Thursday, February 15, 2018

Movie Review: The 15:17 to Paris

The 15:17 to Paris ** / ***** 
Directed by: Clint Eastwood   
Written by: Dorothy Blyskal based on the book by Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone and Jeffrey E. Stern.
Starring: Spencer Stone (Airman Spencer Stone), Anthony Sadler (Anthony Sadler), Alek Skarlatos (Specialist Alek Skarlatos), Jenna Fischer (Heidi Skarlatos), Judy Greer (Joyce Eskel), Cole Eichenberger (Young Spencer Stone), Paul-Mikél Williams (Young Anthony Sadler), Bryce Gheisar (Young Alek Skarlatos), Ray Corasani (Ayoub El-Khazzani), Thomas Lennon (School Principal), Jaleel White (Garrett Walden), Tony Hale (Gym Teacher), P.J. Byrne (Mr. Henry - Hallway Monitor).
 
It’s easy to see what drew 87 year old icon Clint Eastwood to the story of three young Americans, two of them in the armed forces, who happened to be a train from Amsterdam to Paris when a terrorist, armed with an assault rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, tried to carry out a deadly attack – only to be foiled by those three men, with the assistance of others on board the train. It is a story of everyday heroism and how violence is sometimes necessary to prevent even worse violence. But Eastwood never really finds his way into the material here, never really figures out what he’s trying to say with the film. Eastwood’s films have always been about violence – its causes and its effects, and while his films often argue violence is necessary, they also usually argue that it comes with some sort of cost. This film never gets that chance, as it climaxes with the violence, and then has a hasty reconstructed ceremony honoring the heroes, and then just ends. The attack itself is handled very well by Eastwood – most of what leads up to it is horribly awkward.
 
Part, but not all, of that awkwardness comes from the fact that Eastwood cast the real life people – Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos – to play themselves. There are directors who excel at working with non-professionals, and drawing great performances out of them – but Eastwood is not one of them (I cannot help but think that Eastwood’s famous quick shooting style of only liking one or two takes cannot help amateurs, who clearly don’t know what they’re doing). All three performances are awkward – although at a certain point, they also become somewhat charming. Perhaps it’s because the dialogue for some the pros is so brutally awful, that they don’t come across any better (poor Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer can do absolutely nothing with their roles). The film spends an absurd amount of time on the three young men in high school (middle school?) as all three of them get into trouble, but find each other as friends – and remain so, even when circumstances force them apart. This segment has a whole lot of wonderful actors – Thomas Lennon, Jaleel White, Tony Hale, P.J. Bryne – show up for a scene or two, and then disappear having not done very much.
 
The rest of the movie is about the trio as they travel through Europe – Italy, Berlin, and Amsterdam- on a collision course with that train we know they will eventually get on. Eastwood has many gifts as a director – making a casual, hangout film isn’t one of them (I would love to see behind the scenes footage of Eastwood at that club in Amsterdam though if some exists).
 
What’s most disappointing to me about The 15:17 to Paris though is how simple Eastwood makes this all seem – how straight forward. Eastwood is a conservative filmmaker to be sure, but over the years, his films have taken more pointed shots at violence, patriotism and heroism than most liberal filmmakers have. He has rarely depicted even violence as one sided (the criticism that drove me nuts about American Sniper is that Eastwood had made a career of “white hats” and “black hats” – clearly defined characters of good and evil, which make me wonder if those saying that had seen any of his films at all). His last truly great films – Flags of Our Father and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) were two sides of the same coin – showing both the American and Japanese version of that battle, the American version really questioning how America identifies and celebrate war heroes, and the Japanese side showing honor of America’s enemy. The blind spot for Eastwood here is Islamic extremism – a subject he has now tackled twice in American Sniper and The 15:17 to Paris. I didn’t mind that he didn’t have any Iraqis as real characters in American Sniper – that was a film that honed in on the perspective of a man who experienced the war through a sniper rifle, at a distance, when the enemies would have been faceless. There is no such excuse in The 15:17 to Paris – where the heroes get up close and personal with the terrorist. He is as faceless as the enemies in American Sniper – we have no idea what led him to that train or why. Eastwood, it seems, doesn’t care.
 
I really do hope that Eastwood sticks around for a while longer, and directs some more films. When he goes, he will leave a hole in Hollywood that will be impossible to fill. Having said that, it’s pretty hard to argue that The 15:17 to Paris is one of the worst films Eastwood has ever directed – a misjudged film, made a filmmaker without the skillset to pull it off. You want to admire it for all sorts of reasons, but it just isn’t very good.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Movie Review: The Ritual

The Ritual ** ½ / *****
Directed by: David Bruckner.
Written by: Joe Barton based on the novel by Adam Nevill.
Starring: Rafe Spall (Luke), Arsher Ali (Phil), Robert James-Collier (Hutch), Sam Troughton (Dom), Paul Reid (Robert).
 
Director David Bruckner is a talented filmmaker. He did my favorite segment of the horror omnibus films V/H/S (Amateur Night, about a group of horny college guys who get way more than they bargained for) and Southbound (The Accident, about a man on a remote highway looking at his cellphone, and runs over a young woman – which ends up being just the beginning of a horrible night). Both of those are stylish mini-horror films that do an expert job at building the tension, and then finally letting it out. His debut feature, The Ritual, shows some of that talent but is mainly undone by a rather lackluster script, that hits every story beat we expect it to and is essentially going through the motions of this type of horror film. Bruckner, mainly, does a fine job at directing, but there is only so much he can do with what he has to work with.
 
The film is about a group of four university friends, now in their 30s, who instead of the usual “man’s trip” to some party city, have decided to go hiking in Northern Sweden instead. In large part, this decision was made to honor a fifth friend – a man he see murdered in the opening sequence in a random convenience store robbery – a place he would not have been in if not for Luke (Rafe Spall) – who was able to hide during the robbery and escaped without a scratch. The four surviving friends are on their way back to the lodge they are staying at, when they decide to go off the defined path, and instead, to walk through the forest instead. After all, the forest is a more direct route, they can relax sooner, and one of the men, Dom (Sam Troughton), has just twisted his knee and won’t shut up about it. What can possibly go wrong in the dark, remote woods of Sweden?
 
Basically, what The Ritual wants to be is a more polished, all male version of The Blair Witch Project. For most of the movie, the horror comes from noises in the night, things hanging from or carved into trees, and a house in complete disrepair that has some weird stuff in it. As a director, Bruckner doesn’t go with the hand held camera on The Blair Witch Project, but a more polished look. He makes great use of darkness and the house, and all the trees – perhaps that’s easy, but he does a great job regardless.
 
What Bruckner cannot help is the basic plot of the movie, which builds and builds and builds towards a climax with an actual monster (which, to be honest, looks more strange than scary, and was clearly created on a budget). He can also not help the fact that other than Rafe Spall’s Luke, the other three men are ill defined and interchangeable. I do wish someone along the way questioned the need for all the flashbacks to “that night” that litter the film, since it doesn’t actually seem like it has anything to do with the plot at all.
 
I still do think that Bruckner is a talented horror film director. He got a chance to make a full feature after three omnibus segments (I have not seen The Signal – although several people have said that, like the others, his segment was the best) – and decided to take it. I think he does what he can with a script that doesn’t really work.

Movie Review: Seeing Allred

Seeing Allred ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain.
 
I firmly believe that a great documentary could – and should – be made about Gloria Allred – the famed feminist lawyer, who has spent her career fighting for Women’s rights, as well as gay rights and civil rights of all kinds. She has many detractors – on all sides – who see her as opportunistic and shrill – in it for herself, her won celebrity and money. A truly great documentary would take on those criticisms head on, allow people with all sorts of views on Allred to come forward and say what they have to say. Unfortunately, it seems like the filmmakers behind Seeing Allred – Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain – are more interested in presenting a purely positive portrayal of Allred. It doesn’t allow the criticisms levelled against Allred over the years (most of which is misogynistic, some of it not) to really be explored. The criticism when it does come out is either in the form of old clips and sound bites that don’t run more than a few seconds, or stated by Allred allies (who make up all the interviews in the film that aren’t of Allred herself) just so they can swat them aside the next second. I’d be more interested in seeing a documentary that faced those criticisms head on – and allowed Allred to do the same. After all, as the movie makes clear, Allred is at her best when she is fighting back, and having to make her points to people who don’t necessarily want to hear them – and she doesn’t care what you think of her. I don’t think this documentary captures her at her best.
 
What the documentary does do a decent job of is going over the highlights of Allred’s more than 40 year legal career, and a few select moments from her difficult personal life (two marriages that ended badly, a rape in Mexico, which required her to get an illegal, back alley abortion that almost killed her). The film quickly goes over some of the big – and not so big – cases in her career. She was among the first to sue the Catholic Church for sex abuse – decades before the scandal broke big. Or suing a toy store for having “Boy” and “Girl” Toy aisles. Or representing the Brown family during the O.J. Simpson trial, in order to get their side of the story out. The framing device of the movie – the one it returns to again and again – is a series of press conferences Allred holds with various women who have accused Bill Cosby of drugging and raping them.
 
The film essentially lets Allred tell her own story. Her interviews make up the backbone of the film. As in the various clips of her throughout the film, she comes across as intelligent, confident and strong. Yes, she likes the attention and the money, and knows how to get both – but if she were a man, she’d be celebrated for that, not condemned.
 
In short, I think Seeing Allred is worth seeing for those who know nothing about her, and just want a quick primer on who she is, and why she is famous. I wish the film dug in deeper, challenged Allred, her supporters and her critics with something more. What the filmmakers have essentially done is made a dull film about a woman who is anything but.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Movie Review: Blame

Blame *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Quinn Shephard.
Written by: Laurie Shephard & Quinn Shephard.
Starring: Quinn Shephard (Abigail Grey), Nadia Alexander (Melissa Bowman), Chris Messina (Jeremy Woods), Trieste Kelly Dunn (Jennifer), Tate Donovan (Robert McCarthy), Owen Campbell (TJ), Geneva Carr (Mrs. Howell), Tessa Albertson (Ellie Redgrave), Luke Slattery (Eric), Sarah Mezzanotte (Sophie Grant).
 
Blame was written and directed by, as well as starring, Quinn Shephard, who was only 22 when she made the film, and younger than that when she wrote it. It does suffer from some of the same flaws as many debut filmmakers do – in that Shephard tries to cram everything she ever wanted to say about high school and teenagers into one movie – and yet it’s still a fairly remarkable debut. Whatever problems the screenplay has, Shephard’s direction more than makes up for – the film get more dreamlike as it goes along, and yet Shephard is able to get a mounting sense of dread throughout. I wasn’t thrilled with the ending, but given the various ways things could have gone, its better than it could have been.
 
In the film, Shephard plays Abigail Grey – a young woman entering her senior year in high school. During her junior year, she had some mental issues, and was institutionalized for them – but her parents are convinced she is ready to come back to class. She is, of course, mocked and made fun of – called Sybil by her peers, after the book and TV show from the 1970s (this may be stretching credibility here – I’m not sure people in my high school 20 years ago would have gotten that reference). She makes a one connection in her school – with the new drama teacher, Jeremy Woods (Chris Messina). Woods, a failed actor, loves the theater, and looks forward to putting on play. He puts aside what he’s supposed to be working on – The Glass Menagerie (another touchstone for the Abigail character) and instead decides to do The Crucible – casting Abigail as her namesake, and eventually taking on the role of John Proctor himself (this is a horrible idea, for many reasons that should have been apparent to everyone). Their relationship becomes much too close.
 
The other major character is Melissa (Nadia Alexander), the head of the popular cheerleader crowd (although she’s kind of a goth cheerleader, which seems like a contradiction, but some works). She leads the torment against Abigail, and steps it up more than a little bit when Abigail gets the role she wanted. She’s also drinking, partying, betraying her friends, and fighting with her father (Tate Donovan). She is clearly messed up, and spiraling out of control.
 
As you can tell, Shephard’s film is jammed packed with the issues she’s trying to tackle – mental illness, bullying, peer pressure, teacher-student relationships, pedophilia, etc, etc. A better, more confident film may have just focused on a few of these aspects. In particular, I was struck by how Shephard is able to show the competition between teen girls, how they put each other down, how they compete for the same boys, and look to them to get a sense of self-worth, that can easily be destroyed. It’s a sad, destructive cycle, and it’s one Shephard gets right. The relationship between Jeremy and Abigail is strong as well – what she doesn’t know about him is that he is a weak, somewhat pathetic guy, who cannot resist the admiration she stares at him with. Messina still makes him real though – and although I think the film finds him too sympathetic, it’s a fascinating performance.
 
The screenplay for the film is too obvious – it wears its inspirations on its sleeve, and draws its lines a little too neatly. Yet the direction really does shine here – Shephard isn’t showing off in her more stylistic moments, but she is showing just how what an eye she has for capturing interesting moments, and visuals. She is also able to get strong performances out of her whole cast – including herself. In short, while I don’t think Blame is a great movie – it is a great debut. The fact that Shephard did it all when was just 22 shows her skill, and potential, to make something truly great one day.

Movie Review: Peter Rabbit

Peter Rabbit ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Will Gluck.
Written by: Will Gluck & Rob Lieber based on the book by Beatrix Potter.
Starring: James Corden (Peter Rabbit), Domhnall Gleeson (Mr. McGregor), Rose Byrne (Bea), Margot Robbie (Flopsy), Daisy Ridley (Cotton-tail), Elizabeth Debicki (Mopsy), Sam Neill (Older Mr. McGregor), Sia (Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle), Colin Moody (Benji), Vauxhall Jermaine (Jackson), Terenia Edwards (Siobhan).
 
It’s very easy to be cynical about children’s entertainment – and Hollywood normally gives you no reason not to be. They are basically stuck in a cycle now of taking a property that people will recognize the name of, and then making the same kind of crass, crude entertainment they always do, just with a few recognizable names. Once in a while, you get something as magical as Paddington (or it’s even better sequel – and why haven’t you people made that wonderful film the biggest hit of 2018 so far), but more often than not, you get something like Peter Rabbit. It isn’t a horrible movie by any means – and in general, my kids and the other kids in the audience, seemed to enjoy it. But it’s busy and loud, and have far too many jokes that will be dated by the time the film comes out on home video. There is a reason why Beatrix Potter’s books are still being read more than 100 years later – and a reason why this film is likely to be forgotten very soon.
 
To be fair to the film, I don’t think it’s as bad as the initial previews led many to believe. Yes, there is some hip hop birds and singing, but the film has at least some respect for Potter’s original story in its opening sequence, when Peter (voiced by James Corden), his triplet sisters (Margot Robbie, Daisy Ridley, Elizabeth Debicki – three very talented actresses who I cannot tell apart in this film) and their cousin Benji (Colin Moody) as they raid Old McGregor’s (Sam Neil) farm. From there, of course, the film has to spin out a larger tale to fill the time, so they end up bringing in a younger Mr. McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson) – who wants to sell the place, and needs to fix it up first, even as he falls for the neighbor, Bea (Rose Bryne) – who loves the rabbits that he despises.
 
If there is a reason to see Peter Rabbit, it is Gleeson, who throws himself into the role with a lot more glee and commitment than most actors do in this sort of film. He is doing expert level physical comedy – pratfalls and mugging to the camera, and makes you believe he would have been an excellent comedian in the silent era. Bryne is sweet as Bea, but I wish they gave her something – anything – else to play other than sweet.
 
Corden, I think, is the wrong choice for Peter Rabbit. He comes across as too brash, too obnoxious, too modern. He takes over in a weird way, and isn’t very likable. I know this is part of the point – strangely, I think the film takes Wes Anderson’s Rushmore as an example, of two males warring over a woman – one who can never get her, and one who is lying to her – but that also ends up going against Bea’s initial point about the rabbits – which is that they are animals, just their following animal instincts. Strangely, this is the second children’s film of 2018 – after Paddington 2 – that made me think of both Wes Anderson, and silent comedians. Paddington 2 did so in a much, much better way (seriously, why didn’t more of you go see Paddington 2).
 
Overall, Peter Rabbit isn’t a painful experience. It’s kind of fun at times, and Gleeson and Neil seem to be having a blast, which helps a great deal. Is it cynical, disposable entertainment? Yes. But not everything can be Paddington.

Movie Review: Thelma

Thelma **** / *****
Directed by: Joachim Trier.
Written by: Eskil Vogt & Joachim Trier.
Starring: Eili Harboe (Thelma), Kaya Wilkins (Anja), Ellen Dorrit Petersen (Unni), Henrik Rafaelsen (Trond), Grethe Eltervåg (Young Thelma).
 
If you can imagine Stephen King’s Carrie directed by Ingmar Bergman, who can get close to seeing what Joachim Trier is going for with his film Thelma. This is a horror story, about a teenage girl with psychic powers in the first throes of love and lust, and who naturally loses control over everything, without really realizing it. The first scene in the film sets things up so we know this isn’t going to be a typical story, as a father and daughter (around 6) go plodding through the snowy forest. The father sites a deer and raises his rifle – his daughter is transfixed by the deer – and doesn’t realize that her father has changed his aim, and is now pointing the gun at the back of her head. Eventually, we will figure out why.
 
But most of the action takes place in the present – where Thelma is a college freshman, away from her parents for the first time. We assume that they are just a little strict – they get nervous if she doesn’t immediately answer their phone calls, and know her class schedule better than she does – and even comes down to stay with her, in her apartment, on a weekend. The whole family is religious, and while it doesn’t seem to be the fire and brimstone type Christianity of Carrie, it is quietly strict. Things seem to be going okay with Thelma – she’s lonely, but smart – until she becomes friends – and then more – with Anja (Kaya Wilkins). Whatever has been lying dormant in Thelma is suddenly not dormant anymore.
 
On the surface, Thelma is a genre film – a horror film going over some well-worn terrain, combining the coming-of-age, sexual awakening of a teenage girl, and unleashing of her power upon those around her. Trier, however, takes this story seriously (perhaps a touch too seriously – I’ll get to that), making a film that really does look at this young woman, her faith, her sexuality, her family, her past and letting it play out as naturally and realistically as it can, given Thelma’s powers. None of the deaths or action is played for thrills at all. The film ends up, perhaps, where you expect it to, but it takes a different, more serious route there.
 
This approach mostly works for me – but left a few nagging complaints for me. For one, I don’t think Trier needs to spend as much as he does showing Thelma playing detective looking into her family history – savvy audience members will get there before the film even starts, so move it along. As well, it always bugs me a little – just a little – when filmmakers making a genre film seem to think that theirs is “above” the genre, and therefore doesn’t want to offer any of the baser pleasures of the genre. Carrie is a masterpiece of its kind, has a lot to say about its subject – but doesn’t hold itself above the genre. Same with Raw. Thelma wants to cloak some of those genre trappings behind a prestige sheen.
 
Still, that’s a minor complaint – and something that didn’t bother me much when watching the film. This is an engrossing film, and one that is expertly directed by Trier – more than making up for his thuddingly dull English language debut Louder Than Bombs a few years ago. Eili Harboe is terrific in the lead role as well, delivering a sympathetic performance, even as the film goes along, and she starts making increasingly questionable choices. She slowly reels you in, as does the film. I just wish Trier had loosened the reigns just a little bit – and let the genre loose.

Movie Review: My Friend Dahmer

My Friend Dahmer *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Marc Meyers.
Written by: Marc Meyers based on the book by Derf Backderf.
Starring: Ross Lynch (Jeffrey Dahmer), Alex Wolff (John "Derf" Backderf), Anne Heche (Joyce Dahmer), Dallas Roberts (Lionel Dahmer), Vincent Kartheiser (Dr. Matthews), Tommy Nelson (Neil), Harrison Holzer (Mike).
 
As almost any film about Jeffrey Dahmer would have to be, My Friend Dahmer is not an easy movie to watch. This is a movie that ends with Dahmer still at the age of 18 – a few weeks after high school ended - his first victim just getting into his car. He would claim 16 more victims in the next 12 years, before he was arrested – his crimes, because of their brutality, and because they involved cannibalism, and perhaps because they involved homosexuality (something that may allowed them to go undetected, as the police didn’t seem to care much about that community in the 1980s). There is not a lot of violence in My Friend Dahmer – he does some icky things with roadkill, but it’s not graphic, and he kills a fish, but again, it’s not really graphic. The film is hard to watch mainly because we in the audience know just how deeply disturbed this teenager is – and no one else in the film seems to notice. They think he’s weird or strange, but they mainly ignore him – so lost in their own worlds, and own problems to notice this kid. You could barely call him an outcast at school – he was more like a ghost no one really noticed. The film is mainly about his senior year in high school – the brief friendship he had with another student, who years later would go on to make a graphic novel about that time, that would be adapted into this movie.
 
Ross Lynch (probably in an effort to distance himself from his Disney show Austin & Ally) plays Dahmer as a lanky, silent, unknowable kid. If he’s not being picked on in school, no one notices him as he silently plods down the hallways at school, not unlike Frankenstein. At home, his parents don’t have much more time for him. His mother, Joyce (Anne Heche), clearly has a mental illness herself, and his downtrodden father Lionel (Dallas Roberts) is exhausted from dealing with her, and his job. He is the only one who realizes something isn’t quite right about Jeffrey, but just thinks its shyness – not anything more than that. Perhaps in a desperate, last ditch effort for some sort of attention, Dahmer starts acting out at school – throwing “fits” – acting like he’s having seizures, or just yelping and making noise. This draws the attention of Derf (Alex Wolff) and his friends – who take Dahmer as their “mascot”. They think he’s hilarious – only gradually realizing he’s more damaged than they thought. Then, it’s not so funny.
 
The movie, smartly, doesn’t make the case that any of these things are the reason why Dahmer became the serial killer he would become – although it does make the case that it didn’t really help. Dahmer is suffering from whatever he would always suffer from at the outset of the movie, and while it gets worse throughout the film – as does his burgeoning alcoholism – it’s not really the reason any of this happens. The movie drops in some hints and reference from those of us who know more of the details about what Dahmer would do (like the scene where Dallas Roberts, in a sad attempt to bond with his son, gives him the barbells he will use to kill his first victim).
 
Ross is very good as Dahmer – even if the performance is a little one note by design. Dahmer, like all psychopaths, lack the ability to feel empathy or sympathy, or really much of anything – and here at least, he hasn’t really learned how to fake it. He is hardly a charming psychopath – everyone thinks he’s weird – but he flat and emotionless more than anything. Wolff is quite good as Derf as well – a typical, idiot teenager who thinks stupid, and to be honest downright mean and cruel, things are funny, without registering them as that way. A turning point for him may well a scene at the mall – where he has taken up a collection to get Jeffrey to “Do a Dahmer” – and he takes it so far that all of a sudden it doesn’t seem to so funny anymore. If you think you’re laughing with someone, and not at them, make sure they’re laughing too.
 
More than anything, My Friend Dahmer is a sad movie. The production design captures the depressing side of suburban 1970s – full of dull browns and faded colors. It presents a world in which no one really notices a kid who is clearly damaged – except for the other kids, who cannot put into words what is bothering them, so instead, they simply walk away.