Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Movie Review: Assassination Nation

Assassination Nation *** / *****
Directed by: Sam Levinson.
Written by: Sam Levinson.
Starring: Odessa Young (Lily), Suki Waterhouse (Sarah), Hari Nef (Bex), Abra (Em), Bella Thorne (Reagan), Bill Skarsgård (Mark), Joel McHale (Nick), Maude Apatow (Grace), Colman Domingo (Principal Turrell), Anika Noni Rose (Nance), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Mason), Lukas Gage (Eric), Cody Christian (Johnny), Danny Ramirez (Diamond), Noah Galvin (Marty), Jennifer Morrison (Margie Duncan), J.D. Evermore (Chief Patterson), Cullen Moss (Mayor Bartlett), Susan Misner (Rose Mathers), Joe Chrest (Lawrence), Kathryn Erbe (Rebecca Colson), Jeff Pope (Officer Richter), Andrene Ward-Hammond (Officer Daniels).
Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation hits out so wildly in all different directions, on all different targets, that it’s kind of impossible to figure out what precisely it is arguing for. An early scene gives so indication, when the heroine of the film, Lily (Odessa Young) is called into the principal’s office to discuss her drawings for art class – drawings of nude women masturbating, which the principal (Colman Domingo) is not wrong in saying are not appropriate for high school. Lily launches into a lengthy defense of her work – that just because the drawing is of a naked woman, doesn’t mean it’s sexual, and how it’s about the impossible beauty standards placed on young women online – it’s not this one photo, it’s the hundreds of other you took to get this one right – and how all it takes it’s one person to say something mean about it online to bring you down and on and on. It’s not that Lily’s argument here is wrong per se – but I question whether or not she really means it, or whether she’s just making it to avoid trouble and excuse her interest in doing pornographic drawings in class, to shock the adults. You could very easily say the same thing about Assassination Nation as a whole – it is a movie that tries to wrap itself up in feminist garb, but I cannot tell if the film actually means any of it, or is just using it as an excuse, since this is a movie where much of the runtime will be taken up by teenage girls in skimpy clothes talking about sex. It is an exploitation film pretending not to be an exploitation film, while also being an unapologetic exploitation film – if all that makes sense. In short, the film is a mess – but it’s such an entertaining mess, and one that raises such troubling questions – both in the film, and about the film – that it’s a fascinating film to think about after it’s over. Does it work? I don’t know – but I won’t forget it anytime soon.
The film takes place in Salem (the first of many too on the nose references in the script) and is about, in Lily’s words, when the town lost its “motherfucking mind”. Lily and her three best friends – Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra) are popular, 18-year-old high school students, strutting through their school full of confidence. Lily has a boyfriend – Mark (Bill Skarsgard), who seems sweet, unless he gets drunk (and that happens all the time), because then he’s likes to be cruel and slut shame Lily. She also texts someone named “Daddy” – sending him nudes, or near nudes (her face concealed) and he texts back dirty things. This was never a smart idea – but clearly isn’t when there is a hacker on the loose in town, intent on exposing the town’s secrets. The town’s anti-LGBT mayor is first to have his hypocrisy exposed, and then the principal gets brought down as well, not because he’s really done anything wrong, but the mob mentality that is starting to form brings him down anyway. And then, more and more and more people get their secrets exposed – and it’s only a matter of time before Lily is among those whose secrets get out. And the town, eventually, turns their collective rage on her and her friends, as everyone is exposed.
As a director, Levinson cranks up the style to 11, and while in other cases that may seem annoying, it matches the subject here. You could play spot the references throughout the film, and have a good time doing so. He’d probably be happy with the description of the film being a John Hughes as written by Tarantino and directed by DePalma. There are moments that are brilliant – like a terrifying home invasion, done in one long take from outside the home. This is really the point where the movie goes from a satire into a whole on Purge-style orgy of violence. That transition isn’t easy – and Levinson doesn’t really know how to do it, he simply has a “One Week Later” title card – as it’s in that week that the town descends into abject chaos.
Because the film has so much on its mind, and lashes out in so many different directions, it’s kind of understandable that the plot and characters take a backseat to Levinson’s style, and his messaging and themes. Really, other than Lily and Bex, the rest of the characters are paper thin – we don’t really know anything about them. Give to the talented ensemble though – they throw themselves wholly into their roles, and make them work more than they should.
As the film goes on, and keeps on attacking new topics, the whole thing flies off the rails at some point. And yet, I think flying off the rails is kind of the movies point. This is a film full of contradictions that doesn’t really know what it wants to say. Perhaps that makes it a fitting film for this moment in time.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Movie Review: Mandy

Mandy **** / *****
Directed by: Panos Cosmatos.

Written by: Panos Cosmatos & Aaron Stewart-Ahn.
Starring: Nicolas Cage (Red Miller), Andrea Riseborough (Mandy Bloom), Linus Roache (Sand Jeremiah), Ned Dennehy (Brother Swan), Olwen Fouéré (Mother Marlene), Richard Brake (The Chemist), Bill Duke (Caruthers), Line Pillet (Sister Lucy), Clément Baronnet (Brother Klopek), Alexis Julemont (Brother Hanker), Stephan Fraser (Brother Lewis), Ivailo Dimitrov (Skratch), Hayley Saywell (Sis), Kalin Kerin (Scabs), Paul Painter (Announcer / Cheddar Goblin).
What can one say about Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy – a kind of revenge thriller/horror film that plays like a heavy metal concept album split basically into two halves – the first half destroys the main character, the second half rebuilds him. There is lizard like demon bikers, blood galore, and a chainsaw fight as well, and at the center of it is Nicolas Cage, because of course he’s there. Who else would you cast in this role? No one, that’s who. For all the crap Cage takes about his career – and to be fair, much of that crap is earned because of all the crap he’s made – he is still capable doing something like Mandy, a film in which he gives one of the best performances of his career, and one only he could give.
The first half of the film has Cage’s Red Miller living in seclusion with his girlfriend, Many (Andrea Riseborough) out in the woods. He’s a lumberjack, she works in a small store, and they spend their time together in relative piece – drinking, eating smoking, watching old movies on TV. They are comfortable with each other, and in love. One day, a crazy cult leader, Jeremiah (Linus Roache) sees Mandy walking down the road, and wants her for himself. So he does the logical thing, and calls upon demon bikers to kidnap her, and bring her to him. Things, of course, don’t go as planned. A horrific sequence in the middle of the film, leaves Red completely destroyed and wounded, and hell-bent on revenge on the people who took everything from him. He’ll get that revenge in the most blood soaked way imaginable.
The director of this film is Panos Cosmatos – whose only other film is Beyond the Black Rainbow, a horror film I heard quite a bit about a few years ago, but didn’t actually see. In Mandy, he has the style cranked up to 11, with strange trippy visuals scattered throughout. The first half of the film is essentially a slow trip to hell – even when we see happy moments between Red and Mandy, the tone itself isn’t happy. We know what is coming. The second half of the film is perhaps more predictable – we’ve all seen revenge films before, we know what will happen, and yet it’s still satisfying to see – especially because Cosmatos cranks up the style to ridiculous levels, and Cage and company go right along with him.
Mandy is an odd film to right about – mainly because I’m not quite sure how to describe most of it. Part of why it works so well, is because while this is a very stylish film from Cosmatos, he varies the style every so often – scene play out in a distinctive color palette, and then he’s moved on to something completely different the next scene. Visually, the film keeps shifting and changing. Two things kind of keep everything on track – one is Johan Johannsson’s terrific score, which like the style itself, I’m at a loss to explain, and the other is Cage’s performance itself. Yes, Cage goes wildly over the top in the film – taken out of context, you could easily mock pieces of his performances. But within the movie itself, no matter how crazy his performance gets, how unhinged it seems, it makes complete and total sense.
Mandy is an exceedingly odd film – but it’s one that draws you in, and keeps you there. It could probably stand to be a little bit shorter (it runs over two hours, and with this type of extremity, anything past 90 minutes starts pushing it a little) – but mainly, it sustains its originality and weirdness. You won’t see another film like Mandy this year – and in this case, that’s a good thing.

Movie Review: Fahrenheit 11/9

Fahrenheit 11/9 *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Michael Moore.
Written by: Michael Moore.
I didn’t see Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 at TIFF when it premiered there a couple weeks ago – but I did see Errol Morris’ documentary, American Dharma, about Steve Bannon there. I mention this because when I did see Fahrenheit 11/9 this week, when the film got to the end, I couldn’t help but think of Bannon at the end of Morris’ documentary. In many way, what Bannon and Moore argue is basically the same damn thing – a revolution is coming because the powerful and the elite have forgotten about the poor and middle class, and they aren’t going to take it anymore. Of course, what Bannon and Moore think those revolutions will look like are completely different, and ideologically, they could be more different, but the point remains the same.
I think people assumed that Fahrenheit 11/9 would basically be Moore doing to Trump what he did to George W. Bush in Fahrenheit 9/11 – which is basically lay out the case against him for two hours, in the hope of swinging the upcoming election away from him (here, of course, it’s the midterms, not a Presidential election, but still). But that really isn’t the point of Moore’s film – at least not entirely. He spends sometime in the beginning of the movie on Trump – but it’s basically the same rapid fire points against Trump we’ve heard time and again for years now, and didn’t do anything about – from his ego, to his creepy obsession with his daughter Ivanka, to his business ties, to his racism, etc. Moore’s point here is basically this – none of this is secret, and America still elected this guy President. Why?
In Fahrenheit 11/9 Moore basically argues that the fundamental system in America is broken – that any democracy has more people staying home on election day than who voted for either candidate for President is a broken system – one where people think that it doesn’t matter who they vote for, because no one cares about them anyway. And then Moore makes the case for why that may well be true.
The strongest parts of Moore’s latest are when he isn’t talking about Trump at all – nor about Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama – both of whom he takes shots at as well. It’s when Moore revisits his hometown of Flint, Michigan, and documents the water crisis there where he’s at his best. He lays out what Rick Snyder did, what he knew, when he knew it, and how he lied and kept right on poisoning the people of Flint, even after he knew the water was bad. When he can do all that, and get away with it, can you blame people for becoming disenfranchised – especially when they see Obama come there, and tow the company line about the water. Moore does this twice more in the film as well – recounting the West Virginia teachers strike, where the teachers there, many of whom live below the poverty line, went out in the hopes for better wages, against the wishes of their own union. And when their union told them they worked out a deal, but left out the support workers who supported the teachers strike, they stay out even longer – inspiring more teachers across the country to do the same. Finally, he focuses on the Parkland students, who in the wake of their tragic school shooting, stood up, got angry, and fought.
Moore’s point here is simple – get angry, and do something about it. He clearly hates Trump, but he sees him as the symptom of the disease, not just the disease itself. The system set everything up for someone like Trump, so it’s not just his fault that things have gotten this bad. He does call out Democrats for the way things went in 2016 (he’s on some far shakier ground when he seems to imply that Bernie Sanders got more votes than Hillary Clinton in the primaries, which he did not) – and basically makes the point that he wants Democrats to start being the same type of assholes Republicans are – compromise on nothing and push harder.
Overall, I think Fahrenheit 11/9 is an effective film when its focusing on getting pissed, and trying to shock people out of their apathy – far less so when it’s about Trump (the Ivanka stuff was in poor taste I thought, and I wasn’t thrilled with the Nazi stuff in the final moments either). But here, Moore is trying to shock his audience.
Speaking of which, let’s be honest, that audience isn’t what it once was. Fahrenheit 9/11 remains the highest grossing documentary of all time, but since then his influence seems to have dwindled. It’s likely his message here will fall on deaf ears – but one can hope that’s not true. Because regardless of whether you agree with Moore or not – the basic message here is a good one.

Movie Review: The Land of Steady Habits

The Land of Steady Habits *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Nicole Holofcener.
Written by: Nicole Holofcener based on the novel by Ted Thompson.
Starring: Ben Mendelsohn (Anders Hill), Edie Falco (Helene), Thomas Mann (Preston), Charlie Tahan (Charlie), Elizabeth Marvel (Sophie), Connie Britton (Barbara), Bill Camp (Donny O’Connell), Josh Pais (Larry Eastwood), Michael Gaston (Mitchell Ashford), Victor Williams (Howard).
Anders (Ben Mendelsohn) is an affluent, white man in his 50s, who has essentially decided to chuck his old life, and start something new, and finds there isn’t anything much there either. He made good money in finance, but has now retired, and enjoys telling everyone he meets how soulless his old job was, and how miserable it made him – you can see the look in the eyes of those he tells that they don’t care, and want a way out of this conversation. He has divorced his wife, Helene (Edie Falco), and moved into a smaller house – while she has already moved on – to one of his former colleagues, Donny (Bill Camp). He has a strained relationship with his son, Preston (Thomas Mann), who is in his late 20s, has a good college degree, but no real job – owing, likely, to his drug addiction. Although he’s clean now, he still doesn’t have his act together. The saddest thing that Anders learns from doing all of this is that in every aspect of his life he was replaceable – life goes on for everyone around him, and whatever he thought he was going to find by himself, he hasn’t found it. He is charming enough to be able to talk women into bed, but once there, he cannot even perform anymore. The only person he connects with is Charlie (Charlie Tahan), the teenage son of some friends (really his ex-wife’s friends) – who is basically a teenage version of Preston, heading down the same drug addiction path, but unlike his own son, he likes Anders.
It would be easy to make Anders into an asshole. To be fair he is kind of an asshole anyway, but because of Mendelsohn’s performance, and a perceptive screenplay and direction by Nicole Holofcener, you still like Anders. He’s lost and unsure, and everything he does, he does with the best of intentions. He screws it all up, but he’s trying. Besides, it’s not like anyone else in the movie is all that much better than Anders. They all try, and screw-up as well, and in many ways, they use Anders as their excuse for things that have gone wrong for them.
As a filmmaker, Holofcener has always had an eye and ear for these types of characters – from Lovely and Amazing, to Friends with Money to Please Give and perhaps my favorite of her work, Enough Said – she has made films about mostly financially comfortable white people, going through some sort of crisis of, well, something. If you wanted to write them off as liberal white whining, you probably could – but I think she gets to something deeper in that sort of malaise, and finds some sort of humanity underneath them. Here, she is aided by a great cast – no one better than Mendelsohn, who was an inspired choice to play Anders. Mendelsohn is one of the great character actors working today, but often he’s playing slimy, sleazy characters – like his breakthrough in Animal Kingdom or his Emmy winning work in Bloodline, where he played the black sheep of the family. Yet, while on the surface his character there and here couldn’t be more different, underneath they are kind of similar. They are both charming – able to get people to like them, when perhaps they shouldn’t – and they both have good intentions more often than not, but they struggle with actually doing the right thing. It’s a great performance from Mendelsohn, that really keeps the film going as it drifts in its episodic structure. You cannot fault the rest of the cast either. Falco does great understated work as Helene, who has gotten her life back on track – perhaps a little too much so. Elizabeth Marvel is in fine form as her best friend, and mother to Charlie (someone needs to give Marvel a truly great role at this point, she’s always excellent), Connie Britton has some nice scenes as perhaps a new woman in Anders life – and both Mann and Tahan are good as essentially the same character at different ends of the same issue.
The film, by design, kind of drifts from one episode to the next – at least until the final act, when it appears like Holofcener wants to take things to a more dramatic level, and perhaps see how far she can push Anders and still keep him somewhat likable. That didn’t work quite as well as the setup, even as things get more dramatic. Somehow, I prefer the scenes where everyone seems to be on the verge of saying something awful, and don’t, to the scenes when they actually do. As a result, I’m not quite sure this is up to the same level of Holofcener’s other films. Yet, it’s still more perceptive, and deeply humane, than most of what we see. Even minor Holofcener is better than most indies in this mode.

Movie Review: The House with a Clock In Its Walls

The House with a Clock in Its Walls *** / *****
Directed by: Eli Roth.
Written by: Eric Kripke based on the novel by John Bellairs.
Starring: Owen Vaccaro (Lewis Barnavelt), Cate Blanchett (Mrs. Zimmerman), Jack Black (Jonathan Barnavelt), Kyle MacLachlan (Isaac Izard), Colleen Camp (Mrs. Hanchett), Lorenza Izzo (Lewis' Mother), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Selena Izard), Sunny Suljic (Tarby Corrigan), Braxton Bjerken (Woody Mingo), Christian Calloway (Azazel).
I would not have guesses that the recipe for Eli Roth to finally make a good movie was to make a horror movie for kids. Roth has been consistently making movies since his debut Cabin Fever (2002) – and to be honest, I don’t think I’ve liked any of them (to be fair, I didn’t see The Green Inferno, so perhaps there is one I’d like). More often than not, when I read an interview with Roth after seeing one of his films, I want to see the film Roth thinks he made, rather than the film he actually did. This was certainly true of both Hostel films, that he said was about American torture of prisoners in the war on terror, but was really just a series of torture scenes, or his recent Death Wish remake that he said was aiming to start a conversation on guns, when it played like a NRA recruitment video. Roth has always had style, but his ideas have more often than not been confused. Perhaps The House with a Clock in Its Walls is his best film because essentially, the film has no ideas at all – it aims to be a fun little scary movie for families to enjoy – and its basically that. It was the first scary movie I’ve ever taken my seven-year-old to see – and it worked like a charm on her, sometimes making her laugh, sometimes making her watch the film through fingers covering her eyes, but never outright terrifying her. That’s the perfect amount of scares for a seven-year-old.
The film, like many a film aimed at children, starts with a child losing both of his parents. This is Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) who parents die in an accident, and so he is sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), who he has never met before, in a new city, in a strange old house that everyone all the kids think is haunted – and while they’re not quite right, they aren’t quite wrong either. Jonatan is a warlock – a boy witch, the movie helpfully explains – and so strange things happen in the house. His neighbor and best friend is Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), a powerful witch, whose spells have started not working quite right. Owen senses, not incorrectly, that they aren’t being wholly truthful with him about what they are doing at night. Meanwhile, at school, he’s trying to make friends – and choses the wrong kid to try with, which of course leads him to break the one rule Uncle Jonathan has in his house – about a lock cabinet.
For a seven-year-old who hasn’t seen a scary movie like this before, The House with a Clock in Its Walls works like gangbusters. It helps, a lot, that Jack Black goes full doofus in this role, in a way that I found distracting, but that kids will find adorably funny. He helps take the edge off of the scary stuff – which is mainly just creepy and spooky, then downright terrifying. Blanchett finds the right notes to be comforting, and funny – without going goofy like Black. The special effects and the art direction for everything at the house are quite good – Roth knows what movies he’s aping here, and he does a decent job.
Now, I’ve said the movie worked well for my seven-year-old, but how about for me – a horror fan who has seen countless horror movies. Well, it’s entertaining enough – it’s solid and fun, and it doesn’t wear out its welcome. But I admit I had more fun watching my kid watch the film, then I did watching it myself. It’s still Eli Roth’s best film – that’s not saying much is it. If you have kids, and want to introduce them to scary movies, you can do worse. If you want a real scary movie, look elsewhere.  

Movie Review: I Think We're Alone Now

I Think We’re Alone Now ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Reed Morano.
Written by: Mike Makowsky.

Starring: Peter Dinklage (Del), Elle Fanning (Grace), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Violet), Paul Giamatti (Patrick).
How many films have we seen about the supposedly last man in the world, realizing that he is not really alone? Well, with I Think We’re Alone Now, we have added one more to the list. In this case, I think they have an intriguing protagonist in Peter Dinklage’s Del, and an intriguing setup when he discovers he’s not alone – but from there, I don’t think much about the movies various final act twists really work, and as a result, the whole movie suffers.
Even before the apocalypse – whatever it was – Dinklage’s Del was a loner. He worked in a small, upstate New York town, in the library – but at night (who works in a library at night?). Since something has wiped out everyone else in town – and supposedly the world – Del makes his way methodically through his small town, house by house looking for batteries and corpses. The batteries he keeps; the corpses he buries. He keeps the library organized, and everything else about his life the same way. In his weird way, he seems oddly content in this way of life – there is no one around to get in the way of him keeping this organized. The best moment in the film is when he realizes he cannot be alone – when looking up into the night sky, she seems fireworks. He doesn’t know what it all means – he just knows it won’t be good. This is when he meets Grace (Elle Fanning), a young woman who he at first tries to convince to move on down the road, and forget about him and his town – but slowly comes to befriend. There are hints of something simmering between them, but nothing really develops there. What will discover, of course, is that both Del and Grace have secrets.
Dinklage is impressive in a largely silent role as Del. He’s actually at his best in the first 10 minutes of the film, before those fireworks arrive, as we watch him in his daily routine, and figure out everything we really need to know about him. Dinklage is always great fun on Game of Thrones – where he talks more than anyone else, but here he shows just what a powerfully subtle actor he can be. When he is alone here, he is fine – finally able to just be himself, and not have to be around all those people. Fanning isn’t quite as good as Dinklage – mainly because I don’t think the film ever really gets to know her as anything more than a concept. What do you give a guy who is happy in his isolation, living out the end of the world? Why of course, a talkative, bubbly blonde young woman, not quite manic pixie dream girl, but close enough. And of course, these two opposites will inspire each other both to do something different – either commit to something, or come out of your shell. The intriguing questions at the beginning of the film start to give way to more mundane ones as the film movies along. Still, it’s preferable to what happens at the end – which I will not spoil, but since the cast list doesn’t just include Dinklage and Fanning, you have some idea of what may happen next. The twists at the end of the movie may well be how they sold the movie. Audiences love a good twist, don’t they, and this one seems designed to blow their minds, and make you consider bigger questions about How We Live Now.
It doesn’t really fit though, is the problem. When the film starts, we get a portrait of a man who is perfectly content to disprove the old quote “No Man is an island”, and by the end the film has twisted itself into something really truly wants to say something big and important. And it rings hollow. I will say that Dinklage is still great in the film, Fanning saves an underwritten character, and the talented, Emmy winning director Reed Morano (who won for directing The Handmaid’s Tale in season 1) remains talented – doing a great job showing us the isolated, small town. The screenplay lets them down though. Honestly, as a 10 minute short, ending with those fireworks, the film would be damn near perfect.

Movie Review: Jeannette: The: Childhood of Joan of Arc

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Bruno Dumont.
Written by: Bruno Dumont based on the play by Charles Peguy.
Starring: Lise Leplat Prudhomme (Jeannette), Jeanne Voisin (Jeanne – Older), Lucile Gauthier (Hauviette 8 ans), Victoria Lefebvre (Hauviette 13 ans), Aline Charles (Madame Gervaise / Sainte Marguerite), Elise Charles (Madame Gervaise / Sainte Catherine), Nicolas Leclaire (Durand Lassois), Gery De Poorter (Jacques d'Arc), Régine Delalin (Isabeau d'Arc), Anaïs Rivière (Saint Michel).
Recently, every time I watch a film by French provocateur Bruno Dumont, I always struggle to figure out if he’s being serious, or he’s just screwing with us in the audience – someone behind the scenes chuckling that we’re taking what he’s doing seriously. The answer usually comes back as he’s doing both – and more often than not, he’s doing it well. His earlier films – L’humanitie and twenty-nine palms, were very serious provocations indeed, perhaps too much so. Sometime in the last few years, he seems to have embraced self-parody, making the same types films he always had, but now playing them for laughs in films like Lil Quinquin and Slack Bay (perhaps even Camille Claudel 1915 – a film I struggled mightily with). It’s certainly on display in Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc - it is undeniably one of the most singular movie watching experiences of the year – but I’m not sold that that’s always such a good thing.
The film is essentially a two act film, one with Jeannette at 8, and another with her at 13, as we see signs of the religious fury that will push her towards her destiny. As with many of Dumont’s films, the actors are all non-professionals, the awkwardness of their performances being part of the point. Oh, and this time, he’s made a heavy metal musical, complete with hang banging children, and in the second act to keep things lively, he introduces a rapping, dabbing uncle of Jeannette’s.
Everything Dumont does here is deliberate. He shoots the film entirely outdoors, usually with only a few characters around – including a pair of twins – Aline and Elise Charles – playing one character (at the same time). There is constant talk about the English invasion ruining the country, and yet we see no signs of any war in the film. The costumes and production design (what little there is) looks cheap and deliberately thrown together – like they showed up on set and had an hour to throw the look of the film together, and this is the best they could do. The singing isn’t particularly great, the dancing is awkward and jerky, the dialogue repetitive, etc. If you didn’t know Dumont, you may well think this was a low rent version thrown together by middle school kids with no money.
That is, of course, the point of Dumont’ film – although for the life of me, I cannot quite figure out why it’s the point he wants to make. When you look at his earlier films, you do see a filmmaker trying to be a modern Robert Bresson or Carl Theodor Dreyer, and his later films still very much bare their influence, from the Ordet-like subplot in Slack Bay, to the obvious inspiration of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, to the way he uses non-professionals, and tries to sap their emotions out of their performances like Bresson. But now, it reads like an elaborate prank rather than a serious artistic impression. He is essentially making an anti-comedy here, and that’s a genre that for me is usually more painful than anything.
Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc is unlike any other film you will see this year. Perhaps that’s the reason Dumont made it all – to be different. But perhaps there’s a good reason why you don’t see too many films like every year. For better or worse (and often, it was both), the earlier, more serious Dumont was a man with an artistic vision. He still has one, I just cannot quite figure out what his point is anymore.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Movie Review: The Predator

The Predator ** / *****
Directed by: Shane Black.
Written by: Fred Dekker & Shane Black based on characters created by Jim Thomas & John Thomas.
Starring: Boyd Holbrook (Quinn McKenna), Olivia Munn (Casey Bracket), Jacob Tremblay (Rory McKenna), Sterling K. Brown (Will Traeger), Yvonne Strahovski (Emily), Trevante Rhodes (Nebraska Williams), Keegan-Michael Key (Coyle), Thomas Jane (Baxley), Alfie Allen (Lynch), Augusto Aguilera (Nettles), Jake Busey (Sean Keyes). 
It really should not be possible for Shane Black to assemble a cast as good as the one he has for The Predator, and subject matter that really should suit his sensibilities as much as this film seems to, and still make a film as dull as The Predator ends up being. Black has always been good at writing action movie banter, between his male characters, and to be fair in The Predator, he really does try to do the same thing. But it reeks of effort this time – as if it’s someone trying, and coming close, to Black’ style, but not quite getting there. Perhaps this wouldn’t matter very much if the storytelling worked – but it doesn’t. The Predator is littered with either plot holes, or just things the movie doesn’t really bother to explain. The action scenes are confusing and full of poor CGI don’t redeem the film either. Truly, it shouldn’t be possible to screw up this film this bad – but someone, they found a way.
To be fair though, perhaps it’s just time to admit that the Predator franchise has never been very good, except for the first installment, that pitted army commandos in the jungle led by Arnold Schwarzenegger against the alien hunter with dreadlocks, superior weapons, and the ability to become invisible when needed. That first film is a lean and mean 1980s action thriller/horror film and it still works. Does anyone really want to go to bat for 1990’s Predator 2, either Alien vs. Predator movie or Predators though? I thought not. There is no reason why another film in this franchise couldn’t work, but we’re 30 years and 5 films in, and it hasn’t yet.
This time, a Predator crashes land in a jungle, and kills an entire army unit – except for elite sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook – far and away the most boring character and actor in the film, so of course he’s the lead). In order to have proof that he isn’t crazy, and he did see the alien in question, he mails some of its gear to himself back in America. It doesn’t help much – the army needs a scapegoat, and he’s it, and soon he’s placed on a bus with other crazy vets – who call themselves the “loonies”. For some reason, the army also enlists Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) to help to, but it doesn’t take her long before she has no choice but to team up with the same loonies – as they all have to go back to get to Quinn’s son, with Asperger’s Rory (Jacoby Tremblay), before either the predator or the human villain Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown) finds him.
Nothing that happens in the plot of The Predator is all that clear. It kind of plays as if you’re watching a movie on cable while falling asleep every few minutes for just a minute or two, and then having to reorient yourself on what happened. The narrative takes so much shortcuts that you’re constantly having to piece together what must have happened off-screen to get to this point we’re now in. When the film does slow down enough, to get some of Black’s dialogue scenes in, they aren’t bad – but you kind of think they should be better. The cast is good, but they are all basically given just one note to play – and while some, like Keegan Michael Key, have fun notes to play – and others, like Sterling K Brown, are clearly having fun saying whatever ridiculous crap they are given, none of them really add up too much of anything interesting. Talented actors like Munn and Tremblay, are basically given nothing to do.
Perhaps none of this would matter if the action scenes were better. After all, you go to a Predator movie to see these giant aliens rip people’s spines out, and if nothing else, you have to admit that Black does deliver on that. The action scenes get bloody and don’t hold much back. They are also dimly under lit however, perhaps in an effort to hide to hide the shabby CGI – which becomes more and more of an issue, as we get more than one Predator, not to mention some Predator dogs as the movie progresses.
In short, I was shocked by just how incompetent The Predator seemed. Sure, it has flashes of fun and excitement, but with this cast, with this director, The Predator should be one of the best B-movies of the year. It isn’t. It’s downright awful.

Movie Review: Reversing Roe

Reversing Roe *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg.
Outwardly, the new Netflix documentary Reversing Roe tries to play things straight – giving voices to people on both sides of the abortion debate to make their case to the audience, even if it’s not hard to see what side the filmmakers are on. Yes, they are pro-choice, but I don’t think they ever really shove that down the audience’s throats – and they certainly do give those they disagree with the time to argue their case, even as they subtly and not so subtly undermine it. Still, even if you are pro-life, there is a lot to chew on in Reversing Roe – which is a fairly straight forward documentary in many ways, which more than arguing for or against one side, wants to examine the process by which the abortion debate got to the point it is at now. As a history lesson, the film may not stir up any new facts – but it’s useful in bringing it all together.
Reversing Roe takes a different tactic than many other abortion documentaries have. It doesn’t go all fire and fury like Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire (2007) – one of the very best documentaries of the 21st Century so far, nor does it zoom in on one abortion clinic like 12th and Delaware, or go after the heart strings like After Tiller. This is not really a movie about personal stories about abortion – but rather the process by which abortion became legal in America, and how ever since that happened, pro-life forces have been trying to kill it by imposing more and more “restrictions” on abortion, all while eyeing the bigger prize – reversing Roe vs. Wade at the Supreme Court level.
When states first starting passing abortion laws to make it legal, it really wasn’t much of a partisan issue. Ronald Reagan, who would become a hero to the pro-life movement, signed a bill making abortion legal when he was governor of California. Later, Nelson Rockefeller, Republican governor of New York, would veto a bill that would have outlawed abortion. When Roe vs. Wade became law in 1973, it was passed by a Supreme Court packed with Nixon appointees. Abortion was legal., and other than the Catholics, no one much seemed to care. It wasn’t until the rise of the Evangelical voters in the 1980s, that the issue became such a hot topic. As Jerry Falwell and his ilk riled up their Evangelical base, they started to infiltrate the Republican party more and more – to the point where now it is impossible to be a Republican running for National office (and in many states) if you are not pro-life. Reagan became pro-life even though he was signed that previous bill, as did George H.W. Bush, who was on the record for a long time as being pro-choice. Donald Trump has undergone a similar transformation.
What Reversing Roe does so well is show how this has become such a powerful lobby – and how this lobby doesn’t really play fair. The heads of the various pro-life groups basically admit as much – saying they are willing to do just about anything in order to make abortion legal. There are almost no third trimester abortions for example – and then it’s almost always because of medical reasons – and yet it’s what the pro-life movement spends almost all their time talking about. Why? It’s effective – as is all those graphic pictures they use. They don’t use scientific facts, because they aren’t on their side. They hide behind phrases like “protecting women” when they pass all these laws placing restrictions on abortion clinics, even though they don’t pass the same laws for other medical procedures that are as risky or even more so. They don’t care how they win, they just care that they will.
Eventually, in the back third of the documentary, the filmmakers will start to really dive into the various Supreme Court challenges to Roe vs. Wade, using helpful graphics to show the shifting makeup of the Court, from all men, to just a majority of men. The film takes on added significance because we know that Brett Kavanagh is up for confirmation for the Supreme Court as the documentary debuts on Netflix – something the filmmakers didn’t know when they finished (they get very up to date though, as it does include Kennedy’s retirement).
As a documentary, I think Reversing Roe does a good job at telling the history of what led us here. If you are pro-life, you will likely view it through a different lens than I did – but I don’t think the film demonizes anyone. It has a viewpoint to be sure, but it sticks to the facts.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Movie Review: White Boy Rick

White Boy Rick *** / *****
Directed by: Yann Demange.
Written by: Andy Weiss and Logan Miller & Noah Miller.
Starring: Richie Merritt (Ricky Wershe Jr), Matthew McConaughey (Richard Wershe Sr.), Bel Powley (Dawn Wershe), Jennifer Jason Leigh (FBI Agent Snyder), Eddie Marsan (Art Derrick), Bruce Dern (Grandpa Roman Wershe), Rory Cochrane (Agent Byrd), Piper Laurie (Grandma Verna Wershe), Brian Tyree Henry (Detective Jackson), RJ Cyler (Rudell Boo Curry), Jonathan Majors (Johnny 'Lil Man' Curry), Brad Carter (Bob the Gun Show Dealer), Taylour Paige (Cathy Volsan).
White Boy Rick tells the true story of Ricky Wershe Jr. (played by newcomer Richie Merritt), who at the age of 17 was sentenced to life in prison for dealing cocaine. Although he would get out – 30 years later – his story is one that makes one question the American justice system – that sentences young men to decades in prison, for non-violent drug offenses. Oddly, we know this problem mainly affects black men – the mandatory minimums target them while pretending to neutral, and yet one of the only stories we are being told about is this one about a white kid. That doesn’t make his story any less tragic or unjust – but it’s certainly a curious choice.
The movie tells the story of Ricky’s last three years of freedom – 1984-1987 -  before that decades long prison sentence. He grows up in Detroit – his mother has walked out on them, his father, Rick Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) has a dream of opening a chain of video stories, but for now is selling guns, sometimes legally, sometimes less so, and his sister Dawn (Bel Powley) has become strung out on drugs, and has left the family to move in with her dealer boyfriend. Ricky sinks deeper into the criminal life starting when he walks in to meet dealer Johnny Curry (Jonathan Majors) to sell a couple of AK’s, complete with homemade silencers. From there, he becomes a part of this loose knit gang around Johnny – the only white kid in a sea of black kids. And perhaps that’s why the FBI and local police target him as well. They want him to be their informant – to infiltrate the drug houses, give them tips. In exchange, he gets a little money – but also enough cocaine that he starts dealing himself.
Oddly, this is the aspect of Ricky’s story that White Boy Rick seems to concentrate on in terms of it being a story of injustice – that he was essentially trained by the government to sell drugs, and then punished by the government for selling drugs. But Rick was done with the authorities when he was arrested – and it’s really the mandatory minimums that lead to the decades of jail time – something the movie doesn’t take as much time exploring.
The film works better as a family drama than a crime story though. The performances by Richie Merritt, Matthew McConaughey and Bel Powley are the reason to see the film. This is Merritt’s first role, and he’s good at playing this naïve kid, who gets himself in over his head. But he doesn’t play him as just an innocent victim – he’s a smart kid, who figures out a way to survive. Powley is excellent as a junkie, who still remains a sympathetic character – she gets herself in over her head too, and cannot get out – but still loves her family. As for McConaughey, this is one of his best performances – he isn’t exactly a good guy – he is sleazy – but he is a family man, trying to do best by his family, given his circumstances. He’s smart enough to not get himself in too deep with anyone – which is also why his family struggles to pay the bills.
The film is directed by Yann Demange, following up his tense debut film ’71 about a British soldier caught behind enemy lines as they were in Ireland – and trying to survive. Here, he’s trying to ape Scorsese a little bit, and he does a good job. As the film progresses, it becomes a little less focused – as he tries to tell all the different stories, and they diverge a little bit. But it’s still fine direction.
I do think there is a larger story here that the film mainly sidesteps. The film tries to bring it down to a personal level, but it part of a bigger problem – and I’m not sure the film quite gets that. It’s a decent film, but it could have been a great one.

Movie Review: Godard Mon Amour

Godard Mon Amour *** / *****
Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius.
Written by: Michel Hazanavicius adapted from the novel by Anne Wiazemsky.
Starring: Louis Garrel (Jean-Luc Godard), Stacy Martin (Anne Wiazemsky), Bérénice Bejo (Michèle Rosier), Micha Lescot (Bamban), Grégory Gadebois (Michel Cournot), Félix Kysyl (Jean-Pierre Gorin), Arthur Orcier (Jean-Henri Roger dit Jean-Jock), Marc Fraize (Emile), Guido Caprino (Bernardo Bertolucci), Emmanuele Aita (Marco Ferreri), Matteo Martari (Marco Margine).
For better and for worse, Jean-Luc Godard has constantly been pushing his filmmaking style ever since his debut film, Breathless, nearly 60 years ago. Even if Godard had stopped directing films after 1968’s Weekend, he would still be one of the most important filmmakers in cinema history – those earlier, “funnier” films are among the most influential films ever made. At the time, he was one of the most famous filmmakers in the world – a celebrity in his own right, and a massive figure in France. And that’s when Godard decided to turn his back on the type of films he was making, and go in a more experimental direction – a progression that has continued ever since. I just saw his most recent film, The Image Book, at TIFF last week, and while it is still undeniably a film by a genius – a deep thinker on film, images, politics, philosophy and everything else – there is not a lot in common between that film and what Godard was making in the 1960s. And that, of course, was on purpose. Perhaps because Godard is a genius, he’s also prone to getting bored when he feels like he has perfectly something – and is ready to move on. It’s also fairly undeniable that Godard is more than a little bit of an asshole – you just have to look at the trail of broken friendships, burned bridges and incendiary comments from the man, who has left the filmmaker isolated. Even his former friend Agnes Varda went after Godard pretty hard at the end of her brilliant Faces Places from last year. You don’t have to be an asshole to be a genius, but in Godard’s case, it seems like the two went hand in hand.
This is the backdrop of Michel Hazanavicius’ Godard Mon Amour, which takes place over his brief marriage to actress Anne Wiazemsky, when she was 19, and he was twice her age. The pair has just made La Chinoise (1967), Godard’s film about Maoist students trying to spark the revolution. The reaction to that film furthers Godard’s thinking that this mode of filmmaking is useless – it won’t solve anything, won’t get anywhere. He is starting to talk to a young Jean-Pierre Gorin, about an entire new way of filmmaking – a revolutionary way, that takes the principles of the revolution seriously into the methods of making films. Godard comes out and criticizes his own films – saying that are shit – and wanting to do something more revolutionary. At the same time, as much as Godard speaks about the workers and the students, and against the ruling class, he seems to be living comfortably in his bourgeois lifestyle.
I don’t think Hazanavicius is the right filmmaker to tell this story. He is a gifted stylist and recreationist of former styles – the Oscar winning The Artist did a very good bringing silent movie stylings wonderfully – but it wasn’t a particularly deep film. It wasn’t really about anything. His main thesis in Godard Mon Amour seems to be that Godard was a pompous ass – a brilliant filmmaker who threw it all away to become a political filmmaker, and went against everything that made him so good in the first place. By the end of the film, Godard is divorced yet again, and arguing on the set of his latest film with the crew – all decisions were supposed to be democratic, but Godard wants to do things a certain way – but the principles override making a good film. Hazanavicius seems to be mocking the very idea that film can be about anything, that it can have a larger meaning. Godard eventually moved away from the ideas he and Gorin worked on for a few years in the late 1960s and 1970s – and onto a different style (and would continue to do so). To me, it’s admirable that an artist continues to push themselves. For Hazanavicius, he seems to be like one of those people in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories who keep asking the filmmaker when he’s going to making funny films again.
I will say this about the film though – it’s a hell of a lot of fun. While I don’t think Hazanavicius gets the underpinnings of Godard’s work, he certainly has seen a lot of them, and he uses a lot of the tricks that signified Godard’s work in the 1960s – and does so in some clever ways. I also like Louis Garrel’s performance as Godard – a cranky, yet comic figure – he reminded me more of Woody Allen, than Godard – a kind of pretentious fool, who will eventually become a jealous asshole in his marriage. I do wish that the film had decided to develop Anne Wiazemsky’s character more than it does – she is just there to be the window through which we see Godard as an asshole. I like Stacy Martin quite a bit here – but I wonder what the film would have been had it treated her with more respect. It’s almost as if the film treats her the same way Godard does.
And for film buffs, I do think Godard Mon Amour is a must-see. If you have no interest in Godard, then I wouldn’t recommend it – I don’t think you’d learn very much about him, or the student protests that shut down Cannes that year, or anything else about this turbulent time. But if you already know – and have a definite thought on Godard, then the film will be interesting. If you’re fully in the tank for Godard, then the film would become an entertaining hate watch – something for you to sneer at and rile your blood up. If you kind of agree with Hazanavicius, that Godard has become something of a pretentious asshole over the years, than you will like his two hour trolling of Godard. And if you’re somewhat in the middle – like me, who admire much of Godard’s later work, but don’t love any of it as much as I love Breathless (1959) or Vivre Sa Vie (1962), Contempt (1963) or Pierrot le Fou (1965) – you can knowingly laugh, while also disagreeing with some of what is said.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

TIFF 2018 Recap

Every year I consider not going to TIFF. I am a creature of habit, and even though I now I only go three days, it is a disruption of my habits, and often seems like it’s not worth the effort and expense. Then every year I go, and forget all that – because I love going, love seeing the movies, love being around people who love cinema, and have a great time. This year, all that was still true – but also when it was over, I was a lot more run down, tired and a little bit sick. That is probably because for the first time in almost a decade, I didn’t get a hotel room, and had to travel back and forth to my house every day – which adds two hours to the beginning of my day, and two hours to the end. Next year, I’m going to TIFF, and hope to get a hotel room again (I didn’t this year, because a trip to Disney World with my kids meant we were looking to save money). If not, I’ll probably go from four films a day, down to three – and just go one more day. Because by the end, I was bushed. None of this has anything to do with TIFF itself. The ticketing system worked extremely well this year for me – no complaints there unlike in the past, none of my movies started late (that has to do with the fact I went later in the festival, when the media and celebrities – you know, the ones that cause the delays – were long gone), and they even let us in the theaters earlier than usual. It was a well-run festival. It has to do with me – and the realization that I am not the same person who could operate on a few hours of sleep for days and days on end like I used to. Time catches up to us all.
Now, onto the movie themselves. I think next year, I’ll just skip my mini-preview, because I always end up changing my schedule – this time five of the twelve films on my preview ended up changing – in a couple of cases it was because I got tickets to movies I couldn’t originally, and part of it was scheduling issues, as I realized I was too ambitious (I could have been MUCH more tired had I stuck to my original schedule). There is little rhyme or reason to the order of the films listed below – I’m just going with the flow.
For the second straight year (after about a decade of missing it), I saw the People Choice’s winner. This year it was Green Book (Peter Farrelly) a lightweight comedy/drama starring Viggo Mortenson as a stereotypical Italian American from the Bronx who in 1962 is hired to chauffer around a highly educated black musician (Mahershala Ali) around the Deep South for two months. In the process, Mortenson’s character goes from someone who would throw out the glasses his wife served lemonade to two black workers in the opening scenes, to being best friends with a black man. In many ways, seeing the film with a couple of thousand of people at the Princess of Wales during TIFF is the perfect way to see it – the target audience is there (mainly white, mainly liberal, mainly older, mainly affluent) – because that film plays like gangbusters in that environment, and it’s hard not to get swept up in it – especially when the performances by Mortenson and especially Ali are as good as they are. This film will get think pieced to death when it comes out – and not without reason. In a year that contains great films about race in America – Sorry to Bother You, BlackKklansman, Widows (we’ll get there) and reportedly If Beale Street Could Talk (I didn’t see that one) it would both disheartening, and completely in character if Green Book was the film about race that the Academy embraces – it is old fashioned in every way, and earns its comparisons to Driving Miss Daisy. Still, the film is lightweight and fun – and seeing it now before the knives really come out for it (again, much of what will be said against the film will be true), is probably best. It’s not great art, but it’s fun.
I also saw one of the Runners-Up for the award – Roma (Alfonso Cuaron), which has earned all the praise it has received. Shot in beautiful black and white, almost entirely in master-shots, Roma is Cuaron’s lookback at the time of his childhood – but focuses mainly on Cleo (the remarkable Yalitz Aparicio) – the nanny/maid of a middle class family in the title neighborhood, who gets pregnant, and then abandoned by the baby’s father, and has to go through the next year as she struggles – and the family she works for falls apart when the doctor father leaves. The film is great in the details it shows of their lives, their neighborhood, their country – and also gets the bigger emotional notes right as well – it brought me to tears several times in the last act. If it’s not quite Cuaron’s best film (Children of Men is still my favorite) – it’s his most personal and deeply felt, and is easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year. If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere Netflix will play it in theaters, see it there – not just the images, but the remarkable sound work deserves to be seen in a theater. If not, Netflix will due – but it’s a shame most won’t be able to see it on a big screen.
A film I thought would be in play for the People’s Choice award (and I wouldn’t be shocked if it placed high, but since they only release three titles, we’ll never now) is Widows (Steve McQueen) – a gangbusters genre film that is probably the most purely entertaining film I saw at TIFF, but it still a film with a lot on its mind. It is essentially a heist film where three widows (Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez) whose husbands were all killed in a robbery gun awry, decide to band together to pull off the next job they were planning. The performances are all great – Davis anchors this, Debicki steals it, and the supporting cast is all great – especially Daniel Kaluuya doing a great heel turn and Colin Farrell as a corrupt politician, who would like to go straight – but even the smallest roles are well written and performed (Lukas Haas, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, etc.). The film touches upon issues like sexism, misogyny, racism, police brutality, political corruption and many other topics – but doesn’t get bogged down in them, never failing to deliver the entertainment. It’s a film you’ll watch a hundred times on cable – and never get tired of. This isn’t the film I expected from McQueen – who previous three films (Hunger, Shame, the Oscar winning 12 Years a Slave) were harsh – punishing audiences as much as anything. Here, he’s made a crowd pleaser.
For a film that is definitely not an audience pleaser we go to The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard) – which continues my streak (started well before I was born) of being a Godard film I know I don’t fully understand. His latest film, like many of his recent films, is a kind of collage film, collecting images and sounds from the past, as Godard criticizes those in the audience for not caring enough about the images, what they mean, and what they represent. For me, I’m a little sad that Godard has lost the playfulness of his last feature – Goodbye to Language 3-D – and the eye-popping effects that film had. This is a return to pure cranky Godard, which isn’t the mode I like him most. It’s still interesting, and worth seeing if you like Godard.
From the almost 90-year-old Godard, getting his well over 100th directing credit, we go to a director making his debut – The Standoff at Sparrow Creek (Henry Dunham). The film desperately wants to be Reservoir Dogs, except with militia men instead of jewel thieves – as in the aftermath of a mass shooting at a police shooting, the members of a local militia gather at their bunker – full of weapons – and realize that one of their own had to be the shooter – but who? It falls on James Badge Dale, playing a former cop, to interrogate the rest and figure it all out. The film isn’t as good as Tarantino – much of the dialogue works, but there are more than a few clunkers in there as well, and I think the movie tries to be too cute with its multiple twists in the end, but for a Tarantino clone, it’s well above average. I cannot help but wonder what the discussion around the film will be if it gets a major release – as its politics are murky, and you could accuse it of riling up the wrong people.
The political conversation is already in full swing around American Dharma (Errol Morris) – his latest documentary, this time consisting of a long conversation with Steve Bannon. To a certain extent, by making the film, Morris was in a no-win situation – some think (not without reason) that simply talking to Bannon means he has one because his ideas are treated with seriousness. Others won’t mind Morris talking to Bannon – but want the filmmaker to eviscerate him – which has never been Morris’ style. He likes to give his subjects enough rope to hang themselves with. What Morris does, remarkably well, in American Dharma is allow Bannon to talk, and air his views, but Morris undermines them all – with the clips from old movies he chooses, and a serious of headlines and quotes, which show just how disingenuous Bannon is being. It’s an incredibly scary documentary, that shows how Trump rose to power – and how even with Bannon out of the White House, and out of Breitbart – his ideas have still taken hold. You can skip if you wish Morris’ approach was different – but to me, it’s one of the best docs I’ve seen this year.
A film that probably won’t inspire the political debate it clearly wants to is The Front Runner (Jason Reitman) – a film that looks at the brief campaign Gary Hart launched to become the Democratic nominee in 1988 – where he entered a 12-point favorite over everyone (including George Bush, who would win) and ended three weeks later due to a sexual scandal. The film clearly wants to be a combination of The Candidate and Primary Colors, as directed by Robert Altman (so Tanner ‘ 88 basically), but is perhaps too obsessed with playing fair to all sides, so much so that the film seems to lack a point of view. Despite fine work by Hugh Jackman as Hart, the film doesn’t seem to know who he is – was he a principled guy, brought down by a newly scandal hungry media, or someone hiding behind his principles, because he was caught with his dick out? I do appreciate much of what the film does – in particular not treating the “girl” as an afterthought – it shows her as an intelligent, yet naïve person, who is eventually thrown to the wolves coldly by the Hart campaign. The hugely talented (and huge) ensemble cast is predictably quite good, and the film is entertaining. The film really does want to draw a line between what happened to Hart, and where we are now with the media – but backs away from drawing that line explicitly. It’s just missing a certain something that would elevate it from good to great – perhaps this is a story that would be better served in a limited series running 4 to 5 times longer than the film’s 2-hour runtime.
A film that combines the past and present more explicitly is Transit (Christian Petzold) which adapts a book from the 1940s about people trying to flee Europe, but sets it in a strange quasi-present, where we now know refugees are fleeing to Europe. Interestingly, Petzold doesn’t change much of the references from the novel, but the parallels are undeniable. It’s another of Petzold’s melodramas – as it hinges as a love triangle of sorts, as the main character poses as a dead writer to get a visa to Mexico – but then meets the dead man’s wife and her new lover (and doesn’t explain what he’s doing). The film is strange surreal – and will require a lot of thought to fully decode – but it’s a film that doesn’t leave your mind when it’s over.
Another film looking to the past is Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski), his follow-up to the Oscar winning Ida, which has a lot of stylistic similarities to that film – the boxy, Academy ratio, beautiful black and white photography, which often leaves a lot of space above the character’s heads. The story takes place over a 15-year period, starting in 1949, in Poland and centers on a couple who fall in love, but are constantly pushed apart by the political climates. It’s a tragic romance – you get the feeling very early things are not going to end well (and they don’t). The film is deliberately fragmentary – checking in on them every few years as things get progressively bleak – not even a few joyful musical moments can mask the pain. I don’t think the film is quite the film Ida was – but it’s close, and another example of how good Pawlikowski is, and how important it is for Poland to keep examining their past.
A superficially similar film was Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhangke) which acts as a kind of career summation of Jia’s career so far – combining elements of Unknown Pleasures, Still Born and A Touch of Sin, with a structure similar to Mountains May Depart. The film takes place over 17 years, starting in 2001 – and focuses on a couple – Jia’s muse, the great Tao Zhao and her gangster boyfriend, played by Fan Liao. The first act ends with Tao taking the blame of Fan’s gun – and hence, a five-year prison sentence – and when she gets out things are not quite how she thinks they will be. Like many of Jia’s film, it’s a film about China’s modernization, and move towards capitalism – and the mixed blessing that has been for the country. It’s also a love story, about a woman who keeps getting hurt because the man she loves is not capable of the same kind of love. The ending of the film is ambiguous in the best way imaginable. It’s not quite up to the best of Jia’s work – but it’s pretty close.
I am out of similarities to tie one movie to the next, so let’s just get to the wonderful bizarre brilliance of In Fabric (Peter Strickland). On the face of it, it should be completely ridiculous – it is about a haunted dress, who ends killing anyone who wears it. But it’s all in the style of what Strickland does – like Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, the film is a play on old European B-movies, with a strange twist. This one really loves Dario Argento, and its insane in that way – as first the dress is bought by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, a single mother looking for love and then moves onto a washing machine repairman, and his wife (Hayley Squires, proving her great work in Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake was no fluke). The film is so wonderfully weird and surreal, I don’t think any description of it will do its justice – but if you’re predisposed to like this, you will love this one.
Finally, ending with the best film I saw this year at TIFF – one of the very best films of the year – Burning (Lee Chang-dong) a strange character study that turns into a thriller of sorts. It’s about a young man from the country (a brilliantly subdued Ah-In Yoo) who runs into an old classmate, Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon) – and falls in love with her. When she returns from a trip to Africa with a new boyfriend, Ben (Steven Yeun) – one of those affluent young men who you don’t know what he does, the young man at the center becomes suspicious of him – suspicions that grow when Hae-mi seemingly disappears. The film has an interesting three act structure – we are interested in who Ben is, and what he’s doing, and gradually that shifts to the main character as we scrutinize his motivations – right up to the shocking climax of movie. Lee Chang-dong has long been a favorite of mine – I saw both Secret Sunshine and Poetry at TIFF, and loved both of them – and here he has outdone himself. A masterpiece – easily the best film I saw at TIFF, which is saying something since I saw so many ones this year.
And that’s it for now. I will be back for TIFF next year – I just hope next year I get a little more sleep.