Review: All These Sleepless Nights

All These Sleepless Nights

It’s tempting to spend this entire review pondering whether All These Sleepless Nights is really a documentary or not. Of course, there’s much more to Michal Marczak’s film than questions of form. But those questions also turn out to be pretty compelling.

Low on story and heavy on style, All These Sleepless Nights provides a slightly voyeuristic look at a group of mostly directionless young adults living in Warsaw, Poland. We spend a lot of time wandering the city streets with them, witnessing their often mundane encounters. We also watch as they use a combination of sex and drugs to lull themselves in a passive state of detachment, adding an even more meditative tone to the movie.

The film’s two main subjects are Kris and Michal, two quasi-handsome, vaguely charismatic friends whose hedonistic and egotistical behaviour unsurprisingly puts some tension on their interpersonal relationships. There are love triangles and some conflict throughout, but All These Sleepless Nights is more about conveying a mood and capturing a mindset, rather than telling any sort of conventional narrative.

It may seem like a pedantic distinction, but going into All These Sleepless Nights thinking of it as a documentary or as a narrative will affect the way you experience it. There’s room for grey areas and blurred lines, yes, but the film’s heavy stylization complicates things. Is this meant to be an accurate document of youth, or a constructed interpretation of it? The answer is undeniably somewhere in the middle. And while it may sound like that formal non-commitment would obscure the film’s impact, it actually increases it, adding to its already hazy, dream-like aura.

All These Sleepless nights has played at documentary film festivals such as True/False and Hot Docs, yet on IMDB it’s classified as a drama rather than a documentary. In viewing it, I found it difficult to view its subjects as anything other than “characters”. The way the scenarios play out (some of which feel quite obviously staged), the subjects’ sometimes less-than-natural reactions, the reliance on the musical soundtrack, and the impeccably lit cinematography all really prevent the film from feeling like something that was captured on the fly and in real time. But again, that isn’t really a knock against it. Marczak (who has been upfront about the fact that aspects of the film were manipulated, re-shot, and improvised, rather than simply “documented”) has crafted something that feels authentic, if not completely grounded in reality. If a film involves real people and strives to represent the authentic feelings they experience (but uses unconventional means to do so) who’s to say it’s not still non-fiction?

Ultimately, though, these questions fade to the background as you’re watching All These Sleepless Nights. You get lulled into the film’s hazy tone, basking in the beautiful visuals. Marczak, also a cinematographer, cultivates one striking image after another. The film is absolutely worth seeing just for that, though don’t go into it looking for any real narrative thrust.

Atmospheric and distinct, All These Sleepless Nights captures the strife, power, and mundane feelings of youth all in one arty little package. It may not appear to say much on the surface, but its impact lingers.

10 films you need to see in April 2017

Free Fire.jpeg

Just ahead of the summer movie season (which arguably kicks off on May 5th with the release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), April is shaping up to be a strange month at the cinema. Even the major releases seem a little more low-key than usual. But with most of the tentpole franchises absent (save one notable exception), maybe it’ll make room for something a little different to catch on at the box office.

Box office prognostication aside, there are a lot of really promising, slightly offbeat offerings this month. Here are the 10 I’m most excited for.

Graduation

Graduation (April 7, Limited)

A high-profile title on last year’s festival circuit, Graduation is the latest project from Romanian auteur Cristian Mungiu. Best known for his Palme d’Or-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Mungiu found success at Cannes again this year with Graduation, winning the festival’s Best Director award (which he shared with Olivier Assayas for Personal Shopper). The IMDB plot description for Graduation is concise and mysterious, conveying perhaps all I want to know going in: “A film about compromises and the implications of the parent’s role.”

Colossal (April 7, Limited)

Featuring a somewhat bonkers premise and a surprisingly star-studded cast, this latest film from Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes) is one that sounds too unique not to give a chance to. Anne Hathaway stars as Gloria, an American alcoholic who begins to realize that her own actions are directly linked to those of a giant monster who is simultaneously terrorizing Seoul, South Korea. Though it received generally positive reviews out of last year’s TIFF, this one seems like it could be divisive. In case it helps win you over, the film also stars Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, and Tim Blake Nelson.

Win It All (April 7, Netflix)

Kicking off a strong month of Netflix exclusives is the latest from director Joe Swanberg, Win it All. Swanberg, once known for his truly voracious movie-making pace, has taken a break (by his standards) from movies to work on two recent series for Netflix, Easy and Love. Now back with his first film since 2015’s Digging for Fire, it seems like Swanberg has found a medium that suits his low-key films. Win it All stars Jake Johnson, Keegan-Michael Key, and Joe Lo Truglio and follows a man who spends all the money he’s promised to hold on to for an imprisoned friend, only to have to quickly win it back when the friend’s prison sentence gets shortened. Johnson (here a co-screenwriter) has become a regular collaborator with Swanberg, so here’s hoping this go-round is as entertaining and insightful as 2013’s great Drinking Buddies.

Mine (April 7, Limited)

Utilizing the usually successful trope of putting your protagonist in a confined space they can’t get out of (think 127 Hours, Buried, and Frozen [not the Disney one]), Mine is about a soldier (Armie Hammer) who gets stranded in the desert, surrounded by landmines and unable to move. It’ll be interesting to see how Hammer handles having the film pretty much all to himself (by the looks of it), considering his other work has either been supporting roles or with a co-lead. The premise here is good, so let’s see if the delivery does it justice.

The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z (April 14, Limited)

I’m still not totally sold on James Gray as a director, and 2015’s middling The Immigrant didn’t do a lot to change my mind. However, I have hope for his latest project, despite the fact (because of the fact?) that it stars the likes of Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson. The Lost City of Z tells the true story of Col. Percival Fawcett (Hunnam), a British explorer searching in the 1920’s for a mysterious South American city.

Maudie (April 14, Limited)

Delving into the life of Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis, Maudie stars Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke. Those two names alone are enough to pique my interest, but when combined with strong buzz from the festival circuit and a gorgeous-looking trailer, Maudie becomes a must-seee.

Tramps

Tramps (April 21, Netflix)

While it may not have the same star power as something like the upcoming War Machine, it was nice to see Netflix snap up this indie crime romance, which earned strong reviews during its premiere at TIFF last fall. Starring Callum Turner (Green Room) and Grace Van Patten (Stealing Cars), Tramps is written and directed by Adam Leon, who made a splash with 2013 debut feature, Gimme the Loot. An unlikely rom-com, Tramps takes place in New York and follows two strangers who end up working together when a shady deal goes awry.

Free Fire (April 21, Wide)

With a top-notch cast (Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, etc.) and a brash, bullet-riddled premise, it’s not too surprising that Free Fire is getting a major release. It’ll be a big step up in terms of attention for director Ben Wheatley (High-Rise, Kill List), though, previously a favourite in the cult film community. Free Fire looks fun and crowd-pleasing, and I’m intrigued to see how Wheatley’s vision competes among big-budget fare at the box office.

The Circle

The Circle (April 28, Wide)

After his directorial trifecta of Smashed, The Spectacular Now, and The End of the Tour, I’m now automatically excited for any movie helmed by James Ponsoldt. The Circle is far and away his biggest project to date, starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson and based on the popular 2013 novel of the same name by Dave Eggers. The film follows Mae (Watson), a young woman who lands a lucrative job at a powerful tech company (the titular “Circle”), only to discover that they may have a sinister agenda. Having read and liked the book, I’m highly intrigued to see what Ponsoldt does with the material.

Rodney King (April 28, Netflix)

A new Spike Lee movie is reason enough to perk up one’s ears (although perhaps also still resist full-fledged excitement, given the director’s spotty track record). This one sounds particularly interesting, even though details are still scarce. Rodney King seems to be a one-man show, examining King (portrayed here by Roger Guenver Smith) and the infamous videotape of his brutal beating at the hands of the LAPD. Lee likely won’t shy away from a bit of controversy with this latest project, so you’ll want to be part of the conversation about this film, which conveniently makes its premiere on Netflix.

Other films of note: Their Finest (April 7, limited) looks like a charming return to form for Lone Scherfig (An Education), following a group of British propaganda filmmakers during WWII and starring Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, and Bill Nighy. And speaking of charm, Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, and Jenny Slate team up for Gifted (April 7, limited), the latest from Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer, The Amazing Spider-Man) about a young girl with exceptional mathematic skill. Terrence Davies also returns hot off the heels of last year’s Sunset Song with A Quiet Passion (April 14, limited), examining the life of Emily Dickinson. And, finally, April also has something for the adrenaline junkies in the crowd, unleashing the hotly anticipated The Fate of the Furious (April 14, wide).

Review: The Levelling

The Levelling

The Levelling, the debut feature of English director Hope Dickson Leach, is understated and solemn, but also crackling with emotional intensity.

At just 83 minutes long, the story is slight – at times too much so – but it feels like the perfect length for this quiet slice of life that writer-director Leach is conveying.

The Levelling is set during the Somerset Levels floods of 2014, which jeopardized the livelihoods of many in the area. However, that real-life event largely serves as a backdrop (and metaphorical tie-in) for Leach’s fictional story. It follows Clover (Game of Thrones’ Ellie Kendrick), a veterinary student who returns home to her family’s farm after the sudden death of her brother, Harry (Joe Blackmore). In the immediate aftermath of Harry’s death, their father (David Troughton) struggles to come to terms with it, so Clover must take care of the farm while also trying to piece together exactly how her brother died.

The Levelling is largely a film about grief. While the mystery-of-sorts surrounding Harry’s death serves as a loose plot to propel the movie along, the main focus is on the ramifications that incident has on Clover, her father, and their relationship. Leach’s examination of loss is delicate, saying more with silence, characters’ body language, and cinematic atmosphere than she does with words in the screenplay. The Levelling has a tone that is understated and a little grim without ever feeling morose. Leach’s handle on the material is too steady to venture into melodrama and The Levelling is all the more captivating because of it.

Also greatly helping to convey the film’s subtle narrative themes is Kendrick, whose performance is nothing short of stunning. Her face is so expressive that it’s easy to know how Clover is feeling without it ever feeling too obvious or exaggerated. Clover is a very internalized character, which doesn’t always translate on screen, yet rather than her introversion feeling like a hurdle for the film to get over, Kendrick sinks her teeth into it, finding other ways to inhabit the character. Despite the film’s other strengths, it seems doubtful this character study would have worked without a strong lead actress like Kendrick.

The Levelling may not grip everyone, but I found that its quiet impact lingered with me, hitting in unlikely ways for a seemingly low-key movie. Let the beautiful cinematography wash over you and accept the story for what it is. You might find that it says some unexpected things about human nature in the process.

Where should we draw the line between TV and film?

Olive Kitteridge

Last week, I finally caught up with HBO’s celebrated 2014 mini-series Olive Kitteridge. Adapted from Elizabeth Strout’s novel of the same name and told over an expansive four-hour runtime, it’s broken into four parts that align with its somewhat episodic “chapter” structure.

Few people would contest the fact that Olive Kitteridge is a mini-series. In terms of narrative scope and format, it’s perfectly suited to hour-long segments. Yet in the opening credits, it’s labelled as “a film by Lisa Cholodenko”. And that feels valid too. Olive Kitteridge has a cinematic feel to it and Cholodenko, whose past films include The Kids Are All Right and Laurel Canyon, clearly brought a Hollywood pedigree to the project.

So with all of that in mind, I began to wonder, where exactly is the line between television and film?

One simplistic and perhaps obvious answer is, “it doesn’t really matter.” Great art is great art regardless of how or where you consume it. And whether something is distributed as a theatrical film or a television mini-series could very well come down to practical decisions related to its potential marketability on a given platform. When you look at it that way, the division doesn’t feel all that artistically significant.

But still, labelling something as “film” or “television” brings certain consequences. In this supposed golden age of television, the line between the two formats is blurring, but many viewers and critics still hold onto the idea that television is “lesser” than cinema. Calling something a “made for TV movie” still has a somewhat withering connotation, even in an age where it’s not uncommon for A-list Oscar winners like Al Pacino or William Hurt to star in said movies.

Even big-name talent might not get the same respect for their work on TV. Frances McDormand won an Emmy for Lead Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie for her work in Olive Kitteridge, and in my opinion quite deservedly so. We’ll never know if she would have won her second Best Actress Oscar had Olive Kitteridge been eligible for that award (her first being in 1997 for Fargo), but if you were going to introduce McDormand by her credentials, it seems a lot more likely you’d say “Academy Award winner Frances McDormand” rather than “Emmy Award winner Frances McDormand”.

It’s not all bad news for television, though, since the format obviously also affords some artistic freedom that film doesn’t. By having the luxury of taking four hours to track 25 years in its protagonist’s life, Olive Kitteridge obviously has the room to fully develop its characters. Who’s to say that it would have been so effective pared down to a standard “movie” runtime of half the length?

And it’s not as though television is so ghettoized nowadays. Series like Stranger Things or Game of Thrones are arguably bigger cultural phenomenons than almost any recent movie to hit theatres. If the quality is there people will catch on, and with online platforms enabling viewers to “binge watch” hours of content at a time, it seems the tides are turning in favour of longer-format series that fans can get invested in and discuss for longer than a “one and done” standalone movie.

One film that really worked to blur those lines was O.J.: Made in America (which I reviewed here), Ezra Eddelman’s nearly eight-hour documentary about the notorious O.J. Simpson. Documentaries have always lent themselves nicely to episodic, multi-hour miniseries, whether it be Ken Burns’ lengthy PBS examinations of American history or the Netflix sensation Making a Murder. And O.J. did break into five logical and vaguely self-contained parts to air on television or streaming. But those involved with O.J. stayed adamant that it was in fact a feature film, riding that classification all the way to a (well-deserved) Oscar win for Best Documentary. Some quibbled with the idea of O.J. being a movie, but considering it initially screened at film festivals like Sundance and Hot Docs as a single 463-minute unit, it seems illogical to argue that it’s not.

With that example in mind, perhaps the best way to classify whether something is film or television comes down to intent. If the filmmakers envision their work as an eight-hour film, then so be it. There are certainly examples of arthouse and experimental films that run nearly as long or longer, but they’d also never be broken into smaller, more easily digestible segments simply because they lack marketability, regardless of how you dice them up. If we accept those works as “films” at face value, why do we try to “punish” something like O.J. by claiming it’s not a film, simply because a studio or distributor took the opportunity to get the film out to a wider audience by choosing an alternative format for their film?

Since we’re talking about intent, let’s close with some thoughts from one of the filmmakers in question. When asked about Olive Kitteridge’s format, Cholodenko had this to say:

When I saw it back for the first time on a screen, it’s got this really lovely title sequence and says ‘A Film by Lisa Cholodenko’ — and I watched it and I thought, wow does it feel like that? Is that going to be strange?

And then at the end I really felt like, gosh, that really is a film, it was really such a great opportunity to make this four hour film, you know? It does have these chapters but for me it feels very coherent. It’s all in the piece and it hangs together and it is like a film. We shot it like a film, I approached it like a film, I think visually it feels like a film and narratively I thought of it as a film with the whole arc: Where does she go, where does she start, does it have a midpoint? All these things weave together — even though they’re episodes — into a bigger picture.”

Review: The Belko Experiment

The Belko ExperimentYou’d be forgiven for thinking the premise of The Belko Experiment sounds familiar. Following a group of American employees at a Colombian office building, a typical day at work quickly becomes a sadistic social experiment when the workers are instructed to start killing one another in order to avoid being killed. It’s a little bit of The Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies, and Funny Games rolled together, all somehow set inside an off-kilter workplace comedy.

Director Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) begins the proceedings by sardonically showing us the sanitized office setting of Belko Industries, but don’t let the film’s mild set-up fool you. Once the office building goes into lockdown, the pleasantries quickly vanish, making way for the bloodshed and exploding heads. There’s no other way to say it: The Belko Experiment is very violent. However, for those who aren’t too squeamish, there’s a decidedly tongue-in-cheek approach to the film that does help ease some of the brutality of what’s being depicted on screen. It’s more camp than torture porn; decide for yourself if that’s a good thing.

The Belko Experiment seems like a bit of a surprising choice to get a major release, having gotten its start on the festival circuit and featuring no A-list names. It doesn’t aspire to be much more than a high-concept, low-budget cult film, and it seems like it’ll have far better longevity on Netflix than it will at the box office. I suspect a lot of its pumped-up profile has to do with the involvement of James Gunn (best known for directing the Guardians of the Galaxy films), who takes on writing and producing duties here.

The irony of that, of course, is that the script is easily the film’s weakest element, never quite finding the balance between schlock and social commentary. The set-up features the sort of cardboard characters and snarky one-liners that we come to expect from this grade of horror flick, and then once the shit starts to hit the fan, Gunn never pushes the “moral dilemma” aspect hard enough, which should be at the film’s core. It instead becomes a matter of who’s going to turn into the big, bad villain that everyone else has to defeat. There’s a smart film buried within Belko that we get hints of, with its wry commentary on corporate life, and it would have been nice to see more of that, rather than a reliance on overworked clichés.

One aspect of The Belko Experiment that works both for and against it is the cast, which is huge. Clearly Gunn gave some of his friends a ring, because there’s no other explanation for how the film manages to land a character actor trifecta of John C. McGinley, Tony Goldwyn, and Michael Rooker. (Google it if the names don’t sound familiar – you’ll know all their faces.) All three of their characters are written to varying degrees of ridiculousness but are very fun to watch.

John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom, 10 Cloverfield Lane), meanwhile, might seem like a weird choice for the lead role but perfectly balances the everyman aspect of his thinly-written character with the badass “action” direction he has to go, all the while bringing a bit of genuine emotional heft to the proceedings. Most of the other actors are in the film too briefly to make much of an impression, and at least half a dozen of them could have been trimmed without anyone really noticing. It’s just another example of how Belko largely squanders its potential, settling for low-brow pulp when it had all the goods to be something more.

That’s not to say that there aren’t aspects of Belko that work. McLean has a firm handle on the direction and carries the viewer through smoothly, even as the plot becomes outlandishly chaotic. And while the film fails to deliver on its premise in terms of the explanation provided for why the “experiment” is happening, it does manage a gut-punch of an ending. (It’s also a suspiciously sequel-friendly one, but I guess we can’t begrudge them that.)

Gunn has talked about how long The Belko Experiment percolated in his mind before getting made, and it does end up feeling overworked, never quite hitting any of the marks it seems to want to. However, the ride is still a mildly fun one – assuming your idea of a good time is at least a little bit twisted.