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.