Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Movie Review: Dunkirk

Directed by: Christopher Nolan.
Written by: Christopher Nolan.
Starring: Fionn Whitehead (Tommy), Mark Rylance (Mr. Dawson), Tom Hardy (Farrier), Jack Lowden (Collins), Kenneth Branagh (Commander Bolton), Harry Styles (Alex), Cillian Murphy (Shivering Soldier), Aneurin Barnard (Gibson), Tom Glynn-Carney (Peter), Tom Nolan (Lieutenant), James D'Arcy (Colonel Winnant), Matthew Marsh (Rear Admiral).
It can be hard to do anything truly new when it comes to War movies – one of the oldest genres in cinema, and in many ways one that hasn’t changed all that much over the years – except in the techniques that directors use to capture the life and death struggle of men at war. Christopher Nolan’s wonderful Dunkirk comes as close as anything in the last couple of decades (perhaps as far back as 1998 – when Spielberg made Saving Private Ryan – a film that many have tried to outdo in terms of pure carnage, and Terrence Malick made The Thin Red Line, a less influential, but greater, more meditative film). The evacuation of Dunkirk has become the stuff of legend in England – where, with the help of civilian vessels, the British armed forced evacuated hundreds of thousands of their soldiers, feared doomed, from the beaches in France before they could be captured or slaughtered by the rapidly advancing Germans. Nolan undeniably concentrates almost solely on the Brits – the French, also on the beach, are almost a nuisance, the Germans, a mostly invisible threat. The film thrillingly, and daringly, combines three different stories, over three different time periods, into one visceral and exciting package. Nolan, whose films in the past could be accused of being bloated, doesn’t leave an ounce of fat on Dunkirk – which runs under two hours, and uses every minute perfectly.
Nolan quickly establishes the three timelines - a week on the beach with the soldiers waiting to be rescued, a day on a private yacht, driven by a good Samaritan, his son and his son’s friend, who are sailing across the channel to pick up as many soldiers as possible – just one of countless others who did the same – and one hour in the plane of a RAF fighter pilot, trying his best to shoot down as many German planes as possible, before they can slaughter his countrymen. Nolan ratchets up the tension in all three timelines, until they come together in thrilling fashion in the closing minutes of the film.
If you are looking for a wide overview of the evacuation of Dunkirk, this really isn’t that film. This is a film that lives in that minute by minute, on-the-ground terror of the various people spends time with. The beach scenes center on Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead), although if his name is actually spoken in the film, I missed it. He is just one thousands of men – and Nolan deliberately blends many of these young men together (seriously, they all look the same) because theirs isn’t a story so much of individuals, but all of them. If that sounds to you like it could result in a cold, less emotionally connected film – you’d be wrong. While it’s true that Tommy – and the many young men who accompany him – aren’t particularly well developed, they don’t need to be – and you do feel that overwhelming anxiety in them. The other two stories are more intimate – with Mark Rylance once again showing why he’s one of the best actors around, as an older man with his son, and a teenage friend, willing to risk it all to help with the effort. They come across a lone sailor (Cillian Murphy) – a survivor of a lifeboat where everyone else died in a U-Boat attack, suffering from “shell shock” – desperate to do anything BUT return to Dunkirk. All four of these men are sketched quickly, but you know everything you need to know of them. The same is true for Tom Hardy as the RAF pilot – once again, showing he is the actor you want to cast if you need someone to cover up three-quarters of their face for the majority of his scenes, and still find ways to emote effectively. I’m sure the people who couldn’t understand Hardy’s Bane, will have trouble here as well (but then again, I never did have trouble, so, what do I know?).
Nolan’s filmmaking here is impeccable. Dunkirk is a loud movie, with the constant explosions, and Hans Zimmer’s, brilliant, pounding score going throughout. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is the best work of his career, immersive in the best way possible. The structure requires the editing to be airtight – and Lee Smith’s work is remarkable.
In short, Dunkirk is a triumph for Nolan, and all involved. It only seems like he’s working on a smaller, less ambitious scale than some of his recent epics. Dunkirk is tight, intense, exciting and nerve jangling. It’s one of the best films of the year.

Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Directed by: Luc Besson.
Written by: Luc Besson based on the comic by Pierre Christin & Jean-Claude Mézières.
Starring: Cara Delevingne (Laureline), Dane DeHaan (Valerian), Elizabeth Debicki (Haban Limaï), Ethan Hawke (Jolly the Pimp), John Goodman (Merchant), Clive Owen (Commander Arün Filitt), Rihanna (Bubble).
Can I tell you that Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a good movie? No, I cannot. Can I tell you that it is the kind of absolutely visually bonkers film that also has a real sense of fun that kept a smile plastered on my face from beginning to end, even as I knew that the film was particularly good? Yes, I can. This is the type of film that only someone like Besson could make – and only someone like Besson would want to make. From a storytelling point of view, the film is an absolute mess – I’m not sure I could tell you what anyone was doing at any particularly point of time in the movie, or why they were doing it. I also didn’t much care, because I was having so much fun anyway. And that’s before Rihanna shows up and does a shape shifting dance routine, that I won’t say is the most fun I’ve had in a theater this year, but I won’t not say that either.
The story, such as it is, centers of Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Lauerline (Cara Delevingne) – who work for some sort of intergalactic police force (I think), who is tasked with recovering a strange, small animal – the last of its kind – who can replicate anything you give it (again, I think – don’t quote me on any of this). First they have to get it from a crooked merchant, located in some sort of market, only accessible while wearing strange googles, where you have to carry a large box in order to smuggle in weapons. Then they have to bring it to Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) for reasons that I am currently unclear of. It doesn’t much matter though, because Filitt is abducted shortly after Valerian and Laureline arrive. In the aftermath, Laureline has to go and try and rescue Valerian, and then later, he’ll have to rescue her – and somehow this all ties in with the peaceful alien creatures and their pearls that look like they got lost on their way to Pandora, who then watch as their planet is destroyed.
Let’s be honest though, the plot doesn’t really matter here – and nor does the dialogue (thank god) which at times feels like it was written in another language and then put through Google translate into English. Valerian and Laureline’s first scene is particularly awkward, as he tries to confess his love for her, and she shoots him done. It’s a problem that unfortunately I don’t think Dane DeHaan ever quite manages to overcome – he’s not goofy or funny or charming enough to really pull off this role. Delevingne however is just about perfect as Laureline – delivering a fine comedic performance, that reminded me a little of Emma Stone (and made me feel better about liking her so much in her first film – The Face of an Angel – and the rethinking after she was perhaps the worst one in Suicide Squad – not that it was really her fault, you try hula dancing in front of a CGI portal and not come across terribly).
The reason to see the film though is because Besson overstuffs every frame of this film with something to look at – and not just something, something different. I think one of the biggest problems with many CGI driven blockbusters today is that they all look the same – either because directors lack the ability or will to push special effects to deliver them something unique or because the tight timelines many of these movies run on don’t give them time. There is as much CGI in Valerian is there is in any movie you’ll see this year – but it is wholly on its own thing, its own style – and that style is all Luc Besson.
No, the film doesn’t hit the heights of something like Besson’s The Fifth Element – the best moments, especially Rihanna’s dance sequence – come very close, but the film doesn’t quite go that far into over-the-top brilliant madness. But it’s not for lack of trying – and I for one am all for someone like Besson, taking $200 million, and just going nuts with it. Honestly, I’m not sure if this is a good movie or not. What I do know, is that I had a hell of lot fun with it, and I’m pretty sure that was the point of this movie in the first place.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Classic Movie Review: The Event (2015)

The Event (2015)
Directed by: Sergey Loznitsa.
Written by: Sergey Loznitsa.
If you’re planning on seeing Sergei Loznitsa’s The Event, you may want to bone up on your Soviet history a little bit before doing so. Loznitsa is making a follow-up film to his acclaimed Maidan (2014), a documentary where Loznitsa followed the protests in Kiev in 2013 and 2014 against the Russian aggression into their country. Again, Loznitsa is working with footage shot by others, and crafting into a whole – but this time he looks further back in history – to a few days in August 1991, in the town of Leningrad. This was when a group of high ranking Soviet officials tried to conduct a coup d’tat and oust President Mikhail Gorbachev – and people took to the streets to protest. The Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse – inside 6 months it would do just that. But that didn’t mean the people wanted a coup – and wanted a group of self-proclaimed elites to come in and take over. In Moscow, the protests were very volatile – but in Leningrad, they were mainly subdued and peaceful. The people who showed up in the town square, shouting slogan, listening for the latest news, and standing in solidarity with each other didn’t want things to get violent. They just wanted to make their voices heard.
Because Loznitsa is working entirely with archival footage – and he doesn’t provide a voice over, he really does not place too much of what we see in The Event into context. We get snippets of speeches and radio broadcasts so we can tell the broad outlines of what is happening – but that’s about it. This movie isn’t about the specifics of what happened and why it all ended up collapsing. Instead, it is a story of the protesters and their sense of optimism and camaraderie – something that at the time seemed incredibly hopeful for Russia’s future, and looking back at it now is just sad, given how everything has gone in the more than two decades since. It started out so optimistic – and ended up in very much the same place.
One of the main reasons for that can be glimpsed in The Event – as we clearly see Vladimir Putin, then a young KGB Agent, in the footage at several times, coming and going, always silently. His presence is a reminder that even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of the people in power remained there – so Russia never got the housecleaning it needed for it to make a fresh start. Instead, it’s just more of the same.
The film is short – just 74 minutes – and that’s about the right length for a movie like this. The film isn’t overly exciting, and can in fact be a little dull. But it is important – and at times quite striking as well. There is no doubt the film will move those in Russia – and the Ukraine – more than those of us who may not be as familiar with the events on display. Still, the movie is an important document of a time when the Russian people had a reason to be optimistic – before it slipped away from them.
Note: I saw this film at TIFF 2015, and at this point, I have to believe it’s not going to get a proper released in North America – so I decided to publish the review I wrote then anyway.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Movie Review: The Untamed

The Untamed
Directed by: Amat Escalante 
Written by: Amat Escalante & Gibrán Portela 
Starring: Ruth Ramos (Alejandra), Simone Bucio (Veronica), Jesus Meza (Angel), Eden Villavicencio (Fabian).
The opening shot of Amat Escalnate’s The Untamed shows an asteroid floating out in space, and then he cuts immediately to an interior of a small cabin, where a woman, Vero (Simone Bucio) is just finishing a sexual encounter with some sort of animal that has a tentacle. We don’t quite get a good view of the creature right then – but eventually, we will, but this opening effectively prepares us for what is to follow – a strange mix of sci-fi, horror, domestic drama and allegory, The Untamed is certainly inspired by films like Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) – among others – but it is also very clearly its own thing. It is not a perfect film, but in its messiness, it finds interesting directions and observations a cleaner film wouldn’t.
The film centers on Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) and her husband Angel (Jesus Meza). Theirs is not a happy marriage – and certainly not sexually fulfilling for either one, as Escalante establishes early with a quick sex scene between the two, where Alejandra seems bored (and then retreats to the shower to masturbate), meanwhile Angel is having an affair with Alejandra’s brother, Fabian (Eden Villavicencio). Angel works in construction – in the already macho Mexican society, and outwardly he is extremely homophobic – using gay slurs with his friends, and insulting his brother in law to his wife, and even calling Fabian names to his face. Fabian hates himself for this affair (one weak spot in the film is that it never really becomes clear why Fabian started the affair with Angel in the first place – from Angel’s point-of-view, it makes sense – he is gay but hates gay people, so Fabian may be the only one he really knows – but why is Fabian drawn to Angel, especially since it seems like he has a good relationship with Alejandra?). It is Fabian, a nurse, who meets Vero when she comes into the hospital following that sexual encounter with the tenacled creature – which is capable of giving immense pleasure, but also causing immense pain. The creature is stored in a cabin in the middle of nowhere by an elderly couple – the field around it in lush and green, and the animals around them seem constantly horny. The elderly couple don’t think Vero should come around anymore – the creature seems upset when she is, and, as we know, is starting to hurt her. It is through Vero that the other major characters in the film will eventually all visit that cabin – with mixed results depending on who goes there – those with secrets, lies or violence in them have a worse time than those who don’t.
The Untamed is a clearly a critique of the macho culture in much of Mexico – and frankly, around the world. Alejandra is the most clearly sympathetic character – a woman dealing with two kids, a husband who doesn’t satisfy her sexually (does even try really), and is cheating on her with brother, and prone to violent outbursts. She is many ways stuck however – she isn’t rich, and works for her husband’s parents, who also act as her babysitter. Vero enters her life in a strange way, and will bring her the creature eventually. Everyone else in the movie has sins weighing on them – the lies both Angel and Fabien tell Alejandra, and even Vero, who cannot quit seeing the creature, and leads people there, perhaps knowing the consequences – and eventually even her jealously of Alejandra.
The film isn’t always an easy mixture of its various genre elements. I really don’t think we needed a scene where the elderly “caretaker” of the creature explains its nature to Alejandra – and by extension the audience – as it seems fairly clear what it all means. The film stretches credibility at points – and no, not just because it has a mainly tenactled creature capable of giving orgasms, but in terms of character motivation. But the film is a unique film the whole way through – a fascinating view of macho culture, homophobia and unmet female sexual needs, all of which end up coming together with horrible results. The Untamed is a messy film to be sure – but that’s the way it should be. It is ambitious and audacious, and if it doesn’t quite pull of everything it wants to do, well, that’s to be expected. But it is a film that demands to be seen and talked about.
Note: I saw this film at TIFF in 2016, and wrote the review shortly after. As always, as far as I know, the version I saw at TIFF, is the being released into theaters.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Movie Review: Chasing Coral

Chasing Coral
Directed by: Jeff Orlowski.
Written by: Davis Coombe & Vickie Curtis & Jeff Orlowski.
There have no shortage of global warming/environmental documentaries in recent years – they have become a staple ever since Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth – and arguably even before then. The films, which are all well-meaning, have a tendency to be rather dull and preachy, as scientists and other experts explain the problems, and what we do to correct them – most often, the films end with their rousing scores swelling beneath an inspirational speech, and then a website to go to “learn more”. Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Coral doesn’t entirely escape those traps – it certainly has the swelling score and the website during the end credits. Yet, it works better than most because there is more of a reason why you should see the movie, and not just read an article or listen to a speech – and that is the films visuals, which are beautiful, mesmerizing and ultimately sad.
The film is about coral – which are massive living things under the sea, made up of many smaller organisms. Coral is necessary in order to have healthy underwater ecosystems – where fish can gather, and feed. Coral disappear, smaller fish disappear, and then larger fish disappear, and all the way up the food chain. As one scientist says “Do we need coral? Well, do we need trees?”
The problem of disappearing coral has been documented before – in articles, etc. – but what makes Chasing Coral fascinating is that the filmmakers decided to try and document a massive coral bleaching event – essentially, over the course of a summer, when the temperature goes up as little as 2 degrees, coral tries to protect themselves, as if they cannot, they end up going white (bleaching), and eventually dying. The final part of the movie is essentially looking at the footage the filmmakers got – and how, over that span, thriving coral dying in a matter of months. The footage takes things out of the “theoretical” – and becomes impossible to deny that something is happening. The images speak for themselves.
Before then though, there are a lot of people talking about coral – and while it’s all rather interesting, it isn’t always that enthralling. The first part of Chasing Coral is almost a making up Chasing Coral documentary – starting with Richard Vevers, a former ad executive, who got tired of that life, and decided to dedicate it to something more useful. Vevers is key to the film as he understands the very basic principle of the film – that if all you have is scientists talking about coral, no one is going to sit up and listen. He watched director Jeff Orlowski’s other documentary – Chasing Ice – and thought that the film was essentially the same thing he wanted to do with coral. In order to do what they want though, they need to create cameras capable of taking time lapse photos, under salt water, for months on end. Enter Zack Rago – who along with others try and do just that. Rago becomes a focus of the film, because he’s not just a camera guy, but a self-professed “coral nerd” – who ends up becoming much more emotionally involved than he thought.
Chasing Coral is available on Netflix right now – and I do think you should see it, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it is an important topic – related to global warming, which for some reason is still controversial for some, who want to deny that it is happening. For another, it is interesting to see how they get the footage they do. And finally, because the footage they do get is mesmerizing and beautiful when the coral is healthy – and then, downright sad later. It’s not the most scintillating documentary of the year, but it’s one of the most important – and it’s more entertaining than most docs of its sort.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Movie Review: War of the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes
Directed by: Matt Reeves.
Written by: Mark Bomback & Matt Reeves based on characters created by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver.
Starring: Andy Serkis (Caesar), Woody Harrelson (The Colonel), Steve Zahn (Bad Ape), Karin Konoval (Maurice), Amiah Miller (Nova), Terry Notary (Rocket), Ty Olsson (Red Donkey), Michael Adamthwaite (Luca), Toby Kebbell (Koba), Gabriel Chavarria (Preacher), Judy Greer (Cornelia), Sara Canning (Lake), Devyn Dalton (Cornelius), Aleks Paunovic (Winter), Alessandro Juliani (Spear), Max Lloyd-Jones (Blue Eyes).
I’m hard pressed to think of another blockbuster series of recent years that is better than the new Planet of the Apes films have been. Each film is distinct from each other – not just recycling what has come before, but expanding it, and continually building upon it, taking the fall of humanity and rise of ape as seriously as you can in a blockbuster trilogy like this without taking it too seriously. I still that the second film – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – is probably the best of trilogy – it certainly is the most action packed and viscerally exciting, and has the best mixture of human and ape characters – but the first film – Rise of the Planet of the Apes – was perhaps the most emotional (it certainly was the most heartbreaking) – and both lead brilliantly into War of the Planet of the Apes, which caps off the trilogy in a brilliantly. All three films represent blockbuster filmmaking at its current best.
The infighting between Apes that made up the plot of the second film has pretty much been resolved. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes are trying to live in peace in the forest – but humans just don’t seem to want to allow that. The opening sequence involves an army searching for Caesar’s hiding spot – and coming very close to it. The apes fight them off – and take a few prisoner. Caesar, trying to show that the apes are not savages, allows them to go free. That ends up being a mistake, and soon more soldiers – this time led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) return – and kill some of Caesar’s family. As the apes ready their next move – hopefully to a safer place – Caesar plots his vengeance on the Colonel. If only a few trusted allies, he sets out to find his enemy.
War of the Planet of the Apes wears its influences on its sleeve – it’s clearly a war movie in many ways, and it takes its lead mainly from Apocalypse Now and other Vietnam war movies (strangely enough, Kong: Skull Island did the same thing – this one does it better). Harrelson’s The Colonel is clearly based on Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz – the gleaming bald head, the way he shaves it, the insane ramblings (this Colonel’s ramblings form a more coherent thought pattern than Kurtz’s – I think, anyway) – and Harrelson clearly relishes playing the bad guy here. As Caesar, Serkis is once again at his best (for better or worse, you’d be hard pressed to find a more influential performer in modern blockbusters than Serkis – who has already plays Gollum and King Kong for Peter Jackson in motion capture, but does career best work in this series). The special effects that allow the apes their expressiveness is quite honestly astonishing – and allows Caesar to become a more complex character here than he was before (in Rise he was more of a victim who fought back, in Dawn he was the principled leader – here, he is a leader, who makes mistakes and puts his own feelings above all else selfishly – and yet, he maintains the hero of the film in part because of how aware he is of his own shortcomings).
In many ways, director Matt Reeves has stepped up his filmmaking game here – the cinematography by veteran Michael Seresin is great, integrating the special effects in with the surroundings – the lush green forest that is made to feel like the jungles of Vietnam in those old movies, the cold blinding snow, the horrible prison camp of the last half. So many modern blockbusters who rely heavily on CGI (like, undeniably this one does) end up looking almost like a candy colored cartoon – this series has been an exception from the start, as it’s blended everything together well. The film goes long stretches with little to no dialogue – it almost exclusively stays with Caesar throughout, and many of the apes cannot talk – but communicate in sign language. Michael Giacchino’s brilliant score, does some of the emotional heavy lifting in those sequences, without laying anything on too thick.
Each film in this series work on its own terms – it doesn’t repeat what came before, but instead deepens it. As a trilogy, the whole is even better than the sum of its parts. Most Hollywood blockbusters don’t have room for ideas – let alone, allow themselves to address the darkest parts of our humanity (from the first film on, we’re clearly on the side of the apes, not the humans) – but this series went there, and did it with style and intelligence. They’re also three amazingly entertaining films. Modern day blockbusters don’t get much better than this series.

Movie Review: To the Bone

To the Bone
Directed by: Marti Noxon.
Written by: Marti Noxon.
Starring: Lily Collins (Ellen), Keanu Reeves (Dr. William Beckham), Kathryn Prescott (Anna), Liana Liberato (Kelly), Carrie Preston (Susan), Alanna Ubach (Karen), Lili Taylor (Judy), Brooke Smith (Olive), Ciara Bravo (Tracy), Retta (Lobo), Hana Hayes (Chloe), Alex Sharp (Luke), Rebekah Kennedy (Penny), Maya Eshet (Pearl), Joanna Sanchez (Rosa), Lindsey McDowell (Kendra).
I have a feeling that when writer/director Marti Noxon decided to make a film about anorexia – based, in part, on her own experiences dealing with the disease, that she had a long list of things she didn’t want her film to do, in order to avoid the pitfalls of a TV-Movie-of-the-Week or a “very special” episode of a well-meaning family sitcom. This is admirable to be sure – but watching the film, it felt like the moving was trying so hard not to be the clichéd version of this story, that it never really figured out what it really did want to be. The movie throws a lot of terminology about anorexia around, and seems to stress over and over again that there is no one root cause, and no one way to deal with it, etc. But then it doesn’t really show us anything. The brilliant doctor who treats the houseful of patients dealing with the disease (played by Keanu Reeves) doesn’t really seem to have a plan in place at all in terms of treatment. Again, he’s very confident about what won’t work, but doesn’t really know what will.
The story centers on Ellen (Lily Collins) – a 20 year old woman, who has been suffering from anorexia for a while, and been in and out of treatment for years, but isn’t getting any better. Her father is at work all the time (literally, it seems, as he never appears in the movie), her mother (Lily Taylor) came out as a lesbian when Ellen was 13, and has recently moved to Phoenix after yet another breakdown. Her stepmother, Susan (Carrie Preston), talks non-stop, and can be annoying – but she really does care, and she really does her best to try and help (at least it seemed like it to me – the movie, I’m not so sure sees her the same way). Ellen, reluctantly, agrees to go into another in-patient facility for treatment – this one in a large house, staffed by nurses, with a total of 7 patients, and run by Dr. Beckham (Keanu Reeves) who treatment seems to be a mixture of touch love and praise, and not a whole lot else.
It’s at the treatment facility that things start to go a little sideways for the movie. Ellen meets Luke (Alex Sharp), an anorexic ballet dancer, who is well on the way to recovery – and he becomes a kind of annoying cheerleader, prodder and romantic interest. His romantic gestures are creepier than anything else, and his constant insistence on Ellen doing what he asks is annoying. The rest of the patients are ill-defined, and just kind of there – which doesn’t help when the film tries to milk one them for a big emotional payoff in the third act.
The writing tries to mix in some humor along with the all more serious stuff about anorexia, and it’s probably the best part of the movie. Lily Collins is best here when she gets to be sarcastic and downright bitchy – she has got a killer look in her eyes able to cut you down to nothing with a glance. But Ellen never really comes into focus as a character. The screenplay throws out a lot of stuff about just how dysfunctional her family is – and then pretty much has the doctor dismiss it all as irrelevant. Ellen is said to be feeling guilty about her artwork – that may have contributed to another girl killing herself – but that never really comes into focus, much like everything else in the film.
I don’t doubt the intentions of the people behind this movie – who wanted to address a serious issue in a way that wasn’t maudlin or preachy, but was actually entertaining. But the gap between their intentions and the results is just too wide to make To the Bone all that successful.