Friday, November 27, 2015

Movie Review: Secret in Their Eyes

Secret in Their Eyes
Directed by: Billy Ray.   
Written by: Billy Ray based on the screenplay by Juan José Campanella and Eduardo Sacheri.
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Ray), Nicole Kidman (Claire), Julia Roberts (Jess), Dean Norris (Bumpy Willis), Alfred Molina (Martin Morales), Joe Cole (Marzin / Beckwith), Michael Kelly (Reg Siefert), Zoe Graham (Carolyn Cobb). 

The 2009 Argentinian film, The Secret in Their Eyes, is a very good thriller – expertly crafted and written, with some genuinely surprising twists and turns along the way. No, it really didn’t deserve to win the Foreign Language Film Oscar that year – especially not with two masterpieces, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet in the running – but it wasn’t overly surprising, since I’ve long suspected that the Academy likes to give the Foreign Language Film Oscar to a movie that feels like a Hollywood film, just in a different language, and The Secret in Their Eyes certainly qualifies. Therefore, an American remake was probably inevitable – but really should have been a can’t miss proposition. Really, you don’t need to change much in the original to move to America, and you could follow along on its basic path and make a decent film. Somehow though, the remake isn’t able to do that – and the result is a dull, morose thriller. You may like it more if you haven’t seen the original – and therefore may be surprised by the twists and turns in the plot – but I doubt it.

The movie flashes back and forth in time between the present and 2002 Los Angeles. In 2002, Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an FBI agent assigned to the D.A.’s office to track down terrorism suspects – and is currently monitoring a mosque that they feel may be a hotbed of extremists. His partner is Jess (Julia Roberts), an investigator with the DA, and they are close in and out of the office (not in a romantic way). They are called to a murder scene – because it’s right next to the mosque – and Ray is horrified to find out that the victim is Jess’ college age daughter, Carolyn. Although it’s not his job to solve the murder, he tries to anyway – and everything he finds points to one man – Marzin (Joe Cole) – but no one wants to move on him. He is a key informant at the mosque – and terrorism trumps rape/murder. As Jess seemingly falls deeper into depression and despair, Ray teams up with Claire (Nicole Kidman) the new ADA to try and make case. In the 2015 scenes, we find out something happened, and somehow the case went away – and Marzin disappeared. But Ray thinks he has found him – and wants help to bring him in.

The movie really should work – Ejiofor and Kidman are both extremely talented, but they completely lack chemistry in the movie – especially the kind the movie is going for, which ties them together over the years even though they haven’t seen each other in that time. This is one of the few roles in which I agree with Kidman’s critics – who say her face has grown too passive and non-expressive over the years, something I have disagreed with in the past, but agree with here. Roberts fairs the best of the three – it’s a smart bit of casting in a gender switched role from the original film, to cast America’s Sweetheart here – but the movie doesn’t push it far enough, and pretty much gives Roberts the same, one note of grief to play throughout the movie.

The writer/director is Billy Ray, who has written some good films before (Captain Phillips) and directed a few others (Shattered Glass, Breach). Here though, he seems on autopilot. The film ditches the class issue of the original, and replaces it with terrorism – which isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but the film doesn’t do anything with it. As a director, he follows the original’s lead, and stages almost everything at night – dark themes, dark visuals – but here the images are muddy and confused. If the original film is known for anything other than the ending, it’s for the amazing chase scene in a soccer stadium – the remake moves that to a baseball stadium here, but doesn’t stage it as daringly, so that it becomes yet another dull chase sequence.

The movie pulls out all the old tricks of the thriller – especially irksome was a montage near the end to replay the moments that you “missed” earlier in the movie that was an Ejiofor dropping his coffee cup away from being out of The Usual Suspects. What it doesn’t add is anything new – any real reason for it to exist. Yes, I know, there are many people who didn’t see the original, and never will, because they don’t want to read at the movies. Had Secret in Their Eyes been a decent copy of the original film that would have been fine. But it’s not a decent copy – it’s a pretty shitty one.

Movie Review: Court

Directed by: Chaitanya Tamhane.   
Written by: Chaitanya Tamhane.
Starring: Usha Bane (Sharmila Pawar), Vivek Gomber (Vinay Vora), Pradeep Joshi (Judge), Geetanjali Kulkarni (Public Prosecutor), Shirish Pawar (Subodh), Vira Sathidar (Narayan Kamble). 

Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut film Court looks at the Indian legal system, in all of its ridiculousness, in a film that moves slowly – grinding along more like how the legal system really is, rather than the way it is portrayed on TV. It follows the case of a folk singer, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar) who is arrested and charged with “abetting suicide” – apparently because he sang a song saying that sewer workers should kill themselves, and then a sewer worker killed himself. The case is hardly airtight – there is a legitimate possibly the worker died not because of suicide, but of stupidity, and the prosecutor has a very hard time even finding witnesses who could state with certainty that Narayan even said the sewer workers should kill themselves. The prosecutor wants him charged anyway – and put away for 20 years. He’ll do something else soon, she supposes, so better just to lock him away.

The courtroom scenes in Court are hardly scintillating stuff – as the various lawyers make their arguments, and the strange judge rules on them. Some of it borders on the absurd – like when the judge refuses to hear one case because the woman involved is wearing a sleeveless shirt. Some of it is quietly touching – like an extended cross examination of the widow of the man who apparently died of suicide, describing him as a violent alcoholic, and her life but before and after his death – both of which seem depressing.

The film is probably better when it ventures outside of the courtroom – as it often does. In court, we like Kamble’s lawyer, Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), who is fighting for a good cause. Outside of the courtroom though, he’s kind of an asshole – he rich and entitled, and quite clearly looks down on those around him. He eventually gets his comeuppance – in a way – but even he didn’t quite deserve that. The prosecutor is played by Geetanjali Kuulkarni – who we in the audience disagree with in court – she is clearly trying to push through a weak case – but when we see her outside of Court, she appears to be a hard working woman trying her best to juggle a career and family. Just as you start to feel for her, she goes to a racist play however – insulting immigrants to no end. In the final scenes of the movie, Court follows the Judge into his outside world. These scenes are quite good – and contains the films haunting final image, even if it perhaps underlines things a little too strongly.

Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of another filmmaker – not a feature director, but a documentarian – Frederick Wiseman. He too has made films with titles focused on an institution – and Tamhane has a similar shooting style – long, static shots that go on far longer than most directors would hold them. The courtroom scenes in particular have the feel of authenticity to them because of the way they are shot.

Court, it must be said, is a little on the slow side – the film strives for authenticity in the courtroom scenes, and only occasionally doesn’t in the scenes outside of court. The film has the rhythms of real life, and therefore, is perhaps a little too slow for some. But patient viewers will be more than rewarded by Court, which builds slowly, but is worth the effort. It’s not quite a great film – but it’s an interesting one, and a debut that makes me want to see what Tamhane does next. He’s the real deal.

Movie Review: The Hunting Ground

The Hunting Ground
Directed by: Kirby Dick.

Kirby Dick’s The Hunting Ground makes no secret of where it stands on the issue of rape on college campus – clearly with the victims, who report what happened to unfeeling University Administrations, who go through rounds of victim blaming and neglect, making the victims feel even worse. The film doesn’t really pretend to be neutral – and clearly advocates for those who have been victimized, and point the blame not only at the rapists themselves but in the universities who are more interested in money than in protecting their students. If they reported the real number of rapes that happened on campus, people would be less likely to go there, and write those tuition cheques – not to mention the donation cheques from alumni. And if the accused is a member of a big time University sports team, forget it. That is a massive industry, and needs to be protected at all costs. The Hunting Ground is hardly a perfect documentary, both because of things within Dick’s control and things outside of it. The film would have benefitted from hearing from the schools themselves – but none of them are willing to talk to Dick (nor were they willing to talk to CNN in the post screening special of the film earlier this week) – although none of them seem to have problems issuing press releases defending what they do (actually being interviewed would require them to answer questions they don’t want to answer). Dick, who as a documentarian has moved farther and farther into advocacy over the years does perhaps lay things on a little thick at times in the film, and pushes perhaps a little too much. Yet, when the film remains focused on the victims – who tell their stories in their own words – it is a powerful documentary that no one can really argue with.

The film opens with happy scenes – the only ones in the movie – as the film plays the graduation song, as student after student checks online to find out that they have gotten into their dream school – that everything they’ve worked for through high school has now come true. Dick is doing this in bitter, cynical irony (it’s certainly one of the times he perhaps pushes too far), because right after that he will cut to women talking about they were raped by fellow students, even before classes began. Again and again throughout the film, Dick will return to these women who tell the same story again and again – they were raped, they reported it to the administration, who tried to get them to not file an official report, and did little or nothing even if they did. Dick, whose last film The Invisible War, tackled the issue of rape in the military, knows how to make a film about a giant institution looking out for themselves, who see rape as part of the cost of doing business. Neither of these films are as strong as Dick’s own Twist of Faith – about rape by Catholic Priests – and that’s because that film was more narrowly focused – telling an individual story, rather than making a film that casts as wide of a net as The Hunting Ground does. The film is successful because those individual stories still hit hard, and perhaps Dick was right to cast such a wide net, because in doing so it makes the problem harder to dismiss or belittle.

The film doesn’t delve too deep into many of the individual stories – except in the last part of the movie, which really does dive pretty deep into the allegations made against Jameis Winston – then Florida State’s star quarterback, who has since been drafted first overall in the NFL. The movie allows Winston’s accuser to tell her story – and it certainly sounds credible to me – but regardless of whether or not you do believe her, I’m not sure how anyone could be happy with the way the case was handled – where no one even attempted to talk to Winston for months after his alleged victim filed the complaint, the DNA in her rape kit wasn’t tested for more than a year, etc. There are many things that are disturbing about this was handled by the police and university – but not only them but the media and fellow Florida State students and fans –all of whom seem to immediately take Winston’s side, without knowing practically anything (how could they – the police didn’t even know since they barely bother to investigate). This is certainly not an isolated case here – just look at how a hell of lot of hockey fans immediately rallied to Patrick Kane’s defense when he was accused of rape this past summer, or how long it took for anyone to take Bill Cosby’s numerous accusers seriously. The Hunting Ground is about a specific problem of rape on University campuses – but it also at least hints at the problem of how society at large responds to the problem.

Normally, I will admit, I don’t much care for the so called advocacy documentaries – they are usually fairly dull, point and shoot affairs, that end with a call to arms and website address urging the viewer to “Get Involved!”. Even when they are about important issues, the films are needlessly dull – there is no reason to sacrifice artistry in a documentary. The Hunting Ground at times edges towards being that kind of film at times, but never quite crosses that line. The victims, who tell their story in their own words, keep the focus and the anger pointed at the right place throughout the documentary – and makes it one of the more powerful docs to hit theaters this year.

Movie Review: Call Me Lucky

Call Me Lucky
Directed by: Bobcat Goldthwait.

Call Me Lucky is a documentary about standup comedian Barry Crimmins – who was obviously influential and respected, which you can tell by just how many comedians show up in the film to sing Crimmins praises. Crimmins is not the household name that many of those in the film are – and watching the film, I kind of understood why. Crimmins, it seems to me, was never actually very funny on stage. He was righteous and angry – he screamed at the audience about the evils of America and Catholicism, and always had an opinion on everything. He is incredibly smart and has no patience for fools. But watching his act through the various clips throughout the film, I’m not sure I ever actually laughed very much, if at all. There are reasons for this – which the documentary eventually makes clear – at about the half-way point of the movie, which also acts as a shift for the film in general, away from comedian profile doc, into something darker and more disturbing.

The film was directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, a longtime friend of Crimmins, who helped the younger Goldthwait at the beginning of his career. Goldthwait has become a very interesting director in recent years – giving his friend Robin Williams one of his last great roles in the very dark comedy World’s Greatest Dad, extending to middle finger to everything wrong with his country in God Bless America, which is more than another screed against reality TV, and also making one of the best Blair Witch knick-off with Willow Creek. Perhaps it was inevitable, but in his first documentary, Goldthwait doesn’t show the same daring he has done in his fiction films to day – opting for effective, yet safe, collection of talking heads and archival footage to show Crimmins early career, in which he had more success than many standups – but not quite as much as some of the others in the film.

The film shifts at the halfway point, when the darkness that was undeniably hanging over the first half becomes apparent, with Crimmins acknowledging that as a child, he was repeatedly raped by the boyfriend of his babysitter. Crimmins didn’t reveal this to his friends until the 1990s – when he started to talk about it on stage. Crimmins would eventually get involved in fighting child pornography – he even testified to Congress about how little AOL was doing to stop the proliferation of it. He remains an advocate for victims to this day – as the documentary makes clear. The second half of the film shows an older Crimmins on stage – getting few laughs than ever before, but completely baring his soul to people amidst his rather easy jokes about American Foreign Policy and the Catholic Church. He still wasn’t very funny to me, but there’s something touching about him up there.

Call Me Lucky is an interesting film about the life of a standup comedian, and then another interesting film about the life of child sexual abuse survivor – who has never forgotten what was done to him, but also didn’t allow it to destroy him. The film does go on a little long – it is overly repetitive, and loses steam near the end. But it’s a solid documentary – and not quite what you expect it to be.

Classic Movie Review Duo: Cure (1997) & Pulse (2001)

Cure (1997)
Directed by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
Written by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa based on his novel.
Starring: Kôji Yakusho (Kenichi Takabe), Masato Hagiwara (Kunio Mamiya), Tsuyoshi Ujiki (Makoto Sakuma), Anna Nakagawa (Fumie Takabe), Yoriko Dôguchi (Dr. Akiko Miyajima), Yukijirô Hotaru (Ichiro Kuwano), Denden (Oida), Ren Ôsugi (Fujiwara).

Pulse (2001)
Directed by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
Written by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
Starring: Haruhiko Katô (Ryosuke Kawashima), Kumiko Asô (Michi Kudo), Koyuki (Harue Karasawa), Kurume Arisaka (Junko Sasano), Masatoshi Matsuo (Toshio Yabe), Shinji Takeda (Yoshizaki), Kenji Mizuhashi (Taguchi), Teruo Ono (Doroningen), Masayuki Shionoya (Ghost).

The late 1990s and early 2000s were a boom time for Japanese Horror (creatively referred to as J-Horror) – with films like Ringu and Ju-On finding international attention, and eventual American remakes in The Ring and The Grudge. Most of these movies were ghost stories of one kind or another – with curses, and death, etc. spreading from one person to another. The genre pretty much ran its course – in both Japan and America – by the mid-2000s, although the roots of Japanese horror ghost stories date back hundreds of years, and never really goes away. Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a director who is somewhat related to the genre – but also somewhat removed. He has done some films that are straight ahead dramas – like Bright Future (2003) and Tokyo Sonata (2008), and has ventured into sci-fi and action filmmaking as well. He perhaps remains best known though for his horror movies – in particular Cure (1997), which isn’t a really in the tradition of J-horror (no ghosts), and Pulse (2001), which certainly is. Kurosawa has been on my radar for years – I particularly loved Tokyo Sonata – but somehow, I never went back and saw his two early horror films to recently.

Kurosawa’s 1997 film, Cure, predates the J-horror boom slightly (for the record, searching for J-horror on They Shoot Zombies Don’t They? Top 1000 horror film list has the first being Hideo Nakata’s Ringu from 1998, the last being 2005’s Retribution by Takahsi Shimzu from 2005 – and although Cure is on the list, it’s not listed as J-horror. Pulse however is), and is actually much more in line with the serial killers films of the era (which, in America, probably started with The Silence of the Lambs in 1991, and includes films like Seven, Copycat, etc.). In the film, a police detective, Kenichi Takabe (Koji Yakusho), investigating a series of brutal murders – all of which are connected, even though they are each committed by someone different. What connects them is a giant X on the victims who usually have their throats cut, and the fact that none of them remember committing the crime. Takabe teams up with a psychologist, Sakuma (Tsuyowshi Ujiki), who helps to give him insight into what is happening. Eventually, they figure out what the audience has known from the beginning – he mastermind is a young man named Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), who uses hypnosis to control the murderers. Mamiya appears to have no short term memory – constantly asking what is happening, what day it is, where he is, and frustrating Takabe – while also possessing some surprising knowledge about him – especially about his mentally ill wife.

Cure is neatly divided into two halves – the police procedural of the first, giving way to something darker in the second. Plotting has never really been Kurosawa’s strong point – and it isn’t here either. The movie certainly requires one to make some big leaps in logic, and buy some pretty big twists and turns in order to make the story work – including far too much about the history of mesmerizing things in Japan. What Kurosawa does excel at is building atmosphere, and terrifying set pieces – something Cure has in abundance. It may not need all the time it takes (nearly 2 hours) to tell its rather slight story – but there is more than enough to make the film worthwhile, including a perplexing climax, which leaves audiences reeling.

For me, the better film is Pulse from 2001 – perhaps simply because there is nowhere near as much plot as in Cure,
which as mentioned, isn’t Kurosawa’s strong suit anyway. The film is, in some ways, a techno-phobic horror film. Interestingly however, the film never really blames technology for humanity’s downfall as much as seeing it as tool that we use to destroy ourselves. The film tells two parallel storylines – both centering on a character who is trying to figure out why everyone around them is killing themselves – sometimes in bizarre ways. They are draw to the internet – websites that load onto their screen automatically, and promise a connection to the dead. After this, there are overly complicated rules about the dead, and what precisely they are trying to do – and how – and a lot of talk about ash, and literal red tape. Yes, like Cure, Pulse is somewhat confusingly plotted – although this one at least has the excuse of being about ghosts who use the internet, so perhaps stretching credibility wasn’t really high on Kurosawa’s list of concerns.

What Pulse does brilliantly however is create atmosphere. There are a lot of scenes of creepy websites – perhaps a few too many, since they are all kind of similar, yet they are all so effectively creepy it hardly matters. Pulse is a terrifying movie because of all that atmosphere – because of those creepy ghosts coming to get you. I’m on record as saying ghost movies don’t often scare me – but this one did, in part, I think because it so brilliantly brings the ghosts into the real world – and also because the real villains in the film aren’t ghosts at all, but us.

Both Cure and Pulse have their flaws – both could stand to lose 20-30 minutes, which would result in tighter, less repetitive movies with less downtime in them. They could have also used someone else at the screenplay stage just to tighten up the plot a little bit – just to ensure it actually makes sense (I’m not sure it really does in either film). What both films do accomplish – brilliantly in the case of Pulse, is to be deeply unsettling, and downright scary. Pulse, in particular, does this – mainly by following its premise to its logical conclusion. Pulse has aged a little bit in the past 14 years – the first sound we hear in the movie is a dial-up modem, which I think we can all agree is scarier than a circle saying “Buffering” for minutes on end – but it’s still very much relevant and terrifying. Kurosawa seems to want to move away from horror films – so be it. But while he was making them, he made at least two that won’t leave you alone.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Movie Review: Brooklyn

Directed by: John Crowley.   
Written by: Nick Hornby based on the novel by Colm Tóibín.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan (Eilis), Emory Cohen (Tony), Domhnall Gleeson (Jim Farrell), Jim Broadbent (Father Flood), Jane Brennan (Mary Lacey), Julie Walters (Mrs. Kehoe), Fiona Glascott (Rose), Brid Brennan (Miss Kelly), Eileen O'Higgins (Nancy), Peter Campion (George Sheridan), Emily Bett Rickards (Patty), Eve Macklin (Diana), Nora-Jane Noone (Sheila), Samantha Munro (Dorothy), Jessica Paré (Miss Fortini), Jenn Murray (Dolores), James DiGiacomo (Frankie Fiorello).

Brooklyn is one of the most delicate, subtle, beautiful and best films of the year. It tells a story that some people would consider small – focusing on one Irish girl immigrating to America in the 1950s – but does so with depth of feeling and specificity. It is a film that about the choices we all make – how even when the world gives us something great, it takes something away as well. Brooklyn is one of those rare films that can make you cry from happiness and sadness in the same moment.

Saoirse Ronan delivers one of the best performances of the year as Eilis, a smart, capable young Irish lass – who has no job prospects in her small town, outside of working at the general store a few hours on Sunday. Her bookkeeper sister wrote a Priest she knows in America, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) who agrees to sponsor Eilis to move to Brooklyn – getting a job at a fancy department store, leaving in a boarding house with other, young women, presided over by a wonderfully comic Julie Walters, start taking courses at the local school – in the hopes of one day being an accountant (did I, an accountant, love this movie because it may be the first time cinema history that an accountant is not portrayed as a pathetic loser? Maybe). In Brooklyn, she meets Tony (Emory Cohen – channeling a kinder, gentler version a young Marlon Brando) – an Italian plumber, and falls in love. Then, a family tragedy strikes, and she heads back to Ireland for what is supposed to be a short while – and meets Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson – for once not playing a nerd), and there is more confusion.

What makes Ronan’s performance so amazing is the subtlety in which she does pretty much everything – how she appears on the verge of tears at times in those early months in America, but doesn’t want anyone to see that. Those first, tentative flirtations with Tony, and how simultaneously terrified and happy she is when he tells her he loves her. Little-by-little, she grows more confident while living in Brooklyn – and she’s taking steps towards happiness, and away from the sadness of leaving Ireland. And then, amazingly, the performance shifts when she returns to Ireland. She always felt out of place in Brooklyn, being Irish, and now she out of place in Ireland, being a Brooklyn girl. She also, quite clearly, sees how her entire small town – especially her mother – is almost pushing her and Jim together. It’s not altogether unfair to say that Eilis remakes herself into the image that the town wants to her to be, a kind of self-imposed version of what Kim Novak did late in Vertigo for Jimmy Stewart. For a while, I think, she even starts to believe that version of herself – but a late conflict with an old rival snaps her out of it. This is immediately followed by a quietly devastating scene with her mother that should be enough to emotionally crush any viewer.

The film’s screenplay is the best work (for the screen anyway) done yet by Nick Hornby, adapting the novel by Colm Tóibín, that resists the urge to underline every passage, or vocalize too much. He has written a screenplay in which only one character is what you would call bad – and not really, just nosy – and she’s barely in the book. Every character in the film makes decisions that make sense, that are not driven selfishness or anything else – but some of them are still going to be crushed, because that’s the way life is. The film was directed by John Crowley – clearly doing the best work of his career (although when you directed a couple of episodes of the awful True Detective Season 2 that may not being saying much). He, wisely, chooses to make Brooklyn in a dreamily romantic film. It’s easy to make Ireland look beautiful – especially small town, ocean adjacent Ireland – and he does, but he also makes Brooklyn look beautiful as well – especially during all of streetlamp lit strolls Tony and Eilis take. Realistic? Maybe not, but this is better.

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
Directed by: Francis Lawrence.
Written by: Peter Craig and Danny Strong & Suzanne Collins based on the novel by Collins.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Donald Sutherland (President Snow), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee), Julianne Moore (President Alma Coin), Willow Shields (Primrose Everdeen), Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Mahershala Ali (Boggs), Jena Malone (Johanna Mason), Jeffrey Wright (Beetee), Paula Malcomson (Katniss's Mother), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Natalie Dormer (Cressida), Evan Ross (Messalla), Elden Henson (Pollux), Wes Chatham (Castor)

I’ve been a fan of The Hunger Games – both the books and the movies – from their entire runs. The first movie, by Gary Ross, is probably the best, as Ross found a way make the large scale action movie feel more natural, and grounded. When Francis Lawrence took over the series with Catching Fire, he brought along some Hollywood gloss along with it – but the series remained effective, if somewhat more impersonal. Even Part I of Mockingjay was good – even if it was needlessly drawn out to cash in with two movies. But now, here comes the finale, and it is easily the weakest of the films – and in fact isn’t very good at all. I’ve always thought the films, and lead actress Jennifer Lawrence, are most effective in the smaller moments. Whenever the movies under Lawrence’s direction, slide into action scenes or speeches, they ring false. And unfortunately, this movie is nothing but big sequences – a lot of actions and speech making, and little else. What really kills it though is how simultaneously drawn out and rushed the film feels (it’s hard to do both – this one does it). Action sequences go on and on and on – and yet the film doesn’t pause when someone, even important characters, die so it can rush headlong into another action sequence, another speech. Major characters are forgotten, or shoehorned in, and the characters who are left all play the same note throughout the film. Nothing connects in the final installment of what had been a pretty rock solid franchise.

The story picks up where Part I left off – the rebels have gotten Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) back, but he’s been poisoned and brainwashed by President Snow and the capital to try and kill Katniss. The rebellion is going good – but the rebels need to take down District 2, where the Capital’s stronghold of “Peacekeepers” and weapons are. President Coin (Julianne Moore) is determined to use Katniss as little more than propaganda – keeping her safe so she can remain a symbol. But Katniss is determined to kill Snow herself – and forces Coin’s hand. Soon, she is part of unit – that includes both other sides of the love triangle, Peeta, who still kind of wants to kill her, and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who has become more militaristic, as they storm the Capital – well behind the front lines, to keep them safe, but hardly risk free – as Snow has had his game makers turn the outskirts of the capital into yet another Hunger Games like arena.

Subtlety has never been this series’ strong suit – this has been a series where the characters will pretty much tell you off the bat exactly what they are thinking, and exactly what they must do. It’s to Jennifer Lawrence’s credit that she has made as much of this character as she has – even if she has clearly outgrown the character that once made her a star. Part of the problem is that as the series has gone along, it’s become increasingly clear that Katniss is little more than a pawn being used by all sides. Collins’ books did a good job of making this point, but the movies don’t seem to want to do that – Katniss is the hero after all, and heroes are not pawns in Hollywood productions, so they continually have her deliver ham-fisted speeches that underline just how virtuous and heroic she is.

There are moments in the film that work of course. There is an underground fight sequence with some truly terrifying monsters that really is exciting, and Donald Sutherland’s evil Snow is always a treat, even if he has gotten less complex as the series has gone along, and stops just short of twirling his mustache in this film. And every time Jena Malone’s Johanna is onscreen – not often enough at any point in this series – it’s enough to make me wish the series had instead focused on her flawed, angry, cynical character rather than the virtuous Katniss – if for nothing but pure entertainment value.
But as the movie draws to a close – with one climax after another after another (surely on Return of the King had more) he film really does collapse under its own weight. If you’ve stuck with the series this long, you’re going to see the final film – that’s a given, and perhaps you’ll be in a more forgiving mood than I was towards. Still, what I would like to see is Francis Lawrence forced back into the editing suite and combining the last two films – all 260 minutes of them – and coming up with a single film, about half that length. Now that’s a movie I’d like to see.

Movie Review: Listen to Me Marlon

Listen to Me Marlon
Directed by: Stevan Riley.
Written by: Stevan Riley & Peter Ettedgui.

I don’t think there’s another actor I’d more want to listen to talk about themselves for 100 minutes than Marlon Brando. For one thing, he was one of the greatest actors in American movie history – if not the greatest – and he inarguably had more impact on acting in film than any other single actor ever. The number of great performances he gave is immense – and while he was also more than capable of being horrible in a movie – especially the older he got – he was incapable of being boring in a movie – he was always doing something interesting. For another reason, Brando had a fascinating life outside of movies – one marked by tragedy, sure, but also joy. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it seems like he was more than a little nuts. Listen to Me Marlon is narrated by Brando from beginning to end – using interviews clips as well as personal audio recordings the actor had made for years – as an attempt at “self-hypnosis” he says. I’m not sure that the movie really adds all that much to the conversation about Brando that we didn’t already know – but the film is still a triumph – massively entertaining, and well made (aside from a bad score), that ditches the usual talking head/archival footage format of most docs, and simply allows Brando room to talk about his life from beginning to end. Some of it provides interesting insights into his work or his personal life – and some of it sounds like outtakes from his brilliant, rambling performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now – almost all of it is fascinating.

Like two other great docs from this year – Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and Amy (both of which are better than Listen to Me Marlon – but this is in the same ballpark), the film basically is a montage – and it is brilliantly edited by it’s directed, Stevan Riley. Riley more or less sticks to a chronological re-telling of Brando’s life – naturally spending the most time with Brando in the 1950s, when he was the biggest star in the world, and the early 1970s, when after he seemed like a washout, he made a comeback on stage. The film is never leaves Brando – who is pretty much the only voice we hear for most of the movie, as he narrates his life. Riley intercuts scenes from Brando’s movie work into Brando’s narration – sometimes because Brando is talking about that movie, and (more problematically) sometimes because the movie reflects what Brando is talking about (so, for example, when he talks about what a brute his father was, this is naturally intercut with scenes of Brando as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire). Brando recounts the theory of method acting, as taught to him by Stella Adler, his approach to acting in general. The film also recounts Brando’s personal life – his womanizing, his numerous children – and fixates on two incidents in his children’s lives – the first when his son Christian killed his half sister’s boyfriend, and went on trial for murder, and the second when that same sister ended up killing herself.

There are a few problems with Listen to Me Marlon. For one, Brando it seems didn’t like to talk too much about those two family incidents the movie spends so much time on –so the film has to concentrate on TV news footage, which doesn’t give you much in the way of information – the specifics of what happened are so blurry in the doc, you wonder why Riley felt the need to include them at all. For another, the only director given any time in the doc is Bernardo Bertolucci – who we actually hear from, discussing Brando’s brilliant work in Last Tango in Paris – for quite some time. Oddly, the film barely mentions Francis Ford Coppola – even if The Godfather is talked about quite a bit, and Apocalypse Now is at least touched upon, and I don’t think Elia Kazan is mentioned at all. The movie spends more time detailing Brando’s feud with Lewis Milestone on Mutiny on the Bounty – than both of those directors combined, although that seems to be the film’s way of detailing Brando’s decline of the 1960s – as I don’t think any other film he made that decade – including his one as a director, One Eyed Jacks, rates a mention at all in the film (which is a shame – there’s some good stuff there).

Some of this is inarguably because Riley had to work with what he had been given – and if Brando didn’t talk about, there wasn’t much that could be done other than take the more traditional approach of talking heads – and that could have hurt the movie more. Listen to Me Marlon is an attempt to get inside Brando’s strange head – and in many ways it succeeds wonderfully. Early in the film, Brando explains how he has had his head “digitized” to be used after his death – because actors will exist only in computers in the future  - “just you watch” he says – and throughout the movie, Riley returns to Brando’s weird, floating, disembodied floating head, narrating his life. It’s an oddly appropriate image for Brando – and a haunting one. Listen to Me Marlon really doesn’t tell you too much you didn’t already know about Marlon Brando – but any excuse to spend a couple of hours with this crazy genius is a good one – and Listen to Me Marlon provides that.  

Friday, November 20, 2015

Classic Movie Review: Amer (2009)

Amer (2009)
Directed by: Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani.
Written by: Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani.
Starring: Cassandra Forêt (Ana enfant), Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud (Ana adolescente), Marie Bos (Ana adulte), Bianca Maria D'Amato (La mère), Harry Cleven (Le taximan), Jean-Michel Vovk (Le père), Bernard Marbaix (La grand-père mort), Thomas Bonzani (Nono, l'adolescent), François Cognard (La silhouette), Delphine Brual (Graziella), Jean Secq (L'épicier), Béatrice Butler (L'épicière), Charles Forzani (L'agriculteur / L'homme à la voiture rouge).

I had not seen Amer, Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s 2009 debut feature, when I watched their follow-up The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, late in 2014. That film was visually striking from beginning to end – a loving tribute to giallo horror movies, that looks great, but has no narrative, no characters, and eventually starts to repeat itself to the point where despite all the sex and death on display, the movie ended up being quite dull. Amer is similar to their follow-up in many ways – but at least it has a narrative through line that makes sense, and given that the film is split into three stories, about three different erotic instances at various times in a young woman’s life (as a child, as a teenager, as a young woman), it doesn’t repeat itself as often. The film held my interest more than The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears – as there was something deeper than the visuals in this film. But that’s true only to a point. The film still seems rather bloodless to me – more of an academic exercise than a movie. It’s visually stunning, and has many aspects to recommend it, but the film still feels more than a little lifeless.

The movie is split up into three distant chapters. In the first one, Ana is a young girl whose grandfather has just died – and his body is still sitting up in his room. There is a strange, possibly deranged and violent old lady there as well – who may or may not be her grandmother (I lean towards not, since Ana’s mother wants to kick her out, but what do I know?). There’s a pocket watch that opens, and makes strange things happen – that could either save her, or doom her. When she gets scared, she runs to her parents – only to finding them having sex, a moment that imprints her on forever. There are hints of perhaps an incestuous relationship, and other horrors, but they remain that. In the second film, Ana is now a teenage girl – who body is starting to mature, although she doesn’t quite understand the power it gives her. She has to endure the leers of men and boys on the street, and comments like “You’ve grown so much in the past year”, which sound innocent, but are really profoundly creepy – as the men are sexualizing this young girl. Her mother eyes her warily as well – they are in sexual competition with each other, even if, at first, Ana doesn’t quite realize this. There is a motorcycle gang that she walks through – exuding danger – and a breeze that hits her in just the right way, to awaken something sexual inside her. The third – and longest segment – is Ana as a young woman, taking a harrowing cab ride back to her childhood home – now abandoned, and dilapidated. This segment threatens to explode into either violence or full on sex at any moment for the entire runtime – and things become increasingly dangerous as razorblades become involved.

If you know the work of Dario Argento, and other giallo horror masters, you’ll be in familiar territory here. The film takes great pains to look like those classic films, and the subject matter, the sexual awakening of a beautiful, teenage girl, the link between sex and death, the constant threat of violence and blood, is all here. It’s tempting to read a feminist spin on the material – one of the directors is a woman after all – but I’m not sure it’s there. The film is so rooted in homage, that I’m not sure it’s really saying much of anything.

That, in the end, is my problem with Amer. The whole thing seems like an exercise in homage, with nothing new to add to the genre. It doesn’t update, correct or even really comment on the genre is in. it’s just kind of there. The film looks great – but I want to see these directors take on something like Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy. That film was homage, to be sure, but it also subverts the genre and our expectations of it, and ends up at a truly startling and unique place. That really isn’t the case in Amer. Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani are talented directors, who have proven (twice now) that they can deliver the visuals of a giallo horror movie. Now, they simply have to do something more with it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Movie Review: Spotlight

Directed by: Tom McCarthy.
Written by: Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer.
Starring: Mark Ruffalo (Mike Rezendes), Michael Keaton (Walter 'Robby' Robinson), Rachel McAdams (Sacha Pfeiffer), Liev Schreiber (Marty Baron), John Slattery (Ben Bradlee Jr.), Brian d'Arcy James (Matt Carroll), Stanley Tucci (Mitchell Garabedian), Elena Wohl (Barbara), Gene Amoroso (Steve Kurkjian), Doug Murray (Peter Canellos), Sharon McFarlane (Helen Donovan), Jamey Sheridan (Jim Sullivan), Neal Huff (Phil Saviano), Billy Crudup (Eric Macleish), Robert B. Kennedy (Court Clerk Mark), Duane Murray (Hansi Kalkofen), Brian Chamberlain (Paul Burke), Michael Cyril Creighton (Joe Crowley), Paul Guilfoyle (Pete Conley), Michael Countryman (Richard Gilman), Len Cariou (Cardinal Law).   

The media takes a lot of criticism – and most of it is deserved. We live in a world of sound bites and outrage culture – where everyone gets really pissed about things one day, and have completely forgotten about it the next. Many don’t seem to have the attention spans to pay attention to a story long term. It wasn’t always like this – in fact it wasn’t even that long ago where it wasn’t this bad. Spotlight is a movie that takes place in 2001/2002 and yet it feels like a period piece for a time that has already passed. It is about newspaper reporters spending months investigating a story, who won’t go to press until its right. It’s hard to believe that even now, the story would play out the same way.

The film is about the Spotlight team of the Boston Globe. It’s a small, four person unit run by Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton) and staffed by Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). The Globe gets a new editor – Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) – and people are immediately suspicious. He’s not from Boston – and he’s Jewish, not like the rest of them who are Catholic (lapsed or not). There is a recent story about a pedophile priest that Baron thinks the Spotlight team should dig into – there are some people making some claims that this goes well beyond the one “bad apple” that everyone wants to think it was – and it has been going on for years. We know, now, of course just how widespread the problem was – no one really suspected back in 2001 though.

Spotlight has earned some comparisons to a movie like All the President’s Men – and it deserves them. Both movies are about reporters who simply keep digging and digging until they get the story. Co-written and directed by Tom McCarthy, Spotlight is in many ways a straight forward film, and McCarthy directs in a low-key style. But the film is full of specific, small details that let us know who these people are, and why they are pushing so hard. The film is basically about these people, talking in a series of rooms, and gradually unearthing the story – and if that doesn’t sound terribly exciting, the way it is done here, is. In fact, the movie is so effective in its low-key scenes that it’s the few moments where there is something more dramatic – yelling for example – that feels off in the movie. This isn’t a movie about grandstanding or speechmaking.

The film does have what maybe the ensemble cast of the year however- each cast member doing a great job, because none of them seem to be showing off. The news team really does feel like a team, who know each other. After Black Mass – where Depp was great, but most of the rest of the cast tried way too hard to adopt the stereotypical, exaggerated Boston accent, it was a relief in Spotlight that no one seems to be trying that hard to get it – they speak normally, with just enough of an accent so it’s apparent, but so much that it becomes a distraction. Keaton is probably the best one in the movie at this – he has the scenes where he has really talk to people who don’t want to talk to him, and do so in a way that gets answers, and doesn’t piss them off – and he does that brilliantly. Ruffalo probably gets the most notes to play – and it’s a fine performance, if slightly overdone at a few moments. They are the two that standout – but everyone in the cast has their moment – it’s just here, those moments are quieter.
Spotlight is a movie that sneaks up on you a little bit. You walk in, thinking you already know the story – there has not been a shortage of movies about the Catholic sex abuse scandal in the past decade – but the film still gets under your skin. It’s in the way the actors playing the victims – often in just one scene – show their emotional scars. It’s in the infuriating way those who knew, and did nothing, act smug and self-sure (Len Cariou in particular is wonderful as Cardinal Law). In it’s the tiny accumulation of details throughout the film. Like a great news story, it builds as it goes along, and is airtight. We need more film like Spotlight – and more journalists like the ones in the movie.

Movie Review: I'll See You in My Dreams

I’ll See You in My Dreams
Directed by: Brett Haley   
Written by:  Marc Basch & Brett Haley.
Starring: Blythe Danner (Carol Petersen), Martin Starr (Lloyd), Sam Elliott (Bill), June Squibb (Georgina), Rhea Perlman (Sally), Mary Kay Place (Rona), Malin Akerman (Katherine Petersen).

I’ll be honest – although I’ll See You in My Dreams got good reviews, I skipped it when it was in theaters because I assume it was going to be another “old lady” movie. You know the ones I mean – like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, where a group of old people rediscover the joy of living, through a series of comic misadventures that allow the audience to feel good about themselves. I don’t begrudge these movies existence – considering that every week seems to bring another film to fulfill the fantasies of teenage boys, getting a few movies a year that fulfill the fantasies of the retired set seems more than fair to me – plus it allows some great actresses, like Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren to keep their skills sharp, until they are given a great role again. But those movies never really do much for me – they’re always the same, and often fill me with the opposite emotion than the movie is going for – sadness, instead of happiness – because what I always realize during the movies is that the characters have been miserable for 30, 40 even 50 years, and only discover joy as they are headed towards death. Maybe that’s a helpful fantasy for older people – that it’s never too late – but for those of us in the midst of the years the characters were supposedly so miserable, it’s depressing. However, the cast of I’ll See You in My Dreams was so good – and the low-key Oscar buzz surrounding Blythe Danner keeps building – so I figured I had to see the movie- and I’m glad I did. The movie is hardly great – but it is much different than I assumed it would be. For one thing, the movie embraces the sadness that most of these movies ignore. For another, the co-writer/director Brett Haley seems to be actively working against the clichés of the genre – often setting up precisely the same sort of situation that you would see in another of the movies, and then taking it in a different direction. Now, whether that direction is actually a good one is debatable – but watching the film I was always aware that I didn’t quite know what was going to happen next.

The film stars Blythe Danner as Carol Petersen – a woman who has been widowed for 20 years now, and who lives alone with her dog (who in the opening scenes she has to put down – an early sign that this isn’t going to be the same old movie) – and hanging out with her three friends – played by June Squibb, Rhea Perlman and Mary Kay Place – who all live in a senior community, and want her to move in as well. Carol lives a safe, not unhappy, life – but not one that is overly fulfilling either. She has a daughter (Malin Akerman) – who never married and had kids, and lives far enough way that a plane trip is necessary to visit. When, late in the film, Akerman does visit – it is pleasant enough – but there’s just enough left unsaid between them to let you know that it hasn’t always been easy between them – that they are not overly close.

There isn’t much plot to I’ll See You in My Dream – but what there is involves two different men entering her life – for the first time since her husband died all those years ago. The first one is the much younger Lloyd (Martin Starr), in his 30s, who has moved back into with his mother and takes a job cleaning pools. The two of them have an easy repore – and its clear Lloyd has mommy issues – but are they really going to do anything? He does take her to karaoke one day – she used to be a singer at some point – and she delivers a stirring performance. Then there is Bill, who is played by Sam Elliot, and could only have been played by Sam Elliot, with his roguish charm. He is direct with Carol, and the two fall in love pretty quickly – although, of course, in a movie that is trying to subvert the conventions of the genre, it doesn’t quite end the way you expect.

Danner is at the center of every scene in the movie, and it is wonderful little performance. Danner has always been a fine actress – someone who slides into supporting roles, and ensemble pieces, and gives the film precisely what it needs. She has rarely been the lead though – and that’s too bad, because here she is given a role that requires her to hit a multitude of notes, which she does and makes it look effortless. The rest of the cast is game to support her – falling into their roles well, but it is Danner’s movies, and she carries it with charm, humor and grace.

I don’ think I’ll See You in My Dreams adds up to very much. In a strange way, it reminded me of Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies from a few years ago – as that was a film that took a stock romantic comedy situation – the best friends who you should be more – and then spun it off in a different direction. The problem with both movies is that other than not giving audiences what they expect in a movie of their genres, it doesn’t give them all that much in place of it. I’ll See You in My Dreams is better – because even when you realize the movie isn’t really going anywhere, there is still the pleasure of watching Danner and Elliot and Starr, in the best cinematic roles any of them have had in a while – but all of them could have been at the heart of a great movie, which I’ll See You in My Dreams is not.

Movie Review: Terminator Genisys

Terminator Genisys
Directed by:  Alan Taylor.
Written by:  Laeta Kalogridis & Patrick Lussier based on characters created by James Cameron & Gale Anne Hurd.
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger (Guardian), Jason Clarke (John Connor), Emilia Clarke (Sarah Connor), Jai Courtney (Kyle Reese), J.K. Simmons (O'Brien), Dayo Okeniyi (Danny Dyson), Matt Smith (Alex), Courtney B. Vance (Miles Dyson), Byung-hun Lee (Cop / T-1000), Michael Gladis (Lt. Matias), Sandrine Holt (Detective Cheung), Wayne Bastrup (Young O'Brien), Gregory Alan Williams (Detective Harding), Otto Sanchez (Detective Timmons), Matty Ferraro (Agent Janssen), Griff Furst (Agent Burke).

Some franchises just need to die – and Terminator is one of them. James Cameron’s 1984 film is a low-budget sci-fi masterwork, and his 1991 follow-up Terminator 2: Judgment Day is even better – one of the best action sequels in movie history. But since then, there hasn’t been much to recommend this series. Sure, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) was okay, and actually kind of fun, but the fact that it took a dozen years to follow the second film, and that James Cameron was not involved, tell you that no one really thought it was necessary. Neither was Terminator: Salvation (2009), which wasn’t even all that fun, and didn’t have Arnold. Some people seemed to like the short lived TV series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, but it was short lived, so probably not that many people. Now comes Terminator Genisys – and if this doesn’t kill the franchise, that perhaps the franchise is unkillable – because the movie is shockingly bad, and twists itself into knots to fit some of the timelines of the previous films, while ignoring others whole cloth. I’m not sure why every franchise now wants to be like the Marvel films – and create a wide ranging “Universe” (well I do know – money – but surely that has to more to it than that), but some franchises just aren’t built to sustain that sort of thing – and this is one of them.

The story of Genisys is basically the story of the original Terminator – except completely different. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney – stop trying to make him happen studios, no one is buying it) is sent back in time by John Connor (Jason Clarke) to save his mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke) in 1984 before a Terminator can kill her, so that John, the leader of the human resistance to the machines that have killed most of humanity will not be born. But when Kyle gets back to 1984 – he doesn’t find the helpless Sarah Connor he was expecting – and not the one we saw in The Terminator. In fact, she has her own Terminator already (Arnold, of course) who she has had since she was a child, and another Terminator was sent back to kill her. Etc. It’s all very confusing, and requires a hell of a long time to explain – and gets even more complicated than that, when Kyle and Sarah have to travel forward in time – to 2017 – to stop the Rise of the Machines, which had originally happened earlier, but of course the timelines have all shifted. And yes, the movie does explain how robot Arnold has aged.

The tortured storytelling sinks Terminator Genisys before anything else could. This is yet another movie that is meant to play on people’s nostalgia for the previous films, so much so that they throw in a lot of meaningless references to what came before, while ignoring the part they do not like (if I’m not mistaken, this movie takes place in a world where Terminator Salvation never happened – but the rest of the movies did). The movie is so devoted to playing this game of spot the reference from previous films, and has to spend so much time setting everything up, that it never really settles into telling a real story. The acting in the movie is pretty awful – although I cannot help but think that the screenplay sunk the actors before they opened their mouths - this is after all the role Arnold was born to play, but he’s terrible here. Jason Clarke is a talented actor as well, but what the screenplay requires him to as John Connor is ridiculously dumb. No, I don’t think Jai Courtney is a very good actor – but no one is saving this version of Kyle Reese. I haven’t been overly impressed with Emila Clarke on Game on Thrones (I’m only through 4 seasons, and the best acting she has done is in the Season 4 finale – other than that, I keep wondering if she’s going to do something, anything in the goddamn series) – but she’s better there than she is here.

The film was directed by Alan Taylor – one of the best TV directors (he has worked on The West Wing, The Sopranos – for which he won an Emmy -  Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Deadwood and Homicide: Life on the Streets among other) he now seems to be the go-to director for disappointing franchise sequels. He doesn’t really handle anything well here – not the convoluted plot, not the actors, not even the action sequences which are leaden and dull.
We live in an age where franchise movie dominate the box office to such an extent, that it is somewhat understandable that every studio is looking at the properties they own, and trying to find a way to turn it into something larger – like the Marvel movies. I’m not great lover of those Marvel movies – but the more films like Terminator Genisys I see, the more I have to admire what Marvel has done, and admit they’ve done it well. For the most part, the Marvel movies have all been fun and entertaining – and are able to tell a story, over a series of movie, while still maintaining each movie’s individual stories. The quality of the film varies to be sure – but they’ve never made a film as dismal as Terminator Genisys (they even hired the same director for Thor: The Dark World – one of the weaker entries in their series, but a hell of lot better than this). I may not love that era of the never ending, ever expanding franchise – but I have to admit that Marvel does it well, and it cannot be easy, if others are making films as awful as this one is. Please, put the Terminator out of its misery, and end the series here.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Classic Movie Review: God Told Me To (1976)

God Told Me To (1976)
Directed by: Larry Cohen.
Written by: Larry Cohen.
Starring: Tony Lo Bianco (Peter J. Nicholas), Deborah Raffin (Casey Forster), Sandy Dennis (Martha Nicholas), Sylvia Sidney (Elizabeth Mullin), Sam Levene (Everett Lukas), Robert Drivas (David Morten), Mike Kellin (Deputy Commissioner), Richard Lynch (Bernard Phillips), Sammy Williams (Harold Gorman), Jo Flores Chase (Mrs. Gorman), William Roerick (Richards).

At what point do a film’s fundamental flaws sink the whole enterprise, even if there is a lot of interesting things going on in the movie? This is the question I have been asking myself since I saw God Told Me To, Larry Cohen’s 1976 sci-fi/religious horror film that has a lot of interesting ideas running through pretty much every scene, and yet is undone by poor pacing, poor editing and an overbearing score, which makes some of the dialogue incomprehensible, which makes the already overly confusing plot even more so. I wanted to like the film – in many ways, it truly is a one of a kind horror film – but in the end, the flaws overwhelm everything else. You may well feel different – many do, as the film often makes lists of the greatest horror films ever made.

The film stars Tony Lo Bianco as Peter Nicholas – and police Detective, who from the beginning of the movie is thrust into the heart of a very strange case. A sniper sits atop a water tower, and picks off 14 innocent people. Nicholas arrives to try and talk him down – and fails – but before the sniper jumps to his death he confides that his motive was because “God Told Me To”. In the coming days and weeks, there are more and more mass killings – and the killers all tell Nicholas the same thing. God Told Me To. This becomes impossible for Nicholas to square in his mind – he is a devout Catholic. Yes, he is in the process of getting a divorce, but he doesn’t much like it – and is lying to his new girlfriend about why the divorce hasn’t gone through yet. He goes to Church every morning, and confesses everything. Why do all these people think God is telling them to kill? Could God actually be doing that?

The movie takes some very bizarre twists and turns – the biggest one basically turns the whole of Christianity into a weird joke at best, and at worst just another perverse plot twist in a movie full of them. Perhaps that it Cohen’s ultimate point here – he certainly doesn’t think all that much of religion throughout the film, which basically dooms the film’s “hero” from the start. The film ends with its most bizarre twist yet – a moment that seems like a precursor to at some of the body horror that was to come from David Cronenberg.

There are a lot of interesting moments in God Told Me To – including a confrontation between Nicholas and an older woman, played by screen legend Sylvia Sidney, that doesn’t quite go where we thought it would. There is also a bizarre scene that depending on how you choose to look at it, is either commenting on racism or else is just plain racist. The film has some interesting ideas on race, sexuality, masculinity and religion.

Why then do I find myself not much liking God Told Me To? This would seem to be right up my alley, and its influence on other filmmakers is fairly undeniable. But for me, God Told Me To just doesn’t end up working because its plot is just simply too incomprehensible. It requires the viewer to make some pretty big leaps in logic to get from point a to point b, and even then I don’t think it makes much sense. The plotting is confused, the writing is often on the nose, and the editing leaves much to be desired. When it gets right down to it, God Told Me To be a movie brimming with ideas, but has no idea how to say any of them. I wanted to like the film – I wanted to see the film that many see. But I can’t – all those interesting ideas are trapped behind a confused, confusing, muddled mess of a surface. Before a movie can work as subtext, it needs to work as text.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Movie Review: Spectre

Directed by: Sam Mendes.   
Written by: John Logan and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth based on characaters created by Ian Fleming.
Starring: Daniel Craig (James Bond), Christoph Waltz (Blofeld), Léa Seydoux (Madeleine Swann), Ralph Fiennes (M), Monica Bellucci (Lucia), Ben Whishaw (Q), Naomie Harris (Moneypenny), Dave Bautista (Hinx), Andrew Scott (C), Rory Kinnear (Tanner), Jesper Christensen (Mr. White), Alessandro Cremona (Marco Sciarra), Stephanie Sigman (Estrella).
The Daniel Craig era of James Bond films has tried, with mixed results, to have more continuity than the previous Bond films ever had- making the four films really feel more like a series rather than four stand alone movies. The first, Casino Royale, is one of the best Bond films ever – a corrective of the Brosnan era, which had gotten increasingly goofy, too heavily reliant on gadgets and quips to the point that they had almost become a parody of Bond films. Casino Royale stripped all that away, and went back to the basics – and was a superior film as a result – it made Bond relevant again. The follow-up, Quantum of Solace, is widely regarded as one of the worst Bond films – and even if I wouldn’t be quite that hard on it, the film, which is heavily reliant on the events of Casino Royale, is essentially a revenge film – and not a particularly great one at that. Skyfall may just be the best Bond film ever made – it gives Bond more backstory than ever before, which gives the film more emotional resonance than any other film in the series. It is also an expertly crafted action film, and thanks to Roger Deakins amazing cinematography, the best looking Bond film ever made. In a way, Skyfall set the standard too high, and made it very hard to follow-up. Where does this series go from there?

 Apparently the answer is Spectre, which doesn’t come close to matching Skyfall or Casino Royale – and is basically just a solid, if unspectacular, entry in the long running series. The Craig Bond films always had a relationship with the past – Casino Royale rebooted the franchise, Skyfall paints Bond as a man out of sync with modern times, but both call back in various ways with what came before, without being beholden to it. Spectre on the other hand is simply too beholden to what happened in Bond films of the past – so much so that it relies on the audience knowing things about Bond’s past, or else the meaning of the movie is lost. It introduces a famous Bond villain from the past – but doesn’t bother to do anything to set up this version of the character, instead relying on the assumption that audiences will know who he is. If you don’t, then many of the films big, dramatic moments will certainly fall flat – they still did for me, and I knew who the character was.

The movie does start out brilliant – a Day of the Dead sequence in Mexico, including a brilliant tracking shot that first follows one character, before switching to Bond and then follows him until he comes back into contact with the original character. It is a brilliantly staged sequence – the best in the movie by far – and ends with a bang – and gives Bond a clue – a ring with an octopus on it, which will lead him on the chase for the rest of the film.
The movie strains for modern relevance in other sequences – where the new M (Ralph Fiennes) has to try and protect the OO program from C (Andrew Scott), who feels the whole thing in antiquated, and instead wants to rely on constant surveillance of everyone, and drone warfare – as well as a partnership with other world powers to share Intelligence. The ins and outs of this plot give Fiennes something to do, and does eventually reconnect with what Bond is doing, but is also the reason why this movie runs two and a half hours – and unlike Skyfall, which was the same length, this film feels that long.

The much touted appearance of Monica Bellucci as the “oldest Bond girl” ever is much ado about nothing – she’s barely in the film, and although she looks amazing (of course she does, she’s Monica Bellucci) she barely even qualifies as a Bond girl. That honor falls to talented (and much younger) Lea Seydoux, who should be a good match for Craig’s Bond, and but she is little more than a damsel in distress, especially in the last act. Christophe Waltz fulfills his destiny to play a Bond villain – but unfortunately, the movie undercuts his character at every turn – so much so that the two-time Oscar winner is never really able to become a character. Ben Whishaw is once again a pure joy as Q – I especially loved the moment he laughs at his own joke – but after Skyfall made brilliant use of Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, it is extremely disappointing to see how little she is given to do this time around.

For the most part the action sequences are well handled – even if I couldn’t help but wonder if the production somehow got a great deal on helicopters as they seem to factor in every one of them. If the cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema doesn’t come close to matching that by Deakins that’s more because of how good Deakins work was, not that the work here is bad.

The further away I get from Spectre, the less I like it, the more problems I have with it. While I was watching the film, I enjoyed it – it moves quickly enough that it allows you to turn off your brain and have fun with the movie. If that’s all you want, than sure, Spectre gets the job done. But given the standard this series has set in recent years, Spectre cannot help but be a pretty major disappointment.