Thursday, September 20, 2018

Searching (2018)

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It's tempting to exaggerate what Searching could mean for the future of movies. The movie is so well made, so well paced and laid out, that while watching it you're tempted to wonder if you are witnessing the birth of a whole new genre. Or rather, the evolution of one. 

Searching takes place on computer screens. Every shot, every scene, every piece of dialogue. It all plays out on screens. 
To be fair, this isn't the first movie to utilize this technique. Unfriended did it in 2014, and again earlier this year in its sequel. 
Unfriended is a decent horror movie, but it used its screen technique as a way to deliver jump scares in a way we haven't seen before. In that movie, the idea gets limited traction. Searching using the technique in a far more practical and possibly even revolutionary way. 

Here we have a father, looking for his daughter by hacking into her social media accounts and following her digital paper trail. The movie is a puzzle and every piece is hiding in her hard drive somewhere. 
Unfriended could have been done without the screen gimmick. Searching could not have. That's the big distinction. That's why Searching works so much better and why it feels like the start of something, rather than the continuation of it. 

But it is an evolution. The found footage genre, also mainly utilized in horror movies, and in particular The Blair Witch Project, still the best example of how to do found footage properly, are the proper parents of Searching's screen trick. 
By now found footage has more or less run its course though. Partly because it's been done to death, usually poorly, and partly because having characters stumble across discarded VHS tapes or film reels, is becoming less and less believable with every passing year. 
Which makes Searching feel like the most modern movie of its time in a lot of ways. Which is also what makes seeing it in the theatre a strange experience. 
A good 95% of the time, seeing a movie on a massive screen with booming surround sound is the only way to see it. 
But just like seeing Blair Witch on a small square television on a scratchy VHS tape enhances the effect of the film, so seeing Searching on a computer screen, or on your smartphone feels like the best (and certainly most meta) way to experience it. It's weird looking up at a giant computer screen for 100 minutes, regardless of how involving the story is. 
And the story is involving. It sucks you in in its opening moments and dares you to leave at any point to empty your bladder. I lost that dare. I drank too much water and felt like I was doing real damage to my kidneys halfway through the movie. But I could not leave the theatre even for a minute or two. I would have missed too much. 

Searching is about as good a movie as it could possibly have been, but there were a couple little issues I had with it. 
There is a pretty cheesy exposition dump that takes place inside a police station towards the end of the movie that was poorly written. 
Also, there are so many twists and turns in this thing that it's almost impossible to figure out where the story is heading until it gets there. 
That's a wonderful problem to have the first time you watch it. The unfortunate thing though is that once you know all those twists, the entertainment value of repeated viewings is going to take a hit. 

What isn't going to take a hit is appreciating just how damn good John Cho, who plays the father, is. Cho has always been a good actor, but he gets overlooked because his biggest roles have been in stoner comedies and Star Trek reboots. 
He is incredible in Searching though. In fact, he deserves an Oscar nod for this. I doubt he'll get one. The Academy is far too cinematically conservative and ancient minded to give any attention to a cutting edge thriller about a missing person. But he deserves one. Maybe the Golden Globes will throw him a bone. 

Again, I don't want to exaggerate the potential effect Searching will have on films going forward. But it's fun to think that if Alfred Hitchcock were alive today, a man who took great joy in reinventing the language of the cinema throughout his illustrious career, Searching is the kind of film he would make. A tense thriller with a modern eye on the future. I just can't pay it any higher a compliment than that. 

Rating: ****1/2

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

My Generation (2018)

You say you want a revolution

In My Generation, Michael Caine takes us for a stroll down memory lane. To a decade that would come to define a city and a generation of young adults inside that city. I'm talking London, England, in the swinging 60's. 

Caine, with his easy manner, exemplary acting ability and fun cockney accent, is a perfect tour guide. He has written two autobiographies, parts of both of which he infuses into this film and as such My Generation pulls double duty as a sort of Caine mini-bio, and a document of a definitive time. 

It's pretty amazing actually, to see just how sudden a shift it was for London to go from being a very working class, uptight, prim and proper place, to a metropolitan centre ransacked with explosions of colour, women in tight, short skirts and men with long hair. 
For many citizens of a certain generation at that time, it was as if the red light districts began pouring into the street and turning the city upside down and inside out. 

Other than a few places where Caine is walking the London of today, or sitting in a chair narrating to us, the film is made up of video clips and photos of the time. It also features some (off screen) interviews with a few of England's heroes of the 1960's, like Paul McCartney, Roger Daltrey, Twiggy, and Marianne Faithful. 
Their perspectives on things adds a nice layer of context to the swoosh of images flying past the screen. 
And speaking of that swoosh, the editing of this film is incredible. The intercutting of Caine today, with Caine of the 60's, always matching his narration, or The Beatles in the early days, or photos of Twiggy, or whatever else is going on. The film is always busy, always has plenty to show, and what it's showing is always fascinating. 

The party can't last forever though. And the film eventually finds its way into the eventuality of all that free sex and careless drug use. As the swinging 60's pushed its way into the 70's, those kaleidoscopic colours began to fade. The drugs got harder (and harder to kick), the sex got irresponsible, and the generation of London youth that forced its city into a new mindset, began to face the repercussions of too much, too soon. 
You can almost hear the heavy chorus of 'I told you so's coming from the elder generations rooftops, as it all came crashing down. 

But Caine is optimistic. As filled with hope as he is with nostalgia, he looks back fondly on the London he helped create in the 1960's with a few of his world changing pals. And in the final moments, as he looks out over the London of 2018, a bustling, outrageously expensive jewel in the crown of the United Kingdom, the sadness you sense is not of what the 60's eventually became a decade later, but that he isn't back there right now. Colourful, carefree, with a world of opportunity laid out at his feet. 

Rating: ****

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Infiltrate Hate

There is a case to be made that black people in America were never fully emancipated in the first place. That slavery just looks different now than it did in the years before 1865. 
That instead of cotton fields and plantations, we have private prisons with which to enslave. That the colour of ones skin can and still does mean that that person, unless that colour is white, will be subjected to prejudices lighter skinned Americans won't. 
There is also a case to be made that segregation still exists. Particularly in places like Chicago, where there are very definite white parts of town and black parts of town, and you could almost draw a line down the middle of the city that separates the two. 

Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman is a good example of just how little things have changed for dark skinned men and women since the 13th amendment. 
Here we have Ron Stalworth, the first black cop in the Colorado Springs Police Department (the movie takes place in the early 70's). Being the first black anything is almost always a surefire way to gauge the level of racial prejudice of the group you are dealing with. 
Stalworth is treated like shit by some of his coworkers, and his boss seems to enjoy reminding him to 'be like Jackie Robinson', meaning when people are being racist, just take it. Don't fight back. 
Stalworth does, and works his way up into an undercover role, first infiltrating a Black Panther type gathering in Colorado Springs that has the police worried about violent protests. Then, later, infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. 

Only about half of this movie is from the book it's based on. It's true Stalworth infiltrated the KKK, with the help of his white partner, who posed as Stalworth in face to face meetings with the Klansmen. But the entire third act of this movie was not in the book. And there is a love story involving a protestor Ron gets involved with that isn't in it either. 
But this is Hollywood and Spike Lee is trying to tell a story, not give a play by play of factual events related to the case. 

My biggest problem with this movie is that its tone is all over the place. I get what Spike was trying to do. I get that when you're telling a dramatic story about supremely hateful people (the KKK, not Stalworth), you need to crack the tension every once in a while with some levity. But it feels like BlacKkKlansman doesn't know whether it wants to be a comedy, a study in racism, an expose, or a straight dramatic thriller. It attempts to juggle all of these balls simultaneously, and there are times when the balls drop and you can hear the thud. 

That being said, the movie is well made. It looks slick and is filled with the kinds of artistic flourishes anyone familiar with Lee's work will recognize immediately. 
The commentary it's making, on racism, on David Duke and the KKK, on the treatment of African Americans as second class citizens, hits. I spent most of the movie fuming in my seat. The rage that built in me over the course of the film, towards these Klan boneheads, but more specifically towards white on black racism in general, left me feeling emotionally exhausted by the end. 

I wish a movie like BlacKkKlansman was a fairytale. I wish we could watch a movie like this and say, 'thank God it's not like that anymore'. I wish we could look around and applaud ourselves and applaud our neighbours for how far we've come, since the 70's, and since the late 1800's. But can we? Can we honestly say that black and white skinned people are treated the same in 2018? The KKK still exists. Most privatized prisons in America are filled with black people. And some cities are still pushing black people out of white neighbourhoods. 
I guess the sad truth about BlacKkKlansman is just that. That it's the sad truth. And despite all the levity, that makes this a very hard movie to watch. 

Rating: ****

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Shock and Awe (2018)


Knight Ridder, which I had never heard of before watching this movie, was at one point the second largest newspaper publisher in the United States. Shock and Awe is the story of when Knight Ridder was the only media source with the balls and attention to detail to challenge George W. Bush’s insistence that there were weapon of mass destruction hidden somewhere in Iraq. 

Shock and Awe feels like an update of All The President’s Men. And in many ways it is. Only this time, the two reporters on a quest for the truth are doing so in wake of 9/11, rather than on the cusp of the Watergate scandal. 

This is strange timing for a movie about 9/11. It feels awkward that with the Trump circus in full swing, director Rob Reiner felt compelled to remind us of the last bonehead president who sat in power of the most powerful nation on earth. Or does it? Is Reiner attempting to show us a parallel between these two administrations?
As the world would later understand, Bush Jr. lied to America about there being WMD’s in Iraq. He took it as an opportunity to settle scores started by his father. 
Trump also seems to be using the White House with his own personal agenda in mind. 
Both Bush and Trump seem to create their own agendas. They both seem to say whatever pops into their heads at any given moment, whether it has any bearing on the truth or not. If ‘fake news’ and presidents having Twitter accounts was a thing during the Bush years, it’s very likely we would see even more commonalities.
The characters even make a remark about the watergate scandal in the movie, providing a third parallel: Nixon had watergate, Bush had the Iraq war, Trump has Russian collusion. One step forward, two steps back as far as the presidency is concerned seems to be America’s letterhead. 

Regardless of Reiner’s intentions with the movie coming out at this point in time, it does do a few things right: it shows an already bygone style of journalism. Social media and click bait have made even the most trusted source in American journalism hard to trust. Seeing reporters banging away at desk computers all day and all night, and chasing down leads will never get tiring, for me anyway; the characters are well cast and give uniformly solid performances; and the story, despite the fact that it sheds little new light on things we’ve known about the invasion of Iraq for over a decade now, is told well enough that the film never gets boring, and at a svelte ninety minutes, doesn’t bother overstaying its welcome, which these types of films often do. 

That being said, the runtime, the strange timing and the general feel of the production gives the movie the air of a pilot to a new Netflix drama, rather than a movie people will want to pay money to see on the big screen. 
With movie goers drowning in Marvel and Pixar and acting giants like Tom Cruise and Dwayne Johnson in 100 million dollar action feasts, there truly is no place at the multiplex for a tight journalistic drama about a war we never hear about anymore, and a president who now somehow seems not half bad in light of the president now occupying office who is well on his way to being the biggest political blunder in the history of American politics. 

Shock and Awe is good, but is relatively inconsequential. It doesn’t have the teeth for the story it’s telling. It doesn’t feel as dangerous as it should. Which leaves the viewer feeling gummed, rather than bitten. And when you’re telling a story about such a serious topic, you want make sure the audience leaves with teethmarks. 

Rating: ***

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Equalizer 2 (2018)

Washington Boulevard

The Equalizer works best in the in between. In between the action, in between the plot points, in between the flurries of speed and precision exacted by Denzel's character in the seconds before he wipes out an entire room full of douchebags. 
I like the quieter moments in this film and wish that there were more of them. 

The Equalizer is based on a television series that I've never seen, although from what I hear, it's not nearly as violent or retribution filled as these films are. 
But in essence, Denzel plays Robert McCall, an ex marine who takes it upon himself to even the stakes when bad guys mess with innocent people. 

The first Equalizer was a lot of fun and something of a surprise hit for Denzel and director Antoine Fuqua, who has worked with Denzel on numerous films, most notably Training Day, which is still Denzel's best screen performance, as far as I'm concerned. 
Whether a second Equalizer movie was necessary at all is a fair question. It doesn't add anything to the first and unless Washington makes McCall his Ethan Hunt and keeps coming back and making more of these films, an Equalizer franchise seems unlikely. 
But I'm not reviewing this movie based on how much we needed it. I'm reviewing is based on how good it is. 

And it is good. I really liked this movie, for the most part. The first two thirds of the film were really well done, established a nice, easy pace and allowed us to dig a little deeper into this McCall character and his deceptively simple life in inner city Boston. 
The last third of the movie gets bogged down in silly plot semantics and cartoonish bad guys saying cartoonish bad guys things. 
Because at its core, this is a film of narrative vignettes, with a haphazard main plot line that feels tacked on and forced. A self conscious choice on the part of the filmmakers who were probably afraid that the movie's slower pace and more character driven narrative would bore audiences who came to see Denzel kick some silly villains ass. 

And Denzel does kick some ass. As in the first film, he likes to time how long it takes for him to beat the snot out of half a dozen people, leaving all of them broken, bloodied, or just dead. Time slows as he surveys his task and when he does let loose, the action is sped up and it's over as soon as it starts. It's a cool trick. One we've seen before of course, but cool nonetheless. 
There are a couple of neat set pieces as well. One involving a front seat/back seat fight between Denzel and a henchman who tries to stab him while being driven by Denzel to the airport (Denzel drives an Uber type car in this movie). 
The other is in the aforementioned third act, which takes place on Nantucket (I think) in the middle of a hurricane-ish storm. 

Denzel's career has taken an interesting turn in the last couple of decades. Like Liam Neeson, he seems to have found a comfortable groove jumping from one mid level actioner to the next. I'm not complaining. It would be nice to see Denzel do more straight drama, but at his age, you can only do the movie's you're offered. And there are far worse things than watching a 63 year old man kick the shit out of bad people and look eminently cool while doing it. 

Rating: ***

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

I like you just the way you are

Mister Rogers is an easy guy to make fun of. His Ned Flanders-ish disposition. His mild mannerisms, his goofy sweaters, his micro budget, no frills tv show set. He has been parodied on many occasions by many people, some in good fun, some in more cruel ways. But what's striking while watching this documentary about his life and work, is how alien a figure he has become in this day and age. His show has only been off the air for seventeen years, but it feels like a by-product of another time. Some far off time in some far off place. 

Mister Rogers Neighborhood never changed. The show's simple message and unhurried pace captivated children from its inception in 1968, until it went off the air in 2001. 
This documentary, in highlighting the contrast between Mr. Rogers and everything else that ended up becoming children's programming, shows clips of cartoons where these shows continually evolved to keep with the times. Faster, louder, more brash, more crass, more violent. Commercials in the 90's advertising toy guns to kids so that they too can make believe killing all the bad guys that get in their way, just like their heroes on TV. 
And all the while, here is Mister Rogers Neighborhood, starting every show the same way, ending every show the same way. Teaching children the importance of love, compassion and kindness. 

Fred Rogers wanted to be a minister before he discovered television and decided that it was a better vehicle for expressing God's love to the masses. And yet Mr. Rogers never mentioned God on his show. He didn't preach sermons or urge kids to go to church or to convert their friends. For Fred Rogers, being a Christian meant being kind to people. Accepting everyone for who they are without trying to change anyone. 
In the 60's, in the midst of segregation, while racism was at its most disgusting, there was a news story about some African Americans swimming in the same public pool as white people. In an effort to get them out, the owner took some cleaning chemicals and dumped them into the pool. 
That week, Mister Rogers had Officer Clemmons, his (black) policeman friend on the show, share a pool of water with him. They both stuck their feet into a shallow kiddie pool to cool off. "But I don't have a towel", said Officer Clemmons. "Well, that's ok, you can share mine" said Mister Rogers. 
This was Mister Rogers saying, on national television, "fuck segregation and fuck racism", or, in Mister Rogers words, "I like you just the way you are". 

What's so alien about this behaviour in 2018 is that we are being conditioned, much like children are with their faster, louder tv shows, to move fast, suspect everyone of dishonesty and bitch about any little thing we don't like. Facebook is the worst offender of encouraging this mentality, but so is the evening news, national newspapers and other forms of so called 'journalistic reporting' which these days amount to little more than a bunch of click bait articles. 
You see, right there. In order to show what a unique perspective Mister Rogers had, I had to shit on a handful of things I don't like. That's 2018. We only seem to know what we like by knowing, and vocalizing, what we don't like. 

There are no Mister Rogers anymore. No one is out there, on TV or anywhere else, telling us to slow down, smile and be kind to those around you. Maybe the Dalai Lama. 
And we need that, badly. Now more than ever. We need someone to look us in the eye and tell us we are loved and appreciated for no other reason than that we are who we are. With no expectations to impress or do anything extraordinary. 

This documentary is a pure reflection of the Mister Rogers philosophy. I kept waiting for something terrible to happen. I kept waiting for the controversy. For charges of abuse, of adultery, of Mr. Rogers getting drunk and ranting about this or that. It doesn't happen in this movie because it didn't happen in real life. Someone in the movie that worked on the show all those years says that the big question everyone asked regarding Fred Rogers was "how similar is he in real life to the character on the show?" and the answer is "exactly the same. Exactly the same." 

I cried for twenty minutes after this movie ended. No one moved a muscle in the theatre until the end credits had finished rolling and the lights came up. Everyone was trying to get ahold of themselves. I don't think we realize how negative a place this world has become until we are confronted with something, someone, that is purely and simply positive. Not perfect, but positive, even when things are going awry. 

And that's when Mister Rogers Neighbourhood was at its best. When a tragedy would strike and people would tune into the show that week and hear the words 'it's ok to be sad. It's ok be frightened. It's ok to cry. Just as long as you remember that you are loved and cared about, and that you remember to care for those around you. With that in mind, we can get through anything'. 

Rating: *****

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Incredibles 2 (2018)

Girl power

Pixar is the movie making equivalent of The Beatles. Their output is so good, so consistent and so much better than most of what everyone else is doing in their field. The movies Pixar are making will stand the test of time. Computer generated images may evolve closer and closer to photo-realism, but the stories Pixar are telling, and the emotional depth of those stories, will remain timeless. 
Take Toy Story. It was Pixar's first film and the first ever fully computer generated animated movie. Today, that animation looks very dated. But does that hurt the enjoyment of the movie? Not a bit. It still has the power to make you laugh, make you cry, to excite and uplift, that it did when it first opened 23 years ago. 

The Incredibles was Pixar's sixth film. It took what made The Sopranos so relatable, and adapted it to the family film market. Only instead of a mobster trying to balance family life with crime life, it was a family of superheroes trying to balance family life with hero life. 

The Incredibles 2 builds upon that exploration, while adding a very modern times girl power anchor that enables it to further examine the redefinition of gender roles in today's society, and what effect that has on marriages (or common law courtships). 
The Incredi-kids are also a little older than in the last movie and the filmmakers have a lot of fun using the hormonal teenage years and the terrible twos to put Mr. Incredible through his paces when he finds himself on Mr. Mom duty for much of the film. 

The domestic balancing act, as deftly as it's handled and relatable as it is, is only half the story though. The other half is, of course, The Incredibles. The mask-on Incredibles, here to save the day. This time from an evil hypnotist called Screenslaver, which is much too cute a name to be even remotely threatening. But he tries his best, using the airwaves to turn screens all over the city into hypnosis-machines. He also has a handy gadget in the form of hypno-glasses, which he uses to hypnotize some of the superheroes in the movie to do his bidding. 
Interestingly, Screenslaver doesn't want money, or to take over the world, or even to harm anyone. All he wants is superheroes to go away. 

At the beginning of the movie, superheroes are considered a menace and are outlawed the world over. This is the movie's weakest and most unoriginal plot point. But Mrs. Incredible, with the help of a wealthy fan/investor, helps give superheroes their good name back by saving a train full of people from plummeting off a half finished track. This is the movie's best action set piece and some people have already called this rescue one of the best action scenes in movie history. Whether it is or not, it's super exciting and super impressive, even for a superhero of Mrs. Incredible's mettle. But these heroics piss Screenslaver off and thus, he fights back.  

I haven't disliked anything Pixar has put out. Were Cars 2 and The Good Dinosaur disappointing? Yes, they were. But that's only because we've come to expect so much from this studio. Coco was one of the best movies of last year, Inside Out is one of the best movies ever and the Toy Story trilogy is probably one of the three or four greatest trilogies in movie history. 
So when I say that The Incredibles 2 is one of Pixar's best films to date, I'm not messing around. 
I always seem to say this when writing about a Pixar film, because it's always true: see this movie. I don't care how old you are, you are going to love it. 

Rating: ****1/2