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

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Review: Wake in Fright (1971)

* * * 1/2

Director: Ted Kotcheff
Starring: Gary Bond

Sun-drenched and brutal, Wake in Fright is a primal scream of a movie that plays like a guided tour of hell. It's amazing that a film that feels so vivid and essential could come as close to being lost for all time as this one did, and a miracle of perseverance that it was ultimately rescued from such a fate, its negatives literally snatched from a bin marked "for destruction" and then painstakingly restored. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Kenneth Cook, Wake in Fright is an unrelenting and deeply unsettling story of a man's degradation and self-destruction in the Australian outback - and not just because it famously contains footage of an actual kangaroo hunt (although that certainly helps in maintaining the overall atmosphere of despair and horror). Wake in Fright isn't for the faint of heart, but it's definitely a timeless classic.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Review: The Rewrite (2014)

* *

Director: Marc Lawrence
Starring: Hugh Grant, Marisa Tomei

Early in The Rewrite the protagonist, a once celebrated Hollywood screenwriter who has fallen on hard times, complains that he can't sell any of his story ideas because all anyone wants to make are stories about female empowerment. Lord, please tell me where this crowded marketplace of movies about female empowerment are, because as far as I can tell it's white male protagonists as far as the eye can see. If you can ignore the fact that the film is premised on a problem (if a rise in the number of films about women can be seen as a problem) that simply does not exist, then The Rewrite is a pleasant enough diversion. It's somewhat sleepy overall and not nearly as much fun as previous Marc Lawrence/Hugh Grant collaborations Two Weeks Notice and Music and Lyrics (I have no idea about Did You Hear About the Morgans?), but it's decent enough for what it is.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Review: Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016)

* * *

Director: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Seth Rogan, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Chloe Grace Moretz

God bless Rose Byrne, comedy ninja. Bless everyone involved in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, really. While Neighbors absolutely did not require a sequel, telling as it did a complete story that ended in a way that seemed to genuinely close the book rather than open out into a new chapter, there was virtually no chance that a movie that cost $18 million to make and then raked in $150 million at the domestic box office alone was not going to get a follow up cash in. The timing of that cash in sucked, coming as it did during the summer of 2016, also known as the summer when every sequel that didn't feature Dory or several of the Avengers either failed to live up to expectations or flat out bombed, but as it turns out this is actually a pretty good movie. More importantly, it's a movie that actually wants to be about something and mostly succeeds, managing to do so while being fairly hilarious at that.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Review: Other People (2016)

* * *

Director: Chris Kelly
Starring: Jesse Plemmons, Molly Shannon

Other people always, somehow, have it better. Yet everyone is "other people" to someone, even the guy who is experiencing a crushing professional disappointment, the breakdown of a relationship, and the impending death of his mother. But try telling that to the guy. Chris Kelly's Other People, based partially on his own experience losing his mother to cancer, is about the year a man spends watching his mother succumb to a fatal illness. Parts of it are heartrending and, as it is in life, parts of it are funny; sometimes it's even both at the same time. In a general way, it plays out the way that a lot of stories where people come to terms with things play out, but there's just enough specificity in the details to make it feel more personal and more emotionally raw than your average family dramedy.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Wadjda (2013)

Director: Haifaa al-Mansour
Starring: Waad Mohammed
Country: Saudi Arabia/Germany/United Arab Emirates/Jordan/Netherlands/United States

What she wants is so simple that most children would take it for granted: a bicycle so that she can ride alongside her friend. But as a girl in Saudi Arabia, reminded on a daily basis that she’s not to be seen and not to be heard and not to call attention to herself, she might as well want to ride a unicorn to the moon. Hers is a life of restriction and limitation, though not necessarily a life defined by those things. Wadjda is a film that, in certain respects, is typical of its genre, a coming of age story about a slightly precocious pre-teen who has begun carving out an identity as an outsider and has to learn a difficult lesson or two in order to get to the next stage of growing up. What makes it less than typical, aside from the fact that it was helmed by the first Saudi woman to direct a feature length film and the first person to direct an entire feature in Saudi Arabia, is the way that it engages with culture to tell a story that is at once that of a single individual and that of a system of oppression that the individual exists within.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review: Boy (2010)

* * *

Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: James Rolleston, Taika Waititi

The year is 1984. The place is Waihau Bay, New Zealand. The "boy" in question is Alamein (James Rolleston), known to all simply as "Boy," who holds to two unassailable notions: 1. Michael Jackson is the greatest; and 2. his long-absent father Alamein (Taika Waititi) is a cool guy whose history is full of cool deeds and who is most likely off doing cool things even now. But young hearts are made to be broken by harsh truths, and Boy's is no exception; to grow up is to have some of the comforting illusions of childhood stripped away. So it is in Taika Waititi's well-realized coming of age comedy Boy, an imaginative little gem that is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review: Hell or High Water (2016)

* * * 1/2

Director: David Mackenzie
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster

"We rob banks." Amazing how a movie set during the Great Depression and one set during the present day can paint such similar pictures of an area economically sucked dry and abandoned and a whole population of people who, for generations, have been stuck in a cycle of poverty because the system is rigged to ensure that they always get the worst of it when corporate greed grinds everything to a halt. It's enough to make you sympathize with and fall on the side of the bank robbers, except that Hell or High Water's grizzled, mustachioed lawman is played by Jeff Bridges, putting its bank robbing brothers at a disadvantage compared to Bonnie and Clyde. A hard edged crime movie that grabs you right from its beautifully executed opening shot and doesn't let go until the closing credits, Hell or High Water is one of the year's great thrill rides.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Review: Bridget Jones's Baby (2016)

* * *

Director: Sharon Maguire
Starring: Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth, Patrick Dempsey

When it comes to Bridget Jones's Baby, I went through a few distinct stages in terms of reaction before actually seeing it. The first, back in 2015 when filming was announced was "... Why?"; the second, when the trailers hit earlier this year at the beginning of the summer of blah sequels, was "Hmmm, maybe when it comes to Netflix"; the final stage, during the couple of weeks before its opening weekend, was "Screw it, why not?" And you know what? I'm glad I did. I wasn't asking for another Bridget Jones sequel, I wasn't waiting for another Bridget Jones sequel, I don't even actually remember the first Bridget Jones sequel (though I know that I saw it), but I really enjoyed this. It was really funny and it does something that more sequels should do in that it actually allows its main character to grow and rather than getting its mileage by repeating the same gags from the first film but bigger (though, naturally, there are some call backs), it takes the opportunity to explore some new territory.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Review: The Gatekeepers (2012)

* * * 1/2

Director: Dror Moreh

While I don't think that any one documentary could ever capture the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that feels full and complete - the history there is too complex, too thorny, too fraught - a film like Dror Moreh's The Gatekeepers goes a long way towards clarifying a piece of that big puzzle. Centered around interviews with six of the former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, and addressing some of the most controversial incidents between Israelis and Palestinians since the Six-Day War, the film is a fascinating look at what power looks like from the perspective of those who have held it, as well as how people who have held the same job can see it in such different ways and yet can come to virtually the same conclusion about how things have to work in order to move forward.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Canadian Film Review: Into the Forest (2016)

* * 1/2

Director: Patricia Rozema
Starring: Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood

If all technological infrastructure (which, at this point in time, is basically all infrastructure) were to fall in an instant, how long would you keep holding out hope that it will come back and life will resume as normal? A week? A month? Surely not a year and change. Honestly, even a month sounds like pushing it, no matter how naive you might be. I suppose that was at the heart of my problem with Into the Forest, an intimate portrait of the apocalypse. I can buy that one would cling to the normal and the familiar for comfort for a while, but at a certain point you have to concede, because time has passed and because you've seen first-hand how things were already coming apart after only a few days, that your old way of life is gone, so you should probably stop spending so much time rehearsing for that damn dance audition that's never going to happen and start devoting more time to figuring out your food and shelter situations.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Review: Son of Saul (2015)

* * * *

Director: Laszlo Nemes
Starring: Geza Rohrig

Son of Saul depicts a world of chaos and horror unfolding over the course of 107 fast-paced minutes. Although it really isn't graphic, its filmmaking strategy grabs you in an instant and leaves you feeling a bit sick and dizzy with its first-person immediacy; it's a film that is as much an experience as it is a narrative. A Holocaust drama and the winner of the most recent Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, a bare description of Son of Saul may make it sound like the sort of movie you "should" see, in the same way that you "should" go to the dentist, but that built-in feeling of necessity does it a disservice. Son of Saul is a difficult watch, but it's not a chore to watch; it's a totally engrossing artistic triumph.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Review: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

* * *

Director: Orson Welles
Starring: Joseph Cotton, Tim Holt, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead

Years after the fact, Orson Welles told biographer Barbara Leaming that before the final cut of The Magnificent Ambersons had been taken away from him, he felt more confident about the film's value than he had about that of Citizen Kane. Granted, you can chalk this up, to a certain degree, to lingering frustration at having had control taken away from him and at wistfulness for the career he might have had, one in which he achieved the creative control he wanted and one which didn't result in him leaving behind a long trail of unfinished projects, particularly when you take into account editor Robert Wise' assertion that Welles' original was not significantly better than the cut that became the film. Yet, it's hard to watch The Magnificent Ambersons, especially if you've read the novel, and not see the movie it could have been. It's a good movie, but the seams show, the ones left over from where those elements that could have made it great have been excised.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Netflix Recommends... Legend (2015)

* * 1/2

Director: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Tom Hardy

Several years ago now, there was a screenplay floating around written by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris that offered a fresh take on the legend of Robin Hood and it had a lot of people excited. Taking the Sheriff of Nottingham as its protagonist and turning the tale into a detective story in which Nottingham investigated the crimes of Robin Hood, it was a take that flipped the narrative and turned something familiar into something new and different. The script sold on the basis that it could give audiences something that they hadn't already seen, but somewhere between buying the project and producing it, the studio did what studios pretty much always do: they panicked. An unknown product might excite people and find an audience, but it terrifies Hollywood because if something hasn't been seen before, there's no way to predict how well it might do and what size of an audience it might find. So instead of "Nottingham," we ended up with another Robin Hood movie - "grittier," more "historical" - instead. I couldn't help but think of that as I sat reflecting on Legend, a film which I suspect won the opportunity to be made on the basis that it could offer a take on a story that we've already seen (more or less) a hundred times that was different enough to seem new, only to lose courage and become something more rote and familiar instead.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Review: 45 Years (2015)

* * * *

Director: Andrew Haigh
Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay

45 years, undone in one week. If nothing else, Andrew Haigh's 45 Years is a searing examination of how fragile one's sense of security, and even one's sense of identity, can be in a long-term relationship. After 45 years, you might think that things really are the way that they are, but truth in this instance is a delicate thing, dependent on the other person being on the exact same page, dependent perhaps on the other person having no significant history before you. Not even love exists in a void - even after 45 years. Wonderfully, patiently directed by Andrew Haigh and exquisitely acted by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, 45 Years is a small-scale tragedy and a pitch perfect character study.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

21st Century Essentials: You Can Count On Me (2000)

Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo
Country: United States

A movie like You Can Count On Me puts other films of its kind to shame. It's a story about a single mother whose brother drifts back into her life where the small town that serves as the setting is not full of aggressively quirky neighbors, where the child is not precocious, where the story does not revolve around the brother being charmingly unconventional and shaking up the life of his uptight sister for the better, showing her that it's okay to bend the rules. Instead the brother is a wanderer who even at the end can't quite get it together and the sister is stable but deeply flawed; they're both screwed up in their own specific ways, and her kid is stuck in the middle as they try to get themselves sorted out. They're ordinary people and their problems are ordinary, but it's that ordinariness, so casually and comfortably captured by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, that makes them and the film so compelling. There's a plot, but it doesn't feel forced; it feels like some perfectly natural thing that's playing out in other houses, in other families, anywhere in the world. You Can Count On Me just is, and it's a film so well-executed that it feels absolutely timeless. 16 years on, it doesn't play like it's aged so much as a day.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Ten Years Later... The Wicker Man (2006)

Director: Neil LaBute
Starring: Nicolas Cage

Not the beeeeeeees! What can one even say? The Wicker Man is a bad movie. It's a bad movie in ways that are extraordinary and which set it apart from other bad movies. It's a bad movie in such a way that it is like a gift to those who sit down to watch it. It's a bad movie in ways that you can't fully understand and appreciate unless you see it - or see it's craziest parts. I'm genuinely tempted to just post this video:

and call it a day. If you've never seen the movie, don't worry - seeing these clips out of context makes absolutely no difference. No amount of context could make those moments not seem crazy.