Thursday, March 02, 2017

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past... five weeks, really? Damn. Depression and anxiety do take away your enthusiasm.


SON OF SAUL (2015)
Intense movie about the experience of the Holocaust. The main character, Saul, is a rabbi, but also a Sonderkommando--a member of the workforce made up of prisoners--at a Nazi death camp in Hungary. He performs his duties (salvaging valuables and removing the dead from the gas chambers) with stoicism, affecting impassivity, attempting to survive. But on the day when the film begins, Saul witnesses a boy who survives the gas, only to be put to death by a Nazi doctor. The boy is Saul's son, and through the course of a harrowing couple of days, he attempts to secret the boy's body away in order to give him a proper burial. What really makes this movie especially effective is the way in which it is shot: it's filmed in the "Academy ratio," giving the film a smaller field of vision that Saul himself is almost never absent from, The effect--especially when combined with sound coming from things we don't always see--is an almost claustrophobic immediacy. Son of Saul creates a lot of its effect--almost a horror movie effect, although the film is never melodramatic--with confusion and chaos. It's a hard film to watch, but it's a very rewarding one. ****

BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN (2016)
Fascinating documentary about the two young girls who attempted to murder their friend to appease the Slenderman, a fictional monster who started as an internet hoax and became popular with kids who are into the whole "creepypasta" thing. It's engrossing, not least of which because both girls have the kind of mental health issues that feed one another, but it's also fascinating how something so clearly fictional--you can literally trace it to where and how it started and how the meme was fed by user content--can become something so real to some people. Apparently you really can create an urban legend and people will buy into it. It would be easy to say "This is why I hate the internet sometimes," but it does show (among countless other examples) how far we haven't come in terms of the internet making us more educated. The case is still ongoing, and of course the girls have their weird fans and devotees and people who make damn fan art, but I was glad the documentary never lost sight of these two as people who are suffering from mental impairments which need treatment, and that doesn't excuse away the fact that they tried to end someone's life. ****

PRIMARY (1960)
A short documentary made by Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles and DA Pennebaker about the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic primary between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. It was interesting to watch this so soon after the terrible election we just had. What a different time. The Democrats used to understand populism. ****

CHILD'S PLAY 3 (1991)
This one feels a little more routine and definitely less fun than Child's Play 2. Brad Dourif is still fun in the role of Chucky, but you can see a formula settling. **1/2

TALE OF TALES (2015)
Sumptuous dark fantasy movie from (primarily) Italy, based on a seventeenth century collection of fairy tales (one of the earliest) by Giambattista Basile. It intertwines three unrelated tales--one about a jealous mother (Salma Hayek) who seeks to end the friendship between her miracle son and his spiritual brother, a second about a witless king (Toby Jones) with a giant flea whose daughter is forced to marry an ogre, and the third about two old sisters who come into contact with a very horny king (Vincent Cassel) who will not be refused. Gorgeous to look at, and spellbinding to watch. I think your mileage may vary depending on what you like in your fairy tales, but I think most American movies in the same mode never really capture the sense of the grotesque and the horrible the way this film does. ****

THE NICE GUYS (2016)
Two private eyes in 1970s Los Angeles (Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling) investigate the disappearance of a teenage girl and uncover a conspiracy. You've seen it a dozen times, but this movie--co-written and directed by Shane Black--has a knowing script and the leads are a charming, wryly funny team (I particularly liked Crowe in a way I haven't liked him in a very long time). It's balanced and edgy in a way that a lot of these films aspire to be, but never quite make--and it stays funny and involving the whole time, unafraid to point out the ludicrousness of some of its plot without breaking the reality. This is really the movie I wanted Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to be. I loved it. ****

THE BOSS (2016)
Melissa McCarthy is a successful businesswoman who goes to prison for insider trading and loses everything. With nowhere to go, she finds herself sleeping on the couch of her former assistant (Kristen Bell) and winds up in basically a remake of Troop Beverly Hills where she has to learn the importance of letting people in and all that. Melissa McCarthy is always funny, but the script is inconsistent and thin, so she's got nothing really to work with (I don't know what it says that she co-wrote and co-produced the movie with her husband, Ben Falcone, who directed). Kristen Bell is pleasant, Tyler Labine is nice, and Peter Dinklage is funny occasionally as McCarthy's rival, but it's a waste of time and talent. **

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 (2017)
This one could easily have been a by-the-numbers repeat of what made the first film so surprisingly successful, but I think the movie is smart in the way it doubles down on what we've come to expect but also finds an excuse to widen the story's canvas without feeling like a cash-in. I think of it as a middle passage; the ending leaves the door open for a sequel (it all but makes one mandatory), and even as the stakes get bigger, I don't think Chapter 2 has the driving momentum of the first film. But that's not to say it's not enjoyable as all hell; the action is fantastic, particularly Keanu Reeves' fight scenes with Common, playing an assassin with whom he's evenly matched, and a showdown inside an art installation made up mostly of mirrors and light. The cinematography by Dan Laustsen is also gorgeous, capturing some excellent shots, particularly in an art museum, and a flow of action that's easy to follow. ***

THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE (1970)
This Sam Peckinpah movie never really finds its tone. I liked Jason Robards' performance as Cable, a failed prospector who discovers a watering hole along a stagecoach route and cashes in on it. And I liked Stella Stevens as Hildy, a local prostitute who falls in love with Cable. I thought their love story worked better than the rather undercooked "Death of the West" symbolism the picture lingers over. But ultimately the story never became enjoyable or compelling for me; it was always just sort of there and it was never really engaging. **1/2

THE REVENANT (2015)
This is a masterpiece. A beautiful-looking picture about a fur trapper (Leonardo DiCaprio) left for dead by his company. When he doesn't die, he begins the slow task of tracking down the man (Tom Hardy) who left him behind and killed his son. I generally haven't been a fan of Alejandro Innaritu (although I really liked Birdman), but this was an excellent movie that I found incredibly compelling. Much has been written about the deservedly Oscar-winning cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, which makes the movie look like a series of paintings. I can't rave enough about how beautiful this movie is to look at. The story is also enhanced by the long takes, which give a real sense of time to the drama. The whole thing is elevated by its canvas into an epic drama of human nature and survival among the unforgiving elements. I think I just made the whole thing sound remote and melodramatic, but it really isn't; I found the human story at its center positively gripping. Like I said, a masterpiece. ****

GYMKATA (1985)
A twink goes to a made-up country out of a bad Mel Brooks movie to win some sort of vaguely-defined death game and defeat a conspiracy using gymnastics so that the US can install a satellite monitoring station there. 90 minutes, but good god, does it drag. Fun to make fun of, to a point. I kind of wish someone would remake this but make it intentionally funny and ridiculous. *

GET OUT (2017)
Jordan Peele wrote and directed this horror movie. Daniel Kaluuya stars as Chris Washington, an Africa-American photographer who goes out to the country to spend a weekend with his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams) at her parents' home. The stress of meeting the parents is of course elevated by the fact that they're an interracial couple, and Chris deals with a lot of very cringey comments from people who are either trying too hard or just don't seem to have a decent sense of boundaries. But the whole thing is laden with layers of meaning, recontextualized by a brilliant twist that takes the horror of racism to another level. I don't want to give too much away, because it really is a brilliant movie; I saw it last Sunday, and I can't stop thinking about it. It's really brave the way it takes this social evil head-on and goes all the way with its metaphor. Peele--as is obvious if you've watched Key & Peele--has an extraordinary sense of timing, and he's made a masterful film that is horror as social commentary, but also funny and keenly observed. ****

CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE (2016)
Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson have a lot of chemistry--hell, Johnson has a lot of chemistry with just about anybody--and this action flick about two high school friends caught up in a CIA investigation has its moments. The heart is pretty genuine, so even though it's not a great movie, it has its charming moments. It's a cute flick, especially on a day when the depression is genuine. **1/2

THE FOREST (2016)
Natalie Dormer plays a woman trying to find her twin sister in a forest in Japan where people go to commit suicide. It has a really good sense of atmosphere and mood, as she finds herself seeing things and unsure who she can trust (or even where she is going) while in the forest, but where the film succeeds is as a character piece. Natalie Dormer's performance is quite good; too good for this particular movie, really, because it really screws up the landing, turning something intangible into a failed attempt to be clever. The twist that happens cripples everything that came before it, trading catharsis and closure for something uncreative and generic that makes the whole thing seem like tedium. The ending was really going to have to sell it, but it never really rises above its premise and wastes Dormer's genuinely good performance. **

MIKE AND DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES (2016)
Obnoxious, but cute, and even genuinely sweet in places. I have nothing to say about it, but it's cute. **1/2

HOW TO BE SINGLE (2016)
Lots of stuff going on in this incoherent, messy rom-com. Dakota Johnson (as dynamic as dishpan hands) graduates school, goes on a break with her boyfriend to discover who she is as a single person, parties it up with a co-worker (Rebel Wilson, who I'm normally not a fan of, but who I liked in this movie), then struggles to recover on the dating scene when her boyfriend finds someone else. Meanwhile, her sister (Leslie Mann), a doctor, decides to have a baby as a single woman. And also Alison Brie is there, not interacting with any of the main storyline, and not really adding anything to the movie. It's all over the place, but there are decent moments, and I liked the film's overall message about being able to feel complete even as a single person. Some refining and it might have been quite good. **

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Song of the Week: "Fish Heads"

I was sorry to hear about Bill Paxton's untimely death. I always loved seeing him in movies and on TV shows, and as a weird tribute to the man who gave me so many hours of enjoyment, I decided to make my Song of the Week the first thing I ever saw him in: the music video for Barnes & Barnes' legendary song "Fish Heads." The song--described on its Wikipedia page as "the most honored song in [Dr.] Demento show history"--is from 1978, and this short aired on Saturday Night Live in 1980, but I remember seeing it all the time in the very early days of MTV. Back then I was five or six, so of course the song made a big impression on me then, but I've never not loved it. It's one of those weird things that I absolutely love. Back then, my friends and I would just leave MTV on all day in the background, and when this played--especially if it was the full version, where the song doesn't start for two minutes--I'd always stop and watch and sing along. And yeah, it was the first thing I ever saw Bill Paxton in. RIP, Bill. Thanks for so much great stuff, of which this is just one bit.