Review: Slow West

 Slow West (2015)

Dir. John Maclean

Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Rory McCann

A sardonic western that relies too much on tone.

Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a young man, a Scottish immigrant, on a quest to find his lost love Rose (Caren Pistorius). Michael Fassbender is Silas, the misanthropic bounty hunter who promises to help find his lost love. Little does Jay know, Rose is a murderous outlaw, wanted by bounty hunters across the west; including a nasty looking Payne (Ben Mendelsohn). Outfitted in a pimp coat made of dead ewoks and a face tattoo, Mendelsohn is subtly dangerous without overacting. All the actors are appropriately understated within this detached western.

Unfortunately for Jay his lover has moved on without him. His ignorance of this fact is sadly ironic, and unfortunately for the film, it is his only character trait. The tone of the film is ironic and sardonic. Strangers appear in the middle of nowhere and spout vaguely philosophic, irrelevant monologues. It’s lighter and comedic, but with one-dimensional characters in a fatidic story, it’s an empty experience. The depiction of the American West adds to this emptiness. It’s too clean. Perhaps too many films depicting the west as a hellish desert filled with disease and pestilence, has soiled (all puns intended) my view of the West. The landscape in Slow West seems more like an untouched, magical forest.

Slow West has a cool and ironic tone, but there isn’t enough substance.

Recommend: No

Movie Review: Clouds of Sils Maria

clouds

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

dir. Olivier Assayas

starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace-Moretz

A post-modern meditation on maturity and power. Set in the Swiss Alps, and Maria Enders’ (Juliette Binoche) insecurities, Clouds of Sils Maria covers similar thematic territory as Black Swan and Birdman, albeit with more complexity.

Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, a respected and mature actress. She is asked to be in the play the made her famous twenty years ago. It’s a play about a younger woman, Sigrid, who seduces her older female boss, Helena, then abandons her. It drives Helena, to suicide…maybe.  Clouds of Sils Maria lives in the ambiguities and explores how power changes with age. The abrupt, ironically looser, edits enhance that feeling. However, when looking back, you feel you were being set up for a twist that never comes.  The Swiss Alps are a beautiful and otherworldly setting for this intellectual approach.  As the play is deconstructed by the characters, echoes of the relationship dynamics in the play are seen in the film.

Maria reluctantly accepts the role of the older woman this time. The younger woman is played by Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace-Moretz), a woman famous for her tabloid headlines rather than her Hollywood superhero movies. Maria is uncomfortable playing an older woman. She hates Helena, she’s too weak, she’s self-destructive, she’s boring. To her the role is admitting aging, becoming invisible. Her and her assistant, played by a surprisingly human Kristen Stewart, run lines, and run through Maria’s insecurities in the Alps. Kristen Stewart, as the assistant Val, acts as the devil’s advocate in Maria’s debates. Val is Maria’s right hand, her shadow. The pair have a best-friend bond, which allows Val to challenge Maria’s assumptions. She pushes Maria to see the depth and complexity in the character.  Val reminds her that the text hasn’t changed, Maria has. She suggests that vulnerability isn’t weakness. Binoche and Stewart have great chemistry that changes from sisterly, to mentor, to even sexual.  Their relationship is key.

Clouds of Sils Maria takes a unique approach to familiar material.

Recommend: Yes, it’s a discussion starter.

Review: Forever Into Space

Forever Into Space (2015)fis_card

dir. Greg W. Locke

starring: Kelly Sebastian, Tyler Evan Rowe, Oliver Fetter, Julianna Pitt, Jaz Valentino

A film that’s more about a feeling. Shot in crisp black and white, Forever Into Space is a glimpse into the lives of over-educated and underemployed twenty-somethings in New York City.  It centers on Audrey Harrington (Kelly Sebastian) a writer/blogger trying to earn a living off her writing, and her struggling friends.  The film pays homage to other New York-set films and subtly answers the criticisms lobbed at millennials.  With a budget of less than $1000, Forever Into Space is no budget film-making at its best.

The first comparison that comes to mind is ClerksForever Into Space shines in the small moments, where the characters are just hanging out, occasionally waxing philosophically. There is an homage to the bridge scene in Manhattan that puts the focus on the speakers rather than the object of their conversation. Maybe that’s a generational difference?  Unlike Clerks, here there is an underlying tone of hunger and disappointment.  It takes place in 2013 and economic uncertainty permeates the film. These are people who did what they were supposed to, like go to college, move out, get a real job; but they are constantly told that they are entitled brats who expect everything for nothing.  That disconnect is the films’ slogan, “the have-to-do-it-yourself generation.” It can be a bit slow, but its authenticity and immediacy make it worth a watch.

www.foreverintospace.com

www.cinequest.org

Surrealist Sundays: The Exterminating Angel

The Exterminating Angel (1962)

photo: imdb.com

photo: imdb.com

dir. Luis Bunuel

starring: Silvia Pinal, Jacqueline Andere, Enrique Rambal

In the final installment of Surrealist Sundays, I look at one of Bunuel’s well-known works: The Exterminating Angel. Here Bunuel refutes the premise that nothing interesting can happen on a dark and stormy night.  Following a dinner party, the guests are mysteriously unable to leave the room. What follows that, is a breakdown of manners and human decency that is darkly comic and ridiculous, especially when the reason for their entrapment is revealed.

The reliance on routines is criticized in this film. When the guest are forced to endure each others company longer than expected, that’s when things stop being polite. Thrown into a new situation, the guests cling to their rules and sense of propriety, which brings out an ugly selfishness. The guests become more withdrawn into their own private dramas. Given everyone’s close proximity, that focus becomes increasingly silly. The secret lovers are no longer a secret when everyone sees them hide in a corner for the room, even though no one comments on their tryst. A woman with feathers and chicken feet in her purse looks for mystical answers. One of the guests dies, and no one rushes to get them to the hospital. They are too busy debating who should be in charge. There are no heroes, and hardly any sympathetic characters. Silvia Pinal plays the most sympathetic character as the antisocial Leticia. However, she disappears early on and reappears at the end to solve the mystery.

If only the guests just had to worry about each other. For reasons not quite known, a herd of sheep and baby bear roam freely around the house. The sheep, the film’s spirit animal, provide food.  Yes, they are trapped in the room long enough to worry about starvation. The bear inspires terror and the men begin fighting one another.

Although the film could stay in the room, and we could participate in the claustrophobia and paranoia, Bunuel takes us out of the room and looks at the outside world.  A crowd has gathered outside the mansion. No one can get into the mansion.  Whatever affects the guests also affects the society at large. A child makes it farther than most, but he soon turns back. In that moment, you begin to check your own biases. Aren’t children innately innocent, especially in films?

The Exterminating Angel wakes us up to the unwritten rules of society that let us exist on autopilot.

Review : ’71

’71 (2014)

dir. Yann Demange

starring: Jack O’Connell, Paul Anderson, Richard Dormer, Sean Harris, Barry Keoghan, Martin McCann

An intense night in Belfast at the height of the Troubles in 1971.  Jack O’Connell plays an army recruit thrown into the middle of conflict who must find his way to safety.

In Northern Ireland, at the height of the Troubles, an army recruit (Jack O’Connell) is sent into Belfast with his unit to quell the violence.  The unit is sent in to assist the local police force in an investigation.   As they enter they are met with open hostility.  Kids throw turd bombs at them.   A crowd soon gathers, angry at the army’s presence.  Then one of the soldiers is shot, and a riot breaks out. The situation gets out of hand and he is separated from his unit.  He has to find his way back, while trying to stay alive, in enemy territory.  The film is grimy and tries to get the look of an urban war zone.  The night sky is lit with burning cars and buildings; and the few people on the street rush to the relative safety of their homes.  Director Demange employs the shaky, handheld camera device, which at this point feels tired and showy.  ’71 gives no context to the situation.  The meaning of the movement, the riots, public opinion aren’t addressed directly.  Like Hook, we are thrown into the thick of the conflict.  From that confusion, the main focus is the humanity and underlying compassion.

It is a cat and mouse thriller where allegiances are unclear.   It soon becomes clear that the undercover agents (lead by Sean Harris) are also out to get Hook.  Their mission isn’t made clear, and, in any case, it doesn’t seem  to be the point.  It seems more to focus on compassion for a fellow human in a time of crisis.  That being said, no good deed goes unpunished.  The Lieutenant (Sam Reid) chooses to go into Belfast without riot gear.  It is a goodwill gesture that backfires spectacularly when they are unequipped to deal with the riot.  The army vet (Richard Dormer) that helps him, didn’t know who he was, is later threatened by enemy.  The juxtaposition of mercy and violence reminded me of Children of Men, in a good way.  Those were the powerful moments of ’71.

The ending, while not ambiguous, is not hopeful either.  Hook is not developed enough for us to fully invest in his story after the conflict.

www.71themovie.com

Recommend: I’d wait for the DVD release. 

Availability (US): in limited theatrical release 27 Feb

Surrealist Sundays: Viridiana

photo: imdb.com

photo: imdb.com

Viridiana (1961)

dir. Luis Bunuel

starring: Silvia Pinal, Fernando Rey

Viridiana is like two movies in one.  As such, it doesn’t feel like a cohesive piece.  It begins as an uncomfortable family reunion and turns into a lampoon of our beliefs in humanity’s inner goodness.

Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is a novice nun about to take her vows.  The Mother Superior sends her home after hearing that Viridiana’s uncle, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) is very ill.  Viridiana goes home, but with hesitation.  She hasn’t been home in years.  When he sees her, he sees she looks exactly like his dead wife.  He asks her to marry him.  She, of course, refuses.  He drugs her and dresses her in his wife’s wedding dress.  After that night, Don Jaime commits suicide.  Viridiana, feeling like a ruined woman, stays in her uncle’s home.  However, she chooses to do some good while she’s there.

She takes in local beggars, a prostitute, and a leper.  She lets them stay at the house and earn a living.  It’s almost like a medieval feudal system, however Bunuel reminds us of man’s true nature.  The beggars she takes in are just as petty, ungrateful, and greedy as anyone else.  That’s a nice surprise.  It culminates in a raucous dinner party and a re-staging of The Last Supper painting.

Being a Bunuel film, there are the foot fetish moments.  There is an inordinate amount of time spent on her taking off her shoes.  What stayed with me the most, was the pessimistic view of humanity.  The beggars shun the leper, Viridiana’s uncle takes advantage of her.  By the end of the film, Viridiana is defeated, spiritually.  It is a strange and sly film, that ultimately feels empty.

Movie Review: Predestination

Predestination (2014)

photo: imdb.com

photo: imdb.com

dir. The Spierig Brothers

starring: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, and Noah Taylor

Poignant and intelligent science fiction drama.  Despite its trite premise, Predestination is a treat that places the focus on strong characters.

Predestination begins with a man in a trenchcoat racing against the clock to diffuse a bomb.  The diffusion is successful, but the man’s face is burned beyond recognition.  Cut to the hospital, where that man wakes up and is revealed as Ethan Hawke.  In Predestination, Ethan Hawke plays a time travel agent hunting down the man responsible for massive bombing in New York, 1975.  He poses as a bartender in 1970’s New York, presumably to find the killer.  Then, a man walks into the bar, and then the real story begins.

The bartender, Ethan Hawke, places a bet: a good story for a bottle of scotch.  The man tells the bartender that he was born a girl, Jane.  Jane (Sarah Snook) was an orphan who was always out of place.  She got pregnant and, during the delivery, the doctors discovered she had two sets of reproductive organs, male and female.  The doctors removed her female organs, and Jane was forced to become John.  Soon after that discovery, her baby was kidnapped from the hospital.  Sarah Snook has the meatier role, and tougher job as the emotional anchor.  This could have easily been given the Lifetime movie treatment or been hastily shoe-horned into the bomb plot.  Thankfully, the filmmakers place the emphasis on character development, so we identify with Jane/John.  After hearing his story, Ethan Hawke gives John another proposal: go back in time and kill the man who ruined him.

Predestination is based on the short story “All You Zombies” by sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein.  After reading a synopsis of the story, it’s surprising that the piece the filmmakers added was the terrorist bomb plot, which is the weakest piece of the film.  Predestination is a paradox wrapped in an enigma inside of a puzzle.  The paradox, enigma, and puzzle add up to the belief that free-will is non-existent.  As the film becomes more deterministic, it also becomes more stifling.  The past determines the future which determines the past.  Ugh.  It’s hopeless.  Also, the weight of history gives the film a feeling of claustrophobia.  That doesn’t detract from the experience of watching the film.  That frustration prompts repeat viewings and discussions.

On a side note: for those that found the film silly, imagine the movie being remade as the Mirrors: the Kanye West Story.

Recommend: Yes.  Although the plot isn’t the most surprising, Predestination’s emphasis on character gives the plot twists a greater emotional impact.

Availability: DVD and Blu-ray, Redbox, Amazon Instant Video