Friday, December 15, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Woyzeck (1979)

Woyzeck (1979)
Directed by: Werner Herzog.
Written by: Werner Herzog based on the play by Georg Büchner.
Starring: Klaus Kinski (Woyzeck), Eva Mattes (Marie), Wolfgang Reichmann (Captain), Willy Semmelrogge (Doctor), Josef Bierbichler (Drum Major), Paul Burian (Andres), Volker Prechtel (Handwerksbursche), Dieter Augustin (Marktschreier), Irm Hermann (Margret).
One of the reasons why almost all of Werner Herzog’s best films of the last 30 years are documentaries is because when he lost Klaus Kinski, he lost one of the only actors who was able to match the level of insanity that Herzog needed in his fiction films (the one exception is of course Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant:: Port of Call, New Orleans). The pair of them made five films together – of which Woyzeck was the third, and far and away the least, of these collaborations. There just isn’t very much here in this sleight film, about a man beaten down by life until he ends up murdering his wife. These two combined to make two of the all-time great portraits of madness – Aguirre the Wrath of God and Fitzcaraldo – but Woyzeck never comes close to matching them, and I cannot help but think that perhaps Kinski is even miscast.
In the film, Kinski plays the title character – a put upon soldier, tormented by those above him in the army, for reasons the movie never really tries to explain (he is on an all pea diet for example, but no one will say why). He is pushed around, abused, beaten and disrespected – but it isn’t until his wife cheats on him with a drum major that he really, truly loses it – leading to a slow motion climax, which is just about the only thing in the film that works.
Kinski was, of course, brilliant at playing insane characters – perhaps because he was kind of nuts himself (Herzog’s documentary on him – My Best Fiend is a better use of your time than this, and documents their relationship). Here though, his Woyzeck seems insane at the start of the film, so his descent into madness doesn’t really mean much – he’s already there. If Woyzeck is supposed to be an everyman, driven insane by the system, pushing down on the common man, than the film fails – because Kinski never really seems normal here.
Herzog is adapting a play by George Buchner, but his screenplay is odd, as many scenes play out without much in the way of dialogue, making the action confusing, and Woyzeck’s motivations unknowable. The film was made in the immediate aftermath of Herzog and Kinski’s other (and better) 1979 film, Nosferatu – Kinski using the fatigue of that film to his advantage here. Yet the film never really comes together. It’s only 82 minutes long, and that slow motion climax really is something to behold – yet the film is more of interest to Herzog/Kinski completest than anyone else. You’d be better off watching anything else the pair did together than this one though.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Movie Review: The Disaster Artist

The Disaster Artist **** / *****
Directed by: James Franco.
Written by: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber based on the book by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell.
Starring: James Franco (Tommy Wiseau), Dave Franco (Greg Sestero), Seth Rogen (Sandy Schklair), Alison Brie (Amber), Ari Graynor (Juliette Danielle), Josh Hutcherson (Philip Haldiman), Jacki Weaver (Carolyn Minnott), Zac Efron (Dan Janjigian), Hannibal Buress (Bill Meurer), Nathan Fielder (Kyle Vogt), Sharon Stone (Iris Burton), Melanie Griffith (Jean Shelton), Paul Scheer (Raphael Smadja), Jason Mantzoukas (Peter Anway), Megan Mullally (Mrs. Sestero), Casey Wilson (Casting Director), Randall Park (Male Actor), Jerrod Carmichael (Actor Friend), Bob Odenkirk (Stanislavsky Teacher), Charlyne Yi (Safoya), Bryan Cranston (Bryan Cranston), Judd Apatow (Judd Apatow).
It is entirely possible that had The Disaster Artist never been made that I would have spent my life never have seen Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. I, of course, long ago heard about Wiseau’s 2003 film – now legendary as the worst film ever made, a cult hit at midnight screenings, etc. – but I have never been one of those people who watch movies that “so bad, they’re good”. For the most part, I just think those movies are bad – and I don’t much enjoy watching them, nor do I particularly like watching something while holding myself deliberately above it – as if I am better than the film being watched. Yes, it could also be because I don’t much like midnight screenings in general and my days of getting drunk and watching movies with friends to laugh at them are long behind me. But because of The Disaster Artist – which got great reviews out of TIFF – a couple of months ago, I did sit down to watch The Room one night. Yes, it was past midnight, but I was alone in my basement, and stone cold sober. It really was horrible, and I really didn’t have any fun watching it. It was painful – as I knew it would be. Still, now having seen – and thoroughly enjoyed The Disaster Artist – I can safely say that I am glad I saw The Room – and also safely say I don’t think I’ll ever watch it again. The Disaster Artist though – I may well watch that again.
The film, directed by and starring James Franco as Wiseau, is similar to another film about the supposed worst film ever made – Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) – which mainly centered on the title character as he made Plan 9 From Outer Space. Both films certainly have a fair amount of fun at their protagonist’s expense – yet the reason why both films works is that mainly the films have a genuine affection for them as well. The films they made were horrible – but dammit all, these guys went for it, and delivered, well, something anyway.
As Wiseau, Franco gives his best performance since Spring Breakers. It doesn’t matter that he’s too young to play Wiseau (or maybe, he isn’t, since Wiseau never does say how old he is) he completely nails the strange, Eastern European accent Wiseau claims is from New Orleans, the weird mannerisms and body language, etc. He also gets into Wiseau’s head, and is brilliant at portraying a man with complete and utter lack of self-awareness. How utterly out of it do you have to be to make a film like The Room – and do it completely straight, as if you really are making a dramatic masterpiece to rival Tennessee Williams?
Franco casts his brother Dave as Greg Sestero – the other lead in The Room, and Wiseau’s friend. This makes it a little weird, since there is barely subdued homoerotic subtext between Wiseau and Sestero (all one way), but Dave Franco excels at playing this bland, handsome everyman – who goes along for the ride, even if he kind of knows it’s leading nowhere. The supporting cast is filled with famous faces perhaps too filled, although I don’t know who I’d cut. The movie charts the making of The Room – a disaster in itself, and is out and out hilarious for the most part. The movie really only gets dark in one scene – a sex scene, where director/actor Wiseau goes too far.
The film really is a delicate balancing act. Go too far, and the film may just come across as a bunch of famous people mocking the guy who made this legendary disaster. Go too soft, and it feels like you’re pulling your punches. I haven’t like Franco the director before – but I think he, his cast and the excellent script walk that fine line just about perfectly. This film in the end will do nothing except bolster the reputation of Wiseau, and The Room – which is really all he ever wanted.

Movie Review: Wonder Wheel

Wonder Wheel ** / *****
Directed by: Woody Allen.
Written by: Woody Allen.
Starring: Kate Winslet (Ginny), Justin Timberlake (Mickey), Jim Belushi (Humpty), Juno Temple (Carolina), Jack Gore (Richie), David Krumholtz (Jake).
For the most part, I have been on the side of “separate the art from the artist” whenever things come up – about Roman Polanski, Nate Parker, or of course, Woody Allen. The #MeToo movement that has sprung up recently is a great thing, and I do believe we are all better off with men who abuse their power exposed to the world. Yet, I’m still basically saying the same thing – separate the art from the artist, because once you go down that road, where do you draw the line? In the case of Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel, I really do wish I could do that – separate the man Allen is, from the film he made – but I really, really can’t this time. Allen has made a film about a washed up actress (Kate Winslet), well on her way to destroying her second marriage because of her infidelity, who when she finds out her current lover would rather have her step daughter than herself, does something horrible to exact her revenge. Somehow, by the end of this thing, the dude who wants to leave Winslet for her stepdaughter has the moral high ground! I mean, Allen has to be trolling us here, right?
But I digress. Even if you are able to separate Allen from his work this time around, the sad truth is that Wonder Wheel is another of those late Allen films that feels half baked. There are some nice moments delivered by Winslet – especially in the final act, when she really goes off the deep end, and the cinematography by Vittorio Storaro (who also made Allen’s last film, Café Society, look spectacular) really is wonderful. The dialogue doesn’t even have as many tin eared clunkers as recent Allen films, and the story is relatively streamlined – cutting out a lot of the distracting subplots recent Allen films have had. As the Allen surrogate, Justin Timberlake has a charm all his own – he isn’t trying to “do” an Allen impersonation – which is mainly a good thing (it worked wonders for Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris).
And yet, the movie really just kind of sits there for an hour, waiting for the fireworks of the last act. As Ginny, the overworked waitress/mother/wife to Humpty (Jim Belushi), Winslet really is quite good. The role isn’t that far off from Cate Blanchett’s in Blue Jasmine – and Winslet shows enough here to make you wish her role was half as good as Blanchett’s was. As Humpty, Belushi really is quite bad – no matter how dark the movie gets, he seems to be playing everything for laughs – like he’s part of a 1950s sitcom or something. I did like that Timberlake doesn’t try to do an Allen impression, but he doesn’t have all that much to do at times here, and his motivations shift from scene to scene for no reason. Juno Temple is a delight as Carolina, the stepdaughter, although a little bit more depth would have helped – so she hasn’t just playing the sweet ingénue.
Allen making a disappointing film is nothing new. He’s been hit or miss since the late 1990s, even as he maintains his one a year pace. But Allen making a film that Wonder Wheel somehow feels more disappointing than he has in the past. Part of it, yes, is that you sit there and cannot believe that Allen has essentially made a film about how he’s the wronged party. But it’s also because he wastes so much good stuff here – Winslet, Storaro in particular – which is used to make nothing more than this testament to his own self-delusion.

Movie Review: Princess Cyd

Princess Cyd *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Stephen Cone.
Written by: Stephen Cone.
Starring: Rebecca Spence (Miranda Ruth), Jessie Pinnick (Cyd Loughlin), Malic White (Katie Sauter), James Vincent Meredith (Anthony James), Tyler Ross (Tab), Matthew Quattrocki (Ridley).
Not a whole lot happens in the sweet, subtle coming of age film Princess Cyd, and for the most part, that works in the films favor. In fact, the few instances when the film attempts some heavier dramatic moments are the moments when the film stumbles – as if writer/director Stephen Cone is straining for a sense of importance – something to make Princess Cyd something other than a low-key coming of age film. But that is precisely what Princess Cyd is, and precisely what it’s best at. No, it isn’t going to supplant Lady Bird as the year’s best female coming-of-age film, but it appeals to the same audience, and has the drama factor dialed further back.
In the film, Jessie Pinnick stars as Cyd – a 16-year old girl, living in South Carolina with her dad. All we know of her mom is that she is dead – although a 911 call that plays over the opening credits hints at dark reasons for that – ones that will eventually be revealed late in the film. As a 16 year old is wont to do – she is clashing with her dad right now, who thinks that perhaps it would be for the best to get away from each other for a few weeks. And this is how Cyd ends up in Chicago, staying with her writer Aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence) – her mom’s sister – who she hasn’t seen since the funeral, 8 years ago. Miranda lives a happy, but solitary life – no love life to speak of, but she does have close friends, and of course, her work. She and Cyd are very different in many ways – not least of which because Cyd doesn’t read anything not on her phone. Cyd is also direct in that way that teenagers can be – she says things that pop into her head, without thinking how they will sound.
The movie is really about how these two women negotiate the space around each other, their boundaries, and each change each other in quiet, subtle ways. There is a love story of sorts in it, when Cyd meets Katie (Malic White), and is drawn to her. She hasn’t been with a girl before – and she resists any sort of label now, but she and Katie really do like each other. There is no secret about what is happening, and one of the ways the film is refreshing is that Miranda never really gives Cyd a lecture about sex – or show that much concern. She knows that Cyd is going to experiment anyway, so why fight it that hard? This also means the one moment when Miranda does lecture Cyd – about Miranda’s choices in her life that Cyd sees as making her incomplete but Miranda does not – it hits all the harder.
Princess Cyd is one of those odd movies that as you watch it, you kind of want more to happen in it – this is certainly a movie where some will complain “nothing happens” – and yet, when things do happen, it feels off. The big monologue at the end of the movie explaining what happened to Cyd’s mom feels out-of-place – it’s believable, sure, but I don’t think it really adds anything to film as it comes out of left field, then isn’t mentioned again. A potential sexual assault on Katie by her brothers friend also feels strangely out-of-sync – a plot device to get Katie to stay at Miranda’s for a while, and not a natural part of the story.
Besides, as the movie moves along, the accumulation of details about these women – and their slowly flowering relationship is really all that is needed. This is a lovely, low-key indie film – it doesn’t push too hard for effect, which is exactly why it has the effect that it does.

Movie Review: My Happy Family

My Happy Family **** / *****
Directed by: Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Gross.  
Written by: Nana Ekvtimishvili.
Starring: Ia Shugliashvili (Manana), Merab Ninidze (Soso), Berta Khapava (Lamara), Tsisia Qumsishvili (Nino), Giorgi Khurtsilava (Vakho), Goven Cheishvili (Otar), Dimitri Oragvelidze (Rezo), Mariam Bokeria (Kitsi), Lika Babluani (Tatia Chigogidze).
Nothing plays out exactly how you expect it to in My Happy Family – a new film from Georgia (the country, not the state) in which a woman in her 50s, Manana (Ia Shugliashvili) decides to leave her family. We first meet her when her decision as already been made – although she hasn’t told anyone yet. She’s looking for a small rental apartment, and finds one. When she tells her family – including her husband Soso (Merab Ninidze), two grown kids and her parents (all of whom live in the same apartment), they are shocked. Over the course of the films, extended family and friends will all talk to Manana, and try and figure out why she did what she did. Was Soso abusive? A drunk? Did he cheat on her? No to all of these. It appears more than anything that after spending the first 50 years of her life as part of a large, loud family, always in each other’s faces that all she wants now is quiet and solitude.
If this were an American film, you could write the beats of this film by heart. Manana would have a new man by act two – probably someone kind, charming and good looking, and free from the shackles of an oppressive marriage, Manana would slowly start to shine. But that isn’t this film. Manana really doesn’t have any big plans for her life, and no new love interest enters her life. She also isn’t free from her family completely – she’s drawn back in for family occasions, and all this leads to more questions and accusations. Strangely, it is her husband Soso who appears most on her side than anyone – and it isn’t precisely because he wanted out of the marriage either. While Manana may have harboring this secret desire to get the hell out for years, he is harboring his own secrets as well. Like hers, they aren’t the kind of explosive ones you usually build a movie around – but the kind of melancholy, sad ones that we all have.
The film is directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Gross (with a screenplay by Ekvtimishvili). The filmmaking on display is low-key, but in the best way – it doesn’t draw attention to itself, but the camera is always in the right spot, and flows naturally from room to room, place to place. The screenplay and the acting does the same thing. The film really is a gradual accumulation of details that builds to a powerful conclusion – not because anything is resolved, but because by then, you know everything there is to know about this family, and their lives.

Movie Review: Trophy

Trophy *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Christina Clusiau & Shaul Schwarz.
People who are set in their thinking about big game hunting – on either side – will find plenty to be appalled at in the documentary Trophy. The film basically lets people tell their side of the story unchallenged by the filmmakers – who challenge them in other ways, mainly by allowing others to speak, or to look, with unflinching detail, at what this hunting looks like. This isn’t an easy film to watch – nor should it be. Whenever we are talking about the killing of animals – whether its farm animals for food, or various animals that are hunted (either for food or sport), I think it’s necessary to look at what it all looks like, in all of its bloody, disgusting detail. Trophy does that, while it also brings up much food for thought as it goes along as well.
For example, the film spends some time with a man who raises rhinos in Africa – and in order to protect them from poachers, every few years, he and his team drug them, and cut off their horns. That is what the poachers want after all, and the horns themselves will grow back. He also argues that he should be allowed to sell the horns he cuts off – that way, he could use the profits to help raise the rhinos, and protect them from extinction. The sale of rhino horns was made illegal to try and cut down on poaching, and thus save the animals, but isn’t this another way around the system? You can look at his point as either monstrous or pragmatic, and probably be right. After all, it’s not saving rhinos that it is the issue – but you want to save who they are. If rhinos are basically raised as farm animals, are they really rhinos anymore? But is it better to let them all die off than have, for lack of a better term, domesticated rhinos?
Another person the film spends a lot of time with is Phillip Glass (not the composer) – an American hunter, who we first see taking his small child with him on his first hunt, to kill his first deer. Throughout the film, we will follow Glass because he represents the “hunter tourism” industry – he wants to head to Africa (and does, repeatedly) to kill one of each of the “Big Five” (lions, elephants, rhinos, buffalo and leopard) – each of which will cost him tens of thousands of dollars to kill. Yet, what if that money that is spent to kill these animals is used to protect the animals as well? Nothing really is simple.
The film is gorgeous shot by directors Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, which makes the moments in which animals are killed, and then posed, all the more shocking. The filmmakers will let the people on camera speak about the beauty of hunting, and honoring the animals, etc. – but it’s not going to shy away from the carnage either.
The film offers a complex look at an issue, and doesn’t tell you how to feel about it. There will be some who are outraged – and they certainly have a point. I don’t necessary like the idea of hunting for sport, which I think it killing for killing sake. And yet, if you do turn these animals into some kind of money making venture, then there is a profit motive to actually keep them alive, and not let them go extinct. But at what cost. Trophy is a film that may enrage you, but it is a provocative and intelligent film about an issue that is more complex than most people realize.

Movie Review: The Circle

The Circle * ½ / *****
Directed by: James Ponsoldt.
Written by: James Ponsoldt & David Eggers based on the novel by Eggers.
Starring: Emma Watson (Mae Holland), Tom Hanks (Bailey), Karen Gillan (Annie), John Boyega (Ty), Patton Oswalt (Stenton), Eller Coltrane (Mercer), Glenne Headley (Bonnie), Bill Paxton (Vinnie), Nate Corddry (Dan).
The best thing about The Circle is Tom Hanks’ performance as the villain of the movie, especially his decision to not play the role as a villain, but just as another Tom Hanks character. It’s this decision that makes the performance work, because it makes the role all the creepier, and all that much easier to swallow. Hanks’ character is essentially a version of Steve Jobs – who works at an internet company that essentially controls almost everything, and wants to take over that little bit that they don’t. He’s so likable, so affable – so Tom Hanks – which he makes even the most insidious things he says seem reasonable – something we could all agree with. That makes it all the more chilling.
The worst thing about The Circle is, well, pretty much everything else. This movie, based on a novel by David Eggers, doesn’t capture the same feeling of paranoia that the novel did, streamlines the plot too much, and ends on a confusing note. The novel was a dystopia – but I don’t know what the hell the movie is. True enough, the novel had its share of issues – but generally it worked by taking our modern world, and going just a step or two beyond where we’re already at. The movie tries something similar, but because the film never finds the right tone the result is a bland, flavorless movie.
The film stars Emma Watson as Mae Holland – who is excited to start work at The Circle – an internet company, that has essentially found a way to combine everything we do online – from social media to banking, and everything in between – into one account. They are a monolithic company – more powerful than the government. Mae starts in customer service – but works her way up – rather suddenly – when she comes to the attention of Bailey (Hanks) – the CEO of the company. Soon, she is being used as a model for everyone in the company – and indeed in the world – and this formerly smart, opinionated young woman starts sounding more and more like a member of a cult.
Or, at least, that’s what I think they are trying for here. I’m not sure Watson is the right actress for this role – she has an innate intelligence to her that comes through in every scene – so you never really believe the brainwashing. The movie also changes the ending of the book – to make it more triumphant – but it really only makes it all the more confusing. The other actors in the film – however talented they may be – cannot do much with the dialogue they are given. Only Patton Oswalt – as another Circle executive – shows you what he could have done had his role been better written (Oswalt is scarier here than I’ve seen him before – but they don’t anything with that).
The film was directed by James Ponsoldt, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Eggers. He isn’t a good choice for the material. His previous films include very good films like The Spectacular Now, Smashed and The End of the Tour – which were modest, character driven films. Here, saddled with a narrative with a lot going on, and the necessity of building tension and fear, he really never finds his footing. The film feels like it takes forever getting started, and then just kind of fizzles out.
Personally, I do hope that we get more of Hanks in bad guy roles in the future. I don’t think we’d buy him as an out-and-out psychopath – but in this kind of role, he could be brilliant. He already is, in a way, here. It’s just that no one else working on the film figured out what to do.