Tag Archives: movie reviews

Review: O.J.: Made in America

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Prior to watching O.J.: Made in America, I believed I had a general understanding of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. I was a very young child when it all played out, so I hadn’t experienced it as it was happening, but I’d since gleaned the necessary information through pop culture and references that came up in conversation. Or so I thought.

As I quickly found out after starting Ezra Edelman’s nearly 8-hour documentary, I knew only the very faintest outline of the major events surrounding the case. And every time I’d heard the trial and verdict mentioned, it was usually cloaked in the assumption that O.J. was guilty. Now, after completing O.J.: Made in America, I do still believe that he committed the murder. However, the path that I took to come to that conclusion is now both far better-informed and a hell of a lot murkier.

So that’s where I was at going in to O.J. Admittedly, I think my ignorance on the subject made the viewing experience more “exciting”. For someone who knows the ins and outs of the case or who followed the trial through its excruciatingly long duration, there obviously aren’t going to be as many surprises. Yet, I found that the most interesting part of O.J. was not following every twist and turn in the narrative (and, indeed, I’m sure everyone watching at the very least knows the ultimate outcome of the story) but in discovering the context that surrounded it all and contributed to the result.

Edelman does a fantastic job of providing background both in regards to O.J.’s life and to the social climate in Los Angeles at the time. The murder isn’t even addressed until a full three hours into the movie, and Edelman spends the time leading up to that essentially setting the scene for how and why things happened like they did He delves into the extreme racial tension plaguing L.A., which was still fresh off the heels of Rodney King and questions of ongoing police brutality. And while much of this might not be new information to the viewer, it is illuminating to see it all laid out at once, and it makes the ultimate trajectory of the trial a lot more comprehensible.

The film’s rich cast of interview subjects also greatly enhance the story, providing perspective from just about every angle imaginable. Yes, there are a few key players missing – most notably, Simpson himself – but Edelman more than makes up for that by speaking at length to the people who knew the ultimately unknowable O.J. the best; childhood friends, teammates, business associates, reporters, prosecutors, defense lawyers, jurors, and family members of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman all weigh in. Their responses to O.J. are as diverse as the public’s, ultimately offering no easy answers but making the story all the more fascinating and complex. And Edelman clearly has a knack for interviews, highlighting the more colourful side of more than a few of his subjects and drawing out a few tidbits in regards to O.J. that are truly damning, if true. (Which, as the film silently suggests throughout, sometimes may not actually be the case.)

Among the film’s many other rich themes, that question of truth and obfuscation permeates the narrative at every turn. In seamlessly pieced-together archival footage, we see many different sides of O.J., some of them downright charming. The whole first segment of the film (if you choose to watch it in its more easily digestible five-part format) presents O.J.’s college days and his early pro football career, and it’s easy to get swept up in that story and almost completely forget what is to come.

To that end, Edelman brings such a sense of empathy to the film that none of the subjects are portrayed as truly unlikeable or unsympathetic, even as some of them seem to uncontrollably offer up questionable views or speak of their involvement in the more unsavoury aspects of O.J.’s past. For example, O.J.’s longtime agent, Mike Gilbert (one of the film’s most fascinating and candid subjects), provides information that paints himself in questionable light as much as it does O.J. At one point, somewhat bafflingly, Gilbert admits that he always thought O.J. was guilty yet remained close with him. He seems to suggest that he would have been fine with the idea of O.J. committing second-degree murder, but his realization that it may have been premeditated was apparently the thing that was a bridge too far. It’s revelations like this – all tied into people’s murky motivations, self-interest, and damage – that complicate the story, even if you’re operating under the assumption that O.J. is indeed guilty.

Edelman knows how to craft a documentary that rises far above standard true crime fare, weaving in endless nuance to subject matter that you’d expect to be too well-worn to offer much interest. 467 minutes may sound long, but rather than feeling drawn-out, O.J.: Made in America feels like the perfect length for Edelman’s expansive scope. As the title suggests, Simpson was indeed the product of that fabled “American dream”, and without ever feeling heavy-handed, Edelman understatedly crafts perhaps a truly perfect argument to why that promised “dream” may ultimately be false.

Review: Blue Jay

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Blue Jay is, in some ways, a very simple film. With just two actors on screen for almost the entire runtime, a black-and-white colour palette, and an almost non-existent narrative, it’s a masterclass in barebones cinema. Think of a quiet, low-budget indie film. Now think of a film even more stripped down than that, and you have something approximating Blue Jay.

However, it’s also a film that is a bit difficult to describe. The plot is simple – two former high school sweethearts, Jim and Amanda, unexpectedly meet again 20 years later and spend a day catching up – but the reason it’s actually interesting is much more complicated to define.

A big part of the reason is lead actors Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson, who imbue their performances with such lived-in believability that you never question Jim and Amanda’s past together, or why they’d be intrigued at the prospect of hanging out again. There is an immediate tenderness to the pair’s chemistry that allows the viewer to buy in to their shared past and also nicely lends credence to some later plot reveals about why the pair’s teenage romance fell apart in the first place.

Another thing the film certainly has going for it is the Duplass touch. Blue Jay is the first of four films that Mark Duplass and his brother Jay are producing for Netflix, and Mark also wrote the script. It has the same micro-melancholy feel of other Duplass brother joints, such as 2012’s Jeff Who Lives at Home and 2011’s Cyrus. But while the brothers directed those other two films themselves, Blue Jay is actually the debut narrative directorial effort from cinematographer Alex Lehmann. By the Duplasses handing over the directing duties to someone who, frankly, has a much stronger eye for composition and cinematography than they do, Blue Jay has a visual beauty that their other films have lacked. The black-and-white cinematography is clean and surprisingly unobtrusive, lending the film a bit of extra, albeit gentle, emotional heft.

Blue Jay has an emotional core that feels genuinely melancholy without ever being melodramatic or self-pitying. It’s the little character touches – for example, Jim’s tendency to cry at nearly anything versus Amanda’s unshakable reserve – that make them feel like real people with a full life’s worth of history, rather than characters created solely for the purpose of a self-contained film. The filmmakers tap into something authentic and intimate in a way that is rarely captured on screen.

The film bound to draw comparisons to Linklater’s Before Sunrise series, and there is a “walk and talk” quality to Blue Jay that makes the comparison apt, as does the film’s limited timeframe. However, while Linklater’s trilogy is full of acerbic dialogue between its two notably articulate protagonists, Blue Jay revels in its own regularity. The conversations between Jim and Amanda feel like discussions anyone could have. That’s not to say that they’re banal, but the film’s emphasis on improvisation allows Duplass and Paulson to explore in a way that feels very natural. The result is something that feels a little less polished, but perhaps all the more emotionally raw because of it.

The old “I laughed, I cried” cliché has maybe never been more true for me than it was with Blue Jay. It’s a film rich in universal truths and an almost indescribable sadness, despite the fact that it comes in such a charming package, courtesy of Duplass and Paulson’s on-screen chemistry. It’s a small film, but don’t let it pass you by.

Amanda Knox (2016)

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Even if you don’t know all the details of the Amanda Knox trial, you undoubtedly know the name, and there’s a good chance you also have an opinion as to whether or not Knox was guilty. But while Amanda Knox the person tends to incite strong, declarative feelings in people, Amanda Knox the documentary aims to temper those convictions, shying away from the binary, knee-jerk sensationalism that largely surrounded the case itself, instead opting to take a more even-keeled approach.

This new documentary from Brian McGinn and Rod Blackhurst delves into the years-long legal journey of Amanda Knox, who in 2007 was a 20-year-old student living abroad in Italy when her roommate, Meredith Kercher, was brutally murdered in the house the two young women shared. Knox and her then boyfriend became suspects in the case and were initially convicted and later acquitted during a lengthy court battle. McGinn and Blackhurst take the viewer through each step of the process, combining archival footage with moodily shot B-roll and present-day talking head interviews with key figures in the trial, including Knox herself.

It must be said, the construction of this film is incredibly slick. At a slight 92 minutes, it manages to give an impressively fulsome view of the case, covering not just the legal facts, but also many of the grey areas that ultimately shaped how things played out. Perhaps most notably this includes some sobering exploration of the media’s relentless search for tabloid fodder (relayed gleefully by Nick Pisa, an almost cartoonishly slimy Daily Mail journalist who covered the Knox case). It also tackles the unavoidable topic of how Amanda’s looks, sexuality, and status as a young woman played into the public’s perception of the case, and may have ultimately impacted the verdict. And perhaps most arrestingly, Amanda Knox even manages to shed some light on who Amanda is as a person, showing us her modest life back in Seattle and allowing Amanda to share the very mixed emotions she holds about the ordeal.

Considering how complicated and often frustratingly ambiguous the trial turned out to be, this is all a hell of a lot to pack into 92 minutes. And for the most part, it goes down smoothly, zipping along at a good clip while also filling in the blanks for viewers (like me) who previously knew little about the case beyond the basic facts. But while it covers all of its bases in a propulsive way, the pace of the film makes Amanda Knox sometimes feel more like an overview than a completely comprehensive look at the story. As a result – and this is a criticism I rarely give – I think the film could have benefitted from being longer. If they’d included another 20-30 minutes, there would have been more room to delve into some of the many interesting aspects of the story that the film touches on, but never gets to fully explore. For example, I would have been interested to see more about the repercussions the ordeal had on Knox’s personal life, a very human element of the story which is present in the film, but largely saved for the last five minutes of its run time.

And indeed, the film does feel a bit like it’s racing towards an inevitable conclusion during its final third. For the first hour, the filmmakers carefully set up the opposing perspectives on the case (i.e. “she’s guilty” vs. “she’s innocent”) and outline the evidence that supports both stances. By revealing information the way they do, McGinn and Blackhurst very effectively outline the twists in the trial and the way that public perception was heavily affected by media coverage. As more information is revealed, the viewer may find their own biases coming into question. However, after the point of Amanda Knox where the forensic evidence experts discuss how investigators likely bungled the DNA evidence, it’s almost the film says, “I’ve just proved my thesis” and switches a little bit into autopilot. It becomes less even-handed at that point, instead breezing through all the necessary steps leading to Knox’s eventual exoneration, but doing so with considerably less narrative flair.

No matter your stance on Knox, though, Amanda Knox is a fascinating portrait of a person who lived through a true media circus and came out the other side. It may not offer a lot of new information to those who closely followed the trial, but it does offer some fascinating new insight from Knox herself. Whether or not you believe her is another story.

Green Room (2016)

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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)

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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.