Category Archives: 2016

Sensitivity Training (2016, Melissa Finell)

Sensitivity Training is… an easy (but not in a pejorative way) comedy with winning (but not in a sarcastic way) lead performances. It’s never daring, but it has some good laughs. It’s better than middle of the road but it there’s not much exciting about it. Director Finell does a great job with a low budget as far as the filmmaking goes–Finell and cinematographer Paul Cannon have nice widescreen shots, Finell and editor David Egan keep a brisk pace (the film’s eighty-six minutes or so). And Paul Chihara’s music is a great. Very energetic and emotive. It’s impressively executed, given its scale.

Which makes some of the script choices annoying, actually. Like, Finell writes way too broadly even in scenes where she could afford precision. The script’s too conservative for what the film can do. But the script’s still perfectly fine and often really funny. It gives leads Anna Lise Phillips and Jill E. Alexander decent showcase material. Gives them great parts, not great roles. Like, there’s a whole “everyone is a caricature” thing going on even though it’s all about Phillips having to learn empathy after she maybe causes a tragedy at work due to her personality.

Phillips is a very abrasive scientist who appears to be the only scientist in the world aware of an imminent bacterial infection. Sensitivity Training’s sunny world–where Alexander’s daughter, Courtney Fansler, would never actually get teased for having two moms–also appears to have cured childhood leukemia or something. There’s a lot of science going on in Sensitivity Training and it ostensibly means a lot to Phillips, but it doesn’t mean anything to Finell’s script.

Meanwhile Alexander is a sexual harassment counselor who makes sexually harassing men sign apology statements. It’s not until she starts trying to make Phillips empathetic she realizes it’s a terrible job–the sexual harassment thing–and bad. Alexander doesn’t get much character stuff to herself. Finell usually uses it for a joke, which is funny about–say, kids’ birthday parties–but less funny when about sexual harassment.

So most of the movie is Alexander trying to get Phillips to treat people nicer, mostly her lab workers–quietly essential Quinn Marcus (who doesn’t get enough to do) and background filler Amy Vorpahl and Andy Gala–but also her younger half-brother, Finnegan Haid. The stuff with Haid makes no sense in the narrative, but it’s fine. They play well off each other. Everyone works well with each other in their scenes, no crowding.

Eventually, of course, there’s crisis and drama and big-time introspective character development for Phillips, who’s otherwise had zero self-awareness in the film (to an absurd degree but still fine given the film’s soft take on reality), and a somewhat perfunctory wrap-up where Finell reveals she wasted like six of the eighty-six minutes on a total MacGuffin just for a couple smiles not even laughs. So. When the film’s really funny, those laughs have a lot of weight on them. And they hold up.

Phillips and Alexander are both good. But they don’t get anything too tough. Quinn gets the internal subplot but almost no time for it and she’s real good. Amy Madigan’s great as Phillips and Haid’s mom. She should’ve been in it more, especially how she and Phillips play off each other. Charles Haid’s fine as the dad, though just fine. He executive produced the film so if it’s a stunt cameo, it’s not a good one.

Finell’s a good director. Sensitivity Training is a good comedy. It doesn’t try to do anything but amuse, even when it’s got potential to do more.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Melissa Finell; director of photography, Paul Cannon; edited by David Egan; music by Paul Chihara; production designer, Richard H. Perry; produced by Finell and Megha Kohli; released by Random Media.

Starring Anna Lise Phillips (Serena), Jill E. Alexander (Caroline), Quinn Marcus (Ellen), Finnegan Haid (Ethan), Amy Vorpahl (Joan), Andy Gala (Dr. Hamilton), Michael Laskin (Dr. Donald Pierson), Gregory Itzin (Barry), Amy Madigan (Nancy), Charles Haid (Glenn), Courtney Fansler (Maggie), and Challen Cates (Dr. Laura Stern).


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Hello Destroyer (2016, Kevan Funk)

With Hello Destroyer, writer and director Funk spares down a character study. He saps the action from it–and there’s a lot of potential action, as the character the film studies is a rookie pro hockey player (Jared Abrahamson). Abrahamson’s a quiet loner who fits in well enough with the team, but is rather passive. Outside the opening scene, where the team hazes the rookies, there’s very little action, even during the hockey games. Funk uses mostly close-ups, with his actors near center in a wide frame, with a sharp focus on the character. The first half of the film is exquisitely written, just seeing how Funk is able to do so much with so little exposition, so little setup, just scene and cast.

It’s a pro team but not pro enough Abrahamson and a teammate don’t have to bunk with a local family. Abrahamson’s not exactly one of the family, but he’s got a good rapport with his hosts, even babysitting for them.

Then there’s a bad game and, in response to coach Kurt Max Runte’s belittling screaming at he and his teammates, Abrahamson gets too rough on the ice and hospitalizes another player. Abrahamson’s naive and confused, especially when host mom Sara Canning starts acting scared of him and assistant coach Ian Tracey just blows smoke up his ass instead of telling him what’s going on. Pretty soon Runte has convinced Abrahamson to issue a statement taking the blame and, pretty soon, after Abrahamson’s headed back to his parents on the bus.

Once home, Funk starts revealing some of Abrahamson’s (still unverbalized) baggage. Dad Paul McGillion is constantly verbally abusive to Abrahamson as well as occasionally physically. The single exposition dump in the film reveals McGillion’s a bad dad because his dad was a bad military dad. Meanwhile mom Yvonne Vander Ploeg is barely present. She and Abrahamson have zero relationship, which isn’t a surprise as Abrahamson doesn’t have any relationships. There’s an implied relationship with probably sister Terri Mahon, but Funk does it all through Abrahamson looking at old pictures on his phone (in a single scene) and then holding his nephew. Probably nephew.

The film’s not exactly a waiting game to see if Abrahamson’s going to figure out what kind of trouble he’s actually in–it initially tracks his descent before he starts getting a little better after bonding with coworker Joe Buffalo. Funk doesn’t change the narrative distance until the very end, which is its own thing; otherwise, he keeps the same tone and pace throughout. Deliberate long shots of Abrahamson internalizing and processing what’s going on around him. There are some great moments from Abrahamson, even if the role itself ends up a little too thin. Turns out Funk is keeping that deliberate narrative distance so he can make some big moves in the third act.

There’s a certain cinéma vérité styling; Edo Van Breemen gets credited with the music but there’s barely any in the film. Ajla Odobasic’s editing is languorous, perfectly matching Benjamin Loeb’s sharp and deep photography. Funk goes almost two hours without ever picking up the pace, without ever going for melodrama, without ever letting a crack show in Abrahamson’s demeanor. When he does break under pressure–either just pressure or drunkenness–Funk shoots Abrahamson removed. We’re seeing him break, not watching him break. It’s a distinction in Hello Destroyer and one of the film’s greatest strengths. Funk knows how to present this story, knows how to position his actors, knows how to shoot it, knows how to cut it.

So when he gives up in the third act–after building the friendship with Buffalo for however long, it becomes just as disposable for the film as any of Abrahamson’s other relationships and the stuff with the family is kind of a MacGuffin–it’s a bit of a surprise. Funk seemingly could go on forever with the desolate slow pace, with each new reveal further revealing more about Abrahamson’s protagonist and informing the performance, only to chuck it all for an easy finish. Funk got to raise a bunch of questions and make a bunch of observations, but he doesn’t do anything with them in the end.

It’s a beautifully made film, with an exquisite performance from Abrahamson, but Funk’s ambitions are a tad more melodramatic than the film ever suggests they might be. For most of the film, Funk’s doing character revelation and development, only to switch it up entirely at the end and try to do character examination. It’s a big slip and too bad; a lot of Hello Destroyer is outstanding. Funk’s an excellent director and a capable writer. He just–artfully–uses a sledgehammer instead of a scalpel, like that artfulness can compensate for the force. And it can not.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kevan Funk; director of photography, Benjamin Loeb; edited by Ajla Odobasic; music by Edo Van Breemen; production designer, Robin Tilby; produced by Daniel Domachowski and Haydn Wazelle; released by Northern Banner Releasing.

Starring Jared Abrahamson (Tyson Burr), Paul McGillion (Ron Burr), Joe Buffalo (Eric), Ben Cotton (Bill Davis), Sara Canning (Wendy Davis), Ian Tracey (Coach Aaron Weller), Maxwell Haynes (Cody MacKenzie), Yvonne Vander Ploeg (Judy Burr), and Kurt Max Runte (Coach Dale Milbury).


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Doctor Strange (2016, Scott Derrickson)

The only particularly bad thing in Doctor Strange is the music. Michael Giacchino strikes again with a bland “action fantasy” score. The score feels omnipresent; I’m not sure if it really is booming all throughout the film or if I was just constantly dreading its return.

Dread is something in short supply in Doctor Strange. The film opens with Mads Mikkelsen’s ponytailed bad guy doing some visually dynamic magic. The world becomes a moving M.C. Escher piece, with lots of tessellation. While visually dynamic, these magical reconfigurations of the world don’t affect regular people and don’t really change the fight scenes much. The reconfigurations happen aside from the principals’ actions. Most of that action is white people doing questionable kung fu fighting with magic assists.

Director Derrickson embraces the long shot and the extreme long shot to do his action. The camera’s never close enough to reveal whether Tilda Swinton really did all her kung fu fighting. She definitely did her melodrama scene though. It’s a special thing, a melodramatic scene in Strange, the film utterly avoids using them. Lead Benedict Cumberbatch’s character development is done without them. Sure, when he’s despondent over his injured hands after a car crash, there’s a little melodrama. But not once he starts his journey.

Cumberbatch gives up on conventional medicine–he was the only surgeon good enough to fix his hands–and heads to the Far East. He’s looking for a magical fix. He finds it with Swinton and company. Swinton’s the leader, a near immortal sorcerer with a shaved head. Chiwetel Ejiofor is her main lackey. He gets the job of training Cumberbatch when the movie takes time for a training scene. Until Cumberbatch gets the magic; after he gets the magic, he’s got all the magic. No one seems to notice he goes from novice to sorcerer supreme in three minutes.

They’re too busy trying to save the world. Jon Spaihts, Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill’s script is long on exposition, short on thoughtful plotting, even shorter on character development. Ejiofor gets it the worst. He’s in the movie more than anyone else in the supporting cast, but he never gets a character. Not until the third act and then it’s just a contrivance.

Rachel McAdams is in the movie less than Ejiofor, with a lousy part. The screenwriters seem to think Cumberbatch needs a romantic interest of some sort. She doesn’t have anything going on besides doting on Cumberbatch, whether she likes it or not.

Many of the performances improve over time. Swinton’s far better later on than at the beginning. Mikkelsen is bland at the open only to end up saving the middle portion of the film. He and Cumberbatch have some banter. The banter keeps things going given the CG spectacular isn’t ever spectacular when it needs to be. Cumberbatch, for instance, is only ever a passive party when not doing CG spectacular by himself.

Eventually Cumberbatch starts getting into ghost fights. Fighting when a ghost on the spirit plane. The ghost fights are simultaneously well-executed–something of a surprise as Derrickson and photographer Ben Davis don’t seem to care at all about the CG compositing being weak–and boring. The visual concept for the astral plane kung fu fights is good. The special effects realize it perfectly well. Derrickson just can’t direct fight scenes. So the scenes get old fast. Especially when they’re distracting from Mikkelsen.

Mikkselen’s essential for keeping it going in the second act. He and Cumberbatch’s banter has more character development for Cumberbatch than his entire mystical training.

Cumberbatch is entirely bland in the lead. He’s more believable opening portals to mystical dimensions and having showdowns with ancient intergalactic evil beings (who look a like the MCP from Tron, only without any enthusiasm in CG) than he is being the world’s best surgeon, who also knows more seventies music trivia than anyone else. His voice is flat and without affect; he’s trying not to lose his American accent. Unfortunately, it affects his performance.

It’s unlikely McAdams and Cumberbatch are going to have any emotionally effective scenes, but at least if Cumberbatch were concentrating on responding to her lines and not making sure he never sounds British… well, it might have helped. Both actors are completely professional opposite one another, but there’s zero chemistry. Wouldn’t really matter if there were any chemistry, as McAdams is only around for medical emergencies.

The film moves well once it gets to the second act. Cumberbatch moping is a little much; his performance doesn’t have any nuance. Maybe it did on set, but if so, Derrickson goes out of his way not to shoot it. Long shots, extreme long shots, bad expository summary sequences. Derrickson plays it completely safe. Even when Doctor Strange gets visually fantastic, Derrickson rushes it along so there’s not time to regard that fantastic.

Anyway, once Cumberbatch starts doing magic, it picks up. Then he runs into Mikkelsen and the film improves big time. Of course, then the third act is a mess and Mikkelsen’s villain level gets downgraded. The action finish is also contrived in just a way to keep Derrickson from having to direct anything too complicated. His action is like watching a video game cut scene. One where you aren’t worried about any of the characters being in danger.

And the cape stuff is good (Cumberbatch gets a magic cape once he’s a wizard). And Cumberbatch and Benedict Wong are almost good together.

Doctor Strange’s lack of ambitions, narrative or visual, hurt it. But the script and Derrickson’s disinterest in his actors hurt it more. Still, it’s usually entertaining. It could definitely have been worse. Cumberbatch’s lack of personality probably helps Doctor Strange. The film wouldn’t know what to do with any.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Scott Derrickson; screenplay by Jon Spaihts, Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill, based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Sabrina Plisco and Wyatt Smith; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Charles Wood; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Stephen Strange), Mads Mikkelsen (Kaecilius), Tilda Swinton (The Ancient One), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mordo), Rachel McAdams (Christine Palmer), and Benedict Wong (Wong).


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Let Her Out (2016, Cody Calahan)

If cheap, misogynist Canadian horror gore twaddle is a genre, Let Her Out must be one its finest examples. At least in the modern era. In some ways, the worst thing about the film is director Calahan. With a single exception, his direction’s not bad. His composition is strong, his sense of space is solid (important as multiple filming locations create single ones in the film); sure, he can’t direct his cast but screenwriter Adam Seybold’s script ranges from appalling to abhorrent.

When Seybold’s just writing dialogue, it’s appalling. When he’s trying to get inside the female mind or dealing with lead Alanna LeVierge’s multiple sexual predators stalking her, it’s abhorrent. He does have a good partner in Calahan (they concocted the Dark Half-ripoff, but with misogyny, together) as Calahan loves his male gaze. The third act has triples down on it as costar Nina Kiri inexplicably races to LaVierge’s aid–riding a bicycle, breathless, her pointlessly exposed cleavage covered in sweat. Soon both Kiri and LaVierge will be covered in oily blood, so the sweat isn’t as bad as it can get.

The film opens with Brooke Henderson as a sex worker in a motel room. Calahan nearly objectively summarizes her night working–oddly, her nudity is (at least at first) less revolting than what he does with LaVierge later (mostly because she apparently said no to nudity, so he has to make it up other ways). Then some demonic guy shows up and rapes her. Fast forward a bit until she’s pregnant and then she stabs herself in the belly in an attempt to kill the baby.

At that point, it’s clear Calahan and Seybold aren’t going to make a good movie at all and probably a rather bad one. But, since I got Let Her Out as a screener, I felt it was my duty to suffer through.

Honestly, I just wanted to crap on it. Because it’s a terrible film and ought to be crapped on. And I wanted to know more about it so I could crap on more of it. Like when Seybold’s script starts throwing the word “whore” around a lot. See, LaVierge hasn’t given in to her first sexual predator stalker guy (Michael Lipka) because she just can’t “do” sex. It’s unclear at first; well, it’s not unclear. She sees herself in the mirror and feels shame and personal revulsion. It’s just not clear those feelings are because of her mother until later. Because it turns out the unborn twin inside her brain who eventually starts growing out of her has a full memory of before she was absorbed into LaVierge’s head in the womb and knows Henderson was a prostitute.

The end credits call the three guys who visit upon Henderson in the prologue her “suitors,” which seems gross, but entirely appropriate for the film.

Things get worse for LaVierge when Kiri’s boyfriend, Adam Christie, starts putting the moves on her. Christie’s a long-haired, bearded alpha male theatre director who sexually exploits Kiri while demeaning her (and making her the star in his play, which is about twin sisters–another thing undeveloped because the budget is low). He might give the film’s worst performance. Though–spoilers–when he tries raping LaVierge, the evil twin comes out and decapitates him. So, good for the “evil” twin.

Christie’s also there for the worst directed sequence, when everyone is at the party having a crazy fun theatre crowd time and staring directly into the camera. Thank goodness editor Duncan Christie (not sure if they’re related) cuts through the shots fast. Christie, the editor, is bad, which is actually rather nice. Because since Calahan’s composition is good and Jeff Maher’s cinematography is solid, Let Her Out would be technically competent overall if it weren’t for Christie, the editor, doing a lousy job editing.

He does cut together one effective sequence where LaVierge keeps flashing forward because she loses control to the evil (internal) twin. It’s not a well-written sequence–she’s talking to, arguing with, attempting to murder Kiri during it–but it’s effective. The one time Christie, the editor, manages to cut things well.

Really bad score from Steph Copeland.

Kate Fenton plays LaVierge’s doctor; the one who treats her for an emergency room visit, then when she has a brain tumor, but also for like a mental health checkup? Must be that single payer Canadian healthcare. There’s only one doctor in the whole, otherwise empty hospital.

Fenton is kind of not bad. Her lines are bad, but she doesn’t embarrass herself. The rest of the cast embarrasses themselves. Kiri least, then LaVierge. Christie, the actor, is actually somewhat better than Lipka, who’s inept as a hipster painter with his Neo-Nazi haircut forcing LaVierge to deliver his packages (she’s a bike messenger–Calahan loves her tight biking outfit, no surprise) so he can get her in his loft and, maybe, into bed.

Let Her Out is a gross movie.

Oh, crap. I forgot. The special effects are outstanding. The gore is expert.

It’s just expert gore, competent direction, competent photography wasted on a turd. No matter how oily sexy you think you can make the blood, it’s still just a bloody turd.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ0

CREDITS

Directed by Cody Calahan; screenplay by Adam Seybold, based on a story by Calahan and Seybold; director of photography, Jeff Maher; edited by Duncan Christie; music by Steph Copeland; production designer, Steve Dubois; produced by Chad Archibald, Christopher Giroux, and Calahan; released by Breakthrough Entertainment.

Starring Alanna LeVierge (Helen), Nina Kiri (Molly), Adam Christie (Ed), Michael Lipka (Roman), Brooke Henderson (Helen’s Mother), and Kate Fenton (Dr. Headly).


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