Your Name(4/9/2017)

I’ve been going to “arthouse” theaters for a little over ten years now and there’s one thing that’s remained a constant about these theaters since the beginning: the audiences at them are very old.  There are some young people who will show up to them occasionally, myself included, but I would bet that the median audience age at some of these theaters is sixty or over.  However, recently I went to one of these theaters to see an anime film called Your Name and was taken aback by what I saw: the crowd that had assembled to see the movie was the youngest set of faces I’d ever seen at that theater.  There were a couple of the “traditional” arthouse audiences members I’d normally expect to see at a place like this peppered in but most of the people there seemed to be college, maybe even high school aged or at least in their twenties.  At the age of 29 I may well have actually been in in the elder third of audience members at that theater for the first time in my life.  It was also a pretty large crowd in general.  These kind of theaters do fill up some times, usually when movies that are getting Oscar buzz make their local debut, but in general I expect Sunday afternoon screenings at these places to be half filled at most but this place was close to sold out.  It was heartening.  Of course a big part of this may be that, outside of its foreignness Your Name is not really an “arthouse film” at all.  In its native Japan it’s actually a huge blockbuster.  It’s made nearly $200 million dollars in that country alone making it the fourth highest grossing movie of all time in that country and it’s also done big business in China and South Korea.  Apparently that buzz reached across the pacific and generated a crowd to see the film now that it’s available in the United States.

Your Name appears to be set in present day Japan and concerns a pair of teenagers named Mitsuha Miyamizu (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Taki Tachibana (Ryunosuke Kamiki) who live far away from each other and seemingly have no connections to one another until one day they mysteriously begin to switch bodies ala Freaky Friday.  It’s not terribly clear why this is happening but seems to be connected to a comet that’s visible in the sky while all this is going on.  Mitsuha is a girl living in a remote little town called Itomori while Taki is a guy living in Tokyo so Mitsuha is thrilled to experience all the fun things in Taki’s life while Taki comes to be charmed by Mitsuha’s town and its quaint ways.  The two are not in this state permanently and seem to do these body switches only a couple of times a week and when they return to their own bodies their out of body experiences feel hazy, more like dreams they’ve woken from rather than clearly remembered experiences and the two leave notes for one another and set certain boundaries that the other shouldn’t be crossing.  This goes on for a little while and the film seems like a pretty pleasant little low stakes comedy but there is something else going on here and when it emerges it makes this experience all the more deep for both people involved.

Unlike other famous anime films like Akira or Princess Mononoke this is not a film that “needs” to be animated given its subject matter.  There’s obviously a fantasy element in its concept but it’s set in mundane contemporary locales and doesn’t have any monsters or anything but I also doubt that a live action version of this script would have made one third of a billion dollars.  I think one of the biggest advantages of the animated format here is that it makes the body swap concept a bit more organic than it would in a conventional film.  In live action films like Big and Freaky Friday these high concepts get gimmicky fast and turn into these actors’ showcases and the whole thing becomes about the performers acting strangely and nothing else.  Your Name isn’t devoid of the kind of gags that this scenario would invite but they don’t overpower it and the film does organically “get over” the basic strangeness of the situation and move on past the obvious jokes.  Additionally, the animated format helps to get past a few narrative conceits that are required to get past a few inconsistencies that occur in the second half.  I can’t get into too much more detail on this but there are a couple of aspects to this that would definitely be considered plot holes if you’re not able to accept that the time these two spend in each other’s bodies are experienced almost like dreams and the fact that the film has the extra layer of unreality that animation provides makes this work a little better.

There is a bit more going on here than initially meets the eye and there is a twist in the second half that does raise the stakes to the movie a little and take it in a bit of a different direction than it initially seems and this shift is pretty well handled but I won’t go into any further details.  Overall I did find this to be a fairly charming and entertaining movie, at least when taken in a certain spirit.  The movie is about teenagers, and to a certain extent it’s also made for them and you do need to put yourself into a bit of a “young adult” mentality in order to fully enjoy it.  People should not go into it expecting it to be the next Ghost in the Shell or something, but its relative lightness is also a big part of its appeal.  Anime is generally known to be made for something of a niche audience, but Your Name isn’t.  It’s more accessible to general audiences than the sci-fi/fantasy fare that anime is usually associated with in the west, but at the same time it’s a bigger and more notable film than the more tranquil “Josei” anime that often have trouble finding broader audiences.  That, I think, is a big part of why it’s managed to find such a wide audience.  The other part is that it’s just such a well-made and enjoyable piece of work with a nice blend of comedy and pathos.

X-Men: Apocalypse(5/30/2016)

We’ve long worried that there is a superhero bubble that’s about to burse and that audiences are finally going to get sick of seeing movies about costumed crimefighters and it feels like if there’s ever going to be an audience backlash against these movies it’s probably going to be in 2016.  The year isn’t even half over and we’re already at our fourth major superhero release and have two or three more to go (depending on whether you count Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).  Even crazier is that most of the superhero movies this year aren’t just about one superhero; they’re about superhero crossovers and teams.  Superman had to be going up against Batman and Wonder Woman, Captain America had to be in the midst of a star-studded civil war, and later we’ll be watching a group of super villains team up into a suicide squad.  As such it almost seems like one of the worst years for a film from the original cinematic superhero, the X-Men, to come out.  That’s unfortunate because this franchise should have been rushing in on a wave of momentum given that their last film, X-Men: Days of Future Past, was seen as something of a comeback high by a lot of filmgoers and critics.

This installment of the X franchise picks up about ten years after the end of the “past” section of the last movie and depicts the era in which the primary cast of the original X-Men movies are first being recruited into Xavier’s Academy.  Scott “Cyclops” Summers (Tye Sheridan) has just been recruited as the film opens and will soon meet a young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner).  This is fortuitous as Xavier and every mutant he’s in contact with will soon be tested by an ancient Egyptian mutant named Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) who has recently awoken and begun recruiting disaffected mutants like Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Archangel (Ben Hardy), and Storm (Alexandra Shipp) to be his “horsemen” and eventually he comes across the continually disaffected Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to be his second in command.  Soon this young cadre of mutants as well as some fence sitters like Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), side characters like Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and older allies like Beast (Nicholas Hoult) will be forced to rise to the occasion and take down this existential threat to human and mutant alike.

X-Men: Apocalypse is certainly a less ambitious movie than its predecessor in that it lacks X-Men: Days of Future Past’s cool time travel hook.  In many ways its business as usual for the X-Men franchise so your enthusiasm for this movie will probably vary by how much you’ve liked previous installments and how excited you are for more of the same.  This prequel trilogy continues to flesh out how we got to where we started with the series (even if it isn’t doing a terribly convincing job of making the characters age as the story moves through the decades).  The film also does very little to catch newcomers up with what’s been going on so this may not be the best entry point for newcomers to the series.  What the film does do pretty effectively is treat longtime fans of the series to a lot of nods to what they’ve liked in the past and to reward them for having kept up with the franchise for as long as they have.  Did you like the Quicksilver stuff from the last movie?  There’s more of that.  Did you hate X-Men 3?  There’s a thinly veiled dig at that movie.  Do you need more Wolverine in your life?  Well rest assured that Hugh Jackman has a prominent cameo.

If there’s a major flaw to be found here it’s that some of the returning cast feel a bit shoehorned into the film.  For instance, Mystique’s role in the whole series seems to have grown larger than it was ever intended to be, in part because the films feel obligated to give more and more screen time to Jennifer Lawrence (who wasn’t particularly famous yet when she was first cast in the role).  I’m also not sure that Magneto really belongs here either as his character would seem to be more complex than someone who would just team up with a supervillain like Apocalypse who is just evil with a capital “E.”  Speaking of Apocalypse… he’s not great but he was better than I expected.  The character has always been a bit stock going back to his role in the comics.  He’s basically X-Men’s answer to Thanos, who was himself kind of a ripoff of Darkseid, and given that I would be inclined to give the movie credit for doing the best they could to not simply make him a super-generic brooding villain.  I don’t know that this was the best use of Oscar Isaac’s time, but ultimately I do think the movie does more with this kind of villain than some of the Marvel movies like Thor: The Dark World and Guardians of the Galaxy were able to do with similar characters.

As for the new cast… most of them are pretty good but there wasn’t much in the way of a starmaking standout here.  Tye Sheridan is a decent Cyclops, Sophie Turner is a decent Jean Grey, Kodi Smit-McPhee is a decent Nightcrawler, Alexandra Shipp certainly looks like a pretty good Storm but is quickly put into a henchman role that doesn’t give her a lot to do.  None of these performances are bad at all, but this certainly isn’t the embarrassment of young acting riches that X-Men: First Class managed to stumble into.  I do look forward to seeing what all these characters are up to in the 90s, as for the current 80s exploits we’re witnessing here… I mostly enjoyed it.  I seem to be in the minority on this given that the movie is currently sitting at 48% on Rotten Tomatoes, and I don’t really get why… well, maybe I do.  I don’t think there’s much of anything awful or even bad about the movie but nothing about it really stands out either and I can see why people would maybe want to punish the series for treading water a bit in this installment.  Personally, I think there are much bigger offenses that other movies get passes for.  Also, I can’t help but look at weaker entries in this series and genre like X-Men: The Last Stand and this year’s Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice (a movie whose ineptitude will make a lot of other superhero movies this year look damn good by comparison) and feel that this has a lot more going for it.

The Witch(2/20/2016)

The 2010s have, on balance, been a rather frustrating decade for horror so far.  2009’s Paranormal Activity did a real number on mainstream horror and have ushered in a truly frustrating era where seemingly every horror flick has been about invisible ghosts banging doors and rattling chains for 90 minutes with maybe an exorcism or something at the end.  This isn’t to say that there isn’t some fun to be had from such movies and that I don’t enjoy the best of them, but they seem particularly cheap and uninspired on balance.  At least during the Saw/Hostel era of hyper-violent “torture porn” you could at least have fun pretending that the movies were allegories for Abu Ghraib or something, but this new crop is pretty much just an exercise in how it’s kind of fun to have things jump out at you sand say “boo!”  In the last two years we were given two movies that rose above the fray and seemed like they were finally signs of change: The Babadook and It Follows.  I liked both of those movies a lot, but I also thought both of them were a little less revolutionary than they seemed.  The Babadook in particular was actually a lot closer to the “people haunted by spectral being that shows up and goes boo” formula that I’d long gotten sick of.  It was really well made and cleverly used psychology rather than religion as the basis of its creepiness.  It Follows, was slightly more original in so much as the ghost behaved differently from usual but it had its own baggage, namely that it’s style aped a little too much from John Carpenter.  It’s a new year now and with it comes the new “next great hope” for the horror genre and one of the most promising yet in the new film The Witch.

The film is set in late 17th Century New England, and focuses on a family of puritans who have been banished from the main puritan city for having unspecified theological differences with the village orthodoxy and have ventured out to start their own farm away from civilization.  The movie picks up a year or so later when this farm has been established but is not exactly prospering.  The patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson), is not a particularly good farmer or hunter and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) has increasingly come to suspect that providence does not look kindly on their endeavors.  Things really start to go awry when their infant child seemingly vanishes into thin air while their eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is watching him, leading to grave suspicion that something is amiss either in the woods or in the house.

Obviously the first thing that jumps out to the viewer about The Witch is its unique setting.  There have not been many movies about the puritans outside of a few adaptations of The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible and it’s readily apparent that writer/director Robert Eggers has done his research.  The film uses what sounds like period accurate dialogue that gives the film a needed verisimilitude and also makes the film distinctive from other horror movies.  There’s kind of a widespread problem in cinema, and especially in genre cinema, where filmmakers are so obsessed with film that they end up drawing all their inspiration from other movies rather than the wider culture.  There’s certainly a place for that (e.g. Tarantino), there’s really something refreshing about seeing a filmmaker come around who seems like he’s read a lot of books and has a wider base of knowledge to draw from.

To some extent this is still a haunting film of sorts but the feel is so radically different from the Insidiouses, Sinisters, and Conjurings out there that it’s barely noticeable.  For one thing, the movie is largely devoid of “jump scares” and instead uses creepy images and ideas to fuel its thrills.  I’m not going to say that this is the scariest movie one is likely to see and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to anyone as such, but it taps into the roots of the genre and uses interesting imagery and ideas to create unease in his audience but he also taps into some very human psychology to examine the paranoia of the situation.  The film never plays coy about the fact that there is real and literal witchcraft plaguing this family, but it’s never clear to the family what’s plaguing them and they quickly begin to turn on each other in much the way things played out in Salem during the witch trials.  This works in part because the film has done its work to build and develop the four main family members in the film and give each of them a fully fleshed out set of motives and conflicts.

The Witch is the first film from its director and its one hell of a debut at that.  There’s a wonderful maturity to the film and a great uncompromising spirit to it.  It doesn’t feel the need to dumb itself down for a mainstream audience and doesn’t pander to the whims of the hardcore horror audience.  I began this review by pondering if The Witch would be the movie that would finally knock us out of this rut we’re in where every horror movie feels like a variation on Paranormal Activity.  In the short term the answer is probably “no.”  I don’t think this movie is going to be a box office smash and I don’t think studios are going to be rushing out to make clones of this.  However, I do think that this movie is going to make a lot of noise in the greater film world and I do think it will have influence down the line.  At the very least I’m hoping it will influence a few other directors working in the genre space to aim a little higher and give them the courage to aim a little higher and compromise a little less.

A War(2/28/2016)

The Academy Awards do a lot of things to the film release schedule, but one of the more useful things it does is bring a handful of foreign films stateside each year because they end up in the Best Foreign Language Film category.  The Academy has a strange and sometimes infuriating process for picking the nominees in that category which involves countries submitting films to be considered by a committee of Academy voters (often elderly ones with time to watch all of them) that often has very different ideas of what belongs among the nominees than the critical community.  I used to hate this, but lately I’ve kind of come to terms with it in that it does occasionally lead to some interesting discoveries that the festival scene didn’t bring attention to and every once in a while a gem slips through (see 2002 winner Nowhere in Africa).  This year two of the five nominees (Hungary’s Son of Saul and Turkey by way of France’s Mustang) were fairly popular with critics and arthouse audiences and I liked both of them a lot, the other three come a bit more from the fringes.  Two of them (Columbia’s Embrace the Serpent and Jordan’s Theeb) have not had a theatrical release in my area yet but one of them did manage to open near me so I thought I’d check it out.

Denmark’s A War is about a platoon of Danish soldiers in Afghanistan and specifically about their commanding officer Claus M. Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) who is known to go out in the field more than most people of his rank.  The film cuts between his military exploits and those of his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) back in Denmark who is raising his three children.  As the film begins it seems like a fairly straightforward “tour of duty” movie where stress builds and horrors of war and uncovered, but then it takes a turn about halfway through when a mission goes wrong and Pedersen makes a decision under duress that leaves a number of civilians dead.  Pedersen feels fully justified in his action but is soon investigated and charged with a war crime.  He returns to Denmark to face these charges that could end his career and land him in prison.

A War was directed by a guy named Tobias Lindholm, who rose to prominence a couple of years ago with a film called A Hijacking (the guy is clear a fan of indefinite articles).  That movie was often compared with the film Captain Phillips as both films covered a similar situation but Lindholm’s movie took a notably rawer and less “Hollywood” approach about the sometimes banal realities of hostage negotiation.  Given the reputation of that film I was almost expecting A War to be almost a Dogma-95 take on the war film and was actually surprised to find the film’s style to be as palatable as it was.  The film is certainly lower budget than a Hollywood war film, but it doesn’t look like it was shot on a shoestring either and Lindholm isn’t using any sort of minimalist handheld aesthetic and his screenplay isn’t filled with artistic pauses or meta-elements.  In other words, the filmmaking is straightforward and isn’t really in opposition to the usual rules of how to film a drama.

So it would seem that Lindholm is interested in giving the film a simple style so as to get out of the way and let the ideas play out, but those had better be pretty damn interesting ideas and I was actually kind of disappointed at how simple the court case at the center of the film was.  In the moment the decision that Pedersen made seemed pretty simple: terrorists were shooting at his men, he didn’t know exactly where they were, so he calls in an airstrike to clear out everything in the vicinity of the gunfire.  In essence his sin was to value the lives of his men (people who signed up for this dangerous adventure) over the lives of innocent bystanders.  That’s an interesting quagmire.  That is not, however, what is the question at the center of the court trial.  The issue there is quite simple: was there PID (Positive Identification) that the shots were coming from the building he ordered the airstrike on.  If he did have PID on the building and there were still civilians in it that is immaterial, if he didn’t have PID on the building and there weren’t civilians that would still be a breach of protocol (albeit one that likely wouldn’t have gone to trial). So, most of the debates that happen in this courtroom end up being factual rather than moral in nature, which to be fair is probably truer to life, but it still seems like a not overly dramatic case to hang a film on.

So, what we’re left with is a moderately interesting case told in a moderately interesting way and… that just doesn’t seem like enough to really make a movie like this stand out.  It lacks the heightened drama of something like A Few Good Men or the institutional critique of something like Breaker Morant.  The point is, I suppose, to present something a bit more real and down to earth than those movies but if that was the plan I’m not really sure that Lindholm went far enough.  This seems less like some kind of radical work of realism and more like a conventional drama that simply isn’t very dramatic.  It’s certainly not a bad movie mind you, it’s decently well told and does leave you with a few interesting things to think about. The acting is good, there are certainly some well rendered scenes, but it definitely isn’t the best of what world cinema has to offer.  Of course sometimes straightforward movies told in simple ways about seemingly important subject matter is sometimes what the Academy goes for (just look at this year’s best picture winner) but it usually isn’t what makes your movie something people remember after a while.


Being an amateur film critic, or any other kind of film critic probably, is having to make snap judgements that you’re not always ready to make.  Usually I’m pretty confident with my calls but every once in a while something comes along which I really don’t know what to do with.  Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 film The Great Beauty was one of those films.  That film, which was about a larger than life character’s journey through the Roman upper-class and his ultimate crisis of purpose was one of the most critically acclaimed movies of that year but I wasn’t quite feeling it.  That it was a “good” movie was self-evident, it was energetic, well crafted, often fascinating, and certainly worthy of any good cinephille’s time but it was also a movie that boldly invoked the Italian giants of old like Fellini and Antonioni without ever escaping from their shadows.  What’s more I wasn’t sure what ultimate truth the movie was going for.  It seemed like a movie that wanted to be about everything and it consequently ended up being about nothing… or maybe there was something there and I just wasn’t grasping it on first viewing.  Either way I was excited to see Sorrentino’s follow-up film, Youth, an English language production starring a number of Hollywood talents from yesterday and today.

At the center of this film is another larger than life figure in his twilight years, this time a famous British composer named Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) who is staying at a luxury spa/resort in the Swiss Alps.  Ballinger has retired from composing and conducting, in part because his wife is no longer with him and he considered her singing voice to be a key component of his music, though he still gets many offers to come out of retirement, most recently from an emissary for the Queen of England (Alex Macqueen) who is desperate to talk him out of retirement for a Royal event.  Ballinger is joined at this resort by a long-time friend of his, a well-respected film director from the New Hollywood era named Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) who is retreating with a group of screenwriters in order to write his next film.  He’s also joined by his daughter Lena Ballinger (Rachel Weisz) who doubles as his business manager and is going through something of a personal crisis because she’s recently learned that her husband is leaving her for another woman.  He’s also formed something of a friendship with a younger actor named Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), who’s come to be sort of haunted by the success of a lame Hollywood franchise blockbuster he starred in for a paycheck.

Given that he’s now made two straight movies about legendary creative figures in their twilight years looking back on their lives and contemplating what it all means, you would think that Paolo Sorrentino would himself be a veteran filmmaker contemplating a long legacy but while he does have a handful of well-respected films he’s hardly a legend at this point in his career.  In fact, he’s only 45, which is fairly young in director-years.  He’s younger than Quentin Tarantino, he’s younger than Wes Anderson, he’s younger than Darren Aronofsky, he’s even younger than Spike Jonze… so why does he have this fixation on aging and legacy?  If there’s one overwhelming reservation I have about both this film and The Great Beauty it’s that I feel like they would have a lot more resonance if they were coming at the tail end of the career of an actual veteran like Martin Scorsese, Bernardo Bertolucci, or Francis Ford Coppola.  But perhaps it’s more than a little unfair to demand that a film make perfect sense within the biography of its maker and I feel like Youth, which as the title would imply is much more focused on themes of aging, handles this mode better than its predecessor.

Do not let the fact that this movie is in English and features a marketable celebrity cast fool you into thinking that this is a Hollywood prestige film of the Miramax variety; this is a Euro-arthouse movie through and through.  Stylistically, the movie picks up right where The Great Beauty left off.  Sorrentino doesn’t really do naturalism, at least not in these movies, and sets them in a sort of heightened reality inhabited by wealthy intellectuals.  These characters tend to speak in rather lofty terms and the movie also isn’t afraid to go off topic occasionally to show some of the more unusual aspects of this resort’s decadence like a rotating stage where rock bands occasionally perform or some of its more colorful guests like an obese Latino man with a giant Karl Marx tattoo on his back.  I’d be lying if I said I could explain the meaning behind every one of the films digressions but for the most part I think they add a lot of flavor to the movie and make it distinctive although occasionally it does maybe go a little too far with its weirdness (like the appearance of someone who’s looking a lot like a certain infamous Austrian).

At the center of the film is Michael Caine, an actor who earned his place in the pantheon a long time ago but who’s often relegated to supporting roles in his old age.  Youth is the best showcase of his skills in a while.  Caine has never really been the kind of actor who disappears into a role and he doesn’t do that here either but he definitely brings his A-game just the same to a role that I’m assuming was written specifically for him.  Rachel Weitz also gives a strong, somewhat understated performance and while I don’t necessarily like Paul Dano as an actor he does make a nice quirky presence here, and Jane Fonda also makes a memorable appearance late in the movie playing a larger than life character in a larger than life fashion.  The actor that really stood out to me though was probably Harvey Keitel, a great actor who is all too often treated like little more than “the guy you get when you can’t afford Robert De Niro” by Hollywood, which has resulted in him being in far too many movies where he’s forced to just shout at people and that’s made it easy for kind of overlook him.  His work here is something of a revelation in part because he’s allowed to lighten up and be friends with Caine’s character and act like something of a yin to Caine’s yang even if there is something of a dark undercurrent below the surface of the character.

Of course (and I might start getting a little spoilery here) the big irony here is that the optimistic Harvey Keitel character ends up a lot worse off by the end of the film than the embittered and resigned Michael Caine character and I think that the reason for this is that Caine’s character is the one who finds a better way to cope with the modern world.  Where Keitel’s character was unable to cope with a world where he wasn’t doing exactly what he had been doing his whole life, Caine’s character finds a way to continue engaging with the arts while also stepping aside and letting a new generation step into his old shoes.  Of course the fact that this message is coming from an artist who is himself a relatively young man who is carrying on the tradition of old masters there may be a meta layer to all this… or maybe not… I’m not exactly sure yet.  This is really a movie that might need another look before I can render final judgement but I will say that the movie I saw was very intriguing and definitely worth untangling.

***1/2 out of Four


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