Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Half Time Top 10: 2015

It’s actually been quite a good year for movies in 2015 so far – although not surprisingly, it’s been indie, foreign or documentaries that have been the best of the year so far. I still have quite a bit of catching up to do – as I always do at this time. Among the films I really want to see, and either missed haven’t opened yet in Canada, are: Timbuktu, Jauja, The Tribe, Heaven Knows What, About Elly, Hard to Be a God, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, Girlhood, La Sapienza, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Saint Laurent, Eden, Buzzard, White God, Amour fou, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem, Gueros, Dope, Ned Rifle, Appropriate Behavior, Sunshine Superman, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, When Marnie Was There. And even this list is only cursory and incomplete. Still, thought, this has been a fine year – with lots of good movies to see if you’ve been paying attention.

A few of the films that could have made the list, but didn’t include: Approaching the Elephant (Amanda Wilder) is a truly fascinating documentary about an “alternative” school that allows students a voice in every decision made – and the problem that can happen when one of those students takes advantage of that situation, and threatens to ruin it for everyone else. Eden (Mia Hansen-Love) is an excellent film about a man drifting through his life, not quite realizing he’s wasting it. Gangs of Wasseypur (Anurag Kashyap) is a two part, more than five hour Indian gangster epic – a visceral, violent, enthralling movie, and one of the best kept secrets of the year so far. Paddington (Paul King) which was an absolute delight from start to finish – my three year old loved it – I think I loved it more. Red Army (Gabe Polsky) is the rarest of things – a wonderful hockey movie – and it’s also a fascinating documentary about the USSR in its waning days. ’71 (Yann Demange) is an expertly paced thriller, that is also politically smart. What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement & Taiki Waititi) was an absolutely hilarious mockumentary about four vampires sharing a flat in New Zealand. While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach) veers off course in the final act, but overall is a funny, perceptive view of the generational divide. Wild Tales (Damián Szifrón) is a deliriously entertaining Argentinian film – a set of short stories, all of which revolve around violence and death, which basically concludes that all people, everywhere, are horrible.
 
10. Phoenix (Christian Petzold)
Christian Petzold’s Phoenix is a very good movie, with an absolute stunner of an ending that raises the level of the whole movie. This German film is a take on Hitchcock’s Vertigo – with Nina Hoss delivering an excellent performance as a Jewish released from the camps in the days after WWII, and returning to Berlin. She wants to find her husband – despite the fact that he may well have been the one who turned her in. She has been scarred – literally – by the camps, and her husband doesn’t recognize her – but thinks she looks enough like his wife, who he says is dead, to fool some people – so he can get her money. She goes along with the ruse, hoping to eventually reveal the truth, and be welcomed back. The whole movie is handled with subtlety and intelligence – a slow burning tension that bubbles under the surface. Then, the final scene in the film happens, and your jaw hits the floor. No, one scene does not a masterpiece make – but it certainly raised my appreciation of what was already a very good film.

9. Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad)

The biopic of the genius musician has become a tired clichéd – only occasionally resulting in a movie actually worthy of its subject. Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy, about Brian Wilson, is one of those films. The film shuttles back and forth between the 1960s – when Wilson stepped away from life on the road with the Beach Boys, to write and record his masterpiece Pet Sounds, and his mental issues start getting worse, and in the 1980s, when he is controlled by a doctor, until a new woman enters his life. John Cusack is excellent as the older Wilson – it takes a scene or two to get used to him in a very un-Cusack like role (not to mention, he looks nothing like Wilson, or the younger version of him in the film) – and Elizabeth Banks may be even better in this segment. But it’s Paul Dano, as the younger Wilson, who delivers what is probably the male performance of the year so far. His Wilson is a genius, of course, but an insecure one – one constantly teetering on the brink of a mental abyss he may not be able to come back from. Director Bill Pohlad – making his first film as a director in more than 20 years (he has produced some great ones though – 12 Years a Slave, The Tree of Life, Into the Wild, A Prairie Home Companion, Brokeback Mountain) brings a sensitivity to the direction, and the screenplay (co-written by Owen Moverman, who co-wrote Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, about Bob Dylan, and the best of the recent genius musician biopics), mainly avoids the clichés that often drag the genre down. The film takes chances throughout – and while they don’t always succeed, they do enough to make this a highlight of the year so far.

8. The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland)
Director Peter Strickland’s last film, Berberian Sound Studio, was an homage to the giallo horror films from Italy – that directly referenced the films it was playing around with, but also works on its own terms. It was not a masturbatory regurgitation of well-known tropes, but rather something deeper. The same is true of his follow-up – The Duke of Burgundy – whose opening looks precisely like a soft-core, European porn movie from the 1970s, and plays with the genre throughout in its story of a sadomasochistic lesbian relationship between two women – the older one (Sidse Babett Knudsen), appears to be in control, but really may not be, given how the younger woman (Ciara D’Anna) manipulates everything. The film is brilliantly well made – both in terms of its visual, and its meticulous sound design, genuinely erotic, and yet also deeper than the films it sends up. The film really is about the compromises we make in relationships, so no matter who you are, you may well find yourself genuinely moved by this film.

 7. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell)

David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows joins the shortlist for the best horror films of the decade so far – with its brilliant premise of a presence stalking a teenage girl, who can only stop it by passing it on to someone – by having sex. The film plays with the tropes of the horror genre – which has always been moralistic about teenage sex – but goes further than just that, and has made a film of genuine ideas about growing up, wrapped up in a genuinely creepy, scary and disturbing horror film – and brilliantly constructed one at that, with its long takes. The only flaw with the film is a confused and confusing climax in a swimming pool – which really doesn’t work at all – but otherwise, this is top notch horror filmmaking – and like the best the genre has to offer, one of ideas as well as scares.


6. World of Tomorrow (Don Hertzfeldt)
I usually do not put shorts on my lists like this – in part, because I don’t see that many – but Don Hertzfeldt’s 17 minute, animated sci-fi film really is as brilliant as any feature I have seen so far this year – and packed with more ideas than almost all of them. The premise of the movie is that a young girl is visited by one of her future clones, who walks her through the future – which is a dark, horrifying place. The little girl has no idea of that though – she cannot comprehend what she is being told – but we do. The film is simultaneously hilarious, and disturbing –a genuinely moving exploration of what it means to be human, and what we are giving away. The animation – with Hertzfeldt’s trademarked stick figures, and a much more detailed background than he normally has, is brilliant. I rented the film from Vimeo – where you get to keep it for 30 days – and I have no idea how many times I watched the film in that month, but I still cannot wait to see it again. One of the great shorts I have ever seen – and if it doesn’t win the Animated Short Oscar this year, I’m going to be pissed.

 5. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (Brett Morgen)

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is a documentary that is, admittedly, tailor made for me – a Nirvana fan from my teens on. Yet over the years I have seen many docs on Cobain, Nirvana and grunge, and none of them have been anywhere near as good as this one. Part of the reason for that is that director Brett Morgan has access to things no one has had before – home movies, audio recordings, journals and interviews with Cobain’s family, who haven’t given on camera interviews before. But a lot of it is the way Morgen himself assembles the footage. Like his episode of the ESPN show 30 for 30 (which may be the best one in a great series), where he assembled a montage of one very busy day in sports history to make larger points about news, sports and celebrity – Morgen does something similar here – making the film one big, haunting, heartbreaking montage. Yes, the movie runs out of steam a little towards the end – when we’re in more conventional territory – but not much. This is easily the best doc of the year so far.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
We’ve already had more than our share of action blockbusters this year – and to be fair to them, most have been at least moderately entertaining. But they all pale in comparison to Mad Max: Fury Road, which is the best, most bat-shit insane action movie to come along in quite some time. The film is almost all action from beginning to end – and yet, it finds time for a complex narrative, and character arcs that are told almost all through actions, both large and small. For a movie called Mad Max, you wouldn’t expect the best, most complicated character to be Charlize Theron’s Furiosa – but that you have it, it happened. The original Mad Max trilogy really only had one great film – the second one, The Road Warrior – but that was an action masterpiece. This is another one – and makes me really sad that director George Miller essentially abandoned the genre for 30 years. But he’s back now – and this movie is blockbuster filmmaking at its finest.

 3. Ex Machina (Alex Garland)

Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina is one of the best, smartest science fiction films in recent years. It is a small film – four characters, one location – a large house in the middle of nowhere – with great special effects, that are used sparingly, but with greatest results. The film is about a young programmer (Domnhall Gleeson) who is called by his eccentric, billionaire, genius boss (Oscar Isaac) to his secluded house to give a Turing test to robot he has created (Alicia Virkander). The film is tense, gradually ratcheting up the suspense as it moves along. It is also brilliantly acted – especially by Isaac and Virkander, the latter of which does a great job with a difficult role. The film is more than a sci-fi thriller however – it is a smart take on gender roles and misogyny. Like all great sci-fi, it is a film of ideas that enhance the plot – that uses special effects to enhance the story and not detract from it. Imagine that.


2. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria reminded me of the Golden Age of European Art House films in the best way imaginable. The film stars Juliette Binoche as an aging actress, whose mentor has just died, and has now been offered a role in a revival of the play that made her a star in the first place – but instead of playing the young, ingénue, she’ll now be playing the older, more repressed character – which wreaks havoc on her psyche. Binoche is brilliant – she always is – but Kristen Stewart, as her assistant, who runs lines with her (playing the younger woman, of course, who in the play is also the older woman’s assistant) is perhaps even better. The film certainly calls to mind the work of Ingmar Bergman – although Assayas’ film has a lighter tone, and more comedic moments than much of Bergman’s work. It is also a film that touches on a lot of different things – including Stewart getting a chance to defend blockbuster filmmaking, which is not something you normally find in art house films. The film is meticulously put together, wonderfully written and amazingly well acted. Assayas has been a great director for a long time now – and this ranks among his very best films.

1. Inside Out (Pete Docter)

After a few down years for Pixar, they have returned with one of the very best films they have ever made. The film is also without a doubt the most daring film they have made – taking place entirely inside the head of an 11 year old girl, with her emotions being the main characters – with the ultimate message being that sometimes it’s okay to be sad – in fact, you need to be sad at times. This is a complex idea for a children’s movie – and yet Pixar was able to pull it off brilliantly, in a movie that works on one level for kids and another for adults. Like all Pixar films, it trusts it audience to be able to handle more mature material – material that challenges them, and can indeed make you sad. I’m not ashamed to admit that the movie made me cry – a lot – and not just because of Bing Bong (although, yes, Bing Bong destroyed me). All of this probably makes Inside Out sound depressing or serious – and it isn’t. It’s still a joyous and hilarious – as well as brilliantly animated. This has been a strong year so far for movies – but even saying that, Inside Out is far and away the best movie I have seen so far this year.

Movie Review: '71

‘71
Directed by: Yann Demange.
Written by: Gregory Burke.
Starring: Jack O'Connell (Gary Hook), Sam Reid (Lt. Armitage), Paul Anderson (Sergeant Leslie Lewis), Sean Harris (Captain Sandy Browning), Richard Dormer (Eamon), Killian Scott (Quinn).

Yann Demange’s ’71 is an excellent war time thriller, set during the “troubles” in Ireland in 1971 – which was the year before the most violent year this conflict saw. The film follows one British soldier – as he goes in with his unit to serve a simple search warrant, and ends up getting trapped in the city by himself. There are multiple factions involved – some want to kill him, some want to save him, and there are undercover agents who may want to do either, or both, at any one time. The remarkable thing about ’71 is how it keeps all of this straight, with very little in the way of exposition. The screenplay, by Geoffrey Burke, provides us with just enough information, before heading off in another direction at breakneck speed. The result is an exciting film – but also one that takes a confusing situation, and shows us the chaos that caused it, without becoming mired in it.

The film opens with a training montage of Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell – last seen in Unbroken, but much better here and in Starred Up), a young British soldier, from a poor background. He and his fellow soldiers are training in the woods, with camouflage and traditional war tactics – basically everything they do NOT need when their unit gets assigned to help out the police in Belfast. Their commanding officer (Sam Reid) is inexperienced and naïve – and has no idea what is about to come crashing down on them. Then again, to be fair, no one really does. They head out on a routine mission, and things quickly turn sour – with the local populace starting to throw rocks, and threatening to riot – and Hook and another soldier soon find themselves alone in the chaos. When the other solider is shot, Hook takes off – and thus begins a long night when his life is in constant danger.

The film is directed by first time filmmaker Yann Demange, who shows an expert sense of pacing and action from the start of his career. Early in the film, the constant, shaky, handheld camera work made me worry that the film would be yet another sub-Paul Greengrass (if you’re generous, Michael Bay is you’re not) thriller – but it’s anything but. Even in those early scenes, with the shaky camera work, Demange favors longer takes rather than rapid fire editing to place us inside the action. The effect is certainly chaotic, but also clear eyed – so we actually understand what is going on. As the movie progresses, we get fewer of these types of shaky camera work – as Demange changes his style for whatever set piece he is currently working on.

The resulting film is exciting and tense in part, but also intelligent. There are so many different factions – all of whom may be ready to kill one another at any given time, and many also willing to team up at others – and yet the film never loses the audience in the details. It is crystal clear at any one moment what precisely is going on – and where the biggest danger to Hook is coming from.

The film also works as an anti-war film. Most of the characters in the film – and all of the ones that truly risk their lives – are young men, who do not really understand the fight they are becoming involved in. Hook has no real clue what he’s doing, or why he’s doing it – and he may well have more in common – economically anyway - with those who want to kill him, than those who want to save him.

There have been a lot of movies about the “troubles” over the years – some very sympathetic to the IRA, some, not so much. ’71 is not really either here – it looks at a situation that was about ready to explode, and finds more than enough blame to go around. And then it wraps it up in an entertaining, expertly made package.

Movie Review: Get Hard

Get Hard
Directed by: Etan Cohen.
Written by: Jay Martel & Ian Roberts and Etan Cohen and Adam McKay.
Starring: Will Ferrell (James), Kevin Hart (Darnell), Craig T. Nelson (Martin), Alison Brie (Alissa), Edwina Findley Dickerson (Rita), Ariana Neal (Makayla), Erick Chavarria (Cecelio), T.I. (Russell), Paul Ben-Victor (Gayle).

At what point do jokes cross the line between being about racism and actually being racist. At what point do jokes cross the line between being about homophobia, and actually being homophobic? I’m not sure I – or anyone really – knows where precisely that line gets drawn, but I am also pretty sure that Get Hard crosses both of them multiple times. But perhaps it just seems that way because most of the jokes themselves weren’t actually funny, and it’s easier to get offended by humor that doesn’t make you laugh. Whatever the truth is, I didn’t laugh very much during Get Hard despite the fact that both of its stars – Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart – are in fact very funny in general. The whole premise of the movie though is basically that Ferrell is afraid of being raped in prison by black men, so he has to learn to protect himself in the 30 days he has left on the outside. I suppose one could argue that the object of ridicule in Get Hard is not actually black, homosexual rapists – but rather Ferrell’s white fear of them, based on the stereotypes of them that he believes, as well as Hart, who despite the fact that he is black, also has a lot of stereotypes in his head. He only knows slightly more about what to expect in prison than Ferrell does – but acts as his guide anyway – meaning that it’s really the blind leading the blind. Perhaps that is even true. Still though – Get Hard does leave a bad taste in your mouth.

In the film, Ferrell stars as James King – a financial big shot, who makes a lot of money working for his future father-in-law Martin (Craig T. Nelson). Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, he is arrested and charged with embezzlement and other financial crimes (the filmmakers could have watched an episode or two of American Greed to give some sort of basis in reality for the crimes, which they are so vague on that it is impossible to tell exactly what James has been charged with – just that it angers a lot of people). Martin insists he’ll help James – who proclaims his innocence - but he still gets 10 years in San Quentin, from a judge who wants to make an example out of a financial criminal (the film’s biggest piece of fantasy). The judge also gives him 30 days to “get his affairs in order” before the sentence starts. James ends up hiring Darnell (Kevin Hart) – who works in the parking garage of his work – to teach him how to survive in prison – as he just assumes that a black man Darnell’s age has been in prison (to give James a little credit, Darnell does make a couple comments to give James a slight idea, that he then just takes and runs with it).

The bulk of the movie is really about these two idiots “preparing” James for life as a prison bitch. Darnell, who really has no more idea than James what prison will be like, seems to base everything off of old episodes of Oz and prison stereotypes – which is something that even James seems completely unfamiliar with. Eventually, Darnell will bring in some real “experts” to help – and things spiral out of control.

Ferrell and Hart can be funny – Ferrell in movies, and Hart mainly in his stand-up routines (I haven’t seen many of Hart’s movies, but think he could be funny in the right role – but don’t think he’s found it yet). Here though, they don’t quite work together. Ferrell is at his best playing idiots – and he plays James as if he’s an idiot, although the screenplay never really settles on whether he is or not. For the most part, he certainly seems like one – not only for the way he casually assumes Darnell is a felon, or how he doesn’t realize who is really behind the scam (the best moment in the film is when Darnell figures that out in about half a second) – but then again, he’s also portrayed as some sort of financial genius, and overall just a sweet, naïve guy. The movie misses an opportunity to truly make a biting comedy about the 1%, by going so soft on him. As for Hart, well, he’s basically playing himself – or at least his stand-up persona, but the writers of the movie don’t him the type of material he needs to make it work. The rest of the cast is barely in the movie, and seem on autopilot. It’s very disappointing for instance to cast a comedic actress as talented as Alison Brie (as Ferrell’s fiancée), and then just use her a sex object in lingerie for one scene, and then basically jettison her character.
 
Get Hard is a comedy that is based on stereotypes, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Lots of comedies are based on those, but the best ones subvert those stereotypes – which I think is the intention of Get Hard – but the film never comes close to meeting those intentions. Is Get Hard offensive? Yes, but mainly that’s because it’s lazy, and doesn’t really try to do anything with a subject that could have made a great comedy. And also because, above all, it’s just not funny.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Movie Review: Inside Out

Inside Out
Directed by: Pete Docter.
Written by: Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen and Meg LeFauve & Josh Cooley.
Starring: Amy Poehler (Joy), Phyllis Smith (Sadness), Bill Hader (Fear), Lewis Black (Anger), Mindy Kaling (Disgust), Kaitlyn Dias (Riley), Diane Lane (Mom), Kyle MacLachlan (Dad), Richard Kind (Bing Bong), Paula Poundstone (Forgetter Paula), Bobby Moynihan (Forgetter Bobby), Paula Pell (Dream Director / Mom's Anger), Dave Goelz (Subconscious Guard Frank), Frank Oz (Subconscious Guard Dave), Josh Cooley (Jangles), Flea (Mind Worker Cop Jake), John Ratzenberger (Fritz).

Between 1999’s Toy Story 2 and 2010’s Toy Story 3, Pixar went on one of the greatest runs any mainstream studio had ever gone on in movie history – during that time, I referred to Pixar as the most consistent force in mainstream cinema entertainment. You could pretty much set your watch to Pixar – every summer (once in a while, in November), you would see one of the best films of the year – an animated film that worked on one level for adults, another for children, and was as brilliantly animated as it was wonderfully written. During this 12 year run, Pixar made 9 films, and I would argue only 2006’s Cars wasn’t a great film - merely a good one. But all great things most come to an end, and so it was with Pixar – who have stumbled for the first time in their existence in the past few years. They’ve made three films in the past 4 years – and none are among their best (although Brave looks as great as anything Pixar has ever done, and Monster’s University is a hell of a lot of fun and Cars 2 – well, Cars 2 sucks). But you can only keep a creative force like Pixar down for so long before the rebound – and with Inside Out, Pixar rebounds in a huge way. Not only is it a return to form for Pixar – it rivals the very best films Pixar has ever made. Which of course means one thing – the film completely broke me, leaving me an emotional wreck for days. And I mean that as a good thing.

The film centers inside the head of Riley – an 11-year old girl, whose parents pack her up and move her from Minnesota to San Francisco – leaving her friends, her hockey team, and everything she has ever known behind. This can be a traumatic experience for any kid – and it certainly is for Riley. But Riley isn’t the main character in Inside Out – her emotions are. Five primary emotions live inside her head, and wrestle for the controls for how she is going to feel at any one time. Her “primary” emotion is Joy (Amy Poehler – perfectly cast), who leads the others. She gets along well with Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) – and does her best to keep Sadness (Phyllis Smith) far away from the controls. But as Riley heads off to school, and it starts to sink in that things will never be the same – that becomes harder and harder. Then, through a series of events I’ll leave for you to discover, Joy and Sadness get sucked into Riley’s long-term memory – basically endless rows of shelves – and have to find their way to the control room – heading through Riley’s subconscious, Imagination land and other areas of her mind.

This is a rather daring concept for a kids’ movie – that is much more complex than most others would even attempt to do. I have a feeling that much of the movie will fly over children’s heads – my almost four year old had fun with the movie, which either means she didn’t get it, or is a heartless psychopath, which is the only other explanation I can think of for how someone could watch this movie and not cry. For kids, the movie offers a lot – a colorful environment, chase sequences, jokes that will hit them a lot differently then they will adults (none more so than Anger’s comment about seeing a Bear in San Francisco). In short, kids will see Inside Out as a fun animated adventure – and really, that is what they want to see it as.

 For adults however – especially for parents – be prepared. Pixar has not shied away from strong emotions before – like the “When She Loved Me” number in Toy Story 2, Boo’s joy when she says “Kitty” at the end of Monsters Inc., the climax of Wall-E, the opening of Up or the threat of the toys going into the fire in Toy Story 3 (all of which choke me up just thinking about them) – but I do not think they have ever gone after them quite as much as they do in Inside Out. I don’t want to say too much about it – but if Bing Bong doesn’t sear himself into your memory in a powerful way, and make you cry just thinking about him, then I don’t know what that says about you – but it ain’t good.

What’s amazing about Inside Out though is that it is able to do that, and not feel like it’s being overly manipulative or sentimental. I may have cried at Marley & Me – but I didn’t feel good about myself afterwards, and rather resented the movie as well. That’s not the case with Inside Out – which earns the tears it generates. It does that by being a very intelligent movie – one that doesn’t talk down to the audience – either the children or the adults – and by having a deeper understanding of psychology than just about any movie aimed at adults does. The message of Inside Out isn’t as simplistic as its okay to feel sad – although that is part of it – but more than that, that sadness and joy are necessary, and often co-exist – something sad turning into something happy, and vice versa. Pixar has often faced criticisms – valid ones at that – that all of their protaganists are men, except for Brave, where they made her another Princess. With Inside Out, they have made a movie about a little girl at its core, and she becomes the most complex protagonist Pixar has ever had. Sure, you could argue its cheating, since she is really made up of 5 characters, but it works. And the more I think about Inside Out – the deeper than damn movie gets. There are layers here that I cannot wait to delve back into.

And, of course, the movie is stunningly animated – among the best things Pixar has ever done visually, with the different emotions all distinctive cartoon-like characters, which are perfectly suited to their emotions. I always knew Pixar would rebound after a few off movies – but I still wasn’t prepared for Inside Out – which is the best movie of 2015 so far. Easily.

Movie Review: The Wolfpack

The Wolfpack
Directed by: Crystal Moselle.

I’ve thought a lot about The Wolfpack in the week since I saw the documentary – and still am not quite sure if the film is inspirational, or tragic. The film is a look at the lives of the Angulo brothers – all of six of them, who grew up with their parents, and little sister, all sharing a small apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The brothers were home schooled, and very rarely allowed to leave the apartment at all – and never by themselves. Their father controlled them all – and didn’t want them to have contact with the corrupting forces of the outside world. But there was one thing from the outside he would let his sons see – movies. Lots and lots of movies. And the brothers fell in love with them, and got to see the world outside their tiny apartment through those movies – many of which, they would recreate, using ingenious means, turning everything they could find into material for props and costumes. Director Crystal Moselle met the brothers on one of their first trips outside their apartment on their own – when they were all dressed like Reservoir Dogs, and was eventually invited into their home to make this documentary – although she often lets the brothers take control of the camera, and the film itself.

On one level, The Wolfpack is an inspirational movie – the type that Hollywood loves, because it is about the love of movies, and how they can inspire people to become their best selves. Three recent Oscar winners – The Artist, Argo and Birdman – were about that in various ways, as they represent the good that art in general – and movies specifically- can do. For the Argulo brothers, you can argue that movies have kept them sane – and made them see the world outside of their apartment. They may not have been able to leave physically, but mentally, they could whenever they wanted to. At a certain point, they realized that their lives were not normal, and eventually gained the courage to leave – and start their own lives.

On another level though, The Wolfpack is a very sad movie – about a father who seems like a failed cult leader, who wanted to brainwash and control his family, who kept them under lock and key for years, and although he seems like a quiet man when interviewed in the movie, should perhaps be in jail. It’s to the documentary’s credit that it lets viewers decide how to take the movie. The movie doesn’t really judge its subjects – and Moselle quite clearly cares for the sons, and the mother, in the family – her feelings about the father are ambivalent at best. And while watching the movie, it’s easy to forget the darker aspects of this story. The sons seem happy and well-adjusted – friendly with each other, and Moselle. If their father had power over them – it’s gone now. He comes across as pathetic more than anything – a sad man whose goals are going unfulfilled.

The film is Moselle’s first, and refreshingly, she askews much of the standard issue documentary material than often drag down movies like this. There are no talking heads, no stats or other title cards, no one offering a larger perspective on the brothers. It really is an intimate documentary that allows its subjects to be at its core, and doesn’t look much beyond them. It doesn’t need to. This is a fascinating story all by itself – and Moselle was smart enough to see that, and let it play out in front of her camera.

Movie Review: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Directed by: Roy Andersson.
Written by: Roy Andersson.
Starring: Holger Andersson (Jonathan), Nils Westblom (Sam), Viktor Gyllenberg (Karl XII), Lotti Törnros (Flamenco Teacher), Jonas Gerholm (Lonesome Lieutnant), Ola Stensson (Captain / Barber), Oscar Salomonsson (Dancer), Roger Olsen Likvern (Caretaker), Mats Ryden (Man at the busstop), Göran Holm (Bargäst).

Swedish director Roy Andersson has made a career out of making one, very specific kind of film – the type that critics like to bring out other directors to try and explain – most often, in Andersson’s case, that he’s like “Jacques Tati meets Ingmar Bergman” (some will say Buster Keaton inside of Tati, and others – who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about will say Chaplin – although Bergman usually stays, probably because of the whole Swedish thing). It’s not a bad comparison – as Andersson’s films do call filmmakers like those to mind. The films are often hilarious – in a deadpan way, like Tati or Keaton – but also delve into some very serious subject matter. They are made up of individual scenes – often completely unconnected to the rest of the movie (although, he will come back to certain characters) – and his camera doesn’t move, and each scene is one shot. His films offer little vignettes of life, death, comedy, tragedy, etc. His breakthrough film was Songs from the Second Floor (2000), and it took him seven years to follow that up with You, the Living, and another seven before he made his latest A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Andersson, I think, is rather lucky that it takes so long between films. There is a limited as to what one can do with films like these – and Andersson has reached that limit. But the long gaps in between mean he is greeted with a little more enthusiasm than if, say, he released these three films in three straight years.

There is nothing wrong with A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (that title, by the way, has to be a joke, right – as if Andersson decided to name his film as if he had made the most pretentious art film in history). The film works in its individual scenes – and there are a few near the end when Andersson completely forgoes the comedy to create some of the more disturbing, and haunting, images you will likely see in a theater this year that I’m still trying to wrap my head around (should they be there? Is Andersson saying anything here, or doing it for shock value? I’m honestly not sure).

For the most part, I enjoyed the purely stand alone scenes best – like a trio at the beginning about three unrelated deaths, that are tragic and hilarious in equal measure, or the flashback of an old man to his war days in the same bar which turns into a musical number. Andersson comes back – repeatedly – to a two salesman, trying to sell the sadness novelty joke items imaginable – and it’s probably too often, as he establishes that they are pathetic, and doesn’t do much else with them.
 
But there is, as I said, a limited to how well a film like this can ever work – and personally, I think there is a law of diminishing returns at work here. I remember watching Songs from the Second Floor around the time it came out on DVD – and being amazed by it. I was in college at the time, and had never seen anything quite like it. But with this film, I feel like I have seen it before – and that Andersson is simply repeating himself. The film works – I had fun for the most part, and the film certainly does offer a memorable experience, something that cannot be said about a lot of films. Still, the thrill of seeing something new is gone with Andersson – and one hopes that he tries something different next time out.

Movie Review: Slow West

Slow West
Directed by: John Maclean.
Written by: John Maclean.
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee (Jay Cavendish), Michael Fassbender (Silas Selleck), Ben Mendelsohn (Payne), Caren Pistorius (Rose Ross), Andrew Robertt (Werner), Rory McCann (John Ross), Kalani Queypo (Kotori).

It doesn’t surprise me that Slow West is writer/director John Maclean’s first film. It feels like a first film – albeit, the first film of a talented writer/director who probably has a bright future ahead of him. The film calls to mind filmmakers like the Coen brothers and Jim Jarmusch among many others – it’s a Western full of violence and comedic moments, but with a quiet tone. Like the Westerns of the Coens and Jarmusch – and many others over the years – Maclean’s want to de-mystify the West – paint it as a violent, confusing place, not the place of heroes and “real men” of the classical Western, but a worse place. That may not be an overly original vision – but it works here, as it has in the past.

The film stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jay – a young Scotsman who has come to America in search of Rose (Caren Pistorius), a young woman he’s in love with, who had to flee their native land along with her father because they became wanted criminals, which may or may be Jay’s fault. To Jay, Rose is perfection personified, but the movie never mistakes her for that. It shows us, fairly early, that Rose and her father went from being wanted in Scotland, to being wanted in America as well, and there’s no evidence to suggest she feels remotely like Jay does towards her. He never shuts up about Rose – she never mentions Jay. Jay is spotted early on by Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) – a hardened cowboy, with a violent past, who immediately knows Jay will never make if he doesn’t help him – so he does just that. Not out of the kindness of his heart mind – he charges Jay a lot to act as his guide, and fully plans on collecting the reward on Rose and her daddy when they find them (something he doesn’t tell Jay). Like many a Western hero before him, Silas has a former gang – this one led by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), who also want to collect that money, and tag along right behind.

Slow West is an apt title for the movie – it certainly doesn’t move fast. It’s more interested in the journey across the West than the destination as well. The film takes some odd detours – singing Africans make an appearance, an odd German named Werner, violent episodes. The three main performances – by Smit-McPhee, Fassbender and Mendelsohn – pretty much play things straight – they would be at home in a 1950s Delmer Daves –Western, which works for the odd tone of the movie, which Maclean establishes through his dialogue, and serio-comic nature of the film, that gives way to violence. The climax of the movie seems to me like Maclean acknowledging he has no other way to end the film, so he may as well give audiences the type of shootout they expect from a Western – but even still winking at the audience during it (no more so than in moment where someone quite literally gets salt in their wound).

Maclean has learned from the best – and it shows in Slow West. The Coen’s True Grit and Jarmusch’s Dead Man are obvious inspirations – but there are elements of many other directors sprinkled throughout the film. Many first time filmmakers make films that resemble that of their idols, before they find their own, distinct voice. Slow West feels like that type of film – not a great film, but an early film of a great director. Let’s hope I’m right.