Friday, 30 August 2019

Classic Movie Review: Gimme Shelter (1970)

Gimme Shelter (1970)
Directed by: Albert Maysles & David Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin.
 
Gimme Shelter is one of the great rock documentaries of all time – and one of the best “end of the 1960s” films ever made, even if they probably didn’t realize it at that time. It is a film about the Rolling Stone and their 1969 tour – climaxing with the now infamous concert at Altamount Speedway – where a member of the Hell’s Angels – who were hired to provide security for the concert – kills Meredith Hunter –a young black man, who tried to get up on stage, was beaten by the Hell’s Angels – and then pulled a gun, at which point a Hell’s Angel member stabbed him at least six times, killing him. The documentary crew – who filmed the mounting tension all day at the concert – capture most of this incident on camera. And the footage is shocking.
 
That is probably what the documentary is best remembered for now – nearly 50 years later. Well that, and the Maysles brothers (and Charlotte Zwerin) inviting the Stones into the editing suite to see the footage as they assemble it, to get their reaction – which ends up being shockingly blasé since they basically just watched one of their fans be killed. Like all the Maysles film, this is direct cinema – it captures the events as they happen, and doesn’t resort to talking heads, interviews, archive footage, voiceover, etc. to make their film. Still, it is a fascinating example of documentary ethics, playing out in real time in front of the camera – what footage do they use, not just of the killing, but of the Stones watching the killing. For a movie about the Rolling Stones in 1970, it’s surprising that there is no sex – or even talk of sex – in the film, nor any drugs – although you can certainly tell at times various members of the band are stoned, drunk or some combination thereof. If all of this was at the insistence of the band – in an attempt to try and protect their image – then it’s doubly surprising that they have seemed okay with the footage of them not really reacting to a killing in front of them. They have, after all, kept another documentary – Cocksucker Blues – pretty much unseen for decades because of the way they are portrayed in it.
 
Now, I should be clear – the film doesn’t really blame the Stones for the death that happened at Altamount. It doesn’t entirely let them off the hook either though. They were involved in setting everything up – it was supposed to be a kind of Woodstock but in California this time. We see famed attonery Melvin Belli (played by Brian Cox in Fincher’s masterpiece Zodiac) negotiating with people to get the concert up and running – to secure the Speedway, to find parking, etc. And when we get to Altamount itself, we see the growing tension and violence simmering all day. The lead singer of Jefferson Airplane is knocked out by a Hell’s Angel – the other members of the band call for people to calm down, to little avail. We see Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead show up – although when they learn about the Jefferson Airplane incident, they decide not to play themselves. As the day progesses, and the Hell’s Angels get more and more drunk – and violent (they come armed with pool cues), and the audience starts to respond– someone needed to step in before things got too far. And nobody did.
 
All of this is what I remembered about Gimme Shelter from my original viewing – probably about 20 years ago now. What surprised me watching it again recently is how much of the documentary takes place well before we get to Altamount. The concert footage at Madison Square Garden – which kicked off the tour – is pretty much given more time than the actual music from Altamount. It also contains the films most memorable music moment – not from the Stones, but from opening act Tina Turner, practically fellating her microphone. It also has footage of the Stones recording at Muscle Shoals – Wild Horses can be heard coming together. As much as Altamount is the star attraction to Gimme Shelter – it’s far from the only thing here.
 
And what’s even more fascinating is how the Maysles and Zwerin cram all this into just 91-minutes. The film accomplishes a lot in that time period – including being an unwitting portrait of one of the defining incidents that signaled the end of the 1960s, and the coming 1970s. It’s easy to see in retrospect that events like the Manson murders and Altamount really were the death blows to sixties idealism, and led to the rot and cynicism of the 1970s. They didn’t know that at the time – making this documentary even greater. For many Salesman or Grey Gardens is the Maysles masterpiece – either would be fine choices. For me though, it’s Gimme Shelter.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Movie Review: Ready or Not

Ready or Not **** / *****
Directed by: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett.
Written by: Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy.
Starring: Samara Weaving (Grace), Adam Brody (Daniel Le Domas), Mark O'Brien (Alex Le Domas), Henry Czerny (Tony Le Domas), Andie MacDowell (Becky Le Domas), Melanie Scrofano (Emilie Le Domas), Kristian Bruun (Fitch Bradley), Nicky Guadagni (Helene Le Domas), Elyse Levesque (Charity Le Domas), John Ralston (Stevens), Liam MacDonald (Georgie), Ethan Tavares (Gabe), Hanneke Talbot (Clara), Celine Tsai (Tina), Daniela Barbosa (Dora).
 
Ready or Not is a deliriously fun horror/comedy about the 1%. To say that it offers any real commentary on the super rich would be stretching it more than a little – that isn’t really what the film is offering. What it is offering in a wonderfully entertaining eat the rich comedy, with more than enough blood and gore to satisfy the horror movie crowd. It features what should be a star making performance by Samara Weaving – and finally fulfills the promise at feature length than directors Matt Bettinelli-Olph and Tyler Gillett (working as Radio Silence) showed all the back in 2012’s original V/H/S.
 
Ready or Not doesn’t waste a lot of time with setup – it thrusts right to the wedding day of Grace (Weaving) and Alex (Mark O’Brien) – the prodigal son of an extremely rich family, whose billions came from games originally, and now, of course, they can just sit around and watch it all grow. Alex has been away from his family for a while – but he’s back to their massive estate to get married to Grace – an orphan, who grew up in group homes. Of course, her family wonders if she is nothing more than a gold digger – but she genuinely loves Alex. She doesn’t know what marrying into the Le Domas’ family means though. At midnight on her wedding night, she is told she must play a game with the Le Domas’. It seems harmless enough – and if she pulls any card except Hide & Seek, of course, it would have been. But for the Le Domas’ pulling that card means that they must hunt down and kill Grace by dawn, or else they will all die. It’s part of the deal their great grandfather made with someone who is clearly the devil. Grace doesn’t know this of course when she goes off to hide – but it doesn’t take long to figure it out.
 
What follows is a game of cat and mouse that may remind you of Adam Wingard’s wonderful You’re Next – except the survivor girl this time isn’t a survivalist, but just the street smart and resourceful Grace, who isn’t going to go down without a fight. Weaving, who kind of looks like a Margot Robbie clone, has expert comic timing, and really does anchor the whole film with her terrific performance. There also isn’t a member of the Le Domas family – or their staff – that isn’t perfectly cast from the weak willed drunk played by Adam Brody, to the seemingly sympathetic Andie McDowell as the mother, the committed to the rules, until it becomes hard Henry Czerny as the father or Melanie Scrofano as the coked up daughter who tries really hard, but keeps killing the wrong person. I didn’t even mention the portrait of entitled excess of Kristian Bruun as Emile’s husband, or the fiercely committed Charity, played by Elyse Levesque, who married into this family, and dammit, is going to protect it. Poor Mark O’Brien as Alex is comparatively bland to his family – but even that works quite well.  
 
The movie moves quickly at only 95 minutes, and doesn’t really waste much time. The set pieces in the film range from comedic to suspenseful, and back again – and all of them work quite well. I kind of do wish that the film had found some way to become a little deeper than it is – to really dig into the excess of the 1%, and make us watching uncomfortable – or at least question our loyalties, and why we think that way. But that really isn’t what is on this films mind. It knows that in the Trump age, there is more than enough hatred of the ultra-rich – on all sides – and feeds us precisely what we want. A more daring film would do more with it than that. But this film just wants us to have fun – and we do.
 
This is the kind of late summer treat we don’t get very often anymore – a low-budget, but extremely entertaining genre film that doesn’t rely on the special effects of the blockbusters, but instead just gives you a fleet, fast, entertaining ride for 95 minutes. It’s the perfect film for August – when you’re tired of the bloated excess of blockbusters, but may not be quite ready for the weight of Oscar season quite yet. It is an absolute delight.

Movie Review: American Factory

American Factory **** / *****
Directed by: Steven Bognar & Julia Reichert.
 
American Factory is a documentary about what happens when a Chinese company buys a closed down car factory in Dayton, Ohio and puts the auto-workers back to work – not making cars, but instead making windshields for cars. As one worker point out, she was making $29 an hour for the car company, and now makes $12 an hour making glass – but beggars can’t be choosers. It’s this, or unemployment. At its heart, the film is a culture clash documentary – although the company, Fuyao, talks a good game about making this an American Factory – for American workers, and even hires Americans to be the President and Vice President and other roles in management, the company has their way of doing things – and it isn’t the same as the way Americans do it. For instance, they will stop at nothing to stop the factory from Unionizing.
 
The key to the success of the film is the access that director Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert have – and amazingly, continued to have over the course of filming.  They were already familiar with the area and the plant itself – they made their 2009 Oscar nominated short Doc The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant here a decade ago, and perhaps that got their foot in the door. The first half of the film feels optimistic – there are challenges in merging these two cultures, but for the most part everyone seems to be giving it their best effort.
 
To augment the 2,000 American workers hired, the company brings over 200 Chinese employees – apparently for two years (without their families) and no extra pay, to help train the American workers. It is amusing to see them in classes that try and teach them how to be more American – like dressing the way you want (my favorite line, “If you go to Europe on vacation, and see someone wearing sandals, shorts and jerseys, it’s an American”) – and even being allowed to joke about the President. The American workers are skeptical – but with little other choice, most of them really do try and learn what they are supposed to learn.
 
Over time though, the culture clash becomes more and more pronounced. In China, the workers are expected to work extremely long hours – overtime, weekends, etc. – only getting a couple days off a month if that. An American work schedule – 8 hours a day, five days a week – is nothing to them. Safety regulations are lax or non-existent in China – not so in America, much to the chagrin of Chairman Cao, the founder and CEO of the company, who doesn’t seem to understand why he needs a fire alarm in the middle of his wall, and doesn’t seem convinced when he’s told legally it needs to be there. The American workers – who remember, are used to making cars, not glass, are slower to train than they think. The factory is losing millions. As they ramp up pressure to produce, the workers get more stressed. Union talk starts happening more and more – and out in the open. The American executives are fired – replaced by Chinese management. Some of the American team leaders are brought to China to see how things are done there – and are amazed by what they see.
 
One of the ways you can tell that Bognar and Recihert had such great access here is because people either seem to forget they are there, and think nothing of revealing things they probably shouldn’t to them. One Chinese Executive – when talking about the Union, and how he has many ways of dealing with the pro-union workers, pulls out his phone, and shows a friendly snapshot of him with one of the guys who is pro-union, and then tells the filmmakers “He won’t be here in two weeks”. Many of the pro-union people are fired – not for wanting a Union of course, but for other reasons. We see one poor woman – a vocal proponent of the Union – being forced to do a two-man job by herself, which she thinks (probably correctly) is the company’s way of ensuring her performance suffers, and they have an excuse to get rid of her. The one thing the company doesn’t seem to provide access to the filmmakers of is the anti-Union seminars all employees are forced to take – but they get it anyway, when an employee records one. Fuyao spends over $1 million dollars on these consultants to try and keep the Unions out.
 
Bognar and Reichert never tell you what to think in the film – at least not overtly. And they certainly give everyone their chance to say whatever it is they want to say to them. And, in a way, no matter how we may view the Chinese management in the film and their tactics, you do have to admit that they are simply following what they know – and what works in China. And the news isn’t all bad – the company is still running, and Americans who otherwise would be unemployed have a job. The film is a modern take on a timeless problem – the conflict between management and workers. And this is a film that paints that with the complexity it deserves – and does so in a surprisingly entertaining way. Easily one of the best docs of the year so far.

Movie Review: 47 Meters Down: Uncaged

47 Meters Down: Uncaged ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Johannes Roberts.
Written by: Ernest Riera and Johannes Roberts.
Starring: Sophie Nélisse (Mia), Corinne Foxx (Sasha), Brianne Tju (Alexa), Sistine Rose Stallone (Nicole), John Corbett (Grant), Nia Long (Jennifer), Brec Bassinger (Catherine), Davi Santos (Ben), Khylin Rhambo (Carl).
 
Let’s be honest – there really wasn’t a need to make a sequel to the fairly forgettable, surprise late summer hit 47 Meters Down from 2017. And there really wasn’t a need to essentially do a remake of Neil Marshall’s wonderful The Descent (2005) with blind sharks in place of whatever the hell those creatures were in that movie. And yet, here we are with 47 Meters Down: Uncaged (to quote The Simpsons re: Naked Lunch – I can think of two things wrong with that title – the first being that this time, there is no evidence to suggest that they are 47 Meters Down at all, and uncaged doesn’t really describe what happens to the sharks – but I digress). But I will say this – as some who Jaws at too young an age, and have been scared of sharks ever since, it is pretty much impossible to make a shark movie that doesn’t scare me to some degree, and director Johannes Roberts again sets himself the difficult task of making a movie almost entirely underwater. He pulls it off – somewhat. The film is superficially scary and gives you those satisfying shark moments you crave. It doesn’t really do very much else though. The characters are paper thin – if that – and they say nothing of interest the entire movie. The film even requires one character to behave in a way that comes completely out of left field in order to once again strand the people once we thought they were okay. The film has probably one or two (or three) too many false endings. But if all you want to see is some shark chomping action, then this will do until something better comes along.
 
This time, the action is set in Mexico – and focuses on four high school girls (strangely enough, none of whom are Mexican, although they all live there). Stepsisters Mia (Sophie Nélisse, who you may remember from The Book Thief) and Sasha (Corinne Foxx) don’t really get along – Mia is an outcast, mocked by everyone at school, and Sasha is cool and popular. Still, they aren’t thrilled when Mia’s dad Grant (John Corbett) bails on their weekend plans – and gets them tickets to a glass bottom boat ride instead. Long story short, Grant is a diver, and his team need to prepare for some archeologists who will be arriving to explore an underwater Mayan ruin – and Sasha’s best friends – Alexa (Brianne Tju) and Nicole (Sistine Rose Stallone) save the pair from their boring day, by taking them to a secret spot, where Grant and his men (one of whom has a crush on Alexa, and shown her around) left their diving gear for those visiting archeologists. Wouldn’t it be cool to see those ruins – they’ll just head down for a few minutes, one lap around the first cave and out again. Of course that isn’t what happens. That’s because there is a giant Great White Shark down there – one descended, apparently, from others who have been trapped in those ruins for generations, and evolved to survive in the pitch black, meaning they cannot see (not that sharks see much anyone) – and Grant and co. have now set them free. So the girls have to keep on swimming, keep finding another way to go, to avoid being shark meat.
 
If director Johannes Roberts learned anything from the first film, which he also directed, it was the need for more characters in the film in order to increase the body count of the sharks. The first film was essentially the pair of sisters (played by Mandy Moore and Claire Holte) – and this time he gives them a couple of friends, and then Grant and his two employees. Now, you can increase the body count, and satisfy that bloodlust the audience is feeling. And that is essentially what he does. He doles out the death in classic slasher movie ways – one at a time. Normally, he likes the attacks to come quickly, out of nowhere, to better surprise you (and one key death makes it clear that he has seen Deep Blue Sea – and loved Samuel L. Jackson in that). There is one death scene that he allows to play out a little longer – slowly building the suspense as the poor unsuspecting victim just goes about their business. But mostly, they want it to be quick, bloody and over quickly.
 
Roberts is a good director. The film he made between the two 47 Meters Down movies was The Strangers: Prey at Night – a horror movie I thoroughly enjoyed, and has one absolutely masterful sequence in it. There is nothing that approaches that level in either of the two shark movies. They are low budget, B-movies meant to deliver some cheap scares, and a good time at the movies. This one succeeds probably a little better than the previous one – that one felt at times like it was treading water waiting to get to an ending that was insultingly stupid. This film never does that – it moves quickly from one place to the next, never pausing, hoping you won’t notice that none of it makes much sense. It then gives you not one, but at least two false ending – endings where most movies would call it a day, and this one just keeps on going. You have to kind of admire that. Still, for an example of how this type of movie can work like gangbusters, one needs only to remember last month’s wonderful B-movie Crawl – with all those gators. This movie doesn’t come close to that level of B-movie brilliance.

Movie Review: Blinded by the Light

Blinded by the Light *** / *****
Directed by: Gurinder Chadha.
Written by: Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha and Sarfraz Manzoor based on the words and music by Bruce Springsteen.
Starring: Viveik Kalra (Javed), Kulvinder Ghir (Malik), Meera Ganatra (Noor), Aaron Phagura (Roops), Dean-Charles Chapman (Matt), Nikita Mehta (Shazia), Nell Williams (Eliza), Tara Divina (Yasmeen), Rob Brydon (Matt's Dad), Frankie Fox (Colin Hand), Hayley Atwell (Ms Clay), Sally Phillips (Mrs. Anderson).
 
You’d have to be pretty hard hearted not to be charmed or moved by Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light – Gurinder Chadha’s musical comedy about a Pakistani-English teenager circa 1987 who discovers, and then falls in love, with the music of Bruce Springsteen. And I say this as someone who has never really been a fan of Springsteen – I’m not not a fan – I just haven’t really connected with him. But Blinded by the Light shows a bigger truth other than just what the music of Bruce Springsteen means – but rather, what it feels like when you discover a musical artist who truly does speak to you. That kind of connection can cross all sorts of boundaries – cultural, generational, etc. – and feel like that artist is speaking directly to you. It’s a powerful thing to experience – and Blinded by the Light understands that.
 
To say that the film is blatantly manipulative would be an understatement – this is a film that pulls very hard on your heart strings from the beginning to the end, working the whole time to try and make you cry. And if you’re like me, you likely will cry at some point – perhaps several points – and while you may not quite feel good about yourself after the film is over for being so susceptible to this type of manipulation, well, it’s still sometimes nice to have a good cry.
 
The film stars Viveik Kalra as Javed – the son of Pakistani immigrants, living in the industrial town of Luton, England in 1987 – as Thatcher’s economic policies are devastating the country. Javed’s strict father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) is a factory worker, who has worked hard since coming to England – hard to get his family into a good neighborhood, to continue to be a good Muslim, and to instill those values in his family. And then, of course, he loses his job – and everyone has to start working even harder. It is around this point when Javed meets Roops (Aaron Phagura), a Sikh classmate, and Roops introduces Javed to Bruce. Until then, Javed is into the modern pop music of the time – Synths are the future his white friend Matt tells him, and he agrees. But when he listens to Bruce, he feels as if this guy – writing these songs an Ocean away, a decade before, is speaking directly to him. And he becomes obsessed. But more than that, he becomes more and more confident as well. He starts to share his writing – his poetry – in class. He is able to tell the girl he likes – Eliza – that he likes her, and she even becomes his girlfriend. He doesn’t cower from the skinheads in town anymore. If it wasn’t for his father – who wants Javed to understand that he is Pakistani, not English, and he will never be English, he may even be happy.
 
I kind of wish that Blinded by the Light more embraced its musical roots – because the film really comes alive and is at its best when the music is blaring – from that first stormy night when he cannot stop listening to Bruce – the lyrics emblazed across the screen as he listens, or the makeshift sing-along Javed (with an assist from people the flea market) use to woo Eliza, or the exuberant sequence where they play Born to Run on the school intercom, and then run through the streets. These moments really made me want this film to become a full on musical – which it never quite does.
 
The film was directed by Gurinder Chadha, and it has the same sort of feel of her breakthrough hit Bend It Like Beckham from 2002. It is again about the child of immigrants – torn between their way of doing things, and the way of their adopted country – wanting to be “normal”, and wanting and honor your parents. It is a formula – but it’s a formula that works – even if making a musical would have been better.
 
I’m not entirely sold on this new breed of jukebox musical we’ve seen over the last few years – from Mamma Mia (Abba) to Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen) to Rocketman (Elton John) to Yesterday (The Beatles) and now Blinded by the Light (Springsteen), it feels like a cheap way to get you into the theaters, to hear what is ultimately inferior versions of the classic songs (Rocketman probably did this best – because again, it embraced being a full on musical, and the arrangements worked). Still, the music is still great, and the film delivers what you expect it to. I wish it was more daring – in every way. That could have taken a nice, little feel good story and made it more. But this works too, I suppose.

Movie Review: Gwen

Gwen ** ½ / *****
Directed by: William McGregor.
Written by: William McGregor.
Starring: Eleanor Worthington-Cox (Gwen), Maxine Peake (Elen), Mark Lewis Jones (Mr. Wynne), Richard Harrington (Edward Morris), Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (Doctor Wren), Richard Elfyn (Minister Bowen), Dyfrig Evans (Father), Gwion Glyn (Harri Morris), Jodie Innes (Mari).
 
Gwen is a slow-burn horror film, that finally just fizzles out. It’s a short film – just over 80 minutes – and a stylish one at that. It’s a testament to director William McGregor that he is so good at creating atmosphere that he keeps you hooked into the film, even as not a whole lot happens in the film beyond its slow moving parade of misery. It’s barely even a horror film, although yes, what happens in the film is horrific But really, the film is more about what happens when the world moves on, and you are left behind. The ending puts an exclamation point on it because clearly the filmmakers felt it needed one – but it also kind of comes out of nowhere.
 
The title character, Gwen (a very good Eleanor Worthington-Cox) is a young teenager in the early days of the industrial revolution in Wales. She lives on a farm with her mother Elen (Maxine Peake) and her younger sister – her father is away in the war. The family is struggling to make ends meet – the keep the farming running without the father around, and Gwen is forced to do a lot more work than she probably can handle – although the same is true for her mother (as for the younger sister, she’s barely even a character in the film – she shows up, I think, to give a little extra emotional weight to the proceedings). What was once their small farming community – just a few families working the land – has become a company town – run by the quarry. The quarry wants the family farm – and are not taking no for an answer. The family is slowly becoming ostracized from the rest of the community – only the kindly (but not too kindly) Dr. Wren (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) shows any real kindness – which is needed when Elen gets sick with some sort of illness – which seems to be the only excuse needed to ostracize the family further – especially considering another of the farming families all recently died of some illness as well.
 
The film certainly has horror elements to it – although they really not overly pronounced, or even fully explored. It’s more glimpses of things that anything else. We are with Gwen from beginning to end – and she sees a lot of things she doesn’t wholly understand – whether it’s the company men and their talks with her mother, or the strange things her mother does. Whether there’s anything at all supernatural going on in the film is never really answered.
 
For most of the movie, it really is a parade of misery – as one bad thing after another happens to the family, and Gwen is stuck trying to process it all, and not really doing a good job at that. The film is very dark visually – even in the daytime, the dominant color is a drab grey, and the mood is pretty much the same.
 
The film is really about this family then – this family who cannot accept that their way of life is over, and as they try and hang for dear life, basically damn themselves. They are victims of “progress” in its ways – as society never moves forward, without leaving some people behind. I think you can argue that the horror movie elements aren’t really necessary at all – except try selling a film like this without horror movie elements. Its inspiration is likely Robert Eggers’ The Witch, although McGregor isn’t as good at ratcheting up the tension to insane levels, and instead has basically made a grim slog. The ending of the film – the very end anyway (as in the last line) is just about perfect – it doesn’t pretend that things are going to get any better for this family. What directly precedes it though doesn’t make all that much sense – more likely, McGregor needed a way to end the film with a bang, and this is the best he could come up with. The film shows talent – particularly by Worthington-Cox, who has a tricky role, and navigates it well, and in McGregor’s ability to create atmosphere, and a real sense of time and place. Ultimately though, Gwen is more than a little bit of a bummer – and it doesn’t provide enough, well anything (horror, energy, insight, etc.) to really justify being so, so grim.

Movie Review: Peterloo

Peterloo ** / *****
Directed by: Mike Leigh.
Written by: Mike Leigh.
Starring: Rory Kinnear (Henry Hunt), Maxine Peake (Nellie), Pearce Quigley (Joshua), David Moorst (Joseph), Rachel Finnegan (Mary), Tom Meredith (Robert), Simona Bitmate (Esther), Robert Wilfort (Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister), Karl Johnson (Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary), Sam Troughton (Mr. Hobhouse), Roger Sloman (Mr. Grout), Kenneth Hadley (Mr. Golightly), Tom Edward-Kane (Mr. Cobb), Lizzy McInnerny (Mrs. Moss), Alastair Mackenzie (General Sir John Byng), Neil Bell (Samuel Bamford), Lisa Millett (Jemima Bamford), Philip Jackson (John Knight), John-Paul Hurley (John Thacker Saxton), Tom Gill (Joseph Johnson), Lizzie Frain (Mrs. Johnson), Harry Hepple (James Wroe), Ian Mercer (Dr. Joseph Healey), Adam Long (Wroe's Printer), Nico Mirallegro (John Bagguley), Danny Kirrane (Samuel Drummond), Johnny Byrom (John Johnston), Victor McGuire (Deputy Chief Constable Nadin), Stephen Wight (Oliver The Spy), Ryan Pope (Chippendale The Spy), Tim McInnerny (Prince Regent), Marion Bailey (Lady Conyngham). 
 
Mike Leigh is of course one of the best British directors of his generation – and he’s barely set a foot wrong over the years. He is no stranger to sprawling films with lots of characters in them – but even when he does something like that, his focus remains firmly on the characters – on the people involved, so there is an intimacy to the films, no matter how many characters there are. He has not really attempted an epic quite like Peterloo before – and given that it the weakest of all his films that I have seen, he perhaps never will again (not to mention that it was one of the more expensive films the usually thrifty Leigh has made). The film is about the events leading up to the 1819 Peterloo Massacre – where British soldiers attacked a group of pro-democracy protesters, leading 18 dead, and many others wounded. But Leigh makes a fundamental mistake in structuring his film – there are speeches, a lot of speeches – in Peterloo, and unless handled well, speeches are more often than not dramatically inert. Even when there is talking, there are so many characters its nearly impossible to keep track of them all, and the conversations are dense and uninteresting. It’s also visually uninteresting, as more often than not everyone is just standing around grandstanding at each other.
 
Apparently Leigh has long dreamed of making this movie. And the story is interesting – and the massacre itself is a key moment in class warfare in England, and around the world really, well before those ideas were taking hold in many areas. What Leigh sets out to do is basically show you everything – the efforts of the workers in Northern England – who wanted better pay and better working conditions, and their grassroots movements that those desires spawned. He wants to show the effect of war on those returning home – wounded, and unable to work. He wants to show women as the backbone of these family units. He wants to show how some journalists took to the cause, and fought to get these stories to their readership. He wants to show how a few members of the Upper Class took to the cause as well – which is why Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) ends up as the closest thing resembling a lead in the movie. Hunt has more of a platform from which to speak – but he also perhaps a little naïve. He certainly doesn’t understand the workers he is fighting for – and when he has to say with a family for a week leading up to a key speech, he is endlessly polite, but he cannot help but show this isn’t the type of accommodations he is used to. Eventually, he will depict members of the upper class – in the closing scenes, even members of the Royal Family, and his disdain for them is over-the-top, and it shows in their depiction.
 
Because Leigh wants to show so much, what basically ends up happening in Peterloo is two hours of people explaining things to the audience, following by the Massacre itself, and then those closing scenes. I will say that the Massacre is depicted very well by Leigh – who hasn’t staged something like it before, and shows that he has the chops. It is violent, bloody and terrifying – and it hits you hard.
 
Everything is rather inert though, and Leigh sometimes comes across as fairly condescending to the audience, who he spends far too much time holding their hands, and explaining things to as if they were children. Had he made a more engaging film, this wouldn’t be necessary. Leigh is, of course, a great filmmaker. See Naked, Secrets and Lies, Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year or Mr. Turner for examples of just what a great filmmaker he can be. Here though, he got to make the film he had been wanting to make for years, and kind of proves why it took him so long to make it.

Movie Review: JT LeRoy

JT LeRoy ** ½ / ***** 
Directed by: Justin Kelly.
Written by: Justin Kelly and Savannah Knoop based on Knoop’s memoir.
Starring: Kristen Stewart (Savannah), Laura Dern (Laura), Jim Sturgess (Geoff), Diane Kruger (Eva), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Sean), James Jagger (Ben), Courtney Love (Sasha), David Lawrence Brown (Bruce), Alicia Johnston (Isabelle), Eric Plamondon (Gaspard), Craig Haas (Ennio), Adam Hurtig (Darren), Will Woytowich (Cassian), Bobby Robidoux (Elliot).
 
There is a fundamental misstep at the heart of the movie JT LeRoy, and the movie is just never able to overcome that misstep. The simple fact is that if you’re going to make a movie about the now infamous literary scandal of JT LeRoy, your main character shouldn’t be Savannah, who was the public face of the fraud, but rather it should be Laura – who is clearly the most fascinating character in the saga. She was a middle-aged woman who found success as a writer only after pretending to be a teenage boy – one who had suffered tremendous abuse and suffering and became a prostitute to survive, but was able to capture that life in such unflinching detail in his novels that they became successful – and got a lot of very famous people interested in JT LeRoy. Of course, LeRoy didn’t exist – and Laura could only keep up the ruse so long on the phone, and in writing, so eventually she needed to produce an actual JT LeRoy. That is where Savannah came in – who played LeRoy in public for a while, before the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.
 
Laura is clearly the person you want to get to know in this story – and casting Laura Dern in that role should have been a slam dunk. Hell, casting Kristen Stewart as the androgynous Savannah, who posed as LeRoy, should have also been a slam dunk. Eventually though, as you watch the movie you start to figure out that Savannah’s story just isn’t all that interesting – and Laura’s sideshow is really where you want to be.
 
A more generous viewer than I may note that Laura has already been the center of coverage on this whole scandal – she was the center when it broke, and was the center of the very good documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story (which blows it in the final scene, but whatever), and so spending more time with Savannah is a way to get a different aspect of the story. Maybe – I just wish that story was more interesting.
 
What we do get is another reminder of why Kristen Stewart is one of my favorite working actresses. Savannah’s story here is really rather run of the mill, but Stewart still brings her A-game anyway. Her Savannah is a confused young woman in her early 20s – she comes out to live with her brother and his older wife, and then is thrust into this strange spotlight when Laura convinces her to be the face of the scam – first just as a one off photo shoot, and then in interviews, book readings, press conferences, etc. Savannah is confused enough about who she is, without having to adopt this other persona – a persona she didn’t even invent, and is uncomfortable with. But it is exciting at the same time – and somewhat intoxicating.
 
It’s also a reminder that Diane Kruger should get meatier roles as well. Here she plays Eva – a character based on Italian actress/director Asia Argento, who they make French here. Eva loves JT’s work, and wants the films rights to one of his novels to make into a movie (that became The Heart is Deceitful Among All Things by Argento). Eva subtly – and then not so subtly – takes advantage of the naïve Savannah – and as the movie makes clear, there should have been a point when she could have stopped all of the craziness – and she just doesn’t.
 
The film ends up making Laura into kind of sad, comic figure then. Dern gives it her all – you cannot fault her performance here – but the film isn’t particularly interested in her in any real way – except as someone who keeps pushing to keep the scam going, and as an object of fun when Laura adopts her own alter-ego – Speedy, JT’s manager, with a bad British accent.
 
The film was directed by Justin Kelly, who adapted Savanah’s own memoir with her to make the film. The film just never quite gets to the heart of what this whole scandal was about – and in a way, the film knows it. They called it JT LeRoy after all, not Savannah. They knew where the true story was here – and couldn’t tell it, so they told this adjacent one instead.

Friday, 23 August 2019

Classic Movie Review: The Demons (2015)

The Demons (2015)
Directed by: Philippe Lesage.
Written by: Philippe Lesage.
Starring: Edouard Tremblay-Grenier (Felix), Pier-Luc Funk (Ben), Vassili Schneider (Francois), Sarah Motter (Emmanuelle), Laurent Lucas (Marc), Pascale Bussieres (Claire), Victoria Diamond (Rebecca), Yannick Gobeil-Dugas (Mathieu), Alfred Poirier (Alexandre), Mathis Thomas (Patrick), Theodore Pellerin (David), Benedicte Decary (Nicole), Rose-Marie Perreault (Stephanie), Milya Corbeil-Gauvreau (Sophie), Jean-Luc Terriault (Max), Samuel Hurtubise (Samuel), Philippe Lesage (Professeur), Samuel Desjardins (Denis Morissette).
 
Childhood can be a terrifying time for many kids – kids who feel out-of-place and uneasy everywhere. They only half understand the adult world which this witness through their parents, which both fascinates and scares them. They only half understand themselves – their own feelings, which often can be confusing to them – which just adds to that unease. Just getting through the days can be scary – and that’s just in your own mind, your own skin. What of the dangers that lurk outside in the world?
 
Few films have captured this unease as brilliantly as Philippe Lesage’s remarkable debut feature The Demons. When the film came out in 2015, it was mostly slept on outside of Festival audiences, and its native Quebec – even I barely heard of it here in Ontario, and I missed it and didn’t give it much attention until I caught up with Lesage’s equally remarkable follow-up Genesis, which reveals itself to be a quasi-sequel to The Demons only in the last 30 minutes of its runtime (it stands on its own, even if you haven’t seen this film). Now having seen them both, I can say that Genesis feels like a step forward for Lesage – moving more towards his own style more than The Demons – which does have its own style, but is more obviously inspired by Michael Haneke than Genesis was. But as a film unto itself, I think The Demons is even better.
 
The film focuses – at least in its first half – on Felix (Edouard Tremblay-Grenier), who is about 10 years old, and confused and scared about just about everything. His parents marriage is falling apart – he witnesses a terrifying fight between his parents, and even his older siblings get involved, just trying to calm everything down. A different type of confusion comes from his feelings for Rebecca (Victoria Diamond) – his swim teacher, from whom he has a crush on, but doesn’t have the words to express it, or the emotional maturity to understand it. The further complicate his budding sexuality, he thinks he may be gay – which leads, after a school project by another girl, to worry that he has AIDS. He also listens to his older brother and his friends – which adds to the fear and confusion – their casual homophobic remarks make Felix sink deeper into his own confused sexual awakening, keeping it to himself – and their talk about a series of kidnappings of young boys like himself scare him even though he cannot be sure if he’s listening to urban legend, or reality. His older siblings are supportive – but realtively clueless to really help him.
 
For the first hour, Lesage masterfully builds the tension – quietly, subtly. Much of the action is centered at the local pool where Felix swims with his friends. That pool represents so much – from freedom and fun, to his confused sexuality, and even cruelty. Wanting to fit in with another friend, he locks the smaller, weaker Alexandre – a boy we’ve already seen Felix take advantage of in exploring his possible homosexuality (in the way 10-years old can do) – into a locker and won’t let him out. It’s at the pool where we also first meet Ben (Pier-Luc Funk) – who will become the focus for much of the second half of the movie. Ben is a fun and personable guy – in his late teens probably – and the kids at the pool like him. We start to have suspicions about him though when he finds a discarded pair of boys underwear – and doesn’t do with them what we think he should. Ben is the focus on the at times nearly impossible to watch (but equally impossible to turn away from) second half – when Felix’s childhood fears are proven to be real – even if he doesn’t know it.
 
The Demons is a masterfully directed film – it builds the tension slowly, with long, interrupted takes, and slow zooms to reveal what we’re looking at. It’s the type of film where some people will complain that nothing happens – that they are bored by it – and others will be transfixed from its opening to its close. Other may well be turned off by the turn at the halfway mark of the film – that really is difficult to watch, even if it’s never explotive. But for those who get on its wavelength, The Demons is a masterful film – one of the best, and certainly one of the most underrated, debut films of the decade.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Movie Review: Apocalypse Now: Final Cut

Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut ***** / *****
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola.
Written by: John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Herr (narration) based on the novel by Joseph Conrad (uncredited).
Starring: Marlon Brando (Colonel Walter E. Kurtz), Martin Sheen (Captain Benjamin L. Willard), Robert Duvall (Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore), Frederic Forrest (Jay 'Chef' Hicks), Sam Bottoms (Lance B. Johnson), Laurence Fishburne (Tyrone 'Clean' Miller), Albert Hall (Chief Phillips), Harrison Ford (Colonel Lucas), Dennis Hopper (Photojournalist), G.D. Spradlin (General R. Corman), Jerry Ziesmer (Jerry, Civilian), Scott Glenn (Lieutenant Richard M. Colby).
 
Apocalypse Now is my favorite movie of all time. I’ve seen it countless times in many formats – I had a widescreen VHS back in the day that I watched a lot. I had a couple different DVD versions over the years, and then a Blu-Ray disc – both of which has gotten a lot of play. I’ve seen it on a big screen just once – back in 2001, when Coppola released Apocalypse Now Redux – which was 197 minutes long, a full 53 minutes longer than the theatrical cut. Watching Redux is a fascinating experience for someone who knows Apocalypse Now to see what Coppola thought either didn’t work, or he didn’t have time for, back in 1979. But while Redux is a fascinating experiment – it isn’t better than the original cut. It is too long, and the two major additions to the film – the two that make up the bulk of the additional runtime – don’t really work. The additional scenes with the Playmates is problematic in many ways, and really just don’t work. The massively long French Plantation sequence (seriously, it’s probably about 25 minutes) really does stop the movie in its tracks. It comes between the deaths of Clean and Chief – right in the stretch when the crew is getting closer and closer to Kurtz – or as Willard says, as the river is dragging them towards Kurtz. As a sequence unto itself, it kind of works – but it makes the themes of the film far too explicit, and really does stop the movie for this strange interlude.
 
For the films 40th Anniversary, Coppola went back to the editing room once again, and the result in Apocalypse Now: Final Cut – which comes in at 180 minutes, between the theatrical version and Redux. In the intervening 18 years, Coppola seems to have thought better of including additional scenes with the Playmates – they are gone. But for reasons only he could explain, he keeps the entire French Plantation sequence. I think the only time I watched the Redux version was during that theatrical release – the original cut is better, so I never felt the need. Reading over the inclusions in Redux, it really does feel like that the changes in Final Cut compared to Redux is basically eliminating the additional Playmates sequence, and one sequence at the Kurtz compound featuring Kurtz reading about the war from Time Magazine to Willard as he is imprisoned. There could be a few other changes – but those appear the ones that are readily apparent.
 
In terms of what the ultimate version of Apocalypse Now is, I still say it’s the original cut. That French Plantation sequence still drags the movie to a halt, right when it should be ramping up – right when the crew should be on their unavoidable collision course with Kurtz. When death starts arriving for them one at a time. This strange, surreal interlude at the Plantation doesn’t work as part of the film.   
 
And yet, if you have a chance to see this Final Cut in a theatre this August, you absolutely must. I saw it on an IMAX screen (a far cry from the little art house theatre I saw Redux on in 2001) – and the experience is amazing. The entire Kilgore sequence in the film – from when they are first introduced to Robert Duvall’s insane Colonel (insane in a different way from Kurtz) shakes your insides from the sound. It is the best depiction of absolute chaos I have ever seen in a film – the sheer craziness of the war on full display. After that first hour, of course, the movie does become quieter – at least for a while – as the crew drifts done the river, towards a destination only Willard knows. And Willard gets sucked into the mind of Kurtz, and starts to understand him in a way that both fascinates and frightens him. Sequences such as a the surreal, nightmarish Do Lung Bridge sequence can only really be experienced in full on the big screen. And Brando’s hulking presence as Kurtz is best experienced on the big screen – where he truly does become larger than life.
 
But pretty much every sequence in the movie is brilliant. The trippy opening montage, with Willard drunkenly spending time in his hotel room, set to The Doors The End is a masterclass in editing. The conversation over lunch with the intelligence guys remains dark and mysterious. The Kilgore sequence is just an absolute masterpiece in itself. The Playboy sequence here, like in the original, when the three bunnies come to perform a USO show, and drive the men into a frenzy, crossing sex and violence together, is wonderful. The sequence where they stop a Vietnamese boat still has the power to disturb (even if the puppy is perhaps a touch too much). Everything with Dennis Hopper’s Photojournalist is wondrously comic, and disturbing at the same time. In any other movie, his insane, looping monologues would get more attention. And then Brando shows up, with completely different insane, looping monologues – delivering at a quarter of the speed of Hopper’s. I know there are still some who think the movie goes off the rails when they reach Kurtz’s compound – but they are still wrong. Brando’s performance remains one of the very best of his career – and therefore among the vest best of all time. He is matched by Robert Duvall as Kilgore – who has the big job of setting just how insane this movie is going to get, and doesn’t disappoint. Martin Sheen does get the credit he deserves for just how good he is here – perhaps because other than the narration, it’s a larger silent performance. He isn’t one of the men of the boat – he is apart from them, and they all know it. The men on the boat itself – Albert Hall as the by-the-books Chief, Frederic Forrest as the paranoid Chef, Sam Bottoms as the Stoner/Surfer kid Lance, and a very young Laurence Fishburne as the innocent (somewhat annoying) Clean – are all perfect as well.
 
Seeing the film on a massive screen, with the best sound quality imaginable is like seeing the movie anew. It takes sequences you know by heart, and makes you see them slightly differently. So, yes, the best version of this film remains the original cut. If you are watching at home, there is no reason to watch either Redux or Final Cut unless you are interested in what was cut – which is interesting, but would probably mainly work best as Extra Features. Still, seeing this film on the big screen is more than worth it – even with the misguided French Plantation sequence, because you get to see a master filmmaker, at the height of his craft – a height he would never reach again – pulling you down into the Heart of Darkness. And hey, the film is three hours, with no intermission – so when you hear French, it’s a good time for a bathroom break. Don’t worry, the French Plantation sequence will still be going on when you get back.

Movie Review: Cold Case Hammarskjöld

Cold Case Hammarskjöld *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Mads Brügger.
Written by: Mads Brügger.
Featuring: Mads Brügger, Göran Björkdahl.
 
In all seriousness, I have no idea what to make of Mads Brügger or his film Cold Case Hammarskjöld, or how seriously we should take it. I wasn’t a huge fan of Brügger’s The Ambassador (2011), where the Danish journalist disguised himself as a Liberian Ambassador to get close to people in the Blood Diamond trade – although I admired the guts it took Brügger to make the film, as he was placing himself in real danger. He also, I think, may have exploited the very people he was trying to help in ways that made me uncomfortable, even if he exposed some real damning information. He seemed to be trying to pull a Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat, except have it be a real documentary, about real issues, only some of it comic. Cold Case Hammarskjöld is somewhat different, although it shares some of the same DNA. This time, Brügger embarks on a mission to discover if the former head of the UN – Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld was really murdered in the plane crash that killed him in 1961 in Africa, or if, as the official report states, the crash was caused by pilot error. He teams up with Göran Björkdahl, who has been investigating this conspiracy theory for years to try and get to the bottom of it. Even Brügger himself doesn’t seem to know what to make of it – telling us early on that “This could either be the world’s biggest murder mystery or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory”. By the end, you’re still not sure which one is true.
 
Part of that is because no matter how much strange evidence they unearth about Hammarskjöld’s death, none of it really comes close to being conclusive. They have interviews with some of the black witnesses – who weren’t taken seriously at the time because they were black – who seem to suggest another plane shot him done. They even identify the man they think may have flown that plane, and some circumstantial evidence to back it up. Along the way, they become obsessed with Keith Maxwell who headed the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR) – and purportedly was involved in the murder, carried out because Hammarskjöld was a believer of giving control of Africa back to the Africans, and away from the colonial powers who exploited the continent for centuries. Maxwell, long dead, gives them a villain – one who dressed all in white all the time according to Brügger. But digging into Maxwell and SAIMR becomes a strange endeavor – they have a hard time proving the organization even existed, let alone did anything. And then they get some breaks – and someone named Alexander Jones, who said he worked for SAIMR in the 1990s, seems to confirm all the crazy conspiracy theories they have heard about SAIMR – including one that said they were involved with trying to give Africans AIDS through an inoculation program in the 1990s – something the end credits tells us would be next to impossible, although who knows if anything actually tried it.
 
These are, of course, deadly serious issues the film raises, and the film takes them seriously, but it can also be quite comic. Throughout the film, we see Brügger in a hotel room in Africa, explaining the story to not one, but two different female African secretaries, who struggle to make sense of all the ins and outs. This does help to try and keep everything in the crazy, knotty plot straight. And is also, as Brügger tells us, because he realized he was making a film about Africa that featured no women, and no black people – he was conducting all his interviews with old, liver spotted, white men. He also does this because after years of research and filming, he realizes he may have nothing that he could actually turn into a film – so he’s trying to salvage something.
 
So how seriously should we take this film, and it revelations? I honestly have no idea. It does kind of feel like a long, insane Reddit post that could, and perhaps should, be rejected as the insane ramblings of an unsound mind. And yet, there is at least some evidence to back up some of the claims – more about Hammarskjöld’s death, which is the subject of multiple ongoing investigations by governments from around the world, and the UN itself, than about the SAIMR itself.
 
What I do know is that this film, as insane as it is, is very entertaining. Brügger is an entertaining presence on film, and he undercuts his own arguments as much as anyone else does. You cannot really claim he is a crazy conspiracy theorist, because he doesn’t just reject the evidence that doesn’t fit his theory, and he lets you know from the starts that perhaps you cannot believe any of it. And even if the specifics of what he says sounds insane – the overall premise, that powerful interests wanted to continue to exploit Africa, and still are exploiting Africa, is pretty much undeniable. In that world – which is our world – than everything he says actually sounds plausible – no matter how insane it all feels.

Movie Review: Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Where'd You Go, Bernadette ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Richard Linklater.
Written by: Richard Linklater & Holly Gent & Vincent Palmo Jr. based on the novel by Maria Semple.
Starring: Cate Blanchett (Bernadette Fox), Billy Crudup (Elgie), Emma Nelson (Bee Branch), Kristen Wiig (Audrey), Judy Greer (Dr. Kurtz), Troian Bellisario (Becky), Laurence Fishburne (Paul), Claudia Doumit (Iris), Zoe Chao (Soo-Lin), Katelyn Statton (Vivian), Kate Easton (Tammy).
 
Richard Linklater is always at his best when he simply allows his characters to exist, rather than forcing them into a plot of some kind. He excels at hangout movies – or even movies that simply narratively drift – movies that have plots, but those plots don’t really matter. He also has a soft spot for artists – particularly artists who cannot quite figure out how to create. Artists who talk a lot, but for some reasons cannot quite put it together to create something. That is probably what drew him to Where’d You Go, Bernadette – the story of a genius level architect who has essentially been hiding from, well everything except her family, for two decades. But at some point, the movie gets away from him – probably because the film really does need to jump through quite a few narrative hoops, to get where it’s going – and it’s more than a little far-fetched. The film also tries to be more a comedy than perhaps it should be – and tries to soften its lead character a little too much, make her more likable than she probably should be. It’s an odd little film.
 
Bernadette is played by the great Cate Blanchett – an actress who can pretty much do anything, and is fine here – although you kind of wish she let loose just a tiny bit more – risked alienating the audience a little bit more, by making Bernadette more unlikable. Audiences will likely feel that way anyway – as much of what Bernadette does in the film is objectively awful. The trick would have been to make her do that awful stuff, and still like her – whereas here, it makes it all too lightweight.
 
Bernadette lives in Seattle with her husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) – who created a company bought by Microsoft, and now works there – so obviously they have a lot of money, and their teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) – about to enter high school. Bernadette hates Seattle – and everyone in it – who isn’t Elgie or Bee. She has been conducting a passive aggressive war with the other mothers – gnats as she calls them – led by her neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig) for years, and it is ramping up. Bernadette was a genius level architect in L.A. 20 years ago – like actually winning a MacArthur Genius Grant level genius – but she hasn’t designed anything since. An easier movie would have blamed Elgie – or domesticity – on this, but this movie doesn’t. It’s more complicated than that. Elgie is a nice guy – a supportive guy – but not exactly an attentive guy. His wife has drifted further and further into her “eccentricities” – and he hasn’t noticed, or cared. What sets her off in this film is that Bee has determined that the three of them should take a family trip to Antarctica. Bernadette hates to travel – she hates other people after all – but she cannot say no to Bee. Over the next few weeks, things will pile up and up and up on Bernadette, and she’ll dig herself deeper and deeper and deeper.
 
I can see a version of this movie working. I read the best-selling book by Maria Semple a few years ago, and think that Linklater and company were right to change directions her a little bit, make it more focuses on Bernadette than anyone else. I don’t think the structure of the novel would work as a film. However, making the changes it does to the plot is a different story. Almost all of them seem to have been made to soften the story – lighten it up, and wrap it up in a happy fashion. And it doesn’t really fit.
 
That is because Bernadette is a thorny character. The film is, in a way, another How Stella Got Her Groove Back – we’ve seen quite a few over the years, where bored middle aged women, weighed down by cheating or boring husband, and unfulfilling careers, got out and rediscover themselves. But Bernadette is a different type of character. She isn’t a “normal” person – she is a genius, and getting her groove back is not as simple as getting a new man, etc. The film is really about what happens when a genius doesn’t create – when they grow complacent and bored, and where that energy goes. You cannot really blame the other mothers for hating Bernadette – she isn’t nice to them, and doesn’t even pretend to care. You cannot blame others for thinking there is something wrong with her – she does things that would raise concerns in others. When you have that genius brain – and don’t use it – things aren’t going to go well.
 
Blanchett was undeniably the right choice for this role – she has been able to play characters who are undeniably awful and unsympathetic – and still hold an audience (I’m thinking of her Oscar winning role in Blue Jasmine for example. And she can also be quite funny when she wants to be. Here, I think she’s let down by the screenplay – which wants to flatten her character too much. She comes alive a few times – a long rant to Laurence Fishburne for example – but mostly, she is stuck playing Bernadette as “eccentric” more than anything else. She is better near the end of the movie – having found some sort of peace.
 
Basically, I think Where’d You Go Bernadette is a film that had a tremendously complex character at its core, and somehow blew it – somehow didn’t know what they had, and tried too hard to make her likable, make the movie light and comic. A more daring movie would raise a lot of troubling questions – and this one basically chickens out. And that’s disappointing, because Blanchett could have killed that role – the role she should have been playing.
 
As for Linklater, it’s another film that shows he’s drifting a little – still, since his biggest career achievement of Boyhood in 2014. His follow-up to that was Everybody Wants Some!! – a film that has grown on me, and makes sense a little bit – Linklater getting back to basics in what really was a film like Dazed and Confused. Since then, there have been two adaptations – Last Flag Flying, and now this, neither have been close to his best work (although I like Last Flag Flying more than some, again, when the mechanisms of the plot force itself on that movie, it’s at its weakest). Here’s hoping that whatever he does next, it helps get him back on track – then again, off track is where Linklater is at his best.

Movie Review: Good Boys

Good Boys *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Gene Stupnitsky.
Written by: Lee Eisenberg & Gene Stupnitsky.
Starring: Jacob Tremblay (Max), Keith L. Williams (Lucas), Brady Noon (Thor), Molly Gordon (Hannah), Midori Francis (Lily), Izaac Wang (Soren), Millie Davis (Brixlee), Josh Caras (Benji), Will Forte (Max's Dad), Mariessa Portelance (Max’s Mom), Lil Rel Howery (Lucas's Dad), Retta (Lucas' Mom), Michaela Watkins (Saleswoman), Christian Darrel Scott (Marcus), Macie Juiles (Taylor), Chance Hurstfield (Atticus), Enid-Raye Adams (Thor’s Mom), Craig Haas (Clerk), Sam Richardson (Officer Sacks), Benita Ha (Soren's Mom), Matt Ellis (Mr. K), Lina Renna (Annabelle).
 
There is an undeniable sweetness to Good Boys – a raunchy comedy featuring three tween boys – that makes the film work. I think we’ve moved beyond the rather cheap ploy that all you need for a comedy to work is to have kids say inappropriate things and hilarity is sure to ensue. The boys in Good Boys really are good. They are in the sixth grade – about the time they start to stop hating girls, and be drawn to them – while at the same time are completely terrified of them, and don’t really even know what they would want to do with girls if they happened to get a girlfriend. It’s also at the age where friendships can start to break down – where diverging interests will mean that sooner or later, you’re going to go in different directions, whether you want to or not. Good Boys is hilarious – the three central performances are all quite good, and they are surrounded by a strong supporting cast. And the movie moves quickly through its 89-minute runtime, and gets out. The film has been called a tween version of Superbad – and that’s a pretty good description.
 
The film follows a trio of boys through a very chaotic couple of days. Max (Jacob Tremblay, from Room, showing off expert comedic chops), Lucas (Keith L. Williams, who pretty much steals the movie, as almost every line delivery is gold) and Thor (Brady Noon, also good) are sixth graders – inseparable, known as the Bean Bag Boys – because, appropriately enough, they spend much of their time on bean bag chairs. Their life is thrown into chaos when one of the popular boys – Soren (Izaac Wang) – invites Max to a party at his house – a kissing party, and Max gets him to extend the invite to Lucas and Thor as well. The object of Max’s sixth grade crush – Brixlee (Millie Davis – Ms. O from Odd Squad for Canadian parents out there, so hopefully they don’t spend the first half of the movie trying to place her like I did) will be there – and Max will die – literally die – if she kisses someone else. But none of the boys know how to kiss – a google takes them to some sites that show them some things that are, shall we say, more advanced than kissing. Thus sets off a sequence of events that involves them destroying Max’s dad drone, having to get a new one, having in their possession the Molly a couple of high school girls (Molly Gordon, wonderful as she was in Booksmart and Midori Francis) were going to take, losing it, having to get more Molly to get a drone, and on and on and on. It’s like a long night of chaos movie – like Superbad or Booksmart – except of course, it almost all happens in the daytime, and they can only use bikes to get anywhere.
 
The lead trio are well matched for each other – not just interchangeable pieces. Max’s interest have moved towards girls, while Lucas isn’t quite ready to give up their nerdier pursuits (like Magic the Gathering cards), and Thor loves to sing – and wants to be in the school musical, which of course makes him a loser in the eyes of the popular kids. And as for all sixth graders, what their peers think of them is everything. In that respect, Lucas – the seemingly least mature of the three, is perhaps the most mature. He doesn’t particularly care what others think of him – he’s going to do the right thing no matter what. Which, of course, gets them into more and more trouble.
 
The movie moves fleetly through its 89-minute runtime – from one comic set piece to another. The three boys do swear – a lot – so much so that even here in Ontario, where ratings are much laxer, the film still got a 18A rating (further proof, in case you need it, that Ratings Boards have no idea what kind of language teenagers already know – Good Boys is probably a lot more accurate in that regard that we would like to admit). The set pieces all work. And beneath them, there is genuine sweetness. Their friendship feels real – they don’t really know that it is headed for failure. And although they are very much interested in girls, as the movie makes clear, they firmly believe in consent. Even if that means gets the consent from a “CPR” dummy. They are, after all, Good Boys.