The Hunt

The-Hunt-Movie

Mads Mikkelsen in “The Hunt.”

Innocent until proven guilty is supposed to be the hallmark of the criminal justice system. The prosecution has to prove – beyond a reasonable doubt – that the accused actually committed the crime that he or she is accused of. At least that’s the theory.

The Hunt is a searing dramatic example of this basic failure. Mads Mikkelsen (Le Chiffre from Casino Royale, Hannibal from the excellent television show…Hannibal) is a quiet, friendly kindergarten teacher named Lucas. The kids love him and he has strong support from his community and wide group of friends. But despite a history of being a well-liked member of society, his life unravels because of a horrible accusation. This isn’t a courtroom movie – there is no trial, and the only scene that takes place before a judge happens offscreen. But the community determines that Lucas is guilty without any proof – and that’s that.

This is a frustrating film. In a good way. Lucas is powerless to stop public opinion. He becomes toxic and is treated as a persona non grata. He is shunned by his friends. And you can’t help but sympathize and be furious about the situation.

The film is very clear that Lucas is not guilty of what he has been accused of. The most aggravating scene in the film is when the kindergarten principal and her friend/associate – I think he’s a social worker – ask the little girl what happened with Lucas. The audience knows nothing happened; the little girl knows nothing happened; the adults suspect something happened, but don’t know what. And the “confession” is a series of suggestive questions that the little girl only answers by nodding her head because she thinks that’s what the adults want to hear while she just wants to go outside and play. And with that, Lucas’ fate is sealed.

The setting of the film is important. Lucas lives in a small town where everyone knows him. He seems like a good guy, perhaps a little quiet, but nothing out of the ordinary. The community knows that he has an ex-wife, and is going through a custody battle with her. He shops at the same stores, and goes hunting with many of the town’s men. But despite their familiarity with Lucas and his good nature, he’s instantly branded an outcast without a second thought. The townsfolk exact their retribution in cruel, violent ways, and you wouldn’t be wrong in wondering who the real the monsters of the film are.

Why is it that we can constantly criticize the government for its failings and stupidity, but when that same government accuses a citizen of a crime we blindly accept it’s correct without a second thought? It’s a good question, and one that watching The Hunt brought to my mind.

Grade: A 

Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler-2014I kept thinking about capitalism while watching Nightcrawler. Specifically those individuals that become “titans” of industries and whose lives require mandatory biographies. Alright, I was thinking about Steve Jobs. And how he was a big asshole to everybody but is still revered rather than reviled today. That’s the power of success. I think Lou Bloom is cut from the same mold, albeit a criminal and sociopathic version, so the comparison may be a bit of a stretch.

Nightcrawler is an amoral rags-to-riches tale. Although I wonder about characterizing it as “amoral.” The veneer of power, success, and wealth seems to make ethics a fluid concept. Who cares how Lou Bloom got where he is when he’ll just be envied and idolized for what he’s become?

Lou is a petty thief and scoundrel. He strips copper wire and steals scrap metal from private property. He doesn’t make a lot of money. It’s hard to be a good negotiator when you’re selling stolen goods. Even professional thieves can only get fifty cents on the dollar. Lou settles for less but dreams of more. He incessantly recites lines from self-help business books and websites, but it’s hard to tell if Lou’s encyclopedic knowledge of mantras reflects his belief that hard work really does get you ahead or if he’s just recycling phrases to get to his next score. He eventually finds his calling on the scene of a fiery highway crash: taking freelance footage of crime scenes to sell to the highest television news bidder.

The film plays out like a business textbook case study (albeit the darkest possible version imaginable). Rookie entrepreneur starts out with small contracts and small rewards. The money he earns is invested back in the business to buy better equipment and an employee to be competitive with the larger players. A merger is offered, and declined. The rookie focuses on creating the best product, and one the competition cannot replicate. The competition is eliminated and a hostile partnership with a news broadcaster is solidified, guaranteeing a steady stream of income. The rookie businessman finally has something he’s never had in negotiations before: leverage. And an empire is born.

Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the best actors working in Hollywood today. His latest projects (Enemy, Prisoners, End of Watch) are all fantastic films, and simply having his name attached to a project these days is practically a guaranteed endorsement of its quality. Nightcrawler is no exception to this rule. His portrayal of Lou Bloom in the film is a bug-eyed, electrifying performance and his emaciated appearance is a direct reflection on the emptiness of his soul. This ain’t no heartwarming Gyllenhaal. He’s on full-on creep mode in this film.

What I like about Nightcrawler is its subversion of the American Dream and unapologetic cynicism. Instead of working hard and being rewarded for your hard work, the message is boundless ambition, moral elasticity, and bending the rules as far as possible.

Grade: A

Interstellar

An interdimensional disappointment.

An interdimensional disappointment.

There are just some directors who shouldn’t attempt to do the mushy stuff. Play to your strengths, rather than make a half-baked story about parental responsibility, loss, and the enduring power of love. Christopher Nolan makes cold films, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, considering his filmography contains multiple movies that rightfully deserved to be called masterpieces. But his films are not good at being sentimental, or expressing emotions beyond jealousy, ambition, or dogged perseverance. Any time Nolan’s films have attempted a romantic subplot, they’re always the most criticized and forgettable parts of his films (looking at you Scarlett Johansson in The Prestige, and Katie Holmes/Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Dark Knight trilogy). Sure, the guy can create movies about pining for a lost love (Inception, Memento), but if that love is still alive – fuhgeddaboutit. Interstellar handles the complex themes of family, love, and the “fifth dimension” through clunky, awkward dialogue that’s on par with some of the crap George Lucas wrote for Star Wars Episode Two: Attack of the Clones. This movie is hugely disappointing.

Earth is going through a transition period – humans can only grow corn. At least, I think that’s what was going on. It’s all very confusing, because characters still drink beer, the water system still seems to be functioning, and kids still have to take science classes in school. It really doesn’t seem all that bad. Meanwhile dust storms are commonplace, and archival footage of the folks who lived through these terrible times reminiscing are interspersed throughout the first quarter of the film, and then that faux documentary trope is all but forgotten to move into the outer reaches of space.

But anyhow, Matthew McConaughey ekes out his existence as a farmer (of corn) with two kids – the dull son and the precocious daughter – whilst living with his grizzled father-in-law who moonlights as the kids’ grizzled babysitter. The daughter thinks a ghost lives in her room, and some spoookky occurrences gets Dad to start believing in the supernatural force too. Yada yada yada, ghost leads McConaughey to hidden scientific outpost and off on a rollicking space adventure, minus the rollicking part and heavy on the scenes talking about wormholes, relativity, and the quantum mechanics of love (not joking). There’s also supposed to be some poignancy about leaving your family behind to do something IMPORTANT and how you sacrifice making memories with your kids because you’re doing IMPORTANT things. Yes, the film is romanticizing a world where “work-life balance” is severely tilted to the work side of things.

The biggest problem I have with the film is the motivations of every single character don’t make sense.

1. McConaughey

McConaughey’s character is the dad who has to leave his kids behind to “save the world” but is tortured by the anguish that he won’t get to see them grow up. But he doesn’t have to leave. This is the future, where robots exist, and despite McConaughey being the “best damn pilot NASA has ever seen and the only one who can captain this ship” in the film’s climatic piloting scene McConaughey asks the robot to fly the ship for him to make a difficult manoeuvre. Half of the adventure is spent on auto-pilot while the human passengers slumber peacefully in cryo-sleep. Yet McConaughey is such an integral part of the mission because he can fly so good. Ugh.

Also, he’s supposed to love his children so much, but about half-way through the movie he forgets he has a son. Just watch. There’s a point where he’s crying because both of his children are growing up in front of his eyes, and then later, he’s just concerned about his daughter. I don’t know, I just find it a little difficult to empathize with a character when he doesn’t even really care about his kids.

2. Unnamed Celebrity Cameo

Yep, a Hollywood star pops up later in the film. He has a plan that makes absolutely no sense when you take the three seconds to think about it. Let’s just say he tells a fib, and then when he could own up to that fib, he decides to make it 1000x worse, and I still can’t understand what his endgame was. Please explain if you know.

3. Everyone else

This is getting long-winded, so every character has an issue. The first “Red Shirt” character stands beside a door that leads to safety. Instead of walking through the door himself, he watches for several minutes as another character is carried through the door after travelling a mile away. The stupidity of the character overshadows any of the pathos of his death.

Jessica Chastain’s character is supposed to be brilliant, but can’t see through the weakest of twists. Casey Affleck’s character inexplicably wants his suffering wife and child to die on his farm, even when offered the chance of medical care and safety.

Interstellar uses wafer-thin characters, cheap storytelling twists (way too much deus ex machina for one movie), and dresses it up using first-rate special effects and long-winded technobabble to make us believe that we’re watching something important and goads us to care more about the character’s plights than they do themselves. I didn’t buy it.

Grade: C

 

 

 

The Voices

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Jerry Hickfang (Ryan Reynolds) lives in a Technicolor dreamworld. He has a menial warehouse job where he wears full pink coveralls and spends the day lifting boxes of undisclosed items. He’s the socially awkward but sweet outsider. The type of person who couldn’t hurt a fly. But that’s looking at Jerry with rose-coloured glasses and ignoring the dark signs lurking beneath his simple exterior. Just ask his two pets for the truth – the cat Mr. Whiskers and the dog Bosco. They know Jerry well. So well, in fact, that they speak to him.

You see, Jerry has an undisclosed mental illness that he hides from his co-workers and leads him to well…some unwholesome activities. Think about Norman Bates, and imagine a film from his perspective. That’s the pitch for The Voices.

Despite the dark subject matter, The Voices plays out like a comedy. Mr. Whiskers is a foulmouthed cat with a Scottish accent that constantly berates and belittles Jerry. There’s something innately funny about a little cat dropping F-bombs, even if the joke wore a little thin after the fifth or sixth expletive-laden tirade. Bosco, on the other hand, is a sweet and slow Southerner. He praises Jerry’s efforts at being a “good boy” and tries to steer him away from the darker paths Mr. Whiskers attempts to lead him down. Both Mr. Whiskers and Bosco are voiced by an unrecognizable Ryan Reynolds (to stick with the theme that these voices are just in Jerry’s head) proving that he’s got some voice work chops in case the whole A-lister path doesn’t work out.

The Voices is a solid movie, albeit a slightly forgettable one. It’s nice to see Ryan Reynolds playing against type and intriguing to see a film from the psychotic killer’s perspective, but the film never goes beyond the concept. It’s summed up in one line: cat and dog talk to guy, guy kills someone, rinse and repeat. The film flirts a bit with unreliable narration, which I enjoyed, but I wish they went further with the idea rather than making it literally window dressing. Jerry’s arc is a straight line, when there should have a been a shift from seemingly nice guy to deranged nutcase. The film tries something different, but it doesn’t quite get there.

Grade: B 

Side note: You won’t believe the absurdity of the last scene before the credits. It’s great.

 

TIFF 2014: St. Vincent Review

St-Vincent-Movie

Bill Murray in “St. Vincent”

I really hate unnecessary accents. A couple of years ago at TIFF 2012, I saw an indie movie called Arthur Newman starring Colin Firth and Emily Blunt. It was about Colin Firth’s character reinventing himself to become a – wait for it – “new man.” For some reason, the director required Firth and Blunt (both English actors, with great English accents) to speak with American accents. With other actors, this might not have been an issue, but Firth’s entire acting career and screen persona revolves around his English accent. Take that away to add an unnecessary American accent (why couldn’t he just be a ex-pat Londoner living in America?) and the result is a distracting and self-conscious performance as Firth struggled with pronunciation and enunciation. St. Vincent forces different accents on Bill Murray and Naomi Watts with similarly unsatisfying results.

Vincent (Murray) is a hard-drinking, misanthropic gambler who may have been the stand-in for Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino. He’s gruff, speaks with a thick Brooklyn accent (completely stuttering Murray’s delivery), hates his neighbours, and disparages the Mexican movers who accidentally caused a tree branch to fall on his car. Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) have just moved in next door. Maggie works long hours, and one day after school, Oliver is locked outside of his house. It may be time to mention that Oliver doesn’t currently have a male role model in his life, while his mother and father are going through an acrimonious divorce. Enter Vincent as the reluctant baby-sitter of Oliver in About A Boy: Elder Edition.    

Hijinks ensue as the older man takes the young boy under his wing. There’s the required bullying scene (where Oliver gets bullied by a group of thugs and Vincent steps in), the inappropriate self-defence training (where Vincent teaches Oliver how to break a bully’s nose), and the hi-larious visits to inappropriate locations (strip club,  gambling at the race track) where the audience cannot believe that juxtaposition between that crazy Vincent and innocent Oliver. Hyuk Hyuk. I think I’ve seen this movie before, it might have been called Bad Santa then. The movie also slips in a subplot reminiscent  of The Notebook, a quickly dropped subplot about gambling debts with a bookie played by Terrence Howard (! – also with a completely unnecessary accent), and an end-of-year school assembly where Oliver looks into the crowd hoping to see Vincent, in what is perhaps the most overused cliche in cinema history.    

Basically, St. Vincent is a hodge-podge mixture of better films, taking their ideas and mashing them together in some sort of dramatically underwhelming and bland stew. It’s the comfort food of cinema – some will like it because it’s similar enough to movies they’ve liked before and hits all the familiar dramatic beats we’ve come to expect (characters initially hate each other, come to a begrudging respect for one another, lose that respect when PLOT POINT occurs, and eventually reunite with a relationship stronger than before) but it’s ultimately mediocre and forgettable. This cast deserves better. 

Grade: C

Sidenote: Why do indie movies have to prove their “indie-ness” by developing eccentric supporting characters? This one has a character that’s a prostitute, but it’s not enough that she’s a prostitute – she has to be a Russian prostitute. And because the stereotypical Russian accent just isn’t bizzare enough, she has to be a pregnant Russian prostitute. Stop this, please. Write a character defined by their thoughts and feelings, not their adjectives. 

Hercules (2014)

Hercules-2014-Brett-Ratner

Hercules has always been my least favourite of the Greek heroes. He’s just too…plain. He has inhuman strength, is practically indestructible, and his stories all involve him killing various creatures with his inhuman strength…while being practically indestructible. There’s no real nuance to the character. To use a stock phrase – he’s all brawn and no brain.

The latest film about Hercules (titled, what else, Hercules), directed by Brett Ratner (infamous for directing X-Men: The Last Stand and tarnishing a franchise) takes the legend of Hercules in a different direction: he’s a sham.

It’s a nice twist and a fresh take on a well-worn legend, but Ratner and company do absolutely nothing with it. Instead, we see the same movie we’ve seen a hundred times before: a motley crew of mercenaries gathers together to pull “one last job” but are then “double crossed” and have to battle for “redemption.” Yawn.

Not only does the film take an interesting concept and transform it into a typical action movie, but also the film doesn’t even stay true to the basic conceit that Hercules is a sham. As played by Dwayne Johnson (formerly known as The Rock), this “sham” Hercules is a man of almost infinite strength and bulging neck veins (they really pop in 3D). He’s also practically indestructible – despite being mauled by vicious dogs, shot by arrows, and slashed by soldiers. Once Hercules pushes over Thrace’s answer to the Statue of Liberty – with his bare hands – the film’s credibility crumbles. The stories about his inhuman strength and indestructibility aren’t true…even though he actually is inhumanly strong and indestructible.

Hercules is a movie, much like its lead character, without much direction. Hercules and his equally superhuman companions drift from place to place, exterminating pirates and practically single-handedly taking down entire armies. The “quieter” scenes between the battles sequences (however brief they are) are punctuated by glimpses into Hercules’ tortured past…of his murdered wife and kids, with blood appropriately everywhere. It’s a bit heavy for a film where the main character wears a lion on his head and wisecracks while walloping skulls. Let’s just say the film veers from action to drama to limp comedy before circling back to a CGI-heavy climax with the questionable message that if you believe you are a hero, then you are a hero (ignoring the fact that the evil dictator may believe that he is the hero). 

It’s too bloody and gory for kids, but too simplistic and childish for adults – making Hercules a guaranteed film to satisfy no one. Don’t see it.

Grade: F

Boyhood

Boyhood-Poster-Linklater

This is the best film of 2014.

I don’t think it will win any awards (it will probably be nominated for a few Oscars – best director comes to mind, but will probably win none of them) and not all audiences will love it because “nothing happens” (even though this isn’t true – an entire life happens). It is the ultimate coming-of-age film and the genre should be retired because this is as good as it will ever get. It’s an ambitious project with innumerable technical headaches (a making-of documentary would be a masterpiece of film history in itself) and it manages to be the deepest and most unforgettable experience you’ll have at the theatre this year.

This is the best film of 2014.

Boyhood is directed by Richard Linklater, the slacker-poet auteur from Austin, Texas. He’s probably the best director working today who doesn’t get nearly enough appreciation for the fantastic cinema (the Before trilogy, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life) he produces.

Linklater shot Boyhood over a 12-year period using the same central cast to chart the physical and emotional growth of a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age 6 to age 18. This isn’t just a marketing gimmick but the entire artistic purpose of the film. If it wasn’t filmed over 12 years, or if the project failed halfway through, it probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day. There would be no point. The whole project is about the changes we go through as human beings as we age, unlike other coming-of-age films where a singular event changes the character’s lives forever. Real life doesn’t work that way. Linklater recognized that, and set out to make a coming-of-age movie drawing from his own recollections of his past. It was a series of events and moments that made him who he came to be, and he decided that it should be the same way for the characters.

What’s incredible about this film is how seamless it is. You would think that a film shot for a few days each summer over twelve years would be tonally all over the place, but it’s uniquely constant. The only thing that really changes is the actors get older – and even that happens sometimes without us realizing it.

Some may see Boyhood as a film where “nothing” really happens. This is far from the truth. The problem is that audiences have been trained to expect sensational events from movies. We expect characters to die, for explosive fights, and terrifying villains. The conversation between the events is generally just filler to segue the plot from one set piece to the next. There’s a moment in Boyhood where these ingrained audience expectations become obvious. In one scene, Mason is in an abandoned home with three other friends. They’re all drinking beers and throwing a saw blade into a piece of drywall. One of the characters stands up with the saw blade sticking out behind him and the entire audience in the theatre went silent. At that moment, we were all thinking the exact same thing: he’s going to fall on the saw blade! Despite all evidence to the contrary (this isn’t a cheap teen thriller), we’ve been programmed to expect these events from our entertainment.

There was an interview with Linklater talking about the Before films (which is a trilogy about the romance between two characters played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) and why he is so interested in conversational films where “nothing” really happens. He explained that a lot happens in his own life, even though his own life isn’t filled with car chases, gunfights, toppling government conspiracies, or other typical movie plots. His own life is filled with the mundane things that all our lives are composed of – working, dating, getting groceries, parenting, etc. – that we too often don’t appreciate the significance of. Linklater explained (to the best of my recollection) that Before Sunrise is a film about two strangers talking to one another and crossing the distance between themselves to find a real human connection. That’s an incredible adventure – filled with self-doubt, fear, pain, excitement – and it all happens in a conversation between two people. It may not be what we expect from our entertainment, but it’s a lot closer to reality.

Boyhood is the same way: it’s an adventure crossing the distance between being a child to becoming an adult and the journey isn’t punctuated by murders, car chases, or running with arms outstretched in the rain. It’s a lot subtler than that and often, this is an adventure we only realize we’ve taken after it has already happened.

Grade: A

Sidenote: Boyhood has an incredible soundtrack and the songs are used to identify the time period the characters are living in, based on our own recollections of the songs from our lives.

 

 

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