Friday, August 31, 2018

My Mini TIFF Preview

TIFF opens next week, and yesterday I was able to redeem pick by 12 tickets for this year’s festival. It’s many good news – the system worked for me the first time, without problems – the first time that has ever happened – and for the most part, I got the films I wanted, given that I was only going to be there three days (the second Thursday-Saturday – which I prefer to the opening weekend, because things actually run on time) – really in each time slot, I only missed two of my top choices (Lee Chang Dong’s Burning and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters – but I got two good films to fill in, so I’m good). Will I trade some tickets in? Perhaps, but I doubt it, unless they add some screenings of things I cannot resist). On paper, this is the strongest lineup I’ve had in a few years – so I cannot wait,
Roma (Alfonso Cuaron) – TIFF made it easy to see one of my most anticipated films of the festival, by basically playing Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma every day of the fest – so there’s no excuse for missing this one. I cannot wait – Cuaron is a visionary director – Children of Men is still my favorite of his work, but the reviews of this coming out of Venice, imply perhaps I’ll have a new favorite soon. Yes, this will be on Netflix by year’s end – but Cuaron is the type of director whose work demands to be seen on the big screen.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan) – The reviews of this coming out of Cannes – where it played in the Un Certain Regard section, although according to some it was better than most of what was in the official selection – made this an easy choice when my original choice for this slot (Burning) was unavailable. Out of all the filmmakers whose new films I am seeing, this is the only one new to me – but I’m looking forward to it. Described as a tour de force, and an inventive film noir, I’m excited for this one.
22 July (Paul Greengrass) – Another Netflix film from a major auteur, this one generated controversy before they even started filming, as it about that horrific mass shooting in Norway, that left dozens of kids dead. This is an interesting choice for Greengrass – who is the exception that proves the rule when it comes to shaky camera and rapid fire editing – so I’m curious about it. I would rather they play the other film on the subject U – July 22, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival this year, and got good reviews, but Greengrass is a good enough filmmaker that I’m willing to give this the benefit of the doubt.
Widows (Steve McQueen) – It’s taken McQueen quite a while to follow-up 12 Years a Slave, and the previews make this look like a stylish audience pleaser – something McQueen has clearly not made before. But that cast – led by Viola Davis – is great, and I am an unabashed fan of Gillian Flynn, who co-wrote the screenplay. You need to see some audience pleasers in a festival like this to keep you going.
Hotel by the River (Hong Sang-soo) – I always like seeing the work of prolific Korean director at Hong Sang-soo at the festival – you never know if you’ll ever get a chance again (still waiting on On a Beach at Night Alone to come to some platform I can see). This one got good reviews out of Locarno – Hong’s favorite film festival – so I’m looking forward to going back to this world again – it’s like visiting old friends every year at the fest.
The Wild Pear Tree (Nuri Bilge Ceylon) – Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylon is one of the greatest filmmakers in the world – Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is my favorite, but you really cannot go wrong with any of his films (although the epic, Plame winning Winter Sleep isn’t the first film of his I would watch). This is another three plus hour opus from Ceylon that like. mainly got great reviews from the people whose opinion on Ceylon I normally agree with. Yes, it’s longer than I normally like to see at the fest, but Ceylon is worth it.
Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski) – Pawlikowski’s acclaimed follow-up to the Oscar winning Ida won him the Best Director prize at Cannes, and is another examination of Poland’s past, shot in gorgeous black and white. Other than that, and the fact that it’s a love story as well, I have avoided details on it (as I try to with everything I want to see) – but Pawlikowski is a talented filmmaker, whose work I like.
In Fabric (Peter Strickland) – As a big fan of Strickland’s last two features – Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, I’m down with whatever Strickland wants to do next. This one is part of the Midnight Madness program – I always try to see at least one from that lineup every year – and follows a haunted dress from person to person. Strickland always brings more to the material than it seems like he will – so this should be interesting.
Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhangke) – Chinese master Jia Zhangke’s films are always worth watching – A Touch of Sin is a masterwork, as are several of his earlier films (Platform, Still Life for example), and even when he makes flawed films (like his most recent Mountains May Depart) are always interesting. This one, of course, stars the great Tao Zhao and is a love story of sorts. Zhangke has never really broken through in North America – but he should. This probably won’t do it, but I like to see everything he does on the big screen.
Peterloo (Mike Leigh) – The great Mike Leigh is back for the first time since 2014’s Mr. Turner with this story of the Peterloo massacre – where the government killed pre-Democracy demonstrators in 1819. Leigh will likely be making some points about the modern world looking back on this, but no matter what, Leigh is a master whose films are always worth watching.
The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard) – I am not actually a huge fan of late-Godard (so everything he’s made for the past 50 years or so – those 1960s movies though are great). Having said that, all of his films are interesting, and I enjoyed Goodbye to Language 3-D when I saw it at TIFF a few years ago more than most of his other films. Godard is always going to inspire conversation, so I’m in.
Destroyer (Karyn Kusama) – My closing film of the fest will be Destroyer, Karyn Kusama’s film starring Nicole Kidman as a detective investigating a murder. All I needed to know to know this is a must see is that Kusama is directing, and Kidman is starring. I cannot wait.
So that’s it for me. I’ll be back after the festival, with a wrap up of what I’ve seen. If you going to TIFF, have fun! I know I will.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Movie Review: Let the Corpses Tan

Let the Corpses Tan *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani.
Written by: Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani based on the novel by Jean-Pierre Bastid & Jean-Patrick Manchette.
Starring: Marc Barbé, Bernie Bonvoisin, Dorylia Calmel, Stéphane Ferrara, Bamba Forzani Ndiaye, Dominique Troyes, Elina Löwensohn, Michelangelo Marchese, Pierre Nisse, Marine Sainsily, Tristan Schotte, Hervé Sogne, Aline Stevens.
There’s no doubt that the filmmaking team of Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani are an acquired taste. They don’t seem at all interested in such things as narrative, dialogue or characters – they boil cinema down to its bare essentially or visuals and sounds, and then put them through their own grinder to come with something unique. Their first two films – Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears – essentially boiled Giallo horror films down like this – coming up with visually arresting features, that left me both frustrated and impressed. Perhaps knowing their style helped me like their new film – Let the Corpses Tan – more than those ones. Perhaps sensing that their exploration of Giallo had reached its end, here, they take on Spaghetti Westerns and exploitation films – telling the story of a demented artist and her live-in lovers in a remote villa, who find themselves inundated with guests – firsts the wife of one of one her lovers, her sister and her son, then a team of bank robbers with a trunk full of gold, and finally the cops. The vast majority of the movie is one long shootout that lasts over the course of a long night. Characters double and triple cross each other, lots of blood is split, lots of leather is worn – god do these filmmakers love the weather leather clothing creaks and squeaks.
There is a limit to how far this style will take you – at least there is for me. I do love narrative and character and dialogue – but there is something freeing about watching a film in which none of that matters, and you can solely concentrate on the sensory experience of a film like this. Every frame, every sound effect has been obsessed over and fetishized. It’s a shame that most people will never see this film on the big screen (I saw it at TIFF, so I am lucky) – because I feel you need to large scale format of a screen, and the sound system to fully appreciate this movie (another reason I may like this more than their previous two – which I saw at home). Still, there is a point where they do start to repeat themselves too often – there’s just a few too many rapid fire edited sequences of gunfire, or creaking leather, or hallucination sequences, etc. The filmmakers, I think, sense this – which why they get in and out in 90 minutes, and not a second more.
It’s doubtful that Cattet & Forzani are ever going to have a breakout hit as long as they continue in their style. It’s too idiosyncratic and obsessed with detail, and doesn’t give most audience what they want in terms of genre fare. This movie isn’t about to win them any more fans – but for a certain film fan, it’s a must see. If you liked their first two films, and want to see them tackle a different genre, while keeping their fetishes in plain sight, than Let the Corpses Tan is for you. If you want minor things from a movie – like plot, dialogue or characters, look elsewhere.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Movie Review: The Happytime Murders

The Happytime Murders * / *****
Directed by: Brian Henson.
Written by: Todd Berger and Dee Austin Robertson.
Starring: Melissa McCarthy (Connie Edwards), Elizabeth Banks (Jenny), Maya Rudolph (Bubbles), Joel McHale (Agent Campbell), Leslie David Baker (Lt. Banning), Bill Barretta (Phil Philips), Mitch Silpa (Tommy), Colleen Smith (Cara), Barry Rothbart (Porn Fireman), Dorien Davies (Sandra), Pamela Mitchell (Topaz), Brian Palermo (Paramedic Mark), Drew Massey (Goofer – Vinny), Allison Bills (Carol), Victor Yerrid (Larry / Old Man / Catfish).
I really am at a loss for words on how The Happytime Murders could end being as awful a film as it is. Seriously, profanity spewing puppets who have sex and kill each other in explosions of fluff should be good for some laughs – and that’s before you add in a human star as consistently hilarious as Melissa McCarthy normally is. It’s an even a play on film noir, which is right up my alley, so it’s really a mystery as to how this film can be this remarkably awful.
The film takes place in L.A., and the main character is a former cop, now P.I., named Phil Philips (Bill Barretta), a three foot, blue puppet who was once the first – and only – puppet on the force. He was drummed out though when he missed a shot –and everyone, including his partner Connie Edwards (McCarthy) thought that “puppets won’t shoot their own kind”. Now he works as a P.I. – standing up for puppets, in a city where they are treated like second class citizens. His latest case starts as a blackmail case, when a puppet shows up with a note, and leads into a series of brutal murders of the cast members of the famous ‘90s sitcom – The Happytime Gang – right before they’re all going to get paid because of a syndication deal. One of those puppets is Phil’s own brother. Of course, Phil ends up re-partnered with Connie to solve the brutal killings.
The film was directed by Brian Henson – some of Jim – who knows a thing or two about puppets, and making movies. He directed the best Muppet movie – A Muppet Christmas Carol (that I watch every Christmas with my family), and while the puppets here are not Muppets, they might as well be – they certainly look like they could be. I am always amazed at the work puppeteers do to bring these characters to life – and if you want to say something good about the movie it would be that I don’t think you can blame them for the problems in the film.
The problem really stems for the fact that it seems like everyone involved thought that simply having puppets spew profanity, and have sex and explode in a cloud of fluff when shot, was inherently funny by themselves. I know that one of the inspirations for the film was Peter Jackson’s first film – Meet the Feebles, a profane take on the Muppet Show, that has one of the stars be a sex addict dying of AIDS, and had the tagline “Hell Hath No Fury Like a Hippo with a Machine Gun”, which gives you an idea on what Jackson was up to back then. I always liked Meet the Feebles – but even that film admittedly runs a little out of steam as it goes along (at least until the finale, which has the aforementioned hippo and machine gun). The Broadway musical Avenue Q had a similar outlook – a profane, sex drenched version of Sesame Street – and that was brilliant from beginning to end.
What both Meet the Feebles and Avenue Q have that The Happytime Murders doesn’t have though is something beyond the initial premise to make it funny. Yes, they both know that the sight of puppets fucking is funny – but they don’t just leave it at that.  The Happytime Murders is nothing more than a concept. I wouldn’t say the film is lazy – again, the work that goes into making those puppets work onscreen is anything but lazy – but it’s certainly lazily written and not thought through. You need to give the characters something to do or say that is also funny, not just swear, fuck and kill each other. I admire the cast, who give it their all – in particular McCarthy and Elizabeth Banks – even though they had to know this wasn’t going to work. And boy, does it ever not work. This is easily the worst film I have seen this year so far – and remember, I saw Show Dogs.

Movie Review: Who We Are Now

Who We Are Now **** / *****
Directed by: Matthew Newton.
Written by: Matthew Newton.
Starring: Julianne Nicholson (Beth), Zachary Quinto (Peter), Jess Wexler (Gabby), Lea Thompson (Alana), Jason Biggs (Vince), Jimmy Smits (Carl), Emma Roberts (Jess), Camila Perez (Maria). 
It’s always great to see a talented character actor get a lead role that they can really sink their teeth into – and show what they can do. Who We Are Now gives the wonderful Julianne Nicholson such a role, and she makes the most of it. Nicholson is always great in TV and movies – mostly in supporting roles, and small parts, including in recent years’ good turns in I, Tonya, Novitiate and August: Osage County. She often doesn’t get the attention grabbing roles, but she can always be counted on to do terrific work, even if it’s just in a few scenes. She is at the center of Who We Are Now – and relishes the opportunity to carry the movie on her shoulders. She doesn’t disappoint.
In the film, Nicholson plays Beth, a woman who has just got out of jail after 10 years on a manslaughter charge – the details of which, we will not receive until right near the end of the film. Before she went away, she signed away the parental rights of her baby boy Alec to her sister Gabby (Jess Wexler) and her husband. Now that she’s out, she wants at least partial custody – or at the very least, for her son to know who she is –he is under the impression that Gabby and her husband are his biological parents, and this is just Aunt Beth. Gabby isn’t so sure she can trust her sister – and is wary of her ruining her life once again. Because of the custody battle, we are introduced to Carl (Jimmy Smits), who runs a law group aimed at helping poor people – who is representing Beth – and more importantly Jess (Emma Roberts), one of his staff members, who comes from a rich family, but wants to make a difference instead of just making a lot of money. Eventually, the two women will bond.
Written and directed by Matthew Newton, Who We Are Now isn’t a perfect film by any means – in terms of its plot, it is a little paint by numbers (you are never really surprised by any of the revelations), and at times he relies too heavily on his actors delivering big speeches to tell you everything you need to know about them. Yet, for the most part, the cast is more than good enough to make even these moments work – especially Nicholson. Here, she is playing a wounded woman – ashamed of her past, but trying, desperately trying, to move into the future. Beth is not a vocal person – she tries hard to hide her emotions, bury them under a stern exterior, and cutting, dry wit. But she’s more fragile than she wants to admit – more vulnerable. It is a great role for Nicholson – who more than delivers.
The supporting cast is all in fine form as well – even if their roles aren’t as fleshed out. Roberts is fine as the rich girl, trying to decide for herself what she wants – although it’s still possible for her mother (Lea Thompson) to make her feel like child. Smits, as her wise mentor, is fine – although I wish he was given another note to play other than wise mentor. As a kind of love interest for Beth, Zachary Quinto is also fine – he’s a divorced vet, struggling with being home, being away from his kid, and perhaps, with his drinking. Jason Biggs is on hand to play an asshole in a couple of scenes – something he does quite well.
If Newton’s screenplay was a little less wordy, the movie would have the feel of real life. We cut into these people’s lives midstream, and leave them there as well – this isn’t a film that wraps everything up into a neat little package, which resolves everything definitely, and then ends. These people are, in many ways, a mess at the beginning of the film, and pretty much there at the end as well – they have taken steps in the right direction, but have not solved all their issues. Perhaps they’ll be fine, perhaps not. If there is an issue with the film, it’s that Newton does feel the need to spell everything out a little too clearly with dialogue – to give everyone theatrical monologues, instead of finding another way. Still, I think for the most part, Who We Are Now is a very good film, with a great central performance from Nicholson – which we can only hope isn’t the last time someone writes her a role this good again.

Movie Review: Upgrade

Upgrade *** / *****
Directed by: Leigh Whannell.
Written by: Leigh Whannell.
Starring: Logan Marshall-Green (Grey Trace), Melanie Vallejo (Asha Trace), Steve Danielsen (Jeff Handley), Abby Craden (Kara), Harrison Gilbertson (Eron Keen), Benedict Hardie (Fisk), Richard Cawthorne (Serk), Christopher Kirby (Tolan), Richard Anastasios (Wen), Linda Cropper (Pamela), Betty Gabriel (Detective Cortez), Emily Havea (Nurse Henderson), Ming-Zhu Hii (Dr. Diana Gordon), Simon Maiden (Stem), Sachin Joab (Dr. Bhatia), Clayton Jacobson (Manny)
Perhaps there is a truly great science fiction movie lurking inside the premise of Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade – but if there is, Whannell doesn’t seem too interested in exploring it. Rather, he uses his rather ingenious premise as a jumping off point to make a gory, B-grade revenge film, and while no one could mistake it for high art, if taken in the spirit intended, than it’s still a lot of fun to watch the film, as it gets increasingly insane, and increasingly bloody. We probably shouldn’t expect Whannell – writer of the original Saw, and co-writer of the Insidious series, to get bogged down in big ideas – and perhaps we don’t want him to either. He knows precisely what he wants Upgrade to be – and if that isn’t overly ambitious, well, it also doesn’t suffer from delusions of grandeur either.
In the near future, machine control almost our entire lives (sounds like the present to me, but I digress). Technophobe Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) prefers to work with his hands though – on stuff like old cars, that don’t have all that techno-crap. One of his clients is Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), the head of the biggest tech company in the world though, so when Grey and his wife are attacked by a group of people with guns implanted into their bodies, leaving his wife dead, and Grey a quadriplegic, Eron reaches out to him. His newest technology – called Stem – can be implants in Grey – and allow him to walk again. Of course, he’ll have to keep it a secret – you cannot just implant this type of stuff in people without years of testing (apparently these people didn’t see Kirby Dick’s The Bleeding Edge). Once Stem is inside Grey, it does indeed give him the ability to move again – and lots of other things as well. Grey and Stem become an unstoppable killing machine – and you know who Grey is going after. But Stem also keeps learning, and becomes increasingly powerful to boot.
Upgrade is schlock. There is no way around it – the film is pure b-movie madness in which the first killing that Grey and Stem do nearly takes off someone’s head in a splatter of blood – and is downright tame compared to the rest of the film. Whannell could, undeniably, have made a film that explores man’s relationship with machines, the dangers of technology and playing God, etc. – but he isn’t interested in that. He wants to kill people in increasingly cool, increasingly bloody ways. Mission accomplished.
The movie works basically because everyone knows precisely what kind of movie they are in, and what is required of them. Marshall-Green is fine as the everyman (even if, every time I see him, I cannot help but think of him as the poor man’s Tom Hardy) – and the rest of the cast, from Gilbertson as techno-nerd who invention gets away from him, to Benedict Hardie as Fisk, leader of the tech gang who killed Grey’s wife, play their roles to the hilt as well. Whannell doesn’t dwell too long on how any of this is supposed to work – preferring instead to get to the killings, and not let up.
Up until now, Whannell’s career behind the camera (he’s an actor too), has mainly been tied to director James Wan – who directed Saw and Dead Silence and Insidious, all written by Whannell. This is his second film as director – after Insidious: Chapter III – and it’s good see him out of Wan’s shadow for once (there is, for sharp eyed viewers, a reference to Wan in the film). Wan has established himself as one of the premiere directors of horror working in America today – mainly with The Conjuring, its sequel and Insidious. He has now moved onto blockbuster – with the Furious Seven and the upcoming Aquaman, and we’re all the poorer for it. Whannell though doesn’t seem so quick to leave the bloody world of horror and B-movies behind him. While he isn’t the director Wan is – Upgrade is a significant improvement over his last film, and makes me curious as to what he’ll do next. This is small budget, genre filmmaking done right.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Movie Review: Madeline's Madeline

Madeline's Madeline **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Josephine Decker.
Written by: Josephine Decker and Donna di Novelli.
Starring: Helena Howard (Madeline), Miranda July (Regina), Molly Parker (Evangeline), Okwui Okpokwasili (Nurse, KK), Sunita Mani (Assistant Max), Felipe Bonilla (Santos, Cousin Elmer), Lisa Tharps (Laura), Curtiss Cook (George), Reynaldo Piniella (Jaime), Myra Lucretia Taylor (Kaila). 
I watched both of director Josephine Decker’s first two films back-to-back when they were released on Fandor back in 2014 – Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Lovely and Mild – and thought that while both of them were flawed, they showed real talent – particularly in their form, more than their narrative. Decker’s strange shooting style, and intuitive editing, were fascinating, as was her sense of place. But neither film was all that good on a narrative level – they were better at building mood, than telling a story, or exploring its characters. In her follow-up, Madeline’s Madeline, all those problems are gone – and what we’re left with is a stunning film – a coming of age drama about a teenage girl, torn between two mother figures, which blends fact and fiction, and questions the ethics of doing just that, as it proceeds down the line. It will, undoubtedly, be a frustrating film for some viewers – those who want a clearly narrative, more answers, and more traditional storytelling. But if you go along with the film, it’s quietly stunning – especially when it gets to the end of the film.
Madeline (Helena Howard, giving a remarkable debut performance) is a 16-year-old girl living in New York with her mother, Regina (Miranda July) and her brother. She is the youngest member of an experimental theater group, run by Evangeline (Molly Parker) – who is working on a new work – although it seems to change from rehearsal to rehearsal as to what it is about. While the two older women are rarely in the same place together with Madeline, they are both clearly struggling for some kind of control over her – wanting Madeline to be a certain way. Neither of them are probably good for her, and I’m not even sure a combination will work. There is talk about Madeline’s health – mainly in the background, mentions of being institutionalized. Madeline is also clearly bi-racial – but her (presumably) black father is nowhere to be seen, although he has left behind all his stuff in a basement. It’s telling that the two women wrestling for control over Madeline are both white – and how Madeline’s own race is barely mentioned. It’s still pivotal to the movie, whether it’s talked about or not.
The performances in the movie are remarkable – which is even more amazing when you think of the style of the movie, and how the actresses had to work. This is a world that Miranda July knows well – one of performance art, and indie films – and she is excellent as the nervous, over-protective mother, who while she is understandably worried for her daughter, also is helping her very much by treating her like a child. It’s easy to see why Madeline is initially so taken with Evangeline – who is a freeing influence, someone who wants Madeline to express her, to show everyone who she is. But as the movie moves along, it’s becomes increasingly clear that Evangeline is exploiting Madeline – the work the group is doing becomes more and more about Madeline, her pain, her relationships, the violence inside her, etc. At what point does collaboration turn into exploitation?
This is a key question, because Decker herself worked very closely with Helena Howard on developing the movie. She is, in a way, a version of Evangeline – albeit one who recognizes this question, and questions it, which is something Evangeline does not do. Decker’s process also allowed Howard to deliver the remarkable performance she does in the film – as Madeline takes control of the narrative.
The style of Madeline’s Madeline will alienate some people. The images are beautiful, but not in a traditional way. The editing is ragged, and intuitive. All of it is designed to place us inside Madeline’s head, even as the movie doesn’t attempt to fully explain her – we get the sense of what it’s like to be her. It can be, admittedly, maddeningly at times – and it takes a while to get on the films wavelength. And yet, by the end, I was enthralled. When I saw Decker’s first two films, I could see the talent there – I just didn’t quite think the movies were fully realized. With Madeline’s Madeline, she truly does announce her as a massive talent.

Movie Review: Disobedience

Disobedience *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Sebastián Lelio.
Written by: Sebastián Lelio & Rebecca Lenkiewicz based on the novel by Naomi Alderman.
Starring: Rachel Weisz (Ronit Krushka), Rachel McAdams (Esti Kuperman), Alessandro Nivola (Dovid Kuperman), Allan Corduner (Moshe Hartog), Anton Lesser (Rav Krushka), Nicholas Woodeson (Rabbi Goldfarb), David Fleeshman (Yosef Kirschbaum), Steve Furst (Dr Gideon Rigler), Bernice Stegers (Fruma Hartog).
There are essentially two stories going on in Sebastian Lelio’s Disobedience, and one of them is more interesting than the other. On the surface, it is a story about Ronit (Rachel Weisz), the daughter of a powerful Rabbi, in an insular, Orthodox community in London, who returns after years away upon her father’s death. She couldn’t take it inside the community, didn’t want to get married, and pump out children – so she has fled to New York, and not looked back. That is a story we’ve seen before – maybe not in the specifics, but certainly in the broad outlines – someone returns home to find the ways things have changed – and the ways in which they haven’t. But in Disobedience, I think it’s really just a way to get us, as outsiders, inside that community – because the far more fascinating story is that of Esti (Rachel McAdams) – Ronit’s childhood friend, who has stayed in the community, and married Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), a Rabbi who as a child Ronit’s father took in and taught, likely in part because, for reasons unexplained in the film, Ronit was an only child. There was a secret/not-so-secret relationship between Ronit and Esti as teenagers – one that they have both let go of in some ways, but when they come back together, the tension is palpable. Esti’s story is far more fascinating that Ronit’s.
This is Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s third film in a row centered on women, his first in English, and like the previous two – Gloria and the Oscar winning A Fantastic Woman – you could describe the film as a low-key melodrama, that is short on narrative, and long on character. The film is full of emotions, and yet they very rarely bubble to the surface. This is because of the insular community in which it takes place – a world in which everyone is quiet and polite, but also strict. There is a way you do something, and you do not deviate. An early scene, in which Ronit finds herself surrounded by people she knew, and was once close to, is very telling. They are all openly critical of her, but in such a quiet, almost polite way. They pity her more than anything else – her lifestyle is wrong, but they don’t ever quite come out and say that. A lot of movie the movie takes place during scenes like this – scenes where people talk, but are not saying what they really mean. It wouldn’t be proper.
The only time characters really speak openly is when Ronit and Esti are together, alone. Even then, it takes a while – they talk around the elephant in the room for a long time, before they actually really talk about it at all. The sex scene between the two stars has been much discussed. It is, it must be said, erotic and sexy – but it’s more than that. It reveals who they are – especially Esti – as people far more than anything they say to each other.
What is refreshing about the movie is that it is a film about an oppressive religion – one that basically forces Esti to marry Dovid to “cure” her of being gay – and yet it sees the people in that religion as people – especially Dovid. It would be easy to make him into a villain – a symbol of the oppressive patriarchy, but he isn’t really that. Much hinges on the sermon about Free Will that the Rabbi was giving when he died – and which Dovid continues at a key scene late in the film, which reads two different ways. Also refreshing is that the affair between Ronit and Esti isn’t really portrayed as a grand, forbidden romance for the ages. It helps both women to figure out who they are – but their futures are not going to be intertwined.
Perhaps the film is a little too quiet, too subdued for its own its good. It is certainly too long for a movie where not a lot happens. You can only make things left unsaid until they finally are, dramatic for so long, and in the middle of the movie, you do kind of wish they’d just get on with it. But mostly, the film is quite good – intelligent, well-acted and well-made. No, it’s not quite the film A Fantastic Woman was – but it’s another solid film by Leilo.

Movie Review: What Keeps You Alive

What Keeps You Alive *** / *****
Directed by: Colin Minihan.
Written by: Colin Minihan.
Starring: Hannah Emily Anderson (Jackie), Brittany Allen (Jules), Martha MacIsaac (Sarah), Joey Klein (Daniel), Charlotte Lindsay Marron (Young Jackie). 
Jules and Jackie seem like a happy couple when we first meet them – although the fact that they are heading up to a secluded cabin in the woods for the weekend – to celebrate their one-year-anniversary should be a red flag, as no couple in movie history has ever headed up to a remote cabin for the weekend, and had things go well. Since you walk into the movie knowing it’s a horror film, you know something is going to go wrong – and of course, it inevitably does. What Keeps You Alive is a stylish and entertaining horror film, which kind of switches gears half way through. Both halves have their problems, but both halves have their strengths as well. It’s not an altogether successful film – but its ambitions, style and two fine performances, make it worth your time just the same.
In the film, Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) head up to the family cabin of Jackie for a long weekend. At first things seem fine, but it doesn’t take long for a sense of unease to set in. An old friend of Jackie’s stops by the cabin – it hasn’t been used in a while, and the lights were on, so she was curious. But she doesn’t call Jackie by her name – she uses a different name. This makes Jules suspicious, but Jackie has an explanation that makes at least some plausible sense. This is a pattern that repeats itself through the first half – something odd about Jackie pops up, Jules is suspicious, but Jackie has an explanation. Because Jules loves Jackie, she finds herself questioning herself – why can’t she trust the woman she loves. Surely, it is Jules herself that has something wrong with her, not Jackie. (Spoilers below).
The second half of the film kicks off with a bang though – when Jules finds out just how wrong she was – when Jackie, suddenly and without warning, pushes her off a cliff. She ends up at the bottom, supposedly dead, but like all good women in horror films, not quite. Thus begins a cat and mouse game between the two women – with one trying to survive, the other trying to kill her. The only other characters are that old friend of Jackie’s – and her husband – who come by for dinner one night.
Both halves of the film work, although to be honest, both have problems. In the first half, it’s all about tension building – as Jackie is gas lighting Jules in ways that the audience can sense more than Jules can – she is blinded by love, and wants to believe Jackie, and we aren’t (we also have the benefit of knowing we’re watching a horror movie, and Jules doesn’t know she’s in one). It strains credibility a bit just how many red flags are shot up – and how many Jules just bats away, but for the most part it works. The second half has some gapping logic holes in it (many of them surround Sarah, the old friend, who apparently always thought Jackie was a psychopath, although up until the point her husband announces this to Jackie, we’re given no indication that Sarah actually feels this way). You also have to question Jules’ action late in the film, which are the actions that only make sense if you want to give the movie the satisfying conclusion it has, and not care how you get there. It’s also a little disappointing that when it comes right down to it, the only explanation we’re given for Jackie is that she’s a psychopath, who was playing a really, really long game here.
Yet flaws aside, What Keeps You Alive is a stylish movie throughout – making great use of its Northern Ontario locations to increase the scares, without really resorting to cheap jump scares too often. Allen’s performance in particular is excellent as a version of the “final girl” trope, but this one given a little more depth than normal. For her part Anderson is good as Jackie – but once she goes into psycho mode, there’s not a lot of nuance there. I do think the apparent last minute change, when an actor dropped out of that role, to make it two women adds an extra dimension to the film – and its refreshing to see a film about gay characters that isn’t about them being gay.
Overall, What Keeps You Alive is a good enough horror film that it makes me want to see whatever Writer/director Colin Minihan (as well as actress Brittany Allen) do next. This is a good film whose flaws are readily apparent, but doesn’t sink the whole film.

Movie Review: Dark River

Dark River ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Clio Barnard.
Written by: Clio Barnard and Lila Rawlings based in part on the novel by Rose Tremain.
Starring: Ruth Wilson (Alice), Mark Stanley (Joe Bell), Sean Bean (Richard Bell), Esme Creed-Miles (Young Alice), Aiden McCullough (Young Joe), Shane Attwooll (Tower), Steve Garti (Jim), Una McNulty (Susan Bell), Dean Andrews (Matty), Jonah Russell (Pete), Paul Roberson (Declan). 
There is so much to admire about Clio Bernard’s Dark River, that I just wish the filmmaker had a found an interesting story to tell – or at least a unique angle on her themes – to really tie the movie together. Barnard, whose first two films are the almost the almost avant-garde documentary The Arbor, and the neo-realist The Selfish Giant, were both unique, arresting and ultimately devastating films. Dark River is her most conventional film to date, and also her most disappointing. Up until now, she has mainly avoided the type of indie movie clichés that could make her films the kind of dark, parade of misery that Dark River ends up being. Yes, there is a fine central performance in the film, and Barnard has a great sense of place with the film. But the film just never really rises up from cliché – the story is so slight, it’s barely there – and its place is a lot of long, sad looks.
The talented Ruth Wilson stars in the film as Alice, an Irish farmer who hasn’t returned to her home in 15 years, but is now going because her father (Sean Bean) has just died. He had promised her the tenement farm that he worked for years when he passed, and she plans to collect it. When she returns though, she finds her brother, Joe (Mark Stanley) still there – and he’s not too happy to see his sister. He knows what went on when they were children – things we see in the form of slowing opening doors, and Bean (who I’m not sure says a word in the film) creeping into his daughter’s bed – but they don’t talk about it. They don’t talk about very much at all actually. He spends almost the entire film pissed off, and she spends it almost paralyzed in fear – she cannot enter her old house without having flashbacks.
Therein lies the problem with Dark River – once it establishes its basic, barebones plot and its characters, it doesn’t really have any place to go with them. I do think Wilson does a very good job playing a woman who is trying to overcome her fears – tired of running away for her past, she is determined to return and make the farm – which her father and brother didn’t take care of – work again. She is more than capable of running the farm – populated by sheep, that the film more than once symbolically slaughters – but Joe fights her at every turn.
As a director, I think Barnard does a good job at many things in the film. The performances are good, even if the actors are playing them with one hand tied behind their backs since the film never lets them really explain what they’re doing or why. She also has an excellent sense of place – the dark, ominous clouds, the dreary drabness of the farm. Barnard has always excelled at putting working class people on screen – and she does so here again.
But her screenplay really lets her down here. The siblings are either fighting with each other, or looking at each other in silence. When they finally do speak, its pretty much too little too late, but at least they clear the air somewhat. The final scenes of the movie don’t really add up like they should – Barnard is milking them for maximum impact, but it’s just too little, too late.
I still think Barnard is an excellent filmmaker – The Arbor is an underseen gem that I wish more people would track down, and The Selfish Giant is quite good as well. This one shows she is a filmmaker with talent – but the material here just needed something a little bit more to turn it into something fuller, more complete, more satisfying.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Movie Review: Makala

Makala *** / *****
Directed by: Emmanuel Gras.
There is a lot of beauty to Emmanuel Gras’ Makala – a documentary about one man in the Congo who makes and sells charcoal to earn his modest living. The film never explicitly mentions the extreme poverty it portrays, and doesn’t dwell on it either – preferring to let shots of the family grilling rats, or talking about their extremely modest goals speak for themselves. Instead, Gras and his camera focuses on Kabwita Kasongo, and the enormous amount of work that goes into everything he does to make his business work. First he has to cut down an enormous tree, then he chops it into smaller pieces. Next, he’s got to turn those pieces into charcoal – a long, hit process. He then loads up his aging bike with bulging sacks full of that charcoal, so he can push that bike 50 km, by himself, to town – where he has to deal with people trying to scam him on entry to the town, and then has to negotiate the prices with the locals, all of whom tell him he’s crazy for how much he wants for his charcoal (some still buy though).
Gras doesn’t fetishize poverty – but he does find beauty in his film. The centerpiece section of the film – that long, slow journey pushing his bike, is beautifully shot with Steadicam, and focus almost exclusively on Kabwita the whole time – pushing in on his face, and showing as the sweat streams off of him. The film cannot help but admire him, and the sheer determination and hard work it takes him to make that journey. Gras seems to be saying that if Kabwita can make that journey, than he and his camera will as well, capturing every moment – and the least the audience can do is watch. It is quietly mesmerizing – Kabwita barely utters a word during this time, although at others, he will talk a lot.
I’m not going to tell you that Makala is the most entertaining or riveting documentary you can watch. It is not, and nor is it trying to be. What it wants to do is show the extremes that some people in this world have to go for simple survival. Kabwita has to do so much, for so little – his dream of building a new home, with a metal roof, seems almost completely out of reach for him – especially when we find out how much those metal sheets cost. Yet, the film is not depressing or hopeless either. You have to admire Kabwita and his determination to do what he does – and if he doesn’t feel sorry for himself, than we shouldn’t either.
I will say, I’m not exactly sure what the lengthy sequence at the end of the film is there for – after Kabwita has finally sold his load, and before he heads home, he stops by a church service – one that stretches on for minutes on end, and shows many people – of which Kabwita is just one – preying to, and thanking God. Is the whole movie a religious tract in disguise – or is this just another part of Gras’ determination to show Kabwita and his world? I’m honestly not sure, but it comes at the end of a film that as dull as it sounds (and honestly, sometimes is), still got to me.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman ***** / *****
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee based on the book by Ron Stallworth.
Starring: John David Washington (Ron Stallworth), Adam Driver (Flip Zimmerman), Topher Grace (David Duke), Laura Harrier (Patrice Dumas), Ryan Eggold (Walter Breachway), Jasper Pääkkönen (Felix Kendrickson), Paul Walter Hauser (Ivanhoe), Ashlie Atkinson (Connie Kendrickson), Robert John Burke (Chief Bridges), Brian Tarantina (Officer Clay Mulaney), Arthur J. Nascarella (Officer Wheaton), Ken Garito (Sergeant Trapp), Frederick Weller (Master Patrolman Andy Landers), Michael Buscemi  (Jimmy Creek), Damaris Lewis (Odetta), Ato Blankson-Wood (Hakeem), Corey Hawkins (Kwame Ture), Dared Wright (Officer Cincer), Faron Salisbury (Officer Sharpe), Victor Colicchio (Steve), Paul Diomede (Jerry), Danny Hoch (Agent Y), Nicholas Turturro (Walker), Harry Belafonte (Jerome Turner), Alec Baldwin (Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Mr. Turrentine).
Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is the year’s angriest, most provocative film – and also one of the funniest and most entertaining. Lee has the skill to craft both of those things, and somehow bring it together into a coherent whole. The film takes place in the 1970s, in Colorado Springs, and yet from the beginning, Lee makes it clear he is talking about today, 2018, as much as he is talking about the 1970s. The film is meant to provoke and prod you – make you uncomfortable – to borrow a phrase from many earlier films, this is another “Wake Up” call from Lee. And its wrapped in a package that is as entertaining as anything as Lee has ever made. It’s a masterpiece.
In the 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, showing his father’s charisma) wants to become a cop in Colorado Springs. They have never had a black cop before, but for the sake of optics, they want one. His interview is uncomfortable, as he is told that he would be the Jackie Robinson of the CSPD, and they would expect him to turn the other cheek like Robinson did – even if a fellow officer called him a nigger. “Would that happen?” Stallworth asks. If I tell you one of the interviewers is Isiah Whitlock Jr., you know what the answer is.
They stick him in the records room, but Stallworth hates it. He gets his chance to move up, when Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins, great in his one scene) is coming to town to make a speech – and for obvious reasons, Stallworth is the only officer who can attend and draw not attention. There he meets the leader of the Black Student Union, Patrice (Laura Harrier) – and a tentative romance starts between the two of them, complicated by the fact that she (justly) think the police are racist, and the fact that he cannot tell her who he really is. This gets Stallworth moved up to undercover work – which will start the assignment that takes up the rest of the film. Seeing an ad for the KKK, Stallworth calls the number, spouts off a lot of racist rhetoric, and gets himself invited for a face-to-face – which obviously he cannot attend. Enlisting a white officer, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a non-practicing Jew to play Stallworth in the in person meetings. The real Stallworth keeps up the talk on the phone – getting so far as to talk to the leader of the KKK, David Duke (Topher Grace) on the phone.
Lee almost splits the movie in two. The scenes on the phone between Stallworth and KKK members – particularly Duke – are almost played for laughs, despite the racism being spewed. There is something undeniably funny to see a black man like Washington, spewing out that racism (Dave Chappelle knew this well, more than a decade ago, when he created the blind KKK member who doesn’t know he’s black). Stallworth is playing the KKK for fools, and they unwillingly play along with him. Stallworth is also given scenes with Patrice – she has drawn the attention of the KKK, and they have reason to think she, and their group, will be a target at their next major speech. As tough as all this is on the real Stallworth, there is also joy there – and a life outside of the investigations.
Driver’s Flip is given none of that – and it makes him perhaps the most fascinating character in the film. There’s no real, immediate danger for the real Stallworth on the phone, but Zimmerman faces it each and every time he meets with the group – one of whom, Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), who is truly frightening, has Zimmerman pegged as a Jew from the start, and never really lets up. Zimmerman has to spew the same vile rhetoric Stallworth does, and do it face to face. He is someone who has never really thought about being Jewish – he is, but it was never a big deal in his life. Now he is, of course, forced to deal with it on a larger level than ever before. While Stallworth’s scenes are often funny, despite the racism on display, Zimmerman’s scenes never cease to be anything but truly frightening.
All of this comes to a head, of course, in one of the best sequences Lee has ever directed. First, there is the scene where he intercuts a speech about the lynching of a young black man in 1916, told by a legend, with a scene of the KKK gathering together to watch D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) – which they cackle and laugh through. This isn’t the first time Lee has took direct aim at Griffith’s “masterpiece” – not even the first time he’s done so in this film (he opens the film with a scene from Gone with the Wind, and then cuts over to Alec Baldwin, playing someone called Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (a shot at Jeff Sessions perhaps?) giving a vile speech about integration, which uses a lot of footage from Griffith’s film). Griffith, and his film, has been a long time target of Lee’s – with justification of course, as the film is vile in ways that the technological and storytelling advances Griffith’s film had in no way justifies or excuses. In this film, Lee is using the film against itself – and indicting those watching.
He indicts others as well. Throughout the film, there is an unmistakable rhetoric being spouted by the more “moderate” members of the KKK like Duke, that sound deliberately like the rhetoric used by the current occupant of the White House. To make this even clearer, there is a scene where an officer lays out precisely how people like Duke are going to move away for deliberately racist language – no one likes to be called racist – and couch their racism is kinder, gentler, less provocative terms, but the outcome will be the same. “But America would never elect someone like that President?” Stallworth asks, and is told that it is an incredibly naïve thing for a black man to say.
Lee drives home the point one last time in his closing – just when you think he wasn’t going to use his “people mover” shot, he does (it’s one of his best uses of it) and then cuts to footage from last year’s Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally – and the response from both the President, and modern day David Duke. I know there will be some who say that Lee perhaps could have – and should have – been more subtle. But subtly isn’t Lee’s style – it never has been – and he’s going to ensure no one can leave the theater thinking he has made a movie about America’s racist past, and remark on how far the country has come since then. The effect of that footage is overwhelming, and ends this masterpiece on the perfect note. This is one of the very best films of 2018 – and one of the very best of Lee’s career.

Movie Review: The Meg

The Meg ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Jon Turteltaub.
Written by: Dean Georgaris and Jon Hoeber & Erich Hoeber based on the novel by Steve Alten.
Starring: Jason Statham (Jonas Taylor), Bingbing Li (Suyin), Rainn Wilson (Jack Morris), Cliff Curtis (James 'Mac' Mackreides), Winston Chao (Dr. Minway Zhang), Shuya Sophia Cai (Meiying), Ruby Rose (Jaxx Herd), Page Kennedy (DJ), Robert Taylor (Dr. Heller), Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (The Wall), Jessica McNamee (Lori), Masi Oka (Toshi). 
A movie featuring Jason Statham fighting a giant prehistoric shark should be a lot more fun than The Meg ends up being. The back half of the film is the kind of over-the-top goofy fun that you expect it to be, but the film takes a little too long to get going, choosing instead to spend a lot of time on characters and their relationships that we don’t really care about – we just want to see a giant shark killing people, before Statham finds a way to beat him in hand-to-fin combat. The film delivers that to be sure, but it takes a while to get there.
In The Meg, Jason Statham plays the character he always plays – a grizzled man of action. When we first meet this version, named Jonas, he is doing a deep sea rescue where he manages to save 11 people – but leaves two people behind, because something BIG is attacking the submerged submarine. 5 years later, he’s burnt out, filled with regret, and drinking his days away on a Thai beach. That is where the team of Man1 – a huge underwater scientific research facility, bankrolled by billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) finds him – and drags him back into action. The group of scientists have discovered there’s actually a whole different undersea world underneath the Marianas Trench – and three people, including Jonas’ ex-wife, are trapped down there. And wouldn’t you know it, something big is down there. Jonas goes on the rescue mission, but that something big follows them back as well. Of course, that something big is Megalodon – a giant shark, thought to be extinct for 2 million years. And it’s going to eat everyone and everything it comes in contact with – unless Jonas can stop it.
There are other characters of course. Statham needs a love interest, and it isn’t his ex-wife. Instead it’s Suyin (Bingbing Li), a scientist at the facility, with an adorable 8-year-old daughter. Like Jonas, she is a woman of action – unafraid to put her life on the line at any and all times to save others – and take on the giant shark. There are more people – they need shark bait after all – on board as well.
I do appreciate somethings about The Meg. Director Jon Turteltaub waits a while before showing us the shark at all – a refreshing change from most modern blockbusters, who seem to think we need to see the special effects in the first few minutes or we’ll get bored. Turteltaub also plays with jump scares a little – sometimes setting us up to expect something, only to deliver something slightly different. You wouldn’t think that a 75-foot shark could sneak up on people, but apparently, you’d be wrong.
The problem really is that in that period that Turteltaub isn’t showing us the shark, he isn’t really showing us anything at all. Not a lot happens in the first half of the movie – just a lot of very intense exposition dialogue, as he has to setup conflicts between people, only to resolve them fairly quickly and in an unsatisfying manner. It feels like the film is treading water for the first half, waiting to get to the good stuff.
The good stuff, when it happens, is fairly good. The scenes are ridiculous of course, but that’s what you’re signing up in a Jason Statham shark movie. Nothing rivals the pure guilty pleasure of something like Deep Blue Sea – the best movie of this sort – but it eventually mostly delivers the goods. Too bad it takes too long to get there. You’re better off coming in at the half way point.

Movie Review: On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach *** / *****
Directed by: Dominic Cooke.
Written by: Ian McEwan based on the novel.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan (Florence Ponting), Billy Howle (Edward Mayhew), Emily Watson (Violet Ponting), Anne-Marie Duff (Marjorie Mayhew), Samuel West (Geoffrey Ponting), Adrian Scarborough (Lionel Mayhew), Bebe Cave (Ruth Ponting).
Not all good books are destined to become good movies. Books can do things that film never could, and films can do things books never could. Ian McEwan’s slender novella On Chesil Beach is probably a book that should not have been adapted – as internal a work of fiction as it is, it’s hard to dramatize it and have the same effect it has on the page. The fact that Dominic Cooke’s film version works as well as it does is a testament to everyone involved in making the film – McEwan himself, who wrote the screenplay – but that doesn’t stop the movie from being a pale comparison to the source material.
It’s the early 1960s, and the sexual revolution hasn’t quite happened yet – or at least it hasn’t reached the conservative young people at the heart of the novel. Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) has just graduated college, with a music degree, and wants to make great music with her string quintet. She meets, and falls in love with Edward Mayhew (Billy Howie), another recent graduate, and although his family isn’t in the same class as Florence’s, their romance grows and blossoms into a marriage proposal, and what we are told is a tasteful ceremony. We meet them after all that though, on their wedding night, in a posh hotel on the beach. It will be the day they first have sex – something they are looking forward to in opposite ways – he cannot wait; she dreads it completely. Things will not go well.
Ronan is one of the best actresses currently working, and she’s quite good here as a young woman who can both love her new husband, and not want him to touch her. Her backstory is revealed throughout the film – and while it’s never explicit, it certainly points in the direction of why she is the way she is. We also get Edward’s backstory to, of course, and his is more standard. Perhaps, as a man, I understand his point of view better, so I found her much more fascinating.
It will all come to a head of course, after things go poorly. Florence is more mature about the whole thing than Edward – even if they are both humiliated for different reasons. Neither can really articulate what they are feeling – what they want to say, and they say the wrong things.
The book is slim – only 166 pages – and is basically an internal study of the two people who are sexually repressed in different ways. They should, of course, be able to talk about it – but they were raised in a way where talking about it just isn’t done. It isn’t proper. Mistakes are made – and the reverberate throughout the rest of their lives.
The book is great – one of McEwan’s best really. It’s also not very well suited to be turned into a movie. On screen, it sort of sits there, as they haven’t quite figured out the trick someone like Scorsese figured out in The Age of Innocence – which is to make what isn’t said more dramatic than what is. It’s still an interesting movie to be sure – Ronan is quite good, it is handsomely shot, and while it’s probably too long, it’s not horribly overlong either. It is, in short, a most forgettable, but decent film. I struggle to figure out how this could have been done better given the source material – which makes it think it probably shouldn’t have been done at all.