Saturday, January 6, 2018

Best Of 2017 | Mainstream Films

I have never found a paucity of films to celebrate when it comes to the year-end. I have previously posted my personal favorite films from 2017, in which the majority of my selections were smaller, independent films. I complain every chance I get about the hegemony of Hollywood studios in financing only superhero films and sequels of late. But to be perfectly honest, this is a falsehood. Yes, the majority of studio dollars go towards the making of the umpteenth sequel, but challenging, original films still get made, if not as often as we would like.

So here is a list of relatively big, commercial, mainstream films released in 2017 that kicked some ass:

1. ATOMIC BLONDE: Not just far and away the best action film of the year, but this was also a wonderfully specific, mid-eighties, Cold War-set piece of intelligent cinema. There is nothing cute about ATOMIC BLONDE; it is a bruising, bleeding-knuckles, black-and-blue-faced film. And in less than three years, Charlize Theron has created the two best female action characters in that period, first with MAD MAX; ROAD WARRIOR and now here, thereby cementing her status as the most hard-working, and credible action stars of contemporary cinema. In ATOMIC BLONDE, her character does not reveal any back-story, she just is. Hard-ass. Undeterred. Punishingly fierce. A set piece mid-film where she faces off a series of attackers in the stairwell of a decrepit Berlin apartment building, seemingly done in a single shot of more than 7 minutes, is one of the best action scenes in history. Ever. I am in love with this film, irrationally so.

2. JOHN WICK 2: Sure the scene stealing doggie that spring-boarded the action in the first JOHN WICK film is no longer in the sequel. But everything else that made the original film a bonafide modern classic is safely carried through the second installment. The sequel opens up the somewhat insular world of the sly villains from the first film by having the Keanu Reeves titular character be on the run after he refuses to take on another job from the bad guys. This allows the film to get even more deviously innovative in its action pieces and permits director Chad Stahelski to put foreign locales to impressive use in wowing the audience. I could easily get used to a few more JOHN WICK films.

3. STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI: I found this film so deeply satisfying that one of the great mysteries of this filmgoing year has been trying to understand the fierce
backlash to this film from some. With the reins handed over to Rian Johnson to direct the new installment in the adventures of the next generation of Star Wars protagonists, Rey, Finn and Poe (played by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, respectively, and first introduced in THE FORCE AWAKENS), the film takes decidedly risky plot turns while retaining major contributions from the enduringly endearing characters played by Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill. Not to mention new characters in the form of Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro. Most striking of all however is how the soul of THE LAST JEDI rests on the volleying relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the most unlikely of pairs.

4. FREE FIRE: This film is fun in a bottle. Why it didn't get more traction during its commercial run
befuddles me. Set in the late seventies and almost entirely in a warehouse in Boston where two gangs meet for a transaction (that of course goes terrifically wrong), this movie has pluck and cleverness to spare. And the film unfolds unapologetically into repeated lessons on how things can always get even more worse. There's Brie Larson here. There is Armie Hammer here (playing against type and perhaps better than his more celebrated turn in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME). There is Sharlto Copley here. There's Cillian Murphy here too. And do they cook up a swell mess. This is breathless, heedless, bloody fun.

5. AMERICAN MADE: Doug Liman isn't (yet) given the credit he deserves as a filmmaker; remember this is the director of SWINGERS, GO, THE BOURNE IDENTITY, MR AND MRS SMITH and THE EDGE OF TOMORROW. He reteams with the star of that last film, Tom Cruise, for AMERICAN MADE, based on the hard-to-believe-if-it-weren't true story of Barry Seal, an American pilot who was recruited by the CIA and double crossed his way with high-profile South American rebels (including Pablo Escobar), and became a key player during the Iran-Contra Affair. Liman wisely constructs this film with a comic book sensibility, bowled over with wonder at a man who managed to do the unthinkable. And Cruise, who's always had an edge of the noxious tucked away under his dazzle, is easily able to depict a man whose smarminess is inseparable from his charms. What a rollickingly great ride this is.

6. BABY DRIVER: It would seem British director Edgar Wright has been working up his entire career to the destination that is this film. And what a film it is: a veritable calling card to how style can completely drive the sensibility of a film. The story is jump started by one of those you-must-come-back-for-one-last-con-job premises that is soon elevated to something seeming entirely new because of how the film is pieced together. Pumped up on equal parts adrenaline and high-octane, the movie zips along at a pace where you have to catch your breath to keep track of who is conning whom, particularly in its last reel when things spiral to even more heady chaos. And I haven't even mentioned how Wright uses music as a integral part of the film's psche, by creating a central character who needs to constantly listen to music to drown out the tinnitus he suffers from. This film will age well with movie lovers.

7. WONDER WOMAN: It should have been an obvious thing: that the story of a female superhero film be entrusted with a female director. And yet we are surprised by the success of this film. Much of the credit for how well this film works rests on the shoulders of director Patty Jenkins, who takes the Wonder Woman mythology, shakes off the campy eighties association (from the television series), and plays the origin story with nary a wink or a snark. It is played straight, with a sense of integrity and committed belief. Gal Gadot invests the character with an elusive balance of self-assertion and a sincere desire to help others. In the balance it maintains, it comes close to how Captain America has been developed within the Marvel Universe, as a wholesome, even square person, whose goodness of intent is of great value and far from worthy of being mocked. A harder tightrope walk still is achieved with how the Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) character stands beside Wonder Woman, not because she needs him to rescue her, but because the two work well together. This is a film of many tightrope walks, and it always makes it safely to the other side. And if you get a few goosebumps along the way in your cinema seat, that is added value.

8. LIFE: Am I the only living person to have liked this Jake Gyllenhaal/Ryan Reynolds/Rebecca Ferguson sci-fi film. The film earned $100 million in revenues, so maybe I am the only living person to stick out my neck and publicly admit to liking this film. The premise: scientists aboard a spaceship discover a unique single-cellular organism that rapidly starts to grow. Of course this film is inspired by ALIEN, but it also taps into the well of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and GRAVITY. But that doesn't make this a bad film; quite the contrary. Even as we know the evolving alien creature is going to wreak havoc on the space ship inhabitants, the film holds the fate of the characters in deliciously unpredictable strands. The film is visually arresting, breathless, and happily, perversely, violent. I do not watch much horror, but I wonder if another film this year has found so much beauty in the redness of blood.

9. THOR: ROGNAROK: The director of small, spryly funny films like WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS and THE HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE is hardly the go-to person for helming the next instalment of a popular Marvel property. And yet the imp that is the New Zealand director Taika Waititi drove the THOR franchise to its best outing yet, by injecting a healthy dose of self-awareness, building a meaty part for Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, and hiring the redoubtable Cate Blanchett to play the bad guy. The Marvel films are getting a little incestuous for my liking wherein the superheroes have started to bleed into each other's films a bit too much. THOR: ROGNAROK is guilty of that. But this film is a romp still.

10. BLADE RUNNER: 2049:  Few films are as iconic as BLADE RUNNER, and it
would be a fool's errand to try and update that world. And yet, producer Ridley Scott entrusted Denis Villeneuve to bring forth the next chapter more than three decades after the original film went on to become a bonafide legend. This is a punishing task (something that the STAR WARS sequels have also had to contend with), but turns out Villeneuve was up to it. Yes the film is too long, and yes it does get a little lost within its own world. But it turns a new page to this universe, and yet retains enough links with the original characters, and the game-changing visuals. And what visuals these are; I watched this film in a state of enraptured wonder.


Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Best of 2017 | Films | Personal Favorites

I blame the holidays.
I maintain a list of favorite films all year (on Letterboxd). They are films from the past year that have triggered introspection, impressed with their craft, or just made me giddy in my cinema seat. And then the end of the year approaches, the holidays arrive, and I get caught up in the spirit of the season. That is when I inevitably recalibrate the rankings on my list. When I think back upon the past twelve months, the films that register more than others now are those that have moved me the most. The word 'movie' dates to the 1890s when it was first realized that projecting still images in quick succession approximated movement on the screen; this definition makes sense. But I like to think of movies, the good ones at least, as films that move us the most, those that emotionally register, often irreversibly. Come the end of the year, the more cerebral films tumble down the list and the ones that have altered something within my emotional circuitry, rise to the top. The list of films stays the same, but when it comes to the rankings, the heart has always trumped the mind. And so is the case with this year’s list too:

1.      STRONGER: Nominally, this is a film about a person overcoming physical disability, at this time already an exhausted genre in cinema. But director David Gordon Green makes this a film about all the other things that are impacted by sudden disability; the lives of those around the person; the sense of self as the ground has literally disappeared from under them. The perennially underappreciated Jake Gyllenhaal is supported by career-best performances from Miranda Richardson and Tatiana Maslany. The film has no interest in making heroes out of any of the characters (based on real life individuals). And by allowing them to be deeply flawed, ill-intentioned even, i.e., human, STRONGER became the most emotionally authentic film I saw this year.

2.      CALL MEBY YOUR NAME: Like BOYHOOD, this is a film that doggedly refuses to add up to much through most of its running time. Until the very end when it suddenly does, and it quietly breaks your heart. Director Luca Guadagnino, a master of surfaces rendered with impossible beauty, lets the film languor, letting the viewer soak into the locale and the characters.  Its a deeply immersive experience. More than anything else CALL ME BY YOUR NAME gets the subtle, complex dance of first love just right: the initial tentative circling around each other, the mixed messages, the dubious reading of signals, and the alacrity with which those around are recklessly used as pawns. This is the rare film that understands the cruelty that goes hand in hand with the swoon of young love.

3.      THEBEGUILED: A wounded soldier during the American Civil War is rescued to a Girls School. This is your classic rooster-in-a-henhouse story. In her take on the 1971 Clint Eastwood/Geraldine Page film, Sofia Coppola has left much of the story intact, but chosen to tell it from the perspective of the hens instead of the rooster. What great fun to watch the psychosexual repression get pressure cooked into a delicious stew of moral ambiguities. With a constant backdrop of booming cannons, the Civil War era sexual politics feel fiercely relevant.

4.      THELMA: All those lamenting the death of good cinema should immediately get their hands on this Norwegian thriller. A young girl leaves her sheltered small town family life to attend university in a big city, and starts noticing strange things happening to and around her. Always holding its cards close to the chest, THELMA evolves into something utterly unexpected. You watch the film with incredulity, unsure at every minute where the story is headed. Is this is a coming-of-age film. Is it supernatural horror. Is it a character study about the perils of repressing sexuality. Is it a strident rebuke to religious fanaticism. As you think back on the film afterward, you realize it is not primarily any of those things, although it touches upon them all. And you recognize that the film’s ambitions are grander still, taking on nothing less than how the world at large looks at femininity.

5.      KAPOOR AND SONS: For a long time, the biggest enemy of mainstream Indian cinema had been a willful adherence to moral and cinematic tropes that were dated even decades ago. Which is what has made the Indian films from the last 5-7 years so utterly exciting, as experimentation in form, in structure, and in content have led to a new golden age, with exceptional films coming from young filmmakers eager to marry the aesthetic of independent cinema with quality of craft. KAPOOR AND SONS earns its place in this pantheon. It is blessed with superlative acting from an enviable ensemble cast and a director who knows precisely how to tap into their talent. But the thing that truly sets this film apart from others in the cadre is the script. The writing in this film refuses to find easy villains. It knows that family conflicts can spontaneously escalate to something not unlike between enemy lines during war. The writing seeks empathy, it seeks understanding in the face of long germinated prejudices, and it seeks space for everyone to breathe. This film made me glad to be alive.

6.      THE POST: At a time when the big studios are almost exclusively financing sequels and superhero franchise films, a resolutely cerebral film seems a minor miracle. Steven Spielberg has made an astute turn in his career with a recent trilogy of political films, LINCOLN, THE BRIDGE OF SPIES and now THE POST, that while superficially unrelated, all comment urgently on the state of contemporary politics in America, and the dangerous path we are currently treading. Kay Graham, the de-facto publisher of The Washington Post , in the early 1970s was faced with the choice of publishing the next of the Pentagon papers at the risk of having Nixon shut down the newspaper. THE POST is hermetically sealed within its times. But when you consider the issues at stake: the press versus a government bent on stifling its freedoms, a woman trying to exert her moral will in a predominantly male business, corporate imperatives directly abutting national security risks, you realize just how relevant this film is to the absolute now. THE POST is Donald Trump’s worst nightmare, and for that alone it is an accomplishment.

7. THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER: The films of Yargos Lanthimos make you wonder if he is the person most urgently in need of a hug in the whole wide world, but By Jove, thank god for filmmakers like him. Demonstrating once again why he is a master of the disquiet, he is able to effortlessly conjure up unease and impending terror. The teenaged children of a celebrated cardiologist (Colin Farrell) and his ophthalmologist wife (Nicole Kidman) start to suddenly get sick with no medical explanation. Does any of it have to do with the young boy that the cardiologist has taken under his wing? Like all of his films, Lanthimos creates a world with its own absurd rules, and staunchly sees the film through based on those tenets. Isn’t it that evil is so frightening because it often hides in plain view amongst the banal. Part cold knuckled revenge thriller, part unforgiving moral treatise, and an altogether unpredictable and sinister experience, this movie may be too disturbing for some. But every lover of cinema needs to watch this film.

8.      COCO: This film nicely fits in with the best of Pixar films in its ability to create complex new world, and being unafraid to tackle darker ideas. This film owes a lot visually to Miyazaki’s SPIRITED AWAY, and the influence of Pixar’s own MONSTERS INC is apparent. However the film’s place and sensibility is uniquely its own. The film uses the Mexican rites of Dias De Los Muertos (Day of The Dead) as its springboard; but those rites resonated strongly with the Indian customs I grew up with, speaking to the universality of our common traditions. COCO filled me up and then devastated me. Note to Pixar: please abandon all efforts with sequels, which save for TOY STORY have esulted in inferior efforts. Their recent original material (INSIDE OUT, THE GOOD DINOSAUR and now COCO) speaks for itself and doesn’t need to be diluted by mediocre sequels.

9.      LOGAN LUCKY: Were this film made by another director and distributed by a major studio, it would have been a runaway hit. But we expect proficiency from someone like Steven Soderbergh, and to our great peril, take him for granted. The director of the OCEAN’S ELEVEN reboot (and the sequels) takes a stab at another heist story, this time set in the down South NASCAR racing circuit instead of the gleaming Vegas surfaces of the OCEAN’S films. Oh but what fun this film is, probably the most entertaining one I saw this year. Soderbergh walks a tight line between mocking his characters and demonstrating unequivocal fondness for them. I have no desire to live in a world in which Steven Soderbergh is no longer making films.

10.   A CUREFOR WELLNESS: This is a blindingly original film. A young man is sent to a hidden mountain resort to bring back an office colleague who has seemingly been retained there against his will. The man arrives there, and of course, nothing is what it seems, and from there things take on one twisted turn after another. With a commitment to its craziness that initially puzzles you and then outright wins you over, A CURE FOR WELLNESS is what happens when you allow a filmmaker with giddy vision (Gore Verbinsky) to go with his full creative intent and you get the hell out of his way. What an utter lunatic delight this film is.

11.   DUNKIRK: What is left to say about DUNKIRK at this point? That in spite of other incredible mainstream productions released this year, you will not find a film with better craft. That this is the film that Christopher Nolan has been working toward his entire career. In which he has found the right scale, placed hubris in check, and put to optimal use his penchant for time dilation. Many expected DUNKIRK to be the story of the exodus of the more than three hundred thousand Allied soldiers out of France from Nazi control. But Nolan wisely decided to focus on a handful of individuals-  in air, on land and on water - demonstrating yet again that his best work comes from smaller scale projects.

12.   GET OUT: Of all the films on this list, Jordan Peele’s debut directorial effort will likely be talked about most in ten years’ time. The premise is deceptively simple: invited to the family home of his Caucasian girlfriend, a Black man begins to sense that things may not be what they seem. The film works as a satisfying straight up thriller. But the film gives so much more upon introspection. Peele has mentioned that the inspiration for the film was a mash-up between THE STEPFORD WIVES and GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER.  By adroitly approaching this as a genre horror film, Peele is able to have the viewer experience a gleefully amplified version of the African American experience in America. And therein lies its genius.

13.   MOTHER!  There is something to be said for a film that will just not submit to a middling response.  Most have outright hatred - the seething, foaming at the mouth kind - for the film. And then there are others who have great admiration for it. Here is the key to the movie: it is the rarest of films which is aided by a little bit of prior knowledge before being seen. The film, from its look into an early marriage in the first act, then to a home invasion in the middle, and finally to the spectacularly deranged last act, is open to many interpretations. I saw the entire film as an allegory for what the conversation between a prideful Creator and his young creation might look like. Once you see the Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence characters as God and Mother Earth, respectively, the film makes absolute sense from first scene to last. The film has also, rightly, been seen as a statement on artistic creation, and the exacting, crippling demands it makes from the artist. Or simply as an age-old push and pull between a wanting masculinity and a giving female presence. No matter how you look at it, as insightful, or as overly obvious, you cannot deny that this is the work of a wily provocateur. And we are remiss to toss it aside based on literal interpretations of the film’s events.

14.   LADY BIRD: You come out of the theater having watched LADY BIRD, and you want to give the film a hug. Greta Gerwig has long been a double threat (an endearing screen actor and a sharply discerning screen-writer) and over the years there have been many (including me) who have wondered when Hollywood would wise up to her talents. Well, Hollywood was too busy bankrolling the next superhero film, and so Gerwig wrote and independently directed her first feature based on her experiences of growing up as a teenager in Sacramento. There is not a single innovative thing in this film, from the plot to the structure to the insights it provide. But a story well told, and with an abundance of respect for all its characters, is all it takes for a movie to hum with universal truths.

15.   THE LOSTCITY OF Z / MUDBOUND:  I am cheating and placing two films in the final spot because I cannot bear to let either one go unsung. Both are strikingly ambitious pieces of cinema, with wide breadth in scope, created by filmmakers relatively young in their careers.  In his sixth film as director, James Gray takes on the true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett who went deep into the Amazon to search for the mythic City of Z in the 1920s. He uses this premise to reflect on a multitude of themes: the heedless obsession that has driven the greatest explorers (and continues with extreme sportsmen in contemporary times), the tremendous and often irreversible toll this takes on families left behind at home, and the inherent danger in assuming ascendancy during the initial interaction with aborigines in a newly discovered land. This is a smart, grueling, meditative piece of cinema.

MUDBOUND is only the third film from Dee Rees and it plays with the assured confidence of a filmmaker telling a story that must be told. Without sentimentalism or overt stridency, Rees follows a multitude of characters navigating the American South after the end of WWII.  They are all achingly human, victims of their time and their prejudices and the abject whims of fate. To Dees’ credit, there is equal compassion and an objective search for comprehension of the motivations of the Caucasian and Black characters alike. Some are monsters, yes, and the ugly cruelty of racism is a constancy, but there is also the haunting presence of an unsparing destiny that will not allow an unrealistic out for any of the characters.  

As I wrap up this list, I realize that there were so many other fine films in 2017 that could have just as easily been on the list. So I had to get nit-picky in eliminating some movies.  Both I, TONYA and BABY DRIVER should have made this list, but I had to make some tough cuts and they were the most painful eliminations. THE FLORIDA PROJECT is a bonafide great film, but I couldn't buy into its conclusion. THE SHAPE OF WATER is visually, as wondrous a film as any Guillermo Del Toro has made, and Sally Hawkins breaks your heart, but its conclusion unfortunately succumbed to the one thing Del Toro has never indulged in: sentimentality. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI features crackerjack performances from a stellar ensemble, and is a rousing, provocative movie, but the film ultimately felt too mean-spirited to me. THE DISASTER ARTIST is good entertainment but seemed a bit of a piffle, an inside joke, a lets-do-this-for-fun enterprise. I have yet to watch ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN and PHANTOM THREAD.

I have also deliberately left out documentaries because there were so many compelling ones released this year (you must see FACES, PLACES) and I will put out a separate list for them. Likewise I will be soon be publishing a list of the best of commercial cinema in 2017, where ATOMIC BLONDE, JOHN WICK-2 and STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI should find their rightful top perches. For an impenitent list maker like me, this should nicely feed my mania; watch this space for more.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Worst of 2015 | Movies | Most Disappointing Films

The worst of the worst: GET HARD

As wondrous and giving as 2015 was for movies, it wasn't without its share of disappointments. And here is my list of the top disappointments. Even within this list, most films just didn't match up to (perhaps impossibly high) expectations. Except for the top three; those are legitimately awful.  

10. TERMINATOR GENISYS. A well-intentioned botch-up, but a botch-up all the same. Other than the anything-goes juggle act that was the script (which brazenly disregarded the legacy of these characters), the most damaging of all was the casting of Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor. Please understand that Sarah Connor doesn't giggle; even as a teenager, she doesn't. 

9. BLACK MASS. Was there a film this year with more grand showboating? Try as he much, poor Johnny Depp is unable to rise above his near comical physicality: a prosthetic forehead and blotchy cirrhotic skin. And can we please say a prayer for the mobster film genre and call it officially dead. Its all been done now. If you must watch this film, do so for the female performances from Dakota Johnson (you read correctly), Julianne Nicholson and Juno Temple, who make much out of minimal screen time; the rest of the film amounts to a pissing contest between an admittedly stellar male cast (Depp, Joe Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Saarsgard, Jesse Plemons, Adam Scott and Corey Stoll). 

8. JOY. This isn't a bad film. It is just a little heart-breaking coming from this director and this cast. As enjoyable as the film is, and as reliably alive as Jennifer Lawrence's lead performance is, this ultimately comes across as a story not worth telling.  What was it about the real-life Joy Mangiano that drove David O. Russell to make a film based on her life. She was a struggling housewife who built an empire from inventing and then cannily marketing the Miracle Mop. But there are a hundred Joy Mangianos in the real world; the Lifetime network on television is devoted specifically to stories about them. Maybe it is the treatment of the material. The voiceover from the dead grandmother (Diane Ladd) is frankly pointless. The TV show-within-the-film device that kicks off the movie is odd and demeaning to the Virginia Madsen character. The Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper characters are cardboard cutouts (remember their crackling work in THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK?). And any film that doesn't know what to do with Isabella Rossellini is committing high crime. 

7. CONCUSSION. Oh this film has a big heart. But in its earnestness, it loses sight of objectivity. The last thing a film with a cause should do is to put its protagonist on a pedestal. And that is exactly what CONCUSSION is hell bent on doing for most of its running time. It all but canonizes Bennet Omalu. This topic deserves a better film, an angrier, more lived-in film ready to embrace real-life contradictions, instead of the diatribe that CONCUSSION amounts to. And what a perfectly good waste of Albert Brooks. And Gugu Mbatha Raw too. 

6. FANTASTIC FOUR.  This is not the full out disaster they would have you believe. Set aside the naked greed in financing yet another reboot of this story. But you can almost chart the filmmaker slowly losing grip on the material, starting at the halfway mark. As if he just gave up mid-film. Some day, director Josh Trank will reveal the horror that must have been the making of this film. The one silver lining in all this: no sequels means there will be fewer Miles Teller movies the world will be subjected to. 

5. RICKI AND THE FLASH. This film, the very air it breathes, seems incongruous with the person who helmed SOMETHING WILD, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and MARRIED TO THE MOB. There is something to be said for an unconstricted, free-form telling of a story that Jonathan Demme used to great effect in his last outing, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED. Even a fraction of the bite and rawness from that film would have been life-saving for RICKI AND THE FLASH. 

4. THE HATEFUL EIGHT. The first part of this film is genius. I have written about the issues I had with the rest of the movie. 

3. ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL I was only marginally annoyed when I first saw this film, but with time I have grown to fully loathe it. It barters the sort of small film tropes that gives indie cinema a bad name: the too quirky by half characters, exhausting hipster references, and the kind of dialog that nobody in real life ever utters. But most egregious of all, is the film's dishonesty. A filmmaker has the right to pawn all the emotional duplicity at their disposal to extract a cathartic response out of the viewer, but I would prefer not to be jerked around like that, thank you very much. 

2. SOUTHPAW. This is stupid miserablist nonsense. A puffed-up, inferior remake of ROCKY. One need only compare this to CREED to realize the emptiness of SOUTHPAW. It pains me that Jake Gyllenhaal was associated with this nakedly manipulative film that has nothing besides hypermasculine posturing to show for itself. 

1. GET HARD. Vile. 

Eight reasons THE HATEFUL EIGHT falls short of being a great film

This year's Oscar ceremonies are nigh. Someone asked me earlier this week why THE HATEFUL EIGHT didn't fare better with Oscar nominations. It managed only three: Best Female Supporting Actor, Best Original Score, and Best Cinematography. None in the lead acting categories. Not one for Best Director. And in the biggest snub of all: no nomination for Best Original Screenplay. I think I know why. 

Every new Tarantino film is cause for celebration for cinephiles even while each of his films has almost always been polarizing. Still, THE HATEFUL EIGHT falls short of being a great film. 

Tarantino has always been an indulgent filmmaker and his excesses are the reason why he is beloved, but this is the first film where his unchecked tics and fletches, his demons and obsessions, derail the movie. Ultimately, fatally so. DJANGO UNCHAINED got dangerously close to crumbling under the overwrought Tarantinoisms, but somehow managed to stick a landing. But not this one. 

Most of early THE HATEFUL EIGHT is terrifically compelling. I will go as far as to say that the first two thirds is genius, with the sort of dialog that reminds us why Tarantino is an essential American filmmaker. Those parts create a sort of stage-play intimacy and directness, an oppressive suffocation seen in only the best kind of theater, where you know that these contrary, conflicted, all too human characters cannot possibly breathe the same air much longer. And that an emotional implosion is imminent. That Tarantino creates this so beautifully in the first two hours of THE HATEFUL EIGHT makes it all the more aggravating to watch what transpires in the last hour. It is akin to watching someone create the most complicated, most precariously balanced, most perfectly scaled sand castle. And then to see them kick that sand castle to the ground. Or worse, watch them piss over it. I say this not to be dramatic; I say it because it is the closest analogy I can come up with to describing my actual filmgoing experience with THE HATEFUL EIGHT. 

So here are eight reasons why THE HATEFUL EIGHT will not be invoked in the first breath of future filmgoers enumerating Tarantino's best work.  A word of note that everything that follows divulges major plot turns, so consider this your fair and final SPOILER WARNING.  
  1. Daisy Domerghue is a punching-bag. Yes I get it, they are all despicable characters; it is right there in the title of the film. They are, hateful all. So why should the woman be treated any differently than the men, I get that. But even then, when the only principal female character in the film, Daisy Domerghue, boils down to a receptacle for repeated violence and she isn't allowed the slightest measure of retribution, you have to question Tarantino's position that this is just how women were treated then. In some fleeting way I can comprehend his intent to place this character in front of the screen as is, as a representation of the only way for a strong female to exist in frontier-era America; in some twisted way Tarantino might even think of this as a feminist stance. But is it, really? I am all for moral fluidity in cinema, but I got tired of watching Daisy Domerghue being beaten again and again, often horrifyingly to comic effect (intended, or otherwise). And let's not even get into what happens to her in the last hour of the film. This, from the director who brought us kick-ass, take no prisoners, female characters in KILL BILL, JACKIE BROWN and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS? 
  2. The N-word. To treat a racial epithet as untouchable is to give it even more power, defenders of the N-word in films have long argued; I can see that. I can see that it is the responsibility of cinema to recreate the past as it was, so we make sure it doesn't repeat again. I can see the purity of the commitment to have characters speak exactly as people did then, with all the abjectly racist potency of that language. And Tarantino has bravely stood by that stance through most of his filmography, starting with his very first film, RESERVOIR DOGS. But even then, even then, even then, when you hear the N-word being uttered for the twenty-seventh time in THE HATEFUL EIGHT (there are actually more than 60 utterances), you cannot shake off the feeling that you are hearing a ten year old say "fuck" loudly and repeatedly for the first time in his life just for the thrill of it. I do not know at what point the persistent use of the N-word stops being an act of political protest or light-shining on the past, and tips over into the disturbingly obsessive. I do not know where that line is, but both DJANGO and THE HATEFUL EIGHT crossed it. At least for me. 
  3. The use of 70mm for a film primarily set in one closed location. Who can dare question Tarantino's unshakable love for film history, his deep affection for the genres and under-appreciated films from a certain time: primarily the 60s and 70s. Which other current headlining filmmaker marches to his own drum with plain disregard of commercial imperatives? Tarantino has negotiated carte blanche with the Weinstein brothers to make films exactly as he wants to. And so he makes a 70 mm film in THE
    HATEFUL EIGHT that in its preferred version has an overture at the start, and a proper intermission in the middle. I envy the thrill of a teenager who hasn't previously experienced an intermission in the theater. But that 70mm. Yes, there is the glorious panning out shot of a snow-covered cross that opens the film, and makes a giddily beautiful case for the 70mm scale. But outside of that, why shoot a film in 70mm when more than three-quarters of the film plays out within the closed confined space of the interiors of a small, snowed-in saloon. It seems akin to driving your Lamborghini to the grocery story down the street. One can say: well, why not? Sure, why not? But it does bear to question a misplaced sense of application. 
  4. The worst thing that can happen to a man. Allow me to explain what according to Quentin Tarantino is the absolutely worst thing than can happen to a red-blooded male. It is being forced into a sexual act with another male. We saw this in PULP FICTION, we saw this in DJANGO UNCHAINED, and here it is, as sure as day, in THE HATEFUL EIGHT. I do not make light of rape, no matter the gender of those involved. But in Tarantino's universe, a man can die a terrible death, can be mentally diminished, can have the goriest physical violence thrust upon him, but the loftiest form of indignity is reserved for those male characters that are sexually forced upon by another male. I do not know of the demons that plague Tarantino's mind any more than I know of any other person's mind. But it is more than eye-raising now to see him circle around this same premise in film after film. Since no one else will say it, I will: this reeks of homophobia. Whatever needs to be exorcised from your brain, Mr. Tarantino please do it. It is regressive to see this pop up in your films. 
  5. How to end this film?  Tarantino creates layered, contradictory, conflicted, all too human characters in THE HATEFUL EIGHT. He watches them combust against each other verbally, and what a show that is! And then what? Of all the writing options he has to bring a
    conclusion to this tale. Of all the ways to see these characters through. Of all the opportunities to make statements, about the state of these characters swimming in moral ambiguity, and the world they inhabit, and the hopelessness of trying to rein in destiny. Of all those options. What do we get instead? A whiplash turn to shlock. Tarantino is master of the genre mash-up, but even then, here it comes across as wildly discordant. I believe the difference between those who love THE HATEFUL EIGHT and those who do not comes down to this singular issue: whether they were able to accept this whiplash turn to shlock in the last act of the film. Yes, these are characters Tarantino has brought to life and so he is free to do as he pleases with them, I understand that. But as a viewer, I have to note that it is crushingly disappointing to watch the script treat these breathing, beautifully alive characters with such disrespect at the end.  
  6. Wasn't the last half-hour of DJANGO UNCHAINED nearly identical? Tarantino's previous film, DJANGO, also ended in a blood-bath, with the red stuff practically trickling down the walls in the last reel. There is a place for mexican shootouts, and Tarantino has a particular knack for them, as evidenced by a beautifully staged, breathless one that sits in the middle of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, Tarantino's last great film in my opinion. But when the best you can do is to have almost all of your characters kill each other in an unrealistic late-night Cinemax horror film trope, that comes off as lazy. Especially when it happens two films in a row. 
  7. Can your characters be happy, for once, please? It is not a sign of weakness as a scriptwriter to allow your characters to walk away happy at the end of a film. No one will argue that the couple walking into the sunset hand in hand at the end of a film is the most dreaded of movie tropes; and no self-respecting writer will have a part of it. But I think it takes more courage to let your characters walk away with the smallest measure of hard-earned self-determination at the end. Remember Jackie Brown? Or The Bride in KILL BILL? It seems that in the new millennium, Tarantino is too scared to let his characters walk away happy. As if that were some concession to the mawkish, the overly sentimental. It is not. The achingly realized characters you write, Mr Tarantino, deserve a little bit of it. 
  8. And now for something completely different. Tarantino has gone on record to say that he would love to direct a Bond film sometime. And he would be brilliant at it. Or I would love to see him do a contemporary morality tale, something like THE BIG SHORT.  Or do a snarky, vinegar-breathed, romantic film even. Listen, Ang Lee has two directing Oscars, and I think it is because people respect his versatility; no two films of his have been alike. Heck, even Scorsese doesn't make Mafia films anymore. Just this year, Spielberg made his first anti-Spielberg film, in the gracefully understated BRIDGE OF SPIES, a film that is all about the small gestures, instead of Spielberg's usual large scale flourishes, and it is a refreshing course-correction in his career. I hope Tarantino does the same soon. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Best of 2015 | Movies at Film Festivals

Everyone creates their end of year list of favorite films, and that is well and good. But year after year, the most exceptional movies I watch are at film festivals. Since these films have not, in most cases, yet received theatrical distribution they are often left out of the end of year discussions. Which is frankly unforgivable. And it is the reason I have been creating a separate list of favorite films watched at film festivals. 

Over at Moviewallas, our voices have gone sore from exhorting listeners to attend film festivals. Any film festival. If you can get yourself to one of the more prestigious ones, that is terrific; but we do not always have the time to make an out of town trip specifically for a film festival. So I say, start close. Start at home. Start with your local film festival. Besides, your hometown festivals need all the support they can get. It is not trivial to curate and program a film festival, get permissions to screen the films, and arrange the logistics. And the least we can do is to show up.

I make it sound like film festivals are bitter medicines to be swallowed for the greater good. Perish the thought. The film festival experience can truly be exalted; I recall my first festival experience as being akin to a religious awakening. There you are getting to see a film before anyone else. Bragging rights aside, what is better than annoying your friends with recommendations of films they must watch in the future. Second, movies shown at film festivals bring the filmmakers with them. Most film screenings are followed by a Q and A with the director and often the cast. Talk about annoying your friends now, with casually tossed references to that time Tom Hardy gave a really witty answer to an audience question. And then there is the matter of access, that you otherwise just would never be able to tap into. Foreign films, independent films, commercial films, documentaries, short film programs, retrospectives, they are all part of the festival experience. 

And finally, and most depressing of all, the film festival may be the only place to view some of these gems. And I am talking about high quality movies, which due to the terrible evil that is the American film distribution system, will never show up in a commercial theater in your hometown. 

I know that much of this sounds terribly preachy. But if you ever have the slightest curiosity about a film festival, I would urge you to give it a try. With that PSA out of the way, let me jump into the best films I saw at film festivals in 2015: 

  1. LAS MALAS LENGUAS (SWEET AND VICIOUS; Columbia) Tribeca Film Festival. Have you ever felt like you are a bystander in your own life? This film, a scalpel sharp character study of a privileged girl in Columbia starts to reflect on the adolescence of nothing less than an entire nation.
  2. ECHOES OF WAR (USA) – San Diego Film Festival. It is hard to believe this is the directorial debut of Kane Senes. A slow burn homage to frontier era American farm life, this film is so committed to the air and light and sound and breath of that time, that the rigor with which this has been recreated will leave you breathless. You will be left breathless still by the film's sudden gallop into Peckinpah territory. James Dale Badge and Ethan Embry are stellar here; to see them unrecognized during end of year acting accolades is a crime. I take hope however in knowing that the spirit of seventies cinema is alive and well still in the work of filmmakers such as Senes. 
  3. ANESTHESIA (USA)Tribeca Film Festival.  This is a literate, proudly cerebral addition to the genre of films involving multiple intersecting stories. Writer/director/actor Tim Blake Nelson has gathered Sam Waterson, Glenn Close, Gretchen Moll, Corey Stoll, Gloria Reuben and Mickey Sumner to fill in the many stories, but it is Kristen Stewart who may be the MVP here, proving yet again her ability to effortlessly convey determined intelligence. 
  4. ELIZABETH EKADASHI (India) Los Angeles Indian Film Festival. To watch this heartfelt film is to get lost in a story so vivid and peopled with characters so authentic as to make you grateful for being in your cinema seat. When their mother runs into a hard financial crunch, two kids in India must summon all their resources to prevent the sale of their beloved bicycle (named Elizabeth) that was gifted to them by their recently deceased dad. 
  5. ITS ALREADY TOMORROW IN HONG KONG (USA/Hong Kong) Los Angeles Film Festival.  An American man stationed in Hong Kong for a few years meets a visiting Chinese-American girl. They walk and they talk. And they meet again a few years later. If this sounds a little like Linklater's BEFORE SUNRISE/SUNSET, then this film has earned the right to stand in that company. Wistful, wise and stridently romantic, this film knows that often the most authentic connections in life have nowhere to go. 
  6. MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (China) San Diego Asian Film Festival. Is this the best Asian film to be released last year? It lulls you first into thinking that it is an inconsequential eighties-set love triangle, until the film opens up, in every possible way: thematically, in scope, in geography, and literally on the screen with a widening aspect ratio. Featuring a marvelous last act (set in 2025!) that is inspired and dangerous and yet oddly apt, this is the work of a master. 
  7. TAXI (Iran) San Diego Asian Film Festival. Director and pied-piper Jafar Panahi, still under house-arrest by the Iranian government, manages to orchestrate a cast of many to create another sly, humorous and altogether humane film. It is a losing battle trying to deduce the parts that are documentary and those that are staged as Panahi drives a taxi around Tehran; at the end the film is inarguably simply a device to fill hearts. 
  8. AYENDA AND THE MECHANIC (South Africa)Los Angeles Film Festival. This is an earthy, ambitious, messy, vibrantly alive epic about a multitude of characters teeming current-day Johannesburg. Director Sarah Blecher said after the screening, "It is time for South Africa to be telling stories about people. We are past telling stories about causes". Amen. 
  9. CARTEL LAND (Mexico)Tribeca Film Festival. Having already grabbed a prestigious Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, this is the real thing, telling the hopeless, shape-shifting, inscrutable story of Mexican drug cartels. This is essential cinema. 
  10. APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR (USA) - San Diego Asian Film Festival. This is an acid-sweet confessional that declares writer/director/actor Desiree Akhavan as an undeniable talent. Achingly honest, conflicted, and an easy purveyor of comedy of the disquiet, the film is all those things because Akhavan refuses to turn the camera off on any aspect of her life. She stomps her way into cinema and we have to no choice but to listen to her.   
  11. ATOMIC HEARTS (Iran)Los Angeles Film Festival. Above genre and gleefully anarchic, this film still practices rigid structure in its story-telling. Is this a vampire film? Is it social commentary on modern day Iran by way of intentionally deflected genre confusion? Is it stream of consciousness script-writing untethered by narrative? Whatever it is, it is unpredictable and giddy and more than a little mischievous.  
  12. HUNGRY HEARTS (Italy) Tribeca Film Festival.  There is literally nothing in the annals of cinema quite like this film. Part love story, part litmus test for the audience, this film slowly reveals it colors to present itself as a war of ideologies. And in its punishingly uncompromising look at both sides of this divide, the film stridently refuses to take sides. Even as things spiral inevitably into insanity and darkness. Adam Driver may be more famous now playing a Star Wars villain, but this film should leave no doubt about his commitment to smaller films.  
  13. MY LOVE, DON’T CROSS THAT RIVER (South Korea) – Los Angeles Film Festival. This is the most commercially profitable South Korean film to date, and it is easy to see why. The documentary follows a couple through the last years of a marriage that has spanned 75 years. All documentaries based on real life footage are inherently untrue because the known presence of a camera fundamentally changes the behavior of those in front of it. Even so, this film somehow manages to capture the insoluble, ineffable call-what-you-want bond between any couple that has prevailed over decades. In that, the film is universal, and the audience is at once invested in the fate of the central characters. 
  14. THE CROW’S EGG (India) – Los Angeles Indian Film Festival.  Two kids in a slum go through a Quixotic quest to get a taste of the most unachievable of things: a slice of pizza from the swanky new fast food joint that has opened in the neighborhood. The film gets occasionally heavy-handed in its commentary on the establishment, but there is no denying the pleasures of a David versus Goliath archetype done with heart. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Martin Luther King Day Reflections

Thursday last week, I was a guest on a public radio discussion (KPBS Midday Edition) of the Oscar nominations which had been announced earlier that morning. Beth Accomando, the KPBS lead film critic kindly invited me. Maureen Cavanaugh, the host of the program asked us about racial diversity amongst the announced nominees.  All nominees in the four acting categories (Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, Male and Female) are white. So which deserving actors of color should deservedly been nominated, Maureen inquired. And in the moment, the only name that came to mind was that of Michael B. Jordan in CREED. The challenges with being on live radio.

Since then, I have been thinking of other worthy actors of color who could have received nominations and there are many who  qualified: the earthy authenticity of Mya Taylor and Kikana Kiki Rodriguez in TANGERINE, the wily disquiet of Oscar Isaac in EX-MACHINA, the star-making turns from Jason Mitchell and O'Shea Jackson Jr in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, the altogether winning and sweet performance from Shameik Moore in DOPE, the goofy, lispy, bad-guy take by Samuel L. Jackson in KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE, or his guileless, contradictory, unforgiving central presence in THE HATEFUL EIGHT, the unconventional supportive ex-husband played by Edgar Ramirez in JOY, the glowing life-forces that were the five incredible Turkish actresses playing sisters in MUSTANG, the corruptor / corrupted pair of Idris Elba and Abraham Attah in BEASTS OF NO NATION. The list goes on and on.

To be clear, I do not suggest that nominations be preferentially handed out to actors of color just to appease liberal sensibilities; I do not believe anyone is suggesting that. But the key question is this: within the pool of worthy contenders, is there a systematic bias against picking those of color? This is hard to definitively answer because each voting member's pick, is by definition, subjective and driven by personal likes. But what we do know are three incontestable facts. First, the Academy voters are predominantly older, male and white. Second, there were several deserving candidates of color in most if not all four acting categories. Third, no actor of color received a nomination in the acting category in the last two years. Make what you will of this; there is a reason why #OscarsSoWhite is resonating so strongly.

There were more than a few eyebrows raised last year, including at this site, when Ava Duvernay was left out of the Best Director nominations last year for her rousing work on SELMA. It quickly escalated to open outrage. And there is zero evidence that any correction has occurred in the twelve months since then.

It is Martin Luther King Jr Day today, and like many I wonder how much has changed in the wake of his legacy. The past year has seen some of the most upsetting and achingly repetitive dialog surface again about race in the national spotlight. It seems we keep saying the same things year after year to no real shift. Things have been particularly troubling at the volatile juncture of race and police brutality.

When it comes to films. Idris Elba made an impassioned plea this morning to the UK Parliament today asking for parity in roles written for (and awarded to) actors of color. His words ring with an urgent call to action even as he sounds exhausted uttering them. This is after all the year when Hollywood hired Emma Stone to play an Asian American character in ALOHA.  When Viola Davis won the Emmy this year, her speech cut through to the gist of the matter: "You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there", she said. [Here is one more of our finest actors, pushed like so many into television because Hollywood just cannot seem to find the right material for her in films]. The total number of films that were offered to Lupito Nyongo in the first six months after winning the Best Supporting Actress prize last year: zero.

Spike Lee, who is scheduled to be given an HonoraryAcademy Award at this year's event, announced today that he will not be attending the Oscar ceremonies as a protest to the all-white acting nominations; his announcement on MLK Day is no co-incidence. And it is not too difficult to empathize with his stance. In the decades since Martin Luther King Jr, how many steps have we taken forward and how many back.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Audio Link | Discussing the Academy Award nomination on KPBS radio's Midday Edition

Being a guest on public radio. Checked that off my Bucket List today.

Thanks to the out-of-nowhere kindness of Beth Accomando, the lead film critic for KPBS, I got the opportunity to guest on Midday Edition today. At the roundtable with lead host Maureen Cavanaugh, we discussed our reactions to the 2015 Oscar Nominations that had just been announced.

Being an NPR junkie most of my adult life, the significance of actually being on public radio was not lost to me. It is the hearth from which I continue to steal the afterglow.

Here is the link to the show, and the audio link to the entirety of the discussion is on the left of the page.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Best of 2015 | Mainstream Films

I will always gravitate toward smaller, independent films. But every year there are a few blockbusters that are not evil. Some even surprise us. I have already posted my overall personal favorite films of 2015.  Here is a list of favorite mainstream films of the year, in alphabetical order. When top brass studio executives go to bed, the ones involved in greenlighting these films ought to sleep well.

ANTMAN Talk about a challenge. Taking on a lesser Marvel character - someone able to shrink to the size of an ant - seems a surefire recipe for a disaster of a film. But somehow it all stuck together in ANTMAN. I want to shake hands with the person who cast Paul Rudd in the lead. And I want to pat the back of these filmmakers for not destroying entire cities in the climax, but have it instead be something that is the definition of inspired. 

KINGSMAN, THE SECRET SERVICE. You want goofy and smart? You want a film that makes you smile as its cleverness holds strong, scene after inspired scene? What do you know, KINGSMAN gave us all that. By the time the finale rode along, it will feel good to submit with pleasure to the winking absurdity of it all. 

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Guy Ritchie brings an inspired, cheeky, impossibly stylish action movie that could actually have been made in the sixties. Forget the double and triple-crosses from the femme fatales, the real chemistry here is between the male leads (Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer).

THE MARTIAN Hardcore fans of the novel (I raise my hand) have found the science substantially dumbed down, and much of the despair of the lead character curiously whittled down, in the movie adaptation. But there is no denying Ridley Scott's wizardry with conjuring worlds masterfully (on Mars and Earth alike) to tell an inarguably entertaining story, peopled with tens of major characters. And the last fifteen minutes are crystallized adrenaline.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION. It is difficult putting out a quality product when you are in round five of a franchise already two decades old. But Christopher McQuarrie (EDGE OF TOMORROW) delivered a solid film, sharp, confident and relevant. Top marks too to the script-writers for a female character (Rebecca Ferguson) that is neither smitten nor needs rescuing.

SPY Melissa McCarthy should only ever work with Paul Feig. Because Lord knows everyone else in the business is bent on having her play some shrill, hateful caricature of an off-the-rails shrew. McCarthy is tremendous here in a deft little thriller, never more so than in scenes with Rose Byrne's arch Bulgarian villain.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. Impossibly high expectations! The revival of dusty characters last seen decades ago! The need to self-correct course after Lucas' three subpar prequels! But J. J. Abrams' team somehow come through with an uncluttered but tight new chapter in the space saga that introduces shockingly well-realized new characters even while gently emulating the original film (A NEW HOPE). Thank you, truly, for not dashing our collective hopes.