Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Movie Review: The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z
Directed by: James Gray.
Written by: James Gray bases on the book by David Grann.
Starring: Charlie Hunnam (Percy Fawcett), Robert Pattinson (Henry Costin), Sienna Miller (Nina Fawcett), Tom Holland (Jack Fawcett), Edward Ashley (Arthur Manley), Angus Macfadyen (James Murray), Ian McDiarmid (Sir George Goldie), Clive Francis (Sir John Scott Keltie), Pedro Coello (Tadjui), Matthew Sunderland (Dan), Johann Myers (Willis), Aleksandar Jovanovic (Urquhart), Franco Nero (Baron De Gondoriz).
 
There have been a lot of people saying that James Gray’s The Lost City of Z is a throwback – the type of old fashioned epic that Hollywood just doesn’t make anymore. And to a certain extent, that is true. This is the type of film that John Ford or John Huston would have made during the Golden Years of Hollywood – an epic about European explorers, heading to Amazonia to see what they can discover in the jungle there. It is a study of manly men doing fulfilling their roles as explorers and alpha men. Yet, Gray – who doesn’t seem like a natural choice for the material at first, isn’t interested in just making a nostalgic look back. His film is set more than 100 years ago, and Gray’s film openly questions the morals of that time period in ways in which neither a Ford or Huston film would have. The film does examine colonialism, as well as racism and even sexism. Most importantly, unlike Ford or Huston, who would have unabashedly loved the “hero” of The Lost City of Z, Gray never fails to acknowledge that he is more than a little bit of an asshole. Being more enlightened than most other, white European males at the time is a far cry from being enlightened.
 
The film stars Charlie Hunnam as Percy Fawcett – an officer in the British army who, as one person says has a “poor choice of ancestors”. His father, who Percy did not know, has brought shame upon their name – and Percy would like nothing more than win back the family honor – preferably in combat. He doesn’t get his chance right away though – but he gets it another way. He is recruited by the Royal Geographical Society to head to South America, and map out the border between Bolivia and Brazil – the two are fighting over it (the price of rubber has made where the border lies valuable), and neither side will let the other be involved in doing the charting. Percy heads there – the first of three times he will do so in the movie – and alongside his allies, including Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) do what their job. But while in the jungle, Percy discovers remnants – pieces of pottery, that suggest that the “savages” have a society that dates back thousands of years – even pre-dating European society (the shock!). Upon returning to England, his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) discovers documents that chart the existence of a Lost City – which Percy names Z, and becomes obsessed with finding. He’ll embark on a second trip with Costin – funded by a spoiled wanker, James Murray (Angus Mcfadyen), who puts them all at risk – until WWI breaks out, and seemingly ends his dream. It’s only after the war when Percy is able to head back – this time along with his son, Jack (Tom Holland).
 
In many ways, The Lost City of Z is a story of obsession – Percy desperately wants to find Z, even if he can never really explain what it he expects to find there, or why it has become so important to him. The film never quite goes over to the side of madness – like say Werner Herzog’s Aguirre the Wrath of God or Firtzcarraldo or Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, three films that resemble this one, and who Gray references in this film as well. Percy’s obsession doesn’t drive him insane per se – but it does drive a wedge in his family. When the film opens, it seems like Percy and Nina have a good marriage – and a happy one, and one that is built upon mutual respect. His obsession with the Amazon, and his repeated trips there, takes him away from his family – sometimes for years at a time. His kids grow up barely knowing him, and resenting him for it. In a scene that is somewhat difficult to watch, he argues with Nina when she says she wants to join him on his trip to the Amazon – she helped him with the research after all, including finding the key document. The scene lays bare just what he thinks “equality” in a marriage looks like. Likewise, when he gives speeches about the “Savages” – he isn’t as cruel or ignorant as many of his colleagues – but that hardly makes him enlightened.
 
Those scenes give even the exciting scenes in the jungle a sadder undercurrent – he is going for adventure, but what is the cost of that adventure. When he heads back the third time with his son – after cruelly getting him to ask his mother for permission – he is doing it under the guise of letting his son in, but it’s really just another chance to pursue his obsession. Costin sees this – knows it too well – which is why he stays home.
 
Gray is an interesting filmmaker. For quite a while, he worked in some key crime dramas – Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night – in which he slowly built up the worlds around his characters, which felt authentic. He moved onto something more romantic in Two Lovers, and tragic in the period piece The Immigrant. This film is not like those other ways in many ways, but is in the way he pays attention to detail, in the way he builds his worlds, and how it is impeccably crafted and beautifully hot on 35MM film, which gives the film added texture.
 
The Lost City of Z is indeed a throwback – an old fashioned adventure epic, the likes of which we haven’t seen in years. It is also a film though that sees through the myths that those older films whole heartedly accepted – which is what ends up being the most interesting aspect of this film.

Movie Review: Free Fire

Free Fire
Directed by: Ben Wheatley.   

Written by: Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley.
Starring: Brie Larson (Justine), Cillian Murphy (Chris), Armie Hammer (Ord), Sharlto Copley (Vernon), Sam Riley (Stevo), Michael Smiley (Frank), Noah Taylor (Gordon), Jack Reynor (Harry), Babou Ceesay (Martin), Enzo Cilenti (Bernie), Mark Monero (Jimmy), Patrick Bergin (Howie), Tom Davis (Leary). 
 
Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is 15 year old me’s new favorite movie. The film looks and feels like one of the many Tarantino knockoffs that flourished in the mid-to late 1990s, with the exception being that Free Fire is actually good. No, there is no depth to the movie. Yes, it is all style over substance. But it’s also fast paced and entertaining, bloody as hell, and doesn’t overstay its welcome – just 91 minutes of a bunch of guys – and one girl – shooting at each other and saying fuck a lot. This is a movie that knows precisely what it is, and has no delusions of grandeur. And it’s a lot of fun.
 
The plot of the film is pretty much meaningless – but is basically a group representing the IRA – calm, cool Chris (Cillian Murphy), hot tempered Frank (Michael Smiley), Frank’s idiot junkie brother in law Stevo (Sam Riley) and his idiot friend Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) have a contact in Justine (Brie Larson) to bring them to her contact Ord (Armie Hammer), who represents a crazed South African gun dealer, Vern (Sharlo Copley), his partner Martin (Babou Ceesay), a former Black Panther – and their two lackeys Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor). The want to buy M-16s, but Vern says he only has AR-70s, and that’s the least of their problems. Things seem to be going okay, until Harry recognizes Stevo from a previous incident, setting off a series of events that will eventually see the two sides face off against each other in an epic gun battle. Pretty much everyone is hit almost right away, resulting in lots of blood, and people basically just crawling around on the ground of the dirty warehouse the trade was taking place in. This in 1978, so there are no cellphones, but everyone is dressed real sharp – like if when things are over, they’re all going to head out to the disco together.
 
A film like Free Fire depends on just a couple of elements to make it work – basically the cast and the writing, and Free Fire gets both right. No, I’m not going to argue that any of these characters are particularly deep or fully fleshed out characters, but the screenplay by Wheatley and his partner Amy Jump makes everyone a distinctive personality, and then perfectly cast those personalities – so much so that it makes you wonder how many of these roles were written specifically for the actors they cast. The dialogue isn’t as smart or layered as Tarantino’s –it’s more of a blunt instrument here, but it more than gets the job done. And the acting is great. There isn’t a weak link in the cast, but my favorites are probably Larson – whose character is a stand-in for every woman who has to work with idiot men, but cannot say anything and has to hide her thinly veiled contempt for them (wait a minute, is that every woman?), Hammer who is the one bland white guy who actually has the charm Hollywood thinks he has (take that Jai Courtney!) and Copley, who like always is dialed up to 11, but in a movie like this, that’s warranted (I am just slightly disappointed that he doesn’t attempt another of his completely unplaceable accents – like in Spike Lee’s Oldboy, although I do appreciate that many of the other characters can’t place his accent at all).
 
Wheatley is developing quite a filmography in not a lot of time – I still don’t think he’s made anything as good as Kill List (2011) – the first film of his I saw (I do need to catchup with his debut, Down Terrace) – and twisted itself three times, to show three distinct types of violence. But his black comedy Sightseers was a lot of fun, and his adaptation of High-Rise was appropriately surreal (I hated A Field in England, but many seem to like it, so maybe that’s me). All his films are violent, and obsessed with the cinema of the past, and yet they’re different enough that he’s really not repeating himself either. At the very least when I see a Wheatley film, I know it’s going to be well thought out, and interesting and entertaining. Free Fire isn’t a great film – but it’s a hell of a lot of genre buffs like me, who grew up on films like this.

Movie Review: A Quiet Passion

A Quiet Passion
Directed by: Terence Davies.
Written by: Terence Davies. 
Starring: Cynthia Nixon (Emily Dickinson), Jennifer Ehle (Vinnie Dickinson), Duncan Duff (Austin Dickinson), Keith Carradine (Father - Edward Dickinson), Jodhi May (Susan Gilbert), Joanna Bacon (Mother - Emily Norcross), Catherine Bailey (Vryling Buffam), Emma Bell (Young Emily Dickinson),
Benjamin Wainwright (Young Austin Dickinson), Annette Badland (Aunt Elizabeth), Rose Williams (Young Vinnie Dickinson), Noémie Schellens (Mabel Loomis Todd), Miles Richardson (Pastor), Eric Loren (Reverend Wadsworth), Stefan Menaul (Mr. Emmons), Sara Vertongen (Miss Lyon), Simone Milsdochter (Mrs. Wadsworth).
 
How does a filmmaker go about making a biopic of a famous person about which little is known? Emily Dickinson is one of the best known poets in the English language – arguably America’s greatest poet ever – and yet she lived a quiet life, pretty much in obscurity – only a few of her poems being published anonymously in a small, local paper run by a friends of her fathers. She died in 1886, having never married, and barely having left Amherst, Massachusetts – and in later years, barely leaving her bedroom. It wasn’t until after her death that her sister discovered her poems, and had them published – they haven’t gone out of print since.
 
Dickinson’s life then, despite her poetry, would seem like it wouldn’t really lend itself to a movie of her life. Yet in the hands of Terrence Davies, A Quiet Passion becomes a wonderful film. Davies was inarguably the right filmmaker for the task – he has often made films that are largely limited to the interior of a single family home (using his home life as fodder for Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes), and last year’s Sunset Song, although it had a larger scope than this one, again focused on a single home, and the action inside of it. In A Quiet Passion, Cynthia Nixon plays Emily Dickinson as a fiercely intelligent, quick witted woman, who was ever loyal to her family. That wit gets in her trouble from time-to-time – although Dickinson was religious, her idea of religion differed from some in the clergy. Her deep love for her family came along with high moral standards for them as well – standards that lead her to feel betrayed if you cannot live up to them.
 
As with every film Davies has ever made, A Quiet Passion is a beautiful film – wonderful shot by Florian Hoffmeister, who worked with Davies before on The Deep Blue Sea. This film doesn’t allow Davies and Hoffmeister the opportunities for beautiful shots of rain soaked London like that film did, yet they still find a way to make the film – all set in Dickinson home look interesting.
 
The film is uncommonly wordy for a Davies film – his film more often than not show, don’t tell, their stories, through montage and music. But it is appropriate for this film that Davies screenplay takes so much joy in language – and its precise usage – as Dickinson does in her poetry. The film seems mannered at first – perhaps a little over-written. Yet, the film is so beautifully performed, that it doesn’t take long to fall into its rhythms of the film. Nixon is great, but almost as good is Jennifer Ehle as her sister Vinnie – who is ever smiling, but is made of tougher stuff than she appears, Catherine Bailey as their friend Vryling Buffam, who is outwardly rebellious, although more conventional than she first appears.
 
A Quiet Passion is an odd film – which befits the subject matter. Dickinson didn’t lead the type of life that normally gets the biopic treatment, so it would stand to reason that she wouldn’t be subject of a normal film about her life. A Quiet Passion is something altogether different, and wonderful. I’ve typically been cooler on Davies than many – I admire his work more than I like it – but for me this is his best since The House of Mirth (which will always be my favorite of his films). An odd film, but a vital one.

Movie Review: Your Name.

Your Name.
Directed by: Makoto Shinkai.   
Written by: Makoto Shinkai based on his novel.
Starring: Ryûnosuke Kamiki (Taki Tachibana), Mone Kamishiraishi (Mitsuha Miyamizu), Ryô Narita (Katsuhiko Teshigawara), Aoi Yuki (Sayaka Natori), Nobunaga Shimazaki (Tsukasa Fujii), Kaito Ishikawa (Shinta Takagi), Kanon Tani (Yotsuha Miyamizu), Masaki Terasoma (Toshiki Miyamizu), Sayaka Ohara (Futaha Miyamizu), Kazuhiko Inoue (Taki's Father).
 
Your Name is an anime film that starts off as one thing, but morphs at about the halfway point into something altogether different. I’m not quite sure that transition wholly works, but I admire the hell out of the film for trying, and the film undeniably goes to unexpected places, and is a beautiful film from beginning to end. In a world that has been sorely lacking in great anime (at least making its way to these shores) since Studio Ghibli went on hiatus, the film was a breath of fresh air.
 
The first act of Your Name promises a body switch comedy in the vein of Freaky Friday, but perhaps with slightly more depth. In small town Japan, Mitsuha dreams of getting out – she is the daughter of the mayor, although he has little to do with her, and lives with her grandma and younger sister. She wants to go to Tokyo, and basically waiting for high school to be over so she can do it. In Tokyo, Taki is slightly older – he works as a waiter in a restaurant, and lives with his distant father. These two have nothing to do with each other – until they discover that when they fall asleep, they do really do become the other person (they had thought they were just dreams). They find ways to communicate with each other, and  establish ground rules for each other to follow (Mitsuha probably should have established some about how much Taki is allowed to play with her breasts) so as not to ruin each other’s lives. Then, as they are growing closer after about six months of doing this, everything stops – and Taki sets out to discover why – what he finds out, shifts the film from the body switch comedy into something deeper and more speculative and imaginative.
 
In terms of visual beauty, there are few animated films in recent memory that can match Your Name- which takes place in two very different worlds, all in the same country. The Tokyo here seems like a real, breathing city – full of beautiful skyscrapers, and the bustle of the city. Mitsuha’s small town, inside a giant crater, is something more fantastical than more traditionally beautiful. There is hardly a moment here that doesn’t belong as a tweet from One Perfect Shot.
 
The film takes a few narrative twists and turns, and honestly, I’m not quite sure they all add up – it’s almost somewhat disappointing when it takes some of the twists, because where the narrative had been going was original in and of itself. Yet writer/director Makoto Shinkai has something bigger in mind that that, and the way he sketches the relationship between Taki and Mitsuha really is as beautiful as animation itself.
 
Your Name doesn’t quite reach the heights of the best anime. It doesn’t quite immerse you wholly and completely the way the best Miyazaki films do, nor is it quite as mind bending as some of the other, more overtly sci-fi of the genre can get. Still, it’s better than any anime film I’ve seen since The Wind Rises – and that was four years ago, so you knows, Your Name is more than good enough to scratch that anime itch that hasn’t been scratched in a while.

Movie Review: Hello Destroyer

Hello Destroyer 
Directed by: Kevan Funk   
Written by: Kevan Funk.
Starring: Jared Abrahamson (Tyson Burr), Kurt Max Runte (Coach Dale Milbury), Ian Tracey (Coach Aaron Weller), Joe Buffalo (Eric), Sara Canning (Wendy Davis), Ben Cotton (Bill Davis), Paul McGillion (Ron Burr). 
 
From a young age, when you play hockey, you are taught the “tight way” and the “wrong way” to play the sport. Hockey is an inherently violent game, and in Canada, you are expected to play the game tough – physical, and yet not go so far as to hurt your opponent. There is a fine line between a clean hit and a dirty one – and coaches want you just on this side of that line. Hello Destroyer is a hockey film unlike any other I have seen – it is about a play who crosses that line, barely, and how he is essentially hung out to dry because of it. It is mainly a quiet, introspective film – there are lots of long, unbroken shots, observing the main character. The film is deliberately paced – perhaps too much for its own good – but it’s still a fine debut from writer/director Kevan Funk.
 
The film starts Jared Abrahamson as Tyson Burr, a young man who has moved away from home to play for the Prince George Warriors (I assume this is a Junior A type league – a development league for teenagers, although the film never says what it is). He is a rookie – who as the film begins, endures what is essentially harmless hazing – the team holds the rookies down and shave their heads. Their coach (Kurt Max Runte) drills into the teams head the need to be tough, the need to dig in along the boards, not be pushed around, defend “our house” – etc. In the intermission before the hit that will change Tyson’s life, he lays into his team – screams at them for playing soft and the need to step up. Tyson does, and the result is catastrophic for his opponent – who ends up lying motionless on the ice, and will never be the same again.
 
Funk does something interesting with that hit though – he kind of obscures it in the way he films. The hockey scenes in general – all of which are in the first 30 minutes or so – are often done in close-up, as if trying to capture the chaos on the ice from Tyson’s point-of-view. What we see of that hit is clearly that it is a hit-from-behind – a no-no to be sure – but it doesn’t look particularly violent, or particularly brutal. It is the type of play that happens in pretty much every hockey game with contact – often more than once. It’s just that most of the time, no injury is the result of the hit – and this time, there way. Hockey commentators and fans always like to talk about integrity of the game and the toughness of it – but as soon as something bad happens, we draw the line, point the finger at the person who crossed it, call it “not a hockey play” – and place the blame squarely on them, and exonerate everyone else. Hello Destroyer doesn’t quite come out and say that’s wrong – it doesn’t excuse Tyson’s hit, but it certainly does look at those who surround Tyson, who are so quick to preach one thing, and then throw him under the bus the second he gets into trouble.
 
Yet the hockey scenes in Hello Destroyer are only a part of the film. Much of the film looks at Tyson’s life outside of hockey – “suspended indefinitely” from his team (Tyson doesn’t realize that means forever – and no one thinks enough of him to tell him), he goes back home to his small town, with his emotionally distant father and a nearly silent mother. He picks up shifts at the slaughter house, and spends other times stripping an old family property before it’s to be torn down. He doesn’t specifically say it, but hockey was his way out – his way to not become this. Now, with that no longer an option, what other choices does he have open to him? He’s stuck, and when he realizes that, the results aren’t good.
 
Abrahamson delivers a fine performance – one that is mostly silent. There is something specifically Canadian about his stoicism here – the way he doesn’t want to complain, doesn’t want to show his emotions. You’re taught that in hockey as well – you play through the pain, you deal with it. Hockey players are the toughest athletes in the world, we like to say, and they don’t whine.
 
Hello Destroyer is ultimately about that – and what we are teaching our kids when they play hockey – or really, any team sport. I still believe being a part of these teams is great for kids – it teaches them a lot – but what we need to do a better job at, is teaching them how to handle things off the ice, or off the field. Tyson is a kid when he does something that has bad results – and no one is there to help him deal with that, or help him move on. If they were, the movie would have a different – happier - ending.

Movie Review: The Assignment

The Assignment
Directed by: Walter Hill.   
Written by: Denis Hamill and Walter Hill.
Starring: Michelle Rodriguez (Frank Kitchen / Tomboy), Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Rachel Jane), Tony Shalhoub (Dr. Ralph Galen), Caroline Chan (Ting Li), Caitlin Gerard (Johnnie), Anthony LaPaglia (Honest John Hartunian), Terry Chen (Dr. Lin), Ken Kirzinger (Nurse Albert Becker), Paul McGillion (Paul Wincott).
 
Veteran filmmaker Walter Hill is a favorite among many auteurists – but he’s a filmmaker for me that I wonder what I’m missing. He has an undeniable talent for staging action sequences – or he at least did earlier in his career, in films like The Warriors or Southern Comfort. But his best film – of what I’ve seen – is the movie star vehicle 48 Hours, which teamed up Nick Nolte and a young Eddie Murphy in what has become a prototypical action/buddy comedy. To say his career has been uneven would be an understatement. Other than directing the first episode of the brilliant Deadwood, Hill hasn’t done much that I’ve liked in a good 20 years.
 
His most recent film, The Assignment, has been called offensive by many in the LGBTQ community – many, likely, as Hill started, have not seen the film. If they had, the film itself probably would not have convinced them it wasn’t offensive, except in that the film is so goofy than its impossible to take at all seriously, which would, I suspect, make it a little less offensive. This is a film in which Michelle Rodriguez plays a hitman named Frank Kitchen – who basically looks like Michelle Rodriguez in a bad fake beard – who wakes up one day to discover that the surgeon sister, Dr. Rachel Jane (Sigourney Weaver) of one of his victims has performed a sex change operation on him without his approval, so now Frank Kitchen looks like Michelle Rodriguez without a beard. Frank is understandably upset by this, and decides to try and get some revenge on Dr. Jane – who tells the story from her point-of-view in an interview by another doctor (Tony Shaloub).
 
I don’t think that The Assignment makes light of transition or transgender people as much as it doesn’t consider them at all, which is perhaps as bad or worse. The screenplay by Denis Hamill and Hill himself doesn’t really have anything to say about what it means to transition or anything like that – because, after all, Frank never made that decision – he simply woke up day having become a woman, and angry about it. Frank wants to be a man again, and once he discovers that’s not possible, it’s killing time.
 
The film is undeniably pulpy – an exploitation film more concerned with violence and style than anything else. On that level, the film works in fits and starts, but never builds to satisfying whole. Weaver is great as the mad scientist – even if she is a tad one note, villains in this type of film are always a tad one note, and the way Weaver rips into the role is easily the most entertaining part of it. Rodriguez simply cannot compete with her on pure entertainment value, and the whole horribly fake beard in the early scenes does her no favors. This is apparently Rodriguez’ first lead role since her breakout film, Girlfight, where she played a female boxer – learning this fact on IMDB made me sad for a few reasons, not least of which because it was a reminder that Girlfight gave Rodriguez a role that allowed her to be tough but vulnerable and human at the same time – something she hasn’t had the chance to do since then, and certainly not here.
 
In short, The Assignment is a low budget action film which Hill never quite figures out his story, his characters or even the action – which is the most inexcusable part of the whole thing. The Assignment would be offensive to the LGBTQ community if it took its premise at all seriously – which fortunately, it doesn’t. That doesn’t make the film good however, as the execution of the film in general is almost shocking inept. I keep trying to see what others see in Hill – and haven’t got there yet.

Movie Review: The Void

The Void
Directed by: Jeremy Gillespie & Steven Kostanski.   
Written by: Jeremy Gillespie & Steven Kostanski.
Starring: Aaron Poole (Daniel Carter), Kenneth Welsh (Dr. Richard Powell), Daniel Fathers (The Father), Kathleen Munroe (Allison Fraser), Ellen Wong (Kim), Mik Byskov (The Son), Art Hindle (Mitchell), Stephanie Belding (Beverly), James Millington (Ben), Evan Stern (James), Grace Munro (Maggie), Matthew Kennedy (Cliff Robertson).
 

 Is there anything more disappointing than a horror movie that starts off strong and then flies off the rails as it moves along? It’s always difficult when making a horror movie when you have to explain everything you’ve setup, as there are so many ways for things to go wrong, and just a few for them to go right. The Void is a movie where it’s hard to imagine things flying off the rails more horribly then they do here. What starts out an effective horror movie, with many intriguing questions, ends in just about the silliest way imaginable. Worse still, the further the film movies along, the duller it becomes.
 
The film opens with a strange scene – two young people, a man and a woman fleeing a house, only to be followed by two men who shoot at them – hitting the woman, but missing the man. They then set the dying (hopefully dead) woman on fire, and go after the man, who has gone fleeing into the woods. Before they can find him though, local deputy Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) does – as the man is now unconscious on the side of the road. He races to the nearest hospital, which is almost deserted since everyone is being transferred to another hospital. Among the only people there is Carter’s wife, Allison (Kathleen Monroe) – although they are currently separated – who is a nurse, alongside Dr. Powell (Kenneth Walsh), the kind of small town doctor who knows everyone, and a few other people. Daniel isn’t there long before strange things start to happen inside the hospital, and a bunch of masked “cult” members surround the hospital, although they make no effort to get inside. Two people who do try are the two men we saw at the beginning of the film, who killed the woman, and the tried to kill the patient. What follows is bloody as hell, and involves all sorts of horror movie clichés, although saying more would be to give the whole game away, so I’ll stop.
 
That setup, described above, is pretty effective. No, it’s not original – it borrows heavily from various John Carpenter movies - notably Assault on Precinct 13, which had to find a convoluted way to make sure a normally busy building would be all but deserted. It will borrow from other Carpenter movies as well as it progresses, but not in ways that are ever particularly original. There is a difference between something like Adam Wingard’s The Guest – which is also heavily indebted to Carpenter, which takes the influence of Carpenter and spins it into its own thing, and a film like The Void, which doesn’t. You keep waiting for the film to do something more, to say something more, to be about something more than the fact the filmmakers like John Carpenter, and it never really gets there.
 
The film was written and directed by Jeremy Gillespie & Steven Kostanski, a couple of filmmakers who work in other, smaller roles on bigger films (like Suicide Squad, where Gillespie was in the art department, and Kostanski was in the makeup department). Both also have visual effects experience as well. As craftsman, they are fine. The early part of the film is quite well handled, as it gradually builds the suspense – and even the first big effects special is okay as well, even if we don’t know what we’re seeing and it drags on too long, it works well.
 
As screenwriters though, I’m not really sure they know what they’re doing. They kind of write themselves into a corner, and then have to find a way out – a way to explain all the strange things that happened. They do explain it – but in a way that makes everything impossible to take seriously. The film becomes more and more outlandish, but also duller. The filmmaker abandon trying to build suspense, and just let out an orgy of cheap looking effects. In short, it doesn’t work. The Void is a film I wanted to like – and did for at least the first third. After that, it gets silly and dull.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Classic Movie Review: A Touch of Zen (1971)

A Touch of Zen (1971)
Directed by: King Hu.   
Written by: King Hu based on the story by Songling Pu. 
Starring: Hsu Feng (Yang Hui-zhen), Shih Chun (Gu Sheng-tsai), Bai Ying (General Shi Wen-qiao), Xue Han (General Lu Ding-an), Roy Chiao (Abbot Hui-yuan), Tien Peng (Ouyang Nian), Cao Jian (Xu Zheng-qing, local magistrate), Miao Tien (Nie Qiu, one of Mun Ta's advisors), Zhang Bing-yu (Sheng-tsai's mother), Wang Rui (Man Da), Han Ying-jie (Chief Commander Xu Xian-chun), Wan Zhong-shan (Lu Qiang), Jia Lushi (Yang Lian), Cheung Wen-men (Tao Lung).
 
King Hu’s A Touch of Zen is an important film – and one that it necessary for Western audiences to see, if for no other reason to see the lineage of films like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers and Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin. I know that when I first saw Crouching Tiger upon its release in 2000, it seemed like something wholly unique and original – when really, it was Lee’s riff on a type of film – wuxia – that had been popular in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong for a long time – but had never really taken root in North America. Following the release of Crouching Tiger, director King Hu started to receive more attention for his wuxia films of the 1960s and 1970s – of which A Touch of Zen is considered his masterpiece – and yet, oddly, it took years for Criterion (or anyone) to do an official release of Hu’s three hour epic for Western audiences. The film is hardly perfect – and yet is a wonderful, and rather daring, example of the form.
 
The two most daring decision that Hu made in A Touch of Zen was to delay the first sword fight for until nearly an hour into the narrative, and to focus much of that runtime on the generally passive Gu Sheng-tsai – a intellectual, who never does pick up a sword for the film’s three hour runtime. When we first meet him, he is making his (meager) living as a portrait painter in a small town, while being henpecked by his mother, who wants him to take the civil service exam – or else she worries he will never give her grandkids. Gu’s first customer is Ouyang Nian – a swordsman from elsewhere, who wants to pick Gu’s brain on the locals – especially the new people in town. One of those new people turns out to be Yang – a beautiful young woman, who moves in (apparently with her sickly relative) into a supposedly haunted property near Gu’s mother. Of course she – and the other newcomers – aren’t who they appear to be – and neither is Ouyang Nian – who wants to kill them. The rest of the narrative consists of a series of sword fights between the various warring factions – and eventually more, even deadlier assassins, and a bunch of kick-ass monks.
 
I eschewed giving too much of a plot summary above, simply because, this is one of those narratives that you can either describe in a sentence, or else take all afternoon doing so. The plot is simple, but the storytelling is not – as it ties itself into knots (honestly, too many) to try and justify its three hour runtime, introduces and abandons characters easily (after spending the better part of an hour with Gu, he’s barely in the back half of the film at all). The highlights are the gravity defying action sequences – that stretch on for many minutes at a time, and unlike Ang Lee or Zhang Yimou, Hu didn’t have the aid of CGI, so he had to find clever ways to make his characters look like they’re flying through the air – and sometimes, this looks better than at other times (you can tell, for instance, that sometimes characters are doing little more than jumping over the camera). Still, unlike action movie directors of today, Hu is able to film action sequences and make them exciting, while still respecting spatial relationships between the characters, and not resorting to shaky camerawork and rapid fire editing. The ending of the film is surprisingly spiritual, showing that Hu didn’t just include the kick ass monks for the fun of it – he has an actual purpose.
 
A Touch of Zen is a film whose historical importance is perhaps more than its actual greatness. I’m not sure this is the place to start with wuxia (a genre, that I have to admit, I only have a passing familarlity with) – because I’m not sure you’d quite get how Hu is playing with audience expectations if this was your first film – or how he subverts them. As a film unto itself, A Touch of Zen is excellent – fun and exciting, and surprising in many ways. In terms of its historical importance, its value at finally having it available is even greater.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Movie Review: Ruby Ridge

Ruby Ridge
Directed by: Barak Goodman.
Written by: Barak Goodman & Don Kleszy.
 
Barak Goodman’s Ruby Ridge is a 53 minute documentary companion piece to his feature length film Oklahoma City – which I reviewed a couple of months ago. I felt that as a doc, Oklahoma City should have, and could have been longer – I’m talking Making a Murder, The Jinx or OJ: Made in America length – and that by making a 100 doc on the subject, Goodman limits its effectiveness – he only has enough time to skim the surface of a complex incident – especially since he also covered Ruby Ridge and Waco in the same film. The driving force behind the actions of Timothy McVeigh – as well as Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge and David Koresh in Waco, Texas – is relevant to modern America – where distrust of the Federal government seems to be growing (and lead, in part, to the election of an idiot to the highest office in the land). My initial reaction to Goodman’s Ruby Ridge is that it’s a better film than Oklahoma City – even as it is a less ambitious one. It is basically a straight forward retelling of what happened from those people who were there – the US Marshalls, the FBI, reporters and one of the surviving daughters of the Weavers. The film is a traditional doc – archival footage, intercut with those talking heads. It works better than Oklahoma City in part because its runtime is better suited to its intent – in Oklahoma City, Goodman is trying to paint a large portrait of what led McVeigh to do what he did – but he doesn’t have the time. Ruby Ridge is a straight ahead telling of what happened.
 
The film quickly recounts the life of Randy Weaver and his family before the standoff that made them infamous – how he and his wife Vicki Weaver, decided to move to the remote, mountain location of Ruby Ridge in Idaho – where she would homeschool their children. They were very religious, and believed the apocalypse was forthcoming. Randy became involved with the White Supremacists would lived close by – without ever really becoming one of them. He was arrested when an undercover Federal Agent talked him into sawing off some shotguns for him – which was illegal. When Randy refused to show up to court, he became a fugitive – a warrant was issued. But stories circulated about him – which he was a violent gun nut, and because of his location he would difficult to arrest. As US Marshall scouted the area, trying to come up with a plan on how to apprehend him – they got into a gun fight with Randy, his friend Kevin Harris and Weaver’s 14 year old son Samuel – which resulted in the death of a US Marshall as well as the death of Samuel – the two sides not agreeing on who started shooting first. Thus started a standoff – that would lead to more death.
 
Watching Ruby Ridge, the overwhelming feeling you get is that the whole incident was senseless – that there were so many moments along the way in which one side or another could have backed off, and prevented the loss of life that happened during the standoff.  It is more than possible to think the Federal Government overstepped their bounds – that they entrapped Weaver into committing the crime in the first place, and handled the whole situation poorly once it started, and at the same time think that Weaver made a series of mistakes – based on his paranoid belief system – that at the very least contributed to the death of some of his family members. Whether or not Weaver was a member of the Aryan Nation – he says he wasn’t, he just attended some of their events, and he clearly shared with them a distrust of the Federal Government. When he was arrested for the shotguns, and then the Marshalls showed up on his land, that confirmed every paranoid thing he ever thought about them. He digs in, and refuses to budge.

Like Oklahoma City, Ruby Ridge is a film better suited to those who don’t know anything about what happened – and want a brief recap. The film doesn’t really come at the events from a new angle, or provide a fresh perspective on them. I do wish Goodman would do something deeper on both incidents – as well as Waco, perhaps a third short film on Waco, followed by something that takes a deeper dive into the material. These three incidents remain ones that helped shaped the political landscape in America for decades to come – and are perhaps more relevant now than ever. They deserve more than the surface level approach that Goodman has given them – no matter how effective that surface level is in these two films.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Movie Review: The Fate of the Furious

The Fate of the Furious
Directed by: F. Gary Gray.
Written by: Chris Morgan based on characters created by Gary Scott Thompson.
Starring: Vin Diesel (Dom), Jason Statham (Deckard), Dwayne Johnson (Hobbs), Michelle Rodriguez (Letty), Tyrese Gibson (Roman), Ludacris (Tej Parker), Charlize Theron (Cipher), Kurt Russell (Mr. Nobody), Nathalie Emmanuel (Ramsey), Luke Evans (Owen), Elsa Pataky (Elena), Kristofer Hivju (Rhodes), Scott Eastwood (Little Nobody)..
 
A few years ago, some critic on Twitter (I’ve long forgotten which) asked to summarize the Fast and Furious movies with one word. A lot (most) said the word “Family”, which if you were going to run an algorithm through the films to find which word is spoken the most, then Family just may come in first. The first word that came to my mind though was VROOOOOMMMMMMM! It admittedly took me a while to start liking these movies – I didn’t even see the first or third installments in theaters (both made during a time when me not seeing a wide release was much more rare then me seeing one), and kind of rolled my eyes through at least the first four. But somewhere along the way, the series wore me done – I think it was just the realization that every time they set out to make a new one of these, they decide to try and top themselves with how much ridiculous crap they can throw at the screen in terms of action sequences – the sillier they get, the more fun they are. I also did appreciate however how seriously the films took their chronology – and even when they doubled backed three films later to change what happened, they had a very good explanation as to why that happened. Sooner or later however, there is only so many times the series can double back on itself, and change our perspective on characters before it gets too silly, too far out – and The Fate of the Furious may just do that. It’s still goofy fun, but it’s not quite up to the height of the past three installments.
 
The bare bones plot of the movie has to do with Dom (Vin Diesel), living the high life in Cuba, until Cipher (Charlize Theron) comes calling. She has a job for him, he’s not interested – but then she shows him something on her cell phone, and he no longer feels he has a choice. He cannot even bring his team into whatever this job is – not only that, but he has to betray them. He does, and goes to work for Cipher, while the mysterious Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) brings the rest of the team together to try and stop them. The word family is used A LOT – even by Fast and Furious standards.
 
This is the first installment of the series directed by F. Gary Gray – taking over for James Wan, who made one film, who took over from Justin Lin, who made four. Gray is a veteran director, coming off his biggest hit to date – Straight Outta Compton – which wasn’t an action movie, although his resume includes films like Set It Off, The Negotiator and perhaps most relevant to this series, The Italian Job. He’s more of a journeyman craftsman than anything else – and I don’t think he necessarily brings anything new to the table. Yet, he is good at pulling off what the series is famous for – large scale, ridiculous action sequences, particularly car chases. There is a great one in New York, and the climax, on the ice in Russia, that also involves a submarine, is so ridiculous stupid, that you cannot help but smile through it.
 
The movie does, I think, try too hard to bring back Jason Statham’s Deckard – and change the way we see him – which doesn’t really work, since there really is no way around the fact that he cold bloodedly murder Han – in one of the previous double backs the series had to bring Han back, after he died in Tokyo Drift.
 
The biggest disappoint in the cast has to be Charlize Theron’s Cipher though. Coming off of Mad Max: Fury Road, you would think that they would give her an action sequence – particularly a driving sequence – for her to shine. They don’t do that though, instead giving her reams of exposition dialogue to deliver, and not much else. Theron is a terrific actress, but I’m not sure she’s particularly good at slumming it in a film like this – compare her to the famous actress who plays Deckard’s mother in a few scenes, and you see the difference between a terrific actress, who knows she’s in trash and is having a blast doing it, and a terrific actress, who doesn’t quite know what to do with trash.
 
The Fate of the Furious is fine, I guess. It isn’t in the league of the last few movies in this series in terms of being a guilty pleasure – and, obviously, it doesn’t have the emotional impact that Paul Walker’s final appearance in the last film does. Still, this franchise doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. If this really does become the new James Bond – a franchise that stretches on for 30 films – you’re going to have a few Moonraker’s along the way (and this, at least, is better than Moonraker).

Movie Review: Frantz

Frantz
Directed by: François Ozon.   
Written by: François Ozon and Philippe Piazzo based on the movie Broken Lullaby by Ernst Lubitsch
Starring: Paula Beer (Anna), Pierre Niney (Adrien), Ernst Stötzner (Doktor Hoffmeister), Marie Gruber (Magda Hoffmeister), Johann von Bülow (Kreutz), Anton von Lucke (Frantz), Cyrielle Clair (Adrien's mother), Alice de Lencquesaing (Fanny).
 
Francois Ozon’s Frantz would likely had worked better as a 60 minute film than it does at twice that length. The movie isn’t overly original (the story was made before, by master filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch in 1932 as Broken Lullaby – which is not, to put it mildly, among his best remembered films – Ozon apparently didn’t even realize he was making a remake with this film) – but for the first hour, the film casts it spell, and is quietly effective. Yes, a black and white film that flashes to color to signify emotion isn’t really original, but it works for a reason. This is a quiet story or loss and regret, which is odd for Ozon who usually goes bigger than this. Yet, the second half of the film kind of drags on longer than needed – you keep waiting for that half to build to something, and it never really does.
 
The story takes place in the aftermath of WWI. The title character of Frantz was killed in the war, leaving a whole in the lives of his fiancé, Anna (Paula Beer), and his parents – Dr. and Mrs. Hoffmeister, who Anna remains close to, perhaps as a way for them all to try and keep Frantz’s memory alive. Into their small German town arrives Adrien (Pierre Niney) – a Frenchman, who everyone eyes suspiciously – the war is over, but the French and Germans still hates each other. Yet, Adrien is there to visit Frantz’s grave – which he does several days in a row. Eventually, he will meet Anna, and then the Hoffmeister’s – telling them that he knew Frantz before the war, at the art school they both attended in Paris. Eventually, Anna learns the real way they know each other – and starts lying to both sides, not telling the Hoffmeister’s the truth, but telling Adrien she has. He eventually goes back to France – and after a while, she follows – but now doesn’t know where he is, and has to track him down.
 
The two halves of the movie work as kind of two sides to the same coin – or mirror images of each other. In the first, Adrien is the Paula is stricken with grief, which is alleviated somewhat by the appearance of this mysterious stranger. She doesn’t stop loving Frantz, but for the first time sees a life for herself moving forward. Adrien is quiet and mysterious, and doesn’t discourage her projecting this life onto him. In the second half, she goes to find him – and is somewhat surprised to find that for him, life has gone on – he isn’t quite the same person he was in Germany – he isn’t as stricken with guilt – at least not until he sees her. It is a reminder that for him, the war is over – he may feel guilt over what he did, but he has a family and a comfortable life to go back to – and he’s able to slide back into it. The same isn’t true for Anna, who life is forever altered. She isn’t able to slide back into her planned life – she has to invent a new one. It isn’t until she gets to France, and meets Adrien again that she realizes this.
 
Frantz is a sad movie of course. It is about guilt and grief, and about the monotony of both really – how you are afflicted with the same numbing sadness all day, every day. The beautiful black and white cinematography is appropriate. The flashes of color are a simple way of conveying emotion, but it’s an effective one.
 
The second half felt tacked on to me – as if the first half wasn’t sad enough, so the film felt the need to really drive home its points. In particular, the lengthy search for Adrien really doesn’t add very much to the film – other than to extend the runtime. You wait for the film to build to something, and it doesn’t quite get there.
 
There is still much to admire about the film – including a restraint than Ozon has rarely shown before. The film doesn’t really feel like one of his films – which I’m sure for fans of his will be disappointing, but for someone like me – lukewarm on him – wasn’t a major deal. Overall, I think Frantz is an interesting film, but one that never quite comes together.

Movie Review: Smurfs: The Lost Village

Smurfs: The Lost Village
Directed by: Kelly Asbury.
Written by: Stacey Harman and Pamela Ribon based on the characters and works of Peyo.
Starring: Demi Lovato (Smurfette), Rainn Wilson (Gargamel), Joe Manganiello (Hefty Smurf), Jack McBrayer (Clumsy Smurf), Danny Pudi (Brainy Smurf), Mandy Patinkin (Papa Smurf), Dee Bradley Baker (Monty), Frank Welker (Azrael), Michelle Rodriguez (SmurfStorm), Ellie Kemper (SmurfBlossom), Julia Roberts (SmurfWillow), Ariel Winter (SmurfLily), Meghan Trainor (SmurfMelody), Bret Marnell (Snappy Bug / Handy Smurf), Brandon Jeffords (Cauldron), Kelly Asbury (Nosey Smurf), Jake Johnson (Grouchy Smurf), Gabriel Iglesias (Jokey Smurf), Tituss Burgess (Vanity Smurf), Jeff Dunham (Farmer Smurf).
 
I’m not quite sure why Sony is having so many problems making a decent Smurfs movie. The first two were animation/live action hybrid, obviously trying to cash in on the same audience who keep going to those damn Alvin and the Chipmunk movies, and were mostly awful – even if they made money. This third attempt makes the right decision to go full on animation, and is an improvement over those two films – but not by all that much. It’s a film aimed very clearly at the kiddie audience – which is fine – but it lacks any real reason to pay attention to it. It’s basically like last year’s Trolls, but less colorful and with less music. It’s not the most painful way to spend 90 minutes with her kids, but having said that, my five year still sings that annoying Trolls song 6 months later – and she hasn’t mentioned Smurfs once since seeing it this weekend. It’s a time waster, and little else.
 
This version of the Smurfs concentrates on Smurfette (Demi Lovato) – who feels out of place, being the only girl Smurf in her village, and one whose name is not her defining characteristic. She feels she’s not a real Smurf, because she was created by Gargamel (Rainn Wilson), and is insecure about what her role is. She and her friends – Hefty (Joe Manganiello), Clumsy (Jack McBrayer) and Brainy (Danny Pudi) head out one day, and end up inadvertently discovering that they are not the only Smurfs out there – and inadvertently letting Gargamel know this as well. The race is then on to find the so-called Lost Village.
 
I know I watched the Smurfs TV show as a kid, but I also know that I have almost no memory of it. It’s safe to say that had these movies no come along, than I likely wouldn’t have given the Smurfs any thought at all in my adult life – which is a long way of saying, there’s no real nostalgia on my end for this franchise. What that means is that these movies have to work on their own terms, and not just pull on my heartstring. This one really doesn’t. I did appreciate how the film is aiming itself directly at children this time – Gargamel is in no way scary, because he’s clearly such an incompetent fool, and Rainn Wilson plays it to the hilt. The rest of the cast kind phones in their performances – I was especially struck by Ariel Winter in a small role, who doesn’t speak in her normal voice, but in the exact same voice she uses for Sofia the First, which is the type of thing you notice when you’ve seen all the episodes of that show approximately 30 times each.
 
Smurfs: The Lost Village is very much like those Disney Jr. shows – it isn’t annoying or loud, and you don’t have to worry about anything too scary or traumatic or mature intruding on your children as they watch them. But those shows are designed, in part, to be distractions for your kids – we put them on when we’re making dinner for example, or when we’ve had enough yelling for the day. The kids like them, we half pay attention, and it’s all fine. That is the best thing you can say about this movie.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Grey Gardens (1976)

Grey Gardens (1976)
Directed by: Albert & David Maysles & Ellen Hovde & Muffie Meyer.
 
There will always be a question in documentary filmmaking about whether filmmakers are exploiting their subject or not – and it’s something that seems to come up every time Grey Gardens is discussed. The film, one of the most famous of all documentaries, is about Big Edie Beale and her daughter, Little Edie Beale, living in a dilapidated mansion that looks like a wreck from the outside, and even worse on the inside. The Beales came to the attention of the filmmakers – brothers Albert & David Maysles, along with co-directors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer – because they were distant relatives of Jackie Onassis – but the filmmakers found them so fascinating, they just kept coming back. The film was made just a few years before Big Edie died, and it portrays the dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship warts in all – the two of them bicker constantly, sometimes passive-aggressively, and sometimes not so passively. They are, to put it kindly, eccentric. They have the trappings of wealth – the large house in the rich neighbor, accent that denote class and “breeding” – but the money isn’t quite there anymore. Big Edie’s husband – Little Edie’s father – left them years ago, and there isn’t a lot of talk about him. Little Edie never married, although there is talk of a stream of gentlemen suitors that she hated – and regrets of not heading to Europe when the war started like so many of her friends – who ended up married – did.
 
Grey Gardens is about memory and regret – and about how these two women are trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of misery, argument, accusations, forgiveness and then back again. Little Edie keeps threatening to go back to New York – she was happy in New York once, and live the life she was meant to – the life she could have lived, if her mother didn’t need her so much. Her mother pokes and prods her right back – telling her she doesn’t need her as much as Little Edie thinks. To a certain degree, both of them are constantly performing for each other – they both need each other, and neither want to admit that they need each other, which shows just how much they really do. Both of them are constantly performing – although you get the impression that even if they Maysles and their cameras were not there, the two Beale women would be doing to same thing. Both of the women are theatrical by nature – and while they love having the camera on them, I don’t think the absence of them would have caused the pair to stop performing.
 
I know the Maysles and company have always claimed that the film is not exploitive, but if we’re being honest it is – at least in part. Little Edie’s flamboyant monologues are often quite funny, and we are certainly invited to laugh during the course of the movie, but are we laughing at the Beales? They don’t seem to be laughing, so perhaps we are. And yet, the film also gives the Beales precisely what they want – and they seemed to no regrets about it. They are being given an audience – at first of just the Maysles brothers themselves, and ultimately to millions of others. And the brothers wisely let the Beales tell their own story completely – whether or not that’s the truth. Whatever happened to lead the pair to live this way, what happened to the house, why they’re alone, and why they’re only living in a few rooms of a huge home – is a story that the Maysles could probably have explored from another point of view – or at least given wider context. They don’t though – and that’s for the best. The film is about memory more than anything, and why let facts or context interfere with that?
 
I do believe that in many cases, yes, documentary films do exploit their subjects. The question really is are the subjects willing participants in that exploitation, and whether the portrait that the filmmakers end up with is an honest one. In the case of Grey Gardens, the answer to both questions is a resounding yes – which may just be why it’s one of the best docs you will ever see.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Movie Review: Win It All

Win It All
Directed by: Joe Swanberg.
Written by: Jake Johnson and Joe Swanberg.
Starring: Jake Johnson (Eddie), Joe Lo Truglio (Ron), Keegan-Michael Key (Gene), Aislinn Derbez (Eva), Nicky Excitement (Nick), Arthur Agee (Arthur), Steve Berg (Berg), Cliff Chamberlain (Paul the Bartender), Kris Swanberg (Kris), Jude Swanberg (Jude).
 
Joe Swanberg is one of those filmmakers I respect, even if I’ve never really liked his films – of which, I’ve only seen a fraction of. He’s making the films he wants to make and doesn’t really care if you like them or not – so if I find his early work to be self-indulgent naval gazing, and his more recent work – where he’s trying something more mainstream – to not quite work, so be it. Few filmmakers seem willing to do what he does, and just keep churning them out. His most recent film – made for Netflix – is Win It All – and I think it succeeds where other recent stuff, like Drinking Buddies, failed for me. That film was an attempt at making a more mainstream romantic comedy – but with a twist, which is that the two people who are obviously perfect for each don’t get together. It was an interesting idea, but if you’re going to twist a cliché of the genre, you have to twist it into something – which is what he failed to do in Drinking Buddies (instead of it turning into a cliché, it turned into nothing).
 
Win It All takes another well-worn genre – the gambling addict movie – and attempts something similar. Fairly early in the film, Eddie (Jake Johnson) really, truly does realize he has a problem and goes straight. He starts working for his brother’s (Joe Lo Truglio) landscaping company – and surprises even himself with how much he enjoys it. He starts dating a nurse, Eva (Aislinn Derbez) who he genuinely likes, and wants to be with. He starts going to meetings, with the help of his sponsor Gene (Keegan-Michael Key). He has really, and truly turned his life around. There’s just one thing though – before he did all of that, he was given a bag by a scary looking friend, and told to hold it for him while he goes to jail for 6-9 months – and if he does, he’ll get $10,000. Of course, the bag contains money – under what looks like evidence of what could have been a fairly gruesome murder – and of course, Eddie gambles some of it away - $20,000 to be exact. He has a plan to get the money back – and it doesn’t even involve gambling. But then, he finds out his friend is getting out early – so, of course, he needs to head back to the tables, for one last time.
 
You could probably write many of the story beats of Win It All right now knowing nothing more about it. It’s not unlike The Gambler – either the James Caan or Mark Wahlberg version, or Rounders with Matt Damon, without an Edward Notion. Or countless other films. Yet, there is something genuinely different about Win It All as well – and it’s that middle section. The beginning, when Eddie falls down the rabbit hole into mounting debt, and the end – when he either has to win it all or get killed – we have seen but the middle, when he really does get clean is somewhat different. If there is a flaw in that, it’s the same type of flaw that was in Drinking Buddies – if you’re not going to follow the clichés, what are you going to follow? The middle section is fairly easy going, with great comic relief by Key and Truglio, and a sweet relationship between Eddie and Eva (including a rather chaste sex scene – by Swanberg standards). But all of that cannot fully cover up the fact that what we’re doing is watching someone do yardwork, and enter invoices into a computer for an hour. There isn’t much momentum there – and we know how the film will end.
 
But even during the rough patches in Win It All, there is Jake Johnson’s performance – which is the best I’ve seen from him in a film. His Eddie is kind of sweet guy – even if he is an idiot. He’s more believable as a broken down gambler than most of the stars who do it – in part because you really do believe that him being down $2,000 is horrible for him. The movie keeps things on a believable level throughout – and Johnson delivers a raggedly charming performance.
 
I didn’t much like the end of Win It All – it’s almost as if Swanberg and Johnson (who co-wrote the script together) didn’t really know how to get Eddie out of a certain situation, and just said screw it, and came up with something silly. But other than that, Win It All, is something more traditional from Swanberg – which isn’t really a bad thing. For one thing, for once, I enjoyed it.