As the warm summer breeze begins to sweep by Chicago’s sandy lakeshores, one is hard-pressed to find justification for staying indoors. As enjoyable as a film can be, the allure of being able to wear a t-shirt outside after a long wintry hibernation can sometimes prove too tempting.
If the summer is also accompanied by the 2018 edition of the World Cup, then the act of film watching becomes an impossibility. There’s simply no time after putting in an 8 or 9 hour work shift, to find time to watch a movie after you’ve also enjoyed two 90-minute games of soccer.
Having said that, May was a particularly wet and cold month in the Midwest, and so was the beginning of June, with an intermittent heat wave. So, in terms of film watching, I somehow stayed at 10 films each month, which is an average I’ve been trying to meet. The rating average in May was a rather poor 2.94 with only one film getting a 4 out of 5. Thankfully, things got a little brighter in June. As I fit 8 films in the first 13 days of the month (in anticipation to the start of the World Cup on the 14th), the monthly average for June ended up at a very respectable 3.45 that included two let-downs at 2.5/5, three films at 4/5, and a blindspot cracking the 4.5/5: Pedro Almodovar’s masterful Todo Sobre Mi Madre.
Without further ado, below is a list of short reviews of the films I managed to watch in May. The second part of this post, which will be posted a few days from today, shall contain the reviews of all the films watched in June.
FURY (2014) [ 3/5 ]
This David Ayer directed feature feels, purposely or not, like a compendium of war film references. Brad Pitt’s “Wardaddy” not so much a man of flesh and blood, but a hollowed-out version of a man we’ve seen in movies before. The kind of man who wears the scars of war on his face, and relives every death of a fellow soldier as if it were his own. The soldiers under his watch are a convenient mixture of wildly different personalities that try to give the film some humor and lightheartedness. The problem with Fury lies not in the cinematic execution, but in the ideas that brought it to life. All of them, almost without exception, are approximations of things that we have seen many times before in these types of films. Though Fury contains two of the most engrossing war sequences I can remember, the rest falls to the mercy of clichés without giving us enough reason to care for the faith of its characters.
ANON (2018) [ 2/5 ]
I think I understand what Anon was trying to do as a film. It was a sci-fi with an agenda, one that uses a story set in the future to make a statement about the far-reaching effect of technology on privacy and individualism. Like the recent “The Circle”, this is a film that tries to capture a very current issue without refining the details to construct a believable enough future. In the film there is a bothersome duality that gets in the way of the thinly imagined central story. While we see a future where information is constantly being fed through our eyes live as it happens, we are led to believe that in this same future that is overloaded with information, people would still choose to smoke, to furnish apartments with formal dining rooms and have in-person work meetings. Quite simply, Anon is a rather standard murder mystery that is blanketed with a sci-fi element that is not fully fleshed out.
KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (2017) [ 2/5 ]
In the midst of all of the over-the-top silliness of the first entry in the Kingsman franchise, I found something subversive and new about the types of films it was emulating and making fun of. The original Kingsman also benefited from an impressive cast punctuated by the ever-lovable Colin Firth, whose Harry Hart is one of the most satisfying unlikely heroes that have graced the big screen in recent years. Surprisingly, the latest Kingsman wastes all of the good will created by its predecessor by amping up the silliness, giving more space to a not-so-great Taron Egerton reprising his lead role as “Eggsy”, and wasting away another wonderful cast by pushing them to the fringes. Instead of subversive, and feeling like the James Bond for the new generation, Kingsman now feels like the place where all the bad ideas that never made it to the Bond movies are thrown. Worst of all is that it’s not even fun to watch. It’s just ridiculous.
AMANDA KNOX (2016) [ 3/5 ]
Did we really need yet another piece on Amanda Knox? Probably not. The only reason I gave this film a shot was because, rather amazingly, I never bothered to follow the case as it happened. I hoped that the documentary would not only provide clarity, but that it would also reveal something of substance, whether it was about the Italian justice system, or simply about Amanda, not as a tabloid subject, but as a human being with a compelling story to tell.
As a documentary, Amanda Knox is an adept cinematic effort. It follows a tried and tested structure that consists of interviews and old stock footage of the case intermingled to form a coherent story. What bothered me about the film is that Knox retells her story as if she was a witness to it instead of the protagonist. Her specific experiences during the trial are all but glossed over and, instead, the film spends a great deal of energy not in telling a tragedy (which it very much was), but in cleaning up the public image of Amanda Knox even further.
DEADPOOL 2 (2018) [ 3.5/5 ]
Despite wearing a mask for long stretches in both Deadpool films, Ryan Reynolds demonstrates, once again, that he was perfectly cast in the role. His interpretation of Deadpool is the perfect antithesis to the superhero saturation at the movies. The films rely on slapstick, satire and all encompassing silliness while still following the Marvel formula and forming a self-contained story about a person, with dreams and regrets, who also happens to be a superhero. Deadpool 2 builds onto the original by having more fun with the material. There is, in particular, a sequence that sets Deadpool apart from all other Marvel extravaganza. This takes place about halfway through the film when Deadpool decides to cast and assemble his own ragtag bunch of superheroes. The sequence speaks to the unexpected lengths that Deadpool is willing to go to undo our expectations and let humor run rampant. The sequence is both thrilling and laugh-out-loud funny, a perfect marriage of Marvel action montage ingenuity and a testament to Ryan Reynold’s voice acting skills.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) [ 3/5 ]
Find my full reassessment of a beloved childhood film here
LAST FLAG FLYING (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]
There will never be a bad Richard Linklater film, no matter the subject, no matter the actors. The entirety of his work will live on, and so will the feeling that the larger film community did not fully embrace the power of his prose and the unassuming power of his cinema. In less capable hands, Last Flag Flying would have succumbed. It is, after all, a film that asks questions about the terrible ramifications of sending good men to war, a topic that is explored once or twice a year by some movie or another. With Linklater, however, these characters are given personalities that are distinct, complex and deeply human. They are flawed and, at times, difficult to sympathize with, yet we end up caring for them because their characters mean well even when they do wrong. Per usual, Linklater manages to get good performances from his actors. Lawrence Fishburne as the soldier turned pastor and Bryan Cranston as the foul-mouthed bar owner are both perfect folds to Carrell’s rightly subdued and mostly silent performance. My favorite moments of the film all involve these actors together in a scene, riffing, squabbling and reminiscing about the past; their acting talents in full display. Surprisingly, the plot seems a bit too thin for a feature, not in that there isn’t a story worth pursuing, but that the script is too narrow, exclusively interested in the men as they are, and not as they were or may be. There were avenues to expand and broaden the scope, but Linklater avoided them all, instead stretching the road trip with plot devices that seem unlikely.
THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017) [ 4/5 ]
The films by writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos exist in an alternate reality. His characters are cold, mostly expressionless, delivering even the harshest of truths with an awkward deadpan seriousness. To watch his films is to experience a dimension that looks like ours, but that is definitely not ours. If analyzed scientifically Lanthimos’ characters are variations of functioning sociopaths, some good and some bad, but generally unable to match their feelings to their behavior or to their facial expressions. Lanthimos presents impossible scenarios that play to our collective sadism. In The Lobster we saw people in love agonize to stay together despite impending doom. In The Killing of Sacred Deer he puts a family through a deadly gauntlet to satisfy a violent thirst for revenge. Though it may turn off some, his films keep us engaged because we hope for impossible happy resolutions even when everything tells us they will not arrive. The saving grace to Lanthimos’ work is that his somber creations are sprinkled with plenty of dark humor. None of it is funny on paper, but the utter honesty and deadpan delivery makes even the harshest critic crack an awkward giggle.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is as strange a film as Lanthimos has made and it’s also his best work yet. The cast, led by ever-great Nicole Kidman and a returning Colin Farrel (who also teamed up with the director for The Lobster), is fantastic. Surprisingly, the most impressive of the group is the young Barry Keoghan who delivers an outright sinister performance as a troubled teen who invites himself into the lives of a picture-perfect family.
LBJ (2017) [ 2.5/5 ]
The film and its director, Rob Reiner, suffer a script that follows every cliché and falls for almost all of the pitfalls of a biopic. The Lyndon B. Johnson shown in the film seems to be a compendium of all that has been said and written about this man. The film doesn’t challenge any notion and instead of narrowing its focus to explain the motivations of Johnson, it remains on the fringes, only tepidly attempting to get under his skin. This film is also responsible for giving us one of the very rare questionable Woody Harrelson performances. From the makeup to his mannerisms, I could never see beyond the performer interpreting a role he isn’t suited for. Sorry Woody.
More to come in part 2…