Monday, October 31, 2016

Movie Review: Moonlight

Directed by: Barry Jenkins.
Written by: Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney.
Starring: Alex R. Hibbert (Little), Ashton Sanders (Chiron), Trevante Rhodes (Black), Mahershala Ali (Juan), Naomie Harris (Paula), Janelle Monáe (Teresa), André Holland (Kevin), Jharrel Jerome (Kevin - 16), Jaden Piner (Kevin - 9), Patrick Decile (Terrel).
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is going to be one of the most “thinkpiece-ed” films of 2016 – and with good reason, as the film has a lot to say about issues that are at the forefront of our culture in 2016. The film deals with masculinity – and how our culture shapes that, forcing men to take on roles they didn’t really want, and become people who they are not, in order to fit the culture around them. Specifically, it deals with black masculinity – and, like many all great movies, it is rooted in the specific details of its leading characters life – the universal comes from the specific. It is a film about sexuality – again, specifically black, male sexuality, something that as a culture, we rarely discuss. It is a film that is relevant to the Black Lives Matter movement, as it humanizes what so much media demonizes, as well as a rebuke of last year’s Oscars So White, as it has lots of amazing work done by African Americans, and has become an Oscar frontrunner in these early days. All of this is true – and it is important. But I want to make something clear about Moonlight – it is a brilliant film first and foremost – an amazingly told, intimate story with some of the best writing, directing, acting and filmmaking you will see this year. Moonlight is an important film – all the more so because it is a great film as well.
The story centers on one young, black man growing up in the projects of Miami in the late-1980s, and then at roughly 10 year intervals from there, at three specific times and places. When we first meet him, his nickname is Little (played by Alex R. Hibbert) – and he is painfully shy and quiet, picked on by the other boys for being different, although he doesn’t quite understand how he’s different. His father is not in the picture, and his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is trying – but she’s also addicted to crack, and that takes precedence in her life. Little meets Juan (Mahershala Ali) – a drug dealer, and Juan takes him under his wing – not as his business apprentice, but as a father figure. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) become two of the only people who care about Little – and the people he opens up – in a heartbreaking scene, he asks them what the word “faggot” means, and if he is one. Eventually, we flash forward to Little in high school – he now goes by his actual name, Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and he is still incredibly quiet, still picked on by the other kids in his school, and is still dealing with his mother, whose addiction has only grown stronger. He knows about his sexuality now – but will hardly admit to himself, let alone anyone else – his anger rising in him. He does have a connection with another boy Kevin (Jharrel Jerome)- who is brash and overcompensating. Things happen – then we flash forward again. Chiron is now a drug dealer himself – he goes by Black, he’s left Miami, and becomes the kind of muscle-bound, grill wearing cliché we picture drug dealers to be. He gets a call from Kevin (Andre Holland) – who he hasn’t seen in years – and heads back down to Miami to see him.
In between each section, we immediately sense that a lot has happened to Chiron – who has is forced to grow up each time – become someone else, suppress who he is. The one common thing he maintains through each segment is that is painfully quiet – while Chiron is at the center of every scene in the movie, he may have less dialogue than other characters – like Juan, Teresa, Paula or Kevin – who only show up for parts of each segment (and in some cases, only one or two of the segments themselves). The three actors who play him do a remarkable job – so much of the movie happens on their face, even though Chiron is a mostly passive character, he takes in everything around him. The other actors in the film do a great job as well. Ali, best known (to me) as Remy from House of Cards, makes a human character out his drug dealer Juan – opening up to Little in ways he doesn’t with most people (as it would show weakness) – and giving him great advice. Naomie Harris – who has quietly been doing great work since 28 Days Later (2002) gives a wonderful performance as Paula – the crack addicted mother, who loves her son, but is powerless to control her addiction.
As a director, this is only Jenkins’ second film – following Medicine for Melancholy (2008) – but he has confidence in his abilities, and makes a fascinating, visually striking film. Yes, the film takes place in the mostly poor areas of Miami – but Jenkins and company finds beauty there as well, particularly when the characters visit the beach and the ocean – a place that seems to free them to be themselves, in a way they cannot be when they are confined to the hot interior spaces of the rest of the movie. Jenkins doesn’t feel the need to underline much of what happens – as is too often the case in films – he is confident that you’ll pick up the visual cues throughout the film.
Moonlight is an important film for all the reasons, and more, that were mentioned at the top of the review. It certainly does provide us with a sympathetic, human glimpse into the world of one, conflicted, poor, black, gay character in a way that few films have dared do before. But it is a great film not because of what it’s about, but instead because of the way it goes about it – it is a heartbreaking film – that doesn’t solve all the problems of its main character by the end, but points in a more hopeful direction. It is one of the year’s best films so far.

Movie Review: The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden
Directed by: Chan-wook Park.
Written by: Seo-Kyung Chung & Chan-wook Park based on the novel by Sarah Waters.
Starring: Min-hee Kim (Lady Hideko), Kim Tae-ri (Sook-Hee), Jung-woo Ha (Count Fujiwara), Jin-woong Jo (Uncle Kouzuki).
Too far is never far enough for Korean auteur Chan-wook Park – the filmmaker responsible for films like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, Thirst and Stoker. His films are always violent, burst sexual taboos, and go to places that you never quite expect them to. Are they over the top? Sure – gleefully so at times, but not in a way that feels cheap. Park is a world class filmmaker, who deliberately pushes your buttons, and then stands back grinning. His latest, The Handmaiden, is two and half hours of pure, cinematic bliss.
The story takes place in Japanese occupied Korean in the 1930s. A conman, calling himself Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), a Korean posing as a Japanese man, arrives at the home of a “family” of female pickpockets and thieves. He recruits Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), to pose as a handmaiden to a rich, Korean heiress, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). She is worth a lot of money, and her only relative is an Uncle (Jin-woong Jo), who is obsessed with Japan, control her every move and plans to marry her, so he will have all the money. But Count Fujiwara has other ideas – the Uncle is in love with his vast library, and occasionally needs to services of a skilled forger to recreate his books – and this role is filled by the Count, a Korean man, posing as Japanese. He is also Lady Hideko’s art teacher. He plans on seducing her, marrying her, having her declared insane, and then having the money all to himself – and needs an inside man to help, which is why Sook-Hee will work as the Lady’s handmaiden – basically a personal servant who attends to her every need. Now, if you think I’ve given away too much plot – don’t worry. That’s all discussed in the first 10 minutes or so, and the film will twist and contort itself any number of ways through the course of the film – taking on the different perspectives of Sook-Hee and Lady Hideko in the first two acts, and then a more all-seeing one in the third. By the end, your dizzying at all the twists, but pleasantly so.
The film takes its time getting going – especially by Park’s standards. The first third seems like a fairly basic – if brilliantly stylized – conman moving, in which the perpetrator of the con and the victim, really do fall in love – although, with a lesbian twist. But Park is holding back in this sequence – which ends with a shocking twist, and then goes back over the same ground a second time, from a different point of view – this time holding nothing back. We see the same extended sex scene between the two women in both sections for example, but the first time, it almost seems sweet and innocent – the second time, it just keeps going and going, and is anything but innocent. That describes the movie as well. Yet, part of what makes the movie so good, is that each twist doesn’t make the characters less interesting or shallower – but the opposite. As they reveal themselves to each other, their connection deepens. As the film becomes more lurid, it also becomes more mesmerizing.
Park co-wrote the screenplay, based on a novel that was set in Victorian England, and transplanted it to Korea. In the mansion Lady Hideko lives in, he seems inspired by gothic romances – like Jane Eyre – and the mansion is slightly less show-offy, but just as brilliant as the one in Guillermo Del Toro’s similar gothic romance, Crimson Peak, from last year. Park’s film is better than Del Toro’s though, because it’s better written and performed – the characters seem real, no matter how insane the plot gets.
I know some will find the film the exploitive or hypocritical. It is, after all, a film about two women trapped by the male gaze – the two major male characters (and other, minor ones, whose roles I won’t spoil) look at Lady Hideko, not as a person, but as an object to get what they want – they barely see Sook-Hee at all. The story of the film has them break free of that prison – and yet is also one where it’s hard to deny the male gaze plays a part as well – all those sex scenes are as graphic and extended as those in Blue is the Warmest Color for example. I won’t argue against that point per se – except to say, that the sex scenes are in keeping with the rest of the film – bold and bracing and over the top and lurid, and certainly does keep in the themes of the movie in sight – that these two require men for absolutely nothing.
The Handmaiden is Park at the peak of his powers – arguably the best film he’s ever made, because it’s the most consistent from beginning to end, and although there are many shocking scenes in the film, it doesn’t seem like it was designed purely to shock (like some of his previous film). The film weaves its spell and doesn’t let go.

Movie Review: Into the Inferno

Into the Inferno
Directed by: Werner Herzog.
Written by: Werner Herzog.
A part of me would like a little less Werner Herzog in the recent documentaries directed by Werner Herzog. Probably since around the time of Grizzly Man (2005) – Herzog’s celebrity status has grown – and Herzog has embraced it – doing voice work in The Simpsons and The Penguins of Madagascar, showing up in other roles as either himself, or someone else – memorably in Jack Reacher as the bad guy – and he’s become on a fixture in internet memes and parodies – as many find humor in Herzog voice and narration – the grimer the better. Into the Inferno is his second documentary this year – following Lo and Behold, about the internet, and the second time in which Herzog basically skims the surface of his subject matter, providing an interesting glimpse into one person or culture, then moving on to the next. When Herzog is in this mode, his subject is himself as much as anything – and he excels at finding people who, like him, are obsessive types. In Into the Inferno, he goes around the world, looking at active volcanoes, and those who live and work around them – the ancient tribes whose religion revolves around the volcano, and the scientist who study them, knowing full well it may kill them. Herzog has been obsessed with obsession his entire career – this is the man who made Fitzcaraldo after all, about a man who obsessively wanted to get a huge boat from one Amazon river to another, and decided that, what the hell, I’ll do that too.
There is much to admire about Into the Inferno. The film is available on Netflix for all to see, which will give the film a wider audience than a theatrical release, but doesn’t really help the film. Like Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time – which I saw at TIFF last month – Into the Inferno is the type of film that would certainly play better on the biggest screen imaginable. The shot of the lava are mesmerizing in their beauty, and humbling in their destructive power. The people Herzog interviewes all know that these volcanoes may end up killing them – but they cannot help themselves. They are drawn to them, and they will not let go. Herzog understands, and admires this about them.
To a certain extent though, I wish Herzog would slow down a little bit in films like Into the Inferno and Lo and Behold. Both of his 2016 have many different interview subjects that a filmmaker like Herzog could really do a deep dive with – and come up with something truly fascinating. Like him, they are obsessed with something and dedicate the entirety of their lives to it – but sometimes in these films, it seems like Herzog is far more fascinated with himself than anyone else – that in only spending 10-15 minutes on one person, or one tribe, etc. – he can keep the ultimate subject of the film on as himself. His narration at times is still quite funny and insightful – but at others, he seems to be playing for the crowd.
In lesser hands, Herzog’s films would end up as little more than narcissistic ramblings. What saves them in Herzog’s case is the fact that he has a sense of humor about himself, and the fact that he acknowledges just how meaningless he is – how meaningless we all are as individuals, in any single film. Still, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my favorite film of his since Grizzly Man (and one of the very best of his career) is his death row documentary Into the Abyss (2011) – a film that spent its entire runtime on one story, and had Herzog on the sidelines for much of it (that film is so grim, that even the meme makers stayed away). It also included some of Herzog’s most trenchant and insightful observations – a simple question about a squirrel had the subject, and me in the audience, in tears. The spin off project, On Death Row (made up of four, one hour docs, consisting of interviews Herzog did while trying to settle on a subject for Into the Abyss) is likewise moving and profound.
Herzog remains a fascinating documentary filmmaker (his days as an interesting fiction filmmaker may be behind him – as much as I love Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans) – and Into the Inferno is a fine example of his work. But it doesn’t rise to the level his best work – I think because nothing in it holds his attention for as long as he himself does.

Movie Review: Captain Fantastic

Captain Fantastic
Directed by: Matt Ross.
Written by: Matt Ross.
Starring: Viggo Mortensen (Ben), George MacKay (Bo), Samantha Isler (Kielyr), Annalise Basso (Vespyr), Nicholas Hamilton (Rellian), Shree Crooks (Zaja), Charlie Shotwell (Nai), Trin Miller (Leslie), Kathryn Hahn (Harper), Steve Zahn (Dave), Elijah Stevenson (Justin), Teddy Van Ee (Jackson), Erin Moriarty (Claire), Missi Pyle (Ellen), Frank Langella (Jack), Ann Dowd (Abigail).
There’s a moment about 80% of the way into Captain Fantastic where had the film ended, I would have liked it a hell of lot more than I did. It seems to me that the moment summed up what had happened in the movie up until then, and ended the film not on the romantic, false note I expect a film like this to end on, but on a more clear-eyed realistic one. Then, a bunch of children come up from the back of a bus, and ruin the whole thing – and turn the end of Captain Fantastic into the mushy brained, feel good ending I though the film was specifically avoiding. Oh well.
The film stars Viggo Mortensen as Ben – and there isn’t another actor in the world I would rather play this character. He’s an aging hippie, with six kids and a wife who has just killed herself in the mental institution she went to seeking help. She and Ben made the conscious decision years ago to raise their children deep in the woods on their own. The kids are smart – even the youngest can quite from the Bill of Rights, and the oldest – about senior in high school age – speaks 6 languages, and has an understanding of advanced science, etc. Ben is fiercely anti-corporation and thinks America is basically for sale to the highest bidder. He’s also an atheist, and his family doesn’t celebrate things like Christmas – instead, they celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday. How you view Ben will depend on how you view the world – is he teaching his kids to be independent, free thinkers in a society that is increased controlled by the internet, social media and corporations, or is he just indoctrinating them with his own brand of propaganda, and by shutting them away from the rest of the world, not letting them truly decide for themselves, because they’re never exposed to a different viewpoint? As his oldest son, Bo (George Mackay) argues at one point after he humiliates himself with a girl and her mother, he knows absolutely nothing about life unless it comes from a book.
The structure of the film comes from a road trip Ben and his kids go on. Ben’s father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella) has told him he is not welcome at the funeral, but Ben will not be deterred – his wife was a Buddhist, who wanted to be cremated, not have the Christian burial he’s going to have for her. The family piles into the aging bus Ben drives, and head across a few states to get there – stopping along the way at various points – most memorably, to see Ben’s sister, Harper (Kathryn Hahn) and her family, before crashing the funeral.
Mortensen really is the reason – perhaps the only one – to see the film. It doesn’t matter if you, like me, think that Ben is crazy – Mortensen is fully committed to showing this character, and all of his sides, that Ben is fascinating to watch no matter what your thoughts on him are. Mortensen, who has pretty much rejected stardom since The Lord of the Rings made him one more than a decade ago, has always followed his own path – doing some strange art house films, for major auteurs – and working with Cronenberg three times in the past decade. He’s the perfect fit for this role – and he delivers a fine performance.
The movie around him though doesn’t stand up as well as Mortensen’s performance though. I had thought that the movie was making the rather bold claim that its main characters was not a suitable caregiver to his kids – something backed up pretty consistently by the movie at nearly every stage. That, would have been a rather daring stance to take – the noble, independent thinker who completely fucked up his kids. But the film pulls its punches right when it need to land them – pulling back, and instead finding a compromise ending, that is supposed to make us feel good – but instead made me feel bad for all involved.
I don’t think the final scenes of Captain Fantastic make it a bad movie – there is more than enough here to make it an interesting one. But the films ending does confuse the message it is going for – ending up with a jumbled mess. Captain Fantastic is an interesting movie to be sure – but I wish it had more faith in the audience – either by following through and making its main character truly unlikable, or at the very least letting the audience decide for themselves. Instead, it crams a happy ending down our throat, despite the fact that it’s impossible to deny all the damage that has already been done.

Movie Review: I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House
Directed by: Oz Perkins.
Written by: Oz Perkins.
Starring: Ruth Wilson (Lily), Paula Prentiss (Iris Blum), Lucy Boynton (Polly), Bob Balaban (Mr. Waxcap), Brad Milne (Groom), Erin Boyes (Young Iris). 
I admire the ambition of Oz Perkins I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, as well as the atmosphere that Perkins is able to create, and sustain, for the entire 90 minute runtimes of the film. Yet, I don’t actually much like the film – it feels more like an experiment than a film – or perhaps a short film that was needlessly made into a feature without actually expanding the story. It is a horror film – a haunted house film to be specific, and that may have something to do with (haunted house movies usually are not my thing – they don’t scare me like they do some others). Yet, despite all of this, I would jump at the chance to see Perkins’ first film – The Blackcoat’s Daughter aka February (which hasn’t actually been released next) or anything else Perkins makes in the future. Why? Because the atmosphere and filmmaking on display in the film are wonderful – it’s just that it serving a pointless, dull, slow-moving story.
The film opens on the face of Lily (Ruth Wilson), who informs us in voiceover that she is, in fact, the pretty thing that lives in the house – that she is a hospice nurse, is 28 years old and “will never be 29 years old”. We see her get a job for Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss), a near silent older woman, once a famous author, not just waiting for death. We get two scenes of exposition – one as Lily is on the phone with a friend, where we learn some of her backstory and one as Lily sits down with Mr. Waxcap (Bob Balaban), Iris’ lawyer, more concerned about maintaining the estate than the house, who tells us about Iris’ career as a writing – including the famous novel The Lady in the Walls – which has a main character named Polly, which is what Iris insists on calling Lily. Even with that, and the strange goings on in the house (mostly involving mold), Lily only slowly reads the thin novel – so that Perkins can reveal scenes from the novel, that seem to take place in the same house, at appropriate times.
Perkins knows the clichés of the haunted house movie, and he is not afraid to use them at times – although, mostly, he avoids them. He doesn’t really like big “BOO” moments of any kind, preferring to slowly unsettle you in the audience with his slow reveals, the calm voiceovers, and creepy use of music and sound. The film moves slow – too slow really – and although Perkins command over tone and atmosphere is absolute, his inability to do much with the story grows frustrating. The film is like a 30 minute short, stretched into a 90 minute feature.
What keeps the film interesting is Wilson’s performance – he is pretty, as the title implies, and the camera is fascinated with her – her melancholic behavior and attitude makes her interesting. The filmmaking is superb as well. Ultimately, on the strength of I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, Perkins goes onto my list of horror filmmakers to watch out for – even if I cannot quite imagine watching this film again.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Movie Review: Gimme Danger

Gimme Danger
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch.
Written by: Jim Jarmusch.
One of the problems with music documentaries is that they are almost always made by fans of the artists in question. Why else, of course, would one set out to make a documentary about a famous band or musician if they weren’t already a fan? What happens with these docs then is that they often become love letters to the band – must-sees for fans of the musicians in questions, but of limited interest to people who aren’t already on board. To a certain extent, I’m sure this is by design – after all, if you hate Iggy and the Stooges, why the hell would you want to watch Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger, which charts the brief, tumultuous career of the legendary punk band in the first place. The best music docs of all time – the Maysles Gimme Shelter about the Stones and Altamont, Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back and Scorsese’s No Direction Home, both about Bob Dylan among them – become larger cultural documents that most of the fan oriented docs. Unfortunately, Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger falls more into this category – he himself has described the film as a love letter to the Stooges after all. Fortunately though, Gimme Danger does have a fascinating subject, than makes the 90 minute documentary fly by, and give you a sense of the people who made up a band that wasn’t all that successful when they were together, but has become legendary in the decades since. It’s not a great music doc – but it’s a good one.
Jarmusch makes the decision early on that he’s basically going to stick to the band members – and those immediately around them – in telling their own story. Unlike many music docs, he isn’t going to be interviewing rock journalists who will explain the historical significance of the Stooges and their music, and he isn’t going to be interviewing other musicians about their last legacy. All he wants is Iggy Pop and the other members of the band to explain how they got together, what happened as they toured, and how it all fell apart just a few years, and a few albums, later. This decision results in a more intimate look at the band itself than many docs get – but also a more limited scope. Iggy Pop is a great interview subject – whip smart, funny, quick witted and not one to who feels the need to burnish his own legend – because it doesn’t need burnishing. Unfortunately, the rest of the band aren’t as interesting as Iggy is – and perhaps that’s one reason why they broke up. This is an odd doc, in that it charts a band that wasn’t around for very long, but doesn’t really explained how the broke up – all of a sudden, they all just retreated to their parents homes, going their separate ways for years. Was there ever any fights, any tension – any resentment that Iggy got all the attention, but also was a reason why they missed or screwed up so many gigs, because of how much of a drug addict he was at the time? Jarmusch is perhaps too in awe of the Stooges – who he calls the great rock band in history (an assertion, I think most would disagree with – even if you love the Stooges) and his love of the band shows.
Having said all of that, there is still ample reason to see the film. The fan does have a lot of great footage of the band performing, which shows just what it was that made Iggy Pop such an electric stage presence – prancing around the stage, shirtless, with a dog collar, he made everyone around him better – they fed off that energy (he says he had to dance around even when recording – because the band played better when he did). He was all raging id, and that fed into the music and the energy around it.
A common complaint I have about music docs is true of Gimme Danger as well – and that is, I would have liked the film to have more, unbroken moments when we can hear the music itself – not just in a snippet or two, but perhaps a whole song. It’s interesting to hear how Iggy Pop’s lyrics were inspired by Soupy Sales – who wanted kids to write him letters, but in only 25 words or less – which Iggy adopted as a songwriting rule – but perhaps that could be explored a little bit more in depth than having the lyrics of No Fun flash on screen (No fun, my girl, no fun). What really fed into those lyrics – or the lyrics of I Wanna Be Your Dog.
Ultimately I enjoyed Gimme Danger – it does give you a glimpse into a rock band that honestly, I did not know nearly enough about – and Iggy Pop is such an intriguing person, both in the interviews, and the old footage, that the film is worth seeing just for that. And yet, I think there is a better, deeper, less reverent film to be made about the Stooges as well. Sometimes your biggest fan isn’t the person you want making a movie about you.

Movie Review: Ouija: Origin of Evil

Ouija: Origin of Evil
Directed by: Mike Flanagan.
Written by: Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard.   
Starring: Elizabeth Reaser (Alice Zander), Annalise Basso (Paulina Zander), Lulu Wilson (Doris Zander), Henry Thomas (Father Tom), Parker Mack (Mikey), Sam Anderson (Mr. Browning), Kate Siegel (Jenny Browning), Doug Jones (Ghoul Marcus/Devil’s Doctor), Lin Shaye (Old Paulina Zander).
I’ve now seen three horror film by director Mike Flanagan – Oculus, Hush and Ouija: Origin of Evil, and will say that the man is a talented director of the genre. He knows the tricks, and he executes them with flair, and just enough of a twist that you cannot always see the next one coming a mile away. His films move with efficiency and speed – like finely tuned clocks. All three of the films are effective – and I’ve seen enough from him to think that one day, he really will deliver a truly great horror film. He hasn’t yet though – and I think it’s because his films are all surface scares – he hasn’t yet found material that truly gets at something elemental, and tap into our unconscious fears. He has a lot of good style – he just needs to put it to better use.
His latest, Ouija: Origin of Evil is a prequel to the 2014 film, Ouija – which I had heard was awful, and never did bother to see (I can assure you, this film works perfectly well even if you haven’t seen that one). It takes place in 1967, with the grieving Zander center at its core. The husband/father has recently died, leaving behind a wife, Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) and two daughters – teenager Lina (Annalise Basso), and the younger Doris (Lulu Wilson). Alice makes money – not much – giving psychic readings – with candles, séances – the whole bit, and even though it’s a fraud, she really does believe in it – that they are doing a service for people, by helping them get closure and give the ability to move on. Eventually, of course, Alice adds an Ouija board to the “act” – and unknowingly violates one of the only three rules. All of a sudden, the spirits really are communicating with the people who come to see Alice – but they’re doing so through Doris. At first, it’s seems harmless – but we all know isn’t, don’t we?
The movie is a slow burn for most its runtime – setting up this family – and the few people outside the family that will play a role in the film – Mikey (Parker Mack), the slightly older boy who wants to date Lina, and Father Tom (Henry Gibson) – a Priest, because of course, if you communicate with the undead, a Priest needs to show up at some point. The movie sets everything up nicely, and then slowly starts to turn the screws. The end of the film borders on the ridiculous, of course, but because Flanagan and company have done a good job of setting everything up one step at a time, you go with it when things very well could have flown off the rails.
Ouija: Origin of Evil is an enjoyable and effective horror movie. It won’t win any awards for originality, but it’s a good little nostalgic throwback to the films of the era it depicts – beginning with the old school company logo, right down to the lack of overt bloodletting, etc. It’s a good little horror film. What it never really does is terrify you though – unsettle, sure – creep you out, a little bit. But is doesn’t get bone deep terrifying – and it’s the type of film you’ll have no trouble sleeping after. Flanagan is a good horror movie director – but it’s time for him to become a great one.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Movie Review: American Pastoral

American Pastoral
Directed by: Ewan McGregor.   
Written by: John Romano based on the novel by Philip Roth.
Starring: Ewan McGregor (Seymour 'Swede' Levov ), Jennifer Connelly (Dawn), Dakota Fanning (Merry Levov), Peter Riegert (Lou Levov), Rupert Evans (Jerry Levov), Uzo Aduba (Vicky), Molly Parker (Dr. Sheila Smith), David Strathairn (Nathan Zuckerman), David Case (Russ Hamlin), Valorie Curry (Rita Cohen), Corrie Danieley (Jesse Orcutt), Ocean James (Merry Levov - age 8) , Hannah Nordberg (Merry Levov - age 12), Julia Silverman (Sylvia Levov), David Whalen (Bill Orcutt).
There really is no shame in not being able to translate Philip Roth’s American Pastoral for the movies. Many directors and screenwriters have been attached to the film version in the nearly 20 years since Roth’s masterpiece – arguably his greatest work – was released, and they’ve all abandoned it at one point or another. Oscar winner Robert Benton failed to translate Roth’s The Human Stain – a part of the same trilogy as American Pastoral – to the screen in 2003. Roth is one of the great American novelists of the 20th (and 21st) Century – and yet, few have even attempted to adapt his work, and it was only earlier this year – with James Schamus’ Indignation – that a filmmaker did Roth justice onscreen. So, no, it shouldn’t be surprising that actor Ewan McGregor, making his directorial debut, wasn’t able to pull off Roth’s novel for the movie. Yet, watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder if McGregor and screenwriter John Romano even understood Roth’s novel – for all the flaws in The Human Stain, Benton understood the novel, he just failed to translate that well to the screen. But McGregor and Romano so fundamentally change Roth’s novel that I cannot help but wonder why the hell they even bothered. Some of those changes are necessary to make the book more cinematic to be sure – but some of them come out of left field, and serve little purpose other than to change the meaning of Roth’s work. Now, if McGregor and company had made a good movie – and interesting one in anyway – than the film could have been a poor adaptation of Roth, but still a good movie. But they haven’t done that either – the film is odd and disjointed. There is no flow between the scenes – the characters don’t make much sense as presented, and so the talented cast flails around, trying to make something work. But it doesn’t.
Roth’s novel is one of his Nathan Zuckerman books – a Roth alter-ego, an aging “great writer”, who lives alone with his thoughts. The novel begins with two key meetings for Zuckerman, which bring him back to his childhood – the first is when Seymour “Swede” Levov, contacts him from out of the blue – the Swede was Zuckerman’s childhood idol – the older brother of Zuckerman’s friend Jerry, and the best athlete ever to come out of their school – a big blonde Jew, that everyone loved. The Swede wants Zuckerman to help him write an elegy for his late father – who just died, while closing in on 100 – and while Zuckerman doesn’t want to, he agrees to meet with the Swede out of curiosity. He comes away from that meeting thinking that the Swede is a big, dull, carefree guy. The second meeting, not long after, is at a high school reunion – where he runs into his old best friend – the Swede’s young brother, Jerry – and it’s Jerry who dissuades Zuckerman of his delusions. The Swede was far from carefree – he was destroyed when his daughter Merry, in the height of the 1960s, blew up the small post office in the rural community the Swede moved his family to. The Swede tried to make it right but couldn’t – and no, he’s dead too. This starts the narrative – which is basically the Swede’s story, as Zuckerman imagined it. It’s a story of the American dream lost – even when you do everything right. It is fundamentally a Jewish story – like The Human Stain, you could say it is a story about an outsider trying to “pass” in society – and being punished for it. The novel is layered – with narratives inside narratives, etc. – all told in Roth’s voice that makes it very hard to adapt.
The film version tries to streamline a lot of this material away – it keeps Zuckerman (played by David Straithairn), for reasons I don’t quite understand, as while the film does present it as Zuckerman telling the story of the Swede – it also quite clearly tells that story as a “true” story – not a Zuckerman projection. It also flattens the narrative out – telling the Swede’s story mainly in chronological order- as The Swede (played by McGregor) is the perfect son, who marries the gentile beauty queen, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), has a beautiful, blonde daughter – Merry (who grows up to be Dakota Fanning) – whose only problem is that she stutters (in Roth’s novel, she’s also overweight, which makes her supposed insecurity for not being able to live up to having a literal beauty queen as a mother more believable, then the series of adorable blonde girls who play Merry in the film). Merry grows into a rebellious teenager – who hates Lyndon Johnson, and the Vietnam War – and whose chief act of rebellion – before she blows up a post office, killing someone – is to play her music too loud, and act like she resents her parents. Once the deed is done, Dawn falls apart – and then decides to pretend they never had a daughter – but The Swede never can. There are subplots about the glove factory that The Swede takes over for his father in Newark – that stays even after the riots – and of a young revolutionary named Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry) – who says she knows where Merry is, and torments the Swede with that knowledge.
There are many things wrong with the movie. McGregor has fatally miscast himself in the lead role – which signals the films deeper problem of stripping away many of the Jewish elements of the narrative than were so important to the novel (I’m not saying that the film tries to pretend the Swede isn’t Jewish – just that it backgrounds it too much). It turns Dawn, a sympathetic character in the novel, into a hateful, crazy shrew – giving the talented Connelly a few chances to go crazy, but to no effect. Fanning – and the rest of the girls who play Merry – struggle mightily with the stuttering – so much so that I retroactively love Colin Firth’s work in The King’s Speech even more (as a former stutterer, I know what it sounds like). Fanning’s too old to be playing this sort of cheap teenage rebellion – but the film doesn’t give her much to do. The final shot in the movie is the icing on the cake – a complete and total upending of everything the novel had been about, and the single most wrongheaded thing I have seen in a movie this year.
There is also a problem with just basic competence behind the camera – which McGregor only shows at times. He isn’t bad in the early scenes – they put a deliberate, false sheen on everything – as if McGregor is trying to paint the suburbs in the kind of fake, picture perfect way that filmmakers like Hitchock (in Shadow of a Doubt), Ray (in Bigger Than Life), Lynch (in Blue Velvet) or Mendes (in American Beauty) – among many, many others have done, before exposing it as something darker as the narrative progresses. Unfortunately, McGregor’s way of showing that is to literally start turning off lights.
I’m not sure that any screen version of American Pastoral would work. The novel is so literary that to do it justice onscreen may well be impossible (although, I have certainly seen “impossible to adapt” novels work onscreen before. What I do know is that this version of American Pastoral is pretty much the worst case scenario – the kind of movie that will last as an example to other filmmakers of what not to do when adapting a great book.

Movie Review: Fire At Sea

Fire at Sea
Directed by: Gianfranco Rosi.
Written by: Gianfranco Rosi and Carla Cattani.
Fire at Sea opens with a title card that informs the audience that Lampedusa in an island in the Mediterranean Sea – some 70 miles off the coast of Africa, and 120 miles away from Sicily. Because of this, the island ends up being a popular place for migrants from Africa, fleeing war and death, to end up – after they’ve packed themselves into rickety boats and head off for Europe. In the past few decades, roughly 400,000 of these refugees have ended up travelling Lampedusa – and 15,000 of them have died. That is all the context that director Gianfranco Rosi provides the audience with in the course of the movie – there will be no more title cards, no narration. He will just cut together the story of the locals on Lampedusa, most of whom go about their lives as if this crisis isn’t literally on their shores, and scenes of more and more of these refugees trying to get to Europe – and hopefully freedom.
The point of Fire at Sea is hard to miss – that there is a very real crisis going on right now, and most of us in the Western world really don’t give a shit. The Syrian refugee crisis is the biggest tragedy of its kind since WWII, and European countries (and America) are all arguing about what to do with them because no one wants them. It isn’t just Syrians either – its people from many countries in Africa – in the movie, we’ll see some from the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Sudan, etc. They pack these boats with hundreds of people – and set out to sea without enough food or water – some will die of dehydration, some will die simply because they are packed into too tight. Some will get covered in diesel fuel that will leave burns all over their bodies – that may will kill them. They are coming in by the thousands, doing anything they can to survive.
For most of the first part of Fire at Sea though, we don’t see these refugees. Instead, we see the people of Lampedusa go about their lives as normal. A DJ, who takes requests for songs, who does report on how many people on the latest boat to arrive died – so that Italian housewives, can click their tongues and say “So sad”, and go back to their lives. The main subject of this part of the documentary is Samuele – a young boy on Lampedusa, who comes from a long line of fishermen, but may not be long for the sea (he cannot row a boat very well, and throws up when he’s on the fishing boat). He prefers the mindless destruction he inflicts with his slingshot, or pretends to inflict with a machine guns. We see the local doctor talk about treating these migrants – who difficult it is, but how if you are a human being, you cannot turn away. Then we see the same doctor provide help to Samuele – whose main problem (aside from a lazy eye) may be hypochondria. It really isn’t until the last third of the movie that we start to see more and more of the refugees – a long close-up of a man singing his story – about travelling through the desert, being locked in jail, drinking his piss, etc. We see as an Italian boat is called in to help a refugee boat – where the lucky refugees are just mildly dehydrated – while the unlucky ones are literally twitching on the ground close to death – and the final people off the boat are the dozens who have already died. Rosi doesn’t flinch away these details, making the audience take in the images we try to look away from.
Fire at Sea is the antithesis of so called “hyperlink” documentaries – those well-meaning docs that we see by the dozen each year, that look at a tragic issue facing America or the world, congratulates the viewer for caring, offering a simplistic solution – and whose end credits always contain a website and a plea to “Get Involved”. Those films, as well meaning as they are often dutiful and rather dull, and who technical credentials are barely passable. Rosi’s film doesn’t lecture the audience, it doesn’t congratulate us in anyway – and is brilliantly constructed. There are beautiful images throughout the film, that serve to underscore the pain and suffering we see at the same time. The film doesn’t lecture – because it doesn’t need to. Everything it has to say, it says clearly (in fact, a few times, I think Rosi underlines his point too much – even without preachy voiceover). But the result is a haunting, and important film – a film that demands to be seen and reckoned with.

Movie Review: Jack Reacher: Never Go back

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
Directed by: Edward Zwick. 
Written by: Richard Wenk and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz based on the book by Lee Child.
Starring: Tom Cruise (Jack Reacher), Cobie Smulders (Turner), Danika Yarosh (Samantha), Aldis Hodge (Espin), Patrick Heusinger (The Hunter), Holt McCallany (Col. Morgan), Madalyn Horcher (Sgt. Leach), Robert Catrini (Col. Moorcroft), Jessica Stroup (Lt. Sullivan), Austin Hébert (Prudhomme), Robert Knepper (Gen. Harkness).
The Jack Reacher who is the star of Lee Child’s best-selling book series (20 novels and counting) is 6’5 and a huge, imposing figure. For the second time now, he is played by Tom Cruise, who is only 5’7 – which would seem to mean Cruise is miscast. However, the opposite is actually true – Cruise is perfectly cast as Jack Reacher, as the character falls right into Cruise wheelhouse of characters who grimly determined. Grimly determined to do what you may ask? Well, everything that they do. Reacher is not a complex character – he’s a former Military Police Officer, who has a moral code that is black and white – and if you’re on the other side of that code, he has no problem killing you. How he lasted so long in the military, and why he isn’t in jail should be a mystery – but it’s not one you ask when you’re reading a Jack Reacher novel (I’ve read 5 or 6 of them – although which ones, I’m not sure I could tell you – they were in my pre-Goodreads day). The novel are interchangeable and easy reads – the type of novel I enjoy spending two days reading between heavier novels. The first film in the series – simply titled Jack Reacher (2012) was a very good adaptation of the series – Cruise was great, and he had a supporting cast that included Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo and Werner Herzog as the villain. Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, the film was fast paced and fun, if ultimately unremarkable (although it did lead to last year’s Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation directed by McQuarrie, which was great). Unfortunately in the sequel, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, everything –aside from Cruise – is just a little less effective than the first time around. The plotting feels lazier, the supporting cast isn’t memorable, the action by-the-numbers. As a time waster, it does the job – but not by much.
The story this time involves Reacher going to see the person now has his old job in the military police – Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who he has been flirting with on the phone for months, only to discover she’s been arrested for espionage. Reacher knows that she’s innocent – and sets out to prove – eventually breaking her out of jail, and heading out on the run with her and Samantha (Danika Yarosh) – who may or may not be Reacher’s long lost daughter (don’t ask – long story) to prove not just her innocence, but now his – as he is now wanted for murder himself. Of course, they are really targets of the kind of vast conspiracy that only works in the movies.
You really have to admire Cruise, who at 54, is still willing to throw himself into any action sequence imaginable, and fully commit to movies that others would see as little more than a paycheque and phone it in. Cruise doesn’t do that – he goes into this film full bore, and the reason the film works so well is because of Cruise’s performance – he anchors the film with his movie star charm like few actors can. Yes, I hope one day Cruise tries to do something more daring again – another Eyes Wide Shut or particularly, another Magnolia – but for now, he does this type of film better than anyone, so why complain?
The problem with the movie is that co-writer/director Edward Zwick is probably the wrong choice for the material. Zwick is mainly made for middlebrow, “prestige” fair like Blood Diamond, Defiance or The Last Samurai – although when he teams up with another movie star – Denzel Washington – he can make some pretty good movies like Courage Under Fire and Glory. That’s Zwick’s wheelhouse. Here, doing a low rent, action sequel, he is simply out of his element. This Jack Reacher has no sense of humor about itself – and the cast surrounding Cruise just isn’t up to his level.
I saw Jack Reacher: Never Go Back on a lazy Sunday afternoon, when there was nothing else playing, and nothing else to do. For that type of film, its fine – it will hold your attention for a couple of hours. But as I walked out of the film, I couldn’t help but feel just a little letdown – I wanted something just a little bit more from the film. Cruise delivered – not much else did.

Movie Review: Denial

Directed by: Mick Jackson.   
Written by: David Hare based on the book by Deborah Lipstadt.
Starring: Rachel Weisz (Deborah Lipstadt), Tom Wilkinson (Richard Rampton), Timothy Spall (David Irving), Andrew Scott (Anthony Julius), Jack Lowden (James Libson), Caren Pistorius (Laura Tyler), Alex Jennings (Sir Charles Gray), Harriet Walter (Vera Reich), Mark Gatiss (Professor Robert Jan van der Pelt), John Sessions (Prof. Richard Evans).
The filmmakers behind Denial could not have guessed when they started working on the film – years ago – that they would end up with a timely film when it was released in the fall of 2016. Their film is about a man who tells lies, and then complains when people call him out on those lies, claim media bias against him, and threatens to sue if he doesn’t get his way – but who seems more motivated by self-promotion than because he actually believes the bile he’s spouting. No, the film isn’t about Donald Trump – but it has a character that may well remind you of him – in David Irving. Memorably played by Timothy Spall, Irving is a self-taught historian from England obsessed with the Third Reich. Irving wants acceptance more than anything, and when he doesn’t get it from academia, he finds it from various radical right wing and neo-Nazi groups, when he helps to publish the Leuchter Report, which claimed to disprove any Jews were gassed at Auschwitz (for a great movie on Fred Leuchter, see Errol Morris’ Mr. Death from 1999 all about him). From there, Irving became a Holocaust denier – and when American professor Deborah Lipstadt (played here by Rachel Weisz) wrote a book about Holocaust deniers, and named Irving, he ended up suing her and her publisher. He was smart about it as well – he sues her in England, where the burden of proof isn’t on him to prove that she defamed him, but on her to proven she didn’t. In essence, she is going to have to prove that the Holocaust happened – which is more difficult than it sounds – and that Irving knew it happened, and lied about it anyway.
For a courtroom drama, this case makes an interesting choice – as the strategy laid out by Lipstadt’s lawyers – Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) is deliberately less provocative than it could have been. They aren’t going to put any survivors on the stand – they don’t want to give Irving a chance to humiliate them, and they aren’t going to put Lipstadt on the stand either. Irving, who is defending himself, wants to put on a show – and the strategy against him is not to let him do that. The effect is almost deliberately anti-climactic – there is no shouting in the courtroom between the lawyers and Irving for example. Rampton’s biggest strategy is to refuse to even look Irving in the eye to communicate to him – and everyone else – his complete and utter disdain for him. Wilkinson masterfully plays these scenes – and Spall makes for an appropriate foil in these scenes. Weisz, as Lipstadt, often fades into the background – she feels she isn’t being listened to – but she’s smart enough to listen to them. Weisz is miscast as Lipstadt, but gamely tries anyway.
Denial is one of the few, non-documentary films that has been allowed to actually shoot as Auschwitz (for some reason, they didn’t let X-Men Apocalypse shoot there) – and the sequence there is appropriately grim and reverential – as it happens on a cold and grim.
The film was directed by Mick Jackson and written by David Hare. They seem to take their lead from Lipstadt’s defense team – they decided on a deliberately unflashy style that draws no attention to itself, and deliberately downplays the drama. To a certain extent, this is effective – it would seem odd for this movie to be flashier – but it doesn’t quite help make the film more exciting. In the end, Denial is as much about the bizarre intricacies of the British legal system as it about Holocaust denial. It is an average film – well acted, with a few memorable moments. Yet, I cannot help but wonder if it would be less memorable had we not had the ready-made Trump comparisons at hand given the release date.

Movie Review: Michael Moore in Trumpland

Michael Moore in Trumpland
Directed by: Michael Moore.
Written by: Michael Moore.
Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 may not be his best film (for my money, that’s Bowling for Columbine) – but it certainly felt like his most urgent back in the summer of 2004 when it was released. At that point, we weren’t quite three years removed from 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were building, and George W. Bush was President, and wanted to continue to ramp up the War on Terror. The price of re-electing him was too high – and Moore laid out his case for that in a film that feature less Moore than normal (normally, he’s front and center in all of his films – here, while he did the voiceover, he’s rarely seen). The result was the highest grossing documentary of all time – but one that didn’t change the outcome of the election.
12 years later, Moore is back with a surprise film just weeks before the 2016 Presidential election. As a film, it is Moore’s most straight forward to be sure – it’s essentially a concert doc, of his one-man show he filmed a few weeks ago in Ohio, for an audience that he hoped would be mostly made up of Trump supporters (give how many cheers he gets from the get go, I’m not sure that’s what happened – it may well be another case of Moore preaching to the converted). I would have loved to see a documentary of Moore actually talking to some of Trump’s supporters – both the ones that have made themselves into hateful caricatures at this point, and those disaffected Republicans and Conservatives who just don’t want to see Hillary in the White House. It also would have been great to see Moore talk to people more like himself – who were Bernie supporters in the primaries, to try to win them over. But Moore doesn’t really talk to anyone in Michael Moore in Trumpland – he talks at them – and at those of us in the audience. I think he may win over some of the men in the audience who start off watching him with their arms crossed, and eventually find themselves laughing along with Moore as the film progresses – surprised perhaps that someone who Conservative radio and news stations have made out to be the devil for years now, is actually a friendly, funny, patriotic guy.
The title of the film is misleading however – with a title like Michael Moore in Trumpland, you expect it to be about Donald Trump – but it isn’t really. Moore dispatches with Trump fairly quickly in the film, dismissing him as if he isn’t worth his or our time discussing. Instead, what Moore has done is pretty much made the case for Hillary Clinton – from the point of view of someone who doesn’t really like Hillary Clinton (he says he voted for Bernie in the primary, Obama in 2008 – and third parties in 1992 and 1996 instead of her husband).
This may well end up being more effective for Moore rather than attacking Trump – if he can actually reach the people like him who voted for Bernie in the primaries – but who unlike him, are acting like whiny, crybabies because their candidate lost, and are now going to vote for a third party candidate – even if they are dangerously unqualified as Trump is. Moore’s case for Clinton as flawed candidate – but one America should get behind, one whose flaws are understandable when taken in context with everything she has gone through – the sexism that has been hurled at her and her generation of women, etc. He makes a compelling case for her.
Then again, I’m not 100% why Moore felt so strongly that he needed to get this documentary out, right now. Trump’s campaign has been in a tailspin for weeks – he’s not likely to pull out of it now. Hillary Clinton is all but assured to win the election in two weeks – and we can all put this behind us then. Unlike a film like Fahrenheit 9/11, I don’t see much overall, lasting intrinsic value to the film – there will virtually be no point to watching it come November 9th. For now though, if you’re an America who is thinking of voting for anyone other than Hillary Clinton, than perhaps you should watch this film. For everyone else, I’m not quite sure. Moore is a good speaker, and the film’s fleet 73 minute runtime goes by pleasantly enough. But really, you should know this by now, right?

Movie Review: Hamilton's America

Hamilton’s America
Directed by: Alex Horowitz.
You’d be hard pressed to find a big Pop Culture phenomenon in the past year that Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton – the biggest hit Broadway has produced in years, and the first in I don’t know how long to infiltrate the culture more widely that he insular world of Broadway usually allows. I was hardly the first person who hasn’t seen the play yet, to fall in love with it – in fact, I felt hopelessly behind when I finally did hear the soundtrack – and then introduce it to my Broadway loving wife, who loved it even more. No, we still haven’t seen the play (a scheduled trip in in January will rectify that) – but until then, a PBS documentary like Hamilton’s America will have to suffice. Directed by Alex Horowitz, the film itself isn’t particularly brilliant – it’s basically a series of talking heads, discussing the brilliance of the play and of Alexander Hamilton himself, the history that inspired the play, and some snippets of the songs that have become so popular in the past year.
That being said, I do think Hamilton’s America does precisely the job that it sets out to do. For fans of Hamilton, it provides some background information – the filming of the doc clearly started as Miranda was in the early stages of writing the musical, and contains wonderful moments of discovery with him – as he’s practically bursting with enthusiasm, as he figures out a line or a song that will eventually become iconic. If there’s one thing that the last year has shown, it’s that Miranda’s enthusiasm is contagious – it is impossible to watch him and not be happy. The film acts as an interesting, if rather cursory, look at his creative process.
It’s also an interesting look, if again, rather cursory look at the history that Miranda is adapting here. There is a lot of talk about who Hamilton was – and what his place in American history really is – it has interviews with politicians from both the Democratic and Republican Party, that sing his praises. It confronts (more than play did), the legacy of slavery that effects how we see great men like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington – men who did so many great things for America, but also owned human beings – and how, as a country, America still needs to reconcile that.
Then, there is the music itself. For those of us who love the music, but haven’t scoured Youtube, looking for horrible versions, shot with clandestine cell phones, of the songs as performed on Broadway – Hamilton’s America gives the best view of those numbers from Broadway – with the now legendary original cast – that we have seen to date (and may ever see, if they don’t release the filmed version they did before everyone scattered to the wind).
I don’t think Hamilton’s America is a great doc – it tries to cover the creative process, American history, the play itself and other things all in the span of 90 minutes, and as a result, does everything on little more than a surface level. But it is a good primer – a primer for the musical, and the history it is based on – one that will hopefully have some people excited to dig into both more deeply – and for me, helped scratch that itch I’ll have until January, when I enter the Richard Rodgers theater, and finally see the damn play.