April 2017 Recap: The Best

movies they shoot horses dont they the last picture show two for the roadIt took me a while to get this post up, because the end of the semester was very messy.

I also saw significantly less films in April than in the first few months of the year, but I’m hoping to make up for that a little bit once summer arrives. Less movies = less “The Best” movies. I’ll also be skipping “The Worst” of April, but you can always check out my letterboxd if you want to see what I didn’t like.

Since it’s nearly mid May already, I’m going to keep these pretty clipped.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)
Directed by Sydney Pollack

THIS IS A MOVIE THAT EXISTS

And I love it. Pollack rides that fine, wonderful line right between greatness and trash. He rides it hard. The ride is wild.

This is a bizarre, dark film. It commits fully to its primary metaphor. It isn’t really subtle. It’s exploitation, but it’s also the best of exploitation kind there is.

I hate even bringing The Hunger Games into contact with this (which is miles ahead of anything Gary Ross has ever done), but imagine, if you will, a world in which that film is cinema for adults (rather than pseudo-cinema for teens). That world exists! We are living in it! Just watch this Pollack movie from 1969! (I don’t even hate THG, so don’t come at me).

Immense balls, intense central conceit, and sheer wackiness aside, I also thoroughly enjoyed Jane Fonda’s performance in this. Bruce Dern’s intense stare (which is featured in the background of numerous scenes) is also very fun.

I knew next to nothing about this before seeing it, and I feel like it changed my life forever. It certainly had me emotionally off-kilter for a good week at least. Never before have I seen such a pure, accurate depiction of my own soul. I am so tired! Being poor is like that! (So is grad school!) Capitalism and spectacle are that crazy!

Yeah, it’s all sort of obvious, but obvious can be good (my “proof “of this is that I like this movie).

I want to own this movie on Blu-ray right this instant, and the fact that I can’t is a tragedy! If you haven’t seen it, try to find a way to do so.

They do shoot horses. Yes, yes they do.

The Last Picture Show (1971)
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich

This is the second film in this post that HITS WAY TOO CLOSE TO HOME. #tooreal

Interestingly, there are several thematic connections between this and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, but for the most part, Bogdanovich and Pollack’s respective approaches are quite different. There’s plenty of exploitation here too, but The Last Picture Show is less overtly stylized, more realistic, and more contemplative than Pollack’s film. It’s quieter, gentler, and a good deal sadder too.

This film boasts a lot of well-etched, multi-dimensional, believable characters and benefits from a noticeably strong sense of place.

This has quite the ensemble cast, but Ellen Burstyn is definitely the standout for me.

I was also quite taken with the use of sound here (which ties into that “strong sense of place” I mentioned just a second ago).

An elegy for small-town America (and for a kind of place that hasn’t gone away).

I’ll certainly be revisiting this one when I get a chance.

Two for the Road (1967)
Directed by Stanley Donen

Full disclosure: I’m a bitter, bitter woman who almost never enjoys movies about two people who are in love at some point. I tend to resent them. Sometimes I scoff at them and comfort myself by deciding that they’re too “unrealistic” to be good (as if realism has anything to do with a film’s quality! lol).

For me, Two for the Road is an exception. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, that I may even make an effort to seek out other such exceptions.

Somehow, this is the first film I’ve seen staring Audrey Hepburn, and (spoiler alert) she is an absolute delight. She’s adorable in this, and she has such charm and presence that one’s eyes are constantly drawn to her. Her outfits are amazing (and rather amusing) as well. I also enjoyed Finney. He and Hepburn work beautifully together and have more than enough energy to support Donen’s project.

Donen’s overlapping storytelling is executed beautifully and works to add considerable depth and emotional heft to the film. With its episodic form, its numerous timelines, and its many shifts from comedy to drama, Two for the Road could have been a train wreck; it’s an elegant, beautifully crafted balancing act instead. Good stuff.

Until Next Time
I’ll be travelling a good bit in May and June, and I’ll be taking a class in July, but I still plan to watch a lot more movies and to post more things to this blog over the summer. I bought a number of Criterions and inherited a sizable assortment of DVDs recently, and I’m eager to start making my way through them. If FilmStruck ever gets their act together and releases a Roku app, I’ll start meeting some of the films on that platform as well.

I also picked up Five Came Back at a bookstore the other day, so maybe I’ll read that too…

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March 2017 Recap: The Best

movie reviews march 2017I saw some pretty nice movies in March, and this is just a quick post on the 6 I liked the most.

worst of march 2017
my letterboxd (for everything in between)

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
Directed by Robert Altman

The best movie I saw in February was The Searchers, and my very favorite in March was McCabe and Mrs. Miller . . . Everyone rec me westerns now.

Anyway, I can’t wait to watch this one again relatively soon (I even already bought the Criterion). I’d also really, really love to watch this on 35mm, largely because it’s visuals are so textured and beautiful.

I knew almost nothing about this going in, and I was continually taken aback by it. I was surprised by the sound. Surprised by the images. Surprised by the strangeness and the sadness and the Leonard Cohen songs. What a memorable, distinct, engrossing experience. I’ll remember it fondly for quite some time. . .

The leads in this (Julie Christie and Warren Beatty) are tragic and feel incredibly human. They don’t hover anywhere above or beyond the ordinary, and they are all the more affecting for it. They are trapped. The film is pervaded by an almost tangible sense of hopelessness, and its displays a marked interest in the difficult, fraught nature of human connection.

There’s also a weirdness and boldness to this that is absolutely fascinating. And it all just works so well (vague!). The climactic sequence is mesmerizing. The way the dialogue is written forces viewers to listen closely only to  make them realize that efforts to communicate are all in vain. The snow is this looks absolutely stunning.

I love it.

Most importantly, the coat Beatty wears in this is now my favorite coat in all of cinema.

Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Directed by Bob Rafelson

Class conflicts, the abundance of crap, and a surplus of rage.

A lack of commitment and direction.

And a wonderful character study too.

This film moves with energy and is edited quickly. Like the man at its center, Five Easy Pieces seems anxious about staying in anyone place too long. I’ll admit, it took me about half an hour to adjust to the film’s rhythms and to really “get into it.” Once I did, I had a great time, and any patience Rafelson initially asked of me was duly rewarded.

Nicholson is great (as are his sideburns). For what it’s worth, Karen Black’s Rayette feels a little like a trailer park interpretation of Lana Del (which isn’t a criticism). More importantly, both leads feel extremely real; these are people I know and have lived with and around. Like Robert’s life, the film doesn’t feel overly planned or constructed (which isn’t to say that it didn’t take plenty of thought and skill to put it together). It flows. It envelops as life does. If viewers find that it leaves a scar or ends in a manner that’s less-than-satisfying, they might consider why.

The Tammy Wynnette songs are fantastic too.

Another one I’m excited to revisit . . .

Song to Song (2017)
Directed by Terrence Malick

This one is a lot better than the internet seems to think, and everyone needs to chill. There were quite a few walkouts when I watched this, and I’m still wondering what it is those people were expecting when they bought their tickets. I also wonder what specifically it was about the film that convinced them not to stay.

Because, for all it’s imperfections, Song to Song remains a truly lovely piece of cinema.

The film is self-indulgent, porous, and slow. It’s hypnotic, affecting, and beautiful too. The world is a complicated place, and perfection is a lie after all. Life is unpredictable. Relationships are messy. A little piece of me resents those who wouldn’t even finish the film, who wouldn’t simply let Song to Song be what it is.

This is a tender, sincere work of art. It’s about love, loneliness, and wandering. It’s not without it’s moments of pretentiousness, but I can forgive those for the most part. I was both uplifted and devastated by Song to Song, and I left the theater feeling soothed and rejuvenated. A little Malick can be good for the soul.

Some of Lubezki’s flourishes are a little ridiculous, but the sense of movement and fluidity that he brings to the work overall works nicely. His images also help the film to feel grand and intimate all at once.

Song to Song also benefits from a strong ensemble cast, all of who perform at a volume in tune with the rest of the film. Rooney Mara is particularly good, and her ability to draw the viewer’s eye is really quite remarkable.

This is the only Malick I’ve seen other than The Tree of Life, because nothing is real and I’m fake af . . . That said, I am hoping to check out much more of his work over the summer.

Personal Shopper (2016/7)
Directed by Olivier Assayas

I still don’t know what to make of this. But I enjoyed watching it, I remember how it felt, and I’m itching to see it again. Surely that’s something, right?

Personal Shopper is a beautiful, odd, slippery thing. It also represents my first foray into Assayas. I was caught off guard by this film, and I have a strong feeling that revisiting it would reveal a good deal. That promise alone is a sign of a certain kind of quality. This isn’t a shallow, lazy, or empty work. It’s something all together different.

At one level, it’s “about” grief, loss, identity, celebrity, and maybe even incest. It’s “about” ghosts, technology, and isolation too. It’s even “about” Kristen Stewart.

Personal Shopper is bold, beautiful, and hypnotic. It takes twists and turns that go all over the map. It does not follow any well worn paths. It defies categories. Even if all of Assayas’s choices don’t work the whole here, is more than the sum of its parts. For instance, while the shots of pixelated Skype calls are sort of bad, the use of technology to mediate connection still works…

There’s also some really lovely camerawork here, and the film sets itself apart with its use of mood. It’s almost as if the whole film takes place in some other dimension, somewhere halfway between this mundane world and the next. In fact, Personal Shopper is the most “dreamlike” film I’ve seen in some time.

Kristen Stewart is fascinating and gorgeous, and she more than holds her own here. The way she’s styled is also very important to me (tomboyish piece of trash that I so often am).

Get Out (2017)
Directed by Jordan Peele

Get Out is a smart, well-crafted genre film, and a represents a very exciting, undeniably promising directorial debut from Peele.

The film is both hilarious and deeply disturbing, and it achieves impressive tonal balance over all. In addition to Peele’s sharp writing, the careful set design gives the film a distinct personality. The film isn’t a second too long either, and it has a much stronger ending than a lot of today’s mainstream horror.

A lot more intelligence too.

Not only is Get Out bold and unapologetic, it’s also a really good time at the movies. Sure, it’s unsettling and is all about racism, but that doesn’t stop it from being fun. Therein lies a good deal of Peele’s brilliance. (That bingo scene is iconic btw.)

Take Shelter (2011)
Directed by Jeff Nichols

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this one at the moment except that I love Michael Shannon.

Actually, I love Michael Shannon AND Jessica Chastain, and getting to see them both at the heart of a movie was a real treat. Both are beautiful and give solid individual performances here. The pair of them work well together too.

Hooray for an original script, and for an inspired, intelligent premise.

I liked Midnight Special, but this one better, partially because it’s more intimate and contained. I haven’t yet seen Loving, but from what I can tell, Nichols has a knack for portraying loving (but struggling) couples in a controlled, affecting, and very human way. He doesn’t go straight for the loud or the overly dramatic. And I’ve got to tell you, it’s kind of nice. . .

Until Next Time
Movies that just missed the cut this month include The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Logan. I’m also one of like 5 people who (generally) liked Ghost in the Shell apparently. It’s flawed to high heaven… but it’s also too interesting to just write off entirely.

As always, thanks for stopping by! I’m up to my ears in school junk right now, so see ya next month!
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Quick Post: Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed

assassinsI watched Assassin’s Creed back on Christmas Eve. I’ve never played the video game, and I pretty frequently skip giant studio action blockbusters; but I’d been curious about this film ever since I first heard about it. While its impressive cast was partially to blame for my interest, director Justin Kurzel is the primary reason I was so quick to add Assassin’s Creed to my watchlist. I loved Kurzel’s dark, stylish, and sexy take on Macbeth, and I’ve been eager for another film from him since seeing it. And while Kurzel’s latest is not as good as Macbeth, there is still quite a bit of good among the bad, and he remains a director to watch closely as far as this reviewer is concerned.

I don’t love Assassin’s Creed, but for all its flaws, the film simply does not deserve the critical lashing that it’s received. Some of my reasons why are below.

Film: Assassin’s Creed
Director: Justin Kurzel
Writers: Michael Leslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage
Primary Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Michael Kenneth Williams, Ariane Labed, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Essie Davis, Callum Turner, Denis Menochet
US Release Date: 21 December 2016

As messy and as flawed as Assassin’s Creed is, it is far better than it’s RT score (at this moment, a 17%) would indicate. This is especially true when another 2016 action blockbuster, Marvel’s Doctor Strange, is sitting at a whopping 90%. Numbers like this would have a person believe that where Doctor Strange is a film worth watching, Assassin’s Creed is a hot mess with little redeeming qualities whatsoever. Such simply isn’t the case; in fact, the opposite would be closer to the truth.

I don’t feel great about using Doctor Strange as a scapegoat, but allow me to do so anyway (!!!). The film has received positive review after positive review, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s one of the most boring studio films of the year. There are no fleshed-out characters in Doctor Strange. The plot is hollow and predictable. Viewers are given no reason to care about anyone or anything that happens. The villain is almost nonexistant (and Mads Mikkelsen is completely wasted). The writing isn’t great. The film is safe and features a lot of expensive CGI, but there is nothing new, compelling, or especially entertaining about it. And yet, it gets a pass. It’s fine. It takes no risks, and apparently, that is enough as long as Disney/Marvel and Benedict Cumberbatch are all involved.

Assassin’s Creed tries to do much more than Doctor Strange; and though Kurzel does not always exceed, he deserves credit for his efforts all the same. Where Doctor Strange sticks to a prescribed formula, Assassin’s Creed occassionally attempts to break the mold (if only by degrees). Kurzel’s film has more balls than any Marvel film I’ve seen, even if it isn’t a “good” movie. The fact that it has such a low RT score is not justified and obscures the fact that it’s considerably more entertaining, artful, and interesting than Doctor Strange (or a number of other, more “successful” blockbusters). Doctor Strange is an example of all that is wrong with Marvel’s vanilla-as-hell cash-cows; Assassin’s Creed is an example of some of what is wrong with bloated blockbusters and video game movies, but it’s also an attempt to be something more.

The film tries to weave a story of the past into one of the present and future. The film tries to build and entire world while side-stepping the dullness-filled swamp that most origin stories fall into. The film never uses romance as a crutch, and it tries to merge the world of cinema with the narrative-unfriendly world of video games. The film combines history and fantasy and asks large, philosophical questions. The film also has no problem embracing moral gray areas. None of this is especially ground-breaking, but none of it is easy to pull off either.

As bad as it’s script often is, Assassin’s Creed pulls viewers into its universe and invites them to make sense of the fantasy. Though it’s visuals aren’t as distinct or as enveloping as those in Kurzel’s MacbethAssassin’s Creed does present a number of visually strong moments, and the film has enough of its own style to standout from the pack. The fight scenes and action sequences are (mostly) quite good, and the costumes distinct and detailed enough to leave an impression. The film also boasts an ominous, engrossing score that adds energy and depth whatever it touches. (In fact, Jed Kurzel’s compositions may just be my favorite of the year other than those Mica Levi did for Jackie). Together, the visuals and strong score both provide a strong foundation for the rest of the film, so that even when its writing falters terribly, there’s still something there to keep viewers tethered. Assassin’s Creed is imperfect, but it also bold enough and textured enough that it’s never boring.
Order Jed Kurzel’s score for Assassin’s Creed.

As much as I appreciate Justin and Jed Kurzel, and as much as I believe that Assassin’s Creed is a far more interesting than a number of films in same category, I’d be remiss not to be more specific about some the movie’s flaws. For instance, though the film does boast a slick, stylish, and well-composed look, not all of its visuals are successful. Every so often, Kurzel inserts a shot that screams “THIS IS BASED ON A VIDEO GAME!”; such shots—which often place the viewer in a first-person POV—are disorienting and don’t add anything of value. Whether such moments are meant to pay homage to the film’s heritage or whether they are simply an attempt to do things differently doesn’t change the fact that they don’t really “work.”

Assassin’s Creed also lacks nuanced, lively performances, although the overt coldness of the entire work makes this somewhat forgivable. That said, it is a shame to see such talented actors as  Brendan Gleeson, Marion Cotillard, Michael Fassbender, and Essie Davies under-utilized so. And while the lack of well-developed characters in Assassin’s Creed can probably be tied to it’s video-game roots, even just a dash of human emotion could have helped the film a great deal.

Still, the largest, most glaring flaw plaguing Assassin’s Creed is it’s script. While the first two thirds of the film are paced pretty well, the last section is so rushed, that it’s sure to leave viewers more than a little off-kilter. The film’s plot is also rather muddy, and those looking for precise explanations and clear character-motivations will be left terribly wanting. Meanwhile, the ending is so poorly executed, that even the most astute audience members will be left scratching their heads. At the same time, many of the characters lack anything that might be called “personality” (although, one wonders if such a thing even exists in the world the film inhabits).

Assassin’s Creed is a teeming with creative missteps and errors in judgement, but it also has enough audacity and style to very nearly make up for its flaws. As imperfect as Kurzel’s film is, it remains entertaining, and it’s far more interesting than a number of its peers. Assassin’s Creed may not be inherently “better” than a film like Doctor Strange, but it’s not much worse either.

Until Next Time
Happy New Year!

Here’s to hoping I watch and write more in 2017 somehow.

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Quick Post: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

fantasticI’ve seen a number of films since my recent short post on The Handmaiden. But I’m also slogging my way through the busiest time of the semester right now. And so, I bring you yet another truncated review. Up today: some of the many problems plaguing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Film: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Director: David Yates
Writers: J.K. Rowling
Primary Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterson, Colin Farrell, Dan Folger, Ezra Miller, Alison Sudol, Samantha Morton, Carmen Ejogo, Jenn Murray, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Ron Perlman, Johnny Depp
US Release Date: 18 November 2016

I love Harry Potter as much as anyone, but no degree of fondness for the Wizarding World can cover up the fact that Fantastic Beasts is simply not a good movie. For what it’s worth, I went into Fantastic Beasts with little to no expectations whatsoever, but I still emerged from the theater disappointed. Between the god-awful fanfic that was Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and this new, dull film, it would seem that Rowling isn’t too concerned with preserving any aura of quality around her brand. And that’s too bad, because—as I already mentioned—I really, really love her original series.

Highpoints: Colin Farrell’s face, Katherine Waterson’s face, and the residual Harry Potter emotions stirred by the opening music. Dan Fogler’s muggle character, Kowalski, is also an occasionally amusing stand-in for viewers, and Eddie Redmayne wears a nice coat. Beyond all that, there really is very little to latch onto in Yate’s and Rowling’s latest creation. Generally speaking, Yates gradually improved during his stretch of Harry Potter films, but Fantastic Beasts is a lackluster effort.

One of the biggest problems with the film is the way that it handles its characters. None of the heroes are given much of a history or developed beyond the surface. Viewers are not given a chance to feel any sort of intimate connection the film’s magical trio; unfortunately, the most interesting things about Newt, Porpetina, and Queenie are their (predictably) off-kilter first names. I’m extrapolating from personal experience a bit here, but the Harry Potter books and films have been incredibly successful, largely because they present audiences with well-developed characters that they care about and feel deep attachment to. Fantastic Beasts never does this. One expects that Rowling and Yates will imbue their protagonists with more backstory in the franchise’s future installments, but why waste the first one?

Fantastic Beasts boasts a talented cast, but they are rarely given a chance to do much with their abilities. As Porpetina, Waterson has a few decent moments, but she’s noticeably underutilized, and while Redmayne’s performance goes a long way toward making Newt Scamander at least mildly likable, he is still let down by Rowling’s script. Not only does Rowling fail to flesh-out Newt or do anything to make him particularly memorable, she also ham-fists something that smells terribly of forced heterosexual romantic attachment into his character arc (which is more of an almost imperceptibly curved line, but you get the idea).

That said, the actors who receive the worst treatment are Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller. Without spoiling certain (clumsily handled) plot details, each actor’s character ends up playing an (apparently) important part in the film’s story. However, neither actor is allowed to do much at all, and Rowling’s poorly-paced and frustratingly haphazard story renders both of them terribly forgettable.

Flat, poorly handled characters aside, a number of the problems with Fantastic Beasts can be traced back to the beasts themselves. Newt’s magical creatures are only tangentially connected to the film’s main plot and conflict, but Rowling and Yates devote so much time to them that viewers might be wrongly tricked into assuming they actually matter. Throughout the film, numerous long sequences are dedicated to a beast of some kind, but only one them feels anything less than unnecessarily forced into the film. Such sequences waste precious time—time that could have been used to add depth to characters or to tell the main story in an effective manner. Importance to the story aside, the beasts are also boring, which is an unacceptable offense in a film like this.

Together, Warner Brothers, Rowling, and Yates plan to shove four more Fantastic Beasts films down the public’s throats. From a financial standpoint, it’s hard to blame them. However—and while I acknowledge that the series could improve—I can’t help but worry that the clumsy, hollow drudgery will only continue. Yes, I’ll see the films (because I’m trash and Rowling owns me), but I don’t expect to enjoy them.

And I didn’t even talk about Rowling’s cringe-worthy attempt at a magic-as-queer metaphor OR the absolutely garbage moment in which Johnny Depp is introduced.

Why, Fantastic Beasts? Why? Please, don’t let this be The Hobbit movies all over again.

Until Next Time:
As of today, the films I’ve watched for the first time this November are Doctor Strange, Mad Max, Hacksaw Ridge, Arrival, Jackie, Moana, The Eyes of My Mother, Nocturnal Animals, and Evolution. Of those, Jackie is by far the best, and Hacksaw Ridge is probably the worst (although I certainly did not enjoy Doctor Strange and was noticeably underwhelmed by Moana).

I’m hoping to catch up on a lot of year-end movies during winter break. Ideally, I’ll post more regularly then too.

The best way to keep up with what I’m watching in is by following me on twitter and letterboxd.

The Closest I’ll Come an Election Post: HBO’s Recount

recount
This may be the most pointless review I’ve posted yet. In fact, it you don’t have HBO GO and aren’t currently considering watching the 8-year-old movie Recount, you might just want to skip to the end for a more general update from the blogger (that’s me!)

And yet, content no one care’s about is slightly better than no content at all… Right?

Anyway.

Film: Recount
Director: Jay Roach
Writer: Danny Strong
Primary Cast: Kevin Spacey, Bob Balaban, Denis Leary, Laura Dern, Tom Wilkinson, Ed Begley Jr., John Hurt, Jayne Atkinson
US Release Date: 25 May 2008

Recount (2008) begins and ends with loaded images. As the film opens, the camera shows numerous close-ups on a paper ballot, at the top of which are printed a title (“Official Ballot, General Election”), a place (“Palm Beach County, Florida”), and a date (“November 7, 2000”). Later, an entire box of ballots fills the frame. This shot is followed by one in which the camera and the viewer alike are left standing between rows of shelves filmed to the brim with such boxes in an otherwise empty hall.

Directed by Jay Roach, Recount dramatizes the controversial recount following the 2000 presidential election. With its first and final shots, the film urges viewers to consider democracy and the people behind each ballot. These images also direct them to contemplate the possibility of uncounted votes and unheard voices. Viewed after the fact, Recount’s opening is heavy with meaning, and its final seconds are almost haunting. And yet, as thought-provoking as the film’s visual bookends are, what unfolds between them is about as dull as it gets.

Like Roach’s  2015 biopic, Trumbo, Recount is flat, unengaging, and forgettable. It leans far too heavily on both the reputation of its cast and on the historically-sourced events driving its plot, and it brings nothing to the screen that a few quick glances at Wikipedia couldn’t also provide.

Recount represents Danny Strong’s first writing credit, and his inability to communicate the strange, far-reaching chaos of the Florida recount compellingly may stem from inexperience. Regardless, if viewers are bored by Recount, it’s because the film doesn’t give them enough reason to care about the story it’s trying to tell, and Strong’s ineffective script reduces any potential for lasting impact.

Though brief, Strong’s attempts at suspense do not work, and their ham-fisted execution is more likely to lose viewers than to interest them. An early sequence, in which senior Gore campaign members Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey) and Michael Whouley (Denis Leary) try to prevent Gore from making his concession speech, is one example. After a lot of shouting over the phone, the sequence culminates with a man named David Morehouse (Ethan S. Smith) limping frantically after Gore in the rain as a quickened score tries to ratchet up the tension. At one point, Morehouse even falls to the ground after crashing into a passerby. Whether things happened that way or not, the sequence is too ridiculous and overdone to feel accurate. Like some of Recount’s other attempt to capture the attention of viewers (including one in which Whouley throws a chair in anger), the moment rings false.

To dramatize “true” events is to fictionalize them—at least to an extent. That said, Roach and Strong clearly want Recount to appear factual; the film’s use of real news clips attests to the truth of what Recount depicts, as do the snippets of archival footage that accompany the end credits. For the most part, the film portrays real people, and its major plot points did occur. Even if the forces and consequences surrounding certain happenings (such as who would have won Florida if the media hadn’t prematurely called the state for Gore) are disputed, Recount sticks closely enough to the basic facts to remain informative for those ignorant of its particular moment in history.

But a film can be educational without being any good, and several moments in which Recount’s desire for authenticity actually hurts its ability to entertain illustrate this fact perfectly.

For instance, Jim Denault’s unsteady cinematography—which is characterized by a prevalence of close-ups and shaky, hand-held camerawork—is meant to place viewers within the film as informal observers. There is a subjective, intimate, and haphazard feel to many of Recount’s shots, which seek to connect the film to the “truer” realms of documentaries and home movies. Denault intends to convey authenticity with his work in Recount, but it is so conspicuous that it has the opposite effect. With well-known actors like Kevin Spacey and John Hurt on the screen, no one is likely to fall for such tricks anyway; in trying to conceal its artifice, Recount renders it more noticeable instead.

A similar misstep concerns the film’s presentation of Gore and Bush as characters. Roach presents the two men in an awkward and limited manner that only calls attention to the film’s artificial nature. Bush and Gore are heard numerous times in the film, but when they are seen in-person, their faces are never shown. Since Roach is insistent on not showing actors as the candidates, he should have just eliminated their physical presence. For, in deliberately hiding the faces of figures as familiar as Bush and Gore, Recount reminds audiences that it is a carefully constructed re-enactment while distracting from the drama it seeks to create.

If Recount’s more awkward attempts to appear truthful don’t entirely rob its story of impact, the fact that it fails to foster meaningful connection between viewers and its characters certainly does. Quick subtitles containing the name and occupation of the film’s key players aren’t enough to tell viewers who they are personally or to make them care about them in any significant way. Anyone who sees Recount should already know how it ends, so Roach is wrong to rely on plot to carry his film. Without fleshed-out characters who are developed beyond their names and political titles, Recount is dramatically unengaging and emotionally impotent.

The only person who is even vaguely interesting is Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who is by far the most memorable part of film. Played by Laura Dern, Harris is a fascinating and genuinely terrifying figure. At once a monster and a puppet, Dern steals the scenes in which she appears, and the comparative depth she gives to her character only emphasizes how flat everyone around her is. Recount is full of other accomplished actors—including Spacey, Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, and Bob Balaban—but they are rendered ordinary by its under-developed script.

The one-dimensional nature of the film’s characters may lie in their over-abundance. In an attempt to appear fair, Recount presents two sides to its story. Figures from the Gore and Bush camps are both represented, and the film does not definitively state who it believes truly got the most votes. That said, it is not without bias. Ron Klain is the character viewers meet first, and he is clearly Recount’s protagonist. For all the time the film throws away on scenes depicting those working in Bush’s interest, it still privileges Ron by positioning him as its hero. In doing so, Roach sides with Gore.

Though the resulting film would have been less ideologically balanced, Recount could have been more entertaining and powerful if it had focused on one candidate’s camp and if it narrowed its field of players. In trying to obscure its bias, Recount risks boring viewers with a plodding narrative that loses momentum as it constantly shifts between sides. As it stands, the film’s attention is spread too thin to make for captivating viewing, and the sheer number of prominent characters prevents viewers from  becoming well-acquainted with any of them.

“We owe it to this country to find out the truth,” declares Ron Klain with conviction. But there is more to that truth than how many people voted. The truth at the heart of the Florida recount also concerns the sheer absurdity of American politics. The system can collapse at any moment, and it can do so for the tiniest of reasons. As much as society might like to pretend that democracy is a fair and reliable system, the events surrounding the 2000 presidential election make it clear that human error, arbitrary judgments, and sheer accident all wield considerable power, and any one of them could throw the world into chaos in an instant. In light of this, Recount could be an absolutely harrowing film that casts a shadow of doubt and uncertainty over the entire electoral system. It isn’t, and it doesn’t. Roach’s docudrama is mildly unsettling at its best, and it’s script fails to capitalize on any larger dramatic truths surrounding the debacle in Florida.

Until Next Time
As you may have noticed, I haven’t been posting much lately. I started grad school back in August, and at this point in the semester, it feels as if I’m perpetually in the weeds. I hope to get back to semi-regular (and at least somewhat current) reviews sometime in November. That said, even when I’m not posting here, you can still keep up with me on letterboxd and twitter.

Since my last post (which is on  The Girl on the Train and The Accountant), I’ve watched two other HBO films (The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen), only one of which I’d bother giving a second look. I’ve also recently seen The Trouble with Harry (good), Daughters of the Dust (good), First Girl I Loved (sort of meh), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (raunchy gothic camp), and Bus 174 (profoundly upsetting).

I also managed to take my first real trip to a movie theater since watching Kubo and the Two Strings when I saw The Handmaiden last weekend. It’s flawed, but fantastically so. Go see it. Park Chan-wook goes hard, and The Handmaiden is a movie and a half. I wish I had time to write about it, but if I tried to slap something together right now, I wouldn’t even come close to doing it justice.

A Review of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation: Unremarkable and Lacking Teeth

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Film: The Birth of a Nation
Director: Nate Parker
Writers: Nate Parker (story and screenplay) and Jean McGianni (story)
Primary Cast: Nate Parker, Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer, Esther Scott, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Colman Domingo, Tony Espinosa, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union, Chiké Okonkwo, Mark Boone Junior, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Kai Norris, Jason Stuart
US Release Date: 7 October 2016

With its title alone, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation declares that it aims to reclaim that which has been stolen. With just its name, the film calls out the racism of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, declaring that there is another version of history that deserves the attention of viewers. In positioning itself in opposition to Griffith, The Birth of a Nation also calls attention to the racist past not only of America, but of Hollywood filmmaking. By choosing such a loaded title, Parker promises a new and radical film.

Too bad that’s not what he actually made.  

The Birth of a Nation follows Nat Turner (Parker), who led a rebellion of slaves in Virginia in 1831. When the film opens, Nat is but a boy (Espinosa), but he is no ordinary child. Nat is marked physically, and when his mother (Ellis) takes him to a group of black elders, they declare that he is destined for something great.

That greatness begins with Nat’s ability to read, which is briefly nourished by the lady of the plantation (Miller), although it doesn’t keep Nat from picking cotton in the fields. Throughout his life, Nat spends a great deal of time reading and preaching the word of God. He also has strange visions, which seem to be leading him to some important future.

When Nat’s alcoholic master (Hammer) learns that he can make money by having Nat preach the gospel of subservience to slaves all over the county, he does just that. As Nat travels to other plantations, he is forced to witness just how terrible slave-owners can be. And by the time tragedy strikes closer to home, Nat is finally ready to turn on Ramses and lead his people out of Egypt  white people and liberate his brothers.

There’s no question that Turner is meant to resemble figures from the Bible. Death by hanging aside, The Birth of a Nation’s narrative structure is eerily similar to The Prince of Egypt (yes, the animated musical). Like Moses, young Nat spends time living among the oppressors. When Turner turns on his master Samuel, he’s also turning on someone he played with as a child (though The Birth of a Nation lacks the emotional skill to capitalize on this point). Parker also makes sure to include a whipping scene so obvious in its aims that anyone who fails to see the crucifixion must be blind. The same goes for another scene in which Turner  walks through a crowd of frenzied whites on his way to the gallows. When it comes to painting Turner as black Moses and Christ all at once, The Birth of a Nation is far from subtle. Comparing Turner to the heroes of the same scripture that slave-owners use to justify their monstrous behavior has the potential to be wonderfully subversive. But the execution here is too heavy-handed, and the fact that it’s surrounded by clumsy, ineffective, and rather ordinary storytelling certainly doesn’t help.

Parker’s passion project took years to get made, and the writer/director/actor’s dedication to Turner’s story is never in question. What is however, is his ability to tell that story in an effective manner. Too many of Parker’s best ideas don’t have enough of an impact on the film’s narrative. The film starts slow, and it stays slow until about three quarters of the way in, and it never burns hot enough to live up to the promise of its name. Parker also fails to properly develop any of his characters, and Turner is the only figure in the film who’s given anything that might resemble depth. As a result, what should have been a transformative, crushing, and soul-stirring film somehow manages to feel flat for the majority of its running time. Thus, The Birth of a Nation falls into a common biopic trap in that tries to cover too much temporal ground without presenting enough compelling characters and well-presented ideas.

For a film that clearly wants to be innovative, The Birth of a Nation also spends a good deal of time rehashing old ground and making decisions that don’t support its larger aims. Why include the sympathetic white characters? Why not allow Turner’s wife to be a more dynamic figure? Why include a whipping scene so late, it feels ham-fisted into the narrative? Why dedicate so little energy to fleshing out the film’s hero? There are some truly striking scenes in the film—including much of Turner’s rebellion—but they are weighed down its more uninspired moments.

The acting in the film is a bit hit-and-miss. The only performers asked to do much are Parker and King (who plays Turner’s wife); they each do just fine, but neither would seem to warrant the $17.5 million that Fox Searchlight spent on the film.

It isn’t all bad though. The Birth of a Nation clearly wants to start a conversation, and even if it doesn’t make its own case as clearly or as strongly as it should, that conversation is still worth having. Despite any missteps, Parker’s film remains an effective reminder that history and cinema alike are all too often written by the victors and that, in this country at least, racism underpins both. Though it’s not executed especially well, the tale at the heart of the film is dark, morally complex, and incredibly relevant, and it will affect people regardless any cinematic weaknesses.

On a related note, The Birth of the Nation is often at its best when it’s at its most brutal. The violence in the film (and there is violence) is well-executed. It isn’t gratuitous or cartoonish, and it makes viewing the film a much more visceral experience than it would be otherwise.

The film’s realistic sets are also impressive, especially given its modest budget. The Birth of a Nation was shot entirely in Savannah; and with the exception of some cheap-looking vision scenes, most of the film looks quite good.

By now, just about anyone who pays attention to film has heard about the enthusiastic standing ovation that The Birth of a Nation received at Sundance. Many—myself included—initially assumed that such passionate praise might indicate some truly groundbreaking work on behalf of the filmmakers. How foolish we were. I have my own assumptions as to why the Sundance audience reacted as positively as they did to what is, unfortunately, an unspectacular movie, but I’ll keep them to myself. For now, I’ll simply say this: The Birth of a Nation has some laudable aims, but the film itself doesn’t accomplish much in the end.

Just about anyone who pays attention to cinema has also heard about the swirling shit-storm of controversy surrounding Nate Parker and his alleged rape of a Penn State student in 1999. The details of that case are all over the internet, so I won’t list them here. That said, I will admit that the possibility that Parker committed a sexual assault was enough for me to cross The Birth of a Nation off my watchlist weeks ago. I also know that there are those who do not understand why Parker’s past should influence how one regards the film—especially since it was made by a lot of people, nearly all of whom are not Nate Parker.

I had no plans to spend money on a ticket to Parker’s film, and I certainly don’t fault anyone who refuses to watch it on ethical grounds. But I also recently found myself in a situation where attending a (free) preview screening of the film was part of my job. So I ended up seeing The Birth of Nation after all. Now that I have, I can confidently say that anyone thinking about skipping the film, won’t be missing much if they do.

If The Birth of a Nation gets overlooked come Oscar season, it’s inevitable that some will point to Parker’s sexual assault allegations and claim that the Academy got cold feet. Regardless of whether such people would be correct, the truth is that this film wouldn’t deserve such accolades even if Parker were a saint. It’s simply not that good.

Until Next Time
From the looks of things, October is going to be a complete disaster of a month for me, so forgive me if posts are a little sparse. And wish me luck! Grad school is a strange, temperamental beast if I ever saw one.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been missing a lot of new movies since I moved to LA. This will probably continue as long as I am in school. For the time being, what I watch is determined almost exclusively by class syllabi and the occasional on-campus screening. It is what it is. That said, I should be watching both The Girl on the Train and The Accountant later this week, whatever that’s worth.

Also, I’ve received several positive comments on my last post (in which I described some of the books I’ve been reading in school). As a result, I’ll definitely try to do another post like that at the end of the semester, and I’ll try to keep doing them until I get my degree (don’t ask me what happens after that. I have no idea).

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A Review of Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven: Nothing New Under the Western Sun

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Film: The Magnificent Seven
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writers: Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto
Primary Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Haley Bennett, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Luke Grimes, Matt Bomer
US Release Date: 23 September 2016

Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven is not a very good movie. It could be much, much worse, but that doesn’t mean millions of people should pay to go see it. They will, but that’s another matter.

Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard) and his villainous mustache only care about two things: money and power. On his quest for them, he seizes control of the small town of Rose Creek so he can mine the area for gold. Bogue rules through fear and intimidation, and after a local meeting erupts into violence, his reign seems all but secure.

Enter Emma Cullen (Bennett). Desperate, devastated, and angry, Cullen turns to bounty hunter Sam Chislom (Washington) to save Rose Creek. She offers him all the money she has, and he agrees to take the job. To this end, Chislom recruits six other men—all of them violent, most of them criminals. Chislom’s motley crew of gunslingers includes alcoholic gambler Josh Faraday (Pratt), sharpshooting ex-Confederate soldier Robicheaux (Hawke), knife-wielding Asian Billy Rocks (Lee), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo), Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Sensmeier), and racist tracker Jack Horne (D’Onofrio).

Together, these seven men infiltrate Rose Creek, where they then take up the seemingly impossible task of preparing its residents for battle with Bogue.

Even viewers who are unfamiliar with the film’s antecedents—John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954)—will leave Fuqua’s film with the sense that they’ve seen it all before. With the exception of a diverse cast, this The Magnificent Seven brings very little to the table. Thanks largely to its actors, the film remains mildly entertaining, but even its more enjoyable moments begin to crumble under close scrutiny. The Magnificent Seven is just fun enough for a late-summer blockbuster. It’s also empty, poorly executed, and lamentably average.

The Magnificent Seven opens with a shootout, but not with any dramatic weight. The film’s first moments are supposed to be dark. Their tragedy is meant to lend heft to the narrative and to give a sense of importance to all that follows. That isn’t what happens. Instead, The Magnificent Seven takes its first steps on what is clearly shaky ground. Thanks to a combination of poor writing, caricature-like characters, and a clumsy presentation of violence, the beginning of Fuqua’s film tilts in the direction of parody. Where they should feel emotionally invested and utterly captivated, many viewers will feel the urge to laugh. For some, that feeling will last for the entire film.

The biggest problem with The Magnificent Seven is its writing. Fans of True Detective will be disappointed to learn that Nic Pizzolatto’s contributions to the film—whatever they actually are—do nothing to elevate it beyond the ordinary. They may even be part of the problem.

Instead of coming across as either an homage to the western or as a statement about what the western can be, The Magnificent Seven is more of a soulless ensemble action movie than anything else. Or a vanilla-as-hell superhero one. Ideas, focus, purpose, and character are often nowhere to be found. Instead, so much of the film feels derivative, that it’s actually distracting. Somehow, Legolas, Boromir, and Eowyn all make appearances in the film, and not with any subtlety. For a moment, the ghost of Daniel Plainview seems to take over (which is less interesting than it sounds). Despite Fuqua’s more serious aims, Blazing Saddles creeps in. There is even a scene which is so similar to one in Django Unchained, some viewers may wish they were watching Tarantino’s film instead.

The Magnificent Seven is also filled with thin, underwritten characters. Denzel Washington is clearly a talented actor, but writers Wenk and Pizzolatto do little to take advantage of this fact. The same is true for Sarsgaard, who is so underutilized by this film its almost criminal. In fact, the entire group at the center of the film never becomes more than a set of figures on horseback. For the most part, The Magnificent Seven shows little interest in making its heroes three-dimensional. When it does show such interest, it is too quickly distracted by something else—bullets, usually involved. Luckily for Fuqua, the film is buoyed by a solid cast. They are capable of much more than this film allows them to do.

When the film hints at something like character exploration and development, it seldom delivers. For instance, Hawke and Lee play a pair of characters who, if treated appropriately, could form the center of a compelling film all on their own. Their relationship is complex and unorthodox, and one gets a sense that each has darkness in his past. Unfortunately, The Magnificent Seven fails (or forgets) to do much with them. With Hawke’s Robicheaux in particular, the film hints at emotional depth while inching toward an acknowledgement of the sharpshooter’s interiority. But Fuqua doesn’t deliver on such promises, and none of his characters are really given the time and attention needed for meaningful development.

Viewers of The Magnificent Seven don’t get know any of the figures on screen, which robs the film of anything like emotional weight. For all the struggle and strife, the film has little impact. Even when portraying death, Fuqua fails to stir any feelings of loss.

Fuqua and cinematographer Mauro Fiore chose to shoot the film on 35 mm, in part as a way of honoring the tradition of westerns. There are some good-looking shots in the film, but overall, its visuals also fall short. The images in The Magnificent Seven do little to evoke any western history or magic. An over-use of quick cutting and a lack of shots that truly take advantage of the scenery are both partially to blame.

After opening in less-than-stellar fashion, The Magnificent Seven ends on a cringe-worthy note. Again, a moment that is meant to be taken seriously simply fails to land. The last few seconds are almost laughable, and they send a shock wave back through the film that threatens to retroactively weaken even its strongest moments.

The Magnificent Seven has charisma and charm. It’s also disappointing. There are some good ideas sprinkled throughout, but they get lost in the generic. Star presence and big-budget production value aside, Fuqua’s latest is all surface. Grit and grandeur are nowhere to be found.

If Hollywood produces another star-studded western any time soon, let’s hope it better than The Magnificent Seven. This often old-fashioned genre needn’t fade away, but it might if isn’t given new life. An original script, a clear purpose (other than money), and fully-formed characters would all be a good place to start.

Until Next Time
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