The Great Wall — 6/10

THE GREAT WALL (2017, Zhang Yimou) 

Now there’s an odd directorial name to write after that comma. Take one look at any of the major set-pieces in this fantasy action spectacle, and you’ll double-take on the idea that one of the greatest realist storytellers of the ’90s (the man behind such masterworks as RAISE THE RED LANTERN and TO LIVE) is doing some sort of CG monster-war movie. It would be like seeing that Wong Kar-wai directed THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

Granted, in his old age Zhang has veered towards action and fantasy a couple of times, most successfully in THE HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (which is as staggering narratively as it is visually) and most commercially in HERO. But still, this feels like the work of a hired gun, complacent in his late 60s, shrugging to accept the paycheck for doing this sugary piece of forgettable entertainment. It’s amusing in fits and starts, but hard to remember much of — even less than an hour after leaving the theater.

Co-writer Tony Gilroy (the only missing component of the Bourne series in JASON BOURNE, likely explaining why that film was so bad) is probably responsible for many of the clever lines in this 100-minute adventure, and his sense of humor keeps a lot of the talky scenes afloat. But the real money goes into the action scenes, and Zhang takes a few opportunities to give us some characteristic flourishes — remember the bean/drum scene from DAGGERS? Genetics of that are in the screaming arrows of Act II. And the oddly beautiful (and strangely inefficient) warfare method of bungee-jumping women-with-spears feels delightfully idiosyncratic. But then there’s a lot of communist-loving nationalism, underdeveloped characters (Willem Dafoe?), and a somewhat predictable third act. Still, there are worse ways to spend an afternoon (when this comes on Netflix), and has there ever been an unwelcome appearance by Andy Lau?

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Get Out — 8/10

GET OUT (2017, Jordan Peele)

The premise sounded great, but that’s just a premise. Then the trailer came out, and it was great, but that’s just a trailer. Now the film is here, and what-do-you-know, it’s great. Peele makes literal what has presumably been a figurative horror for so many black men: meeting their white girlfriend’s family. It’s hard to think of a horror masterwork in American cinema that hasn’t been anchored by either politics, social issues, or some sort of zeitgeist fear. But how often have the complexities of things such as interracial dating, fawning liberal condescension, and class guilt been mined for true terror? Not often, and Peele squeezes every drop of juice he can from this fertile fruit.

The script is tight as a drum — hardly a line or scene is wasted: the deer hitting the car feels metaphorical while it’s happening, but Rose’s reaction (refusing to let the cop harass Chris for his ID), her dad’s reaction (“They’re like rats” infecting the area and need to be stomped out; every dead one “is a good start”) all make such good sense the further this story goes. White symbols like the colonial architecture and the old-school teacup become harbingers of doom; passive bigotry like the discussion of black genetics, muscle tone, and lack of intelligence are all revealed as motives, not just opinions. And that feels somewhat revolutionary.

This is an hour of delicious setup, but then the final act is one enormous, cathartic release of tension. We spend so long seeing everything through Chris’s eyes (the most sympathetic protagonist in a horror film I can think of in years) that the hell unleashed in the back third of the movie comes armed with righteous truth. Not unlike Jamie Foxx’s rise to power at the end of DJANGO UNCHAINED, Chris’s arc is at once frightening, smart, and deliriously deserved. Peele’s camera sense is finely tuned, allowing close-ups to unnerve us as much as wide shots, long takes, and jump scares. Perhaps some of the narrative contrivances are a little too sweaty (Rod’s visit to the police, the happens-to-be-open-right-then closet door) but those flaws are easy to overlook when there are so many totems of wealthy, white, oppressive culture (a bocce ball, a police car, a stuffed and mounted deer head) put — ironically and delectably — into the hands of the black man.

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Kedi — 6/10

KEDI (2017, Ceyda Torun)

Impossible for a cat-lover like me not to at least enjoy sitting in a theater for 80 minutes seeing terrific footage of adorable cats being awesome, but as a piece of documentary filmmaking this is fairly lacking. Why bring up the history of Turkey and Istanbul without showing us any photos, paintings, artifacts, or relics from the Ottoman Empire, Constantinople, or even early 20th century Istanbul, that involve cats? No archival footage, no sketches, stories, no pottery, rugs, etc. One mostly-off-camera subject talks about how cats came to be in the city (working as mice-hunters on ships, then disembarked once they docked in the harbor), but that just calls attention to how little effort was put into gathering any footage for this that isn’t contemporaneous video of cats and people.

Speaking of people, we barely get to know any of them either. There’s a poor fisherman who lost everything he had when his boat sank, and he talks about how cats saved his life, but he’s basically just wallpaper here. Same goes for the shopowner who just smirks at the mother cat that comes by every now and then, or the guy who routinely takes injured cats from the marketplace area to a vet and keeps an open tab. Torun just skates the surface of their lives, leaving it up to them to drop some shallow platitudes about how if people could get along with each other like they get along with cats, it would be a better world.

But what does work about this is the beautiful attention paid to how these cats live. It’s great to see a city where instead of each cat living alone in a house, shitting in a litter box, and staring out a window (like here in Los Angeles; my own apartment building has at least 5 cats in it and none of them have ever seen each other), they freely roam the streets and people just pet them and feed them as they please, then go home while the cats stay transient. And each of them really do have a personality — cat-owners will recognize a bit of their own friends in any number of these characters: the stubborn ones, the affectionate ones, the curious, the sleepy, the spastic, the vane, the wise. Patient camerawork leads to capturing some very nice moments of adorable cat behavior. You’ll smile, even if you’re never enlightened.

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John Wick Chapter 2 — 7/10

JOHN WICK CHAPTER 2 (2017, Chad Stahelski)

If 2014’s JOHN WICK was the 2014 Golden State Warriors with Steph Curry (overachieving underdogs, lovable, talented) then JOHN WICK CHAPTER 2 is the 2017 Golden State Warriors with Curry and Kevin Durant: over-stuffed, more expensive, believing its own hype, and the big guy in town. A lean 101 minutes, the original film was a nonstop freight train of gas-fueled action. This one is bloated out to 122 minutes, full of pregnant pauses in conversation and grand posturing fit for a movie that thinks it’s the shit.

Luckily for Stahelski and his team, it kind of is. What it loses in its narrative efficiency and fresh-faced surprise, it makes up for in even bigger action scenes. Everything from hand-to-hand fighting to car-as-weapon balletics to HK-styled gun-fu is terrific, even if some of the “hidden” cuts make the long takes jerky and strained. There are plenty of “Holy SHIT!” moments to make you jolt in the theater, and the blood and gore are a-plenty.

I do wish Derek Kolstad’s lame-ish script had figured out a few things better. What’s the deal with the Chuk Iwuji character? He’s introduced in the Gianna sequence as if he’s going to pay off later, but when we see him again at the end it’s a throwaway. And after PASSENGERS and now this, is Laurence Fishburne just going to show up in movies for pretentious scenes to stand around talking too much? This MATRIX reunion didn’t go as I’m sure Stahelski had hoped.

Too many threads belaboring a need to flesh out this alternate universe of hitmen all over the planet are what keeps JWC2 from being great, but when it gets down to business — like the furtive gunshots in the subway station, the train fight, the stairway brawl, and the hall-of-mirrors ENTER THE DRAGON callback — it’s ’90s action movie heaven.

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2016 Year in Review

It’s the fifth annual PJH year in review (here’s 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015), and by now the 14 of you reading this have come to expect it at the tail end of January (a good six weeks after everyone else has weighed in and gotten fatigued by year-end lists lists lists lists lists) and full of something close to zero surprises. Still, it’s helpful to wrap everything up and put 2016 to bed — as we plunge into a 2017 that could bring anything from a coup d’etat to global meltdown to World War III (in which the USA is the bad guy). If that’s the case, hopefully we get a few more good films to escape with before the monsters in Washington shred the last fibers of democracy left flapping in the climate-changing wind.

2016 TOP TEN

1. 20TH CENTURY WOMEN — The best new release I’ve seen in 12 years and the one piece of cinema this year that reminded me why I even bother with this blog. I was hooked from the opening few shots, and already getting choked up before my seat was warm. Not much more to say than I did in my review, but if it’s playing in your city, do yourself a favor and enjoy it on the big screen: it’s an astonishing visual experience; it’s grand and evocative and eye-catching, which is something for a film that’s so nuanced in its writing and acting as well. A masterpiece by any definition.

2. THE LOBSTER — This was my #1 from May all the way until January, when Mike Mills snuck in at the last second to steal the top spot from a very deserving Yorgos Lanthimos dark comedy. It’s both trenchant and timeless, both scary and hilarious, and you’ve never seen anything like it.

3. EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! — Proof that nostalgic period pieces imagine eras the way we remember them, not necessarily the way they were. I saw this once, almost 10 months ago, but remember it so vividly (or do I?) because of its hot-blooded humanism, overflowing empathy, and buoyant humor. Linklater has quietly made three of the decade’s best movies in a row (don’t forget BEFORE MIDNIGHT or BOYHOOD; who could?) and no list of the greatest American directors alive can exist without his name.

4. (tie) FANTASTIC LIES & O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA — Two magnificent documentaries from ESPN’s 30 for 30 that tackle nothing less than the issues of race, media, sports, and the American legal system. The former is a brilliant 90-minute look at the infamous Duke Lacrosse story by Marina Zenovich. She craftily structures the film like a clichéd sports movie with a rousing climax, but what she’s really examining is the uninformed mob’s desire to rush to judgment, and the thorny lines crossed when privilege meets injustice. Similarly galvanizing is Ezra Edelman’s 7.5-hour Oscar-nominated epic about Simpson. It gets even more outlandish as it goes along, but smartly presents an exhaustive argument that everything has context, and our national obsession with celebrity and race is inextricably linked to politics, history, and every lurid detail in between.

5. ALLIED — A decade ago you wouldn’t believe me if I were to tell you a WWII epic from Robert Zemeckis starring Brad Pitt would be one of the most ignored, forgotten, and under-appreciated films of the year, but I mean a fascist imbecile is our President and so that’s just where we are now. Every composition, camera move, and set design is so well-conceived and beautiful to behold. But it isn’t just a triumph of classical filmmaking — it’s an adoring melodrama with an emotional punch that’s both unpredictable and handsomely earned. They do make them like they used to. They made it this year. Don’t sleep on it.

6. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS — Two movies, two great works. Maybe Tom Ford can do something other than slim-fit suits? If you’re not in this for the luscious framing story about the power and purpose of art — how liberating it can be — then you’re in it for the novel-within-the-movie where Michael Shannon and Jake Gyllenhaal put on an acting clinic.

7. THE HANDMAIDEN — Park’s comeback movie is also about the freedom that comes when you no longer have to hide your identity (either national, sexual, or moral), and it’s couched in an exhilarating package of sensational photography, score, and storytelling. One of the most entertaining experiences of 2016.

8. GREEN ROOM — Nobody could have guessed when this came out that it would be a template for our future. Millennials are attacked by Nazis, and their livelihood is quickly in danger. But aside from its accidental timeliness, this is just a terrific rapid-fire piece of sustained tension. And what a shame that Anton Yelchin, who just kept getting better, was taken from us so young. See this as a tribute to him.

9. NOCTURAMA — I was going to hold off and see if this got distribution in 2017 (and then put it on my 2017 list), but so far it doesn’t have it, and it may never get it in Trump’s America. The “My Way” sequence is a standout, but almost every set piece in Bonello’s uncommonly sensitive look at the production and post-production of a terrorist act is a stunner.

10. HELL OR HIGH WATER — Leave it to a Scotsman to investigate the heart of America’s economic depression and tell a sharp, evenly-tuned story about a world that has given everyone a short shrift, yet the film leaves nobody out to dry. Roles both big and small are given three-dimensional treatment, thanks to Sheridan’s magnificent script and an all-star cast. A grand over-achiever.

Didn’t Quite Make the Cut: If I hadn’t included NOCTURAMA, then Kenneth Lonergan’s aching/funny MANCHESTER BY THE SEA would have snuck into the 10th slot and not been out of place. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s CREEPY is an expertly directed horror curiosity. Keith Maitland’s documentary TOWER, about the mass-shooting in Austin by Charles Whitman, is audaciously affecting (with animated re-enactments to boot) and highly recommended. Houda Benyamina’s engrossing DIVINES sports a terrific lead performance from Ouyala Amamra amidst a surprisingly bleak but endearing story set in the Paris ghettos. A similar look at the forgotten underclass from a talented female director is AMERICAN HONEY, which divided audiences but remains a memorable experience at the theater.

And now, the requisite awards:

Best Director — Mike Mills, 20TH CENTURY WOMEN

Best Actor — Colin Farrell, THE LOBSTER

Best Actress — Annette Bening, 20TH CENTURY WOMEN

Best Supporting Actor — Jeff Bridges, HELL OR HIGH WATER

Best Supporting Actress — Lily Gladstone, CERTAIN WOMEN

Best Screenplay — Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, THE LOBSTER

As usual, no Worst list. This world definitely doesn’t need any more worsts, and I don’t even like the concept of shitting on films on purpose. I’ll savage a bad movie in a review, but there’s no need to call attention to it again in year-end wrap-ups. Plus, I’m often lucky enough to skip the worst of the worst.

And that’s it. Please comment below with anything you want to discuss. Thanks for reading.

 

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La La Land — 5/10

LA LA LAND (2016, Damien Chazelle)

Entering this conversation very late and with very little of interest to say. There are some nice touches throughout that keep this watchable and dynamic: Gosling is quite good despite his mediocre dancing and singing — he’s really in it for his comic timing (watch that flinch reaction when he sees his sister in his apartment when he gets home) and puppy-dog sympathy when things don’t go his way. Stone is fierce in the audition scenes and giddy in musical numbers, though her chemistry with Gosling was sharper in both CRAZY STUPID LOVE (really good) and GANGSTER SQUAD (really bad). It seems now this regular pairing is just coasting on already-established good will.

But this is a film about aspiring artists, and its message is both trite and uninspiring. We’ve seen a million times a story about a guy stuck doing something he hates until he achieves his dream, and this goes nowhere we don’t expect. Sebastian even gets a chance to learn something new: John Legend has a great speech to him mid-film about how you need to tailor your skills to the needs of the marketplace. About how “jazz is dying because of people like you” who are ignoring a younger generation in favor of old traditionalists. A nice point to make, but Chazelle disagrees with it!

So instead, he makes a movie designed to do nothing but nod to older movies and tell us how good they were. Yeah, some of them were good. But aren’t I supposed to be watching a good one now? Why not make this one good too? Instead, the camera work in the musical numbers is boring, sloppy, and haphazard. Even the long take on the freeway (why is Stone going from the 105 to the 110 in the morning if she lives with her girlfriends in Hollywood?) feels weighed down by molasses instead of gliding on air. The house party pool scene has murky underwater photography before drunkenly settling on phony fireworks. Artifice is a theme of the film (in Los Angeles, everything is fake!) but if the emotions in the movie are supposed to be real, then why not make us feel something?

There are so many blunders that they had to be intentional: the sequence where Stone and Gosling walk the studio lot on a “first date” is in sync for the close-ups but the wide masters are hopelessly out of sync; like they were ADR’d on purpose. It doesn’t even come close to matching. There’s a hair in the gate in a simple quick shot of Gosling sitting on a bed that could easily have been noticed and touched up. (Doubt this was a projection issue because it disappeared on a cut, plus it was a DCP). Glad that Chazelle shot on 35mm film, but come on, Oscar-nominated DP. Check the gate. I can only imagine all of these things were left in to contribute to the theme of artifice, meta-knowledge, and peering behind the curtain. But it’s also a really convenient excuse.

It’s not enough to tell us that you liked THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG or SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN or ALL THAT JAZZ. And in what amounts to the single lamest THE CONFORMIST homage in film history, we get a low-angle shot of about four leaves dribbling towards Stone’s feet, reminding us that there is an entire wealth of cinematic classics we could be watching instead of this bland, forgettable, occasionally agreeable, but slight exercise in ripping off better movies.

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Split — 5/10

SPLIT (2017, M. Night Shyamalan)

The references are there from the very beginning — Night signals Hitchcock with the opening shot, which is a dolly-in/zoom-out on Taylor-Joy (not quite as good as she was in THE WITCH, but it’s just the material’s limitations, not hers), and then we get repeated PSYCHO-type exposition from Betty Buckley, aka The Worst Psychiatrist Of All Time. Shyamalan has always been a better director than writer, and here his script lets him down yet again. He gets to do more with the camera than in THE VISIT, which was hampered by the found-footage gimmick, but that was still a scarier and more interesting film than this multiple-personality cliché rehash: really just an excuse to prove that James McAvoy can actually act (which is the most shocking twist by far).

Night’s camera makes concrete what the metaphors about McAvoy’s brain imply — people trying to get to the light, being trapped in boxes/cages, the desperate need to communicate, etc. It’s all very tight and well reasoned. But in the service of what? Even the post-title-card nod at the end to one of his earlier movies feels desperate and pointless. The rest is just a series of dull conversations between McAvoy and Buckley, plus some nervous winging-it from Taylor-Joy. The presence of weapons, doors, and silence do create a foreboding atmosphere of dread, which is clearly Shyamalan’s strength, but not only did Hitchcock do this stuff better — De Palma did too, and we already have RAISING CAIN.

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