Now in Theaters: April 2016

Right now, there’s a lot more good stuff playing at your local multiplex than you might expect. Here are some of my plot-free impressions of several interesting movies you can go see today.

 

THE WITCH

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If you missed it the first time around a few months ago, The Witch is back in multiplexes and for fans of genre filmmaking, it’s an absolute must-see. The film, from first-time filmmaker Robert Eggers, can be classified most accurately as a horror movie but doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with all the PG-13 jump-scare nonsense we’ve gotten so accustomed to lately. While The Witch is short on the sudden jolts, its atmosphere is shaded with ten layers of creepy and makes for a more deeply unsettling experience than just waiting for some pale, black-robed creature to come out and yell at you.

The Witch enjoyed a rapturous response at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, but the gushing hyperbole about it being the “scariest film of the year” led a lot of folks to have the wrong impression and not give the film the thought it deserves. Besides the lack of sudden spikes in the audio track, the film has an ending that has proved polarizing, but I’m completely on board with (and I won’t dare spoil) it. The Witch isn’t afraid to step into some fascinating and morally ambiguous territory, and while many horror fans apparently weren’t looking for it, there’s a morality play bubbling underneath the surface that’s just as troubling and fascinating as the movie’s claustrophobic imagery.

I typically avoid horror films like the plague, but I was so enraptured by The Witch,  I bought another ticket the same day. My second viewing of the film is easily the best theatrical experience I’ve had all year, and left me giddy and smiling. Dunno what that says about me, but I can’t recommend this film highly enough whether you’re into horror or not.

 

ZOOTOPIA

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If you haven’t seen Zootopia yet, where the hell have you been?! It’s a masterpiece. The newest feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios is almost certainly its best yet in a long line of winners since Disney’s merger with Pixar and John Lasseter’s reign as chief creative officer of Disney animation proper.  It’s lush, it’s deep, it’s culturally resonant in a way that’s almost shocking. The candidacy of Donald Trump and Zootopia do not exist in separate vacuums.

While the filmmakers and Disney will never say so, Zootopia is an intensely political film and it comes at a volatile and important period of demographic transition in our country. Like America, the city of Zootopia is a promising but imperfect place where ideals of promoting diversity and inclusiveness clash with the harshness of reality as different populations are made to coexist. Many characters, even ones we like, betray their own biases and have to learn from their mistakes and accept the consequences of their ignorance.

The film’s inter-species dynamics are specific and different enough from our society’s prominent racial biases that it’s easy for Disney to shrug off the allegory, but make no mistake: Zootopia leans to the left. And I love it for that. There are so many ways to tackle the film as it excels on almost every level, but its daringly progressive stance was the aspect I found most thrilling. If Zootopia achieves even a fraction of the cultural penetration that Frozen continues to demonstrate, we’ll be living in a slightly better world.

 

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE

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Whoof.

Talking about this movie is tough for me, because quite frankly I was biased against it going in. I don’t like Zack Snyder’s aesthetic very much, and BvS bears his visual trademarks as much as anything else in his filmography. Predictably, it’s a washed-out, smoky and loud dick-waving contest. Having said that, the film is not completely without merit and if you’re a film fan or pop-culture connoisseur it’s required viewing regardless of its quality. The movie is called Batman v Superman for God’s sake, what are you going to do? Skip it? Just because a movie is bad doesn’t mean it’s not culturally relevant. I saw it twice just to make sure I didn’t like it.

My first viewing was conflicted experience. The opening title sequence features the murder of Batman’s parents (again) intercut against a restaging of young Bruce Wayne’s discovery of the Batcave from Batman Begins, except this time young Master Wayne is elevated, Christ-like, from the cave by a fleet of bats as the words “Directed by Zack Snyder” appear on-screen. I almost barfed. This cinematic atrocity is followed by easily the most interesting sequence in the film, as the film takes a different perspective on the final act of Man of Steel from Bruce Wayne’s point of view.

The third act of Man of Steel is highly problematic and those issues have been discussed in thorough detail from a variety of sources.  BvS attempts to atone and provide commentary for Man of Steel‘s wanton displays of destruction but muddles its message to the point where the intent is frustratingly unclear. Similar to its Marvel analog, Avengers: Age of Ultron, the film feels unfinished and in need of a 3-hour cut. This is a terrible precedent to be setting for event films. Several scenes feel unnecessary to the plot and are not interesting enough to stand on their own. Snyder also continues to indulge his embarrassing slo-mo fetish.

Batman v Superman is interesting, but unfortunately that is mostly due to its flaws rather than its strengths. I was drawn to Tomorrowland last year due to its trainwreck nature, and I feel similarly about BvS. It’s fun to wrestle with, but it is not a good movie. Sorry.

 

HARDCORE HENRY

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If this movie is for you, you probably know it already. Hardcore Henry distinguishes itself by being told entirely from the first-person perspective of the title character (i.e. GoPro helmets), and draws just as much, if not more, influence from the world of video gaming than other films. It’s a non-stop 90-minute barrage of bloody violence and profanity, and it’s hard to deny that can be a lot of fun.

As a project willing to actually break new cinematic ground, it can feel rough-around-the-edges at times in a way that is both refreshing and periodically annoying. Curiously, for a film told entirely from a character’s first person perspective I was expecting a lot more long takes, but almost every sequence is filled with cuts, even if it feels like only a few seconds of footage were removed.  The staccato editing style keeps up the ferocity and momentum, but this comes at the expense of  a real sense of geography in several of the locations. The plot is secondary at best, which itself is not necessarily a problem, but after a while it can feel exactly like an FPS in the wrong way: a progression of levels, NPCs (played mostly by Sharlto Copley in various ridiculous outfits) and ever-increasing hordes of baddies to slay. By the time the credits rolled, I was tired.

None of this is to say Hardcore Henry isn’t fun or worth seeing, because it is. I’m not a professional critic, but I go see a lot of films and watching something in a theater that is actually unique is an experience I’m always, ahem, game for. Go to a matinee screening with appropriate expectations, and you’ll have a good time.

(note:  I went to the Fathom Events opening-night screening of the film, and was given a prequel comic-book which fills in a lot of backstory for Hardcore Henry‘s villain that isn’t even hinted at in the film. The experience would have been much more perplexing without this background info.)

My thoughts on a few other current releases will be forthcoming soon, thanks for reading and stay tuned to this station.

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