reviewed by Audy Christianos

R | 118 min | January 20, 2017 (USA)

Director: Mike Mills

Writers: Mike Mills

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Studio: A24 Films

Stars: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann

Don’t you need a man to raise a man?” 
During the summer of 1979, a Santa Barbara single mom and boardinghouse landlord, Dorethea (Annette Bening) decides the best way she can parent her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), is to recruit her young tenants - a quirky self-aware freebird photographer, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a mellow puppy dog eyed handyman, William (Billy Crudup) and her son's sweet but broken best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) - to serve as role models in a changing world.

Mike Mills, who built this movie on the premise of displaying his memory and affection of his mother, demonstrates early on that he intends on delivering an appreciative love calling card for her but it wasn’t on the same inherent level that he established with the subject of his father in his stronger previous 2010 film - Beginners. In that film, he showcased an endearing personal “autobiofictional” essay much like 20th Century Women, but did it with more careful conviction through the assured eyes of his main character played by Ewan McGregor (portraying a fictionalized version of Mills). He witnesses his elderly father (played by Christopher Plummer, in an Academy Award winning performance) coming out of the closet as a homosexual at the virile age of 76 firsthand. What Beginners got right that 20th Century Women did not, was a time capture of a tender and more interesting film that demonstrated retroactively just how Mills understood his father’s desires and personal motives.

Told in an engaging, smart, graphic narrative that seamlessly blended with Mills' personal sense of quirky sentimental humor, Beginners allowed for Christopher Plummer’s performance to come alive as his character was coming out. In contrast with Benning’s Dorathea as the centerpiece of this alternative family dynamic, none of that ego or dimensionality was given to her with the same personal descriptive treatment.  Annette Benning gives us another triumphant lead performance that fills in whatever blanks of Dorathea that Mills can’t give her himself. Through Benning’s essence, Dorathea is a Birkenstock wearing, Volkswagen bug driving, Den Mother with an endless arsenal of Salem cigarettes, encapsulating the character to endearing parental hysterics. Benning is so natural in this role, that it’s almost a disservice. As Dorathea, we are never fully allowed to search the character’s persona under the same family soul searching tropes that Mills has established in prior films. Dorathea is a mixed bag. She is educated, but stuck her in ways, independent but clingy, fierce but repressively sad. She drives the action from scene to scene but we are always standing next to her. Never at any moment during the proceedings are we walking in her shoes and thus shortchanged by the most compelling aspect offered by the film: Dorathea herself. This film never gives us a thematic resolution with its characters or story. Mills tells us what happens (by way of flash forward montage narration) to everyone before we are ever allowed to discover them, cast our own judgments about them and curious to continue chasing them. Any mystery or character development is stunted and thus we are robbed of any genuine surprise from its inhabitants.

The film is served in a conjoined dual perspective by way of Dorathea’s son Jamie. Jamie’s voice and point of view is intermixed with Dorathea’s first person testimonial where one is trying to figure out the other. Jamie, played by newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann, is interesting in his own skin. He finds the right mix of tumultuous Black Flagg angst, with a glimmer of good natured, artistic skater boy cynicism who gets beat up for liking the Talking Heads. Jamie is simmering with sexual frustration for his unrequited love towards his best friend Julie. Tall, blonde and sexually dangerous, Julie climbs up every day to Jamie’s room to spend the night and just to talk. Being his friend is all she knows and sleeping innocently in the same bed is all she gives him. He wants more but scornfully settles for less because it’s better than nothing. Keep your friends close and Elle Fanning in your bed closer. 

Jamie’s main irritation and driving force in the film, however, is trying to figure out exactly who his mother is. Dorethea, ironically, is also trying figure him out, but they can’t seem to get on the same page. She recruits the help of crimson haired, blunt cut, Abbie, but that seems to be an even worse idea. When Abbie gives Jamie the same feminism books that she has read, it makes Jamie sensitive to the women around him, in particular Julie. Dorathea’s dismayed reaction to it makes him too sensitive and the feminine mystique is no longer mysterious, it’s Jamie’s adopted condition. 

20th Century Woman has a lot of visual tension mixed with a reoccurring theme of clashing emotional discord. The film’s opening scene shows an overhead shot of the idyllic Santa Barbara beach oceanfront and then cuts to Dorathea’s brown 70’s generic hatchback getting caught on fire in the parking lot during a grocery store trip. Compositional foreground of every scene is presented with bland, grey-milk colors, that are supported in the background by vibrant splashes of red and yellow. Even the film’s historical changing-of-the-times subtext knocks heads with Dorathea’s no-nonsense classicist aura versus 70’s punk misunderstood raggedness represented by Jamie and Abbie. The overarching metaphor is the last vestige of Californian individual communal bohemia ideals decaying making way for a new era of 80’s over commercialized, consumer uniformity and ubiquitous excess. 

The tension and dramaturgy of 20th Century Women bleeds through these characters, however, for all of this film’s energetic voice, it really started to flatline towards the end. Everything that felt fresh, cute and stimulating in the beginning and second act started to wane, becoming too complacent in its self-reverence and affection of its main characters. The more 20th Century Women unfolded through its introspection, it became obvious that Mills’ commentary could never truly answer itself fully from the very thing he tried to depict: can a faithful life adaption of the main character as secondary subject be fully expressed? That is when his movie suffers the most because Mills doesn’t have the answers leading up to his conclusion of parental appreciation through dramatic investigation. It is a shame because Dorathea’s adaptation is wonderfully treated and tragically flawed at the same time. We are left to our own judgments but maybe that’s the point – that we truly never know our parents. Benning’s portrayal was so enjoyably terse and honest, I wanted to get to know all of her and I couldn’t. Maybe that is what this films' legacy will become – a burning conundrum that leaves me with a personal debate that makes me question the movie’s ultimate intent by conducting my own self-imposed interpretation, like Jamie did with Dorathea and ultimately like Mike Mills did with his own mother.

3 out of 4 stars
reviewed by Audy Christianos
R | 118 min | France, Denmark, USA | June 24, 2016 (USA)  
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham 

Stars: Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves    

Runtime: 118 min

Language: English

Color: Color

When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has.

Refn’s second movie since his art-house modernist crime thriller Drive, and the languid paced oedipal puzzle box of Only God Forgives, set The Neon Demon up with anticipatory fail with its hallowed promise of its drippy style and euro-trash attitude blithely delivered with a blank cynicism of altruistic obtrusiveness. This is Refn’s second time filming in L.A. and it’s clear that Refn, like so many other directors loves the warm, cool slick blanket the city tucks behind its films, but with this latest effort, it’s quite apparent L.A. no longer loves him back. The movie which is led by soft-faced, saucer eyed Elle Fanning, follows her character Jesse, an aspiring, orphan entering into the cutthroat subterranean, lethal culture of high fashion. Jesse, in the beginning of the movie is 16, and wants to be a model but lies to get jobs. She tells a weird, gaunt, hipster photographer that she is 19. She gets the job because we need the movie to move forward; and for every audition, she gets to the front of the line, possessing a power with her look and thus is the subject inexplicable industry worship.

Of course this comes at a cost – She bumps into Jena Malone’s, necropheliac loving - going my way - make-up artist Ruby, who at first seems to genuinely care for Jesse, but looks can be deceiving. It’s not that her character, as mouthpiece proxy of Refn’s visual style isn’t interesting nor doesn’t care for Jesse, but, it’s clear Refn has better things to do as in keeping you submerged in the hot liquid sheen of his film.

The movie’s biggest fault is two folded: It purposely left vague as to what type of movie it is, along with Refn choosing to template the film as a philosophical discourse on how beauty makes the fashion world go round which, as a thematic center is a really insipid thesis. Is Refn’s film a horror? - Maybe, is it a thriller – at times, is it Sci-Fi? Only if Cliff Martinez’s score dictates it, or is it a drama? Sure if you count Keanu Reeves having to eat the cost of the broken door to Jesse’s mountain lion booty call. The trouble with this film, is that on his own merits Refn, is anything but uninteresting and definitely knows what he is doing, but there seems to be a tension within himself on giving it to us in a digestable manner. Things can look cool, but that only goes so far with a film that limps to its ungratifying climax. This movie is representational of Refn at his best and worst: giving us a sexy, irresistible, hot plate of brilliant visual gibberish.

Fashion, as one might guess is a complex thing: easy to admire, hard to intellectually grasp and esoteric in is industrial sensibility to the general public. One assumes, with fashion, that yes, it’s an industry built on good-looking clothes, skyscraper legged models, and fashion designers that are the real auteurs in telling what you want before you know. Movies that reflect this commentary, transport you into the world, exposing the machinations of how, beauty is everything, and without it, you’re an apparition. This is apparent in the comedy Devil Wears Prada, or the Anna Wintour-centric documentary the September issue about Vogue – but the thing with those movies that made the message translatable regarding the currency of beauty, that Refn didn’t get right, is that there was a tangible reason to the commodity of beauty that drove those movies, and how it can be leveraged into business, that runs deeper, meaningful beyond the vapid quandary of beauty on the outside, ugly on the inside complex. Refn decides to not prove the worth of his interest with any intellectual validation other than having a dead-ended silly discourse of beauty in the emptiest, styrofoamic way possible. 
Elle Fanning, who was 16 at the beginning of the production, and 18 as I write this, was at home with this movie. She cloyed and babydolled every scene in the best way possible, giving into the predatory threatening danger of the world around her. You can see why Refn casted her. She possessed a freshness, and versatility that I don’t know many other actresses her age could have provided. She needed to be innocent, naïve yet, dangerously conceited that plays into an ultimate school girl benevolence and when Refn decides to stabilized his music video mania, he gives uncomfortable, evocative moments built around her, but that is all they are – moments, not a film.

 Refn has the filmmaking strength to have you squirm with enticement, but there isn’t a momentum to push it with more force. I can only hope that, Refn, will stop trying to write his own films – he’s not David Lynch, and this isn’t Mulholland Drive, for if it were, I would give an honest effort on wanting to find out more, but I don’t because there isn’t anything worth salvaging. Strobe light, thumping rave music is well-meaning window dressing, but this needed narrative juice to easily down the demented abstraction at the sake of a more cohesive film structure. 

This movie could have been better, and Refn knows that. It is unforgettable on how it chose to tell its story visually, but beyond that it was too “Valley Beyond the Dull”. The film industry has a love hate relationship with Refn – he was booed and jeered his last two times at Cannes for this and Only God Forgives – but because we want more, and know that he is capable, he seems perfectly adept to letting us down for the second movie in a row, and now he is officially on notice he is too talented not to be good, even though this movie almost convinced me otherwise. 


2 out of 4 stars

reviewed by Audy Christianos
R | 1h 59min | Comedy, Drama, Romance | 13 May 2016 (USA)    
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Writers: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou

Stars: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Barden

Runtime: 119 min

Sound Mix: D-Cinema 48kHz 5.1

Color: Color

Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1

Colin Farrell stars as David, a man who has just been dumped by his wife. To make matters worse, David lives in a society where single people have 45 days to find true love, or else they are turned into the animal of their choice and released into the woods. David is kept at the mysterious hotel while he searches for a new partner, and after several romantic misadventures decides to make a daring escape to abandon this world. He ultimately joins up with a rebel faction known as The Loners, a group founded on a complete rejection of romance. But once there David meets an enigmatic stranger (Rachel Weisz) who stirs up unexpected and strong feelings within him.

“It’s no coincidence that the targets are shaped like single people instead of couples.” This line delivered dry and acerbic to our protagonist David is the perfect encapsulation of what the movie haunts over him in the short window of time he has to find a new romantic match or be turned into the animal of his choice, a lobster, for all eternity. If this sounds hilarious it’s because it should be and is. The movie co-written and directed by Greek filmmaker, Yargos Lanthimos, mixes a gut-busting cocktail of three counts sharp deadpan wit with one count of social satire. The Lobster’s promise is so unabashedly unique that if I told you that I completely understood the whole movie, I would only be lying to you. It’s intentionally ambiguous. The fascination of this film is that for the first half, Lanthimos presents a subversive world within the hotel where nothing seems to make sense. As the movie begins, David checks in and is asked formal questions to prep him for his transition. He responds blankly. Farrell doesn’t let us in on exactly what his character is thinking and thereby we don’t know what to think - he lets the movie do all the talking.

Farrell, who has reinvented himself in the past couple of years, starting with his Golden Globe award winning performance as a convincing low-rent “heart on his sleeve hitman” in the crime caper In Bruges. From there he set down a path to where he has carved himself a small role corner that really fits him well. His looks want more but he could never deliver “star turns.” In movies, however, where his looks don't rely solely on them, he shines and this is that movie. His David looks beaten. Barely making eye contact with anyone, carrying weight all in his midsection, of metaphorical despair and tax accountant passivity. Farrell performs in such a downplayed nuanced hilt that you are forced to take him seriously regardless of your preconceived notions about him. He’s that good.

And so are the other actors that share scenes with him, from the benevolent limp legged Ben Whishaw to venerable character actor/comedian John C. Reilly whose character talks with such a crumbled lisp that one would understandably lie to him just to stop from laughing in his face. The movie is at its fiercest when trapped in the hotel. Every man is wearing a blazer/tie, and all the woman suitors look like sister wives doing 50’s suburbia spring cleaning. Whishaw, to court one, goes so far as to bang his head on a table to get his nose to bleed just so he can be matched with a pretty young female companion with the same ailment. Safe to say the gag works. 

The film’s style lends to offbeat humor, with a sleepy undercurrent of lethargic mania. Action is played to madcap effect dramatizing the absurdity of it all. In the best sequence of the movie, the hotel guests are loaded onto a truck only to be dispatched to the woods to a “fox and the hound” shoot ’em up to hunt the “loaners” in the woods with the reward being for every loaner caught, an extra day is given to extend the patron’s stay.

The sequence is filmed drenched with the wonderful dreariness of Greek piano piece - Apo Mesa Pethamenos by Denai. The scenes give a melancholic wither that would make the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing ending proud. Lanthimos' direction crescendos epically with controlled deviousness of David and the other guests slashing and swaying through the trees shooting tranquilizer darts at other humans (loaners) in order to maintain their own humanity or else finding time running short on their own. It’s all done with farcical aplomb. 

With this energy and obscurity, The Lobster offers a fresh intensity with its commentary against the proxy of institutionalized social norms by hammering the theme that humans are no better than animals, regardless of man’s definition of civilization. Lanthimos could care less about telling it how he feels straight faced, as evidenced by his track record, because that would be boorishly dull and who wants that?

Regardless of how ironically funny the ideology of the movie is, you keep hoping that David will find his match, and not turn into a lobster. This is when Rachel Weisz comes in. The two demonstrate exactly what it is that Lanthimos is going for with an eccentric love connection, but this is when the movie is at its least interesting. Both actors play well off of one another, with Weisz demonstrating her natural girl next door charm and whimsy, and both stay true to inhabiting a world that makes sense only to them, but it’s presented far too conventional against that of the off-beat Luis Brunellian nonsensical offerings the film delivered in the first half of the film.

When first watching this I thought I had finally found the film I had been looking for for quite some time, and at many moments in the first half of the movie, it was that. However, like my review of Lenny Abrahamson’s academy award nominated The Room, once the movie shifted into our knowing of familiarity opposed to the unknowing of the first half’s warm but dreary moralistic macabre, the movie slightly loses its way. What saves it from not becoming truly disappointing with its conventional turn is Farrell’s lead, the movie’s art direction dripping with its satirical personality, and the loose way The Lobster presents itself while having substance to mock the world’s subjected hypocrisy on mating in its tranquilized cross-hairs.


3 out of 4 stars

reviewed by Audy Elliott
"Tomas say something you’re freaking me out.”
– Tomas' wife, Ebba 
Tomas messed up, he messed up something fierce. In the beginning of the movie Tomas put himself before his wife and children during a remarkable cascading avalanche by running away only thinking of his egotism. Once this happens, Ebba is fractured with his lack of heroism, in particular for his family, and she, for the duration of the movie, doesn’t get an explanation, or rationality as to why Tomas would flagrantly leave like he did, when stereotypically, in times of trouble, the man – the father, inherently protects those he holds dear. Not the subliminally effeminate Tomas, though: he ran as if it was murder she wrote and that avalanche was Angela Lansbury. Once Ebba decides to confront him and put her snowboot up his delicate ass, she still doesn’t receive the answer to the question she is dying to unlock. Tomas, shamed, can’t muster up that courage to answer her terse question, sitting on the couch isolated from her without any remorse for reconciliation that smells of anything less than an authentic attempt Ebba will wait for but never receive. Does Tomas not say anything because he can’t find the words? Does he choose not to say anything? Or does he know deep down inside what he did is pathetic, but because his marriage to the frazzled Ebba is at the point of no return, it’s a moot ridden situation? Tomas, doesn’t know, Ebba doesn’t know and neither do we, but that doesn’t take out the fun of trying to figure out this trivial man, in this non-trivial “what would you do?” scenario. It’s fairly clear how egregiously frustrating his actions are to everyone that encounter him, seeking answers from a man that is seeking them for himself.

Icy, quirky, tense, peculiar, vapid, passive aggressive, sly, unassumingly brilliant, suffocating

Ridiculous humor
Great usage of film space
Subtle tension and mood
Attractive framed scenes/composition
Amusing study of passive aggression among relationships
Understated screenplay
Smart writing delivered by philosophical dialog 

A few nonsensical plot points/scenes  
Decent, not great ending

This wickedly funny and precisely observed psychodrama tells the story of a model Swedish family - handsome businessman Tomas, his willowy wife, Ebba, and their two blond, pre-teen children - on a skiing holiday in the French Alps. The sun is shining and the slopes are spectacular but, during lunch at a mountainside restaurant, an avalanche turns everything upside down. With panicked diners fleeing in all directions, Ebba calls out for her husband as she tries to protect their children. Tomas, however, makes a decision that will shake the family's world to its core. Although the anticipated disaster fails to occur, his marriage now hangs in the balance as he struggles to reclaim his role as family patriarch.

reviewed by Audy Elliott
"Only now do I finally remember why I came here."
- Princess Kaguya
I’m not going to start off this review and lie to you by saying there were moments in which this movie didn’t test my patience with its overly self imposed reflection. All the bells and whistles that you normally find in a Studio Ghibli film, and to a greater extent by Isao Takahata, were in full force, but I kept finding myself checking my watch, timing its running length and wondering why is this movie, beyond its “bona fide” impactful style, allowing its narrative pretentions to stymie the film from ascending to the very atmosphere of thematic gratification that Princess Kaguya herself descended down from the beginning of the film? I somewhat took for granted what this movie offered in a reticent way that would typically make me discard a movie of this nature if it weren’t an art house Japanese animation. However, the more I watched, the more I bypassed it’s obvious visual pleasure and succumbed to the naturalistic presentation of folktale itself and how it was told - in which by the end I too, like the Princess, remembered why I came to see this movie, just as she remembers why she descended down on earth: for me it’s because Takahata has a way of not penetrating your consciousness in a direct manner, but like the glowing bamboo and the princess from it, his touch subtly affects you without you knowing it, until it’s over and that is when the movie proves its worth. The Princess or also known as “Little Bamboo” is conflicted between two worlds in which she is trying to prove to herself just who she is and what she ultimately wants. She traverses the film emotionally, accelerating in age and love in the most grandiose, personal, and exertive way forcing the movie to not only prove its worth to me, but also trying to prove itself in keeping its “Little Bamboo” in the world it created for her. The fixed reality though is that this movie has nothing to prove to either of us, it only needed to wait until we both came around to realize what we knew all along – the gentle force of its delivery is held in contempt by the very promise of our unrealized but preexisting loyalty.

Sweeping, charming, magical, reflective, celebratory, warm, chasten, contemplative

Softness and simplicity in animation style
Beautifully captures fairy tale soul
Musical score
Mostly enjoyable characters
Excellent voice acting from James Caan

Lack of energy at times in pacing
Movie’s running length was too long
Narrative at times was tangential

Legendary Studio Ghibli cofounder Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko) revisits Japan's most famous folktale in this gorgeous, hand-drawn masterwork, decades in the making. Found inside a shining stalk of bamboo by an old bamboo cutter (James Caan) and his wife (Mary Steenburgen), a tiny girl grows rapidly into an exquisite young lady (Chloë Grace Moretz). The mysterious young princess enthralls all who encounter her - but ultimately she must confront her fate, the punishment for her crime. From the studio that brought you Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and The Wind Rises comes a powerful and sweeping epic that redefines the limits of animated storytelling and marks a triumphant highpoint within an extraordinary career in filmmaking for director Isao Takahata.

reviewed by Audy Elliott
“Stop calling him boy, his name is Samuel”
– Amelia 
The boy, Samuel, is 6-years-old, and is suppressive of his mother’s energy willfully bulldozing an incorrigible co-dependency that tears down Amelia’s last shred of understandable tolerance and fading maternal love as she protects her son to the school board. Samuel, who is plagued by “The Babadook” a scary, possible figment of his imagination “boogie man” cloaked with Tim Burton’s fashion sense, has made Samuel a problem child to where Amelia can no longer keep him in school. He is so obstructive, that the administrators can’t even bring themselves to call him by his name, only referring him as “the boy” to which Amelia, drowning in her lament and frustration of Samuel, still defiantly defends her son, as if it’s a last resort, and not out of genuine motherly pride. There is love for the boy, but its withering, sucking the life out of the pupils of her bright eyes with little margin for error because Amelia is running out of options in trying to control her son’s fear of the so called Babadook. Immediately you feel her burden, as she is losing her sanity, failing to realize it’s only going to get worse, because deep down inside she will soon find out that “the boy” is the least of her problems.

Cagey, irritable, burdened, heartfelt, tight, suppressing,
lurking, shrouded, sparse

Kent’s strong, smooth direction
Polished cinematography for independent film
Pitch perfect pacing
Multifaceted horror storytelling presentation
Layered dramatic visuals 

Overly relied on built in horror movie troupes
Lackluster ending

Six years after the violent death of her husband, Amelia (Essie Davis) is at a loss. She struggles to discipline her out of control 6 year-old, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a son she finds impossible to love. Samuel's dreams are plagued by a monster he believes is coming to kill them both. When a disturbing storybook called 'The Babadook' turns up at their house, Samuel is convinced that the Babadook is the creature he's been dreaming about. His hallucinations spiral out of control and he becomes more unpredictable and violent. Amelia, genuinely frightened by her son's behavior, is forced to medicate him. But when Amelia begins to see glimpses of a sinister presence all around her, it slowly dawns on her that the thing Samuel has been warning her about may be real.

reviewed by Audy Elliott
"To die you have to be alive first."
– Banderas' Jacq Vaucan to robot 
Antonio Banderas, who has been off the movie screen radar for several years, casts the “hand to god” line as he is being painfully dragged against his will by a robot in the middle of a dry, uninhabitable desert, showcasing his latin star power in a low budget science fiction film that desperately depends on it. His character, which is in charge of investigating offlined protocol robots, is forced to leave his city, his metropolis, his home, in the hopes of finding the leader robot that doesn’t prescribe to society’s restrictions on free will or what the robot thinks that is and how it applies to its kind. Masking in the dark, our rogue robot liberator is leading all other service robots to find it in order to break away to create a utopia in a dystopic world – as its utopia isn’t the dirt, boards, rocks, or the barriers of human hatred the robot shelters himself away from, as much as the ideology it’s exodus is harkened by. Banderas’ character, Jacq Vaucan is trapped under the nomadic pale faced robots, that are making their way towards an unforgivable destination (which didn’t originally include Vaucan) but since he doesn’t have much of a crippled choice, he is now a part of this chromed out, metallic Donner Party. Unable to sustain refuge, badly in need of water, and laying heavily restless on a stretcher, Banderas is ironically in a life or death situation with the very robots he believes will kill him as they consider what the application of life is to them and their right to be defined by it. The anonymous service robot that is the focus of Banderas’ ire, exemplifies the movie’s unspoken attitude that him and his brethren are tired of "picking up society's check” when it comes to being utilized as worn out corroded after thoughts, corporate issued drones, and life sized metallic swiffer mops cleaning up dystopic future’s “hard to reach areas.” The movie, like all other science fiction films, treat its robots in an arena of endless disposable indentured servitude for the very human’s life it’s programmed to protect. The film’s reality overstates this: it marks heightened actuality that a definable class system is in place, with a tension between the “humans” (masters) and the “robots” (slaves) – property versus identity, It wants to initially treat its robots as nothing but an inanimate felt machine that animates its given orders. However, the robots have other ideas, and you can’t blame them - only blame how they were under-explored by the director. They won’t hurt you, they protect you, but it doesn’t sound as gracious as one might think. Banderas feels trapped, powerless, unable to muster resistance towards a destination that is out of his control and death as he explains to the semi-intelligent robot, looks like a great consolation prize to the one person who knows its debt by knowing the value of life itself.

reviewed by Audy Elliott
“I will be 15 soon."
– Effy
Throughout the movie, our main character – William, is a stranger in a strange land called Copenhagen; it’s in his blood, but not in his heart as he is from America. He is there to find his grandfather as a last dying wish of his father’s in handing over some personal effects that are representational of three generations of a repeated strained paternal upbringing. He doesn’t know where to begin to search. He arrives with his a best friend, whom falls head over heels for a saucy British woman, leaving William alone to navigate the beautiful, but misunderstood city with his quasi-v.i.p. club brashness. Finally, Effy comes into the picture, helping William, being his charming tour guide, and emotional cheerleader as William is trying to search out his lineage. Throughout the trip – William’s douchey act of “cool as ice” personality starts to thaw once Effy’s irritability and babyfaced “breath of fresh air-ability” grabs him, with both arms adolescently not letting go. And he hates himself for it, for she is younger than our slicked up man-child of a protagonist, but much older in ways he is not, nor could be ever without her.

Sweetly reckless, haunting, mesmerizing, terse, lovelorn, possessive, grounded, rewarding, sarcastic

Excellent cinematography
Wonderful color template of the city
The palpable chemistry between the leads (Gethin Anthony and Federikke Dahl Hansen)
Mystery/journey of the plot
Excellent characterizations of british actors playing American
Sensational lead performance of newcomer Federikke Dahl Hansen

Pacing was pushed aggressively in the beginning
At times stilted amateurish acting
Direction at times could use some more deft skill 

After weeks of traveling through Europe, the immature William (Gethin Anthony, Game of Thrones) finds himself at a crossroads in Copenhagen. Not just another beautiful European city, Copenhagen is also the birthplace of his father. When William meets pretty local girl Effy (Frederikke Dahl Hansen), they set off on an adventure to find his grandfather. Effy's mix of youthful exuberance and wisdom challenges William like no woman ever has. As the attraction builds and William finds himself truly connecting with someone for the first time in his life, he comes to this realization: that Effy is half is age.

reviewed by Audy Elliott
"I got to own it. I got to be fucking cocky."
– Dan Harmon to the camera prior to going on stage to his show Harmontown.
Dan Harmon, who is miraculously a troublefuck and self presented genius, tries to talk himself up in a brazen, belligerent showman manner in order to give his cult fans a memorable podcast show that given night in that given city. He sincerely looks into the camera with his worn out gaze, exhausted at the possibility that he has to falsely gas up his confidence in a bid to carry himself as the comedic/writing/showrunning genius everybody presumes he is. Throughout the film he is self-stricken with a certain “white nerds” burden of always having to deliver the goods to his fans, while struggling to keep his mind from unspooling out of his nose by lingering self doubt. Harmon who was let go from his brainchild sitcom ‘Community' by NBC, became lost in the proverbial barbeque sauce stain on his shirt, found himself going on a town to town tour all while doing his Harmontown podcast, and airing out “Costanza” like grievances as if every day was Festivus. Harmon is selling this misunderstood, acidic, eremitic nerd “chosen one” affliction, where he appear at times in not wanting to carry the encumbrance of all the nerds that look up to him emblematically like a level 7 titanic paladin broad sword casted on his back; however he also doesn’t want anyone else to take on that responsibility either, because like all nerds, geeks or dweebs, Harmon wants to desperately belong and with that desperately please.

Disheveled, schlubby, caustic, sappy, selfless, heart-driven, pedestrian, manic, contrived

Harmon’s direct interaction and natural ability in front the camera
His podcast co-star, Spencer, and his story
Harmon, at times, shows real empathy that drives the purpose of the narrative

Manipulation of movie’s message is sickening with insincerity
Harmon aims for a too self pleasing tone
Movie is not telling a story as much as it’s a commercial for the podcast
Dark moments seemed contrived and forced
Documentary wanted to come across raw, unfiltered, but was ultimately whiny and ungrateful

A direct, unabashed disgruntled documentary on the comedy Community’s creator and show-runner Dan Harmon, and what makes him creatively tick. After being fired from his signature creation, Harmon hits the road with his popular podcast and performs live for his cult-like fan base across the country. Known for his wit, cynicism, and disarming vulnerability, his podcast Harmontown finds Dan Harmon bathed in the adoration of his fans as he confronts his personal demons and tries to breathlessly come out on the other side untethered by the very genius that strangles him. 

The movie is about a self created platform for Harmon to bellow out his nerd Braveheart war anthem about his corporate studio grievances and past mainstream failures, while still trying to find his imprint in an industry that mostly doesn’t know what to do with him. Dan Harmon was the creator of a half hour sitcom on NBC called Community that focused on several underdog students at a community college that band together week after week to uplift themselves while assigned to the meta neurosis of the man that created its world (Harmon), a self anointed underdog. After being seen by NBC’s Executive brass as “difficult” to work with, Harmon was canned by season 4 from his own creation, in which Community experienced a “Lindsay Lohanian” drastic creative nose dive. With nothing to do or people to slovenly piss off, Harmon decided to start out with a podcast that gave him a platform to rail against his self-perceived network injustices off his doughy chest, plus immediately stay in direct contact to the very subculture congregation that worships him. There are eerie parallels to 2011 Conan O’Brien’s “Can’t stop" tour that is inadvertently plagiaristic – O’Brien took a hiatus after being fired by the same tone deaf corporate deathwatch (NBC) due to O’Brien being too irreverent, and not the perfect toaster salesman charlatan compared to Jay Leno. Harmontown mirrors, unwittingly, the same kind of presentation and story, but without him being the subject nor delivers the focus to push through his next lazy unmotivated move nor with any backbone. Harmon wants a job, just not necessarily the one networks dangle over him. In this movie he is not so much the mayor of Harmontown as much as he is the town’s whino, sleeping on a park bench, using his old failed news clippings as a slip cover. Of course this comes across harsh, but that is how Harmon wants you to see him. He doesn’t want you to love him unless he allows you to, by which he keeps control of his image of a man cursed by his talent, when really it’s his insecurities.

One of the more natural takes was to study Harmon’s character through his show, where you see him perform and put on “an act” to his audience, but keep the real façade with the viewer. On stage, he uses his pig pen deprecation as a force for entertainment, but the viewer is savvy in knowing it’s just for self-inflicted shits and Pagliacci like sad giggles. Up close and personal, we are simultaneously rewarded by watching Harmon obscenely obsess over each show in every town leading up to the opening minute, at which point Harmon takes over and the podcast is abrasively transformed into a tele-evangelized experience for the comic con sect. Harmon plays the role of our disheveled Joel Osteen. Harmontown is his platform, and its fans are his congregation. Harmon always seems, on the surface at least, to faintly acknowledge the fans true “gee whiz” graciousness, as not to let someone know he is affected. There is a stray puppy quality to him where no matter what he attains in his career he is always looking for acceptance.

The movie presentation is routine and pasty white pedestrian. Editing in the beginning sloppily fits in cursory snippets of his early career without delving into it with much of an investment – as if he remembers, but doesn’t want to “talk about it." There is an undercurrent tone handed to us, with a sorry mix of self detonated montage of failures, into current scenes of him still looking for the next big thing, but not having the interest to find out if it’s truly out there. Just like his stories in Community, he is always looking for ways to push people away, or forcibly convince someone that his “genius” is the very debate of blessings vs. curse, but really – it touches of mawkish insincerity as if Harmon wants us to believe it, even though he is not sure he does. It’s glaringly apparent about midway through that he wants to push the viewer away with a fickle recklessness, coming back only when he’s ready with nails and hammers in hopes of repairing the narrative destruction just in time to feel pleased with himself for looking out for the voiceless nerd. Sorry, Harmon, it’s too little and all too late. The movie for the most part, is done with a sniveling darkness, that at times spills over turbulently on stage thereby train-wrecking whatever good will the movie tries to stabilize between its good nature intensity, and Harmon’s brittle, fragile ego. There are methods to his madness in a very young Frankenstein kind of way, hodgepodging his comedy and dark bravura onto anyone within ear shot. It’s quite apparent that he holds a magnetic resonance over his fan base, with a Mussolini dictatorial smirk, like a comedic communist in cargo shorts kind of way. But that pomposity falls on deaf ears and is unseen by nerd blindness. He is the messiah to a generation that doesn’t need to be saved. 

Harmontown’s main theme throughout the documentary is that the Super Nintendo nerd subculture is becoming mainstream pop culture with an ever gaining pop comic velocity. It’s that burgeoning rocket fuel of a movement that gives Harmon permission to even have a voice to begin with. It’s the schlepped out loser tone of voice that makes you sick, with cloying messages about how nerds are being held down and he, their ever fighting Joan of Arc, ready to be burned at the mainstream stake for their collective sycophancy. Harmon has to realize, that no one is asking him to roll his own dungeon master dice and fall on his imaginary dragoon spear. He carries his own self infliction into the story that frankly we could do without for the betterment of the viewing experience. I’m not interested in him beating himself up while also tearing down everything around him for the pursuit of his artistic goals. The true narrative voice this movie needed, is how Harmon persevered, wrote shows, performed comedy and show ran all on his own terms – that is the underdog story that we want. That is the story that needed to be told – but it went missing like Harmon’s self confidence. There were true results in the film from its testimonials, from its fans, and at times from Harmon himself, but more often than not it would come across too “stagey” to even get the melodramatic moments correct. The film, to its detriment, continuously struggled to find the line between self loathing and cloying: developing a recipe for a sensitive sullen Molotov cocktail.

Harmon does have moments of genuine altruism, which many come in the form of the discovery of his fellow podcaster Spencer. Spencer’s role in Harmontown is to administer the board game “Dungeons and Dragons” as the omnipotent dungeon master, to such great results that he invariably became a permanent co-host for Harmontown. With that, Spencer has developed a fan base, and is clearly a little brother of sorts for Harmon, as Harmon actually wants to put him under a padawan like mentoring program (even though Yoda may argue he is too old for the Jedi ways). It’s reiterated throughout the film, that Spencer is self admittedly lucky for being on the receiving end of his once in a lifetime opportunity to go from his mother’s basement to Harmon’s penthouse. The dynamic screams a little Jay and Silent Bob, but it’s a real relationship, in which Harmon proudly bequeaths onto the young dragon master. No matter what heartstrings this movie aims to entice or manipulate, there is a complexity, haunting Harmon that hazily smacks off in a lovable turn the other cheek kind of way. This is how he wants to be seen with the tug of war of emotional and creative animosity that confounds Harmon’s voice towards borderline silliness and trite. This movie is crippled with its hackneyed “the sun will come out tomorrow” deliveries that stalemate on underwhelming autopilot.

One of the lesser inspired scenes, is during a stop in Nashville, Harmon has too much to drink during a live taping. Some hillbilly gives him his jar of moonshine, and Harmon, with a great delight and forceful thirst, laps it up to the point of hysterical oblivion. The next day, he listens to the post production playback, and from his unkempt point of view is fully distraught over the whole incoherence of the previous night’s performance. He decides, that in order to construct his Mea Culpa, and make it about himself, without calling attention to it, the next night's participants get to air their personal grievances in front of the audience to bring some sort of cleansing that would make an A.A. meeting look like parent/teacher night. It’s insulting to watch in the most unabashed hacky way possible. He wants the scene to come off like he is making amends, but he fails to realize he is cheating the viewer who are there to focus on him and not the problem of his fans. The scene crystallizes the many selfish missteps that hamper Harmontown from being a good ride into his mad scientist genius brain, instead choosing to focus on the podcast as a wobbly crutch, in his search for the eternal entertainment industry pat on the back to replace current “kick me” sign.

As you can see its Harmon that gets in his own way again. It comes across as self diluted stinky cologne of washed up doubt that he wears in to gain your empathy. It's over-inflated heart meets wrinkled up, emotionally frayed sleeve. He proclaims that he is not an improviser – but that is not the issue with Harmon, from a pure comedic standpoint – he wants to be Robin Williams but isn't. There is no real torment with Harmon except the one he puts his closest company in. He is making mountains out of neurotic molehills. He is walking into a crowd that is there to see him, playing with house money, but is insistent to have this challengeable, hypnotic show, that will get the better of him, until he has to tap into some reservoir of semi-genius to save himself in giving the people what and who they came to see. 

As far as documentaries go, this one had very little to say in terms of a fascinating character study or a story with real adversity. Harmon is really not that fascinating of a person, but does have talent: just not the level of talent he thinks he should be or tries to sell himself to be, which is the very damaged, grief stricken writer, redeemable no matter how much of an asshole he wants you to view him as. Like other documentaries I have reviewed, Harmontown doesn’t have the focus or professional perseverance of Conan O’Brien’s Can’t Stop nor the witty self assurance of George Takei in To be Takei. Harmon takes pleasure on being the kid; if he can’t play the game by his own rules, he will take his ball and go home pouting which is fine, because he, like his talent, and the metaphorical ball, is a dime a dozen. Industry creatives are willing to take a chance on the next Harmon minus the hurt locker self-detonating bomb bullshit that comes with a person like him. He will never have to fear his self determination because he always wants to be the last person picked since he is most comfortable living down to expectations than living up to them. Like a rural, desolate town, without any life or charm, on the landscape of the comedic interstate, you too will drive right past Harmontown without looking back in the rearview mirror, exactly where this documentary belongs. 

2 out of 4

TO BE TAKEI (2014)
reviewed by Audy Elliott
"It's okay to be Takei."
Yes it is. The man, the myth, the attainable George Takei, who came into living rooms and theaters as Mr. Sulu, had the keen awareness, taste and adaptability skills that helped him make a leap from only a Gene Roddenbury pop culture phenomenon foot soldier, to become in his own right, a millennial pop-culture zeitgeist. The above quote was triggered as a comical but firm response to a then story of the State of Tennessee trying to pass legislature to ban its public school students from officially using the work “gay” to reference any and all school lessons to entrench that it was not alright, in their view: to be born of that orientation and lifestyle. Takei, who is fiercely gay and proudly out, decided with shrewd acuity, jumped on the marketing opportunity and suggested that instead of using “gay” to just use “Takei”! And as we know by demonstration of his over 5 million Facebook followers, it’s just not okay, its really damn good.

Campy, devilish, light hearted, balanced, truthful, determined, politically astute, complex

Takei’s voice is syrupy good
Movie’s infectious delivery
Sincere message
Movie’s Narrative Spirit

Unsmooth emotional transitions
Flat in pacing during key parts
Focused too much on the husband as part of the subject
A missed opportunity to uncover more about his involvement with ‘Allegiance’ production
Weak technical direction at times

A keen documentary that encapsulates over seven decades of the life of actor and activist George Takei who has boldly journeyed from a WWII internment camp, to the helm of the starship Enterprise, to the daily news feeds of five million Facebook fans, while also showing George and his husband Brad on the star's playful and profound trek for life, liberty, and love.

Premiering on January 18th at the Sundance Film Festival and picked up by Starz Digital Media Distribution, the documentary shows the career of Star Trek actor George Takei, and paints a well-rounded portrait of a then young Japanese-American who at first survived Internment camp and became a rare Asian American movie and TV star  (when it was truly difficult) with one of the most iconic pop culture sci-fi franchises of all time. The documentary directly puts Takei right in the center, where by his own admission is where he always wanted or needed to be. The film focuses on Takei’s personal and professional life and how both worlds would clash with ferocious tension, leaving Takei to make some hard choices in the face of post-modern racial stereotypes exercised by Hollywood, that would threaten at times, the very talent that got him there in the first place. You are forced, when first watching the film, to take notice how he deftly reintroduced himself to millennials, onto geeky pop culture children of his original fanbase, and did it on his own terms without having to ungraciously pimp himself using the star trek brand. The appreciation of Takei is that for longevity’s sake compared to his star-trek companions there are no determinant signs he is slowing down. There is an unknowingly refreshing complexity that Takei slides back and forth from when telling his story with a punchy nuanced zeal.

The movie's emotional intonation is an interplay between Takei’s syrupy golden voice and how it’s delivered pressingly tight between his multifaceted persona of comic pop ingénue and a sharp booming advocate. He demonstrates an ability in this movie to relish how people view him and how he perpetuates it to a proud delirium. Crossing over movie star currency between Howard Stern, and socio-political lectures is the take-away with him. He is layered but still approachable. He is complex but understandable. He is psychologically cutting in the most honorable, best intended, and warm way. There are many shades of the man that create the whole experience.

Most of the punch from the movie comes from an exaggerated simmering beef between Shatner and Takei. It’s a cross between little brother wanting to ankle bite big brother's crossover template, but also a dismissive reticent coldness by Shatner as he recoils and denounces any relationship with Takei, even though he informs us by participating in an interview, sans gun to head. You never know with Shatner, as he is not a man, he is an ad-lib. Takei seems genuine in his perplexing animosity, as what you see with him is what you get, leaving you satisfied. You never question where you stand with Takei, and that is his reverence. To the movie’s credit, it doesn’t “mockmentarize” the alum beef by choosing to write it off like a Takei deprecated giggle. The movie’s heart was ever present, but there was nothing to drive the presentation through its more flaccid moments. A lot of attention is given to Takei’s husband, and at first, introduction is given where he isn’t just the bad cop to Takei’s good cop but more like Takei’s co-star. This is where he should have stayed, playing off his famous spouse. However, his background was overexposed and fleshed out. I really didn’t mind him and the movie didn’t suffer from his testimonial, but let’s stay focused. I’m here for Takei, not for him. Takei, for mainstream audiences really need this movie to find out more about who he is and what separates him from the possible ignorant perception of him being a caricature that can come from long-term association/relevance of Star Trek. So, this film needs every opportunity to show the side of Takei that we don’t see past the gratuitous “whatever-Con” appearances he cash grabs a signature at. The entitled focus of the husband gets in the way stopping the momentum dead in its tracks.

Takei has many sides that operate agreeably. He is part politician, part civic contributor, part activist, but also part comic book (literally). It all comes together in his personality as real, and convicted, but the direction of the film mishandled the transition of Takei’s serious more referential professorial moments into his more relaxed on-stage intimate self. The movie could have found a better more nuanced way to shift its emotional gears back and forth a tad more gracefully. Because of this editing clash, the documentary at times suffered in spirit. The subject is a whirling dervish of delight and brings a wonderfully bloated resume with him. Perfectly encapsulating it from moment to moment is not an easy task. Beyond Takei, his career arc and his matinee idol baritone energy, I needed something more to drive the movie home, wanting some tension and conflict of this man beyond what only we see him or people like his sexual orientation afflicted from on MSNBC. There is a casual focus on Takei’s semi-autobiographical musical play called “Allegiance” which re-tells the detriment of many Japanese-American’s families’ plight surviving internment camps. I firmly believe that if the movie incorporated this aspect more intently of Takei’s involvement and how he was so instrumental in inspiring its producers to formulate the idea around his experience. It would had been a good additive plot to follow him in the little known play towards a glorious defining opening show, fleshing out his acting process, his craft and the goal of possibly the big leagues of Broadway. Perhaps then we would have had something. Overlay this with his pop-culture phenomena, personal confession, activist endeavors and his history - we would have had something virtuously well-rounded. I feel this element could have lifted the movie out of the lesser slumbering parts to keep the momentum from stumbling at the end.

In this scene, Takei and his husband Brad, go for a walk through a park. What starts out as an easy interview scene between spouses, you get a hint of each other’s criticism of one another, albeit slight, but it’s a telling moment. You can see that Takei, in one beat, is uncharacteristically uncomfortable with showing intimacy on screen, shifting to admonishing his spouse to then settling in pragmatism regarding his past when choosing to closet himself at the expense of his acting career.

This movie is colorful like a box of Crayolas; you are enlivened by Takei’s voice and the message that gloriously comes out of it. However, historically, the genre of documentaries at heart is an exposure of something you don’t know or just slightly know and want to know more about. Teach me something. And this does but not to the point where it can justify a trip to the theaters. This documentary didn’t do that outside of its superficial paint by numbers storytelling. The movie is at its strongest on what experiences created and shaped him, but by the time we meet the celebrity “brand” that we are familiar with now, there was something that left me wanting more especially towards the lethargic end. Technical issues aside, he is very inspiring, enjoyable and entertaining and to a greater extent so is the movie – for he is the movie. When it’s good: its tongue meets cheek meets understandable righteousness, but when it’s not good it’s because there is also a pedestrian directional point of view which mundanely cripples the exciting beginning energy it establishes. It’s definitely good to be Takei, but the movie’s technical direction, uneven transition, weak directional touch and lack of narrative drive towards the end is definitely not.

2.5 out of 4