Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Movie Review: Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water
Directed by: David Mackenzie.
Written by: Taylor Sheridan.
Starring: Chris Pine (Toby Howard), Ben Foster (Tanner Howard), Jeff Bridges (Marcus Hamilton), Gil Birmingham (Alberto Parker), Katy Mixon (Jenny Ann), Dale Dickey (Elsie), Christopher W. Garcia (Randy Howard), Kevin Rankin (Billy Rayburn), Melanie Papalia (Emily).
 
Watching David Mackenzie’s excellent Hell or High Water – easily one of the best films of the year so far – you cannot help but think back to the Coen Brothers No Country for Old Men. Both are crime dramas about greed, in which regular people get involved in something that spirals out of control into inevitable violence. The Coens film is timeless – it was set in 1980, but really could have been set in any Post WWII time in America, as it is ultimately about the way everything has changed, and how you can longer tell the good guys from the bad guys, and how everything has gotten more morally muddied. Hell or High Water has more modest – and timely – ambitions than No Country for Old Men. It is a crime thriller for now – where good people try to do the right thing, and are robbed blind anyway – not by criminals with masks, but by the banks, who will do any and everything they can to make money – people be damned – and do so with the protection of the government. The film centers on two brothers who set out to do the right thing, by doing the wrong thing – and the consequences it brings down on them, and everyone around them.
 
The film stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Toby and Tanner Howard – two Texas brothers, who really do seem like brothers, despite how different they are. Toby has tried to do the right thing his whole life – he has gotten married, had a couple of son, but that ended in divorce. He has no job, no money and had to spend his time taking care of his dying mother – who just died, and left him everything, including a good sized ranch. But, of course, she owes money to the bank on it – and they’re about to swoop in a take it from him. His brother Tanner has spent years in prison, and never really got a foothold his life – he killed their drunken, abusive father in a “hunting accident” and has been the black sheep of the family ever since. The pair of them team up to rob a series of Texas Midlands banks – the same ones foreclosing on their ranch – but are smart about it. They don’t want the money in the safe, they don’t want $100 bills, and if possible, they want to rob them when very few people are around. The crimes are so small, the FBI doesn’t care. It falls to the Texas Rangers – specifically Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) – just a few weeks shy of retirement – and his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) – who bicker like an old married couple.
 
So yes, this is another crime drama about masculinity, and I think it’s safe to say the film doesn’t come close to passing the Bechdel Test – the only female characters of note of Toby’s tired ex-wife, who doesn’t hate him as much as she’s tired of being poor, and him not helping, a bank teller (Dale Dickey) who gives more lip than she probably should to two masked men with guns, and a sensitive waitress (Melanie Papalia), who first takes pity on Toby because of how sad he seems, and then turns fiery when confronted later by Hamilton – who says the large tip he gave her is “evidence”. If the movie seems to be saying anything about Texas women at all, it’s not to piss off them off.
 
You could well argue that Hell or High Water doesn’t do anything particularly new or groundbreaking – and you wouldn’t be wrong per se. What the film really is though, is a perfectly executed genre piece. The screenplay is by Taylor Sheridan – who wrote last year’s excellent Sicario (this is even better than that one), and what he’s done with the screenplay is create two mismatched male duos – and then makes us like all four characters as individuals and as part of those pairs, before introducing the inevitable violence that the climax of the movie demands. So often in movies, dozens of people are killed, and you don’t feel a thing in the audience – all it is kinetic movement and activity on the screen, that doesn’t mean anything. The modern blockbuster has increasingly become one where whole buildings or cities are destroyed – likely costing thousands of people their lives, and in the audience we’re not supposed to think about it – just sit back and be entertained. Far fewer people die in Hell or High Water – but every single one of those deaths hurt, and it’s not because we know the characters who do (we don’t in a couple of cases), but because of the way Mackenzie directs, and Sheridan writes. The deaths in Hell or High Water hurt because they feel real.
 
None of the effect the movie has would be possible without the four great central performances in the film. Chris Pine has never been better than he is here – he is an actor who often isn’t called on to do much expect coast on his movie star looks and charm – something he, admittedly does quite well – but here, with a mustache and stubble, and a fine, unexaggerated Texas drawl, he makes Toby into a sad, tragic figure – he’s a good guy pushed into something bad, but he never deludes himself into believing what he is doing is the right thing – just that it’s the only thing he can do for his kids – to break them of the disease of poverty that he hasn’t been able to break any other way. With Tanner, Ben Foster gets to add another “crazy” character to his resume – I really do think Foster wants nothing less than to become the Christopher Walken of his generation – but Tanner’s crazy is more grounded in reality than most of Foster’s ne’er do wells. Like Toby, he doesn’t really suffer under the delusion that they’re doing a good thing – he just doesn’t give a shit anymore. He’s along the ride mostly just because he was honored to be asked by his brother – the only family he’s got, and perhaps the only person who doesn’t hate him. Yes, Foster can go over-the-top in many of his roles – but he never quite does that here – making his performance all the stronger. Marcus Hamilton is the type of role you hire Jeff Bridges for – because even if Bridges decided to phone it in, you’d still get a hell of performance out of him. He doesn’t do that here thankfully – and his work ranks alongside the best work he’s done. It’s a sneaky performance, because of how comedic much of it is – he delights in teasing Alberto about his Indian and Mexican heritage – and doesn’t seem to be taking too much too seriously. But he’s good at his job, and knows exactly what he is doing – nothing gets by him. We immediately like him, and are at ease with him – but he has a few scenes late in the film where that inner steal comes out. Gil Birmingham will get the least amount of praise for his work as Alberto of the four leads – it is, in some ways, a quieter performance than the rest – one that calls on him to lovingly roll his eyes at all the insults that come his way. But he builds a complete character here – and although we see his fate coming, it hits, harder than anything else in the film.
 
This summer has not been a good one at the movies – especially not if you want mainstream, adult entertainment. The best of the big summer movies have been for families – Finding Dory, The BFG, Pete’s Dragon (even if families didn’t go see two of those – stupid families). Studios either don’t think adults go to the movies, or think we have the mentality of teenagers, who just want to see things blow up real good, with lots of fast editing and action, and a lot of CGI crap floating around. Perhaps then, I – and others – are slightly overrating Hell or High Water – I will admit it, it is certainly possible that after the dull summer movie slate we’ve endured that it’s possible. That when we look back in a few years – or even months – at Hell or High Water, what I’ll see is just a really good genre film, and not the great film I think it is. It’s possible, of course, but I don’t think so. Yes, it’s easier to see the contrast between those other films and Hell or High Water – but there is something special to this film. Sometimes a perfectly executed genre film is just that – and sometimes it’s a little bit more. I think Hell or High Water is that little bit more.

Movie Review: Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings
Directed by: Travis Knight.
Written by: Marc Haimes and Chris Butler and Shannon Tindle.
Starring: Charlize Theron (Monkey), Art Parkinson (Kubo), Ralph Fiennes (Moon King), George Takei (Hosato), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Hashi), Brenda Vaccaro (Kameyo), Rooney Mara (The Sisters), Matthew McConaughey (Beetle), Meyrick Murphy (Mari), Minae Noji (Minae), Alpha Takahashi (Aiko), Laura Miro (Miho), Ken Takemoto (Ken).
 
With Kubo and the Two Strings, animation company Laika inches closer to the truly great film that I am confident they are going to make. The companies’ fourth film – following Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls – is easily the most visually stunning film yet from the studio who mixes stop motion animation with computer effects. The film really is a technical wonder all the way around – the visuals are breathtaking, yes, but the music and sound work is just as good. I also appreciated how the film treats its young audience with respect – it doesn’t talk down to them, doesn’t soft peddle the harsher moments of the film, and isn’t afraid to scare them – just a little, anyway. The film would have been too much for my sensitive 5 year old – but give it a year, and she’d be blown away by it. The only slightly disappointing thing about the film is that it gets less daring as it goes along – its twists are fairly obvious from the outset, and what starts as a beautiful film about mourning and loss, turns into a fairly standard adventure film. Still, when a film gives you this much to like about it, it feels kind of strange to complain.
 
The story is about a young boy named Kubo – who lives with his sickly mother in a cave, and has to care for her. Every day, he ventures into the city with his three stringed guitar like instrument (you read that right, not quite sure why the movie is called Kudo and the Two Strings – I assume it’s a metaphor) and dazzles the assembled audience with a street performance that involves music, storytelling, and origami that comes to life. But he always has to be back at the cave by sundown – his mother tell him this is because her father, Kubo’s grandfather, who stole his eye, and killed Kubo’s father can see him at night if he’s not protected – and he will come to steal his other eye. So, of course, you know what will happen – Kubo will be caught out one nights, and his mother’s twin sisters come looking for him. He barely escapes – thanks to his mother – and ends up going on a quest with Monkey, his protector, and eventually a samurai who is also a giant Beetle, who cannot remember how he got there. He needs to find the three pieces of magical armor that will be the only thing that can protect him from his grandfather.
 
From their first film, Laika has made visually stunning movies. Coraline is one of the few animated film that really utilized 3-D remarkably well, although Kubo comes close in that regard (if I had one complaint about the 3-D it’s just that Kubo is a fairly dark film visually to begin with – adding dark lens in front of that makes it, on occasion, too dark). Kubo and the Two Strings is, in every other respect, the most advanced film Laika has made visually – with barely a frame going by without something stunning to look at. An early highlight is the musical sequences, where the origami comes to life in inventive ways. There are also a more than a few moments that will likely cause a few bad dreams for the younger viewers – when the big bad guy finally does make an appearance, he takes the form of a giant centipede, which is creepy – but far creepier are the pair of twin sisters, in masks no less, who are extremely spooky. The action sequences in the film – especially those involving water, as a memorable fight sequence does, are among the best of their kind in recent memory.
 
Kubo and the Two Strings has a fairly deep message as well – one that the film pitches at a younger audience, without talking down to them. This is most deeply felt in the opening act of the film – as Kubo deals with his sick mother and the fact he doesn’t even remember his now dead father. The film tries to come back around to this message in the end – and it mainly works, but also feels a little bit like an afterthought, after the action is over.
 
Kubo and the Two Strings joins the like of Zootopia, Finding Dory and April and the Wonderful World (among others), in what has already been a strong year in animation – even if I don’t think any of the films are quite great, they are all quite good. Kubo and the Two Strings is probably too much for little kids – especially if, like my daughter, they are easily scared – but brave kids will love it – and their parents will get far more out of it than they do most of the time they are stuck taking their kids to the movies.

Movie Review: The Measure of a Man

The Measure of a Man
Directed by: Stéphane Brizé.
Written by: Stéphane Brizé & Olivier Gorce.
Starring: Vincent Lindon (Thierry Taugourdeau), Yves Ory (Conseiller Pôle employ), Karine de Mirbeck (La femme de Thierry), Mathieu Schaller (Le fils de Thierry), Xavier Mathieu (Le collègue syndicaliste), Noel Mairot (Le professeur de danse), Catherine Saint-Bonnet (La banquière).
 
French actor Vincent Lindon has one of those faces that you can tell just by looking at him has seen some stuff. He’s in his late 50s, but looks perhaps a little bit older in The Measure of a Man, Stephane Brize’s film about a factory work who is let go when his factory closes, and at the tail end of his working years, has to try and find a new job. He has a wife, a disabled son, an apartment and lots of bills. He didn’t expect to be in this position – certainly doesn’t deserve to be, but is here anyway. The film opens with him angry at an employment agency bureaucrat. Lindon’s Thierry wants to know why the agency sent him for a 4 month training course on operating a crane, when no employers will hire him since he’s never worked in construction before – and almost every other person in his class was in the same boat. The bureaucrat tries to explain, and backpedal and apologize – before he says that Thierry should think about another course in warehouse management and forklift operation. As he points out to Thierry, his agency just offers the courses – and they do the best they can – but ultimately employers do the hiring.
 
The first half of The Measure of a Man will see Thierry take many of these meetings – or meetings like them. Sitting down for a job interview via Skype for instance, where he has to listen to someone criticize his resume, and then tell him he has almost no chance to land the job. Or going to some sort of job search workshop, to hear the entire class criticize everything he says and does in a mock interview. Or trying to get a bank loan, just to tithe the family over. Or negotiating the sale of his trailer – the family’s vacation spot – from a man trying to take advantage. When you’re broke and have no money, looks down on you, criticizes you, but then also tells you to keep smiling and be positive. That’s what employers want to see.
 
The second half of the movie is even better than the first. The film never does show us how Vincent gets a new job – it just cuts to him working it. He is hired as a security guard in what appears to be a Wal-Mart like store. His job is to watch both the customers, to see if they’re stealing, and the cashiers, to see if they’re doing the same. As he tells a new trainee, the management wants more employee turnover – new employees are cheaper than ones who have been there longer, and earned raises, see – so if they can find a reason to get rid of them they will. Vincent attends the same number of meetings in the second half as he does in the first – but more often than not now, he’s quiet, as someone else is being looking down on and yelled at – the teenager who steals a phone charger – but has the money to pay – an old man who steals some food, and doesn’t, which means the police will become involved. And later, a couple of cashiers caught hoarding coupons or swiping their own loyalty cards. Outside of work, he’s getting his life back on track – but has he sold his soul to do it?
 
Only an actor like Lindon could pull off a roll like Thierry in the film. He (justly) won the Best Actor Prize at Cannes in 2015 for his work in the film, which is brilliant mostly in what he doesn’t do. It’s clear throughout the film that he is frustrated, angry, disappointed, etc. – and yet he can never really show those emotions. That’s not what potential employers want to see, so he sits there and takes all the crap he has shoveled on him. Then, later, he sits there and watches how others have that same crap shoveled on them. The film often films Lindon off center – has him on the edges of the frame, as if he’s disconnected from what’s happening – or how, even in the story of his own life, he’s almost cut out. Lindon finds the perfect expression at every moment.
 
If the movie were as good as Lindon’s performance, it would be among the best of the year. It isn’t really. It’s a good film – but the style of it calls to mind the Dardennes, in particular, their own recent unemployment film – Two Days, One Night, which had a performance by Marion Cotillard even better than Lindon’s here, and is a better, deeper film all around – it really did notice the people around the lead character, and also doesn’t mess up the end, as The Measure of a Man does. In Two Days, One Night, she accepts what happens, because she knows she needs the job – even though she knows that will mean putting people, who voted for her, out of a job – a morally ambiguous move, but a realistic one. The Measure of a Man wants to have a righteous end that makes us feel good for Thierry – that he’s standing up and taking back his soul. However, given what we’ve seen him go through, it hits a false note.
 
Overall though, The Measure of a Man is a fine film – with a brilliant lead performance by Lindon. It is well made, well observed – and while it may offer little new, it does what it does quite well.

Movie Review: Disorder

Disorder
Directed by: Alice Winocour.
Written by: Alice Winocour and Jean-Stéphane Bron and Robin Campillo and Vincent Poymiro.
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts (Vincent), Diane Kruger (Jessie), Paul Hamy (Denis), Zaïd Errougui-Demonsant (Ali), Percy Kemp (Imad Whalid), Victor Pontecorvo (Tom), Michaël Dauber (Kevin), Franck Torrecillas (Franck), Chems Eddine (Tarik).
 
Matthias Schoenaerts has quickly become one of the most interesting actors in the world. His work in films like Bullhead, Rust & Bone, The Drop and A Bigger Splash is all top notch, as he plays men in each who bulking physical frame makes us see him one way, but throughout the performance we come to see him another. He’s a kinder, gentler Tom Hardy (which is probably why his work in The Drop, opposite Hardy, worked so well – he’s a flip side of the same coin). Schoenaerts’ work in Disorder is equally as good – and the direction by Alice Winocour is top notch. Yet, there is something about the film that holds it back from being all that good – in fact, it’s more than a little dull. Schoenaerts is in nearly every frame of the movie – the film is told from his unreliable point-of-view, and both he and Winocour do an excellent job of letting us inside his characters head. The problem may just be it’s not a very interesting place to be – and since Winocour pretty much dispenses with regular plotting – it’s a genre film, and she doesn’t much care for the plotting of that, it’s makes the film rather shallow.
 
The film is about Vincent (Schoenaerts), a soldier just returned from Afghanistan, and desperately wants to go right back. But he has PTSD and hearing loss, and he may never be allowed to. In the meantime, he is working for an army buddy who has set up some security work for them. The first job is working a party for the wealthy Imad Whalid (Percy Kemp) – a wealthy man, with a lot of contacts in the government – the very people who sent Vincent to war in the first place. As becomes increasingly clear throughout the movie, Vincent cannot trust his own perception of reality. He senses a threat around every corner – every car he sees in the rearview mirror is following him, every person looking at him is suspect. This becomes clear during the party – and then starts to spiral out of control a little bit afterwards – when Whalid is called away on business, and hires Vincent to stay on for a few days to guard his wife, Jessie (Diane Kruger) and their young son. Is Vincent really perceptive or is he just paranoid? Or is it both?
 
The highlight of the movie is the party sequence, which is brilliantly directed by Winocour and played by Schoenaerts, as he becomes increasingly frazzled as everything progresses. This is where the film is at its best, because it’s here that Winocour places us inside Vincent’s head – the throbbing bass of the music, the casual cruelty of the guests, who either look right through him or ask him for ice, how Vincent starts building an alternate, delusion relationship with Jessie, who he sees crying, and thinks there is a connection there. This delusion, like Vincent’s paranoia, will continue to build in the third act, which becomes a fairly standard thriller.
 
It’s the third act, that for me, was a real let down. Having spent time with Vincent, and building his paranoia and delusions throughout the party, everything that follows pretty much takes the most straightforward and predictable path towards revolution. On one level, I understand that Winocour isn’t really interested in the plot – she’s far more interested in Vincent, and the inner workings of his brain. The best scenes in the second half of the movie are the quietest – the way Vincent smiles when Jessie suggests he live out on the wilderness of Canada, because he’d fit there for instance. That’s a happy moment for him, because it’s the first time he senses that she actually likes him – and thinks about him (which, just feeds his delusion even more). It’s a little more heartbreaking later in the film when he has that delusion popped – watching his friends interact with Jessie, and overhearing what she asks him “What is wrong with Vincent?”. More moments like this in the second half would have made the film stronger.
 
Instead, what we get in the film’s second half is a fairly standard home invasion thriller – except the bad guys have no real motivation – I’m sure they do, but since Vincent doesn’t understand what it is, neither do the audience – that devolves into a lot of gun and knife fights. To be fair, Winocour directs these well – but they are also a little mechanical. She is clearly more interested in Vincent than the plot he’s involved in – which means she probably should have spent less time on that plot. As it stands, Disorder makes me extremely curious as to what she is going to do next as a director, but a little disappointed in what she produced this time.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Classic Movie Review: Ms. 45 (1981)

Ms. 45 (1981)
Directed by: Abel Ferrara.
Written by: Nicholas St. John.
Starring: Zoë Lund (Thana), Albert Sinkys (Albert), Darlene Stuto (Laurie), Helen McGara (Carol), Nike Zachmanoglou (Pamela), Abel Ferrara (First Rapist), Peter Yellen (The Burglar), Editta Sherman (Mrs. Nasone), Vincent Gruppi (Heckler on Corner), S. Edward Singer (The Photographer), James Albanese (Nick).
 
Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981) has been described as a feminist exploitation film, and while that would seem to be an oxymoron, it’s actually a very apt description of the film. It has all the elements of what was already a well-established sub-genre in 1981 – the rape/revenge film, where at first the female lead is raped and abused by one or more men, and then he slowly enacts her vengeance on it. This is probably exemplified by films like I Spit on Your Grave (1980) – and others of its kind. Those films seem to want to have their cake in eat and too – they linger over the rapes, taking in every inch of skin imaginable, even eroticizing them – and then it goes onto punish the perpetrators, just so that you in the audience knows the filmmakers are on the “right side” of things. The films, at worst, encourage the rapes, and then encourage the violence right after. You can defend those films if you want – some consider I Spit on Your Grave to be a genre masterwork – but the Rape/Revenge genre has always been a troublesome one for me – unless the filmmaker shows that they have some differing take on it – like say Gaspar Noe with Irreversible (2002), which takes place going backwards in time, so that the revenge comes before the rape, and everything in the film is seen as clearly being horrific.
 
Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 is perhaps a little bit more problematic than that film – which has issues of its own – but I do think it’s also clearly wrestling with those issues, not merely exploiting them. The film stars the multi-talented Zoe Lund as Thana – a beautiful young, mute woman who works for a piggish fashion designer. One day on the way home from work, she is attacked in an alley and raped. She stumbles home in shock, only to arrive there, and find a burglar has broken into her apartment, who then proceeds to rape her as well. She is able to get the upper hand on him – bashing his skull in with an apple statue (a too-on-the-nose symbol). She then proceeds to chop the man up, and start leaving his body parts around New York in bags. The burglar had a .45 on him – which she takes, and starts to exact revenge on the men around her. It starts with a man whose actions are admittedly creepy, and possibly threatening – spreads to a violent pimp, and some (mixed race) street gang members – but will eventually include nearly every man she comes in contact with – some who are clearly sexist pigs, although perhaps nothing more than that (to be clear, being a sexist pig is bad – but it doesn’t deserve a death sentence) – and some who we have no information about at all to decide whether or not they even “kind of” deserve what they get.
 
Ferrara is an interesting director – and one who has always seemed to float between B-movie exploitation, and the art house circuit, never quite fitting in anywhere. If you look at the plot summary of many of his movies – including Ms. 45, but also his best film, Bad Lieutenant (1992), in which Harvey Keitel plays a perverted cop investigating the rape of a nun (which was, by the way, co-written by Lund, the star of Ms. 45), they sound very much like sexy exploitation films. Yet few films are less erotic than Bad Lieutenant – or the most recent of his films that I have seen – last year’s Welcome to New York, where Gerard Depardieu plays a hulking, sweating French diplomat in New York, who starts out having an orgy, before he progresses to raping a hotel maid. In Ms. 45, Ferrara doesn’t linger over the rape scenes either – in I Spit on Your Grave for instance, the first hour of the film is pretty much one rape scene after another, until she starts getting her revenge in the last 30 minutes. In Ms. 45, the rape part is over fairly quickly – maybe 10 minutes in total (and most of that isn’t the actual rapes) – and by having two, completely unconnected rapes happen to the same woman in such rapid succession, Ferrara is, I think, pointing out the absurdity of this plot convention in the first place.
 
Lund is great as Thana – the rape victim turned avenging angel – she makes the most of all of close-ups Ferrara gives her, which is really our only insight into her thought process, as she never says a word throughout the film (well, until the last moment). Lund’s face moves from mute terror, to icy cold fury throughout the film – and seemingly every time she heads out into the streets to kill, she gets more and more dressed up – attracting worse and worse characters. In the show-stopping finale – a massacre at a costume party – she dresses up as a nun, and takes aim indiscriminately at any man in her sites.
 
What are we to make of Ms. 45? Thana really isn’t a vigilante killer, since she ends up targeting men as a gender, not just criminals. This isn’t really a female led version of Death Wish for instance. Why does Ferrara cast himself as the first person who rapes Thana? Should we continue to feel sympathy for Thana – in the opening, surely, but what about when she goes on her rampages? Are men, and a society that is run by them, responsible for her actions – or is it all on her? Does the film exploit Lund’s undeniable sexuality – she was 19 when the movie was filmed, and drop dead gorgeous, the camera never tires of looking at her – or does it use it to make a larger point about how women are perceived?
 
How about all of the above? As with nearly all of Ferrara’s films, the film isn’t as clear cut as it appears on the surface – the sexual politics on the surface of the film are blunt, but are deeper than they normally would be in other films. A sequence that has Thana follow home a young couple, when the man picks up his girlfriend at his job and walks her home, clearly casts Thana as the villain. This man seems perfectly nice – and even if he isn’t, we – and Thana – have no way of knowing that. We’re actively rooting against her at that point.
 
Ms. 45 doesn’t make anything easy for the audience. I understand why critics – and audiences – pretty much dismissed the film back in 1981 – it looked like a lot of other films at the time, and Ferrara wasn’t a known director yet – they didn’t really know what exactly to expect from him. Ferrara is, if nothing else, always an interesting filmmaker. He has directed some truly awful films in his career – and a few truly great ones as well. He never makes it easy on the audiences – and his films are often rife with contradictions. Sometimes, those contradictions sink the film. In the case of Ms. 45, it is responsible for its lasting power.

Movie Review: Pete's Dragon

Pete’s Dragon
Directed by: David Lowery.
Written by: David Lowery & Toby Halbrooks based on the screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein and story by Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field.
Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard (Grace), Robert Redford (Meacham), Oakes Fegley (Pete), Oona Laurence (Natalie), Wes Bentley (Jack), Karl Urban (Gavin), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Sheriff Gene Dentler).
 
The list of indie directors who have got the chance to helm a major film for a movie studio is long, and frankly more than a little depressing. Many of these filmmakers got the chance to helm those big movies by making a few indie films – smaller in scale, maybe not perfect, but show potential that those filmmakers may grow into something truly special. And then, Hollywood comes calling, and these indie directors get lost up there – and never do find that level they were reaching for. I think of someone like Boaz Yakin, whose Fresh (1994) was one of the best debut films of the 1990s, and whose follow-up, A Price above Rubies (1998), wasn’t as good, but was quite daring. I wanted to see where this guy was going. Apparently where that was is Hollywood, with films like Remember the Titans, Uptown Girls and the Jason Statham starring Safe. You can list any number of other directors as well – Duncan Jones, who seems to get further away from the promise of Moon with each film, Colin Trevorrow, who made the quirky and funny Safety Not Guaranteed, before helming the behemoth Jurassic World, etc. You get the idea. When Indiewire did a survey of female indie directors and asked them if they wanted to direct big, studio movies – the complaint having been (rightly) made for years that they don’t get the chance to, most of them said yes, but only if they could make the type of big studio film that they wanted to – only if they had some sort of control over the final product. Which is probably at least one reason why those filmmakers haven’t made the jump yet – studios don’t want to give their big movies to directors with a vision, and who want to control the final product. They want filmmakers who will execute how they’re told – probably one reason why Marvel keeps hiring TV directors to make their films – those filmmakers, as talented as they are, are used to it. The list of indie filmmakers who get to go to Hollywood, and make bigger movies that are still undeniable their films is short. The last one was probably Gareth Edwards, who Godzilla remake from 2014, was undeniably the work of the same filmmaker who made the very low budget Monsters (2010) – and that’s one of the reasons why it’s one of my favorite recent blockbusters (many disagree, and I’ll tell you what I tell my wife, who adamantly disagrees with me on this one – “You’re wrong”).
 
So, after that longwinded opening paragraph, it gives me great pleasure to report that David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon is one of those increasingly rare examples of an indie filmmaker who goes to Hollywood – Disney, no less – and makes a terrific major, special effects laden film, and retains his own identity. His terrific breakout film was 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a Malick-esque love story of sorts, about a convict, who escapes prison and comes back to the wife he loves (Rooney Mara) – but has perhaps moved on, and the child he never met. That was a sad, truly touching film – it’s also a quiet film, that doesn’t have much of a plot, and doesn’t suffer for that. There, Lowery was more interested in mood and tone that plot. Remarkably, the same thing is true about Pete’s Dragon – a live action remake of the all but forgotten 1970s Disney film (which if I did see as a kid, I’ve completely forgotten).
 

The story in Pete’s Dragon is a simple – a little boy, around 4 or 5, is travelling in the middle of nowhere Pacific Northwest, when there is a car wreck that kills his parents, and strands him in the middle of the forest. Luckily for him, he almost immediately meets a dragon – who he names Elliot, who is basically a big, friendly, green, flying dog – who basically becomes Pete’s whole family – parents, sibling, pet, etc. Flash forward six years, and their idyllic life in the forest comes to an end, as they all must, when loggers invade their forest. Pete is discovered, and brought into town by a kindly forest ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who ends up taking her into home with fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley) and his daughter, Natalie (Oona Lawrence). Grace’s father, Meachum (Robert Redford), has been telling the story of how he met a dragon in those woods for years – more as a story to frighten kids (in a kindly way), than is a crazed mountain man way though, Gavin (Karl Urban), Jack’s brothers, will eventually discover Elliot – and want to capture him.
 
That doesn’t seem like much plot, and it isn’t, but like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, I think the film is actually at its weakest when it has to go through the motions of that plot – and at its best, when it dispenses with, and focuses on the mood and the characters. There are fairly lengthy stretches (especially for a kids movie), near the beginning that almost play like a silent film – with Pete and Elliot rollicking in the forest, which deepens their connection, and the sense, when it eventually does come, that they are really losing something. Lowery isn’t afraid of those quiet moments – he actually uses them to his advantage. He also is not afraid of subtlety when it comes to performances either. Karl Urban gives probably the films weakest performance as Gavin – it’s not really his fault, he has to be the antagonist, and drive the plot, which is the weakest part of the film – and even he never even comes close to the type of mustache twirling overacting you would expect a bad guy in a kids movie to do. Bryce Dallas Howard gives a beautiful, understated performance as a woman who longs for the type of life she didn’t get growing up (her mother died young) – who genuine connection with Pete is beautiful. There probably isn’t another actor alive I would rather see play Meachum than Robert Redford – who takes what, in lesser hands, could have turned a saccharine performance, and turns it into a genuine one. I’m not sure there is anyone else who wood carve in a flannel shirt and spin tales about dragons with as much real warmth and humor as Redford. It even extends to young Oakes Fegley as Pete, who doesn’t rely on normal cute kid tricks in the film – not even when he’s howling.  More experienced, adult actors have been undone by the task of acting opposite a CGI creation – but the kid handles it like a pro.
 
I mentioned Malick earlier in the review, and you can see some of that still present in Pete’s Dragon. Lowery doesn’t go as far as Malick does with his poetic reverie (or as far as Lowery did in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) – it’s still very much there though. The other major influence on Pete’s Dragon is undeniably Steven Spielberg – as the film, at times, resembles E.T. with a large dragon instead of an alien. Spielberg may have the (largely unwarranted) reputation of being sickly sentimental, but he mostly knows just how far to push things. Lowery does to – like in that is perhaps the best in the movie, when Elliot goes looking for Pete, and eventually finds him. They scene starts off exciting, moves to the comic, and ends up in heartbreak (yes, I cried at a movie involving a dragon) – all with a word being uttered, and without making you feel overly manipulated in the end.
 
The finale of the movie is, as expected, action based – there is a chase, there is fire (you cannot have a movie with a dragon and not have him breathe fire), there is a moment where we are led to believe tragedy has struck, when ultimately it hasn’t, etc. It isn’t my favorite part of the movie, but it is part that we all knew had to be there eventually – and it is handled quite well.
 
This summer has not been a particularly good one for big movies. There have been a lot of bad or at least mediocre and instantly forgettable movies to come out so far. Pete’s Dragon will not be the huge hit that some of the others have been – but it is easily the best big budget movie we’ve seen this summer. That David Lowery came to Disney, and made a film that is both a wonderful kid’s film, and one that is undeniably his as well, is the best news for the future of big budget movies I’ve seen all summer.

Movie Review: Weiner

Weiner
Directed by: Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg.
 
Weiner is a documentary that you want watch through your fingers – you want to flinch and look away at the painful awkwardness on screen, but you simply cannot. It’s the type of documentary that you see and wonder why the subjects would have ever agreed to let the film get made at all. I mean, Anthony Weiner had to see this coming, right? After everything he went through in 2011, when the original sexting scandal broke – how he went from the future of the Democratic Party into a late night TV punch line, overnight, eventually resigning in disgrace. When, two years later, he decided to try and restart his political career, running for Mayor of New York, and knowing full well that there were more, and more explicit, texts and message out there, he had to have known that the whole thing might erupt again and make him look bad, right? Why the hell would he not only want to risk that by running for office again, and why the hell would he agree to have a documentary crew follow him around as he does? Near the end of the film, after everything has turned to shit, one of the directors ask Weiner this very question. Tellingly, Weiner doesn’t reply.
 
Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg’s Weiner will likely go down as one of the best political documentaries of recent years – and it fully deserves to. It gives us an inside look at politics in the way we normally never get to see – because most politicians are too guarded and cautious to allow that sort of look. Anthony Weiner is neither of those things, which is perhaps why he did let them film it – he figured he weathered the storm, and it was over. He was wrong. The opening scenes of the movie recap Weiner’s career in Congress – where he was fiery and passionate and articulate, and refused to give into what he saw as the bullying tactics of the Republicans. It then, briefly, recaps how that all came crashing down – when he accidentally tweeted a picture of his penis, yes, inside underwear but we could all see the outline, to everyone in his feed, instead of a private message. What followed was Weiner trying to lie his way out of the scandal, until he no longer could, and resigned. The rest of the film takes place in 2013, when Weiner decides to run for Mayor of New York.
 
His campaign gets off to a rocky start – he has to field a lot of questions about his personal life, his sexting, and everything else. But he seems to weather it – he seems like a genuinely smart, passionate and articulate person – and the polls show that he could actually win this thing. People seem willing to forgive and forget, and move on. And then, the other shoe drops. More messages, more explicit pictures, and one of the women he sexted with – Sydney Leathers – who will seemingly do anything for her 15 minutes of fame, who continues to flog the story. It is irresistible to late night comedians – sex scandals are inherently amusing, especially ones with the type of over baked sexual texts Weiner was sending, and because, of course, when he went on those sites he used an assumed name – Carlos Danger. How could anyone not make fun of him (the fact that his last name was Weiner is, of course, also part of it)?
 
At this point, the writing seems to be on the wall. Weiner is going to lose. He drops 10 points in a week – some of his advisers, in a painful phone call, tell him to drop out – he has no path to victory. His relationship with the media becomes overtly combative. But damn it all, Weiner presses on – he will not be bowed or broken, even when he has no chance.
 
All of this would be more than enough for a documentary – and a very good one. What I think gives the film another layer though is the portrait it paints of Weiner’s marriage – to Huma Abedin, a long time Hilary Clinton staffer, who has risen over the years to becomes one of her most trusted advisers (many rumors think Abedin will be Clinton’s Chief of Staff once he humiliates Trump in November). Weiner loves the camera, but Abedin cannot stand it. She speaks at some events, even at the Press Conference when the scandal erupts again, but she would much rather be neither seen nor heard on the campaign trail. Their marriage has obviously been through a lot – they explicitly mention that the texts that cause the second scandal were during a time they thought of separately. There are snippy comments Weiner makes to her (“Make sure you leave a few minutes after me – otherwise someone may think we are married”). Abedin eyes the camera warily throughout – she never really sits down for an interview with the documentarians like Weiner does, and saying little on camera. He is a sympathetic person throughout the film – an obviously intelligent woman who, I think, would rather being going through this in private. She is also more than a little bit of an enigma.
 
As a documentary, Weiner is funny and sad, cringe worthy and fascinating. You want to look away – it’s never lost on the audience that we are watching real people go through something painful and personal – but you cannot. It’s one of the best docs of the year.