Friday, March 30, 2018

Movie Review: In a Valley of Violence

In a Valley of Violence (2016) **** / *****
Directed by: Ti West.
Written by: Ti West.
Starring: Ethan Hawke (Paul), John Travolta (Marshal), Taissa Farmiga (Mary-Anne), James Ransone (Gilly), Karen Gillan (Ellen), Toby Huss (Harris), Tommy Nohilly (Tubby), Larry Fessenden (Roy), Michael Davis (Dollar Bill), James Cady (Bartender), Burn Gorman (Priest), K.H. Sweeney (William T. Baxter).
Director Ti West seems to be dead set on making genre films that are both in a classical style, but with a touch of absurdist modern details. He has made his name in horror films like House of the Devil (a kind of ultra-violent, absurdist film that would have felt at home in the 1980s), The Innkeepers (a more classically structured 1960s haunted house film) and The Salvation (a found footage film, about a Jonestown-like cult). With In a Valley of Violence, he has stretched out to the Western – specifically the spaghetti Western, because like those films, In a Valley of Violence is both ultra-violent, and yet deliberately off-kilter. It’s got a strange streak of humor running through it, and when of the great choices the film makes is that its star – Ethan Hawke – doesn’t seem in on the joke. Everyone else is dialed up, but he’s dialed down. It works.
Hawke plays Paul, who we first see alone in the desert, with his horse and an adorable dog. He comes across a drunken Irish priest, who tries to rob him – but quickly learns Paul isn’t the type of guy you rob. The priest does tell him about a town – just over that valley there – that is full of sin, and warns Paul off. Paul doesn’t want to go there – he’s on his way to Mexico to escape his past (which we will slowly learn) – but he, his horse and his dog all need water. How bad can it be if he just gets in and gets out, real quick?
We know what’s going to happen – or else we wouldn’t have a movie. Paul angers a hotheaded idiot named Gilly (James Ransone), just by his mere presence, and challenges him to a fight that Paul doesn’t want any part of, but eventually he obliges. He humiliates Gilly – which isn’t a good idea, because Gilly’s dad is the Marshal (John Travolta). The Marshal knows his son is an idiot, knows he probably got what was coming to him, and is content to let Paul be on his way – but not without a warning. The Marshal is a former military man – and deduces so is Paul – but that Paul is most likely a deserter. The Marshal won’t make a big deal of it if he leaves and never comes back. Paul is more than happy to be on his way – but Gilly and his friends aren’t as smart as Paul or The Marshal – and soon they’ve committed a heinous act of violence that Paul feels he has to avenge. So that the movie is a complete sausage fest, West has two female characters – sisters Ellen (Karen Gillan), a bit of dim bulb, engaged to Gilly, and the younger Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga) who views Paul as a romantic figure – her way out of this horrible town.
Yes, the plot of the movie is simple and straight forward – and something you have seen in a million other Westerns. It works because, well, clichés sometimes work and West is smart enough to serve genre hounds precisely what they want here – a classic revenge Western, with a lot of blood. But it works better than it otherwise would have because of West’s sly-humor peppered throughout the film. When Travolta first comes on screen, with his wooden leg and big mustache, I assumed he was cast because Kurt Russell said no (Russell is probably the Western genre’s modern standard bearer) – but no, West knew what he was doing casting Travolta. While he seems menacing at first, Travolta’s character ends up being perhaps the only sane one in the film – and he almost laughs at the absurdity of everything that is happening. He doesn’t want to kill Paul – but he cannot have someone going through his town murdering people either. Travolta, at his best, is perfectly suited for these types of characters – ones that almost seem to smirk at the audience at let them know that yes, this really is silly. That nicely undercuts the rest of the movie – and makes it clear that all the machismo is bullshit posturing. The movie will feed it to you, but it knows it’s silly.
Hawke is also well cast. While the villains he is going up against are almost comic in their roles (one of them is played by Larry Fessenden, so you know he’s going to be creepy). But Hawke mainly plays it straight. He’s as good as it gets in this type of role – tired and beat down, but still capable of violence, even if that’s not what he wants – there is a good sequence when he first arrives back in town to get revenge where he keeps backing out at the last second before he kills someone – he has to slowly screw up his courage.
Ti West is a talented filmmaker – still searching for that kind of crossover hit that works with mainstream audiences. He is slowly building up a good reputation though – a filmmaker who respects the genre films that came before him, but is intent on twisting them just enough to come up with something different. In a Valley of Violence is his best one yet.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Movie Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One **** / *****
Directed by: Steven Spielberg.
Written by: Zak Penn and Ernest Cline based on the novel by Cline.
Starring: Tye Sheridan (Wade Owen Watts / Parzival), Olivia Cooke (Samantha Evelyn Cook / Art3mis), Ben Mendelsohn (Nolan Sorrento), Lena Waithe (Aech), T.J. Miller (i-R0k), Simon Pegg (Ogden Morrow / Og), Mark Rylance (James Donovan Halliday / Anorak), Hannah John-Kamen (F'Nale Zandor), Win Morisaki (Daito), Philip Zhao (Sho).
Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One is a mess of contradictions – but in the most wonderful way possible. It’s both a celebration of pop culture, nostalgia and fandom as well as a condemnation of those three things at the same time. It’s a film that probably only Spielberg could make – and make work – at least in the way it’s currently constructed. It’s an interesting move for Spielberg – and seems like a direct response to those who want him to go back and do the kind of fun adventure films he used to make in the 1970s and 1980s – proof that he can still do that if he wants to, while acknowledging why he doesn’t do that much anymore. He’s a different filmmaker than he used to be. A Steven Spielberg version of Ready Player One made in 1982 (which isn’t really possible, but you know what I mean) would be much more aligned with the main character of Ready Player One – Wade Watts, an orphan with a horrible home life escaping into a world of his obsessions. The Ready Player One Spielberg made in 2018 is more in line with Halliday (Mark Rylance) – the creator of the digital play world Wade (and nearly everyone else) loses themselves in. In many ways, he is responsible for the situation, but knows how dangerous it all is.
The film is set in 2045, and the world has essentially become a giant trash heap. To escape from the dreary reality of everyday life, people spend most of their time in the Oasis – a giant computer simulation where you can be pretty much whatever you want to be. The creator of the Oasis was Halliday – and he became incredibly rich. When he died – 5 years ago – there was also an announcement. The first person to win three keys – from three different games – would inherit everything from Halliday – who was a lonely, single recluse. In all that time, no one has even won one key – everyone knows you have to win a car race, which is impossible, to get the first key – but no one can do it.
The main character is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) – who goes by Parzival in the Oasis – and he is obsessed with Halliday and his life, and Halliday’s own obsession (which is basically 1980s pop culture) – and determined to win the keys. Eventually, he will team up with others – the beautiful Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), his best friend Aech (Lena Waithe) and a couple of Japanese brothers – Daito and Sho (Win Morisaki and Philip Zhao). They want one of them to win – because the alternative is that IOI – a greedy corporation, who want to infect the purity of the Oasis and is led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) – wins. Sorrento will do anything to win.
You can pick apart the flaws in Ready Player One if you want to – there are quite a few nits to pick here. The storytelling is more than a little sloppy here – there are plot holes, and plot contrivances, weird moments of character motivation (Wade doesn’t seem too broken up by a key death for instance – the next scene, it’s like it never happened). Spielberg’s film usually click along like a fine Swiss watch, but this film is messy. Part of that is by design – the film is awash in 1980s references that crowd nearly every frame in the film, there is switching back and forth from the completely digital world to the real world. The movie is based on a very popular book by Ernest Cline – and I think Spielberg wants to give fans of the book – and those coming from action and spectacle – what they want. He delivers of course – Spielberg directs action better than most, and uses special effects better than just about anyone.
In this vein, there is one sequence – about halfway through the movie – that will go down as one of the best things Spielberg has ever done. This is a sequence where the characters have to go inside the world of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – and it is an absolute blast. Spielberg, a huge Kubrick admirer – clearly loved recreating parts of The Shining, and twisting other parts of it for this warped version of it – and it something truly special.
I think pointing out those flaws are more than fair in regards to Ready Player One – even if I think part of the reason the film does work is because of its messiness – that doesn’t make up for some of the lazy writing in the film, but I think it does point out the things about the movie that Spielberg found most interesting – the things he wanted to get across, instead of focusing on the story. I do think this is the grown up Spielberg version of the old childlike Spielberg movies (in his excellent review of Ready Player One – the best piece of film criticism I’ve read this year – Bilge Ebiri makes the fascinating case that the dividing line isn’t Schindler’s List, as many think, but actually halfway through the much maligned Hook – when the story changes from a middle aged man trying to recapture his youth to that of a father, who realizes he needs to be there for his kids). I think Spielberg clearly sees parts of himself in both Wade and Halliday (note the glasses on Wade in the real world scenes – he looks kind of like a young Spielberg). Spielberg has always been a movie geek – in love with old movies and their directors. He also clearly sees that it is not the whole world – and that getting lost in it is a way to live a lonely existence.
Ready Player One works as spectacle for me – a fine, fun blockbuster ride by a filmmaker who does this type of thing better than just about anyone. Its storytelling if messy, the message is admittedly muddled – they are selling the film as the biggest crossover event ever, and playing off that nostalgia, while also arguing against that nostalgia. But the whole messy package is wonderfully fascinating to me – and makes me think that even though I don’t think Ready Player One will go as one of Spielberg’s best films, it may well become one of his most studied films. Spielberg isn’t quite the “creator who hates his creation” as one person referenced in the movie is – but he has his doubts.

Movie Review: Pacific Rim: Uprising

Pacific Rim Uprising ** / *****
Directed by: Steven S. DeKnight.

Written by: Emily Carmichael & Kira Snyder and Steven S. DeKnight and T.S. Nowlin based on characters created by Travis Beacham.
Starring: John Boyega (Jake Pentecost), Scott Eastwood (Nate Lambert), Cailee Spaeny (Amara Namani), Rinko Kikuchi (Mako Mori), Charlie Day (Dr. Newton Geiszler), Burn Gorman (Dr. Hermann Gottlieb),Tian Jing (Liwen Shao), Adria Arjona (Jules Reyes), Jin Zhang (Marshal Quan), Karan Brar (Suresh), Ivanna Sakhno (Vik), Mackenyu (Ryoichi), Shyrley Rodriguez (Renata), Levi Meaden (Ilya), Rahart Adams (Tahima Shaheen), Zhu Zhu (Juen), Nick E. Tarabay (Sonny).
You can count me as one of the people who really liked Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim – a film that I thought married spectacle and emotion quite well – had some truly remarkable scenes, and was basically blockbuster filmmaking at its finest – even with a bland lead. Unfortunately, you can pretty much flip everything about Pacific Rim around, and you get the sequel. The lead this time is charming and fun and played by John Boyega, who is anything but bland. If nothing else, the movie proves Boyega is a true movie star – he carries the movie on the basis of his charisma alone, because there really isn’t much else here.
Set 10 years after the first film – the war is now over, and the world has recovered for the most part. Boyega plays Jake Pentecost – son of the Idris Elba character in the first film (you remember him – he cancelled the apocalypse) – who is now basically making his living as a thief – stealing part off of the old jaegers to sell to idiots who want to make their own. One thing leads to another, and soon Pentecost is forced back into the jaeger pilot program he fled years ago – this time with a very smart teenage girl, Cailee Spaeny in tow – even as it appears like the jaegers pilot program is all but done. Soon, there will be drones to run the jaegers – and besides, without the kaiju (those giant monsters) – who needs them anyway. You can guess what happens from there – and you’d pretty much be right. Drones go crazy, the kaiju return – and everyone has to mount up, and do the same thing all over again.
This time, the film is not directed by Del Toro, and his touch is sorely missing. Steven S. DeKnight is making his feature directing debut – and the direction is more workmanlike than anything. Yes, there are still giant robots fighting giant monsters, but the film lacks anything beyond that. It takes a long time before we really get to see those fights – and when we do, in the last act, it’s pretty much continuous, monotonous noise.
The cast of the first film was effortlessly diverse – bringing an international cast together with ease. This time, every choice seems more cynical – the first film was a much bigger hit in China than in North America, so they throw in a bunch of Chinese actors. In theory, this is a good thing (Asian representation in American movies is abysmal) – but the film basically feels like just sticking them in there is good enough – they don’t actually give them anything interesting to do. The comic relief of the first film – played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman – is pretty tired this time around. The most interesting characters from the first film are either dead, or basically cameos (I love Rinko Kikuchi in almost everything I’ve seen her in – she does nothing here).
Basically, Pacific Rim: Uprising pretty much encapsulates everything that is wrong with sequel culture in Hollywood movies – a cynical attempt to recapture a movie that made money the first time, without really understanding what made that movie something special. A hollow copy of a very good original.

Movie Review: Roxanne Roxanne

Roxanne Roxanne *** / *****
Directed by: Michael Larnell.
Written by: Michael Larnell.
Starring: Chanté Adams (Roxanne Shanté), Mahershala Ali (Cross), Nia Long (Ms. Peggy Gooden), Elvis Nolasco (Ray), Kevin Phillips (Marley), Shenell Edmonds (Ranita), Arnstar (MC Shan), Nigel A. Fullerton (Biz Markie), Tremaine Brown Jr. (Nasir), Cheryse Dyllan (Sparky Dee), Taliyah Whitaker (Young Roxanne Shanté), Charlie Hudson III (Mr. Magic), Mitchell Edwards (Tone).
Roxanne Roxanne is a rap biopic about Roxanne Shante – someone who I had never heard of before this movie, but did make a big impact on female MC’s during her brief time as a top MC. Michael Larnell’s biopic does an admirable job trying to avoid the clichés of the musical biopic – the rise from humble beginnings, often followed by a fall, and then a rise again – mainly because he doesn’t seem nearly as interested in Shante’s music career as he is in her life. If you head over to her Wikipedia page, you’ll see a lot of information of the Juice Crew, the Roxanne wars, KRS-One, etc. – and the film isn’t really interested in that. It takes about a half hour before we even hear Shante rap at all.
It’s the 1980s in Queensbridge – a rough era in New York – and the rap battle champion is a 14 year old girl – Shante (Chante Adams). She is living a tough life though – no father in the picture, a mother (Nia Long) sliding into alcoholism and depression, and Shante who is having to do a lot of the heavy lifting raising her three younger sisters. She shoplifts for extra money – and does those rap battles. The movie covers a long period of time – too long really – in Shante’s life, as she goes from a poor kid, to going on a tour for her career, and eventually to an abusive relationship with a much older drug dealer (Mahershala Ali).
While the movie does avoid many of the clichés of the musical biopic, that’s not always for the best. The film does try and cover too much – and it’s often the expense of more nuance characters. Nia Long is very good as Shante’s mother – but what starts out as a more fleshed out character – a woman gets tired of being beat down by life, by having men let her down, etc. – eventually does end up in fairly well-trod paths, complete with a scene of “redemption” at the end between mother and daughter, that doesn’t ring true. In the case of Cross, Ali does a remarkable job taking this character and making him more nuanced than he is in the script – it’s clear he’s grooming Shante in the beginning, and eventually he will become a one-dimensional bad guy – but it’s still interesting to see Ali work – and how similar in some ways he is here as he is in Moonlight – and how a few subtle changes can impact the entire character.
Still, even if Roxanne Roxanne isn’t always successful, it’s always interesting – thanks in large part to a wonderful performance by newcomer Chante Adams in the lead role. Hers is the most complex character in the film – and we see her make mistakes, get a big head, and be brought low again – but never get defeated, never give up. The rap scenes are actually quite good as well – capturing the charisma of Shante – and why she became a star in the first place. She keeps the movie interesting – even when you know where the film is going.
I do kind of wish more biopics would take a similar approach – skipping the parts of the life of famous person people know, and focusing instead of what shaped them – what made them who they were in the first place. Roxanne Roxanne doesn’t always get things right – but it has the right idea.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Movie Review: Isle of Dogs

Isle of Dogs **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Wes Anderson.
Written by: Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola and Kunichi Nomura and Jason Schwartzman.
Starring: Bryan Cranston (Chief), Koyu Rankin (Atari), Edward Norton (Rex), Bob Balaban (King), Bill Murray (Boss), Jeff Goldblum (Duke), Kunichi Nomura (Mayor Kobayashi), Akira Takayama (Major-Domo), Greta Gerwig (Tracy Walker), Frances McDormand (Interpreter Nelson), Akira Ito (Professor Watanabe), Scarlett Johansson (Nutmeg), Harvey Keitel (Gondo), F. Murray Abraham (Jupiter), Yoko Ono (Assistant-Scientist Yoko-ono), Tilda Swinton (The Oracle Dog), Ken Watanabe (Head Surgeon), Mari Natsuki (Auntie), Fisher Stevens (Scrap), Liev Schreiber (Spots), Courtney B. Vance (Narrator), Jake Ryan (Junior Interpreter Ernie), Kara Hayward (Peppermint).
Isle of Dogs is one of Wes Anderson’s strangest, funniest and most heartfelt films – which is odd, because it’s also one of his darkest. For the most part, Anderson’s films have been about the family unit – its dysfunctions, and how they shape and warp people as they grow up – perhaps sometimes arresting them in a juvenile state. He saw the larger outside world most clearly in his last masterpiece – The Grand Budapest Hotel – where one man (played brilliantly by Ralph Fiennes) tried to keep the ugliness of the world outside his beloved hotel away, until it ultimately overwhelms everything. To follow that up, he has made the stop motion Isle of Dogs – set in a darker, dystopian Japan of “20 Years in the Future”, but populated the film mostly with delightful dogs. The outside world has now become fully part of Anderson’s films – and they are richer for that.
The story is about the city of Megasaki, run by the corrupt Mayor Kobayashi, who hates dogs with a passion, and has devised a way to get rid of them. The dog flu has reached epidemic proportions, and threatens to cross the species barrier. Despite warnings from the Science party, which thinks it can be cured, Kobayashi orders all dogs to be banished to Trash Island. It here, six months after the banishment has taken place, that most of Isle of Dogs takes place. Chief (Bryan Cranston) is a former stray, who looks at the banishment as confirmation of the distrust for humans he always had. “I bite” he warns early in the film – and he means it. He has taken up with a pack of former pets – Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) to fight for the scraps on the island. The mayor’s nephew, Atari, steals a small plane and flies to the island – where he crashes – in the hope of finding his beloved dog Spots. Chief doesn’t want to help the “The Little Pilot” as they call him – but he is outvoted – so the set off to the far reaches of the island to find Spots.
The stop motion animation on display in Isle of Dogs is among the best I have ever seen in a movie – even better than the terrific Fantastic Mr. Fox (2008) that Anderson previously made. The art direction here is more detailed, the characters even more expressive. Anderson and his animators don’t try to hide their own involvement in the animation process – it all feels handmade, but in the best way. There is not a moment of Isle of Dogs which doesn’t look terrific. This is true of pretty much every Anderson film – and at times (I’m thinking particularly of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), that attention to details smothers the life out of the film – making it all an exercise in style and little else. But for the most part, the style helps Anderson – and helps the emotions of the film come through. That’s the case here. The film is essentially a story of free will and freedom – and whether we compromise that free will for security and kindness. Chief certainly thinks so at the beginning of the film – but by the end, he opinion has changed.
The film’s Japanese setting and style has been the subject of much debate and criticism since people starting seeing the film – and while I understand the arguments of those who see it as cultural appropriation – a white filmmaker from American dabbling in a culture he doesn’t understand or respect for his own purposes, I don’t really see it that way (I will admit that as a white man myself, I come at it from a point-of-view probably similar to Anderson’s). I loved the use of Japanese style in the film – the many callbacks to Akira Kurosawa throughout the film (I certainly saw parts of Seven Samurai throughout the film, but also films like High and Low or perhaps The Bad Sleep Well). Alexandre Desplat’s taiko drum heavy score is among his best work. The decision to not subtitle most of the Japanese dialogue – or have the human Japanese cast speak in English – is a good one. It adds a layer of misunderstanding between the dogs and the humans in the film (it would be strange if both spoke in English, but couldn’t understand each other) – but also respects the Japanese language – and the cast who speaks it. Most of the dialogue isn’t strictly necessary for narrative purposes – there is a translator on hand for the big speeches (the delightful Frances McDormand). Anderson fully embraces Japan and its culture here – not in a way that is complete, or an insider’s view, but something similar to what Ryan Coogler did with African culture in Black Panther.
In short, I think Isle of Dogs is another masterwork from Anderson – among the best things he has ever made. It is a delightful comedy, but with a darker edge to it, even as it ends in a good place. Anderson has become one of the most consistently great filmmakers work today – and Isle of Dogs is one of his best achievements.

Movie Review: Unsane

Unsane **** / *****
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh.
Written by: Jonathan Bernstein & James Greer.
Starring: Claire Foy (Sawyer Valentini), Joshua Leonard (David), Jay Pharoah (Nate Hoffman), Juno Temple (Violet), Amy Irving (Angela Valentini), Sarah Stiles (Jill), Polly McKie (Nurse Boles), Raul Costillo (Jacob), Gibson Frazier (Dr. Hawtorne), Erin Wilhelmi (Hayley), Aimee Mullins (Ashley Brighterhouse).
I think we all knew that Steven Soderbergh was never going to stay “retired” when he announced that was what he was doing after Side Effects and Behind the Candelabra in 2013. He was far too young and far too prolific and far too experimental to just stop. Since his “retirement” he has directed 20 episodes of the TV show The Knack, 7 episodes of another series Mosaic, which also added content for iPhones, acted as the cinematographer on Magic Mike XXL, the sequel to a film he did direct, and yes, two films in the last two years, and has more projects on the go. He never retired, just like Steven King never retired, despite having announced he was going to – and in both cases, we are richer for it.
Unsane is Soderbergh’s latest film – and it’s a terrific thriller, and a relevant one for the #MeToo moment we are currently in. Part of the reason Soderbergh was able to make this film so quickly is because he shot it on an iPhone in an aspect ratio of 1.56:1, a boxier ratio than most, and one that works tremendously well for a narrative about a woman who is trapped – or “boxed in” if you will. It works as a straight ahead thriller – with a terrific lead performance by Claire Foy – but there are undercurrents that make it more relevant than most.
Foy plays Sawyer Valentini, a very smart financial analyst, who just started a new job in a new city that she describes as being an opportunity “too good to pass up” but which we immediately sense is beneath her. He has to deal with the veiled come-ons of her new boss (nothing too overt that he couldn’t pass it all off as innocent if need be), and goes out on a date to a bar with someone she met on Tinder. Early in the date she tells her date that “this going to go exactly the way you want it to” – the only catch is that he is to never call or contact her again after tonight. When they go back to her place it’s safe to say that no, it doesn’t go the way he wants it to.
Sawyer will seek help from a counselor at the local hospital – dealing with the trauma of having a stalker, which is why she fled Boston in the first place. Everything seems to be going well – and when the session is over, she just has to fill out some forms. She soon finds herself being committed to the psyche ward – having apparently signed a voluntary agreement for a 24 hour hold, that when she gets violent, gets extended to a 7 day hold. Has she really gone crazy? What’s worse, she is convinced that one of the orderlies (Joshua Leonard) – is really her stalker, David, who has found a way to keep her locked up.
Unsane is a little too overly plotted – there are subplots about an insurance scam for instance that doesn’t add much, and some of the patients on the ward just seem to be there for window dresses, and to become convenient foils later in the plot. The exception is Nate (Jay Pharoah) who is apparently there on a 4 week opioid rehab stint, who helps Sawyer navigate the chaos she finds herself in. Strangely, the movie resolves the issue of whether Sawyer has lost her mind or not fairly soon into the narrative – and then becomes something altogether creepier. The already justly lauded “Blue Room” sequence is among the best work Soderbergh has ever done.
The film works for the #MeToo era not just because of its stalker storyline – although that is a big part of it. Her stalker isn’t an ex-boyfriend or anything, but a sad, pathetic man who built up an entire life for “them” because she was kind to her dying father, and by extension to him. He is the prototypical “nice guy”, who doesn’t understand when women are all attracted to jerks, and never give guys like him a chance. He understands Sawyer so much better than anyone else ever could you see – loves her more than anyone else ever could, and knows that she would love him too, if only she would give him a chance. It also works on a much subtler level as well however – as throughout the film, no one really seems to take Sawyer – or other women – seriously, when they say something is wrong. They are dismissed and diminished.
Foy anchors it all with her terrific lead performance. Having not seen The Crown (and not like Breathe), I finally understand the praise for Foy – she is absolutely terrific here, keeping the movie going. Sometimes, people concentrate too much on Soderbergh’s innovations – and less on his storytelling and the films themselves. He isn’t the first to shoot on an iPhone, but here, it really does work terrifically well.
The final act has a couple of weak moments that overall don’t quite do the film that preceded it justice – it really is all downhill after the Blue Room, so while the end is effective, it doesn’t hit you quite as hard as perhaps it should. That is a relatively minor flaw though in what I think is one of Soderbergh’s better films. We need someone like him to keep pushing boundaries – and doing so with movies that are worth it for more than those pushed boundaries.

Movie Review: Sherlock Gnomes

Sherlock Gnomes ** / *****
Directed by: John Stevenson.
Written by: Kevin Cecil and Andy Riley and Richard Sweren and Ben Zazove.
Starring: Emily Blunt (Juliet), Johnny Depp (Sherlock Gnomes), James McAvoy (Gnomeo), Maggie Smith (Lady Bluebury), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Watson), Michael Caine (Lord Redbrick), Stephen Merchant (Paris), Mary J. Blige (Irene), Jamie Demetriou (Moriarty)
If there is some value to Sherlock Gnomes – the new animated adventure, a sequel to Gnomeo & Juliet (2011) – which I did not, because my oldest child was born that year, so we weren’t going to movies with her yet – it will be in introducing kids to Sherlock Holmes at all. My daughters already know him – kind of – from repeated viewings of one of my childhood favorites (The Great Mouse Detective) which has become one of their childhood favorites, or from walking in on mommy and daddy as we watch the Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freedom version on Netflix, as we’ve done recently. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective, and his sidekick, remain relevant, in part because filmmakers and TV shows have never really let die off. Those stories – which I devoured as a kid/teenager – are still great, so if Sherlock Gnomes gets some kids to eventually read them – or watch the many incantations of him over the years, then I guess it’s a good thing. He movie itself however isn’t particularly good – it’s really all that funny, or all that exciting, and the novelty of talking gnomes, and a lot of gnome based puns, wears off pretty quickly. It’s serviceable children’s entertainment – my kids liked it, for the most part – but it’s not all that memorable.
The story revolves the gnomes from the first movie, now relocated into London. The title couple Gnomeo & Juliet (James McAvoy and Emily Blunt) have just been handed the reigns for the new garden by their parents – which at first seems exciting, and soon starts to feel like real work. Their relationship suffers as a result – because Juliet is so caught up in remaking the new garden, she takes Gnomeo for granted “The garden cannot wait. You can”. Gnomeo being a man, does what men do best in this situation – sulk like a little child. But they cannot spend too much time brooding, because soon all of their friends – and all other gnomes in London – have been taken (the funniest moment in the film is a news broadcast about the gnome theft, that acknowledges who ridiculous it is to be talking about gnome theft on TV). In walks Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp) and his put upon sidekick Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to investigate. He’s convinced the perpetrator is his arch nemesis Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), a bright yellow pie mascot they thought dead. They have 24 hours to find the gnomes, or they will be smashed.
The film is rather dull and lifeless, despite the huge dramatic stakes of gnome slaughter at play here. I don’t really think the casting oh Johnny Depp really helps here – he long ago seems to have forgotten how to act or sound like a relatable person, and here he takes Sherlock’s narcissism to extremes. Depp, who is capable of being great (but he only shows that occasionally now) too often falls back on easy tricks, and he does that here. The film may have been better off leaving Gnomeo & Juliet out of the film completely – they don’t add very much here, and basically get in the way. If there is a saving grace in the cast, it’s Ejiofor as Watson – who is quite charming and funny (full disclosure – I always love Watson in Sherlock Holmes stories).
The story moves along at a brisk enough pace, but the filmmakers do try and add a few twists to the plot, all of which are telegraphed well in advance (perhaps I’m being too hard here, and the filmmakers aimed those twists like they aimed the rest of the movie – at children – but even my 6 and a half year old called them). There is a lot of music in the film – most by executive producer Elton John, although Mary J. Blige does show up as Irene, Sherlock’s ex-girlfriend to sing a song about how awful he is, which is kind of amusing (Irene is a character I wished they did A LOT more with). But basically, Sherlock Gnomes is disposable kid’s entertainment – good to keep they entertained for 90 minutes, and not much else.

Movie Review: Pyewacket

Pyewacket *** / *****
Directed by: Adam MacDonald.
Written by: Adam MacDonald.
Starring: Nicole Muñoz (Leah), Laurie Holden (Mrs. Reyes), Chloe Rose (Janice), Eric Osborne (Aaron), Romeo Carere (Rob), James McGowan (Rowan Dove), Bianca Melchior (Pyewacket), Missy Peregrym (voice), Neil Whitely (Detective). 
It was just last week when I reviewed Paco Plaza’s Veronica, about a teenage girl, who holds a séance to communicate with her dead father, and gets more than she bargained for. I didn’t think much of that film that was a slow burn, until a fairly satisfying finale – but ultimately indulged in every cliché imaginable through its runtime. Now comes Pyewacket, a film about a teenage girl, who performs a blood incantation, to get even with her mother who she is upset with following the death of her father, and gets more than she bargained for. The two films are similar in some ways – but while I don’t necessarily think Pyewacket is overly original either – it is a horror film that worked for me, slowly getting under your skin, and building to a truly frightening climax. The two films are perhaps a study in how horror, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
The film stars Nicole Muñoz as Leah – a teenager girl, who has started hanging out with the “goth” crowd following the death of her father. Their interest in the occult is somewhat comforting to her – interest in that implies there is an afterlife, so it provides some of the same comfort as religion does, but is “cooler”. Her mother, (Laurie Holden) isn’t doing well however – she cannot seem to get over the death of her husband, or reminders of him, so instead she decides to move an hour away from everything Leah knows, to a remote house in the middle of the woods (seems logical). One day in the car during an argument, her mother says something that infuriates Leah – so that night, she heads to the woods to call upon a spirit – Pyewacket – to punish her mother. It’s something – much like that séance in Veronica – which a grieving, angry teenager may well do, without meaning it. She almost immediately regrets it – but it’s too late, as the spirit makes their presence felt almost immediately.
Pyewacket is a slow burn of a horror movie – first getting us to care about Leah, and even her mother and her friends, and then working to scare us. I liked how the film shows the teenagers interest in the occult, and how confident they are all in how cool it – right up until they actually confront it in real life – Leah’s friends Janice (Chloe Rose) comes up to the house to try and observe what is actually happening, because she thinks it’s great – but the next morning, she’s hiding in the car, freaked out and wanting to go home.
Pyewacket makes great use of its setting to help deliver the scares – from the dark forest that surrounds there new home, to the attic that Leah repeatedly has to go to – either to try and figure out what that strange noise is, or to try and get away from it. The film is nicely subtle in the scares too – it doesn’t lead the audience as much with music or jump scares, but like the slow burn of the film itself, the scares are similarly subtle at first, and then mount as the film continues.
I would not argue with someone who felt the opposite of me – that Veronica was incredibly scary, and Pyewacket was too slow. Different strokes for different folks I guess. But to me, I was mainly bored by Veronica – a film that didn’t scare me, and felt like it was going through the motions. I was scared though by Pyewacket – enough that I really should go back and catch up with Adam Macdonald’s other horror film – Backcountry. He clearly has horror movie chops – and while Pyewacket isn’t overly original, it delivers. 

Movie Review: Small Town Crime

Small Town Crime *** / *****
Directed by: Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms.
Written by: Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms.
Starring: John Hawkes (Mike Kendall), Anthony Anderson (Teddy Banks), Octavia Spencer (Kelly Banks), Robert Forster (Steve Yendel), Clifton Collins Jr. (Mood), Jeremy Ratchford (Orthopedic), James Lafferty (Tony Lama), Michael Vartan (Detective Crawford), Daniel Sunjata (Detective Whitman), Don Harvey (Randy), Stefanie Scott (Ivy), Caity Lotz (Heidi), Dale Dickey (Leslie), Michelle Lang (Tina), Stefania Barr (Kristy), Victor Medina (Fredrico), Sean Carrigan (Julian), Adam Johnson (Oliver).
The new neo-noir film Small Town Crime stars John Hawkes as an alcoholic ex-cop, who will eventually decide that maybe becoming a private investigator would be more his speed. That way he can drink to excess, and not have to obey any of those pesky laws cops are supposed to follow. The film honestly feels almost like a pilot episode of the type of cop show you may see on AMC or FX or HBO – and may well be very good. Hawkes, in particular, is very good in the movie – he’s pretty much the whole reason to see the film, which otherwise feels rather one-dimensional, with a case at its core that frankly isn’t all that interesting or tricky to figure out. Still, if they announced today that yes, this really was just a pilot, and a new show was debuting soon – or that this was going to launch a series of Mike Kendall mysteries movies with Hawkes, I’d gladly watch the result.
Hawkes’ Mike Kendall is a drunk, who we first see passed out in his house, while outside his hot road is parked on the lawn, having mowed down the white picket fence surrounding it. All Kendall wants to do is get back on the police force – but that isn’t likely to happen, as he was drunk on duty when an shooting ending up killing three people, and while its debatable as to if the result would be different if he were sober, it’s still not a good look. He will happily keep cashing his unemployment checks and go drinking every night – especially since his adoptive sister Kelly (Octavia Spencer), and her husband (and Kendall’s drinking buddy) Teddy (Anthony Anderson) are willing to help cover the mortgage.
But things change early one morning when Kendall wakes up in the desert, and as he’s driving back to town, finds a young woman who has been brutally beaten, and left at the side of the road to die. He takes her to the hospital, where a couple of former colleagues thank Kendall, but tell him to stay out of the way of what becomes a murder investigation. Kendall, of course, will not – and eventually makes friends with the girl’s rich grandfather (Robert Forster), who isn’t happy that his granddaughter is dead, even if she had become a drug addicted prostitute. Eventually, Kendall will come in contact with more and more unsavory people, and a bigger conspiracy than he realizes.
To be honest, most of the plot of the movie seems to be on autopilot – a dead prostitute means eventually we’ll be introduced to other prostitutes, at least one pimp, and sooner or later, the rich men who want to keep their dalliances with said prostitutes quiet. You know the drill, and Small Town Crime doesn’t deviate from it. There are also characters here that don’t seem to make a lot of sense, and are often jettisoned for large chunks of the plot – like Octavia Spencer, too good for her pretty much meaningless, small role. The film, written and directed by brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms has an interesting character at its core, and not a lot else.
But that character is interesting, and in the role, John Hawkes delivers a fine performance. Hawkes has been around for years now – often playing morally compromised characters that you still feel a degree of sympathy with. He’s one of those guys who makes me think of Roger Ebert old Walsh/Stanton rule that said that “any movie that featured either M. Emmett Walsh or Harry Dean Stanton cannot be all bad”. We should probably hate Kendall, but we don’t – mainly because Hawkes keeps him so interesting. The rest of the movie is a by-the-numbers, indie neo-noir – well done as far as it goes, but nothing too exciting. Hawkes makes it better than it really has any business being.

Movie Review: Lego DC Superheroes: The Flash

Lego DC Comics Super Heroes: The Flash ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Ethan Spaulding.
Written by: James Krieg & Jeremy Adams based on the DC Comics characters.
Starring: James Arnold Taylor (The Flash / Barry Allen), Kate Micucci (Zatanna), Kevin Michael Richardson (Doctor Fate), Troy Baker (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Nolan North (Superman / Clark Kent / Kal-El / Killer Croc / Waylon Jones), Grey DeLisle (Wonder Woman / Diana Prince), Khary Payton (Cyborg / Victor Stone), Dwight Schultz (Reverse-Flash / Eobard Thawne), Eric Bauza (The Atom / B'dg / Jimmy Olsen), Tom Kenny (Plastic Man / Patrick 'Eel' O'Brian / The Penguin / Oswald Cobblepot), Phil LaMarr (Firestorm / Jason Rusch), Vanessa Marshall (Poison Ivy / Pamela Isley), Dee Bradley Baker (Captain Boomerang / Aquaman / Arthur Curry), Jason Spisak (The Joker), Audrey Wasilewski (Mayor).
No, I don’t usually review direct to video, animated film featuring superheroes, aimed at children. But my daughter has fallen in love with the DC Super Hero Girls, and as a result, the DC comic book heroes in general. Wonder Woman is her favorite – naturally – but through that, she has fallen for the others, and we have watched many of the DC Lego movies so far – the DC Super Hero Girls Brain Drain most often, but also a number of the Batman/Justice League ones. Their latest is The Flash, and its 78 minutes of mainly goofy, harmless fun. It doesn’t have the inventiveness or fun of something made for the big screen like The Lego Batman Movie – but it’s more entertaining than it probably should be.
In the film, The Flash meets his match when someone calling himself Reverse-Flash shows up (it’s easy to tell them apart, because Reverse-Flash wears the same costume as Flash, except they’ve the colors flipped red and yellow around). Reverse-Flash is from the future, and tricks Flash into repeatedly go back in time to live the same day over and over again – all so he can sever the Flash’s relationship with something called the Speed Force (don’t ask) and turn everyone against Flash and rob him of his powers. When Flash goes to get them back – going to the place where the Speed Force originated from – well, everyone learns some valuable lessons.
I’m not going to try and pretend this is a particularly good movie. It isn’t – it has the feel of exactly what it is – a direct-to-DVD/VOD animated film aimed at children. But it’s goofy fun, done with the same spirit as all the Lego movies – which don’t take themselves too seriously, and find some fun ways to tell the stories visually. You can call it cynical if you want to – especially since the movie throws in cameos from Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aqua Man, The Joker, Penguin, etc. – as a way to ensure that kid fans of those heroes/villains will also watch – and you wouldn’t really be wrong, but so be it. These movies work well for what they intended to do – which is to be the superhero movies you can show your younger children so they don’t have to deal with the violence of Wonder Woman (we’re getting closer to the age where we’ll let our oldest watch last year’s film – but aren’t there yet) or all the self-serious brooding of the rest of the DC cinematic universe. It’s goofy and silly and harmless, and given what some studios think is worth putting into theaters for kids (say, Sherlock Gnomes) better than it probably has to be in order to make money.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Movie Review: Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Roar Uthaug.
Written by: Geneva Robertson-Dworet & Alastair Siddons.
Starring: Alicia Vikander (Lara Croft), Dominic West (Lord Richard Croft), Walton Goggins (Mathias Vogel), Daniel Wu (Lu Ren), Kristin Scott Thomas (Ana Miller), Derek Jacobi (Mr. Yaffe), Hannah John-Kamen (Sophie), Nick Frost (Max).
A part of me admires the new Tomb Raider, which is, of course, a completely unnecessary and unasked for reboot of a movie franchise that died 15 years ago, and hasn’t once been brought up in a conversation since. All those years ago, it was Angelina Jolie as the ass-kicking, brilliant Lara Croft, who had to shoot people and solve puzzles in equal doses. Now it’s Alicia Vikander, who turns out to be shockingly perfect for the role, and carries the movie much farther than she should be able to. Throw in decent action direction by Roar Uthaug (getting his wish that was evident in his 2015 Norwegian film The Wave – which was to come to Hollywood to make big studio movies), who is refreshing more inspired by the likes of Spielberg than most current action directors, who seem to want to be Michael Bay for some reason (if you want to be generous, say Paul Greengrass instead). All this carries the movie farther than it should, considering how poorly plotted the film is, and how any character not named Lara Croft is basically one dimensional. Still, for this type of film, it’s better than it probably should be.
When the film opens, Lara isn’t the globe-trotting, ass-kicking, puzzle solver yet – but a young woman living in London, still angry at her father (Dominic West) for disappearing seven years previous. She could have him declared dead, and get a boatload of money out of the deal – he was very rich – but instead, she prefers to be poor – making her living as a bike courier (an early highlight is a terrific bike sequence with Lara as the fox in a fox hunt). But soon, Lara discovers a secret room of her fathers, full of research on Himiko – a Japanese queen, with secret, deadly powers. The video her dad left tells her to destroy everything about Himiko and move on with her life – so, of course, she does the exact opposite. She ends up teaming up with a drunken boat captain, Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), whose father also disappeared along with Lara’s, to travel to the remote, uninhabited Japanese island their fathers were travelling to all those years ago. What they find there is scary – not least because of Vogel (Walton Goggins), who has been stuck there for years, trying to find Himiko’s tomb, and whose bosses won’t let him leave until he does.
The film is basically a 1980s style action adventure film in the Indiana Jones vein, with Vikander proving herself to be a wonderful action star. Her chiseled body is admired throughout the film, but not in a creepy, leering sexual way. The same goes for her relationship with Wu’s Lu Ren – they have instant chemistry, but it’s not sexual – he’s not there to be a love interest, but their respect for each other is mutual. Throughout the sequences on the island, Vikander has to run, jump, swim, fight and shoot a bow and arrow, all of which she does so with style and grace. She even manages to sell the films more badly manipulative emotional moments, by not overplaying them. An Oscar winner for Ex Machina (what’s that you say, she won for The Danish Girl – sorry, you’re wrong), Vikander is proof that sometimes having a great actor in the lead role of an action movie can go a long way to saving it.
Basically though, the film eventually wears out its welcome. The film is rather obviously plotted, and really does drag to a halt whenever the characters have to sit around and talk about what’s happening, what just happened, or what will happen. Characters who are not Lara often get good introductions, but then the film doesn’t do much with them – witness the way they shunt Lu Ren to the side once they reach the island, in favor of Goggins’ villain – who makes a big impression in his opening scenes, and then not much afterwards.
Yet, when the film is basically Vikander and action sequences, it works just about as well as a film like this could. Yes, you can tell it’s based on a video game, because it kind of has that structure to it. But those moments work well enough that I’d look forward to another Vikander action vehicle – even a sequel to this – much more than I did for the second Lara Croft movie with Jolie all those years ago.

Movie Review: Veronica

Veronica ** / *****
Directed by: Paco Plaza.
Written by: Fernando Navarro and Paco Plaza.
Starring: Sandra Escacena (Verónica), Bruna González (Lucía), Claudia Placer (Irene), Iván Chavero (Antoñito), Ana Torrent (Ana), Consuelo Trujillo (Hermana Muerte), Ángela Fabián (Rosa), Carla Campra (Diana).
In horror films there is a difference between a slow burn and the downright bland – and while that difference can vary by viewer, I’d argue that the Spanish horror film Veronica is much more of the later. The film was released on Netflix earlier this month – after being on the festival circuit last fall – and after receiving some attention as a film Netflix claimed it was a film so scary that people couldn’t finish it. That, and the fact that I admired the first two [Rec] films co-directed by Paco Plaza who made this film, made me curious to check it out. Disappointingly though Veronica is basically a standard issue possession film, and one that hits basically every cliché imaginable during its runtime. The climax is pretty good – but it takes a long time to get there.
The film takes place in 1991 in Madrid (it is loosely based on a real case) and the title character, played by Sandra Escacena is a 15 year-old-girl, who basically has to act as a parent to her younger twin sisters, and much younger brother. Their father is dead, and their mother basically works non-stop at a local bar. It falls onto Veronica to get the kids up, feed them, get them to school, and then bring them home, feed them and put them to bed – all while going to school herself. One day, during an eclipse, she goes down to the basement of her school (spoiler alert – the basement is creepy) with her two friends and an Ouija board to try and contact her dad. She contacts something alright, as things go horribly awry, in a way that she basically does not remember. She spends the rest of the film is a mounting state of paranoia, as she starts having dark visions of a dark man in their apartment, threatening her siblings. Her mom doesn’t believe her and her best friend is creeped out by her because of what happened with the Ouija board. The only person who seems to give her any advice at all is an old, blind nun at the school – but she’s more on hand to provide some creepy moments during the long (long) hour between the Séance and the climax.
Basically, Veronica hits ever note you expect to see in a possession movie from the innocent girl introduction of Veronica, right up until the climax. As a movie like The Conjuring proved a few years ago, a gifted director can make those clichés feel fresh and scary again, but it takes some work. The best thing about Veronica is the lead performance by newcomer Sandra Escacena, who really does sell her mounting paranoia and terror, as well as her relationship with her siblings, that really is deeply felt and important to her. She’s a find for sure.
Other than a decent sense of place though, Plaza never really figures out to make much of the movie all that scary. I understand that he’s going for a slow burn here – gradually building up the tension before finally releasing it with the climax. But slow burns work when each scene builds on the last, and there are some genuinely unexpected moments in the film. That doesn’t really happen in Veronica, which has some okay individual scenes, but they don’t build on each other – and every moment is too neatly telegraphed in advance.
Yes, the climax mostly work – even if, like the rest of the movie, you know what’s coming before the film does. But other than that, Veronica is basically a dull, predictable horror film that plays out exactly how you expect it to. I suspect that some people turned it off on Netflix because they were bored.

Movie Review: Take Your Pills

Take Your Pills ** / *****
Directed by: Alison Klayman.
Alison Klayman’s Take Your Pills is an advocacy documentary that basically argues – not incorrectly – that as a society, we are over medicating our children – one drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, which is essentially speed. We get them hooked on the drugs, that help keep them alert and focused, with no real plan to ever get them off the drugs – and as a result, we have a society of children on the drugs, who grow into adults who are still on the drugs. The most striking moment in the film comes late, when a college senior says that when they get out into the world, they don’t think they’ll continue to use Adderall – that they’ll be able to leave work behind at work, not like in university where you have to stay up all night to study, and then immediately cuts to an adult who says he takes Adderall for work only, and if he didn’t have to work, he’d stop taking the drug. It’s a moment that rings true, because everyone is always coming up with excuses why they “need” something they want, but that at some point in the future, they will stop.
Had the film had more moments like that, it would probably work better than it ultimately does. My tolerance for this type of advocacy documentary usually is relatively low, and Take Your Pills is an example as to why they don’t work well for me. While director Alison Klayman at least gives people the opportunity to defend the use of these drugs – particularly doctors who don’t see a problem prescribing it, or in one ill-advised side story, a company who sells non-prescription versions of the drugs – it’s clear that Klayman doesn’t really agree with them, and rushes them off the screen rather quickly. She is, in effect, paying lip service to that side, while spending most of the rest of the time condemning the over prescription of the drugs. It’s a position that I happen to agree with – not every restless kid needs to be on the drug, and because so many kids are on it, it creates a culture where something as serious as giving your child a prescription drug on a permanent basis is seen as routine. Yet Klayman casts her net so wide in finding the stories of those effected, and the doctors and researchers who have something to say about it, the personal stories really do get lost. In the case of the trees getting lost for the forest.
That is a shame, because there are some interesting people in the documentary – the former NFL player, who started taking Adderall as a professional, and needed to get a doctor’s note, so it would be considered a performance enhancing drug for instance. Or the college artist who has been on it since third grade, and it bitter about it – and wants off of it, and his mother, who expressed at least some regret, while still defending that position. The movie has quick sequences dealing with use of the drug at university in general – where kids with prescriptions sell it to those who don’t or on Wall Street, where is has replaced cocaine as the stimulant of choice. All of these stories could be docs of their own – at least short ones – and perhaps would have been more interesting than Take Your Pills ends up being.
What we do get is a mountain of statistics thrown at us – and as much as Klayman tries to jazz up the style in those presentations, there is only so much you can do with, and a lot of doctors and researchers explaining the effects, the dangers, and how similar the drugs really are to meth. They even compare it to the opioid crisis in America.
The problem ultimately is though that Klayman doesn’t really find anything new here. This has been a well-documented problem for years now, so Klayman’s doc feels like it’s too little too late. There is some good stuff, but it’s buried under a mountain of good intentions.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Movie Review: Wild Wild Country

Wild Wild Country **** / *****
Directed by: Maclain Way & Chapman Way.
The recent glut of documentary series that span multiple episodes and many hours telling a single story has mostly been a blessing – giving filmmakers a chance to more fully explore complex subjects that a two or even three hour runtime couldn’t adequately handle. At their best – like Ezra Edelman’s astounding O.J. Made in America, the result can be a masterpiece – one of the best documentaries ever made. There can be downsides of course (something like The Keepers doesn’t earn its runtime), but for the most part, I am glad of this recent development. The best new doc series in this vein has to be Maclain and Chapman Way’s Wild Wild Country – which as the title implies really is a wild ride, telling the complex and extremely entertaining story of what happened when an Indian Guru – known as Bhagwan and his followers – known as the Rajneeshees – bought an expansive plot of land in remote Oregon, and built a massive community there.
The film has a traditional documentary feel – with a host of archival footage and news reports from the time (the early to mid-1980s), and modern interviews with many of the participants. From the Rajneeshees point of view, this new area was paradise. It was a large, rocky plot of land that no one was using – they exerted great effort and spent a lot of resources turning it in a community full of homes, restaurants, a massive hall used for worship and everything else you could imagine. The Bhagwan was extremely wealthy – he owned many Rolls Royce’s for example. Most of the money likely came from his followers – mostly white Americans or Europeans, some with a lot of money. They all came willingly, and they all wore red. This was either a glorious new religious movement or a cult depending on the way you looked at it.
Problems arise though when the Rajneeshees start angering the locals in the nearest town – Antelope, which doesn’t even have 100 people, and most of them are older, retirees. They, and other, Oregonians, don’t like the way the Rajneeshees are using the land – and want to force them out. The Rajneeshees respond by getting involved in local politics. What follows is absolutely crazy – and will eventually include mass poisoning, arson, assassination plots and massive American government bureaucracy exerting its will on the Rajneeshees.
Throughout it all, the Way brothers never really express their opinion on things – never really lead the audience in what to think. Certainly, you can understand the point-of-view of the Oregonians, who thought they were living in a small, sleepy town – only to be invaded by a loud, red clad horde, who believed in (and practiced) free love, and eventually essentially took over their town – buying everything they could, including the local diner (who local recalls how they went from frying bacon on the grill to bananas – and never went back). But it’s hard to argue with the Rajneeshees either that a lot of it was motivated by bigotry, and they were just trying to practice their religion – which they have every right to do. The most fascinating character in the whole series is undeniably Ma Anand Sheela, the Bhagwan’s personal secretary, who pretty much ran the commune for years, as the Bhagwan remained silent. She reveled in all the media attention she received – and she kept on receiving it because she gave fiery, often profane interviews. She is a lot calmed in the modern interviews with her now, but you still feel that same passion from her. She is also the catalyst for much of what happens. One wonders what would have happened without her – would the Rajneeshees been run out sooner, or would eventually they have been allowed to go about their lives?
The film runs in six parts, each lasting just over an hour – and it really does earn that runtime (in fact, you could argue it could just a little bit longer – it does feel like some of what happens is rushed). The Way brothers know what they’re doing here – the pacing never flags, which is accomplishment when dealing with some stuffy government bureaucrats explaining in detail what they were doing, and each part ends with perhaps a little too explosive of a cliffhanger to make sure you’ll keep watching – and it works (I may well have watched all six in a row had I not started part one at 11pm one night). Most retellings of this story, understandably, concentrate on some of the more explosive details – the mass salmonella poisoning for example – but by taking so much time, Wild Wild Country puts everything in context, and tells an wildly entertaining, strange story – and really is one of the best docs you will see this year.