#RoughlySpeaking (#HashtagEdition) on #Oscars2016 (and #OscarsSoWhite)

Oscars 2016

Today, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film & Moving Image, Stevenson University – joined Dan Rodricks on his Baltimore Sun podcast, “Roughly Speaking,” where we discussed last night’s Oscars ceremony and the awards given. We also talked about the performance of host Chris Rock and how he handled the ongoing #OscarsSoWhite controversy. If you’re a fan – of us, Dan and/or the movies, then you must listen (and we’re not the only ones on the podcast – there’s also Bill U’Ren of Goucher College and Paula Gallagher of the Baltimore County Public Library).

Here is the link to the show.

Enjoy!

Three Oscar-Nominated Documentaries Worth Watching on Netflix

Lucky you! There’s still time to watch a few more of the Oscar-nominated documentary films before the February 28, 2016, Academy Awards ceremony. So hop to it! All five are available online. The documentary category, for me, is almost always the strongest. While I frequently have disagreements with the Academy over their choices for Best Picture, Best Director, etc., I most often feel as if any of the five nominated documentary films would be a worthy winner. This year is no exception. Given the lack of diversity within this year’s Oscar field, I might be inclined to give the award to What Happened, Miss Simone? – it’s an exceptional portrait of Nina Simone – but my artistic favorite is probably The Look of Silence.

I have previously reviewed the two that are not available through NetflixAmy and The Look of Silence. What follows are very brief capsule reviews of the three that are available for instant viewing on Netflix.

Cartel_Simone_Winter

Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman, 2015)

Matthew Heineman (Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare) is a beast. Plain and simple. Putting his own life at risk, he follows border vigilante militias in Arizona and citizen anti-drug-cartel militias in the Mexican province of Michoacán as they each, in turn, try – in their own words – to take back what is theirs. In the case of the North Americans, what started as anti-illegal-immigrant patrols has turned into raids on the cartel scouts. Their leader, Tim Nailer, feels like the U.S. government is not doing enough to contain the spread of drug violence from across the border. Just in case we think he’s a racist bigot, we then cut to the Mexican side, where we meet Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles and his “Autodefensas” as they confront, head-on, the drug lords who rule their area. Whatever the truth in Arizona, there is no question that there has been a massive failure of government – or, as Heineman states, massive collusion between government and the cartels – in Mexico. But the solution to the problem is complicated, and those who start off wanting to do good may end up doing harm, as well. There are no truly good guys, in other words.

It’s an amazing film, since we are literally embedded in the violence (bullets whiz by the camera). If it has one weakness, it is that it is heavily imbalanced, footage-wise, in favor of the Mexican story, which, to be fair, is far more interesting. I understand why Heineman wanted to get both perspectives, and he can’t help the fact that more didn’t happen on the Arizona side, but there just isn’t enough story there to entirely justify Nailer’s inclusion. Still, this is must-see cinema, if only because the danger is always so palpable, and one has to marvel at Heineman’s ability to get – and keep! – access to his protagonists. If there were an award for most risk incurred by a filmmaker in the name of his art, Heineman would be a shoo-in. Forget The Revenant and the talk about how much the actors and crew suffered; this is the real deal.

What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, 2015)

Since I managed to see this film before the end of 2015, I was able to include it in my “best films of the year” list (where I have another brief capsule review). Liz Garbus (Love, Marilyn) has taken archival footage – film, video and photo – and new talking-head interviews (including one with Simone’s only daughter) to craft an intensely moving portrait of the troubled artist that was Nina Simone (1933-2003). Full confession: my first exposure to Simone was an Aardman Animation short – which I saw in the 1990s – made to a recording of Simone’s classic rendition of “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” I know, that is a very sad commentary on my own lack of culture. But if you are, like me, someone who somehow paid more attention to the other great African-American jazz divas like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, or paid no attention to jazz musicians, black or white, at all, then this is the film to enlighten you. And if you are already an aficionado of Simone’s life and work, then this is the film you have been waiting for.

What is particularly wonderful about this movie is how Garbus does not flinch from showing us the bad side of her subject, yet she is always understanding and respectful. Simone grew up poor, but musically talented, and was noticed by a local (white) charity group that decided early on that she was going to go to Julliard. So for years she trained as a classical pianist before heading up to New York to continue her studies. And that’s where the money ran out, which is what led her to start playing in jazz clubs to earn her keep. Later, she became heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, using her growing celebrity to help the cause. Unfortunately, she also began to suffer from both depression and attendant alcoholism, which slowly began to derail her career. We get it all here, the highs and the lows of Nina Simone’s inimitable life and career. It’s great filmmaking from Garbus – and great singing and playing from Simone – that makes for one powerful cinematic biography.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Evgeny Afineevsky, 2015)

Like Cartel Land, above, much of the footage in this gripping account of the 93-day uprising in Kiev, Ukraine, in 2013-2014 comes from cameras that are embedded in the action. Using a variety of sources, filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky (Divorce: A Journey Through the Kids’ Eyes) takes us on a harrowing journey through a violent revolution. People are beaten and shot in front of us; some die, some survive. Blood flows on the streets. We start at day 90, with a dead body on the ground in front us, explosions and bullets everywhere, and then circle back to the beginning, where a narrator quickly explains the history of the last 20+ years of post-Soviet Ukrainian history, including the 2004 “Orange Revolution,” which featured, like the new uprising, strongman Viktor Yanukovych as the villain. What’s that about history repeating itself?

Except that here, Ukrainian history repeats itself in a good way, as well. The citizens of Kiev refuse to accept the increasingly underhanded tactics of their (duly elected) leader, and so decide to do what they did in 2004; if they were successful then, why not now? But this time, the reprisals are violent, as we see unequivocally on screen. The people do not back down, however, no matter how much is thrown at them. As we move forward, day by day, we watch in horror as the situation goes from bad to worse. It is clear, though, that Yanukovych badly miscalculated the will of the electorate, as well as how much they hated his proposed alliance with Russian dictator – excuse me, President – Vladimir Putin. Ironically, given these Ukrainian-Russian tensions (and the crisis that followed the uprising), many of the Ukrainians in the movie still speak primarily in Russian (the film features a mix of both languages). Theirs is a tangled web, indeed, the strands of which are dealt with lucidly in this intense film. If there is one part of the movie that I did not like, it was the music. Its bombastic chords threaten to overwhelm the visuals, at times, and are completely unnecessary. The sounds from the street are dramatic enough.

In “Triple 9,” Much to Our (Lack of) Surprise, Crime Doesn’t Pay

Triple 9

Triple 9 (John Hillcoat, 2016)

“The code on the street is never black and white,” reads the tagline on the poster (above). It would seem that we are in for a psychologically complex thriller, then, where neither good guys nor bad rule the day, and where the very concept of one or the other may, in fact, be meaningless. I like these kinds of stories, where shades of grey predominate the (here, urban) landscape. Corrupt cops and decent criminals, and all of the permutations in between, are what give so many thrillers their narrative drive, the conflict erupting from a clash of opposing forces. Sadly, Triple 9 does not live up to its promise (nor its premise), despite a few good action sequences. It’s a movie as out of control as the morally bankrupt police officers within it.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs), Casey Affleck (The Finest Hours), Anthony Mackie (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Woody Harrelson (The Hunger Games) and Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) star, among others, as the assortment of cops and robbers. John Hillcoat (Lawless) directs, and though the script (by newcomer Matt Cook) is a mess, he does a decent job, in the beginning, setting up character, location and pacing. The opening bank heist – and its bloody aftermath – is well staged, with a nice payoff at the end. We feel we’re in good hands, right before things spin into mediocrity.

Ejiofor plays Michael, a former army explosives man, involved now with a Russian-Jewish mob headed by Kate Winslet’s Irina, with whose younger sister he has a child. Winslet doesn’t look particularly Russian or Jewish, but all of her evil henchmen wear yarmulkes, just in case we doubt her background. In fact, there is so much emphasis on the mob’s Jewish roots – and they’re a nasty bunch – that I couldn’t help wonder if either director or screenwriter (or both) had an antisemitic ax to grind. Irrespective of this, Winslet sure tries hard, accent and all, in a dreadfully underwritten part (well, the whole movie is underwritten), to make us believe that she is, indeed, Satan’s wife. Using Michael’s boy as bait, Irina refuses payment on the first job (that bank heist), demanding, instead, that he go for one more score. Just one! I think we know the drill by now, no?

Not only does this development not please Michael, but it really pisses off his crew, made up of another former military guy, that guy’s brother, and two dirty cops. To complicate matters, one of those police officers, Marcus (Mackie), gets stuck with a new partner, Chris (Affleck), who – despite a little bit of racial profiling here and there – is what passes for this movie’s hero. Harrelson shows up straight from the set of Bad Lieutenant as Chris’s uncle, Jeffrey, a police commander with a serious drug habit. Soon, all of these various elements collide in what could be interesting ways if the situations were novel (they are not), yet so much feels recycled from better movies (including Training Day) that at some point I just began to tune out the noise. Yes, blood is spilled and people die, but so what?

About that title. Apparently, 999 in official police-radio lingo means that an officer is down. Our friends in the force decide that the only way to pull off the second job is to divert the entire Atlanta (thank you, Georgia film incentives!) police force by shooting a fellow officer (not one of their crew). Of course, they choose Affleck’s honest cop as the target. If you wonder whether they’ll succeed or not, then you clearly haven’t seen enough of these kinds of movies, in which case I wish you well, and hope you have a good time.

Made with Passion, “Touched with Fire” Ultimately Flickers, Rather Than Burns

Touched with Fire

Touched with Fire (Paul Dalio, 2015)

Is manic depression a prerequisite for artistic genius? That is one of the questions posed by Touched with Fire (formerly known as Mania Days, according to its press kit). Or rather, it is posed by Marco, the male lead (an excellent Luke Kirby, from Take This Waltz). He’s a street poet and rapper who hates taking his medication because it douses that burning flame of creativity within. The same holds true for Carla (Katie Holmes – Miss Meadows – a little less good), an actual published poet who doesn’t have quite the same pride in her condition as does Marco, but similarly quits her meds to feel more alive. At the end of their resultant manic episodes, they both end up in the same mental institution, where they meet and, eventually, fall in love.

First-time feature-director Paul Dalio, himself diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a young man, exerts enormous efforts to externalize a condition that, though it includes many outward physical behaviors, mainly takes place in the inner confines of one’s mind. Beautifully shot by Dalio’s wife, Kristina Nikolova (director, Faith, Love and Whiskey), Touched with Fire includes powerful images framed as if from the point of view of Carla and Marco, fully engaging us, for a while, in their downward and then, finally, upward trajectory. Unfortunately, while it may or may not be true that there is a link between manic depression and creativity – Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, whose book on the subject lends its title to this movie, certainly believes so – the poetry and raps spoken and performed by our main characters are so disappointingly banal – and, at times, just plain terrible – that they undercut much of the argument, since neither Marco nor Carla are, in fact, good at what they do.

Leaving that question aside, they are not without interest, however. We do care what happens to them, and we want them to get better. So, too, do their families, as represented by Christine Lahti (Petunia), on Carla’s side, and Griffin Dunne (Dallas Buyers Club), on Marco’s side. The problem is that no one seems to think that Carla and Marco are good for each other, and so much of the film is about two struggles: the one against their disorder, and the other against those who would keep them apart. It’s an engaging story, but one that sometimes seems confused about the argument it’s making. Carla and Marco so clearly need their pills, lest they pose a threat to themselves and others, yet half the movie seems to want them to be free to write (bad) verse. I would say that seems like a schizophrenic approach, but that’s a whole other condition.

Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood on the 2016 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts

Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts 2016

I have a piece up at Hammer to Nail on the 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary shorts. Those 5 films set the bar very high, and were I part of the Academy, I would have  hard time determining the winner. Unfortunately, the other two categories of short films – animated and live-action – are not nearly as consistently strong. Here are my thoughts, in order by my preference, on the live-action category, which is, as a collection, slightly better than the animated films:

Everything Will Be Okay (“Alles Wird Gut”) (Patrick Vollrath, 30min.)

Wow! I’m not even sure if I like this taut German film, but it is a tour-de-force family drama with such strong performances by the two main actors that I almost don’t care. This is the story of Michael (Simon Schwarz, terrific), a divorced father who, when we first meet him, is pacing nervously outside the house of his ex-wife. We soon discover that today is his visitation day, and it is clear from the lack of words exchanged between the former spouses that the separation was not amicable. But joy of joys, he gets to see Lea (Julia Pointner, born in 2005 and utterly amazing), his young daughter, and as they drive away, we think we’re watching one kind of film, only to then discover that, no, this is something much more brutal. For Michael has plans, which we suspect early on without fully knowing for certain, and then watch in horror as he puts those plans into action. Don’t worry, he is a loving father, but a father with a desperate idea of how to keep Lea all to himself. Beautifully executed, with a sustained tense atmosphere throughout, Everything Will Be Okay is the clear standout, for me, among these five short films.

Stutterer (Benjamin Cleary, 12min.)

Next up, we have the British Stutterer, which feels very slight compared to Everything Will Be Okay, but is exquisitely shot and edited, with a fine central performance. Greenwood (Matthew Needham, very strong) is a man with a serious stuttering problem who is about to face a major crisis when Ellie, the woman with whom he has been communicating online for 6 months, announces (via text) that she is coming to London. To be honest, it strains credulity that someone would be this ashamed of such a disability in 2015, but perhaps the truth is more complicated. Which it is. We keep hoping that Greenwood will overcome his shyness and agree to a meeting, and if we don’t quite believe in that reticence, at 12 minutes the film does not overstay its welcome. It’s funny and sweet, and devoid of false sentimentality. Kudos to that.

Day One (Henry Hughes, 25min.)

Here’s another brutal movie. It has excellent intentions, but somehow ends up feeling more manipulative than genuine. Feda (a superlative Layla Alizada) is a divorced young Afghan woman on the first day of her new job as an interpreter for the United States military. Game, but totally unprepared for the realities of war, she heads off into the mountains with her assigned unit. Right away, things go very wrong, and she must test her mettle in a crucible of blood and terror. The film is based on director Henry Hughes’ actual experiences in combat, and I admire his resolve not to shrink from the unpleasant details of battle. Still, the situation, as it plays out here, has an element of transparent calculation – of continual raising of the stakes – that ultimately detracts from the sincerity of the narrative. See it for Alizada, but expect to be (a little) disappointed. I look forward to Hughes’ sophomore effort, however.

Shok (Jamie Donoughue, 21min.)

Shok offers another take on the horrors of war, this time in Kosovo in the late 1990s. Two Albanian boys, best friends, find themselves caught in the middle of the crisis, as Serbian militias begin a process of ethnic cleansing. The ups and downs of the boys’ relationship – one wants to deal with the Serbs, while the other hates them – are set against the increasingly violent actions of the occupying troops. It’s a nice technique that disarms us by hiding the director’s true intentions, not revealed until the end, but the film is hampered by the less-than-stellar performances of all involved. It feels as if everyone could have used an additional take (or two) to remove the last vestige of artifice from their on-screen behavior. As it is, what could have been truly moving ends up being, instead, a blueprint for a better movie, to be directed and acted by others.

Ave Maria (Basil Khalil, 15min.)

The only outright comedy of the lot (albeit a bitter one), Ave Maria is set in the present-day West Bank of Israel, where a dysfunctional family, on their way home from a far-flung Jewish settlement, crashes their car into the side of a Palestinian convent (run by the “Sisters of Mercy”). More specifically, they smash up a statue of the Virgin Mary, beheading her, leading to the two best gags in the film, one visual, the other spoken: when we first see the statue, the severed head lies on the ground, oil from the car seeping from behind, like blood; when the youngest nun runs inside to explain the noise to her fellow sisters, she screams, “Jews have violated the Virgin Mary.” Ha ha! Positioned as one of those stories of culture clashes where all must learn to get along, the film is marred by uneven performances and clumsy pacing. Most of the jokes – as well as the entire situation – feel forced, and the Jewish family is so caricatured that it’s hard not to read some not-so-latent anti-Semitism into their portrayal, acknowledged or not (the director is, himself, Palestinian). Leaving that aside, in terms of purely cinematic concerns, this is the most amateurish movie among the nominees.

Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood on the 2016 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts 2015

I have a piece up at Hammer to Nail on the 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary shorts. Those 5 films set the bar very high, and were I part of the Academy, I would have a hard time determining the winner. Unfortunately, the other two categories of short films – animated and live-action – are not nearly as consistently strong. Here are my thoughts on the animation category, in order by my preference:

We Can’t Live Without Cosmos (“Мы не можем жить без космоса”) (Konstantin Bronzit, 16min.)

By far my favorite, this beautiful Russian movie, from animator Konstantin Bronzit (Lavatory Lovestory, also Oscar-nominated, back in 2009), tells the story of two childhood friends training for their first space flight. Always at the top of their class, they dream of nothing but traveling into the cosmos. As expected, they are both chosen, as #1 and #2, for the next mission. Unfortunately, #2 is a reserves-only position, but he watches good-naturedly as his lifelong pal suits up and blasts off. What happens next is both moving and memorable. Animated in a 2D style that reminds one of the great Tintin comics of yore, especially the 1953 and 1954 albums Destination Moon and Explorers on the MoonWe Can’t Live Without Cosmos is as funny as it is profound. And lucky you, dear reader, it is available on YouTube. I highly recommend.

World of Tomorrow (Don Hertzfeldt, 17min.)

In many ways, this is the most original of the bunch. Animated in a deceptively child-like drawing style (director Don Hertzfeld is known for his stick figures), World of Tomorrow tackles issues of identity, technology and the intersection of both in a metaphysical mix that is as amusing as it is thoughtful. We follow young “Emily-prime” – the first in a series of clones – on a journey through time that unsettles even as it entertains. A future descendent of hers has invited her forward to her own era to discuss the present, past and future of their shared existence. That future Emily is lonely, and we get the sense that life for an eternally returning consciousness is not, perhaps, something to be coveted. She utters this great sentence to her originator: “You can only appreciate the present once it becomes the past” (or something like that). At times, though, the movie descends into tangents that are a little too silly, and the sound mix is not always perfect (the dialogue is overrun by the music and effects), which is why it is not, ultimately, as artistically successful as my first choice, above. Still, it’s an ambitious effort that rewards careful viewing, and since it’s now on Netflix, you can (and should) watch it there.

Bear Story (“Historia de un oso”) (Gabriel Osorio Vargas, 11min.)

From an animation standpoint, this movie is beautiful. First-time movie director Gabriel Osorio Vargas clearly has talent. The story, however, while incredibly imaginative, is also a bit too nonsensical for my taste. In a world of bears, our main character’s odyssey is told through a mechanically animated device that is half-player piano/half-organ grinder, cranked by one such bear whose backstory is in some way linked to that of the bear inside his device … maybe. In other words, there is a movie within the movie, itself animated within the world of the movie. That primary bear’s story is set in a circus, where evil bosses force him to perform his act. The fact that the motivations of both our protagonist and his foes are never fully explained proved too distracting to me for the gorgeous images to completely win me over, but if narrative coherence is less important to you, then this film has much to offer.

Prologue (Richard Williams, 6min.)

This film comes with a disclaimer (at least it does when part of the packaged pre-Oscar roadshow), warning of intense violence and nudity within. Yes, there is gore, and yes, we see male genitalia, but by 21st-century standards these images are relatively mild. I suspect that were this film not animated, no such warning would be deemed necessary; however, since we (erroneously) assume that animated films are made with children in mind, someone felt it imperative to include the warning. Perhaps, also, since there is an actual child within the story, who witnesses the on-screen violence, that same someone may have found the film especially brutal. That’s all fine, but I wish the film were stronger. There is no real story, just a battle – taking place in some undefined ancient past – in which all four men involved do serious damage with swords, arrows and spears. It’s the shortest film of the lot – expressively drawn, like a shimmering charcoal sketch, by veteran animator Richard Williams (Oscar-winner for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) – and so perhaps its lack of a defined narrative may not matter to some. Still, it feels too easy. Cue violence, cut to child, and voilà, we have a moving story. I beg to differ.

Sanjay’s Super Team (Sanjay Patel, 7min.)

Finally, we have this well-intentioned story of a young boy learning to be proud of his culture. All Sanjay wants to do is play with his (white) action figures while watching his (white) superhero show on TV. When his father forces him to pray alongside him to his Hindu deities, Sanjay sulks. But then, all of a sudden, he finds himself imagining a world where these gods are just like the cartoon heroes he worships. When he emerges from his daydream, Sanjay decides to draw his own comic strip, in which these Indian characters are now the stars.  I approve of the sentiments. But not of the treacle, which is layered on thick. Nor of the derivate visuals (flying martial-arts fighters), stolen directly from more original movies like the Kung Fu Panda seriesSanjay’s Super Team played, this past fall, before screenings of Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (another film I did not like). Like that movie, it is cute enough, harmless, and utterly mediocre.

“The Witch” Casts a Strong Spell Until It Breaks It at the End

Witch

The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)

Even having done no research on the film beforehand, watching The Witch I could tell that the director had a strong background in design. Indeed, Robert Eggers – whose debut feature this is – has previously directed a few short films, but mainly worked as a Production Designer, Art Director and Costume Designer on the films and theater productions of others. Here, every inch of every frame feels carefully constructed, as does the score and overall sound design. There is not one element on screen that has not emerged from the mind of a man with a plan. All the while scaring the breeches and petticoats off of his 17th-century characters, Eggers fully intends to scare the pants off of us, his 21st-century viewers. That he mostly succeeds is a mark of his genuine artistry. That he ultimately fails is due to his script (which he also wrote), which breaks down in its final climax. The concluding man-behind-the-curtain payoff reveals too much; the eerie, abstract mystery, once concretized in the expected supernatural, feels pedestrian, because expected. Better to have kept us guessing.

According to the press kit (I don’t remember a date listed on screen), we are in 1630, in New England. When the film opens, we find ourselves at some kind of a trial, where patriarch William – a very good Ralph Ineson (The Selfish Giant) – defends himself against charges of heresy. His punishment? Banishment from the colony (which looks very much like Plymouth Plantation). And so he takes his family of six (wife and five children) out to the edge of a dark forest, away from what passes for civilization, to make their own way in the world. They look hardy, but we soon discover that they are but recent arrivals from England, without much in the way of backwoods smarts. As eldest daughter Thomasin – newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy, also very good – gazes warily at the dense trees, we hear a rising chorus of women’s voices crescendo on the soundtrack, hinting at the hysteria that awaits.

Which is not long in coming. First one child disappears, then another, and the family members soon turn on one another, blaming each other for bringing the devil. Indeed, from that very first scene in Plymouth, we are plunged into a world of dread and superstition, where the speech of loose tongues can be used as evidence in future accusations. As the situation goes from bad to terrifying, the most suspicions fall on Thomasin, whose desperate attempts to please her increasingly unsettled parents only make her more culpable in their eyes. All the while, Eggers ups the nightmarish ante through sound, color and composition. And goats.

Never have simple farm animals seemed so scary. One, a billy goat whom the children have nicknamed Black Phillip, may or may not be Satan, himself. Or so they think. And that’s where the film is strongest. Eggers weaves so much disquiet and unease into the ordinary that you will never be able to look at a goat (or even a rabbit, as there’s one particularly awful one that appears at frequent intervals) again without fear. Which doesn’t mean that there are not also genuine shocks, as well. After the disappearance of the first child, we encounter an old naked woman – what, in an un-PC world, we would call “a crone” – who is most definitely up to no good. Later, we meet her again. Is she real? Is she actually a witch?

Ah, would that the director had left more unanswered. His film is otherwise a beautifully experimental horror film, where his aesthetic – through an innovative use of lighting and music – keeps us on our toes, both from terror and confusion. But then, at the end, we sadly arrive at an ending that is both conventional in its horror-movie bloodshed and unfortunate in its detailed revelation. Furthermore, it is not clear (to me, anyway), what Eggers is trying to say with that conclusion. In the late 1690s, actual women suffered devastating consequences when their communities accused them of witchcraft. In The Witch, it’s as if Eggers is saying that those overzealous inquisitors might have been on to something. That’s certainly not a cause that I’m willing to sign up for, but I will gladly agree that Eggers has loads of talent and should keep on making movies, even if this one is less than perfect. It’s certainly a worthy first effort.

In Self-Congratulatory, Smug and Intellectually Lazy “Where to Invade Next,” It’s Michael Moore Who Needs Saving

Where to Invade Next

Where to Invade Next (Michael Moore, 2015)

Where to invade next? Where to start . . . ? Filmmaker Michael Moore begins with a mildly funny satirical construct: travel the world as a representative of the United States, interview citizens of other countries, and then, once their superior (to ours) social systems are revealed, plant the American flag and claim that country as our own. In this way, Moore hopes to shine a light on those aspects of his native land that are in need of improving, which include, but are not limited to: education, health care, work hours and prisons. As a good progressive, I am, in fact, in favor of such comparisons … where they are valid and can teach us something. I am not, however, in favor of using one or two examples from each (randomly) chosen country as a stand-in for the whole culture, with no supporting data to back up the claims Moore makes. It’s an unsatisfactory argument, and far too easy to puncture. It relies on an audience that both already agrees with the filmmaker and sees no need to delve deeper. It’s like an internet meme that is comforting because it tells you what you think you know but may or may not be true. We’re all guilty of clicking “like” on our favorites without further investigation, and so be it. But when we’re talking about a documentary film masquerading as journalism, the standards should be higher.

Michael Moore did us all a favor in 1989 when he released his first feature, Roger & Me. It was a brilliant takedown of Roger Smith, then-CEO of General Motors, who had downsized his company’s activities in its traditional home base of Flint, MI, thereby throwing the local economy into disarray. Moore tracked Smith relentlessly until he  was able to confront him at a GM shareholders’ meeting. Even though his microphone was cut off, his camera caught the whole thing, and the result was an embarrassing cinematic exposé of corporate greed at its worst. This was fantastic activist journalism, and the film rightly propelled Moore into the public eye as a director to watch. I wish he would go back to Flint, now, to make a movie about their water crisis.

Since that time, Moore’s output has been steady but uneven, as both filmmaker and author (I loved his book Stupid White Men, but found Dude, Where’s My Country tiresome). For every brilliant Bowling for Columbine, there has been a more obvious and strident Fahrenheit 9/11; for every moving Sicko, there has been an obnoxiously vapid Capitalism: A Love Story. And now we have this new film, which panders to Moore’s worst tendencies as a showman without his better qualities as an investigator. In the course of the movie, we visit Italy, France, Finland, Slovenia, Germany, Portugal, Norway, Tunisia and Iceland – with no explanation as to why these countries were chosen – meet a few folks here and there, and then listen to Moore’s grandiloquent sermons about how much we can learn from our (mostly European) neighbors across the Atlantic. I, too, want universal health care and education, better prisons, and stronger unions (which I agree are not incompatible with capitalism). But I also do not imagine that the one happy Italian couple I see are representative of all Italians, nor that the two factories I visit, where unions and bosses work in harmony, tell me the whole story. Would the film not make its point stronger with more facts at hand? Ah, but that would require actual work, and here, at least, Moore demonstrates a consistent intellectual laziness that is breathtaking to behold. This is not only one of the worst films of 2015, but one of the worst films I have ever seen. To be avoided at all costs. No one should be rewarded for such drivel.

Jokey Violence and All, the Delightful “Deadpool” Reinvigorates Its Genre

Deadpool

Deadpool (Tim Miller, 2016)

As I feel obliged to mention every time I write a review of a new film from the Marvel universe, I am not an aficionado of any comic-book series, anywhere or anyhow. Except for one brief period in my life, in my early twenties, when I desperately wanted to do anything but write my M.A. thesis and just happened to live with roommates who owned a very large comic collection, I have generally stayed away from the stuff. It’s not that it’s uninteresting – some of the characters are quite compelling – but rather that, much like video games (which I also avoid), it can prove addictive without providing much in the way of substance, entertaining me on the surface while leaving me hungry for more, like binging on junk food. Graphic novels are something different (or can be, in the right hands), but your average comic book, even if beautifully illustrated, just doesn’t fill me up (unless, again, I have something else that I should be doing). Now that I’ve lost the comic-reading audience, let me proceed.

All of this means that certain segments of our current blockbuster world are fast becoming ever-more monotonous, as we see superhero (or, heroes) battle super villain (or, villains) in a CGI landscape where the conflict is spelled out in bold letters. The oft-simplistic dialogue rests atop an impenetrably baroque visual design where gazillions of pixels rush through our 3D glasses with every explosion and punch. It can be a lot of fun, but after the nth installment, also mind-numbing. Occasionally, there’s a character that I like so much, and a script that manages to be topical, as in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, that my ennui is dispelled, and a rollicking good time is had. At other times, if it’s clear that the filmmakers, themselves, might be as bored with the “same old same old” as I am, and are trying something new and irreverent, as with Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, I take great pleasure in the discovery that the genre can still hold surprises (though I am not looking forward to the sequels of these last two, where I am sure to be disappointed). And then there’s Deadpool.

All I knew about this new Marvel hero (or, as it turns out, anti-hero), I learned from talking to my fellow film attendees before the movie started. Since I arrived close to the start time, that means I knew very little. That, plus the above opinions about Marvel that I just vented, means that my expectations were extremely low. As it turns out, that was a great thing, because Deadpool takes the notion of genre-reinvigoration to new heights. Though extremely violent – and jokey about that violence – and often extremely vulgar, with the usual comic misogyny (you know, hot girlfriend is a stripper/whore kind of thing), Deadpool is a delightfully in-your-face examination of the superhero movie that chews up the worst clichés of stories past and spits out their remains in a bloody mess that is one extraordinarily fun ride. Like the wonderful first Kick-Ass (but not the terrible second), it manages to have its cake and vomit it, too. If that sounds appealing, then this is the movie for you!

Ryan Reynolds (Self/less) is Wade Wilson, our protagonist, and if ever a wannabe big star needed a hit, it’s Reynolds. A highly appealing – if somewhat limited – actor, Reynolds has tried before to make it big, with the abominable Green Lantern, which tanked. Since then, he’s struggled in mediocre fare, though not without the occasional serious effort, as in last year’s Woman in Gold, opposite Helen Mirren. Perhaps, all this time, what he’s needed is a little more shock-jock, because he inhabits the role of the wise-cracking Wilson – who becomes Deadpool after a cancer-cure treatment leaves him disfigured but immortal – with such brazen braggadocio that we wonder where this side of Reynolds has been all along. If the movie’s well-deserved R-rating doesn’t keep it from being a big hit, this could be Reynold’s movement. And justly so.

Right from the beginning, in a lengthy digitized tracking shot through a freeze frame of a car accident, the camera slowly working its way through the details of mayhem while a sappy pop song plays on the soundtrack, we know we’re in for something different. Post-credits, we flash back to what led us there, meeting Wilson, pre-transformation, as he works as a small-time mercenary. Cutting back and forth between the events immediately preceding the opening accident and Wilson’s back story, we see him meet Vanessa – Morena Baccarin (Dr. Thompkins on Gotham), who is terrific here, but deserves to play more three-dimensional characters – that stripper/hooker (of course), fall in love, and then get his cancer diagnosis. Too bad. But then a mysterious doctor shows up, offers him the chance at a live-saving treatment, and the plot is set in motion. That treatment will save his life, but also alter his good looks, and, bien sûr, grant him super powers. Along the way, Reynolds constantly breaks the fourth wall and severs heads, laughing most of the time. Some members of the X-Men show up, and there is, of course, the mandatory final showdown between good (sort of) guys and bad. It’s not, after all, a complete reinvention of the genre. But it is one hell of a fun riff on it. And for it’s worth, it’s not in 3D.