Friday, June 30, 2017

"Classic" Movie Review: The Front Line (2009)

The Front Line (2009)
Directed By: Renato De Maria.
Written By: Sandro Petraglia, Ivan Cotroneo, Fidel Signorile, based on the book Sergio Segio by Miccia Corta
Starring: Riccardo Scamarcio (Sergio Segio), Giovanna Mezzogiorno (Suzanna Ronconi).
From the late 1960s through the 1970s, a number of left wing terrorist group rose to prominence throughout the world. Americans no doubt remember the Weather Underground or the Symbionese Liberation Army, Germans no doubt remember the group fronted by Baader and Meinhoff, and in Italy a number of organizations sprung up. Among them was the Prima Linea (or The Front Line in English), and this is a film that follows of its founding members, Sergio Segio (played here by Riccardo Scamarcio), mainly from the late 1970s into the early 1980s. Unlike the recent German film, The Baader Meinhoff Complex which turned the events into a rip roaring action movie, this movie is somewhat slower and more methodical. It is also far more dull and uninteresting.
The movie flashes back and forth through time, and shows how Segio got involved in the group in the first, their early, non-violent days, to the point where the group escalated from staging marches and protests, until actually carrying out bombings and assassinations. Segio falls in love with another of the group’s leaders – Suzanna Ronconi (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), and remains enamored with her long after he has stopped believing in the cause that brought them together in the first place.
And herein lies the problem. From the beginning of the film, we know that Segio will become disenfranchised with the group and their actions, and in fact, he seems to be fairly disenfranchised almost from the beginning. This is not the story of a true believer who later regretted his actions after he was caught and sent to prison. This is the story of a man who never really believed in what he was doing in the first place, but kept right on doing it for more than a decade. It makes for a rather dull and lifeless film.
The lead performance by Scamarcio does little to help this. He is as dull and lifeless as the film itself, always staring at the camera with his sad eyes, and on multiple occasions from his prison cell he delivers long monologues (while staring directly into the camera) talking about how terribly wrong they were to do what they did. Say what you want about Steven Soderbergh’s four hour Che biopic, but there is passion in Del Toro’s eyes as he plays Guerrva – you feel that he truly believes that what he is doing is the only course of action for him to take. Segio spends so much time thinking, and whining, about what he “has” to do, that he becomes a thoroughly uninteresting character. Because the movie is built around him, this spells death for the film itself.
Mezzogiorno is a little more lively as Ronconi, yet we never truly get to understand what led her to join the group in the first place, or why she though their actions were the correct course. But at least she is interesting. Director Renato De Maria shots the film with a nice cinema veritie style – his handheld camera is always moving, yet he cannot bring the movie to life. The movie just sits there on the screen and never really becomes an interesting film. It certainly is not a terrible movie, but it is a thoroughly disengaging one. A movie like this should be engrossing. This one never is.
Note: I saw this film at TIFF 2009, and at this point, I have to believe it’s not going to get a proper released in North America – so I decided to publish the review I wrote then anyway.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Movie Review: T2: Trainspotting

T2: Trainspotting *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Danny Boyle.   
Written by: John Hodge based on the novels by Irvine Welsh.
Starring: Ewan McGregor (Renton), Jonny Lee Miller (Simon), Robert Carlyle (Begbie / Begbie's Father), Ewen Bremner (Spud), Anjela Nedyalkova (Veronika), Shirley Henderson (Gail), Kelly Macdonald (Diane).
Let’s get this out of the way off the top – no, we really didn’t need a 20 years later sequel to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting – the film that really made his career as a director, and made Ewan McGregor into a star. When I re-watched the film recently – for probably the 6th or 7th time – but the first time since about 17 years – I was once again sucked into the propulsive energy of the film, while at the same time I saw the film differently than I did as a teenager – I liked these people less, and their journey wasn’t as romantic as it once seemed. I have a feeling that the filmmakers felt the same way, because the awkwardly titled T2: Trainspotting (why not just Trainspotting 2?) really is a more melancholy experience than the first film – a film about how it may be romantic to be young and lost, but it’s really kind of pathetic to be that way in your mid-40s. Boyle doesn’t try to shoot the film with the same, constant drumbeat of energy as before, and his characters seem more tired than anything else. There is once again a plot with a scam at the center of it – but everyone’s going through the motions even more than they did in the first film. I surprised myself by how much I liked the film.
The setup is simple – 20 years after Renton (McGregor) double crossed his friends Simon (Johnny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremmer) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle), take the 16,000 quid from their big score for himself, and fleeing Scotland, he returns. Spud has bounced on-and-off heroin for all those years, and immediately forgives Renton (he, after all, could have joined Renton all those years ago). Simon seemingly forgives him as well – at first he’s pissed, but he figures he can use Renton for his own purposes – opening up a “spa” aka brothel, with his new, younger “girlfriend” Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Begbie has spent all these years in jail, and is pissed, and escapes and is more pissed, and then finds out Renton is back, and is event more pissed than that.
I think the way T2: Trainspotting works is because it doesn’t delude itself into thinking these guys were ever going to grow up and turn themselves into anything all that useful. Spud may be lovable – but he’s also the weakest of the group – a guy who is a horrible father, and partner to Gail (Shirley Henderson). Simon was always a conman, and he was never really going to change. Begbie was a psycho 20 years ago, and all that time in prison won’t help. Renton at least had the right idea – get out, get away from everyone and everything you know, give yourself a chance. Even that didn’t really work. When he comes back, he falls into his old habits – and the movie knows that this a regression more than anything else. McGregor is excellent here, as a man reeling from a life that is falling apart – and wasn’t that good to begin with – trying to recapture some of that youth.
What this does mean about T2: Trainspotting is that the film is nowhere near as fun or entertaining as the original film – and it doesn’t try to be. By Boyle standards, the direction is subdued (so by most people standards, it’s still pretty amped, but definitely tamer than normal). T2: Trainspotting clearly won’t have the same cultural impact its predecessor did – this isn’t a film made for the college age crowd the first one was, complete with poster that adorned every dorm room imaginable. This is a film for those people, who 20 years later, are still confused, and don’t know where to go with their lives. That can be fun in your 20s – by your 40s, that just sad. And T2: Trainspotting knows that.

Movie Review: Baby Driver

Baby Driver **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Edgar Wright.
Written by: Edgar Wright.
Starring: Ansel Elgort (Baby), Kevin Spacey (Doc), Lily James (Debora), Eiza González (Darling), Jon Hamm (Buddy), Jamie Foxx (Bats), Jon Bernthal (Griff), Flea (Eddie), Lanny Joon (JD), CJ Jones (Joseph), Paul Williams (The Butcher).
Edgar Wright’s career as a writer/director has often seem liked a tour through various film genres – zombies in Shaun of the Dead, to early ‘90s action in Hot Fuzz, comic books in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, paranoid sci-fi with The World’s End – but all with his own unique, funny perspective. He loves the films of the past, isn’t afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve, but he isn’t just making copies of them either. With Baby Driver, it looked like perhaps he was going to the heist genre – which, in a way, he is, or perhaps the existential action films – a noted inspiration for the film is Walter Hill’s The Driver (which I saw last week for the first time, and I think is his best film – although, I’m not much of a Hill fan) – but Wright is too much of a romantic for that. His main character, Baby (Ansel Elgort), may well want project that he is like Ryan O’Neal’s Driver – who doesn’t have a name, because he doesn’t need one – he is what he does – but he’s too sweet natured for that. In the end, Baby Driver is more a musical than anything – which is odd, since there isn’t much actual singing going on in the film. But the film does hum with a constant musical beat, and everything is perfectly choreographed – from the various car chases (the best seen on the big screen in years) to smaller moments, like Baby walking down the street for coffee. The characters in Baby Driver don’t sing – but the movie does.
In terms of plot, Baby Driver is fairly straight forward. Baby (Elgort) is under the thumb of an Atlanta crime boss named Doc (Kevin Spacey) – and needs to pay him back for a mistake in his youth. He does that by being the getaway driver for various heists, with a revolving door of criminals, that Doc sets up for him. The movie opens with Baby showing us – and his cohorts – just how great a driver he really is. He is on the verge of paying off his debt and getting out – it will just take that one last job to do so. As with every “one last job” in cinema history though, things don’t go as planned. All Baby wants to do is hit the open road – but doing so may put his elderly foster father Joe (CJ Jones) in danger – and also threaten his blossoming romance with Debora (Lily James – who is somehow just as adorable and lovable as Elgort in the film). So, he’s teamed up with husband and wife robbers Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) and Buddy (Jon Hamm), and Bats (Jamie Foxx), who seems to be always one step away from killing someone.
Everything about Baby Driver works. The car chases are the best you have seen in a while, and are choreographed like dance numbers, with Baby’s car careening around corners, weaving in and out traffic etc. – and doesn’t rely on the type of rapid fire editing that gives most modern action movies the false sense of energy. The soundtrack – full of standards, and oddities – somehow always hits the right note. The cast are all essentially playing archetypes, but you don’t really care when they are this good at doing so. Foxx, James and Elgort are the standouts – but there isn’t a weak note in the cast. The dialogue by Wright walks right up to the line of being too cute, but somehow never crosses it – in part, I think, because the cast never sets a toe over the line.
Most of all though, the film is just pure, out and out entertainment. You’re unlikely to have more fun at the movies this year than you will at Baby Driver – and its coming at just the right time of year for that. I’ve skipped more of the summer “blockbusters” this year than I normally do – and even still, I’m already tired of the explosions and CGI and franchises. Baby Driver is not an overly original film – but it is an “original” – a film that doesn’t need to worry about setting anything up, or continuing anything, etc. It’s just straight ahead, old school movie fun. You know, the type of summer movie Hollywood used to know how to make, and has somehow forgotten.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Half Time Top 10 List: 2017

For some reason, it feels like I’ve seen fewer movies this year than normal – and yet, when I checked, I’ve reviewed 79 films so far from 2017. Perhaps it is because that this year, more than ever before, I’ve been more prone to skip some of the bigger movies that come out. It’s not that I have no interest in films like the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean or Baywatch of The Mummy or xXx: The Return of Xander Cage or King Arthur: Legend of the Sword or Snatched, etc. It’s just that I don’t want to see them ENOUGH to head out on my regular movie nights – Sunday, Monday or Wednesday, and then get behind on TV shows as brilliant as Twin Peaks: The Return (which is the best thing I’ve seen this year in any medium), Better Call Saul or Fargo. No, I’m not becoming a TV is better than movies person (I think they are separate art forms, with a lot of overlap – and neither form is better than the other) – but those shows (as well as others I’ve enjoyed this year – Big Little Lies, Feud, The Americans, Legion, The Handmaid’s Tale, etc) are almost definitely better than The Mummy.
So while I’ve missing some movies, I wouldn’t say I’ve been missing them Bob (thanks Office Space). There are movies that I have wanted to see that I’ll likely have to wait for VOD for. These include: Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, Their Finest, Kedi, The Lovers, The Dinner (I know the reviews weren’t great – but I love the book, so I’ll be checking it out), Wakefield, I Called Him Morgan, Manifesto, My Entire High School is Sinking Into the Sea, Abacus: Small Enough to Fail, Slack Bay, The Commune, The Death of Louis XIV, All These Sleepless Nights, Dawson City: Frozen Time and Dark Night There’s also a few things opening late in June that I didn’t get a chance to see yet, or hasn’t gone wide enough for me to see yet – Baby Driver, The Beguiled, The Big Sick, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography and Okja. So with that out of the way, a few notes on great performances and the best movies I have seen so far this year. Please, don’t hold me to the ranking at year’s end:
Looking at the four Acting categories, here’s three performances from each of them that are the best that I’ve seen so far:
Best Supporting Actress: 3. Hayley Squires in I, Daniel Blake is much better than the film itself, a wonderful performance as a struggling single mother in Ken Loach’s latest. 2. Allison Williams in Get Out is just about perfectly cast as the good girlfriend who ain’t so good. 1. Natalie Portman in Song to Song is utterly heartbreaking in Malick’s latest – it’s a largely wordless performance, and every note is wonderful.
Best Supporting Actor: 3. Michael Fassbender in Song to Song is essentially playing Satan here, and he’s well-cast, and doesn’t let Malick complete overtake his work. 2. Patrick Stewart in Logan brings more emotion to his final performance as Professor X than I would have thought possible. 1. Bradley Whitford in Get Out is perfectly cast as the good liberal, in part because of West Wing, but then goes deeper.
Best Actor: 3. Joel Edgerton in It Came At Night is essentially playing an archetype, but does it so well that he truly gripping. 2. Hugh Jackman in Logan delivers the best work of his career as Clint Eastwood’s Wolverine. 1. Adrian Titieni in Graduation is great as a father who is willing to do anything to help his daughter in the corrupt modern Romania – and perhaps ends up ruining everything.
Best Actress: 3. Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman is the perfect Wonder Woman – is there anything else to say?, 2. Garance Marillier in Raw is wonderful as a teenager delivering with her insatiable hunger – who looks so innocent at first, but who will directly challenge the audience to continue to like her throughout. 1. Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper continues to show why she’s one of the very best actresses in the world – she anchors this haunting ghost story about grief, often without saying anything – and is easily the best performance in any category this year.
So, these are the film so far from 2017 that I really, really think you need to see:
Runners-Up: Colossal (Nacho Vigalondo) has a wonderful Anne Hathaway performance, and is a clever twist on the kaiju (giant monster) genre – even if it doesn’t quite stick the landing. Five Came Back (Laurent Bouzereau) could be classified as a 3 part TV doc, but I don’t care – every movie lover should see it, as it looks at the work of five American filmmakers during WWII – and then read the even better Mark Harris book it’s based on. Hounds of Love (Ben Young) is disturbing as hell, but also memorable and intense. John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski) is a wonderful, pure action film. L.A. 92 (Daniel Lindsay & T.J. Martin) is the best of the L.A. Riot docs (I still haven’t see John Ridley’s) to come out this year. The Lego Batman Movie (Chris McKay) was great tonic for those of us who think certain superheroes need to lighten the hell up. My Life as a Zucchini (Claude Barras) was a wonderfully smart, sensitive and beautiful animated film about children and grief. A Quiet Passion (Terrence Davies) is a beautiful, and strange, biopic of Emily Dickinson, with a great performance by Cynthia Nixon – Davies best in a while.
10. Casting JonBenet (Kitty Green)
The year’s best doc so far is this very strange one from Netflix and director Kitty Green. Yes, it’s another doc about the infamous JonBenet Ramsey case – which is something we do not need – but the film knows that, and instead has crafted a movie about the way we all process these true crime stories. The film’s basic premise is that the director is holding auditions for local actors from Boulder to come in and try out for a part in a docudrama about the case – when they get there, instead, they are told they’ll be making a documentary – and are asked about the case, and, yes, also “play” various characters. It’s a fascinating movie – especially for true crime buffs, who already know the case, who will see themselves projected in various people, in both good and bad ways. True crime docs have become trendy in recent years – and there have been a lot of good ones. But this one was great, and it’s because it’s unlike any other one in memory.
9. Song to Song (Terrence Malick)
If you’re a Malick fan you knew whether you’d like Song to Song or if you thought it was further proof that Malick has gotten lost staring up his own boat before you saw the film. This is more To the Wonder and Knight of Cups – apparently, this is the final part of this loosely connected trilogy, and Malick will do something more “narrative” driven next. For me, it was the best of the trilogy – in part because I’ve gotten more and more used Malick’s recent style, and learned how to watch them, etc. – but also in part because this movie did hit me the hardest in terms of its emotions – primarily because the performance by Rooney Mara (in the lead) and Natalie Portman (who has a much smaller role) are so good – with Michael Fassbender also doing fine work. Yes, you can argue that Malick is simply navel gazing – but fuck it – there are a lot of other movies that are more narratively driven than this (like, all of them) – I just Malick to keep doing his own weird, wonderful thing – even if I have to agree this trilogy is the weakest of all his films.
8. Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins)
Wonder Woman is easily the best movie in the DCU so far (it’s the only one I would want to watch a second time) – and in fact, it’s better than almost anything in the Marvel Universe as well. Yes, in many ways, it is a typical origin story – a little Captain America: The First Avenger, a little Thor, a little 1978 Superman – and the third act is a little bit of a bloated, CGI mess. Still, the movie is amazingly entertaining, Gal Gadot is amazing in the lead role, Chris Pine is great as her love interest, and in the No Man’s Land sequence, the film has one of the best action sequences you will see this year. I still enjoy going to many superhero movies, but don’t really “look forward” to them anymore. I cannot wait for more Wonder Woman.
7. It Comes at Night (Trey Edward Shults)
If you want a more traditional horror film, than Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night my not be for you. The film is ambiguous, and builds its tension very slowly. It doesn’t really have a villain, or that much blood or gore. Instead, it’s about a world that has already pretty much fallen, and the paranoia that may up destroying the small family at its core. Shults, whose extraordinary debut Krisha came out last year, has crafted an intense, scary film with great performance by the entire cast. An intense, frightening film that is different than you’d expect.
6. The Lost City of Z (James Gray)
James Gray’s The Lost City of Z almost feels like a long lost John Ford film from the 1950s that has just been unearthed. In the early days of the 20th Century, a British military officer (Charlie Hunnam) is sent to the Amazon to map out an order thus setting off an obsession that will overtake his life. Hunnam, who I normally think is bland, is a fine choice here – at first you think he’s a good guy, but he becomes more complicated as it goes along. Robert Pattinson is also in fine normal as his sidekick. The real star here though is Gray – whose has made a beautiful, brilliantly structure, old school adventure film. The best cinematography of the year is here – and Gray, who has continued to evolve in strange ways, has made perhaps not his best film (that would be his last film, The Immigrant – another more classical film) – but a fine one just the same.
5. Logan (James Mangold)
I have been hard superhero movies for all being just about the same story, over and over again, with very little differentiation. That’s still largely true – but James Mangold’s Logan is an exception – the best X-Men film to date, and one of the very best the genre has ever produced. The film is, in many ways, a Clint Eastwood Western, with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine stepping into the Eastwood role. The film is more violent than most – and also adds swearing (it didn’t need it). But this is a film that, for the first time since the Nolan Batman films, felt like there were real world stakes here – but not end of the world stakes, but human level stakes. Hugh Jackman has never been better, and Patrick Stewart is great as well. For the most part, while I like Superhero movies, I want more to take some chances – Logan takes those chances, and crafted a standalone story, that doesn’t depend on setting anything else up. That’s why it’s one of the best the genre has produced.
4. Graduation (Cristian Mungiu)
A father in Romanian wants what is best for his daughter – and little by little, bends the rules until they break. Director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Beyond the Hills) has once again made a movie about how even if Communism is over in Romania, it isn’t completely gone. It is about a father who regrets the decisions he has made, trying to ensure his daughter doesn’t make the same ones – but, of course, teenagers are wont to do what they do. In many ways, Graduation feels like a kinder, gentler version of a Michael Haneke film – Mungiu punishes his lead character here to be sure, but you feel for him, unlike in a Haneke film, which picks the bones dry. Mungiu’s style – long, flat shots that allow you to take into entire conversations or scenes in one shot, forcing you to listen to the whole thing. The film is quiet and subtle, but builds to a fine moment. It may not have the big, dramatic moments of Mungiu’s two prior films – but it has the same impact.
3. Raw (Julia Ducournau)
Julie Ducournau’s debut film had become infamous on the festival circuit for making audiences either pass out or vomit. It’s too bad that’s the one thing people know about the film, because Raw really is a terrific coming-of-age horror film, and a brilliant look at sibling rivalry. Yes, the film can be nauseating at times (the one scene that turned by stomach the most is one that isn’t talked about as much – the hair scene) – but it needs to be that way to really get under your skin. The lead performance by Garance Marillier is so good because she starts the movie as so innocent, so sympathetic to the audience, and then she slowly challenges the audience to still like her (there is a scene where she stares at you in that challenge. The last scene in the movie is the weakest, which is a shame, but other than that this is a brilliant debut film, and brilliant horror film – in any other year, it may well have been the best of either of those things. Not this year.
2. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas)
Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart collaborated before on the brilliant Clouds of Sils Maria – where Stewart delivered the best performance of her career in a supporting role – the personal assistant to a famous actress (Juliette Binoche) in a film that evoked the best, old school European art house cinema. Their new film together casts Stewart in the lead – a personal shopper for a model in Europe, who is grieving for her twin brother who just died of the same heart condition she has. Then, she starts receiving strange text messages from a mysterious stranger. The film is intense, scary, moving, ambiguous, stylized and utterly brilliant. No, it doesn’t wrap everything up in a neat package, nor does it want to. It challenges and provokes the viewer right up until the disturbing climax. I hope these two make many more films together.
1. Get Our (Jordan Peele)
You could easily make a case for any of the three foreign art house films listed just behind this as the years greatest accomplishment so far – but for me, the best Jordan Peele’s horror film with a social conscious. Peele knows his horror movie history, and goes back to the films of the 1960s and 1970s to find his inspiration – and then adapt it for up-to-the-minute social commentary. The film isn’t really scary on a traditional level – the film doesn’t go for big scare moments, and does build tension nicely, but it wouldn’t make a list of the scariest films ever. It is terrifying on another level though, as we are right there alongside the black main character, as he has to try and decode everything being said to him by a family – and eventually a much larger group – of seemingly good liberals, bending over backwards to make him feel welcome, which has just the opposite effect. I cannot say for sure how the film plays for black audiences – but as one of those “good liberal white people” the film makes you question every interaction, everything you say or do. It is a film that has grown in my mind since watching it – and is the clear winner for best of the year so far.

Movie Review: Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press

Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press *** ½ / *****

Directed by: Brian Knappenberger.

Written by: Brian Knappenberger.


The documentary Nobody Speak starts out as an examination of the bizarre legal case in which Terry Bollea aka Hulk Hogan sued Gawker for posting an excerpt of a sex tape featuring him and the wife of his best friend – a radio personality known as Bubba the Love Sponge. That case really should have been enough for one documentary to be about – but that doesn’t satisfy director Brian Knappenberger, who spins off into other stories in the back half of the documentary – like billionaire Sheldon Adelson buying a Las Vegas newspaper that was critical of him in order to control them, to Donald Trump and the rise of “Fake News”. Undeniably, there are connections between all of these cases – cases in which billionaires try to manipulate the press into giving them the coverage they want, and trying to actively shut down those who don’t – and yet because the film is only 95 minutes long, the film starts to feel more scattershot than it should. I couldn’t help but think of the excellent doc from a few years ago – Best of Enemies – about the infamous Vidal/Buckley debates during the 1968 Presidential campaigns, which in the last few minutes contains a montage about the unintended consequences those debates spawned. That was a smart, effective and efficient way of taking a smaller story and giving it larger relevance – Nobody Speak does essentially that for 45 minutes, and isn’t as effective. By the end, as the music soars, you’re watching a sermon.


That doesn’t mean that the film is bad – far from it – just that I wish the film had followed the crazy Terry Bollea vs. Gawker case throughout – because that case is bizarre enough to support it, and the case may well be stronger had they done that. By cramming that into 50 minutes or so, it kind of just hits the highlights, and doesn’t give as nuanced a view of anyone involved in the case as it should. For instance, Gawker was a journalistic cesspool, but the doc brushes by that quickly, in order to make Gawker into Free Speech heroes. I do believe Gawker had the right to publish what they did, and their right to freedom of speech should be upheld at all costs – because even if it is a cesspool, they still have those rights. By making them into heroes, the film makes things easier on the audience than it should be to side with Gawker – they were right, but saying so should make you feel a little dirty.


Knappenberger – who has made two other, rather laudatory docs, about the internet – We Are Legion about the hacker group Anonymous and The Internet’s Own Boy – about Aaron Swartz, another activist, hounded by the government until he committed suicide – doesn’t much work in shades of grey though – he likes things black and white morally speaking. And while here, there is clearly a right side and a wrong side, it would be nice to at least see what that other side was – from someone other than Bollea’s poorly touped lawyer.


Still, my problems with Nobody Speak aside, it is a fascinating movie about the slippery slope of journalistic integrity in America when billionaires can essentially control the media. Hogan’s suit against Gawker was funded by billionaire Peter Thiel, who apparently didn’t like previous stories they had done on him. Perhaps sensing that audiences may not like the Gawker people (one of whom did say that they only celebrity sex tape that wasn’t newsworthy would be if the celebrity was under 4 – and even if he was clearly being sarcastic, that doesn’t really help) Knappenberger switches focus to the Las Vegas Review Journal – a newspaper that was bought by another billionaire, although he tried to cover his tracks, and was only ousted by the dogged work by the reporters at the paper he had just acquired.


As with Knappenberger’s previous two films, I agree with a lot of what Knappenberger is saying in this film – and think that the connections are there, and they are important, and we do need to defend full, free journalism. I also wish that Knappenberger could impart that message without resorting to flattening everything into moral black and whites, and speechifying in the final act. There is a great doc to be made of this material – to be honest, there’s probably two or three great docs to be made of it. This one is merely ok.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Movie Review: The Bad Batch

The Bad Batch
Directed by: Ana Lily Amirpour.** / *****
Written by: Ana Lily Amirpour.   
Starring: Suki Waterhouse (Arlen), Jason Momoa (Miami Man), Jayda Fink (Honey), Keanu Reeves (The Dream), Diego Luna (Jimmy), Jim Carrey (Hermit), Yolonda Ross (Maria), Aye Hasegawa (Mousey), Giovanni Ribisi (The Screamer), Louie Lopez Jr. (Chuy). 
I have a sneaking suspicion that The Bad Batch was a screenplay draft or two away from being a great film. Ana Lily Amirpour’s more ambitious follow-up to her stunning, black and white, Jim Jarmusch inspired feminist-Western-vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, really is attempting to do a lot – so much in fact that it doesn’t do any of it particularly well. It isn’t really helped by a mostly blank lead performance by Suki Waterhouse – who isn’t particularly good during the films long, dialogue-less stretches, but it worse when she speaks, and a horrible Southern accent comes out. There is still things to admire about The Bad Batch – the cinematography is wonderful, the art direction even better – but the film is a jumble of ideas that seem promising, but don’t really lead anywhere.
Set in a not-too-distant dystopian future, where undesirables are tattooed, and left in the middle of the desert to fend for themselves, walled off from the rest of America, The Bad Batch is a film that really should speak to Donald Trump’s America. The opening sequence is the best in the film – where newcomer to this wasteland, Arlen (Waterhouse) is quickly captured, and taken to a family of cannibals – and during an extended sequence, loses a couple of limbs (an arm and a leg) to the family’s dinner, before escaping. She finds sanctuary, of a sort, in Comfort – another area of the wasteland, presided over by a strange cult leader known as The Dream (Keanu Reeves) – but she doesn’t fit in there either. Travelling through that wasteland again, she becomes the guardian of a little girl, Honey (Jayda Fink) – and then loses her – which angers Miami Man (Jason Momoa) – a muscleman man who is the girl’s father, and travels with him to get her back.
As with her first film, The Bad Batch is at its best when the actors are not speaking – Amirpour is nothing if not a gifted visual stylist, and her storytelling works best when she’s doesn’t seem to be trying so hard to make her thematic points. The film, which seems to be trying for some of what made Mad Max: Fury Road so effective as both a genre film and a political statement – but is undercut by billboards which pretty much announce the films subtext, or have a character named The Screamer (Giovanni Ribisi) literally scream it at certain points. The casting of other more famous actors – Keanu Reeves as the cult leader or Jim Carrey as a silent Hermit, who still manages to go over the top, read more as stunt casting than anything else. After the great opening, the film meanders through the rest of its story, full of side trips and detours, that don’t add much to the rest of the film.
Still, there is no denying Amirpour’s gifts as a visual stylist, and I have to give her credit for trying to make a film more ambitious than her debut here. Had she took a little more time to streamline the screenplay, and if she trusted that her subtext would come through without announcing it so well – and had she found actors more capable of delivering what she needs in the two most important roles than Waterhose and Momoa – The Bad Batch could have been the next great genre cult film it was clearly aiming to be. As it stands, it’s a film that shows Amirpour’s immense talent and potential, that doesn’t live up to either of those things. I cannot wait to see the film I know Amirpour can make where she nails it – but this isn’t it.

Movie Review: Wilson

Wilson ** / *****
Directed by: Craig Johnson.   
Written by: Daniel Clowes based on his graphic novel.
Starring: Woody Harrelson (Wilson), Laura Dern (Pippi), Isabella Amara (Claire), Judy Greer (Shelly), Cheryl Hines (Polly), Margo Martindale (Alta), David Warshofsky (Olsen), Brett Gelman (Robert), Mary Lynn Rajskub (Jodie).
Daniel Clowes’ Wilson is one of the best graphic novels ever written – perhaps his best work, although he has written so many great works, that it’s hard to say for sure. Reading the book – which is basically a collection of incidents involving the title character, which eventually forms a sort of narrative, is an uncomfortable experience mainly because the lead character is so strange – he is a misanthrope, because he really does long for some sort of connection to someone – anyone – so much so that he’ll simply talk to strangers on buses or at coffee shops – sitting right next to them and just start talking about the evils of the modern world, and the lack of human connection, oblivious to the fact that these people don’t want to talk to him. A part of Wilson is right, of course, and does reflect much of Clowes worldview – and yet Clowes is more self-aware than his character, and realizes that a guy like this in real life would be really, really annoying to be around – which, of course, is why he’s alone in the first place.
Adapting this book into a movie was always going to be hard, as any filmmaker would rather a less episodic narrative than the novel. What’s odd about the movie though is that it has softened the lead character so much that even if he goes through the same things his book counterpart did, it really does change your perspective on everything about the story. As played by Woody Harrelson, Wilson is more of a lovable crank than an awkward misanthrope. Harrelson is, of course, a great actor and his interpretation of Wilson isn’t wrong per se – but it certainly isn’t what I had envisioned when I read the book. Worse than that though – because of course, a movie can be a complete and total departure from the source material and still work as a movie – is that by turning him into that lovable crank, Wilson the movie becomes a rather typical, quirky Sundance dramedy about a dysfunctional family. It’s not really a bad one, but it isn’t really a good one either – and it tries too hard to put a happy twist on everything. Essentially, it has taken an unforgettable book and made a completely forgettable movie out of it.
The story revolves around Wilson, who is a late middle aged, single man with no job, and a wife you walked out on him 17 years ago, had an abortion, and became a prostitute. His one real friend is moving away, his dad has just died, and when he tries to reconnect with an old friend, he remembers why he disconnected in the first place. An awkward date with Alta (Margo Martindale) inspires him to look up his ex-wife, Pippi (Laura Dern) – who isn’t the drug addicted prostitute he thought she’d be. She reveals to him that he didn’t really have an abortion – but gave their daughter, Claire, up for adoption. The pair track her down and find that she (Isabella Amara) is a moody, Goth teenager, miserable enough in her affluent life to allow her birth parents back into her life. She even lets them take her on a trip to visit Pippi’s sister Polly (Cheryl Hines) – a perky woman in the suburbs – with horrible results.
Harrelson is entertaining in the lead role to be sure – he uses all of his charm to make Wilson a more sympathetic character, and one you may actually want to relate to (as opposed to the book version, where if you’re like me, and did relate to him anyway, you’re horrified by what that implies). He is surrounded by a wonderful, almost all female cast who has a good repore with. Dern in particular is quite good as the exasperated Pippi.
The film is directed by Craig Johnson, who did a better job in his last film, The Skeleton Twins (starring Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader) of walking that fine line between comic and dramatic (still not a great job – I liked that film less than many, but more than this). Here, he has essentially made an indie movie quirk fest, that ends with a smile and life lessons learned, which didn’t particularly strike me as the way to go. Wilson isn’t a bad film – had it not been based on a great book, I may have liked it a little more – but still, no matter what, this is a fairly forgettable film, with a few nice moments that doesn’t really add up to much. The book is masterpiece – do yourself a favor, and spend 90 minutes reading that instead – you may just have time to read it a second time as well.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Classic Movie Review: The Beguiled (1971)

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

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

Monday, June 19, 2017

Movie Review: Cars 3

Cars 3 *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Brian Fee.
Written by: Kiel Murray and Bob Peterson and Mike Rich and Brian Fee and Ben Queen and Eyal Podell & Jonathon E. Stewart. 
Starring: Owen Wilson (Lightning McQueen), Cristela Alonzo (Cruz Ramirez), Chris Cooper (Smokey), Nathan Fillion (Sterling), Larry the Cable Guy (Mater), Armie Hammer (Jackson Storm), Ray Magliozzi (Dusty), Tony Shalhoub (Luigi), Bonnie Hunt (Sally), Lea DeLaria (Miss Fritter), Kerry Washington (Natalie Certain), Bob Costas (Bob Cutlass), Margo Martindale (Louise Nash), Darrell Waltrip (Darrell Cartrip), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (River Scott), Bob Peterson (Chick Hicks), Guido Quaroni (Guido), Tom Magliozzi (Rusty), John Ratzenberger (Mack).
Pixar’s Cars 3 offers a necessary course correction after the disaster that was Cars 2 – which will hopefully always remain their worst film – and a fitting (hopefully) final chapter in the series that has never been as beloved by critics as Pixar’s other work, but does have a legion of (mostly) little boy fans, and, it must be said, a more readymade toy line than anything else Pixar has made. While the Cars movies have are not among the highest grossing Pixar movies (ranking 10th and 15th of their 17 releases so far), they are, by far, their highest grossing in terms or merchandise – and Pixar doesn’t have share as much of that revenue. Yes, it’s easy to be cynical about Pixar continuing with Cars movies in part because of branding – especially considering Cars 3 has a subplot about branding, and how hollow it is – but the truth is that Cars 3 is a fine film, well-animated and fun, and while probably more aimed at kids than adults, not quite nailing that mixture that Pixar so often does with ease, still entertaining for the parents as well. The Cars films will always be the red headed step child of the Pixar universe – even the first, and best installment, is lesser Pixar – but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.
Cars 3 opens with Lightning McQueen still on top of the racing world. He’s the fastest and best racer on the circuit, and as far as he’s concerned, he always will be. But then, all of sudden, he’s not. A new generation – led by Jackson Storm come up through the ranks, and power past McQueen. They cars a faster, and more aerodynamic, and have new training methods, etc. McQueen and his ilk just cannot keep up. A horrific crash on the last race of the season seems like it may be the end of McQueen – but instead, he’s determined to come back stronger than ever. His new sponsor has even hired one of those new trainers – Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) – to get McQueen ready. But perhaps, what he really needs, is not newer methods – but older ones.
Cars 3 is an interesting movie in part, because the setup reads like a pure sports comeback movie – like on the 18 Rocky sequels, where he’s far too old to be trying to comeback, but so manages to do so anyway, and wins. It also reminded me a little of that Clint Eastwood movie – Trouble with the Curve – where the stats guys know nothing, but the crotchety old veteran, with failing eyesight, can still spot a winner – and a loser – from the sidelines (for that matter, it’s kind of like the old school vs. new school debate in hockey stats right now). Interestingly though, that’s not where the movie ends up – the film is more about aging and accepting when it’s time to move on. Not only that, but about how when you do move on, that doesn’t mean your life is over – and that you can have a satisfying life from there – in some ways, more satisfying. It’s an interesting message for kids (I cannot think much of it will fly over the heads, except for the help each other part) – but its one parents will relate to.
Along the way though, the film is fast paced and fun. The film isn’t as slow and nostalgic as the first film (that one has grown on me over the years), and it isn’t the neon colored, headache inducing, joke fest of the sequel (that one, never will). It tries for a tone somewhere in between – and mostly gets it right. So, you do have a largely comic set piece when McQueen and Ramirez go to the demolition derby, and you do have a more nostalgic look back when the pair visit Doc Hudson’s old friends. But the film never drags, and really does have an exciting, racing climax.
In short, while Cars 3 is not premium Pixar – and it’s not even quite on the level of lesser Pixar sequels like Monsters University (which I known I liked more than most) or Finding Dory – it’s still fine entertainment for kids and adults alike. Besides, Coco is only a few months away – and that one looks great, so I’m willing to let Pixar slide a little with Cars 3.

Movie Review: Graduation

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