Oculus (2013)

Not being a horror aficionado, there’s always a bit of hesitation. Oculus had some modest critical buzz but almost no commercial buzz, which might explain that I was alone for my midweek, midday viewing. For me the presence of Karen Gillan and Katee Sackhoff from two of my favorite sci-fi TV shows combined with a lack of more intriguing options drew me in. Like many horror films, it struggles in the denouement, horror convention demanding that things get crazy, but for at least the first half it impressed with a smart, slightly meta take on the supernatural.

Quickly it is established that as kids, Kaylie and Tim Russell (Gillan, and Brenton Thwaites as adults, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan as kids) went through a traumatic experience as their father (Rory Cochrane) killed their mother (Sackhoff) before Tim killed him. This experience has left Tim in a mental institution to recover and Kaylie obsessed with finding and destroying the mirror she feels has supernatural powers and led to the chaos. This sets up a nice tension, with Tim having fought long and hard to overcome his belief in the supernatural, learning all the psychological terms for what the mind does that creates the perception of the supernatural. Meanwhile, even as a believer, Kaylie takes a very rigorous approach to try to prove it.

Even as the film naturally goes down the supernatural path, the reliability of the narrator has been called into question so more than many supernatural horror, it provides an out for those who aren’t so willing to suspend disbelief (as I tend not to, preferring more tangible horrors). Still, I was rapt during the relatively quiet first half that was nice tension, not so reliant on the “quiet quiet bang” that is popular in modern horror. The second half isn’t so much quiet quiet, but quite a lot of bang. Even with an expository sequence (which is craftily enough wedged in, much as the dueling time periods are incorporated artfully) that tries to really lay in the nature of the mirror, it still feels ill-defined so that what happens feels kind of arbitrary. This dampens my enthusiasm for the film, but it earned enough good-will to earn a recommendation.

B-

Cafe de Flore (2011)

Last year Mud taught me the destruction that can come from holding too tightly to the notion of “the one” and Her taught me that a person shouldn’t demand that they get everything or be everything to a single person. Cafe de Flore picks up right along these lines with parallel stories over two eras where one person finds themselves unprepared to deal with a changed role for the person they love and make central to their life.

In 1960s France, Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) reasonably opts for her son over the father that isn’t prepared to face the challenge of a child with Down Syndrome. Now with no one else in her life, Jacqueline sets about being a super-mother, working every angle to make the best for her son. However, when her son bonds with a girl at school, she feels threatened by his divided attention. In a similar vein, Carole (Helene Florent) is bitter about her husband Antoine (Kevin Parent) leaving her for a younger woman, Rose (Evelyne Brochu). This is straining her relationships and also distancing Antoine from their daughters and his parents, who hold him accountable for Carole’s pain.

For a while the two stories seem a bit unconnected except by broad strokes, but the film takes unusual steps to bind them together and that is at least somewhat successful. I don’t feel the period story really holds the richness of the more modern one, if only because I find the degree of the maternal bond a little beyond relatable. The modern story is a bit too twisty in its own right, starting well after Antoine’s change of affection. While the film is interesting in not taking a moral stance about the infidelity or shift of adoration, this choppiness makes the emotions seem more disconnected from individual situations and makes them less relatable. Admirable as the premise may be, it just is a bit too fancy with it to be effective. With such a strong body of work surrounding this film, it feels a bit like a misstep for Jean-Marc Vallee…almost more of a kind with fellow French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve.

C+

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

I feel like Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the more spoiler sensitive films I’ve tried to write about. I can barely begin to address the themes and some of the flaws of the film without revealing some major turns, so be warned. I’m not sure if that says good or bad things about the film though. Captain America feels more timely than many other comic book films in that one of the main conflicts involves Steve Rogers’ concerns about the overreach of S.H.I.E.L.D., in this case standing in for the NSA, the CIA and other organizations that have increasingly muddied or outright surpassed the boundaries of what is legal, moral or advisable, presumptively for our own good. Of course, civil liberties, due process and all that gets swept away and doubts quickly surface about whose interests are really served. Also wedged in slightly is the informational anarchist approach of Wikileaks and the like on the other extreme.

But as a comic book film, it can’t really sagely contemplate these concerns, rather it has to pump them up to the highest levels of supposed intrigue. This is the nature of the beast but if sized up poorly it kind of ruins the metaphor. In this case, we get the return of Hydra from the first film. What made sense in the nature of Nazi Germany is simply confusing as an infiltrator organization within S.H.I.E.L.D. It is an ideological mess and makes them so overtly the bad guys that it short circuits the political debate. The organization isn’t the only thing back from the dead, continuing the problem in the universe of death being both extremely difficult to come by, but ultimately not very lasting. This kind of lowers the stakes.

But as with many or even most superhero films, my biggest problem is for all the deaths that are invisible and presumably lasting. That of all the random casualties that sit in the backdrop of the film’s action, such as a major car chase early or an urban shootout in the middle point. So many lives lost that the film and its supposedly heroic leads don’t seem to give the slightest shit about. I feel like making at least some gesture towards this otherwise invisible group is the new pass/fail exam for these films, one which The Avengers did manage to pass.

Ultimately, the failure of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (I reckoned the first was the least successful of the Marvel universe so far, but this competes for the honor) is a tragic one as it did start toward an interesting relevance and the main trio of Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie are quite effective. The material around them just isn’t.

C-

Let The Fire Burn (2013)

In the chaos of a firefight, a police officer is shot and killed. In spite of what would seem like an obvious lack of clear evidence linking any single individual to this shooting, nine black men are convicted for long sentences. In a videotaped incident, three white police officers are seen beating a black man, clearly beyond any necessary level of force. These three are acquitted. These two incidents that were part of the saga of the Philadelphia-based group MOVE, but they echo so many cases that expose the sheer discrimination within the justice system. The tactics that would be used in the final standoff are also emblematic of the militarization of urban police forces both in weaponry and in tactics.

Constructed entirely of archival footage, primarily newscasts from the actual events (which at times feel like watching CNN with the “standing near danger making speculation” aspect) and video from the commission organized afterward to review the events. While this does a decent job of checking off the facts of the case, it does feel limiting in this instance when it comes to context or broadening of focus. From a Constitutional approach, what MOVE stood for isn’t relevant, as the Constitution insists on viewpoint neutrality where government actions are involved. But as a viewer, I wanted to know more about the group than the vague liberal anti-modernist ideology depicted in the film. Perhaps these details are still unknown, but lacking a sense of the ideology, it is unclear exactly how or why the escalation between the police and MOVE began.

Watching the documentary I also feel like asking why now? This documentary basically could have been made 25 years ago as much as today. It doesn’t use the time that has passed to comment on whether we’ve learned from this incident or to draw broader connections. At most it just uses the time to update us on what happened to a couple of the key players. Ultimately, it is a compelling story told in a fairly average sense that passes on having greater relevance.

C

Why A Hard Day’s Night is in My Top 100 and Why I’d Rather Watch Spice World

Upon my initial viewing of A Hard Day’s Night, it jumped into my top 100 and has stayed put. Likely underrated as a result of being a Beatles film, it still has a fairly strong reputation in the film community. However, over a decade prior to my first viewing of the 1964 film, I had seen and taken to Spice World, released in 1997. There are many reasons that AHDN has stronger cinematic credibility, not least in that Spice World owes virtually everything to it and would probably not exist in the form it is without it, but even watching them both again today, Spice World indisputably was my more enjoyable experience.

A Hard Day’s Night has many things going for it beside music from The Beatles. There is the look at the nature of fame at the time, especially the sensation that The Beatles would prove to be. This fame proves quite a hassle, in that the fab four are always on the run from adoring fans, but also are under the strict rules of manager Norm (Norman Rossington). You get each of the band members playing to certain conceptions about them. John is a ladies’ man, George is serious, and most importantly to the effectiveness of the story, Ringo is overlooked/underappreciated. The four have pretty strong comic timing, but Ringo is the standout with his ability to deliver some of the more emotional beats. For pure entertainment, the presence of Paul’s “very clean” grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) is great.

But the thing that really makes AHDN stand up as a piece of cinema is the way it acts as an anti-establishment treatise at the rise of the counter-culture. A couple scenes in particular stand out in hitting home this idea, from an early scene where one gentleman of a certain class acts very entitled about conditions on the train, feeling superior to their youth and lack of refinement. The second one comes later when George ends up being talked to about marketing of some product and it exposes the way the corporate world views the youth and tries to control them. It is actually pulled off very subtly but packs a real punch.

Unlike AHDN, Spice World is not a film with a strong reputation, with only a 3.2 rating on imdb. The hate for Spice World simply blows my mind because I find it so lovable. Of course, my affection for the film isn’t hurt by Mel C (Sporty Spice), who was a key figure at this crucial point in my life, as a late teen. Hailing from The Beatles’ own Liverpool, she didn’t just win me over to the Spice Girls, she made me a Liverpool FC fan for life, which makes all the football references within the film that much more endearing now.

One of the places, surprisingly, that I think Spice World wins hands down is the music. I wouldn’t claim that the Spice Girls are a better group than The Beatles, that would be crazy talk. Still, Spice World incorporates the music a lot more smoothly, both in performance or as background. Perhaps it is the nature of their music, but it just meshes better with the various scenes. A Hard Day’s Night starts out strong with the titular track kicking off the film well and then the great train scene with I Should Have Known Better, but after that I never get a great sense of fit, and packing so many songs as performance at the end (with some repeats) feels slightly uninspired as a use of 1/6th of the film. I guess ultimately, A Hard Day’s Night is just not one of my favorite Beatles albums, so the quality of the music available for the film doesn’t measure up to the two Spice Girls albums their film pulls from.

Much of the story for Spice World is a direct take from AHDN. The band deals with the hazards of fame (tabloid backlash more than rabid fans, effectively updating the theme) and strict management (the great Richard E. Grant) that leaves them unable to really enjoy real life. Naturally they strain against this. Even more than The Beatles, they also struggle with having stereotypes of their characters (though this was a result of their own branding), never more than in a scene mirroring AHDN where they are interviewed by the press. All this is given some level of stakes in that they have a live event at the end that is put at risk by their rebellion. And both films ultimately are zany, full of the most random and often hilarious jokes. AHDN runs the risk of being a bit too unwieldy, it generally runs at such a pace that it can be hard to really settle. Spice World is much more consistent and steady with its pace and tone.

While AHDN is mostly populated by unknown actors (well, at least to me), Spice World is jam packed with cameos or other very knowing casting choices. You get Roger Moore in for a proper role, but make sure to have a key Bond joke. You get Meat Loaf in as the bus driver, but get a Meat Loaf joke in. That all these little bit parts are filled out with fairly talented people, aware of the silly thing that the film is going for, gives it a real strength.

However, probably the thing that most works for me with Spice World compared to A Hard Day’s Night is just the feminine aspect. Listening to their music again recently and watching this, I really do think about what a great presence the Spice Girls were. Their music was sexual, but compared to the sexuality on display in the pop music of the 00s up to today, of Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus, it feels less commercial and more authentic. These are adult women who are confident and empowered to enjoy their sexuality, and when it comes to sex, they make sure to say “put it on, put it on”…I can respect a sexy song about safe, consensual sex. But the very best feminine touch is the storyline with their friend Nicola (Naoko Mori), due to give birth. Not only does it emphasize the pull fame has against being able to remain close with friends, it puts a stark contrast about how superficial the trappings of fame can seem. This may not have the political power of early stirrings of the counter-culture, but it is still a strong thematic heart to an otherwise goofy film. Watching this moment I just don’t see how so many people come out of this film hating it.

I guess it comes down to what one’s top-100 is really meant to be. Does the fact that A Hard Day’s Night paved the way, that it is generally more well regarded, that it has more overtly important thematic content make it worthier than a film I see a depth in of its own and enjoy vastly more. Is the low regard for Spice World the main thing that keeps me from giving it the same billing (though I do include it in the Bondo Collection). I’m not sure, and I can’t say if this will change. What I can say is that both are extremely enjoyable and surprisingly affecting films and they make a great double feature.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Having seen all of Wes Anderson’s films one and only one time, there is a roughly upward trend in my appreciation of the works. This could be the result of a director honing his skill, but in the case of Anderson I’m equally willing to accept that this has more to do with my growing awareness and comfort with what Anderson has to offer. What I might have dismissed as quirk and artifice a decade ago becomes escapist delight. This development has taken Anderson from a director I was fairly ambivalent about to one I feel compelled to seek out, yet even with this growth I don’t recognize any of his films as truly great. Even though there are plenty of dark and even emotional moments in his films, I can’t help but view the stories as being like a meringue, light and insubstantial.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is pretty much what I’ve come to expect, for better and worse, from Wes Anderson. It is a solidly entertaining film with marvelous design of spaces, which combined with the cinematography is pure art. Set at the dawn of a fictional equivalent of WWII, this is used more for an establishment of time and place than to say anything about that. Focused on a matter of probate, that is enough to spur dramatic conflict, but again, it is more narrative convenience than thematic key. The most emotionally relevant aspect is the mentor-mentee relationship of M. Gustave (Ralph Finnes) and Zero (Tony Revolori), staff of the titular hotel. Contrasted against the probate issue, it tells of the power of friendship over family. Whether one’s family is nasty, in the case of Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), or deceased, in the case of Zero, those unrelated individuals can rise to the crucial roles that are typically handed to relatives, providing wisdom or comfort. This exists sufficiently to make the film not feel like a completely hollow exercise in style while also not really deviating from the sense of lark in the whole venture. Ultimately, I feel slightly less enthusiastic than I was for Moonrise Kingdom, but it is another very solid effort.

B

P.S. Saoirse Ronan for perhaps the first time I’ve seen breaks out of that mold I’d seen her sliding into of always playing slightly ethereal characters that have a certain naivety. Here she plays much more in command of herself and the world around, especially in contrast with Zero. It was nice to see because her talent does seem too great to be pushed into a narrow band of characters.

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

I was perhaps less enthusiastic about the revival of the Muppets a few years back, though it did have a couple catchy songs, yet sitting through this sequel that narratively jumps off right on the heels of the last made me long for the mostly unbridled joy of that prior film. Taking the show on the road for a world tour under the reins of dubious manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), this film mixes in plays on prison and heist films with a bit of espionage in the process. This ends up at a place where it is oddly dark without actually being serious. There are a couple of okay songs but I guess I just like my froth frothier. Even so there were a handful of places where an unexpected and often random joke would catch me and I’d genuinely laugh.

This was all inoffensive enough except for one thing, one of the film’s main running gags relates to the INTERPOL agent (Ty Burrell), trailing a series of art thefts with CIA agent Sam Eagle, being French and thus being really inept via short work hours, long lunches and long vacations. It is an easy joke and further it is kind of immoral. It is the kind of joke moneyed corporate interests promote as being funny because they don’t want people to realize the real disgrace is no mandated paid vacation, no mandated paid sick leave, no mandated paid maternity/paternity leave, weak limits on hours worked and no particular promotion of wages. Aside from these reasonable labor protections that establish a certain human dignity in work, much of the conception about the French and much of Europe is simply not grounded in truth if you study hours worked. Maybe it is petty to get outraged by the politics of a Muppets film, but these little things do affect perceptions and ultimately hurt people. So every time they used this to try to get a laugh, instead I winced. Just as often I checked my watch (figuratively speaking) because ultimately it just wasn’t that fun of a time.

C

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