Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, January 31, 2020

OSCARS 2020: Harriet (2019)

Really, why did it take so long to make a movie about Harriet Tubman? She is one of the most prominent figures in American black history, at least as far as the names we learn in grade school text books go. It certainly seems like the kind of inspiring, historically important story that makes for an ideal Oscar-friendly movie. I guess the real reason it took until 2019 for Tubman's story to reach theater screens is the same reason Hollywood doesn't make many movies starring black women in general. “Harriet” was once primed as a vehicle for Viola Davis but ended up starring stage actress Cynthia Erivo. Erivo scored an Oscar nomination for both Best Actress and Best Original Song, which is about what I expected when the good-not-great reviews started rolling in last fall.

The film begins its coverage of Harriet Tubman's life when she is still known as Minty Ross, a slave on a farm in Maryland. Ross is married to a free man but remains a slave. When her owners refuse her requests to free herself and her family, Ross has had enough. She makes a dramatic escape from the farm, leaping from a bridge into a river. She makes the arduous journey to the North and chooses a new name for herself: Harriet Tubman. She returns to the south, as part of the Underground Railroad, to free her family and any other slaves she can get to freedom.

It's definitely disappointing for me to say Harriet Tubman, true American hero, has received the typical historical biopic treatment. In fact, director Kasi Lemmons, previously of “The Caveman's Valentine,” transforms American history into an almost superhero-esque action movie origin story. Tubman's historical nickname of “Moses” operates as a heroic code name of sorts. A head trauma suffered at the hands of her slave owner gives her reoccurring hallucinations, which are uncritically interpreted as visions from God – a superpower. Tubman even gets an easily recognized uniform, in the form of an askew fedora and a leather duster. This slickly commercial and potentially tasteless approach to history is most evident in the number of shoot-outs in the film and the way Tubman's former owners become obsessed with pursuing her. Of course, slave owners were absolutely garbage shit-people but 'Harriet” makes them so cartoonishly evil – turning them into real life supervillains – that it makes “Django Unchained” seem subtle in comparison. And that's all while maintaining a matinee-friendly PG-13 rating.

Once you look pass the superhero-fiication of Tubman, “Harriet” is as bland a biopic as you could imagine. Lemmons' direction is uninspired, full of melodramatic slow-motion. The musical score is blaring, always signaling to the viewer far in advance what emotions they should be feeling in any given minute. The writing condenses real life into a series of easily digested episodes. The film focuses in on Tubman rescuing her family, whittling her real life mission of freedom for all slaves down to a personal vendetta. Most of the dialogue is made up of rousing speeches and trailer-worthy declarations. When it's not adding action movie flourishes to history, the film is treating this tale as just another prestige-y biopic.

As is usually the case, that leaves us with the performances as the main point worth recommending. And even Cynthia Erivo seems somewhat uncertain how to approach the material at first. She spends the first third of the movie starring in a wide-eyed, shocked fashion. Though I suppose that fits the role of a slave desperate to escape to freedom. As maudlin as the script is, Erivo's passionate delivery of her lines manages to make even the hoariest dialogue powerful. (Much the same can be said for the film's nominated song, which probably wouldn't have been much either without Erivo's vocals.) Erivo also has strong chemistry with Janelle Monae, in a supporting part as the boarding-house proprietor who assists Tubman once she arrives in the North. The strengths of the lead are still not enough to make up for how over-the-top and greasy Joe Alwyn and Jennifer Nettles are as the Brodesses, the film's villains.

I'm not going to be the white nerd that says this movie doesn't have value. A film like this can act as a gateway for people, especially young people, to learn about real history. (I fully expect “Harriet” will be shown in many high school history classes.) Not to mention the obvious value in seeing a black woman in such as strong leading role. Yet I do find it distasteful to depict real history in such a sanitized, commercialized way. Slavery is the most hideous part of American history and I don't think a subject like that can fit into a family-friendly, franchise-ready mold. Films like “12 Years a Slave” prove you don't have to dumb down reality to reach people. “Harriet” is a mediocre film that I hope, at least, inspires discussion about the real facts of the people, time and places it is about. [5/10] 

Thursday, January 30, 2020

OSCARS 2020: The Two Popes (2019)

Not that long ago, it seems, I was talking about how reluctant certain parts of the Film Establishment was to accept anything from Netflix. There was quite a lot of debate over whether a movie made for a streaming service, even if it played briefly in theaters first, “counted” as a serious film or not. Now, in 2020, Netflix is all over the Academy Award slate. Seven films from the streaming titan are nominated, including two for Best Picture. If you want a clear view of the corporation's power with Academy voters, look no further than “The Two Popes.” Owing to its soft reviews and general lack of buzz, the film probably wouldn't have gotten any award attention at all if Netflix wasn't so ambitious and so good at campaigning.

In 2005, Pope John Paul II died. In the voting process to find a new pope, the decision seemingly comes down to two: Reformist Jorgue Bergoglio from Argentina and the traditionalist Joseph Ratzinger. Ratzinger would, of course, win the vote and become Pope Benedict XVI. In 2012, Bergoglio has returned to Argentina and is considerably retiring. Benedict, meanwhile, has proven a controversial leader. Most recently, the child molestation scandal has put the Pope's reign under serious scrutiny. Bergoglio and Ratzinger meet in the Pope's private residence to ostensibly discuss his retirement but other topics quickly come up. Benedict and Bergoglio discuss their own pasts as the Pope tries to convince the Archbishop to take his job.

“The Two Popes,” unsurprisingly, mines the political differences between the two men for quite a bit of drama. While meeting at the Pope's private castle, they discuss the issues that people pressed Benedict the most on. (Namely, the role of homosexuals in the church and the sex abuse cover-up.) This serious political element of the story soon turns towards covering the future Pope Francis' past, specifically the guilt he feels over his actions and inaction during the military coup in Argentina in the 1970s. This leads to several lengthy flashbacks, sometimes causing the character to deliver bald-face exposition. This is a little awkward, it must be said.

While “The Two Popes” is clearly a serious film with a lot of very heavy topics on its mind, the movie works best when humanizing its Popes. Pope Benedict is forced to wear a fitness tracker, the old man being told by a chirping voice to get up and walk. The two men are frosty towards each other, until they start to bond over music. If you think seeing Pope Benedict play the piano or talk about the Beatles is surreal, the film does one better by then having him watch his favorite TV show: An apparently real program about a dog who is also a police detective. Later, the future Pope Francis even gets Benedict to eat some pizza. There's definitely some humor in seeing figures as noble and high-in-stature as the popes indulging in such common activities. Yet, when paired with some touchingly direct conversations about the nature of faith, it goes a long way towards making these towering figures into real people.

“The Two Popes” was directed by Fernando Meirelles, one half of the pair that made the critically acclaimed “City of God.” I never have caught up with that modern classic, or any of Meirelles' other films for that matter, but this one gives me a good idea of what they must be like. The film frequently utilizes hand-held camera work and shaky zoom-ins on its performers, attempting to add a documentary-like verisimilitude to the story. Sometimes, the film utilizes far up camera angels, to contrast with the more intimate close-ups on his actors' faces that crop up more frequently. It's pretty evident what Meirelles was trying to do. Obviously, the hope was to take a story mostly composed of two old guys sitting in rooms talking and make it more cinematic.

Considering the content of the film, it's not surprising that “The Two Popes” is largely an actor's film. Anthony Hopkins, who looks shockingly like Pope Benedict with just a little make-up, nicely balances a crotchety sense of authority with a feeling of lost purpose. He's even somewhat gentle and funny, when given the opportunity. Jonathon Pryce has the less obviously showy part as Francis. This works in Pryce's favor, as he's allowed to say a lot with simply his eyes and his posture. Watching these two play off each other is frequently a delight, in the way watching two expert actors do what they do best is.

In the grand scheme of things, especially in a year with so many notable snubs, did “The Two Popes” really deserve three Oscar nominations? Probably not. It's an affable enough film, worth seeing for a few key moments that really entertain. Hopkins and Pryce give lovely performances but neither are so good as to really deserve being singled out, in a year full of many better choices. Still, I'm glad I watched the movie, if only so I can forever have the mental image of Pope Benedict laughing while watching a dog/cop show. (It may not surprise to read that the two Popes' friendship did not end on such a comfortable note in real life. Thus is the magic of Hollywood.) [7/10]

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

OSCARS 2020: 1917 (2019)

1917” was always going to be an Oscar frontrunner. Sam Mendes may not be Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, as far as critical esteem goes, but he is a previous Best Picture/Director winner whose movies are usually extremely well received. With “1917,” the director was putting his mark on the war movie epic, a genre that is usually favorable to Academy voters. The gimmick of telling this story in real time, in a series of long shots combined to create the illusion of one continuous shot, was obviously going to catch people's attention. The movie was greeted with very positive reviews and even decent box office. At the start of the award season cycle, “1917” did not seem like a likely Best Picture winner. Yet, as Oscar Sunday grows closer, Mendes' World War I thriller is seeming more and more like it'll take home the top prize. Is the movie even that good?

Inspired by the stories Mendes' grandfather wrote about the Great War, the film takes place in April of the titular year. On the Western front, the German army has retreated, causing the British army to move forward. This, however, is a trap and the Germans are waiting to overwhelm the British with artillery. This information is given to two young soldiers, Lance Corporals Will Schofield and Tom Blake. They are then instructed to walk through enemy territory and deliver the announcement to the Colonel, calling off the advancement and saving hundreds of lives. This mission proves easier said than done.

There is a moment, about half-way through “1917,” that has to be among the year's most visually stunning. After Will barely survives being shot by a German sniper, he awakens in the dead of night. The village, now in ruins, stretches out before him. The flashing of flames and bombs is the only thing that lights up the pitch black location. The sequence is equally dream-like, for the way the camera floats down into the battle-ravaged city, and otherworldly, the war having rendered a normal location almost unrecognizable. The chaotic run through this hellish landscape continues until we quite literally crash into dark waters, as cool and blue as the blazing town is yellow and fiery. Considering Roger Deakins was “1917's” cinematographer, it's no surprise the movie is visually spellbinding. The strong images go a long way to establishing “1917” as a film that lingers in the mind.

Much of the press surrounding “1917” has focused on the long takes. (Mendes and his team earns points for not pretending the movie was actually shot in one continuous take.) It turns out, this is not just a visual gimmick designed to show off the skills of the director and his team. Instead, “1917” is built to put the viewers right in the same place as the characters. Tension can't help but built as Will and Tom walk through the trenches, as they fight through barb wire and fall into a crater littered with dead bodies. You really start to feel this intimate quality when the duo is exploring an abandoned German tunnel system, which ends up exploding thanks to an unlucky rat. From there, “1917” rarely stops thrusting the watcher right into the middle of combat. When a downed airplane crashes towards the two, you almost have to duck to avoid getting hit by it too. When Tom runs through a field being pelted with explosions, you feel the heat on his heels. It's a shockingly effective trick.

Yet “1917” is not just devoted to adrenaline pumping thrill sequences. The film slows down several times throughout its journey. Mendes makes these scenes really count, creating huge exclamation points of quiet in-between the war torn battlements. Will almost drifts into sleep while traveling on a truck with other soldiers. He briefly bonds with a French woman and her child while escaping the village, singing a poem to the baby. The most effective such sequence in the film occurs when, after finally arriving at his destination, a collection of men sitting in the fog emerge. As they listen to one of their own sing a beautiful song, a sense of calm and quiet washes over. Moments like these don't just insure that “1917” is excellently paced. They remind us of what is loss during wartime. This is made all the more explicit during another quiet moment, among the film's saddest and most stirring.

Another nice touch of “1917” is that it's cast largely with unknowns. Most of the actors in the film do not look like adult men and certainly not grizzled soldiers. Instead, they look like fresh-faced boys. This, after all, is an accurate representation of what age most soldiers actually are. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman do not look like movie stars. They look like normal kids, who are horribly in over their heads and totally unprepared for what they are called to do. Both have great chemistry together, with MacKay's determination proving especially appealing. Mendes slots the recognizable stars into brief supporting roles, having Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch appear as the voices of authority.

It's pretty easy to figure out why “1917” could potentially take home the Best Picture prize on February 9th. In our politically divided times, with the opposing extremes of the spectrum represented by the class rebellion of “Parasite” and the nihilism of “Joker,” “1917” is a very safe choice. And if you remember that many Academy voters take “best” to mean “most,” Mendes' latest is certainly among the most visually spectacular and bracingly cinematic of the nominees. Yet don't take that as a mark against “1917.” It's actually an exceptionally good movie in its own right, a blazing visual experience with a pounding, humanistic heart that leaves the viewer but thrilled and touched. [9/10]

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

OSCARS 2020: Ford v. Ferrari (2019)

While I've never been especially interested in it, I understand why filmmakers have been repeatedly drawn back to the topic of race cars. It's an inherently cinematic concept. Things that go fast are exciting to watch. The chance for wrecks and explosions makes for good spectacle. The premise of a race – one person trying to get a location before anyone else – is as about as simple and compelling as narratives get. And there's potential for an underdog story there too, which people also historically love. When you combined these factors with a true story, a respected filmmaker, and some beloved actors, it's no surprise “Ford v. Ferrari” has become a frequent presence on this year's award show circuit.

In 1963, Ford Motor Company tried to buy Ferrari, the iconic but broke sports car company, in hopes of injecting some coolness into their stale brand. The plan backfires when Enzo Ferrari rejects the offer and insults Henry Ford II. Incensed, Ford instructs his company to build a race car that will defeat Ferrari's racing division at Le Mans, the world-famous 24 hour long race.  Carroll Shelby, a driver-turned-designer, is recruited to achieve this task. He soon teams up with Ken Miles, an ingenious but short-tempered British racer and mechanic. The duo set out transforming the Ford GT40 into a race-winning car. They will face challenges and risk their lives on the path to Le Mans.

A key moment in “Ford v. Ferrari” that was featured in all the trailers involves Shelby and Miles getting into a sloppy, wrestling-on-the-ground fist fight. In the context of the movie, we see that this springs out of a disagreement the two hot-headed guys had and that, afterwards, they calmly discuss their differences. (And their history of coming to blows in similar ways.) This scene sums up “Ford v. Ferrari's” entire appeal. This is a Dad-tale of two blustery Dads who refuse to compromise on much, learning to put aside their Dad-differences and make Dad-history together. Watching two guys who are charming, not just in spite but frequently because of their pig-headedness, forge a friendship is actually pretty damn fun. We've all dreamed of a father who actually gets shit done, despite his goofy macho tics, and “Ford v. Ferrari” indulges that fantasy.

Even if it didn't have a compelling Dad-charm of its own, “Ford v. Ferrari” would probably still be a good film for the way it addresses how personal and corporate ambitions meet. Shelby and Miles, through the film, are trying to please two separate masters. On one hand, they have to capitulate to the Ford Motor Company's demands. On the other, they have their own personal pride to please. Miles longs to be the best racer in the world, while Shelby – no longer able to race himself due to a heart condition – hopes to vicariously share in. This duality comes to a head in two important moments. Most explicitly during the climax of Le Mans but most touchingly when Shelby takes Ford for an uproarious ride, which reduces the stately voice of authority to tears. Anybody who has suffered under corporate demands, while trying to make art that can satisfy themselves, can relate to this struggle.

Director James Mangold, of previous Dad-fave “Walk the Line,” also directed “The Wolverine” and “Logan.” So he's in the rare position to direct both an awards-friendly biopic and a thrilling action picture. Which “Ford v. Ferrari” definitely is. The race car sequences have exactly the quality of speed you'd expect. The dangers of high-speed racing are especially emphasized, when squeezing around another vehicle or the brakes glow red hot. Once the protagonists get to Le Mans, the film only grows more exciting. In one stand-out shot, Mangold's camera takes the perspective of the GT40 as the wreckage from another car sails overhead. The audience is made to feel the intensity of the velocity, the impact of the crashes, to the best of the film's ability.

Naturally, a big aspect of “Ford v. Ferrari's” particular charm is its lead performances. Christian Bale is in his comfort zone, in the role of a risk-taking genius that isn't much of a people person. Yet Bale is extremely good as this kind of thing, managing to make Miles both a lovable figure for his stubbornness, his technical know-how, and his own unique insight into the world... Even when he's throwing wrenches at people's head. Matt Damon maybe gives my favorite performances of his out of everything I've seen him in. Damon makes Shelby a guy who can see a clear path to victory, who doesn't let set-backs keep him down too much. Damon's affability has never been used better before. Among the supporting cast, Caitriona Balfe has excellent chemistry with Bale, as Miles' wife, and Tracy Letts makes Henry Ford II into a fully formed character.

Ultimately, “Ford v. Ferrari” is way more entertaining than it had any right to be. The movie resists all the stale pomp-and-circumstance you associate with the prestigious awards bait biopic genre. Instead, it's a refreshingly down-to-earth tale of stubborn dudes fighting for artistic victories. Yeah, it's still too long, with a largely unnecessary epilogue. But a set of strong performances from Bale and Damon, as well as some truly virtuoso film making from Mangold, results in a movie that's almost irresistible in its rascally, avuncular appeal. Expect this to become a favorite of fathers everywhere, occasionally to be enjoyed with their sons as well. Even the ones that aren't motorheads. [8/10]

Monday, January 27, 2020

OSCARS 2020: The Irishman (2019)

Throughout the history of American cinema, I don't know if any filmmaker is more associated with the gangster genre than Martin Scorsese. Maybe Coppola but he hasn't maintained the latter day respect Marty has. This reputation is somewhat ironic, considering Scorsese has only previously directed four mob movies across his thirty-four film career. Nevertheless, it was clear through the long development, extended production, and repeated delays that “The Irishman” was going to be his final statement on the mobster genre. This is most evident in how the film teamed Scorsese with the three actors most associated with this type of story: DeNiro, Pesci, and Pacino. (Who had somehow never made a film with Scorsese before.) Combined with an epic three-and-a-half hour runtime and the biggest budget of Scorsese's career, owing to the extensive digital de-aging of the cast, “The Irishman” is clearly meant to be a gangland epic like no other. Despite the massive expectations riding on this, Scorsese seems to have deliver. “The Irishman” has received raves from just about every corner of the film critic world, including the Academy.

“The Irishman” is adapted from the true crime book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” which was based on the possibly bullshit confessions of teamster and mob hitman Frank Sheeran. After returning home from World War II, Frank Sheeran gets a job driving a meat truck. Soon, he starts selling steak to a mobster behind his boss' back. After being accused of stealing, he's put in touch with a union lawyer, a cousin of Russell Bufalino, the head of Pennsylvania's biggest crime syndicate. Soon enough, Frank becomes a mob hitman and not long after that, he meets Jimmy Hoffa. Through the years, Frank and Hoffa form a strong friendship that carries through the changing times and the various entanglements of unions, politics, and the criminal underworld. But this too will someday end.

Over the course of “The Irishman's” epic run time, the film repeatedly returns to the idea of brotherly bonds made between brutal men. Frank and Russell's friendship is forged over a wonky truck engine, the two quickly growing closer as they learn more about each other's violent lives. Frank and Hoffa's bond is similarly based in each men's willingness to subvert the rules to get what they want. Yet anyone with a sense of history knows that Hoffa's mob entanglements eventually cost him his life. So, despite all the rewards they give each other, despite all the time they spend together, it's clear that Frank and Hoffa's friendship was meant to be broken. Like many of Scorsese's mobster flicks, “The Irishman” reveals how there is no honor among thieves. That a violent, criminal life only leads to blood and heartbreak for everyone.

In fact, “The Irishman” has widely been considered a summation of many of the themes Scorsese has touched on throughout his career. This comes into even sharper reflect as the movie pulls into its final third. After three hours of watching Frank be a violent scumbag, we see him degrade into a broken old man. His health fails him, his body fails him. His family abandons him. Russell, his only true friend, dies. Soon, he's left alone as an elderly man in a nursing home, who can still only see the world through the prism of hits and mob loyalties. It's a stunningly quiet conclusion, the weight of a lifetime of regrets being keenly felt. Scorsese, DeNiro, Pesci, and Pacino are all getting up there in age. Clearly, an ending so evocative of the finality of life, the regrets of old age, is rift with personal meaning for all of them. That is the area “The Irishman” most impresses in.

Though the film's long length quickly became notorious, that ending wouldn't mean as much if “The Irishman” hadn't taken its time. The extra breathing room of a three and a half hour run time allows for many interesting, small asides. Such as the way Frank's brutish way of life, how he can only resolve conflicts through violence, destroys his relationship with his daughter. Peggy Sheeran's lack of dialogue has been controversial but that's entirely the point. Frank can't communicate with his daughter on any level, which “The Irishman” makes very literal. This is just one way the characters' blustering macho egos get in the way of a normal life. In another key moment, Hoffa gets into an argument with a rival over being late to a meeting, that eventually ends in a petty fist fight.

“The Irishman” also proves that, even this late into his career, Martin Scorsese is still capable of pulling of an impressive set piece. There's a quiet humor to “The Irishman.” This is noticeable in the often appearing on-screen titles, which clarify the unseemly way the majority of the movie's characters die. Or the off-hand way Frank, in narration, details which guns are best for what kind of hit. Yet Scorsese is still capable of creating moments of great intensity and visual playfulness. The stand-out moment of “The Irishman” is a hit Frank performs in the middle of a seafood restaurant. The camera swirls around DeNiro and his victims as he fires more bullets into the man's body, the violence eventually exploding through a glass door and into the streets. Yet even this is not my favorite scene in “The Irishman.” That would be when, after a montage of car bombs going off, Hoffa's wife pauses before turning the keys in the ignition. It's a great, largely visual depiction of just how much the bloody gangster lifestyle ruins the lives of those around them.

After slumming it for years in various subpar projects, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino are all too aware that this may very well be there last chance to show what they are made of as performers. DeNiro, narrating in a reflecting style throughout the film, certainly proves once again why he's one of the most respected performers of his generation. DeNiro's glances or a nods speak volume, especially as more and more regrets are added to Frank's shoulders. Pacino, meanwhile, is fantastically bombastic as Hoffa. His profane rants are among the film's most entertaining moments, which plays to Pacino's operatic strengths. Joe Pesci, meanwhile, plays against type as Russell. Instead of the swearing, manic heights Pesci is beloved for, Russell is a quiet man who considers every word before he says it. It's another good indicator of the amount of control and grace Pesci is capable of as an actor.

Yes, “The Irishman” is very long. You have to carve out a large chunk of your day to watch it. I'm tempted to say the film didn't need to be quite such a behemoth but that ending really counts for a lot. Also, yes, the digital de-aging effects are a bit on the distracting side. DeNiro never quite looks as young as he's suppose to, making his exact age during any of the flashback scenes hard to determine. All things considered, “The Irishman” is an experience absolutely worth going through. It is Martin Scorsese and his frequent co-collaborators making their final, definitive statement on the mobster movie, summing everything up and somehow finding new things to say about it. [9/10]

Sunday, January 26, 2020

INTERVIEW: Lucky McKee Talks About His Career and His New Film, “Kindred Spirits”

Anyone who has been following “Film Thoughts” for any amount of time knows I'm a big fan and longtime supporter of Lucky McKee, the filmmaker behind such deranged classics of indie horror as “May” and “The Woman.” They are films I've written about extensively, recently even, and I'm constantly recommending them to friends.

Lucky's latest film, “Kindred Spirits,” recently became available on video-on-demand and digital rental. McKee has been doing a lot of guerrilla marketing for the film through his Twitter account. When he asked if anyone was interested in giving the movie some free press, I immediately jumped at the chance to interview a writer and director I've greatly admired for over a decade at this point. Soon enough, we were chatting about his career, his frequent collaborators, rumors, and how “Kindred Spirits” came about.

I've never done an interview of someone whose work means so much to me before, so I was both elated and extremely nervous to be talking to Mr. McKee. I don't know if I avoided coming off like a nerd or a weirdo but hopefully this interview will get a few more people to check out “Kindred Spirits.”

Zack: Wow, it's very exciting to be talking to you. I'm a huge fan.

Lucky McKee: Awww. Thanks for saying that.

Z: Let's start with something I've been curious about for years... I believe on the audio commentary for MAY, you mention an earlier short film that touched on some of the same themes you explored later on, about an angry doll attacking a man. (I want to say the title was "Fracture") I've often wondered if this still exist in any form.

LM: A black and white Hi8 short called FRACTURE was indeed the first iteration of the MAY story. I still have it! Been thinking of putting out a collection of weird shorts I’ve made over the years. Also, the short where a doll attacks bites my friend Ben Boyer’s dick off is a whole different short!

Z: That would be amazing! I've often hoped one of the boutique cult movie labels - Arrow or Scream Factory or the like - would give MAY the special edition Blu-Ray release it deserves, I know there was a lot of behind-the-scenes footage on Youtube and other sites like that at one point in time. Do you know if anything like that has ever been attempted?

LM: The little bits of footage that were on YouTube are the tip of a massive iceberg. I have maybe 50 or 60 hours of BTS footage from that whole experience! I’d love to make something happen with it someday but haven’t had the right opportunity.

Z: MAY is so clearly a deeply personal film. It certainly touched me in a very personal way when I first saw it as an incredibly socially awkward teenager. Did MAY's themes of isolation and alienation grow out of personal struggles of your own?

LM: Well, it was written by an incredibly socially awkward college kid so that tracks! To answer you second question, absolutely 100% yes.

Z: It's still an all-time favorite film of mine. I actually re-watched it this past October and still discover new details I've never noticed before. Polly's line about imperfections making people special seems to be a key moment, that directly connects with May later plucking out her own eye to bring Amy to life. As someone who has struggled with OCD and perfectionism, the film struck me more than ever as a story about self-acceptance. Is the ending to be read as tragic or hopeful?

LM: Polly’s line is for sure a key moment. Isn’t Anna great in that part? As far as the ending, how the ending is read depends on the viewer. Ideally they feel different about it each time they watch it.

Z: Yeah, Anna is great, a very underrated dramatic performer.

Z: I do have some questions about the original ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE. Obviously, you and Chris Sivertson have a long working relationship, from that first film up through KINDRED SPIRITS. How did you two first meet and what is your process like?

LM: Chris and I were neighbors on the dorm floor our freshman year at USC. We became fast friends and have been making movies together ever since our late teenage years. We learned how to make movies together and share a strange sense of humor. It’s always a blast working with him. He’s one of the funniest, sharpest people I’ve ever know. A true brother.

Z: Presumably ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE grew out of these early films you two made together? When was the decision made to create a bigger budget remake?

LM: Making the first CHEERLEADERS a year after graduating film school was our way of teaching ourselves how to make a feature film from soup to nuts. We shared all duties, from producing, to writing, directing, camera, sound, and editing. A full meal of an experience. It was a great way to make a first film with a partner like that. We learned twice as much by sharing that experience. After that we were able to kickstart our solo careers and years later decided to revisit the core idea of ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE and reimagine it using whatever we’d learned from our first decade of making movies. It’s cool to see the contrast between the two versions. It was also important to me personally at that point in time to work on something light and fun after living in the dark world of THE WOMAN for the two previous years.

Z: Speaking of THE WOMAN. The great Jack Ketchum was another frequent collaborator of your's. Was THE WOMAN conceived as a novel or a screenplay first?

LM: It started out with me pitching a sequel to the producer of the OFFSPRING film. I pitched it to Ketchum around the same time and we decided to write both the book and the screenplay together. It was all part of a wonderful collaborative run we had together for many years.

Z: Obviously your partnership with Ketchum was a fruitful one, as you went on to write two more novels together. What was the collaborative process like with Jack? How did you two split the writing duties? How much of "I'm Not Sam" and "The Secret Life of Souls" was "your's" or "his?"

LM: Ketchum and I worked remotely. Phone, email, instant messenger. Occasionally we'd be lucky enough to hang out in person, but we are both homebodies with our writing work so we were usually communicating from our respective caves. We would hash the broad strokes of a story out together, then one of us would go off an write pages. If I was writing the first draft pages, it would be in screenplay form, if he was writing first draft pages, it would be prose. We gave each other notes, rewrote each other. It was such a smooth collaboration. I cherish the time I had working with him. He was an amazing thinker, mentor and friend. I am still working to get everything we wrote together made into films. I miss him every day.

Z: I'm sure you get asked this a lot but... What exactly happened with RED?

LM: The production ran out of money halfway through the shoot. I disagreed on how to correct the problem and get the film finished. Ultimately I was replaced. It was a crushing experience that almost made me quit the movie business for good. Thankfully, THE WOMAN rose from the ashes of that clusterfuck.

Let me be clear though... RED falling apart for me was as much my fault as anyone else. I didn't see it that way at the time, but I see it that way now. Hubris did me in, but I learned some valuable lessons.

Z: Another project of your's that there doesn't seem to be much behind-the-scenes information on is BLOOD MONEY. How did you get involved with that and how much input did you have on Jared Butler and Lars Norberg's screenplay?

LM: BLOOD MONEY was a director-for-hire job that kept the lights on when I really needed it. I rewrote the script a zillion times in the year and a half leading up to the shoot. I loved working with the three lead kids. Willa Fitzgerald is so damned special. It's a shame the final film doesn't honor her hard work. With that film, I did the best I could with the resources, moral support and creative control that were not provided.

Z: I think that one is pretty good, a solid thriller. I definitely feel the “Lucky McKee sensibility” inside it.

Jumping back in time a little: I love your “Masters of Horror” episode. Was it intimidating being listed as a “master” alongside some of the most well-known and beloved directors of the genre? And did you ever attend any of the legendary dinner parties the series spawned from?

LM: It was quite an honor. It was supremely intimidating to be invited but that just made me work harder. The work of all those veteran directors was such a huge part of what made me want to make movies in the first place. It was surreal to be apart of that experience. Another bonus with my episode is that many of my good old friends were allowed to contribute. I turned 30 as were finishing up the sound design in Vancouver. I felt like I had pulled off some sort of trick and fooled everyone. Major feelings of impostor syndrome.

I went to many of those dinners. My friendship with Tobe Hooper was crystallized at those get togethers. We became such good friends. He was a wonderful mentor to me. I miss our long, crazy, enlightening talks.

An early TOOLBOX MURDERS poster possibly featuring Lucky's face.

Z: There’s a rumor you were originally going to play the killer in Tobe’s TOOLBOX MURDERS remake. Is that true?

LM: Yes. We did make-up and camera tests, it was all set to happen and then my movie THE WOODS was greenlit and I had to back out. I wish it would have panned out! A lot of my crew from MAY worked on that film.

Z: While we are on the topic of rumors, here's two others I was wondering if you could confirm or bust. At different points, you were supposedly attached to a remake of FIEND WITHOUT A FACE and an adaptation of Brian Harper's novel SHIVER. Any truth to that and, if so, why did those projects never get made?

LM: I worked on FIEND with Adam Gierasch and Jace Anderson (the writers of TOOLBOX) for a brief period. I think my take was a little too outlandish for folks to get their heads wrapped around. I wrote a little treatment, but nothing ever happened with it.

I was attached to SHIVER for quite some time, but ultimately parted ways over creative differences. The film was eventually made but I haven't seen it. I was really into Richard Fleischer's great serial killer movies at the time so the hope was to make something of that ilk. Just didn't work out. It's too bad it would have been fun to make that type of film.

Z: Something I've always admired about your films is that almost all of them revolve around female protagonists. This continues in KINDRED SPIRITS, your latest exploration of the secrets and intimacy of sisterhood. Do you find women easier to write than men? Where do you find such insight into the feminine mind?

LM: Any character I write is going to have little fragments of me buried in them. It doesn't matter what gender they are. I always work with actors on a heart to heart basis. We almost never rehearse, we mostly talk about why a character is saying or doing what they do. We ask each other tough, challenging questions and just explore the given subject matter together. It can be a very rewarding, intimate, enlightening process if the actor is game.

Z: How much do you storyboard? There's a real visual preciseness to your films - seen in the dreamy asides of MAY, the spooky witch sequences in THE WOODS, and now in KINDRED SPIRITS - that I've always been keen on.

LM: Some films I storyboard more than others. There is always a shot list. On the kind of budgets I usually work with I have to be flexible and adapt to the given situation so a lot of times I only get about 60-70% of what I initially hope to do. I feel like I shoot in a pretty old fashioned sort of way, but try to push myself where I can.

Z: There's always been an element of dark comedy and interpersonal drama in your films and KINDRED SPIRITS sees that moving towards the forefront, in that it's less of a horror film than some fans may expect. Was this an intentional move or where you just following your muse where it took you?

LM: I simply responded to Chris's script. As I said before, we share very specific mutual sense of humor and I just felt like I "got it". My year was coming to a close and the opportunity to make the film came along and I just jumped on it. It was good group of people to work with. We had very little time to shoot (15 days) and very little resources (well under a half million budget), but I feel like we did what we set out to do which was to make the type of pulpy character driven thrillers the studios used to make in the late 80's/early 90's.

Z: The film made its surprise debut on Lifetime last October, which is rather ironic considering more than one review described it as an especially dark Lifetime movie. How did that debut come about?

LM: The company I made the film for makes a lot of low budget movies for Lifetime, so I always knew that possibility was in play. No one thought to tell me it was going to air. My producer just happened to find out with a random internet search shortly before it played. I think it's super cool that my work was seen by a whole new type of audience. There's a huge fanbase there and, if you take a step back an think about it, my sort of work pretty much fits it like a glove.

Z: Before we wrap up, I am curious: What is next for you? I know you have a segment in the to-be-released DEATHCEMBER.

LM: Yes. The next piece of work to be released is my anthology segment in DEATHCEMBER. I made an odd little black and white western short! It was super fun to work with Sean Bridgers again and his co-lead Justin Stone is magnificent. Very proud of that one. Excited for folks to see it.

Z: A black-and-white Christmas themed horror/western? That sounds amazing!

Thank you so much for talking to me, Lucky! It really means a lot that you took the time to do this interview. I've been a fan and champion of your films from the beginning, so getting to talk to you has been a real treat.

LM: No problem man. My pleasure. Thanks so much for helping spread the word!!!

Saturday, January 25, 2020

OSCARS 2020: Joker (2019)

It only came out last October and I'm already sick of talking about “Joker.” From the moment the trailer debuted, the Discourse started to roar and has never stopped. From the way the marketing seemed to be courting the most toxic corners of nerd fandom, which lead to (ultimately unfounded) fears of mass violence, to the unending debates surrounding the actual merits of the final film, “Joker” is easily the most talked about movie of 2019. Now, it seems the Academy has decided to weigh in. And they were apparently impressed. Todd Philips' DC Comics inspired “violent loner” flick received more Oscar nominations than any other movie this year. That's despite a lot of really smart people thinking the movie is actually bad. Yet “Joker” has attracted passionate fans too and not just among edgelord film bros. (Though there are plenty of those.)  Now I guess it's my turn to reflect on last year's most endlessly discussed motion picture.

Breaking significantly from DC Comics tradition, this “Joker” begins in 1980s Gotham City, overrun with crime and waste from a garbage man's strike. We focus in on a wannabe comedian and struggling clown named Arthur Fleck. Arthur suffers from a neurological condition that causes uncontrollable laughing and that's really just one factor in his miserable life, which is mostly spent living with his sickly mom. (Who harbors an obsession with millionaire and would-be politician Thomas Wayne.) After loosing his job, Arthur – while still in his make-up – is attacked on the subway by three Wall Street types, which he then shoots to death. Thus begins Fleck's slow slide into insanity and nihilism on his way towards becoming a supervillain named Joker.

Upon seeing it for the first time last fall, the thing that bugged me the most about “Joker” is how totally divorced from its source material it is. That is to be expected, since an definitive origin story is totally antithetical to the comic book Joker's entire existence. This version of Gotham City doesn't resemble any previous one much. Instead of presenting us with a Joker, the master villain that commits crimes ranging from the mischievous to the truly vile strictly because it amuses him, we meet... Arthur Fleck, a pathetic and mentally ill man who violently rises up against the society we live in. That's because Todd Philips and his film have nothing but contempt for actual comic book lore. Instead, his “Joker” is glorified Martin Scorsese fanfiction, remixing elements from “The King of Comedy,” “Taxi Driver” and “Goodfellas” without really understanding the themes behind any of them.

Philips is another filmmaker best known for comedy who decided to make a hard break for legitimacy, the Academy being more than happy to take the bait. Philips really wants us to know how serious he is. “Joker”  is largely a miserablist drama set in a world totally without love. Everyone in this film is awful, selfish, vulgar, and ugly, up to and including Arthur. For most of its run time, “Joker” is devoted to showing how terrible its protagonist's life is. That this climaxes in a refrigerator assisted suicide attempt and eventual violence is not surprising. However, there's no actual depth to this endless misery. “Joker” seems to be saying that the world sucks and humanity sucks but with no insight beyond that, like an edgy teenager scrawling an anarchy symbol on his notebook because he thinks it's cool. (Considering the underlying disgust for humanity seen in Philips' comedies, the film's nihilism is simply the director coming clean with how he really feels.)

Of course, “Joker” does believe in some things. The movie wants us to think its about how cruelly the mentally ill – or anyone who is different – are treated by this nebulous thing we call society. Arthur even screams about this, just as he begins his proper transformation into the Joker. And the film comes ever so close to touching on something profound there, with how Fleck's insurance is taken away or a key phrase he scribbles in his notebook of madness. The suggestion is that, if anyone had just shown Arthur some love or kindness, his turn towards evil might've been avoided. But that's hard to take seriously when the film's entire world is so cartoonishly selfish and vile. No, the only thing the movie seems to actually believe is that this violent loner's rampage is totally justified and that women – ranging from his mother to the pretty woman down the hall, the subjects of the film's most insulting plot twists – deserve some of the blame.

“Joker's” total emptiness is most apparent in its vacant provocations towards our modern political hellscape. Even though it makes no sense for a city apparently so rife with crime – surely these murders wouldn't warrant anymore media attention than all the others? – but Arthur's subway slayings inspire a public protest against the rich. This is clearly meant to invoke the modern Occupy Wall Street and anti-fascist movement in America. Yet Arthur himself repeatedly clarifies that he has no political motivations at all. This feeling is furthered by the film's depiction of Thomas Wayne as neither evil millionaire nor generous philanthropist. The movie isn't actually saying anything about antifa or the Alt-Right or Trump or James Holmes any of that shit. It just introduces elements vaguely reminiscent of these real world issues in an attempt to look like it's saying something about modern America. Even though a minute's reading reveals it clearly isn't. (That organized, presumably anti-capitalist protesters would hail a multiple murderer as a hero also strikes me as unlikely but, oops, I just put more thought into this than the actual writers did.)

And yet for all its obvious problems, and obviously problematic elements, there is something undeniably compelling about “Joker.” A lot of this is owed to Joaquin Phoenix, who does indeed give an incredible performance. Emaciated, brooding, cackling, totally pathetic one minute and completely unhinged the next, he is a truly frightening cinematic villain. The decision to have Phoenix break out in interpretive dance, the first moment of catharsis the character has felt in his entire life, is inspired. Those scenes are the movie's best. (The film is so much Phoenix's, that the rest of the cast really blend into the background. Though Brett Cullen does a pretty good Alec Baldwin impersonation as Thomas Wayne.) It must be said that “Joker” is a well-produced film. Lawrence Sher's cinematography is frequently incredible. The movie's relentlessly grimy world is put together convincingly. Hildur Guðnadóttir's rumbling, disharmonic score is impressive.

From a narrative perspective, “Joker” isn't even that well constructed. It meanders considerably in its first half and has three goddamn endings for some reason. Still, I can't help but admit that “Joker” is, at the very least, a somewhat interesting motion picture. Even though it has pretty much nothing to do with the comic books that ostensibly inspired it, I'm still sort of blown away that a movie this nastily noncommercial was a major tent pole release based on some of pop culture's most well known characters. For all its empty-headed edginess, certain moments in “Joker's” last third do hit like a sledgehammer. This could've been a truly good film, if it had bothered to build any sort of actual viewpoint behind its endless ugliness. We are going to be debating the merits of “Joker” until the planet is finally consumed in fire, which is a real bummer as it really doesn't deserve that much analysis. Yet I guess I'm glad it exists, to prove that a comic book movie can be about truly anything. [6/10]

Friday, January 24, 2020

OSCARS 2020: Little Women (2019)

Louisa May Alcott's novel about the adventures of Jo March and her sisters seems to have a real grip on the minds of filmmakers. It has been adapted to theater screens seven times over the decades. (Not to mention another seven adaptations for television, two of which were Japanese cartoons.) As recently as 2018, we had another version, a modern updating from those purveyors of squeaky-clean Christsploitation at Pure Flix. So, when it was announced that a new “Little Women” was coming in 2019, it certainly didn't seem necessary. Yet this “Little Women” was also Greta Gerwig's follow-up to the highly acclaimed and beloved “Lady Bird” and even had Saoirse Ronan playing Jo. That made it an event for a certain breed of film fans and, unsurprising considering the attention her last feature received, it has gathered up a decent crop of Oscar nominations.

Set against the background of the Civil War, this familiar story follows the March sisters as they navigate their chosen passions, loss, and romance. Jo longs to be a writer but is pressured by those around her to marry a rich man instead. Amy wants to pursue painting but finds herself being similarly entangled in romantic obligations. Meg is happy to play the role of a young maiden wearing glamorous gowns and being courted by young men. Beth, meanwhile, loves to play piano but is often sickly. As life intervenes, the March girls will soon find themselves forced to grow up.

It would seem to me that Gerwig's “Little Women” is specifically designed for people who are familiar with Alcott's novel, or at least prior adaptations of it. I've somehow never read the book or really watched any previous film versions, even if the 1994 take is a favorite of my older sister.  Probably in hopes of bringing something new to the often-told tale, Gerwig's film approaches the story in a non-linear fashion, cutting between Jo's current life and her memories. Though the exact way this reflects on the source material is lost on me, I can appreciate the dreamy, nostalgic feeling this gifts the film with. This approach also adds another layer to the story, as it makes Jo the actual author of her own story, Gerwig incorporating the literal text into the film.

The sequences I found the most endearing in “Little Women” are those most similar to “Lady Bird,” the scenes that double-down on the youthful energy of its young characters. Several times throughout, we are greeted with touching moments of the girls acting like girls. They goof around in the attic, enacting plays. On Christmas, they rush around in excitement. When their father returns home from the war, they cover him in hugs. More than once, Jo and Amy have a sisterly spat. It's invigorating to see another period drama, another take on a stodgy old book, enlivened with such a sense of familial bonding and child-like enthusiasm.

In other ways, Gerwig seeks to modernize Alcott's text. This “Little Women” is especially concerned with the sacrifices women had to make back in the 1860s and – to a certain degree, still have to make – in order to succeed. Jo wants to write but publishers are reluctant to buy stories about women, the kind of stories she writes. She is repeatedly told to marry young and marry rich. While Jo avoids this path, either out of stubbornness or an inability to be anything but herself, her sister Amy isn't so lucky. Amy abandons her painting to become a wife, a choice largely motivated by a woman's lack of legal rights at the time. Gerwig is obviously especially interested in the places where feminism, the creation of art, and life in a patriarchal society intersect.

Considering Gerwig's status as a newly anointed Big Deal director, and “Little Women's” status as an adaptation of a well known novel, it's unsurprising that the film has a cast full of notable names. Both Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are probably too old for their parts but that's not so important, as both give very fine performances. The clear depth of soul in Ronan's eyes, and the ease with which she plays a determined young woman, makes her perfect for Jo. (Though Emma Watson clearly gets the short end of the stick as Beth, the obviously least interesting sister.) Among the cast's biggest names are Meryl Streep, suitably acerbic as Aunt March, and Laura Dern as the March matriarch, who is even better here than in “Marriage Story.” Timothee Chalamet brings the same fuckboi energy from “Lady Bird” to “Laurie,” though the character is a little less obnoxious. Chris Cooper brings a lot of warmth to his dad.

If I was one of the faithful fans of Alcott's book, I would've probably gotten even more out of Gerwig's 'Little Women.” However, this is definitely still a fine motion picture. Alexandre Desplat's score is lovely, the visual construction is well done, and the meta twist on the story – especially evident in its ending – is especially clever. There is a part of me that feels Gerwig's talents were probably better served on a story that hadn't already been filmed so many times. Yet she also made this one her own, so I guess that's just an empty gripe. Yeah, this is an extremely pleasant and sweet film. [7/10]

Thursday, January 23, 2020

OSCARS 2020: Parasite (2019)

Last decade, three of the most well-regarded Korean directors of the time came to America. Each would make a flashy genre film and none of them would see much success. Chan-wook Park's “Stoker” received some good reviews but found neither financial nor wide-ranging critical prominence. Kim Jee-woon's “The Last Stand” was a box office flop, though Schwarzenegger fans found plenty to appreciate. Bong Joon-ho's “Snowpiercer” received raves but was largely overshadowed by the director's feud with the distributor. Each director returned to South Korea after their Hollywood excursions, to much success. Bong's “Parasite,” in fact, has become the biggest international hit of the director's career. Among 2019's most critically adored films, it is now the first Korean movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Some are pegging it as the likeliest winner too.

The Kim family - father Ki-taek, mother Chung-sook, teenage son Ki-woo, and middle daughter Ki-jeong – live a meager existence, residing in a basement apartment and pulling off various cons and small jobs to earn what little money they can. A friend of Ki-woo's, soon to study abroad, works as an English tutor to the Parks, a rich family that lives in an opulent home. Ki-woo takes this position and, soon, finds way to integrates the rest of his family into the Park household. Ki-jeong bullshits her way into the role of art therapist to the Park's hyperactive son, while Kim and Chung-sook displace the family's established driver and housemaid. While the Kims initially enjoy their newfound wealth, they soon uncover the Park house has secrets of its own.

“Parasite” is a film that happily ricochets between different tones, a hallmark of Bong's other work. In its first half, it functions largely as a very funny comedy that is extremely aware of its own ideas. Upon receiving a scholar's stone – a symbol of prosperity – as a gift, Ki-woo remarks it's “very metaphorical.” A supporting character delivers a fiery monologue about North Korea, which doubtlessly has a more specific meaning to a Korean audience. Mostly, watching the ease with which the Kims bullshit their way into the Park household is hilarious. Elaborate con jobs are effortlessly pulled together, the Kims easily fooling the gullible Parks to make room in the house for their own family members. Bong even throws in some wacky physical comedy later, when pratfalls reveal some people hiding behind a wall.

Yet, as it goes on, “Parasite” becomes a more pointed, incisive story of class division. There's a very deliberate moment when this shift occurs. For the Park son's birthday, the rich family goes camping. The trip is rained out. As the rain continues, the slum where the Kims actually lived is horribly flooded. To the point where raw sewage is geysering out of their toilet. Their rich employers ask the Kims to continue on as if nothing happened, totally unaware that the lower-class family's life has been overturned. Rich Mr. Park starts to comment that his driver smells differently from them. He starts to refer to “a line,” which can never be crossed. Bong's point is not subtle. Those that live in gilded homes, that plan garden parties and lavish attention on their dogs, cannot relate to those that live in basement apartments, who have to lie to survive. As “Parasite” races towards its delirious climax, the contrast between what's important to one class and what's important to the other becomes even sharper.

Yet “Parasite” is not just a hilarious comedy and a perceptive social satire. It's also a thriller that is constantly catching its audience by surprise. Midway through the film, there is a truly unexpected twist. To discuss it in too much detail is to spoil the fun. However, needless to say, a huge monkey wrench is thrown into the Kim's plan, suddenly forcing them to think on their feet to disguise their own subterfuge. This already suspenseful situation is further exacerbated by Bong's masterful direction and editing. The camera moves along at a breakneck space through the hallways of the particularly designed home, at least when Bong isn't pausing to focus on a striking image. Such as a tepee centered in the perfectly green lawn or a light flickering inside a stairway.

As with “The Host,” “Parasite” sees Bong turning his eye on a scrappy family that fiercely protect each others and do what they have to survive. As in that film, Song Kang-ho plays the family's patriarch. Song's slacked face and heavy eyes convey so much emotion without saying a word, which becomes very important as the situation grows graver. Park So-dam is also electrifying as Ki-jeong, the daughter of the Kim family who seems to delight the most in fooling people. There's a lived-in quality to the moments of the Kims being by themselves, as they wear ratty pajamas and freely swear. The cast feels like they belong together, immediately endearing them to the audience and making the story so much more meaningful.

I imagine “Parasite” comments on international relations in a way that probably goes over my American head. The Park family is enamored of American culture, thinking of English as a very sophisticated language and spoiling their European-breed dogs. (And their son is obsessed with “playing Indian,” with all the suction-cup arrows and headdresses that implies.) These themes and ideas are ones that will surely be discussed and analyzed more in the years to come, as I have no doubt “Parasite” will remain a film fan favorite from here on. It's a beautifully orchestrated film, brilliantly written and directed, that has so much to say about the world we live in now. Whether it'll win Best Picture remains to be seen – after all, we thought “Roma” was a sure shot and then the Academy gave it to fuckin' “Green Book – but I doubt that matters much to Bong Joon-ho, who is probably more satisfied having made a great movie. [9/10]

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

OSCARS 2020: For Sama (2019)

Every year, as I look at the slate of films the Academy Award has nominated for the Best Documentary category, I mentally prepare myself to be depressed. Though a light-hearted one will slip in occasionally, the Documentary category is usually dominated by heavy films about real world issues. This is probably how it should be, the Oscars existing as a way to bring attention to topics that need it the most. Yet I always have to get ready for some serious stuff. Such was the case with “For Sama,” a documentary that returns to the war torn Syrian city of Aleppo. (A nominee from a few years back, “Last Men in Aleppo,” was set in the same area and was certainly a difficult watch.) “For Sama” was exactly as tough a watch as I had been warned. Was it worth it?

Starting in 2012, citizen journalist Waad Al-Kateab started to document the growing revolution in Syria, against the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad. Using a simple handheld camera, she recorded the growing civil unrest and the violent government oppression. As the Syrian Civil War began, the city of Aleppo being regularly shelled by Russian forces, she began to record the daily tragedies and miracles occurring in the hospital her future husband worked in. In the middle of this fray, Waad gave birth to a daughter named Sama. She continued to record the daily conflict while raising her little girl. This documentary represents a personal statement to Sama, showing her what life was like in her home country at the time of her birth.

“For Sama” is probably among the most harrowing films I've ever seen. Al-Kateab's camera is down to the ground in Aleppo as the war break out. The film presents us with the horrors the Syrian citizens have had to withstand, never blinking. So you see dead bodies, as still fresh corpses of protesters – killed by government forces – are fished out of the river. Inside the hospital, we see victims of the bombings. Some are left bloodied and mangled while many do not survive. People scream, wounds bleed and weep, blood stains the floor. Most distressing, the camera more than once captures the bodies of children killed in the attacks. Mothers cradle the dead bodies of their sons, their hopes and dreams extinguished. These are not the kind of things anyone should have to live through and I often had to look away from “For Sama.”

Yet, despite the awful realities “For Sama” presents to the viewer, the movie is just as determined to capture the perseverance of humanity in such a dire situation. An especially distressing sequence depicts a pregnant woman giving birth after surviving a bombing. The doctors attempt to revive her seemingly lifeless infant, a moment so horrible I could barely watch... Before the baby starts to cry. The boy lived and so did his mother. In another, far more light-hearted moment, a friend of Waad surprises his mother with a persimmon fruit, which nearly brings her to tears. The family had been subsisting on bug-infested rice and boiled leeks up to that point. Equally inspiring is the commitment Waad and her husband have to helping the people of Aleppo. Watching their love and family grow is touching, as you see the joy and grace they can share with their child even while their city is plunged into unspeakable turmoil.

Since “For Sama” is built around hundreds of hours of footage Al-Kateab shot, it presents an interesting cinematic experience. Sequences of her rushing through a crowd as it descends into chaos, or desperately looking for her child in a bunker as bombs rain down overhead, are realer and more intense than any found footage horror movie. Seeing an exhausted Waad cowering over her daughter as airstrikes are heard near-by gives you a keen impression of what it must've been like to live through this. Sometimes the film cuts in other footage. There are drone shots of the ruined city, entire blocks being incinerated by falling explosives. Footage from a CTR camera depicts the nightly routine of a hospital disrupted by a massive explosion, the camera's point-of-view reduced to smoke and fire. Al-Kateab narrates the film, directly addressing Sama. Which makes this about as personal a testament as anyone could hope for.

Obviously, “For Sama” is not an easy film to watch. I wouldn't blame anyone for skipping this one. I kind of wish I had skipped it myself, as the movie showed me disturbing things I definitely did not want to see. Yet these events happened. They are still happening. (Despite several ceasefires being signed since 2016, the atrocities in Syria continue.) And as much as the film captures the horrors of war, it also shows how kindness and charity can survive even in the darkest of moments. This makes it a valuable experience. As for Waad Al-Kateab, her husband, and Sama, they eventually made it out of Aleppo and currently reside in the U.K. [8/10]

Sunday, January 19, 2020

OSCARS 2020: Bombshell (2019)

Every Oscar season typically features one “ripped-from-the-headlines” nominee. You know, those movies dramatizing events in relative recent history that reflect on Our Culture and How It Is Now. Last year, it was “Vice.” The year before that, it was “The Post.” You get the idea. 2019's model is “Bombshell,” handling such important topics as sexual harassment, institutionalized sexism, and Fake News. And like these movies usually are, the critical reception has been divisive. The film has received some raves but many more responses have seemingly not known entirely how to react. Either way, Awards Season has not ignored “Bombshell.” It has been picking up nods left and right, including three Oscar nominations.

The film traces the downfall of Roger Ailes, the scumbag that is largely responsible for turning Fox News into the loudest voice in the deafening right wing noise machine. The story focuses in on the three women who brought him down, by exposing the atmosphere of blatant sexual menace he created. Gretchen Carlson has been loosing ratings for the network, after adopting a slightly more liberal perspective on her show. After confronting Donald Trump about his sexism, Megyn Kelly becomes the target of heavy criticism from Trump and his fan base. Kayla – a composite character created for the film – is a new hire at Fox News, who is personally targeted by Ailes' harassment. After Carlson is fired, she sues Ailes and brings his abuse into the light. Soon, Kelly and Kayla join the fight.

“Bombshell” is most valuable for the bracing way it depicts the toxic environment at Fox News. Kayla has to hide her bisexuality, while her on-again/off-again girlfriend and co-worker lives a life as a closeted Hilary Clinton fan. They trade rumors about Bill O'Reilly's perverted phone call habit, which is treated as just a matter-of-fact of working at Fox. Ailes is open with his sexism. He insists the female newscaster always have their legs visible and in frame, frequently shouting as much on set. When “Bombshell” zooms in on specific abuse, it's largely effective. The moment where Ailes makes Kayla spin around for him and then pull up her skirt is especially unsettling. A later moment, when she elaborates on Ailes' more extreme abuse, breaking down in the process, is when “Bombshell” comes the closest to touching on something powerful.

However, there's a pretty big problem with “Bombshell.” The film never actually interrogates the ideology of Fox News. The abuse Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, and many other women, suffered at Ailes' hand was terrible. Yet, if you're going to make a movie about them, you should probably acknowledge the stupid shit they've said, the corrosive effect their words have had on American journalism. That the women themselves stood behind some pretty sickening shit. There's a brief depiction of the infamous “White Santa” report but that's about it. Otherwise, Kelly and Carlson are shown to be the best of a bad lot. (Which is, needless to say, debatable.) Trump is depicted in the film but the way Fox News came to act as his personal propaganda department is shown uncritically. Ailes' abuse was a symptom of a larger environment of sexism, racism, and corruption, an undeniable fact that “Bombshell” doesn't seem interested in discussing.

“Bombshell” was directed by Jay Roach, the filmmaker behind such motion pictures as “Meet the Fockers” and the “Austin Powers” trilogy. It's obvious what inspired Roach's leap from broad comedy to political biopics. Former comedy specialist Adam McKay previously reinvented himself as an Oscar-nominated director of socially conscious films. Roach obviously hopes to follow in his footsteps. “Bombshell” wants so badly to be “The Big Short” or “Vice.” It features many of the same fourth wall breaking tricks. The audience hears the character's thoughts. They directly address the viewer. Names, information, titles and images flash on-screen. McKay's hyper-verbal and lightning fast editing is an acquired taste in-and-off itself. Roach's attempt to emulate this style is frequently lifeless, the movie not committing to the breakneck pacing necessary to sell such in-your-face gimmicks. “Bombshell” largely becomes a normal fact-based drama in its second half.

Ultimately, what works best about “Bombshell” is its performances and its make-up. Charlize Theron adopts an odd voice as Megyn Kelly but is otherwise very good, depicting a woman torn between her politics and her personal experience. Margot Robbie is excellent as Kayla, whose dreams of conservative news stardom crumble in the face of workplace realities. Nicole Kidman is equally compelling as Carlson, whose finely crafted veneer of Fox News sensibilities start to crumble as more bullshit is piled on her. John Lithgow plays Ailes as a pathetic old man who is still guileless in how he abuses his powers. Lithgow shows the true banality of evil, as his Ailes so casually does shitty things and remains utterly convinced he's in the right the whole time. Helping sell these performances are uncanny make-up jobs, that transform Theron, Lithgow and other cast members – such as Richard Kind as Ruby Guiliani and Malcolm McDowell as Rupert Murdoch – into the perfect facsimiles of the real people.

It's easy to root for Megyn Kelly, Gretchen Carlson, and the fictional Kayla as women striking back against the man that so heinously abused them. It's a lot harder to root for them as contributors to the destruction of American journalistic integrity, as people who helped birthed the era of Alternative Facts. Instead of building this conflict into its structure, “Bombshell” hopes simply telling one side of the story will be enough. (It even ends with a Best Original Song hopeful from Regina Spektor, hailing the women as feminist heroes.) This approach is, obviously, flawed. Despite the best efforts of the admirable cast, it's an issue the movie can't overcome. Subsequently, the viewer is left uncertain how to feel or react, which is rarely a great place for a movie to leave you. [6/10]