Friday, September 25, 2020

Movie Review: The Devil All the Time

The Devil All the Time ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Antonio Campos.
Written by: Antonio Campos and Paulo Campos based on the novel by Donald Ray Pollock.
Starring: Tom Holland (Arvin Russell), Robert Pattinson (Preston Teagardin), Riley Keough (Sandy Henderson), Harry Melling (Roy Laferty), Haley Bennett (Charlotte Russell), Bill Skarsgård (Willard Russell), Mia Wasikowska (Helen Hatton), Sebastian Stan (Lee Bodecker), Eliza Scanlen (Lenora Laferty), Jason Clarke (Carl Henderson), Douglas Hodge (Tater Brown), Given Sharp (Susie Cox), Drew Starkey (Tommy Matson), Lucy Faust (Cynthia Teagardin), Abby Glover (Pamela Sue Reaster), Cory Scott Allen (Sheriff Thompson), Eric Mendenhall (Deputy Howser), David Maldonado (Henry Dunlop), Kristin Griffith (Emma), Adam Fristoe (Priest), Michael Banks Repeta (Arvin Russell - 9 Years Old).

Antonio Campos has an impressive roster of films behind him so far in his career – his chilly, remote films Afterschool (2008), Simon Killer (2012) and Christine (2016) suggest a heavy Michael Haneke influence, and yet unlike most who try and do the Austrian auteur’s style, he is able to bring something new to the proceedings. His films have always been violent, yet cold – but they do get under the skin of their protagonists, seeing what makes them tick, even as they do awful things. He’s also been bold stylistically – probably more so in Afterschool than the others, where he switched between his own chilly cinematography, and the YouTube videos his high school characters watch, or make themselves. He also has a flair with endings – they aren’t twists in the M. Night Shyamalan sense, but the final moments in Afterschool and Christine, certainly recontextualize everything we have seen before it. The Devil All the Time is his latest, most ambitious, most sprawling film – and sadly, it doesn’t really work at all.

The film tells a number of different stories – mostly set in the 1960s, a revolving around Arvin Russell (Tom Holland), local resident of Knockemstiff, Ohio. Before we get to him however, we have to flash back to his father Willard (Bill Skarsgard) – who remembers the horrors he saw in WWII, and who deals with more tragedy when he returns with his wife (Haley Bennett). You feel for Willard, yet you also realize that the only thing he really taught his son was toxic masculinity. And Arvin is the only male in the movie you feel for.

The rest of the motley crew of a cast are all doing horrible things. There is Robert Pattinson as Preston Teagardin, the new preacher in town with an eye for the young women in town, but is, of course, a massive moral hypocrite. His most prominent conquest in the film is Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) – and you’ll get no points for guessing what happens there. There is photographer Carl (Jason Clarke) and his wife Sandy (Riley Keough) – who convince various strangers to pose for pictures, that slowly turn pornographic – before they end up killing them. There are more – many more really – all circling these characters. A corrupt sheriff (Sebastian Stan), more morally compromised men of go (Roy Laferty) and his wife (Mia Wasikowska).

The film is based on a novel by Donald Ray Pollock – who also provides the copious amounts of voiceover narration in the film, that is both tedious, and yet somehow necessary – not only to keep the various plot threads clear, but also for character motivation and feeling, because the screenplay doesn’t do a good job aside from that in making it clear. It doesn’t help any that most of the actors seem to be in different movies. Jason Clarke and Riley Keough probably fit the milieu best, and are doing genre performances, with a little modern psychology in them – but they’re too thin to be that interesting. Robert Pattison is nothing if not interesting – I have no idea what accent Pattinson was attempting here – but I love it just the same. It is a choice as they say. And it’s certainly better than Tom Holland, who goes all mumble mouthed trying for some sort of American accent (I’m sorry, but there are many American actors from the South or Midwest, who wouldn’t struggle with accents – so I’m not sure why Campos went for Brits here).

Basically, the film is one long meander to nowhere. You keep expecting it to pick up the pace or dig deeper, or something. Instead, there are a lot of short stories of sin and punishment that sort of end, and then the next one kicks off. I remember reading Pollock’s book a few years ago – and liking it. But whatever there in his prose, whatever larger themes he had, get lost in translation here. The film is a slow ramble, and when it ends, you wonder why you took the trip. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

My Mini TIFF Recap

This was to be my 16th attending TIFF. Unfortunately, COVID-19 put a damper on the proceedings. Yes, there were in-person screenings at the Lightbox, and Drive-In showings – no I didn’t attend those. If I haven’t gone to my Toronto office since March, I wasn’t going to Toronto to see a movie. The good news is I was able to attend a total of 9 digital screenings. It isn’t the same of course – even if the commercials that I see every year played before them brought a comfortable familiarity to the proceedings. But ultimately, it’s watching films from home – which I’ve done a lot since COVID. Still, I was happy to support TIFF – and overall I had a pretty good festival. As always, my recap doesn’t really go in any real order – just a loose collection of thoughts on the films I saw – I always start with the weakest, and end with the strongest, but other than that, it’s just kind of go-with-the-flow.

With that in mind, the weakest film I did see was still not horrible. Shadow in the Clouds (Roseanne Liang) was part of Midnight Madness, and it is a kind of bonkers horror/action/WWII film, and it may well have played differently for me at Ryerson at Midnight. It stars Chloe Grace Mortez, as a flight officer in WWII, boarding a plane at the last minute, with a mysterious package, and orders from on high. That certainly doesn’t stop the all-male crew from making misogynistic remarks throughout her flight – and like women everywhere, she just kind of has to grin and bear it. They place her in the under plane turret for take-off – and she’s stuck there for roughly the first half of the very short (83 minutes – with credits) film. They don’t believe her when she says she sees Japanese fighter planes – and they certainly don’t believe when they see something else – something tearing at the wing of the plane. But, of course, she’s right. The direction by Liang is actually pretty good – the film moves at a breakneck pace, so you don’t really have time to think of how absurd it all it, or how really every character in the film is an insufferable prick (Mortez less so then the others). No, I didn’t know that the movie started with a screenplay Max Landis – which they have apparently reworked as everyone involved has distanced themselves from Landis (with good reason). But you can see those roots here still. Basically, the film is silly and goofy, and gets violent, but also rings a little hollow.

The only other Midnight Madness I saw (there were only three) was significantly better. Violation (Madeline Sims-Fewer & Dusty Mancinelli) does have some hallmarks of being a debut film – the symbolism with the animals and bugs is a little thick, the mixed up timeline structure is probably too complicated for its own good. Yet, the heart of the story - a different take on the rape/revenge film, this time told from the female gaze, is quite disturbing, and the emotions quite raw. Sims-Fewer herself plays a woman, who is spending the weekend away with her husband – who she’s on the brink of divorce with – and her sister and her husband, who was childhood friends with them. Since you know this is a rape/revenge film – you know where it’s going. What I will say is that the rape is in no way eroticized – it’s seen in extreme closeups, so you don’t really see what’s going on, while the revenge gets brutal and graphic – and there is far more male nudity here then female nudity. It’s a challenging, promising debut feature for Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli – a disturbing film that will haunt you. I don’t think it’s quite as good a subversion of the genre as Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, which I saw at TIFF 2017 (coincidentally, on the digital Q&A, they bring in Fargeat to ask a couple of questions – and it just made me angrier we have yet to see a follow-up from her yet) – but it’s another interesting, female led version of the controversial sub-genre.

I saw more docs than usual this TIFF – they were more on offer on the digital screenings. Undeniably the most visually stunning of these was Notturno (Gianfranco Rosi) – which admirers of his last film, the Oscar nominated Fire at Sea will likely admire as well. That film was about the Italian island of Lampedusa, the first place in Europe that migrants coming via boat land – the tragedy that unfolds there, and how the residents are basically just going about their lives. Notturno is visually similar – this time, it takes place on the border cities on the war torn Middle East. It isnt really about living during wartime, but rather the long tail of living through war – the trauma suffered, etc. The film is gorgeous – but you really do feel Rosi is staging these shots for maximum impact. You also feel uncomfortable at times – sometimes Rosi intends you to, and sometimes it’s just because you feel you shouldn’t be watching this, and Rosi shouldn’t be there (in particular, the scenes involving children reliving their trauma, that perhaps shouldn’t be fodder for a movie). Still, it’s undeniably beautiful, and stirring emotionally – but it’s not quite Fire at Sea.

The most traditional of the doc offerings I saw was MLK/FBI (Sam Pollard) is a fascinating documentary that basically tracks all the work the FBI did to track Martin Luther King during his years as a Civil Rights Activist. The film lets you know up front that more documents and especially recordings related to this surveillance will be released in 2027 – and although you kind of think that perhaps this film should have waited until then, rather than to have as much speculation as it does, the film is still a valuable historical document. In 2020, we have pretty much granted King sainthood, and his adversary here – J. Edgar Hoover – is looked upon far less charitably, so it’s important to remember that King was far from beloved during his lifetime – and not just among racist Southerners, but by nervous white Americans everywhere – in one appearance they literally ask King if he worries that by pushing for “too much, too soon” he will alienate white Americans. He does not. The film is made up of valuable historical footage – and features voiceovers by historians who have studied the record. The film doesn’t shy away from the most explosive aspects of what was apparently on those tapes – King’s extra-martial affairs – but does ask us to remember King, like us all, was human.

In the so strange it has to be seen to be believes category is Enemies of the State (Sonia Kennebeck) – who tells the story Matt Dehart – who was targeted by the FBI and local law enforcement, spent 21 months in prison awaiting trial, where he claimed he was tortured, and then tried to claim asylum in Canada – all because he says he was running servers for Anonymous, and had ties to WikiLeaks. Yet, Dehart’s case that he’s another Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning or Reality Winner isn’t quite so clear cut – he never actually released any information – he claims when he shut down the server, he made a copy of yet, and sent it to someone in the U.K. – but we don’t actually have physical proof of that. Still, he became a cause célèbre for many – but he was never actually charged with anything related to Wikileaks – he was charged with luring online, and then sexually abusing, minors – and by the end, you’d be hard pressed to claim he’s innocent of those charges – despite the pleas from his parents, who we see throughout the film, and give lots of interviews (Dehart himself was supposed to sit for an interview after his release from prison – but he didn’t show). Kennebeck is obviously inspired by Errol Morris – a producer of this film – and perhaps wears that influence a little too much on her sleeve. Still, it’s a fascinating film, that takes turns you won’t see coming – and generally, looks great.

By far the longest film I watched was City Hall (Frederick Wiseman) – at four hours and thirty-five minutes. The documentary giant – now 91 – has returned with one of his longest films ever – documenting what happens at Boston City Hall – concentrating on Mayor Marty Walsh. Basically, for the entire runtime, we sit through meeting after meeting after meeting – budget meetings, school board meetings, housing meetings, zoning meetings, etc. Does that sound dull? Perhaps, and honestly, the film probably could have been a little shorter. Yet, Wiseman’s point does undeniably become clear here – that government can, and should, work – and it requires a lot of people to make get involved and make it work. Perhaps if we weren’t living in the Trump era, the film could be more easily dismissed as dull. But we don’t have that luxury – and Wiseman’s point is invaluable right now. I don’t know if the film will go down as one of Wiseman’s best – but it is as fascinating as any four and a half hour movie about a major City Hall could possibly be.

It’s easy to see why Venice’s Best Actress prize went to Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman (Kornel Mundruczo). It’s an impressive performance by Kirby, as a woman whose baby dies just moments after birth, and then struggles to deal with it for the rest of the movie – as her marriage (to Shia LaBeouf – another impressive performance) falls apart, her relationship with her mother (Ellen Burstyn) becomes strained because she doesn’t act the way her mother thinks is right. All the performances in the movie are actually quite good – and the birth sequence, which runs about 20 minutes in an unbroken shot, is formally impressive. I do wish that director Kornel Mundruczo would calm down a little bit behind the camera – this is a movie requiring subtlety and sensitivity – and if there’s one thing the director of White God is not, it’s subtle. This one has proven to be divisive – and I’m right in the middle on it.

I was originally going to skip New Order (Michel Franco) – because I saw, and hated, April’s Daughter at TIFF 2017. But this won one of the top prizes at Venice, so I figured I would give it a shot. It’s far better than April’s Daughter – the first half of the movie is actually quite excellent. An upper class wedding in Mexico is interrupted by protests that have been sweeping the city. At the same time, an old family employee shows up unannounced asking for 200,000 pesos so his wife – also an old employee – can have lifesaving surgery. Only the young bride seems to care about this – something will cost her dearly. The setup of the movie is better than the payoff though – the second half sees everything descend into chaos, and will has numerous scenes that are tough to take – and while it’s all impressively staged, and shocking, but it comes at the expense of the characters. Its politics are also a little hard to parse – especially since Franco makes a young, rich woman the most sympathetic character – but I think it’s more about showing how the privileged will also suffer if wealth disparity isn’t solved, and protests turn violent – and totalitarianism takes over – but you got to work to get there.

The best film I saw at TIFF was undoubtedly Nomadland (Chloe Zhao) – which not only confirms the immense talent we saw in The Rider, but sours past it. In the film, Frances McDormand plays a 60-year woman, who basically sees her entire small town decimated when the local factory closes down. A widow, with no kids, now no home, or real job, she lives out of her van – which she has tricked out nicely. She drifts from place to place – working at a Amazon warehouse over Christmas, meeting up with other Nomads in the desert, working at a RV park for a while, or in a restaurant, or picking vegetables, etc. – and then starting the repeat the process over again. Other than McDormand – and fellow nomad, who drops back in as it were played by David Straithairn – the rest of the cast are essentially playing themselves. Zhao picked perfectly when casting McDormand, the type of actress capable of great depths of humanity – this is another one of her very best performances – but also someone who blends right in with the swath of humanity she is in (ditto Straithairn). It is also the TIFF film I most regretted not being able to see on the big screen – the beautiful vistas captured by Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards, makes this one of the beautiful portraits of the American West I have ever seen. It’s also a painfully relevant movie – a portrait of older Americans with few choices in life but to live this way. What it isn’t, in anyway, is poverty porn though. In a COVID-19 world, you cannot help but wonder about them now. It is a subtle, stirring film – clearly one of the year’s best.

And so, that closes the door on another TIFF for me. It wasn’t the same – wasn’t close to the same – to what the experience normally is. But it was probably the best we could expect under the circumstances. I hope to be back to normal screenings in 2021 – but who knows?

Friday, September 11, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Satantango (1994)

Satantango (1994) 
Directed by: Béla Tarr.
Written by: László Krasznahorkai & Béla Tarr and Mihály Vig & Péter Dobai & Barna Mihók based on by the novel by László Krasznahorkai.
Starring: Mihály Vig (Irimiás), Putyi Horváth (Petrina), László feLugossy (Schmidt), Éva Almássy Albert (Schmidtné), János Dergrazsi (Kráner), Irén Szajki (Kránerné), Alfréd Járai (Halics), Miklós Székely B. (Futaki), Erzsébet Gaál (Halicsné), György Barkó (Iskolaigazgató), Zoltán Kamondi (Kocsmáros), Barna Mihók (Kerekes), Péter Dobai (Százados), András Bodnár (Horgos Sanyi), Erika Bók (Estike), Peter Berling (Orvos), Ica Bojár (Horgosné), István Juhász (Kelemen), Mihály Ráday (Narrator - voice).

There are two types of people in the world – those who think Satantango is a masterpiece, and those who never seen it. This doesn’t mean that everyone should see Satantango because it would instantly be one of their favorite films – far from it. But I think the type of people who won’t like Satantango by the time the first shot ends, that the film isn’t for them, and turn it off. That first shot lasts ten minutes, and focuses on cows. The camera will eventually start slowly panning, following the cows, showing you the very small Hungarian village that the film will take place in, but in the end, the shot is 10 minutes of cows. If you’re bored early in this shot, you should probably just give up – and save yourself the next seven-and-a-half hours it would take to watch the rest of Satantango. Yes, the movie is about more than cows – far more in fact, but in that shot you discover the speed at which director Bela Tarr is going to go for those seven and half hours, the meticulous care he puts into every shot. It’s a film that demands your attention – and most people won’t want to give it that attention. This isn’t a value judgment on people. Most viewers have been conditioned by classic film grammar to expect certain things – and Tarr defiantly doesn’t give you that. The film is not for everyone – it’s not for most people. But if it’s for you, then it’s really for you. And it is a masterpiece.

For a long time, Satantango wasn’t available for home viewing. Tarr has said the film is designed to be seen in one sitting, no breaks, in a movie theatre – and while you can (probably accurately) accuse Tarr of being pretentious on that point, you also have to admit that he is right. This is a slowest burn of a film imaginable, and it builds and builds and builds over those seven hours. Watching it over multiple sittings wouldn’t work as well – you have to get yourself back into the headspace he gets you in with those cows all over again – and perhaps that’s impossible. It now is on DVD – and on the Criterion Channel (where I watched it). And it is glorious.

The film is about a small farming collective in Hungary, and what happens to it as it is slowly destroyed. The destruction is caused by Irmias, who was one of them, but has been presumed dead for months now. Then he and his friend saunter back in one day. The others in the commune don’t know that he has made a deal with a Police Captain from nearby to spy on the collective. He is charming, and good with words, and he will lay the foundation for the slow destruction of the collective.

That is the plot – sort of – although Tarr takes detours on his way there, sowing the seeds of discontent all over. There is a masterful, and almost unbearably painful, sequence that runs nearly an hour – as a little girl slowly tortures her cat to death in order to control something in her life, but then is so racked with guilt, that she walks all night with the dead cat in her arms, before taking her own life. Yeah, it’s that sort of film.

Yes, the film is unremittedly grim. Tarr shoots the film in wonderful, glassy black and white. His shots often last minutes on end – following people as they walk through the trash strewn streets in a windstorm for example, or watching drunken people dance for a long stretch of time. He focuses on their grizzled faces that you only get when you lived a hard life. Is the film nihilistic? Definitely.

And yet, that implies that Satantango is one grim, seven-and-a-half-hour slog that no one could possibly enjoy, doesn’t it? That perhaps the reason why everyone who has sat through Satantango calls it a masterpiece is simply because they sat through a seven-and-a-half film, and if it wasn’t great, then you just wasted all that time didn’t you? It’s true that can happen sometimes – show me a film that runs more than four hours, and I will show you quite a few critics who claim it to be a masterpiece. But while the outlook of the film is grim, and Tarr is certainly earned his place among the “slow cinema” giants for a reason, there is also so much humanity on display in the film. And moments of grim humor.

And the film is enthralling. It really does, as the cliché goes, cast a strange spell over your – enveloping you in this world. The cinematography is among the best in any movie you will ever see. It is every bit the masterpiece people who have seen it claim it to be. You already know if you’re one of those people – because you’ve probably already seen it. If you haven’t, turn it on the Criterion channel just to experience those cows. If you’re enthralled by the end of that shot, strap yourself in for another seven plus hours of it. It is worth the journey.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Movie Review: I'm Thinking of Ending Things

I'm Thinking of Ending Things ***** / *****
Directed by: Charlie Kaufman.
Written by: Charlie Kaufman based on the novel by Iain Reid.
Starring: Jessie Buckley (The Young Woman), Jesse Plemons (Jake), Toni Collette (Mother), David Thewlis (Father), Guy Boyd (Janitor).

If Adaptation proved anything, it’s that no matter what Charlie Kaufman writes, he is going to make it his own. That’s how you get an adaptation of a book about an eccentric orchid hunter, turned into a story about Kaufman struggling to adapt that book, inventing for himself a fictional twin brother, and a story of the author itself. No one else would adapt the book that way – and that’s why it’s brilliant. Kaufman does something similar with Ian Reid’s book I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Kaufman stays true – mostly – to the events in the book – which is about a young woman (Jessie Buckley) going on a long car trip to visit her new boyfriend’s parents, even as she is thinking of breaking up with him the whole time. So this isn’t a complete 180 like Adaptation was. But it’s also very clearly not a straight adaptation either. Kaufman gives the entire movie a surreal, almost dreamlike feeling that he slowly turns into a nightmare. The end of the book suggests another connection to Adaptation that I won’t reveal because it would give the game away – but Kaufman takes that and twists it as well. You cannot say that Kaufman didn’t adapt Reid’s novel – he very clearly did. But I’m having a tough time thinking of another example of a filmmaker staying so true to the events of a book, while also completely making it his own (maybe The Shining – but Kubrick changed a lot more about King’s novel than Kaufman does).

The car ride that opens the movie – and last for a good 30 minutes – feels deliberately interminable. As The Young Woman sits in the passenger seat, she is almost in her own world. We hear her thoughts – not just about breaking up with her new boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons) but on many other subjects as well. He keeps interrupting those thoughts with questions, queries, asides – an attempt to make conversation, and like the young woman herself, we constantly feel jerked out her head, and back to this very long, very cold, very snowy car ride.

Things get more unsettled once they are at the farm house. Jake’s parents – played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis – seem like typical, loving parents. A little old fashioned, and not quite with “it” – whatever that is. The mother waves from the window, but then doesn’t come down right away. Jake and The Young Woman go exploring – a traumatic experience from childhood is revealed. They will settle into dinner – and it’s, well strange. And there are other strange happenings as well – The Young Woman’s job and name doesn’t seem consistent from scene to scene – and she’s constantly getting phone calls. Her story about how she met Jake doesn’t completely add up. And why the hell does Kaufman keep cutting away to a high school janitor throughout?

There are, of course, answers to these questions – and Kaufman isn’t going to leave them dangling. His mind may not have the mathematical precision of Christopher Nolan’s, but his films usually do answer the questions they raise – even if they do so in odd ways, which it certainly does here. Yet, for a movie that is so surreal, so much about a mounting unease, that continually shifts under your feet every time you think you have a handle on things, Kaufman, as always, doesn’t take the easy way out on any of them. His characters, even when they seem to inconsistent in the details, are not merely just playthings for him. They have agency, even if they are trapped in this weird film. This is most true of The Young Woman – brilliantly played by Jessie Buckley, who is quickly becoming one of the best actresses around. It almost feels like the creator wants her to be one thing – but she keeps twisting, insisting that she is something else entirely – so much so that eventually the creator also has to admit it.

Buckley’s performance is clearly the best in the film – but that doesn’t mean Plemons, Collette and Thewlis are great as well. Plemons has become a perfect everyman actor – and he’s wonderful at the way he twists that when needed – like in Breaking Bad, where his character is clearly a bad guy, but doesn’t quite realize it – or why others may see him that way. Here, Jake isn’t evil – but there’s something just not quite right there – and Plemons plays it perfectly. Thewlis is just odd here – a seriously underrated actor, he was great in Kaufman’s Anomalisa, and you should see his weirdness in Atom Egoyan’s Guest of Honour just to see how different it is from the weirdness here. And Toni Collette continues her streak of great performances – where she very definitely makes choices and runs with them.

I find that this review I’m dancing around the ending – which is brilliant, because I want you see it without knowing is coming. Ultimately, Kaufman does answer the questions he is raising. But yet, I fear that saying that will make it sound like a M. Night Shyamalan movie, in which in the end, when all is revealed, you sit back and say “ah-ha”, like you’ve completed a puzzle, and can now put it away and never think of it again. Those type of twist ending are popular – and I think perhaps you could (rightly) accuse the book of being one of those. But in Kaufman’s film, the ending serves to deepen what we’ve seen before – yes, it resolves the “what the hell happened” of it all – but also makes you want to dive back in again, and see it from a different perspective. Because doing so will make it a different experience – perhaps a sadder one, but also perhaps a more profound one. Kaufman has always been good at that – seeming to make one thing, while he’s really making another. I know this is a movie that will frustrate as many as it beguiles – and others will think that the journey isn’t worth the destination. Fair enough. But for me, by the end, the film felt so deeply felt, so deeply personal, and – not quite knowing what this says about me – deeply relatable. If it’s not the best work of Kaufman’s writing or directing career – perhaps that’s just because of how strong most of his work is. It certainly is the year’s best film so far – and a masterwork.

Movie Review: The New Mutants

The New Mutants ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Josh Boone.
Written by: Josh Boone and Knate Lee.
Starring: Maisie Williams (Rahne Sinclair), Anya Taylor-Joy (Illyana Rasputin), Charlie Heaton (Sam Guthrie), Alice Braga (Dr. Reyes), Blu Hunt (Danielle Moonstar), Henry Zaga (Roberto da Costa), Adam Beach (Danielle’s Father), Thomas Kee (Sam’s Father), Colbi Gannett (Young Illyana), Happy Anderson (Reverand Craig), Dustin Ceithamer (Smiling Man).

It should tell you something about how much the studio believed in The New Mutants, that even though it is the final installment in Fox’s X-Men franchise before Disney officially takes over, and it was released a week before Tenet, that everyone still lists Christopher Nolan’s film as the first big movie to come out in theatres since the Covid-19 pandemic hit. The film has been oft-delayed, had more than one reshoot, and now that Disney owned it, but didn’t pay to make it, they just dumped it out there – hoping to make a few bucks off it, before putting in their library as just more content. It’s not particularly good – but as someone who suffered through Dark Phoenix last year, I can confidently say at least it’s not that bad.

The film is about a group of five teenage mutants – all of whom have a dark secret involving their powers, when they emerged, and were unable to control them. That’s how they ended up at the remote hospital run by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga) – who wants them to be able to control their powers better. Her superiors will be happy then - and they will be able to leave. Until then, they are trapped. Reyes is capable of putting a force field around the hospital to prevent escape. No matter what they do, they aren’t going anywhere.

The protagonist of the movie is Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt), a member of the Cheyenne, who she is told has been wiped out by a tornado – something she remembers in flashes. She doesn’t know what her powers are yet – Reyes is trying to figure them out – but her mutant energy is off the charts. She is stuck with the rest of them in the hospital – kindly Rahne (Maisie Williams), who can transform into a wolf, Kentucky coal miner Sam (Charlie Heaton) who can take off like Superman, the Russian Illyana (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is full of surprises that she hides behind her puppet, and Roberto (Henry Zaga), child of the richest family in Brazil, who doesn’t want to reveal his powers. The participate in Cuckoo’s Nest like group therapy sessions, and go on Breakfast Club like adventures around the building when they don’t think Reyes is watching.

The film is clearly setup to be an origin story – so gradually, we will get the tragic backstory of each of the five people, and learn what their powers are. Danielle bonds with Rahne quickly, and just as quickly develops a rivalry with Illyana. Mainly though, they sit around and wait for the climax.

The young, talented cast aren’t really able to do very much with their roles. Mainly, they tell you everything you need to know about them, and drop hints about what is going to happen in the end. For as much talk as there was about this being a horror film, it’s only there in fits and starts. Yes, the Smiling Man is creepy, and a Priest is also creepy – but that’s about as far as it goes. The climax is basically more CGI soup – although thankfully on a smaller scale than normal.

I think The New Mutants could have been an interesting place to take the X-Men – start using some different faces rather than Wolverine, Cyclops, Professor X, Magneto et al that we’ve been watching for 20 years now. I just wouldn’t want this production team to continue the story, as they basically found the least interesting way possible to introduce us to the story. Filmmaker needs to stop looking ahead two or three movies at what they’re going to do in the future, and make the movie they are making now better. The New Mutants doesn’t do that – and its precisely the reason there won’t be any more coming in this series.

Movie Review: Feels Good Man

Feels Good Man **** / *****
Directed by: Arthur Jones.
Written by: Giorgio Angelini and Arthur Jones and Aaron Wickenden based on original artwork by Matt Furie.

What do you do if you’re a mild mannered comics artist, who sees one of your creations adopted by the alt-right, and memed to death, supporting a cause you don’t agree with? If you’re Matt Furie, the creator Pepe the Frog, at first the answer is nothing. Pepe didn’t start his life as an alt-right troll, but as a character in Furie’s Boys Club comic – essentially a riff on post-college malaise, and male friendship. He grew out of that phase of his career, and moved onto others things. As what often happens with these things, Pepe’s journey to the alt-right started slowly – and Furie didn’t really seem to care if some fringe, basement dwellers in a small, dark corner of the internet had appropriated his creation. Besides, what was he supposed to do? It’s up to the artist to go after copyright infringement, and these people weren’t really using Pepe to make money. He just let it go. And in letting in go, he allowed it to get bigger. And by the time he decided to fight back against it, it was too late – and his fight perhaps even made things get worse. Many of the people who love Pepe are trolls – they don’t really believe in much of anything – they just want to get a rise out of you, and if they get it, they’re just keep coming back.

I almost wish the film had spent even more time than it does on the trolls on 4chan who started using Pepe the Frog. The film shows how it happened – how these basement dwellers saw an image of Pepe the Frog, and liked it, so they started using it on their boards. It slowly grew, and soon, the wider internet had adopted Pepe the Frog as well – still not as a symbol of the alt-right, but rather has a cute meme. This infuriated those who first discovered the meme – and going all “I liked that band before they got famous” on it, decided to ruin Pepe the Frog for everyone. You think he’s cute, eh? What if he’s a concentration camp guard gassing Jews? Not so cute now.

This dark corner of the internet needs a fuller exploration. We get a few of them here – who help us see how it all worked, how Trump supporters adopted Pepe, and how eventually the campaign did as well. You get the sense from those the film talks to though that they aren’t really Trump die hards – they’re nihilists. They don’t love Trump – they love that Trump makes so many people angry. And to them, that’s funny, so if they can get Trump to be President, it’s even funnier.

But the way the film goes has its merits as well. It looks at Furie, as he decides he has had enough. His innocent, stoner creation was never meant to be this symbol of hate – it is literally put on the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s list of hate symbols – and so he tries to take it back. First, he tries to kill off Pepe – which didn’t work. Then he tried to get artists to draw Pepe as a symbol of love – they did, but the trolls ruined that as well. Then, he calls a lawyer. You may not be able to sue an anonymous troll in his basement – but you can sue Alex Jones, who uses Pepe to make money.

To be fair, while Furie has made progress, it isn’t likely he’ll ever be able to “take back” Pepe the Frog. As Randall learned in Clerks II, when he tried to take back the phrase “Porch Monkey”, once the cat is out of the bag, it’s out. But he’s trying. And Feels Good Man ends up being a portrait of a nice guy – an artist who saw the worst thing that can happen to your art happen, and decide to do something. Maybe it’s not – but it’s the best he can do.

Movie Reivew: Irresistible

Irresistible ** / *****
Directed by: Jon Stewart.
Written by: Jon Stewart.
Starring: Steve Carell (Gary Zimmer), Rose Byrne (Faith Brewster), Chris Cooper (Jack Hastings), Mackenzie Davis (Diana Hastings), Topher Grace (Kurt), Natasha Lyonne (Tina), Brent Sexton (Mayor Braun).

Throughout the George W. Bush years, and through the beginning of the Barack Obama years, Jon Stewart was a necessarily voice in political discourse. Yes, he was a comedian, and no, young people should not have gotten all their news from him on The Daily Show – but he was a smart, incisive voice – someone capable of cutting through all the crap and the noise, to show you what was going on beneath it. With his new film, Irresistible, his first work of the Trump era, Stewart reveals himself to be almost painfully out of touch. He isn’t alone in this – late night comedians, including those who have followed in his footsteps from John Olivier to Samantha Bee to Trevor Noah to Stephen Colbert don’t really seem to know what to do with Trump. They attack, sure. But they aren’t getting anywhere. But with them, at least, they seem to know that we’re in a different era. If you told me Irresistible was a film Stewart wrote in 2005, and just forgot to make it for 15 years, I would believe you. But it would have seemed quaint even then.

The film stars Steve Carrell as Gary Zimmer, a bigwig at the DNC, who was confident Hilary would win, and is reeling when she loses. He wants the Democrats to reconnect with the heartland – and when he’s shown a video of Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a military lifer, given an impassioned, pro-immigrant speech, at the town council meeting in small town Wisconsin, he thinks he has found his avatar – at least a way to prove that Democrats can compete for those white voters in the Rust Belt. He heads to that town to convince Jack to run for Mayor – and he agrees, but only if Jack runs the campaign personally. When it starts to draw some media attention, he is joined by GOP strategist, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), who backs the current Mayor. Soon money is pouring into the race, that takes on national attention.

Stewart, who was always (not entirely incorrectly) accused of preaching to the choir, seems to go out of his way here to paint “both sides” as bad. Yes, Faith is a hypocrite, a huckster, who will tell any lie she feels will get her ahead – Zimmer isn’t any better, except maybe he believes some of the crap he spews – but he spews so much of it, the line gets blurred, and it’s hard to tell.

Stewart seemingly wants to make a new Frank Capra movie here – although with the people Capra usually casts as the bad guys as the main characters. On his show, he never seemed to buy into the “real America” vs. “Coastal Elites” narratives Republicans spew – but he seems to here. The people in this small town just want to make their small town better – and they get no help from people like Gary or Faith. The film will become an indictment about money in politics – and sure, that’s bad, and should be fixed. It’s also not the real problem right now.

So Stewart strands his talented cast with a lot of dialogue they strain to make work. That it succeeds at all is testament to how good Carrell, Cooper and Mackenzie Davis are as actors, and Byrne’s willingness to go wherever the script takes her. But it’s a tired movie – a movie that would have seemed old fashioned when Stewart was on the air. People have pointed out recently that much of what Stewart did on The Daily Show has aged poorly. Perhaps they are right. But that type of comedy is not designed to last – it’s designed for that moment in time. Stewart, unfortunately, seems stuck there.

Movie Review: Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe

Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Bob Bowen.
Written by: Dan Povenmire & Jeff 'Swampy' Marsh and Jon Colton Barry and Jim Bernstein and Joshua Pruett and Kate Kondell and Jeffrey M. Howard and Bob Bowen based on characters created by Povenmire & Marsh.
Starring: Vincent Martella (Phineas), Ashley Tisdale (Candace), David Errigo Jr. (Ferb), Dan Povenmire (Dr. Doofenshmirtz), Alyson Stoner (Isabella), Maulik Pancholy (Baljeet), Bobby Gaylor (Buford), Dee Bradley Baker (Perry / Mama / Additional Voices), Olivia Olson (Vanessa), Ali Wong (Super Super Big Doctor), Wayne Brady (Stapler-Fist), Thomas Middleditch (Garnoz), Diedrich Bader (Borthos), Thomas Sanders (Throat-Lobster), Caroline Rhea (Mom), Richard O'Brien (Dad), Mitchel Musso (Jeremy), Kelly Hu (Stacy), Jeff 'Swampy' Marsh (Major Monogram), Tyler Alexander Mann (Carl), John O'Hurley (Roger Doofenshmirtz), 'Weird Al' Yankovic (Shirt Cannon Guy), Tiffany Haddish (The Sound Someone Makes When They Explode From The Waist Up).

There really is no denying that Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe is a cynical ploy by Disney to get more “original” content for Disney+ to keep subscribers happy. It’s a low risk endeavor, because even if the show the movie is based on went off the air five years ago, it lives on in countless repeats, and of course, on Disney+ itself. The brainchild of Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh – the show was ingenious in the ways it found to essentially repeat itself every episode. The title characters are stepbrothers, and geniuses, who create some super complicated device in their backyard one day, their teenage sister, Candace, wants to bust them, and every episode she just about does it. The only problem is that the boys pet Platypus, Perry, is really a secret agent in disguise, and every episode, he has to foil the plot of the “evil” Dr. Doofenshmirtz, who is always inventing an “enator” of some kind – and those devices will inevitably make whatever the boys invented disappear right before their mother finds out. The same thing happened every episode, for 222 episodes, over an 8-year span. And most of it was great – smart and funny, the show had running gags galore, great visual humor, and enough smarter humor that it really was the clichéd show that adults could watch with their children, and love it as much as they did.

Did we need this movie? To be honest, no we didn’t. We probably really didn’t the show anymore after the 2011 movie Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Across the 2nd Dimension, which showed us exactly what would happen if Candace ever really did bust the boys, and if the boys found out about Perry’s secret identity. It was a high point of the run, but the show merrily continued on its joyous way for 4 years – mainly because the end of the movie erased everyone’s memory, so you can reset it.

And yet, the movie works. It’s always harder to try and make a feature out of a TV show, especially one with such a circular pattern as Phineas and Ferb, where the same thing happens again and again. Yet, even if they’ve been away from it for five years, Povenmire and Marsh know precisely who these characters, what they will do, and put them through their paces well. The plot is, of course, ridiculous. It finds Candace, and Doofensmirtz’s daughter Vanessa, beamed to a distant planet, and the stepbrothers needing to go rescue them – with the help, of course, of Doofensmirtz, and their ragtag group of friends – Isabella, Baljeet and Buford – with Perry tagging along, having to remain hidden. If you haven’t seen the show, then you have no idea who these, characters are – but then why are you reading this at all?

The snag is that Candace doesn’t really want to be rescued. She is idolized on the new planet, and finds a new bestie in Super Super Big Doctor (Ali Wong), who she has much in common with. No, Phineas and Ferb aren’t really doing The Searchers (or Taxi Driver), but they touch on that same dilemma.

Mostly though, the film is just goofy fun. You may be a little disappointed in the songs – always a highlight of the show, but aside from the opening number by Candace, and Doofensmirtz’s wonderful song about “Adulting” you aren’t likely to remember them (and even at their best, the don’t come close to something like Doofensmirtz’s duet with another version of himself in the 2011 movie). Mostly though, the film gets things right, keeps things moving, and has many great moments – often standalone gags (like an alien who escapes – twice).

You easily could have left Phineas and Ferb alone – their legacy is secure, and this doesn’t really add to it. It doesn’t detract from it either though. We are in the “content” days now – where things are made for the sake of them being made, to build a library of “content”. At least this is good.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Movie Review: Tenet

Tenet **** / *****
Directed by: Christopher Nolan.
Written by: Christopher Nolan.
Starring: John David Washington (The Protagonist), Robert Pattinson (Neil), Elizabeth Debicki (Kat), Kenneth Branagh (Andrei Sator), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ives), Clémence Poésy (Laura), Fiona Dourif (Wheeler), Michael Caine (Michael Crosby), Andrew Howard (Stephen), Wes Chatham (Sammy), Himesh Patel (Mahir), Martin Donovan (Victor), Dimple Kapadia (Priya), Anthony Molinari (Rohan), Yuri Kolokolnikov (Quinton), Jonathan Camp (Archibald), Rich Ceraulo Ko (Timmy), Mark Krenik (Toby), Laurie Shepherd (Max), Denzil Smith (Liam).

Time really is the driving obsession behind most of Christopher Nolan’s work. It’s a main point in all of his non-Batman films, and now that I think of it, even there – but in the more traditional sense, in that Bruce Wayne wonders how long he can do this for. I’m not going to traffic in spoilers for Nolan’s latest film – I am acutely aware that I have seen this film before many others (specifically in America) have even had a chance to, and well before many – worldwide – will comfortable going. I often think spoiler-phobes are insane with the degree in which they demand people write about films, giving away absolutely nothing – so if you’re one those, probably stop reading, but if you’re sane, you’ll be fine. But with Nolan, I think perhaps warranted – not because his films are so complex and mysterious, but actually kind of the opposite. Since Memento, Nolan has specialized in making this kind of intricate puzzle box films – Tenet is certainly one of those – but while the first time through any of them you may be confused in the moment, you can also rest assured that (spinning top aside), Nolan is going to wrap everything up in a nice, neat package for you in the end. That’s just the way his mind works. Personally, I like a little more mystery in my films – even at the end. But you cannot deny just the massive amount of technical craft that goes into a film like Tenant, the skill of the performers, or just how well thought out the film is by Nolan. I’m sure someone will come up with plot holes – they always do – but I didn’t see them.

Without giving too much away in terms of plot, let me just say that the film revolves around The Protagonist (John David Washington), who is sucked into a world he doesn’t understand, and tasked with saving the world. He will eventually team up with Neil (a very charming Robert Pattinson), and get involved with the beautiful Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) and her Russian oligarch husband Andrei (Kenneth Branagh) – no points for guessing whether a Russian oligarch is a good guy or a bad guy. I have a feeling that even saying this much will anger people, so I’ll just leave it at that.

On the performance side, you probably cannot expect much more out of the four principle cast members of Tenet. Hell, Washington is literally stuck playing a character called The Protagonist, and he somehow makes it an interesting performance. It may not be a deep performance – none of them are – but the way he struts through a scene, and seemingly effortlessly takes it over on the strength of his charm alone will certainly remind you of his father – and a higher compliment, I find it hard to imagine. Washington surely is a movie star, and if he were British, he may even make the case for being the next James Bond here. Pattinson, who has gone from one indie director to another, delivering fascinating performances, is here back in the blockbuster realm – and he’s equally adept here. He has a roguish charm here – he fits into the world of the film effortlessly in a way that Washington stands out (because of his race). Pattinson, who I didn’t think much of in the Twilight films, has turned into one hell of an actor – and he is terrific here. Much like her male co-stars, Debicki is wonderful here – it’s the film’s most sympathetic role, and she certainly shows that she is a movie star like they do. Branagh has fun with his Russian accent, because of course he does, and he’s quite good as well.

From a technical standpoint, it’s hard to find fault in Tenet – which not only does all the things you expect a Christopher Nolan movie to do well on a massive scale, but even does some things I don’t think I’ve quite seen before. Please note, I seem to be in the minority of people who never found dialogue in any Nolan film hard to hear (seriously people, I understood every word Tom Hardy said in both The Dark Knight Rises and Dunkirk) – but the sound work here is still perhaps the best of Nolan’s career. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is excellent, composer Ludwig Goranasson steps in for Hans Zimmer and doesn’t miss a beat. The editing is a definite feat – and the special effects is excellent.

I do think, in the end, Tenet is a film that hit me much like Inception did – perhaps a little less. Both films are certainly complex in terms of their plot and implications – but they are both perhaps so complex that it feels like roughly 50% of the dialogue is explaining what they hell just happened, or what is going to happen. It’s all explanatory – and while the actors make it work, and it’s needed so you don’t get lost – it’s also not the most fascinating thing in the world to listen to (especially, one thinks, a second time through). For all of its faults, there is nothing in Tenet that hit me as emotionally hard as Interstellar did. Much more so than Nolan’s other films, Tenet really does feel like a mathematical equation – a left brain exercise in precision. I admire the hell out of most of what the film does - I just wish it did a bit more. 

Movie Review: The King of Staten Island

The King of Staten Island *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Judd Apatow.
Written by: Judd Apatow & Pete Davidson & Dave Sirus.
Starring: Pete Davidson (Scott Carlin), Marisa Tomei (Margie Carlin), Bill Burr (Ray Bishop), Ricky Velez (Oscar), Bel Powley (Kelsey), Maude Apatow (Claire Carlin), Steve Buscemi (Papa), Pamela Adlon (Gina), Jimmy Tatro (Firefighter Savage), Kevin Corrigan (Joe), Domenick Lombardozzi (Firefighter Lockwood), Mike Vecchione (Firefighter Thompson), Moises Arias (Igor), Carly Aquilino (Tara), Lou Wilson (Richie), Derek Gaines (Zoots), Pauline Chalamet (Joanne).

Judd Apatow has essentially made a directing career out of movies telling famous comedians it’s time to grow the hell up. Whether it’s Steve Carrell in The 40 Year Old Virgin or Seth Rogen in Knocked Up, Adam Sandler in Funny People or Amy Schumer in Trainwreck – or hell, even Paul Rudd as a Apatow stand-in in This is 40 – Apatow’s filmography is full of funny people, who are basically overgrown children, who just need to mature – usually, it’s through a relationship with someone, but not always (Funny People being the obvious exception here). His latest, The King of Staten Island, attempts to do the same thing for SNL’s Pete Davidson, essentially taking Davidson’s persona, and details from his life, and making a movie about how Davidson’s Scott Carlin needs to grow up. I do think the film softens some of the real Davidson’s issues – mental illness is brought up, but not really explored, and even in a filmography such as Apatow’s – where there has never been a subplot that hasn’t been explored, this time it seems excessive. Still, the film is winning and funny, and essentially warm hearted – basically, what you expect from Apatow.

In the film, David stars as Scott Carlin – a 24-year-old still living at home on Staten Island with his mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei) and younger sister Claire (Maude Apatow) – although Claire is about to go away to college, and is understandably worried about her big brother. Their firefighter father died in a fire when they were little (not on 9/11 as Davidson’s real father did – perhaps Apatow and company figured bringing that into it would make it far too dark) – and Scott has never really gotten over it. He basically does the same thing he did in high school – sit around with his friends getting stoned, giving himself – and them – bad tattoos, and arguing with Kelsey (Bel Powley) his childhood friend turned friends with benefits/girlfriend that he doesn’t know why she wants to put a label on their relationship. He doesn’t have a job – he’ll get one as a busboy – he dropped out of art school (he is talented) – and doesn’t really know what he’s going to do. He goes into a little bit of a tailspin when his mother starts dating Ray (Bill Burr) – another fireman, which brings out the worst in him, and in turn, in Ray as well.

The film has approximately a million subplots – so we get scenes with his friends, scenes with Ray’s ex-wife – Pamela Adlon, who Scott bonds with when he starts walking their kids to school, scenes with Kelsey, scenes at the restaurant where he works, scenes of him trying to become a tattoo artist, etc. before the film settles down in its second half and focuses on Scott, living with the firemen at the firehouse, who kind of take him under their wing, tell him stories about his dad, and make him grow up a little. You could argue there is a better, tighter 90-minute version of this film – rather than 135-minute version we got – one that focusing primarily on the firemen, his mother and Kelsey (Bel Powley is a delight) – but over the last 15 years, I’ve come to think that perhaps Apatow is like Tarantino in that he needs the subplots, side roads and diversions to get to where he ultimately wants to be.

I still don’t know if Davidson is a good actor or not. He’s incredibly hit and miss on SNL and is in his standup, but playing a version of himself here, he is quite good. It doesnI’t hurt him that he is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast – I really liked the previously mentioned Tomei and especially Powley, along with Steve Buscemi as the elder statesman of the fire department, Pamela Aldon, who makes the most out of little screen time, and The Nightly Show’s Ricky Velez as one of Scott’s loser friends. In a more serious role, Burr is also quite good – although I wouldn’t be shocked to find the role was written especially for him and his comedic skills.

I do wish that the film had delved a little deeper into mental illness though – even if this is a comedy. Davidson has been open with his struggles – and Scott mentions them early in the film as well, but they are kind of forgotten about as the film moves along. Unlike other Apatow protagonists, I don’t think it’s quite so easy as saying Scott needs to grow up, and commit to the perfect girl right in front of him. Like changing his father’s death from being on 9/11 to just being in a random fire, you wonder if perhaps Apatow just didn’t want to deal with what it would bring up in a comedy – but doing so may have taken The King of Staten Island from what it is – a good little comedy, into something greater.

Still, for what it is, The King of Staten Island definitely works. It is funny and heartwarming, and gives Davidson a chance to show what he can do – and surrounds him with a first rate ensemble cast. If I wanted a little more, it’s a testament to what was already there, that I felt the film could have gone there if it chose to. 

Movie Review: The Burnt Orange Heresy

The Burnt Orange Heresy ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Giuseppe Capotondi.
Written by: Scott B. Smith based on the novel by Charles Willeford.
Starring: Elizabeth Debicki (Berenice Hollis), Claes Bang (James Figueras), Donald Sutherland (Jerome Debney), Mick Jagger (Joseph Cassidy).

Elizabeth Debicki has certainly become one of the best working actresses around. She should have least been nominated for her excellent performances in Steve McQueen’s Widows, she’s excellent in pure movie star mode in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet – and has delivered any number of interesting performances in other movies as well. She is even good in this film, The Burnt Orange Heresy, which overall isn’t a particularly good film – but she, along with Donald Sutherland, elevate a rather silly art world thriller. Perhaps a director like Hitchcock could have made this film work – but even then, it would be full of pseudo-intellectual posturing about art and its meaning, so maybe not.

The film stars Claes Bang as James – an art critic, who was once a rising star in the field, who everyone assumed would be running his own prestigious gallery by this point – but he’s screwed up, and so now he writes books, and delivers lectures to old people on the meaning of art that he doesn’t much believe in. He meets Debicki’s Berenice at one of those lectures – the pair fall into bed almost immediately, and soon are a couple. James is approached by Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger) – a big time art dealer, with an offer. The legendary artist Jerome Debney (Sutherland) is willing to sit down for an interview with James. All of Debney’s work was apparently burned in a gallery fire decades ago, and he hasn’t released anything since – although according to Cassidy, he has never stopped working. What Cassidy wants is for James to steal one of Debney’s newer works. It will make a fortune for Cassidy – who in turn will do a solid for James – and get him that gallery he always wanted. Things, of course, don’t go as planned – and James starts to distrust everyone around him – not without reason.

There is certainly enough crackling chemistry between Bang and Debicki in the opening act that make you wish the pair were starring in a film like Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, or either version of The Thomas Crown Affair – films that I’m sure the Netflix algorithm will suggest if you watch this one. All of those films are light and fluffy – they don’t have much serious on their mind, and had The Burnt Orange Heresy continued in that vein throughout, it undoubtedly would have a been a fun little film. This is especially true once the third major character – that legendary artist played with a twinkle of mischief in his eye by Sutherland shows up.

But somewhere along the way, the film turns rather dark and self-serious – with a lot of questions about art, including questions about an artist who supposedly worked during their time in a Concentration Camp, and a lot of heavy symbolism about dead flies. The film takes some dark twists and turns – as I suppose it must – in the final act involving murder and guilt.

The film, it must be said, is beautiful to look at. Not only does the camera get to take in the beauty of Bang and Debicki, but it’s shot in Lake Como in Italy, so director Giuseppe Capotondi doesn’t have to do much to make it all look pretty. Unfortunately, he really doesn’t do all that much else. The movie is all about its surface pleasures – with Bang, Debicki and Sutherland having fun throughout – even trying to keep things light as the film turns dark. Perhaps Bang got cast here because of his international breakthrough The Square – as once again, he’s playing an art world figure in over his head, although otherwise, the films have nothing in common. Still, he’s in fine form – as is everyone else save for Mick Jagger, who seems to have forgotten how to act over the years.

In the end, The Burnt Orange Heresy is never boring, and further proof – not that any was needed – of the tremendous charm of Bang and Debicki – and still further proof that Sutherland is just as talented as always (it’s still shocking to me that the now 85-year-old Sutherland has never even been nominated for an Oscar – or received a Lifetime Achievement award). It does kind of feel though that the filmmakers didn’t know what was working about the film when they made it. 

Movie Review: Host

Host *** / *****
Directed by: Rob Savage.
Written by: Gemma Hurley and Rob Savage and Jed Shepherd.
Starring: Haley Bishop (Haley), Jemma Moore (Jemma), Emma Louise Webb (Emma), Radina Drandova (Radina), Caroline Ward (Caroline), Alan Emrys (Alan), Edward Linard (Teddy), Jinny Lofthouse (Jinny), Seylan Baxter (Seylan).

You can tell that Host, a Shudder exclusive horror film, was written and made in haste – to try and capitalize on our current state of quarantine and the fears it brings up. The film runs a little less than an hour, and is basically a haunted Zoom call – where six friends, and a flaky medium, get together to try and connect with the “astral plane”. It’s clear that everyone involved wanted to get the film out in a hurry – not just before the Covid-19 lockdowns end, but also before the inevitable wave of films like this crash over us. It isn’t a particularly good film – but it is effective for its limited budget and ambition. You kind of wish that perhaps there would be a way to connect the evil lurking in this Zoom call to our current situation – but that would have required some fancier writing than we have here. As far as horror films that take place on computer screens over chats, the film doesn’t come close to even Unfriend: The Dark Net – let alone the far superior original, Unfriended, which is the gold standard for this sort of thing. Then again, the people who made that film weren’t under the gun like Savage and company were.

The premise is simple – Haley (Haley Bishop) has set up a Zoom call with her friends, and a psychic, so they can all have a socially distanced séance. No one in the group really believes that it will be possible – they likely wouldn’t believe it even if they were together in person – but hey, it’s something to do, rather than talk about how scared they of the pandemic, how lonely they are in isolation, or the troubles in their romantic relationships, etc. Of course, in the grand tradition of horror movie characters who don’t believe in ghosts, spirits or séances, they actually do make contact – and it’s not with a friendly spirit.

You know where this is going when the film begins, and it gets there all right. Unlike say, Unfriended – or a lot of horror movies – the victims here don’t really do anything to deserve their ultimate fates. Yes, they kind of mock the psychic at the beginning – but not that harshly. Perhaps that is deliberate – the nod to the pandemic, that doesn’t discriminate, but comes after you no matter what. But it’s hard to feel too much for these characters either – they are basically cookie cutters – and for the most part, I barely remembered who was who from one moment to the next. It doesn’t really matter – they are all lambs to the slaughter.

Host mainly works though on its own very limited terms. Yes, you get the sense that everything about it was rushed – but it certainly looks and feels like a real zoom call, the practical effects work about as good as can be expected, and even if there are a lot of cheap, jump scares – well, they work anyway. We are probably going to get countless films about this pandemic – horror films that try and tap into the fear we all felt, dramas about “the way we live now” and the “new normal” – etc. Most will almost definitely be insufferable. Host, for all its limitations, isn’t that. It’s lean, mean and effective.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Criss Cross (1949) 
Directed by: Robert Siodmak.
Written by: Daniel Fuchs based on the novel by Don Tracy.
Starring: Burt Lancaster (Steve Thompson), Yvonne De Carlo (Anna), Dan Duryea (Slim Dundee), Stephen McNally (Pete Ramirez), Esy Morales (Orchestra Leader), Tom Pedi (Vincent), Percy Helton (Frank), Alan Napier (Finchley), Griff Barnett (Pop), Meg Randall (Helen), Richard Long (Slade Thompson), Joan Miller (The Lush), Edna Holland (Mrs. Thompson), John Doucette (Walt), Marc Krah (Mort), James O'Rear (Waxie), John 'Skins' Miller (Midget).
The Underneath (1995) 
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh.
Written by: Steven Soderbergh and Daniel Fuchs based on the novel by Don Tracy.
Starring: Peter Gallagher (Michael Chambers), Alison Elliott (Rachel), William Fichtner (Tommy Dundee), Adam Trese (David Chambers), Joe Don Baker (Clay Hinkle), Paul Dooley Ed Dutton), Shelley Duvall (Nurse), Elisabeth Shue (Susan Crenshaw), Anjanette Comer (Mrs. Chambers), Joe Chrest (Mr. Rodman).

Richard Siodmak’s Criss Cross (1949) is a reunion of sorts – reuniting the director with the star of his 1946 hit, The Killers, Burt Lancaster. The structure of the film is similar as well – told in flashback, although this time from the point-of-view of Lancaster’s character – Steven Thompson, rather than being told from the point of view of those who knew him as in The Killers – which is the structure that gave that film the nickname of the Citizen Kane of Film Noir. It isn’t that the masterwork that The Killers is – it doesn’t have that amazing opening scene, the structure is more typical, and Yvonne De Carlo is a poor substitute for Ava Gardner. Still, Criss Cross is a fine noir – with an absolute killer of an ending. Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Criss Cross The Underneath (1995) was mainly greeted with shrugs in 1995, and a re-evaluation has never really happened – in part because Soderbergh himself is so dismissive of the film. He jumped into the film quickly, after losing the Quiz Show directing gig, at an interesting point of his career – sex, lies and videotape (1989) had made him an indie darling – a Palme D’or win, lots of praise – but he had been struggling to follow it up. Kafka (1991) was seen as a commercial and critical failure, and while King of the Hill (1993) had gotten mainly good reviews – it was also mainly ignored. Soderbergh recalls now that he knew for the time he stepped onto the set that it was a mistake – he was miserable, he was going through the motions, and the result is a sleepy film. He’d recharge after – doing the experimental Schizopolis (1996) – that led into the best period of his career – Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s 11, Solaris, etc. He says he needed to make The Underneath to understand how miserable he was. But watching the film now – honestly, for the first time (it was the only Soderbergh I hadn’t seen) – I think Soderbergh is too hard on the film. It’s not a masterwork by any means – but you can certainly see the roots of those films I just mentioned – in terms of structure, in terms of visuals, etc. – that you didn’t see before this. If this is Soderbergh going through the motions, it certainly shows how much talent he has. And while it’s far from the prolific director’s best film, it’s also pretty far from his worst.

In Criss Cross, Lancaster’s Thompson is a classic hero stooge. He has just returned to L.A. after a year of drifting around the country, licking his wounds, and trying to get his ex-wife, Anna (De Carlo) out of his system. They had a hot and heavy relationship, but one marked with a lot of fights – they are that couple that love each other, have terrific chemistry, but still shouldn’t be together. He says he wants his old life back – his old job working for an armored truck company, a return to his family – his beloved mother, a younger brother who is getting married, etc. He says he has no plans of seeing Anna – and yet, he cannot help himself. He’s barely back when he starts going to their old hangout, so it isn’t long before he “runs into” Anna. Their relationship starts up again – slowly – complicated more than a little by the fact that she is seeing someone else – criminal Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea, playing the Dan Duryea role). Things get even more complicated when Anna runs off with Slim – and marries him. Yet, she just cannot seem to get over Thompson, and Thompson cannot get over her.

The film is classic noir – the nice guy brought low by the femme fatale he should know well enough to leave alone, but cannot help himself. A relatively short film – 90 minutes – with a three act structure, the opening and closing of which are stellar. Siodmak does a terrific job of setting everything up in the opening, Lancaster is in fine form, playing the stooge (this was in the period where critics still were unsure if this handsome lunk could act), and Duryea at his slimy best. The final act of the film is even better – the armored car heist is absolutely terrific, the hospital scene is incredibly intense, as Lancaster worries that they are out to get him, and Siodmak slowly ratchets up the tension – all leading to the classic final moments of the film, which is one of the best end. The problem is that the second acts drags more than a little – and it’s mainly due to the fact that Yvonne De Carlo just isn’t overly convincing as the femme fatale. Compare her to Ava Gardner in The Killers – where you have no trouble believing that Lancaster would sacrifice everything for her, and you see the issue.  We buy that Thompson does all this for her because the screenplay, and Lancaster, tell us he does – not because she is particularly great. This is supposed to be a relationship where the characters cannot help their lust for each other – and it never quite comes off. This makes Criss Cross certainly a flawed film – but still a very good one – what works more than makes up for what doesn’t work, yet at the same time you see perhaps why someone would want to remake the film – and fix what was missing.

Soderbergh’s The Underneath though doesn’t really do that – it doesn’t have the interest. The setup is similar – this

time Peter Gallagher plays Michael Chambers, returning to Austin for his mother’s marriage, falls back in with his old girlfriend Rachel (Allison Elliott) who is now criminal Tommy Dundee (William Fichtner). Again, he starts working for an armored car company, and again is drawn into a heist with Dundee and company, where here are double and triple crosses. Again, there is an insanely intense hospital sequence (this one is probably even better), leading to a different, though still tragic, ending.

But Soderbergh and company change the details up considerably in the first two acts. Gallagher’s Michael isn’t some innocent trying to reclaim what he lost. He was a gambling addict, who owed money all over town, and left Austin at the risk of getting killed by some of the people he has screwed over – leaving Rachel to pick up the pieces. The flashback structure gives us more of those details. Chambers here is a screw-up – and while his family acts as if they are glad he’s back, they also cannot help but wonder when he’s going to screw-up again. Rachel is far less happy to see him back than Anna is to see Thompson in Criss Cross – yes, they start seeing each other, but she’s smart enough to know they shouldn’t. The last act of the film is really when the noir aspect really takes over – you see the roots there more clearly. Up until then, it feels like Soderbergh and company are more interested in the characters, than putting them through the noir paces.

Perhaps this is why Soderbergh refers to the film as “sleepy”. The pacing is certainly slower here, but it’s because its taking its time to establish Michael and Rachel – and the larger cast of characters, and showing them in their prior life before Michael fled, to make sense of what happens later. The two leads are certainly more complicated here than they were in the 1949 original – Michael is slimier, less innocent (watch how he uses Elisabeth Shue’s character for example) – and Rachel more guarded and controlled. In the original, it felt like Lancaster was the one who felt burned and betrayed – here it has been flipped.

You also certainly see a lot of Soderbergh touches throughout The Underneath. Watch the cinematography by Elliot Davis (not “Peter Andrews”, who of course is Soderbergh himself – a process he wouldn’t start until Traffic) for its saturated colors, and overarching color scheme for how it predates Traffic. Watch the structure that predates things like Out of Sight or The Limey. Or the heist, which predates Ocean’s 11 – and several other Soderbergh films. Perhaps this makes The Underneath more interesting in retrospect than it was at the time – knowing what was coming, we can see roots of some of it here - and Soderbergh himself has said that he “wouldn’t recommend the film to anyone” except to as part of the arch of his career. In that interview, on the Criterion disk for King of the Hill, where The Underneath is a “bonus” – he seems to be referring to how it made him realize how he didn’t want to make films – but it could also refer to some of the things it prefigures.

It's odd to me that Soderbergh and company decided to change the ending of Criss Cross – both because it’s perhaps the best thing about the original, and the most famous – which is perhaps reason enough to change it to catch the audience who had seen the original off-guard. I do think that perhaps without the last shot of the movie it would work – that shot, of a character who if I’m being honest I don’t really know why they would be there or care, and who frankly you forget about because he had been missing for a while, implies that the ultimate end of the story – what will happen off-screen – will be the same as Criss Cross. And yet, without it, perhaps the ending would work better – as it would not right the wrongs of the film, but would certainly be the type of ending you couldn’t get away with in 1949 – but you’d want to in 1995.

Overall, I think Criss Cross and The Underneath make a fascinating double bill. It’s not just how watching the films back to back highlight the similarities and differences in approaches. It’s also fascinating in terms of the director’s careers – for Siodmak, he was returning to his greatest success, and trying to recapture the magic of The Killers – and getting close. For Soderbergh, it was his personal nadir – a miserable experience, that nonetheless produced what I think is an underrated film. Perhaps that’s just because Soderbergh himself lowers expectations so much for the film – but I think The Underneath is a key film in his filmography – not just because he was so miserable making it, he changed his entire approach – although that is true. But because you can see the filmmaker Soderbergh was going to become in just a few short years.