Thursday, December 22, 2016

Movie Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Directed by: Gareth Edwards.
Written by: Chris Weitz & Tony Gilroy.
Starring: Felicity Jones (Jyn Erso), Diego Luna (Cassian Andor), Ben Mendelsohn (Orson Krennic), Donnie Yen (Chirrut Îmwe), Mads Mikkelsen (Galen Erso), Alan Tudyk (K-2SO), Riz Ahmed (Bodhi Rook), Jiang Wen (Baze Malbus), Forest Whitaker (Saw Gerrera), Jonathan Aris (Senator Jebel), Valene Kane (Lyra Erso), Genevieve O'Reilly (Mon Mothma), Jimmy Smits (Bail Organa), Anthony Daniels (C3P0), James Earl Jones (Darth Vader – voice).
There are ways in which Rogue One is one of the most satisfying blockbusters in recent years. For one thing, this is a film that doesn’t worry about any possible prequels or sequels – both have already been made, and so no matter how much people love this, it is designed to be a standalone film and not just a $200 million, two hour trailer for a bunch of other movies you cannot see yet, and will likely be more $200 million two hour trailers for other films. Freed from that restraint, Rogue One is a film in which there are actual stakes at play – not so much for the story, which we know the ending before heading into the theater – but for the characters, who this time, may actually die and stay dead (as opposed to the Disney death, where we only think they do until they open their eyes and blink, and everything is okay). The film is also wonderfully entertaining, has some of the best action sequences of the year, not to mention some of the best special effects. It also retains the sense of humor the best entries of the Star Wars series have always had. It does a difficult job of bridging the gap between the Prequel trilogy and the original trilogy, and does it quite well. Yes, there are some rather bone headed decisions made in the film, regarding using CGI to resurrect long dead actors, but for the most part, Rogue One works like gangbusters.
The story takes place between the time when Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader, and when his son Luke, and the Rebel Alliance, will attack and try to take him down. In order to do that, they’re going to need to destroy the Death Star – and in order for that to happen, they need to know how this massive weapon is made. One of the long running jokes in Star Wars fandom is why the Empire would make a weapon as powerful as the Death Star, but give it a fatal weakness that makes it easy to destroy. Smartly, Rogue One incorporates the answer to that question into the movie – it’s because one of the scientists who built and designed the Death Star, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) only did so under duress – and so he built in the design flaw.
The main story is about Galen’s daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones), as she reluctantly joins the Rebel Alliance, and heads out to try and steal the plans for the Death Star, so more rebels can destroy it. She is joined on her quest by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a seemingly remorseless killer, the blind master martial artist Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), his “friend” Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), a marksmen, a Empire pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who has defected because his conscience has got to him, and of course a droid – K-2SO (voiced, brilliantly, by Alan Tudyk) – an Empire killer drone, who has been reprogrammed to fight with the rebels – and is easily the most pessimistic character in the film.
The outcome of their mission is never really in doubt – we already know in for the original film, they’ll get the plans. And yet, this story is still worth telling – if for no other reason because it gives the filmmakers an excuse to make a movie this entertaining, and also a little bit different from the other Star Wars films. There is only one scene featuring a Light Sabre for instance – and the climax is an all-out air and ground war sequence, the likes of which this series hasn’t really done before. It’s also not that bad an idea to expand this series beyond the damn Skywalker family for once (Rey is a Skywalker, right?). While Darth Vader is around in the film, I also liked how the main bad guy isn’t some all-powerful villain, but kind of a whiny, powerless bureaucrat – brilliantly played, of course, by Ben Mendelsohn, who is brilliant in everything.
I do have some reservations about the film. We really didn’t need them to digitally create Peter Cushing to recreate the role he played in 1977  and since the actor has been dead for more than 20 years, I’m not sure its ethical anyway (perhaps worse, from an entertainment standpoint, its distracting – as is the scene at the end featuring another well-known character, de-aged by 40 years). The film was directed by Gareth Edwards – who made one of the best, and most original blockbusters in years, with his Godzilla remake – one of the few studio films that size to still feel like it had the fingerprints of its director. Rogue One doesn’t quite have however – it does feel more workmanlike than his last film – although only slightly.
I do wonder, however, how soon it’s going to be that a new Star Wars film feels less special – less like an event, and more like Marvel films now do. Not to knock Marvel (they could be way worse, just look at DC) – but their films have a sameness to them that can grate at times. The Star Wars films still feel like something wholly unique and unto themselves – but if we get one a year, that’s going to change at some point.
But, not yet. For now, Rogue One joins the ranks of Force Awakens and Revenge of the Sith (yeah, I said it, deal with it) as not quite in the upper echelon of the series, but not down in the valleys either. It’s a really good Star Wars movie – and really, what else did you want it to be.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Movie Review: Neruda

Directed by: Pablo Larraín.
Written by: Guillermo Calderón
Starring: Luis Gnecco (Pablo Neruda), Gael García Bernal (Oscar Peluchoneau), Alfredo Castro (Gabriel González Videla), Mercedes Morán (Delia del Carril), Diego Muñoz (Martínez), Pablo Derqui (Víctor Pey), Michael Silva (Àlvaro Jara), Jaime Vadell (Jorge Alessandri), Marcelo Alonso (Pepe Rodriguez), Francisco Reyes (Bianchi), Alejandro Goic (Jorge Bellett), Emilio Gutièrrez Caba (Pablo Picasso).
It can be an odd experience watching a biopic of a famous person of whom you don’t really know anything about. My knowledge of Pablo Neruda pretty much begins (and ends) with The Simpsons episode where Lisa quotes him, and Bart says “I am aware of the work of Pablo Neruda”. I didn’t even know that he was a politician in addition to being a poet. In Pablo Larrain’s Neruda, it’s both the writer and the politician that the filmmaker is interested in – concentrating on a brief time in the late 1940s, when Chile outlawed Communism, and arrested many Communists. Neruda was a Senator for the Communist party at the time – and one of its highest profile members. The movie opens with apparently all the Senators in a large bathroom (in case you’re in doubt about what Larrain thinks of them), in the aftermath of a speech that Neruda gave denouncing the President of Chile – a man he had previously supported. For a little more than a year, Neruda lived underground in Chile until he was finally able to escape to over the mountains Argentina – where he lived in exile for a few years. Neruda, the film, concentrates on the man hiding out – and Oscar Peluchoneau, the cop hot on his trail.
It really is Peluchoneau who is the film’s most interesting character – not least because the film openly admits that he is a fictional character, created by Neruda himself. Peluchoneau is played by Gael Garcia Bernal with a knowing blankness – he looks like he’s straight out of a 1940s film nor – he’s all hat, mustache and attitude, and no substance. Neruda leaves him detective novels throughout the film – a way to mock Peluchoneau for missing him yet again, but perhaps also to let Peluchoneau know how he is supposed to behave. The film has one character explain why it’s better for the government for Neruda not to be captured – they need him out of the way, but not arrested – that may make him into a martyr – so perhaps the reason why Neruda invents Peluchoneau is because no one was really chasing him at all, and yet in order to become the kind of downtrodden, obsessed folk hero Neruda wanted to be, he needed someone chasing him.
Luis Gnecco is fine as Neruda – he’s a large, bald man, who seems both to want to capitalize on his fame, and ignore it when it doesn’t suit him. He likes to go out and party – yet he’s recognized everywhere, and asked to recite the same poem again and again. He is the life of the party, but also tired of being the life of the party – both in love with his wife, and yet cruel to her at times (he tells at one point to go ahead and kill yourself – that way, I’ll be able to write about you for another 20 years). In many ways, these scenes are both fairly standard in a biopic – the great man is also a real person, and not always a great one – and different for one – these are not the kind of scenes that normally go into one, because Neruda isn’t really doing anything in them. For a film a politician, Neruda never really makes it clear what the titular character believes in aside from “communism”. To be honest, these scenes are more than a little dull at times – especially as the film progresses, and seems to be repeating itself.
What is never dull though is the filmmaker – which again shows Larrain at peak form. Just a weak after praising his work on Jackie – his English language debut, and one of the best films of the year – I have to praise Larrain again here. The cinematography here is excellent – playing with classic Hollywood stylings (like rear projection), while using the digital form to make a film steeped in shadows. Aside from the score – because Mika Levi’s Jackie score is next level brilliant – Neruda is every bit the technical achievement Jackie was.
Perhaps the reason then that I didn’t love Neruda the same way I loved Jackie is because I had no prior connection to the story or characters. I think Larrain does a brilliant job with Jackie, and yet, I also think that you have to do some of your own heavy lifting with the film before you come in – if you don’t know Jackie Kennedy before, I’m not sure what you’ll think about her seeing the film. And perhaps that’s my real problem with Neruda – I’m still not exactly sure who he was, even though he is the central character in this fascinating movie.

Dual Movie Review: Barry & Southside with You

Directed by: Vikram Gandhi.
Written by: Adam Mansbach.
Starring: Devon Terrell (Barack Obama), Anya Taylor-Joy (Charlotte), Jason Mitchell (PJ), Ellar Coltrane (Will), Ashley Judd (Ann Dunham), Avi Nash (Saleem), Jenna Elfman (Kathy Baughman), Linus Roache (Bill Baughman).
Southside with You
Directed by: Richard Tanne.
Written by: Richard Tanne.
Starring: Parker Sawyers (Barack Obama), Tika Sumpter (Michelle Robinson), Vanessa Bell Calloway (Marian Robinson), Phillip Edward Van Lear (Fraser C. Robinson).
We are in the final month of Barack Obama’s Presidency before Donald Trump comes in and attempts to undo everything that Obama has done in the last eight years. If you want to enjoy this last month and not think about the future to come, you could do worse things than put on a double bill of Vikram Ganhdi’s Barry – which just debuted on Netflix, and is about a couple years in Obama’s life in New York as a University student in the early 1980s – and Richard Tanne’s Southside With You – a indie hit at the box office this summer, newly arrived on VOD platforms – which is about Barack and Michelle’s first date in Chicago in 1989. Both films are at times heavy handed – leaning too much on the President Obama was going to become, and occasionally the actors playing him (and in the latter film, Michelle as well), work too hard to do an impression of him. Yet both films show an idealistic young man, struggling with his identity – and the man he wants to become. To me, Barry is clearly the superior film – it has a larger scope, and allows Obama to be a more fully rounded character (and sometimes, an asshole), whereas Southside With You leans harder on the great man stuff. But as a double bill, the films are fascinating.
The Obama is Barry is more often than not, quiet. The film shows him reading and thinking a lot – lost in thought (usually smoking). He is grappling with things that he doesn’t verbalize very much during the course of the movie – there’s only one real scene set in a classroom in Barry, where he and other students debate politics – which ends on a great note, when one of the white students asks Barry why everything always comes back to slavery – something Barry doesn’t dignify with a response (we’ll return to that other character again in the film, and again, Barry doesn’t really respond). The film is, in many ways, about Obama walking a kind of strange line – he barely knows his father – he carries around a letter from him, and spends most of the movie trying to write a response (which he is, ultimately, too late to send). He loves his mother – Ashley Judd, wonderful in just one sequence – but is also exhausted by her. He starts to date Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy, from The Witch) – who is white, and who introduces him to her liberal, do-gooder parents (Linus Roache and Jenna Elfman), who try very hard to not make it seem that they are trying very hard with him. Their relationship will, of course, run its course eventually – but the fault for that mainly lies with Barry, who isn’t ever able to really explain to her his feelings, or why it’s awkward for him and her to be together. There are other minor characters, who are basically present to show Barry with different groups – his white roommate (Ellar Coltrane, from Boyhood), who seems cool with Barry, but maybe not some of his other friends, Saleem (Avis Nash), a drug taking Indian who indulges Barry’s wilder side, and PJ (Jason Mitchell, from Straight Outta Compton), as a kid from the projects working to get his Ivy League education to get out of them – who, in the film’s most memorable sequence, takes Barry to those projects to show the guy who spent most of his life in Hawaii or Indonesia how many black people live. Barry undeniably leans too heavily on the man Obama will become for its impact – if you didn’t know this man, you may well wonder why they’re making a movie about him – and there are some awkward moments (the wedding conversation Barry has with an inter-racial couple for instance) – but mainly film works – mainly because newcomer Devon Terrell is so good as Obama.
Southside with Me is the better known film – unlike Barry, which debuted at TIFF this September, and then bought by Netflix, it actually did receive a theatrical release, and did well for an indie of its size. It’s also the more highly praise of the two films, which is odd to me, because while I admired parts of the film, I more often than not found it awkward – and that the two stars tried too hard to mimic their famous characters. Richard Tanne’s films is about a long summer day turning into night in Chicago in 1989 – when Barack Obama – then a summer intern at a high profile Chicago law firm, asked out a second year associate, Michelle Robinson, for what he thinks is a date, and she is adamant is not one. Over the course of the day, the two talk, and flirt – she silently judges him for all the cigarettes (the one thing the two movies share is the Obama smokes a lot in both) – as the pair go to an art gallery, drive around, go to a community meeting, and end the evening at a screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
The film is at its best when it is most relaxed – the pair talking about the art they see in the gallery for instance, or discussing Do the Right Thing. It goes off the rails for me a few times when it tries to strain for importable – most notably in an extended sequence where Obama gives a speech to a community group he is involved with – where we keep flashing to Michelle in the audience, and get the feeling that this is the moment she falls for him. In this way, the film resembles Barry – both films are about a central romantic relationship – yet one that the film really does fail to see in any sort of sexual way (I understand that for Barack and Michelle, it was a first date, and they didn’t have sex then – yet there is no real erotic charge between them anyway – it’s all intellectual).
Southside with You clearly wants to be an Obama version of Before Sunrise – the Richard Linklater movie, where Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy fall in love, over the course of one long night spent talking. The difference is, that relationship felt natural – here is feels forced and strained as often as it feels natural.
Still, what both films do is show the man who would become President at various, specific moments in his life – which allows you to see the way he’d change, and the way he’d stay the same. America is about to go through who knows what under President Trump – I think they’ll miss the calm leadership of Obama, but what do I know. What these two movies – imperfect as they are – serve to do is remind you that Obama is a person as well, and what kind of person he is.

Movie Review: Train to Busan

Train to Busan
Directed by: Yeon Sang-ho.
Written by: Park Joo-suk.
Starring: Gong Yoo (Seok-woo), Ma Dong-seok (Sang-hwa), Jung Yu-mi (Seong-kyeong), Kim Su-an (Soo-an), Kim Eui-sung (Yon-suk), Choi Woo-shik (Young-gook), Ahn So-hee (Jin-hee), Choi Gwi-hwa (The Homeless Man), Jung Suk-yong (Captain of KTX), Ye Soo-jung (In-gil), Park Myung-sin (Jong-gil), Jang Hyuk-jin (Ki-chul), Kim Chang-hwan (Kim Jin-mo).
As far as out-and-out entertaining, zombie action movies go, it’s been a while since something came along better than the Korean film, Train to Busan. After a few establishing scenes – that show us that Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is a workalcohilic, divorced father, who cannot even remember his previous attempts at buying his young daughter’s love, the film jumps headlong into the action on a train. On that train, Seok-woo is travelling with his daughter from Seoul to Busan – it’s her birthday, and all she wants is to spend it with her mother – when there is a zombie outbreak. For the next 100 minutes, Seok-woo and company claw and fight there way through one zombie horde after another. Like Snowpiercer, much of the action has them trying to get from one car to the next, using various ways, and requiring various sacrifices along the way. With Seok-woo and his daughter are a pregnant woman and her husband, a high school baseball player – and his cheerleader, would-be girlfriend and an older woman. Their main antagonist – aside from zombies of course – is one very selfish man, who stops at nothing to survive, no matter how many others have to die in order for him to make it.
I’m not going to argue that Train to Busan does anything overly original during its runtime. Like every zombie since 1968, the film owes a huge debt to George A. Romero, as it sneaks in his message alongside all the zombie action, making it clear, yet again, that it’s really the humans who survive the outbreak, more than the zombies themselves – who are the real bad guys. The film is ultimately about teamwork and sacrifice – and what we’re willing to die for, and what we should prioritize in everyday life. Yes, that’s a trite message, but who cares?


Besides, even if you don’t necessarily care about the films message, most of the film is just pure, bloody, zombie killing fun. At this point, we’ve all seen so many zombies die in so many ways, you’d probably think you’ve seen it all before. But Train to Busan comes up with a few new twists along the way, and doesn’t slow down at all for you to think about anything. Also, refreshingly, the film is a somber, dull slog than The Walking Dead has turned into (seriously, I still have to catch up on the final two episodes of this last half season – but I’m not sure I’m able to – it’s become so painful and boring to watch the show since Negan arrived).


There isn’t much more to say about Train to Busan – this isn’t a deep or thoughtful film, it’s a film that just want to entertain by killing a lot of zombies in a short period of time, and on that, it delivers about as wonderfully as you could possibly expect. It’s hardly a masterpiece – but it doesn’t need to be. It is precisely what it wants to be.

Movie Review: Bad Moms

Bad Moms
Directed by: Jon Lucas & Scott Moore.
Written by: Jon Lucas & Scott Moore.
Starring: Mila Kunis (Amy Mitchell), Kristen Bell (Kiki), Kathryn Hahn (Carla Dunkler), Christina Applegate (Gwendolyn James), Jada Pinkett Smith (Stacy), Annie Mumolo (Vicky), Jay Hernandez (Jessie Harkness), Lilly Singh (Cathy), Oona Laurence (Jane Mitchell), Emjay Anthony (Dylan Mitchell), Wendell Pierce (Principal Daryl Burr), Wanda Sykes (Dr. Elizabeth Karl).
There are so few movies made for moms, that it’s a shame that Bad Moms isn’t a better movie than it is. There probably isn’t a mother out there right now, who won’t recognize a lot about themselves waiting this comedy that tries, with varying success, to mix the raunchy and the sweet in terms of humor, and then add in some more serious observations along the way. When the film became a surprise hit this summer, I’m sure a large part of the audience was women out on girl’s night – leaving their husbands at home with the kids, for a night out with their friends. And if they enjoyed the movie, great. But for me, the film kind of lurches around awkwardly, never quite finding its footing. There are appealing moments and performances, yet the film never really gels in a meaningful way.
The film focuses on Amy (Mila Kunis) – a woman who got pregnant at 20, and is now in her early 30s, still married to the same lovable doofus (who isn’t so lovable anymore), with two kids she adores, a career working for a hipster coffee company where she’s the only one doing actual work, and trying to balance all her kids extra-circular activities, and the PTA – which is presided over by rich, alpha-bitch Christina Applegate, who calls last minute, three hour emergency meetings to discuss the bake sale. One day, everything goes wrong for Amy, who decides she has had enough – she’s going to chuck her responsibilities and stop trying to be a perfect mom, and instead by a bad mom. In this, she is aided by Carla (Kathryn Hahn) – a single mom, who is undeniably bad (she’s drunk most of the time, and doesn’t even seem to like her kid), and sweet, quiet nerdy Kiki (Kristen Bell) – a stay at home mom of four kids, who has a strangely controlling husband. For much of the rest of the movie, these three women partying, drink and plan Amy’s run for PTA president against Applegate – all the while seemingly ignoring their kids, who don’t often factor into their plans.
If there’s a reason to watch the film, it’s to see Kunis, Bell and Hahn play off each other – which they do wonderfully well. Kunis and Bell worked together before in Forgetting Sarah Marshall – but both are given better roles this time around (Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a better film overall, but in it, Kunis had to play female perfection personified – basically Gone Girl’s “Cool Girl” in the flesh, and Kristen Bell had to play the heartless bitch – at least until late in the film when she finally got to say why she left Jason Segel). Here, Kunis gets to play the harried every woman – who doesn’t even realize how miserable she is until she is forced to recognize it. Bell gets to play a quieter, more sweetly strange character than I’ve ever seen her do before. And Hahn, well, she’s plays the Kathryn Hahn role to perfection – which is why you hired Kathryn Hahn.
I don’t quite think the film works when it tries to lay on some of the more serious stuff – particularly because it backs away from it too often. The story of a marriage which has simply run its course can be a sad one, but the filmmakers don’t really do much with Amy’s marriage. Bell’s marriage is even more disturbing, and honestly the whole thing leaves a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth thinking about it. It also doesn’t help that the film tries too hard to cram in too much plot – the whole business with the PTA election, and what Applegate does to try and win, not to mention a new love interest for Kunis (played by Jay Hernandez, as whatever the male equivalent to the Gone Girl’s Cool Girl is) just falls flat.
I cannot help but wonder if the fault lies in the fact that the film was written and directed by two men – Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. It isn’t that the film is bad per se, just that it feels very sitcom-y, and lacking in any real insight. There are moments that work, but not enough to really make the film worth it. I’m glad a film like Bad Moms exists – and that it became a success. Now, it’s time to make a version of this film that is, you know, good.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Movie Review: Shrew's Nest

Shrew’s Nest
Directed by: Juanfer Andrés & Esteban Roel.
Written by: Juanfer Andrés & Sofía Cuenca.
Starring: Silvia Alonso, Carolina Bang, Nadia de Santiago, Asier Etxeandia, Macarena Gómez (Montse), Gracia Olayo, Josean Pérez, Hugo Silva (Carlos), Luis Tosar.
Shrew’s Nest is one of those movies in which everyone seems to have deep, dark secrets that they are keeping throughout the first half of the movie just so they can reveal them at the most dramatic moment possible in the second half. This always annoys me, especially when the deep, dark secrets are so blatantly obvious to everyone in the audience so that when the movie finally decides to reveal them, it is greeted with little more than a shrug.
The movie takes place in post WWII Spain, where two sisters are living together in an apartment. Their mother died in childbirth for the much younger daughter – who is now 18, beautiful and is starting to look outside her family for companionship. Their father disappeared during the war, and since then Montse (Macarena Gomez) has been raising her sister and making her living as a seamstress. Montse is, to say the least, odd – not least of which because she refuses to leave the apartment – and she appears only to have one client for her work – a rich lady who thinks Montse is a genius, and whose doctor husband is willing to give Montse her “medicine” without ever seeing her. The sister’s lives are turned upside down when the upstairs neighbor, Carlos (Hugo Silva) – a good looking young man, tumbles down the stairs and lands right outside their apartment. He has a broken leg, among other injuries – but Montse, instead of calling an ambulance, hauls him into their apartment, and straps him to the bed. At first, he doesn’t mind – he was planning on running away anyway for a little while – and this seems like a good place to lie low. Besides, Montse is taking care of him – and the younger sister is a beauty, although she has to sneak into his room to see him, as Montse has forbidden them to have contact. But as the movie moves along, his leg gets worse and he wants to go to the hospital – and Montse has no intention of letting that happen.
It’s clear that both Montse and the Carlos have dark secrets in their past – secrets they don’t want anyway else to know about. The movie contains flashbacks and hallucinations by Montse involving the girl’s father (Luis Tosar) – so I was pretty sure he’s part of her dark secrets (and I was pretty sure I knew what it was – and I was right!). The film’s first half is pretty much all setup – but once you understand what the filmmakers are setting up, it basically becomes a waiting game – as we wait for the movies to catchup with us. The second half has the secrets spill out with about the same frequency as it has the bodies pile up – and again, I was pretty sure who was going to end up dead because the movie introduces many rather pointless characters who are clearly there to up the body count.
It must be said that as obvious as the setup and payoff of Shrew’s Nest is, the film is made with skill by directors Juanfer Andrés and Esteban Roel. The do a good job of establishing the apartment, the characters, and slowly building suspense. The problem is they build that suspense far too slowly – it gets to the point where I was getting impatient. In the films second half, when the bodies start to pile up, they also handle that well – its bloody and grotesque, without ever quite crossing the line into exploitation.
But for all the skill that went into making Shrew’s Nest – and that extends to a wonderfully unhinged performance by Gomez as Montse – the basic feeling I had during Shrew’s Nest was impatience. I was waiting for the movie to build to something startling or new or different – and then it went in the most obvious way imaginable. There’s a lot of skill on display in Shrew’s Nest – but it pretty much all goes to waste.
Note: I saw this film at TIFF in 2014 – but it’s just getting a release – on today – so I am publishing my review now. I assume it’s the same version that I saw two years ago.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Movie Review: Jackie

Directed by: Pablo Larraín.
Written by: Noah Oppenheim.
Starring: Natalie Portman (Jackie Kennedy), Peter Sarsgaard (Robert F. Kennedy), Greta Gerwig (Nancy Tuckerman), Billy Crudup (Theodore H. White), John Hurt (Father Richard McSorley), Max Casella (Jack Valenti), Beth Grant (Lady Bird Johnson), Richard E. Grant (William Walton), Caspar Phillipson (President John F. Kennedy), John Carroll Lynch (President Lyndon B. Johnson).
Pablo Larrain’s Jackie is not a typical biopic of one of America’s most famous first ladies. Largely taking place in the week after her husband was assassinated in Dallas, Jackie zooms in for a close-up view of Jackie Kennedy in those days – in the audience, we can see she’s suffering from PTSD, but no one in the movie seems to notice. Everyone around her seems more concerned with what’s going to happen next – her brother-in-law Bobby is distraught about how little they actually accomplished, Lyndon Johnson wants to swear in as soon as possible, and then push the Kennedys aside while looking sympathetic, publicly – his wife is seen in the background picking out fabric swatches as Jackie tries to make funeral arrangements. The film gets close to Jackie – uncomfortably so, as the camera often sees her in close-up – right up in her face – and yet the film ultimately keeps us at a distance from Jackie, because that is exactly what she is doing. Throughout the film, she plays various roles, dons various masks – only occasionally letting her guard down at all. She becomes obsessed with the funeral arrangements – because she knows how important appearances are – they are everything, so no matter the truth of her marriage, she is going to ensure that her husband gets the sendoff he deserves.
Natalie Portman gives one of the best performances of the year as Jackie. The accent she dons for Jackie is distracting just for a minute or two – we’re not used it coming out of her mouth – but quickly, we settle into it. The framing device of the movie has Jackie talking to a reporter (Billy Crudup), just a week after the Assassination of her husband – and it’s clear from the outset that Jackie intends the story he is writing to come up precisely how she wants it to. Throughout the interview she teases him a little bit – revealing some darker parts of herself, and then pulling back (“You don’t think I’m going to let you publish that, do you?”). It mirrors what we see her do throughout much of the rest of the movie – as she has to stare down Bobby Kennedy, the Johnsons’ people, the Secret Service, etc. – in order to have the funeral procession that her husband deserves. She’s more honest with the reporter than she is with the rest of them – at least she reveals a little of how broken she is to him, something she steadfastly hides from the others she needs to stare down.
The other part of the film feels a little odd at first – it’s a flashback to a TV special from earlier in the Kennedy administration where Jackie gives the viewers at home a guided tour of the White House – and explains everything she did – the acquiring of the historical items, restoring the White House. What do these segments – seen in black and white, with Jackie more stiff and awkward than normal – have to do with the rest of the film? After a while though it sinks in – first of all, it’s yet another mask Jackie is wearing – the fake plastic smile on her face, the way she so loving greets her husband when he joins her (even though, at other parts of the movie, it’s made clear that their marriage wasn’t particularly good – and he thought her own redesign project of the White House was a waste of money and time). For another, it works just as she describes her goal to the interviewer – to remind people that the Presidents are real people. It’s yet another brilliant aspect of Portman’s performance – another facet, another way of hiding the truth in plain sight.
On a technical level, Jackie is quite simply, masterful. I’ve run hot and cold on Larrain’s films in the past – but his chilly exteriors are perfectly suited for this film. The cinematography is wonderful, the production design and costume design capture the period perfectly. The most ingenious decision was to hire Mica Levi to do the score - doing her second score ever, after her brilliant work on Under the Skin. The score carries this movie along – it’s ever present, and risks being off-putting. Yet it underlines what Larrain and company are doing here – making a fractured portrait, almost a horror film, out of this one woman’s grief.
Jackie doesn’t strive to give you a complete portrait of Jackie Kennedy – it may not even be a wholly accurate one. But it’s a powerful film about grief, and the roles people like Jackie Kennedy has to play – the masks she has to wear – the heartbreaking decisions, both public and private, she had to make. It’s easily one of the year’s best films.

Movie Review: Lion

Directed by: Garth Davis.
Written by: Luke Davies based on the book by Saroo Brierley.
Starring: Dev Patel (Saroo Brierley), Sunny Pawar (Young Saroo), Rooney Mara (Lucy), David Wenham (John Brierley), Nicole Kidman (Sue Brierley), Abhishek Bharate (Guddu Khan), Divian Ladwa (Mantosh Brierley), Priyanka Bose (Kamla Munshi), Deepti Naval (Saroj Sood), Tannishtha Chatterjee (Noor), Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Rawa).
The odd thing about Lion is that the reason the film was made – the part of the true story that inarguably garnered the attention of filmmakers – is easily the least interesting aspect of the film. Lion tells the true story of Saroo Brierley – who as a poor 5 year old in India, accidentally gets on an empty passenger train, which travels for two days with him on board. Eventually he ends up in the busiest train station in the world, unsure of where he is, how he got there, unable to speak the language, or even communicate the name of his hometown. He lives on the streets for months, eventually being taken to an orphanage. While they do try and find his family, they are unsuccessful – and eventually, a kindly couple for Australia adopt him – and raise him. He has a good life, but 25 years later, his past still haunts him, so he decides to chuck everything aside and try and find his family – using, you guessed it, Google Earth. And, of course, had he not found them, this movie would never have been made. That’s a sad thing, because honestly the Google Earth part of the story is far and away the least interesting. Much of the second half of the movie involves the adult Saroo (Dev Patel) looking like he has slept in days, as he stares at computer screens, and makes marks on his large, serial-killer style map. That’s boring. The story of a child lost in Indian, and trying to assimilate in Australia, while still longing for a connection to his home country? That’s an interesting story. Too bad the filmmakers didn’t quite realize that.
To be fair, I do think the filmmaker behind Lion do recognize that there is a lot of drama in the events other than Saroo’s Google Earth searches. The entire first half of the movie in fact is about Saroo as a child – played in the film’s single best performance by Sunny Pawar. Pawar has a happy, open face – which does half of the acting for him. As he goes from one bad situation to the next – barely escaping danger multiple times, you really do worry for the kid, even though you know he’s going to make it. The scenes in India can be harrowing, but often, they do offer hope – mainly because Saroo maintains a mostly hopeful outlook. When he gets to Australia, and starts to bond with his adopted parents (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), it really is quietly touching. In total, the first hour or so of Lion is quite strong.
Unfortunately, the second half of Lion doesn’t live up to what happened before. Saroo, now played by Dev Patel, has essentially become Australian – and as portrayed in the movie, barely even thinks of India anymore. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he becomes obsessed with trying to figure out where he is from. He pretty much destroys his relationship with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara – one of the best actresses in the world, completely wasted here, as all she is given to do is stare at Patel with sympathetic longing). Kidman fares slightly better as his adopted mother – although she spends much of the second half in tears, over not only Saroo’s behavior (not because she disapproves of it, but because he has shut her out, and won’t let her see what he’s doing), but also that of her other adopted son from India. Kidman does get a long monologue where she explains herself – and because Kidman is a great actress, she nails it – even if the monologue doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the film. For his part, Patel tries gamely to make the adult Saroo interesting – but there isn’t much he can do.
Ultimately, Lion leads to the cathartic, emotional climax we all know it has been building towards for the entire movie. You’d have to be made of stone not to be moved by those closing moments – and I think first time director Garth Davis does an admirable job not leaning too heavy on false sentiment – his film doesn’t need it.
Yet I cannot help but feel that Lion needed something else – something to make it move beyond a merely okay, inspirational drama. Perhaps the film could have focused on Saroo’s family back in India – and what they were doing in the 25 years Saroo was gone (or, at the very least, what they did to try and find him). It’s an odd thing to have so much explained in end credits title cards – including a tragically ironic one about the day Saroo disappeared. Perhaps allowing Saroo’s birth family to be characters in the film could have allowed the film to open up a bit – or at least, provided us with less scenes of Patel staring at a computer. Lion is a remarkable, almost unbelievable true story – and yet I’m not entirely convinced the filmmakers found the best way to tell it.

Movie Review: Demon

Directed by: Marcin Wrona.
Written by: Pawel Maslona & Marcin Wrona.
Starring: Itay Tiran (Piotr 'Pyton'), Agnieszka Zulewska (Zaneta), Andrzej Grabowski (Father of Zaneta), Tomasz Schuchardt ('Jasny'), Katarzyna Herman (Gabryjelska), Adam Woronowicz (Doctor), Wlodzimierz Press (Teacher), Tomasz Zietek (Ronaldo), Cezary Kosinski (Priest), Katarzyna Gniewkowska (Zofia).
The Polish film Demon is not a typical horror film, although it has all the trappings of one. It is, after all, about a man who on the night before his wedding, during a rainstorm, stumbles into a hole, where he discovers a skeleton. No one else sees the skeleton, and are skeptical about his story – and yet, there’s no denying that strange things start happening to the groom on his wedding – he has been possessed by a dybbuk – and for those of you who haven’t seen the Coen Brothers A Serious Man – first of all, see it – and second of all, that is a Jewish ghost of a sort – a curse on the man. As the wedding, and the reception, go forward the groom continues to act more and more strange – writhing on the floor, screaming in terror and on and on. Meanwhile, the bride’s family is trying to convince their guests that everything is fine – there’s no problem, etc. The film is almost more of a pitch black comedy than a horror film – one with a lot to say about Poland and its past, and uses horror elements almost matter-of-factly. It’s one of the most interesting horror films of the year – and sadly the last film from promising director Marcin Wrona, who committed suicide shortly after premiering the film at various festivals in 2015. While Demon isn’t quite a great film – there’s more than enough here to conclude that Wrona, had he continued to work, would have made some.
The groom in the film is Piotr (Itay Tiran) – and he’s not even Polish, but English. He’s just arrived in Poland to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) - after a very quick courtship. She is insisting that they marry at the farm that has been in their family for decades – and he has no problem with that. While Piotr and Zaneta seem to be in love – and he gets along well with her brother – her parents, who wish she was marrying a Pole, aren’t quite as receptive. For his part, Piotr tries his best to fit in – tries to drink as much as everyone else, and be one of the gang, but he clearly isn’t. He’s pretty much along at the wedding – that is attended by the close-knit community – of whom know each other, and presumably, everyone’s secrets.
At first, Piotr just seems slightly odd – and people want to dismiss it as having too much to drink, etc. But as the film progresses, and his behavior becomes more bizarre, his new bride’s family tries to hide him away – bring in one man after another to examine him (a doctor, a Priest, a Professor) and try to figure out what’s wrong with him. Meanwhile, Zaneta’s father repeatedly addresses the guests with versions of “Nothing to see here” – that get increasingly bizarre as the film progresses.
Demon, like most great horror movies, is about far more than its plot – it is an allegory for Poland itself, and makes no secret of that. The film shares something in common with Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013) – another film that asks Poland to reckon with their past – particularly their treatment of Jews. After all, why is a Jewish dybbuk even at the farm owned by a Catholic family for decades?
Although the film is a horror film, it’s never particularly scary. The opening scenes – the night before the wedding – are unsettling, but never cross that line into terrifying, and nothing that happens at the wedding in scary in a traditional horror movie way. Instead, the film is looking to be more unsettling than anything – and not just in the way it deals with the horror elements, but also in the way it deals with the comedy. This isn’t a film that makes you laugh out loud, but it does make you wince.
I do think the film kind of peters out in the last half hour or so – as if Wrona has to extend the proceedings a little to get to a proper runtime. The film does recover nicely with a fine, ambiguous ending – but there’s a little too much standing around late in the film – a few too many repetitions. But overall, Demon is a hell of a memorable movie - and it’s sad we’ll never get to see how Wrona would have followed it up.

Movie Review: 31

Directed by: Rob Zombie.
Written by: Rob Zombie.
Starring: Sheri Moon Zombie (Charly), Jeff Daniel Phillips (Roscoe Pepper), Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs(Panda Thomas), Meg Foster (Venus Virgo), Kevin Jackson (Levon Wally), Malcolm McDowell (Father Murder), Jane Carr (Sister Serpent), Judy Geeson (Sister Dragon), Richard Brake (Doom-Head), Pancho Moler (Sick-Head), David Ury (Schizo-Head), Lew Temple (Psycho-Head), Torsten Voges (Death-Head), Elizabeth Daily (Sex-Head), Michael 'Red Bone' Alcott (Fat Randy), Esperanza America (Snoopy), Andrea Dora (Trixie), Tracey Walter (Lucky Leo), Ginger Lynn (Cherry Bomb), Daniel Roebuck (Pastor Victor), Devin Sidell  (Georgina), Gabriel Pimentel (Brumaire).
It wasn’t that long ago that I thought that Rob Zombie may well become the next great American horror director. Sure, his debut film – House of 1,000 Corpses – was marred by studio interference and Zombie’s own inexperience. Since then though, Zombie’s output has been strong – The Devil’s Rejects (still his best film) was a bloody, dark comedy that took Zombie’s influences and put them in a blender to come up with something wholly unique. When he remade Carpenter’s Halloween, he didn’t try to out Carpenter-Carpenter, but instead put his own odd spin on the film – almost making a biopic for Michael Myers. Halloween II pushed the surreality to an extreme for a studio horror film. Although I wasn’t a huge fan of his last film – The Lords of Salem – it was clearly his most ambitious to date, and I liked that he was pushing himself that far. Admittedly though, his films have never made all that much money – and so the last few years have been a series of starts and stops, and almost films that got pushed back or cancelled. Perhaps that explains why 31 feels so rushed – its Zombie returning to low-budget filmmaking, and putting out a quick and dirty horror film just to get something out there. The film is undeniably his work – it has the dirty aesthetic that makes you want to take a shower and get a tetanus shot after watching it. It’s violent, with a twisted sense of humor, like much of Zombie’s work. It’s cynical almost to the point of nihilism. But it’s also something that none of Zombie’s films before have been – boring. Incredibly, incredibly boring. There is not an original moment in the film – which simply repeats what Zombie has done before with less imagination than ever. While Zombie is often associated with the torture porn films of the mid-2000s, I always thought his films were more thoughtful about violence – or at the very least, less interested in punishing the audience. Not so with 31 – which is simply downright awful.
The film focuses on a group of carnies, travelling around the dusty, back roads of America in a van that makes the one from American Honey look clean by comparison – you can sense the stench coming from that vehicle. The five of them end up – through a series of events too dull to recount here – locked in a giant factory like building, where three rich people (Malcolm McDowell is one of them – along with Jane Carr and Judy Geeson) unleash one killer at a time on them – started with a little person, going to a giant, and his nymph sidekick (don’t blame me, I didn’t name the character Sex-Head) – and eventually coming back, as we know they must, to Doom-Head (Richard Brake) – who we see in the opening scene of the film, talking directly to the camera about how he is going to murder you. Did I mention that all of these murderers are dressed like clowns? Not friendly birthday party clowns, but the type of clowns you know have herpes clowns.
There is a message somewhere beneath all the carnage in 31. The killer clowns are racists and misogynists and Nazis (yes, they actually wear swastikas) – and the group of carnies is a group of easy friends of different races, who laugh, get high and fuck together, and generally seem to be okay people, even if they are dirty. They are forced into an arena where they can either try to work together and survive – by killing the other side – or let the bad guys win, and have control over everything. Perhaps Zombie was thinking about the election yet-to-come when he made 31 – but that seems to be giving him perhaps too much credit here – the films feels slapped together more than anything else, and as soon as you make people literal zombies, any claim to subtly flies out the window.
31 didn’t really work for me, because it lacks the genuine humanity of Zombie’s best films. Yes, I know that sounds odd, giving that he makes violent horror films, but Zombie has always viewed his characters – good and evil – as people (even Michael Myers) – and when he lingers over their deaths, it isn’t to rub your nose in the blood and viscera – it’s to watch a person in their final moments, and reflect on what that means. Here, it’s all just so more blood.
Zombie remains a talented filmmaker – and perhaps low budget filmmaking is the way to go from here on out – it gives him the freedom to do what he wants. Yet 31 feels like it’s been slapped together at the last minute – and while Zombie brings his characteristic style to it, there’s something off about it from the beginning. When you’re bored even my Sheri Moon Zombie – Zombie’s wife and muse, who has delivered some genuinely great, wack-a-doo performances (when they started making movies together, she would have played Sex-Head – and she would have been great), you know something is off about a Rob Zombie film.

Movie Review: Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins
Directed by: Stephen Frears.
Written by: Nicholas Martin. 
Starring: Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), Hugh Grant (St Clair Bayfield), Simon Helberg (Cosmé McMoon), Rebecca Ferguson (Kathleen), Nina Arianda (Agnes Stark), Stanley Townsend (Phineas Stark), Allan Corduner (John Totten), Christian McKay (Earl Wilson).
Watching Florence Foster Jenkins, I felt nothing but respect for the performances by Meryl Streep, Hugh Grand and Simon Helberg – who make this film watchable from beginning to end, and even occasionally enjoyable. But I could never really get into the film itself – mainly I think it’s because I could never muster sympathy – or empathy – with a rich woman, who is among the worst singers in the world, who is such a precious flower that everyone around her pretends she is a masterful singer. She is a character without any self-awareness in this regard, and I found her more annoying than anything. No, I didn’t sneer at her – like some of the assholes in the audience in the film, or the reporter played by Christian McKay, does in print. But I couldn’t muster any real feeling for a woman who has so much money everyone spends the movie kissing her ass – no matter how the film bends over backwards to forge real connections between its three leads. The fact that it pulls that off at all is a miracle.
The film takes place in New York in the 1940s. Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) is a rich heiress – given tons of money by her father when he died, and has no heirs to pass it along to. She is married to St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) – an average actor and monologist, who knows how average he is, and has decided to just have fun in his life. At first, we think Bayfield is just another Hugh Grant asshole – using Florence for her money, especially since he has his own apartment, and a younger mistress (Rebecca Ferguson). But the film makes it clear that there really is a bond between him and Florence – that he doesn’t just cater to her to keep getting her money, but out of genuine affection for her. Yes, an asshole would run interference for Florence with the press – but Bayfield goes further than that, defending her to people she would never know were mocking her. That affection doesn’t extend to sex – I don’t think – but the movie explains that in its way as well. Grant, who has often cruised on his considerable charm in movies, here digs deeper – and makes Bayfield the film’s most interesting, complex character. The film also acts as a coming out party of sorts for The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg – who plays Cosme McMoon – the piano playing accompanist hired by Bayfield to work with Florence. He knows she’s awful – but needs the money. Like Bayfield, he will eventually grow fond of Florence himself – risking ridicule to perform with her.
Then there is Streep, who is of course, Meryl Streep – so you know her performance is good. Her biggest accomplishment here is to sing as horribly as she does, because we know how good she can sing. It’s ridiculous and over-the-top and hilarious, because that is precisely what it’s supposed to be. Streep plays Florence as completely clueless as to her own lack of abilities- tremendously needy and vain as well. She is able to get away with what she does because she gives so much money to the right people – she really does support music at a time when it needed it, which is why so many people line up to kiss her ass.
What I wish about Florence Foster Jenkins is that the filmmakers – director Stephen Frears and writer Nicholas Martin – had risked showing Florence in something other than a completely sympathetic light. I’m not asking the film to mock her – mockery in easy in movies, and more often than not comes across to me as smug superiority. Yet the movie seems so utterly and completely charmed by her that it left me feeling uneasy. Should we really have that much sympathy for a woman who lived a life of incredible leisure, and was surrounded by people – however much affection they genuinely had for her – never would have been there had she not had money? Isn’t there something more than a little sad (and not in the maudlin, sentimental way the film portrays it in the last act) about this story?
Make no mistake, Florence Foster Jenkins knows its target audience, and delivers to them precisely what they want. But as with many Streep films in years, I am left admiring her work way more than the film itself. At least this time, unlike many in the past, she doesn’t so completely take over the film that there is no room for anyone else to shin – Grant and Helberg are both better than Streep are really. But it’s another one of those Streep films where you left saying “She’s amazing – the film, not so much”.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Movie Review: London Road

London Road
Directed by: Rufus Norris.   
Written by: Alecky Blythe.   
Starring: Olivia Colman (Julie), Clare Burt (Sue), Rosalie Craig (Kelly McCormack), Anita Dobson (June), James Doherty (Seb), Kate Fleetwood (Vicky), Hal Fowler (David Crabtree), Linzi Hateley (Helen), Paul Hilton (Tim), Nick Holder (Ron), Claire Moore (Counciller Carole), Michael Shaeffer (Simon Newton), Nicola Sloane (Rosemary), Paul Thornley (Dodge), Howard Ward (Terry), Duncan Wisbey (Gordon), Tom Hardy (Mark), Rosie Hilal (Hayley), Amy Griffiths (Sarah), Gillian Bevan (Colette McBeth), Anna Hale (Jessica).
You have to give the new musical London Road credit for trying to do something completely different – and if it doesn’t quite pull it off, well, they tried. The film is an adaptation of the stage musical in which the writer – Alecky Blythe – tells the story the Ipswich Ripper – a man who murdered five prostitute in the working class London Road area of Suffolk in 2006 – and was convicted two years later. Yet, this isn’t really a story about the Ipswich Ripper at all – he isn’t a character in the play (I believe his first name is mentioned in the movie, but I don’t remember hearing his last name) – but rather of the area that it took place. Blythe interviewed the people in the area over the span of a few years, from before the killer was found, until after he was convicted. She then took their actual words – awkward phrasing, ums and ahs in all – and made it into a musical. There are a few numbers which are actually quite brilliant – and they happen often enough that the movie strings you along, as you continue to hope it’s all going to come together in some sort of interesting way. That never really happens – there are too many characters, and the film kind of peters out as it goes along, and I don’t think it ever really provides any real insight into the crimes – or the areas they took place in. I cannot even tell if the film is sympathetic to the area – or criticizing the residents for their rather cold attitude towards the prostitutes, who made up the victim pool. The film is an interesting experiment, but little more.
The film tries to weave together the multiple stories of everyone who lives near London Road – which the residents say was always a nice place to live. Then a few years before, prostitutes moved into the area, which had a negative impact on the area – which the residents tell you about. Then bodies of all those prostitutes start showing up all around the area – which horrifies the residents, who do not know what to do.
At its best, the film taps into the fear. The best single song is It Could Be Him – sung by a duo of high school girls, who start out giggling their way the song, until as the song progresses, and their terror eventually comes through. Another highlight is Tom Hardy, mumbling his way through a song as a cabdriver, who is obsessed with serial killers, who wants to make sure you know that doesn’t make him a serial killer.
If there is a problem with the film it’s that none of the character ever really come into focus. Many of them (like those two teenage girls), only show up for a few minutes, before they disappear from the rest of the film. The ones who do start standing out are more because you recognize the actor than anything else – like Olivia Colman’s Julie, a local woman who tries to help the neighborhood rebuild after the trauma it has gone through. Some songs work, most are forgettable – and the film rushes through the arrest and trial, and then tries to end thing on an up note that doesn’t really make sense.
I don’t think London Road really works – but I’m wondering if there is a way for a film like this ever to work. The goal of transcribing what people actually said and using that for dialogue would seem to be for realism sake – but then setting it to music goes in precisely the opposite direction. It Could Be Him is the rare example where the combination works brilliantly – but mostly the artificiality of the construct shines through more than anything else.
Still, I have to say this for London Road – it’s not quite like anything I’ve ever seen before. Sometimes there’s a reason for that – and I think London Road definitely does show that reason. It’s still something I’m glad I saw though.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Movie Review: Tower

Directed by: Keith Maitland.
Starring: Violett Beane (Claire Wilson), Louie Arnette (Ramiro Martinez), Blair Jackson (Houston McCoy), Monty Muir (Neal Spelce), Chris Doubek (Allen Crum), Reece Everett Ryan (Alfred(Alfie) McAlister), Josephine McAdam (Rita Starpattern), Aldo Ordoñez (Aleck Hernandez Jr.), Vicky Illk (Brenda Bell), John Fitch (Billy Speed), Karen Davidson (Margaret C. Berry), Jeremy Brown (Jerry Day), Séamus Bolivar-Ochoa (John Fox), Cole Bresnehen (James Love), Timothy Lucas (Kent Kirkley), Cole Bee Wilson (Tom Eckman), Lee Zamora (Anthony Martinez). 
Keith Maitland’s Tower is one of the best documentaries of the year because it does something that is very hard for documentaries to do – make an event from the past feel vital and fresh – as if it’s playing out in real time in front of you. The film is about August 1, 1966 when Charles Whitman climbed the Bell Tower at the University of Texas, and opened fire at those down below – shooting for an hour and a half, hitting nearly 50 people, and killing 18 of them, before he was finally killed himself. Whitman is not a figure in Tower – the only image we see of him is as a kid, where he’s holding a gun in each hand. His name is not mentioned until the final moments in the film – when the film shows Walter Cronkite addressing the crime on TV. The film isn’t interested in Whitman, or why he did what he did – an incident that in many ways has become the prototype for all the angry, young, white men who open fire and kill dozens of people – something that happens with alarming regularity in America. Instead, it concentrates on what it was like to be one of those people on the ground – the victims who laid their bleeding, or watching as others bled. The cops and the bystanders who became heroes that day – and those who didn’t. It is a harrowing and heartbreaking film.
The way Maitland makes the film is key to its impact. Much of the film is animated – using the rotoscoping style that Richard Linklater used in films like Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly – where he animates over top of real people and locations. Some of the shots in the movie are entirely rotoscoped – sometimes, just parts of it are, overlaid against the real backdrop of the locations. He uses actors playing the parts of those on the ground – who tell their story, based on real life interviews for the survivors. There is no preamble to the film – it just gets started right away – with the first two people walking through the quad, hearing shots ring out and falling to the ground shot (one survives, one doesn’t). From there, the film tells the story of that victim – a pregnant woman, who is unable to move, as well as many others – people who got involved and helped the injured, and those who did not (as one woman heartbreaking says, it was the day she realized she was a coward – those around her went out to help, and she didn’t).
It’s clear from the outset that Maitland and company are not interested in making a gory film – one that exploits the victims, nor makes what Whitman did glamorous – in any way. The film never shows the gunman on that day – not even when the two cops and one bystander eventually get to the top of Bell Tower and kill him. When the bullets hit the various people, the screen turns almost all read – with the people being white silhouettes on that background. Maitland and company do not emphasize the blood at all.
The film eventually reveals the real people who survived that day – the people whose words are spoken throughout the film, by the actors playing them. Maitland doesn’t animate those moments – he lets them play out, as we see the pain and trauma these people felt. What happened that day only last 96 minutes – but it haunts everyone involved forever.
Tower joins a film like Waltz with Bashir (and Chicago 10 – which I didn’t see), which blends animation and documentary filmmaker to great effect. Often, there is not video footage that can be used in a documentary like this, but a more traditional re-enactment just seems cheesy – or exploitive. Tower does something remarkable with its animation – it makes the day feel more real, more immediate, than other techniques. It’s why it’s one of the best docs – and best animated films - of the year.