Friday, December 29, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Carnival of Souls (1962)

Carnival of Souls (1962)
Directed by: Herk Harvey.   
Written by: John Clifford. 
Starring: Candace Hilligoss (Mary Henry), Frances Feist (Mrs. Thomas – Landlady), Sidney Berger (John Linden), Art Ellison (Minister), Stan Levitt (Dr. Samuels), Herk Harvey (The Man).
Apparently Carnival of Souls became a cult hit because it aired on TV late at night often – and that makes complete and total sense. It isn’t a particularly scary movie, but it is a completely and totally surreal one, a film that plays a strange dream edging into nightmare territory, that doesn’t really operate according to our logic, but a more dreamlike one. It would be the perfect film to watch if you stumbled out of bed at 1 in the morning, and couldn’t get back to sleep – or perhaps even better, drifting in and out of sleep as you watched it, never being quite sure what you saw and what you imagined. The film wasn’t really noticed when it was released in 1962 – it was starred unknown actors, and had a first time director and writer (neither of whom would go on to make another film) – and yet it became a key inspiration for filmmakers like George A. Romero and David Lynch.
The film opens with two cars full of young people doing what you’d expect two cars full of young people to do – acting like idiots. There is an accident, one of the cars – carrying a trio of girls – goes off a bridge into the water. Hours later, one of the girls – Mary (Candace Hilligoss) emerges – apparently fine. She doesn’t want to stick around her small town however – and has a job lined up as a church organist in Salt Lake City. On the drive two strange things happen – first, she says the ghostly face of a man in her car window – giving her a momentary fright (that man will appear frequently throughout the film) – and the second is she drives by an abandoned carnival on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, and is drawn in by its haunted atmosphere.
The plot of the movie from there is fairly thin – Mary is a strange young woman, and you can never quite tell how she’ll act next. One of the weaknesses in the film is that because the film starts with the accident, we never really know what she was like beforehand – and because she leaves everyone who knows her behind, we don’t know just how much she has changed from before. The film implies that Mary has become sexually frigid – because of the accident, although considering she only rejects her creepy across the hall neighbor, I don’t think that really works.
Still, the movie isn’t so much about its plot – or even, really, about its characters. It is all about the atmosphere – and on that level what director Herk Harvey accomplished with $30,000 and a three week shooting schedule is pretty amazing. Apparently inspired by the likes of Bergman and Cocteau, Harvey went out to try and achieve something similar to those masters shooting in Kansas. What’s amazing is how close he really got. The sound design here is brilliant (a definite influence on Lynch – who since Eraserhead, has obsessed about sound) – to help create the otherworldly atmosphere – but it goes deeper than that. The limited budget perhaps helped here – the editing is strange (how much coverage do you think he could have shot), and the performances don’t feel at all natural. That may just be because the actors aren’t very good, but it certainly contributes to the strange overall feel of the movie. The big set pieces here are not scares or special effects – but simply when Mary has a few breaks with reality, and no one around her can see or hear her – and she runs around trying in vain to be noticed. This leads up to the brilliant climax at the carnival itself – which if you can watch without thinking of Night of the Living Dead, it’s probably because you haven’t seen Romero’s masterpiece.
As a film unto itself, Carnival of Souls is not a masterpiece, but it sure is creepy and effective – creating images and sounds that stay with you, long after the plot and characters have faded away. As a key influence on horror films going forward though, its impact has been invaluable. I wish it had found its cult status earlier in its life cycle – and that perhaps Herk Harvey could have made something else. Now, it’s one of those rare unicorns – like Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, Barbara Loden’s Wanda or Leonard Kastle’s The Honyemoon Killers – great films by a director who never made another one. .

Friday, December 22, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Zombi 2 (1979)

Zombi 2
Directed by: Lucio Fulci.
Written by: Elisa Briganti.
Starring: Tisa Farrow (Anne Bowles), Ian McCulloch (Peter West), Richard Johnson (Dr. Menard), Al Cliver (Brian Hull), Auretta Gay (Susan Barrett), Stefania D'Amario (Nurse Clara), Olga Karlatos (Mrs. Menard).
The idea of a zombie fighting a shark is one that is so good, you wonder why it took so long for someone to come up with it – and why we haven’t seen it copied a million times since. Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (aka Zombie) has built its entire reputation on one, about five minute sequence when a shark starts to stalk a potential victim (who is scuba diving topless, as beautiful young women are wont to do in horror movie), but instead ends up fighting a zombie, who zooms out of the depths, at first at the naked young diver, but then finds himself embroiled in a fight with a shark. The actual zombie vs. shark part of this sequence is less than two minutes, and its set to a strange score – softer core porn music than horror movie. This whole sequence – from when the girl goes into the water, to its completion, runs about 6 minutes, and I loved every second of it. Unfortunately, there are 85 other minutes of Zombi 2 that have nothing to do with topless scuba divers or zombies fighting sharks – and there’s nothing much there.
The reason the original title of the movie was Zombi 2, was because George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was a hit in Italy, and when released there was entitled simply Zombi. The movie has nothing to do with Romero’s film – I don’t even think that had any sort of rights deal with him – they just want a quick, cheap knock-off to make some money. The fact that the film is remembered at all nearly 40 years later – let alone that it inexplicably shows up on lists of the greatest horror films of all time (ranked in the top 100 of the They Shoot Zombies, Don’t They? List) is likely a surprise to all involved.
The film opens in New York – with one of those scare scenes that horror films are obligated to open with. A seemingly abandoned boat, turns out not to be so abandoned. A policeman is killed, the owner of the boat’s niece wants answers, and ends up with a reporter heading to the Caribbean, where that boat had just come from. It’s there where this supposed zombie outbreak had begun. The pair end up with another couple on a boat, heading for a “deserted” island where everything started. The movie owes more to something like Island of Lost Souls or perhaps I Walked with a Zombie than Romero’s film.
All of it is fairly lame. There is some more gratuitous T&A – nothing as silly as the topless scuba diving, but none of it germane to the plot either. There is lots of fake blood spill, and zombie bites, etc. – if you’ve seen a zombie film, you know the drill. What’s lacking is any real reason for being – the best zombie movies use the genre to make some sort of comment on, well, something – Zombi 2 just wants to be a cheaper exploitation film. On that level, I’m still not sure the film really works all that well. Somehow director Fulci – a pretty big figure in Giallo horror films of Italy, but not as accomplished as Argento or Bava – somehow takes things a little too seriously. The film doesn’t have the goofy pleasure – other than that shark sequence – needed. It also isn’t grimy or blood enough to be one of those horror movies I don’t like much, but have a big following in that they leave wanting to take a shower.
In short, Zombi 2 is brilliant for about 7 minutes total – the six minutes of the scuba diving/shark vs. zombie sequence, and the final minute, which really is an effective ending to a horror movie like this (oh, and the eye scene is pretty cool too). Other than that, it’s a fairly dull slog of a horror movie, without much to recommend it.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Rian Johnson.
Written by: Rian Johnson based on characters created by George Lucas.
Starring: Daisy Ridley (Rey), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), John Boyega (Finn), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico), Carrie Fisher (Leia), Andy Serkis (Supreme Leader Snoke), Domhnall Gleeson (General Hux), Laura Dern (Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo), Benicio Del Toro (DJ), Gwendoline Christie (Captain Phasma), Lupita Nyong'o (Maz Kanata), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Jimmy Vee (R2-D2).
JJ Abrams was the right choice to direct The Force Awakens, because the number one job that film had being the first Star Wars movies since the hated prequels (which I don’t hate, but let’s not get into that) was to get fans back on board with the franchise. If they hated it like they did the prequels, the new series was sunk – not financially of course, but in terms of having any real impact. And for the most part, Abrams delivered in spades – basically giving Star Wars fans everything they wanted from their old, beloved characters, and introducing great new characters t the universe as well. When the only real complaint some overgrown man babies had about the film was “Ew, a girl can’t be this good at being a Jedi”, you know you pretty much hit the nail on the head. But in order for the series to grow, to be something more than simply fan service – which can be satisfying and fun, but isn’t overly daring – you needed a different filmmaker to come in, and do something more with the series. And that is what Rian Johnson has done with The Last Jedi. I understand there are some fans who dislike some of the things Johnson did in this film – and unlike the whining over Rey being a girl, I actually get it this time. But I loved the direction Johnson took with this film, I loved the misdirection’s, and subversions of expectations, and even the tangents that ultimately prove fruitless in terms of the plot, because they are fruitful in other ways. The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars film since I was a child that actually, legitimately surprised me – and that was thrilling to experience in this franchise again.
The film pretty much picks up exactly where the last one left off – with the Resistance scattered a little bit, and the First Order in hot pursuit. Most of the Resistance is in one fleet, and they are trying to flee – but the First Order, led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) isn’t letting them get away – and shocking, they’ve now developed the ability to track them even when they go through hyperspace. The Resistance cannot escape, and cannot destroy them – unless they come up with a miracle – which is what leads Finn (John Boyega) to team up with new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), to try and do just that. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) as made contact with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) – but he doesn’t want anything to do with the Jedi. More dangerously, Rey is communicating with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), becoming increasingly convinced that he can still be saved – although the risk is still there that she could turn herself.
That’s about all I’ll talk about the plot of the film. Like The Empire Strikes Back – the original middle chapter (and still, the best Star Wars film ever made), the film has multiple plot threads, and multiple locations, playing out simultaneously, and Rian Johnson has to juggle them all. For the most part, he succeeds, and if there’s a clunky transition or two, that’s to be expected. The film is probably too long – it does run two-and-a-half hours, but it’s hard to think of what you would cut (I know a lot of people will say trim back Finn and Rose’s adventure, but those people are wrong).
The film is not subtle about its themes of the past, and letting it go (perhaps this is really what fans don’t like – the idea of letting go of something from the childhoods that they have held sacred for years). But it’s not as simple as that. All the characters in the movie – both good and bad – want to build a new future, but they don’t all look at the past in the same way, Kylo Ren wants to burn it all to the ground – only from the ashes can something new be built. But Rey respects the past, wants to learn from it and move forward. Luke isn’t ready for that – he is mired in regret for the mistakes he has made in the past – with Kylo Ren, yes, but also in his abandoning of the Jedi in general. By the end of the film, the past has been mostly destroyed – this is a series about the new characters wholly now – and hopefully they’ve learned from the mistakes of the previous generation. (The film is also about how a group of strong, intelligent women try to get a bunch of idiot man children to grow up and listen, although they never do – perhaps that’s why some fans hate it?).
The film does contain everything you could want in a Star Wars film – there is a killer Light Saber battle that involves Rey, Kylo Ren, and others, which ranks among the best in the series, and more interesting world building, and special effects. There are also some new, mostly good characters – the best of which is Rose (who of course some fans hate, but that has nothing to do with the fact she’s a woman, don’t be silly), but I enjoyed Benicio Del Toro as well as a Thief. The film is also filled with humor for the first time in a long time for a Star Wars film (I don’t know if every writer who came along assumed they had to be as bad at writing dialogue as Lucas, which is why the films have lacked in jokes, but it was a welcome addition. It delivers everything you could want in a Star Wars film – and then some.
What I really liked about the film though – what makes it the best Star Wars film for me since Empire – is the fact that Johnson is deliberately undermining your expectations through. Abrams setup so many things in Force Awakens, and then had them play out precisely how you expect them to, precisely how they have precisely, and Johnson pretty much does the opposite. The setups are still there, but this time, it doesn’t turn out the way you think it would, or perhaps how you think it should. If that sticks in your craw, so be it – but for me, it made this film feel genuinely exciting. I didn’t know what was going to happen moment to moment, scene to scene, and that made the film more alive – and also ending up deepening everything else about the film. If we really are going to get one new Star Wars film a year for the foreseeable future (and given how much money Disney spent on the franchise, we’re going to), we need people to take some risks, take some chances – even if that means pissing off some fans.

Movie Review: Call Me By Your Name

Call Me by Your Name **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Luca Guadagnino.
Written by: James Ivory based on the novel by André Aciman.
Starring: Timothée Chalamet (Elio), Armie Hammer (Oliver), Michael Stuhlbarg (Mr. Perlman), Amira Casar (Annella), Esther Garrel (Marzia), Victoire Du Bois (Chiara), Vanda Capriolo (Mafalda). 
It’s the summer of 1983, in Northern Italy, and there really isn’t much to do. 17 year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet), is at his large family estate there, with his father, a Professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his mother (Amira Casar), and basically wasting his days, reading, playing music, swimming and sleeping. Every summer Professor Perlman welcomes a student to stay with them, help with his work, and this year, that student is American Oliver (Armie Hammer). There is something between Elio and Oliver from the start – some sort of electricity, a spark – and you feel it every time they are onscreen together, even if for the first hour or so of the movie, outwardly they don’t seem to like each other. But that just intensifies things even more.
There is probably no better director for this material than Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, who is that rare filmmaker who has the capability to make anything seem erotic. His film from last year, A Bigger Splash, simmered with sexual tension in its every interaction, no matter what two of the four characters were speaking to each other, or what they were speaking about. Call Me By Your Name is probably the most erotic, sexually charged film of 2017 – and that charge is greater in the first half, when the two of them are circling each other, rather in the second half, when they finally do give in to what they both have wanted all along.
Much of this has to do with the performances surely – and newcomer Chalamet and Hammer have the most chemistry of any screen couple this year. Newcomer Chalamet (who I have apparently seen before in Interstellar and Men, Women and Children – but don’t remember – I do remember him, obviously, from Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird from a month ago) really does some remarkable acting in this film, and almost all of it is under the surface. It’s a subtle performance, a quiet one as he has to keep up appearances on one level, while he aches with desire on another. Hammer at first seems more surface level than Chalamet – but gradually, he deepens as well, and their connection is real between them. They are aided great by the great soundtrack – including two songs by Sufjan Stevens, which will become instantly iconic, and double use of Love My Way, by The Psychedelic Furs, which plays two completely different ways at different times in the movie. They are also aided by the beauty of their surroundings, captured in wonderful cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. The slow, languid pace also works in the films favor – although the movie does run nearly two hours and twenty minutes, and starts to feel it late in the runtime (there is a trip Elio and Oliver take together, that I’m not sure quite works).
This is a story of first love – and perhaps great love. What Elio and Oliver have together cannot last – even if they were to stay together, eventually, it would mature into something else – perhaps better, perhaps worse. But what they do share is profound. Late in the film, Michael Stuhlbarg delivers one of the most stirring yet subtle monologues I have ever seen in a film – it’s quietly shattering, and devastating true. You would think the film couldn’t top that moment – and I don’t think it quite does – yet the final shot of the movie is nearly as brilliant. This is a quiet, slow movie – but also a wise and deceptively simple one.

Movie Review: Wormwood

Wormwood **** / *****
Directed by: Errol Morris.
Written by: Kiernan Fitzgerald & Steven Hathaway & Molly Rokosz.
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard (Frank Olson).
Errol Morris is 69 years old, an age when many filmmakers would be resting on their laurels, either retired, or just repeating themselves. But Morris, who is one of the greatest documentary filmmakers in history, who pretty much re-invented the genre with The Thin Blue Line (1988) (which is arguably, not even his best film) isn’t one of those filmmakers. His latest film, Wormwood, takes what he has done in his career, and pushes it into even bolder territory. It’s not a perfect film – it’s too long, it repeats itself, and some parts in the middle seem to get close to indulging in crazy conspiracy theories (instead of the regular old weird conspiracy theories of the rest of the film) – but it’s thrilling to see a filmmaker like Morris attempt something as bold as this, at this stage of his career.
The film focuses on the death of Frank Olson – a government scientist, who worked on some very secret projects, with various organizations within the government. In 1953, Olson died after he fell out of a hotel window, and crashed to the pavement below. Or did he jump? Or was he thrown? The government tried to remain quiet on these questions for decades – but in 1975, it released their official explanation – that Olson was among those who they tested the drug LSD – which they invented – on. The drug interacted with Olson’s mental issues, and history of depression, and perhaps led him to his death by suicide. For most, this is the end of the story – the government admits wrongdoing, but not too much, and an embarrassing mystery is solved. But for Eric Olson, Frank’s son, it is just the beginning. Eric has spent more than 60 years trying to find out all he can about his father’s death – the men he worked for, the work he was doing, and why some in the government may have wanted Frank Olson dead. Is this a far bigger conspiracy then anyone could have imagined?
Morris himself has admitted the film is something of a greatest hits package for him – combining elements of many of his films, into one mammoth package. The film is 241 minutes long – it’s playing in a few theaters, but most will watch it as I did, on Netflix, where they separated it out into 6 parts (I watched them in a row, in one big binge – I usually hate binge watching, but the breaks here seem arbitrary, and the film is a large whole). There are, of course, elements of The Thin Blue Line here, with its look at true crime, and re-enactments. But here, Morris pushes those re-enactments even further – casting Peter Sarsgaard as Frank Olson, and a host of other recognizable faces – Molly Parker, Tim Blake Nelson, Scott Shepherd, etc. – as the people in his life leading up to his death. These re-enactments, return – again and again (and again and again and again) to that hotel room, and what may or may not have happened there. Yes, all this does become repetitive at some point, but also underlines the obsession of Eric Olson about his father’s death (how many times has his mind returned to that hotel room?). Eric Olson is a classic Morris subject – obsessive in the same way that the people in say Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (1997) are – but he simply cannot let it go.
The final episode (in Netflix terms) was for me the strongest of the film. The film does a great job in the first couple of hours of giving us all sorts of background into the government, and their various projects – the LSD project, that Frank Olson was apparently a guinea pig in, to the biological weapons Eric is convinced his dad knew about – and wanted to expose (this dovetails nicely with Morris’ own fascinating with government secrets and lies, as seen in The Fog of War, Standard Operating Procedure or The Unknown Known). It flags a little bit in its third hour, as it starts to repeat itself, or chasing down even wilder tales. But in the final hour, Morris does something fascinating. First, he does bring on a respected, veteran journalist, who while he cannot quite confirm Olson’s theory of his father, won’t refute it either – saying that he has a source, that gave him some information – but there is no way for him to reveal that information, without exposing, and thus, endangering that source. But then Morris pushes Eric even further, essentially asking him if all this obsession was worth it, and even if he could prove it all, what would it really change? At this point, the death is more than 60 years old – no one is ever going to be held accountable for it. And in the meantime, Eric has essentially given up everything else in his life, to chase this down. It’s a question that doesn’t get asked enough in docs like this, and it’s to Eric Olson’s credit that he has the self-awareness to answer in the way he does. It’s here where the film gets its title from – it’s all Wormwood, it’s all bitter.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Woyzeck (1979)

Woyzeck (1979)
Directed by: Werner Herzog.
Written by: Werner Herzog based on the play by Georg Büchner.
Starring: Klaus Kinski (Woyzeck), Eva Mattes (Marie), Wolfgang Reichmann (Captain), Willy Semmelrogge (Doctor), Josef Bierbichler (Drum Major), Paul Burian (Andres), Volker Prechtel (Handwerksbursche), Dieter Augustin (Marktschreier), Irm Hermann (Margret).
One of the reasons why almost all of Werner Herzog’s best films of the last 30 years are documentaries is because when he lost Klaus Kinski, he lost one of the only actors who was able to match the level of insanity that Herzog needed in his fiction films (the one exception is of course Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant:: Port of Call, New Orleans). The pair of them made five films together – of which Woyzeck was the third, and far and away the least, of these collaborations. There just isn’t very much here in this sleight film, about a man beaten down by life until he ends up murdering his wife. These two combined to make two of the all-time great portraits of madness – Aguirre the Wrath of God and Fitzcaraldo – but Woyzeck never comes close to matching them, and I cannot help but think that perhaps Kinski is even miscast.
In the film, Kinski plays the title character – a put upon soldier, tormented by those above him in the army, for reasons the movie never really tries to explain (he is on an all pea diet for example, but no one will say why). He is pushed around, abused, beaten and disrespected – but it isn’t until his wife cheats on him with a drum major that he really, truly loses it – leading to a slow motion climax, which is just about the only thing in the film that works.
Kinski was, of course, brilliant at playing insane characters – perhaps because he was kind of nuts himself (Herzog’s documentary on him – My Best Fiend is a better use of your time than this, and documents their relationship). Here though, his Woyzeck seems insane at the start of the film, so his descent into madness doesn’t really mean much – he’s already there. If Woyzeck is supposed to be an everyman, driven insane by the system, pushing down on the common man, than the film fails – because Kinski never really seems normal here.
Herzog is adapting a play by George Buchner, but his screenplay is odd, as many scenes play out without much in the way of dialogue, making the action confusing, and Woyzeck’s motivations unknowable. The film was made in the immediate aftermath of Herzog and Kinski’s other (and better) 1979 film, Nosferatu – Kinski using the fatigue of that film to his advantage here. Yet the film never really comes together. It’s only 82 minutes long, and that slow motion climax really is something to behold – yet the film is more of interest to Herzog/Kinski completest than anyone else. You’d be better off watching anything else the pair did together than this one though.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Movie Review: The Disaster Artist

The Disaster Artist **** / *****
Directed by: James Franco.
Written by: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber based on the book by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell.
Starring: James Franco (Tommy Wiseau), Dave Franco (Greg Sestero), Seth Rogen (Sandy Schklair), Alison Brie (Amber), Ari Graynor (Juliette Danielle), Josh Hutcherson (Philip Haldiman), Jacki Weaver (Carolyn Minnott), Zac Efron (Dan Janjigian), Hannibal Buress (Bill Meurer), Nathan Fielder (Kyle Vogt), Sharon Stone (Iris Burton), Melanie Griffith (Jean Shelton), Paul Scheer (Raphael Smadja), Jason Mantzoukas (Peter Anway), Megan Mullally (Mrs. Sestero), Casey Wilson (Casting Director), Randall Park (Male Actor), Jerrod Carmichael (Actor Friend), Bob Odenkirk (Stanislavsky Teacher), Charlyne Yi (Safoya), Bryan Cranston (Bryan Cranston), Judd Apatow (Judd Apatow).
It is entirely possible that had The Disaster Artist never been made that I would have spent my life never have seen Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. I, of course, long ago heard about Wiseau’s 2003 film – now legendary as the worst film ever made, a cult hit at midnight screenings, etc. – but I have never been one of those people who watch movies that “so bad, they’re good”. For the most part, I just think those movies are bad – and I don’t much enjoy watching them, nor do I particularly like watching something while holding myself deliberately above it – as if I am better than the film being watched. Yes, it could also be because I don’t much like midnight screenings in general and my days of getting drunk and watching movies with friends to laugh at them are long behind me. But because of The Disaster Artist – which got great reviews out of TIFF – a couple of months ago, I did sit down to watch The Room one night. Yes, it was past midnight, but I was alone in my basement, and stone cold sober. It really was horrible, and I really didn’t have any fun watching it. It was painful – as I knew it would be. Still, now having seen – and thoroughly enjoyed The Disaster Artist – I can safely say that I am glad I saw The Room – and also safely say I don’t think I’ll ever watch it again. The Disaster Artist though – I may well watch that again.
The film, directed by and starring James Franco as Wiseau, is similar to another film about the supposed worst film ever made – Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) – which mainly centered on the title character as he made Plan 9 From Outer Space. Both films certainly have a fair amount of fun at their protagonist’s expense – yet the reason why both films works is that mainly the films have a genuine affection for them as well. The films they made were horrible – but dammit all, these guys went for it, and delivered, well, something anyway.
As Wiseau, Franco gives his best performance since Spring Breakers. It doesn’t matter that he’s too young to play Wiseau (or maybe, he isn’t, since Wiseau never does say how old he is) he completely nails the strange, Eastern European accent Wiseau claims is from New Orleans, the weird mannerisms and body language, etc. He also gets into Wiseau’s head, and is brilliant at portraying a man with complete and utter lack of self-awareness. How utterly out of it do you have to be to make a film like The Room – and do it completely straight, as if you really are making a dramatic masterpiece to rival Tennessee Williams?
Franco casts his brother Dave as Greg Sestero – the other lead in The Room, and Wiseau’s friend. This makes it a little weird, since there is barely subdued homoerotic subtext between Wiseau and Sestero (all one way), but Dave Franco excels at playing this bland, handsome everyman – who goes along for the ride, even if he kind of knows it’s leading nowhere. The supporting cast is filled with famous faces perhaps too filled, although I don’t know who I’d cut. The movie charts the making of The Room – a disaster in itself, and is out and out hilarious for the most part. The movie really only gets dark in one scene – a sex scene, where director/actor Wiseau goes too far.
The film really is a delicate balancing act. Go too far, and the film may just come across as a bunch of famous people mocking the guy who made this legendary disaster. Go too soft, and it feels like you’re pulling your punches. I haven’t like Franco the director before – but I think he, his cast and the excellent script walk that fine line just about perfectly. This film in the end will do nothing except bolster the reputation of Wiseau, and The Room – which is really all he ever wanted.

Movie Review: Wonder Wheel

Wonder Wheel ** / *****
Directed by: Woody Allen.
Written by: Woody Allen.
Starring: Kate Winslet (Ginny), Justin Timberlake (Mickey), Jim Belushi (Humpty), Juno Temple (Carolina), Jack Gore (Richie), David Krumholtz (Jake).
For the most part, I have been on the side of “separate the art from the artist” whenever things come up – about Roman Polanski, Nate Parker, or of course, Woody Allen. The #MeToo movement that has sprung up recently is a great thing, and I do believe we are all better off with men who abuse their power exposed to the world. Yet, I’m still basically saying the same thing – separate the art from the artist, because once you go down that road, where do you draw the line? In the case of Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel, I really do wish I could do that – separate the man Allen is, from the film he made – but I really, really can’t this time. Allen has made a film about a washed up actress (Kate Winslet), well on her way to destroying her second marriage because of her infidelity, who when she finds out her current lover would rather have her step daughter than herself, does something horrible to exact her revenge. Somehow, by the end of this thing, the dude who wants to leave Winslet for her stepdaughter has the moral high ground! I mean, Allen has to be trolling us here, right?
But I digress. Even if you are able to separate Allen from his work this time around, the sad truth is that Wonder Wheel is another of those late Allen films that feels half baked. There are some nice moments delivered by Winslet – especially in the final act, when she really goes off the deep end, and the cinematography by Vittorio Storaro (who also made Allen’s last film, Café Society, look spectacular) really is wonderful. The dialogue doesn’t even have as many tin eared clunkers as recent Allen films, and the story is relatively streamlined – cutting out a lot of the distracting subplots recent Allen films have had. As the Allen surrogate, Justin Timberlake has a charm all his own – he isn’t trying to “do” an Allen impersonation – which is mainly a good thing (it worked wonders for Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris).
And yet, the movie really just kind of sits there for an hour, waiting for the fireworks of the last act. As Ginny, the overworked waitress/mother/wife to Humpty (Jim Belushi), Winslet really is quite good. The role isn’t that far off from Cate Blanchett’s in Blue Jasmine – and Winslet shows enough here to make you wish her role was half as good as Blanchett’s was. As Humpty, Belushi really is quite bad – no matter how dark the movie gets, he seems to be playing everything for laughs – like he’s part of a 1950s sitcom or something. I did like that Timberlake doesn’t try to do an Allen impression, but he doesn’t have all that much to do at times here, and his motivations shift from scene to scene for no reason. Juno Temple is a delight as Carolina, the stepdaughter, although a little bit more depth would have helped – so she hasn’t just playing the sweet ingénue.
Allen making a disappointing film is nothing new. He’s been hit or miss since the late 1990s, even as he maintains his one a year pace. But Allen making a film that Wonder Wheel somehow feels more disappointing than he has in the past. Part of it, yes, is that you sit there and cannot believe that Allen has essentially made a film about how he’s the wronged party. But it’s also because he wastes so much good stuff here – Winslet, Storaro in particular – which is used to make nothing more than this testament to his own self-delusion.

Movie Review: Princess Cyd

Princess Cyd *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Stephen Cone.
Written by: Stephen Cone.
Starring: Rebecca Spence (Miranda Ruth), Jessie Pinnick (Cyd Loughlin), Malic White (Katie Sauter), James Vincent Meredith (Anthony James), Tyler Ross (Tab), Matthew Quattrocki (Ridley).
Not a whole lot happens in the sweet, subtle coming of age film Princess Cyd, and for the most part, that works in the films favor. In fact, the few instances when the film attempts some heavier dramatic moments are the moments when the film stumbles – as if writer/director Stephen Cone is straining for a sense of importance – something to make Princess Cyd something other than a low-key coming of age film. But that is precisely what Princess Cyd is, and precisely what it’s best at. No, it isn’t going to supplant Lady Bird as the year’s best female coming-of-age film, but it appeals to the same audience, and has the drama factor dialed further back.
In the film, Jessie Pinnick stars as Cyd – a 16-year old girl, living in South Carolina with her dad. All we know of her mom is that she is dead – although a 911 call that plays over the opening credits hints at dark reasons for that – ones that will eventually be revealed late in the film. As a 16 year old is wont to do – she is clashing with her dad right now, who thinks that perhaps it would be for the best to get away from each other for a few weeks. And this is how Cyd ends up in Chicago, staying with her writer Aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence) – her mom’s sister – who she hasn’t seen since the funeral, 8 years ago. Miranda lives a happy, but solitary life – no love life to speak of, but she does have close friends, and of course, her work. She and Cyd are very different in many ways – not least of which because Cyd doesn’t read anything not on her phone. Cyd is also direct in that way that teenagers can be – she says things that pop into her head, without thinking how they will sound.
The movie is really about how these two women negotiate the space around each other, their boundaries, and each change each other in quiet, subtle ways. There is a love story of sorts in it, when Cyd meets Katie (Malic White), and is drawn to her. She hasn’t been with a girl before – and she resists any sort of label now, but she and Katie really do like each other. There is no secret about what is happening, and one of the ways the film is refreshing is that Miranda never really gives Cyd a lecture about sex – or show that much concern. She knows that Cyd is going to experiment anyway, so why fight it that hard? This also means the one moment when Miranda does lecture Cyd – about Miranda’s choices in her life that Cyd sees as making her incomplete but Miranda does not – it hits all the harder.
Princess Cyd is one of those odd movies that as you watch it, you kind of want more to happen in it – this is certainly a movie where some will complain “nothing happens” – and yet, when things do happen, it feels off. The big monologue at the end of the movie explaining what happened to Cyd’s mom feels out-of-place – it’s believable, sure, but I don’t think it really adds anything to film as it comes out of left field, then isn’t mentioned again. A potential sexual assault on Katie by her brothers friend also feels strangely out-of-sync – a plot device to get Katie to stay at Miranda’s for a while, and not a natural part of the story.
Besides, as the movie moves along, the accumulation of details about these women – and their slowly flowering relationship is really all that is needed. This is a lovely, low-key indie film – it doesn’t push too hard for effect, which is exactly why it has the effect that it does.

Movie Review: My Happy Family

My Happy Family **** / *****
Directed by: Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Gross.  
Written by: Nana Ekvtimishvili.
Starring: Ia Shugliashvili (Manana), Merab Ninidze (Soso), Berta Khapava (Lamara), Tsisia Qumsishvili (Nino), Giorgi Khurtsilava (Vakho), Goven Cheishvili (Otar), Dimitri Oragvelidze (Rezo), Mariam Bokeria (Kitsi), Lika Babluani (Tatia Chigogidze).
Nothing plays out exactly how you expect it to in My Happy Family – a new film from Georgia (the country, not the state) in which a woman in her 50s, Manana (Ia Shugliashvili) decides to leave her family. We first meet her when her decision as already been made – although she hasn’t told anyone yet. She’s looking for a small rental apartment, and finds one. When she tells her family – including her husband Soso (Merab Ninidze), two grown kids and her parents (all of whom live in the same apartment), they are shocked. Over the course of the films, extended family and friends will all talk to Manana, and try and figure out why she did what she did. Was Soso abusive? A drunk? Did he cheat on her? No to all of these. It appears more than anything that after spending the first 50 years of her life as part of a large, loud family, always in each other’s faces that all she wants now is quiet and solitude.
If this were an American film, you could write the beats of this film by heart. Manana would have a new man by act two – probably someone kind, charming and good looking, and free from the shackles of an oppressive marriage, Manana would slowly start to shine. But that isn’t this film. Manana really doesn’t have any big plans for her life, and no new love interest enters her life. She also isn’t free from her family completely – she’s drawn back in for family occasions, and all this leads to more questions and accusations. Strangely, it is her husband Soso who appears most on her side than anyone – and it isn’t precisely because he wanted out of the marriage either. While Manana may have harboring this secret desire to get the hell out for years, he is harboring his own secrets as well. Like hers, they aren’t the kind of explosive ones you usually build a movie around – but the kind of melancholy, sad ones that we all have.
The film is directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Gross (with a screenplay by Ekvtimishvili). The filmmaking on display is low-key, but in the best way – it doesn’t draw attention to itself, but the camera is always in the right spot, and flows naturally from room to room, place to place. The screenplay and the acting does the same thing. The film really is a gradual accumulation of details that builds to a powerful conclusion – not because anything is resolved, but because by then, you know everything there is to know about this family, and their lives.

Movie Review: Trophy

Trophy *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Christina Clusiau & Shaul Schwarz.
People who are set in their thinking about big game hunting – on either side – will find plenty to be appalled at in the documentary Trophy. The film basically lets people tell their side of the story unchallenged by the filmmakers – who challenge them in other ways, mainly by allowing others to speak, or to look, with unflinching detail, at what this hunting looks like. This isn’t an easy film to watch – nor should it be. Whenever we are talking about the killing of animals – whether its farm animals for food, or various animals that are hunted (either for food or sport), I think it’s necessary to look at what it all looks like, in all of its bloody, disgusting detail. Trophy does that, while it also brings up much food for thought as it goes along as well.
For example, the film spends some time with a man who raises rhinos in Africa – and in order to protect them from poachers, every few years, he and his team drug them, and cut off their horns. That is what the poachers want after all, and the horns themselves will grow back. He also argues that he should be allowed to sell the horns he cuts off – that way, he could use the profits to help raise the rhinos, and protect them from extinction. The sale of rhino horns was made illegal to try and cut down on poaching, and thus save the animals, but isn’t this another way around the system? You can look at his point as either monstrous or pragmatic, and probably be right. After all, it’s not saving rhinos that it is the issue – but you want to save who they are. If rhinos are basically raised as farm animals, are they really rhinos anymore? But is it better to let them all die off than have, for lack of a better term, domesticated rhinos?
Another person the film spends a lot of time with is Phillip Glass (not the composer) – an American hunter, who we first see taking his small child with him on his first hunt, to kill his first deer. Throughout the film, we will follow Glass because he represents the “hunter tourism” industry – he wants to head to Africa (and does, repeatedly) to kill one of each of the “Big Five” (lions, elephants, rhinos, buffalo and leopard) – each of which will cost him tens of thousands of dollars to kill. Yet, what if that money that is spent to kill these animals is used to protect the animals as well? Nothing really is simple.
The film is gorgeous shot by directors Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, which makes the moments in which animals are killed, and then posed, all the more shocking. The filmmakers will let the people on camera speak about the beauty of hunting, and honoring the animals, etc. – but it’s not going to shy away from the carnage either.
The film offers a complex look at an issue, and doesn’t tell you how to feel about it. There will be some who are outraged – and they certainly have a point. I don’t necessary like the idea of hunting for sport, which I think it killing for killing sake. And yet, if you do turn these animals into some kind of money making venture, then there is a profit motive to actually keep them alive, and not let them go extinct. But at what cost. Trophy is a film that may enrage you, but it is a provocative and intelligent film about an issue that is more complex than most people realize.

Movie Review: The Circle

The Circle * ½ / *****
Directed by: James Ponsoldt.
Written by: James Ponsoldt & David Eggers based on the novel by Eggers.
Starring: Emma Watson (Mae Holland), Tom Hanks (Bailey), Karen Gillan (Annie), John Boyega (Ty), Patton Oswalt (Stenton), Eller Coltrane (Mercer), Glenne Headley (Bonnie), Bill Paxton (Vinnie), Nate Corddry (Dan).
The best thing about The Circle is Tom Hanks’ performance as the villain of the movie, especially his decision to not play the role as a villain, but just as another Tom Hanks character. It’s this decision that makes the performance work, because it makes the role all the creepier, and all that much easier to swallow. Hanks’ character is essentially a version of Steve Jobs – who works at an internet company that essentially controls almost everything, and wants to take over that little bit that they don’t. He’s so likable, so affable – so Tom Hanks – which he makes even the most insidious things he says seem reasonable – something we could all agree with. That makes it all the more chilling.
The worst thing about The Circle is, well, pretty much everything else. This movie, based on a novel by David Eggers, doesn’t capture the same feeling of paranoia that the novel did, streamlines the plot too much, and ends on a confusing note. The novel was a dystopia – but I don’t know what the hell the movie is. True enough, the novel had its share of issues – but generally it worked by taking our modern world, and going just a step or two beyond where we’re already at. The movie tries something similar, but because the film never finds the right tone the result is a bland, flavorless movie.
The film stars Emma Watson as Mae Holland – who is excited to start work at The Circle – an internet company, that has essentially found a way to combine everything we do online – from social media to banking, and everything in between – into one account. They are a monolithic company – more powerful than the government. Mae starts in customer service – but works her way up – rather suddenly – when she comes to the attention of Bailey (Hanks) – the CEO of the company. Soon, she is being used as a model for everyone in the company – and indeed in the world – and this formerly smart, opinionated young woman starts sounding more and more like a member of a cult.
Or, at least, that’s what I think they are trying for here. I’m not sure Watson is the right actress for this role – she has an innate intelligence to her that comes through in every scene – so you never really believe the brainwashing. The movie also changes the ending of the book – to make it more triumphant – but it really only makes it all the more confusing. The other actors in the film – however talented they may be – cannot do much with the dialogue they are given. Only Patton Oswalt – as another Circle executive – shows you what he could have done had his role been better written (Oswalt is scarier here than I’ve seen him before – but they don’t anything with that).
The film was directed by James Ponsoldt, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Eggers. He isn’t a good choice for the material. His previous films include very good films like The Spectacular Now, Smashed and The End of the Tour – which were modest, character driven films. Here, saddled with a narrative with a lot going on, and the necessity of building tension and fear, he really never finds his footing. The film feels like it takes forever getting started, and then just kind of fizzles out.
Personally, I do hope that we get more of Hanks in bad guy roles in the future. I don’t think we’d buy him as an out-and-out psychopath – but in this kind of role, he could be brilliant. He already is, in a way, here. It’s just that no one else working on the film figured out what to do.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Wise Blood (1979)

Wise Blood (1979)
Directed by: John Huston.
Written by: Benedict Fitzgerald & Michael Fitzgerald based on the novel by Flannery O'Connor.
Starring: Brad Dourif (Hazel Motes), Dan Shor (Enoch Emory), Harry Dean Stanton (Asa Hawks), Amy Wright (Sabbath Lily), Mary Nell Santacroce (Landlady), Ned Beatty (Hoover Shoates), William Hickey (Preacher), John Huston (Grandfather).
John Huston’s Wise Blood, based on the novel by Flannery O’Connor, is a very strange movie indeed. It is a redemption story of sorts – the story a non-believer, a nihilist really, who comes back into the fold and embraces Jesus in the end, although by then he has lost pretty much everything else in his life, so it may well have been better for him not to find Jesus (at least, in this life). It is a story of holy and unholy fools – crooks and charlatans – although according the movie at least, that doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t real.
The main character in the film is Hazel Motes and he’s played with single minded determination by a perfectly cast Brad Dourif. He returns from the war (the film never specifies which one – although O’Connor’s novel in set in post WWII, the film however doesn’t have the trappings of a period piece – perhaps due to budget constraints – so it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say Vietnam), and goes back to his small, Southern hometown. There is a new highway there – opened, he’s told, just long enough for everyone to drive away from town. None of his family is left – we glimpse his preacher Grandfather (played by Huston himself) – is flashbacks, but no one else. Hazel ends up heading into the city, where he plans to start street preaching. But he is not a typical street preacher, talking about how Jesus saves – just the opposite really. His is a “Church without Christ” - “where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way”. Despite all his supposed hatred of Jesus, Hazel has the passion of a true zealot – he rarely talks of anything other than his Church, and spreading his “gospel”. If Wise Blood is anything, it is a reminder of that old saying – the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. Hazel doesn’t really hate Jesus – he’s just mad at him, perhaps because of what happened during the war (he says he has an injury, but doesn’t want people to know where), or perhaps because of the fire and brimstone his grandfather preached (which scared him so much, he wet himself).
While in the city, Hazel meets a series of fools, crooks and charlatans. He isn’t there long before he finds a new follower – the hapless Enoch Emory (Dan Shor), who becomes committed to him despite the cruelty in which Hazel treats him. Enoch is clearly a lonely, somewhat dimwitted young man, who will eventually end up in a gorilla suit in another ill advised obsession. There is Asa Hawks (the great Harry Dean Stanton), a supposedly blind street preacher, and his daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright). They are scam artists – he isn’t really blind, despite what his “clipping” says (he supposedly was going to blind himself for Jesus). Sabbath Lily sets her sets on Hazel herself. There’s Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty), who hears Hazel’s pitch, and likes it – he feels there is a lot of money to be made from it, but when Hazel doesn’t get on board – it isn’t a scam to him – Shoates simply goes out and hires someone to give the same sermon (William Hickey). Finally, there is Hazel’s landlady (Mary Nell Santacroce), who seems so kindly – but of course, even she has something else on her mind.
There is nothing new about redemption stories – and yet Wise Blood is one of the strangest ones you will see. It isn’t really about a saint among sinners – we see Hazel Motes do a hell of lot of bad things. It is the work of a cynical Christian – but a Christian just the same. For the most part, the film follows O’Connor’s novel fairly closely – even if Huston initially had a different interpretation – he thought he’d be making a satire about Southern religion, which in a way, I guess he was – he was still the right choice to direct. Huston is one of the few directors who was able to take difficult, literary material and turn it into a film that is both faithful to the novel, and works as film itself. The film isn’t perfect – I find, in particular, that the scenes leading to the ending could use a little more clarity – but mainly, it is a fine adaptation of a difficult novel.
Lots of things helped here – including, oddly enough, the lack of a budget. It is a small budgeted film, and so Huston shot mainly on location in Macon, Georgia – using the rundown city as a perfect backdrop to the film. The lack a definitive time period works here (I often don’t like, as specificity is the soul of narrative – here though it makes it a more quintessential American story). The cast of character actors could hardly be improved upon – Dourif apparently wanted to add more nuance to Hazel, but Huston rightly knew that he was a one note character – whatever he embraces, he embraces fully. Harry Dean Stanton delivers one of his finest in a long line of morally dubious conmen. Amy Wright is a wicked joy as Sabbath Lily. Ned Beatty all smiles as he steals from you – and Hickey is wonderfully pathetic as his sidekick. Santacroce sneaks up on you as the unnamed Landlady – helping in those final scenes.
If Wise Blood doesn’t quite rank up with Huston’s best films, that is because of the strength of his resume – from The Maltese Falcon to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the 1940s to Prizzi’s Honor and The Dead in the 1980s, and much in between, Huston had a varied, wonderful directing career. Wise Blood is a little seen, underrated late career highlight for him – and everyone else involved.

Academy Award Documentary Shortlist

I have seen more documentaries in 2017 than any other year (I am currently at 47 for the year), and looking at the 15 films shortlisted by the Academy to compete for the documentary Oscar a few things stand out. The first I’ve seen 10 of the 15 (I have not had a chance to see Unrest, Long Strange Trip or Ex Libris – I could have travelled far to see Jane, and have so far skipped Human Flow – not because I don’t want to see it, but because it hasn’t fit into my schedule as of yet). The second is that this is a fairly predictable list, which is fairly strong – a lot of familiar names get shortlisted here, but there are notable omissions.
One thing I will point out is that I am somewhat surprised (pleasantly so) that Abacus: Small Enough to Jail made the list. I think it’s one of the best docs of the year, but the Academy doesn’t exactly have a strong history with director Steve James – they famously did not nominate his masterpiece Hoop Dreams, and they didn’t shortlist his widely loved Roger Ebert doc – Life Itself, or his acclaimed The Interrupters. Perhaps it’s finally his year. I was also pleasantly surprised that they shortlisted Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris – no, I haven’t seen it (and if the pattern of Wiseman holds true, I may never see it) – but I have seen quite a bit of his work, he is an absolute legend, and he has rarely been recognized. The only negative surprise for me in the inclusions is An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power – which is hardly a horrible movie, but isn’t particularly good either. This feels more like a rubber stamp approval to Al Gore than based on the film itself, which was largely greeted with a shrug.
Of the films I have seen on the shortlist, I like Chasing Coral, City of Ghosts, Icarus and Last Me in Aleppo just fine – all are solid film that I like them a great deal, even if they are not among my favorites of the year. I would be interested to know why they went with City of Ghosts and Last Men in Aleppo and not Cries from Syria – which was my favorite of three – but all were fine films (and watch for Icarus – a suddenly very timely doc, with Russian being banned from the Olympics).
I do really like the aforementioned Abacus, LA 92, One of Us and Strong Island – and Faces Place is my favorite doc of the year. All of them deserve their spots on the list, and would make a fine lineup (although considering I do love Brett Morgan, I wouldn’t be surprised if once I see Jane, it shoots up this list as well).
As for the films I wish would have been included and were not, here goes. Casting JonBenet is one of the strangest, most innovative docs of the year (but I seem to be in the minority on that one), Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992, is at least the equal of L.A. 92 – and I would love to have seen them both on the list, The Work is a stunning documentary, and I cannot believe they missed it (I have to think they didn’t see that one, because it seems up their alley), the cat documentary Kedi is beloved, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond is a fascinating look at acting, and Dawson City: Frozen Time is a great history lesson – and film history lesson – and I would loved to have seen it listed.
Other notable films that I liked, and I thought may break into the list that didn’t include Step, Whose Streets? and Nobody Speak: Trails of the Free Press – all of which are good, and I thought may be timely (or popular) enough to crack the list, but didn’t.
My predicted five nominees would be this:
City of Ghosts
Faces Places
Human Flow

And the whole shortlist is below:


Academy Award Documentary Shortlist
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Chasing Coral
City of Ghosts
Ex Libris – The New York Public Library
Faces Places
Human Flow
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
LA 92
Last Men in Aleppo
Long Strange Trip
One of Us
Strong Island