Monthly Archives: May 2017

War Machine

This movie intends to satirize the American war in Afghanistan and I suppose it manages to land a few punches, but it’s so cartoonish the film gets bled of any real bite. Brad Pitt plays ‘Obama’s General’, 4-star Glen McMahon (a placeholder for Stanley McChrystal), the guy brought in to win a war his own country started, so of course when things to go to shit, he gets a disproportionate amount of the blame.

War Machine reminds us that war is won by men, but it’s the men in suits who run this MV5BMjQzMzUzNzY3Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDA5ODI0MjI@._V1_CR0,59,640,360_AL_UX477_CR0,0,477,268_AL_war, not men in uniform. Politicians run things but don’t bother to check in with the men on the ground, who are operating on the basis of “counter-insurgency”, a losing proposition each and every time. The soldiers can’t distinguish between the enemy and the people they’re trying to protect. The war is a clusterfuck but so is this lazy attempt at satire.

It looks like it was filmed with a $400 budget and the same can-do American spirit that kept sending more troops to an unwinnable war (at two hours, it’s much too long to have said so little, and not long enough to have left any impression). The voice-over is straight out of a Lifetime movie (it’s meant to be the Rolling Stone journalist who got poor McMahon fired in the end – an unnecessary and cheesy device). And Brad Pitt is doing an awful voice like he’s trying to convince you it’s not really him. It feels like a gross miscalculation on Pitt’s part: the weird growl, the caricature-ish squint, it’s all a little too much to make the General feel flesh and blood.

The script isn’t smart enough and the film offers no insight. And even though it’s a mess, it makes 2009 look kind of quaint compared to 2017, which is the most depressing sin of all.

 

Advertisements

Shut In

Mary (Naomi Watts) is a single mother caring for her severely disabled stepson, Stephen (Charlie Heaton), alone in their home ever since her husband passed. Her work as a child psychologist supports them but she’s finding it hard to keep up since Stephen is her whole life but is really only an empty shell.

Meanwhile, Mary is preoccupied with a young patient, Tom (Jacob Tremblay). He’s deaf and her work with him has gone slowly but just as she believes progress is being made, shut1his case worker is yanking him away to yet another group home. Tom has bounced around in the foster care system and Mary’s compassion is inflamed. Tom runs away one wintry night, and the fact that he seems to have run to her home briefly for refuge preys on her imagination. As the days go by and a powerful winter storm pummels them, townspeople give Tom up for dead but Mary becomes haunted by his ghost.

Virtually alone in an old house save for her vegetative stepson, Mary’s nightmares become our nightmares. Is this movie heart-pounding? It was for me. I don’t watch scary movies very often but was drawn to this for the cast, and Naomi Watts does not disappoint. But even a relative novice to the genre such as myself can feel what a retread this script is; there’s nothing new or original here, and the fear factor dips because of its obviousness.

Some beautiful cinematography helps establish a sense of isolation here, but it’s largely useless when the script goes for weak jump-scares and ignores what should have been lush with psychological horror instead. I kept thinking of this movie as “the one with Vera Farmiga” which it is not – but it is an awful lot like the one that is, and many others besides. If you have a hankering for white-lady-haunted-by-child-ghost, well, here it is. Again. But I bet you could do better.

Baywatch

So bad.

Baywatch the movie doesn’t know what to do with itself. Based on a TV show that mysteriously combined crime-fighting lifeguards with slow-motion running, the movie struggles to find a leg to stand on. 21 Jump Street was able to successfully satirize the show it was based on while also paying it homage. It was funny. Baywatch just flounders about in shallow water.

I don’t think any of the actors knew if they were in a drama or a comedy either. They would sometimes recite lines that sounded self-aware, only in a deadpan way that made baywatch-cast-shot.jpgme certain they weren’t aware at all. The thing is, lifeguards save people who are struggling in the water. They have no business fighting crime. They shouldn’t touch dead bodies in a crime scene let alone attempt to solve the murders themselves. These lifeguards, however, take it upon themselves to impersonate doctors, take down drug lords, go undercover, break into morgues, confiscate evidence, and they do it all while on the clock, abandoning their actual jobs on the beach in order to do the jobs of police officers who don’t take the intrusion too kindly – although, in actuality, not unkindly enough. Because, you know, the lifeguards, instead of guarding lives, are actually putting them at risk, constantly, by doing this work.

But that’s the LEAST of Baywatch’s problems. I remember thinking how strange it was in the commercials that The Rock was playing Mitch Buchannon, which is the character David Hasselhoff played in the original series. It seemed to me easy enough to update it by just having a new set of lifeguards in the Baywatch tradition, but no. Old Mitch is still pounding the waves, looking a little more tan (though not a lot more – David Hasselhoff was always pretty wizened) and a lot more buff. But then David Hasselhoff pops up in the movie and he’s playing his character Mitch Buchannon too. So there are two Mitches, which no calls bullshit on, and two CJs now that you mention it, and a lot more problems besides.

Sean and I gave it the old college try, we really did, but there is genuinely no way in which to enjoy the movie. It’s never intentionally funny, and the mistakes aren’t even laughable they just make you want to tear your hair out. But it’s also way, way too ridiculous to be taken seriously, but none of the campiness that made the television series a guilty pleasure. The jiggly boob factor is alive and well, but there’s also a lot more penis in the movie than is strictly advisable.

Bad Girl

Amy is a teenager, a “bad girl” who’s just returned home after some shadowy shenanigans to her adoptive parents who are willing to give her “one last chance.” They’re pretty sure she’s going to hate the new home they’ve bought in rural Australia and they’re right; she’s out the door and doing a runner almost immediately. But then she meets a local girl named Chloe who makes life a little more bearable, and her parents think this friendship is a positive thing.

bad_girl_h_0716.ad77b830223d2062af858dce36ad8abeThey’re all wrong on all counts. Chloe isn’t want she seems, and when Amy discovers her secrets she ends up not only fighting for her own life, but to keep intact the very same family that she’s up until now been eschewing. Seems like Chloe is the titular bad girl after all! Oh, teenage irony.

Fin Edquist writes and directs this twisty-turny thriller. There isn’t a lot to distinguish Bad Girl from other oeuvres in the genre but the performances from the two young lead actresses, Sara West and Samara Weaving, are pretty extraordinary. The film’s first half hour is a relationship drama made strong by their chemistry. They bond over their shared yearning for family, for identity.

The film’s visual approach is informed largely by the environment. Whether outside or in, they sky looms large, and often forbidding. The atmosphere of the film responds accordingly. A real sense of dread is cultivated in quieter moments, making the splashes of violence really pop against the austere background. Bad Girl is a genre film that just may surprise you.

 

 

Night Moves

Josh and Dena are passionate about their cause: the environment. Tired of small measures, they team with Harmon, a shadier character who can help them pull off an act of eco-terrorism, the bombing of a hydroelectric dam.

Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) are idealistic and young. They figure this revolutionary act will prompt people to think about what they’re doing to the environment, which you and I know is almost never how it works. What happens in real life is that we’re angry about the disruption to our lives. In the movie, however, what happens is even messier. The greatest impact they have is on themselves.

MV5BMTY1NDIzODA2MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTE4Mjk0MTE@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_Night Moves isn’t so much about the environment as it is a character study between these three individuals trying to make a statement, and then living with the consequences. It’s slow, almost plodding. There’s no flashiness, just a creeping sense of guilt and paranoia.

The thing is, Jesse Eisenberg is a one-note actor and I’m damned tired of that note. He wears this grimace that tells us the world is just painful to him, like how can his pinched little rat face be expected to live in a world with us plebeians? He got lucky once with a role whose neuroticism suited him perfectly. Everything else has been derivative, and while it might have been slightly funny to watch Mark Zuckerberg get chased by zombies, I just don’t buy him as an eco-thug, bless his entitled little heart.

Otherwise I think Kelly Reichardt puts together a uniquely character-drive film that defies classification. It pushes us to challenge what we think of as “natural” and ratchets up the tension with increasing themes of alienation. What Reichardt doesn’t do is decide for us.

Lovesong

Sarah (Riley Keough) feels like she’s bringing up her young daughter Jessie by herself, abandoned sometimes for months at a time by an older husband who travels for work and is fuzzy on his return dates. A visit from her college friend Mindy (Jena Malone) brings her a little comfort, a little joy…and a little more. There’s a chemistry and a crackle that’s been notably absent in her life. The three of them take off a little road trip that ignites things, but just as they get going, Mindy’s back on a bus for NYC and Sarah is back to her old life.

MV5BZWFhMGE2N2YtZTI5Yi00Zjc0LWJlNjAtZWE4ZDEzZmYzOTkyL2ltYWdlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTU2NDMyOTM@._V1_Cut to: a few years later, Sarah and Jessie are on the road again, headed toward Mindy’s wedding. Mindy’s future husband seems nice. Sarah’s husband seems to be out of the picture. And Sarah and Mindy? They haven’t seen each other since that road trip so things are suitably tense and complicated. Sarah might be trying to reestablish their earlier intimacy, but the day before Mindy’s wedding is probably neither the time nor the place. So if you’re hoping to see something awkward, you’re in luck!

The great thing about Lovesong is that it fearlessly portrays the complexity and ambiguity of real human emotion. Director So Yong Kim gives her two leads room to breathe, room to communicate through glances and grazes. I’ve always been convinced Jena Malone is an underrated actress, her resume an eclectic mix of indie gems and art-house risks. Riley Keough is less of a known quantity to me, but if nothing else, the last scene in this movie told me that she’s not just some lucky celebrity spawn, she’s legit. There was some heartbreak on that screen, the tangled, tricky kind, and that’s no joke. Lovesong will be too slow for some, lacking perhaps in the closure we usually week, but it’s a brave portrayal and a bittersweet reminder that not every couple gets their love song.

Wild Oats

Eva is a grieving widow who doesn’t even get through her husband’s funeral before her daughter is reminding her of unpaid hospital bills and a home that isn’t worth much before significant sprucing. So can we really blame her when she cashes the 50K insurance cheque even though it’s accidentally made out for 5 million? Nope!

Eva (Shirley MacLaine) vanishes into the night with her friend Maddie (Jessica Lange), their eyes set on a luxury resort in Spain. Maddie is sick, her days numbered, and her Wild-Oats_poster_goldposter_com_2-702x336husband’s just left her for a secretary a fraction of her age. Eva’s been caring for her sick husband for a long time, so washes away her guilty feelings with generous dosages of mojitos and embraces the mistake, determined to live it up. These two chiquitas have nothing to lose so it’s all blackjack and boy toys until a) a dashing Billy Connolly enters the picture and b) the fuzz are on their tail. Well, not so much the fuzz as the insurance company trying to reclaim their losses, but you get the picture.

Is this a brilliant movie? No it isn’t. It’s kind of like Going In Style for old biddies, an adventure for senior citizens that’s exactly as predictable as you’d think. Lange and MacLaine are ludicrously charming but they deserve better material. They’re able to polish a few pieces of coal into diamonds thanks to their professionalism and gung-ho spirit, but for every high, there’s a low. I found it a perfectly inoffensive time-waster, but this movie will really only appeal to people who always wondered what How Stella Got Her Groove back would be like if Stella was an 84 year old white lady.

 

 

Asshole Ethics 101: would you cash the cheque, or report it?

 

The Lifeguard

Leigh, a former valedictorian “most likely to succeed” quits her reporter job in New York and returns to the place she last felt happy: her childhood home. Her parents are worried about her and her old friends can’t believe she’s washed up in Connecticut with no prospects. To make things worse, Leigh’s only ambition is to get work as a lifeguard where she starts a relationship with a troubled teenager more than a decade her junior.

Kristen-Bell-Wearing-a-Red-Swimsuit-in-The-Lifeguard-Trailer-01Leigh (Kristen Bell) is reliving her adolescence, but it doesn’t seem to be making her any happier. She’s too young for a midlife crisis, but that’s essentially what this is, an existential reckoning. She’s depressed and lost; she went after everything she was supposed to but is finding adulthood to be not all it’s cracked up to be. Of course, none of her friends seem all that happy either. What magic ingredient is missing?

Personally, I found it hard to sympathize with Leigh. Kristen Bell tries her best as the lifeguard on duty to show that she is swimming and not merely floating, but she’s working against a strong current. The character comes off as whiny, and – dare I say it – entitled. There isn’t much drama, or even story here. It’s not even that titillating despite Leigh’s insistence on statutory-raping her way to grow-up-dom. I love Kristen Bell but I can’t really be an apologist for this film. I barely muddled my way through it. The end, which is supposed to justify the means, feels jarring and forced. The whole thing tries too hard to be edgy and hip and not hard enough to be a solid, sensical story. And I refuse to watch movies in a world where that’s too much to ask.

Sebastian

James Fanizza writes, directs and stars in Sebastian but does not in fact play him. He plays Alex, the guy who meets Sebastian  (Alex House) and initiates a fling – this despite that he has a boyfriend, a boyfriend who just happens to be Sebastian’s cousin. They both agree to feel bad about what they’re doing, but they don’t consider not doing it. It’s full steam ahead (and it DOES get steamy).

MV5BMzBjYmE1YWEtZmNiYy00YTQyLThiMzAtYmFhMzI3ZmFlY2ZkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjIxMDkwMTk@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,666,1000_AL_Sebastian is an Argentinian student in Toronto for just one week; both know that the relationship (whatever it is) ends when he catches his flight back home. But the affair is irrepressible. They’re falling for each other whether or not they say the words, and it’s the kind of relationship that changes them, unlocks things hidden deep inside (and who can resist a boy with a dark and unspoken past?).

This is not the most polished piece you’ll encounter at the Inside Out Film Festival, but for a first directorial effort, it’s got promise and panache. Shot around Toronto, the city provides a bustling backdrop to the conflict of feelings. If this budding relationship begins to feel to us, the audience, like a Once in a Lifetime thing, we must wonder whether one week is enough for these two men to recognize it, and if yes, whether they will be brave enough to act on it. And that sort of anticipation has a vicarious thrill to it that is not unlike falling in love. But as we all know, love is complicated, and Alex and Sebastian will not be exceptions.

Cannes Snobbery

Some people think that Netflix is saving the movie industry. Others think it’s killing it. I think neither is true, that all Netflix is is the future. Or rather, Netflix is now. The movie industry is changing and has changed. Some directors insist that their art can only be experienced on a big screen, others are embracing the flexibility that comes with a Netflix carte blanche. But Cannes, a major French film festival, has inserted itself into the discourse, reluctantly agreeing to include two Netflix titles in this year’s lineup, but insisting that next year’s rules will be different and only movies intended for a theatrical release will earn slots in their programming.

Amazon also earned boos from critics at its Cannes screening, this despite the fact that Amazon does partner up to bring some of its titles to the cinema, like last year’s Oscar contender, Manchester By The Sea. This year Amazon brought Wonderstruck to Cannes by the acclaimed director of Carol, Todd Haynes. Of Amazon, Haynes noted “The film division at Amazon is made up of true cineastes who love movies and really want to try and provide opportunity for independent film visions to find their footing in a vastly shifting market. They love cinema.”

Netflix makes movies and series for its at-home audience who pay a subscription fee that includes original content. At TIFF 2016, I saw 2 Netflix films (Mascots and Blue Jay) and found them to be just as worthy as any other content on offer. At this year’s Oscars, Netflix garnered a nomination for Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, and a win for its short documentary, The White Helmets. Traditional or not, Netflix movies do hold up.

Cannes jury president Pedro Almodovar doesn’t like it and made his position clear with this opening statement: “I personally do not conceive, not only the Palme d’Or, any other prize being given to a film and not being able to see this film on a big screen. The size [of the screen] should not be smaller than the chair on which you’re sitting. It should not be part of your everyday setting. You must feel small and humble in front of the image that’s here.” Fellow jury member Will Smith clashed with him on this, defending the streaming service “In my house, Netflix has been nothing but an absolute benefit. They get to see films they absolutely wouldn’t have seen. Netflix brings a great connectivity. There are movies that are not on a screen within 8,000 miles of them. They get to find those artists.” And that’s true: Netflix is a boon to indie gems and hard-to-find documentaries. It also allows people who find the cost of theatre-going restrictive to watch movies at home for a reasonable price. Of course, Netflix just so happens to be the distributor of Smith’s next big-budget movie, Bright.

And that’s the thing about Netflix today: it’s going after the big guns. For its first-ever Cannes screening, Netflix chose Okja, a film by the South Korean director of Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho. Okja stars Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Lily Collins, and Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s no slouch. Of the controversy, Joon-ho was  typically humble: “I’m just happy he will watch this movie tonight. He can say anything—I’m fine. I loved working with Netflix. They gave me great support — the budget for this film is considerable. Giving such a budget to a director isn’t very common.” And Swinton was also quick to make light of the situation, saying “The truth is, we didn’t actually come here for prizes.” Okja received a four-minute standing ovation after its screening.

Later this festival, Netflix will screen the second of its two titles, Noah Baumback’s The Meyerowitz Stories, about a fractured family reuniting, starring Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Candice Bergen, Ben Stiller, and Netflix darling Adam Sandler.