Friday, March 29, 2019

Classic Movie Review: The Shooting (1966)

The Shooting (1966) 
Directed by: Monte Hellman.
Written by: Carole Eastman.
Starring: Warren Oates (Willett Gashade), Millie Perkins (Woman), Jack Nicholson (Billy Spear), Will Hutchins (Coley), Charles Eastman (Bearded Man), Guy El Tsosie (Indian), Brandon Carroll (Sheriff), B.J. Merholz (Leland Drum), Wally Moon (Deputy), William Mackleprang (Cross Tree Townsman), James Campbell (Cross Tree Townsman). 
Monte Hellman’s The Shooting wasn’t really released in 1966, when it was finished – outside of a few film festivals and a stint in European art houses. It garnered more a released in the 1970s, when one of its stars – Jack Nicholson – became the biggest movie star in the world, and its reputation grew steadily over the years – despite the fact that it wasn’t easy to see. Now that it is easily seen, it can take its proper place as one of the best Westerns of the 1960s – and a key film in the genre as a whole. It is seen as the first Acid Western – combining classic Western elements from American films (Anthony Mann is a clear influence), with the surrealism of the Spaghetti Western. It is an existential Western – clearly a product of the chaos of the decade that produced it. It also somewhat predicts the Westerns of that Sam Peckinpah would start making with 1969’s The Wild Bunch (his earlier films were leading to what he did with that, and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia as well) and Clint Eastwood – about the dying Old West. Written by Carole Eastman – who would go on to write Five Easy Pieces – and directed by Hellman with a mixture of surreal and dread, The Shooting builds to a climax that you won’t forget – even if (or especially because) of its ambiguity.
The great Warren Oates stars in the film as Willet Gashade – a former bounty hunter, turned gold miner – who returns to his land to find one partner dead and buried, his brother on the run, and their simple minded employee Coley (Will Hutchins) scared and at a loss to describe just what happened – something about Will’s brother killing a little one – maybe a child in town – and the partner being shot dead out of nowhere. They are soon joined by a mysterious woman (Millie Perkins) – who offers them a lot of money to take her to a town a few weeks ride away. Will and Colely go along for the ride – Will is suspicious from the start, but feels he must see it through, and Colely mooning over Perkins. Will knows they are being followed by someone – and eventually, that someone will join them. It is Billy Spear (Nicholson) – a hired killer – who the woman has hired. Will figures out they aren’t really going to the other town – they’re on the hunt for someone up ahead – and when they take a turn into the desert, it increases the pressure on the group.
In many ways, The Shooting is structured like many a classic Western, and main characters are admittedly archetypes more than they are real characters. Hellman and Eastman are not really after the idea of upending the tropes of the Western, as much as they are twisting them. There is nothing glamorous or romantic about this film. There are strange, surreal touches throughout the movie – like Colely offering a dying man candy as he lays baking in the desert sun with a broken leg. Willet seems resigned to the journey – knowing it seems from the outset that only death awaits them, even as he says he’s along to try and stop the killing he knows the journey is for. It’s another great turn by Oates. Perkins remains an enigma throughout the film – while we will eventually learn who everyone else is, who they are chasing, etc. – we never really learn anything about her, not even her name, and certainly not why she’s on this journey – or why she seems sickly along the way. Had the film been released properly, perhaps it could have been the star making turn for Nicholson that Easy Rider would be three years later, although perhaps not. It is a great early Nicholson performance – but it’s a heartless and cruel one, with one glimpses of that dangerous charm he exudes. Here, he’s a killer – and not one you like.
The film moves on to its inevitable, yet still baffling, conclusion. You can probably figure out who they are chasing – even if you don’t know why – but the film isn’t really about that, not really. As the movie progresses, and this group turns on each other in interesting ways – and one by one, they end up walking through the desert instead of on their horses, the film turns more surreal and existential. What does this all mean after all? The movie is more powerful for not answering.
The Shooting is a great film – a key Western in the genre’s history (and on a side note, further proof that superhero movies are merely just modern day Westerns as some have argued – some me a superhero movie like The Shooting, and maybe I’ll change my mind). It’s one of my favorite genres, and it keeps surprising me with gems like this from its past that had somehow escaped me. It’s not quite the stone cold masterpiece that Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop (1971) was – a kind of anti-Easy Rider that saw clearly the rot setting in, but it’s cut from the same cloth.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Movie Review: Us

Us **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Jordan Peele.
Written by: Jordan Peele.
Starring: Lupita Nyong'o (Adelaide Wilson/Red), Winston Duke (Gabe Wilson/Abraham), Shahadi Wright Joseph (Zora Wilson/Umbrae), Evan Alex (Jason Wilson/Pluto), Elisabeth Moss (Kitty Tyler/Dahlia), Tim Heidecker (Josh Tyler/Tex), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Russel Thomas/Weyland), Anna Diop (Rayne Thomas/Eartha), Cali Sheldon (Becca Tyler/Io), Noelle Sheldon (Lindsay Tyler/Nix), Madison Curry (Young Adelaide Wilson/Young Red).
The more I think about Jordan Peele’s Us – the more I love it, and I pretty much loved every second of it as I was watching it. Peele’s follow-up to Get Out is a bigger, more ambitious film – one whose meanings are harder to parse, harder to pin down – but may in fact be more profound because it. You can go down numerous internet rabbit holes already that give any number of theories on what it all means – some of them make sense, some of them are out and out insane (I try not to say wrong, because interpretations of movies are rarely wrong, even if they are not necessarily what the director intended – but some of them are wrong). Perhaps that was Peele’s ultimate goal – because while I think the big metaphor in the film is obvious, there’s a lot going on under the surface of Us. The film may well become Peele’s version of The Shining (which is my favorite horror film, and my favorite Kubrick film) – a never ending maze you cannot get out of, no matter how you try.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. Like all great films that are filled with subtext, Peele knows that in order for Us to work, it has to work on the basic surface level as well – to be a scary horror movie, with good characters, etc. are you aren’t going to want to try and pierce the larger message he is trying to convey. And Us works on that surface level as well as any horror movie this decade. He starts out simply – establishing the Wilson family – mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), who we see had a traumatizing experience as a child that continues to haunt her in a startling opening sequence, affable husband Gabe (Winston Duke), teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright)- who like all teenager simultaneously loves her family, and is annoyed by them, and younger son Jason (Evan Alex) – going through an awkward, quiet stage. They are heading to their summer house – and end up getting roped into spending the day with their more affluent (white) friends (played by Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss – who delivers another excellent performance, making me wonder if there’s anything she cannot play). When they return to their home that night and are getting ready for bed, they see a family standing in the driveway – a family who won’t go away, and won’t respond – and eventually, they realize, look exactly like them – but other than Red (Nyong’o) – don’t speak. What do they want? Why are they here? Why are they dressed in red? And what are those giant scissors for?
I won’t answer any of those questions here – Us, even more than most films, is probably a film you should see completely cold if possible. And yet, I will also say that even if you guess the various twists and turns the movie is going to take over the course of its runtime, the film still works wonderfully. For a while, it does play like a home invasion horror film – which is one of my favorite horror subgenres, as it taps into one of my own deepest fears – and the added twist here of having the invaders be copies of them, and knowing some of their motive fairly early on, but not all of it, works better than you would expect. It creates even more uncertainty and fear – not less. It also doesn’t rely on artificially boosting the scare factor – the family makes the right decisions throughout – but can never fully escape, and if things look like plot holes (the cops who are called, but do not show up, and later the 911 lines being busy) – they make sense as more is revealed.
Peele, who is clearly a horror movie nerd, knows how to scare you here – knows how to build tension expertly, and then pay it off with bloody violence if need be. While Get Out was a lot of things – all of them great – I’m not sure too much of it was truly scary in a horror movie sense (it’s scary – in a much different way). The entire middle section of the film – from the first invasion of the Wilson house, to the sequence at their friend’s house is expertly crafted horror – and truly terrifying on its own.
It is the final act that gets people talking though – about what it all means – especially the last twist. It is possible to see that twist coming, and yet it still works. It undercuts what otherwise would a triumphant ending because it becomes clear the true scope of the horror, and makes you question not who the real bad guys are – but if anyone is the real bad guy here. As a metaphor, it works on both a national level – for America’s dark past, and how it is painted over and ignored, but is still very much there, how a system that produces winners, also produces losers, who are capable of as much as the winners, but are never given the chance. But it also works on a personal level – about the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to simply go on living – and how the next generation always has to deal with those same lies the previous one told, and what that means for them.
Yes, you can probably pick apart the sheer logistics that the final twists would mean have to be in place. But why would you want to do that? This is a horror film, and operates on horror film logic – and on that level, everything makes complete sense. The film is also a showcase for the great Lupita Nyong’o – who gives a stunning dual performance here, and is the best work of her career – I suspect that come awards time, she will get close but not cross the finish line just like Toni Collette in Hereditary last year – but the performance is that level. And if confirms that Peele is truly a great filmmaker. Get Out was a great film, and you wondered if he could do it again. With Us, he raises his game to the next level – and delivered one of the best horror films of the decade.

Movie Review: Leaving Neverland

Leaving Neverland **** / *****
Directed by: Dan Reed.
It took me a while to watch Leaving Neverland – and even after I watched part 1, it took me a few days before I was ready to dive back into part 2 – which is not an experience I usually have. I am the person who watched Shoah in one sitting, and more often than not, likes to watch miniseries the same way – so six hour shows like Mildred Pierce or Angels in America are all one day things for me. But Leaving Neverland was a difficult film (miniseries, whatever) for me to get through. And I say this not as someone who ever idolized Michael Jackson - I’m a fan of his music, but never went crazy with it. The craziest of those fans have come out in full attack mode against this film. I’ve never really understood the confidence of fans of their favorite celebrity’s innocence when they get accused of something awful. It’s just related to Michael Jackson – Woody Allen fans are just as sure of his innocence (I am a Woody Allen fan, although I have to admit I find the thought of watching his films hard now – mainly because yes, I do believe Dylan). I wish those who were so adamant about his innocence just sit down and watch this film – because they should.
In many ways, Leaving Neverland is a very simple documentary – its simplicity is part of why it is so effective. The vast majority of the film is made up of interviews with Wade Robson and James Safechuck – two men now around the age of 40, who in the late 1980s and early 1990s (when they were children) were “friends” with Michael Jackson. On that, everyone agrees. But what Robson and Safechuck now claim is that during those years, Michael Jackson sexually abused them. This is the first – or even second or third – people to come forward with these claims about Jackson. There has been a fairly steady stream of them coming forward since 1993 – and while Jackson was never convicted of anything, I’m sorry, it’s very hard for me to think that this is all smoke, and no fire. And if you just sit down and listen to Robson and Safechuck – you can make up your own mind. They seem believable to me.
So, basically for the first two hours of this film, Safechuck and Robson – and those close to them – detail how they came to be in Michael Jackson’s orbit – Robson won a dance competition and was a Jackson super fan and got to know him that way, Safechuck was a child commercial actor who did a Pepsi commercial with him, and knew him that way. And how Jackson didn’t just groom them – but groomed their families as well to except what, really, no parent should really except. They tell the story about their days, weekends, weeks at Neverland – where the days were filled with fun and games, and then at night, their parents would stay in one part of the house, while they would stay with Jackson. And that is when the abuse happened. The second part of the film – the last two hours – are really about the aftermath of that abuse. What they did when the first allegations came out in 1993 – and how they have responded and dealt with things ever since, including their eventual decisions to come forward with these allegations – which they had previously denied – after Jackson’s death.
The film was directed by Dan Reed, and he really does adopt a very simple approach. He takes what archival footage he has, and cuts it together with interviews – with the two men, but also their family members, especially their mothers. Both Safechuck and Robson’s mothers played a key role in their relationship with Jackson – but both are very different in how they saw things at the time, and how they see things to this day. The film does make you understand at least their logic in letting their sons spend this much time with Jackson alone – up to and including sleeping in his bed with him, which as a parent makes no sense to me at all – but to them, at least, made sense at the time.
You can, if you want, criticize the film for being one sided – although, I’m not quite sure the way around that. Jackson is dead, so he cannot defend himself, and even if he were alive, he always maintained his innocence during his life, so we know what he would say now. And we know what his estate says now. The film does include the child abuse trial that did happen – at which Jackson was acquitted. It allows Robson and Safechuck to explain why, at various times (even in legal proceedings) they denied Jackson did anything to them. It doesn’t really try and hide that. And you can watch the film and make up your own mind as to whether or not you believe these allegations. I know I made up my mine.

Movie Review: MFKZ

MFKZ ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Shôjirô Nishimi and Guillaume 'Run' Renard.
Written by: Guillaume 'Run' Renard and Baljeet Rai (English adaptation) 
Starring: Kenn Michael (Angelino), Vince Staples (Vinz), Dino Andrade (Willy), Michael Chiklis (Crocodile), Giancarlo Esposito (Mr. K), Jorge R. Gutiérrez (El Tigre), Dascha Polanco (Luna), RZA (Shakespeare), Danny Trejo (Bruce), Antonio Alvarez (El Diablo).
MFKZ – aka Mutafukaz – is an ultraviolent Japanese/French animated coproduction, that traffics in stereotypes and revels in bloodlust, and yet, is also somewhat clever and fun – at least in short bursts. It is a film that has so many different plot threads, which is interesting since the film doesn’t seem to care about any of them. It’s much interested in looking cool and spilling blood, which it does pretty well. The plot itself really doesn’t go anywhere and kind of plods along at a snail’s pace, just really there to get us to the next violent shootout or chase sequence. Taken on its own its term, the film can be kind of fun – and I probably would like it a lot more if I were a 15-year-old boy, who could fool himself into thinking the film was in some way subversive or daring. It really isn’t – but it’s still kind of cool, if it’s your thing – and you can convince yourself that the stereotypes in the film aren’t really that harmful.
The plot, such as it is, centers on Angelino who may best be described as looking like Marvin the Martian would look without his helmet – a giant, round all black head, witch huge white eyes. He lives in DMC – Dead Meat City – in a Cockroach infested apartment with his best friend Vinz, who is a skull, without a bottom jaw (who can still talk) and flames coming out of the top of his head – and yet is somehow not very threatening. Their only other friend is Willy – a profane, hyperactive cat with braces who is constantly either throwing up or having diarrhea. The plot seems to be set in motion when Angelino gets run over on his scooter while at his pizza delivery job – distracted when he sees a beautiful woman walking down the street. Soon after the Men in Black and the cops are after Angelino – for reasons that will only gradually become clear – and they aren’t out to arrest him – they want to kill him. There will be many car chases – including one in an ice cream truck – and many shootouts, including one in Palm Hills – City of Bangers – which is probably filled with the most egregious stereotypes in a film full of them – including a banger who quotes Shakespeare.
If you want to turn off your brain, and just see the animation – which does look distinctive at least, and is done with style and skill, and the bloody action sequences – which do have an impressive range to them (the film doesn’t repeat its action beats too much) – that MFKZ can be a fun film. But it’s also a film that wears you down a little as you watch it – it’s all just too much, and turned up to 11 from the get go, and never really slows down. It wants to fill every frame with so many eye popping things, every line with a joke. The film is so aggressive and in your face from the word go, that it’s pretty much impossible to sit back and enjoy the film. It’s even less so when you think of all the racial stereotypes on display – made worse by the fact that none of the characters are all the interesting – and certainly none of the stereotypically drawn characters are (I didn’t even mention the Mexican wrestlers yet).
I can see the audience for the film – the comic that inspired it. It’s for teenage boys who want to feel edgy and smart, and see a lot of blood and gross out humor. Its tailor made for them – and they will love the film, if they see it. For the rest of though, it’s more of a curiosity piece at best.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Movie Review: Climax

Climax **** / *****
Directed by: Gaspar Noé.
Written by: Gaspar Noé.
Starring: Sofia Boutella (Selva), Romain Guillermic (David), Souheila Yacoub (Lou), Kiddy Smile (Daddy), Claude-Emmanuelle Gajan-Maull (Emmanuelle), Giselle Palmer (Gazelle), Taylor Kastle (Taylor), Thea Carla Schott (Psyche), Sharleen Temple (Ivana), Lea Vlamos (Lea), Alaia Alsafir (Alaya), Kendall Mugler (Rocket), Lakdhar Dridi (Riley), Adrien Sissoko (Omar), Mamadou Bathily (Bats), Alou Sidibé (Alou), Ashley Biscette (Ashley), Mounia Nassangar (Mounia), Tiphanie Au (Sila), Sarah Belala (Sara), Alexandre Moreau (Cyborg), Naab (Naab), Strauss Serpent (Strauss), Vince Galliot Cumant (Tito).
When your primary goal as a filmmaker seems to be to shock audiences, you eventually either grow out of it, or become a parody of yourself. Michael Haneke is an example of the former – his later films still can shock, but he’s not trying to shock you for shock’s sake like he was in say Funny Games and his earlier films. Bruno Dumont is an example of the latter – I can no longer tell if he’s being at all serious, or he’s just fucking with us now – daring us to take him seriously, so he can laugh at us (in a way, Lars von Trier has entered this territory as well). Then there is Gaspar Noe – who honestly, I’m not quite sure what to make of. His infamous film Irreversible (2002) of course was told backwards – starting with an extended, very violent murder, then going to show us an even more extender, violent rape sequence that explained the murder, and then went back to show us the couple – the murderer and the rape victim – before either one, when they were happy, their happiness tinged with sadness because we know what they’re about to go through. From there, he went full on virtuoso, but fairly hallow, with Enter the Void – a film whose visuals I will never forget, but I could not tell you what happened in the plot – and then Love, where he decided to use 3-D technology to shot not a porn film per se, but one with real sex. In that one, he forgot to make anything really interesting though – not the characters, or even really the sex. Fewer people seem to be scandalized by his films, because fewer of them are paying attention. But with Climax, he has made what may just be his best film. It’s not complicated film in terms of narrative or theme – but it looks and sound terrific. By Noe standards, Climax is rather tame – meaning it’s still more extreme that practically anything else you will see in a theater this year, but it probably won’t traumatize you. Here Noe seems to be having fun – and it works well for him.
The film takes place over one long night, in basically a big, old warehouse. In it, are dozens of members of a French dance troupe about to embark on an American tour. We get to know them – very briefly – with a couple of interview clips with some of the major players in the beginning, before Noe plunges us headlong into an extended dance number – shot, brilliantly, in one long take. The energy and joy of this dance number haunt the rest of the movie in a way – because while there will be more dancing throughout the film, there will be a lot less joy. You see, it becomes clear that someone spiked the sangria with acid, and almost every had some – meaning they’re now all stoned, and getting paranoid and violent. Anyone who didn’t have any becomes the object of suspicions – and those suspicions turn violent. One of the leaders brought their young son with them – and then locked him in an electrical room to protect him – but then lost the key Various other characters retreat to different, private rooms where more hedonistic excesses are going on. The rooms are lit in distinctive colors – greens, blues, reds – and the whole enterprise is flying off the rails at a quicker and quicker pace – leading to a climax which is essentially and orgy of violence and, well, an actual orgy.
Part of the problem with some of Noe’s previous films – as much as I admired them – was how seriously they took themselves. Climax doesn’t suffer from that problem at all. In many ways, it kind of feels like Noe having fun – experimenting, and seeing what he can do. The dance sequences in the film are remarkable – and Noe smartly decides to mostly let them all play out in one long take. This is what Stanley Donen or other classic musical directors would do – allowing the dancers to really be the starts of those moments, and not the director (although it takes great skill to do that properly as well).
The basic theme is something that has been explored countless time since Lord of the Flies – or in the films of Luis Bunuel, etc. – that society exists under the thin veneer of respectability, and it doesn’t take much for humans to fall back on their baser instincts and descend into chaos. So, not a new theme. But it’s one that fits Noe well, and allows him to make his best film to date – one that embraces his excesses, without making you feel like you need a shower afterwards. Noe has always had skill and ambition – and interestingly, when he dialed back the latter, it really lets the former shine. Climax is an early year highlight.

Movie Review: Birds of Passage

Birds of Passage **** / *****
Directed by: Cristina Gallego & Ciro Guerra.
Written by: Maria Camila Arias & Jacques Toulemonde Vidal and Cristina Gallego.
Starring: Carmiña Martínez (Úrsula), José Acosta (Rapayet), Natalia Reyes (Zaida), Jhon Narváez (Moisés), Greider Meza (Leonídas), José Vicente (Peregrino), Juan Bautista Martínez (Aníbal), Aslenis Márquez (Indira), José Naider (Miguel Dionisio), Yanker Díaz (Leonidas as a Child), Víctor Montero (Isidoro), Joaquín Ramón (Gabriel), Jorge Lascarro (Sigifredo), Germán Epieyu (Minister), Luisa Alfaro (Victoria), Merija Uriana (Herminia). 
In many ways, the Colombian film Birds of Passage traffics in gangster movie clichés – you’ll find elements of The Godfather or GoodFellas or City of God throughout the terrifically entertaining film. Yes, you can complain about some of that – or the fact that the movie includes not one but two hotheads who do stupid things that screw everything up (like Tommy DeVito in GoodFellas or Lil Zee in City of God), or some of the coincidences in the plot. Yet the film works despite those minor issues, in part because the film is so well made and entertaining, but even more because it uses this backdrop to get us inside a culture we haven’t really seen on screen before – the indigenous Wayuu, of Northern Columbia, who for generations withstood outside forces who sought to control them or bring them down. The threat in Birds of Passage comes from within, as these things often do, when drugs and money become involved. The film is based on events that happened in the 20-year span between 1960 and 1980 – and if you know anything about Columbia you know it got worse from there. Here, the drug of choice is marijuana – not cocaine – but the resulting violence is the same.
The film doesn’t start off as a gangster movie – it starts off immersing us in the Wayuu culture – where young woman Zaida (Natalia Reyes) is set to having her coming out as a woman – ready to be married. Rapayet (Jose Acosta), a poorer man from a lesser family, immediately makes his intentions clear – he wants to marry Zaida. Zaida’s powerful mother – Ursula (Carmina Martinez) – who runs her family – isn’t convinced, and sets the dowry for her daughter ridiculously high as a way to put off Rapayet’s advances. But he is determined – and soon finds his way to get the money he needs. He has been dealing in coffee and alcohol – but seizes an opportunity when he hears some Americans in the Peace Corps want pot – a lot of pot. His uncle grows pot – and he can fix it so they can all make money. Soon, he is selling all his uncle to grow to Americans – who export it back to their country in planes – and things are good. He is married to Zaida, he is making more money than he can needs, and has become a powerful man himself. His hotheaded, non-Wayuu partner Moises (Jhon Navaez) then goes ahead and screws everything up – and while Rapayet pieces things back together, it sets the stage for another screw-up – Leonidas (Greider Meza) – a decade later – to eventually screw everything up beyond repair.
The film was directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra – who previously made the visually stunning Embrace of the Serpent – a black and white film that I admired visually more than I enjoyed. Here, they are working in color, and the story is stronger. They are painting on a vast canvas here – with many characters, over the span of more than a decade, and they never get lost in the weeds of the story (this is why some of those clichés and coincidences work – they help move the story along). In many ways, the gangster story here is familiar – regular guy, Rapayet, gets involved in crime, becomes bigger than he could ever imagine, but sees it all destroyed by the end – as things have spiraled into violence, greed and death. The element of the Wayuu make the film feel unique. The Wayuu are a tradition bound people – and a superstitious one. They have a way of doing things – beliefs of ghosts, and dreams as omens, word messengers that must be respected, etc. The Wayuu doesn’t rely on outside people to help them solve their problems – and they don’t trust them either. There is a tension between the old and the young here – Ursula believes wholeheartedly in the Wayuu way – but Rapayet and Zaida are trying to be, at least, somewhat more modern. What good will being Wayuu do them is it will end with them getting killed? It turns out, of course, that the way of the Wayuu only works when everyone respects it – which is easier to do when things are going well. By the end, the Wayuu may not be destroyed – but part of them has been – and no one really seems to want to deal with it. The dead have piled up.
Birds of Passages isn’t a perfect movie – as mentioned, it probably relies on clichés a little too much (having both Moises and then Leonaidas set in motion massive violence pretty much singlehandedly feels like a stretch). And Zaida, who we get the impression early will be a major character, is relegated to the background very early – and it’s impossible to get a handle on her as a character. And yet, it’s a fascinating, entertaining gangster movie throughout – one with more going on than normal. It is also brilliantly directed by Gallego and Guerra – who present the violence, but don’t glamorize it – much of it either happens in a flash, or off-screen. The big climax happens in a longshot, and a flash to the aftermath. They treat this story as the tragedy that it is – so even with the clichés, you feel the immense tragic nature of this story – and what has been lost.

Movie Review: The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley **** / *****
Directed by: Alex Gibney.
Written by: Alex Gibney.
Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney has made several films about scams, liars and scandals over the years – he really made his name with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and he’s made films about Eliot Spitzer (the underrated Client 9), the clergy abuse scandal (Mea Maxima Culpa) and Scientology (Going Clear). His latest film, The Inventor, is about Elizabeth Holmes – founder of blood testing company Theranos, which was going to revolutionize the way we have our blood tested, except for the fact that what she wanted to do may in fact be impossible, and even if it’s not, she certainly didn’t figure out how to do it. And yet, despite the fact that she founded the company at the age of 19, after having dropped out of Stanford, so she didn’t really have the medical or engineering training needed to pull it off, she was able to make Theranos into a multi-billion-dollar company, with powerful men like Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, Rupert Murdoch and Joe Biden involved as investors or board members or simply fans. She was a star in Silicon Valley and beyond – after all, how many of these tech geniuses who found revolutionary companies are young women? She embodied the ethos of Silicon Valley – which is fake it, until you make it – basically pretending that she had already accomplished what she set out to accomplish. That would be bad enough – but not as immoral as it becomes here, because she actually roles out her company to test real people’s blood, and delivering them real results – for which they rely on to make health care decisions.
The documentary is fascinating – and a good recap for those who haven’t followed along with John Carryou’s work at the Wall Street Journal, or his book, where he exposed all of this – or didn’t listen to the excellent podcast The Dropout – which did the same thing. Gibney’s documentaries often seem to take this approach – taking complex stories, and distilling them down to their essence for those who haven’t been following along at home. He does it very well here – so even if it’s hard to argue that he does anything new here, he does get the essentials of this story out in just under two hours. And the advantage that he has over a podcast or articles/books, is that there is a wealth of footage of Holmes that make for fascinating viewing.
The basics of what Theranos did was simple – they said they were developing a system where instead of have to draw lots of blood from patients to run a test, you could draw just a pinprick worth of blood from a patient’s finger, and then test that for more than 200 different issues. It is a genius idea – and one that really could revolutionize lab testing. The problem, of course, is that Holmes had no idea how to do that – and no one she hired did either. They kept telling her what she wanted wasn’t possible the way she wanted it done. The machine used for testing – the Edison – would need to be a lot bigger than the sleek machine Holmes wanted. She styled herself after Steve Jobs – and throughout the film, you may well find yourself thinking back to Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s Jobs movie – where he was an asshole, who insisted on his way, and eventually got it. The problem, of course, is that if you’re going to insist on things like this going this way, you have to deliver. Holmes never did – and yet she rolled it out into Walgreens in Arizona anyway. Desperate to protect the fact that her company couldn’t do what she said it could, she bought a lot of commercially available testing equipment, and just pretended her machines were doing the work. Many patients thought they’d only need that pinprick the company advertised – only to find out they needed a more traditional blood draw. The people who had their blood tested the way Theranos said they would, got results that didn’t make a lot of sense.
Gibney also seems – particularly early in the documentary – to be taking quite a few veiled shots at fellow documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. Morris, one of the best documentary filmmakers ever, was hired by Theranos to make a promotional film for them – and even if Morris usually has a sharp sense of sniffing out bullshit, it failed him here. He was used to make propaganda for company doing immoral things – and didn’t realize it. Early in the film, when Morris’ is brought up, it feels like Gibney is aping his style a little bit – in the music choices, the style of montages he is putting up, etc. Even if I love Errol Morris – and I do – he deserves the shots he takes here.
I do think that missing in the film is a question about what role Holmes’ gender played into what she was able to get away with for so long. Was she able to charm these older men into investing because she was charming and persuasive and conventionally attractive. Gibney kind of approaches this – and backs away. It goes unspoken in the film – which is a shame. Many of the women in the film seemed to see through Holmes quicker than the men did. Perhaps a female filmmaker may have been able to get to something more here. Gibney, it seems, is more interested in the facts.
And overall, I think that is an approach that works for him – and it works here. Yes, I think there is more to this story – more than the documentary tells to be sure, that we’ve already heard, but more that we haven’t fully explored yet. Regardless, whether you already know this story or not – The Inventor is a documentary you should seek out. It’s fascinating from beginning to end.

Movie Review: Captive State

Captive State ** / *****
Directed by: Rupert Wyatt   
Written by: Erica Beeney & Rupert Wyatt.
Starring: John Goodman (William Mulligan), Ashton Sanders (Gabriel Drummond), Jonathan Majors (Rafe Drummond), Vera Farmiga (Jane Doe), Kevin Dunn (Commissioner Eugene Igoe), James Ransone (Patrick Ellison), Alan Ruck (Charles Rittenhouse), Madeline Brewer (Rula), Machine Gun Kelly (Jurgis), Kevin J. O'Connor (Kermode), Ben Daniels (Daniel), Caitlin Ewald (Anita), Lawrence Grimm (Evan Hayes), Guy Van Swearingen (Eddie the Priest), Elena Marisa Flores (Flores), D.B. Sweeney (Levitt), Rene L. Moreno (Courier), Yasen Peyankov (Hacker), Ta'Rhonda Jones (Barbosa), Shannon Cochran (Kathy Mulligan), Patrese McClain (Flora), Chike Johnson (John), Megan Brooke Long (Jean Hayes), Chronicle Ganawah (Posner), Alex Henderson (Theo), KiKi Layne (Carrie). 
I feel like I’ve said this a few times over the last year or two – but Captive State is a movie I wanted to like a lot more than I did. I think our movie culture needs more films like Captive State – fairly large budget audience films that come from original ideas – not part of some larger 20 film franchise, not based on comic books or other properties – but large scale audience pleasers that are truly original. I just wish that the resulting movies would be better than something like Captive State. I admired what the film tried to do – and yet have to admit that it pretty much fails at delivering what it sets out to do. When there are so few films this big, based on original ideas, being made – why can’t the end result be better.
The biggest single problem with Captive State is that it takes so much time setting everything up that the film feels like one big exposition dump, and then an anti-climactic ending. The premise should be simple – it’s 9 years after an alien invasion, and humans have essentially become an occupied population. The governments of the world gave up fairly quickly, when it became clear that the aliens could, if they wanted to, wipe out the population. All these years later, humans hardly ever see the aliens anymore – the ones still are earth in the “closed” areas of every major city in the world – where some humans, and the aliens, are at work harvesting the planet’s resources (you would think that our resources wouldn’t be located in cities – but whatever). The story centers on Gabriel (Ashton Sanders, from Moonlight) whose brother Rafe (Jonathan Majors) was apparently killed some years earlier during an attempted attack on the alien closed area in Chicago. But maybe he wasn’t killed – and maybe the resistance to the aliens is not dead. Gabriel is under surveillance by William Mulligan (John Goodman) – a cop who used to be partners with his father – who both seems to want to protect Gabriel, while staying out of sight, and tow the company line for the aliens to get in their good graces.
That’s just a brief overview of the plot – trust me, there’s a lot more, and the movie takes a long time setting everything up, and who everyone is – and there are a lot of characters. Through it all, there’s little else in the movie that is all that entertaining. The aliens – who either have long, spiky hair or armor (depending on what you think) are largely absent from the movie – at least after the first scene, set during the invasion, which is as close to as a real action sequence that you expect from an alien invasion movie. Most of the rest of the film is exposition and misdirection on the part of the filmmakers – who want you to understand the full, complicated backstory they’ve come up with, but also throw you off the scent of what is coming next.
In short, Captive State is a pretty dull film. It almost plays like the opening chapter in a longer story – an extra-long pilot episode of a TV series (although, if that were the case, you’d need to include more action to make viewers come back for another episode). Captive State is essentially all setup – all to get us to a finale that isn’t very good, and feels rushed – as the movie then has to explain why everyone is now acting in ways that seem run counter to how they acted throughout the rest of the movie.
The film was directed by Rupert Wyatt – whose best film was the first (and least) of the new Planet of the Apes trilogy – which was a good setup, although it pales in comparison to what Matt Reeves accomplished in the latter two chapters of that trilogy. Captive State is a frustrating experience, because the setup is genuinely good, and I think there are interesting ideas throughout. But they never come together into a film that interesting – or entertaining – as a whole.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Movie Review: State Like Sleep

State Like Sleep ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Meredith Danluck.
Written by: Meredith Danluck.
Starring: Katherine Waterston (Katherine), Michiel Huisman (Stefan Delvoe), Luke Evans (Emile), Michael Shannon (Edward), Mary Kay Place (Elaine), Bo Martyn (Frieda), Julie Khaner (Anneke).
Katherine Waterson is a fine actress, who since her breakthrough role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice in 2014, has delivered one fine performance after another in films and roles both large in small – in Steve Jobs’ as his suffering ex raising his daughter on her own, in Queen of Earth of one half of a destructive, enabling relationship – who isn’t as wholly innocent as she appears, and in Mid90s, as a struggling single mother. She even was pretty good in the not terribly good Fantastic Beasts movies, and in Alien: Covenant – which I liked more than most, although it must be said it was hard for her to compete with Michael Fassbender times two in that film. As an actress, she seems to excel in characters who are silent more often than not – she makes her characters thinking or processing things more interesting than most actresses. That helps her a lot in State Like Sleep – because her character is constantly thinking, constantly processing a lot – and never sure who, if anyone, she can share that with. Every relationship she has in the film is fraught – as she doesn’t know what she can, or should, say – how much to let the other characters in. It’s wonderful to watch her work.
The problem with State Like Sleep as a movie overall is that writer/director Meredith Danluck feels the need to overcomplicate the narrative – which really should have been fairly simple and straight forward. The plot revolves around Katherine (Waterson) – an American photographer, who returns to Brussels for the first time in the year since her Belgian movie star husband, Stefan (Michiel Huisman) committed suicide in their apartment as the couple’s relationship was falling apart. She has avoided doing anything with their apartment, their bank accounts, really anything – so it’s all fallen on Stefan’s controlling mother Anneke (Julie Khaner) to clean up – and she isn’t happy about it. She wouldn’t have returned to Brussels at all except her own mother (Mary Kay Place) has suffered what she calls a “mini stroke” there – and she has to stay in the hospital to recover. While in Brussels, Katherine keeps flashing back to the last days of her marriage to Stefan – the tabloid photos of him with another woman which were the last straw after his drug use drove them to the breaking point. She also has two very different relationships with two men she meets – Emile (Luke Evans) – a seedy nightclub owner from Stefan’s past, and Edward (Michael Shannon) a travelling American businessman staying on the same floor of the hotel she’s on, and who she starts leaning on a little bit, for sex, and other things.
The film is at its best when it’s least concerned with its plot. The biggest mistake Danluck has made in the film is to construct it all like a mystery to unravel – so that Katherine starts digging around in her husband’s life to find out why he killed himself. Even this could have worked perhaps, had Danluck not insisted on tying everything up in a neat little bow in the last 10 minutes – and ending that makes sense in that it ties up all the loose ends, but makes zero sense when you realize that Stefan must have not even tried to explain things to Katherine. Logically, it makes no sense.
It also doesn’t make much sense in terms of what the themes of the movie seem to be – which is that there is randomness in life that cannot be explained. We need stories, we see Stefan say in an interview in the movie, to make sense of life – because life is too random. The movie then becomes one of those stories used to make sense of life – because it only seems random, when in reality, it’s all planned out.
But when the film is just Katherine walking through her life, and trying to figure things out, it works best. The title – State Like Sleep – is given a few different meanings over the course the film – Stefan being dead is a State Like Sleep, Place’s coma is a State Like Sleep, and Katherine refusing to deal with what happened and sleepwalking through her life is another State Like Sleep. Really, the movie excels when it’s concentrating on that one – with Katherine trying to break herself out of the stupor she’s been in for the last year. Waterson is excellent in those scenes.
The supporting cast is, for the most part, wasted. Really only Michael Shannon is really good here – because everyone else is either a puzzle piece to eventually be placed in the movie, or is Mary Kay Place, who was a plot point to get Katherine to Brussels, and then put in a coma so you don’t have to deal with her anymore. It’s an interesting role for Shannon – who when introduced, seems like a creep – and by the end, he’s still kind of a creep, but also kind of not. I’m not sure what drew Shannon to the role – but he does some interesting things with it.
I’ll also say, for a feature debut, Meredith Danluck shows she is a better director than a writer. The film establishes is dark, melancholy tone from the start, and does an excellent job of kind of drifting in that tone – a kind of dream like tone. It’s fine direction – but it’s ultimately let down by a screenplay that just isn’t as interesting as what the director – and especially the lead actress – are doing.

Movie Review: Apollo 11

Apollo 11 *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Todd Douglas Miller.
It is somewhat remarkable that Apollo 11 exists at all. Director Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary is made up entirely of footage shot in 1969 by NASA and others, documenting the moon landing, that laid in the National Archives for decades, unprocessed and unseen. Once the filmmaker and his team realized what they had, they did everything they can to restore the footage to its natural luster – and they really have done a remarkable job. You really should see Apollo 11 in a theater – the footage is remarkable, as is the sound design, and the score. Seriously, if you have any desire at all to see this documentary, get yourself to a theater – this has got a very wide release by documentary standards – and it is how it deserves to be seen. Much of its power – much of the reason to watch it – will be lost on a regular TV screen.
The best scenes in Apollo 11 are – for me – the opening ones, when the sheer size and scope of the work that needed to be done to send three men to the moon becomes clear. The massive equipment used to put everything in place, the hundreds upon hundreds of people working in control rooms, and on the shuttle itself. All the people, who travelled from across America just to see the shuttle lift off from Florida. The documentary brings all that to life in this footage they have found – and all the audio they find as well. It brings into focus just how massive the national effort was, and the pride felt in America at that time because of that national effort.
Once the lift off happens – and most of the rest of the movie takes place in space itself – I will admit Apollo 11 isn’t quite as interesting as a film. The footage from space is grainy – as to be expected – and much of it isn’t particularly as stunning as everything else. It’s still interesting to see the control room – and the work being done there – and it is interesting to see a different perspective on the actual landing itself – and the amount of time spent there. Then again, we’ve probably seen that the best version of that footage before – and while it’s still awe-inspiring, it’s also something we know.
Overall though, Apollo 11 is a big, bold film made up entirely of archival footage that no one really knew existed before the filmmakers got their hands on it. It is important that they restored it and brought it to life – and perhaps will remind Americans of what they can accomplish when there is a concerted national effort to do that. It is a hopeful film – and awe-inspiring one even.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Movie Review: Triple Frontier

Triple Frontier *** / *****
Directed by: J.C. Chandor.
Written by: Mark Boal & J.C. Chandor.
Starring: Ben Affleck (Tom 'Redfly' Davis), Oscar Isaac (Santiago 'Pope' Garcia), Charlie Hunnam (William 'Ironhead' Miller), Garrett Hedlund (Ben Miller), Pedro Pascal (Francisco 'Catfish' Morales), Adria Arjona (Yovanna), Sheila Vand (Lauren Yates), Reynaldo Gallegos (Gabriel Martin Lorea).
In a rather short period of time, J.C. Chandor has established himself as one of the most interesting young directors working in Hollywood – especially in the way in which his films present the moral grey area in complex situations. In his first and third films – Margin Call and A Most Violent Year – he puts on screen people who it would be easy to dislike – traders trying to save their own company at the expense of their investors on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis in Margin Call, or a husband and wife team doing whatever it takes to keep their business together in 1981 New York in A Most Violent Year (in between those films, he made the thrilling All is Lost, with its great silent performance by Robert Redford as a man alone on a sinking boat – which is less morally ambiguous, except, of course, if you consider we have no idea why he’s there in the first place).
His latest film – Triple Frontier – too longer than normal for him to make (he made his first three films in the span of four years – and it’s been five years since A Most Violent Year) – and seems to be right up his alley. Triple Frontier is about a group of five men – who were once in an elite military unit together, doing jobs for their country. They are called back together when Pope (Oscar Isaac) sees a chance for them to pull a job for themselves. He knows of a South American drug kingpin who apparently has $75 million in his house – and has a plan where they can break in, take the money, and kill the kingpin – while keeping the loss of life for others to a minimum. He reaches out to the Miller brothers – Ironhead (Charlie Hunnam) and Ben (Garret Hedlund), as well as pilot Catfish (Pedro Pascal) – who all agree to take part, as long as their old military commander, Redfly (Ben Affleck) is in. Redfly has become a husband and father in the years since his military career has ended – and doesn’t really want to get involved. And yet, he’s now getting divorced, he isn’t a particularly successful realtor – and this seems like an easy enough job. So after some humming and haing, he’s in.
The screenplay is by Mark Boal – regular collaborator with Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, Detroit) – and if Chandor seems at home with the moral ambiguity of the project, then Boal is at home with the complex view of American patriotism on display. Still, no matter how good these two are, they cannot figure out a way to make the first 45 minutes or so of Triple Frontier all that interesting. It’s fairly standard “getting the team back together for one last job” stuff for most of that time, and really other than Affleck’s Redfly, none of the rest of the men are all that interesting – although Isaac I think does what he can with Pope. You could easily say something similar about the only major female character in the film – Yovanna (Adria Arjona) – who is Pope’s inside man as it were – who isn’t given much to do except look pretty. You have to wonder if there is a longer movie somewhere that gives her more to do – as well as the drug kingpin himself (played by Reynaldo Gallegos) – who is given even less to do. For most of the setup of Triple Frontier, everything seems to be on autopilot.
I will say that the action sequences throughout the film are excellent – Chandor isn’t overdoing the style here, but knows how to direct action sequences. And everything from the robbery on is far more interesting than the lead up – mainly because it becomes an interesting question of just how these five men are going to move millions of dollars over the mountains and to the ocean to get it out of the country – a massive logistical problem, that is complicated by the fact that there was far more money than they anticipated – and their greed means leaving it behind isn’t really an option for them. This leads to the type of scenes you don’t normally see in films like this – and a sense that what Boal and Chandor are basically doing is a remake of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Still, what I think hurts Triple Frontier is the fact that really only Affleck is playing a complex character here – and it should be said that it is some of the best work of Affleck’s career. He may be the greediest – and the most morally compromised – of all this mean, but he’s also the one you understand the most. He acts all business, but there are moments, mostly small ones, after a few things he must do (or at least feels he must do) where you see the toll it’s taking on him – before he moves on. Because he’s got the most screen time, Isaac brings somewhat more to Pope than may have been on the page – but it’s an example of a great actor making the most of a thinly written role.
Triple Frontier is still a decent film – it’s a Netflix original, and it isn’t a bad way to spend an evening at home watching a movie. And yet, with all the talent involved, you cannot help but be a little disappointed that it ends up being an average film, rather than a great one. I’m sure Chandor will make another film as good as his first three – or better – but this one feels like a holding pattern as he waits for the next great one to come along.

Movie Review: Wonder Park

Wonder Park ** / *****
Written by: Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec and Robert Gordon.
Starring: Brianna Denski (June), Jennifer Garner (Mom), Ken Hudson Campbell (Boomer), Kenan Thompson (Gus), Mila Kunis (Greta), John Oliver (Steve), Ken Jeong (Cooper), Norbert Leo Butz (Peanut), Matthew Broderick (Dad), Sofia Mali (Young June), Oev Michael Urbas (Banky), Kate McGregor-Stewart (Aunt Albertine), Kevin Chamberlin (Uncle Tony), Kath Soucie (Bus Counselor Shannon), Noen Perez (Chatty Kid), Daran Norris (Principal Peters), Sammy Voit (Boy), Dylan Boyack (Little Boy #1).
One of the joys of being a parent, is taking my kids to the movies – and seeing their reaction to films aimed at them. It can be a thrilling experience to watch even average kid’s movies with them – but when something truly special comes along – like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse or Moana – come along, and they are completely wrapped up in it, the results are so pure and so joyful, that it makes sitting through animated fair like Wonder Park worth it. Because Wonder Park is not wonderful. It doesn’t inspire that same kind of wonder in them. It is, basically, an anonymous animated film that as a parent, you will forget shortly after its over, and the kids won’t remember for too long either. It’s so average. It’s hard to get too worked about a film like this in any way. It’s just kind of there.
The film has no credited director, because the one that was attached was fired because of some #MeToo allegations, and basically, because films like this almost direct themselves – there are so many people working on it, and yet it’s all such anonymous work, it just kind of comes together. It’s clear that the filmmaker had watched Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Tortoro before making this film – and set about to make something with a similar message, and storyline, about the importance of imagination even when kids are dealing with some very serious stuff – perhaps even more so in times like that. In Wonder Park, the little girl at the center is named June, and along with her mother, she has created a theme park called Wonderland (my 7-year-old wanted to know why the movie was called Wonder Park, and not Wonderland, which allowed me to introduce her to the magical world of Intellectual Property and Trademarks) – but basically all in her mind, and throughout their house. When her mother gets sick, and has to go away for a while to get better, June starts to question the value of Wonderland – and starts to worry more and more about her dad, who is perfectly fine, but maybe he won’t be if she doesn’t pay attention to him. She is supposed to go away to math camp – but gets off the bus, and heads into the forest to walk back to him. And then, of course, she walks into Wonderland – a real life place, where all her stuffed animals are real. But a dark cloud has descended upon the park – and threatens to destroy it. June – and her animal friends – have to find a way to lift that dark cloud.
There is nothing about Wonder Park that makes the film stand out. The voice performances are not bad – not really – but they do lack a certain personality to them. I do wonder if Jennifer Garner is going to be cast as anything except a “mom” ever again – heck, even when she makes a violent, vigilante action movie (Peppermint) it’s under the guise of her being a loving mother – just one that has been pushed too far. The character design is rather flat and uninspired – as if they didn’t want to go too cartoony, and ended up at forgettable instead. Even the rides in Wonderland – which are all supposed to be fictional figments of a little girl’s imagination aren’t too remarkable either. The best sequence in the film is near the beginning, when June tries to make one of her rides a reality in her backyard – and what happens when she does so.
At only 85 minutes, Wonder Park isn’t too painful a watch for parents – who may be stuck there with their kids over March break trying to kill an afternoon with their younger kids. It gets the job done – if that’s the only job you want done. But for a film about the importance of imagination, it lacks a certain degree of imagination – one that is needed to make the film work. My Neighbor Tortoro is a timeless masterpiece – my kids and I have re-watched it a number of times in the last few years, and they completely adore it, and I love it more each time I see it. I cannot imagine spending another 85 minutes watching Wonder Park ever again – and even if I think the kids mainly enjoyed it, I doubt they’ll bring it up for a re-watch either.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Movie Review: Everybody Knows

Everybody Knows *** / *****
Directed by: Asghar Farhadi.
Written by: Asghar Farhadi.
Starring: Penélope Cruz (Laura), Javier Bardem (Paco), Ricardo Darín (Alejandro), Eduard Fernández (Fernando), Bárbara Lennie (Bea), Inma Cuesta (Ana), Elvira Mínguez (Mariana), Ramón Barea (Antonio), Carla Campra (Irene), Sara Sálamo (Rocío), Roger Casamajor (Joan), José Ángel Egido (Jorge), Sergio Castellanos (Felipe), Iván Chavero (Diego), Tomás del Estal (Andres), Imma Sancho (Clara), Paco Pastor Gómez (Gabriel).
Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi works better in his native country than when he ventures outside of it. In films like About Elly, A Separation or The Salesman, Farhadi is able to combine the personal and the political of his home country in intricate, subtle ways. When he steps outside of Iran – like in The Past - set in France – which I really didn’t like at all, or his latest, Everybody Knows – set in Spain – I think some of the specificity of what he does best is lost. Everybody Knows has a few other problems as well – it is, in some ways, very similar to Farhadi’s About Elly, in that it centers on a character’s disappearance, but this time the fascinating mystery at About Elly’s core in missing. Also, Farhadi teases a lot of interesting, bold solutions to the mystery – but ends up going with none of them, and instead basically comes up with a solution out of left field. And yet, there are parts of Everybody Knows that are so strong – the cinematography, the two central performances for example – that even if Everybody Knows is undeniably minor Farhadi – it’s still well worth seeing.
The film is set in Spain, and revolves around Laura (Penelope Cruz) returning to her hometown from Argentina to attend the wedding of her sister. She has brought along her two kids – including teenager Irene (Carla Campra) – but her successful husband Alejandro had to stay behind for work. Farhadi lets the opening scenes – through the wedding – play out at length (well more than 30 minutes), as we get to know the different characters – including Paco (Javier Bardem), who was Laura’s longtime love before she left Spain, and his new wife Bea (Barbara Lennie). Paco was the son of servant’s who worked for Laura’s family – but over the years, the tables have turned a little bit. Laura’s family has fallen on some hard times, while Paco now runs a winery on his estate outside of town. There is an unspoken tension there – sexual between Laura and Paco, and some built up resentment between her family and him, but for the wedding, everyone just pretends to get along. All that changes however when at the wedding, Irene gets drunk – and goes to lie down. When Laura goes to check on her, she is missing. Soon text messages from the kidnappers start arriving – and family secrets and tensions start to come out.
I won’t really say much more about the plot of Everybody Knows – although, I do think it’s clear that Farhadi isn’t as interested in the narrative as what it does to the various characters. Given that though, it is a little odd that he throws in so many misdirection’s throughout the film about who may be responsible. By doling out a little information at a time – and keeping Alejandro (Ricardo Darin) off-screen so long, he becomes a prime suspect. But then everyone becomes a suspect at some point. But like with About Elly, he doesn’t seem very interested in actually solving the mystery – but rather the mess the mystery leaves behind. The difference here is that the danger Elly was in in that film was at least partly theoretical – no one knew what happened to her – and the people she left behind barely knew her. It changes the calculations in many ways when the danger is very real, and the people left behind are her family. There’s a few moments when Farhadi seems to want to push the film is some harsh ways – like when Bea starts to confront Laura’s family at one point – but eventually pulls back.
The best parts of the movie are probably the lead performances by Cruz and Bardem. Of course, the real life couple has undeniable chemistry, and it’s an interesting thing to have them be ex’s here – but ex’s who still have a bond with each other. Cruz becomes more and more of a wreck throughout the course of the movie – looking very much like the worried mother who hasn’t slept or stopped crying for days on end. Bardem has to be vulnerable here in surprising ways – his world is turned upside down, but he feels he cannot talk about it with anyone. As in the best Farhadi movies, everything here exists in shades of grey – without good guys or bad guys, but with characters we like doing undeniably cruel things (often in the past) that haunts them. Their secrets are what ultimately come to the surface and threaten to destroy things. In Everybody Knows those secrets do come spilling out – and Farhadi refuses to wrap them up in a neat package. By the end of the movie, it’s not clear where anyone goes from here. It’s also clear that while some family secrets are not so secret anymore, new ones have been created.
I think Everybody Knows is mainly a good melodrama from Farhadi – it is satisfying, and well-acted, and looks absolutely gorgeous. And yet, what’s missing from it is what makes the best Farhadi films great – a larger sense of the community and culture the story takes place in. Here, it takes place in Spain, but the film lacks that cultural specificity that often makes his films great. It seems like he wanted to work with Bardem and Cruz – a worthy desire – and tried to tell a more broadly universal story. It works – but his best films work because that they are not broadly universal - they are specific to their time and place.