Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Monday, November 30, 2015

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (2015)

* * *

Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence

And so it ends. After four films the saga of Katniss Everdeen concludes in a fashion that is as rough around the edges and unwilling to "pretty" things up as she is. Even in triumph, Mockingjay - Part 2 is almost unrelentingly bleak, its characters more exhausted than relieved, its outlook only tentatively positive. It's a fitting end for a series with such a dark premise and which has always foregrounded the human cost of tyranny and rebellion, yet I can't help but feel like it doesn't quite have the impact that it should have. This is possibly (probably) the result of splitting the final chapter in the story into two films, leaving Part 1 feeling padded and Part 2 feeling a little bit empty. Mockingjay - Part 2 is full of action, but it doesn't have quite the same level emotional grounding that the other films have. It's a good film regardless, but the final two parts to the story are definitely the lesser pair compared to the series' first two films.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review: Harlan County, USA (1976)

* * * *

Director: Barbara Kopple

Everything you need to know about the situation in Harlan County, USA, Barbara Kopple's Oscar winning documentary about striking coal miners in Kentucky, can be summed up in the words of Norman Yarborough, then President of Eastover Mining, when asked about the living conditions of the miners, who live in company housing with no water and no electricity: "We were attempting to move our people - and these are our people, they're my people - to move our people, to upgrade our people into trailers, upgrade our people into better housing, better conditions because it will make us better people when we are able to do this." These aren't the words of an employer; they're the words of an owner in a slavery system or a lord in a feudal system, words of oppression disguised as words of benevolence. It was a situation bound to explode sooner or later and it did, right in front of Kopple's camera, which not only captures the violence but also became a target of it in this powerful, sometimes horrifying, documentary.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Netflix Recommends... The Seven Five (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Tiller Russell

Tiller Russell's The Seven Five, a documentary about a major NYPD police corruption scandal during the 1980s and early 90s, is a film as infuriating as it is entertaining. It's entertaining because many of the people involved and who participate in interviews with Tiller, including main "character" Mike Dowd, are really great, charismatic storytellers. It's infuriating because it tells a true story about massive police corruption that was allowed to go on for years as a result of the police code of looking the other way when it comes to the actions of a fellow officer, and because the film itself, good as it is, can't help but further the self-aggrandizement of the subjects, some of whom seem pretty impressed with themselves and proud of what they were able to get away with even as they're expressing remorse for some of their misdeeds.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Friday's Top 5... 2015's Low Key Gems

All the big guns will soon be out for Oscar season, but before we get into the thick things, check out some of these smaller (and wonderful) movies from earlier this year:

#5: Appropriate Behavior

A romantic comedy (sort of) about a woman struggling to get over her ex and trying to reconcile her own desires and way of life with the expectations of her very conservative family. Star Desiree Akhavan also wrote and directed the film, which is a genuinely funny and fresh take on a well-worn genre.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Ten Years Later... Walk the Line (2005)

Director: James Mangold
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon

So, here's the thing. I don't think I've watched Walk the Line since it first came out 10 years ago, but in the years since seeing it for the first time then and rewatching it recently, I've seen Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story a few times and, as it turns out, that has completely ruined me for this Johnny Cash biopic. Basically, every time Robert Patrick showed up as Cash's father, I half expected him to shout, "Wrong kid died!" (and I had completely forgotten how close he comes to actually saying that), and every time Ginnifer Goodwin showed up as Cash's first wife, I couldn't help but picture Kristin Wiig as the prototypical biopic "first wife" who stands in the way of her husband achieving his dreams and does nothing but complain and get angry. That's not really fair to Walk the Line, but it's certainly a testament to how thorough a parody Walk Hard really is.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review: Spotlight (2015)

* * * *

Director: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber

In a perfect world, we could all at least agree that children are deserving of protection and that their safety should take priority over everything else. That we don't live in that kind of a world, that we live in one where people who exploit and abuse children can be not just shielded from prosecution but given multiple opportunities to perpetuate abuse, proves that we still have some evolving left to do. The story told by Tom McCarthy's Spotlight is not surprising - the specific story on which the film is based was well-publicized and there have been so many other stories of systematic sexual abuse by priests that that's now the first thing many of us think of with respect to the Catholic Church - but it's nevertheless shocking to see in action the workings of a conspiracy of silence and the abuse of institutional power undertaken to keep the ugly truth hidden. Yet Spotlight is no David and Goliath tale of taking on a massive, powerful entity and defeating it; rather, it presents itself as a story in which there is a lot of complicity to go around and even the protagonists aren't necessarily without some guilt in helping to perpetuate the silence and, by extension, the abuse.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Review: Margin Call (2011)

* * * 1/2

Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons

"It's just money; it's made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don't have to kill each other just to get something to eat." It's true to a point, society is built on constructs that exist because we've all agreed to recognize that they exist but, on the other hand, the notion that it's "just money" is a lot easier to take when no matter what happens you'll still end the day with over 7 figures to your name. For the ordinary people who have been sold a false bill of goods and are about to discover how unstable the house of cards they've been allowed to build really is, money isn't so much a concept as it is a matter of life and death. But J.C. Chandor's Margin Call isn't about the ordinary people, it's about the masters of the universe playing their games on Wall Street. It might just as well have been called "Sympathy for the Devil."

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Review: Tyrannosaur (2011)

* * * *

Director: Paddy Considine
Starring: Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman, Eddie Marsan

Kindness is a rare commodity in Tyrannosaur and even when it does appear, it is laced with the same violence that marks everything else. Written and directed by Paddy Considine, and based on his short film Dog Altogether, Tyrannosaur is an unrelentingly bleak film about broken people who know nothing but brutality. It's one of those rare films that is so absolutely excellent that you're glad to have seen it, but so incredibly depressing that you look forward to few things as much as never seeing it again (it's not quite the same combination of great and soul crushing as, say, The Road, but it's not that far off, either).

Saturday, November 21, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Vera Drake (2004)

Director: Mike Leigh
Starring: Imelda Staunton
Country: UK

To watch a Mike Leigh film is to be dropped into such a completely realized, fully-fleshed out world that it's almost as if you're living the story alongside the characters rather than watching a film. This is especially true of Vera Drake, a film in which even minor, one scene characters are made to feel as though they have these entire lives that we're only seeing a little snippet of in medias res and that the film could, conceivably, follow any of them out of the scene and carry on with their story for the rest of the movie. But the story that Leigh wants to tell is that of Vera Drake, a woman who is described as having a "heart of gold" but whose inherent goodness and pureness of spirit does not rob her of complexity. Indeed, as depicted by Leigh and star Imelda Staunton, her goodness only makes her more complex and utterly compelling.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review: Unfinished Business (2015)

* *

Director: Ken Scott
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson, Dave Franco

God bless Dave Franco, the Franco who makes all other Francos worthwhile. What a delightful little imp he is and how close he comes to single-handedly making Unfinished Business, a lesser Vince Vaughn comedy even by the increasingly lax standards of Vince Vaughn comedies, worth seeing. Well, okay, Tom Wilkinson is pretty good, too, and doesn't let the fact that this is clearly a role he took solely for the paycheque keep him from being an utter professional and turning in an actual performance, one that even has just a tiny bit of pathos to it. But, still, this is Dave Franco's show, which is all the more impressive when you consider that, by any objective standard, his character is kind of offensive.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Review: It Follows (2015)

* * *

Director: David Robert Mitchell
Starring: Maika Monroe

If nothing else, David Robert Mithcell's It Follows proves the theory that less is more. It's a horror movie almost entirely without blood and with a very minimal body count, and which relies almost entirely on the power of suggestion and anticipation in order to get the audience where it needs them to be. It's an effectively creepy movie with a synth heavy score and a preoccupation with sex as a harbinger of death that makes it feel like a throwback to 80s horror movies and which, like last year's Only Lovers Left Alive, makes great use of Detroit as a location, turning it into a city of the undead. I'm not much for horror movies generally, but It Follows is pretty great.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Review: Suffragette (2015)

* *

Director: Sarah Gavron
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter

For a story that's all about the tenacity, fervor, and indefatigable spirit necessary to push a social movement towards victory, Suffragette is a weirdly passionless film. Too restrained, too polite, and way too superficial, Suffragette is at best a moderately successful period piece and not at all the searing political piece that it ought to be and wants to be. It's frustrating because there actually is a lot to say about the women's suffrage movement, which isn't just one story but a series of stories about tiered victories in which certain categories of women were granted the vote followed later by women of other categories (these categories determined by class, marital status, age, and, of course, race and ethnicity), but the film ultimately says little of any substance. It touches briefly on a lot of different issues about women's rights, but offers no real insight into any of them, so that the statement it makes is of the most basic kind: inequality is bad and harmful to society. And? The women in the film may gladly call themselves rebels, but there's nothing revolutionary about Suffragette.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Review: Dark Places (2015)

* *

Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Starring: Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Corey Stoll, Christina Hendricks

10 months before Dark Places briefly appeared in theaters, the first adaptation of a Gillian Flynn novel hit theaters to acclaim and a healthy box office take. 3 months before Dark Place's release, a film starring Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult hit theaters to acclaim and a healthy box office take. Although Dark Places isn't even half as good as Gone Girl or Mad Max: Fury Road, I find it hard to believe that the distributor, small though it may be, couldn't have capitalized on those films enough to push it to a box office take of more than $208,588. I'm not arguing that it deserves to have made more money than that since it's not very good, I'm just surprised that affection for those other films couldn't have gotten it some curiosity box office at the very least.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Review: Tangerine (2015)

* * *

Director: Sean S. Baker
Starring: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor

If the entirety of Sean S. Baker's Tangerine worked as well as its final, almost silent, scene it would be an unqualified masterpiece. That one scene displays so much empathy and understanding for its characters, such a rich and moving sense of camaraderie between them, that it absolutely makes the movie and prevents it from being reduced to a work most notable for its production gimmick (Tangerine was shot entirely on an iPhone). What comes before that final scene is a breakneck journey through Los Angeles over the course of Christmas Eve and while it's often exhilarating, sometimes funny, and definitely unlike anything else that's come out recently, it's a film that sweeps over you and doesn't really begin to attain power until those final moments of grace.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Review: Crimson Peak (2015)

* * 1/2

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain

Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak is a triumph of crafts over storytelling. Its production design and costumes are some of the most glorious of any film I've seen this year, but though del Toro is able to build a creepy, effective atmosphere in the film's middle section, he's not quite able to sustain it for the remainder of the story. The story itself is a classic ghost/haunted house tale, though again, while the film nails the look of it, the actually telling of it unfolds in a largely predictable fashion. But, man, is it ever grotesquely beautiful to watch.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Canadian Film Review: Room (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay

"This is the story you get." It may not be pretty, it may not be nice, but sometimes the narrative is given to you by circumstance rather than decided by you according to choice and desire. Room, based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, who also provides the screenplay, is the story of a usurped narrative, of a girl plucked from the story she thought she was living - one of an ordinary girl who would live an ordinary life doing ordinary things - and dropped into a nightmare scenario that is, horrifically, less uncommon in real life than most of us would probably have ever guessed. It's a story of pain and brutality and the enduring effects of trauma, but it's also a story of hope, of endurance, and of love. It's a difficult movie, but also a profoundly moving one.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Netflix Recommends... Elysium (2013)

* *

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Matt Damon, Sharlto Copley, Jodie Foster

Three features in, I'm pretty well convinced that Neill Blomkamp is a one trick pony, and I'm not sure the trick is all that good. Don't get me wrong, District 9 has more going for it than not, but it still shares with subsequent features Elysium and Chappie a confused political outlook and a basic visual aesthetic, the latter of which may have seemed bold and exciting in District 9, but just feels recycled in successive films. Elysium isn't totally derivative, but many times when it does take a chance and try something different, it doesn't quite succeed in it, and in general it plays like a film that was imagined on a purely visual level first, with a narrative built around it to connect the images, and then some half-baked socio-political commentary crammed into it. All told, I'd have to agree with Blomkamp's own assessment of the film: "The script just wasn't there."

Monday, November 9, 2015

Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

* * *

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Sammuel L. Jackson

There's James Bond and there's Austin Powers and somewhere in between there's Kingsman: The Secret Service, suave as Bond but as in on the joke as Powers. If I'm being completely honest, Kingsman is a mixed bag of things that do and don't work, with violence so literally cartoonish that it becomes off-putting fairly quickly, but every time the film starts to veer off course it finds a way to pull you back in with its nonchallantly ironic humor. It helps to have a cool as a cucumber performance by Colin Firth front and center, with a so weird it works performance by Samuel L. Jackson standing beside it, as well as healthy doses of Mark Strong and Michael Caine; Kingsman has all these things and more, which is why it ends up more on the "good" side of the scale than the "bad."

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Review: Southpaw (2015)

* *

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker

Intense and visceral and filled with an innate sense of urgency, boxing is a sport that translates easily to cinema, which is perhaps why it's one of the sports featured most often in Hollywood movies. It's an inherently filmable sport on a visual level, one which allows for the physical toll on the protagonist to always be made apparent, and which allows for the protagonist to always be seen, never getting obscured by a helmet or lost in the crowd of a team. It makes sense for filmmakers to be drawn to boxing, but at the same time the genre's tropes are by now so deeply entrenched that it's difficult to escape them and create a story that feels in any way fresh. Southpaw is, unfortunately, a pretty standard fall and rise, young hotshot and grizzled mentor, type of story that feels entirely derivative even when you factor in the family drama that's supposed to hold down the narrative's center. Its main character may be called "the Great Hope," but this movie is not.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Almost Famous (2000)

Director: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Country: United States

Few movies make it look quite as effortless as Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, a film that manages to be sweet and earnest even as it sets itself firmly in some of the seedier aspects of the music industry, including a plot that hinges on some of the female characters being treated like chattel. That it can go to such dark places - and some of what happens in the movie is pretty dark - while maintaining its earnest and open-hearted manner, that it succeeds at being a feel good movie, is a testament to Crowe's deft touch as a storyteller and his ability to craft compelling characters (in this respect, he shares credit with the excellently assembled cast). 15 years ago, Almost Famous was not one of the year's biggest hits, earning little at the box office and receiving surprisingly few accolades (it received 4 Oscar nominations, including Best Original Screenplay for Crowe, but it failed to crack the Best Picture lineup, despite it being a relatively weak year for contenders); but 15 years later it's one of the more enduring films from the year 2000, a work that remains touching and entertaining in equal measure.