Best of the Year So Far…

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I can’t say I have seen a lot of films this year, at least ones that have kept my interest, however I have seen very few duds. I have decided only to do a top five since I haven’t seen enough to give you a top ten, however I could’ve easily added room for “Logan”, “Kong: Skull Island”, and “It Comes at Night” on this list, but this is definitely the best films I’ve seen so far this year.

1. John Wick: Chapter Two: Starting with an action packed and hilarious prologue (Thanks to “Fargo’s” Peter Storemare who skims through the first film’s plot in case you missed it), John Wick: Chapter Two adds to the world of assassins and intrigue as it did the first time and never fucking lets up. This is a film so lean, so clear on what it is, and so action packed and visually inventive, I literally don’t remember loving an action movie this much in a long time. Keanu Reeves has found a character that goes towards his strengths, John Wick is low-key, stone faced, and zen all at once. He adds humour even if he doesn’t know it. This time John Wick is called upon a job after taking a blood oath, even though all he wants is peace. He must now kill a whole heck of a lot of people to find that peace, but is that enough? For those of us who find these films utterly, and unapologetically kinetic fun for any action fan, I am excited to see this one of a kind dog lover on his next adventure.

2. Get Out: Unique horror/satire from the mind of Jordan Peele, is a clever, twisty, thriller playing on the ideas of race relations between white privilege and black identity. This movie has fun with subverting what our expectations are, and doesn’t forget to call on the horror movie tropes (It’s all there in the title for crying out loud). The film does a great job at setting up its world and building enough mystery and suspense to keep us intrigued. Peele adds a bit of surrealism into the mix which adds to the paranoia and strangeness going around.

3. The Big Sick: I’ve noticed lately that there have been a lot of indie comedies featuring stand-up comedians playing a version of themselves whilst incorporating the world of stand-up comedy to the plot. For some reason I get turned off by this idea so I’ve missed a lot of these films (I think “Funny People” soured me to the whole idea). However despite this, I found “The Big Sick” to be utterly charming, funny, and sweet. “The Big Sick”gives us Kumail Nanijiani (Who co-wrote the film with his wife) a comedian from Pakistan who falls in love with a white girl which is forbidden in his family, only to have that girl fall into a coma and he realizes how much he loves her. This is based on Nanigiani’s real life experience when he met his wife. The movie has that warm humor and heart that keeps you invested and makes you want the two leads to end up together. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter add great support, this is proof that the romantic comedy is not dead.

4. Wonder Woman: A refreshing take on the super hero genre in that the Amazon Princess doesn’t share the flaws and human traits of the usual brand of Marvel super heroes. What makes Wonder Woman so amazing to see is she is literally a super human knowing what is right and what is wrong, and knowing she has the power to stop it. Wonder Woman carries no shades of grey and this is something that hasn’t been seen since Christopher Reeve embodied so much goodness in “Superman”.  A definite crown-pleaser for the summer, “Wonder Woman” is an empowering, good time at the movies that might make you believe that good can conquer all.

5. The Beguiled: Sophia Coppola’s remake of the Don Seigel/Clint Eastwood film of the same name is a soft poetic chamber piece. Going back to the themes she first explored in her debut film “Virgin Suicides”, this deals with female repression towards sexual awakenings but told as a thriller, when an injured Yankee officer is taken to an all girl school to recuperate. His presence seems to have a different effect on all the girls there until he might be seen as a threat. Coppola (Who won best director at Cannes) has a light touch on the tension being built here, slowlywith little to no music and using the claustrophobic setting to her advantage. This is a very effective art house thriller with great performances particularly by Nicole Kidman as the head mistress, and Kirsten Dunst as the head school teacher.

 

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The Long Goodbye

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Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” can be seen as an update of the film noir detective genre. He takes a very familiar character from 40s noir, Phillip Marlowe, who was portrayed by such film legends as Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, and Robert Montgomery among others and plants him right in the middle of 1970s counter-culture Los Angeles. The Marlowe seen in the earlier films was usually a white knight in a dark criminal world. He was incorruptible, and usually smarter than everyone else in the room. He was rarely fooled, and was always one step ahead of the criminal. But Altman shows us in the 1970s that his Marlowe is a man out of time, always one step behind the shades of grey characters he stumbles upon, sometimes bumbling onto scenarios he isn’t always in control of. However in the end he’s able to find a new moral code that may not fit so much with the old ways, but he’s still able to come out the hero.

“The Long Goodbye” was adapted from the 1953 Raymond Chandler novel of the same name and was written by Leigh Brackett who co-wrote that other Phillip Marlowe classic “The Big Sleep” which starred Humphrey Bogart as the titular character. Altman was known to play it loose with the script and was not afraid of having his actors improvise, however much of Brackett’s overall outline still lives on in the film, and she was reported to have been “satisfied” by it.

The new Marlowe for this strange world is played by Elliott Gould who to me feels like somewhat of a forgotten star of the 70s even though he made so many important films. We first see Gould’s Marlowe sleeping in his bed when he’s awoken by his hungry cat, for whom he goes to a 24 supermarket for in order to get its favorite cat food. It goes without saying Marlowe loves this cat and speaks to his character that he’s willing to go in the middle of the night in order that its fed.

It’s pretty soon after that Marlowe has to go to great lengths for another friend, this time a human named Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton). Terry wants Marlowe to drive him to Tijuana without much explanation other than a fight with his wife.  Marlowe hardly bats an eye, so being the dutiful friend obliges. The next morning, Marlowe is picked up by the police under suspicion of the murder of Lennox’s wife, then later he learns Lennox himself died from apparent suicide.

This doesn’t add up for Marlowe as the cops believe Lennox is the guilty party, but he constantly defends him. Pretty soon the labyrinth of a plot most accustomed to these types of movies begins to form. Marlowe is hired by the beautiful Mrs. Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) to find her husband Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden), a boisterous alcoholic writer, who is drying out and is at the mercy of a corrupt medical doctor (Henry Gibson). What is their connection to Lennox? There is also a violent gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) who Lennox owed money to and who thinks Marlowe knows where it is.

The mystery does all come together in the end, but the idea behind the film noir is really in how the story is told. There is the cliché of light and shadow during the old black and white days, while the detectives wore fedoras and trench coats with hazy cigarette smoke filling the screen. Altman plays with these tropes with Marlowe being the only one who is constantly smoking, while his neighbours, who are half-naked hippy girls, mostly meditate, eat hash brownies, and do yoga (this isn’t the time for the classic detective).

The film does have the hazy look which comes courtesy of the late great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who also shot Altman’s other genre-bender, the western “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”. Zsigmond shoots Los Angeles like a smoky landscape, very dreamlike complementing Altman’s roaming camera, as it zooms in and out on the people and places all the time. There are moments that seem unreal such as a prominent scene where the camera zooms away from a conversation between two people to focus on a major character in the background running into the ocean about to commit suicide. There is another important cut of violence involving a coke bottle and woman’s face which seems to come out of nowhere making it all the more shocking. Altman was not known for being a very violent director, but when he uses it in his movies, they are like a wake-up call that there is more at stake here than originally meets the eye.

Then there’s the music by John Williams. This is early John Williams before he would become Spielberg’s personal composer and writing for intergalactic space operas. Williams score for this is a smooth jazzy feel which adds to the haziness of the film. Along with that is the recurring title song written by Williams and Johnny Mercer. The song is weaved into the story used with different orchestrations and singers. It compliments the film almost as a hypnotic reminder of how Marlowe is running around in circles unsure of himself, chasing something that isn’t there.

Yet in the peripheral of this story, Altman is using his murder mystery as a sort of  commentary of 1970s America. We aren’t taken too far away from what Altman (A counter-culture hero) thinks is wrong with his country. There’s a reason Marlowe is so confused and can’t keep up with what’s going on, it’s a world that doesn’t make sense to him, a world that is full of people you can’t trust, even those who are close to you. Altman taps into a certain paranoia not seen in the earlier Marlowe iterations. Gould’s Marlowe is so mixed up, at one point he becomes drunk raving at the police and losing his cool, that’s not something Bogart would ever do, yet that’s the point, the times they are a’changin. However despite these changes, Marlowe is still the moral compass, he’s the one you can count on to see what’s right, he’s just having trouble trying to adjust which direction he should go.

I never lived in the 70s, I was born in 1980 so I just missed it. I can’t exactly understand what it would’ve been like to live in that decade but in terms of cinema, I’d like to think Robert Altman was what the 70s really meant to some people. Altman was probably the greatest filmmaker of that defining decade with a prolific filmography which averaged about 1 a year, that’s pretty impressive. Most of his films during that period dealt with America in a lot of ways. Altman sometimes revised many film genres or deconstructed them in order to comment on what America was at the time.  There was never a filmmaker like him, and probably never will be again.

 

Things I Saw In June

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Bit of a slow month for me, I only saw four new movies, but all very good.

Wonder Woman (2017) One of the best super hero films I’ve seen in a long, long, time. Gal Godot’s Amazon Princess is as pure, as selfless, and as righteous as Christopher Reeve’s Superman and thank God. For a genre as homgenized as the Super hero genre, this one felt like a breath of fresh air. Wonder Woman isn’t a complex character and the thrill of this movie is watching her be heroic. Godot shares great chemistry between love interest Chris Pine, and most of the supporting cast is well drawn out. 3 1/2 stars out of 4

The Virgin Suicides (1999) Sophia Coppola’s debut film about a group of sisters who are repressed by their uptight, religious parents and the boys on their street who become obsessed with them. This is visually stunning film like all of Coppola’s films filled with melacholey, but also a dark sense of humour. Kiersten Dunst is a stand-out as the most promiscuous one of the sisters, this is a beautiful film. 3 1/2 stars out of 4

Alien: Covenant (2017) Ridley Scott’s sequel to “Prometheus” is a fairly successful update to the “Alien” franchise, as it continues Scott’s themes of creation, and metaphysics. This is “Prometheus” but with more fan service. We see the Xenomorph in all its glory although the CGI version feels less scary than the original, also I feel Scott isn’t that interested in it. What is interesting is the dual role of Michael Fassbender as android David from the first film and as an updated version of him named Walter. David is the real villain of the film and Fassbender makes him very interesting. The rest of the cast is game too particularly Katherine Waterson taking over the Ripley helm. This film has a lot to say, and the visuals are rich. 3 stars out of 4

It Comes At Night (2017) A great movie that I have no interest in seeing again. This is a grim, dark, film that basically bummed me out in the end, but it is so well made, you have to give it points. Taking place in the near future where some virus has wiped out most of humanity, it follows one family who have locked themselves up in a house fending for themselves, while another family comes into their lives to complicate matters. The film is mostly a thriller concerning itself on the basis on how can you trust someone, and the lengths you will go through to protect your family, and if it’s all worth it in the end. This is all interesting stuff to bring up, although the results are pretty hard to take. I can’t say I enjoyed myself, but the tension is felt throughout and is so well put together, I couldn’t help but admire it, it’s just not a good time. 3 1/2 stars out of 4