Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Break From Cinema, An Unforgettable October

This blog is my place to express my deep, vital passion for cinema and the occasional television program that demands recognition, but I need to go in a different direction right now because it feels right. Actually, it's more than that. I feel compelled to put these words down because it feels necessary. I love three things in this world so deeply that they are capable of literally stirring me to tears. The first is my family, and that doesn't really need much explanation. Nothing is more important. The second is the medium that inspired me to create No Blogging for Old Men, the seemingly endless possibilities of motion pictures that day after day, week after week and year after year continue to dazzle and delight me with new, fascinating ways to tell a story. The third is the Chicago Cubs, and the game of baseball in general.

I turned 5 in 1989, and I have vague, mostly inconsequential memories about that years Cubs team despite that season being one of *those* historical landmark moments for the franchise that gets churned up year after year when the narrative turns to those two very unfortunate, annoying words: lovable losers. The 89' Cubs went to the National League Championship Series but lost to the San Francisco Giants in five games, but I don't remember any of it, nor did any of the outcome hurt. How could it? I was too young and the game meant so little to me, but that all changed when my family moved a few towns over and I made a new friend across the street. His dad cherished the game of baseball so much, even playing some minor league ball himself at one point, and I would go over to their house after school each day to watch the Cubs playing in beautiful Wrigley Field.

It didn't take any real effort or persuasion for me to fall in love with baseball. It happened quickly and naturally once I was exposed to it on a regular basis. Many complain about the pace of play, that the sport moves too slowly for their liking, but I cannot get enough of it. Each pitch is calculated and to watch one perfectly thrown and located is something that never gets old. Each hit is either exciting or frustrating, depending on whether it comes off of the bat of a Cub or whomever that days opponent may be, but every single one meant something. As a child I would keep score along with the game, marking down every statistic, fascinated by both the personal achievements of individuals and the bigger picture accolades of a team. As a child I would dream of seeing the Cubs go to the World Series, and maybe even win it.

One down, one to go.

If you have noticed that I haven't been writing about films as much over the last few weeks, first let me take a second to thank you for noticing which means you actually read enough of my words to care. I can't tell you how much I appreciate that. If that does apply to you, I needed to write this to explain that for 11 months out of the year it's really easy for me to focus my energy and passion on cinema, both good and bad, but if the Cubs are good, October just isn't going to happen. At least while they are still alive and fighting for that ultimate goal. It isn't that I don't care about the regular season, trust me I do. I rarely miss a game whether it is being played in May or September, but during those portions of the year I usually don't spend hours at night after the game is over either soaking in the afterglow of a win or dwelling on a heartbreaking loss because after 27 years of watching baseball, it's safe to say both are going to happen a lot. A game ends at 9 or 10 at night and afterwards I either watch or write about a film. Easy and simple as that. Not during October though. Every game is an event that I pour myself into, standing on every two strike count, screaming with each run scored by the Cubs and swearing each time the other team crosses the plate. It's too much emotional energy to be able to flip a switch after the final pitch and shift gears onto something else.

On the one hand, a dream has come true this year as for the first time in 71 years, the Chicago Cubs are playing in the World Series. Just typing those words is still a bit surreal, even given their current predicament. I write this with them now down 3 games to 1, backs against the wall, and the likely outcome is another year with that sharp pain in my stomach that stings of disappointment and delayed satisfaction, wondering if and when the elation of pure joy will come when they go all the way. It's probably going to happen, and accepting that makes it a bit easier, but maybe Jon Lester throws a beauty tomorrow night against Trevor Bauer and keeps this thing going, giving the Wrigley faithful a reason to celebrate one more time this season before the lights go down. Maybe Jake Arrieta steps on the mound in Cleveland on Tuesday night and dominates for the second time this series, and the return of Kyle Schwarber's bat to the lineup sparks something special. Maybe we get a memorable pitcher's duel on Wednesday between Kyle Hendricks and Corey Kluber, an unforgettable Game 7 that somehow breaks the Cubs way. Maybe.

Over the long history of baseball, six teams have come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the World Series. The odds aren't great, but maybe that number changes to seven in a few days. For now though, I want to take this one game at a time. I just don't want this to end tomorrow night. I want to be able to put on my Cubs shirt on Tuesday, sit down in front of the television and scream or swear with each run. I want to hope for another game on Wednesday. There is a part of me that cannot wait to get back to taking a deep dive into cinema, reviewing films and catching up on those I have missed over the past month. I can't wait to update and expand on my 2016 rankings, see if anything can dethrone the unlikely best picture of the year thus far, a massive documentary that aired as a television special about a former NFL player that probably (pretty much definitely) killed his ex-wife. I see previews of pictures like Doctor Strange, Rogue One, La La Land and Moonlight and I think about the different ways those stories can enlighten, excite, move me or just put a big, dumb smile on my face. A lot like the smile I had when I was young and was either watching Star Wars or Greg Maddux, Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg or Mark Grace take the field on a gorgeous, sunny Chicago afternoon.

Actually I can wait. I can wait a few more days before my focus turns back to film. Give me until late Wednesday night to get every last ounce of pure baseball passion out of my body, because in my 32 years I have never seen or felt an October like this. No matter what happens, it's safe to say that this is the greatest Cubs team of my life. They are playing in the World Series and this fact is not lost on me. Just go win a ballgame tomorrow night and guarantee all of the Cubs fans out there at least one more.

I shall return with my movie thoughts and I'm thrilled to do so with Oscar season ready to kick into full gear. I can't express enough how much I appreciate anyone who has read a single word I have wrote in the past.

For now, though, I will think of those that taught me how to truly love the game of baseball. Those that loved the Cubs deeply and passed away without ever seeing them win. The family and friends out there that probably aren't sleeping very well right now dreading another year that ends in heartbreak.

Go get a win tomorrow and bring it back to Cleveland on Tuesday. Keep it going for Grandpa Rossy.

Go Cubs.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Wailing Review

Epic in length at over 150 minutes and yet every single moment of this brilliant feature is soaked in dread, Hong-jin Na's The Wailing is a meticulously crafted horror film. Richly designed, expertly written and overwhelmingly creepy with just enough to disturb an audience. The aspect of this movie that impresses me the most is the fact that it manages to do so many different things rather than become overbearing due to being boorishly dour and one note. The Wailing is a murder mystery thriller with occasional moments of dark comedy and, of course, an unsettling zombie nightmare that unleashes some imagery that is impossible to shake.

I will admit to hitting a very, very brief rough patch in the middle of The Wailing as I started to wonder if it could sustain such a daunting length, but before it could even really bother me I found myself becoming wrapped up in every scene until it ended. So many films call themselves horror and merely throw jump scares at our feet, begging us to react but it feels forced. So many films try to utilize gore and it makes me feel squeamish with no lasting effect, no real substantive reason to display such images beyond the desire to shock and disgust. The Wailing manages to do everything while truly feeling evil, and that is no small feat.

The film tells the story of a quiet village in South Korea, a location going through the motions of life and seeming very much okay with this until a mysterious Japanese stranger appears in town. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, right after his arrival a violent and terrifying sickness starts to spread among the villagers. The main character of the film is Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), a police officer who is in charge of solving the mystery of what is causing the outbreak, and he requires the assistance of another officer and a priest who speaks Japanese, an obvious necessity as a translator for when they confront the stranger and discover whether or not their recent nightmarish circumstances are somehow his doing.

Anyone turned off by the length of the film, in the end you don't feel it. I really thought I was going to get lost in the build up, but looking back on it, the film began building and constructing its mastery from the first frame on. It's the moments that erroneously feel less important that lead to The Wailing feeling so wonderfully troubling and toxic in the end, aided by great performances and perfect cinematography.


Monday, October 17, 2016

Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids Review

I have been to a lot of concerts and at many of them, no matter how much I love the artist performing, I find myself really wanting to go home towards the end of the show. Rather than find it invigorating, something about the environment and the crowds makes me feel drained as the set list winds down and the masses are chanting for an inevitable encore. The vast majority are eating it up and soaking in the moment, while I am hoping for an abbreviated return before the lights finally brighten and the people stream out to go their separate ways.

I haven't seen Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids perform live, so perhaps the same set of internal triggers would wear me down had I been in the room, but from the perspective of witnessing the final show of the 20/20 Experience World Tour from my couch I could not get enough. I wanted more. After 90 minutes I found myself disappointed it was over, and the craziest thing is it had so little to do with the music. The atmosphere captured by director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Stop Making Sense, Philadelphia, Rachel Getting Married) is remarkable, featuring frame after frame of perfectly lit joy as every single person on the stage pours their heart and soul into their craft and it shows.

I like the music of Justin Timberlake enough to leave certain songs on the radio rather than change the station, but I have never loved his work enough to invest much time into it. I will likely watch the 90 minutes of spectacle that is Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids again. And then again. And again after that. I couldn't stop smiling and I deeply admire that the production design and imaginative nature of the show goes above and beyond to entertain those that pay a lot of good money to see it live.

To many it probably doesn't sound like too tall of an order, filming a concert. No script to flesh out and no story to tell, yet it feels like that is exactly what is done when the opening minutes of the film is dedicated to introducing all of The Tennessee Kids, the vital pieces of their two year tour that get far less fanfare than Timberlake. It's brief but it shows how necessary everyone is to putting on the best show, and then Demme spends the remaining 80 some odd minutes demonstrating this by giving us shots from many different essential angles that put those whose names we just learned and likely won't remember front and center. They all deserve the spotlight.

I was a pessimist when I pressed play, I admit it. Thought I would be bored halfway through. Figured this would be the perfect concert for me since finally I could just stop the show whenever I wanted and call it a night.

Thrilled to be proven wrong. Watch it on Netflix and have a blast.


Friday, October 7, 2016

13th Review

I'm not sure if the filmmaking and construction of the new Netflix Original documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay is as impressive as the picture's urgency and importance, but that's not meant as a slight towards the craft considering how urgent and important it is. This is a film that is demanding to be heard and it hopes to have a intelligent conversation with its audience, but behind the message and the images used to convey it you can hear the screams of so many just begging for the world to open its eyes and and ears, to see the truth and listen to their pain. While the ignorant are tagging their social media posts with #AllLivesMatter with a sense of artificial compassion, as if they are the only ones that care about humanity, maybe take 100 minutes to sit and watch 13th and finally be willing to listen as to why Black Lives Matter matters so much.

The essential premise of 13th comes from the notion that mass incarceration that stemmed from the preposterous "drug war" that began in the 1970's was really nothing more than an extension of slavery, and this was in some way confirmed by an aide to Richard Nixon himself when a decades old interview was published earlier this year in which he admitted that the escalating crack down on drugs was meant as a system to target blacks and anti-war hippies. In 1970 the prison population in this country was roughly 300,000 inmates. In 2014 it stood at roughly 2.3 million, and while only 6.5 percent of the population are black males, they make up over 40 percent of those currently wasting away in tiny, windowless prison cells. From the plantation to living each day behind bars, the greatest shame of our nation lives on even today.

Perhaps 2016 is the year of the documentary for me, as I sit here in October having seen over 100 films from the year and 2 of my top 5 are vital works of non-fiction. Typically I am far more likely to fall in love with imaginative fiction-based storytelling and genre filmmaking, getting lost in the magic of ingenious people making the impossible possible, but right now feels like a time when it's crucial to stand up and raise a fist in the air, to give a shit about the tragic nature of the reality that surrounds us. Ava DuVernay said in an interview that making 13th was a very emotional experience, having to go through so many hours of traumatic footage and decide what to use to create a film that was exactly what she envisioned it to be. "I cried a lot making it", she said.

I cried watching it and I thank her for making it. To anyone out there who has tried to speak rationally and reasonably to a world that doesn't want to listen, I hear you. I hope with each passing day more and more people start to hear you too.


Blair Witch Review

Imagine a magician walks out on stage and performs an illusion and it blows your mind. Like, you can't wrap your mind around how they did it. For a second you truly believe in magic.

Now imagine that 17 years later you go to the same theater to see a different magician, one that you have seen before and loved what he previously came up with so your anticipation is through the roof...only to see him perform the exact same illusion as that first magician did way back when, only with less skill. You can see ever movement coming, and the movements are just sloppy enough to make you feel like you are peaking behind the curtain and rather than believe in levitation, suddenly you can see the strings holding him up.

The second magician isn't awful. He utilizes style, setting and spacing well to dazzle the senses here or there, enough that you certainly aren't booing him off the stage. The show is good enough to go along for the ride, but the entire time you can't shake that disappointing feeling that you have seen this before, only better.

Being a huge fan of You're Next and The Guest, I was pumped to see Adam Wingard's next film titled The Woods, and that excitement escalated even higher when it was revealed with a Comic-Con surprise that the film was actually a sequel to The Blair Witch Project. The trailer looked like it captured the traumatizing terror of the original and I was in, but little did I know that what originally had me jazzed would actually prove to be the biggest bummer: Blair Witch is too much like The Blair Witch Project. I'm all for using bits and pieces of the same spooky shit from the first, because if you are going to find the premise plausible enough to be scared you have to admit that the entity that haunts those woods would use similar tactics for any new victims that head her way. Therefore, I had no issue with seeing the same visual cues and hearing the same horrifying howls derived of desperate pain echoing through the night, but my god at times Blair Witch feels shot by shot which plays as lazy rather than demonstrating connectivity or serving as an honorable homage.

Despite all of this, I still felt a rush of excitement at times during Blair Witch and it had a few moments that made certain I would steer clear of the woods for some time (not that I had the desire to go fight off some forest clowns regardless, but you get the idea). The problem here, and the reason why I can only give the new Blair Witch a mild recommendation, is that those thrills and chills can be counted on one hand where as the original picture literally kept me up at night when I first saw it.

The Blair Witch Project has been and will continue to be an October favorite for me, as it somehow has not lost any of its luster despite numerous revisits and seeing an exhausting amount of found footage failures since it was released in 1999. Blair Witch is worth the ride, a speedy 80 minutes that feel a bit nostalgic and has me thankful to be relaxing in my home rather than out camping tonight, but it pales in comparison to that brilliant first visit to Burkittsville, Maryland with Heather, Josh and Mike.


Monday, October 3, 2016

The Invitation Review

I wouldn't say I am antisocial, that word is tossed around commonly but it refers to a pretty extreme personality type that causes a person to completely shy away from being in the company of others. I think the word that describes me is asocial, as I am more than willing to participate in conversation and have a lot of fun in a group setting as long as I feel comfortable. That comfort is crucial though.

Let's set up a scenario real quick: you get invited to a dinner party with old, cherished friends, but it's at your ex-wife and her new husband's house. Not only that, but it's the same home you once called your own but now you would be nothing more than a guest. Based solely on that information, are you attending the dinner party?

Prior to seeing The Invitation, my answer would have been a resounding no. After seeing The Invitation, my answer is holy fuck no, why would you even ask me that question?

This is where my asocial personality comes in handy. You all can have your dinner parties that take place under incredibly awkward circumstances before they even begin. Enjoy. I will be sitting on my couch watching tense, brilliant films about them and how they went horribly, horribly wrong.

The experience I had watching The Invitation was so rewarding, and it's a shining example of the value of knowing absolutely nothing about a film going in, and I do mean nothing. No synopsis, no trailers, no clips, no cast even. I had no idea who, what, where, when or why, all I knew was that people I know and trust were giving it really positive feedback. To all of those people, bless you for pointing me in the direction of this fascinating, unnerving gem.

Directed by Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer's Body), The Invitation is a low-budget horror thriller that utilizes a single setting for nearly its entirety outside of the opening minutes showing Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) driving towards their destination, a dinner party at his former home, currently occupied by his ex-wife and her new husband. As they approach the car slams into a coyote and Will mercy kill it, but even with mercy there is a brutal edge to this moment that is unshakable. This scene happens so early in the film it's easy to forget about it by the time this disturbing cinematic ride is done, but it's an important moment because it sets the tone for the picture, it develops the character of Will as someone who carries both compassion and a willingness to do what is necessary, and it also serves as a dreary foreshadowing of what is to come later. Will shows up to his former home ready to put on his best face, but on the side of it is a single drop of blood. He will never feel completely clean and whole again.

So many films try to do too much. The Invitation is a celebration of simplicity, an enthusiastic reminder of what is possible when talented people, a great script and a perfect musical score come together. When I decide whether or not I want to attend a dinner party, how comfortable I feel is crucial. When I am watching a delicious little genre film that means to rattle, disturb and upset, a lack of comfort is crucial. The Invitation is 100 minutes of never quite feeling comfortable.


Saturday, October 1, 2016

Amanda Knox Review

Nothing scares me more regarding the judicial system of the United States of America than the feeling I get after a conversation with others about a specific case. Fueled solely on media coverage and speculation, many will determine the guilt of the accused despite doing little to no actual research of their own. A verdict in the court of public opinion is handed down because of a cable news pundit weighing in with their opinion or sharing a personal bias regarding the look of someone or a gut feeling or the way a defendant behaved after the crime, because if grief is not handled with 100 percent uniformity from all it must be a sign of a deranged killer whom lacks compassion.

I still remember the first time I saw a television special regarding the Amanda Knox case, but rather than solely take in those forty some odd minutes of coverage and treat such a brief assessment of the case and the evidence involved as gospel, I went out of my way to read a lot more material about how it all went down. I came away from it all with this thought: Amanda Knox might be a murderer, but as a juror I would vote not guilty. When I told others this, they looked at me like I just admitted to committing the crime itself, the notion of reasonable doubt not being able to rise above the possibility of allowing someone with blood on their hands to walk free.

I don't know what happened that night to Meredith Kercher, and the only people who ever will are those that were involved in such a brutal, unthinkable act. Maybe Amanda Knox did it. Maybe she was there. Maybe she encouraged someone else to do it. Maybe she simply didn't put a stop to it.

Maybe she has been telling the truth all along and wasn't there at all.


The disturbing reality of it all though is as a jury member, whether or not you think she was is irrelevant, it's whether the prosecution proved she was beyond reasonable doubt, and between botched forensic work and a reliance on the smallest traces of DNA evidence, there is far too much doubt for Amanda Knox to spend the next few decades behind bars.

The new Netflix Original documentary Amanda Knox flies high enough to be a compelling watch and lay out the basics of the case for anyone who has remained in the dark about it up until now, but it falls short of truly soaring and I cannot express strongly enough how disappointing this is, because it's all right there. You can practically see a brilliant, layered, comprehensive documentary within these 90 minutes just begging to burst out, but the film cannot overcome its rushed pacing and the decision to make this a strangely bare bones journey from point A to point Z.

Early on in the film, director Rod Blackhurst, writer/director Brian McGinn and co-writer Matthew Hamachek lay the groundwork for the story by introducing the viewers to Amanda, a pretty girl from Seattle, Washington who just wanted to experience the independence of adulthood by studying abroad in Italy. The journey of a lifetime, an unforgettable experience which turned out to be true, but unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. We see Amanda's roommate Meredith, and I could feel a slight sting go through my heart as she smiles at the camera and I look at that happy girl and know shortly after this moment we are seeing, her life would be cut far too short. We meet Amanda's lover Raffaele, a short term relationship with a boy that approached her, a young man who was instantly smitten with a young blond lady and an American accent. A boy and girl romance that would end in matching murder convictions.

We see the aftermath of the murder and lord what a scene. Even with what I had learned prior to now regarding the case, this footage was new to me and it just feels wrong, with death feeling so private and intimate and yet we are allowed to see the depravity that resulted in the end of Meredith Kercher's life. The problem is, from then on this documentary plays things a little by the book in terms of progression, just a run down of what took place with seemingly little nuance which is even more frustrating because it's obvious they tried to tap into it. Sure, we get some of the dangers of having intense media involvement in stories like that of Amanda Knox and that is a very interesting angle, as a journalist admits during it that no one has the time to verify if "news" is fact or fiction anymore because doing due diligence to be sure just means you won't be the first to report the scoop, but anything like that to chew on isn't given the time to breathe. That's the crux of it with Amanda Knox, the length of this picture, checking in at only 90 or so minutes when it really could have used more. This is a complicated case with fascinating characters involved and it deserves better.

Amanda Knox is a good film. It's utterly compelling even for someone who knows about the case, so I would imagine the less pieces of this puzzle you are aware of, the stronger it will play. I just wish it would have been 30 or so minutes longer in order to make the puzzle that much more complex.


Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension Review

Since the very beginning of the Paranormal Activity franchise, I have been wondering if the desire to connect these films and continuously build upon the story of the same characters was an unfortunate letdown for what could have been a really compelling and fun series. It's not as if I am against shared universes or long running series involving the same faces, but Paranormal Activity seems like it really could have thrived being different stories involving different people each time, like so many different television shows have approached storytelling lately. Following the same sisters and learning more about them and the origin of what haunts them really killed a portion of what could have made these films scary for me, because instead of being an anyone could go through this, this could happen anywhere, wrong place wrong time type of terror, it instead became a sucks to be these people, good thing I'm not them sort of vibe. That vibe doesn't quite cut it.

A slightly improved film over the previous installment The Marked Ones, although I am not sure if it is really all that much better or if I just found it refreshing to get some of the creepy atmosphere of the original films back that was missing from the one entry that tried to deviate from the franchise's established norm. The terror taking place inside a single home felt right, and I fully admit to smiling when the words "Night #1" with the date beneath it came across the screen. The problem is, that terror I mentioned isn't nearly terrorizing enough and a vast majority of the scares are obvious and completely expected. The visual effects are a total failure for me, with actual formations of a sort of black mass seen repeatedly throughout the film rather than the victims never seeing what's coming, which is far more effective.

The Paranormal Activity films are simultaneously entertaining and disappointing, starting with three movies that are all good enough yet fall short of being great, moving on to a terrible fourth, an admirable yet really poor fifth effort that wanted to take a stale series in a new direction, and then a final chance to try to regain the form that made these movies massive box office success stories. Unfortunately The Ghost Dimension is a totally forgettable conclusion.