Saturday, April 30, 2016

Green Room Review

Ferocious. Jeremy Saulnier directs cinema that beats you to a pulp and just when you think you can breathe, he lays one more gut punch on you to ensure the experience resonates. Ferocious. Absolutely ferocious. The sound of male angst pulses through the graffiti drenched walls and you can almost see the amount of hate that has permeated that plaster over time. There was a time when I labeled myself as "punk rock" and I would wander the halls of some ugly, worn down venues in a daze, but never like this. Nothing like this.

The film opens with an overhead shot of a van that had plowed into a corn field, and it's clear this was not done intentionally. The driver is Pat (Anton Yelchin), the bassist of the band and he fell asleep at the wheel. They're safe but out of gas. The reckless life of punk rock, but little do they know that such dangers pale in comparison to what they're about to face. Broke and faced with the possibility of having to siphon gasoline in order to find their way home, the band is offered a gig with a little bit higher pay but an ominous vibe to it: a show for a crowd of skinheads. Pretty much the rest of the film takes place in this single location. A living hell.

They finish their set and are ready to hit the road but Sam (Alia Shawkat) realizes she left her phone back in the green room, and when they walk in they see a body on the floor. Witnesses to a murder. Surrounded by Neo-Nazis. No way out. The owner of this place, a man named Darcy (played with terrifying perfection by Patrick Stewart) weighs his options but throughout his calculations you never get the sense of remorse over what must be done. There is never a true glimpse of humanity over innocent lives ending simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is his business, his livelihood and he must protect it by any means necessary. What he must do is ensure that no one inside the green room gets out alive.

Saulnier not only directs this picture with supreme confidence, he also penned the screenplay that is absolutely spot on from start to finish. It's remarkable just how real Green Room feels, especially when you consider how the basic plot must sound when you are asked to briefly describe it to others. A group of skinheads trying to kill a punk rock band. Ridiculous, right? Not while you are inside this world Saulnier has crafted. During these lean, brilliant 90 minutes, the fear that these characters feel reverberates through us even with very little time spent worrying about developing the characters. That isn't a criticism, it's a compliment because Saulnier wants to keep everything focused on the present to heighten realism and it proves effective. We don't need flashbacks or life stories or the concerns of outside forces in their lives. It's about survival for those that have barely had a chance to live. The threat to their future is so senseless and horrifying that it is impossible to not care and root for their safety, but Saulnier refuses to paint their portraits with too drippy of a brush so there is never a feeling of predictability. So many times when watching films it isn't a matter of whether the protagonists live, it's how they manage to do it because the happy ending is guaranteed. Not here. Not a chance we can feel safe inside the green room.

Bodies and blood are left in the wake of a maniac and his loyal men and at times it is hard to watch. Green Room is brutal yet bravura cinema, the type of work that made me want to turn away and hide from the pain but I couldn't. The performances are too precise, the frames too richly detailed even when the location is soaked in colorless dread. The spacing is so claustrophobic you can't wait to breathe again, and yet when they step outside of that room everything feels so big you can't help but want back into the cramped quarters. Death lurks out in the open in the darkness. Sound is utilized sublimely, from the rage of the music serving as subtle background noise for chaos to the high pitched feedback designed to unnerve. Green Room isn't for the faint of heart and I know many would be turned off by the graphic nature of the violence, but it never feels out of place or forced. Some filmmakers want to splatter their lens with red with the only intention being to shock to the point that it's over-the-top, but not Saulnier. The blood he spills matters as a piece of the storytelling.

The desert island band concept is ingenious because it really taps into a nostalgic feeling for me, remembering a time when I would have answered solely to fit into a mold that never truly made me feel comfortable. The strange desire to constantly maintain an image rather than be true to myself. Eventually you realize how silly that is and you stop being ashamed of honesty and start embracing what makes you happy. For these band mates it happens just before they face what seems like certain death, a last bonding moment when they drop the facade and just live their musical truth. It's a perfectly timed bit of warmth and comedy, a tiny but necessary calm before the storm grows even stronger.

Patrick Stewart asks if he is still breathing, and strangely we pray the answer is no. We know that's the best case scenario. He is, but barely.

"Let him bleed."

Imogen Poots with a box cutter is the hero we deserve. Green Room is the film I desire, an expertly pieced together, exhaustive thriller that shreds us apart with tension and knife cuts that soak through the carpeting. A punk rock masterpiece that has an awful lot to say, more than many will give it credit for because it isn't until afterwards when we can reflect on the experience that clear eyes and functioning minds can see just how smart the film is. During the movie, who the hell has the time to analyze? Who has time to dig deeper? This is a picture that grabs you and has no intentions of letting go, at least not until we feel battered and bruised like I do now.

So what does it say about me that I can't wait to watch it again and again?


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Boss Review

I was in the mood to laugh. Honest, I was. I didn't approach the new film The Boss with a mindset that I couldn't wait to tear it apart, even if I knew somewhere in the back of my mind it was the likely outcome. I was in the mood to laugh.

It's also important to note that I didn't read a single review of this film prior to seeing it, nor did I consult a consensus score website. I based my entire level of anticipation of this movie off of the few television commercials I had seen, and sure they did a very poor job of selling it but I was the guy who thought Bridesmaids would be bad. Same with Spy, which I didn't love like so many others did but I also didn't hate. I would have been thrilled with an experience like the one I had with Spy here, a mildly enjoyable, mostly forgettable picture that would deliver a handful of laughs. That's all I wanted.

Mildly enjoyable? Not even remotely. Mostly forgettable? I can only hope completely. Handful of laughs? Absolutely void of even the slightest of smiles. The Boss is a flaming cinematic turd, the type of film that had I not been mentally committed to seeing it through I would have at least considered walking out. Could have requested a refund on the grounds of false advertising, since I am pretty sure the genre applied to the movie is "Comedy". Written and directed by Ben Falcone, husband of star Melissa McCarthy, The Boss is a mean spirited and vulgar disaster, which would be fine if it were even the slightest bit clever. It's not. It's uninspired and lazy. It asks the audience to laugh at the existence of curse words and the concept that saying them around children is funny without trying to actually earn a positive reaction through good writing. The end result is like having a drunk uncle around during the holidays and the horrible things he says aren't eliciting laughter, they make you wish he would go home so the uncomfortable tension in the room could lift.

I wish I could sit down with Falcone and ask him if the screenplays he writes are all his responsibility or does he work collaboratively with McCarthy. I am extremely curious who among the duo still finds her crashing into things or falling down stairs amusing. The actual plot to the film is bad enough, but the constant desire to beg for undeserved slapstick laughter makes me cringe. Also, I need Peter Dinklage to stop accepting these roles in terrible comedies like this and Pixels. I need to be able to take him seriously in Game of Thrones.

We have never had so much content at our disposal, between a thousand different channels and tons of streaming services and VOD releases and worthy films being released at the cinema each week. The Boss isn't worth your time nor your money. Stay away, even if you are in the mood to laugh.


Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Jungle Book (2016) Review

It's fair to be critical of Hollywood for the sheer amount of reboots and remakes that are being released because the lack of original storytelling is without a doubt an indication that the business side of things takes precedence over creating unique art. Funding a 3D spectacle from a known property feels safe, a way to guarantee ticket sales, but as a result these pictures usually aren't able to move us as strongly because, besides the occasional alteration to mix things up a bit, we know exactly what is coming. It might feel lazy and disappointing, to basically only target fans of an original picture from long ago seeking a warm bath of nostalgia rather than trying to invoke something unexpected and powerful from an audience, but I try to keep an open mind and find other reasons to appreciate the modern retelling of a classic tale.

The new live action (although a vast majority of the film is animated) version of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book is a prime example of exactly this. A movie that from start to finish sitting in that theater I essentially knew nothing would surprise me, and yet I found a way to be smitten with the journey despite this. Thanks to glorious visual effects that allow talking wildlife to feel impossibly realistic, along with spot on vocal casting across the board, The Jungle Book is the type of film that transcends the flaw of being familiar because it delivers the magic of cinema in other ways.

The young boy whom plays Mowgli is a totally fresh faced young man named Neel Sethi, and all things considered I think he did a pretty terrific job. I know some have been critical of his performance and that feels totally unfair to me, starting with the general notion of insulting the acting chops of a child as just feeling wrong. This takes me back to the Jake Lloyd situation in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, when he won the hugely important role as a young Anakin Skywalker despite being clearly wrong for it given the end result. Many were cruel then and continue to be now, which I always thought was strange because it seems to me if you are going to point the finger at anyone, I would start with the film's director and whomever else is in charge of casting before I get to the 10 year old whom was deemed worthy. For someone so young making his feature length debut, I expected far less from Neel than what he was able to deliver, especially when you add in that besides tiny glimpses here and there, he is the only human being to appear throughout the entire movie. Mowgli is front and center in this big budget remake and I'm pleased as punch with the end result.

The rest of the cast is made up of top notch talent lending their voices only, and goodness, the decision makers that assembled this crew deserve all sorts of credit. Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Idris Elba as Shere Khan, Lupita Nyong'o as Raksha, Giancarlo Esposito as Akela, Christopher Walker as King Louie, and a sublimely selected Scarlett Johansson as Kaa. Her voice is not only perfect for the part but the utilization of surround sound to make an audience sitting in the theater feel exactly what Mowgli is going through in that moment is a brilliant touch. The disorienting confusion of the unknown blending in with the intoxicating appeal of her voice. I didn't even mention Bill Murray yet as Baloo, the essential addition of light comedic relief to infuse the charm and warmth needed to appropriately tell this story. Rather than feeling weighed down by a been there, done that negative energy that could have easily shrouded this experience, I was too busy gleefully admiring the performances.

Director Jon Favreau has not assembled a perfect track record to this point (hooray Iron Man, boo Iron Man 2), but he confidently delivers a cinematic experience that many were never asking for. That's the thing about remakes, on a studio level the choices feel uninspired, the idea of a bunch of suits tossing cash at retreads and avoiding originality like the plague, but for those actually tasked with crafting the film it is almost more challenging. Sounds silly I'm sure, because to write based on what is already written and visualize what has already been seen screams safe and easy compared to starting from scratch and molding from nothing but imagination, but making people fall in love with something all over again takes a lot of work. Favreau and writer Justin Marks were crucial in this process of course, but I think the photography of Bill Pope, the production design by Christopher Glass and Abhjeet Mazumder and the casting by Sarah Finn are the factors that I mostly have to thank for just how much I enjoyed this film.

Like I said, it's fair to be critical of Hollywood, but the formula won't be changing anytime soon. Remakes and reboots will continue to litter the release schedule year after year, and we all have a choice: completely ignore them or give each film an honest chance and hope to be moved despite the limitations of redundant storytelling. At least as of right now, I will choose the latter. The Jungle Book encapsulates why.


Friday, April 22, 2016

Midnight Special Review

"It's time, are you ready?"

Whether you like it or not, you better be ready for the newest film from brilliant filmmaker Jeff Nichols. The first thing you hear is the sound of an amber alert broadcast on the television in a motel room. A boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) has been kidnapped, and the presumed abductor is his biological father Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) and here they are along with another man named Lucas (Joel Edgerton) listening to their circumstances being reported, on the run from the law. Many filmmakers would either incorporate flashbacks or expository dialogue into the storytelling in order to flesh out the history behind what lead to this moment, but Nichols doesn't care for such things and neither should you. All that matters is what we see and hear and feel, these moments in the lives of a very special boy and his father.

"You don't have to worry about me anymore."

Alton is being pursued not only be the government but also a religious cult called Third Heaven Ranch because he has mysterious and strange powers that are emitted through a blindingly bright light from his eyes. Why does he have these powers? When did he acquire them? Again, it is irrelevant to the core of Midnight Special, the soul of the film. It's unsurprising to discover that Nichols wrote the screenplay for the film from a very personal and meaningful place, as you can feel a haunting honesty to it all bubbling beneath the genre-bending surface. He started to lay out the concept of the movie after becoming a father, and when his son was only 8 months old he suffered a seizure that had Jeff and his wife wondering if they would lose him. It's a profound place to create from, that level of grief and fear and it inspired the allegory that drives the picture throughout. Midnight Special is about the journey of being a parent, the day to day balance of love and fear, the crucial nature of every decision you make to give your child a better life. It's about the faith people have in a world that often feels not worthy of it, which is why Roy is never willing to stop or let someone stand in his way of giving Alton a chance to do something great with the gift he was given. It's about the challenge of letting go of the person you love, the child you have an indescribable bond with in order to truly allow them to move forward. 

"I like worrying about you."

After only four films, Jeff Nichols has fully captured my heart as a fan of cinema. His style is intoxicating, a fluidity to his brand of storytelling that feels richly natural and exploding with an optimistic warmth even when thematically things can get pretty ominous. His raw yet focused debut Shotgun Stories, his sophomore effort Take Shelter (his masterpiece), his wonderful character driven third film Mud and now a dip into a bit of science fiction with Midnight Special. No matter what genre you try to pigeonhole these films into, to me they feel spiritually linked thanks to the magic of authenticity. In the old days back when such a thing was prevalent, I would enter a video store looking for something to rent and I would probably find films like these amidst the "Drama" section, but really they should just have one special shelf somewhere off to the side labeled "Nichols", because I find the tone of his pictures to be refreshingly unique.

It isn't as if he works alone though. Nichols has surrounded himself with a remarkably talented team of people, reuniting here with composer David Wingo whom he also collaborated on the score for Take Shelter and Mud with. Same goes for Cinematographer Adam Stone, side by side since the beginning with Shotgun Stories. It's relationships like these with people who perfectly gel with the vibe Nichols means to create that help me fall in love with every single one of their efforts. 

This, of course, goes for casting as well as the duo of Nichols and star Michael Shannon has proven to be a match made in heaven. He has been the lead in three of the four, lending his abilities to a supporting role in Mud, but it was in the television series Boardwalk Empire that Shannon landed on my radar with an intense and disturbing week to week performance that stole the show for me in that series. I just knew he was an extraordinary actor, and I couldn't be more thrilled that he and Nichols found each other and formed this cinematic bond because I feel like the two suit each other so well. Shannon has the range to deliver all the nuance expected of him in this roles, and his portrayal here is a bit of a minimalist performance in terms of dialogue but he still confidently lands the emotional punches of a devastated father doing whatever is necessary to keep his son safe. Some will say that the characters aren't developed enough in Midnight Special and thus they had nothing to root for, but I found an authenticity in their portrayals. Despite my love for writing, I am a man who often times likes to avoid communication throughout the day. While others seek out a conversation, I soak in the soothing silence as a means to gather my thoughts, to feel centered, so the concept of displaying deeply profound emotions and fighting an internal war without words is not only familiar, it is something I can relate to.

The supporting cast of the aforementioned Lieberher and Edgerton, as well as Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Sam Shepard and a slew of others all deliver exactly what you would hope for in order to tell a Nichols story with grace and ease. The most interesting of the bunch is probably Driver as NSA agent Paul Sevier assisting the government manhunt for the boy because, ironically, his character could have very easily been the most uninteresting of the group. We've seen the cliche agent character in countless films before, the man piecing together clues to find the protagonists of the story in order to capture them, and cutting away to Sevier from the far more interesting family dynamic could have very easily suffered from the fatigue of this familiarity. It's a character you may technically need to tell this story but no one really wants, but getting a gifted actor like Driver to perform the role helps ease that burden and I also like the direction they took him in. Early on he is nothing more than a man doing his job with a goal that he means to complete, but after seeing Alton up close he starts to recognize that his actions, his desire to harness such a power as a government tool rather than allowing him freedom would be a mistake. As I mentioned before, Midnight Special is a film about faith, not necessarily religious but the kind people have in each other. The faith that those closest to Alton share, a faith in the significance of keeping the boy out of the wrong hands, perhaps Sevier could feel it to.

"The only thing I ever believed in was Alton."

I used the word grace in that last bit about the performances, and it's a word that comes to mind a lot during a Nichols film. Grace. It's the thing that seems to pour out of every frame, drip from every musical cue, and ooze out of the emotional significance of the film as a whole. A deeply personal work without having to inflate the characters with too much unjustified personality, providing us with nothing outlandish and essentially no backstory at all. Some films can't survive without a bit more meat on the bones, but with something like Midnight Special I am pretty full with exactly what is offered. Maybe it's the father in me finding something inviting in a film centered on the relationship that carries the weight of this picture, but it just feels right.


Thursday, April 21, 2016

Hail, Caesar! Review

"Would that it were so simple."

At first glance the new Coen brothers film Hail, Caesar! feels light and breezy, a fun homage to 1950's cinema, but always remember who we are dealing with here. There is a reason so many people (myself included) wait for a revisit or two of their work before declaring their cemented opinions of it. A Coen picture is typically assembled with immaculate precision and a level of intelligence that is often not fully appreciated until years later, and Hail, Caesar! is yet another glorious film that fits right into their wonderful mold.

Here we are told the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a man working as a fixer for the Hollywood studio Capitol Pictures, a career riddled with chaos and the somewhat scattershot plotting of Hail, Caesar! embraces the concept that we are following a day in his life. It's unconventional and is certain to turn some viewers off because it feels as if we are fed a lot of information that amounts to very little, but that's exactly the point. It's a perfect symbolic representation of the inner turmoil of Mannix, a day of being pulled in so many different directions and it all amounts to very little, and starting and ending Hail, Caesar! with scenes of him inside a Catholic church confessional serves as the subtle touch that made me love this film so much more upon reflection. This movie is disguised as being "about" what feels like a major plot point in the storytelling, the kidnapping of their biggest star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) and the pursuit of bringing him back in time to finish shooting their most important picture, but really Hail, Caesar! is always about Mannix and the irony of his position as a fixer when he is so desperate to fix himself. 

That isn't to say that Hail, Caesar! isn't also a sublime example of what it feels like on the surface, a fun homage to 1950's cinema. It slathered me in a warmth of nostalgia that I shouldn't even comprehend considering I wasn't born until the mid 80's. The film taps into the era with such honesty and absurdity, a totally welcome and essential balance, and while my experience with that decade comes only through the very medium they are celebrating I felt like I had returned to something special. 

A perfectly cast Coen film, from the aforementioned Brolin and Clooney to Ralph Fiennes, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and many others, including an inspired supporting performance from Channing Tatum (I fall more and more in love with this man every time I see him in something), it's easy to be charmed and find some pleasure in the experience that Hail, Caesar! provides, but it wasn't until I played it back in my mind and then gave it that good ole' second viewing that I discovered what an achievement they have here. Is it peak Coen for me? No, but that shouldn't be regarded as a flaw considering what a tall mountain that is to climb, with my deep love for work like The Big Lebowski, Inside Llewyn Davis, No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man forcing my expectations for their brand of cinema to reach unreasonable heights. If Hail, Caesar! is just a notch below, second tier Coen if you will, that's mighty fine by me.


The Huntsman: Winter's War Review

Four years ago the film Snow White and the Huntsman was released and it made a fair amount of money, but in these days of bloated budgets and unreal financial expectations a total worldwide cume of under 400 million isn't much to get excited about. The film starred Kristen Stewart at a time when she was regarded as nothing more than the girl from the Twilight franchise, and I don't remember the specifics but I know that her lack of inclusion in a sequel was seen as a positive, as if she was the force on the picture imposing limitations. The irony of this of course is that now Stewart has proven herself to be one hell of an actress, delivering inspired supporting work in films like Still Alice and Clouds of Sils Maria, and here we are witnessing the release of The Huntsman: Winter's War, a movie that inspires absolutely nothing.

To be fair though, the failures of this film are not due to any performance issues as the cast is not only star-studded but completely worthy of delivering the goods, bringing back some gorgeous faces from the first film like Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron and adding in Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain (this war is not short on aesthetically pleasing humans). The problem is that the material they are given to work with is flat, dull and completely silly, but not in an amusing put a smile on your face sort of way. The jokes don't land and the drama won't make you care a lick, which is a troubling combination for a film trying to entertain in both ways.

I never expected a ton from this movie, but I will admit having some hope of at the very least finding it a bit compelling when I saw the cast additions. Emily Blunt is an outstanding talent and Jessica Chastain is one of my favorite actors working right now, but the screenplay for The Huntsman: Winter's War was dead on arrival. Splitting credit for these words are Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin, and the issue here isn't so much that the dialogue is outright bad, it's that it is downright bland. Everything I witnessed and all that was said have been done before and better, making watching the film more of an exercise in going through the motions rather than ever being moved in even the slightest way by the material. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I yawned more than I smiled during the 100 or so minutes of cinema here.

Consider the science of physical attraction and the chemical reaction we naturally experience when we see something beautiful, a cocktail of wonderful rushing through our system. By this logic, just merely putting such a cast on the screen should appeal to our senses in some fashion, not to mention the obscene amount of money pumped into modern visual effects and the choreographed action sequences designed to excite an audience.

It's almost literally physically impossible to be as bored as I was by The Huntsman: Winter's War.


Monday, April 18, 2016

Preparing for Civil War - 5 Favorite MCU Films

Some may be feeling the superhero fatigue, both from the volume of films being released from the sub-genre and also the vitriol being spewed from the fans from each side (call me an optimist, but I root for them all to be good), but I doubt any of this will harm the box office totals that are about to roll in for Captain America: Civil War. The film is going to be insane business, and from the look of it rightfully so because I am expected something special.

As this will be the 13th film released since the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it seems like a solid time to run down the best of the bunch, my personal five favorites thus far. I hope to amend this soon when I get a chance to see Civil War.

5. Iron Man

The one that started it all eight years ago. It seems crazy to think of all that has happened since the first Iron Man was released, seeing as how it isn't even an old film by any standards. The MCU has done a magnificent job of world building since it kicked off and Robert Downey Jr. has been the engine that made the whole universe go. The first Iron Man film also happens to still be the best Iron Man film.

4. Captain America: The First Avenger

This one being in the top 5 may surprise people because I know loving it is a somewhat unpopular opinion, but I think the introduction to Captain America is an absolute blast, beautifully standing up as an action packed superhero film and also a fun period piece. The aesthetic of the era really stands out and the chemistry between Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones and Sebastian Stan gives the entire picture a heavy dose of charm. I have come to realize that Cap is my favorite Avenger and it all starts with this movie.

3. The Avengers

I still remember how much I doubted that this whole thing would really work when it all came together. I didn't quite appreciate just yet how the patience of Marvel to establish all of their characters before delivering the big show would pay off so wonderfully, but Joss Whedon found a way to balance all of the big personalities and make them each shine thanks to delicious dialogue and an exciting plot. So much fun, a Blu-ray I can put on anytime and just sit back, relax and admire the spectacle.

2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Prior to seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I had one major complaint about the MCU solo films: the villains. They never really did much for me, and that is such a let down. Ever since I was a kid, I loved being unnerved by a great bad guy. Enter the Winter Soldier, a kick ass character that owns the frame when he is a part of it and the entire film turned out to be absolutely terrific. I had such severe doubts about this movie because the choice of directors seemed so random and out of place, calling on Joe and Anthony Russo to take the helm when they had previously been focused on comedy, and yet they crushed an absolute home run here. Now I am thrilled that those same brothers have taken on Civil War and will also be behind the camera for the Infinity War

1. Guardians of the Galaxy

If a film based on a comic book wants to win my heart, it needs to feature a terrific script, outstanding characters and a stunning aesthetic. Guardians of the Galaxy fits the bill and thus is my favorite film from the MCU thus far. Endlessly clever and exciting and utilizing grandiose world building by writer/director James Gunn, I can't stop smiling watching Guardians and the fact that it also hits me pretty hard emotionally at times only adds another layer to why I love it so. This movie is one of those releases that exemplifies why I love going to the cinema.

Will Civil War push its way into my top 5? As I said earlier, I am an optimist and my anticipation for this one fits right into that mold as everything involved in the marketing and the proven talent involved tells me this is going to be a film I adore in 2016. Can't wait to see it, but for now revisiting these joyous MCU entries will have to do.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Paris, Texas Review

"I wanted to see him so bad that I didn't even dare imagine him anymore."

Against the desolate backdrop of a desert setting, the man simply doesn't belong there. He wanders into the frame and even his clothing doesn't add up, a sport coat, shirt and tie still affixed but dirty and worn from the environment, along with blue jeans and a bright red baseball cap. After pausing for a moment, he continues to walk and the camera statically presents a long shot of an expansive landscape with seemingly no end in sight and no signs of life in any direction. Who is this man? Where did he come from? Where is he going?

The beauty of this scene as a starting point for the story of Paris, Texas is that through silence the audience is already asking themselves questions, and yet the most important answers given aren't for any of them. The specifics of where his journey begins and his intentions of how it will end are not essential in these frames, but what is clear is that this is a man who is lost in more ways than one. What do you see when we first get a look at his face? Nothing? I would argue everything, because that nothing is something profound. There is an emptiness to him that is startling and I couldn't help but wonder if he even wanted to be found. Whether it be the reason he is out there in a literal sense or that something preceding these circumstances was the emotional causation is yet to be determined, but a tragic feeling drips from every step he takes.

The camera cuts and we see him reaching at least a tiny piece of civilization, structures erected by man rather than God, and his body gives out in the presence of humanity that can save his life. It's an early indication that his plight isn't meaningless, that there is something that drives a man that seems so hollow at first glance. His name is Travis Henderson, and he is played with subtle brilliance by the great Harry Dean Stanton, and his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) arrives at the hospital as his ticket home, back to the life he mysteriously left behind four years earlier. A life with a beautiful wife and a newborn son, and the pieces of what went wrong are slowly put together by Walt attempting to communicate with Travis on their drive together, but the dialogue is quite literally one-sided as Travis remains totally silent. We learn that his son Hunter is being raised by Walt and his wife Anne, left there by a mother who could only support a child financially but not emotionally. Eventually Travis begins to speak and the tone of his words change throughout the picture, as if he was starting over in his silence and building himself back up from whatever shattered him in the first place.

Director Wim Wenders crafted an absolutely beautiful masterpiece, and I love that Paris, Texas tells a deeply personal and moving story without ever seeming to try too hard to do so. If you are looking for flashbacks to paint the picture of hardship and loss, don't expect them because we aren't supposed to see those moments. We feel them through character and dialogue, including a sequence later in the film that takes place in a private booth at a strip club that rivals any monologue I have ever heard in cinema. I found myself leaning forward with each word that eloquently left Travis' mouth, and despite a steady cadence it was impossible not to feel the passion and pain in him as he relived such heartbreak and regret. I was being pulled in by a screenplay that hits every note with precise honesty and realism and a lead performance that delivered on the promise of those written words. Amidst an entire film that feels perfect, it's awkward to declae moments that are the best because absolutely nothing here is flawed. How can there be a best if there isn't a worst? Yet somehow Wenders delivers an experience that elevates itself from merely sublime filmmaking to a final act that is nothing short of miraculous. 

Back to that very first scene, I was instantly distracted by his hat, a shade of red that felt strikingly vibrant given the muted, lifeless world that surrounded him, and it was fascinating to witness the way Wenders filled these landscapes with color and utilized it along with lighting to tell a story within a story. If you look closely, you can spot these colors everywhere in Paris, Texas, even during scenes set in the darkness of night, whether it be a traffic light or the glow of the horizon off in the distance. When we first meet Hunter, he is presented to his father in a classic white button down shirt, a look of innocence and purity that was bestowed upon him by the only parents he knows, his Aunt and Uncle, yet when he leaves with Travis on their quest to find his mother they are matching in red, a jarring shade that is reminiscent of that hat. I can't help but believe these colors are portraying the conflict in their hearts and minds. Both Travis and Hunter are hurt by loss and abandonment, and it isn't until they have found something deeper, something soothing that seems to resolve their angst that they are allowed to bask in a mellow glow of green.

This just doesn't happen very often, and I have learned to not take it for granted. The type of cinematic experience that isn't merely "great" but one that makes you completely alter a list of all time favorites. Paris, Texas has a poetic gracefulness to it that washed over me like a calming wave, and while it bathes us in a feeling of sadness it does so with purpose and meaning. Wenders and screenwriter Sam Shepard had a story to tell and they did so with multiple strokes of beautiful perfection. I can't stop replaying the entire film in my mind, and I slow it down during that scene and remember how moved I was by that monologue. The tears that stream from her eyes as his words bring back the memories filled with pain and regret. The way each of them turns their backs to each other as they reveal their souls and we get to see the honesty of this moment resonate, allowing them to bask in that mellow glow of green.


Saturday, April 9, 2016

Hush Review

The closet door is slightly ajar and I notice my daughter staring at it. I know instantly what is happening but I ask anyways.

"What's wrong?"

Her answer is some sort of generic denial, but I see it in her eyes: fear. It may be irrational to some that a tiny area filled with clothes would be capable of terrorizing someone mentally, but it's honest and real. We all have those buttons that we never want pushed, the specific concepts either based on fantasy or facts that send a chill down our spine. For her it's a creature derived from imagination from a mind too young and naive to realize what doesn't exist cannot hurt you. For me it's the dangerous possibilities of reality. It's the motivations of the deranged. I believe in monsters too.

From director Mike Flanagan comes a new horror film Hush, a Netflix original that is simple yet disturbingly scary. Maddie (Kate Siegel) is a deaf and mute writer living in a nice home in the woods, a solitary life by choice. I will spare you the details of how it all goes down because that's much of what leads to that ugly, uneasy feeling in your stomach as you witness it unfold, but this is a new entry into the home invasion sub-genre that has a way of destroying my nerves and consuming me with a level of fear that makes me nauseous. The added wrinkle here is such an experience from the perspective of Maddie, a voiceless woman in a soundless world at a time when one absolutely wants to hear what's coming. Being afraid of the dark takes on a whole new meaning when the only thing that can save you is your sight.

One of the most interesting choices from Flanagan is the way he uses sound, a means to actually allow us to experience what it's like to be Maddie rather than just tell us her condition through storytelling. Early on we are in the room when the smoke alarm goes off and the sound and flashing light pulses the frame, a sensory experience that is designed to be jarring, yet from the perspective of Maddie it's actually somehow worse. The silence in that moment is deafening as I sat there thinking about her vulnerability.

Being afraid of the dark is quite common because it's unsettling to have to wonder what could be lurking in the shadows that light would otherwise expose. Some scenes in the film were actually too dark visually, which can be a bit frustrating while watching but I believe this was done intentionally for additional realism. We are seeing what Maddie would actually see, not an artificial lit set piece, and the disorienting nature of relying on our vision to pierce through the darkness of night only invokes an even stronger feeling of anxiety. The only real issue I took with the film started when a new character enters the picture and the predictability factor started to kick in, which to that point it had completely avoided, but Hush still managed to utilize plot devices like the memory of her mother's voice and Maddie's desire to fight until the bitter end as ways of maintaining a certain unique vibe to the film and fleshing out her character nicely without her having to say a single word.

Hush has a way of making every window feel like a threat rather than a welcoming gateway to the outdoors. I took a second during the film and became frighteningly aware of just how visible I was and I was overwhelmed with a sudden desire to lower all the blinds and check the locks. When the man outside first appears, he is masked and the imagery of him watching her is horrifying yet something about his look felt cliched, following in the footsteps of a history of horror cinema depicting masked killers. When he removes it and we see the face of reality, as if an inhuman entity suddenly becomes a personification of pure evil, his existence is far more terrifying. He is played by John Gallagher Jr., a wonderful talent seen in films like Short Term 12 and 10 Cloverfield Lane, and the fact that he is recognizable didn't subtract an ounce of fear from my rapidly beating heart because the scariest thing in the world is knowing that his character isn't the creature hiding in the closet. He is the monster that I believe in. The type that actually exist.

It's why I close the closet when I know my kid is afraid. It doesn't matter if it's rational or not, we all are afraid of something and we all long for the comfort of knowing we are safe. Hush may not be perfect cinema, but it's a rush of tension and terror that just may have you leaving a light on late into the night thanks to focused low budget filmmaking and intelligent plotting involving such characters and circumstances.

I tried to remind myself it was just a movie, but I'm sure I had that look in my eyes. The genuine fear of the unknown and what could be. Hush is effective enough to push that button.


Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Boy Review

I know one thing for certain: we have all been bored during a film before. It happens. The question is, what do you do with that boredom? Do you fall asleep? Complain about the failings of the film either aloud or internally? Play around on your phone?

I ask because over the past few years as I have found myself exploring more and more cinema, I have found myself to be bored beyond comprehension a number of times. I've learned to channel that complete disinterest in the movie into something mildly entertaining, an exercise in taking what I am watching and making light of it in a way that I find humorous. For example, when I sat through the awful mess I, Frankenstein, I came up with a television series concept using the title Yo, Frankenstein, a coming-of-age story portraying the four years of college attended by Frankenstein's monster. With a terrific script and a dedicated showrunner, it could be something special.

So now that I have set the table, time to sit down and take a bite of The Boy, the new horror film from director William Brent Bell. It's a painfully boring, completely uninteresting genre piece that feels so stale and silly, my only option was to entertain myself, especially considering I honestly did fall asleep at one point. It was a less than a minute power nap, but it happened. The film tells the story of a nanny being hired to watch a doll named Brahms, a pale little faux boy with a specific set of rules that must be followed in order to keep him happy. I once knew a woman who gave her husband a list of tasks that must be accomplished that day, and she specifically laid out the rules of how he would accomplish them. For a moment The Boy was her origin story. However, the film threw a curve ball during a scene in which the pretty nanny is walking around in her underwear and she notices creepy Brahms staring at her from across the room. Unsurprisingly this makes her feel very uncomfortable, with a look on her face that felt familiar to the one young me saw on a daily basis when I first discovered the beauty of the female form. Perhaps The Boy was my origin story. Perhaps I was Brahms.

Do you see how ridiculously I am rambling here? This is because of boredom. I should probably mention the part in which I started taking the name Brahms and finding various new film titles that I could fit it into seamlessly. For example:

Brahms v Superman
Louder than Brahms
The Jungle Brahms
Everybody Wants Brahms
Suicide Brahms (or Brahms Squad)
Brahms One: A Star Wars Story
Midnight Brahms

Dipped a bit into television with Game of Brahms, Brahm's Anatomy and The Big Brahms Theory.

Let's get back on track here: the point is, The Boy is a really poor picture. The performances are okay, not great but also not a disaster with Lauren Cohan doing mediocre work in the lead as the nanny. The script is serviceable at its best and terrible at its worst, the direction is without any sort of flash or sizzle to spark any sort of interest and the attempts at being scary or unnerving in any way fall flat, which is a bad sign for a horror film. There is a twist I guess, but whether you care or not will be entirely dependent on your interest level when it happens. As you might have guessed, I didn't.

Watching a film like The Boy is a reminder that I need to appreciate some of the great films from the genre released recently like The Babadook, The Conjuring, It Follows and especially The Witch. I feel like I have seen The Boy dozens of times already, and the end result is always the same: falling asleep for a minute followed by playing games in my head to keep me amused. It's the only way to survive such a lame excuse for cinema

Alright, let's go classic:

Brahms of Arabia
The Good, the Bad and the Brahms
Modern Brahms

Alright, I'm done.


Saturday, April 2, 2016

Eraserhead Review

A few nights ago I had two vivid nightmares over the course of roughly six hours of sleep, both involving myself being stuck in the crossfire of gun violence. The locations and the circumstances all felt horrifyingly real, and when I awoke from these bouts of chaotic slumber I had to take a second to remind myself of a much more peaceful reality. It's a strange feeling, that moment in which self created terror and the realization that everything is going to be alright collide. A part of me wants to bottle it and experience that euphoric level of relief whenever I am feeling uneasy. The rest of me hopes to never face that kind of fear in the first place.

When someone has a nightmare, the response from a loved one is always one of sympathy, a goal to remind those haunted by their own subconscious mind that there is nothing to fear. I find that not all unsettling dreams are created equal. When I am plagued by visions soaked in realism, I want to run the other way and never look back. To see myself or those closest to me stuck in a situation that taps into my deepest fears isn't a pool I want to dip my toes into. When those dreams are dark yet surreal, when I can remember the smallest details of an abstract and amazing world my mind somehow created, those are the nightmares I welcome. Those are the nightmares that I crave.

Unfortunately I don't have those experiences anymore. When I was a child they would dance through my mind with regularity and I always remember being scared and yet excited to relive the imagery throughout the following day at school. What better way to distract myself from reading and math than colorful demons and gorgeous, fictional worlds?

I can't help but wonder if this is why I always find myself falling in love with abstract, surreal cinema. Rarely can I comprehend what I am seeing the first time around, hell sometimes I will never fully understand the motivation or thematic depth of it all, but I don't need it to make sense to wrap myself up in the picture as if it were a warm blanket. I just let the seemingly absurd frames and my feverish sweats captivate me and admire the craft of the film rather than try too hard to piece together the narrative puzzle, and that is exactly what I did with the David Lynch classic Eraserhead. 

Shot in black and white, we follow Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) as he marries his girlfriend named Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) after finding out she gave birth to their "child", an alien looking creature swaddled up in its crib which only makes the entire scene feel more deranged. They move into Henry's apartment and soon after Mary leaves in a rage of panic and tears, falling victim to the constantly crying "baby" and the claustrophobic environment of their home, and I think Mary is a representation of a good portion of the audience of this film that would bail halfway through. One thing that is abundantly clear is that Eraserhead and the work of Lynch in general isn't for everyone, and this is a film that will absolutely fry your nerves and drive you insane, and that even goes for those that adore it. Eraserhead is designed that way intentionally, using space and ingenious sound design to destroy our senses and fill our minds with paranoia and dread. It is impossible to ever feel a sense of calm or normalcy while watching this film because Lynch doesn't want us to. At times while watching Eraserhead I just wanted it to end, yet once it did I kept looking back at this bizarre, memorable journey only to realize how appreciative I was to have finally had the experience.

All I can do is cherish filmmakers who craft pictures that feel like the dreams I once had, like more demented adaptations of the films I used to show myself in the middle of the night. It might be difficult for some to understand, but I find the right kind of nightmare to be soothing, perhaps not during it but after when I am able to recognize just how imaginative and wondrous the human mind can be.