Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Movie Review: Raw

Raw
Directed by: Julia Ducournau.
Written by: Julia Ducournau.
Starring: Garance Marillier (Justine), Ella Rumpf (Alexia), Rabah Naït Oufella (Adrien), Laurent Lucas (Father), Joana Preiss (Mother).
 
It’s too bad that Julia Ducournau’s Raw has become known as the filled that made people vomit and pass out at last year’s TIFF – at least to a certain extent. It’s probably good to get more people to see the film – a foreign language horror film is not the easiest sell in the world. Yet, I think because of the films reputation, I’m not sure the right audience is going to find the film. Yes, there are a couple of (appropriately) nauseating moments in Raw – but overall, the film is an intelligent and thoughtful coming-of-age horror film – a brutal and bloody tale of sisterhood that resembles the great Canadian horror film Ginger Snaps – but this one goes even further.
 
The film stars Garance Marillier as Justine, a 16-year-old girl, with two veterinarian parents. The family is also strict vegetarians – so strict in fact, that Justine has never eaten meat. She is a gifted student – and being taken to the same vet school both her parents went to, and her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is already a second year student. There is genuine affection, but also rivalry between the two sisters – the year away from home has allowed Alexia t come into her own, to become brash and bold, and adventuresome – while Justin remains extremely quiet and reserved. The older students have a week of initiation rituals for the so-called rookies – most of them fairly harmless, but one of which requires each rookie to eat a piece of raw rabbit liver. Justine does in fact eat it – after first refusing, and then caving to peer pressure. Eating the rabbit liver, as it does so often, turns Justine into a ravenous monster with a need to consume human flesh.
 
Yes, there are a few moments that will make you want turn away from the screen in disgust, or vomit for those with weak stomachs – some skin peeling scenes that are gross, and others (not sickened me as much as the hair scene – but that could be me). But in terms of extreme horror films, there’s nothing in Raw that is that far over the top – and every moment that is nauseating, is earned by Ducournau, who has really made a film about coming to terms with who – and what – you are. The film is an extreme version of what everyone goes through – getting to college, experimenting with things, being humiliated, and figuring out your own appetites, while trying to fit in with everyone around you, while acknowledging that not everyone will be able to do that. The sisterly relationship at the heart of the movie is complex is the best of ways for drama – they love each other, push each other, torment and test each other, and ultimately compete with each other. The fact that they have the same afflictions makes complete sense – and pushes things in a strange direction.
 
Newcomer Marillier is great as Justine – whose emotions run the gamut through the course of the film, from her quiet opening scenes, to some of the most aggressive and daring scenes of the year. Rumpf as Alexia keeps pace with her the whole way. This is Ducournau’s debut feature, and it is remarkably assured, and streamlined – making her one of the best new filmmakers to watch for. I don’t really think the last scene in the film is necessary – it’s not really one twist too many (does it even count as a twist), as a little more anti-climactic than intended. Yet, that’s pretty much the only negative thing I have to say about Raw – another in a growing list of great horror films for 2017.

Movie Review: War Machine

War Machine
Directed by: David Michôd.
Written by: David Michôd based on the book by Richael Hastings.
Starring: Brad Pitt (Gen. Glen McMahon), Anthony Hayes (Pete Duckman), John Magaro (Cory Staggart), Anthony Michael Hall (Greg Pulver), Emory Cohen (Willy Dunne), Topher Grace (Matt Little), Daniel Betts (Simon Ball), Aymen Hamdouchi (Badi Basim), RJ Cyler (Andy Moon), Alan Ruck (Pat McKinnon), Nicholas Jones (Dick Waddle), Will Poulter (Ricky Ortega), Lakeith Stanfield (Cpl. Billy Cole), Ben Kingsley (President Karzai), Meg Tilly (Jeannie McMahon), Griffin Dunne (Ray Canucci), Josh Stewart (Captain Dick North), Tilda Swinton (German Politician).
 
There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks about Netflix – and its effect on movies – and whether them making their own movies, and mainly bypassing theatrical distribution to straight out to Netflix subscribers to watch from the comfort on their own couches, is a good thing or a bad thing. We can argue about a lot of bad things Netflix does – and I wouldn’t disagree (the worse thing is that Netflix has yet to find a way to make the movies they make or acquire seem like they must be watched, as they have done with their TV shows – and some very good movies are falling through the cracks that way). But in general, if Netflix wants to give a lot of money to good filmmakers to make a film no one else is willing to pay for, go for it. And David Michod is a filmmaker I quite like – his feature debut, Animal Kingdom, made my year-end top 10 list a few years ago, and I liked his follow-up The Rover more than many, and even more in retrospect. So giving him a lot of money to make a film with Brad Pitt felt like a good idea to me – and probably to Netflix as well, and it’s a bet I’d probably make again – even if the result this time around is the limp war satire War Machine – a film that never really finds its footing.
 
The year is 2009, and Obama has just become President. One of the things he has done is put General Glen McMahon (Pitt) in charge of the War in Afghanistan. It’s not a post that McMahon will have for very long – and this movie documents exactly why that is. McMahon’s strategy is woefully wrongheaded, he is given no support, and he basically lets a journalist see everything he does, who will of course report it, and make him look bad, leading for him to get replaced by someone else – who will, of course, do the exact same thing.
 
At the center of nearly every scene in the film is Pitt – and if nothing else, you have to say he delivers a daring performance. Note how I didn’t see it’s a good performance, because I’m not sure that it is, but he makes a choice, and sticks with it, knowing full well some will hate it, so let’s give him that. He plays McMahon as a kind of real life version of George C. Scott’s General Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove – but somehow wants to make McMahon both broader, and more human. It doesn’t really work, because how the hell can it. He spends the movie speaking in a strange clipped voice, constantly squinting, and running in the most bizarre way imaginable. Had Michod committed to making this an out-and-out comedy or satire, the performance may really have worked. But he doesn’t do that.
 
War Machine can never quite figure out what it wants to be. It is, in essence, about the conflict between the Obama administration, who wanted to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible, and the soldiers on the ground, who are still being asked to fight, and in some cases die, for a war they know the administration no longer supports. Strangely, the film itself almost remains apolitical about the whole thing – so hard line right wingers can watch the film and see it as a failure of a cowardly Obama, and hard line left wingers can see McMahon and company as gung ho war mongers. That’s not really because the movie plays things fair, as much as it seems like the film has no opinion on anything, ever.
 
Still, there are scenes that work. There is another fine supporting performance from Lakeith Stanfield (so memorable in Short Term 12 and Get Out, among many others) as a young soldier who quite rightly no longer knows what the hell he’s supposed to do, and doesn’t shy away from making that known. The third act works better than the rest, because that’s when there are actual stakes at play, not a bunch of meaningless chatter like the rest of the film.
 
But overall, War Machine just never hangs together. There’s a moment here and there that work, but overall the film is a mess. It was clearly made by talented people, all of whom made certain choices throughout – it’s almost as if they never discussed those choices with each other though, and the result is a film that just doesn’t work.

Movie Review: The Wizard of Lies

The Wizard of Lies
Directed by: Barry Levinson.
Written by: Sam Levinson & Samuel Baum & John Burnham Schwartz based on the book by Diana Henriques.
Starring: Robert De Niro (Bernard Madoff), Michelle Pfeiffer (Ruth Madoff), Alessandro Nivola (Mark Madoff), Hank Azaria (Frank DiPascali), Nathan Darrow (Andrew Madoff), Sydney Gayle (Emily Madoff), Lily Rabe (Catherine Hooper), Kristen Connolly (Stephanie Madoff), Kathrine Narducci (Eleanor Squillari), Steve Coulter (Martin London), Michael Kostroff (Peter Madoff).
 
Before talking about The Wizard of Lies, a fine HBO docudrama about Bernie Madoff, allow me to say aloud that I find it odd that HBO, who in many ways helped invent so called “prestige TV” with The Wire and The Sopranos and Oz (among others), and has continued to innovate (both successfully, and not so much) in their shows since then, has essentially been cranking out the same type of made-for-HBO movie for decades now. I don’t say this necessarily as an insult – I like the type of docudramas they’ve made over in the years – with films like Indictment: The McMartin Trial (1995), Don King: Only in America (1997) and Path to War (2002) being particular favorites. Yet, while on the series side, HBO is taking chances, on the film side, they continue to make these historical docudramas – some very good (You Don’t Know Jack), some bad (Phil Spector), some somewhere in between (All the Way). The Wizard of Lies is essentially a good movie – it contains two great performances, and does a decent job of recounting the life and crimes of Bernie Madoff – yet I cannot help but wonder why HBO hasn’t done a better job filling in the gap of the disappearing middle class of movies – like say Netflix and Amazon have. But I digress, that really isn’t The Wizard of Lies fault – it was just a thought I had while watching the film, and thinking that aside from the time period, you could have made this exact film in 1995 on HBO.
 
In the film, Robert DeNiro plays Madoff – the well-respected financial guru, who it turned out had been running the largest Ponzi scheme Wall Street had ever seen, scamming billions of dollars out of his clients, none of whom ever had a clue. I do wish that the film had perhaps dived a little more into how Madoff did it, but I also understand I’m probably in the minority who wanted more details about financial transactions, so perhaps director Barry Levinson and company were right to basically stick to the family story. This is not a film about Madoff’s victims – it’s about how his crimes effected those closest to him, who the film takes at face value in that it never questions their own story that they didn’t know what was going on.
 
DeNiro is undeniably one of the greatest actors of all time, but also undeniably, hasn’t always seemed that interested in doing great work in the past, oh, two decades or so – with the occasional great performance (Stone, Silver Linings Playbook or his great directorial effort The Good Shepherd) being lost in a sea of mediocrity. Here, he is quite good, and makes an interesting choice with Madoff – making him into a blank faced, mostly bland psychopath. He doesn’t raise his voice very often, he isn’t giving “Greed is Good” speeches like Gordon Gekko, or going insane like Jordan Belfort – he just calmly, rationally steals all your money. You cannot even say he’s doing it for his family, because he screws up their lives as well – he says he did it all himself, and they knew nothing, but as we see in flashbacks, even when his sons wanted to leave his company, strike out on their own, he berates them into staying – essentially sealing their fate. This is not a deep dive by DeNiro – who keeps his understanding of Madoff on a surface level, but he implies that the surface level is all there is to Madoff.
 
That does leave the emotional heavy lifting in the film to the other characters. As his wife, Michelle Pfeiffer is excellent – she isn’t a typical trophy wife (for one thing, she’s been with Bernie since they were poor teenagers), but she clearly didn’t want to know anything about what Bernie did at work or why – her priority was her family – and the money – and when she loses it all, she has nothing left. Pfeiffer is so good here, it really makes you wish she’d work more often (this is the first time I’ve seen her since 2013). Also quite good is Alessandro Nivola as their younger son – the one who admires their father more than anything, who takes all of his crap, and is destroyed by the revelations. Nathan Darrow isn’t as effective as the older Madoff son – mainly because he has a more reserved role.
 
The Wizard of Lies was directed by Barry Levinson – the Oscar winning filmmaker of Rain Man, and other fine films of the 1980s and 1990s (my personal favorite is probably the Iraq War satire Wag the Dog with DeNiro from 1997). Levinson has always been a smart, middle of the road filmmaker – and there’s no difference here. The Wizard of Lies knows precisely what it is, and what it wants to do – and it delivers. It’s a little strange to me that HBO continues to churn these films out, with seemingly no real ambition to grow, but they know what they’re doing, and they do it well.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Classic Movie Review: JLG/JLG: Self Portrait in December (1994)

JLG/JLG: Self Portrait in December (1994)
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard.
 
Whenever I watch a film from late period Godard – pretty much anything he made starting with Histoire(s) du Cinema (begun in 1989) – I am torn between two reactions. One is that Godard is still obviously a genius – his ability to create striking, memorable images – and in particular his editing and sound design is truly amazing, and several times during the runtime of one of his films, you are struck dumb by something you see or hear. But the other part of me thinks that most of what Godard has down in that period is self-involved claptrap – intellectual exercises for an increasingly small number of people, as he looks down on everyone else who isn’t a genius like Jean-Luc Godard. Is this some of this perhaps my own insecurity – worrying that I don’t understand what Godard is talking about? Undeniably – I really don’t have any clue what he’s talking about half the time in these films.
 
In his 1994 film, JLG/JLG: Self Portrait in December is an hour long film in which Godard considers his own place in cinema history – as well as who he is as an artist at this late stage (he was in his 1960s by then). By this point, Godard had already become less and less commercial viable – something he seemed to actively court for nearly 30 years, as he more and more abandoned narrative film for avant-garde essays and montages. Godard looks morose throughout much of the film as he considers his past successes – and how out-of-sync he is now. There is also a little bit of playfulness in the film – as Godard interacts with his cleaning ladies (which you could choose to see as playful, or sexist, or perhaps both) – and then pokes at his critics who have accused him of anti-Semitism, by explaining stereo sound with a diagram, that ends up being a Star of David. And like any late Godard film, there is lot of philosophical quotes – as Godard seemingly brings up arguments, and then shoots them down in rapid succession.
 
There is much to admire about this film – and over the years, I have learned with late Godard to try not to parse it all too closely, to find out Godard’s precise meanings for everything – they’re going to fly over my head (and so be it, I guess) – but, as with much avant-garde cinema, to try to take it all in as a sensory experience. That’s probably why my two favorites of Godard’s late period are Notre Musique (2004), a brilliantly edited montage of the three kingdoms of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, and his latest film Goodbye to Language 3-D, which made brilliant use of 3-D technology, in ways I had never seen before (and my least favorite is Film Socialism – a film that seems to be deliberately visually ugly). Honestly though, I’m more than a little tired of Godard making films about Godard – and really do wish he had spent the last 30 years applying his genius to something more. But that’s a selfish complaint – just because late Godard isn’t really for me, doesn’t mean that he should listen to me. Much as I have said about the last few Terrence Malick films – when others complain that they wish he’d tell stories again, I always wonder why we want the one filmmaker doing something completely his own to be like everyone else. I didn’t much care of JLG/JLG: Self Portrait in December, but if it’s your thing, enjoy.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Movie Review: Alien Covenant

Alien: Covenant
Directed by: Ridley Scott.
Written by: John Logan and Dante Harper  and Jack Paglen and Michael Green based on characters created by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett.
Starring: Michael Fassbender (David / Walter), Katherine Waterston (Daniels), Billy Crudup (Oram), Danny McBride (Tennessee), Demián Bichir (Lope), Carmen Ejogo (Karine), Jussie Smollett (Ricks), Callie Hernandez (Upworth), Amy Seimetz (Faris), Nathaniel Dean (Hallett),  James Franco (Branson), Guy Pearce (Peter Weyland), Noomi Rapace (Elizabeth Shaw).
 
Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) remains the best film in the franchise – a pretty much perfect horror film that set an impossibly high standard for anything to compete with. When James Cameron made Aliens (1986) – he was smart to make more an action movie than a horror film out of it – it allowed him more room to make his film different than Scott’s. When Scott returned to the franchise with 2012’s Prometheus, he made a horror film to be sure – but it was one filled with ideas – some better than others – about mankind’s creation. I liked that film more than most – I dug the fact that in a film of that size, Scott was daring to try to do something other than repeat himself – address some bigger ideas. Yes, the characters do some incredibly, incredibly stupid thing – characters in this series have always been doing stupid things, but Prometheus pushed that to its breaking point – but I did like Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw as a successor for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and loved Michael Fassbender as the curious robot David. And on a technical level, the film was a big, bold, beautiful monster – sure, the “Engineers looked a little funny – but so much else was great, and the alien abortion sequence is one of the best in the franchise. In short, I’ll take some big ideas – even if they’re big, dumb ideas – along with the special effects over a film that doesn’t have any ideas at all.
 
It took five years to get a sequel to Prometheus – and I think Alien Covenant is an even better film than its predecessor was. There are still ideas here – but Scott tones them down a bit, plays up some of the horrific set pieces, and turns Fassbender’ s David (the only real returning character from the previous film) into the series’ best, non-Alien villain – a Frankenstein’s monster who becomes Dr. Frankenstein himself. Yes, once again, the characters do some almost inconceivably dumb things (keeping your fucking helmets on people! And do not look into the writhing, squishy egg David asks you to) – and the film introduces an interesting idea about faith, and then complete abandons it – but these are flaws the movie can deal with, because so much else works so well.
 
The film is about another giant spaceship – the Covenant – which has 2,000 colonists aboard, heading to a far off planet that they will eventually call their own. The only one not in hyper sleep is Walter (Michael Fassbender) – a slightly newer model than David (who we see in the films first scene, talking to his creator – so we know he’ll come back). Things go wrong, of course, the crew is woken up – the Captain is killed, etc. Drawn to a nearby planet by a rogue signal (a John Denver song) they put on hold the rest of their journey (another seven years of hyper sleep await them) – and decide to explore. It, of course, is not a good idea. The planet seems deserted – but of course it isn’t. David is there – and he’s got some friends.
 
Undeniably the best new character in the film is Daniels (Katherine Waterson – who in the span of just a few years has become one of my favorite actresses, following Inherent Vice and Queen of Earth). She was married to the Captain who died (many of the crew are married couples – which makes sense given they aren’t on a single mission, but are out to colonize a new planet) – so she’s already dealing with her grief when they land on the planet – and things start to go wrong. Most of the other crew members are there as alien fodder – you know the drill – although I would have liked to see them do more with Billy Crudup as the second in command who becomes Captain – and says that as a man of faith, they didn’t trust him to lead the mission. Also, Danny McBride acquits himself nicely in a more dramatic role, Upstream Color’s brilliant Amy Seimetz probably made some money as his wife (and she’s pretty good) an Carmen Ejogo is mainly wasted as Crudup’s wife. The star of the movie is Fassbender however, doing a dual role as David, who barely tries to cover his ulterior motives, and Walter – who is newer model, but also less evolved (he says the robots of David’s time creeped people out because they were too real). Fassbender, playing the embodiment of evil for the second time this year (following his role as Satan in Terrence Malick’s Song to Song) is having a blast with his dual role – especially when David and Walter interact with each other, and David teaches Walter how to improve his fingering.
 
The film doesn’t rise to the level of perfection of the first two films in the series. Like everything that has come after that point, Alien Covenant is an imperfect monster. But this one is scary, and fun – and has a hell of an ending, even if you see it coming from a mile off. In short, it’s about as good as a movie like this, in 2017, can be expected to be.

Movie Review: Mommy Dead and Dearest

Mommy Dead and Dearest
Directed by: Erin Lee Carter.
 
The story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard and her mother Deedee is tragic no matter how you look at it. It is a story of h
orrific child abuse that lasted well into what should have been Gypsy Rose’ adulthood – and eventually will lead to murder. From this strange, sad case director Erin Lee Carter has created one of the better true crime docs in recent years – one that isn’t all doom and gloom, but may actually have some hope for the future. In a case as messed up as this, perhaps that’s the best result imaginable.
 
Gypsy Rose was barely 3 months old, when her mother Deedee had her hooked up to a ventilator. From there, followed more than two decades of lies, in which Gypsy had to undergo countless medical procedures, for countless ailments and illnesses that she never really had. Her father saw her sometimes – but believed his ex-wife Deedee was doing her best to care for their sick daughter. She had such an extensive medical file, and an assortment of ailments because of the treatments, that even those doctors who expected something was off, didn’t really do much to stop anything to stop it. Deedee was estranged from most of her family – who viewed her with such skepticism and disdain that when they heard what happened, they figured it was yet another scam. Because, you see, Deedee was using all of Gypsy’s illnesses to get free stuff – from charities like the Make a Wish Foundation, and other places. Deedee did everything she could to isolate Gypsy from the outside world
 
Sooner or later however, you cannot control your child anymore – and that happened when Gypsy started using the internet – including a Christian dating website. She connects with Nicholas Godejohn, who has his own issues (he is on the autism spectrum, and was arrested at McDonalds once for using their free wifi to watch porn for 9 hours). The two fell in love, but of course, Deedee would never have let Gypsy go anywhere. Which is why she and Nicholas plotted and carried out her murder.
 
This story is tragic because as you watch it, it does become clear that none of the three main people involved – Deedee, Gypsy and Nicholas – are mentally healthy. The film diagnoses Deedee with Munchausen by Proxy – a mental disorder that has her manipulating everyone around her to get Gypsy the medical care “she needs”. Suffering for years under this abuse, never knowing what was normal, and spending all of her time with a master manipulator, Gypsy is immature and naïve, but also not above manipulation herself. Nicholas Godejohn has a strange, warped view of right and wrong – and love and sex – which allows him to do what he what he does as well. There are no winners her – Deedee is dead, Gypsy and Nicholas are in jail.
 
This marks Erin Lee Carr’s second film, following the interesting Thought Crimes, about a New York cop, who wrote extensively online about his desire to kill, rape and eat the various women in his life – he insisted it was all fantasy, and he would never all do it. That film had a fascinating case, but I’m not sure it ever really hit its target. Mommy Dead and Dearest does that – and it’s why it’s one of the best docs of the year so far.

Movie Review: Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves

Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves
Directed by: Mathieu Denis & Simon Lavoie.
Written by: Mathieu Denis & Simon Lavoie.
Starring: Charlotte Aubin (Giutizia), Laurent Bélanger (Tumulto), Emmanuelle Lussier Martinez (Ordine Nuovo), Gabrielle Tremblay (Klas Batalo).
  
Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves is a monster of a title, but it fits the movie itself, and it’s more than three hour runtime. This film from Quebec takes the 2012 so called Maple Uprising – where students in Quebec took to the streets to protest tuition hikes – as it’s jumping off point, and then envisions a lonely little group of four of those students, who keep right on protesting when everyone else stops. Written and directed by Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie, the film sees its lonely group in a clearer way than they see themselves – the film both respects them for their idealism, but sees the various holes in their philosophy, and their basically shallow and immature behavior. Basically, it sees its four main characters as people who reject society, but don’t really know what to do next – they sit around in a dark, dank factory turned living space, and spew their ideals to each other. They make no money, other than what one of their group  Klas Batalo (Gabrielle Tremblay) – makes as a transgender prostitute (the others, apparently feeling no guilt about what she does to support the rest of them.
 
The obvious model for this film comes from Godard in the 1960s in films like La Chinoise with his “children of Marx and Coca Cola”. The film mixes in real footage of those 2012 protests with what happens next. The characters are energized when they are a part of the movement- even if, its clear early on that they are outside of that movement a little bit, more extreme – most of the protestors have an endpoint in mind, whereas these four want to keep going. But what do you do when you want to protest and everyone else has moved on?
 
The film is far from perfect. It is way too long, and repetitive throughout – although, I do think that’s part of the point of the film. I do think the filmmakers are trying to have it both ways – both admiring their youthful idealism, and poking fun of it (the best example of this is an early sex scene between two of the group – but once it starts to really get involved, one stops the other – its selfish to think of their own sexual desires, when revolution is needed. Later, various members of the group will get in trouble – and face harsh punishment, either by their own hands, or the hands of others – for “nostalgia”.
 
The film is largely plotless – the three hour runtime doesn’t help that – and for the most part, the characters are not particularly well defined. I do think you get to see a little bit inside of Gabrielle Tremblay’s character the most – a long scene with one of her clients in perhaps the best in the movie – but the rest kind of blend together. Again, that could easily be the point – that they have become so committed to their cause, that they’ve lost their own identities, sacrificing all to the group. It’s a fascinating film, not an altogether successful one, but one that I do find myself returning to in my mind in the week since I’ve seen it.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Brother's Keeper (1992)

Brother’s Keeper (1992)
Directed by: Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky.
 
Four year before they made the excellent Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills – a documentary that spawned two sequels, and is often held up as one of the best true crime docs in history, Joe Berliner and Bruce Sinofsky made Brother’s Keeper – a “true crime” doc in a lower key than the other film. It focused on the case of Delbert Ward – and his brothers. They lived in Munnsville, New York – a small town of only a few hundred people – one of those places where everyone knows everyone. And everyone did know the Ward boys – four brothers who didn’t bathe very often, came to town riding a couple of tractors, and basically kept to themselves on their large farm. While no one in town could rightly be called friends of the Ward boys – they weren’t enemies either – everyone basically kept to themselves. That is until the second oldest Ward boy – Bill – was found dead in his bed one morning – and Delbert was charged with his murder.
 
The Ward boys are not very smart – although, whether Delbert and the others actually suffered from intellectual disabilities, or whether they simply choose to remain mainly cut off from modern life, and hence no wise to its wise, is open for debate. Bill, the brother who winds up dead, had been suffering for a while – coughing and wheezing, complaining of pain in various places, etc. There is no evidence that any of them ever went to a doctor – so when Bill wound up dead, everyone assumed it was natural causes. But the cops find some evidence that confuses them – there’s debate as to whether a pillow was used to smother Bill, and some strange results on the autopsy. The police haul Delbert in for questioning – while there were four brothers, there were only two beds, and Delbert shared with Bill. They get a “confession” out of Delbert – but did they trick it out of him, coax it out of him – bully someone who wasn’t smart enough to know his rights to confess to something he didn’t do? The state at first floats the idea that it was a mercy killing – and then starts talking about something darker, and more perverted than that.
 
If you’re thinking this is going to be a documentary about a small town divided – you’d be wrong – while a few people do wonder if Delbert really did kill Bill as a mercy killing, no one in town wants to see him go to jail for it. They hold fundraisers for his legal defense fund – and the surviving Ward brothers become more accepted in the community than ever before. The case draws national attention – the filmmakers show the brothers watching themselves in a segment with Connie Chung for example. But what Berliner and Sinofsky capture is deeper than those segments on the show – because they stay there for so long, that everyone ends up simply accepting their presence. One of the other brothers, Lymon, is painfully shy in almost all social situations – but eventually he is able to open up to the camera – at least somewhat. The same is true for Delbert – who’s more articulate with the filmmakers than he is anywhere else.
 
The filmmakers also capture this small town brilliantly – and the attitudes in it, and why the police officers and the prosecutors – both from “the city” (what city? Who know, who cares) never do understand. I do worry that we’re going to spend the next four (or God forbid 8) years comparing everything to Trump, and Trump’s America – but you can certainly see the attitude many talk about contributing to the rise of Trump in this film. The locals talk about how everyone from the city thinks they’re all a bunch of idiot hicks – and they look on them, and think they can walk all over them without noticing. The prosecutor describes Delbert and the rest of the Wards as “outcasts” in their community – and he may not really be wrong – but the community would rather have their own outcasts, than someone from the city. The feeling that led to Trump’s rise didn’t spring up overnight – you can certainly see that in this film from 25 years ago. Yet, you can also see the humanity in rural people – some of whom are more open minded than you’d think (as one older man says even if there was sex going on between the brothers, who cares – it’s none of his business).
 
I won’t reveal the outcome of the trial – although I don’t think, the way the film is structured, that it’s ever really in doubt – especially when we get to the trial scenes themselves, which can be painful to watch. Paradise Lost and its sequels will always be the films that Berlinger and Sinofsky are remembered for – say what you want about them, but they are among the only films ever that you could argue saved someone’s life – but Brother’s Keeper is another triumph for the pair – and one of the best documentaries of the 1990s. It deserved to be more widely known.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Movie Review: Get Me Roger Stone

Get Me Roger Stone
Directed by: Dylan Bank & Daniel DiMauro & Morgan Pehme.
Written by: Dylan Bank & Daniel DiMauro & Morgan Pehme.
 
To hear Roger Stone tell it, there is hardly anything that has happened in American politics since Nixon that he isn’t at least partially responsible for. Undeniably, some of that is true – as Jeffrey Toobin calls Stone in this film, he is the “malevolent Forrest Gump of American politics” – in that everywhere you look at some major political event, Stone is there – perhaps off to the side, but he’s there. Is he responsible for all of it – or was he just there? No one seems to be quite sure what Stone did and did not do – what is fact, and what is the Roger Stone produced legend of himself. One thing is for sure though – Stone has not been a force for good in American politics.
 
Stone became a Conservative as a young man – Barry Goldwater was his idol at one point – and during college, he took time off to help work on Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign, eventually becoming the youngest person questioned by the Watergate Grand Jury, because, of course he was. Stone makes no apologies for his love of Nixon – he even has the ex-President tattooed on his back for God’s sake. His association with Nixon, oddly, never really hurt him – and he later became head of the Young Republicans, and then worked to get Ronald Reagan elected. During the 1980s – he founded a lobbying firm alongside Paul Manafort (yes, Trump’s campaign manager) – where they specialized in dirty politics – taking money from dictators and warlords, and helping to clean-up their image. That made Stone a lot of money. It was in the 1980s when Stone met Donald Trump – and tried to convince him to run for President. When Trump eventually did run for President, Stone was there of course – a couple more decades, a sex scandal cannot slow down Stone. He was more of a fringe figure by then – going on Alex Jones, pedaling his Clinton rape book and shirts, and right there supporting Trump the whole way. He was on and off the campaign more than once.
 
To say that Stone is a sleaze isn’t really an insult to him – he relishes it. He wants you – the person watching the documentary filmed by what he calls “lefty filmmakers” – to hate his guts, because that means he’s effective. He knows how to appeal to dumb people, and how to get them to come out and vote. He doesn’t believe most of what he says – because he doesn’t have to. He just needs to convince others that it’s true, or muddy the water so much that they cannot tell what is true and what isn’t. In short, Roger Stone is one of the reasons we hear so much about “Fake News” – he invented it.
 
Or, at least, that’s what he wants you to think. He wants you to think that he’s responsible for everything – Reagan winning, the election of George W. Bush, the fall of Eliot Spitzer, the rise of Trump. When the Democrats win, it’s because he was sidelined – like during the 1996 election, when a sex scandal got Stone ousted from Bob Dole’s campaign (in the interest of being fair and balanced, it doesn’t seem like that bad of a sex scandal to me – I mean he and his wife were caught advertising for swingers to join them, so he wasn’t even cheating on his wife). He’s too much of a loose cannon, too in love with the spotlight to be a man in the shadows type like Karl Rove. If Stone’s not on TV somewhere, he’ll wither up and die from lack of attention.
 
The film follows Stone over a period of many months, leading up to Election night, when Donald Trump stunned the world and became President. It does provide some moments with Stone’s family – his wife, daughter and granddaughter, and Stone himself talking about the side of him we don’t see – the private side, the husband/father/grandfather. Thankfully, there’s not much of this (just the right amount) – not because I don’t want to view Stone as human, but because it really doesn’t matter what his private life is like – it matters what he does in public, which is really to debase the American political system. That’s he’s nice to his granddaughter doesn’t really matter in the face of that.
 
The film is an important documentary for 2017. I’m sure the filmmaker thought they were making a different film when they shot it – a look at how close America came to the brink of electing an idiot, based on the sleazy politics of Stone. That film would play as a warning, and perhaps a relief. The one they made is different – an entertaining tragedy. Because no matter what you think of Roger Stone, they man is entertaining to watch – even while doing so makes your stomach churn.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Movie Review: Risk

Risk
Directed by: Laura Poitras.   
Written by: Laura Poitras.
 
During the time Laura Poitras was filming Risk, her new documentary about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, she also shot, edited and released her Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour – which of course, won her an Oscar. That film was a tightly contained, almost thriller, in which Snowden spends a few days in a Hong Kong hotel room with Poitras and a few journalists, explaining all the data he has leaked to them, just before their stories hit the airwaves. It also helped that while there are many contradictory feelings about Snowden out there (and in my case, my own head) – he really does seem to be a fairly earnest, straight forward kind of guy. What you see is what you get, and he’s not really trying to play Poitras, or anyone else. Risk, and Assange, is a different animal as it was shot over the course of seven years, and in fact more footage has been shot and added since the film debuted at Cannes in 2016. Poitras’ feelings towards Assange – and other figures in the film – changes as well. This makes for a very messy film – but a fascinating one.
 
This isn’t a film to watch if you don’t know anything about Wikileaks or Assange. That would be Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, which does a good job running down their history. This is a more intimate film, in which Poitras simply points her camera at Assange as he goes about his days, and films. She wonders why he’s giving her so much access – he doesn’t seem to like her very much she says – and yet, there she is when he and a colleague try and get then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on the phone to warn her that all of the State Department’s communication were about to be leaked – not by them, but because they themselves have been compromised (I cannot decide if egomania, brazenness or sheer idiocy that the pair call up the State Department and ask to speak to Hilary Clinton). At first, it feels like Poitras admires Assange and WikiLeaks, as well as Jacob Appelbaum, who also works there, and who we see loudly demanding accountability from Egypt’s telecommunication companies after the Arab Spring. If Assange always seemed like an egomaniac, perhaps doing good work, Appelbaum seemed like a good guy through and through. By the end, of course, her outlook on both changes drastically.
 
It’s fairly early in the film when Assange gets charged with rape with Sweden – and faces an extradition warrant back to Sweden, which he appeals as high as he could go in England, and when he still loses, starts to hide in the Ecuadorian embassy where he remains today – claiming it’s all just a ruse to get him back to Sweden, where they will end up sending him to America on more serious charges (I’ve never quite understood if that was the case, why America wanted him sent back to Sweden first – why not just get the Brits to send him back – but no, matter). Assange, of course, says the whole thing is a conspiracy against him, and he’s completely innocent. He may well be (since he won’t go back and face charges, we’ll never know) – but in the film he does go on a pretty toxic rant about radical feminists, and lesbian nightclubs, that wouldn’t be out of place on a MRA Forum. That scene is fascinating to watch the women around him, and how they react (or try not to).
 
Risk ends up becoming a study in contradictions – something Poitras admits in the film, as she didn’t know that was the movie she was making. It is about Assange who wants to expose everyone’s secrets but his own – about Appelbaum, who Poitras admits having a brief affair with – also being accused of abuse and sexual assault, while trying to project a more wholesome image of Assange (he does okay at first – but there are a few more cringe-y moments later in the film). While Assange lets Poitras back after the Snowden affair, he never forgave her for not letting Wikileaks have any of the information – instead allowing it to go the mainstream media. As Hilary Clinton’s emails get leaked, by Wikileaks, Poitras wants to know if he got them from Russia – and he won’t say, although he clearly hates Hilary Clinton.
 
You can make you want of Edward Snowden and what he did – I’m still conflicted myself – but it wasn’t really about him, and he knew it. For Assange, everything is about him – he masks it behind his ideology, that again, you can agree with or not, but he’s always at the center of it.
 
All of this makes Risk sound probably more interesting to watch than it actually is. The film is one of those that’s more interesting in retrospect – more interesting to talk about than to actually watch. The film meanders, and doesn’t always have a clear thought process behind what we’re seeing and why (I’m not sure why Poitras felt it necessary to show the embarrassing footage of Lady Gaga, but she does). This isn’t as good as Citizenfour (and neither is as good as her underseen doc from before them, The Oath) – but it is a fascinating one.

Movie Review: Hounds of Love

Hounds of Love
Directed by: Ben Young.
Written by: Ben Young.
Starring: Emma Booth (Evelyn White), Ashleigh Cummings (Vicki Maloney), Stephen Curry (John White), Susie Porter (Maggie), Damian de Montemas (Trevor), Harrison Gilbertson (Jason), Fletcher Humphrys (Gary), Steve Turner (Troy), Holly Jones (Miss Martin), Michael Muntz (Sergeant Mathews), Marko Jovanovic (Sergeant Henderson), Liam Graham (Pete), Lisa Bennet (Gabby Donovan).
 
Kudos to the people who decided to release Ben Young’s Hounds of Love on Mother’s Day weekend in North America for having the sickest sense of humor imaginable. This unrelentingly grim and bleak story of a pair of serial killers (loosely based on a real case from the 1980s) does have two mothers in it. One is the type of mother you expect to see in a movie – whose teenage daughter goes missing, and ends up doing any and everything she can to get her back. The other, is one of the sick psychopaths who kidnapped the teenage girl in the first place, and along with her husband torture and rape her – and are certainly going to kill her as well. After all, in the first sequence, we see them do the same thing to another teenage girl. I’m not quite sure I buy the final scenes of Hound of Love – the only moments where these two mothers are near each other – but up until then, Hounds of Love is certainly among the creepiest films of the year.
 
The film opens, and will return to throughout the film, by using a slow motion panning shot – taking in a group of teenage girls playing netball. This could be an innocent scene, of course, but it isn’t the way its shot – the slow motion heightens the sense of voyeurism, and the camera is not focusing on the teenage girls face, as them as individuals, but basically just as meat. This is how John and Evelyn (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) see them, and sure enough, it’s going to be one of these teenage girls they kidnap, rape and kill in the opening sequence. This was the 1980s after all, a slightly more innocent time – and while someone like John may not have been able to convince a teenage girl to willingly get in the car with him, he has Emma, and she seems nice. Who’s ever heard of a woman killer? This is the same routine they’ll pull on Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) a few days later. Vicki sneaks out of her mom’s house to go to a party – she’s pissed at her, for various reasons, and is walking when John and Emma pull up in their car. They offer to take her back to theirs for some pot – and then she can get to her party. She quickly finds herself bound to a bed, and fighting for her life as her day’s long ordeal is just starting. Most of the rest of the movie is set in that house – with those three people, only occasionally cutting away to Vicki’s frantic mother, trying to get people to take her daughter’s disappearance seriously (again, this was the 1980s, when cops thought every missing kid was a runaway, and didn’t take it seriously until someone turned up dead).
 
The film really is a psychological portrait of three people in that house together for those few days. Two of those portraits are expertly drawn, but precisely what we expect them to be. Cummings is terrific as Vicki, the survivor who does everything she can to survive – she attempts to get away, and when she can’t, she does an interesting job at trying to sow the seeds of discord between her captors – reading their needs, and responding. She bends, but doesn’t break. Curry’s John is also an excellent performance, but the kind of serial killer we’ve seen in films before as well. He really is a pathetic, weak man outside his own home, but inside, he controls everything with sadistic glee. It is Emma Booth’s performance as Evelyn – and her character – that makes Hounds of Love not only work, but do so in a way I haven’t quite seen before in a film like this. Evelyn is not a survivor girl like Vicki, nor purely sadistic like John – but a strange mix of the two in a way that is fascinating. She is certainly a victim of domestic abuse at John’s hands – both physical and psychological, and in some ways, she does what she needs to survive being with him. Yet, she is also a willing participant in every aspect of what happens to their victims – the kidnappings, the rapes, and the killings themselves. There is a part of her as sadistic as John is – her anger really flaring up when she thinks John actually thinks Vicki is attractive, and may want to cut Emma out of the loop for a moment – her whole identity is circled around being the only one John wants forever. Well that, and being a mother. We never see Evelyn’s kids in the movie, but they are brought up throughout the film. She has, unsurprisingly lost custody of them – and now dotes on her dog as she waits in vain for her kids to return (it is not a friendly dog).  
 
This is the directorial debut of Ben Young – who for the most part does an excellent job of not making an exploitation film out of the material. There is nothing overly graphic in the film at all (there is one moment, fairly early, right after Vicki is tied down that crosses that line, and hits a wrong note, but it’s the only one). Yet, there is no mistaking what happens, and it hits hard even if we do not see it in all its grisly details. As a filmmaker, he does a great job of showing the banality of this place, the harsh sun, the interchangeable houses, the dirt and grim of it all. He may overuse the slow motion panning shots, but there’s a reason beyond it looks cool (take that, Zack Snyder!). The film isn’t an easy sit, but it shouldn’t be. It’s also one you’re not likely to forget.

Movie Review: David Lynch: The Art Life

David Lynch: The Art Life
Directed by: Jon Nguyen & Rick Barnes & Olivia Neergaard-Holm.
 
David Lynch is one of my favorite filmmakers – his dark, twisted, surreal films haunt your memory like childhood nightmares, never quite leaving you. His short films can be even more messed up, and his art – paintings, sculptures, etc. – are demented – like something you would expect a serial killer to make. Yet, when Lynch talks, while saying he sounds normal would be pushing things, what wouldn’t be pushing things is to say that he doesn’t really give you much insight into his work. The 10 “hints” he provided as the entirety of the written materials for the original DVD release of Mulholland Dr. are as cryptic as the film itself. Once in an interview, he stated that Eraserhead was his most spiritual film, and the interviewer asked me to elaborate. “No” was the entirety of Lynch’s response. All of this is a big part of Lynch’s charm – and I think part of his brilliance as artist. It also makes him a lousy documentary subject if he’s going to be the only one talking, and the subject is going to be himself.
 
David Lynch: The Art Life basically has Lynch tell his life story from the time he was a kid, until sometime during the making of Eraserhead. He recounts snippets of events from his childhood that fans of Lynch will recognize in some of his later work (specifically Blue Velvet – which seems to have sprung from his suburban childhood). But Lynch’s narration is basically a fairly dry recitation of events, as well as some rather cryptic comments about art. Do you really learn anything about Lynch and his life? Not really. He brushes over his first divorce – he’s married one minute in his telling when he started making Eraserhead, divorced the next with no mention of why or how. This is Lynch’s habit throughout – he gives what happened, but doesn’t really explain anything else. As a result, it doesn’t really explain his art either.
 
Now, Lynch is more than welcome to keep his personal life private – he also more than welcome to not want to elaborate on his work. Frankly, it would be better if more artists let their work speak for itself. Then again, why would he want a documentary about himself, if he didn’t want to open up, and share something about his life, or his work? Last year’s DePalma didn’t tell me very much of anything about the man, but it told me a hell of a lot about his films. Not so here.
 
What makes this all doubly disappointing is that the film itself is wonderfully well made. Filmmakers Jon Nguyen & Rick Barnes & Olivia Neergaard-Holm have done a fantastic job of making every shot in the film interesting. The sound design is likely to be the best in any doc you’ll see this year (it’s not at Eraserhead level, but then what is). The filmmakers clearly know and love Lynch and his work, and have done a great job of making a doc about David Lynch look and feel like a doc by David Lynch may look and sound. The problem is there is gaping hole at the center of the film – one in which Lynch himself refuses to fill. And unlike in his films, where the ambiguity work, here it’s not ambiguity at all – it’s just kind of boring.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Lessons of Darkness (1992)

Lessons of Darkness (1992)
Directed by: Werner Herzog.
 
It’s interesting to go back and watch a Werner Herzog documentary from before the world turn him into a meme – and he so fully embraced it. Aside from his masterful Into the Abyss (and the On Death Row side project), I am always stuck wondering in all post-Grizzly Man Herzog docs just how seriously he is taking his strange narration, and how much he is simply embracing the image that many have of him. This isn’t a wholly bad thing – it’s made some of his work, like Encounters at the End of the World both insightful and hilarious, but at other times it’s a distraction. Watching his 54 minute documentary Lessons of Darkness from 1992 – from before Herzog was a celebrity – is eye-opening in many ways. First, it is one of Herzog’s best, most visually striking documentaries – a brilliant look at the Kuwaiti oil fields in flames – presented with little voiceover narration or context. But it’s also interesting to look at the filmmaker Herzog was at the time – his voice is over much of the first half, and then almost none in the second – as if even Herzog has been struck dumb by the devastation he sees. It’s a choice that I doubt he would make today.
 
Herzog doesn’t really provide context for his documentary – instead, approaching it in terms of his voiceover as if he were an alien visitor, unsure of what he is seeing playing out on this strange planet. Split into 13 chapters, Herzog starts with shots of Kuwait’s capital before the war – a beautiful, old city. We then flash to the familiar CNN footage – night vision green – of bombs going off all throughout the city. From there, spends much of the rest of the time surveying the damage. Most of the shot in the movie are taken from helicopter flying above the massive wreckage – and Herzog’s typical voiceover only interrupts in order to provide necessary information – like the massive lakes and rivers we are seeing, although they appear to be water, are actually oil. He speaks to only two people – a Kuwaiti woman who says she witnessed her two adult sons tortured to death in front on her, and since then she hasn’t been able to speak (she does speak in the film, but in a barely audible whisper – that Herzog doesn’t subtitle) – and another woman, shown with her young son, who talks about soldiers bursting into her home, and throwing her son to the ground and stepping on his head – and how he has not spoken since either. These are powerful anti-war statements – made perhaps more powerful by the fact Herzog provides zero context for them – the woman talk of “soldiers” – but nothing else (like, where those soldiers were from). Herzog will follow the lead of the woman and the young boy for the second half of the film – not speaking for long stretches of time – as if he too can longer speak having witnessed the horror of war that he has seen.
 
The last third of the film is the most visually striking, as Herzog and his crew go to the oilfields themselves as they are burning – massive columns of fire shooting up from the desert – and the various firefighters and oil workers on hand to try and put out the flames, and cap the wells. Then, oddly, we see them setting more fires – and Herzog’s voiceover returns – confused about what we are seeing, and why? Didn’t they just put out the fires? Why are they setting more (the film never answers).
 
Lessons of Darkness ranks as one of Herzog’s finest documentarians for several reasons. One is, like much of his work, he is more than willing to go where many others would refuse to. This isn’t safe areas in which is he filming, but Herzog is one of those madmen who will not be stopped, and somehow always ends up unscathed. Second, because I do think it represents Herzog’s worldview – as seen in other films – in a more simple, straight-forward way. Had Herzog made an overtly political film – critical of this specific war, the film would instantly be dated. But he didn’t do that – and as a result, the film becomes some deeper, more universal – a treatise on wars and the illogical nature of them in general – much like he would do years later when examining the death penalty – where it wasn’t so much this one case, but the idea of the state putting someone to death – or more accurately, the state asking people to put others to death.
 
Herzog is such a prolific director, it’s impossible to keep up with everything he’s done – I’ve seen 20 of his films – which according to IMDB, only leaves 49 (and growing) to go. As anyone who makes that many films is, Herzog is inconsistent – but when he’s at his best, he can be terrific. He’s at his best with Lessons of Darkness.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 
Directed by: James Gunn.
Written by: James Gunn based on the Marvel comics by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning and characters created by Steve Englehart and Steve Gan and Jim Starlin and Stan Lee & Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby and Bill Mantlo and Keith Giffen.
Starring: Chris Pratt (Peter Quill / Star-Lord), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Dave Bautista (Drax), Vin Diesel (Baby Groot), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Michael Rooker (Yondu), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Pom Klementieff (Mantis), Sylvester Stallone (Stakar Ogord), Kurt Russell (Ego), Elizabeth Debicki (Ayesha), Chris Sullivan (Taserface), Sean Gunn (Kraglin / On-Set Rocket). 
 
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 delivers precisely what you expect it will deliver, and nothing else. This isn’t wholly a bad thing – you cannot complain that the film doesn’t deliver what its predecessor did – because it does. What it lacks this time is anything the least bit surprising. The film leans so heavily on what worked last time, that there really isn’t time for anything all that different. The good news is that because the first film was so wildly entertaining, that the second film is also an entertaining thrill ride. But the first film was a genuine surprise – a film that came out of the Marvel machine, with a least an inkling of something new and different. This one doesn’t have that.
 
The film once again follows the title group of space misfits – led Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), their goofy, 1980s music loving orphan and misfit, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a kick-ass, no nonsense green alien, who is also his love interest, Drax (Dave Bautista), a giant, muscle bound green and red alien out of revenge and comic relief, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically modified raccoon who is also a giant asshole, and Groot – the lovable tree who was all but destroyed last movie, and is no replaced by Baby Groot – the same thing but smaller and WAY cuter. This adventure finds them outrunning a planet of aliens they’ve pissed off and the Ravagers led by Yondu (Michael Rooker) Quill used to belong to, who have been hired by those same aliens. Meanwhile, Quill meets his long lost father Ego (Kurt Russell) who tells him the secrets of his past, and Gamora is still battling her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). The other major new character is Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empath who works for Ego.
 
The film knows why it exists – and that is to please the millions of fans who made the first film one of Marvel’s more surprising hits – considering that this was a little known comic property when compared to the rest of their movies. Perhaps because it was lesser known, and had an August release date, Marvel let writer/director James Gunn off the hook a little bit, and allowed him to indulge himself a little more than most directors who work for them get to do. No such lucky this time around, as it basically seems like the instructions here were “Do it exactly the same as last time”. Luckily, that does involve a lot of Gunn himself, whose warped sense of humor comes out in the film. He also seems more comfortable with the special effects this time around, and the action sequences are smoother and better executed.
 
Having said all that, the best sequence in the entire film is the first one – a massive space battle that instead of following the action, follows Baby Groot who is at ground level as the action plays out behind him. There is more visual imagination and ingenuity in that sequence than the rest of the film combined.
 
Still, I feel like I’m being overly hard on a film that I generally had a good time with. This is a film that holds your attention from beginning to end, is funny and clever, well-acted and entertaining. For pure escapist fun, the film does its job. It just doesn’t do anything more than that – which I was kind of hoping it would. But hey, we’re about to enter a three month period of non-stop blockbuster – and if they’re all as fun as this, we won’t be complaining.