Thursday, August 17, 2017

Manifesto *** / *****
Directed by: Julian Rosefeldt.
Written by: Julian Rosefeldt.
Starring: Cate Blanchett (Various). 
Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto is one of those challenging movies that you have to accept on its own terms, or not at all. I cannot say the film “works” in a traditional sense, because the film isn’t interested in “working” in that way. It is a film in which its star – the great Cate Blanchett – plays 13 different characters, delivering 12 different Manifesto’s from history – mostly centered on art and the artist. Rosefeldt is a visual artist by trade, and the film started out as an art installation, and was later edited in the form we see it now. It’s a thought provoking mess of a film – humorous and self-important, brilliantly acted and staged, and yet confused and messy by design. It’s an odd film to be – maybe not a good one, but certainly not a bad one. Its one-of-a-kind whatever it is.
Casting Blanchett in these 13 different “roles” is important. I’m not sure there is another actress (maybe Tilda Swinton) who could have pulled this off, or that you would want to see attempt to. The word chameleon is overused a lot when discussing actors, but it’s fitting for Blanchett, who really does disappear into her roles. She’s perfectly suited for this role because she has always excelled at playing characters who themselves are playing characters – characters who are in essence putting on one face for those around her, but allowing the audience to see something different (this is one of the reasons why she works so well with Todd Haynes in I’m Not There, playing Bob Dylan at his most self-involved, and in Carol, as a closeted lesbian, pretending to be a perfect 1950s housewife).
In Manifesto, Blanchett plays everything from a houseless derelict screaming Karl Marx’s words through a megaphone, to a prim and proper elementary school teacher “teaching” Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 rules to her students. In another segment, she’s a news anchor and the “reporter on the street” she is interviewing about conceptional art. Or she’s a drunken punk in a bar, a housewife saying prayers around a Thanksgiving meal, a figure out of what seems like a dystopian future, a woman making puppets, the gallery host at an expensive art gallery, a choreographer upset with her dancers, a struggling single mother, etc. The various real life manifestos she is delivering are devoid of context, often contradict each other, and usually have little to nothing to do with how Rosefeldt has chosen to stage them, or how Blanchett has chosen to deliver them.
At this point, you may well be asking yourself what the purpose of all this is, or what it all means. Those are perfectly reasonable question to ask, and I don’t have adequate answers to them. I’m not going to trying to pretend that I even understand Manifesto completely, because I don’t. If the whole thing sounds like a pretentious art exercise, I think you’re partially right – except that I think Rosefeldt and Blanchett know that as well. There is something incredibly pretentious about manifestos in themselves, and the film recognizes that and pokes fun of that.
I’m not sure if Manifesto is a good film or not – but I do know that no matter what it is, it is by design, and is one-of-a-kind. Even if that doesn’t quite work, is that itself worth celebrating?

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Movie Review: Annabelle: Creation

Annabelle: Creation *** / *****
Directed by: David F. Sandberg.
Written by: Gary Dauberman.
Starring: Anthony LaPaglia (Samuel Mullins), Talitha Bateman (Janice), Stephanie Sigman (Sister Charlotte), Miranda Otto (Esther Mullins), Lulu Wilson (Linda), Grace Fulton (Carol), Philippa Coulthard (Nancy), Tayler Buck (Kate), Lou Safran (Tierney), Samara Lee (Bee Mullins), Mark Bramhall (Father Massey). 
It’s become a standard trick in genre films over the years – when you run out of ideas of sequels, go back and tell the origin story that no one needed or asked for. That way, you can at least keep the lucrative franchise churning, for at least one more film. That’s kind of what happened here in Annabelle: Creation – the film is a prequel to 2014’s Annabelle, which itself was a spinoff/prequel to James Wan’s The Conjuring – one of the best mainstream American horror films of the decade. The original Annabelle was a middle of the road horror film – not great like The Conjuring was, but not horrible either. And best of all for the studio – it made money. But, there was a problem – that story took the title character – a creepy, inanimate doll – right up to the point where the protagonists of The Conjuring, Ed and Lorraine Warren, have the doll under lock and key – preventing it from having further evil adventures. So even if it kind of, sort of looked like they explained the origins of the evil in the doll in the original Annabelle, Annabelle: Creation reveals that wasn’t quite the case, and tells the origin story of that doll, and how that lead into Annabelle. By all reasons of logic, this movie therefore shouldn’t work at all – and yet, it does. It is magnificently creepy and atmospheric, and fits in well with the themes of the entire series up to this point. It is better than the original Annabelle – even if it doesn’t reach the level of either Conjuring film. It is, basically, as good as this movie could reasonably be expected to be.
The film takes place in the 1950s – and opens with what seems like a wholesome, mid-Western family – the Mullins. The father (Anthony LaPaglia) makes dolls – and we see him making Annabelle in the opening scene – and along with his wife (Miranda Otto) and daughter, Bee (Samara Lee) – they seem to be the personification of the ideal 1950s nuclear family. And then Bee gets hit by a car and dies. 12 years later (I’m just realizing now, that in order for the time line to fit with what we know, the main action of the film happens in 1955, which means that opening must have been 1943 – odd that everyone seems so enamored with the Mr. Mullins doll during WWII – but no matter), the Mullins welcome a nun – Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and a group of six orphan girls – ranging in age from about 10-16 – into their large home. Mr. Mullins barely speaks, and Mrs. Mullins is even more mysterious – she stays in her room day and night, and rings a bell when she needs anything. The film quickly focuses in on Janice (Talitha Bateman) – a young girl stricken with polio, and her friend Linda (Lulu Wilson). Mr. Mullins tells Janice not to go into his daughters old room – which he keeps locked at all times. But at night, the door becomes unlocked for some reason – and Janice cannot resist. You can tell where things will go from here – Annabelle the doll makes a return appearance, and soon everyone’s soul is on the line.
The film was directed by David F. Sandberg – which shouldn’t be too surprising, since his debut horror film (last year’s creepy and effective Lights Out) was produced by The Conjuring’s James Wan. Like he did with Lights Out, Sandberg clearly shows skill at slowly building atmosphere and tension, getting on the audience edge, so just a little push has them scared (it worked like a charm in the nearly full theater I saw the film in). The film is so well made by Sandberg in fact that it helps the film overcome many of its problems – the chief among them is the film internal logic consistency, which it doesn’t have it all. It almost feels like the screenwriters were making up this logic as the film progressed – which is a no-no in horror films, which thrive best when they stick to the rules they set out for themselves. Had Sandberg also found a way to make the film a little shorter (it runs nearly 2 hours, but doesn’t have nearly that much plot, so it does grow repetitive) the film would have been even better.
Annabelle: Creation should have been terrible, so the fact that it’s a good horror film is a pleasant surprise. It confirms the talent that was apparent in Lights Out – that Sandberg is a classicist horror director, and I want to see him make something even better. Something like, say, The Conjuring.  

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Movie Review: The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature

The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature * ½ / *****
Directed by: Cal Brunker.   
Written by: Bob Barlen & Cal Brunker & Scott Bindley & Peter Lepeniotis & Daniel Woo based on characters created by Peter Lepeniotis.
Starring: Will Arnett (Surly), Katherine Heigl (Andie), Maya Rudolph (Precious), Jackie Chan (Mr. Feng), Isabela Moner (Heather), Peter Stormare (Gunther), Bobby Cannavale (Frankie), Bobby Moynihan (The Mayor), Jeff Dunham (Mole), Gabriel Iglesias (Jimmy), Sebastian Maniscalco (Johnny), Tom Kenny (Buddy), Kari Wahlgren (Jamie), Rob Tinkler (Redline), Julie Lemieux (Lil' Chip).
It sometimes surprises me what movies get sequels. The original Nut Job – from 2014 – was a forgettable animated film, about cute, talking animals that I don’t think has entered my mind since I wrote my review of it then. It wasn’t exactly a huge hit at the time (although when I checked Box Office Mojo, it is the highest grossing film released by Open Road Films – ever – sadly, beating out the Liam Neeson and the wolves film The Grey) so that probably explains it. The fact that it made less than half what the first film did in its opening weekend is a sign no one was really clamoring for this film. And yet, here it is, and it’s my daughter’s 6th birthday, and she wanted to go (as did her 3 year old sister – who I must be raising right, as this was her first 3-D movie and she complained that the “glasses make the movie dark”, which has been my complaint for years) and so we went. Like the first film, it is a fast paced, cheaply animated, lazily written film that produces a chuckle or two because of its talented voice cast, and then ends without ever really doing much of anything. It’s not a painful sit – it’s nowhere close to as bad as The Emoji Movie for instance – but there’s not much reason for it to exist either.
The film is the further adventures of Surly the Squirrel (Will Arnett) and his posse of forest animals, who when we last saw them were living large in the nut shop, where they no longer had to work for food. In the opening of this film though, the nut shop explodes – and these pampered animals have to head back to the park, and scrounge for food. That would be bad enough, but even worse is that the corrupt mayor (who, I’m sorry, reminded me of Donald Trump) is angry at the park, because it’s the one part of town that produces no profit, and he needs to keeping skimming off the top – he has a private Golf Club to maintain, etc. So the mayor wants to make the park into a cheap amusement park to milk money out of suckers. And it’s up to the animals to stop him.
The Nut Job 2, like the first movie, makes the mistake of thinking that all you need to do to please kids have cute talking animals, some lame jokes, and quickly paced action sequences and they’ll be happy. My two kids were quiet during the movie, but I didn’t sense they were all that engaged. They had fun – because they always have fun at the movies (like I mentioned before, they enjoyed The Emoji Movie – so perhaps I should take back that comment about how I must be raising them right). Basically, I cannot help but think that a movie like this is little more than a babysitter – something to throw on TV on rainy Sunday afternoon, when your kids are bored of all the better animated film out there. In that way, it’s very much like the first film. I doubt I’ll think of it again after I finish this sentence.

The Return of Star Ratings

A couple of years ago, I stopped issuing star ratings on my movie reviews – essentially because I think they are kind of silly, and often I get bored of questions of why this film got 3 stars, and that one got 3 ½ stars – or that, over the course of days, weeks or months, I change my mind, and people seem to want absolute consistency, which I cannot guarantee. So I stopped. And yet, on Letterboxd, I continue to assign star ratings, so after a lot of though, I’ve decided to bring it back – and this time, I’ll use the LEtterboxd 5 star system, instead of the Roger Ebert/Leonard Maltin 4 star system I used for years. I think five stars give a little more nuance than 4. I will note this – don’t expect too many five star reviews (probably 2-3 per year (for instance, last year, I gave 5 stars to OJ: Made in America, Manchester by the Sea and Toni Erdmann – the year before, to Inside Out, Carol and Anomalisa – and nothing so far in 2017). This extra nuance allows me to reserve 5 stars for the best of the best. I’m going to go back and put star ratings on the 2017 films I have reviewed – but I won’t go back and further, and for the time being on the “classic movie reviews” I won’t be doing that either. I’ll see how it goes.
Basically the star ratings work like this
5 Stars - Masterpiece
4.5 Stars – Great Film
4 Stars – Very Good Film
3.5 Stars – Good Film
3 Stars – Mediocre
2.5 Stars and Down – Various degrees of Bad
Basically, I’d recommend anything 3.5 stars and up, and wouldn’t recommend 2.5 stars and down – and if it’s a three, it’s a tossup.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Movie Review: The Dinner

The Dinner * ½ / *****
Directed by: Oren Moverman.
Written by: Oren Moverman based on the novel by Herman Koch.
Starring: Richard Gere (Stan Lohman),  Laura Linney (Claire Lohman),  Steve Coogan (Paul Lohman), Rebecca Hall (Katelyn Lohman),  Chloë Sevigny (Barbara Lohman),  Michael Chernus (Dylan Heinz), Charlie Plummer (Michael Lohman),  Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick (Rick Lohman),  Miles J. Harvey (Beau Lohman), Laura Hajek (Anna),  Adepero Oduye (Nina).
Herman Koch’s The Dinner is a pitch black, cynical satire about awful people who do awful things. It is about affluence, and how that breeds apathy. It is told from the unreliable point-of-view of its main character, who can see how horrible other people are, but cannot see it in himself – even if the reader can. It is a novel about two couples who meet at a fancy restaurant to discuss something abhorrent their children did together, but spend most of the time doing everything except discussing it. The film version – it’s actually the third, as one was made in Koch’s native Netherlands, and another made in Italy (both unseen by me) – was written and directed by Oren Moverman, and for the life of me, I cannot figure out if Moverman didn’t understand the source material (which I find hard to believe – it isn’t overly complicated) – or else he got so wrapped up in trying to overcome the inherent staginess in the premise as well as straining to add some sort of historical resonance to the situation – that he lost sight of what the film was actually about. In short, I know what Koch’s novel was about – but I have no idea what Moverman’s film is about.
The film is about Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan) and his wife Claire (Laura Linney), who are going out to meet his brother, Stan (Richard Gere) and his wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall). Paul and Claire’s son, Michael (Charlie Plummer) alongside Stan’s son from a previous marriage, Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) did something terrible to a homeless woman sleeping in an ATM vestibule – and a video of them doing it has been posted online. No one knows that it was the boys who did it – yet – but this is not a secret it seems this family can keep (there is already blackmail going on, and other things, inside this family). If and when the truth is discovered, it could, of course, end with their children going to jail – and could cost Stan his rising political career as well. The film cuts back and forth in time – in deliberately jarring fashion – not just to their kids and that night, but also mainly to Paul’s past, which is marked by mental illness, and a few instances of violence of his own.
I’m not quite sure where it was along the way that Moverman lost sight of what the movie was about – but it was clearly somewhere in the writing process. The film has been transplanted from the Netherlands to America, which necessitated some changes to be sure – but the changes Moverman makes are odd to say the least. Paul was once a history teacher – and was working on a book about Gettysburg – and we get a long (long) flashback to him and Stan visiting the Gettysburg site as Paul was trying to recover from one of his breakdowns. Whatever Moverman is trying to say here, about America’s violent past, and its effect on the action in the present of this movie is lost on me (there is no real correlation between Gettysburg and affluenza, which is what the movie is about, that I can see). Moverman also makes the rather odd choice to make Hall’s Katelyn Stan’s second wife – we see his first, Barbara (Chloe Sevigny) in all the flashbacks – a detail that wasn’t in Koch’s book. I’m not sure what this accomplishes, rather than just adding another character to the narratives – and since it pretty much takes the film nearly 100 minutes of its 120 minute runtime to give Hall anything of interest to do or say, it really doesn’t work.
At the very least, The Dinner should work as an actors showcase if nothing else – but unfortunately, that doesn’t work very well either. Coogan is miscast as Paul – it is a very heavy role, and while Coogan is a talented actor, he doesn’t do well here. His American accent doesn’t sound convincing, and the narrative requires so many personality changes for his character, that its rather jarring (this is an instance of things working better in the novel than the movie – because in the novel, it’s his point-of-view, and we can tell that the way he sees himself, isn’t the way he really is – in the movie, it all looks the same, so he comes across as wildly inconsistent). Gere fares a little better as Stan – but I’m not quite sure that either he or the movie realize how awful a character he really is – he almost comes across as the good guy in the narrative – or at least the only one trying to do the right thing, but doesn’t make it clear how selfish his motivations actually are. The movie also skimps on the details of their children – Michael just coming across as a whiny brat, and Rick not getting almost any screen time (and the film, which follows the book’s example, and has Stan have another son – an adopted one, who is black, does nothing with that character, and fails to show the racism of everyone else in the movie. Yes, in the book, that adopted son is also a prop – Koch’s novel was hardly perfect – but the character at least had a purpose.
Really, the only ones who escape unscathed in the film are Laura Linney as Claire, and Michael Chernus as the waiter, who is remarkable at keeping things flowing through the awkward dinner. Linney is, of course, one of the best actresses working today, and she always finds a way to show that – which she does here as well, even if her character is not that unsimilar to her one in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (in that film, she only gets the one scene to show her true colors – which are more prevalent here).
The movie pulls its punches right to the end – it’s an abrupt ending, that doesn’t really offer anything resembling resolution, but also cuts out some of the worse things the adult character do in Koch’s novel. When the author saw the film at this year’s Berlin film festival, he didn’t go to the after party, because he hated the movie – and saw it as overly “moralizing”. I think Koch was being generous – in reality, the film is just a mess. It doesn’t know what its saying or what it’s about – and wastes a talented cast. Moverman is good filmmaker – this is his fourth film, and his other three are all excellent – but here, he clearly missed the mark.

Movie Review: the bomb

the bomb ****/*****
Directed by: Kevin Ford & Smriti Keshari & Eric Schlosser.
There are times in which, by pure happenstance, the timing of something works out just about perfectly – and releasing the montage documentary the bomb on Netflix for everyone to see on August 1 – and having the leaders of North Korea and Donald Trump trade threats of nuclear annulation the following week is one of them. The film was originally made has essentially a 360 degree art installation, in which viewers were to be surrounded by screens, showing the same images, and listening to the hypnotic score by The Acid, and seeing the history of nuclear weapons play out in front of their eyes, with no words, until close to the end. The makers of the film said one of the reasons why they made it is because no one talks about nuclear weapons anymore – even if there are more than enough to kill us all many times over. Well, they’re talking now – and a film like the bomb, even in the much diminished form of watching it on Netflix instead of how it was made to be watched is still hypnotic and frightening.
The film runs just under an hour, and is basically a long montage of images about the how the bomb was created, tested, and used – the images start out almost triumphant, and the music echoes this – as of course, this is a magnificent scientific achievement, even if it’s a horrifying one as well. The makers get there as well, showing us clips of old educational films about the bomb, and how to protect your family and what to do in the event of a nuclear strike – which, of course, was pretty much all lies. We get images of the tests as they happen, as they blow apart houses and other structures. We get images of the two times these bombs were actually used in war – in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and the tremendous cost of those. Through it all, we hear no words, just the music by The Acid, which finds the right notes as it moves along.
The film, which seems to be one of mounting hopelessness and despair, doesn’t actually end as bleak as you may it expect it will. The only time the filmmakers allow words to come into the film, they pick a few snippets of speeches by two US Presidents – Reagan and Obama – both of whom hoping for a nuclear weapon free future. It was a TV film – The Day After – which helped Reagan reach this conclusion, so who the hell knows if the bomb could help anyone else do the same – but it cannot hurt.
The film is a stunning achievement in editing and music – a ride that is both terrifying, and, oddly enjoyable. There isn’t a ton to say about the film, and I really do wish I had been able to experience like those at film festivals in 2016 were able to. Yet, even playing on Netflix, the film is stunning and unforgettable.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Classic Movie Review: The Devil, Probably (1977)

The Devil, Probably (1977)
Directed by: Robert Bresson.
Written by: Robert Bresson.
Starring: Antoine Monnier (Charles), Tina Irissari (Alberte), Henri de Maublanc (Michel), Laetitia Carcano (Edwige), Nicolas Deguy (Valentin), Régis Hanrion (Dr. Mime, Psychanalyste), Geoffroy Gaussen (Libraire), Roger Honorat (Commissaire).
In the film of Robert Bresson, suffering is often only alleviated by death. His is not a happy filmography, as his title characters – in Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) or Mouchette (1967) have lives of suffering and pain, that is only relieved by death – for Balthazar, when he is finally allowed to stop working and being tormented so he can lie in a field and die, and for Mouchette, finally stopping the abuse through suicide. By the time he made his penultimate film, The Devil Probably, in 1977, he had to have known people were onto his tricks, and I think he’s poking fun at them in the film. His final film – L’Argent (1983) messes with you more because of what you know about Bresson’s previous films – which makes where that one ends up even more devastating. But between all these masterpieces, there is this film which I found to be insufferable. Perhaps I was supposed to though – we cannot possibly be meant to like or sympathize with Charles, the main character in this film are we? Next time someone tells you millennials are spoiled and entitled brats, and it’s different in this generation than in previous ones, show them this film. Charles has them all beat by a mile.
Charles, played by Antoine Monnier, you see is a pure soul. He’s brilliant, but depressed. He sees through all the phoniness around him see – the emptiness of political engagement, of philosophy, or psychology, etc. He’s not crazy, he tells a psychologist near the end of the film – he just sees things too clearly. Throughout much of the film, I wondered just how seriously we were supposed to take Charles – does he actually believe the idiocy that comes out of his mouth, or is it all just a line (if it was a line, it was working – he has two beautiful young women fighting over who gets to save him through sex). But no, it appears, it is no line – Charles believes it. The question is, does Bresson?
I don’t think he does – while Bresson recognizes how Charles believes his own bullshit, and how those around him mistake that for depth, he also mocks them for it. There earnest readings as the show footage of environmental destruction, and people clubbing baby seals is certainly meant as mockery, isn’t it?
Ultimately, I do think that Bresson is trying to have it both ways in The Devil, Probably – trying to show just how seriously Charles –and the other youths in the movie – take themselves, and especially how Charles takes his “suffering”, while at the same time, mocks them for not really understanding the world around them. As he showed in Au Hasard Balthazar, Mouchette and L’Argent, the world can be a brutal, unfeeling, cold, cruel world. But the protagonists of those movies had much more to complain about that Charles, who sadly will never grow old to realize what an idiot he was as a teenager like the rest of us have to. I find much of Bresson’s work to be profound and moving – but not this one, which is more annoying than anything else.