Thursday, September 29, 2016

Movie Review: The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua.
Written by: Richard Wenk & Nic Pizzolatto based on the screenplay by Akira Kurosawa & Shinobu Hashimoto & Hideo Oguni.
Starring: Denzel Washington (Chisolm), Chris Pratt (Josh Faraday), Ethan Hawke (Goodnight Robicheaux), Vincent D'Onofrio (Jack Horne), Byung-hun Lee (Billy Rocks), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Vasquez), Martin Sensmeier (Red Harvest), Haley Bennett (Emma Cullen), Peter Sarsgaard (Bartholomew Bogue), Luke Grimes (Teddy Q), Matt Bomer (Matthew Cullen), Jonathan Joss (Denali), Cam Gigandet (McCann), Emil Beheshti (Maxwell), Mark Ashworth (Preacher).
 
I don’t think one can argue that each version of The Magnificent Seven has gotten worse the one before it. Akira Kurosawa’s epic Seven Samurai (1954) is one of the greatest films ever made after all, and although John Sturges’ 1960 remake, moving the action from feudal Japan to the American West is nowhere near as good, it’s still a hell of an entertaining Western, and does honor at least part of Kurosawa’s masterpiece – as both films are about a dying way of life, whether it’s seven samurai or seven gunslingers, defending a town of humble farmers from people who want to steal their land, these men know their time is over, and it’s time to make way for a future that does not need them. You’re not particularly wrong to think that we really didn’t need Antoine Fuqua’s remake of The Magnificent Seven in 2016 – and yet I have to admit that I had a good time watching the film. Fuqua has always been skilled at directing action – and he gets to do more than his share of set pieces here – that thankfully do not involve shaky cameras and rapid fire editing. He has cast the film well, if rather predictably, with movie stars doing the type of roles that made them stars to begin with. The film doesn’t really try to do anything all that new here – although it is great to see a cast in a movie this size be this diverse, and perhaps in the age of Trump, the film may resonate a little more as it is, after all, but this ragtag group of mismatched gunslingers teaming up to take down a man who equates capitalism with God – but I think that’s rather by accident. I’m not going to argue that the film is original or vital or brilliant – but I will argue that it’s really, really entertaining – and for those of us who would love to see more Westerns on the big screen, a site for sore eyes.
 
The story is pretty straight forward – the evil robber baron Bart Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) wants the small town of Rose Creek to himself – there’s a mine, so there’s money – and he will do anything to get it. He offers to buy everyone’s land – for much less than its worth – and will kill anyone who refuses, as the opening scene aptly demonstrates. He’s giving the town three weeks to decide – by then he’ll be back from Sacramento, and expects to get what he wants. One widow, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) decides that she’s going to find some men to help the poor farmers defend their town. She meets Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) in a nearby town when he guns down quite a few men – legally of course. Once she has him on board, he brings the rest – drunken Faraday (Chris Pratt), sharpshooting Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), the Asian good with knives, Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), the former Indian scalper Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), the Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and the Comanche Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeir). They storm the town, and send Bogue a message by taking care of his men. They know he’ll be there within a week – and bring an army with them. They need to prepare.
 
Fuqua has cast the movie well, if more than a little bit predictably. I love Denzel in this movie – riding into town like he’s John Wayne – the calm exterior of a killer with justice on his side, and vengeance on his mind. It’s a role that Denzel could do in his sleep – but he’s a movie star because he doesn’t – and if you cannot enjoy him in this mode, than I feel sorry for you. Pratt gets to be goofy funny – and he does that well. Hawke is fine, although perhaps I expected a little more from him, Korean star Byung-hun Lee continues to make an impression trying to break into Hollywood – yet still not finding a role as good as I Saw the Devil. The film doesn’t really give Garcia-Rulfo or Sensmeier much to do – with a cast this big, a few of them are going to fade into the background, and that’s their role. Best of all of the seven is Vincent D’Onofrio, who shows up in the film looking like Orson Welles’ Falstaff, but speaking with a weirdly pinched, slightly high-pitched voice. I have a feeling that D’Onofrio like to amuse himself in roles like this – that could easily be forgettable, by deciding to make his work as strange as possible. It works – here, at least. Sarsgaard is appropriately vile as Bogue – but a subdued vile, not a cackling one, and that helps.
 
This is not a movie for people who don’t want to see gunfights. The film opens with a massacre, moves onto a quick gunfight in a bar, and then the back half of the film is pretty much two big gunfights, with a little training montage in between. Fuqua has been doing gunfights his entire career – but rarely has been this good at them. The two extended one in the back part of the film in particular are expertly choreographed and exciting. Do they go on too long, with too many anonymous people being gunned down? Probably. Did I still have fun nearly every minute of them? Yes.
 
I’m not going to argue that the film is a masterwork by any means – you are better off watching either previous version other than this one. Yet, we just got out of a summer season in which what passed for action filmmaking was superheroes and flying CGI crap. Give me these seven, with their horses and six shooters any day over that.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Movie Review: It's Only the End of the World

It’s Only the End of the World
Directed by: Xavier Dolan    
Written by: Xavier Dolan based on the play by Jean-Luc Lagarce.
Starring: Nathalie Baye (La mere), Vincent Cassel (Antoine Knipper), Marion Cotillard (Catherine), Léa Seydoux (Suzanne Knipper), Gaspard Ulliel (Louis-Jean Knipper). 

When directors talk about adapting plays for film, they often talk about “opening” the play up. Many plays have a limited number of characters and only one locations – which makes sense given the constraints of the theater. There is no such constraint on film – so often plays add characters and locations, subplots, etc. when they move to film, in an effort to make things more cinematic – no director wants to accused of making a movie that is essentially a photographed play – and even if this opening up often has mixed results, it’s still pretty much the preferred method. Xavier Dolan does a little of this in It’s Only the End of the World – based on the play by Jean-Luc Lagarce. He has a flashback scene that would impossible on stage, and at one point, two of his characters go on a car ride instead of staying at the house nearly all the rest of the action takes place in (I assume, not having seen the play, that the scene was at the house on stage) – although in doing so, he’s just trading one confined space for another. For the most part though, Dolan traps his five actors in one location – and then goes a step further than that because he shoots almost the entire movie in close-up – whoever is talking has a camera directly in their face, unless the camera is directly in the face of the person they are talking to. Instead of opening up the play, he’s closed it down even more – made it more claustrophobic than ever before. Perhaps with another play, this approach could work – but here, it’s pretty much a disaster. There is a lot of screaming and big gestures in the film, and the effect of watching it in a theater is pretty much akin to having someone get into your personal space and screaming at you for 97 minutes.

The movie is about Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), a gay writer you is returning to his home for the first time in 12 years to tell his mother (Nathalie Baye), older brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel) and younger sister, Suzanne (Lea Seydoux) that he is dying. The only other character there is Antoine’s wife, Catherine (Marion Cotillard) – who Louis has never met, even though she and Antoine have been together for a decade, and have two kids themselves. The exact reasons for Louis’ self-isolation – and the whereabouts of their father – is left unanswered (although, I will admit, I spent more time trying to figure out how old the three siblings were supposed to be than that – Cassell is 49 in real life, and both Ulliel and Seydoux are 31 – although Ulliel says he’s 35 in the film, and Seydoux is supposed to be much younger, as he mentions he doesn’t know her at all as he left when she was a kid – and she admits she has no memory of him living with them – but I digress). Louis’ mother is excited for the visit – she’s slathering on makeup, and putting out a nice spread of all of Louis’ childhood favorites. Suzanne cannot wait to essentially meet her older brother – who she imagines lives some glamorous life, as opposed to her boring one in suburbia, where she basically sits around and gets stoned. Antoine is angry – angry at Louis, and at his life in general. Catherine tries to play the role of peacekeeper – keeping a smile plastered on her face throughout, and speaking quietly. Like many quiet people, you get the impression that not a lot gets by her – she understands more than she appears to.
 
The movie is essentially made up of a series of one-on-one conversations between Louis and the other members of the family – although there are two meals at both the beginning and end of the film where everyone is together. Yet even these one-on-one conversations are barely that – they’re much more like multiple scenes where the members of the family tell Louis everything about their life – and those of their family – and what they all need Louis to do for them. It couldn’t be stagier if it tried.
 
Perhaps on stage, all this works. Louis pretty much remains a cipher throughout the film – you never really get a handle on who he is, why he left, his place in the family, etc. It seems like he has become a bigger presence in the family in his absence then he was when he was there – especially for his mother and sister, who think he can solve everything. In many ways, Antoine is the character whose motivations are the clearest and easiest to understand – he’s pissed. He’s pissed that his brother left, he’s pissed that he got famous, pissed that he has to take care of everything himself, pissed he has a shitty job, etc. His anger makes sense. Yet, his scenes are also the worst in the film – as Cassell essentially decides to scream every word of dialogue he has – and seethe in quiet anger when he isn’t talking.
 
In fact, out of all the performances in the film, only Cotillard is really convincing. One of the best actresses in the world, she turns Catherine into a sympathetic character – her big eyes take everything in, and unlike everyone else, she doesn’t really have any delusions about Louis – she tries to be nice, make small talk, tell him about her kids, etc., early on – but a later scene, in the hallway, lets us know precisely what she really does think – and her quiet, not quite criticism, cuts closer to the bone than anything else. Ulliel is stuck with an impossible role – he looks sad eyed throughout, and never gets to say what he really think. Baye is all exaggerated emotions and gestures – it’s hard to take her seriously in her one scene when she does get serious – harder still to believe a woman of that age would have such a juvenile outlook on life. Seydoux is clearly too old to be playing what is essentially a spoiled. naive teenage brat – and the film gives her no other note to play.
 
Dolan is a talented filmmaker. He is no longer the teenage wunderkind who dazzled with I Killed My Mother back in 2009, even if I’m not quite sure his outlook on life has matured that much in the intervening years. Still, that film – along with Heartbeats, Laurence Anyways and Mommy all show him to be a talented filmmaker – and even if I didn’t particularly love Tom at the Farm, I liked how it showed a willingness to experiment and try a different genre. I still think Dolan is one of the most interesting cinematic voices to come out of Canada in years – and look forward to whatever he does next. But It’s Only the End of the World is pretty much awful from beginning to end – shrill, loud, angry, lacking in any real insight or emotion, it’s a trying experience to sit through. Every director has some misfires in their career – It’s Only the End of the World is one of those for Dolan.

Movie Review: The Wailing

The Wailing
Directed by: Hong-jin Na.
Written by: Hong-jin Na.

Starring: Do Won Kwak (Jong-Goo), Jun Kunimura (The Stranger), Kim Hwan-hee (Hyo-Jin),Woo-hee Chun (The Woman of No-name), Jung-min Hwang  (Il-Gwang), So-yeon Jang (Jong-Goo’s Wife).





In movies, as in everything else, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. The Korean film The Wailing is mostly a good movie – but it’s hurt more than a little bit because it’s trying too hard. The film is essentially a thriller with horror elements, but it runs over two and half hours, which is more time than its story needs to tell. To try and quell the petering out of the plot, writer/director Hong-jin Na stages nearly every scene to be some sort of show stopper – big moments, big action, etc. – and so the movie never quite settles into a rhythm. There is a lot about the film that works – more important than anything, the ending is a stunner – but the film could have been better had it been a little bit less of everything.
 
The film centers on a police detective – Jong-Goo (Do Won Kwak) in a small mountain town, who is charged with investigating an illness that started to spread through the town with the arrival of a Japanese stranger (Jun Kunimura) – a sickness that causes an outbreak of murderous violence – before making them nearly catatonic before they die. Jong-Goo and his associates – another detective and a Priest – start to try and piece together the mystery – everything coming back to either The Stranger. When Jong-Goo’s own daughter starts to show signs of the illness herself, he becomes more panicked – and more determined than ever to find out what is happening, and stop it.
 
It is the opening scenes in the film where I think most of the cutting could be done in the film. Like many mystery films, The Wailing provides multiple false leads, red herrings, and characters whose motivations we cannot decipher until later – although in The Wailing, there seems to be too many of them. The film also has a kind of weird sense of humor in these scenes – portraying Jong-Goo as almost a bumbling idiot for a while (to be fair, this seems to be something that often confuses me in Asian films in general – Kurosawa has moments of humor I don’t get – and Korean films in particular – I certainly recall a few over-the-top comic moments in a film like Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, that seemed strange to my Western ways). The film overdoes things a little bit with the mysterious characters – after all, there is the Japanese Stranger, the Woman with No Name (Woo-hee Chun) – who in retrospect, could have saved a lot of runtime simply by being less cryptic – and an shaman, Il-Gwang (Jung-min Hwang), who is hired to try and cure Jong Goo’s daughter – but may not be entirely trustworthy himself.
 
My problems with the film aside, there is no denying that when the film hits its stride – in the last hour – it never really lets up, and the end of the film is a pessimistic stunner. The film really is a slow descent into hell – turning the comic character of the detective into a tragic figure, as he watches as everything in his life goes to shit. The filmmaking is top notch – not as stylized as other Korean auteurs like Park-chan Wook or the previously mention Bong Joon-ho, writer/director Hong-jin Na does a good job of building this small town world – rundown, insular, suspicious of outsiders, etc. The film ends as it must – as it has built to – but it’s still a gut punch.
 
Still, I find it hard to argue that the film could have, and should have been shorter. I’m not usually one to complain about long runtimes (and, in an era where some people will binge watch an entire season of House of Cards or Orange is the New Black over the course of a weekend, I find others whining about them silly more often than not) – but here, it really does seem that Hong drags nearly everything out just a little bit longer than it needs to be – and when the film is over, and you reconstruct the plot in your head, it seems amazing that it took 156 minutes to get there). I meant to see both of Hong’s previous films – The Chaser and The Yellow Sea – but never got around to them. I’m glad I saw The Wailing – it is a superior genre film to be sure. But, what could have been one of the year’s best films at say 120 minutes is instead just a good one at 156 – sometimes less is more, and I cannot help but think that The Wailing may be one of those cases.

Movie Review: Goat

Goat
Directed by: Andrew Neel.
Written by: David Gordon Green & Andrew Neel & Mike Roberts based on the memoir by Brad Land.
Starring: Ben Schnetzer (Brad), Nick Jonas (Brett), Gus Halper (Chance), Danny Flaherty (Will), Virginia Gardner (Leah), Jake Picking (Dixon), Brock Yurich (Wes), Will Pullen (The Smile), Austin Lyon (Dave), Eric Staves (Baity), James Franco (Mitch), Jamar Jackson (The Breath), Kevin Crowley (Detective Burke). 
 
Watching Andrew Neel’s Goat, I kept expecting the film to hit another level – to go just a little bit further than it does, and go from an average film to something more. Unfortunately, it never quite gets there – it’s never quite able to draw the connection between the toxic masculinity on display in the film and larger problems that are left unexplored. The film is about hazing in the college fraternity system – and there’s little doubt that the film does provide an unflinching look at the violence involved in the process – that goes beyond the good natured fun frats try to paint it as. But the film is so insular, that it never really connects this to the university system as a whole – how this sort of behavior can have more consequences, how universities implicitly support it, how it may connect to college sports, and how it can lead to things like the rape culture of many University campuses, where the female students become victims to the macho bullshit on display. There are few female characters of consequence in the film – all in the first act, and while they viewed by the frat members as little more than their own personal sexual playthings, the film also paints every one of them as willing participants. There are larger issues around the edges of Goat – but the film seems completely uninterested in them.
 
Goat stars Ben Schnetzer as Brad – a young man just out of high school, who is planning on attending the same university – and pledging the same fraternity – as his older brother, Brett (Nick Jonas). Brad is visiting his brother one day at a party, when he decides he’s had enough and goes to drive home – stupidly, he agrees to give a ride to two guys he doesn’t know, who end up leading him to a remote spot, where they beat the crap out of him, steal his wallet and his car. He goes to University that fall anyway – and does pledge the same fraternity – but perhaps suffering from PTSD from the incident, he is not fully prepared for the violence he has to endure as part of Hell Week.
 
The film has a traditional three act structure – and it’s probably strongest in the middle. The opening scenes are more standard – Brad wants to belong more than anything, sees how his brother does belong, and will do anything to get there. Yes, he’s suffering due to his getting beat up – and his crush on a girl (who, oddly, disappears fairly early on) - but he’s willing. At first, it’s just drinking – a lot of drinking, that leads to a lot of vomiting (this could be bad enough – no one in the film seems to know about alcohol poisoning, - but I digress) – but then it crosses over into psychological torment – making the pledges thinking they’re going to have eat shit (it’s a banana) or fuck a goat for instance – before going further into actual acts of violence – throwing fruit at the pledges seems harmless enough, I guess, but it ends with some serious consequences. The third act tries to outline those consequences – but it almost seems like an afterthought.
 
Schnetzer is a star in the making – he was very good in Pride a couple of years back, and he showed up in Oliver Stone’s Snowden recently. He’s the real deal, and he does his best to anchor Goat in one person’s believable reality. Strangely though, focusing the film on Brad – who may have PTSD unrelated to the frats may actually hurt the films ultimate point – perhaps Brad would be better able to deal with the punishments dished out had he not just gone through something that exacted that psychological toll on him. Nick Jonas, of Jonas Brothers fame, isn’t nearly as good as Schetzer – although to be fair to him, his role is underwritten – he goes from the ultimate frat dude bro to concerned brother to man with a conscience, but the film spends so little time with him as a character, his transformation is almost entirely all off camera. James Franco shows up for a cameo as a frat dude from the past – class of 2000 – who cannot let go of his glory years, and it’s the type of performance you get Franco to do – he’s fine as this outwardly macho, inwardly completely insecure and pathetic, character.
 
What I wish about Goat is that it would have ventured beyond the frats a little bit – at least in terms of how the frats interact with the University itself. Classes are mentioned, but we never see anyone in them – the administration and faculty are not in the movie until the end – and then, they seem way more concerned than actual news stories about frats have portrayed them – they seem, almost, effective – and essentially do the right thing – which is certainly not the impression you get in docs like The Hunting Ground, when young women complain about being assaulted at frat parties.
 
What Goat does well is show this culture of toxic masculinity – this cycle of humiliation, than the fraternities continue to inflict on their new members – and actually seem to increase the punishment year-to-year. After all, they went through it, so the new guys should have to as well – otherwise, what’s the point. Goat isn’t interested in larger issues though – issues that affect everyone on a college campus, even if its roots are in these frats. And that’s a shame – because that’s where the real story is.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Movie Review: Blair Witch

Blair Witch
Directed by: Adam Wingard. 
Written by: Simon Barrett. 
Written by: James Allen McCune (James), Callie Hernandez (Lisa Arlington), Corbin Reid (Ashley), Brandon Scott (Peter), Wes Robinson (Lane), Valorie Curry (Talia). 
 
I remember when the original Blair Witch Project opened in the summer of 1999 – I was 18 at the time – and it’s hard to describe how much of a game changer the film felt like. No, I wasn’t one of the idiots who actually believed the film to be real (and I didn’t know anyone who did either) – but the film felt like something wholly unique. It didn’t invent the Found Footage genre – and it wasn’t even my first exposure to the genre (that would be the Belgian film Man Bites Dog from 1993) – but it many ways it perfected it. It was a film that actually looked like it was shot by three college kids on cheap video, rather than my professionals trying to make it look like it was shot by three college kids on cheap video. It was a horror film that used no music, no blood, no special effects – but just the dark and some noises. The marketing campaign was ingenious – using the internet in a way that hadn’t really been done before. The film was certainly divisive – especially among audiences more so than critics – but there’s no denying its place in movie history. Oddly though, for a movie that was THAT big of a phenomenon it took a lot of years before the Found Footage genre really took off – into the mostly dreck we have today. It wasn’t really until Cloverfield in 2008 and Paranormal Activity (which did festival screenings in 2007, but not released until 2009) that it really took off. Part of this is probably because of the massive failure of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 – a sequel to the original film that seems like it wanted to appeal to the half of the audience who HATED the original film – as it jettisoned everything that made it unique, and ended up making a boring horror film. Oddly, it has taken the people with the rights to the franchise 16 years to give it another try.
 
Blair Witch plays very much like you would expect a sequel to the original film would. It takes the same basic premise – and makes everything about it bigger. Instead of three kids in the woods, there are now six – instead of actors you don’t recognize, they’ve cast actors you vaguely recognize, but cannot quite place. There is slightly more in the way of special effects going on. The noises are louder, the paranoia is amped up, there are more moments designed specially to scare you with jump screams and scares, etc. That’s the basic Hollywood formula for sequels – the same but BIGGER. The smartest thing the studio did was hire Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett to write and direct the film – their last two films together, You’re Next and The Guest, are both great (The Guest even made my top 10 list that year – and I don’t regret a thing) – and they are among the reasons to be hopeful about the future of American horror films.
 
However, it does seem to me that Wingard and Barrett were perhaps a little too respectful of the original film – and didn’t try hard enough to make a film that can pay tribute to the original film, while establishing itself on its own terms. I’m not saying the pair didn’t make an effective horror film – for the most part they did, the film is genuinely frightening at points. Yet, I don’t really feel like they did enough to twist the premise around. The twists they do have – the never ending night, the introduction of Body Horror that doesn’t really lead anywhere, more exploration of certain places from the original film, etc. don’t feel like enough.
 
This time the film has more characters this time instead of three film students, it’s the brother of Heather from the original, James – his film school friend Lisa, his best friend Peter and his girlfriend Ashely, who venture out into the Black Woods when someone finds a mysterious tape buried there. This is Lane and his girlfriend Talia – locals (who have a Confederate flag hanging in their house – much to the chagrin of Peter, who is black) – who have agreed to take the friends where they found the video. No one has ever been able to find the house from the end of the original film – but the woods are huge – and James thinks it must be close to where the video was found. The six head out into the woods – and at night, of course, weird things start happening – and then they cannot find their way out again. You know things aren’t going to end well.
 
The film is effectively made – and once again, does look like a film shot by a group of kids who don’t much know how to use cameras - this time, they’re all strapped to their heads, in what looks like a Blue Tooth earpieces (although this brings up another question I always have about Found Footage movies culled together from multiple sources – who the hell is supposed to have edited it all together?). The respect Wingard and Barrett has for the original is apparent – he has recreated many of the signature moments, but with the slightest of twists.
 
I think part of the problem with Blair Witch is that you cannot surprise people twice – and you certainly cannot surprise them twice, 17 years apart, when the style that The Blair Witch Project perfected has become fodder from a few dozen crappy horror movies over the past 7 years or so. I kept expecting this Blair Witch to go somewhere truly different and unexpected – more because of the presence of Wingard and Barrett behind the scenes, as they did the truly unexpected with the home invasion genre in You’re Next, and the Carpenter homage of The Guest. It never really does though – so what we’re left with is a highly skilled retread of a better film. It works, sure, but it should be better.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Movie Review: Snowden

Snowden
Directed by: Oliver Stone.    
Written by: Kieran Fitzgerald & Oliver Stone based on the book by Anatoly Kucherena and Luke Harding.
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt  (Edward Snowden), Shailene Woodley (Lindsay Mills), Melissa Leo (Laura Poitras), Zachary Quinto (Glenn Greenwald),  Nicolas Cage (Hank Forrester),  Tom Wilkinson (Ewen MacAskill), Rhys Ifans (Corbin O'Brian), Joely Richardson  (Janine Gibson), Ben Schnetzer (Gabiriel Sol), Scott Eastwood (Trevor James),  Keith Stanfield (Patrick Haynes), Timothy Olyphant (Geneva CIA Agent), Logan Marshall-Green (Male Drone Pilot), Bhasker Patel (Marwan Al-Kirmani), Ben Chaplin (Robert Tibbo).
 
There is probably not a better director to dramatize Edward Snowden’s story that Oliver Stone – who in broad strokes, has made this movie several times before. In the film, Stone portrays Snowden as a young, idealistic, American patriot – a Republican who believes in his country – who slowly becomes disillusioned in it as he learns what it is up to. There is a similar arc in films like Platoon (1986), Wall Street (1987), Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and JFK (1991). Stone has also always done his best work when documenting the ills of America – the recent past that’s shapes America’s present. While there is now denying that Snowden doesn’t really come close to Stone’s best work – now 21 years in the past, as his last true masterpiece was Nixon (1995) – it’s one of Stone’s better late films, and though I would have preferred more of the daring Stone from his best years, and a little more complex portrait of Snowden (to be fair, much of the movie is fairly complex – its only in the last few scenes where he’s practically deified), Stone remains a fascinating movie – anchored by a great performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
 
The film flashes back and forth in time – starting during those few days made famous by Laura Poitras’ Oscar winning documentary Citizenfour, when Snowden met with Poitras and journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) in a luxury hotel in Hong Kong – revealing just how widespread government surveillance was, not just on foreign citizens, but on Americans as well. It then goes back to 2004 – when an injury forces Snowden out of the Marines, and into CIA training. Although he doesn’t have a college degree – he knows computers, and soon he is impressing his instructor, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) with his knowledge. During the next decade, he’ll be stationed in one place after another – Geneva, Japan, Maryland, Hawaii – and at each stop along the way, he becomes increasingly horrified by what the American government is doing. He sees his own systems – he thought he was creating for more benign purposes – be turned into advanced spy networks – used to basically spy on any computer or cell phone the NSA and CIA wants it to. They can even turn on your web camera and watch you live without you knowing. This mounting knowledge is intercut with scenes of Snowden and is girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) – a Liberal to his Conservative – and their relationship, which is sometimes a salve to Snowden, but whose job makes it more and more difficult to maintain.
 
The scenes of Snowden and Mills are easily the weakest part of the film. Stone has never been particularly good at these types of scenes – the relationship scenes have frequently been the weakest in his films, and have resulted in more than his share of one-dimensional female characters, even in his better films. Most of the time though, they are easily to ignore, because they don’t take up as much of the runtime as they do in Snowden – and that’s really what drags the film down at parts. There is only so many times when Woodley (a fine actress, stuck with an impossible role) can look at Snowden with love and concern and worry and ask him what’s wrong, before you long to simply move onto the next scene – we know he cannot and will not tell her, so what’s really the point?
 
Fortunately, the rest of the movies works well. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the perfect casting choice for Snowden – he does a fine impression of Snowden’s voice and mannerisms, and there are times when Stone is essentially recreating scenes from Citizenfour where the similarity in appearance is eerily accurate. If the performance were just impression though, it would be impressive, but not all that interesting. What Gordon-Levitt does though is show Snowden’s inner-workings – how he processes information, his gradual change from idealist to disillusioned. He manages the near impossible – and even delivers a great performance while doing nothing so much as looking at a computer screen – you can see him thinking, see him take in the information on that screen.
 
Because so much time is spent looking at those screens in Snowden, Stone’s style is a little more muted than normal here. One of the issues filmmakers have had in documenting our new, online world is like biopics about writers, there is nothing inherently cinematic about people sitting alone, doing quiet work, staring at something only they can see, lost in their own head. Even the best film made to date on the subject – David Fincher’s The Social Network, found most of its innovations while the characters were just coding. Stone, who is responsible from some of the most stylistically bold American films in history, plays it pretty straight here.
 
I enjoyed most of Snowden – it’s a pleasure to watch Gordon-Levitt work at this high a level – and it’s great to see a cast full of recognizable faces parade through the film – from Rhys Ifans to Nicolas Cage to Timothy Olyphant to Melissa Leo to Zachary Quinto to Tom Wilkinson to Joely Richardson to Ben Schnetzer to Keith Stanfield – the film is full of recognizable faces, many only appear for a scene or two. Yet, unlike many directors who have this all-star cast, Stone has always been able to integrate his larger casts into the narrative, so it becomes more than a game of spot the star. I do think that the scenes with Lindsay Mills hurt the flow of the movie – and pushes it above the two hour running time, that it didn’t need to be. I also think that the end of the film goes too far in terms of hero worship of Snowden – who appears as himself in the closing scenes. It’s no surprise that Stone views Snowden as a hero for his revelations, the reality (to me anyway) is more complicated than that, which I think Stone (and Snowden himself) show throughout the film before it gets to the end. Overall though, Snowden is a fine a film – not quite a return to form for Stone, but as close as we’re likely to get from him.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

TIFF Recap

Part of me has starting wondering in the last few years as TIFF approaches if I really want to do it again this year. I’ve already cut down – I used to go pretty much every day of the festival, seeing between 30-40 movies over the week – but since my first daughter was born (she’s five now), I’m down to three days – 13 movies, and part of me wonders if I even really want to do that. It’s tiring, its expensive, I don’t get to see my girls for a few days – and TIFF finds new ways to annoy you every year (this year, it was probably the “assigned” seating at venues like the Elgin and Princess of Wales, that specify that you have to sit in the Orchestra or Balcony – although no one I talked to could figure out if it was possible to choose when we bought our tickets – that pissed me off, but ultimately it worked out fine – yes, I had to sit in the Balcony at the Elgin for the first time in a decade – but I quickly found a spot I liked, and apparently no one else does). So it was with muted excitement I went to TIFF this year – and yet, it didn’t take long to remind me why I love TIFF so much. By sheer coincidence, I met someone I line I had previously met (in 2013), and he caught me up on the movies he had seen (he comes in from Edmonton every year – and sees a whole bunch). Then you sit in the theater waiting for the movie to begin - and you start to remember why you love it.

It certainly helped that for the second year in a row, my first film of the festival turned out to be a masterpiece – and easily the best film I would see over the three days. This was Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan) – a masterful examination of grief, with what will probably end up being the performance of the year by Casey Affleck – who plays a character, who for reasons we gradually learn, cuts himself off from his family and everyone around him. He is drawn back in by a tragedy – when he has been handed guardianship of his teenage nephew that he does not want. The film has a masterful flashback structure that works wonderfully, as we gradually see why Affleck’s character is the way he is. Affleck has never been better – it’s a quietly devastating performance – the way he won’t make eye contact with people (looking down and to the side) – his “biggest” moment is when he quietly says “I can’t beat it”. The rest of the cast is great to – especially Michelle Williams, fine in most of her scenes, before delivering a devastating scene. The film isn’t as messy as Lonergan’s last film – the great Margaret, whose messiness is part of its charm – but is more controlled, and hits just as hard. Lonergan has only directed three films in his career – and each are great. I just hope he works a little faster now – 5 years between films is too long.

Of course, not every movie you see at TIFF is going to be great – and some will be downright awful. The worst film I saw at TIFF this year as Never Ever (Benoit Jacquot) an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist. I generally like DeLillo, but I haven’t read that one - maybe if I had, I would have understood this film, as the novel has an internal monologue for the title character that the film lacks. It is about a young woman (Julia Roy – who also wrote the screenplay) – the body artist of the title – who falls in love with an older director (Mathieu Almaric) – who immediately leaves his longtime girlfriend/leading lady, and marries the Body Artist – living in an isolated house, that makes strange noises – before killing himself. The Artist is then either haunted by his ghost, or slowly goes insane – your choice. With no monologue, and little in the way of emotion at all, the lead character comes across as a complete blank slate – so much so that you cannot get any read on her. It doesn’t help that even when Almaric’s director is alive, they lack any chemistry together – so him haunting her makes less sense. The film really is all about its surface level – which isn’t bad – but isn’t enough to compensate for the lack of character or story or anything really of interest. A stinker to be sure.

Another disappointment, but at least an interesting one was Two Lovers and a Bear (Kim Nguyen) – an arctic set romance that is both too strange and not strange enough. The film stars Tatiana Maslany and Dane DeHaan as a pair of lovers in a small, Canadian arctic town – whose life is turned upside down when she gets accepted into school “down South” – and wants to go. First he goes crazy – so much so he has to be hospitalized – and then she goes crazy, and he’s fine – and then they set out on an insane snow mobile journey – complete with ghosts, a talking bear (voiced by Gordon Pinsent) – and an old army facility. The film either to get rid of the surreal elements altogether – make something more down to earth – or (and this preferable) – go further into surrealism, and really embrace it. It also needed to pick an ending (it has more than Return of the King). The film is not as much as a departure from the Oscar nominated, African set Rebelle (War Witch) as I suspected it might be – but certainly not a step forward either. Nguyen has undeniable talent – but Two Lovers and a Bear just doesn’t really lead anywhere.

I know that LBJ (Rob Reiner) has more than its share of flaws – it is square and old fashioned – like a forgotten prestige picture from the 1980s or 1990s, in its effort to present a largely positive portrait of the former President, it completely ignores the Vietnam War, and although the film talks a lot about Civil Rights, it doesn’t feature any major African Americans characters. Not to mention the fact that it comes on the heals of HBO’s All the Way, based on the acclaimed play, with a great central performance by Bryan Cranston. Yet, in spite of all this, Reiner’s film- which basically takes place during 1960-1963, hoping around in time, remains an entertaining biopic, with a great, larger than life performance by Woody Harrelson as the profane former President and a fine supporting cast. No, it’s not a return to form by Reiner – who hasn’t really made a great film since 1995’s The American President, but it’s as good as anything he’s done since – and for those who grew up on those 1990s biopics, a refreshing bit of nostalgia.

From a director who is new to me, but I’ll keep my eye out for in the future, was Heal the Living (Katell Quillevere) a melodrama done in a more realistic tone, in which a teenage boy gets into a car accident and is left brain dead – and the expanding waves that circle out from him when his grieving parents agree to let him become an organ donor. You probably have an idea of what this movie will entail – and while you may be right in terms of plot points, but Quillevere and her universally excellent cast play things in a more muted tone. Stylistically bold and intricately structured, Heal the Living is not a great film, but it’s good enough that I think she has one in her – and I’ll be excited to see what she does next.

Then there is (Yourself & Yours (Hong Sangsoo) by a director who I came late to – and continue to increasingly admire as I get used to his unique wavelength. At first glance, Yourself & Yours seems like minor Hong – certainly not on the level of his last film Right Now, Wrong Then – but it’s a film that has stuck with me ever since it ended. The story of a relationship that ends when rumors of his girlfriend’s drinking and possible promiscuity reaches the leading man – but are the rumors true. It certainly seems like it, and yet the movie remains ambiguous about just how many women the lead actress is playing – one, two – maybe even three. The film is about relationships and the impossibility of ever really knowing someone else. The sparsely attended screening I was at – easily the least people of any I saw this year – show that Hong may never truly breakthrough in North America – but for those who like him, he continues to fascinate.

City of Tiny Lights (Pete Travis) offered minor genre pleasures – a nice little modern day noir, set in London, in a near state of constant downpour – with Riz Ahmed stepping into the Humphrey Bogart/Robert Mitchum role as a hardened gumshoe, hired to find a missing Russian prostitute – and what starts out as a simple case, gets bigger and bigger, and has connections to a dark incident in Ahmed’s teenage years. As modern noirs go, City of Tiny Lights is quite good – stylistically, director Pete Travis overdoes the ambient slo-mo shots, but generally gets it right, and I liked the multi-cultural cast, which still seems like something modern noirs don’t address very much. My only real problem is the ending – which is WAY too happy for a noir – I get it, by then, we like this extended cast and want to see them happy, but the end is almost straight out of It’s a Wonderful Life, and hits a false note.

As music docs go Gimme Danger (Jim Jarmusch) is fairly straight forward – director Jarmusch describes it as a love letter to the Stooges, and that is precisely what it is, so for fans of Iggy Pop and the rest, it is a must see. For those who don’t know much about the Stooges (I’m one of you), this acts as a nice introduction to the people involved and their (limited) rise and fall story. Oddly though, there isn’t a whole lot of music in the film – or when there is, it’s constantly in the background. I would have liked a little bit more discussion on that. Overall though, like most music docs of its kind, fans of the band will love it, and it’s of limited interest to anyone else. But hey, it’s WAY better than Jarmusch’s Year of the Horse – about Neil Young – so that’s a huge plus.

One of the most talked about films – among critics at least – was Voyage of Time (Terrence Malick). No matter what you think of Malick’s post Tree of Life work, he remains a director cinephiles and critics have to deal with. I saw the feature length (90 minute) version, narrated by Cate Blanchatt – and overall, I have to say I quite liked it. Yes, the narration plays almost like self-parody by Malick, and is best ignored – and the Dawn of Man section near the end – is downright goofy. Yet, the film is full of eye popping visuals from beginning to end – even, or perhaps especially, when you don’t know what the hell you’re looking at. Honestly, it’s probably the least interesting film Malick has ever made – and I really think that everything after Tree of Life (and for the record, I mostly like To the Wonder and Knight of Cups) is like a footnote to that masterpiece. The word is that the 45 minute IMAX version, narrated by Brad Pitt, is a better, more straight forward version – and I believe that, as the point of Voyage of Time often seems to get lost at 90 minutes, and no matter how eye popping it is, it can grow tedious as well. Still, I will continue to say that since Malick is pretty much the only major director doing what he does, he deserves respect and attention – and less people telling him to get back to work on more narrative driven films.  

My biggest WTF film of the festival was The Untamed (Amat Escalante) – a crazed sci-fi/horror/drama by the Mexican filmmaker, inspired by the late Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession. The film is about two women – one trapped in a loveless marriage, where her husband is cheating on her with her brother, and another who sneaks off into the woods to visit some sort of orgasm giving tentacle creature in a cabin, created by the calmest mad scientist imaginable. They cross paths, more people visit the creature – who isn’t always so peaceful. The film is unendingly strange – and beside a scene where one character explains too much, the film basically got under my skin and stayed there. It is hardly a perfect film – any film with tentacle sex would be hard pressed to be perfect – but it’s certainly not one I will forget.

 On the completely opposite end of things was Loving (Jeff Nichols) a quiet, sensitive subtle film that sneaks up on you, and stays with you long after the credits role. Nichols film is about the Loving couple – who in the 1960s got married, and were eventually convicted of a crime and sentenced to leave the state of Virginia, simply because he was white and she was black – their case eventually going all the way to the Supreme Court. If this sounds like a typical, prestige drama – you’re right, it does – but the way Nichols and his cast handles it is anything but typical. Played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, the couple at the heart of the film are quiet, and   understated – he can barely express himself verbally, and she goes from being scared to having an iron will – all   the   while   she stays fairly   quiet. Not even   the eventual Supreme Court case gives the film phony dramatics – it’s basically an afterthought – and what remains is a film about this couple who loved each other deeply, and just wanted to be left alone. For Nichols, this is probably his least complex film to date – and yet, like all of his films, he treats his Southern characters with respect and dignity, and doesn’t go for easy stereotypes. To be honest, it was a little strange that through Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud and Midnight Special, Nichols had spent so much time down South, and hadn’t addressed race yet – Loving corrects that brilliantly. Two days after having seen it, this is probably the film that has stuck with me the most of any of my TIFF films aside from Manchester by the Sea. My appreciation for it keeps growing.

The central relationship in Una (Benedict Andrews) could not be more different than the one in Loving. David Harrower adapted his own play Blackbird, about a young woman (Rooney Mara) confronting the man (Ben Mendelsohn) who she had a “relationship” with 15 years earlier – when she was just 13, and he was middle aged – that ended with him in jail. He’s now rebuilt his life – and she hasn’t – and so she shows up- at his work to confront him – angry and what happened, and hurt by his abandonment of her. Harrower and Andrews work very hard to ensure that the movie isn’t just a filmed play – with mixed results. The flashbacks – with Ruby Stokes as a young Una, are mostly brilliant – but the added subplots and location moves in the present are more distracting than anything else. Still, this is mainly a performance piece, and Mara, Mendelsohn and Stokes are all brilliant. Mara continues to be one of the best, most fearless actresses around – making Una both terrified and terrifying – dangerous, and of course sympathetic. She kills in this role. Mendelsohn is equally good – mainly because he makes his character seem like kind of a nice guy – when he explains his actions, you want to believe him – even though it’s very clear he is, at least at times, manipulating the whole situation. What’s real, and what’s a lie? Una will disturb most audiences – as it should. Be prepared to talk about this one afterwards.

The same could be said for Christine (Antonio Campos) – it is a film that demands to be discussed and debated after you’ve seen it, no matter what you think of it. The film stars the wonderful Rebecca Hall as Christine Chubbuck, the Florida news reporter who killed herself on live TV in the 1970s. The biggest asset the film has is Hall herself, who plays Chubbock like a wounded, frightened animal – she is principled to be sure, but she is also delusional, and Hall captures that wonderfully. It isn’t just a showpiece for her though – Michael C. Hall is great at the dimwitted anchor – a personification of the I’m Okay, You’re Okay 1970s, and Tracy Letts continues his acting hot streak as her chauvinistic boss. From a narrative standpoint, Campos and company are able to show both the specific mental issues that contributed to Chubbuck’s suicide, as well as take a macro view of the sexism faced by women in the TV industry – which given the revelations about Fox News and Roger Ailes are still very much relevant. I was surprised by Campos – known for provocations like Afterschool and Simon Killer, who crafted a sympathetic film that is deeper than you would expect. It makes me even more curious to see Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, about the same woman, which like this premiered at Sundance this year (and got the stronger reviews). Even if that film ends up being better, this one is great.

So that’s it for me and TIFF this year. Will I be back next year? Probably, although I have to admit that my annual TIFF illness that befalls me after the festival is worse this year than ever before – I put myself through too much over those days, with little sleep and nourishment, and my body is becoming less forgiving with age. Perhaps fewer films over the same number of days next year will be the right mix. But for now, count me in.