Crash Course: The Romanian New Wave

In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.”  This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics.  With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot.  Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme. 

Sometimes I look at the movies I will have watched recently and just think “man, I feel like a fraud.”  I like to think of myself as a really hip and knowledgeable filmgoer who’s in the know about all the latest trends in world cinema but all too often I feel like I’ve taken the easy way out.  Case in point, Romania is going through a really exciting film renaissance right now and I’ve missed most of it out of sheer laziness.  I was sort of there for the Romanian New Wave when it started.  I watched Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu on DVD when it was still relatively new upwards of ten years ago and I also saw the great 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days in theaters back in early 2008 but that was more or less the last Romanian movie I’ve seen and it certainly isn’t for lack of interest.  In my defense, a lot of the problem has been availability.  These movies obviously don’t get the greatest theatrical releases stateside and all too often by the time these films finally end up on home video it feels like it’s already a little after the fact.  Still, there’s no real excuse for why I haven’t caught up with any of these movies so I’ve resolved to do a little survey of all the major Romanian films I’ve missed.

Police, Adjective (2009)

Police, Adjective was directed by Corneliu Porumboiu, who previously directed 12:08 East of Bucharest and is arguably the second most famous director of the Romanian New Wave.  Of the directors in the movement he seems to be the most… I don’t know that playful is the right word but his movies do seem more willing to tackle their intellectual themes head on rather than obliquely even if he still does so while staying well within the realms of social realism.  This film uses a very personal story in order to address some very weighty themes about society, particularly the uncaring nature of institutions and the fight between duty and morality.  The film is about a police officer tasked with staking out a teenager who has been seen smoking pot and occasionally handing out dimebags to his friends.  While doing this the young officer has come to be rather conflicted about his investigation and about the morality of arresting someone for such petty crime.  In this sense the film is something of a low stakes version of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others but rather than being set in a repressive past (like the Ceaușescu regime) this is very much about modern institutions.

The film ends with a bravura sequence in which the officer’s boss uses linguistics to deconstruct the officer’s conflict, painting him into a semantic corner from which he can’t escape.  And so, as in a David Simon program, the rigid and self-protecting institution prevails over individual morality.  The film isn’t completely didactic, the officer does have a couple of good points over the course of the speech, but the film ultimately very much a societal critique.  I do however wish the movie had gotten to this point a little quicker.  In typical Romanian fashion the film has a lot of lingering shots but they aren’t laced with tension so much as they are intended to show the officer’s gradual questioning of his assignment.  And by gradual I do mean gradual, his inner turmoil is almost frustratingly subtle at times.  Ultimately I found this to be a very interesting and rewarding film, especially once I’ve gotten time to think about it, but it isn’t one I particularly enjoyed watching for long stretches of time.

*** out of Four

Aurora (2010)

Out of all the movies in this Romanian cinema crash course, this is the one that had me worried.  The film was directed by Cristi Puiu, who made The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, which was the first of the Romanian New Wave films that I saw gaining major international attention.  That was a movie that I certainly respected from afar but which was really not an easy movie to get through.  Given that this movie was a full three hours and showed every sign of using a similarly minimalist realistic style I knew that this movie would be… challenging.  Puiu’s stated intent is to make a series called “Six Stories from the Outskirts of Bucharest” which would be thematically linked by variations on the theme of love.  Lăzărescu was the first of the films and focused on love for one’s fellow man (or lack thereof) and Aurora is meant to be about love between a man and a woman but as you can guess he approaches that in a rather cynical and twisted way.  The film is about a man named Viorel who has recently divorced his wife and is bitter about this and wants revenge.  We watch him live his life as he slowly assembles his weapons and then coldly murders the lawyer who represented his wife in the divorce before proceeding to the next stage in his plan.

Aurora would seem to take the aesthetic of the Romanian New Wave to something of an extreme as it slowly allows the episode at hand to unravel with minimal exposition and zero attempt to explain what it all means.  I went into the film knowing that it was a story that would involve a murder but if I hadn’t I’m not exactly sure I would have quite seen the violent act at the midpoint coming, or at least that it would happen the way it happened.  The film is quite long but it doesn’t necessarily seem slow… or at least not as slow as you would expect it to be.  Still I do think the film errors a bit in the way its depiction of the main character at its center.  This is a guy who is something of a cipher and who needs to be really compelling while not really doing a whole lot and who needs to convey a whole lot through subtle facial mannerisms.  You need a really good actor in order to pull that off, and rather than cast a master thespian Puiu cast himself in the role.  He has an interesting look for the role in that he’s an aggressively average looking person, but I don’t think he really had the chops to pull it off and I’m not exactly sure why he thought it was a good idea to step in front of the camera like that and at the end of the day the main character is just too much of a blank slate.  The movie is like the anti-“Crime and Punishment.”  Where Dostoyevsky created a book where someone commits a senseless crime and talks in detail about why he did it and about everything that was going through his head leading up to his eventual downfall, this is about a guy who commits a senseless crime and goes out of his way not to explain himself.

*** out of Four

Beyond the Hills (2012)

Out of all the Romanian New Wave directors, Cristian Mungiu is clearly the one who’s garnered the most international success after having won the Palm d’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival for his film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days.  This brought the film, and the movement as a whole to an even greater worldwide attention and was the film that really made me realize the potential of the new Romanian cinema.  After that triumph Mungiu produced an omnibus film called Tales From the Golden Age but it wouldn’t be until 2012, five whole years since “4 Months,” that we got his true follow-up in the film Beyond the Hills.  That film is set in an Eastern Orthodox convent in modern Romania and tells the story of two women who grew up together in an orphanage but were separated at some point in their teen years with one being adopted by a German family and the other becoming a nun.  As the film begins, the girl who was adopted has returned to Romania to visit the one who became a nun and hopes that she can convince her to come back to Germany with her.  It is strongly implied that there was a Sapphic element of the two girls’ relationship back in the orphanage and this colors her inability to relate to the other woman’s new life as a nun and her refusal to run away with her.  This leads to something of a psychotic break in the mind of the girl who wants to run away, which the other people in the convent interpret as possession by a demon, and this leads to all sorts of trouble.

Impressively, Cristian Mungiu pretty much avoids the sophomore slump here because it’s clearly another really strong effort, perhaps not quite up to the level of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days but pretty damn close.  I hate to be superficial but Mungiu’s movies are a bit more formal and just look better than some of the other movies by his countrymen and he has a bigger budget to work with here, likely thanks to that Palm d’Or win.  This movie has a lot going on in it, there’s the theme of spiritual vs. personal fulfilment, the question of whether it’s the nuns duty to be charitable or to be spiritually diligent, and there’s the question of what leads the convent members to behave as they do towards the outsider at the end and how that should be viewed by society.  There’s also the personal story about these two people who drifted in two different directions and who don’t really know how to reconcile their new lives and some rather pointed criticism about how intolerant and stubborn the church can be.  The movie never fully takes one side in these debates though and I like the way it does at least leave open the possibility of a supernatural interpretation even though I don’t think that’s what’s actually going on in the film.  This is exactly the kind of ambitious and brilliantly executed movie I want to get out of world cinema and it’s a great indication that Mungiu is here to stay.

**** out of Four

Child’s Pose (2013)

The final film in my crash course of Romanian cinema is Călin Peter Netzer’s 2013 film Child’s Pose, which is probably the most class conscious of the four films I’ve looked at.  The film focuses in on a middle aged upper class woman named Cornelia who comes to learn that her adult son has gotten into a car accident while driving somewhat irresponsibly and that this accident has left a child dead.  Immediately she does into defensive mode and tries to pull all the strings necessary to keep her son out of jail and to make the whole scandal go away.  Unfortunately for her this proves to generally be more difficult than she thinks.  This scenario sounds like the set-up for a sort of dark satire about entitled wealthy people and their amoral attempts to buy injustice, but Netzer has instead gone a different and perhaps less obvious route.  The film is actually a pretty serious character drama about how a situation like this would weigh on all the people involved.

A big part of how they manage to get away with this is because there is a certain degree of ambiguity about just how much this accident was the son’s fault.  He wasn’t drunk or anything when the accident happened and while speeding in order to pass someone is technically illegal and irresponsible it isn’t exactly beyond the pale and you can sort of relate to why a mother might pull some strings to make something like this go away.  At the same time the film never gets on this woman’s side and doesn’t condone the sense of entitlement that she shows while trying to pull these strings.  Luminița Gheorghiu is of course the center of the film and plays this wealthy woman straight rather as some sort of comic caricature of an out of control one percenter.  Bogdan Dumitrache also has a memorable role as the son and the film also features Vlad Ivanov (who played the underground abortionist in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days) in a small role.  Out of all the major Romanian directors I’ve looked at Călin Peter Netzer is probably the one who seems to have the least distinctive style and sensibility, but that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a fairly strong movie just the same.

*** out of Four

Steve Jobs(10/24/2015)

My opinions about the real Steve Jobs and more specifically Apple are… complicated.  When I was younger I absolutely hated Apple’s computers, and indeed I’m still not a fan of them.  They were these strange devices that came with mice that only had a single button on them and having been raised on Windows I always found their OS interface to be strange and foreign.  You couldn’t play PC games on their computers, they often had inferior memory allotments, and there really just didn’t seem to be any real benefits to them.  They were devices that chose style over substance  at every turn and they weren’t for me.  Different strokes for different folks I suppose, but this struck deeper.  To me Apple computer was a fraud and Steve Jobs was snake oil salesman who used expensive advertising to hypnotize the masses into thinking his crappy computers were somehow going to make them more creative any more effectively than Nike sneakers were going to make people into basketball stars, and the fact that he was able to sell this bullshit to people who were supposedly above being advertised to really offended me.  Then I got over myself and bought an iPod.  I loved that little thing and still do, it still works today and I listen to it almost every day.  I also own an iPone and it works pretty well.  What can I say, I’m still firmly on Team Windows when it comes to home PCs but Steve Jobs’ obsession with industrial design makes a lot more sense to me when it’s being applied to devices I have to carry around with me than it does with devices that sit on your desk.  That having been said, I still don’t buy 75% of the hype that surrounds that company or that man, and I go into any movie about either with a chip firmly on my shoulder.

I probably shouldn’t have been too worried that this would be some sort of hagiography as the film was written by Arron Sorkin, the creator of “The West Wing” and a noted luddite whose screenplay for The Social Network cast Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg as a sort of sociopathic nerd who cheated his friends out of a good deal of money in an amoral quest to build something that would gain him wider acceptance.  Indeed, Sorkin shows no hesitation to depict all the hubris, ego, and questionable behavior that Walter Isaacson cataloged in his 2011 biography upon which this biopic is officially based.  Sorkin also doesn’t feel the need to turn the film into some kind of showcase of how awesome Apples products supposedly were.  His focus is very much on the personal, almost to a fault, and in the way that Jobs’ personality injected itself into his products for better or worse.

Of course Sorkin has a very distinct style of writing which is highly stylized and theatrical.  In fact more than any other Sorkin project this really feels almost like it could be a play in that Sorkin has decided to set the film over the course of three days (give or take a brief flashback or two), one in 1984, one in 1988, and one in 1997 and each coinciding with the launch of one of his signature product launches: the first for the Macintosh, the second for the NeXT, and the third for the iMac.  This is an approach that has its pros and cons.  Given that each segment is depicting the couple hours of frantic last-minute preparations before each launch the format certainly allows Sorkin to indulge in his usual fast paced walk-and-talk banter but there’s a certain theatrical license required to make it work.  Sorkin fills each of these segments with a lot of exposition between characters who should already know what they’re talking and you definitely need to suspend disbelief a lot to accept that all these storylines are being compressed into these few days instead of occurring over the course of years.

The Social Network saw Aaron Sorkin’s usual optimism intentionally deluded by director David Fincher’s icy touch but here his screenplay is brought to screen by the British maximalist Danny Boyle.  Boyle is known to make movies that are extremely kinetic and heavily edited and feature a lot of music and a lot of running around, so this is a little bit of a change of pace for him.  Boyle does settle down his style a little bit in order to allow Sorkin’s conversations to come to the forefront and more or less play out uninterrupted, but he does add in his own little flourishes.  For one thing, he occasionally has images play out on the walls non- diegeticly in order to illustrate certain things.  Also he’s opted to use different filming formats for each of the three segments: the 1984 segment is shot with 16mm film, the 1988 segment is 35mm, and the 1997 segment was shot digitally using the latest technology.  Normally this kind of format trickery is done in order to give a period feel by mimicking the cinema of different eras but 35mm was the dominant filming format in all three of those years so something else is going on here.   I’m thinking that Boyle is trying to suggest Jobs as maturing; that as the grain dissipates from the image the man’s life gains more clarity and he becomes more of a fully formed human being.

Steve Jobs has a pretty substantial supporting cast at its center which most prominently features Kate Winslett as Jobs’ confidant and main scene partner Joanna Hoffman.  I don’t know whether or not the real Hoffman interacted with Jobs like this, she certainly had a reputation for being able to stand up to him but I kind of doubt that the two were really joined at the hip like this and that her role was expanded so that Jobs would have someone to interact with in certain scenes.  This has the somewhat problematic effect of making her feel more like a long-suffering secretary than an accomplished marketing executive, but her role as a scene partner is effective and Winslett does a pretty good job of fading into the part even if the character’s Polish accent oddly only gets thicker as she ages.  Seth Rogen is here as Steve Wozniak and seems to be taking a page from his friend Jonah Hill’s playbook by appearing in a serious-ish Aaron Sorkin penned film but the casting is not a stunt and he actually seems to be working harder to really resemble his real life analogue than some of his co-stars.  Michael Stuhlbarg seems to be working even harder to looks like Andy Hertzfeld and seems to have gained weight for the role.  I hardly even recognized him.  Of course I did recognize Jeff Daniels in his role as John Scully.  He’s alright but he maybe needs to step away from all these roles as authority figures in suits.  The one actor who does seem to struggle a bit with the Sorkin dialogue is Katherine Waterston, who plays Jobs’ baby-mama, though some of the writing she has to deal with might be a little weaker than the rest.

Of course at the center of the film is Michael Fassbender, and actor who’s pretty much done no wrong since he burst onto the scene in 2008.  I will give him this, Fassbender certainly gives this his all and is pretty good in certain scenes, but I also can’t shake the feeling that he’s been completely miscast.  The biggest problem is pretty obvious: Michael Fassbender does not looks or sound anything like the real Steve Jobs.  To be fair, in the third segment he does a pretty serviceable job of imitating the late period black turtleneck wearing Steve Jobs (let’s just ignore the fact that he wouldn’t actually start looking and dressing like that until a few years later) but the problem is a lot bigger in the first and second segments.  Fassbender just isn’t a geek.  He’s a muscular and commanding presence with a chiseled jaw and he looks significantly more capable of beating people up than Jobs or anyone else who was in the computer industry in the eighties should.  He certainly doesn’t looks like the dark brown haired and slightly pudgy guy who you can see in stock footage on Youtube giving the actual presentations being dramatized here.  Danny Boyle had to be aware of this problem when he cast Fassbender so I’m guessing he was trying to fly in the face of the recent-ish trend of actors trying to do pitch-perfect imitations of celebrities in pursuit of Oscars and may also have been some kind of attempt to make Jobs actually look like the rock star that people perceive him to be.  It’s a testament to Fassbender’s skill as an actor that he almost makes this work and if you’re willing to just go with it it doesn’t get too much in the way of the movie, but I do think it was a bad decision on Boyle’s part.

There’s a line in Steve Jobs where someone says “It’s not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time.”  That’s a bit on the nose, but that’s not the point.  The concept of the binary does seem to come up a lot in Jobs’ life.  In Walter Isaacson’s book it’s frequently described that Jobs almost never held a middle-ground when someone turned in a design, he always either said it was “brilliant” or that it was “shitty.”  In fact there’s a certain binary quality to reading that Isaacson book.  Half the time you’re reading it you think he’s a psychotic asshole and the other half you find yourself thinking “hmmm, maybe this guy was brilliant after all.”  Sorkin’s screenplay does recognize this and wisely does try to render Jobs in all his complexity.  However, there’s also a binary quality to Danny Boyle’s film as well in that certain elements of it really work and certain elements really don’t.  There are a couple of scenes like Jobs’ cross-cut argument with Scully and Wozniak big confrontation with Jobs that are really great, but then there are other moments where Sorkin’s contrivances made kind of cringe.  What isn’t binary is my opinion of the film, which I ultimately think is a mixed bag of a movie that maybe tried a little too hard to think differently about the biopic format for its own good.  To its credit though I do think the good choices outweigh the bad and I’ll also say that the film gets better as it goes with the third segment working significantly better than the first.

*** out of Four

Victoria(10/18/2015)

There was a movie a couple of years ago that I was really fond of called Blancanieves, from the Spanish director Pablo Berger.  The movie was a retelling of the Snow White but was set in 1920s Spain and it found interesting ways around the original story’s supernatural elements.  It was also notable because it tried to capture that 20s atmosphere by taking on the form of a black and white silent movie.  That would been a bold choice that would have really stood out had it not been for another movie called The Artist which was being made around the same time unbeknownst to Berger.  You can probably guess what happened, The Artist became an Oscar winning sensation while Blancanieves was completely overshadowed and was seen by only a select few now that someone else had claimed its high concept.  That was unfortunate because I thought Blancanieves was actually a lot better than The Artist and had it not lost the race to theaters it may have had a much different fate.  I bring this up because the new German film Victoria, which was told entirely in one shot, may well suffer a similar fate simply because it has the great misfortune of coming out the year after another film that seemingly told an entire story in a single shot: Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman.

The film begins with its title character, Victoria (Laia Costa), in a nightclub in the middle of Berlin where she meets a cadre of locals who offer to give her a tour of the “real” Berlin.  This band of young outgoing Germans include Sonne (Frederick Lau) who quickly makes a connection with Victoria, an ex-con named Boxer (Franz Rogowski), and a couple of party animals named Blinker (Burak Yigit) and Fuss (Max Mauff).  The five quickly make a bond as they engage in some lighthearted and alcohol fueled mischief like swiping beers from a convenience store and sneaking onto the roof of a commercial building to hang out.  It’s looking like this brief night of merriment is about to come to an end when the guys inform Victoria that they’re in a bit of a jam.  They’ve all reluctantly pledged to rob a bank for a local gangster in order to pay off a debt that Boxer had incurred from receiving protection while in prison and now that one of them has been left sick because of their night of debauchery they are short a man.  They ask her if she’ll be their wheelman and she reluctantly accepts, perhaps not quite grasping how quickly this night is going to go badly for all involved.

As I said earlier, Victoria will probably live in the shadow of Birdman for quite a long time, which perhaps isn’t really fair because outside of the movies’ shared gimmick they don’t really have all that much in common.  Obviously the movies inhabit entirely different genres and have dramatically different tones, but there are key differences to how they employ their single-shot presentations as well.  Birdman achieved its single shot through a wide variety of computer tricks and invisible edits whereas, by all accounts, Victoria is the real deal: a film that was truly made in one long take.  What’s more, the movie is a good twenty minutes longer than Birdman, has its characters traveling all over a handful of city blocks instead of being confined to a single theater, it’s in real-time, it’s in widescreen, and it features a number of action moments that differentiates it from other “one take” stunts like Rope and Russian Ark.  Promotional materials for the film go out of their way to brag about how hard the filmmakers made this on themselves which seems a little misguided to me.  Filmmaking is not about how hard you work when filming something, it’s about the final product, and I wouldn’t have thought any less of the film if it had achieved the same effect by “cheating” and using a hundred invisible cuts.

None of that is to suggest that making the film appear to be a single shot was a bad idea or that I think the filmmakers are just trying to show off.  This technique actually makes a lot of sense for this story because the film is all about just how quickly your life can turn on a dime.  The film takes a good hour or so before the bank robbery is introduced in order to establish this character and show her building this bond with the guys she met and establishing her carefree young party-girl lifestyle.  That her life would go from this pleasant place to a place where she’s in the midst of abject chaos in two short hours, hours we see play out in their entirety, does give you something to ponder.  I’m not, however, all that sure what to think about the film’s main character.  It’s one thing for a character to be somewhat devil-may-care and another thing to just casually go along on a bank robbery out of loyalty to a bunch of guys you’ve literally only known for a little over an hour.  If the filmmakers really wanted me to make that big of a leap they probably should have done a little more to establish Victoria as not only a bit of a party girl but also a, for lack of a better term, badass bitch.

Ultimately this isn’t a movie that has a whole lot to say: it’s mostly an action thriller layered on top of a technical exercise, but on that level is quite effective.  Even if this wasn’t being done in a single shot its kinetic and mostly handheld but not overly shaky photography would be pretty effective at keeping the movie exciting and the film’s actors, who apparently improvised most of the film’s dialogue, do a really good job of making these characters easy enough to relate to and empathize with.  The film definitely had my attention for most of its 138 minute running time and was definitely entertained to my satisfaction.  At the same time, if you’re going to go through this much trouble to make something you’d think it would be in service of something that has a little more to say.  That’s the main reason that this probably isn’t going to have quite the same pull that Birdman did and in the marketplace it could fall into the difficult position of not really being artsy enough for the arthouse crowd but too “weird” for the multiplex, but I definitely liked it and so will most audiences who want to watch filmmakers pull off this stunt.

*** out of Four

Bridge of Spies(10/17/2015)

Given their lovable all-American personalities you’d think that Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks would have worked together more than they have.  They’re paths never actually crossed until 1998 when they made Saving Private Ryan, which is an acknowledged classic of sorts, but I don’t know that Hanks was instrumental to its success and outside of that movie the pairing has not always been golden.  That’s not to say that the two make bad movies when they get together, far from it, Catch Me if You Can is widely liked and The Terminal is a lot better than its reputation would have you think.  However, neither of those movies are what you’d call “classics.”  On the contrary, they’re the kind of movies you catch on HBO or something, think “wow, that was really good,” but then never think about again un-prompted.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but when Steven Spielberg makes a movie it’s supposed to be an event, he’s capable of such greatness that when he opts just to make a simple well-made drama it kind of feels like a waste of potential.   So what is it about the Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg that has underwhelmed more than not?  I think it might be that the two are so simpatico in their old school populism that they don’t really challenge each other.  It’s been a decade since The Terminal and only now have they tried to have another go, this time in the form of a cold war era period piece called Bridge of Spies.

The film recounts an incident which was front page news in the 50s but which isn’t particularly well known today.  It begins in 1957 with the arrest of an aging man named Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) in his Brooklyn apartment by the FBI for allegedly engaging in acts of espionage.  Abel is guilty of everything he’s been accused of, this is shown to the audience in no uncertain terms within the first five minutes of the film, but that’s perhaps beyond the point.  Quickly the film begins to focus on attorney James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), who is tapped to represent Abel in court despite the fact that it would make him very unpopular with the public.  This is not predominantly a courtroom drama however and this section of the film focuses primarily on how much the deck is stacked against Abel and how much of a hated figure he was during the Red Scare.  As this is going on we get a parallel story about an air force pilot named Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) who is tasked with flying U2 reconnaissance missions over Russia until one day his plane is shot down and he parachutes into enemy territory and is captured soon thereafter.  It’s soon proposed that Abel and Powers could be swapped in a prisoner exchange but the U.S. government can’t really negotiate for it themselves and instead Donovan is sent to East Germany to negotiate on their behalf.

As I said earlier this isn’t really a courtroom drama and despite the title I wouldn’t really think of it as a spy movie either.  Espionage is certainly going on in the background but it’s espionage of a highly realistic nature and it isn’t the focus.  Instead this is should be viewed as a historical drama of the “fascinating untold true story” variety.  The story itself is certainly interesting but it doesn’t exactly seem like a story that was screaming to be filmed by the world’s most famous filmmaker, so what exactly attracted Spielberg to the project?  I think it’s because Spielberg sees certain parallels between the story and the world of today.  This is especially true of the first half of the film, where everyone seems to want to railroad Abel into the electric chair and don’t seem to think that the normal laws of American justice apply to him because “we’re at war.”  This is not dissimilar to what has been happening to Guantanamo detainees and the pressure that their attorneys face is not unlike some stories I’ve heard from people who are representing accused terrorists.  Additionally I think that Spielberg, the director of Munich, might have had Israel on his mind when he chose to make the film.  Prisoner exchanges with the Palestinians are a semi-regular occurrence in Israel and tensions around them run high.  Returned prisoners feel a great deal of guilt and face a certain level of prosecution and I suspect that the attorneys tasked with representing terrorists over there face all of the same challenges that Donovan did.

Bridge of Spies is not the kind of huge production that Steven Spielberg made his name one, rather it’s the kind of mid-budget drama that Hollywood supposedly doesn’t make anymore, but Spielberg does add in a couple of touches that make the film stand out.  Much of the second half of the film is set in the hornet’s nest that was a divided Berlin and is actually set right as the Berlin Wall was being built.  I don’t know that I’ve seen another movie that focuses on this particular moment in history and brining a unique milieu to the screen helps a lot.  Spielberg also provides a couple of neat flourishes, in particular he seems to have developed an eye for these trick scene transitions.  For example there’s one moment where a judge walks into a courtroom and says “all rise,” at which point the movie cuts not to a courtroom standing up but to a classroom full of kids standing up to give the pledge of allegiance.  It’s also worth noting that this is the first Spielberg film in a very long time not to feature a score by John Williams, who was busy working on the music for the new Star Wars.  In Williams’ place is Thomas Newman, though this doesn’t make as much of a difference as you’d think.  Williams is best known for his rousing themes for epic action movies and while his scores for smaller Spielberg movies like Lincoln have been solid they don’t necessarily bring a whole lot to the table that other composers couldn’t.

Back during the 2012 Oscar race I heard some pretty valid arguments that if Spielberg’s credit had been put at the end of Argo instead of Lincoln it would have likely been seen as one of his lesser efforts and likely would have been held to a much higher standard and while it likely would have still been enjoyed by audiences but would have gotten a less rapturous reception.  Its been three years and now Spielberg has seemingly put that theory to the test by making a movie that is in fact roughly analogous to Argo and is indeed likely to have a much more muted response.  That response is partly because Argo is in fact a more energetic and audience pleasing film, but another big part of it is simply that artists place on themselves by setting high expectations.  I’m as susceptible to this as anyone, which is why I find it so hard to be wildly enthused by this movie even though I have very few actual complaints about it.  It’s a really well made drama with some interesting things to say and it tells its story very effectively.  I enjoyed my time with the movie but I don’t see it making a particularly long lasting impression.

***1/2 out of Four

Home Video Round-Up: 11/1/2015

 

Unfriended (10/14/2015)

It was pretty easy to make fun of this thing before it came out.  This is a movie about a haunted Skype call, if that doesn’t sound like a lame attempt to cash in on internet buzzwords and the success of movies like Paranormal Activity I don’t know what does.  However, as the movie started to actually get screened a surprising number of critics came out to defend it.  Indeed, this movie is better than you’d think and the lowered expectations probably did do it some favors.  The movie essentially captures a single computer monitor and up on the silver screen as five teenagers on a Skype call go through a deadly ordeal over the course of an evening when the ghost of a former friend takes over their technology, reveals their deep dark secrets, and kills anyone who dares to disconnect with this doomed communication.  To enjoy the film one must overcome two major hurdles: 1. they need to be willing to go along with the whole “haunted internet” concept and 2. they have to be willing to find some empathy for these teenage characters even though they are all awful people in the way that teenagers usually are.  To the film’s credit, it seems to be well aware of how unpleasant these people are and actually has a pretty interesting arc in which the main protagonist, who is initially set up to be a sort of innocent “final girl,” slowly comes to realize and admit that she’s not any better than the other teenagers and the whole film is about these people’s awfulness coming home to roost.  The movie does start to lose some of its effectiveness after about two thirds of its running time and it does kind of feel almost like a short from one of those VHS or ABCs of Death compilations run amok, but it does have a lot more cred than I expected and its format is novel enough to make it an interesting watch.

*** out of Four

The Nightmare (10/20/2015)

Documentarian Rodney Asher first came to prominence when his 2012 film Room 237, which collected a variety of fan theories about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, debuted and was quickly acknowledged as a great study in obsession and in film analysis.  The fact that the film’s subject was a horror movie wasn’t really commented upon but Asher’s later work (including an ABCs of Death segment) has made it clear that Asher is very intently interested in what scares people and his latest film, The Nightmare, confirms that Asher has a very entrenched interest in horror cinema.  In fact The Nightmare might be the first documentary that could legitimately and unironicly be called a horror movie.  The film concerns a medical condition called Sleep Paralysis, in which people have frightening hallucinations that they can’t wake up from as they’re falling asleep or waking up.  There are no doctors or medical experts interviewed here, all the interview subjects here are actual sufferers of the condition and any background information is recanted by those sufferers as they explain how they came to learn about what was going on with them.  Much of the film consists of re-enactments of these nightmares that are narrated by the interview subjects.  These are not cheap re-enactments , they are fully produced horror scenes and a lot of them are absolutely freaky and the fact that they were actually experienced by real people (albeit in their sleep) gives them an extra chilling lair.   Asher also indulges his interest in pop culture by recounting how some of the interview subjects used movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Jacob’s Ladder, and Insidious, to contextualize what was happening to them.  I watch a pretty good number of documentaries and a lot of them are repetitive and lacking in cinematic flair, this one stands out because it is both unique and really skillfully made.

***1/2 out of Four

Insidious: Chapter 3 (10/23/2015)

I found the first Insidious movie to be a pretty pleasant surprise but the second one to be a pretty big step down.  I got sick of the haunted house/things going bump in the night brand of horror a long time ago and my interest in this series is rooted more in its clever “astral plane” concept than in its horror mechanics.  As such, it’s a little disappointing that this third installment is a prequel which steps back a lot from the internal rules of the series and focuses more on horror than on the ideas.  On the plus side, I do think that the simplicity here makes the horror elements work better here than they do in some of the other installments, even if its still pretty much just a long series of blatant jump scares.  On the down side it also means that the movie doesn’t really progress the overall story at all and it makes the film seem more like a sort of spinoff than a true continuation.  The secret weapon here is Lin Shaye, whose part has been expanded here and who really steps into the starring role in the second half of the film and seems to be really game to give this material her all.  We don’t often see mainstream horror movies that have 72 year old women as their stars and that makes the film’s finale fairly interesting.

*** out of Four

Approaching the Elephant (10/31/2015)

Approaching the Elephant is a documentary about a group of teacher who are attempting to put together a “free school” in which students aren’t forced to go to classes and make their own rules (outside of a few basic safety regulations) and generally aren’t disciplined outside of this class meetings where students vote on any rules they’re supposed to have.  I’ve heard about schools like this before and they always sounded absolutely insane to me and nothing in this documentary dissuades me from that conclusion.  While the school doesn’t fully descend into Lord of the Flies anarchy it certainly seems pretty chaotic and there seems to be very little evidence in the film of these kids ever actually advancing their academic skills in any way.  I guess I was “happy” to see my preconceived notions reinforced by the movie but really I kind of wished that the film would have given me a better idea of how things were supposed to go at a school like this when things are going right.  Amanda Rose Wilder does do an admirable job of sticking to the “fly-on-the-wall” principals of Cinéma Vérité and seemed willing to let the facts on the ground rather than any agenda decide what direction the film went and that’s pretty refreashing, but I do question her decision to film the movie in black and white and in the Academy Ratio, which mostly just came off as a rather pretentious attempt to make the film look like it was a D. A. Pennebaker movie from the 60s.

*** out of Four

’71 (11/1/2015)

This film about a soldier forced to survive behind “enemy lines” during the height of the Norther Ireland conflict got very strong reviews out of the UK, but for whatever reason it got a really tepid American release and shockingly hasn’t gotten a Blu-Ray release in region A in favor of a DVD-only home video release.  I guess the movie is a little too action focused to really impress the art-house crowd but too British and too realistic to really interest the action crowd.  That’s unfortunate because the movie is a really strong action/war film that shows “The Troubles” in a way I haven’t really seen before in that it looks less like a sort of cold war with occasional bombings and more like a hostile occupation.  In fact the opening conflict scene in which the protagonist is split from his division almost feels like it could just as easily be set in Iraq or Palestine.  The story isn’t terribly original, although it is interesting that this is essentially the inverse of Carol Reed’s 1947 classic Odd Man Out in that it’s about an English soldier caught in hostile territory rather than a militant caught in hostile territory.  The protagonist is also kind of a cipher and his personal journey is pretty limited.  The focus here is more on the visceral war scenes which are rendered quite exciting by rookie director Yann Demange, who makes great use of handheld camera and isn’t afraid to make this operate like an action film when necessary.  That is something that the film shares with The Hurt Locker and it also shares that movie’s somewhat frustrating failure to really make any kind of statement about the conflict it’s depicting, but as a sort of realistic action movie it definitely works.

***1/2 out of Four

Goodnight Mommy(10/11/2015)

More than any other type of film, horror cinema is dominated by sub-genres.  Just about every horror movie fits in some niche or another.  Some of them are simply characterized by whatever monster they’re about (zombie movies, vampire movies, etc.), some are characterized by the specific way their protagonist is stalked (slasher movies, found footage movies, haunting movies), and some are more rooted to a specific movement in the history of the genre (torture porn, J-horror, B-movies).  Dividing things into specific boxes is certainly a fun thing to do amongst film fans but there is a danger to doing that too.  Namely, when a movie comes along that can’t be easily fit into one of these sub-genres it can be hard to know just what to do with it and if you even want to call the work a horror movie.  Goodnight Mommy, the debut feature from Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala is sort of an example of this.  There no real doubt that this a film that’s rooted in horror and you can definitely see the influence of other horror films on it, but it isn’t tremendously easy to fit it into an existing sub-genre.

The film is set almost entirely on a somewhat secluded rural property where two twin boys named Lukas and Elias (played by a pair of twins who are actually named Lukas and Elias Schwarz) live with their mother (Susanne Wuest).  The mother, whose name is never revealed, is a local news broadcaster who’s separated from her husband and has recently gotten a nose job which has left almost her entire face covered with bandages.  The twins are oddly disturbed by the mother’s appearance behavior, she seems different from before and the two start having vividly disturbing dreams about her and start to wonder if she may be an imposter.

Goodnight Mommy has been advertised as a horror movie, and by its end it probably does earn that designation but it goes a pretty long time without really feeling like one.  For better or worse the movie is devoid of “jump scares” and is never in too much of a hurry to deliver “the goods.”  Instead it spends some time introducing us to these twins and it very cannily starts the audience in a sort of position of unease by tossing them into the story at a rather awkward moment without giving them a whole lot of explanation.  For a while it seems like these kids are living at this house all alone until the mother returns, seemingly after a lengthy absence, and the film takes a pretty long time to reveal why she’s in bandages.  Beyond that, the kids seem pretty weird themselves.  They have some pretty odd rituals, they collect bugs, they hang out in strange caverns and concern themselves with dead cats.  So from the get go you’re not quite sure what’s going on, you can tell there’s some trickery at play and all this builds towards the last third or so of the movie which gets surprisingly disturbing and violent.

As you can probably guess I’ve been dancing around a twist reveal, one which makes this pretty hard to talk about, so I’m going to issue a big spoiler warning going forward and tackle it unrestrained.  I went ahead and gave that spoiler warning but one of the film’s bigger weaknesses is that it really isn’t that hard to guess what the big twist is, especially given that the film sort of telegraphs that everything wasn’t going to be what it appeared.  The fact that one of the twins only speaks to his mother by whispering into the other twins ear is a pretty big giveaway that there’s only really one kid and it doesn’t take long to realize that the mother really isn’t doing much of anything that’s all that malevolent and that most of the creepy stuff related to her seems to be happening in dream sequences.

In many ways the film is a test study in the effect that perspective has on a film.  It is interesting how the film manages to illustrate the strange logic of a disturbed child but it’s also a double edged sword.  Because the film is with the children/child the whole way through it makes it a lot harder to empathize with the mother when things get nasty towards the end and as a result the film ends up not being all that scary and while there are moments of suspense they’re also undercut by the fact that the movie is essentially told from the perspective of the killers rather than the victim.  Instead the movie is just really really disturbing both in terms of its ideas and its violent content.  There’s nothing too wrong with that, I definitely like to be disturbed, but I have to wonder how effective the movie would be if it had swapped perspectives and been something a bit closer to The Babadook but with a significantly less happy ending.  As such I’m kind of lukewarm on the movie right now, but it’s been about a week since I saw it and some moment from it are definitely standing out in my memory and I’m beginning to think this may stick with me more than I thought.

*** out of Four