Monday, October 30, 2017

Movie Review: Wonderstruck

Wonderstruck **** / *****
Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Written by: Brian Selznick based on his book.
Starring: Oakes Fegley (Ben), Julianne Moore (Lillian Mayhew / Older Rose), Millicent Simmonds (Rose), Michelle Williams (Elaine Wilson), Jaden Michael (Jamie), Tom Noonan (Older Walter), James Urbaniak (Dr. Kincaid), Amy Hargreaves (Aunt Jenny), Cory Michael Smith (Walter).
The knock on director Todd Haynes has always been that he’s too cold and distant as a director – that he seems to prefer the style of his films to the content, the storytelling structure to his ideas, and that when the movie ends, you’re left cold – never really connecting with the material. In the weaker of Haynes’ films – like his feature debut Poison or Velvet Goldmine – I can somewhat agree with that complaint. And for a while in his latest, Wonderstruck, I couldn’t help but wonder if the same thing was going to hold true with this. I didn’t really mind this watching Wonderstruck – which always has something to admire, something to look at, or hear, at every moment in the film – but it is true that the film holds you at some distance for much of its runtime. The ending though gets there – as a Haynes film almost always does. In a way, his films have more impact when they do hit on that emotional button – because for much of them, he refuses to do that.
Wonderstruck is based on the book by Brian Selznick – which like his The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which Martin Scorsese turned into the delightful Hugo, is told in part pictures, and part words. This film flashes back and forth in time, from 1977 to 1927 – and tells the story of two different children making their way to New York in search of lost parents, and discovering something else. In 1977, the kid is Ben (Oakes Fegley), an orphan whose mother (Michelle Williams – once again in a Haynes movie for all of about five minutes, and making me want to see more of her – like I’m Not There) has just died, and now he has to stay with relatives. He has no idea who is father is, but stumbles upon a few clues, which lead him from Minnesota to New York – all after an accident leaves him deaf. In 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is around the same age – 10-12, somewhere around there – and is stuck in a regimented life in Hoboken, also deaf, with a family that doesn’t understand her. She goes to New York to find her mother – star of stage and screen Lilian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) – but she doesn’t have time for her. She can play a devoted mother on screen, but in real life, she views her own children as a burden.
As Haynes has done often in the past (in films like Poison, Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There), he flashes back and forth between times periods, and cinematic styles. For all intents and purposes the 1927 segment is a silent film – in beautiful black and white, but without the intertitle cards. The choice of 1927 is not a coincidence – it’s the year that Peter Bogdanovich says, probably correctly, that directors had perfected the silent film – films such as Buster Keaton’s The General, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans – and many, many others came out that year, as did The Jazz Singer, the first “talkie” that came along and destroyed it all. Haynes, who has always been a brilliant study of cinema’s past, bringing older forms back in his films, does a great job here with a silent film. The 1977 segment looks, purposefully, like a film from that era – the images look sunburnt, slightly orange as the colors bleed into each other. There is dialogue in this segment – but Haynes switches between the sound, and the silence to thrust us into Ben’s world.
From a technical standpoint, Wonderstruck is a characteristic triumph for Haynes and his collaborators. The great Edward Lachman once again delivers stunning cinematography in both styles, and the period detail of the costumes and sets is wonderful. Composer Carter Burwell outdoes himself here, using various means to create the soundscape of this world, and the world inside the heads of its two protagonists.
The story creaks a little bit here and there, and the narrative relies perhaps too heavily on coincidence – and you certainly see where it’s going. This is partly due to the source material – the book is aimed at children after all. Haynes film is probably not for kids – at least not young ones – who will likely grow restless with the films runtime (just over two hours) and narrative structure – but older, intelligent kids should definitely see it - for once they aren’t being talked down to. The film doesn’t quite hit the magical heights of Hugo – but it comes close at its best.
For much of the runtime, I admired everything about Wonderstruck, loved parts of it, but did feel that perhaps this time, Haynes had made a film that was a little too cold. The ending though works brilliantly, and on an emotional level. There is a great sequence – among the best in any Haynes movie – in which he goes back to his Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story roots that is brilliant on a technical level, and then goes deeper. The very end nearly brought me to tears. So no, once again, Haynes will be accused of making a cold and distant film, and once again, those accusations will be long. He holds you at arm’s length for a while – and that’s why the ending works like it does. Wonderstruck doesn’t quite the same level as Haynes’ masterpieces – like Safe, Far From Heaven or Carol – but that’s because he’s set the bar so high for himself, not because Wonderstruck is at all a disappointment.

Movie Review: Loving Vincent

Loving Vincent *** / *****
Directed by: Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman.
Written by: Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman & Jacek Dehnel. 
Starring: Robert Gulaczyk (Vincent van Gogh), Douglas Booth (Armand Roulin), Jerome Flynn (Dr. Gachet), Saoirse Ronan (Marguerite Gachet), Helen McCrory (Louise Chevalier), Chris O'Dowd (Postman Roulin), John Sessions (Père Tanguy), Eleanor Tomlinson (Adeline Ravoux), Aidan Turner (Boatman).
Watching Loving Vincent I was struck my two thoughts throughout – the first being that the film was visually dazzling, not quite like anything I’ve seen before, and the second being that I wished the filmmakers had spent more time on the narrative than they did. The Vincent of the title is Vincent Van Gogh, the tortured Dutch artist, uncelebrated in his own brief life, celebrated ever since, and the film is made up of some 65,000 images, from 125 artists, who paint the individual frames in Van Gogh’s style – bringing to life some of his famous portraits and landscapes. The film looks magnificent – as one would hope for a film that apparently took 10 years to complete. With that much time being necessary to invest in making the film, I cannot help but wonder why the filmmakers didn’t find a more interesting story to tell.
The story takes place after Vincent has already died – apparently by suicide, at the age of 27. Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) is an angry young man, prone to alcohol and fighting, who is tasked by his post master father (Chris O’Dowd) – the only man in their small town who liked Vincent when he was there during his life – with travelling to Paris to deliver a just discovered letter to Vincent’s brother Theo. He gets to Paris only to find that Theo also died – not long after Vincent – but is given another name – Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn) who lives in Auvers-sur-Oise – the small, country town Vincent lived in until his death. Armand, who at first hated Vincent, but grows to like him as he hears stories about him, travels there to give Dr. Gachet the letter – thinking that he’ll know what to do once he does. The rest of the movie has Armand talking too many of the residents of Auvers-sur-Oise – and getting wildly different stories about Vincent. He even starts to believe that Vincent didn’t actually kill himself – but was instead murdered.
There is not a frame of the movie that isn’t lovely to look at – and thanks to Clint Mansell’s lovely, melancholy score, much of the movie is a pleasure to listen to as well. The film captures the beauty of Van Gogh’s images, and brings to life in a way that doesn’t cheapen them. The actors in the film end up looking like a cross between Van Gogh’s images of people in his life, and the actors themselves (side-by-side comparisons during the end credits are fascinating to look at).
Yet, as I watched the film – which only runs about 90 minutes – I couldn’t help but grow restless. The most interesting character in the story is Van Gogh himself – and he exists in the story mainly as a cipher, seen in beautiful black and white images – but because the film seems too stuck on this Rashomon like storytelling, he never comes into focus. The rest of the characters just aren’t that interesting to be around, and the murder mystery aspect of the narrative doesn’t really work either.
Loving Vincent is a lovely film to watch – and in terms of its style, it shows what can be done with animation, if filmmakers are given the time and resources to do it. The film looks great. I just cannot help but wonder why the filmmakers wanted to use this process on this story.

Movie Review: Girls Trip

Girls Trip ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Malcolm D. Lee.
Written by: Kenya Barris & Tracy Oliver and Erica Rivinoja.
Starring: Regina Hall (Ryan Pierce), Queen Latifah (Sasha Franklin), Jada Pinkett Smith (Lisa Cooper), Tiffany Haddish (Dina), Larenz Tate (Julian Stevens), Mike Colter (Stewart Pierce), Kate Walsh (Elizabeth Davelli), Kofi Siriboe (Malik), Lara Grice (Bethany), Deborah Ayorinde (Simone).
I really wanted to like Girls Trip more than I did. The “surprise” hit comedy of the summer (which is only a surprise, because the people who do box office projections cannot, for some reason, accurately gage the interest of non-white audiences) is this women-behaving-badly comedy in the mold of Bridesmaids – and seen in other films recently, like the not very good Bad Moms and the downright awful Rough Night. What distinguishes Girls Night from those films is the fact that all the women this time are black – and they’re all in their 40s (or in the case of Tiffany Haddish, supposed to be). At its best, Girls Trip made me laugh quite a bit – but the film goes on for over two hours, and cannot sustain that kind of comedy for that long. The final half hour or so is a mess, as it tries to grow serious in a way that rings hollow. Of course, I’ll be the first to admit that a) I’m not the target audience for this film, b) that the target audience for this film – women, specifically black women, seem to love this film and c) that target audience is grossly, grossly underserved by Hollywood, so hey – what the hell do I know?
The film takes place over the course of a long weekend in New Orleans. It’s there where Ryan Pierce (Regina Hall – one of those great black actresses who never gets the roles equal to her talented) is going to be the keynote speaker at the Essence Festival. She has invited her best friends from college along for the ride. They are gossip blogger with a financial problem Sasha (Queen Latifah), divorced single mother Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) and firecracker Dina (Tiffany Haddish), the most loyal in the group, who is also the most likely to get them in trouble. In college they were known as the Flossy Posse, and they still say they are best friends - although they don’t see each other much anymore, and there are tensions amongst the group.
The film is really a series of setups in which these four talented women get themselves into a situation, and then do something painfully embarrassing to bring the scene to a close. The narrative thread that runs through the movie is about Ryan- who is set to become the next Oprah, alongside her husband Stewart (Mike Colter) – as the couple have sold themselves as “having it all” – and are going to get a lucrative talk show to sell that even more. But then Sasha gets a picture of Stewart that proves he’s cheating on Ryan – and given her dire financial situation, publishing it would help.
The chemistry between the four leads is the reason to see Girls Trip. Every one of them is funny – and if Haddish is funnier than the rest, that’s in part because her role lends itself to being that much funnier. The rest have some dramatic storylines, and real world stuff weighing them down – but Haddish can crank it up to 11 from the get go, and then just keeping getting louder. She is a star in the making.
The film was directed by Malcolm Lee, who does a decent job with the screenplay by Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver. Somewhere along the way, the movie needed to be trimmed down a little bit – few and far between are the comedies that can keep things moving like this for over two hours, and this isn’t one of them. The film though clearly served its audience precisely what they wanted. I wish the film was better – better paced, with a less false ending – but I cannot deny it delivered what it promised.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Phantasm (1979)

Directed by: Don Coscarelli.   
Written by: Don Coscarelli.
Starring: Michael Baldwin (Mike), Bill Thornbury (Jody), Reggie Bannister (Reggie), Lynn Eastman-Rossi (Sally), David Arntzen (Toby), Bill Cone (Tommy), Angus Scrimm (The Tall Man).
Watching Phantasm for the first time for this project, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about this film that has inspired such fandom that the film would rank in the top 100 horror films of all time on the definitive website of such things – They Shoot Zombies, Don’t They? – and almost any other list that goes that deep – not to mention four sequels, the most recent of which came out in 2016, which is also the only film in the franchise not to be directed by the original director, Don Coscarelli. The original is obviously done on a very limited budget – but those horror films can sometimes have their charms, as it forces filmmakers to do inventive things to get what they want onscreen when they can’t just spend their way there. But Phantasm isn’t particularly good on any level – it’s a rather shoddy mishmash of unfunny humor and unscary horror, which seemingly pulls the twists and turns of its plot out of thin air. It’s not that Phantasm is a particularly bad low budget horror movie – just a thoroughly mediocre one, so it somewhat mystifies me that it has such a cult following, all these years later. What did I miss, here?
The most interesting aspect of Phantasm is the coming-of-age story of Mike (Michael Baldwin), the main character, who is a 12 year old boy, who has just lost his parents in a car accident. He is now being raised by his brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury) – a travelling musician, who Mike (not without reason) is worried is going to leave him behind – meaning he’d be alone. This is a good spot to start a horror movie from – a kid, already familiar with death, being thrown into a world he doesn’t understand when he sees the films villain – The Tall Man (Angue Scrimm), who works at the funeral home, single-handedly lifting a coffin. As he starts to try and figure out what’s going on with The Tall Man, things get stranger, more dangerous, and more horrific.
I guess it’s the horror elements that really don’t work for me in Phantasm. They mostly seem goofy for me – especially in a scene where Mike finally gets Jody to believe him about what’s going on, and shows him the finger of the Tall Man that he had hacked off (complete with bright yellow blood) – and the finger turns into a buzzing insect. Or the silly metal balls that fly around after people. The ultimate solution to the film – the reason everything is happening – is just too silly to take seriously.
I do realize that if you were to describe many horror movies using this logic, they would sound silly. But the great horror movies are able to overcome that with atmosphere and suspense – if the movie is scaring you, or keeping you in suspended animation with creeping fear, you don’t realize how dumb things are as they are happening in front of you. Phantasm never really did that for me. I was never scared by the movie, because everything seemed so slapped together. The setup for the movie is good – everything else falls flat. At least for me, because the large cult following the film has is further proof that horror is perhaps the most subjective of genres.

Movie Review: Jigsaw

Jigsaw ** / *****
Directed by: Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig.
Written by: Pete Goldfinger & Josh Stolberg.
Starring: Matt Passmore (Logan Nelson), Tobin Bell (Jigsaw / John Kramer), Callum Keith Rennie (Detective Halloran), Hannah Emily Anderson (Eleanor Bonneville), Clé Bennett (Detective Keith Hunt), Laura Vandervoort (Anna), Paul Braunstein (Ryan), Mandela Van Peebles (Mitch), Brittany Allen (Carly), Josiah Black (Edgar Munsen).
The Saw franchise was an annual Halloween tradition between 2004 and 2010 – every year, releasing a new film, in which the killer known as Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) devises new games and new traps for his victims to play, which they more often than not lost, and ended up in bloody messes on the floor – this despite the fact that Jigsaw dies fairly early in the series. The original saw – directed by James Wan – had a simplicity to it that really does make it the best of the series, and is also the least gruesome of the bunch (the other installments can properly be classified as torture porn – I don’t think the original can). Looking at my database of movies, I noticed I gave up on the Saw franchise after 6 installments – which seems like an odd thing for me to do, considering the 7th had the subtitle of The Final Chapter – you’d think I’d stick it out for one final movie, but no – I had had enough. And yet, I found myself oddly looking forward to Jigsaw – a kind of prequel/sequel/reboot of the franchise – probably because having not watched or much thought about the series since 2010, I wanted to see what the filmmaker had in store. After all, if they were reviving the franchise after all that time, you’d think they’d have something pretty special up their sleeve.
Unfortunately they really don’t. Jigsaw is hardly an awful movie – and yes, for the sick minded out there, it does offer some nifty traps that slice and dice, and other dispose of the victims in the film in bloody and gruesome ways. Yet, I cannot help but wonder if this really is the best they could come up with in their desperate attempt to revive the once insanely profitable series. The convoluted Jigsaw backstory (Britt Hayes does a great rundown of it at Screencrush if you’re interested) gets even more convoluted in this installment – mostly in ways that make little to no sense. Then again, the backstory in these movies was always just a way to further screw with the audience a little – and to setup the next film, because the series kept writing itself into corners (probably deliberately) that they had to find a way out of.
But more disappointing is that the games themselves (which I won’t spoil here) don’t seem to really be playing fair with the victims. Remember, Jigsaw did get mad at protégé Amanda in the original series at some point, because she was building unwinnable games, and that didn’t jive with his sense of fairness. More than once in Jigsaw did I find myself thinking that various characters were never really given a chance to win their games – and if that’s the case, what’s the point.
Also, the film follows what the original series always did – and always bugged me – in that it follows the investigations by the police and those around them (the main character here is actually a coroner) trying to figure out the game going on – and always, of course, being somehow involved themselves. These scenes were always my least favorite part of the Saw series – and unfortunately they take up way too much time in Jigsaw.
Now, if you’re a Saw superfan, you’ll probably like this. It doesn’t have the brutal simplicity of the first film – and didn’t completely gross me out like the best of the sequels – but it mainly delivers what fans of the Saw series apparently liked enough to make 7 movies profitable last decade. Then again, there is a reason they stopped making them as well, isn’t there?

Movie Review: Creep 2

Creep 2 *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Patrick Brice.
Written by: Patrick Brice & Mark Duplass.
Starring: Mark Duplass (Aaron), Desiree Akhavan (Sara), Karan Soni (Dave).
The original Creep – which played the festival circuit in 2014, and had a modest release in 2015 – was an effective, mirco-budgeted found footage horror comedy, in which Mark Duplass effective skewered his own image as the nice hipster, by essentially playing that character again, but this time, using it to mask the fact that he’s a serial killer. That film found Duplass’ Josef placing an ad in Craigslist looking for a videographer to come to his secluded house in the woods, and shoot footage of him for one day, at the rate of $1,000. The videographer gets there, and is creeped out by Josef – but then again, Josef tells him he’s dying of cancer, and he wants to make this video for his unborn child, so he goes along with what is asked of him. Besides, it just seems like Josef is just a weird hipster – nothing all that dangerous. Of course, that’s not all Josef is.
In many ways, Creep 2 follows the same basic premise of the original – and yet is smart enough to know that even if his ruse would work on another videographer, it wouldn’t work so well on the audience. So after a bloody opening scene – a kind of mini version of Creep played out in 7 minutes – when Josef, who now calls himself Aaron (which was the name of the victim in the original Creep) places the same ad for a videographer, and gets another response, he has a different game in mind this time. The videographer who replies is Sara (Desiree Akhavan) – a frustrated filmmaker, whose web series “Encounters” has gone nowhere – and when she shows up, Aaron lays the cards out on the table for her. He is a serial killer, he’s just turned 40, and he’s losing his love for his “vocation”. He wants Sara to film him for 24 hours, again for $1,000, and he promises he won’t kill her in that 24 hour period. She may actually get a good episode of Encounters out of it.
Creep 2 is very aware of what the original film did, and instead of repeating itself, works hard not to – it actually calls attention to the kind of jump scares and Boo moments that freaked Aaron out so much in the original film, and shows that Sara is hardly impressed. She’s a tougher nut to crack than the last guy – and she doesn’t really believe that this Aaron is a serial killer – just an aging, creepy hipster, with a bad ponytail, who decides to get naked pretty much right after meeting her – a way to “clear the sexual tension” that will always “exist between a man and a woman”. Sara doesn’t want to be intimidated, and responses in kind.
All this is an effective way to make a horror sequel – acknowledge what worked about the last film, but then try to push beyond that into something else. While it’s only been a few years, what works best here maybe the fact that Duplass’ character is aging – and he realizes it. At what point does an aging hipster – who makes complicated smoothies, and listens to unknown jam bands from the 1990s – who do with “one guitar solo what no poet in history has been able to do” start to go from just weird, to out and out creepy and pathetic.
The ending of the film is effective in its own way – there is a kind of shaky cam horror movie in the woods climax that borrows too heavily from the Blair Witch Project, but hey, it’s still effective. But it’s really the last shot in the movie that is a quiet stunner – and makes me excited about the already announced Creep 3.

Movie Review: An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Bonni Cohen & Jon Shenk.
Written by: Al Gore.
In retrospect, I think it’s fair to say two things about An Inconvenient Truth – the first is that it was a very important documentary, that brought awareness of global warming to a larger audience, and the second is that the success the film had (it won an Oscar for Best Documentary, and remains to this day the 11th highest grossing doc of all time – and higher when you take out music docs) has spawned a decade’s worth of copycats, which are basically dull. Because that film was so successful, many others have followed in its wake – and that has resulted in many “issue” documentaries, which are essentially dull lectures on a subject – and contain a website address in the end credits urging you to “Get Involved”. These docs often do tell important stories, on important subjects – but man, do I ever wish the filmmakers behind them would be more inventive in how they approach their subjects. A documentary doesn’t need to be a dull slideshow.
All of this brings us to the decade later sequel to the original film. The original director Davis Guggenheim isn’t back and instead, the film was directed by Bonni Cohen & Jon Shenk – who made last year’s very powerful Netflix documentary Audrie & Daisy, about the sexual assault of two teenage girls, and the long lasting after effects. That film gave into to the kind of “issue” doc tactics occasionally, but overall, it delivered an important personal story, as well as a larger one on rape culture in general that made up for it. With this film we can at least be grateful that we don’t just get a repeat of the original film – there have been many global warming docs in the past decade, some good, some not so good – that it really isn’t necessary for a repeat. What we get instead is basically a portrait of Al Gore as he travels around the world talking to people about global warming, and trying to convince people, with mixed results, to get involved.
The subtitle to the movie – Truth to Power – is obviously directed at President Trump – who doesn’t really think global warming is important, and withdrew America from the Paris Accord – which this movie spends much of its final half hour showing how it was negotiated (at least Gore’s involvement). Trump is the specter that hangs over the whole film – but the filmmakers mainly keep him in the background – a voice on a TV set playing in behind Gore as he does something more important.
The film is kind of interesting, and of course, you cannot help but admire Gore, who is now nearing 70, and has never slowed down his work on something he is very passionate about – and really is the most important issue of our time, because if we destroy the planet, nothing else really matters. I’m just not entirely sold that this needed to be a movie. We don’t really learn anything more about global warming than we did before, and we don’t really know any more about Al Gore than we did before. If nothing else, I guess the film is important to remind everyone that this huge issue is still an issue, still a problem, and that we haven’t really done anything to solve it – and Al Gore is that annoying guy who won’t leave you alone on the subject, but you still have to admit he’s right. No, I don’t think really think we needed this movie – but until we actually do something about global warming, we do Al Gore to keep trying to do something about it.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Movie Review: The Snowman

The Snowman * ½ / *****
Directed by: Tomas Alfredson.
Written by: Peter Straughan and Hossein Amini and Søren Sveistrup based on the novel by Jo Nesbø.
Starring: Michael Fassbender (Harry Hole), Rebecca Ferguson (Katrine Bratt), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Rakel), Jonas Karlsson (Mathias), Michael Yates (Oleg), Ronan Vibert (Gunnar Hagen), J.K. Simmons (Arve Stop), Val Kilmer (Rafto), David Dencik (Vetlesen), Toby Jones (DC Svensson), Genevieve O'Reilly (Birte Becker), James D'Arcy (Filip Becker), Jeté Laurence (Josephine Becker), Adrian Dunbar (Frederik Aasen), Chloë Sevigny (Sylvia Ottersen / Ane Pedersen).
Once in a while a group of extremely talented people come together to make one, downright awful movie – and that’s pretty much what happened with The Snowman. The director is Tomas Alfredson, whose last two films – Let the Right One In (2008) and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (2011) are both great – and as you can tell by the dates on those, he normally takes his time making films. The cast includes talented actors all the way through – from Michael Fassbender to Rebecca Ferguson to Charlotte Gainsbourg to J.K. Simmons to Val Kilmer to Toby Jones to Chloe Sevigny. One of the editors is the great Thelma Schoonmaker – who has worked with Martin Scorsese (who executive produced this!) his entire career. The cinematographer is Dion Beebe, an Oscar winner for Memoirs of a Geisha – and that’s not even close to his best work (see his work on the pair of Michael Mann films – Collateral or Miami Vice for that). All of these talented people, and a lot more came together to make a film that quite simply is a mess on every level.
The Snowman is a confused and confusing thriller about a Detective named Harry Hole – and no, no one even mentions the fact that his name is Harry Hole – played by Michael Fassbender. Hole is apparently a genius detective – I say apparently, because we never see any evidence of that – who is also an alcoholic, which is basically what he’s doing in the opening scenes of the movie. He has demons, man, although the film never explains what those are. The film tries, I think, to misdirect us in the opening scene, a flashback to a traumatic childhood – but it’s clear that it’s not Harry’s childhood, so why he’s an drunken mess is one of the many, many things that are never explained in the film. Basically, the plot of the film involves Harry teaming up with new detective Katrine Bratt (Ferguson), when a series of women – all mothers – go missing. There are taunting letters sent to Hole – calling him Mister Police, and referencing all the clues he has left for him that will allow Hole to find him. The problem, of course, is that we never actually see those clues. There is also a subplot about Hole’s personal life – his ex-girlfriend Rakel (Gainsbourgh), and her teenage son – not Harry’s, although whoever the father is, isn’t in his life, and Harry has taken over a token father role. And then there is a series of flashbacks to 10 years ago in another part of Norway (who, by the way, the film takes place in Norway, but you’d be forgiven for not knowing, as every single person has a different accent) in which another drunken detective – Rafto (Val Kilmer, who is oddly and horribly dubbed in the film) investigates a murder that may or may not involve a wealthy asshole, Arve Stop (J.K. Simmons, who I think may be the only actor in the film trying to sound Norwegian – if only because his accent is so strange that I cannot figure out what the hell else he could be up to here).
The film plods along, confusingly, until its conclusion that you may well see coming like I did – not because the movie provides logical clues to the identity of the killer – who, by the way, cuts off his victims heads and replaces them with snowman heads – but because Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters (look it up) pretty much spells out who has to be responsible.
If I didn’t know better, I’d almost think that the film was attempting to be a straight faced parody of this particular genre of the talking serial killer, toying with police – a genre that includes masterpieces like The Silence of the Lambs, Seven and Zodiac – and a whole lot of crap we’ve all forgotten by now. Fassbender is a talented actor, but he really has nothing to do here except look morose for the entire runtime of the movie – something he admittedly does well (seriously, he’s more miserable here than he was in Shame). No one is the supporting cast fares much better – except for maybe Gainsbourgh, who is one of those actresses I always find it impossible to look away from, no matter what she’s doing or saying – and the same holds true here.
To be fair, I guess you could say the film looks pretty good – you certainly feel the cold and snow in the film (unless it’s one of the scenes with fairly fake looking CGI snow anyway) – but even the creepy visuals are undercut by some of the more comical ones (sorry, the snowmen in the film aren’t really that creepy – they have nothing on the snowman from the Michael Keaton starring Jack Frost – that’s a snowman that will give you nightmares). In short, the film is an absolute, complete mess – one of those films that will be remembered for being awful. That’s something that can only happen on this level when so many of the people involved are so talented. You have to wonder watching this film – what the hell happened?

Movie Review: Only the Brave

Only the Brave *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Joseph Kosinski.
Written by: Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer based on the article by Sean Flynn.
Starring: Josh Brolin (Eric Marsh), Miles Teller (Brendan McDonough), Jeff Bridges (Duane Steinbrink), Jennifer Connelly (Amanda Marsh), James Badge Dale (Jesse Steed), Taylor Kitsch (Christopher MacKenzie), Andie MacDowell (Marvel Steinbrink).

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Only the Brave is that it wasn’t directed by Peter Berg, and doesn’t star Mark Wahlberg. That director/actor pair has made a small cottage industry taking on true life disasters in films like Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day. None of those films is terrible – I don’t much like Lone Survivor’s fetishization of violence and suffering, but all are fairly well made, and at their best exciting (I seem to like Patriots Day more than most for instance). Yet, even if I have a grudging like of those films, they are all rather heavy handed and punishing to watch. Only the Brave tackles the type of true life incident that Berg/Wahlberg would love – the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who suffered a massive, and tragic loss fighting a wildfire in 2013. The film, director by Joseph Kosinski, has a lighter touch than Berg has managed so far – and doesn’t feel quite so exploitive. This means when the eventual, tragic ending does come, it hits all the harder.
The film takes it time, and gradually builds up its characters for more than a year before the tragic fire in 2013. It opens with the crew, led by Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), is trying very hard to get certified as actual hotshots – until then, they have to be “Deucers” – secondary firefighters, who don’t get to go into the heart of the action fighting wildfires – and since they are located in Arizona, there are a lot of them. The movie focuses mainly on Marsh, his struggle to get the crew tested and certified, and his marriage to Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) – who refreshingly does a lot more than sit by the phone and wait for her man to come home (another way you know this isn’t a Berg/Wahlberg film) – and on Brendan McDonough, played by Miles Teller. When we first meet him, McDonough is a screw-up – he drinks, he does drugs, he gets arrested, and even his mother has had enough of him and throws him out of her house. But then he finds out that his ex-girlfriend is pregnant – and determined not to become the absentee father he had, he gets his life back on track – which includes his improbably hiring by Marsh – a move no one else on the crew agrees with, but he does anyway.
The first act of Only the Brave is a little awkward, as it has to spend quite a lot of time setting everything up – the situation, the town, what Hotshots actually do, and the many (many) characters in the film. It gets better as it moves along, and settles into a routine – as we see the Hotshots (spoiler alert – they do eventually get certified) go to one fire after another, become local heroes, and make a name for themselves. Kosinski – whose previous films were the Tom Cruise sci-fi film Oblivion and Tron: Legacy, is good at using special effects, and thankfully, doesn’t overdo them here – the fire feel genuine, and the sense of danger in them is real. The film also has effective performances all the way through – Brolin is appropriately square jawed and upright at first, but gradually reveals a little bit more of himself – his best scenes are with Connelly, who as previously mentioned is very good as a more complete and complex wife character than these films usually allow. Teller is fine, but I always prefer him a little bit more of an asshole then he is here (I wonder why). Jeff Bridges is on hand to do his Jeff Bridges thing – which he does quite well. Most of the other hotshots start to blend together – although James Badge Dale and Taylor Kitsch stand out somewhat – if for no other reason than because they have more screen time than the others.
Only the Brave is the kind of old fashioned, male weepie that doesn’t get made much anymore – and when they are, they have the masculinity pumped up to 11 like those Berg/Wahlberg films. Yes, it’s a little square, and plays everything straight up the middle. But it’s effective and engrossingly, and ultimately, yes, it is a tearjerker. But it earns those tears, so you won’t feel silly the next day for crying.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Movie Review: One of Us

One of Us **** / *****
Directors: Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady.
One of Us is a difficult documentary to sit through, as it details stories that we do not often hear, and when we do, don’t really want to believe that they could happen in 2017, in America. The weakness of the film maybe that it can only tell one side of the story – but that side that we see is more than harrowing enough to be riveting viewing either way. Besides, there was no way that a full portrait could ever really get made.

The film details the story of three young people who grew up in the tight knit Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, who eventually decide that they have to flee – get out, and start their own lives, instead of staying. This is difficult because doing so essentially means you have to leave behind everything you know, everyone you love, and make it on your own – something that your upbringing in that community deliberately does not prepare you for. The film focuses on Ari – who in his late teens, has just left, has drug problems, suffered abuse as a child, that was covered up, and now really has to idea what he’s going to do next. There is also Luzer, who is now in his late 20s, but was a couple years older than Ari when he left – which for him, meant leaving his wife, and two children, behind to move to L.A. and try and become an actor. He cannot even see his children anymore because of his decision. Most harrowing is the story of Elly – who is now in her early 30s, who at the age of 19 was forced into a marriage with an abusive man, and has given birth to seven of his children since. You would think that doing to divorce court in New York would favor her – but it really doesn’t, and she has to accept the reality that even if she is able to leave, her children may not – and she may not see them very much at all, ever again.
The film was directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady – two of the best documentarians around, whose best known film, Jesus Camp, is one the doc highlights of the 2000s. That film also detailed an insular religious group – Evangelical Christians – but from the inside. The Evangelicals welcomed the cameras into their midst, and welcomed the opportunity to tell everyone about their beliefs – which is one of the reasons why Jesus Camp works so well – it allows them to expose themselves for who they are. They are not given the same access in One of Us – the Hasidic community is old fashioned and superstitious and are not going to explain themselves to Ewing and Grady. What we do glimpse of them, from the point-of-view or former members, is fascinating in its way. Yes, it’s very sad to see how they behave – but their beliefs are interesting. The community was originally made up of Holocaust survivors, and they see themselves as replacements of those who died – when you look at it that way, it makes sense that they do everything they can to keep everyone in the fold. No, it doesn’t excuse the abuse – or the lengths they go to ostracize and punish those who leave – but it does make it understandable.
The whole film had a melancholy tone to it that makes it more difficult to watch then Jesus Camp – which was nothing if not entertaining, even as it was also disturbing. This film is sadder than that, in part, because it doesn’t hold out a lot of hope for the future. This is the way the community is, and almost everyone stays (only 2% leave). You understand why they fight to maintain their way of life, but also cannot help but wonder if it’s worth the cost. This is a fascinating, troubling documentary.

Movie Review: 1922

1922 ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Zak Hilditch.
Written by: Zak Hilditch based on the story by Stephen King. 
Starring: Thomas Jane (Wilfred James), Molly Parker (Arlette James), Dylan Schmid (Henry James), Kaitlyn Bernard (Shannon Cotterie), Brian d'Arcy James (Sheriff Jones), Neal McDonough (Harlan Cotterie).
There has been a lot of talk this year about Netflix and their distribution strategy for their films – with many wishing the company would be more willing to give theatrical runs to films like Okja, The Meyerowitz Stories (New & Selected) and the upcoming Mudbound. I’m rather ambivalent about the whole situation – on one hand, I would love to see those films on the big screen, on the other, with so many films to see, it’s nice that some go to Netflix, and I can catch up with them at the same time as critics are writing about them. Netflix – and other streaming sites – are still trying to figure out the best way forward, and we’ll all have to live with growing pains. One of the things I do wish Netflix would do however is be more willing to embrace non-traditional runtimes in their films. If you don’t need to fill a half hour time slot of TV, why can’t a TV series have some episodes that run 25 minutes, and some that 45 minutes – as the story dictates? The same is true for movies. Their latest Stephen King adaptation, 1922, would have made for a killer 1 hour film – but stretched into 1 hour 40 minutes, it loses something. The novella – part of King’s Full Dark, No Stars book, the bleakest of King’s collection, was always a slow burn, but the movie is even slower – so much so that it seems like its treading water more often than not. There’s a lot of like about the film – I just think the whole thing would have been better losing at least 30 minutes, if not a little more.
The story focuses on Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) who in the title year, was a farmer in Nebraska – and liked it that way. He doesn’t much care for his wife, Arlette (Molly Parker) and the feeling is mutual, but it’s 1922, and you didn’t get divorced back then. The couple has a teenage son, Henry (Dylan Schmid), who like his father, likes his life on the farm. When Arlette’s father dies, he leaves her 100 acres or farm land. Wilfred wants to expand his own operations, whereas Arlette wants to sell – not just her 100 acres, but also their 90, and head to the city to open a dress shop. Wilfred wants to find a way to keep all of his – and his wife’s land – for himself, and keep his son around. So, of course, his mind eventually settles on murder – and he enlists his son’s help.
1922 is a classic, Telltale Heart like story – except instead of the beating of a heart driving the protagonist made, it’s Wilfred’s vision of rats that he sees, over and over again, as they naw on his wife’s face at the bottom of the well he buries her in – and then start to literally come at him from all over (at least literally to him, remember, the whole movie is his point-of-view, and the novella at least hints he may not be a reliable narrator). In the novella, King does a good job building everything up slowly to the murder – which happens in the before the first half of the story is up, and then unwinding everything from there. The movie was written and directed by Zak Hilditch, and he really does try to do the same thing. He gets a fine performance out of Thomas Jane – who maybe leans too heavily into the characters accent, and vocal intonations, but makes up for it with his depiction of his slow descent into madness. The other characters seem rather thinly sketched though – Molly Parker, fine actress as she may be, is pretty much playing the stereotypical nagging bitch wife (you can defend this in that it is Wilfred’s point of view, but that only goes so far) – and the changes that Henry go through seem to happen on a dime, making them mostly implausible. But the film really does excel at building up the atmosphere, and slowly getting under your skin. If you have an aversion to rats, the film will work even better – be even scarier – than it already is.
And yet, by the end of the film, I felt that it had overstayed its welcome. Everything in the movie happens at a deliberate pace – and perhaps it’s too deliberate, and there’s a little too much of it (at a certain point, piling on misery after misery becomes almost comical and over-the-top). Hilditch picked a good King to adapt (in general, it’s better to pick King’s short stories and novellas to adapt to the screen – because you can adapt them relatively intact, and they have stronger endings than his novels) – but he drags everything on too long. At an hour, this film could have been great. At 100 minutes, it’s fine – but mostly forgettable. Every film needs to find its own proper length – whether that’s 30 minutes, or 4 hours – this one misses it, and suffers because of it.

Movie Review: Landline

Landline *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Gillian Robespierre.
Written by: Elisabeth Holm & Gillian Robespierre and Tom Bean. 
Starring: Jenny Slate (Dana), Abby Quinn (Ali), John Turturro (Alan), Edie Falco (Pat), Jay Duplass (Ben), Ali Ahn (Sandra), Marquis Rodriguez (Jed), Jordan Carlos (Ravi), Finn Wittrock (Nate), India Menuez (Sophie), Charlotte Ubben (Allison).
When I reviewed Super Dark Times not that long ago, I wondered if we were going to start seeing more films set in the early-to-mid 1990s, if for no other reason than because it would give filmmakers an excuse to not have their characters constantly staring at their phones. Watching Landline, Gillian Robespierre film set in 1995, I am now convinced we will. In both cases, it seems like the filmmakers didn’t want to deal with those glowing boxes we all hold all the time, so they set their films earlier – in Super Dark Times, it allowed the plot to carry out in a way it never could today, and in Landline, the filmmakers also use it as an excuse to make a lot of 1990s jokes about Hillary Clinton or Lorena Bobbitt – some definitely work better than others.
The film is Robespierre’s follow-up to her terrific debut film, Obvious Child, a comedy starring Jenny Slate as a young woman, who gets pregnant and has an abortion that doesn’t ruin her life. That film was refreshing in the way it dealt with a host of issues facing women today – and was hilarious to boot. Her follow-up doesn’t reach those heights – she tries to expand her canvas a little bit, with mixed results, but definitely proves she’s still one of the brightest, and funniest, minds in indie film working right now.
The film focuses on two sisters – Dana (Slate, again), somewhere in her late 20s, engaged to Ben (Jay Duplass), who is lovable and dorky – and undeniably a tad boring as well – and Ali (Abby Quinn), who is 16, and confident in the way only 16 year olds can be, when the world exists in moral black and whites, and you have it all figured out. Their parents are Alan and Pat – and played by John Turturro and Edie Falco, and their marriage is on the rocks, and they don’t talk about it. When Ali figures out – or thinks she does – than Alan is having an affair, she enlists her sister to try and figure things out, not knowing that Dana herself is cheating on Ben. They debate whether or not to tell Pat – never assuming that she may be smart enough to figure it out for herself.
The overarching message of Landline is an obvious, but still important one – life is messy, and no one has all the answers. It would be easy to see Alan as a cheating monster – especially since his reasons for cheating are fairly clichéd – and yet, I don’t think the film does that. It does make it clear just why he may feel this way – Pat is certainly belittling to Alan in a way that would be disheartening for anyone. That doesn’t excuse Alan’s behavior, but it makes it more believable. The relationship between Dana and Ben is also well handled – we often see things in black and white when it comes to infidelity – either blaming the cheating, or sometimes forgiving them as it we understand that their actual relationship wasn’t working. Landline doesn’t do either – but goes somewhat deeper than that.
Oddly, it is the coming in Landline that doesn’t always land as well as the family dynamics. I did love the bitter, cynical sisterly sniping between Ali and Dana – they were they comedic highlight (especially since newcomer Quinn more than keeps up with the great Slate). But there is too much other comedy that doesn’t quite work – all those 1990s jokes that feel cheap, or the parade of humiliations that befall Dana at every turn. Slate handles these well – but they’re cheap.
Overall though, I think Landline is a good sophomore feature for Robespierre – no, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of her debut, but it shows a willing to stretch, and try something different (it’s no repeat of Obvious Child – and it has more ambition). I look forward to her next film as much as I did to this one following her first film.

Movie Review: Long Time Running

Long Time Running **** / *****
Directed by: Jennifer Baichwal & Nicholas de Pencier.
I don’t say this often about any movie, but I will say it about Long Time Running – if you’re not Canadian, you’re just not going to get it. Sure, you could a fan of The Tragically Hip and be American – or from anywhere else – but I’m not sure that anyone outside of Canada can truly understand just what this band means to us inside of Canada. Part of that is undeniably because The Hip never did make it America – or anywhere other than Canada – because that made them all the more ours. As polite as our reputations suggest we are, Canadians also have more than a little bit of an inferiority complex – and we also don’t recognize our talented people until they make it in America. But The Hip were different – they helped to define what it means to be Canadian. When Gord Downie, the lead singer and lyricist of the band, was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, and given only a couple years to live, Canada went into an extended period of mourning. Oddly though, Downie didn’t – he and his band mates decided to go on one last coast-to-coast tour, culminating with a hometown gig in Kingston Ontario, broadcast live to the whole country in August 2016. The ratings in Canada were astronomical. When Downie finally died last week, the documentary Long Time Running – which was mainly about that tour, but also about the band as a whole, and the country that spawned them – was played on national TV just a weeks after its premiere at TIFF, and limited theatrical release (it was schedule to run in November – but was moved up). If you’re Canadian, you almost definitely watch the concert – and cried – and now you can watch the documentary, and cry all over again.
In many ways, the doc is a standard issue musical documentary – with a lot of concert footage, interspersed with talking heads – mainly the band members themselves – describing their 30 year run. The concert footage – and there’s a lot – breaks one of the rules that I normally would follow in concert docs, as it shows the audience a lot. Most of the time, I find this distracting in these docs – I’m watching the doc to see the band perform, not some drunken idiots singing along – and yet it seems oddly appropriate in this film. Long Time Running is, after all, about more than The Tragically Hip and their last concert tour. It’s about more than Gord Downie, and his courageous battle with cancer, and the fact that he used some of the last of his energy to do it for the fans, and how he fought for what he believed in right to the bitter end. It is about Canada itself – and what the band meant to us. Therefore, seeing the audience singing along – people from all different age groups – is itself, quietly, subtly inspiring. The director Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier (who do not seem like natural choices for this doc, given their previous work, but do a great job just the same) – know intuitively when and what to show.
As with most music docs, your interest in this one will depend on how much you like The Hip. If you’re Canadian, then this one is for you. It’s one of those rare films that you know while you’re watching it that people will be watching it for years to come – it will become a Canadian staple. For those outside Canada, it may give you an idea of what The Hip means to those of us in Canada – but only a piece. The Hip is still ours – and always will be.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Classic Movie Review: The Onion Field (1979)

The Onion Field
Directed by: Harold Becker.
Written by: Joseph Wambaugh based on his book.
Starring: John Savage (Det. Karl Francis Hettinger), James Woods (Gregory Ulas Powell), Franklyn Seales (Jimmy Lee 'Youngblood' Smith), Ted Danson (Det. Ian James Campbell), Ronny Cox (Det. Sgt. Pierce R. Brooks), David Huffman (Dist. Atty. Phil Halpin), Christopher Lloyd (Jailhouse lawyer), Dianne Hull (Helen Hettinger).

The first hour of The Onion Field deserves comparison to Richard Brooks’ 1967 film version of In Cold Blood. Both films follows a pair of criminals, who don’t know each other that well, who end up tied together for life because of a stupid, senseless killing. In The Onion Field, the criminals are Gregory Powell (James Woods) and Jimmy Smith (Franklyn Seales), who meet each other shortly after Smith has been released from jail. Powell sees Smith as an upgrade over his current partner in crime – and Smith just needs to some money. The pair are riding around one night, when they are pulled over by two police officers – Karl Hetinger (John Savage) and James Campbell (Ted Danson). The criminals get the upper hand, and drive the pair of cops to the title Onion Field, where they kill Campbell, and attempt to kill Hettinger – who gets away. They are hardly master criminals, and get caught fairly soon – turning on each other as they are interrogated.
All of this happens in the films first, and better, half. This was the performance that made Woods a star – and it’s easy to see why. He had already perfected his thin, grinning psycho routine in the film – his Powell a chilling and unpredictable character, who believes he is smarter than everyone else, even though in reality he doesn’t know anywhere near as much as he thinks. He’s almost like both In Cold Blood killers rolled into the one – he talks a big game, like Hickock, but like Smith, he actually follows through on the violence. He’s the driving force of the action in the first half, with Seales’ Smith just along for the ride. Smith sees through Powell – and is hardly loyal to him (he doesn’t even think before he sleeps with Powell’s girlfriend), but at the same time, with Powell, he can make money – and no one else is offering. As for Hettinger and Campbell, the cops, they are more thinly sketched in this half – they are fairly new partners, as Hettinger has just transferred to this unit. They are friendly however, and that bond is starting to stick. When they pull over Powell and Smith, they don’t know what they’re getting themselves in for. They make mistakes to be sure – but every one of them is understandable in the moment they make them.

The first hour of The Onion Field has a tightness the rest of the film lacks – which is understandable. The first hour all takes place over about the course of a week or so, as the two sets of partners get to know each other, and embark on the collision course that will bring them together finally in that Onion Field. The second hour takes place over the course of years, and follows what happens next. Hettinger is haunted by that night, and also by the fact that he has to keep talking about it – with many on the force thinking he messed up tragically. He falls into a deep depression, messes up his career, and almost his marriage and entire life. On the flip side, Powell and Smith become experts at playing the system – at appeals, and appeals on appeals, and how to perhaps win their freedom (they have mixed success). This further traumatizes Hettinger, who has to continually relive that night. It also adds to the confusion of the movie, because there are so many courtroom scenes, with so many different lawyers, that it’s hard to keep track of whose coming and going.

The film is based on the book by Joseph Wambaugh – who also wrote the screenplay. Wambaugh former cop himself, who knew some of the players involved before he became a bestselling author. He had some clout at that time, and became one of the film’s producers, raising money himself to get the film made (this may well be why the cast is mostly newcomers). The director is Harold Becker – a journeyman with an uneven filmography, of which this his best work is probably (others may prefer 1989’s Sea of Love with Al Pacino). He is at his best in the first hour – travelling in the dark cars with the partners, and staging the violence of that night in The Onion Field, and in the great interrogation scenes, where Ronny Cox plays the detective who breaks both suspects done. His direction suffers a little in the second half – as he’s stuck in courtroom scene after courtroom scene, or else the domestic drama that Savage struggles to breathe life into.

Still, The Onion Field is a fine crime drama – a great one in the first half, a decent one after that – and really does deserve to be remembered better than it is. This is an example of a film that isn’t a masterpiece, but is good enough that it should be remembered, but because it wasn’t directed by an auteur, is pretty much forgotten. If for no other reason than to see one of the best performance of James Woods’ career (before he became a real life caricature of himself) – The Onion Field deserves an audience.