Monday, February 29, 2016

10 Most Anticipated Films - March and April 2016

Last night the Academy Awards officially wrapped up 2015 in film by handing out their awards, and tomorrow is March 1st so it's time to look ahead. This year some very interesting work is due out over the next two months, and ten films in particular have caught my eye for various reasons. Some because I believe we may witness something truly special, the type of movies that will end up on my best of list early next year. Others, it's not so much an expectation of greatness but a general curiosity of the spectacle and how the finished products will turn out.

Zootopia - March 4th

As a father, you can pretty much guarantee that I will be seeing any halfway decent looking animated film shortly after it's released. Zootopia is more than halfway decent looking, it appears to be another colorful and fun adventure from Disney Animation and the reviews that have been released so far are beyond enthusiastic. I have high expectations for this one, and I have no issue connecting to the type of experience some believe to be meant "just for kids." If you dig deep enough, a lot of animated films are terrific and some are masterpieces. 

Knight of Cups - March 4th

For residents of other countries, Knight of Cups has been available for quite some time now. In fact it can be owned on Blu-ray right now if your device is able to play discs from other regions. For us Americans though, the new Terrence Malick film is finally being released in theaters. As usual this is getting a pretty mixed response over all but that is to be expected from a Malick picture. Considering the man created my favorite film of all time, The Tree of Life, and has other masterworks under his belt like Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line. Oh, and his recent movie To the Wonder was absolutely a lesser effort but I still very much enjoyed the gorgeous ride it took me on.

10 Cloverfield Lane - March 11th

I like the original Cloverfield enough, but it's not a film I love or hold in any really high regard. So why am I including its sort of sequel ominous spinoff whatever the hell this is film on this list? Exactly. Because I have no idea what it even is and the trailers have intrigued me more and more with each new look. It was absolutely unheard of that this movie was kept a secret until just about a month or so ago when the first trailer for it was released and surprised everyone - how the hell does that happen anymore? In a world where we know every superhero film due out for the next decade, we find out about a pretty widely anticipated movie when it is due in theaters in less than two months? 10 Cloverfield Lane may end up being terrible, who knows, but count me as someone who needs to find out more.

The Lobster - March 11th

I know basically nothing about the plot of The Lobster and honestly, I plan to keep it that way. All I know is that it is getting pretty terrific reviews and is being talked about for just how strange it is. That's plenty for me to be excited about a film.

Midnight Special - March 18th

I listed these films in order of when they are released, so I feel compelled to make it clear that had I ranked them based on level of anticipation, Midnight Special would be at the top of the list. Directed by Jeff Nichols, who is the man behind the masterpiece Take Shelter, the near masterpiece and totally great Mud, and the terrific film Shotgun Stories, I had Midnight Special listed on my most anticipated of all of 2015 last year but its release was delayed until March. It recently premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and just as I expected, the reviews out of there are pretty outstanding. I can't wait to see what this amazing storytelling has come up with now.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - March 25th

Am I excited for Batman v Superman? Yeah...I guess. I mean I am, but it isn't so much a "This is going to be great!" excitement. More of a "I wonder if this will actually be good?" excitement. I don't know what it is, but no matter how many trailers or clips they throw at me, my enthusiasm for the project can't rise above the "I hope this is cool." level. I really hope it is too, I hope it blows my mind with awesomeness. I am not a naysayer nor am I a believer that this is a game changing project. I am a wait and see with an open mind type on this one, but the spectacle and the possibilities will have me seated in that theater shortly after its release.

Louder Than Bombs - April 8th

My excitement for the film Louder Than Bombs comes from the fact that it received relatively positive reviews when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival a year ago, but even more so just because of a previous film by director Joachim Trier that knocked my socks off called Oslo, August 31st. That film basically made it official that anything Trier did going forward, I would be there.

The Jungle Book - April 15th

I know it seems silly to be excited about a film like The Jungle Book when so many of the other films I am looking forward to are totally original and this is a property that has been adapted a few times before, but something about this new take intrigues me. I think I just find myself excited by the actual theater experience, as it looks like it could be pretty visually stunning on a huge screen. Not to mention the fact that my family is looking forward to it as well, always nice to join them on a trip to the cinema. I have no idea if The Jungle Book will actually be good, but I hope so.

Everybody Wants Some - April 15th

Directed by Richard Linklater, the man behind Dazed and Confused and the 2014 masterpiece Boyhood, Everybody Wants Some is described as a "spiritual sequel" to the former classic. That's literally all I need to know, I am so damn in.

Green Room - April 15th

There is a low budget film from 2013 called Blue Ruin that perhaps you haven't heard of. Do me a favor, if you have Netflix streaming, go search for it and add it to your queue. Perhaps just watch it immediately to avoid adding it and forgetting about it. Seriously, it's that good. Director Jeremy Saulnier returns with Green Room, a film that looks absolutely brutal and visceral and has already been met with stellar reviews. It involves a punk rock band that witnesses a murder, thus pitting them up against a group of skinheads who want them dead. Oh, and the leader of the skinheads is played by Patrick Stewart. Remember how I said Midnight Special would be my #1 more anticipated on this list had I ranked them that way? Green Room would have been my #2. 

The 88th Annual Academy Awards - Reaction

Another Oscars have come and gone and it was an interesting night, both for the totally expected winners that I was thrilled to see walk away with awards and also for some surprises. Some good...and one that was downright awful. 

I have come to expect that my personal favorite films will not always align with what the Oscars recognize, although my number one picture of the year, Mad Max: Fury Road, did win the most total. It just didn't win Best Director or Best Picture, which in my opinion it was far and away the right choice for those categories but eh, what can you do? I'm not going to lose sleep over the lack of a George Miller acceptance speech or a Fury Road win of the top prize, but I am always baffled how a movie can be recognized for so many different aspects of what went into the process, and yet the vision of the genius who brought it to the screen isn't worthy. Fury Road was considered better than The Revenant in numerous categories, yet somehow what Inarritu achieved surpasses that of the work of Miller? I will never understand.

That's where I will lead off in terms of reaction, the Best Director win for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, his second consecutive and frankly he deserved neither. Last year he accepted an award that belonged in the hands of Richard Linklater for his absolutely brilliant craft of Boyhood, and now this year he gave a speech that was meant for George Miller. I have no angst for Inarritu or his films, in fact I ranked Birdman in my top ten last year, but the direction of masterpieces for two straight years have been ignored. 

I was honestly pretty darn happy that The Revenant didn't win Best Picture as well, although it wasn't that big of a surprise because I correctly predicted it wouldn't. To be fair, I picked The Big Short, but I was waffling between that and Spotlight which was the winner after all. The reason I had narrowed it down to those two films was the preferential ballot that is utilized for the Best Picture category only. Other categories the award simply goes to the person or film that received the most first place votes, but Best Picture works a little differently. In order to instantly win Best Picture, a film must receive 50% + 1 of the first place votes, which essentially never happens because of the expansion of the category to more films. Example, this year eight beloved films were nominated, no chance one of those eight was going to get over 50% of the vote right away. Long story short, assuming no film gets that large amount of first place votes, it then starts to matter that you were listed in second or third place on ballots and that's where the logic of picking either The Big Short or Spotlight comes in.

The Revenant is either held up as an absolute masterpiece or is considered a strange, ponderous misfire which would result in it being at the bottom of the eight options on many ballots. I don't think it's either, to be clear. I think it's a really terrific film that was exhausting to watch and too damn long, and with 30 minutes to go I grew weary of the spectacle and just wanted it to end. Spotlight and The Big Short may not have received the most first place votes, but they were far more likely to be listed second and third on a vast majority of the ballots because no one really hated those films. They were either the best or almost the best, and Spotlight reaped the benefits of this on Oscar night. It's a tremendous and important film so I'm glad it did, it was my #2 of the category behind only Fury Road.

Best Actor, we all knew it was coming and I was happy for the man. Leo DiCaprio. Nominated for the sixth time and finally a winner, and honestly he has deserved it far more for previous films but I don't begrudge him from his moment now. I would have given him the gold in 2013 for The Wolf of Wall Street which I found to be far more impressive and nuanced than his turn in The Revenant, but the narrative of just how difficult shooting The Revenant and the weather conditions he dealt with lead to an impossible to stop runaway train of votes that meant an inevitable win. Personally my favorite of the nominees was Matt Damon, but he never had a chance.

As for Best Actress, Brie is just so wonderful. Love that she won, love her. I didn't know when it would happen or what film it would happen for, but after seeing the astonishing Short Term 12 (on Netflix now, look it up now!) I said Brie Larson would win an Oscar at some point. Happened pretty darn soon after. The funny thing is, she wouldn't even have been my winner if it were up to me since Charlotte Rampling was her competition and she delivered my single favorite performance of the year in 45 Years, but Brie was my very, very close second place and I couldn't be happier she won. So beautiful, so talented, so seemingly likable, and her performance in Room was powerful and haunting.

In the supporting categories we had one surprise and one I predicted for a while now. Mark Rylance winning for Bridge of Spies over Sylvester Stallone in Creed was the surprise. It just seemed like Stallone's year and he would have received my vote, and my runner up would have been Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation who wasn't even nominated. Rylance was great, don't get me wrong, but I was underwhelmed in comparison to some of the other supporting work that moved me in 2015. On the other side, Alicia Vikander is quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses and I am happy she won, although it was for the wrong role. Her best performance of the year came in Ex Machina, but I guess she deserves credit for being the only redeeming quality of the shameful, awful movie The Danish Girl. I look forward to many more nominations for Vikander for years to come, because her talent is undeniable and she is here to stay.

Speaking of Ex Machina, which was one of the finest films of the year, I love that it is officially an Oscar winning film but the fact that it won for its visual effects left me speechless for a moment. Not that it didn't have top notch effect work which was even more impressive considering it was a relatively unknown indie picture rather than a massive blockbuster with a enormous budget, but up against films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road, I really didn't consider the possibility that Ex Machina could win. It did. 

At the start of this post I mentioned a surprise on the night that was downright awful and it's about time I address it. Best Song. How in the holy hell did Sam Smith win for that dull, drab, lifeless song from the new Bond film Spectre when Lady Gaga was nominated for her BRILLIANT song from the documentary The Hunting Ground? Did not enough people see that film? Did no one hear the song prior to voting? Was I the only one that was banging my head on a table in order to stay awake during the Sam Smith song?

The Hunting Ground is an eye opening, important film about the rape culture epidemic on college campuses around the country, and Lady Gaga wrote an amazing song for it that brings tears to my eyes. Then she performs it at the Oscars, again, tears to my eyes. A couple hours before this, Sam Smith was out there singing a lullaby to us, and that's the song that wins? That Writing on the Wall nap time shit? Goodness. I couldn't believe it. I still can't. I think I would need voters to explain to me why they voted the way they did, and the only possibility I can conceive of is that a lot of them didn't watch The Hunting Ground and didn't go out of their way to hear the song associated with it. It can't be that they actually believed Smith wrote and performed a better song, and I have trouble even considering this a matter of opinion. 

Besides my disgust in the song department, it was a enjoyable Oscar night and a lot of very worthy people won. If you haven't seen Spotlight, please do. It's not a flashy film but it is deserving of being called the best, even if it would have been my personal silver medalist. Journalism films are really difficult to get right, and not only did Tom McCarthy get it right but he crafted a potential classic that tells a profound, unsettling story about sexual abuse in the Catholic church. It's perfectly acted and important, a true story about real people who were brave enough to pull the cover off of a widespread tragedy despite threats from powerful people to try and stop them. A lot of times the film that wins Best Picture is quickly forgotten, but I have a feeling that won't be the case this time around.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The 50 Finest Films of 2015: #10 - #1

I have seen roughly 155 to 160 films that were released in 2015, and it all boils down to this. The top ten of the year, a wonderful one that saw the spectacular from massive budgets and bold and beautiful storytelling that had far less resources to work with. There are examples of both in this top 10.

The moment where I officially turn the page and move onto a new year in cinema, the unveiling of the ten best movies of last year. 

10. Beasts of No Nation

I can't help but wonder if some people equate a film released straight onto a streaming service like Netflix with being essentially a straight to DVD feature. Basically, lesser than work that goes into a typical theatrical wide release. It certainly seems like the Academy voters didn't take Beasts of No Nation seriously, and proof of that can be found in the Best Supporting Actor category where somehow, inexplicably, Idris Elba didn't make the final five. Don't be fooled and witness the raw, devastating power of this film for yourself. It's a tough watch but a terrific one.

9. Anomalisa

It's a tough break for Anomalisa, being such a truly brilliant piece of cinema and yet not even being the best animated film of its year. I worry it will push the movie into obscurity, given that most people I talk to see that category at the Oscars and only focus on Inside Out. Don't get me wrong, they are right in assuming it will win the award because it's a guarantee, but Anomalisa is spectacular and one of the smartest films of the year. Once you get used to the style that can be a bit jarring initially, it becomes quite clear that the film is extraordinarily tender and touching. 

8. Amy

Some have said that the documentary doesn't break new ground in terms of the story behind it, a celebrity that falls victim to fame and addiction. Personally, just because similar stories have been told doesn't mean others don't deserve the same treatment, especially considering the stigma of drug addiction is still painfully real. We see these people on television and assume they have it all, and when they lose their battle to a disease they are dismissed as being stupid. It's tragic.

The way this documentary is assembled, with so much real footage that it is hard to believe we are really seeing so much behind the scenes of Amy Winehouse's life, is extraordinary. It's heartbreaking and powerful and fascinating to watch unfold. 

7. 45 Years

Speaking of heartbreaking and powerful, 45 Years features my single favorite performance of 2015 from lead actress Charlotte Rampling, whom is nominated by the Academy but will not win (congratulations to Brie Larson). It's a simple film that on an emotional level is far more complicated, watching a marriage of 45 years crumble before our eyes because of a major discovery that opens up old wounds and allows long kept secrets to come bubbling to the surface. 

6. Sicario

Denis Villeneuve can do no wrong in my book, and Sicario is further proof of that. Another home run from the filmmaker, sending my excitement for his Blade Runner sequel through the roof. Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin, just perfect casting and great performances in this chilling tale of the battle against drug cartels and the question of whether it can ever possibly be won. Perhaps minimizing the damage is our only hope. Claustrophobic, intense filmmaking that had me on the edge of my seat throughout.

5. The Martian

A perfect balance of funny dialogue and stomach turning dramatic stakes, The Martian is what happens when a terrific book is adapted exactly the way it should be for the big screen. Writer Drew Goddard knew when to trust the source material and utilize it verbatim, but he also knew exactly what to cut or manipulate slightly to produce the best cinematic experience possible. Director Ridley Scott is hit or miss for me, but when he brings his vision to the science fiction genre it is basically guaranteed to win me over. The Martian is no exception. An amazing cast from top to bottom with Matt Damon leading the way with my favorite male performance of the year, this is an inspiring story of courage and hope.

4. Ex Machina

Alicia Vikander is beautiful, immensely talented and is going to be an absolute star for some time to come. She was also nominated for the wrong film in 2015 by the Academy, as she is the perceived front runner in the supporting actress race for her performance in The Danish Girl. Don't get me wrong, she is terrific in that film, the only thing watchable about the entire experience to be honest. She was even better in Ex Machina though. 

What a superb, surprising film this turned out to be. Released during the spring last year by distributor A24 (production company flying under the radar while putting their names on truly great indie work), I found myself interested in seeing Ex Machina because of the subject matter but I had no idea it would be this great. Directed by Alex Garland making his debut in that role and starring Vikander, Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson, the movie is a gorgeous slow burn science fiction thriller about the progression of artificial intelligence and why such advancement should be feared as much as it is anticipated. 

3. Inside Out

When Pixar is at their best, they are releasing films that both appeal to children aesthetically and with fun concepts and terrific vocal performances and also directing deeper, more meaningful themes at the adults in the audience. Inside Out might just be their finest effort to date, and that's saying something. The amount of subtle complexity going on under the surface of this film is staggering, with a screenplay that just gets the human mind and the importance of being in touched with all of your emotions. Featuring the single most heartbreaking moment of any film this year for me (Bing Bong made me weep uncontrollably), Inside Out is just beautiful and quite possibly the smartest film of the year.

2. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

My expectations for the return of my all time favorite film franchise were beyond sky high. I still remember the day I was sitting at work and the news broke that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm and would make more movies and I believe I was literally shaking with excitement. Sounds lame, I know, but I grew up with the original trilogy and by that I mean I watched the films so many times my parents were worried the VHS tapes would start on fire.

Still, I tried to tell myself to remain focused and judge the new work with honesty, because I am not afraid to admit I was the guy who tricked myself into believe I loved The Phantom Menace back in 1999, and it wasn't until much later that I realized how deeply, uncomfortably flawed that movie is. 

5 theatrical viewings of The Force Awakens later, and I believe it is pure magic, exactly the type of movie I could have hoped for as a continuation of the originals. Terrific new characters, a wondrous screenplay that captures everything fans want from Star Wars and the best acting the franchise has ever seen, I love this film so much.

Yet, despite this, it wasn't the best film of 2015.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

A batshit crazy punk rock apocalyptic action film unlike anything seen before, Mad Max: Fury Road is what happens when someone has a truly brilliant vision and is given free reign to bring it to the big screen. The man in charge here was George Miller, returning to the franchise that he started and crafting the defining masterpiece of 2015. As a film fan, everything you could ask for is in display here: frenetic yet flawless editing, vivid cinematography, mind boggling production design, ingenious direction and excellent performances. Miller knows exactly when to give the audience a minute to catch their breath before thrusting the film into overdrive all over again and seeing if our eyes can keep up. By the end of Fury Road, I was exhausted and I could practically taste the sand and dirt in my mouth, yet I wanted to do it all over again instantly. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

The 50 Finest Films of 2015: #20 - #11

The top 20 of 2015. Angry dogs, male strippers, dread filled horror and the return of a champion. These films weren't able to sneak into my top ten, but don't be fooled: these are remarkable and exciting movies that need to be seen. 

20. Carol

Between the cast, the set designs, the replication of the period it is set in and the love story being told, Carol is impossibly beautiful. It's a film that is dripping with sensuality and passion, with every tiny detail being so perfectly executed that it will both steal and break your heart. Neither of them are going to walk away with the trophy on Oscar night, but Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara more than deserve their nominations and I hope it's enough recognition to persuade more people to see this movie.

19. Creed

I am more than willing to admit that I was a serious doubter of the film Creed ahead of its release. The idea of bring the Rocky franchise back yet again only this time focusing on the son of Apollo Creed just screamed of desperation to me, a plot begging to make a buck for studio execs incapable of an original idea. The original idea part may still stand, but Creed is a total winner. What a joy, to see Stallone give such an amazing performance portraying the character I associated with him growing up, and Michael B. Jordan is terrific in the lead. The real star of the film though? Director Ryan Coogler. Everything he brought to this film was top notch, but that one specific long take boxing sequence had me in awe from start to finish.

18. White God

I mean no disrespect, but anyone who declares that the plot of White God is silly or unrealistic needs to do a quick search for the definition of the word "allegory" and reconsider. One must not always take the images depicted at face value because the power of this film lies with the message being told beneath the surface. At a time when racial and economic injustices are regularly making headlines, the sight of these dogs, these "beasts" finally having enough of the abuse and fighting back in the streets is extraordinary. Brave, startling filmmaking with an ending that will give you goosebumps.

17. World of Tomorrow

A 16 minute long animated film makes my top 20 of the year? You better believe it. World of Tomorrow by the genius Don Hertzfeldt is even more impressive due to its extremely short length because the amount of moving images and beautiful dialogue delivered in that time seems impossible. His previous masterpiece titled It's Such a Beautiful Day also utilizes stick figures to tell a profound story, and it may seem difficult to take these films seriously but truly absorb the imagery and listen to every word. Remarkable. 

16. Magic Mike XXL

I never expect everyone to agree with me on a film, but I find the extremely cold reaction to Magic Mike XXL to be surprising. Mixed critical reaction and pretty poor scores from users on IMDB, and as I watched the film for the third time the other day I was left thinking about the disconnect people are having that I don't understand. With so many films screaming for more diversity, here we have one that is incredibly open minded and with a huge heart on so many levels. There are multiple opportunities for the movie to come off as mean spirited but it never once happens, and the crisp cinematography presents every person regardless of gender, race, age or size as being equally beautiful. The story is of gorgeous, perfectly built men who strip but I love that they are the ones who are vulnerable and facing the realities of life after the lights dim. One last ride, one last show and my god it is so entertaining.

15. Spotlight

Quite the transition from Magic Mike to Spotlight, as one film is designed to make you feel special and the other, well, isn't. Spotlight isn't meant to make you feel good, it's meant to hit hard and leave a lasting bruise on your heart. It does. Telling the true story of a specific team of journalists working for the Boston Globe that investigated deeper into the allegations of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church than anyone else would, Spotlight is one of the finest journalist pictures in a long time, taking the perfect no nonsense and no flash approach to such grounded, honest storytelling. 

14. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Like so many indie films I adore, I have come to accept that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one that many love to hate. That's okay. I will keep on believing in the film, an extremely funny and also completely moving work. You may read the plot synopsis and think oh, it's just another teenager driven cancer sob story. Another The Fault in Our Stars. It's simply not the case, as here we avoid the tropes that go along with a love story and rather focus on the honesty that is being a selfish shit growing up and not opening your eyes and truly seeing the world. Does it depict high school in an authentic manner? No, it doesn't, but I don't think it means to. I think what we are seeing is an exaggerated perspective of everything, like we are looking through the eyes of an awkward teenager who is desperate to fit in and afraid of being alienated. The me of many years ago can relate.

13. It Follows

After years of turning my back on the horror genre thanks to nauseating Saw and Hostel films and a desperation to latch onto the tired found footage sub-genre, recently there has been a resurgence. Thank goodness for filmmakers like Ti West, James Wan's surprising The Conjuring, Jennifer Kent's The Babadook and of course It Follows by David Robert Mitchell. It's a slice of horror cinema that has me looking over my shoulder yet mesmerized by the gorgeous photography and wonderfully creepy electronic score by Disasterpeace. We could use more originality and intelligence like that found in It Follows.

(Note: 2016 is no exception to the above post. In fact, we already have a better horror film than all those listed above. Can't wait to gush about you on next years list, Robert Eggers!)

12. What We Do in the Shadows

I love comedy, so I mean no slight to the genre when I say that I am absolutely shocked I have a film like this rated so high. Why do I say that? Because I love good, smart, truly funny comedy and it feels like we don't get nearly enough of it anymore. What We Do in the Shadows is a revelation that only gets better with repeat viewings, as you catch all the subtleties that make every scene so delicious. A mockumentary about vampires living in New Zealand, the film is insanely quotable and with a short, fast paced running time I can watch it again and again.

11. Respire (Breathe)

A sexy, terrifyingly terrific drama about a teenage girl named Charlie who lacks the confidence to maintain a social life until she is befriended by Sarah, the type of girl you know you should steer clear from but her beauty and rebellious nature is irresistible. Directed by Melanie Laurent, the title proves to be fitting because in the end I had to remind myself to do just that: breathe. 

The next list will be the last for 2015, my ten favorite films of the year. Some are probably obvious choices. Others, not so much. 

The Witch Review

"Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?"

Back in 1999, I recall seeing The Blair Witch Project and shortly after witnessing it I went away with my family to our family cabin immersed in the deep woods of northern Wisconsin. The environment I would have normally considered to be peaceful instead felt alive as I went near it. Not only alive, but evil. I could hear movement in every direction, as if something was lurking in the shadows. I would stare into the darkness and something sinister would stare back. The week was uneventful, but I never felt comfortable.

Seventeen years later and on the very same day I witnessed the new film The Witch, I get a text from my mother talking about that cabin and the land that surrounds it. It has been many years since I have been there, over a decade since the property was sold. I was transported back to the way the wind whipped through the trees, the way you could practically feel the crunch of the leaves as someone or something walked on them nearby. It was like I could hear the movement all over again, even from the comfort of my suburban home. I am staring into the darkness again. Something sinister is staring back.

I am not comfortable.

The Blair Witch Project was so real to people that part of the allure of the film upon its release was the notion that it may have actually been found footage. This is before the sub-genre had become so widespread to the point of being numb to the technique, when you could actually sell an audience on the realism of a hand held camera and raw, low budget filmmaking. I try to not let the found footage flood that I have since drowned in over the years bother me and remember a time when I, too, was horrified by just how real that film felt. When the terror dripped down onto me like the tears of Heather Donahue. I was aware from the beginning that the movie was fiction, but I knew people who truly were convinced that what they were seeing was fact. 

I'm not comparing the two films, they are completely different in style and absolutely unrelated in substance. I am merely reminded so deeply and profoundly of the way I felt all those years ago. The Witch takes place in the 1600's and at the very start of the film we see a family of Puritans that are being banished from their community. They must pack their things and live their lives away from the other settlers, outside the safety of the erected walls. With their devout faith and love for each other, they start life anew on their own, a home and a farm surrounded by the eerie calm of the woods. 

The craziest thing about the film is that it shouldn't feel so real. Not on paper at least. A story taking place 400 years ago involving the supernatural and yet I was affected by the realism in a way I never could have expected. The aspect ratio of The Witch is 1.66:1, which makes the image slightly more boxed in than full widescreen and the result is just a bit more claustrophobic, a bit more intimate. The imagery and the atmosphere created by director Robert Eggers is already designed to make you feel a little pressure in your chest and quite literally tightening up the frame only enhances the effect. The performances are incredible and their execution of Old English dialogue feels so spot on, and the lighting and musical score work together to fill every inch of your body with dread and unnerve the audience until we can't take anymore. The string instruments slice through our ears with a high pitch shrill and the flickering light of the candles is enough to make what we are seeing feel wrong, like we are flies on their wall and we shouldn't be allowed into their world. I could barely blink because every frame carried so much attention to detail with it, and I would imagine that revisits will be vastly rewarding and only enhance the experience, which is hard to believe because the first time through I am left believing The Witch is one of the finest horror films in a long, long time.

I have a complicated, sometimes ugly relationship with religion and my brief experience dealing with Catholicism first hand is something that lingers with me years later. I was blown away by the way The Witch transcended being merely a "scary movie" and served as an exploration into the history of religion and the obsessive dedication from those leading a life driven by it. This film is darker than dark, bleaker than bleak, and you can practically feel Satan's breath on every frame, even the moments that are seemingly inconsequential, though the brilliance of The Witch is that nothing is. Every shot, every camera angle, every word spoken and everything not said but felt is essential. This picture, a horror film released in the middle of February, is an absolutely astonishing masterpiece that feels destined for classic status.

I can't stop thinking about the way pure evil hangs over every second of The Witch. The way it preys on the fears and weaknesses or each member of the family makes my soul ache. Robert Eggers hasn't merely arrived with this shockingly ingenious debut film, he has kicked the door in and announced himself as the ultimate hope for taking the horror genre in new, jaw dropping ways that feel especially invigorating given the current landscape of what audiences have come to expect. Another Saw sequel or a lazy Purge effort. A beat up basket full of tropes that are sprinkled upon so many films each year, resulting in a constant stream of recycled and uninspired storytelling. The Witch knows how to build tension by being terrifyingly patient and wait for just the right moment to break you, how to cast a spell on you and make you wonder about the motivations of God or the overwhelming power of the Devil.

The shadows of the trees dance ever so gently across the windows tonight, and while I can't look out at the density of those woods I used to visit, I can still picture the never ending darkness and hear the piercing sound of silence being shattered by one branch breaking in the distance. I see nothing but at the same time, everything. Something is out there, watching. A chill flutters down my spine. I am not comfortable. 

The Witch is a meticulously crafted work of art, like an intoxicating blend of the themes of a Bergman classic through the lens of Tarkovsky delivering horrors like those Kubrick unleashed in The Shining. Seriously, it's that good. 

It's fucking delicious, and I want to live deliciously. 


Thursday, February 18, 2016

Deadpool Review

Among the many different ways that Deadpool separates himself from other superheroes we have become so familiar with is the way he communicates with the audience through dialogue, referred to as "breaking the fourth wall". It happens quite often throughout the film but very early on we get the most on point utilization when he suggests that female members of the audience may be shocked by the graphic violence and style of the movie because their boyfriends simply told them it was a "superhero movie". While I am not entirely sure that it is fair to assume that any sort of adverse reaction to those first few minutes is due to gender, I can say that the crowd I saw it with wasn't quite loosened up just yet. Some laughter, sure, but with a hint of discomfort. Perhaps the promises of blood turned out to be even bloodier and the crude humor had to be heard to be believed.

Once Deadpool had made his motivations clear and he had announced to the world his disgust over being referred to as a hero, things seemed to loosen up and the laughter was far more comfortable. By the end it seemed we were all in agreement: the movie is a blast. 

Consistently funny and fast paced, wrapping up in a mere 100 or so minutes, Ryan Reynolds proves to be the perfect choice to fill the suit through a barrage of bullet holes, dick jokes and dead bodies left in his wake. Personally I find it quite strange how many people have immediately disparaged this movie for being nothing more than a teenager's wet dream, despite it being a pretty fair assumption that it probably is. Sure, had Deadpool been released 15 or so years ago I probably would have declared it my favorite movie and wanted to watch it on repeat, but that doesn't mean it is a guaranteed failure for adults. This concept sort of feels similar to the idea that animated films are only for kids and that growing up means moving away from such material. I have a wife, a daughter, and my one and only vice is cinema. I am by all accounts boring and usually am on the receiving end of old man jokes because my ideal weekend night involves pajamas and a great film. I'm also quite capable of falling in love with a wonderful work of Disney animation or laughing at an incredibly immature masturbation joke. If that isn't okay, then fuck growing up. 

Before anyone considers the existence of a double standard, as I recently wrote an extremely negative review of the cinematic turd Dirty Grandpa and criticized its lazy desire to beg for laughs using juvenile humor, one word in that is crucial to point out the difference: lazy. All erection jokes are not created equal. The reason Deadpool elicits laughter from me whereas watching Robert De Niro touch himself and say nothing but dirty things left me cold is because it actually takes talent to nail comedic timing and use such material in a clever manner. Deadpool works because of outstanding writing and not just in the understanding of comedy but also the rewarding way it balances the graphic content and cuss words with a surprisingly moving romance and meaningful dramatic stakes. Just making an audience smile isn't easy. Being able to wipe those smiles away with a tonal shift that further engages them is even harder. 

Deadpool is self aware enough to know that the tropes of a superhero film are a bit tired yet entertaining enough to still make me care when they are invoked, and while the villains frankly sucked, I also found their underwhelming and cliche nature to be a part of the gag. Thank goodness for Ryan Reynolds in the lead and Morena Baccarin as his love that keeps the silliness in check, because their chemistry is superb and somehow believable inside a film that is practically forcing you not to believe. Every time Reynolds reminds us that we are watching a stupid film it is quickly forgotten because the talent both on and off the screen elevate it to something smart. 

15 years ago I would have convinced myself that Deadpool was perfect. I'm quite alright with adult me accepting that it is merely pretty damn great. 


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Deer Hunter Review

"A deer has to be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that but they don't listen."

I know someone who enlisted in the army and was quickly put into action in the Middle East. I have pretty vivid memories of his demeanor prior to his deployment, and all of them involve him smiling. His zest for life was exhausting. His enthusiasm was so constant that it became tedious. You could never just sit back and relax and enjoy the moment because he was always thinking about the next step. What could we be doing that was more fun? What would the world look like tomorrow?

When he returned from his tour overseas, I met up with him for dinner to celebrate. He still looked the same. His voice still sounded the same. Something was different though. Everything else was different. He told stories of some of the ugliness of war, but the picture was never fully painted by his words. I don't know if he was incapable or simply didn't want to go into too much detail. I didn't press for more. He said he was happy to be home and in a way I believed him, but the zest was gone. The enthusiasm seemed like a distant memory. He talked only about the past and didn't seem all that interested in the future. He barely smiled at all.

The Deer Hunter is a cinematic masterpiece directed by Michael Cimino that tells the story of three young men who leave behind their lives as factory workers in order to serve their country in Vietnam. I had seen the film before but so long ago that I was barely even able to qualify for a PG-13 movie, and unsurprisingly the mind of a kid barely a teenager isn't quite ready to process the themes of a film such as this. Needless to say, this was an eye opening experience. What I really found fascinating was the fact that of a three hour running time, so little of it was actually spent with them in combat in Vietnam. The first act may test some of the audience's patience but I found it wonderfully developed these characters with perfect pacing and essential, important dialogue. This sequence is mostly centered on a wedding and one of my favorite shots from the entire film involves the bride and groom drinking from conjoined goblets with the goal being to simultaneously drink without spilling a drop, and the camera zoomed in on two tiny splashes that stain her gown. Clean consumption symbolizes good luck for life, and this one shot so perfectly foreshadows the horrors that are to follow. 

Act two brings us into Vietnam and introduce us to the iconic Russian roulette scenes that are so haunting and hard to watch but you simply cannot look away. I have no idea if the game itself was actually ever played during the war, but honestly it seems irrelevant. The concept of a one-in-six chance that this could be the last moment of your life feels so fitting for a war setting like this, that unnerving us with each pull of the trigger is an incredible representation of the stakes of sending our youth into war. The performances in this section of the film are so absolutely perfect that they only increase the horrifying nature of the content, with Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken doing Oscar nominated and Oscar winning work, respectively. 

The final act of the film brings us back home to Pennsylvania, and it is here when I couldn't help but think of the brave young man I know who isn't quite the same anymore. I can't comprehend it and I don't think even a masterful film can truly make someone like me understand just what war does to a human being. In the film, people ask Mike (DeNiro) how he is and he says fine with a smile on his face, but how can it be that simple? How can one be "fine" after experiencing such pain, seeing such atrocities, coping with such stress and fear?

I want to ask my friend to dig deeper and tell me what really went on over there, but I can't. I'm not sure if that's what he needs from me now, if that's what's best for him. Perhaps I'm just a distraction rather than a facilitator of stories that pick at forever healing wounds

I will just be there to ask him how he is. When he says fine, I will smile. Hopefully he will smile back.