Summer has come and gone. September greets us in Chicago with the wettest Labor Day weekend in memory. It rained Saturday, Sunday and it stormed on Labor Day. I have had a view of the lake for the last 2-3 years and it looked as if a monsoon had passed. It was quite a spectacle.
Summer has been very interesting from a cinematic point of view. I finally found time to watch Asif Kapadia’s moving 2011 documentary on Amy Winehouse. This was a film that was on my radar for a long time after the very emotional experience I had watching Senna, his previous documentary feature. The majority of my time though was put into catching up with a string of wonderful films released this year, a highlight of which was You Were Never Really Here by Lynne Ramsay.
Without a doubt, the most important cinematic discovery was a blind spot from 1984: Jonathan Demme’s incredible documentary Stop Making Sense. The best concert film I have ever seen and only the 18th film I have given a perfect score to.
Per usual, I will split my list of short reviews into two parts. This one will cover the month of July, which is comprised of 14 new-to-me films, 1 rewatch and one life-changing stand up special I will comment about on a separate post.
Below the list of all new films watched in July:
LOVE, SIMON (2018) [ 3.5/5 ]
A sweet coming-of-age story that avoids most of the pitfalls that come when making a film about a young guy coming out of the closet. Up-and-coming actor Nick Robinson sells the part sufficiently well, rightly opting to make the title character feel like a regular teenager, instead of accentuating his “gayness” (whatever that means).
The thing that truly works here is that the film tries to show us how difficult it is to be different, without equating it entirely to being gay. In other words, it is not about what Simon is hiding, but about the why he is, which has more to do with expectations and feelings of inadequacy than with homosexuality.
If there is something that did not quite work for me was the romance. While it does pack plenty of sweetness, the romantic apex felt a bit false. Though I understand the film was entirely focused on Simon and his struggle, I think it could have gained some much-needed perspective had it chosen to make it less about the reveal of the secret love interest, and more about the struggle and the choices they both had to make to get there.
THE COMMUTER (2018) [ 3/5 ]
The Commuter is a film that bounds a version of Liam Neeson’s character in the 2008 blockbuster Taken to a train. Once again, Neeson plays a retired expert with a “particular set of skills” that amount, in the end, to a whole lot of violence.
Per usual, Neeson‘s performance is terrific and remains the most compelling reason to continue to watch the heap of thrillers he’s been signing up to do for most of the last decade.
The Commuter offers popcorn entertainment that is good enough to keep us engaged despite an inelegant script. The problem here is that the writers did not know how to resolve their initial concept with compelling and convincing solutions. Often, the story gets into tight spots of its own making, limited by an initial conceit that probably works best on the page.
THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN (2005) [ 4/5 ]
Since its release, Judd Apatow’s The 40 Year Old Virgin has received the sort of critical reappraisal and cult following that deserved my attention.
Based entirely on context, Apatow’s 2005 film feels like a precursor to the type of feature-length comedies that would dominate the cinematic landscape for more than a decade after its release.
The 40 Year Old Virgin was an expression of the fear of every horny teenager who obsesses about sex. Steve Carrell’s virginity is, to a significant demographic of young men, the manifestation of the worst kind of unfulfilled manliness. The brilliance of the script is that Apatow resists the temptation of making Carrell’s character the target of his mockery. Instead, Apatow builds him to be a source of inspiration. His story is not the one of a loser but of a charming man who had inadvertently closed himself off from all experiences, including but not limited to sex.
At times, The 40 Year Old Virgin may be immature with its comedy, but it hardly ever shies away from criticizing the falsehood of modern manliness, arguing that men can and should aspire to be as approachable and emotionally mature as women.
Importantly, the film also served as the launching pad for the career of its writer/director (who has yet to make a better film), its lead actor (who would go on to be a part of some terrific movies), and Seth Rogen, who plays his typical kind of stoner goofball but with a lot more restraint.
A QUIET PLACE (2018) [ 4/5 ]
More than any other genre I can think of, horror depends on sound and music to create uneasiness and fear. Not since the silent era has there been a film so committed to the idea of silence as a powerful creator of suspense and terror.
In a future where violent creatures with an incredible hearing capacity have ravaged the Earth pushing humans to the brink of extinction; a family of five tries to survive by going about their lives very quietly. They speak through sign language and they are careful to avoid making the slightest noise. The horror they live is effectively captured because director John Krasinski, who also stars in the film, doubles down on the idea that a single noisy mistake can be the difference between life and death. It helps that Krasinski also chooses to keep the alien-like creatures just outside the camera lense, in shadow or covered by thick vegetation, thus following the long-standing truth that the unknown and unseen is scarier than any well-designed monster in full-view could ever hope to be.
Aside from the all-too-convenient ending that neatly brings to a close these characters’ thin storylines, A Quiet Place succeeds in being a well-constructed and frightening horror film.
WE OWN THE NIGHT (2007) [ 2.5/5 ]
A disappointment considering the awesome cast led by the likes of Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Robert Duvall and Eva Mendes.
We Own the Night is yet another film that deals with gangsters and the cops who chase them. Writer/director James Gray gives us a film that is a disjointed amalgamation of borrowed ideas piled together without the grit nor the personality of films like Mean Streets, The Godfather or Goodfellas. Apart from a gripping car chase scene under heavy rain, We Own the Night goes from point A to point B lacking intensity.
There is an absurd amount of macho bullshit in the film that feels old and tonally inappropriate. The characters are, with the exception of the lead, one-dimensional archetypes with one or two defining traits that are repeated ad nauseam.
Side note: How many times can Robert Duvall play the same grumpy old man stuck in his ways? I haven’t seen anything new or surprising from him in a very long time.
PADDINGTON (2014) [ 3/5 ]
A family adventure that follows the precedent set by Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or Stuart Little by placing an animated/CGI character in the real world. Like those movies, Paddington is a very PG affair, where the innocence and childlike humor is a treat to the little ones but offers little for adults to enjoy.
One of the film’s highlights is the wonderfully Machiavellian performance by Nicole Kidman who crafted a character inspired by the largesse of classic cartoon villains (like Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmations or Ursula in the Little Mermaid).
THE DEATH OF STALIN (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]
Armando Ianucci’s The Death of Stalin may be a measure of the world we’re living in. This film (much like his prior feature-length effort In the Loop) works as a satirical comedy that touches on a historical moment of great import then and now. While In the Loop, Ianucci’s previous feature film, was released in 2009 and focused on the half-haphazard planning of a war that is still going on, The Death of Stalin manages to feel relevant despite its more anecdotal quality because it uses the moments after the death of the infamous Soviet ruler to ridicule dictatorships.
Despite the historical distance between Stalin’s death and today’s political situation, the film feels a bit sharper than Ianucci’s other work, taking greater comedic and cinematic risks.
Instead of keeping us a touch away from the true spheres of power like Ianucci does in his much-lauded Veep; his interest in The Death of Stalin is entirely with the power brokers and how they went about gathering the spoils left after the power vacuum.
To help Ianucci tell his story is a fantastic cast that excels at every turn, giving a new dimension to the script in nearly every scene.
In context, The Death of Stalin may be sillier than any of Ianucci’s other work but, in going big, he manages to equate the excesses of the dictatorial Soviet government to the most superficial displays of vanity and ego. Like the rest of his work, Ianucci reminds us that the comedy in his films are effective in the measure that the practice of politics stays corrupt.
WOMAN WALKS AHEAD (2018) [ 3/5 ]
Taken at face value, Woman Walks Ahead is an compelling drama, beautifully shot and acted, that effectively flirts with romance. The problem with the film is the disdain with which it tells a story representative of the plight of native tribes in America even as it tries to be sympathetic to it.
As well-intentioned as the film seems to be, Hollywood continues to be incapable of fighting against the temptation of making white actors be the heroes in stories in which they were not. While narrative license is to be expected in most films based on true facts, the white washing of Native stories is a rather tactless act in the world we live in today, regardless of the film’s attempt at highlighting the contribution of a woman in the midst of a conflict among men.
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (2018) [ 4/5 ]
Unlikely to get much love this year, You Were Never Really Here is the kind of film that may benefit from the passage of time and repeated viewings. I say this because Lynne Ramsay’s latest film reminds me a great deal of Taxi Driver, which went from being a film I appreciated upon first viewing, to being a piece of art I cherished by my third watch. Like Scorsese’s masterpiece, You Were Never Really Here is a difficult, deeply disturbing and depressing film. It deals with a hitman of sorts named Joe whose chosen occupation is a rather unhealthy outlet for all of his anger and frustrations. As simplistic as that may sound, Lynne Ramsay sets the film apart from others like it not by way of the script, but by filmmaking of the highest caliber. Like Taxi Driver before it, the film hinges entirely on the impactful lead performance by Joaquin Phoenix, who conveys so much with so little. His bulked-up and disheveled self entirely to the service of character, crafting a man with a troubling past we never quite figure out, but whose plight is tactile and obvious. His partnership with the camera is magnetic and it remains as powerful even when the film lingers on him and his fractured memories.
Lynne Ramsay has made an extraordinarily beautiful film that matches, beat for beat, Joe’s quiet intensity that, in multiple occasions, verges on the edge of suicidal collapse.
DARK CITY (1998) [ 3.5/5 ]
Alex Proyas’ Dark City is one of those rare films that are more interesting to dissect and discuss, than to watch and enjoy. The reason is that Proyas has made a film that isn’t particularly coherent or beautiful to look at, but that makes up for it by being packed-full of ideas that are both interesting and unique. As a pure sci-fi object Dark City shines by going outside the box and crafting a world that is fascinating and highly detailed.
Given the small budget, Dark City is an impressive accomplishment despite its share of clunky set pieces and less than stellar acting. The script, written by Proyas,m and adapted to the big screen by Lenn Dobbs and David Goyer succeeds in asking time-bending and deeply existential questions without solving them entirely.
READY PLAYER ONE (2018) [ 3/5 ]
After watching Ready Player One I realized two things: the first is that Steven Spielberg can make popcorn blockbuster entertainment in his sleep; the second is that the director of Hollywood staples like Jaws and Jurassic Park is no longer a trend-setter capable of capturing the cultural zeitgeist.
With Ready Player One I see a director fighting for cultural relevancy, making the films he thinks people want to see, instead of making the films he wants to make. In Ready Player One I noticed Spielberg is still willing to take risks and try to push the envelope but who is also understandably suffering from a generational gap.
Ready Player One aims to please a demographic that prefer videogames to movies about videogames. Regardless of how far CGI has come, it still lacks the vivaciousness of live action. Purposely or not, the film’s disinterest in the world outside the OASIS (a virtual reality universe the people in this dystopian future spend most of their time and money on) lessens the stakes, making Ty Sheridan and the rest of the cast try their best to make us sympathetic to their struggle only to come up short.
STOP MAKING SENSE (1984) [ 5/5 ]
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I never knew that I had been watching concert films all wrong. Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense is a life-changing discovery. The camera floats, glides, walks and flies all in the service of music. Sometimes it feels as if Demme’s cameras are specters, observing and following the uttering of sound in the way the music and its performers demand.
Stop Making Sense is a canvas for David Byrne and The Talking Heads’ bursting creativity that, in 1984, seemed to be at its peak. Everything in the concert seems perfectly detailed and choreographed even as it leaves plenty of room for musical and performance spontaneity. There is not one moment of rest. The spectacle is infectious and joyous, and the dancing, the gyrating, and the gymnastics on display seem like the perfect physical representation of sound. For The Talking Heads and Jonathan Demme it was the perfect pairing. A director working as an admirer, and a group of musicians talented and passionate enough to leave it all on the stage for posterity. Their performance is both controlled and loose, planned and improvised, chaotic and structured, with Byrne as its chameleonic and virtuous oddity front and center.
Like some of the best films in the history of cinema, there is always something new to find and marvel at with each successive viewing, challenging us to find fault in the overjoyed spectacle that unfolds before our eyes.
The great critic Paulina Kael was right when she said Stop Making Sense is very “close to perfection”.
A must for every cinephile and music aficionado.
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT (2018) [ 4/5 ]
Now in the sixth installment of the Mission Impossible franchise, it is ever clearer that there is a silent contract between Tom Cruise and audiences around the world. We watch because we know that Cruise is willing, unlike any other movie star, to sacrifice his physical well-being for our collective entertainment in a rather extreme case of method-acting.
Part of the thrill of watching Cruise’s take on Ethan Hunt, whether we like to admit it or not, is that we get a strange high from watching Cruise continue to flirt with death in an ever more perilous dance. During the franchise run he has climbed mountains and skyscrapers, driven motorcycles at awesome speeds and, in this latest film, jumped from a plane and piloted a helicopter (without help) through a dangerous canyon.
As one dimensional as these movies can get, Cruise’s performance as Ethan Hawke feels like a heroic representation of the actor’s mostly successful battle to stay relevant and disregard his often off-putting public persona. Though Cruise’s face and body have certainly begun to show signs of aging, the Mission Impossible series never allows us to consider this. For all intents and purposes, Hawke is simply battle-worn, scarred both physically and emotionally in an endless battle against evil agents of destruction. His desire to prevail and save the day never quite as palpable as now, thanks in large part to the direction of Christopher McQuarrie, whose analog approach and intimate camerawork exalts the intensity and believability of the struggle, even as it often goes a bit too far for effect.
TERMINAL [ 1.5/5 ] (2018)
With its bright neon lights, dark smoky halls and permanent night time, Terminal has a distinctive film-noir vibe that visually evokes the dystopian future of Blade Runner. Though compelling to look at, the film is the perfect example of a project with potential that suffers a script that is structurally unsound and “terminally” flawed.
Each character here is an approximation of a cinematic archetype: the seductive femme fatale, the handsome but less than bright hired gun, the gangster with a filthy mouth, and the master puppeteer who hides in the shadows. The film asks us to care, but it intentionally withholds all of the information we care about until the end.
Aside from that, Terminal misuses his cast. The beautiful and talented Margot Robbie replays most of the same notes she showed us as Harley Quinn in the derided Suicide Squad except that she’s now the heroine, even if the film tries to hide this fact.
A complete disappointment.