The Green Inferno
by Philip Price
It's been just over a year since I saw the first trailer for Eli Roth's “The Green Inferno.” The trailer for the film was attached to my screening of “22 Jump Street” in June of 2014 and while it was odd to see such a gorrific trailer for a micro-budget horror pic right before a big budget broad comedy sequel, it made sense. The target audience would essentially be the same and the intrigue of the trailer was more than engaging. It promised a peak into the Peruvian jungle at a tribe that had never been filmed before. It was an undeniable hook that the film rode throughout its promotional campaign, but one that unfortunately doesn't pay off in the way one might have hoped. This is often the case when the idea of something is built to be greater than the reality of what that something actually is, but this is a distinctly different kind of disappointment given there is clearly potential to be mined here still. Of course, this shouldn't be considered a surprise given director Eli Roth hasn't made anything remotely solid since (maybe?) the fake trailer segment "Thanksgiving" he produced for “Grindhouse” eight years ago (granted, I haven't seen “Hemlock Grove,” but he was only at the helm for a single episode). So, how I expected this to be any different rested solely on the hope that the director had done some growing over the past few years and found it interesting to begin experimenting with new storytelling ideas in a genre he clearly loves and feels comfortable operating in. Consider that hope officially lost.
Set deep in the heart of the Amazon, “The Green Inferno” follows a group of student activists who travel to Peru to attempt a protest that will preserve a dying tribe. The land on which this tribe has made its home for what we assume is longer than most of organized civilization has existed just so happens to contain some profitable material a large corporation needs to dig up. We meet Justine (Lorenza Izzo), a college freshman in New York City, in the beginning who becomes interested in a social activist group on campus led by charismatic or creepy (depending on who you're asking) fellow student Alejandro (Ariel Levy) and his girlfriend, Kara (Ignacia Allamand). The remainder of the ensemble includes the chubby nice guy Jonah (Aaron Burns) who's crushing on Justine hard, Amy (Kirby Bliss Blanton) and Samantha (Magda Apanowicz) who are figuring out their lesbian love for one another, Lars (Daryl Sabara) the boy from “Spy Kids” who's all grown-up and more than happy to be the comic relief in an R-rated horror flick and finally Daniel (Nicolás Martínez) the tech-guy who is the group’s best hope for getting out of their predicament alive. You see, Alejandro's master plan is to fly into Peru with the help of backer Carlos (Matías López), who looks like a Chilean Adam Levine and is definitely a drug-dealer, and film the logging crews with their cell phones so as to stream the live footage and raise awareness of their cause. Oh, and Justine's father (Richard Burgi) is also an attorney for the United Nations which Alejandro knows, but Justine doesn't know he knows so there is some clear ulterior motives on Alejandro's part for including this freshman solely for her father's connections. All of this is the basis for that first hour of the film and it's not until the group is on their way back that their plane crashes and they're taken hostage by the same natives they came to protect.
Issues. Issues with the film range from that of Levy's horrible acting and Alejandro's laughable character changes to that of the fact that the last 40 minutes of the film are basically every teen slasher film we've ever seen re-located to the Amazon. The only question to be asked is which one will die next? We know it won't be Justine as she is the lead and the only character with any context to her, but the others are fair game and we couldn't care less. Once the plane crashes and the darts come flying out of nowhere knocking our principle cast to the ground we sit up for the first time of the entire running time. The next several minutes are filled with genuine dread. Roth presents The Bald Headhunter (Ramón Llao) in extreme close-up as Justine wakes from her drug-induced sleep. It's a sight that would freak the hell out of anyone. The arrival on the island is even more harrowing given neither we nor the characters have any idea what is going on or what is to become of them. It becomes clear quite quickly what the plan is though and we wince and grimace then look away, but not long enough to actually miss anything. It is here that Roth might have at least saved the last act of his film by delving into the mechanisms that make-up this culture of natives that is horrifying to even our desensitized eyes, yes, but never explored in any kind of depth. At the end of the film the audience is asked to look at this tribe of cannibals not as an enemy simply because their habits are largely unknown, but as people just trying to survive who see us as a bigger enemy then we see them. We all undoubtedly have similar ideals and end games, but are naturally going to come at them from different perspectives. While this is a simple, but effective statement the film does nothing to motivate us to see things this way as the tribe is largely presented as a collection of caricatures. You can't hope to create a tone of neutrality when you clearly paint one set of characters as the enemy by exaggerating the characteristics that should make them feel fresh and interesting, especially if the most interesting aspects are this grotesque. Drop the social commentary and just focus on what makes this "never before filmed" tribe actually fascinating.
As I said before, this is all rather disappointing given the project seemed to initially have so much promise on its side. If that intrigue is still strong after reading the largely negative things that I and others have written about the film, by all means go and see it. The experience of the film itself should be worth more to you than my word, but don't be surprised if your hopes too are squandered on the formulaic way in which it's all presented. That said, there are certainly a couple of high points to the film that Roth has clearly strove to incorporate in this film in particular. The look of the film is largely bright and has a sheen to it that is uncommon in the horror genre. The jungle location allows for a film that gushes over its greens and uses the colorful make-up of the indigenous to give way to an aesthetic that, unlike the plotline, feels newfangled and ultimately more contemporary. There is also an admirable sense of humor to the film at times, providing a relief from all of the heavy-handed preaching and gore. “The Green Inferno” has an interesting half to it that still doesn't aspire to the potential it holds, but at least for the last half of the narrative we are on a ride that at least attempts to deliver on what it promised to be. Any hopes that the film would be something of a new phase in Roth's career and a rejuvenated take on the gore/torture side of horror were dashed when the film meandered for the first hour. That Roth and co-screenwriter Guillermo Amoedo would even dare to make its seeming hook a back burner for a larger statement about the hypocrisy of activism and the total shithole of cynicism this world has become feels like a betrayal. Of course, we must critique the film we've been given, not the one we wanted. The truth though, is that all we really wanted was to see spoiled, west culture symbols of ourselves be torn to shreds by an indigenous tribe that survives on torture and cannibalism. Instead, what we've received is rote, run of the mill Roth that thrives on the presentation of gore and not the dark motivation behind it.
by Philip Price
Like its titular mountain, “Everest” the film is a vast beast of an adventure. More than anything, director Baltasar Kormákur gives the film a strong foundation on which to stand and a sense of adventure going forward that is more than enough to make up for what can sometimes feel like a slim narrative. That is, of course, until the film reaches its last half hour in which it feels like it has to rush to resolve every plot strand it has set up for its large ensemble cast. That said, the film is more than a solid venture into one of the most dangerous places on earth that people dare to go which brings us to the real heart of the film. Without the crux of why each of these individuals wanted or were willing to risk their lives for a reward that, for some, could be viewed as senseless is what provides the anchor of the audience’s investment. There are plenty of ways in which Kormákur could have chosen to approach this set-up that was primed perfectly for little more than a tense, action spectacle, but at its heart this is a human story. And so, the fact Kormákur and writers William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy have essentially made both a rousing testament to the human spirit and a devastatingly brutal film that delivers the man versus nature psychology to an unflinching degree is admirable. In many ways, “Everest” doesn't purport to be anything more than a straightforward documentation of this true story that occurred in 1996 when a team of thrill-seekers attempted to scale Mt. Everest, but it can't help but to be about more given the grand themes that life naturally brings down upon us when we're stranded in desperate situations and have nothing else to turn to but our thoughts and memories. Kormákur largely tackles the positive aspects of this kind of adventure and way of thinking in the first half of the film before everything goes south and the darker side of these risks are exposed.
The film begins in late March of 1996 when Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), head of Adventure Consultants was getting ready to lead an expedition to the peak of Mt. Everest. Leaving behind a pregnant wife, Jan (Keira Knightly), Hall is thrust into the trusting hands of his co-workers Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) who runs their company base camp and Dr. Caroline MacKenzie (Elizabeth Debicki) who would assist Hall and his clients in preparing for their ascent. Working alongside Hall was Andy Harris (Martin Henderson) and Guy Cotter (Sam Worthington) who would be leading a team up one of the lesser summits. Hall's clients on this expedition included Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) who had previously climbed six of the seven summits and would be attempting to become the oldest woman to summit Everest. There was also Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) a regular guy who worked as a mail man in his day to day and was intent on proving to the world that even an ordinary guy like himself could do extraordinary things. Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) had been climbing for a decade and his wife, Peach (Robin Wright), had even threatened to divorce him if he decided to go on another expedition and yet, there he was. Hall also entertained a newspaper reporter, Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), to join them on their trip so that his company might receive some positive coverage and lots of exposure from Krakauer's publication. Once arriving at base camp the team would begin 40 days of preparation with the goal of a May 10th summit date. There were several teams set to summit Everest at base camp when Hall and his team arrived. Among them was one such team known as Mountain Madness led by the charismatic/hippie-like Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal). Fischer was a lot less of a "hand-holder" than Hall as he liked to put it, but the two inevitably team-up to scale the mountain together so as to not run into any delays on the time sensitive ascent.
It is in this strong ensemble that “Everest” finds much of its energy. Clearly, the story providing the basis for this harrowing tale is one that will give the characters enough to chew on, but given nature is essentially the villain of the piece it is up to the actors (working largely against green screen I presume) to make the drama and their characters palpable. It is an interesting, but sound cast of actors as even the smaller parts are filled with recognizable faces. It's difficult to remember a time when Worthington was positioned as the "next big thing" seeing that he's now playing less than a supporting role, but this suits him well as it's just enough to allow him a comfort level that wasn't there when the production rested on his shoulders. Clarke, as the leader of both the expedition and this ensemble, presents a grounded and humble personality as a way of gaining our trust early. There is something eerily menacing about his brow line, but he is able to overcome this feature that might otherwise consistently cast him as the baddie and instead proves to be a confident leader. While Clarke and Hawkes get the emphasis of the film overall, and we do root for Hawkes' Doug Hansen because we're made to feel truly compassionate for his endeavor, it still feels like Brolin has the more interesting arc to play. This isn't due specifically to the outcome of the person each is playing, but more because Beck is given more backstory and depth through the inclusion of Wright's character and their children. Playing this role of father and husband against going out and needing to literally weather these nearly insurmountable storms make it all the more curious as to what has pushed this human being to do this to himself? Is this the only type of adventure that can actually make him feel alive? Unfortunately, besides Watson the women aren't given much to do here. Knightley has to get teary-eyed often, Mori is one-note in her sole objective and Debicki along with Vanessa Kirby as a news reporter on Fischer's expedition may as well have been cardboard cut-outs. Speaking of Fischer, this seems an odd role for Gyllenhaal to take at the moment, considering his leading man profile only continues to go up, but it's nice to see him as part of a larger group and his interpretation of Fischer is layered even for the limited time he's on screen.
So, why do people submit themselves to such voluntary suffering? It is not so much a question the film sets out to answer, but more one that is naturally elicited from the events being portrayed. Never is there time for a moment to sit aside and have an exchange of dialogue that serves as an introspective piece of psychological exploration, rather it is only the time just prior to the final summit where Krakauer has to ask the big question of "why?" to his fellow climbers that we get any kind of semblance of reason. Still, it's clear to see the responses Krakauer garners are more or less surface-level and offer little more in terms of character development. I have to imagine Kormákur did this in order to cover the broad bases of who these people were, but left their actions on the mountain to truly define the type of people they were and what drove them to place themselves in such circumstances. Given this is the nature of the character arcs it is something of a shame that we don't go more in depth into what happens to each of these individuals after having reached the summit. Instead Kormákur and his writing team decide to spend most of our time in the preparation phase. I can understand wanting to build the tension and anticipation as well as presumably getting to know the plights of our characters all the better, but the real tension, the real action and the real character development takes place when these people are put in dire circumstances. To resign all of this to the last act of the film feels something like akin to a wasted opportunity. There were times in the first and second acts where I began to wonder if they were ever going to actually make it up the mountain given the film seemed to intentionally be plodding along rather than pushing itself toward the obvious goal. Once we finally reach this moment where the goal has been accomplished Kormákur does a fine job of imploring us to believe we're nowhere near the safe zone yet. This gives way for the director to do himself and this true story a solid by delivering an emotionally devastating conclusion that, even if you know what happens, will still hit you in the gut.
by Philip Price
“Spotlight” is a fine example of what perfect execution looks like. From the outset we are given the broad scope of the issue the film looks to tackle and from there we dive right into Boston, 2001 to meet the key players in the game the film will be playing. There are no hiccups, no time for second guesses and nothing narratively to take away from the main objective. “Spotlight” is a prime piece of meat with all of the fat trimmed and only the juiciest parts left so as to make the whole experience one of pure, concentrated excellence. That said, it is certainly an interesting case in a couple of areas. The first being that director Thomas McCarthy, who is generally regarded as both a solid writer and filmmaker, was coming off the worst reviewed film of his career a year ago with “The Cobbler” and so to bounce back so ferociously with this effortlessly intelligent thriller makes it clear there is something more to be said for the process of filmmaking. The other, is that this reviewer in particular is a Catholic. This is an influential piece of information considering “Spotlight” is about the Boston Globe's investigation into the Church's sexual abuse scandal that gave cause for people everywhere (Catholic or not) to take a second look at one of our most respected and trusted institutions. Because the film plays it straight down the middle, with no time for subplots or unnecessary qualms no one party is ever viewed unfairly, but rather the irrefutable facts presented allow the audience to make up their own minds.
Based around the true story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation into the cover-up of the child molestation scandal by the local Archdiocese in Boston, the film specifically shines light on the newspaper's Spotlight team. The reporters chosen for this four-man operation are investigative journalists, they delve deep into stories, most of the time for a year or more before anything goes to publication. In the summer of 2001, after new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) took over The Globe, the team soon began work on a story that seemed beyond impossible. Baron wanted to know why the outlet hadn't run any major stories on the church abuse scandals and the court hearings surrounding those allegations. Spotlight editor Walter V. Robinson (Michael Keaton) jumps at the opportunity to take an in-depth look at the situation and so he and his team, including Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matty Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James), begin to dig. Uncovering a decades-long facade at the highest levels of not only Boston's Catholic establishment, but their influence on the government as well as the newspaper itself (53 percent of their readership is Catholic) come to reveal not only the lack of attention from the police and media on the subject, but the fact lawyers have essentially been profiting from keeping these secrets under wraps for the Archdiocese. With more than enough evidence and truly fascinating insights into the reasonings behind these abuse cases Robinson and his team go after the system, intent on shaking loose the bad apples from the top down.
What is both the most encouraging and fascinating aspects of “Spotlight” though are the way in which it handles this massive story. This is both in the sense of the story the film is telling and the one the newspaper is tackling. Never does the audience feel out of the loop and never does the story feel too big to manage. Instead, McCarthy and co-screenwriter Josh Singer boil the main points of their compelling story into sharp exchanges between multiple characters, all of which we come to immediately understand what their function is as well as learn enough about them to know who they are. There is no time for deep dives into the personal lives of each of these reporters or how they might personally be affected through this investigation and so McCarthy and Singer allow the investigation itself to serve a dual role of being the puzzle we watch being put together and the details that fill in the holes of who our characters are beyond it. We learn that Rezendes is separated from his wife most likely because of his workaholic ways, that Pfeiffer is having something of a personal crisis given her grandmother goes to mass three or four times a week and that Carroll has the most typical family situation with this investigation even leaking into his Presbyterian life. There is little backstory to Keaton's Robinson besides his strictly-business attitude, but his approach and willingness to do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of this story shows us the type of man this guy is.
Concerning the aforementioned conversations that expertly convey the necessary points of the story in order for it to remain coherent, the writing not only puts the necessary pieces of information into motion, but it brings up layers upon layers of interesting ideas and captivating insights that make this a film that is better than it even had to be. Robinson and his team are at first interested in uncovering the truth of how many priests have been accused of acting out sexually with children, tracking both them and a number of their victims down, but as the story continues to grow to reveal that lawyers have essentially been turning these child abuse cases into a business of their own and that the clergy have been keeping these cases secret for as long as they have the mission takes on a much broader focus. Baron, Robinson's editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) and Robinson himself change their approach and shift the emphasis to the institution as a whole, recognizing that even the top officials were aware of such going-ons and did little more than move a priest from parish to parish when they acted out or were accused of anything inappropriate.
Beyond the factors that would come to provide the basis of this breaking news story it is the smaller, more nuanced aspects of the film that really make this deep dive into what causes these occurrences insanely interesting. Growing up Catholic, but never coming face to face with any of the issues that became the subject of this worldwide news and speculation I was forced to wonder why this seemed to be so common with something I was so familiar with and yet couldn't have felt further from home. While there are many victims that are presented in the film to great effect, Michael Cyril Creighton and Neal Huff are most notable, it is the facets they bring to the surface about their circumstances that prove to be all the more engrossing. The way Huff's character, Phil Saviano, tells of his encounter with a priest when he was young is one of not just physical abuse, but spiritual. That these predators not only steal your innocence, but your ability to believe or have faith is heartbreaking on a completely different level. Not one that is greater necessarily, but one that is intangible and unlikely to ever be regained. That the priests intentionally seek out these fractured kids from low-income and broken homes so that they might find greater favor and therefore a more willing mentality is disgusting. Pair this with the fact most of these priests went after young boys not because they were gay, but because boys are less likely to talk (especially in Boston) make it all the more diabolical. The film slyly shows the effects on these victims as they grow older, many of them turning to the drink, needles or jumping off bridges as a way to escape the memories. No matter the converging interests of parent companies or the possibility of alienating a large portion of their readership these investigators follow every lead to get the story right for these victims.
Furthermore, concerning the vow of celibacy that priests are required to take and how this largely doesn't work in the church's favor “Spotlight” also shines its light on the fact these occurrences could be categorized as a recognizable psychiatric phenomenon. Are priests emotionally stunted? The film asks, but per its style doesn't provide an answer. It wants you to consider these things and not just dismiss them. That the church knows and understands the fact 50 percent of their clergy are not celibate (though most are having sex with other adults) and instead of doing something about it create a culture of secrecy is beyond telling. That a piece of information such as six percent of all priests molest children (from a metric standpoint) is presented only as a way to propel the film's story forward rather than as a way of commending itself for making this fact more known makes it feel all the more substantial and important without ever being exploitative. This is the special power that “Spotlight” possesses. It is a quiet film about a very loud topic. It is a hectic and weighty story that is delivered in an efficiently paced and supremely organized package. It understands there is no one side to a story and allows different perspectives even from within the Spotlight team to be recognized giving the story a balanced and equal tone rather than a vindictive one. "Why do you want to do this story? Because you're another lapsed Catholic mad at the church?" Slattery's Bradlee asks Ruffalo's Rezendes at one point. "No," he replies, "it's a good story."
Speaking to the character moments in the film, Ruffalo is the only one who ever comes close to getting what is traditionally referred to as a "grand-standing" moment. Even still, it is a rather subdued moment that is by all means necessary to let the impact of what this team is uncovering really hit you. Ruffalo is spectacular in this role, getting what are no doubt the ticks and details of Rezendes' personality down while displaying a persona equal to that of a seasoned reporter. McAdams is also rather superb as Pfeiffer as she is the link that allows The Globe to convey a policy of sympathy, honesty and openness with the victims that is necessary to get the story its necessary sources. While Pfeiffer takes care of this side of things Rezendes is assigned the task of getting inside Mitchell Garabedian's (Stanley Tucci) head. Garabedian is a lawyer who consistently takes on these church victims cases, while repeatedly being shut down by the likes of attorney's like Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) who continue to make out of court settlements for the church (though MacLeish would eventually come to sue the archdiocese for the release of thousands of pages of secret files on abusive priests, breaking the story wide open). As Garabedian, Tucci steals nearly every scene he appears in. Garabedian is our voice of the governing body that presides over how the church was able to do things such as remove legal documents from the courthouse. With his assistance and Tucci's inescapable charisma McCarthy and Singer are able to break down the complexities of the case and the legal system and deliver a film that makes an outcome we're all familiar with all the more impactful.
This may be the single greatest achievement of the film from a storytelling point. That the script is able to take a story so familiar, so hotly debated, one that has been in the news for well over a decade now and make it feel as fresh and as revelatory as it does is beyond impressive. Considering this is one of those stories where it is easy to see the big picture and not think about the small details, the individual incidents and the dynamics of what each allegation includes though, there is really no surprise that “Spotlight” turns out to be as fascinating and as sharp as it is. Coupled with its breathless script are the fine performances all-around. Despite many of the actors having little more to do than read lines of information upon information they do it with a striking ease that always carries more weight than whatever the actual words being spoken might be. Despite the film covering uncomfortable territory and hitting on several hot-button issues, “Spotlight” is a movie I could watch again and again simply due to the endlessly engaging way it presents its facts, the understated aspects that come along with them and the cunning way in which it all comes together. “Spotlight” is the best film I've seen this year.
by Philip Price
Where to even begin with director Ben Wheatley's “High-Rise” is beyond me. If ever there were a muck of a film that thrived on its look and style alone it would seem to be this one. Not even the charisma of insanely charismatic British actors like Tom Hiddleston and Luke Evans can save the hot mess this is, though. From the outset audiences are presented with a dystopic world of chaos and destruction that seems so disconnected from anything resembling familiarity that there is no urgency to care. Instead, this intended metaphor of social hierarchy is an aimless slog through the explanation of a failing system rather than any kind of examination of how social classes are commonly found in societies that are actually developed. What we see in “High-Rise” is a society that never develops past the embryonic stages. It's always been something of a rule of thumb that a dominant hierarchy is necessary in order to maintain social order and provide a stable structure, but the folks who have created this luxury tower block seem to all want to live in luxury with no one invested in putting in the dirty work. Naturally, those living on the lower floors are the ones believed to be less worthy of their place in the tower and thus what eventually develops is an all-out dangerous social situation that leads the residents of the high-rise to fragment into violent tribes hell-bent on provoking one another into submitting to the other. While the circumstances of this premise would certainly turn into a rather disorderly situation in any film I didn't expect the film itself to do the same thing.
Set in London in 1975 we are first introduced to Robert Laing (Hiddleston). Laing is a young doctor seemingly seduced by the idea of the lifestyle in this new high-rise complex that is essentially a community cut off from the rest of society. Laing is also seduced by the mysterious creator of the tower, architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Taking up residence on the twenty-fifth floor, Laing comes to discover a world of involved loyalties as he also strikes up a relationship with Royal’s devoted aide Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and her son. Eventually, the levels begin to meld and Laing befriends Richard Wilder (Evans), a documentary filmmaker who lives on one of the first floors with his wife, Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and their many children, who is determined to arouse the many injustices inherent in the high-rise.
The rapid decline of the state of the high-rise, how quickly it happens and without any real justification gives it little impact on top of making little sense. Feelings of anger are inevitably evoked from the opposing classes, sure, but why it escalates so fast to this level of pure chaos is inexplicable. The fact that the high-rise is apparently cut off from society is never really explained, much less the reasoning as to why this is the case. And so, for the majority of the film the audience is left to wonder why no authoritative presence ever shows up to provide some kind of order. Even after we realize no help is coming from anything akin to a police force, the question remains as to why Royal never sets down any rules or regulations of his own. After all, this guy who is somewhat affectionately referred to as, "the architect," would also be the supposed leader of the complex and yet his arc more or less makes less sense than his buildings rapid decline. Even more inconspicuous is why Laing spirals out of control at all. As things begin to fail, Evans' Wilder states that, "living in a high-rise requires a special kind of behavior." Hiddleston plays Laing as a neutral party though, never allowing the otherwise tranquil doctor to spiral out of control until it is what everyone else is doing, thus seemingly making it the only option for Laing as well. This isn't the main problem with Wheatley's film though, more it is that we never know if it is indeed because of the influence around him that Laing succumbs or if it is actually because the good doctor becomes so embroiled in the class warfare (which translates to who throws a better party) that he feels it necessary to throw away his comfortable bachelor lifestyle and promising career.
“High-Rise” purports to shed light on a more sinister dimension of our society when contained within this limited space, but by the midway point of the film I didn't care enough to know the answers to the questions and qualms the film had set-up. Worse, if we already didn't care about the circumstances of the plot the lack of any characterization to the people we meet is alarming to say the least. Miller may get the worst end of the bargain given it is difficult to even pinpoint the reasoning of her Charlotte's existence. It's as if she solely exists to be the obvious choice for Hiddleston's character to hook up with. Of course, while this is the obvious route for Laing to go he naturally refuses it and wants little to do with Charlotte other than the occasional tryst to get his rocks off while his heart seems set on the less obvious target (Moss' pregnant Helen, of course). Evans has the most interesting role in the whole movie as he at least gets an arc and something to fight for, but the lack of any driving force in the narrative as well as any clarity in the story as a whole make this a moot point. Instead, the film ends up being little more than an observation of terror and destruction confined to this single location. This concept is clearly intended to enhance the fascination of this hierarchical system and the commentary it provides on our own society, but instead just makes it clear how futile the whole exercise actually is.
by Philip Price
Who is Michael Stone? It is the question we can't help but to ask after he arrives at an upscale hotel in Cincinnati in Charlie Kaufman's first stop-motion film. We ask this due to the fact we have followed this man from his flight, through the airport, on a cab ride and into the lobby where other guests whisper his name as he walks by. We come to learn that Stone is a speaker famous for a book he published about customer service. As mundane as this sounds it is, of course, with some purpose as Kaufman's entire exploration of the character of Stone has to deal with the mundanity of life in general. As with the majority of projects written by Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”) and the one he's directed prior (“Synecdoche, New York”) “Anomalisa” also deals with themes of identity, mortality, our relationships with other people and the big question that is, "what is the meaning of life?" This latest experiment scales things back to a simpler form though, where the complexities of these existential ponderings aren't all-consuming. Rather, they come in the form of keen observations that perfectly summarize the vapidness of the majority of our interactions on a daily basis. This, paired with the chosen visual style of the film is rather inspired as not only does it allow Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson the chance to visually illustrate what might have otherwise been conveyed through dialogue, but it also allows a rather uninteresting story to be told in an interesting fashion.
At first, the stop-motion style of storytelling seems insignificant and only out of the interest of doing something unique, but we quickly come to recognize why Kaufman has chosen this approach. The character design is sure to make any audience member recall an animatronic they may have seen in some other film or Chuck E. Cheese, but what is more interesting is zeroing in on the voice work behind these robotic faces. It becomes clear quite quickly that everyone Stone (who is voiced by David Thewlis) interacts with, man or woman, has the same exact voice (provided by Tom Noonan). The combined effect of these people's appearance and the alluded to similarities between our Western society and robots stand as one point in an observation of our existence while the same vocal performance from every character besides Stone is done in order to make clear the exception to the routine. The anomaly.
Kaufman, in his writing, makes it evident early that his central character is not pleased with the state of his life at the moment. The devil is in the details, but while the details of Stone's life may represent the most problematic aspects for him, for us, they are the most insightful moments of the film. This is most true in the early scenes where Stone stands still on a skywalk and is forced to drown out the loud family in front of him with his headphones before hopping into a cab where he is forced to deal with a driver that enjoys pleasantries. Stone is not a "small talk" type of guy, but while he is polite to the cab driver we can see and hear the irritation in Stone's responses rising as the exchange becomes more and more vacuous. At this point, I thought to myself that it might have been more interesting to see this film play out with real people and real environments so as to get a better sense of the situations Kaufman was painting on screen, but once we hit the half hour mark what is obvious by the end is made more clear. We are introduced to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who's not only entirely pleasant, but the first individual that Stone sees in a different light.
It would be easy to dismiss Kaufman as a complete cynic, but more in line with what his actual disposition is would seem to be the idea that our psyche is ever-evolving and so to make any one, definite stance or decision about anything would be foolish. He's not a pessimist, he's just cautious. You could say then that it is strange he would put his thoughts down in something as concrete as a feature film that will live on for decades if not longer, but the point of “Anomalisa” is to illustrate the simple perspective that life is worth living if for nothing else, but finding what will deviate us from what we expect. This seems to be a fact Kaufman has found to be true no matter what stage of life he's encountered. The charm is in the surprises life holds and that is what Lisa serves as for our bored protagonist who feels he's living a rather unremarkable existence. As such views are displayed through the lens of Kaufman-esque scrutiny in as basic a fashion as one could expect from the auteur, Kaufman succumbs to the temptation of sharing his own critical thinking by providing multiple perspectives on the situation at hand. In doing this, Kaufman admits to the fact love is the one indisputable goal of everyone on the planet, but also intends to show what makes this emotion valid in a society of excess.
Again, we come around to the root word of the title. An anomaly is something that deviates from what is standard and the film does it's grandest to provide a portrait of a man who has come to find nothing exciting in his comfortable world and thus a lack of any real urge to keep on existing. He needs an anomaly to make him realize once again that there are exceptions in this sea of sameness he's swimming in. While “Anomalisa” could come off as just another "white people problems" ode to the privileged who have to create their own drama to find their life interesting it is able to surpass this label by conveying these natural thoughts (What is it to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive?) in fresh and unexpected ways.
Admittedly, Kaufman and Johnson have to push their limits by having these animated characters have sex with one another (only to conjure up thoughts of “Team America: World Police”) instead of hammering home their connection on an intellectual level by creating a conversation that transcends their standard, vapid interactions we've see plenty of examples of. I understand the need to show and solidify the connection of Stone and his exception on a deeper, physical level, but it goes on for such a time it feels rather indulgent to the point the film will be remembered for this instance rather than the ideas this instance was trying to convey. Of course, I may just be at a certain stage in my own life where I still have enough time left in front of me that I don't view the world with as much of a dark or despairing attitude as Stone does (to the point you can only find real pleasure and happiness in a one night stand), but as Kaufman is pointing out I understand the fact that I will only continue to evolve and learn and may or may not change my opinion on this assessment of our existence. As I stand right now, “Anomalisa” is a precisely observed and effortlessly paced affair that delivers what it wants to say about the notable moments in our lives without being notable itself.
by Philip Price
I watched what could be considered some very strange films at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, but I don't think any of them were as weird or out there as Jocelyn Moorhouse's “The Dressmaker.” This movie, you guys, is completely bonkers. You wouldn't think so given the look photo attached to this review and the fact it stars such credible and well-respected actors as Kate Winslet, Hugo Weaving and Judy Davis, but once this thing gets rolling it is both surprising and distracting as to how ridiculous it gets. As I watched the events of the film unfold I couldn't help but to keep writing down again and again how I couldn't believe they were going where they were going and yet, the film kept going...one step further. Now, to be clear, this isn't strange or ridiculous in the sense of bombastic violence or discussing things typically considered too taboo for everyday discussion, but more in the sense of general absurdities. Having not directed a film in nearly 20 years and operating strictly in Australia this would seem to be a fine opportunity to return for Moorhouse and there is plenty of stuff to have fun with here despite the fact I wasn't able to get on board with all of it. With Winslet leading the charge (though she seems miscast) Moorhouse and her ensemble of misfits that make up this small town in Australia endeavor to deliver a perfectly cheeky little screwball comedy that is able to hold a slight amount of substance rather than being completely flippant.
Based on Rosalie Ham's best-selling novel, “The Dressmaker” tells the story of Mertyl "Tilly" Dunnage (Winslet) who returns to her small home town in Dungatar, Australia to hopefully right the wrongs of her past. You see, Tilly was once accused of being a murderer, but she herself can't remember the incident the townspeople say she is responsible for. Tilly's mother (Davis) has been shunned as much as her daughter and lives like a hermit on the outskirts of town while un-affectionately being referred to as "Mad Molly." The town is governed by misogynistic mayor Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne) whose wife, Marigold (Alison Whyte), has driven herself to the brink of insanity after the death of their son, Stewart, 25 years ago by keeping herself confined to her house and committing to keeping it literally spotless. There is also the rather flamboyant Sergeant Farrat (Weaving) who is the only source of authority in the town, but would rather be strutting his stuff on a runway somewhere. Given this defining character trait, Farrat is one of the few people in Dungatar who are happy to see the return of Tilly. This is due to the fact that in her absence, Tilly has become an expert dressmaker trained by Madeleine Vionnet in Paris. Upon her return, Tilly begins transforming the locals (including Sarah Snook's Gertrude) with her couture creations and the tide begins to turn and the truth begins to reveal itself as to what actually happened all those years ago.
Living just on the outskirts of town with Tilly and her mother are the McSwiney's who, while not being as well-off as their fellow townspeople, seem to be the only other source of authenticity in Dungatar. This consists mainly of brothers Teddy (Liam Hemsworth) and Barney (Gyton Grantley). Teddy is the handsome leader of the town's rugby team and is surprised to find Tilly back in town, but more so he is intrigued by the thought of her return and attracted to the mysterious, but clearly intelligent woman she's become once he gets to know her. Here we find our fist oddity. Both Winslet, Hemsworth and even Snook's characters are all supposed to be around the same age despite Hemsworth clearly being the youngest of the bunch (he's twenty-five) and Winslet being 15 years older than him despite the fact Teddy says he remembers Tilly before she left. It's not so much that we can't come to buy into this fact as the film goes on, but knowing what we do of the actors beforehand it's somewhat jolting to realize they're all supposed to be the same age. This is just the beginning of the oddities though for as we get to know the characters more not only do we find out the secrets of the Mayor and Sheriff, but we find that Teddy's brother Barney is a special needs case (who holds the keys to a third act twist, of course), Molly seems to be suffering from early stages of dementia, the town doctor is a hypocritical cripple and the rest of the townfolk are basically a bunch of shallow, superficial types whose outward appearance means more to them than anything else.
In short, as the film rolls on and becomes all the more melodramatic it becomes all the more obvious there are no limits to how far this thing is willing to go. There are mountains of death, but more we are affected by the mountains of bad luck that Tilly has. This pile of extreme misfortune is distracting in a way that it doesn't seem conceivable so many setbacks could happen to one person in their entire lifetime, much less the first 33 or so years that Tilly is supposed to have been alive. What these countless tragedies also don't assist with is the resolution of the film. While deaths will naturally make it easier for a film to wrap itself up (that said, the film still goes on for too long), we all know the easy way isn't always the right way. There is a pivotal moment late in the film where the roles that Tilly and her mother were playing prior to this incident switch and there is something heartwarming, sensible and ultimately calming about the scenario, but dammit if “The Dressmaker” is going to stay calm and end on a good note. Instead, the film plods along for another twenty minutes or so, becomes somewhat irresponsible in its narrative duties and forces itself to conclude with Tilly literally burning this town that's brought her so much pain to the ground.
In theory, this would be the kind of movie you settle down with on a cozy, Sunday afternoon. Key words: in theory. Instead, while being somewhat nicely paced for the first third, the rest of the film is a hodgepodge of tones and a mash-up of genres that never yield a satisfactory result in any one category or emotion. That is not to say everything has to be neatly classified into one genre or another, but not even Moorhouse seems to know what she is going after here and it is this kind of manic mentality that sends the film off its rails. It wants too many things to be any one thing. It tries to be intentionally campy while throwing in bits of genuine drama after having just made a joke out of domestic violence. Nothing adds up. The performances from both Davis (the broad comic relief) and Winslet (the anchor who is swallowed up by the chaos) try as hard as they can to make this somewhat rational with Davis coming out the better of the two, but while I was never necessarily bored with the film I was never impressed or immersed in it either. More, “The Dressmaker” wants to be a satirical take on the gossip that engulfs the lives of those in a small town, but in reality it becomes little more than an example of what not to do when mixing broad physical comedy with those aforementioned mountains of death and having none of the sense to just paint this thing as one big dark comedy.
by Philip Price
Director Scott Cooper has always had a knack for creating atmosphere. With only two feature films under his belt he has established quite a distinctive voice, but unfortunately his films have begun to deteriorate in quality as he goes along as well. I really kind of loved Cooper's 2009 debut “Crazy Heart” that won Jeff Bridges a Best Actor statue and even found the consistently depressing “Out of the Furnace” to be a strong if not exceptional entry, but “Black Mass” is by far his least satisfying film yet. It's not for a lack of trying as there is clearly a large amount of effort that has been put into this production. The period setting is especially well rendered and Johnny Depp's lead performance as James "Whitey" Bulger almost single-handedly saves the production from being a complete loss, but even he can only do so much. It is impossible to talk about “Black Mass” without talking about the state of Depp's career and how badly he needed this to be both a critical and commercial success so as to reestablish himself as the "movie star" he was pinned as after “Pirates of the Caribbean” and while I'm sure the film will make a fine amount of money (not a huge amount, but fine) this will in no way place the actor in the "return to form" category many were already deciding to call this. What it is is a fine showcase for a talented actor to do what he does best and with as showy a role as this is Depp certainly delivers. It is all the factors surrounding this performance that don't live up to their potential with the main problem being screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth not finding an interesting way to adapt Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's book.
Depicting the true story of Bulger, a prominent leader of organized crime in South Boston, the film begins in 1975. Jimmy, as he is called by his friends, has been out of a stint at Alcatraz for over a decade at this point and is making his presence felt once again in his hometown of "Southie" as the natives call it. Bulger is also the brother of Massachusetts State Senator William "Billy" Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch). The two brothers tend to keep their affairs separate, but still maintain a healthy relationship with each other as well as with their mother (Mary Klug). While Jimmy has become known for being a brute and not one to mess with he also seems to be well-liked by a lot of people in his neighborhood. It is when Jimmy and Billy's childhood friend, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), returns to Southie as an FBI agent that our story really begins. Soon after taking up residence again in Boston Connolly contacts the Senator with the idea of enlisting the bad Bulger as an informant so that they might help one another out: Connolly looking the other way when Bulger does his dirty dealings and Connolly getting information on Jimmy's cross-town rival, the Angiulo gang. As the leader of the Winter Hill Gang, Bulger comes to own the turf that is South Boston and define the modern mafia as he not only deals in drugs and extortion, but heavy amounts of murder and racketeering.
Bulger is clearly a fascinating character and the circumstances of his dealings with Connelly are all the more engaging for their unbelievable nature, but the movie that has been constructed around these events has no momentum. Beginning with interrogations of those closest to Bulger “Black Mass” frames the events of Bulger's crime sprees from 1975-1985 as well as it can and gives the events plenty of context while informing us of the motivations for the gangsters actions. Once we are taken into the midst of the events we're being told about though, there is no sense of urgency or narrative drive. Instead, we watch as Bulger goes from one setting to the next almost tempting people to cross him so that he has an excuse to kill them. There are a number of plots and characters that are layered on as the film goes on and you can tell Cooper is trying to build a certain tension between both Connelly and Bulger and Connelly and his superiors. This works part of the time, but it's not until Corey Stoll's character shows up with less than half an hour left in the film that we feel any kind of real distress over the deal Connolly and Bulger struck up. It would have been more than acceptable and probably rather interesting were Cooper to have simply crafted a slow boil of a gangster drama, but the only time we're ever made to feel tense or even compelled is when Depp is on screen doing his thing. But even that gets old after a while given you can only beat someone to a pulp so many times before it feels like the only trick you've got up you're sleeve.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what the movie feels like: a one trick pony. That pony of course, being Depp in another of his transformative roles draws the attention of everyone in the audience and everyone else on screen. Depp plays the notorious gangster as a ripened psychopath determined to succeed above all else and we believe in Bulger's ambition even if we rarely see anything other than him beating up and burying anyone who crosses him. There are hardly any instances of Bulger talking shop or relaying his intelligence to match the ambition which, in some ways, makes it even more impressive that Depp gets across what he does. For actual insight into the character we have to acknowledge the voice overs telling us that after a certain characters death that he then became more of the "crime lord" his legend speaks of or that he was devastated by the passing of his mother to the point it only made things worse for those who got in his way. This is a shame, really, because when Depp shines, he really shines. If you've seen the first trailer for the film you'll recognize the dinner scene that includes Depp and David Harbour discussing a secret family recipe and as this is certainly a show-stopper of a scene that displays the real range of potential this thing possessed. There just aren't enough of these kinds of scenes to add up to a satisfactory portrait. When the film is brutal, it's insanely brutal. It never wants for any bit of in-your-face violence that's standard with this genre or an array of Boston accents that combined more than earn the film it's R-rating.
Cooper has attempted to develop his ensemble with big name stars and strong character actors (Rory Cochrane, W. Earl Brown and Bill Camp are among the stand-outs) so that this tale of Boston mythology might be full realized, but the majority of this solid cast is wasted. Cumberbatch registers no impression as Billy and there is seemingly no reason other than his name that he got the role was cast as his accent slips in and out frequently. The likes of Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgard, Juno Temple and Julianne Nicholson are more or less wasted in thankless roles while Dakota Johnson only gets one scene to show she can be more that Anastasia Steele. Edgerton though is where the film really gets its crux. As Connolly Edgerton may as well have been the main character of the piece given it is his ideas and his plans that set the events in motion. As this middle man Edgerton is exceptionally complex, but again, the execution of the situation he puts himself and others in just doesn't warrant as much tension as it should on screen. While “Black Mass” is a proficiently made and good-looking movie that will firmly plant Cooper in the realm of mainstream, big budget filmmaking I can only wonder how long it will keep him there.
by Philip Price
If there has been a single trend in all of the films I've seen so far at TIFF it is that of the one focusing on depressed white people. Apparently, a lot of these folks become so bored with their seemingly perfect(ly fine) existences, that many others would no doubt kill for a piece of, that they feel the need to create senseless drama for themselves to feel something, anything. It's a sign of some type of narcissism as the three main male figures in this film are so self-involved in their quest to get past canonizing a woman who, despite being gone for several years, still dictates much of their daily lives. This isn't to say the death of a loved one is an easy thing to cope with, but it is the actions and the inability to communicate between these three in the wake of their loss that places them each on different roads that see them looking to heal themselves in ways of aggression or impulse or hatred instead of trying to sit down and figure it out together. Director Joachim Trier, who has made two previous features that I haven't seen has written an original screenplay with frequent collaborator Eskil Vogt and while it is easy to see where he is coming from with his examination of the effects we can each have on one another's lives, even in the smallest senses, “Louder Than Bombs” still feels like something more appropriate for a 45 minute short rather than a nearly two-hour slog that keeps piling on the bad, conceit-ridden choices that push these individuals farther and farther from where they need (or want) to be.
This period of mourning comes to something of a climax in the few days that Trier documents in his film. The catalyst is an upcoming exhibition celebrating war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) three years after her untimely death. This exhibition brings her eldest son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) back to the family house where he intends to go through his mother’s unresolved work, a task his father, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), has still failed to accomplish. The third party to this depressed trio is younger brother Conrad (Devin Druid) who's the epitome of the awkward kid in class, with hints of real substance behind his uninterested eyes. With Jonah having graduated from college and becoming a professor himself he has also had time to get married and have a child. The film opens with the birth of this child, but it's clear shortly after running into his ex-girlfriend Erin (Rachel Brosnahan) that Jonah doesn't know if he's ready for what he's just committed to. Gene, a high school teacher at Conrad's school, is simply trying to move on from his wife while forming something resembling a relationship with fellow teacher, Hannah (Amy Ryan). Conrad likes a girl as well, Melanie (Ruby Jerins), but being the tender age of twelve he was when his mother died he's been left him permanently scarred. He can't stop contemplating what his mother experienced or what she might have been thinking in her final seconds. The fact of the matter though is that Isabelle wasn't able to return to a normal, routine life after attempting to retire from photographing the atrocities of the world. She was depressed and both Gene and Jonah know she killed herself in a car wreck and that it was no accident. With the aforementioned exhibition coming up Isabelle's esteemed colleague, Richard (David Strathairn), is writing a piece on her for The New York Times and is intent on including the true nature of her death. This means not only that the three men she left behind will have to face their demons, but that Conrad may come to see his mother in a different light than the one he remembers.
As you can tell, there is a lot of story going on here, but for some reason the film still feels too long. Trier is touching on interesting examinations, no doubt, but each of the characters feel so fragile and delicate that they are almost impossible to talk to and therefore draw up more conflicts than necessary. If these people talked to or listened to one another for just a fraction of the time instead of being afraid that another's words would crash their own train of thought then this movie would have been over in half the time. More than anything, I became annoyed with the characters quickly (granted, this is because of their emotional states) for despite not having remotely good relationships with one another it's clear Gene's children don't even respect him. Now, I understand that Conrad probably put some kind of blame on his father for being the one that's still around and that Jonah doesn't agree with all of Gene's decisions in terms of what he thinks about telling Conrad the truth about their mother, but there are never any opportunities to discuss these things with one another and if there are they are quick and easily dismissed by one of the hot-tempered, egotistical people in the room. Of course, this is probably what attracted superb actors like Eisenberg, Byrne, Huppert, Strathairn and Ryan to the project, the fact they would get to act and not just speak, but in the circumstances presented that's all I wanted these people to do.
As far as the remainder of what the film has to offer, visually it is gorgeous and rather impressive for a small-budget indie. The car crash sequence in which Isabelle dies is staged with a certain precision and given the film shows many different iterations of this sequence we know it had to be shot multiple times and with each there is a sense of a really confident directorial hand that, for lack of a better term, makes this feel like a "real movie". There are also little intermittent visual homages to the thoughts that run through Conrad's head that are also documented nicely on his Microsoft Word. These little flourishes add some flavor to the otherwise bland proceedings. These moments of inspiration paired with the excellent performances across the board that allow the characters to feel more damaged than glib keep “Louder Than Bombs” afloat for if it was up to the script alone it seems the film would have sunk under its own weight.
by Philip Price
I rather enjoyed Jason Bateman's 2014 directorial debut “Bad Words.” I think I've watched it more times than I initially imagined I would given I thought it was fine, but little more. That said, I was really excited to see what Bateman would do next in the director's chair and boy does he deliver. While I had tempered expectations for “The Family Fang” it was clear after the film’s cold open that we were in for something pretty unique. This is in fact the strongest element the film has going for it in that you never quite know where it's going. Eventually, given the circumstances presented, we understand the themes of family and liberation that are being touched upon, but never do we know exactly what will happen next. This is due largely in part to the fact the premise is so different and off the wall. Adapted from a 2011 Kevin Wilson novel by screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire “The Family Fang” is a film that is telling a dysfunctional family story through the conduit of performance art. With this material Bateman has taken advantage of the dark comedic tones the story highlights and is really able to explore not only his growth as a filmmaker (you can feel the more assured hand at work), but a more complex range of emotions. “Bad Words” was very on the nose for the sarcastic, cynical straight man, but ‘Family Fang’ requires more layers and layers he has provided as his latest film never stops evolving and the characters only grow out of the demons they're forced to come face to face with.
When talking about the "cold open" what we're presented with is a scenario in which a young Caleb Fang (Jason Butler Harner) and his wife Camille (Kathryn Hahn) throw their kids Annie (Mackenzie Brooke Smith) and Buster (Jack McCarthy) along with themselves into a piece of performance art consisting of a bank, a fake gun, fake blood and a camera in a police officer’s cap. The Fang's, Caleb and Camille, become well known for their performance art and their seeming commentary on social issues. Some see it as a series of pranks while others find it profound. Some see them as jokes while others consider them true artists. Caleb certainly considers himself to be an artist. That's all he's ever wanted to be, pure and simple. The satisfaction for him is not in the finished product or the reaction of those watching the finished product, but rather the reaction of the people involved in the performance. That, he says is where the true art lies. In retrospect, both Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Buster (Bateman), look at their parents with a large amount of resentment; feeling they took away their childhoods from them in some measure and used for pawns in their schemes to break the monotony and shake people up. Given Buster has grown up to be a novelist and Annie a famous actress neither have been home for some time, but when Buster is the victim of a potato gun accident that leads to an unexpected reunion Caleb and Camille immediately switch back to their old ways. Tensions are high though, leading us to understand why such reunions don't happen often, but when their now much older parents (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett) disappear Annie and Buster can't decide if something's really happened to them or if they're up to their old tricks again.
Given that this is still a story of family dynamics it is the characters that will make or break how appealing the final product turns out to be. This is no problem as the Fang's clearly have their passions and their certain informed opinions about everything that is of a priority in their lives including art whether it be in acting, writing or creating performances from scratch. What is most interesting from our two lead characters, Annie and Buster, are the differences with which Kidman and Bateman approach their characters in approaching their situation. Kidman's Annie doesn't believe for a second that their parent’s disappearance is legitimate and sets out immediately to look for clues as to how to find them out. Bateman's Buster, on the other hand, isn't so sure. What if they were killed? What if they really are dead? "If they were it would be horrible, but if it they're not it would kind of be worse," Buster tells his sister at one point. And it's true, it's what we as an audience think the moment this plot point is introduced and while each individual will naturally draw their own conclusion as to what happened what is more important than the truth of the matter is what Annie and Buster do with the facts provided to them. With this in mind, Bateman pushes his film to analyze the inability of children to move out from under their parents thumbs. To work out for themselves that we can only do what matters most for the people who matter the most to us and that it will forever be impossible to fix people the way we want them to be, but instead that if we focus on fixing ourselves that would be enough.
This all may sound like some pretty heavy stuff for a Jason Bateman film and it really is. I never expected, especially in his second feature and even considering the fact “Bad Words” was a dark comedy as well, that his next project would dabble in such intimate and sometimes heartbreaking moments. There are a number of small, quiet scenes between different family members that transcend all of the surrounding factors of performance art and sacrifice for the sake of art. Kidman is especially affecting in a scene where she's watching an interview of her father she's never seen before and he more or less says that his love for her has always been on the condition she helped him with his art. And while both Kidman and Bateman have their share of moments it is Walken who's really granted the opportunity to chew the scenery and man, does he run with that opportunity. Caleb's domineering mentality and creative prowess over everyone in his family overtakes every other desire he possesses. This drives him to a make a speech at one point in the film about how all parents damage their children. It is a touching and revealing moment that perfectly sums up the tone of the film and is perfectly conveyed through the sentiment that Walken presents it in.
What will be overlooked, but is one of my favorite aspects of the film is the look and style that Bateman and his cinematographer Ken Seng (who also worked on “Bad Words” and “Disconnect”) employ to elicit a certain kind of nostalgia. Beginning in the seventies every frame is soaked in these green and yellow hues as if to give off a time worn nature to the film. Bateman's Buster wears his father’s old clothes throughout the majority of the film only reinforcing this aesthetic further. The score from Carter Burwell also enhances this specific time period while using lots of chimes and other quirky sounds to compliment the mood and the environment of this confined and familiar setting in upstate New York. There is no movie without these characters though and it is in this area that the film accomplishes the most. Like any film, we know nothing of these people before meeting them in the first scene, but somehow this became more evident to me while watching “The Family Fang” due to the fact that despite I felt I came to know these two siblings so well, I never knew what to expect from them as far as where the movie would go. Both Annie and Buster do a considerable amount of maturing and by the final frame we feel their sense of accomplishment and are more than pleased to have shared in this journey with them.
by Philip Price
“Colonia” is one of those movies where you can tell from the opening moments that at the very least it's going to be a snappy little thriller. There is a certain charisma to the camera movements and to the way the period elements compliment the filmmaking techniques. Everything about it simply screams validity and slickness. There is nothing amateur about the film, it is a movie made by professionals for mainstream movie goers and contains a compelling story with interesting enough characters to make you feel you haven't wasted two hours of your life when the credits begin to roll. That said, there is hardly anything exceptional about “Colonia” either. The fact that it does operate under such traditional methods allow for it to be a handsomely mounted film, but offers nothing in the way of being interesting or different. If you see the trailer or even stills from the film you can likely guess what you're getting yourself into here. There is nothing wrong with this, especially if you're director Florian Gallenberger making your English-language debut. The director, who is originally from Germany and has worked with star Daniel Brühl before, gives his latest film a strict sense of tension while loading on the information about the titular cult located in the South of Chile. Whereas something such as Argo or Munich thrive on capturing their period espionage thriller through the lens of the time period they're set in Colonia more or less tells us what we need to know, hopes we get wrapped up in it and if not, moves on to the next act.
Given this feels like the mentality of the film throughout there is hardly much more to say about it. Having legitimately felt things as I was watching the film and did indeed emotionally respond there is certainly something to the film that makes it feel it has a lot to offer. Based on true events and beginning in 1973 in the midst of the Chilean military coup we are introduced to Lena (Emma Watson) and Daniel (Brühl), a young couple who become entangled in the situation. Lena is a flight attendant who is in Santiago on a layover while also using it to visit her boyfriend, Daniel. Daniel is a graphic artist who has been creating images in support of embattled President Salvador Allende. When Allende is violently ousted, General Augusto Pinochet's forces begin rounding up his supporters. As a result, Daniel is captured and taken to the remote stronghold of Colonia Dignidad, home to a secret agricultural commune led by a sinister minister by the name of Paul Schäfer (Michael Nyqvist). Daniel is interrogated and tortured, but simulates severe mental deterioration to remain alive. Helpless and desperate, Lena travels to Colonia and offers herself up to Schäfer as a follower knowing full well it is a place nobody had ever escaped from prior.
While the first half hour or so of the film deals in the tension of Daniel and Lena being captured and Lena formulating a plan of rescue the majority of the movie takes place in Colonia Dignidad. Radical cults are always inherently chilling and frustrating, but the idea these things really happened always hangs over the proceedings. When we first come into Colonia we are introduced to our two main antagonists in quick succession. There is Gisela (Richenda Carey) the head mistress of sorts of the women's sect and the cult's leader Schäfer who sees himself as a disciple of sorts who has convinced his followers he speaks to God and relays his messages. Of course, in reality Schäfer is little more than a perverted, war profiteering scumbag with a God complex of his own. Through Lena we come to learn all about the day to day routine of the commune and the strict laws enforced on its inhabitants. With this information we take it in and are both fascinated and repulsed by it. How anyone could think that a man who treats people the way Schäfer does is truly a man of God or looking out for the best in humanity is beyond me as even Nyqvist, who can certainly make a menacing villain, is never charismatic enough to make us believe he could garner such followers. This is all information we simply take in and accept though, with nothing beyond the surface level details to dig into. Gallenberger knows how to deliver compelling scenes and tension-stricken moments (seriously, I was literally biting my nails at one point), but this is bare bones as far as anything concerning the psychological state or motivations of these characters.
That isn't to necessarily say the characters are bland though, either. There just isn't much to them other than their main objective. Watson is automatically appealing and so her charms are naturally conveyed in a character who is performing one of the most romantic and sacrificial acts of love one could imagine. The time jumps in the days that Lena has been at Colonia are a bit jarring at first, but make sense in the scheme of the story the film is trying to tell. It can't be easy for an actor to automatically jump months into the future and inhabit how much a characters state of mind has changed in that time, but Watson pulls it off as we're always on the edge of our seats hoping Lena doesn't push the powers that be too far. On the other side of things is Brühl who is an actor that always brings great dignity to his roles, even when he is playing a Nazi war hero. As Daniel we are never so much worried about him as we are concerned that he won't realize the sacrifice Lena has made for him. As far as the character goes though, Brühl does some interesting work when it comes to having to put on an act within an act while allowing his Daniel's strong sense of obligation to the truth shine through. Like the movie itself, the performances are handsome and well executed. As a whole, “Colonia” is a fine enough film with a strong enough story and idealistic characters that even if it pushes things one too many times in its conclusion for unnecessary dramatic effect, it will do more to please the matinee crowd than whatever else they might have to chose from this January.