Thursday, October 30, 2014

Movie Review: Goodbye to Language 3-D

Goodbye to Language 3-D
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Starring: Héloise Godet (Josette), Kamel Abdeli (Gédéon), Richard Chevallier (Marcus), Zoé Bruneau (Ivitch), Christian Gregori (Davidson), Jessica Erickson (Mary Shelley).

Over the years, I have often struggled with the so-called “late period” films of Jean-Luc Godard – although that late period has lasted far longer, and produced far more films than his so-called “early period” in the 1960s. Those films – from Breathless (1960) to Weekend (1967)  produced numerous masterpieces and even if Godard had simply retired from filmmaking in 1967, he would still rank among the best and most influential filmmakers in history. Since then, Godard has pretty much turned his back on narrative filmmaking – going for more avant-garde films, filled with quotes, ideas, collages that can either add up to something profound, or something approaching a pretentious mess of junk. I hated his last feature, Film Socialism, although I will fully admit that I just didn’t get that film – the reviews by the films (many) champions left me confused, and had me wondering if we had seen the same film.

So when I got a ticket to see Goodbye to Language 3-D at TIFF this year, I didn’t know what to expect. Perhaps the film would be another infuriating, confusing mess – at least to me – or perhaps it would be something brilliant – as again, many said coming out of Cannes, where the film won the Jury Prize. Watching the film, I was glad (for the first time) that I had seen Film Socialism, because it had prepared me for the content of Godard’s film. They are undoubtedly the work of the same filmmaker, working in the same style. But this time, the film won me over. Everything in it was a little clearer, a little more playful and funny. And above everything else, the visuals were quite simply stunning. This isn’t the best 3-D film I have ever seen – but I do believe it uses 3-D better than any other film I have ever seen.

In general, I’m not really  a fan of 3-D in live action movies. For every Avatar or Hugo or Gravity that uses the technology brilliantly, there are a dozen movies where the 3-D is unnecessary at best and a distraction at worse – it’s gotten to the point where I avoid 3-D whenever possible. What 3-D – which as a technology is capable of doing interesting things – really needed was someone like Godard to use the technology. Never one afraid to experiment, Godard uses 3-D in new, unique and revolutionary ways – including one mesmerizing sequence when the image pretty much splits into two, and you have to close one eye at a time to see thing clearly – and then the camera slowly loops back so that image comes together again. What’s the point of this shot? I admit it – I don’t really know – but damn it all if it wasn’t one of the coolest things I have ever seen in a movie. And Godard comes up with other images, brilliantly using 3-D to layer the image in ways that quite simply left with awestruck.

So, do I really understand what the hell was happening in Goodbye to Language – what the “story” was (and yes, there does appear to be a story, about a relationship between a man and woman – or multiple couples, who may be the same couple, but may not be, and then in the second half becomes a dog’s eye view of the world for at least part of its running time)? Not really. I understood it in the moment, and the many literary quotes and allusions also somewhat make sense – at least as I was watching it, but become harder to write about and piece together when looking back at the film. If I watched the film again – or a few times – I could probably piece it altogether. But my first reaction to Goodbye to Language 3-D was one of pure awe. Godard does things using 3-D that I doubt any other filmmaker in the world could – or would even consider attempting. Perhaps I don’t appreciate Goodbye to Language 3-D in the way I am supposed to. But appreciate it I do.

Movie Review: Life of Crime

Life of Crime
Directed by: Daniel Schechter.
Written by: Daniel Schechter based on the novel by Elmore Leonard.
Starring: Jennifer Aniston  (Mickey Dawson), Yasiin Bey (Ordell Robbie), John Hawkes (Louis Gara), Isla Fisher (Melanie), Will Forte (Marshall Taylor), Mark Boone Junior (Richard Monk), Tim Robbins (Frank Dawson), Clea Lewis (Tyra Taylor), Charlie Tahan (Bo Dawson), Kevin Corrigan (Ray).

Elmore Leonard is one of my favorite novelists – his crime books are fast paced with great dialogue and a collection of colorful, often quite dumb, lowlifes who hatch complicated schemes that seem ill thought out, and always go horribly wrong. Screenwriters have learned over the years that the best thing they can do when they adapt Leonard is to simply copy his dialogue from the novel into the screenplay – they aren’t going to improve on it, and if you get actors capable of delivering it, they can make an entertaining movie. The latest Leonard adaptation, Life of Crime is based on the Leonard novel The Switch, which was a precursor to Rum Punch, which Quentin Tarantino adapted into Jackie Brown. In this film, Yasiin Bey (sorry, he’ll always be Mos Def to me), John Hawkes and Ilsa Fisher play younger versions of the characters played by Samuel L. Jackson, Robert DeNiro and Bridget Fonda in the Tarantino film – and a few questions of continuity aside (like the fact that DeNiro and Fonda don’t seem to know each other in the Tarantino film, although they meet here), the film basically works as a low-key, lightweight prequel to the later film. The three actors, especially Bey, have clearly studied the performances of their counterparts, and incorporated some of them into their own work. The film isn’t nearly as good as Tarantino’s underrated masterwork – he made an epic out of these lowlife characters, and writer-director Daniel Schechter aims far lower, but this is still an enjoyable little crime film.

The film opens in 1977 Detroit – a time and place it accurately portrays without going over the top with the clothes or hairstyles, as well it could have. Ordell Robbie (Bey) and Louis Gara (John Hawkes) have hatched a kidnapping plan – they’ll take Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), the wife of a real estate millionaire, Frank (Tom Robbins), who is doing a lot of things that are not exactly legal to grow his fortune. Robbie and Gara want $1 million from Frank to not kill Mickey – the only problem being that Frank is currently in the Caribbean with his mistress, Melanie (Fisher), and may not actually want Mickey back. As you may well guess, things get complicated on the other end as well – when Mickey and Louis start to get to know, and even like, each other. The movie introduces another few supporting characters to liven things up – Will Forte as Marshall Taylor, a weak willed little coward in love with Mickey, and Mark Boone Junior, as Richard Monk, a neo-Nazi who is working with Ordell and Louis in holding Mickey.

Life of Crime doesn’t come close to the best Leonard adaptations – like Jackie Brown, which had the courage to digress from the main plot often, and spend time just getting to know its characters, before shoving them into its complex plot of double and triple crosses, or Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, which was highly stylized and crackled with sexual tension. It also doesn’t have the glossy, Hollywood sheen of the two Chili Palmer movies – Get Short or Be Cool. Screenwriter/director Daniel Schechter keeps everyone in a lower key than that – and he gets fine work from his cast as a result. No one in the movie is all that bright, but some are smarter than they first seem (especially Melanie) – and Fisher gives the type of performance that makes me wish she would get better roles (much like she did in The Lookout). Bey and Hawkes work well together, with an easy chemistry – and Forte adds another fine, dramatic performance to his resume. Most surprising of all is probably Aniston – undeniably the biggest star in the cast, but she doesn’t overtake the movie with her star power, but genuinely becomes a part of the ensemble.

Life of Crime doesn’t reach the heights of the best Leonard adaptations. It’s lightweight and inconsequential – but it’s also a lot of fun. That could describe much of Leonard’s work on the page – and it’s a tone that the film gets just right.

Movie Review: Wish I Was Here

Wish I Was Here
Directed by: Zach Braff.
Written by: Adam J. Braff & Zach Braff.
Starring: Zach Braff  (Aidan Bloom), Kate Hudson (Sarah Bloom), Joey King (Grace Bloom), Pierce Gagnon (Tucker Bloom), Mandy Patinkin (Gabe), Josh Gad (Noah Bloom), Alexander Chaplin (Rabbi Rosenberg), Jim Parsons (Paul), Allan Rich (Rabbi Twersky), Ashley Greene (Janine),Mark Thudium (Terry), Michael Weston (Jerry), Cody Sullivan (Jesse), Donald Faison (Anthony).

Of the many problems with Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here, the one that probably bothered me the most is that it is yet another glamorization of overgrown man children that Hollywood seems obsessed with – and have now started to infiltrate indie films as well. I’m not quite sure why movies seem so obsessed with men in their 30s and 40s who still act like children, who take a few tiny steps towards being an adult by the end of the film (usually because they find the love of a woman who has been idealized to unrealistic proportions) and this is treated as some sort of major victory for them. I don’t want to psychoanalyze the filmmakers or actors who make these types of movies – but I cannot help but wonder if it’s at least in part because being in Hollywood allows them to stay teenagers for years after the rest of us have had no choice but to grow the hell up.

To be fair to writer/director/star Braff, I do think he gets this on some level – and the film is partly about accepting reality, even if that means giving up on your dream. Braff plays Aidan Bloom, who wants desperately to be an actor (by the way, why is that successful actors always make movies about unsuccessful actors?) – but he actually hasn’t work in quite some time, and everyone around him knows that if he hasn’t achieved stardom – or even been able to make a living acting – yet, then he likely never will – but he will not give up. He’s married to Sarah (Kate Hudson), who is therefore stuck making all the money for the couple – and their two children,  Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon). Aidan is so self-involved, he doesn’t even realize that Sarah hates her job at the water company – even at some point saying that “Sarah is living her dream”. When Sarah finally confronts him about getting a real job, he sulkily responds “I thought you supported my dream”, to which she responds “When did this relationship become all about your dream?”. Aidan is, sadly enough, more mature than his brother Noah (Josh Gad) – who lives in a trailer, and blogs, and does nothing else. His big plan is to make a costume from ComiCon so he can score with his hot neighbor, Janine (Ashley Greene) – who is making her own costume.

The movie revolves around what happens to this extended family when Aidan and Noah’s father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) is diagnosed with cancer, and given only a few months to live. This finally forces Aidan to examine his life a little bit – and grow the hell up. Noah is slowly on the uptake – he hates his dad, who let both of his kids know, repeatedly, how disappointed he is in them – but sooner or later you have to grow up. At this, perhaps the teenage Grace is well ahead of her father and uncle – or at least at the same maturity level.

Wish I Was Here has a lot of problems – mainly that I think it bites off far more than it can chew, and takes itself far too seriously. When Braff made his first film – Garden State – a decade ago, I think he captured something real about his lost, drug addled generation. A decade later, Wish I Was Here tries for the same type of generation defining story, but it comes across as phony and self-indulgent. Braff still hasn’t really learn how to write female roles – Natalie Portman redeemed a thinly written character in Garden State, but neither Hudson or King can make Aidan’s wife or daughter feel like anything more than a screenwriter’s concept – wise characters who have to help the poor, dumb menfolk grow up a little bit.
 
But basically, I must admit I’m just growing really, really annoyed with movies about lost men in their 30s still trying to figure out who the hell they are, and refusing to grow up. It’s becoming self-indulgent navel gazing in a way I just find incredibly irritating. It’s time to grow up.

Movie Review: Fed Up

Fed Up
Directed by: Stephanie Soechtig.
Written by: Mark Monroe & Stephanie Soechtig.

It’s no secret that America – and the world – is getting fatter and fatter, and that obesity is the biggest health crisis facing us today. More and more people are obese – and are getting that way earlier in their lives. Things have gotten continuously worse over the past 30-40 years. The documentary Fed Up is an advocacy documentary for eating healthier, getting food companies to be more honest about the food they produce, and the government to take more action to help protect our children. There is nothing subtle about the documentary, nothing particularly artful, it doesn’t try to tell both sides, and it doesn’t really give any new information for those who have been paying attention. The problem however that the movie makes clear is that food companies spend millions of dollars to make it harder for the information people need to get out – and spend millions buying politicians to stop or amend any legislation enacted to help children eat better. First Lady Michelle Obama has tried in her various programs to get kids to eat healthier – but even her efforts are undermined by the companies who sponsor them – Coke, Pepsi and every other food producer who uses a lot of sugar in their processed foods. These are the same companies who somehow manage to convince Congress to recognize French Fries and pizza as vegetables for school lunches.

The film assembles a group of nutrition experts who explain why processed foods are so bad for us – mainly because of all the sugar – and why the lies of “reduced fat” or “lean” or other such phrases on packaging are just there for marketing purposes, and really are not much healthier than the regular ones. How this is just not an issue of self-control and exercise – but something much deeper, and darker in that it is a form of addiction – not unlike cigarettes. The documentary, apparently, did ask the food companies to participate in the film – but they declined. The movie does have some clips of various people who represent them – giving testimony to various government groups that would be laughable if it weren’t so sad (including the McDonald’s representative who says Ronald McDonald does not market junk to children – but educate them with fun).

I don’t really have much to say about Fed Up. It is an important documentary for people who have need education on the way food is processed, consumed and marketed. It isn’t a particularly good documentary – but that doesn’t seem like the purpose of director Stephanie Soechtig. She wants to educate more than anything else – and in that, she succeeds.  

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Movie Review: John Wick

John Wick
Directed by: David Leitch & Chad Stahelski.
Written by: Derek Kolstad.
Starring: Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Michael Nyqvist (Viggo Tarasov), Alfie Allen (Iosef Tarasov), Willem Dafoe (Marcus), Dean Winters (Avi), Adrianne Palicki (Ms. Perkins), Omer Barnea (Gregori), Toby Leonard Moore (Victor), Daniel Bernhardt (Kirill), Bridget Moynahan (Helen), John Leguizamo (Aureilo), Ian McShane (Winston), Bridget Regan (Addy), Lance Reddick (Hotel Manager / Charon).

American action movies have, unfortunately, become all about rapid fire editing, and shaky handheld camera work that emphasis visceral energy over coherence. If you are a director like Paul Greengrass, or Michael Bay on his best day, than this can actually be effective. But most directors don’t seem to know how to use this style well – so what happens in the action sequences is that become so tightly editing that everything becomes confusing to me – I have no idea what is really going on. I have always preferred Hong Kong style action – the type of thing practiced by John Woo in the 1980s and 1990s, or which Johnnie To does now. Even if Woo and To have a lot of differences in their style, the one thing they do share is that they let action sequences play out at length – they don’t favor the rapid fire editing to create false suspense or energy. The best thing about John Wick is that first time directors - David Leitch & Chad Stahelski  - allow the action sequences to play out a little bit longer than most action movies made in America today. The action in the movie is clean, crisp, bold and genuinely exciting.

The plot of the movie is typical revenge movie stuff. The newly widowed title character (Keanu Reeves) is grieving for his beloved wife, when the doorbell rings – and a dog is delivered – a last gift from his wife. The dog isn’t around very long though – the spoiled son of a Russian mobster wants Wick’s car – but he will not sell, so he and his goons visit Wick, steal the car, and kill the dog. What this spoiled brat doesn’t know is who Wick was in his former life – the deadliest assassin who ever worked for his father (Michael Nyqvist). Now, of course, Wick wants vengeance – and the Russian mob boss will stop at nothing to protect his son.

In broad strokes, there is not much difference between the story of John Wick and that of a film like Taken (or its sequel). I wasn’t a fan of either of the Taken movies – mainly because they were they were ridiculous, but took themselves way too seriously. That is a mistake that John Wick doesn’t make – the directors know they are making a goofy revenge action film from the start, and they never pretend otherwise. Reeves also knows this, and he rips into his role with a certain grim glee (if that makes any sense), relishing his violent action sequences, which he is expert at. The two directors of the film have mainly been stuntmen in the past – and they certainly want to show off what they are best at – and the hand-to-hand combat and gunfight scenes are probably the best I have seen in a movie this year. The rest of the cast get on the same wavelength of Reeves, and have a blast with their roles.

There is nothing original about John Wick – but there really doesn’t have to be. It knows precisely what it is, and goes for broke from the first scene to the last. It’s a hell of good time at the movies – a guilty pleasure to be sure, but a great one at that.

Movie Review: St. Vincent

St. Vincent
Directed by: Theodore Melfi.
Written by: Theodore Melfi.
Starring: Bill Murray (Vincent), Melissa McCarthy (Maggie), Naomi Watts (Daka), Chris O'Dowd (Brother Geraghty), Terrence Howard (Zucko), Jaeden Lieberher (Oliver), Kimberly Quinn (Nurse Ana).

Bill Murray is one of those actors that I would gladly watch in anything. I’m trying to think of an actor I became a fan of earlier in my life than Murray, and I am struggling to think of one. He has made his fair share of bad to downright awful films, but he is almost always doing something interesting in them. He is one of the few actors I can of think you legitimately doesn’t seem to care what others think of him – he just goes out there, and does what whatever he feels like. His latest performance, in St. Vincent, in one of his better in recent years – and even if the movie cannot quite match him; he’s so good that you hardly care. The film is a typical old, drunk asshole meets cute kid and the two teach each other valuable life lessons film – but it works because Murray, not to mention the supporting cast, make it work. It’s actually odd that no one thought of putting Murray in this type of role before.

Murray’s Vincent is an unemployed, chain-smoking, drunken gambler who lives in his rundown house in Brooklyn, driving his 30 year old wood panel station wagon and acting like a complete and total asshole to anyone and everyone who is lucky enough to come into contact with him. He’s broke, his reverse mortgage is maxed out, and he owes some money to some not very nice people – and has other expenses as well. This is when Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) – a newly single mother moves in next door with Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), a 10 year old on the small side, and through a series of weird occurrences, Vincent ends up being his afterschool babysitter. Of course, Vincent is the last person you would expect to be a babysitter – which is where the humor comes from.

There are a couple of different ways a film like St. Vincent can go – it can either be smartly sentimental and funny, or it can be cloying, annoying and overly sentimental. This is why casting an actor like Murray was smart for writer-director Theodore Melfi – Murray is incapable of playing a scene and having it come across as little more than an emotional ploy to try and manipulate the audience. While the movie itself is definitely trying to do that – the closing scenes are rather brazen in their manipulation – Murray sells it all with natural charm and wit.  

The rest of the cast is fine as well. It was nice to see Melissa McCarthy go a little quieter, and subtler for the first time in a while – she is a talented actress, who Hollywood seems to only want to go over the top every time – and while she does that well, she is capable of more than that. This movie doesn’t give her too much to do – but she does it well. Naomi Watts hides behind an over-the-tip Russian accent as a pregnant prostitute friend of Vincent – she’s amusing, but never quite believable. Without a doubt, the best supporting performance is by young Jaeden Lieberher as Olivier – who at first feels like a typical, cutesy movie kid, and while he does that, he slowly becomes somewhat more believable throughout. We have certainly seen Murray steamroll many a co-star during the course of his career, but Lieberher doesn’t allow that to happen.

Yes, the movie follows every cliché you can possibly think of in a movie like this. But Murray and company make it all worthwhile. The end of the film desperately wants to milk tears from the audience – and will likely succeed in many cases – but rare in a film like this, those tears feel earned.

Movie Review: The Heart Machine

The Heart Machine
Directed by: Zachary Wigon.
Written by: Zachary Wigon.
Starring: John Gallagher Jr. (Cody), Kate Lyn Sheil (Virginia), David Call (Dale), Louisa Krause (Jessica), Katie Paxton (Mary), Halley Wegryn Gross (Sarah), Libby Woodbridge (Caitlyn).

I don’t think it’s easy for a filmmaker to make a movie about our relationship with technology and not come across heavy handed or preachy. I don’t necessarily think Jason Reitman was trying to be preachy in Men, Women & Children – but his film certainly came across that way at times. Part of the problem with that film is that Reitman tries to do so much – tries to delve into the lives of so many characters and their relationship with the internet, that it couldn’t really do anything other than skim the surface – and thus seem preachy. By contrast, as cheesy and on the nose as the title is, The Heart Machine is a much better, more confident film about the ways technology now effects even the most intimate moments of many people’s lives. The film is structured much like a low-key thriller – a film that brings to mind masterpieces Vertigo, Blow-Up, The Conversation or Blow Out – and while the film is nowhere close to those films (an impossible standard for anyone to live up to), it is still effective, especially in its buildup, rather than its payoff. The payoff is rather anti-climactic – rather mundane really, but I think it still works, as it probably stays closer to life than a bigger, more exciting climax would have.

The film stars John Gallagher Jr. as Cody – a floppy haired, Brooklyn hipster – a seemingly nice guy who can be funny and charming, and doesn’t have much trouble attracting women. For reasons not entirely explained he goes on a dating site anyway – and it’s here he meets Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil), an East Village dweller. The pair meet online and Skype with each other – before she reveals to him that she is currently living in Berlin for the next six months. The main action is a few months later – we see how these two met, and started talking in flashback – and Cody is convinced that Virginia is lying to him about where she is – and he starts digging to try and prove his suspicions. It starts innocently enough, but as the movie progresses he becomes increasingly obsessed, and increasingly creepy – crossing one line after another in an attempt to find out what he wants to know. An interesting part of the movie is that Cody seems to realize he is crossing the line, but he cannot help himself – he continues to dig himself in deeper. The film loses some of its tension when it starts flashing back and forth from Cody to Virginia – which happens late in the first act – but helps to deepen its two characters. While the movie mainly focuses Cody, it is Virginia who becomes the more fascinating character.

To say more would risk spoiling some of the plot of the movie, but I’m not sure the movie is really about its plot anyway. There is no doubt that the film is structured like a thriller through its first two acts – with Gallagher’s Cody slowly sinking further and further into his obsession – at risk of losing sight of everything else in his life. The film is more about his deteriorating mental state than anything else – and how he is willing to do anything to find out if he’s right. When the movie focuses of Virginia, it mainly keeps the audience at a distance – observing her actions, without explaining them. By the end of the movie however, they will essentially switch roles.

The film is the debut of Zachary Wigon, who uses technology in an interesting way in the film – more of a given, rather than something to be commented on. The two people at the center of the film – and everyone who enters the movie around them – are on the internet constantly, and use it in a variety of ways. This makes it easier for Cody to cyberstalk Virginia, and start piecing together all the clues he has. But the heart of the movie is still rooted in the same problems that have plagued relationship for years. The Heart Machine is a film that uses technology in a way that few films have – it doesn’t ignore its effects on our lives, but doesn’t dwell on them either.