Dogma (1999) It's a shame Kevin Smith's most well thought out idea (despite a misreading of what a plenary indulgence is) couldn't have been condensed into the zappy 90-minute film that could have made it amazing. Instead, the writer/director brings this comedy about a woman chosen to stop a couple of fallen angels on earth from exposing a supposed loophole in God's infallibility and returning to Heaven to a pretty bloated 128 minutes that's got too much talk and exposition for its own good. I see how Smith, who was raised a Catholic, is relishing in the opportunity to raise issues about problems in the relationship between the Bible, the Church, and Divinity. And I understand he's set up quite a task for himself in raising the issues he does while also making a comedy (admittedly, the later and the former often go hand in hand for Smith, but because it's also a Kevin Smith movie, he has to allow lots of extra room for pop culture humor and raunchy jokes) with an ambitious plot and a lots of characters. Ultimately, the film is weighed down by its talkiness, and honestly Smith could have kept all of the ideas, characters, and plot points in here and just cut out some of the blabbing (characters played by Salma Hayek, Alan Rickman, and Jason Lee all have too much to say) to give the film a better flow. But the film's still a winner, thanks largely to wonderful and often hilarious turns by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (male relationships and dialogue have always been Smith's strong point) as the fallen angels, and a surprisingly potent denouement. Whether this is all a big joke or not to Smith, his conclusion is a serious one within the confines of the film's interpretation of divinity, and renders it far less scandalous than the initial set-up would lead you to expect it to be.
Amy (2015) This documentary from Asif Kapadia (Senna) consists of a massive amount of footage of Amy Winehouse taken from personal videos, interviews, media coverage, and concerts. The footage is impressively assembled, but whatever artistic merit it has I feel is undercut by the astounding and arguably disquieting idea that we can now make literal found footage movies about real people. I believe it was Matt Singer who called this the best found footage horror film of last year, which, given the tragic and terrifying downward spiral that Winehouse's life took, is quite accurate. This was a tough watch. It's a film that constantly shows us Winehouse's self-destructive behavior from drug and alcohol abuse once fame comes knocking, and that, coupled with the positive moments in which we see the singer's lovable, cheery side, makes us hope for a positive conclusion that we know isn't coming. Here is a woman who simply could not handle the pressures of superstardom, who probably would have lived a long and happy life if she could have stayed in London and sung in quiet jazz clubs. It's troubling that one of the great pop performers of this century, who had integrity as a musician and made her music deeply personal, was cut down by too much attention and public scrutiny. The world got and still has her music to love, but it all came at the price of killing the artist. There's no answer to this one, no solution to soften the impact. Only a remorseful, discomfiting, and fearful sensation.
Chi-Raq (2015) While it's certainly a Spike Lee movie through and through, I don't know how anyone call really call it a success. I think Ignatiy Vishnevetsky put it best in his review for The AV Club: Out of all the wildly gifted black directors this country produced during the latter part of the last century, Spike Lee is the only one who ended up getting something like the career he was owed, and the only one who's been able to hold onto to what should be a basic right extended to all artists: the right to fail." This alone makes the giant mess that is Chi-Raq easier to accept, because even if Lee is not operating on his A-game, he's still making the kind of radical and gutsy choices that made him great, and as long as he's doing that, the film's problems suddenly seem okay. A clever reworking of the Aristophanes play Lysistrata set in modern day Chicago and concerning a sex strike by the black women of the city until senseless gang violence ends, the movie blends satirical and rambunctious comedy with social/political drama and doesn't seem to give a damn how the whole thing might be structured to actually work. And that's, paradoxically, the odd appeal of the picture. You get the sense Lee's going for the most energetic working of the Black Lives Matter movement in order to make the movie really speak to the audience as a truly urgent call. Sure the movie's too repetitious, often annoying, and never quite as funny as it should be, but it's Lee's sense of conviction, as well as his ability to stage big scenes like the one where a priest played by John Cusack gives a wildly heated sermon, that make it hard not to respect. If that's sort of what the right to fail entails, then it should be mentioned more often.
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) Scripted by Quentin Tarantino and directed (and edited) by Robert Rodriguez, this hybrid of the crime thriller and vampire actioner sounds appealing until you realize that it's not really a hybrid at all, but instead a really excellent crime thriller with a pretty boring extended vampire action scene tacked on at the end. Perhaps it would be less disappointing if the first part of the film wasn't really good, but because it is, it's a letdown when we have to abandon that entire narrative to watch the characters kick ass against the vampires at a strip club called The Titty Twister. At this point Quentin Tarantino, who plays a bank robber along with his brother (George Clooney), gets dispatched, which on paper sounds like a good considering the filmmaker's sub-par acting chops. But here he's written a character for himself who could be described as a slimy violent idiot, which actually is the kind of character Tarantino excels at playing. I wanted more of him, his relationship with his brother, and to see an actually interesting conclusion to their journey with a family of hostages. Either way, you get the sense this exactly the movie Tarantino and Rodriguez wanted to cook up. It's the kind of thing you can imagine two movie buffs conjuring on a lazy saturday afternoon but never actually seeing to fruition. That they did, I suppose, is pretty cool.