Friday, August 26, 2016

Classic Movie Review: Blow Out (1981)

Blow Out (1981)
Directed by: Brian De Palma.
Written by: Brian De Palma.
Starring: John Travolta (Jack Terry), Nancy Allen (Sally), John Lithgow (Burke), Dennis Franz (Manny Karp), Peter Boyden (Sam), Curt May (Donahue), John Aquino (Detective Mackey), John McMartin (Lawrence Henry).
 
Blow Out may or may not be Brian De Palma’s best film – it’s very close to it if it isn’t – but it is undoubtedly the film I would show a newcomer De Palma’s work if I want to encapsulate everything that makes De Palma such a great director when he’s working at his peak. It is one of his Hitchcock inspired thrillers, with mind boggling set pieces the master of suspense would happily have called his own, and yet it’s more than just an exercise in style, like some lesser De Palma are. The film will remind cinephiles of two other, probably more famous films – Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966), where a photographer obsessively examines photos he took in a park, where he may – or may not have – captured a murder in the background, and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), in which Gene Hackman obsessively listens, and re-listens to a conversation he has recorded for a client, trying to figure out if it contains evidence of a murder.
 
The “hero” of De Palma’s Blow Out is Jack Terry – played, in one of his very best performances by John Travolta, who works as a sound man for low rent slasher movies – the kind in which a lot of naked girls get stalked and killed, but only after having copious amounts of sex. He does all the sound effects for the films, and his director wants some new ones – including wind, and especially a new scream. Terry heads out one night into a park in Philadelphia, and as he’s recording new sounds, a car skids off the road, and crashes into a nearby creek. Terry jumps into action, dives in and rescues a girl – Sally (Nancy Allen) from the wreckage. He isn’t able to save the man who was driver – Governor McRyan, who was well on his way to becoming President. Terry is convinced that he heard – and recorded – a gunshot before the car tire blow out, and wants to prove that this wasn’t a tragic accident, but actually a murder. No one believes him – except for Sally, who he enlists to help him.
 
The opening shot of Blow Out is a virtuoso one in its own right – as a killer stalks a sorority house from the outside, before heading inside with his knife – and going full slasher attacking a woman in the shower. This sequence, which is done all in one take, from the killer’s POV, is the first of many times in the movie when De Palma will play with the audience – and introduce an element of black humor to the movie – as he reveals that what we are watching isn’t real, but is part of the movie that Terry will be working on. It’s almost as if De Palma is toying with the audience there – after some of the criticism he had received for prior films, being overly divertive or oversexed, he’s putting that out there front and center, and then pulling it away again (it also plays perfectly with the final scene of the movie – the two of them are perfect bookends to the movie).
 
This is hardly the last virtuoso piece of camerawork in the film. De Palma uses both new and old techniques throughout the movie, and what he and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond do with split screens, and steadicam (the first time De Palma used one – a year after Kubrick in The Shining) is remarkable. The finale setpiece – a chase through the streets of Philly, climaxing with a burst of fireworks and other Americana – including, of course, murder – is perhaps the best thing De Palma has ever filmed.
 
What makes Blow Out better than the other Hitchcock inspired films of De Palma though is not just the style – the style of Sisters, Obsession, Dressed to Kill, Body Double and Femme Fatale is nearly as good as it is in Blow Out – it’s in the way De Palma weaves the plot together, and because the characters in Blow Out feel real – which moves the movie beyond mere thriller into the realm of real tragedy in the end. Travolta’s Jack Terry is a man who becomes obsessed with finding the truth – and is determined that he is the only one who can actually do that. He trusts in his abilities to do that, and distrusts everyone else. Throughout the movie, as grows closer to Nancy Allen’s Sally – perhaps even grows to love her. But he also isn’t above using her for his own means – in a key sequence near the end of the movie, he sends her into a situation that could be dangerous, while he hangs back with his sound equipment from a safe distance – to “gather evidence”. For her part, Allen is just as good as Travolta, in a role that at first seems frivolous – as if perhaps she is nothing but a sex object (there are multiple characters in the movie that use her in just that way – although they are all clearly sleazy). She is a dreamer and an optimist – she loves the fact that Terry works “in the movies”, and won’t watch the news because it’s “too depressing”. All she wants is to be happy, but she allows herself to be dragged along – by one man after another, to do something she doesn’t really want to do. Even John Lithgow’s Burke – a violent man willing to do anything, including “pose” as a sexual serial killer to cover his tracks – is given slightly more, not depth really, but something more defined that most killers of this sort in movies. He is terrifying because we know he’s capable of anything. And, in a smaller role, Dennis Franz is very good as a slezeball P.I., with a camera, and his own version of the American Dream.
 
The film has one of the most cynical and nihilistic endings of any genre film that I can recall. It’s really only at the end of the film where everything snaps into focus – as to who our “hero” really is, which is tragically flawed. It’s an ending worthy of Hitchcock – who did this a few times (jn films like Vertigo or Notorious), but also completely De Palma. The finale shot of the movie is one the saddest shots in film history – a haunted man who has ensured he will remain haunted forever.
 
To say that De Palma has had a very tumultuous career would be an understatement – for every great films (like Carrie, Blow Out, Scarface, Body Double, Femme Fatale) there is a bad one (like Mission to Mars or Bonfire of the Vanities or Redacted) – and a whole hell of lot in between. But at his best, De Palma could be one of the very best filmmakers of his generation – someone who takes what came before him, and mixes the ingredients into something wholly his own. No wonder Quentin Tarantino loves him so much – he’s basically made a career out of doing the same thing.

Top 10 Movies of the 21st Century

his week, the BBC released a list of the top 100 movies since 2000, based on a survey of 177 movie critics. Of course, they didn’t ask me, but I made up a list as if they did anyway. 9 of the 10 films on my list made the top 100 – and one didn’t – although it picked up a few votes. One thing to note, as I did when I did my ballot had they asked me for my top 10 films of all time for the 2012 Sight and Sound poll, I decided to limit myself to one film per director – I could have filled the list with multiple films by Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coens, David Fincher, Michael Haneke and Wes Anderson, but wanted to cast a slightly wider net. For each film where I did consider another film by the same director, I do make note of those. And after my top 10, I give 15 more that I highly considered, before settling on my top 10.
 
As with all lists I make two notes: 1) All lists ranking movies are really rather silly and 2) I love doing it anyway, and make no apologies for it. If you don’t like my list, make your own. Everyone else on the internet does.

   
10. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)
This film made this list for a few reasons. One, I think it is a stylistic masterpiece – Ramsay finds a way to do visually what Lionel Shirver’s brilliant novel did through prose – which is to put us inside the mind of the main character – a brilliant Tilda Swinton, as the mother of a high school shooter, flashing back and forth in time to his upbringing, and the aftermath, without resorting to voiceover. The way she draws comparison between the mother and son is wonderful, and visual – and Swinton, and Ezra Miller, are bother wonderful. It’s also a story that I loved when I first read Shriver’s novel, and has absolutely terrified me since I became a parent myself – the main character is someone who never should have been a parent in the first place, and knows it – she just doesn’t have that “mom” gene. So is she at fault for her son’s actions? The movie gives us two brilliant portrayals – the mother telling the story of her demon child, to shield herself from blame, but also the one she unwitting gives of herself, which damns her – and leaves it all undecided. This was one of those films that got lost in the year end shuffle when it came out, but whose reputation keeps growing. We need another Ramsay film, pronto.
Other Films By Director Considered: None – as much I loved Movern Callar, and Samantha Morton’s performance in it, it wouldn’t really be considered for a list like this.
 
9. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

For the first decade of this century, Pixar was the most consistently great producer of mainstream American movies – from Finding Dory to The Incredibles to Ratatouille to Up to Toy Story 3. They’ve been slightly more hit or miss since then (although Inside Out is a masterpiece) – but WALL-E has been my favorite Pixar film since I first saw it in 2008, and countless viewings since have confirmed it. The first hour of Wall-E – almost wordless as Wall-E works on earth by himself is comedy on par with Chaplin, Keaton and Tati, and the “romance” between Wall-E and Eve is tender, and makes me tear up just thinking about it. The second hour is admittedly more conventional – but it’s just as entertaining. Wall-E does what Pixar does best – make mainstream entertaining that doesn’t talk down to kids, no patronize adults – but entertains them both in equal doses. The level of artistry in the film is unrivaled. It’s a masterpiece, pure and simple.
Other Films By Director Considered: I know they are by different directors, but I knew I needed a Pixar film on this list – but the only ones I really considered were Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, which I think is one of the most profound films about art and artists (and critics) ever made and Pete Docter’s Inside Out which was Pixar at its most original and daring – and emotional. Wall-E has always been my favorite – but these two make it a close call for Pixar films.
 
8. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)
The most Wes Anderson film the director has ever made, The Grand Budapest Hotel is, of course, meticulously crafted – the art direction is the best we’ve seen this century so far, with sets built on top of other sets, all brilliantly colored, and period specific – the costumes are equally specific – as is the music, the shifting aspect ratio of the cinematography and the delivery of Anderson’s dialogue. It’s also the most complex film of Anderson’s career – in terms of structure, the film is a masterpiece – a Russian nesting doll of a story, with one built on top of each other. It is as funny as anything Anderson has ever made – but also as melancholy – it is nostalgic for a time that was over before Anderson was ever born – even before his main character, played by Ralph Fiennes in one of the great performances of the century, was born – without wallowing in that nostalgia. It is a touching film in many ways – and one that sneaks up on you – becomes endlessly re-watchable, quotable, and quietly moving. Anderson has built a one of a kind career so far, and this is his best work.
Other Films by Director Considered: The Royal Tenenbaums would have easily made this list had it not been for The Grand Budapest Hotel – I also love Moonrise Kingdom and Fantastic Mr. Fox – but I don’t think either would have quite made it this high.
 
7. Cache (Michael Haneke, 2005)

As a filmmaker, Michael Haneke is perhaps the most merciless moralist in history – his characters, like all of us, sin, and he makes them pay for those films, in films that are chilly, brutal, disturbing and brilliant. You could certainly argue for any number of his films for a spot on this list – but Cache is my favorite of his – I think perhaps that’s because the film works brilliantly well as a paranoid thriller, before it becomes something so much more disturbing than that. It stars Daniel Auteil as an upper class TV intellectual, who starts to receive videotapes of his house – nothing overtly threatening, just static shots on his front door. Who is sending them? Why? He will, eventually, unravel them – as his past comes back to haunt him, and his family, in ways he never could have realized. There is a moment in the film that is more shocking than any other in a film this century – and while there’s no denying that Haneke put it in for shock value (this is the director of Funny Games after all – he appreciates shock value) – it’s also much deeper than that as well. Haneke is one of the most essential filmmakers working right now – and this is his best film.
Other Films by Director Considered: Amour would be an equally fine choice for this list – I go back and forth between the two as to which is Haneke’s best and The White Ribbon is haunting as well, and would be a good choice. Isabelle Huppert’s performance in The Piano Teacher would likely make my list of the greatest performance of the century – if not quite the best movie list.
 
6. Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
Inglorious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino’s best film – a film that, like all of his films, is in love with his dialogue – but unlike the rest of his films, actually makes that dialogue – that language – a theme of the film. Told in chapters, Inglorious Basterds is an alternate history about WWII, in which Hitler gets vengeance struck down upon him. But that’s only the hook – the real theme of the movie is how all of these characters, speaking multuiple languages, communicate with each other – or don’t as the case may be – cultural differences being giveaways. Tarantino has built his career – his late career anyway – on revenge films, and Inglorious Basterds is the best distillation of that. It is also one of the most entertaining films you will ever see – with great work by Christoph Waltz as a Nazi, not a true believer, but someone who will do whatever to get him ahead, Melanie Laurent as a Jewish woman, determined to get revenge, Brad Pitt as the head of a Dirty Dozen like groups of Jewish American soldiers looking for revenge, Michael Fassbender as a British spy, etc. I have never not had a lot of fun at a Tarantino film – never not thought they were extremely entertaining. But it was here that he started to go deeper – taking things beyond movies (along with, of course, movies) and producing something more meaningful than ever before.
Other Films By Director Considered: As much as I love Kill Bill, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight (hell, even Death Proof), I’m not sure any would reach the top 10 other than Basterds – top 25, sure, not top 10.
 
5. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)

I’m not sure there is another filmmaker who airs their insecurities and neurosis’ quite the same way as Charlie Kaufman does – literally in Adaptation, where he is a character, and more figuratively in films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Anomalisa and this – his best film. Like Anomalisa, I think Synechdoche, New York is a portrait of what Kaufman feels he could become – obsessed with his own work to the point where he ends up achieving nothing, and shut out from the world and everyone around him. In the film, Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a brilliant performance as a playwright, who gets a genius grant, and spends the rest of his life writing and rehearsing the play, without ever actually staging it – he just keeps writing the scenes from his own life into the play – his personal relationships crumble, and the glimpses we see of the outside world make it clear it’s all going to shit, but he’s lost in his own world, too obsessed with analyzing his life, that he never lives it. The massive cast is all great – especially Samantha Morton, and the film is endlessly fascinating, funny, entertaining, and just downright brilliant.
Other Films By Director Considered: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would easily be in my top 10 had it not for Synecdoche – and yes I know, Michel Gondry directed it, but it’s as much Kaufman’s film as Gondry, so having two with his stamp in the top 10 felt like the same thing as having two Wes Anderson’s – it is a masterwork though.
 
4. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
David Fincher’s Zodiac is many things. It is a first rate crime drama and police procedural, where multiple cops and reporters investigate the infamous Zodiac killings, piecing together clues and following leads to dangerous places. It is also kind of corrective to previous serial killer movies – like Fincher’s own Seven – which ends with cathartic violence, whereas in Zodiac, it is all frontloaded and seemingly random – the film is kind of like The Godfather Part II to Seven’s The Godfather. It is also a tale of obsession – as Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Greysmith gives up everything else in his life – his family replaced around the dinner table my boxes and stacks of paper – all to find an answer that convinces no one but himself. Like many of Fincher’s films, the film is about the passage of time – and death waiting for us. It is also Fincher’s best film technically – brilliantly shot, edited, scored, etc. Fincher has become one of the best directors in the world – but this is his masterpiece.  
Other Films by Director Considered: The Social Network is one of the most entertaining, endlessly re-watchable films of the century, and may have cracked the top 10 if not for Zodiac and Gone Girl keeps growing in my mind – an absolutely brilliant film.
 
3. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is one of the mysterious, haunting and ambigious films of the century so far. It follows Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell – an alcoholic, troublemaker returning from WWII, and getting into trouble everywhere he goes – until he meets up with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s L. Ron Hubbard inspired Lancaster Dodd, and the two form a strange, symbiotic relationship. Dodd is intellect and calm, Quell is all raging id – but who the hell is teaching who, and why do they continue to drawn to each other, when they are so different. The film, brilliantly shot on 70MM, is a history of spirtal movements in American history (as Kent Jones brilliantly described in his Film Comment piece on the film – perhaps the best film criticism of the century so far) – but it comes down to these two men, two sides of the same coin, inscrutable, maddening, sexual, violent men. The end of the film is very much like the end of There Will Be Blood – but with no physical violence, and a scene tacked on at the end, that changes the meaning. The Master haunts me like few other films in history.
Other Films By Director Considered: I go back and forth as to what is Anderson’s best film - There Will Be Blood or The Master (in 2012, I had There Will Be Blood on my top 10 of all-time list) – I ended with The Master, because I think it accomplishes something similar without the bombast – and is the two handed, There Will Be Blood never quite became. And even if Anderson never made either film, both Punch-Drunk Love and Inherent Vice would be in consideration, for at least the top 25.
 
2. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2013)
There are not a lot of movies about failure – probably in part, because the people who get to make movies are successful artists, so making movies about unsuccessful ones can feel like punching down (as the worst moments in, say, Birdman do). It’s to their credit that the Coen Brothers – two of the best artists the film industry has ever produced – were able to make Inside Llewyn Davis, and make it is as well as they do. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is not a talentless folk singer/songwriter – he is not the musical version of Barton Fink – but rather he’s just not talented enough (the movie gives us a glimpse of true genius at the end). The movie is about Llewyn’s journey of discovery to that – and all the minor heartbreaks along the way, that ends with him saying farewell. It also isn’t afraid to make him into a selfish asshole, which he clearly is. Isaac gives what is probably my favorite performance of the century so far – you like Llewyn despite yourself, and he is a very good singer, whose vocals haunt the soundtrack, and the viewer after the film ends (the audience hears the pain in those songs, more than the people in the movie, because we’re right there with Llewyn every step of the way). The line “I don’t see any money in this” is one of the most heartbreaking in all of film history. The film itself is also meticulously crafted – of course – with arguably the best cinematography of any Coen film. The film just keeps growing in my mind – and every time I see it, I love it even more. Ask me again in 10 years and maybe it will have moved up this list.
 
Other Films By Director Considered: No Country for Old Men would easily be a top 10, if I didn’t think Llewyn Davis was just a little bit better - and A Serious Man, could well be. The Man Who Wasn’t There is a personal favorite, I wish more people loved as much as I do.
 
1. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)

I saw Mulholland Dr. more times in the theater than any other – and I’ve continually revisited the film in the past 15 years, finding new things every time – and just being swept up in Lynch’s dream world that slowly becomes a nightmare all over again. The film has been endlessly discussed and debated – with internet forums out there convinced they have “solved” the film. Like everyone, I have my own theories (yes, it’s pretty much the widely accepted one) – but I think “solving” Mulholland Dr. is beside the point – Lynch makes films that are deeper than that. Mulholland Dr. is about Hollywood, the spell it holds, the romantic image it gives itself – and we buy into – until we see the reality underneath. It’s also a lot more than that. The film is one of the best acted films ever – Naomi Watts is brilliant, as is Laura Harring, and everyone else. What I love most about Mulholland Dr. is the spell it weaves over me every time I see it. Movies can be our collective dreams at their best – I love that feeling – and I get it from Mulholland Dr. more than any other film I have ever seen. It’s Lynch’s masterpiece – and the best film I have seen this century so far. Easily.
Other Films by Director Considered: Lynch has only made one other film since 2000 – and as much as I love Inland Empire (it’s on my top 10 of 2006), I have to admit, that it probably would not have factored into a list like this.
 
 
Runners-Up:
 
Had it been a top 25 list, these are the films, in roughly 11-25 order, that I would have included: The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, 2011) is the film I cannot believe isn’t in my top 10, but here we are – Malick’s mixture of the epic and the intimate is mind boggling, and even if he’s slipped since then, that hasn’t dimmed the brilliance of this film. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013) is like if Malick directed a Cronenberg screenplay – with a brilliant performance by Amy Seimetz. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002) is among Lee’s very best films, and the best portrait of post 9/11 New York – a brilliantly acted, made, and terribly sad film (When the Levees Broke was also considered for Lee). The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006) is my favorite filmmakers best film since 2000 – and one of the most entertaining films of the century so far (The Wolf of Wall Street was also considered). A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005) is Cronenberg’s best since Crash, a brilliant Western in crime drama disguise, about a man running from his past – and an incisive portrait of marriage. Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005) ranks in my top 3 or 4 Spielberg films of all time – and his absolute darkest and most haunting (although if Munich weren’t here – A.I. would be – another masterpiece). Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang Dong, 2007) is a film I loved since I saw it at TIFF in 2007 – and whose reputation continues to grow since it got the Criterion treatment (especially since it didn’t really get a commercial release in North America) – an absolute brilliant examination of grief and belief (Lee’s follow-up, Poetry, is almost as good). Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001) is arguably Miyazaki’s best film, but inarguably a masterwork – and one of the best animated films ever made. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015) is the most romantic – and sexually charged – film of the century so far, and Haynes best (although both Far From Heaven and I’m Not There would also be here had this one not been). Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000) Yang’s final film is this intimate, three hour masterpiece about a middle class Taipei family that I took way too long to catch with (and reminds me I need to see his A Brighter Summer Day, newly minted by Criterion). In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2001) is the only film that makes me question my assertion about Carol being the most romantic of the century – Wong’s beautiful, stylistic film about two people whose spouses are having an affair with each other, and fall in love as a result. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) is Linklater’s best film – a staggering achievement, hugely ambitious, and although you can dismiss it as a gimmick if you want, you’d be wrong. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011) is Lonergan’s big, long, messy, brilliant portrait of a young woman, and everyone around him – a crime the way it was treated, but it’s finally gotten the reception it deserved. Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011) is pure movie style, and just slightly deeper than that, and I love every second of it – even if for the most part, Refn is very hit or miss with me. Last Days (Gus Van Sant, 2005) is a film that has haunted me for 11 years now, and never leaves my mind for long – the best of Van Sant’s death trilogy (although Elephant would be here if this wasn’t). I could go on, but 25 is already pushing it.
 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Movie Review: Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water
Directed by: David Mackenzie.
Written by: Taylor Sheridan.
Starring: Chris Pine (Toby Howard), Ben Foster (Tanner Howard), Jeff Bridges (Marcus Hamilton), Gil Birmingham (Alberto Parker), Katy Mixon (Jenny Ann), Dale Dickey (Elsie), Christopher W. Garcia (Randy Howard), Kevin Rankin (Billy Rayburn), Melanie Papalia (Emily).
 
Watching David Mackenzie’s excellent Hell or High Water – easily one of the best films of the year so far – you cannot help but think back to the Coen Brothers No Country for Old Men. Both are crime dramas about greed, in which regular people get involved in something that spirals out of control into inevitable violence. The Coens film is timeless – it was set in 1980, but really could have been set in any Post WWII time in America, as it is ultimately about the way everything has changed, and how you can longer tell the good guys from the bad guys, and how everything has gotten more morally muddied. Hell or High Water has more modest – and timely – ambitions than No Country for Old Men. It is a crime thriller for now – where good people try to do the right thing, and are robbed blind anyway – not by criminals with masks, but by the banks, who will do any and everything they can to make money – people be damned – and do so with the protection of the government. The film centers on two brothers who set out to do the right thing, by doing the wrong thing – and the consequences it brings down on them, and everyone around them.
 
The film stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Toby and Tanner Howard – two Texas brothers, who really do seem like brothers, despite how different they are. Toby has tried to do the right thing his whole life – he has gotten married, had a couple of son, but that ended in divorce. He has no job, no money and had to spend his time taking care of his dying mother – who just died, and left him everything, including a good sized ranch. But, of course, she owes money to the bank on it – and they’re about to swoop in a take it from him. His brother Tanner has spent years in prison, and never really got a foothold his life – he killed their drunken, abusive father in a “hunting accident” and has been the black sheep of the family ever since. The pair of them team up to rob a series of Texas Midlands banks – the same ones foreclosing on their ranch – but are smart about it. They don’t want the money in the safe, they don’t want $100 bills, and if possible, they want to rob them when very few people are around. The crimes are so small, the FBI doesn’t care. It falls to the Texas Rangers – specifically Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) – just a few weeks shy of retirement – and his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) – who bicker like an old married couple.
 
So yes, this is another crime drama about masculinity, and I think it’s safe to say the film doesn’t come close to passing the Bechdel Test – the only female characters of note of Toby’s tired ex-wife, who doesn’t hate him as much as she’s tired of being poor, and him not helping, a bank teller (Dale Dickey) who gives more lip than she probably should to two masked men with guns, and a sensitive waitress (Melanie Papalia), who first takes pity on Toby because of how sad he seems, and then turns fiery when confronted later by Hamilton – who says the large tip he gave her is “evidence”. If the movie seems to be saying anything about Texas women at all, it’s not to piss off them off.
 
You could well argue that Hell or High Water doesn’t do anything particularly new or groundbreaking – and you wouldn’t be wrong per se. What the film really is though, is a perfectly executed genre piece. The screenplay is by Taylor Sheridan – who wrote last year’s excellent Sicario (this is even better than that one), and what he’s done with the screenplay is create two mismatched male duos – and then makes us like all four characters as individuals and as part of those pairs, before introducing the inevitable violence that the climax of the movie demands. So often in movies, dozens of people are killed, and you don’t feel a thing in the audience – all it is kinetic movement and activity on the screen, that doesn’t mean anything. The modern blockbuster has increasingly become one where whole buildings or cities are destroyed – likely costing thousands of people their lives, and in the audience we’re not supposed to think about it – just sit back and be entertained. Far fewer people die in Hell or High Water – but every single one of those deaths hurt, and it’s not because we know the characters who do (we don’t in a couple of cases), but because of the way Mackenzie directs, and Sheridan writes. The deaths in Hell or High Water hurt because they feel real.
 
None of the effect the movie has would be possible without the four great central performances in the film. Chris Pine has never been better than he is here – he is an actor who often isn’t called on to do much expect coast on his movie star looks and charm – something he, admittedly does quite well – but here, with a mustache and stubble, and a fine, unexaggerated Texas drawl, he makes Toby into a sad, tragic figure – he’s a good guy pushed into something bad, but he never deludes himself into believing what he is doing is the right thing – just that it’s the only thing he can do for his kids – to break them of the disease of poverty that he hasn’t been able to break any other way. With Tanner, Ben Foster gets to add another “crazy” character to his resume – I really do think Foster wants nothing less than to become the Christopher Walken of his generation – but Tanner’s crazy is more grounded in reality than most of Foster’s ne’er do wells. Like Toby, he doesn’t really suffer under the delusion that they’re doing a good thing – he just doesn’t give a shit anymore. He’s along the ride mostly just because he was honored to be asked by his brother – the only family he’s got, and perhaps the only person who doesn’t hate him. Yes, Foster can go over-the-top in many of his roles – but he never quite does that here – making his performance all the stronger. Marcus Hamilton is the type of role you hire Jeff Bridges for – because even if Bridges decided to phone it in, you’d still get a hell of performance out of him. He doesn’t do that here thankfully – and his work ranks alongside the best work he’s done. It’s a sneaky performance, because of how comedic much of it is – he delights in teasing Alberto about his Indian and Mexican heritage – and doesn’t seem to be taking too much too seriously. But he’s good at his job, and knows exactly what he is doing – nothing gets by him. We immediately like him, and are at ease with him – but he has a few scenes late in the film where that inner steal comes out. Gil Birmingham will get the least amount of praise for his work as Alberto of the four leads – it is, in some ways, a quieter performance than the rest – one that calls on him to lovingly roll his eyes at all the insults that come his way. But he builds a complete character here – and although we see his fate coming, it hits, harder than anything else in the film.
 
This summer has not been a good one at the movies – especially not if you want mainstream, adult entertainment. The best of the big summer movies have been for families – Finding Dory, The BFG, Pete’s Dragon (even if families didn’t go see two of those – stupid families). Studios either don’t think adults go to the movies, or think we have the mentality of teenagers, who just want to see things blow up real good, with lots of fast editing and action, and a lot of CGI crap floating around. Perhaps then, I – and others – are slightly overrating Hell or High Water – I will admit it, it is certainly possible that after the dull summer movie slate we’ve endured that it’s possible. That when we look back in a few years – or even months – at Hell or High Water, what I’ll see is just a really good genre film, and not the great film I think it is. It’s possible, of course, but I don’t think so. Yes, it’s easier to see the contrast between those other films and Hell or High Water – but there is something special to this film. Sometimes a perfectly executed genre film is just that – and sometimes it’s a little bit more. I think Hell or High Water is that little bit more.

Movie Review: Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings
Directed by: Travis Knight.
Written by: Marc Haimes and Chris Butler and Shannon Tindle.
Starring: Charlize Theron (Monkey), Art Parkinson (Kubo), Ralph Fiennes (Moon King), George Takei (Hosato), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Hashi), Brenda Vaccaro (Kameyo), Rooney Mara (The Sisters), Matthew McConaughey (Beetle), Meyrick Murphy (Mari), Minae Noji (Minae), Alpha Takahashi (Aiko), Laura Miro (Miho), Ken Takemoto (Ken).
 
With Kubo and the Two Strings, animation company Laika inches closer to the truly great film that I am confident they are going to make. The companies’ fourth film – following Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls – is easily the most visually stunning film yet from the studio who mixes stop motion animation with computer effects. The film really is a technical wonder all the way around – the visuals are breathtaking, yes, but the music and sound work is just as good. I also appreciated how the film treats its young audience with respect – it doesn’t talk down to them, doesn’t soft peddle the harsher moments of the film, and isn’t afraid to scare them – just a little, anyway. The film would have been too much for my sensitive 5 year old – but give it a year, and she’d be blown away by it. The only slightly disappointing thing about the film is that it gets less daring as it goes along – its twists are fairly obvious from the outset, and what starts as a beautiful film about mourning and loss, turns into a fairly standard adventure film. Still, when a film gives you this much to like about it, it feels kind of strange to complain.
 
The story is about a young boy named Kubo – who lives with his sickly mother in a cave, and has to care for her. Every day, he ventures into the city with his three stringed guitar like instrument (you read that right, not quite sure why the movie is called Kudo and the Two Strings – I assume it’s a metaphor) and dazzles the assembled audience with a street performance that involves music, storytelling, and origami that comes to life. But he always has to be back at the cave by sundown – his mother tell him this is because her father, Kubo’s grandfather, who stole his eye, and killed Kubo’s father can see him at night if he’s not protected – and he will come to steal his other eye. So, of course, you know what will happen – Kubo will be caught out one nights, and his mother’s twin sisters come looking for him. He barely escapes – thanks to his mother – and ends up going on a quest with Monkey, his protector, and eventually a samurai who is also a giant Beetle, who cannot remember how he got there. He needs to find the three pieces of magical armor that will be the only thing that can protect him from his grandfather.
 
From their first film, Laika has made visually stunning movies. Coraline is one of the few animated film that really utilized 3-D remarkably well, although Kubo comes close in that regard (if I had one complaint about the 3-D it’s just that Kubo is a fairly dark film visually to begin with – adding dark lens in front of that makes it, on occasion, too dark). Kubo and the Two Strings is, in every other respect, the most advanced film Laika has made visually – with barely a frame going by without something stunning to look at. An early highlight is the musical sequences, where the origami comes to life in inventive ways. There are also a more than a few moments that will likely cause a few bad dreams for the younger viewers – when the big bad guy finally does make an appearance, he takes the form of a giant centipede, which is creepy – but far creepier are the pair of twin sisters, in masks no less, who are extremely spooky. The action sequences in the film – especially those involving water, as a memorable fight sequence does, are among the best of their kind in recent memory.
 
Kubo and the Two Strings has a fairly deep message as well – one that the film pitches at a younger audience, without talking down to them. This is most deeply felt in the opening act of the film – as Kubo deals with his sick mother and the fact he doesn’t even remember his now dead father. The film tries to come back around to this message in the end – and it mainly works, but also feels a little bit like an afterthought, after the action is over.
 
Kubo and the Two Strings joins the like of Zootopia, Finding Dory and April and the Wonderful World (among others), in what has already been a strong year in animation – even if I don’t think any of the films are quite great, they are all quite good. Kubo and the Two Strings is probably too much for little kids – especially if, like my daughter, they are easily scared – but brave kids will love it – and their parents will get far more out of it than they do most of the time they are stuck taking their kids to the movies.

Movie Review: The Measure of a Man

The Measure of a Man
Directed by: Stéphane Brizé.
Written by: Stéphane Brizé & Olivier Gorce.
Starring: Vincent Lindon (Thierry Taugourdeau), Yves Ory (Conseiller Pôle employ), Karine de Mirbeck (La femme de Thierry), Mathieu Schaller (Le fils de Thierry), Xavier Mathieu (Le collègue syndicaliste), Noel Mairot (Le professeur de danse), Catherine Saint-Bonnet (La banquière).
 
French actor Vincent Lindon has one of those faces that you can tell just by looking at him has seen some stuff. He’s in his late 50s, but looks perhaps a little bit older in The Measure of a Man, Stephane Brize’s film about a factory work who is let go when his factory closes, and at the tail end of his working years, has to try and find a new job. He has a wife, a disabled son, an apartment and lots of bills. He didn’t expect to be in this position – certainly doesn’t deserve to be, but is here anyway. The film opens with him angry at an employment agency bureaucrat. Lindon’s Thierry wants to know why the agency sent him for a 4 month training course on operating a crane, when no employers will hire him since he’s never worked in construction before – and almost every other person in his class was in the same boat. The bureaucrat tries to explain, and backpedal and apologize – before he says that Thierry should think about another course in warehouse management and forklift operation. As he points out to Thierry, his agency just offers the courses – and they do the best they can – but ultimately employers do the hiring.
 
The first half of The Measure of a Man will see Thierry take many of these meetings – or meetings like them. Sitting down for a job interview via Skype for instance, where he has to listen to someone criticize his resume, and then tell him he has almost no chance to land the job. Or going to some sort of job search workshop, to hear the entire class criticize everything he says and does in a mock interview. Or trying to get a bank loan, just to tithe the family over. Or negotiating the sale of his trailer – the family’s vacation spot – from a man trying to take advantage. When you’re broke and have no money, looks down on you, criticizes you, but then also tells you to keep smiling and be positive. That’s what employers want to see.
 
The second half of the movie is even better than the first. The film never does show us how Vincent gets a new job – it just cuts to him working it. He is hired as a security guard in what appears to be a Wal-Mart like store. His job is to watch both the customers, to see if they’re stealing, and the cashiers, to see if they’re doing the same. As he tells a new trainee, the management wants more employee turnover – new employees are cheaper than ones who have been there longer, and earned raises, see – so if they can find a reason to get rid of them they will. Vincent attends the same number of meetings in the second half as he does in the first – but more often than not now, he’s quiet, as someone else is being looking down on and yelled at – the teenager who steals a phone charger – but has the money to pay – an old man who steals some food, and doesn’t, which means the police will become involved. And later, a couple of cashiers caught hoarding coupons or swiping their own loyalty cards. Outside of work, he’s getting his life back on track – but has he sold his soul to do it?
 
Only an actor like Lindon could pull off a roll like Thierry in the film. He (justly) won the Best Actor Prize at Cannes in 2015 for his work in the film, which is brilliant mostly in what he doesn’t do. It’s clear throughout the film that he is frustrated, angry, disappointed, etc. – and yet he can never really show those emotions. That’s not what potential employers want to see, so he sits there and takes all the crap he has shoveled on him. Then, later, he sits there and watches how others have that same crap shoveled on them. The film often films Lindon off center – has him on the edges of the frame, as if he’s disconnected from what’s happening – or how, even in the story of his own life, he’s almost cut out. Lindon finds the perfect expression at every moment.
 
If the movie were as good as Lindon’s performance, it would be among the best of the year. It isn’t really. It’s a good film – but the style of it calls to mind the Dardennes, in particular, their own recent unemployment film – Two Days, One Night, which had a performance by Marion Cotillard even better than Lindon’s here, and is a better, deeper film all around – it really did notice the people around the lead character, and also doesn’t mess up the end, as The Measure of a Man does. In Two Days, One Night, she accepts what happens, because she knows she needs the job – even though she knows that will mean putting people, who voted for her, out of a job – a morally ambiguous move, but a realistic one. The Measure of a Man wants to have a righteous end that makes us feel good for Thierry – that he’s standing up and taking back his soul. However, given what we’ve seen him go through, it hits a false note.
 
Overall though, The Measure of a Man is a fine film – with a brilliant lead performance by Lindon. It is well made, well observed – and while it may offer little new, it does what it does quite well.

Movie Review: Disorder

Disorder
Directed by: Alice Winocour.
Written by: Alice Winocour and Jean-Stéphane Bron and Robin Campillo and Vincent Poymiro.
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts (Vincent), Diane Kruger (Jessie), Paul Hamy (Denis), Zaïd Errougui-Demonsant (Ali), Percy Kemp (Imad Whalid), Victor Pontecorvo (Tom), Michaël Dauber (Kevin), Franck Torrecillas (Franck), Chems Eddine (Tarik).
 
Matthias Schoenaerts has quickly become one of the most interesting actors in the world. His work in films like Bullhead, Rust & Bone, The Drop and A Bigger Splash is all top notch, as he plays men in each who bulking physical frame makes us see him one way, but throughout the performance we come to see him another. He’s a kinder, gentler Tom Hardy (which is probably why his work in The Drop, opposite Hardy, worked so well – he’s a flip side of the same coin). Schoenaerts’ work in Disorder is equally as good – and the direction by Alice Winocour is top notch. Yet, there is something about the film that holds it back from being all that good – in fact, it’s more than a little dull. Schoenaerts is in nearly every frame of the movie – the film is told from his unreliable point-of-view, and both he and Winocour do an excellent job of letting us inside his characters head. The problem may just be it’s not a very interesting place to be – and since Winocour pretty much dispenses with regular plotting – it’s a genre film, and she doesn’t much care for the plotting of that, it’s makes the film rather shallow.
 
The film is about Vincent (Schoenaerts), a soldier just returned from Afghanistan, and desperately wants to go right back. But he has PTSD and hearing loss, and he may never be allowed to. In the meantime, he is working for an army buddy who has set up some security work for them. The first job is working a party for the wealthy Imad Whalid (Percy Kemp) – a wealthy man, with a lot of contacts in the government – the very people who sent Vincent to war in the first place. As becomes increasingly clear throughout the movie, Vincent cannot trust his own perception of reality. He senses a threat around every corner – every car he sees in the rearview mirror is following him, every person looking at him is suspect. This becomes clear during the party – and then starts to spiral out of control a little bit afterwards – when Whalid is called away on business, and hires Vincent to stay on for a few days to guard his wife, Jessie (Diane Kruger) and their young son. Is Vincent really perceptive or is he just paranoid? Or is it both?
 
The highlight of the movie is the party sequence, which is brilliantly directed by Winocour and played by Schoenaerts, as he becomes increasingly frazzled as everything progresses. This is where the film is at its best, because it’s here that Winocour places us inside Vincent’s head – the throbbing bass of the music, the casual cruelty of the guests, who either look right through him or ask him for ice, how Vincent starts building an alternate, delusion relationship with Jessie, who he sees crying, and thinks there is a connection there. This delusion, like Vincent’s paranoia, will continue to build in the third act, which becomes a fairly standard thriller.
 
It’s the third act, that for me, was a real let down. Having spent time with Vincent, and building his paranoia and delusions throughout the party, everything that follows pretty much takes the most straightforward and predictable path towards revolution. On one level, I understand that Winocour isn’t really interested in the plot – she’s far more interested in Vincent, and the inner workings of his brain. The best scenes in the second half of the movie are the quietest – the way Vincent smiles when Jessie suggests he live out on the wilderness of Canada, because he’d fit there for instance. That’s a happy moment for him, because it’s the first time he senses that she actually likes him – and thinks about him (which, just feeds his delusion even more). It’s a little more heartbreaking later in the film when he has that delusion popped – watching his friends interact with Jessie, and overhearing what she asks him “What is wrong with Vincent?”. More moments like this in the second half would have made the film stronger.
 
Instead, what we get in the film’s second half is a fairly standard home invasion thriller – except the bad guys have no real motivation – I’m sure they do, but since Vincent doesn’t understand what it is, neither do the audience – that devolves into a lot of gun and knife fights. To be fair, Winocour directs these well – but they are also a little mechanical. She is clearly more interested in Vincent than the plot he’s involved in – which means she probably should have spent less time on that plot. As it stands, Disorder makes me extremely curious as to what she is going to do next as a director, but a little disappointed in what she produced this time.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Classic Movie Review: Ms. 45 (1981)

Ms. 45 (1981)
Directed by: Abel Ferrara.
Written by: Nicholas St. John.
Starring: Zoë Lund (Thana), Albert Sinkys (Albert), Darlene Stuto (Laurie), Helen McGara (Carol), Nike Zachmanoglou (Pamela), Abel Ferrara (First Rapist), Peter Yellen (The Burglar), Editta Sherman (Mrs. Nasone), Vincent Gruppi (Heckler on Corner), S. Edward Singer (The Photographer), James Albanese (Nick).
 
Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981) has been described as a feminist exploitation film, and while that would seem to be an oxymoron, it’s actually a very apt description of the film. It has all the elements of what was already a well-established sub-genre in 1981 – the rape/revenge film, where at first the female lead is raped and abused by one or more men, and then he slowly enacts her vengeance on it. This is probably exemplified by films like I Spit on Your Grave (1980) – and others of its kind. Those films seem to want to have their cake in eat and too – they linger over the rapes, taking in every inch of skin imaginable, even eroticizing them – and then it goes onto punish the perpetrators, just so that you in the audience knows the filmmakers are on the “right side” of things. The films, at worst, encourage the rapes, and then encourage the violence right after. You can defend those films if you want – some consider I Spit on Your Grave to be a genre masterwork – but the Rape/Revenge genre has always been a troublesome one for me – unless the filmmaker shows that they have some differing take on it – like say Gaspar Noe with Irreversible (2002), which takes place going backwards in time, so that the revenge comes before the rape, and everything in the film is seen as clearly being horrific.
 
Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 is perhaps a little bit more problematic than that film – which has issues of its own – but I do think it’s also clearly wrestling with those issues, not merely exploiting them. The film stars the multi-talented Zoe Lund as Thana – a beautiful young, mute woman who works for a piggish fashion designer. One day on the way home from work, she is attacked in an alley and raped. She stumbles home in shock, only to arrive there, and find a burglar has broken into her apartment, who then proceeds to rape her as well. She is able to get the upper hand on him – bashing his skull in with an apple statue (a too-on-the-nose symbol). She then proceeds to chop the man up, and start leaving his body parts around New York in bags. The burglar had a .45 on him – which she takes, and starts to exact revenge on the men around her. It starts with a man whose actions are admittedly creepy, and possibly threatening – spreads to a violent pimp, and some (mixed race) street gang members – but will eventually include nearly every man she comes in contact with – some who are clearly sexist pigs, although perhaps nothing more than that (to be clear, being a sexist pig is bad – but it doesn’t deserve a death sentence) – and some who we have no information about at all to decide whether or not they even “kind of” deserve what they get.
 
Ferrara is an interesting director – and one who has always seemed to float between B-movie exploitation, and the art house circuit, never quite fitting in anywhere. If you look at the plot summary of many of his movies – including Ms. 45, but also his best film, Bad Lieutenant (1992), in which Harvey Keitel plays a perverted cop investigating the rape of a nun (which was, by the way, co-written by Lund, the star of Ms. 45), they sound very much like sexy exploitation films. Yet few films are less erotic than Bad Lieutenant – or the most recent of his films that I have seen – last year’s Welcome to New York, where Gerard Depardieu plays a hulking, sweating French diplomat in New York, who starts out having an orgy, before he progresses to raping a hotel maid. In Ms. 45, Ferrara doesn’t linger over the rape scenes either – in I Spit on Your Grave for instance, the first hour of the film is pretty much one rape scene after another, until she starts getting her revenge in the last 30 minutes. In Ms. 45, the rape part is over fairly quickly – maybe 10 minutes in total (and most of that isn’t the actual rapes) – and by having two, completely unconnected rapes happen to the same woman in such rapid succession, Ferrara is, I think, pointing out the absurdity of this plot convention in the first place.
 
Lund is great as Thana – the rape victim turned avenging angel – she makes the most of all of close-ups Ferrara gives her, which is really our only insight into her thought process, as she never says a word throughout the film (well, until the last moment). Lund’s face moves from mute terror, to icy cold fury throughout the film – and seemingly every time she heads out into the streets to kill, she gets more and more dressed up – attracting worse and worse characters. In the show-stopping finale – a massacre at a costume party – she dresses up as a nun, and takes aim indiscriminately at any man in her sites.
 
What are we to make of Ms. 45? Thana really isn’t a vigilante killer, since she ends up targeting men as a gender, not just criminals. This isn’t really a female led version of Death Wish for instance. Why does Ferrara cast himself as the first person who rapes Thana? Should we continue to feel sympathy for Thana – in the opening, surely, but what about when she goes on her rampages? Are men, and a society that is run by them, responsible for her actions – or is it all on her? Does the film exploit Lund’s undeniable sexuality – she was 19 when the movie was filmed, and drop dead gorgeous, the camera never tires of looking at her – or does it use it to make a larger point about how women are perceived?
 
How about all of the above? As with nearly all of Ferrara’s films, the film isn’t as clear cut as it appears on the surface – the sexual politics on the surface of the film are blunt, but are deeper than they normally would be in other films. A sequence that has Thana follow home a young couple, when the man picks up his girlfriend at his job and walks her home, clearly casts Thana as the villain. This man seems perfectly nice – and even if he isn’t, we – and Thana – have no way of knowing that. We’re actively rooting against her at that point.
 
Ms. 45 doesn’t make anything easy for the audience. I understand why critics – and audiences – pretty much dismissed the film back in 1981 – it looked like a lot of other films at the time, and Ferrara wasn’t a known director yet – they didn’t really know what exactly to expect from him. Ferrara is, if nothing else, always an interesting filmmaker. He has directed some truly awful films in his career – and a few truly great ones as well. He never makes it easy on the audiences – and his films are often rife with contradictions. Sometimes, those contradictions sink the film. In the case of Ms. 45, it is responsible for its lasting power.