Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Movie Review: The Duke of Burgundy

The Duke of Burgundy
Directed by: Peter Strickland.
Written by: Peter Strickland.
Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen (Cynthia), Chiara D'Anna (Evelyn), Fatma Mohamed (The Carpenter).

The opening credits of The Duke of Burgundy are a tease – promising a movie that writer/director Peter Strickland doesn’t really deliver. Those opening credits so precisely re-create the openings of 1970s, Euro-soft-core pornography, that you cannot help to expect that is the type of movie you’re sitting down to. There’s even a “Perfume by”, which is ridiculous, since no one in the audience can really know what anything on screen smells like – although simply having that credit there makes you think about it. The actual opening scene of the movie perpetuates the ruse Strickland is playing a little bit longer. A young woman, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), who has the perfect look to be the young woman in a movie like this, somehow both virginal and dripping with sexuality at the same time, rides her bike through the picturesque countryside. She arrives at the door of a ornate mansion, and rings the bell – and is immediately chastised by its owner, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who again perfectly fits the bill for the “older” woman in a movie like this (which means she is in her 50s) – rich, severe, cold and cruel – she gives Evelyn one demeaning task after another, all the while she either completely ignores her, or is outwardly cruel. When Evelyn messes up Cynthia’s laundry – the pair disappear behind a door, so that Cynthia can “punish” Evelyn – the punishment having something to do with dripping liquids, and is clearly sexual in nature. So far, Strickland seems to be delivering precisely the movie those opening credits promised. But that’s just the beginning of the movie – one in which Strickland will do far more than simply pay homage to those 1970s Euro soft core films – much like in his last film, Berberian Sound Studio, where he did far more than simply pay homage to the Giallo horror films of the same era. Strickland has a deep love of those movies – who can feel that in how precisely he recreates aspects of them. But he isn’t interested in making a copy – he has something deeper in mind (SPOILER WARNING. If you plan the to see the film, you may want to stop reading here. I won’t reveal everything about the plot to be sure, but even the earlier twists, about which it is impossible not to write, are something who may well want preserved. You’ve been warned).

If you go into The Duke of Burgundy expecting it to be what it looks like – like the Seinfeld gang wanting to see Rochelle, Rochelle – a young girl’s strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk – you will likely be disappointed. Yes, the movie is about a Sadomasochistic lesbian relationship between Cynthia and Evelyn, but Strickland doesn’t dwell on the sex in movie. Yes, there are a few sex scenes – but surprisingly few. The movie does go into some detail about their sex life, but much of it isn’t actually the sex part – and can be rather un-erotic, as other people’s sexual fantasies often seem to outsiders, or else played for subdued humor (as in an hilarious sequence where a carpenter, specializing in bed with chambers, and human toilets, comes to speak to the pair). What The Duke of Burgundy is really about – and what makes it a universal story, even if it seems very specific – is what it means to really love someone, what you sacrifice, and what you indulge them with to make them happy, even if it doesn’t much interest you.

We start to see this in a sequence almost immediately following the first one, where Evelyn shows up, is chastised and demeaned by Cynthia, before being taken into the backroom for punishment. We see what is essentially the same sequence again – but this time, we don’t follow Evelyn, we follow Cynthia. She squeezes herself into the clothes, makes an effort with her hair, reads what are essentially cue cards trying to memorize what she is supposed to say, and drink glass after glass after glass of water (we will see this throughout the movie, and it takes on an edge of comedy eventually). Cynthia may be older, but Evelyn is the one in charge – and Cynthia is indulging her. She will do this throughout – from locking her into a box in the corner of the bedroom, and other things. They get into a fight when Cynthia comes to bed wearing something normal – and Evelyn is mad that she isn’t wearing the clothes she bought for her. “I need instructions to get into half the clothes you buy me. I just want to be comfortable for once” – Cynthia snaps back.

Do the pair actually love each other? I think Cynthia does indeed love Evelyn – which is why she indulges her in her sexual fantasies, even if they are not fantasies she shares. We all indulge our partners in something we don’t really like – whether it sadomasochistic fantasies or watching crappy TV. The pair of them are entomologists, and they spend a lot of time at lectures (curiously, only attended by women – I don’t think there is a man in the entire film). Cynthia sometimes lectures, and is quite clearly well-respected. Evelyn is more junior, and sometimes asks “silly” questions that embarrass her afterwards – but Cynthia always comforts and reassures her afterwards.

But at those same lectures, Evelyn cannot help noticing the woman who runs them – and her nice shiny, leather boots. Cynthia has a pair of those, and it’s one of Evelyn’s “duties” during their playtime to polish them. But what if she polished this other woman’s boots? What if this other woman were to chastise her, punish her. Evelyn eyes her hungrily, and her mind races. Does she love Cynthia – or is she simply using her? What do we make of some of what Cynthia does near the end of the movie – is she finally fed up, or is she just raising the stakes of the “game”.

Strickland is obsessive in the details of what is onscreen – those opening credits show that, but it runs through the rest of the movie as well. The costume are precisely, the score strangely erotic, yet also haunting, the sound mix is one of the most complex you will hear this this year. The movie verges of the avant garde at times – butterflies make an apt metaphor for the two women, and he has sequences here that almost bring to mind Stan Brakhage in that regard.

All of this is at a story that is at once very simple, and yet strangely moving and even somewhat profound. Strickland doesn’t clutter the movie with anything resembling a plot – nor even supporting characters. Aside from Cynthia and Evelyn, only the saleswoman and the speakers at the lectures even speak at all in the film. Strickland doesn’t need all those elements – he has everything he needs in the house, these two women (both actresses, by the way, are brilliant – especially Knudsen, who deserves Oscar consideration she will never receive) and their relationship. This is an early highlight of the year so far.

Movie Review: Cinderella

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh.
Written by: Chris Weitz.
Starring: Lily James (Cinderella), Cate Blanchett (Stepmother), Richard Madden (Prince), Helena Bonham Carter (Fairy Godmother), Nonso Anozie (Captain), Stellan Skarsgård (Grand Duke), Sophie McShera (Drisella), Holliday Grainger (Anastasia), Derek Jacobi (King), Ben Chaplin (Ella's Father), Hayley Atwell (Ella's Mother), Rob Brydon (Master Phineus).

Last year’s Maleficent envisioned the “villain” of the Disney classic animated film, Sleeping Beauty, as a victim out for righteous vengeance on the man who used and abused her. And that was just the latest in a string of films made by Disney that looked to update their beloved animated classics for a more modern age – the animated mega-hit Frozen, gave us two Princesses who didn’t need a man (although one got one anyway), Tangled was a more complicated look at parental abuse than you would think Disney capable of, and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland made its heroine into an ass kicking warrior – for good and bad. All of these, and more (like Sofia the First, and charming animated series I’m stuck watching approximately 1,000 time a week because of an adorable three and half year old who cannot get enough of it), seem to be Disney acknowledging the criticisms of their past, and trying to issue a corrective in the present (while still, of course, making lots and lots of money). So the latest Cinderella – directed by Kenneth Branagh – is somewhat strange in that regard, and it doesn’t seem to try and update the story at all. It gives the title character a little (very little) more moxie and spunk then the doormat of a character in the 1950 animated film, and give a little (again very little) shading to her evil Stepmother to make her somewhat more human, but for the most part this Cinderella is a straight ahead, live action remake of the 1950 animated original. Sure, it adds a few more (completely unnecessary) plot complications, but for the most part, this is the same film as we all grew up – just with real people, instead of animation. That can make watching the film kind of dull at times to be quite honest – but then again, I have to acknowledge I’m not exactly the target audience here. That three and half year old who makes me watch Sofia the First all the time? She loved it (except for those mean people who weren’t “very nice” to Cinderella).

The movie adds slightly more details to Cinderella’s childhood year. Her mother (Haley Atwell) and father (Ben Chaplin) adore her beyond all reason, and they basically spend their days in complete bliss. Then, mother gets sick (presumably with the same disease that has effected women in the movies at least as far back as Ali McGraw in Love Story, where you still die, you just look beautiful doing it) and gives Cinderella advice that she will repeat (over and over again) throughout the movie “Have courage, and be kind”. Her father continues to dote on her through her teenage years, which she also spends in complete bliss (despite their being no evidence that she ever leaves her house, or has friends beyond the servants – oh, and some mice) – but then marries the Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchatt), and brings her, and her two daughters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) to live with them. They are a nightmare from the start – but Ella “has courage” and is “kind” to them – even after her father dies, and they treat her as the maid. One day, she gets so upset, she goes racing off through the woods, and ends up meeting “Kit” (Richard Madden), who tells her he is an apprentice, but in reality he is the Prince (of course). They two immediately like each other. He’s nice and charming, she has spunk, and that’s all the really need. This is an added scene – probably there because in the original film, the Prince basically falls in love with Cinderella because she’s pretty, and she falls in love with him, because he’s a prince. At least in this version, there is a little more shading there.

We know what happens next. There is a ball – Cinderella isn’t allowed to go, but her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) shows up and helps her. Cinderella and the Prince meet (in this case, again), a glass slipper in left behind, etc, etc, etc. The movie throws in some more complications with the Prince as well. The Grand Duke (played by Stellan Skarsgaard, so of course, he is, as my daughter would say “not nice”) has other plans for who the Prince should marry. The ailing King (Derek Jacobi) is far more sympathetic – and eventually sees eye-to-eye with his son (in a way that makes him one of the best fathers in a Disney movie ever, which is kind of sad really). But we know how things will end, right?

The film was directed by Kenneth Branagh, presumably since we no longer live in a movie era where anyone will give him money to make Shakespeare movies (and considering his 1996 Hamlet is perhaps my favorite “straight” adaption of Shakespeare ever, we are all the poorer for that). Branagh is a strange choice for the film – but perhaps the right one, as he gets on board with the straight forward screenplay by Chris Weitz, and plays the movie right down the middle. The film seems to be designed to appeal directed to girls under the age of 11 or so, and basically gets it right – lots of frilly dresses and glitter, and the castle and forest, and Cinderella’s home, and all the rest look like they are right out of a fairy tale – which of course is exactly what they were going for.

The performances are about as good as could be expected. Lily James gives Cinderella as much personality as is possible to do under the circumstances – and I guess you could say the same for Madden as the Prince. I still want to see Helena Bonham Carter play a normal person again at some point – but there’s no denying she is ideally cast as the loopy Fairy Godmother (and narrator) of the film. And it’s always a pleasure whenever Blanchatt comes on screen – for two reasons. The first is because she does so much with so little – she has a way looking at Cinderella with utter, withering contempt, and a slight sneer which is quite scary, but she’s still able, in a late scene to make us feel some sympathy for her – and for woman like her, who at the time, had little in the way of options other than to marry, and hope their husbands could care for them. The second reason, of course is because you cannot wait to see what amazing costume she is going to come out wearing next – especially the hats. No one wears a hat like Blanchatt anymore.

Ultimately, I didn’t much like this version of Cinderella. Personally, I prefer the movie that add a new twist on an old classic – really, if you’re not going to do that, then what the heck is the point of remaking a film like this in the first place? But then I watched my daughter watch the film – and saw how much she loved it. I take her to the movies as often as I can, and more often than not, she’s stuck seeing a movie about little boys who become heroes – with women as secondary characters (if they’re there at all). She likes those movies to – but I was glad to have a movie aimed directly at her this time. Sure, the gender politics in the movie are less than ideal. But I think I can wait until she’s a little older than three and half to address that, don’t you? For now, it’s enough to just let her be enchanted by a movie. And this version of Cinderella did that.

Movie Review: Approaching the Elephant

Approaching the Elephant
Directed by: Amanda Wilder.

On one hand, I agree that the traditional model of schooling doesn’t work for everyone. We have certainly seen cases of geniuses who simply cannot function in the type of “one size fits all” approach to education we typically have in North America, and perhaps we need to explore different ways of educating different children. On the other hand, the “Free School” concept that I saw in Approaching the Elephant seems like an absolute nightmare – especially for the adults who are trying to teach. I walked away from the film feeling that in order for this kind of concept to work, you need to have the right kids involved – or else the whole thing descends into chaos, and is what often seems to be going in the film. At times, I couldn’t help but think of Lord of the Flies, as children run around, sometimes without their shirts on (presumably because they don’t “feel” like wearing them). Perhaps this concept could work – there is, according the documentary, a long history stretching back more than 80 years (perhaps longer). But the school documented in this film, which is going through their first year, seems to be pure chaos – not the organized chaos they may have envisioned.

The film follows the first year of the Teddy McArdle Free School, in New Jersey – a school in the basement and surrounding areas of a church. There are not set classes in the school, and kids are free to do what they want. They want to learn woodworking, they can do that, they want to go outside and play all day, and they can do that as well. If they learn any of the “three r’s” – reading, writing and arithmetic – we certainly don’t see it during the course of the movie, although one suspects they do, even if it’s not included here. The kids are young – probably 5-8 thereabouts – and are involved in every aspect of how the school functions. There are some basic rules – basically for safety reasons – but everything else is up for debate. Any one – student or teacher – can call a meeting to discuss anything else, and the rules are made at these meetings. The theory being, I suppose, that if children feel they are given a voice in how a school runs, they will enjoy it more – and if they enjoy it more, they will learn more.

In theory, this doesn’t sound quite so bad. In practice, it is somewhat of a nightmare at times. I was surprised however, by how well it could work at different points. Lucy – a blonde, happy little girl who likes freedom, but does want some limits, is angry that Alex, the head teacher, stopped the children from jumping off storage bins into a mattress – something Lucy things he should not be allowed to do, since they didn’t vote on it – and if they don’t vote on everything, then she’s leaving (or so she says – she threatens this a lot). But Alex explains his side – first, two children are absent right now because they hurt themselves previously doing the exact same thing, so it is a safety issue. Second, the bins belong to the Church, and they have an existing rule that says that Church property can only be used for its intended purpose (and jumping off storage bins is not there purpose). Surprisingly, the panel who gets to decide (which are not the people involved) – side with Alex, even though most of them are children, and therefore you may think they would vote for their right to behave like idiots and hurt themselves. But no, they don’t. They vote for the good of their fellow students. It’s here where you can see how the school could conceivably function.

In Jiovanni however, you see how the school could go terribly wrong. Jiovanni looks like a dark haired Hanson brother (people still remember MMMbop right, or I am really daring myself here), with his long, mop of hair. He’s the one who is often going shirtless (and I think at one point, pantless). Jiovanni is a nightmare of a kid – who has been put into the exact wrong school by his parents. If ever there was a child who needed structure and guidelines, it is Jiovanni. Instead, without them, Jiovanni basically runs wild. He uses the freedom of the school to do whatever the hell he wants to do. He listens to no one, can be downright cruel to others. The staff is well meaning, but has no idea how to deal with a kid like Jiovanni. His mother, seen in just one scene, reminded me of Ned Flanders’ parents from The Simpsons – “We’ve tried nothing doc, and we’re all out of ideas”. Nothing the staff tries works – and when late in the film Alex lists the reasons why they eventually suspended him for two weeks, it takes a hell of a long time. And yet, on his first day back, he pulls the same crap. Jiovanni doesn’t care if he ruins the Free School for everyone else – he is a little narcissist, who doesn’t care what kind of attention he gets, as long as it gets some.

The movie was directed and shot by Amanda Wilder (and edited by Robert Greene – whose own film Actress, is one of docs from 2014 that I’m still waiting to see). There is no narration in the film, and no direct interviews with the people involved. Instead, like Frederick Wiseman (an obvious inspiration), she sits back and observes how this institution works. No, it isn’t an “objective” film – such a thing doesn’t really exist – but it is one that lets each audience member decide what the movie is saying about Free Schools – if anything – and what they think of them.

As a child, I never could have gone to a school like this. Throughout my primary school years I did much better in grades 3, 4 and 6 then I did in grades 2 and 5 – and I think that quite clearly I did so because by teachers in those first three grades mentioned had structured and disciplined classrooms, and ran them as such. My teachers in grade 2 and 5 were more free flowing – and loosey goosey – and I downright hated those years. I needed that structure, and thrived on it. And yet, I know full well that not everyone is the same as me – and some whose class I was in all those years had precisely the opposite feelings about their years there.
Which is what brings me back to the beginning – and the movie itself – in which I still believe that our one size fits all approach to teaching doesn’t help all kids – maybe a lot of them, perhaps even most of them, but not all, and we should be open to new models. Will they work? I don’t know – and neither does Alex, who runs the school, who says when asks this question “We’ll know in 20 years”.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Movie Review: It Follows

It Follows
Directed by: David Robert Mitchell.
Written by: David Robert Mitchell.
Starring: Maika Monroe (Jay Height), Keir Gilchrist (Paul), Jake Weary (Hugh / Jeff), Lili Sepe (Kelly Height), Olivia Luccardi (Yara), Daniel Zovatto (Greg Hannigan), Bailey Spry (Annie).

If you have read anything about It Follows, the terrific new horror film by David Robert Mitchell, it probably sounds like any number of other, post-John Carpenter’s Halloween, slasher movie. Yes, this is another film in which a beautiful, suburban teenage girl engages in sexual activity, and then is stalked by a killer of some sort for the rest of the film – perhaps as punishment for daring to have a sexual appetite. Carpenter (who is clearly an huge influence on this film) kind of established that premise with his 1978 original, low budget shocker – and it’s been copied ever since in all the Halloween sequels – not to mention the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and seemingly hundreds of other, lesser known knock-offs. The idea has been done to death, and satirized to death (sometimes in those very sequels that are still engaging in the same plot) – and the whole thing has become a tired, horror movie cliché. Why, then, does it work so amazingly well in It Follows? Partly, it’s because of the way director Mitchell shoots the film – lots of long, unbroken shots, with a swirling camera. Part because of the way the “killer” (which takes on different forms) stalks its victims – you’ve seen “slow” killers before, but never this slow. It gets you not because of its speed, but because it seemingly cannot be killed, and will never stop coming for you. You can outrun it for a while, but eventually, it will be right there again. But mainly it’s because Mitchell does unexpected things with the group of friends he centers his movie on. Even without this killer stalking them, this group would have enough drama to fill a movie – there is more than enough hormones, lust, petty jealousies and heartbreak going through this group to keep the movie fascinating, even when Mitchell isn’t trying to scare you (which he does expertly). It’s also because of the way Mitchell portrays sex itself in the movie – there is no “slut shaming” going on in It Follows, unlike many horror films. The characters are not being “punished” for their transgressions. The movie doesn’t really paint as neither good nor bad for their young characters – rather, it portrays it as having the potential to be either of those things – and how one mistake can haunt you for the rest of your life.

The movie stars the talented Maika Monroe, from last year’s great horror movie The Guest (which not enough of you saw!) as Jay, a teenage girl out of high school, but not quite in college yet. She’s dating a new guy – slightly older, named Hugh (Jake Weary), and although they haven’t had sex yet – she knows they will soon, and is looking forward to it, in a slightly dreamy, naïve way (no, she is not a virgin – but her romantic ideals around sex still mark her as somewhat immature). Eventually, Hugh and Jay do have sex – in his car, and in the post coital period, he shocks her by knocking her out with chloroform – when she comes to, she is tied to a chair. Hugh did this not to hurt Jay – at least not more than he already has – but to tell her what to expect. He has just passed something to her – and it’s something she can only get rid of by having sex with someone else. Someone or something will follow her – it may be someone she knows, maybe not, it may appear alive, it may not – but a few things are clear: it won’t stop until it kills her and no one else can see it. And if Jay lets it kill her, then the presence will immediately go back to trying to kill Hugh again, so at best, this is a temporary reprieve that you can never truly shake.

I know this probably sounds slightly ridiculous – but believe me, it isn’t (besides, go through the basic plot of pretty much any horror movie, and they all sound ridiculous, don’t they?). As Roger Ebert never tired of saying “A movie isn’t about what it’s about – it’s about how it’s about it” (or something like that anyway). What It Follows does is take that ridiculous premise, and play off those previous horror movie clichés, to make a film that both scary and disturbing – and more so the later than the former. As Jay enlists more of her friends to try and help her, the group dynamics become clear. Paul (Keir Gilchrist) looks longingly at Jay – it’s clear he’s in love with her, and she thinks of him as little more than a friend, and although she toys with him a little, it isn’t cruelly. Greg (Daniel Zovatto) is the “cool” kid across the street – the one with the car and the cabin they can run away to and hide out. There’s also Jay’s sister (Lili Sepe) and her friend – and they all band together to “help” Jay – even if none of them really can.

The movie does deliver on the scares – for the most part. To be honest, the big horror movie climax is actually one of the weakest scenes in the movie. It tries too hard to be scary, and is undercut at least a little by the inherent ridiculousness of the killer – something that doesn’t hurt the rest of the movie, because it doesn’t have the kind of sustained, physical confrontation with it. The rest of the scare scenes in the movie work remarkably well though. This isn’t a bloody movie by any means, and neither does it rely on cheap scares. The “killer” makes George A. Romero zombies look like sprinters. What the movie does remarkably well is building a mounting sense of inescapable dread.

The movie is even more disturbing and unsettling than scary though – especially as it moves along, and its implications become clear. Yes, It Follows could very well be read as a metaphor for an STD or unwanted pregnancy – if you want it to. But I think the implications of the movie and its view of sex are far more universal, and somewhat saddening.

Movie Poster: Faults

Directed by: Riley Stearns.
Written by: Riley Stearns.
Starring: Leland Orser (Ansel), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Claire), Chris Ellis (Dad), Beth Grant (Evelyn), Jon Gries (Terry), Lance Reddick (Mick).

If you’ve watched much TV or many movies over the past two decades or so, you’ve probably seen Leland Orser dozens of times, and not really noticed. He has almost 80 acting credits over the years – appearing, mainly in small roles, in dozens of movies – large and small – and TV shows. He is the classic definition of a character actor, and looking back over his screen credits, I do find I remember him in his best work – like his one scene wonder in David Fincher’s Seven as a man forced to do a horrible thing. Or in last year’s excellent The Guest, as a patriarch who at first doesn’t trust the new houseguest, but hell, it gives him a drinking buddy, so who cares? Actors like Orser are always supposed to be in the background – coming forward for a scene or two, and then fading from memory.

In Faults, Orser finally gets his chance to be a leading man – and he makes the most of it. The movie asks a lot from Orser, whose performance veers, along with the movie, from comedy to tragedy, and everything in between. Ultimately, the movie ends up in precisely the spot I thought it would when the movie began – but the process of getting there is much different than I anticipated. And Orser, who is the center of every scene, is terrific throughout.

Orser stars as Ansel – a middle aged, pathetic shell of a man. He was once famous – he had his own TV show, and a bestselling book, both about cults – and getting people out of them. Something went wrong though – we get some, but not all, of the details throughout the movie – and now Ansel is stuck shilling his new book – that no one wants to buy – to small crowds in rundown hotel conference rooms. We first meet him arguing with the waiter and manager of a hotel restaurant about his bill – he was told (or so he says) that one meal per day would be provided for him while he was there giving his talk. The waiter and manager disagree – and the whole thing devolves into a scene that is awkward, funny and sad at the same time.

Things take a turn when he is approached by an older couple (Chris Ellis and Beth Grant) – who want Ansel to get their daughter, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) out of a “cult” – known as Faults (no “The”). Ansel tries hard to put them off – but he needs the money. His “manager”, Terry (Jon Gries) wants the money he fronted Ansel, and is starting to send around some intimidating muscle in the form of Mick (Lance Reddick) to collect. He hires some goons, and they kidnap Claire for him – delivering her to a hotel room, while her parents wait in the adjoining room. Ansel sets about “breaking” Claire – who is calm and serene throughout – unless her parents are there that is.

The best scenes in the movie are probably between Orser and Winstead. Winstead has been a promising actress for years now (Death Proof, Smashed, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, etc) without every really having that big breakout role. This isn’t that role either – but Winstead plays it well. But Claire is more of a one note character than Ansel is – although Winstead starts to give her some shading as the movie progresses, and she starts to break. Or does she? From the start, I never really trusted Faults to play it straight with me – or to put it another way, for Claire to play straight with me. Ansel – yes. He may change from scene to scene, but that’s because each scene requires something else from him if he’s going to keep his head above water (if he even wants that). But from the start, there is something off about Claire. She’s too calm and serene – even for a cult member – and she seems to be broken too easily by Ansel. Does he even know what he’s doing anymore? There is a tension between them though – as both try to get the upper hand, without letting the other know that they want it that works quite well.

The rest of the overly complicated plot isn’t really necessary – accept, of course, to provide a few more characters in the film, and get it outside of that hotel room (even if that is where the movie is at its best). The film was written and directed by Riley Stearns (Winsted’s husband_ = and it’s his feature debut after a trio of shorts. It’s a more promising debut than a good one. It shows Stearns has some talent in writing dialogue and characters, and his slightly off-kilter framing works well. Faults isn’t a great movie by any means – but it’s the type of debut that makes me curious what Stearns is going to do next.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Movie Review: Chappie

Directed by: Neill Blomkamp.
Written by: Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell.
Starrimg: Sharlto Copley (Chappie), Dev Patel (Deon Wilson), Ninja (Ninja), Yo-Landi Visser (Yolandi), Jose Pablo Cantillo (Yankie - Amerika), Hugh Jackman (Vincent Moore), Sigourney Weaver (Michelle Bradley), Brandon Auret (Hippo), Johnny Selema (Pitbull).

There are quite a few interesting ideas running through Chappie – the latest sci-fi action film from Neill Blomkamp. His debut film, District 9, was an ingenious sci-fi allegory with a simple aliens/Apartheid metaphor that worked surprisingly well. Yes, it may have been a little disappointing that Blomkamp had no way to end his film other than in an explosive of action sequences – but I enjoyed those sequences, that felt a little dirtier, grittier and more low-tech than most films of its kind – so overall, I pretty much loved District 9. His follow-up film, Elysium, may not have reached the same level – Blomkamp upped the political content in the film, but was also more ham fisted and obvious in marrying it with his sci-fi plot. Still, I admired the film because it really was trying for something more – it had ambition, and if it didn’t live up those ambitions, it’s better than not having them at all. You could say the same thing about Chappie – the film doesn’t lack for ideas, many of them interesting. And Blomkamp seems to have learned not to force his allegory on the film in such obvious fashion this time around. Unfortunately, Blomkamp fills Chappie with too many useless subplots and characters, too many ideas borrowed from other films, that the entire film feels muddled – as it’s spending a lot of time, saying nothing new. The final act is a genuine confused mess – that quite simply doesn’t work at all. Like last month’s Jupiter Ascending from the Wachowskis, I wanted to like Chappie – they are both genuinely strange movies, original, big budget sci-fi films instead of more franchise, that are both obviously their talented makers films. But both film are complete messes – so as much as I wanted to like them, I really couldn’t.

The film opens in 2016 – where in a news montage, we learn that the city of Johannesburg, South Africa have purchased a number of robot police officers to assist their human counterparts. These robot cops have had an almost positive immediate impact on the crime rate – and the weapons company who makes the robots is drawing interest from around the world. The designer, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), is proud of his achievement – but has his goals set much higher. He wants to make a truly sentient artificially intelligent robot – and thinks he has finally cracked it. He goes to the CEO (Sigourney Weaver) to get permission to try out his new software on an old robot – that is about to be destroyed anyway. She, of course, says no. He, of course, steals the robot and does it anyway. But he has two problems – the first being that on his way home, he is carjacked by Ninja (Ninja), Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser) and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) – three low rent thugs who need to make a lot of money quickly, and think the designer of the police robots can help them. They are the three that end up with the robot who will become the title character. The second problem Deon has is that his biggest rival in his company – Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) suspects something is up, and tries to prove it. He has his own police robot – but it’s a huge, monstrosity (that looks very much like Robocop’s ED 209), but is controlled by a human being. Vincent is a little bit of a religious nut – who thinks robots with a soul are dangerous – and although that’s not a bad point, Vincent is portrayed as so violent and insane, you cannot possibly agree with him.

Chappie, the character, starts with the mentality of a baby – and although gets extremely smart, extremely fast, he never loses that childhood innocence throughout the movie. He is torn between two different viewpoints of the world – Deon, who he refers to as his maker, has loftier, idealistic goals for him, but Ninja, who he calls Daddy, shows him the cruelty of the world – and how he must fight. Somewhere in between is Yolandi – Mommy, who he truly loves. Chappie is performed by Blomkamp’s favorite actor, Sharlto Copley – and it’s an interesting performance, which allows Copley a lot of opportunities to be funny, and only slightly annoying. The design of the character is a little too bland and generic – to be truly sympathetic. Sadly though, he is the only character with any sort of complexity. Everyone else is one note – and not very interesting at that. Jackman fairs the best of the human actors, ripping into his villain role – but it’s an ill-conceived character. Still, it’s better than Weaver, who is supposed to be a typical, short sighted, not overly bright CEO – and while Weaver is a great actress, she doesn’t play dumb well – she exudes too much intelligence. Ninja and Yo-Landi, members of a South African rap group, at least seem to be having fun. The worst, and most unnecessary, character is named Hippo (Brandon Auret), a psychopathic gangster, with stupid hair, who basically shouts his every line (and requires subtitles), even though he’s speaking English.

For the first hour or so, Chappie keeps hinting that perhaps it is going to go in some sort of interesting direction. There are a lot of good ideas running through Chappie – including a scene where Chappie asks his maker why he made him just so he could die – a question many people would ask of God – but like all the other interesting ideas in Chappie, the movie pretty much abandons it as soon as it’s brought up. It doesn’t have time for such things – it needs to spend a lot of time blowing crap up. That is a pattern that repeats itself throughout Chappie. Blomkamp abandons any of the original, or thought provoking ideas in the film so it can get to the blander, generic stuff you’ve seen in many other robot movies in the past – everything from the Terminator movies to Robocop, and everything in between. In many ways, Chappie is a modern day Pinocchio story – but again, Blomkamp doesn’t fully explore that idea either.

The ending of the movie is really when things fly wildly off the rails. The film rushes through a lot of plot in almost no time, and then spends a lot of time on a ridiculously ill-conceived (and illogical) action sequence involving Jackman’s killing machine. It then has a copout, emotionally manipulative ending that makes even less sense that what came before it.

I still think Blomkamp is a talented and promising director. His first film got the balance between his ideas and the action he clearly wants to merge. In Elysium, the balance skewed too far towards his ideas that were too obvious. In Chappie, he pretty much abandons his ideas to make a lot of action sequences. Hopefully he gets the balance right again. After all, there aren’t a lot of people who are even trying to balance the two. I wanted to like Chappie – but the reality is, the film simply doesn’t work.

Movie Review: The Babadook

The Babadook
Directed by: Jennifer Kent.
Written by: Jennifer Kent.
Starring: Essie Davis (Amelia), Noah Wiseman (Samuel), Daniel Henshall (Robbie), Tim Purcell (The Babadook), Hayley McElhinney (Claire), Barbara West (Mrs. Roach), Chloe Hurn (Ruby).

The best horror movies do not just scare you, but tap into some sort of primal deep-seeded fear inside of you. The Babadook, which is among the best horror movies in recent years, taps into that kind of fear – it’s a movie that will be scary to everyone, but will be downright terrifying for parents. The Babadook is classically structured, and Kent directs it with precision and skill – stripping it down to its core elements, and making a claustrophobic horror film in the Roman Polanski vein (think 1965’s Repulsion of 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby). The film is scary, without ever resorting to cheap jump scares or gore, but when it’s all over, is perhaps even more disturbing than we realize. This is a new horror movie classic.

The film stars Essie Davis (in a performance that deserves to be placed along those by Catherine Denueve’s and Mia Farrow’s in those two Polanski movies mentioned earlier) as Amelia – a tired, weary, single mother. Her husband died in a car accident taking her to the hospital to have their son. That’s Samuel (Noah Wiseman), now 6, who is more than a handful. He’s convinced that any number of monsters are under his bed, in his closet, etc. – and spends much of his time crafting crude, but effective, weapons to protect him and his mother from them. The problem is that the weapons cause damage to their small house – and when he brings them to school, it causes concern for the principal and the teacher. They think Samuel is disturbed, and needs special help – and they just may be right. If he isn’t battling monsters, he’s constantly bugging Amelia – and the pair of them are getting almost no sleep. It’s a testament to young Wiseman’s performance as Samuel that we at once feel sympathy for the clearly distressed child – and yet understand completely why he is driving his mother slowly insane.

Things go from bad to worse with the appearance of strange, new children’s book – entitled Mister Babadook. This book isn’t dark in the way of some great kid’s books – but truly, completely dark and horrifying – pretty much threatening the lives of the reader. The drawings are in black and white – they look kind of like Tim Burton drawings – and the title character is some sort of demon, with long, sharp finger nails, wild eyes and a top hat. Samuel becomes convinced that Mister Babadook is real – and is coming for them. And Amelia slowly starts to expect as much herself – she cannot seem to destroy the book, and she starts seeing flashes that may just be him. Then at some point, you start to feel that Amelia herself is the real danger here.

The movie is somewhat ambiguous as to what precisely the Babadook is – and remains so right up until the end of the movie, leaving it to the viewers to decide if he is a shared delusion or a real, malevolent presence (the movie provides enough hints to support either reading, really). What the movie does brilliantly is offer the audience a shifting perspective. In the first half of the movie, you feel sympathy for Amelia, as her son is a handful, she has a tough job, an uncaring sister, and pretty much nothing going right. Samuel really is that annoying – especially when, like Amelia, you have no way to escape from him (when she is given an afternoon off work to go take care of him, tellingly the movie shows us her walking around the mall and eating ice cream, instead of going to get him). But at a certain point, the movie switches gear a little – we stop feeling sorry of Amelia, and start fearing her – and feeling sorry for Samuel, who is now in an even bigger nightmare than even felt was possible.

The Babadook works as a straight ahead horror movie. Writer/director Jennifer Kent knows how to make an audience jump, but does so with more skill and intelligence than most do. The Babadook himself is a scary figure – seen in glimpses, flashes, shadows, but always disturbing and creepy. As the film progresses, Kent traps her two main characters in their small house – a mini-masterwork in creepy art direction, and uses off-kilter cinematography to increase the strangeness of the house. The film is a low budget, Australian horror film – but is more effective as movie with much more money to spend.

But what makes The Babadook is great is how it taps into something greater than just scaring the audience. The movie is an unsettling and disturbing appearance for far more reasons than just the scares in it. This is a portrait of parenting that calls to mind We Need to Talk About Kevin – both the book and the movie – and will be all the more chilling to parents, who will undoubtedly recognize a little of themselves in Amelia.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Movie Review: Focus

Directed by: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa.
Written by: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa.
Starring: Will Smith (Nicky), Margot Robbie (Jess), Adrian Martinez (Farhad), Gerald McRaney (Owens), Rodrigo Santoro (Garriga), BD Wong (Liyuan), Brennan Brown (Horst), Robert Taylor (McEwen), Dotan Bonen (Gordon), Griff Furst (Gareth), Stephanie Honoré (Janice).

Focus is far more entertaining than it has any real right to be. The screenplay is more than a little bit of a mess – seemingly striving for a classic three act structure, without finding a way to fuse the acts together in a way that feels natural. As the film races towards it climax, it devolves into clichés of the genre – which we know it will from the outset (when a character explains a classic con in part one, you cannot fool the audience when that con surfaces in act three). Yet, the movie is never less than entertaining and engaging on a moment by moment basis, even if the film never really comes together.

The main reason why Focus works is that it has two excellent movie star performances at its core. The fact that Will Smith is so effortlessly charming isn’t a surprise – he’s one of the last of the true movie stars, who can deliver these types of performances that are not easy, and make it look effortless. It may have been a while since Smith delivered a performance like this – his last film was After Earth, which wasted his talents as a charmer in role that required him to be boring – but he hasn’t lost it. The slightly surprising part is just how good Margot Robbie is as his protégé and eventual love interest. Robbie was brilliant in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street of course, but here she is in full movie star mode, and she pulls it off so wonderfully, that it should make her a real one. The two have instant sexual chemistry – probably because they are the two best looking people in the movie be far – and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa crib from Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (okay, they outright steal from it, but if you’re going to steal, steal from the best) in the way they shoot the pair of them as the verbally spar, flirt and fall for each other, even if it isn’t a good idea.

The plot of the movie is a bit of a mess. Smith is Nicky, a veteran conman and Robbie is Jess, a rookie he meets when she tries (unsuccessfully) to run a scam on him. Instead, he ends up showing her a few tricks of the trade – and when, a few days later, she shows up in New Orleans before the Super Bowl, he takes her under his wing, and into his very large crew. Unlike most movie conmen, he isn’t after one big score – but a lot of little scores. That way, he can make a lot of money, and keep the risk low. At least that is what he says in act one. In act two, hell risk everything in a series of ridiculous bets with Liyuan (B.D. Wong) and in act three, set three years later, he’ll go after that one final score, trying to con a racing magnate (Rodirgo Santoro) who has hired Nicky to con his competitors – much to the chagrin of his security man (Gerald McCraney). These are the types of scams Nicky says in the first act to avoid – but hey, the movie really has nowhere to go after act one unless it goes bigger in the latter two acts.

Like I said, as a whole, I don’t think Focus really works. It doesn’t gain momentum as it goes along – it kind of repeatedly builds, climaxes, and starts again. And yet, the individual acts work fairly well as single acts – particularly the second one, set almost entirely in one luxury box at the Super Bowl, which slowly and gradually ups the ante to insane degrees. It works because of Smith, Robbie and Wong – all of whom play off of each other wonderfully. That act two works so well is a disappointment for act three, which is far too busy, has far too many people and rushes through its complicated plot. By this point, the movie has repeatedly tried to fool us – so we no longer trust it. We just keep waiting for the movie to pull the rag out from under us (again) and when it does, it’s hardly shocking.

And yet, I liked the movie more than I probably should have. I enjoyed watching Smith and Robbie and their sexual chemistry – even if I didn’t much care for the story. Some of the supporting characters add interest, and the movie is a lot more fun than most wide release February movies are. Smith and Robbie could be the romantic pair at the heart of a great film like this – Focus isn’t that film, but it will do.