Moneyball (2011, Bennett Miller)

A baseball movie perversely set in quiet, underlit offices and locker rooms (Mom: “Can you make the TV brighter?”). 2002 Oakland A’s manager Brad Pitt becomes impressed with nerdy Jonah Hill’s stats theories, hires him to create a low-budget team of effective/undervalued players. Strange idea for an underdog sports movie, because their ideas don’t actually work. Pitt can’t get coach Philip Seymour Hoffman to play the roster that Hill intended to maximize wins, so Pitt trades away Hoffman’s favorite players to force the issue… and they set a league winning streak and make the postseason, but the year still ends disappointingly. Meanwhile we get backstory of Pitt’s unimpressive early career as a player and his current home life (ex-wife Robin Wright and a daughter he’ll be able to see less often if he takes a different job) and a side plot with no payoff feat. Chris Pratt as a washed-up catcher turned fledgeling first baseman. But it’s got appealing actors and an Aaron Sorkin script, so it’s mostly a good time (memorable scene: Jonah Hill having to inform a player twice his size that he’s been traded) – and it made me care enough about Pitt’s Billy Beane to look up the real guy (still with the A’s through 2019).

Pitt makes most key decisions while driving:

Film Quarterly wrote a joint article about this and Margin Call, which made me realize that these two Autumn 2011-opening financial films with rhyming titles are the reason I still get Bennett Miller and JC Chandor confused.

Embrace of the Serpent (2015, Ciro Guerra)

Karamakate in the Amazon is visited by two white men seeking the same herb at different times in his life. As a strong and suspicious young man in 1909 he meets Belgian Theo (Borgman star Jan Bijvoet) who claims he seeks the plant to cure an illness. As a forgetful old man during WWII he meets Evan (Brionne Davis of a recent Wizard of Oz miniseries – IMDB: “ambitious and terrible”), who claims to be a noble scientist but is ultimately seeking materials for military use.

Really beautiful black-and-white jungle/river photography, recreations of native life and its corruption and destruction by so-called Christians. The story about needing to teach the white guys to dream, and the parallel timelines (the latter-day one ending with Karamakate destroying the plant rather than hand it over) were a bit confounding and the heavy symbolism a bit tiresome, but overall I liked it better than Cinema Scope did, and not as much as Reverse Shot did.

Sicario (2015, Denis Villeneuve)

After this and Edge of Tomorrow, Emily Blunt is an action star. Though she was no hero in this one – she’d talk big, but ultimately she’s being used by compromised higher-ups who have no interest in her stupid morals. Josh Brolin is a boss, working with Benicio Del Toro, who turns out to be consolidating cartel power, I think, and/or taking personal revenge, by going all James Bond and assassinating some Mexicans at the end. Blunt and partner Daniel Kaluuya (star of my favorite Black Mirror episode) are forced along for the ride.

Think I like this Villeneuve fella. Storytelling is bizarre (probably plays better the second time around) with some groany dialogue and troop behavior but filming is nice. People said it was tense and scary but I still think El Sicario Room 164 is scarier.

M. D’Angelo:

Kate is incredibly strong in a situation where her strength is useless. This is a deeply pessimistic film about the near-impossibility of overcoming institutional corruption — one that’s honest enough to have its protagonist struggle for a long time about whether what she’s witnessing even is corruption.

Where to Invade Next (2015, Michael Moore)

Moore goes to other countries to pick and choose great social/political/economic ideas that the USA oughtta steal. Some powerful ideas in there – Katy and I liked it.

I already can’t remember the full list of countries/ideas, so let’s see if I can put together a list from web sources…

Italy: plenty of paid vacation time and family leave
France: healthy school lunches
Finland: successful education system eliminating homework and standardized testing
Slovenia: free college even for non-residents
Germany: recognition of the country’s past sins
Norway: reasonable prison system
Portugal: treating drug use as a health-care issue, training cops to respect human dignity
Tunisia: constitutional equal rights for women
Iceland: sending the corrupt bankers to prison

Okay, I stole the whole list from G. Cheshire’s review at rogerebert.com:

In my view, it’s one of the most genuinely, and valuably, patriotic films any American has ever made … As he investigates one potentially useful idea after another, Moore keeps discovering that many originated in the U.S. Thus he’s not stealing from foreigners but reclaiming remedies that once belonged to us.

D. Ehrlich was not as impressed:

Moore has forgotten how to be funny. His docs used to be genuinely hilarious. Still, this gains power in its final movements, especially when it hits upon the idea that change is both the responsibility and the *power* of the people.

Show Me a Hero (2015, Paul Haggis)

Six years in the life of Yonkers NY, surrounding the building of court-ordered low-income housing for black/hispanic residents in the white parts of town. Lots of scenes in city council meetings and offices, places which don’t necessarily make for great TV viewing, and of course the local bars where David Simon characters always meet to make the real decisions.

The less-engaging side of the series is about local politics with Nick (Oscar “Llewyn Davis” Isaac, who had an epic 2015) as our protagonist. He’s the title hero, though his investment in desegregating Yonkers seems a far distant second to his self-centered political aspirations, which take off when he becomes an unlikely young mayor, swept into office (replacing Jim Belushi) to fight the desegregation, but finding himself having to defend it. Sure, Nick has morals, but his “doing the right thing” is meant to keep the city from going bankrupt from federal fines, not to bravely and singlehandedly defeat racism. And though he turned out to be the mayor the town needed at that particular time, he’s quickly run out of office by arrogant bastard Alfred Molina, and Nick’s political dreams turn to despair, feeling that he’d won a great victory, but a victory the angry residents would never recognize.

The rest of the show follows prospective residents of the new townhomes, detailing their individual lives and travails. Among the indifferentiated mob of white residents who show up to town hall meetings screaming about their property values is Mary (Catherine Keener), who’s representative of the gradual acceptance of the new housing. When the houses finally go up and families move in, Mary is coerced (by Clarke Peters, Det. Lester Freamon) to join a committee to meet with the residents and help them adjust – and help their bitter white neighbors adjust as well.

Mary before/after:

“We’re not prejudiced. Anyone is welcome to live in my neighborhood if they have the money.”

Most of the future residents we follow are women in trouble. Doreen (Natalie Paul)’s man is a drug dealer with asthma – and we know what happens to movie characters with asthma, so soon she’s a single mom, hooked on the crack. Norma (LaTanya “wife of Samuel L.” Jackson) was a nurse until she loses her sight due to diabetes, is helped out by her son Brother Mouzone. Carmen (Ilfenesh Hadera, currently on the Paul Giamatti show Billions) is from Dominican Republic, tries going back there but can’t make ends meet in either country. Billie (Dominique Fishback, soon appearing with D’Angelo Barksdale in another period New York David Simon miniseries, The Deuce) gets pregnant (a bunch of times) by petty criminal (later major criminal) John (Jeff Lima of Half Nelson), who spends half the show in prison.

Meanwhile, Nick will do anything to get back into office, including getting his wife (Carla Quevedo) fired and turning on his oldest council friend Winona Ryder. But he’s not exactly beloved around Yonkers, having sided with the federal enemy. The quiet unsung heroes here are the smart federal specialists (housing experts Peter Riegert and Clarke Peters, and judge Bob Balaban) manipulating a belligerent town towards social change.

Molina don’t give a shit:

Some awful hair and suits, gradually getting more tolerable as the horrors of the 1980’s fade away. Lots of Bruce Springsteen and a good Steve Earle tune used as theme song. Sadly, only one use of the word “mook”. Movies often start at the end (I have a starts-at-the-end tag on the blog), but this one repeats its suicidal-Nick-in-the-cemetery finale at the beginning AND in the middle.

Mostly this got deservedly great reviews, though the Haggis-haters at Slant tore it apart (I’ll agree with the line “Keener dons ridiculous old-lady drag”). Presumably they didn’t tear up, as I did, at the final episode: the joy and terror felt by the new residents about their neighborhood, Nick’s strangled cry for help before heading to the cemetery, the horrified look Winona Ryder gives Nick’s widow at the funeral, and the thaw in hostilities between new neighbors represented by Poodle Lady (played by the director’s ex-wife).

Poodle Lady:

Chi-Raq (2015, Spike Lee)

The most awesome/unevenly ambitious Spike Lee movie since She Hate Me. I knew in advance that Teyonah Parris (Coco in Dear White People) has a plan to deny her man (Nick Cannon) sex until he stops fighting with a rival gang led by Wesley Snipes, but didn’t know she gathers a legion of women who commandeer an army base. The social issues within a heightened, unrealistic comedic production (rhyming dialogue, dance scenes, narrator Sam Jackson) make for a great combo.

Cowriter Kevin Willmott was here last week but I didn’t go see him since my parents were in town.

The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers)

Maybe the darkest movie I’ve ever seen – by which I mean a lack of light, even in the outdoor scenes, to the point where I sometimes could not tell what was happening. Wondered if the projectionist screwed up, but the trailer seems pretty damned dark on my laptop too, so maybe it’s just one dark-ass film.

Settlers with proper settler-names like Mercy and Caleb, exiled from the main town are torn apart by either evil forces or their crazed, fanatical imaginings of evil forces… but let’s say it’s the former. A goat named Black Phillip and at least one woods-dwelling witch get involved. Our protagonist is eldest child Thomasin, whose dad is a deep-voiced beardo and mom is Kate Dickie of Red Road. There’s a brother and a baby and some mischievous twins – more characters for witches and spirits to pervert and murder.

Bookmarked an article called “The Witch is a radicalization narrative,” which I don’t think I’ll read after all. In summary, I don’t know where this Mr. Eggers came from, but I assume he’s the younger brother from “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” and if he makes another dark film-video about witches I will go see it.

The Deep Blue Sea (2011, Terence Davies)

An unusual affair/despair story in that it felt less judgemental of the married woman than most of these. I suppose you could double-feature it with Carol, another beautifully-shot, woman-led affair/despair period drama made by a gay man.

Rachel Weisz is married to rich, older lawyer Simon Beale (of Orlando), is at the end of a formerly-passionate affair with Beale’s club buddy Loki, a hot young pilot who can’t handle settling down now that the action has ended. Rachel contemplates suicide by train and by gas, gets reluctant acceptance by her patient husband, doesn’t actually kill herself (though playwright Terence Rattigan based the story on his lover’s suicide).

Adam Cook:

Although Davies cleverly blends timelines and uses novel scene transitions the film is still, by and large, dogged by the static nature of its source material … The performances, particularly from a never better Rachel Weisz, are all magnificent. They manage to be both heightened and restrained, something only Davies manages to achieve in his work.

Shot by Florian Hoffmeister (Mortdecai, The Prisoner remake). The play has been filmed a few times before. A 1990’s version with Penelope Wilton, Colin Firth and Ian Holm sounds promising. Vivien Leigh starred in a 1950’s Anatole Litvak film. And a strange 1999 version has Samuel L. Jackson getting eaten by a shark.

Hors Satan (2011, Bruno Dumont)

Meditative drifter David Dewaele (a Dumont regular who died in 2013) and sad teenager with family problems (Alexandra Lemâtre of no other films) are apparently friends (I can’t shake K. Uhlich calling them “Hipster Jesus and Anime Goth Girl”), and in the opening minutes he murders her stepdad for her.

Rest of the film is less story-driven and more mystical than we’d expect from that opening. David is some kind of a healer. Alexandra is pursued by an amorous guard, but she likes the emotionally unavailable David instead. There’s a forest-fire / walk-on-water scene that brings to mind Nostalghia, a disturbing rabies-sex scene, the unexpected rape/murder of Alexandra and her much-more-expected resurrection. What does this mean for the case against her murderer, who gets caught in the previous scene?

Strange sound design – during long shots we hear someone (the cameraman?) breathing loudly. I rather liked this movie, but my critics who’d seen his earlier work did not. S. Tobias: “Another tedious variation on themes that would seem too specific to repeat … His impeccable style has never been in question; it’s his purpose that seems in doubt.” I’m also not sure what it adds up to, but it’s mysterious and pretty enough (Cinematographer Yves Cape also worked on Holy Motors) to keep me happy for a couple hours.

Mom, on encountering her resurrected daughter:

Andréa Picard defends the film in Cinema Scope:

Hors Satan’s elliptical nature and multiple readings are firmly beholden to the film’s form; Dumont has referred to his emphasis on “sensations” and the retrospective (instead of fleeting) meaning of images attained through careful composition and construction. With a striking refinement and reduction of his palette, and a sly sense of humour, Dumont has reached a new level in his filmmaking.

Played in some sub-category of Cannes with Elena, The Day He Arrives and Martha Marcy May Marlene.