2016

Review: Stray Bullets (2016)

Stray Bullets
2016

© Screen Media Films & Glass Eye Pix

© Screen Media Films & Glass Eye Pix

Directorial debuts often prove to be some of my favorite movies. There's something truly exciting about seeing a new and upcoming talent, and it generally manages to strike a solid chord with me. Over the past few years, I have made it a mission to keep first-time directors on my radar in the hopes of finding someone new to follow. More often than not, these movies come from filmmakers in their twenties and thirties, but once in a blue moon, we can find someone that predates them all. That's the case with Jack Fessenden, the teenage director of Stray Bullets

The film follows Ash (Asa Spurlock) and Connor (Fessenden), two friends making their way into the woods across town to clean out Ash's father's trailer. Upon reaching their destination, however, the find that a trio of thieves on the run has taken to hiding. Cody (James Le Gros) and Dutch (John Speredakos) quickly take the boys hostage in the midst of fretting over their boss Charlie's (Larry Fessenden) mortal injuries. Ash and Connor soon learn that the men's car has broken down, leaving them stranded in the middle of the woods. In the hopes of ensuring their safety, the boys offer their assistance in acquiring medical and mechanical supplies to aid the gang in their getaway. 

I gravitate towards directorial debuts for a few reasons. First, they give an audience the chance to see an unknown artist experiment with their own personal style. So many seasoned directors fall into their set routines which makes new takes all the more exciting. While Fessenden isn't necessarily bringing anything new to the table with Stray Bullets, he definitely exudes a clear confidence behind the camera; you would simply never believe that a sixteen-year-old directed this flick. Jack grew up on film sets with his father and learned from him first-hand. With that kind of background and personal education, I believe that Jack may just be getting his feet wet with this one. 

The kid does need a little bit of work in his writing. Oftentimes we see feature debut directors working with their own screenplay, and the same goes for Stray Bullets. So many of these feature debuts are passion projects for the filmmakers, and when everything clicks, we can see the passion ooze off the screen. Unfortunately, I think Fessenden's age shows glaringly in some of this script's miscues. While there's a great skeleton of a story here, it just doesn't have the meat on its bones to be a fully-fleshed experience. The story itself proves rightfully simple, but the lack of depth and overall clarity raise a few red flags along the way. We get a few scenes that stray from the storyline that almost feel like an attempted subplot that was never fully realized; with a scant eighty-three minute runtime, I still felt that those particular scenes could have been left on the cutting room floor. I think that Fessenden will be learn and craft his writing with time, but this is still a valiant effort for a first-time writer. 

The cast does a decent job keeping pace and pulling what they can from the muddled screenplay. Young Jack and Asa Spurlock prove to be the weaker elements of the cast, but their adult counterparts aren't exactly revelations either. The elder Fessenden hams it up as the mortally-wounded leader of the gang, and he's flanked by the semi-convincing badass Cody (Le Gros) and the somewhat dimwitted Dutch (Speredakos). Although the individual performances don't amaze, their chemistry works. We're given a look at the aftermath of a heist gone wrong, and we do see the characters begin to flesh out enough to make us care about them by film's end. Truthfully, the story revolves around the trio rather than their teenage counterparts who just happen upon the situation and prove to be observers more than anything else. 

Ultimately, Stray Bullets proves to be a flawed but fine debut for this young director. Teenage directors don't come along all that often - the first one that comes to mind is Emily Hagin's low-budget zombie flick Pathogen - but what they lack in experience their certainly make up for in passion. I can't quite say that Stray Bullets has flashes of brilliance, but a lot should be said about Jack Fessenden's skill behind the camera. This may not be the best movie, but it certainly gives me hope for Fessenden's future. 


Review: Patriots Day (2016)

Patriots Day
2016

© Lionsgate

© Lionsgate

In today's Hollywood, we have seen a seeming abundance of films based on true-life stories. I have groaned at the constant claim that a movie is "based on real events," and I spend the rest of the film trying to decipher whether the story being presented is factual. We have become so inundated with these real-life stories taking creative and artistic liberties that it proves incredibly refreshing when we finally get one that seems to be authentic in its portrayal. 

Patriots Day presents a dramatic retelling of the events of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the ensuing manhunt in the days that followed. Centered somewhat around an embattled detective (Mark Wahlberg) and an FBI terrorism specialist (Kevin Bacon), the story delves into the grittiness of the chase to find the bombers before they can strike another target. 

My initial reservations with the concept of Patriots Day stemmed from the recency of the portrayed events. Any time a real-life story rushes to the big screen, it leaves itself open to claims of cashing in on recent headlines or, in this case, a tragic event. Wahlberg and the rest of the film's producers, however, seem to have done their due diligence in crafting a film that presents the story accurately while paying tribute to the victims, the first responders, and the law enforcement involved rather than falling into the trap of creating an exploitative piece. 

Patriots Day marks Peter Berg's second true tragedy tale (following Deepwater Horizon) within a calendar year, and he does his best to bring an effective thriller to the screen. Between those two films and his 2013 hit Lone Survivor, Berg may have found a niche for himself as the go-to guy for true-life, action-oriented stories. This one offers a good amount of tension throughout, doing enough to keep the audience invested as the events slowly unfold. The scenes of the bombing itself prove to be the best-executed moments of the film. Despite seeing news reports at the time, I never truly understood the gravity of the situation. The scene takes us into the very real terror of the moment and its immediate grisly aftermath. Let the feint of heart be warned: the scene does put forth some graphic imagery. It proves to be a visceral moment that left me absolutely breathless. 

Unfortunately, the rest of the film falters a bit, falling into a somewhat tense slog. While certain moments of the manhunt work, the constant bounce between the eclectic set of characters and storylines make it difficult to latch onto anything concrete. I'm not saying that the movie itself is difficult to follow, but I found it nearly impossible to relate to - or even like - any of the characters in the second and third acts. 

This all comes despite the principal cast marking a fine set of performances that almost keep us grounded within the story. In addition to the aforementioned Wahlberg and Bacon, we have a slew of big names featured - John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, and Michelle Monaghan round out the most familiar faces - yet its some of the lesser-known but just as crucial characters that manage to stand above the rest. Credit to Jimmy O. Yang and Alex Wolff who offer some of the stronger performances; I'll be keeping my eyes out for them in the future. 

The real glaring issue with Patriots Day unfortunately comes with its main star. While I believe that Mark Wahlberg has shown a wider range of emotional depth in his Peter Berg collaborations - he had an amazing breakdown moment in Deepwater Horizon, for example - he definitely proves to be a disservice to this particular film. That's not to say he doesn't give a good performance; rather, Wahlberg's real-life, pro-Boston persona leaks too heavily on-screen and makes him more of a caricature than anything else. Marky Mark has become so synonymous with the city of Boston that his constant overt affection for Beantown starts to come off as obnoxious. I'm all for hometown loyalty, but in this situation, I think Patriots Day would have been better served leaving Wahlberg only in the producer's chair. 

Despite its flaws, Patriots Day did manage to win me over with its epilogue that featured a number of interviews with the real people who had just been portrayed on-screen. These testimonials tug at the heartstrings and provide a genuine Boston flavor that none of the cast could provide. It's a nice little bow on an above-average flick, and it shows that the filmmakers certainly did their best to keep Patriots Day from becoming exploitative fare. 

Review: Blue Jay (2016)

Blue Jay
2016

© The Orchard

© The Orchard

My first introduction to Mark Duplass came a few years ago as I double-featured Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed and Duplass's own The Do-Deca-Pentathlon. The two films offered an interesting insight into the man's résumé: the former showcases his acting prowess while the latter illustrates his abilities as a writer and director. While the two films didn't do quite enough to make Duplass an immediate must-watch individual, they certainly forced me to keep an ear to the ground. Then came 2014's found footage gem Creep, which once again allowed show off his acting chops in the midst of a story he also wrote. This moment cemented him as a true under-the-radar force, so when I received a number of recommendations about his newest venture, I readily took a chance on Blue Jay

The film centers around Jim (Duplass) and Amanda (Sarah Paulson), high school sweethearts who happen to cross paths in their hometown's grocery store. After an awkward initial reaction, the two agree to sit down for coffee. They immediately begin to feel more at ease with one another, venturing down memory lane and recanting their adolescent exploits. As their day slowly turns to night, however, some long-simmering emotions start to boil to the surface, forcing the two to face their life's greatest regrets.

While first-time director Alex Lehmann certainly deserves some credit for his ability to craft a quietly-tense atmosphere that leaves you hanging on the characters' every word, Blue Jay succeeds as a result of Duplass's screenplay. He bore the story out of a simple idea - two former lovers meet later in life - but Duplass has managed to weave an intricate and dialogue-based script that fleshes out the characters in realistic fashion. His story allows for organic development, giving you small bits of information about both Jim and Amanda over the course of the film. This slow burn builds to an emotional third act that includes a bit of a twist I never saw coming. Duplass does the groundwork from the film's very start that ultimately allows the finale to ring as true as the characters he creates.

To complement his screenplay, Mark Duplass puts forth arguably his best performance to date as a broken man struggling with long-subdued feelings. The emotion he brings to the character offers a complex individual attempting to hold onto and process years-old emotions in the midst of his immediate surroundings. We see his walls begin to break early in the film. We see an internally-broken man trying his best to get through every day, knowing that the best parts of his life have seemingly been lost. Enter his former flame, and a new stock on life appears on the horizon. Duplass's performance would be wasted were it not for the incredible work from Paulson. She stands toe-to-toe with her co-star, maintaining her composure for a little longer before falling for the whims of nostalgia. As the two reach one another's emotional level, the true power of their performances break through. Their characters feel real and relatable, giving them a true connective power to the audience. 

At just over eighty minutes, Blue Jay offers a streamlined but engaging story that doesn't overstay its welcome. Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson make the characters their own and present relatable individuals with emotional depth rarely seen in mainstream films today. With this film, Duplass continues to prove himself a force with which to be reckoned. I will anxiously await his next foray, be it as actor, writer, or director. He has proven to be adept in each. 


Review: Suicide Squad (2016)

Suicide Squad
2016

© Warner Bros.

© Warner Bros.

Earlier this year, DC Films started its serious attempt at creating an expanded universe to combat the one that rival Marvel Studios already has in place. They kicked things of with the critically-maligned Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in preparation for their upcoming Justice League films. I sat through that two-and-a-half hour slog, actually finding myself somewhat drawn to the storyline and to the characters we have seen portrayed on-screen time and again. I ultimately blasted the film for its climactic bait-and-switch which took away any possibility for DC to make a bold statement within the superhero film genre that would have stood in stark opposition to the seemingly happy-go-lucky Marvel fare we have seen over the past eight years. One of the key crosses that DC bears in the creation of its films is this idea that they must be the darker alternative to their more light-hearted counterpart. As a result, their films have lacked a true sense of fun and adventure, but the studio hoped their newest installment might be the one to break that dreary mold. 

Suicide Squad opens with Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a military operative attempting to craft a plan for keeping America safe from future meta-human threats in the wake of Superman's death. She plans to assemble a team of dangerous criminals forced into taking high-risk missions on behalf of the government. The team, emotionally led by an elite hitman known as Deadshot (Will Smith) and a deranged psychiatrist named Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), must fall in line behind Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) as an ancient menace begins terrorizing Midway City in a plot that could spell doom for the entire world. The group of hardened and seedy individuals must then decide whether their own personal proclivities overpower the needs of the rest of the world before time runs out. 

Let's just cut to the chase: Suicide Squad is a terrible movie. I'll get more into the specifics in just a moment, but the film simply illustrates a summation of cataclysmic factors that generate one of the worst filmgoing experiences I have seen in quite some time. Below-par movies oftentimes manage to have some sort of silver lining or saving grace, but Suicide Squad earns the rare distinction of being an all-around stinker. Let's figure out just what fails, shall we? 

If a film can only be as strong as its screenplay, then Suicide Squad must have been made with particle board. I'll discuss the issues and concerns with the movie's cast and stylistic choices momentarily, but every aspect of the film ultimately suffers as a result of an abysmal script that simply doesn't allow the actors or the story any room to breathe. The film opens with an overly long introductory segment in which Viola Davis's character runs through the members of her brand new "bad guy" task force. These rapid-fire cut scenes play like the lineup introduction during an NFL broadcast, complete with a list of stats and misdemeanors for each and every character. Rather than allowing the audience to meet the characters organically over the course of the film, we are given a rush-cut of their personas and ideals right from the start in the hopes that skimming through these introductions will allow the main storyline to hold the film's focus. The film's opening feels sloppy and rushed, but I hoped that the lack of attention to these introductory moments might give way to a decent storyline filled with the lighthearted humor that a DC film so desperately needed. What we get instead, however, is a plot so ridiculously muddled that it seems as though the characters themselves can't keep it straight. 

The cast does its absolute best to elevate itself above the atrocities the screenplay presents them, but there's only so much an actor can do with awful material. Will Smith plays himself here, bringing a little bit of his personal flavor to the criminal-with-a-heart-of-gold character we have seen so many times before. Margot Robbie portrays a perfectly adequate Harleen Quinzel, and to her credit, she seems to be having the most fun with her character. Aside from the lack of true characterization, my biggest gripe with her performance lies in the fact that her accent slipped on more than one occasion throughout the film. As you may have heard, Jared Leto has infamously taken on the Joker persona, portraying the character on-screen for the first time since the passing of the late Heath Ledger. All of the marketing for Suicide Squad played as though the Joker would be a central figure throughout the film, but in the final cut, he's simply resigned to chasing after his honey bunny Harley. In the few scenes in which Leto actually appears, he hams it up, leaving his performance feeling over-the-top and borderline pretentious. Reports have surfaced that a number of his scenes were cut from the final film product, and perhaps a more fleshed-out Joker would have presented a stronger performance. As it currently stands, however, it feels more like piecemeal than anything else. We can round out the stars of the film with Viola Davis, who brings a seemingly strong character out of the muck. Her screen presence alone makes her a minor shine in the film, but everything else just leaves her star power dwarfed. 

The remainder of the cast rests on a spectrum ranging from under-utilized to absolutely atrocious. Jay Henandez's Diablo just might be the film's best-written character, receiving an actual arc over the course of the story. In contrast, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje's Killer Croc might receive the slightest amount of background information; all I gathered about the character was that he is some sort of mutated individual who now eats other humans for fun. Jai Courtney shows up and actually plays against type (in that his normal "type" is stoic and dull), but I never really got a sense of his character's motivations. Cara Delevingne plays both sides of the field, but that simply means she offers her awful performance to both the good guys and the bad guys in what culminates in the movie's worst performance. Joel Kinnaman, Kara Fukuhara, and Adam Beach round out the principal cast, but each proves to be either mediocre or forgettable. Again, most of the blame of this film must lie with the screenplay itself, but even so, this cast offers up a slew of poor performances. 

Suicide Squad also offers a number of peculiar stylistic choices that don't necessarily work with the end result. The cinematography can be characterized as colorfully murky, presenting a grimy world that still hopes to show some bright flash aimed at keeping viewers invested. Suicide Squad does take a step away from the full-on dreariness that Zack Snyder has crafted with his Superman entries, but this one never feels like it does quite enough to bring it completely out of that darker atmosphere. The musical choices also left me scratching my head. The film takes a page from the Guardians of the Galaxy playbook by offering a number of catchy and recognizable rock and pop songs meant to draw the viewers interest. Unlike its Marvel counterpart, however, these song selections are not used to enhance the film or add to the storyline; instead, they seem haphazardly placed simply as a veiled attempt at keeping the audience engaged. 

All of its flaws aside, Suicide Squad simply proves to be a slog of a film. I know that I have been an outspoken opponent of the superhero genre in general, and I know that I clearly do not fall into the key demographic for this realm of movies. In addition to the diehard comic book fans itching to see their favorite characters on-screen, studios mainly market these movies to adolescent boys looking for explosions and edgy - but not inappropriate - humor. I'm sure that plenty of people in that group enjoyed Suicide Squad, but I also saw a thirteen-year-old in a seat near me fall asleep halfway through the film. Suicide Squad is a boring, muddled mess of a movie, and all you DC fans deserve so much better. 

Review: Captain Fantastic (2016)

Captain Fantastic
2016

© Bleecker Street Media

© Bleecker Street Media

While you may not immediately recognize the name Matt Ross, you have more than likely seen him grace the screen at one point or another. In addition to appearing on numerous episodes of recent television hits like "American Horror Story" and "Silicon Valley," he has also snuck on-screen in big-budget film fare like Twelve MonkeysAmerican Psycho, and The Aviator. To this point, Ross has enjoyed a long, if subdued, acting career in Hollywood, but the past few years have seen him start to slip into the world behind the camera. He created a few shorts before delving into his debut feature - 2012's 28 Hotel Rooms - which met mixed reception from both the critical and audience communities. His sophomore effort, Captain Fantastic, looks to be the film that shows he can be adept in the director's chair as well. 

Captain Fantastic centers on Ben (Viggo Mortensen), a hippie-ish father of six raising his family in the wilderness depths of the Pacific Northwest. He teaches his children daily, running them through training exercises that craft both their body and mind while they live off the grid. When the family learns that their mother (Trin Miller) has suddenly passed away, the children beg their father to let them head into the everyday world in the hopes of attending her funeral. Ben initially resists after being told by his father-in-law (Frank Langella) that should he come near the ceremony, he would have Ben arrested. Despite his reservations, Ben's troupe makes their way towards the New Mexico service, learning from and interacting with a slew of individuals along the way. 

While I have not seen Ross's previous directorial endeavors, if he were to be judged solely based on this most recent effort, I would say that we have a fascinating new voice in the realm of cinema. The writer/director has crafted an elegant story about a man trying to keep his off-kilter family afloat amidst a sea of outside forces pounding against them. Both Ben and his wife make the decision to move their family into the wilderness, but after losing her, Ben must decide whether he alone can continue to keep his family safe without the structure that a normal, everyday life could bring. Ross packs an incredible amount of emotion into the film, and that emotion stems from a number of sources. The story itself offers a number of highs and lows, but it is in the individual characterizations that the family truly comes to life. We see a constant shift of emotion as one may grieve while another comforts, and this cycle continues from the film's start to finish. Handling the emotion of one character can be challenging enough, but Ross has created a movie where the emotion ebbs and flows from character to character over a two-hour run-time in a beautifully graceful manner. 

Writers and directors can craft and create beautiful stories with amazing characters, but the cast must still rise to the occasion to bring those characters to life. Since becoming a household name through the Lord of the Rings franchise, Viggo Mortensen has channeled his fame into a string of amazing performances in smaller-budget dramatic fare. From A History of Violence to Eastern Promises to The Road, Mortensen has managed to put forth strong outing after strong outing for over a decade, and his performance here in Captain Fantastic might just be his strongest yet. The story calls for his character to be the family's rock, and he does a wonderful job balancing all of his childrens' emotions while we can clearly see he's barely holding himself together. This energy wells behind his eyes from the start of the film, and his moment of release proves to be powerfully moving. Mortensen's Ben is the emotional and moral center of the film, and he absolutely knocks it out of the park. 

While the adult supporting cast of Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, and the aforementioned Langella do well with their respective roles, the real treat opposite Mortensen's brilliance lies with his on-screen children. Each actor brings forth a unique and definable performance that complements everyone else in the group. Shree Crooks offers an encyclopedic intelligence while Charlie Shotwell gives us a youthful innocence. Nicholas Hamilton brings fury and anger while Annalise Basso illustrates a wild and independent spirit. Samantha Isler presents a thoughtful adolescence while George MacKay shows us a boy standing on the precipice of manhood. Each character belongs to one particular moment of childhood, and through them all, we see the full spectrum of life and learning. Individually, the film presents a set of truly beautiful characters, but when the sextet blends together, we just might be seeing one of the most cohesive and complete family units every put to the silver screen. 

In the midst of telling his story, Matt Ross performs a balancing act by showing both the positive and negative aspects of the life lifestyle that Mortensen's Ben has created. In certain moments, we feel drawn to his character's ideals, believing him to be showing the audience the way, the truth, and the light. When other characters stand in opposition of his principles, they sound outrageous and insane. As time continues to pass, however, the rose-colored glasses fall off our faces, and we begin to see the flaws in Ben's experiment. Just as the on-screen individuals begin to question their own livelihoods, we too start to wonder what would be best in the situation and how we might act and react were it to happen to us. Captain Fantastic does a wonderful job in portraying both sides of the coin, allowing the viewer to determine just where they stand. Ross presents this opportunity deftly, showing the steady hand one would expect from a more seasoned director. 

Much of the film's events take place as a result of one character's complications with bipolar disorder, but the movie itself also uses the bipolar concept as a template. We experience the drastic highs and lows alongside Ben and his family, and we feel the swings of emotion as we join them on their journey. Captain Fantastic is ultimately about life and death, but it's also about love and hate, right and wrong, and pain and forgiveness. The depth of the characters will draw you to them, and the depth of their emotion will pull on your heartstrings as you laugh and cry with this off little family. For a pure, emotional experience, Captain Fantastic will simply be hard to beat. 

Review: Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Star Trek Beyond
2016

© Paramount Pictures

© Paramount Pictures

When J.J. Abrams took the helm of The Force Awakens, Star Wars fans around the world rejoiced. Having seen what he had done with reinvigorating the Star Trek franchise, many believed him to be the perfect fit for George Lucas's universe. Trekkers, on the other hand, started to worry about their beloved franchise that Abrams had brought back from the brink. For the first time in years, it seemed as though Star Trek could be a viable film franchise, but with their director's departure, it let the series in a state of limbo. A number of names were tossed into consideration for the job, but no one knew whether Abrams's successor could bring the same quality of film that the previous two installments had brought. 

Star Trek Beyond follows the continuing adventures of the U.S.S. Enterprise, led by the fearless Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine). Three years deep into their five-year mission, Kirk has started to grow tired with his life in space and looks to seat himself behind a desk for the remainder of his career. When a distress signal sends he and his crew into the depths of a nebula, the Enterprise is suddenly and deliberately attacked by an alien force led by the evil Krall (Idris Elba). Stranded on an uncharted without a ship, Kirk and his crew must improvise to the best of their abilities to escape their captivity and return to the Federation. In the process, however, they soon learn that Krall's plot may spell doom for the entire galaxy. 

The success of the first two films ensured that the franchise would need a fitting replacement in the director's chair. The studio ultimately landed on Justin Lin, who brought an eye for action from the Fast and the Furious franchise. Would he be able to juggle that grounded, streetcar action with the sci-fi element so desperately needed in the Star Trek universe? Fortunately, Lin was blessed with a solid screenplay from Doug Jung and Simon Pegg which surely helped him in his endeavors. 

Star Trek has long been the franchise that delves into intelligent science fiction with a solid basis of social commentary. While I feel as though these movies have strayed a bit from the latter, they have still offered fans their legitimate dose of sci-fi, even if the ships and gadgets don't wow us the way they must have amazed audiences in the 1960s. Jung and Pegg easily slide into this vein, bringing a story rife with action, drama, and a true sense of adventure. The story itself kept me guessing, and I was so engrossed with the film that I found myself shocked with some of the twists and turns it took. That's a true testament to the filmmakers' storytelling ability. What really sets this franchise apart, however, is its ability to craft complete and believable characters. While most of these characters have a long and storied history through the television show and the previous films, but I believe that these characters have adapted for the grander universe in which they now live, bringing slightly different nuances to the table. This installment also felt much more team-oriented than its predecessors; while the last two films centered around the Kirk and Spock characters, Beyond gave the rest of the cast the opportunity to show off their character's individual skill sets. If Justin Lin brought anything over from the Furious franchise, it was the ability to demonstrate effectively the best qualities of a team through its individual members. We definitely get a sense of that with Star Trek Beyond. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto have their screen-time but don't dominate the story; instead, we get to see a little bit more of Pegg's Scotty, Karl Urban's McCoy, Zoe Saldana's Uhura, John Cho's Sulu, and Anton Yelchin's Chekov as they play integral roles in saving the galaxy from destruction. 

I could easily spend plenty of time on the cast's effectiveness within their individual roles, but most of the returning players meet the splendid status quo they have achieved in the past two films. Instead, I want to focus on the franchise newcomers in Sofia Boutella and Idris Elba. Boutella, who most might remember from her supporting role as an assassin in last year's Kingsman, does a fantastic job playing opposite Montgomery Scott for most of the film's duration. She brings to life a multifaceted character who is given plenty of time to showcase her incredible physical prowess while still delving into slightly dramatic moments while talking about her character's past. Elba, who has been all over the cinematic map this year, takes on the nefarious villain Krall and does so incredibly effectively. Despite being hidden beneath layers of makeup, Elba still manages to bring a menacing ferocity to the character and just might cement himself as the best villain in this particular saga. 

I do want to take a moment to mention the two members of the Star Trek family have passed since the release of 2013's Into Darkness. The legendary Leonard Nimoy, who originated the Spock character and reprised him in these most recent films, was given a fitting sendoff, and the filmmakers used their love and admiration for him as a sort of springboard for Zachary Quinto's Spock in this film. The world more recently lost the young Anton Yelchin, and it proved to be incredibly difficult for me to watch him on the screen knowing that we would never be able to see just how far his potential would take him. I felt as though his character receives more screen-time in Beyond than he had in the previous installments which I believe is a testament to the fact that his star power was on the rise. The two received simple but fitting tributes as the credits rolled, and I personally had to hold back the waterworks as their names flashed by. While there will be more posthumous performances from the young Yelchin, seeing him one last time in the biggest of his adventures solidified his place in Hollywood lore. 

While I can't quite say that this is the best entry in the newest Star Trek saga, Beyond serves as an incredibly enjoyable film from start to finish. Justin Lin picks up exactly where J.J. Abrams left off, and Star Trek fans should have faith with the direction the franchise now seems to be heading. If you're looking for a smart, exciting, and adventurous blockbuster, you'd be hard-pressed to find something better than Star Trek Beyond playing in theaters right now. 


Review: Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

Everybody Wants Some!!
2016

© Paramount Pictures

© Paramount Pictures

Richard Linklater has had a long and storied career that started back in the 1980s, but it was his 1993 film Dazed and Confused that truly put him on the map. The film focuses on high school kids in the mid-1970s celebrating the last day of school by following them on their adventures and exploits into the early hours on one eventful night. Critics praised the movie for its ability to delve into the small slice of Americana while blending it with arguably the greatest compilation film soundtrack of all time. In the decades since, Linklater has gone on to direct a slew of films across a wide range of genres: from family-friendly comedy to heavy drama, from quirky and off-beat thrillers to mind-bending visual experiences. His last film, 2014's Boyhood, garnered some of the best critical response of his career, and we as a collective filmgoing community have been waiting with bated breath for his follow-up effort. 

Everybody Wants Some!! centers on Jake (Blake Jenner), a freshman pitcher heading to college on a baseball scholarship, following him for the three days before classes begin as he attempts to integrate himself not only with the collegiate lifestyle but also the extreme personalities of his teammates and the party-hard lifestyle that they embody. The crew hits different bars every night with the sole objective of finding a girl to bed for the evening. Despite the seemingly loose and lackadaisical attitude the rest of his teammates have towards the women on campus, Jake begins to pine after a young woman named Beverly (Zoey Deutch), whom he meets just after his arrival. 

Linklater has stated that this film serves as something of a spiritual sequel to the aforementioned Dazed and Confused. A spiritual sequel does not necessarily directly follow its "predecessor;" rather, it generally has been made by the same filmmaker and shares common themes and ideas. In that sense, Everybody Wants Some!! definitely flows in the same vein as Linklater's 1993 flick. Interestingly enough, Linklater's latest also works as a pseudo-follow-up to Boyhood, which ends with its protagonist on the cusp of starting his collegiate journey. Despite these connections, Everybody definitely deserves to be treated as its own film, especially considering we don't have any direct correlation to the director's previous works. It has been years since I have seen Dazed and Confused, and while I remember greatly enjoying it, I would have to go back and revisit it to remember completely just how strong a film it is. That being said, Everybody Wants Some!! gives the the drive to want to do just that. 

For all of you fans of storyline and plot, I am giving you fair warning: this movie doesn't revolve around its settings and situation in order to advance itself; rather, it drives with full force on the stunning characterizations that bring each and every individual to life. In a way, Everybody works as a shallow character study that lets you observe the lives of a group of young men simply trying to sow their seed. The screenplay enhances this by working more as a series of vignettes highlighting key moments in Jake's first days on campus rather than offering a plotted narrative meant to keep you guessing from scene to scene. I used the term shallow earlier not in the derogatory sense but rather in the idea that we get enough information about each character to feel as though they could truly exist, but we're never really scratching far enough beneath the surface to understand their every want and desire. Just as Jake is getting to know the men and women who will shape his first year of college, we too receive just enough information to establish opinions about who we may want to gravitate towards as our story continues. 

Linklater has long been a gifted screenwriter, and that streak continues here. Still, a writer needs a stellar cast to bring their characters to life, and our man at the helm gets just that with Everybody Wants Some!! If you think about films revolving around freshman starting their college careers, you probably envision a string of films focusing on shy and quirky characters trying to find their footing in this new adult world. This movie strays from the status quo, offering a leading man whose few minor insecurities pale in comparison to his extreme self-confidence. Blake Jenner brings a comedic gravitas to the role so steadfast that it helps to amplify the eccentricities of the characters flowing around him. He creates a grounded individual that shines amongst the wacky and sometimes insane antics put forth by the rest of the male cast. 

Jenner's co-stars do a solid job playing up those eccentricities to round out the quirkiness of their characters. Glen Powell, J. Quinton Johnson, and Tyler Hoechlin serve as the most consistent standouts in the supporting cast, bringing the best performances and the most laughs throughout the course of the film. The aforementioned Deutch also does a fine job opposite Jenner, and the two have a fantastic chemistry that leaves you wanting to know more about their eventual possible relationship. The character I will remember most, however, is Will Brittain's Beuter, a down-home Southern boy who's trying to keep things going with his girl back home. I have never seen any of Brittain's other work, but here he channels a young Matthew McConaughey, mimicking the Oscar winner's voice and demeanor to a tee. At the start, it was a tad bit distracting, but it proved to be a fun one regardless. In a way, it felt like the strongest direct connection to Dazed and Confused

Although I'm by no means an expert in the realm of music, I do have to say that Linklater has done another fantastic job in creating a compilation soundtrack for this film. Just like Dazed and Confused brought us back to the 1970s, Everybody gives us a glimpse into the transition from those tunes to the sounds that would permeate the collective consciousness of the 1980s. The film features music from a slew of artists from the era, and the soundtrack immediately thrusts us into the appropriate vibe. While I wouldn't quite say that Linklater reaches the heights of Scorsese or Tarantino when it comes to musical selection, he very well might be running a slightly-distant third. 

Films about college have been released in a steady stream over the past few decades, but since the turn of the millennium, many of them have focused more on the raunch-com style that has grown to be the industry standard in today's comedic world. Everybody, on the other hand, turns back the clock and channels a more subdued idea of comedy that works wonders in contrast to the big-budget fare we get nowadays. It shows a refreshing level of restraint that most comedies simply cannot or will not strive to create. Imagine National Lampoon's Animal House with more intelligent humor, well-written characters, and legitimate depth. That's exactly what Everybody Wants Some!! brings to the table. 


Review: Life, Animated (2016)

Life, Animated
2016

© The Orchard

© The Orchard

I have loved movies for as long as I can remember, but I didn't actually start investing a legitimate amount of time into them until I hit my college years. By that point, I was so far behind on the classics of cinema that I felt the need to introduce myself to the staples of the medium. I would generate massive lists of movies I wanted to watch, and these queues would become so extensive that I would simply have to draw the line. More often than not, documentaries would hit the cutting room floor. At the time, my idea of a documentary simply revolved around something based in the political spectrum or the cultural landscape of the era, so it seemed as though those older docs might not necessarily cater to my twenty-first century sensibilities. As a result, I expanded my pseudo-ban on the genre to all documentaries, solely for the purpose of having the time to catch on on what I had deemed worthy and required.

Life, Animated follows Owen Suskind, a twenty-three-year-old man living with autism. He had been an outgoing child in the early stages of his life, but around his third birthday, he started to recede within himself and quickly lost his penchant for articulate and understandable speech, causing his parents - Ron and Cornelia - an incredible amount of shock and concern. Desperate to find a way to bring their little boy back, they soon start to notice that Owen has gravitated towards classic Disney animated films, using them to craft and shape his understanding of the world around him. The parents pick up on the idea and begin to cater to Owen's affinity in the hopes of bringing him to a place where he could be an independent and productive member of society. 

The last ten years have started to see documentaries becomes vastly more accessible than they were in the past, and I don't just mean that they're easier to find. Whether my initial idea that they were left for the cultural zeitgeist or for political ramblings of the past was actually correct, I simply cannot be sure. With the meteoric growth of accessible media, however, more and more real-life stories have started to be seen by the masses. Rather than only noticing documentaries focused on a spin or an agenda, we have started to see a slew of relatable tales focusing on the incredible moments of everyday individuals' lives. I have definitely boarded the documentary train since my time in college, and it has gotten to the point where I am oftentimes more excited to see a new documentary than I might be for its narrative counterpart. Life, Animated falls into this category, having hit me over the head with a trailer so heartwarming that I simply could not miss the opportunity to check out this flick. 

Director Roger Ross Williams, who follows a story illustrated in a book by Owen's father Ron, crafts an engaging story about a young man handling a mental and emotional setback while still trying to strive for success and independence. The film's story follows Owen's final days in school as he prepares to enter the real, adult world by finding a job and moving into his own apartment. In the midst of his present-day tale, we see flashbacks and old home videos chronicling the life that Owen has lived to date. His life story offers a number of twists and turns, some of which are expected and others that seem to come out of left field just to knock you to the floor. Owen has lived a captivating life in and of itself, but it is in the characterizations of himself and his loved ones that the true weight of the film manages to break through. 

From the very first moments of the story, we start to learn about Owen and quickly fall for this little boy who seems to be so happy with his life. Although the film quickly shows us an adult Owen functioning in his adult world, we still cling to the edge of our seats during the moments taking us back to his initial diagnosis, his childhood and adolescence, his struggles and successes. Owen has an electric and welcoming personality, and it's incredibly easy to love this wonderful young man. We see the love and support that his family and friends bestow upon him, and we echo their worries and concerns as Owen continues to take step after step towards his life as an independent man. The film crafts Suskind family so beautifully that you truly feel like you know them and have been welcomed into their family. We sit with Owen and see his highs and lows: we cry with him in his moments of pain, and we cheer for him in his moments of triumph. A documentary can only be as good as its subject, and thankfully for Life, Animated, Owen makes a great one. 

One of the key draws for this film that will surely hook viewers has to be Owen's connection to the classic Disney films. The question of whether someone grew up watching their animated classics isn't necessarily the right one; rather, the question lies in which of the classics they happened to enjoy. Owen has learned to live his life through the constructs set forth in films like Dumbo and The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. He used these movies to experience the real world and learn to understand the complex emotions that those with autism can't always register in their day-to-day interactions with other people. Admittedly, it has crossed my mind that this film's emotional weight may rest on our collective connection to the Disney brand rather than on Owen's life story itself, but the more I think about it, but more I believe that this film shows the connective tissue that a film can create both for an individual and a community as a whole. 

If you had told that freshman-aged Shaun that in ten years he would be actively seeking out new and exciting documentaries, he wouldn't have believed a word you said. At the time, I was only just starting to learn about the power and magnitude the medium of film can bring, and I held steadfast in my cravings for the standard narrative format. That Shaun may have completely missed the opportunity to see a beautiful documentary such as Life, Animated. It's a film that does wonders in showing the everyday lives of those struggling with autism, and it does a wonderful job reminding us that not only children are affected by this disorder. In that regard, Life, Animated serves as a fantastic illustration for the community of adults struggling to get through their everyday lives, finding any number of ways to cope with the outside world, and it opened my eyes to the true nuances of what it must be like to be an adult living with autism. Beyond all of that, however, Life, Animated also works as a true love letter to the movies, showing us all through Owen's eyes the true staying power that film can create. 


Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

Ghostbusters
2016

© Columbia Pictures & Sony Pictures Releasing

© Columbia Pictures & Sony Pictures Releasing

Last year's Oscar-winning film Mad Max: Fury Road opened in theaters to a bout of controversy. When it quickly became apparent that Charlize Theron's Furiosa would actually be the film's central character, a vocal minority of men's rights activists began to raise their hands in alarm. How could they possibly take such an iconic, masculine character as Max Rockatansky and belittle him to the passenger seat next to an empowered - and incredibly badass - woman? I feel as though many of those outcries fell silent when Fury Road proved to be one of the best action films in decades; around the same time, however, similar sentiments began circulating the Internet like a shark smelling blood in the water and circling its prey.

Ghostbusters serves as a reboot of the classic franchise started back in the mid-1980s. The new film opens with Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), a Columbia University professor on the cusp of earning tenure just as her hidden ghost-hunting past rears its ugly head. Infuriated that her chance at earning a career at a prestigious university has been put on the line, she goes to confront her old colleague, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), who has never given up the chase for the paranormal and seems to be ready for a breakthrough of her own. Joined by her new partner Jillian Holtzman (Kate McKinnon), the three quickly find themselves in the midst of investigating an alleged apparition that opens their eyes to a world of possibility. With a rise of spectral visions appearing across New York City, the trio adds the street-smart Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) to complete their ghost-busting quartet. Little do they know that a larger plot may be at play that could spell certain doom not only for their city but also for the entire world. 

Many consider the original Ghostbusters film to be a comedic classic of the 1980s, but I want to preface the rest of my review with this sentiment: I am not a massive fan of Ivan Reitman's original venture; I find it entertaining, but I've never truly been smitten with the '80s brand of humor so present in that original film (Note: at the time of this writing, I have yet to see Ghostbusters II, so any commentary on the previous films in the franchise will be limited to my knowledge of the original movie). I can begin to understand the inherent obsession with the flick, but I can't begin to comprehend the impressive and disheartening recoil from the collective interwebs when this new reboot was announced to have been cast with women in the central roles. I don't think I'm making much of a stretch when I say I'm sure the same people who publicly denounced last year's Mad Max just might be the ones attempting to silence this new Ghostbusters entry. 

While I won't go so far as to say that this new installment outperforms the original classic, it still proves to be a fun and entertaining film that manages to distance itself from its predecessor while still holding onto some of the themes and ideas set in place back in the '80s. This new Ghostbusters is inherently a remake, traveling a path familiar to the one we've already seen, but the filmmakers do a pleasant job of updating certain scenarios to make the film feel as though it belongs in the 21st-century. Sure, we're given a few throwback moments for the sake of nostalgia, and some of them work while some of them don't. Yet it is in its attempts to distance itself from its predecessors that this new film cements itself as its own standalone idea. 

The success of this film was always going to rely on its cast and its ability to create a group of characters that could stand toe-to-toe with such an iconic set of individuals. If this new film does anything dreadfully wrong, it's in its handling of the slew of cameos and brief appearances we see throughout the film, mostly from the likes of actors who appeared in the original Ghostbusters saga. Was it nice to see the likes of Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and Sigourney Weaver grace the screen for a moment or two? Sure, but it all felt a tad bit forced. It felt like an unnecessary passing of the torch, so to speak. 

The true stars of the new Ghostbusters film are the Ghostbusters themselves. McCarthy and Wiig have both made careers portraying extreme and out-of-the-box characters, but they reign it in here, instead playing intelligent scientists with more middle-of-the-road personalities. It's nice to see that the two of them can play the straight (wo)man if necessary, and it opens the door for their on-screen colleagues to chew the scenery as much as they possibly can. McKinnon and Jones, both Saturday Night Live alums, bring a fantastic presence to the screen and account for a large number of the main group's comedy. While they both seem to be playing personas they've created and enhanced during their time on SNL, both fit perfectly into the vein of the style of comedy this movie wants to project. Kate McKinnon absolutely steals the show, bringing a level of insanity not often seen in your big-budget comedy; we may very well be seeing a star-making turn with this particular venture. Where this quartet truly shines, however, is in their chemistry. They were able to blend their four personalities in a way that I never truly felt while watching the original Ghostbusters could. This new movie presents a team that simply feels more put-together than its predecessors. 

While the main cast does a fantastic job of crafting believable characters, the supporting cast doesn't quite hit the same mark. Aside from Chris Hemsworth playing against type as a lovable moron, no one really gets close to the overall effectiveness of our four protagonists. Andy Garcia feels incredibly miscast as the lackadaisical Mayor of New York who spends the entire film attempting to downplay and deny the existence of a paranormal menace wandering his streets. Neil Casey, who stars as the film's central villain, suffers from a lack of clever writing that leaves his character feeling like a stereotypical genius-gone-bad. Cecily Strong brings the audience a one-note performance as the Mayor's PR woman, and though she gets close, she can't quite stand toe-to-toe with the likes of McCarthy, Wiig, McKinnon, and Jones. In a way, the sub-par performances from the rest of the cast only helps bolster the strengths of our protagonists, letting them truly take the film's reigns. 

In the same way that I'm not a fan of the dry comedy of the 1980s, I'm also a little opposed to the current vein of comedy in the twenty-first century. This brand of comedy, which has its origins around the turn of the millennium, focuses on taking a joke as far as it possibly can in the hopes of generating just a little more laughter at the expense of one continued punchline. To me, it feels a bit like overkill, and unfortunately, Ghostbusters mostly falls in line with that particular style for most of its runtime. While there are a number of solid jokes, including one Jaws reference that warmed my heart, the overall level of comedy feels like more of the same when it comes to the current status quo. If the film does anything well comedically, it offers a very tongue-in-cheek look at the public outcries against it. The film offers quite a few moments that play with the idea that such a large number of people have been publicly outspoken about this film's creation. I won't go so far as to say that Ghostbusters is metatheatrical, but it definitely plays with the real-world issues circling itself. 

Is Ghostbusters a good film? I'm going to lean towards a mostly spirited yes; while a few of its moments don't quite hit their mark (just like the original), there's more than enough here to craft a fun and engaging foray into the world of people who chase and capture ghosts for a living. Is Ghostbusters as good as the original? I personally think it's just as effective in conveying its storyline and delivering its humor, but I would still give the slight edge to the 1984 venture purely on the basis of originality. That being said, I definitely laughed way more during this one than I ever have whilst watching that '80s flick. Is this movie worthy of all the conversation surrounding it? Absolutely yes.

I haven't paid much specific attention to the worries and concerns of the incredibly vocal minority chastising this female-centric endeavor, but from what I've heard in the past week since the film's release, it seems as though a large portion of this group thinks the movie is a feminist, anti-man march. As a man myself, I never really felt all that attacked by anything in this movie, and I honestly liked the different point of view that plays against your typical conventions. Let me give you an example: throughout the film, Wiig's Erin pines for the affection of the hyper-good-looking Hemsworth, but every time she starts to make a move, her three colleagues tell her she's being ridiculous in her fruitless quest. Now let's switch the roles and look at the same scenario from a male-centric film that utilizes the same style of comedy. Guy A would vie for Hot Woman A, and all his buddies would stand around saying, "Yo, you gotta hit that!" Now try to count just how many different movies popped into your head. I think that the female cast in Ghostbusters shows a level of comedic restraint that most male-based comedies haven't shown in years, and that's something that I can appreciate. But never once did I feel like this movie was trying to bash me or my male counterparts. 

I've been giving it a lot of thought, and I think that the individuals battling against the women in this film are scared of three things. First, I think they're worried about how that change might affect their nostalgic attitude towards the original. To an extent, I understand the desire to reconnect with your childhood or adolescence. When Jurassic World and Independence Day: Resurgence hit theaters, I hoped above all hopes that they would do justice for the five- and seven-year-old Shaun sitting in the theater. Ghostbusters hit all of its nostalgic marks through situational moments, and it didn't need the cast to make it happen. Second, I think there's a stigma that women don't have the capability of being funny, but I think we crossed that threshold years ago. Madeline Kahn received an Oscar nomination for her comedic turn in Blazing Saddles back in the mid-1970s, and that's just one example off the top of my head. Ladies are allowed to be and are capable of being funny. Finally, I think these individuals fear the possibility of women having and holding a strong leading role, and by "leading," I don't necessarily mean the "main character." One of the reasons this Ghostbusters works so well is that we're given a group of women who are all highly intelligent in fields of science or local geographical history, and it's done in such a way that the scientific jargon isn't watered down for the audience. So often do we see science-based films that have to explain everything for the audience to understand, but it's always so refreshing to just have intelligent characters on the screen saying what they need to say and doing what they need to do. In the real world, no scientist would stop to explain complex concepts and theories in the midst of of an end-of-the-world situation. By allowing these characters to be our scientists, they become the leaders of the film, the ones who know what's right and what's at stake as soon as things turn sour. Powerful and well-written female characters are hard to come by in Hollywood, but I think that we've finally started to turn the corner. Unfortunately for this set of Ghostbusters, this particular turn coincided with the remaking of a beloved classic, and it opened the floodgates for a slew of men intimidated by powerful women and ready to throw unwarranted sexist balderdash in the hopes of slowing them down. 

At the end of the day, this Ghostbusters film wasn't made for me, and it certainly wasn't made for those individuals dead-set on slander. This Ghostbusters, with its simple and silly premise about a group of people capturing spectral spirits and placing them in a thermos, is for the young girls of the world looking for new heroes and role models. Film has been around since the late-1800s, and in that time, men have been given a seemingly infinite number of heroes from the medium from which to choose. Contrarians will say that women have been given plenty too, but I'm more than sure that that particular graph is skewed strongly in one particular direction. Don't worry fans of the original: you can still have your Venkman, Stantz, Spengler, and Zeddmore. Just let the girls of today and tomorrow have their Gilbert, Yates, Holtzmann, and Tolan, too. 


Review: Holidays (2016)

Holidays
2016

© Rialto Distribution

© Rialto Distribution

I'm a little bit of a horror junkie, and I will do whatever I can to search out as many horror films as possible, no matter how obscure they might be. One of my personal favorite sub-genres in the realm of horror comes in the form of anthology films, which blend a series of segments or vignettes that either add to a larger story or follow one particular theme that resonates throughout the feature-length runtime. Some of my personal favorites include 1982's Creepshow and 2007's Trick 'r Treat, which were directed by George A. Romero and Michael Dougherty, respectively. In my opinion, those films succeeded because they relied on one director's vision in bringing all of the stories together, ultimately making a more fully cohesive experience. In the past few years, however, the horror community has started to see an upswing of anthologies featuring handfuls of individuals directing individual segments. Films like this year's Southbound and the V/H/S franchise fall into this category, and I feel as though they have a more difficult time crafting their stories and themes and themes into one communal tone. They may be pushing the envelope on shock value, but the overall experience ultimately suffers without one binding presence. 

Holidays hopes to buck that trend by offering an anthology film based around - you guessed it - holidays. The movie offers eight different segments, each one of which takes direct inspiration from a different popular holiday and twists the tale into something short and horrific. The stories are told in calendar order, not that the timeline has any real pertinence to the film as a whole. Before I discuss the film as a whole, I want to break down each segment briefly and talk about which ones work better than the rest. 

Valentine's Day
Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch get the film off to a solid start with the story of a high school swimmer bullied by her teammates for her apparent depression as well as her less-than-hidden affections for their coach. Madeleine Coghlan does a fine job as our unspeaking lead, but her performance's quality may partly be attributed to the painfully bad one given by her on-screen rival, Savannah Kennick. Still, the segment works relatively well and kicks Holidays off with a true sense of the macabre. Of all the film's segments, this is one that I would like to see expanded to a longer runtime, if only to flesh out a few interesting touches that might have been skipped for lack of space.

St. Patrick's Day
Gary Shore, the director of 2014's Dracula Untold, brings us the only segment not set on American soil. The story follows a young schoolteacher (Ruth Bradley) who dreams of having a child, but after one fateful Paddy's Day, she finds herself impregnated with something not quite human. The story does well in crafting parallels between Bradley's struggle and the story of Saint Patrick expelling serpents from Ireland isle, but the segment unfortunately takes a few liberties that prove to be too over-the-top for my personal taste. It makes a number of overt references to other films that play directly into the storyline but only make this one feel more like a rip-off than an homage. The final payoff also proves to be too laughable, and not in the sense that Holidays is attempting to be a horror-comedy. 

Easter
Did the idea of the Easter Bunny breaking into your home ever terrify you as a child? Did the concept of the risen Christ Jesus roaming the earth an undead zombie ever cross your mind? If you've ever had these fears and concerns, then perhaps Nicholas McCarthy's bizarre Easter mashup will cater more to you than it did to me. The young Ava Acres anchors the story of a little girl terrified of the possibility of some unseen monster leaving her gifts she'll awake to in the morning. When she wakes in the middle of the night to find the creature in her home, the segment takes an absurd yet imaginative twist. What ultimately hurts this segment are a few moments of shoddy storytelling and unpaid exposition. That, and one unnecessary throwaway scene of the girl's mother (Petra Wright) preparing to pleasure herself before a crucifix (no, I don't mean in a Regan MacNeil kind of way).

Mother's Day
Sarah Adina Smith's Mother's Day segment sadly proves to be the least accessible section of the film. We quickly learn that Kate (Sophie Traub) becomes pregnant after each and every act of intercourse and as a result has terminated nearly twenty pregnancies by the ripe old age of twenty-four. She opts into attending an all-natural fertility clinic in the middle of the desert in the hopes of finding a way to become less fertile. The story loosely explains her predicament but glosses over the horrifying aspect of her affliction, leaving the audience to scratch its head as the segment meanders through a few arduous minutes of a borderline catatonic Traub being handled by the clinic's nurses. The segment means unexpectedly and shockingly, and while I can start to gather the goings-on of the story, it almost felt a tad bit rushed. This one could have benefited from another few minutes to allow more insight into Kate's predicament, but perhaps the mystery was the plan all along. 

Father's Day
In contrast, the Father's Day segment just might be the best-directed one of the bunch. The story follows Carol (Jocelin Donahue) after she receives a mysterious package containing an unlabeled cassette. On the tape, she hears her father's voice beckoning her to come find him. Having thought him to be dead for years, she follows the instructions on the tape which ultimately lead her to the last place she ever saw him alive. Anthony Scott Burns does a fantastic job in setting an ominous atmosphere with this segment, allowing the tension to grow slowly as we build toward the climactic moment. Seeing as this is a horror anthology, we can readily assume that all will not end well, but it's in the unknowing of just how everything will unravel that we derive our terror. Unfortunately, the final reveal itself leaves something to be desired, but with this segment, the journey means so much more than the destination. 

Halloween
Part of me had hoped the film would skip over the iconic Halloween holiday simply because it has already proven to be well-trodden territory in the genre. With none other than Kevin Smith behind the camera, however, I had high hopes that this segment would stand above the rest, and it surely does not disappoint. Smith continues his recent horror kick by directing Harley Morenstein as Ian, the pervy "agent" for a service featuring young girls on webcams. He currently has a trio of girls, led by Smith's own daughter Harley Quinn, at his beck and call, but when he tries to force himself on one of them, the three work together to exact their own brand of vengeance. Where the previous segment worked best with its source of tension, I think Smith's Halloween segment offers the best blend of comedy and horror to be seen in the film. He gives his two Harley's the opportunity to lead the show, and both prove to be rather effective in their roles. I'll admit that I'm a tad bit biased, but Kevin Smith's entry into Holidays is easily my favorite of the bunch. 

Christmas
Although not as ripe as Halloween, I had also hoped that the Christmas season might be passed by for this particular anthology venture, but alas, the filmmakers made sure to hit the obvious points. Scott Stewart, who directed such feature-length films as Legion and Priest, brings us a story about a virtual reality headset that shows its users their everyday lives from the visual perspective of the people with whom they have interacted. In a way, it's an avenue to watch your life as though it were a film, and you were the star. Seth Green serves as our leading man, a spineless character in a seemingly loveless marriage who is dead set on securing the headset for his son as a Christmas gift. When he places the headset on himself, however, he starts to see a side of himself he had never previously noticed. The story offers a few twists and turns, keeping you guessing as you make your way to the climactic moments, but it all proves to be a tad bit fleeting. An interesting premise, it's one that I would like to see expanded; there could be a feature-length film crafted from this one. 

New Year's Eve
The Holidays should have ended at Christmas. Adam Egypt Mortimer gives us a glance at a murderous man (Andrew Bowen) looking for a New Year's date whom he finds through an Internet site. Lorenza Izzo, whom I recognized from The Green Inferno, stars as the aforementioned female set on avoiding a lonely New Year's night as well. As the two make their way back to their apartment, they both realize they'll be getting exactly what they want from the evening; sadly, the audience doesn't. This final segment simply didn't work, and I can't tell whether it's the segment itself or simply a product of fatigue. Were this portion placed earlier in the film, I might have been more invested, but after having cycled through countless characters by this point, I just couldn't bring myself to care about these two. The segment proves predictable and dull, and for a short film so focused on when the ball will drop, it sure did drop the ball. 

As a whole, Holidays mostly functions as an interesting foray into different directorial styles. We see one veteran in Kevin Smith stand above the rest, and I'll definitely be keeping my eye on the future of Andrew Scott Burns. Does Holidays ultimately pull itself together as a cohesive anthology? I don't think so. Too many of its segments stray too far away from their source objective, taking surface level concepts and crafting their storylines from there. To do so is the filmmakers prerogative, to be sure, but when bringing an anthology together, we need to have some more concrete tissue to hold everything tightly. Ultimately, Holidays simply works more as a fine exposé for budding horror directors than as an anthology film in the truest sense of the word.