In “Goat,” Bucks Misbehave

[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today at this link.]

Goat

Goat (Andrew Neel, 2016)

Based on Brad Land’s 2004 memoir of the same name, Goat tells a tale of college hazing run amok. We find ourselves at a nondescript university probably somewhere in the South (in real life, it was South Carolina’s Clemson University, while the film, itself, is shot in Ohio), where young men bully and cajole each other into acts of physical torture and quasi-sexual abuse, all in the name of rushing a coveted fraternity. As a meditation on the mechanics of male bonding, Goat, from indie director Andrew Neel (King Kelly), has a lot to recommend, filled with sensitive performances from its two leads, playing brothers Brad (Ben Schnetzer, Pride) and Brett (Nick Jonas, of the Jonas Brothers). If it ultimately ends up feeling like much ado about not as much as were hoping for, it’s because we are led, early on, to expect the worst, and instead are treated to something less than a nightmare (though there is, indeed, a goat involved). Yes, there is real tragedy, but it is unexpected and incidental, which feels like a cheat. Granted, one shouldn’t change the facts of the true story, but the opening is so brutal and uncompromising that what follows cannot help but appear less so.

Schnetzer, especially, is the one to watch. He’s an exceptionally fine young actor who brings a visceral power to his character’s tribulations. As the movie begins, both Brad and Brett are at a party – the kind where boys will be boys and girls will be sex objects – and Brad, the younger one, not yet in college, decides to take off just as Brett is getting into the coke, booze and naked ladies. Bad move. Better to be lost in a party where you feel ill at ease than to experience what follows. Outside, Brad is accosted by an unknown male partygoer who asks him for a ride. Unsure of himself, Brad agrees, only to find out that there’s a second guy. It doesn’t end well, and the next day Brad is much the worse for wear, and without a car, the victim of a serious assault. He cannot understand why he didn’t fight back, and for the rest of the film will be suffering from some serious PTSD.

Before long, though (the film has a lovely, elliptical approach to time), summer is over and it’s time to go off to school, where Brett is already an established presence. One thing Brad knows for sure – even though he does not, in fact, seem like his brother at all – is that he will most definitely be joining Brett’s fraternity, Phi Sigma Mu (a fictionalized composite of real fraternity names). But to do so means that he, along with all the other pledges, will have to suffer untold indignities, many of which cause traumatic flashbacks to his earlier beating. This part is beautifully told, raising expectations of catharsis to follow, which never quite happens. There is an eventual confrontation between the forces of reason and those of madness, but the story veers a little too much away from Brad’s point of view to remain entirely engaging. Co-written by director David Gordon Green (Joe), whose work frequently explores the pitfalls of male culture (and there’s nary a woman in sight here, unless she’s at a party), the script is best when it stays focused on the relationship between Brad and Brett, sometimes not bothering to fully flesh out the supporting characters. Still, there’s really good stuff here, and Schnetzer and Jonas more than make it worth the effort to see.

“Queen of Katwe” Offers Inspiration, In Spite of Formula

Queen of Katwe

Queen of Katwe (Mira Nair, 2016)

From Indian-American director Mira Nair (The Namesake) comes this sweet , if also saccharine, tale of how one very talented and smart, if also desperately poor, Ugandan girl was able to become an international chess star. Based on a true story, the film follows young Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) as she rises from the squalor of poverty-stricken Katwe – a neighborhood in Kampala, Uganda’s capital – through the power of education, courtesy of a local athletic coach, Robert Katende, played by David Oyelowo (Selma), who teaches not only soccer but also the “Game of Kings.” Though he is not, initially, looking for a champion, he knows one when he sees one, and when Phiona shows up for his afternoon classes, he recognizes her potential. Soon, she will be the queen of them all.

But first, she will face challenges, foremost among them her mother, Harriet, played by Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave). She’s against her children (Phiona has a brother and a sister) doing anything that takes them away form the business of making a living in the market, and suspicious of members of a social class above hers, but Phiona has a strong will, and Robert is persuasive, and soon Phiona and her brother are learning chess (the elder sister has other desires). Phiona proves the best player in her class, and when she and her teammates beat the students at a nearby private school, they suddenly become the pride of Uganda, where before they were shunned. It is not too long before Phiona is off to tournaments outside the country. But victory comes at a cost, and she may lose her way.

This is, whatever the truth of the story, a Disney film, which means it follows a traditional three-act narrative structure, complete with dramatic reversals, ending with an uplifting conclusion where all of Phiona’s demons are conquered. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it all feels a little too pat, and the constant swelling musical score does not help matters. What works is that this is a tale of Africans helping themselves; there are no whites lending a hand to helpless people of color. Class conflict – true, in this case, inherited from the former British colonial power – is among Ugandans, and Ugandans are the focus of the story. It’s refreshing to have a major company like Disney not insist on adding what would here be inappropriate white voices. Oyelowo is always good, and here he makes a fine mentor, strong with moral authority. Nyong’o is equally compelling. The unknown star – Nalwanga – is the real find, since she firmly holds her own against her elders, as do the many other young actors who make up her peer group. See it for them, if not for the ordinary, plodding way the movie is told, and for the final moment, at the end, where we see the real people of the story standing next to the actors who portrayed them; it’s one of the most genuine moments in this imperfect, yet still moving, movie.

“Magnificent Seven” Falls Short of Its Titular Aspirations, Yet Gets the Job Done

[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today at this link.]

Magnificent Seven

Magnificent Seven (Antoine Fuqua, 2016)

Acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa released his nearly three-and-a-half-hour epic Seven Samurai in 1954. Six years later, American director John Sturges helmed a Hollywood adaptation – at only two hours and eight minutes, much shorter – entitled The Magnificent Seven. Both movies tell the same story, of a small farming village, attacked and bullied by local bandits, that hires seven mercenaries to protect the community and defeat the oppressors once and for all. The fact that Kurosawa’s film was turned into an American Western was especially interesting given the obvious influence of those Westerns on its own structure. What goes around comes around, in the world of reciprocal cultural influence. As appealing as the Sturges version may be, the original is the true masterpiece. One thing I do not recommend doing is watching the two films back to back, as I once did, since the immediate juxtaposition is not kind to the Western, which is otherwise a more than serviceable piece of commercial entertainment.

And now, 56 years later, comes a new version of that “original” adaptation, from Antoine Fuqua (Training Day). It’s the same basic premise, though many details have been changed, adding greater racial and ethnic diversity to the troupe of heroes and making a woman the most proactive of the townspeople. Like its predecessor, it is more or less narratively pleasing, though it suffers from significant plot and character weaknesses – and a distressingly high body count – that take away from the joy of watching its principal cast at work. Led by Denzel Washington (2 Guns), as sometime lawman Sam Chisolm, that cast includes white guys Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy), Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight) and Vincent D’Onofrio (Daredevil), but also actors Byung-hun Lee (I Saw the Devil), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Cake) and relative newcomer (and Native-American actor) Martin Sensmeier (Lilin’s Brood), making the overall balance of the titular group more diverse than in 1960. Since the story takes place in 1879, however, and the American Civil War is a not-so-distant-memory – and is, in fact, mentioned a number of times in the film – the anachronism of the progressive racial politics of the (very white) town may raise a few historical eyebrows. Then again, when your very existence is threatened by a psychotic robber baron, you may not care who is protecting you, as long as they get the job done.

That villain is played by the usually reliable Peter Sarsgaard (Blue Jasmine), who here turns in a ludicrous one-note performance that is one of the major problems with the movie. He is simply not a worthy adversary for Mr. Washington, who commands the screen with nuance and presence. Fortunately, Haley Bennett (Hardcore Henry), as a townswoman widowed in the opening who makes it her mission to take down Sarsgaard’s Bartholomew Bogue (now there’s a name that demands some mustache twirling, for sure, yet Sarsgaard can’t even muster that), more than holds her own opposite Washington. She’s got spirit, and can handle a gun, which is more than you can say for the men in the town. That makes it even more perplexing when, at the end, the film literally removes the rifle from her hand, placing in the hands of a man, instead. What a strange final message, given her prominence in everything that has happened until then.

So the film has problems. It is nevertheless decent fun for much of its two-hour-and-twelve-minute running time, mostly because Pratt, Hawke, D’Onofrio, Lee, Garcia-Rulfo and Sensmeier back up Washington and Bennett with fine performances of their own. Theirs is a rowdy, but competent, bunch. Though the script drags in its middle half, it opens and ends well, despite the bloody mess of a confrontation at the end. That finale, on the whole, brings things to a satisfying conclusion, until Bennett is made to explain the meaning of the movie to us in one of the worst examples of unnecessary expository voiceover. Let’s call it “The Adequate Seven,” then, since it gets the job done, yet is ultimately far short of magnificent.

Something Wicked This Way Comes … Sort of: The Comme-Ci/Comme Ça Appeal of “Blair Witch”

[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today at this link.]

Blair Witch

Blair Witch (Adam Wingard, 2016)

Neither particularly exceptional nor exceptionally dumb, Blair Witch exists in that gray area of sequeldom where we don’t emerge from its dark depths puzzled at its raison d’être, yet nor do we find it an absolutely necessary movie. The world didn’t need a sequel to the low-budget juggernaut The Blair Witch Project, from 1999, but it is not the worse for it, either. Reasonably entertaining and scary, with compelling enough characters, this revisiting of the peekaboo haunted house in the woods (now you see it, now you don’t) and its horrific inhabitant (whatever you do, don’t look at the witch) benefits from a mostly smart script by Simon Barrett and equally competent direction from Adam Wingard (regular collaborators, whose last effort was The Guest), yet also falters with its continuation of the by-now-clichéd use of fake found footage and insistence on sending its characters off into the dark forest, alone, where bad things are sure to happen. That’s a horror movie trope, for sure, but even so, it’s time to let it go.

James (James Allen McCune) has never gotten over the disappearance, many years ago, of his older sister, when she and two friends vanished while making a documentary (the subject of the first film) about the infamous Blair Witch of Burkittsville, Maryland. Now he plans to return to the same woods with a documentary crew of his own to search for clues about her whereabouts, since new evidence (a lost tape) has just been found nearby. Along for the experience come co-director, and potential girlfriend, Lisa (Callie Hernandez); best friend Peter (Brandon Scott); Peter’s girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid); and two locals, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), who claim to know the area. That’s twice the number of victims – excuse me, filmmakers – as the first time around, yet, not surprisingly, no amount of numbers or fancy new equipment (including a drone) will matter once the supernatural shenanigans begin. It’s a cast of relative unknowns, which means we have no preconceptions about who might, or should, last until the end. Unfortunately, at some point, most of them are reduced to running and screaming in the dark; so, once again, it’s the sound design that takes over.

About that sound. In the first film, very little was ever shown, and The Blair Witch Project went on to set the template for most of the point-of-view horror movies to come (there would be Paranormal Activity without it). It was all reaction to the imagined nightmare of what we could hear in the distance. Here, Wingard and Barrett follow the same principle, only they up the ante of aural craziness. Like a cross between a film about lumberjacks and Cloverfield (another found-footage movie), the sounds of crashing trees and monster sounds emerge from the dark to fill in the blanks of what we do not see. It still works, which is good, because sometimes when we do see the action, it’s cut too jarringly for specifics to register. Or, when they do register, they make no sense, which is one the major weaknesses of the film; the other is that it hints at additional story lines that ultimately go nowhere. Some examples: two of the characters are African-Americans, while two others proudly display a Confederate flag, yet this racial tension dissipates as soon it arises; a foot wound behaves strangely, but the payoff is never explained or even used that well; the script builds upon the earlier story’s use of time displacement, yet ultimately never advances that concept beyond its original inception. It’s good fun, though, and if it doesn’t reinvent the genre, at least, at 89 minutes, it quits just as it’s getting old.

In “Snowden,” Oliver Stone Returns to Form to Warn Us of the Great Danger of Our Time

Snowden

Snowden (Oliver Stone, 2016)

Despite a prolific filmmaking career that began in the 1970s, picked up in the 1980s and then really kicked into high gear with the one-two-three knockout blow of Platoon (1986, for which he won the Best Director Oscar), Wall Street (1987) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989, for which he again won the Best Director Oscar), Oliver Stone slacked off in intensity some time in the 1990s, after making both JFK (1992) and Natural Born Killers (1994), powerfully righteous (some might say self-righteous) screeds against a system that takes its citizens for dupes. Even when tackling political subjects in subsequent movies like Nixon (1995) and W. (2008), Stone pulled his punches and let his characters escape what earlier would have been a fiery font of principled wrath. Well, that old Stone is back, and though his new movie, Snowden – about the NSA whistleblower previously profiled in Laura Poitras’s brilliant Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour (2014) – is far from perfect, it is mostly a welcome return to form from the man who last gave us the underwhelming Savages (2012). Perhaps it’s the influence of his Showtime documentary series The Untold History of the United States (2012-2013), or maybe it’s the current state of politics in our country, or maybe it’s legitimate outrage at both the government overreach that led Snowden to divulge his secrets and the ensuing government attempts to discredit and prosecute Snowden that just drove Stone crazy enough to wake the sleeping troublemaker within. Whatever the reason, Mr. Stone, it’s good to see you in truculent trim once more.

Right away, before the movie even begins, you notice the change in the director’s mien. With a cynical twinkle in his eye, he addresses the audience directly in a pre-screening PSA against cell-phone use in theaters that manages to be simultaneously hilarious and unsettling. It’s the perfect opening, setting the tone for all that follows, warning you not just about annoying the viewers in your row, but about the inherent dangers in all smartphone technologies, which allow “them” to track you. Shortly thereafter, we will meet “them,” and understand his alarm.

But first, we meet Snowden. As played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Walk), he’s a bundle of nerves hiding beneath a seemingly calm exterior. We’re in Hong Kong in June of 2013, and Poitras (Melissa Leo, Prisoners) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto, Margin Call) are meeting him – without yet knowing who he is – at the airport. They go back to his hotel room, and if you’ve seen Poitras’s film, much of what follows is familiar. Fortunately, Stone does far more than dramatize the events in the documentary. Shortly after the opening, he takes us back to 2004 and Snowden’s failed army training (injuries prevented him from serving), which in turn led him to the CIA. The Snowden of that time is not just a young and unquestioning patriot, but also a conservative one. Much like the journey of Jack Lemmon’s character in Costa-Gavras’s 1982 blistering critique of U.S. involvement in Chile, Missing), Snowden starts out believing only the good about his country, and ends up completely disillusioned. Helping him along in this journey is his liberal girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley, Divergent), who challenges him on his first date to question the reasons we went to war in Iraq. Still, it’s the dirt on government snooping that Snowden will uncover that really leads to his conversion, especially once Obama is elected and the mining of personal information only gets worse.

However you feel about Snowden’s actions – and, for the record, I believe we should pardon him, since the government misdeeds he uncovered were criminal – the strength of Stone’s film is the way he cuts back and forth between the conversations with journalists in 2013 and the evolution of Snowden’s career and beliefs. At first timid as he begins his CIA training, he later gains enough in confidence to speak out and resign when he sees things he doesn’t like. Rhys Ifans (The Amazing Spider-Man), as Corbin O’Brien, a shadowy spymaster-cum-mentor who first admits Snowden into the CIA and then tracks his progress over the years, bringing him back into the fold  even after he grows disillusioned, becomes this movie’s face of evil, pushing his ends-justifying-means agenda at all costs. And why this obsession with Snowden? According to the script, co-written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald (The Homesman) and based on two separate books – one by Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena and the other by British journalist Luke Harding – Snowden, though a high-school dropout, is unusually gifted in the art and technology of programming and hacking. His talent, once it’s noticed by O’Brien, is coveted as a necessary tool in our fight against terrorism, which makes his ultimate defection sting all the more (witness our congress’s recent report on why Snowden should not be treated as whistleblower). It’s a complicated story, to say the least.

But a well-told one. Whatever the truths of various elements of the plot, Stone does an excellent job cutting between times and keeping the characters clear in our minds. Sadly, what he doesn’t do so well is handle the relationship parts of the story, throwing in soggy sentiment – and even a sex scene – to humanize his protagonist. He also inexplicably adds Nicolas Cage (Joe) – who can be quite fine when he decides to give an actual performance – to the mix, and allows him full range to overact. Fortunately, he’s not in the movie for that long. Poor Woodely, though, does her best to make her underwritten girlfriend part meaningful, yet isn’t given enough to work with. These problems aside, as a gripping dramatic thriller made by a master visualist, Snowden delivers the cinematic goods. Even an over-the-top video call towards the end, where Ifans’s giant head towers over the diminutive Gordon-Levitt, though perhaps a little too obvious in its direct visualization of the power differential between the two men, is still effective. Speaking of Gordon-Levitt, he is wonderful in the part, bringing a troubled intensity and integrity to Snowden’s moral dilemma. Given how much Snowden, the man, is still very much a part of our national conversation, the movie, despite some flaws, deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Welcome back to the fight, Mr. Stone!

“Reel Talk” – with Chris Reed and Hannah Buchdahl – on Films of Summer 2016, “Morris from America,” “A Tale of Love and Darkness” and “The Light Between Oceans”

Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, w/ Hannah Buchdahl, co-founder of the website chickflix.net

Welcome to the first episode of the 2016-2017 season of  Dragon Digital Media‘s Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed . My guest this time was Hannah Buchdahl, co-founder of the website chickflix.net and co-host of a weekly podcast called Cinema Clash on radiosaintpete.com. We reviewed our favs and least favs of the Summer 2016 season, plus three new films: Morris from America, A Tale of Love and Darkness and The Light Between Oceans.

In Howard County, Maryland, you can watch the show on Channel 41 (if you’re a Verizon customer) or Channel 96 (if you’re a Comcast customer), and you can watch it online from anywhere. You can also still catch the firstsecondthirdfourthfifth and sixth episodes of last season, as well as the six episodes from my first season with Reel Talk, at the following links: Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5Episode 6. And you can also always watch the various segments from each episode on our YouTube channel. Enjoy!

The fantastic Dragon Digital Media team did their usual superlative job putting this together, especially producer Karen Vadnais and director Danielle Maloney. We’ll be back at the start of November with another episode, so stay tuned. Until then, have fun at the movies!