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‘One Cut of the Dead’ Brings to Life a Love of Movie-Making

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A giddy, hilarious, invigorating celebration of the spirit of movie-making, Shin’ichirô Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead cleverly plays with technique in carefully crafting a bonkers story of a micro-budget film crew tasked with shooting a C-level zombie pic in an abandoned warehouse. Things start going wrong, blood starts splattering, and the ragtag group of goofballs must come together to overcome a maniacal director, bad improv, severed arms, method acting, axes to the head, untimely slips, and zombie vomit in order to come out on top and survive until the credits roll. The result is simply one of the most entertaining movies about making movies that you will ever see.

One Cut of the Dead director

It may not seem that way at first; the zaniness kicks off with some cringe-worthy moments as the small team of filmmakers attempts to nail a key scene depicting an emotional zombie attack. The impassioned director demands perfection from his leads, and storms off after tensions run a bit too high. As the rest of the comatose crew shuffles away and readies for the next take, the veteran makeup artist regales the two shaken actors with rumors of horrific events that supposedly took place at this cursed location. Before they know it, the trio is under siege by the (slowly) walking dead, and must both fight and flee in order to escape this nightmare of a shoot.

Impressively staged and shot in one long take, this opening act might catch viewers off guard with how little is explained before the action starts — it doesn’t take long to get to spurting neck bites, flailing hatchets, and the obligatory sprained ankle that makes sure the prey doesn’t easily outrun the predators. But they also might notice how awkward the whole thing comes off. Odd looks, wonky camerawork, jerky timing, and strange asides give the beginning of One Cut of the Dead a sort of quirky charm that works despite the clichés, though it certainly helps to be a fan of late-night horror schlock. Still, there’s no doubt that even the most gracious horror audiences will get the feeling that something isn’t quite right, and be wishing that there was a bit more. Luckily, the real fun is just beginning.

To spoil the events that take place after this first act would mitigate some of the pleasure derived as One Cut of the Dead begins to flesh itself out, but suffice to say that the ambitious (if somewhat clunky on the surface) opening pays off in such a supremely satisfying way that many viewers will immediately want to immediately re-watch it in order to spot little moments that they initially missed. There’s a bit of a puzzle that slowly unfolds here (though not necessarily a mystery to be solved), and it’s a delight to discover the pieces that writer-director Ueda has playfully crafted — especially once one can see the whole picture.

One Cut of the Dead van

The change in perspective that brings about that realization is skillfully handled, spacing out just enough cinematic landmarks for viewers brains to remember and chew on. Eagle-eyed fans of filmmaking will likely spot several more subtler clues (a misplaced stutter here, an off-camera chopping there), but even if suspicions are raised or the jig is up, that in no way should diminish the pleasure to be had at watching the later, greater chaos unfold. The shrieks and spurts in One Cut of the Dead do more than just elicit some sly grins; a combination of subtle slapstick, sleight of camera, and infectious enthusiasm will almost certainly produce some audible chuckles, if not outright hoots.

Much of this comedic success can be attributed directly to the cast of relative unknowns. Despite the zombie facade, One Cut of the Dead is a movie in love with making movies — no matter how small — and that joy can be found in each performance. Standouts include Takayuki Hamatsu, who injects genuine soul into the maniac director trying for once in his career to create a work that rises above merely “average.” Harumi Shuhama also manages to turn heads (in addition to bashing them) with a committed take on the surprisingly lethal makeup artist. Sure, some of the other actors may come off as a bit stiff and unnatural, but that actually adds to the hokey authenticity and low-budget charm; besides, these people are performing their hearts out, and it’s hard not to be swept up in the passion.

Still, this is Shin’ichirô Ueda’s show, and he has turned an amusing idea into the kind of movie that will inspire others to go out and make movies. From the expert crafting of its revelations to the blatant love for filmmaking’s cavalcade of catastrophes, One Cut of the Dead is a wonderful treasure that needs to be seen by anyone and everyone who delights in both the magic on screen, and the passion behind the scenes.

One Cut of the Dead opens theatrically in New York and Los Angeles on September 13th, and will also screen in cinemas across the US at a special one-night event on September 17th. For more information, please visit their website.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.

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Film

‘First Blood’ is Still the Absolute Best Rambo Film

They drew first blood.

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First Blood Review

First Blood, directed by filmmaker Ted Kotcheff, is not only a first-rate action film, but it boasts one of Sylvester Stallone’s best performances as Rambo, a sympathetic, misunderstood anti-hero suffering from PTSD. On the surface, it’s an epic survival thriller, but beneath the layers of bloodshed lies a smart social commentary that confronts the ill-effects the Vietnam War had on the home front. First Blood may not be credited as the film that skyrocketed Rambo to iconic stature but unlike the sequels, it succeeds as both a psychological thriller and a riveting actioner. Thanks to Stallone’s stoic performance and Kotcheff’s tight direction, First Blood is still to this day, the absolute best entry in the series to date.

Rambo First Blood Review

A Bit of History

For the unfamiliar, First Blood was based on the best-selling novel by Canadian academic David Morrell. The movie rights were snatched up shortly after the book’s release and for much of the decade, First Blood was stuck in production hell. The script jumped from studio to studio and underwent numerous re-writes (18 to be exact) while various filmmakers like Richard Brooks and Sydney Pollack were tasked to direct.

Stallone, at the time, was desperately searching for his next big break. Sure, he had three Rocky films under his belt but not much else in terms of a starring role. After several high-profile actors such as Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman reportedly turned down the part, Stallone agreed to star in the film asking if he could help co-write the screenplay and make his character more likable, and less “psychotic.” While many believed it to be a bad career move on Stallone’s part, First Blood went on to become a box office hit and made an action star of Stallone. The rest, as they say, is history.

I believe any success in life is made by going into an area with a blind and furious optimism.”

Sylvester Stallone

What stands out most when revisiting First Blood is Stallone’s performance. He may not be known as a great actor but here, he is perfectly cast as the Special Forces Green Beret war hero, John Rambo. In retrospect, it is hard to imagine anyone other than the Italian Stallion in the part, and his capabilities as an actor should not be overlooked. In preparing for the role, Stallone underwent intense training in hand-to-hand combat and even performed many of his own stunts resulting in several serious injuries that nearly halted filming. His dedication cannot be questioned and is on full display in scenes such as when he dives off a steep cliff or takes off in the rivetting action chase riding a motorbike. He truly is great here which is why I was surprised to learn that Stallone hated the first cut of the film so much, he tried to buy the film back so he could destroy the print. When the producers refused his request, he suggested that they cut much of his speaking parts and let the rest of the characters tell the story instead.

“Audiences are harder to please if you’re just giving them effects, but they’re easy to please if it’s a good story.”

– Steven Spielberg

The second thing that stood out most when watching First Blood is how tight the script is. Working from David Morell’s novel, screenwriters Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, and Stallone, whipped up a screenplay that understood Rambo’s appeal was not just limited to his muscular physique. Yes, First Blood is oozing with machismo but unlike the over-the-top and ridiculous sequels that made the character an unstoppable killing machine, First Blood is far more grounded and hits plenty of emotional beats with a message about how returning Vietnam soldiers had been marginalized by a divided country. What at first appears to be just another muscle-flexing ‘80s actioner soon reveals itself to be a thought-provoking feature and one of the first genre films to really tackle post-traumatic stress disorder.

In First Blood, Rambo isn’t a hero. Instead, he’s also a man who is suffering and he’s a victim of a society that has no further use for him. “He’s wounded,” says Col. Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna), Rambo’s former superior officer and the man who trained Rambo to be a killing machine. In a strong supporting role, Crenna’s Trautman (the only actor other than Stallone to appear in all three films of the original trilogy) serves as the voice of reason. He’s the only man who understands John Rambo and understands how dangerous he is. As Trautman puts it, he’s not here to save Rambo from the cops, he’s here to save the cops from Rambo.

Richard Crenna First Blood

One Man War

John Rambo raised the bar significantly high for action heroes and looking back decades later, it’s easy to see why. As Roger Ebert wrote, when John Rambo “explodes near the beginning of First Blood, hurling cops aside and breaking out of jail with his fists and speed, it’s such a convincing demonstration of physical strength and agility that we never question the scene’s implausibility”. A suspenseful chase takes up the majority of the running time, with Rambo hiding in the woods and setting traps for his would-be pursuers while shooting down helicopters, fighting off wild dogs and eventually taking on the military backup who are all armed to the teeth with heavy ammunition. As hard as they try, the one-man wrecking crew is hard to stop, and by the time Rambo arms himself with a massive M-60 machine gun, it’s obvious the lawmen stand no chance as he proceeds to rampage through town, blowing up everything that stands in his way.

Not as Violent as I Remember..

At the time of its release, First Blood was widely criticized for its level of violence and while the Rambo series has come to be associated with copious amounts of violence, First Blood is relatively tame in comparison to its sequels. In fact, the body count is quite low when compared to First Blood Part II which features 67 deaths and Rambo III which features 108 kills. It’s also worth noting that Rambo doesn’t intentionally kill anyone in First Blood; instead he uses his military training for self-defense and unlike the novel in which John Rambo is portrayed as a straight-up psychopath who kills 250 law enforcement officers without hesitation, only one character in First Blood is killed onscreen; the rest of the men are never confirmed dead. As a result, John Rambo is obviously a much more sympathetic character in the movie than he is in the novel. It should also be noted that the original edit and final theatrical release of the film is said to be extremely different. The first cut was almost three hours long and, in the end, Rambo dies as he does in the novel. The final theatrical cut is a lean 97 minutes and yes, our hero survives thanks to the producers who believed that audiences would reject the decision to kill him. With an international gross of roughly $125.2 million from a budget of $16m, the decisions to sway away from the original source material is something the producers would not regret since it allowed them to kickstart a successful franchise which spawned numerous sequels, an animated television series and a series of comic books, novels, video games, and even a Bollywood remake.

He Never Fought a Battle he Couldn’t Win

That’s not to say First Blood doesn’t feature any grisly moments of terror because it does – but most of it comes in the form of brief flashbacks in which we see Rambo as a prisoner of war being tortured – other than that, First Blood is a lean, mean thriller that consistently finds ways to raise its stakes and place John Rambo in moments of peril. And that’s why I love this film so much— unlike the sequels, First Blood is actually frightening at times and builds a decent amount of suspense while showing the effect war and bigotry can have on its heroes and the country as a whole. By the time Stallone is given a long, impassioned speech to deliver, he earns every second of it –  and while some will argue this scene is a bit heavy-handed or cliché, in my eyes, it is one of Stallone’s most effective performances.

Rambo: First Blood is an often-overlooked war classic that is anchored by Stallone’s effective, surprisingly low-key performance as well as an exceptional villain in Brian Dennehy, playing Teasle, the over-zealous town sheriff who will stop at nothing when hunting his prey. The rest of the cast is uniformly great and the cinematography by Andrew Laszlo (The Warriors) is remarkable given the hellish shooting schedule which mostly took place outdoors in British Columbia during the cold winter. Meanwhile, the iconic score by legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith is one of his very best. It may not be as grand or bombastic as the soundtrack for his other films, but in the grand scheme of Rambo’s trajectory, the foreboding score seems especially fitting. His mournful main theme “Home Coming” for example, perfectly captures the anguish of Sylvester Stallone’s protagonist, while also setting the tone for what is a depressing, albeit thrilling film.

Yes, Stallone’s gun-toting, knife-wielding antics are on full display, but the darker tone, tight direction, and raw emotion make First Blood one of the best films of 1982 and a genuine classic that shouldn’t be missed.

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‘Rambo: Last Blood’ Suffers From Action Anemia

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After 2008’s surprisingly intense and entertaining Rambo, it was hard not to be curious as to what sort of bloodbath would be cooked up for the reluctant warrior’s next outing. Alas, the familial revenge story portrayed in Rambo: Last Blood feels like it was written for another character entirely — a much luckier and stupider one — and not the cunning, lethal combatant we’ve come to know and love. Suddenly introducing a pseudo-family life and the ability to express emotions beyond morose murmuring (Rambo smiles!), the story gets too bogged down in its half-baked drama before finally remembering the reason everyone came to see a movie about a guy who used to fire two machine guns at the same time in the first place. And by then, it’s too rushed, too little, and too late.

For those looking to get to the pulpy meat of the matter, be warned that Rambo: Last Blood instead takes its sweet time telling the hackneyed story, with a few false starts just to keep action fans frustrated. So, having mowed down hundreds of people across the world (especially in Burma), John Rambo has unceremoniously returned to the good ol’ U.S. of A. in search of that peaceful life that always seems to elude him in war-torn countries. To that end, he has somehow acquired a large ranch, where he for some reason is good at training horses, and somewhat okay at being an “uncle” to the 17-year-old Gabrielle, who is ready to leave her life on the ranch with her grandmother and this grizzled veteran, and head off to college.

When Gabrielle makes the idiotic (but understandably teenage) decision to disobey the guy who actually knows what he’s talking about when he says that the world is full of black-hearted people, she winds up drugged, kidnapped, and held prisoner in Mexico by sadistic creepos who deal in the sex slave trade. Sure, Rambo: Last Blood takes a little too long to get here, but the hostage scenario is ripe for the kind of one-man assault upon a bunch of dudes who more than deserve a serrated knife to the chest that this franchise specializes in (for reference, see Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo III, and Rambo). As Rambo gets that familiar crazy look in his eye, it appears that’s exactly what’s going to happen, but writers Matt Cirulnick and Stallone have other ideas.

Audiences have grown accustomed to the stealthy, sneaky tactics of Sly’s special forces soldier, and so when Rambo — who has rarely made a misstep in his pursuits of killing folk — blunders like a naive fuddy-duddy into an obviously unwinnable situation, the result is both a jarring and disappointing setback from which the script is never able to recover. Had Rambo: Last Blood foreshadowed this critical brain fart by depicting an aging lethal weapon losing control over his mental faculties (popping some glossed-over medication doesn’t do the trick), perhaps this behavior might have flown. But the labyrinthine tunnels and later booby traps (oh yes, there will be plenty of booby traps) suggest that this guy has still got it. Except for that one time, apparently.

The majority of Rambo: Last Blood is wasted on trying to get audiences to care about Rambo’s thinly constructed relationships with people they’ve never met, as if that will somehow make the multitude of deaths to come more personal. But because of the shoddy build up — including an underused Paz Vega as an “independent journalist” also affected by this crime ring — it just doesn’t seem to matter why these thugs need to die. They’re cartoonishly evil; let’s get to it already.

Unfortunately, by the time the action arrives, Rambo: Last Blood operates as if it’s on the clock, already needing to wrap things up. Whereas now would be the time to revel in the catharsis of blood-spattered stabbings, steel poles through the head, and grisly dismemberment, impatient editing cycles through each killing as if quickly ticking off boxes. Cringe-worthy moments are cut short, never allowing the gruesomeness to sink in, to affect. Add to that a disorienting lack of proper staging that splits up the dumbest assailants ever and allows Rambo to appear out of thin air right behind nearly all of them as if he were everywhere at once, and the whole thing end’s up a confusing, unsatisfying mess.

Director Adrian Grunberg — whose much more interesting Get the Gringo knew how to use violence for shocked giggles — also hurts the effort with a bland visual style that is annoyingly claustrophobic. Seemingly unable to place his camera anywhere that might visually enhance a scene, Grunberg instead pushes in too far on the action, and winds up showing little that’s comprehensible. He carries this tendency into conversations as well, getting overly intimate with craggled faces and greasy beards, sacrificing blocking in the process. There’s not much to look at here outside the beautifully deserted, southwestern ranch setting, but do you think Rambo: Last Blood will use this intriguing, open prairie environment for a different take on jungle warfare? Even the horses don’t pay off.

This is all a shame, as Stallone still has that dour Rambo charisma when he’s not trying to be a father figure, and few characters can perform such gruesome deeds with an audience still behind them. But though the beleaguered battler at one point insists that he hasn’t changed, Rambo: Last Blood drains some of the edgy fun from the franchise. If it truly is the end, then it’s a dull finish for one of cinema’s keenest he-men.

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Anime

‘Promare’ Feels Like the Younger Brother of ‘Gurren Lagann’

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Gurren Lagann is a cult classic directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, and written by Kazuki Nakashima. It has over-the-top action, constant bravado, quotable lines, and non-stop escalation into madness. Subtly is not a common word used in Imaishi and Nakashima’s vocabulary, and luckily, fans of their work will not be disappointed with their newest animated movie, Promare. Hot-headedness (literal and metaphorical) and grandiose speeches are rampant when Promare kicks logic to the curb and goes beyond the impossible in its own unique way. What it lacks in a cohesive story, it makes up for in elaborate visuals, eye-popping action, and charismatic characters.


No matter how many times Spider-Man or Superman saves someone from a burning building, the real heroes are the firefighters; they are the ones on the ground, first on the scene. In the world of Promare, firefighters are not just stopping regular old fires; they are tasked with extinguishing supernatural infernos caused by the Burnish — humans mutated to become pyrokinetics. Called the Burning Rescue, they heroically save any and every civilian threatened by these eternal flames, doing so with advanced gear, amped-up water cannons, and hand to hand combat. In addition, they have high-tech equipment that includes drones, an armory of ice and water-powered firearms, and numerous models of mech suits.

These heroes are tasked to stop the flaming terrorists and the havoc they wreak, and in the first act of Promare, a Burning Rescue team led by a young man named Galo take on one of the most feared Burnish terrorists. They use their pyrokinesis to give themselves black, spiky armour and motorcycles that would make Ghost Rider jealous, and after a rousing success with eleventh-hour powers, Galo floats in his victory. Soon, the more militaristic, anti-Burnish organization called Freeze Force barges in and detains the Burnish, taking some of the credit and diminishing Burning Rescue’s efforts. This testosterone-driven act kindles a small spark in the back of Galo’s head, later pushing him to discover a conspiracy that suggests not all is as it appears to be.

Galo is essentially a carbon copy of Kamina from Gurren Lagann. He’s a shirtless, blue-haired, brash young man who jumps in head first to save everyone, and makes sure he looks cool doing it every time. His peers and rivals mock his intelligence and audacity, but in a rare twist, Galo immediately proves that his not simply all bark; he is also a talented rescuer, and is able to stop multiple Burnish solo. Eventually, he develops a rival with Lio, a blonde-haired, light-eyed, somewhat effeminate villain with his own code of honour. He also runs across Kray Foresight, the governor, who is appreciative of Burning Rescue and all their work. However, though Burning Rescue is comprised of many equally talented members, they are mostly pushed to the background outside of being given a few moments to shine.  

Promare takes advantage of new animation styles, and combines both hand-drawn and computer-animated designs. The vapourwave art style is bombastic and chaotic, while the angular designs of the Burnish’s powers add a little edge to the action scenes, guaranteeing that there is no wasted space on screen. The movie runs from inferno-hot to sub-zero cold with no in-between; one would expect nothing less from Imaishi and Nakashima.

Walking into this film and expecting some kind of subtly, even when it comes to the most mundane of actions, is expecting far too much. In classic fashion, the filmmakers keep making every scene more grandiose and epic. Fight scenes aren’t simply adding an extra bad guy or giving the hero a handicap; everything grows to an exponential scale. The moment you expect that Promare has reached its limit, suddenly everything goes to the extreme. But this does has its disadvantages, as subtly and clear explanations of events go by the wayside. The plot moves fast and glosses over the details of the world, history, and lore. Instead of questioning “why is this weird thing happening,” it’s better to accept that it’s happening simply “just because” — far better to just watch the bonker visuals and series of events. This pacing also makes it difficult for character growth, where relationships are created and destroyed on a whim, yet could have benefited more with extra content. It’s like the difference between the Gurren Lagann series and the movies. Sure, the movies cover a lot of ground, but they are very much more loud, operatic spectacles rather than the growing confidence of a young shy boy into a full-fledged legend.

Promare is certainly a movie that stimulates the lizard-brain neurons. It’s flashy, over the top, and outright ridiculous. The heroes and villains are operatic, and there is no nuance stored anywhere in the character’s development. But that’s why the movie is wonderful; the creators are able to depict these extreme levels of silliness, then lampoon and expand on it. There are even moments where the characters themselves have to acknowledge that this level of weirdness is actually happening. But that’s why this movie is spectacular — it’s loud, it’s big, but it’s 100% unfiltered fun.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 4, 2019 as part of our Fantasia Film Festival coverage. 

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: Best of the Fest

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The Lighthouse

Have a conversation about movies with your family or coworkers late in the year and there’s a good chance someone will break out this old chestnut: “There just weren’t many good movies this year.” It’s a statement that says more about the speaker than the state of cinema; there are more great movies in any given year than anyone can manage to see. One of the great qualities of the Toronto International Film Festival is that the massive slate of films includes its own high-profile premieres, as well as screenings of festival favorites that bowed to acclaim earlier at places like Cannes and Venice. It’s a clearinghouse of sorts that gives one of the most well-rounded glimpses into the year’s best movies. Below are the ten best films we caught at the festival.

Anne at 13,000 ft

Anne at 13,000 ft

This world premiere, directed by Kazik Radwanski, initially presents the eponymous Anne (an astounding Deragh Campbell) as a daycare attendant having her first experiences with skydiving. Though Anne is alternately blissful and ecstatic when she’s jumping out of a plane, something is amiss at work, where she’s more interested in playing with the kids than supervising them. As she starts a new relationship with a man she met at a wedding (Matt Johnson), cracks in her façade start to appear. Radwanski keeps Anne’s breakdown front and center by putting her up close in the frame; she’s on screen almost every second of its brief 75-minute runtime. Featuring an astounding, aching lead performance, Anne at 13,000 ft sympathetically captures the moment the world starts to tilt for one woman. (Brian Marks)

Crazy World

Crazy World

With an extremely low budget and hearts of gold, the Wakaliwood movement in Uganda is a force of nature waiting to be fully unleashed on the world. Director IGG Nabwana’s Crazy World is the latest film to be translated for western audiences, having been originally produced in 2014. It showcases an international action scene that desperately needs to be seen by those who love films packed with ingenuity, comedy, and a genuine love for the medium that exudes from the screen. A fever dream of martial arts and absurdity, Crazy World is the kind of gonzo-action that can’t be denied its place in the pantheon of international action cinema. Placing this as the closing night film for the Midnight Madness program only ensures it gets a bigger audience than it otherwise would have. (Christopher Cross)

A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life is inspired by the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who was executed after he refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Jägerstätter is played by August Diehl, best known to American audiences as the lead Nazi in the bar shootout in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Writer-director Terrence Malick makes a glorious return to fully scripted films after three adventurous, mostly improvised movies that divided critics. Though Jägerstätter was eventually beatified for his stand against the Nazis, Diehl and Malick don’t try to make him a saint — he’s just someone taking a stand when overcome by conscience. Malick’s searching camera makes the Austrian hillside look invitingly gorgeous and lush, turning it into a kind of paradise from which Jägerstätter is brutally snatched. His more improvised films are all essential works of cinema, but A Hidden Life is Malick’s best work since his career-defining masterpiece, The Tree of Life. (Brian Marks)

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit

Receiving the TIFF Ebert Director Award this year, Taika Waititi came out with two awards, as his latest film, Jojo Rabbit,won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award, as well — and that for a film no other director would probably consider making: a comedy about Hitler. It’s a reductive elevator pitch, which is how many will approach the film when it is officially released, but Jojo Rabbit is hardly that. Instead, Waititi satirizes hate itself, as well as all the ridiculously extreme convictions people have that hold the world back from being peaceful. Easily the most audacious film in the director’s filmography, Jojo Rabbit successfully balances the quirky humor of Waititi’s previous efforts with a dark subject matter. The result is a movie that not only will make audiences laugh, but will have them valuing the importance of laughter and niceties in a hate-fueled time. (Christopher Cross)

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers blew everyone away with his debut feature, The Witch, which ratcheted up the paranoia until there was nowhere to go but supernatural. While his sophomore feature doesn’t feature a Black Phillip-stand in, The Lighthouse trades witchcraft and Satan for mermaids and Lovecraft. The result is another film drenched in paranoia, as its two lead actors give some of the funniest, nuanced, and entertaining performances of their careers. The Lighthouse isn’t just Eggers proving he’s not a one-trick pony — it’s Eggers proving he’s one of the greatest horror filmmakers working today. (Christopher Cross)

Marriage Story

Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s newest film, Marriage Story, is partly inspired by his divorce earlier this decade from the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson star as Charlie and Nicole; he’s a renowned theater director in New York, and she’s an actress best known for starring in a popular teen comedy, though in recent years she’s starred in her husband’s productions. The film opens with a touching set of dueling montages, as both characters recite their favorite aspects of their partners — only to reveal that they’re separating, and this is just an exercise cooked up by a mediator to keep their relations positive. Driver and Johansson are at the top of their game, and Baumbach has never been better. He keeps his camera work reserved so as not to distract from his airtight screenplay and the moving performances. No film can convey all the heartache and longing that comes with divorce, but Baumbach may have gotten closer than anyone else. (Brian Marks)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire began attracting rapturous praise when it premiered at Cannes, and its presence at TIFF has only confirmed its stature. Set sometime in the late 18th Century, Portrait concerns two young women struggling against the stifling societal expectations that govern them. Noémie Merlant stars as Marianne, the daughter of a respected painter who has her own artistic talents. She has been called to Brittany to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), which her family desires in order to send it to a Milanese suitor they hope to marry her off to. If he finds her beautiful enough, then the survival of their bloodline is guaranteed. But Héloïse has no intention of sitting for a portrait, forcing Marianne to get creative. Over time, she begins to question her role in Héloïse’s future, and the two develop an unshakeable bond. Herlant and Haenel give wonderfully tender performances, perfectly playing off each other for escalating dramatic tension. Sciamma is almost clinical in the way she films the two women, yet there’s a welcome touch of the fantastic that occasionally intrudes. A love story for the ages. (Brian Marks)

Saint Maud

Saint Maud

Rose Glass’s directorial debut, Saint Maud, is a film that wowed many audiences at TIFF, even if it didn’t necessarily win any awards. Picked up by A24 soon after the festival, the film highlights a nurse in private care that goes to extreme lengths to show her devotion to God and curing the world of sickness. A slow-burn that is masterfully handled through character work, this psychological thriller takes its time to get where its going, but is never a bore while getting there. Yet, once it does make its way to the intense final act, there is little room to breathe as Saint Maud moves and moves until its phenomenal conclusion. A strong debut with a fantastic lead performance by Morfydd Clark, this is the kind of film that will have you biting your nails as it sucks you into the mind of someone passionately devoted to God and trying to save her soul. (Christopher Cross)

The Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century

With his debut feature, The Twentieth Century, Matthew Rankin reminds us of the seemingly limitless possibilities of cinema. The film documents the rise of former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in a truly bizarre style, featuring gorgeously saturated yet simultaneously faded colors that evoke the feel of early color films from the 1920s and ’30s. Dan Beirne plays a neurotic version of the future politician, who lives in perpetual adolescence and has a dark secret: he gets his rocks off with women’s heels. Rankin is clearly indebted to fellow Canadian Guy Maddin, and takes the same relish as he pulls from bits of film history while thoroughly deconstructing the traditional biopic. Rankin’s off-putting sense of humor and the movie’s otherworldly visuals will frighten off many viewers, but hopefully, it will delight even more. The Twentieth Century won the award for Best Canadian First Feature, and it’s sure to be a midnight movie classic. (Brian Marks)

Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems

The Safdie Brothers have followed up their grimy, abrasive Good Time with a film that never quite reaches those levels of tension, but is nevertheless cut from the same cloth. With Uncut Gems, the directing duo have crafted something so loud and chaotic — led by a perfectly-cast Adam Sandler — that there is no denying it’s a fun ride, even when it is not so fun to watch. Digging through the grit of loan sharks and a dog-eat-dog world, Uncut Gems is another bonafide hit by the Safdie brothers, but one that works when it piles on the misery — which it often does, rather than find a shred of happiness. (Christopher Cross)

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‘Villains’ Offers Strong Performances, But Not Much Else

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Through its first nine months, 2019 has been quite a year for movies in which characters are trapped in a house for most of the running time, and that continues with Villains, an unconventional but ultimately underwhelming entry in the horror-comedy subgenre in which four very good performances can’t save a talky, underwhelming script. 

Written and directed by the team of Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, Villains was on the “Black List” of unproduced screenplays a few years back, and it debuted at South by Southwest this past spring. Bill Skarsgård (Pennywise himself, in his normal handsome visage) and Millennial horror queen Maika Monroe play a dimwitted but loving couple who are also small-time robbers, in the tradition of bumbling wannabe criminals like in Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket. Fleeing a robbery they committed at a gas station and dreaming of a life in Florida, the pair stumble into the home of George and Gloria (Burn Notice‘s Jeffrey Donovan, and Kyra Sedgwick), where things take a bit of a creepy and violent turn as the petty crooks discover the thing (or things) that this other couple is hiding.

Overall, Villains feels at a piece with that Southern, used-car-salesman patter associated with the current prestige cable shows The Righteous Gemstones and On Becoming a God in Central Florida. Unfortunately, though it sports a good structure and all four leads perform well, Villains never quite finds that extra gear. Also, the film isn’t quite as good at managing the often-jarring tonal shifts between horror and comedy that such entries as Ready or Not and Satanic Panic were able to pull off. 

Villains has a lot of what we’ve seen in this type of movie before: long sections where one or both of the protagonists are held hostage, that slow realization that characters we previously thought were normal are far from it, and bloody violence that tends to come out of nowhere. It also has that annoying thing where movie characters who run out of gas never had any indication until that moment that they were running low. And here, unlike in most of those instances, the characters have just come from — literally — robbing a gas station. 

However, the cast isn’t a problem. Monroe, so memorable in such horror movies as It Follows and Greta, is the highlight, while Skarsgård shows himself as an interesting actor when not encumbered by the Pennywise clown makeup. Donovan, sporting a wispy mustache, plays his part over-the-top, while Sedgwick, who isn’t on screen nearly enough these days, is clearly having a great time playing a wildly unstable character. 

Villains begins with a strong, heavy metal-scored introduction, and there’s a nifty, animated closing credits sequence. A shame that both offer a much more impressive visual and filmmaking sense than the movie we just watched. 

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