Friday, June 28, 2019

Half Time Top 10 List - 2019

So 2019 is half over – so it’s now time for my annual half time top ten list (which I actually do at the end of 6 months, not the end of five months like so many outlets seem to do). For my money, it’s been a pretty great year for movies – with several great films, and a lot of interesting ones. It’s not always easy to see everything so I will note below the films that may have made this list had I see them – mainly it’s because the films haven’t been released in Canada yet, but some are ones I just missed, but will catch up with soon.
So for the record, I have yet to see these films: The Biggest Little Farm (John Chester), Diamantino (Gabriel Abrantes & Daniel Schmidt), Diane (Kent Jones), Dogman (Matteo Garrone), Grass (Hong Sang-soo), Hail Satan? (Penny Lane), The Heiresses (Marcelo Martinessi), Hotel by the River (Hong Sang-soo), The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot), Little Woods (Nia DaCosta), Meeting Gorbachev (Werner Herzog & Andre Singer), Peterloo (Mike Leigh), Styx (Wolfgang Fischer), Wild Nights with Emily (Madeleine Olnek). I plan to catch up with all of these films, as long as I can, when they roll out either in theaters, or VOD in the coming weeks and months.
And now, just a quick rundown of the top five performances in each acting category so far (note, I start roughly with fifth place, and end in first place):
Best Supporting Actress: First up, two performances from the same movie - Agyness Deyn & Gayle Rankin in Her Smell who are both great as the lead’s long suffering bandmates, who both deal with her drama in very different ways – tough to pick which one is better. Evelin Dobos in Sunset is wonderful as an ambiguous character – you can quite tell what she is up to, what she wants from the lead, etc. – and it’s a great performance. Juliette Binoche in High Life proves once again why she is one of the best, most risk taking actresses in the world – playing a profoundly unsympathetic character, and diving headlong in, making it of the oddest, best performances of her brilliant career. But my favorite so far is Shahadi Wright Joseph in Us who I think has a very tricky duel role as the daughter in Jordan Peele’s horror film, and the newcomer is great in both roles – very unsettling in the role of the other, and sympathetic as the “real” daughter – a great performance from an emerging actress.
Best Supporting Actor: It’s odd that Vince Vaughn in Dragged Across Concrete says way more in this supporting role than he did for the same director – S. Craig Zahler – in the lead of his last film (Brawl in Cell Block 99 – but he does, and he handles the very weird, very stylized dialogue. Julianne Moore got a lot of (deserved) praise but I loved John Turturro in Gloria Bell even more – a tricky role as a man who wants to move on from his marriage, and his adult children, but can never quite do it – hurting the lead in the process in what is one of my favorite recent performances of his. Murat Cemcir in The Wild Pear Tree is great as the father of the lead – a teacher, whose son seems to be following in his footsteps, and the tricky love-hate relationship they have together. Vlad Ivanov in Sunset adds another villain to a career full of them – but this one is subtler, and more insidious than most – and more haunting as a result. Jeremy Bobb in Under the Silver Lake has just one extended scene – and it maybe the best scene of the year so far, and I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say it’s not a performance I am going to forget any time soon.
Best Actress: As has been the case for a few years now, the Best Actress field was more crowded for me than Best Actor. Olivia Wilde in A Vigilante has never been better than here, as a woman who has escaped an abusive marriage, but isn’t over it yet – and channels all that rage into helping other, in a film I wish more people saw. Juli Jakab in Sunset delivers a brilliant, controlled performance in the center of all the chaos – and anchors it brilliantly as a woman navigating this strange political landscape. Honor Swinton Bryne in The Souvenir delivers a wonderful performance, as a young woman in love, struggling with her self-destructive boyfriend, and her own desire to make her art. Elisabeth Moss in Her Smell delivered her best (film) performance so far, as a self-destructive rock star spiraling downwards, and then, perhaps saving herself – she risks alienating us completely, which makes the ending even better. Lupita Nyong’o in Us really took on a pair of difficult roles in Jordan Peele’s film – as the leader of the others, and the mother trying to save her family – it’s a performance for the ages, and like most horror performances, won’t get the attention it deserves.
Best Actor: The first one will generate controversy, but Mel Gibson in Dragged Across Concrete gives his best performance in years, playing off his own toxic image as a cop who is both sympathetic and awful, in a movie and role that is more complicated than some gave it credit for. Dogu Demirkol in The Wild Pear Tree is great as a young writer, just out of school, who is convinced of his own brilliance and has the world smack him down – and has to lick his own wounds, after nearly three hours. Robert Pattinson in High Life delivers another great, daring performance as a convict sent into space, and then has to become a father – it is deep, dark, subtle performance that shows just how good Pattinson can be. Tom Burke in The Souvenir is perfect as the self-destructive first love of the main character, who just cannot stop himself – and even if he is ass, you still feel sympathy for him. Andrew Garfield in Under the Silver Lake delivers his best performance to date as a portrait of white, male entitlement and toxic masculinity, that you gradually come to realize just how horrible he is in this strange, mixed up detective story, that needs Garfield to keep it altogether.
Runners-Up: There are quite a few films that could have made by top 10 of the year so far – including: Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollock & Alan Elliot) a miracle of a documentary about the legendary performance by Aretha Franklin, thought lost forever. Aniara (Pella Kagerman & Hugo Lilja) is a strange, complex film about a massive space ship of cruise line proportions, drifting in space for years, their destination out of reach which goes to really strange, really profound places. Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhangke) kind of plays like Zhangke’s greatest hits – combining elements from Still Life, A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart and others, but still manages to be a deep, thoughtful, wonderful film – and really makes me wonder what he does next. Avengers: Endgame (Joe & Anthony Russo) brings this massive 10 years, more than 20 films opus to a kind of end, in a way that is very satisfying. Birds of Passage (Ciro Guerra & Cristina Gallego) is a South American gangster epic that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but is massively satisfying – and a look at a culture we don’t usually see. Booksmart (Olivia Wilde) is one of the best teen comedies in recent years – with a pair of great performances at its core, and shows a ton of style by debut director Olivia Wilde. Climax (Gaspar Noe) is a mad orgy of dancing, violence and sex through one crazed, drug fueled night that does exactly what you expect a Gaspar Noe film will do, but is a lot more fun than anything else he has done. The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch) is a hilarious dead-pan zombie comedy, until it very deliberately isn’t funny anymore. Dragged Across Concrete (S. Craig Zahler) is a long (two hours, forty minutes) crime drama about corrupt cops, drug dealers, etc. – the kind of film that will stop for fifteen minutes to give you the backstory of a bank teller so when the robbery happens, you know who she is – it’s a film that is deliberately trolling Zahler’s critics, but is far more complex than some realized. Fyre (Chris Smith) is a great, wide ranging documentary on the Fyre festival, and everything that went wrong there (and it’s the one to see, instead of the Hulu one – even if both bring up some documentary ethics issues). Homecoming (BeyoncĂ©) is one of the great concert films in recent times – showing all the talents of BeyoncĂ© as a performer and as a director. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (Dean DeBlois) is about as good as Hollywood animation gets – a beautiful, exciting and quietly profound film that ends this saga on a great note. The Inventor (Alex Gibney) is another Alex Gibney documentary about financial scams, this time about Elizabeth Holmes and her Edison machine. Rolling Thunder Revue (Martin Scorsese) is a wonderful Bob Dylan whatsit – part doc, part concert film, part mythmaking and magic trick, all fascinating. Ruben Brandt: Collector (Milorad Krstic) is an innovative, strange visually stunning animated film that is light on story, but long on style. Shadow (Zhang Yimou) is his best films in years, a visually stunning martial arts epic, that contains some of the best scenes of its kind since his own Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Starfish (A.T. White) is a wonderful, intimate, apocalyptic film that combines elements of sci fi and horror, in a story about guilt and loss. The Wild Pear Tree (Nuri Bilge Ceylon) maybe weaker than most of Ceylon’s recent films, but this talky, three-hour epic about a young author who believes he is a genius – and is slowly disillusioned of the idea. The Wind (Emma Tammi) is a brilliant combination of Western and horror genres, with great performances and atmosphere that really gets under your skin.
And Now onto the Top 10 Films of 2019 So Far
10. Transit (Christian Petzold)
I don’t think Christian Petzold’s Transit is quite the film that his last film – the brilliant Phoenix, a kind of play on Vertigo with one hell of a ending – but like that film, Transit is one of those films that grows in your mind even as you get further away from it. Here, Petzold adapts a book from the 1940s about the refugee crisis from that time, and transplants it to the current day, changing nothing else except for that setting. It’s a fascinating experiment – done that at first is a little distancing, but that slowly does start to creep up on you. It is more of intellectual exercise more than an emotional one – but it’s one that you may find hard to shake. It’s haunted me since TIFF last fall.
9. John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum (Chad Stahelski)

As far as action filmmaking goes – it doesn’t get much better this decade than the John Wick films – in particular the first act of Chapter 3 – which is pretty much pure insanity from the jump – going from the library fight to the chase through the streets (including horses) and probably my single favorite sequence in these films – in that knife filled hallway. Of course, the plot of these movies is ridiculous – that’s kind of the fun of them – and perhaps this film is a touch too long, and you OD on all the action at a certain point, but this is just about as good as these films keep getting more insane, and push themselves further and further. I cannot wait for Chapter 4.
8. Toy Story 4 (Josh Cooley)
Admittedly, we didn’t really need a Toy Story 4 – the series really came full circle with Toy Story 3 – and yet this film acts as a wonderful, bittersweet coda to the series – pushing Woody even further, and introducing us to Forky – which are two characters who really do bring the existential crisis in these films into stark focus. That probably sounds far too serious – because this film is still funny, smart, enjoyable and action packed – kids will love it, of course. But like all Toy Story films, it is uniquely qualified to wring tears from the parents in the audience. Not quite top tier Pixar – but close enough.
7. High Life (Claire Denis)

If you thought that getting her biggest budget to date would change Claire Denis – than you probably don’t know her films too well. Denis’ sci-fi epic, about a group of convicts set adrift in space, with no hope of return, all to perform experiments on them is a haunting, challenging film. Robert Pattinson has the lead role – who we see at the beginning with a baby, and no one well, and then we flash back to how we got there. The film is full of sex and violence, all of it disturbing in the extreme, and will push your buttons – and pushed some right out of the theaters. Denis has made a film that is uncompromising, disturbing and hugely ambitious – ending on a note of either hopelessness or pure hope. You decide. It’s another example of why Denis is one of the most interesting filmmakers in the world.
6. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan)
Bi Gan’s mesmerizing sophomore film looks and feels like a film noir – with a main character searching for a woman from out of his past for the first 75 minutes or so. And then come the amazing 59 minute, 3-D shot that ends the film – which is perhaps as close as any film has ever gotten to recreating what it feels like to dream on film. The storytelling here is complex and at times confusing – Bi Gan makes no delineation between what is past and present, fact or fiction. But like his first film – Kahli Blues – if you pay attention, it’s all there. The film looks amazing from the start – haunting environments, like a flooded basement, or a long shot of a man following a woman in the van. The film is as visually impressive as any film made this year – or really, any year.
5. Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry)

Alex Ross Perry’s best film to date is this incendiary film about a rock star in the vein of Courtney Love – played in a brilliant performance by Elisabeth Moss. Through five extended sequences – each at a different point in time, we see her descent into drug fueled ego trips – pushing everyone away, and alienating and annoying everyone – including, perhaps the audience. And then, remarkably, she starts her gradual come back – she is brought low, and then recovers. This is the best performance Moss has given to date in her career – and she is surrounded by a great supporting cast. This is really about art – and ego – and how now one can do it on their own, and the gradual process by which Moss’ character eventually realizes that. The film will push and prod you – it traps you with this toxic personality and dares you to look away. If you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to.
4. The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)
Joanna Hogg’s best and most personal film to date is this – a devastating film about a doomed, toxic relationship based on one from Hogg’s past. Honor Swinton Byrne – Tilda’s daughter – gives a remarkable debut performance as a young film student in early 1980s London – someone from a privileged background, who doesn’t want to make films about those in her class. She meets someone even more posh (Tom Burke) – he works for the foreign office – and although it would be kind to call him a mansplainer, she falls for him anyway – and even when it becomes clear that he is self-destructive, she stays with him anyway. The film is a technical marvel – as all Hogg’s films are, including two of the very best shots of the year that end the film. But it hits a hard, emotional note as well – and gives you an idea of why she would stay, even when it becomes clear she shouldn’t. Hogg has quietly been making good films for a decade now – and this is her best work to date, and will hopefully bring Hogg the kind of recognition she deserves.
3. Sunset (Lazlo Nemes)

Easily the most underrated film of the year – it kind of came and went without much attention – is Hungarian director Lazlo Nemes’ follow-up to his brilliant Son of Saul – one of the few Holocaust films post Shoah and Schindler’s List that actually offered a unique perspective on the horrors. Sunset is a more complex, difficult film that Son of Saul. It takes place in Hungary, in the days leading up to WWI, and focuses on a young woman – whose parents once ran a fancy hat store, but died years ago. She has returned for the first time in decades – and discovers difficult family secrets, simmering resentments, and violence. The camera – as it did with Son of Saul – sticks with her the entire time, offering her perspective on the events. But she is an ambiguous character – one that is hard to pin down. The mounting action climaxes with a descent into chaos – and then continues on for another hour. Sunset is a brilliantly directed film – and an extremely troubling one. It hasn’t got the attention it deserves yet – but you should seek it out.
2. Under the Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell)
Perhaps the year’s most divisive film – which is saying something, especially since its normally daring distributer A24 basically dumped it into a few theaters and VOD at the same time this spring. David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up to the brilliant It Follows is a big, sprawling neo-noir that would make a fine weekend of movie watching alongside with Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, the Coens Big Lebowski and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. It’s a film about an unemployed writer of some kind – played by Andrew Garfield – who becomes obsessed with finding his neighbor, who he meets one day, and then vanishes. But the film is full of subplots, side roads and detours – some pay off, some deliberately do not. You cannot possibly guess where all this is going from its simple setup – but man, does it go it to crazy places. Part of what seems to anger people is either all those detours, and the rest is that Andrew Garfield’s character really is a horrible person. That’s kind of the point – he is a portrait of toxic masculinity and white privilege, and the fact that the normally likable Garfield goes there helps to make it his best performance to date. And yet, what he is searching for is relatable – but of course, that doesn’t mean he isn’t an asshole. David Robert Mitchell has pushed himself farther this time – and I absolutely loved it.
1. Us (Jordan Peele)

Jordan Peele’s debut film – Get Out – is one of the best horror films of the decade, because it’s a film about the very real horror that African Americans deal with every day. It works on the surface level of course – but the very clear subtext makes it even more horrifying. Following that up must have been hard – but Peele pulled it off with Us, a far more complex and ambiguous film, that goes to horrifying places. It starts, basically as a home invasion film – with the twist that those invading the home of this normal, upper-middle class black family, look exactly like them – but horrifying and deformed version of them – only one of whom can really speak. What follows is truly horrifying – on a sheer terror level, it certainly outdoes Get Out, with a few tremendous set pieces. On the allegorical level, Us is much harder to pin down than Get Out was – a film that is both intensely personal, and yet political as well – about the history of horrors in America. You could be one of those people who waste their time debating the sheer logistics of things in the film, but what’s the fun in that? Peele has directed another masterful horror film – after just two films, Peele has joined the very top ranks of American filmmakers.

Classic Movie Review: Nightfall (1956)

Nightfall (1956)
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur.
Written by: Stirling Silliphant based on the novel by David Goodis.
Starring: Aldo Ray (James Vanning), Brian Keith (John), Anne Bancroft (Marie Gardner), Jocelyn Brando (Laura Fraser), James Gregory (Ben Fraser), Frank Albertson (Dr. Edward Gurston), Rudy Bond (Red).
Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall is a classic wrong man noir – released the same year as Hitchcock The Wrong Man, his underrated classic starring Henry Fonda and a never better Vera Miles. Hitchcock probably could have made a classic out of this narrative as well, but as it stands, Tourneur does a great job with this economic noir for Columbia – who churned out these films on the cheap. Tourneur, a journeyman director, who excelled working with low budget in the early Val Lewton films – especially masterpieces Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie – and the year after Nightfall in Curse of the Demon. He also excelled at noir – making one of the best the genre ever produced with Out of the Past (1947). Nightfall isn’t that – but it’s an excellent little thriller.
The square jawed, usually kind of dull Aldo Ray stars as Rayburn in Nightfall – a man on the run. When we first meet him in Los Angeles, we don’t really know what he’s on the run for, or whether he’s guilty. What we do know is that two gangsters – the brains, John (Brian Keith) and his psycho sidekick Red (Rudy Bond) are tracking him – convinced he has $350,000. Also on his trial is Ben Fraser (James Gregory), an insurance adjuster. Rayburn in the main suspect in a murder in Wyoming – and has been on the run ever since. The girl, there’s always a girl, is Marie Gardner (a young, wonderful Anne Bancroft), a model at first used to draw Rayburn out – but then she falls for him.
Tourneur uses Ray’s stiffness to good use here – I’m still not convinced he was a particularly good actor, but here as the innocent on the run, he is very good. He’s got a raspy voice, and is prone to making speeches about his past in a way that a smarter actor wouldn’t have been able to pull off. He’s pretty much a sweet dope – the kind a femme fatale would normally wrap around her finger. But Bancroft isn’t really playing that here – she certainly does seduce him expertly, and for a job, but she really does fall for him – she likes the big dope. The rest of the cast is fine – in particular Rudy Bond who is excellent as the giggling psycho. You kind of wish that Gregory’s insurance man wasn’t just a functionary of the plot – which is at least more than you can say for Jocelyn Brando as his wife, who is probably the least necessary character in the film – odd for a film that is economical in every other way.
The action climax, set in Wyoming, may well have been an influence on Fargo. It’s hard not to think of the Coen’s classic – made 40 years after this one – with its lost, buried money, it’s endless snowy landscape – and, well, something not designed for chopping up humans, chopping up humans. Like the rest of the film, Tourneur expertly handles the action climax as well.
I’m not going to argue that Nightfall is a lost Tourneur masterpiece. It is no Out of the Past or Cat People or I Walked with a Zombie. But what Nightfall is an entertaining, economical little thriller – part Hitchcock, part noir, which moves at lightning speed for 78 minutes, and ends just when it should. This is the type of film that Hollywood used to be able to churn out in their sleep, and now doesn’t seem to know how to make at all.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Classic Movie Review: Heathers (1989)

Heathers (1989)
Directed by: Michael Lehmann.
Written by: Daniel Waters.
Starring: Winona Ryder (Veronica), Christian Slater (J.D.), Shannen Doherty (Heather (Duke)), Lisanne Falk (Heather (McNamara)), Kim Walker (Heather (Chandler)), Penelope Milford (Pauline Milford), Glenn Shadix (Father Ripper), Lance Fenton (Kurt Kelly), Patrik Labyorteaux (Ram), Jeremy Applegate (Peter Dawson), Jon Shear (Rodney), Carrie Lynn (Martha Dunnstock), Phil Lewlis (Dennis), Renee Estevez (Betty Finn).
The 1980s were the Golden Age of teen movies – propelled mainly by John Hughes production like The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, etc. Yet, it was in the year’s final year that two of the very best films in the genre came out – and took completely different tactics in dealing with it. Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything took high school romance seriously – and allowed its teenage characters to have full, well rounded lives outside of the high school walls. And then there was Heathers – whose goal really was to quite literally blow up the teen comedy. This is an incredibly dark comedy, with jokes about murder, suicide, homosexuality and many other taboo subjects. Unlike what some people in 2019 like to assume, people at the time the film came out had reservations about the film, and its depictions of these issues. You have to look no further than Roger Ebert’s review – which question its tone and approach in taking on such heavy issues in such a light way. True, Columbine was still a decade in the future when Heathers came out – and the film probably wouldn’t have been made in a post-Columbine world (at least not by a major studio). But Heathers goal was always to shock its audience. It worked in 1989, and it still works in 2019.
The film stars, in one of her best early film roles, Winona Ryder as Veronica – the smartest girl in school, who has found a way to survive high school. What she has essentially done is befriend the Heathers – three girls, all named Heather, who run the school – much like the Mean Girls in Tina Fey’s film 15 years later, would. She does their dirty work – mocking others, enforcing strict social control, etc. but doesn’t feel good about it. Then she meets new kid J.D. (Christian Slater) – who initials are clearly designed to call to mind James Dean. He wears a leather jacket, rides a motorcycle (with no helmet!) and hates everything about high school. His dad has moved him around from one school to the next, and his adopted cool guy routine acts as his armor – and it disguises his underlying psychopathology. Because that is what J.D. is – but he’s a charming one, and in Veronica he finds what he thinks may be his soul mate. Bonnie to his Clyde as it were. The first death is of one of the Heathers – and is something that Veronica is able to convince herself is an accident, although it wasn’t accidental on J.D.’s part. Still, they are able to convincingly play it off like a suicide, sparking concern in the clueless adults around. There are further murders, disguised as suicides. There is a catchy song that the school listens to “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It”). The film spirals further and further down into its darkly comic world.
The film was directed by Michael Lehmann, from a screenplay by Daniel Waters. The writing is better than the direction – its dark and comic and cynical in the extreme, and delivered wonderfully by the two leads – Ryder in particular is great here, although it is easy to see why Slater was compared to Jack Nicholson at the time – even if much like the Stallone to Brando comparisons made after Rocky, we know where it all ends up. Waters screenplay is wise in the way it sees teenagers as basically all psychopaths – it’s tempting to assume that it’s just a few bad apples at the top that make high school hell, but in reality, if those people didn’t exist, someone else would rise up and do the same thing. In this world, J.D.’s hatred in it all – and his Columbine-like plan – even make a twisted sort of sense. If the whole system is screwed up, then to correct it, you have to burn the whole thing down.
Lehmann’s chief contribution in his direction is to basically shoot the whole thing like a typical teenage comedy. There is nothing edgy in his direction – this isn’t a forerunner to the dark, indie film depictions of teenagers we would see through the 1990s in films like Kids. No, Lehmann is treating this all as if he’s directing a John Hughes movie – allowing the darkness of the screenplay and performances do the work in disturbing the audience for him. The dissonance between how the movie is directed and how its written works in its favor – it almost makes it more disturbing.
Heathers has become, and remains, a cult classic. In recent years, it’s inspired a musical and a TV show – both of them have been controversial, and this film remains so. It will still shock and disturb those who see it. But rather than write lengthy take downs of the film, lecturing older generations about things you think they do not know (but are really fully aware of), perhaps you should consider that disturbing and shocking you is precisely the point. It just does it with a smile on its face.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Movie Review: Toy Story 4

Toy Story 4 **** / *****
Directed by: Josh Cooley.
Written by: Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom and John Lasseter and Martin Hynes and Rashida Jones and Will McCormack and Valerie LaPointe and Josh Cooley.
Starring: Tom Hanks (Woody), Tim Allen (Buzz Lightyear), Annie Potts (Bo Peep), Tony Hale (Forky), Keegan-Michael Key (Ducky), Madeleine McGraw (Bonnie), Christina Hendricks (Gabby Gabby), Jordan Peele (Bunny), Keanu Reeves (Duke Caboom), Ally Maki (Giggle McDimples), Jay Hernandez (Bonnie’s Dad), Lori Alan (Bonnie’s Mom), Joan Cusack (Jessie), Bonnie Hunt (Dolly), Kristen Schaal (Trixie), Emily Davis (Bill/Goat/Gruff), Wallace Shawn (Rex), John Ratzenberger (Hamm), Blake Clark (Slinky Dog), June Squibb (Margaret the Store Owner), Carl Weathers (Combat Carl), Lila Sage Bromley (Harmony), Jeff Garlin (Buttercup), Patricia Arquette (Harmony’s Mom), Timothy Dalton (Mr. Pricklepants), Laurie Metcalf (Mrs. Davis), Jodi Benson (Barbie), Lori Alan (Julia Anderson), Estelle Harris (Mrs. Potato Head), Don Rickles (Mr. Potato Head).
Let’s be honest – we really didn’t need a Toy Story 4. 2010’s Toy Story 3 brought this story to a proper close – with Andy growing up, and giving away his toys to a new kid – Bonnie, was a kind of perfect, bittersweet ending – acknowledging that even things we absolutely loved at one point are things we grow out of leave behind. And yet, even if Toy Story 4 isn’t really necessary – it’s still an excellent – more of a coda to the end of the Toy Story movies rather than a complete film unto itself. It brings to a close the story of Woody, which has him finally accepting his new reality. It is another bittersweet ending – but really does bring these stories to a close (if they make a Toy Story 5 a decade from now, Woody should not play a part in it).
Even though 9 years have passed since Toy Story 3 – in the timeline of the movie, almost no time has passed at all. The toys now belong to Bonnie – who loves and adores them, and plays with them all the time. The exception is Woody – who has been relegated to the closest more often than not. Woody is holding on for dear life – holding on to the ways things were done with Andy, what his role as the favorite toy was with Andy – not wanting to acknowledge that things have changed. Bonnie is about to go off to kindergarten – a traumatic experience for any kid – and Woody thinks she needs the comfort that only a toy can bring – so he sneaks into her backpack. Woody ends up being both right and wrong – Bonnie does need a toy to bring comfort, but it isn’t Woody. It’s Forky (voiced by Tony Hale) – the toy Bonnie creates herself out of a fork, a pipe cleaner and some googly eyes. Forky is the favorite toy of Bonnie – which would be fine, except for the fact that Forky is a plastic spork, and believes his place is in the trash. Woody, then, in essence is on suicide watch – trying to prevent Forky from throwing himself away. Due to a series of events too complicated to get into – on a road trip, Woody and Forky get separated from the rest of the toys, and have to make their way back to them. Along the way, though, they get waylaid – and end up in an antique store, where Woody meets a new nemesis – Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) – an old doll, with a defective voice box, who has never known the love of a child, and an old friend – Bo Peep (Annie Potts) – who has become a lost toy.
The smartest thing the makers of Toy Story 4 has done is narrowed the focus of the film. This is Woody’s story, and the filmmakers know it. The supporting cast from the other movies are all here, but they are fairly quickly shunted to the background. The exception is Buzz Lightyear – who the filmmakers realize they need to give a subplot, and they do – he leaves to try and rescue Woody and Forky. But it’s a fairly minor subplot – and Buzz is outshone by Key and Peele as Ducky and Bunny – two carnival toys, who want a kid (who are hilarious). But the stars of Toy Story 4 are Woody and Forky – one classic character, and one new character – but both of whom bring the existential nature of this series into the focus of the film. Forky questions the very nature of what it means to be alive – why he’s alive at all, when he shouldn’t be. He’s a Frankenstein character – an unnatural alive character, who longs for death (Toy Story 4 is a very weird movie). For Woody, it is a different sort of crisis – one where he has to radically reorient his worldview. Woody has always viewed his role as a leader. Now, he has to accept a different role. He either has to make peace with being an afterthought – left in the closet day after day to collect dust, or find a new calling. The combination of his old friend – Bo Peep, and the new nemesis, Gabby Gabby, really does give Woody a different outlook on life.
I give Pixar and the makers of Toy Story 4 a lot of credit. While it’s somewhat disappointing that Pixar keeps churning out sequel after sequel (they’ve made 21 films – only 1 for the first 10 were sequels, 7 of the last 11 have been) – but what they’ve done with the Toy Story films in particular, is to really think through this world, and how it may evolve over time. They have never been content to repeat themselves in this series, and each new film pushes things further and further. True, any world in which toys are sentient beings, capable of emotions, etc. is insanity – but while admitting that, what they’ve done is continue along a logical progression here.
Toy Story 4 isn’t best Toy Story movie – and it isn’t in the upper echelon of Pixar movies (for the record, in terms of Toy Story movies, the correct order from best to worst is 3>1>4>2) – but it’s a fascinating film. And it’s a wildly enjoyable one – my kids (8 and 5) didn’t register the existential questions, at least not conscionably, but they wildly enjoyed the action and the humor of the film. For adults, there are heady questions here – and real emotion. The film didn’t quite leave me the mess that Inside Out, Wall-E or Toy Story 3 did – but I did cry, at least twice. And it felt earned. Toy Story 4 is kind of like Forky – there really is no reason for it to exist, but it’s wonderful just the same.  

Movie Review: Child's Play

Child's Play *** / *****
Directed by: Lars Klevberg
Written by: Tyler Burton Smith Based on characters created by Don Mancini.
Starring: Aubrey Plaza (Karen Barclay), Mark Hamill (Chucky), Tim Matheson (Henry Kaslan), Brian Tyree Henry (Detective Mike Norris), Gabriel Bateman (Andy Barclay), David Lewis (Shane), Beatrice Kitsos (Falyn), Trent Redekop (Gabe), Ty Consiglio (Pugg), Carlease Burke (Doreen), Nicole Anthony (Detective Willis), Kristin York (Jane), Marlon Kazadi (Omar). 
It’s pretty remarkable when you think about it that Chucky the Killer Doll has been around for seven films over 31 years before this latest remake. Don Mancini has kept this series going, and pushed it in weird directions over the years as he keeps adding to it, keeps finding new ways to go with it. I’m not going to say I’ve kept up with the series – or that I am a wild fan of any of them, just pointing out that I think it’s impressive what Mancini has done – and it kind of sucks that they’ve rebooted the franchise while, for him anyway, it was still a going concern – after all, if this franchise ended back in the early 1990s – when it seemed to run its course – I don’t think we’re seeing this reboot at all.
Still, that has little to do with the quality of this reboot – which is surprisingly good. I think the filmmakers behind this film made several smart decisions right off the bat that allow the film to be at least as good as the original – and probably a little bit better. It certainly plays better now than the original did – which I reviewed last week – which suffers a little from the fact that the first half of the movie tries to keep you in suspense as to whether the Chucky Doll has really come to life and is killing people, or if little Andy has gone insane and is doing that himself. We know now, of course, that Chucky is the psycho – and so all that buildup lacks suspense (I cannot help but wonder if it ever had suspense – after all, we do see the opening scene of Brad Dourif being pursued by the police, and then reciting some voodoo curse to transfer his soul into Chucky – even if that’s not explicitly what we see, we know it).
This time, Chucky is not inhabited by the soul of a misogynistic serial killer – but rather is a story of A.I. run amok – when a Vietnamese factory worker is fired by his boss, on his way out the door, he removes all controls from a single Buddi doll. This allows him to do things he shouldn’t – like swear – and things that he really shouldn’t, like murder people in creative and bloody ways. It’s the misfortune of Andy (Gabriel Bateman) – a tween this time, instead of a six-year-old, that his single mother Karen (Aubrey Plaza) brings home that particular Buddi doll – because it was returned to the Wal-Mart-like store she works for because of its glowing red eyes and the fact that the Buddi II is only weeks away from release. Buddi is from an Amazon or Apple like company – it’s like Siri for kids, except instead of a speaker, it’s a doll. It can connect, and control, anything on Wifi – which is, of course, anything. All this Buddi – who is named Chucky by accident – wants to do is be Andy’s friend and protect him. And so when Andy complains about his cat, or his mom’s new boyfriend – both of whom do in fact hurt Andy, what is Chucky supposed to do? And when Chucky gets rejected, well, again – what is he supposed to do?
The filmmakers cast Mark Hamill as the voice of Chucky – and it was the right call. Brad Dourif’s performance has become iconic of course – but his Chucky is an adult serial killer in a doll’s body. Hamill brings a kind of childlike innocence to his vocal performance – which of course can become incredibly creepy when he says the things he does (the Buddi song will haunt my dreams). Hamill has, of course, made his living post Star Wars mainly by doing voice over work – and he’s a master at it. His voice work as this version of Chucky couldn’t be better. The design of Chucky mainly looks great – especially when he’s more puppet than CGI – and again, is its own thing, not just a makeover of the original Chucky. The rest of the cast pales in comparison to Hamill of course – he has the juicy role, and everyone knows it. Still Aubrey Plaza as Andy’s mom and Brian Tyree Henry as the Detective down the hall are deadpan delights in the film – you aren’t going to be able to go further over the top than a killer doll, so why try? And Gabriel Bateman is fine as Andy – who gets increasingly frantic as he realizes what is happening, but can get no one to listen to him. It’s at least partly his fault that all this happens – and he takes it hard. None of them – and especially not the rest of the supporting cast – has much in the way of character development or depth – but they do what they can.
And when the violence starts coming – and it does start coming – it starts out with the type of thing that would happen in an old school Chucky movie – a death involving Christmas lights and a lawn mulcher – and then gets increasingly high tech – including a highly enjoyable siege at the Wal-Mart like store as its climax. It’s handled well by director Lars Klevberg.
All of this is to say that Child’s Play is a lot better than it really has any right to be, and a lot better than most remakes of 1980s horror films have been in recent years. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great movie – it’s not – or that it will win over any coverts to team Chucky – it won’t. But given what they had to work with here – the result is gruesome fun.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Classic Movie Review: Uptight (1968)

Uptight (1968)
Directed by: Jules Dassin.
Written by: Jules Dassin & Ruby Dee & Julian Mayfield based on the novel by Liam O’Flaherty.
Starring: Julian Mayfield (Tank), Raymond St. Jacques (B.G.), Ruby Dee (Laurie), Frank Silvera (Kyle), Roscoe Lee Browne (Clarence), Janet MacLachlan (Jeannie), Jax Julien (Johnny), Juanita Moore (Mama Wells), Dick Anthony Williams (Corbin), Michael Baseleon (Teddy), John Wesley (Larry).
Watching Uptight now, in 2019, it’s amazing to think about how quickly the film must have come together back in 1968. It opens with footage of Martin Luther King’s funeral – in April 1968 – and the film was released by the end of the year. It feels urgent and angry and passionate, like the filmmakers just had to get it out of there system. The film is set in Cleveland in the aftermath of the assassination of King, and centers on a group of black revolutionaries – and how one of them betrays the rest. It is based on the novel by Liam O’Flaherty, that John Ford turned into the Oscar winning The Informer (1935) – the novel, and film, set in 1922 Ireland, about an Irish rebel, who betrays his friend to the British. The screenplay was co-written by the great Ruby Dee and Julian Mayfield – two of the stars in the movie. In his introduction to the film on the Criterion Channel, director Barry Jenkins says that Dee considered directing the film herself as well – but didn’t quite feel up to it at that point in her career. The director, then, is Jules Dassin – the blacklisted American director, who made a career for himself in Europe after the blacklist, and only came back to America later in his career (like here). It is a largely unknown film – which hopefully its presence on the Criterion Channel, and championing by the likes of Barry Jenkins can help change. It’s hardly a perfect film – but it’s a fascinating one, - an angry one. And it has an almost entirely black cast – except for the cops we see, and one white guy who is hurt when the black rebels tell him he is no longer welcome in their movement. They have to do it on their own – or die trying.
The film works on a number of levels. It is a fascinating portrait of this revolutionary group – who in the wake of King’s death are angry. Yes, they are angry that King was killed. But they are also angry at King for not pushing hard enough, not going as far as they are willing to go into violence if necessary to get their way. The main character is Tank (Mayfield) – who has always been an outlier in the group. He’s middle aged, a little older than the rest, and was a supporter of King’s non-violent ways. He’s a convict – one who lost his job and went to jail for fighting with white steel workers who were harassing the black workers like himself. Since getting out, he’s been unemployed, and become an alcoholic. He loves his girlfriend Laurie (Dee) – but cannot support her, or her kids. His best friend is Johnny (Jax Julien) – who he is supposed to help with a robbery. But Tank is too angry, too drunk to go along on the robbery – they are supposed to get guns to help in the revolution. The robbery goes wrong, and while Johnny isn’t arrested, the cops do figure out who he is – and he has to become a fugitive. The group blames Tank for this – and this makes Tank angry.
Tank is a fascinating character in many ways – one full of contradictions. He is the most well-rounded, and most sympathetic of any character in the film. He does something that everyone else in the film finds to be unforgivable – but white audiences in 1968 may well have seen it differently (hell, some audiences today would see it differently – Johnny isn’t innocent after all, he is guilty of what the cops think he did). But even while the film is clear that what he did was wrong, he is still the most sympathetic character here – a man who doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. He’s too old to be a revolutionary, and yet his criminal record (and alcoholism) makes him pretty much unhirable. He loves his girlfriend, but she has other things to worry about – and kicks him out. All he really wants is to be accepted – and he cannot be accepted anywhere.
In some ways, I think you could remake Uptight now, set in the present day, and not change a whole lot (okay, you would definitely have to change the character of Daisy – which crosses the line into a pretty offensive gay stereotype). I don’t think it’s Dassin’s best directed film – this is the filmmaker behind the masterful Rififi (1955) after all, among some other great films, and nothing here comes close to that level of filmmaking. He tries, a little, to be too stylistic – when something grittier would have been better. It doesn’t derail the film by any means. Because Uptight is a gritty film – an angry film – and one that doesn’t back down, doesn’t chicken out, doesn’t seek to comfort the audience. It has largely been forgotten – and as imperfect as it is – it doesn’t deserve that fate. It deserves to be seen and debated.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Movie Review: The Souvenir

The Souvenir **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Joanna Hogg.
Written by: Joanna Hogg.
Starring: Honor Swinton Byrne (Julie), Tom Burke (Anthony), Tilda Swinton (Rosalind), Richard Ayoade (Patrick), Jaygann Ayeh (Marland), Jack McMullen (Jack), Hannah Ashby Ward (Tracy), Frankie Wilson (Frankie), Barbara Peirson (Barbara), James Dodds (James), Ariane Labed (Garance).
I had somehow missed Joanna Hogg’s three previous films – Unrelated, Archipelago and Exhibition – over the past decade since she made her debut – a mistake I rectified in the weeks leading up to the release of her most acclaimed film to date – The Souvenir. The Souvenir is the best film Hogg has made yet – and yet watching those other films certainly informed and prepared me for this film, which has many similarities to her other work – and when she departs for them, its noticeable and effective. This is a film about a toxic relationship – one that threatens to destroy the main character, who is based on Hogg herself – looking back at herself for the distance of 30 or more years to see the person she was, and what she went through to become the person she has. And how, even all these years later, this relationship has never left her. She still loves her version of Anthony in a way – despite the damage done.
The film stars Honor Swinton Byrne is a remarkable performance as Julie – a young film student, who dreams of making movies “outside her own privileged experience”, which in itself may explain why Hogg didn’t actually make her debut film until over 20 years later – she perhaps needed that time to become comfortable making the types of films she does, which are in many ways about privilege and class, and nothing at all like the film Julie describes wanting to make. She meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a slightly older employee of the Foreign Office, and while “mansplainer” would be a kind word to describe him, she falls for him anyway. He can be charming and funny – and he’s certainly smart. They have fun together. We start noticing warning signs before she does – his constant need to money, his transparent excuses as to why he needs to move in, the secrecy with which he treats his job, the increasing number and duration of his absences, etc. He also very clearly loves her though – and that love is powerful. When a friend of Tom’s explains to her that he cannot see how they fit together – why an intelligent, driven young woman like her is with a habitual heroin user – it clearly comes as a shock to her – but she plays it off.
In keeping with Hogg’s preferred style, we never see a lot of major conversations – the blowup, argument, conversation, etc. that must have happened at some point where they discuss his heroin use is never seen – although we get other scenes where it becomes clear that the conversation has happened. We also get some rather cheeky scenes of them arguing in bed about space on the mattress, well before we ever actual see them having sex – there’s basically two sex scenes between them, neither graphic, first where she goes down on him, and later when he reciprocates. Hogg has preferred this approach throughout her career – in both Unrelated and Archipelago, we hear an argument we do not see – staying with the people who can hear it, but are not involved. Hogg plays with this a little this time around – making those familiar with her work think she’s up to the same thing, only then to flash to what we didn’t think we would see. She also makes some interesting choices on what to shoot, and what not to shoot – like a moment late in the film where Julie is with her mother (played by her real life mother and a close friend of Hogg’s – the great Tilda Swinton) – where Julie wants to go leave a note on the door for the absent once again Anthony. Tilda wants to go with her daughter, but she convinces her not to – we hear Julie get in the elevator and go down, but we stay fixated on Tilda as she walks to her bedroom and sits and stares. Like many familial relationships in Hogg’s movies – this mother-daughter one doesn’t talk about the hard stuff – there is no evidence they ever discussed Anthony’s addictions – but she knows them just the same. She wants to protect her daughter – but knows she can no longer do that.
Hogg’s films have always been extraordinary in how they look. She prefers long takes – having conversations play out in one take, or looking down hallways, etc. The Souvenir is her best looking film to date – as always, she pays close attention to the architecture. The cinematography has a slight haze to it – the ways memory would. The clothing choices tell you a lot about both Anthony and Julie right away – and aid Swinton Byrne and Burke in giving two of the best performances of the year so far. And at the end, Hogg outdoes herself – with two absolutely remarkable shots, the first on a film set where we see a crew doing the exact same shot of an actress in Julie’s movie that Hogg’s crew is pulling off in that exact moment on Julie – which would have been a perfect way to end the film, only to be followed by an even more perfect final shot – a reverse of the final shot of The Searchers.
After watching all of her films over the course of a couple of weeks, I am now certainly a Joanna Hogg fan – and this is the best of the bunch. It’s also a rare indie to already have a sequel in the works – and what’s even more rare is that it deserves one. I wish I could watch Part II of this right now.

Classic Movie Review: Child's Play (1988)

Child’s Play (1988)
Directed by: Tom Holland.
Written by: Don Mancini & John Lafia & Tom Holland.
Starring: Catherine Hicks (Karen Barclay), Chris Sarandon (Mike Norris), Alex Vincent (Andy Barclay), Brad Dourif (Charles Lee Ray/Chucky), Dinah Manoff (Maggie Peterson), Tommy Swerdlow (Jack Santos), Jack Colvin (Dr. Ardmore), Neil Giuntoli (Eddie Caputo).
It's kind of odd that Chucky has become such a horror movie icon in the 30 years since Child’s Play. Watching the original film again – for the first time in years – I was struck by the fact that the film isn’t particularly good. Chucky is great and creepy of course – but everything around him isn’t very good at all. And the opening of the film – that features a human Brad Dourif as the killer Charles Lee Ray who we see running away, and then stumbling into the Good Guy dolls, and chanting some sort of ancient curse to move his soul into the Chucky Doll – pretty much undermines the entire first half of the film. And yet, Chucky himself is just creepy enough, just nuts enough, to make you want to see more of this killer doll. Don Mancini – who wrote this film, and would eventually take over directing all the sequels – has essentially made Chucky his life’s work – has really taken this killer doll to all sorts of strange places. This week, of course, comes the remake of the original – which Mancini isn’t involved in, since he didn’t want to remake the original – he wanted to keep doing the ever strange sequels he’s been doing for years.
But before all of that, was this weird 1988 horror film about a little boy named Andy and his doll who comes to life (I have to wonder if Toy Story was inspired by Child’s Play in a way – or is it really just a coincidence that they are two movies about little boys named Andy and their toys that come to life). It is basically a story of a lonely little boy – Andy (Alex Vincent) – who favorite show is the Good Guy Cartoon show. What he wants more than anything is a talking Good Guy doll – but his single mother (Catherine Hicks, who would go onto to be the mother on Seventh Heaven, just to screw with me years later) – cannot afford the full price, so she buys one from a vendor on the street. That one, of course, is the one inhabited by a serial killer we saw in the first scene.
For essentially the first half the movie, the film tries to toy with you – making you wonder if Andy really has gone crazy, or if Chucky really is talking to him. People around Andy – and the doll – keep turning up dead in strange ways. We only see these things from the victims POV – meaning we cannot be sure it’s really Chucky. It could be Andy gone mad. And yet – watching the film now, we know that’s true. We know it’s Chucky. And even if we didn’t have 30 years of Chucky movies behind us, we’d still know – because of that opening scene. It has no reason for being there at all unless Chucky is the killer. The scenes would be more effective if we ever, for a moment, really believed Andy may be a disturbed little boy killing people.
Once Chucky outs himself to Hicks – and the audience (by calling Hicks a “cunt” as she threatens to throw him into the fire – the film goes more into full on goofy killer doll territory – and gets a lot more fun. As the voice of Chucky, Brad Dourif goes wildly over-the-top here – which of course is saying something, since as the series progressed, he would go even wilder. Here, he’s still trying to be creepy, and not as outwardly jokey. Still, the images of a doll attacking people, it’s still kind of funny. I’m not sure the kills here are as memorable as they would get – they heavily rely on the images of the doll killing for the creativity factor here – and it works. It is kind of fun.
Still, it’s kind of odd to me that Chucky became a horror icon – perhaps not on the level of Michael Myers or Freddy Kruger, but certainly in the next tier. This first movie is okay – it could have been more effective had we not known from the start that Andy isn’t crazy – that Chucky really is a killer doll. It will be interesting to see how the remake handles this – the filmmakers behind that film cannot even pretend that audiences don’t know.
The credit for Chucky becoming an icon though really should go to Don Mancini – who has written all the previous versions, and directed the last three movies in this series, and has kept Chucky as a going concern, and in the public eye (at least for horror movie fans) for the last 30 years. He just kept pushing this series farther and farther – and while I’ve lost track of the series over the years (it’s not really my thing) – you have to respect that. This first film is fine – it’s okay, but had they just let the series go after this film, it would probably have been forgotten by now – much to the joy of my wife, who hates any doll that looks even remotely by Chucky, since seeing one of these films at a slumber party at far too young an age. That’s a legacy.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Films of Joanna Hogg: Exhbition (2013)

Exhibition (2013) 
Directed by: Joanna Hogg.
Written by: Joanna Hogg.
Starring: Viv Albertine (D), Liam Gillick (H), Tom Hiddleston (Estate Agent), Harry Kershaw (Estate Agent), Mary Roscoe (Neighbour Guest), Carol McFadden (Dina Breeze), Chris Wilson (Ambulance Paramedic). 
After two strong features – Unrelated and Archipelago – which featured many similarities in terms of story and style – Joanna Hogg made Exhibition as her third film in 2013. It is undeniably a more ambitious film than her first two – and a more ambiguous one. Instead of a family on holiday – which defined the first two films – Exhibition is about a pair of artists, who have decided to sell their modernist London home that they have lived happily in for nearly 20 years. He, only known as H (Liam Gillick) is more optimistic about the move than she, D (Viv Albertine) is, and there is a quiet tension between the two of them, who are disconnected with each other. Throughout the course of the movie, we will spend more time with her – she is a performance artist, and in a way she is always working. The house has massive windows, and people can always see in. The title then takes on a few connotations – as in an art exhibition, or when you exhibit your house to buyers, or in how their marriage is on display. The house becomes an extension of D and her artistry.
In Exhibition, I think Hogg is trying to push herself farther than she had done previously. The film is meticulously crafted. She often shoots empty hallways in the house, listening in on the couple in other rooms. There is a coldness – a sterility really – to the movie that will remind some of Michael Haneke. This extends to everything the couple does. There is a lot of sex in the film (nothing overly graphic) but it as well seems mechanical and passionless. They are going through the motions here. The attention to detail extends to the sound design of the film as well – which is more intricate than what Hogg had attempted up until this point.
And yet, as much as I admire a lot about the craft in which the film was made, I have to say that I found Exhibition to be a cold, dull, emotionless film. Perhaps it is the performances – neither of the leads are professional actors, and they are somewhat robotic. That may be part of Hogg’s point – I believe that it is – but it doesn’t help you to connect with them in any real way, or even find them that all that interesting to spend time with. The film repeats itself a lot – making the same points again and again.
There are moments that work – when the couple actually speak to each other and she tells him she doesn’t want his input on her work, and he complains that what is he supposed to do – just be there with her, and she says precisely – she wants a companion more than anything. Yet those scenes are far too few with too much of the same in between. Perhaps it’s because I’m not someone who is really into this kind of twee performance art – I run hot and cold on the films or Miranda July for instance, and find this sort of navel gazing to be off-putting at times. Perhaps it’s because Hogg has gone too far into the refuse to explain her character’s motivations – I think Unrelated didn’t need the main character to explain her thoughts which she did anyway in one scene, that Archipelago found the right balance between explaining and not, and think Exhibition goes too far into the other camp.
Still, the film shows what a fine filmmaker Hogg is. It’s just that this time there is so much craft on display, and so little purpose for any of it. I like Hogg as a filmmaker – but Exhibition left me cold.