Author Archives: Mike

Manchester by the Sea

manchesterNote: This is the second part of a review double-header!  Jesse sent two recommendations in a single shot so I’m reviewing them at the same time. Click here for the other review.

What Jesse said:

Two movies for you to watch: War Dogs, and Manchester by the Sea. Very different but excellent flicks. War Dogs is so absurd it will make you laugh and then wonder if the grownups really are in charge… also, it was funny ’cause it’s true (based on a real case). Manchester by the Sea was a pretty intense slow burn. Casey Affleck plays the main character. Watch out for the BAHS-ton accents. Family drama.

Mike’s verdict:

If you’re going to freak out every time you see a frozen chicken, I think we should maybe go to the hospital. I don’t know anything about this.

Judging by this quote alone, I should like Manchester by the Sea. Add the fact that it is packed full of awkwardness and I should really like it.  Awkward people just trying to exist in a world where all the little things are much harder than they should be; this is my favourite kind of movie by far. But let’s get things straight right up front: I did not like Manchester by the Sea and I am struggling for a reason not to give it 0/10.

Right from the beginning I was aggravated.  The dialog starts before the opening credits music has faded and it was annoyingly difficult to hear what seemed like an expository exchange.  It was a relief when the music finally stopped – little did I know that all the music in this film would be annoying, out of place, too loud or unnecessary.  It was never appropriate to the scene, nor even ironically inappropriate – it was just all wrong.  Music usage is a crucial aspect of film and when not done correctly it can be devastating even to an otherwise fantastic movie.

Of course, this is not an otherwise fantastic movie. Affleck is annoying before you even see his face. To be fair, he did start to grow on me by the end, but I’m pretty sure that had more to do with the rest of the characters.  At first I wondered why his character would be so anti-social, but then it became clear; he has the most immediately unlikable family and friends imaginable. I can’t think of another film with so many genuinely unlikable characters.  None of them are relate-able as people. A good awkward movie is good because the awkwardness is familiar and understandable.  But all of the characters in this film are unpleasant – and they are definitely not helped by the awful fake accents that just make the dialog that much more painful to hear.

Thirty minutes in I wanted to stop watching. By an hour in I had checked the time remaining half a dozen times, and I really wanted to stop watching.  By and hour and forty-five minutes in I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to take anymore.  And then, inexplicably, it just ends abruptly without any resolution. Normally that would impress me, but this time it felt cheap; I had earned something more involved.

Maybe I’m out of practice. Maybe this is what passes for awkwardness in film these days.  In my day, we had people like Mark Duplass to show how awkwardness can be reveled in. I’d like to see him redo this film shot-for-shot with a better cast. The only actor that should stay in the Duplass version is Matthew Broderick. Yes, that’s right, Matthew Broderick is the single best part of Manchester by the Sea.  In fact, for his part I will give the film a whole extra point.

1/10

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War Dogs

war dogsNote: This is the first part of a review double-header!  Jesse sent two recommendations in a single shot so I’m reviewing them at the same time.  Click here for the other review.

What Jesse said:

Two movies for you to watch: War Dogs, and Manchester by the Sea. Very different but excellent flicks. War Dogs is so absurd it will make you laugh and then wonder if the grownups really are in charge… also, it was funny ’cause it’s true (based on a real case). Manchester by the Sea was a pretty intense slow burn. Casey Affleck plays the main character. Watch out for the BAHS-ton accents. Family drama.

Mike’s verdict:

When does telling the truth ever help anyone?

This is not my kind of movie and I knew it right from the beginning. A ‘true story’ about arms dealers, Afghanistan, and the US government – it’s going to be fairly predictable and I have no doubt about Jesse’s ‘absurd’ label.  Indeed, guns, drugs, war, and banking movies are always the same kind of absurd: someone essentially good makes a series of obviously terrible decisions for the good of family or to get a friend out of a jam, or to just be comfortable for once in their life.  This movie fits the pattern perfectly and it means that there are no surprises as the plot develops.

Granted, that doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining.  The kid from all the Shailene Woodley movies is okay as the naive ‘good guy’ just trying to get ahead. But I initially had trouble accepting him in the role because the life he starts with doesn’t seem that bad.  Jonah Hill is definitely effective as the unsavory partner. He seemed very similar to the character he played in The Wolf of Wall Street, but without the excess.  I can’t say that I liked either character very much; certainly not enough to be on their side.  I knew things would go poorly for them and I didn’t care.

On the other hand, Bradley Cooper‘s role is intriguing.  It’s a fairly small role in terms of screen-time, but he manages to steal the show.  I’d like to see a prequel about him that sets up the Albanian connection and perhaps presents a clearer justification for his involvement in the subsequent scheme.

In most other ways, this movie was entertaining enough to continue watching, but not so interesting that I would be upset if I was interrupted mid-viewing and had to stop watching.  This last thought explains how it is that I managed to watch three quarters of the film before it finally dawned on me that I had actually already watched it once before.  It must have been on the second or third leg of a really long flight because I obviously slept through most of it the first time.

In any case, I did not fall asleep during the second viewing and I was reasonable entertained all the way through.  I even enjoyed the sparse but well chosen music.  There’s always a danger with this type of movie to use overly aggressive music to reinforce themes, but that wasn’t the case here.

Overall,  War Dogs isn’t a great movie, but it isn’t a bad one either.  I was entertained and I think that’s all I would ask of it.

6/10


The Discovery

discoveryNote: Today we have another special guest recommendation!  I have a backlog of recommendations from Jesse but they’re all too hard to find right now and this one is readily available.

What Sam said:

Mike, you should watch The Discovery and let me know what you think. I value your opinion and think that you would thoroughly enjoy it. Kidding, I don’t really value your opinion but I really want to talk about it with someone and you are the only person I know with a movie blog. GFY!

Mike’s verdict:

At the heart of The Discovery is a fascinating thought experiment.  How would you react to knowing that there is an afterlife? Would it change how you live this life?  Now imagine you were told that a soul / spirit / consciousness / whatever left the body immediately after death, but with no indication of where it went.  Would not knowing the destination change how you felt?  How about if you were told that one scientist had evidence of something empirically measurable leaving the body immediately after death, but with no idea what that something is (maybe it’s not a consciousness at all) and with no idea where that something might go?

The latter scenario is where this film begins – science has reported something measurable leaving the body and society has, as it does, filled in all the unknowns with assumptions.  The most immediate result of this is that a not insignificant number of people across the world kill themselves under the assumption, or at least expectation, that there is another plane of existence and – crucially – that it is better.

There is a lot to consider in this thought experiment.  To start with, there is the obvious problem of determining what biological or physical occurrences would be convincing as evidence of a consciousness that can exist separate from the body.  Then of course there is the problem of figuring out where that consciousness actually goes. Interesting questions for sure, but these are in fact not the point of the film.  While the science considerations are distracting (they definitely distracted me at first), the real point of this film is to explore how science fits into society at the crossroads of the empirical colliding with the spiritual.

It’s typically accepted that religion won’t give concrete evidence for its assertions – indeed many would argue that faith without evidence is the point of faith.  This of course is almost anathema to science, which has at its core tenant that assertions must be verifiable and reproducible.  And yet, a case could be made (as I think it is being made in this film) that society doesn’t necessarily hold science to its own standard. The exploitation of scientific reporting by news media looking for anything sensational to sell advertisements is undoubtedly a concerning trend, but this is only possible because society is just as inclined to accept the word of science as it is the word of spiritual leaders – and just as likely to get these words very confused.

The Discovery isn’t about the idea of an afterlife, it’s an indictment of a society that is willing to take on faith (whether spiritually or scientifically) the notion of something beyond. The implication is that people want so badly to find something better, that they are willing to accept anything that will help substantiate their hope. Belief in an afterlife is a potent example to make that point, but it can just as easily be applied to any issue that science and religion makes claims about – so, everything really.  And in making this case, the film highlights the hypocrisy of expecting science to take responsibility for not having all the answers, while allowing religion to actually rely on not having all the answers.

Unfortunately, the narrative gets a little off track nearing the end as it attempts to actually make some sense of the science that it invents.  I would have preferred a more ambiguous ending so that the main questions could stick with the audience rather than allowing everything to be confused by complicated alternate realities.

Beyond the main focus, I liked most other aspects of the film. Robert Redford was fairly convincing as the (initially) socially clueless scientist and Jason Segel was equally believable as the reluctant skeptic; though at times I felt like I was watching the same character he played in Jeff Who Lives at HomeRooney Mara was an interesting choice for a role that is almost-but-not-quite the manic pixie dream girl.  Her character has substance, but in the end she exists (rather literally) to explain Segel’s protagonist, and that’s a bit disappointing.

On the concept alone I would rate this film a full 10/10. But taking into consideration the odd direction of the plot in the end, it gets knocked down to 8/10.

 


The Big Short

the-big-short-movie-posterWhat Jesse said:

You need to watch The Big Short. Fantastic movie about the 2008 economic meltdown that manages to infuse just enough humour to balance the insanity of the world being on the brink of economic disaster. Christian Bale is amazing in it. Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell… awesome. My favourite scene involves an odd discussion between Carell’s character and a ‘dancer’ about real estate. So much cringe.

Mike’s verdict:

At first I couldn’t understand why Jesse cared to watch a film about banking. Sure, it’s got some notable people but it’s still about banking!  Then it all became clear – his favourite dreamy Brad is in this.  Funny how Jesse mentioned all those other notables but left out Brad Pitt again.  At least in this one Pitt’s role is fairly subdued; and he’s actually believable as the jaded banker turned rich hippy who hates the game but will play it again anyway if you just ask him. Classic Pitt.

This film is an odd format.  It starts out almost feeling like a documentary, but only partially. It flips back and forth between wanting to be a history lesson, indicting the banking industry for its lack of humanity, and a funny story about tangentially connected funny characters who have no respect for the forth wall. And it kind of works.

With such a complicated subject as the basis of the plot, there would inevitably need to be some means of clarifying exposition – and the writers decided to take the easy road: pause the movie and give the explanation.  It works, because as jarring as these moments are, they are handled brilliantly by the characters who not only break the fourth wall but also introduce unrelated cameos from celebrities being themselves.

Jesse is right about Christian Bale; his character is so believable that by the end I felt like I knew him – his awkwardness is completely authentic without being over the top. Steve Carrel’s angry jerk who just cares too much has a rocky start, but eventually becomes a highlight as well.

It’s not all good though: the narrative is choppy at times, making it hard to follow the connections as they as developed.  A number of scenes feel like they happen in the wrong order, but not in an intentional way.  And then there are the magical Jenga blocks that go from tower to pile to tower again without any help.

The discussion with the ‘dancer’ isn’t nearly as interesting as Jesse suggests.  The only cringing on my part was at how forced the scene felt – it doesn’t fit into this film at all and I suspect Jesse has other reasons for enjoying it…

About the halfway point I realized the biggest issue with this film:  I was much less interested in the story or characters than I was in trying to understand the mechanics of the financial crisis. How come all these people saw the problem, independently, years ahead of time, but nobody did anything to stop it?  How does debt become an investment? How do banks even keep their multi-level fraud schemes straight?  The social math is just fascinating.  But this movie won’t answer those questions – it feels like it will, but it won’t because it’s not a documentary. It’s entertainment.

And it is entertaining, but nonetheless disappointing because of everything that it won’t explain.

At the end, I still don’t understand the housing crisis at all; however I am now also very concerned about water.

6/10 – because it failed to live up to my unreasonable expectations.


Sing Street

singstreetWhat Jesse said:

You need to watch Sing Street. Just saw it and it is awesome. Homage to the mid-80s. Was made last year and it’s set in Ireland. Dublin. Awesome scene where main character’s (15 year old kid) older [brother] is educating him and their father on the power of the “music video” and the world-changing awesomeness of Duran Duran.

Mike’s verdict:

That grammar-free stream of consciousness mess is all Jesse saw fit to give me. No hint at a plot. No indication of thematic direction. Not even a genre! So it was with a tremendous amount of faith in Jesse’s judgement that I sat down to watch Sing Street.  And minutes in the film it became clear why Jesse had avoided telling me about the story: it’s just another boy-comes-of-age film.

You know the story; you’ve seen it many times: an adolescent boy struggles with a tough but caring home life, a bully at his new school, and an abusive authority figure, all while trying to make sense of a girl – and of course he finds himself in the process.

<sigh> This movie has been done to death.

But nevermind all that; you should watch Sing Street anyway because it is fantastic.  I don’t know where or when Jesse watched this film, but I do know exactly at which points he cheered, laughed, shook his head in dismay, and cringed – because there are moments that are universal to every teen boy.  Details may differ, situations are exaggerated, and the results are unlikely, but the feelings are spot-on.

This film is hopeful all the way through, in a sense that many of this genre fail to be. It doesn’t need overwhelming hardship to make its point. The protagonist struggles meaningfully but realistically, and over comes his life in ways that most boys can only do in day-dreams. Yet as the credits roll, the viewer is left with the sense that while the hero has managed to win in the first chapter of his life, there is still very real potential for disaster to come in the next. Struggle is balance with success, tipping only slightly under the weight of the unknown future.

The story is helped along well by reliable acting – perhaps not surprisingly all the school-age boys are very believable as school-age boys. Even the cleverer bits of dialog seem natural. It’s also supplemented by light symbolism that subtly adds dept: “You can’t put rabbits on the bed and not expect them to shit on your bed.” is surely an apt metaphor for life.

The backdrop to all this is a soundtrack that aggressively makes itself a part of the narrative when its needed, or slips subtly into ambiance when its not. There is a deliberate contrast between songs used in their original 80s glory, followed by quiet piano arrangements that feel timeless. It’s easy to forget that this is a contemporary film.  That is, at least until you realize that it understands the 80s music revolution far better than anyone in the 80s ever could have.

Sing Street is a thoughtful and original take on a very over-done genre. But most importantly, its enjoyable – it uses only the cliches that it needs to lay the foundation, and then layers a tapestry of commercial and original music that revives the 80s perfectly. Jesse absolutely got this one right.

10/10

p.s. It’s definitely worth sitting through the short credits to hear the last bit of music.


Snowpiercer

snowpiercer-posterWhat Jesse said:

Watch Snowpiercer. Do it now.

Mike’s verdict:

I got a copy of this movie years before Jesse recommended it to me, but I never got around to watching it. For some reason I ended up forgetting what it was about or why I found it interesting in the first place. I actually believed that it was a foreign film with subtitles. If Jesse hadn’t recommended it, I’d probably never have watched it at all.

I’m glad that I finally did; given Jesse’s sparse review though I could easily have forgotten about it again. Since he didn’t elaborate on why I should watch Snowpiercer, I will have to assume that he recognized the film for what it truly is: a review of some of the most enduring themes in the history of political philosophy.

I suspect that many people will walk away from this film thinking it is a commentary on economic inequality – something along the lines of the 21st century protest movements that hope to up-end the so-called ‘One Percent’. Certainly, inequality is a major factor here – economic divide is the source of the film’s main conflict. But Snowpiercer isn’t about economic inequality – it’s about the rationale for maintaining that inequality.

The train here should be looked at as a metaphor (thinly veiled) for a society – everything
humanity needs ,thought not necessarily everything it wants, is within the train, while exiting means stepping into the cold, harsh reality of nature. But just as there are consequences to joining any social contract built to protect humankind, living on the train requires sacrifices to maintain balance. Economic classes develop both from the balance and in support of the balance. The upper-class in the front needs the idea of the poor in the back as much as it needs to physically oppress them. Moreover, the poor need to believe in the possibility of revolution just to maintain meaning in their lives. The train is an intricately designed state; meant to allow the human race to continue living safe from the dangers of nature, even if some lives will be more comfortable than others. The point is not to make every person’s life good, but to maintain a balance that will keep humanity in existence, hopefully until nature itself is less brutal.

The architects of this state understood that classes would be necessary, what each class would require to maintain it’s end of the balance, and how to manipulate both sides to facilitate that balance. The philosopher kings control the state through invisible hands that direct the people; deciding where sacrifices are necessary and building mythologies to make these sacrifices palatable. In the back of the train, the mythology is built on the great revolutionary uprisings that are never successful but close enough to give hope. In the front, people are taught to respect and revere the balance – ‘everyone has their place’.

It almost works. And it like it. Snowpiercer is a contemporary exploration of the social contract, continuing the work developed through Hobbs, Locke and of course Rousseau. That said, their are definitely flaws in this film. Leaving aside arguments against it’s philosophical commentary (that would be a whole other kind of blog), Snowpiercer has some pretty annoying holes: Where does the ‘flammable’ industrial waste / narcotic actually come from? What sort of witchcraft powers the train? Why does the train even need to keep moving? Many of the details seem needlessly implausible.

Even so, the acting is good, the story avoids being too obvious, and the ending was nicely
ambiguous. Jesse got it right, well, I assume.

7/10


Slow West

SlowWest.jpgWhat Jesse said:

Yo, I got another one fer ya. This one is called Slow West and it stars Michael Fassbender and some kid named Kodi Smit-McPhee, who, turns out, I’ve already seen in another great movie – The Road.  Anyway, this is kind of a weird love story about a pasty-faced lovesick kid (Kodi) who travels from Scotland to the badlands of 19th century America in search of his massive crush, a girl named Rose.  The kid is uber naive and idealistic about his quest so you know he’s in trouble as soon as you see him in the New World.  Throw in some crazy bounty hunters and a jaded gunslinger with an agenda and you got yourself a pretty quirky twist on the old western genre.  I really enjoyed this one so cancel your plans for the Pokemon Go hunt and go see this movie right now. Go.

Mike’s verdict:

Apparently I took a while getting around to watching this one – as evidenced by Jesse’s outdated reference to a game that I was too old for even a decade ago when anyone cared about Pokemon.  Part of the delay was life – I was busy doing non-movie-related activities. But I was also very skeptical about this movie.  I’m not a fan of westerns generally and the idea that Jesse might have uncovered a good one seemed pretty remote.

Thankfully, this isn’t really a western, or at least it doesn’t feel like one.  It does tick all the western boxes: dusty plains, wooden buildings, people riding horses, everyone has a gun, nobody can aim a gun, the good guy looks just like the bad guys, nobody is ever in a hurry, it rarely rains but when it does everyone just gets wet, etc. Yet somehow this film feels less like western and more like fantasy.  I can’t quite place it, but the atmosphere doesn’t feel like it’s intended to be part of our reality – it has the same once-upon-a-timeness as the beginning of Stardust. You can sort of relate to the characters, but their reality is clearly askew.  This is particularly strong at the start, before the film shifts to the New World, but it continues right through to the end.  That said, it’s doesn’t feel completely foreign in the way that Cowboys & Aliens does.

The whole thing gives off a slight awkwardness that I enjoyed, and also left me constantly guessing where it was going to take me.  In the end, the basic result is pretty obvious – you can predict how Jay’s quest to find Rose is going to turn out just from the interaction between the two characters in the first five minutes. But this is definitely one of those movies that is more about the details of the absurd journey, than the details of the absurd ending.

Aside from some minor gruesomeness near the end, Slow West is fairly easy to watch, has a nice unrushed – but not too slow – pace and is packed with dry humour that you need to pay attention to notice (ha, salt in the wound!).  It’s like an easy-listening radio station during ‘the cool DJ’s’ shift – nothing overly special, but a fine way to spend a few hours.

8/10