Saturday, May 28, 2016

"The Finest Hours (2016)": Not Disney's Finest Hour

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Director Craig Gillespie seems to be shaping up as Disney’s current go-to guy to direct feel-good stories of true story triumphs in the face of adversity, a staple of their live-action stable of films produced for the apparent sole purpose of giving high school teachers an excuse to provide their students with a distraction under the pretense of educational value.  The Finest Hours fits this mold pretty precisely, and much like Gillespie’s previous film, Million Dollar Arm, the film is competent, yet unlikely to leave much of a lasting impression once the credits start rolling.

Set on and off the coast of Cape Cod in 1952, The Finest Hours opens on the romantic entanglement and eventual engagement of Bernie (Chris Pine, as wooden as his namesake), a coastguardsman, and Miriam (Holliday Grainger), a "strong female character" who makes up for lack of agency with a pointless amount of screentime.  When an immense storm tears an oil tanker in half just off the coast, Bernie is sent to retrieve the crewmen of the ship and leave his fiancée behind for what appears to be a suicide mission.  Meanwhile, the crew of the tanker, led by the ship’s chief engineer (Casey Affleck, as forgettable as ever), fights to survive as the remains of the ship slowly submerge.

The film’s biggest problem is that it tries to split its running time evenly between the two plots, except without proper proportional investment given to either side.  Gillespie seems to want the Bernie/Miriam romance to be the emotional center of the film, yet the two aren’t much further developed that stock archetypes, and watching Bernie struggle against waves in his rescue boat starts to wear thin after watching it for nearly the entire last hour of the film.  Conversely, the more interesting action takes place on the sinking tanker, yet none of the characters on that ship are invested with much, if any, distinguishing characteristics, making them hard to care about or relate to.  This makes the two hour runtime of the film drag on interminably, since the film doesn’t place its emotional investment where it matters.

Yet, despite my glib commentary on the actors, their performances are actually decently serviceable given the trite circumstances of the script and their characterization in it.  They’re all eminently watchable and the production values of the film are on par with just about any natural disaster flick of recent memory, with computer generated waves bringing a functional level of distress to the table.  But ultimately, this is a bland piece of January theater fodder, a film that Disney produced and likely regretted once it saw the final product, and given their usual high standards for their output, this merely functions as a tedious distraction.  If you’re looking for a bare minimum of watchability, The Finest Hours serves that function, because nothing about it is blatantly awful; it’s just that nothing about it is particularly good either.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

"Sunset Song": Pretentious As It Is Dull

Now In Theaters
It’s rare that I get angry at the films I review, even when the film is poorly made, thematically problematic, or even blatantly trading on offensive stereotypes.  Sunset Song is a film that made me mad though, because it has the lofty expectation that its faux-artistic pageantry will be interpreted by its audience as intellectual and deep, when in fact there is next to nothing under the surface of what I hesitate to call this film’s story.  I usually try to avoid using the word “pretentious” (though I admittedly sometimes fail at that) due to my ironically self-important pen name, but there is simply no better word for it.  Sunset Song is about as pretentious as film-making gets, and I absolutely hate that.

There isn’t so much a plot to Sunset Song as there are shallow characters interacting within a setting in various modes of meaningless conflict and banality.  Our protagonist is Chris Guthrie, a young woman on a cusp of adulthood living under the roof of her abusive father in the Scottish highlands in the early twentieth century.  The entire first half of the film is nothing but a series of tragedies, abandonments, and abuses, as Chris’s mom kills herself and her siblings all leave home to escape their tyrannical patriarch.  This concludes with the father having a stroke and Chris purposely ignoring his needs so that he dies.  What could have been a satisfying abuse survivor’s arc is muted by the fact that we never get much of a look into Chris’s, or anyone else’s, personality, so the players move around the stage like dolls in a dollhouse, acting out tragedy with all the nuance of a first-grade play.

But that isn’t where the film ends.  The entire second act is about Chris’s courtship by a local man, Ewan, who eventually marries her and becomes the father of her child.  The second act of any film is supposed to function as the escalation of conflict, the point in the film where stakes are raised and the protagonist is faced with their toughest challenges.  Here all sense of conflict fizzles away, leaving a dry and protracted stretch in the middle that is well-suited to anyone hoping for a nap.  When the film finally does bring in some third act drama by way of Ewan’s enlistment in the army during World War I, it feels unearned and self-contradictory, simultaneously enabling scenes where Ewan abuses Chris in ways similar to how her father did and excusing his behavior by alluding to his fear of death on the front lines.  Notice that I don’t mention Chris’s character development, because other than her apparent ability to suffer at the hands of the men in her life, she doesn’t have much of a character at all; Ewan is as close to a fully realized character as we get, and he isn’t the principal focus.  The climax of the film is all about his actions and how Chris accepts them, turning what is ostensibly a coming-of-age tale into a neutered telling of how passive acceptance is the key to adulthood, and I think to call that message intentional would give the film too much credit.

All of this shallowness is dressed up in a forced theatricality, complete with nebulously opaque character voiceovers, overlong shots that convey pathetically simple ideas, and actors staring directly into the camera.  I confess that I am not familiar with writer-director Terence Davies’s previous work, but for how much acclaim the man receives this is a shockingly amateur attempt at cinematic artistry.  Sunset Song is nothing but award-baiting style laid over a story that doesn’t amount to anything character-driven or symbolically significant, at least not how it is told here.  That is the definition of pretension.

Monday, May 23, 2016

"Cartel Land": Bravery Bogged Down By Distraction

Now Available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Netflix

The fact that Cartel Land was nominated for a Best Feature Documentary Oscar is both concerning and makes complete sense.  Normally that combination would signal a problem with the Academy’s selection process, and while that is what could be going on here, that’s not the entire picture.  Cartel Land is at times an incredibly proficient piece of documentarian storytelling, but at other times it feels amateur and directionless, wandering away from its central thesis into a point that it never fully develops, if that point even existed in the first place.

The running theme of the film is of vigilantism in the face of the Mexican drug cartels, primarily as seen through the eyes of the Autodefensas, a group founded in the Mexican state of Michoacán by Dr. Josė Mirales.  The film does a great job of portraying the Autodefensas in both positive and negative lights, whether it be in the impact they have on the cartels’ grip on local communities or on the way the soldiers among their ranks are flawed people who might not be the most deserving or trustworthy when given a gun and free reign to hunt bad guys.  The character study of Mirales himself is particularly interesting, as he supposedly sacrifices closeness with his family in order to fight for the cause and yet uses his power to seduce younger women.

But the main reason I think this film was Oscar nominated was because it obviously was very dangerous to shoot, and documentarian Matthew Heineman often chooses to face that danger head on.  There are multiple firefights caught on film that Heineman is directly involved in, with frantic Autodefensa members telling him to get down and out of the way.  The devotion to the craft is admirable, as is the willingness to look at the bloody aftermath of the firefights and the devastation of the families whose loved ones were caught in the crossfire.  That said, the film strangely decides to censor itself during certain moments, like a scene in an Autodefensa “prison camp” where people can clearly be heard being tortured in the background, but the camera instead chooses to focus on a more benign interrogation.  It isn’t that I’m eager to watch someone be tortured, and perhaps the openness of the Autodefensas to be captured on film only extends so far, but it felt odd at the very least given the lack of restraint earlier in the film.

The film’s biggest problem, though, is its insistence on cutting back to an American vigilante group, the Arizona Border Recon (ABR).  This is an extremist group that hunts down people trying to cross the border from Mexico into Arizona, but the film never presents any evidence to suggest that their actions are having any impact on cartel trade.  Heineman isn’t shy about showing how the members of this group are generally motivated by racism and misplaced economic frustrations rather than the drug trade, so it’s more than a little baffling why he decides to spend so much time on them.  If he is seeking to make a contrasting statement about the ABR against a more morally reasonable Autodefensa, the film is not edited in such a way to suggest it; likewise, if he was trying to compare the two, the comparison feels completely disingenuous based on their different mission statements.  It feels like Heineman shot his footage with the ABR and then didn’t know how to make it thematically fit with the rest of his film, yet decided to include it anyway.

Cartel Land still has plenty to offer as a look into the Autodefensas, even if it shies away from the odd moment of brutality.  It was clearly a work of intense labor and dedication, and I think that is what the Academy was trying to honor with its nomination.  But I honestly can’t wrap my mind around why its second vigilantic focus is even here, and that keeps the hard work from entirely paying off.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

"The Witch (2016)": A Brilliantly Nontraditional Horror Story

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

The Witch is an excellent film that a lot of people are likely going to dismiss either because it is a horror film or because it does not meet their expectations of what a horror film should be.  To the former, I understand the hesitation but strongly advise giving this one a shot, and to the latter, I also understand your feelings, but you aren’t looking at the film in a broad enough context.  Not only is this a horror film, but it’s a family drama, a period piece, and a social commentary on the harms of religious zealotry all rolled into one, and it succeeds at each of those roles with a shocking degree of skill and insight from first-time writer-director Robert Eggers.

Set in 17th century New England, William is exiled from his Puritan village for being a religious extremist (a hell of an accomplishment), forcing him, his wife, and five children to venture out into a nearby forest to take a stab at living off the land.  However, strange occurrences start to happen to the family, like the disappearance of their infant child, the failure of their crops for no readily discernible reason, and the young twin children claiming to speak to the family ram.  What’s disconcerting about each of these circumstances is that they all exist within the realm of possibility as non-supernatural happenings, yet the paranoia and desperation of the family members causes them to turn upon one another.

The film succeeds not as a traditional vehicle of jump-scares and psychological pressures, but instead exudes a ceaseless feeling of dread, like a nightmare that none of the characters can escape from and, therefore, neither can we as the audience.  There are unquestionably paranormal circumstances fueling the family’s self-destructive paranoia, but it is ultimately that paranoia that tears them apart.  It’s a slow, painful burn that is hard to watch but impossible to look away from, in no small part due to some excellent performances and attention to bleak historical detail.

And while it is probably hyperbolic to call the story a morality play, there are definite overtures to the follies of religious extremism.  The two oldest children are poorly equipped to deal with their burgeoning sexuality in isolation from non-family members, and William is a poor example of a patriarch, incapable of supporting his family through hunt or agriculture, yet blaming his ineptitude on the will of the devil and his servants.  There is no question that this family is doomed from the start; the only question is who is to blame, and even with the film’s conceit of real creatures that go bump in the night, the answer is obvious.

The Witch is a thankfully short film, clocking in under ninety minutes in order to make its point succinctly and leave you to ponder the gravity of what you just saw.  The ending is likely to be polarizing, but I think it works fine, even if it does leave some previous ambiguities a little too well explained.  But in the eighty minutes preceding that, this is a tense, thought-provoking piece of contemplative fiction that will stick with you for a long time.  Terror doesn’t necessarily reside in what we don’t understand or what lurks in the shadows; sometimes we understand all too well what threatens us and can do little to stop it.  That is a much more unsettling thought.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

"Me Before You": The Fetishization of Disability

In Theaters on June 3, 2016

The billionaire boyfriend is a trope of romantic fiction that I don’t particularly enjoy, but I completely understand why it exists.  For many, primarily the straight female demographic, their preferred brand of escapist entertainment revolves around a loving relationship that enables adventures through economic privilege, and yeah, companionship and financial security are certainly worthy of romanticism.  However, in the past decade or so, the popular notion of romantic fiction has become increasingly problematic, with writers using gimmicks to mix up the stale formula of straight romance without having to put effort into characters or story.  Me Before You is atypical in how it sets itself apart, but its exploitation of disability for dramatic tension raises a whole other set of issues while still remaining surprisingly typical of modern trends in romantic fiction.

Louisa Clark (played by Emelia Clarke, trying to build a post-Game of Thrones career for herself by being as overly expressive as possible) is a woman in her twenties, living at home with her parents and in desperate need of a job.  She is hired by the wealthy Traynor family to look after their quadriplegic son Will, a former businessman who was paralyzed after being struck by a motorcycle (and played by Sam Claflin, whose acting talents seem to be limited to being conventionally handsome, an ability to smirk, and not moving).  When Louisa discovers that Will plans to kill himself at the end of six months, she enacts a plan to cheer him up by taking him out on dates and adventures, which in turn causes the two to fall in love.

What I actually admire about the film is that the question of bodily autonomy is never wrested from Will’s control; he is the ultimate judge of how and when he should die, and when everyone he loves disagrees with him, he is still allowed to make that choice for himself.  However, there are two disturbing trends in the portrayal of the disabled of popular fiction: that disabled people wish to relieve their loved ones of the burden of their existence, and that suicide is a reasonable, even preferable, alternative to living with a disability.  Me Before You is guilty of both tropes, which serves to dehumanize disabled people by reducing them to nothing more than their disability.  And besides a sense of perpetual smugness, that all Will's character is: a caricature of disability that other characters, primarily Louisa, react to with varying degrees of pity and paternalism.

What I find more distressing, though, is how the film blatantly uses Will’s disability as a shorthand for chastity fetishism.  Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey have popularized chastity fetishism by substituting sexual attraction with attraction to danger, which leads to problematic romanticism of physical and emotional abuse.  Me Before You takes the opposite tactic, by making Will so nonthreatening that he can’t even be conceived of as a sexual being.  His relationship with Louisa has no chance of sexual culmination (at least according to the logic of the film), so Louisa is free of the usual pressures placed upon women in relationships and therefore can pursue Will without being concerned that she will be expected to consummate their love.  This is exemplified by the fact that the film’s most romantic scenes (and a few comic ones) are of Louisa acting as a caretaker, and that Louisa doesn’t even bother to break up with her current monogamous boyfriend as she spends more and more time with Will.  Again, I understand the appeal of a platonic, nonsexualized romance, but it cannot come at the expense of the dignity to either party of the relationship, and Will’s portrayal deprives dignity to an entire class of disabled persons.

What’s perhaps most frustrating about the film is that there is actually some talent behind the camera.  Screenwriter (and author of the original novel) Jojo Moyes is clearly more comfortable with prose than writing for a visual medium, but director Thea Sharrock has a strong enough understanding of visual metaphor and engaging shot composition that it’s hard to say the film isn’t well made in spite of its overly expository script.  Yet on a base thematic level the proceedings are repugnant to anyone willing to devote a few brain cells to deduce why this film might be offensive to the disabled community.  This makes a competent romance film fall infuriatingly flat, and only time will tell if audiences will rightly reject this ableist story or embrace it along with the other chastity porn of the modern age.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

"The Nice Guys": Convention Breeds Great Character

In Theaters on May 20, 2016

Action comedies and buddy detective flicks are a dime a dozen, so it makes sense that the genre is so steeped in convention that filmmakers would struggle to find anywhere new to go with it.  That isn’t to say that convention is necessarily a bad thing, but it can very often encourage laziness on the part of directors, writers, and studios aiming simply to make a quick buck.  That’s why it’s so encouraging to see that The Nice Guys knows how to make its adherence to convention work to its benefit, by allowing some great characters to navigate a familiar, yet not too familiar, detective story that feels timeless despite its 1970s period setting.

Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is an enforcer hired by a young woman named Amelia to stop a couple of hired thugs from following her around.  This leads him to the door of private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling), whom Healy mistakes as one of the goons and breaks his arm.  When the real thugs track Healy down and assault him in his apartment, Healy reunites with an understandably pissed off March and hires him to help track down the missing Amelia, whom March had been searching for anyway on another case.  The unlikely pair unravel a labyrinthine plot of murder and intrigue, but less because of any skill or expertise than improbable coincidence and their increasingly lucky ineptitude.

Structurally, this is a pretty traditional buddy detective story, which is why it is such a relief to see that the two leads manage to carry the film so well as such well-defined characters.  Neither Crowe nor Gosling are known for comedic acting, yet both acquit themselves exceedingly well, with Crowe’s put-upon world-weary Healy acting as a perfect straight man to the goofier, distractible and incompetently alcoholic March.  Gosling displays an impressive talent for physical comedy, but some of the film’s best moments derive from just hearing these two characters bounce off one another as March’s teenage daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) watches with a mixture of disgust, frustration, and amusement as the suitable audience surrogate.

Surprisingly enough, the film allows some heavier, less frantic moments to creep into the second act, revealing some dark backstory for our anti-heroes that neither feels out of place nor unnecessary to understanding these characters.  It rounds out their arcs nicely, even if those arcs feel somewhat anticlimactic in a third act that is less about what Healy and Marsh have learned than it is about their ridiculous case coming to a ridiculously violent head.

And over-the-top violence is just how this film keeps the laughs coming.  More than the witty banter or the pratfalls, The Nice Guys director and co-writer Shane Black has a keen understanding of how to use violence to shock an audience into incredulous laughter.  Those laughs are sometimes nonstop as the film flits from one joke to the next in a brilliant juxtaposition of noir sensibilities to the sunnier, yet no less dark, climate of Los Angeles.  What results is a great, if not quite transcendent, comedy with characters that, assuming the same creative talent is at the helm, I wouldn’t mind in the least revisiting in a sequel.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

"Where To Invade Next": Entertaining But Alienating

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

It isn’t a controversial statement to say that Michael Moore is a controversial filmmaker.  Love him or hate him, though, it’s hard to deny that the man has a passion for his work and for the home country he so often criticizes in the hopes that his contribution will make it a better place.  However, even people who agree with his political leanings, myself included, can find his antics and particular cinematic style to be self-congratulatory and a bit alienating to those who need the most convincing.  Where to Invade Next is a clever title for a film that is primarily about “invading” social and economic policies of other developed countries in Europe and (gasp) Africa, but Moore still his obnoxious self at the end of the day, so whether you enjoy this documentary and fully absorb its educational contents will depend largely on how much you like, or even can simply tolerate, Michael’s shenanigans.

Moore makes a travelogue of adventures to countries such as Italy, France, Finland, Germany, Tunisia, and Iceland to name a few, seeking to learn what he can about their successes in worker’s rights, publicly funded education, prisoners’ rights, women’s rights, and other metrics by which various countries excel compared to the United States, the self-proclaimed greatest country in the world.  Moore brings up good points about how the U.S. does not like to acknowledge the problematic aspects of its heritage, and how we are a people more focused on individualistic advancement than on community benefit and compassion, and he makes a compelling case that, even if the United States doesn’t adopt the exact models of these studied nations, the path we persist on traveling can only result in negative consequences.

However, Moore is true to form in being a documentarian more concerned with spectacle than responsibility.  He gained his claim to fame by making popular documentaries that sensationalized his subject matter and delivered a pointed and opinionated perspective, which works primarily to rally those who already believe in what you’re saying.  What Moore fails to do, in other documentaries as well as in this one, is defend against counterarguments in any way that doesn’t outright dismiss them, if he even deigns to acknowledge that a counterargument exists at all.  There are likely logistical and cultural reasons why many foreign social policies wouldn’t translate one-to-one if transplanted to the U.S., but Moore isn’t interested in that.  Instead, he’d rather put himself in front of the camera, putting on a hackneyed shtick about how he’s learning right along with us how much better these other countries have it; that’s a level of naiveté he should really know better than to assume of his audience.

As Moore himself says in an early voiceover, he’s “only interested in picking the flowers, not picking the weeds.”  Unfortunately, Mr. Moore, if you plan to be honest with your audience, you have to show them the negative aspects of the policies you advocate, otherwise you are selling saccharine half-truths just as much as the politicians you rally against.  Where to Invade Next is far from unengaging, and is rather educational when you get right down to it.  However, it’s important to keep in mind that the man behind (and in front of) the camera has an agenda, and whether you agree with that agenda or not, reporting all the relevant facts is his responsibility as a documentarian.  If you’re Moore’s kind of liberal, prepare to have your opinions validated.  If you aren’t, then I highly doubt this film will convince you otherwise, which is a shame.  I really wish it could have.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

"Money Monster": Cathartic Despite Itself

In Theaters on May 13, 2016

It only makes sense and was, quite frankly, inevitable that a film like Money Monster would come out in 2016, and I’m actually somewhat surprised that it didn’t come sooner.  The American public has never been more disillusioned about corruption within the financial sector, so a film that plays to that sense of disempowerment through wish-fulfilling catharsis is a no-brainer for reasonably sizable public appeal on a modest budget that could turn an easy profit for whatever studio wanted to back such a project.  The result is a veritable mixed bag; some elements work, others don’t, but it’s easy to see why some will gravitate towards this movie.

Set almost entirely on the set of a fictional stock advice show, Lee Gates (George Clooney, who can play a charismatic douchebag in his sleep) hosts said show when one day, a viewer, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell, an impressively versatile talent) hijacks the live broadcast with a gun and a bomb vest strapped to Lee’s chest.  Kyle is a working class guy upset that Lee gave him bad investment advice on the show, as an immensely profitable company mysteriously lost a lot of money, causing their stock value to plummet.  When it becomes clear to Lee that there’s something happening behind the scenes, he works with his producer (Julia Roberts, decent) to uncover what exactly happened that screwed over so many investors, all while live on the air and with an erratic gunman to keep mollified.

Here’s the biggest problem: there is never any mystery about what happened to the money.  The particulars don’t really matter; the CEO of the company is so heavily telegraphed as being guilty of some misbehavior that his protestations of his company’s transparency have an unintentionally comical double meaning.  For a film that clearly wants to frame itself as a conspiracy thriller, the conspiracy is laughably thin.  This may be why director Jodie Foster made such a concerted effort to keep the film from getting too serious, as she has an impeccable knack for deflating any mounting tension with the most improperly timed attempts at comic relief.  It’s an odd choice to simultaneously try to keep us invested in a hostage situation while throwing out quips and banter, and it never quite finds the right balance to make any of it tonally coherent.

However, when the film does opt to take itself and its central theme of corporate corruption seriously, it can deliver.  Clooney and Roberts give pretty damn good performances, even managing to have less-than-awkward character arcs that only feel natural because the two have such good chemistry that they don’t even have to spend most of the film in the same room.  O’Connell, though, is the breakout star here, effectively conveying a surrogate for the film’s target demographic; working class folks who are frustrated, desperate, and just in need of some god damn answers.  He is the main reason that in select moments, the film’s tension becomes very real, which ultimately drives home the point that real people’s lives are ruined in similar (though admittedly less cartoonishly simple) financial schemes all the time.

So, in the end, Money Monster is a bit of a wash.  Taken as a whole, the film is a bit of a mess, but certain moments work really well and effectively communicate the film’s thesis.  I don’t expect this movie to be a huge financial success, being released just one week after the juggernaut of Captain America, but I expect that it is going to resonate with those who do go to see it, despite some glaring faults.  I can’t say I think that it’s worth the price of a theater ticket, but I’m pretty sure that there will be quite a few who disagree with me, based on the cathartic feeling the film was designed to evoke.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

"Deadpool": Fox's X-Men Spin-Off is a Winner

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Sometimes it happens that I don’t see a big tentpole film right when it comes out in theaters, even if it is apparently good and pretty much everyone else I know has told me to go out and see the damn thing.  Deadpool is one of those films.  I like the character just fine, but I’m just not enough of a fan to want to go out and see the film on day one, and due to the film’s success I knew that I would see it eventually.  I definitely wasn’t going to change anyone’s mind with my opinion, but after having finally now seen the movie, I don’t think I have to.  Deadpool is good.  Not amazing.  Not groundbreaking.  Just a lot of fun.

I think the smartest thing about Deadpool is that it understands that its title character works well in digestible chunks.  For the uninitiated, Deadpool’s entire shtick is that he is the ultraviolent Bugs Bunny of the Marvel universe; he cracks wise and kicks ass with wild acrobatics and occasionally breaks the fourth wall by commenting on how absurd comic book antics actually are.  It’s a fun gag, but it would definitely get old if the film didn’t go out of its way to give humanity to Deadpool beyond his swordplay and juvenile humor.

Told in flashbacks that intercut the film’s first big action setpiece, we see Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) before and during his transformation into Deadpool, how he changes from a wisecracking mercenary to a rapidly healing mutant under the ministrations of a scientist claiming to altruistically cure his cancer.  The powerlessness-to-torture-to-revenge arc has been seen before in quite a few films, superhero or otherwise, but the film’s adherence to convention seems to primarily play into the need to tell jokes and to let the actors do their thing.  The crux of Wade’s relatability lies in his relationship with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), and the two have a definite chemistry that could easily make one forget that this is primarily a bloody action flick.

And bloody is the operative word here, because this is definitely not a kid’s superhero film, even if the prime audience for it is probably teenagers looking to feel more adult by laughing at the bloodsport and sexual innuendo.  The jokes are almost uniformly funny, and the violence, though discernably low budget (for a superhero film), is creative and often absurdly hilarious in its own right.  This works mainly because Deadpool has two comedic foils on loan from the X-Men as he dismembers bad guys: Colossus, who acts as a moralistic big brother who inexplicably tries to convince Deadpool that he can still be a good guy; and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, a representative of the film’s teenage demographic that ironically isn’t amused with his antics.  Deadpool snarking in a vacuum would likely have become obnoxious, but when he’s bouncing off these two broad antitheses to everything he stands for, their reactions are perhaps the biggest reason why the jokes land at all.

If you can’t tell, I had a lot of fun with Deadpool, and that’s obviously entirely by design.  It isn’t a groundbreaking origin movie or even a terribly novel concept, since R-rated action comedies aren’t exactly new, but it knows what it’s trying to do and does it well.  Smart scripting and some great performances sustain a movie that could otherwise have been dead on arrival.  I may not be an especially big fan of the merc with the mouth, but I do look forward to seeing if Fox can maintain this momentum with the inevitable sequel.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

"Experimenter": History Overrules Traditional Biopic Drama

Now Available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Netflix

Frequent readers of this blog undoubtedly know my feelings on the biopic genre of film, how it has stagnated into a state of formula that tries to force the life story of every individual with the least amount of public notoriety into the mold of a three act structure, whether the story fits that inspirational model or not.  Consequently, good biopics are hard to find these days, and the ones that do work are the ones that are more about specific events than the emotional journeys of the people who shaped them.  Experimenter is a great example of a step in that direction.  It admittedly is subject to some pitfalls of its genre, but this is a film that knows where the heart of its story resides and isn’t afraid to defy convention to show it to us.

Experimenter is the story of the famous obedience experiments conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram (an appropriately clinical Peter Sarsgaard).  The goal of the experiment was to determine to what extent subjects would act in deference to a perceived authority, administering what they believed to be increasing electric shocks to a fellow test subject (in reality an actor who was in on the experiment) at the behest of an insistent official.  The shocks were not real, but the ethics of the psychological impact on the test subject have been debated to this day, though the study’s findings about the pliability of human will are also relevantly discussed with just as much fervor.

What the film does right is that it is primarily about the tests themselves and about the impact of those tests in the following decades.  The first act is almost entirely within the testing room, and we see test subjects react in a multitude of ways, yet almost always they end up giving the maximum voltage shock to their victim at the behest of the experimenter.  A central question that the narrative poses is what the line is between our self-perception and what our reality actually is: how far would any of us actually go to remain deferent to authority and how much of our individuality is a lie?  A fascinating technique the film uses to communicate this non-verbally is to have Milgram monologue directly into the camera and to set the film against obviously artificial backdrops, using the obvious fiction of cinema to emphasize the surreality of the story without undermining the truth of the study it presents.

There are moments, however, where the film does stumble into portraying the drama of Milgram’s personal life, and those attempts feel token, feeble, and unwelcome.  They don’t arise often and are edited in such a way as to suggest that director Michael Almereyda knows that these moments are a distraction and wants to get them out of the way as soon as possible.  It’s largely unnecessary to go through a checklist of Milgram’s other notable experiments or look in on how his marriage developed over the years, yet here we are, going through the motions of a standard biopic when both the film and, hopefully, its audience are much more interested in the man’s work than the irrelevant parts of his life.

I do want to emphasize, though, that these moments are minimized and are more likely included because of a producer’s demand than the director’s vision.  When taken as a whole, Experimenter won’t likely blow anyone’s mind, but it is an entertaining and highly stylized look at one of the most important social experiments of the twentieth century, a glimpse into the human mind at the conscious mechanisms that allowed events such as the Holocaust to happen.  And it works primarily because it does not attempt to portray Milgram as a hero on a journey; he’s just a man who conducted an important and controversial experiment, and the drama of that can speak for itself.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

"Blind": A Character Study in Metaphor

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Released in Norway in 2014 and only recently finding its way to home video release in the States, Blind is one of the most intriguing character studies I’ve seen all year.  I went into this film with a fear that ableism and exploitation of disability would be the driving force of the narrative, but thankfully, I was surprised by how thoughtful and empathetic the film was toward its newly-disabled protagonist.  Any negativity about disability is integral to the blind protagonist’s character arc, which is fantastically realized in a high-concept framing device.

Ingrid woke up one day to find a blind spot in the middle of her vision, which quickly progressed into full-on blindness.  In the aftermath of this transition, she sits alone at home all day by the window, imagining the exploits of an imaginary cast of neighbors and her husband, whom she suspects is staying with her out of pity and is hiding an adulterous double life from her.  These thoughts are visualized on-screen as what could deceptively be called the film’s A-story, as Ingrid’s imaginings take up the majority of the runtime, and cuts back to Ingrid mainly serve to remind us that what we are seeing is just what she is internally visualizing.

What’s truly interesting about these scenes are that the characters aren’t so much fully realized people as they are reflections of Ingrid’s insecurities.  No one character is meant to represent a complete feeling or concept, but their interplay functions as an insightful look into the self-pitying rut that Ingrid has run herself into.  At times the characters are shy and withdrawn, at others they let their exteriors crack to reveal something weird or different.  Her dream-husband functions as an awfulization of what she thinks her real husband is doing behind her back, visiting dating websites while in bed with her and seeing other women whom he now finds more interesting.  This all starts to come to a head with the inclusion of an imaginary blind character whom the husband starts dating, and the metaphor begins to bleed into reality.

The dreams themselves are playfully realized as well so that we aren’t simply left with a cast talking in perpetual metaphors.  As Ingrid rearranges details in her mind, details of the setting will also morph, such as one character starting out with a son and suddenly having a daughter, or a coffee shop meeting somehow ending on a bus that had been passing by the window every five seconds prior.  The dream logic is only ever intrusive in moments of comic relief, with characters stopping to figure out what has changed and nonchalantly moving on with their day.  It’s fun to play a waiting game to see what will change next and adds levity to what would otherwise be a pretty dark tale.

Blind is one of those films that most Americans will never even hear of, much less see for themselves, but the experience is well worth the time and the subtitles.  It isn’t in any way an overt commentary on disability, other than that it is possible to live a fulfilling life as a disabled person, but the casual nature by which the film treats its protagonist’s self-pity as the crux of her character arc makes this one of the best examples of disability in film I have seen.  Combine that with a really neat hook and some playful direction, and you have a film that should get more recognition than it will inevitably not receive.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

"Remember (2015)": The Drama of Dementia

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Remember feels like it draws a lot of the same exploitative inspiration that Quentin Tarantino draws from films of the 60s and 70s that focused on minority populations in broadly stereotypical ways to convey a message of empowerment for those communities.  Tarantino most notably did this with the revisionist history of Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, but Atom Egoyan’s Remember takes a different tact, focusing its lens on a modern day Holocaust survivor with Alzheimer’s.  The violent premise of the film borders on being offensive, but thankfully the film that surfaces has enough by way of subtext and intrigue to make for a rather entertaining experience.

Zev (Christopher Plummer, still performing well into is eighties) is the aforementioned Survivor, and after the death of his wife, he promises to assist his friend Max, a fellow nursing home resident, with an important task.  Max has been searching for the German officer responsible for killing their families at Auschwitz, and he has narrowed down the list of suspects to four German immigrants of appropriate age, all named Rudy Kurlander.  Because Max is restrained to a wheelchair, he sends Zev out into the world with a list of instructions to track down the right Rudy Kurlander and kill him.

This film had a lot of potential to become a mockery of those suffering from dementia, but thankfully Zev is portrayed respectfully and sympathetically.  He isn’t a man who really wants to kill, but he feels obliged to in order to avenge his family, and Max’s goading and the death of his wife are the impetus to make that happen.  Plummer does a pretty great job of conveying a complexity in Zev that makes him more than a bumbling old archetype.  However, that doesn’t mean the people around him don’t see him as one, either thinking him incompetent or harmless due to his age, which is precisely why he is able to buy a gun, cross the Canadian border without a passport, and even have his hidden weapon discovered by a security guard without consequence or struggle.  It’s a smart commentary on the assumptions that people in authority will make when dealing with an unassuming white octogenarian, even when he presents a clear danger to others.

But the film does have an issue of hiccupping its way to the finish line, which is a shame given the short ninety minute runtime.  It’s primarily a symptom to the Egoyan’s need to redundantly hammer home the fact that Zev is forgetful.  There are too many scenes of Zev waking up, not knowing where he is, calling Max, and recovering enough memory to continue on his journey.  Given the character, these revelatory moments make sense, but for the audience it quickly becomes tiresome, redundant, and rarely offers any new insight or plot progression.  Making note of constant amnesiac episodes is fine, but dwelling on them for five to ten minutes at a time in order to pad the film is excessive.

The film culminates in a tense encounter with the final Rudy Kurlander that I won’t spoil, but I will say hinges upon a twist that I did not see coming, though I knew one was inevitable given how memory loss is generally handled in cinema.  It’s a fairly clever conclusion that proved some of my assumptions completely wrong, which makes for a pretty nice cherry on top of a film that I feel comfortable recommending.  If it were longer, I would likely find the somewhat redundant storytelling a bit more tedious, but there’s enough tension and social commentary held up by a pretty good lead performance to make the film justifiably worth your time.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

"Son of Saul": Sounds Better on Paper

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Right from its conception, Son of Saul is a difficult and problematic film to make.  Set entirely within Auschwitz at the height of Nazi power, writer-director László Nemes had the distinct problem of doing justice to the atrocity of the situation and the horrifying acts that took place there, yet as an entertainer ran the risk of exploiting that tragedy for the sake of his art.  It’s a lose-lose scenario that he attempts to solve by placing the camera almost always on his protagonist; we rarely catch a direct glimpse of the horrors of Auschwitz, but we are constantly reminded by the sounds of genocide lingering just outside the frame.  However, I’m not entirely convinced that solving that problem makes for a great film, despite an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The titular Saul is a Sonderkommando, a Jewish prisoner forced into slave labor in order to keep the death camp operational, primarily to dispose of the bodies of his people.  One day in the morgue, he comes across a child whom he recognizes as his son, and he decides that the best thing he can do for the child is give him a proper Jewish burial.  He endeavors to find a rabbi to conduct the burial rights, distractedly forsaking a resistance movement he is ostensibly a part of.

As a character study, the film is downright fascinating.  This is a man who has lost everything, and the film even posits that the dead child whom he is risking everything for may not even be his son at all.  But to focus on whether Saul is actually the boy's father or is simply deluding himself is to miss the point.  He has found a purpose, and even if it gets him killed, he wants to fulfill that purpose in a place that seems to offer him no purpose other than to perish.  The camera focuses on him not just as a device of carnal censorship, but as a demonstration of his narrow focus, the way he copes with his environment by shutting out the madness, only to find a mad drive within himself to compensate during what could very well be the last day of his life.

It’s just such a shame that the movie doesn’t give us much to look at as a consequence.  It’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario; by eliminating the problem of exploitative visuals by focusing almost entirely on Saul’s facial expressions and his interactions with Nazi officers and other prisoners, the film spends a sizable amount of its runtime following the back of Saul’s head.  It’s a poor use of the medium, an attempt to use visual storytelling to tell a story that is better left unshown.  This is a grand story for the written word, which would have the added benefit of insight into Saul thought processes.  Instead, we have to read Saul’s face in what is, admittedly, a greatly understated performance by Géza Röhrig, but it just doesn’t carry the film as well as it needs to.

It’s not hard to see why this film won its Oscar.  It’s a film about one of the greatest tragedies in history shot in an interesting fashion that makes it a distinct contender against more conventional entries.  And yes, there is certainly a lot to like about the premise, the protagonist, the plot twists, and even the reasoning for its cinematographic choices.  However, it’s just not as engaging as it should be, and it pains me to say that I didn’t enjoy it very much.  Sometimes the best concepts on paper just don’t work as well on film.