Tower, The Florida Project, Good Time, and Annihilation are all must-sees

Also, quick thoughts on Gringo and I Tonya, which aren’t

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Time to play catch up with some movies I didn’t have a chance to write in full about, thanks to, you know, life and stuff. But there were a few VERY good ones that I’d be remiss about not discussing at least a little bit

Annihilation (2018) / A-

Available only on Netflix is Europe, yet I wish I had a chance to see it again in cinemas, because Annihilation is an audio-visual wonder that my setup didn’t do justice to. It has one of the scariest original setpieces in recent memory and builds to an abstract marvel whose comparisons to 2001 are far from unearned. I kinda wish we got to spend more time with the supporting cast, who never get their full due, but I appreciate the fleetness of it; its contemplative, but rarely languid.

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Tower (2016) / A

“We just fell in love and decided to take anthropology together.” Tower takes a big risk, veering dangerously close to exploitative in animating over real news footage to create a dramatic recreation of the 1966 University of Texas shooting, with talking head interviews with animated subjects whose survival of the events is unknown. But Tower walks that line with such grace, keeping its focus on those affected by the tragedy and refusing to even show the face of the shooter. It’s a deeply affecting, strikingly beautiful, and haunting piece of docu-art. [Available on Netflix and you should watch it.]

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I, Tonya (2017) / C+

I, Tonya has two main desires: redeem Tonya Harding as a person worthy of sympathy and to whom the world gave an unfair shake, and to make an entertaining idiot-criminal movie in the vein of Elmore Leonard. It mostly succeeds at the first, but its failure at the second brings the whole thing down a bit. It may be a case of truth being stranger than fiction, but Harding’s operative-wannabe bodyguard was just too much to take a certain point. While Harding’s voiceover narration is welcome, the multiple talking-heads perspective is a bit pat, particularly in giving anything regarding a sympathetic voice to Harding’s abusive ex-husband. But its portrait of Harding and Margot Robbie’s performance really are quite good, and the first half focusing on Harding and her mother is really engaging.

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Good Time (2017) / A-

Robert Pattinson will win an Oscar one day, and his performance as bleach-blonde slimeball Connie Nikas in Good Time will be at the top of the list of “Reasons Why This Shouldn’t Be a Surprise”. The plot is essentially a string of half-brained schemes whose sole goal is correct the failure of the previous one, but the way Connie obscenely and plainly abuses his charm to keep his head above water is both stomach-churning and fascinating. A scathing and uncomfortable critique of capitalism and white privilege is just under the surface of it, but even as a pure surface experience, Good Time is full of striking imagery, piano-string tension, and a fantastic Oneohtrix Point Never score. If there’s a criticism, its that it knows how clever it is and doesn’t hide it, but when the experience is this visceral, who cares.

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Gringo (2018) / C-

There’s a really fun crime romp for a Saturday afternoon hidden somewhere in Gringo, but damn could it use some editing to get there. It feels like the ever-growing ensemble chaos is building to a huge climax, but instead, the energy fizzles and half the characters just kinda wander off to do their own unrelated thing, like Charlize Theron’s alpha boss getting tanked with Alan Ruck. The odd monologues about The Beatles or the monkey business illusion feel like a ripoff of 1990s Tarantino ripoffs. But its concept is pretty fun when it commits to it, and the cast is game. It really leaves a bad taste with a fat-shaming gag at the end though.

The Florida Project (2017) / A

If I had made my list for 2017 a bit later, The Florida Project would maybe have taken the top spot. Incredibly warm, incredibly funny, just incredible. It’s not not a message movie, but in viewing everything through the eyes of children, it finds a sincere, honest, and pure sense of joy anchored in inevitable pain. Moonee and Jancey forever.

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Weiner is a timely, cringy political time capsule

Weiner’s situation is too unfair to elicit schadenfreude, but Weiner himself is a bit too much of a weiner to be the posterboy for media suffering.

Joe Biden summed up the general opinion of the left when it was revealed that Anthony Weiner was somehow involved with the re-opening of the Clinton email scandal in the waning days of the never-ending 2016 US election with a muttered, resigned “oh god,” which I’m sure we can all mentally complete with a “not this guy again.” That feeling persists when confronted with Weiner the documentary, a behind-the-scenes look at his attempted comeback, running for Mayor of New York after a sexting scandal caused him to resign from US Congress. Weiner smartly opens with a highlight reel of Weiner the congressman, a loud, brash individual who visibly gave a damn. It gives us a good enough reason to root for his comeback, even though we know its for not. When the second scandal breaks, it breaks us for two reasons, both related to the fact that it doesn’t really say anything that wasn’t part of the first scandal aside from adding the name “Carlos Danger” to the mix. There’s a part of it that’s incredibly unfair to Weiner himself, and it also damns journalism and particularly comedy journalism for making big issues out of personal dramedy. As hilarious as the Weiner scandal is from an outside perspective, its much less humorous to Weiner and his wife/political superstar Huma Abedin. But it also is incredibly difficult to watch a recreation of a time just three years ago where a man’s political career was ended by salacious but consensual acts, while another man’s political career managed to survive after bragging about sexual assault. Weiner would be uncomfortable to watch were the political climate unchanged since 2013, but in a modern lens, its hard not to sympathize with Weiner’s situation as unfair, regardless of whether he deserved the second chance or not. It’s timely, but almost too timely, like cringe humour that goes a step too far. Weiner’s situation is too unfair to elicit schadenfreude, but Weiner himself is a bit too much of a weiner to be the posterboy for media suffering.

Weiner the documentary deserves credit for staunchly taking the viewpoint that the second sex scandal was unfair, but not necessarily coming down on an entirely pro-Weiner viewpoint. Weiner is directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, the former of whom was an employee of Weiner-as-congressman, explaining the almost unbelievable access they had to the campaign; in one moment, Weiner asks everyone but Abedin to clear the room, but allows the camera to stay. While they include things like Weiner speaking with flair on New York issues, putting his competition to task on the issues, and waving a whole lot of flags, they also get access to things like Weiner watching footage of himself yelling in an interview with a shit-eating grin. In the best moment of the film, we get a behind-the-scenes look at an interview with Lawrence O’Donnell, which O’Donnell opens by pointedly asking Weiner “What’s wrong with you?” The directors cut back and forth between the broadcast footage and Weiner mic’d up and talking to O’Donnell over satellite, but visually talking to no one at all. While O’Donnell provoked Weiner’s outraged response, it’s framed as Weiner trying to justify himself to God, and it’s implied that just maybe he should try justifying it himself. He may not have been a useless political figure, but his well-intentioned narcissism brought him down time and time again. The film finds time to show him happy with his family, and does not bring up the recent third sexting scandal (for which Abedin did leave him). It paints the picture of someone who should have been given a second chance, but should have known to find a less public way to do it (a suggestion that Abedin run instead is glossed over), and couldn’t see past himself to see his defeat. Life is unfair, but instead of adapting, Weiner flamed out. It’s an interesting and open question exactly how much of that was deserved.

B+

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Weiner (2016)
Directed by Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman
Featuring Anthony Weine, Huma Abedin, and Sydney Leathers
Rotten Tomatoes (97%)

The internet is a dark and scary place in Tickled

It’s a compelling look under the surface of a particular corner of the internet, a thriller that preys on the fear of online strangers so engrained in early-2000s Western society in a very effective way.

The trailer for Tickled is the stuff of parody gold, something so ridiculous that it can’t possibly be real. A deep dark conspiracy in an underground tickling empire? There are only so many layers of ridiculousness that can be layered on before credulity is stretched. It’s to Tickled’s great credit that not only does that trailer, bonkers as it is, only scratch the surface (indeed, the biggest moments in the trailer occur what seems like ten minutes into the movie), but that it legitimately feels believable even amongst its lunatic subject matter. It’s a compelling look under the surface of a particular corner of the internet, a thriller that preys on the fear of online strangers so engrained in early-2000s Western society in a very effective way.

Tickled is a fairly light investment, and a rabbit hole that is best explored unspoiled, so I don’t recommend reading further if you’re sold already (mild spoilers follow). It seems like a funny movie, and indeed the first few clips of athletic young men tickling each other are highly amusing, but it quickly introduces moral ambiguity to its humour. The concept of tickling as an act of power is sold well, and the humour of the situation is contrasted with the very real and very scary consequences the participants face. This is not to say that Tickled is anti-fetish per se, and in introducing a secondary tickle-video producer who genuinely loves his job and does right by his performers, it deflects the blame from those who simply enjoy the act. But its scenes dealing with the more serious side still contain plenty of ludicrous moments, daring you to laugh until guilt takes over.

The core emotion by the end is a righteous sort of anger, a desire to see punishment inflicted that is never fully satisfied. It drags out some of its twists, seeming to occasionally hide relevant information from the viewers to attempt to construct a more satisfying conclusion, but it doesn’t lack for surprising and tense moments. The movie pokes and prods at viewer’s emotions regarding class privilege and power, and engages in some serious armchair psychology, but is thoroughly involving and deeply sympathetic to those who have been wronged, making a small mockery of the situation but never of the people (except perhaps one willing participant’s steely tickling face). Tickled may be a paranoid stranger-danger flick, but damned if it isn’t effective.

B+

Tickled (2016), a documentary the starts with whatever is happening here

Tickled (2016)
Dir. David Farrier and Dylan Reeve
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)

Cartel Land is a bleak and morally amorphous examination of vigilantism

Cartel Land is a harrowing, engrossing, and important film on the perils and potential necessity of vigilantism.

Cartel Land splits its focus between two stories, one on each side of the border. In Arizona, Tim “Nailer” Foley organizes ragtag group of patriots to protect the border from the spillover of cartel violence. In the Michoacan region of Mexico, Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles forms a ragtag group of citizens to take arms and fight the cartels bringing violence into their towns. One of these problems is visceral; the other, paranoid. It’s no surprise that the Mexican portions of Cartel Land are the real selling point, containing the most interesting personalities and also the most interesting and unsettling events along with the most room for interpretation and questioning. While the American side matters less at the end of the day (and appropriately gets much less screen time), it puts into focus the theme. Cartel Land, despite its title, is not about cartels. Cartel Land is a harrowing, engrossing, and dare-I-say important film on the perils and potential necessity of vigilantism.

The film opens with a brief interview at portable meth lab in Mexico, which is the one divergence it takes into something portrayed unambiguously as a crime. It doesn’t glamorize or vilify it though; the cooks speak coherently, give justifications for what they do, and admit their contribution to greater societal wrongs. Admitting wrong does not forgive wrong, but it sets an interesting tone for the remainder. At many points, different viewers will likely disagree about when a line was crossed, or what people are “good” vs. “evil”. Indeed, on many a stump speech, the cartel is called out as “evil”, and their actions surely reflect that characterization. But not a soul fits the definition of “good”.

The best example is Dr. Mireles, surgeon turned freedom fighter general. Mireles is educated, inspiring, and (by all evidence presented) well-intentioned. The group he is instrumental in starting, the Autodefensas, seems to do good and finds unexpected success driving out cartel influence (the degree of success is truly shocking). It only makes it all the more heartbreaking when corruption does set in slowly but surely. Does it make Dr. Mireles and the others bad people? Or does moreso comment on how grassroots efforts are unsustainable without rigid and earnest oversight? The situation is fascinating and deeply upsetting, and Mireles himself is an absolutely fascinating personality.

But perhaps this is burying the lede. The camerawork in Cartel Land is extraordinary. On multiple occasions, the camera is present during live firefights. When a suspected cartel member is apprehended late in the film, the subsequent standoff is more tense than any staged confrontation in years. The access to Mireles himself seems nearly unlimited, with almost no need to cut to news broadcasts or any external sources. It all feels very real, very organic, and very dangerous.

Cartel Land works on nearly all levels. The camera work provides visceral entertainment. The journalism inside is open-ended and intriguing. The “characters” are simultaneously despicable, aspirational, and heartbreaking. Even Nailer Foley, who repeats himself far too often, is granted an even-handed portrayal. Cartel Land wants you to make up your own mind, which is its most admirable trait and also its most demanding.

A

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Cartel Land (2015)
Dir. Matthew Heineman
Main Subjects Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles and Time “Nailer” Foley
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)