Sunday, December 11, 2016


Once again I try to continue the tradition that comes down from critic Jim Emerson, who used to do this on his blog Scanners (you can also google to find moments out of time in years past).  This is meant to showcase moments in movies that really stuck out as being special, whether it's because of the acting or the directing, the music or the mood, what it does to juxtapose things (that'll be the first one right out of the gate) or to give us all something to remember the movie by.  It doesn't even need to be a GREAT film overall, and indeed not all of these are.  But it's simply films that stood out for one reason or another as the most memorable of this 2016 movie year

(also for this blog, unlike in the past, if I can find the video of the scene, it'll be here):

1) 13TH (dir: Ava Duvernay)

Easily the scene to most make me uncomfortable of the year, but rightfully so since, at the time I watched it, Donald Trump was not the 45th president elect of the country.. but deep down I knew that he could be, possibly, even within a small piece of a percentage of a chance, and that these people at these rallies were not going away.  Now that he is, it carries a greater, heavier, WTF ARE WE DOING IN OUR COUNTRY weight (and especially I keep flashing to those cuts between the black and white footage of the man being pushed with the woman at the rally). 

I won't even try to describe what Ava DuVernay does here except that she presents past and present into such a moment that is tragic because of how it repeats itself.  No one sees the patterns that occur from one time to the next, and that racial hatred is something that is passed down and grows like a fungus when engendered by the wrong people.

2) MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (dir: Kenneth Lonergan) (SPOILERS)

A man flashes back while sitting in a lawyer's office being told that he has been entrusted (unless he fully refuses) to become the guardian to his nephew.  Up until this point in the film we've had some flashbacks already with Affleck's character when he had a home, kids, and a wife played by Michelle Williams.  But we don't see why he's not with them now, that he's living instead in some lowly one-room pad in some outskirt of Boston.  But in a series of flashes leading up to this 'Moment out of Time', he comes home after a late night walk to get some wood and groceries at the store, only to find his... house is burning down, and that his wife is outside but his kids are in it.  Dead. Gone. 

But the real Out of Time Moment for me (which isn't available online - guess it's kind of spoilery) is when his wife, who has inhaled a lot of smoke and has to be taken to the hospital (also in, you know, complete fucking hysterics over losing her children all at once, one of them a baby), is put on a stretcher.  The stretcher can't seem to get on to the ambulance van despite repeated attempts.  Finally it happens, but it feels like it's still a struggle to push her inside and close the doors.  Everything takes longer and is more arduous and is a complete nightmare that seems to never end when endless grief is in front of you (and according to Lonergan at a Q&A this was an actual mistake during filming, not scripted, but he kept it in). 

3) GREEN ROOM (dir: Jeremy Saulnier)

This is a kick-you-in-the-solar-plexus kind of movie, the likes of which I loved to watch with my friends back in high school (and even middle school), and it's rough, raw, fuck-you-in-the-face violent exploitation flicks that don't kid around (I'm talking about, oh, Suburbia and Kids and Romper Stomper to name a few).  Saulnier has a great cast assembled here, and the way we're fully introduced into this world that this rag-tag punk rock band (they don't even have a facebook page!) is when they go on stage at a neo-Nazi/Skin-head/white supremacist bar and perform as their first number a cover of the Dead Kennedy's NAZI PUNKS: FUCK OFF. 

Considering this year as well, this is catharsis and a half, and truly a punk rock moment.

4) KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (dir: Travis Knight)

There's a scene early on in this film where Kubo comes home after a day of performing his magic tricks in the city - he can make little origami Samurai figures come to life and tell quick stories to capture people's imaginations - and has to take care of his mother.  She is staring off into space.  She isn't a total vegetable, but she's been through a LOT in life (the prologue shows her protecting her son from being blinded by her God of a father, no really he's a God, and almost died in the process, breaking off ties with them all).  She has major PTSD still by this moment.  It's a quiet thing to see between son and mother as he takes care of her, gets her ready for bed, and she has the expression of someone in an Ingmar Bergman existential is-God-even-fucking-THERE wintry drama and... I mean that as a compliment.

5) RULES DON'T APPLY (dir: Warren Beatty)

This movie is a mess, but it's the kind of mess that only a director like Warren Beatty gets to make these days, or at least those who get final cut (whether he was told though to keep it under 2 1/2 hours by the studio may be arguable).  It's a choppy thing to watch at times - scenes just END without any explanation - but it's also a highly entertaining experience because Beatty has been wanting to make this for years and it shows: he knows the cadences and weird rhythms of Howard Hughes, but more than that he's a master at the awkward-reaction kind of comedy (you can see this awkwardness in many of his performances, even in dramas like Bonnie and Clyde and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and especially in Reds) where, even though he's the lead, he can give a look or a stare and it says so much about this person *thinking* about what another actor is saying or doing. 

The scene from this that sticks out as a 'Moment Out of Time' is when Alden Ehrenreich's character, who has been driving around the girls and women under contract to Howard Hughes but has not actually met the man, gets to meet him very late one night on a pier.  The two men walk slowly together and Hughes asks about this young man, and right back at him the young man asks Hughes about some things - he has some ideas for businesses and an investment in particular - and this is the first time we're getting a good look at Beatty as Hughes (we see him only once before, and this is about 40 minutes into the movie, when he meets Lily Collins' character in a dark room to have a bite to eat and a chat).  But this is all in one long shot, easily the best moment for Caleb Deschanel as a director of photography for the film, and it goes on and on and where is it leading to?

Oh, Hughes has, uh, set up at the end of this walk (wherever this is on this pier) a table where burgers and fries and sodas are waiting for them since, well, Hughes is in the mood for a good burger and damn the time it is he'll get it!    While sadly this video isn't online yet for this moment, there is another that I'll share where Beatty does the repeating-a-statement bit which one might remember as being a big part of THE AVIATOR.

6) DOCTOR STRANGE (d: Scott Derrickson)

Steven Strange wants - needs - help.  He can't get his hands to work like they used to (or how he would *demand* them to get done through his stubborn sense of self), and it leads him to a I-Have-No-Choice moment where he takes the advice of a man who somehow was able to walk again despite being seemingly totally crippled - and it's in the city after that infamous Bob Seger song!

He meets 'The Ancient One' and is told that if he commits to the Mystic Arts, he can not simply cure himself - he can see what is beyond this world, into MANY worlds.  He calls hogwash on it as a devout atheist and then...


Oh, and it's right after this Strange decides he needs to be taught for sure, and is kicked out the door.

But this one look into the 'Multiverse' is so astonishing that it deserves an Oscar on its own.  I mean .... fuuuuuuuck!   And the rest of the movie's very good as well.

7) LOVING (d: Jeff Nichols)

One of the family friends (or it may be a brother or relative, I forget) that Richard Perry Loving has married into - he's white, his wife is black - is having drinks at a bar (Loving's not alone and there's other black guys there), and this comes at a time when there is immense pressure; the Lovings have been put into the spotlight because of their case being of main focus by ACLU lawyers going forward re: being married and an illegal crime in the state of Virginia.  One of these guys is pissed at Richard for getting Mildred into this.

Doesn't he know that he's not really black, he says over drinks (one of the guys tells him to be quiet, but right now he wont, he's got to speak his mind), and asks why he doesn't just divorce her so he can get on with his life and Mildred hers.  He sits there stewing... or is it?  He doesn't look like he's about to lash out, which seems like it would be the apt response.  No, in this moment out of time he... sits there, pondering.

He almost has a curious face.  Would it be easier to do this?  Of course it would be.  But life isn't easy, not for Richard Perry Loving or his wife Mildred who he loves more than anything in the world (well, his kids too, but especially her), so he can't agree with the guy.  But does he dismiss it out of hand, either?  It's a scene that might hint at ambiguity for Richard, and while the immediate next scene - Richard coming home still tipsy and telling his wife with tears in his eyes, "I can protect you... I can protect you!" - squashes what he thinks and feels, I'd want to ask Nichols why he put this scene in the film at the bar, where this black man asks a direct question that, frankly, could make a lot of sense... but, of course, love never makes sense, does it?

8) THE WITCH (d: Robert Eggers)

This is a movie I thought would go for the usual thing in such stories dealing with witchcraft which is at least to some extent ambiguity, like, here is a religious family, they are ostracized, they turn on each other, paranoia and suspicions arise, particularly how women had less than zero rights at the time and were seen as breeders and mothers and that was it and if they weren't in line witches and yet.... Witches in this world are real.  The two notions aren't mutually exclusive either: here is a film where the people are on edge and fearing of Satan and the devil and being absolutely disgusting human beings to each other (especially to the daughter who, by the very end, will turn to Satan), and yet... Witches are very real.

This revelation stuck with me.  While I was in the theater I put a Black Sabbath song to it - it might've not even had to do with witches, just a song with a spooky tone like 'The Writ' - which is sometimes for me a sign of a filmmaker who has really hit it out of the park (another example of this is when we get to the "punch-line" of Godard's WEEK-END and it's the dead body, 'Riders on the Storm' by the Doors popped into my head)

9) O.J. Made in America (d: Ezra Edelstein)

Watched all 7 1/2 hours in one sitting and I'm glad I did.  This packs a wallop as far as putting you into what it means to be part of the National Character of America, which is... frankly, not a nice place to be.  It's tough to actually MAKE IT as someone who is a hero to people, the nation or even the world over, when one is a minority and working as an entertainer (and football is entertainment).  I could pick out a lot of moments here, but one that sticks out to me is in the first episode, or rather it's two moments connected together:

O.J. is sought out by the Hertz rental car company for a commercial in the 1970's - he's known for running like a motherfucker, so he's put in a storyline that he is running across an airport to get to his ride in time - and we see this commercial and it's wildly entertaining in its 70's commercial way (and originally this was meant for a regular businessman, and it was thought, hey, no one will believe that a businessman can do that so fast... but OJ, hmm).  What happens though that's key is that we see what the director of the commercial did to make OJ seem more appealing: everyone around him, the "average Joes and Janes" at the airport who see OJ pass by (one of which a little old white lady who says "Go, OJ, Go!" or something to that effect), is white and respectable.  He's getting the *approval* of white society in a way that is not obvious on a first or even second viewing, it just seems like 'Hey, people like OJ!"

But, like any product put forward to society (not even Hertz, I mean Orenthal James Simpson), image is everything.  It was this commercial in a big way, by the way, that made OJ a much bigger deal than he already was, and he was known for being a Heisman trophy winning minor celebrity football player for the Bills with a 2,000 yard run for the 1973 season.  So.... yeah... And the moral of the story is: what happens when a black man is, as George Carlin might say, not "openly black" but "openly white" and just *happen* to be black(?)  This sequence showing the inner workings of the making of a commercial is astonishing,

10) DEADPOOL (d: Tim Miller)

Just that moment where Wade Wilson's tiny hand makes an appearance next to his friend Bline Al.  It's so charming and creepy at the same time.  I love it.  (It's not quite in this clip but it is made mention)

11) KNIGHT OF CUPS (d: Terrence Malick)

I could pick if I wanted to one of the myriad of poetic-philosophical-spiritual-meditative beats (and myriad is a good work to use for 21st century Malick cinema), but I actually remember the most in Knight of Cups two things: 1) that there is a set piece that actually *shows the character in a moment of drama*, even if it's something as basic as, say, an earthquake.  and 2) there's a bit of... humor to this movie?  The target may be too obvious - Hollywood's self-consciousness, narcissism, and self of 'OMG LIKE WE ARE SO LIKE FAMOUS Y'KNOW!'  But I'd take this over whatever the fuck he was doing with To the Wonder.

Here is a sample of what I mean, featuring Antonio Banderas and Joe Managiello:

12) Moonlight (d: Barry Jenkins)

... when the kid hits the other kid with a chair.  Cinematically, of course, it carries a lot of build up and explosive pay-off, as we're following our protagonist through the hallway in school, into the room, and then as he picks up the chair and hits him like all reason might be off but....... this is a feeling that I know.  Real rage being taken out on a bully in a movie, and it feeling not only earned but tragic in its way, this is something that made me think "yeah, I wasn't gay in middle school, but this was *exactly* what middle school was like, often, at least every other day."  It's a scary thing to think back to them, but Moonlight did that, painfully, exactly, and startlingly.  I hadn't felt so shaken up by seeing such a personal act of violence like that that connected with me since, oh, I don't know, Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love (which reflected how I felt at 18 too, full of a lot of bottled up anger). 

13) Captain America: Civil War (d: the Russo brothers)

Uh... how about when Iron Man confronts Cap and Bucky when they first enter that Russian station, and when Tony quips - "hey, Manchurian Candidate!" to Bucky - well.... that's not so funny anymore....

14) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (d: Gareth Edwards)

Peter Cushing returns to the film that one might call Episode 3.5 or 3.75 or 3.6 7/8ths or whatever... Peter. Fucking. Cushing. Dr. Frankenstein-Sherlock-Holmes-motherfucking-Cushing.  In CGI form, like this is that Super Bowl ad from years back where Christopher Reeve could walk again.  Only now, if you're ready for this folks, it's actually *good*, like it's convincing, like you almost, kinda, sort believe that Cushing, a man who has been dead for 22 years, is acting in the same scene with Ben Mendehlson... and doing it WELL... except this is not Cushing.  Not really.  But it is.  This is 'you don't know it, but your BRAIN does' stuff here. 

This is someone standing in and the equivalent of Golem being painted on his face and it's convincing enough to the point where I now dread this becoming a thing with movies to come.  One day we may not have actors with their faces on screen that we can empathize with - that's the thing about actors, it's empathy machine time (which is why Darth Vader, albeit he makes a pun, is still a truly iconic horror-samurai movie presence in his few moments in this movie too, no eyeballs to look at) - so... what then? 

Leaving Rogue One, which I thought was alright, and even feeling that I wondered if I might get flack for not thinking it was OMG amazing or OMG terrible, just alright, this was what was on my mind the most (Leia is also briefly seen, also in full CGI, which was a mistake, but in a way not as mortifying as Cushing as Tarkin... just... my God.  It's a Moment out of time for all time)...

Thursday, December 8, 2016

THE WITNESS (a documentary)


With the exception of the ending (which I'll get to in a moment), this is an excellent film that is really about critical thinking.  There is much that Bill Genovese explores about the circumstances around his sister Kitty's murder by Winston Mosely, but the part that caught my attention the most (looking beyond the lines of the film, so to speak) is to do with the media. 

It's ironic that the very reason that one would be interested in watching a film about this story - about one of those infamous murders that is more about the people who did *not* step in to try and stop it or call the police in faster time - is called into question by the main subject.  The Witness is a wonderful plea for critical thinking in the guise (or not even that, just part of it) of an obsessive detective story.

The film supposes we know already about why this is such a big deal today, but it lets us know anyway; Genovese, 29 years old, was stabbed repeatedly on the street in Kew Gardens, Queens, NY, but that wasn't the big story - it was the "38 eye-witnesses" who saw what happened and did nothing substantive to stop the killer or to get help (supposedly it was half an hour before police arrived, if not longer).  But Bill, her younger brother, has seen over the years details in the case cracking under the weight of scrutiny (there also have been lo lack of books or articles or scholarly writings about it, not to mention the laws passed since then about bystanders doing things to help in response time).  So Bill goes through police documents, interviews authors and media people who reported on the case - all the way up to Mike Wallace (filming for the doc started in 2004) - and, indeed, there were holes in the narrative.

Not always 'eye' witnesses but 'hearing' kind, not necessarily 38 people (where did that number come from exactly is one of the questions posed over and over), and if she died alone, which, we find out, was not the case as a friend went to her when Kitty went inside a building and collapsed on the floor of the hallway.  There are some grisly details, but this is not something that is as salacious in that aspect like, say, The Jinx or something.  The Witness in the title may refer to Bill, who was not there at the time (the family lived elsewhere as he was still a teenager at the time), but he is a witness now, and always will be.  It's closer in a way to something like Jim Garrison (the character, not necessarily real life) in the movie JFK, as one question leads to another and then five more and more from there. 

This isn't to say this is a conspiracy movie, at least not exactly.  What I found so engrossing about the aspect of media scrutiny in this case is that it is still a problem and concern today; we just came off of a year where fake news was rampant, but in actual journalism there's always the danger of falling into embellishing details, of trying to seize on certain details to make much larger headlines (it's questionable even if people would know who Kitty Genovese was, outside of the neighborhood or her family, if it wasn't for such explosive headlines and details that were, arguably, wildly exaggerated), but it's also on the public, I think the movie and Bill could argue, to question critically and think about what is being presented as the facts.

While it's fair to say such a case has made Kitty Genovese into a figure for positive change - to make sure the truth of something is heard (and also, an interesting detail, at least a few if not more of the people in that Kew Gardens apartment complex were victims of the holocaust, who knows if they would want to get into more trouble being involved) - the truth always makes things extremely complicated.

This documentary does such a good job of showing us Kitty's life before the murder through Bill's investigating - an inspiring subject if nothing else because his disability, being a double amputee from a Vietnam injury, and yet it's never made into a big deal, it simply is what it is, a fact that we see before us and it's fine as he never makes light of it aside from the story of how it happened - that it's a shame the movie has to end, or at least come to a climax, that feels much to take in.  After all of the time that Bill's spent looking through all of the details he can get, all of the police documents, calling up people, flying to talk (in audio, no video, and animated, nice touch) with Kitty's lesbian lover, everyone who has something to say here including Mosely's own preacher son (maybe the best scene of the movie), he concludes to bring some small sense of closure he has to... recreate the scene of the crime. 

Not completely as far as blood and murder of course, but hiring an actress and having her recreate the blood-curdling screams on the street and full physical reenactment, for Bill (as he watches on the street with multiple cameras), and then ending with the two hugging it out.  I understand what this is supposed to be for Bill, a moment where he can fully put himself into Kitty's shoes, or at least the full moment of that situation, but how we see it in *this* movie, feels like it goes too far.  It may make more sense to others, but it has an exploitative side to it, especially after, you know, 50 years and part of the idea being, as his own family expresses, that everything Bill is doing is a 'what good will that do?' sort of situation.

Up until that point, I would disagree with the family, and even to a small extent I get the final point, though it veers a little into reality-TV (and more-so than what happens with Mosely's son, which feels just right and what needs to be said, surprisingly so, on both sides).  And all the same I would still recommend this film to people interested in knowing more, and that critical thinking is an aspect of society that needs to not be put by the wayside, even (or particularly when) it comes to a case such as Kitty Genovese.  The smallest details come out as new revelations here, down to that photograph that was used by the media in showing what she looked like - which was, oddly enough, her own *mugshot* from a bookie arrest.  It's certainly one of the essential documentaries of 2016, flawed as it might be.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


(This review was originally meant to be published last June.  As you can see I... didn't get to finish what I'd planned, tin this case a three-part review of three Kiarostami movies.  I only watched Taste of Cherry following the late director's passing.  So... here's the review):

To look at Taste of Cherry properly, in my mind, is to look at precisely the manner that he is going about planning to commit suicide.  The question that has to be asked is: why does he need help?  More than about who he is or why he is doing it - clearly these are questions that Kiarostami isn't interested in (I think that his job in casting Homayoun Ershadi as Mr. Badhii was almost enough, to find someone with intense sadness but also a great intelligence in his eyes, and those who notice it may see at the least that, whether he's rational or not, he's thought this through) - I think the question comes down to human connectivity.  In this story he means to take a lot of sleeping pills and go at night into a hole in the ground he's dug by a tree out in the wastelands near Tehran.  But there's a catch: he has to find someone who, at dawn, will come and say his name.  If Badhii responds, he'll need to pull him out of the hole.  If there's no response, 20 shovels of dirt on his head.

In his way, just by asking for people to help him it's his way of reaching out.  One of the cliches (but a cliche is what it is because it's many times true) with suicidal people is that they will say they will or want to kill themselves because they want attention.  However this isn't some stereotypical teenager or someone with easy to see anxiety issues... but then how many people out there CAN we see having this?  Maybe Mr. Badhii has no other reason except the one that many people who kill themselves get into: severe, crippling depression.  He is told by one of the three passengers he picks up in the film, a Seminarian (aka a priest of a sort) that the Koran forbids suicide since God gives man a body that he must not damage.  But what if the mind is already damaged?

One of the handful of negative reviews on this Golden Palm winner from 1997 was by Roger Ebert.  He was much harsher than I could ever be on the film, since I think it's rather challenging and intelligent in its philosophical aims and its "slowness" works as part of a character unable to really cope with the sense that 'there's no other choice and this HAS to be this way' sense of ending a life (maybe not as strong as Melancholia, but then few films are).  Yet he made a curious point that I agree with, which is that we don't know anything about this man and so there's no port into sympathy for him.  I think I get both sides of how people might approach that argument: too often a movie will overload a movie character with reasons to do this or that or the other.  Kiarostami means to almost make this experimental in approach (about 75% of the film is shot from inside a car - what this means aesthetically in the context of the film I'm still sure I don't know, on a first viewing anyway), but also that maybe too many reasons would make things too easy or too country specific.

In other words, by having it so that Mr. Badhii's conflict is so internalized that it becomes more about his quest to get this ONE thing done that makes his journey interesting - who needs reasons when you simply have a man on screen who can communicate so much through his eyes (I must stress that the performance from Ershadi may be the strongest thing about the film, like I wish he had been recognized at Cannes along with or even instead of Kiarostami)?  What's also impressive about the film, what makes Taste of Cherry impactful, are a) those interactions Badhii has with these three people (the young soldier who is clearly uncomfortable from almost the start of the pick-up and then wants to just get out and have nothing to do with him, the Semanarist, and then the older gentleman who agrees to what Badhii asks but tries to go on and talks the most of anyone about why suicide isn't such a good idea based on, you know, some little thing may make you realize life is worth living).

And B) those little moments where Badhii doesn't have someone in his car, and he stops off at a construction site to just sit there amid all of the "earth" and rubble around him (he almost looks like he's in tears, as this comes after the second passenger rejected his request, though it's almost, cinematically speaking, in a metaphysical sense of visual language, that things are crashing down upon and all around him), or when he simply looks out at people as they go about their day, soldiers marching and chanting along, the children playing, and a young woman who asks him to take a picture of her.  I think a good filmmaker finds those little moments and attempts to build some context around the story, and Kiarostami does that: Badhii may have it set in his mind to do this, but how does one completely disregard... well, LIFE, all around him, the world continuing to live and thrive and people doing things like, at one point, getting his car out from under a ditch that he drives in to by a cliff?

So much of the story is rich - the execution, yes, is a little slow at points, by this I should say shots linger as the characters improvise their lines (it didn't feel that way watching it, but finding out after the fact there was no full script makes it both remarkable and more sense why it sounds the way it all does) - that it's extremely disappointing that the ending putters out.  It may be one of those things I *should* get and just completely flew over my head what meaning it was.  I won't say what happens except to say that it feels like the film is reaching some logical conclusion, or perhaps a revelation, and what we get feels like a non-ending, or, frankly a cop-out.  DID Kiarostami know what ending he wanted and threw it out to do something "fresh", or did he not get what he wanted and decided to just say 'eff it' and forget what was happening in the film?

What's so frustrating is that for 90% of the film Kiarostami tells a story in a specific way, that can't be mistaken for any other style or approach, and then in that last 10% (and also things start to slow down to a crawl, which is fine, but it feels like it's leading up to SOMETHING) it becomes, well, *meta* or taking the experimental to a place that is distancing for the audience.  But more than anything I just didn't get it, and I usually feel I can get most weird and esoteric decisions.  And I'm sure some smarter film goer than I will explain what the end means and make me feel all foolish for not getting it, but that makes me feel WORSE about it, not better.  And at the end of the day so much of Taste of Cherry is a provocative, daring, surprising film that I can't not recommend it to audiences looking for a fiercely intelligent film by someone looking to break out of the box of typical narrative films.

 If only it stuck to its, I don't know, narrative! 


Like the man's life, this doc is too short (I thought for some reason it was going to be a feature).  The material is the basic stuff of a retrospective and tribute with interviews by collaborators and fans (and certainly some names you probably heard of: Pacino, De Niro, Streep, Sam Rockwell, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sidney Lumet, uh, Brett Ratner, sure why not) that go into what this man was like as they knew him from being in person (Streep was married to him for a brief time, she's actually his widow) and from simply watching the Godfather parts 1 and 2 five hundred times. 

But, man, what an actor and what a career!  Sometimes in those luckiest windows of time and in opportunity (don't forget the luck part of it), quality trumps quantity, and in this case Cazale had one of the major careers in 70's American cinema.  It must be akin to one of those early rock and rollers from the 50's (Buddy Holly or the Big Bopper or whoever) who you know when listening to their music it's so pure and raw and emotional and that so many others have borrowed from them, and it's a true tragedy from the abyss of nothingness that they're taken so young. 

Good stuff though, again, I wish it was a little longer, like even a short feature instead of this long-short film stuff. But some wonderful breakdowns of these scenes he had as Fredo and the long-haired WTF in Dog Day Afternoon and even the sadness he brought to his small role in The Conversation.  A lot of time actors try to go big or go home, or take on roles that will show off what they can DO on CAMERA.  Cazale never did that, and one wonders this man in dramas in the 80's and 90's and beyond.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

MOONLIGHT (dir: Barry Jenkins)

Barry Jenkins is a fascinating storyteller, and in large part because of how he goes about being fascinated by his subject, how his camera roams at times, and at others when he knows to cut between his subjects. But most of all, he is a truly magnificent filmmaker because of how he so deftly finds universal themes from a place and people that is somewhat specific. This is a story about a boy who grows into a man - I'm tempted to call it the 'better, bigger, blacker-er Boyhood', though that's not totally the case - but he is also a boy growing up in a largely black, Southern, lower (middle?) class neighborhood, where it seems drugs are everywhere (including his own mother who is an addict) and no one can be "soft". And if you're gay, a "f***ot?" Watch out.

I grew up in a town and in the public school system where it was predominantly black and brown and Hispanic, and it seemed like even having the slightest effeminate tendencies would make that one a subject for immediate ridicule (I was even picked on and I was pretty sure from a young age I wasn't gay, but was picked on so much for a moment almost though I was, it was that persistent). It may not be so different for white small towns or big cities or who knows what, but it's especially difficult for African-American men to come out. And yet if Moonlight was only about the gay issue then it would be interesting but not overly compelling. I think what Jenkins and his actors are communicating so strongly is being *so* isolated and without any options that it's about one's overall identity. Sex and attraction is a large component, but simply knowing who one is is a major struggle.

Jenkins has some very big, emotional scenes in this film, which is told in three parts, in large part coming from the dynamic between the boy, called "Little" but actual named Chiron, and his mother (Naomie Harries, I mean, god damn she is amazing in this). However, the predominant mood here is one of subtlety, of a vision that is fairly ambitious but is more about the interior life of his protagonist, this boy having to navigate how he should be in a society that leaves little options to get out and be something more than a drug dealer or the like (eventually, both he and another friend character, Kevin, wind up in jail in-between parts 2 and 3. This can be a difficult way to make someone interesting, but there's so much truth from these young actors, especially the boy playing Chrion in middle-school age, that your heart pours out even more because of the restraint, because of the shyness that is hiding back an entire interior life that's more than what we can see: one of pain and want.

The way Jenkins shoots everything gives characters and places an extra texture, how he'll show two people by a beach at night becoming closer together naturally over minutes that feel pregnant with meaning. To use the word 'sensitively drawn and performed' may be a cliche, but sensitive is the only way I can think to describe it. This isn't to say it's melodramatic, far from it; when we get the bullies that come at Chiron, it feels raw and immediate, like something could pop and violence could erupt at any moment. Sometimes, it seems, it does. A small piece of advice is given to the boy by the drug dealing father-figure (no one else in his life fills that role, and he doesn't realize at first he is a dealer): no one can tell you who you are, you have to figure that out for yourself.

When I first got out of the theater at the end, I was wondering if the ending was slightly abrupt, that things come to a conclusion somewhat not so much fast but there's something else. I think writing this review now, I was more touched and moved by the thought of 'I now want to see where this story goes, what happens now that Chrion has had this emotional breakthrough.' It's as subtle as many moments in this film, but there's a poetic side to it that is potent and you can almost touch it that it's so powerful. Moonlight is profound because it doesn't force anything, it lets those moments where things aren't said speak out loud, when characters share looks or someone looks away while another looks straight on at another person, or the movement of boys with one another, and you can fill in the gaps for yourself. It's also a look at the black experience that is both specific to that world but goes beyond that: if you've ever not known who you are in your life, if you've felt lost or abused or abandoned, this is a film for you.

I can't wait to see what Jenkins does with his career, it could last a long time.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Ava DuVernay's 13TH

It's not enough to look at one thing to analyze what is wrong with it, is a key point that may get overlooked (or simply not exactly the focus, but between the lines) in Ava DuVernay's powerful indictment of an entire society.  When you look at the systemic issues of racism in this country, slavery is the key thing, and the title refers to the 13th amendment to the constitution (need a cinematic reference point, see Spielberg's Lincoln for more), and how one small line in the amendment referring to how slavery is outlawed except, kinda, sorta, for criminals, is paramount in how black people and bodies have been treated in the 150 years since the end of the Civil War. 

Because at extremely crucial times in history, like right after the signing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, black people were not in positions of power or government or, of course, in business (as this doc goes very in depth on), figures who spouted 'Law and Order' and "War on Drugs" made life not a matter of inconvenience or difficult for blacks, it was more like a refitting or metamorphosis of the sort of principle that went into slavery - keep everyone repressed and afraid, and if they get out of line they have to work and work for no wages and have little rights - into the modern age.  Anyone can look up the statistics about how high the prison incarceration rates have gone up over the past 45 years (this despite the fact that, at least since the 1990's, crime rates have gone down generally speaking nationwide), and particularly for African Americans the struggle is that, well, 1 out of 3 black men will go to prison in their lifetimes (vs how much smaller that ratio is for whites).

DuVernay's film is a mix of a variety of talking heads, muckraking information that might be out of a Michael Moore film about things like the ALEC company and the like who formulate actual legislation that is pro-for-profit prisons, and footage from the likes of Nixon and Reagan's most damning points looking "Presidential" while distorting the truth (and the even more damning points from their advisers caught on tape how they actually were going about specifically going after minorities as "threats" to the system).  Constantly here, the thing is, nothing is in a vacuum.  What we see from The Birth of a Nation by Griffith (incidentally I saw this doc mere hours after seeing Parker's new film, so this almost picks up where he left off), was that there actually was a film that one can say really did inspire people to commit acts of violence: hyping up the KKK to become a dominant force after years of being dormant and unpopular, by painting blacks as the "savages" that will come and rape and pillage your precious whites. 

So much in that film may seem awful and hateful now, but also these sorts of images continue to be perpetuated, is what DuVernay is saying, and things are interconnected all the time; what happened with the Central Park Five in 1989; Willie Horton; Bill Clinton's crime bill; Mandatory Mininums; Trayvon Martin and Ferguson; all of these companies making bills for politicians that they can literally *fill in the blank* with their state name, which calls to question what a country is if corporations are writing bills.  There's so much to unpack in the film, but as a director DuVernay keeps things moving at a pace that is electrifying but also never hard to take in.  I'd want to watch this again more-so to admire the touches of filmmaking, all of the text pieces she puts up to accompany song transitions (Public Enemy for one), than even to take in pieces of information she puts out.

Also fascinating is how she puts the variety of talking heads here: we get people like Charlie Rangel (who was once very tough on crime and regrets it today) and mayor David Dinkins and Cory Booker and Angela Davis, but we also get to see Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist and a sort of spokesman for one of these ALEC type of companies (I forget his name).  Having them juxtaposed with figures who have seen how awful this country has treated people of color in the justice system with drug laws that are meant to make criminal (that's a word that comes back again and again) makes for a viewing experience that can be startling but it keeps you on your toes.  Will they possibly say something reasonable or reprehensible?  Some watching it may not even know who Norquist is - I should think DuVernay made this film to last, not just for the 2016 year, albeit clips from Clinton and Trump, the latter some of the explosive racist moments at his campaign stops in the crowds, make it timely - but it shouldn't matter too much.

13th gives you a massive amount of facts and statistics, but it's never a lecture, and if it's a plea it's that people should realize real reforms don't or really can't happen overnight.  Minds and attitudes need to change on a more fundamental level, where *centuries* of oppression have kept metastasizing like a cancer.  And at the center of it is DuVernay creating a conversation and narrative that inspires a great many emotions, mostly sadness and anger, but is just as palpable as in her film Selma.  A must-see.

Friday, July 15, 2016


"Now I know how Batman feels."

People are already going to want to know: Jack (and I'll reply, 'yes, reader?'), what is *wrong* with the new Ghostbusters, as if there immediately has to be something wrong with something just because it carries the namesake of a beloved product from the 1980's (perhaps the mere fact that there's been an outcry over a remake is a sign that there is still some fire in the belly of people not beaten down by remakes, though more on that near the end of this review). But if I had a general response it's that, simply, generally speaking, the "Ghostbuster Paradigm" is off here. It's not the only issue with the movie - and there are good things I can say about it (and will) - and what I come away with most is that four main characters (you can also call it the "Ninja Turtles" paradigm or the "Avengers paradigm from the 2012 Marvel movie") are not too distinctive from one another.

Actually, that's not fully the case. Kristin Wiig and Melissa McCarthy are... well, Kristin Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, but that's the problem. Their characters do what the script tells them to, as do the actors (hey, it's their job, right), but personality wise you don't get those clear distinctions that were there in that original Ghostbusters; the wisecracking guy we can relate to with Venkman; the straight-arrow guy who's kind of the leader in Stantz; Egon being the scientist so he's super-sciency; and Winston as the, well, guy off the street who we maybe identify with the most as the outsider. There is an exception in Paul Feig and Kate Dippold's creation here which is with Kate McKinnon's Holtzmann. She's an actress who totally embraces this character as a full-blown sciency-quirk-nerdy piece of magnificence, someone who can be whip smart and have a quick retort, but who also *looks* distinctive (I suspect at conventions cosplayers will most go after her look), and she gets to be really silly in down-time moments, singing to herself like no one is looking (even if someone is) or doing a little dance as she fixes something. She's a cool, awesome update of the Egon, and McKinnon is consistent and funny in the role.

But Wiig and McCarthy? More hit or miss, and while the filmmakers try to make the two distinctive early on - Wiig as the college professor fired over a book she wrote with McCarthy's character years back (why it's only discovered now, who knows, whatever, movie), and the former trying to at first distance herself while the latter's more like "no, no, ghosts, ghosts, c'mon' - but once they face off against their first paranormal entity early in the film, the two characters are not really distinctive, both can have some wisecracks (maybe Wiig's *slightly* more dry, but more-so it's that awkward-stilted approach to line delivery that she's perfected over time) and yet there's no distinction between types... which leads me to Leslie Jones, who, I say, IS trying here, but is given a character that has the one dimension of "AAH! GHOSTS! Can I work with y'all", and that's about it.

Even Slimer's like, "I'm getting told for this shit"

Her performance goes from at best tolerable, goofy sidekick to being obnoxious (and most of those scenes, to be fair, are in the trailer, some are left for the movie to give us new scenes to see as tired screaming-black-lady types), and Jones is better than that. Ironically given the four ladies, Chris Hemsworth gets a good role as the "token male" (ho-ho) who also happens to be playing the dumb-blonde type. This diverts from the original movie, which is fine (actually the attraction part now shows the reversal, where before Jeanine hit on Egon to little result, now one or more of the ladies try to when they interview him, and he's so dumb it goes one ear out the other), and Hemsworth owns what is basically also a one-note joke. But he plays that note for all it's worth, and is definitely the highlight of a climax that is... messy.

I think that I can say that this remake (let's call it that, f*** a 'reboot') of Ghostbusters is not terrible. It's also not very good on the whole. It certainly can shine in little pockets. It can also be irksome when a scene goes on for far too long - like a scene with Andy Garcia as the mayor where the Ghostbusters are called frauds, sort of - and it becomes like a game of one-up(wo)man-ship, and it's painful to see the jokes die. A lot of lines and jokes died for me, which is a shame since the actors clearly have good comic timing and chemistry, and can deliver exposition with some aplomb. But along with the weak 'four-character paradigm' aspect, there's also the familiarity that gets crammed in like a fowl in foie gras: slimer shows up, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man shows up (kinda, sorta, it happens) and even the *logo* becomes that "form of destruction" from the original.

For me it's not that it can't be be helped to associate this with the 1984 movie. I love that piece of work, but I can watch one thing and keep it at that. A major problem is that the movie won't let me, for the most part. At times it does try to make its own mark, like a 'villain' who is just some freak living in a hotel who wants to bring the "Ley Lines" to fruition (yeah, it's the plot, whatever), but it still calls back to the original over and over and over again. Just when it starts to cut its own path it goes back and says "remember the Ghost House? Remember the Ray Parker theme? Remember this and that and the other? Well, here it is again, anew!" And all in all it leaves one with an impression that this is all.... okay. Certainly Feig and the actors are trying. But it's burdened by the weight of its own franchise and not being able to just left go and cut a rug. Oh, and the improv, that's hit or miss too.

Lastly, there's the not-really-but-hey-internet elephant in the room of "Well, it's women now, so it's gonna suck" argument. What one comes away with is the people making these claims likely also were the same who said that Ben Affleck would be AWFUL as Batman. Get over it you small-penised losers. That's the absolute least of this movie's problems!

In other news, Chris Christie sucks because he's FAT!