Movie Watch 2016: Noirish Thrillers

Based on the “see it,” “stream it,” or “skip it” principles as used by reviewers at Just Seen It:

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Bizarre but forward thinking noir featuring a humorously boorish antihero. Stream it!

Night of the Hunter (1955)
Eerie and odd old thriller about a dangerous preacher and two children who get in his way.

Passion (2012) 1.5/5 SKIP (Netflix) (link to review)
In spite of the fascinating first part and wonderful performance by Rachel McAdams, the film devolves into a melodramatic and confusing mess. Read my review here. Skip it!

Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Though beautiful and occasionally thought-provoking, the plot ultimately come across as misogynistic and cliche. Skip it!

Movie Watch 2016: Science Fiction

A REAL short list of some sci-fi films I saw last year:

World of Tomorrow (2015): A short animated film by Don Hertzfeldt about the life of a little girl and her future clones. Recommended. Available on Netflix streaming.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001): This Steven Spielberg fairy tale about a robotic boy is sentimental and strange but surprisingly moving and disturbing. Recommended.

Divergent (2014) and Insurgent (2015): To my surprise, I enjoyed these poorly reviewed films about a rigidly divided utopian dystopia. Though simpler than The Hunger Games, I actually like these more. However, I still haven’t seen the third movie. Recommended.

Star Trek Beyond (2016): The disappointing Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) followed the fairly successful reboot Star Trek (2009) and departed even further from the spirit of the original television series. Though well-crafted and spiritedly acted, the third movie in the trilogy is somewhat tired (that’s three out of three vengeful villains driving the plots) and, dare I say it, a tad dull. Not recommended.

Movie Watch (2016): Mind Games, Dystopia, and Abuse

Based on Just Seen It‘s rating system, I’m just going to list several movies along with a recommendation to “see it” (hearty recommendation), “stream it” (good but not for everyone), or “skip it” (I did not enjoy it).

See It

Whiplash (2014): Unfortunately, my top three recommendations all involve the abuse of young people. This tale of an ambitious young drummer and his vicious director is a stylized take on control, abuse, and unholy, destructive musical ambition. The themes recall the tonally different Black Swan.

Blue Car (2002): A heartbreaking take on a young poet who is taken advantage of by her teacher, this time a high school English instructor. (See my post about reviews of the film.)

Brothers of the Head (2005): The title refers to conjoined twins who are molded into punk rockers. Bizarre, atmospheric, darkly funny, and disturbing.

Stream It

Felony (2013): The Australian Felony follows a policeman who hits a child while driving drunk. The movie touches on the abuse of police power and how it is justified, racism, hypocrisy, and justice–or more accurately, injustice. Available on Netflix streaming.

The Double (2013): Based on Dostoevsky’s dystopian novel, this beautifully shot, nightmarish, if brief, movie follows a voyeuristic nobody whose life changes when his doppelgänger appears. Available on Netflix streaming.

Bad Manners (1997): This self-conscious film that betrays its talky theatrical origins is still an interesting portrait of four self-absorbed and even cruel academics who get together for the weekend.

A Good Baby (2000): This is a gentle thriller (if it can be called that) about a young man in rural North Carolina who finds an abandoned baby. It is slow with some unsettling undercurrents.

Skip It

dangerouswoman

A Dangerous Woman (1993): A bizarre melodrama about an odd woman who has difficulties with human interactions and always tells the truth. Includes murder and a sexual liaison that appears to be rape (but the film insists is not). Available on Netflix streaming.

Movie Watch 2016: For kids!

Here’s a quick rundown of the “children’s” movies I saw in 2016:

WALL-E (2008)
I finally saw Pixar’s WALL-E, which features an adorable robot who harbors a love for Hello Dolly. The first half of the film is lovely, but the second half, which introduces round humans (also cute), has an incredibly simplistic take on how humans need challenges to thrive.

Coraline (2009)
Coraline‘s beautiful stop-motion animation and creepy premise set my expectations high. In spite of several amazing set-pieces, the plot is thin (I have not read the book, save one passage–this is criticism of the movie) and not as original as I had hoped.

Peabody & Sherman (2014)
This spinoff film of the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon series is about the relationship between a father and son, in which the father is a genius time-travelling dog. It is overstimulating and features (intentionally) ridiculous history “lessons,” but it is fairly entertaining.

Cinderella (2015)
The live action version of this fairy-tale is not revolutionary, but it is a sweet ode to kindness, with a charming performance by Lily James as the titular Ella.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Another stop-motion feature with gorgeous animation, Kubo is an epic story about the power of storytelling. However, the script’s attempts at wit are not as impressive as the striking visuals, and the characters feel underdeveloped. It is still worth checking out Regina Spektor’s cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” arranged by Dario Marianelli.

Movie watch 2016: Superhero Problems

Last year was a year for disgruntled superheroes. I already recommended Captain America: Civil War, in which heroes brawl over a UN resolution, and the much hated Suicide Squad, featuring criminals forced to fight a supernatural evil. I had more mixed feelings about Squad‘s precursor Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, where one can witness even more battling saviors. In this case, Batman flies off the rails and turns against Superman due to Lex Luthor’s manipulations, and Superman has a very bad day. Wonder Woman also makes a brief but formidable appearance. While fairly entertaining, Dawn of Justice is both slow and convoluted. Jesse Eisenberg’s young Luthor has been criticized for differing wildly from the source material, but I found his twitchy performance to be by far the brightest spot in the film. No longer a calculating old-school businessman, Luthor is now a long-haired, narcissistic genius for the age of Google and Microsoft.

I also reviewed Deadpool, featuring a comic book character who alternates between hero and villain. In his movie, he’s a pop-culture referencing anti-hero, a mercenary turned mad superhuman by a brutal experiment. The sophomoric humor and graphic violence will not work for everyone, but the film’s enthusiasm and tight script generated enough energy to attract large audiences.

 

Recommendations for this happy final quarter of 2016!

Hello again! Since this year is winding down, I’m going to make some movie recommendations (or rejections) based on films I’ve seen in the past year. I’ll start with suggesting several movies I saw at the cinema:

Love and Friendship (2016)

I LOVE Whit Stillman. And Jane Austen is Jane Austen. Both are witty, observant, and pointed, so Stillman’s adaptation of Austen’s novella Lady Susan (confusingly named after another one of her obscure works) had very high chances of success. Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) is a believable and marvelous villain, manipulative, self-righteous, and decked in gorgeous period costumes.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

Taika Waititi has been another recent obsession. Boy (streaming on Netflix) is funny and touching, and What We Do in the Shadows is hilarious. Wilderpeople is a rollicking adventure about a foster child (Julian Dennison) who escapes into the New Zealand bush along with his crotchety foster father (Sam Neill). Lots of humor, a soundtrack with an ’80s vibe, and loads of wild fun.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Civil War manages to balance numerous superhero characters with a legitimate debate about whether these powerful people should be subject to international governing. Of the many characters, the smooth and driven Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the very young Spiderman (Tom Holland) stand out.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

I was reluctant to give more money to the Star Wars franchise after the prequels, but I still watched The Force Awakens in the movie theatre. At first I was frustrated with the derivative storyline, one that ostensibly picked up years after the original trilogy ended. In spite of the continuation not quite making sense, the movie eventually won me over due to the spirited and likable new characters.

Suicide Squad (2016)

While this superhero adaptation received an incredible amount of hate from critics, I ended up seeing it twice, enjoying it more the second time around. The second half occasionally devolves into an incomprehensible mess, and there are clumsy moments. Still, I enjoyed this cynical redemption story of sorts as well as its music video aesthetic.

That’s all for now, folks! I’ll come back with another short list in the near future. Cheers.

Deadpool (2016)

The Marvel comic book character Deadpool developed from a villain into a popular antihero. After a brief appearance in the film X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the eagerly awaited Deadpool movie has been a hit with both audiences and critics. The film’s hilarious marketing campaign pushed the character’s playful self-awareness, attracting fans as well as those interested in something different from the usual superhero fare. While the film is a mixed bag of juvenile humor and graphic violence, it has something most viewers can’t help but respond to: energy.

Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), a wisecracking mercenary and former member of special forces, falls in love with the lovely prostitute Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Through a series of holiday sexual liaisons, they realize that they are a perfect match. Unfortunately, doctors diagnose Wade with terminal cancer, and he takes up the offer of a mysterious man who claims to be able to help him. It isn’t giving too much away to say that a cure comes, but at a price. The private company turns Wade into the deformed, slightly more insane, and nearly indestructible Deadpool.

Deadpool’s abilities include possessing great taste in music (the exuberant soundtrack includes DMX and Salt N Pepa) and breaking the fourth wall. He speaks to the audience and makes references to Ryan Reynolds and superhero movie franchises. The opening credits attempt irony by playing a romantic song during a freeze-frame image of a violent scene but actually succeed at humor in replacing names with labels like “A British Villain” and “An Overpaid Tool.”

It feels pointless to criticize the film’s humor for poor taste since it prides itself on being offensive. The comedy is crude but not exactly subversive. One of the only people of color is a blind black woman who is the butt of several jokes. The movie is slightly better about misogyny. Fully-nude women dance away at one strip club, but Vanessa, while gorgeous, is also a believable match for Wade. The other female characters, though still attractive, are super-powered muscle rather than vapid eye-candy.

In terms of violence, there are threats of rape and careless mentions of molestation, blood and broken bones. This “hero” doesn’t think twice about chopping up enemies or even himself to get his own way, spewing out a stream of pop cultural references and insults all the while. Deadpool, who hates the word “superhero,” is both grating and entertaining because he is madcap id.

Deadpool kicks off a rather dark year for superheroes. Batman and Superman aren’t getting along. Neither are Iron Man and Captain America. The X-Men face a mutant named Apocalypse, and the Suicide Squad comprises a team of unreliable villains forced into government servitude. It is doubtful any of the films will be as violent as Deadpool, a rare R-rated comic book film. Its excellent editing keeps the story clear as it flashes between past and present, and the tone remains consistently irreverent though its scenes shift from revenge, to romance, comedy, and horror. Some will find the movie aggressively unpleasant and tediously self-satisfied, while those who enjoy the action, laugh at the jokes, and can stomach the violence will consider it a rousing good time at the cinema.

Room (2015)

In Room, five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) describes the very small world that he and his mother share. It is easy to give too much away, so I’ll start by saying his story could be considered a metaphor for the prisons we all live in, from incapacitating pain to immobilizing anxiety. It is also about how wrenching and wondrous it is to have one’s eyes opened to the wide world. Though at times powerful, Room ultimately falters because it comes from a hypothetical rather than visceral place.

Too vague? Here is a little more detail: Jack’s mother Joy (Brie Larson) has been held captive in a shed for seven years. Extreme isolation and daily sexual abuse drain her, but she creates a home of sorts for her son, who was fathered by her captor. Jack has never left Room, as he calls it, and is unaware of the outside world’s existence. Joy raises him with remarkable patience and creativity, only occasionally lapsing into anger or despair in his presence.

Further spoilers follow: after a daring if improbable escape, the two are rescued. Jack’s shock at discovering a new life is the film’s strongest moment, and the second half of Room shows Jack’s emergence into the world as well as Joy’s struggles with returning to a form of normalcy. Jack must somehow adjust to this second birth and Joy to life after seven lost years.

Emma Donaghue adapted the script from her book, which I haven’t read, but I am familiar with director Lenny Abrahamson’s wonderful Frank (2014), a comedy that manages to examine mental illness, creativity, and fame. Room shares some of that film’s whimsy in spite of its content. Because the harrowing subject is from Jack’s innocent perspective, the tone is less heartbreaking than hopeful. Stephen Rennicks’s soundtrack suggests a magical tale of discovery and has moments of inspiration, but its sweeping strings and piano music can be cloying and too sentimental in the context of such a stark situation.

Inspired by the Josef Fritzl case in Austria, alongside several other kidnapping cases, Donaghue also drew from her experiences as a mother. Her background in historical fiction prepared her for the research needed to tell such a narrative. She wanted to move away from the “saccharine and the judgmental” view of female victims and to shift focus from the victimizer to the survivors. This is a story of mother and child and how one can find freedom in limitations.

Donaghue penned this with memories of motherhood in mind, but she chose to tell it from the child’s perspective and indicated it would be too depressing and perhaps even salacious to write it from Joy’s view. On top of that, she cited John Fowles as already having written so well as both the young female prisoner and male kidnapper in his book The Collector (1963). Donaghue blessedly made a point to keep Joy’s kidnapper “Old Nick” at arm’s length so as not to give people like him any more attention than they already receive, though surely his figure would loom much more largely in the minds of his victims than he does in this film.

In his review, Ed Whitefield points out that drama is “not in a child’s lack of understanding but an adult’s fully cultivated, stark awareness of their situation and the likely horrors to come.” It is the tension between the knowing and the innocent perspectives that creates poignancy and even dread. Taika Waititi’s Boy (2010), for example, a very different movie about an exuberant eleven-year-old, mines humor and tragedy from the distance between the child’s fantastical view of his father and his negligent father’s actual virtue.

Jack’s disillusionment is not so acute. He has a difficult time relinquishing the fictions he believed about the world, but he is young and malleable. Still, it seems as though the film does not want to dwell on how painful this reawakening would actually be. Imagination is portrayed as a beautiful coping mechanism that allows Jack to thrive in Room. Other films such as Tideland (2005) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) also feature children who escape their hideous reality through their imaginations, but they demonstrate that, no matter how necessary, there is an ambiguous aspect to these fantasies. Some may never escape their dreams.

Though Jack can barely speak or process the overstimulation of life outside Room, in Room, he is emotionally and verbally ordinary. Even with the influence of a fuzzy television and a longsuffering mother like Joy, it is hard to believe that Jack would complain about not having candles on his birthday cake or bound with enthusiasm around his home, as any “normal” boy would. Jacob Tremblay is adorable and sometimes remarkable but occasionally obnoxious in his unrealistic precociousness.

Elisabeth, Fritzl’s daughter and victim, pulled out chunks of her hair while trapped in her basement. She and her children suffered severe physical and mental impairments. Children, even when raised in isolation, have a survival instinct that can be attuned to the pain of others. Jack is wary of Nick, and the second half of the film delves more into how Jack and his mother’s experiences have stunted them, especially Joy. Still, without more information about her experiences and thought processes in Room, Jack’s relative equanimity seems improbable.

As important as her character is, Joy’s voice is lacking. Joy, played so well by Larson, plays a crucial role in raising Jack and keeping the two of them alive until she can no longer cope, but we don’t know how she developed Jack’s educational regimen or got through her regular assaults. The focus is on Jack. A comically insensitive television interviewer doesn’t question why Elisabeth didn’t leave or fight back, questions many victims hear. The interviewer instead implies that Joy is an inadequate mother.

A doctor tells Joy that the most important thing she did is not escape or keep the two intact for all those years, but save Jack while he is “plastic.” It is his integration into the outside world that is most important, not his mother’s reintegration. Questions of motherhood hit Joy hardest. Her individuality and needs are addressed but from Jack’s point of view. If Joy is first and foremost a mother to Jack, we need to have her voice as a mother to balance Jack’s, if not instead of his.

The Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015) gives its heroine Kimmy, who was kidnapped and assaulted for years, like Joy, a voice. It takes a comedic bent, and does not attempt to be as realistic as Room. Australian horror film The Babadook (2014) examines the way a mother-son relationship can be imperiled by unresolved trauma. That mother is longsuffering and is not cooped up with him in a tiny prison, but she still feels suffocated by her child.

Room is memorable, disturbing, and, at times, thrilling. In spite of the story’s verisimilitude, Room betrays its origins as a novel rather than a memoir. Donaghue uses her imagination to depict Joy’s and Jack’s traumas, but, though full of accurate psychological details, it doesn’t quite ring true. Jack’s story is worth telling—a child is raised in a horrific environment by a resilient but imperfect mother, and the most difficult part of his existence is leaving all that he knows. However, tales like Jack’s and Joy’s are not allegories. They are living nightmares that have happened and still happen. The writer, director, and certainly the actors tell their story with sensitivity and invention, but a darker take is needed to make a story like this “inspirational.”

 

Brooklyn (2015)

Saoirse Ronan as "Eilis" in BROOKLYN. Photo by Kerry Brown. © 2

The lovely Brooklyn follows Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish woman who moves to Brooklyn in the early 1950s. The story is simple but familiar: painful homesickness gradually gives way to love and activity. She becomes calmer, more confident, and increasingly fashionable. Then tragedy strikes her family in Ireland, shaking Eilis’s tentative sense of home.

Based on a book by Colm Tóibín, John Crowley’s film advances at a slow, old-fashioned pace. Michael Brook’s beautiful soundtrack, comprised mostly of strings, underlines some of the movie’s most memorable moments. At one point, Eilis steps into a snowy evening wearing all red. Most moving is the scene when Eilis and a host of other immigrants say goodbye to Ireland from their ship. Instead of an exuberant parting with promises of America, friends and family exchange heartbroken and silent farewells.

Ronan, lovingly filmed by Yves Bélanger, plays Eilis as a quiet girl with a wry sense of humor who is finding her own way. Emory Cohen portrays her lovestruck suitor Tony with tenderness. This is a love story (possibly two) as well as a goodbye story, a sweet romance and as a tribute to both Ireland and America.

In spite of a few emotional complications and a mean-spirited shopkeeper, the movie lacks edge. It is perhaps too straightforward, and it underplays the agony of bereavement. Still, the film is exactly what it intends to be: a gentle contemplation on homesickness. Its vivid lighting, exquisite costumes, and Ronan’s translucent performance make this a poignant story about how moving forward always means leaving something behind.