Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Saturday, October 22, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Beyond the Hills (2012)

Director: Cristian Mungiu
Starring: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur
Country: Romania

It’s no small feat to tell an even-handed account of a religious community that kills a young woman while in the process of trying to perform an exorcism on her, but that’s exactly what Cristian Mungiu does with Beyond the Hills. A villain would not be hard to find in this kind of story, but Mungiu avoids taking the easy road, taking a complex view that underscores how misguided and dangerous strict adherence to a narrow worldview can be and finding a way to have some degree of compassion for everyone involved. Knowing that what unfolds is based on an actual incident that occurred in 2005, and which was fictionalized in the novels “Deadly Confession” and “Judges’ Book” by Tatiana Niculescu Bran, which together form the basis of the film’s screenplay, Beyond the Hills can be a difficult watch, but it’s a deeply engrossing film that sticks with you.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Ten Years Later... Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, Jesse Bradford

Few filmmakers have been as tireless as Clint Eastwood, having directed 35 feature films in the last 45 years and easily qualifying as having made one of the most successful transitions from actor to director. In that time he's made some great movies, but he's never been as ambitious as he was when he decided to tackle the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima over the course of two films in order to explore the perspective from each side of the conflict. At the time of its production Flags of Our Fathers must have seemed like a sure thing - so sure that the studio was willing to shell out the extra money to make Letters from Iwo Jima even though that film, regardless of quality, was bound to lose money in the domestic market by virtue of not being in English and not being about the American side of the conflict - a film that would hit that sweet spot where prestige meets profit. Yet when all was said and done, Flags of Our Fathers only ended up with 2 Oscar nominations (to Letters from Iwo Jima's 4) and would fail rather badly at the box office, bringing in only $33 million domestically and $65 million worldwide against a budget of $90 million and becoming one of Eastwood's least financially successful films as a director. In hindsight, it's easy to understand why that happened; although it has some of the hallmarks of the patriotism stirring, "rah rah" kind of war movie, it's doing something a lot more complicated than that and a lot more critical.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Review: The Girl on the Train (2016)

* * 1/2

Director: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emily Blunt

Back in the day, when the "erotic thriller" was a staple of Hollywood's annual output, there was many a story that turned on "crazy bitches" and the poor men whose errant libidos placed them in those women's sights. In those narratives the woman, who appears at first attractive and sexually available and then reveals herself to be violently unstable, becomes a thorn in the side of a good man who made a mistake and who is redeemed for his misdeeds by being targeted by the woman, while the woman is typically punished with death. In these stories the woman is always crazy, her wrath unprovoked, the man a victim. The Girl on the Train is a story told from the point of view of the "crazy bitch," who maybe isn't so crazy, whose wrath maybe isn't so unprovoked, whose "victims" maybe aren't so innocent after all. If only the movie were a little bit better, this would make for a refreshing change of pace. But, hey, great performance from Emily Blunt nevertheless.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Netflix Recommends... All Good Things (2010)

* * *

Director: Andrew Jerecki
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst

It says a lot about a person if they can watch a film based on events of their own life which depict them as weak-willed, mentally unstable, a spousal abuser, the murderer of two people and the instigator of the murder of a third, and think, "I find this portrayal very flattering." Maybe it's just that being played by Ryan Gosling goes a long way. The story presented by All Good Things, which is a "names have been changed" version of the life of Robert Durst, is odd enough as it is. It's even odder when you factor in that Durst's enjoyment of the film prompted him to reach out to director Andrew Jerecki and agree to be interviewed, which in turn resulted in the television miniseries The Jinx, which in turn resulted in Durst being arrested and charged with one of the murders depicted in this film. Life is always so much stranger than fiction.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Review: 13th (2016)

* * * *

Director: Ava DuVernay

Words matter, which is part of the reason why the last several months have been so infuriating, as so many people with political power and media platforms have refused to call a spade a spade as a man who has built his campaign around racist policies and has explicitly encouraged racially charged violence at his rallies, and implicitly encouraged it at poling stations, runs for President. In an effort to avoid the accusation of "liberal bias," the media has helped cultivate the idea that the two major candidates are equally legitimate as candidates, even though one is basically just a politician - someone that you might agree with or might not, but who at least seems to understand and accept the limitations of power in a democracy - and the other is an insane megalomaniac who wants to curtail the freedom of the press, imprison his political rivals, outlaw a religion he doesn't like, and literally enclose his country inside a wall. Up until a week ago, when the tipping point was apparently reached, finally allowing all bets to be off, even the media outlets calling out the Republican nominee had largely avoided coming right out and calling this what it is, preferring to use terms like "dog whistle" rather than simply say he's racist. Well, he's racist. He's racist in a way that would have given Strom Thurmond pause, and that dude was fucking racist. In this bizarro world of pulling punches, Ava DuVernay's 13th is a breath of fresh air for saying exactly what it thinks. Bracing, thought provoking, and urgent, 13th isn't just one of the most important films of the year, it's one of the best.