Friday, September 23, 2016

Movie Review: Blair Witch

Blair Witch
Directed by: Adam Wingard. 
Written by: Simon Barrett. 
Written by: James Allen McCune (James), Callie Hernandez (Lisa Arlington), Corbin Reid (Ashley), Brandon Scott (Peter), Wes Robinson (Lane), Valorie Curry (Talia). 
I remember when the original Blair Witch Project opened in the summer of 1999 – I was 18 at the time – and it’s hard to describe how much of a game changer the film felt like. No, I wasn’t one of the idiots who actually believed the film to be real (and I didn’t know anyone who did either) – but the film felt like something wholly unique. It didn’t invent the Found Footage genre – and it wasn’t even my first exposure to the genre (that would be the Belgian film Man Bites Dog from 1993) – but it many ways it perfected it. It was a film that actually looked like it was shot by three college kids on cheap video, rather than my professionals trying to make it look like it was shot by three college kids on cheap video. It was a horror film that used no music, no blood, no special effects – but just the dark and some noises. The marketing campaign was ingenious – using the internet in a way that hadn’t really been done before. The film was certainly divisive – especially among audiences more so than critics – but there’s no denying its place in movie history. Oddly though, for a movie that was THAT big of a phenomenon it took a lot of years before the Found Footage genre really took off – into the mostly dreck we have today. It wasn’t really until Cloverfield in 2008 and Paranormal Activity (which did festival screenings in 2007, but not released until 2009) that it really took off. Part of this is probably because of the massive failure of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 – a sequel to the original film that seems like it wanted to appeal to the half of the audience who HATED the original film – as it jettisoned everything that made it unique, and ended up making a boring horror film. Oddly, it has taken the people with the rights to the franchise 16 years to give it another try.
Blair Witch plays very much like you would expect a sequel to the original film would. It takes the same basic premise – and makes everything about it bigger. Instead of three kids in the woods, there are now six – instead of actors you don’t recognize, they’ve cast actors you vaguely recognize, but cannot quite place. There is slightly more in the way of special effects going on. The noises are louder, the paranoia is amped up, there are more moments designed specially to scare you with jump screams and scares, etc. That’s the basic Hollywood formula for sequels – the same but BIGGER. The smartest thing the studio did was hire Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett to write and direct the film – their last two films together, You’re Next and The Guest, are both great (The Guest even made my top 10 list that year – and I don’t regret a thing) – and they are among the reasons to be hopeful about the future of American horror films.
However, it does seem to me that Wingard and Barrett were perhaps a little too respectful of the original film – and didn’t try hard enough to make a film that can pay tribute to the original film, while establishing itself on its own terms. I’m not saying the pair didn’t make an effective horror film – for the most part they did, the film is genuinely frightening at points. Yet, I don’t really feel like they did enough to twist the premise around. The twists they do have – the never ending night, the introduction of Body Horror that doesn’t really lead anywhere, more exploration of certain places from the original film, etc. don’t feel like enough.
This time the film has more characters this time instead of three film students, it’s the brother of Heather from the original, James – his film school friend Lisa, his best friend Peter and his girlfriend Ashely, who venture out into the Black Woods when someone finds a mysterious tape buried there. This is Lane and his girlfriend Talia – locals (who have a Confederate flag hanging in their house – much to the chagrin of Peter, who is black) – who have agreed to take the friends where they found the video. No one has ever been able to find the house from the end of the original film – but the woods are huge – and James thinks it must be close to where the video was found. The six head out into the woods – and at night, of course, weird things start happening – and then they cannot find their way out again. You know things aren’t going to end well.
The film is effectively made – and once again, does look like a film shot by a group of kids who don’t much know how to use cameras - this time, they’re all strapped to their heads, in what looks like a Blue Tooth earpieces (although this brings up another question I always have about Found Footage movies culled together from multiple sources – who the hell is supposed to have edited it all together?). The respect Wingard and Barrett has for the original is apparent – he has recreated many of the signature moments, but with the slightest of twists.
I think part of the problem with Blair Witch is that you cannot surprise people twice – and you certainly cannot surprise them twice, 17 years apart, when the style that The Blair Witch Project perfected has become fodder from a few dozen crappy horror movies over the past 7 years or so. I kept expecting this Blair Witch to go somewhere truly different and unexpected – more because of the presence of Wingard and Barrett behind the scenes, as they did the truly unexpected with the home invasion genre in You’re Next, and the Carpenter homage of The Guest. It never really does though – so what we’re left with is a highly skilled retread of a better film. It works, sure, but it should be better.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Movie Review: Snowden

Directed by: Oliver Stone.    
Written by: Kieran Fitzgerald & Oliver Stone based on the book by Anatoly Kucherena and Luke Harding.
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt  (Edward Snowden), Shailene Woodley (Lindsay Mills), Melissa Leo (Laura Poitras), Zachary Quinto (Glenn Greenwald),  Nicolas Cage (Hank Forrester),  Tom Wilkinson (Ewen MacAskill), Rhys Ifans (Corbin O'Brian), Joely Richardson  (Janine Gibson), Ben Schnetzer (Gabiriel Sol), Scott Eastwood (Trevor James),  Keith Stanfield (Patrick Haynes), Timothy Olyphant (Geneva CIA Agent), Logan Marshall-Green (Male Drone Pilot), Bhasker Patel (Marwan Al-Kirmani), Ben Chaplin (Robert Tibbo).
There is probably not a better director to dramatize Edward Snowden’s story that Oliver Stone – who in broad strokes, has made this movie several times before. In the film, Stone portrays Snowden as a young, idealistic, American patriot – a Republican who believes in his country – who slowly becomes disillusioned in it as he learns what it is up to. There is a similar arc in films like Platoon (1986), Wall Street (1987), Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and JFK (1991). Stone has also always done his best work when documenting the ills of America – the recent past that’s shapes America’s present. While there is now denying that Snowden doesn’t really come close to Stone’s best work – now 21 years in the past, as his last true masterpiece was Nixon (1995) – it’s one of Stone’s better late films, and though I would have preferred more of the daring Stone from his best years, and a little more complex portrait of Snowden (to be fair, much of the movie is fairly complex – its only in the last few scenes where he’s practically deified), Stone remains a fascinating movie – anchored by a great performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
The film flashes back and forth in time – starting during those few days made famous by Laura Poitras’ Oscar winning documentary Citizenfour, when Snowden met with Poitras and journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) in a luxury hotel in Hong Kong – revealing just how widespread government surveillance was, not just on foreign citizens, but on Americans as well. It then goes back to 2004 – when an injury forces Snowden out of the Marines, and into CIA training. Although he doesn’t have a college degree – he knows computers, and soon he is impressing his instructor, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) with his knowledge. During the next decade, he’ll be stationed in one place after another – Geneva, Japan, Maryland, Hawaii – and at each stop along the way, he becomes increasingly horrified by what the American government is doing. He sees his own systems – he thought he was creating for more benign purposes – be turned into advanced spy networks – used to basically spy on any computer or cell phone the NSA and CIA wants it to. They can even turn on your web camera and watch you live without you knowing. This mounting knowledge is intercut with scenes of Snowden and is girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) – a Liberal to his Conservative – and their relationship, which is sometimes a salve to Snowden, but whose job makes it more and more difficult to maintain.
The scenes of Snowden and Mills are easily the weakest part of the film. Stone has never been particularly good at these types of scenes – the relationship scenes have frequently been the weakest in his films, and have resulted in more than his share of one-dimensional female characters, even in his better films. Most of the time though, they are easily to ignore, because they don’t take up as much of the runtime as they do in Snowden – and that’s really what drags the film down at parts. There is only so many times when Woodley (a fine actress, stuck with an impossible role) can look at Snowden with love and concern and worry and ask him what’s wrong, before you long to simply move onto the next scene – we know he cannot and will not tell her, so what’s really the point?
Fortunately, the rest of the movies works well. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the perfect casting choice for Snowden – he does a fine impression of Snowden’s voice and mannerisms, and there are times when Stone is essentially recreating scenes from Citizenfour where the similarity in appearance is eerily accurate. If the performance were just impression though, it would be impressive, but not all that interesting. What Gordon-Levitt does though is show Snowden’s inner-workings – how he processes information, his gradual change from idealist to disillusioned. He manages the near impossible – and even delivers a great performance while doing nothing so much as looking at a computer screen – you can see him thinking, see him take in the information on that screen.
Because so much time is spent looking at those screens in Snowden, Stone’s style is a little more muted than normal here. One of the issues filmmakers have had in documenting our new, online world is like biopics about writers, there is nothing inherently cinematic about people sitting alone, doing quiet work, staring at something only they can see, lost in their own head. Even the best film made to date on the subject – David Fincher’s The Social Network, found most of its innovations while the characters were just coding. Stone, who is responsible from some of the most stylistically bold American films in history, plays it pretty straight here.
I enjoyed most of Snowden – it’s a pleasure to watch Gordon-Levitt work at this high a level – and it’s great to see a cast full of recognizable faces parade through the film – from Rhys Ifans to Nicolas Cage to Timothy Olyphant to Melissa Leo to Zachary Quinto to Tom Wilkinson to Joely Richardson to Ben Schnetzer to Keith Stanfield – the film is full of recognizable faces, many only appear for a scene or two. Yet, unlike many directors who have this all-star cast, Stone has always been able to integrate his larger casts into the narrative, so it becomes more than a game of spot the star. I do think that the scenes with Lindsay Mills hurt the flow of the movie – and pushes it above the two hour running time, that it didn’t need to be. I also think that the end of the film goes too far in terms of hero worship of Snowden – who appears as himself in the closing scenes. It’s no surprise that Stone views Snowden as a hero for his revelations, the reality (to me anyway) is more complicated than that, which I think Stone (and Snowden himself) show throughout the film before it gets to the end. Overall though, Snowden is a fine a film – not quite a return to form for Stone, but as close as we’re likely to get from him.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

TIFF Recap

Part of me has starting wondering in the last few years as TIFF approaches if I really want to do it again this year. I’ve already cut down – I used to go pretty much every day of the festival, seeing between 30-40 movies over the week – but since my first daughter was born (she’s five now), I’m down to three days – 13 movies, and part of me wonders if I even really want to do that. It’s tiring, its expensive, I don’t get to see my girls for a few days – and TIFF finds new ways to annoy you every year (this year, it was probably the “assigned” seating at venues like the Elgin and Princess of Wales, that specify that you have to sit in the Orchestra or Balcony – although no one I talked to could figure out if it was possible to choose when we bought our tickets – that pissed me off, but ultimately it worked out fine – yes, I had to sit in the Balcony at the Elgin for the first time in a decade – but I quickly found a spot I liked, and apparently no one else does). So it was with muted excitement I went to TIFF this year – and yet, it didn’t take long to remind me why I love TIFF so much. By sheer coincidence, I met someone I line I had previously met (in 2013), and he caught me up on the movies he had seen (he comes in from Edmonton every year – and sees a whole bunch). Then you sit in the theater waiting for the movie to begin - and you start to remember why you love it.

It certainly helped that for the second year in a row, my first film of the festival turned out to be a masterpiece – and easily the best film I would see over the three days. This was Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan) – a masterful examination of grief, with what will probably end up being the performance of the year by Casey Affleck – who plays a character, who for reasons we gradually learn, cuts himself off from his family and everyone around him. He is drawn back in by a tragedy – when he has been handed guardianship of his teenage nephew that he does not want. The film has a masterful flashback structure that works wonderfully, as we gradually see why Affleck’s character is the way he is. Affleck has never been better – it’s a quietly devastating performance – the way he won’t make eye contact with people (looking down and to the side) – his “biggest” moment is when he quietly says “I can’t beat it”. The rest of the cast is great to – especially Michelle Williams, fine in most of her scenes, before delivering a devastating scene. The film isn’t as messy as Lonergan’s last film – the great Margaret, whose messiness is part of its charm – but is more controlled, and hits just as hard. Lonergan has only directed three films in his career – and each are great. I just hope he works a little faster now – 5 years between films is too long.

Of course, not every movie you see at TIFF is going to be great – and some will be downright awful. The worst film I saw at TIFF this year as Never Ever (Benoit Jacquot) an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist. I generally like DeLillo, but I haven’t read that one - maybe if I had, I would have understood this film, as the novel has an internal monologue for the title character that the film lacks. It is about a young woman (Julia Roy – who also wrote the screenplay) – the body artist of the title – who falls in love with an older director (Mathieu Almaric) – who immediately leaves his longtime girlfriend/leading lady, and marries the Body Artist – living in an isolated house, that makes strange noises – before killing himself. The Artist is then either haunted by his ghost, or slowly goes insane – your choice. With no monologue, and little in the way of emotion at all, the lead character comes across as a complete blank slate – so much so that you cannot get any read on her. It doesn’t help that even when Almaric’s director is alive, they lack any chemistry together – so him haunting her makes less sense. The film really is all about its surface level – which isn’t bad – but isn’t enough to compensate for the lack of character or story or anything really of interest. A stinker to be sure.

Another disappointment, but at least an interesting one was Two Lovers and a Bear (Kim Nguyen) – an arctic set romance that is both too strange and not strange enough. The film stars Tatiana Maslany and Dane DeHaan as a pair of lovers in a small, Canadian arctic town – whose life is turned upside down when she gets accepted into school “down South” – and wants to go. First he goes crazy – so much so he has to be hospitalized – and then she goes crazy, and he’s fine – and then they set out on an insane snow mobile journey – complete with ghosts, a talking bear (voiced by Gordon Pinsent) – and an old army facility. The film either to get rid of the surreal elements altogether – make something more down to earth – or (and this preferable) – go further into surrealism, and really embrace it. It also needed to pick an ending (it has more than Return of the King). The film is not as much as a departure from the Oscar nominated, African set Rebelle (War Witch) as I suspected it might be – but certainly not a step forward either. Nguyen has undeniable talent – but Two Lovers and a Bear just doesn’t really lead anywhere.

I know that LBJ (Rob Reiner) has more than its share of flaws – it is square and old fashioned – like a forgotten prestige picture from the 1980s or 1990s, in its effort to present a largely positive portrait of the former President, it completely ignores the Vietnam War, and although the film talks a lot about Civil Rights, it doesn’t feature any major African Americans characters. Not to mention the fact that it comes on the heals of HBO’s All the Way, based on the acclaimed play, with a great central performance by Bryan Cranston. Yet, in spite of all this, Reiner’s film- which basically takes place during 1960-1963, hoping around in time, remains an entertaining biopic, with a great, larger than life performance by Woody Harrelson as the profane former President and a fine supporting cast. No, it’s not a return to form by Reiner – who hasn’t really made a great film since 1995’s The American President, but it’s as good as anything he’s done since – and for those who grew up on those 1990s biopics, a refreshing bit of nostalgia.

From a director who is new to me, but I’ll keep my eye out for in the future, was Heal the Living (Katell Quillevere) a melodrama done in a more realistic tone, in which a teenage boy gets into a car accident and is left brain dead – and the expanding waves that circle out from him when his grieving parents agree to let him become an organ donor. You probably have an idea of what this movie will entail – and while you may be right in terms of plot points, but Quillevere and her universally excellent cast play things in a more muted tone. Stylistically bold and intricately structured, Heal the Living is not a great film, but it’s good enough that I think she has one in her – and I’ll be excited to see what she does next.

Then there is (Yourself & Yours (Hong Sangsoo) by a director who I came late to – and continue to increasingly admire as I get used to his unique wavelength. At first glance, Yourself & Yours seems like minor Hong – certainly not on the level of his last film Right Now, Wrong Then – but it’s a film that has stuck with me ever since it ended. The story of a relationship that ends when rumors of his girlfriend’s drinking and possible promiscuity reaches the leading man – but are the rumors true. It certainly seems like it, and yet the movie remains ambiguous about just how many women the lead actress is playing – one, two – maybe even three. The film is about relationships and the impossibility of ever really knowing someone else. The sparsely attended screening I was at – easily the least people of any I saw this year – show that Hong may never truly breakthrough in North America – but for those who like him, he continues to fascinate.

City of Tiny Lights (Pete Travis) offered minor genre pleasures – a nice little modern day noir, set in London, in a near state of constant downpour – with Riz Ahmed stepping into the Humphrey Bogart/Robert Mitchum role as a hardened gumshoe, hired to find a missing Russian prostitute – and what starts out as a simple case, gets bigger and bigger, and has connections to a dark incident in Ahmed’s teenage years. As modern noirs go, City of Tiny Lights is quite good – stylistically, director Pete Travis overdoes the ambient slo-mo shots, but generally gets it right, and I liked the multi-cultural cast, which still seems like something modern noirs don’t address very much. My only real problem is the ending – which is WAY too happy for a noir – I get it, by then, we like this extended cast and want to see them happy, but the end is almost straight out of It’s a Wonderful Life, and hits a false note.

As music docs go Gimme Danger (Jim Jarmusch) is fairly straight forward – director Jarmusch describes it as a love letter to the Stooges, and that is precisely what it is, so for fans of Iggy Pop and the rest, it is a must see. For those who don’t know much about the Stooges (I’m one of you), this acts as a nice introduction to the people involved and their (limited) rise and fall story. Oddly though, there isn’t a whole lot of music in the film – or when there is, it’s constantly in the background. I would have liked a little bit more discussion on that. Overall though, like most music docs of its kind, fans of the band will love it, and it’s of limited interest to anyone else. But hey, it’s WAY better than Jarmusch’s Year of the Horse – about Neil Young – so that’s a huge plus.

One of the most talked about films – among critics at least – was Voyage of Time (Terrence Malick). No matter what you think of Malick’s post Tree of Life work, he remains a director cinephiles and critics have to deal with. I saw the feature length (90 minute) version, narrated by Cate Blanchatt – and overall, I have to say I quite liked it. Yes, the narration plays almost like self-parody by Malick, and is best ignored – and the Dawn of Man section near the end – is downright goofy. Yet, the film is full of eye popping visuals from beginning to end – even, or perhaps especially, when you don’t know what the hell you’re looking at. Honestly, it’s probably the least interesting film Malick has ever made – and I really think that everything after Tree of Life (and for the record, I mostly like To the Wonder and Knight of Cups) is like a footnote to that masterpiece. The word is that the 45 minute IMAX version, narrated by Brad Pitt, is a better, more straight forward version – and I believe that, as the point of Voyage of Time often seems to get lost at 90 minutes, and no matter how eye popping it is, it can grow tedious as well. Still, I will continue to say that since Malick is pretty much the only major director doing what he does, he deserves respect and attention – and less people telling him to get back to work on more narrative driven films.  

My biggest WTF film of the festival was The Untamed (Amat Escalante) – a crazed sci-fi/horror/drama by the Mexican filmmaker, inspired by the late Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession. The film is about two women – one trapped in a loveless marriage, where her husband is cheating on her with her brother, and another who sneaks off into the woods to visit some sort of orgasm giving tentacle creature in a cabin, created by the calmest mad scientist imaginable. They cross paths, more people visit the creature – who isn’t always so peaceful. The film is unendingly strange – and beside a scene where one character explains too much, the film basically got under my skin and stayed there. It is hardly a perfect film – any film with tentacle sex would be hard pressed to be perfect – but it’s certainly not one I will forget.

 On the completely opposite end of things was Loving (Jeff Nichols) a quiet, sensitive subtle film that sneaks up on you, and stays with you long after the credits role. Nichols film is about the Loving couple – who in the 1960s got married, and were eventually convicted of a crime and sentenced to leave the state of Virginia, simply because he was white and she was black – their case eventually going all the way to the Supreme Court. If this sounds like a typical, prestige drama – you’re right, it does – but the way Nichols and his cast handles it is anything but typical. Played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, the couple at the heart of the film are quiet, and   understated – he can barely express himself verbally, and she goes from being scared to having an iron will – all   the   while   she stays fairly   quiet. Not even   the eventual Supreme Court case gives the film phony dramatics – it’s basically an afterthought – and what remains is a film about this couple who loved each other deeply, and just wanted to be left alone. For Nichols, this is probably his least complex film to date – and yet, like all of his films, he treats his Southern characters with respect and dignity, and doesn’t go for easy stereotypes. To be honest, it was a little strange that through Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud and Midnight Special, Nichols had spent so much time down South, and hadn’t addressed race yet – Loving corrects that brilliantly. Two days after having seen it, this is probably the film that has stuck with me the most of any of my TIFF films aside from Manchester by the Sea. My appreciation for it keeps growing.

The central relationship in Una (Benedict Andrews) could not be more different than the one in Loving. David Harrower adapted his own play Blackbird, about a young woman (Rooney Mara) confronting the man (Ben Mendelsohn) who she had a “relationship” with 15 years earlier – when she was just 13, and he was middle aged – that ended with him in jail. He’s now rebuilt his life – and she hasn’t – and so she shows up- at his work to confront him – angry and what happened, and hurt by his abandonment of her. Harrower and Andrews work very hard to ensure that the movie isn’t just a filmed play – with mixed results. The flashbacks – with Ruby Stokes as a young Una, are mostly brilliant – but the added subplots and location moves in the present are more distracting than anything else. Still, this is mainly a performance piece, and Mara, Mendelsohn and Stokes are all brilliant. Mara continues to be one of the best, most fearless actresses around – making Una both terrified and terrifying – dangerous, and of course sympathetic. She kills in this role. Mendelsohn is equally good – mainly because he makes his character seem like kind of a nice guy – when he explains his actions, you want to believe him – even though it’s very clear he is, at least at times, manipulating the whole situation. What’s real, and what’s a lie? Una will disturb most audiences – as it should. Be prepared to talk about this one afterwards.

The same could be said for Christine (Antonio Campos) – it is a film that demands to be discussed and debated after you’ve seen it, no matter what you think of it. The film stars the wonderful Rebecca Hall as Christine Chubbuck, the Florida news reporter who killed herself on live TV in the 1970s. The biggest asset the film has is Hall herself, who plays Chubbock like a wounded, frightened animal – she is principled to be sure, but she is also delusional, and Hall captures that wonderfully. It isn’t just a showpiece for her though – Michael C. Hall is great at the dimwitted anchor – a personification of the I’m Okay, You’re Okay 1970s, and Tracy Letts continues his acting hot streak as her chauvinistic boss. From a narrative standpoint, Campos and company are able to show both the specific mental issues that contributed to Chubbuck’s suicide, as well as take a macro view of the sexism faced by women in the TV industry – which given the revelations about Fox News and Roger Ailes are still very much relevant. I was surprised by Campos – known for provocations like Afterschool and Simon Killer, who crafted a sympathetic film that is deeper than you would expect. It makes me even more curious to see Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, about the same woman, which like this premiered at Sundance this year (and got the stronger reviews). Even if that film ends up being better, this one is great.

So that’s it for me and TIFF this year. Will I be back next year? Probably, although I have to admit that my annual TIFF illness that befalls me after the festival is worse this year than ever before – I put myself through too much over those days, with little sleep and nourishment, and my body is becoming less forgiving with age. Perhaps fewer films over the same number of days next year will be the right mix. But for now, count me in.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Classic Movie Review: Raising Cain (1992)

Raising Cain (1992)
Directed by: Brian De Palma.
Written by: Brian De Palma.
Starring: John Lithgow (Carter / Cain / Dr. Nix / Josh / Margo), Lolita Davidovich (Jenny), Steven Bauer (Jack), Frances Sternhagen (Dr. Waldheim), Gregg Henry (Lt. Terri), Tom Bower (Sgt. Cally), Mel Harris (Sarah), Teri Austin (Karen), Gabrielle Carteris (Nan), Barton Heyman (Mack), Amanda Pombo (Amy), Kathleen Callan (Emma).
I am glad that I saw the documentary De Palma before ever seeing his 1992 film Raising Cain – one of the few films in the director’s filmography I had not seen before. I’m glad because without it, I may well have thought that De Palma had no idea what the hell he was doing in terms of story structure, because even by De Palma standards – where story is secondary, and often ridiculous, the story of Raising Cain is completely ridiculous, and doesn’t seem to even be thought out. In the film De Palma, the director admits as such – saying that everything with John Lithgow’s Carter and his multiple personalities was supposed to come much later in the film, which was to open with Lolita Davidovich, as Carter’s wife Jenny, and her story. The problem is that once De Palma got into the editing room, none of that was working, so he had to find a way to make it work on the fly with what he already had. This doesn’t really make the very obvious problems with Raising Cain go away – but at least it makes them understandable.
In the film, Lithgow stars as Carter, who is seemingly a perfect husband and father. He, like his father before him, is a child psychologist, and has taken time away from his practice to raise the daughter he and Jenny – an oncologist – have together. But Jenny thinks he may be a little too interested in their daughter’s development – and maybe she would actually do something about it, except for the fact that a former lover, Jack (Steven Bauer), has just re-entered her life, and she thinks that she may still be in love with him. In the audience, we already know something is wrong with Carter – as in the first scene, he excepts for him and his daughter, from another mother at the park – who has her own kid in tow – a ride that will end in murder and kidnapping, and the appearance of Cain, also played by Lithgow, a chain smoking, leather jacket wearing psychopath. This is a pattern that will repeat itself throughout the movie – with Carter/Cain kidnapping children to continue the work of their child psychologist father (also Lithgow) – who has had his own run-ins with the law.
If I’m being honest about Raising Cain, not a whole lot of what’s onscreen really works. You have to give full marks to Lithgow, who goes for broke in every moment of the film – but that really just results in him overacting in every scene. This isn’t the type of role(s) where you want subtly to be sure, but a little bit less theatricality could have helped. Lolita Davidovich doesn’t fare much better – and that’s because she really isn’t give very much to do. Her Jenny remains a blank throughout the film, supposedly torn between two men, but not seemingly to like either of them very much – or even her own daughter. Steven Bauer – who has done good work for De Palma before in Scarface (1983) is an emotionless void in Raising Cain.
If the acting and story of Raising Cain leaves plenty to be desired however, you do have to admire De Palma’s style – which as always, is go for broke, and show-offy, but not in a way that distracts like Lithgow’s performance sometimes does. The climax of the film – during a thunder storm, at a motel, with many different characters converging, done in almost entirely slow motion, is masterful for instance. It is classic De Palma – a sequence worthy of the thrillers he had stopped making for a number of years before Raising Cain (really, 1984’s Body Double was the last in this vein – and there wouldn’t be another until Femme Fatale in 2002).
Raising Cain is certainly an auteur film – in both good and bad ways. I liked the film more than I probably otherwise would have, if it were not directed by Brian De Palma. Having seen over 20 films my him now, it’s easy to pick out his stylistic hallmarks, his way with actors, his pet themes, etc. – all of which can help deepen the experience of even an admittedly silly film like Raising Cain. Where it goes a little too far, is when some try to justify Raising Cain as some sort of misunderstood masterwork – of the culmination of De Palma’s style (seriously, I have seen this film rank ridiculously high on some list of De Palma’s work). I appreciate the parts of Raising Cain that work – as few and far between as they are – and it is definitely a De Palma film. It’s just not a particularly good one.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Movie Review: Nuts!

Directed by: Penny Lane.

Nuts! is a wonderfully strange documentary about a man who, in the 1920s, thought it was a good idea to insert goat testicles into impotent men to cure them of the affliction? The man’s name was John R. Brinkley, who opened up a shop/surgeon’s office (there were less regulations then) in in the small town of Milford, Kansas, and to hear him tell it, a man came in one day complaining of impotence. When Brinkley said that he couldn’t do anything for him, the man glanced out the window to see a goat who had, uh, no problem performing sexually (for an audience no less!) and wondered if Brinkley could give him the goats nuts to help him. Brinkley sees no reason why not – and miracle of miracles, the man is cured – able to perform sexually, and even impregnate his wife (who apparently, does not have a hideous half man/half goat baby). Thus starts a very successful business for Brinkley – who helped put Milford on the map, turning it into a boom town. The goat’s nuts thing isn’t the only innovation that Brinkley comes up with – he becomes a pioneer in so many other ways – most notably in advertising, using the radio in ways others would not have thought of.

The film was directed by Penny Lane, whose previous documentary, Our Nixon, took the home movies about some of Nixon’s aides to give a different view of the man. I didn’t much care for that one – the footage itself, apparently the films big get, wasn’t particularly interesting – and Lane had to string together a narrative out of it anyway. With this one, there is nowhere near as much existing footage – although considering the time period, the amount of material Lane gets is still remarkable. She fills in the gap in an ingenious way – with animation. The film is largely based on Brinkley’s firsthand account of himself, which Lane and her team of animators bring to life. The animation gets more complex as the film moves along – stick figures, giving way to more detailed drawings (and color) as we moved from the 1920s to the 1930s.

The movie runs only 79 minutes – but it makes the most of them. We know that Brinkley is a quack from the beginning – not because the movie tells us, but because, come on – who the hell would implant goat’s nuts into people. It’s still fun to watch as the story unfolds – as various doctors associations start to form, who rally against people like Brinkley – who simply stops doing operations (he has a potion instead, that he assures his patients works just as well). He’s clearly a con man – but people love him – he most likely would have won the Governorship of Kansas in 1930s, except for some fancy maneuvering by the state’s Attorney General, who threw out every vote that didn’t spell Brinkley’s name correctly (that was 56,000 votes – he lost by 30,000). They keep shutting him down, and he keeps finding a new way to continue on going – becoming a radio sex therapist, who operated outside the jurisdiction of those who wanted to stop him (but beaming inside). Of course, it all has to come crashing down eventually – and final act of the movie is a courtroom sequence that is surprisingly moving as everything Brinkley has done comes out in sad little moments.

The film is inventive in many ways for a documentary. The story structure works well, as we discover it as it goes along, first in his words, and then through everyone else’s. The animation works, evoking an earlier time, and evolving. The archival material that Lane does get is wonderful and strange. The talking heads that normally makeup most docs are kept to a minimum – but are clearly well informed when they are there. All of this makes Nuts a fun doc from beginning to end – and one well worth seeing.

Movie Review: Chevalier

Directed by: Athina Rachel Tsangari.
Written by: Efthymis Filippou & Athina Rachel Tsangari.
Starring: Yiorgos Kendros (The Doctor), Panos Koronis (Yorgos), Vangelis Mourikis (Josef), Makis Papadimitriou (Dimitris), Yorgos Pirpassopoulos (Yannis), Sakis Rouvas (Christos).

The premise of Chevalier is so good that it takes a while for the effect of it to wear off, and you start to realize that the film really isn’t doing all that much with that premise. You keep expect Chevalier to reach the next level, but co-writer/director Athina Rachel Tsangari – the talented filmmaker behind Attenberg (2010), a weird, surreal, disturbing comedic look at a warped father/daughter relationship, which garnered attention on the festival circuit, and places her alongside the other major Greek discovery of recent years – Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, Alps, The Lobster). I didn’t think Attenberg was great, but it was good, and made me very curious to see what Tsangari does next. Chevalier isn’t as good as Attenberg – it doesn’t really work very well – but it still makes me curious to see what she’s going to do next.

The film is about six Greek men, vacationing on a yacht. They are all, one assumes, well-off – or at least better off than most of their fellow countrymen, since they are vacationing on a yacht after all. Most of the men go diving – there is one guy, they don’t trust to do so, who is so desperate to be liked by the rest, that they don’t respect him. After their latest dive, they discuss what to do next – decide against cards, one has serious problems with Trivial Pursuit for some reason, before they decide instead on a series of games which will once and for all determine which of the men is the “best at everything” – the winner of which will get the much discussed Chevalier ring. The contests go about how you would expect them to – they start out in good fun, but ends up devolving fairly quickly into petty games of one-upmanship, where the insecurities of everyone are put on display for all to see.

Male insecurity drives so much of modern culture – particularly online, where even the idea of women being allowed to bust ghosts in subject to insane, misogyny – and is talked about a great deal. Yet, rarely is it depicted in the way it is in Chevalier, where the whole thing does eventually – obviously – descend into a literal dick measuring contest. The men in the movie are petty and vain, and are all essentially assholes – and they aren’t young either, so that’s no excuse (one of them is approaching retirement – the rest are firmly in middle age, or headed that way). Yet get them together on a boat, with nothing to do, and they’ll act like lunkheaded teenage idiots.

The problem with Chevalier is though, that once Tsangari establishes that, she doesn’t really have anywhere else to do with her film. The film is deliberately kept low-key – she doesn’t ramp up either the comedy nor the drama, the characters remain archetypes instead of people, and we essentially see one scene after another of them attempting some silly competition that doesn’t really prove anything, no matter how seriously they take it (my favorite is when they have to build a shelf, that looks like it came from Ikea). There is a lot of talk about erections and virility – one guy even struts around the boat, late one night when he is finally able to get an erection, offering to fuck anyone to prove how strong he is. By the end, real and metaphorical blood will have been spilled (the real stuff, probably not in the way you expect it to).

I liked some of Chevalier – I think Tsangari remains an interesting filmmaker to watch. I liked the visual look of the film, which is basically the opposite of Richard Linklater’s Greece set Before Midnight (that Tsangari had a small role in – and was one of the producers). That film captured Greece in all its romantic, magic hour glory. Tsangari was to make everything as bland as possible – there is, after all, no romance here. I also appreciate the overall view of the men in the movie – in Hollywood, when they make films like this, the men are painted as lovable idiots, who just need the love of a good (impossibly good looking) woman to force them to grow up. In Chevalier, Tsangari knows that’s impossible – these men will always be like this. If she had made Chevalier into a half hour short, it may have been brilliant – or if she had found a way to take the film to another level as it progresses, the same thing could have been true. But she didn’t really – so the film remains one with a great premise that squanders it.

Movie Review: The Wild Life

The Wild Life
Directed by: Vincent Kesteloot & Ben Stassen.
Written by: Domonic Paris & Lee Christopher & Graham Welldon.
Starring: David Howard (Tuesday), Yuri Lowenthal (Crusoe), Marieve Herington (Kiki), Laila Berzins (Rosie), Joey Camen (Scrubby), Colin Metzger (Carmello), Sandy Fox (Epi), Jeff Doucette (Pango/Mel), Debi Tinsley (May), Doug Stone (Aynsley), Michael Sorich (Cecil), BJ Oakie (Rufus), Dennis O'Connor (Long John Silver), Kirk Thornton (Bosun), Kyle Hebert (Tom Cat).

Oh, the things we do for all children. I want my daughters to get into the movie going habit – a habit, I fear, that many in their generation may get out of. If they determine it’s not for them, then so be it, but I want them to know the joys that movies can bring. For this same reason, I am about to start showing my 5 year old classics – aided by Ty Burr’s excellent book “The Best Old Movies for Families” in the coming weeks. To get my daughter into the habit of going to the movies, I take her to see pretty much anything that is appropriate for her (it makes me more than a little bitter that we just out of a bad movie summer, that would have been amazing for a 7 year old with The Jungle Book, The BFG, Pete’s Dragon and Kubo and the Two Strings – all of which would have been just a little too much for my sensitive daughter – who made us leave The Secret Life of Pets because it had a snake). So, with as much fanfare as I could muster, we soldiered off to see The Wild Life this weekend – an animated version of Robinson Crusoe, originally made in France/Belgium, then redubbed into English for a fall release in North America (it’s not really a good sign they decided to release it after the first week of school) – hoping there would be enough parents like myself, desperate enough to take their kids to see any movie featuring talking animals.

The concept of the movie is that this is the story of Robinson Crusoe, but instead of being an autobiography of the man, it’s a story as told by Tuesday – a parrot on the island he is stranded on. There are not many animals on this island – and none that are part of a matched pair that may produce future generations, but let’s just forget about that. The villains in the film are a pair of cats – that were ratter’s on the ship Crusoe was on, who hate him because he (and his dog – trigger warning, don’t get attached to the dog) foiled their plan on a chicken dinner, and allegedly spend years seeking revenge – and eventually, some pirates, who show up and “rescue” Crusoe – although, perhaps being stranded is better than being a pirate.

The Wild Life is, to put it mildly, not a good movie. The animation isn’t bad per se, but it isn’t very memorable either – the character design doesn’t rise to the level of most modern CGI Saturday morning cartoon shows, let alone feature films. The best animated sequence is a chase one – where the gaggle of cats chases our hero animals down various slides and chutes, in and out of trees, etc. – which for a few minutes, is actually kind of thrilling. Nothing else in the film elicits that kind of joy. The writing of the movie matches the visuals – in that is workmanlike, and not a whole lot else. Crusoe is a little bit of a dim bulb – but lovably so, I suppose. Tuesday really is the main character – he narrates the story after all, and is the only one of the animals given much personality at all (although I’m not sure the desire to get off the island and see the world is much of a character trait). There are other instances that are just plain illogical – like how “no one” has ever come back from the furthermost island in what appears to be a chain that are very close together. Sure, I suppose, it could be too hard to swim – but there are two birds among these animals.

The movie really isn’t very funny or exciting. The pat message – be happy with the family you have, is predictable and dull. The characters aren’t really lovable or memorable, the humor is relatively lazy. The film fails so much to develop an emotional connection to its characters that a dog can be killed – and buried – and raise not a sniffle in me (nor any trauma in my daughter) In short, nothing in The Wild Life really passes muster. As we left the film, I asked my daughter what she thought of the film. She said she thought it was too long (for the record, its 93 minutes). Smart kid.