Saturday, June 25, 2016

"Phoenix (2015)": Built Upon Unsettling Depths

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Phoenix ended up on a lot of critics’ top ten lists last year, and it’s really not hard to see why.  Psychological thrillers are a dime a dozen, but few aim for the heights that were reached by Alfred Hitchcock and succeed in not only emulating his style but in creating a new genre classic in its own right.  However, the average American moviegoer has probably not been exposed to Phoenix, due to it being a German film that is almost entirely in that country’s native language.  Let me assure you that Phoenix is well worth watching even with the potentially annoying subtitles, particularly if you are a fan of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Set in 1945 post-war Germany, Nelly (Nina Hoss) has just been released from a concentration camp, suffering from a bullet wound to her face.  The injury requires reconstructive surgery, leaving her with a slightly different appearance than before, making her difficult to recognize.  Upon renting an apartment with her best friend, Nelly seeks out her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), whom she still loves but may or may not have been responsible for turning her over to the Nazis.  When he sees her, he does not recognize her, but thinks she is similar enough to his presumably dead wife to emulate her and collect her dead family’s inheritance.

What follows is a tense series of performances wherein we see layers of deception unfold.  Nelly must pretend to not be herself in order to get close to her husband, but then must also meet Johnny’s expectations of how he remembers Nelly moving and behaving, which is not entirely accurate to how Nelly now is or ever was.  The depths of these performances, whether it is Nelly’s vacillations between longing for her husband and meek subservience to his instruction, or Johnny’s ambiguously fond remembrances of his lost wife mingling with his lust for her inheritance, are truly engrossing, and it makes for a stellar character study that couldn’t have worked but for some amazing acting.

The cinematography is similarly astounding and encapsulates the emotional turmoil from scene to scene, even when all that is happening is two leads talking about their attempted ruse.  Scenes where Nelly feels trapped take place in cramped quarters, and scenes where she feels close again to the love of her life exist in wide open, idyllic date spots.  The film culminates in a fantastically shot scene that is inevitably how the film must have ended, but is done entirely without dialogue, relying only on visual cues and subtle changes in the actors’ faces.  It ends a bit abruptly without a glimpse at the fallout of those final moments, but it is an ending that still works incredibly well.

I wouldn’t go so far to say that this is retroactively one of my favorite films from last year, but it does stand out to me as an incredibly well-made piece of film-making that deserves its due with American audiences.  It doesn’t revolutionize the thriller and its biggest claim to fame is its allusions to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but it stands well on its own and achieves its goal of unsettling its audience with a tale of layered identity and potential betrayal.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Saturday, June 18, 2016

"Hello My Name Is Doris": A Great Dramedy Without Many Laughs

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Michael Showalter, co-director of Wet Hot American Summer, is no stranger to comedy, and he is arguably one of the funniest performers/directors working today, depending on whether his absurdist sensibilities jive with your sense of humor.  It’s weird, then, to see him co-write (with Laura Terruso) and direct something like Hello, My Name is Doris, ostensibly a dramedy that functions much better as a drama than a comedy.  Mind you, it’s a very clever and witty drama, but it’s weird to see how it doesn’t make much of an effort to tell any jokes beside the one central to its premise.

Doris, played by a perfectly cast Sally Field, is a woman in her sixties who never left home and worked in a cubicle job to support her hoarder mother.  The film opens on her mother’s funeral, which coincides with the arrival of a new, young co-worker whom Doris becomes obsessively infatuated with.  His name is John (Max Greenfield), and Doris becomes determined to woo this younger man, studying up on his interests and making every attempt to overcome her shy and awkward ways in order to pursue this impossible relationship.

The running gag of the film is an observation of John’s social circles and how the hipster class doesn’t actually offer anything to society beyond their egocentricity and appropriative attitudes.  Doris is absorbed into the group as a novelty, a relic of a bygone era that the idiots can fawn over for being an “original” while they make casual comments about how their bizarre projects are the new best thing ever and how visiting LGBT spaces really allows them to open up as straight people.   There is some cutting observational commentary at play here, and the absurdity of it feels very reminiscent of Showalter’s time in the comedy trio Stella, yet it never feels like there’s a punchline, probably because the world of Doris is much more grounded in reality than Showalter’s usual settings.

But that groundedness is precisely why the dramatic portions of Doris work so well.  Doris is a fascinating character to study, a woman whose emotional development was stunted by a need to care for her (probably) mental ill mother, and now, way past the prime of her life and in need of a new purpose, she regresses back to young adulthood, even though she’s about forty years too late to the party.  Simultaneously, she’s a reflection of her mother’s self-destructive behaviors, a hoarder and obsessive who can’t let go of the past, even as she makes every attempt to move forward.  Field carries this film with the strength of her performance, making Doris perhaps the most empathetic stalker to grace the screen, a pathetic figure whom we gradually start to realize is more complex than an original off-putting impression may demonstrate. 

In fact, Doris’s dramatic character moments stand in such contrast to the lighter moments that this may be why the film doesn’t come across as all that funny.  It’s a cute film to be sure, and as a character study it is both endearing and heartbreaking.  It’s just important to keep in mind that the usual laughs that accompany Showalter’s other work are largely absent, even if the light tone of some scenes may suggest otherwise.  But that’s okay, because Hello, My Name is Doris is a film that works well for what it is, despite potential expectations to the contrary.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Jafar Panahi's "Taxi": Art Against All Adversity

Now Available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Netflix

Director Jafar Panahi is an incredible figure in Iranian cinematic history.  In 2010, the Iranian government forbade him from further filmmaking in reaction to films that they perceived as critical of their regime and an immoral portrayal of the everyday people of Iran.  They arrested him under a charge of propaganda and kept him under house arrest, along with his wife, children, and an assortment of friends and colleagues.  However, this did not prevent Panahi from making films, as he made two films while under house arrest, and now, at the risk of suffering his government’s wrath, Panahi ventures outside the confines of his home to film Taxi.

Shot as a documentary but self-admittedly staged and meta-commentative, Taxi sees a poorly disguised Panahi driving around Teheran, providing assistance and rides to those who require his services.  Some recognize who is he is, others don’t, and every conversation is a different story to tell.  In essence, the film is a series of dramatic vignettes, captured in the cramped space of the taxi cab.  Some are heartbreaking, some are comic, but all are a struggle for Panahi to stretch his artistic muscles as a director under the watchful eyes of his government.

What makes this film so interesting is that it is not afraid to be blunt and direct about how Panahi has been unjustly persecuted.  The latter half of the film involves Panahi driving around his teenage niece, who is trying to figure out how to put together a film for a school project while still following the Iranian government’s guidelines for broadcastable films.  These rules prove unrealistically contradictory and subject to the simplest of criticisms, and Panahi shows this as if to say, “You see, world?  This is what I have to deal with.  This is why I’m working with a camera on my dashboard instead of a legitimate crew and script.”  It’s told with good humor, but the film is quietly seething with the frustrations of Panahi’s unjust circumstances.

This film was smuggled out of Iran to premiere in Berlin, and received wide critical acclaim, much to the irritation of the Iranian government.  This is one of those rare instances where the contents of the film, entertaining as they might be, are nowhere near as important as the political statement implicit in the film’s existence.  Watching this film is an act of defiance against Iranian censorship practices and an implicit support of filmmakers like Jafar Panahi whose voices are restricted, if not silenced.  As of this writing it does not seem as if Panahi has suffered any publicized punishment for making this film, but I think the least we can do as an audience is watch him film and try to understand his struggles.  And yes, the film is pretty damn entertaining in its own right, though knowing the context of Panahi’s life is the primary reason why.  Consider this review your primer and take eighty minutes out of your day to watch a piece of art against adversity.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

"The Tribe": The Novelty of Nonverbalism

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

The Tribe is a singularly unique film in how it is presented and in how that presentation relates with its audience.  The film has no verbally spoken dialogue.  The only language in the film is Ukranian Sign Language.  There are no subtitles.  This means that, by purposeful design, only a very small percentage of any given audience, most usually not a single person, will be able to understand what anyone in the film is saying.  This is a bold creative move by director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, one grounded in artistic experimentalism rather than audience gratification.  However, whether that artistic purpose is achieved is very much up for debate.

To give a plot synopsis would be a disservice to the film, since the primary point is for the audience to try and deduce the story without the assistance of exposition or verbal cues.  Thankfully, the film is fairly archetypal, at least in early scenes, with the characters establishing themselves via tropes already familiar to us as connoisseurs of other cinema.  This does not make the story necessarily easy to follow, but it acts as a starting point by which we can ground this conceptually foreign experience.

And yes, at times this works remarkably well.  Even though I wasn’t able to assign names to any of the characters, I was able to figure out their relationships to one another and generally follow the beats of the story.  Even when the film later deigns to go off the rails into atypical territory, I was able to understand character motivations and know why events were unfolding as they were.  Even the setting, a boarding school for the deaf, caused the surrounding community’s non-verbal gesturing to make sense, even if it did stretch the surreality of this world to its limits.

But the experiment isn’t entirely flawless in its execution.  Whether the film is meant to be obtuse or is merely hard to follow at times is unclear, but I do know that during particular scenes I was completely lost, only to catch up later without any clear understanding of what I had been missing out on.  The film is less interested in portraying deaf experience than it is in visual storytelling, so the fact that the film lost me in certain moments does not speak highly of those portions.  Furthermore, as the film enters its third act, more often than not it uses its non-verbal conceit to set-up moments of shock horror, usually in the form of shocking violence that would likely have made more immediate sense if we could understand just what dialogue led up to it.  The most egregious example of this is a scene culminating in an invasive medical procedure.  Even without words it is heartwrenching and dramatic, but it seemingly came out of nowhere and was purely present to evoke my exact visceral reaction.

Even with those caveats, though, The Tribe is worth seeing for the novelty of its experiment.  It is by no means a perfect execution of its concept and is at times blatantly manipulative of its audience, but as an exercise of cinema as artistry, I’ve seen much worse attempts to stretch a gimmicky concept to feature length proportions.  Just prepare yourself for some disturbing imagery and don’t expect to walk away loving the film.  It’s a novelty act, but at least it’s a notable one.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Snooty and Goon: "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"

Paramount Pictures

I guest starred to talk about the new Ninja Turtles movie with Snooty and Goon!  You can find the episode

"Victoria (2015)": Suffocated By Its Own Gimmick

Now Available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Netflix

By their very nature, gimmicks are designed to draw you in with no indication that what you will be receiving is of any veritable quality.  We all fall for them, even those of us who deal with them on a regular basis or even recognize them as gimmicks from the outset.  Victoria drew my attention with its gimmick of having been shot in one continuous take, and though this feat is certainly impressive, it does nothing to speak to the film’s quality and actually acts to its detriment.

Victoria is a Spanish woman, recently transplanted to Berlin and experiencing the night life one evening at a local club.  She meets four young German men who want her to hang out with them in the early morning hours.  Despite having obligations at her job the next morning, Victoria lets loose with her new friends, only to discover that they have other plans later in the evening as she is corralled into assisting them in a bank heist.

This sounds like an engaging premise, and there are certainly moments when the film shines.  Softer character moments make Victoria in particular an engrossing character, full of potential and promise as a musician, yet drawn into crime as a consequence of one too many bad decisions.  Plot critical action scenes also are a highlight of the film, particularly in how they are set up and executed over the course of one 130 minute shot, yet still remain coherent and grounded with the characters.  Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen is a force to be reckoned with, comparisons to Emmanuel Lubezki be damned.

And yet, when compared to Lubezki’s work on Birdman, a film that merely employed the illusion of a singular take through the use of clever editing, Victoria is entirely lackluster in that its singular take serves no purpose other than to be technically impressive.  The downside of a singular take in a film that traverses multiple locations is that we travel with our characters in real time, which comes together in what must have been a remarkable Rube Goldberg machine of timing and cinematographic precision, but there are extended scenes of characters walking from place to place, the actors trying their best to spice up these moments with character-revealing dialogue but to little avail.  Two-plus hours is a long time to spend a sizeable portion watching characters commute, and it completely undermines one of the direct advantages of cinematic storytelling: the compression of time.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that drama is life with all the dull bits cut out, and Victoria is the epitomization of that statement’s inverse.  By including all the dull bits, Victoria sucks the drama out of its story, and the moments when it remembers to be an entertaining film get lost in the mundane shuffle.  Let this be a lesson that gimmicks aren’t always worthwhile, even if they are technically impressive and deserving of recognition for simply having been achieved.

Friday, June 3, 2016

ANNOUNCEMENT: Writing For Substream Magazine and the Future of Pretentious Best Friend

Attentive readers of this blog may have noticed that my review of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows was taken down a couple days ago.  That is because it has since been republished HERE!  I am pleased to announce that I am now a contributing film critic at Substream Magazine!

I would like to thank everyone who has read and supported me in the two plus years that I have been writing on this blog.  Three reviews a week can be taxing at times, but I do it because I’m mildly obsessive… oh, and because all of you loyal readers!

But that begs a couple questions about the future of this blog:

Will you still write for Pretentious Best Friend?

Yes!  There is nothing preventing me from writing for this blog while writing for Substream.  I actually plan to link to all my Substream articles from this blog, so even if you aren’t an avid reader of Substream Magazine (which you quite frankly should be, it’s a great entertainment news site), you can still follow my reviews from here.

Will you still write three movie reviews per week?

The answer is a very soft yes.  The plan for now is to begin publishing a back catalog of articles I have written over the last few months, still maintaining an average of three posts per week.  However, between having a day job and writing for Substream, I’m not sure that this pace is sustainable in the long term.  I’m going to try my best, but I’m only human; as much as I love movies, I would like to have a life outside of them too.

Will you still be writing on current theatrical and home video releases?

Yes, though maybe not in the way you’ve been accustomed to in recent months.  Over the past few months, I have reviewed upcoming and current theatrical releases by attending advance screenings.  As a member of the press, I still get to attend these screenings, but will usually be limited to publishing my reviews for Substream, depending on what films have been assigned to me.  Therefore, Pretentious Best Friend is going to revert to primarily reviewing home video releases and anything interesting I find on Netflix.  I may still write an occasional review of a recent theatrical release exclusively for the blog, but you will primarily be able to find those on Substream.  Again, those articles will be linked to on this blog for easy access.

Will you still be guest starring on the Snooty and Goon podcast from time to time?

I’m happy to say that yes I will be, assuming that Snooty and Goon will have me.  I plan to do a better job of referring this site’s readers to episodes that I appear in.  Below is a list of those I have joined in so far, and you can expect me in their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows episode, which will go live this Sunday.

Snooty and Goon featuring Pretentious Best Friend

I think that about covers all the housecleaning.  Pretentious Best Friend is here to stay, and once again, thank you all so much for remaining loyal readers over the last couple years.  I still can’t believe my dumb opinions have kept you coming back for more.  If you have any questions, leave them in the comments below and I will answer them as promptly as possible.  Keep an eye out for more reviews coming soon, both here and at Substream Magazine!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

"Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping": Worthy of Its Ridiculous Title

In Theaters on June 3, 2016

Feature films based on SNL sketches rarely do very well, either critically or at the box office.  Usually greenlit on the premise that a particular sketch or character is popular enough to act as a box office draw, sketch-based films rarely have enough material to justify even a modest ninety minute runtime, either due to a lack of depth to the source material or a protagonist that doesn’t have enough depth to justify a character arc without overstaying their welcome; either way, the problem lies in the shallow, improvisational nature of the film’s sketch comedy roots.  The Lonely Island is a different beast entirely, though.  Their music videos premiered as SNL Digital Shorts, featuring well-written comedy songs set to really funny imagery, meaning the comedy band would suffer from no improvisational detriment in trying to work their like into a feature narrative.  Without characters per se, just goofy personas, The Lonely Island is a nebulous entity to adapt to the big screen, and yet they seemed to have pulled it off surprisingly well.

Originally rising to fame as part of boy band The Style Boyz, titular popstar Conner4Real (Andy Samberg) has since gone solo with an impressive debut that has led him to believe that he doesn’t need fellow Boyz Lawrence and Owen (Akiva Schaffer and Jorva Taccone, also directing and co-writing with Samberg).  However, upon the release of his second album, the first one made without any help from his former bandmates, Conner begins a downward spiral from the heights of celebrity.  The narrative is a fairly standard riches-to-rags morality tale shot in mockumentary style, but the formula works well at providing excuses for ludicrously staged character interactions, as well as to poke fun at the egocentricity of too-young celebrity and parody Samberg’s real life success relative to Schaffer and Taccone.

The film’s comedy comes across best during the musical numbers, which is to be expected.  The Lonely Island has always had a gift for blending self-serious idiocy with absurd antics, and the film version of them mainly provides an excuse for them to present their brand of ridiculousness on a bigger budget in the form of music videos and parodic concert performances.  These are the moments when the three feel most in their element, consistently hilarious and constantly full of frenetic energy.

The remainder of the film is more hit or miss, though thankfully with a ratio that favors the hits.  Comprised of a combination of shock celebrity cameos, observations of the absurdity of celebrity lifestyle, and generally silly dialogue, Popstar delivers the laughs fast, but not always hard.  It’s rare that a joke doesn’t at least partially land, but it’s also equally rare that a joke is gut-bustingly hilarious.  The whole affair sits somewhere between a wide smile and a chuckle, which isn’t a bad thing; you just may realize on your way out the theater that you weren’t laughing as hard as you might have expected.

Overall, though, the film is a success.  Not a revolutionary or even particularly noteworthy addition to the niche genre of mockumentary musicals, but I enjoyed it and think it is certainly worth the price of admission.  So whether you’ve been a fan of The Lonely Island for years or this is your first exposure, Popstar is great bit of light summer fun on an opening weekend without much by way of quality contenders.