Thursday, June 30, 2016

2016 Half Time Top 10

If year-end top tens are silly – and they are, as much as I love them – then a half time top 10 is sillier still, but what the hell, I still enjoy them (not sure why so many outlets now post their half time top 10s in early June – that seems to be making an already silly process even sillier).
 
Anyway, I’ve seen 61 films so far from 2016, which is a little bit less than normal, but then I often spend a little bit more time in the early part of the year revisiting classics (or watching ones I’ve never seen before) – before I pick up the slack sometime in the summer and catch-up.
 
Some of the titles I would have liked to have seen but didn’t get around to (either because they only played in Toronto, and came and went quickly, or in some case, pure laziness) so far include: Chevalier (Athina Rachel Tsangari), Demolition (Jean Marc Vallee), Eye in the Sky (Gavin Hood), Hello My Name is Doris (Michael Showalter), Maggie’s Plan (Rebecca Miller), The Measure of a Man (Stephane Brize), The Meddler (Lorene Scafaria), Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle), Neon Bull (Gabriel Mascaro), The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn), Sing Street (John Carney), The Wailing (Hong-jin Na). Then there are films that, unless I missed them, haven’t played in Canada at all that I want to see, including: City of Gold (Laura Gabbert), Cosmos (Andrzej Zulawski), The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer), Last Days in the Desert (Rodrigo Garcia), Louder Than Bombs (Joachim Trier), My Golden Days (Araund Desplechin), Pervert Park (Frida Barkfors & Lasse Barkfors), Tickled (David Farrier &Dylan Reeve), The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu), A War (Tobias Lindholm), Weiner (Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg).
 
But enough about what I haven’t seen, and onto what I have seen. It has actually been a pretty good year so far, with quite a few highlights so far. Films that I considered for the top 10 but didn’t have room for include: A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino) an incredibly sexy thriller and drama, with four great performances for Ralph Fiennes, Mathias Schoenarts, Dakota Johnson and especially Tilda Swinton, in director Guadagnino’s (too) long awaited for follow-up to the even better I Am Love. De Palma (Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow) is a fascinating, film-by-film, breakdown of the director’s career by the man himself. Dheepan (Jacques Audiard) is not Audiard’s best film, nor did it deserve to win the 2015 Palme D’Or, but it has two great performances, and is three quarters of an excellent movie, that kind of goes off the rails in the end. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater) was billed as a spiritual sequel to his Dazed & Confused, and it works like that – meaning that perhaps it just seems like minor Linklater, until you watch it over and over again, which you definitely could, since it’s so effortlessly fun. Finding Dory (Andrew Stanton) isn’t top notch Pixar, but it’s better than any other mainstream animated film you’ll likely see this year. High-Rise (Ben Wheatley) is an excellent adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s work, getting the tone right, the look and feel right, and has a great Tom Hiddleson performance in it – even if, after an hour or so, it repeats itself. The Invitation (Karyn Kusama) is a tense thriller about a dinner party from hell – with a great ensemble cast. The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau) was easiest the best of the big blockbusters this year, wondrously entertaining and fun, brilliant special effects and the type of film that is destine to become a family classic. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick) is not top tier Malick, especially since it really does repeat itself (over and over again), but it is brilliantly well made, and kept me enthralled for most of its runtime. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman) has no plot, and is meaningless trifle, but it is pure fun from beginning to end, with great performances by Kate Beckinsale and Tom Bennett. The Nice Guys (Shane Black) is exactly what you want in a Shane Black, 1970s set, L.A. comedy/noir, with a great performance by Russell Crowe, and an even better one by Ryan Gosling. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo) is a wonderful film – I really wanted to include it above, and perhaps I should have – where Hong basically tells the same story twice, with some subtle and not so subtle differences. Zootopia (Byron Howard & Rich Moore) was Disney animation at its finest, and is pure fun, that also has something to say.
 
And now, onto the top 10. If you’re curious, I think the top 3 have a legitimate shot at placing on my top 10 at year’s end (that is, if I decide #1 will be eligible – I’m not sure yet, but for a half time list, I’m not going to question it). A quick note – I don’t spend much time on the actual ranking here – not nearly as much as I’ll do at the year end, so it may well change by then.
  
10. Krisha (Trey Edward Shults)
In many ways, Krisha sounds like a typical indie – a recovering drug addict comes home to their family for Thanksgiving – and ends up making a mess. But Krisha is hardly the kind of comforting indie, quirky dramedy that makes waves at Sundance and then is forgotten when it hits theaters – it’s actually a devastating film, anchored by one of the very best performances of the year by Krisha Fairchild – as the drug addict. The film is also brilliantly well made – almost as if John Cassavetes, Robert Altman and David Lynch collaborated on a project, as the movie begins with realism, and gradually becomes surreal. The overall arc of the movie isn’t too surprising – once you realize this isn’t going to be a film that seeks to comfort the viewer, there’s really only one way for all this to end, and the third act of this film that doesn’t even run 90 minutes feels rushed. Still, it’s a remarkable debut film by writer/director Trey Edward Shults – and an even better performance by Fairchild.
 
9. The Witch (Robert Eggers)
Robert Eggers’ The Witch is a horror movie about a teenage girl and her family in 1600s New England – with a father who has ostracized the rest of their community, a mother willingly embracing delusions, and the girl at the center becoming a woman – and just what that means in many different senses. The film is a slow burn – it starts with a bang, with a baby going missing – but from there, it’s all about mounting tension – the sins of the parents coming down on the children, and ending with a memorable climax, that should stir up debate among audience’s members. There are nightmare inducing moments in the film – and Eggers knows how to build these properly – but it is basically about this family, who more or less, destroy themselves. This is a great horror film, in a year that has had several so far – I probably need to re-watch it, as I haven’t seen it since TIFF last September (who knows, maybe it should be higher on this list).
 
8. Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols)
Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special continues his streak of interesting films that grow in your mind once they are over. This is his “biggest” film to date – inspired in equal parts by early Spielberg and John Carpenter – yet also distinctly Nichols own film. The film, which stars Michael Shannon (of course) in a great performance as a father on the run with his very special son – aided by Joel Edgerton, and eventually his former wife, Kristen Dunst – Midnight Special goes to unexpected places, on its way to a climax that, months later, I’m still turning over in my mind. Does it all work? I honestly don’t know – the film is more “flawed” than previous Nichols films like Take Shelter and Mud – but it’s also more ambitious. One thing is for sure, I still cannot wait to see what the man does next.
 
7. Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)
Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke followed up my personal favorite of his films – A Touch of Sin – with this triptych of stories about the every changing landscape in China, and the emergence of capitalism and what it means to the country (basically, what Zhangke has been addressing for his entire, brilliant career). The first part is set in 1999, as a young woman (Jia’s wife and muse Tao Zhao) has to decide between two friends – the one who owns the local mine, and the one who works for it. In the second, set in 2014, death and divorce has come down on some of the players from the first part – as Zhao tries to re-connect with the son she realizes she barely knows. In the third, in 2025, that son is now grown up and living in Australia – having forgotten about his homeland almost entirely. The first two segments are brilliant – as good as anything Jia has ever done. The third one works thematically more than in practice – in part, I think, because it’s the first time Jia has worked in English, and the dialogue runs false. Still, two thirds of a great Jia film (and 1 third an average one) is still better than what most filmmakers could come up with.
 
6. 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)
Count me as someone who didn’t really need a Cloverfield sequel (or spin-off, or whatever the hell they ended up calling this thing) – but I loved this film just the same. I liked the original Cloverfield as well, but prefer my thrillers like this – tense, claustrophobic, with legitimately surprising twists and turns, and wonderful performances (which I won’t reveal here, because if you haven’t seen the movie, I don’t want to spoil it). Directed by Dan Trachtenberg, the film builds tension as three characters –played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman and John Gallagher Jr. – who bounce off each other like ping pong balls. The ending of the film is a treat – even if you kind of see it coming (because of the name). This is how you make a a mainstream thriller, on a budget – and how you market one, keeping it secret until fairly late in the game, before springing it on people who didn’t even know they wanted it in the first place.
 
5. Sleeping Giant (Andrew Cividino)
Andrew Cividino’s wonderful debut film is one of the best Canadian films in recent years – a film about three boys on summer vacation – one rich, and a pair of cousins who decidedly are not – and the petty jealously and masculine posturing that lead them into real trouble. In many ways, the film feels familiar – and yet, I think it’s that familiairity that makes the film so disturbing and powerful as it reaches its climax – which pushes beyond where many films of this ilk would go. This is not a reassuring film about youth – but it’s also not one that tries to raise the alarm bells with being needlessly provocative – instead it’s a film about small actions have large consequences. All three performances by the teens at the center are great – none more so than by Nick Serino as the volatile Nate, who acts the toughest, because he is really the most vulnerable (where the innocent seeming rich kid, is really the one who sets everything in motion). Sleeping Giant is a sneaky film – in that it sneaks up on you as you’re watching it, than refuses to leave you once you have seen it. This one has only grown in my mind since I saw it.
 
4. Hail, Caesar! (Joel & Ethan Coen)
Audiences didn’t really like the Coen’s latest film, and too many critics dismissed it as minor Coens – an entertaining trifle. Entertaining it certainly is – trifle, it certainly isn’t. The film is though one of the Coen’s most positive films – a Christ story, wrapped up in a love letter to Hollywood, where the brothers brilliantly recreate many styles of films made famous in the studio era – especially musicals (the dance number with Channing Tatum is in particular a highlight), There are many other highlights in the film however – like every time Alden Ehrenreich is on screen as a seemingly dimwitted Western star, who the studio hilariously tries to cast in a period romance (Ehrenreich gets my vote for performance of the year so far). The film is clever and funny, brilliantly well made, fun, but with a little more heft than people give it credit for. It’s not a Coen film – like No Country for Old Men or Fargo – where everyone immediately knows it’s a masterpiece. It’s one of those Coen films – like The Big Lebowski – that everyone realizes was great, five years later.
 
 
3. Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)
Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is a great genre film – an intense, claustrophobic thriller that verges into horror territory, as a young, punk band finds themselves at the mercy of a group of neo-Nazis, after a show when they stumble onto the aftermath of a murder, and spend most of the movie locked in a room with the dead body – with the neo-Nazis outside just waiting for them. On that surface level, the film works brilliantly – Saulnier, whose last film Blue Ruin, was a similarly bloody thriller, ups the ante here. He gets great performances out of the entire cast – Patrick Stewart, as the weary leader of the Neo-Nazis is a highlight, but there’s fine work by Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat as two of the band members, Imogen Poots as the quiet heart of the film, and Blue Ruin star Macon Blair, as someone who gets what he wants, but doesn’t want it anymore. There are layers to Green Room though that elevate it about most thrillers – levels of politics associated with both groups embracing outdated ideology. And the entire film works, I think, as a metaphor for being young and stupid – thinking you know everything about the world, and then realizing with brutal clarity that you know nothing. The film didn’t become the hit it deserved – but it’s masterful, and confirms that Saulnier is one of the best young directors around.
 
2. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Yorgos Lanthimos’ English language debut is a deadpan comic masterwork. The first half of the film is about Colin Farrell’s David – an accountant (of course, because when you need a loser in a film, you make them an accountant) – who goes to a hotel, where he has 90 days to find a mate, or he will be turned into an animal of his choosing. This part is hilarious, as it skewers society’s obsessive with love and marriage – how society forces the traditional ideal of a nuclear family down on everyone, whether they want it or not. Yet, the second half of the film – out in the forest, does almost the exact opposite – pushing back at those who push back too forcefully at those ideals. Somehow, against all odds, Lanthimos has made The Lobster into a real love story – one whose outcome we still don’t know at the end as the film with a masterfully ambigious ending. This is a funny, challenging, ambitious, brilliant film – worth the year it took to be released after it debuted at Cannes in May 2015.
 
1. O.J. : Made in America (Ezra Edelman)
While it may sound like hyperbole, I firmly believe that O.J. Made in America is the best documentary of the 21st Century so far. This seven and a half hour doc, made for the great ESPN 30 for 30 series (which has many great episodes – though strangely, the best one before this was Brett Morgan’s June 17th, 1994 from 2010 – which played like channel surfer on the craziest sports day ever – including OJs run in the Bronco). The reason the film is as brilliant as it is, is because director Ezra Edelman takes a wide view on Simpson – never concentrating solely on the man and his actions – although that is there too, of course – but on his place in society, and what was happening around him. The irony that Simpson, who spent his entire professional career distancing himself from other African Americans, and their causes, would end up being a cause for celebration in Black America with the trial, is not lost on Edelman – it’s almost the point of the documentary. The film joins the ranks of films like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) as the greatest ever made about race relations in America – it uses O.J. as a lens to explore that, and placing him on a continuum that includes the Watts Riots, and decades of police abuse, specifically Rodney King (and by inference, to what is happening today). Words don’t do justice to this film – which is a masterpiece. When it comes to my year-end top 10 list, I’ll have to make the decision as to whether it should be eligible or not – they did qualify the film for Oscars by releasing it in L.A. for a week before its premiere, although that’s basically a technicality for what is essentially a TV movie. Yet, no matter what you call the film, it is a masterpiece – pure and simple – and certainly the best way to spend 7 hours and 45 minutes this year.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Movie Review: The Shallows

The Shallows
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra.
Written by: Anthony Jaswinski.
Starring: Blake Lively (Nancy), Óscar Jaenada (Carlos), Brett Cullen (Father), Sedona Legge (Chloe).
Horror films are probably the most personal genre in film – in the way that you cannot always rationally describe what makes some horror films scary, and some not, to different people. For example, while I can appreciate a good ghost story in film – and they can scare me in the moment, they usually do not end up haunting my dreams, simply because I don’t believe in ghosts (the exception is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – the greatest horror film ever made, and of course, it may not be a ghost story at all). However, even the lamest of home invasion horror films will scare the crap out of me – especially since I became a father. Something about someone invading my home – the place where I should be the safest – scares me to death, and these films (like the French film Ils or the underrated The Strangers) stay with me for years after I have seen them. Another example, which dates back to my childhood when I saw Steven Spielberg’s Jaws way too young, is shark movies. I was scared my entire childhood of being eaten by a shark – even when I was in a swimming pool, and I knew that fear was completely irrational. It’s a fear that has never left me – which is probably why I enjoy cheesy films like Deep Blue Sea (1999) so much, and why the low budget Open Water (2003) remains one of the scariest films of the new millennium so far.


Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows is actually kind of a combination between those two films – it has some of Open Water’s paranoia, trapping one person (in Open Water it was two, but still), in one location, chased by shark (or sharks) for its entire running time, but it has some of the big budget cheese of Deep Blue Sea – an obviously CGI shark, bloody deaths, and an unlikely climax that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but damn if it isn’t fun.


Like many films of this kind, the film opens with idyllic beauty – a young woman, Nancy (Blake Lively) is on vacation in Mexico, and wants to go surfing at the same hidden beach her mother did 25 years ago when she found out she was pregnant with her. The movie gives Nancy more backstory than she needs – about death and giving up and yada yada yada, apparently because the film believes you won’t believe the fight Nancy puts up without that backstory – as if simply trying to fight off a giant shark isn’t enough. The beach is isolated – she is dropped off by a helpful stranger, and there are only two other surfers there. As they are packing up to go, Nancy decides to catch one more wave – and makes a mistake. She drifts too far – almost right on top of the bloated, floating corpse of a giant whale – which of course has attracted the attention of a giant shark. Now that she has entered that sharks feeding zone, he’s pissed, and determined to kill her. She is able to get to a rock that will protect her – but only until high tide, and then she’s screwed.


The film runs only 87 minutes, and to be honest, that’s a little long for the film – a 70 minute film could have been leaner and tauter, and perhaps even more terrifying for everything it didn’t show. Part of the Hollywood machine however requires that if you’re going to make a movie about a giant shark, that sharks has to eat some people, so the film throws in a few unnecessary characters basically as chum – and although I admired the way director Jaume Collet-Serra handled those deaths – mainly, he doesn’t belabor them (the first death really is brilliantly handled, and could have worked in a more stripped down version of this story). The weakest moments of the film are when the shark itself is visible as more than just a dorsal fin or a shadow – it’s not an especially convincing CGI creation, especially as the film moves along, and requires more face-to-face interaction with Lively.


For her part, Lively is terrific in the film – the best I’ve ever seen her really. You can be cynical and say she was only cast because of how she looks in a bikini – which is great by the way, or because of her butt – which gets at least as much screen time as her face in the first third of the film, as the camera never misses a chance to lovingly frame it as she paddles out on her surf board, or changes into her wetsuit, etc. Yet, even if that was the reason for her casting, Lively handles everything in this performance amazingly well – this is a physical performance as much as anything, and one that requires her to spend a lot of time by herself, and quiet (the film may have worked even better if she was quiet more – her asides either to herself or to her seagull friend Steven – are mostly unnecessary, and assume the audience will be too dim to get what she’s thinking otherwise). It is a quietly intense performance, and an effective one, that keeps the film afloat, even when it drifts too far into CGI spectacle.

The film did scare me quite a bit – as I said, I am petrified of sharks – even though when I think about it, The Shallows isn’t really a horror film, as much as a survival film – it’s more All is Lost or The Revenant than it is Jaws or Open Water. It is a remarkably simple film – but an effective one. If the filmmakers had simplified it even more, it would have been even better.

Movie Review: Right Now, Wrong Then

Right Now, Wrong Then
Directed by: Sang-soo Hong.
Written by: Sang-soo Hong.
Starring: Jae-yeong Jeong (Ham Cheon-soo), Min-hee Kim (Yoon Hee-jeong).
 
Korean director Hong Sang-soo is one of the most prolific directors around – Right Now, Wrong Then is his 17th feature in just a 20 year career so far. I’m hardly a Hong expert – I’ve only seen a handful of his films – but I know enough to get why those who love his work do so, and why those who think he makes the same film over and over again, say that as well. That criticism is more or less true – much like it was for Eric Rohmer, one of Hong’s biggest influences. In a Hong film, you will almost assuredly have two people meeting – the man almost always a film director, the woman a local in a town that director is visiting an is unfamiliar with – and through the course of a long day, a lot of drinking and talking will be done, and things are not destined to work out for the couple. Hong doesn’t really make movies about the beginning of a long term love affair – instead, he usually makes films about those missed opportunities – those brief encounters you’ll remember forever, even though they only lasted a few hours.
 
Out of the Hong films I have seen, his latest, Right Now, Wrong Then is far an away my favorite. It’s really two films, or perhaps more accurately, two different versions of the same film – which resets after an hour with the two main characters, and tells the same story again – although this time with some differences. Sometimes those differences are subtle – the same words being spoken, with different vocal inflections for instance, as which happens with the first time director Ham (Jae-yeong Jeong) meets a young woman named He-jeong (Min-hee Kim). In the first meeting, she seems to be flirting with the director – who is clearly flirting with her. In the second, she seems almost standoffish – that this man is bothering her, but she’s too polite to say that (and he seems oblivious). It would be too simple, I think, to describe these two halves as first his perspective, and then hers – because Hong gives no indication that is the case here. Instead, he’s doing something trickier – showing how the exact same two people can meet twice, and then have things go in different directions. The first one ends in anger, the second in melancholy for what might have been. For all the differences between the two segments, it’s really a question as to whether or not the director lies which determines the course of the film.
 
The film is clearly Hong’s from the outset – it has his trademark long shots, and many zooms (he’s one of the only filmmakers using zooms this way, and given how effective it is, you have to wonder why more don’t do it). In a Hong film, small gestures are important, and they are really important here as well – more so than normal, given that the differences between the two segments are part of the point of the movie, and some of them are tough to spot.
 
In the first segment, Ham is a liar, who is also clearly trying to pick Hee-jeong up. He flatters her about her artwork, tells her how pretty she is, gets her drunk – all before he reveals he is a liar, in a way that I don’t think he realizes. The segment ends the next day at the film festival, where he is presenting his film, and giving a Q&A afterwards, and he is, to be blunt, a jerk. In the second segment, Hee-jeong is more in control of herself – more purposeful and confident. And, for his part, Ham is much more honest – this leads to an incredibly awkward moment where he criticizes her art, but it’s a real moment. He also doesn’t lie about the thing that get her really angry in the first part. The film ends, again, at the film festival – but on a sadder, less angry note. You don’t much like Ham in the first half – and Hee-jeong seems too much adrift. In the second part, you like both of them. The performances by the two leads are hugely important in this film – and it also shows growth for Hong, who in the past could be accused of having really interesting male characters, and uninteresting female ones. That’s not true here.
 
Is Right Now, Wrong Then just a stylistic exercise though? An experiment that Hong is conducting just to see if he can? Is it a gimmick? To a certain extent, sure. But then again Christopher Nolan’s Memento is clearly a gimmick, as is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood – it’s how the filmmakers execute those gimmicks that matters. While Hong’s film is clearly not quite in that league, it’s a very good film – the best of his work I have seen.

Movie Review: The Boy and the Beast

The Boy and the Beast
Directed by: Mamoru Hosoda.
Written by: Mamoru Hosoda.
Starring: Koji Yakusho (Kumatetsu), Shota Sometani (Kyuta), Aoi Miyazaki (Kyuta – child), Suzu Hirose (Kaede), Yo Oizumi (Tatara), Lily Franky (Hyakushubo), Masahiko Tsugawa (Soshi), Kazuhiro Yamaji (Iozen), Mamoru Miyano (Ichirohiko), Haru Kuroki (Ichirohiko – child), Kappei Yamaguchi (Jiromaru), Momoka Ono (Jiromaru – child).
 
The Boy and the Beast is the latest anime film from Japan to get a cursory release in North American theaters, before heading to home viewing options. Even if these films often do not make much waves when they are released theatrically – they are often among the best the world of animation has to offer in any given year. Animated films made in Japan tend to treat children with more respect – they don’t coddle or comfort them too much, and certainly do not shy away from some darker, more realistic aspects of childhood. In some respects, that is true of The Boy and the Beast – which really does try and treat children with more respect, and draw an interesting contrast between the real and fantasy worlds in the film (a staple of children’s stories – but rarely handled this way). Unfortunately though, all of the good stuff in The Boy and the Beast is buried under a disjointed, repetitive and not particularly engaging story. There is some good stuff here – just not enough to make The Boy and the Beast a good movie.
 
The hero of the story is a 9 year old named Ren, who is shipped off to live with some relatives after his mother’s death (his father is no longer in the picture) – and almost immediately runs away. He ends up in a fantasy world, as the apprentice to Kumatetsu – a giant bear-man creature, who could become the ruler of this fantasy land, but first needs to prove himself to its current ruler – a wise, old bunny-man. It has come down to Kumatetsu and his arch-rival, Iozen, for the “promotion” as it were – and while everyone loves Iozen, no one seems to much like or respect Kumatetsu – and for good reason. He is lazy, crude, rude and quick to anger – and unlike Iozen, he doesn’t even have one apprentice. With Ren, he hopes to show that he can be a good leader and teacher – and as the years pass, it becomes clear that both are learning from each other.
 
In the second half of the film, the film skips ahead about 8 years, to when Ren is 17 (strangely, the decision regarding who will be the next ruler, still has not been made). In that time, Ren has matured in some ways – and is actually returning to the “real world”, developing a sweet romance with a shy bookworm, who helps him learn to read better, and prepare for things like college, while at the same time, he tries to reconnect with his real father, who he barely knows. In some ways, he has outgrown Kumatetsu, who is a creature that only an angry 9 year old boy would find cool in the first place. The film is ultimately about that anger and rage that young men of all kind have to deal with and overcome – in the fantasy world Ren has escaped to, humans are feared, because it is assumed that they will eventually become monsters incapable of controlling their rage.
 
In some ways, all of this makes for interesting subtext to the movie – but as is the case with most films, if the text itself isn’t very good, you don’t much care for the subtext. The film kind of beats you over the head with its message, and drags on its minimal storyline for nearly two hours, even though it doesn’t have enough material to fill it. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the animation of the film either – its fine, and the action sequences are well handled, and yet, I don’t think there’s a memorable image in the entire film – not that that sticks out anyway.
 
I appreciate that The Boy and the Beast is trying to do something here – trying to show how Ren outgrows Kumatetsu, and that world, and tries to forge his own path – that essentially, he can only hide from the real world for so long. Yet, all that is buried beneath a surface that just isn’t all that good.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Films of Todd Haynes: Mildred Pierce (2011)

Mildred Pierce (2011)
Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Written by: Todd Haynes & Jonathan Raymond based on the novel by James M. Cain.
Starring: Kate Winslet (Mildred Pierce), Guy Pearce (Monty Beragon), Evan Rachel Wood (Veda Pierce), Morgan Turner (Veda Pierce), Brían F. O'Byrne (Bert Pierce), Melissa Leo (Lucy Gessler), James Le Gros (Wally Burgan), Mare Winningham (Ida Corwin), Marin Ireland (Letty), Hope Davis (Mrs. Forrester), Quinn McColgan (Ray Pierce).
 
Todd Haynes’ films have mainly been about their look and feel, and not necessarily about their plots. This isn’t to say the plotting of Haynes’ films have been sloppy – anything but – just that the plot of his films can often be summarized in just a few short sentences, that do not give you the least idea of what it’s like to actually watch a Haynes film. The one real exception may be his 2011 miniseries – Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain, and clocking in at five and half hours. The film has a lot of plot and characters – yet Haynes still remains focused on the look and feel of the film, and the characters, and not quite so much on the plot. Even at this length, the final installment feels a little rushed – as if Haynes realized he still had a lot of stuff to cram in, and had to get it in under the wire (the first three segments all clock in right around an hour – the fourth runs over 70 minutes, and the fifth 80). The miniseries may not quite live up to the best films Haynes has ever made – but it’s still excellent, full of great period detail and performances – and represents a truer adaptation of McCain’s novel than the Oscar winning 1945 film with Joan Crawford, and directed by Michael Curtiz (although truer, doesn’t necessarily mean better).
 
The miniseries takes place over the better part of a decade – the 1930s – in which Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet) has to struggle to support her two daughters. Her husband, Bert (Brian F. O’Bryne) has walked out on the family – and didn’t have much money to begin with – although he did when he and Mildred first got married. Mildred has no marketable skills, and it is the Great Depression after all. But she’s willing to work hard – first as a waitress and baker, and then when she opens her own restaurant – serving chicken and waffles. While the country is collapsing, Mildred makes herself into a success. In many ways, she is the personification of the American dream – at least on the surface.
 
But if Mildred Pierce were just about a hard working woman, there wouldn’t be enough drama here. The story is really about how Mildred’s American dream turns into a nightmare – all because of her eldest daughter, and Mildred’s inability to say no to her. From the beginning of the film, Veda (then played by Morgan Turner) is a snob, who looks down on anyone who has to work for a living – embarrassed by the fact that her mother works as a waitress, and finding ways to punish her for it. Mildred scrimps and saves everything so that Veda can have the music lessons she wants, the piano she wants, etc. Even her relationship with men is dictated by Veda. Mildred falls for Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce) – a wealthy playboy, who has never done a day’s work in his life, and of course, he hits it off with Veda, who shares his snobbery. When Monty’s family fortune is wiped out though, he still doesn’t feel he has to work – and leeches money off of Mildred, resenting her the entire time he does it.
 
The 1945 film version of the novel turned it into a murder mystery/noir – which is what Cain is mostly known for (The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity for example), but not here. It also serves to give the film a happier ending, as the character that audiences are likely to hate gets their comeuppance in that film, that Cain, and then Haynes, does not. The story is about parental sacrifice – something all good parents do to one extent or another – but this time taken to extremes. Veda is an incredibly selfish and spoiled – a child who thinks that everything should be handed to her on a silver platter. If we feel sympathy for Mildred, we also have to be honest and lay much of the blame on her as well. After all, many children are selfish – it is the parent’s job to teach them something, and by giving in to Veda’s every whim – even if it destroys Mildred – she is simply reinforcing the lessons that Veda really is entitled to everything. Veda manipulates everyone around her – including her mother – to get what she wants.
 
As Mildred, Kate Winslet delivers a typically superb performance – one where you can feel her desperation in that first installment, as she goes door-to-door looking for working, and not finding it. Winslet is, refreshing, one of the most unapologetic actresses in dealing with sexuality – and her Mildred is a sexual being, going from Bert to Wally Burgan (James LeGros) to Monty with apology or shame. Her relationship with Monty will eventually be mainly about Veda, but when they first meet, the sexual chemistry between them is palpable. Winslet does, subtly, change her mannerisms as the series goes by – aging in the final installments, where she plays Mildred sliding into middle age, especially compared to the lithe, overtly sexual turn by Evan Rachel Wood as a 20 year old Veda (Wood, like everyone else in the film, is excellent). Winslet’s Mildred Pierce is every bit as fascinating as the other “housewives” in Haynes’ filmography – from Julianne Moore in Safe and Far From Heaven to Cate Blanchatt in Carol. What’s even more impressive is that all four of those characters are completely different from each other – all of whom may be living in a patriarchal society, where they are oppressed – but all of them are oppressed in different ways, and respond differently. Mildred may simultaneously be the strongest and most independent, and also the most foolish – she builds up and then loses everything.
 
Mildred Pierce isn’t quite the masterwork that Haynes’ other period pieces – Far From Heaven and Carol – are. I think in some ways, the film is too rushed, and in others it is too dragged out. Haynes has always loved immersing the audience in period detail – not necessarily realistic period detail, but more stylized, movie period detail. Mildred Pierce isn’t the colorful, Sirk-inspired melodrama of Far From Heaven – but a drabber, dirtier, dustier movie, with more muted colors. In the early installments, Haynes seems to delight in the details of art direction, and the superb cinematography (by Ed Lachman, of course) – and it almost feels like not a lot is happening. The last two installments really have to jam in a lot of plot – I’m pretty sure about 80% of what happened in the 1945 film happens in this installment, so some details – like how Mildred’s business starts failing, and how some people who she helped start betraying her – really does seem to be tossed into the movie as an afterthought - to be fair to Haynes, business dealings may not be as exciting as the personal relationships in the film – but even they are rushed. What makes the film work in these moments are the performances more than anything – Winslet more the rest, but there is excellent supporting work by Guy Pearce as a man who doesn’t know how to do anything except be rich, Evan Rachel Wood, bringing Veda’s spoiled behavior to new heights, Melissa Leo as a sympathetic friend to Mildred, Mare Winningham as a not so sympathetic friend (although, you can hardly blame her for her actions), and Bryan F. O’Bryne, who takes a fairly dull character like Bert Pierce, and makes him tremendously likable.
 
So no, I don’t think Mildred Pierce is the simple perfection of some of Haynes’ other work. Yet, it’s still one of the best miniseries of recent years – and really should serve as an example to other filmmakers, who want to make something longer than a movie, without committing to a television series. Because Mildred Pierce is every bit a Todd Haynes film - and a damn fine one at that.

Movie Review: Independence Day: Resurgence

Independence Day: Resurgence
Directed by: Roland Emmerich.
Written by: Nicolas Wright & James A. Woods and Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich and James Vanderbilt based on characters created by Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich.
Starring: Liam Hemsworth (Jake Morrison), Jeff Goldblum (David Levinson), Jessie T. Usher (Dylan Hiller), Bill Pullman (President Whitmore), Maika Monroe (Patricia Whitmore), Sela Ward (President Lanford), William Fichtner (General Adams), Judd Hirsch (Julius Levinson), Brent Spiner (Dr. Brakish Okun), Patrick St. Esprit (Secretary of Defense Tanner), Vivica A. Fox  (Jasmine Hiller), Angelababy (Rain Lao), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Catherine Marceaux), Deobia Oparei (Dikembe Umbutu), Nicolas Wright (Floyd Rosenberg), Travis Tope (Charlie Miller), Chin Han (Commander Jiang), Joey King (Sam), Jenna Purdy (Voice of Sphere). 
 
In some circles, the original Independence Day is seen in much the same light as Spielberg’s Jaws and Lucas’ Star Wars are – not a timeless masterpiece (although, there are some people who look at the original through nostalgia covered glasses from when they first saw it when they were 10 who claim it is) – but as a film that signaled a shift in Hollywood Blockbuster culture. As much crap as something like Jaws gets, it has been noted – over and over – that were that film, which kickstarted Blockbuster culture in Hollywood, were to be released today, it would be an art house genre flick – much more It Follows than The Avengers. When Roger Ebert reviewed Jurassic Park in 1993, he noted how much faster Spielberg introduced the special effects in that film compared to Jaws – and it’s true, he did – but when you compare Jurassic Park to Jurassic World, you realize that it’s gone even faster today than it did all those years ago. The turning point may well be Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day which was big, loud and dumb in 1996 – but also a hell of a lot of fun (especially if you didn’t think about its plot too much), had great special effects, which were used to create iconic images of the time, and was sold to an eager audience on the basis of spectacle alone. I remember seeing this film in the theater with my mother during a time when she didn’t go to the movies very often – but she had to see Independence Day. In the 20 years since, Hollywood has tried – with more success than I ever would have dreamed of – of making more and more films into those events – ones you had to see.
 
The original film wasn’t a great movie – hell, it’s not even a very good movie – but it delivered what it promised – spectacle and entertainment value. You may feel guilty for enjoying Independence Day after it’s over – but admit it, you had fun while it was playing. The 20 years in the making sequel doesn’t do that. In an odd way, the film feels somewhat smaller than the original film – it is shorter (thankfully), but it doesn’t feel like it has the same scale as the original. The original film felt HUGE –perhaps because of the way it destroyed landmarks – especially the White House – which is was the most iconic image of the first film, and even with all the advances in special effects in the past 20 years, more impressive than anything in this film. Perhaps it is because in 1996, some of what Independence Day was doing felt new (at least to me). The sequel feels warmed over and played out – it’s another giant, CGI laden spectacle, whose big special effects sequence once again, involve a lot of crap crashing into a lot of other crap. As Brian De Palma said in the excellent documentary about his career out now, many CGI sequences come pre-visualized by the effects houses, not the directors, which is why they all feel the same. When a bunch of crap floats around and crashes into other crap this time, it feels exactly as it did in X-Men: Apocalypse or countless other films. When London is destroyed, it happens so quickly, it barely registers. The aliens look, of course, like the aliens in the last film – which were just a not too original clone of the aliens in Alien and that franchise – but with more tentacles. The other thing about those scenes of mass destruction that is missing from this sequel, that wasn’t in the original, is the sense of real death. The convention of destroying whole cities, which would undeniably kill thousands, millions, billions of people may have started with the original – but that film was unafraid to deal with that death – and show it, not just brush by it. Like most movies today that contain those sequences though, in the sequel that is precisely what they do.
 
The movie also lacks the human element that made the first film more enjoyable. I’m not going to argue that the original film was well written, nor that any of its stars deserved Oscars for it, but the performances were likable and engaging. The original, after all, made Will Smith into a movie star – as it gave him his first chance to show off that effortless movie star charm and swagger he has perfected over the years. Smith wisely decided against coming back, and the sequel tries to fill that hole with not one, but two characters – Liam Hemsworth as Jake, a rebellious pilot with the same attitude as Smith, and Jessie T. Usher playing Dylan, the grown up version of Smith’s son from the original. Between them, they still don’t have half the charm of Smith – and when Liam Hemsworth, who is no Chris Hemsworth, is the far more charming of the two, you know you’re in trouble. Bill Pullman is back as the now former President Whitmore, but he spends most of the movie in pain, as he has a connection to the aliens, which make him seem crazy – the film does try, briefly, for a similar type speech as the first film gave him – with far lesser results. Maika Monroe stars as Whitmore’s daughter, and Jake’s fiancé, taking over the role originated by Mae Whitman, presumably because in Hollywood, the beautiful, talented charming and funny Whitman is considered too normal looking to land a hunk like Hemsworth. This isn’t a shot at Monroe – who I loved in The Guest and It Follows in recent years, but the film really doesn’t give her anything to do – she spends most of the movie on the verge of tears, either for her fiancé or father, who are both in danger – although at least it doesn’t keep her on the sidelines for the entire movie. Sela Ward is now the President, but again, there isn’t much for her to do – and really, given the decisions she makes, she seems rather incompetent. The two performances that work best are by Jeff Goldblum as David Levinson and Judd Hirsh as his father Julius, both obviously returning for the original. Even if they have to shoehorn Julius’ subplot into the rest of the film, Hirsh’s performance still works – and Goldblum’s is even better, I think, because neither of them are taking any of this seriously, know how inherently silly the film is, and embrace it (Goldblum gets the film’s best line – an aside “You’re going back for the dog? I guess so”).
 
Director Roland Emmerich catches a lot of crap from critics – and to be fair, much of it is earned. His films are all big and dumb – but quite often, they are also a lot of fun. In addition to the original film, he also made the weather panic film The Day After Tomorrow, which I found ridiculously entertaining – even if my entire country of Canada is left north of the death line, and White House Down, which was even better (seriously people, how can anyone prefer the dour and violent Olympus Has Fallen to the ludicrously entertaining White House Down, which has Channing Tatum at his movie star best, and features Jamie Foxx doing a Barack Obama impression and firing a bazooka? What’s wrong with you people)? Emmerich doesn’t do small, even when he should, but he has also never embraced the kind of rapid fire editing and shaky camera work that mars far too many action movies today.
 
As is standard for a film like this now, the end of the film isn’t really an ending, but rather a cliffhanger for the next movie in the series – which judging on the attendance of the 10pm Thursday before opening screening I attended, won’t happen (seriously, I go to these Thursday shows quite often, and I have never been in such an empty theater before – not even the time I stupidly went to see Selma on a Thursday night in the middle of a snowstorm). The setup for the next movie really should have been the plot for this movie – which essentially repeats the plot of the first movie, with the aliens coming back – but this time with more firepower, with the exception that this movie features a giant talking sphere.
 
Independence Day: Resurgence isn’t a good movie on any level. Did it hold my attention, and give me a few isolated moments of pleasure? Sure. But oddly for a film that took 20 years to make, and has five credited screenwriters, the film doesn’t feel very thought out or planned. In all honestly, it plays more like those direct-to-video sequels of big hits that studios churn out to make a quick buck (seriously, how many Starship Troopers sequels are there?). I find the wave of nostalgia for the 1990s – the era in which I grew up – to rather tedious and boring – and the film is a good example as why that is. The bar for a sequel to Independence Day shouldn’t be a very difficult one to clear – you just got to remember three things – big, dumb and fun. In this case two out of three is very bad.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Movie Review: O.J.: Made in America

O.J.: Made in America
Directed by: Ezra Edelman.
 
Had you asked me at the beginning of 2016 if I had any interest in rehashing the O.J. Simpson case, my answer would have been no. I was 13 when he was arrested, and he was acquitted on my 14th Birthday. It is a case that has been endlessly discussed, written about ever since – I’ve seen countless docs (mostly TV ones), a previous miniseries (American Tragedy – with Ving Rhames as Johnnie Cochran – I remember liking it, but it was 16 years ago, and I don’t think I could tell you very much about it now), heard it discussed on some of my true crime podcasts, etc. Essentially, I was of the opinion that O.J. was guilty, he bought his way to freedom, and when he ended up in jail years later, for kidnapping and armed robbery (in a case that, quite frankly, I paid little to no attention to), I didn’t really care. For me, I – and the rest of the world – had already devoted far too much time to O.J. Simpson.
 
Fast forward to right now, and F.X.’s miniseries : The People vs. O.J. Simpson is the best season of dramatic television I have seen so far this year (and really, dating back a few years) – it is impeccably written, directed and acted, and really does add something new to the story. And then, even better, is Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America – his seven and half hour documentary about the man’s life, that is a landmark documentary in every way. When it comes to documentaries, I am of the opinion that there is Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) – and then there is everything else. O.J.: Made in America joins that select group of documentaries right below Shoah – films like Steve James’ Hoop Dreams, Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire (why the hell am I the only one who loves that film), Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line – and a few others. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.
 
What the documentary does amazingly well is combine the epic and the intimate – scanning out to give what happened context that stretches back decades, and then zooming in on smaller details better than anyone else who has covered this case has. After watching the film, you may come to the opinion that no one who is involved in this case in anyway ends up coming across very good – they are either stupid, incompetent, greedy, craven, cowardly, violent, racist, liars, sleazy or some combination of the above. But, after watching the documentary, they are also human – and the film shows us them with their flaws. You won’t forget this film.
 
Like most people, I saw the film split up into five, two hour blocks on Broadcast TV, split over the course of a week (for parts 1, 4 and 5 – when I didn’t have work the next day, I actually watched them again, time shifted, at midnight as well). I would have loved to see it all in one sitting – but I realize why that isn’t really feasible (my wife, for example – who loved the doc – said that if I asked her to sit through it all at once, she would said no). The five parts do help in some ways though – and certainly does have a structure to it. The first part, is really everything before O.J. met Nicole Brown – she’s seen only in passing in the last few minutes of the segment. In many ways, this part plays like an American success story – as O.J., who grew up poor, ends up going to USC, where he becomes a football star, and wins the Heisman trophy before going pro – where he struggles for a few years in Buffalo, before a new coach emphasizes the running game, and builds the offense around him – where he ends up being one of the greatest running backs in NFL history. He also becomes a famous spokesperson – for Hertz among others – becoming one of the first African Americans to do so. Even as his football career is winding down, he begins an acting career – and starts to think his life post-NFL. In this segment, Edelman does a great job at placing O.J. in history – the USC stadium borders on Watts, which had just gone through the riots (which are detailed) right before O.J. started playing there. But unlike athletes like Jim Brown or Muhammad Ali, Simpson doesn’t use his fame to help advocate for black causes – quite the opposite really – he ignores them. He is quoted as saying “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” – which sounds bad, but at least you could defend on some level as arguing that he meant he wanted to be judged on his talent and who he was as a person, not the color of his skin. What’s indefensible is the story that is told right after, where he and a friend are at a wedding, and seated at a table only with other African Americans, and they overhear a white woman say “Look at O.J. over there with all those niggers” – and O.J. thinks it’s great – they don’t see O.J. like they do the “rest” of them. This is key to what made everything about O.J. such a huge story later on – he was “one of the good ones” as they say – the black man who made White America comfortable – who would along them to say they weren’t racist, because they loved O.J.
 
Part two is really about O.J. and Nicole’s relationship – right up to the time of the murder (again, it happens, in passing, in the closing moments) – but like the first part, it allows for transgressions to the world outside of O.J. – and much more detailed ones this time. O.J. meets and falls for Nicole – then a beautiful, 18 year old blonde, as he’s going through a divorce. He is trying to become an actor – but is struggling a little bit (he lost out on a part in Ragtime – that went to Howard E. Rollins Jr., who received an Oscar nomination for the role) – and really only excels in silly Naked Gun movies. He tries to become a football broadcaster as well – but he isn’t really good at that either. Meanwhile, he’s moved to Brentwood – the rich, mostly white enclave in L.A. – and surrounds himself with (mostly white) well-wishers and hangers-on. As the 1980s progress – and turn into the 1990s – the police are called more and more often to their house – because O.J. is beating the shit out of Nicole. No arrests are made, no police reports filed – the police loved O.J., and treat him with kid gloves. Meanwhile, L.A. is exploding with racial tension. Edelman shows, repeatedly and in detail, the video of Rodney King being beaten by four, white LAPD officers – and details how, eventually, they will be acquitted of any wrong doing. He also notes the case of Eulia Love – gunned down by LAPD officers in the 1970s, over an overdue gas bill – and the case of a young African American girl, shot in the back of the head, by a convenience store clerk over an argument – and the clerk who only got probation. Edelman is setting the stage for what is to come next – the O.J. verdict didn’t happen in a vacuum. If the African American community didn’t already have a healthy – and justified – skepticism that the LAPD and the justice system was stacked against them, would O.J. have been acquitted? Would so many be so quick to believe the conspiracy theory that Johnnie Cochran and the defense would lay out, centering on Mark Fuhrman and planted evidence?
 
It’s at this point, you realize that we’re more than three hours into the documentary (not including commercials) – and the murder hasn’t even happened yet. This speaks to how Edelman sees the case – that the murder and the trial are part of something bigger (it’s also the reason Edelman has said he didn’t initially want to make the film – which is probably why he approaches things in this way). Part three, therefore, is a challenge – because it’s here where Edelman has to start delving into the material that everyone already knows – and has an opinion on. It’s here where the infamous Bronco chase happens – and O.J.’s perhaps suicide note, where he implores people to remember him how he was, and not how he is now. And it is also starts documenting the trial – the jury selection, which heavily favors the defense (and how, the prosecution, even today, comes right up to the point of calling them uneducated and stupid, but does quite cross the line). Not all the lawyers involved are interviewed – Johnnie Cochran is dead, of course, and Christopher Darden – whose reputation was probably hurt the most by the trial isn’t here either. But listening to the likes of Marcia Clark, and especially Carl Douglas (of the defense team), really does provide fresh insight into the trial, and how it came out the way it did (Douglas’ story about staging O.J.’s house is a classic in itself).
 
The fourth segment basically takes us to the end of the trial – but before the verdict. Much like part 3, it really does offer new views on the same old material – concentrating on Mark Fuhrman for much of its runtime, who I wouldn’t say comes across sympathetically, although it’s not as hateful as you may think. It also spends quite a bit of time on the glove – and the disastrous decision by Darden for O.J. to try it on (if there’s a bombshell in this regard, it’s in O.J.’s agent, who says he told O.J. not to take his arthritis medication for a while before then – which made his joints ache, and his hands swell) – and it is also spends time with Cochran’s closing argument – in which he says the infamous “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit” line – but also, ends up comparing Mark Fuhrman to Hitler. But this segment will be remembered for a 10 minute sequence, when one of the assistant D.A.’s walks us through the crime itself – something that, looking back, I’m not sure I’ve ever really seen done before. For a case this dissected and discussed, where I’ve heard the timeline of when O.J. got burgers with Kato, to when he got on the plane to Chicago, etc. a million times, I don’t think I’ve ever really heard the actual murders themselves discussed in any detail. What follows in that segment is sickening and disgusting – and Edelman doesn’t blink away from it for a second, showing some of the most graphic and bloody crime scene photos you could imagine – in particular one that shows Nicole’s neck after the murder that will stay in my mind forever. You won’t want to look at those photos – but they are necessary. Because no matter how much bigger a case this was, we have to remember that it all started because of two brutal, bloody murders – and if the media is going to turn this into entertainment, and we in the audience are going to lap it up, we have to reckon with what actually happened.
 
Part five in, some ways, the most interesting one. It starts with about 30 minutes on the verdict and the fall out – how the jury came back in just a few hours after 268 days of a trial, and how they found him not guilty. Edelman talks to two jurors – both African American women – one who insists that “90%” of the jury saw the verdict as payback for Rodney King, and one who says it had nothing to do with it – the prosecution just didn’t make their case. The scenes of African Americans celebrating the verdict are almost surreal (here, I think is one of the instances where viewing it all in one sitting would have helped – having those crime scene photos only an hour before the verdict and the celebration, rather than viewing them a day apart). It’s interesting to see some of those who celebrated the verdict – Civil Rights and Church Leaders especially – talk about the verdict now. Pointedly, they never saw that the think O.J. is guilty or innocent – but do talk about how the verdict was a wake-up to White America – that something that was so obvious to them came down the other way, which is something Black America deals with all the time. It’s really only here, I think, that the racial fault lines in America were seen by White America – Edelman does a brilliant job of saying they were always there, but they were invisible to those in the privileged position. From there, the movie delves into the years after O.J. was acquitted – the Civil Trial, which he lost and was ordered to pay millions (which he didn’t really do), the game of musical chairs O.J. did with his assets to protect them, how he still wanted to be loved, but found himself on the outside of the White America he had embraced – and had embraced him – for decades. How far he falls to make money – to exploit his infamy, including one sequence which shows multiple takes of O.J. taking down the American flag at his Rockingham estate, and getting mad at the person taking the video – who in reality, was his agent, who had conspired with O.J. to shoot the video, and sell it to the tabloids. There is a fascinating interview with Wendy Williams, in which she seems completely uncomfortable at first with O.J., but by the end, is laughing and almost flirting with him – O.J. was still charming. O.J. is basically leading a life of drug and alcohol fuelled excess – he doesn’t care if he’s famous because people think he’s a murderer – he’s still famous! The most fascinating part maybe when it details the crime in Las Vegas that led him to a 33 year sentence in prison. If you’re like me, and didn’t really know much about the actual crime, what’s shocking about it is how silly the whole thing seemed – it’s like a Keystone Cops routine, with a bunch of incompetent idiots doing something stupid. There’s no way in hell it warrants that sentence – as Carl Douglas says, that crime is “two years, soaking wet” – he got punished because he beat the murder charge, not because what he was convicted of warranted it. It’s uncomfortable after the sentence is read to hear Fred Goldman (who is a fascinating interview throughout the film, justifiably angry at many things – not least of which how pretty much everyone – the police, the prosecutors, the defense, the media, pretty much completely ignored his son who was murdered) say that O.J. deserves to be locked up “with his own kind” – a remark that is dripping with racist connotations, whether he meant it that way or not.
 
In short, O.J.: Made in America is about a lot more than O.J. Simpson, and the murders that most think he committed, even if he was acquitted. What Edelman has done with this sprawling, epic documentary is place the case in a larger context – as one event in the continuity of race relations of America in general, and L.A. is particular. It seems like, back in 1994, you either believed that O.J. was guilty and the LAPD had done nothing wrong, or you believe that the LAPD was racist, and OJ was innocent. What I think (hope) has happened in the intervening years is that people have stopped seeing the two as mutually exclusive – that OJ Simpson can be guilty AND the LAPD can have a history (and present) of racist behavior that needs to be addressed and corrected. Viewed in the context of the film that Edelman has so brilliantly laid out the verdict makes sense, even if, like most, you disagree with it. Marcia Clark says in the film that the trial was “so much bigger than us” – and that’s true. It was something that showed America at its ugliest, and laid bare the truth about race relations in America – something that isn’t pretty. But the film also doesn’t let the audience forget about the murders themselves – and how brutal they were, nor the issues of domestic violence that led to them. It is an all-encompassing case, where no one gets away clean – and that includes us in the audience, watching for each new, salacious detail. The film is, in short, a masterpiece.

Movie Review: Finding Dory

Finding Dory
Directed by: Andrew Stanton.
Written by: Andrew Stanton and Victoria Strouse & Bob Peterson based on characters created by Andrew Stanton.
Starring: Ellen DeGeneres (Dory), Albert Brooks (Marlin), Ed O'Neill (Hank), Kaitlin Olson (Destiny), Hayden Rolence (Nemo), Ty Burrell (Bailey), Diane Keaton (Jenny), Eugene Levy (Charlie), Sloane Murray (Young Dory), Idris Elba (Fluke), Dominic West (Rudder), Bob Peterson (Mr. Ray), Kate McKinnon (Wife Fish), Bill Hader (Husband Fish - Stan), Sigourney Weaver (Sigourney Weaver).. 
 
Pixar’s best movies, and 2003’s Finding Nemo is certainly one of them, are able to speak to both children and their parents on different levels at the same time. At their best, Pixar avoids the cheap way other companies animated films – like, say, Dreamworks, accomplish this, which is basically including two types of scenes – one aimed at kids, that parents may suffer through, and ones aimed at adults, that go over the children’s heads. Pixar does things different – the craft beautiful looking films, filled with recognizable emotion that speaks to both children and their parents. Finding Nemo did this as well as any Pixar film ever has – perhaps better than most, because it really is about parents and their children – how parents want to protect their children from the real dangers out there, but also need to let go, and let them become themselves. In Marlin’s journey to find his lost son Nemo – and Nemo’s struggle to grow up – the film speaks powerfully to everyone in the audience.
 
The long awaited for sequel, Finding Dory, attempts to do something very similar, even if the situation is essentially flipped. It’s a year after the first film, and now it’s Dory – the fish with short term memory loss that helped Marlin on his journey in the first film – who needs to go on a journey herself. Flashes of memory are returning to her – and she is determined to head out and find her parents. As fearful as Marlin is, he agrees to help her on her journey. Most of the film takes place inside a Marine Park – nicer than SeaWorld, since their goal is to help the sea life back into the ocean when they are healed – where Dory remembers she is from. Most of the movie has Dory separated from Marlin and Nemo – who spend their time trying to get into the park, which Dory was able to do easily, and find her. Dory is mainly teamed up with Hank – an Octopus, with only seven arms (so, as septopus, as the movie points out) – as she tries to make her way to the exhibit her parents should be in – and Hank tries to find a way onto the truck bound for Cleveland – he has no interest in returning to the ocean.
 
That Finding Dory doesn’t reach the heights of its predecessor is probably to be expected – even Pixar, with its excellent track record has struggled making sequels to their films – with all second installments to their films never living up to the first films, with the exception of the Toy Story films (sorry, Toy Story 3 is clearly the best of that trilogy). This is hardly a Pixar specific problem, and it should be said that they still do sequels better than most (Monsters University, I find is particularly under-rated). Finding Dory would be a triumph for almost any other American animation studio – and the fact that it’s only really good Pixar instead of great Pixar, speaks more to the heights the studio has reached, not so much the quality of the film itself. The film is beautifully animated – the technology has clearly improved since Finding Nemo, and the water looks better that ever. Finding Dory is also another example at how Pixar is the best in the business at creating animated action sequences – there are many moments of Hank and Dory getting from one tank to another, dodging and weaving around obstacles, and staying hidden that work brilliantly – as does a sequence involved fish chasing a truck down on a highway (and they don’t even have to rely on an inlet or fjord to do so) a la Knight Boat.
 
What ends up holding back Finding Dory from true Pixar greatness, is that I think the film places more emphasis on the action and the comedy aspects of the film – again, both are top notch – than on the dramatic, emotional pull that is present in their best work. The movie spends so much time with Dory and Hank getting from one exhibit to the next – or with Marlin and Nemo, trying to get into the park in the first place (not to mention some hilarious sequences involving sea lions – poor Gerald) – that that emotional thrust is shunted to the background far too often in the film. It doesn’t help that it’s Dory who is responsible for this emotional pull either – Ellen DeGeneres excelled in the first film, in a role that essentially amounted to comic relief, but here, asked to do some more heavy lifting, he doesn’t quite nail those dramatic moments. I was far more moved by the vocal performance of Sloane Murray as a young Dory is flashbacks than anything DeGeneres does. I am a sucker for Pixar – heck, I cried at The Good Dinosaur (in that devastating moment when the two new friends find a visual way to tell each other their parents are dead) – yet although Finding Dory had me close to tears a few times, I never quite spilled over. Not every Pixar movie needs to leave me in a puddle on the floor – like poor Bing Bong did in Inside Out – although that has always been at least a part of their charm.
 
Still, Finding Dory is better than any other animated film I’ve seen so far this year (Zootopia is close, but this is better) – and it may just be the best we’ll see this year. No, Finding Dory doesn’t hit the magical level that Finding Nemo did – but then again, few films do.