Tuesday, October 6, 2015
Movies I watched last week (titles link to trailers):
Beyond the Edge (Leanne Pooley, 2013)
Black Mass (Scott Cooper, 2015)
Black Sea (Kevin Macdonald, 2014)
Everest (Baltasar Kormkur, 2015)
Irreversible (Gaspar Noe, 2002)
Meru (Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, 2015)
Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2015)
Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991)
The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)
The Walk (Robert Zemeckis, 2015)
1. I've been thinking a lot about The Walk director Robert Zemeckis over the last few days. When you look at his resumé it's really quite stunning: 17 films, which include Forest Gump, Cast Away, Flight, the Back to the Future trilogy, Contact, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her, Romancing the Stone, The Walk, and What Lies Beneath. Attempting to omit personal taste (Full disclosure: I can't stand Forest Gump), those are 12 very watchable movies, most of which either are, or at least border on, classics of their era. But here's the catch: Nearly every one of them likely started with Zemeckis asking himself, "Man, I wonder if I could pull that off?" And in nearly every case, the "that" is a sustained moment of visual grandeur. That's how all of these films likely began--with a story built around trying to make a specific moment or scene work visually, and not the other way around.
Forest Gump shaking hands with Real-Footage-JFK, Denzel Washington flying a plane upside down, Joseph Gordon Levitt walking back and forth on a tight rope between the no-longer-existing twin towers, Goldie Hawn walking around with a massive shotgun hole through the middle of her chest, real actors interacting with a cartoon rabbit, Marty McFly traveling back and forth through time, Jodie Foster's brain traveling through four dimensional space, Tom Hanks spending nearly two hours talking to a volleyball... Give Zemeckis major credit where it's due: he made every one of those scenes work. But now go back through the list and try to imagine each of those movies without that key element. Is there even a movie left there? Zemeckis is the all-time master of putting all of his eggs in one basket, and usually he pulls it off. But when it backfires, such as his obsessive, decade-long detour into motion-capture CGI with The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol, he doesn't have anything to fall back on. The Walk works--and it really, really does work--because the final twenty minutes are so utterly breathtaking. But getting there is often a slog, and at times you can almost tell how disinterested Zemeckis is by the first 75% of the movie, as though he's thinking to himself, "This isn't the part I signed up for."
2. Speaking of things that feel like a slog, there's Black Mass, and unlike The Walk, it doesn't have a bravura final sequence to save it. Gangster movies have reached a point where there needs to be a real justification for why to tell another story, and that justification needs to run deeper than "Johnny Depp with a Boston accent and a prosthetic forehead." Black Mass is one of those movies (and American Gangster is my all-time "go-to" here) that doesn't have a single scene that's actually good or bad. They're all just sort of there. There's never a moment where you think to yourself "this isn't working," just as there's never a moment where you think to yourself "hot damn, this is good!" Howard Hawks famously said that "A good movie is three good scenes and no bad ones." I wonder what he would have said about a movie like Black Mass, which can never quite swing the needle in either direction.
As for Johnny Depp, yeah, he's very good in it, and it's probably his best performance since 2007's Sweeney Todd. But it still has the same two major Johnny Depp problems: 1) It continues his obsession with not looking like Johnny Depp, and 2) It continues his obsession with using his roles to impersonate other people that he thinks fit the character. In the last ten years, Depp has only had three starring roles where he roughly looked like he does in real life--Public Enemies, The Tourist, and The Rum Diary. His other eleven (!) live-action starring roles in that span all required heavy makeup/prosthetics/costumes/mustaches/fantasy. Black Mass is no different there, and it's also just another impersonation from him. As Captain Jack Sparrow, he famously tried to impersonate Keith Richards to create the character. Most of his roles in latter-day Tim Burton films appear as though he's channeling John Waters in fantasy garb. Here, as Whitey Bulger, he's essentially just answering the question of "How would Ray Liotta's character in Goodfellas have looked and sounded 25 years later, if he'd never been caught?" Sorry Johnny, but no one was asking that question.
3. Everest and The Walk are the two best 3D films I've seen since Gravity, and probably both are in the top eight I've ever seen. That's not to say they're necessarily great films, as both have some significant problems, but as in-theater experiences, they're stunning. In both cases (and with Gravity, as well), the films use their 3D in the way that it ought to be used--to actually create a physical sense of depth to the proceedings. For most movies that go 3D, the depth doesn't matter to the action at all. Did Avengers: Age of Ultron need to be in 3D? Nope. Did Jurassic World? Also nope. In these cases, and most others, the 3D exists for the sake of getting those extra few box office dollars. But with Everest and The Walk, it's all about the sensation of looking down at the world. And sweet Jesus is it breathtaking. The Martian is a much better film than either of these, but you don't need to see The Martian in 3D, and it's not even *that* important that you see it in a theater (though you absolutely should). With Everest and The Walk, the full 3D theater experience is indispensable.
4. In a Twitter comment about Everest, Mark Harris noted that its three main female characters (played by Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, and Emily Watson) are all just playing "woman on phone." I've been thinking about that, and how it jibed with my question about why in the hell Anna Chlumsky took that part in The End of the Tour, where all she did is take part in two phone calls that made absolutely zero use of her talents. It also feels akin to Sienna Miller's two "neglected wife at home" roles from earlier this year, in American Sniper and Foxcatcher, the first of which was also basically just a woman on phone.
In some of those cases, maybe it's unavoidable. Knightley's Everest role, for example, feels like it had to be there, and there's no way it could have been more than what it was. But this also feels like a new trope brewing, and one we should watch out for.
5. After Everest, I went on a bit of a climbing-movie kick, and watched two documentaries--Beyond the Edge, about the very first summit of Mount Everest, by New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953, and Meru, about trying to complete the first summit of the eponymous mountain, known for it's near vertical "shark fin" face. (The former is currently streaming on Netflix, and the latter is on the art-house theater circuit.) Both are good films, and work in various ways. Beyond the Edge largely succeeds because of its score and subject, even though it's narratively weak at times. Meru is much less likely to be telling a story its viewers will know anything about, but tells it extremely well, and builds an excellent sense of drama. It also effectively uses the documentary tool of segueing away from its central narrative at regular intervals to fill in backstory, instead of front-loading it. If you leave Everest wanting more (as I did), check these out.
6. I hadn't seen Thelma & Louise since it came out, and wasn't exactly sure what to expect. I shouldn't be surprised that it holds up really well, as many of Ridley Scott's films do. Scott is one of the best directors at making spectacle movies that never feel like the spectacle is the point. (Even with Gladiator, where the spectacle actually is the point, it still doesn't feel like it.) It's interesting to watch Brad pitt's star-making turn in retrospect, because two things really stand out: 1) He wasn't a very good actor yet, but 2) The acting didn't matter, because few people have ever commanded the screen like Pitt did here. Within three minutes of watching he and Geena Davis in that hotel room, you see why every single person in Hollywood was immediately anointing him as the next big star.
7. While Zemeckis built most of his films around sequences of seemingly unworkable visual spectacle, Phoenix is built around one fleeting facial expression. I first saw Phoenix at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, and thought it had one of the best endings I'd ever seen. A second viewing of the film only reinforces that. Some of the greatest endings are built around the most subtle things. The Usual Suspects dropped our collective jaws with nothing but a close-up of a pair of feet limping, and then not limping. The final moment of The Godfather says everything it needs to with Dianne Keaton's face slowly being shut out of the frame by a closing door. One day, after enough people have had the chance to see it, Phoenix will be talked about in the same way.
Scott Foundas of Variety wrote that the film's climax is "so expertly orchestrated that one imagines (director Christian Petzold) started with it in mind and worked the rest of the movie backward from there." It's also a film that spends most of its duration as the highest of high concepts, yet the ending almost totally abandons that high concept plot, and somehow turns itself into a heart-wrenchingly intimate character piece in the final moments. Like The Usual Suspects, the ending of Phoenix forces us to reevaluate what sort of movie we've just watched, but this time, no trickery or epic reveal is required.
8. Irreversible, by French provocateur Gaspar Noe, is a film that forces you to confront what it even means to be shocked. I saw Noe's latest film, Love, in Toronto last month, and it made me curious about the rest of his work. Love is 3D film filled to the brim with explicit, un-simulated sex. Its visual composition, and the way it curates music to its lush images, is frequently gorgeous. But the rampant porn-level sex, which was supposed to be the most daring thing about it, actually ends up being what held it back. The problem is, the acting just isn't very good, and you can't help but think that all the sex is why Noe couldn't get better actors. Tone down the unnecessary explicitness of the sex, and Noe probably could have made a much better film.
Irreversible has a variation of the same problem. Here, it's a nearly ten minute, graphic rape scene. But in this case, it's not that this kept him from getting good actors (Vincent Cassell and Monica Belucci are quite capable), it's that it forces the viewer to respond viscerally to the film, instead of artistically. Like Love, there are scenes in Irreversible that transfix you with their compositional beauty. But also like Love, you're forcibly taken away from that beauty by something else, something which just didn't need to be there.
Like a salacious exploitation movie version of Zemeckis, Noe seems driven by creating films around specific sequences so alienating to the audience that he's almost seeing how far he can go without driving away the viewer altogether. But unlike Zemeckis, Noe is such an artful filmmaker that his works would actually be much better without their sequences of notoriety.
9. My main takeaway from Black Sea--a pretty good "greed of the thieves ruins the heist" movie, which takes place almost entirely on a submarine--is that Scoot McNairy is proving himself to be our next truly great character actor. Besides having the best name in Hollywood (and really, there isn't even a close second), he seems to have a gift for playing every variation of sketchy that exists. In Argo, he was "This-guy-might-blow-it-for-us" sketchy; In Killing Them Softly, he was "desperate criminal" sketchy; In 12 Years a Slave, he was "Trust-me-I'm-not-sketchy" sketchy; In Non-Stop, he was "No-really-I-promise-I'm-not-sketchy" sketchy; In Gone Girl, he was "ex-boyfriend" sketchy; In the upcoming Our Brand is Crisis, he's "political advisor" sketchy; And in Black Sea, he's "corporate liaison" sketchy. Paul Giamatti, maybe the greatest character actor of his generation, has forged a very successful career partially out of playing every kind of sleazy manager--Straight Outta Compton, Love & Mercy, Private Parts, 12 Years a Slave, The Ides of March, and The Truman Show, to name a few. Scoot (can we call you Scoot?) looks primed to have a career on that level.
A full column on The Third Man, my pick for The Greatest Film of All-Time, will be coming soon.
Sunday, September 20, 2015
One of the big talking points of this year’s collective film conversation, and particularly at TIFF, has been women in film. Are women getting good roles in front of the camera, and are they allowed any control behind it? While TIFF is a much more specialized level of industry reality than Hollywood at large, here at least, the answer is yes.
My Saturday began with what is, so far, the best lead actress performance of 2015, Sandra Bullock’s Our Brand is Crisis. Directed by David Gordon Green (whose career has varied from the indie George Washington to the populist Pineapple Express), Bullock plays “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a mildly unhinged American political strategist hired to advise a Presidential campaign in Bolivia. She takes the job (of course she does!) mostly because the opposing candidate’s campaign is being run by her old nemesis, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton). What ensues is basically a Latin American Tom & Jerry episode, with Bullock constantly quoting Sun Tzu’s “the Art of War,” and Thornton gleefully playing the entire movie with the self-satisfied smirk of a Roger Moore-era Bond villain.
Green and screenwriter Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) do a great job of keeping the action relatively comical and light-hearted, while persistently maintaining an undercurrent that these actions do have actual consequences for an entire country. Occasionally the metaphors are too heavy-handed (the opening credits show Bullock on a potters wheel, literally getting her hands dirty), and the ending features a major tonal switch that simply doesn’t work. But that misfire at the ending doesn’t undo what is a highly entertaining movie, and if anything, serves to reinforce how un-preachy the bulk of the movie is. It also might mean that George Clooney, who produced this, has learned from the bogged down moralizing of his own Ides of March, which covered similar ground four years ago. In that, Ryan Gosling’s campaign strategist began the film an idealist, and ended it jaded and morally broken. Here, Bullock starts the film that way, but ends it somewhere a bit less label-friendly.
What’s especially interesting about Our Brand is Crisis is that it was written for, and based on the true story of, a man. It’s obviously rare in Hollywood for roles originally written for men to end up in the hands of women, but it does happen every once in a while. Angelina Jolie’s Salt is a notable recent example, which at one point was to be a Tom Cruise vehicle. But the key here isn’t just that the film was written for a man, it’s that the true story was about a man—James Carville, who really was hired to advise a Bolivian presidential race. So what does it tell us that a prominent Hollywood studio (Warner Bros.) and a prominent Hollywood star/director/producer (Clooney) collectively took the story of a prominent Washington figure (Carville) and gave it to a woman to star in? Dare I say it, but I think we call that progress.
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For as great a female lead role as Our Brand is Crisis is, and as groundbreaking as it may be in terms of its origins, it still doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, as every single conversation in the entire film is about the two male presidential candidates. What’s especially hilarious is that neither of the other two movies revolving around strong female characters I saw this weekend—About Ray and Brooklyn—pass the test either. Brooklyn is a film about a young Irish immigrant in the 1950s, and the story is largely centered on her finding a husband. About Ray stars three women—Elle Fanning, Naomi Watts, and Susan Sarandon—but the story is about a family dealing with Fanning’s transition to becoming a man, and that’s what every conversation revolves around.
Brooklyn was the better of the two films. It’s an unabashed period piece that doesn’t just take place in the ‘50s, the film nearly convinces you it could have come out then, too. I mean that as a compliment. This isn’t a revisionist feminist immigrant story; it adds no contemporary moralizing to the equation. The lovely and talented Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, Hanna) stars as Eilis, and the gist of the story is about whether she’ll go for the cute Brooklyn Italian boy or the handsome Irishman back home. The story is very simple on the surface, but screenwriter Nick Hornby (who has written two excellent films about a young woman’s emotional journey, An Education and Wild) mines the simplicity for the important human story at its core.
About Ray was a more troubling film, but still works reasonably well if you can reframe your expectations of what it fundamentally is. Watching the trailer, you’d think it’s a film about teenage Ramona (Fanning) undergoing gender reassignment surgery to become Ray, and his family (Watts as his mom, and Sarandon as grandmother) coping with the change. In reality, that isn’t the film we got. This is Naomi Watts’ movie, and it’s the story of a mother—and grandmother, to a lesser extent—dealing with their child’s desire to change gender. We don’t watch Ray transition, we just watch Ray want to transition. Ray is, in a very real and problematic way, just the movie’s MacGuffin. Combine that realization with the title’s obvious association to the famous song by The Lemonheads, “It’s a Shame About Ray,” and you officially enter difficult territory with what this film is conjuring about its transgender character. Is he just a plot device? Is it a shame about Ray?
Luckily, if you can get past those uncomfortable questions, there’s a good movie about parents here, albeit one very different than you might have been expecting. Watts is dynamite (as she often is), and the film’s tone reaches a nice balance of being about a heavy (and timely) subject without ever feeling heavy or preachy. Its characters are well written, and there’s great heart at its center. Yes, the same center where Ray probably should have been, but still.
Maybe it’s a bad sign that a movie headlined by three powerful actresses and no men is still, literally, About Ray, as that’s sort of the point of the Bechdel Test. But maybe it doesn’t matter. The Bechdel Test could be outmoded in that it’s meant to catch movies where women don’t matter to the structure at all. That’s clearly not the case here, but it doesn’t change the fact that these films are still about advising a man, finding a man, and even turning into a man.
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Okay, let’s change the subject and talk about movies that are not only about men, but also star them! I saw three good ones this weekend—Youth, Trumbo, and Beasts of No Nation. Youth, Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to 2013’s Oscar-winning foreign language film, The Great Beauty, was the best of the bunch. Starring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, Youth sees the two elderly men, playing a great composer in retirement and a great director in creative stagnation, respectively, meet at a spa in the Swiss Alps and reflect on life. That may sound boring, but nothing ever is with Sorrentino, who can turn seemingly anything into a stunningly vibrant visual composition.
Sorrentino can also turn seemingly anything into a visual manifestation of the mind’s search for beauty, and he does that here, almost to the point that it’s all there is. Yes, Youth is the kind of movie where Michael Caine can be sitting alone overlooking a field of cows, and then imagine conducting a symphony from the cowbells. Youth is also the kind of movie, as are many of Sorrentino’s works, where gratuitous nudity somehow feels utterly essential to the artistic journey the film is on.
There are other elements that drive the plot, such as it is—Paul Dano playing a bad boy actor preparing for a role (and wait until you see what the role is), Rachel Weisz as Caine’s daughter, and Jane Fonda as, more or less, Jane Fonda. All of them help the story get to its key beats, but those beats remain predominantly about the way things look and feel with Sorrentino’s formalist guiding hand. As with The Great Beauty, they feel lush, elegiac, and quite lovely.
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Youth will come out at the very end of the year, just in time for Fox Searchlight to give it an Oscar qualifying run mainly aimed at Michael Caine. It will find steady business in the art house circuit, and Caine will either just barely miss the nominations cut, or he’ll be the fifth nominee that everyone knows has no chance (my bet is on the former). In either case, we pretty well know what to expect from Youth as regards the box office and awards race. That can’t be said for Trumbo or Beasts of No Nation.
In Trumbo, Bryan Cranston plays the eponymous Hollywood screenwriter, legendary in the industry for being the face of the Hollywood Blacklist, going to jail, winning two Oscars under pseudonyms, then triumphantly writing Spartacus and Exodus under his own name. It’s a decently good movie, but ironically for being about a screenwriter known for his economy of dialogue, this one needed to make a few more cuts. Every scene, on its own, feels well placed and worth keeping in, but by the time you get to the end, you can’t escape the realization that the movie was at least 20 minutes too long, and didn’t flow especially well.
The power of a good story is what keeps things from getting out of hand, and this is one of the best true stories in Hollywood history. It also helps that the minor roles are almost all played by great actors that you love watching—John Goodman as a schlock producer, Helen Mirren as a gossip columnist, Louis C.K. as another blacklisted screenwriter, Diane Lane as Mrs. Trumbo, and Michael Stuhlbarg as blacklisted actor Edward G. Robinson.
It’s unclear what to expect with Trumbo. It’s not quite good enough to be an awards season player, but that doesn’t always stop distributers from trying. It also plays a bit more like an HBO movie than a feature film, and director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Borat) has already been down that road twice with Recount and Game Change. On the other end of the spectrum, something that doesn’t at all play like a TV movie, Beasts of No Nation, will mostly be watched on one.
When TIFF director Cameron Bailey introduced the premiere screening of Beasts of No Nation, he thanked Netflix for providing TIFF with the film, and then said, “That’s the first time Netflix has ever been thanked at the festival; It will not be the last.” (Indeed it already happened again four days later, with the premiere of Netflix’s Keith Richards documentary, Under the Influence.) Bailey’s comment hinted at a major question Hollywood is asking about this film: Is this the new business model?
Beasts of No Nation will open in theaters on October 16, and will be available on Netflix on the same day. The theatrical run is only happening for the sake of Oscar eligibility, and Netflix stands almost no chance of making back the cost of the film from box office gross. What they’ve really paid for is to be a part of the awards conversation. If a film that comes to Netflix immediately upon release manages to get a Best Picture nomination, it not only changes the perception of Netflix as a provider of original entertainment, but also changes the very nature of theatrical releases. Of course, for that to happen, the movie also has to be good enough.
Written and directed by Cary Fukunaga, who is most well known as director of the first season of True Detective (another changer of business models), Beasts of No Nation is an African child soldier drama starring Idris Elba and newcomer Abraham Attah. It is, at times, absolutely stunning. A handful of sequences are reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, and the ending scenes are remarkably powerful and affecting. It’s the connective tissue that’s the problem. Between the very good first twenty minutes, and the great last twenty minutes, is a little over an hour and a half that only leaves fleeting impressions. The tragedy of child soldiers is one that has little nuance or depth to explore. The point comes across quickly, and a little goes a long way. The overly long middle of the film also doesn’t have enough plot to sustain it. As Idris Elba’s Commandant leads his child army from conflict to conflict, village to village, there reaches a point where nothing is being narratively gained anymore. The entire first two hours of the movie exists to drive home the power of the last twenty minutes, but that power wouldn’t be diminished if we got there a bit faster.
How the Academy will treat Beasts of No Nation is, in my eyes, the single most fascinating question of the 2015 awards cycle. With no mitigating factors, nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Attah, who as the child Agu, is really the lead of the film), and Supporting Actor (Elba) should all be possibilities, but I think there’s a real chance of it being shut out of the major nominations. Five or ten years from now, the notion of a film needing a theatrical run for Oscar qualification could feel like an antiquated idea. But in 2015, that’s still how the business model works. If enough of the Academy sees Beasts’ same day drop on Netflix as killing the theatrical element of the film industry and biting the hand that feeds, it could be the subject of a huge backlash. On the other hand, as Anne Thompson pointed out when I asked her this question, the fact that Beasts of No Nation will be available for everyone on Netflix at least means that Academy members will watch it. And as we see every year, sometimes the list of nominees looks heavily determined simply by what the most voters saw.
Coming Next: Susan Sarandon and Brie Larson as two very different kinds of doting mothers, and the best film of TIFF 2015.
Tuesday, September 15, 2015
When you see so many movies in a short enough time span, it’s inevitable to draw comparisons and find commonalities between them. Sometimes, this is largely fabricated. Other times, less so. The opening days of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival definitely fall in the “less so” category, as three of the first five movies I saw featured antagonists that want me dead. Yes, somehow in my first five films, I managed to see two about neo-Nazis, and a third set in Auschwitz.
Auschwitz was where I began my TIFF ’15, being viscerally walked right to the door of a gas chamber with an invasive single take close-up of a member of the camp’s sonderkommando unit—those Jews assigned to usher prisoners into the gas chambers and then deal with their bodies afterward. The film was Son of Saul, which won the Cannes Grand Prix back in May (sort of the runner-up award), and emerged from the Riviera as the presumptive frontrunner for the Foreign Language Oscar.
First-time Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes has made a film more uncomfortable than you ever would have thought even a holocaust film could be. The main character, Saul, occupies the center of the frame in virtually every second of the movie, with the camera almost always six inches in front of his face or six inches behind his head, so that the entirety of the holocaust is seen only on the margins of the screen, often out of focus in Saul’s peripheral vision. But the point there isn’t to diminish the impact by hiding it, it’s to show how omnipresent, and therefore depressingly ignorable, everything was. Stacking bodies and scrubbing blood off the floors was the reality; the camera doesn’t focus in on it because you can’t fathom Saul would have either.
The plot involves Saul trying to arrange in secret a traditional Jewish burial for a young boy who dies in the gas chamber during the film’s opening scene, but that isn’t really the point. Introducing the film, Nemes talked about how every film he’d seen portraying the Holocaust was a story of survival, and that simply wasn’t reality for the vast majority of people in the camps. Like 12 Years a Slave, the major Holocaust films—Schindler’s List, The Pianist, Life is Beautiful—all portrayed one of history’s greatest atrocities as a status quo from which one might feasibly exit. Son of Saul has no such pretense. It displays Auschwitz as the place it was: a place where an entire people were being exterminated. The way Nemes turns this into first person, point of view realism is one of the most sobering experiences I’ve ever had as a filmgoer, but also one I will never be able to forget.
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Luckily, I felt much better later in the evening when I saw Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, which depicted a band of neo-Nazis getting killed in every grizzly way imaginable. Saulnier had a surprise critical hit two years ago with the low-budget (and low-dialogue) revenge thriller Blue Ruin, and Green Room exports that degree of realistic graphic violence into this high-concept, post-irony nightmare that can literally (and quite accurately) be described as “punks versus skinheads.”
The gist is a hardcore Portland punk band gets a gig playing a compound in the Orgeon backwoods that turns out to be a neo-Nazi rally, and before they can get out, they witness a murder. Of course shit then gets real, but Saulnier is much too smart to wallow in formula. It’s to Green Room’s credit that a movie which starts with the highest of high concepts quickly makes you forget its absurdity and react to the events on screen as though you’re watching real life. The violence, which is never persistent, always returns just when you’ve let your guard down, and involves the highest degree of visual gore possible without devolving to camp.
One thing that’s quite clever about the film is the almost videogame-like structure Saulnier has applied to it. The punks start in a locked room, and after each escape attempt goes poorly, they return to the locked room to regroup and plan anew, just as a videogame returns you to the start of the level when you die. It’s unclear whether by coincidence or diabolical design that the main hero (Anton Yelchin) and the main villain (Patrick Stewart) are both former officers of the U.S.S. Enterprise, but it’s definitely by design that no one escapes intact. Including the viewer.
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World premieres in the opening days of TIFF are often a mixed bag, because so much is still playing Telluride and Venice in the days before, and it takes some time for everyone to gather in the Great White North. Some films I saw—a French skinhead character piece called French Blood, and an amusing-but-slight dramedy about a record producer called Len and Company—aren’t really worth spending much time on. The former is an un-engaging retread of American History X, and the latter is one of those movies that feel like each scene is lifted from something else. My favorite was the bring-dad-to-school scene, which was nearly identical to the one in City Slickers, but with a more eccentric vocabulary. The phrase “then it all went tits up” was definitely deployed, to the snickering bemusement of the class (but not the teacher).
We also got a Hank Williams biopic, which is mainly worth discussing due to star Tom Hiddleston, who turned in a career-best performance in a movie that didn’t deserve such an effort. We need to institute an originality clause for music biopics now. The old cliché about VH1’s seminal “Behind the Music” series was that every episode sort of turned into the same story. Why anyone would expect feature film adaptations of these sagas to behave differently is a question devoid of logical answers. And so it is with I Saw the Light.
The three previous major music biopics—Get On Up, Love & Mercy, and Straight Outta Compton—have all found small-yet specific ways to avoid the these-are-all-the-same curse. Straight Outta Compton lucked into an amazing moment of cultural relevancy (if anything about the need for a national awareness about Black Lives Mattering could ever be called lucky), while Love & Mercy relied on two actors and a dual narrative of very specific times and events. Get On Up is a bit trickier to nail down in terms of why it succeeded, beyond just kind of getting everything right—racial relevancy, mixing chronologies, some of the best music ever recorded, and a monumental lead performance. I Saw the Light can only lay claim to the latter. Nothing else really works. Hank Williams’ marriage at the center of the narrative (Elizabeth Olsen plays his wife) only forces up unfavorable Walk the Line comparisons, the music isn’t particularly relevant to where society is right now (at least much less so than songs like “fuck tha Police” and “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”), and nothing about the narrative particularly works beyond reminding us that Hank Williams lived hard and died young—something he has in common with dozens of other major musical figures.
Tom Hiddleston, who does all his own singing and playing in the film, is the reason this is still worth a look. But director Marc Abraham, whose only previous film, Flash of Genius, was about (no joke) the guy who invented alternating speeds for windshield wipers, just doesn’t know how to make this story more interesting than watching VH1 Classic.
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The best film of TIFF’s opening days, and surprisingly the most optimistic one, was Michael Moore’s first effort since 2009’s Capitalism: A Love Story. While the cheeky title, Where to Invade Next, makes it seem like Moore has created another elaborate takedown of American problems, it’s actually the opposite—it tries to lift us up. Before it had an official name, Moore’s crew called the film “Mike’s Happy Movie,” and even Moore himself told the crowd that he thinks of it as his “no problems, all solutions movie.”
The structure sees Moore visit nearly a dozen other countries, and spend about ten minutes with each one analyzing something they truly excel at. Italians work far less than Americans, which actually leads to greater productivity and more happiness; Norway has the world’s most humane prison systems; Slovenia has completely free college for everyone, even foreign students (seriously, Moore passed out applications to the crowd at the premiere); Finland has the best educational system, largely because their students spend less time in school and do almost no homework, which keeps them fresh and interested; Iceland has the most women in charge; France has their school cafeterias run by actual chefs, providing fine-dining-level food to all of their students. Then in each case, there’s a brief discussion about how easily America could excel in the same way. In many cases, Moore points out that the ideas these other countries employed actually came from us first, and that America “just needs to visit our lost & found box.”
The real poignancy of the movie, though, arrives in the final sequence, where Moore visits with a friend who was in Berlin when the wall came down. The friend talks about the night when one man started hammering at the wall with a chisel, then a second man joined him, and then suddenly dozens were doing it. “People always say these problems are too complicated to fix,” the friend says, “but you just grab the hammer & chisel and start knocking away at it. And with the Berlin Wall, that’s literally what we did.” The film then ends with that motto: “Hammer. Chisel. Down.”
It’s hard and almost distasteful to try and find fault in a movie this relentlessly optimistic. My only real complaint is that the scope might be too broad, and maybe Moore tries to do too much. But that’s also the film’s charm. It almost can’t help its own giddiness at showing us all of the great things happening in other parts of the world. Part of me wonders if this could have been better served as an HBO series, where Moore spends an hour each week looking more in depth at each one of these issues. But something like that wouldn’t have the narrative arc that the final Berlin sequence requires to work, and that’s too important to the message to leave on the cutting room floor. In some ways, Where to Invade Next feels less educational than Moore’s other films, because the information is so much more cursory. But this is probably Moore’s most theoretically insightful film, and maybe that’s the kind of education we need. Maybe we need to be like Finland, spending a little less time with something so that we can focus on it more powerfully. Hammer, chisel, down.
Coming Next: Bryan Cranston as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, Sandra Bullock as a Bolivian political strategist playing dirty, Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel at a Swiss spa, and Netflix's first major movie, Beasts of No Nation