Friday, June 23, 2017

Classic Movie Review: The Beguiled (1971)

The Beguiled (1971)
Directed by: Don Siegel.
Written by: Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp from the novel by Thomas Cullinan.
Starring: Clint Eastwood (John McBurney), Geraldine Page (Martha), Elizabeth Hartman (Edwina), Jo Ann Harris (Carol), Darleen Carr (Doris), Mae Mercer (Hallie), Pamelyn Ferdin (Amy), Melody Thomas Scott (Abigail), Peggy Drier (Lizzie), Patricia Mattick (Janie), Charlie Briggs (1st Confederate Captain), George Dunn (Sam Jefferson), Charles G. Martin (2nd Confederate Captain), Matt Clark (Scrogins), Patrick Culliton (Miles Farnswoth), Buddy Van Horn (Soldier).

In the same year that director Don Siegel and actor Clint Eastwood teamed up to make the iconic Dirty Harry, they also collaborated on The Beguiled – a much lesser known film, but an incredibly fascinating one. It’s one of the oddest films either of them ever made – and gives a very different portrait of Eastwood than we have seen in pretty much any other movie. They marketed the film is a typical Civil War Western – but it is anything but that. The sexual/gender politics of the film are, well, complicated to say to the least. The film is brilliant and strange and unforgettable – and with the Sofia Coppola remake coming out this year, one only hopes the film will start to be more widely seen.
The action takes place during the Civil War, on a Southern school for girls – ranging in age from 8 to 17 or so. The headmistress is Martha (Geraldine Page), an aging woman, who has never married, with a complicated past with her now deceased brother. Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman) is the teacher – and while she is younger than Martha, her future looks to be about the same. In the opening scene of the film, one of the younger students – Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), finds a Union soldier, John McBurney (Eastwood), bleeding to death in the fields near the school. They bring him back to the school – and although he is the enemy, and they fully intend to turn him over to the Confederate soldiers when they have they have the chance, until then, they decide to help him – nurse him back to the health. McBurney, who knows he is doomed if they turn him over, starts instead to work his charm on the women who haven’t had a man in their life for a long time – if ever. The young Amy sees him as a hero – an object of fascination. Martha sees him as a potential man of the house – someone who can run the “help” if they decide to start farming again – and perhaps a husband as well. The younger, more naïve Edwina almost immediately falls in love with him – and sees a world open to her she never imagined – one where she can someone’s wife, and not “just a teacher”. There is also Carol (Jo Ann Harris), one of the older students – who doesn’t love McBurney, but does want to have sex with him – if for no other reason than to see if she can – and with no other men around, as practice.
Eastwood’s McBurney is a liar and a conman – and he’s good at it. He is able to expertly read what each of the women want, and say the right things to win them over. We know early he’s a liar – he tells Martha he got injured selflessly trying to save a Confederate soldier, that his conscience wouldn’t let him leave wounded – but as he talks, we flash back to the real story – a violent one where McBurney guns down a Confederate soldier, and not in the most honorable of ways. He is able to say the right things to string along Martha, Edwina, Carol and Amy – and the other women he deals with, in limited ways (including a slave – played by Mae Mercer, who gets a chance to show enough to make you wish they gave her more to do). Yet, McBurney isn’t really that smart either. He basically has three choices in front of him – one of which would guarantee him safety, one would pretty much do the same, and one would completely screw him if it got out – so which one does he pick? And when it comes out – it sets in motion the violent end of the film that he essentially brought on himself.
This is an interesting role for Eastwood – and one I cannot help but think that perhaps he wouldn’t have done just a year later. In 1971, Eastwood was a major star to be sure, but you can tell by the three movies he made that year that he wanted to break out of the Westerns he had been making until then (at least somewhat). Alongside The Beguiled, he also directed his first film – the psychological thriller Play Misty for Me, where he starred as DJ, and of course, Dirty Harry, the urban crime drama/thriller. The Beguiled was made, in part, because you could market it as a Western – and it reteamed Eastwood with Siegel for the third time (they’d do two more – and alongside Sergio Leone, would be the director Eastwood most cites as his mentor). Yet, the film is wildly different that a typical Western – in fact, other than that brief flashback sequence that shows the real way McBurney got hurt, there is no real action to speak of. There is also no heroes in the film – the various soldiers who happen upon the house, are if anything, worse than McBurney – they do nothing to hide their intent in stopping by and offering their “protection” – and that doesn’t matter if it Union or Confederate soldiers. The women are not any better either – after McBurney’s betrayal is discovered, all the women react violently to him – and he is increasingly hurt and maimed. Their motivations are mostly simple – but the film doesn’t even make the young Amy innocent (she is all too gleeful a participant in the climax). The most complex character is clearly Geraldine Page’s Martha – harboring her own dark secrets, and then going above and beyond to “protect” her school – her girls, and herself.
The Beguiled is a fascinating film – at times it almost seems like a gothic horror film, and there is a brilliantly edited montage that almost seems like it’s out of an avant garde film. I think it’s a film that raises more questions than it answers – and I admire it for that. I also cannot wait to see what Sofia Coppola does with the same material – not because what Siegel and Eastwood did here is in anyway bad, but because a female perspective on this same material – and in particular, Coppola’s specific perspective, could end up being even better.  

Monday, June 19, 2017

Movie Review: Cars 3

Cars 3
Directed by: Brian Fee.
Written by: Kiel Murray and Bob Peterson and Mike Rich and Brian Fee and Ben Queen and Eyal Podell & Jonathon E. Stewart. 
Starring: Owen Wilson (Lightning McQueen), Cristela Alonzo (Cruz Ramirez), Chris Cooper (Smokey), Nathan Fillion (Sterling), Larry the Cable Guy (Mater), Armie Hammer (Jackson Storm), Ray Magliozzi (Dusty), Tony Shalhoub (Luigi), Bonnie Hunt (Sally), Lea DeLaria (Miss Fritter), Kerry Washington (Natalie Certain), Bob Costas (Bob Cutlass), Margo Martindale (Louise Nash), Darrell Waltrip (Darrell Cartrip), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (River Scott), Bob Peterson (Chick Hicks), Guido Quaroni (Guido), Tom Magliozzi (Rusty), John Ratzenberger (Mack).
Pixar’s Cars 3 offers a necessary course correction after the disaster that was Cars 2 – which will hopefully always remain their worst film – and a fitting (hopefully) final chapter in the series that has never been as beloved by critics as Pixar’s other work, but does have a legion of (mostly) little boy fans, and, it must be said, a more readymade toy line than anything else Pixar has made. While the Cars movies have are not among the highest grossing Pixar movies (ranking 10th and 15th of their 17 releases so far), they are, by far, their highest grossing in terms or merchandise – and Pixar doesn’t have share as much of that revenue. Yes, it’s easy to be cynical about Pixar continuing with Cars movies in part because of branding – especially considering Cars 3 has a subplot about branding, and how hollow it is – but the truth is that Cars 3 is a fine film, well-animated and fun, and while probably more aimed at kids than adults, not quite nailing that mixture that Pixar so often does with ease, still entertaining for the parents as well. The Cars films will always be the red headed step child of the Pixar universe – even the first, and best installment, is lesser Pixar – but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.
Cars 3 opens with Lightning McQueen still on top of the racing world. He’s the fastest and best racer on the circuit, and as far as he’s concerned, he always will be. But then, all of sudden, he’s not. A new generation – led by Jackson Storm come up through the ranks, and power past McQueen. They cars a faster, and more aerodynamic, and have new training methods, etc. McQueen and his ilk just cannot keep up. A horrific crash on the last race of the season seems like it may be the end of McQueen – but instead, he’s determined to come back stronger than ever. His new sponsor has even hired one of those new trainers – Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) – to get McQueen ready. But perhaps, what he really needs, is not newer methods – but older ones.
Cars 3 is an interesting movie in part, because the setup reads like a pure sports comeback movie – like on the 18 Rocky sequels, where he’s far too old to be trying to comeback, but so manages to do so anyway, and wins. It also reminded me a little of that Clint Eastwood movie – Trouble with the Curve – where the stats guys know nothing, but the crotchety old veteran, with failing eyesight, can still spot a winner – and a loser – from the sidelines (for that matter, it’s kind of like the old school vs. new school debate in hockey stats right now). Interestingly though, that’s not where the movie ends up – the film is more about aging and accepting when it’s time to move on. Not only that, but about how when you do move on, that doesn’t mean your life is over – and that you can have a satisfying life from there – in some ways, more satisfying. It’s an interesting message for kids (I cannot think much of it will fly over the heads, except for the help each other part) – but its one parents will relate to.
Along the way though, the film is fast paced and fun. The film isn’t as slow and nostalgic as the first film (that one has grown on me over the years), and it isn’t the neon colored, headache inducing, joke fest of the sequel (that one, never will). It tries for a tone somewhere in between – and mostly gets it right. So, you do have a largely comic set piece when McQueen and Ramirez go to the demolition derby, and you do have a more nostalgic look back when the pair visit Doc Hudson’s old friends. But the film never drags, and really does have an exciting, racing climax.
In short, while Cars 3 is not premium Pixar – and it’s not even quite on the level of lesser Pixar sequels like Monsters University (which I known I liked more than most) or Finding Dory – it’s still fine entertainment for kids and adults alike. Besides, Coco is only a few months away – and that one looks great, so I’m willing to let Pixar slide a little with Cars 3.

Movie Review: Graduation

Directed by: Cristian Mungiu 
Written by: Cristian Mungiu.
Starring: Adrian Titieni (Romeo), Maria-Victoria Dragus (Eliza), Lia Bugnar (Magda), Malina Manovici (Sandra), Vlad Ivanov (Chief Inspector), Gelu Colceag (Exam Commitee President), Rares Andrici (Marius), Petre Ciubotaru (Vice-Mayor Bulai), Alexandra Davidescu (Romeo's mother), Emanuel Parvu (Prosecutor Ivascu), Lucian Ifrim (Albu Marian), Gheorghe Ifrim (Agent Sandu), Adrian Vãncicã (Gelu), Orsolya Moldován (Csilla), Tudor Smoleanu (Doctor Pandele), Liliana Mocanu (Mrs. Bulai), David Hodorog (Matei).
Like his two previous films – 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills, Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation tells a small story set in native Romania, that acts as a stand-in for the larger problems in that society. Both of those previous films have moments that are truly shocking, but Graduation is different in that it plays everything in a lower key. I’ve heard the film described as something Michael Haneke would make if he liked people – and that’s not a bad descriptor of the film. Because while the bourgeois protagonist of the film is certainly punished for his sins – and the larger sins of society – in Graduation, you still do feel sympathy for the guy. This is a warmer version of something like Haneke’s Cache.
In the film, Adrian Titieni stars as Romeo – a 50 year old doctor in Romania, who in many ways is seeing his personal life in a state of upheaval. His elderly mother is getting closer to death, he and his wife still live together but may as well not, and his younger mistress is getting tired of sneaking around. And yet, he could handle all of those things – not well, mind you, but handle them – as long as his 17 year old daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) does well on her final exams, thus preserving her scholarship to a University in England. Romeo has regretted for years his choice to stay in Romania following the fall of Communism – he sees the same basic, corrupt system now that there was then, and has little hope it will get better – so he has done everything possible to ensure his daughter has a chance to get out. But, on the eve of her first exam (there will be several), he drops her off across from her school, and while she’s waiting for her (slightly) older boyfriend to show up, she is attacked by someone who attempts (and fails) to rape her – but does leave her arm in a cast. While she may well be physically able to continue writing the exams – mentally, she may not be (understandably) – and thus Romeo starts down a path where one ethical dilemma follows another, with stakes rising each time he makes a decision.
Visually, Mungiu has continued in his now familiar style – the shots in the movie last a long time, often the entire scene, and are most often on a flat angle that takes in the entire room – and everyone in it. This forces you to take in the conversations as they happen, and really listen to them. It also never really judges the characters, as everyone is on the same footing. As Romeo continues his descent into a rather complex bureaucracy surrounding exams – involving police officers, the Vice-Mayor, and other various low level employees, you can see his life get further outside of his control, even as he tries to stop it. Yet, the film mainly remains calm – there are not many blowups scenes here, not much in the way of arguments or fighting – just calm as Romeo destroys himself.
Graduation is really about Romeo trying to control what he cannot control – and who under the guise of doing what’s best for his daughter, he has pretty much lost sight of her completely – he certainly doesn’t seem to realize that she is nowhere near as upset at the prospect of not going to England and he is – and while it would likely be a mistake to stay in Romania – especially for a boyfriend – at some point kids grow up and make their own decisions, and deal with their own consequences.
On one level, Graduation is very much about Romania – about a country who is still, nearly 30 years later, still really trying to move on from the fall of Communism, and all that entails. The systems have changed – but not that much after all – and the European Union allows for more freedom of travel and work – and gives people a chance to move. On another level, it is very much about parenting – about knowing when to let go, and allow her kids to make their own choices, their own mistakes. The film is a small scale tragedy because of what Romeo does – because he can never quite see what others really need from him, because he’s too busy knowing what they need.

Movie Review: Staying Vertical

Staying Vertical
Directed by: Alain Guiraudie.
Written by: Alain Guiraudie.
Starring: Damien Bonnard (Léo), India Hair (Marie), Raphaël Thiéry (Jean-Louis), Christian Bouillette (Marcel), Basile Meilleurat (Yoan), Laure Calamy (Doctor Mirande).

I’m struggling to find a way to describe Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical – his follow-up to his acclaimed, Hitchcockian thriller Stranger By the Lake – a great thriller, set at a gay hookup spot, in which one man may very well watch another kill his lover, but finds himself drawn to him anyway. Staying Vertical doesn’t really have much in common with that film, they certainly are not the same genre, and this film has none of that films discipline or tight pacing. Both does feature rather graphic depictions of sex – but other than that, they don’t really relate to each other. Staying Vertical is a film that careens wildly down its path, which seems aimless when it begins – and will eventually confirm that suspicion. I’m not quite what to make of the film – and unlike many times when I say that, this time it isn’t meant as a compliment.
In the film, Damien Bonnard stars as Leo - film director, who has gone wondering in the French countryside. While there, he meets Marie (India Hair) – who is out with her grazing sheep, and soon the pair of them are fucking. Flash forward nine months, they now have a son, but she takes off with her two older kids to live a life of seclusion (why, I’m not sure), and he’s raising the kid by himself – but he isn’t very good at it. He spends a lot of time with Marie’s father – and also hanging out with an older man, and his younger lover he grows obsessed with. And he also heads out into the forest – via canoe – to see a doctor, who attach plant electrodes to him for his therapy. Eventually he will run into money trouble – he isn’t working after all – and help the older man die through sex (yes, he euthanizes him through sex).
Staying Vertical doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and what sense it does make isn’t very interesting. Guiraudie seemingly want to rub our face in something as an audience, but for the life of me, I cannot figure out what we’re being punished for. By making his protagonist a filmmaker, he encourages you to see Leo as his own doppelganger – but that’s not really very flattering for him – and I don’t see much of a connection. We never really know what kind of filmmaker Leo is, what sort of screenplay he’s supposed to be working on, or what happens with it after he writes some pages for his producer who shows up in the middle of nowhere one day, and proclaims the crap Leo has churned out to be brilliant.
If Staying Vertical shares anything with Stranger by the Lake, it’s in the contradiction of sex – its ability to bring pleasure and pain, to be fulfilling, and dangerous – sometimes at the same time – and how some people cannot say no, even if they should. I remember reading about Stranger by the Lake when it came out, and many saying it had little in common with Guiraduie’s other work, and if Staying Vertical is any indication, they were right. That film was great, Staying Vertical struck me as a shallow provocation, without much to say.

Movie Review: War on Everyone

War on Everyone
Directed by: John Michael McDonagh.
Written by: John Michael McDonagh.
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård (Terry Monroe), Michael Peña (Bob Bolaño), Theo James (Lord James Mangan), Tessa Thompson (Jackie Hollis), Caleb Landry Jones (Russell Birdwell), Stephanie Sigman (Delores Bolaño), David Wilmot (Pádraic Power), Malcolm Barrett (Reggie X), Paul Reiser (Lt. Gerry Stanton), Zion Rain Leyba (Danny Reynard).
The first two directorial efforts by John Michael McDonagh are both very good. The Guard is a witty, funny cop/buddy drama/comedy with Brendan Gleason in fine former an Irish cop stuck with an uptight FBI agent (Don Cheadle) – as they look into a drug ring. His follow-up, Calvary, was more subdued and subtle – once again, it starred Gleason, but this time as a Priest in a small town, who was told in confessional that he would be murdered the next day – but he refuses to say who threatened him. His third film, War on Everyone, is sadly pretty much horrible. It is an attempt by McDonagh to return to the witty comedy of The Guard – but this time make a film as cynical and nihilistic as possible – setting it this time in America, and telling the story of two corrupt cops trying to steal money from people who are even worse than they are. The movie lacks as sort of flow however – scenes end abruptly, and have little in common with what comes next. There are a few isolated moments that are amusing, but overall, War on Everyone simply drags.
The story is about two cops – Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard) and Bob Bolano (Michael Pena) – who have been suspended as number of times by their superior, Lt. Stranton (Paul Reiser – perhaps the best part of the movie). Stranton warns them – next time, they’ll be fired. That roles right off of Monroe and Bolano’s backs however, as they start to plan a robbery, where they can score a cool $1 million. They assemble a team, but get double crossed, etc. – and end up running afoul of a very rich, very bad man played by Theo James, and his weird henchman (Caleb Landry Jones). The wonderfully talented Tessa Thompson also shows up as a love interest to Skasgard, but when her most memorable scene involves her as a majorette, you know she’s been wasted.
War on Everyone is a film that verges on being nihilistic, but it is at least very cynical. I don’t necessarily mind that – I don’t relate to it as much as I did as a young man, but it can be fun to play at it for a few hours. Sadly though, nothing in War on Everyone really sticks. The characters don’t ever feel complete – Skarsgard tries his best to have a “fuck it” attitude, but he doesn’t pull it off. Pena has undeniable comic chops – and great timing and delivery, but other than a few isolated jokes, there’s really nothing to his character. That goes for the bad guys as well. I did enjoy Paul Reiser – a lot – as their boss, but he’s only in a few scenes. The rest of the film feels like the movies own trip to Iceland in the middle – where McDonagh like, fuck it, let’s see if this works, and if not we’ll just abandon it 5 minutes later anyway.
There was a time – the late 1990s – when indie films like this were a dime a dozen, as every up and coming filmmaker wanted to be the next Tarantino. Most weren’t much better than War on Everyone, but a few were. The sad part here is that McDonagh has already shown he isn’t a Tarantino clone – but a talented writer/director in his own right. There’s little evidence of that on display in War on Everyone however – a huge disappointment given the talented involved.

Movie Review: Table 19

Table 19
Directed by: Jeffrey Blitz.   
Written by: Jeffrey Blitz and Mark Duplass & Jay Duplass.
Starring: Anna Kendrick (Eloise McGarry), Lisa Kudrow (Bina Kepp), Craig Robinson (Jerry Kepp), Tony Revolori (Renzo Eckberg), Stephen Merchant (Walter Thimble), June Squibb (Jo Flanagan), Wyatt Russell (Teddy), Margo Martindale (Freda Eckberg), Rya Meyers (Francie Millner), Amanda Crew (Nikki), Thomas Cocquerel (Huck), Andry Daly (Luke Pfaffler).
It isn’t really fair to be disappointed by a movie because of its marketing, but that’s kind of how I felt after watching Table 19. True, movies always sell the movie they think audiences want to see, which isn’t always the movie they are trying to sell, and you should take all trailers with a grain of salt – but it was my impression that Table 19 was going to be a goofy comedy, about a group of misfits at a wedding where they were basically unwanted, but attended anyway. That is the basic premise of the movie, but the film takes it more seriously than I would have thought, and the result is a film that isn’t particularly funny, but doesn’t hit the insights it’s reaching for either. Instead, it’s just kind of a flat film, in which a game cast doesn’t really have much to do.
Anna Kendrick stars as Eloise, who was set to be the Maid of Honor at her best friend’s wedding – until, two months before the wedding, the bride’s brother, who is also the best man, dumps Eloise via text message. Feeling awkward, she drops out of the wedding, but decides to attend anyway – and ends up seated at Table 19 – at a wedding where they were only 19 tables. He table mates include a convicted felon, Walter (Stephen Merchant), a nearly forgotten former nanny, Jo (June Squibb), a squabbling couple Jerry and Bina (Craig Robinson and Lisa Kudrow), and a teenage outcast looking to get laid, Renzo (Tony Revolori). That’s a good cast – every one of those actors can be, and has been, very funny in the past, and likely will be in the future as well. The trailer makes the film look like a kind of comedy of errors, where they will all rally around Eloise, as she ensures that her former boyfriend (Wyatt Russell) gets his comeuppance when she lands the hot British guy, Huck (Thomas Cocquerel).
Yet, there is a twist fairly early in the proceedings where I realized, as an audience member, that the film wasn’t going in that direction. The film isn’t as interested in being funny as it is in concocting a rather labored version of The Breakfast Club for adults at a wedding – complete with a lot of soul searching, and heartfelt conversations. These are set alongside things that are more overtly jokey like the smashing of a wedding cake, or what Renzo tells the only other teenager at the wedding when he misinterprets Jerry’s advice to him. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, except for the fact that the movie isn’t very insightful either. It tries very hard to be sure, and the actors give it their best, but it doesn’t work.
The film was directed by Jeffrey Blitz, who came over to features after his delightful documentary Spellbound, about the annual Scripts Spelling Bee (FYI – I haven’t missed an airing of the finals since that movie debuted in 2002). His first (and last) feature was the underrated, underseen Rocket Science (2007) – which was Kendrick’s first movie role. Since then, Blitz has worked in TV – on shows like The Office and the recent Trial & Error (you catch up with that one – it was a delight). Here though, he never quite finds the right tone, and his screenplay (from an idea by the Duplass brothers, who probably could have made this sucker work) is stuck between wanting to be a more mainstream comedy, and an indie study in awkwardness. And as a result, it doesn’t do either very well. With this much talented involved, it should be possible to make something this dull.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Top 25 Films of the 21st Century

So this past weekend, the New York Times released a list of the 25 best films of the 21st Century according to their two critics – A.O. Scott and Manhola Dargis. It’s a fine list – I may not agree with all their choices, but I respect their choices, and understand why they choose what they did. Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about my own list. You could go back and find inconsistencies with previous lists in terms of rankings, but I don’t really care – this list makes sense for today.

A couple of things, this is a Ranked List (and there was never a moment of doubt over what my number 1 would be). I did decide to limit it to one film per director – so if any filmmaker made more than one film that would have made the list on their own merits had it not been for the existence of another film by same director that is even better, I noted it as an Alternate. Please note, this doesn’t mean this is the only great films from that director for the 21st Century (for instance, I have no alternates for Martin Scorsese – but I love most of his films from this century – but would any but the film I choose actually crack the top 25 on their own? I don’t think so). Only one director has three alternates – Paul Thomas Anderson – but the Coens and Todd Haynes both have two alternates. And, yes, I know Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter are not the same person, but Pixar is as much the auteur of their films as any one director (for this reason, I almost didn’t include Synecdoche, New York AND Eternal Sunshine in two spots, as Charlie Kaufman is arguably the auteur of both, but I decided against that). I do wish the list wasn’t as American centric as it is, or as male centric (only two female directors are represented) – but what can you do. Anyway, here’s the list.

  1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001) – Alt: Inland Empire (2006)
  2. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007): Alt: Punch-Drunk Love (2002), The Master (2012), Inherent Vice (2014)
  3. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2013) – Alt: No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007), A Serious Man (2009)
  4. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007) – Alt: The Social Network (2010)
  5. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
  6. Cache (Michael Haneke, 2005) – Alt: Amour (2012)
  7. Inglorius Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)- Alt: Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003/04)
  8. The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)
  9. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – Alt: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
  10. The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, 2011)
  11. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michael Gondry, 2004)
  12. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)
  13. Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005) – Alt: A.I. (2001)
  14. Wall E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) – Alt: Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015)
  15. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)
  16. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
  17. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)
  18. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002): Alt: I’m Not There (2007), Carol (2015)
  19. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2002)
  20. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013)
  21. O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, 2016)
  22. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
  23. Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003) – Alt: Last Days (2005)
  24. Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang Dong, 2007)
  25. Dancer in the Dark (Lars Von Trier, 2000)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Movie Review: It Comes at Night

It Comes at Night
Directed by: Trey Edward Shults.
Written by: Trey Edward Shults.
Starring: Joel Edgerton (Paul), Christopher Abbott (Will), Carmen Ejogo (Sarah), Riley Keough (Kim), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Travis), Griffin Robert Faulkner (Andrew).
Trey Edward Shults wasted little time making his follow-up to last year’s remarkable Krisha – one of the year’s great debut films. That film was almost an emotional horror film, about a woman returning to her family for the first time in years, trying to bury her demons (addiction and mental issues) and reconnect – and failing spectacularly. With It Comes At Night, he has made a more traditional horror film – although it’s still a film about family more than anything else – a horror film without a villain, but almost unbearable tension. It may well frustrate viewers looking for something bloodier, or that spells everything out for you – which this film refuses to do. While it is more clearly a genre picture, where Krisha was not, it isn’t exactly like most other horror films.
Almost all of the film takes place in a boarded up house deep in the woods – and those woods themselves. Father Paul (Joel Edgerton), mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and 17 year old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) – live there by themselves, and follow very strict rules about going in and out of the house, and two door system that creates an airlock of sorts to protect them from the outside world. We in the first scene why such precautions are necessary – as Paul and Travis take an elderly man, coughing blood, into the woods – Travis tells him “I’ll miss you Grandpa”, before Paul wraps him in a carpet, shoots him in the head, and sets the body on fire. A stranger arrives at the house – as strangers always do in these movies – but the precautions protect the family, and Paul is able to capture the man trying to break in. This is Will (Christopher Abbott), who will tell Paul that he’s just trying to look after his own family – his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew – living themselves in an abandoned house some 50 miles away. Paul decides to help Will and his family – bringing them all back to his place. But Paul never really does trust them – there are some things in their story that could be the kind of innocent mistake anyone could make, but could also mean that he’s being lied to. All we know about the outside world at this point is that some sort of disease has wiped out most people – so while Paul may be paranoid, he also may well he right.
Shults is a talented filmmaker, and while It Comes at Night isn’t quite as visually daring as Krisha was (that film, had strange elements that recall Lynch, Cassavetes and Kubrick in one film), it is more consistent this time around. He makes great use of the darkness in the film – especially around the nightmare sequences we see Travis experience, or his moments when he spies on the other in the house (not in a perverted way). Even when they are outside – and they’re only every outside in the day – things are exactly bright – the trees cast shadows over everyone and everything out there.
The cast is uniformly excellent, even if for the most part, everyone is paying archetypes more than complicated characters – the stern, strict father, the more loving, sympathetic mother, the possibly dangerous stranger, his beautiful, alluring wife, the precocious child. The film is seen through the eyes of Travis, although he’s probably the quietest of the characters, observing everything, and saying very little – not even revealing the nightmares that haunt him to anyone.
It Comes at Night lacks the complexity of Shults’ Krisha – mainly because we don’t have a character like that at the center of this film this time around. That was a remarkable character and performance. This is more of a director’s showcase – a sustained act of building and maintaining tension for 98 minutes, because there’s barely a moment in the film that isn’t intense, that you aren’t on the edge of your seat. That Shults quietly is able to sneak some of emotions into the film when you weren’t looking – so that the ending of the film, although inevitable, still hits you harder than you thought it would, is remarkable – and shows that Shults, who still isn’t even 30, truly is one of the indie filmmakers to watch for in the future.
It Comes at Night is not quite what I was expecting from the director of Krisha, and it won’t be quite what audiences thinking they’re going to see a horror film are likely to expect either. In this case, that’s a good thing. I cannot wait to see what Shults does next.

Movie Review: Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
Directed by: David Soren.
Written by: Nicholas Stoller and David Soren based on the epic novels by Dav Pilkey.
Starring: Kevin Hart (George), Ed Helms (Captain Underpants / Mr. Krupp), Nick Kroll (Professor Poopypants), Thomas Middleditch (Harold), Jordan Peele (Melvin), Kristen Schaal (Edith), DeeDee Rescher (Ms. Ribble), Brian Posehn (Mr. Rected), David Soren (Tommy).
I make a special effort to take my daughter to every animated movie that is appropriate for her – whether I expect them to be good or bad. It’s because I love the movie going ritual, and I want her to love it as well. Maybe she will, maybe she won’t – she will stubbornly become her own person one day – but at the very least I want her to be aware of what going to the movies can mean. It’s become our thing that we do together, and often I love it – there are a few animated films every year that are legitimately wonderful, but most are 90 minutes of inspired brightness, action and music – the time passes quickly enough, but doesn’t leave an impact. Sometimes, the movies are awful, but we go anyway – again, I want my daughter to be aware that not every movie is great – we go anyway. When I saw the preview of Captain Underpants, I knew we’d go to the movie – especially since my daughter laughed throughout. This wasn’t going to be a movie I could avoid, even if it looked dire. So it is with some surprise that I report that I mostly found the film to be an utter delight – the film is clever and funny, has a wonderful animation style, and full on embraces childhood silliness for 90 minutes. Is it ridiculous? Of course. Juvenile? In the extreme. It’s also a lot of fun.
The film is about two childhood friend – George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) – who are probably about 8, and are close in the way that only a pair of 8 year olds can be. They share a sense of humor, and their entire world is basically the two of them. Together they create comic books – and their “most famous” character is Captain Underpants – an overweight, middle-aged white guy, who flies around in his underwear and a cape, fighting crime. The pair have their own arch-nemesis, in Mr. Krupp (voiced by Ed Helms) – their short tempered Principal, who just knows that the pair of them are responsible for every prank in the school, but can never prove it. To make a long story short, eventually the pair of friends hypnotize Mr. Krupp with a ring from a cereal box, and convinced him he is the real Captain Underpants, and then eventually, he has to fight Professor Poppypants (Nick Kroll, giving an truly inspired vocal performance) – as a small, old German man, who poses as a science teacher as a cover for his evil intentions, as he is building a machine to rid the world of laughter, because he is tired of everyone making fun of his name. You know, that old plot.
The plot is probably the weakest part of the film – as there is so much to it, and it rushes by so quickly, that the entire film feels a little bit rushed. It is also not the reason to the see the film at all. The film is based on a series of books by Dav Pilkey – I’ve never read them to my daughter, but may have to start now, but I’ve seen them in bookstores, and the film wisely decides to keep the deliberately crude and cartoony visual look to those drawings. The film has a great let’s throw everything at the wall and see what will stick quality to its gags – there are throwaway visual gags that happen in the background, delightful comic asides and one-liners (an Oprah line made me laugh more than any single line in an American comedy so far this year).
Yes, the film is juvenile. Many of the jokes are toilet humor – in the action climax, literally – but its toilet humor aimed at children, so it’s not gross, just downright silly. This is the type of film that understands that humor that makes children laugh uncontrollably, while the clueless adults around them wonder what the hell is so funny. It’s funny, it’s goofy, it’s clever, it’s stupid, and it’s ridiculous. It’s not a great film – it does suffer from the same thing that many Dreamworks films do, in that it has the same house style in part, that make a film timely, than instantly date it – but it is a heck of a lot of fun. And for a film called Captain Underpants, isn’t that the best case scenario?

Movie Review: My Life as a Zucchini

My Life as a Zucchini
Directed by: Claude Barras.
Written by: Céline Sciamma & Claude Barras & Germano Zullo & Morgan Navarro based on the book by Gilles Paris.
If you happen to be a parent, who puts on the delightful animated film My Life as a Zucchini for your young children, you’ll be alerted fairly soon that this is not just another time waster for the kiddies – but a film that you’ll have to talk to your children about afterwards – that is if you determine they’re old enough to watch it at all. No, this isn’t an animated raunchfest like last year’s Sausage Party – but instead a quiet, intimate film about long and grief, but also about hope, friendship and love. Your (mature) children will get a lot more out of it than most animated fair – just be sure to watch it with them.
The movie opens with a scene of the hero – named Zucchini – alone in his attic, making a pyramid out of his mother’s discarded beer cans. They come crashing down, his angry mother starts ascending the stairs to the attic telling him he’s going to get a beating – at which point he slams the attic room door, sending his mother crashing to the floor before. “She’s gone” is what a sympathetic police officer will tell Zucchini as he takes him to a group home – filled with other kids, who for some reason or another are not being looked after by their family – it’s a home for children who have no one to love them one kid tells Zucchini. Strangely enough, given his possible act of matricide, Zucchini’s backstory is the darkest of the kids at the group home – that belongs to Camille – a girl who arrives even after Zucchini.
Give that last paragraph, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a depressing film – which it really isn’t. Yes, there is sadness at various moments in the film – the opening, Camille’s arrival, a scene late in the film where one kid gets angry at being left behind, etc. But all children experience sadness at various times in their lives – hopefully not as sad as these children – but it’s an emotion they can relate to. There is also joy in the film as well – children are resilient – as when they group goes on a ski trip, or has a dance party. The film is largely plotless – the only real plot followed involves Camille’s greedy Aunt – and that probably takes up a total of 15 minutes of the film’s 67 minute runtime. It is basically a film that drifts from one incident to another – and yet it builds in a way that sneaks up on you.
The real highlight though is the animation. This is stop motion work at its finest – the characters are distinctive looking, with large eyes, and weirdly shaped noses. They are cute, but not cloying so, and their faces are remarkably expressive. The group home can be a place of isolation and loneliness at first, but it grows into something more warm and inviting.
The film was one of the five nominated for the Animated Film Oscar last year – although it didn’t really get released until February 2017. It probably never had a chance to take the prize away from Zootopia anyway – a nomination is a win for a small film like this from France. But it is a thoughtful film, and a quietly touching one. No, I’m not about to show it to my five or three year olds – but I’ll likely show it to them at some point. It’s a film they can relate to in way more profound than most animated features try.

Movie Review: Catfight

Directed by: Onur Tukel.
Written by: Onur Tukel.
Starring: Sandra Oh (Veronica), Anne Heche (Ashley), Alicia Silverstone (Lisa), Amy Hill (Aunt Charlie), Myra Lucretia Taylor (Donna), Ariel Kavoussi (Sally), Damian Young (Stanley), Stephen Gevedon  (Tom Ferguson The Art Collector), Giullian Yao Gioiello (Kip), Tituss Burgess (John The Physical Therapist), Jay O. Sanders (Angry Guy), Dylan Baker (Doctor Jones), Craig Bierko (The Talk Show Host).
Catfight is a satire in which two women, who downright hate each other, have three knockdown, drag out fights at two years intervals – those intervals being because after each fight one of them ends up in a two year coma. Both of the women – who are both rich in one fight and poor in another – are complete and utter assholes, who are obsessed with their own petty squabble over everything else in the world – both in terms of those closest to them, who they clearly don’t take into consideration, and to the larger outside world, which is falling down around them as America goes to War with the Middle East. It is a film about selfish, horrible people – and its work better than it probably should.
In the film, Sandra Oh plays Veronica, the rich, trophy wife of Stanley (Damian Young), who is getting tired of her drinking and may just leave her. They have a teenage son, who wants to be an artist, but Veronica doesn’t want that. America is going to war, and Veronica doesn’t care – Stanley will make a hell of a lot of money on this war, and isn’t that wonderful. Anne Heche plays Ashely, a struggling artist, whose art is full of bloodshed and chaos, if not actual insight. She is living with her partner Lisa (Alicia Silverstone), who is tired of being the sole breadwinner, and wants to settle down and have a family. She brings Ashely along to help her at a catering gig for a fancy party – which is where Ashely and Veronica meet (again). They were friends in University, but had a falling out. Now, reunited, they passive aggressively pick at each other, going over old wounds that leaves them both shaken. When they meet up again – this time in an empty stairwell, the fists fly in the first extended fight sequence that leaves Veronica in a two year coma. When she wakes up, everything about her life has changed – and eventually, we will see, everything about Ashley’s has as well.
You could probably program Catfight on a double bill with Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, and while this film isn’t as great as that one, the two do share some of the same DNA. Almost everyone in Catfight is an objectively horrible person. Veronica is a drunken, entitled, rich woman who tramples on everyone around her, even those she says she loves, and doesn’t even see those “beneath” her until she’s forced to. But while it’s easy to make a villain out of the rich lady, Catfight also does the same for the starving artist, staying true to her vision, who can be just as entitled and cruel. Oh plays her role very well, but Heche is downright great in the film – especially in a scene where she rips into an assistant for using the wrong label. But while they’re quite obviously awful, those around them are less obviously awful. Alicia Silverstone does her best work in years as Heche’s wife, especially a scene at a baby shower, where she acts as monsterous as anyone else in the film, but in a more low-key way. I also loved Ariel Kavoussi as Heche’s assistant – who is chipper and nice on the surface, but has some darkness underneath.
Catfight has to walk a very difficult tightrope in terms of tone – as all satires do – and I don’t think the film quite nails it. I liked everything between the two women, and some of the stuff in their orbit. But the wider the film casts its nets, the more obvious and strained the film felt (we really didn’t need the late night talk show host or the fart machine). I get it – the world is falling apart, and we’re all focusing on our own petty shit, but there had to be a better, smarter more original way to get that across.
Still, Catfight is an odd movie – and an interesting one, and it has some great performances in it. The fight sequences are extended, violent, bloody and absurd – and overall quite fun. The film doesn’t quite work, but its fun watching it try.

Movie Review: Brimstone

Directed by: Martin Koolhoven.
Written by: Martin Koolhoven.
Starring: Dakota Fanning (Liz), Guy Pearce (The Reverend), Kit Harington (Samuel), Carice van Houten (Anna), Emilia Jones (Joanna), Jack Roth (Wolf), Jack Hollington (Matthew), Paul Anderson (Frank), Carla Juri (Elizabeth), Vera Vitali (Sally), William Houston (Eli), Bill Tangradi (Nathan).
Martin Koolhoven spent years trying to get his epic Western Brimstone made – turning down Hollywood money in order to get finale cut, having to make last minute casting changes when people dropped out, and basically driving himself insane in order to put his vision on the screen. It’s the type of story that becomes legendary – but only if you end up making a great movie, which sadly Koolhoven did not with Brimstone. This is a plodding two-and-a-half hour Western, with an intricate flashback structure that becomes more depraved the deeper inside the structure we go. Had there been some sort of reason for all this depravity, than perhaps it would okay. But there really isn’t – the themes of the movies seem to be little more than life at that time was hard, and religious people can be hypocrites. Good job.
The film opens with Liz (Dakota Fanning) a mute woman, with a husband, step-son and a beloved daughter, in her small Western town where she works as a midwife. The arrival of a new Reverend (Guy Pearce), a Dutch immigrant, unnerves her, but she never explains why. When after church service one day, a woman goes into labor, she jumps into action. She tells those around her that she can either save the life of the woman or the life of the child – not both – but is essentially ignored. She chooses to save the life of the woman – bringing the anger from the woman’s husband, and especially the Reverend down on her.
That’s the end of the first pretentious Chapter named after the book of a bible. The next two will dive back into Liz’s past that will eventually reveal her connection to The Reverend. It isn’t a pretty past, as what follows in these two middle sections are fairly graphic depictions of incest, rape, domestic abuse, suicide, murder, pedophilia and prostitution. There are scenes here where you genuinely do feel creeped out – basically because you wonder what the hell the set would have been like to hear Guy Pearce say some awful, perverted things to a child actress.
There is a tendency, and perhaps I have been guilty of it in the past, to view things that are darker, grimmer, more violent as more realistic in movies. This could be why we keep hearing that every reboot is going to be “gritty” when compared to the original – because obviously what we all want is more realistic depictions of Superman or the Power Rangers. It feels to me that is what Koolhoven was trying to do with Brimstone – make a darker, more realistic depiction on the American West – one in which people hide behind religion, while committing acts of violence and depravity. Fair enough, I suppose. But I do wish there was some sort of larger purpose behind it all. The film has a fine cast – all of whom throw themselves into their roles with abandon. Fanning once again still seems to be still trying to throw off the shackles of being a child star by appearing in this movie where she both commits violence and has violence committed against her, and is also at one point a smart mouthed prostitute. Pearce may sound kind of of goofy with his Dutch accent – but it sounded pretty spot on to me as someone who spent a lot of time with native Dutch speakers speaking English (that doesn’t necessarily mean he should have laid it on so thick). But Pearce is convincingly evil in the film to be sure. I also have to sing the praises of young Emilia Jones, if for no other reason than she endured a pretty shitty role for an actress would have been 13 when she filmed the movie. I feel almost as bad for Carice Van Houten – who has never landed a role as great as the one in Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, her breakthrough – as her role is almost entirely one of pain and suffering. At least she was an adult though.
I’m not sure you can call Brimstone an exploitation movie – it would be better if it were one, because this film takes itself so damn seriously, and thinks it is saying something profound. It isn’t. It is a long, slow, grim slog to nowhere – a film that when it is turning you stomach with its depictions of violence – sexual and otherwise – it’s boring you to tears.

Movie Review: Tramps

Directed by: Adam Leon.
Written by: Adam Leon & Jamund Washington.
Starring: Callum Turner (Danny), Grace Van Patten (Ellie), Michael Vondel (Darren), Mike Birbiglia (Scott), Margaret Colin (Evelyn), Louis Cancelmi (Jimmy), Rachel Zeiger-Haag (Vinessa).
Adam Leon’s Tramps, like his debut film Gimme the Loot, is the kind of cute, entertaining indie that wraps you up in its charms as its plays, but doesn’t stick around long afterwards. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the film is fun, and funny and loose, and has a nostalgia for old school (1970s) New York films, and has almost endless energy. When I saw Gimme the Loot, I liked it a lot, and expected to see bigger and better things from Leon in the future. I don’t know if Tramps qualifies as either of those things, but it’s at least equal to what he’s done before.
The film stars Callum Turner as Danny, a young guy, living at home with his Polish immigrant mother, and no-good-nik older brother. Danny dreams of becoming a chef, but right now he’s working a dead-end job, and cooking at home. His brother has gotten himself thrown in jail overnight, and needs Danny to do something for him. It’s a simple job really – all he has to do is get into a car with a guy, pick up a briefcase, and drop it off to a woman holding a green bag – and no, don’t ask what’s in the bag. It also stars Grace Van Patten as Ellie – the girl in charge of driving said car – who wants to the money she’s going to earn to get out of a bad life, and into a good one. The two don’t know each other before the job, and if everything goes right, they won’t see each other after. Of course, things don’t go right, Danny gives the bag to the wrong person, and they pair of them have to spend the rest of the movie trying to get it back. Their bosses are angry with them – but considering one of them is Mike Birbiglia playing a slightly skeezy version of himself, you don’t really worry that anyone is going to wind up dead because of the bag.
Basically, the film follows these two around New York City – into the suburbs and back again on their trek. They seem so different – she’s certainly more street wise and experienced than he is, and he is kind of sweetly naïve. The two grow to like each other in a way that ends with a moment so sweetly awkward it’s hard not to smile.
Leon is a natural filmmaker, and he fully embraces shooting in New York on a tight budget. He conspires to find a way that neither Ellie nor Danny have a cellphone, and gets winning and natural performances from his actors. It’s hard to find anything bad to say about Tramps except for the fact that it undeniably feels so lightweight and inconsequential. You enjoy its while its one, swept up alongside the characters, and then forget it when it’s gone. There are worse things a movie can do than that – even if I still want Leon to graduate to something bigger and better than his first two films, as charming as both are.