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Arts Film Review

New films: Self/less, Minions and The Gallows

Directed by Tarsem Singh

In “Self/less,” an aging and somewhat ruthless (ruth-challenged?) businessman (played by Ben Kingsley) is dying from cancer and considering a secretive offer to have his identity transferred into a new body. It’s an idea that has been around in film and science fiction for a long time, complicated of course by the fact that nobody would recognize the new, younger identity. But for a man with few options left and the financial means to easily afford the transition, it’s an appealing offer (it would be an extremely short film if it wasn’t).

But things aren’t quite as straight-forward as he was thinking (although, to be honest, the pitch he was given was ridiculously hard to believe), and it becomes apparent that his new body (Ryan Reynolds) had a previous owner. In several films with related topics, often with invading aliens, we’re given two intellects fighting for control of the same host body. “Self/less” is actually a little more subtle than that, making the overall story more of a morality tale for one character rather than an internal struggle for dominance between two.

As such, it’s a reasonably well told story that’s quite effective and which could prompt some interesting dinner conversations (“Would you transfer your intellect to a new body if assured nobody else would be harmed in the process?”). But it still ends up feeling extremely familiar and, throughout the entire film, I felt as though I could have written the next 15-20 minutes of the screenplay. I don’t recall a single plot development that offered any surprise.

By comparison, what did surprise me was the style of the overall production – in that it’s really quite conventional, with no overtly flashy visual embellishments. That’s surprising because director Tarsem Singh has, to date, largely made films that often seemed to put the visual experience ahead of the storytelling role. For example, “The Fall” was reportedly shot in 28 countries over several years and looks more like a video essay for “Travel & Leisure” or “National Geographic” than a movie. While not quite as extreme, “The Cell,” “Mirror, Mirror” and “The Immortals” are also films marked by their visuals – at times like extended experimental music videos. Which leaves “Self/less” looming relatively ordinary – but not in a bad way as the story seems front and center.

Overall, I enjoyed “Self/less” despite it having an overly revealing preview and a general sense of familiarity – as though I had read the screenplay a few years ago (I hadn’t), with it all coming back a few minutes in advance of events on screen. It’s still a moderately enjoyable film to watch unfold and I’d like to see Singh further develop this side of his talent and then, perhaps, find a happier medium between the narrative and visual elements.


I’m often not a fan of spinoffs about side characters but “Minions” works reasonably well and serves as both a prequel for “Despicable Me” and an origins story for the minions themselves. It takes the action all the way back to the dinosaurs, with our immortal and/or evolutionarily perfect little yellow guys constantly in search of a new, evil boss to serve. This sets up some witty historical sequences kids small enough to be the target audience probably won’t get until they’re older and watch it again, but which will likely amuse parents. The bulk of the film follows three of the minions (and it’s a wise choice to keep it that personal) as they seek out their latest super-villain employer, with much of the film and humor having an English focus. “Minions” will keep the smallest kids happy and won’t be a painful experience for the rest of the family, even if not one’s first.

If compared to most major theatrical releases, “The Gallows” is a fairly awful movie – although that’s true of much of the “found footage” (“all we found was this video camera and these cell phones”) variety of low budget horror films. But if it’s compared against other micro-budget, small town (in this case Fresno) projects that I often see in a festival submission pool rather than in a movie theater, it actually feels quite complete and I‘ve seen far worse from better known names – it just doesn’t feel very polished or ‘theatrical.’ It’s worth noting, however, that this simple tale of a deadly high school play that’s being re-enacted 20 years later earned plenty of shrieks and screams from a young advance-screening audience and that will ultimately be the measure of its success. With a production budget reportedly as low as $100,000, and even after adding the millions generally necessary to bring a film to the big screen and produce a successful marketing campaign, the break-even point will be significantly lower than for most films. It’s probably debatable whether a video on demand or Netflix-type initial release might have made better sense (it tends to cut the vast majority of the marketing costs), but there’s also industry credibility earned for young filmmakers simply in seeing their work make it all the way to the big screen. So, on that level, it’s already succeeded – now it just has to scare enough teenagers to end up in the black. Either way, we’ll probably see something bigger from these filmmakers in the future regardless of how bad most of the reviews for this film are likely to be – somebody in Hollywood will probably want to see what they can do with a real budget.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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