By Drew Smith/Staff Writer and William McKenna/Guest Writer
Film is a topic of passion and particular endearment for me. My favorite films have impacted me in ways I was unable to predict. Filmmaking is a satisfactory and fulfilling experience for me. I love making, watching, discussing, and being inspired by films. With all that considered, I often fail to watch films as much as I should. I often will find myself having not seen a film in months, putting off movies I should have seen by this point, and generally lacking the drive to just sit down and watch. That’s why for this month, I watched fifteen films, along with Mr. McKenna. He recommended seven to me; I recommended eight to him. The genres and quality of the films vary wildly throughout, and our opinions certainly differ, but be sure to check out these films on your own time, I guarantee you it will be worth it.
- Bicycle Thieves (Recommendation by McKenna, review by Drew) – Bicycle Thieves is a post-World War II Italian film directed by Vittorio de Sica, and it is beyond fantastic. A striking film for its time, this film captures tragically the horrors and plights of the working class, amidst a time of reconstruction and destruction. When a man desperately tries to support his poverty-stricken family, he finds a job opportunity that requires a bicycle, and when his bicycle is stolen, he spends every waking minute hunting for it in Rome. The performances by Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola are so magnificent, their father-son dynamic is put on display, their relationship carries the entire film. The cinematography is simple but extremely tactical, so many scenes’ tension is carried by nothing other than the camera and its positioning. The soundtrack and soundscape is minimal but still bolsters the already quite emotional film, for a film released in such hard times, the quality stays consistent throughout. Every aspect of the film is so incredible. It tells one of the saddest tragedies of the 20th century, of working class hardship and absolute desperation, and about the lessons we pass onto the next generation. This film gets a quite-deserving 5/5.
- Good Time (Recommendation by Drew, review by McKenna) – MEH…at best. This is a film that screams….”Hey look how edgy and raw a movie I’m making.” It stars the new young superstar of the day…Robert Pattinson… who is desperately trying to shake his pretty boy image that put him in the game with those Twilight films. I have never seen them and I have no idea their merit. Good Time is a very basic heist gone wrong film that attempts to do a full on Soderbergh with improvised immersive dialogue through character. Many non-actors portray their various professions, cliche stuff like that. The director also stars in the film Benny Safdie…he plays an autistic person…he does give a very good performance as a man who trusts the person who should be looking out for him…his brother, Pattison, who of course abuses him and forces him to help rob a bank…which goes south fast all before the opening credits …edgy. The rest of the film is about Pattinson trying to spring his brother out of jail. He gets the wrong guy out and goes on a not very likely adventure with a character even worse than the Pattinson character. There really is no major character in this film worthy of any sympathy except the autistic brother. Pattinson spirals from one awful situation to the next. I’m not sure what I was supposed to feel. All I saw was the abuse of an autistic person by the person who should have loved him most. Clocking in at 1:41 it is at least 20 minutes too long. I kept screaming, “Move it along!” The directing is okay with its faux gritty cinematography. It made some noise at Cannes in 2017… I guess for being pretentious and gritty? I’m not sure what I was supposed to find interesting or entertaining in this film? Whatever it was …I did not find it. I wouldn’t say it’s as bad as a found footage film…but it’s in the same ball park.Oh yeah it actually rips off Of Mice And Men…I beg you to watch that instead starring John Malcovich and Gary Sinise… man, Good Time is a lazy piece of junk. The closing credits broke my heart.
- Big Fish (Recommendation by McKenna, review by Drew) – Big Fish is a fantastical feature by the great Tim Burton, and it’s quite a doozy. With larger-than-life sets, campy and over-the-top acting, and a sweet soundtrack to go with it, this film is quite magical. Ewan McGregor absolutely carries the film on his back, with his toothy smile and comical Southern accent, each scene that he’s in is so hard to peel away from. The film centers itself around a father-son dynamic, when Ewan McGregor’s character begins to fall severely ill and is on his deathbed, his now matured and adult son must confront him and try and get to the truth behind the tall tales his father told him. This movie is quite heartbreaking. Its tragic tale of misunderstood fathers and frustrated and unsatisfied sons is so bolstered by its lead actors and bombastic score and set pieces. The film has plenty of heart, spread out amongst so many endearing scenes, whether it is a dramatic retelling of time served in the military, or a simple exchange between father and son; it’s all done very well. But for all the film gets right, it still falls flat in some aspects. I believe the son’s character arc and story is not nearly fleshed out enough; it definitely lacks some much needed narrative to it. And the pacing as well as editing are all out of whack in certain areas. The film cannot help but bounce from scene to scene with no rhythm or rhyme and often leaves the viewer startled or just confused. The film gets so much right, but its disjointed and poorly organized structure weaken the film’s message and theme. This film gets a 3.5/5 for me.
- Roma (Recommendation by Drew, review by McKenna) – A masterpiece…a human story…the style and beauty of the story does not distract from the human story it presents. Every scene is meticulous and informs the mood, emotion and time of the story. There is a huge backstory but it’s the little story with Cleo that forms the narrative. The film has a smooth pace and is very tight. Coming in at 2 hours 15 minutes not a minute is not important to the story. It is shot in glorious black and white, which only enhances the beauty of this very human story.
- Nosferatu (Recommendation by McKenna, review by Drew) – Nosferatu is one of the most unique and excellently crafted horror films of all time. Using the backbone of the classic Nosferatu narrative, it expands from that in such ingenious and mind-boggling ways, using incredible filmmaking to carry those explorations into the horror genre. Directed by the German filmmaking titan Werner Herzog, this feature has some of the best directing, cinematography, writing, and pacing of any horror films out there. Starring Klaus Kinski as Count Dracula himself, Kinski has the performance of a century, with his subtle use of body language and physical performance as a bastion for horror, and his line delivery absolutely executes on the building tension throughout the film. Every scene with Count Dracula only builds upon the undeniable terror of the character, capitalizing every minute he’s on screen to fleshing out and constructing the character. Throughout the film, he becomes scarier and also receives a plethora of depth to the character; you soon realize he’s not just a monster, but a pathetic and utterly lonely old man who has nothing to do in the world but cause harm. This film is perfect in every aspect, and has so much more to say about death and the perception of it under the surface. Such a home run of a film. 5/5.
- Wildlife (Recommendation by Drew, review by McKenna) – Terrific film…but a real downer about a family falling apart in the ‘60s. Written by the amazing Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano who also directs. Based on a book published in 1990. It’s well shot and paced with a compelling story that breaks the viewers heart. There are no villains in the film…just human beings getting lost along the long trail of life. The wild fires featured in the film represent the family that was being destroyed by forces that were beyond their control. When the fire passes only the standing dead trees are left… the family is THE standing dead. The film ends with the broken family getting one more family portrait… so the boy can remember he once had a family. Terrific performances by all the actors in the film…very well cast . They all convey an inner sadness that seems genuine.
- American Movie (Recommendation by McKenna, review by Drew) – American Movie is a splendid documentary that explores the dreams and aspirations of an independent filmmaker in Wisconsin, as he attempts to make his first feature film, and then subsequently goes onto finish a still developing short film. This documentary is so neat and the people within it are just so fun to watch. So many personalities are to be found from the filmmaker himself Mark Borchardt, to his goofy and subtly creepy best friend, and to his Swedish mother, so much is captured within the runtime. Through crises and triumph, the camera is always rolling, as it slowly reveals throughout the film Mark’s deep insecurities and fears about mundanity. His constant self-criticising and self-actualizing are humorous to watch, but also saddening as you soon get to understand what is really going on in his brain. His ambition and dedication feels futile, but still deserves the absolute respect of any viewer. The documentary is a fantastic romp through Wisconsin, and it never fails to entertain. 4.5/5
- Lift (Recommendation by Drew, review by McKenna) – Terrific little doc …it’s one shot (outside of several cutaways of flies walking on an elevator wall… which makes me think of the “fly on the wall” saying) talking to people over a number of days at different times when they are on an elevator… you get a glimpse into the lives of regular people just being human beings. The conversations last only as long as an elevator ride…it’s uplifting and heartbreaking all at the same time. The human condition is an amazing thing and it doesn’t take much to bring it out… just ask. Clocking in at 25 minutes, it leaves you hoping all the people presented were okay after the camera was turned off. There were a few other cutaways down the elevator shaft and of things going on and off the elevator. I saw it as a metaphor for life… it’s just a short up and down journey.
- Coven (Recommendation by McKenna, review by Drew) – Coven is very interesting. Directed by the aforementioned Mark Borchardt, the short film is quite a mess, but has a ton of heart. The short film is all done by real people in Mark’s lives, a community project headed by Mark himself. It attempts to explore alcoholism and drug abuse, but does not go very far in its venture. It’s mostly centered around horror, as a writer finds himself in a hospital after an overdose, and his only remaining friend pushes him to join a suspicious support group. It is a very choppy and misorganized short film, but I cannot help but love it considering the circumstances it was made in. A very interesting watch, that I can’t say much on as a short film, but as an experience, I very much enjoyed. N/A.
- Travelers (Recommendation by Drew, review by McKenna) – People who ride a commuter train talk about their lives. It’s a heart breaking examination of the frailty of human life. People coming and going just trying to find why they are in this world. Unlike his other film this one ventures into the living spaces of the subjects. All have hopes and dreams. Much more polished than his first film Isaacs has a knack for getting people to open up. Well-shot with perfect sound. It has little moments of joy that make the travel worthy of the journey. Once the film is over the viewer can’t help but hope all the people we have met are okay in the world. Clocking in at 48 minutes, it’s a ride worth every minute.
- Slacker (Recommendation by McKenna, review by Drew) – Slacker is a feature directed and written by the incredible Richard Linklater. It is quite the unique and tactical film. It was crafted using guerilla filmmaking techniques, a low budget of nearly $20, 000, entirely underground and inexperienced actors, and almost always filming on location, this feature utilizes and capitalizes on every opportunity and resource available to make this film possible. Slacker follows the lives of hundreds of people in Texas, spanning twenty-four hours, as they live out their lives and explore the world around them, running into old friends, encountering thieves, as well as being followed by manic conspiracy theorists, this film tackles a massive task of capturing all of these stories. For a 97- minute runtime, the film manages to feel like three hours and overstays its welcome. It seems it would fit better as a lengthy short film, there are definitely individuals the film follows that just are uninteresting and ruin the pace of the film, and if you cut them out, it would be much, much better. The film could have been a masterful short film, but instead turned out to be a slightly disappointing feature film. – 4 out of 5
- Meantime (Recommendation by Drew, review by McKenna) – This is a well crafted and directed film from the UK with a powerful cast that has both Tim Roth and Gary Oldman when they were really young. Set to the backdrop of the poor working class of the Thatcher era England, man, it’s joyless. There are scenes that are uncomfortable to watch but they inform the reality the film presents and are necessary. The listing has it as a comedy drama…but I saw no comedy. Tim Roth plays Colin, the main character who is lost in a sea of English despair. The conclusion is absolutely heartbreaking, in that it isn’t an end… just another continuation into the dead end of his existence. The scenes in the film are punctuated by the music that consists mainly of a single piano playing down beat music… mundane music for a mundane life. Well directed by Mike Leigh this is a film that is raw and gritty with purpose…. like life.
- The Jerk (Recommendation by McKenna, review by Drew) – The Jerk is a wondrous comedy directed by Carl Reiner that stars the undeniably incredible Steve Martin. This film piques my interest. Its strong direction towards absurdity and the fantastical mixture of Steve Martin’s performance and the film’s writing lead to a completely goofy, yet outdated experience. The pace of the comedy certainly disservices the film. When certain jokes fail to entertain or just are not that funny, the film feels as though it comes to an absolute halt as you wait for the unfunny bit to be wrapped up so you can move onto the next joke. But when jokes do work, it is beyond amazing. While plenty of the film has not aged well, so much of it has, so much of its witty absurdity and goofy performances are spectacular and a blast to enjoy. For as much of the film is able to get right, it certainly lacks substance in many departments. The cinematography is far from engaging and plenty of the creative aspects lack life. Certain parts of Martin’s performance are perhaps too over-the-top and cause the film to be more obnoxious than humorous. It’s a solid entry, but lacks substance in many areas, and could use a stronger direction and a cleaner script. – 3.5/5
- Black Girl (Recommendation by Drew, review by McKenna) – It’s a well constructed human story by Osmane Sembene, a director from Africa. It’s overwhelmingly sad. A Black woman from Senegal goes to France to become what she thinks is a nanny. Instead she is enslaved by a horrible French couple. It’s a very slow destruction of a human being. Recognizing the story telling and structure doesn’t do the film justice. It’s just so sad it’s hard to watch. It’s real and raw… the film gave me anxiety… perhaps that was the point. The lead drives the story through her eyes as she reflects on where she is in life and where she has come from. Her eventual ending is tragic. The French couple are pure evil…cold and heartless monsters. The French couple take everything but give nothing…. they torture the woman with their white French privilege… they of course get off scot-free and never answer for their criminal actions. I recognize the film as a great work of art… but I didn’t enjoy it. Movies are an escape for me…I already know humans are awful. The film is just over an hour in length… a hard hour to watch.
- Mishima (Recommendation by Drew, review by McKenna) – A Paul Schrader masterpiece… that must be clear… it works on every level… it borders on high spectacle with its eclectic stylized story structure… all working together to come together in one story… it’s ultimately a tragedy. The story is based on the real Japanese writer Yukio Mishima who commits suicide for his world view in 1970. It’s a fictionalized account that incorporates his various writings into the story. It’s a story of self-illusion bordering on full delusion. Mishima sees himself in the grand world of his novels and plays…seeing himself as the only person who can lead Japan back to glory by reinstating the Emperor to power… that would be a terrific story alone… but much of it actually happened which brings a humanity to the story that may not have existed if solely a work of fiction. Much of the story is about the past…looking back…always stylized… we know what the past is…. The present is confusing and the future is scary. So let’s go back…which isn’t possible…the present is already the past. Great artists sometimes carry much madness and self importance…Mishima brings that to the forefront of the story. Mishima as a character exists in Shakespearean level of self tragedy …. he is simply an epic figure in his own mind. Often with great ego comes great art. Schrader doesn’t compromise the story he wants to tell as he moves the story along at a perfect pace, jumping around time periods scene to scene and never confusing the viewer. It is shot in color and black and white and also uses varied color balance to create mood for time and place. Set design is spectacular…parts are surreal that helps illustrate the ego of our protagonist. The person who created these grand visions in his mind thinks a great deal of himself. Mishima embraces extreme ideas of masculinity with his physical body and his outward mannerisms… all of which made me wonder who he was trying to convince. All the machismo looked to be a shield to keep people see his inner vulnerability and self. The film ends with Mishima trying to storm a military installation and trying to install the Emperor to power…25 years after World War Two was over…. it’s a very ego-driven pursuit…ultimately Mishima commits ritualistic suicide…perhaps as he had always envisioned …he becomes a character in one of his story’s. The thing is…this film is a great representation of America today … 36 years after it first came out…exaggerated masculinity …. storming of a political facility and holding officials hostage…demanding to go BACK…it’s nutty how close to now it is.
Well, that’s all for our fifteen film review. We’ve gone from the endearingly hilarious American Movie, to the everyday lives and occurrences within an elevator in Lift, to the horrific masterpiece of power and meaningless destruction in Nosferatu, and the absolute blurring of the lines between art and life in Mishima. It has been an absolute blast to not only recommend these films and get to see the quite animated reviews from McKenna, but to also see the wondrous variety of recommendations I received from him. This experience has helped me push outside of my usual film taste and explore other genres, styles of filmmaking, and general approaches of these films. It has challenged me to look past what I usually think of as a fantastic film and to see value in films that aren’t necessarily obvious masterpieces. This has been an extremely valuable experience.