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Sunday, Sep 21, 2008

In the world of completely independent filmmaking, there are only four legitimate auteurs. For those unaware of the noted French theory, André Bazin, co-founder of the Cahiers du cinema is often credited with establishing a clear criterion for such consideration. The influential writer argued that all film should reflect a director’s personal vision, and in turn, should always be indicative of his or her own individual and recognizable style or approach. Examples in the mainstream are easily identifiable - Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, The Coen Brothers. But when it comes to those working way outside the frameworks of the typical Tinsel Town terrain, there’s only a quartet of qualified candidates.


Brothers Luke and Andy Campbell are among that noted number. They sit on the revisionist Mount Rushmore along with the nostalgic non-sequitors of Damon Packard, the trailer trash triumphs of Giuseppe Andrews, and the ‘80s high conceptualization of Chris Seaver. Located in Ohio, and versed in the kind of videotape varieties that educated an entire generation of film geeks, the boys have carved out a creative canon meshing the gore fests of their formative years with the broader aspects of genre devotion. From sports to seasonal wistfulness, insular universes and old school exploitation, the Campbells have managed to make the most of limited budgets, incomplete capabilities, and unbridled narrative invention.


With a review of their latest, Corboda Nights, in preparation for tomorrow’s blog post, SE&L has decided to look back on the previous five films made by these Midwestern mavericks. The first three efforts represent the standard growing pains - the uneasy balance between copycatting and creativity. Don’t be mistaken - inside this talented triptych are a series of sunny surprises. But when they offered up their street gang revenge zombie flick The Red Skulls in 2005, the Campbells announced themselves as full blown filmmakers, legitimized by a far more focused contrast between homage and originality. With Poison Sweethearts and now Cordoba, the duo delivers the kind of cinematic specificity that argues for both their reverence and redefinition of the artform.


Let’s begin our overview with the freak-out film that started it all:


Splatter Rampage Wrestling
For their first film, the Campbells collected a group of their friends, grabbed the singlets, and went gonzo for a surreal backyard wrestling experience. From Mullet Man and Philbert (a grappler who carries around a wooden rabbit named…Philbert) to the mighty Skulls, this collection of satiric superstars clearly illustrates the brothers’ strongest cinematic attribute - imagination. Presented as an overview of the fictional World ‘Rastling Coalition’s famous feuds and most charismatic gladiators, host Sam the Dirty Bum gives us an agonizing blow-by-d’oh round up of the best falls, the fiercest rivalries, and the nastiest injuries ever to come out of a bunch of drop-outs drop kicking each other. It’s dumb, deliberate, and a heck of a lot of fun.


Midnight Skater
Midnight Skater is a classic example of a “look beyond” film. If you can “look beyond” the amateur antics, unprofessional production values and overall neophyte nonsense exploding all around you and simply merge with this movie’s mindset, you’ll really enjoy yourself. Unfortunately, getting in the same Spock state of brain with the insane and inventive no-budget filmmakers here may require Ritalin, a gross of sugary juice boxes and about a hundred trips to the video store (or at least a couple readings of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film). Sometimes, the brothers reach beyond the scope of their ability and come back with a hand full of failure. But more times than not, they create a unusual and unique motion picture experience, one that hints at being a believable, if bargain basement slice of slasher while always showing how the tongue is planted firmly in ass cheek.


Demon Summer
In this follow-up production, a Slacker meets slasher, Dazed and Confused with Evil Dead-like demonology, the portrait of small town America is far more polished and professional. Indeed, while Skater was a celebration of the barf bag variety Summer strives to capture that lost and lonely feeling of being stuck in a one-horse hovel in the deadly dull middle of America’s heartland, with nothing better to do on a warm weekend evening but cruise the strip mall parking lot and drink Near Beer. Yes, there is bloodletting and body carving in this well-crafted, crackerjack thriller, but unlike most of their independent brethren, the Campbells hope to flesh out both divergent elements of their title with strong narratives that satisfy both as cinema and as entertainment. And for the most part, they succeed.


The Red Skulls
You see it from the first few frames – something has definitely changed about the way Luke and Andy Campbell make movies. It used to be that they gathered up a group of their friends, fashioned a storyline out of horror movie odds and ends, then festoon it all with a gallon or ten of grue, pop on the ska-punk soundtrack. That the result was usually something quite special, an intriguing glimpse into what engages the mind of some Ohio cinematic wannabes, was the icing on the camcorder cake. But here things feel special. There is a concentration on the fringe elements of filmmaking, items like set design, costuming, character clarity and actual performances. With The Red Skulls, the boys have fashioned their first real attempt at a conventional motion picture. Even with all its ingratiating genre elements, and its last act lurch into some over the top fight clubbing, this film represents real, measurable growth from the duo.


Poison Sweethearts
With its exploitation derived framework and silly chauvinistic sheen, Poison Sweethearts truly marks the moment when Andy and Luke completely shed their homemade horror mantle and become real directors. This is not to say that their previous efforts represent lesser behind the lens mannerisms. But the truth is that movie macabre has a certain set of specs - cinematic formulas and prerequisites that keep vision hemmed in and innovation stifled. But with Sweethearts, the boys branch out into good old fashioned grindhouse territory, and inside such a conceit they find a wonderfully wicked, homage heavy masterpiece. Not every vignette works perfectly, and before we know it, the faux flesh peddler fun is over and done. But while it lasts, the boys deliver enough recognizable references to the forgotten genre that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino should be ashamed.


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Saturday, Sep 20, 2008

Fright fans have been waiting for this event for nearly three decades. After 1980’s Inferno introduced the concept of a continuing saga about the infamous Three Mothers, and the possibility of the ultimate horror trilogy, those who’ve followed Dario Argento’s career have wondered when he would finally deliver the last act of his terror triptych. Suspiria has long been considered a macabre masterpiece, the kind of unbridled moviemaking genius that ushered in copycats, great expectations and the prospect of even better things to come. The Italian auteur’s follow up was crucified, critics and audiences both startled by its dissimilarity to its source, as well as its purposeful sense of style over substance. Now comes Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, and again, Argento is defying convention to deliver another totally unique take on his previously forged black magic reality.


When an ancient urn is unearthed in an old Italian cemetery, it brings with it the standard portents of evil. The death of an innocent art historian marks just the first of many unspeakable acts. Soon, Sarah Mandy is caught up in a sinister situation that she barely understands. Chased by forces bent on destroying her, and unsure of the admonishing voice in her head, she seeks the help of fellow museum employee Michael Pierce. When he proves ineffectual, she searches out the counsel of the Vatican’s last official Exorcist, as well as one of Rome’s leading alchemists. Through her connection to her late mother, and the previous incarnations of Maters Suspiriorum and Tenebrarum, Sarah soon learns that Mother Lachrimarum has risen, and plans on orchestrating the second fall of Rome - unless our heroine can find a way to stop her.


Hitting the ground running and never giving up for 90 nasty minutes, The Mother of Tears (new to DVD from Genius Products, Dimension Extreme, and the Weinstein Company) is Dario Argento’s final statement on his precedent as the definitive Delacroix of dread. Avoiding most of the slow burn visual splendor that made Suspiria a classic, and shunning all of Inferno‘s incomprehensible tone poetry, the 68 year old director has finally finished this long gestating journey - for better and for worse. There will be complaints that this film feels nothing like its predecessors, that there’s an obvious scary movie overkill methodology at play. Indeed, the first film used witchcraft as an afterthought, the denouement in a plotline that had numerous other elements going for it. Similarly, the notion that pagans ruled a decadent New York apartment building was but a single facet in a film overloaded with optical - and occult - wonders.


Here, Argento seems to be saying ‘enough is enough’. Instead of painting the screen with memorable imagery, or provocative pictures, he just antes up the arterial spray and hopes for the horrific. Luckily, he delivers some delightfully disgusting set pieces. Throats are slit, bodies carved open, and various torture devices remove eyes, mouths, and other organs from their biological owners. This is also one of the few films that put kids directly in harms way. A baby is tossed off the side of a bridge, while another toddler is vivisected into several disturbing parts. The F/X work is wonderful, unsettling in its power and putrescence. Sure, there are some moments of mindless CGI that get in the way of the wickedness, but overall, The Mother of Tears provides an open grave full of gruesomeness.


The director also has a capable cast on hand to sell the sluice. Though she’s reduced to ‘last girl’ role quite often in this splatter rampage, daughter Asia Argento is an agreeable lead. She may act whiny and weak a great deal of the time, but she has a presence that the camera can’t deny. And though she’s hidden in smoke and mirrors for her part here, it’s great to see Daria Nicolodi back in the genre camp. As Detective Enzio Marchi, Christian Solimeno may come across as nothing more than plot fodder, but he makes good use of his screen time, and Adam James does a decent job as Mike, the art historian with an interest in the supernatural. Elsewhere, moments with the legendary Udo Kier and Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni remind us of why Argento is the master. No one kills a character like Dario.


As for the DVD itself, the added content is underwhelming in its quantity, wonderful in its quality. Argento is present for both an onscreen interview and various backstage sequences. The Q&A even drops a delicious bombshell - he may revisit the Three Mothers again. Having enjoyed himself immensely while making this film, a suggestion regarding a prequel has inspired the spirited 68 year old. An origins picture would be right up his alley, especially considering his love of making movies. During the Behind the Scenes featurette, we see Argento in his favorite position - implement of death in hand, camera over his shoulder ready to capture another senseless bit of slaughter. No matter his recent track record, this is an artist who clearly gets a thrill out of bringing his bravura vision to the big screen.


Yet what most fans are probably wondering is where Mother of Tears fits in the entire Mater mythology. It is clear that, when he came to this fabled finale, Argento knew his narrative would have to do some rather basic back peddling. He ties to Suspiria and it’s dance school setting and makes reference to the Manhattan mayhem section of his set-up. There are call backs to the original Three Mothers book (which we see in Inferno) and lots of exposition regarding architecture, cults, history, and death. Again, this is the first of these films to feature the Mother plotline almost exclusively. We aren’t dealing with a character discovering the witch and her secret, underlying purpose. Here, everything’s out in the open and a part of it.


The observant obsessive will see references to other Argento works as well. The obvious bow is to his mostly forgotten effort Phenomena. With the use of a monkey familiar, and a last act flood of maggot-filled offal, the director clearly delights in reminding us of his legacy. Similarly, he seems to be channeling the entire post-modern creepshow canon, tossing in a homage to Clive Barker here, a direct reference to Peter Jackson and The Frighteners there.


Mother of Tears works best when it avoids conversation and simply brings on the carnage. It may not satisfy every fan of Argento’s prosaic past, nor is it the realistic return to form everyone has been hoping for. Still, for anyone who doubts his power behind the lens, one look at this luxuriant, ludicrous exercise in excess will convince you - Dario Argento is a master, and Mother of Tears is an effective, engaging statement of same.


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Friday, Sep 19, 2008

The media just loves to fawn over George Clooney. With his combination of classic Hollywood charisma and contemporary self-effacing nerve, he tends to enhance, and sometimes overwhelm, the projects he touches. From his early, ineffectual work in films like One Fine Day, to the critical acclaim accompanying his turns with the Coens, he’s a student of the old studio system as well as a jester in his own idiosyncratic kingdom of considered cool. But what’s most fascinating about this man’s career is not his rise to mainstream prominence. Instead, his unique turns behind the camera - Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck - indicate an artist willing to bend tradition in order to place his own unique stamp on cinema. His latest effort, the attempted screwball comedy Leatherheads, is no different.


Poor Dodge Connelly. All he knows is football. He’s been playing an unappreciated professional version of the sport for years, unable to capture the public imagination the way the college game has. When his team folds, he heads to Chicago to talk with old ally C.C. Frazier. The sleazy entrepreneur is representing Princeton star Carter Rutherford, and Connelly thinks he can con the young war hero into going legit. Of course, as with every story like this, there’s a dame in the mix - in this case, ace Tribune reporter Lexie Littleton. Quick with a word and decisive on a deadline, she is out to undermine Rutherford. Seems his WWI mythos might just be bunk after all. Of course, destroying his reputation may just put the fledgling fortunes of professional football in jeopardy - and Connelly won’t let that happen.


You’ve got to give Clooney credit for trying, especially when most of Leatherheads is a jaunty, jazz age dream. He’s definitely learned a lot from his many collaborations with ones Joel and Ethan, and his visual flair never fails him. This is a smart, good looking movie, never overplaying its period piece precision or resorting to camp or kitsch. Clooney’s attention to detail is flawless, his comic timing as polished as the brass of a speakeasy’s spittoon. And as we learn on the included commentary track of the new DVD from Universal Home Video, he’s a student of several old school cinematic masters. So why then is this movie merely good, and not the amazing masterpiece it wants to be? Where did this director and his dedicated cast go wrong, especially in light of all the things they both get so very, very right?


One answer may be the genre. As Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day indicated, the screwball comedy is a dead genre for a very good reason - it’s hard as Hell to recreate. Not only was the format a product of its time, but it also reflected the obvious anxieties of a world between wars. Clooney clicks into the aspects that cause instant recognition - ditzy dialogue, razor-sharp put downs, lightning quick conversations - but never finds the narrative mechanics to amplify everything else onscreen. During the opening football sequence, we see the kind of cinematic zing required to pull this off. By the middle of the second act, all that pizzazz has petered out.


Then there’s Renee Zellweger. While far more tolerable here than in other starring roles, she’s still the hollow feminine side of a rather lax lover’s triangle. With a pinched up face that blocks her needs to be expressive eyes, and a delivery pitched somewhere between community college thespianism and The Hudsucker Proxy, she never settles in to her function here. It’s the same with John Krasinski as Rutherford. He is supposed to be a genial lox, the kind of wide eyed innocent who doesn’t mind dipping into the dark side once in a while - or at least, that’s how the script handles him. He goes along with the get rich quick scheme forwarded by Connelly and Frazier, rather mercenary in his decision. But then, when Zellweger’s Littleton betrays him, he acts like a hurt puppy - albeit one that freely stained the companionship carpet whenever and wherever he wanted.


It’s up to our creative cheerleader to hold everything together, and it’s a testament to Clooney’s talent and magnetism that he manages to make it work. Connelly’s moxie, his sense of purpose and passion for playing football comes across loud and clear. Similarly, when smitten with Littleton and jealous of her wandering attentions, we believe in the legitimacy of their love. It’s too bad that the second act gets bogged down in ancillary plot points. Had Leatherheads simply stayed focused on showing how football moved from a college to national pastime, we’d have a winning sports epic. But emotions that should soar merely lumber along, failing to get our undivided attention.


As part of the hefty DVD packaging, we get a wealth of explanatory extras. Clooney’s commentary with producer Grant Heslov is a might dry, yet the two do offer up some solid production insights. The deleted scenes argue for a film that could have been even longer (at 116 minutes, its 26 too long) and the various Making-of documentaries showcase Leatherheads’ attention to detail. Of course, none of this addresses the bigger question - what would this film have been like had Clooney found castmates equal to his movie idol mantle? What if, instead of Zellweger and Krasinski, he had managed Matt Damon and, say, Jodie Foster? This is a movie that cries out for all around classicism. As we learn from the bonus features, Clooney was required to do most of the heavy lifting.


As a result, Leatherheads stands as an almost success. It does the best it can with the cast and content collected, and still ends up delivering an occasionally delightful entertainment. It’s clear that, as he continues his career, Clooney’s choice behind the camera will be as brave and as interesting as the movie roles he options - maybe even more so. No one but this mainstream man-crush could use his considerable clout to forge a ‘20s era experiment in style and sass. While it doesn’t always work, Leatherheads definitely looks and feels right. And in the case of this clever attempt, two out of three is all that’s really needed.


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Thursday, Sep 18, 2008

Fall finally settles in with a batch of big titles. Of course, some unlikely efforts (Igor, My Best Friend’s Girl) weren’t screened for all critics. Still for 19 September, here are the films in focus:


Trouble the Water [rating: 10]


By picking up on this personal story and serving it up in a way that plays commentator, not critic, the filmmakers allows Kim and Scott to speak for themselves. The results are astoundingly brutal and beautifully honest.

Survival is instinctual. It goes to our very nature as life loving beings. It can be mistaken for desperation or arrogance, but the need to stay alive usually trumps all other basic necessities. When Hurricane Katrina flared up in the Gulf of Mexico, moving from minor storm to an Armageddon like presence preparing to devastate New Orleans, the rest of America looked on with disdain. From the settled suburbanite to the doofus President they reelected, no one really cared if the levees would hold, if city services would respond, or if anyone was left behind. But for Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott, there was no option. There was no leaving or getting to safer shelter. All they had was themselves, their extended family, and their will to survive. They also had a camcorder.  read full review…


Man on Wire [rating: 9]


As the subject of James Marsh’s brilliant documentary…, Petit proves that there can be joy in doing what others would consider to be insane.

A daredevil, by definition, defies death. He cheats the Grim Reaper at his own particular brand of bluffing. This also means, by reciprocal inference, he or she embraces life. Granted, it does appear to be a contradictory condition. By pushing the very limits of existence to the points where you could end it, one looks to be laughing in the face of mortality. It’s seem the very definition of a fool’s paradise. By his very giddiness alone, wire walker Phillipe Petit would be the perfect illustration of this ideal. He sees nothing wrong with finding a location, stringing up a line, and doing his risky, refined dance with destiny. And he worships the moment as he does it.  read full review…


Ghost Town [rating: 7]


Skillful and subtle, with enough hilarity to match its equally ample heart, Ghost Town is the Fall’s sunniest surprise.

Hollywood used to excel at what could best be described as the “little” movie. You know the type - small in scope, limited in appeal, and never overreaching beyond its certain purpose. Prior to the high concept ‘80s, lots of films were ‘little’. But ever since stars became commodities to market like cinematic stock, Tinsel Town has taken the “bigger is boffo” attitude with almost everything. A drama must deal with issues of interpersonal earth-shattering design. A comedy must be over the top and hilariously hyperactive. All of this works against Ricky Gervais and his latest effort, Ghost Town. Anyone coming to this movie thinking the Office/Extras star is out to create a wacky spook show is in for quite a disappointment. Instead, this is a little film that easily achieves its entertainment aims. read full review…


Lakeview Terrace [rating: 6]


This is the kind of movie where every bad guy has his decent side, every hero is merely half-hearted, and the genre beats we except from the story come buried in sidebars of dense characterization and unnecessary sideways subplotting.

Even with years of consideration and compromise, race remains a far too risky hot button topic. No matter how you present it - comically, dramatically, satirically, metaphorically - the corrupt cloud of prejudice tends to trump most artistic aspirations. There’s just too much baggage with bigotry, decades of discrimination and social acquiescence to same that it appears impossible to overcome…at least initially. And no, changing the ‘color’ of intolerance doesn’t redefine or reconfigure the argument. That’s the problem facing Neil LaBute and his latest effort, the slow burn thriller Lakeview Terrace. While it looks like dozens of films that have come before, the independent icon - responsible for In the Company of Men and Nurse Betty - tries to instill some novelty via a unique approach and a controversial villain. For the most part, he stumbles as often as he succeeds.  read full review…


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Thursday, Sep 18, 2008

Hollywood used to excel at what could best be described as the “little” movie. You know the type - small in scope, limited in appeal, and never overreaching beyond its certain purpose. Prior to the high concept ‘80s, lots of films were ‘little’. But ever since stars became commodities to market like cinematic stock, Tinsel Town has taken the “bigger is boffo” attitude with almost everything. A drama must deal with issues of interpersonal earth-shattering design. A comedy must be over the top and hilariously hyperactive. All of this works against Ricky Gervais and his latest effort, Ghost Town. Anyone coming to this movie thinking the Office/Extras star is out to create a wacky spook show is in for quite a disappointment. Instead, this is a little film that easily achieves its entertainment aims.


Dentist Bertram Pincus hates people. It’s one of the main reasons he enjoys his chosen profession. A major misanthrope, he spends his days delivering pain, his nights avoiding everyone around him. When a routine medical procedure goes awry, Dr. Pincus discovers an unusual side effect - he can see dead people. Actually, they are the ghosts roaming around Manhattan, looking for someone living to help them complete their Earthly business. One such apparition is Frank Herlihy. A horrible womanizer when he was alive, he now wants Dr. Pincus to help him break up his widow’s impending marriage. If our hero doesn’t agree, Frank will allows the rest of New York’s spirit population to persistently hound him - and with such a large metropolis, there’s a lot of spooks to go around. Of course, once he gets to know Gwen, Dr. Pincus finds himself falling in love. This only complicates things for both the living, and the recently deceased.


Skillful and subtle, with enough hilarity to match its equally ample heart, Ghost Town is the Fall’s sunniest surprise. Going in, we expect the standard star driven vamp, Gervais given free reign to work his wise-ass magic on us unsuspecting Yanks. Even with a script from accomplished scribes David Koepp (who also directs) and John Kamps, we keep waiting for the anarchic adlibbing to step in and swamp everything. Yet aside from a couple of clever confrontations, our lead is in likeable loser mode. He’s not meant to overpower the plot. Instead, Dr. Pincus is a pawn in a much bigger cosmic comedy. Koepp and Kamps keep the humor low key and realistic. We don’t get goofy ghost-busting gags or sequences of sci-fi special effects. Instead, this movie makes its point via characterization and emotion, two things we don’t expect from such a seemingly high concept creation.


Again, Gervais is quite remarkable here, his face gestures reminding one of an uncanny combination of both Laurel and Hardy. Even within a completely contemporary setting, the pear-shaped Brit reminds one of film legends past. It’s not only his demeanor, which comes across as cultured if crazy. No, everything about Pincus, from his sour world view to a reluctance to embrace his supernatural situation screams Hollywood’s Golden Age. The only way we know we’re visiting 2008 comes whenever Greg Kinnear’s pesky specter comes along. With his used car salesman patter and constant Blackberry fidgeting, he instantly brings Ghost Town up to date. As a character, his cruel adulterer is hard to embrace. But since he channels his needs through Gervais, we end up empathizing with his paranormal position.


Indeed, a lot of Ghost Town is centered on helping the dead “settle” their spirits. Koepp sets up the potentially maudlin moments of closure in such a way that they feel organic, not forced. In fact, there are a few handkerchief sequences spread out across the movie’s many narrative threads. Co-star Tea Leoni makes for an easy to accept love interest, her openness matching Gervais’ closed off creep perfectly. There is a great chemistry between the two, an easiness and clear compatibility that answers any romantic questions the audience may have. This is not a movie centering on passions or lust. Instead, Ghost Town wants to travel in tenderness and smaller triumphs. It manages this material with ease.


Certainly, some will see Koepp’s spiritual sense as a little pat. This is the kind of movie that explains human/spirit interactions with an unexpected sneeze, and the flaring of available light the post-modern equivalent of an angel earning its wings. There is no discussion of God or the afterlife, no link up to religion, faith, or a sense of the sacred. The phantoms here are like leftovers from Poltergeist, desperate to reconnect with their loved ones (or in one hilarious case, their bitter rival) before falling into the realm beyond…whatever that is. Indeed, the references to other cinematic spook shows, from the Murray/Akyroyd classic to calmer entertainments like Ghost, keep the film from floating away on its own New Age artifice. Of course, it helps to have Gervais at the center. He could defuse the most potent source of saintly mumbo jumbo with a simple comic stare. 


In fact, for those not familiar with his intercontinental cult status, Ghost Town will be a revelation. As a supporting player in such films as For Your Consideration and Night at the Museum, he never got a real chance to shine. Instead, he appeared pigeonholed in a predetermined cameo conceit. But here, Gervais elevates Dr. Pincus into one of the better leads for a revisionist RomCom. It’s rare to see the schlub succeed, to watch the man with the thicker waistline and jowly demeanor win over the women with the sheer force of his prickly (if hilarious) personality. Of course, established star power can overcome any physical (or psychological) limitations, but Ghost Town is one of the rare films that earns its humble happy ending.


All of this adds up to a film that manages to make its way deep into your heart without feeling overly manipulative or mannered. Indeed unlike another similarly styled movie from 1993 (the trite Robert Downey Jr. effort Heart and Souls), Ghost Town controls all its facets - fantastical and otherwise - to deliver a decent ‘little’ entertainment. Remember, if you’re looking for outsized scope or a dimensional dissection of the supernatural, you’ll need to focus on other films. But if you want to see a great comedian giving a true performance within a movie that works both comically and emotionally, this film will definitely satisfy. It’s nice to see that Hollywood can turn out the well meaning minor gem when it wants to. Here’s hoping Ghost Town‘s shine inspires others to drop the pretense and aim a little lower. As this movie proves, such an undersized focus can produce a refreshing big screen experience.


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