Better than the Real Thing: The Revenant

I’ve noticed a pattern in contemporary cinema. Films are getting longer. It doesn’t matter what genre we’re talking about – superhero summer blockbuster, Oscar bait drama, comedy, or sci-fi epic. Long films aren’t necessarily a problem, if a lengthy run time is necessary. But the fact is, most of these movies can be told in less than two and a half hours. Where have all the editors gone? Why are we losing lean and tightly-paced movies for bloated ones? I blame the Transformers movies.

The Revenant is a unique film in that it prematurely uses up both of its cinematic set-pieces less than a quarter of the way through the film. Beginning with an incredible long-take ambush on a party of fur traders and culminating with a less-brutal-than-expected bear attack, the two set-pieces of the film are over by the twenty-five minute mark….which leaves only Leo’s labourious breathing and glacial walking/crawling speed, along with Tom Hardy’s unintelligible marble-mouthed character, to fill the remaining two hours.I can’t think of any other examples of a film that has had such an exciting beginning only to limp to the finish line for the rest of the movie. It would be like if Lord of the Rings: Return of the King began with the One Ring being thrown into Mordor and then two-and-half hours spent in the Shire with Frodo and Sam having three-legged potato sack races. If this is the best in cinema, it’s pretty underwhelming.

Meanwhile, the two-and-half minute trailer for The Revenant (almost exactly 1/60th of the final product) distills the essence of the film into a thrilling fight for survival, with Leo’s laboured breathing punctuating each close call while getting rid of the plot-halting dream sequences and incomprehensible dialogue:

Now that looks good.

Side note: For some reason, I kept coming back to Mel Gibson’s 2006 film Apocalypto while watching The Revenant. I think I was just reminded of the same story beats of having a hunted man in treacherous territory trying to survive against all odds and get revenge on the people who tried to kill him. As a survival story, Apocalypto is the superior film. The Revenant is a better-made one, but it lacks a pulse.

 

99 Homes

andrew garfield 99 homes

Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) in “99 Homes.”

I saw 99 Homes almost two years ago at TIFF 2014 and haven’t been able to shake it. It’s a powerful film about the 2008 financial crisis – told from the point of view of the hundreds of thousands of families who were evicted from their homes after the housing bubble burst. It is a perspective that has been unfairly overlooked in films about this subject – which prefer to focus on the big financial firms, their executives, and the role they played in bringing about the collapse. This is a movie about the people that were destroyed along the way, which can’t be neatly compartmentalized in graphs or pie charts.

Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a construction worker who supports his mother (Laura Dern) and young son (Noah Lomax). They live in a small, but beloved, house in Florida. There’s a knock on the door and Dennis answers. It’s a sheriff and Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), an e-cigarette smoking real-estate broker. Dennis is told that he and his family are being evicted and that he has two minutes to pack his personal belongings. It’s not a pretty scene. Director Rahim Bahrani (who Roger Ebert proclaimed to be the next great American director) keeps the camera tight while the family goes through a gamut of emotion – shock, disbelief, anger, and then finally, scrambling to put some of their belongings in a duffel bag before they’re literally kicked to the curb. It’s powerful and heartbreaking.

The family moves to a motel, occupied by dozens of other families in similar situations. Without any other options for work (obviously, being skilled at home-building wasn’t an asset during this time) Dennis ends up being employed by Carver, evicting other innocent families from their homes. While it’s an obvious bit of plotting (normal guy makes a deal with the devil and his morality suffers), Michael Shannon is compelling as the unapologetic and amoral opportunist. He is so good in the role that it’s not only believable, but practically understandable, that Dennis becomes his protege. I just wish that the shades of grey extended to Dennis’ family, who end up viewing the world in such a black-and-white way that you can see the strings of the screenplay guiding them.

The film’s climatic moment is a quiet speech by Shannon about how there’s no nobility in being poor. It’s outrageously cynical and bitter, and a difficult pill for the 99% movement (clearly evoked by the film’s title) to swallow. Carver’s point is clear: no one cares what the “losers” think – America is a country built for the “winners.” And even though the “losers” may occupy the moral high ground, they can keep it. What’s the moral high ground worth when you don’t have shelter and can’t feed your family? It’s a brutal and depressing position, delivered so well that it’s astounding Michael Shannon is consistently overlooked by the Oscars (move over Sad Leo memes, the Sad Michael memes shall be born…if he ever gets nominated again).

99 Homes is the perfect counter-point to the slick fun of The Big Short. There are no celebrity cameos to describe obscure financial terms, a star-studded ensemble, or a sense of good triumphing over evil. Instead it’s a movie about the people on the ground, the people who just have to endure a system that doesn’t care about them, that they don’t understand, and that takes their homes away from them.

Grade: B+

The Big Short

The-Big-Short-Poster-2015

If you saw the Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg 2010 comedy The Other Guys, you may have noticed something a little bit “off” about the end credits. While the feature was a typical over-the-top comedy (Ferrell and Wahlberg play “odd couple” partners who inadvertently solve a major case despite plenty of hijinks along the way), the end credits took a surprisingly serious turn with facts and figures from the 2008 financial crisis. After the fun and lightheartedness of the film itself, the end credits splashed a dose of cold water on the whole thing. It was clear that the people behind the film were justifiably outraged about the crisis and the fact that no one in the financial industry suffered any consequences for their creation of the whole mess. It felt like a message to the audience – if you thought this comedy was outrageous and unbelievable, just look at how nuts the real world is. So for those who saw The Other Guys, it probably wasn’t that surprising that Adam McKay, the director of that movie and other acclaimed comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, was tackling a dramatization of Michael Lewis’ 2010 book The Big Short.

Essentially, the film is about a select group of financial outsiders who realize that the mortgage-backed securities market is destined to crash (like a Jenga game, which the film uses as a nice visual metaphor) and decide to place big bets to make a fortune off of the disaster. The outsiders are played by Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, and Ryan Gosling, among others. And yes, these are the heroes of the film.

In arguably the film’s most important scene, Brad chastises our “heroes” after they confirm their suspicions that the whole real estate market is being run by idiots. They giddily jump up and down on the floor, until they are reminded (by Brad, the only unambiguously good man in the movie, of course) that what they are celebrating is the collapse of the American economy. That sobers their celebration pretty quickly.

That’s the scene that stuck out for me from The Big Short. Are these characters heroes? It’s nice that they’re outraged and indignant about the reckless greed of Wall Street, but they profit off that very arrogance and recklessness. At the end of the film, only two groups emerge unscathed: the Wall Street firms that are bailed out after brokering the whole mess in the first place, and our heroes, who vastly multiply their bank accounts.

The Big Short tackles the same themes as The Wolf of Wall Street, but whereas Scorsese’s film felt like a chocolate sundae this one is a steaming helping of broccoli. Its frustration with the financial system is its greatest strength, but the heavy-handedness with which it tells the tale leaves the film feeling a bit like an after-school special.

Grade: B-

Side note: I have to commend The Big Short for characters breaking the fourth wall to address that some events that play out onscreen didn’t actually happen, but make for better drama. A refreshing acknowledgement to take the film, although based on facts, with a grain of salt.

Halloween Movies on Netflix Canada for 2015

Horror-Movies-Netflix-Canada

Since you’ve seen “The Exorcist” how about some others?

Halloween is a fantastic holiday. It might not come with the benefit of a day off work or presents or a bunny handing out chocolate eggs, but its got style. And it inspires watching lots of horror, thrillers, and just plain ol’ weird movies to get into its twisted spirit. That being said, Netflix Canada has a great list of flicks to stoke that Halloween fire (and for those who’ve exhausted the classics – The Exorcist, The Thing, Halloween, just to name a few – Netflix has a bit more of an eclectic mix). Check out some recommendations below:

It Follows (Grade: A)

Just released on Netflix Canada on October 19 – if you have not seen this horror movie, go watch it on Netflix now. It’s one of the best horror films in recent memory.

Afflicted (Grade: B)

While generally not a fan of found-footage films, this horror-travelogue has some fun with a classic movie monster and some really cool POV action scenes. Also, it was filmed on a shoe-string budget and made by Canadians, so that’s pretty cool too.

Oculus (Grade: B+)

A haunted house movie that works. Especially because its about a haunted mirror. The subject matter is laughable, but the film draws you in with its warped reality and sympathetic characters. It will make you feel crazy.

The Sacrament (Grade: B)

Another found-footage movie filmed under the guise of a VICE documentary about a charismatic cult leader (who everyone creepily calls “Father”). The arrival of the VICE outsiders signals unease…and then bloodshed.

Evil Dead remake (Grade: C+)

Not as kitschy or fun as the beloved original, but the remake has better gore and creepy set-pieces. But Ash is sorely missed.

The Conjuring (Grade: A)

Hide and clap. ‘nough said.

The Cabin in the Woods (Grade: B+)

Not one to start off with if you’re not familiar with horror movies. Plays off on a lot of horror movie stereotypes and cliches, and a ton of fun. Not scary though.

Sinister (Grade: B)

Holy shit, those 8mm family films. Terrifying. The rest of the movie can’t reach the heights of the opening, but pretty creepy overall.

Jacob’s Ladder (Grade: B+)

An oldie but a goodie. A Vietnam vet learns that New York isn’t quite the same as he left it. A bit of a slow burn, but lots of disturbing imagery. The stuff of nightmares.

Orphan (Grade: B)

A movie about an evil child that torments a mother and her family (but mostly the mother). Enjoy it for the thrills and the frustration that no one else can see this child is the devil except the mother (who obviously no one believes – but the film provides a good reason for that). Speaking of evil child films…

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Grade: A)

Not actually a horror film, but a disturbing drama about not bonding with your child. Probably because they’re a psychopath.

1408 (Grade: B+)

John Cusack. Stephen King adaptation. Samuel L. Jackson. And as surprisingly effective one-room horror-thriller. Cusack does great work as a cynical writer who spends a night in a “haunted” hotel room. He learns too late that quotations weren’t needed.

The Faculty (C+)

Just a fun sci-fi horror high school romp. But there is a scene where a scalp falls off in a shower that I’ve never been able to forget…

Tucker and Dale vs Evil (Grade: B)

Another Cabin in the Woods style movie. Two hillbillies keep running into co-eds who end up dying. Good for lighter fare after the heavier stuff.

Session 9 (Grade: B)

Underrated psychological thriller set in an abandoned mental hospital undergoing asbestos removal by a team of workers. Atypically, most of the film is set during the day (i.e. when most people work) but still manages to scare with the claustrophobic set and great cast (David Caruso!).

Leprechaun (Grade: D)

Jennifer Aniston battling a little green man who drops one-liners in an Irish lilt and is compelled to shine all dirty shoes he comes across. Cue dirty gym shoes being thrown to slow him down.

Honourable mentions: Creep (found-footage with Mark Duplass, could be good), the television show Hannibal (specifically, Season 1, Episode 5 will haunt you), Carrie (a classic, but you’ve probably already heard about it), Halloween: Resurrection (Busta Rhymes battles Michael Myers after he says “Trick or Treat…motherfucker!” Absolutely amazing trash), Kiss the Girls (Morgan Freeman/Ashley Judd thriller – formulaic but well done), The Call (Halle Berry as a 911 operator in a race against time to save a girl from a serial killer – a quick watch), Maniac (a horror film shot entirely from the POV of the killer. First ten minutes is great, the rest…not so much.), The Strangers (“Because you were home.”), The American Scream (documentary about homeowners creating the best haunted house).

Happy Halloween!

TIFF 2015 Review: Anomalisa

Anomalisa-Movie

The back of Michael Stone’s head in “Anomalisa”

I feel like Michael Stone. The protagonist in Anomalisa has a unique ailment – everyone he sees has the same face and speaks with the same voice. It’s called Fregoli syndrome, apparently. To him, the whole world is just one person. It’s frustrating, confusing, and depressing. But then there’s Lisa – and Stone can see her and hear her as an individual. She’s an anomaly. An Anoma-Lisa. This movie’s supposed to be an anomaly, but I can’t see it.

Utilizing puppets and stop-motion animation, the film takes place over a twenty-four hour period at the fictional Fregoli hotel in Cincinnati, where Michael Stone (David Thewlis) stays on the eve of giving a speech about customer service at a conference. The other characters he encounters are flat, lifeless, and speak in a perpetual monotone, all voiced by Tom Noonan. They all have the same face, and the purpose of using puppets is clear – their blank faces, abnormal movements, and indistinguishable bodies emulate, and emphasize, what it would be like to have this condition. But the use of puppets isn’t exactly necessary. A thematically similar scene in Being John Malkovich (also scripted by Charlie Kaufman) does the same thing, but was performed in live action with CGI. It would’ve been more effective if this film was in live action as well – the use of puppets distances the audience from the material and is a constant reminder of a much better puppet film –  yes, Team America: World Police.

I can’t figure out what’s so enjoyable or thought-provoking about this movie. The comedic material is tired and third-rate with obvious observations like: what’s the deal with keycards that never seem to work, why is hotel shower water always too hot or too cold, and which telephone button do I use to order room service?  The protagonist is an unlikeable twat who looks up an old girlfriend for a one-night stand, and when that doesn’t work, has one with Lisa instead. The “groundbreaking” puppet sex scene is a poor man’s retread of the sex scene in Team America. It’s a slice of life movie with characters you would never want to hang out with in real life, but have to suffer with through the film’s interminable running time of ninety minutes. There can be beauty in the mundanities of life, but Anomalisa doesn’t find it.

This was the most disappointing movie of TIFF for me. Charlie Kaufman is a brilliant screenwriter who has created three of my favourite films of all time. But Anomalisa doesn’t go any further than its high concept premise. Michael Stone is depressed because he can’t understand anyone else. I can’t understand what anyone else sees in this movie.

Grade: D

TIFF 2015 Review: The Devil’s Candy

Ethan Embry in "The Devil's Candy"

Ethan Embry in “The Devil’s Candy”

The tensest moment in The Devil’s Candy isn’t a scary one. It’s a character one. Director Sean Byrne (The Loved Ones) really cares about the family at the centre of the film – the unambiguously named Hellmans – Jesse (Ethan Embry), Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and their daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco). Even though Byrne puts them through Hell – bouts of demonic possession, frequent run-ins with a serial killer, and a nefarious art dealer  – the scene that really got me was Jesse running late to pick up Zooey from school. That’s when I realized that despite The Devil’s Candy being a fairly average horror flick it does a fantastic job of crafting likeable characters that you’re invested in…even when they’re not in life-threatening situations.

Jesse is a tortured artist reduced to painting butterflies on commission for a bank’s lobby to pay the bills for his family. He’s a heavy metal aficionado (which may be obvious from his matted beard and long, unkempt hair) and shares that passion for music with his daughter. This is a happy, if unconventional, family and inevitably, they find a Perfect Family Dream Home for a great price. The catch? Obviously, a double murder took place there (but don’t worry, the real estate agent discloses this…although he may refer to them as deaths rather than murders…). Things get a little spooky, Jesse starts hearing some voices, the former occupant of the home (and also a serial killer) comes for a visit, yada yada yada we got ourselves a horror movie!

The Devil’s Candy is an example of a film with too many ideas. It’s a fascinating haunted house movie, similar to The Shining, where the personality of the patriarch undergoes some disturbing changes. But it’s also a a family-in-peril film where the Hellmans are hunted by an unhinged serial killer. And it briefly flirts with the religious conspiracy angle where seemingly normal individuals are agents of the devil (it’s usually pretty obvious who they are when the soundtrack becomes darkly ominous). The film does a commendable job juggling these different plot strands, but they all feel a little undercooked.

Pruitt Taylor Vince does an excellent job as Ray, the former occupant of the Hellman’s new home. He’s a unhinged monster, but he doesn’t want to be one. He’s simply a glimpse of a few steps further along on the demonic possession scale than Jesse is. Where Jesse’s demonic voices are his muse to create challenging pieces of artwork, for Vince’s character they torment him until he kills people. His only salvation is drowning the demonic voices out with heavy metal music, but as you might be able to guess, that doesn’t really make him a popular person when everyone else is trying to sleep. Dressed in a ratty red tracksuit that gets filthier throughout the film, Ray is the image of malevolence and a frightening character. It’s just too bad that the climatic confrontation between Ray and Jesse uses some laughably bad CGI flames that completely undercuts the realism, and as a result – any tension – of the situation.

The Devil’s Candy is a competent horror-thriller with a sympathetic family at its centre, but loses its punch by juggling too many different plots that each could’ve each served as their own film. A solid feature for those thirsting for a horror fix, but don’t expect anything groundbreaking.

Grade: B

TIFF 2015 Review: The Program

The-Program-2015-Ben-Foster-Lance-Armstrong

I don’t care about the Tour de France. I’ve never watched it, nor do I really care about cycling. It’s fine that other people like it, but it’s just not for me. But I’m really interested in the Lance Armstrong story. It’s a fascinating tale and instigates great debates about doping, athleticism, myth-making, and society’s desire to tear public figures down. For myself, revealing Lance Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs to win the Tour de France seven times always makes me think of one question: what did we accomplish?

The Program doesn’t answer these questions, but instead is a thrilling fact-based account about those seven tours with dramatizations of the doping that took place behind the scenes. Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster) is a young American cyclist tackling the Tour de France for the first time. He’s doing an interview with David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) while playing foosball. Walsh likes the young athlete, but privately tells his colleagues that the American will never be a true contender. In that first Tour, Walsh is right; Armstrong doesn’t even come close. And then Armstrong is diagnosed with cancer, and it looks like his career is over. But he returns to the Tour against all odds – a true Cinderella story – and wins it. Armstrong’s suddenly a true contender, but Walsh, unlike his colleagues, doesn’t believe everything is above board. He can’t be wrong.

Obviously, Walsh wasn’t wrong. Lance was doping. And the scenes of the “program” are captivating as a whole team of cyclists lounge in their tour bus with needles in their veins and IV bags above their heads. There’s a great scene where a drug inspector makes a surprise visit to the U.S. Postal team’s trailer to do a drug test on Armstrong, and Lance scrambles to inject himself with enough water to dilute the drugs running through his bloodstream. But here’s the rub: it seems like everyone in the Tour was doping. That first Tour that Lance did horribly in? Yep, doping scandal. Walsh laments that he wants to watch athletes race up a mountain, not chemists. So why isn’t that the bigger story – that doping is rampant and the systems in place to keep the sport fair are horribly ineffective? Frankly, taking down “athletes” (quotations, cuz doping) just seems like whack-a-mole at this point.

The film does a good job of being the Coles Notes of the scandal. It hits the major beats – well-shot racing sequences, scenes of Lance with his charity and the extension of his lies into the inspirational speeches he tells to crowds of cancer survivors, his scorched earth strategy of silencing opponents through numerous lawsuits, and endorsements from major companies as his star rises. Admittedly, the film is pretty much a dramatization of the documentary The Armstrong Lie that just came out two years ago. But what’s the problem with that? The Armstrong Lie is an incredible film, and The Program is a great one as well.

Ben Foster captures the look an essence of Armstrong to an eerie degree. He’s contained, precise, and calculating. But there’s a scene near the end of the film when the facade breaks down and Foster does some incredible work. Holding back tears, and through gritted teeth, he pleads with the board that competition is his life while they strip him of his titles. It’s a powerful moment. From the man who had everything, to a instant disgrace.

Grade: B+

Sidenote: Isn’t there something similar about Walsh’s dogged pursuit of the truth and Armstrong’s dogged pursuit of victory? And don’t journalists sometimes use dirty tactics to get an edge over other journalists? I’m not saying that Walsh did this, but I’m just thinking about the advantages in different areas of life that we may exploit unfairly but don’t suffer repercussions from. It all depends on the game though, right?

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