Tag Archives: movie reviews

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.

Citizenfour (2014)

Citizenfour

Perhaps less a truly great documentary than it is a capital-I Important one, Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour offers the kind of thorough behind-the-scenes look that we never see of most major news stories.

We all know about Edward Snowden, the NSA employee who leaked classified documents to the press and revealed the U.S. government’s deception regarding surveillance. But Citizenfour offers insight into Snowden the person, showing his surprisingly cool-headed approach to leaking the documents and, subsequently, dealing with the immediate fallout from his actions.

A lot of what makes Citizenfour so remarkable is the extremely unusual amount of access that Poitras is given to a situation in real time, as everything is unfolding; because Snowden has “gone rogue”, there’s no red tape holding Poitras back. What results is an uncensored and unforgiving expose of the government’s surveillance tactics, which Snowden himself describes very concisely through much of the film. Snowden’s eloquence simultaneously makes him an interesting subject and damns the NSA more by the minute.

Speaking of Snowden, Poitras paints an interesting and complicated portrait. As a filmmaker, she isn’t shy about making her own biases known in regards to surveillance, even evoking her own personal experiences. (Though I wouldn’t say that this bias overwhelms the film.) However, she takes a more even-handed and human approach to Snowden, showing a few different sides of him that were surprising. For example, while the film overall paints a flattering portrait, scenes where Snowden is crafting his next media move and even openly embracing the fact that he’s headed for international notoriety are fascinating to watch unfold.

Citizenfour loses some steam in its second half after the classified documents have started to be published, as some of the tension built earlier on starts to dissipate. Of course, being a documentary, Poitras can only manipulate things so much in the name of dramatic effect. Maybe all I’m really saying is that I’m looking forward to the fictional retelling of the story (which is, of course on its way courtesy of Oliver Stone). But in terms of storytelling, I just thought that things could’ve been structured more deftly.

Nonetheless, Citizenfour is illuminating, shocking, and vital. The fact that someone was there to capture that moment in time is incredible, and it’s just a bonus that the central figure is charismatic and surprisingly likeable. What results is a compelling and well-made film that proves the power of documentary.

TIFF 2015: Mustang

Mustang

Each year, it seems like the first film I see at TIFF ends up becoming one of my favourites of the whole festival. (In case you’re curious, my picks from past years that fall under this category are Lore, Tom at the Farm, and Eden.) And after seeing Mustang yesterday on the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival’s opening night, I feel pretty confident that tradition will continue. From first-time director Deniz Gamze Erguven, it’s a beautiful, assured debut that marks the arrival of another name to watch for in Turkish cinema.

Mustang tells the story of five girls living under the oppressive and careful watch of their relatives in the Turkish countryside. Having lost their parents years ago, they’re now at the mercy of an old-fashioned grandmother and tyrannical uncle who both expect them to get married ASAP. However, being modern pre-teen and teenage girls, the sisters have rather different and comparatively rebellious interests that their family fears could compromise the girls’ ever-important chastity.

Mustang is a lot of things at once. From the film’s purposely chaotic, fervent opening to its ultimately poignant conclusion, Erguven reflects the jumble of emotions that come along with growing up. There were moments that had the crowd roaring with laughter and others that respectfully deal with some truly dark and difficult themes. However, despite its emotional highs and lows, I didn’t find Mustang‘s tone inconsistent.

Helping to ground the proceedings in believability is the film’s five stunning lead actresses. If The Virgin Suicides (a film that’s nearly impossible not to compare Mustang to in more ways than one) treated Kirsten Dunst as its centrepiece and the rest of the sisters as beautiful, sad props, Mustang differs wildly on that front. The sisters begin as a sort of wild, indistinguishable unit that are nearly always together. But as fissures in that bond start to form, each actress gets an opportunity to shine as their characters meet various fates. It was highly refreshing to see five distinct and realistic female characters share the screen, and I give a lot of credit to Erguven for writing such rich roles.

As much as I’m raving, I also wouldn’t describe Mustang as a perfect film. Erguven’s inexperience as a director does come across occasionally with a few scenes that feel a tad mishandled, including the film’s climax, which took perhaps too dramatic of a departure from the rest of this fairly low-key film.

Mustang offers a little bit of everything, including the kind of robust and engaging narrative that arty world cinema isn’t always known for. It’s also an all-too-rare film that tells its story from a perspective that is both spunky and unmistakably feminine. Take all of that and combine it with absolutely breathtaking cinematography and a great Warren Ellis and Nick Cave (!) score and you’ve got one of the most exciting directorial debuts of recent memory.

9/10

Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina 2
Ah, this is one of those movies that comes frustratingly very close to being very good. While Ex Machina has lots working in its favour, though, it feels underdeveloped, and like it’s always just about to fully click into gear, but never quite does.

Looking at the previous films that Alex Garland has written, this problem perhaps isn’t a surprising one. Sunshine and Never Let Me Go are both fascinating, low-key sci-fi studies. But while they take a more cerebral approach to the genre, there’s a coldness to them. Those two films are a bit more successful than Ex Machina, however, because of the scale that they operate on; part of the interest comes from the world that their characters are navigating.Ex Machina, which takes place almost entirely in one man’s house and with four characters (one of whom doesn’t talk), feels too removed. The characters are interesting enough, but Garland doesn’t let us see enough into them to completely pull off the “character study” approach.

Also, this is Garland’s first time directing. He does a fine job behind the camera, and the film contains many beautiful shots. There is an effectively claustrophobic atmosphere. But another director perhaps would’ve known which threads to tug on to make this story really come alive.

The cast here works well. Domhnall Gleeson continues his streak of playing likeable chumps, while Oscar Isaac plays a delightfully bizarre scientist/narcissist type. Alicia Vikander, meanwhile, continues her intriguing transition from Sweden to Hollywood, playing a beguiling A.I. creation. However, while all individually good here, the cast didn’t work as well as a unit as I would’ve hoped, given how few characters the movie has.

It’s always nice to see a sci-fi movie that takes a less common, more thoughtful approach. Ex Machina comes recommended if you like movies like Gattaca or the aforementioned Never Let Me Go. Though flawed, it’s a promising directorial debut from Garland, and certainly one of the more artful offerings you’ll see at the multiplex this year.

6/10