Wild Tales



I know we are only in March, but I doubt I will see a more scathingly funny movie this year. ‘Wild Tales’ is guaranteed a spot on my Top 10 Films of 2015. As far as multi-story feature films go, this is the ultimate. Such a superlative can mischaracterize the film’s qualities – it may appear, from the outset, that I am congratulating the picture for clearing a low bar. This is, after all, a film in a disreputable genre: one story ends, another begins, and ends, and begins, and the cyclic episodic nature becomes taxing on the viewer, especially if some stories are better than others and multiple filmmakers are involved. Even if ‘Wild Tales’ is judged by its weakest link, it is still an impressive feat – all six stories rank among the best of short films I’ve ever seen, but viewed in succession as a full-length feature, the results are extraordinarily cohesive and ferociously entertaining.

The reason these various stories feel of apiece, I suspect, is because they all are held in perfect check by one filmmaker, 39-year-old Damián Szifron, and is thus represented by an exclusively unique vision. This is a filmmaker to be reckoned with. The aggregated wallop demonstrates the symbiotic effect of a master storyteller with a sharp pen for dialogue. From an aesthetics standpoint, Mr. Szifron knows how to shoot physical comedy and he injects the proceedings with an assured, smoothly refined visual style. I can’t remember the last great looking comedy I saw.

‘Wild Tales’ was nominated for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar (but lost to ‘Ida’ from Poland). Apples and oranges. All five of the nominees appear to be tragedies rooted in the now and have a profound sense of place. ‘Wild Tales’ differs from the other titles in its competition due its structure and its playfulness in synthesizing comedy with tragedy. I really hope this movie finds an audience. Those who plan on avoiding ‘Wild Tales’ because of its Spanish subtitles are depriving themselves of an amazing theatrical experience.

Delivering on the promise suggested by its title, there are six wild tales to be found here amounting to 122 minutes of screen time. All of them are engrossing and punctuated with mordacious black humor. The common themes running throughout these chapters, each built around an SOB, are revenge and retribution. The first story and prologue will be forever remembered by this reviewer as one of the great movie openings in the histories du cinema. Things get off to a high-flying start (when you see it, you’ll know what I mean), and its manic intensity is maintained throughout as each story becomes progressively more dilatant, complex, and piercing in political satire. This is an all-encompassing, brilliantly performed snapshot of violence motivated by a sense of entitlement, past trauma, male ego, a failed legislative system, exploiting the poor, and romantic enviousness. The body count must be on a par with the latest Liam Neeson movie ‘Run All Night’.

In my reviews of films from the last three years, I’ve often stated that I consider this to be a golden era of cinema. Even in this golden age, I occasionally feel as though cinema is imbued by a sense of fear – a fear of being reckless. All too often, the treatment is safe, and Academy voters tend to recognize the safe projects. I think Mr. Szifron understands what I mean here because he has constructed a satirical farce so deliciously merciless that it makes you wonder if he is able to get away with it in Argentina, why such pointedness is lacking within domestic product.

I had to delete a huge chunk of my review. By offering a synopsis of each of the six chapters, I’m spoiling the entire thing for you. Part of what made this a joyous experience for myself was being able to discover it on my own. Is this an admission of being unable to copiously review the movie? I dunno. I wrote a spoiler review for ‘Gone Girl’, which was posted during the second week of its release – many people had seen it by then. Not many Western audiences outside of the film festival circuit have seen ‘Wild Tales’. It was, however, the top grossing film of Argentina last year and kudos to Sony Picture Classics for picking this up at the Toronto International Film Festival. If there’s one movie playing in theaters right now that you should see, this is it. It’s all very crazy. And a tad scary for its happy ending. But in the best possible way. ‘Wild Tales’ is the best picture of 2015 so far. QED.

Run All Night



‘Run All Night’ is director Jaume Collet-Serra’s third consecutive Liam Neeson film, the first being “Liam Neeson kills a lot of people despite having amnesia” (‘Unknown’) followed by “Liam Neeson kills a lot of people on an airplane” (‘Non-Stop’). In ‘Run All Night’, Neeson plays a hit man haunted by his past who saves his estranged adult son’s life by killing his crime boss’ thuggish adult son; of course, there are consequences, and this hit man, once known as the Gravedigger, tries to protect his boy from those out to kill both of them. In other words, this is “Liam Neeson kills a bunch of people in order to protect his son around the holidays”.

A curiosity: the story is set at Christmas, but there is no snow on the ground anywhere in any part of New York. I also noticed all the Christmas lights were indoor and never outside. The big climactic showdown takes place by a lake far away from the city where there is also no snow to be found.

I digress. ‘Run All Night’ is a fun and kinetic R-rated revenge thriller delivered efficient, and well, like pizza. It has a great cast: Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Vicent D’Onofrio, and rapper Common playing against type; Joel Kinnaman might be the weak link here – with all the actorly acting surrounding him, Kinnaman unremarkably takes on the working class guy who tries to do the right thing. Thanks to Mr. Collet-Seera’s sharp direction and the terrific cast, ‘Run All Night’ feels much more substantial than it has any right to.

This propulsive action film has a number of extravagant set pieces including a high-speed car chase through Queens, a fire in an enormous housing project, and the hockey crowds exiting Madison Square Garden after a big game. These sequences pay off very well. But the moments in between the explosions work equally well. You buy into the relationship between Liam Neeson and Ed Harris as lifelong friends turned brutal rivalries; the actors sell it, yes, but part of it has to do with the film’s sense of place. Within this deeply steeped, entrenched Irish community, there is a code among the thieves and the gangsters. Remove the action elements from ‘Run All Night’ and you’re left with a James Gray movie.

Composer Junkie XL’s “WAM” score is about as subtle as his name. Also, if the film’s opening shots didn’t presage the climax, then the third act might not have felt as predictable and stretched out. Minor criticisms. ‘Run All Night’ works on the same level ‘Taken’, ‘The Grey’, and ‘Non-Stop’ did. Liam Neeson has created his own sub-genre and other actors are now following suit: Denzel Washington in ‘The Equalizer’, Sean Penn in the upcoming ‘The Gunman’, and Owen Wilson in the upcoming ‘No Escape’. Because Neeson has racked it up over the years with serious dramatic fare, he has the gravitas to transform what would otherwise be a disposable character into a sympathetic and relatable one. One with a very particular set of skills though. QED.


71 (2014) - film still


Set against the backdrop of The Trouble (i.e. the 30-year Northern Ireland Conflict), ‘’71’ follows a young British soldier (magnificently played by Jack O’Connell) as he tries to find his way back to safety after his unit accidentally abandons him during a chaotic riot on the deadly streets of Belfast circa 1971. Director Yann Demange’s debut feature is a powerfully directed and exceptionally acted action thriller with kinetic Paul Greengrass-like camerawork. My overall score doesn’t reflect my enthusiasm for the film, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

First, the good: Jack O’Connell. I haven’t seen ‘Starred Up’, or ‘Unbroken’, but ‘’71’ is a perfect showcase for this actor’s talents and is easily a star-making performance. He has a great acting career ahead of him. Few performers are able to gracefully walk the line between resilience and vulnerability.

This is the sort of movie that grabs you from the get-go and does not let go for an incredibly intense 99 minutes. The moments between the action sequences can’t even be described as moments of calm; the threat of sudden violence is palpable – you sense it within every conversation. Just when things appear too hopeful, the harsh realities of the time are made abundantly clear to us. A lesser film would have just shown O’Connell’s character eluding one perilous situation after another. ‘’71’ gives us more – we even drop in on IRA militants devising elaborate plans to delude alliances.

The dramatic scenes work. As the story moves forward, O’Connell’s character encounters a young boy who directs him to hiding places and a doctor who risks both his life and his daughter’s life to help this wounded solider. Also palpable are the ramifications of interacting with and helping a wanted man.

I have a love-hate affair with the action sequences. When O’Connell’s character is on the run, ‘’71’ is at its most exciting. And most frustrating. Down a motion sickness pill before you attend this show. The camerawork is relentless with at least 30 minutes of shaky cam, which all too effectively demonstrates the chaos of battle, and how during such chaos, there is no perspective. I can understand the usage of this technique within the context of this picture and I can admire the craftsmanship, but for a good section of the picture, I had knots in my stomach and I felt sick. This is where ‘’71’ lost a potential fourth star. Still, this is a taut and tense thriller that deserves an audience. Just sit in the far back row if you can. QED.

The Babadook



The opening shot of ‘The Babadook’ tells you everything you need to know. Within a single image, it conveys the emotions, anxieties, and fears that you will be well acquainted with over the next 98 minutes. It conveys a sense of purpose. It makes you feel that this is a special film. That it is perfectly calibrated. That the person who put this thing together was in full control and knew exactly what they were doing. And when the film is over and you’re surfing the interwebz, you’re astonished to realize that it was made by a first time filmmaker. That filmmaker is Jennifer Kent. This is a name you will want to remember.

If I appear late to this party, well, I am, and it is because the movie only opened in Canada last week (limited release here in Toronto); it opened in the US and Europe late last year.

A single mother raises her son following the death of her husband. They share a big elegantly dreary Australian house. The school’s principal sends the kid home for bringing homemade weapons to protect himself from these imaginary monsters. And if the boy’s mom thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse, she opens the world’s creepiest pop-up book which mystifyingly occupied a spot in their home library. “You can’t get rid of The Babadook” the book warns.

This is fairly well travelled territory. You know it. I know it. Ms. Kent knows it. But, Ms. Kent, I suspect, has had enough of the cheap jump scenes employed by trite horror films about wronged mothers and possessed children. Here, it’s done with ostensible innovation – practical effects that have an almost otherworldly quality, evocatively bleak production design, irreproachably textured sound design, canted camera angles, quick razor-sharp editing, and her ability to intensify and protract tension.

Yes, The Babadook with its charcoal overcoat and top hat, dispiritingly long slender Nosferatu-esque fingers, and that throatily voice is indeed a terrifying creation. But even more terrifying is what The Babadook represents. Remove The Babadook, and what you’re left with is a psychological study about the destructive power of shared post-trauma.

‘The Babadook’ has a surprising amount of emotion for a film in this genre, and that is mostly thanks to the matched pair of terrific performances from both Essie Davis, and Noah Wiseman. It takes a lot to scare me. I have seen a lot of movies. I feel as though I know all the tricks. And yet, ‘The Babadook’ genuinely terrified me.  Holy.  ‘The Babadook’ is one of strongest debut features in a long time, in any genre. Alongside ‘The Conjuring’, ‘The Babadook’ is the finest horror film of this decade. Brace yourself. QED.



0 stars 

Oh goodness, where to begin?

Well, let me start by saying that I loved Neill Blomkamp’s ‘District 9’ – it was on my Top 10 of 2009 list. And while I didn’t really like the Matt Damon’s pro-Obama-Care space station apologue, there was still a lot I admired about it. His latest science fiction picture ‘Crappie’, I mean. ‘Chappie’, like ‘Elysium’, is essentially the same movie as ‘District 9’ with a different coat of paint.

Set in Johannesburg, South Africa (where Mr. Blomkamp is from) in the near future (2016 to be exact), a group of Mad Max-esque gangsters get their hands on a police robot that has been modified to possess artificial intelligence and teach it to be a gangster, while its creator worries about the ramifications of this new, sentient being. Oh, and the gangsters name him Chappie. In other words, it is an awkward ‘Robocop’-‘Transcendence’-‘A:I’ amalgamation fully embodied by Jar Jar Binks of ‘Star Wars’ notoriety.

The wasted cast includes Dev Patel, Sigourney Weaver, Hugh Jackman (and his hilarious mullet), and the South African hip-hop group Die Antwoord who I wasn’t aware of until I had seen this movie (hopefully their music is better than their acting). Sharlto Copley (a Mr. Blomkamp regular) voices the titular robot in the most exasperatingly whiny manner possible. If you don’t like this character from the very moment he is powered up, that is ok, because the movie appears to have utter contempt for him too – why else would it have this creation go through all that mortification, incivility, and mutilation throughout much of its two hour runtime? The tonal shifts are jarring. One moment, the film is playful (check out the bling-bling on Chappie); the next, his limbs are being sawed right off. Clinically, I believe this is referred to as dissociative identity disorder. Even if you’re laughing, you’re not proud about what you’re laughing at. Everything about this picture just seems plain wrong.

Sure, an argument can be made that justifies the ugly treatment of its nominal creation. The film’s tagline is “Humanity’s last hope isn’t human”. Chappie doesn’t save the world from an external threat. If it is supposed to be about Chappie saving us from ourselves, the nuances were lost on me; all I witnessed were some repugnant thugs using Chappie as part of their pathetic scheme.

Remember in ‘District 9’ how it was mentioned in dialogue that Nigerian prostitutes were servicing the aliens? That missing footage would have been preferable to anything transpiring on screen in ‘Chappie’. If ‘Wall’E’ ever got hold of ‘Chappie’, there would be nothing but a few scraps of metal and the backups of Chappie’s consciousness would be cauterized. It is only March and this is already the worst film of 2015.