Tag Archives: 4stars

Get Out

Wow. Just, wow.

Probably the best horror film I’ve seen in ages. It has only one open question (resolved about 2/3 through) and one surprise; it derives its horror from how real it all feels. It is honest and rarely keeps you waiting when you’ve gotten ahead of it. That allows you to feel the tension of Daniel Kaluuya’s (Sicario) character to the fullest. He never comes off as dumb. He unpuzzles the plot as fast as the audience and acts. Part of what makes it so scary is the feeling that he really can’t avoid the inevitable. It is a powerful and compelling performance.

Helping that along are some equally solid performances by Bradley Whitford (Saving Mr. Banks) and Allison Williams (Girls). The rest of the family is a bit less believable with Catherine Keener (Begin Again) being marginal, but intriguing, and Caleb Landry Jones (Stonewall) just feeling out of control. I think that was writer and first-time director Jordan Peele’s intent, but I wish he had reined it in more to keep it just a bit less obvious.

However, as the horror of the situation unfolds, we are swept along. It is uncomfortable and frustrating, embarrassing and angering. And, yes, pretty terrifying, but not in a monster-going-to-eat-your-face way, but more in a this-feels-almost-like-it-could-happen way. It makes Peele a great choice for the upcoming series adaptation of Lovecraft Country, which also has to walk that line. (Also a book I highly recommend.)

But Get Out goes beyond just the typical horror movie/teen angst level. There is a sociological aspect to this movie. It will be taught in years to come in universities and high schools by those brave enough to do so. The resonance of the tale, both as personal nightmare and social commentary is loud and disturbingly clear.

If this had released even 8 years ago (maybe less), it would have felt like propaganda or blaxploitation. In today’s times of stress and fear it comes across more as object lesson and metaphor. What is white privilege? What is it to abandon your own culture or have it co-opted? We get a complete spectrum of the latter with LilRel Howery (Carmichael Show) at one extreme end, Kaluuya as a middle ground, and Lakeith Stanfield (War Machine) at the far extreme end, with two painful touch-points by Marcus Henderson (Pete’s Dragon) and Betty Gabriel (Good Girls Revolt) as the family help. It isn’t, of course, that straight forward, but from an academic standpoint it is ripe for debate and examination. Add to it the realities of the plot itself, once revealed, and it is even more powerful.

This film had a huge reception in theaters, earning $250M worldwide. And while $$s aren’t always the best way to judge a film, in this case it is a great measure of the chord it struck. This isn’t an easy film to watch, but it is well done, well conceived. Like Hell or High Water, it is a movie of its time, though with frankly much more meat to the bone. If you somehow missed Get Out, make time for it. It is a great ride that also happens to comes with a message. If nothing else, it is guaranteed to start a conversation.

Get Out

Cardinal

Apparently, the new Norwegian substitute is Northern Canada. In this case, north of Toronto. Like Bellevue, Cardinal is a serial murder procedural in the thinly populated, icy north of Canada. Billy Campbell (Helix) and Karine Vanasse (Revenge) deliver nicely conflicted detectives in the introductory series (based on Forty Words for Sorrow) to what could be a good run of stories to come.

It is a dark tale, and a tad graphic, but all in service to understanding the characters. A good part of that darkness, and its effectiveness, is down to Brendan Fletcher (The Revenant), who has a ridiculously long cv for his career. Along with Allie MacDonald (Stories We Tell), the two are a twisted pair who we can’t help but want to watch, even if we don’t root for them.

Originally aired on CBC, it appears to be difficult to find, so the best I can say is watch for it when it airs elsewhere (and it will).

Cardinal Poster

This Film is Not Yet Rated

Even I’m appalled that it has taken me 11  years to finally see this documentary about an industry that I’ve been part of most of my life. Especially so as I’ve always felt the ratings system was bogus (at best). Despite its early, stated intentions to end the censorship era, the advent of the MPAA and the rating system simply shifted and made shadier the efforts to control content by a minority band of self-appointed moralists. If that statement left you in the dust, then you definitely need to see this movie.

The sad truth, however, is that even after 11 years nothing has really changed since this Kirby Dick (The Hunting Ground) documentary hit screens. The MPAA hasn’t changed tactics or efforts at all. They are still beholden to the same masters (studios) and are secretive and capricious (and even bigoted) in their decisions. (See 3 Generations for a recent example. )

On the up side, the lay of the land around the industry, in particular with the rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime, has provided distribution avenues that didn’t exist at the time this docu was made. Also, the rise of “Director’s” and Unrated editions of films, only just coming to prominence when this docu was made, allows for the intended vision of films to find their audience. All of this doesn’t nullify the very real concerns or issues raised, but it points to potential ways around the gatekeepers from an artistic point of view. It would be a great follow-up to see how the financial landscape and decisions may be changing (though even Netflix is starting to scale back after years of risk).

Not Yet Rated exhibits Dick’s devotion to the truth as well as his sense of humor and commitment to his subject. It is a set of qualities that has garnered him several awards and nominations. This particular documentary struggles with its narrative, but not its entertainment nor its ability to inform. Which is to say that while it all comes together and there is a lot of information and revelation, the focus is a little soft. However, if you’ve ever wondered where the heck those letters come from on your entertainment, how they are selected, and how we compare to the rest of the world, you need to see this film.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Wonder Woman

Ok, yes, this is the best DC has done since The Dark Knight. There a story with shape and a kick-ass XX chromosome in the lead and behind the camera. It definitely exceeded my expectations that were weighed down by years of DC misfires and almost-rights, like Suicide Squad.

That said, it ain’t perfect. The script is still a bit too dour and it treats the audience like idiots at times (seriously obvious stuff they pretend are big reveals). Given Hienberg’s previous credits, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised on that point. But the result is something that only passes the Bechdel test on a technicality, from my point of view (in the beginning there are no men on the island). I bring up the test because the film, frankly, wouldn’t work without Chris Pine (Hell or High Water); his character, sense of humor, and his charisma. Gal Gadot (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) is pretty, but honestly she doesn’t have the same level of magnetism nor more than few inches of depth of emotion to share.

There are a host of supporting characters that have great fun: David Thewlis (Anomalisa), Danny Huston (Paranoid), Elena Anaya (The Skin I Live In),  and Saïd Taghmaoui (American Hustle) chief among the cast. There are also some smaller roles worth noting: Lucy Davis (Shaun of the Dead), Robin Wright (Everest), and Ewan Bremner (Poet in New York) who each have some nice moments.

An interesting insight came from my movie partner (a woman) who likened the whole thing to The Fifth Element in basic storyline. I like the idea of that and see what was likely intended, but here I diverge from her in agreement. I don’t think that is what I saw on screen because of the inclusion of a single scene that blurs the personal v. universal love drive. And I have to shut up at this point to avoid spoilers. But I discuss this and other points here.

Here was the most telling aspect for me. When I left Captain America: The First Avenger, a movie I really had little interest in, I was soaring and laughing and sad and ready for more. When I left Wonder Woman, I was entertained, but it wasn’t sticking with me on an artistic or pure popcorn level and honestly didn’t care if I saw another Wonder Woman storyline outside of the Justice League. I could be swayed, but I’m not chomping to see what comes next.

Interestingly, they’ve recast the Wonder Woman story by dropping it back to WWI from WWII, I suspect to give some distance from Captain America, whose echos are hard to shake given the war-time venue. It is a jarring change if you don’t immediately recognize the outfits, however.

I love strong female characters, but what I love more is great scripts and movies and this just wasn’t that. It was the best DC has had to offer in a long time though, and I am glad young girls have an icon to look up to, both in Wonder Woman and director Patty Jenkins (Monster), but as a movie it could have been crisper and so much more.

Wonder Woman

Samurai Jack (series 5)

After a 13 year hiatus, there was definite trepidation around how this magnificent series would revive; the dead so often don’t return with their souls intact. I needn’t have worried. Despite the gap in time (appropriate in some ways) and the move to computer graphics, Samurai lost little, if any, of its original sense and sensibility. Its minimal graphics were very much in its favor, and the return of Genndy Tartakovsky to oversee and run the result kept it on track. Even the loss of Mako as the voice of the great evil Aku didn’t slow it down.

In some ways, this is the best of the series. Before it was very episodic without much of a trajectory other than the increasingly scaling fights with Aku. The universe always expanded with new characters and ongoing interactions, but seasons never felt like they had a shape. This final series has a very definite shape and a eye to its ultimate ending.

If you like Samurai Jack, you have to see the end of the saga. If you somehow missed it before, discover it now and not have to wait over a decade to have your hunger sated for an ending. Samurai remains as good as ever and as beautiful and as poetic as it began.

Samurai Jack

La La Land (redux)

I was worried this movie wouldn’t hold up to a second watch. It is, after all, a fluff movie with some sharp edges. I needn’t have worried. It still delighted and tugged at emotions and dreams in all the right ways.

It is also one of the most beautifully composed films I’ve seen. The framing, edits, and production design are just, simply, delightful. The camera floats along with the action. The colors are striking, and the intra-scene edits are almost non-existent (and when they are, they are seamless).

It is still flawed, as a story. Uneven and, shall we say, light on characters, not to mention just a tad long for its purpose. The lightness is was what it was meant to be, so I don’t judge it for that so much as still get frustrated when other films of the year (like Arrival) were pushed aside. But I ranted on that enough already. I will say that I still marvel at the choice and delivery of the final moments. It was brave and a much better resolution than the obvious.

La La will remain in my circle of rewatch for many years, I’m sure. Just as An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, neither of which are perfect movies either.  And I will certainly be watching whatever Chezelle comes out with next.

Ikiru (To Live)

What is a life worth living? What is a life well-lived?  Akira Kurosawa tackles these questions through the life of a mid-level bureaucrat in 1950s Japan with his trademark patience and dark humor. From the start, Kuraosawa makes sure that while the subject may be deep, you aren’t taking it too seriously. His intent is to nudge rather than hit you upside the head.

Takashi Shimura drives this film in the main role. It is one of the most unpresupposing performances I’ve seen. We watch him literally open up and flower as the film goes on. There are few “big” moments, but several small, intense events that awaken in Shimura’s character a need to live. But is isn’t just the character journey that has impact. The overall structure of the narrative is just as intriguing as the story itself, unfolding in unexpected but necessary ways. If it weren’t for Kurosawa’s inventiveness, the 2.5 hours would have suffocated under its own weight. Instead, he manages to keep us intrigued through fearless storytelling, probably informed a little by his previous foray into narrative structure in Rashomon just two years previous.

Ikiru also marked Kurosawa’s moment before Seven Samurai and some of his most lasting cinema. Kurosawa, as a writer and director, has created and influenced some of the top films and directors of all time (including Star Wars via The Hidden Fortress). There is a beauty to his stories and craft, but never a moment when he insults his audience. His films are about his characters and their troubles and challenges… they just happen to also provide inspiration and commiseration for the viewer. Ikiru is a beautifully funny and heart-warming part of that opus that can still inspire 65 years after its release.

Ikiru

The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos)

Sometimes you just miss a great movie when it comes out and have to play catch-up. In 2009, Juan José Campanella (Underdogs) broke out of his TV mold for a brief moment to deliver this quietly intense mystery/suspense romance that swept up awards worldwide. It is a highly complex story, playing with layers of fiction and reality across two time periods in a group of people’s lives. But it all comes together seamlessly and beautifully allowing each aspect of the story room to breath.

The tale is driven primarily by four players: Ricardo Darín (XXY), Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago (Underdogs), and Guillermo Francella. One of the truely brilliant aspects of the film is watching the characters between the two time frames. They mature as well as visibly change in wonderfully subtle ways. The make-up is pretty amazing, but it is the actors and director that sell the shift. 

If you missed this, like I had, make time for it. It is really a solid film and story. If you are familiar with Argentine or Italian police procedurals, it will help (there are some significant differences with the US), but it isn’t required. This is primarily about the characters who are swept up in a decades-spanning case that haunts each of their lives in different ways.

The Secret in Their Eyes

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Oh yeah, summer is here! James Gunn (Super) gave it a heck of a kick-off with GOTG Vol 2. If it isn’t quite as surprising as his first, it is still one crazy roller-coaster of a tale, retaining its unabashed and unapologetic sense of fun. The original movie was the origin of the team. This second go round is about fixing all the relationships and tying up the loose ends as we head into the Infinity War. In many ways it is what Fast & Furious wants to be, but has never had the writing and acting to match.

From the moment the movie starts you are set up to understand that the action will always be secondary to the characters and the fun this round. While not nearly as perfect as the opening to Deadpool, it comes close in its intention for setting the first frame. Admittedly, the rest of the movie tries just a bit too hard on all counts, but I suspect it will even out with rewatching. And, yes, I will be back watching this again.

In an effort to keep my promise and avoid spoilers, I can’t really go into much. I will say there are a couple fun cameos, such as Ben Browder (Farscape) who pop up. And Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager) did  a very credible Tilda Swinton/Cate Blanchette as one of the many challenges the Guardians face this round.

However, I will say, nay beg, Gunn to get rid of the Howard the Duck references. They are really jarring at this point and, frankly, pull me out of the movie every time. I get it is an 80s nod, but who really cares anymore?

Start your summer off right. I have no idea how the rest will go, but I’m glad it began with the crazy, psychedelic joy that is the Guardians. Sure it is sugar for the brain, but sometimes, that’s just fine!

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Split

There are two things that you expect from any M. Night Shyamalan (The Visit) film. The first is tight construction that leaves virtually no thread loose by the end of the film. Split certainly delivers on its tight plotting. Shyamalan is also known for his twist endings. And, for a change, this movie doesn’t rely on that. There are gifts and surprises in the film, but no real twist. Instead we get a well executed suspense/thriller that is riffing on some very real movements in the Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) community.

This film also continues Night’s push into small, intense stories with few characters. In this case, it is really driven by three actors. First and foremost is James McAvoy (Victor Frankenstein), who does a great job of flipping between identities. Anya Taylor-Joy (Morgan) holds her own against him, both directly and in her own scenes, as she attempts to survive while revealing her past to us. Finally, there is the great Betty Buckley who strikes the perfect tone of a caring but driven psychiatrist. The dance of these three characters is tense and, ultimately, explosive.

It is almost impossible to say more without slipping and giving away information, so I’ll wrap here. I had several points spoiled for me by ads and internet babble. Frustrating. Avoid all info if you can before watching it. If you like Shyamalan’s films or just good, tense thrillers, throw it in the hopper or turn on the stream. You won’t be disappointed.

Split