Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Movie Review: Happy Death Day

Happy Death Day *** / *****
Directed by: Christopher Landon.
Written by: Scott Lobdell.
Starring: Jessica Rothe (Tree Gelbman), Israel Broussard (Carter Davis), Ruby Modine (Lori), Rachel Matthews (Danielle), Charles Aitken (Gregory), Jason Bayle (David), Phi Vu (Ryan Phan), Donna Duplantier (Nurse Deena), Rob Mello (Joseph Tombs), Cariella Smith (Becky).
 
Happy Death Day is a goofy horror movie riff on Groundhog Day – and the best thing about the movie is that it knows how goofy it is. This isn’t really a scary movie – there are a couple of moments that may make the uninitiated jump, but for the most part, you likely won’t be too scared by the movie. Instead, the movie just want to have a little fun with the genre, and for the most part succeeds. I wish the movie had pushed itself a little harder – a better ending could have upped this film from fun, forgettable time waster into something more than that – but its ambitions are not that high.
 
The film opens with university student Tree (Jessica Rothe), waking up in a strange dorm room, hungover, and not quite sure how she got there. The dorm room belongs to Carter (Israel Broussard) – and he isn’t the creep we first assume him to be (it’s a little sad how low we set the bar for not creep like behavior for men on university campuses, but apparently just not sleeping with a girl who is almost unconscious from drinking too much is where we’re at). She quickly gets her stuff together, and does the “walk of shame” back to her sorority, and then goes through the rest of the day – her birthday – dodging calls from her dad, and apparently interacting with every person she knows on campus. That night, on her way to a party – she is attacked and murdered by some knife wielding psycho wearing a baby mask – but just as she dies, she wakes up in Carter’s room, and does the whole thing over again. And again. And again. And again. No matter what she does, it always ends the same – with the knife wielding psycho in the baby mask killing her. She figures if she can figure out who the killer is, than she can stop them – but that is more complicated than it sounds.
 
Like Tree, you’ll spend most of the film trying to piece together who the killer is – although a montage part way through takes a lot of suspects out of the running too early for my tastes. The last act of the movie is more than a little bit of a mess – and goes on a lengthy misdirection that was raised so many questions in my head that it obviously had to be a misdirection, and so it’s more than a little farfetched than Tree – who had lived through the day dozens of times by now – would ever believe it.
 
And yet, I have to say that for the most part, I enjoyed Happy Death Day. No, it’s hardly a classic, and it keeps its ambitions shockingly low – using Groundhog Day as a template should be where the filmmakers start innovating, not stop. But in Rothe, the film has found a star in the making – she’s funny and charming, and you root for her even in the first act, where she is admittedly a pretty horrible person. Happy Death Day probably could have – and should have – been better than it ultimately is – there is a great horror movie with this basic premise to be made. But for an October programmer, its good – a horror movie for people to watch this Halloween season that won’t scare them as much as keep them entertained. Its low risk, low reward to be sure – but its fun.

Movie Review: Kingdom of Us

Kingdom of Us *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Lucy Cohen.
 
The Netflix documentary Kingdom of Us tells a heartbreaking story in a very intimate way. The doc chroincles the life of the Shanks family – mother Vickie, and her seven children – 6-8 years after the husband/father Paul committed a fairly gruesome suicide – something that each family member grapples with in their own way. Complicating matters more is that several of the children on the autism spectrum, and already have trouble processing their own emotions – let alone reading the emotions of other people. Each of the family members struggle to deal with the absence of their father – who was, during his lifetime, both “their best friend and worst enemy” as one daughter put it. He suffered from his own mental illness, which made him go very dark, and very quiet at times. Suicide had not been his original plan either – he had planned, in fairly meticulous detail, to kill each one of his children, then his wife (they were in the process of getting divorced at the time), and then finally himself. Why he didn’t follow through on that, we’ll never know – although one daughter’s theory that he killed himself to protect his family from himself is as good an explanation as any. The home video footage we see of Paul when he was alive could be disturbing to be sure – but it’s also clear he loved his children all the same.
 
The film, directed by Lucy Cohen, assembles all that old footage of Paul and his family, and combines it with current footage – most of the film takes place in the present as they struggle. None of the family members are “okay” – but as they say in the film, “it’s okay not to be okay”. The doc portrays them as they try to move forward – with each triumph coming almost with a setback at the same time – or shortly after. Vickie is not immune to the problems herself – her husband had hated clutter, and the house was fairly empty when he was alive – she has overcompensated the other way now, and is bordering on a hoarder. The youngest daughter Pippa seems to be struggling the most out of all the children – she was only six when her father killed himself, and her memory of him is fuzzy at best – watching a video of him, she breaks down, because he doesn’t have the same voice that she had in her head of his.
 
Watching the film, I was worried that at some point, the film would cross the line, and begin to exploit this family – but I don’t think it ever does. It is honest and respectful of them and their process, which is a complicated one for which there is no manual to get through. Mental health is still something we do not talk enough about – and at the very least, the Shanks family talks about it – and the documentary about them will hopefully open some sort of dialogue as well.
 
The doc probably does run on a little long, and its loose structure hurts it in the back half, when you start to realize that the doc has run out of things to say about what is happening. Those are minor flaws however in a documentary that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention so far – and will hopefully be seen by more people. It deserves to.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Movie Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) **** / *****
Directed by: Noah Baumbach.
Written by: Noah Baumbach.
Starring: Adam Sandler (Danny), Ben Stiller (Matthew), Dustin Hoffman (Harold), Elizabeth Marvel (Jean Meyerowitz), Emma Thompson (Maureen), Grace Van Patten (Eliza Meyerowitz), Candice Bergen (Julia), Rebecca Miller (Loretta Shapiro), Judd Hirsch (L.J. Shapiro), Adam Driver (Randy).
 
Noah Baumbach has softened a little bit in the 12 years since he made his first truly great film – The Squid and the Whale. That films – and the two that followed (Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg) were fairly harsh and unforgiving of its characters – punishing them, and at times, it seemed, punishing those in the audience who were watching. The softening started perhaps a little in Greenberg – his first collaboration with Greta Gerwig, who delivered a witty, funny, humane and overall tremendous performance in that film – and co-wrote and starred in two other Baumbach films – Frances Ha and Mistress America as well (the other Baumbach film during that time, While We’re Young is perhaps Baumbach’s cranky side coming through – as it’s a story about how annoying millennials can be when you’re older – and could be read as personal, given the age difference between him and Gerwig, who have been together for a while). But I noticed his softening most in his latest film – The Meyerowitz Stories – because in it, Baumbach offers at least a little forgiveness and understanding to characters he never used to be able to do that with. The aging father in the film – Harold, played in his best performance in years by Dustin Hoffman – is as insufferable as any of Baumbach’s other patriarchs – but it’s tempered with more understanding. There is also, undeniably, more sympathy for Harold’s children – on the late side of middle age, but still competing against for the affection of a man who is too self-involved to notice them.
 
There are three Meyerowitz children – Danny (Adam Sandler), is the oldest, and the only one who was the product of Harold’s second marriage. Danny is getting divorced and sending his beloved daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) off to college at the same time. To a certain extent, Danny is another of Sandler’s overgrown man children – he has a temper, and can yell as loud as any Sandler character, but it’s more tempered with sadness and regret this time around – and less borderline psychotic. It’s a reminder of just how good Sandler can be when he works with a good director who pushes him. Danny’s half siblings are Matthew (Ben Stiller) – who fled to L.A. as soon as he could, and became a successful financial planner to the rich and famous (Adam Driver has a great cameo as one of his clients). Matthew worries more than a little that he’s too like his father. Then there is Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), whose primary family role seems to be peacekeeper. It’s too bad that Jean is the most underwritten of the major roles in the film, because Marvel is fantastic as a woman who allows the men in her life to treat her as an afterthought, and yet still be there for them (“Because that’s what a good person does”). They all playing supporting roles in the life of Harold (Hoffman) – who was once a sculptor of some (limited) renown, who believes that she is still doing the best work of his career – after his retirement from teaching. He lives with Mrs. Meyerowitz #4 – Maureen (Emma Thompson), playing a kind of drunken hippie – a role that doesn’t require someone of Thompson’s immense skills, but benefits from them anyway.
 
The title of movie evokes a short story collection – and to an extent, so does the structure of Baumbach’s movie, which concentrates on one sibling at a time, before bringing them together once Harold gets ill (the structure also kind of resembles Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections – which Baumbach tried, unsuccessfully, to turn into a TV series a few years ago. The film shows moments in the lives of this family, not so much as they grow, but as they come to accept their place. Harold will never change – he is incapable of it, and doesn’t have the self-awareness to even see the damage he’s done. Hoffman is terrific here, digging into that a little bit.
 
The maturation of Baumbach helps his own art here. I still think I prefer The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding to The Meyerowitz Stories – yet I also think that the kind of anger and punishing streak in those films would have eventually grown stale, and overly harsh had Baumbach made a career out of them. Eventually, you have to forgive your parents – even if they are assholes. The Baumbach who made The Squid and the Whale didn’t know that – the one who made this film, does.

Movie Review: The Florida Project

The Florida Project **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Sean Baker.
Written by: Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch.
Starring: Willem Dafoe (Bobby), Brooklynn Prince (Moonee), Valeria Cotto (Jancey), Bria Vinaite (Halley), Christopher Rivera (Scooty), Caleb Landry Jones (Jack), Macon Blair (Tourist John), Karren Karagulian (Narek), Sandy Kane (Gloria).
 
There is a lot to love about Sean Baker’s The Florida Project – a beautiful, honest slice-of-life drama set beside the happiest place on earth in Florida – but perhaps none more than the best child performance I have seen in years by young Brooklynn Prince. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more natural performance by a child this young – she has to be 6 or 7 at the oldest – she never hits a false note. It’s a performance full of life – full of youthful exuberance that perfectly captures that age. The movie itself gives that performance a hint of sadness – not because of anything overt that Prince does, but just because at some point, we realize what the future most likely holds for Prince’s character Moonee. Now, she is innocent, and getting into the type of trouble that all kids that age get into – where their parents still get mad at them, but do so while smiling on the inside, because it’s not that bad. She spits on a car with her friends for instance – or puts a dead fish in the pool to “try and bring it back to life”. How do you not smile at that?
 
I realize that the first paragraph of this review perhaps makes The Florida Project sound like a feel good, Hollywood tearjerker, coming of age story – something like Stand By Me for instance, but that’s not really what this movie is. The movie is largely plotless, and takes place entirely in and around The Magic Castle, a rundown motel close to Disney Land in Florida, but is not a place you would stay if you had the money to go to Disney Land (unless, as in one very funny scene, you made a mistake with the online reservation). It’s summer vacation, and Moonee lives in one of the rooms with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) – who is in her early 20s, has no job, and whoever Moonee’s father was, is no longer around. Halley gets buy, week-to-week, on the rent by conducting various scams – like buying wholesale perfume, and selling it to tourists at the richer hotels in the area. Moonee basically spends her days getting into mischief with her pals Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) – never quite understanding how close to being homeless she is, or how desperate her mother gets. The other major character in the film is Bobby (Willem Dafoe) – the motel manager, who isn’t what you expect him to be. Halley and Moonee are not the first family unit he’s seen in this situation – and they won’t be the last – and yet, he hasn’t grown cold or cynical. He really does care about them in his gruff one. The movie observes these various characters – and those who come in contact with them – over the course of a few weeks during the summer.
 
The Florida Project is a smart movie by co-writer/director Sean Baker, who follows-up his acclaimed breakthrough film Tangerine, about two transgender prostitutes in L.A., which he shot on an iPhone, with this film, shot on 35MM film. This film is bolder visually – and certainly brighter – than Tangerine, and yet it has the same humanistic approach to the storytelling. This one is even less driven by plot than Tangerine was – that one had a few storylines running throughout. This one is an even more closely observed film that really does understand these various characters, and their existence. It delves into the kind of lives that we don’t often see in movies – and rush by in real life. It also nails the feeling of what it’s like to be in Florida (in my limited experience anyway) – you feel the heat coming off everything, you can also feel the sadness underneath a lot of the happier facades in the film. At the heart, there are the great performances – by Prince, Dafoe and Vinaite – two movies, and a pro-, doing some of the very best work of his long career. The movie ends, probably as it must – with a moment that is both sad, yet perhaps somehow optimistic. This is one of the great films of the year – it’s not to be missed.

Movie Review: Brawl in Cell Block 99

Brawl in Cell Block 99 **** / *****
Directed by: S. Craig Zahler.
Written by: S. Craig Zahler.
Starring: Vince Vaughn (Bradley Thomas), Jennifer Carpenter (Lauren Thomas), Don Johnson (Warden Tuggs), Udo Kier (Placid Man), Marc Blucas (Gil), Tom Guiry (Wilson), Dan Amboyer (Longman), Fred Melamed (Mr. Irving), Rob Morgan (Jeremy).
 
I am as guilty as anyone of sometimes saying – especially of genre films – that the films would be better if they were tighter – mainly meaning, they’d be better if they were shorter. For the most part, I still think I’m right – and that’s mainly because the list of genre films that can sustain its momentum for more than about 100 minutes is short. Most of these film would benefit from being a tight, nasty 90 minutes. Films like Brawl in Cell Block 99 is the exception that proves the rule. Here is a film than runs two hours and twelve minutes – and it takes an hour before the main character is even in jail and another 45 minutes or so before he arrives in Cell Block 99 – he first has to get transferred to a different jail, and then get himself transferred into the title cell block. Oh, there is a brawl in Cell Block 99 alright – and it’s bloody and brutal when it comes. But the film takes its time getting there – and I pretty much loved every minute it takes to do so.
 
The film casts Vince Vaughn as Bradley Thomas – a large, hulking man who is mostly quiet throughout the film, which suits the usually motor mouthed Vaughn quite well. He’s a large man, with a shaved head, with a cross tattooed on the back of it. In the film’s opening scene, he gets fired from his tow truck driving job, and then heads home to have his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) tell him she’s having an affair. He doesn’t take the news well – and yet, surprisingly, after his initial meltdown, the couple actually manage a mature (kind of) dialogue about their relationship – and decide to try and make a go of it. Bradley goes to an old acquaintance of his and gets a job “transporting packages” – although we all know what that means. Soon, he’s working with the cartels, and things go from bad to worse as he gets arrested, etc.
 
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a throwback to the films of the 1970s – the tough guy movies that were written and directed by the likes of Don Siegel or John Milius. It’s easy to dismiss those films as “problematic” – as it would be to do the same thing to this film – it’s perhaps not surprising that as violent as this film is, it is also far more right wing in its outlook than most films. The film wouldn’t really look out of place on a double bill like Dirty Harry – as both films have violent men at their core that you like at as heroic, until you actually stop and think about their actions for more than a minute. I don’t know that Bradley is racist – he beats up members of pretty much every race imaginable, but he has a primitive view of his relationship with his wife to be sure. If you were to argue that the film is about a violent, racist, misogynistic psychopath, I’m not sure I could disagree with you.
 
Yet the film really does give you the same giddy, transgressive thrill of those movies. It was written and directed S. Craig Zahler, who made the horror/Western Bone Tomahawk a couple years back, and learned some lessons from it. Both films are slow burns, gradually leading up to scenes that are absolutely shocking in their level of brutality and bloodshed. He does a far better job this time around though in keeping things interesting leading up to that shocking climax.
 
There will be those who think Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a masterpiece – that will think this is the best film they’ve seen this year, and watch it approximately a million times. There will be those who are offended by the movie, and shut it off fairly early in the film, and never look back. If you’ve made it this far into the review, I suspect you know which one you are.

Movie Review: 78/52

78/52 *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Alexandre O. Philippe.
 
You could probably count the number of 45 second movie scenes that could support a feature length documentary on one hand, and have multiple fingers left over. The good news about the documentary 78/52 by Alexandre O. Phillippe, is that he picked one of the few that actually can – the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho (the title refers to the number of camera setups/number of edits in the scene). The bad news is that for a while anyway – the first 30 minutes or so of the doc – you wonder exactly what the approach to the doc is going to be, and especially wonder how and why Phillipe chose his interview subjects to speak about the scene in question. It really does seem like he was willing to talk too just about anyone who wanted to (sure, come on in, Elijah Wood and a couple of your film geek pals, Illena Douglas, why not?, the director of From Dusk to Dawn 2, sure!). It doesn’t much help that in that first 30 minutes, the doc is going over some very well-trod upon ground – talking about the importance of the scene historically, and how groundbreaking it was, and how daring Hitchcock was for doing it. We saw this (recently) in films like last year’s documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, and we saw this – dramatically – in the disappointing film Hitchcock with Anthony Hopkins – and those two are just the tip of the iceberg.
 
Luckily for those of us who already know all of that, the last hour of this 90 minute doc is something that really is fascinating – and really is worth your time. As the doc moves away from those talking about the importance of the scenes, and starts to break down the various elements of it – the different setups, and what they mean, the various cuts, Bernard Hermann’s score, etc. – the film gets into the nitty, gritty film geek stuff that you really do want to see in a doc like this. Sure, there is still a lot of fawning over Hitchcock and his genius here – but, whatever, it is kind of deserved.
 
The film takes the various stories and theories about the scene – and who is responsible for its greatness – and at the very least, addresses them. There is a vocal contingent who believes that the legendary title designer Saul Bass deserves more credit than he gets, because of the storyboards for it he drew – and the movie does show the various ways Hitchcock both followed them, and deviated from them to make the scene work more. The doc is perhaps even more fawning in its praise of Hermann and his score than it is even of Hitchcock – the composers he interviews seem to be in awe of him.
 
I do think there are various missed opportunities here. There is a fascinating moment where the film puts on a side-by-side comparison between the shower scene and a boxing scene in Scorsese’s Raging Bull the director has admitted to having inspired by in the editing of by the scene – but that flashes by too quickly. The doc interviews various people associated with the making of Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake of the film – but I would have loved it had it delved deeper into why that film didn’t work the same way (I believe the editor of the film essentially admits it doesn’t – but I would have loved a little more insight). I also think that the film could have stood with a little bit of questioning of the official narrative of Hitchcock as a genius – and delved past that a little. After all, there is a lot of talk in the doc about how modern Psycho is – and how with the melding of sex and violence, it was a precursor of much of what came after. But, surely someone thinks that may not be entirely good – especially considering what we know of Hitchcock and his relationships with actresses.
 
Still, this is pretty much a fan film, and on that level it works. As a filmmaker, that is pretty much what Phillippe is known for – he made The People vs. George Lucas – a film about why Star Wars fans love the original trilogy – and hate the prequels (whiny man children), and Doc of the Dead – about the history of the modern Zombie film. This is his best work to date, perhaps because it’s the most compressed – most focused on a single subject, rather than trying to do too much. Even if you know Psycho inside out and backwards, you should see this film – and if you haven’t – well, what are you waiting for?

Movie Review: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail **** / *****
Directed by: Steve James.
 
In the wake of the Financial crisis of 2008 all the big banks pretty much got off Scot Free – or with bailout money, that yes, eventually they repaid, although that didn’t help all those people who got screwed over. Prosecutors in New York did go after one bank however for their mortgage practices – and that bank was Abacus: Savings and Loan – a bank you have probably never heard of, and, in reality, there is no reason for you to have heard of it. It’s not a major bank – it doesn’t have millions of customers, or anything. But it is an important bank for the family that runs it – and those who use it. It was started by Thomas Sung – now almost 80 – a Chinese immigrant, who got frustrated when he realized that banks were willing to take his money in deposits, but none of them seemed to want to lend him – or other Asian Americans – any money. He set up a bank in Chinatown in New York City to change that. He operated the business for years – and now two of his daughters run have continued that legacy. There were some shady things happening in their mortgage department – but when the Sung family discovered them, they fired the employees who did them, and even reported them to their regulators, and co-operated with the D.A.’s office up to the point where they realized that they were no longer being treated as witnesses, but as suspects. While no one in the Sung family was personally indicted with a felony – the corporation itself was. The Sung family decided to fight the charges – not in least because unlike the major banks, who got slaps on the wrists or hit with fines, the D.A. refused to let them off with anything less than a felony conviction – which would doom them as a bank.
 
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is a documentary by Steve James – the great filmmaker behind such films as Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters and Life Itself. Here, he seemingly sets an impossible task for himself – to make a bank sympathetic – but it really doesn’t take him that long to do that. The film spends a lot of time with the Sung family – father, mother and three daughters, all of whom are smart, witty, charming and tough as nails. In short, they are not going down without a fight.
 
As the film goes on, it slightly expands its focus to Chinatown – and Chinese immigrants in general. While the bank fully admits that some of their employees did shady things in their mortgage department – they say they did everything they could to co-operate with the investigation into them, and have nothing to hide on a corporate level. The movie follows the trial closely – and it’s amazing how flimsy the evidence against Abacus is. After all the months – years – of investigation, this is what they had on Abacus, and they still decided to go to trial? To be fair, I’m not wholly convinced that Abacus did nothing wrong – but there isn’t any proof that they did, and many other banks did far, far worse things. I am more on the side of those in the documentary who believe that the D.A. wanted to show they were tough on banks – and decided to pick one to prosecute – just one that wasn’t too big, and only effected a small enough community that it wouldn’t hurt anyone election chances.
 
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is a fascinating documentary on several levels – as a legal thriller, as a document of how banks operate, as a family drama and more. It doesn’t quite have the scope of James’ Hoop Dreams, or quite the emotional resonance of The Interrupters of Life Itself – but it’s another wonderful documentary by one of the documentarians in the business.

Movie Review: The House

The House ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Andrew Jay Cohen.
Written by: Brendan O’Brien & Andrew Jay Cohen.
Starring: Will Ferrell (Scott Johansen), Amy Poehler (Kate Johansen), Jason Mantzoukas (Frank), Ryan Simpkins (Alex Johansen), Nick Kroll (Bob), Allison Tolman (Dawn), Rob Huebel (Officer Chandler), Christina Offley (Davida), Jessie Ennis (Rachel), Rory Scovel (Joe), Lennon Parham (Martha), Cedric Yarbrough (Reggie), Kyle Kinane (Garvey), Michaela Watkins (Raina), Jeremy Renner (Tommy), Andrea Savage (Laura).
 
When The House was released this summer, it was generally dismissed by critics. It didn’t help matters that the studio decided not to screen the film for critics before it was released – meaning those assigned to review it, had to run out to late shows on Thursday night, or early matinees of Friday. When films don’t show for critics, it’s usually a safe bet that those films are terrible – and the studio wants to avoid bad buzz leading up to the release date that a bunch of bad reviews would bring. In most cases, the film would have been dismissed by the critics – and unless it became a surprise hit (The House did not) that would be the end of it – and the film would rarely be thought of again by anyone. The House, though, is at least somewhat different. A.O. Scott of the New York Times gave the film one of its only positive reviews when it was released – and the film found an unlikely champion a few weeks ago in Chance the Rapper, who attacked critics for not liking the film – which itself has inspired at least would good think piece by a critic (Matt Singer of Screencrush) about The House, and its critical reaction. I cannot help but wonder if we’re headed for a full-scale critical reappraisal of The House – just a little earlier than normal. The truth about The House is, unfortunately, kind of boring – it’s nowhere near as terrible as the first wave of reviews made it out to be. It could very well be that critics were cranky, and on tight deadlines, so they dismissed it, and moved on. Yet, it’s also not really an underrated classic that will one day be listed as a landmark in American screen comedy. It’s a rather average comedy – that had moments that undeniable made me laugh. It also had, I think, some ambitions beyond being a straight ahead comedy – but it doesn’t quite reach the levels of Ferrell’s best works in those regards either. It’s a decent, kind of funny comedy.
 
In the film, Ferrell and Amy Poehler stars as Scott and Kate Johansen, a middle class couple, living in a nice, quiet suburban town, with a nice house, nice jobs and a daughter – Alex (Ryan Simpkins) who they adore. She has gotten into a great college – and won the town scholarship this year, so they don’t have to worry about paying for it. That is, until the town council led by Bob (Nick Kroll) decides instead to spend the money on building a pool. Now the Johansen’s have no money – they look well off, but aren’t – and have the summer to come up with the case, or tell their daughter she cannot go. So they do what every loving parents would do – team up with their friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) to run an illegal casino out of Frank’s house. Frank is doing it because his wife has left him, and his gambling debts mean he’s about to lose the house. They decide they’ll run things just long enough to make $500K - $250K each to get them out of their binds. Things, of course, do not go according to plan.
 
The premise of the film is, of course, goofy – but then again, the film knows that. Co-writer and directed Alex Jay Cohen, is trying to make a comedy about the financial crisis – and he pushes things to their logical extreme, eventually – as mild mannered Scott eventually becomes known as The Butcher when he cuts off a man’s finger, and gets covered in his blood. The film is about the increasing price of the American Dream – and how more and more people are being priced out of it. It’s a comedy with at least a larger idea it wants to express.
 
As a comedy though, the film is largely hit or miss. Jason Mantzoukas has a delivery style that makes me laugh – or at least smile – at nearly every sentence he utters (the same was true of his vocal work in Big Mouth). Ferrell and Poehler are a good pair together as well – and they are able to mine some laughs out of some pretty thin material.
 
In short, The House isn’t as bad as those first critics thought it was. It is a goofy comedy that is at times smarter than the average studio comedy – but never manages to rise to the level of the best Adam McKay/Will Ferrell comedy concoctions. It’s better than you heard – but that doesn’t quite mean it’s good.

Movie Review: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson *** ½ / *****
Directed by: David France.
Written by: David France & Mark Blane.
 
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is most effective when it looks at the larger picture, and a little more suspect when it tries to zoom in on the details. The film uses its title figure – the famous drag queen Marsha P. Johnson, a figure in the Stonewall riots, and a gay activist her entire life, until her mysterious death in 1992, to tell the complicated history of transgender people in the gay rights movement. While today, the LBGTQ community is overall very supportive of trans rights, that wasn’t always the case – and director David France has the footage to prove it, as a large rally for gay rights in the 1970s features trans activist Sylvia Rivera giving a speech, where she is essentially booed and shouted down. She left the movement after that – and had a complex relationship with the movement for decades after – going through her own struggles, before dying in 2002 herself. When the film looks back at the movement in those earlier days, or focuses on the current situation – which is better, but far from good – the movie follows a murder trial where a man admits to beating to death a Trans woman, but says he did so out of “panic” when he discovered she was trans – it is excellent. When it focuses on the personal story of Victoria Cruz – a trans woman herself, from the same generation of Marsha and Sylvia – it is also quite good – giving a more personal side to the movement. But it’s on shaky ground when it examines Marsha’s death itself – coming up with very little other than shaky conspiracy theories.
 
Marsha’s death is undeniably strange – she was found in the water off the Christopher street pier in 1992 – and the cause of her death was drowning. There doesn’t appear to be any trauma on her body – she wasn’t beaten, stabbed, shot, etc. – and the police essentially rule it a suicide, and move on. But was it? It also could have been an accident. It also, of course, could have been murder. Cruz is convinced that it was murder, and does everything she can to try and prove that. She goes to Marsha’s surviving siblings to get them to give her permission to get the autopsy report from the medical examiner, she reaches out to the original investigating officers, with little success, and she digs through the records of the organization in which she works – the Anti-Violence Project. She reaches out to those who knew Marsha – her roommates, her friends, etc. What she discovers in this investigation is, honestly, not that much. The original officer won’t talk to her – but a cold case detective eventually does, saying he looked into the case a couple years ago, and couldn’t find any evidence that she was murdered. Part of the autopsy record is missing – but it is 25 years old, so that’s not that unusual (on the phone, Victoria asks the woman in charge of the records “So you’re saying that out of all of your records from 1992, this is the only one missing” and the reply “No, I’m not saying that”). There is a witness that says she saw Marsha at 4 am the day before her body was discovered – and she was being followed by two men and looked scared. There is also an anonymous phone call, warning Marsha’s roommate away from his then current mission of trying to wrestle the local gay pride festival away from the Mob – but that’s about it. By the end of the documentary, the feeling I got about Marsha’s death is that I still don’t know what happened – with murder, suicide and accident all still being possible. The biggest problem may well be that the police didn’t do more of an investigation back in 1992 – but unfortunately, we cannot go back in time and do that now.
 
Everything around this investigation into what happened to Marsha in regards to her death was so fascinating however, that I didn’t much care that the crime aspect just went in circles. The film was directed by David France – whose debut film, How to Survive a Plague, was an even more impressive doc – about ACT UP in the 1980s, and their struggle to get people to take the AIDS epidemic seriously. This film is another important one, looking back at the history of the gay rights movement, and documenting how contentious it once was. For someone like Marsha, there was no hiding she was – and being a “drag queen” at that time was a day in, day out form of activism. The trans community were outliers then, and they remain the most picked upon, abused and mocked members of the LGBTQ community to day. This documentary acts as a reminder of how far we have come as a society in these matters – and how much farther we have to go.

Movie Review: Rings

Rings * ½ / *****
Directed by: F. Javier Gutiérrez.
Written by: David Loucka and Jacob Estes and Akiva Goldsman based on the novel by Kôji Suzuki.
Starring: Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz (Julia), Alex Roe (Holt), Johnny Galecki (Gabriel), Vincent D'Onofrio (Burke), Aimee Teegarden (Skye), Bonnie Morgan (Samara).
 


 It really should not be possible to screw up a Ring movie this bad. After all, this franchise has supported two Hollywood films, and I don’t even want to know how many Japanese films, and is relatively simple and straight forward in its setup and execution. You watch a video, and seven days later, you die – unless you can get someone else to watch the video, and take your place. That’s it, that’s all – you should not be able to mess than up, because the idea is so simple, and so creepily effective, you don’t need anything else. The one thing you could do to mess the whole thing up is this – you could make a film that tries to explain everything about the video, its evil, and the how and why it’s all happening. So, of course, that’s exactly what Rings does.
 
The plot of this movie is simple – college freshman Holt (Alex Roe) allows himself to be drawn into the experiment by one of his professors, Gabriel (Johnny Galecki). Gabriel stumbled upon the video at a thrift sale, and figured out how it works – what he wants to do is get a whole lot of stupid college kids to watch the video, and then observe what happens to them over the seven days – getting someone else to “watch” their video before time runs out. He thinks in doing so, he could prove the existence of the soul – or the afterlife, or something. And of course, it’s a stupid idea. The real protagonist of the film is Holt’s girlfriend Julia (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, who didn’t become a horror star here, but will when people get to see her work in Revenge, which I saw and loved at TIFF this year) – who gets worried when he doesn’t respond to various phone calls and texts, and heads out to his university to meet him. Through a series of events too complicated to get into – she ends up seeing the video as well, but hers is different than the one everyone else sees – and it doesn’t look like it will be possible to copy it and show it to anyone else. She refuses to do that anyway – and decides to use her seven days instead trying to piece together the mystery behind the videotape – and therefore stop it, she hopes. She and Holt end up travelling to a small town not far from the university (how convenient) where the residents have tried to bury what they know.
 
This was not a horror franchise that needed any real explanation behind the video – at least not more than we already had. Stephen King is a master of the horror genre, and even he struggles (sometimes mightily) to come up with ways to explain all the supernatural crap that happens in his novels – which often makes the endings the weakest parts of these stories. They don’t need an explanation anyway – explanations are not inherently scary. The director of the film is F. Javier Gutierrez – who tries very hard to ape what Gore Verbinski did with 2002’s The Ring (and Hideo Nakata did with The Ring 2 – and the original Ringu) in terms of visual style. What he’s never quite able to do however is build any suspense – or any sense of surprise. To a certain extent, this isn’t entirely his fault – the entire film is essentially exposition – how the hell can you make that scary. But he doesn’t do himself many favors either.
 
This was a series that I think we all assumed was head. The 2002 Hollywood original was a surprise hit when it came out – and the 2005 sequel was a disappointment. In Japan, where the story originated, they made a few more – but other than Ringu, nothing really broke through here. The series had its moment, and then moved on. It should have stayed there – unless they had something interesting to say. They didn’t.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Movie Review: Dawson City: Frozen Time

Dawson City: Frozen Time **** / *****
Directed by: Bill Morrison.
Written by: Bill Morrison.
 
Dawson City: Frozen Time is one of the most fascinating documentaries of the year – a film that tells several interlocking stories, all in and around, and related to Dawson City – once the capital of the Yukon, which briefly flourished as a Gold Rush town, and then, quickly, saw itself fall from relevance for decades. The documentary tells the story of Dawson City as a Gold Rush town in the waning days of the 19th Century, how big Dawson City got, and quickly it fell away. It also tells the story of the treasure trove of silent films discovered in Dawson City in the 1970s – and how they were restored and preserved. Then, it tells the story of those films itself. It is a fascinating combination of history and cinematic lore – all told through images, and intertitles – no narration – and is a must for film buffs.
 
The story of Dawson City as a mining town is fascinating in its own right. It happened the way all gold rushes happened – one lucky guy found gold there, set-up his claim, and when word got out, thousands flocked to the city. The film contains some footage of that time – movie cameras were just starting to be used, and also uses a lot of still photos from the era at the same time to tell how this small city blew up overnight. Of course, most people who arrived had no hope of finding gold – they couldn’t even setup their own claims, since they were all gone. But as the city itself grew, more and more business sprouted up to “mine the miners” as the documentary explains – and Dawson City becomes an unlikely major city in the Canadian North. Of course, once the Gold Rush is over, almost all of the 40,000 who flocked there leave, and the the decades since have been a much sadder story, as Dawson City has mainly lost its relevance.
 
One of the businesses that did get built was, of course, movie theaters. Dawson City was the last stop on the distribution chain – where films would open in major cities, and then the prints would slowly circulate the country going to smaller and smaller cities – eventually ending in Dawson City. The studios didn’t want the films back, and Dawson City didn’t much know what to do with them – the prints themselves were dangerous, since they contains nitrate and were extremely flammable. Most of the prints got destroyed – but in the 1970s, they find a lot of prints, buried in the underground, in a filled in swimming pool. Because of the cold, and other factors, the prints were largely intact – they were all water damaged, but still playable. Eventually, they would be restored.
 
All of this is lovingly assembled by filmmaker Bill Morrison, who uses much of the movies found in that swimming pool as the spine of his film. The film traces the evolution of both Dawson City, and of cinema itself – both becoming more advanced as the 20th Century progresses,
 
Dawson City: Frozen Time is probably the perfect way to use all this footage that survives, and the movies that were found. It’s not like they discovered lost masterpieces down there, but really, just a variety of Westerns and melodramas from the silent era – which have, as we know, seen many of the films of that time lost and/or destroyed, as people didn’t take preservation seriously at the dawn of the medium. Here, Morrison has combined it all into one fascinating package. Yes, the film can be a little dry – honestly, I wish at least some of it contained narration, rather than intertitles (I read more here than in most foreign language films) – yet this remains one of the best documentary films of the year so far – a must for film fans.

Classic Movie Review: Moonraker (1979)

Moonraker (1979)
Directed by: Lewis Gilbert.
Written: Christopher Wood.
Starring: Roger Moore (James Bond), Lois Chiles (Holly Goodhead), Michael Lonsdale (Hugo Drax), Richard Kiel (Jaws), Corinne Cléry (Corinne Dufour), Bernard Lee (M), Geoffrey Keen (Sir Frederick Gray), Desmond Llewelyn (Q), Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny).
 
Moonraker was the 11th James Bond released, and the fourth time Roger Moore had the role – and I think by this point, everyone knew what to expect. The formula for a Bond movie includes a megalomaniacal billionaire villain with some crazy scheme for world domination (check), his lead henchman, who will be as memorable as the villain (check), a doomed “bad girl” who Bond will be drawn so she can be killed (check) a ridiculously named good girl for Bond to actually fall for (check), gadgets, action, quips, etc. (check, check, check). It was clear by this point that Moore was no Sean Connery, but he’d do, I guess – but they were also out of Bond novels, so they had to start coming up with story ideas – most of which got sillier and sillier. For Moonraker, that meant Bond had to go to space – almost definitely because Star Wars was a hit, which is why, we do see some laser gun battles in the finale. Moonraker is hardly an embarrassment for the franchise – it isn’t as bad as some people think, mainly because it leans into its camp value harder than most Bond films do. But it isn’t particularly good either. Like many (dare I say most?) Bond films, it’s an effective time waster and placeholder – marking time before the next great Bond movie arrives.
 
The movie opens with perhaps its best action sequence – with Bond on a plane that the pilot has sabotaged, so it’s going to crash and soon. Bond finds himself flying through the air without a parachute – and engages in not just one, but two midair fights in an attempt to get one (spoiler alert, he gets one). The main thrust of the plot involves Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale) – a hugely wealthy man whose company has designed the Moonraker rocket – and has seen that get stolen. Of course, at first he seems like the victim, but he’s really the bad guy – with a particularly silly plan for global domination even by Bond villain standards. One of his henchmen is Jaws (Richard Kiel) – making his second appearance in a row in a Bond film – proving, he really isn’t that bad a guy. Bond has to team up with Lois Chiles’ Holly Goodhead (seriously, guys, were they even trying to come up with clever sexual puns for the women at this point) – a scientist working for Drax, but not really. I do appreciate that they were trying to make her more than a bimbo – she really is a smart, capable woman, and not just a damsel in distress, but it’s hard to take that nod to feminism seriously with that name, right?
 
Moonraker dutifully checks off all the boxes for what audiences expected in a Bond film. The film was directed by Lewis Gilbert – making his third, and final Bond film – and he knows what he’s doing. But everything about the film feels just like that – that everyone involved is checking off boxes. The song isn’t particularly memorable – even if they brought Shirley Bassey for the third time, but no one is going to confuse the song for Goldfinger. The film has more than a little bit of a warmed over feel to it.
 
And yet, it’s hard to deny that the film can be fun. Yes, at over two hours, it’s too long, but when you take the film in the goofy spirit in which it was created, it can be amusing – right up the infamous re-entry that ends the film. The film is a goof – and is largely forgettable. It’s also a reminder that James Bond is the longest film series in the world not necessarily because it’s always been great, but because they just keep churning them out.

Movie Review: Better Watch Out

Better Watch Out *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Chris Peckover.
Written by: Zack Kahn and Chris Peckover.
Starring: Olivia DeJonge (Ashley), Levi Miller (Luke), Ed Oxenbould (Garrett), Dacre Montgomery (Jeremy), Aleks Mikic (Ricky), Virginia Madsen (Deandra), Patrick Warburton (Robert),
 
Here’s a nasty little Christmas themed horror movie for those of you out there who prefer to undercut the whole holiday season with films like Bad Santa, Black Christmas or White Reindeer (among others). It’s about a 12-year old psychopath, and the night of torture he puts his 17 year old babysitter through – but it remains fun throughout its runtime, never quite crossing the line into what would amount to torture porn or get into the really uncomfortable position of making the audience voyeurs into a blonde teenagers torment. The film walks the razor wire between those things, and mainly stays on the right side – making this one of the best “fun” horror films of the year.
 
The film is about Ashley (Olivia DeJonge), a 17 year old babysitter who is going to babysit one of her regulars – Luke (Levi Miller) – a 12 year old, so his parents can go to a Christmas party. Luke is right about that age when maybe he shouldn’t have a babysitter at all – and quite clearly has a huge crush on Ashley. He and his friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) hatch a plan to scare Ashley – in the hopes that she’ll find comfort in Luke’s arms. At least that’s what Luke tells Garrett they’ll be doing – but it is one of many deceptions Luke, who reveals himself to be a little psychopath fairly early in the proceedings, has up his sleeve. To say more would be to spoil the fun.
 
The film works as a kind of demented twin to Home Alone, crossed with all those home invasion horror movies you’ve seen – and it never quite goes the way you expect it to. The film keeps you on your toes, and it twists and turns, and goes to unexpected places – revealing in over-the-top bloodshed, and buoyed by the performances of the young cast, who are clearly having fun. The film isn’t overly scary – to be fair, it isn’t really trying to be, but is mainly content to be a twisty, turny film that just wants to be nasty fun. It doesn’t do anything revolutionary, but for what it is, it’s really impossible to complain about it. Co-writer/director Chris Peckover is clearly having a blast –and if you’re a fan of this genre, you will to. Little else needs to – or can be – said about this film – just watch it.

Movie Review: Super Dark Times

Super Dark Times *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Kevin Phillips.
Written by: Ben Collins & Luke Piotrowski.
Starring: Owen Campbell (Zach), Charlie Tahan (Josh), Elizabeth Cappuccino (Allison), Max Talisman (Daryl), Sawyer Barth (Charlie), Amy Hargreaves (Karen), Adea Lennox (Meghan), Ethan Botwick (John Whitcomb).
 
I have a feeling we’re going to start seeing more and more movies set in the 1990s – and not only because my generation is reaching middle age, otherwise known as the time in which we run everything, and therefore can just indulge in our own adolescent nostalgia. That’s part of it to be sure – but not the whole part. The real reason is because that was the last era before cell phones – and now smart phones – became an ever present reality for everyone. These phones would ruin many a horror film (which is why they make a big deal of there being no service, or the battery dying, or it being destroyed) – and many other genre films, including ones about teenagers. Part of why Super Dark Times – a dark, coming of age drama works so well, is that it is set in the time without cellphones – hell, it’s set in a pre-Columbine time period, when it was still possible to be somewhat innocent – somewhat naïve of just how violent teenagers could be, and where it wasn’t always possible to be in constant connection to everyone you know – where you had to deal with calling the house phone of the girl you liked, and getting past her asshole older brother, etc. What Super Dark Times excels at is creating an uneasy mood – a mood that would be ruining by a glowing screen in front of everyone’s face.
 
The film is about the friendship between Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) – a couple of suburban high school kids, who are not in the popular crowd, but also not in the loser crowd – they drift somewhere in between – mainly with each other. They are close – perhaps too close. One day, they’re hanging out with another couple of kids – one a few years younger than they are, and one who is in their grade, but really, really annoying (it’s hinted he may have some sort of learning disability – but it’s not explored). They are doing the stupid things teenage boys do – and a tragic accident happens. In the days and weeks that follow, they seem amazed they have gotten away with it, but also start to drift apart – Zach trusts Josh less and less, and starts to think perhaps he’s capable of something even worse, and is dealing with his own guilt about what happened. It doesn’t help that it becomes clear that the girl Josh has a crush on – Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino) actually likes Zach – which drives a deeper wedge between them.
 
I’m not going to lie and try to convince you that Super Dark Times is an overly original film – it really isn’t. The ending is also a mess, as it devolves into cliché, even if it’s undeniably tense in those closing scenes. This is director Kevin Phillips first film – and what he excels at is creating mood and atmosphere. The film is set during that gray time of year known so well to us in Canada – that period in late fall when it’s freezing cold, but the snow hasn’t quite arrived yet, and every day seems to be overcast and miserable. It’s the perfect setting for this story, and Phillips handles it well – making everything seem even grayer, more dour and colder than usual. He isn’t quite as good with the plot mechanics – which eventually involve increasing paranoia, and increasing implausibility. He is good with his young actors though – only one of which – Charlie Tahan – I remember seeing before (he’s one of the local kids in the underwhelming Netflix series Ozark).
 
Super Dark Times works because of its oppressive mood – one that will be familiar with teenagers or those who remember being teenagers, because that was the mood all the time. The plot creaks at times, but when the film is focused on teenagers themselves, Super Dark Times works quite well.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve.
Written by: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green based on the characters from the novel by Philip K. Dick.
Starring: Ryan Gosling (K), Harrison Ford (Rick Deckard), Ana de Armas (Joi), Sylvia Hoeks (Luv), Robin Wright (Lt. Joshi), Mackenzie Davis (Mariette), Carla Juri (Dr. Ana Stelline), Jared Leto (Niander Wallace), Lennie James (Mister Cotton), Dave Bautista (Sapper Morton), David Dastmalchian (Coco), Barkhad Abdi (Doc Badger), Hiam Abbass (Freysa), Edward James Olmos (Gaff), Sean Young (Rachael).
 
In general, I think it’s better to leave old things alone, rather than to try and reboot or remake them years later. More often than not, what happens with these kinds of decades in the making sequels, is that they end up being just empty nostalgia – trying too hard to capture the same feelings that the originals gave you, which is impossible. This year though has brought two examples of how to do this the right way – on TV, David Lynch and Mark Frost gave us Twin Peaks: The Return – one of the best single seasons in television history – and now comes Denis Villeneuve, with his long gestating Blade Runner sequel. I know I enjoy both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant more than most, but I still think it was a good idea for Ridley Scott not to take on the sequel to his other influential sci-fi masterwork – and instead to pass it off to Villeneuve, who has made a distinctive film in its own right – pone that pays homage to the original film, without being beholden to it. The first film was so influential and groundbreaking because it didn’t do things the same ways as other sci fi films of the 1980s were doing – and the same can be said of this one for our time.
 
The story in a nutshell involves Agent K (Ryan Gosling) – who like Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard in the original film, is a Blade Runner – a police officer tasked with tracking down “replicants” (essentially sentient robots) and “retiring” them – because they are no longer behaving the way humans want them to. In the opening sequence, K confronts Sapper Morton Dave Bautista) – a fugitive replicant trying to make his life as a farmer. What starts as a normal job becomes something great with the discovery of something buried on his property – something that changes everything. I won’t say more about the plot mainly because to do so would require me to get needlessly complex in a hurry – but it’s no secret that eventually K will cross paths with Ford’s Deckard (which happens surprisingly late in this nearly 3 hour movie).
 
In another year – basically any year that didn’t see a major studio make and distribute a film like Darren Aronofsky’s mother! – I would say that Blade Runner 2049 was the riskiest film made by a studio that year. As mentioned, Blade Runner 2049 is nearly three hours long – and must have cost a fortune, considering the special effects. Yet, the film is surprisingly light on action sequences – after the opening sequence, it barely has any at all until well into the final hour of the film – and even then, it’s not the point. Mostly, the film unfolds as a mystery, much like the original – a futuristic noir that takes K from one dark and foreboding place to another – some are fruitful, and some are dead ends.
 
As a technical achievement, Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece. This is the type of film that should be seen on the big screen – the images conjured by cinematographer Roger Deakins are truly astonishing. I also appreciated the production design in the film – especially how the film specifically does not update the original films view of the future giving what we now know, but takes that film as its jumping off point, and refining that style (for instance, the same brands that were prominently feature in the original are here as well – even if some have failed in reality in the interim). I didn’t think any film this year would be able to compete with the sound design of Nolan’s Dunkirk – but the work here may well be better.
 
The film also contains some great performances. Too often, Ryan Gosling has coasted on his (immense) charm – but here, he doesn’t have that to fall back on, and ends up delivering a deeper, more complex performance. Harrison Ford may not quite pull on the heartstrings here the way he did as Han Solo in The Force Awakens – but he does something better – deliver a performance that makes complete sense as Deckard in the future. There is fine work by the supporting cast of mainly women – especially Ana de Armas – although Sylvia Hooks, Carla Juri and Robin Wright are in fine form as well. Call me crazy, I even liked Jared Leto here – although part of that could be because he’s basically playing an insufferable egomaniac.
 
These kind of long delayed sequels rarely work – because they almost always feel like someone is trying to catch lightning in a bottle a second time – and that just doesn’t work. What the great ones do – and Blade Runner 20149 is a great one – is take inspiration from what came before, to create something entirely new. That’s why this one will be remembered.