Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Tribe


Someone explain to me the point of this movie. If it was to confuse me, like to say, “Hey, this is what life is like for deaf people on a daily basis, they don’t get the conversations going on around them,” then okay, I tip my hat. Other than that, I don’t get the aesthetic. And do you really need 132 minutes to accomplish that?

I love minimalist filmmaking, ask anyone I know. I could watch a woman bake a potato a dozen times in a Bela Tarr flick. I think Wendy and Lucy is one of the best American films of the decade. Don’t even get me started on my defense of The Brown Bunny. But there’s a line. There’s a scene in the film where a character applies for a visa. She fills out the multi-page document in real time, only to discover she’s made a mistake and must start all over.

And why should we care about any of the characters? We don’t understand their motivations, the film doesn’t explore the psychology of any of them. Is the lack of spoken word supposed to camouflage the fact that its story of humanity and equality is tired, that it wallows in sex and violence? American critics are going to eat this movie up. They’ll call it sophisticated and edgy. They’ll probably employ a still of two characters engaged in the sexual practice of 69ing to prove their point. But don’t be fooled.

Here’s the story, at least what I was able to ascertain. Someone who understands sign language may be able to explain it better. By the way, is sign language universal? Would American signers get the movie or would they have to be from Ukraine? A deaf teenager, the credits call him Sergey, although there’s nothing in the film to let you know that’s his name, registers at a boarding school for deaf children. After a period of hazing, he is accepted into a gang. Incidentally, he is forced to take on three students in a fight as a form of initiation. Rather than delivering a raw and harrowing wake up call, the brawl evokes the ludicrous acts of The Three Stooges. Sergey is soon looting trains and pimping out female students. We see the same two female students turning tricks at the same truck stop at least five times in the movie. And there’s zero consequence to anything the kids do. A student literally gets killed during one of their outings. There’s no remorse on the part of his friends. There’s no interference from a law enforcement agency. The woodshop teacher who drives them to these various crime scenes is never called into question.

I’d be remiss to say there weren’t spectacular scenes in the movie. Nothing can prepare you, for instance for the stripped-down reality of a young girl getting a back alley abortion. The scene is completely devoid of compassion and the actress causes us to forget we’re watching a movie. Subsequently, this is one of the few times we actually hear one of the actors’ voices. But that wasn’t enough to make me like it. As an experiment, it was interesting for a while, but its authenticity was reduced to gimmickry by the end. I was over it within thirty minutes.

The Harvest


Remember when Samantha Morton gave Billy Crudup a dance boner in that movie where he shaved Dennis Hopper’s face while waxing poetic about Elvis Presley movies?


That was before her London apartment caved in on her causing a debilitating stroke and the subsequent weight gain that got her expelled from Hollywood’s A-list. Anyway, she’s back as the overprotective surgeon mother of a deathly-ill boy named Andy (Charlie Tahan) in IFC Midnight’s new suspense thriller, The Harvest.

Also returning from a long hiatus is director John McNaughton, the guy most known for creating Henry: Portrait of a serial killer, the movie he claimed wasn’t exploitation despite showing Michael Rooker stab his best buddy for 32 seconds before dismembering him in the bathtub.

The Harvest is the very antithesis of Henry. In fact, its run-of-the-mill locale, crisp photography and ominous music awakened memories of the after school specials of my pre-internet youth more so than McNaughton’s grisly bio pic. It’s bookmarked by Little League baseball scenes for crying out loud. Still, it’s everyday approach, chilling atmosphere and believable human nature transcend its commonalities. Horror films are always most effective when they meddle in the real world, when they conform to the conventions of morality. The Harvest eschews visceral anarchy for creepy tension. It stays within itself right up to a culminating scene involving a fire (which seems a bit out of place).

Natasha Calis heads an all-star cast that includes the aforementioned Morton, along with Michael Shannon and a wasted Peter Fonda as the naive grandfather who putters around saying, “Far out.” Calis plays Maryann, an inquisitive Veronica Mars-type who has recently moved in with her grandparents after a tragic accident claimed the lives of her mom and dad. When exploring, she taps on Andy’s bedroom  window, ‘cause that’s what kids do when they stumble upon mysterious houses. Despite the protestations of his mother, the two embark on a burgeoning friendship that mostly includes playing video games.

You know something ain’t right with the cringe-worthy Morton and her wussy son. Consider a scene when she smashes his television as retribution for him sneaking outside to play catch with Maryann. So, a final twist is not quite awe-inspiring, but it’s still shocking enough to be satisfying.

The Harvest is a tough movie to categorize, which is probably the reason it sat on a shelf for two-and-a-half years. There’s enough there to give you the heebie-jeebies, but there’s also a coming-of-age element that resonates with the adventure-seeker in all of us. It’s not overly flashy or hip, it’s not particularly original, but it gets the job done and I’m happy to have seen it.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

EX MACHINA


I tried to make an armature once. You know, little bits of wire and metal joints. I had an idea for a movie about a buffoonish alien called Nyby who attempts to win the respect of his royal family by taking over Earth only to crash at Area 51. Unfortunately, the clay kept getting caked in the joints and I never finished.

Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), the AI researcher in Ex Machina, benefitted from nearly 20 years of advancements in technology when he created Ava (Alicia Vikander), his smoking-hot thinking computer who uses seemingly real emotions and perky breasts to convince an employee (Caleb played by Domhnall Gleeson) to set her free.



Ever since Mary Shelley sat down with Lord Byron on the rocky shore of Lake Geneva, people have been fascinated with science and fixated on the idea of man creating man. Most recently, roboteers broke the internet with rumors of an international giant robot duel between the United States and Japan. At a time when game consoles no longer require controllers and baby dolls grow facial hair, the Terminator franchise seems more a forewarning than popular entertainment.

Ex Machina, the directorial debut of writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine), does well to speak to the fears of an American public overwhelmed by technological advancement. Part of this blog, BTW, was created using my cellular phone, a device that doesn’t require physical contact with my finger to be controlled.

In Mary Shelley’s story, the presumptuous Dr. Frankenstein uses unorthodox methods to create a hideous yet perceptive creature. The monster is shunned by his creator and society. Likewise, the creature’s fear of mankind forces him to flee into the wilderness.

Ex Machina shares a few narrative details with its predecessor.  Like Mary Shelley’s work, it too features an arrogant genius obsessed with creating an unnatural being. The humanoid robot in this case however, is beautiful. She is sensual and enchanting. She seems as intrigued by humans as they are by her and it is her dream to become part of human society. And she looks great in yoga pants.

Ava’s human-like behavior appeals to a young programmer who determines her internment to be abuse. The question is, are her emotions real, or has she conquered the human art of mental trickery.

I don’t know how my smartphone works. I know it connects me with everyone around and answers all the life-changing questions my mind generates while sitting on the potty. I know its sleek construction and dark coloring look nice sitting on my night stand. I know it scares me a little. I also know I’ll be the first in line when the next model is released.

Ava is able to convince Caleb she needs him because she has sultry eyes and a gorgeous body. She appeals to female viewers because she looks dainty in her modest house dress. The real life Bonnie and Clyde didn’t look like Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. Hamburgers aren’t only eaten by men in hard hats and women in bikinis. I’m convinced the Dreamcast didn’t catch on in America because it wasn’t pretty to look at. That’s the one thing Victor Frankenstein didn’t understand. People like pretty things. They would have been more accepting of the monster if he looked like Aaron Eckhart.

Ex Machina is one of the best films of this young year. It is visually stunning and superbly acted. This is Oscar Isaac’s third score in a row following Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year. It is a fascinating examination of our obsession with science and technology and beauty. It’s suspenseful and edgy and has me constantly checking IMDB for Garland’s next movie venture. Still unknown. Ugh.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Run All Night


It’s that time of year again. The time when we put away the scarves and mittens, trade in the treadmill for a walk on the boardwalk, hard-boil some eggs and wait for that folkloric symbol of Easter to break into our home carrying baskets of pastel-colored candy. It’s also that time when we grow amazed all over again that that guy who safeguarded the Jews in Schindler’s List has been transformed into an action star. I mean seriously, do you remember when he grabbed the sword blade of that snottible Tim Roth dude with his bare hand before nearly cleaving him in half in Rob Roy? Who would have thought twenty years later he’d be wrestling grey wolves and slugging it out with Albanian sex traffickers?

In Run All, Night Liam Neeson is back to his testosterone-fueled self, this time playing Jimmy Conlon, an ex-mob enforcer who’s lost touch with his son, Mike (Joel Kinnamen). When Danny, the son of his ex-boss, botches a deal with an Albanian drug lord, Mike gets caught in the crossfire. Jimmy dusts off the ol’ six-shooter (which in these movies carry about 187 bullets) to protect his estranged boy. “I just killed your boy, Shawn. I just killed Danny,” utters a remorseful Jimmy to his old-time pal. “I’m coming after your boy with everything I’ve got,” replies Shawn. You can figure out the rest.

Though not bringing anything new or original to the old-school, tough-guy genre, Run All Night is an action-niffic movie replete with darkened alleys, cynical characters and fatalistic plotting. Neeson grabs our attention, creating a contradictory hero greater than what the thin script calls for. Ed Harris, likewise, infuses the film with an energy often missing from these types of movies.


Run All Night shares a lot with last year’s Neeson vehicle, A Walk Among the Tombstones. Both films contain a slow-moving first act, reflect the isolated feeling of big cities, and feature psychologically wounded protagonists. Both see their central characters sucked back into a world they swore to leave behind. Both feature a number of similar stylistic flourishes, notably, freeze frames and bullet time effects during major action sequences. Most importantly, both are genuinely satisfying.

If you’re looking for a movie that’s going to alter the course of cinema or add fuel to any “best of” debates, Liam Neeson has a number of them on his filmography. This is not one of them. If you’re looking for a throwback to the Charles Bronson/Steve McQueen guys of the 1960s and 1970s, Run All Night is the ticket.

Monday, March 30, 2015

It Follows


It Follows meets its college-age heroine floating in a swimming pool. An ant marches innocently along her arm. She drops her arm below the surface of the water. The ant is swallowed up by the liquid, its life gone in a flash.

On the surface, It Follows is representative of the current mumblegore movement inaugurated by young horror filmmakers like Ti West (House of the Devil), Jim Mickle (Stake Land) and Adam Wingard (The Guest). It is smart, naturalistic and shot on a shoestring budget. But on a deeper, more thematic level, It Follows exploits the conventions of the genre to inspect that tumultuous transitional period between youth and adulthood.

After sexing her boyfriend in the back of his cutlass, Jay Height finds she is the intended victim of an evil force. It can take the appearance of any person, is invisible to the rest of the world and if it catches her, will kill her. It’s like the stuff of elementary school sex-ed class, when that creepy gym teacher whose age was on the older side of completely indeterminate warned that sex would lead to disease and possibly death. There’s no little pill to save Jay from danger, no cream or ointment. Her disease will stay with her until she passes it on to a new sexual partner or it kills her.

There’s a commendable simplicity to director David Robert Mitchell’s story. His minimalist approach to violence is summed up in the opening sequence. An unknown girl flees her house and drives to the beach where she calls her father to apologize for the misdeeds she committed as a child. Something seems to watch her from a distance. Following an abrupt cut, the morning sun reveals the girl in a mutilated state, her leg bent back at the knee. Mitchell is not concerned with the murderous act. True horror lies in the stalk.

It Follows is infused with dread and executed with a boxer’s sense of timing. Every moment spent with Jay as she peers over her shoulder at mysterious interlopers that may or may not be the evil force heightens the delicious tension of the movie.


Its nostalgic design does little to detract from the creepiness of the piece. It emulates the films of horror’s golden years and apes the work of John Carpenter. Its opening sequence, captured in one shot, and a scene that sees Jay distracted at school by the presence of the evil force outside her window screams John Carpenter's Halloween. The ominous tracking shots, effective use of space and synth-driven soundtrack owe royalties to the master of fear.

But It Follows is more than mere homage. Mitchell mingles archetypical genre elements with his own mythic sensibilities to create a deliriously chilling metaphor for teen angst. Jay and her friends are becoming adults. The carefree days of their youth are slipping away as quickly as the life of the ant in the pool. Jays reflects on games she played as a kid to pass the time, other characters reminisce about first kisses. Those are memories that will last a lifetime. So too will those things that haunted them as children. The ridicule of classmates, the pressures of school - they will follow them forever.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

My Favorite Movies of 2014

 
HONORABLE MENTION: STARRY EYES
 
Marilyn Monroe once said, “There must be thousands of girls sitting alone like me dreaming of being a movie star. But I’m not going to worry about them. I’m dreaming the hardest.”
 
No one dreams harder than Sarah Walker (Alex Essoe), the starry-eyed heroine of Kevin Kolsch’s and Dennis Widmyer’s new horror flick, Starry Eyes. She spends her days serving tater tots to middle-age sleazepiles and squabbling with other young starlets, and her nights answering seedy casting calls. When Astraeus Pictures demands she perform a series of morally yucky behaviors in exchange for a role in their new scare pic, she reluctantly acquiesces. Her actions cause a change in her, both literally and figuratively. 
 
Starry Eyes is my kind of movie: an intelligent, independently-financed cheapie with a retro feel and deliberate pace set to a Carpenter-inspired synth score. It kind of sorta has its cake and eats it too, shedding the noisy cliches of contemporary horror for the bulk of its running time before culminating with a gore-drenched finale. Though its themes don’t scream originality, it’s better than most of the movies of its type. It’s certainly my favorite horror flick of the year, besting its allegorical brethren The Babadook and Honeymoon. I can’t wait to see what Kolsch and Widmyer do next.
 
 
10. JOE

Joe (Nicolas Cage), a hard-nosed ex-con trying to stay out of trouble, forms an unlikely bond with Gary (Tye Sheridan), a hard-working fifteen-year-old kid who's physically and mentally abused by his alcoholic father.

Nicolas Cage has been impersonated by more than one SNL cast member. He’s been in so many turds that he’s become a bit of a joke. But when he’s good, when his craziness is reigned in by a capable director, he can be terrific. Leaving Las Vegas, Bad Lieutenant, Raising Arizona: all enormously entertaining films illuminated by a terrific Cage performance. In Joe, he’s as good as he gets. His character is fragile and complicated, his matted beard, discolored tank-top and rough tattoos masking a warm interior. He lays with a hooker, carves a deer, gets shot in the chest and provides dry clothing to a boy he’s helped in from the rain, all in the same afternoon. He knows how precious life is and how quickly it can be misplaced.

Director David Gordon Green captures the bleak yet beautiful atmosphere of the backwoods Texas town. He litters the landscape with authentic feeling characters. You feel the strain of the people as they struggle to get by. (On a sad note, Gary Poulter, a homeless man cast by Green in the role of the alcoholic drifter, succumbed to alcoholism prior to the film’s release.)

Unfortunately, the film premiered early in the year and has been forgotten by short-sighted critics like myself whose top-ten lists consist mainly of movies released in the past few months.


9. THE GUEST
 
Remember being a kid and imagining yourself as a government soldier on a mission of vengeance? The Guest is the kind of story you would have thought up. In a year that saw a ton of great action flicks (John Wick, The Equalizer), The Guest was my favorite. Those other films took the cliche conventions of the genre and crystalized them. They were pure and I loved them for it. The Guest is not that. The Guest is something else. It’s a bit of a genre blender: a little bit action, a little bit drama, a little bit horror. 
 
It toes the line between cool and corny. It took me a bit to decide if what director Adam Wingard had created was a cheesy send up or kick ass throwback. The scene that sealed the deal for me saw the film’s hero, David (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens), slinging a pair of kegs on his shoulder Magnus Ver Magnusson style.
 
Here’s the story: David shows up on the Peterson’s doorstep sporting fatigues and a KPG sweatshirt claiming to be a comrade of their son who died in action. Over the course of the next few days, anyone who has ever wronged the Pertersons starts showing up dead.
 
I was one of the few horror fans not enamored by Wingard’s previous effort, You’re Next. I argued that the film failed to escape the very cliches it professed to amend. The Guest, like its predecessor, takes notes from other pictures (Halloween, Death Dream, The Terminator), however, it refuses to yield to an established archetype. Just when you’re about to write off the plot as little more than a device to satisfy the film’s excesses, it surprises you and changes gears. Without giving away too much, I’ll just say that super-soldier David receives orders that come into collision with his prior programming. The result is a character unlike any we’ve seen before.
 
This, on top of its John Carpenter-inspired soundtrack, 1980s sentimentality and Halloween backdrop, results in the best action pic of the year.
 
8. INHERENT VICE

Paul Thomas Anderson’s groovy neo-noir about a private detective (Joaquin Phoenix) who’s hired by his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) to investigate a plot by the wife of her new billionaire boyfriend to have him institutionalized. Sound confusing? It is. But so is life. Our lives aren’t neatly arranged. There’s ritual within them sure: we eat, we go to work. But they’re episodic. None more than that of stoner dick, Doc Sportello. 

Vice is his story, his vision of post-Manson Southern California. Massage parlors are fronts for prostitution, jazz musicians are communist supporters and police detectives are douchebags. Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) has “a twinkle in his eye that says civil-rights violation.”

Phoenix is irresistibly charismatic. He staggers from predicament to predicament promoting peace, love and happiness. Cinematographer Robert Elswit’s camera is sure to please. He captures Southern California in smokey blues and reds that carry an air of depravity.

Though it might prove too impenetrable for some audiences, it benefits from zany humor, masterful direction and sublime performances. A must see. 


7. UNDER THE SKIN

Life lesson #34: When a dark-haired chick resembling Scarlett Johansson asks you to take a ride in her rape van, you say no. Wait, let me double check that. Yeah, I was right, you say no.

Scarlett plays a character, billed simply as The Female, who cruises around picking up random guys and luring them back to a seedy townhouse where they fall into an inter-dimensional void? An extraterrestrial portal? An intergalactic happy meal? I’m not quite sure. What I know is that something happens to these guys, something other-worldly and utterly awesome. When she picks up a man with a facial disfigurement, she seemingly has a change of heart. She lets him go and escapes herself into the Scottish Highlands where she hopes to assimilate into the human population. This pisses off her alien brethren who send a Martian fixer? An alien assassin? A live-in carpenter? Anyway, a guy on a motorcycle scoops up the man and sets out in pursuit of The Female.

Mica Levi’s beautiful and strange score turns on the emotions of the characters (anxious, sorrowful, frustrated), yet is so unique and infectious, it’s in regular rotation on my ipod playlist. It leads off with an ominous drone before giving way to a more avant-garde sound, the bizarre knocks and scratches somehow reflecting the emotional journey of the Johansson character.

Daniel Landin’s cinematography is on equal footing with the score. Hidden cameras were employed in early scenes to capture authentic reactions from the street walkers. The scenes of the poor guys following The Female into the townhouse and to their ultimate, icky demise are both poetic and creepy. 

This is a polarizing movie. Some will love it, some will hate it, but all will agree it is unlike anything they’ve experienced before.


6. 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH

Long before Miley Cyrus floated in her swimming pool in Toluca Lake, goth rocker Nick Cave was enlightening audiences with his wildly original lyrics. He found love in a flower shop, pole danced in his birthday suit and took the Almighty to task, all in under 20,000 days. 

Filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard concoct a mythological day in the life of the music icon in this subversive documentary. He waxes ecstatic with Ray Winstone, reminisces with Kylie Minogue and provides archivists materials for the national Nick Cave library. While the events of the day may be staged, the impassioned dialogue is very real. “The words I have written over the years are just a veneer. There are truths that lie beneath the surface of the words. Truths that rise up without warning like the humps of a sea monster and then disappear. What performance and song is to me, is finding a way to tempt the monster to the surface.” Much of the film is devoted to that very concept. We are provided a glimpse into Cave’s meditative process. Self reflection leads to discovery and ultimately disclosure via impassioned performance. 

While the film may appeal most to fans of Cave’s work, it is a truly stirring piece that will inspire all those interested in the creative process. “To act on a bad idea is better than to not act at all, because the worth of the idea never becomes apparent until you do it.” 


5. BOYHOOD

Throughout his career, Richard Linklater has successfully passed back and forth from art house cinema (Slacker, Before Sunrise) to mainstream fare (School of Rock). Like a number of his artsier pictures, Boyhood is loose on narrative. Its simple tale of a young boy growing up in Texas is actually quite ambitious. Shot intermittently over the course of 12 years, the film sees Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his family aging literally right before our eyes. It is like nothing you have seen or will likely ever see again. 

Ethan Hawke is particularly good in the role of Mason’s distant father. A sequence that sees him attempting to reconnect with his kids through bowling is especially emotional. There is sincerity in his eyes when he expresses a desire to spend more time with them. The glow on their faces is genuine. We’re moments into the film and already we’ve forgotten we’re watching a movie. When their mother argues with Mason Sr. about his newfound desire to be a father, we observe helplessly through an upstairs window along side Mason and his sister. 

Hawkes plays the most dynamic character in the picture, his growth best exemplified through his choice in vehicles: muscle car as a young man, minivan as adult. Coltrane is a bit too hip as a teen and Marco Perella a bit over the top as Mason’s step-father, but the collective power of the cast is undeniable.


4. COLD IN JULY

You’re snoozing comfortably when a mysterious clattering shakes you from your slumber. You slink out of the room and discover an intruder stuffing your prized beanie babie collection in a knapsack. Your inner Charlie Bronson kicks in and you karate chop the intruder in the neck. He pulls a gun but you wrestle it from his hand before he gets off a shot.

How often have you had this dream? One of two things happen: you stare wide-eyed at the door, wrapping your ear around every little sound until exhaustion sets in and you fall asleep (usually moments before your alarm goes off) or you squeeze your eyes tight in an attempt to force sleep and return to your heroic fantasy.

Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) lives out that dream in Cold in July, Jim Mickle’s pulp thriller about a family man who is hailed as a hero after shooting a low-life thief in the night.  Ben Russell (Sam Shepard), the father of the thief, shows seeking revenge, but not before Richard again lies down for bed. Richard and Ben end up teaming up to kill a bad man. What does Richard do just before joining Ben in his quest to infiltrate the mansion of the bad man? That’s right, he goes to sleep. Following the mayhem, the movie concludes with Richard back in bed, next to his wife.

Cold in July is badass with a capital B-A-D-A-S-S. Its 1980s design is tense and flamboyant. Its rising, young director demonstrates uncommon confidence. Many have complained that it’s a bit disjointed and uneven. What dream isn’t?


3. WHIPLASH

For those that don’t know, I teach film at a local high school. At a professional development meeting earlier this year, an expert lectured to us on the topic of feedback as a part of formative assessment. He suggested that constructive feedback on work leads to students performing better on future tasks, while both the absence of comments and even positive feedback result in no change in performance. Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the celebrated jazz instructor in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, would subscribe whole-heartedly to this theory. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.” He berates and belittles his students in an effort to help them become the best they can be. “You are a worthless, friendless, faggot-lipped little piece of shit whose mommy left daddy when she figured out he wasn't Eugene O'Neill and who's now weeping and slobbering all over my drum set like a fucking nine-year-old girl."
J.K. Simmons is a revelation. You can feel each of his tongue-lashings, every one of his blistering gibes through and through. There was no character worth hating more in 2014 than Terence Fletcher.

The film takes the mentor-pupil genre and tears away all the cheese, resulting in an intense, inspiring experience. The emotional power of the final scene is undeniable.


2. NIGHTCRAWLER

Nightcrawler offers a haunting and visceral examination of psychosis and obsession. Set in LA at night, it stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, an ambitions young man who trades in his career as a thief for one in the field of crime journalism. Aided by a local TV news producer (Rene Russo) Lou quickly blooms into the best nightcrawler in the business.

Dan Gilroy’s gritty aesthetic owes a lot to Scorsese and the hard-hitting movies of the post-classical period. There’s a chilliness to the neon and smoke infused streets and the ease with which Lou openly operates. The picture is driven by Gyllenhaal’s haunting performance as a man who follows through on every opportunity, even if it means breaking the law. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t identify with the character on a primal level. I rooted for him the way I did other charismatic sociopaths in pop culture: Patrick Bateman, Walter White. That’s part of the point of the movie. We eat this stuff up. No one knows that better than the news media. There’s a great scene that sees Lou commenting on the fakeness of the background skyline in the news studio. This scene says so much about the news industry, the formally dressed anchors that deliver the news and Lou himself.


1. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE 

Avant-garde director Jim Jarmusch does brooding vampires who pass the time listening to rockabilly music and playing chess. And it’s awesome. In a year filled with cool movies, Only Lovers Left Alive is by far the coolest.

 Indie rocker Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and his hipster wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) have been in love for years, through wars and despite the deteriorating condition of humankind. But can their romance survive the arrival of Eve’s promiscuous younger sister (Mia Wasikowska) and the schmaltzy state of rock and roll?

Set against the handsomely bleak backdrop of Detroit and Tangier, Jim Jarmusch’s lyrical vampire movie paints an extraordinary picture of romance, its reanimated characters asking viewers to consider what it means to be alive. It restores a sense of nobility to a genre that in recent years has been reduced to sissified musings for WB enthusiasts. Jarmusch’s script adds depth to the vampire archetype, focusing on the banality of the syndrome: getting older while people get stupid and trends grow lame. Only Lovers Left Alive is everything we’ve come to expect from a Jarmusch film: it is quirky and cool, humorous and somber and at all times, gorgeous to look at.


OTHER FILMS I LIKED:
Blue Ruin, Enemy, The Equalizer, Fury, Honeymoon, Interstellar, John Wick, Locke, A Most Violent Year, Night Moves, The Rover, We Are the Best

Thursday, February 19, 2015

We Are the Best

Klara (Mira Grosin) and Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), two thirteen-year-old rebels who wear more hair gel than Pauly D, form an all-girl punk band despite having no instruments and no discernible talent. 

Watching We Are the Best was one of the most fun experiences I had at the movies all year. It’s a sweet little tale of young women experiencing the growing pains of life set to a cool punk soundtrack. Anchored by impressive performances by Grosin and Barkhammar, We Are the Best is a delightfully natural vision of youth. It’s the kind of movie that has you questioning whether the producers cast actors to play their heroines or simply aimed their cameras at real-life girls acting out. A scene that sees the girls shouting, “Crush capitalism” while refusing to climb out of a cardboard box that’s blocking patrons from reaching the counter at a fast food restaurant is a prime example.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

THE BABADOOK

Let me preface this review by saying I love my children...dearly. But sometimes they can be a pain in the ass. I made the decision long ago, probably whilst sweating and quaking beneath the bed in fear of my own father’s belt, that I would not be physical with my children. Hell, in today’s society, that’s not even an option. But sometimes I feel like just maybe pinching them, you know, just a little, just enough so that they maybe rethink their dickish behavior. These are the types of harrowing thoughts that plague Amelia (Essie Davis), the heroine of the new psychological horror flick, The Babadook. In fact, she sometimes has difficulty finding it in herself to even love her six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Now, it must be said that Samuel is quite the little prick. I found myself hugging my children a little tighter as I lay them down for bed, their soft cheeks squeezing against my own, after having viewed The Babadook. Suddenly my daughter’s obsession with licking grimy surfaces and my son’s unwillingness to finish his dinner seemed rather adorable in comparison to Samuel’s destructive acts. Watching him break windows with his homemade torture devices and push classmates from open windows made it hard to believe he was even the same species.

When he discovers a pop-up book about a monstrous creature that stalks children in their homes on the shelf in his room, Samuel’s behavior worsens. He convinces himself that the creature, called The Babadook, is out to kill him. Amelia wants nothing more than to curl up in a ball and wait for help. But when a darkened figure floats through her room, it dawns on her that Samuel may not be so crazy after all.

I had the opportunity a few years back to have dinner with George A. Romero. There was a point when someone at the table asked about the social undertones in his films. I don’t recall his exact response, but I remember him becoming slightly enraged by that word...undertones. That the in-your-face attacks on racism, consumerism and traditional notions of masculinity running through his films could be construed as background noise was appalling to him. I imagine Romero would be a big fan of The Babadook. A film that wears its allegory on its sleeve, and its collar, and its pant leg and everywhere else, it builds horror via Amelia’s inability to connect with her son. She wants so desperately to love him, but her face, twisted with tension, belies her apprehension. I don’t recall any closeups of her hands, but if we saw them, I imagine the nails would be chewed down to the quick. The dread of dealing with him each day, once an invisible demon buried deep inside her, has outwardly manifested itself in the form of an inky-black monster.

Davis gives a masterful performance as Amelia . Her bone-white skin and pallid eyes the portrait of a woman on the verge of a breakdown. I loved watching her hair change as she spiraled into the trap of her own mind, warm and coiffured at the start, an unruly nest of tangles by film’s end. Wiseman matches her intensity at every turn. It’s considered taboo in movies to hurt a child. In The Babadook, Wiseman creates a kid you want to punch in the face.

The Babadook is a new horror flick, but it has its roots in the supernatural pictures of yesteryear. In an era dominated by torture porn, it succeeds in building suspense the old-fashioned way. It effectively rejects the showy, gore-slicked inclinations of modern horror movies in lieu of a tense, psychological approach. It is tight, don’t get me wrong. It develops at a rapid rate. I was reminded of the films of Edgar Wright: all the excess fat has been trimmed from the edges. In fact, that’s my one knock against the film. Scenes build torturously only to terminate as the horror hits its peak. The audience is not provided time to ruminate on what they just witnessed. Characters are introduced only to disappear a moment later, leaving the audience a bit puzzled. But this is a minor argument against a film that otherwise approaches perfection.

The movie threatens to regress into familiar territory in its third act, however, hits you with a twist in its final moments that is not only gutsy, but completely without warning. Some demons you just can’t shake, they haunt you for life. You have to learn to deal with them.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

INHERENT VICE


2014 saw a slew of paint-by-number character dramas. You toss the standard axioms into a hat - poignancy, romance, overcoming extreme adversity - shake and dump. The result: The Theory of Everything, Selma, The Imitation Game.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s trippy and curious Inherent Vice is a mysterious neo-noir that breaks from conventional structure at every turn. Private Dick Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is seduced by his ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), into investigating an evil plot hatched by the wife of her new billionaire boyfriend, which leads him to discover a group of drug smugglers known as the Golden Fang and an FBI hitman called Prussia. At least I think that’s what happens.

Many viewers will be put off by the film’s lack of complete coherence, but the details of the narrative aren’t overly important. It doesn’t matter if you’re left scratching your head at the end. What matters is the journey. Its subversive style, batty characters and stoner humor combine to create a dizzying experience - not unlike the feeling of being high. BTW, the film is thankfully void of one of those overly-stylized drug-induced fantasy sequences. The characters in the film are every bit as lost as the audience. Doc utilizes a notebook when questioning someone, but his notes are limited to one or two nonsensical words. Shasta is asked at one point what inherent vice means. She responds that she has no idea.

Phoenix is amazing. He's on another level. He bears the facial expression of a man out of place in the world, his mutton chops and paisley patters as out of style as his pre-Charles Manson ideals. Anderson shoots him in long takes, requiring his character to run the gamut of human emotionality in short stretches of time. His co-stars nearly match him stride for stride.

Robert Elswit’s camera casts an odd spell over the audience, its moody blue and red hues suggesting something otherworldly lurking behind the foggy streets of Southern California. His compositions take the viewer away to another time when hardboiled movie detectives spoke to a cynical public.

All seven of Anderson’s features toy with film grammar in one way or another, but none of them compare to the craziness of Inherent Vice. It is, perhaps, his masterstroke.