Tuesday, February 02, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

I'll be upfront about this: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl features a lot of things that should make me hate it. It's a movie about a broken white male who learns how to fix himself with the help of a magical black man and an equally magical dying girl, two tropes that really irk me. It's also set in high school, and features another trope that bothers me, maybe more than the others; preternaturally witty teenagers. The problems with teenagers and children in pop culture is that the people writing these characters base them on idealized versions of themselves, or people they knew. No actual teenager is as well spoken or assured as most teens we see in movies, because we tend to remember our younger selves as simply smaller versions of our adult selves, and we forget how awkward, emotionally, physically, and verbally, we were at the time. So, this film is made up of a collection of tropes I hate, and yet I somehow came to love the film.

Greg (Thomas Mann, the titular Me) is a closed off teenager entering his senior year of high school. He's survived by working hard to be accepted by every imaginable clique in his school, carefully tuning his personality to be as invisible as possible and making sure he never forms any real attachments or enemies. He even refers to his oldest childhood friend, Earl (RJ Cyler) as simply his coworker, referencing the dozens of handmade film parodies they've made since elementary school. When one of his classmates, Rachel (Olivia Cooke, typecast these days as the Dying Girl), a near stranger, is diagnosed with leukemia, Greg's mother forces him to spend time with her to cheer her up. Which sets our story in motion, as we follow Greg through his senior year, tracking the growing, rocky friendship he develops with Rachel and the possible dissolution of his friendship with Earl.

All of this is filtered through the ironically detached eye of a geeky film nerd, with references to Werner Herzog (a lot of references, actually), Stan Brakhage, The Archers, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, and advertisements for the Criterion Collection hanging in bedrooms and bookstores and teacher's studies. The soundtrack often echoes the musical scores to Hitchcock films and spaghetti westerns, and Greg and Earl's film parodies, as silly as they might be, have their roots in a very refined cinematic palette (example parody titles include 'My Dinner With Andre The Giant,' 'The Turd Man,' and 'Don't Look Now, Because a Creepy-ass Dwarf is About to Kill You!!! Damn.'). This veers dangerously close to being too cutesy for it's own good, and yet I found it charming. Perhaps it's because these two seem to be living the dream life version of my own senior year, if only I'd found anyone else quite so into oddball arthouse films and lowbrow humor. The direction, from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (who also helmed the better-than-it-needed-to-be Town That Dreaded Sundown remake), gives this film a more idiosyncratic, accomplished look and feel than most other teen-oriented dramas even attempt these days.

I said earlier the film follows Greg, and I say that pointedly, because we never see anything that is outside of his perspective. This fact seemed to anger most critics, who judged the film primarily as the collection of tropes I listed above. Certainly the film leans heavily into stereotype, particularly with Earl, who lives in a bad neighborhood and is overly stoic. The closest he has to a catchphrase, "dem titties," seems just a step above having him eat fried chicken and watermelon in every scene. Rachel, also, is sometimes reduced to a series of reactions to Greg, as we see her cheered up by his antics or too sick to put up with them at various times. That reduction to caricature extends to the rest of the cast too, with Greg's parents (Nick Offerman & Connie Britton) portrayed as slightly loopy, hippyish academics. Earl's family fares much worse, with only his brother (Bobb'e J. Thompson) appearing on screen, and he's the basic stereotype of a young African American hoodlum, with tank top, do-rag, tattoos, and an always aggressive dog at his side. It continues on to Rachel's mom (Molly Shannon), who is always filmed holding a glass of wine, Greg's history teacher (Jon Bernthal) is a heavily tattooed variation of the tough but inspiring high school teacher, and all of the other teen characters seem to be central casting's idea of 'goth' 'cheerleader' or 'jock.' Everyone in this film is a caricature.

Clearly this sort of one dimensional character work is intentional; it's a result of the film occupying so completely Greg's point of view. It does not, however, necessarily agree with that viewpoint, and I tend to think it's just the opposite. It's true that these characters exist primarily as backdrop to Greg's emotional growth, but it's telling that none of them actually help him in his maturation. In fact, most of his growth occurs because the characters get sick of his self-absorbed bullshit and shut him out of their lives. Even though the film is seen through Greg's eyes, the audience still gets clues as to how his actions are really impacting people, through subtle gestures or looks we can see what Greg ignores, we can see when he's saying the wrong thing or ignoring someone else's feelings. This is a bit of form and a bit of function, as Greg's emotional arc requires him to become less self-involved and more open to forming attachments to those around him, so the film is required to open up at times as well. This is most poignantly driven home late in the film when Greg visit's Rachel's room. He's spent countless hours within that room, but is just now noticing the tiny details; the small drawings Rachel sketched into the pattern of her wallpaper, the intricately carved out books on her shelves, the photos of her friends and family. The accumulation of a life lived that he was unaware of.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl may populate it's runtime with stock stereotypes, but it also takes the effort to suggest that these stereotypes have an existence beyond what we see. It would be easy enough to imagine this story being told from the point of view of any of the primary characters. Which is part of why I fell in love with this movie; teenagers are self-involved assholes. This is just fine, it's not a judgment call, we all were at that age. But a lot of teen-oriented movies seem to forget that fact, and they idealize the period of our lives when we're at our worst and most awkward. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl also idealizes this period, but it has the honesty to acknowledge that a lot of our actions at this age are regrettable, to say the least.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)

Monday, February 01, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Documentary Roundup

Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight For Freedom (2015): This is nowhere near being an objective account of the Euromaidan protests that swept Ukraine beginning in late 2013, and anyone looking for a detailed account of the socio-political issues that inspired them would be well advised to look elsewhere. What Winter on Fire is, however, is a blow by blow, street level account of what was going on with the protesters themselves. Initially angered by the pro-Russian president's backing out of talks to join the European Union, Ukrainian citizens of all ages convened in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) to peacefully protest this move and call for a continuation of talks. Netflix commissioned cameras to be filming 24/7 at the very beginning of the protests, which means the entire event was captured on film, either through a documentarian's lens or through a protester's smartphone. What this also means is that you can pinpoint the exact moment things fall apart, as police storm the square and begin beating unarmed and nonviolent protesters.

I already said that this film makes no effort to be objective; the filmmaker's sympathy lies only with the protesters, who the film posits as brave freedom fighters putting their lives on the line for what everyone in Ukraine wants. There's not really any mention of an opposing viewpoint, although there were plenty of Pro-Russian protests as well. As with all things, you should try to remember that every stance has an opposing view that may be just as valid. It's best not to view this film as an idealogical statement, but to see it as a you-are-there document of the horrible mistreatment these protesters had to suffer through. Fair warning; the violence is brutal, and you will watch a few people die. Roger Ebert once said that what made him cry in movies was kindness, was seeing someone in the film do something selfless for someone else. I thought of that as I cried during this film, watching people race out into gunfire with nothing but a wooden shield to protect them in order to try and help the wounded to safety, no matter which side of the fight they happened to be on.

Final Rating: 4.5(out of 5)

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015): I did not know much about Nina Simone before going into this, although I've owned a compilation of her music that I love quite a bit. I knew of her personal life mostly through her civil rights era activities, and to be honest I wasn't really that interested to know more. Nothing against Miss Simone, but I'm past the age where I would read articles and interviews and histories about my favorite artists, and nowadays that stuff just doesn't interest me as much. I worried a little about my lack of Nina Simone knowledge going into this documentary, because often biopics, particularly those about celebrities, tend to assume a little bit of familiarity with their subject. they expect you to know a bit about their career already, and sometimes rely on that information to fill in some gaps they might not have the time to completely get into.

What Happened, Miss Simone? started out a little worryingly, beginning with a concert late into her career that would be infamous to Simone devotees, but didn't quite land with the same impact for me. She is an electric performer, but seems to be bristling during the performance, viewing the audience as adversaries and stopping mid-song to call them out for presumed slights. The film then jumps back to Simone's early childhood and follows a more standard musical-biopic mold, checking off all of the boxes these things require. I'll admit I wasn't really enjoying the first half of this documentary, which I felt was a bit too standard, and gave no indication of Nina Simone the person. We here the pertinent details, but there isn't much more than a glimpse of what the human being behind the public persona is. About halfway through, however, things cohere a bit more, and it's clear that the film's lack of defining Nina Simone isn't a weakness, but perhaps a strength. Nina Simone was someone who always felt uncomfortable with fame, who felt regret at a career that it seems she felt was a bit beneath her (her original goal was to be a classical pianist, not a, as she puts it, pop singer). Her involvement in the civil rights movement brought some of that angst to the forefront, and she began to wear her bitterness and sadness more openly. What Happened, Miss Simone? is an exploration of the question asked in the title, and it never quite answers it. The film reveals Nina Simone to be a complex, possibly unknowable human being, as much a mystery to the people who knew and loved her as to her fans.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)

Paris is Burning (1990): This is the type of documentary I really gravitate towards; the type that has no real agenda beyond introducing you to a small, unseen lifestyle or community. Paris is Burning is a snapshot of a certain subculture of gay life in late 1980s New York. Following a handful of colorful individuals as they prepare for and compete in drag shows in and around Harlem. Drag in this context doesn't imply any sort of gender mixing, but instead a costume in general, with the winner of the competition being the one who best embodies the 'realness' of their role. The film has no villains, no heroes, not greater message it's trying to make. Although the spectre of AIDS hangs over the proceedings, this has more to do with our current perspective on that period of time. Instead Paris is Burning's goal appears to be simply to provide a showcase for the various flamboyant individuals who make up the drag circuit. Dividing themselves into Houses, their lives revolve around strutting and performing, and everything else they do is simply to help them get ready for the next show. Their costumes are pieced together from whatever they can hustle for, or whatever they're quick enough to steal.

Late in the film, one of the participants, Venus Xtravaganza, is found strangled to death in a seedy motel room. That is an undeniably tragic loss, as Venus' Pollyannaish dreams and unflagging energy provided one of the brightest spots in the film. Her death is the closest this film comes to making a statement, as it explicitly acknowledges the danger inherent in this lifestyle, particularly in this time and this place. But then the film moves on, life moves on. Some people succeed (Willi Ninja in particularly is shown making a name for himself as a choreographer), others continue competing, hustling and surviving.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)

Friday, January 29, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Kung Fu Killer

Quick editorial note; the onscreen title for this film is Kung Fu Killer, and can be found on netflix as such. However, some sites and guides list this movie under an earlier English title; Kung Fu Jungle.

In 1997 the British returned soveriegnty of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China. In anticipation of this handover, many Hong Kong filmmakers, fearing censorship under the new regime, emigrated to American shores. John Woo, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li were just a few of the more high profile names to make the jump to American films, with varying degrees of success. Donnie Yen wasn't part of that initial wave, but he eventually made it stateside in the early 2000s, though he was exclusively relegated to mostly-mute henchman roles, someone who appeared ready to kick major ass, but would be disposed of quickly by being shot, or, worse yet, dying offscreen. This was hardly the best showcase for his skills as a martial artist, and he quickly went back to Hong Kong. Most of these filmmakers did; the feared censorship never really manifested in any serious capacity, and Americans could never figure out what to do with their talents.

It may have taken awhile, but it looks like the western world is finally catching on to just how great Donnie Yen is, thanks to the highly successful Ip Man movies, which have inspired a small boom in films about that man's life. Those who ventured beyond the Jackie Chan movies that filled American theatres in the late 90s, or at least those who paid attention to the names below the top line of the credits, have been well aware of Mr. Yen's talents for at least two decades now. I first noticed him in a pair of wuxia films, Wing Chun and Iron Monkey, where his cheerful, boyish demeanor belied an assured and elegant fighting style. As the years have gone on, and Yen's features have become more lined with age, that fighting style has evolved to become more brutal, less balletic, but still incredibly visually engaging.

Which brings us to Kung Fu Killer, a high octane genre mashup that plays everything completely straight, while also expecting that the audience will recognize and accept the silliness running underneath. The film is pretty much a mix between a slick, stylish serial killer movie and an old school martial arts tournament film. Think David Fincher's Seven mixed with Master of the Flying Guillotine, or any other martial arts film where the hero has to fight a series of masters with their own distinct fighting styles. In this film, the serial killer is targeting Kung Fu masters, each one representing a different discipline or style. One is a master of grappling, another known for his kicks, another known for his use of weapons, and so on. Donnie Yen plays the only person who can stop him; a martial arts master who is serving time in prison for accidentally killing a man during a duel. The killer has fixated on Yen as the pinnacle of Kung Fu perfection, and desires only to fight him to the death.

As I said, you have to brace yourself for some straight-faced silliness in this film, which is never presented as jokey and is therefore too easy to take seriously. Some of this, like the recurring scenes of policemen and forensics units investigating the aftermath of epic Kung Fu battles like normal crime scenes, is pure hilarious brilliance. Some of it, in particular the placeholder backstory for the killer, can be incredibly earnest and schmaltzy. But really, the plot is just a skeleton on which to hang a bunch of cool fights and setpieces. And the fights in this film are truly great, as each one features a new style of fighting and a new unique backdrop. One fight in a giant warehouse takes place on and around a giant skeleton statue for an upcoming art exhibit, another takes place on a busy highway and becomes a fistfight variation of Frogger (it should be said that the green screen effects for some of this, particularly when the fight moves underneath the passing semi-trucks, is laughably unconvincing).

One thing that's great about Hong Kong cinema is its use of space and camera movement. In America our action films evolved around cars and guns, and guns in particularly do not make for interesting cinema. The act of firing a gun leaves an invisible area between action and reaction, and a lot of action films can devolve into someone in one shot firing a weapon and people in another shot trying to avoid squibs. In Hong Kong action films evolved around martial arts, which is more like dancing than the fighting in American films. In a martial arts film, action and reaction are incontovertibly connected, which immediately seems more dynamic. This lead to a natural inclusion of the space in which the scene takes place, and a tendency towards longer shots where the characters are framed full body. What good is putting dancing on screen if you can't see anyone's feet? I'm not saying either style is better overall, but I do wish more western filmmakers took that lesson of space usage.

My Alternate Title: Kung Fu UPS-Guy Prison
For those not already attuned to what is going on, the end credits are preceded by a 'thank you' from the filmmakers to all the people who have inspired them, and it reveals that almost every onscreen part in the film was filled with a luminary from Hong Kong martial arts cinema. It's a fun, touching moment, and shows where this film's true ambition lies. Not to outdo the classics of the genre, but to just throw as much cool shit at the audience as possible. On that front, it succeeds.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Catching Up On 2016 Movie a Day Pt. 1

So far this year I've been trying to watch a movie a day, or at least keep the number of watched movies somewhat even with the progressing calendar. Basically, I may have to skip a day or two, but I'll make up for it by watching multiple movies on days off. So far I'm keeping good on my goal; it is currently the 28th and I've seen 29 feature films. And yet I've been writing these Movie a Day posts for just over a week, meaning that there are several films that I haven't written about yet. Here is the first in a series of posts in which I'll clear out that backlog with some briefer than usual posts. Maybe just a paragraph. I'll be peppering these in every now and then until I'm completely caught up. See if you can spot today's theme.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015): The latest film based on a Mark Millar comic book, and the second one to be directed by Matthew Vaughn (the other was Kick-Ass). The potential for this movie was through the roof, with relative newcomer Taron Egerton surrounded by an impressive cast of old pros; Colin Firth, Michael Caine, Mark Strong, and Samuel L. Jackson. Matthew Vaughn certainly knows his way around this type of boy's adventure story, having worked with Guy Ritchie in the early days of both of their careers. Matthew Vaughn and Guy Ritchie may not have started off together, but they found each other early on, and will probably always be linking in the minds of some fans due to their early work together. In the early 2000s Matthew Vaughn began to step out of Guy Ritchie's shadow by directing his own films, although his first film, Layer Cake, did feel a bit suspiciously familiar to anyone who had seen Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Since then he's proved a little bit more eclectic, though he is drawn to comic books, and he's certainly in step with Millar's mix of gleefully crass humor and stylish violence. The problem, though, is that the trick is getting old. Perhaps it's just me, having now seen  four Mark Millar films and read several of his comic series, but I'm getting tired of his brand of Boy's Adventures wish-fulfillment. Most of his stories, particularly his original creations, follow a lone outcast who gives square society the finger and violently, brutally forges his own path. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to just turn my brain off and enjoy his questionable politics and incomparable bad taste.

Kingsman seems at first blush to represent a slobs against snobs sort of take on international espionage, and seems to argue for a less class oriented view of life. But in the end the film is actually making a case for the sort of outmoded, classist attitudes the earlier passages seem to refute. The film, for the most part, is a gory James Bond riff with an uncultured young punk proving that he's just as good, or better, than his more posh counterparts. By the end of the film, however, he's joined the ranks of those posh individuals as he becomes just another lone white guy with a gun who is the only one capable of saving the world. That's my problem with Millar in a nutshell; he seems anarchic and punkish, but he's actually fairly rightwing and reactionary. It's a glaring detail that the only real world leader referenced in the film, shown in league with the villain, is Barack Obama, while the villain is defeated by a piece of Reagan-era weaponry. It might also be an important detail that the villain is a black man who dresses in what would be considered an urban style who is defeated by a group of wealthy white men in impeccably tailored suits. Perhaps I'm reading way too much into that, but I foresee Mark Millar having the same problem as Frank Miller, where eventually his anarchic bent is overshadowed by his latent fascism.

Those arguments aside, Kingsman can be a lot of fun. I enjoyed most of it, and realized that my problems with the film were probably overthinking things a bit. A few scenes hit a sort of psycho-freakout intensity that marks the film firing on all cylinders, and there's a montage of exploding heads that is brilliantly off kilter. But then the film ends with a princess offering our hero anal sex in exchange for saving the world, and that deflates things a little bit.

Final Rating: 3(out of 5)

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015): Guy Ritchie got his start with gritty, shaggy, slightly comedic tales of low level criminals in London, but seemed to get sidetracked by Hollywood success and has spent much of the last decade working on the Sherlock Holmes films. I'll admit that I found his first Sherlock Holmes film fun but somewhat soulless, and the less said about the sequel the better. But with Man From U.N.C.L.E., he seems to have finally figured out how to meld his particular talents with the demands of big budget blockbuster filmmaking. This is not a return to form in the slightest, but neither is it a drastic step forward in his artistic evolution. If anything, this is just Guy Ritchie finding a way to make an action film that is suited to his style: stylish, funny, and fleet-footed. It's not perfect, far from it, but it's probably the most satisfying film he's made in years. Both this film and Kingsman feature a similar dependence on style over substance, but I found it worked much more successfully in this picture.

Casting seems to play a large part in this fun, although it's amusing to me that all of the major parts are filled by actors playing against their own nationalities. Brit's Henry Cavill plays a straight laced Americans, American Armie Hammer plays Russian, and Swedish actress Alicia Vikander plays German. Possibly only Hugh Grant, in a late-in-the-film appearance, gets to act with his own accent. And of course they all look great in period-appropriate tailored suits. If I may for a moment: Armie Hammer seems to have trouble catching a break. He's a fun presence with a fun name, but every film that seems like it might be a succesful starring vehicle for him becomes a nonstarter at the box office. The Lone Ranger may have had its problems, but none of them could be attributed to Hammer, who gave a brilliant straight man performance. In this he plays a menacing Russian hulk much better than his all American demeanor in previous films would suggest, while Cavill plays American much more snappily than in Man Of Steel.

Guy Ritchie doesn't seem to have much ability when it comes to staging large action setpieces, but he finds some nice workarounds for the most part. The latter half of one white knuckle escape is seen mostly in reflection as one character sits and watches through a truck's windshield, while sometimes he simply cuts away from the action and gets straight to the aftermath. One stylistic trick he pulls, at least two or three times in this film, is somewhat less charming. At key moments of dialogue the audio will drop out of the movie so that the audience can't hear what's being said, all so that Ritchie can surprise us a few minutes later. Then he'll simply replay the earlier scene but with the dialogue included so we can be impressed by the film's cleverness. It was absolutely bizarre, and has to be one of the cheapest gimmicks I've ever seen. That said, the film is fun and cool, and a breeze to get through. That may not sound like the most glowing review, but it makes the perfect antidote to the increasing grim and gritty blockbuster seasons we've been getting lately.

Final Rating: 3.5(out of 5)

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015): Alternate subtitle; How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tom Cruise. Because I'll admit it; I love Tom Cruise as a movie star. I think he's incredibly charming and charismatic on screen, and I'm always happy to see him in an action film. Personally, I have no doubt that he's the biggest creep in the world, but I just ignore that while watching a movie. Exhibit A in the case for Cruise as a great movie star; he always chooses interesting people to work with. It's hard to think of a franchise that's had as much of a diverse collection of directors as the Mission: Impossible series. It's hard to think of a star with the clout to choose those collaborators. Certainly John Woo was still a hot property when he helmed the sequel, but who would have picked Brian De Palma to helm the first film at that point in his career? He also gave J.J. Abrams his first feature film after only a handful of television credits, and picked animation iconoclast Brad Bird to make his live action debut. Cruise had worked with Christopher McQuarrie (director of this film) before on Jack Reacher, but he was still a relatively unknown name to be handing such a large franchise to, having made his career primarily as a screenwriter. Through the last couple of decades Tom Cruise has proved incredibly discerning and canny in who he chooses to work with.

This, the fifth film in the M:I series, doesn't quite reach the level of action movie nirvana that the previous film did, but it's still an object lesson in how to craft an old school action flick. McQuarrie proved on Jack Reacher what a great action director he could be. That film had serious plot and script problems, and yet the direction was always clean and impressive, rendering the film compulsively rewatchable. He brings that same strength to Rogue Nation as well, showing how great action can be when it's more than just rapid-fire editing and explosions. McQuarrie favors longer takes than most contemporary action directors use, and is judicious in his use of bombastic noise. Several large setpieces in Rogue Nation are almost entirely silent, with no dialogue and only the sound of movement. He's also good at giving a sense of the physical space a scene is taking place in. His camera movements and editing make it easy to follow the flow of the action, which keeps things from becoming a confused mess like your average Michael Bay film.

Even with that much-publicized plane stunt, with Cruise hanging outside a plane as it's taking off, there's nothing in this film that reaches the delirious action heights of Ghost Protocol, but it's presented in a clear, competent manner. It's solid, and is actually satisfying in a way that many other 'cooler' films just don't match. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation feels like the best parts of Roger Moore era James Bond, with the globehopping, femme fatales, gadgets, and intrigue.

Final Rating; 4(out of 5)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Seventh Son

I have to get this down quickly, before I forget it.

Seventh Son makes a good comparison piece with the one I wrote for Jupiter Ascending. In that review I wrote about how a flash of personality can make all the difference between goofily enjoyable and blandly forgettable, and I made the case that Jupiter Ascending's quirks and silliness raised it higher than other, similar high octane sci-fi/fantasy/action flicks, and here I have a film proving my point. Seventh Son was dumped into the no-mans-land of February, between the prestige films most companies release during the holiday season and the upcoming summer months full of their high profile blockbusters. January to March is typically when studios release the films they don't have much confidence in, knowing they'll likely be forgotten by year's end. That's not to say that everything released in those months is horrible, but it's not a sign of confidence. More often the theatres will be full of films like I, Frankenstein, The Nut Job, the aforementioned Jupiter Ascending, and that other Hercules movie. The one without The Rock.

Seventh Son is so blandly forgettable and personality-free (at least in the scenes without Jeff Bridges, but more on that in a moment) that the best things that can be said about it are still faults. The movie is briskly paced and full of enough incident to fill a trilogy, which means the experience goes by with enough energy to make things painless. You'll be entertained, sure, but the experience isn't going to leave a lasting impression. On the other hand, that same speed means that nothing has any dramatic weight, and it never feels like the film has any real stakes.

First we hear the the score for the film, which is so blatantly a ripoff of Howard Shore's music for Lord of the Rings that I'm surprised Marco Beltrami was never sued. And then the film begins with a cold open where a man is sealing a large iron cover on a hole in a lonely mountain while a woman's voice begs him to have mercy. The man rides off, and time passes. A lot of time. Long enough for the iron to rust and the entity trapped in the hole to escape. The title comes up, and then suddenly the film is in motion, having jumped at least 50 years forward in time. We meet Gregory (Jeff Bridges), the older version of the man in the beginning, and his apprentice William (Kit Harrington) as they are summoned to exorcise a demon from a small girl. Before they can celebrate their success at this task, it's revealed that the demon they exorcised was actually Mother Malkin, the witch Gregory trapped in the beginning of the film. She kills Gregory's apprentice (so long, Kit Harrington, we hardly knew ye), then flies off to her mountain fortress where she gathers her witch allies in order to... do something. Something involving the blood moon, which will give them power to, I dunno, probably take over the world or something. Gregory immediately shows up at the home of Tom Ward (Ben Barnes), who is as bland as those names suggest, although his mother is Olivia Williams which seems to have not rubbed off on him. He basically buys Tom, the seventh son of a seventh son, and they go off to find Malkin and stop the apocalypse. It may seem like I'm condensing a lot of events into a more streamlined chain of events, but this segment lasts maybe 10 minutes, and the film continues this pace throughout.

The intense speed at which this film moves mean that the characters become little more than exposition machines. With so much story to cover in so little time (the movie comes in at an hour and 42 minutes, which is brief for this type of convoluted fantasy epic) nobody has any time for an actual conversation that doesn't directly explain the rules of this world, or the machinations of the plot. This is the type of movie where we know that Tom and a half-witch named Alice (Alicia Vikander) are falling in love because they talk a lot about how they're falling in love.This film doesn't have time to show us, it needs to tell us so that it can just move on to the next scene. The downside to this is that none of it seems to matter. Tom's mother (a witch herself, who had helped defeat Malkin the first time around) dies heroically, and it's glossed over so quickly that it appears no one even notices. A late in the game confirmation that Malkin and Gregory had once been in love is supposed to be read as tragic, but instead barely registers.

Seventh Son was based on a series of Young Adult novels, and while the film was clearly intended to be a franchise starter, it seems like at least three books of plot have been condensed into one movie. If the material had been allowed to breath a little bit it could have improved greatly. If, for instance, we spent a bit of time with Gregory and his first apprentice before his untimely death, we could have had a sense of how this affected Gregory. To have spent ten years training this boy, living with him, fighting the forces of evil, we should have some sense of what that means. But then, possibly, stretching the story out a bit might just draw attention to how generic it really is.

The only consistently good part about this film is Jeff Bridges. The entire cast is qualified (or overqualified in some cases), and yet none of them are able to endow their lines with any sort of drama. Julianne Moore seems a bit lost in the film, unwilling or unable to truly camp up her role, but also not wholly convinced of her character's dramatic presence. Alicia Vikander isn't able to let any personality peek out from behind the mountains of exposition and flowery falling-in-love moments she's forced to deliver, and comes across as more affectless than when she played an actual robot in Ex Machina. Ben Barnes seems camera ready for this type of YA fare, and should have the requisite experience from previously appearing in two of the Narnia films and a tiny role in Stardust, but he's just not good enough to bring any spark to this cipher of a character. Heroes in fantasy stories, particularly in YA books, tend to be bland audience-surrogates, someone who is as broadly sketched as possible so that the readers can place themselves in that role in their imaginations. Unfortunately that aspect transferred to the screen as well.

Which leaves, of course, Jeff Bridges, who seems to be having an utter blast every time he's on screen. It's debatable how seriously he took all of this stuff, whether he thought the movie might actually be good, or whether he was just enjoying the chance to slay dragons and indulge his inner Gandalf, but he commits wholly to his oddball performance. With a jutted lower jaw and the mushy line delivery of a perpetual drunk, he's both off-putting a joy to spend time with. There are two things I will remember about this movie. One is a pretty awesome looking fight between two dragons near the end of the film. The other is Jeff Bridges, finishing a bombastic speech directed towards his new apprentice by turning around, stalking away, and muttering under his breath 'fucking witches.' Everything else is already fading from memory, less than a day later.

Final Rating: 2(out of 5)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac is trapped in a cycle. He's trapped professionally, struggling as a folk singer-songwriter in 1960s Greenwich Village. When we see him perform, he is clearly talented and respected by the audience, but he's unable to make that next crucial step that would see him break out of the coffee shops he cycles through. He's trapped artistically, playing the same old songs while nursing the pain he feels after the dissolution of a musical partnership that we get the sense was much more successful. He's trapped personally, with a small group of friends he mooches off of, cycling through them as he couch surfs through New York. He'll stay with one group until they start to get sick of him, then call up the next name in his address book. The film he's stuck in, as well, seems to cycle through the same few settings and backdrops, repeatedly circling back to previous locations after roaming around for awhile.

Inside Llewyn Davis, the 16th film from Joel & Ethan Coen, is a film that probably improves the more familiar you are with their work. The Coen Brothers have crafted a very distinct style of storytelling that took me awhile to pin down. In every movie you can consider the writers (and sometimes directors) the gods of that universe, and it goes without saying that everything within that world is predetermined by them, and the characters are merely following the path of predestination. The subtle difference with the Coen brothers is that they create meticulously planned out clockwork worlds, where everything is moving and interlocking at various times during the movie, and then they populate this world with characters who not only don't realize their story is predetermined, but also seem like they might at any minute be able to break out of the path their gods (the Coens) have set for them. It's as if they've figured out the world, but allowed their characters to explore at their own pace. With this concept in mind, Inside Llewyn Davis can be read as the Coens both acknowledging that idea, and possibly affirming that there is no escape. Their characters are stuck wherever they decide to place them.

As I said, Llewyn Davis is stuck in a cycle, or possibly a series of them. The film eventually reveals a metaphysical aspect that might suggest Llewyn is stuck in a cycle more cosmic than just that of your standard struggling musician. At every turn, no matter what he tries, he has no hope of escaping. Llewyn treks across New York trying to earn enough money to pay for an abortion for a girl he may or may not have knocked up, but he's also trying to prove that his artistic talents aren't being wasted. He visits his agent looking for royalties, which doesn't pan out. He joins in on a recording session for a deeply silly novelty song that he feels is beneath him, but he needs the money. He pointedly opts for instant cash rather than performing credit and royalties, which the film doesn't need to tell us is a bad idea. With everything falling apart in New York, he leaves for Chicago to meet with a mythical promoter who can make or break careers, only to hear the crushing answer that he just doesn't have what it takes. Maybe if he was in a group, the promoter advises, but of course that ended badly for Llewyn the last time, so he's not about to try it again.

Poe Dameron, Kylo Ren, and Justin Timberlake

That final blow seems to be the actual final blow, and Llewyn attempts to just quit music and go back to having a normal paying job, but through a series of deeply ironic mixups he finds his efforts stymied at every turn, and almost sheepishly heads back to performing at the same old coffee shops. Something in him has changed, though, and Llewyn performs a song he used to do with his old partner, and he performs it with more strength and emotion than we've seen in him so far, and the crowd seems to respond to this. It seems like this might be the start of a slow uphill climb for our hero, until, wait, it turns out he's back exactly where he was at the start of the film. Both in an emotional sense, but in a very real-world sense as well, where the dialogue and actions are exact duplicates of the dialogue and actions in the opening scene, right down to the beating he gets in an alley behind the coffeeshop. Llewyn is trapped in another cycle, in himself, in this one moment in his career and life.

What I've said so far might make Inside Llewyn Davis seem like a dry, possibly even difficult movie but Inside Llewyn Davis is also funny, though maybe not as funny as their comedies. Even before John Goodman shows up as a drugged out, bitchy old jazz musician that threatens to derail the entire movie and pull it into his orbit, the film has some great wry humor. I should also add that I've never been as emotionally moved by a Coen brothers film as I was during this one. In fact, I'm trying to think about a time when any Coen brothers film moved me, and I'm drawing a blank. The brothers don't really deal in emotion, they deal in archness and irony, with everything viewed from a slight remove. But Inside Llewyn Davis has a real heart beneath its surface, and emotional currents in the film unlike anything else I can think of in their filmography. Partly that may be the music, and the performances, which always come weighted with emotions when deployed in film. But also it's the character of Llewyn, who Oscar Isaac plays as bitter and prickly, but with a clear pain motivating him. The mystery of the dissolution of his musical partnership is pieced together slowly, but once it falls into place it explains the motivations and relationships between almost every character in the film.

It's all the cat's fault

Towards the end of the film, after the failed meeting with the music promoter, Llewyn is driving back to Chicago while the car's owner (a man who picked him up hitchhiking) sleeps in the passenger seat. As the snow falls lightly, Llewyn notices the turnoff for Akron, a town his ex-girlfriend moved to, and where he just learned he has a 2 year old child. He thinks briefly about turning off, he sees the city shining in the darkness down below in the distance. This moment feels like the Coens throwing a rope to their poor, suffering character. Here is a clear way out, an exit both literal and metaphorical from the road he's on. At that moment it seems like his one out, like his life could continue happy and contented in that picturesque image. Maybe not a famous musician, but a happy person. But Llewyn lets the moment pass, he doesn't turn fast enough, and instead the car speeds back to New York, where the entire thing is doomed to repeat again.

Final Rating: 4.5(out of 5)

Monday, January 25, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Tangerine

Due to my status as an employed man with a pregnant wife, a 12 year old daughter, and no car, I am fairly limited in all three things I would need in order to keep up to date on all of the newest films; money, time, and steady transportation. This means that, although I love watching the Oscars every year (enough to have recently written a piece about this year's ceremony with my friend Rik), I haven't actually seen most of the nominated films before the awards air in quite a few years. I am endlessly omnivorous in my viewing habits, and yet my activity is largely dictated by easy availability. If it isn't on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, I pretty much don't get around to it. One thing I'm hoping to achieve with this movie-a-day project is to make more of an effort to see films that I might pass by in favor of some slick, forgettable action/horror/sci-fi flick, and also to watch more recent movies in an effort to keep abreast of current trends. Today's film, Tangerine, luckily fulfills both goals.

I went into the film pretty much blind; I read the netflix description, and I recalled seeing the name of the film mentioned on various film websites I frequent during festival season, but I had pretty much remained ignorant as to the film's plot and style. Tangerine follows a pair of transgendered women, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), fresh out in the real world after a month in jail, and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), her friend who accidentally breaks the news to Sin-Dee that her pimp boyfriend has been cheating on her with a cisgender woman. I suppose technically both women could be referred to as prostitutes- Sin-Dee was in jail for prostitution, and Alexandra is seen in the film with two clients- and yet it also seems a bit reductive to describe them that way. Sex work seems like such a minor part of their lives, simply something they do from time to time to get by, that describing them by that act doesn't do justice to the characters we meet. Alexandra, the more level-headed of the two, harbors dreams of being a lounge singer, and Sin-Dee deeply, naively wants nothing more than to get married to her pimp boyfriend and live happily ever after. But, after hearing about his indiscretions, Sin-Dee is looking for revenge, and the film follows her as she scours West Hollywood looking for the mysterious woman her boyfriend has been shacking up with. The film follows Sin-Dee on her quest for revenge, Alexandra on her quest for fame, or at least some form of expression, and an Armenian cab driver with a penchant for transgendered prostitutes (Karren Karagulian) as he searches for Sin-Dee. Along the way we're treated to a tour of the seedier side of an already seedy district, as crack is smoked in bathrooms, motel rooms are set up for meth-addled prostitutes to entertain large groups of transient men, and at least one family unit is dissolved in front of our eyes. Oh, and Tangerine is a comedy.

It might help to know that last part, about the comedy, before you actually watch Tangerine, because it would otherwise be easy to miss it. It's as if Edgar Wright had directed Requiem For A Dream; the subject matter is harrowing and often depressing, but it's pitched at such an energetic tone that it never completely devolves into outright miserablism. Tangerine was filmed for a reported $100,000, using only an iPhone with an anamorphic lense snapped onto it, and looks far better than any rational person would expect. Director Sean Baker has admitted to playing around with the film on his computer, correcting the color and giving everything a more cinematic look, but even knowing that Tangerine looks impressively professional for such a cheap consumer-ready origin. This cheapness, and the convenience of the iPhone, means that his camera can instantly and unobtrusively change to any desired angle and get into any cramped space. It's this energy he brings to the film that makes Tangerine one of the most vibrant films I've seen from last year.

Sean Baker, filming an honest-to-goodness movie on an iphone!

I'll be honest, when I first finished watching the film, I had to gather my thoughts. The film betrays it's comedic intent in a finale worthy of a classic farce, with characters bursting into rooms at just the wrong time and a half dozen people with their own intersecting plotlines all crashing into each other, and yet I wasn't sure how I felt about all of this. The characters can be so unlikable, and Sin-Dee in particular can be so shrill and obnoxious that I had trouble investing any emotion in her story. Alexandra, as I said, seems more levelheaded and her dreams of fame make her more immediately sympathetic, but she is revealed to be just as horrible a person as anyone else, and her constant refrain of 'I don't want to be involved in any drama' is laid bare for the lie that it is. James Ransone (an interesting character actor who seems to be popping up with an increasing, and welcome, frequency) shows up for the finale as Sin-Dee's cheating pimp, and he seems to get the tone just right, and allows the film's themes to gel around him. He plays a scumbag with an instant charisma and charm that lightens the mood considerably, even as events get worse for everyone involved. It takes awhile for some of the other characters, but eventually Sin-Dee's screeching naivete and self centered demeanor slips enough for her true vulnerability to show through, and it's clear the film has nothing but empathy for every person on screen, no matter how horrible their actions or choices.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)