Category Archives: Movie Reviews

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.

Review: High Life

High Life

The conception of High Life on its own would be strange enough: septuagenarian French auteur Claire Denis decides to make her first English-language film a sci-fi adventure starring Robert Pattinson. But let me tell you, the result of all that is something much weirder even than you’d expect.

Falling not so much into the “exciting space adventure” subgenre (e.g. Gravity and Apollo 13) nor the “supernatural space horror” subgenre (e.g. Alien and its various offspring), High Life aligns better with the “existential space dread” subgenre that’s been exemplified in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Moon. The films opens with astronaut Monte (Pattinson), alone in an austere space ship but for a sole baby. From there, we flash back to the earlier days of Monte’s space journey – including scenes with the crew that originally joined him – and learn how he ended up where he is.

There are no easy answers or zippy plot points in High Life. There are, however, a lot of bodily fluids. Denis does not shy away from how strange and sometimes grotesque the baser aspects of human existence can be. And then, of course, she magnifies them for narrative effect. The result makes for a pretty uncomfortable watch. Not because High Life is extremely explicit or gross, but because there is a boldness to how unblinking it all is. Only someone with as steady of an eye as Denis could interweave all of that with the film’s more bizarre aspects in a way that feels believable.

There is a sadness to High Life, as well. Denis seems very interested in examining the effects of loneliness, isolation, and exclusion (which, as the film seems to suggest, are certainly all separate things). And Pattinson, shaved head emphasizing his interesting but intense features, proves to be a great lead to help convey this.

Things are presented ambiguously enough that I think everyone will take different things from the viewing experience. It’s also a film that enthusiastically invites rewatches; personally, I don’t feel confident enough to say that I “got” everything that High Life is doing (or aiming to do) on first viewing.

Perhaps thanks to the film’s lack of explanation, there was also something about it that felt a bit incomplete by the end. Denis’ vision is undeniable, and on a literal, shot-by-shot basis, this is a stunning film to look at. However, I do usually prefer a little more clarity in the narrative when it’s a film with such a large scope.

Now that I’m a couple days out from watching and have had a chance to let things percolate, though, I think I appreciate it more. It’s a film that’s less about the viewer’s scene-to-scene reaction, and more about the feeling they’re left with at the end, and during the days after.

Certainly don’t go into High Life looking for answers. But if open to the sometimes-uncomfortable questions it poses, you’re likely to find a rewarding (if slightly befuddling) end to the journey.

Review: Triple Frontier

Triple Frontier

Even in the few hours that have passed since I saw this movie, there are some aspects of it that I like considerably more than I thought I did, and some considerably less. In the end, though, it all sort of balances out to the general reaction I had while watching Triple Frontier, which is that it’s… okay.

The premise is a fairly well-worn but reliable one: five former special ops soldiers (Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, and Pedro Pascal) combine their skills to pull off a large-scale heist in South America. They rationalize it by saying they’re taking what they “deserve” and what the military did not provide them with. And they do so by stealing the money from some legitimately bad people. However, given that the heist itself takes place pretty early on in the film, you can probably guess that things don’t quite go as planned.

Triple Frontier does get points for mostly avoiding the swagger-y, brainless pitfalls that many an action movie before it has stumbled into. There are certainly cliched situations here, but the film also takes the time to explore the moral repercussions of the violence that the quintet of leads inflict. On the whole, there is a thoughtfulness and a critical eye that adds a very welcome layer of complication.

So the script does provide some compelling ethical quandaries. But, boy, does it also feature some clunky dialogue. This is surprising coming from co-writers Mark Boal and J.C. Chandor, each of whom have earned Oscar nominations for their writing in the past. (And, in Boal’s case, a win!) This is especially apparent with Hedlund’s character, who we learn little about apart from his penchant for yee-haw one-liners that sadly give the actor little to work with.

Some of the rest of the cast fares better. Isaac and Pascal, in particular, are super charismatic and seem to understand the somewhat tricky balance of tones the film is going for. This is not a film highly focused on character development (proven by a pretty bland “getting the band back together” opening half hour) and I’d argue that no one is at their best here. But the cast is still seasoned and make it all fun enough to watch.

Chandor’s handle on the action, though, is really the high point of this film. In the hands of a lesser director, Triple Frontier would almost certainly have that cheap look and feel of a low-grade action flick. Instead, Chandor translates the gravity of what is happening through the use of precise, clear directing during the action set pieces. There are probably fewer action sequences than some people will go into it expecting, but the ones that are there (and, in particular, a gripping late-stage car chase) are so well executed that the film is wholly satisfying from that standpoint.

In the end, Triple Frontier could have been excellent but made some compromises along the way. Especially when it comes to the script. It’s handsomely made (including some nice cinematography from Roman Vasyanov), though, and if it sounds like your kind of movie it’s certainly still worth a watch.

Review: Live Action Oscar Shorts

In my quest to watch as many of this year’s Oscar nominated films as I can, I checked out a screening of all five of the Live Action Short nominees. The results were… depressing!

That said, I did like 4 of the 5 films, to varying degrees. Below are my brief thoughts on each, in the order I watched them.

Mother

Mother (Rodrigo Sorogoyen, Spain)

Perhaps the ideal use of the short film format, Mother tells an economical story in a trim 18 minutes. It’s self-contained and propulsive, ratcheting up the tension by using a single shot for the majority of its runtime.

The acting is solid, selling this story of a mother who receives a call from her young son who’s been left by himself in an unknown location. Of course, things only escalate from there, but we always stay on the mother’s end of the line so the viewer is similarly left in the dark of what exactly is happening.

I would have liked a bit more character development to make it easier to get emotionally invested. But the slick filmmaking provides plenty of narrative stakes on its own.

Fauve

Fauve (Jeremy Comte, Canada)

Comte’s short is easily my favourite of the bunch, telling the story of two boys who are out exploring on their own and get into far more trouble than they expect. The child actors are excellent and Comte’s camera is patient, giving the film an extremely naturalistic feel. The story unfolds at the perfect pace, building to a subtle but emotionally impactful ending.

There is an artistry to Fauve that sets it apart from the others, and I’d be extremely interested to see what Comte could do with the feature-length format. He has a knack for visual storytelling. Because while like most of the other shorts in this programme Fauve is grim, it never wallows and instead earns its somberness. I would be surprised if this one won the Oscar, but it would certainly be worthy.

Marguerite

Marguerite (Marianne Farley, Canada)

The category’s second offering from Canada, Marguerite is actually the most uplifting of the bunch. Which is an interesting thing to say about a film that follows a dying elderly women thinking about the great regrets of her life. But there is a hopefulness and warmth to Marguerite that actually makes it quite lovely. There are only two actors in the film (Beatrice Picard and Sandrine Bisson) and both are wonderful, lending a lot of emotional heft to the proceedings.

The film’s character intimacy is its great strength. Less strong is the pacing, which feels a bit shaggy even at only 19 minutes long. While emotionally affecting and overall a strong showing, it felt like there was just one small element missing.

Detainment

Detainment (Vincent Lambe, Ireland)

I can almost always find a way to at least justify a film’s existence, but that’s not really the case with Detainment. Tackling the distressing true story of two 10-year-old boys accused of murdering a toddler, it comes across as not only exploitative (which would be bad enough) but also artless. There’s no real visual style, atmosphere, or narrative tension (beyond the general sense of dread stemming from the subject matter) to be found.

The bright spot (if you can call it that) of the film is the performance by Ely Solan as one of the two boys, the doe-eyed Jon. It is an unsettlingly excellent performance from such a young actor, to the point where it made me wonder about the ethics of putting child actors into such a disturbing (yes, fictional) situation.

There simply isn’t a reason for this movie to exist. It’s one thing to be bleak. It’s another to use real-life tragedy for shock value and do nothing more with it.

Skin

Skin (Guy Nattiv, USA)

I have mixed feelings on Skin. Partly, I think it suffered for being the last of the five shorts shown in the programme, forced to follow up all the grimness that came before. But more than that, I think it just goes overboard to make its point. The subject matter (concerning a racially-based hate crime in the small-town southern USA) is no doubt important. But while I think (?) the heavy-handedness is intentional (meant to be allegorical rather than taken at face value), the stereotypes and oversimplification of the complex themes is a bit hard to stomach.

That said it is beautifully shot, and the story flows well. The acting is also strong – Jonathan Tucker and Danielle Macdonald are experienced and talented enough to imbue some intricacy to what would be otherwise very one-dimensional characters. If only the story itself had an ounce of nuance.

Review: Cold War

cold war

I don’t often wish that movies were significantly longer than they already are, but I think Cold War easily could have added another 20-30 minutes to its run time. And not in the sense where I just wanted to spend more time with the characters (although also kind of that). It’s because a scant 89 minutes didn’t feel long enough to tell this story in a fully satisfying way.

Following the “romantic epic” model, Cold War bounces between years and countries to tell the complicated love story of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig). But the story moves at such a clip that it’s not until the second act, taking place largely in Paris, where it feels like the film finally gets the space it deserves to let the story breathe.

Obviously it was Pawlikowski’s intention to present the story more in snippets or as fragments of a relationship. I’m just not sure I agree with him that that was the best way.

You may be surprised to learn, though, that my review of the movie is a positive one. The truth is that I liked everything else about the film so much that I still think it’s ultimately a success, and quite a visual achievement in particular. The black and white cinematography (as was the case in Pawlikowski’s previous film, Ida) is absolutely stunning, heightening the tension, longing, and volatility of many a scene.

The performances, too, are excellent. Kot is equal parts sadsack and dreamboat (to great effect), while Kulig deserves every word of praise she’s been getting for her turn. Zula is a fantastically complex and fiery character, and Kulig brings both the charisma and depth to carry her off perfectly. (I’ve been seeing a lot of Jennifer Lawrence comparisons, but there are many moments where she seemed to me the spitting image of a young Gena Rowlands.)

It was a thrill simply watching the central relationship play out. While I did feel the narrative structure made Cold War feel remote at times, ultimately the spirited performances and dazzling visuals brought it right back into the here and now.