Tag Archives: 2016 movies

Review: Blue Jay

bluejay_01

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.

Top 10 Movies of 2016 (so far)

We’re now certainly past the halfway mark of 2016, but I wanted to take a moment to recognize some of the best movies I’ve seen from the first six months of the year. I know things are looking pretty bleak in terms of blockbuster fare right now, but if you’re looking in the right places, there’s been a lot of really good stuff this year. Here’s a look at my 10 favourites, so far.

Regrets on ones I’ve missed: Sunset Song, The Neon Demon, The Invitation, Hail Caesar

Love and Friendship

10. Love & Friendship

After watching Whit Stilman’s hyper-acerbic Damsels in Distress from a few years back, he never would have been the name I’d attach to a Jane Austen adaptation. But, as Love & Friendship shows, he actually might be the perfect person to take on the charm and subtle sass of Austen’s work. Whitman has a field day here loosely adapting one of the author’s early novellas, casting muse Kate Beckinsale as a self-serving widow who strikes up a friendship with a younger man (Xavier Samuel). The film is modern without feeling distractingly out-of-time and it manages to be both charming and scathing in nearly equal measure. Tom Bennett is particularly funny as the would-be paramour of Beckinsale’s daughter, but the whole cast here seems to embrace Stillman’s sly, cynical wit. Whether you love Austen or are decidedly anti-costume drama, there’s probably something for you in this unlikely crowd-pleaser.

Born to Be Blue

9. Born to Be Blue

Skittering just on the line of typical biopic fare, Born to Be Blue avoids succumbing to the worn-out tropes of similarly-themed films like Walk the Line and Ray. The film follows Chet Baker as he’s washed-up and looking for a come-back, and it succeeds partially because it focuses on such a specific time in the musician’s life. Writer-director Robert Budreau has a clear, melancholy handle on the material, and he does an excellent job of painting Baker as a fully-formed person, and not just a clichéd “troubled musical genius”. On top of that, Ethan Hawke’s performance as Baker is magenetic, and the film’s experimental, partially-fictionalized flourishes make it well worth watching. And that gut-punch of an ending? Most biopics would never have the nerve to end on such a dour, intimately authentic note.

Wiener-Dog

8. Wiener-Dog

Todd Solondz’ distinctive brand of miserabilist comedy won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and in fact, I didn’t think it would be mine until I made my first foray into his work with Wiener-Dog. Told in four distinct parts, the film follows its titular wiener dog through various stages of life and as she gets passed around to different owners. It’s a bizarre, dark, and frequently funny film, but I was surprised by the amount of heart it had, as well. Solondz’ insights on humanity obviously lean towards the cynical, but the empathy he shows his characters is what prevents the film from veering into the mean-spirited. This is especially apparent in the portion with Greta Gerwig and a never-better Kieran Culkin, which, as well as serving as a quasi-sequel to Solondz’ own Welcome to the Dollhouse, shows the depth of the director’s emotional insight.

Eye in the Sky

7. Eye in the Sky

Precise and even-keeled, one could almost accuse Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky of being boring. But his multi-layered look at drone warfare is an example of such tight storytelling that Hood somehow makes a film largely about military conference calls into an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Eye in the Sky takes place over the course of one day, showing how one seemingly small decision affects a huge swath of people – partly because it’s a decision that no one actually wants to take the responsibility to make. Is the film’s message subtle? No, not exactly. But with such taut storytelling conveyed by the likes of Alan Rickman, Helen Mirren, Barkhad Abdi, and Aaron Paul, the results are thrilling, often unexpected, and surprisingly affecting.

A Bigger Splash

6. A Bigger Splash

Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash feels like it could be a stage play. It’s extremely character-driven and anchored by four very strong central performers (Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Dakota Johnson), exploring heady themes and doing so without a lot of visual pyrotechnics. But then again, if you were watching this story on a stage, you wouldn’t get the backdrop of the gorgeous Italian countryside. And you certainly wouldn’t get flair and whimsy of Guadagnino’s camerawork, which really brings the film to life. This is a film that is moving not because of its relatively well-worn story about disaffected rich people who can’t get their personal relationships in order, but because of the way that story is told. And what a journey it is.

10 Cloverfield Lane

5. 10 Cloverfield Lane

Most people seem to agree that it’s been a real dismal year for blockbusters so far. But while 10 Cloverfield Lane’s relatively scant $15 million budget doesn’t exactly make it a blockbuster, it’s easily one of the best things that’s passed through the multiplexes this year. There are lots of fantastic things about this movie, not least of which is the fact that what is essentially an indie-minded cinematic chamber piece made over $100 million at the box office. 10 Cloverfield Lane is thoughtfully written, compelling, tense, and wonderfully acted. I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty much all I want when I go see a blockbuster, and it seems like audiences and critics were also fully on board. Perhaps Hollywood should take note.

Dheepan

4. Dheepan

After pulling off a surprise Palme d’Or win at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Jacques Audiard’s latest, Dheepan, opened to surprisingly little fanfare stateside back in the spring. (To date, its total U.S. gross is a paltry $240,000.) This is a real shame, because I actually found Dheepan to be far more accessible than I was expecting. Granted, I realize that a French film about Sri Lanken immigrants (yes, there are subtitles) is going to be a tough sell to North American audiences. It was never going to be a big hit. But Audiard takes such a soulful and deeply engrossing look at the life of the titular Dheepan and his makeshift family as they start a new life together that I was completely sucked in from the start.

The Wait

3. The Wait

Juliette Binoche is always fabulous, and her performance in her latest European arthouse offering is no exception. The Wait marks the directorial debut of Piero Messina, who was perhaps previously best known for serving as assistant director on Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. Messina proves to be a more than capable director in his own right here, making the most of his two lead actresses (up-and-comer Lou de Laage holds her own opposite Binoche, helping to turn the film into an enchanting two-hander), as well as the gorgeous setting that imbues the quiet film with a sort of haunting quality. I saw the film at TIFF last year, but it received such a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical release back in April that I won’t begrudge anyone who missed it entirely. But it’s certainly worth seeking out.

Green Room

2. Green Room

Okay, I’ll admit that my movie taste definitely trends on the side of indie. Some might call it character-driven. Some might call it boring. But even though Green Room is in some ways very much an indie film, it also in other ways very much IS NOT. This is a film that’s gritty and gruesome, taking a certain type of pride in the destructive path it leaves behind. It’s actually pretty difficult to classify, not quite falling under the “horror” title, but certainly influenced by many a cult film that has come before. Despite getting a fairly wide release, it never found much of an audience, which is a shame, as I really do feel like it would appeal to a surprisingly large variety of viewers. Rare is the film that manages to be both thoughtful and filled to the brim with thrills, but Green Room artfully and entertainingly strikes that balance.

Louder Than Bombs

1. Louder Than Bombs

At the risk of seeming too predictable – yes, here is another cerebral Jesse Eisenberg film at the top of my best-movies-of the-year list (see also: The End of the Tour in 2015, Night Moves in 2014, and The Social Network in 2010). And obviously, some of that does have to do with Eisenberg himself, who I like a lot as an actor (and he does turn in one of his most nuanced performances yet in Louder Than Bombs). But more than anything, I think he just happens to pick a lot of the types of movies that I’m drawn to. And Louder Than Bombs had a lot going for it for me from the start, being the English-language debut of Norwegian director Joachim Trier, whose 2008 debut, Reprise, I absolutely adore. He does it again here, telling an emotionally intricate tale of a family frayed at the edges. Gabriel Byrne is excellent as the family’s conflicted patriarch, as is newcomer Devin Druid, playing the petulant teenage son. Despite overall getting strong reviews, few seemed to love this movie as much as I did, but Louder Than Bombs has haunted me since I saw it at TIFF last September.

 

Green Room (2016)

Green Room

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)

HtBS

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.