Thursday, October 20, 2016

Movie Review: "Jack Reacher: Never go Back"

I don't know exactly when it was, but at some point, Tom Cruise decided that his action movies should be funny in addition to delivering thrills. This certainly wasn't always the case (see the first "Mission: Impossible") but it is now. Delivered with a wry smile or a raised eyebrow Cruise is great at offering an unexpected laugh. It doesn't happen often in the new Reacher film, "Jack Reacher: Never go Back," but when it does, the film is at its best.

To be sure, Cruise isn't the first action hero who has gone this route, but the tack works for Cruise brilliantly. I know, he's not just an action star, but he's great in action films. Whatever his off screen life has been—and readers of this blog will know that we do not go in for celebrity gossip here—on screen his charisma has never really wavered, and that charisma here in "Never go Back."

Again based on a novel by Lee Child, "Never go Back" sees our hero, Jack Reacher (Cruise), take a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet the woman who has his old job, Major Turner (Cobie Smulders) only to arrive and find she's been arrested. Never one to leave a problem alone, Reacher delves into it and soon enough he and Turner are on the run from a military contractor as well as the regular army. Oh, and Reacher may have a daughter, Sam (Danika Yarosh), who, daughter or not, is on the run with the them.

Christopher McQuarrie directed the first Reacher film and serves as a producer on this one, but the reins have been handed over to Edward Zwick who previously worked with Cruise on "The Last Samurai." Zwick and his long-time writing partner, Marshall Herskovitz also took a pass at the screenplay, as did Richard Wenk.

The results of the entire affair are good, but certainly not great. The first half of the movie, in fact, is wonderful. Reacher is constantly on the move, deciphering what happened to Turner and why, and with Turner the two make a formidable pair. As the villainous plan becomes clear, however, the movie slows down, moves from DC to New Orleans, and all sense of progress is lost. The shift to New Orleans also finds a significant drop in the movie's use of humor.

Part of the overarching problem is that the evil company just isn't that interesting, and their ability to have men everywhere all the time becomes dull. Over and over again, Turner and Reacher are surprised when they're being followed or have to fight their way out of a situation. Robert Knepper briefly appears as the head of the company who is out to get our heroes, but his motivations never seem to go past money and he isn't given anything to do.

An anti-Reacher also appears in the film. Known as "The Hunter" and played by Patrick Heusinger, he's established early on as someone equal to Cruise's character. A fight in the first half of the movie between Turner, Reacher, and The Hunter is great, but we don't get to see the three interact directly for too long a period afterwards.

The best villain the film has is the guy who isn't really a baddie, military man Espin (Aldis Hodge), who has it in for Reacher because the latter delayed the former's promotion. Espin is the guy assigned by the military to track down Reacher and Turner and, in well-worn fashion, ends up deciding that they're on the side of justice rather than villain.

Unlike the film's early presence in DC, the New Orleans backdrop used in the second half feels much more like a promotional video ("see how much fun Bourbon Street can be on Halloween!"). "Simpsons" fans will keep expecting to see Skinner or Wiggum appear, if only for a second, and that popping into anyone's head during the movie isn't a good thing.

Overall, "Jack Reacher: Never go Back" is an absolutely acceptable, if rather generic, actioner. It offers moments of humor, some great chases, some fun fisticuffs, and the dynamic between Smulders and Cruise is wonderful. The unraveling of the mystery, too, is intriguing, or it is right up until it's clear that there's nothing all that special at its core. The addition of Sam even works, but the character is written in slightly too obvious a petulant-teenager-with-a-tough-outer-shell-has-soft-inside sort of way.

There are worse things than watching a fun-but-forgettable movie, but we wouldn't be wrong to expect more from Cruise as well.

photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Movie Review: "Keeping up with the Joneses" (2016)

When is a superspy not a superspy? When they're a bad spy.

Greg Mottola's latest directorial effort, "Keeping up with the Joneses," offers a well-worn premise – the folks next door are not remotely who they appear to be. In this case, the couple next door are the Joneses, Natalie (Gal Gadot) and Tim (Jon Hamm). While the Joneses want to seem like normal, regular, folks, they're actually superspies who are now living on a cul-de-sac to do… something. If I explained it all, not only would it fail to make good sense but it could hurt one's enjoyment of the movie.

The Joneses are generally acting creepy and weird around their new neighbors, the Gaffneys, Karen (Isla Fisher) and Jeff (Zach Galifianakis). It is here, and so early on, that the movie goes off the rails.

Again, the Joneses are superspies, they are clearly the best of the best, the movie sets them up as the best of the best. Except that they're awful at their job and obvious in how they go about it and repeatedly get caught or are on the verge of getting caught. This gets so terribly bad that "Keeping up with the Joneses" actually has Natalie and Tim discuss how poor a job they're doing.

But, they're still the best. They are the best because the movies tells us that they're the best. It shows us something completely different, but it tells us that they're the best. No one could possibly suspect them to be spies… except work-from-home interior designer Karen. Over the course of the movie, Jeff and Karen get sucked into the life of Natalie and Tim, both the lie part of it and the truth (or maybe what the Joneses want to be the truth).

Without getting too heavily invested in elements of the nonsensical plot – Jeff works in HR for a company that does something secret, but Jeff doesn't know what because he doesn't have clearance. The Joneses are somehow involved or want to be involved and are using the Gaffneys to get involved.

The goal is to mix humor with action and come up with a double fish out of water story (both the Joneses with suburban life and Gaffneys with the spy world). The problem is that the jokes aren't funny, the action isn't particularly good, and the audience knows exactly where the whole thing is headed from the beginning. The only reason it takes as long as it does to uncover the Joneses' plan is because Jeff is an oblivious fool.

Galifianakis isn't stretching himself by any means here, playing the exact sort of dummy-with-a-heart-of-gold that he has given us repeatedly. The material doesn't offer him anything slightly different to do with the character either. Fisher is engaging, but is relegated to having many of her jokes revolve around spicing up her sex life, and we have already touched on Hamm and Gadot being superspies who are terrible at their job.

"Keeping up with the Joneses" even features awful scenes with Natalie using her sexuality to make Karen distinctly uncomfortable. A PG-13 film, these moments feel more like pandering to an audience teenage boys than they do germane to the plot or part of an exploration of the characters. They come off as silly for their inclusion, not for any comedic flare they add to the movie.

And, if you're wondering why the Gaffneys are living a lovely, stereotypical life in suburbia but there has been no mention of their kids, conveniently, the children are away at summer camp for the entirety of the movie. Naturally, the kids only manage to call when the timing is as bad as it could possible be.

"Keeping up with the Joneses" may want to tell an exciting, new, tale of superspies in the suburbs but instead features a mundane story with well trod jokes. It has four likable stars up front, and a great cast of supporting players, but each and every one of them is penned in by the dull humor and paint-by-numbers plot.

photo credit: 20th Century Fox

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

"Lass is More" Goes to Town with the Original "Mr. Deeds"

"Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" is an utter classic. It offers up incredible dialogue and great performances and this monolithically ugly view of New York City.

Obviously, the first of these two things are to be celebrated, the third is to be pondered (and distressed about if, like me, you enjoy New York). Why is it so important to Capra to offer up such a one-sidedly negative view of the city? Years after "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," Capra would give the world the town of Bedford Falls and George Bailey as an idyllic opposite to New York, much in the same way that Longfellow Deeds and Mandrake Falls function in this movie.

This week's podcast takes a look at "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," both the good and the bad.

photo credit: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Movie Review: "The Accountant" (2016)

Please be aware, this is a lightly spoilery review: enough of the movie's issues result around what are supposed to be reveals/surprises that they have to be referenced.

The poster for "The Accountant" features, in part, Ben Affleck holding a rather larger gun. This prompts the question as to whether "The Accountant" is an ironic title about a guy who goes around with rather large guns or if maybe, he really does work with numbers and just guns down financial problems.

In fact, Affleck's Christian Wolff not only works with numbers but also plays with large guns. He is an accountant/hitman. To suggest that director Gavin O'Connor's movie is silly is to undersell it, one of the main issues, however, is that it doesn't seem like it's meant to be silly. It very much feels like it is trying to play it straight.

When you get right down to it, "The Accountant" is a movie that borrows from any number of sources. So, you have a child with a condition, autism in this case, which causes him to view and interact with the world differently from most people. Then you have an abusive father. Add to that a mob tale, a superhero story, a love story, a financial swindle, and some of Dexter's father's training and toss it all into a blender. The result is "The Accountant."

As one would expect, some elements of this whole thing work better than others. Wolff's job as an accountant, trying to help regular folks and unravel a big, corporate cooked books mystery is enjoyable… really enjoyable. Wolff has a whole "Beautiful Mind" thing going on with numbers which somehow makes the math montage the best part of the movie.

All the other elements are fighting for their turn in front of the camera though, so we never really get a feel for what's going wrong at the robotics company run by John Lithgow's Lamar Blackburn, where Wolff has been hired to uncook the books. Money has gone missing and there are only three suspects, but there are only three suspects because the movie only introduces us to four people from the company, and one of them is Anna Kendrick's Dana Cummings, who brought the financial irregularities to her boss thereby eliminating her from the suspect pool.

This isn't the only example of the movie telling so many stories that it can't be bothered to put together a decent number of characters for any of the stories either. Because of this, the reveals/twists are ruined – if it isn't character A (and we know it isn't), it has to be character B because there isn't a C.

O'Connor tries to obfuscate some of this by leaping back and forth in time – offering up Wolff's childhood alongside the current tale, but that just makes matters worse. While the entirety of Wolff's youth made him the man he is today, and while we get different glimpses into it, all the glimpses are of the same young version of Wolff. This isn't Wolff at five and then 10 and then 13 and then 17, it is "Young Chris" played by one actor (Seth Lee).

All of the above shouldn't indicate that there are a scant number of characters in the film, there are just a scant number in each individual story within the film. Consequently, each is crucial and when they're played by a recognizable star, you know they're going to be important. Thus, in an overly long (more than two hour) movie, when Jeffrey Tambor only shows up for a minute or two in the first 90 minutes of film, you know he's going to come back around – that there is more to him than what we've been told. J.K. Simmons' Treasury agent may appear more early on, but as it's a very flat part for the first two-thirds of the movie, we all know that's going to change as well. A similar issue exists with Jon Bernthal's Brax.

"The Accountant" is a one trick pony, but worse than that, it's a trick that doesn't work the first time and then works less each subsequent time it's deployed… and it's deployed repeatedly. Character motivations are murky (because revealing them would give away the twists everyone knows are coming), the story is downright foolish, and even the actual sequences prove a letdown.

The single best character in the movie isn't even Wolff. It's Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson). She is a young-and-bright Treasury analyst plucked by Simmons' Ray King to help him on the Wolff case. She, too, has a sordid history that comes out over the course of the movie. The way in which she changes due to the case may not be unique to this film, but Addai-Robinson makes it feel special and different.

The rest of "The Accountant" is just an over-long, over-dull mash-up and best avoided.

photo credit: Warner Bros.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

New York Comic Con 2016 - My Closing Thoughts

I love New York Comic Con.

There, I said it. It is loud and it is crowded and it doesn't have the same cache as it's San Diego big brother, but it puts a lot of people who love the same, geeky, things in the same place at the same time. The networks are there, some movie studios are there, and there is a whole lot to see and do over the course of the four days (Thursday thru Sunday).

For me though, NYCC doesn't start on the Thursday, it starts on the previous evening, when Hasbro throws their annual pre-NYCC party. While some light snacks and drinks are available, the real draw is the opportunity to see what cool things Hasbro has just released or is going to release in the near future. Being a comic-y crowd, a lot of the wares on display focus on Star Wars, Transformers, and Marvel, but it extends out beyond that to My Little Pony and NERF and various odds and ends.

For me, two items stuck out above the rest, neither of which is currently available. First, Hasbro is putting out a Darth Vader version of the classic game, Simon. Essentially, it's a massive, flat, Darth

Vader helmet which has been divided into quadrants which replicate Simon's four sections. One then just plays Simon as they normally would, but they do so on Vader's face. Plus, it game offers up a version of the Imperial March when you turn it on, and who doesn't want that.

Less techie, but perhaps not less cool, was the display of NERF's "Accustrike" technology, which takes the NERF darts that fire out of guns, and rejiggers their noses slightly so as to provide a longer, more accurate, shot. A side-by-side comparison of Accustrike versus traditional darts was not available (a separate traditional dart area did exist, but targets were at different distances). Even so, the Accustrike weapons and darts did go exactly where they were aimed… and it's really not my fault in any way that there was an open window behind one of the targets.

The Hasbro party is actually the perfect lead-in to wandering about the NYCC show floor, which is the first thing I like to do every year. As stated, it does get pretty crowded, but those folks who arrive first thing on Thursday morning tend to find it more empty than it will be later. Consequently, it only took about 10 minutes of waiting to do the "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" escape room (yes, my partner and I won) and 5 minutes to do the "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" wand training (those lines seemed far longer later in the day). This last involved waving a wand properly at a TV screen and watching a live feed of myself doing so. With the right wave (and maybe saying "leviOsa" instead of "leviosA"), the spell is performed on the screen and everyone walks away happy (because I think it happens even if you get the spell wrong… which I'm sure I did).

That experience piggy-backed nicely into my next stop which was a VR section setup this year where the "Empire Stage" used to exist (rather than having two very large panel halls on-site in addition to the smaller ones, The Theater at MSG was added as a panel site and only one very large hall was at the Javits Center). Multiple VR booths were setup for various big and small-name shows and those I experienced followed a pattern – slap a VR headset onto you and ask you to point and click at various things… or just slap a VR headset onto you and have you watch as stuff unfolds. The interactive videos worked better than the passive ones, but all the ones I saw at the Javits had a not-ready-for-primetime feel. Images were ill-defined, clicking on things didn't always work, and there was a definite distance from the real.

The best part of that area was near the back corner. It featured a small, unassuming, table and three people all dressed in white. Right in front of the table was a little sign that read "Westworld." Having seen the pilot (NYCC took place before episode two aired), I inquired and was given a card to visit, at a specific time, a place a couple blocks from the Javits.

At the off-site location, which again featured people in the reception area dressed solely in white (see that second episode of "Westworld"). I was ushered into a room and given another headset, but was told this time that rather than sitting I could walk around. Unfortunately, the entire experience took about 10 minutes (and would have had added depth following the second "Westworld" episode), but it was head-and-shoulders better than the others. It was far more realistic, far more immersive, and far more interactive. The quiet, off-site location was part of that and the walking around was part of it, but I think the video in which I participated was just better as well. I didn't want to play an extended version of the "Man in the High Castle" VR experience, but desperately wanted more of "Westworld."

If you have read the rest of my coverage, you will know that I attended several panels during my time at NYCC as well, including one on "Death Race 2050," and ones for the BBC America shows "Class," "Dirk Gently," and "Doctor Who." This year, I even brought my son to the Javits on Sunday so that he and I could do wand training, sit in the "Star Trek" captain's chair, and just generally geek out.

Every year that I have gone to New York Comic Con, I have enjoyed it more and more – whether that's because they're getting better at it, I'm getting better at it, or some combination thereof, I don't honestly know. I can promise you though, that I'll be back there next year for another go-round, and this time, on Sunday, it'll be with the whole family.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

"Lass is More" Rumbles Towards at "Shin Godzilla" and "The Thing"

We have talked about horror before on the "Lass is More" podcast, but we're doing it again this week as "The Thing" gets a new blu-ray edition and "Shin Godzilla" hits the big screen here in the States.

The question we try to answer is simple -- are these two movies horror films?  They certainly share some of the tropes of horror movies and even when they don't, the scenarios they set up are terrifying.  But, they don't rely on what so much of what horror relies on, namely, jump scares and musical stings.

So, what is it that makes a horror movie?  When is something a part of the genre and when does the act of subverting the genre move a film outside the fold?  Like all good horror, we don't promise complete answers, but we can certainly try to ask the right questions.

photo credit: Funimation Films

Monday, October 10, 2016

New York Comic Con 2016: "Trollhunters"

New York – I will have a piece at another time detailing all the various sorts of New York Comic Con fun I had in the past week, but now is the time to talk about the "Trollhunters" panel held on Saturday at The Theater at Madison Square Garden.

This was the first year NYCC has been at The Theater and I attended panels on both of the first two days. The energy amongst fans at The Theater was incredible, and didn't dissipate for "Trollhunters" despite the "John Wick 2" panel which preceded it being incredibly loud with a terribly enthusiastic fan base.

Of course, I probably should have expected that the crowd would still be behind "Trollhunters" as fan favorite Guillermo del Toro was on hand for the event. Outside the filmmaker, the panel also included Kelsey Grammer, Ron Perlman, Charlie Saxton, and Steven Yeun, as well as executive producers Marc Guggenheim and Rodrigo Blaas. The event was moderated by Laura Prudom.

Before they screened the first couple of episodes, del Toro came out and said that he initially pitched "Trollhunters" as a live action series but said it was too big and expensive. At one point it morphed into a feature before eventually turning into the animated Netflix series it has become, a series which is set to debut this December.

In short, the episodes we saw of "Trollhunters," were exceptionally enjoyable. The animation was beautiful and the episodes established a world that was intriguing.

The tale follows a boy, Jim, who happens upon an amulet that turns him into a defender of trolls. Well, a defender of good trolls. There are also bad trolls which is why Jim is the trollhunter, not the trolldefender. Grammer and Perlman's characters (which were created with the two actors in mind) are good trolls, while Saxton plays Jim's human friend, Toby, and Yeun as a school bully.

The series has the air of one that had an enthusiastic team behind it, and a clever one as well. I caught one verbal reference to "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in the episodes and was assured—via Twitter—that there are many Indiana Jones references coming over the course of the season.

Although a lot of fun was had during the panel discussion—Guillermo del Toro's birthday was on Sunday and a cake was presented with the entire Theater audience singing—it was not without some upset. Jim is voiced by the late Anton Yelchin and although the talk didn't spend an inordinate amount of time talking about Yelchin and his portrayal, the sense that there was someone missing from the dais was unavoidable.

Of Yelchin, del Toro stated in part, that he was "a terrific actor but an even more amazing human being." There was no true discussion of what del Toro and company might do with Jim's role in the second season, should there be a second season.

Certainly, with the amount of ground covered in the episodes we saw the manner in which the world seems to open up, it is difficult to imagine that there aren't ideas kicking around the production team of where the tale could head if more episodes are ordered. What those ideas might be, however, is impossible to say (at least, it's impossible for me to say).

If what we see on December 23rd with the release of the full season matches what we got this weekend, I for one hope that the production team has the opportunity to keep digging.  It could be an amazing world.

photo credit: Netflix

Thursday, October 06, 2016

New York Comic Con 2016: "Death Race 2050" and Roger Corman

New York – "Death Race 2050" has nothing to do with "Death Race" or "Death Race 2" or "Death Race: Inferno." That would be silly. "Death Race 2050" is more aligned with "Death Race 2000," while "Death Race" is a reboot/reimagining of the "2000" version, with the others acting as sequels to that movie. Of course, being more aligned with "2000" doesn't necessarily make "2050" a sequel.

Confused? Don't worry too much about it, we'll get there.

At today's New York City Comic Con panel, legendary producer Roger Corman referred to "2050" as "the new century version." This notion was borne out by the 10 minutes of the film which played at the end of the panel, 10 minutes which—without giving away spoilers—seemed to not fully mesh with what occurs in "Death Race 2000," even if it was in the same violent, over-the-top comedic, vein.

That though was the end of the panel. Where the whole thing started was with a trailer for the film, a trailer which instantly announced that this movie was indeed going to go back to the tradition of "2000," attempting to steer a course between being a funny and violent film. Star Manu Bennett would later describe this entry as having "the satire of the original." The panel moderator even got a taped introduction from the "2050" TV personalities, he, in turn, brought out Corman and Bennett and the panel was off to the races.

Keeping it in first gear for the moment, for the uninitiated, "Death Race 2050" is about an alternate version of the United States, one where it's no longer the United States of America, but rather the United Corporations of America, with Malcolm McDowell playing the Chairman (seemingly, there is no President, as there was in "2000").

In order to decrease the population, satiate the bloodlust of the populace, and just to be a generally good time, the Death Race is regularly held. Fiver racers, each with a navigator, take part in this cross country jaunt that sees the drivers get points not only for time but killing people as well. The exact number of points per death vary depending on the category of individual (young, old, nun) killed. Bennett plays the greatest driver ever, Frankenstein (David Carradine in "2000"), but there is the distinct sense that with this race his time is nearly at an end.

This was not one of those panels loaded with "scoops." Instead, what we got were some thoughtful remarks from both Bennett and Corman on the characters, changes from the original, similarities to the original, and thoughts from Corman on his career as a whole (as was discussed, the man has something approaching 400 credits).

One of the big differences that fans of the original will notice are the drivers competing against Frankenstein. In "2050" there is a genetically engineered man, a car with AI, a singer, and a terrorist (right wing fundamentalist). As Corman explained things, these drivers better reflect the world we live in now than the ones depicted in "2000" (which arrived on the scene in 1975).

Naturally, as times have changed, so to has Frankenstein's all-black outfit. However, just like "2000," we will see Frankenstein take off his mask at some point. In fact, Bennett said that they filmed a scene one day in which Frankenstein rips off his mask and tosses it, with the mask winding up outside the car. What they never got was a shot where the mask doesn't actually leave the vehicle – something that was only noticed the next day and which in turn dictated (for continuity's sake) that Frankenstein not wear the mask for the remainder of the film.

Just how did this work? What will the reception be for this spiritual successor to the popular B-movie original?

"Death Race 2050," directed by G.J. Echternkamp and produced by Roger Corman, will be out on Blu-ray on January 17th, so we'll all see then. The trailer is below.

photo credit: Universal Home Entertainment

Movie Review: "The Girl on the Train"

Tate Taylor's adaptation of Paula Hawkins' novel "Girl on the Train" desperately wants to situate itself in a small corner of Westchester County, moving the location of the novel from outside London to this area, but it is this area in name and the occasional location shot only.  It in no way feels organic to and enmeshed in the area.  It is in fact something of a mystery why this particular location would have been selected.

To be sure, "Girl on the Train" is indeed a mystery, just not one about the location change from the book.  Instead, it asks the question of why the wretchedly awful Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett) has gone missing. This is a question being asked by the cops, led by Officer Riley (Allison Janney), but we see it more from the point of view of the alcoholic Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt). This last is the girl in question (let us not get into at this point any lengthy discussion of why a 33-year-old woman is a girl, but anyone pointing out the foolishness of it would not be wrong).

Rachel used to live on the same block as Megan, back when she was married to Tom Watson (Justin Theroux), who cheated on her with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), to whom Tom is now married. Tom and Anna are interested in Megan's whereabouts as well (she worked as their nanny for a time). Also interested in her whereabouts is Megan's emotionally abusive husband, Scott Hipwell (Luke Evans).

If that all seems like a little too much, like it's a few too many bad/troubled people doing bad/troubling things, it is. Not only that, but the above paragraphs don't even take into account Megan's psychiatrist, Kamal Abdic (Edgar Ramirez), with whom Megan was having an affair. Nor have we delved into Officer Riley offering terrible advice to characters and stirring the pot in nonsensical ways in order to… who knows.

As is hopefully becoming apparent, one of the main issues with "Girl on the Train" is that it is difficult to find someone for whom to root. Obviously we are meant to side with Rachel, but she spends so much of the movie self-sabotaging that it becomes difficult. Beyond that, Megan is painted as an horrific human being. We are purposefully made to feel nothing but dislike for her horrendousness – those watching obviously would not wish harm upon her, but not wishing harm is very different than being forced to sit through a two hour movie trying to care about what happened.

Eventually, the story tries to walk everything back – we come to understand where some (but only some) of Megan's troubles originate and that maybe we have judged some of the people too harshly, but that's only if you subscribe to the theory that having a troubled past gives one the right to be a terrible person in the present (I vote that some actions are inexcusable). Additionally, by that point the audience has already put something close to 90 minutes into disliking most of the characters on screen, if we are to take back those feelings, the reasons had better be spectacular. They are pretty solid for some of the characters, but not for the plethora of horribleness we have witnessed virtually across the board.

These late-to-the-game feelings are supposed to be engendered via flashbacks, and "Girl on the Train," as a whole, regularly utilizes flashbacks to fill us in on backstories. In fact, it does so to almost an abusive extent – we get flashbacks inside of flashbacks only to come out of one and then the next to then quickly be transported to someone else's flashback. To say that it is confusing is to greatly undersell it.

At this point it seems almost like gilding the lily to discuss a phone recording played by Rachel repeatedly in the film, but briefly… relatively early on, we watch Rachel record a drunken video, one that she then watches a couple of times during the movie. This would be fine except that it certainly seems as though the take used when she watches the cell phone video is not the same as the take used when we see her record – the dialogue doesn't appear to match.

Although Blunt gives a fine performance for most of the film, she is done no favors by the editing, the music, the location, and the fog (Ardsley-on-Hudson seemingly existing on Arthur Conan Doyle's moors). Moments meant to be serious and tension-filled result in peals of laughter.

By the time the credits roll on "Girl on a Train," it is actually difficult to hate most of the characters. Instead, we see them as sad, pathetic, shadows of human beings. It is us, however, the members of the audience, who have paid the real price.

photo credit: Universal

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

New York Film Festival Movie Review: "13th"

To a large extent, and whether we tend to like it or not, documentaries are all about constructing an argument. They are about putting together the pieces of a story in such a way so as to create the strongest, most unassailable impression, possible – it isn't enough to believe something, and it isn't enough to be right, you have to convince your audience.

Things are going to be left out of a documentary, they have to be. Even a two hour documentary about one person making pancakes in their own home would leave something out. Documentaries live and die based upon what's included, what's avoided, and how the included information is presented. Additionally, what's included must go beyond simply the elements that build the director's case, they have to appropriately delve into why the other side is wrong.

It takes an incredible amount of knowledge and research and thought to put together a good documentary. It has to hit an emotional resonance as well an intellectual one – something like "Blackfish" excels at the former but not at the latter due to its monolithic and obvious one-sidedness.

Then there is Ava DuVernay's "13th," which just opened the 54th New York Film Festival. The documentary is beautifully constructed and brilliantly argued; it affects the viewer on both emotional and intellectual levels, and consequently it is a must-see film.

As the documentary states, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution reads, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States." The amendment then abolishes slavery "except as a punishment for crime," and that bit, the argument goes, has affected the next 150 years of this nation's history.

DuVernay proceeds to take the viewer through that history, showing the way our nation has gone about mass incarceration, has systematically imprisoned more African Americans than whites, and has used prisoners as slave labor. "13th" takes a multi-pronged approach, offering up things such as a look at the corporations who own prisons who have had laws passed so as to boost the prison population, the government which has used phrases like "law & order," knowingly, as a stand-in to tell voters that the government will go after certain groups, and just so much more.

The United States incarcerates a scary amount of people, and DuVernay's statistics offer up a bleak view of the rise of incarceration as well as the percentage of African Americans who are incarcerated and—this may be repeating myself, but it's important and so I'm going to say it clearly—offers examples of how they have been targeted as a group for incarceration.

In terms of building her argument, one of the best things that she does is offer up viewpoints from both sides of the aisle. She does not make the mistake of only finding people who support her argument and including those voices.

Over the course of the film, the viewer is deluged with information. It is densely packed, but each piece is also tightly knit to the next one. DuVernay has created a clear through line from 1865 to 2016 (the inclusion of cell phone video is particularly powerful), and while there are certainly those out there who will deny her argument after they see the movie, those individuals are going to be few, far between, and wrong.

This last isn't to say that everything about the movie is perfect, or that it won't cause people to ask questions about some of what they've seen, but anyone who doesn't stop, think, and consider what they've witnessed is someone who would concern me.

Despite what one may want watching it, there is no cathartic release at its close. "13th" does touch on, if only briefly, both Presidential candidates, their policies, and their history. While it may indicate that one candidate is worse than the other in terms of their approach to hatred of those who look/talk/act differently, it isn't kind to either side.

In short, this is an incredibly constructed documentary and it is obvious that DuVernay not only has a powerful handle on the issues she puts on screen, but is an incredible filmmaker as well (as if we didn't know that from her other movies). Beyond the beautiful backdrops when subjects are interviewed, and the various framing techniques she chooses"13th" features wonderful interstitial animations, elements that are almost animated versions of writing on a blackboard. They are more than just punctuations put on the end of a portion of the film (mimicking the words to songs that are playing), they are engaging all on their own.

 "13th" will be on Netflix this Friday, October 7th. Watch it.

photo credit: NYFF

Monday, October 03, 2016

New York Film Festival Movie Review: "Graduation"

There are too many people who, at least anecdotally, dislike going to see movies with subtitles. Generally speaking, this is a great loss. But, today we get specific, one foreign language movie absolutely worth seeing – Cristian Mungiu's "Graduation."

The film is a part of this year's New York Film Festival (this is not his first time at the fest either), and while it deals with the troubles of one Romanian family, it also shows that humanity as a whole is more alike than not, that we all have the same fears, hopes, and desires. It is a touching movie offering up the distress of one father as he negotiates issues within his family.

At the center of everything here is Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a Romanian doctor who, along with his wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), has done his best to avoid the rampant corruption in his country. This all begins to change though when their daughter, Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus), is assaulted near her school on the eve of finals.

Romeo feels responsibility for Eliza's have been assaulted because he dropped her off a short walk from the school as opposed to at it so that he could go off and see his mistress, Sandra (Malina Manovici). Beyond that, Eliza has been accepted, with a scholarship, to a university in England, but that scholarship is dependent on her performance during these exams.

The audience watches as Romeo struggles with his principles and his decades-long refusal take or offer bribes. A couple of phone calls to move someone higher on the liver transplant list can get his daughter graded more leniently on her exams. It would be a returning of her marks to what they would have been had she not been assaulted. It is a straightening of a crooked road, not an out-and-out falsehood. Or is it?

Mungiu's film is full of long takes with a number of scenes seeming to take place each in a single camera shot. The technique offers both a more lethargic pace to the story and more of a naturalistic feel – these are events the audience is watching unfold, and the uncertainty of how to proceed is visible on the faces of Romeo, Magda, Eliza, and everyone else.

One certainty "Graduation" does offer, is that in its estimation, Romania has a set of serious problems. It is a country where women seem to regularly be assaulted, where passers-by watch and do nothing, where rocks are thrown through windows, the city is falling down, and the only way anything gets done is with an under the table exchange of money or favors.

While that view may not be universal, the questions Romeo asks himself are – could he have prevented this assault? Should he now compromise his principles to help his daughter, and if he does will she benefit as she'll be able to attend school in England or will she become corrupted herself? How far does one go to protect their family and what exactly does "protecting" them even mean?

As Romeo wrestles with these issues and his marriage crumbles and his daughter grows up and he faces losing everything he's ever worked for, we watch in ever-building distress. What do you do when there is no right answer, when every choice you have is wrong?

The sense one gets watching "Graduation" is that maybe, just maybe, there is a right thing to do… not that the film ever actually offers what that course might be. The choice is elusive, but feels like it exists just off screen somewhere. Multiple times in the film things take place just below, or just outside, of the camera shot. They are right in front of us, but hidden, a truth that is right there that we will never see.

Every piece of "Graduation" works in concert with every other one. The film paints a detailed picture of one small corner of one country and in that picture offers a much larger reflection about the choices we all make, no matter where we live.

Without delving into how things work out for anyone in the "Graduation," it must be noted that Mungiu offers a conclusion which, simply put, feels like the right one. Like every other moment in the movie, it is powerful, emotional, and will cause you to stop and question your own choices as you move through life.

The film is being distributed in the U.S. by Sundance Selects. Look for it.

photo credit: Sundance Selects