If the last round-up of movies were under-liked box office busts, this crop (or 4 out of 5 anyway) are critically beloved indies or documentaries. I like to keep things interesting around here. By now, the randomness is either part of the charm of this place or the reason it’s not more successful (like a bar that might serve you the drink you asked for or might just make you whatever the hell it feels like)…
Their Finest…Stodgy, old-school British comedy that’s also sly enough to know exactly how mild and limited most of those movies are. “Their Finest” is about the making of a British “propaganda” film during the bleak, pre-America days of WWII although what we’re shown of the film looks arguably more nuanced than anything we would reasonably call “propaganda” today (I would say the “Transformers” movies are more persuasive propaganda for gas-guzzlers than the film-within-this-film is for Allied victory at a time when that was far from a sure-thing). I feel this movie was somewhat overpraised in its release earlier this year because it has a meta-structure that’s aware of how movies operate on a different level than reality—and that aspect of it works, no question, but I wonder if the most surprising course for this love triangle was really a “surprise” death (that didn’t take me by surprise). Instead, I might’ve gone with the most “surprising” but also most logical ending: Gemma Arterton’s character just admitting the truth the audience seems to realize–that neither of these guys are really good enough for her, and Sam Claflin’s persnickety screenwriter is just as big a jerk as Jack Huston’s philandering artist.
Of course, I don’t want to mislead you into thinking this is anything approaching a bad movie. It’s charming, handsomely photographed, nicely old-fashioned (some of the songs sung in a beautiful tavern scene conjure some of that old-movie magic rarely seen outside Turner Classic Movies), and contains a fantastically Bill Nighy-esque performance from Bill Nighy as a vain, aging actor who just might be the least foolish fool around. You can see Nighy playing the words like a fiddle, from snappy one-liners to tender scenes where he has to coach Jake Lacy’s pilot-turned-breathing recruitment poster. At its heart, this film gets something about the magic of movies and why we turn to them, because they “make sense” and have to satisfy in a way real-life almost never does. Grade: A-
Buster’s Mal Heart…I can’t think of a better contrast than this film (surreal, aloof, a mind’s eye view of mental illness) and “Their Finest” which insists films have to make narrative and emotional sense. A lot of people will hate “Buster’s Mal Heart,” and I admit that I really didn’t care for it while watching it. But the film casts an eerie spell, worming its way into the mind, and staying with you in a way most more generally appealing movies probably won’t. It continues showcasing “Mr. Robot”‘s Rami Malek as King of the Weirdos, and it’s now hard to imagine him playing the lead in a straight-up romantic comedy or even a recognizable human in an ordinary situation. His slow-burning sense of otherworldy charisma and menace (tell me this guy wouldn’t be perfect if they remade “Nosferatu?”) is put to fine use in this story of—I think—a loner living in the woods, a desperate man in a boat, and a working-stiff family man trying his best to get ahead. These appear to be different versions of the same character spread out over time, and the film only slowly comes together to explain how he wound up in each one (if some of them are even real). You’ll have your own intrepretation of the film’s ending and twists, but this appears (to me) to be a very literal tour through the mind of someone with mental illness, and truly gives credence to the phrase “No good deed, goes unpunished.” Although, you still might find yourself hating Buster by the end, and his horrible acts might take away some of the involvement in the movie’s larger themes like Unabomber-esque isolation and crazy freedom vs. oppressively civilized communities (seen here as “systems”). I’d love to hear what more people thought of this movie, as I believe reactions will run the gamut. Grade: B
Donald Cried…How much you love this movie will probably depend almost entirely on how you feel about the title character, who is a little bit like David Schimmer with Ray Romano’s voice if they were both channeling Jeffrey Dahmer. It’s about a slick NYC banker forced to come back to his depressing Northern New York small-town (there’s not a scene in this film where it isn’t at least lightly snowing), and runs into an old friend who we can’t quite get a read on at first. Something seems “up,” and since we know this is a comedy, we hope nothing too nefarious will happen, but one of the best things about the film is how ambiguous Kristopher Avidesian makes Donald. When he pulls a gun on his old “friend”—after spending most of the day finding humiliating situations to put them in, and it’s not clear if he truly just wants to spend time with him or he enjoys making him squirm a little—you’re not sure if it’s a prank or the movie’s taken a turn. And in that ambiguity, you’re getting the real, queasy heart of what makes “Donald” tick. Less convincing are the bonding scenes later on, where you’re not totally sure why the more successful friend would still choose to be around such an unvarnished weirdo (except for pity or guilt) who seems alternately oblivious, territorial, and jealous. Grade: B
Last Men in Aleppo…A documentary about Syria’s White Helmets, the men who stayed behind in Aleppo—while pretty much everyone else has evacuated—to rescue the civilian population from bombings committed either by Assad’s regime or ISIS. Truly, both sides seem to hate them, and it’s not entirely unsurprising when we see a title card at the end that lists all of the people we just saw that have been killed since the documentary wrapped production (I would estimate it’s close to half the people featured). It’s impossible to imagine giving this film a negative review—I’m sitting here typing while someone is risking their lives in the most dangerous place in the world? Yeah, let me criticize that—and it’s the rare film that you fully understand why it has 100% on Rotten Tomatoes (I can’t imagine someone giving it a negative review), and yet I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit easier to admire than enjoy. After a while, the repetition The White Helmets face deprives the film of any dramatic momentum, but at the same time that also feels like a deliberate choice: it’s trying to show you just what a slog merely living in Syria has become, a new meaning to the phrase “daily grind.” And while I respect the filmmaking choices, any movie that is trying to put you inside the daily grinding of a war zone may be more an educational triumph than a film you’d really fall in love with. Grade: B+
Ghost in the Shell…Visually inventive, but dramatically so-so, there’s a type of person that will absolutely love this movie—and I can totally see that—and many that may feel you’ve seen most of these “Blade Runner meets The Matrix” elements before and in better Sci-Fi films. One thing most will agree on is that Scarlett Johansson really is good in the lead role, and she’s become a quietly underrated actress in addition to an against-all-odds believable action star (just imagine watching her in “Ghost World” or “Lost in Translation” and saying “I can’t wait to see her beat up 300 pound goons”). Johansson acts with a quiet feminity here, drawing you in close to what her character—who has her every thought recorded and analyzed—isn’t thinking or allowing herself to think (she sometimes goes into the ocean to embrace the quiet of the only world that isn’t online). She walks with a slightly bulky, locked-hinge gait that reflects the character’s weight (she is supposed to be mostly robotic after all), and that stands in wonderfully subtle contrast to Johansson’s fluid, balletic grace as Black Widow or the eerie tentativeness she brought to the human-snatching alien in “Under the Skin.” But aside from her performance and some of the visuals, not a lot leaves an impression since we have seen the “What is human? What is memory?” Sci-Fi theme in countless other movies. Grade: B