KPK on the CINEMA: (December 2016)

Cinema

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> With the year coming to a close, I think it’s safe to pronounce this year’s crop of films as somewhat lesser than the bumper harvest of last year. I’m seeing some good stuff from 2016, but looking at the upcoming Oscar contenders, I am not feeling nearly as excited as last year. Last year there were 8 Best Picture nominees, and 7 of them deserved to be on the list. I’ll be curious to see if this year’s Best Pic list looks half as impressive. (It didn’t.) (A reminder: all films are rated on a 5 star basis, and a classic only becomes a classic after a decade or more.)

> This time, we explore the following 16 entertainments:

HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE  (2016) ***+

HAIL CAESAR!  (2016) ****+

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT  (2016) ***+

HELL OR HIGH WATER  (2016) ****

PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW  (2016) ****+

MILES AHEAD  (2016) ***

DESTINATION PLANET NEGRO  (2013) **+

SPEEDY  (1928) ****

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP  (2016) ***+

ALICE IN WONDERLAND  (1933) *****

UNBROKEN  (2014) ***+

KES  (1969) ****+

LO & BEHOLD: Reveries of the Connected World  (2016) ****+

SHAUN OF THE SHEEP MOVIE  (2015) ****+

A SHOT IN THE DARK  (1964) *****

IN TIME  (2011) ***+

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE  (2016) ***+

A bit of fun from comic Kiwi Taika Waititi, the fractured genius behind loony vampire mocumentary WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, this gentle comedy tells the story of Ricky, a troubled, spoilt city orphan in the clutches of the state’s impersonal and unfeeling child welfare machinery, who gets his “last chance” living with a couple of hardscrabble rural settlers. One look around the farm and he makes a beeline back to the car. But of course, we know this angry, self-absorbed rebel has finally landed in the right place- in a home driven by love and overseen by a powerhouse of a matriarch, who appears ready to love and accept him wholeheartedly. Rima Te Wiata is a force of nature in the role, lustily embracing life whether she is cooking her boys a meal or attacking and slaughtering a wild pig with a CROCODILE DUNDEE knife. Her mate? Not so much. Hec is the type of crusty curmudgeon Sam Neill has made a cottage industry out of playing. He could do this man in his sleep. It’s a character he’s done before, (JURASSIC PARK comes to mind), and he will no doubt do again, as he ages into being typecast into the ornery grandpa cliché. Hec just wants to be left alone. Being a foster parent was certainly not his idea! But when tragedy strikes, like it or not, it’s just Hec and Ricky- a completely unlikely duo, learning to tolerate each other and become interdependent. They take to the wilderness, (hence “wilder-people”), to escape the wrath of a driven, vindictive child welfare bureaucrat who is played as a two-dimensional cartoon, becoming national celebrities in the process. As I write this, I realize that despite its flaws of predictability, this film was as fun to watch as it sounds. Sam Neill is just so damn good in anything. You can just feel his Hec warming to Ricky against his better judgment. He makes the awkward, clichéd hug at the resolution almost believable. Nice ending too. Taika Waititi is a director to keep an eye on.

HAIL CAESAR!  (2016) ****+

Hail the brothers Cohen, they’ve done it again! If the unqualified THE BIG LABOWSKI deserves to be a cult hit, this certainly does. I savored every scene of this story of the kidnap of a big studio star by a secret, and very civilized cabal of lefty commies. Great cast, as usual- all of whom seem to be having a blast working for this consistently inspired duo. George Clooney does his best deer-in-the-headlight simpleton, as the star who gradually succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome with his very courteous captors. HAIL CAESAR! doesn’t break any new ground for the inventive brothers, and it’s not quite O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU, but I just enjoyed the hell out of it.

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT  (2016) ***+

Tina Fey, (name above title,) stars in this biopic taken from journalist Kim Baker’s book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s a seriocomic trip through the absurdities of trying to carry on journalism in an active war zone. Along for the almost surreal ride: Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton and an especially oily Alfred Molina as a corrupt politician attempting to trade access to power for sex. Tina Fey is good, as always, playing this bored copy writer who ditched her predictable life behind a desk to risk her life as a war correspondent in the center of the powderkeg. According to the Oracle Wikipedia, the title represents the NATO phonetic alphabet letters “WTF”, military slang for “What The Fuck”. Sounds about right! WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT didn’t garner much attention, but it’s good stuff.

HELL OR HIGH WATER  (2016) ****

This excellent modern crime drama is the only Best Picture nominee I’ve seen at the time of writing this, and it’s a pretty sophisticated choice. Two brothers are about to loose the family ranch to bank foreclosure. Out of desperation, they decide to turn the tables and in effect ironically “foreclose” on the bank, by robbing its various branches to pay the mortgage debt. Ben Foster and Chris Pine are both very solid and convincing in a subtly literate script that feels like Cormac McCarthy at his best. Throw Jeff Bridges into the role of ornery Texas Ranger in hot pursuit, and you have a real gem of a modern “western”. Of course it’s the same role he always plays in the twilight of his career, with slight variations in different movies. That’s okay. Nobody does Jeff Bridges like Jeff Bridges… (unless it’s Sam Neill or Tommy Lee Jones, all of whom have calcified into ornery curmudgeon stereotypes). The stakes get very high here, as things get increasingly serious in this tense cat-and-mouse game, and the end is an intellectual mindfuck- but as intellectual mindfucks go, it’s pretty good.

PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW  (2016) ****+

I enjoyed this biopic of a sensitive, vulnerable young artist coming into her own so much I was almost evangelistic about it. I became teary-eyed several times with empathy for the striving songstress who calls herself “Princess Shaw”. Hers is a truly astonishing tale that could only happen in the Internet age. Ms. Shaw is a young African American woman struggling to make ends meet in a hardscrabble world. It’s tough going- made that much harder by the dark shadow of physical and sexual abuse from her past. She has little but her faith in herself and an inner voice that drives her on ceaselessly. While struggling to navigate the unpredictable vicissitudes of life, our “princess” frequents open mikes at various New Orleans venues, singing her heart out to virtually empty houses. It’s all very disheartening. But big things are afoot for Princess Shaw. Something is quietly changing her life behind the scenes and completely off her radar. She posts updates for her virtual fans on YouTube, including plaintive a cappella versions of her compositions, and unbeknownst to her, halfway around the world in an Israeli kibbutz, a unique recording artist named “Kutiman” has been so inspired by one, he is turning it into a fully-produced track that artfully brings out the inherent beauty in Ms. Shaw’s heartfelt composition. It’s his thing- what Kutiman does. Sort of a mash-up artist, Kutiman searches the Internet for undeveloped material then, seeking neither approval or profit, he “borrows” musical snippets that have been freely shared online and mixes them together into a whole new entity. We eavesdrop on the thrill of a lifetime as a unique, gifted but unheralded artist suddenly discovers that she has an unknown guardian angel she has never met, from a country she has never visited, who has taken her song and made it into an Internet sensation. The news comes in a text from a friend. Did she know she had a viral hit on the World Wide Web? No? She does! This is a perfect expression of the (mostly imaginary) American dream: an alternate reality where talent and sincerity are enough to bring major success. Normally, success has little to do with talent and nothing at all to do with sincerity. As a lifetime struggling artist who almost certainly will never know what real “success” tastes like, this film is a beautiful dream. If only every deserving artist had their own Kutiman! In watching this beautiful success story, one cannot help but come away with a warm glow of delight. See it! Be delighted! (You can find the viral clip that changes Princess Shaw’s world at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WoHxoz_0ykI .)

MILES AHEAD  (2016) ***

I am a major jazz lover, though less familiar with Miles Davis than many jazzmen, as I find some of his music kind of cold and technical. Loved KINDA BLUE and SKETCHES OF SPAIN though, and interested in BITCHES BREW. So I was looking forward to this biopic of the legendary horn player. Don Cheadle certainly seemed to be the right man for the job- and he made the project happen from the ground up. And he was good. The film was good. But it certainly did not feel like the definitive biography of this seminal and enigmatic jazz icon. It was just enough to wet my whistle. The music was great. There just didn’t seem to be enough of it, surprisingly. This felt like Miles Davis 101. I’m ready for something with a bit more meat in it.

DESTINATION PLANET NEGRO  (2013) **+

This was a fun, goofy, racial satire that played to its strengths by embracing the B-movie idiom, making its amateurishness seem intentional. (I used the same strategy with my unfinished film NIGHTMARE AT BOOMER’S CASTLE. I knew that no matter how hard we tried to make everything look professional, the film would end up looking like what it was: a flawed, uneven first out-of-the-box effort.) The amusingly silly premise: It is 1939. The country is locked in the grip of Jim Crow racism. A council of high-powered black Americans convenes to discuss the failure of their community to achieve social justice in America and across the planet. All are despairing that an equal and colorblind society is even possible on earth, so a proposal is floated to simply leave. Since black folks would never be welcome in their own world, they decide to send an expedition to Mars to begin extra-terrestrial relocation to the “Planet Negro” of the cheeky title. Aided by brilliant scientist George Washington Carver, they board the custom-built spacecraft and have a successful launch. But they are not carried to Mars at all, entering a wormhole that brings them forward in time to the present day. It’s another “fish out of water” parable, enabling us to see how much things have changed for black people in America- and at the same time: how little has changed for black people in America.

SPEEDY  (1928) ****

Harold Lloyd is probably best remembered for the scene in the silent classic SAFETY LAST! where he hangs precariously by the moving hands of a clock, high atop what passed for a skyscraper in 1923. Lloyd was an extraordinary physical stuntman, in the vein of sad-eyed Buster Keaton, but more handsome and sporting more of an average Joe persona. This is Lloyd’s final silent flick, and it has got to be one of his best. Watching the stunt work here, it is absolutely amazing to contemplate the fact that all this was done without CGI. No digital trickery here, the actors appear to be taking their lives in their hands in nearly every sequence. 1928 is well before industry safety standards and best practices were established, and many stuntmen of the early cinema paid a high price for their cinematic derring-do- some gave their lives to get a great shot. In this cinematic treasure, Mr. Lloyd plays Harold “Speedy” Swift, a brash, supremely self-confident young man who can’t seem to hold down a steady job. No worries! There is always more work on the horizon, and in that optimistic American way, Speedy is convinced personal success is always just around the corner. He takes a job driving the last horse-drawn carriage in New York City, but his Big Business nemesis (an early example of an archetype that has become so ubiquitous in modern films it has become cliché), is out to stop him by any means possible. His business license hangs precariously in the balance, as it is dependent on the assigned route being completed on a daily basis, and Big Bad Businessman is doing everything in his power to prevent this. It all comes down to the final reel- a nailbiting action sequence that follows our hapless buggy driver as he careens through New York City traffic hellbent on reaching the end of the line before the deadline passes, with one unwilling passenger in tow- Babe Ruth himself! As you might imagine, this final chase scene is great stuff, and while it may not be SAFETY LAST, SPEEDY ended the silent era on a high note that still thrills today.

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP  (2016) ***+

This Jane Austin derived comedy of manners was a light pleasure to watch. Kate Beckinsale commanded the screen with savvy authority in her role as the conniving Lady Susan Vernon. Chloë Sevigny as her American confidante didn’t fare quite as well. I don’t know why, (THE BROWN BUNNY, perhaps?), but I see her as such a modern woman that it’s hard to accept her in a period piece. These mannered affairs usually seem to work better in theory than they do in practice. That is to say, these romantic novels from another era are difficult to translate successfully for modern audiences, but this one does a pretty good job. Unfortunately, the end felt a bit rushed and flat- but perhaps the whole conceit had worn a bit thin by then.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND  (1933) *****

I found this title in my awesome local library, in a collection of W. C. Fields films and having never seen this version, I took it home to give it a spin. Good thing I did! This was easily one of the best incarnations of the Louis Carroll Alice books I’ve ever seen, in that it really gets to the heart of the absurdity. Joseph L. Mankiewicz co-wrote a screenplay that doesn’t sacrifice faithfulness to the source material for dramatic structure or even simple coherence. It’s a literal interpretation of the great absurdist books, featuring familiar character actors of the time in full animal costume. Mostly live action, there is one animated sequence that tells the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter in the cartoon idiom of the time. This ALICE is very visual and inventive for the early 30’s, and what a cast! Other than seeing Fields delightfully cast as Humpty Dumpty, we also get Edward Everett Horton as the perfect Mad Hatter, (beats the hell out of Johnny Depp!), a weepy Cary Grant under a giant shell as the Mock Turtle, and Gary Cooper in battered armor as the kindly but hapless White Knight. Greatness.

UNBROKEN  (2014) ***+

Angelina Jolie shows that yes, she really can direct a film. She’s only made two so far, and I never saw her first, (LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY), but this one has moments of transcendent cinema that match the very best of its genre, a theme I would summarize as “rising above unimaginable adversity to prosper and achieve great success”. It’s a dynamite script, and with the Coen brothers in on the team, it’s no surprise. Here, Jolie rather masterfully tells the story of Louie Zamperini, 1936 Olympic track medalist and Japanese prisoner of war. But plenty of bad stuff happens to our hero before he even gets to be tortured by a sadistic Japanese commandant. He has to endure being stranded at sea for 47 death-defying days for starters, and though we know he survives to face worse obstacles, we don’t know the same of his companions, and this part of the tale is extremely tense and riveting in a horrific way. Irish marvel Domhnall Gleeson gives another memorable performance as Louie’s pal enduring the succession of unimaginable hardships with him. (This guy is having a busy 2017. He has six films in post-production right now!) The scenes in various P.O.W. camps tend to drag on and get a bit repetitive, but the coda at the end revealing the real-life fates of the characters makes up for it with triumphant heart and bitter irony.

KES  (1969) ****+

Another library find, this timepiece about a tormented 15 year old outcast and the wild kestrel he captures and trains, was helmed by the singular indie craftsman Ken Loach. It paints a fairly bleak portrait of life in an English mining town in a time when coal is in decline, and the future, uncertain. Our hero Billy gets it from every side: bullied at home by his brutish brother and at school by vicious classmates and abusive teachers, he rebels through petty crime. Young David Bradley is quietly wonderful in the title role. His performance is so low key and authentic as to be completely disarming. Here is a child actor who never appears to be acting. He simply is Billy. It’s a performance that grabs our heartstrings almost at once. Stealing a book about falconry, he captures “Kes” and they set about training each other. As one might expect, Kes brings a rare ray of sunshine and hope to Billy’s dreary world… until things go horribly, wrenchingly awry. Total Film Magazine included it on a list of ‘30 Most Depressing Movies’ of all time. No surprise. The ending is an act of cruelty to Billy that is so devastating one wonders why Ken Loach would want to make such a film. Indeed, it was a box office dog. People just couldn’t get beyond the thick Yorkshire accents and needless tragedy. It’s also listed by the British Film Institute as one of the 100 best British films of the last century. I get that. But did the ending really have to be such a fuckin’ bummer? Yeah, I guess so.

LO & BEHOLD: Reveries of the Connected World  (2016) ****+

Was Warner Herzog the right man to make a documentary about the huge, complicated subject of the Internet and the way the World Wide Web changed everything forever? Apparently, yes. This rumination on the cultural implications and repercussions of this new connected world shows the great filmmaker at the peak of his powers. Herzog may just be the greatest living documentarian. To the public he may be best known for his flamboyant personality and his fiction films like the great FITZCARRALDO, AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD and THE ENIGMA OF KASPAR HAUSER, but this is the genius who brought us THE WHITE DIAMOND, LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY, MY BEST FIEND: KLAUS KINSKI, LESSONS OF DARKNESS, FATA MORGANA, INTO THE ABYSS, INTO THE INFERNO and GRIZZLY MAN. That’s a whole mess o’ genius! And while Herzog occasionally manages to go way over the top in strange, inscrutable tangents that often seem strangely random, (witness the segment on albino alligators in CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS), there is refreshingly little of that in evidence here. This is such a vast and complex subject, he had to divide the film into discrete units that each examine one aspect of this game-changing technology. It’s fascinating throughout, but so dense with ideas it welcomes a second or third viewing to take in all the information and life-changing implications, many still to come. Great stuff, Werner! So much to contemplate. Thanks!

SHAUN OF THE SHEEP MOVIE  (2015) ****+

Nick Park and the team at independent Aardman Studios, (the brains behind beloved duo Wallace and Gromit and the sublime CHICKEN RUN), take their popular stop-motion British kid’s TV show and expand it for the big screen, with delightful results. For me, although wholly unfamiliar with the original source, this worked better than the somewhat disappointing CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT in 2005. In fact, it was an absolute delight from start to finish. Cleverly, there is virtually no dialogue, so we adults are not faced with overcoming our natural resistance to anthropomorphized talking animals. The plot revolves around our hero Shaun and his entourage traveling to the big city to rescue their amnesiac farmer while pursued by a single-minded animal control officer. So much fun! Look at how many stars I gave it!

A SHOT IN THE DARK  (1964) *****

I love it when a purported “classic” actually turns out to be what it is touted to be. I enjoyed Blake Edward’s THE PINK PANTHER quite a lot when I saw it as a child- though it doesn’t hold up as well through adult eyes. But this first of many sequels is possibly superior to the original. A SHOT IN THE DARK began as a play. Perhaps this is why it is so good. The script had time to be developed and tested before live audiences long before it was reimagined as a film. In any case, it’s broad, silly fun- miles better than any of the many retreads that followed, and Peter Sellers is of course, a total goofball delight. Elke Sommer is nice to look at too! Classic!

IN TIME  (2011) ***+

This sci-fi confection came and went with barely a whisper, but it’s much better than this suggests. Pretty actors Amanda Seyfried and Justin Timberlake both acquit themselves nicely in yet another dystopian vision of a nightmare future- a relatively new genre unto itself. In this nasty alt-world, dark societal forces have reprogrammed human genetic code to stop aging when people reach 25, at which point a terrible countdown begins, where one’s longevity is determined by the extent of their wealth. Like it or not, you are engineered to live only one more year, unless you have the means to “buy”, trade, or win time. It’s a very clever script that consistently comes up with thoughtful details of how a society that sees time as a commodity might manifest itself. Particularly interesting is the way language has morphed to represent the new reality. Timberlake is over 25. Not being in the privileged class that can afford to buy virtual immortality, he has to live by his wits, and though the poor are dying in the streets around him, he manages to scrape by fighting and gambling with the only thing he has to lose: his remaining time. But when he finds himself accused of murder he has to go on the lam against a relentless timecop with the single-minded determination of Les Miserables’ Inspector Javert, well played by a steely cold Cillian Murphy. (He’s always good.) Seyfried becomes our rebel hero’s influential hostage and inevitable ally in fighting the power that dooms the poor to brief, desperate lives. Pretty good!

> WHICH brings my movie-viewing year to an entertained, but less than overwhelmed end. Now that I am not plugged into Neflix, I find that I don’t watch nearly as many films as I used to. My ‘TO SEE’ list grows longer by the day… I’ll never live long enough to get around to seeing them all. The Big Prestige Films of the 2016 holiday season have eluded me, for the most part- as last December I could just not afford to go to the movies. The two films that are shaping up as the biggest Best Picture Oscar nominees are MOONLIGHT and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Both are high on my library queue. All in all, 2016 was not a bad year for movies- but it was certainly dwarfed by the year that came before. 2015 was one of the best years for movies since they became a part of popular culture. Until next time: Vive Cine, dear ones!

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© Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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About KPKeelan

Fool, Philosopher, Lover & Dreamer, Benign TROUBLEMAKER, King and Jester of KPKworld, an online portal to visual and linguistic mystery, befuddlement and delight.
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