By now, the outrageous sexting scandal that turned former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner from promising mayoral contender to political pariah has been covered so ad nauseam from the mainstream media, it’s hard to believe that there’s much more left to discover. His name has served as a punching bag for comedians and pundits everywhere but it seemed only inevitable that the details of the story would get buried under torrents of pun-laden headlines. The fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary Weiner by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg provides unprecedented access into just how tumultuous the ordeal was not only for Weiner’s personal and political life but for those closest to him as well.
After a lascivious Twitter photo forced Weiner to resign from Congress in 2011, his camp’s reaction was to lay low with the hopes of making a strong showing in the upcoming 2013 election for New York Mayor. The film charts his improbable rise to the top of the polls, bolstered by New York citizens eager to give the disgraced statesman a second chance despite underlying issues of trust and credibility. Just when it seems that a true comeback story is underway, the second wave of unsavory personal texts and photos emerge and send his campaign into a death spiral from which it would never recover.
Much like the coverage of the scandal that came to define its subject, this film has the sort of compulsively watchable, train-wreck quality to it that will no doubt have audiences wincing, gawking and nervously chuckling all at once. But because the scope is so focused on Weiner and his hopelessly outmatched campaign staff, it rarely comes across as sensationalized as the media scrutiny that is itself reflected in the story as well. All of the small moments of triumph and tragedy still feel personalized enough to retain the human scale of this unmitigated political disaster.
Much of this is encapsulated by the tense and often terse interactions between Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin, herself a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton with plenty at stake in her political career. The layers of pain and humiliation that she attempts to conceal not only from the news cameras but also from those filming her for the documentary is nothing short of heartbreaking. It’s fair to speculate why Abedin, having been put through such public indignation, would not only stay with Weiner but also take such an active role in trying to get him elected.
Late in the film, one of the documentarians literally asks its subject “why are you letting me film this?” It’s clear that Weiner doesn’t have a compelling answer. Is it because he’s a rampant narcissist, desperate for any means of attention, no matter how humiliating? Is it yet another political play, with the hopes that a “warts and all” approach will persuade future voters? Weiner doesn’t have overt answers to any of those questions, which may frustrate viewers who expect a condemnation or exoneration of its subject but should delight anyone seeking a compelling character study of a potentially unknowable public figure.
Pixar hops onto the often lucrative sequel train once again for Finding Dory, a long delayed follow-up to their hugely successful 2003 film Finding Nemo. Director and co-writer Andrew Stanton is back with a story that closely follows the narrative beats that worked for its predecessor but also touches on some darker and more mature themes that are a welcome departure from the frivolous tone of most animated adventures. It’s disappointing, then, that the movie jettisons most of these concepts in the final act for a more juvenile and inconsequential approach that comes off as goofy rather than grounded.
It’s one year after the events of Nemo and we are re-introduced to amnesiac blue fish Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) as she begins to have foggy flashbacks of her childhood and her long lost parents. She becomes determined to find them and her quest leads her to a coastal California aquarium, where she befriends the lovably gruff seven-legged octopus Hank (Ed O’Neill) and re-unites with her whale shark childhood friend Destiny (Kaitlin Olson). With the help of many other supporting characters, Dory traverses the obstacles of the frequently perilous Marine Life Institute in hopes of reuniting with her family.
One of the noticeable improvements on the original is the impeccable visual design that serves as a reminder for how quickly technology is advancing in the realm of animated filmmaking. If you had asked me 5 years ago what the best looking Pixar movie was, I probably would have said Finding Nemo but the level of photorealism that the studio has reached in their most recent efforts is nothing short of remarkable. Beyond just being aesthetically pleasing, the definition and the vibrancy behind these characters and settings also allows for some fun visual gags too, as when Hank uses his camouflage capabilities to seamlessly blend into his surroundings.
For all of the intelligence that went behind the look of this movie, it seems that there were other elements that were dumbed down in order to compensate. The premise essentially boils down to one primary motivation and while the contrivances that arise are sometimes clever and inventive, they eventually undermine basic principles of logic and physics that seem far-fetched for any animated film, much less one from Pixar. The overblown climax, which involves a car chase in which an octopus successfully drives a car on a highway, may be silly enough to work for smaller children but left cynical little adult me straining not to roll his eyes.
There are smaller scale setpieces that tend to fare much better, like Dory and Hank’s terrifying trip to a touch pool where children’s hands dart in from the water’s surface like jagged bolts of lightning. Even the quieter moments in Dory’s flashbacks, in which she struggles to recapture memories from her fragmented childhood, build to something even more poignant than the emotional center of Nemo. If Finding Dory had stuck to more sophisticated storytelling instead of panders to its younger audience, there’s no doubt that it would have been a more worthy and likely superior successor.
It seems New Zealand director Taika Waititi is on a roll after following up the funniest movie of last year, the vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows, with this utterly charming and heart-warming adventure comedy. Unlike most animated movies released these days, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a rare family entertainment that actually feels like it was made to work for every person in the family, regardless of how young or old they may be. It has the kind of intelligent storytelling and emotional framework that will earn the respect of the parents but also has plenty of sight gags and silliness to keep kids engaged too.
The story follows a rabble-rousing orphan boy named Ricky (Julian Dennison) as he is assigned by child welfare services to live with his foster Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) out in the New Zealand countryside. After an unexpected tragedy, Ricky learns that he will soon be taken back into government custody and in an act of defiance, he chooses to run away into the dense forest. Uncle Hec eventually finds Ricky in the woods but with both missing for a substantial amount of time, the public soon begins to fear that Hec has kidnapped Ricky and a national manhunt is undergone to retrieve the two.
Hec and Ricky are a classic pair of comedic opposites: the former is a quiet and reserved countryman focused solely on survival instincts while the latter is a troubled hooligan who compensates for his insecurities with a boisterous swagger and “gangster” affectations. As the straight man, Sam Neill has the perfect level of incredulity in each of his deadpan reactions and Julian Dennison’s antics are outrageous without veering into full-on obnoxious territory. The way that these two play off one another and eventually grow to understand each other resembled a more extreme version of the kind of relationship Carl and Russell had during the middle section of Pixar’s sublime Up.
This movie has a similar level of pathos and tender moments but it also packs in plenty of laughs along the way. There’s a certain strange, off-kilter quality to Waititi’s sense of humor that I personally find to be infectious and oddly inviting. Characters often use silence and “dead space” for longer than it seems like they should and those breaks give an unexpected timing to the punchlines when they do hit. When Bella sings an ebullient impromptu birthday song for Ricky, it’s Hec’s visible signs of discomfort and Ricky’s admirable show of support that keeps the ridiculous song from seeming tedious and needlessly drawn out.
With its playful tone and its rustic nature setting, I also found parallels to Wes Anderson’s coming-of-age movie Moonrise Kingdom, in which Tilda Swinton played an antagonist literally named “Social Services” who mirrors the hilariously unrelenting social worker played by Rachel House in this film. Flight of the Conchords favorite Rhys Darby even turns up briefly in the third act as a zany survivalist who isn’t quite as well prepared for sudden contingencies as he thinks he is. No matter what age you are, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is delightful entertainment through and through.
Jane Austen’s work has been brought to the screen countless times before but this adaptation of her posthumously released novel Lady Susan brings a new level of comedic prowess that may surprise those going in expecting another period costume drama. Love & Friendship does maintain Austen’s most prevalent themes of propriety and prosperity in 18th century England but does so with a savage wit and a cheeky playfulness to match. What’s more, this story also centers around a character who seems diametrically opposed to the morally virtuous heroines that have long been a trademark of Austen’s most iconic novels.
Kate Beckinsale gives what may be her best performance ever as the newly widowed Lady Susan Vernon, who wastes no time trying to find a new suitor and wishes to accomplish the same goal for her modest daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) in the process. While visiting the estate of her in-laws, she is pursued by the young and naive Reginald (Xavier Samuel) while Frederica is ineffectually paired with the hilarious dimwitted yet inexplicably wealthy Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). During her pursuit, Lady Susan has intermittent conversations with her American friend Alicia (Chloë Sevigny), who offers her own perspective on Susan’s affairs.
This is admittedly the first film that I’ve seen from director Whit Stillman, who previously directed both Beckinsale and Sevigny in 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, but I’m eager to discover some of his previous work. Beyond his expert handling of the characters and a consistent mood of whimsy, he also has stylistic touches that add just the right amount of personality without drawing too much attention to themselves. I was particularly fond of the unconventional way that characters were introduced towards the beginning, with a sequence of shots that feature each main player posing above captions that reveal their name and most notable characteristic.
Some of these more theatrical touches are accompanied by a looser and more modern feeling screenplay that’s both whip-smart and filled with plenty of dryly humorous moments. There are a host of clever one-liners and pointed bits of wordplay, primarily spoken by Lady Susan, that are capable of cutting characters to their core before they even realize what’s really being said to them. Beckinsale delivers these lines with a sort of polite viciousness that not only feels appropriate for the milieu but also underlines the manipulative and casually cruel nature of her character in a way that still makes her oddly likeable.
While Stillman’s script doesn’t touch on much in the way of character development and complex storytelling, it more than makes up for it with a crackling sense of verbosity. In a just world, we’ll be talking about this movie again next February for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. If anything, the dialogue is so packed and often spoken so deftly that I don’t doubt a re-watch or two (preferably with subtitles) would help me enjoy the film’s brilliant brand of banter even more. There’s something wickedly satisfying and utterly delightful about Love & Friendship that should allow both avid Austen fans and casual movie goers to effuse its accomplishments.
Provocative Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos makes his English language feature debut with The Lobster, a profoundly bizarre and strikingly original satire that’s equal parts pitch-black dark comedy and touching romantic drama. It’s a work steeped firmly in the absurdist and surrealist traditions that grows into something more gentle and empathetic (even whimsical at times) as the story progresses. If Luis Buñuel and Wes Anderson had the chance to collaborate with one another on a film, I’d like to think there’s a good chance it would have turned out something like this.
In a dystopian future where singledom is effectively outlawed, individuals who have not found a lifelong partner are required to stay at a “hotel” where they have 45 days to find a match or else they are transformed into an animal of their choosing. After his wife of 12 years leaves him, David (Colin Farrell, at his schlubbiest) reluctantly checks in with his brother, who unsuccessfully navigated the constraints of the system and was subsequently turned into a dog. During their stay, David meets two other guests (John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw) who seem just as hopelessly outmatched in their conquest for partnership.
When a trial romantic relationship takes an unexpected turn for the worst, David flees to a wooded area where a group of “loners” reside and meets a woman (Rachel Weisz) who seems to be the perfect fit for him. Despite the rebellious nature of these outcasts, it turns out that their code of anti-romanticism is strictly enforced by the group’s leader (Léa Seydoux) and any public signs of affections are expressly forbidden and ruthlessly punished. Thrust in between two systems of conflicting ideologies, David must reconcile his burgeoning new romance among an increasingly hostile environment.
The film’s brilliant premise, a devilishly clever take-down of western culture’s idolization of monogamy, is beautifully rendered throughout but has the most impact in the often hilarious first half of the story. It takes the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) societal pressures of getting married and takes them to comically outlandish measures, creating an oppressive system where single people are ostracized and literally hunted for sport just because they haven’t settled down yet. The indoctrination scenes in the hotel, where the staff puts on skits that further solidify the notion that being alone presents a danger to society and to one’s health, have a rich deadpan humor to them that most comedies are too lazy to even attempt.
These satirical elements have just the right amount of bite and fearless energy but the tender romance that blooms between Farrell and Weisz’s characters in the film’s second half has just as much power to it. While they can’t express themselves openly among the “loners” for fear of persecution, they have brief moments of respite when they travel into the city and are allowed to explore the longing that they have for one another, even if that just means holding hands while walking down the street. It’s these times that The Lobster finds just the right amount of heart to balance the cynical nature of its conceit and proves itself to be one of the most weirdly inspiring love stories since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Just when 20th Century Fox seemed to be back on track with the humongous hit that was Deadpool, they take a sizable step back to mediocrity with the staggeringly paint-by-numbers affair that is X-Men: Apocalypse. It’s unthinkable that such an outstanding ensemble cast, including some of the most talented young actors around, should be pinned down with such clunky dialogue and middling special effects work. Throw in some scatterbrained storytelling with a world-class bore of a supervillain and you have a recipe for one of the more forgettable entries in the X-Men franchise (and yes, I include the Wolverine movies in that list).
In a Gods Of Egypt-esque opening, we are introduced to the all-powerful mutant Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) as he is buried under an Egyptian pyramid thousands of years ago. After magical sunlight awakens him in 1983, he finds himself distraught with the current world order and seeks four mutants, including Magneto (Michael Fassbender), to help him regain the proper balance for a mutant hierarchy. It’s up to the X-Men team, led by Professor X (James McAvoy) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), to save humanity as we know it and stop Apocalypse and his Four Horsemen from global decimation.
With a plot this rote, a compelling antagonist could have potentially salvaged things but even a great actor like Isaac just can’t bring any personality or liveliness to his monotonous character. Buried under modulated vocals and layers of makeup, he doesn’t get much of a fair shot to weave any kind of nuances into his performance and instead draws from the same bank of indignation and sullenness with each line reading. His character’s plan and overall motivation is murky throughout and despite his ability to do just about anything, he is oddly much less threatening than other villains that are comparatively more limited.
Elsewhere, it seems another paradox has developed wherein the more characters are introduced in the X-Men series, the more they all tend to become indistinguishable from one another. Outside of their varied superpowers, each mutant seems to be trending toward one unified emotional state of angst and brooding, even though there isn’t an especially good reason for that to be the case. It’s plausible that it’s the effect of similarly glum YA adaptions like the Hunger Games series, which wouldn’t be a stretch since Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique is basically Katniss Everdeen in a different outfit when she gives a would-be empowering speech at this film’s conclusion.
It’s disappointing that director Bryan Singer, who led up three previous X-Men successes, just can’t seem to find the flavor and uniqueness to each of these characters beyond their main superpowers this time around. Some characters like Nightcrawler and Quicksilver (who has another humorous slow-motion scene that recalls the Days of Future Past sequence) break the mold sporadically but don’t get enough room to breathe with all of the existing clutter. X-Men: Apocalypse just has too many objects up in the air and unlike one of its hypothetical mutants, not enough arms to juggle them all successfully.
Based on J.G. Ballard’s dystopian science-fiction novel of the same name, High-Rise is a baffling mess of a film that begins with glimmers of promise that slowly give way to increasingly turbulent waves of disappointment and, ultimately, dissatisfaction. It works so hard to come across as a scathing social commentary about class warfare and urban decay but director Ben Wheatley doesn’t articulate any of his points with any kind of original perspective or even with much coherence in the first place. He seems almost willful in his attempts to muddle any possible character motivation or to obscure promising narrative threads for the sake of being “unconventional” in his storytelling. If that seems like a frustrating proposition, that’s because it certainly is.
We are introduced to Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) 3 months after he checks into a luxurious high-rise tower block, where living conditions appear to have descended into total chaos. We then flash back to the chronological beginning (a cinematic convention that I’m starting to loathe) to find Laing moving into an apartment on the 25th floor of the comparatively civilized complex. Beyond the favorable living quarters, the building also sports higher level amenities such as a built-in supermarket and even a primary school, ensuring that tenants hardly ever have to leave the premises.
Shortly after moving in, he strikes up a relationship with single mother Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and a friendship with pregnant couple Richard (Luke Evans) and Helen (Elisabeth Moss). We soon learn of a hierarchy that exists within the high-rise, where members of the upper class, led by the building’s architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), are rewarded with higher level accommodations while those in the middle and lower class fare in the lower dwelling apartments. This disparity, along with continuous power failures that disproportionately affect the lower class tenants, causes dissension and outbursts of violence throughout the tower.
As the anarchy picks up, Wheatley and his screenwriter Amy Jump concoct scenes that seem to have very little consequence or bearing on the tenuous narrative at hand. Unsurprisingly, repetitive shots of tenants (edited at an obnoxiously swift pace by Wheatley and Jump) engaging in drunken dances at wild parties don’t add up to an especially interesting story. Any advances to the plot, as when one character mandates that another character undergo a lobotomy, seem to come completely out of left field and don’t allow for any kind of engagement with the characters on an emotional or psychological level.
The high points of the film come down to spot-on, chic 1970s set design and Laurie Rose’s steely-eyed, often breathtaking cinematography but there’s not much to grab onto outside of aesthetics. Even the usually brilliant Clint Mansell can’t find his footing with a musical score that meanders through various genres without building any kind of memorable motifs in the process, although two instances of ABBA’s pop song “SOS” are used creatively in back-to-back scenes. There may be a method to High-Rise‘s madness but as long as the storyteller remains so unwilling to meet the viewer halfway, there’s no good reason to seek it out.
After a brief detour in the superhero realm with Iron Man 3, writer/director Shane Black returns to his buddy cop movie roots with The Nice Guys, a hilarious new detective comedy set in the decadent playground of 1970s Los Angeles. Ryan Gosling stars as Holland March, a bumbling private investigator who crosses paths with thug-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) while looking into the disappearance of a young girl. Despite an initial confrontation between March and Healy that leaves the former with a broken arm, the two eventually pair together to find the missing suspect while also uncovering a larger criminal conspiracy in the process.
The plotting grows increasingly dubious as the story progress but clearly the film’s biggest asset is the powerful comedic chemistry between its leads, which is surprising given the past work from the two actors. Gosling has done some comedies before, most recently last year’s The Big Short, but he’s still most notable for his dramatic roles and as far as I can tell, this is the first time that Crowe has ever been involved with a comedy or at least had a comedic role. Both come across as complete naturals and form the kind of believable bond that’s so important for a movie like this to succeed.
Gosling gets the juicer role in terms of comedic opportunities and he does a near genius level style of physical comedy in scene after scene. Sure, he gets plenty of quippy one-liners and back-and-forth banter with Crowe but he shines most when he’s tasked with some truly outlandish choreography. The most clear example of this is a bathroom sequence in which March, in an attempt to ambush Healy, fumbles for his gun while simultaneously trying to hold open the stall door and extinguish a lit cigarette that’s fallen into his pants while he’s also sitting on the toilet. Quite a bit to manage.
Meanwhile, Crowe mainly plays the straight man to Gosling’s lovable goofball but he doesn’t take things so seriously that he seems out of place or uncomfortable, even during some of the more ludicrous turns in the story. An early voiceover establishes Healy as a man who hasn’t quite found his place in life yet and as someone who is trying to find the good within himself but Crowe doesn’t burden the character too much with issues of the past. Healy has just the right amount of groundedness to make March’s pratfalls seem even more ridiculous by comparison.
I shouldn’t neglect what could be the film’s secret weapon: a 13-year-old Australian actress named Angourie Rice, who plays March’s daughter Holly and serves as the closest thing to the movie’s moral conscience. She gives a confident and smart breakout performance and her character’s lack of cynicism amid troubling circumstances gives the story a more humanizing angle than it probably deserves. It’s about one or two re-writes away from being a much tighter and most likely a funnier film overall but as it is, The Nice Guys is fast, loose and plenty of good fun.
The life and career of jazz trumpet legend Chet Baker was characterized by the kind of sublime highs and devastating lows that made an eventual movie about his story almost an inevitability. However, in the willfully unconventional music biopic Born To Be Blue, director Robert Budreau encapsulates these highlights and lowlights into a single redemptive arc that’s meant to exemplify the spirit of his subject rather that rattle off each detail of his life. Like last year’s superb Love & Mercy, it taps into the musician’s impulse of to create (and destroy) but also accepts the aspects of artists that are, to some degree, unknowable.
The story is told primarily from 1966, where Baker (Ethan Hawke) is cast as himself in a movie about his earlier years in jazz and an up-and-coming actress Jane Azuka (Carmen Ejogo) is cast as his romantic interest. Baker and Azuka begin seeing each other off-screen as well but at the end of their first date, an assault in a parking lot leaves Baker badly beaten and without the use of his front teeth. This setback forces Baker to effectively re-learn how to play his instrument and the film chronicles his slow recovery and hopeful return to the jazz limelight.
Baker’s longtime addiction to heroin is also a critical element examined in the film but rather than explain away the nature of his dependency, Budreau takes a refreshingly ambiguous stance on the role that drugs played in Baker’s life. In this genre, it can be commonplace for directors to chastise their subjects for their drug use but he instead embraces it as crucial piece of Baker’s being. A transfixing early shot of a tarantula crawling out of the bell of a trumpet serves as a haunting metaphor for Baker’s inner pain but the psychology behind his decision-making isn’t made as blatant as it could have been.
Hawke gives a similarly enigmatic and yet somehow also charismatic performance in a role that beautifully captures the wounded spirit of a perpetually driven artist. He gives us the sense that even Baker may not know why he wants what he wants but his unwavering determination to his craft is enough for us to root for him to reach his goal, no matter how elusive it may seem to be. Ejogo is also terrific not only as a woman who is Baker’s main source of support but also as a determined young actress with her own drive and career ambitions to consider.
The film’s faults come largely from Budreau’s tendency to let the story get in the way of these performances and also his adherence to a narrative structure that almost seems deliberate in its efforts to throw the viewer off course. In terms of chronology, the first ten minutes are much more muddled and meandering than they really need to be but thankfully, things get much more sure-footed as the story progresses. It leads up to a final scene that is nearly note-perfect and gives Born To Be Blue a fitting denouement to Baker’s troubled and ultimately tragic legacy.
Captain America: Civil War, the latest offering from the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, is technically the third film in the Captain America series but given its inclusion of so many of the studio’s other superhero characters, it plays more like a semi-sequel to Avengers: Age of Ultron (The Avengers 2.5, let’s say). As such, it’s the most narratively dense and potentially overwhelming Marvel movie to date but it’s also the most morally ambiguous and dramatically ambitious entry thus far. The important part is that despite the heaviness of the story and its themes, there are also counterpoints of levity and dazzling action setpieces that strike up a sound balance of enlightenment and entertainment.
The story picks up after the disastrous events in Sokovia from Ultron and following a more recent incident in Lagos that left unexpected civilian causalities, the actions of the Avengers are being scrutinized more thoroughly than ever before. The United Nations puts forth an act that calls for more oversight and regulation for those with “advanced abilities”, which Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) views as a sensible guideline of personal responsibility but Captain America (Chris Evans) sees as an oppressive measure of over-regulation. This ideological rift, among other factors, leads to a showdown between Team Captain and Team Iron Man (involving too many superheros to name here) that threatens to permanently tear the Avengers team apart.
Those uninitiated with the MCU and the events of the preceding films will likely be completely lost within the first 10 minutes of Civil War and even if you are a more-than-casual fan like myself, you may still find yourself misplacing certain characters or trying to recall previous plot points during its lengthy runtime. What’s important here is that directors Anthony and Joe Russo tell their story with respect to the intelligence of their audience regardless of how familiar they are with each facet of the Marvel world. Of course rigorous superfans will likely get the most out of the experience but even first-time viewers should find plenty to enjoy among the well-choreographed fight sequences and the reliable acting talents of the impressive ensemble cast.
One of the most refreshing elements of this film is the emphasis of accountability that has been breached in several other superhero movies before but not to the degree to which it’s examined here. On the basis of entertainment, we continually watch these characters lay waste to one major city after another but Civil War tactfully explores the residual effects that these catastrophes have on the ordinary people who occupy those affected areas. When the mother of a son who died in the Sokovia incident confronts Tony Stark after he gives an impassioned speech, it reaches a level of poignancy and groundedness that is uncommon among other films of this genre.
Without delving much more into the elaborate storyline, I should mention just how happy I was with the ultimate villain of this film. Between Age of Ultron‘s Ultron to Ant-Man‘s Yellowjacket (not to mention whoever the villain of Guardians of the Galaxy was), Marvel has been seriously lacking in the compelling bad guy department but Civil War brings about the most satisfying antagonist since Loki in The Avengers. In the words of Roger Ebert, “each film is only as good as its villain” and I’m happy to report that both are first-rate.