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It Follows (2015)
Turbo review: great photography, lame premise. So it fits in with lots of lower budget horror films, scary and a little stupid at the same time. For some it will be scary enough to not matterthat's the point, right? And the cinematography is really very very nice.
It's also a male-gaze movie. Meaning that it has lots of young women with few clothes and the camera staring at them. Not sure if director/writer David Robert Mitchell is still working through puberty (his pictures show him very young, so it's not a stretch), but I found it a bit insulting and unnecessary. It cheapens the whole thing, even though it's a questionable quality of lots of horror films to demean the women in the story.
What works least is the main idea: some kind of force, not purely psychological, makes the victim see some kind of changeable person follow them. Everywhere. But always on foot, like a zombie. But with strangely fast and dangerous powers, too, whenever the scene requires. There is no rationale for this, no history, no nothingit just happens to be the premise of the movie, and so there you have it. Let down your guard and like it, or question it (as I did) and get annoyed.
The acting is not bad, but that's putting it on some kind of low budget horror film scale. It's meant to be "normal" and it is, with some uneven performances. What does rise above is the visual panache, which is wonderful. It might actually be low budget, too, but it doesn't mattercinematographer Mike Gioulakis makes the most of his digital camera rigs and over-the-top (not quite naturalistic) lighting. It's almost a requirement for students to watch for how to make the most out of simple equipment. Nice!
You'll have to decide whether this saves the movie. For me, there were just too many holes.
Inside Out (2015)
Totally fun, with some semi-serious analysis of how our brains work for a kid to absorb. And heck, maybe some adults, too. The story of a girl adjusting to moving to a new city and a new life is layered with a fanciful view of psychology. It's good stuff.
I didn't find it as mind-blowing (so to speak) or inventive as many seem to, having read a few reviews out there. The clichés here are expected and almost necessary (the types of people playing aspects of personality, for example). So that's fine. But the larger story of adjustment is painted in very ordinary ways, hitting the usual trigger points without much creativity. I'm not talking the in-the-brain stuff, which is totally great in a Bugs Bunny kinds of great crazy way, but the outside story.
I also don't really like this kind of animationit's not as cartoony as, say, two of my favorites, "Monsters Inc." and "The Incredibles," both by Pixar. And it's not over-realistic as some animated/CGI inventions are (from "Avatar" to "Polar Express"). So the characters (the daughter and her parents, mainly, but everyone, top to bottom) are kind of plasticky fake/real. The personalities also have that Disney kind of white-washed blandness that seems quaint on the surface but is empty and predictable and a bit off-putting at the same time.
I enjoyed this movie and it would be hard not to. And maybe this kind of children's film, or young adult film, should be aove serious criticism. But if it does warrant critique, and comparison to other animated features, it falls short. That's fair enough.
Finally, it does have some totally brilliant moments, especially when it shows the insides of other people's (and animal's) brains. Notice how the audience really (and finally) comes awake and laughs with a roar at this! Now that's great filmmaking. Too bad it's just a few minutes of the total.
Millions Like Us (1943)
This fast paced, light hearted and heartbreaking film about England during WWII starts great and gets better as it goes. The amazing thing, really, is that it was shot during the war and maintains a grim honesty as well as a necessary optimism. Hitler has to be defeatedbut the movie makers, and all the actresses in their homespun honesty, did not know he would be.
There are some who label this purely a propaganda war film, and that the gritty lack of romanticizing is part of preparing the populace for the overwhelming nature of the problem. And somehow in an hour and a half you really sense how a country could be turned inside out. The cheerful holiday at the shore that starts the movie turns to families being broken up, women having to work in factories, and eventually news of family members never to return, killed in action.
The American documentary that comes to mind here is "Rosie the Riveter," about the enormous contributions of women in hard core industry (the poster to that shows a woman with a jackhammer). This is a fictional telling of the same idea, and it's far more enjoyable and in fact moving. (The poster for this film just shows a woman's face, with family members in the backgroundthis is about the hearts and souls of the situation.)
I don't think of this as a true "propaganda" film for some simple reasons (all of which make me like the movie more). Foremost, it's not a government sponsored or requested movieit's not technically in service to some greater force (as propaganda really has to be). It does of course support the home cause, the war against Hitler, and it does so in a way that the audience will pay to see. That's the bottom line herethis is a really compelling romance about real people in a real contemporary world that the audience knows very well. There are countless people to relate to, and details to recognize. The love story aspects are not developed very well, but they are overflowing with sincerity.
Wikipedia mentions that the movie was a "hit" in the USSR, which was also fighting Hitler. And the reason (to me) is simple: it's about regular people, the plight of the working class. There are few pretensions here (if any). And the filming is unusually tightly framed, by which I mean the compositions fill the frame, almost cramping the space on the screen, and it makes for a pleasure to watch, and makes for a lot to look at in every frame. And then the acting itself, without star power, is so straight forward and believable, even the slower moments make you pay attention.
A great film in a vein very very different than, say, "Casablanca" in 1942 (which some people also label as propaganda!). And it came out the same year, and in a way had the same larger context, though beyond that there is nothing in common at all. The point being that this is a terrific film on many levels once you let go of the more polished, and more immediately impressive American films of the same time.
Hilarious. Drop dead funny start to finish. This is a madcap takeoff off the standard spy movie, complete with portable nuclear bomb, gadgets that do amazing things, hand-to-hand combat, and a motor scooter. Prepare thyself. The movie opens with Jude Law as a slim, Bond-type spy in a hot situation, and then there is the sneeze.
But this isn't a Bond spoof. It's not Jude Law but Melissa McCarthy who runs the film. And she has comic timing and that underdog toughness with a firecracker behind every comeback to make this film pop at every turn. If you aren't laughing at her face, or her wisecracks, you'll be laughing at the situation and the plot that never stops giving.
It's all nonsense of course. That's the point. This is in the vein of the "Airplane" and "Austin Powers" kind of comedy where a situation is created that allows for all kinds of absurdity. It's a gold mine. Characters get to say things we all wish we could say. Word play is a big part of it, so keep your ear tuned. And the supporting cast goes with the implausible flow, especially the evil woman (Rose Byrne) and a couple of McCarthy sidekicks (Jason Statham).
Who is director Paul Feig? A television director, and an actor (who went to my high school!), who made his true breakthrough recently with a string of three Melissa McCarthy films (including this one). They have hit a stride that you need to see to appreciate. And they both know it.
Worth seeing, and worth seeing twice.
Never on Sunday (1960)
An odd movieodd partly because people still watch it despite its painful artifice. Nothing is quite right, and a lot is quite wrong, including the humor, the gender assignments (sexist stuff), and the larger plot, what there is of it. It's set in Greece, and has a painfully dated and almost naive tourist view of Greek "culture" on the docks of a fishing village.
Director Jules Dassin, born in Middletown, Connecticut just as Homer, the leading rather clueless character of this movie, loved Greece. He was not Greek, but Russian Jewish, but he died there after his up and down career as a director. Dassin has a following of sorts for other films, mainly noirish pieces like "The Naked City" with its debt to Weegee. Here he goes for a thin drama about a prostitute who everyone loves (all the men, of course, especially because she works for free, but the women, apparently, also, how nice!). He's an uneven director, and a not so compelling actor, but apparently no one had the heart to tell him this.
There is some sharp acting here, not what you would call naturalistic, but colorful, especially from the leading woman, Melina Mercouri. And all the location shooting is fun, for sure.
So you can get yourself in the mood for this kind of European old school film, but for 1960 it's weirdly out of date, and it lacks the punch of other true Euro productions of the time (and I'm not just talking French New Wave, but all kinds of great post-war movies). I'm usually willing to go with the flow because I like old styles and am willing to shake off some of the weird and imperfect quirks. But I had trouble doing that here, and so it ended up being a chore, and almost an embarrassment.
White Zombie (1932)
This is the perfect example of the direction of Bela Lugosi's career after "Dracula" the year before. The sets, the creaky acting, and even the plot (with zombies) is all canned horror stuff. What made "Dracula" work was partly that it was first, and that the story is so classic. Here we have a more routine series of events with some familiar necessitiesthe innocent woman becoming a zombie, the innocent man trying to find a way out of the mess, and Lugosi and the knowing and powerful man behind all the evil. They even drink suspicious looking fluids from gobletsthough it's not blood this time.
And frankly the production values are even lower than for "Dracula," despite a year going by. What does still work well is the mood, and the gloom, and the dark drama. That's the best of it, and that's steady all through.
One great aspect here is the settingHaiti. At least in some scenes. So there are primitive drums and weird rural customs alongside impossibly large Gothic interiors (straight from the Dracula mode). I can't say I liked the movie, but I enjoyed parts of it, and liked comparing it to other Universal efforts from this important period for that studio. Lugo himself is always a trip, too, and so enjoy that, too.
Holy Motors (2012)
A bizarre (and highly praised) film that is ambitious and inventive to the point of pain. I wish it was as brilliant as it intends. As we follow the leading character Oscar through a series of seemingly unconnected events, it struck me that the goal is simply to stage these odd moments, almost choreographed surreal adventures where he takes on different personae (with elaborate costumes). The events don't achieve what you might call depth or meaning. They are interestinghow could they fail on that score?yet interesting turns out to be not enough.
Still, look for high style throughout, some terrific underworld insanity, some unfiltered sex and violence, and lots and lots of pretense. I have a feeling there are some people who might rate this among their favorite films and so I'd say give this a try. It might take half an hour to know whether the changing roles and scenes (and the self-indulgence) will keep you sustained.
Since Oscar is shuttled from one location to another in a stretch limo, you get the feeling he might just be a filthy rich eccentric who refuses to be bored with life. He admits he started doing this (every day, we get the sense) for "the beauty of the act," and this high level of aesthetic tension seems insufficient for the depravity involved.
This is a French-German enterprise, set in Paris. It has enough quiet moments to make you impatient, but from the pause it will take off on another romp. The actor has to be admired, for sureDenis Levant, known for his boundary pushing roles (from Shakespeare to experimental film). The director, Leos Carax is likewise associated with the avant garde and with Levant. But they have tried to keep their grand experiment traditionally cinematic, as well, so there are lots of ways to appreciate what's going on. The filming is sublime, the ambiance from lighting to set design is gorgeous.
There is that dangerous point in a art when a work gets so serious it demands of itself a kind of perfect to succeed. And there are so many little holes here, even some odd moments in the acting, it becomes almost laughable. At times. Which is too bad. There is a lot here to take quite seriously, I think. Then again, maybe it's meant to be an absurdist dark comedy all the way. Which means we're allow to laugh after all. Go for it.
A huge spy spoof, lots of fun, with all the usual exotic tools and locations. And it includes a spy academy section where recruits perform bizarre and impossible feats.
But not all spoofs are equal. This one is a bit mashed together, ranging from James Bond references (with Colin Firth playing that kind of spy in a suit) to kids being kids (racing cars around or taunting each other like they are in high school). There is a plot, for sure, and Samuel Jackson plays a quirky bad guy with a lisp out to ruin the world via everyone's cell phones.
Things never get slow. Fight scenes are over the top improbable, not in the Jason Bourne way where skill prevails, nor even the James Bond way where cleverness and a couple of gadgets comes to play, but a combination of these with entertaining excess. One woman on prosthetic legs manages to leap, fly, and cut people in half with gymnastic (c.g.i.) aplomb.
The principle character is one of the recruits, played by young British actor Taron Egerton, and for me he lacks screen presence. But we are meant to relate to him, for sure, a troubled kid with immense talent who gets a chance to fix his life by becoming a super spy. OK overall.
Bottom linea great fun movie for people who already like spy movies. I'd compare it to "Guardians of the Galaxy" but that movie is far better than this onefunnier, better effects, better spoof referencing. "Kingsman" has lots of clever twists, so give it a go. But you might have a feeling along the way that it's all kind of "stupid" and a little disappointing. And you might give the parallel, zanier "Spy" a serious (and non- sexist) try...I liked it a lot.
Mother and Child (2009)
A drama filled with crosscurrents and heavy emotional stuff, yet told in such a normal and realistic way we come to believe it. And like it. Especially the acting, with Naomi Watts and Annette Bening leading two generations (and defining the title).
More than just exploring what a woman and her daughter (or her mother) need from one another (and give), this is about that first stage of becoming a motherand deciding whether to keep the baby at all. So you see, it gets huge. And then comes the long term issue of adoption and finding, with luck, your adopted mother. The anger and released fears and the decades of doubts all flip and resolve, and this is all here.
What helps all along is the imperfect characters. In fact, Watts (as the conniving, independent daughter) and Bening (as the bitter, lonely mother) are really unlikable. At first. What keeps you going is the tenderness of two of the men, played by Jimmy Smits and Samuel L. Jackson, both with wonderful subtlety. While it never becomes "father and child" at all, these men really help nurture the mother and daughter relationships.
So who is this Columbian director and writer who pulled this together so well? He's had a mixed career writing and producing, and directing, including some "Six Feet Under" episodes and other spot jobs. He seems to lean toward interpersonal dramas, and has a knack for playing down sentiment while tuning into emotional impact (which is very different). It works.
Some people might find the plot too controlled, too contrived (almost but not quite to the point of predictability). Others might find the restraint all a bit too realistic, so that you kind of see too much real life and not enough theater. For me it walked a great line between all these poles. Good stuff!
Prince Avalanche (2013)
I know this is meant to be a small, touching, offbeat film that charms and infiltrates the heart. But I found it a huge bore. I could never get over the threshold to connect with the characters, as likable as they are. The dialog is nice in a down home normal kind of way, and the two guys have a rapport which really might have a kind of resonance in a different setting.
The setting is quirky, off in the hinterlands of Texas, doing road crew work. So basically the two young men are alone. Usually they talk about little, or nothing, but now and then they get around to their faltering love lives back in the city. The light cuts across the scrubby tress, the road is narrow and forlorn, the air must smell good. It's a weird kind of heaven, and yet things are so wrong, too. Which is life, after all.
Now I may as well mention that the main character is Paul Rudd, who is a terrific actor. And I suppose he is terrific here, but can't lift up the thin world of the script all by himself. Emile Hirsch plays against him in this not-buddy story, and he's believable, too, so it isn't the acting that stifles.
Director David Gordon Green is also the writer, and I think as an Indie comedy there are things going on here some people might really click into. But you'll know in the first ten minutes what you're going to get in the following eighty. Give it a look and listen.
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