Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Movie Review: Everest

Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur.
Written by: William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy.
Starring: Jason Clarke (Rob Hall), Jake Gyllenhaal (Scott Fischer), Josh Brolin (Beck Weathers), John Hawkes (Doug Hansen), Sam Worthington (Guy Cotter), Robin Wright (Peach, Weathers' wife), Michael Kelly (Jon Krakauer), Keira Knightley (Jan Arnold), Emily Watson (Helen Wilton), Thom(Wright (Michael Groom), Martin Henderson (Andy Harris), Elizabeth Debicki (Dr. Caroline Mackenzie), Naoko Mori (Yasuko Namba), Clive Standen (Ed Viesturs), Vanessa Kirby (Sandy Hill), Tom Goodman-Hill (Neal Beidleman), Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson (Anatoli Boukreev).

For a movie that is about a tragedy, that cost several people their lives, while climbing the title mountain, watching Everest is a curiously muted experience. The director, Baltasar Kormákur, and screenwriters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, clearly wanted to show respect to those who lost their lives – a somewhat refreshing change, as most movies just want to exploit them, but in doing so they’ve flattened out the characters to the point where none of them really have much of a personality. The excellent ensemble cast gamely tries their best – Josh Brolin better than most (although it just be that I was amused in the early scenes that he seemed to be playing George W. Bush again), but for the most part they speak in banalities heavy with foreshadowing. The final, which should be an emotional gut punch, as some of the people we’ve spent the entire movie with are dying, and one pretty much comes back from the dead, but it just never quite hits you like it should. The film is impressively made – but its lack something essential.

The film takes place in 1996, and Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) is an Aussie who runs a company called Adventure Consultants, who charge people a small fortune to take them up Everest. These are not complete amateurs – they’ve all climbed mountains before, but they are not the sort who would be trekking up Everest without someone like Hall to guide them. It’s late March, and they’re planning to summit on May 10th – which gives just over a month to get into shape, and get used the thin air – doing some smaller, exploratory climbs before the big one. On the day they Summit, they’ll have to move quickly – after a certain elevation, the body literally starts to die, so you have to move quickly – and if you’re not going to make it, Hall will turn you around and make sure you get safely. As he puts it, you don’t pay him to reach the summit – you pay him to get you back safely.

Hall is a big, genial guy – with a pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) at home – and also somewhat of a pioneer, as he was the first to start taking “tourist” climbers up the mountain. Now, there are a lot of people doing it – including Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is more casual and laid back than Hall – but a great climber. He’s friendly with Rob – more than the other guides anyway – even though Hall did steal the journalist – Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) – away from him this year – (Krakauer would write Into Thin Air, the most famous of the multiple books based on this climb – none of which are credited by the movie). Gradually, we meet a few of the climbers who have paid to get up the mountain as well – like Beck Weathers (Brolin), a big time Texan, with a goofy grin and an abundance of confidence, Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a mailman who also came last year, and didn’t quite make the summit because Hall had to turn them around, and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who has already scaled 6 of the 7 Summits, and just needs Everest to complete the set – and is the only woman in the movie whose entire role isn’t to be worried on a telephone or walkie-talkie the whole time. All of these characters are painted in broad strokes – which makes a certain degree of sense (mountain climbing is not really the time for character development), but doesn’t really let us know much about them. Even in the scene where Krakauer asks directly why the all do it, considering how much it costs and the risks involved, we never really get an understanding as to why.

The tragedy of the climb really only takes up the last third of the movie – the rest is setup. When the weather turns quickly, and a few climbers make some bad decisions, their fate is sealed. But these scenes – where the wind and snow are whipping are all around them, are perhaps the biggest problem with the movie. After all that setup, you expect some sort of payoff – and the movie doesn’t really deliver. I’m not arguing that the movie should have had a more action packed climax – which would have been false – but I do think the movie needed to make the audience feel that cold, that wind, that sense of doom more than it does. You get to the end, and it all just feels like such a waste – such a sad waste of human life.

Everest is impressively made – and it does look gorgeous. The 3-D, which normally I am not a fan of, is at the very least not distracting here (I’m not sure it added much either, but it didn’t make me want to throw the 3-D glasses at the screen either, so that’s a plus). Perhaps it would have been better on an IMAX screen – where it played for a week exclusively before going wide (I’m not going to make the mistake of skipping The Walk on IMAX this weekend and waiting for a wide release next). But it’s not really the craft of the movie that failed for me – it’s the emotional pull of the movie that isn’t there – and that wouldn’t be saved by an IMAX screen.

Movie Review: Jauja

Directed by: Lisandro Alonso.
Written by:  Lisandro Alonso and Fabian Casas.
Starring: Viggo Mortensen (Gunnar Dinesen), Ghita Nørby (Woman in the cave), Viilbjørk Malling Agger (Ingeborg), Esteban Bigliardi (Angel Milkibar), Adrián Fondari (Pittaluga).

Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja is a definite example of slow cinema – a film that is mostly made up of long, static shots, with sparse dialogue and little music – the type of film that some will complain that “nothing happens” in it, and others will be enraptured from beginning to end. The plot of the movie is simple and straightforward – it’s a journey into nothingness and madness, and will remind people of books like Joseph Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness and films like John Ford’s The Searchers. The plot is setup up very simply – it’s the late 19th Century, somewhere in Argentina, and Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) is a Danish engineer, who is with a small group of Argentine soldiers, and his 15 year old daughter, Ingeborg. There is a particularly disgusting soldier – who makes racist comments about the tribes, that Dinesen doesn’t challenge in so many words, but still lets his disgust known – but that also may be since this man has also made a polite, but still lecherous, advance towards his daughter. Ingeborg runs off with a young, good looking soldier instead – and Dinesen follows her out into the desert to search for her – waving off all offers of help to do it solo.

Most of the movie is Dinesen alone, searching for his daughter, and suffering one setback, one humiliation after another. He has been warned that one of the soldiers has gone insane, and is somewhere out in the desert killing people. Dinesen keeps searching for his daughter – but as the film progresses, and he comes across one horror after another, and hears unmistakable screams, you cannot help but sense that things are not going to turn out the way he wants them to. And then, the film takes a wild left turn at the end – something I’m still processing days later.

There probably isn’t another actor of Mortensen’s stature who would do a movie like this, for a filmmaker like Alonso – who until now has been known for very small, more realistic movie – mainly made with non-professional actors. But Mortensen’s presence in the film works – it immediately sets him apart from those around him, which works for the character. Not only that, but Mortensen then fully commits to the part – which is hardly flattering. He is representing imperialism here – and it’s his folly that he does not understand what the hell he’s doing, or where’s he’s going. Dressed in his expensive suit, he looks ridiculous out in the middle of the desert. Mortensen also has the type of screen presence that can hold your attention for long shots with little going on. In short, while Mortensen working with Alonso at first seems like an odd choice, it actually works perfectly for the film.

Alonso uses a square aspect ratio, with rounded off corners – which I think functions in much the same way a square aspect ratio did for Kelly Recihardt’s western Meek’s Cutoff a years back. Instead of taking in the vast expanse around Mortensen – seeing the endless the possibilities, like a film like Lawrence of Arabia does, the square aspect ratio traps Mortensen in the frame – giving him nowhere to go. The static shots are often beautiful – in particular there is a shot of the night sky late in the film that is breathtaking, even on a television.

I’m honestly not sure if the final twist (or twists, really) of the movie actually work for the movie, but I do know it’s memorable, and unexpected. Having clearly invoked Hearts of Darkness and The Searchers early in the narrative, you think you know where Alonso is headed with Jauja – only to be stunned when he gets there.

Jauja is a film that will infuriate some viewers I know – many won’t even make to the twist in the end, and those that do may simply find themselves scratching their head – much like, I admit, I was (and still am). The film feels longer than it actually is – just under 2 hours – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I did find myself squirming at times during the movie. There is a fine line between meditative and dull – and Jauja walks that line, mostly on the right side of it. But damn it, Jauja is something – something different, something unexpected, and something interesting. Something that needs to be seen – and discussed.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Movie Review: Pawn Sacrifice

Pawn Sacrifice
Directed by: Edward Zwick.
Written by: Steven Knight and Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson.
Starring: Tobey Maguire (Bobby Fischer), Liev Schreiber (Boris Spassky), Peter Sarsgaard (Father Bill Lombardy), Michael Stuhlbarg (Paul Marshall), Lily Rabe (Joan Fischer), Sophie Nélisse (Young Joan), Robin Weigert (Regina Fischer), Evelyne Brochu (Donna), Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick (Teen Bobby Fischer), Aiden Lovekamp (Young Bobby Fischer).

There is a reason why, even if the sport continues to wane in popularity, that we continually get a lot of boxing movies. While it’s true there is a lot of strategy in boxing, you don’t really need to know that when you watch it – certainly not as it is presented in the movies, where two guys enter the ring and beat the crap out of each other. It’s easier to follow in a movie than most sports, and provides very easy analogies to life. Chess, is not boxing, but it is a kind of intellectual sparing – where two people sit on opposite sides of a board, and try to out think and out maneuver the other guy. The problem with representing chess cinematically is, that unless you understand the game, you have no real idea what the hell they’re doing. In the climatic match in Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice, everyone on screen is losing their shit over the maneuvers that Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) is making – and to be honest, I have no idea why. I’m sure it was brilliant, and to give the movie some credit, it probably explains as much as it can in those few minutes without sapping the movie of the tension it is building in those moments, but to someone like me, who has a rudimentary (at best) understanding of the game, the intricacies of what Fischer is doing in that game is lost on me. This isn’t the biggest problem with Pawn Sacrifice – but it’s one of them.

The bigger problem is that the film really does try to be a Bobby Fischer biopic – with scenes of him as a child chess prodigy, and then a teenager, and then a young man yelling about how the Russians are cheating, and then him slowly getting back into competitive chess, and finally – in the last half, focusing on the World Series of Chess, where he played a 24 match tournament against Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), the Soviet Grand Master. If Fischer was not the best chess player in history – and many would argue that he was – he was certainly the most famous one – a genius, who had a feel for the game from a young age, and studied it non-stop throughout his life, who was also tormented by mental illness. By the time Pawn Sacrifice ends, Fischer hasn’t gone completely off the deep end, as he eventually would, but he’s well on his way there – with those helpful end title cards telling us about the sad final 40 years of Fischer’s life.

Fischer’s life is not really the stuff that standard issue biopics are made out of – as much as Edward Zwick tries to force it into that box. There is quite a lot of stuff about Fischer’s family – in particular his mother – in the film, but it never really leads anywhere. What we get instead is many scenes of Fischer screaming at people, and making demands. He has two close confidants – a Priest (Peter Sarsgaard), who is also very good at chess who is able to talk him down often and a lawyer (Michael Stuhlberg) who seemingly knows little about chess – but is a patriot and wants to see an American beat the Russians at chess, and who helps Fischer set up the matches that will allow him to do that. Maguire as Fischer is actually quite good – it is a one note performance, in which Fischer’s madness and genius are intertwined, but that’s what the movie asks of him, and it is what he delivers. After a series of performances where I didn’t think much of Maguire, I think he’s quite good here. It’s just that the story has nowhere to go.

A more interesting story takes place in the background – and that is the one of Boris Spassky, the Soviet Grand Master. For much of the first half of the movie, he is seen at a distance, always calm and cool, and wearing sunglasses – striking an intimidating pose. In the final act however, he is given slightly more depth – as we learn about him, and it becomes clear that he is a man or principle, and one who bristles at the control the Soviets want to have him under. That is an interesting story – and one that Pawn Sacrifice barely touches upon – although I would have liked to see far more of it.

Edward Zwick has never been the most adventuresome of directors – making these middle brow dramas, that sometimes turn out great (Glory, Courage Under Fire), and sometimes not so much (Blood Diamond, Defiance). He does the job you expect him to in Pawn Sacrifice – yes, there are a lot of clichés thrown on the screen, and nothing overly exciting, but that is what you expect from Zwick. The real problem is both that chess just isn’t overly cinematic, and Fischer’s story doesn’t really go anywhere. There may be an interesting story in the great Fischer/Spassky face-off in Iceland – I just have a feeling that Pawn Sacrifice focuses on the wrong one. 

Movie Review: The Overnight

The Overnight
Directed by: Patrick Brice.
Written by:  Patrick Brice.
Starring: Adam Scott (Alex), Taylor Schilling (Emily), Jason Schwartzman (Kurt), Judith Godrèche (Charlotte).
Patrick Brice’s debut film – Creep (which came out on VOD just a few months ago), is a horror film where an amateur filmmaker agrees to take a job for a seemingly nice guy who wants to document his life, who gradually reveals himself to be more and more disturbed. His follow-up film, The Overnight, actually has quite a few things in common with Creep, even though it’s basically a sex comedy. Brice has an expanded cast this time – instead of Creep, which was basically a two-hander, The Overnight is basically a quartet – two couples, getting together on one long night where they get drunk, they get stoned – and maybe, just maybe, will do something more.
The first couple in the film is Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) a couple who has just moved to L.A. with their young son, and basically know no one. They meet Kurt (Jason Schwartzman) and his two sons at the park one day, and he invites the whole family to his place for pizza night. The kids go to bed fairly early, and then it’s just the four adult – Kurt’s wife Charlotte (Judith Godreche) – having joined them. Kurt and Charlotte seem to have it all – a big house, lots of money, artistic freedom, and when Kurt strips down to go skinny dipping, he reveals something else he has – an enormous penis. This makes Alex somewhat insecure, since his own penis is abnormally small – and yes, there is an amusing scene with both men naked, and with their obvious prosthetic penises. As the film moves along, and everyone gets drunker and more stoned, the films sexual tension grows as well – with Emily wondering if they’re crossed over from California free spirited territory to swingers territory. There is a sequence where the two women head out into the night, and Charlotte shows something shocking to Emily – bathed in orange light – which represents somewhat of a shift in the film.
Yet, The Overnight never really goes anywhere – and ends before anything really interesting happens. It’s to the actor’s credit that the film works as well as it does. Adam and Emily are a purposefully boring and bland couple, who like to think of themselves as hipper than they really are (and really, they know this). But it’s fun for them to see how the other side lives, for a while, until it gets disturbing – and Emily in particular wants to retreat to her boring and bland life. Scott and Schilling do more with these character than you think possible really – because both are so likable. Poor Judith Godreche isn’t given all that much to do as Charlotte – she’s French, and the movie kind of plays off the French’s lustful reputation, but her character kind of gets lost in the movie, only snapping into focus near the end. The star of the movie is Schwartzman, who is hilarious, and eventually kind of touching as Kurt – who starts off as kind of hipster douchebag, but gradually becomes a real person. I have sometimes imagined the characters Schwartzman plays as grown up versions of Max Fischer – his character in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, and if his work in Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip represents the darkest potential path that Fischer could have taken, then The Overnight is at least somewhat lighter. Kurt is still brimming with confidence and bravado, like Fischer, but there’s a human underneath there.
Overall, The Overnight feels too slight for me – even at only 79 minutes – to be truly worthwhile. Creep took things all the way to their logical conclusion, and never flinched. The Overnight feels like it does flinch in the end – just as the film was getting to something really, truly interesting, Brice goes for a quick laugh, and a wrap-up. The Overnight then is little more than a distraction – an amusing distraction to be sure, but not all that much else.

Movie Review: Iris

Directed by: Albert Maysles.
Featuring Iris & Carl Apfel.

When documentary filmmaking pioneer Albert Maysles died earlier this year – at the age of 88 – there were many fine pieces written about the man and his legacy. He was one of the pioneer of the direct cinema in documentaries –where he simply shoots with his camera letting the people he is documenting take them wherever it goes, without really planning what they wanted to shoot. He remains best known for a trio of masterful documentaries – Salesman (1968) about a door-to-door bible salesman, Gimme Shelter (1970) about the disastrous and legendary Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, where a member of the Hell’s Angels, who the Stones had hired for security, killed a man, and Grey Gardens (1975) about a couple of eccentric relatives of first lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis – all of which he co-directed with his brother David (alongside others). But Maysles never stopped making films – when he died, he had 49 directing credits including features, TV docs, and shorts. His legacy as one of the best and most important documentary filmmakers is secure.

Iris is the second last film that Maysles completed before he died – and while I don’t know that many will claim it is one of his best documentaries, it is a very good one, and one in which Maysles style and subject seem perfect suited to each other. Maysles turns the camera on Iris Apfel, who ran a company with her husband Carl for years, which painstakingly recreated fabrics from the past. They did work with everyone – from the White House to many museums, because there work was so good. Iris is now 93 – and Carl is 100 – and they don’t run the company anymore, although to say Iris is retired would also not really be accurate, and she always seems to be on the move – another photo shoot, another museum exhibit, etc. She is now a “style icon”, beloved in New York and other circles for people who care about those types of things, and still largely unknown outside of them. But once you see Iris – you will never forget her. She laments the homogenization of fashion, says most of the trendy people aren’t so much wearing fashion, rather they are dressing in a uniform. Iris doesn’t do that – from her trademark glasses – huge and circle – and her hairstyle, she dresses in a mixture of things, of both high and low fashion – expensive clothes next to jewelry and accessories she could get at the flea market or the dollar store. She isn’t just doing it for shock value either – whatever look she comes up, looks good on her. It may not work for anyone else – but she really isn’t interested in that. She wants to be one of a kind and interesting – telling Maysles that she knows she was never beautiful, so she had to be interesting, and saying that all the beautiful women she knows had nothing once that beauty faded. That’s certainly not true of Iris.

All of this stuff is amusing to be sure – but it’s the part of the movie that deals with Iris and Carl’s long marriage that becomes quietly moving – especially since most of it is good natured bickering or arguing about seemingly trivial things like yogurt. They’ve been together a long time now, and still get along and like each other. They’re under no delusions about being young – and neither is Maysles, which is what makes him the right person to make the film. None of them are done yet – but it’s only a matter of time.

At just over 80 minutes, Iris is a good little documentary – it isn’t the masterpiece that some of Maysles’ films are, but it’s a fine film just the same – and a fitting goodbye from one of the greats.

Movie Review: Pitch Perfect 2

Pitch Perfect 2
Directed by: Elizabeth Banks.
Written by:  Kay Cannon.
Starring: Anna Kendrick (Beca), Rebel Wilson (Fat Amy), Hailee Steinfeld (Emily), Brittany Snow (Chloe), Skylar Astin (Jesse), Adam DeVine (Bumper), Katey Sagal (Katherine), Anna Camp (Aubrey), Ben Platt (Benji), Alexis Knapp (Stacie), Hana Mae Lee (Lilly), Ester Dean  (Cynthia Rose), Chrissie Fit (Flo), Birgitte Hjort Sørensen (Kommissar), Flula Borg (Pieter Krämer), John Michael Higgins (John), Elizabeth Banks (Gail), Snoop Dogg (Snoop Dogg), David Cross (Riff Off Host), Keegan-Michael Key (Beca's Boss), Shawn Carter Peterson (Dax).
Unlike seemingly everyone else in the world, I didn’t much care for the surprise 2012 hit Pitch Perfect, which made acapella popular and propelled the delightful and talented Anna Kendrick to new heights of stardom. For that, I guess, I should be great – because it’s always great to see Kendrick in a movie, especially one that utilizes her singing skills. Overall, I just thought Pitch Perfect was a rather dull, predictable teen movie, with some really good acapella numbers, which I didn’t know if I was supposed to laugh at or love – but it was probably both. I watched the film a second time with my wife, and enjoyed it a little bit more, but not much.
Now, three years later, comes the inevitable sequel – which I think pretty much commits every sin a sequel can possibly make. It tries to jam in all the characters from the first movie, even if the story doesn’t really require them, it tries to add new characters as well, even if we don’t care about them, it has way too many plot threads, none of them are handled particularly well, and basically is tries to do everything the first movie did – just much bigger this time around. Admittedly, this does lead to some very good acapella performances – and the riff off this time, has become ridiculously larger than it was the first time, knows it, and embraces it. That sequence, and pretty much everything involving the Bellas’ new arch rival Das Sound Machine, was everything the sequel should be – and really was quite amusing, and the singing was great. Everything else in the movie – not so much.
Set three years into the future, the Bellas are three time defending US Collegiate Champions (and yet have seemingly lost only one member – but no matter) and have redefined the way the world looks at acapella. The movie begins with them performing for President Obama – when a wardrobe malfunction shows the world all of Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), shaming the Bellas, and perhaps getting them banned from competition. There is only one shot for them – they have to win the Worlds. But how can they possibly be the German super group Das Sound Machine? Meanwhile, Kendrick’s Beca already has one foot out the door as an intern at a record label, which requires her to stretch her musical chops. And a legacy Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) has just joined the group – and perhaps could be their future.
There are moments to like about Pitch Perfect 2 to be sure. I did like the music – perhaps even more than the first film. But there really isn’t a lot else here. Kendrick, usually the most energetic and likable of performers, pretty much seems bored here – as if she’s moved on from this, and wants to leave it behind. Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy pretty much does the same schtick as last time, with diminishing results – not least of which because it feels like, at times (particularly in the opening) the film goes from laughing with Fat Amy to laughing at her. That’s still preferable to how it treats another member of the Bellas – a Guatemalan, whose every line is about how awful her life used to be. If this was an attempt to put how piddly the problems of the Bellas’ are, than it fails, because basically the film just mocks this character. There is a fine line between jokes about racism, and racist jokes, and I’m don’t think Pitch Perfect 2 is always on the right side of that line.
Apparently, there will be a Pitch Perfect 3 – because when your movie makes $180+ million at the box office, of course there will be. The film is the feature directing debut of Elizabeth Banks, who also co-stars (alongside John Michael Higgins, who has grown far more sexist, and less funny since the first film) – and to be fair, she does an adequate job with it. The film moves at a brisk pace, and isn’t painful to sit through. But it’s also fairly uninspired – as most sequels are. Pitch Perfect 2 doesn’t aspire to be anything more than the first film on steroids. At that, I guess, it succeeds – so if you’re not a grouch like me, and enjoyed the first film – well, then you probably saw this film months ago, didn’t you?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Classic Movie Review: The Tin Star

The Tin Star (1957)
Directed by: Anthony Mann.
Written by: Dudley Nichols and Joel Kane and Barney Slater.
Starring: Henry Fonda (Morgan 'Morg' Hickman), Anthony Perkins (Sheriff Ben Owens), Betsy Palmer (Nona Mayfield), Michel Ray (Kip Mayfield), Neville Brand (Bart Bogardus), John McIntire (Dr. Joseph Jefferson 'Doc' McCord), Mary Webster (Millie Parker), Peter Baldwin (Zeke McGaffey), Richard Shannon (Buck Henderson), Lee Van Cleef (Ed McGaffey), James Bell (Judge Thatcher), Howard Petrie (Mayor Harvey King), Russell Simpson (Clem Hall), Hal K. Dawson (Andy Miller), Jack Kenny (Sam Hodges), Mickey Finn (McCall).

Anthony Mann directed many great Westerns in his day – but The Tin Star is not one of them. Mann directed five Western classics starring Jimmy Stewart – Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954 – which I still need to see) and The Man from Laramie (1955), alongside other films like The Furies (1950), with a great, characteristically strong performance by Barbara Stanwyck, and perhaps my favorite of his Westerns – Man of the West (1958) with a great performance by Gary Cooper as an iconic Western hero – the man with a violent past trying to do right (it’s the Western I think of when I recall David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence). I mention Mann’s other films because I do think he is one of the best directors of Westerns in cinema history – he ranks right alongside the likes of Ford, Hawks, Leone, Peckinpah and Eastwood. But his 1957 film, The Tin Star, while not horrible in any way, is nowhere near his best work. It’s rather bland and forgettable – even if moderately entertaining for 90 minutes or so.

The film stars Anthony Perkins as Sheriff Ben Owens, who got the job in his small town simply because no one else wanted it. The old Sheriff was killed, the bully Burt Bogardus (Neville Brand) pretty much does what he wants to – and dares the law to try and stop him. Perkins, in his patented Anthony Perkins way, stutters and stammers, is overly nervous, not very good with a gun and can barely stand up to his girlfriend – Millie (Mary Webster), the daughter of the old Sheriff who doesn’t want to see her man suffer the same fate.

Into town rides Morg Hickman (Henry Fonda), a bounty hunter there to collect his fee for killing a local man who was wanted for robbery. The locals don’t take too kindly to Morg – they liked the local man – but he’s stuck in town for a few days so Ben can do the paperwork and get him his money. But the hotel won’t rent him a room, and the stable is run by that bully Bogardus, who won’t put up his horse. Luckily he meets Kip (Michel Ray), a young boy who lives on the outskirts of town with his mother Nona (Betsy Palmer) – who is an outcast of sorts herself because she married a Native, who was later killed. She agrees to put him up. Morg, who tells Ben he used to be a Sheriff, then takes the younger man under his wing to teach him how to be a good sheriff – although a dark secret in his past makes him think Ben is an fool for wanting the job at all.

The screenplay for The Tin Star was written by Dudley Nichols – a frequent John Ford collaborator, and I cannot help but wonder if he wrote it with Ford in mind. The film certainly has a sentimental side – with Morg becoming a mentor to Ben, and a father figure to Kip – and Ford’s film often contained a lot of sentiment. Ford could pull it off – Mann, who by nature is more cynical, cannot quite do the same in The Tin Star. Too much of the dialogue in The Tin Star is on the nose – hammering its point into your head too much. Fonda was a great actor, capable of playing dark, brooding characters if called upon, and that is precisely what Morg should be. Therefore, it’s a curious decision for him to play it far lighter than that – when he finally delivers his speech revealing the dark secret in his past, it doesn’t feel right. A man who has gone through that shouldn’t be quite so cheery. Perkins acquits himself better as Ben – but, of course, it’s almost impossible to see Perkins and not see Norman Bates. In fact, Ben feels like Bates quite a bit – with the nervous, stuttering surface – the difference being this time, there is nothing deeper there. The rest of the cast isn’t quite up to snuff – especially Neville Brand as the man who is supposed to be the town’s Liberty Valance if you will. He seems like nothing more than a petulant child.

All this probably sounds like I hated The Tin Star. I didn’t – not really. Mann knows how to direct an action sequence, and the movie has quite a few good ones coming down the stretch. But the film is merely an average Western – they made a lot of those in the 1950s. Normally, an Anthony Mann Western is something to treasure, something head and shoulders above most films in the genre. Not The Tin Star.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Movie Review: Sicario

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve.
Written by: Taylor Sheridan.
Starring: Emily Blunt (Kate Macer), Josh Brolin (Matt), Benicio Del Toro (Alejandro), Jon Bernthal (Ted), Jeffrey Donovan (Steve Forsing), Victor Garber (Jennings), Raoul Trujillo (Rafael), Maximiliano Hernández (Silvio), Lora Martinez-Cunningham (Jacinta), Daniel Kaluuya (Reggie), Kim Larrichio (Silvio's Wife), Dylan Kenin (Charlie), Julio Cedillo (Fausto Alarcon).

On its surface level, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario is a brutal, bloody, violent and expertly crafted thriller – a cross border drug war film that offers a bleak view of what it is the American government is doing to combat the flow of illegal drugs into the country from Mexico, and their fight with the Mexican cartels. The film is brilliantly directed by Villeneuve – not to mention shot by Roger Deakins, one of the great d.p.’s of all time – and is intense from the opening scenes, right down to its memorably brutal action climax. As far as pure thrillers go, Sicario is one of the best you will see this year. Yet, there is another level to Sicario that I think deepens the film, and pushes it beyond the realm of the pure thriller. Like Villeneuve’s Prisoners from 2013, Sicario works brilliantly on the surface, but gets better when you dig beneath it.

When the film opens, FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is working in Arizona on human trafficking cases, and discovers a house – that they know, but cannot prove belongs to a Mexican Cartel leader – that has a few dozen bodies hiding behind the walls, and is also booby trapped with explosions. What she finds there sickens her – and she wants to get the people responsible for it. So, when offered a chance to join an inter-agency task force going after the cartel – she jumps at the chance, even though she knows next to nothing about the drug trade. The task force is being run by Matt (Josh Brolin), who seems casual and laid back, and who is also evasive about what exactly they are doing, and who precisely he works for. Their first task is to go to the “El Paso area” and bring in the brother of the man they think owns that house. Things are strange from the start – when Kate arrives at the plane to take her to El Paso, she meets Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who is even more evasive than Matt is about his motives. And it turns out that by the El Paso area, what was really meant was Juarez, Mexico – and the mission ends up in gunfire and a lot of dead bodies – that, of course, is pretty much swept under the rug. Right away, Kate realizes she has no idea what she has gotten herself into.

The film is about this violent world, for which there are no real rules, no real leadership, and people on sides of the drug war who are willing to do any and everything to win – even if no one has any clear idea of winning would actually look like. The movie exists in a world where the threat of violence is ever present, and about to burst at any moment. Villeneuve handles these moments brilliantly – nowhere more so than that border crossing mentioned above, when the agents are stuck in a traffic jam, and have to look around and everyone they see is a potential threat. When the violence finally occurs, it’s a visceral relief, because Villeneuve has done such an expert job at building that tension. There is a similar scene near the end – involving a raid and a tunnel, and night vision googles, that is handled expertly – without relying heavily on the chaotic, rapid fire editing many modern action movies use to artificially make things seem exciting. But Villeneuve handles even smaller moments well – a terrifying confrontation with some Kate thinks she can trust in her apartment, and the expert final scene where we think there is no way a character will do what we think he will –right up until the moment he does it. It is masterfully handled.

All of that would make Sicario well worth seeing – and one of the best thrillers of the year. But there is another level to Sicario as well – one that some critics have complained about, but that I think actually deepens the film. By the nature of her role, Blunt’s Kate is confused for much of the movie – she is the audience surrogate in the movie, and we are meant to be as confused as she is throughout – only really realizing the secrets at the end. After setting Blunt’s Kate up as the central character in the film – the movie almost entirely leaves her out of the climax – which some critics do not like, but I think makes complete and total sense. The other characters in the movie view Kate as a necessity – but not central, figure in what they need to do. Without giving too much away, they cannot do what they do without her – but they don’t really care about her either. They use her when they need her, but won’t let her get in the way. Blunt’s performance in the film makes this central conflict clear as well. She has been a great actress for a number of years now, but this is probably her best work. It isn’t easy to make a character like this so compelling, and human, but she does. You could compare her to Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty – the difference being that while both women are very competent in a world dominated by men, Chastain actually gets a chance to prove that, and succeeds. Blunt’s Kate isn’t really given that chance – and as a result she feels used by the end. As great as Blunt is in the film, Del Toro is even better – calm, cool, collected, his icy exterior masks something throughout the movie that he only lets out at the end. While you could complain that it’s too bad an actor of Del Toro’s caliber is continually stuck in movies about drug cartels (because of his race) – you cannot deny just how great he has been in films like Soderberg’s Traffic (for which he won an Oscar), Stone’s Savages (playing an unhinged psychopath), and now in Sicario (this doesn’t mention his performance as Pablo Escobar – mainly because I still have not caught up with that film yet – and at this, I may not). At the very least, Del Toro is playing different roles, in different films – even if they tap into the same basic story.

Sicario is a brilliantly executed thriller. Villeneuve is now one of the go-to guys in Hollywood for films like this – and he has parlayed that into bigger movies (he will direct the Blade Runner sequel coming up). I hope he doesn’t completely abandon his strange Canadian roots – in films like Maelstrom, Polytechnique, Incendies and Enemy, he shows a different side of himself, that is equally (if not more) interesting than the Hollywood version. But if it means more films like Sicario – I’m all for it.

Movie Review: Black Mass

Black Mass
Directed by: Scott Cooper.
Written by: Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill.
Starring: Johnny Depp (James 'Whitey' Bulger), Joel Edgerton (John Connolly), Benedict Cumberbatch (Billy Bulger), Dakota Johnson (Lindsey Cyr), Kevin Bacon (Charles McGuire), Peter Sarsgaard (Brian Halloran), Jesse Plemons (Kevin Weeks), Rory Cochrane (Steve Flemmi), David Harbour (John Morris), Adam Scott (FBI Agent Robert Fitzpatrick), Corey Stoll (Fred Wyshak), Julianne Nicholson (Marianne Connolly), W. Earl Brown (John Martorano), Bill Camp (John Callahan), Juno Temple (Deborah Hussey).

Johnny Depp has taken a lot of criticism of the past few years – much of it admittedly deserved – for his performances, which seem to be unhinged and eccentric – or perhaps just unhinged and eccentric in the exact same way each time. With the exception of last year’s Transcendence however, Depp has never given an uncommitted performance. Sure, he has given some awful performances in the past few years, but Depp really does seem to be trying each time out – and sometimes, it just doesn’t work. Therefore, it is a pleasure to see his work in Scott Cooper’s Black Mass – played infamous Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger – who ran the rackets in Southie, murdered a lot of people, and was a protected FBI informant who used his status as an informant to get the FBI to eliminate all his enemies that he personally couldn’t. It is another committed performance by Depp – but this time in a completely different way. His Bulger is cold, cruel and calculated – and he doesn’t let the layers of makeup, the contact lens or the deliberately bad hair piece he’s wearing to do all the acting for him. It truly is a wonderful performance – his best since his underrated turn in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009) – and perhaps even further back than that. Unfortunately for Depp – and the audience – however he is far and away the best thing about director Scott Cooper’s movie. The film has a great ensemble cast, but often they simply seem to be trying to outduel each other in their exaggerated Boston accents. The plotting of the film is more than a little confused as well. Because of Depp’s performance however the film is still well worth seeing – but had it been as good as Depp is in it, it would be one the year’s best.

The film basically alternates between the two different sides in the equation. Most of the time is spent with Jimmy, as he moves from small time hood, willing and eager to do whatever it takes to get ahead. The rest of the time is spent with John Connolly, who is already a “hero” FBI agent, when he’s transferred back to his old stomping grounds in Southie. He grew up friends with Jimmy’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) – now a powerful State Senator – and when he joins the task force assigned to take down the mob in Boston, he reaches back out to Billy to get in touch with Jimmy. They’re all Southie guys – and John believes Jimmy can help him bring down the Italians who run the city. And if the FBI needs to allow Jimmy to get away with some things, so be it. The Mafia is the probably – Jimmy’s a small time hood – at least for now. But Jimmy keeps getting bigger – and John keeps right on letting him, getting closer and closer to his informant.

Joel Edgerton is a fine actor – he has been great in several movies, most recently in his own directorial debut The Gift, this past summer. However, his Connolly never quite rises to the level to make a good counterpoint to Depp’s Jimmy. Much of the problem seems to be that the film never quite figures him out – it makes complete and total sense why Jimmy does what he does, but Connolly? The movie gives him basically the same speech several times, about loyalty and unbreakable bonds, but it rings false. Cumberbatch is playing an even more thinly defined character – as does the worst accent to boot, so he’s basically a distraction every time he’s onscreen. The stars in the supporting cast are the ones with the smaller roles – Peter Sarsgaard as a crazed, drugged out criminal, Rory Cochrane as one of Jimmy’s key men, who is slowly, silently breaking down throughout the movie, Jesse Plemons as Jimmy’s ever present, young muscle and W. Earl Brown as Jimmy’s go to hit man. They add color to the background of the movie, and help to elevate it.

Black Mass has been compared to the work of Martin Scorsese – but I think that’s a rather lazy comparison. Cooper’s film reminded me much more of the work of Sidney Lumet – in films like Serpico (1973) or Prince of the City (1981). To be fair to Cooper, Black Mass generally looks great – Boston almost always seeming cold and overcast, and he creates a palpable sense of tension that could explode into violence at any time. Plus, there is Depp, who keeps the movie grounded and interesting even when things start to meander in the final act (which isn’t quite set up or executed very well). Overall, Black Mass is an average movie – after Cooper’s first two films, the Oscar winning Crazy Heart and the underrated and under seen Out of the Furnace, it’s a little bit of a step down, yet still keeps me interested to see just what he’s going to do next. He’s got a great film in him – but no matter how great Depp is in it, Black Mass isn’t that film.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

My TIFF Recap

2015 marks TIFF’s 40th Anniversary, and my own personal 11th Anniversary of attending the festival. Back before I had kids, I would go full time for 5 days, and part time the rest of the days, ending up seeing somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 films. I hope that when my kids get older, I can go back to that sort of schedule. But for now, I can only go a few days – this year, it was three days and 13 films (well, 14 – I’ll get to that). Being at TIFF is like walking around in a movie induced haze for days on end – starting early in the morning, and go to midnight, seeing 4 or 5 films in a day, running from one theater to the next, standing in lines, not eating or drinking or sleeping very much. I stumble back to my hotel at the end of each night and simply collapse – and get ready to do it all over again the next day. I know to some, Film Festivals aren’t the best way to see films – seeing so many films in a compressed time period has an effect on how you see them – some more minor films gets lost in your memory, and other, deeper films don’t have the time to settle like they should. I have never found this to be the case for me. You do get time to digest the films, as you wait for the next one – and the great ones keep coming back to your mind over the course of the festival. This year, out of the 14 films I saw, I think 1 is a certifiable masterpiece, but there were several others I consider to be great, and most of the rest were all at the very least interesting and good. For the most part, I try to catch interesting sounding films – films that I may not have a chance to see on a big screen again, or at the very least films that I have heard are great from other festivals. You can stick to the movie stars and Oscar movies if you like – I always try to get a mixture of everything that TIFF has to offer. The great thing about TIFF is that they offer so many films, from so many genres and styles, that you can have any sort of festival you want. The bad part of that is that because they select so many films, some are inevitably going to be bad – so let’s get the two bad films I saw at TIFF out of the way, and then we can move onto the good stuff. (For the record, I’m not really going worst to best here, although I will start with the worst and end with the best – many of the middle movies are about equal).

The worst film I saw at TIFF 2015 would be in the running for the worst film I have ever seen at TIFF in 11 years. That would be Dito Montiel’s Man Down a heavy handed movie dealing with an Afghan war veteran (Shia LaBeouf). Two things make the films at least watchable – the first being LaBeouf’s very committed (though not necessary good) performance in the lead role. This is ACTING and it’s never boring, at least. The other is that the structure of the movie is so needlessly complex – jumping all over the place in terms of time periods – from LaBeouf in Afghanistan, to his days in basic training, to his pre-war relationship with his wife (Kate Mara) and their son, to him being interviewed by an army shrink (Gary Oldman) about an “incident”   to some sort of dark   future, where America has been destroyed and LaBeouf and his best friend (Jai Courtney)   try and find his wife and son. Montiel forces you to pay attention, because if you don’t, you’ll have no idea what the hell is happening. The bad part is that nothing that is happening is all that interesting – and all the actors who are not LaBeouf seem bored (to be fair, Jai Courtney always seems bored, so that’s just his thing). What Oldman or Mara’s excuses are, I don’t know, but part of it could be the horrible roles they have. Worse yet, the movie is one of those with a “shocking twist ending” – which isn’t all that shocking except in how heavy handed it is – plus the fact that after the twist is revealed, the movie just keeps on going for far too long. If for some reason, all this still sounds interesting to you, don’t worry – I’m sure you’ll be able to find Man Down where you find most of Montiel’s films –heading straight to VOD and your local Wal-Mart’s bargain bin.

Nowhere near as bad as Man Down, but still not very good was the Canadian mockumentary No Men Beyond This Point directed by Marc Sawers, which imagines a world that, starting in the 1950s, women started to be able to become pregnant without the aid of men – in fact could not get pregnant by men at all – and only gave birth to girls. Now, in 2015, the film tells the story of how this happened – and of the youngest man in the world, now in his mid-30s. There are some amusing lines in the film, and its never that painful to watch, but Sawers never really does anything the least bit unexpected in the film – and some of the things he suggests would happen in a world like this are quite simply laughably stupid (and not in the way Sawers intends). There is a seed of a good idea here – but unfortunately, the movie does nothing to exploit it, taking the easiest path possible throughout. Again, I cannot imagine this one is coming to a theater near anyone, anytime soon.

Another film that undoubtedly won’t be heading to too many theaters, outside of film festivals, but for entirely reasons would be Tsai Ming-liang’s Afternoon. The celebrated Malaysian born, Taiwan based filmmaker had said he was going to retire after his last films – 2013’s Stray Dogs – even though he’s still in his 50s, and while he Afternoon is a new film just two years later, he still may well be retired. This isn’t a film like his others – but rather is a filmed conversation with his leading man Kang-sheng Lee. Tsai, who has always loved long, unbroken shots, outdoes himself here – the entire movie is made up of 4 identical shots – with Tsai and Lee in chairs near the top of the house in the mountains they now share – with two large windows taking up much of the frame, as the trees from outside creep inside, and you see mountains in the background. All of this probably sounds kind of dull – and admittedly, it can be. And those looking for insights into the many films this pair have made together will likely be disappointed – many of their films are mentioned, but none are really discussed. Instead it’s a film about their friendship and collaboration on a more personal level. To be honest, most people probably won’t care about this film – even at TIFF, the screening I attended was maybe half full – and it does play more like something that will wind up as a special feature on a Criterion Collection DVD than a film unto itself, but I found the film calming, beautiful and serene, and really kind of fascinating. Like I said, it likely will not be seen in theaters outside of film festivals – but if you like Tsai, it is certainly worth seeing.

Another sparsely attended of my screenings was for Sergey Losnitsa’s The Event which is a documentary entirely made up of archival footage from Leningrad from August 1991, when a group of Soviet elites tried a coup d’état, and Russians took to the street to protest. The film is meant as a companion piece to last year’s Maidan (a film I didn’t see) about protests in the Ukraine over Putin’s acts of aggression. Putin shows up in the footage here as well – as a young KGB agent – but the protests are much different than the ones in the Ukraine – calmer, less angry. The ultimate point may well be that the more things change, the more they stay the same – there is a sense of hope among the protesters in the film – and it is true that less than 6 months later, the Soviet Union would collapse. Things didn’t get much better however, which is why there are still protests and anger. The film doesn’t provide much in the way of context for the events – but I found it wasn’t completely necessary – although the film will certainly be of more interest to Russian audiences (if they can see it) or those more versed in Russian history than I.

You may think that there would be little interest in a movie about Icelandic goat herders, but Grimur Hakonarson’s Rams was packed at TIFF, and the audience really seemed to enjoy the film, right up until the ambiguous ending, where there was an audible collective groan (personally, I like it when movies end like Rams does, but many audiences don’t seem to agree with me). Winner of the Un Certain Regard Prize at Cannes this year, Rams is about two brothers who can literally see each other’s houses from their own kitchens, but haven’t spoken in decades (we will eventually find out why). The two both raise goat – like many in their small valley community – and they are the only two with the type raised by their father – but an outbreak of scrapple means all the animals have to be slaughtered – but both brothers are too stubborn to allow that to happen without a fight. The film is thoughtful and gently comedic, and ends in an emotional maelstrom that you really do not expect in a movie about Icelandic goat herders. I wonder if the subject matter will keep general audiences away when the film is released – but hopefully not. While I don’t think the film ever rises to the level of greatness, it is solid throughout – and is more of a crowd pleaser than you may think.

Mad Canadian genius Guy Maddin was back at TIFF with not just one but two movies. The more official of the two was The Forbidden Room – which he co-directed with Evan Johnson, and apparently has been trimmed a little since its premiere at Sundance in January. Now just a shade under two hours, The Forbidden Room is a visually stunning film, in the usual Guy Maddin way but even more so, with a narrative layered inside of narratives – all apparently based on the plot of lost silent films, which is, of course, the type of thing Maddin would do. The film has a collection of Canadian and French stars – as it spins from one narrative to the next and back again, it’s all perhaps a little too complicated and complex, and yes, confusing. Still, there isn’t a frame of this film that isn’t full of visual invention – and the film is frequently hilarious in that typical Maddin way. I don’t think The Forbidden Room quite rises to the level of Maddin’s best work – like My Winnipeg, The Heart of the World or The Saddest Music in the World – but it’s certainly a must see for fans of Maddin. The other Guy Maddin film at TIFF – also co-directed by Evan Johnson, as well as Gaelen Johnson – only played on a flat screen TV in the corner of the Bell Lightbox Lobby on a continuous loop throughout the festival. Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton is more Maddin madness, but this time I think it really is one of the best things Maddin has ever made, and one can only hope that the film will be available in some form or another after the festival. Somehow Maddin was able to convince the “Great Canadian Populist” Paul Gross to allow him on the set of his Afghan war film Hyena Road to do a “making of” documentary of the film. Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton starts out with Maddin definitely throwing shade at Gross (that is where the Great Canadian Populist line comes from) as Maddin laments the fact that his own production is dragging on, and he’s out of money, while Gross gets a budget many times his own. This part of the film is hilarious, but then the film takes a more serious turn – and becomes less about Gross and his movie, and more about the nature of war movies in general, which Maddin describes as a “funeral without a body”, and wonders if there is a way to do a war movie that forces the audience to confront the reality of war rather than to try and recreate it faithfully, and then goes ahead and tries that – but taking footage from the Gross’s film, and playing with it – turning one sequence into a silly laser fight, with a with high contrast, and ending with footage from the set with a soundtrack of Guy LaFleaur reading from his own book scoring. Maddin’s films, of course, have always been steeped in cinema history – and this is one of his most interesting looks at it, forcing the viewer to see war movies in a new light. You may not necessarily agree with everything Maddin says in the film – I don’t – but it’s fascinating to think about, and Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton really is one of the best films Maddin has made. I really hope more people get a chance to see the film – which I have to doubt, since few outside of Canada will care about Paul Gross, and there won’t be many even in Canada who will (watching the film in the corner of the Lightbox lobby, I was surrounded by others – but most people seemed to be there for the benches, not the film). I had very little desire to see Hyena Road – and the reviews out of TIFF, where the film played, have basically confirmed my fears about the jingoistic seeming film (with some saying that a better name for the film would be “Canada, Fuck Yeah!”) – but I have to say, I just may see the film when it opens next month, if for no other reason than to actually see how Gross choses to show the same scenes Maddin does in this film. If you get to see this film – please do so.

Italian master Marco Bellocchio celebrates the 50th Anniversary of his first film – the masterpiece Fists in the Pocket – with a new film, set once again in his hometown of Bobbio, Blood of My Blood. Bellocchio has never seemed to quite get the attention his films deserve – and I include myself here, as I haven’t seen as many of his films as I probably should – and Blood of My Blood will likely also not quite get the attention it deserves. It is a beautiful, confounding film – the type that demands conversation afterwards, and perhaps a second viewing as well. The film is split into two – the first taking place a couple hundred years ago, as a rich outsider arrives in Bobbio, and along with Church Officials, are trying to get a beautiful young woman to “confess” to being in league with the devil, to clear the name of her lover, a priest, who recently committed suicide. The second part, set in the present day, also has a rich outsider arriving in Bobbio – this time it`s a Russian billionaire who wants to buy the prison – the same one from the first section – and the efforts made by the elderly vampire who calls it his home, and has power in the community, to stop him. How the two halves relate to each other is never made quite clearly – although there are certainly echoes of each part in the other. It’s the type of film that drew me into its web, and afterwards sent me scrambling to read some reviews that would hopefully help explain its complexities – although as the film had just premiered at the Venice film festival the previous week, and the consensus there seemed to be much like mine – a beautiful, intricate film that will demand repeat viewings to fully comprehend – they didn’t much help. Still, here’s hoping that Bellocchios film gets the attention it deserves in the coming months.

If Bellocchio is a confirmed Italian master, than Paolo Sorrentino is a more modern Italian director whose work is divisive, with many thinking he is a new master, and others not being quite so sure. His latest film, Youth, is his second in English, and his follow-up to the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, The Great Beauty - that many liked much more than I – I found it to be a hollow, repetitive Fellini clone that was basically a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. You could say the same thing about Youth – which stars Michael Caine as a famous composer and conductor, now retired, and on vacation in Switzerland, along with his old friend – a director played by Harvey Keitel, working on a new film, and his daughter (Rachel Weisz) who is going through a divorce, and still bitter about some things from her childhood. The film is basically about aging and death – of course – but doesn’t really have much of interest to say about either subject. Still, it is much better than The Great Beauty, if for no other reason than its shorter and less repetitive, so Sorrentino’s flashy style doesn’t wear itself out (and at times is genuinely stunning) and because the performances by Caine, Keitel, Paul Dano (as a young actor) and especially Weisz (who is typically guarded throughout, but has one stunning scene) and especially Jane Fonda – in what basically amounts to a cameo (although a brilliant one, clearly the best work she has done since returning to acting a decade ago) is typically top notch. Perhaps, I am willing to concede, that I’m too young for Youth to truly speak to me - the mainly older audience at the Princess of Wales seemed really into it. I liked Youth quite a bit – although I’m still not convinced Sorrentino is a great director, and I’m still waiting for him to top Il Divo.

Making somewhat of a comeback was Michael Moore, with his first film in 6 years, and in his best in more than decade, with Where to Invade Next. Like all of Moore’s films, there are certainly areas that you can nitpick – and I’m sure when the film is released there will be a lot of that – but overall the film really is more optimistic than anything Moore has ever made, and is basically about how America should, and could, do better than it currently does in terms of serving its own citizenry. Moore takes a tour of countries around the world (mostly in Europe) to see how they do things differently, and to take those ideas make to America to improve things there. He heads to Italy to find out about their vacation policies, to France to talk about school lunches, Finland for education policy, to Slovenia for free university education, to Iceland for female equality, etc. The film is fun, entertaining and very funny – the packed house at the Ryerson was certainly in the bag for the film from the start – and really does showcase the best and worst of Moore throughout. I found the film endlessly fascinating, fun and entertaining. Sure, you can pick a lot of nits here, but I think it’s hard to argue with Moore’s overarching point here.

A director on a current hot streak who kept it going was Denis Villeneuve who was at TIFF with his drug war, epic action film Sicario, which really is the best of its kind since Steven Soderberg's Traffic way back in 2000. The film stars Emily Blunt as a FBI agent who joins a task force going after a Mexican drug cartel, who has no idea what she is getting herself into. The film is intense from the start, and becomes increasingly bloody, brutal and violent, and although one can complain that the movie gradually leaves Blunt behind to focus on another character – a brilliantly cold and calculated Benicio Del Toro – that’s also kind of the point of the movie – that Blunt is used by those around her, in part because she is a woman and feel they can control her. Brilliantly shot by Roger Deakins, with great performances throughout, Sicario is one of the most intense films you will see this year – a thriller with a brain, that also manages to remain pure entertainment. Don’t miss this later this fall.

There were also new discoveries to be made – at least by me – and two of the best films I saw at TIFF were by filmmaker unknown to me until now. The first is Victoria directed by Sebastian Schipper, which focuses on the title character, brilliantly played by Laia Costa, a young Spanish living in Berlin, who meets a group of four Berlin party boys at a club, and stupidly decides to hang out with them afterwards. It isn’t stupid for the reasons you would expect – but for different reasons, as the night of fun and partying eventually turns into an ill-advised bank robbery and its aftermath, with the group of not exactly master criminals, do everything they shouldn’t do if they want to get away with it. You may have heard of the film – which won a prize at the Berlin film festival earlier this year – in part because of its formal gambit – the whole film, all 2 hours and 15 minutes of it, is done entirely in one take. There is no doubt that this is a gimmick – but it’s a brilliantly handled one by Schipper, who makes the films into a propulsive and energetic entertainment. There is nothing new here to be sure, but the film works as pure entertainment – which is never a bad thing. The challenge for Schipper will be to find a follow-up where he can do something this entertaining without falling back on a gimmick, as it would get old fast. For this time though the film works – brilliantly.

There was also Sundance sensation The Witch by first time director Robert Eggers which really does join the ranks of recent films like The Babadook and It Follows, as genuinely unsettling and scary horror movies, that actually elevate the genre somewhat. Set in the 1600s in New England, The Witch follows a very devote family – thrown out of their community, who try and make a go of farming and (mostly) self-destruct in a paranoia spiral. Yes, there is an actual witch in the film, but the family is still responsible for most of their own downfall – right up to the stunning final moments. It’s probably best to see The Witch knowing as little as possible about it – so I won’t say much more. I will say that the only demerit in the film is some rather poor acting by the children in the film (not including lead, Ana Taylor-Joy who plays the eldest daughter in a stunning performance) but the film is one of those horror movies that get under your skin, and stays there long after it ends.

As much as I loved Sicario, The Witch and Victoria, there was only one film I saw at TIFF that I would say is a genuine masterpiece – and that would be Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa a stop motion animated film, that it quite simply one of the best films of the year, and worthy of being the long awaited follow-up to Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York way back in 2008 – which was one of my absolute favorite films of that decade. Like all of Kaufman’s films as a writer, you can summarize the film quickly, but that won’t give you a sense of what the film is actually about – but I’ll stick to a brief summary, The film is about an author and speaker (brilliantly voiced by David Thewlis) in Cincinnati for a speech. Unhappy with his life, he reaches out for something more – first reaching back to his past in an effort to recapture something that is long gone, and then reaching for something new that briefly seems like it could be his salvation. The other voice work – but Jennifer Jason Leigh as a new woman in his life, and by Tom Noonan who does the voice of everyone else in the film is also brilliant. The animation is brilliant – and the precise right choice for this material (the bizarre criticism by some the films detractors that the film wouldn’t work if not for the animation is something I don’t get – would Fantasia work as a live action film? Would The Godfather work as animation?) The film is further proof that not enough people use animation to do brilliantly original, adult films – and like all of Kaufman’s films is quietly profound. This is a film that will be talked about for a long time to come.
So that’s it for TIFF for another year. The general consensus was that it was an off year for the festival – which isn’t a surprise, considering everything from Sundance to Cannes to Venice to Telluride has also been considered somewhat disappointing this year, and TIFF will always have an element of its roots as The Festival of Festivals – which gathers the best films of all the other festivals in a given year. It would be ridiculous of me – who only saw 14 films of the hundreds playing at the festival, to pass judgement on it. What I will say is that out of those 14 films, only two were bad, and the rest were at the very least were good and all of them were interesting. And any festival that gives me a chance to see a film as brilliant as Anomalisa is worth it in my book. There is no doubt about it – I’ll be back again next year.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Classic Movie Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Directed by: Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise.
Written by:  Geefwee Boedoe & Tab Murphy & Irene Mecchi & Bob Tzudiker & Noni White & Jonathan Roberts based on the novel by Victor Hugo.Starring: Tom Hulce (Quasimodo), Demi Moore (Esmeralda), Tony Jay (Frollo), Kevin Kline (Phoebus), Jason Alexander (Hugo), Charles Kimbrough (Victor), David Ogden Stiers (Archdeacon), Mary Wickes (Laverne).

Out of all the films during the Disney Renaissance – that stretches mainly from 1989’s The Little Mermaid to 1999’s Tarzan, 1996’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the one I had never seen before. It fell through the cracks for me – in that brief time when I was a teenager where I thought I was too cool to watch Disney movies, yet before I started babysitting so I saw films like Hercules, Mulan or Tarzan. It is seen by many as one of Disney’s weaker efforts from that decade where they once again proved to be the best game in town for animated children’s movies – but for me, while it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King – its significantly better than some of the other films from that period – like Pocahontas, Mulan, Hercules or Tarzan. Yes, Disney certainly Disney-fied Victor Hugo’s gothic horror tale – especially the ending (but considering the original novel ended with the heroine – who wasn’t that innocent in the first place – being hanged, the hero becoming a murderer, and then essentially committing suicide, how could they not? The film is still stunningly animated, contains some great songs, and is somewhat more thoughtful than many Disney movies.

The film is about Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce) whose mother dies trying to protect her newborn son – who is hideously deformed. He ends up being confined the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral, with no one to talk to except for the stone gargoyles (which may well just be in his head) – and visited by the brutal Frollo (Tony Jay) – the man responsible for the death of Quasimodo’s mother, although he lies about that. He fills Quasimodo’s head full of lies about his past, and about the city, and forbids him from ever leaving the bell tower. But Quasimodo cannot resist – so during the annual Festival of Fools, where everyone is wearing masks and costumes anyway, he ventures out. It’s there where he meets Esmeralda (Demi Moore) – a fiery gypsy, and the only person who will stand up for him, where his horrible secret is revealed, and he is mocked and humiliated by everyone else in Paris. While Quasimodo falls in love with Esmerelda, Frollo lusts after her – and vows to either possess her for himself, or see her dead. The other major character is Phoebus (Kevin Kline) – an army officer brought to the city by Frollo to help quell the gypsy uprising – and finding himself also drawn to Esmerelda, and fighting against Frollo – who he thinks is a brutal, horrible person.

Frollo is perhaps the most underrated, horrific villain in Disney movie history. He doesn’t get the attention of a Cruela De Ville or Scar or Ursula or Maleficent or Jafar – but he perhaps even more evil – a cruel man driven by lust and greed, who uses religion to justify his actions, and ends up almost literally falling into hell – which in his case is all too justified. Jaa relishes his evil dialogue, and turns him into a truly frightening creation. Quasimodo is not a typical hero for Disney either – he is destined for heartbreak from the beginning of the movie, and although the film gives him a somewhat happy ending, it is still undercut by the fact that he will never get what he wants. The film doesn’t make his rival for Esmerelda’s affection, Phoebus, into a bad guy either – he’s honorable, attractive and funny – a perfect match for her – something even Quasimodo eventually has to admit.

The film simplifies Hugo’s novel, and its themes, but still provides a good lesson for children about not judging a book by its cover. And it makes up for that simplification by being stunningly animated from started to finish, and being filled with great music. The film isn’t as jokey as many Disney movies, and it is quite a bit darker than many of them. The film may not be quite at the level of the best movies Disney have ever made – but that’s an impossibly high bar to reach for most films. And the film comes a lot closer to that bar than many seem to think.