Thursday, April 30, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Where is the Friend's House? (1987)

Where Is the Friend's House? (1987) 
Directed by: Abbas Kiarostami.
Written by: Abbas Kiarostami.
Starring: Babek Ahmed Poor (Ahmed), Ahmed Ahmed Poor (Mohamed Reda Nematzadeh), Khodabakhsh Defaei (Teacher), Iran Outari (Mother), Ait Ansari (Father), Sadika Taohidi (Perzian Neighbour), Biman Mouafi   (Ali, a neighbor), Ali Djamali (Grandfather's Friend), Aziz Babai (Waiter), Nader Ghoulami (Property Owner), Akbar Mouradi (Old Man from Azerbaidjan).
There is a simplicity to Where is the Friend’s House which only adds to its emotional power. Directed by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami – who would go on to make far more complex films, with different layers of reality layered throughout – from Close-Up to The Taste of Cherry to Certified Copy and many others – Where is the Friend’s House doesn’t get that complex. It is a simple, straight forward story – the type of thing that people who were fans of the Italian Neo-Realists would recognize. And it is a heartbreaking film in the way it builds its simple acts of kindness.
The narrative begins at school – where Ahmed (Babek Ahmed) is seated next to his friend Mohamed (Ahmed Ahmed) – when the teacher comes around to check their homework – berating poor Mohamed for once again not doing his homework in his workbook – and telling him if it happens again, he will be expelled from school. Keep in mind these kids are about 8 years old, but education isn’t quite a right here – and its notable, but never noted in the film, that only the boys are being educated at all. It isn’t until Ahmed gets home that night that he realizes that he has made a purely innocent mistake – taking not just his own workbook, but Mohamed’s as well. He knows the implications of this – but no one else seems to care that much. He tries to explain the situation to his mother – again and again – but she doesn’t want to hear it, just wants him to finish his homework, and then go buy bread – he can just give the book back tomorrow. Adding to the difficulty is that Ahmed lives in Koker, and Mohamed lives in the nearby, neighboring village of Potesh. Both villages are a maze of narrow streets, seemingly identical buildings, and confusing directions. When Ahmed does get to Potesh, he still isn’t able to find his friend’s house – and keeps being given bad directions. He finds families with similar names, or people who just saw him and his father – but they just left for Koker. He runs around – and is stymied at every stop. His grandfather berates him – and wants him to give up his quest and go get his cigarettes – we then stay with the grandfather, who details his own childhood for a few minutes, before Ahmed comes back – and is able to go on his quest again. This all culminates with a lengthy sequence where Ahmed meets an elderly man, who says he can walk with him to his friend’s house – although once again, the end result isn’t what he expected.
The film is deceptively simple. The narrative really is simple of course – it’s the story a boy trying to correct his innocent mistake, and going to great lengths to do just that. But the power of the story only slowly reveals itself – and the implications of it. Yes, the film takes on the appearance of a Neo-Realist film – but it isn’t quite that simple either. Kiarostami is painting a portrait of this community, about childhood innocence, but doing the right thing – and a portrait of rural Iranians. It is a quest narrative – and at that a very simple one. But its implications are profound. Kiarostami would return to this area – these characters – twice more (I will review those two films, Life and Nothing More and Through the Olive Trees as well) – and with each passing film, he complicates the relationship between actor and character, director and narrative, etc. But here, he has made a simple story – with the profundity of a parable – one you will not forget.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Movie Review: Run This Town

Run This Town ** / *****
Directed by: Ricky Tollman.
Written by: Ricky Tollman.
Starring: Ben Platt (Bram), Mena Massoud (Kamal), Damian Lewis (Rob), Nina Dobrev (Ashley), Scott Speedman (David), Jennifer Ehle (Judith), Gil Bellows (Detective Lowey), Lauren Collins (Sammi), David Eisner (Phil), Hamza Haq (Detective Sharma), Kathryn Greenwood (Jill), Emmanuel Kabongo (Abe), Rebecca Liddiard (Claire), Araya Mengesha (Joshua), Katy Breier (Lauren), Seamus Patterson (Zach), Setta Keshishian (Gidda).
When telling an infamous, true life story, there are always multiple different approaches you can take – making the story we know front and centre, approaching for the side, having it be background noise, etc. As long the narrative you are telling works, then the approach does not really matter. Yet, how the filmmakers behind Run This Town decided to tackle the Rob Ford crack smoking tape scandal, and turn it into a treatise on millennial entitlement is a complete and total mystery. Worse, it’s not even a good treatise on millennial entitlement. Then you throw Damian Lewis in a fat suit/makeup so unconvincing that you think it must be a joke doing an accent that doesn’t sound like, well, anyone and Run This Town ends up pretty much being a train wreck of a movie. One that is entertaining in fits and starts – and has an interesting idea thrown in once in a while to keep things interesting.
The story of Rob Ford as Toronto’s Mayor is a fascinating one – a populist in the Trump mold before Trump was a politician, Ford deeply divided Torontonians in terms of his popularity. There were always sketchy things about his past and his alcoholism wasn’t really a secret. The existence of a crack tape – which is exactly what you think it is, Rob Ford, sitting around with some young men smoking crack, was rumored before it was seen – and when it finally did break – courtesy of a Toronto Star reporter named Robyn Doolittle, it made Ford into an international laughingstock – and ended his career. He died not long after leaving office.
Writer/director Ricky Tollman, strangely, decides to tell this story through the lens of two, fictional millennial men. The first is Bram (Ben Platt) – a child of privilege, graduated from University, but still living at home, who gets a job at a news site and wants to be a real reporter – but is basically assigned to write listicles. The one other job at the paper he has is trying to construct Ford’s schedule – which his staff has stopped giving reporters – out of the information he has, This leads him to getting the lead on the crack tape – it basically falls into his lap. And he screws it up. The other major character is Kamal (Mena Massoud), the young “Special Assistant” to Rob Ford, whose job it is to basically lie to the press, and run interference on all of Ford’s many (many) scandals – protecting his boss, who is nice to his face, but whose supporters feed off his dog whistle language to attack people like Kamal. The major subplot involves Ashley (Nina Dobrev), a young lawyer/PR person on Ford’s staff, who he harasses in front of everyone – and is angry that no one else seems to notice or care.
It is strange that a scandal broken by a Toronto newspaper, by a competent female reporter, who end up being a story pursued at another paper by an incompetent male reporter. Having said that, I don’t think Tollman is really trying to diminish what Doolittle did – she isn’t featured in the movie, but her work is – as Bram finds himself constantly scooped on what he thinks of as “his” story – basically because he doesn’t know what he’s doing. It’s odd though that instead of focusing on a character like Doolittle, we have Kamel. I kind of understand the point here. Kamal is the opposite of Bram is many ways – someone who doesn’t have the same advantages, who has had to earn his way up through the ranks, and is good at his job. Yet, by the end, he’s in essentially the same spot as Bram – but worse, since he doesn’t have his family money to fall back on. The movie is trying to show these different aspects of being a millennial – the perilous economic uncertainty, etc. – but it doesn’t really do it much better than we’ve seen elsewhere, and it’s an odd choice of story to use as a jumping off point.
Now the elephant in the room – and that’s Damian Lewis as Ford himself. The movie probably would have been better making one of two other decisions – the first being doing what Kitty Green did in The Assistant with her Weinstein-inspired character, and never showing him at all – have him be a absent presence, or the other really making him a full character. They don’t really do either here. Lewis is essentially playing a cartoon character here – the fat suit, and accompanying makeup, look ridiculous, his accent sounds nothing like Ford’s – or any Canadian’s really. And he attempts to play Ford basically as a pathetic, almost comical character – but one who can turn in an instant into an angry, violent man. But he doesn’t pull it off – or really come close. The movie makes some interesting decisions on when to deploy Ford in the film as well – so for instance, we do see his harassment of Ashley, and the infamous press conference moment of “I have more than enough to eat at home” – but we don’t see the crack tape at all. It’s an oddly disjointed character in a film that doesn’t really seem all that interested in Ford at all.
I remain convinced that a movie about Rob Ford could be great – hell, he was an interesting enough presence that you could make several, with different tones, different perspectives, and they would probably all work. It just kind of seems likes Tollman and company found one of the only ways to not make this story work.

Movie Review: Antigone

Antigone *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Sophie Desraspe.
Written by: Sophie Desraspe based on the play by Sophocles.
Starring: Nahéma Ricci (Antigone), Rawad El-Zein (Polynice), Antoine DesRochers (Hémon), Nour Belkhiria (Ismène), Hakim Brahimi (Étéocle), Lise Castonguay (Psychiatre), Paul Doucet (Christian), Rachida Oussaada (Ménécée). 
I cannot help but wonder if Antigone, the new film by director Sophie Desrapse, may have been slightly more effective had it not bothered to draw the direct comparisons to the play by Sophocles written 400 years before Christ. For those of you not up on your classics (and I will readily admit I am among you), the play is about a pair of brothers, who fought on opposite sides of a Civil War, and who are both killed. The brother on the winning side, is given a heroes burial, the one of the losing side is given no burial at all. Their sister, Antigone, defies authority and is determined to give her brother the burial he deserves. This isn’t really the plot of the film – set-in modern-day Montreal, but you can certainly see where Desraspe got her inspiration from. But it’s a little bit of a distraction to have the characters, who originally from Algeria, be given classical Greek names – and it draws attention to the artifice of the story, which in general is one that is trying to remain grounded in realism – and does an admirable job of that, given the outlandish central conceit of the film. Sometimes being inspired by something is better than directly quoting it.
In this film, Antigone (Nahema Ricci) is the youngest of four siblings – who fled to Montreal 14 years ago, after the murder of their parents, along with their grandmother, Menecee (Rachida Oussaada). She loves her two older brothers – Eteocle (Hakim Brahimi), a soccer star, who is beloved by all, and Polynice (Rawad El-Zein), the more troubled brother – involved in gangs. The action gets going when the police raid the brothers jacks game, and when they pin Polynice to the ground, and when Eteocle tries to intercede, gets shot from his trouble – the cop mistaking his cellphone for a gun. Eteocle becomes a folk hero of sorts – his life celebrated, his death protested, while Polynice disappears into the legal system – and will likely face deportation, as the family has never become citizens. Antigone then comes up with a bizarre plan to help Polynice escape, and taken his place in prison – figuring that because she is a minor with a clean record, the consequences for her will not be as severe as they are for him. But she’s in for a rude awakening.
Antigone is an odd film, mainly because the actions that Antigone take are far-fetched to say the least, and yet Desraspe’s goal here is mainly realism – and she mainly succeeds. The bureaucratic nightmare that awaits Antigone is vast – and she comes up against it. And yet, many of the consequences of her actions should have been obvious from before she hatched her plan. And as Polynices’s actions throughout the film demonstrate, he isn’t worth the sacrifices she makes for him. Ricci delivers a fiery, defiant, intelligent performance – it’s easy to see why everyone in the film becomes enamored with her. But she’s also somewhat of an enigma as well. I’m not sure we get much of an interior glimpse into her.
The movie certainly is passionate however – and Desraspe and company have crafted a complicated film about immigrant’s place in Canadian society – welcoming refugees one day, and demonizing them the next. I’m just not sure the film ever really becomes a personal story of any kind. It remains a polemic statement, without really getting to know the characters as people. It’s certainly something impassioned though.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Yella (2007)

Yella (2007)
Directed by: Christian Petzold.
Written by: Christian Petzold.
Starring: Nina Hoss (Yella Fichte), Devid Striesow (Philipp), Hinnerk Schonemann (Ben), Burghart Klausner (Dr. Gunthen), Barbara Auer (Barbara Gunthen), Christian Redl (Yella’s Father).
Christian Petzold specializes in endings. From Jerichow to Phoenix to Transit, his films often leave the best moment for last, leaving you staggering out of the movie. Over his career, he has gotten even better at the rest of the film as well – Phoenix is a great film, with an even better ending for instance, whereas Jerichow is a good film, with a great ending. His breakthrough film may well have been Yella – made the year before Jerichow, and like that film also an unofficial remake – this time of the low budget 1960s chiller Carnival of Souls. It is a good film, and it tries to do what Petzold would later pull off wonderfully, by shocking you at the end – but this time, it doesn’t really work. Yes, it’s consistent with the ending of the older film – but it lacks the impact this time around – and feels more transparently like he is trying to shock you.
The title character in the film is played by Petzold favorite Nina Hoss – and it’s another great performance by her. She plays a woman, trying to escape from her husband Ben (Hinnerk Schonemann) – but not quite being able to do so. She is going to leave town to take a new job away from him – he has taken to stalking her, trying to be nice and win her back, and erupting in anger when she ignores him. She unwisely accepts a ride to the station from him for her final getaway. The pair crash off a bridge, into the water below. And yet, Yella escapes the car, runs to the station, and still makes the train.
Her escape doesn’t go as planned however – she arrives at her new job, to discover that her new boss has just been fired, and there’s no job for her. She ends up meeting Philipp (Devid Striesow), a banker on the shady side, who invites her to pose as an associate at an upcoming meeting. She’s smart though – and takes over that meeting – and soon they are partners for real. But what really is he up to?
For the moment Yella escapes from the water, there is something deliberately off about app film – something in the tone, in Hoss’ performance, that suggest that perhaps things aren’t quite what they seem. You worry for Yella – that perhaps she is just trading one problem relationship for another, because, of course, her and Philipp are romantic partners as well. But there doesn’t seem to be much heat between them – they are saying the right things, but appear to be going through the motions. She is clearly a woman trapped – no other job, no money, no place to go that isn’t right back to her father, and she wants him to stop worrying, not worry more.
If you’ve seen Carnival of Souls, you probably know where this is all headed – it’s a ghost story, without any ghosts in a way. The film doesn’t have the impact of the earlier film – if for no other reason than it doesn’t have that extremely creepy climax at an actual carnival. The film will answer the questions – will resolve what happened, and why the film feels so weird, but it’s all done in a final shot meant to leave you stunned, but didn’t for me.
What remains fascinating about the film though is that strange, otherworldly tone that Petzold sustains through the film – and Hoss’ haunting and haunted performance. Her Yella remains an enigmatic figure in the best way – not in a way that frustrates, but in a way that makes you want to know more. What Petzold needed to do is what he did in Jerichow – take a well-known story, with a well-known ending, and twist it just enough to shock you. This time, he doesn’t stick the landing – but there’s enough fascinating stuff to make it still an interesting film.

Movie Review: Bad Education

Bad Education **** / *****
Directed by: Cory Finley.
Written by: Mike Makowsky 
Starring: Hugh Jackman (Frank Tassone), Allison Janney (Pam Gluckin), Ray Romano (Bob Spicer), Geraldine Viswanathan (Rachel Kellog), Alex Wolff (Rachel’s Editor), Kayli Carter (Amber McCarden), Rafael Casal (Kyle), Stephen Spinella, Annaleigh Ashford, Hari Dhillon, Jimmy Tatro (Pam’s Son), Jeremy Shamos, Kathrine Narducci, Pat Healy (The D.A.).
Bad Education pulls off a neat trick that is probably a lot harder than it sounds. This is the story of the largest embezzlement scandal in American Education history – where a Superintendent and his assistance steal millions of dollars from the school district. As you watch the film, you should hate Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) – even before you find out what he’s done. He’s one of those annoying too perfect to be true guys that you hate if for no other reason than because everyone else loves him. And yet, you don’t hate Frank – you don’t hate him even when all the pieces come together. You don’t forgive him, you understand him. You pity him. And perhaps more than you want to admit, you relate to him. He’s a quintessential American – he knows he has “earned” his success, and so he can do what he wants.
The film opens in 2002 in Roslyn New York – on Long Island – where the School District is number 4 in the entire country. Everyone knows that the reason for this is Frank Tassone (Jackman) – the Superintendent, who will do whatever possible to ensure that the school district doesn’t settle for number 4 – they’re going to be number 1. With a great school district, everyone wins – home prices soar, kids get into Ivy League Schools, and the taxpayers don’t even mind shelling out millions of dollars on a Skywalk – which doesn’t sound necessary, but which everyone assumes is not only necessary – but will also get them to number 1.
Everyone loves Frank. Of course they do – he’s so friendly, so charming, so handsome. He never forgets a student, never forgets a parent – and is so patient in dealing with everyone – from overinvolved parents who believe their special little angel is gifted, and if the marks aren’t there, it’s because the teacher has it in for them, or the mom’s Book Club, which he attends. And it’s so sweet that he’s still dedicated to his long-deceased wife that no one actually remembers, but he still talks about her, still wears a wedding ring, and has a picture of her on his desk. Frank and his assistant Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney, having a blast doing a Long Island accent, but also finding the humanity within) operate as a well-oiled machine. They get things done – and as long as things are getting done, then no one questions anything. Why would the PTA President (Ray Romano) care, when Frank can get his kids into Harvard or Yale?
Frank is the engineer of his own downfall in many ways – not least of which because he encourages Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan, even better here than in Blockers, where she was a standout) that the piece she’s writing for the school newspaper about the Skywalk need not be a Puff Piece if she doesn’t want it to be. This encourages her to dig – and digging leads to trouble.
Little by little, everything becomes clear – as the pieces start to fall into place. A trip to Las Vegas – where the members of school board, all rich, head to the casino, Frank spends in dry seminars before a chance encounter with a former student – Kyle (Rafael Casal) confirms what we already suspected. Things start to fall apart at home when Pam’s idiot son (Jimmy Tatro, essentially repeating his brilliant American Vandal performance) does some things with a school district credit card he shouldn’t have done. Suddenly the leaky roof in the school building, and the old photocopier start making more sense.
Jackman has always been a talented actor, but he’s not always been an actor whose talents are used properly. His Frank here is some of the best work of his career – certainly his most relatable human – with all of his vanity and charm on display, only serving to make him more human, not less. He plays a little bit off his own image here – and does it with great effect. Frank is a vain character in some ways – but Jackman’s performance is far from vain. He is supported by a great supporting cast – all of whom hit the right notes – but this is Jackman’s show, and he isn’t giving it up.
The film was directed by Cory Finley – although if you saw his stellar debut (last year’s Thoroughbreds) you probably wouldn’t guess it. The two don’t share a lot in common, either stylistically or thematically – but both do show just how great Finley is at playing the long game – seeing how everything is going to come together in the end, and setting it all up right under our noses with realizing it. The film would pair nicely with Alexander Payne’s masterpiece Election, because although Payne’s film is better, they both share a satirical outlook – and both have at their core a seemingly rotten teacher, who by the end you love, loathe and pity – in part because they still don’t understand that they are the architects of their own downfall. To them, everything is till someone else’s fault. 

Movie Review: Wendy

Wendy ** ½ / ***** 
Directed by: Benh Zeitlin.
Written by: Benh Zeitlin and Eliza Zeitlin.
div style="margin: 0in 0in 0pt; tab-stops: 241.5pt;"> Starring: Yashua Mack (Peter Pan), Devin France (Wendy), Gage Naquin (Douglas), Gavin Naquin (James), Ahmad Cage (Sweet Heavy), Krzysztof Meyn (Thomas), Romyri Ross (Cudjoe Head), Shay Walker (Angela Darling), Tommie Lynn Milazzo (Wendy - Baby), Stephanie Lynn Wilson (Adult Wendy – voice), Lowell Landes (Buzzo), Matt Owens (Tee Goose), Kevin Pugh (James Hook).
It’s hard to remember now just what an indie hit Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild was back in 2012. It debuted at Sundance, before a summer release, received a ton of acclaimed, solid box office for a film as idiosyncratic as it was – and was so beloved by the Academy that it received 4 Oscars nominations – including a Best Actress nod for its 9-year old, and nominations for Adapted Screenplay, Picture and Director – in the year that Ben Affleck was overlooked for Argo, even though that film went onto win Best Picture. Benh Zeitlin looked like the next indie darling – perhaps a filmmaker like Terrence Malick. And then, he didn’t make a film for 8-years. When he returned to Sundance this year with Wendy, there was some buzz that perhaps he was finally back – and would restart that promising career.
I have a feeling that if Wendy came first, and Zeitlin followed it up with Beasts of the Southern Wild than Wendy would be seen as a key stepping stone. As it stands though, it kind of feels like at best that Zeitlin has stood still for the last 8 years, and at worst, that he’s actually taken a step back. The two films are very similar stylistically – which is a good thing, as it is a style of Zeitlin’s own and its distinctive and effective. Once again, he’s set his film in the poor regions of the South – concentrating on children, of different races, in a world that is part reality, part fantasy. The difference between the two is basically that while Beasts of the Southern Wild revealed itself slowly – revealed its allegorical nature, etc. – over the course of its narrative, it’s apparent from the beginning that Wendy is a Peter Pan riff. And while you cannot say Zeitlin’s version of the oft-told tale is the same as the others we have seen – you also cannot really say its all that interesting either.
The best scenes in the film are the early ones. The real world scenes are set at one of those diners in the middle of nowhere – this one quite literally opens up onto the train tracks that run out front. It is here when Wendy was a baby – living with her single mother, and twin brothers, that she witnesses another boy – Thomas – snap and run outside, when he’s told (jokingly) that he’s end up the mop boy for the diner. So instead, he flees – and through the eyes of that baby Wendy, we see a mysterious boy on top of the train – and Thomas himself. Flash forward years later – Wendy being about 8 or 9 now – and she and her brothers find the courage to board that same mysterious train, with the same mysterious boy. They end up in a world where children never grow old – as long as they keep hope and faith alive. They are watched over by someone called mother – who they must protect as well. If you lose hope, you age rapidly.
It’s in those early scenes – at that diner along the tracks, where Wendy works best. It’s a mixture of early David Gordon Green and Terrence Malick here, depicting its place with magical realism. Once the film settles into the fantasy world – which is most of the film – it grows repetitive, and to honest kind of dull. The film is far more concerned with narrative than Beasts of the Southern Wild was – and its not all that interesting a narrative as you basically sit there and spot the various ways Zeitlin and company are evoking Peter Pan, and changing it, etc.
The film is clearly a passion project for Zeitlin – something he wanted to make for years, and finally got to. Its disappointing though that he essentially made a better, deeper version of this with Beasts – and is now just hitting the repeat button. Had this been his debut, it still wouldn’t be a good film – but it would show immense promise and talent. But because he already surpassed this with his first film, you cannot help but think when it’s over that this wasn’t worth the 8 year wait.

Movie Review: Butt Boy

Butt Boy * ½ / *****
Directed by: Tyler Cornack.
Written by: Tyler Cornack and Ryan Koch.
Starring: Tyler Cornack (Chip Gutchell), Tyler Rice (Detective Russel Fox), Angela Jones (Doctor Morean), Kristina Clifford (Judy), Gail Bloyd (Gail), Shelby Dash (Anne Gutchell), Colleen Elizabeth Miller (Cindy), Tyler Dryden (Marty Gutchell), Austin Lewis (Rick Sanders), Brad Potts (Chief Lazarra), Steven James Tingus (Herbert Cough), Anna Wholey (Detective Hoffner), Jeremiah Jahi (Frank), Kai Henderson (Andrew Lee), Larry Ludwig (Mayor Michael Cage), Wilky Lau (Jon Lee), Sol Lane (Young Marty), Robert Ackerman Moss (Nelson Guerra).
Butt Boy is one of those movies with a premise so outlandish that someone like me finds it impossible to resist at least watching it to see if the filmmakers can pull it off. This is deadpan comedy/detective noir/1990s period piece about a mild mannered IT guy who likes to stick things up his butt. He gets hooked on the practice during a rectal exam, and soon everything he can find goes up there. And then small objects won’t do – and he develops some kind of superhuman ability to suck any and everything up there – starting with dogs, but escalating to young children as well. He eventually has a nemesis in the form of an alcoholic police detective he meets at AA, and is investigating the latest child disappearance. It takes him a while to zone in on the suspect – and longer still to figure out just exactly he is doing. Not surprisingly, he cannot get anyone to take him seriously.
The film was co-written, directed by and starring Tyler Cornack – who has the role of Chip, the man who likes to stick things up his butt. Chip is one of those guys indie movies love – boring IT guys, stuck in a loveless, passionless marriage, at a boring corporate job with an overly cheerful boss, etc. You know the type from many a movie before Butt Boy – and he’ll be a cliché long after. That in itself isn’t a problem – its almost precisely the point actually, as Chip is a master of anal retention even before he masters, well, literal anal retention. Cornack’s performance goes for deadpan laughs – yet it’s never really all that funny. When Detective Russel Fox (Tyler Rice) is introduced, it at least adds a different element to the film. The two leads have some interesting scenes together – but you can never really get over the fact that we know that Chip is responsible for the disappearances, and how, and we have to wait a long (long) time for Fox to catch up.
Put simply, Butt Boy is perhaps a 15-minute short stretched out to 100 minutes. It’s the same jokes, the same scenes again and again as Cornack and company wait to deliver its bloody, explosive climax. That is, admittedly, a good climax even if it’s a predictable one. But in short, it comes at the end of a movie that is basically a one joke concept, and plays with it for far too long. Sometimes a strange concept isn’t enough – you need to come up with something to keep things interesting for 100 minutes once the shock value of that premise wears off.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Alphaville (1965)

Alphaville (1965) 
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Starring: Eddie Constantine (Lemmy Caution), Anna Karina (Natacha von Braun), Akim Tamiroff (Henri Dickson), Howard Vernon (Prof. Leonard Nosferatu - aka von Braun).
I have never been one to question a director artistic ambitions – I want great filmmakers to follow whatever path they want to, and make whatever films they want to make – and in that regard few filmmakers in history have had the freedom that Jean-Luc Godard has had. For 60 years now, Godard has made pretty much whatever he wanted – a function, yes, that his movies have never cost a lot to make, but few Avant Garde filmmakers – and Godard has been one for decades now – get the attention that Godard does. I am both frustrated and fascinated by much of his later work – love the experimentation with 3-D in Goodbye to Language 3-D, grow weary and bored by the endless droning (often un-subtitled) of Film Socialisme for example. Still, that Godard is a genius is undeniable (that he’s an asshole, also undeniable – as Agnes Varda reminded us in Faces Places) – and the film world is richer because Godard has been able to follow his muse for decades. Still, when I watch a film like Alphaville (1965) – I imagine a different cinematic landscape – one in which Godard was able to continue to merge his philosophical interests and his cinephilia into something more, well, relatable. Alphaville shows Godard’s encyclopedic knowledge of film history at its best. It is part film noir, part sci fi, a parody of both, a film which references many of his favorite filmmakers (the Welles influence is obvious throughout) – and yet is also undeniable the work of Godard. Like much of his 1960s work – which, I’m sorry, is still my favorite period of his by far, Alphaville is wondrously entertaining, thought-provoking and profound. It’s a mixture few have ever come close to getting as perfect as Godard did during this decade.
In Alphaville, Eddie Constantine stars as Lemmy Caution, a kind of Sam Spade knock-off who Constantine had played in numerous French films leading up to Alphaville – and would continue to play in various forms for the rest of his life. Lemmy is an American living in France, and his latest job is to infiltrate Alphaville – a kind of “utopia” in which all of the inhabitants are ruled by a computer voice, emotions have pretty much been outlawed, and the consequences for crossing the computer are severe. Lemmy goes undercover as a reporter – apparently writing yet another puff piece about the city – but that’s not his real intention. Him being there throws everything off-kilter – especially when he falls in love with Natacha von Braun (Anna Karina) – which is something that the computer – Alpha 60 – just cannot compute.
Alphaville is a science fiction film, but one made with little money. Godard smartly doesn’t try to make anything look futuristic at all – he confines Lemmy and everyone else mainly indoors – in hotel rooms, hallways, etc. that look impersonal and unfeeling. Godard’s world of the future is, shockingly, still relevant today – it isn’t the path we went down, but it’s not so far away from it that is unrecognizable – and what the reliance on computers has done to humanity is accurate. Godard is able to find ways to make this supposed utopia the exact opposite – without using much in the way of budget. Residents of the city have three choices – assimilate, kill themselves, or face execution – the last of which is done in a way that would be highly inefficient in practice, but is sure as hell entertaining.
With Alphaville, as with other Godard films, you can complain that the film crosses the line into misogyny – and not be entirely off-base. Most of the women in the film are so called “Seductresses” – dead-eyed women, used to control men. If they aren’t that, then they are quite literally man-eating monsters. Even Karina’s Natasha isn’t entirely immune to this treatment – although she certainly becomes more of a character than anyone else.
Of course, as with almost any Godard film there is a lot of philosophical talk. Unlike his more recent efforts though, Godard is at least attempting to merge it into some kind of narrative here – it comes flying at you fast and furious at times, and you may or may not keep up – but hopefully enough sinks in to be useful to you.
Alphaville is Godard at the height of his powers – you can already feel him moving away from his earlier work, and into his later period – but the balance here is just about perfect. It is as heady as anything Godard would ever make – but also entertaining, and brilliantly structured. This is Godard at his absolute best.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Movie Review: Color Out of Space

Color Out of Space *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Richard Stanley.
Written by: Scarlett Amaris and Richard Stanley based on the short story by H.P. Lovecraft.
Starring: Nicolas Cage (Nathan Gardner), Joely Richardson (Theresa), Madeleine Arthur (Lavinia), Elliot Knight (Ward), Tommy Chong (Ezra), Brendan Meyer (Benny), Julian Hilliard (Jack), Josh C. Waller (Sheriff Pierce), Q'orianka Kilcher (Mayor Tooma), Melissa Nearman (Reporter), Amanda Booth (Secretary), Keith Harle (Hunter Jake).
The pedigree for a cult movie is undeniable with Color Out of Space. It is an adaptation of a H.P. Lovecraft story, and even if Lovecraft stories usually don’t translate well to the screen, there is always the potential for them to become something indescribably weird. The film was directed by Richard Stanley – who is perhaps best known for getting fired a few days into filming The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) – which became a legendary debacle. And most of all, it stars Nicolas Cage in a role that allows him to go crazy, and talk about alpacas a lot. This isn’t quite Mandy of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans level insane late-period brilliance from Cage – but it’s a step above something like Mom and Dad, which is already several steps above the five or six direct-to-video action films Cage makes every year. So, basically, it’s in Dog Eat Dog territory – still something so twisted and weird that you cannot imagine another actor pulling it off at all, but not quite genius level. But like the movie itself, it sure is, well, something.
The movie is about the Gardner family, a city family who have recently moved to the country to take over the family farm. Nathan (Cage) was an artist, who now is going to farm and raise alpacas – the animal of the future – although it doesn’t seem like he really knows how to do that. His wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) is getting back into the swing of things after a mastectomy – trying to keep her real estate business going even with the spotty Wi-Fi. Teenagers Benny and Lavinia aren’t doing that well – Benny is constantly getting stoned, often with the weird squatter who lives on their land (Tommy Chong) and Lavinia is exploring Wicca, doing weird spells and trying to center herself. Then there is young Jack, who is pretty much left on his own. The family is pretty much going stir crazy even before anything weird happens.
It doesn’t take long for that weirdness to start though. It begins when the sky turns a strange pink, and a meteorite crashes onto the property. Slowly but surely, the family starts behaving in increasingly strange ways – Benny and Lavainia are the only two who seem to realize just how strange things are getting, but even they cannot stop themselves from being sucked into the strangeness. To say more would be to spoil the fun – but needless to say, things do get really, really weird, really blood, really twisted in ways that make you wish that Stanley hadn’t been fired from The Island of Dr. Moreau (seriously, he couldn’t have made anything worse).
It’s always a pleasure to see Cage in a film that can match his weirdness level. I’m not sure he has any real judgment left, or if he just keeps making so many movies that he’s going to occasionally hit on one that works with his crazy energy – but when he finds one, it’s a thing of beauty. Cage gets increasingly weird throughout the movie, in ways that make the already crazed narrative feel even less predictable than it otherwise would be. No one else in the film can match that level of weirdness – and they don’t even try, which is probably a good thing – Cage, and the narrative twists and turns are strange enough.
I won’t say where all of this leads, but I will say you could tell in was a Lovecraft story even if you didn’t know. For the most part, Lovecraft stories don’t work as films – hell, I just Re-Animator for the first time a few weeks ago, and I’m not convinced it worked, as it seemed to be four different movies mashed together, and I’m not convinced I want to watch any of them. But this one does. Stanley finds a way to visualize Lovecraft’s horror in ways that are both terrifying, and just plain weird. And Cage keeps everything engaging throughout. I don’t know if the movie adds up to anything other than its own weirdness – but its weirdness is so engaging, I’m not sure it needs to.

Movie Review: Trolls: World Tour

Trolls World Tour (2020) ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Walt Dohrn   
Written by: Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger and Maya Forbes & Wallace Wolodarsky and Elizabeth Tippet based on the Good Luck Trolls created by Thomas Dam.
Starring: Anna Kendrick (Poppy), Justin Timberlake (Branch), Rachel Bloom (Barb), James Corden (Biggie), Ron Funches (Cooper), Kelly Clarkson (Delta Dawn), Anderson .Paak (Prince D), Sam Rockwell (Hickory), George Clinton (King Quincy), Mary J. Blige (Queen Essence), Kenan Thompson (Tiny Diamond), Kunal Nayyar (Guy Diamond), Caroline Hjelt (Chenille), Aino Jawo (Satin), J Balvin (Tresillo), Flula Borg (Dickory), Ester Dean (Legsly), Jamie Dornan (Chaz), Gustavo Dudamel (Trollzart), Ozzy Osbourne (King Thrash), Anthony Ramos (King Trollex), Karan Soni (Riff), Charlyne Yi (Pennywhistle).
I know that logically, I should hate the Trolls movies. They are everything about children’s entertainment I usually find loathsome – crass, cynical commercial enterprises – made not so much to tell a story or entertain kids and adult alike – but rather as an act of brand extension and corporate synergies – here made even more cynical by adding in music stars and soundtracks to milk even more money out of parents. Yes, all movies are made to make money – and all kids movies are used to sell merchandise as well – at least if it’s good – but there is something about movies like Ugly Dolls and Angry Birds that seem so cynical. Frozen has all the same commercial and merchandising ambitions – hell, more considering the theme parks, and how many decades Disney will milk their products – but they also concentrate on delivering a good movie first, and everything else second. These others have that backwards. And Trolls really should be exhibit A of everything that is wrong with contemporary children’s entertainment. And yet, I have to say, the movies are kind of fun. There is no reason to see either Trolls movie – especially this latest one, which you have to “rent” for $20 as it is the lone big studio movie to opt for home viewing options rather than just push their release date – unless you have children. But I do have children – girls who are 8 and 6 – who both loved the first film, and couldn’t wait for the second film, so I bite the bullet, and shelled out the $20. And the whole family had fun watching this goofy movie. It isn’t very good – it isn’t even as good as the last film. But it’s fun.
If you remember the last Troll film, you’ll know that Poppy (Anna Kendrick) is now Queen of the Trolls, and her best friend Branch (Justin Timberlake) has been brought out of his shell, and now these pop music loving trolls live in absolute harmony with each other. So the writers have to invent another conflict (and do so in a way that will conveniently create all kinds of different troll dolls for you to purchase). Apparently, Troll kind used to be united – but they were separated years ago along musical lines – Pop, of course, Classical, Techno, Funk, Country and Rock – each being given a string, and separated. Now Barb (Rachel Bloom), the Queen of the Rock Trolls, has decided she wants all the strings for herself – uniting them all under the banner of Rock, and destroying all other kinds of music. She is doing pretty good too – rolling over the techno and classical trolls easily. So, of course, it’s up to Poppy and Branch to stop her.
The movie is pretty much a 90-minute assault on the senses - even more so than the original, which was already a non-stop parade of colors, glitter, music and motion. This movie doesn’t ever pause itself – the characters barely function as characters, and aren’t even given the depth they had last time. Instead, this movie just wants to get from one set piece to another, one musical number to another, one scene of glittery confection after another. It can be absolutely exhausting.
It is also just about the most colorful and cheerful movie in existence – and perhaps in a world this dark, that is precisely what is need – especially for children. I keep reading articles and tweets about how exhausting and difficult it is to be a parent, trying to work from home and homeschool your kids, and never having a second to yourself, always trapped with your kids 24/7 for who knows how long. But I do think we have to remember that if we’re trapped with our kids, that means they’re trapped with us. And this is a dark and confusing time for them.
So, no, Trolls: World Tour isn’t exactly a good movie. Perhaps in a theater, with 3-D, and the non-stop colors and all the sound, it would be been guaranteed headache inducing horror show. But released for home viewing, on Easter weekend, during a week’s long lockdown where you and your kids cannot get away from each, it was for us, just what was needed.

Movie Review: Tigertail

Tigertail ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Alan Yang.   
Written by: Alan Yang.
Starring: Tzi Ma (Grover), Christine Ko (Angela), Hong-Chi Lee (Young Grover), Yo-Hsing Fang (Young Yuan), Fiona Fu (Zhenzhen), Joan Chen (Yuan), Kuei-Mei Yang (Minghua), Kunjue Li (Young Zhen Zhen), James Saito (Hank), Hayden Szeto (Eric), Cindera Che (Peijing), Muyi Chen (Chih-Hao), Zhi-Hao Yang (Child Grover), Hai-Yin Tsai (Child Yuan), Lynn Cheng (Child Angela), Li Li Pang (Yunxia).
A lot of first-time directors tell autobiographical stories – which is why we get so many earnest coming of age films from debut directors. So I give Alan Yang credit that he attempted something slightly more ambitious with his debut – Tigertail. Instead of telling his story, of a child of immigrants from Taiwan being raised in America, he instead tries to tell a story loosely based on his father – from his time in Taiwan, through coming to America, working hard, struggling, raising kids, but being incapable of talking to those kids. It’s story Yang told in more comedic terms in Master of None – the show he co-created with Aziz Ansari, which ran for two wonderful seasons on Netflix. But there is nothing comic about Tigertail – which is a very serious film. But, at just over 90-minutes, it feels too short, and too shallow to really tell the story he wants to tell. This feels like it should be an epic, Edward Yang-like film (Yang being a very clear influence here) – but instead, we get a trailer for what should have been a great film.
Yang tells the story of Grover, by flashing back and forth through time. When we first meet him, he is a young man in Taiwan – living with his hard-working mother. They are poor, they both have to work unsafe factory jobs – and Grover feels he needs to take care of her. He is in love with Yuan, and the two have an easy romantic chemistry together. But the factory owner also has a daughter – Zhenzhen – and is looking to marry her off. If Grover does that, he can move to America – where eventually, his plan is, to move his mother to an easier life.
Of course, it doesn’t go that way. We know that because we see scenes of an older Grover – played by the great Tzi Ma, as a sad, lonely, solitary figure. His wife has left him, he barely knows what to say to his own children – especially Angela (Christine Ko), a daughter who like her father works so hard that it cost her marriage. He didn’t even both to tell anyone he was returning to Taiwan to attend his mother’s funeral – he didn’t want to bother them.
Yang is clearly a talented writer and director. He’s been working for years on various sitcoms, and in recent years has been able to create or co-create some shows to tell more personal stories. There are moments here where Yang is clearly trying to emulate the great Wong Kar Wai – a pop song that can emotionally devastate Grover, who tries to his best to hide it. When he ends up throwing away that record, something is lost within him.
Tigertail is a very sad story. It’s the story of a man who gave up the woman he loved, and never truly found happiness. He didn’t love the woman he ended up marrying – who never loved him either, meaning their marriage was lonely. He drove his kids hard, but never really lets them inside. It’s only in the last 20 minutes or so, when Grover finally starts to open up – finally decides to let someone in.
But overall, Tigertail is the story of an emotional cripple – someone unable to express emotions, and for the most part even suppresses them to himself. It is a testament to how great an actor Tzi Ma is that he is able to deliver a performance that shows us so much, while telling us nothing. But the other actors aren’t up to his level – and for the most part, it isn’t their fault. There just isn’t much to play on the page. I do want to see what Yang does next – he is clearly a talented guy, and if nothing else, Tigertail shows he can work outside of the familiar confines of comedy. But this movie really needed to dig deeper – and unfortunately, I think it’s mostly surface here.

Movie Review: Goalie

Goalie *** / *****
Directed by: Adriana Maggs.
Written by: Adriana Maggs and Jane Maggs.
Starring: Mark O'Brien (Terry Sawchuk), Kevin Pollak (Jack Adams), Georgina Reilly (Pat Morey), Éric Bruneau (Marcel Pronovost), Steve Byers (Gordie Howe), Ted Atherton (Louis Sawchuk), Janine Theriault (Anne Sawchuk), Owen Maggs (Mitch Sawchuk), Matt Gordon (Tommy Ivan), Jonny Harris (Phil Sullivan). 
If you wanted to make a dark, serious film about hockey – something in the vein of Raging Bull or The Wrestler – Terry Sawchuk may well be the perfect candidate for that sort of treatment. One of the greatest goalies the game has ever seen, he played for 20 years in the NHL – amassing multiple Stanley Cups and Vezina trophies, but also seeing his body getting banged up and broken. He had a wife and many children – but also cheated on her constantly, and fathered a child in one of those dalliances. He struggled with depression and alcoholism for his entire life – a troubled childhood and family contributing to it – and he died tragically young – at 40 – after a freak accident during a fight with a teammate/roommate. Sawchuck’s life and times could be turned into a brilliant movie - and I can see several different ways of approaching the material that could result in that brilliance. Unfortunately for all of us, the film Goalie, about Sawchuk, tells his story in the most clichéd, stereotypical way possible – resulting in a movie that tries to basically cover his entire life, but most the time during his career, in just under two hours. This results in an episodic that never pauses long enough for much depth.
For the most part, Mark O’Brien is good in the lead role. It’s a little strange that the actor basically plays Sawchuk over a 20 years period, and other than some additional scars he builds up over time, his appearance never changes. Still, O’Brien is fine as Sawchuk – the hockey player whose competitive nature led him to be one of the best, but also led to his temper running out of control at times. He isn’t quite as good in the home scenes – mainly between him and his wife, Pat Morey (played by O’Brien’s real wife, Georgina Reilly) – but that’s basically because the movie repeats a similar scene again and again – with Sawchuk drinking turning into a rage, and Pat threatening to leave, but never quite doing so until very late in the movie. There is much to work with here – and Reilly is also hung out to dry here. The same can be said for pretty much every other character in the film – the film spends more time with Jack Adams (Kevin Pollak) than anyone else other than Sawchuk – but I’m not sure it quite knows what to make of him. Legendary hockey players like Gordie Howe show up as supporting characters, but don’t really do much. I did like the “interviews” with people who knew Sawchuk scattered throughout the film. These are old men, looking back at their life, and Sawchuk’s, with a mixture of nostalgia and regret. The film doesn’t want to glamorize hockey – at least not too much.
The film was directed by Adriana Maggs, and there is enough here to suggest that better, deeper movie that could have been. She doesn’t romanticize hockey, shows just how much of a business it is, how people like Adams manipulates people like Sawchuk to keep making money, keep winning games, the personal consequences be damned, The film doesn’t romanticize Sawchuk either – doesn’t show his depression or anger as a necessary part of his skill as a player – it just made him a dark, less likable character.
The problem is that the film has to cover so much ground that it never dives deep on anything. It skips across the surface of a life that deserves a deep dive. I imagine a film about the final year of Sawchuk’s life – the legendary goalie, reduced to a backup who barely plays, whose body has broken down, who is still depressed and an alcoholic, whose wife has just left him – ending with his death because of that fight. That is the kind of deep, dark hockey movie Goalie only hints at being. It could have been great. Instead, it’s mediocre – which is a shame.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Jerichow (2008)

Jerichow (2008) 
Directed by: Christian Petzold.
Written by: Christian Petzold.
Starring: Benno Fürmann (Thomas), Nina Hoss (Laura), Hilmi Sözer (Ali Özkan). 
Christian Petzold’s Jerichow isn’t an official adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice – but it’s clear that it is one anyway. Petzold is smart enough to realize that if he was going to, once again, redo a story that has been told many times already, he had to come with a new angle. For the most part, he succeeds. While this is a shorter film than either of the official adaptations of the novel, he actually spends more time getting to the point where the novel turns – and then Petzold (as he does often) just ends the film there – leaving the audience to pick up the pieces, and figure out what comes next. What’s even more impressive is even if you know the story he’s telling, Petzold still surprises you.
The film takes place in the small German town of the title. Thomas (Benno Fürmann) has just returned from Afghanistan – having received a dishonorable discharge, for reasons not explained – and has just buried his mother. He’s broke, he has no job, and some tough guys have beaten him up to get the money he owes them – money he was going to use to rebuild his life. By chance, he meets Ali (Hilmi Sözer) along the road, when Ali, drunk, drives his car into a ditch. Thomas helps him out of the jam with the cops – and Ali ends up offering him a job as his driver. He doesn’t own a roadside diner this time around – but a string of snack bars all over the place, and he spends most of his driving around, checking up on them, making deliveries, etc. Ali’s beautiful, younger wife Laura (Petzold favorite Nina Hoss) does the books. It’s clear to the audience when Thomas and Laura lock eyes what is going to happen.
The key difference in Jerichow, compared to the other films, is in the depiction of Ali. The husband in these adaptations is most often painted as dim and pathetic – a man who doesn’t realize what is happening, until it is too late. That isn’t Ali. He is a Turk, who has come to Germany and made something of himself. He believes everyone is always cheating him – and while that isn’t an attractive feature in most people, in this case, he isn’t wrong. Ali is the most complicated character in the film – he can be both a brute – physically and verbally abusive, but also sympathetic. He is keenly aware that he is a foreigner in a country who doesn’t like him, who has a beautiful wife, but only because he paid off her debts, and that she has never, and will never, love him.
Hoss is, as always, great as Laura. This is more akin to the Lana Turner performance in the 1946 version – a woman who has been beaten down by life, who is exhausted and miserable, but sees no way out. Hoss is, of course, a beautiful woman – but mainly what she plays here is just tired. She keeps her feelings for Thomas more enigmatic that other versions – perhaps she is just using him to get what she wants. Fürmann is the weakest link in the cast – he is tall and good looking – but kind of a blank slate. This works for those earlier scenes, but when the ending comes, you want a little bit more than what Fürmann can, or at least will, give you.
Petzold has always specialized in endings – for knocking you out in the final scene, and then getting out quickly. His best film, Phoenix, has one of the best final scenes of the last decade. And here, it’s the best scene in the film as well. For the first 85 minutes of Jerichow, it is a very good film – tweaking the original story, twisting it into something slightly different, more modern, more German, etc. And then there comes the final scene – and it elevates the whole movie, puts everything we’ve seen into a different light. Petzold knows how to end the film – and Jerichow is a great example.