November 27, 2016

The Imitation Game

Morten Tyldem, 2014
Just when you think that maybe the World War II period drama can't be approached differently on film, you see a movie like the Imitation Game come along. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as tortured genius Alan Turing, the film focuses on his attempt to crack the Enigma code - the encryption language used by the German forces for all war communications. The British feel that if they can decrypt the code, they could win the war by anticipating all battle plans. Tyldem interestingly depicts Turing at three different stages of his life. So the story of Turing is told without linear narrative. It examines Turing in middle school at a British prep school. During this time he is bullied by his peers and is a social outcast. He has a very intimate friendship with his one friend whom shares the skill of cryptography, allowing them to secretly communicate with each other. It shows Turing in the main plot thread, when he working with a team of highly intelligent peers trying to crack the code. The third period is later in Turing's life - 1951 to be exact when a suspicious police officer starts to dig after discovering Turing's military records have been completely destroyed.

Those hoping to get recieve a history lesson with this film will be disappointed and not well serviced. There is an ample amount of artistic licence used with the Enigma story. In fact, only 41% of the story is actually factual as charted in detail on Information is Beautiful. If you can get past that, this is a surprisingly exceptional film. There is such a remarkable balance and pacing. The way that they depict Turing is as a distant, cold, arrogant genius that appears to be on the spectrum. Not exactly the hero that is easy to get behind. But by using his tortured childhood, along with the fact that he is forced to remain a closeted homosexual in his adult life - you are forced to feel sympathy for him. It's upsetting to be reminded of how horribly ostracized someone could be simply for their sexual orientation back then. Imitation keeps you in it's grip the entire length of the film. Of course you know how the war turns out, and you can make some assumptions as to how the film will play out in terms of their success in decipehring the code. But it's the execution of it all that makes it so excellent. The commanding officers breathing down their neck creates the ticking clock that maintains tension. The consistently rising death toll from the Hitler regime as he blasts his way through Western Europe raises the stakes to an ultimate high. And you just sit there on the edge of your seat waiting for a breakthrough. 

Hell or High Water

David Mackenzie, 2016
There was the period in time in the first half of the 20th century where the Western genre dominated movie screens. Many viewers could vicariously live the life of a Ranger; preserving justice and maintaining order the small dust-ridden towns. In 2016, we look back on the genre with nostalgia but that plot model is certainly passe. Those are generations gone. The prosperity isn't so obvious. The future doesn't show as much promise. The modern day America is built for a different type of Western that meet the screen.

Hell or High Water is a Southern Gothic / Neo-Western set in West Texas that is constantly looking back. Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is looking back on his long career that is about to end, much to his dismay. His partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) is the future; but even he is looks to the past. He looks around the town filled with run down strip malls and recognizes it as a place his family owned before it was taken from them. The town doesn't stop with the run down strip malls. The sidewalks are empty, there's an obvious sense of desperation. 

In the middle of the forlorn town are brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) who have decided to rob banks to come up with the money to save their family ranch from foreclosure. Very ironic; stealing the money and giving it back to the very people who you took it from - just in a different setting altogether. This is a concept that comes up a few times in the film, with some peripheral characters understanding and even supporting the brothers' actions. There's not much certainty in High Water though. You never feel certain that you are witnessing what will be a successful bank robbery. The brothers are impulsive and not always on the same page. But watching them is tense and riveting. Watching Marcus' skillful but relaxed pursuit is compelling in its own right, watching a tired expert just work on instinct. Not surprising at all if Jeff Bridges gets an Oscar nod for his performance here. Somehow he is able to bring an original and fresh character to the screen this late in his career. While actors like Pacino are bringing caricatures, Bridges is still bringing new characters. High Water is a slow burn that exudes something solid and impactful. Solid filmmaking, solid writing, solid performances. It offers characters are not black and white by any means, and instead are all intricate in their own ways. 

Matchstick Men

Ridley Scott, 2003
As someone who suffers with much milder form of OCD than Nicholas Cage's Roy character struggles with, Matchstick Men intrigued me. For anyone that struggles with the condition, it's an interference in your everyday life and can vary in severity of how debilitating it can be. The version of OCD that Roy struggles with is an all consuming form that consists of severe phobias and compulsions. An obsession with cleanliness. Nervous ticks with his eyes. Having to count to three before opening the door. Food phobias that cause him to basically just eat tuna out of the can on a daily basis. Cage pulls off this role very well; as he is able to exert some of the classic Nicholas Cage-iness with the Roy character. Matchstick Men is basically an examination of mental illness fitted into a con artist film molding. Much of the film is Roy and partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) working together. Cage and Rockwell play off each other well. You can also check off another film that Rockwell dances in. Has he done this in every film he has acted in? Matchstick Men is a pretty solid offering. Nicholas Cage bringing his distinctive energy. Sam Rockwell also bringing his distinctive energy. Ridley Scott bringing skillful direction, fueled by a really good script.

November 16, 2016

Swiss Army Man

Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinart, 2016
There hasn't been a movie made quite like Swiss Army Man, and theres a good chance there wont be another. Surely nobody has seen a movie about a morose castaway that befriends a farting corpse. Perhaps the best way to describe this film is to say its like Cast Away on mushrooms. The movie is almost entirely Paul Dano's Hank character interacting with deceased Manny, played by Daniel Radcliffe. Hank is on a small deserted island and has lost all hope. He's about to commit suicide and end it all for good when he sees Manny's body wash ashore. So desperate for human contact of any kind, he decides to scrap his plans for suicide and finds inspiration in silent Manny.

What follows is one of the most quirky films made in some time. A zombie bromance story. An imaginary friend movie. It's for the most part an incredibly quirky comedy, but there is certainly some heart in this film. Hank's character is truly tragic. Like the trash he discovers in the forest, he is a person disregarded by society - even before he was stranded. He is able to discover so much about himself through Manny. In a sense he is forced to rediscover everything that makes someone human, as Manny has no memory of his past life and Hank needs to start from square one. An unsettling revelation in the final moments of the film wrap things up quite nicely. Swiss Army Man has a place somewhere but it's definitely in a category of it's own.


Denis Villeneuve, 2016
Denis Villeneuve is without a doubt one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. His filmography spans through different genres. Abudction thriller in Prisoners. Psychological thriller in Enemy. Dark family drama in Incendies. Drug action thriller in Sicario. They are films with a particular distinction, a noticeable intensity. They all carry a certain weight to them. They all feel like they were in the hands of a confident, capable filmmaker. 

Arrival is his first real dab into sci-fi genre, a taste of maybe what we can expect when his take on Blade Runner is released in 2017. Arrival is an adaptation of a Ted Chiang short story that got tossed around by the studios quite a bit before finally getting some life. Starring Amy Adams, it is rooted in an alien invasion film but has some real family-oriented emotion to it. Its what a film would look like if Contact and Independence Day had a baby. The visual elements are fresh and inventive. It refuses to dumb itself down. If it were to dumb itself down it would certainly feel much more like Independence day. And Arrival probably won't fill theaters like an Independence Day would. Its not that kind of movie. Its a thinking mans Sci-Fi. Like they should be. The way that the film plays with time and a non-linear format is really remarkable. There are moments of pure tension in this film. When the crew first enters the alien spacecraft and as they approach the glass wall the score kicks in with an incredibly loud humming that feels like Han Zimmer's Inception score. What a great decision it was to cast Adams. She possesses the perfect amount of vulnerability and curiosity needed for the Louise character. Villeneuve continues to create mystique around spider-like creatures in his films but instead of eight legged beings they are instead seven legged heptapods. The film explores questions about humanity, how we perceive the unknown as threats, how time can interact with our universe. 

It's probably the second best film Villeneuve has done. Incendies will continue to hold the number one spot for me personally but this is a movie that needs to be seen by cinephiles. The sci-fi genre doesnt typically get a lot of best picture love so this one probably will not get that time of recognition but its just another remarkable piece in Villeneuve's already impressive filmography.

What We Become

Bo Mikkelsen, 2016
There is a certain template to most of the zombie films that are churned out these days. Outbreak occurs, main characters are shocked and are forced to react, some of them die, some survive and attempt to start a new life. Every now and then a film comes along that tries to do something a little different here and there, but there is a generic mold to most of them that they follow.

But here's the thing; I don't mind. Like a slice of good cheeseburger, I just need it to be satisfying and do not mind if it's predictable. I don't need constant variety by adding shaved fennel or truffle oil. Just give me a good burger and I will eat it and like it. As long is it goes down easy.

What we Become is like this. A Danish zombie film that knows what it is and doesn't attempt to reinvent the genre by making bold leaps. A sudden viral outbreak occurs; a small town reacts. The military attempts to suppress the outbreak by forcing local residents to stay in their homes which have been wrapped in plastic sheets. The residents are left wondering what is actually occuing outside their homes. Some of them are showing signs of the sickness. Some of them pass from the virus. They reanimate and chaos ensues. Just a rather satisfying zombie film that goes down easy. Not much else to say. It certainly doesn't have a big budget feel by any means. Most of the budget seems to go to the makeup department like it often does with the genre.

November 11, 2016

The Invitation

Karyn Kusama, 2016
Do you know that feeling when you go to a restaurant and you are totally hungry and eager for some food. You sit down and order your food, only to wait another 1 hour and 20 minutes to actually be served? Well, in a sense that's what this film is like. The table is set early, as a group of friends gather for a dinner party. They haven't seen each other in 2 years. You slowly are served little tiny pieces of backstory. There was a divorce between main character Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Eden (Tammy Blanchard). You soon find out why, and its important to hold back details here because it's an easy film to spoil. But she has changed to say the least. Will doesn't like this change. Because she appears to be numb, to be drugged up somehow or in some kind of trance. So after the figurative table is set, you are now waiting to see why they are there at this party. And you wait, and then there is some more waiting, and then you wait some more. Finally there is a payoff in this film, but it just comes too late. There is clearly not enough story here to create an elaborate film. There's the Hitchcockian method of skillfully building tension and then releasing it masterfully. Then there's this more elementary method of relying too much on that very tension and then not offering up enough when it is released. When the big revelation comes toward the end, there's not a whole lot of shock. Then the film just becomes gratuitous. Frustrating. None of the characters other than Will are really believable characters. Nobody you would encounter in real life. In any real life situation everyone would have walked out and left after they were forced to watch the awkward cult video. Perhaps its the weak script. Perhaps its the inconsistent casting choices. Marshall Green and Michiel Huisman offer good performances but the rest of the cast is just kind of blah. I think the script and inferior direction is to blame here. But there is one redeeming factor in this film.  There is a detail in the end of the film that is quite clever. Clever enough that you could say that this is one of the rare Bad Movies with Good Endings

November 8, 2016

Captain Fantastic

Matt Ross, 2016
Captain Fantastic is one of those films that seemed to slip between the cracks over the course of 2016. Which is strange because on paper it looks like an interesting movie. Viggo Mortensen stars as father of six kids who live remotely in the Pacific Northwest forests and struggles to maintain order within his family after his wife suddenly passes away. It feels like an easy sell. And makes you wonder why this film didn't really generate a lot of buzz over the course of the year. Perhaps because it's so indie-feeling. Some of those quirky indies, if they aren't directed by Wes Anderson, struggle to float to the surface among the many bigger budget films that distract from these smaller ones over the course of the year. Mortensen is becoming one of those actors that, like Clive Owen, are so consistent that you know you are going to get a good performance from them in any film. He's able to bring an energy to his Ben character that makes it hard to picture anyone else in his place.

Theres a certain degree of hypnosis pretty quickly when a Sigur Ros tune starts playing in the background and you are treated to some superb cinematography with some beautiful lighting. Basically a showcase of their forest spread. Giving you the indication that they have been there, roots are pretty deep, comfort is there. Some of this daydreamy vision that exists in the film is reminiscent of The Spectacular Now, which also had a lot of ambition and heart but not all of it landed like it does with this film. Some of the quirkiness is reminiscent of a Wes Anderson piece, particular the way Anderson approaches some normally morbid subject matter. In fact this film could be regarded as the 2016 Wes Anderson movie that he didn't do. The forest world that's constructed is reminiscent of the The Kings of Summer, another indie that slipped by a few years back and should have received more praise.

This is a film that should be seen. There are things that are done here that haven't been the same way before. Brutally honest moments at a dinner table. Umcomfortable moments at a funeral that haven't been seen since Harold and Maude. The way the film deals with death late in the film has an intrepid black comedy approach that is heartbreaking but also emotionally rewarding.

November 6, 2016

Trophy Kids

Chris Bell, 2013
We have all probably been the uncomfortable witnesses to that parent at the middle school sporting event. The one that is way too invested in whats really supposed to be an innocent exhibition match for young people to learn the fundamentals of athletic competition. But there is that very small percentage of parents that have way too much emotion invested. Trophy Kids is their story. Or at least the story of four different parents in four different sports. Golf, Basketball, Tennis and Football to be exact. Chris Bell, documentary filmmaker been known for 2008's Bigger Stronger Faster, directed this film that really puts you uncomfortably close to these overbearing parents. Bell eases his way into it as well. At first you might consider the parents to not be so bad, you can see the passion but nothing too outrageous yet. But the layers of the onion are unpeeled, and by the end of the film you don't really have any good feelings about any of them.

The documentary focuses on four parents in four different sports. Golf, basketball, tennis and football. Each parents has their own disciplinary style. 3/4 are very aggressive and verbally demanding, classic authoritarian. The fourth (tennis mom) is more new agey, spiritual, more subtle. But they are all striving for one singular goal: for their kids to become superstar athletes like Tiger Woods or the Williams sisters.

This is clearly an environment built on a foundation of unreasonable expectations. These poor kids are missing out on basic kid stuff; playing with their friends or having girlfriends or boyfriends. Instead, they are forced to train for long hours. You are undoubtedly witnessing child abuse. Long, calculated, child abuse. These parents are despicable. They are narcissistic. They should be ashamed. Hopefully they will be. Hopefully they will look back on this film years from now and completely regret all of the unreasonable things that they said to their poor children. Its another film where you are impressed with the access and the unfiltered nature of it. Why would they be okay with this film being released portraying them in this light? It's this factor that makes this film a success. That Bell managed to be present with his cameras, and was able to capture this behavior in a natural setting. With natural emotions laid out.