Review: The Great Hack

The Great Hack (2019) - pictured:  David Carroll

The story here (recounting the whistleblowing that brought Cambridge Analytica’s political interference to light in 2018, ultimately bankrupting the company) is of course interesting. However, The Great Hack doesn’t have a whole lot to offer beyond what those with even a somewhat cursory knowledge of the scandal already know/would suspect. As a result, the doc ends up feeling a bit one-dimensional, and like perhaps all of the “cool” graphics are being used to pad the film’s (already slightly bloated) run time.

The Great Hack spends a lot of time focusing on one of the two whistleblowers, Brittany Kaiser, who was one of Analytica’s executives throughout their involvement with the Trump campaign and Leave.EU. However, I’m not sure she’s as complex of a subject as the film thinks she is. For all the time the film devotes to discussing it, her motivations for doing work with Cambridge Analytica that she (seemingly) morally disagreed with seem relatively straightforward, and in the grand scheme of things not particularly shocking.

More interesting to me, actually, was the other whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, who is interviewed for the film but not featured as heavily. At one point one of the Analytica top dogs asserts that Wylie wasn’t at the company during the time period that’s mainly in question, and seems to suggest that Wylie doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I was confused about why the film includes that footage, yet doesn’t bother to explore the point any further. It could have at the very least added another wrinkle to the story.

For some of the ways that I found The Great Hack underwhelming, though, it’s hard to deny how mind-boggling it is to watch the film’s explainer segment on how Cambridge Analytica allegedly worked their “magic” on a 2015 election in Trinidad and Tobego, paving the way for their future endeavours. And in other instances, too, the film does a good job of succinctly describing what can be (at least for me) the slightly nebulous concept of HOW exactly Cambridge Analytica had the impact that they apparently did. The actual plot points of the company’s history is not particularly compelling in the way it’s presented here, but the depiction of their tactics is what really benefits from the doc treatment. If nothing else, it offers a fascinating look at extremely savvy, scary digital marketing at play.

On the whole, The Great Hack is a bit underwhelming, given the incendiary subject matter they had to work with. However, if your knowledge of this story’s details are a bit shaky (as mine were), it’s still worth a watch.

Top 10 Movies of 2019 (so far)

We’re at the mid-point of the year (give or take a couple weeks…) and now seems as good a time as any to look at some of the standout films of 2019 so far.

I’ve heard some hot takes about this not being a great year for film (although I’m pretty sure that’s a semi-common opinion EVERY year) but I have to disagree. I’ve seen more movies in the first half of 2019 that I love than I typically do in the first six months of the year. And that includes one that’s planted firmly in best-of-the-decade territory. But more on that in a minute.

Homecoming

10. Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé

Am I a Beyoncé stan? No, actually. With the exception of the odd single (“Crazy in Love”, namely), I’ve never paid a whole lot of attention to her career, admiring her ambition more than flat-out loving her music. But with Homecoming, Beyoncé (and the large team of people who help to make “Beyoncé” happen) have carefully crafted a testament to her significance as an artist. Documenting the now-famous “Beychella” set from Coachella 2018 and the months of preparation that went into it, the film is fascinating both as a concert doc and as a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to pull off a performance of that scale. And yes, it is a carefully curated (and, if anything, a bit too guarded) look at Beyoncé the person. No doubt this is skewed to the side of things Beyoncé wants her fans to see, but it’s a compelling look nonetheless. You don’t need to be a fan to find the whole 2-hour performance exhilarating.

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9. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

This one was a big surprise, coming from first-time director Henry Dunham. A modestly-scaled, slow-burning thriller, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek follows a small-town militia that discovers one of their own is responsible for a recent mass shooting at a police funeral. James Badge Dale shines in a rare lead role, playing an ex-cop member of the militia who takes matters into his own hands to find the perpetrator. On the whole, it’s a well-paced, beautifully shot thriller that makes the most of its single-location structure. An under-the-radar gem worth seeking out.

Us

8. Us

Jordan Peele had quite a task set out for himself in attempting to follow up the massive success of his directorial debut, Get Out. He proved to be up to the task with Us. Everyone here is perfectly cast (more of Winston Duke in everything, please) and Peele’s sharp writing finds the perfect balance of genuine thrills and thoughtful social commentary. This is one that stuck with me more than I was expecting, its message and implications shifting in my mind for days after watching. I can’t wait to see what Peele has in store for audiences next.

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7. The Last Black Man in San Francisco 

Another directorial debut, this time from Bay Area native Joe Talbot, The Last Black Man in San Francisco was made in close collaboration with his long-time close friend, Jimmie Fails. And the intimate working relationship shows in excellent ways. Fails (the star and co-writer) based this gentrification story closely on some of his own experiences growing up, and the personal touch and raw emotion behind it shows. This is not a perfect film, but its flaws can largely be overlooked due to the specificity and creativity it exudes. This is the sort of bold, clear vision we need more people to approach filmmaking with.

Giant Little Ones

6. Giant Little Ones

This year has seen a spate of acclaimed Canadian coming-of-age indies. To name a few: Genesis, The Fireflies are Gone, Firecrackers, and Roads in February. (Is this the Xavier Dolan effect?) And admittedly… I haven’t seen any of those others. But I did really like this one, which tells the story of teenage Franky (played by an excellent Josh Wiggins) who is struggling with his sexuality, a complicated family situation, and the harsh social politics of high school. In some ways, it’s the usual stuff we’ve seen before, yet writer/director Keith Behrman allows for a remarkable and rare ambiguity to exist around Franky’s sexuality. It’s a film less concerned with labels than capturing what it feels like to live in the liminal space around them.

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5. Climax

This was my first foray into Gaspar Noe’s work, and from what I understand this is a comparatively “restrained” entry in his filmography. Which is…wild. Telling the story of a party gone VERY wrong, this is at many points a horrifying and bizarre film. But Noe seems like someone who delights in his own gratuitous decisions, and that boldness unexpectedly pays off here. This colourful, feverish horror vision is also somehow beautiful. And its first act (before shit really hits the fan and when dance sequences abound) is maybe the strongest stretch of filmmaking I’ve seen all year

Apollo 11

4. Apollo 11

I can sometimes find documentaries constructed solely from archival footage a bit dull, but Apollo 11 made me reconsider that stance. Though it’s depicting an extremely well-known historical event, the footage here is so vibrant – and so expertly edited – that it almost feels like something that is being seen for the first time. Truly, the look of the film (the clarity, the colours, the film grain) are so stunning that it’s worth witnessing just for that. But the narrative, too, is compelling, providing insight and realism to an achievement that is often heavily romanticized. Even if you think all there is to know about the moon landing, don’t miss Apollo 11.

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3. Rocketman

I had tolerance for one more musical biopic this year, and I’m certainly glad I made the time for Rocketman. Led by a truly astonishing performance from Taron Egerton (the moment where he bursts onto the screen to take the reins in the middle of “Saturday Night’s Alright” is among the year’s most exhilarating), the film takes a more creative approach than your usual rock biopic, embracing the decadence and flair of Sir Elton himself. The musical numbers are an utter delight, and while not EVERYTHING else in between them works quite as well, the film’s focus on emotion and introspection help to make it unusually impactful.

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2. Booksmart

Smart-mouthed, hilarious, and sweet, Booksmart is everything I want a female coming-of-age comedy to be. Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein are a joy to watch and totally believable as best friends. And while you’ve likely seen the “one crazy night” formula in teen movies before, I’ve rarely seen it delivered with so much wit and genuine heart. This is one that I can’t wait to watch again.

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1. Mouthpiece

This list is full of movies that I found moving and creative, yet none were quite so bold as Patricia Rozema’s Mouthpiece, an adaptation of the 2015 Canadian play co-written by the film’s two stars, Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava. The film follows Cassie, played by… both Notbakken and Sadava, and often at the same time. That dual performance could have been an awful gimmick, but instead it feels perfectly balanced, poetic, and (somehow) subtle. The performances are lovely and veteran director Rozema creates a perfect, steady balance to the story’s delightfully rabble-rousing energy. A true “I laughed, I cried” film through and through, and definitely the best film I’ve seen (so far) this year.

Review: Booksmart

Booksmart

I enjoyed the HELL out of Booksmart. And not just because my own high school best friend was — and, 10 years later, continues to be — very much the Beanie Feldstein to my Kaitlyn Dever. Although I’m sure the relatability factor helped.

Olivia Wilde takes a refreshing, freewheeling approach to the high school coming-of-age story with Booksmart. The set up is familiar: best friends Amy (Dever) and Molly (Feldstein) realize they’ve squandered their high school years by always following the rules and, on the night before graduation, decide to cut loose and attend a party hosted by cool guy Nick (Mason Gooding). As you might be able to guess, misadventure ensues.

And yes, films like Superbad and Dazed & Confused come to mind. (Though there’s certainly worse company to be in.) But what makes Booksmart stand apart is the unabashed emotion that Wilde and the film’s quartet of female screenwriters mix in with with its comedy. These types of films do often have a sweetness to them, but Booksmart has an emotional core to it that is rare in a wide release film and that feels distinctly — yes — female. Throw in its representation of a young, out lesbian lead character (acknowledged with a refreshing casualness) and this is a movie that certainly feels like something we haven’t quite seen before..

I did love that Booksmart was goofier than expected and has elements of genuine “gross” humour that’s usually reserved for the boys. And it’s actually very funny. (For example, a scene involving the world’s most uncomfortable Lyft ride with an expected driver.) But in the same film, you get poignant scenes of self-discovery, such as the dreamy pool sequence that comes late in the film, and the chain reaction of emotional unspooling that follows it.

No doubt driven by her experience as an actress herself, Wilde lets her leads have some wonderfully genuine, intimate moments as it goes along, which I was a bit afraid wasn’t going to happen during the film’s fairly broad first act. But it sneaks up on you. Dever, in particular, gives a performance that is stunningly natural and that grows to something pretty spectacular. That won’t surprise anyone who has seen her previous work in Short Term 12 or Men, Women and Children, but Booksmart shows a next level of growth from her and is the perfect showcase for her skills.

The supporting characters were a bit more hit-or-miss for me. I loved everything about the ridiculously wannabe-bro Jared (Skyler Gisondo), yet the unstable socialite Gigi (Billie Lourde) never really clicked into gear for me.

The best scenes, though, are undeniably the ones between its two central characters. Their friendship — and the honesty with which it is written — is what really makes Booksmart soar. The intricacies, goofiness, and complications of that kind of friendship are all perfectly on display. And set over the course of one night and told within a 90-minute film, no less. Whether or not you’re a woman and whether or not you’ve had that sort of ride-or-die friendship in your life, it’s a rare, special pleasure to watch it play out on screen.

Review: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Extremely Wicked

The Zac Efron Ted Bundy movie is here, folks. I’ve sat with Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile for a few hours since watching, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.

To start with, I don’t agree with those who have accused it of glamourizing Bundy and his crimes. That’s not to say that it handled some of those trickier aspects perfectly. (And a convincing argument could probably be made that this film never needed to be made in the first place.) But I never felt that it was pushing us to sympathize with his character or make him seem “cool”. There is a clear divide in the film between the persona that Bundy projected and the horrible atrocities he committed. Other characters may be sympathetic to him, but it’s not the film’s agenda at all to make us agree with them.

In fact, that matter of perspective is probably the most interesting aspect of Extremely Wicked. The film is told partially through the perspective of Bundy’s long-time girlfriend, Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), who believed in Bundy’s innocence for many years and, as the film depicts, stood by his side to the detriment of her own well-being. The film shows their meeting and the beginning of the relationship briefly before jumping forward to Bundy’s initial arrest, his eventual trial for the murder of two young women, and his time spent on death row. Liz’s confidence in him fluctuates throughout the years, and the film is as much about her struggle to process the decimation of her “happily ever after” as it is about Bundy himself.

By looking at it from Liz’s point of view, it makes sense that the film presents Bundy in a slightly intangible way. We don’t see him commit any violence for the vast majority of the runtime, and the film seems largely uninterested in trying to dive into his psychology. By looking at him the way Liz (and the media and his adoring female fanbase) saw him, it sort of makes him a passive character whose story is told via the impact he had on others.

And to put a matinee idol type like Efron in the role (given that he’s certainly more objectively handsome than Bundy was) is also clever, since it again underlines the large gulf between how Bundy was perceived by those who saw what they wanted to see (someone who, through manipulation, could make himself seem great and you feel great), and who he actually was. And how, if you’re too close to the situation, the reality is sometimes only possible to see in hindsight. (And Efron, for his part, is excellent. He oozes a perfect mix of steeliness and subtle desperation.)

Granted, that reading of the film starts to cracks when you look at the scenes that aren’t seen through someone else’s eyes, and where Bundy is the only character on screen. And I think that’s where this film runs into trouble tonally. Take, for example, the instances where Bundy is trying to MacGyver his way out of a jail cell. The film starts to take on almost a weird caper tone. And while those scenes didn’t feel as though they were trying to make me like Ted Bundy, I’m also not really sure what they were trying to say. (Maybe you could argue that those scenes are still from Liz’s perspective as though she was daydreaming about his escape, but I’m not sure that theory holds water.) And as the film goes through some of the antics of the Bundy trial itself, it feels like it’s being included more for the sake of telling a good yarn than it is getting at anything very insightful.

Director Joe Berlinger has created an intriguing film, but I don’t think he followed some of these threads through to their full potential. For example, I think there’s more to be mined in terms of a meta-commentary of the media and public glamorization of shocking stories like Ted Bundy, which is just barely touched on. (Can you imagine Michael Haneke doing a Funny Games-esque deconstruction of the subject? Preferably still starring Zac Efron?) The more conventional scenes here are the least interesting, and it’s a shame to see Collins (and her character’s interesting questions around denial, complicity, and self-worth) get somewhat sidelined for much of the draggy middle portion of the film. Because even though you may not think this film needs to exist, with a bit more focus it could have been something pretty interesting.

Hot Docs 2019: Midnight Family

Midnight Family

Luke Lorentzen’s doc Midnight Family takes a complex look at the morally thorny world of privatized healthcare in Mexico City. And the perfectly charming set of protagonists makes a lot of it feel rather… fun, which is surprising considering some of the territory covered.

We follow the Ochoa family, a team of a father and two troublingly young sons who run their own semi-legal private ambulance business in Mexico City (a metropolis, the opening titles tell us, woefully underserved by public ambulances). They race from accident to accident (sometimes literally careening past their competitors on the way), helping people while also looking to make some cash along the way.

The specifics of the legality and morality are a bit murky (and only become more complicated as Midnight Family goes on), but the film makes it clear that the Ochoas genuinely want to help and strive to provide good care to their patients. And Lorentzen does an excellent job capturing the energy of the situations they find themselves in. At times, Midnight Family feels more like a narrative than a documentary, thanks to its fast pace and often eye-popping cinematography.

In terms of how the story is told, this is “fly on the wall” style through and through. Which helps heighten the tension, as everything unfolds in real time and in the moment. However, I do wish the film had taken a breath and gotten into some of the specifics about who these people are and how they got there. We do glean information about their lives from contextual clues in the quieter moments (when we see them at home, when we see Juan speaking to his older girlfriend on the phone), but a bit more exploration of the rest of their lives would have made it an even more emotionally gripping watch.

As it stands, though, Lorentzen has created a film that is empathetic, illuminating, funny, and heartbreaking all at once. In some ways it’s hard to believe that this family’s life is real yet it’s also, sadly, not surprising at all.