Friday, December 15, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Woyzeck (1979)

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

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Movie Review: The Disaster Artist

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

Movie Review: Wonder Wheel

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

Movie Review: Princess Cyd

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

Movie Review: My Happy Family

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

Movie Review: Trophy

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

Movie Review: The Circle

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

Friday, December 8, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Wise Blood (1979)

Wise Blood (1979)
Directed by: John Huston.
Written by: Benedict Fitzgerald & Michael Fitzgerald based on the novel by Flannery O'Connor.
Starring: Brad Dourif (Hazel Motes), Dan Shor (Enoch Emory), Harry Dean Stanton (Asa Hawks), Amy Wright (Sabbath Lily), Mary Nell Santacroce (Landlady), Ned Beatty (Hoover Shoates), William Hickey (Preacher), John Huston (Grandfather).
 
John Huston’s Wise Blood, based on the novel by Flannery O’Connor, is a very strange movie indeed. It is a redemption story of sorts – the story a non-believer, a nihilist really, who comes back into the fold and embraces Jesus in the end, although by then he has lost pretty much everything else in his life, so it may well have been better for him not to find Jesus (at least, in this life). It is a story of holy and unholy fools – crooks and charlatans – although according the movie at least, that doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t real.
 
The main character in the film is Hazel Motes and he’s played with single minded determination by a perfectly cast Brad Dourif. He returns from the war (the film never specifies which one – although O’Connor’s novel in set in post WWII, the film however doesn’t have the trappings of a period piece – perhaps due to budget constraints – so it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say Vietnam), and goes back to his small, Southern hometown. There is a new highway there – opened, he’s told, just long enough for everyone to drive away from town. None of his family is left – we glimpse his preacher Grandfather (played by Huston himself) – is flashbacks, but no one else. Hazel ends up heading into the city, where he plans to start street preaching. But he is not a typical street preacher, talking about how Jesus saves – just the opposite really. His is a “Church without Christ” - “where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way”. Despite all his supposed hatred of Jesus, Hazel has the passion of a true zealot – he rarely talks of anything other than his Church, and spreading his “gospel”. If Wise Blood is anything, it is a reminder of that old saying – the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. Hazel doesn’t really hate Jesus – he’s just mad at him, perhaps because of what happened during the war (he says he has an injury, but doesn’t want people to know where), or perhaps because of the fire and brimstone his grandfather preached (which scared him so much, he wet himself).
 
While in the city, Hazel meets a series of fools, crooks and charlatans. He isn’t there long before he finds a new follower – the hapless Enoch Emory (Dan Shor), who becomes committed to him despite the cruelty in which Hazel treats him. Enoch is clearly a lonely, somewhat dimwitted young man, who will eventually end up in a gorilla suit in another ill advised obsession. There is Asa Hawks (the great Harry Dean Stanton), a supposedly blind street preacher, and his daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright). They are scam artists – he isn’t really blind, despite what his “clipping” says (he supposedly was going to blind himself for Jesus). Sabbath Lily sets her sets on Hazel herself. There’s Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty), who hears Hazel’s pitch, and likes it – he feels there is a lot of money to be made from it, but when Hazel doesn’t get on board – it isn’t a scam to him – Shoates simply goes out and hires someone to give the same sermon (William Hickey). Finally, there is Hazel’s landlady (Mary Nell Santacroce), who seems so kindly – but of course, even she has something else on her mind.
 
There is nothing new about redemption stories – and yet Wise Blood is one of the strangest ones you will see. It isn’t really about a saint among sinners – we see Hazel Motes do a hell of lot of bad things. It is the work of a cynical Christian – but a Christian just the same. For the most part, the film follows O’Connor’s novel fairly closely – even if Huston initially had a different interpretation – he thought he’d be making a satire about Southern religion, which in a way, I guess he was – he was still the right choice to direct. Huston is one of the few directors who was able to take difficult, literary material and turn it into a film that is both faithful to the novel, and works as film itself. The film isn’t perfect – I find, in particular, that the scenes leading to the ending could use a little more clarity – but mainly, it is a fine adaptation of a difficult novel.
 
Lots of things helped here – including, oddly enough, the lack of a budget. It is a small budgeted film, and so Huston shot mainly on location in Macon, Georgia – using the rundown city as a perfect backdrop to the film. The lack a definitive time period works here (I often don’t like, as specificity is the soul of narrative – here though it makes it a more quintessential American story). The cast of character actors could hardly be improved upon – Dourif apparently wanted to add more nuance to Hazel, but Huston rightly knew that he was a one note character – whatever he embraces, he embraces fully. Harry Dean Stanton delivers one of his finest in a long line of morally dubious conmen. Amy Wright is a wicked joy as Sabbath Lily. Ned Beatty all smiles as he steals from you – and Hickey is wonderfully pathetic as his sidekick. Santacroce sneaks up on you as the unnamed Landlady – helping in those final scenes.
 
If Wise Blood doesn’t quite rank up with Huston’s best films, that is because of the strength of his resume – from The Maltese Falcon to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the 1940s to Prizzi’s Honor and The Dead in the 1980s, and much in between, Huston had a varied, wonderful directing career. Wise Blood is a little seen, underrated late career highlight for him – and everyone else involved.

Academy Award Documentary Shortlist

I have seen more documentaries in 2017 than any other year (I am currently at 47 for the year), and looking at the 15 films shortlisted by the Academy to compete for the documentary Oscar a few things stand out. The first I’ve seen 10 of the 15 (I have not had a chance to see Unrest, Long Strange Trip or Ex Libris – I could have travelled far to see Jane, and have so far skipped Human Flow – not because I don’t want to see it, but because it hasn’t fit into my schedule as of yet). The second is that this is a fairly predictable list, which is fairly strong – a lot of familiar names get shortlisted here, but there are notable omissions.
 
One thing I will point out is that I am somewhat surprised (pleasantly so) that Abacus: Small Enough to Jail made the list. I think it’s one of the best docs of the year, but the Academy doesn’t exactly have a strong history with director Steve James – they famously did not nominate his masterpiece Hoop Dreams, and they didn’t shortlist his widely loved Roger Ebert doc – Life Itself, or his acclaimed The Interrupters. Perhaps it’s finally his year. I was also pleasantly surprised that they shortlisted Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris – no, I haven’t seen it (and if the pattern of Wiseman holds true, I may never see it) – but I have seen quite a bit of his work, he is an absolute legend, and he has rarely been recognized. The only negative surprise for me in the inclusions is An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power – which is hardly a horrible movie, but isn’t particularly good either. This feels more like a rubber stamp approval to Al Gore than based on the film itself, which was largely greeted with a shrug.
 
Of the films I have seen on the shortlist, I like Chasing Coral, City of Ghosts, Icarus and Last Me in Aleppo just fine – all are solid film that I like them a great deal, even if they are not among my favorites of the year. I would be interested to know why they went with City of Ghosts and Last Men in Aleppo and not Cries from Syria – which was my favorite of three – but all were fine films (and watch for Icarus – a suddenly very timely doc, with Russian being banned from the Olympics).
 
I do really like the aforementioned Abacus, LA 92, One of Us and Strong Island – and Faces Place is my favorite doc of the year. All of them deserve their spots on the list, and would make a fine lineup (although considering I do love Brett Morgan, I wouldn’t be surprised if once I see Jane, it shoots up this list as well).
 
As for the films I wish would have been included and were not, here goes. Casting JonBenet is one of the strangest, most innovative docs of the year (but I seem to be in the minority on that one), Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992, is at least the equal of L.A. 92 – and I would love to have seen them both on the list, The Work is a stunning documentary, and I cannot believe they missed it (I have to think they didn’t see that one, because it seems up their alley), the cat documentary Kedi is beloved, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond is a fascinating look at acting, and Dawson City: Frozen Time is a great history lesson – and film history lesson – and I would loved to have seen it listed.
 
Other notable films that I liked, and I thought may break into the list that didn’t include Step, Whose Streets? and Nobody Speak: Trails of the Free Press – all of which are good, and I thought may be timely (or popular) enough to crack the list, but didn’t.
 
My predicted five nominees would be this:
 
City of Ghosts
Faces Places
Human Flow
Icarus
Jane
 

And the whole shortlist is below:

 

Academy Award Documentary Shortlist
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Chasing Coral
City of Ghosts
Ex Libris – The New York Public Library
Faces Places
Human Flow
Icarus
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
Jane
LA 92
Last Men in Aleppo
Long Strange Trip
One of Us
Strong Island
Unrest

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Movie Review: I, Tonya

I, Tonya **** / *****
Directed by: Craig Gillespie.
Written by: Steven Rogers.
Starring: Margot Robbie (Tonya Harding), Sebastian Stan (Jeff Gillooly), Allison Janney (LaVona Golden), Julianne Nicholson (Diane Rawlinson), Paul Walter Hauser (Shawn Eckhardt), Mckenna Grace (Young Tonya Harding), Bobby Cannavale (Hard Copy Reporter), Bojana Novakovic (Dody Teachman), Caitlin Carver (Nancy Kerrigan), Jason Davis (Al Harding), Anthony Reynolds (Derrick Smith), Ricky Russert (Shane Stant).
 
You can say a lot of things about Tonya Harding – most of them, not flattering – but you have to admit that she really was close to having one of the greatest underdog sports stories ever. She grew up poor, with abusive or absent parents, got married very young – to a man who may well have abused her as well, and was still, at one point, one of the very best figure skaters in the world. While her competitors got to focus on nothing other than skating, she had to work, and deal with an insane family. None of this excuses what happened – but it certainly makes her interesting. She really is the reason why “the incident” became such a massive media event – and she’s the reason why it’s remembered. Nancy Kerrigan is better remembered for that incident than anything else – which is completely unfair to her, but also true. She’s boring – Harding most definitely is not.
 
I, Tonya is probably the best feature film version of this story that you could ask for – and it’s done in the perfect style for it. The vast majority of the action takes place in the early to mid-1990s, so director Craig Gillespie basically decides to make a film directly from that era. You can see a lot of GoodFellas-era Scorsese influence, a little Coen brother mixture of mockery and humanity, and a lot of Gus Van Sant’s To Die For in the film as well. What happens in the film is so insane you would never in a million years believe it, if it was not true. But – of course – it is.
 
Margot Robbie plays Harding, and it’s a performance that once and for all should prove to everyone just how good she is (I was convinced after The Wolf of Wall Street – and in general, I don’t think she’s been bad in anything, even if the movie sucked). Yes, she’s too old to play Harding starting at 15, but you get over that pretty quick. This is a brash performance – mixing humor with humanity, and more than a healthy dose of self-delusion (Harding never thought she was responsible for anything, ever). The film requires a lot of Robbie – and she carries it well. As her infamous husband/manager Jeff Gilloly, Sebastian Stan is quite good as well – looking awful with a horrible mustache, the film has him flash between sweetly dim, and violent and abusive (the film is structured like a documentary, with various people telling their stories, and then we see those scenes, so you get different version of the people). The best performance in the movie belongs to Allison Janney as Harding’s mother LaVona – you wouldn’t say that she humanizes her – LaVona is clearly a monster, abusive, belittling and controlling, but you get to see what makes her tick. The various guys involving in the actual crime are all convincingly played as a gaggle of idiots – none more so than Paul Walter Hauser as Gilloly’s best friend Shawn – the “body guard and international terrorism expert”. He is hilarious in every scene he’s in.
 
I, Tonya does a great job at walking that fine line between mockery and simply portraying its characters. It would be easy to mock many of them – they are not smart, they are delusional, and from 25 years in the future, the dress and style themselves horribly. The film is certainly funny – it has to be given everything that happens – but it also positions itself well in terms of explaining why this story caught the way it did back then – and what that may mean about us today. The film never gets overt about it – but we see what the story that knocked Harding out of the headlines was, and we know what that means – and we see what she did in later years. She was a reality TV star before reality TV.
 
The film is also, it must be said, just extremely entertaining – an absolute blast from beginning to end. If you’re going to make a film about this subject, you have to fully embrace its inherent sleaziness – and this film does just that. It’s a film that keeps you laughing while watching it – and only really sinks in later.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Movie Review: Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Dan Gilroy.
Written by: Dan Gilroy.
Starring: Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq.), Colin Farrell (George Pierce), Carmen Ejogo (Maya Alston), Lynda Gravatt (Vernita Wells), Amanda Warren (Lynn Jackson), Hugo Armstrong (Fritz Molinar), Sam Gilroy (Connor Novick), Tony Plana (Jessie Salinas), DeRon Horton (Derrell Ellerbee), Amari Cheatom (Carter Johnson).
 
The first thing I noticed about Denzel Washington is Roman J. Israel, Esq. is that the character does not have Washington’s trademark strut. Washington has one of the best struts in cinema history – he moves through the space with utter and complete confidence – he’s in control and he knows it (or at least that’s the impression he wants to give). But his Roman here doesn’t strut as much as shuffle. Unlike almost any other Washington character, he doesn’t walk with his head held high – instead, he mainly looks down, his old fashioned Walkman headphones on as protection from the outside world. Here’s he is playing a lawyer who has essentially got to hide from the outside world – live inside his head – for decades. He is partnered with another lawyer – but that other lawyer is the fact of the operation, does all the court appearances, meets clients, etc. Israel has a genius legal mind, but no social skills, so he stays in the office writing briefs – doing the grunt work – while his partner does the rest. It works for Roman – that is, until his partner has a heart attack, slips into a coma and dies. With nowhere else to go, nothing else to do, and in desperate need of money – he ends up working for George Pierce (Colin Farrell) – a slick, criminal defense lawyer who thinks he can use Israel’s genius mind to help his own, already thriving practice. But in a matter of weeks, Israel will essentially destroy himself.
 
What precisely is wrong with Roman is never really discussed in the film. He’s clearly somewhere on the autism spectrum – but if he’s ever been diagnosed, it doesn’t come up. He is, in many ways, a genius – but thrust out into the world without protection, he makes one bad decision after another.
 
Washington is in nearly every scene of the film, and luckily for the film, you cannot take your eyes off of him. I’m not sure it’s a good performance or not, but it’s an interesting one. Everything around him in the movie is a complete and total mess – none of the other characters make a whole lot of sense, the plotting makes less sense, and nothing in the film really coheres into a whole. I’m not quite sure what the film is trying to say about, well, anything.
 
The film was written and directed by Dan Gilroy – whose directorial debut Nightcrawler with Jake Gyllenhaal is a truly great neo-noir, with terrific performances, and a killer look. It was one of the great debuts of recent years. Here, though, I never got the sense of what Gilroy wants to do or say in the movie. He clearly doesn’t like the criminal justice system, which has turned into one in which everyone pleas out, without going to court, because the consequences of not doing so are so dire.
 
But of all that gets lost in a plot that involves a murder, and reward money, and Israel deciding to sell out, that regretting it – and a subplot involving Carmen Ejogo’s character – who works for some ill-defined Civil Rights group whose mission is never stated, who is drawn to Israel, for reasons that don’t make a lot of sense. Farrell’s character is worse. He has turned into a terrific actor over the last few years, but there is little you can do with a character who seems to be different – and have different motivations – every time we see him. The fact that this all takes place over the span of a mere three weeks makes no sense either – there’s simply too much going on.
 
Washington is as committed as ever to his role – and it’s a strange choice for him to play, and I admire him for doing it. Like the movie itself, I don’t think the performance entirely works – and yet I don’t see how it could have gone any better. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a disappointment because it is the type of movie I wish Hollywood made more of – and because this one doesn’t work, that’s further proof for them to stop trying to do movies like this at all. It shouldn’t be. This is an odd film – and not a very good one. But I don’t think I’m going to forget it any time soon.

Movie Review: Most Beautiful Island

Most Beautiful Island *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Ana Asensio.
Written by: Ana Asensio.
Starring: Ana Asensio (Luciana), Natasha Romanova (Olga), David Little (Doctor Horowitz), Nicholas Tucci (Niko), Larry Fessenden (Rudy), Caprice Benedetti (Vanessa), Anna Myrha (Nadia), Ami Sheth (Benedita), Miriam A. Hyman (Bikie), Sara Visser (Katarin), Natalia Zvereva (Ewa), Jennifer Sorika Wolf  (Mai), Fenella A. Chudoba (Alina).
 
Spoiler Alert: Even more than most movies, Ana Asensio’s Most Beautiful Island works because of the narrative twists and turns it takes – starting out as one thing, and ending up as something else entirely. Because the best sequences in the film are the later ones, I would find it hard to discuss the film without talking about them – so be warned before reading on. You should definitely see the film – and you should definitely NOT know what you’re going to see when you do. You’ve been warned.
 
The first half of Ana Asensio’s Most Beautiful Island is essentially a neo-realist immigrant drama – a well-made one, with fine performances, directions and writing, but something that you have definitely seen before. Yes, there is one sequence in a bathtub– if you’ve seen the film, you know the one I mean – that at least hints at the possibility that there is something more going on here, but because of the brevity of that scene, and how much time after it seems like a normal drama, you put it out of your mind. You know it’s probably not going to be good when the main character, Luciana (played by writer/director Ana Asensio) is invited to work at a secretive party – and needs black heels and little black dress – to do so. Just what happens there, however, is something you will not see coming.
 
Most Beautiful Island is a film that works because of just how committed writer/director/star Asensio is to telling the story. The first half of this 80 minute movie, is about the regular challenges and humiliations that a working class immigrant faces in America – with multiple jobs, family back home, past traumas, no access to health care, and many other things piling up. It makes sense that Asensio would jump at an opportunity to make some quick money when her friend, Olga (Natasha Romanov) tells her about a party she’s supposed to work, but cannot make it to. From there, the tension starts to escalate, as Luciana follows some instructions, and has to travel to a few different places in New York, given cryptic messages, and a little purse she must bring with her. When she finally arrives at the “party” – welcomed by Larry Fessenden (never a good sign when he shows up) the last act of the movie is almost unbearably intense and frightening.
 
I don’t really want to reveal what happens next, so I won’t. What I will say is that the film says that each “game” lasts only two minutes, but it sure the hell feels a lot long than that. Perhaps it is because of my own phobias (then again, I think Asensio is smart to pick such a wildly held phobia to play with) but I’m not sure I’ve held my breath in a movie for that long ever before.
 
The whole film isn’t as great as that one sequence – and yet the sequence is as effective as it is, because of everything that surrounds it – which skillfully misdirects you away from it. The film is an ultra-low-budget debut for Asensio, who pulls it off brilliantly. This is a calling card movie for her. You can dismiss it as a stunt, but it works – and it should allow her to do something even better with her next film.

Movie Review: Voyeur

Voyeur (2017) *** / *****
Directed by: Myles Kane & Josh Koury.
 
There is a fascinating story at the heart of the Netflix documentary Voyeur, about a legendary journalist and his latest subject, which the filmmakers have full access to as they work together on the story. Gay Talese is now in his 80s – and has had a long career in journalism, exploring sex and celebrity, and many other topics in American life. He is an obsessive collector for these stories – he has a ton of stuff in labelled boxes related to all of his stories, even those that are decades old. This is perhaps why he was drawn to Gerald Foos in the first place. Way back in 1980, as Talese was about to study his book on sex – Thy Neighbor’s Wife – Foos contacted Talese, and told him about his own activities. In Aurora, Colorado Foos owned and operated a motel – and he had retrofitted that motel so that he can see and hear everything that goes on in the rooms – unseen, from above. He watches as people do all sorts of things in those rooms – particularly sex – and he never got caught. Foos, of course, didn’t want to go on record back in 1980 – but he did take Talese up there on day to show him what he could see. Then, decades later, Foos finally decides to go on the record with Talese – resulting in a New Yorker article, and eventual book. But how much of what Foos says can be believed?
 
Talese himself knows that Foos is perhaps not a reliable narrator of his own life – he mentioned it in the article itself. Yet, because he was there with Foos, he knows he isn’t completely full of shit. The documentary follows these two men as they wrestle for control on the narrative – friendly at times, not so friendly at others. But it’s also about how Talese, and those he worked with, ignored some of the warning signs that will blow up in their faces in the final part of the movie – when the Washington Post finds some inconsistencies in Foos’ story – most notably, that he didn’t even own the Motel for a period of several years in the 1980s. It wasn’t the first inconsistency in Foos’ story – Talese had identified others – but they mainly let them slide. At a certain point though, they add up.
 
Watching the film, I couldn’t help but wish that it had been made by someone else. It isn’t that filmmakers Myles Kane and Josh Koury are bad per se – just that they don’t seem to know what to do with the story other than point their cameras at it (at one point, when Talese gets really frustrated, he yells at the documentary makers, calling them “cameramen, not journalists” – and I’m not sure he’s wrong, despite the fact he’s being an asshole at that moment). The first part of the movie seems to be the story that Foos wants to tell about himself – delving into his life, his experiences, in his own words. Talese seems all too happy to let Foos keep talking. As the film moves along though, and becomes something greater, the filmmakers still just sit there and watch the two men as they bicker and argue. This works because both men are good storytellers, and also rather petty – that makes them great subjects. As the story breaks, and Foos start to question his decision to come forward at all, he in particular is a fascinating person to watch. He’s angry that Talese revealed that he has a large baseball card collection – and is convinced that people are on their way to break down his door.
 
The film never really answers the question about Foos and how much he is lying. At one point, Talese disavows his own work, but later, when cooler heads have prevailed, he stands by his work again. The film is content to simply allow you in the audience to watch, and figure it out. In many ways, this is the right decision to make. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder what a filmmaker like Errol Morris (a very obvious influence on this film, for many reasons) could have done with the same material. He probably would have ended at the same place – but would have gotten more out of his subjects – he would have controlled the narrative, and not allowed it to be controlled. Then again, he’s not just a “cameraman”.

Movie Review: Woodshock

Woodshock * ½ / *****
Directed by: Kate Mulleavy & Laura Mulleavy.
Written by: Kate Mulleavy & Laura Mulleavy.
Starring: Kirsten Dunst (Theresa), Joe Cole (Nick), Pilou Asbæk (Keith), Steph DuVall (Ed), Jack Kilmer (Johnny), Susan Traylor (Theresa's Mother), Joel McCoy (Foreman), Michael Pavlicek (Mike).
 
Woodshock is one of those movies that even after you’ve seen it, you won’t really be able to describe it, or what happens in it. It is a film that tries, very, very hard to operate on some kind of dream logic, but instead, doesn’t seem to have any logic to it at all. The writers/directors – sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy, fashion designers turned filmmakers – have some visual skills to be sure. The film looks great, and there are striking images throughout. Sure, much of those feel like pretentious, film school crap – but they wouldn’t be the first debut directors to make that mistake, and it looks fine just the same. But the movie is such a boring slog that eventually you don’t much care how it looks.
 
The film stars Kristen Dunst as Theresa – a woman we first meet, as she lights up a joint, laced with some sort of liquid, that she then gives her mother. He mother inhales and dies shortly after. This isn’t a murder, but an assisted suicide. The rest of the movie is basically Theresa feeling guilty about her role in this assisted suicide – and some of the other things she does (which, to be fair, she should feel guilty about).
 
Dunst is a talented actress, who I don’t think filmmakers use quite enough. She has done her best work with Sofia Coppola of course – but Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is another high point, and she’s someone I always look forward to seeing. There is little she can do in Woodshock though to save the film from itself. The film is dour and dull from the outset – and is basically a long slog from there. It doesn’t help that the men in her life are bores – her emotionless boyfriend Nick (Joe Cole), who doesn’t seem to know, or care, about anything going on in the rest of the movie or Keith (Pilou Asbæk), who runs the medical marijuana dispensary Theresa works at – and is also responsible for helping old people, like her mother, to kill themselves. He’s supposed to be a party boy – but his parties seem sad and pathetic – and not in the way the film intends.
 
The film ends with a violent, climatic bang – something meant to shock the audience, and I guess it is shocking, but only because it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the film – and puts Theresa in a different light than we’ve seen her before. I also don’t know what to make of the final shot – and worse, I’m not sure the filmmakers do either.
 
The film really does look great at times. I under that the Mulleavy’s wanted their film to operate not like a traditional narrative, but more like a dream. I normally love those film (David Lynch does this better than anyone – but there are lots of examples of this that I love). Here though, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to anything. Worse, the film is just plain dull. I would watch another film by these filmmakers, if only to see if they can match their visual talents to some sort of narrative that works. They really did not do that this time.

Movie Review: Menashe

Menashe *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Joshua Z Weinstein   
Written by: Alex Lipschultz & Musa Syeed & Joshua Z Weinstein.
Starring: Menashe Lustig (Menashe), Yoel Falkowitz (Fischel), Ruben Niborski (Rieven - Menashe's son), Meyer Schwartz (The rabbi), Ariel Vaysman (Levi), Yoel Weisshaus (Eizik)
 
A few weeks ago, I reviewed the wonderful Netflix documentary One of Us – a film about the insular Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn – told from the point of view of three people who left. That film looked at some of the darker aspects of the community, while providing a little insight into why they act the way they do. The film Menashe, which actually came out before that film, is a dramatic movie that takes place entirely inside that community – with non-professional actors that does something similar, with less dark, and more empathy. It is about a man named Menashe (Menashe Lustig), whose wife died a year ago, and until he gets remarried, will not have custody of his son – there are strict rules about children being raised in a two parent household, so his son Rieven has to go and live with Menashe’s brother-in-law. Menashe wants his son back – but doesn’t really want to get remarried (for reasons he eventually reveals). He is also a little bit of a screw-up. His heart is in the right place – and he tries hard – but things just aren’t going well for him.
 
The film is shot in the neo-realist style, by first time director Joshua Z. Weinstein. There’s a little bit of the Dardennes in the film, as it rarely leaves Menashe’s side, and he is the focus of nearly every shot in the movie. He is not a bad guy – he’s friendly, people generally like him – and he truly does love his son. He just doesn’t always have the best of luck, and at times, he makes the wrong choice. He isn’t very well respected in the community – he isn’t successful – he works as a clerk in a store, and lives in a very small apartment. He doesn’t wear his hat and coat everywhere – like most do – and he looks a little like a slob. He tries to do the right things – he goes on a few dates, arranged by the matchmaker – but his heart isn’t into it. Much is made of an upcoming dinner to commemorate his wife’s death – and he insists on hosting it himself. But he doesn’t really know what he’s doing.
 
The film is a tremendous act of empathy with Menashe. For most viewers, the customs and traditions of this Hasidic community may well seem foreign – you can hardly believe it’s in modern America - and yet throughout the film, you really do get to know and understand Menashe. Yes, he makes mistakes – some of them dumber than others – but what he wants isn’t all that different than what we all want. You see him try with his son – and his son try back, even if at times even he wonders if he wouldn’t be better off with his Uncle, no matter how much he loves his dad.
 
The movie never tells you how to feel about Menashe or his predicament – right up until the final shot of the movie. In some ways, that represents growth for Menashe – doing what is best for his son, even if it isn’t precisely what he wants. In other ways, it’s a sad shot – Menashe essentially admitting defeat. I’m honestly not sure how to feel about it. What I do know is that it comes at the end of a movie that allows a glimpse into one life, lived in a way that may seem strange, and makes it entirely relatable.