Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Movie Review: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

The Last Black Man in San Francisco **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Joe Talbot.
Written by: Joe Talbot and Rob Richert and Jimmie Fails.
Starring: Jimmie Fails (Jimmie Fails), Jonathan Majors (Montgomery Allen), Danny Glover (Grandpa Allen), Tichina Arnold (Wanda Fails), Rob Morgan (James Sr.), Mike Epps (Bobby), Finn Wittrock (Clayton), Thora Birch (Becca), Willie Hen (Preacher), Jamal Trulove (Kofi), Jordan Gomes (Stunna), Isiain Lalime (Gunna), Jeivon Parker (Fresh), Antoine Redus (Nitty).
I’m having trouble coming up with a way to describe The Last Black Man in San Francisco – Joe Talbot’s remarkable feature debut film, and one that has haunted me since seeing it last week. There is a dreamlike atmosphere that Talbot and company create – a kind of romantic haze that the film takes place in. The film really is a love story – on multiple levels – as it plays out. It is a tale of a young man, Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) who is in love with his old family home – a home that his grandfather built with his own two hands in 1946, and was in the family for 50 years, before they lost it – when Jimmie was still a child. Still, it’s the only house he ever really felt at home in. It is a massive house, and it provided Jimmie everything he needed as a child – including ways to hide from his parents when they fought, which was often. After they lost the house, his spent time with his father – squatting in one place after another, sometimes living in a car, and some time in a group home. He never really knew where his mother was, although she’d show up from time to time. All these years later, even though the house is now owned by an older white couple (gentrification being a major theme in the film, as you can tell from the title) – Jimmie still returns to the house again and again and again – to help with the upkeep, much to the chagrin of the new owners. But when something happens – and the house is again vacant, although we know not for long – Jimmie and his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) move in. Jimmie is squatting once again.
So yes, the film is in many ways a love story about a man and a house. The house is, of course, indifferent to Jimmie’s affection – but that doesn’t make his affection any less real. But it’s also a love letter from the filmmakers to San Francisco itself. Despite the dreamlike atmosphere of the film, you can tell that Talbot and company have great affection and knowledge of San Francisco itself. They have specific knowledge of the city itself – the neighborhoods, and how they have changed. Where the black people ended up, as they started to be pushed out of the city proper by rising rents and property values, and rich yuppies and hipsters moved in. Even the grungy city buses get a kind of romantic treatment – much of the films great conversations happen on that bus. Jimmie is seen with his skateboard throughout the film – and he rides it down the iconic hills throughout the city – drawing more stares than he used to. This is his city, but he’s becoming a stranger.
It is also a tale of male friendship. Mont is in nearly as many scenes as Jimmie – and the two of them are extremely close. Outside the house of Mont’s grandfather (Danny Glover) – where the pair stay, there is a Greek Chorus of sorts in the form of a gang of black men, acting out their ideas of black masculinity in violent ways – most of it posturing for each other to look and feel tough for an audience of just themselves. They mock Jimmie and Mont in the kind of homophobic ways we expect – there is no evidence to suggest Jimmie and Mont are gay at all – but they don’t act the same way they do, so they must be right? And Mont is a writer – plays mostly – and he bases his latest on the gang outside – namely Kofi (Jamal Trulove) – who has a history with Jimmie, but is also most invested in making the others in the Greek Chorus know how tough he is. Mont is as interesting, as complex a character as Jimmie – if slightly more realistic. He goes along with his friend’s dream of his home, but knows how far-fetched it is. Talbot’s supporting cast has some very good, recognizable actors in it – Danny Glover, Mike Epps, Finn Wittrock, Rob Morgan, etc. – but it is anchored by two great performances by relative newcomers Fails and Majors.
Yet, it may be the other, non-character driven moments that haunt me in the days after seeing the film. A street singer singing “If You’re Going to San Francisco” over a sad montage in the back part of the film for example is haunting and beautiful. Just those shots of Jimmie riding his skateboard down the street – either with Mont on the back, or running behind, or just by himself. The film is utterly beautiful – but in a melancholy way. The film is sad for the San Francisco that everyone involved in the film remember, but is slipping through their fingers. The film reminded me a little of Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk – not because they are both “black” films, but because they are both haunting, beautiful, sad films that find a way to do something very difficult – making dramatic what is really a systematic issue.
The film as we suspect from the outset how it must. This isn’t going to be a happy ending – not really. But I’m not sure it’s that sad of an ending either. It is an ending of acceptance in a way – even if you don’t like it, you have to accept it. Or as Jimmie says late in the film – “You cannot hate it, unless you’ve loved it first”.

Movie Review: Diane

Diane **** / *****
Directed by: Kent Jones   
Written by: Kent Jones.
Starring: Mary Kay Place (Diane), Jake Lacy (Brian), Estelle Parsons (Mary), Andrea Martin (Bobbie), Deirdre O'Connell (Donna), Glynnis O'Connor (Dottie), Joyce Van Patten (Madge), Kerry Flanagan (Nurse Jackie), Phyllis Somerville (Ina), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Tally), Ray Iannicelli (Al Rymanowski), David Tuttle (Minister), Marcia Haufrecht (Carol Rymanowski). 
Diane is one of those women we all kind of know, but we don’t often think about. She’s older now – retired, single, her only child long since moved out of the house. But she isn’t lonely in part because she’s always doing something – always on the move. She has a large contingent of people around her – Aunts and Uncles, cousins, friends and Diane is always popping by to check on them, maybe drop off a casserole to someone who is recovering from surgery. She spends a lot of time at the bedside of a cousin dying of cancer. She wishes she could help her son – Brian (Jake Lacy) – who is addicted to drugs but she can’t do much for him, unless he wants to do something for himself. He isn’t homeless – not yet at least. Diane is always running from one place to another – helping others, going to dinner with friends, volunteering at a soup kitchen, etc. For the most part, she seems completely selfless. At least at first.
Diane is played in a remarkable performance by Mary Kay Place – and if you don’t know the name, you know the actress – who has (as of this moment) 135 credits on IMDB, and has appeared on every TV show you can think of, and in countless movies you have seen. She is one of the great character actors out there – who shows up for a scene here and there, an episode here and there, and is always great – and never gets the credit, never gets the spotlight or the lead role she deserves. Here, Kent Jones – longtime film critic and Festival programmer turned filmmaker (he’s made some docs before, but this – at the age of 60 is his feature debut) has crafted a perfect role for Place – inspired by his own mother. He then filled out the cast with character actors all equally as good as Place – all of whom could (and probably should) carry their own movie like this. Estelle Parsons, Andrea Martin, Phyllis Somerville, Deirdre O’Connell, etc. The result is a movie full of people who know how to act, and know just what it means to be supportive in their scenes.
Diane is a tricky character – she starts as this cliché – the mother we perhaps all know, who is constantly worried about everyone else, except herself. This is the mother you often see mocked in shows – or on Twitter – as being overbearing, etc. – but very rarely do we get an exploration of them, and what makes them tick. As the movie progresses, and we start to get to know her Diane – and her past – it becomes clear that perhaps she isn’t motivated so much by “goodness” and “selflessness” – as it first appears – but by guilt. There is an incident in the past – a summer – in which Diane did something she has never been able to forgive herself for. And while everyone around her – including those that she hurt then – seem to have forgiven her, or at least moved on and don’t like to bring it up, she hasn’t. It isn’t an awful thing – no one died, etc. – but for her, she cannot forgive herself. And it haunts her in a way. Which raises the question – does it matter if she acts the way she does out of kindness or guilt? Is it what drives her that is important, or what she does?
The first hour of the movie seems to take place over the span of a few weeks and/or months. The last 30 minutes has a few leaps forward in time – everyone starts dying around Diane, as we expect that they will, either because we see them sick, or they are just old. Her son replaces one addiction with another – and they aren’t all that much closer as a result. And still, Diane keeps on chugging along – keeps up that mental list in her head of all the things she has to get done, all the people she wants to “do for”. Lessons aren’t really learned, as much as time just chugs along, indifferent to what Diane or anyone else thinks.
Through it all, Place holds the center of every scene, and does a remarkable job. Diane is more flawed, more human and complex than we think in the first few scenes. And she brings life to this movie that seems so simple at first, and becomes oh so complex by the end.

Movie Review: A Colony

A Colony *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Geneviève Dulude-De Celles.
Written by: Geneviève Dulude-De Celles.
Starring: Emilie Bierre (Mylia), Jacob Whiteduck-Lavoie (Jimmy), Irlande Côté (Camille), Noémie Godin-Vigneau (Nathalie), Cassandra Gosselin-Pelletier (Jacinthe), Robin Aubert (Henri).
You would be forgiven for thinking in the early scenes of Une Colonie – the Quebec film from debut filmmaker Geneviève Dulude-De Celles that you are basically in for a French Canadian version of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. Both films focus on a girl roughly the same age, who is shy and awkward, and does what she can to fit in with the rest of her classmates. There are other similarities as well – so comparisons between the two films are likely inevitable, and don’t really do Une Colonie any favors, as Burnham’s film is clearly superior. But as it moves along, you notice the differences more than the similarities – the types of things that Dulude-De Celles is doing that Burnham didn’t attempt. She is trying to make a film with a slightly wider angle lens here. Yes, it’s still about the trials and tribulations of being a 13-year-old girl – but it makes connections to the world outside of her immediate vicinity as well. It has to do with the title of the film, which is about colonization. Clearly, the main character is responsible for that – for what has been done to Indigenous Canadians in the past or present. But it explores perhaps what she can do, in her very small way.
The film stars Emilie Bierre (so good in a small role in Philippe Lasange’s Genesis recently as well) as Mylia – a quiet, shy 13-year-old girl in rural Quebec. She has a little sister – Camille (Irlande Cote) who is a little weird – perhaps no weirder that Mylia, but less afraid to show others her weirdness in that way little kids can be fearless. Their parents are going through some stuff – and perhaps won’t make it. All Mylia really wants is to fit in at school and have friends. And then she makes two – who couldn’t be more different from each other. The first is Jacinthe (Cassandra Gosselin-Pelletier), who is what Mylia thinks she wants in a friend – one of the popular girls, who accepts Mylia into her group, as long as she doesn’t rock the boat, or question what Jacinthe does too much. The other is Jimmy (Jacob Whiteduck-Lavoie), an Abenaki boy who lives on the reserve close to town. The film certainly hints at making Jimmy into a noble savior figure –we first see him rescuing Camille as she is being taunted by the other kids in the film’s opening scene, and later we will see him rescue Mylia and get her home when she drinks too much “punch” at Jacinthe’s party. You cringe a little when you think this is going to be another story where the Indigenous character exists solely to teach the white people in the movie something – but luckily, Jimmy becomes a more complex character after those initial appearances. He is a nice guy – a real one – but he isn’t perfect, and he doesn’t just take the casual and not so casual racism he faces on a day-to-day basis in stride – it makes him angry. He is also capable of lashing out – more out of disappointment than angry – at Mylia, like when she tells him she’s dressing up with Jacinthe and her friends as a girl group for a Halloween party, and he wonders why she doesn’t go as a “warrior” instead of a “slut”.
But you can see where this is going – and you are pretty much right. Eventually, Mylia will have to decide between what she wants in a friendship – the real one that Jimmy offers her, which comes with the added bonus that he genuinely cares for, and likes Camille, or the kind of fake friendship that Jacinthe offers. But even that isn’t quite so simple – as the film is more a journey for Mylia than anything else. At the end of the movie, she’s pretty much in the exact same situation she was in at the beginning of the film – but now, she is better able to handle it, and stay true to herself.
The film is well-made by Dulude-De Celles in a casual, observational style. She doesn’t provide Mylia any opportunities – like the Vlog’s in Eighth Grade did – for her to tell her feelings to the camera, but then again, it isn’t as necessary, as she has more friends that she converses with here – and the stakes are laid out fairly explicitly. The film could have descended into cliché and sentimentality – and although it comes close at times, it never quite does. A lot of that is due to the performances – all of which appealing by the young cast. All three of Bierre, Whiteduck-Lavoie and Cote are appealing young performers, and they carry the movie through any rough patches there may be.
Ultimately, I do wish that a film that is about finding yourself, and being true to yourself no matter how weird that may be was a little weirder itself. Ultimately, the film pretty much does what you expect it to. I do like the young performances, the direction – and the attempt to show normal Indigenous people in Canada, and have the film not be blind to the fact that they are Indigenous, but not let that completely define a character like Jimmy as well. The film won the Canadian Screen Award for Best Picture this year – and while that is a little much (especially considering the wonderful, aforementioned Genesis was also nominated) – it certainly is a good film, and makes me interested to see what Dulude-De Celles – and her talented young cast – all do next.

Movie Review: The Great Hack

The Great Hack *** / *****
Directed by: Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim.
Written by: Karim Amer and Erin Barnett and Pedro Kos.
If you didn’t follow along with the Cambridge Analytica scandal when it broke, then the new Netflix documentary The Great Hack will give you a good recap of what happened – and why it was so bad. On a wider level, the film gives you a decent enough overview to how tech companies have turned us all into willing products – where we hand over our data to companies who then both profit from, and weaponized, all that data that we handed them. True, the Cambridge Analytica scandal was somewhat different – because they found a way to not just harvest the data you willing gave Facebook, but also the data of your Facebook friends. But for the most part, we hand our data willing to companies – we do these stupid survives on Facebook or other sites, thinking that we’re going to a fun result – what Game of Thrones character are you? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? But these quizzes all ask specific questions to learn more and more about us. In some ways, all this seems innocent enough – we get targeted ads based on our web searches, we get recommendations based on things we shop for or buy, etc. But what the Cambridge Analytica scandal exposed was just how a company can take this all, and turn it into a political weapon – a weapon that helps Donald Trump become President or helps Brexit become a reality, etc. If you have been following along with this story then, well, I’m not sure what The Great Hack really adds to the subject.
The film does do a good job of laying out what happened, and why it matters. The Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr is our guide for much of this, and she in invaluable in laying it all, basically because she has spent so long covering the scandal in the first place. But while Cadwalladr is undeniably fascinating, it’s kind of disappointing that she’s the most fascinating person in the doc – basically because she isn’t telling us anything that her work hasn’t already told us. The film tries to add another level of interest with someone like David Carroll – a media professor, whose lawsuit against Cambridge Analytica serves as the framing device for the movie itself. Basically, Cambridge Analytica claimed that they had 5,000 data points on the people in their database – and Carroll’s lawsuit was to get them to give him the data that they collected on him specifically. There are some moments of Carroll in his classroom – talking to students who are younger than him – who never knew a time without the internet, without social media, etc. – who do not see it as such a big deal. I almost wanted more of what those young people had to say – because the film pretty much brings them up, and then dismisses them – like the old guy in the room who hears the question from the younger people, and tells them to sit down, shut up and listen to what he’s going to teach you. I was interested in what these younger people may have thought after it was explained just what Cambridge Analytica did if they still thought it wasn’t that big a deal – but the movie seems less interested in that.


I also wanted a little more information from the two people inside Cambridge Analytica who came forward to give us insights into the company itself. Christopher Wylie got more media attention (at least from what I saw) – and the movie lets him speak. It does bring up the other side – that he left the company before much of the scandal, etc. – but just kind of leaves that there. More problematic is Brittany Kaiser, who fashions herself – and the movie seemingly agrees – as a whistleblower, but she is basically blowing the whistle on herself. She isn’t someone who saw others doing something immoral, and felt the need to come forward. She basically admits that much of it she did herself – or was involved with. And she doesn’t seem all that guilt stricken over it either. I wish the film – which spends a lot of time with her – had pushed her harder into her own actions, her own culpability, etc.


And for that matter, I wish the film was more critical of us – those in the audience who willingly goes along with this all, and then shrugs out shoulders when we find out about it. As the movie makes clear, Cambridge Analytica played a role – perhaps not the deciding role, but not an insignificant one – in getting someone like Donald Trump elected, or something like Brexit happen – and in other elections, where they encourage young people not to vote, etc. It is not just collecting data to let us know of a new product we may want to buy – that’s creepy enough as it is, as anyone who has ever bought anything from Amazon, and then sees adds for related products on every site they visit after can attest. But it’s using the data to target – and lie to – people. To stoke their fears, to get them to think what they want them to – regardless of whether or its true. It’s not a benign force – but an actively insidious one. Yes, Cambridge Analytica is defunct now – but you’re crazy to think it was the only company doing that.


The Great Hack seems to not be as interested in that. It wants to lay out some facts, without getting too personal about it, not pushing too much further. As that, it’s a fine documentary – and if you don’t know about this scandal, you should see it. It will make you angry, Just, not as angry as you probably should be.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Classic Movie Review: Moonrise (1948)

Moonrise (1948)
Directed by: Frank Borzage.
Written by: Charles F. Haas based on the novel by Theodore Strauss).
Starring: Dane Clark (Danny Hawkins), Gail Russell (Gilly Johnson), Ethel Barrymore (Grandma), Allyn Joslyn (Sheriff Clem Otis), Rex Ingram (Mose), Harry Morgan (Billy Scripture), David Street (Ken Williams), Selena Royle (Aunt Jessie), Harry Carey Jr. (Jimmy Biff), Irving Bacon (Judd Jenkins), Lloyd Bridges (Jerry Sykes).
One of the last films by the great Frank Borzage – who worked consistently from the early 1910s right up until the 1940s, winning two directing Oscars in the process – Moonrise is a cross between a film noir and a Hollywood melodrama. In terms of the plotting of the film, there is nothing here you haven’t seen before – and the lead performance by Dane Clark isn’t quite up to par here (apparently John Garfield was Borzage’s first choice – and would have been perfect). And yet, while Moonrise isn’t a perfect film by any means – it’s one of those where the direction really elevates the rest of the movie. The film looks amazing – with Borzage drawing on his silent movie background to come up with some stellar image after another, one stellar sequence after another. The direction elevates what could have been a rather run of the mill and forgettable film into something quite bold.
Clark stars as Danny Hawkins – who has been an outcast in his town since shortly after birth. His father got mad at the doctor who delivered Danny – blaming him for the death of Danny’s mother – and murdered him shortly after, getting the death penalty as a result. Danny is raised by his grandma (Ethel Barrymore) – who probably would have been smart to leave town, but doesn’t. Danny is tormented and bullied throughout his childhood – mostly led by Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges). The montage that shows this progression of bullying in the first of many great sequences in the film. It finally leads to yet another fight between these two men as they step outside from a dance – but this time, Danny gets the best of Jerry, and ends up killing his longtime tormenter. He hides the body, and goes back to the dance.
Of course, killing a man is easy, but getting away with it – and living with yourself – is much harder. Jerry has a rich daddy, who doesn’t take his sons disappearance lying down – and hires a detective to look for him. Meanwhile, Danny moves in on Jerry’s girl – Gilly (Gail Russell) – an innocent school teacher, and the two fall in love. But the Sheriff (Allyn Joslyn) isn’t stupid – and starts noticing Danny’s increasingly odd behavior – as Danny spirals out of control into guilt and remorse.
Moonrise is an odd film – in that, you could see the way you make this into a guilt ridden film noir – with Danny not unlike say Edward G. Robinson in Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window. But that’s not really how this film proceeds. It is the most sympathetic film from that time I can think of in terms of a portrait of someone who could (rightly) be called a murderer. The film probably lays it on a little thick – making the dead Jerry into more and more of a villain as the film progressed, and having everyone be a little more understanding of Danny that they probably should be. The film even has a “happy” ending – at least as much as a film like this could have. Here’s where Clark’s performance disappoints – because it doesn’t have any of the shading it really needs. An actor like the aforementioned Garfield could have made this a complex character – someone who you both like and fear. But Clark is more of blank slate than anything. He isn’t aided much by Russell as the blandest of bland film noir “good girls” imaginable. Throw in a few more characters that border on offensive clichés – the mute eyewitness who sees everything, and the sympathetic “magical negro” Danny has as a friend, and Moonrise could have been downright maudlin in other hands.
And here is where Borzage’s direction really does the heavy lifting – he plays it somehow right down the middle from the maudlin melodrama or the film noir it could have been. It’s somehow both and neither at the same time. And in terms of how the film looks, it is remarkable. Borzage has over 100 directing credits listed on IMDB stretching from 1913 (when he would have been 19) until the year before his death in 1962 at only 68. He brings that wealth of experience here. The film works best when Borzage is directing it almost as if it were a silent film – that opening montage for instance, or other set pieces throughout. The film never looks less than amazing.
The direction makes up for the rest of the flaws in the film. This isn’t a masterpiece like some other Borzage films (I admit, I need to see more of his work, but my favorite is perhaps the pre-code Man’s Castle from 1933). But it does show just how good a director he was – right up until late into his career. He would only go on to be credited with directing two other films after Moonrise – and both of those came 10 years later. But Moonrise shows that in 1948, he was still at the height of his powers.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Films of Quentin Tarantino: The Hateful Eight (2015)

The Hateful Eight (2015)
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino   
Written by: Quentin Tarantino.
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson (Major Marquis Warren), Kurt Russell (John Ruth), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Daisy Domergue), Walton Goggins (Sheriff Chris Mannix), Demián Bichir (Bob), Tim Roth (Oswaldo Mobray), Michael Madsen (Joe Gage), Bruce Dern (General Sandy Smithers), James Parks (O.B Jackson), Dana Gourrier (Minnie Mink), Zoë Bell (Six-Horse Judy), Lee Horsley (Ed), Gene Jones (Sweet Dave), Keith Jefferson (Charly), Craig Stark (Chester Charles Smithers), Belinda Owino (Gemma), Channing Tatum (Jody)
Watching The Hateful Eight again – for the first time since it came out in 2015 – I couldn’t help but wonder if this was Tarantino’s way of becoming an internet troll. I don’t say mean that in a bad way, because the film is still brilliantly written, directed and acted, but because I kind of think that this was Tarantino’s way of attacking back on all the things said about him. That his films are racist or misogynistic or homophobic, and instead turns it back on America itself – basically arguing (not incorrectly) that those very things are ingrained in very fabric of America. But he does it all in a way that doesn’t hold your hand in that argument – instead of just places all these, well, Hateful, people together in a room and lets them loose. If you’re uncomfortable, is that discomfort with the film, or with America? You decide.
On the surface level, The Hateful Eight is a Western take on one of those closed door, Agatha Christie mysteries. It is basically 9 people (poor O.B. – he isn’t hateful, but in that room, he doesn’t stand a chance) who are trapped by a snowstorm. There is a black bounty hunter and Civil War Veteran Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) with three dead bodies that he wants to turn in for the bounty. Another bounty hunter – John Ruth (Kurt Russell) with his latest capture – Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – also trying to make his way to town to collect the bounty. The new Sheriff of that not far off town – and the son of Marauder, those Southerners who couldn’t except the result of the war Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) on his way to start his new job. There is Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir) – who has apparently been left in charge of Minnie’s Haberdashery with the owner away. An aging Confederate General looking for information on his dead son, Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). And a couple of mysterious strangers – Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) – apparently a hangman and Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) – who is there for, well, who really knows. They all have secrets and ulterior motives that will only slowly be revealed – and then the bloodbath will commence.
The film, even more than most Tarantino films, is almost all dialogue. The film traps us with these people who should never be in the same room together in that room together, and won’t let them go. If you’re paying attention, you’ll be uncomfortable even before you get to that room. The violent way Ruth deals with Daisy – he punches her, elbows her in the face, and generally berates her with a lot of sexist language. But it’s not like Daisy is an innocent – she’s an out-and-out racist, who goes out of her way to provoke the hatred of everyone around her. Mannix is a more “respectable” racist – in that while he’s racist, he can be civil to Marquis. And you find out pretty early on just how many people Marquis has killed – and how – which doesn’t make him look good.
And then, for nearly three hours, Tarantino lets them bounce off each other. They argue, bicker, provoke, fight, etc. the entire time. Everyone is trying to suss out everyone else’s motives – and not getting very far. If Marquis is our hero – he’s a flawed one. He certainly has a reason to hate General Smithers – but his long, homophobic tirade just to provoke a response so that he can kill him maybe taking it too far. John Ruth – obviously styled on John Wayne – may have a reason to bring Daisy is – but that doesn’t mean he’s not a violent misogynist anyway.
There was a lot of debate when the film came out if it was racist, or depicted racism. If it was misogynistic or depicted misogyny. If it was homophobic, or depicted homophobia. I think, taken as a film onto itself, The Hateful Eight comes out on the right side of those issues. It makes sense that in the years after the Civil War that racism would be this open, this rampant and widespread among white people – and that most of them would use the word nigger without a second though. And, for the most part, I think Tarantino’s other movies which uses the word as frequently also make sense unto themselves. But at a certain point, I do think you have to wonder if Tarantino just likes the word, and finds “legitimate” reasons to use it in all of his movies. I’ve never bought the misogyny charges against Tarantino – and don’t here either. He has long since loved strong female characters – in every sense of the word – and while Daisy is despicable, she is that as well. And the ultimate message of the film – that’s men’s hatred of women will ultimately outweigh the racism they feel towards each other could be construed (if you’re feeling generous) as a feminist message. As for the homophobia – I think it’s valid to point out that Marquis’ rant is meant to provoke a homophobic response in Smithers – and isn’t itself homophobic. But I also think it’s fair to point out that’s it’s a fairly cheap gambit – and beneath a writer of Tarantino’s talents.
Ultimately, I think it’s fair to say that I have more reservations about The Hateful Eight than any other Tarantino directed film. And yet, I also have to say that the film is brilliant in many ways. The performances are all top notch – in particular Jackson, Russell and Leigh, with only one guy miscast (I won’t spoil it if you don’t know – but he’s the guy who shows up late). And it’s entertaining as hell. I think Fred Raskin does a better job editing this than he did Django Unchained. The 70MM cinematography by Robert Richardson is as good as anything he has ever done – and the great Ennio Morricone deserved the Best Score Oscar he won for his work here, even if it doesn’t seem like he particularly likes Tarantino. It says something that even if this is perhaps the weakest feature of Tarantino’s career – it’s still pretty damn great.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Movie Review: Genesis

Genesis **** / *****
Directed by: Philippe Lesage.
Written by: Philippe Lesage.
Starring: Théodore Pellerin (Guillaume), Noée Abita (Charlotte), Paul Ahmarani (Perrier), Édouard Tremblay-Grenier (Félix), Emilie Bierre (Béatrice), Jules Roy Sicotte (Nicolas), Marc Beaupré (Coach Jacques), Émile Bilodeau (Seb), Brett Dier (Todd), Pier-Luc Funk (Maxime), Antoine Marchand Gagnon (Alexis), Maxime Dumontier (Theo).
Phillippe Lesage’s thorny Genesis is a film that continues to grow in my mind the farther I get from it. It is about the pain of young love – and lust – but not in the innocent, cutesy way we often see in so called coming of age movies. It is a film about thwarted desire – and the consequences of putting yourself out there, even while recognizing that the only way to get what you are longing for is to do just that. It is a film about heartbreak – but one that recognizes the lasting, serious impact of that.
At its core, for at least the first 100 minutes of Genesis, are two step-siblings – high school aged Guillaume (Theodore Pellerin) and his college aged step-sister Charlotte (Noée Abita). He is at an all-boys dormitory school, and is seemingly popular in his school – at least on the surface. He’s a jokester and the class clown, and he can get everyone laughing. And yet, in terms of close friendships, there is really only Nicolas (Jules Roy Sicotte) – a jock with him his shares an easy connection. It’s clear from the outset – although the movie doesn’t make it explicit until later – that Guillaume is performing in his more overtly confident moments. We see him more himself as he sits, alone, reading – or walking through a party full of couples dancing by himself – feeling alone and isolated, because of course, he cannot admit who he is – not yet. When he finally does – in two painfully awkward scenes (one to Nicolas himself, another to his entire class) – they are the two best moments in Pellerin’s terrific performance (he won the Canadian Screen Award for Best Actor for his wildly over the top performance in Family First – he should have won it for this). They aren’t quite the heartbreak moments you think they could be – but it certainly does lead to a terrible ending for him, based on little more than stereotypes from this sort of closed minded school.
His older sister, on the other hand, is not in an unrequited love situation in college – and isn’t just pining to express her sexuality. She has no problems finding partners – boyfriends, sex partners, etc. – but it doesn’t bring her anymore happiness than not finding them brought Guillaume. We first meet her when she’s with a boy her own age – Maxime (Pier-Luc Funk) – and seems happy. But then, in an awkward young man’s attempt to seem worldly, he suggests that they may not always be together, and perhaps an open relationship is more fitting (the poor bastard doesn’t realize at the time that the way this is going to end is with him on the floor in a heap crying). Charlotte seemingly finds what Maxime says he wanted – in an older boyfriend – Theo (Maxime Dumontier) – but he ultimately isn’t any better than Maxime – any more mature – and wants that initial wave of lust dies between them, she’s left with the same emptiness. That openness though leads to the most traumatic moment in the film – that basically ends the story of Guillaume and Charlotte.
And that’s because, Lesage does something interesting and strange with about 30 minutes to go in the film – he leaves behind his main characters, and tells a completely different story of young love for the final act in the film. He revisits the protagonist from his 2015 debut film The Demons (unseen by me – but not for long considering how much I liked Genesis) – Felix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier) – now a young teenager, away at summer camp. He locks eyes, meaningfully, with Béatrice (Emilie Bierre) and the two have what passes for a summer relationship when you’re around 13 years old – a lot of tentative glances, awkward looks, and friends acting as go-betweens, and finally hand holding. This is a more innocent romance than what we see the other two protagonists go through – and yet, oddly, it isn’t particularly refreshing. It’s sadder than anything else – because we know what is in store for them – what these innocent interactions turn into. Right now, they are innocent – but in a few years, they will be at the mercy of what we’ve seen in the other part of the movie – toxic masculinity, insecurity, bigotry and rape culture.
All of this probably makes Genesis sound bleaker and more depressing than it actually is. For as dark as things can get in Genesis, there is also a strange level of hope here – hope that if these characters can remain open, they may actually be able to get what it is they want. Guillaume and Charlotte are ahead of their peers in many ways – and that is why they get hit harder. Felix and Beatrice are also ahead somewhat – we aren’t seeing other such romances here.
All of this is rendered in a deeply humanist way by Lesange and his actors. His style is often to hold the camera longer than you think we would – shots go on a long time here, and don’t look away. The film has an interesting structure – going back and forth between Guillaume and Charlotte, before flashing to Felix and Beatrice. It’s a complex movie that doesn’t really tell you what to think, what to feel – and it refuses to wrap anything up in a neat package. And that is perhaps why the film is staying with me, haunting me, for days when most films dissipate as soon they are over.

Movie Review: The Great Darkened Days

The Great Darkened Days *** / *****
Directed by: Maxime Giroux.
Written by: Simon Beaulieu and Maxime Giroux and Alexandre Laferrière.
Starring: Martin Dubreuil (Philippe), Sarah Gadon (Helen), Romain Duris (Lester), Reda Kateb (Hector), Buddy Duress (Opponent), Cody Fern (Travelling Salesman), Lise Roy (Philippe's Mother), Soko (Rosie).
During WWII, before America has entered the war, a Quebec draft dodger, Phillippe (Martin Dubreuil) wanders through the American West, basically only finding misery wherever he turns. The Great Darkened Days is a surreal period piece with a sad clown at its center – a passive character who wanders through this world not fully comprehending what he sees – and what happens to him. It’s a bizarre film – a film that I have a feeling many people will hate, a few will love – and will more than likely confound anyone who sees it. Does it work? Not really – at the end of it, I have no idea what co-writer/director Maxime Giroux is saying about, well, anything. And yet it’s a weirdly fascinating film – bringing to mind Wim Wenders and David Lynch, but with a distinctly Quebecois feel. So maybe it doesn’t work – you won’t be bored.
The film opens with Philippe winning a Charlie Chaplin look-a-like contest, and winning the $10 grand prize. It’s just about the last piece of good luck he’ll have in the movie. Because from there, everyone he meets – no matter how nice they seem at first – really are not nice at all. There is one of his opponents in the contest (Buddy Duress) who will rob Philippe of his money. There is the talent scout (Reda Kateb) who seems very nice (and apparently discovered R.E.W. – as a bizarre scene finds Everybody Hurts blaring from a car radio in the 1940s, as Philippe dances around the desert like Chaplin) – who picks our hero up at the side of the road, and leaves at a place he says he will find help. He won’t – but he will meet Helen (Sarah Gadon), who takes him into her home, and will feed him a hot meal and give him a place to stay – but also has a woman tied up who she treats quite literally like a dog (Soko). Then there is Lester (Romain Duris) who runs some sort of bizarre human trafficking ring. You know you’re in bad shape when perhaps the nicest guy you meet is a travelling cigarette salesman (Cody Fern).
There are surreal touches throughout The Great Darkened Days that let you know that while this seems like the 1940s in our timeline, perhaps it isn’t. The R.E.M. song that blares out of the radio is the moment where you either decide to role with this film, or fight it tooth and nail the rest of the way. The moment right after with Patton’s voice coming blaring out the radio talking about war (and I think it’s actually George C. Scott as Patton) takes things a little further. There’s also a moment when Philippe goes to sleep in the desert in the middle of summer, and wakes up under a giant pile of snow. Or, of course, the human dog. You could extend this a little farther in saying that for the American West, there is sure a lot of French people around – but perhaps that’s just because the film is from Quebec.
I am really at a loss to come up with a reason what Giroux and company are saying with this film. In a way, it’s a Job story, with our hero suffering through one trial after another – but for what purpose, who knows? Perhaps it’s just a way of punishing Philippe for dodging the draft – for not going to war for his country, or the filmmaker’s way of saying that war may be hell, but so regular life. You won’t escape unscathed. Perhaps its just surreal for the sake of being surreal. Your guess is as good as mine.
What I will say is that the film is endlessly fascinating. The direction by Giroux is impressive – this is a period film on a budget, but the details are great. The photography – which ranges from the wide open, bright spaces of the desert, to an extended sequence that is basically all darkness is great – leading up to a final image as beautiful as it is confounding. The supporting performances are all aces as well – no one more so that Sarah Gadon (who has quietly become one of my favorite actresses – almost in Canadian content like the Cronenberg films Cosmopolis and Maps to Stars, Villeneuve’s final film before going Hollywood - Enemy - or the TV show Alias Grace) who is so chipper and friendly it’s creepy, even before you meet Rosie. Martin Dubreuil’s performance in the lead is interesting – he is a passive character, we never really learn much about him – not even why he dodged the drafted (was he a coward? A pacifist? Is there another reason?). Other than that dance sequence, he doesn’t show his comedic chops that would have won him that contest at the beginning – and even then, he looks as sad and miserable as he does the rest of the time. But his face says a lot.
I guess, in the end, you’re left with the question as to whether this bizarre journey the movie takes us on is worth the destination of nowhere where we actually end up. That’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Movie Review: Firecrackers

Firecrackers *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Jasmin Mozaffari.
Written by: Jasmin Mozaffari.
Starring: Michaela Kurimsky (Lou), Karena Evans (Chantal), Callum Thompson (Jesse), David Kingston (Johnny), Tamara LeClair (Leanne), Scott Cleland (Josh), Dylan Mask (Kyle), Gabe Meacher (Eric), Robert Cormier (Shane), Tarick Glancy (Travis), Karleena Kelly (Cam Girl), Devon Collins (Taylor), Jorja Cadence (Skylar).
Firecrackers is a bleak film about two teenage girls in a dead-end, go nowhere Ontario town who dream of getting out and going to New York. What they’ll do there they don’t say – they probably don’t even know – all they really know is that they no longer want to be stuck here in this town where there is nothing to do except drink, do drugs and fuck idiot boys. There is no industry to speak of here – where they exactly they are isn’t specified, but it looks like it could easily be one of those beach towns that people get away in the summer, and dead the rest of the time. One of the girls has a mother in the picture – but she isn’t much of a good influence, and the other doesn’t even have that. They are going nowhere if they don’t get out – that’s about all they know.
Firecrackers is a film that immediately brings to mind the work of Andrea Arnold (who got her biggest showcase with Season 2 of Big Little Lies, until the men involved – none of who are as talented as she is pretty much pushed her out in post-production) – specifically her two stories of young women trying to escape their lot in life – Fish Tank and American Honey. It isn’t as good as either of those films – perhaps because like many first time filmmakers, Jasmin Mozaffari is expanding a short film into a feature – always a tricky endeavor, as sometimes there just isn’t enough material to expand. Firecrackers can feel repetitive at times – as it puts its two main characters through the ringer again and again. I also wish there was more of a sense of place to the film – the small town here feels anonymous – perhaps intentionally, to make it seem universal (or not limit it in markets who normally wouldn’t watch a Canadian film) – but I wish there was more of a sense of this place other than it being a dead end town where dreams go to die.
Having said that, there is still a ton to recommend about Firecrackers – which certainly marks Mozaffari as a filmmaker to watch. For one thing, the two lead performances are terrific – especially that of Michaela Kurimsky as Lou. She’s the leader of the two girls – the more assertive of the two, and the one that will get them into the most trouble. She struggles with her mother – a former addict, who now says she has found God – and a much younger boyfriend, Johnny (David Kingston) – another addict who says he has found the same. Johnny isn’t a father figure type – he tries, but he’s so weak willed, such a pushover around everyone, and seemingly teetering on the brink of his own sobriety, he simply cannot do anything. Lou is reckless, she acts without thinking. But she is also caring and loyal – she struggles with her own sexuality – she performs as teenage girls are supposed to, but there’s more there than that – and she is supportive of her younger brother, who seems to be dealing with his own burgeoning sexuality in a way their mother never can be. There is a marked difference in how Lou behaves when she has to perform for her peers, then when she is apart from them. And Kurimsky nails it all. Karena Evans as her best friend Chantal also has a tricky role. She is one of the only non-white people in town – and has to deal with the casual racism that is there in an almost all white community. She is more passive than Lou – more accepting of the things that are done to here, more willing to go along to get along – even when terrible things are done to her.
In a way, this is a tale of female friendship – but it’s apparent that it’s a friendship that may not last. Lou and Chantal have clung to each other in this small town, because basically, they have no one else to cling to. They have this dreaming of getting out – but it’s one Lou seems to want more than Chantal when it comes down to it. The back half of the film concentrates more on Lou as the two friends separate for a time, before being brought back together at the end. Even there, they seem to be performing their friendship more than they were at the beginning. This relationship feels more fragile and tenuous than ever before.
As a director, Mozaffari is already quite good. While the Arnold influence is apparent, she also makes the film her own with her style. The film can be chaotic and hectic – the wild night that almost destroys everything for the two girls for example. But she is also more than capable of slowing things down as she does in the back half. The writing isn’t quite as strong as the direction – the film certainly does feel like a short expanded into a feature, with perhaps too many of the same beats hit again and again, which results in the film being perhaps more punishing than it intended. But it shows Mozaffari as a filmmaker to watch – and I’ll certainly be watching for Evan and especially Kurimsky as well.

The Films of Quentin Tarantino: Django Unchained (2012)

Django Unchained (2012)
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino.
Written by: Quentin Tarantino.
Starring: Jamie Foxx (Django), Christoph Waltz (Dr. King Schultz), Leonardo DiCaprio (Calvin Candie), Kerry Washington (Broomhilda), Samuel L. Jackson (Stephen), Walton Goggins (Billy Crash), Dennis Christopher (Leonide Moguy), James Remar (Butch Pooch / Ace Speck), David Steen (Mr. Stonesipher), Dana Michelle Gourrier (Cora), Nichole Galicia (Sheba), Laura Cayouette (Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly), Ato Essandoh (D'Artagnan), Don Johnson (Big Daddy), Franco Nero (Bar Patron), James Russo (Dicky Speck), Bruce Dern (Old Man Carrucan), Jonah Hill (Bag Head #2).
It is fair to question whether Quentin Tarantino should have made Django Unchained – if a white filmmaker at all should be making a film about slavery, particularly one that turns slavery in a blood splattered revenge film – which almost literally ends with people winking at the camera. The film came out the same year as Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln – another film about slavery, but one that avoided the pain of slavery, to concentrate on what Lincoln – and his allies – had to do to pass the 13th Amendment, and the year before Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which took us to those plantations, and focused on the horrific toll on the human bodies of the slaves themselves. Both films are undeniable respectful – in a way that Tarantino’s film very definitely is not. And yet – I think Tarantino’s film gets to something more elemental and basic about slavery that I’m not sure I’ve quite seen before. In an era where America is still debating whether or not they should keep statues of Confederate Heroes up in Southern States, and many people try and argue, ridiculously, that slavery was not about race, but was purely economic – yes, it was wrong, but not all slave owners were racist monsters, were they? Tarantino’s film, if nothing else, lays bare that lie. Every white person save one in Django Unchained is an unrepentant racist – someone who spouts out the most hateful rhetoric imaginable, who looks at black people as subhuman. The one exception of course isn’t even American.
The title character in the film is Django (Jamie Foxx) – a slave, who we first see as he is being led through a dark forest, with other slaves, when a man in a wagon comes along. This is Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) – a German dentist turned bounty hunter. He needs Django because he can help him find his latest fugitives. The negotiations as they are wont to do in a Tarantino film go on for a long time, but only end in bloody, brutal violence. King Schultz gets his man – and makes him a deal. If he will help him, when it’s all over, Django can go free. Of course, all Django wants is to find his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) – now a slave at Candyland, owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). And King Schultz will, of course, help with that as well.
Even more than most Tarantino films, Django Unchained has a strange mixture of tones. It can be out and out comedic at times, where Tarantino is playing things for a laugh, and then at other moments, he is hitting you hard. The violence in the film is strong and persistent – and yet, there is different types of violence here. There are moments where the violence is over-the-top – people being blown up with dynamite for instance, and the bloody massacres at the end. And there are times when it is not over the top at all – D’Artagnan and the dogs for instance, or the fights Calvin forces his slaves to have against each other. The violence in those sequences is almost sickening – Tarantino is not making light of that violence at all. It is appropriately brutal.
As with all of Tarantino films as well, he takes his time here. The film runs two hours and forty minutes, and it’s well over an hour before we even get to the main conflict of the film – before we’re even introduced to the main villain – DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie. Until then, we get a lot of Django and Schultz together being bounty hunters – including a montage set in the snow (I always love snow Westerns – and think we never got enough of them). Tarantino allows his character’s time and space to breath – to talk, to reveal themselves. They are not terribly complex characters – but they are acted with great zeal by the entire cast. I’ve always found it odd that Waltz was the one singled out for awards recognition – he is great sure, but ‘s almost a co-lead (it would be, but he leaves the film perhaps a shade too early for that). And the film also contains DiCaprio going wildly, wonderfully over-the-top, playing easily the most contemptable character of his career – and loving every second of it. He isn’t a fun villain per se – he is evil and vile and racist – but DiCaprio knows that Calvin Candie would love being Calvin Candie, and shows that. The most complex character in the film is Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen – the top slave at Candyland, and the one most invested in seeing things stay just as they are. It’s the second best performance Jackson has ever given for Tarantino – right after Pulp Fiction.
I don’t think Django Unchained is a perfect film – it is certainly a messy one. It is the first Tarantino film not edited by the great Sally Menke, who tragically died far too young, and there are moments where she is missed. It may be very funny to have the scene with the Klan members debating the hole placements on their masks – but the scene feels awkwardly spliced into the film – like an outtake or a Key & Peele skit inserted into the rest of the movie. And Tarantino, who has always been interested in complex, strong female characters (you are free to hate those characters, or his writing of them – but to say he doesn’t care about them is absurd) here fails Kerry Washington and Broomhilda, who is the least interesting character in the film, not really given any depth at all.
And yet, it’s messiness somehow works in Django Unchained’s favor. Tarantino here is tackling slavery and racism at the heart of American history, and he is lashing out in more than a few different directions. It is a messy film, but it’s a messy issue. Re-watching the film, I think I noticed the mess more this time than ever before – but also noticed just how hard Tarantino is hitting here – how much he wants to show the lie at the heart of the slavery – which makes it a stronger film than I remembered as well. This film damn well should be messy.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Movie Review: The Lion King

The Lion King ** / *****
Directed by: Jon Favreau.
Written by: Jeff Nathanson and Brenda Chapman based on characters created by Irene Mecchi and Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton.
Starring: Donald Glover (Simba), Beyoncé (Nala), Seth Rogen (Pumbaa), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Scar), Billy Eichner (Timon), John Oliver (Zazu), Keegan-Michael Key (Kamari), Eric André (Azizi), Alfre Woodard (Sarabi), John Kani (Rafiki), Florence Kasumba (Shenzi), JD McCrary (Young Simba), Shahadi Wright Joseph (Young Nala), James Earl Jones (Mufasa).
Perhaps it’s because The Lion King is the third live action remake of a Disney classic this year (following Dumbo and Aladdin), or perhaps it’s because out all of the “live action” remakes Disney has done in the past few years this one feels the most slavishly devoted to the original film, but I couldn’t help but be annoyed throughout most of this film. I am not anti-remake like many seem to be – I actually kind of like to see different filmmakers approach to the same material, different actor’s approaches to the same roles, etc. I often like to watch the original and the remake back-to-back to compare and contrast. And perhaps that’s why I was annoyed by this version of The Lion King – there is so little to compare and contrast. It’s basically the same thing – the same songs, the same story beats, the same moments, etc. – just rendered this time in more “realistic” animation this time around (I know they say it’s not animated – both if none of the animals or locations are real, what do you call it?). In short, there is so little that is new about this film that it’s not like watching two different takes on the same subject matter – it’s like watching someone trace over the original, and make it look worse (and take longer than do it at the same time).
The film was directed by Jon Favreau – who certainly knows what he’s doing. His The Jungle Book is perhaps the best of all of these live action remakes by Disney – although perhaps that’s because there has been so much distance since the original in the later 1960s (and those who were children then aren’t likely to complain about you ruining their childhood if you dare change anything about something they liked as children – those grown up babies are at least a decade younger, and Star Wars fans) that he was freer to make the film his own. It had some of the same beats, some of the same songs of course – but not all of them. And it looked amazing.
I suppose, you cannot really complain about how this The Lion King looks then. There is no doubt that the technology used to render these visuals is pretty amazing, not quite a game changer like say Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was in 1993 or James Cameron’s Avatar was in 2009 – but still it’s impressive. I don’t doubt that technical achievement that Favreau and company managed to pull off here. And I’m not quite sure I can really complain too much about the vocal performances either. Most of them, honestly, are fine if forgettable – which you could say about the vocal performances by much of the original Lion King cast was back in 1994 (I’m not about to make an argument in favor of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Matthew Broderick and Moira Kelly over the likes of Donald Glover or Beyoncé, etc.) A few them are actually genuinely quite good – John Olivier is hilarious (if basically doing what he always does) as Zazu. And Seth Rogen and especially Billy Eichner are legitimately hilarious and Pumbaa and Timon. Eichner, I think, achieves where most of the others do not – he really does make Timon his own. He doesn’t try and out Nathan Lane Nathan Lane – he just makes the role his own, makes the comedic beats his own. He is legitimately great in this role. The songs are still good too – and this cast can certainly sing, or at least sound good. The only one that I think didn’t really sound great was Scar’s great Be Patient – which seemed rushed.
And yet, as I watched the film I couldn’t really figure out what the point of this all was – except to make money. And a lot of money it did in fact make. But if those involved weren’t really going to do anything different with the story, weren’t going to make it their own in any way, then what was the point? Why do it? Why not just watch the original – which, I’m sorry, looks so much better in its traditional animated style than these photorealistic animals look.
It seems to me that studios have listened to the wrong people on the internet – the whiners and complainers. Those who come out in full force against lady Ghostbusters because it’s not “their” ghostbusters. Those who complain that The Last Jedi changes too much about Star Wars to make it the series “they” fell in love with as a child. Hell, those who I saw on Twitter as I watched Rent Live a few months ago, who complained every time the slightest deviation was made to how the musical used to be done. These people want things from the past to stay exactly as they were when they first encountered them – and if you change a thing, you’ll hear that you’ve ruined their childhoods. But making movies in this way has to be suffocating, doesn’t it? Are you really making a movie or playing a very expensive game of Monkey See, Monkey Do?

Movie Review: Sword of Trust

Sword of Trust *** / *****
Directed by: Lynn Shelton.
Written by: Lynn Shelton and Mike O’Brien.
Starring: Marc Maron (Mel), Jon Bass (Nathaniel), Michaela Watkins (Mary), Jillian Bell (Cynthia), Toby Huss (Hog Jaws), Dan Bakkedahl (Kingpin), Lynn Shelton (Deirdre), Timothy Paul (Zeke), Whitmer Thomas (Jake), Al Elliott (Jimmy), Tilcia Furman (Gabby), Benjamin Keepers (Ben), Robert Longstreet (Truther).
If nothing else, Lynn Shelton’s Sword of Trust provides definitive proof that Marc Maron is a special actor. The stand-up comedian turned podcast host came to acting later in his career – with his own show, and then Glow. There is something to be said about people who have lived a life before they got to acting – and that Maron has, with his drug addiction, stand-up career, marriages, etc. It informs everything they do. In Sword of Trust, Maron plays Mel – a pawn shop owner in Alabama. Into his shop comes a couple – Mary and Cynthia (Michaela Watkins and Jillian Bell) – with a sword to sell. They inherited it from Cynthia’s grandfather, who believed that the sword, and the documentation that comes along with it, proves that the South really won the Civil War, and all our history is just a giant conspiracy designed to fool us into thinking the North won. Soon, the three of them fall down a rabbit hole of internet conspiracy theories – guided by Mel’s assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass) someone who knows that world – and meet some very interesting, very scary (in a comedic way) people who are interested in such “prover” items.
All of the characters in the movie are interesting in one way or another – none more so than Maron’s Mel however. Maron shows his range in this film – and it’s a range that allows him to be both hilarious, and heartbreakingly real – sometimes in back-to-back moments. He’s got a lot of quips and jokes throughout the film – and they’ll make you laugh – but he also has two absolutely beautiful scenes that revolve his relationship with Deirdre (Lynn Shelton, who co-wrote and directed the film). In the first of these scenes, we see Deirdre come into the pawn shop to try and sell some things. It’s clear these two known each other – it’s clear that there is love there, but Mel is also tired of her coming in, trying to sell her junk that he doesn’t want and doesn’t need. She’s a drug addict – but he feels for her, and the way he interacts with her is firm, yet polite. It’s a beautiful little piece of acting. Later, in the back of a panel van that contains the four main characters being driven to an interested party in acquiring the sword, Maron gives a long monologue about his relationship with Deirdre – how they loved each other, how they were both addicts, and how he got clean and she didn’t. It’s heartbreaking really.
In moments like this, Sword of Trust is a genuinely wonderful movie – as good as anything that Shelton has ever done, and probably better than anything since her breakthrough – Humpday. She seems to make her living doing TV work – a lot of TV work – but when he makes her own films, the results are these loosely structured comedic films – films built around their characters, more than their plots, and whose humor comes through them as well. Had she come along in the 1980s or 1990s, she wouldn’t have had to do all this TV work – she could have churned out quite a body of work in these little indies, but alas, the film industry has changed – and these charming indies don’t make what they used to. Shelton has had more than one film basically fall through the cracks – no matter how good they are.
With Sword of Trust however, it’s almost a shame that the film ever leaves the pawn shop. I picture a film like Wayne Wang’s Smoke (1995) which all takes place in the cigar shop run by Harvey Keitel – where he’s the constant, and interesting characters’ filter throughout the movie. A movie like that, with Maron’s Mel in his pawn shop – and all these people filtering through for various reasons – probably would have been better than what we end up with. As the film progresses, and continues to have to add implausibility on top of implausibility as it twists its narrative about the sword, and these people who believe in this conspiracy theory (and insist you believe in it too) the movie can become strained at times. It’s best when it’s relaxed – when it’s Maron and whoever he’s playing off of riffing. All the performances are quite good – the characters interesting. When the film relaxes – and lets them talk (like when Mary and Cynthia tell how they met, and their future plans), the films works like gangbusters. Hell, when its lets someone like the great Toby Huss go off playing a characters called Hog Jaws (don’t call him Jaws Hog) it can be hilarious. It’s just when forcing them into a narrative that the film loses its way.
Still, it’s always good to see a Lynn Shelton film – because more than anything, she allows her character’s space to breath. It’s in those moments that Sword of Trust can be a truly special film. It’s when the film rushes them through a plot they don’t need when the film loses it way somewhat.