Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Review: Blue Jay

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Blue Jay is, in some ways, a very simple film. With just two actors on screen for almost the entire runtime, a black-and-white colour palette, and an almost non-existent narrative, it’s a masterclass in barebones cinema. Think of a quiet, low-budget indie film. Now think of a film even more stripped down than that, and you have something approximating Blue Jay.

However, it’s also a film that is a bit difficult to describe. The plot is simple – two former high school sweethearts, Jim and Amanda, unexpectedly meet again 20 years later and spend a day catching up – but the reason it’s actually interesting is much more complicated to define.

A big part of the reason is lead actors Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson, who imbue their performances with such lived-in believability that you never question Jim and Amanda’s past together, or why they’d be intrigued at the prospect of hanging out again. There is an immediate tenderness to the pair’s chemistry that allows the viewer to buy in to their shared past and also nicely lends credence to some later plot reveals about why the pair’s teenage romance fell apart in the first place.

Another thing the film certainly has going for it is the Duplass touch. Blue Jay is the first of four films that Mark Duplass and his brother Jay are producing for Netflix, and Mark also wrote the script. It has the same micro-melancholy feel of other Duplass brother joints, such as 2012’s Jeff Who Lives at Home and 2011’s Cyrus. But while the brothers directed those other two films themselves, Blue Jay is actually the debut narrative directorial effort from cinematographer Alex Lehmann. By the Duplasses handing over the directing duties to someone who, frankly, has a much stronger eye for composition and cinematography than they do, Blue Jay has a visual beauty that their other films have lacked. The black-and-white cinematography is clean and surprisingly unobtrusive, lending the film a bit of extra, albeit gentle, emotional heft.

Blue Jay has an emotional core that feels genuinely melancholy without ever being melodramatic or self-pitying. It’s the little character touches – for example, Jim’s tendency to cry at nearly anything versus Amanda’s unshakable reserve – that make them feel like real people with a full life’s worth of history, rather than characters created solely for the purpose of a self-contained film. The filmmakers tap into something authentic and intimate in a way that is rarely captured on screen.

The film bound to draw comparisons to Linklater’s Before Sunrise series, and there is a “walk and talk” quality to Blue Jay that makes the comparison apt, as does the film’s limited timeframe. However, while Linklater’s trilogy is full of acerbic dialogue between its two notably articulate protagonists, Blue Jay revels in its own regularity. The conversations between Jim and Amanda feel like discussions anyone could have. That’s not to say that they’re banal, but the film’s emphasis on improvisation allows Duplass and Paulson to explore in a way that feels very natural. The result is something that feels a little less polished, but perhaps all the more emotionally raw because of it.

The old “I laughed, I cried” cliché has maybe never been more true for me than it was with Blue Jay. It’s a film rich in universal truths and an almost indescribable sadness, despite the fact that it comes in such a charming package, courtesy of Duplass and Paulson’s on-screen chemistry. It’s a small film, but don’t let it pass you by.

Amanda Knox (2016)

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Even if you don’t know all the details of the Amanda Knox trial, you undoubtedly know the name, and there’s a good chance you also have an opinion as to whether or not Knox was guilty. But while Amanda Knox the person tends to incite strong, declarative feelings in people, Amanda Knox the documentary aims to temper those convictions, shying away from the binary, knee-jerk sensationalism that largely surrounded the case itself, instead opting to take a more even-keeled approach.

This new documentary from Brian McGinn and Rod Blackhurst delves into the years-long legal journey of Amanda Knox, who in 2007 was a 20-year-old student living abroad in Italy when her roommate, Meredith Kercher, was brutally murdered in the house the two young women shared. Knox and her then boyfriend became suspects in the case and were initially convicted and later acquitted during a lengthy court battle. McGinn and Blackhurst take the viewer through each step of the process, combining archival footage with moodily shot B-roll and present-day talking head interviews with key figures in the trial, including Knox herself.

It must be said, the construction of this film is incredibly slick. At a slight 92 minutes, it manages to give an impressively fulsome view of the case, covering not just the legal facts, but also many of the grey areas that ultimately shaped how things played out. Perhaps most notably this includes some sobering exploration of the media’s relentless search for tabloid fodder (relayed gleefully by Nick Pisa, an almost cartoonishly slimy Daily Mail journalist who covered the Knox case). It also tackles the unavoidable topic of how Amanda’s looks, sexuality, and status as a young woman played into the public’s perception of the case, and may have ultimately impacted the verdict. And perhaps most arrestingly, Amanda Knox even manages to shed some light on who Amanda is as a person, showing us her modest life back in Seattle and allowing Amanda to share the very mixed emotions she holds about the ordeal.

Considering how complicated and often frustratingly ambiguous the trial turned out to be, this is all a hell of a lot to pack into 92 minutes. And for the most part, it goes down smoothly, zipping along at a good clip while also filling in the blanks for viewers (like me) who previously knew little about the case beyond the basic facts. But while it covers all of its bases in a propulsive way, the pace of the film makes Amanda Knox sometimes feel more like an overview than a completely comprehensive look at the story. As a result – and this is a criticism I rarely give – I think the film could have benefitted from being longer. If they’d included another 20-30 minutes, there would have been more room to delve into some of the many interesting aspects of the story that the film touches on, but never gets to fully explore. For example, I would have been interested to see more about the repercussions the ordeal had on Knox’s personal life, a very human element of the story which is present in the film, but largely saved for the last five minutes of its run time.

And indeed, the film does feel a bit like it’s racing towards an inevitable conclusion during its final third. For the first hour, the filmmakers carefully set up the opposing perspectives on the case (i.e. “she’s guilty” vs. “she’s innocent”) and outline the evidence that supports both stances. By revealing information the way they do, McGinn and Blackhurst very effectively outline the twists in the trial and the way that public perception was heavily affected by media coverage. As more information is revealed, the viewer may find their own biases coming into question. However, after the point of Amanda Knox where the forensic evidence experts discuss how investigators likely bungled the DNA evidence, it’s almost the film says, “I’ve just proved my thesis” and switches a little bit into autopilot. It becomes less even-handed at that point, instead breezing through all the necessary steps leading to Knox’s eventual exoneration, but doing so with considerably less narrative flair.

No matter your stance on Knox, though, Amanda Knox is a fascinating portrait of a person who lived through a true media circus and came out the other side. It may not offer a lot of new information to those who closely followed the trial, but it does offer some fascinating new insight from Knox herself. Whether or not you believe her is another story.

Green Room (2016)

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Grungy, gruesome, and way more fun than it probably should be, Green Room joins the ranks of culty arthouse thrillers like Funny Games, The Mist, and Drive that flagrantly glide back and forth over the line between high- and low-brow entertainment. But while most films of this type ultimately fall into one of those categories or the other, Green Room keeps the audience on their toes, never showing its hand and continuing to offer up surprises and thrills right until its final moments.

The film’s plot is both simple and bizarre. It follows a young punk band called The Ain’t Rights, who, after getting shafted on a gig while on tour, wind up being given a compensatory show playing to an aggressive crowd of Nazi skinheads in rural Oregon. After their set, things take a turn backstage and the goal then becomes simply to make it out alive. And thus, we have our movie.

Our protagonist is Pat (Anton Yelchin), the band’s quiet bass player, who is joined by guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), drummer Reece (Joe Cole) and lead singer Tiger (Callum Turner). Back in the eponymous green room of horrors, the band also meets Amber (Imogen Poots), whose allegiances are murky, but who becomes an ally by necessity. Though we don’t get much in the way of backstory or character development, our main group of “good guys” feel wholly believable, unveiling more about themselves in the ways they respond to the insane situation unfolding around them. Particularly effective was how Cole’s quietly sturdy presence is laced with an undercurrent of rage from the start, making it feel natural how Reece boils over once stuff really starts hitting the fan.

The film’s primary focus is thrills, which are in no short supply. It’s pretty much a perfectly paced film, holding back on its violence through much of the film to make it even more impactful when it does erupt. But Saulnier is clearly interested in creating more than just an action-packed thriller. He sticks to his signature aesthetic and careful camerawork throughout, right from the misty, pastoral opening scenes through to Green Room’s most horrifying scenes, including one involving some …creative… use of a box cutter.

On that note, one could probably spend a long time debating whether or not Green Room qualifies as a horror film. At most, I’d say it falls into the category of “survival horror” – films that aren’t necessarily “scary” in the traditional sense, but whose “horror” stems from the seemingly insurmountable situations the characters face (usually in some sort of isolated environment). And indeed, Green Room probably won’t seem groundbreaking unless you haven’t already seen some of the staples of this subgenre (Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, the aforementioned Funny Games, etc, etc.) But Saulnier’s riff is so self-assured and gripping that it doesn’t really matter. Whether you’re enjoying the artistry, the plot, or both, Green Room is a completely compelling 90-minute ride.

How to Be Single (2016)

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How to Be Single immediately brought to mind a couple of other recent films that take a “real” look at love through the lens of an impossibly attractive ensemble cast. You know the ones. He’s Just Not That Into You. Valentine’s Day. Prom. Probably a few others that I’ve either already forgotten or never saw. But while How to Be Single is riddled with problems of its own, it does get points from me where those other films don’t: it’s sometimes funny, and occasionally real.

The set-up is almost too cliched to bother explaining. Alice (Dakota Johnson) is coming off a four-year relationship with Josh (Nicholas Braun) and moves to New York in hopes of “finding herself”. She moves in with her control freak older sister, Meg (Leslie Mann), and befriends her wild new colleague, Robin (Rebel Wilson). This all tenuously links into another side plot concerning Tom (Anders Holm), a lothario bar owner, and Lucy (Alison Brie), his supposedly “charming” and “wacky” upstairs tenant who loiters in his bar for the free wi-fi. Single people. New York. Hijinks.

After a rather dire first half hour spent establishing all of this, the film settles into something a little more interesting as the various relationships start to intertwine and the comedy starts to kick in. Yet, even though both the comedy and drama of this film are intermittently effective, they also never really stop feeling at odds with each other. One minute we’re forced to endure physical comedy gags about somebody dropping their laptop out a window and the next minute poor Dakota Johnson is trying her best to accurately portray the feelings of emptiness and confusion that plagues so many 20-somethings. The film mentions Bridget Jones’s Diary multiple times, which is clearly a strong influence, yet it doesn’t have the wit or the genuinely felt emotional punch to land within the same realm of that rom-com high-water mark.

Before I get too down on How to Be Single, though, I would like to say that it got a few things surprisingly right. It’s not reinventing the rom-com genre by any means, but it DOES semi-boldly reject some of the genre’s most tightly-held tropes. I did like how much emphasis it put on being your own independent person, rather than reinforcing the idea that you need to fall in love and find your “other half” in order to be complete. Especially towards the end of the film, it felt like they were really fighting against some of the traditional values of the genre, and it was refreshing to see a film that champions female friendship and independence over traditional romantic love. (I was pleased to see that two of the three screenwriters are female, and their perspective was very much welcome in a medium where the female voice is usually depressingly absent.)

However, if you’re looking for some great feminist message, this still isn’t going to be your film. I thought the Alison Brie role was especially problematic and just unpleasant, presenting Lucy as a borderline insane person who strikes one note over and over again. We learn nothing about Lucy other than that she’s love-obsessed, and her only two purposes in the film are 1) represent the butt-of-the-joke cliches that they didn’t want to saddle their other female characters with and 2) serve as the catalyst for change for one of the male characters. There are also some definite problems in the way they represent Rebel Wilson’s character in terms of her weight (though they’re certainly not the first film to do so), but Wilson is funny enough that (for better or worse) I found myself forgiving those issues more easily.

Most of the cast here deserves better. (Particularly Jake Lacey, who is given a thankless and bland “love interest” role but somehow still turns in a hugely charming performance.) However, How to Be Single at least tries to explore some different ideas, even if it doesn’t fully succeed at articulating them. I’d rather this kind of movie be moderately ambitious and fall short instead of skating by on the status quo. If you’re looking for a bit of light fun, you could do worse.

Citizenfour (2014)

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Perhaps less a truly great documentary than it is a capital-I Important one, Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour offers the kind of thorough behind-the-scenes look that we never see of most major news stories.

We all know about Edward Snowden, the NSA employee who leaked classified documents to the press and revealed the U.S. government’s deception regarding surveillance. But Citizenfour offers insight into Snowden the person, showing his surprisingly cool-headed approach to leaking the documents and, subsequently, dealing with the immediate fallout from his actions.

A lot of what makes Citizenfour so remarkable is the extremely unusual amount of access that Poitras is given to a situation in real time, as everything is unfolding; because Snowden has “gone rogue”, there’s no red tape holding Poitras back. What results is an uncensored and unforgiving expose of the government’s surveillance tactics, which Snowden himself describes very concisely through much of the film. Snowden’s eloquence simultaneously makes him an interesting subject and damns the NSA more by the minute.

Speaking of Snowden, Poitras paints an interesting and complicated portrait. As a filmmaker, she isn’t shy about making her own biases known in regards to surveillance, even evoking her own personal experiences. (Though I wouldn’t say that this bias overwhelms the film.) However, she takes a more even-handed and human approach to Snowden, showing a few different sides of him that were surprising. For example, while the film overall paints a flattering portrait, scenes where Snowden is crafting his next media move and even openly embracing the fact that he’s headed for international notoriety are fascinating to watch unfold.

Citizenfour loses some steam in its second half after the classified documents have started to be published, as some of the tension built earlier on starts to dissipate. Of course, being a documentary, Poitras can only manipulate things so much in the name of dramatic effect. Maybe all I’m really saying is that I’m looking forward to the fictional retelling of the story (which is, of course on its way courtesy of Oliver Stone). But in terms of storytelling, I just thought that things could’ve been structured more deftly.

Nonetheless, Citizenfour is illuminating, shocking, and vital. The fact that someone was there to capture that moment in time is incredible, and it’s just a bonus that the central figure is charismatic and surprisingly likeable. What results is a compelling and well-made film that proves the power of documentary.