Monday, December 10, 2018

The Great Buster (2018)

For life and limb

I always talk about organic moviemaking. A more hipster way of putting it might be analogue moviemaking. This is the process of making movies 'like they used to'. No CGI, no digital refinements, no stuntmen. To be fair, they did have stuntmen just about as far back as movies stretch, but in truly organic moviemaking, the stunts are all on screen and they are all performed by the actor or actress who we are led to believe is performing them. We always hear about how Tom Cruise likes to do all his own stunts. Jackie Chan is another actor who is famous for performing his own acrobatics on screen. Christian Bale apparently does his own as well. Cameron Diaz and Zoe Bell are also famous for doing their own stunt work. But there is no one, not one actor or actress or stunt person or martial artist even, who doesn't owe a debt to Buster Keaton. 

Buster was a vaudevillian child star who was in a troupe with his parents. Their act was famous for the part he played in it. Apparently, they would pick him up and toss him around the stage in a myriad of physically demanding ways. At one point they were arrested for child abuse, but the charges were later dropped. 
No big surprise then that someone with this unique start to life would go on to define physical comedy and cinematic inventive genius in the first part of movie history. 

Keaton starred in dozens of two reelers (short films that ran ahead of features, more or less what Pixar is doing now), feature films, commercials and even travelogues, including one in Canada for CN Rail. During the silent era, he was one of the world's biggest stars and his movies were massive crowdpleasers and money makers. 
Then sound came in, Buster signed a terrible deal with MGM Studios that took away his creative control and he slid, fast, into a slump. The slump was both professional, and personal. Right around the time the advent of movie sound killed his career, he got divorced, twice, and developed a drinking problem. 
The Great Buster goes into all of these moments, as well as close looks into some of his better known features, short films and later work and leaves your head feeling full in the way that cramming the night before a big test makes it feel.

The movie was made by Peter Bogdanovich, a divisive figure in cinema. On the one hand, he somehow got almost complete and unfettered access to some of the biggest names in the history of movies (Orson Welles, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, to name a few). On the other, for a man with relatively few true classics under his own belt, he is an egotist who has the air of someone who believes he is the sole reason cinema exists at all. 
The Great Buster, for instance, starts with an interview, of himself, from the 70's, talking about Buster Keaton. He also narrates the picture and while his narration is well delivered, it has that same Bogdanovich air about it too. 
The film also features interviews with a whole host of current Hollywood folk. Everyone from Tarantino to the guy that made Spiderman: Homecoming to Bill Hader chime in. Oddly, there is no interview with Martin Scorsese, who is usually all too willing to add his perspective and appreciation to these docs on classic cinema figures. There are so many interviewees in fact, that some of them come on the screen, say one or two sentences about Buster or his movies and are never heard from again. 

If you've seen any of Bogdanovich's other documentaries, or any career spanning overview of a cornerstone cinema figure for that matter, you'll know what to expect. And if you're a fan of Buster Keaton, the flyover of his life and career will delight you I'm sure. 
But the people who really need to see this, the people who I think Peter B. was making this for, are those who have forgotten or are unaware of Buster Keaton. Yes his best films are in black and white, and yes they are silent, but the sheer imagination, danger and precision with which he pulled off these stunts, gags and films back before digital anything, when all you had was a camera and a (hopefully) well thought out plan, need to be seen to be believed.

This man must never be forgotten. And as much as I love organic moviemaking that harkens back to the way they used to make 'em, I love that we now have a world of cinema at our fingertips. It ensure's pioneers like Buster Keaton never will be.

Rating: ****

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Netflix: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Hell broke luce

There are western elements in every Coen brothers film. From nu-western noir in Blood Simple, all the way to the jazz age, fictional bio-pic of Eddie Mannix, Hail, Caesar! The old west finds its way into every film the Coens tackle. 
As far as out and out westerns, that also take place in the old west, there are really only two. Unless you consider O Brother, Where Art Thou? an out and out western, which I don't. There is True Grit, and this film, an anthology of stories that take place in the old west and have no connecting narrative thread, beyond their time and place. 

Anthology films are often pretty flimsy prospects. Most popular in the horror genre, they usually feature a different writer/director for each segment and will often have some plot point that ties them all together. The problem is that, if you have a film made up of half a dozen short films, you can bet money on at least three of the six being less interesting than the three better ones. Sometimes you only get one good sequence in the whole movie. That's fifteen or twenty minutes out of one hundred and twenty, of good watching. That sucks. 
The thing Buster Scruggs has going for it, is that all of the short films in the anthology are good, and that they were all directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, which pretty much guarantees quality control. 

Netflix might seem like a strange place for a new Coen brothers movie, given that their movies always do very well at the box office. But it actually makes a lot of sense. Netflix has a hands off policy when it employs filmmakers to create Netflix-only content. Which means that they would've said something to the Coens along the lines of "we want you to do a film for Netflix. We'll give you as much money as you need to film it and complete creative control". That's a prospect far too juicy to pass up if you are a pair of creative geniuses. 

Buster Scruggs is presented as a book, with each short film within, a chapter. In true Coen fashion, all of the chapters in the book are in some way, shape or form violent, dark, and humorous: The eponymous ballad singing gunslinger who finally meets his match; a grizzled old prospector who strikes it rich, only to be then shot in the back; a bank robber who robs the wrong bank teller; a yappy dog that leads to a Comanche attack; a mysterious stagecoach filled with mysterious characters on its way to a mysterious destination. All of these stories are as strange, beautifully well told and as quirky as you would ever hope to find by the masters of strange, well told and quirky cinema. They are also all filled with breathtaking vistas as endless and venerable as the best ones shot by John Ford or Sergio Leone.
The acting is likewise perfect and the plethora of A-list cameos is fun and exciting. Especially Tom Waits as the prospector and James Franco as the bank robber. One of his most understated and accomplished performances, despite its relative brevity. 

I refuse to apply the word masterpiece to anything frivolously. I take that word very seriously and a piece of art has its work cut out for it, if it hopes to achieve that label from me. So although Buster Scruggs is as perfect an anthology film as perhaps I have seen, and although the Coens occupy the rarified air of having multiple masterpieces hanging from their cinematic belt loops, I will show restraint in how I choose to define this film in regards to its accomplishments. 
What I will say is that this is easily one of the best films of the year, and easily one of the best films tagged with a Netflix logo currently available from the streaming giant. See it. 

Rating: *****

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Overlord (2018)


It's painfully obvious while watching Overlord, that the writer and/or director of this WWII zombie-ish action flick were big fans of the recent reboots of the Wolfenstein video games. In Wolfenstein, you play a muscled, all American man who mow's through an army of Nazi's. At the end of the games, you face off against a mecca-Nazi, half man, half machine. The end result of a war spent hunting and stealing all of the most advanced technology the world had to offer, and using it to build an army of SS super-soldiers. 

It's a cool concept and Wolfenstein is a cool game. And a lot of fun to play. The problem with Overlord, is that it often feels like you're watching a two hour cutscene in a video game you never get to play. Which is too bad, because the plot would fit the video game mould perfectly. 

A group of soldiers, survivors from a plane that was shot down over enemy lines, band together in a small French village to accomplish a mission that will enable American aircraft to penetrate the French countryside and bomb the enemy back into its German homeland. 
Things go from tense to horrific when the soldiers discover a church basement filled with evil Nazi experiments intending to create an army of super-soldiers by reanimating the dead with some mysterious liquid. See? Wolfenstein. 

The emphasis in Overlord is overkill. Overkill on plot, overkill on dialogue and most certainly overkill on violence. Like any zombie movie worth its weight in intestines, Overlord cranks the gore up to 11 and gleefully dares you to look away.
Is it in bad taste to release a WWII movie that drapes gore all over the screen in such a cartoonish and ebullient way on Remembrance Day weekend? Yes, it is. But if the filmmakers cared, this movie would've come out in January. 

I can't fault this film for being bloody, I knew it was going to be and went to see it anyway. Buy the ticket, take the ride. 
What I fault it for is being a VOD quality film that somehow (in no small part thanks to JJ Abrams' involvement, no doubt) snuck its way into the multiplex. 
It's a good movie, for what it is, and it is fun, if you're a fan of gore. But it isn't a $13 movie. It's a $5 or $6 movie at most. 

Some reviewer at some point said that this was the 'Saving Private Ryan of zombie movies'. That's not only inaccurate, it's disrespectful. 
However, I will say that if you take Overlord for what it is, a Dead Snow type zombie war flick intent on blasting your ears with the grinding sounds of gunfire and exploding skulls, blasting your eyeballs with the sights of the same, and blasting your brain with the ever popular revenge fantasy fulfillment of killing hordes of Nazi's in small amounts of time, then it's about as good a film as it was ever going to be, or was ever going to try to be, for that matter. 

Rating: ***

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Hate U Give (2018)

Just Us for Justice

Near the end of The Hate U Give, Starr, our protagonist, says "no matter what we say, no matter how loud we shout, they refuse to hear us". That moment felt like someone dropped a boulder inside my stomach. What a perfect encapsulation of everything that is going on right now in America. With politics, with racism, with hate. 
It seems that America has reached a place wherein the wheels of positive change and progressive evolution have stopped spinning. Black people are still being killed by white authority figures due to nothing more than the colour of their skin. People of certain religious faiths can no longer pray in their places of worship without worrying about a bomb going off. White nationalist groups are newly emboldened to take their racist rhetoric into the streets with bullhorns and parades. And Donald Trump, as the architect of much of this insanity, is still America's president. Is it any wonder that minorities and people of colour feel like their cries for justice fall, still, on deaf ears? 

The Hate U Give explores this ugliness with a deft and caring hand. Wrapping it in a blanket of adolescent turmoil and the search for self discovery. The period where your ideas about the world are being upended, while at the same time, your body is changing and your hormones are firing chaotic bullets into your emotional psyche, daring you to react to them. We've all been there. It sucks.

Starr is a fascinating and relatable young teen who is in the midst of all of this. From a poor neighbourhood with a perpetually high crime rate, her parents spend every penny they have in order to send her and her siblings to a private school in a more affluent part of the city. This gives Starr an identity complex. On the one hand, she wants to fit in with her rich schoolmates. So she acts less 'ghetto' when she's at school. On the other, she wants to fit in at home, so she acts less uppity when she's in her own neighbourhood. 
I know what this feels like. Not in terms of the poor neighbourhood/affluent school dichotomy, but in terms of wanting to fit in with two different groups and therefore playing a different version of yourself for each. 
While Starr is struggling with her two sides, she witnesses her (black) friend get murdered by a white cop in a routine traffic stop 'gone bad'. 
It's not a spoiler to say that the cop is not brought to any sort of justice for the killing, as is usually the case, and therefore the citizens of Starr's neighbourhood rise up in protest, while Starr has to decide whether or not she will testify against the officer before a grand jury, putting her family in danger with the local drug kingpin, who threatens Starr with harm should she open her mouth. 

As much as I loved this movie, and as well made as it is (and well acted, Amandla Stenberg, as Starr, is a revelation), I have to say that the independent elements that make up the central narrative of the film are relatively unoriginal. We've seen most of these beats before, in films like Fruitvale Station, Do the Right Thing, and even the recent OJ Simpson miniseries. 
But The Hate U Give, by playing it through the guise of a coming of age story (it was based on a bestselling YA novel), makes it feel fresh, current, and urgent in a way no other recent film that touches on these subjects has. We know where the story goes, because we've seen the news. We know how things will turn out for Starr and her family, and for the police officer who killed the young teen who did absolutely nothing wrong. 
These struggles are nothing new. In many ways, they've been going on since Africans were first brought here on slaver boats a few hundred years ago. The black community in America still has to work twice as hard as the white community in order to get half as far. The black community still has to suffer uneasy looks and nervous glances that the white community doesn't. And if you are a black man or woman in the United States, you are still far more likely to be poor, and far more likely to be jailed or murdered by a police officer, than if you are a white man or woman in the United States. 

These movies are hard for me. Watching them, I cry a lot, I sit fuming in my chair a lot, I feel sick in a lot. I want to say that I don't understand racism, but I do. I understand it perfectly. I just don't know what to do about it. I can challenge people on Facebook. I can punch someone in the mouth if they use a racial slur. I can post pictures of the cut up backs of slaves, or of the dead bodies of African Americans who have been slain by police or white mobs, or the KKK. But does that do anything? Do people care? Or do they just not want to be confronted with the awful reality that racism didn't end with the emancipation proclamation, it just looks different now. 
I want to do something, but Starr's words keep ringing in my head, and make me wonder if there is any point. "No matter what we say, no matter how loud we shout, they refuse to hear us." When will they stop refusing? Will they ever? 

Rating: ****1/2

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Halloween (2018)

The moose is loose

30 years is a long time to be trying to kill someone. You have to really want that person dead, to go at them for 30 straight years. And Michael Myers, the man in the faceless mask, perpetually obsessed with machine like dedication, with killing his sister Laurie, has just that level of commitment. 
David Gordon Green's Halloween is the 11th film to feature Myers, his butcher's blade hacking through horny teens and nerdy sidekicks, attempting to finish a job he started back on October 31st, 1978. 

That being said, Halloween 2018 is not a sequel to the 10th Halloween movie, which was directed by Rob Zombie and was more concerned with how much gore it could squeeze into the runtime, than with any type of intriguing or emotionally involving narrative arc. 
It's more or less a direct sequel to the 1978 original. The best one. The one that spawned an entire sub-genre within horror, the teen slasher flick.

As you would expect, Laurie Strode, played here and in many of the sequels, by the original Laurie Strode and everlasting 'scream queen' Jamie Lee Curtis, is a very damaged individual. She suffers a host of post traumatic anxiety and obsessive disorders and is considered by the few people she allows into her life, as bat shit crazy. For Laurie, as long as Michael is alive, he is a threat. And her stock pile of weaponry, her booby trapped house, her endless hours of target practice, and her long nights of staring into the dark, waiting for Michael's empty visage to appear, seem to reinforce her paranoia, rather than quell it, or provide her with any sense of safety or, indeed, rationale. 
But it is rational of course. And it isn't a spoiler to say that her paranoia is well founded. Michael does eventually appear. He does hack his way through unfortunate souls and Laurie and Michael do have their inevitable showdown. 

The interesting thing about this Halloween though, is that it's actually Laurie who is doing the hunting. Once she learns Michael is free of the asylum in which he was previous held, she spends the entire movie trying to chase him down. Not the other way around. When Michael does try to slice her up, it feels, oddly, like self defence. 
Not that Myers is written as a character we're meant to feel sympathy for, he's still doing awful things to innocent people. But he doesn't ever seem particularly interested in Laurie, until she goads him into it. 

Another sad and well written aspect of this film, is that Laurie, as the victim of abuses so horrendous and scarring, it's a wonder she's not the one in the asylum, seems to be written with a very knowing nod of the head to the #metoo movement. This massive wave of strong, courageous women coming forward, basically daily, to accuse and oust the men who did damage to them, physically, mentally and/or emotionally, are represented here by Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode. And that gives the film an added revenge fantasy hook that will no doubt play well with anyone who has ever daydreamed of repaying their attackers for the abuses they've suffered. 

I won't say how the movie ends of course, or whether Strode finally fulfills her vengeance. But that's ok. Because Laurie killing Michael isn't really the point, is it? Does closure heal all wounds? I guess it could, but there's no guarantee that with Michael gone, Laurie will settle into a life of peaceful domestication. That's she'll join a book club and buy a cat. 
I think the tragic thing about Laurie, and about all women who have suffered an attack of some kind, is the fear that even if you remove one monster, there may be others who could take its place. And in that way, despite this being a horror film, despite the moments of blood and the exaggerated reality of the picture, I truly feel that Halloween, by providing us with some girl power in a well written and very well acted character who struggles with PTSD, could provide a certain percentage of the audience with some relatability and therefore, perhaps, some healing. 
And for the percentage of the audience who are just there for a fiendishly well made, grisly, 1980's throwback hack and slash horror flick? Well, they'll leave pretty happy too. 

Rating: ****

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Searching (2018)

You are now online

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: ****