Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Movie Review: Anomalisa

Anomalisa
Directed by: Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson.
Written by: Charlie Kaufman based on his play.
Starring: David Thewlis (Michael), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Lisa), Tom Noonan (Everyone Else).

What the great shames of American movies is that they have never really gotten over the notion that animation is strictly for children. As a medium, animation can do so much more than children’s movies, but too few directors either have the patience, money or opportunity to use it to make entertainment for adults – and too many adults dismiss the few examples that do come along. Anomalisa, the latest masterwork from the twisted brain of Charlie Kaufman – along with Duke Johnson – will likely not change too many minds – the film was funded by Kickstarter donations, and took some time to find distribution, even after it was critically acclaimed on the festival circuit this fall (where I saw it, at TIFF). But the film is as moving and quietly profound as any live action film you will ever see – and could probably only work as animation. And it is definitely meant for adults.

The film opens with Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) arriving in Cincinnati by plane – and taking a cab drive to his upscale hotel. He is there to give a talk at a conference the next day, but although he appears to be successful at his job, and even somewhat well known in his field (we can hear the whispers of people in the lobby as he walks by recognizing him) – he is also miserable. He talks on the phone to his wife, and son, even though he clearly doesn’t want to. He reads a note from an old lover – who was clearly not happy with him when they broke up – and gradually we realize why. She lives in Cincinnati – and he is wondering if he should give a call – but when he does things do not go as planned. He seems resigned to his miserable night – and then he hears a voice that entrances him. This bellows to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – and he is instantly smitten. After all, everyone else in the movie sounds like Tom Noonan – and not Tom Noonan doing different voices, all the same Tom Noonan.

That is the setup of the film, which really is quite simple – and the rest of the film is as well – at least in terms of its plot. Kaufman, the writer behind films like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and writer/director of Synecdoche, New York has specialized in films that mess with your head more than a little bit. Anomalisa is a little simpler in terms of its setup than the others – perhaps owing to its roots as a “sound play” (which is apparently like a radio play, but performed on a stage – but you don’t see the actors). But the simplicity of the setup makes the film perhaps even more quietly profound and devastating as it moves along. Like many a Kaufman hero before him, Michael is trapped in his own head – unable to enjoy his life, and constantly searching for something new and different – as if that will somehow satisfy him. Also like many a Kaufman hero before him, he gets caught in one surreal situation after another – including his Kafka-esque hotel and a sex toy store. It’s a disorienting world – most of it in his own head.

Animation was the right choice for the film – and probably the only one, as I don’t think the movie could possibly work as live action (and that is not a criticism of the film – in fact, I’d consider it praise). Kaufman’s co-director on the film is Duke Johnson – who has done some shorts, and a stop motion episode of Community – and clearly knows his stuff. The characters in the movie are puppets – and we can see the seams on their faces, where the animators can swap out different pieces to give the characters different expressions. Animation gives the movie its surreal edge, to be sure, and allows for its brilliantly staged nightmare sequence – but I think it also deepens the themes of the movie – showing us just how trapped Michael feels – how he feels manipulated by people, and outside forces. As a technical achievement Anomalisa is a masterwork – it looks great, the sound work is impeccable, the score by the great Carter Burwell is one of his best.

But, Anomalisa is far more than a technical achievement. It is one of the best comedies of the year – full of wonderful sight gags, and clever dialogue. It is an intellectually stimulating one, full of ideas about who we are as people. It’s an emotional experience as well – eventually building to a devastating climax, and then going just a little bit farther to introduce the tiniest bit of hope to the film. As a writer, Kaufman is perhaps without peer in movies right now – his characters are always flawed, sometimes fatally, but he always remains sympathetic to them, without fully forgiving them for their sins. As a director now, Kaufman is two for two when it comes to masterpieces. This is one of the very best films of the year.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Classic Movie Review: Arthur Lipsett Shorts

Arthur Lipsett Shorts
Very Nice Very Nice (1961)
21-87 (1963)
Free Fall (1964)
A Trip Down Memory Lane (1965)
Directed by: Arthur Lipsett.

Arthur Lipsett worked at the National Film Board of Canada throughout the 1960s – and left behind a handful of short, avant-garde films that have left a lasting impact on film culture – whether or not most people know who he is (and until recently, I was among those who didn’t). His first short, Very Nice Very Nice, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short – and he found an admirer in Stanley Kubrick, who wanted Lipsett to edit together a trailer for Dr. Strangelove – and although Lipsett turned the offer down, it is said that the resulting trailer, which Kubrick edited himself, shows the influence. George Lucas was inspired by another Lipsett short – 21-87, most notably when making THX-1138, but he also includes a reference to the film in Star Wars. Lipsett’s films are strange – collage and montage, with sound and visuals that don’t directly match, but complement each other to give the viewer a different impression than either gives on their own. If you’ve seen the films of Bruce Conners, that should give you some idea of what to expect – although not completely, as Lipsett uses sound much differently. The films are mainly downbeat and cynical. But they are not thoroughly depressing – Lipsett has a playful side as well, and he offers a few moments of hope in his shorts. Lipsett left the National Film Board in 1970 – his films were “too weird” for them, who either didn’t “get” them, or didn’t want to. His films were critical of society, and perhaps the government just didn’t want to fund them. Lipsett apparently struggled with depression and mental illness throughout his life – and it got worse as he got older. He came back to the NFB in 1978 – and left, saying he had developed a “phobia” of sound tape. He was later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, and committed suicide before the age of 50.

Very Nice Very Nice started as an experiment in audio – as Lipsett constructed the soundtrack first, and later added visuals (which is not how these things normally work). The visuals are mainly made up of still photos and outtakes from other documentaries, while the soundtrack has unseen voices talking about the downfall of our culture – often over images that represent what they are saying in ironic fashion. Shots of dead bodies, nuclear explosions, and stacks of American warplanes are intercut with regular faces, with people on the street going about their lives, and not noticing the images Lipsett places around them. To Lipsett, these people are not thinking, not seeing the world around them for what it is. The film acts as a critique of the mass media and consumerism – sure – but also about the effects of war, and “progress”. Lipsett offers a sliver of hope at the end of the film – not much, and perhaps meant ironically, but it’s there just the same.

In 21-87, Lipsett taps into some of the same fears he addressed in Very Nice Very Nice – envisioning a world where everyone would become a number, not a person (this, not surprisingly, is the one that seems to have influenced Lucas). The film is about how machines are taking over, and modern man is passive and simply allows it to happen. It is a frightening, dystopian film – made all the more frightening, because like Very Nice Very Nice, it uses real images and sounds to construct this world. The film also functions as a critique of religion – that either offers no comfort, or purely lies to the people. A startling sequence near the end shows a group of men – one after another – coming off an escalator, to be confronted by the camera – at a low angle. The men raise up for below the frame, but are so dispassionate and uniform that it’s depressing, not a sign of transcendence as the shot indicates. In 21-87, humanity has willingly ceded their freedom – and don’t seem to realize it. This is probably the bleakest film of Lipsett’s I’ve seen – and to me, the best.

I have to admit that Free Fall (1964) confused me more than the others did. Done in the same style – part found footage, part footage shot by Lipsett, mixed with a soundtrack that places those images in a different context, Free Fall is more of an assault on the senses that the other films – the soundtrack is loaded, full of more industrial noises, and strange music. The images are once again of people – many of the streets, who are surrounded by people yet utterly alone. The film is memorable, and penetrates your mind, but left me rather dazed and confused – which may or may not have been the intent.

The final Lipsett short I watch was A Trip Down Memory Lane. Clocking in at 13 minutes, it’s the longest of the four – and the only one in which Lipsett didn’t shoot any original footage himself. The film is made up of 50 years of newsreel footage, edited together in collage as a “time capsule” of images and sounds. It is, once again, about the rise of technology, the diminishment of religion, the effects of war and technology – and a commentary of the rich and powerful. The film is surreal, and by places images of beauty pageants next to religious ceremonies, John Rockefeller at “leisure”, cruel animal testing, and Richard Nixon, construction, science experiments, and everything else Lipsett edits together, paints a disturbing portrait of humanity in the 20th Century up until that time.

The four films I watched are all very interesting (for the record, they available free of Vimeo – along with some other of his films) – but the first two, especially 21-87 for me – are the best. After that, Lipsett started to become a little more abstract – and to be honest, to repeat himself a little bit. All four films offer disturbing portraits of their time and place – and remain relevant now, 50 years later. Lipsett isn’t a name you hear very often – but he was an important figure in Canadian film avant-garde and otherwise – and deserves more attention than he gets.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Directed by:  J.J. Abrams.
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt.
Starring: Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Lupita Nyong'o (Maz Kanata), Andy Serkis (Supreme Leader Snoke), Domhnall Gleeson (General Hux), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Max von Sydow (Lor San Tekka), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Gwendoline Christie (Captain Phasma), Simon Pegg (Unkar Plutt).

J.J. Abrams was the right choice to direct the first Star Wars movie in a decade. Abrams may not be a great filmmaker, but he has very good at taking his influences and recreating them. Five films into his feature directing career Abrams has brought the Mission Impossible series back down to earth after John Woo’s operatic excess in the second film, recreating 1980s Steven Spielberg with Super 8, and did the first two new Star Trek films – getting everything right the first time, but then falling into the trap of trying to appeal to diehard fans too much in Into Darkness – so much so that the films big moments are meaningless within the context of the film if you were not already a Star Trek fan. Abrams certainly learned from those mistakes when directing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is a film that borrows mercilessly from the original Star Wars trilogy – in terms of story structure and the new characters, it is very close to the original Star Wars, and which has many scenes and settings that deliberately echo those films as well. And yet, Abrams doesn’t fall so far down the rabbit hole and has more something that is more than just a nostalgia exercise, even if the film will work a lot better if you do know Star Wars. And who doesn’t? The Force Awakens is certainly one of the most entertaining films of the year – big scale movie entertainment down right. George Lucas was right when he said that the film this is the film Star Wars fans have been waiting for – because it was made by a fan. That is the film’s strength – and also its weakness.

I won’t delve too far into the plot here – most have probably seen it, and those who haven’t don’t want to know. What I will say is that the movie weaves together characters both old and new – even if the new characters really do resemble the old ones. The two main characters are Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega). She’s a scavenger on a lonely planet, waiting for her long gone family to return, and barely surviving. He’s a Storm Trooper, brain washed from both to do the bidding of the new bad guys – the First Order – but who grows a conscious, and cannot kill. The two of them end up having to team up to get some very important information to some very important people. The main bad guy is Kylo Ren – who has a mask, not unlike Darth Vader, who is evil, to be sure, but also prone to light sabre hissy fits.

Abrams, who co-wrote the film with Lawrence Kasdan (who worked on the original series) and Michael Arndt, is smart enough to know what the fans of this series is going to want – which is basically more of what the original trilogy gave them, and less of what the prequels did. So, Abrams structures his characters and his story much like the original Star Wars films. He has cast the film well – Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are both excellent, especially when they are together where their undeniable chemistry works, Oscar Isaac isn’t quite as good, but he doesn’t have much to do. The cast members from the original – especially Harrison Ford – slip back into their roles effortlessly. The action scenes are well done, and the special effects are top notch. The movie takes a few wrong steps once in a while, and I’m not convinced that Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoak is going to be anything interesting, but for the most part, the film is just pure, old school, blockbuster fun.

So, yes, Abrams was the right choice to reboot Star Wars – a massive franchise that Disney is banking on to become their version of the Marvel Universe for years to come. If the film disappointed – like the prequel trilogy did – the whole thing could have been doomed before it even started. Abrams isn’t like Lucas – an artist who cares about his creation, and his version of Star Wars, and doesn’t really care if it isn’t what the fans wanted. Abrams is all about the fans, and giving them precisely what they want. This was the right choice for the first Star Wars movie. But I am also glad that Abrams will not be directing the next few Star Wars movies – that they have been given to Gareth Edwards and Rian Johnson, who are both directors who have shown more original vision that Abrams has to this point in his career. That’s because I would like Star Wars to evolve into something more than what it is now. If Star Wars ends up like the Marvel films are now – which are all quite fun, but to which I increasing greet with a shrug and then move on – then I will be disappointed. I want to see some great directors take Star Wars in new directions. Abrams does not take Star Wars in a new direction in The Force Awakens – what he does do is create a film that only a cynic could hate. He was the right choice, and The Force Awakens is the Star Wars film that was needed at this time. Now, we need something better.

Movie Review: Where to Invade Next

Where to Invade Next
Directed by: Michael Moore.
Written by: Michael Moore.

A new Michael Moore film will always attract controversy – with legions of people on the right trying to discredit everything he says, and legions on the left defending him. To a certain extent, Moore does bring this on himself – he makes his movies easy to nitpick, by leaving out certain details, or painting a portrait either sunnier or darker than it really is, to make his point. Lots of filmmakers do that, of course, and they get called on it – but perhaps no one more so than Moore. His latest film, Where to Invade Next, will undoubtedly be no different – although this time perhaps the reaction will be more subdued. Moore isn’t really interested in blaming anyone for anything in the film – and he doesn’t play the “gotcha” games with interview subjects that he has sometimes done in the past. The film is the most optimistic of Moore’s career in fact – not so much criticizing America for what it does wrong, but rather trying to egg it on to do better. As the greatest country in the world, which Moore still believes America is, he simply thinks they can do better – and in this movie, he goes on a tour of mainly European countries for ideas that he can bring back.

Moore gives the film a framing device – saying that the Joint Chiefs of Staff are tired of losing one war after another, and so have called him in to decide where to invade next – and Moore goes on a fact finding mission, discovering how one country does something better than America, and then planting the American flag so he can bring it back home. So he heads off to Italy to find out about paid vacation, France for school lunches, Slovenia for free university, Norway for prison reform, Finland for the key to education, Germany for the way it deals with its violent past, Tunisia for the way they resolve deep seeded political and religious conflicts, Iceland for women’s equality, etc.

Moore is a smart and funny filmmaker of course, and he wraps all this in an entertaining package – feigning amazement at things he probably already knew when he arrived in different countries, and obviously ignoring some of the aspects of the different countries he invades that may not so good - I’m not sure anyone really wants Italy’s economy right now for instance, and I don’t think there would ever be too much support for a maximum prison sentence of 21 years – for any crime – like Norway, so for example the crazed right winger who went on a killing spree there a few years ago, killing dozens, will be out in two decades. Yet, throughout it all, Moore remains a cock eyed idealist – showing how other people do things, and wondering precisely why America cannot do things the same way – especially, as he discovers, many of the ideas that these other countries have adopted actually come from America – it’s just that the other countries adopted them, and America did not. Moore wants America to be better – and who can argue with that?

A lot of people surely will argue with Moore – and point out flaws, or simply call him a socialist (or worst) when they see the film (if they see it). The problem with Moore now is that he is so well known, and so deeply entrenched on the left, that I doubt that few people who disagree with Moore will actually see Where to Invade Next – unless they are doing it simply to find flaws in Moore’s argument. And, they will find some flaws – they are undeniably there. But it’s a shame that many will not open their minds a little bit, and wonder, like Moore does if there is something’s that America can do better than it currently does. One of the big problems in society – on both sides of the aisle – is who closed minded everyone is to anyone who happens to disagree with them. Where to Invade Next is not a great film – but it is a hugely entertaining and important one. If you head in with an open mind, no matter what your political leanings may be, you will probably find something you agree with.

Note: I saw Where to Invade Next at TIFF in September. As far as I know, he hasn’t re-edited it since, so it should be the same version in theaters this week in New York and LA, and the rest of the country in February.

Movie Review: Macbeth

Macbeth
Directed by: Justin Kurzel.
Written by:  Jacob Koskoff and Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso based on the play by William Shakespeare.
Starring: Michael Fassbender (Macbeth), Marion Cotillard (Lady Macbeth), Sean Harris (Macduff), Paddy Considine (Banquo), David Thewlis (Duncan), Jack Reynor (Malcolm), Lochlann Harris (Fleance), Kayla Fallon (Young Witch), Lynn Kennedy (Middle Witch), Seylan Baxter (Older Witch), Amber Rissmann (Child Witch), Scot Greenan (Young Boy Soldier), David Hayman (Lennox), Elizabeth Debicki (Lady Macduff).

If a filmmaker is going to tackle William Shakespeare’s Macbeth at this point in time, they had better come up with a somewhat new, or different, way of approaching the material. After all, this is a version that has a rather good classical version directed and starring Orson Welles, a blood soaked version that embraces the meaningless of it all by Roman Polanski, and a samurai version by Akira Kurosawa (Throne of Blood). That’s three of the greatest filmmakers in history – and those are just the best known versions. What else can there be left to say about Macbeth.

Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is not the best version of the play – it is dwarfed by those three previously mentioned, but yes, it does approach the material in at least a slightly different way. Like Polanski, Kurzel is drawn to the bloody aspects of Shakespeare’s play (not surprisingly, since his last film, Snowtown, was disturbing and violent in the extreme) – but in a different way. He opens the film, not with the witches, as we expect – but with a funeral (we assume of Macbeth’s child, who died), before flashing to the witches (he’s added one as well, for some reason) – and then immediately launches into a full on Braveheart like battle sequence, that goes on for quite some time. This battle is bloody and brutal, bathed in mist, as Macbeth leads Duncan’s army against the traitor Macdonald and his army – eventually winning. Kurzel doesn’t stop there, he stays on that battle field for quite some time – with Macbeth walking amongst the dead and dying – even him receiving his promotion on the battlefield with the bodies all around him. The man he fought for – David Thewlis’ Duncan, is far away from the battle and protected – as is his son Malcolm (Jack Reynor), who he names his successor. Those who fought and bled, don’t get to lead – it’s just those who are sent to fight and bleed (this is echoed at the end, where another brutally violent battle ensues, and poor tragic Macduff has little to show for his actions).

Michael Fassbender plays Macbeth – and he’s an excellent choice to do so, since we have seen him descend into madness a few times on screen by this point, and he always does so extremely well. His Macbeth gets there pretty quickly actually – part of this is that the film, at under two hours and with significant time dedicated to those bloody battles, truncates a lot of the play itself. It seems like Fassbender’s approach here is to play Macbeth as a soldier with PTSD. There is something flat and emotionless about him at times, and he has a hair trigger temper, and seems suicidal. Fassbender does a great job with the role. Even better is Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth – the woman who prods Macbeth into committing murder to become King (this time, literally during sex, showing us at least part of the hold she has over him). Cotillard doesn’t play Lady Macbeth as a she-bitch from hell like some have in the past – but rather quietly, and subtly – perhaps a touch too quietly at times, as her own descent into madness happens a little too quickly as well. Better than either Fassbender or Cotillard is actually Sean Harris – playing the saddest, angriest, most tragic version of Macduff that I can recall seeing on screen – he gets his vengeance, as always does, but it has never seemed more hollow. Those closing scenes, bathed is red, is like a scene out of hell.

Is there enough new here to justify yet another version of Macbeth? The answer is yes – it’s always great to see great actors tackle the great roles in history, and Fassbender, Cotillard, Harris and everyone else is in fine form. The film concentrating on the violence, and war, gives a different emphasis, than other films – even if it’s not a particularly insightful one. Still, the film works – even if it if it isn’t as good as some of the other version.

Movie Review: Hitchcock/Truffaut

Hitchcock/Truffaut
Directed by: Kent Jones.
Written by:  Kent Jones & Serge Toubiana.
Featuring: Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, Arnaud Desplechin, David Fincher, James Gray, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Richard Linklater, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut.

Alfred Hitchcock was one of the greatest filmmakers in history – and remains so to this day – but he wasn’t always thought of in that way. He was thought to be little more than a popular entertainer by many people for most of his career, not a real artist. That all started to change in the 1960s – when French writers and directors started to expose the virtue of Alfred Hitchcock. No one did this more than Francois Truffaut, himself one of the great filmmakers in history, who said when he told American journalists that Hitchcock was one of his favorite directors, they asked why. So, over the course of a week, Truffaut, interviewed Hitchcock – going through his films one at a time. The resulting book is legendary in film circles – and remains as vital as ever. Kent Jones’ documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut both looks back at the interview, the book, and just basically Hitchcock in general. Of course, both Hitchcock and Truffaut are dead now, but Jones does get quite a list of modern directors to talk about Hitchcock (and a little Truffaut), and what he means to them, and what he means to cinema history. For Hitchcock fan like me, there is little new information in the film, even if it remains fascinating and entertaining throughout (it’s also great to have any excuse to see even excerpts of Hitchcock’s film on the big screen). I do, however, think the film may be more suited for Hitchcock amateurs – those looking for a way into Hitchcock, especially as the film moves along, and in the back half basically settles for discussions on Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960).

The film is well made by Jones – which shouldn’t be too surprising, since he’s worked with Martin Scorsese on a few documentaries like this in the past. Much like the Hitchcock/Truffaut book, which laid out in page after page, Hitchcock’s editing style, so you can see it laid out in front of you, Jones does the same thing here – and has the distinct advantage of having the movies themselves to do that with. The directors that Jones has chosen to interview are well chosen – the obvious ones, like Scorsese, Paul Schrader and Peter Bogdanovich (all of whom are film historians in a way, as well as being directors), and some of the more off the way choices like Wes Anderson (who doesn’t make films like Hitchcock at all – until you think about it for a minute). All of them are good filmmakers, who are able to describe what Hitchcock is doing, and what it all means. This is insightful, because it’s a different view than the critical writing we normally get on Hitchcock – a view inside the mind of someone who is processing things. And the filmmakers do not just focus on the technical level either – they dive into the meanings of the movies as well, and their symbolism.

But while the interviews are among the strengths of the movie, they are also the biggest example of the film’s biggest, glaring omission – there are no female directors who can talk about Hitchcock? Claire Denis, Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow, Lynne Ramsey, Jane Campion, Ava DeVernay et al have nothing to say about the master? This is perhaps even a little more troubling, giving the subject matter in Hitchcock’s films – he has often been accused of being a misogynist, so a female perspective seems like a necessity in a film like this, no?

That’s a problem with the film, but not a fatal one. The film still offers real insight into Hitchcock, and his place in cinema history – and I really do hope it inspires some people to watch (or re-watch) his work. The lack of women though knocks down what could have been a great doc, into merely a good one – one that offers very little new in Hitchcock (and nothing new on Truffaut, who eventually gets lost in the film), but is a good primer (or reminder) of just how good he really was.

Movie Review: Hard to Be a God

Hard to Be a God
Directed by: Aleksey German.
Written by: Aleksey German and Svetlana Karmalita based on the novel by Arkadiy Strugatskiy and Boris Strugatskiy.
Starring: Natalya Moteva (Ari), Aleksandr Chutko (don Reba), Evgeniy Gerchakov (Budakh), Ramis Ibragimov (Muga), Zura Kipshidze (Zurab), Valentin Golubenko (Arata), Leonid Timtsunik (Arima).

Aleksey German’s Hard to a Be a God is a three slog of human depravity – a slow march to hell, which starts out in a miserable place, and then basically stays there for its entire running time, before the ending, which gets even worse. The plot is relatively straight forward and simple – yet the film is often confusing, because German doesn’t seem very interest in the plot, or the characters, or anything other than the human misery he is portraying. Because German was Russian (he died, before he completed editing this film – it was completely by his close associates), and because he tried to get it made for 40 years, and then worked it for 10, the film has been described as both an attack on Stalin and an attack on Putin, or both - the more things change, the more they stay the same. But there is no specific attacks here, and I think German is reaching for something more universal.

The film was based on a sci-fi novel, and indeed, the film does have a sci-fi premise, even if it doesn’t look like it (and if you were to walk in 10 minutes late, you’d never guess it). In the future, scientists have discovered lots of new planets – including the one where the action of the movie takes place on, which is approximately 800 years before the current time on earth (somewhere in the middle ages), but is otherwise exactly like earth. Some scientists have been sent to observe this society, which should be on the brink of their own Renaissance, but they’ve been there for years now, and no Renaissance seems to be coming. They are supposed to remain neutral – not take sides, not try and goose things along at all, etc. And the main character has abided by those rules for years – but he decides, fuck it, he’s going to do something. He’s tired of watching the best and brightest minds executed by the small minded, fearful people – and decides to do something about it. Of course, as the title suggests, things do not work like he plans – and he only succeeds in making things far worse.

That’s basically, the entirety of the plot of How to Be a God – which isn’t much interested in it. The film is brilliantly well made by German – a series of steadicam tracking shots that follow the main character from one horrific incident to another, one carnival sideshow freak to the next. These shots are brilliantly executed, and you can see why German was so well liked during his career – even if he never got the attention of a Tarkovsky.

Yet, the shots are like the plot of the movie – the same damn thing over and over again for three hours. I understand that is, in many ways, the point of the movie – that nothing ever changes, that human nature is doomed to repeat its cycles of violence and ugliness, forever, etc. But I also know that German made that point clear sometime in the first hour, and then just kept on going and going and going with it. The sci-fi premise is reference only at the beginning and the end (as I said, walk in 10 minutes, and you’ll no idea that the main character is from the future – or that he is supposed to be the hero, since he’s as big as dick as anyone in the film). The film finally gives into that depravity that has been bubbling under the surface for its entire running time in the end – and it’s a relief, but not a visceral one – one that just makes you glad you can stop watching now.

To some, How to Be a God is a masterpiece. I understand why I guess, but I also understand that the film isn’t for me. I don’t necessarily need to see a three hour film that wallows in human depravity to get that humans suck. And when the film doesn’t really seem to have anything else to offer other than that observation, I lost interest pretty quickly. The film is always a treat to look at – German clearly knew how to make a film. I just wish he made a better one – one that offered as much insight as it does technical prowess.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Classic Movie Review Duo: Rec (2007) & Rec 2 (2009)

[Rec] (2007)
Directed by: Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza.
Written by: Jaume Balagueró & Luiso Berdejo & Paco Plaza.
Starring: Manuela Velasco (Ángela Vidal), Ferran Terraza (Manu), Jorge-Yamam Serrano (Policía Joven), Pablo Rosso (Pablo), David Vert (Álex), Vicente Gil (Policía Adulto), Martha Carbonell (Sra. Izquierdo), Carlos Vicente (Guillem Marimon), María Teresa Ortega (Abuela), Manuel Bronchud (Abuelo), Akemi Goto (Japonesa), Chen Min Kao (Japonés), Maria Lanau (Madre histérica), Claudia Silva (Jennifer).

[Rec] 2 (2009)
Directed by: Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza.
Written by: Jaume Balagueró & Manu Díez & Paco Plaza.
Starring: Jonathan D. Mellor (Dr. Owen), Óscar Zafra (Jefe), Ariel Casas (Larra), Alejandro Casaseca (Martos), Pablo Rosso (Rosso), Pep Molina (Padre Jennifer), Andrea Ros (Mire), Àlex Batllori (Ori), Pau Poch (Tito), Juli Fàbregas (Bombero), Ferran Terraza (Manu), Claudia Silva (Jennifer), Anna García (Mari Carmen), Manuela Velasco (Angela Vidal).

Back in 2008, I made the mistake of seeing Quarantine – the then new horror film, starring Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter – before seeing [Rec], the film Quarantine was a remake of. Typically, I do try and see the original before watching the remake – but that’s doesn’t always happen. I didn’t much like Quarantine, and that dislike has kept me away from the [Rec] series as a whole ever since. I always meant to go back and see them – a desire that was renewed every time a new [Rec] film opened (there have now been four – and according to Wikipedia anyway, that’s it). Seeing as how I saw Quarantine seven years ago, I didn’t really remember why I didn’t like the film, so I went back and read my review – in which I basically said I liked the idea, and didn’t like the execution. Well, I finally – at least partially - rectified my over, watching the first two [Rec] films back to back – which works remarkably well, since although made two years apart, the story in 2 picks up almost precisely where the original leaves off. Together, they two films are all take place on one long night.
 
The first films follows Angela Vidal (Manuela Velasco), an intrepid, beautiful young reporter filming a show called “While You’re Asleep” – which is seemingly about things that happen at night. This night, she is spending her time with the local fire department – going through their mundane, nightly routines if they don’t have a call, and praying for something interesting to happen. Finally, they do in fact get a call – and the firefighters head into the building, with Angela and her cameraman right behind her. The woman they have come to help goes insane pretty quickly – and attacks the men, biting one before she can be subdued. And before anyone knows anything, the entire building has been sealed with all the residents, the firefighters and Angels stuck inside. Just a precaution they are told – but they don’t believe it. It appears something bad is going on here – and the one crazy lady isn’t the last one we’ll meet.

The film is in the “found footage” genre, and it’s better than most of the films that the genre has produced. The entire movie is from the POV of Angela’s unseen cameraman – and the film figures its way out of a problem that many found footage horror films never do – why it’s all being filmed. At first, it’s a new story – and an exclusive at that, as no one else is in the building. This is a way to document everything that is happening – and Angela wants it all captured. As the movie progresses, the power goes out – the camera has a light on it, when no one else does, thusly pointing the camera at the action makes sense. And finally, in the climax, when the light is no broken, the camera’s night vision capabilities work wonders as well.

The second film picks up right where the first one leaves off – but with a different POV. A SWAT team is being sent
to the apartment building – where they will enter and follow the orders of whoever is in charge. This is Owen (Jonathan D. Mellor), who tells them there has been an outbreak in the building, and they need to find something and then get out. This part of the movie is told from the POV of the various cameras the SWAT team is wearing – mainly sticking to one, but will switch if need be. Later on in the film, the POV will change to group of teenagers with a camera –who sneak into the building, making the biggest mistake of their lives.

The primary benefit of the first two [Rec] movies is the speed at which the action takes place. Both have a few minutes to setup their basic premise, and then dive headlong into the action, and do not let up for the rest of their running time. Directors Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza are smart enough to keep the running time low – neither movies hits 85 minutes in length – and they never wear out their welcome. From the moment the horror starts in both films, you get the sense that anything can happen – anyone can die, and something is always lurking around every corner. Escape is impossible – and survival seemingly is as well.

The films are zombie films to be sure – and follow the tropes of those films in many respects. Yes, these are “fast” zombies – or at least not slow, Romero-like zombies which are clearly far superior in every respect (deal with it) – but for a movie like this, that is the right choice. The first movie doesn’t give many indications of why all of this is happening until the end of the movie – when the religious undertones take center stage for a few minutes. This is much foregrounded in the sequel, and the [Rec] films become films about the waning influence of religion – and the mistakes made by the church. At least they are when they’re not trying to scare you, which is roughly 95% of the time.

And they work. I don’t think either film is a masterwork by any means – but both films build suspense rapidly, and keep you in their grip for 85 minutes or so, giving you all the scares and blood and viscera you could possibly want. Unlike truly great horror movies, I don’t think the movies really get under your skin – or haunt your nightmares (they didn’t with me anyway) – but they are effective when they’re playing. I know I won’t wait 7 years before I watch the third and fourth installments.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Movie Review: Carol

Carol
Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Written by: Phyllis Nagy based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith.
Starring: Cate Blanchett (Carol Aird), Rooney Mara (Therese Belivet), Kyle Chandler (Harge Aird), Jake Lacy (Richard Semco), Sarah Paulson (Abby Gerhard), John Magaro (Dannie McElroy), Cory Michael Smith (Tommy Tucker), Kevin Crowley (Fred Haymes), Nik Pajic (Phil McElroy), Carrie Brownstein (Genevieve Cantrell), Trent Rowland (Jack Taft).

You will not see a better looking film this year than Todd Haynes Carol. Like pretty much all of Haynes work, this is a period piece – in this case 1952 New York, which Haynes and company have brilliantly, meticulously re-created. The cinematography by Ed Lachman is wondrous – harkening back to the films of the era – a little of the Douglas Sirk melodramas (which Haynes re-created, more faithfully in Far From Heaven), crossed with film noir (again, which Haynes did with the TV miniseries Mildred Pierce). But Carol is even better than both of those films – which were great – as it delves even deeper into the love affair at its center – one where much is left unsaid, and yet couldn’t be clearer. The sexual attraction and chemistry is there between modest shop girl Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) and rich housewife Carol Aird (Cate Blanchatt) from their first charged interaction – about baby dolls and toy trains of all things, where the pair oh-so quietly flirt. The film is also the most erotic of the year – although it takes a long time to get to anything approaching explicit, at which point the relief of tension is great.

The movie, based on a novel by master-of-suspense Patricia Highsmith (writing under an assumed name), is about Therese, who is an aspiring photographer, with a boyfriend, and a circle of mainly male friends. She keeps everyone at a distance however, as if she herself is not quite sure what she feels towards any of them. It’s Christmastime, and she’s working in a toy department when she first meets Carol – a rich housewife, dressed to the nines, who wants a doll for her four-year daughter, but ends up with a train instead. This first interaction leads to others – and we gradually get to know the two women. Carol’s marriage to harge (Kyle Chandler) is approaching divorce – an affair of Carol’s with a female friend (Sarah Paulson) being a factor. Both Carol and Harge love their daughter Rindy – and Harge wants Carol back, but he may not be above destroying her if he cannot have her. It’s after this threat has been made to Carol, that she and Therese head out on a cross country road trip – one that throbs with danger and desire, that could destroy them.

There is, to be fair, not much plot to Carol – it isn’t a thriller, like most of Highsmith’s novels (and, if I’ being honest it is perhaps my least favorite of her work as a novelist that I have read). Yet, as written by Phyllis Nagy and directed by Haynes, Carol becomes something much greater on the screen than it was on the page. This is a movie about erotic attraction – about that charge that is sent through people when they see each other. But it’s also about love – as cheesy as that sounds. Highsmith’s novel has been well loved for years, because it’s one of the only examples – certainly the only one of its era – to depict a homosexual relationship and not have it end in tragedy. The ending, in both the book and the film, is ambiguous – but also glorious. It’s a moment that brought me to tears in the theater, with its seemingly effortless emotion notes.

The performances in the movie by Blanchatt and Mara are both brilliant. Blanchatt has found another role that uses her theatricality well – all the world is a stage for Carol, who has to always dress the part, and play the picture of wifely and motherly perfection, even if that is about the last thing she feels on the inside. She is wonderful in the scenes in public with Mara – where so much is said with body language that remains invisible to everyone around them in the movie, but not to those of us watching in the audience. Mara is even better as Therese – she is quiet, perhaps a little timid, unsure of herself and her feelings. Yet as the movie progresses, it becomes clear she isn’t quite as innocent as she first appears – she chases Carol as much as she is chased – is also part of the aggressor when their relationship is taken to the next level.

The greatness of Carol is difficult to explain – it’s all in small gestures, and the brilliant cinematography and feel of the film. It’s a sexually charged love story – and one of the best of its kind that I have ever seen. A brilliant, devastating movie – perhaps the best film yet from Haynes, who is almost always great. In short, a masterwork.

Movie Review: The Danish Girl

The Danish Girl
Directed by: Tom Hooper.
Written by: Lucinda Coxon based on the novel by David Ebershoff.
Starring: Eddie Redmayne (Einar Wegener / Lili Elbe), Alicia Vikander (Gerda Wegener), Matthias Schoenaerts (Hans Axgil), Ben Whishaw (Henrik), Sebastian Koch (Warnekros), Amber Heard (Ulla), Adrian Schiller (Rasmussen).

There is a giant hole in the center of Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, which really sinks the entire movie. Hooper is a fine surface director – which is why he’s a good choice for a film like Les Miserables, where characters literally sing their feelings for three hours, yet he struggles somewhat with interior pain and struggle. Unfortunately, that is what The Danish Girl is about – a Danish painter named Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), who apparently lived a happy, and fulfilled life as a heterosexual man until he’s in his 30s, before he “discovers” that he is transgender – and decides that he wants to become a woman renaming herself Lili Elbe. This causes, obviously, problems with his marriage to Gerda (Alicia Vickander) – who nevertheless loves her husband enough to support her decision to become a woman, and therefore no longer be her husband. This is a movie about both of them – and the internal pain they both struggle with. Redmayne and Vickander try – valiantly – to make these characters believable, but never quite manage it. The film looks beautiful – Hooper is clearly going for a painterly quality to the look of the film, and while he doesn’t come close to the genius level work done by Mike Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope on last year’s Mr. Turner – it’s not bad either. But the film remains only skin deep – which is its fatal misstep.

The film takes place in Denmark in the 1920s – with Einar being one of the most celebrated landscape painters in the country (the fact that he paints variations on the same landscape again and again doesn’t seem to bother anyone). Gerda makes her living painting portraits –and hasn’t found the same level of success – but not for lack of talent, but for lack of the right subject. Einar’s transition into Lili starts innocently enough – when Gerda asks him to model a ballet ensemble for him for a portrait of their friend, Ulla (Amber Heard), that she is work on. You can see in Einar’s face when he feels the material, that he enjoys it more than he thought. Then, Einar and Gerda take the joke farther and farther – dressing Einar up as a woman and going to a party – where they introduce him as Lili, Einar’s cousin. For Gerda, this is only a game, for Einar, it is the start of something deeper – a change that has always been inside him (as the movie, eventually, makes clear) although he’s kept it buried. But now, he cannot do that any longer. She is Lili now, and she will do anything to make her change permanent – including risking her life to do dangerous, untested surgery.

The real problem with The Danish Girl is that we never truly understand Einar/Lili – how she feels, why she’s willing to risk her life in order to completely become Lili. The early scenes are strange, the film gives no hint that Einar struggles at all in his life as a heterosexual man (in fact, his sexual relationship with his wife seems rather robust), which all of sudden stops on a dime when he puts on a dress. The movie will double back, and make it clear that this is something Einar has experiences since he was a child – but it’s not something the movie ever really shows us –just tells us. Lili makes several speeches to Gerda about why she must do this – but they don’t amount to much more than “I must”. Redmayne gives it his all, but there’s little to work with here. Vikander fares much better, because the screenplay understands her feelings more – how she is willing to sacrifice what she wants, for the man she loves – even if that means giving him up completely. It’s odd that we have a movie about a transgender woman whose main character his her suffering wife (and yes, Vikander is the lead in the film, no matter what the Oscar campaign around her says).

The Danish Girl ends up playing everything far too safely – it never really wants to delve into any areas that may make anyone in the audience uncomfortable – so it’s a rather chaste, dull affair. Compare this to Tangerine from earlier this year – which starred two real trans women in a story about their life in the seedier areas of L.A., which is about their lives, the good and bad, and it’s a stark contrast. Tangerine understands its main characters, and that comes across throughout the film. The Danish Girl doesn’t – which is why it’s a highly polished, but dull bore of a film.

Movie Review: I Smile Back

I Smile Back
Directed by: Adam Salky.
Written by: Paige Dylan based on the novel by Amy Koppelman.
Starring: Sarah Silverman (Laney Brooks), Josh Charles (Bruce Brooks), Thomas Sadoski (Donny), Skylar Gaertner (Eli Brooks), Shayne Coleman (Janey Brooks), Terry Kinney (Dr. Page), Chris Sarandon (Roger).

The “housewife is depressed and goes crazy” film is practically a genre unto itself at this point – and stretches back decades in the movies at least. In old school Hollywood terms, they we usually melodramas, which allowed great actresses a chance to wildly over the top for their descent into madness – although by the end, things were usually alright again, and they had recovered from their tailspin. The new film I Smile Back doesn’t really add much different to the genre – once again, it is a movie about a woman who seemingly has it all – a nice husband, who works a good job, a nice house in the suburbs, two adorable kids she adores – and yet Laney Brooks is miserable. She does drugs, she sleeps around with men who don’t respect her (the last thing she wants is respect) and basically tries (and succeeds) to push everyone around her away. As with many of these movies, a long lost parent re-enters their life, which provides some answers (or at least clues to answers). Other than the rather graphic (and purposefully degrading) sex scenes in I Smile Back, this could well have been a movie made in old school Hollywood. That is, except for one thing – and that’s Sarah Silverman’s performance as Laney.

As mentioned above, these types of movies often give great actress a chance to emote – to play to the back row, with wild, loud gestures to signal how far gone they are. What Silverman, who has been very public with her own struggles with depression, does quite differently in I Smile Back is make Laney very quiet and still – flat and emotionless in many way. She is spiraling downwards to be sure, but she’s really slowly, quietly imploding. She cannot feel anything – which is why she does the drugs, and has the degrading sex – it’s an attempt to feel something, anything other than a flat nothing. This is much more believable than the typical way it has been done in the past – with those crazy performances, because it’s hard to believe anyone who acted that crazy would be allowed to continue in society. But with Laney, you know why – no one really notices just how gone she is. Silverman has delivered a few dramatic performances before – like as Michelle Williams’ friend in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz – but she’s never had to carry one like this before, and she pulls it off wonderfully.

The rest of the movie is nowhere near as good as Silverman. As I said, in many ways this movie could have come out of Hollywood decades ago – there’s a sympathetic doctor (Terry Kinney) who helps her, her husband (Josh Charles) who tries hard with her, but eventually gets exasperated, there’s the so-called friend who really uses her (Thomas Sadoski), the long lost father (Chris Sarandon) who offers some answers, and of course the scene where Laney masturbates using a teddy bear (okay, that last one is new). We’ve seen these scenes and characters before, and I Smile Back doesn’t really do anything new, or all that enlightening with them.

Yet, Silverman’s performance is good enough that the movie is worth seeing – and the fact that the movie doesn’t cop out at the end, and actually follows the story to its logical conclusion (even if it takes a few illogical detours on the way) is to its credit. I Smile Back is not a great movie – but it contains an excellent performance – a portrait of depression that stands out amongst the clichés that surround it.

Movie Review: Legend

Legend
Directed by: Brian Helgeland.
Written by: Brian Helgeland based on the book by John Pearson.
Starring: Tom Hardy (Ronald Kray / Reggie Kray), Emily Browning (Frances Shea), Christopher Eccleston (Nipper Read), Colin Morgan (Frank Shea), Tara Fitzgerald (Mrs. Shea), Shane Attwooll (George Cornell), David Thewlis (Leslie Payne), Frankie Fitzgerald (Jack Dickson), Chazz Palminteri (Angelo Bruno), John Sessions (Lord Boothby).

Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas is one of the greatest films ever made – a viscerally exciting, violent film about the rise and fall of a gangster that starts out seducing the audience with its dangerous bravado, and then upends that in the final stretch. It is a film that is beloved by critics, audiences and filmmakers alike – the last of which you can tell because of just how often it is imitated. The most recent imitation is Brian Helgeland’s Legend which desperately wants to be GoodFellas. It copies the films style – you can say it either pays loving homage to Scorsese’s film, or say it rips it off if you prefer – in many scenes – like a scene of a gangster walking his girl into a club, done in a long tracking shot, or in the voiceover narration that is pervasive, and in many other little details. Legend is, of course, not as good as GoodFellas – few films are really, and so it ends up being a rather pale imitation. Yet, there is still a reason to see the film – and that’s Tom Hardy’s dual performance as Ronald and Reggie Kray – twin brother, who rose up in the London underworld throughout the 1960s, and were responsible for all sorts of death, crime and general mayhem.

Hardy seems to delight in coming up with a different, almost unintelligible way to speak in every movie he does – the clearest his voice has ever been is probably Locke, where he donned an almost prissy English accent. Most of the time though, he grunts and grumbles in a different accent, trying hard to be a new Brando – and dammit all, if sometimes he doesn’t succeed. In Legend, although he plays twins, the vocal inflections of both of them are wholly unique to each character. Reggie is the smarter of the two – violent in a controlled way, and its he who runs the business and makes it a success – he who everyone wants to work with. His brother Ronald is a paranoid schizophrenic, who is likely to explode at any moment, whether or not he’s on his medication. Everything Reggie builds, Ronald is apt to destroy at some point.

The other major character is Frances (Emily Browning), the young woman who eventually becomes Reggie’s wife – and acts as the narrator to the story for some reason (I think it’s to pull a third act twist on the audience, but no matter). Poor Browning isn’t really given much to work with here – her character is conceived as a stereotype, and never gets to rise above that for the entire length of the movie.

The movie kind of meanders, never really settling down into any sort of plot. I was rolling with the movie, having quite a bit of fun in the first hour, but as it dragged on, the film becomes less fun – part of that is by design (again, it really wants to be GoodFellas, who did this masterfully), and part of it is because it becomes clear Helgeland doesn’t really have anywhere to go with the film- he’s just dining out on one cliché after another.

This isn’t to say that Legend isn’t a fun movie – it is, for the most part, and it’s always interesting to see Tom Hardy work – and he certainly does that. But everything around him seems rather poorly conceived and repetitive.

Movie Review: Timbuktu

Timbuktu
Directed by: Abderrahmane Sissako.
Written by: Abderrahmane Sissako & Kessen Tall.
Starring: Ibrahim Ahmed (Kidane), Abel Jafri (Abdelkerim), Toulou Kiki (Satima), Layla Walet Mohamed (Toya), Mehdi A.G. Mohamed (Issan), Hichem Yacoubi (Djihadiste), Kettly Noël (Zabou), Fatoumata Diawara (La chanteuse), Adel Mahmoud Cherif (L'Imam), Salem Dendou (Le chef djihadiste), Mamby Kamissoko (Djihadiste), Yoro Diakité (Djihadiste), Cheik A.G. Emakni (Omar), Zikra Oualet Moussa (Tina), Weli Cleib (Juge), Djié Sidi (Juge), Damien Ndjie (Abu Jaafar).

Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu is a film of gradually building power – a portrait of life in a small town outside the title city, in which jihadists have recently taken over. At first, their presence is annoying, and almost comical – they tell a man to roll up his pants, because it’s the new law, and when he’s unable to, he eventually just takes off the pants. They tell a woman she needs to wear gloves when she handles the fish she sells – and she yells at them that she cannot do her job with them on. The jihadists drive around the town on motorcycles, using a megaphone to announce the new laws to a populace who largely ignores them, and goes about their day-to-day lives as best they can. As the film progresses however, these jihadists will not seem quite so funny – especially as the film builds to its tragic climax.

The main action in the film involves Kidane – a young cattle farmer, who lives a sweetly idyllic life a little outside of town, with his wife and daughter, and his small herd (it has 8) of cattle. He has hired a young boy to help with the cattle – and one day, as the boy is out with the herd, one of them breaks free in the watering hole and ends up smashing the nets of a local fisherman – who in anger kills the cow. When Kidane finds out, he goes to confront the fisherman – stupidly bringing his pistol along. A fight ensues, and Kidane ends up killing the other man. It’s no mystery who did it, and Kidane is brought in for interrogation. The interrogation scene is the best, and most tense, in the movie – as it is simultaneously comic, tragic and intense – as it gradually becomes clear just how screwed Kidane is. His interrogators are not bad men – but even they are powerless to stop what is coming.

Some of the other jihadists however are bad men. One in particular comes to the house of a young woman who caught his eye and wants to marry her – she doesn’t want to, her parents don’t want her to, but he is insistent. How can they possibly say no to him, when he came to their house and asked so politely? Next time he comes, he will not be so polite – and so, of course, he isn’t – as the young woman is taken at night, and married to him against her will. Her parents complain – but the other jihadists have his back – he’s a good man, they say, how can they possibly object?

What’s striking about Timbuktu is just how quiet a movie it is. Everyone in the movie is respectful in the tone of voice they use, and conversations seem to be between rational adults. It’s only when you listen to them closely it becomes clear how absurd they are. The townspeople are scared – rightly so, as anything from playing music to playing soccer will get you lashed – so even when they have a legitimate complaint with the jihadist, they approach them with respect. For their part, the jihadist want to project of authority and holiness – so even though they are really violent, misogynistic bullies – they are respectful about things, and insist that what they are doing is the right thing – the thing Allah would want them to do. How can the townspeople argue with that?

The film premiered at Cannes in 2014 – and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar last year, but in many ways I’m glad I waited a little time to see it (waited is the wrong word – I missed it in theaters, and then eventually broke down and bought the DVD when it became clear it wasn’t coming to iTunes any time soon). With the anti-Muslim bullshit being spouted by Donald Trump in America (and by Stephen Harper in Canada not too many months ago), it’s important to realize that most Muslims – and everyone in this film is Muslim – are victims of the jihadists, not ones themselves. Sissako’s humane film shows that, and shows the humanity of everyone involved – and the tragic consequences. It is quietly devastating film.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Classic Movie Review: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Directed by: John Landis.
Written by: John Landis.
Starring: David Naughton (David Kessler), Jenny Agutter (Nurse Alex Price), Griffin Dunne (Jack Goodman), John Woodvine (Dr. J. S. Hirsch), Frank Oz (Mr. Collins / Miss Piggy), Don McKillop (Inspector Villiers), Paul Kember (Sergeant McManus), Colin Fernandes (Benjamin).

There is a very simple problem with werewolf movies – they are all basically the same. An innocent man (and it’s almost always a man) is attacked by a werewolf early in the film, but somehow survives the horrific attack, and everything seems to be fine. And then, on the next full moon, he discovers that he has changed – he’s become a werewolf, and cannot control his thirst for murder and mayhem. He then spends the rest of the movie trying to control that, trying to cure himself, until he finally realizes he cannot – and either kills himself or is killed. End of story. No one has ever really figured out anything different to do with this very basic story (okay, Ginger Snaps did, but that’s basically it), all they really do is add their own flavor to it. John Landis’ 1981 film, An American Werewolf in London, is often at the top (or near it) of any list of the greatest werewolf movies of all time. And yes, it basically tells the same story as they rest. There are a few twists along the way- but mainly they just add flavor, and don’t really change the film that much. But the formula, in this case, still mainly works.

The film stars David Naughton and Griffin Dunne as David and Jack, two American tourists backpacking around Northern England, even though Jack would rather be in Rome (good call Jack). They are hitchhiking, and get let off pretty much in the middle of nowhere. They come across a small pub – The Slaughtered Lamb – and go in to warm up, maybe get something to eat or drink. The locals don’t seem overly happy to see them – and soon the pair is on their way again, with some ominous sounding words still ringing in their ears. They head out into the fog covered moors – where they are, of course, attacked by a wolf. Jack is killed, by David is just mauled. He wakes up in a London hospital three weeks later. He quickly falls for a posh nurse (Jenny Agutter), while he tries to figure out what happened to him – as does his doctor (John Woodvine), who heads back up North to try and figure it out – as all he was told was that an escaped mental patient attacked them, and that doesn’t make sense. Meanwhile, the full moon is coming – oh, and David still sees Jack everywhere – who gives him warnings, and progressively decomposes with each passing appearance.

The film’s most famous sequence has justly become iconic. The first time David turns into a werewolf, director John Landis, makeup artist Rick Baker, and the visual effects department, does a terrific job of turning him into a werewolf, one step at a time. This type of things could be done easily today with CGI – but for those of us who love practical effects, this is a landmark, and one of the best scenes of its kind in film history. Baker’s makeup work also has to be commended on Griffin Dunne’s Jack – who like I said earlier, is a little more decomposed each time we see him, but still allows Dunne’s comedic performance to shine through in each scene. Dunne is far and away the best performance in the movie – although that’s not saying much. Naughton, as the lead, is a little bit bland, and although Agutter does what she can with the role, it’s another of those “supportive female” roles that are a dime a dozen.

The film takes its time getting everything setup. Naughton doesn’t turn into werewolf for more than an hour into a 97 minute film – with only the brief attack sequence at the beginning being the only action until then. The opening and closing are certainly the best parts of the movie – the visit to the pub is creepy, the foggy moors creepier in act one, and the violence in the third act works quite well. Landis doesn’t have much to do in between however, and the film sags in the middle section of the film, concentrating on Naughton’s recovery, his relationship with Agutter, and the doctor’s investigation – none of which is all that interesting.

I don’t really see An American Werewolf in London as a great movie. It does what it does quite well – but it’s the same damn werewolf movie as every other werewolf movie –with only Dunne’s decomposing sidekick and terrific makeup work – to make it different. It’s a must for werewolf fans, of course, and it’s an entertaining little movie. But it never quite reaches the next level for me. It’s never that scary, never gets under your skin. It’s fun – but not much else.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Movie Review: The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment
Directed by: Kyle Patrick Alvarez.
Written by: Tim Talbott.
Starring: Billy Crudup (Dr. Philip Zimbardo), Michael Angarano (Christopher Archer), Moises Arias (Anthony Carroll), Nicholas Braun (Karl Vandy), Gaius Charles (Paul Vogel), Keir Gilchrist (John Lovett), Ki Hong Lee (Gavin Lee / 4301), Thomas Mann (Prisoner 416), Ezra Miller (Daniel Culp / 8612), Logan Miller (Jerry Sherman / 5486), Tye Sheridan (Peter Mitchell / 819), Johnny Simmons (Jeff Jansen / 1037), James Wolk (Mike Penny), Nelsan Ellis (Jesse Fletcher), Olivia Thirlby (Dr. Christina Maslach).

I couldn’t help but think of another recent movie – Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter when I was watching The Stanford Prison Experiment. Both films are about infamous psychological experiments conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, and both deal with authority. Experimenter functions almost as a psychological experiment itself – one that Almereyda is conducting on the audience as they watch. The Stanford Prison Experiment doesn’t do that – it aims for a chilly, basic recounting of facts – a recreation of a simulation and its effective enough that my wife wondered if it was a documentary for a few minutes (then she saw Billy Crudup). Both films are effective – but Experimenter has another layer that raises it above this one, as good as it is.

The film stars the aforementioned Crudup as Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who in the early 1970s wanted to conduct an experiment at Stanford – and asked for young, male volunteers to participate. He turns a hallway and some offices into a prison ward – made half of the volunteer’s guards and the other half prisoners, and wanted to see how they would react. It was supposed to last two weeks, but was called off less than a week in. The experiment was too successful. The guards got too into their roles – and seemed to enjoy inflicting psychological torture on the prisoners, who in turn suffered from more psychological strain than anyone involved every would have thought possible. The guards keep pushing, and when they wonder if they have gone too far, Zimbardo assures them – tells them to keep going.

You know where the story is going from fairly early in the movie, even if you haven’t heard of the infamous experiment before. The early scenes have both the guards and prisoners behaving awkwardly, trying at times to stifle laughter as they try and fit into their roles. It doesn’t help them that the surroundings look like exactly what they are – an drab, boring, beige hallway in an institutional setting, and not like a prison at all. Which is what makes what is happens more disturbing – because everything that happens comes from within these young men.

To be honest, most of the performances kind of blend together – this was probably the goal of the experiment and the film, as all the prisoners dress alike, as do the guards, so individual personalities do not much come out. Two performances do stand out though – the first by Michael Angarano, as the leader of the guards, who adopts a strange speaking voice – somewhere between Captain from Cool Hand Luke and John Wayne – and is the one who ratchets up the abuse on the prisoners, delighting in his own sadistic streak of punishing them. The other is by Ezra Miller as the most rebellious of the prisoners – and not coincidentally, the first one who breaks. When he realizes he cannot win, he loses it.

The film is effective directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez – who is clearly inspired by Kubrick with his camera moves, and icy tone (oddly, the film won the screenplay prize at Sundance, when the screenplay really doesn’t seem that impressive – it’s the direction and the performances that sell it). The film does start to drab as it moves along – we know where this is headed, and the film starts to repeat itself, with only slightly worse results from the prisoners. The film is effective – surprisingly so – because it limits its scope – because it doesn’t venture too far from that hallway. But that also limits it a little – making the whole thing feel slightly oppressive. Then again, perhaps that’s the point.