarter than that, which makes this film a compelling portrait of a man, not a myth.

The decision to use home video footage adds a lot of color to the film.  As mentioned before, this is a portrait of a man.  When documentaries or biopics are made about men like Viktor Bout, the subjects themselves are rarely featured and we learn about them through people know knew them.  Because we hear so much about the horrific things that the subjects did, they are no longer people - they're more like figures, legends.  While Bout is in jail and obviously unavailable to be interviewed, the home video footage speaks for itself and shows us that Bout is a person just like us all.

Overall, The Notorious Mr. Bout is a funny, disturbing film about a brilliant businessman who got himself into one of the most dangerous industries in the world.  Many audiences will be enthralled by this film.  It is never boring, occasionally bizarre, and fast-paced.  What more could one ask for?


Tuesday, June 24, 2014


AFER/Diana Walker/HBO
2014, 112 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

The Case Against 8 is a truly moving documentary.  While everyone knows what happens at the end of the film (unless you live under a rock), Case is a riveting viewing experience because it places a human face on one of the most well-publicized court cases of the past century.  Ben Cotner and Ryan White's film tells the story of the fight to overturn Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California after it had been legalized.  The film was shot over the period of five years.

When we read about cases like this one, ones that go to the Supreme Court and end up making history, we hear a bunch of facts and then the outcome, never the process of how this case got up to the highest court in the country.  To get a case like this to the Supreme Court, it takes years and it costs many people years of having a regular life.

In addition to the legal details explained in The Case Against 8, the film focuses on the two couples and lawyers fighting to overturn Proposition 8.  The couples fighting Proposition 8 were one lesbian couple who have kids and one gay couple.  Undertaking something of this magnitude is daunting and time-consuming.  These four people gave up five years of their lives to fight for their basic human right to marry, yet it didn't come without its costs, both emotional and psychological.  The couples were frequently traveling, but luckily they were supported by their families.

Cotner and White show us why overturning Proposition 8 mattered.  The couples fighting it are just like any other in this country and they represent millions of other same-sex couples.  When the inevitable happens and Proposition 8 is overturned, it is a tearily triumphant moment on par with the most powerful in cinema history.  After watching these people devote their lives to a worthy cause that will affect millions and then win, it is impossible not to be emotional.  Many other documentarians would've approached this material like a traditional news story, but that wouldn't have worked because we wouldn't care about the outcome on a human level.

Overall, The Case Against 8 is a thorough, informative, riveting, and personal look at one of the defining moments in the Gay Rights Movement.  As both a historical document and a piece of documentary filmmaking, Case succeeds.  This is a film that many will be able to connect to.  While many won't share in the struggles of the couples who fought Proposition 8, they'll connect to them emotionally.  I connected with this film and came out moved.

The Case Against 8 is now showing on HBO.


Monday, June 23, 2014


Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) in THEY CAME TOGETHER
Courtesy of Lionsgate
2014, 83 minutes
Rated R for language and sexual content

Review by Joshua Handler

They Came Together premiered at Sundance back in January and has had relatively little buzz around it since...which is a complete shame because it made me laugh so hard I cried.  This is no exaggeration.  It even has high rewatch value.  I've now seen They Came Together twice and laughed throughout the entire film twice.  How this movie is getting so little attention attention is mind-blowing to me. The film is headed up by Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd and features a supporting cast that includes Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Ed Helms, Melanie Lynskey, Kenan Thompson, and more.

With They Came Together, director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models) satirizes the romantic comedy by making as cliché-ridded a romantic comedy as he can.  The film opens on Joel and Molly (Rudd and Poehler, respectively) eating dinner with their good friends Kyle and Karen (Hader and Kemper, respectively).  Joel and Molly then tell Kyle and Karen how they met and fell in love.  Their story starts with a perfect helicopter over Central Park in NYC just like any other rom-com and then goes on to introduce Joel and Molly as they were before they met.  

What makes They Came Together as funny as it is is Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter's relentless, go-for-broke style of comedy.  The humor is insanely inane, ridiculous, and frequently flat-out bizarre, but the inanity is intentional and almost always hits its mark.   Just when I thought Wain and Showalter wouldn't take a joke or scene any farther, they did.  The two milk every moment for all it's worth.  In a way, this entire film is like the most bizarrely hilarious SNL sketch you can think of on steroids.  

The sight gags are very effective in They Came Together.  Most are in-your-face, but there are a few subtler ones that are wonderful.  That isn't to say the verbal gags aren't funny.  There is an endless number of quotable lines in this film.  As I write this review, I keep getting the urge to turn the movie back on to rewatch my favorite parts with my favorite lines.

None of the humor would work without the performances of the extremely talented cast.  Poehler and Rudd are magic together.  They have natural chemistry that makes every scene between them believable.  As satirical and self-depricating as this film is, I actually cared about Joel and Molly.  They're oddly lovable characters.  The supporting cast is made up of some of the best comedians around and they all have their moments to shine.  Bill Hader's off-color performance is one of the highlights.  

In order to have a good comedy, it is essential to have a good editor.  Few realize just how vital a good editor is for a comedy.  Much of the comedic timing depends on the editor, and Jamie Gross' editing of They Came Together is wickedly funny.  His use of reaction shots is incredibly effective.  This sounds like a ridiculous statement since so much of a comedy's success derives from reaction shots, but the reaction shots in this film are unusually good.  They aren't immaculately framed or out-of-the-ordinary - they're just amusing.

Overall, They Came Together is so highly enjoyable it's scary.  Comedies rarely make me laugh uncontrollably, but They Came Together did.  As I was watching it for the first time, I would laugh at a joke, then be reminded of a previous joke that I laughed at and then start laughing all over again.  The film is expertly acted and has a big heart, which makes the proceedings more entertaining and relatable.  Because They Came Together is so over-the-top, it won't be everyone's cup of tea, but for most, it should be highly enjoyable.


Sunday, June 22, 2014


2014, 89 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Back in April when I reviewed Jesse Moss' The Overnighters, I wrote the following about documentaries:
"I frequently feel that great documentaries are more compelling than great narratives because there is no substitute for real life.  However, great as many documentaries are, there are few that can actually be called "profound" or can change your perception on life."
Amanda Rose Wilder's Approaching the Elephant is a documentary that can be called profound.  Wilder's film documents the first year of a "free school".  The one chronicled in this film is the 262nd free school in the world.  In these schools, the students create their own education, and on nearly all matters, the students and teachers vote together and the students choose what classes, if any, they want to take.

Wilder's film is an immersive look into the first year of the Teddy McArdle school and what happens when a problem student begins to threaten the fragile stability of the school.  What's remarkable about Approaching the Elephant is that Wilder stays neutral on the school.  Never once does her portrait of the school become tainted by her own opinion.  Wilder trusts us enough to allow us to form our own opinions on the school.

Shooting in black-and-white with a 4:3 aspect ratio, Wilder immerses us in the world of the school while remaining invisible to all around her.  Watching Approaching the Elephant, I forgot that someone was behind the camera, that there even was a camera.  Wilder places herself in the middle of every scene and shows everything going on in the school.  No one looks at the camera or even acknowledges it.  Effectively, the camera and Wilder are invisible.

Above all of what I just wrote, what makes Approaching the Elephant such a profound film is that it shows what happens when children are put in a position of authority, when they have an equal vote in everything.  If children are charged with running an organization, it is very likely, as witnessed in this film, that things will quickly become chaotic and ugly.

The film shows how children's cognitive maturity varies even within children in the same age group.  During a few of the McArdle school meetings shown in the film, students try to solve problems.  What's fascinating is that some of the students think of the big picture, while others think only of the present and how the outcome of the meeting would affect the next moment.  This film proves why the "free school" model is risky and why, flaws and all, a traditional school would be more effective than this school.  At least in a traditional school, the children would be safe (you'll see just how unsafe the McArdle school is when you see this movie), the students would learn core subjects that will help them down the road, and they would have stability, something that's distinctly lacking at the McArdle school.

At the Teddy McArdle school the teachers' intentions are good and their hearts are in the right place - there's no doubting that.  However, while some problems can be attributed to first-year growing pains, some others are simply that the children are too powerful with the adults having little to no authority over them.  Again, the fact that Wilder did not shove her opinions about this school in our faces is admirable.

Overall, Approaching the Elephant is a riveting, unsettling, and unusually smart documentary from a documentarian that should be put on everyone's film radars.  A film like this would be a child psychologist or teacher's dream, but is completely accessible to general audiences.

APPROACHING THE ELEPHANT currently does not have U.S. distribution.


Friday, June 20, 2014


Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
2014, 134 minutes
Rated R for language throughout

Review by Joshua Handler

Clint Eastwood is not the first person I would've thought of to direct a film adaptation of the electrifying Tony-winning smash musical Jersey Boys.  But, someone chose him to direct and now the movie is hitting movie screens across the country.  Eastwood's Jersey Boys is an odd film because it isn't a musical, it isn't energetic, and it isn't uplifting.  However, what it lacks in music, it makes up for in compelling drama, played typically low-key by Eastwood.

Three of the four actors portraying the Four Seasons have played their respective characters on stage. As Frankie Valli, John Lloyd Young is reprising the role for which he won a Tony.  All four actors' bring great energy to their roles and the performances are excellent across the board.  Vincent Piazza stands out as Tommy DeVito and Christopher Walken has an amusing supporting performance as Gyp DeCarlo, a mob boss who takes Frankie under his wing.

The energy of the actors is balanced by Eastwood's traditional, low-key approach to the material.  He doesn't emphasize the music sequences.  They come and go just like any other scene, which gives the film a sense of realism.  There's nothing glamorous about this production, which for the most part works very well because it makes the drama much more powerful.

Many scenes in Jersey Boys have a bite to them.  Every joyous scene or moment has an undercurrent of sadness in it.  The Four Seasons were a troubled group and this film focuses on the troubles more than anything.  Because I began to care for these men, flaws and all, every time they encountered a setback, personal or professional, it had impact.

Like the show, the fourth wall is broken and the members of The Four Seasons provide their own commentary on the story, which gives the story another dimension; it saves the movie from becoming yet another streamlined biopic with a single voice.

Most of the drama works, but there are some moments and a side plot involving Valli's troubled relationship with his daughter that undermines much of the film's dramatic power and sincerity.  During one of Jersey Boys's strongest scenes, moments of humor are thrown in that take away from the weight of the drama.  The father-daughter subplot worked very well in the musical, but here it is underdeveloped and cheesy, which cheapens the very tragic subject matter.  It was certainly necessary to show how Frankie's lifestyle affected his family, but it is also necessary to develop this subplot instead of throwing it in.

Additionally, the movie should have ended with a bang.  Jersey Boys puts its characters through the ringer for most of its 134-minute running time.  After all of the dark drama, it would've been nice to have the film end with something exciting; something cathartic or just satisfying.

Overall, Jersey Boys is a solid film and one that I would recommend seeing.  Is it as great as the musical?  Absolutely not.  If people are looking to see the film to relive the experience of seeing the musical, they're going to be very disappointed because this is a drama with music, not a musical with drama.  The strongest aspect of most of Eastwood's directorial efforts is the acting and the drama, which is why this film works as well as it does.  Parents should know that while Jersey Boys has an R-rating, the film is more than okay for any tweens and teens.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

An Interview with Andrew Renzi and Tylee Abbott of FISHTAIL

Andrew Renzi (right) and Tylee Abbott (left)
Photo credit: Joshua Handler
An Interview with Andrew Renzi and
Tylee Abbott of FISHTAIL
By Joshua Handler

Andrew Renzi's Fishtail was one of my favorite movies at this year's Tribeca Film Festival.  A meditation on the modern American West, it is a work that won't be for everyone, but those who take it for what it is will be mesmerized.  The documentary follows Renzi's friend Tylee Abbott and his fellow ranchers on the Fishtail Ranch in Montana during calving season.  Recently, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Renzi and Abbott to discuss the film.

Abbot's parents have had the ranch since he was young and Abbott and Renzi have known each other since they were four years of age.  In high school, Renzi came to the ranch.  Years passed, but "We wanted to do a project together and the ranch is clearly a great subject," said Abbott.

"For me, I went out there one summer…and worked with Tylee's family and the ranchers out there and…had this amazing sort of feeling like 'I have to come back here' and Tylee and I both went our professional ways and he [went] every single year...for calving season.  When we decided that we were going to try to do something together it was just the natural thing for us to do together," said Renzi.

Fishtail celebrates the American West and the modern-day cowboys that work in it.  According to Abbott, "[o]ne of the big things for us with the movie was to honor this tradition of the American West that's kind of dying and falling in by the wayside slightly and also honor the tradition of Western American art and Western American film. For me, the movie was all about nostalgia and I think it was the best way for us to capture it.

"As a kid, I grew up going to the West and developing a real appreciation, a real respect, a real reverence for the West, but the characters of the west, you know these individuals, they go about their business with honesty, and integrity, and commitment, and they never look for praise, they never have qualms or problems.  There's such integrity to it, and to me that's what the American West embodies, that's why I continue to try to celebrate it by...doing a project like this."

According to Renzi, Fishtail was never just a documentary.  Because his background is in narrative filmmaking, Renzi treated creating Fishtail the same way as if he was making a narrative.  Cinematographer Joe ... and Renzi even created a shot list and planned out the shoot ahead of time.

"The great thing about [Fishtail] is that I was able to really employ...the skill set that I had been learning as a narrative filmmaker - I knew that we wanted to shoot film, so already right there was sort of this 'well its not really a documentary because we're shooting film'.  There's not that many docs shooting film so I knew that we could compose the shots very highly, we could really control the shot composition because the great thing about the subject is that there never had to be a manipulation of it because they have a routine. So, me and Joe [Anderson] could decide where we were going to be with the camera while they did their thing and so there's a real seamless blend of what I would do in a narrative and what a documentary is. I didn't know if I was making a documentary or narrative honestly," said Renzi.

While mystical in many ways, Fishtail shows the harsh realities of living in the West; it is a demystification of the West and the American cowboy.  Abbot said, "The people that live in the West and that work in the West, they're real people and they are larger than life and they're normal simple [people] living lives.  It's not necessary to kind of create some fantasy, some fictional Marlboro Cowboy.  This is real and they're beautiful and the documentary just shows that beautiful way of life in and of itself in a very pure way."

I finally asked Renzi what the West meant to him.  He responded, "For me it's pretty straightforward: it's something that I want that for some reason I can't have, and it's this place and its this way of life. I wish I could be the type of person that's just like 'I'm going to go live in a ranch in Montana and I'm going to be a rancher for the rest of my life' but I'm not, I'm not that person but i wish so badly that I could be that that's what it's something so out of my body, but I think it's in my spirit."

The American West is still a myth to many, immortalized in the numerous films made over the past century.  While Fishtail is a demystification, it is still a romantic vision.  With its gritty narration by Harry Dean Stanton, grainy, picturesque cinematography, and epic, yet still intimate scope, Fishtail is a stunning eulogy to a dying culture.  It does not currently have a U.S. distributor.

Monday, June 16, 2014


Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
2014, 102 minutes
Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor

Review by Joshua Handler

How to Train Your Dragon was an unparalleled success and when it was announced that a second one was coming, I was automatically suspicious and very worried that the it would be made to be a money-maker and nothing else.  Fortunately, I was wrong.  Dean DuBlois took over full directorial duty on this film and while the sequel isn't as great as the original, it comes close.

What makes How to Train Your Dragon soar (no pun intended) is its big heart and lovable characters.  Yes, we all know the animation is beautiful (Roger Deakins was the visual consultant which partially explains that), but the heart and characters are what won me over at the end of the day.  Hiccup, Toothless, and the rest of the characters are all well-developed, and Hiccup and Toothless are as multi-dimensional and quirky as any characters in a large-scale drama.  And the filmmakers seem to care about them and the surrounding story.  The endearing attitude they show towards the characters and the film as a whole is noticeable.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 further explores the roles of friends and family in people's lives and how strong the bond between friends can be.  Because Hiccup and Toothless are so likable, it's easy to fall in love with them all over again in this second film.  Their relationship is developed further and our emotional connection is deeper.

So many animated films are made for the lowest common denominator, so to find one that isn't full of stupid side characters, pop culture jokes, and infantile humor is refreshing in itself.  To find an animated film that's as rich as How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a miracle.  How to Train Your Dragon 2 dares to be darker and more emotional than the first, which makes viewing it a fully engrossing and enriching cinematic experience.

Overall, I enjoyed the hell out of sitting through this movie.  I enjoyed every single second.  While I didn't enjoy this one quite as much as I remember enjoying the original (I may have loved the original so much because of how surprised I was by its greatness), it comes very close to capturing the magic and should be a sure-fire contender for the Best Animated Feature Oscar come next year.  There were no cringe-worthy moments in How to Train Your Dragon 2, and there were many beautiful scenes overflowing with emotion.  As a mainstream moviegoing experience, this is nearly unbeatable.  And frankly, this is one of the better films I've seen all year.  It will appeal to adults, kids, and everyone in between.


Friday, June 13, 2014


Courtesy of A24 Films
2014, 102 minutes
Rated R for language and some bloody violence 

Review by Joshua Handler

David Michôd hasn't made a movie since his feature debut Animal Kingdom, which was a superb piece of crime drama that garnered Jackie Weaver her first Oscar nomination.  After four years, Michôd is back with the post-apocalyptic thriller, The Rover.  The film is set in the Australian Outback ten years after "The Collapse" and tells the story of Eric (Guy Pearce), a man who's lost everything, who, with a wounded man, Rey (Robert Pattinson), goes to find the men who stole his car.

Michôd moves The Rover along at a very measured pace.  Occasionally, the pace slows too much for its own good, but for the most part, the slow pace increases the tension and makes the scenes of bloody violence that much more shocking (they made more than one person gasp or jump at my screening).  Michôd builds his simple story quietly until it concludes in a rather unexpected, yet very poignant manner.  I was moved by the final scene.  It is profound, unexpected, and melancholic and is tonally and thematically the perfect ending for a film like this.

Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson give two of the most impressive performances of their careers. Pearce has always been a favorite of mine who rarely is given any recognition from major awards groups. Awards groups usually award the performers with the showiest performances, which is likely why Pearce doesn't get their recognition. His performances are frequently unnervingly subtle and intense and his performance in The Rover is no exception. Eric has lost everything and because he has nothing to lose, he is unhinged, unpredictable, and volatile. Pearce portrays Eric's volatility and determination through his face, not dialogue. While he utters few words over the course of the film, it is always clear what is happening inside him.

Robert Pattinson is a revelation and gives a stunningly detailed performance.  Rey may be mentally challenged and Pattinson gives himself over to the role completely.  He captures the weakness, the fragility, and the instability of Rey perfectly and creates a sympathetic character that perfectly matches Pearce's intensity.  Pattinson is doing an excellent job at moving away from Twilight by proving himself to be a very adept actor.  

Overall, The Rover is uncompromising vision that won't be for all, but for those who like their films dark, bloody, and grimy, this will be perfect for you.  Michôd has proven himself a very smart and economical director and has shown that he's not a one-hit wonder.  The Rover is the real deal.  Had the pace not lagged in a few isolated points, this would easily end up on my "best of 2014 (mid-way report)" list.  As a side note, Antony Partos' unnerving score is one of the year's most original.


SACRO GRA Review - Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2014

2013, 93 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Gianfranco Rosi's Sacro GRA won the Golden Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival to everyone's surprise, particularly because it is a documentary.  Rosi's documentary takes place around Sacro GRA, a highway that forms a ring around Rome, and provides us with snapshots of some of the quirkier folk who live around it.

The film starts with a paramedic caring for a patient inside an ambulance and then introduces us to such characters as a man who is trying to get rid of weevils that are eating up his palm trees and an eel fisherman.  What shines through in Sacro GRA is Rosi's obvious affection for his characters.  It would be easy to make fun of these characters, but he celebrates their oddness.

It's a pleasure to watch Rosi's snapshots of these people.  Many of the scenes couldn't be funnier even if they were scripted.  And many more are quite touching.  What hurts the film is its unevenness.  While the vast majority of the scenes are amusing, there are a few included in the film that were dramatically less interesting and these dangerously slow the pace of the film.

For all of Sacro GRA's eccentricities, I couldn't help but ask, "What's the point?" when the movie ended.  I had seen so much that I'd liked and so much that will stay with me, but the movie didn't culminate in something profound.  There was very little to tie everything together, which made it feel significantly less rich than if it had left me with something profound or something to think about.

Overall, Sacro GRA is flawed, but it transcends its flaws due to Rosi's love for his subjects and their pure wackiness.  Sacro GRA shows the other side of Roman life - the side not shown by Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty, as Rosi pointed out during a post-screening Q&A.  As different as many of these people may be from ourselves, they're very relatable on a human level, which is why this movie is overall a success.  


Thursday, June 12, 2014

HELI Review

Courtesy of Outsider Pictures
2014, 103 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

This review was originally published on January 5, 2014.

Amat Escalante won the Best Director Award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival for his outstanding, but ghastly violent, Heli, the Mexican submission to the Academy Awards.  The film tells the story of Heli (Armando Espitia), a young man in Mexico whose life is changed forever when his young sister’s boyfriend steals cocaine from a corrupt general and the violence of the drug war starts to affect Heli personally.

Heli excels on every level.  Escalante keeps a measured pace throughout and treats the violence as if it is something that just happens – which just might be the point of the film.  The film isn’t trying to give us a message on violence; it simply is showing that it is part of everyday life.   

When Heli won the Best Director Award at Cannes, it caused uproar due to the violence depicted.  The film’s torture scenes are certainly brutal to watch and the violence does shock, but if the violence weren’t as horrific as it is, it wouldn’t have been nearly as effective. 

Despite the disturbing and out-of-control nature of the events depicted in Heli, Escalante has complete control over his film.  As mentioned, the pace is even.  And, every shot is immaculately framed.  Escalante’s careful and precise camera movements (or lack of during the torture scenes) make Heli suspenseful and gripping.  Every image is truly beautiful.

And, as a piece of storytelling, Heli is very strong – Amat Escalante also wrote the screenplay.  There are no wasted scenes and every scene builds to the next with the movie finally coming to a very moving and unsentimental conclusion. 

The acting is universally strong – I never felt as if I was watching actors.  Armando Espitia gives an especially expressive and moving performance as Heli – I cannot wait to see what he does next.

Overall, Heli is an unflinching and damning vision of life in war-ridden areas in modern-day Mexico.  A film like this speaks volumes more than anything you would see on the news since this is a personal story with sympathetic characters.  Escalante isn’t spouting statistics, he’s showing the horrors as they really are and I really commend him and his entire team for that.


Saturday, June 7, 2014


Courtesy of A24 Films
2014, 83 minutes
Rated R for language and sexual content

Review by Joshua Handler

This is a re-publishing of my original ND/NF review from March 30, 2014. 

Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child is a gutsy, sharp, and warm-hearted debut film with outstanding performances from Jenny Slate, Gaby Hoffmann, Gabe Liedman, Jake Lacy, and Polly Draper, among many others (the entire cast is great).  Described as an "abortion comedy" by many, the film is indeed a film centered around abortion that is funny.

The film follows a stand-up comedienne, Donna Stern (Slate), who sleeps with Max (Lacy), after breaking up with her boyfriend.  She then ends up pregnant and decides that she wants an abortion.

The standout aspect of the film is Jenny Slate who gives a genuine, relatable, and hugely funny performance as Donna.  Slate has a natural charm that carries the film.  I was with Donna every step of the way.  Donna is like so many people that we all know, which makes watching her incredibly amusing.  Slate nails the stand-up sequences, in particular.  They are the highlight of the film, as they're brutally honest, laugh-out-loud funny, and again, relatable.  Gaby Hoffmann (Crystal Fairy) gives a sweet, racy, and heartfelt performance as Nellie, Donna's best friend.  Like in Crystal Fairy, her unusual presence brightens every scene, and her chemistry with Slate is very strong.  Polly Draper's supporting performance as Donna's mom is unexpectedly moving.

While I wish the screenplay had played around a bit more with the typical Brooklyn twenty-something storyline and I wish some of the jokes (outside of the stand-up) had landed harder, this is a screenplay that should be praised for its honesty, smart characterizations, and the simple fact that it made a story centered around abortion funny.  During the post-screening Q&A with Robespierre, Slate, Liedman, and Elisabeth Holm, the film's producer (who also has story credit), the crew discussed how they wanted to see a movie where a woman wants to have an abortion and actually go through with it with conviction.  As they mentioned, one in every three women has had an abortion, so this is obviously a topic that many can relate to.  I give the filmmakers an immense amount of credit for telling the story of a strong woman who has an abortion and then moves on with life.

In Obvious Child, I cared for Donna and Max.  I frequently couldn't care less about central romances in romantic comedies, but in Obvious Child, I actually wanted the two to end up together.  Donna and Max's relationship is treated with respect and realism, so I cared.

Overall, while it has some flaws, Obvious Child is a smart, original piece of work that was very enjoyable to watch.  When A24 releases on June 6, you'll want to see this to say that you saw the film that announced Gillian Robespierre to the world and the film that turned Slate into a movie star.


Wednesday, June 4, 2014


Tom Cruise as Cage in Warner Bros. Pictures' and Village Roadshow Pictures' sci-fi thriller "EDGE OF TOMORROW," distributed worldwide by Warner Bros. Pictures and in select territories by Village Roadshow Pictures.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

2014, 113 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and brief suggestive material

Review by Joshua Handler

Everyone dies in Edge of least once.  The marketing for Doug Liman's film has succeeded in familiarizing us with its tagline, "Live. Die. Repeat."  For months we saw that tagline, and since the film's announcement, people were calling it a "sci-fi Groundhog Day."  To call Edge of Tomorrow merely a sci-fi Groundhog Day would be doing Edge a massive disservice, as it is so much more.  Not only is it an exciting, original action thriller, but it is an unpredictable, emotionally engaging piece that features a two standout perofmrnace from Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt.

Edge of Tomorrow tells the story of an army officer, Bill Cage (Cruise), who has never been in combat before.  Cage is dropped into battle being fought against an invading alien race on a beach.  Not long after Cage lands on the beach, he is killed.  However, when Cage is killed, he wakes up in the exact same spot he woke up in the day before.  Cage relives the day over and over again and with the help of a war hero, Rita (Emily Blunt), he leads a final effort to take Earth back from the aliens.

Emotional engagement is what's missing from so many films nowadays, particularly big studio ones.  Many filmmakers fail to realize that emotional engagement is what keeps us invested in movies and their characters.  X-Men: Days of Future Past engaged me emotionally, which meant that I cared about what happened to the characters.  Edge invested me as well.  When we're invested in characters, we want to keep watching the movie to see if they live or die.  Think about it, people have been going to the movies for over a century.  At the beginning, they went for the spectacle, but when movies became more sophisticated, they became about the characters.  During the Great Depression, people went to the movies to escape real life.  In order to fully escape reality, one must become involved in the story they're watching and the key to that involvement is the characters.  And the screenwriting team of Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth made sure to develop each of their characters so that we care.

The screenwriters keep raising the stakes and the scale of the onscreen conflict, making it impossible to determine whether Cage and Rita will actually live or die.  Going into most action films, it's obvious that the protagonist(s) will live at the end, but with Edge, I could never tell because the narrative took many unpredictable turns that threatened to kill off any character at any moment.

One of the greatest strengths of the screenplay is that we don't watch Cage relive each portion of his fight to save humanity over and over again from the beginning.  Instead, in the latter portions, we see Cage after he's been through a particular stage numerous times, which prevents the film from becoming tedious.

Tom Cruise has been one of the biggest stars in Hollywood for decades, but recently, his star has faded slightly.  The films he was choosing weren't as good.  Cruise has proven himself to be a powerful actor on many occasions (look no further than Magnolia or Born on the Fourth of July), but because the roles he's been playing have been bland, his performances were bland as well.  However, with Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise is back.  Initially, Cage doesn't want to go into battle.  He's what people would call a "wimp," not usually the kind of character Cruise usually plays.  Cruise seems to be very aware of the fact that he's playing against-type at the beginning and gives his performance a healthy dose of humor - something that has been distinctly lacking in his past few films.  Cruise gives this performance everything and by the time he can be the action hero once more later in the film, he's  charismatic and he really shines.

As Rita, Blunt is strong, as always.  Rita is the rare female action protagonist that is as brave, powerful, and developed as her male counterpart.  I've thought that Blunt was an enormously talented actress ever since seeing her memorable turn in The Devil Wears Prada, so to see her get the spotlight as a fully-developed action hero is very refreshing.  She and Cruise have very natural chemistry, which makes the central friendship between their characters compelling.

Overall, Edge of Tomorrow is a standout sci-fi film that was extremely enjoyable to watch.  It has humor, a heart, and a sense of wonder, along with two great lead performances and memorable supporting ones from Bill Paxton and Brendan Gleeson.  This film should entertain sci-fi/action fans, male and female audiences, and just about anyone looking for a fun ride at the movies this summer.


Monday, June 2, 2014

SORCERER New Restoration Review

1977, 121 minutes
Rated PG

Review by Joshua Handler

William Friedkin always said that of any of his films, he's proudest of Sorcerer, his poorly titled (the movie has nothing to do with sorcerers or fantasy), yet beautifully-exectued reimagining of the Georges Arnaud novel The Wages of Fear, which was made into a 1953 film by Henri-Georges Clouzot.  The 1953 film is a masterpiece and is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made, which is why it is frightening that Sorcerer can even hold a candle to it.

Sorcerer tells the story of a group of men living in exile in South America.  Each of them has their own reason for coming to this hellhole.  None of them have much money, so when a large American oil company offers four drivers the chance to earn a fortune, all of them vie for the opportunity.  But what is the opportunity?  To transport nitroglycerin across the South American jungle by truck - if nitroglycerin is disturbed in any way, it explodes.

Clouzot's The Wages of Fear was a film of slow-burning suspense.  Sorcerer is a film of violence, grit, and explosive set pieces.  What both films have in common is the ability to hold their audiences on the edge of their seats.  Where Clouzot's film was polished and calculated, Friedkin's is dirty and guerrilla.

Friedkin's films are known for their energy.  The French Connection's climactic car chase is a prime example.  The handheld cinematography, quick editing, and close-ups make that scene visceral.  Friedkin uses the same techniques to accomplish the opening hour of Sorcerer.  During the film's second hour in which the truck drivers are transporting the explosives, the physical filthiness of the film increases and the shot composition becomes more polished, yet the feel is no less gritty.  Everyone becomes dirtier and dirtier as the suspense increases.

Sorcerer is most famous for its dumbfounding suspension bridge-crossing scene in which the trucks must make their way across a rotted-away, rickety rope bridge during a hellish rainstorm.  This sequence alone cost approximately $3 million and endangered the lives of the cast and crew.  Every part of this astounding sequence was achieved on location without the use of reverse-screen projection.  Set pieces like this make Sorcerer pulse-pounding.  The Oscar-nominated sound used during these sequences makes them terrifying.  Every creak of a wooden board could mean the death of any of the four protagonists.

While I believe The Wages of Fear is an overall better movie than Sorcerer, there is much about Sorcerer that I prefer, namely the build-up.  While Wages' suspense sequences are more thrilling and the ending is more powerful, its first hour takes place in one village and can be too slow for its own good.  Friedkin's film, however, wastes no time getting into the action.  Friedkin tells the four stories of the four men that will eventually be driving the trucks and each one is riveting.

Overall, Sorcerer is a compelling, white-knuckle thriller with a fast pace and a strong lead performance by Roy Scheider.  The new restoration of this film is a fantastic showcase for the colorful, awe-inspiring images.  From the cinematography, to the performances, to the hallucinatory score by Tangerine Dream, Sorcerer is a bizarre beast that is best experienced on the biggest screen possible.

Film Forum in NYC is now showing Sorcerer.