Monday, February 08, 2016

Seen in January 

Sleeping Giant, image via TIFF

I seemingly made up for not seeing much of anything in December by seeing a bunch of things in January - and not even the big releases and Oscar contenders. There were odd films, eccentric films, big films, little films, classic movies and maybe some duds.

Bridge of Spies
Spielberg’s cold war story of an insurance lawyer, Jim Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, who is asked initially asked to defend a captured Russian spy and later to assist in a spy swap with the Soviets. What’s not to like? Spielberg knows how to craft a film better than anyone and the story moves along at a great clip. Hanks is great and believable as a conflicted lawyer who wants more than anything to demonstrate how sound American justice is by defending his client to the best of his abilities despite being handcuffed by political interference. When the story moves to Berlin (just as the Berlin Wall is being constructed) the filmmakers try to demonstrate the confusion of negotiating with both the Russians who have an American pilot in custody and the East German Republic who have a hapless innocent American student to trade and want desperately to not be seen as a puppet of the Russians (which of course, they are). The movie also acknowledges that both captured spies being swapped will never be trusted by their respective compatriots again (an aspect better made in stories by Graham Greene and John le Carré). Where all Spielberg films fail is the overriding sentimentality and the tidy as a gift wrapping bow third act. Despite how poorly Donovan and his case was treated, Spielberg still expects us to swallow the American system trumps the Soviet one (shown in the stark contrasting handling of the captured American spy) or that surely the returned Soviet spy will be imprisoned or executed while the returned American spy will simply be given a slap on the back and then a cold shoulder. It is exactly that “alls well that ends well” treatment that means Spielberg films will always lack meaning or weight. The one exception was Munich which clearly had a much more open-ended conclusion with the themes of revenge and legacy left unresolved. But Spielberg can’t help showing how much he loves America and gives us a sanitized view of what was obviously a very dirty war.

Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 and Nymphomaniac Vol. 2
How to write about these two films, divided by practicality rather than as sequels (basically it was one long almost six hour film cut into two)? The Canadian distributer acknowledges in the opening credits that these films were both edited and “censored” for both content and time considerations for distribution and this was known and approved by the filmmaker but not actually done by him. Who was that filmmaker? The Dane Lars von Trier of course. He is probably the most controversial director of our time. His subjects cover violence, sex, societal misdeeds and mental illness, usually all at once. This film is about a confessed nymphomaniac (who, due to feminist pride perhaps, rejects the term sex addict) named Joe. She is discovered beaten in an alleyway by an older stranger named Seligman who takes her to his apartment to help her after she begs him not to call the police. As to how she wound up there, she embarks on telling her good Samaritan her life story. Their conversation seems very much like an inner monologue of von Trier himself. Joe relates episode after episode of her unending desire to have sex with different (many anonymous) men, while Seligman interjects with religious and psychoanalytical observations. Part of the film’s controversy is the depiction of the sometimes simulated, sometimes not, sex acts. The movie used a combination of genital prosthetics and deftly edited scenes using pornographic actors as body doubles to re-enact Joe’s sexual escapades. The “magic” of filmmaking is such that it at times is indistinguishable from pornography which sometimes includes not mere coitus but sexual violence. It’s hard to know if von Trier hates or reveres women? So many of his films have a female protagonist (that’s good) put in unrelenting, humiliating and desperate circumstances (that’s not so good). His personal history of being raised by two nudist lefties in a no-rules communal community are often given as background to his fascinating and uneasy but somehow necessary films. In several of his movies that leading female character seems unredeemable until the very last moment of the very last scene when a simple action turns everything you’ve just watched on its head (or on its side at least). That’s what happens here. Is a woman who behaves like a man thought to be mentally ill? Why do we expect so much more devotion of mothers than fathers? Finally, no matter how deviant a woman’s sexuality (deviant against a male-dominated societal norm), what ever she embarks upon is her choice and any coercion is an assault. Whether you think von Trier’s female roles are feminist or anti-feminist may be too simple an observation. Whatever your opinion, no one else is coming close to making movies with those kind of female roles or making art that creates the most enlightened and insightful views of mental illness.

Oceans Thirteen
Well, whew, after watching over five hours of Lars von Trier (it took me three separate viewings to get through one of those films) the light as air, jolly good time, plot driven Oceans 13 was an intense palette cleanser. Like mint sorbet after a heavy meal, this third of the Danny Ocean witty crime thrillers is as fun and entertaining as the original Oceans Eleven (which was a remake of the famous Sinatra and company film). This time the gang are getting together to break the bank of casino owner who routinely screws his business associates. To sweeten the pot there are alliances with an old nemesis and a subplot to steal some incredibly difficult to steal diamonds. Somehow this team of, one assumes wealthy and well connected thieves, can concoct a scheme that in short order hire helicopters, buy both of the tunnel digging drills used for the London to Paris tunnel, infiltrate the manufacturing facility of both a makers of a dice and a mobile phone company, introduce a new roulette game with a rigged wheel, create a rigged automated card shuffler, write code to rig several different slot machines and lastly hack and intercept a FBI database and manipulate, on the fly, images and text of the data stored in said database. All of which is way more science fiction than both Star Wars and Star Trek combined which is what makes it so much fun.

Stripes, image via the Movie DB

A classic 1980s Bill Murray flick starring Murray and Harold Ramis as two friends who have bottomed out in their work and love lives and decide as a lark to join the army (good pay, see the world, good benefits). Unlike reality, where the two may find they have bitten off more than they can chew, in this SNL-esque romp it’s the army that finds out it has taken on more than they can handle with these two unambitious but clever stoners. Of course this film is funny. Bill Murray is just being Bill Murray and with supporting characters like John Candy and Jon Larroquette the casting is full of Second City Alumni and up and comers like Sean Young, Judge Reinhold, Joe Flaherty, Dave Thomas and even uncredited extras including Bill Paxton and Dennis Quaid. As a movie it’s a pretty standard set up of outsiders, anti-hero misfits who wind up in the wrong place at the right time. I knew this movie more for it’s oft repeated lines and gags and its storyline is pretty bad (as is its pacing to be honest). There’s also a surprising amount of bare boob gags but little blue language. A few edits would move this from an R-rating to PG-13 without anyone really noticing. In the way that the set pieces are made for funny lines rather than story continuity it really reminds me of all those bad, but still funny, Will Ferrell movies like Zoolander, Talladega Nights or Old School. In a lot of ways they parallel Murray’s Caddyshack, Meatballs, and Stripes. Which made me wonder if maybe Will Ferrell is the new Bill Murray. He’s generally either loved or ignored, he’s funnier than the movies he’s in and always is the memorable scene stealer. They both started on Saturday Night Live and did a series of successful comedies that were hugely popular (Ghostbusters for Murray, Anchorman for Ferrell). Also, both have had surprisingly well received roles in smaller films (Rushmore and Lost in Translation for Murray, Stranger Than Fiction and Everything Must Go for Ferrell). Not to mention both have had folklore-like off screen hijinks that generate stories for years afterwards. I think I’m on to something.

Anomalisa, image via the Movie DB

From the wreckage of my blown mind I can only paraphrase the main character and say, this is a very special Charlie Kaufman film, but I can’t say why. I just know it. Exceptionally detailed, this stop motion film reflects the world as our protagonist, Michael sees it through his mental anguish. As Michael struggles with depression and mental illness a tiny bright moment of light appears as Lisa. Their brief time together seems like a way out for both of them except, well, it’s not that simple. This is not a cartoon for the kids, nor for anyone who wants to avoid icky, awful feelings of self-doubt, regret and loneliness. I will say this, that the only light I have ever known that has ever been shone on mental illness has come from two filmmakers: Charlie Kaufman and Lars von Trier. As least with Kaufman you know you’ll get some laughs.

Sleeping Giant
A truly Canadian experience, this film explores that place between childhood and adulthood, from a time when we didn’t think about what we did to a time when we couldn’t stop thinking about it. Adam is a city kid spending his summer in cottage country and has befriended (or at least tags along with) two local kids, Nate and Riley. Their bored antics become ever more dangerous stunts resulting in a climatic cliff jump brought on by dares and lies. The film captures the nuance and odd eeriness of being an outsider on summer holiday. It builds tension quietly while beautifully capturing the Lake Superior landscape.

I think people are starting to get tired of George Clooney. How else to explain the terrible ratings this film received? It didn’t set my world on fire but it wasn’t bad. It was fun (even if it sort of has a message about separating out all the exceptional people and letting them do whatever they want). It’s the story of an exceptionally smart teen girl who, and this seems like the real sic-fi here, is incredibly optimistic that anyone can change the world if they put their mind to it. An optimistic teen? I don’t know if that’s believable. She receives a mysterious pin that shows her a wondrous futuristic city which she becomes determined to find. Of course, there’s a problem. A squad of powerful cyborgs seem determined to stop her. Why? Well, that’s why you watch the movie.

The Dirty Dozen, image via the Movie DB

The Dirty Dozen
A classic World War II movie in which Lee Marvin plays a major tasked with assembling a team of the army’s worst offenders and sending them on a suicide mission to assassinate as many Nazi top brass as possible who are assembled at a French chateau. The movie is populated with lots of familiar faces and stars and focusses on the training portion of the mission. When the mission goes off the rails, the team improvise in kind of a horrible way. Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds was inspired by this idea but at least Tarantino depicted the targeted Nazis as cruel jerks who deserved an indignant death. This film however simply shows a bunch of old Huns having a good ol’ time with their mistresses in a wartime gentlemen’s club. There is an extended sequence showing how the squad intend to kill a bunch of Nazis at the same time which feels weirdly very cruel and inhumane. But hey - they’re just Krauts, right? It’s easy to see Lee Marvin’s charisma but John Cassavetes shines as the anti-authoritarian Franko.

Strange & Familiar: Architecture on Fogo Island, image via 6sqft

Strange & Familiar: Architecture on Fogo Island
A brief but beautiful documentary that explores the Fogo Island arts initiative funded primarily by wealthy philanthropist Zita Cobb. In the film we meet not only Cobb who grew up on Fogo and returned hoping to create a sustainable economy, but also her creative collaborator, architect Todd Saunders. Saunders grew up in Gander but works in Norway. He jumped at the chance to build contemporary architecture in Newfoundland and what you see is how well he’s accomplished designing something striking and new that has become beloved and owned by the people of Fogo. Fogo Islanders are also in focus in this film and it’s their verve and vitality that is the lifeblood of the project. After seeing the film, I heard a woman in the audience say, “It was my lifelong dream to travel to India – but now I really would rather go to Fogo Island.” That wasn’t really the agenda of the film but it is certainly an inevitable consequence.

Kick-Ass 2
People said, “Peter, don’t watch that – if you liked the first one, that doesn’t mean you’ll like this one.” Oh but you can’t tell me what to do! So I watched this toxic, violent brew of teen-age and other aged vigilantes in homemade costumes strike out at criminals in their city and behold, I really shouldn’t have watched it. In this version there is meant to be greater and more threatening stakes for our make believe heroes but in the wake of all of the multiple shootings seen in the U.S. and Canada and elsewhere this ersatz super-hero movie lands with a thud. It tries to have one foot in fantasy and one in reality but not even Chloë Grace Moretz’s stunt double can back flip between the two. If in the first film the gruesome violence and cussing that was generated by a 12-year-old girl seemed anachronistically funny, here, when “Hit Girl” is 15 it feels a little icky because the character and maybe the actor are on the cusp of that weirdly sex-curious no-man’s-land of teenage angst. It’s uncomfortable and awkward. Jim Carey is, as ever, very good but he was probably right to disassociate himself from the film.

Penny Dreadful Season 2
I’m still enjoying this creepy supernatural drama set in Victorian London full of witches, werewolves, vampires, Frankenstein monsters and the unnaturally youthful.

Ripper Street Season 3
Another addictive seedy Victorian police drama that takes place in London’s Whitehall. The tone and production values of this BBC show are so similar to Penny Dreadful I almost expect Ms. Vanessa Ives (of Penny Dreadful) to stroll through a scene past Ripper Street’s Inspector Reid.

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