Friday, July 21, 2017

Classic Movie Review: The Event (2015)

The Event (2015)
Directed by: Sergey Loznitsa.
Written by: Sergey Loznitsa.
If you’re planning on seeing Sergei Loznitsa’s The Event, you may want to bone up on your Soviet history a little bit before doing so. Loznitsa is making a follow-up film to his acclaimed Maidan (2014), a documentary where Loznitsa followed the protests in Kiev in 2013 and 2014 against the Russian aggression into their country. Again, Loznitsa is working with footage shot by others, and crafting into a whole – but this time he looks further back in history – to a few days in August 1991, in the town of Leningrad. This was when a group of high ranking Soviet officials tried to conduct a coup d’tat and oust President Mikhail Gorbachev – and people took to the streets to protest. The Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse – inside 6 months it would do just that. But that didn’t mean the people wanted a coup – and wanted a group of self-proclaimed elites to come in and take over. In Moscow, the protests were very volatile – but in Leningrad, they were mainly subdued and peaceful. The people who showed up in the town square, shouting slogan, listening for the latest news, and standing in solidarity with each other didn’t want things to get violent. They just wanted to make their voices heard.
Because Loznitsa is working entirely with archival footage – and he doesn’t provide a voice over, he really does not place too much of what we see in The Event into context. We get snippets of speeches and radio broadcasts so we can tell the broad outlines of what is happening – but that’s about it. This movie isn’t about the specifics of what happened and why it all ended up collapsing. Instead, it is a story of the protesters and their sense of optimism and camaraderie – something that at the time seemed incredibly hopeful for Russia’s future, and looking back at it now is just sad, given how everything has gone in the more than two decades since. It started out so optimistic – and ended up in very much the same place.
One of the main reasons for that can be glimpsed in The Event – as we clearly see Vladimir Putin, then a young KGB Agent, in the footage at several times, coming and going, always silently. His presence is a reminder that even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of the people in power remained there – so Russia never got the housecleaning it needed for it to make a fresh start. Instead, it’s just more of the same.
The film is short – just 74 minutes – and that’s about the right length for a movie like this. The film isn’t overly exciting, and can in fact be a little dull. But it is important – and at times quite striking as well. There is no doubt the film will move those in Russia – and the Ukraine – more than those of us who may not be as familiar with the events on display. Still, the movie is an important document of a time when the Russian people had a reason to be optimistic – before it slipped away from them.
Note: I saw this film at TIFF 2015, and at this point, I have to believe it’s not going to get a proper released in North America – so I decided to publish the review I wrote then anyway.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Movie Review: The Untamed

The Untamed
Directed by: Amat Escalante 
Written by: Amat Escalante & Gibrán Portela 
Starring: Ruth Ramos (Alejandra), Simone Bucio (Veronica), Jesus Meza (Angel), Eden Villavicencio (Fabian).
The opening shot of Amat Escalnate’s The Untamed shows an asteroid floating out in space, and then he cuts immediately to an interior of a small cabin, where a woman, Vero (Simone Bucio) is just finishing a sexual encounter with some sort of animal that has a tentacle. We don’t quite get a good view of the creature right then – but eventually, we will, but this opening effectively prepares us for what is to follow – a strange mix of sci-fi, horror, domestic drama and allegory, The Untamed is certainly inspired by films like Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) – among others – but it is also very clearly its own thing. It is not a perfect film, but in its messiness, it finds interesting directions and observations a cleaner film wouldn’t.
The film centers on Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) and her husband Angel (Jesus Meza). Theirs is not a happy marriage – and certainly not sexually fulfilling for either one, as Escalante establishes early with a quick sex scene between the two, where Alejandra seems bored (and then retreats to the shower to masturbate), meanwhile Angel is having an affair with Alejandra’s brother, Fabian (Eden Villavicencio). Angel works in construction – in the already macho Mexican society, and outwardly he is extremely homophobic – using gay slurs with his friends, and insulting his brother in law to his wife, and even calling Fabian names to his face. Fabian hates himself for this affair (one weak spot in the film is that it never really becomes clear why Fabian started the affair with Angel in the first place – from Angel’s point-of-view, it makes sense – he is gay but hates gay people, so Fabian may be the only one he really knows – but why is Fabian drawn to Angel, especially since it seems like he has a good relationship with Alejandra?). It is Fabian, a nurse, who meets Vero when she comes into the hospital following that sexual encounter with the tenacled creature – which is capable of giving immense pleasure, but also causing immense pain. The creature is stored in a cabin in the middle of nowhere by an elderly couple – the field around it in lush and green, and the animals around them seem constantly horny. The elderly couple don’t think Vero should come around anymore – the creature seems upset when she is, and, as we know, is starting to hurt her. It is through Vero that the other major characters in the film will eventually all visit that cabin – with mixed results depending on who goes there – those with secrets, lies or violence in them have a worse time than those who don’t.
The Untamed is a clearly a critique of the macho culture in much of Mexico – and frankly, around the world. Alejandra is the most clearly sympathetic character – a woman dealing with two kids, a husband who doesn’t satisfy her sexually (does even try really), and is cheating on her with brother, and prone to violent outbursts. She is many ways stuck however – she isn’t rich, and works for her husband’s parents, who also act as her babysitter. Vero enters her life in a strange way, and will bring her the creature eventually. Everyone else in the movie has sins weighing on them – the lies both Angel and Fabien tell Alejandra, and even Vero, who cannot quit seeing the creature, and leads people there, perhaps knowing the consequences – and eventually even her jealously of Alejandra.
The film isn’t always an easy mixture of its various genre elements. I really don’t think we needed a scene where the elderly “caretaker” of the creature explains its nature to Alejandra – and by extension the audience – as it seems fairly clear what it all means. The film stretches credibility at points – and no, not just because it has a mainly tenactled creature capable of giving orgasms, but in terms of character motivation. But the film is a unique film the whole way through – a fascinating view of macho culture, homophobia and unmet female sexual needs, all of which end up coming together with horrible results. The Untamed is a messy film to be sure – but that’s the way it should be. It is ambitious and audacious, and if it doesn’t quite pull of everything it wants to do, well, that’s to be expected. But it is a film that demands to be seen and talked about.
Note: I saw this film at TIFF in 2016, and wrote the review shortly after. As always, as far as I know, the version I saw at TIFF, is the being released into theaters.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Movie Review: Chasing Coral

Chasing Coral
Directed by: Jeff Orlowski.
Written by: Davis Coombe & Vickie Curtis & Jeff Orlowski.
There have no shortage of global warming/environmental documentaries in recent years – they have become a staple ever since Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth – and arguably even before then. The films, which are all well-meaning, have a tendency to be rather dull and preachy, as scientists and other experts explain the problems, and what we do to correct them – most often, the films end with their rousing scores swelling beneath an inspirational speech, and then a website to go to “learn more”. Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Coral doesn’t entirely escape those traps – it certainly has the swelling score and the website during the end credits. Yet, it works better than most because there is more of a reason why you should see the movie, and not just read an article or listen to a speech – and that is the films visuals, which are beautiful, mesmerizing and ultimately sad.
The film is about coral – which are massive living things under the sea, made up of many smaller organisms. Coral is necessary in order to have healthy underwater ecosystems – where fish can gather, and feed. Coral disappear, smaller fish disappear, and then larger fish disappear, and all the way up the food chain. As one scientist says “Do we need coral? Well, do we need trees?”
The problem of disappearing coral has been documented before – in articles, etc. – but what makes Chasing Coral fascinating is that the filmmakers decided to try and document a massive coral bleaching event – essentially, over the course of a summer, when the temperature goes up as little as 2 degrees, coral tries to protect themselves, as if they cannot, they end up going white (bleaching), and eventually dying. The final part of the movie is essentially looking at the footage the filmmakers got – and how, over that span, thriving coral dying in a matter of months. The footage takes things out of the “theoretical” – and becomes impossible to deny that something is happening. The images speak for themselves.
Before then though, there are a lot of people talking about coral – and while it’s all rather interesting, it isn’t always that enthralling. The first part of Chasing Coral is almost a making up Chasing Coral documentary – starting with Richard Vevers, a former ad executive, who got tired of that life, and decided to dedicate it to something more useful. Vevers is key to the film as he understands the very basic principle of the film – that if all you have is scientists talking about coral, no one is going to sit up and listen. He watched director Jeff Orlowski’s other documentary – Chasing Ice – and thought that the film was essentially the same thing he wanted to do with coral. In order to do what they want though, they need to create cameras capable of taking time lapse photos, under salt water, for months on end. Enter Zack Rago – who along with others try and do just that. Rago becomes a focus of the film, because he’s not just a camera guy, but a self-professed “coral nerd” – who ends up becoming much more emotionally involved than he thought.
Chasing Coral is available on Netflix right now – and I do think you should see it, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it is an important topic – related to global warming, which for some reason is still controversial for some, who want to deny that it is happening. For another, it is interesting to see how they get the footage they do. And finally, because the footage they do get is mesmerizing and beautiful when the coral is healthy – and then, downright sad later. It’s not the most scintillating documentary of the year, but it’s one of the most important – and it’s more entertaining than most docs of its sort.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Movie Review: War of the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes
Directed by: Matt Reeves.
Written by: Mark Bomback & Matt Reeves based on characters created by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver.
Starring: Andy Serkis (Caesar), Woody Harrelson (The Colonel), Steve Zahn (Bad Ape), Karin Konoval (Maurice), Amiah Miller (Nova), Terry Notary (Rocket), Ty Olsson (Red Donkey), Michael Adamthwaite (Luca), Toby Kebbell (Koba), Gabriel Chavarria (Preacher), Judy Greer (Cornelia), Sara Canning (Lake), Devyn Dalton (Cornelius), Aleks Paunovic (Winter), Alessandro Juliani (Spear), Max Lloyd-Jones (Blue Eyes).
I’m hard pressed to think of another blockbuster series of recent years that is better than the new Planet of the Apes films have been. Each film is distinct from each other – not just recycling what has come before, but expanding it, and continually building upon it, taking the fall of humanity and rise of ape as seriously as you can in a blockbuster trilogy like this without taking it too seriously. I still that the second film – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – is probably the best of trilogy – it certainly is the most action packed and viscerally exciting, and has the best mixture of human and ape characters – but the first film – Rise of the Planet of the Apes – was perhaps the most emotional (it certainly was the most heartbreaking) – and both lead brilliantly into War of the Planet of the Apes, which caps off the trilogy in a brilliantly. All three films represent blockbuster filmmaking at its current best.
The infighting between Apes that made up the plot of the second film has pretty much been resolved. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes are trying to live in peace in the forest – but humans just don’t seem to want to allow that. The opening sequence involves an army searching for Caesar’s hiding spot – and coming very close to it. The apes fight them off – and take a few prisoner. Caesar, trying to show that the apes are not savages, allows them to go free. That ends up being a mistake, and soon more soldiers – this time led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) return – and kill some of Caesar’s family. As the apes ready their next move – hopefully to a safer place – Caesar plots his vengeance on the Colonel. If only a few trusted allies, he sets out to find his enemy.
War of the Planet of the Apes wears its influences on its sleeve – it’s clearly a war movie in many ways, and it takes its lead mainly from Apocalypse Now and other Vietnam war movies (strangely enough, Kong: Skull Island did the same thing – this one does it better). Harrelson’s The Colonel is clearly based on Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz – the gleaming bald head, the way he shaves it, the insane ramblings (this Colonel’s ramblings form a more coherent thought pattern than Kurtz’s – I think, anyway) – and Harrelson clearly relishes playing the bad guy here. As Caesar, Serkis is once again at his best (for better or worse, you’d be hard pressed to find a more influential performer in modern blockbusters than Serkis – who has already plays Gollum and King Kong for Peter Jackson in motion capture, but does career best work in this series). The special effects that allow the apes their expressiveness is quite honestly astonishing – and allows Caesar to become a more complex character here than he was before (in Rise he was more of a victim who fought back, in Dawn he was the principled leader – here, he is a leader, who makes mistakes and puts his own feelings above all else selfishly – and yet, he maintains the hero of the film in part because of how aware he is of his own shortcomings).
In many ways, director Matt Reeves has stepped up his filmmaking game here – the cinematography by veteran Michael Seresin is great, integrating the special effects in with the surroundings – the lush green forest that is made to feel like the jungles of Vietnam in those old movies, the cold blinding snow, the horrible prison camp of the last half. So many modern blockbusters who rely heavily on CGI (like, undeniably this one does) end up looking almost like a candy colored cartoon – this series has been an exception from the start, as it’s blended everything together well. The film goes long stretches with little to no dialogue – it almost exclusively stays with Caesar throughout, and many of the apes cannot talk – but communicate in sign language. Michael Giacchino’s brilliant score, does some of the emotional heavy lifting in those sequences, without laying anything on too thick.
Each film in this series work on its own terms – it doesn’t repeat what came before, but instead deepens it. As a trilogy, the whole is even better than the sum of its parts. Most Hollywood blockbusters don’t have room for ideas – let alone, allow themselves to address the darkest parts of our humanity (from the first film on, we’re clearly on the side of the apes, not the humans) – but this series went there, and did it with style and intelligence. They’re also three amazingly entertaining films. Modern day blockbusters don’t get much better than this series.

Movie Review: To the Bone

To the Bone
Directed by: Marti Noxon.
Written by: Marti Noxon.
Starring: Lily Collins (Ellen), Keanu Reeves (Dr. William Beckham), Kathryn Prescott (Anna), Liana Liberato (Kelly), Carrie Preston (Susan), Alanna Ubach (Karen), Lili Taylor (Judy), Brooke Smith (Olive), Ciara Bravo (Tracy), Retta (Lobo), Hana Hayes (Chloe), Alex Sharp (Luke), Rebekah Kennedy (Penny), Maya Eshet (Pearl), Joanna Sanchez (Rosa), Lindsey McDowell (Kendra).
I have a feeling that when writer/director Marti Noxon decided to make a film about anorexia – based, in part, on her own experiences dealing with the disease, that she had a long list of things she didn’t want her film to do, in order to avoid the pitfalls of a TV-Movie-of-the-Week or a “very special” episode of a well-meaning family sitcom. This is admirable to be sure – but watching the film, it felt like the moving was trying so hard not to be the clichéd version of this story, that it never really figured out what it really did want to be. The movie throws a lot of terminology about anorexia around, and seems to stress over and over again that there is no one root cause, and no one way to deal with it, etc. But then it doesn’t really show us anything. The brilliant doctor who treats the houseful of patients dealing with the disease (played by Keanu Reeves) doesn’t really seem to have a plan in place at all in terms of treatment. Again, he’s very confident about what won’t work, but doesn’t really know what will.
The story centers on Ellen (Lily Collins) – a 20 year old woman, who has been suffering from anorexia for a while, and been in and out of treatment for years, but isn’t getting any better. Her father is at work all the time (literally, it seems, as he never appears in the movie), her mother (Lily Taylor) came out as a lesbian when Ellen was 13, and has recently moved to Phoenix after yet another breakdown. Her stepmother, Susan (Carrie Preston), talks non-stop, and can be annoying – but she really does care, and she really does her best to try and help (at least it seemed like it to me – the movie, I’m not so sure sees her the same way). Ellen, reluctantly, agrees to go into another in-patient facility for treatment – this one in a large house, staffed by nurses, with a total of 7 patients, and run by Dr. Beckham (Keanu Reeves) who treatment seems to be a mixture of touch love and praise, and not a whole lot else.
It’s at the treatment facility that things start to go a little sideways for the movie. Ellen meets Luke (Alex Sharp), an anorexic ballet dancer, who is well on the way to recovery – and he becomes a kind of annoying cheerleader, prodder and romantic interest. His romantic gestures are creepier than anything else, and his constant insistence on Ellen doing what he asks is annoying. The rest of the patients are ill-defined, and just kind of there – which doesn’t help when the film tries to milk one them for a big emotional payoff in the third act.
The writing tries to mix in some humor along with the all more serious stuff about anorexia, and it’s probably the best part of the movie. Lily Collins is best here when she gets to be sarcastic and downright bitchy – she has got a killer look in her eyes able to cut you down to nothing with a glance. But Ellen never really comes into focus as a character. The screenplay throws out a lot of stuff about just how dysfunctional her family is – and then pretty much has the doctor dismiss it all as irrelevant. Ellen is said to be feeling guilty about her artwork – that may have contributed to another girl killing herself – but that never really comes into focus, much like everything else in the film.
I don’t doubt the intentions of the people behind this movie – who wanted to address a serious issue in a way that wasn’t maudlin or preachy, but was actually entertaining. But the gap between their intentions and the results is just too wide to make To the Bone all that successful.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Movie Review: The Little Hours

The Little Hours
Directed by: Jeff Baena.
Written by: Jeff Baena.
Starring: Alison Brie (Alessandra), Dave Franco (Massetto), Kate Micucci (Ginerva), Aubrey Plaza (Fernanda), John C. Reilly (Father Tommasso), Molly Shannon (Sister Marea), Fred Armisen (Bishop Bartolomeo), Jemima Kirke (Marta), Nick Offerman (Lord Bruno), Lauren Weedman (Francesca), Paul Reiser (Ilario), Adam Pally (Guard Paolo), Paul Weitz (Lurco), Jon Gabrus (Guard Gregorio).
The Little Hours is a bawdy sex farce set in 14th Century shot on location in Italy, with period accurate costumes and sets, but with actors who make absolutely no effort to disguise their modern way of speaking. It tells the tale of sexy nuns, and drunken priests, rich nobles, and their lowly servants and in it, everyone is fucking everyone else at all times. Written and directed by Jeff Baena, The Little Hours doesn’t go for eroticism at all – it shows the silly, funny, goofy side of sex – but it does contain at least an undercurrent of the feeling that something is deeply wrong with this whole setup. It’s a film that I like in concept much more than I like in execution – which kind of peters out about half way through, and despite some inspired lunacy in the final minutes courtesy of Kate Micucci, doesn’t really add up to much. At half the length, this could be inspired – but at 90 minutes, the laughs are too few with too much in between.
At the center of the film are three nuns, all at the nunnery, even if they don’t much want to me – Alessandra (Alison Brie) is the daughter of a wealthy merchant (Paul Reiser, doing nothing to disguise his Jewishness – in fact, he may well be playing it up), fallen on hard times and cannot afford a dowry right now. Don’t worry, he says, some people’s calling is the warmth and love of family, but Alessandra will always have her embroidery. Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) is, well, the same wonderful comic persona Plaza plays in everything this side of Legion – who hates everyone and everything, and some secrets she’s hiding. Only Ginerva (Micucci) even seems like she has any faith at all – but that could just be her people pleasing personality, that makes her tell the Mother Superior (Molly Shannon) everything everyone else is doing. The Priest who oversees the convent is Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), and he’s drunk on Communion wine most of the time – he blessed it himself, though, so it’s cool. At a nearby castle, servant Massetto (Dave Franco) has had to go on the run when his master, Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman) discovers that he is sleeping with his wife – Francesca (Lauren Weedman – who I would have loved to see more of here). He ends up running into a drunken Tommasso in the forest, and agrees to become the convent handyman – and pretend to be deaf and mute, for reasons the film explains, but really, it’s because it would be funnier. He promptly starts sleeping with both Alessandra – who believes this is a real relationship – and Fernanda – and her buxom friend Marta (Jemima Kirke) – who have ulterior motives.
For a while, all of this works. For the most part, everyone is playing the film with a straight face, which makes long conversations about where Massetto spills his seed, even funnier than they otherwise would be. There isn’t much of a plot, but it doesn’t need one – the comic performers are rather inspired, and the whole thing is pleasing goofy. Micucci is, in particular, a highlight stealing the movie from her more well-known co-stars, especially in the last act, where she pretty much goes nuts. There are strange visual gags – a turtle with a candle on his back for instance makes an extended experience – and the appearance of Fred Armisen later in the movie serves to underline just how absurd it is for all these nuns – and their priest – to be behaving this way. (The Catholic Church in America has seen fit to come out against the movie – they’d have been smarted just to not mention it).
I know some are going to think that The Little Hours is one of the best – and funniest – comedies of the year, and good for them. But I just didn’t laugh all that much, and although the comedy runs only 90 minutes, it felt much longer than that. When you have a film like The Little Hours, laughter is pretty much all the film offers, so if you don’t find it all that funny, you’re not left with much else to hold onto. I admire what the film was trying to do, it just didn’t get there for me.

Movie Review: Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer
Directed by: Joseph Cedar.
Written by: Joseph Cedar.
Starring: Richard Gere (Norman Oppenheimer), Lior Ashkenazi (Micha Eshel), Michael Sheen (Philip Cohen), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Alex Green), Dan Stevens (Bill Kavish), Steve Buscemi (Rabbi Blumenthal), Jonathan Avigdori (Lior Keshet), Yehuda Almagor (Duby), Caitlin O'Connell (Sister Agnes), Hank Azaria (Srul Katz), Harris Yulin (Jo Wilf). 
If they’re smart and talented, movie stars often age into fine character actors when they get to a point when they are no longer headlining big Hollywood movies. During the 1980s and 1990s, that was Richard Gere – and while he had some interesting earlier roles (Malick’s Days of Heaven, Schrader’s American Gigolo) there’s a lot in that period that is pretty generic, middle of the road studio fare – the type of mid-level film Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. Yet, as he’s aged, Gere has done well for himself in taking on roles in smaller, indie movies – and has delivered some of his best performances – as the homeless man with mental issues in Time Out of Mind (2014) or as the Wall Street millionaire under pressure in Arbitrage (2012). To that list, you can add Joseph Cedar’s Norman – a film that is perhaps too complicated for its own good, and does feel rather anticlimactic in the end – but in which Gere – who initially feels all wrong for the role, ends up delivering another fine performance.
In the film, Gere plays Norman Oppenheimer, a Jewish guy in New York who runs a “consulting firm” – which is really just him and his iPhone, putting together “deals”. It’s never really clear what exactly he does, how exactly he makes money (he doesn’t seem to make much) – and yet somehow, he finds himself knowing and meeting everyone. One of the people he meets is Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) – an Israeli politician, who is visiting New York at a difficult time in his political life. He befriends Norman over one long day – as Norman follows him into an expensive tailor shop, and the two talk in a way that feels like it could go South at any minute, but somehow doesn’t. Three years later, Micha has risen in the ranks – he’s now the Prime Minister of Israel – but unlike what we expect, he has not forgotten his “good friend” Norman. His staff wants to put some distance between the two of them – but Micha himself likes Norman – and people know it. Norman uses this as his bargaining chip, as he tries to put together one large deal after another. Norman isn’t doing this for money per se – the deals, even if they were to work, wouldn’t be a windfall for him – but for the prestige of being the guy who can deliver. Norman has to tap-dance to keep all of his lies in the air, it’s never quite clear if he believes he can pull it all off, or if he just wants to be “that guy” for as long as he can.
The film was written and directed by Israeli director Joseph Cedar (who made the 2011 film Footnote, about father and son rival Talmudic scholars, which is way more entertaining than that sounds) – and he has a good sense of pacing, setting and tone. The film moves quickly through the various inner circles that Norman finds himself involved in – with the Israeli government, with high finance, with the synagogue board – led by Steve Buscemi – that Norman says he can help save. The tone of the film is strange – comic, tense, dramatic, and in some time, bordering on the surreal (especially when the magnificent Charlotte Gainsbourgh shows up for a few scenes as a government worker – the first time friendly, the second time, not so much). Through it all, the only consistent thing is Gere’s Norman, as he tries to keep everything going.
It’s an excellent performance by Gere, all the more so because I don’t think he, or the movie, ever really let us know what Norman is really thinking, or who he really is. By the end of the film, you still don’t really know if Norman is a selfish con artist, or just a guy who really is trying, but got in WAY over his head. The film itself isn’t as good as Gere – the politics of it all is too complicated, and not properly explained – the ending feels like a letdown – and yet Gere himself is never less than great – and makes the whole thing worthwhile.