I’m slumping hard.
Movie of the Week:
The Edge of Seventeen
- The Founder (2016): In a very by-the-book movie about Ray Kroc, the ‘founder’ of McDonald’s, we get a bit of everything – a great performance by Michael Keaton, a lesson in (adapted) history and a morality tale about the power of capitalism. What quite works is how the business aspects are approached, conveying how a good idea is often not enough to be successful. Similarly to The Social Network (2010), but with much less bite, it frames the question of who the owner of a concept really is and how financial momentum usually trumps binding agreements in settling such discord. A relevant shortcoming is the tip-toeing around taking a stand about any of the issues – the lightweight to non-existent criticism of McDonald’s as a contributing factor to a nationwide (global) pandemic, as well as a force promoting compliance standards not only internally, but also across vertical industries. Perhaps that’s just me showing off my many years of (pointless) management education, but all these elements could have come together into a more original story. 6/10
- The Edge of Seventeen (2016): Back in my teen-zone, I enjoyed closing the week off with an unusually nuanced high-school dramedy. The nuance lies not so much with the story, which is unspectacular, but with the characters – especially the lead, who proves she’s both a hero and an anti-hero, as teenagers usually are. Hailee Steinfeld is pretty great and it’s especially fun to see her share the screen with Woody Harrelson, who expands on his smartass persona from The Hunger Games, to play a grumpy history teacher. The movie gets the perceived angst and solitude right, as Nadine (Steinfeld) struggles with overcoming the disconnect to her generation. How much of that is real disconnect and how much is just self-seclusion and self-pity is for you to decide – and that’s an important part of why the movie stands out. 8/10
Busy, busy week, so I’m left a bit behind on my movie targets. Buuut, on the upside, I’ve finally gone below the 1960s, with a lovely little classic.
Movie of the Week:
Sherlock Jr. (1924)
- Sherlock Jr. (1924): I guess it’s more of a mental hassle to get used to the unfamiliar, than it actually is to watch silent movies. My experience in the matter is severely limited, with this the first Buster Keaton movie I’ve ever seen. As soon as I started watching it, I recalled a video someone sent me a while ago, which talks with fascination about The Art of the Gag in Keaton’s work. It’s pretty special and being attuned to certain details helped in easing me into this foreign terrain. The story of a wannabe detective who is also trying to prove a worthy suitor is complicated by the appearance of a good-for-nothing, mischievous ‘rival’. Although simple, Keaton manages to put an endearing twist in the tale, in turning reality and expectations on their head and letting the good guy off the hook for all his naiveté. At just 45 minutes, you only need to replace an episode of Lucifer to make room for it. 8/10
- War on Everyone (2016): For John McDonagh, this is a big let-down. After the excellently enjoyable The Guard (2011) and Calvary (2014), McDonagh has produced a movie too far into the bad of the American mainstream, on a theme that’s been covered so thoroughly along the years, that standing out is beyond difficult. Corrupt cops who don’t care much can be good for a bit of wit, but McDonagh’s trademark philosophical quips fall flat, in spite of decent chemistry between Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña. A lackluster villain (Theo Jones), doubled with an over-the-top villain sidekick (Caleb Landry Jones), don’t help either, so you’re left with…not much. The movie is just too light and doesn’t say anything, which is why I’m being harsh on it, although it’s not unwatchable. Maybe watch one of the works by McDonagh. 5/10
- The Girl with All the Gifts (2016): A zombie movie a month keeps the doctor away, doesn’t it? This one comes with a generational twist and in the fungi variant, and is just very, very well executed. With the lovely Gemma Arterton in the lead, alongside débutante Senia Nannua and veterans Glenn Close and Paddy Considine (as well as a short appearance by the star of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Anamaria Marinca), their struggle in the face of the apocalypse is tense, bloody and philosophical. As so many other Z-movies, it’s all about the road-trip, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for surprise or horror. What I liked less was its apprehension of evolutionary principles and how the conclusion comes about, but it remains a strong entry in the ever-growing zombie-verse. 7/10
The second week is always the hardest. New year’s glow starts to fade, you’ve already failed several resolutions, the weather’s cold, yet the snow is melting. So it’s best not to strive for too much, just make sure you’ve found a rhythm and are in control. Or the illusion thereof.
Movie of the Week:
- Camera obscura (2016): The documentary on cine-clubs in communist Romania is a trod down memory lane, defined by some surprising shorts and its lack of focus. Apparently, film-makers find it hard to disassociate the topic of their docus from the fall of communism, if their time-line starts at any point before 1989. More about my frustrations in the long-form review, but this is a hit and miss endeavour, which will interest you under particular circumstances, e.g. how relevant the subject matter is to what drives your passions or how you feel about watching paint dry. Luckily I am appropriately suited in both regards, my gripes are conceptual. 6/10
- Christine (2016): Funny, how things work. A few months back, I saw the (spoiler-laden) trailer to Kate plays Christine (2016), an alt-doc about the sufferings of a TV reporter from way back in the 70s. How bizarre to have a feature film on the same, obscure subject, in the same year. But it’s a thing that happens, as it did with Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006), or some other more recent example that’s slipping my mind right now. Nothing’s random. Sticking to the film, while a tad voyeuristic, it harrowingly conveys the travails of Christine, a smart, committed reporter who feels under-appreciated at work and can’t find her place in life. It struck a chord, especially seeing how I’ve never faced such adversity. But seriously, Rebecca Hall gives such contour to her difficult, difficult character, that I found myself unable to stay detached. An existential quagmire at the top of its game. 8/10
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016): Funny, gentle, heartwarming, you name it, Wilderpeople gets it right. The only reason why the movie of the week title went to Christine is that this week nurtured my gloom-ridden nature. Coming from the co-director/co-writer of What We Do in the Shadows (2014), Taika Waititi, a.k.a. the dandy vampire, this movie is quite the uplifting experience. The story of all around adorable Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a reject of the child welfare system, and his grumpy ‘uncle’ Hector (Sam Neill), takes them through the bush (ha-ha) as they flee from the long arm of institutionalized mistreatment and underfunding. Not much more to say really, it’s just a sweet and fairly straightforward tale, with some distinctive quirks along the way to make it stand out. 8/10
- El hijo de la novia (2001): AKA Son of the Bride. After getting lucky last week with Truman (2015), I rolled the dice once more on Ricardo Darin. Sadly, the Academy Award nominated picture dating more than fifteen years ago was not my cup of tea at all. The movie finds Darin collaborating with Juan Jose Campanella, as they do in the much acclaimed El secreto de sus ojos (2009), and features a story about restaurant owner Rafael, whose father decides he wants to have a church wedding with his partner of forty four years. The only minor obstacle is that his de facto wife suffers from Alzheimer’s. As we’re carried through a maze of frustrations, mostly due to Rafael’s obnoxiousness and his poor life choices, the movie hits a few true notes before reaching a predictably manipulative finale. Maybe I’m being harsh, but I find Alzheimer movies almost impossible to get right, especially when they focus too much on overt sentiments. I did rate The Notebook (2004) with a failing grade, so, you know, take that as your yardstick. The only thing I really got out of it, is an awesome (upcoming) quote. 5/10
The last year or so has seen several Romanian documentaries about cinematic heritage and the associated resistance against the communist dictatorship, with Chuck Norris vs. Communism (2015) [review] and Cinema, mon amour (2015) [review] at the forefront. Their desire to paint this picture of subversiveness is a stretch undermining some of the unique stories they
present and Camera Obscura proves a perfect companion piece in this regard.
Starting with the sixties, many state owned companies (usually in the primary or manufacturing industries) decided to subsidize some form of cinema clubs, providing obsolete tools from before the war and facilities for those interested to partake, with the aim of fostering some sort of communal film-making endeavour. The objective was to produce mostly propagandistic material, document work procedures and provide some stock footage of day to day activities. However, a great temptation to go beyond this existed and was not rigorously discouraged, conditioned by strict monitoring and censorship.
Camera obscura is, for better and worse, a walk down memory lane. A series of talking heads are interspersed between archival footage ranging from the mundane to, honestly, the sublime. The discussion is not particularly focused, but the emphasis falls on the technical aspects conditioning production, as well as the comprehensive interest in cinematic aptitude – rather than cinematic art. It makes sense, as the people partaking in the cinema clubs mostly had a technical background. Yet, especially because of this, some of the best moments in the movie come to the fore: a sisyphic, anti-system short about a man pushing a nut with his nose; a Beckett-esque scene with three men sharing a metallic office closet; a metaphoric cartoon about going to the store and buying some (very rare) chicken wings; or a visual analysis/juxtaposition of drawings following the rhythm of a scene in traffic. In a way it’s funny, because there’s a lot of talk about a kind of experimental cinematic avantgard, when actually, due to existing limitations, most of the work looks like a rehash of the 1920s.
The filming constraints provide some perspective and they frame the idea of the amateur filmmaker – something that has since vanished, in that it has become ubiquitous. But the movie is too stuck in its reminiscences to look for such shifts, which makes it plod at times. This happens particularly in some of the lackluster anecdotes the protagonists retell, or when it offers (unnecessary) interpretation. The nostalgia effect becomes overwhelming, which in itself is not an issue. However, with better framing and contextualization, certain paradoxes and inherent compromises would have become more apparent to viewers. For example, the atmosphere described at the clubs is often romantic, with only regulators being indicated as constraints to the film-making freedom. Yet, it is an accepted truth that with the clubs organized under the unions, there would have been ‘infiltrators’ within them, ready to report on any ill-doings.
While these shortcomings could be overlooked due to the rather solid and coherent material put together by Gheorghe Preda, what I cannot abide by is the occasional lack of focus and the complete pivot made in the final scenes to connect the clubs to the 1989 Revolution. Within ten minutes, there’s a (wannabe) amusing breaking-the-documentary-wall moment, when an interviewee calls his wife and asks her to take care of their dog barking incessantly, followed by fully explicit scenes of freshly dug up bodies of people killed during the Revolution. Talking of rhythm and story, this just doesn’t work and it is not justified either, in the context of what the movie is about.
I would have loved to understand what the people involved in the film-making process ended up doing with their post-communist lives, whether all the precious time spent in understanding the process saw them practice it once they had the freedom to do so. Knowing what the landscape of Romanian cinema was like in the 90s, they probably did not, but this was something worth exploring in conclusion. It would have been more appropriate to the people who took part in this movie, mostly people who have not found artistic or, presumably, financial actualization post ’89.
I do recommend Camera obscura, especially if you have an interest in film-making, because it provides some special moments along the way. It’s just unfortunate that a certain unwillingness to prod deeper and a lack of visionary discipline undermine it over the long run.
P.S. When I left the cinema, the projectionist, standing in the freezing cold to have a smoke, stopped me to say that he knew one of the protagonists well, a devoted communist party member in the day. No clue if it’s true, maybe it’s just a neighbour he doesn’t like, but this is the kind of prodding I expected from the movie, with a camera being such a powerful tool during those days, that it was anything but neutral and apolitical.
New year, new ambitions, old habits. But I tried, I really did, and ended up with an almost mainstream-free week, populated by several movies about the passing of time. It’s funny, in a way, because the first and the last choices are, unwittingly, at opposite ends of the spectrum in how they deal with loss – Almodóvar’s dramatic flair contrasting Hansen-Løve’s restraint, the Latin spirit against French rationalism, yum.
Movie of the Week:
Little Men (2016)
- Julieta (2016): Most of Almodóvar’s movies have strong, divisive, dramatic female leads and Julieta is no exception. In exploring the title character’s separation from her daughter, we are transported back in time to when Julieta first met Xoan, the to-be father, to witness the beginning of a spectacular romance. It’s pretty and passionate, with fidelity, duty and love intersecting in the most interesting of moments. Based on the stories of Alice Munro, whom I’ve been meaning to read ever since a friend gifted me one of her books five years ago, Almodóvar peppers the cast with the familiar faces of Rossy de Palma and Darío Grandinetti, alongside Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte, who share the protagonist, as well as Feliciano Lopez’s look-alike (come on tennis fans, I know you’re here), Daniel Grao, playing Xoan. For whatever reason, I rated Todo sobre mi madre (1999) with a mere seven, so I felt constrained to go no higher here, which is justifiable, as Julieta is not air-tight, nor totally consistent. But I liked it. 7/10
- Little Voice (1998): Being a big Robbie Williams fan, I’ve always had his cover of Things, with Jane Horrocks, well set in my mind. Implicitly, watching Horrocks’ performances has been on my to-do list for a while now. After thoroughly enjoying Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet (1990) at some point last year, I also wanted to indulge in Little Voice, a movie populated with some big name actors: Michael Caine, Jim Broadbent and Ewan McGregor. Funnily enough, the one who shines most is Brenda Blethyn, garnering her second Academy Awards nomination after the one for her performance in another Mike Leigh movie, the *insert preferred superlative here* Secrets & Lies (1996). But I digress – the story is about an extremely shy girl, nicknamed Little Voice (LV), who is brought up by her hysterically abusive mother. When the latter hooks up with a no-frills talent agent, it becomes apparent that LV has a gift for singing, something that could be exploited by those in the know. Needless to say, things get rough and dark, in spite of the comedy label attached to the IMDb page. What I liked most was how the movie stood in the corner of the quiet ones, with a romantic kind of dignity, especially in the face of so much noise. The atmosphere worked well enough to help me get over some of the more mundane moments throughout. 7/10
- Truman (2015): I recall traveling somewhere when I came across the poster of Truman and it piqued my interest that Ricardo Darín and Javier Cámara were headlining it. Having seen Darín in Relatos salvajes (2014) and El secreto de sus ojos (2009), I knew he was a strong lead, while my affection for Cámara goes all the way back to his performance in Almodóvar’s Hable con Ella (2002). It’s a small (Spanish speaking movie) world. Truman is a about a couple of friends reuniting, when one is in the latter stages of his (failed) cancer treatment. All the movie really does is follow the two around over a few days, as they both come to grips, anew or for the first time, with what is to come. But we’re not there yet, we’re seeing them as they cherish each other and they cherish life, in an understated, calming manner. Frankly, it’s one of the most serene movies I’ve seen on acceptance, and while it does not stand out in terms of story, it gets all the little touches right and feels intimate and warm. 8/10
- Un coupable idéal (2001): Or Murder on a Sunday Morning. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary, I didn’t actually choose it for this reason. I spent a few weeks last year watching Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s The Staircase (2004), the arguably superior precursor to recent hits like The Jinx (2015) or Making a Murderer (2015). So this was next, a docu following the arrest and trial of Brenton Butler, a teenager accused of murdering a tourist in a failed armed robbery one Sunday morning. It’s one of those preposterous situations where the accused was picked up solely based on racial stereotyping and a case ensued following the conviction of the victim’s husband, the sole eye witness to the crime, that Brenton was the killer. That a sixty plus year old man might have poor memory recall is one thing, but the lax investigation conducted by the detectives in charge is what should really worry the American taxpayer. Brenton had the chance of being defended by Ann Finnell and Patrick McGuinness, the latter proving a real bad-ass maverick attorney, in a tightly fought case that makes for compelling court room drama, with memorable characters. I do have to wonder, however, if de Lestrade’s movie really stands out enough to deserve the Academy Award, especially as it ran against a more intricate, tragic tale in Children Underground (2001), which looks at the homeless children born in Romania, a heritage of the communist population growth policy. Well, it’s just an Oscar, so who cares. 8/10
- Little Men (2016): One of the most praised indie movies of the year, Little Men is a sad, but honest tale about families, feuds and friendships, with undertones of social/ethnic commentary. Perhaps ethnic is improperly said, maybe it’s cultural, if one is to differentiate at all. Or perhaps it’s just about how life can sometimes be adversarial and there’s no way out of it. I’ll keep it high level here and say that, ultimately, there’s an element of segregation at work, as urbanization 2.0 has lead to the outpricing of those who are not in privileged positions of ownership. The ripples go far, to the point that they are imbued with deterministic powers, in particular shaping the lives of future generations. Little Men does well in painting this picture, with powerful characters that are easy to empathize with although they happen to be at odds with one another. Quite special. 8/10
- Frankie and Johnny (1991): I got a bit sloppy, but I deserved something light. Too bad Frankie and Johnny, while light to some degree, was not the light I needed. The movie helped me come to the realization that I don’t much admire Al Pacino as a loverboy, because he feels strangely one-dimensional. Strangely, as the term ‘one-dimensional’ is something I would normally not associate with Pacino. But alas, that’s how it is. All I’m saying is that if you’ve seen it once, you’ve probably seen enough. Maybe my gripe is with his character, who came across as a tad all over the place, contrasting with Michelle Pfeiffer’s considerably superior persona. She’s the reason why the movie works a lot of the time and it helps that the conclusion is on the sweet tunes of Debussy’s Clair de Lune. Not enough for me, though. 6/10
- L’avenir (2016): Things to Come (English title) is a profoundly introspective movie, carried across sterile emotional plains by Isabelle Huppert’s intimidating performance. Playing a philosophy teacher, she is faced with several life-turning moments, yet comes out on top through sheer power of will, drawing on her depth of knowledge, in the spirit of intellectual liberation. It’s a movie of contrasts between youth and the sagesse of age, the rapport and the expectations one fosters with society, with ones aspirations of self-actualization, with life. Not a lot happens narratively and the characters embody a certain austere emotionality, making Mia Hansen-Løve’s picture feel sparse. I’m not sure why it failed to make me engage properly, because I normally thrive on these cerebral excursions about the self. Perhaps it’s as the protagonist herself quotes from Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse: “We enjoy less what we obtain, than what we desire and are happy only before becoming so.” 7/10
Without too much purpose, the last week of the year turned out one of the best, if not perfectly diverse, weeks in a recent while. Three blockbusters head it, alongside several slightly smaller movies, all mainstream with one exception. I’ll let you guess which one it is.
Movie of the Week:
- Busanhaeng/Train to Busan (2016): Transitioning smoothly from one scary movie to another (The Autopsy of Jane Doe being Sunday’s choice, if you didn’t laser burn that into your memory), the Korean zombie hit could have just as well borne the campy title of Zombies on a Train, or Train of the Dead. Plotline-wise, there’s a faulty father and an ignored daughter, a half-forgotten birthday and a train ride to, you guessed it, Busan. Well, it was not quite the target, but as a zombie pandemic breaks out, the whole place goes haywire, with 28 Days Later running-leaping-marauding zombies making for a violent turn of events. The train might not be the safest place to be, but it sure beats some of the alternatives, and so we look on as father breaks out a sweat and learns a lesson about being human (these financial traders, really!). What I really liked was the paranoia that ensued between the survivors, a suitable parallel to some of the things happening throughout the world nowadays – as some have pointed out. Ultimately though, a zombie movie is a zombie movie, no matter how much cinephiles like to draw on the social allegories, all pretty stale meanwhile. And this is a fun zombie movie, with proper effects and a lot of action. 7/10
- Soul Kitchen (2009): First things first – shame on me for this being the first Fatih Akin movie I’ve seen! But soon, Gegen die Wand, I promise. As for Soul Kitchen, it’s an enjoyable tale of food and hipster Hamburg, but towards the end, the sense that it had started to drift became apparent. Just as apparent as the fact that I keep watching food-themed movies every week. In short, Zinos has a run down bar/bistro, on the verge of going broke, and a brother in prison who’s looking for ways to stay there as little as possible, which includes being hired to ‘work’ at Zinos’ place. Through a stroke of luck, things improve suddenly as the identity of the bistro changes, but the pressure is still on for Zinos to balance work with his (very) long distance relationship. So yeah, the plot isn’t spectacular, but it works well enough to keep you entertained, as do the characters. 7/10
- Deepwater Horizon (2016): I’m starting to realize that a bunch of these movies are plot-thin. Deepwater Horizon is probably at the top of the list, as it reenacts the tragedy of the oil platform/drilling rig, focusing on the spectacular failure caused by something as simple as BP’s greed. The organizational backtracking the movie does makes it a worthwhile case study in corporate management, while Peter Berg proves extremely adept in directing big drama entertainingly. Anchored by the performances of equally proficient actors – Kurt Russel, John Malkovich and, oh-lord-I’m-writing it, Mark Whalberg – there’s nothing wrong about Deepwater Horizon for what it is, a based on real events blockbuster. Just do a back-to-back with Sully, strike them off your 2009/2010 disasters list. 7/10
- Rogue One (2016): I’ve never been a Star Wars fan and nothing that happened in the last twenty years has helped (except for Knights of the Old Republic, hah!). As a matter of fact, I hold the controversial opinion that there’s not much referentially wrong with the prequels, because only The Empire Strikes Back is a good movie of the original trilogy. Last year’s Force Awakens was a good entry to the series, but Rogue One is little more than a piece of a puzzle. Tucked neatly between episodes three and four, it looks at the story behind the Empire’s Death Star and the Rebel Alliance’s plans to thwart it. Held together by some likable secondary characters, the movie comes undone every time Felicity Jones’s grumpy face comes on screen. I’ve actually followed Jones for years now, but her project picks never really work with me – well, I liked Chalet Girl (2011), so, erm, maybe I should decline any further competence in the matter? The strong finale is a saving grace for an otherwise underwhelming experience, that felt a lot of the time like watching someone else play a video game. 6/10
- La La Land (2016): Isn’t it just awesome when a new filmmaker doesn’t prove to be a flash in the pan? After the excellent Whiplash (2014), Damien Chazelle follows up with a romantic and melancholy musical about the forlorn search for success in Los Angeles. There are many parallels to be drawn between the two movies, but, most importantly, each is its own experience. With Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone building on the chemistry they proved to have in Crazy, Stupid Love, what’s amazing is how easy it is to connect to the music. A lot of talk is about jazz, but this isn’t a jazz musical. It’s not even one of those musicals where characters break out into song for no particular reason (mostly, mostly!). While some of the sad husbands who joined their beloveds would surely disagree with me, as they made gruntingly clear at each musical moment, La La Land puts together a musical narrative that’s at least as impressive as the accomplished aesthetic of the movie. Not that they would likely care about the aesthetic either, to be honest. Anyway, add to that the Casablanca throwback and you’ve got yourself one of the best romantic movies in a long time. And there I was, last week, wondering aloud whether I’m a romantic! 9/10
- The Fits (2015): In her directorial debut (kinda), Anna Rose Holmer works with great skill and assurance to tell a story of very few words. Set at the Lincoln Community Center, we follow Latonia (Toni), an outsider in the strongest sense of the word, in her attempt to belong. While she spends most of her time at the boxing gym, with her brother and other boys, there’s a palpable urge to be more like the dancer girls, part of the school’s successful dance group Lionesses. When just these popular girls start having bizarre fits/convulsions, everyone starts to worry and wonder. The movie provides no explanation as to what’s happening or why, slowly and silently accompanying Toni as she experiences the events. Even though it is rather slow and lacks an obvious payoff, I got on board towards the end and really savoured my takeaway. The social dynamics and anathema attached to being/not being part of a group, without so much focus on the usual teenage angst, gets a special treatment here. Special different, special good. Also, made me discover something like the dancing plague apparently occurred! 8/10
- Little Voice (1998): Ending a full week on a cute note is always helpful, be it in a grumpy, slightly abusive British manner. The almost twenty year old movie is headlined by three of the best known UK actors of recent years – Michael Caine, Jim Broadbent, Ewan McGregor -, alongside the always excellent Brend Blethyn (Secrets & Lies, yum) and the lovely Jane Horrocks. Appreciation of the acting quality was shown throughout the awards season, with one Golden Globes win for Michael Caine, nominations for Horrocks and Blethyn, as well as an Academy Awards nomination for the latter. The movie plays as an anti-abuse, anti-bullying piece, an ode to the hidden beauties of silence with some lovely singing performances by Horrocks. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do much else, which left me a wanting more than the occasional chuckle. 7/10