Tag Archives: Political Drama

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

ARQ

I do love me a good time travel tale, and really hate bad ones. ARQ falls into the good camp. Every time (no pun intended) you think it is going to get boring or obvious, it shifts just enough to keep you interested. The world keeps expanding and the stakes keep rising.

Robbie Amell (Nine Lives) and Rachel Taylor (Jessica Jones) are suitably earnest if not entirely perfectly matched as a couple. They are both believable, though some of the driving motivations take time to reveal.

Though an established writer, Elliott (Orphan Black), this was Elliott’s first time directing a feature-length film. He kept it all taut and focused, managing to get the complex aspects of the story across well. He definitely should get more directorial work based on this result.

I do have to warn you that it doesn’t provide a great ending, unfortunately. Ultimately, it feels more like a pilot, or perhaps the plot became intractable, and so the story was wrapped up in an obvious way. But up to that last moment, it really is pretty clever and worth the time. And even with the flawed ending, it is a good ride.

ARQ

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

Miss Sloane

This is a story that you are hoping has been heightened for drama, but you secretly fear has been watered down to be credible. Basically, it is a behind-the-scenes fiction of the influence and methods of lobbyists on the laws of the land. As if you didn’t have enough to feel frustrated by and fear in DC, this will give you more of both.

Jessica Chastain (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) championed this film to release and you can see why she wanted the role. Her character is strong, driven, and massively flawed. Unfortunately, she isn’t very sympathetic, even though her cause is just and her lack of self-delusion is fairly small. Basically, you can respect and admire her efforts, but you can’t help but revile the person (or blame her) for her actions and self-same efforts despite any results she may attain.

The rest of the cast breaks down into three groups. Mark Strong (Kingsman: The Secret Service) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Jupiter Ascending), in larger roles that work with Chastain’s character directly. Both deliver interesting performances. Mark Strong, in particular, shows a different side of himself from what we’ve seen in the past.

Opposing Chastain’s Sloane are a collection of solid actors, if not solid performances, who were probably picking splinters from their teeth at the end of the tale. Michael Stuhlbarg (Arrival), Sam Waterston (Grace and Frankie), and John Lithgow (The Accountant) were all just a little too arch and a little too angry. These are all men capable of subtlety, but only Lithgow even came close to trying for a lighter touch.

In the last group are some smaller, but noticeable roles played by Allison Pill (Hail, Caesar!), Douglas Smith (Terminator: Genisys), and Jake Lacy (Obvious Child). Pill and Lacy each have a couple very nice moments story-wise, while Smith just has great presence on screen, despite having very little to do.

What this film really needed was Aaron Sorkin to write the script. Not that Perera’s script isn’t quite solid and fast and in the style of Sorkin, but Sorkin it ain’t. To be fair, however, as Perera’s first script, it is impressive. Director John Madden (Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) kept up the pace and intensity nicely for the 2+ hours and stuck to the bare realities of the story, rarely going for manipulation. However, Madden takes some of the blame for any over-acting that existed as well. Keeping it all a bit more restrained would have heightened the disturbing nature of the movie. Instead, he hoped to provide a sense of relief and joy as Chastain battles the “monsters” even though she, herself, isn’t much better as an individual; she simply chose the more palatable cause.

If you are up for some political intrigue and the continued dashing of what hopes you may have that we live in a functional society, this is a good movie for you. It will also work if you like complex suspense films that are more cerebral than flashy, as the story and the machinations are wonderfully complex. However, if you’re looking for some escapism, you should run the other way. This isn’t going to get your mind off anything.

Miss Sloane

The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo)

Between making Mimic and Hellboy, Guillermo del Toro (Crimson Peak) co-wrote and directed this creepy piece of horror in a 1930s Spanish orphanage. It is loaded with trademark elements of del Toro (underground venues, visually disturbing images, odd characters). Backbone sits somewhere between classic and modern horror films in its approach. It is much more loaded with suspense than gore, but it also tackles subjects that are disturbingly human. The visual metaphor of the unexploded bomb is also a fascinating bit of understated drama and comment.

The Criterion disc is filled with extras. Perhaps the most intriguing bit of information was the guidance from del Toro that Backbone was intended as a companion piece for Pan’s Labyrinth.  There is a certain visual synergy between the two, though the later film was so strongly influenced by his Hellboy efforts that it is leaps ahead in the production design. But the essentials of the effects of war on children remain a constant.

If you’re looking for a del Toro you’ve missed or are in need of a quieter form of horror in counterpoint to most of what’s out there now, this could fill the bill.  It isn’t his best, or even his most entertaining from that time period, but it is solid and, with Pan’s an interesting set of commentaries.

The Devil

Sense8 (series 2)

The first series of Sense8 was a mind-blowing experience. Its scope and inventiveness blazed new ground for the small screen. It challenged its viewers on many levels and managed to set up a world and set of conflicts that had you begging for more. Even if it wasn’t new material for readers of folks like Theodore Sturgeon, it was the best depiction of those ideas I’d ever seen in visual media.

Then came the holiday special, which was an important story bridge, but which also indicated a potential shift in quality. So it was with no little trepidation that I dove into the long awaited second series.

One of the first things that is immediately obvious is that one of the rich aspects of the show, the 8 languages, has been shifted to all English. It is a subtle change at first, but as the show goes on it definitely feels diminished and less credible. One of the fascinating and wonderful aspects to Sense8 was the multi-cultural breadth of the characters. It is part of its core message that people of all countries and creeds can work closely together, can love one another. Now, not only does it all sound the same, but some of the actors are struggling with the language, and subtleties, such as using English as a way to make others feel dumb or less, have been lost.

The scale of the show has also been pulled back. In some ways this was anticipated. Sense8 is not one of Netflix’s most successful shows in terms of sheer force. It will work for them for years, I’ve no doubt, but budgets aren’t typically planned on that hope. So I can forgive this, especially if it means we get more. However, there was at least one great addition to the cast (which I can’t discuss without blowing surprises), but I will say that Doctor Who fans will be pleased.

While Straczynski (Babylon 5), and Lana and Lilly Wachowski (Jupiter Ascending) are all still very involved, I was sad to see Tom Tykwer (Drei/3)disappear from the creative staff. There was a magic with all of them that seems just a little less without him there. And the rules of this world are somewhat fungible at this time… this could be because our main characters really are still learning about what they are or it could be that the writers are not staying consistent. Time will tell on that, but it does need to clarify how Sensoriums can reach out to one another and when/how someone can take over someone else.

OK, all of that said, this is still a fascinating and brave show. It is doing things and dealing with themes that no one else really is, and certainly not in this way. The end of this series, of course, sets up the next and it has definitely raised the stakes again.  So, yes, I am anticipating the the next series already. I hope it gets renewed and I hope it comes with a bit more of the original series feeling back into it.

[Updated 1 June, 2017: And this is why fans have such trouble committing to great shows: Sense8 is officially cancelled]

Sense8

A Dragon Arrives! (Ejdeha Vared Mishavad!)

To be honest, I haven’t an f’ing clue what this movie is about. But it was fun trying to unpuzzle it, and it is a hypnotic bit of storytelling, except when it wants to slap you in the face.

This is one of the joys and issues with film festivals: you gamble. Based on the description on the site I was expecting a Persian mashup of a film that could have been made by Stephen Chow.

Police Inspector Hafizi wakes up on a desert island and must piece together the puzzle of his abduction while working a murder case in this delightfully unconventional and entertaining Iranian mashup of gumshoe noir and phantasmagorical ghost story.

OK, noir, sort of, unconventional for sure, but entertaining was a poor choice of words and they have the setup considerably wrong. Despite that mismatch, it is captivating, though uneven in its flow. It is also more, I think, a political allegory than it is a ghost story, but I’m making a huge guess. Writer/director Mani Haghighi (Men at Work) has a strong viewpoint as a film maker. He certainly is willing to tackle challenging narrative. Where I think this falters a little is in translation. There are some cultural assumptions that left me in the dust. Either that or there really were bigger gaps in his film making than I realize.

As I said, you gamble at film festivals. This one got my attention and I’m certainly not sorry I went to see it; I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to be exposed to it otherwise. And it certainly has put me on a path to research a number of historical incidents and Iranian culture to see if I’m right in my ultimate parsing of the tale (particularly the ending).  It’s good to bend your brain, particularly these days when we get such an homogenized view of the world through bigger media as they try  package items for everyone rather than have strong points of view or too specific affinities for a region.

A Dragon Arrives! Poster

Matinee

When director Joe Dante (The Hole) got together with, among others, the writer of the original TRON, the result is this perfect recreation\satire of a 50s B-movie with a 1990s perspective and a heavy flavoring of The Brady Bunch thrown in (well, a Halloween episode anyway). The film subtly skewers the era as well as brings out the magic of the movies, particularly the monster movies upon whose shoulders it is standing.

Matinee is a quiet film of growing up during a political crisis, making it rather applicable today. Unfortunately, its pacing and sensibility remain in the late 50s, so it likely will not resonate with most current audiences. It didn’t when was released over 20 years ago for similar reasons. Just because art is done well, doesn’t mean it will find an audience.

Everyone in the cast embraced the approach, from the young actors portraying a real sense of naivete and guileless charm to John Goodman (Kong: Skull Island) and Cathy Moriarty (The Double) as jaded Hollywood purveyors of schlock. Moriarty, in particular, gets to do this on multiple levels. There are a slew of recognizable faces from horror films of the era as well, which was a nice nod.

There are some surprising moments in the movie, and it avoids a slew of traps that you think are laid out for it as well. Check it out for a look back at what movie going was sort of like (and where it almost went). If you think this is hyperbole, check out The Tingler as a reference.  It certainly isn’t a great movie, but you have to respect the result given the intent.

Matinee

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (L’albero degli zoccoli)

I tucked in for this 3 hour, year-in-the-life of late 19th century Bergamo peasants in Italy thinking it was going to be a story; that wasn’t exactly what I got. It is beautifully filmed and it has moments, but doesn’t really satisfy as a story. Because, if it is a story, the only message is that the Church destroys peoples lives, and I don’t really see that as the intended message. What I believe documentarian Ermanno Olmi, wrote and directed instead is a well-researched and nicely depicted slice of life.

Clogs released in 1978 and gathered up a number of awards. Today, if this film were to be made, it would probably have ended up as a mini- or event-series. There are through-lines, but no investment in a character by the audience is rewarded. People go about their lives, and life goes about its pounding of the peasants.

As an artistic achievement, it is quite the accomplishment. Criterion has also done a beautiful job on the restoration of the print and sound. If I had approached it as a documentary, my response may well have been different. If you are fascinated by, or curious about history, particularly the late 1880s in Italy, it is a must see. It is also disturbingly resonant with today’s world in both politics and economy. But as a movie, as a piece of fictional entertainment, it failed for me.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs

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