Hold the Dark

Release: Friday, September 28, 2018 (Netflix)

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Written by: Macon Blair

Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier

Apparently with his latest film Hold the Dark indie sensation Jeremy Saulnier has lost the audience somewhat. I can see why. In terms both physical and emotional his Alaska-set mystery may be his coldest movie yet. He plunges us into an ice bath, a world where most of us do not belong — a world defined by hostility and populated by unfriendly and grizzled folk who add little comfort to proceedings. Add to that the fact the story doesn’t offer much in the way of “action” or good, clean payoff and you’ve got the recipe for an uncompromisingly strange and bleak experience.

I loved it though. I think. No, I definitely did. In my mind this is the epitome of everything the native Virginian is about when it comes to style and substance. His fourth feature film is also an adaptation of a 2014 novel by William Giraldi, so is it perhaps possible criticisms over narrative convolution and vexing moral turpitude could be applied to the source material too? I haven’t read the book of course, so I couldn’t say. However there is a new reality I need to address: this is the first time Saulnier has gone the way of an adaptation; it’s entirely possible he’s lost something in translation or perhaps the novel itself is one of those “Well, you can’t really adapt it because (such and such excuse).”

Hold the Dark plays host to dueling narratives, one focused upon a writer and veteran wolf tracker named Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) who’s summoned by a grieving mother, Medora Slone (Riley Keough in a very strange turn), to the remote Alaskan village of Keelut to investigate the disappearance of her child — merely one of several thought to be the victims of hungry wolves. At this point she’ll settle with just having the body returned for to give it a proper burial. When he arrives in town however, things are not entirely what they seem and soon he finds himself in a fight for survival in a place where chaos reigns.

The second through-line adopts the perspective of Medora’s soldier hubby Vernon (a shit-your-britches scary Alexander Skarsgård), who, after being wounded in battle somewhere in the Middle East, returns to his frozen home town and to the grim news concerning his six-year-old son. After being picked up at the airport by his longtime friend and fellow father-in-mourning Cheeon (First Nations actor Julian Black Antelope) he goes to meet with local law enforcement, lead by the stoic and upstanding Donald Marium (James Badge Dale), and the coroner (Brian Martell), and . . . let’s just say the guy’s pretty hard to placate, even at this early stage. But then another development further twists the knife and carnage soon erupts in Keelut, threatening to tear apart the town and its inhabitants, some of whom hold an uncanny relationship with their icy environs, like the enigmatic Illanaq (played by Tantoo Cardinal, indigenous Canadian actress and Member of the Order of Canada).

Hold the Dark is as much a journey through grief and loss as it is a physical flirtation with the supernatural. The later movements in particular butt up against stuff that’s maybe not meant to be understood (what a cop-out line Tom). It’s a deliberately paced drama that becomes increasingly menacing — don’t let that midway-point daylight massacre fool you — and in which motives appear to be driven more by madness than rationale. That’s what really drew me in to the movie, the extremity of both environment and characters who, consistent with the Saulnier aesthetic, are desperate to do what it takes to survive. That element of desperation is elevated to an all-time high here, admittedly. The suffering is real, palpable. It’s certainly a film of extremes.

It’s also a total team effort. Saulnier gets plenty of help from the likes of Danish cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck, who captures the spirit of the wild in stunning and often savage detail, the editing provided by Julia Bloch will make you feel every bone crunch and every bullet piercing through leathery skin. And I’m not sure where we would be without this smartly chosen, chillingly effective cast (kudos to Avy Kaufman). Jeffrey Wright acquits himself wonderfully in a quiet, almost meditative lead performance — I’ve never viewed the guy as leading man material but clearly I’m mistaken. And I really enjoyed James Badge Dale as a beacon of decency trying to shine in this inhospitable spit of land.

With Hold the Dark Saulnier has created a truly singular experience, a snow-swept, blood-soaked Neo-western that pits the unpredictability of human behavior against the indiscriminate brutality of Mother Nature. Who is the real villain? Is there such a thing out here? Days later and I’m still having that debate with myself and I love that about this movie.

Not quite the Drunk Tank

Recommendation: Hold the Dark is absolutely not a film that will gel with everyone — as I noted at the top of this review. It’s a heavy, maybe even depressing viewing experience that becomes almost about spiritual suffering. It customarily boasts excellent performances from a great cast. Screenwriter and frequent Saulnier collaborator Macon Blair has an ear for natural albeit harsh dialogue, while Saulnier has yet again proven himself an auteur in the making. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 125 mins.

Quoted: “When we’re killed, the past is killed. When kids are killed, that’s different. When kids are killed, the future dies. There’s no life without a future.”

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The Lobster

'The Lobster'

Release: Friday, May 13, 2016 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Yorgos Lanthimos; Efthymis Filippou

Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos

Outré black comedy The Lobster might be likened to a religious experience for those looking for their fix of anti-Valentine’s Day sentiments. If you look hard enough you  could even find enough evidence to validate its romance label as well, but it’s so weird and so brutally dispassionate, even the most bitterly spurned, those who firmly believe they’re forever damned to loneliness, may become exhausted in their effort to keep up with its madness. And really, this dystopia is quite mad:

Single people are being persecuted; they’re getting abducted from The City — somewhere in England or Ireland if accents are anything to go by — and brought to an isolated hotel miles away where the staff insist they find a suitable romantic partner within 45 days, otherwise they will be transformed into an animal of their choosing and cast out into the woods beyond. Turns out, it’s neither a joke nor a mind game. There’s a room actually called The Transformation Room where, apparently, it all goes down. Should the unlucky sod find him or herself still single on day 45, Olivia Colman’s hotel manager advises them to partake in some activity that they won’t be able to once transformed. A one-night stand, for example, would be a waste of precious time given that animals still have the ability to fornicate.

Our best chance for understanding how the world operates in The Lobster lies in David (Colin Farrell) and his journey from being recently dumped to finding companionship in the most unlikely of places. And I know that’s a cliché, but I’m talking the epitome of unlikely places; so much so that the symmetry is almost cloying when he runs into Rachel Weisz’ Short-Sighted Woman after his ordeal at the hotel. He escapes and finds a group of stragglers abiding to their own equally radical but opposing ideals: The Loners, led somewhat ironically by Léa Seydoux and constituted by fellow hotel escapees, are vehemently against the pursuit of romance and intimacy.

Dress codes and segregative practices — you can extrapolate the latter to the two major factions we come across, as well as to the way single people and couples are treated differently in The Hotel — lay the groundwork for brutal revelations: in this world, the sum total of who we are is measured by our ability to attract a mate. Single people are lower down in the social hierarchy than couples. Sex isn’t much more than a survival strategy; it’s procreation, not love, that conquers all. The steel-blues and grays of Thimios Bakatakis’ cinematography reinforce an achingly melancholic mood.

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, in his fifth feature presentation, tackles the loneliness and despair of single-hood, an approach that dovetails nicely with the sacrifice of being in a relationship and he does so with a conviction as forceful as an avalanche against a lone pine tree. Strange, stilted dialogue castrates the piece of humanity, while the frankness of conversations recalls Wes Anderson . . . really, really pessimistic Wes Anderson.

One might naturally assume Lanthimos has it out for those who can’t help but remain stubbornly (or maybe just hopelessly) single, but he’s actually more critical of the societal pressure that falls upon everyone to couple up. While there are few rules governing how “loners” should meet others, The Hotel encourages bonding over physical traits, even ailments and/or disabilities, no matter how superficial those connections may seem. Ben Whishaw’s Limping Man goes to some extreme lengths to get with this girl he likes who happens to suffer from frequent nose bleeds. John C. Reilly is convinced once he meets a woman with a speech impediment like his he’s set for life. Suicide entices some to escape in a different way. All of this becomes a driving force for David to make the decisions he makes.

There’s not a lot of happiness in The Lobster. I think that much is obvious. But it bears mentioning again. The warning sirens must be heard clearly before too many enter the film with certain expectations. It’s one of the most brutal black comedies I’ve seen, capped off by one of the most memorable endings 2016 has yet produced. Presently I struggle to reconcile my enjoyment of Lanthimos’ work, when only two years ago, I was babbling incessantly about my distaste for John Michael McDonagh’s similarly pessimistic Calvary. The two share more in common than I really would like to admit.

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Recommendation: The mileage one gets out of this cynical view on modern relationships I think will depend on one’s own propensity for being cynical themselves. Performances are universally strong, although this is very much a ‘message’ film. However, that message is unlikely to make an impact upon those who can’t latch on to the absurd tone, dialogue/speech patterns and occasionally shocking developments. This is quite a heavy watch but it’s also one of the most unique releases 2016 currently has on tap.

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “Why a lobster?” / “Because lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives. I also like the sea very much.”

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2

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Release: Friday, November 20, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Peter Craig; Danny Strong

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Take your best shot, Mr. Lawrence. I’m ready for anything. Or, I thought I was.

Four films, three years and nearly $2 billion in global box office receipts later, we arrive at the bittersweet farewell to a remarkable franchise, one that has been so captivating since its inception it hooked one of the biggest cynics I know of the young adult film adaptations from the get-go. That person is me. I tend not to give a lot of credit to these films, feeling so comfortable in my dismissal of many of these movies that when their poor performance (commercial and/or critical) pops up on my screen a few days later, my only response is a simple, satisfied chuckle. Then I click out of the screen and move on.

There’s been something markedly different about Katniss Everdeen and her targeted bow and arrows though. And I swear it’s not because I happen to think Jennifer Lawrence is really cute. Okay, well I suppose that helps. But Shailene Woodley is a babe too! I’m not going to mince my words here: physical attraction is a big part of it, but what has really helped up the ante for the cinematic treatment(s) of Suzanne Collins’ best-sellers has been an emphasis on genuine emotion filtered through an uncommonly bleak political lens.

Collins’ final novel being split into two films has caused quite the stir amongst passionate fans of both the film and book franchise, and while it’s difficult to argue the motives for expanding the HGCU (that’s the Hunger Games Cinematic Universe) into a quadrilogy are fueled by anything other than reaping financial rewards, I personally have enjoyed getting to spend this much more time with some truly well-developed and exceptionally memorable characters.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2, then, wastes no time in immersing audiences right into the psychological, and now physical, turmoil that has consumed the two victors of the 74th Hunger Games: Peeta is still suffering from the trauma he endured at the hands of President Snow having been captured after the events of Catching Fire, while Katniss recovers from neck injuries sustained in his attack upon her during one of his psychotic breaks.

The reality of this franchise ending is surprisingly difficult to reconcile. On one level, and as one might expect, this final chapter manifests as the most somber one yet as we watch the events of the previous films sculpt the faces of the familiar into expressions of deep despair, the weight of full-fledged war carried upon Katniss’ shoulders and anyone who has stood by her in the belief that the nation shouldn’t be subjected to Snow’s oppression any longer. There emerges a strong emotional rift between Katniss and Peeta, who can no longer be trusted. All that stuff’s easier to swallow when compared to the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman though. In his final on-screen appearance, his Plutarch Heavensbee is notably less prevalent, yet his spirit, in all of its organic, non-digitized glory, leaves a lasting impression.

The stakes have never been higher, yet the premise so simple. To the surprise of no one, Katniss’ only goal is killing President Snow. Like, for real this time. Feeling restricted in her capacity as merely a symbol of hope for the people of Panem, she’s determined to get back to doing real damage and will abandon protocol laid out by District 13 leader Alma Coin that’s been set in place to protect her. She joins a squad of soldiers led by Boggs (Mahershala Ali) and Lieutenant Jackson (Michelle Forbes) who are tasked with following behind the other troops into the Capitol in order to film one final segment  for District 13’s anti-Snow propagandistic documentary.

Katniss of course is less concerned with the documentation as she is with finishing what she had started so long ago. In so doing, she must confront her deepest moral quandaries yet. The choices she must make as she marches through a Capitol that resembles Berlin circa post-World War 2, only outfitted with death traps that make the Quarter Quell look like child’s play by comparison, will be next to impossible and will more often than not require her to decide how many lives she’s willing to sacrifice to secure a brighter future for Panem.

Lawrence has fared exceptionally well since taking over the reigns from Gary Ross who established The Hunger Games as an uncommonly intelligent and bleak young adult film franchise. Obviously it is author Suzanne Collins to whom we should be most indebted for conjuring such an elaborate and audaciously political system over which fans, both casual and dedicated alike, have obsessed. After all, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate those who have been faithful to the series just for the star power and the experience from those who have been so inspired by coetaneous themes of social and political injustice as to become more politically active.

When I inevitably buy the box set, I’ll in all likelihood be confirming the fact that rather than playing out as individual, disjointed stories, this franchise operates as a cohesive whole, cranking up the personal tension between Katniss and Snow methodically, assimilating audiences effortlessly over a three-year period by playing up the ruthless villainy of Donald Sutherland’s white-ness (not a reference to his complexion) versus the purity of the Girl on Fire and her intentions of restoring the balance. Maybe if it’s not the religion of the church of the Mockingjay that’s compelling, nor how supposedly faithful the films have been to the source material, it’s the level of conviction and passion in Lawrence’s vision.

Jennifer Lawrence has blossomed into a reliable actress and that’s largely thanks to her contributions to these large-scale, larger-budget spectacles. (Yes, David O’Russell, you may have her now but Gary Ross developed her skill set.) Her consistency will be one of the aspects I’ll be missing most in the coming Novembers. Nevermind Woody Harrelson and his kind and affable Haymitch. Stanley Tucci’s hairdo. Elizabeth Banks and her eternally upbeat Effie Trinket. The nastiness of the Games, or of Sutherland’s tyranny. Indeed, if there is one word you could boil these films down to, it’s just that: consistent. That’s a rare quality to find in a franchise these days. Just ask the Terminator.

Jennifer Lawrence, Mahershala Ali and Liam Hemsworth in 'The Hunger Games Mockingjay - Pt 2'

Recommendation: A lot can be said about the decision to split Mockingjay into two parts but this reviewer is a fan of it. It’s given me time to enjoy these characters more and the expansion of the series over four films/years has made for one of the most impressive film franchises I’ve ever seen. These films mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but if I were to make a recommendation for this film, it’s that you can appreciate it on its own almost as much as a part of a bigger picture. Almost, is the key word though. A spectacular finish to an uncommonly engaging story has been delivered.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 137 mins.

Quoted: “Our lives were never ours. They belong to Snow and our deaths do too. But if you kill him Katniss, if you end all of this, all those deaths . . . they mean something.”

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

A Walk Among the Tombstones

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Release: Friday, September 19, 2014

[Theater]

Mr. Neeson’s very particular set of skills, while not applied quite as liberally this time around, still make themselves available during creative bursts of energy in this brand new crime thriller from Scott Frank.

There’s a chill in the air and an eerie quiet about the New York City imagined in A Walk Among the Tombstones, a surprisingly more meditative experience whose title conjures up visions of a modern twist on the western. (Really, it’s an adaptation of Lawrence Block’s 1992 novel of the same name.) Such an impression is further solidified by the lack of pedestrian (really, any) traffic in these parts; spurts of grisly violence; a character that comes across more righteous protector than a blunt instrument who can wield an iPhone like nobody’s business.

Yeah, okay — he’s no John Wayne, but clad in the long coat with high-rise collar concealing nape of neck he begs a comparison to a number of badass outlaw archetypes. In 2014 Neeson may be deep in his trajectory to becoming one of the coolest action stars of the 21st Century, but he’s also mindful that his dramatic chops always have room for improvement. Given the number of avenues that are taken to subvert the lead’s aggressive persona Tombstones proves to be the ideal platform for him to work on that.

Matthew Scudder is an unlicensed private investigator and a former member of the NYPD hired on the spot by a desperate heroin dealer (Dan Stevens) to find who kidnapped and brutally murdered his wife. In the process he comes in contact with a homeless youth named TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley) whose attitude belies a warm yet vulnerable and perpetually crumbling core. Betrayed by both parents at an early age, he’s no original creation but he is a slight revelation as a humorous partner-in-crime who convinces us of his humanity. That’s a directorial decision that extends all the way to Neeson, who disposes with the over-the-top dramatics in favor of one of his most stalwart performances since Oskar Schindler.

Granted the circumstances are nowhere near as historically relevant. They’re not really relevant at all. A drug dealer’s home life falling apart in gut-wrenching fashion is not the same kind of gut-wrenching as the stipulations made by the developments within Schindler’s List. An alcoholic learning to overcome his personal issues is not the same as a humanitarian working diligently to save lives in the height of one of the worst crimes against humanity ever recorded. Then again, this is kind of an unfair comparison.

Relying on the strength of its source material and a pair of wonderfully sinister performances from David Harbour and Adam David Thompson as the sadistic kidnappers, actors more than willing to take on the challenge of matching the subtle intensity of Liam Neeson, this grave walk delivers a slow-burning, dread-inducing tale of good versus evil, which may sound on paper as rather unoriginal. In execution, however, Tombstones takes some fascinating back alleys that will have you riveted and possibly more infatuated with the gruff Neeson than ever.

And for those curious, yes indeed, the film does come complete with an electrifying phone conversation that will have you readjusting your jockeys. A Walk Among the Tombstones is not classic Liam Neeson, but rather a reinvention of the concept.

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3-5Recommendation: Going in expecting another Taken would be the mistake! Enjoy a solid and restrained performance from Neeson who more than capably holds the screen in yet another convincingly tense crime thriller. The title may be a chore to utter time and again, but the experience — though notably lacking in pulse-pounding action — is worth repeating to friends who you think may be interested, those who may consider themselves the more dedicated Liam Neeson fan.

Rated: R

Running Time: 113 mins.

Quoted: “Once they’re in the van they’re just body parts. . .”

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

The Rover

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Release: Friday, June 13, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

People often are products of their environment. In the case of The Rover, it seems to be the other way around.

If that sounds like a call for the environmentally-minded to flock to their nearest indie/arthouse theater to see this flick, I don’t believe I could be more misleading. This unrelentingly bleak drama about a desperate man in search of his stolen vehicle in the middle of the sprawling Australian Outback has as much to do with environmental sustainability as Twilight has to do with vampires sucking blood.

Random reference? Sure, it might seem so. I’d be lying to you though if I said The Rover doesn’t rely on a moving performance from one Robert Pattinson (of said sugar-coated vampire-tale fame).

You know what, I actually did just lie. Well, only slightly. While the film provides ample screen time for Pattinson’s Rey — a homely and somewhat dim-witted young man whose backstory isn’t very clear — its gut-punch is delivered through the tension building up between both its leading males, that of Pattinson and the brutal role Guy Pearce has once again been saddled with. This time he plays Eric, an enigmatic loner seen in the film’s open taking a long pause in his car before stumbling into a shack and pouring himself a large drink.

Eric is no sooner tipping the glass back in an extended gesture of despair — welcome to the unforgiving realms of the place those on the outside (i.e. me) like to simply call ‘The Land Down Under’ — when he hears his car being stolen. The event is both dramatic and beautifully understated, playing out as a seemingly singular event from which we ought to recover soon. We don’t. In fact we go tumbling down the rabbit hole instead, as Eric quickly goes in pursuit and subsequently as things go from bad to vile.

The Rover can hardly be accused of overcomplicating things. Here’s a very simple premise that may even border on the pointless. Yet to dismiss the narrative as such would be to grossly overlook the startling themes that are presented. Set in a world a decade after the fallout of society as we currently know it — a subtitle before the movie gets going contributes to a sense of disorientation very early on — we are forced to confront a reality that has been teetering on the edge, only now pushed beyond it and here is the aftermath. What better location in which to film in order to convey this idea than in the unforgiving deserts of the Outback. Each scene featured in The Rover emphasizes a lack of humanity and an abundance of misery.

Each one also categorically confronts us with the truth about the power of currency and how powerless society could will be without it. A myriad of camera angles lingers on many a broken and decrepit edifice, on dirt floors and people existing in squalor — ordinarily stuff that wouldn’t be very compelling to watch on their own terms. But there’s a larger plot at work here, beyond the search for Eric’s car. Michôd’s story, an effort resulting from the collaboration between himself and Aussie native Joel Edgerton, attempts to reduce humans to their material possessions when faced with the alternative of having absolutely nothing at all. That it does very well through the winding plot of Pearce going after the one thing he can’t stand to lose.

The Rover ought to be viewed as a straightforward drama whose personality only gets slightly confused when it attempts to break from its oppressive shackles of physical and emotional brutality. Scenes such as the tumbling SUV as viewed through a window, and a particularly sensitive moment for Rey as he sings along to an American pop tune jut out but only distractingly. There aren’t any other scenes like these, which may prove more problematic for some viewers than for others. Alternatively, they may be looked at as welcomed oases from the misery.

Featuring another turn for Scoot “my middle name is Bleak” McNairy, who plays Rey’s conflicted brother, this is a film that most definitely supports the cliché ‘it’s really not about the destination, but the journey in getting there.’ Fortunately there’s slightly more to the affair than that, such as the evidence Pattinson provides for his case that he can, in fact, affect drama significantly.

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3-5Recommendation: The Rover is likely to prove too uneventful and even more conceivably, far too dark for many. This isn’t a film that cares to celebrate humanity. However there is enough drama and suspense to satisfy a more niched audience, and Aussie audiences are bound to find the use of the unforgiving reaches of the Outback compelling cinema. Bolstered by solid work from a consistent act in Guy Pearce and further buoyed by Pattinson’s odd but affecting support, this film won’t be as impacting as the director’s previous effort, Animal Kingdom, but it is intensely watchable and that’s good enough for me.

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “Your brother left you to die. He’s abandoned you out here to me.”

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