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A pure, perpetual suspense machine.
It's the slimness of it. The clean open shots, mostly done in wides. The fact that it has so very few locations. It's the silent, completely blank, entity that is THE SHAPE. There are a mere five kills, modest by today's standards, and very little gore.
John Carpenter's "Halloween", which he co-wrote, co-produced, directed, musically scored (legendarily so), and co-edited, is a tight thriller built on the back of a Canadian thriller from four years prior called "Black Christmas", and it's the starting gun for the slasher genre.
You can't get from "Psycho" to "Friday the 13th" without passing through "Halloween".
It's the afore mentioned economy of narrative that maximizes its tone and amplifies its horror. The movie is incredibly suspenseful.
I mentioned how influential "Black Christmas" was on this film, and "Christmas" is a great movie, but even there, the increased scope and scale of "Black Christmas" demands more drama, it mutes the scares by not being singularly focused on them. Not so "Halloween". "Halloween" is a pure, perpetual suspense machine.
It has its flaws, of course. Some of the acting is rough (though never from Jamie Lee Curtis) and a lot of the dialog rings false. You'll probably feel the need to yell at the protagonist when she, TWICE, throws a knife away from her in disgust without making sure her attempted murderer is dead. You might find Donald Pleasance a bit of a scene muncher.
But for a budget of about $300,000 John Carpenter changed genre cinema forever, and the genius of what he achieved here has never been matched, certainly not in a film that bears the name "Halloween".
Lacks the exciting simplicity of the original.
This is the eleventh "Halloween" film. It means well and is mostly fun. It features some strong kills, decent payoffs, and well photographed and put together set pieces. I think David Gordon Green (big fan of "Prince Avalanche") is an excellent director. It's wonderful to see an older woman leading a horror film, twice as wonderful that the woman is Jamie Lee Curtis. But the newest "Halloween", like all of the sequels, doesn't seem to understand that the spirit of the original is in its simplicity.
So this time around we see THE SHAPE kill far more people, we visit far more locations, we're introduced to more characters (although having three generations of Survivor Girls is cool), we get more backstories... but we lose the straight shot of suspense that defined the original.
The stalking, the hunting, the silence, all of that is gone in favor of ramped up violence, more random kills, and less tension building. The new film is less horror/suspense and more action/horror. I assume this is the case for two reasons:
1. Carpenter's simplicity is incredibly difficult. 2. Sequels always come with story baggage.
I think there was a much more interesting and subtle take on Laurie Strode PTSD that would have gotten us to the same ending, elicited the same emotion, and given this great actress a lot more range to work with.
However we do get some star making turns from Andi Matichak, Miles Robbins, and Jibrail Nantambu.
This is not "Halloween". It's "Halloween" fan fiction. It's not the worst of the sequels, but its still just "Halloween" in name only.
PS: And that cold open... just awful. That's what "working too hard" looks like.
An uncelebrated Japanese horror masterpiece.
"Take me back to the capitol city and bring me everything I desire...use your strength to please me."
Nobuhiko Obayashi 1977 "House" is the requisite Japanese horror film we talk about when we talk about the 70's. It rightfully deserves its place among the greatest, most influential, and certainly most memorable of the decade.
But now let's talk about, "Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees". I hadn't even heard of this movie until this weekend, but "Blossoming Cherry Trees", currently streaming on Filmstruck, is a visually stunning, quietly insane, masterpiece.
Careful to insert "quiet" in there, because it's not insane like "House". It's not over-the-top style dripping in excessive wave after wave of special effects. "Cherry Trees" is just a beautiful shot, bizarrely paced, horribly tempered, kind of insanity.
The director, Masahiro Shinoda, came out of Shochiku studious, oldest of the "big four" movie houses in Japan. There, in the early fifties, he learned his craft as an assistant to the great master, Yasujiro Ozu. Possibly my favorite filmmaker of all time (this changes as the wind blows).
Shinoda's first film as director in 1960, "One Way Ticket to Love", placed him firmly among the Japanese New Wave, though he doesn't seem to have quite caught on in the West like Shohei Imamura or Seijun Suzuki did.
"Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees" is a strange, gorgeously shot fable. In a land where walking under the blossoms of a cherry tree in bloom will drive a person mad, a base, violent, mountain bandit kidnaps a beautiful woman from the "capital" to be his wife. In love with her, he goes to ever more excessive lengths to please her whims, which themselves become more and more ungrounded from reality, turning towards the utterly macabre. Beauty and love, and what we do for them, is the horror on display here.
The movie stars Tomisaburo Wakayama from "Lone Wolf and Cub" as the barbarous mountain warrior, and Shinoda's wife, Shima Iwashita, as the mad city woman.
The movie is bookended with stunning, open, vistas of an entire valley filled with endless blooming cherry blossom trees, which composer Toru Takemitsu's score, atonal and traditional-flute haunted, somehow makes ominous even in the brightest of daylight, like giant, swaying ghosts. Drifts of cherry blossoms swoop on whirling winds across the images, and, as we near our climax, sometimes fill the ground, dense as snow pack.
But as the action moves from the mountains to the city, the style turns more theatrical, with sets designed like stages, allowing for a single camera point to gaze in at the choreographed action; large matte painted backgrounds in certain parts of the city to create a world ravaged by violence, weather, and immorality; opening narration, seemingly read by a child, stick it firmly into the mire of twisted storybooks; and the bold acting style, not uncommon for Japanese cinema of the era, recalls kabuki and noh styles.
This is a great, great film. If you have the penchant for 1970's Japanese cinema, I say seek it out.
The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Amazing filmmaking, but the script doesn't hold up.
"The Legend of Hell House" is an influential, extremely well-regarded, haunted house classic from 1973, penned by a master of modern horror, and it absolutely deserves to be seen.
First and foremost, "Hell House" is gorgeous to look at. A British film directed by John Hough - who had made one other, quite good, horror film for Hammer by this point, the 1971 "Twins of Evil" (and would later go on to direct the "Witch Mountain" movies for Disney) - "Hell House" had a very large impact on Sam Raimi and deeply inspired the tone and cinematic style of the first "Evil Dead" film. The great Alan Hume photographed "Hell House", and if you compare the way he shoots the extraordinary exteriors of the house with the way Raimi and his DP, Tim Philo, shot the cabin in "Evil Dead", particularly when you add the interplay of the music, you can see that the intention, use of light, and style is almost identical. The same can be said for Hume's radical camera work, such as placing actors up close and center to a wide angle lens (particularly as they laugh maniacally, teetering on the precipice of madness), in his use of Dutch angles, his rotating mounted camera work, and, again, in the use of light throughout the film.
"Evil Dead" also owes a debt to this film's soundtrack. The extraordinary music by Electrophon Ltd. makes everything drip with darkness, all while sounding very modern, and the way it interacts with the images is another example of how this movie was essentially just Sam Raimi's film school.
The set work of Robert Jones in this is fantastic. And for a film watcher like me, great set-design can often be enough.
Before I dig into the bad of this film, I also want to talk about the performance of Pamela Franklin as psychic medium Florence Tanner. Franklin is so watchable in this movie. Literally, the moment she's on screen, the movie becomes more alive. It's incredible. She sells every moment of it. Even her to-the-death wrestling match with a hilariously bad stuffed black cat prop is glorious (well, it would be glorious anyway, I live for that stuff). And the simple truth is, when Franklin's not on screen, the movie just isn't as interesting.
The script is by the legendary American genre author Richard Matheson, he of "Omega Man"/"I am Legend" fame, and is based on his novel, one of the most famous of the haunted house books. But honestly, this is where things get a little shaky. The set up of this film is amazing. So much style and dread. And the ideas are big. Who are you when you're in this house? Are any of the choices you make your own? Are you always just a little possessed by the house, never fully yourself when you're inside? Four people enter as themselves, but who will come out as them self, or even just survive for that matter? Great stuff.
But two of the characters, the physicist and his wife, are written with virtually no nuance and they play their one-note characters pretty straight. Roddy Mcdowell is super watchable and interesting, until the end, when he's given too much bad dialogue to scene munch through, then even he can't really pull it off.
And that's where "Hell House" derails, the end. It places great dramatic weight on some pretty weak payoffs, and you can suddenly see through all the gorgeous gothic style and modern synthesizer darkness to the rickety half-formed structure of the script beneath. Then the credits roll and you think, "Am I supposed to care about those last reveals?"
The King (2017)
THE KING is ambitious.
There is a moment in Eugene Jarecki's mostly successful cinema essay, THE KING, where something to this extent is voiced about the success of "race" music, or black music, in America, "America profited from the enslavement of black culture and then, after resisting giving freedom to that culture for as long as it possibly could, started profiting from the soulful cry that arose from their suffering."
THE KING is most interesting when it's wrestling with this problematic American history through the lens of Elvis Presley - a white performer who rose to mega global super-stardom in large part by mining the music of the African Americans who could never dream of achieving the same level of fame. But THE KING wants to do more than that. It wants to map the entirety of American history on to the life of Elvis. From the early concept of America as an "experiment in democracy" equating it to the early, idealistic, wide-eyed Elvis; to the current America, seemingly synonymous with runaway capitalism, paralleling the bloated, addicted, Vegas Elvis. Sometimes the metaphor works clearly, cleanly, and even profoundly, other times it feels forced. It's not helped by an almost constant quick-cut, manic editing style that never settles into much of a groove. There are two very powerful montages in the last act that drive home the thesis Jarecki is going for, and they are wonders of contextual editing and visual meta-meaning, but because they're dropped at the end of what is essentially a montage-movie, they're impact is muted. What should have been an apex moment in the visual storytelling comes off as just a slight uptick in the pace and rhythm of the film. Apparently there was close to 250 hours of footage shot for the doc, and you can see it in the editing. There's a lot that the filmmakers want you to see, but the pacing, tone, and thematic clarity suffer from a lack of breathing room. Some of the interviews are outstanding. Chuck D, as always, is a national treasure. Ethan Hawk is affable as hell. John Hiatt has one particular moment of emotional clarity that's pretty much worth the price of admission. And, in a surprise powerhouse showing, Mike Myers turns out to be an incredibly astute and impish observer of the American phenomenon. Sadly all of these interviews are really just reduced to sound bites in the frenetic race to get from moment to moment, beat to beat.
I have to also mention the musical performances, which are outstanding, but also, not given a whole lot of room to stretch.
But THE KING is good, you should absolutely see it. THE KING is ambitious. THE KING is even important. If the failures and successes of THE KING were the failures and successes of more modern American art and thought, maybe we wouldn't be in the mess we're in today. Check it out.
Treacly and pedestrian.
What starts as a nice, but somewhat soft, attempt at smashing the horror and romance genres together turns into a complete mess once the script makes its third act reveal.
As the protagonist stumbles onto the truth at the center of the love story the film abandons any attempts at authenticity and shows a disregard for the craft of writing characters and for finding the most cinematic expression in the narrative. Instead it opts for endless, uninteresting dialogue straight out of a twee CW supernatural TV show, or worse, a Twilight film.
The filmmakers are incapable of ramping up to anything cinematically horrible, beautiful, strange, or interesting. So instead of cinema, we get multiple, lengthy, awfully written expositions of the needlessly complicated preternatural occurrence at the center of the film, even though they've visually told us almost everything we need to know early on.
And the characterization is the worst part of all of this. We are supposed to believe that the love interest is 2000 years old, but she is the least believable timeless character ever put into a genre piece. 2000 years and still all of the communication skills, gravitas and air of a annoying, immature young adult prevail. My forty six year old wife has a deeper sense of the years she's lived in her general air, than this character has in even the simplest line of dialogue or delivery. We're supposed to believe that our young male protagonist is somehow interesting enough to hold her attention, even though he's a just some cookie-cutter nice guy. She's been in and out of human relationships, presumably with some extraordinary partners, for thousands of years across hundreds of cultures, but this guy somehow has the spark? It's all bereft of the most fundamental imagination.
The direction is super competent. The photography, while a little flat when it comes to light, is compositionally strong. For the first two-thirds, the film is able to lock down an interesting tone, despite a heavy reliance on some pretty lame images of insects that are supposed to enhance the creep factor and convey nature's strange permutations, or whatever. But I can't stress this enough, the script is really bad. The dialogue can be painful, and the fact that the filmmakers don't know when to shut up and just let their story be told visually, makes for an arduous viewing on the back half of things.
I was really excited about the The Endless. The trailer looks engaging. It's interest in that film which prompted me to try this one, but The Endless has the exact same writers, and that dampens my enthusiasm tremendously. Hopefully there's been some growth between the films.
Little Evil (2017)
Worth a Slack Night's Viewing.
The current rating seems a little unfair to me. Sure, there's a lot that's soft and undercooked in this flick, but it's not unfunny, and the premise alone, as well as how far it's willing to go with it, should win it some extra points. The flick has enough surprises, laughs, and strong, clear-eyed direction to make it worth a slack night's viewing.
Eli Craig's got a knack for making horror/comedy out of big ideas. "Tucker & Dale vs. Evil" is essentially a horror film about bigotry and false perceptions of the other, and here Craig's made a light-hearted, but still relatively rich, riff on the horrors of being a step-father who's trying to connect with an emotionally distant child. All of that is to be commended, and I intend to keep following Craig's output.
Still, I get it, the son is essentially a non-character, more like a prop, really; there's zero chemistry between Evangeline Lilly and Adam Scott; and for a movie about relationships, it's pretty lazy when it comes to actually depicting the way people in those relationships act toward's one another. It could have really gone for it, the way "This is the End" went for it, but it didn't, it chose mush over metal in its overall approach, so go in expecting pretty light fare.
But honestly, it's better than most of the made for Netflix movies.
(Okja is an outlier)
All the quality of a made for Netflix movie
Personally, I thought all the CGI buried Skarsgard's performance, I have no idea if he is interesting in this role or not. The film is rife with overplayed, standard horror imagery right out of the modern playbook (if I see the stutter cut monster run one more time...) and it's all very, very tired.
There is very little imagination in scares, they have no weight or meaning. The whole thing feels like a YA horror story made for Netflix.
Sophia Lillis and Jeremy Ray Taylor are breakout stars though, they're fun to watch, but in a standout year for horror, IT wasn't it.
Hopefully, you enjoy it more than I did. I certainly seem to be in the minority here.
Patti Cake$ (2017)
Macdonald is Utterly Believable and Amazing to Watch
When Sundance celebrates a film it's not a sign of innovation or creative courage or unique vision. It just means that a low budget film is as much a slave to clichés, poorly constructed tropes, and mechanical audience pleasing manipulation as a mainstream one. The only difference is that it's focused on underrepresented characters or subject matter. And that's good, that's important, of course. Yet, I most often use "Sundance Celebrated" as a derogatory term synonymous with a lack of creative courage. Films celebrated at Sundance seldom work for me.
PATTI CAKE$ is guilty of all those things.
And it completely worked for me. I dug this film immensely. Why? Mostly because I'm a sucker, I guess.
I'm a sucker for movies about people making music. I'm a sucker for movies about working class people trying to get by. I'm a sucker for movies about creativity and dreams and struggle. I'm a sucker for movies with energy and a sense of fantasy mixed with the hardships of the real world. But all of that can go horribly wrong. It's easy to earn an eye roll when two characters hold hands for the first time and the music swells. It's easy to lose patience when the mechanics of the script become so incredibly predictable that you can chart the struggles and victories in the first ten minutes.
Patti Cake$ is partly saved by director Geremy Jasper's amazing synergy of music and imagery. The film is an absolute blast to watch if you love movies about music. But what really sells it is actress Danielle Macdonald as Killer P, A.K.A Patti Cake$.
Macdonald is sick in this. Utterly amazing. I fully believed she was a New Jersey girl with strong flow who the director found in some parking lot and decided to build a film around. I was ecstatic to find she's an Australian actress who, before taking this role, had never heard a New Jersey accent and didn't know how to rap.
It's through her authenticity that I bought into the fantasy culmination of the perfectly orchestrated underdog struggle. Through her that I bought into the love and the joy and the hope.
And I walked out of the film happy and charged, finally content just to be an audience member pleased.
Watching Sally Hawkins Act Can Make Your Heart Grow Ten Times Larger
The film MAUDIE doesn't always hold the line between pathos & schmaltz. It hits most of its notes in clear, concise, but in unambitious ways. It sometimes redundantly says things that have been clearly and more powerfully shown. It's a bit of a hand holder and not all that courageous creatively.
However, it beautifully photographs Nova Scotia, the mise en scène and costumes are fantastic, and Ethan Hawk does a damn fine job holding his own...
But the real takeaway is this: watching Sally Hawkins act can make your heart grow ten times larger. She is transcendent. The film stayed in my mind solely because of the work she put on that screen.
PS: Showing documentary footage of the actual Maud and Everett Lewis at the end of the film rammed home just what a beautified, Hollywood-esque, version of this story MAUDIE is and made me long for something more authentic and true to the reality I saw in those final shots.
O Ornitólogo (2016)
Imagine if Robert Bresson and Walerian Borowczyk were a single person, a synthesis filmmaker. Now imagine that person is gay. Now imagine that person had a fever dream. That dream would be "The Ornithologist". (If you understood that sentence we're soulmates).
If you're in the market for a psycho-sexual erotic biblical parable that flirts with bondage, urination fetish, bestiality, and just good old fashion beautiful men rolling around naked on a beach, but, you know, all done in an artistically austere, under- emphasized way and then hazed into a hallucinatory mist of a story, then this is your jam right here.
What did I think of it?
I thought it was AWESOME!
It Comes at Night (2017)
There is the inside and there is the outside.
Inside the mind it is dark. You imagine it is safe. You take refuge there. Outside of the mind is the world. The world is sick, dangerous.
You have a door between the two. You keep it locked. You have a protocol for the door to keep what is out, out. The people you trust, that you let inside, you expect them to keep to the protocol as well.
But at night something comes the door can't defend against. At night the dreams come, because the dreams live inside, with you. Dreams of doubt and fear. It's at night when the door is most necessary... and most likely to be compromised.
"It Comes at Night" shrugs off traditional horror beats and embraces the extended discourse of a nightmare, the inky blacks lit only by a hand-held lantern, the invisible contagions that we can't keep out no matter how hard we try, the way a fire we must light attracts things that might do us harm.
It's "Night of the Living Dead" without zombies. It's "The Thing" without a monster. It's the distrust we have of everything outside, even the outsiders that are inside. It's the long narrow dark hallway to a door that's supposed to be locked, must be locked, but isn't.
And it's one of the very best horror films of the year so far. A year that has already been a landmark one for progressive, humanist, and existential horror.
And yes, it is a horror film, no matter what others may tell you.
Wonder Woman (2017)
I didn't like it, but that's not what's important
Wonder Woman is a sincere film. Its heart is in the right place. It's thematically bang on. It's important. I'm very glad it exists. I'm glad it's being universally praised. It has some fantastic costume work in it and some strong production design. It is, indeed, better than recent previous attempts at bringing DC characters to the big screen (but then the bar has been set pretty low). I see little girls dressing as the protagonist and it makes my heart sing. I see comic book stores hosting Wonder Woman Day, I see the world falling in love with a character that I've always adored. These are all wonderful things.
I was very excited for this flick. When the reviews were coming in strong, I let my hopes get high. I admit that I actively ignored my Rotten Tomatoes rule of thumb (any movie with more than 90% RT rating has a huge probability of sucking).
But the film is, subjectively, pretty bad.
It is overwrought. It is written as if by algorithm, meaning that it is simply an amalgamation of standard scenes you've seen before in other movies, just reskinned for this world and this character, everyone acts out every scene in extremely predictable ways. Its third act fight scene is extremely problematic and boring. It is inconsistent, Wonder Woman's presence and powers fluctuate so wildly that she can fight and kill a god, but not a handful of German's with WW I era rifles on a beach?
The CGI is criminally bad, the physics in the special effects shots are so off that it seems like I'm watching a last gen video game.
Its dialogue has exactly three modes: exposition, clumsy attempts at humor, and stating out loud the thematic intent of the scene.
Its fight scenes are more often excuses to pose the character than acts of complex, readable staging, particularly the awful final fight. The use of slow motion in the fight scenes is so reliable and consistent that it seems like a parody of Zach Snyder's already completely unengaged video game fight choreography.
The villains mean nothing. They are uninspired, dreary, and underutilized. Apart from seeing the very well visualized Themyscira, and the handful of times we get to see Wonder Woman in action, there is very little fun to be had in this movie. There is almost nothing that feels inventive and most of the film is colored in that same drab, dreary way that all of the recent DC films are colored.
The movie is looooong, with a running time that used to be reserved for movies like The Piano, The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now, films with sprawling cinematic, thematic, and emotive ambitions that this does not even begin to have.
Lastly, I can't tell if Gadot is incapable of acting or if the script gave her so little of substance to work with that she did an amazing job just keeping it all together.
I have to ask why? Why does the DC universe so actively avoid fun, immersive, well crafted, and inventive storytelling? Why do they double down on this faux-epic, dismal pap? Why are they so afraid of color? Of bold comic-book like choices?
Personally, I wish I had watched a little bit of Wonder Woman on cable and then turned it off like I have every other recent DC movie, but maybe voting with my dollar at least helped change the backward ass notion that women can't open big budget movies.
Oh, well. As I said, the most important thing is that this movie exists, that people like it and that the character is back in the spotlight. That's all that matters. My opinion certainly doesn't. This wasn't a soulless or intellectually bankrupt film like the other DC movies have been, it was just bad, but maybe bad is good enough.
The Life, Times, & Assault of a Narcissist
Paul Verhoeven is as thematically ambitious, ethically challenging, impishly excessive, and darkly funny as ever in this, his best film since returning to European cinema.
Isabelle Huppert is amazing as a destructive narcissist who may have inherited sociopathic tendencies and impaired empathy from her father and who creates video games riddled with overtly sexualized misogynist content, even after becoming a sexual assault victim herself.
The assault sequences are not easy to watch, and I'm still wrestling with the ethical soul of the film, but Verhoeven takes, what on paper, should be terribly offensive and manages to humanize it, as well as give it an almost Hitchcockian air at times.
There's a lot here about the sexual and social needs of men and women and the consequences of those needs on one another. Open to debate is whether or not the work justifies its existence, or that we need a man to tell this story, but taking all that into account, Verhoeven navigates the tricky material extremely well.
The fact that it runs head on towards some pretty touchy subject matter means viewer mileage may vary, but personally, I've been thinking about it for days.
Just Sink Into Farhadi's Rhythms & Sense of Place
While not the masterpiece of "A Separation" or "Firework's Wednesday", it's none-the-less always wonderful to have a new film by Asghar Farhadi in the theaters here in the States. His humanism and naturalism place him on equal footing with the Dardenne brothers and the fact that he's doing his social character cinema in Iran makes him even more important to a Western viewer.
This film quietly unfolds, taking its time. Not having any notion of the plot going in allowed me to sink into Farhadi's rhythms and sense of place and allowed his turns of story to take me by surprise. Eventually, the current reaches an incredibly charged, tense, and emotional last act that never once falls into traditional narrative traps. The final few shots are masterfully simple and perfectly contextualized, supporting a whole film's worth of meaning in and of themselves.
My adoration for Farhadi remains.
La La Land (2016)
A Dissenting Opinion
A fantastically fun opening number and a pathos fueled final montage just can't save a staid script, mostly uninspired musical numbers, and good acting but thin "performing" from the leads. I was far more bored than charmed.
All and all it's nicely photographed, but over-colored in some desperate need to be dreamy, artificial and plastic. Too many super hot reds gobble up visual information instead of actually lighting the leads and the sets.
To its credit, it's ambitious as hell, well-intentioned, and a bit of a production triumph. I appreciate many of the hand-built sets. But as an experience, it mostly fell flat for me. I know I'm in the minority here, which is totally fine it's just a movie, (from the disgusting display of opinion bashing in the comments section you'd think this was politics or something) but personally, I would've rather rewatched "Singing in the Rain".
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
In Every Way That Matters...
There are so many ways to feel and experience and comment on this film.
AS A WRITER: For lovers of language, phrasing, and meaning, hearing James Baldwin's writings and seeing him speak is enough to spark the highest praise alone. His capacity for observational conclusion and his use of language to transmit these conclusions is extraordinary. In this, he is one of the finest chroniclers of the American condition, not just one of the finest African American chroniclers. If you don't believe that going into this movie, you will when you come out of it. Spending close to two hours listening to the man's work is an utterly intoxicating experience. In this regard the film is extraordinary.
AS A FILM LOVER: We know that James Baldwin was a cinephile and one of the great film critics in American history. He wrote extensively about cinema and a large part of this film consists of clips from Hollywood's rough history of reducing or falsifying the black American experience, often with Baldwin's own criticisms laid on top of them, weighing the clips down, eviscerating them. There are hard juxtapositions here as well, such as the innocence of Doris Day pressed up against the reality of lynched black men and women swaying in trees. By contextualizing these images in new and fresh ways the film is able to paint an impressionistic portrait of American denial. And despite a small handful of shots that don't entirely synergistically ring with the Baldwin text (I'm thinking of a few clips – by no means all - that the filmmaker himself shot), there are enough times when the words being spoken and the images being shown are so surprising and spot on as to be true, high, art. In this regard, the film is extraordinary.
AS A HUMAN BEING: The greatest moral failing of this nation is not its imperialism, not its militarism, not its materialism or escapism or consumerism, – though the film makes a strong case that all these things are tangled together – America's greatest moral failing is its racism. And the scalpel procession with which this movie uses Baldwin's words and character to autopsy this vast cultural sin is inspiring. Baldwin himself was never a racist, though God knows, I wouldn't blame him if he had been. Baldwin was never a classist or a nationalist or a demagogue of any sort. Baldwin was a man. He demanded that he be perceived as a man and that black America be perceived as people, with all the dignity and rights that affords. He looked America in the eye and asked a simple question, why do you NEED to dehumanize me? And he followed the question up with a statement, as long as you dehumanize me, America can never succeed. It was not a threat. It was another of his observational truths, the idea that our racism undoes us, keeps us from being great. In the way "I'm Not Your Negro" illuminates Baldwin's call for a higher humanist agenda, the film is extraordinary.
AS AN ACTIVIST: The film implies that the most horrifying thing you can do to a movement is to kill its leaders. Not just because you deny dignity and rights to the people who look to those leaders for hope, but you also impact the movement for generations. The natural order of generational transition, that a great leader will grow old, evolve, change, and teach the next generation how to lead, is violently interrupted. What we are left with is the idea that there is nothing Malcolm X or Martin Luther King could have done to keep from being killed except to be silent – not an option for either, nor for Baldwin. X was killed even as he was becoming less militant, less radical, reversing against the idea of "the white devil". This "evolution" did not save him. King was killed even as he was becoming more radicalized, more desperate, slowly walking back the rule of love for the rule of forced respect. This "evolution" did not save him. There was nothing the White America that killed them wanted from them but silence in the face of dehumanization. And in its subtle, artistic, nuanced way, this film is about all of that. But it also ties itself to the moment. Images of Ferguson, photographs of unarmed black children left dead in the streets by police, video of Rodney King being brutalized beyond any justification, all of it means that Baldwin's words ring timeless, his call to action not remotely diffused by our distance from him and his time. In this regard, the film is extraordinary.
AS A LOVER OF PEOPLE: Baldwin is by no means a traditionally handsome man, but he is a striking one. His charisma is nuclear and his face is always animated. When he speaks, the depth and warmth of the content play across his features. His eyebrows lift all the way to the middle of his forehead when he pauses to gather his considerable intellect for attack. His eyes turn down and to the right when he knows he's eviscerating an illegitimate institution. He punctuates an observation with a smile so genuine and wide that it emits its own light. To watch him command a talk show or a lecture is cinema enough. In that it gives us the gift of watching Baldwin speak – among so many other things - the film is extraordinary.
I guess I have some small aesthetic qualms with the way the film is put together, but to what end? These are my own little opinions about the tiniest minutia of filmmaking. Personal hang- ups on a certain cut here or there, useless criticisms on a work that succeeds so profoundly in all the most valuable and important ways.
The film is extraordinary, important, and genuine in any and every way that matters, and that's all there is to it.
Two men - one the heart, one the mind - of their times, and ours.
What starts off as a bit of a light trip, adorned in the most superficial of psychedelic and new- age imagery, ends up being a beautiful deep dig into the philosophy and psychology of death, as well as a fantastic history lesson that reminds us of just how simenal the work, minds and hearts of Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, both together and after they diverged, really were (or IS in the case of Ram Dass, who is still with us).
I discovered Ram Dass' "Be Here Now" on my mom's bookshelf when I was, I don't know, twelve or thirteen years old. I was a latchkey single-chid, a product of Reaganomics, I had a single parent who had to work her ass off to support us, so I was home alone a lot. That's when Ram Dass first came in to my life. "Be Here Now" was pictographic and I was already a huge fan of comic books. It was easy to understand but far from simple. It blew the top of my head open.
Eventually that started me down the path of discovering other "like-minded" minds. Alan Watts, Terrence McKinnon, Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan (whose "The Medium is the Message" was another pictographic work that rocked my brain) Anton Wilson, of course Timothy Leary, and on and on and on. All bricks in a road leading me to where I am today. A forty-five year old man who writes comic books for a living.
And in my life, ever since those early days of discovery, I've realized that I have been most happy in the moments when I remembered to embrace the mind of Leary, but the heart of Ram Dass. This movie did that for me. Reminded me. And so it seems impossible to review this film without getting personal, which is a victory of any work of art.
Right now I am so busy with my life. It's a good life, filled with authenticity, but I hate being this busy. When I'm too busy I forget all the things that make me who I am. I forget to meditate, stop exploring with psychotropics, do more "work" but feel less creative, etc. But then this morning this movie came along randomly. I saw it on a whim at a 10 am showing in Santa Monic, and was surprised to find Tim Leary's son, Zac, in attendance and willing to speak for a bit after. Finding it was a wonderful gift and a reminder of the kind of personalities I gravitated toward when I was just starting to try and figure things out.
I am a huge fan of the film "Fierce Grace". I feel it to be a masterpiece. Every time I watch it, it emotionally destroys me and rebuilds me. "Dying to Know" isn't that, but this movie is a genuine delivery mechanism for true emotion and deep contemplation, and it brought me to tears more than once (I cry easily). There's not really more that you can expect a movie to do.
So thanks to all who brought this project to my nieghborhood on a Sunday morning. I didn't even know how much I needed it.
The Lobster (2015)
Formalizing, Institutionalizing, Stigmatizing, Legalizing and Illegalizing Love.
Social satire on human relationships in modern Western culture. You could call it social science fiction if you like, but that's not really the point... what we're really talking about here is a comedy about formalizing, institutionalizing, stigmatizing, legalizing and illegalizing love.
I found it to be one of the most brilliant comments on society's expectations and complications of human interdependence put on film in recent memory. If ever (cautious hyperbole). And the entire aesthetic principle of the movie, the minimalism, the repeated forms, the crack down the middle of its structure, the emotional distance from its subjects... keeps you constantly on your heels as a viewer.
Perhaps it's a tad too long, and maybe not the genius of narrative reveal and experiential filmmaking as Dogtooth (Lanthimose's earlier masterpiece), but this is staggeringly good work.
A Sinner in Mecca (2015)
Not as Substantive as I would have liked
It's pretty obvious from the low IMDb ranking overall that zealotry will be a dominating force in the discussion over this film, which is a shame.
Objectively it's not as substantive a movie as I would've liked. It swings pretty haphazardly from personal home movies, to attempts at poetic visual memoir, to the hajj itself (by far the most interesting bits), all shot on an iPhone, which while necessary for the undercover filmmaking in the Kingdom, doesn't add a very strong visual presence to the other 70% of the flick. There's some very brief exploration of how Wahhabist ideas came to gain such a strong foothold across much of the faith but that takes a backseat to Thanksgiving dinner footage and other humanizing, but pretty boring filler. All and all it doesn't deserve the extremely low ranking it's sporting now, simply as an act of personal filmmaking it has some value, but it's also not really that strong a work considering how interesting the subject matter is.
One thing is certain, we need more love in the world.
The Leisure Class (2015)
The Hunting Room
I think that once a little time has separated THE LEISURE CLASS from the trumped up drama and cheap "reality" of Project Green Light, the film will be treated a little more fairly.
Not that it's a good film. It mostly isn't.
The whole first half is filled with unearned character motivations, plagued by pacing problems and tedious to the point of boredom, particularly anytime Tom Bell is talking. Bell's character is almost insufferable. An alcoholic so destructive to any social situation he's in that he must be mentally I'll. This could be seen as a pretty ambitious character for a social satire, except that it's all meaningless, which is most evident when he turns out to be a good guy in tune with his flaws for the tidy ending. So the bell character ends up neither being enjoyable nor consistent.
Where the film does deserve some credit is in its thematic ambition, its mean spirit and... the hunting room. Now this is the scene everyone complains about the most, but it's the only part of the movie that actually worked on a substantive level for me. Once the tone of the film grows darker and the cast descends into the basement the film tilts towards the brilliant. This is in large part due to the amazing performance by Bruce Davison. To be fair, Davison is the only actor with a real character to work with in this film. A character that's been hiding his true ugly-resentful-misogynist nature all along. He is the leisure class. Corrupt, selfish and old- world to a fault. And as he reveals himself, Davison gives it his all, almost saving the movie for me.
But don't worry, after that it's pretty much back to its sloppy ways as it rushes towards an unearned resolution.
A side note, Bridget Regan turns in a strong performance that lives almost entirely in her subtle reactions, mostly because she doesn't have a lot to work with.
One of the Best of the Year
I've seen two impressive debut features so far this year. "Gueros", which introduces director Alonso Ruizpalacios, and "Court". "Gueros" is a post-French New Wave exercise, derivative of the listless youth cinema of early Goddard and Truffaut while still showing great promise and a bold aesthetic. "Court", on the other hand, heralds the arrival of a fully-formed artist in director Chaitanya Tamhane.
"Court" is an anti-courtroom drama about India's legal system, and by extension, class, education and post-colonial malaise, yet it comes off entirely rhetoric free, relying on its naturalism and humanism to deliver its thesis. Its structure achieves a great deal with real narrative economy as it veers from courtroom tedium to the personal lives of those involved in the case (save for the actual folk-singer indicted under arcane censorship laws and worse. Intentionally, he is the least explored).
Instead we observe the lives of a pedantic, lowly-educated, anti-rational prosecutor and tool- of-the-State; a well-educated pro-bono, social-activist defense lawyer taking on a moribund system of meaningless old-world laws; And the judge who presides over it all.
But the Tool-of-the-State lives a simple and not un-happy life, the Social Activist Lawyer turns out to be a spoiled infant whenever he gets around his well-to-do-parents, and the judge is a superstitious numerologist so entrenched in his entitlement and power that slapping his slow-witted grandson for disturbing his nap comes as knee-jerk second nature.
There's an endearing comedy and observational joy in it all. Using many non-actors, some fantastic location work, and an austere filmic style, the movie abhors artifice. The Kafkaesque quality of the situation is submerged under its realism. There are no grand orations in court, no twists in the case or surprise witnesses, no winking performances or scene munching moments for vain actors, just a perfectly pitched indictment, made more powerfully precise for choosing quiet observation over shrill, lazy, dramatization.
I'm very interested in the future of both directors, but Tamhane has done something truly unique and extraordinary here.
Best of Enemies (2015)
"Best of Enemies" is incredibly effective at achieving multiple thematic ends without coming off as dense. Here's a few of things it managed to touch on.
It's a sound, but passive, attack on the current state of our discourse, giving us a history lesson on the genesis moment of television punditry.
It's a fascinating look inside network news in the time of American political convention "gavel- to-gavel" coverage. The last time that ever happened.
It's an exploration of how TV changes us, or at the very least, reveals us to ourselves, both as people who long to sit in front of its cameras, and as a nation who watches its images.
It's about how the two sides of the late 60's culture war found their primetime voices.
It's about class, and how where we come, or how we where we wish we had come from, affects how and what we think.
It's about the personal journeys of the intellectuals at the center of it - gay-left leaning best selling counter-culture author Vidal and establishment defending policy-affecting conservative Buckley - and how their confrontation never really left the center stage of their own minds.
But most spectacularly, it's about how the issues of a turbulent period (our republic caught in an ongoing war of attrition, race riots in the streets, the all too familiar rhetoric of income and racial inequality at the center of the political debate) never really ended.
And it does all of those things with a sense of real legitimacy, never once feeling like it's assigning more importance to the story than it deserves. A perennial fault in the doc genre. But it's not just a good story. It's a good story told well.
The whole thing is brilliantly structured, wonderfully cut together, incredibly funny and tragic, and far-reaching in its ambition. It's political positioning is measured, either because of or in spite of it's co-director being affiliated with the conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation.
It features great talking heads, including political historian Sam Tanenhaus (who I sorely miss as the New York Times Book Review editor) and avowed socialist/Marxist/anti-leftist/cultural contrarian Christopher Hitchens, who manages to bloviate even from beyond the grave.
This is one of my favorite documentaries of the year. A perfect double feature with last year's excellent, "Last Days in Vietnam". Catch it if it interests you. It didn't do as well at the box office as it should've.
Way More Fun Than I Thought it Would be.
I'm not a fan of "The Heat" and the trailers for this looked just awful. I finally broke down and went when the positive word of mouth started to really get traction.
And it's funny. It's really, really funny.
But not just funny. It's smart. Instead of relying solely on fat jokes and broad slapstick, the movie repeatedly searches for humor in its theme, the idea that traditionally "unattractive" women are invisible in our society. Repeatedly the film digs its teeth into that concept and tears in, taking a break only to mock other forms of misogyny in the workplace. This sustained, thematic attack elevates everything about the film and speaks to what's appealing about McCarthy as a performer. Also, McCarthy's character is incredibly capable, if a little insecure, and so the comedy never comes from her incompetence. I found that incredibly refreshing.
It's true that Feig isn't much of an action director, but if you're going to this for the action then you're barking up the wrong tree. Having said that, McCarthy actually turns out to be the most interesting action star this year, and putting her in the role of "bad-ass" is inspired.
Also Rose Byrne utterly outstanding.
Tame and tedious
Schumer genuinely makes me laugh. I dig her show. But it turns out creating sustained, feature-length comedy is a different bag altogether.
I appreciate Schumer/Apatow's attempts at grounded, human comedy. This doesn't have to be as broad as say, "Spy", which was way more funny and, I think, thematically much smarter. But if you're going for grounded comedy then the characters have to be... well, interesting. And every single character in this is a one-dimensional shell. Each one has their role to play in the script and are nothing beyond that. The performances are strong, and the actors work hard to humanize their characters, but no person in this film is expansive or complex or terribly engaging or remotely unpredictable in any way. In fact, absolutely nothing is unpredictable in this film. So, for me, it comes off as not broad enough to be funny, and not genuine enough to be grounded.
Combine this overwhelming predictability, flat characterization and the sports-stunt casting with Apatow's habit for long running times, and an uninspired, robot-written third act, and you get a film that's more tedious than fun.
But Schumer herself is funny. And more than that, she's important. She's at her best when she's exploding the precious notion of female body imagery in joke after joke about bloody tampons and promiscuity. But the film lacks the courage of its star, which is a complicated criticism, since she actually wrote it.
There was the potential to make something outrageous and beautiful here. That potential was pretty much blown.