March Blindspot: Trainspotting (1996)

Release: Friday, August 9, 1996

[YouTube]

Written by: John Hodge

Directed by: Danny Boyle

One of the things I had presumed about Danny Boyle’s iconic drug drama Trainspotting was that it was really bleak, and it was that way from start to finish. Don’t get me wrong — this film is not happy, but I wasn’t expecting so much compassion. I wasn’t anticipating something that has such a reputation for being repulsive and controversial to actually be both those things while proving to be something far more substantial.

Of course Trainspotting has been embraced more by some cultures than it has by others. The film, released three years after Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh’s book was published, has become a cultural touchstone in the UK, which makes sense given its unapologetically brash attitude and self-deprecatory humor, dialogue that pierces through to the soul and yet still somehow comes across charming, even poetic. Really really darkly poetic. And utterly unpretentious at that. Despite the film mostly being shot in Glasgow, Welsh set the story in his native Edinburgh, circa the 1980s.

A densely compacted crop of historic and gorgeous stone edifice gouged into rugged green hillsides that contrast dramatically against the cerulean flats of the Water of Leith to the north, the Scottish capital is actually second only to London in terms of attracting European travelers. Yet underneath this façade of wealth and diversity and leisure lie both literal and metaphorically crumbling infrastructures, themes that take root in both Welsh’s novel and Boyle’s adaptation.

Trainspotting tells the story of a group of youths who struggle to overcome terrible drug addictions and who struggle even more with the stagnation that has creeped into their lives. The characters have become British icons: Mark “Rent-Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor), “Sick Boy” (Jonny Lee Miller), “Spud” (Ewen Bremner), Tommy (Kevin McKidd) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle, a.k.a. “Crazy Asshole”) are pottering around in the ghettos that have become of the urban development projects that were rife in the 1970s. After infrastructural standards dropped many of the buildings began to deteriorate and become neglected. This crumbling backdrop fills the frame with a sense of pessimism that’s hard to escape.

Around this time as well the proliferation of synthesized heroin was on the rise and drug abuse was starting to become an issue. The introduction of heroin wasn’t so much random as it was evidence of a worsening epidemic as opiates had long been ingrained in the culture, having been brought over to the Scottish shores as early as the late 1600s. Opium use had been fairly widespread, so perhaps it was only inevitable that other, more powerful opiates would become available. When we begin our journey in the film we’re at what feels like a threshold. We’re visiting a community hanging on by a thread as the popularity of heroin and the death toll created by its usage continue to increase.

McGregor’s particularly needle-happy “Rent-Boy,” wanting to make more of his life than thieving from the sick and the helpless so he can get high, acts as the driving force of emotion in a film that’s mostly (and intentionally) numb to such dumb things. (Who needs emotion when you have heroin?) His stream-of-consciousness-like voiceover clues us in to the particulars of being not just being a heroin user, but a heroin lover. Meanwhile his so-called mates around him provide the color commentary — especially Begbie. Begbie, he who “doesn’t do drugs” but “does people.” It’s all a vicious cycle, and the script by John Hodge proves remarkably adept at revealing that harsh reality.

The thing about Trainspotting is how effortlessly it comes across as authentic. It’s authentic, but the writing is so poignant and pained with certain truths about the inequity of the world that you might assume there’d be some level of affectedness that becomes apparent. Not once did I sense the kind of artsy/social conscientiousness that often makes indie darlings, even of similar subjects, targets of derision. There isn’t a false note in any of the performances. The caustic, stinging barbs that is the language in which they speak, while noxious, actually confesses to the humanity that is just begging to emerge from underneath yet another stupor.

If there’s one thing I’ve truly underestimated about this film, it’s that it would ever advocate for characters that are as wayward as these. But it really does want them . . . well, most of them, to succeed. It’s far more of a sympathetic film than I thought it would be. And all of this just makes Trainspotting that much better.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Recommendation: A movie that moved the needle like this needs no recommendation from me. But to fill page space, it’s good. Addictive, really. I canNOT wait to see the sequel. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 94 mins.

Quoted: “1,000 years from now there will be no guys and no girls, just wankers. Sounds great to me.”

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Photo credits: http://www.alternativemovieposters.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Life

Release: Friday, March 24, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Rhett Reese; Paul Wernick

Directed by: Daniel Espinosa

I love how nihilistic Life turns out to be and the irony of it being so totally NOT life-affirming. While the characters in Daniel Espinosa’s zero-gravity-set thriller often demonstrate a lack of tact and intelligence, their incompetency only serves to underscore the arrogance of man and is, probably contrary to the opinion of everyone who said ‘meh’ to the movie, quite intentional. The goal here is to inspire caution rather than awe and in that the movie succeeds.

Life is an original science fiction feature that finds a team of six Noble Astronauts aboard the International Space Station anticipating the results of soil samples they’ve recently retrieved from Mars. American engineer Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) is the man tasked with capturing the returning craft, while British biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) finds himself poking around in the Martian soil in hopes of stimulating the single-celled organism apparently contained within. He’s at the center of a groundbreaking discovery: life does indeed exist beyond our planet.

Along for the ride also are Japanese engineer Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), the Russian commander Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya), quarantine officer Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson, also British), and Jake Gyllenhaal‘s familiarly nonchalant Dr. David Jordan. Each actor is believable in their roles even without having much in the way of personality. They’re just human enough to create a sense of camaraderie before chaos is inevitably unleashed.

I put emphasis on ‘astronauts’ up above because I get the feeling Espinosa doesn’t much care for their little field trips to the very edge of deep space. At the very least he is disturbed by the obstinacy seemingly required for such pursuits. In science fiction new precedents seem to be established with each new entry, so why can’t this many brainiacs screw up so epically? After all, to err is human and in a film like Life, where coexistence sadly doesn’t seem possible, where it’s our survival instinct pitted against that of a rogue alien life form, it’s essential we recognize our imperfections.

In this context, Derry is patient zero. His series of screw-ups, while defying conventional wisdom that tells us these people simply don’t make these mistakes, are intended to illustrate a concept rather than fulfill some quota calling for realism. Life, penned by Deadpool writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, cautions that our curiosity for what’s out there could well be one of our downfalls. And it won’t just be the cat that gets killed. To further destroy the proverb, cats will be no more should the team fail to contain and isolate the threat. In Life, the “we have no protocol for this” line proves a perfect alibi for much of what goes down.

Life paints a pretty bleak picture and I found that refreshing. This space disaster doesn’t necessarily champion the ambitions of NASA or the collective optimism we hold for there being other forms of life elsewhere in the universe. This dark and dangerous passage feels totally divorced from the likes of The Martian and Interstellar. Those movies suggest the vastness of space isn’t something to outright fear. Life actually shares more in Ridley Scott’s pessimism when it comes to displaying the ignorance as well as the arrogance of man’s desire to make more of the unknown, known. And the kills were giving me flashbacks of a certain John Carpenter horror classic fueled by paranoia.

Espinosa’s film may not be as sophisticated as Alien in showing us what terrifying possibilities lurk out there in the black — and it’s light-years away from being as morbidly gross as The Thing — but it gets its point across and fairly compellingly. It helps that brand-name actors sell the fear of not just dying but dying in some very miserable ways, and while there’s a valid argument to be made against the concentration of foul-ups made in the middle third, the central conceit is both entertaining and disturbing. If anything, the queasy feeling Espinosa’s final frames leave you with confirms the notion that life really is precious and is something worth clinging on to.

Recommendation: Life effectively plays into the viewer’s fear of what lurks beyond our atmosphere and does so with more than a little panache. Well-acted and hauntingly beautiful, another film benefitting from the perpetual evolution of filmmaking technology, it operates both as a popcorn-friendly thrill ride and a thoughtful reflection on the preciousness of life, though it’s more effective as the former rather than the latter. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “You’re finally a daddy. There’s gonna be a big custody battle over this one.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

I Am Not a Serial Killer

Release: Friday, August 26, 2016

[Netflix]

Written by: Billy O’Brien; Christopher Hyde

Directed by: Billy O’Brien

It’s a bold move naming your protagonist as a riff on real-life serial killer and rapist John Wayne Gacy, but then this is a bold movie with a bold title, one based on the 2009 novel of the same name written by Dan Wells, the first in a trilogy. It tells of a troubled teenager who encounters a string of grisly murders in his sleepy Midwestern town and becomes obsessed with finding out who is behind them, all while struggling to keep his own demons at bay.

The titular “weird until proven normal” character is an ostracized teen named John Wayne Cleaver played brilliantly by Max Records, a youthful actor seemingly plucked from a Nirvana music video. But the film he stars in doesn’t smell like teen spirit as much as it does carry whiffs of the Duffer brothers’ original hit series Stranger Things. Directed by Billy O’Brien, I Am Not a Serial Killer is both atmospheric and deeply involving, a film that takes viewers to places that are as disturbing as they are fascinating.

There’s something dark consuming John. He demonstrates an unhealthy fascination with death and is antisocial to the point where his therapist (Karl Geary) and his mother (Laura Fraser) have become greatly concerned about his future. Though he exudes some level of altruism by doing odd jobs for elderly neighbor Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd), John spends most of his time embalming corpses with his mother at their family-run funeral parlor. It’s no surprise that when townsfolk start disappearing John finds himself drawn to the mysteries surrounding them, notably the pools of black oil left behind at the scene. One afternoon after following a drifter he suspects to be the murderer, John makes a stunning discovery that only plunges him further into his weird obsessions.

What unfolds is an unsettling exploration of fate and circumstance and how one’s environment — and more specifically, one’s proximity to tragedy — influences psychological and physical behavior. I Am Not a Serial Killer compels through sheer force of atmosphere alone — the chilly No-Name town doing its part to instill a sense of loneliness and isolation that complements the film’s themes and that exacerbates the horror. Steam rising out of a factory offers up a particularly ominous visual motif.

Ultimately the piece manifests as a slow-burning character study that may not offer up much in the way of cheap, easy thrills but it compensates for a lack of action with natural, unforced creepiness and methodical tension-building. It’s also an impressively acted affair. Christopher Lloyd still has great presence and it’s wonderful to see him take part in something as underground as I Am Not a Serial Killer. But the film really belongs to Records, whose intensely cerebral performance finds the humanity buried deep beneath the film’s icy façade. It’s a break-out performance you just have to experience for yourself.

Recommendation: A movie that exists on the fringe of humanity and flirts with insanity at every turn, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a bonafide midnight horror gem that offers much to fans of thoughtful, meditative storytelling. And fans of Stranger Things should find much to like here as well. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 104 mins.

Quoted: “I’ve been clinically diagnosed with sociopathy, Rob. To me, you’re an object, you know. You’re a thing. You’re about as important to me as a cardboard box, and the thing about cardboard boxes is that they’re totally boring on the outside, right? But sometimes, if you cut them open, there’ll be something interesting on the inside. So, while you’re saying all these boring things to me, I’m thinking about what it’d be like to cut you open.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.rogerebert.com 

The Belko Experiment

Release: Friday, March 17, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: James Gunn

Directed by: Greg McLean

Office workers at a mysterious nonprofit organization on the outskirts of the Colombian capital of Bogotá participate, let’s call it reluctantly, in a twisted social experiment wherein they must murder a certain number of their colleagues within a certain timeframe or else everyone in the building goes kaboom. Instructions are disseminated throughout the facility by a disembodied voice via the company’s P.A. system.

Directed by Aussie Greg McLean, clearly an apologist for B-horror schlock, and written by Guardians of the Galaxy helmer James Gunn, The Belko Experiment isn’t so much experimental as it is perfunctory and predictable. Worse, it’s unenjoyable, a sick fantasy overflowing with blood and admittedly inventive kills. The story is a floundering attempt at social satire, an interrogation of human psychology as people become thrust into life-or-death situations.

The Belko Experiment opts for a cartoonish, histrionic treatment rather than a nuanced exploration of specific characters, a design flaw in the writing that ultimately proves fatal to the infrastructure as a whole. The film spends all of ten minutes introducing several role players, such as Michael Rooker and David Dastmalchian as a pair of orange-suited mechanics, a few office drones played by a smattering of bit-part actors like Rusty Schwimmer and Josh Brener and a new hire in Melonia Diaz’s Dany. It establishes these people fairly convincingly within the context of yet another ordinary day, but once the chaos begins everyone seems to shed their humanity faster than they can clothing.

The voice initially instructs that two people must be killed or indiscriminate killing will commence. Those who lapped up the exploding heads phenomenon at the end of Kingsman: The Secret Service will be as happy as a pig in shit here. The stakes become more serious as they’re soon told that if 30 people aren’t killed within two hours, 60 will die. With blood pressure and despair mounting, the workers become divided into two factions — the corporate honchos, led by the slimy COO Barry (Tony Goldwyn) and supported by the brutish and intensely creepy Wendell (John C. McGinley), and then everyone else, the underlings corralled by office nice-guy Mike (John Gallagher Jr.).

Gunn’s screenplay tries to shock the system, and occasionally succeeds, but the technique is more manipulative than natural. His story is primarily concerned with mass hysteria and its effects on the individual. Tension stems from whether the group should be taking the voice seriously or whether to dismiss it as some sick prankster. The higher-ups prefer obedience because they see no other way. Mike and others believe there’s a non-violent solution. Meanwhile, Mike’s girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona) is concerned that his defiance is going to get more people killed than necessary.

As the chaos builds it becomes increasingly apparent the film’s dalliance with philosophical concepts like self-preservation and Darwinian theories on survivalism is more of an accident than a serious pursuit. The story just isn’t smart enough to be convincing in that way and that’s made painfully clear in the thoroughly anticlimactic Big Reveal. For all of the nastiness that tries its damnedest to shock and repel, it’s the total lack of creativity and originality in the film’s final moments that is the most obnoxious of all. 

Recommendation: The Belko Experiment manifests as a deliberately unpleasant and vicious social experiment that’s underwritten, overproduced and not well enough acted for those other shortcomings to go unnoticed. In short, it’s difficult to reconcile James Gunn’s contributions to this picture with what he was able to do with a certain Marvel property. It’s a night-and-day difference to me, not just in terms of tonality but quality. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 88 mins.

Quoted: “Now is not the time for timidity.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Trash Fire

Release: Friday, November 4, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Richard Bates Jr.

Directed by: Richard Bates Jr.

Richard Bates Jr’s third film revolves around a family you’ll be glad you’re not a part of. That might be the understatement of the year. You’ve never seen family dysfunction like this, unless of course you have seen Psycho.

Not that I’m suggesting the relatively immature Trash Fire wakes up the echoes of Hitch’s classic. After all coincidence plays a large part here — that its director shares the surname of one of the most recognizable movie villains of all time compels me to draw comparisons more than anything. However, there is one other element these films share, one that’s harder to ignore, and that’s the influence of a severely troubled matriarch. In Psycho it was mother. In Trash Fire it’s grandma. Dear, sweet old grandma.

The film opens on a sour note, introducing us to miserable Owen (Adrian Grenier) who is unloading on his therapist about how when he was younger he planned to commit suicide after his parents died so he wouldn’t have to feel guilty about it. He literally resents being alive and goes out of his way to make the prospect (of living) a nightmare for those who dare get near him, such as his longtime girlfriend Isabel (Angela Trimbur), whose friends and family he can’t even pretend to tolerate.

When Isabel tells Owen she’s pregnant, the couple is confronted by a life-altering decision. It’s not the one you might expect, given Owen’s toxic cynicism forged in the crucible of an abusive childhood — one that, when finally explained, makes me wonder who really had it worse, Owen or Norman. We are led to believe that in some ironic twist of fate rearing a child might be the best thing for the couple. A second chance for a thoroughly broken man, a ray of hope for his long-suffering concubine.

To feel more comfortable about such a commitment Isabel establishes one condition: They must pay a visit to Owen’s grandmother Violet (Fionnula Flanagan) and sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord) so she can meet his family and he can make amends after years of estrangement following a house fire that indeed killed his parents and rendered Pearl an “abomination” and a shut-in.

Trash Fire struggles early despite its bold, frothy opening. The first half is spent building up the “relationship” — necessary toiling for the horror that’s soon to come. Once the story shifts to granny’s house the film really goes to work, endeavoring to strip what little humanity there is from the proceedings. Flanagan, whose age and frail physicality emphasize the film’s gleeful perversion, is legitimately terrifying. She is the quintessential religious zealot, a termagant whose TV is set only to channels vomiting fire-and-brimstone sermons and who instantly takes a dislike to Isabel, for she reminds her of the “whore” that was her own daughter.

Down the back stretch of this 91-minute production you’ll find nods to more well-established horror mythologies — shades of The Ring, Carrie and yes, Psycho, come and go, all while Trash Fire‘s slavish devotion to nihilism is intended to both support the film’s brazen title and separate its familiar content from the pack. And yet, the petulance reminded me of Gaspar Noé’s attempts at being as shocking as possible in Irreversible, where he famously introduced ultra-low-frequency sound in the film’s opening half hour, the intent being to physically yet subtly make viewers feel ill.

All of this is to say that the nastiness employed here works but only when you are susceptible to it, when exposure is minimal. There comes a point in Trash Fire, perhaps when we see Violet pleasuring herself to those televangelists, where the maliciousness diminishes in effect and threatens to undermine Owen’s legitimate problems. On a second viewing, I suspect familiarity will do considerable damage. For a once-through, however, Trash Fire is entertaining in its own weird little way.

Recommendation: Pitch-black comedy supposedly courses through the veins of this quirky and downright uncomfortable indie horror. As the people over at The AV Club aptly put it, perhaps only the most bitter nihilists will find the film funny. I did find the film amusing in fits and starts but more than anything I admired the bold performances put on by Adrian Grenier and Fionnula Flanagan. But now I want to watch something where the latter plays a nice lady. Maybe a grannie who bakes cookies. Something, anything, to cleanse the palate.

Rated: R

Running Time: 91 mins.

Quoted: “For as long as I can remember I’ve been waiting for my parents to die. And there they were, dead.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.villagevoice.com

I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.

Release: Friday, February 24, 2017 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Macon Blair

Directed by: Macon Blair

In his directorial debut Macon Blair shows how much he’s learned from his Qui-Gon Jinn, the one and only Jeremy Saulnier, director of Murder Party, Blue Ruin and Green Room — all of which Blair has had at least a supporting part in. His cryptically titled I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. manifests as another economical, small-crime comedy that saves all its strength for one last, brutal outburst that pulls it right in line with everything Saulnier has done thus far.

I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. is about an idealistic, socially awkward woman named Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) who, after having her home broken into and having some valuable possessions stolen, goes on a moral crusade to find and confront the person(s) responsible, not just for taking her things but for violating her privacy. In the process she exposes herself to an underground world of crime she isn’t exactly prepared to take on.

Ruth is a textbook misanthrope. She doesn’t really believe in the innate goodness of people; rather, the opposite. In fairness, she has plenty of evidence presented to her on a daily basis that confirms those beliefs. And when the police, led by Detective Bendix (Gary Anthony Williams), exhibit comedic levels of resistance to her cause Ruth becomes utterly exasperated. She’s been disillusioned for some time but now she’s moved to action, a psychological tipping point which sets in motion the events of this darkly comedic suburban adventure.

The thirty-something-year-old nurse’s assistant forms an unlikely alliance with her eccentric neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood), a devout Christian who’s really into heavy metal, throwing stars and nunchakus. He agrees to help her track her stolen laptop and come along as back-up in case things get messy. Invariably the hapless gumshoes become the targets of a trio of thugs who suspect them of being, unwittingly or not, on a trail to discovering some larger agenda. When push finally comes to shove and rusty sawed-off shotguns start backfiring, things indeed become messy.

If there is one element that speaks to Blair’s influences more than any other, it’s the violence and how he deploys it — sparingly. The tension builds nicely towards the inevitable final confrontation in a film full of confrontations — the bloody exclamation point on a story fueled by righteous if occasionally misdirected anger. The baddies are deliciously nasty too, and much like they do in a Saulnier picture they serve as mainly incompetent desperados. Led by David Yow’s menacing Marshall and supported by the greasy, wormlike Christian (Devon Graye) and psychotic Dez (Jane Levy), they inject enough danger into the story to make us feel uneasy about Ruth’s increasing obsession with inserting herself into the lives of decidedly terrible people. Not people she’s decided are terrible, but actual, legitimately terrible people.

In fact, the uncanniness is the only reservation I have about I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. Is the film truly original? It’s plenty entertaining — pessimistic, borderline nihilistic black comedy bathed in the blood of Quentin Tarantino (undoubtedly yet another link to Blair’s mentor). This is the kind of confident debut that promises better to come, and yet I’m still compelled to remind people how Ryan Gosling got skewered for liberally borrowing — some say downright thieving — from his inspirations when he delivered Lost River in his directorial debut.

Granted, the yawning abyss that separates those two films manifests itself quite obviously in the quality of the final products and is enough to make my argument invalid. And it’s not like “borrowing liberally” from someone as exciting as Jeremy Saulnier is the worst crime you can commit, especially when imitation is often considered the sincerest form of flattery.

Recommendation: The erosion of civility and decency within American society is the topic of conversation in Macon Blair’s directorial debut. There’s something almost therapeutic about the way the film bluntly expresses itself. And really that comes down to great performances, especially from Melanie Lynskey. If this is a film you enjoyed or looks like something you might enjoy, may I also recommend Bobcat Goldthwaite’s God Bless America.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “Sometimes I feel like I’m underneath a whirlpool, like I can’t even breathe.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Table 19

Release: Friday, March 3, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Jay and Mark Duplass

Directed by: Jeffrey Blitz

This is awkward for me because Table 19, a “dramatic” comedy written by the inimitable Duplass brothers about being low-priority wedding guests seated at the least desirable table at the reception, belongs at a rejects table of its own. Awkward because I want to like all Duplass-related films always but now I’m faced with the prospect of hating one.

Objectively their new, jointly penned blah-medy is a real misfire. It’s directed by Jeffrey Blitz, most notable for his contributions to latter seasons of The Office, which might have something to do with Table 19 having no personality whatsoever resembling anything Duplass-y. To their credit, the filmmakers assemble quite the impressive team of funny people —  Anna Kendrick, Craig Robinson, Lisa Kudrow, Stephen Merchant, Tony Revolori, Wyatt Russell and June Squibb — and then, somewhat counterintuitively, they set about finding ways to make every one of them as unfunny as possible.

Eloise (Kendrick) was going to be the maid of honor at her “oldest” friend’s wedding but after being unceremoniously dumped via text message by Teddy (Russell), who happens to be the best man, she’s become persona non grata. She decides to attend anyway, finding her place at the dreaded back table, a table so far removed from the action “you can smell the bathroom.” Having been intimately involved in the planning of the reception, Eloise knows what being relegated to this table means. It means you are either a liability or you just suck. At being a person.

She shares this inside information with the other guests at the table, a decidedly oddball collection: There’s the Kepps (Robinson and Kudrow), a boring couple who run a diner together; Walter (Merchant), a weirdo who may or may not have just come straight from prison; Renzo (Revolori), a horny teen who can’t help but take terrible advice from his mother; and Jo (Squibb), a retired pot-smoking nanny. While none of them seem to have legitimate connections with the happy couple, only for the recently scorned does becoming a potential distraction seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Table 19 skulks about the banquet hall looking for something interesting to talk about, but finds precious little. The Duplass brothers have staked their reputations on an unusual ability to create something of substance out of what at first appears to be nothing. A film shot largely in a banquet hall tends to stretch the term ‘cinematic’ but then that’s the Duplass’ forte. What their screenplay doesn’t do is take risks. There’s nothing revelatory about any of the character’s backstories and Kendrick’s chemistry with Russell is the kind of bad that we just don’t need to talk about. Plus the comedy is incessantly forced — uncertain and ineffectual at the best of times. The whole thing plays out like a father-of-the-bride toast that goes to some awkwardly inappropriate places, remains unfunny for the majority and that ultimately drags on for too long.

Recommendation: Utterly forgettable farcical comedy forgets to pack the comedy. There’s good reason you probably have not heard of Table 19; it’s the movie no one invited into their area cineplexes. (Now, if you’re wondering where my Kong review is, blame it on three consecutively sold-out screenings for the delay. I hope to have one up sometime in the next decade.)

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 87 mins.

Quoted: “Hello my god. Hi, I’m Renzo. I have achieved puberty and I am in a rock band.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The White Helmets

Release: Friday, September 16, 2016 

[Netflix]

Directed by: Orlando von Einsiedel

Syria is a nation currently being torn apart at the seams as a multitude of political actors continue to wrestle control of its future away from one another. The better part of the last decade has been spent in bloodshed as coalitions of rebels, extremist groups and other armed entities not exactly sympathetic to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have set their sights on total upheaval. What began in the capital city of Damascus as peaceful protests for democratic reform and the release of political prisoners escalated into a hostile and bitter conflict when al-Assad used brutal force to try to quash the potential uprising. These events, of course, have all contributed to the growing refugee crisis.

Orlando von Einsiedel’s The White Helmets offers a window into this struggle, providing viewers access to ground zero as they follow around a group of Syrian civilians who have taken it upon themselves to search for and recover bodies — dead or alive, friend or foe — from the carnage created by aerial attacks that have been decimating heavily populated cities like Aleppo and Idlib on a daily basis. The 41-minute film won the Oscar for Documentary Short Subject at the 89th Academy Awards, marking the first win for Einsiedel and his second nomination, following his previous feature-length documentary Virunga in 2014.

Incorporating footage compiled by the activists themselves, such as Khaled Khateeb (who was one of several prevented from attending this year’s Oscars by President Trump’s travel ban), into a rather straightforward procession of testimonies delivered directly to camera by a handful of volunteers, The White Helmets proves an unsurprisingly sobering watch. The footage captures the men working in conditions that are bad turning worse. In the wake of Russian intervention — a development since September 2015, one that has sparked humanitarian outcries across the globe on the assertion that their involvement has proven more destructive than the action taken by Syria’s own government and even ISIL — the White Helmets appear to be the last bastion of hope that people living in targeted areas truly have.

While the preservation of hope is what fundamentally galvanizes us to keep watching, if only through our hands, von Einsiedel is careful neither to exploit nor romanticize the role these first responders play. Even still, you should know that the footage is presented in a raw and unedited form, and is often graphic and upsetting. Not that that isn’t obvious, but it bears repeating as it is, to be brutally honest, what makes the film such an essential watch. The savagery that’s been going on for over six long years needs to be acknowledged.

The implications of the violence are also, somewhat sickeningly, more complex than they first appear. While the initial justification behind the bombings was to eliminate rebel and jihadist groups from Syria, over time Russia has become increasingly more involved in the state’s fight to reclaim territory, which has necessarily meant becoming more active in eliminating the opposition, all splinter cells and groups coming to their aid — groups like the Syrian Civil Defense, the White Helmets. It is explained how their presence has actually incentivized Russian and Syrian aircraft to carry out what are called “double-tap attacks” in which an initial strike is delivered, followed swiftly by a second, the goal being to specifically target the White Helmets. Such is the reality these men face each time they “go to work.”

Amidst the barbarity, from underneath piles of concrete and rebar ultimately emerges a powerful testament to real-life heroism, courage and sacrifice. In fact the film metamorphoses into a thing of beauty when it addresses the positive impacts the first responders are making and will continue to make for the foreseeable future. It’s not simply the lives that are being saved, but the relentless determination and indiscrimination of the search itself. The rescuing of a one-week-old infant who had been trapped under a collapsed ceiling for over 16 hours is a scene that defies description — in part due to the incomprehensible hatred that created such circumstances, but mostly because the service that the White Helmets provide couldn’t be any more dramatically expressed.

Of course it’s a film without much in the way of closure. The work of the White Helmets shall continue as long as there is conflict. And at least one in the film makes it clear that their commitment is lifelong. That’s really where the story lies. It’s not about the war and the suffering. It’s not about hatred or religious extremism. It’s actually about the exact opposite of what the bombings are trying to achieve. This is about ensuring that the cycle of life can and will continue, even when the future is this uncertain.

The White Helmets have been credited for saving over 70,000 from the fallout from airstrikes. It has been estimated that since the Russian bombings began in late ’15, over 150 White Helmets have lost their lives as well as nearly 3,000 innocent civilians.

Recommendation: Equally heartbreaking and life-affirming, these will be perhaps some of the toughest 40 minutes you’ll experience in some time. There’s no hiding from the devastation in Syria in The White Helmets, nor should there be. Because of the opportunity it provides us to get an understanding of the victims’ perspectives of the bombings, this becomes a short film that you simply have to watch. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 41 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.vox.com 

Get Out

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Release: Friday, February 24, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Jordan Peele

Directed by: Jordan Peele

Jordan Peele announces himself as a talent to keep an eye on with his surprisingly enlightening and even more entertaining directorial debut, the horror-comedy Get Out. His first try proves an early candidate for sleeper hit of the year, a film that manages to balance provocative themes, an interesting premise and a handful of solid performances in a way that’s rare even for seasoned filmmakers.

Get Out centers around a young mixed-race couple, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) and Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), who visit the former’s parents for a weekend. While Rose feels they’ve reached that point in their relationship, Chris isn’t sure how her parents are going to respond to him being black. She hasn’t told them because she’s adamant the only thing he needs to worry about is how uncool they are.

When the two arrive, awkwardness wastes no time setting in. Rose’s father Dean (played by a nearly unrecognizable Bradley Whitford) is a neurosurgeon who immediately sets out on a crusade to impress Chris with aggressive politeness and generally overcompensatory behavior. He takes “[his] man” on a tour of the house, making sure to let Chris know he’s not one of those ignorant types. After all, he has great appreciation for Jesse Owens and if he could, he would have voted for a third term for former President Obama.

His wife Missy (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist whose hypnotherapy may not come free of charge but it sometimes does without patient consent. I’ve never really liked Catherine Keener, even while acknowledging the knack she has for portraying emotionally unstable weirdos. In Get Out her eccentricity functions as more than a character trait. Missy is actually more a plot device than a character, which isn’t nearly as disappointing as it sounds. Rose has a younger brother too, Caleb Landry Jones’ wild card Jeremy, whose domineering albeit brief presence threatens to undermine the film’s subtle strategizing. He’s a bit harder to take seriously.

As are the numerous black servants on the premises. They’re all so goofy they inadvertently become beacons of comedic relief rather than legitimate concerns. And this is the issue I have with the hybrid genre: knowing which reaction is appropriate can prove frustrating at best. Even if their behavior is intended to be funny, it’s not quite funny enough to be convincing in that way either. I chuckled at a couple of the interactions, particularly with maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel), but felt bad when I did. It was awkward. Luckily there are other instances where the humor succeeds and actually enhances the experience — see Lil Rel Howery as Chris’ security guard friend, for example.

As Chris wanders the grounds snapping photos and asking seemingly innocuous questions of the staff, wafts of institutionalized racism become stronger. It has become evident Chris’ discomfort isn’t just personal. There’s a larger, more sinister dynamic at play, suggested by the servants’ unnatural mannerisms and body language. And the discomfort only grows as more of Rose’s family unexpectedly show up for the reunion she forgot to tell Chris about.

Peele, no stranger to skewering the politically correct in his successful and often controversial Comedy Central sketch show Key & Peele (and whose co-host you can find starring alongside him in 2016’s hit action-comedy Keanu), has found a way to expand his observations about the American society in which we live today into a full-length feature presentation. And he does so without falling back on a blueprint that has treated him very well thus far. He also avoids overtly politicizing his message.

Get Out could have manifested as a series of skits all building toward some unifying theme. It could have been, like Logan to some degree, a specific jab at a specific American president putting into effect specific policies. Instead the fiction is broader, more immune to current political trends. Peele legitimizes his cause with insightful commentary and an effortlessly likable lead — a seriousness of purpose only moderately undercut by a few emotionally confused cues and a truth-revealing climax that doesn’t quite live up to the standards set by the movie that preceded it.

Recommendation: Get Out is a movie that has gotten people talking. It’s going to be one of the surprise hits of the year and the hype is pretty much justified as Jordan Peele very clearly has his finger on the pulse of what not only the typical moviegoer wants to see in their movies, but that of film critics and skeptics as well.

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “Man, I told you not to go in that house.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Logan

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Release: Friday, March 3, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: James Mangold; Scott Frank; Michael Green

Directed by: James Mangold

Logan is a robust superhero film and probably the most violent one we have encountered since Deadpool(Lest we forget that that movie was more than a comedy.) But even in the context of superhero films that have been slapped with the dreaded R-rating, this, The Passion of the Wolverine as it were, doesn’t really feel like a “game-changer.” It just feels like a very angry Marvel spin-off.

Logan is undoubtedly the most masculine movie yet in a universe that’s decidedly male-dominant. The testosterone pumping in its veins is unleashed in lethal doses. Sir Patrick Stewart drops (a surprising number of justified) f-bombs, while Hugh Jackman does his best William Poole impression, butchering his foes with psychotic fervor combined with the anger of ten thousand suns. The film follows a familiar cat-and-mouse blueprint wherein the aging man of adamantium must avoid letting a newly discovered, young mutant fall into the clutches of yet another Very Bad Man, this time, Boyd Holbrook‘s genetically enhanced Donald Pierce.

Fortunately, gore and bloodletting isn’t the only thing the movie excels at. It’s not merely escalating violence that signals the end is nigh. James Mangold successfully elevates the stakes with the way he situates his characters in the narrative. The odious stench of oppression recurs and is reinforced through brilliant location scouting that takes us from one pocket of solitude to another, from the gritty southern US border to the thick pine forest of North Dakota. It’s all the more impressive how real the threat feels given how familiar such tension has become.

Jackman’s ninth and final appearance finds him hobbling and coughing and spluttering around in 2029, a time where mutants are near extinct. A virus produced by the Transigen Corporation, for whom Mr. Pierce works as an enforcer, has played a large part in the crumbling of Logan’s world (and to a less narratively important but arguably just as emotionally significant degree, that of Charles Xavier).

Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a nurse from that very corporation, intercepts Logan in Texas and urges him to get a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen in her first film credit) to safety. The destination is a place called Eden, where supposedly other young victims of Transigen’s terrible experiments are being taken. Logan is loath to cooperate when he discovers that everything he is being told can be found in the X-Men comics. It ought to be noted that in a film so dour, his cynicism is relatively hilarious.

Logan finds a little more levity in the semi-antagonistic relationship that has crusted over between Logan and Charles. Both are now textbook geezers, though Logan is far more gruff and more prone to fits of rage. Charles is suffering from seizures that wreak havoc on those unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity of his powerful mind. Arguably the biggest (and most welcomed) surprise is that the film manages to still find new depths to explore with these well-established characters. Though the hope and promise that once defined the apprenticeship is long gone, the sense of familial responsibility has never been stronger.

That’s a theme supported by Wolverine’s recognition of a new mutant who seems to be more like him than he would care to acknowledge. Laura, who bears the same aberration in her hands, regards Logan as a father figure of sorts, in part by design and in part due to a natural gravitation towards someone who shares in her own uncontrollable rage. The young actor is memorable in a role that’s all too light on dialogue, a role that requires a diminutive physicality to suggest echoes of a young James Howlett.

Perhaps it is this dynamic that makes Logan “feel different;” we haven’t yet considered the Wolverine as a potential father figure. Between that and the downright shocking violence (particularly the conclusion), something that I’m either not seeing or giving enough credit to has struck a chord with audiences and critics alike. I’m not quite satisfied that Logan‘s superior craftsmanship qualifies as wholesale innovation.

The struggle to stay one step ahead and to avoid becoming exposed (again) is the sum total of what Logan‘s plot has to offer. This is yet another glorified man-hunt. This is Midnight Special more than it is The Dark Knight. But sophisticated writing matters less when the film’s true appeal lies in the emotive, in the opportunity Logan provides both diehards and casual fans alike to say their goodbyes. After all, this is a character Jackman has spent the last 17 years molding into something he can proudly call his own. He will be surely missed. Why does that sound like an epitaph?

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3-5Recommendation: It’s a bittersweet send-off for an iconic character, but a game-changer this most definitely ain’t. You’re going to want to call a babysitter for this one. Because another thing Logan ain’t is kid-friendly. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 137 mins.

Quoted: “Nature made me a freak. Man made me a weapon. And God made it last too long.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com