Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Hell or High Water

David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water certainly shows its influences from the get-go. The opening robbery almost turns into something straight out of Dog Day Afternoon. The various shots of Midwest plains call back to westerns of old. And it's the kind of picture that would make the likes of John Ford proud.

Hell or High Water depicts a slice of Americana on its last legs. (There are several passing shots of houses with "for sale" signs and billboards offering help with finances.) Mackenzie -- who hails from the United Kingdom -- captures the land of opportunity as it slowly morphs into anything but.

In a way, Hell or High Water is like a contemporary take on Bonnie and Clyde. Set within a poverty-stricken stretch of rural America, it chronicles two bank robbers as they try to evade the law. But in contrast to the infamous thieves from the Great Depression, these two have a more driven (and personal) motive for their crimes.

And Hell or High Water features a trio of strong performances. Unsurprisingly Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges basically steal the show (only a matter of time before the former gets recognized) but that's not to disregard Chris Pine's work. He doesn't have much to do acting-wise in the Star Trek movies but here, a flicker in his eyes speaks volumes. (Hopefully he'll get more opportunities in the not-too-distant future.)

Hell or High Water would've easily been lost in the muddled mix of late summer releases but thanks to the work from Mackenzie, Pine, Foster and Bridges, that is far from the case. Mackenzie, who also did the excellent Starred Up, shows immense promise with his future career.

My Rating: ****1/2

Sunday, September 25, 2016

City Lights

It must have been a daunting task for Charlie Chaplin to make City Lights in a time when silent pictures were already a thing of the past. (Richard Attenbourough's biopic on Chaplin decades later shines a light on this conundrum.) No one thought that such an endeavor would work. But Chaplin knew it would.

Admittedly City Lights has a premise that could easily cheapened (Chaplin's tramp falls for a blind flower girl) but he makes sure that doesn't happen. (A hard task for anyone, let's be honest.) And in under ninety minutes, Chaplin creates a story for the ages.

Between him and Buster Keaton, Chaplin is the winner when it comes to story. (Keaton, however, is more victorious when it comes to stunts.) As Chaplin would later do with the likes of Modern Times and Limelight, he depicts a sense of nostalgia for bygone era, yearning for a time no longer there.

Chaplin also shows with City Lights is how he utilizes sound in an otherwise silent film. Using a self-composed score and some well-placed sounds effects, he displays a knowing sense of the evolving medium but would prefer to adhere to old methods. Only Chaplin could do such a thing.

City Lights could've reached sappy levels that could rival your average 1950s melodrama but Chaplin ensures that doesn't happen. As proven by the final scene, he displays so much poignancy and heartbreak with a gentle flicker in the eyes. After all, one picture is worth a thousand words.

My Rating: *****

Friday, September 23, 2016

Lambert & Stamp

Usually it's only the members of the band that are the ones remembered in the years to come. Of course the likes of Brian Epstein and Malcolm McLaren are associated for the bands they made famous (the Beatles and the Sex Pistols, respectively). But there are those who tend to get overshadowed.

James D. Cooper's Lambert & Stamp chronicles how two blokes from different upbringings who originally wanted to make an underground film ended up managing one of the biggest bands out of the United Kingdom. Those men were Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, and that band was the Who. And it wasn't a walk in the park for any of them.

The documentary chronicles the early years of the band under Lambert and Stamp's management to how the former began to lose his way because of drug addiction. Surviving Who bandmembers Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey recollect how they were treated by their new bosses and how they shaped them into one of the biggest acts around. And again, it wasn't without its ups and downs.

Townshend, Daltrey and Stamp (who died a few years before this was released) also talked about how fame and suddenly having money affected them, particularly Lambert and drummer Keith Moon. As shown time and time again, one can only rise so high before they come crashing down; that is what happened to Lambert and Moon. (Oh, the cost of fame...)

Lambert & Stamp shows how fame and fortune wasn't immediate for the Who and their managers but good things come to those who wait. Now all these years later, the Who is regarded as one of the best rock bands in the world. (If you think otherwise, go listen to Who's Next from beginning to end.)

My Rating: ****

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week

There's absolutely no way in denying the cultural impact four lads from Liverpool left on the world. But what was it like when they were still a band? More specifically, how did they cope with the hoards of screaming fans at their concerts?

Ron Howard's The Beatles: Eight Days a Week chronicles those four hectic years the Fab Four spent touring, recording, promoting and very little else. (Certainly no way anyone could've foretold Beatlemania back then.) But it was only a matter of time before it became too much for them.

Through remaining Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, they discuss how bandmates John Lennon and George Harrison slowly began to get exhausted of the non-stop traveling and hysterical teenagers. But the documentary also shows the band's cheeky attitude during the early days, providing a juxtaposition for how fame affected them.

What's also captured in The Beatles: Eight Days a Week are those who grew up listening to the band's music. From fellow musicians to those working in Hollywood, they talk about how welcoming the quartet was to the baby boomers. And as future generations would show, they weren't going to be forgotten anytime soon.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week is as lively as its subjects and a welcoming entry for their fans. It's also a depiction of the cost of fame and how it can slowly wear someone down. It's practically a cautionary tale for those who want to see their name in lights.

My Rating: *****

Southside with You

It's always risky to make something based on real events when the people associated are still very much alive. Still, if the person who's making said work knows what they're doing then perhaps it could benefit in the end.

So how does Richard Tanne's Southside with You fare? Admittedly it might feel cheap making a film about the current First Couple as they're about to leave the White House but Tanne eschews such sentiment.

Set in 1989 Chicago, Southside with You focuses on the first date between co-workers Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) and Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers). Though set in the years before Rodney King made headlines, Tanne shows that racial discrimination was still unfortunately prevalent even when it doesn't make the news.

What Tanne also show with Southside with You is the man that Obama would become as President. He sees the wrongs of the society he's a part of and vows to change them. (Michelle herself laments how her hard work is for naught because of her skin color.) And in light of current events, it's hard to say that society has changed a great deal.

Southside with You is charming in its own way but there's more to it than a date with a future political couple. Being made in the Black Lives Matter era, it depicts that a change in social justice is needed now and we are the ones that can make that happen.

My Rating: ****1/2

Little Men

One's adolescence is supposed to be a time where one enjoys their last days of innocence. But often times this is when one becomes aware of the world around them. And usually what they discover isn't pleasant.

Ira Sachs' Little Men has two stories unfolding at the same time. One focuses on two boys as they become friends while the other story revolves around their parents in a property dispute. Infrequently the two overlap which gives its final conclusion more of a punch.

As he showed previously with Forty Shades of Blue and Love Is Strange, Sachs has a particular knack for depicting human behavior. With Little Men, he shows how flawed of a species we are. One's best quality could be another's worst. To quote Some Like It Hot, nobody's perfect.

And as also expected from Sachs, Little Men provides a menagerie of complex characters. Whether it's the two boys, their parents or a more secondary role, he makes sure that none of them are one-dimensional. (He also has a particular skill for writing at a perspective as an outsider looking in.)

Little Men is merely further proof that Sachs is one of the more interesting directors working today. He writes stories about who we are and our personal failings. Hopefully his due will come in the not-too-distant future. (Love Is Strange is also proof that Sachs should be better known.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Cameraman

Edward Segdwick and Buster Keaton's The Cameraman opens with the titular photographer (Keaton) becoming instantly smitten with Sally (Marceline Day) and trying to woo her afterwards. And much like Keaton's earlier works, what ensues are a lot of physical hijinks.

Similar to The General from the previous year, The Cameraman relies a great deal on Keaton's physicality. And when you watch him in action, it's a transfixing sight. (The fact he survived the many stunts in his films says everything you need to know about Keaton's professionalism.)

The Cameraman was Keaton's first film while under contract for MGM but it was that contract that marked the beginning of the end of his career. He was restricted to what he could put in his films, which must have affected him a great deal. (That said, MGM would use the film as an example for other directors as to how to make a comedy.)

And although it's a comedy, The Cameraman has its moments of poignancy as well. There are more somber moments throughout the film but there's a shift in mood from a slight flicker in Keaton's eyes. (Pay attention to his features during the end of the beach scene.)

The Cameraman may have been solely credited to Segdwick but this is Keaton's handiwork through and through. From the various pratfalls to the many gags, it's clear as to why there's a constant debate between him and Charlie Chaplin as to whom is the best silent-era comedian. (And it's a debate that'll never end.)

My Rating: *****

Primary Colors

With all the sheer insanity of this current election, one starts to wonder if this was always the case. Are most if not all political campaigns this bloodthirsty? Granted, fiction often satirizes what happens in the world of politics (i.e., The Thick of It, Veep) but sometimes life itself inspires fiction.

Such is the case with Mike Nichols' Primary Colors. With Jack (John Travolta) and Susan Stanton (Emma Thompson) being obviously based on Bill and Hillary Clinton -- Jack more so -- it's safe to say that it caused a bit of controversy upon its release. (Details of the Lewinsky affair were emerging at the time.)

Of course considering this current election, Primary Colors shines in a different light. Elements of both the film and the election eerily parallel one another, almost to a point that it seems Nichols and Elaine May foretold the future. But the film's more than a thinly-veiled exposé.

As expected from a Nichols production, the acting is top-notch. Each actor brings their A-game to their performances, no matter the size of the role. The one that stands out from them all is Kathy Bates, the lone actor to receive an Oscar nomination for Primary Colors. (And it doesn't take much to see why.)

Primary Colors is one of several politically-themed films that depicts a world of backstabbing and sabotage to further their own careers. But Nichols and May satirize such matters to make it accessible to those with a faint grasp of politics. After all, isn't it a subject that next to everyone is sick and tired of?

My Rating: ****1/2


Do we really know what we want in our lives? Are we truly content with the jobs we have and the people we know? If not, we're not being forced to live such a life.

Whit Stillman's Barcelona explores such a topic within a Cold War setting. As he did with his previous film Metropolitan, Stillman chronicles those disillusioned by what's expected of their generation. And boy, are they jaded as a result.

Stillman recruits Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman again for Barcelona in roles similar to those in Metropolitan (Nichols the nebbish outsider, Eigeman the know-nothing know-it-all). Though here there's some more depth to their characters. (Similarly, Stillman seems to have a faint grasp on how to write female characters.)

Throughout Barcelona there's a clash of cultures between the lead characters and their setting. (Eigeman at one point tries to correct street graffiti with a pen.) They try to fit in but all they mostly succeed in doing is sticking out like sore thumbs. (Such an example happens at one of the parties they attend.)

Barcelona doesn't have the same spark as Metropolitan but it has its charms as well. Nichols and Eigeman's performances further proved what the world of cinema would further expect from Stillman: commentary on the changing jaded society we're a part of. (And that's not something that'll go away anytime in the near future.)

My Rating: ****

Sunday, September 4, 2016


Agnès Varda's Vagabond opens with the discovery of a woman's frozen corpse in a ditch. What follows is a documentary-style examination as to how Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) ended up there. And it's not as straightforward as it appears.

Throughout Vagabond we see Mona interacting with a menagerie of people and them later on talking about their impressions of her. Most of them don't understand her behavior while some felt sorry for Mona as she tries to survive every day. But one thing is clear: she's an unforgettable presence.

It isn't made clear why Mona is living a life on the streets. Did she have a falling out with someone close to her? Did she pursue such a living on her own accord? Varda doesn't verify which one it is but no matter. It's still fascinating to see Mona try to survive this way of living.

As she did with Cleo from 5 to 7 years earlier, Varda shows that Vagabond is also about the people Mona encounters. They have their own lives which Mona temporarily becomes a part of. Some welcome her with open arms, others are rubbed the wrong way by Mona's attitude. But as stated before, she's not forgotten when she leaves them.

Vagabond is a stunning film, thanks to Varda's keen eye. With a harsh backdrop of the French countryside in winter, she doesn't rely on spectacle to make her film work. Instead, Varda uses the bare essentials to have Vagabond be damn effective. (Is it ever.)

My Rating: *****

Strictly Sinatra

There are those who simply crave the spotlight. They want that validation more than the air they breathe. But would they be willing to cross certain moral boundaries?

Toni Cocozza (Ian Hart) is tempted to do so in Peter Capaldi's Strictly Sinatra. He yearns to be the next Ol' Blue Eyes but he's only eking out gigs in Glasgow dives. But some local gangsters like act enough to give him a little push...though not without a catch.

Indeed the plot is a familiar one often found in lesser titles but there's something to Strictly Sinatra that has a certain charm to it. Perhaps it's because of its contrast between the glitzy clubs the gangsters frequent and the grimy city streets that house them. (Even Scorsese doesn't depict such a thing in his films.)

Another detail of Strictly Sinatra are the homages to days passed. From the many allusions to the Rat Pack to cues reminiscent from films of the era, Capaldi adds a sense of nostalgia to his film. But as Toni learns time and time again, nostalgia by its lonesome won't pay the bills.

Strictly Sinatra may be a lesser-known title from the past decade but it shouldn't be a forgotten one. Capaldi (who was a few years away from The Thick of It) has a creative spark on display here and hopefully he'll use it again in the near future. (After all, that spark got him an Oscar several years prior.)

My Rating: ****

5 to 7

Life works in a peculiar way for some people. It can change for either the better or the worse with the slightest shift. And it could be because of something insignificant like crossing the street.

Such an instance happens to Brian (Anton Yelchin) when he first lays eyes on Arielle (Bérénice Marlohe) in Victor Levin's 5 to 7. What begins as a chance encounter slowly blossoms into something more complex, the very thing that both thrills and infuriates Brian. But what will become of these two?

Levin depicts a tale of love and its complicated nature. Arielle admits early on she's married and her husband is also having an affair. But she's not seeing Brian out of revenge for her husband's indiscretions; they're in an open marriage but there are rules to it. (No one said marriage was easy.)

This was one of Yelchin's final films so there's an added sadness to 5 to 7 following his death. All Brian wants in some stability within his young life, and he thinks he found it in Arielle. But her marriage makes Arielle deeply hesitant to stray. Will Brian be able to get what he deeply desires?

It may be marketed as a romantic comedy but that's only a half-truth with 5 to 7. It has a more somber tone that's similar to Like Crazy, another title from Yelchin's career. And like the earlier film, it's a sad reminder of what could have been for the young actor.

My Rating: ****

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Sunshine Blogger Award

Ruth over at FlixChatter has given me this award and unsurprisingly...
As given, every award has a set of tiny rules for accepting it, here are the ones for Sunshine:
  • Post the award on your blog
  • Thank the person who nominated you
  • Answer the 11 questions they sent you
  • Pick another 11 bloggers (and let them know they are nominated!)
  • Send them 11 questions
Right, let's do this thing!