Top That! My Ten Favorite Films of 2019

It’s Oscar weekend, so I figured now is as good a time as any to announce my ten favorite movies of 2019. There’s not a whole lot of science that goes into my process; it’s mostly gut feeling that determines what goes into this list and how I’m arranging it. The emotional response is the most reliable metric I have — how well have these movies resonated with me, how long have they lingered in my mind? How did they make me feel when I first saw them? To a lesser degree, how much replay value do these movies have? Do I want to watch them again? Would I pay to watch them again? Not that the money makes that much of a difference, but these things can still be useful in making final decisions. 

With that said, these are the ten titles that made it. I suppose one of the benefits of missing a lot of movies last year (and I mean A LOT) is that I’m not feeling that bad for leaving some big ones off of this list. So I suppose you could call this Top That fairly off the beaten path. What do we have in common? What do we have different? 


Aw hell, there goes the neighborhood. Well, sort of. Quentin Tarantino’s tribute to the place that made him super-famous (and super-rich) turns out to be far more “mellow” than expected. Sparing one or two outbursts, considering the era in which it is set — of Charles Manson, Sharon Tate and a whole host of hippie-culty killings — this is not exactly the orgy of violence some of us (okay, me) feared it might be. Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is, tonally, a different and maybe more compassionate QT but this fairly meandering drama also bears the marks of the revisionist historian he has shown himself to be in things like Inglourious Basterds. He gets a little loosey goosey with facts and certain relationships but that comes second to the recreation of a specific time period, one which TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt-double, BFF and gopher Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) are not so much strolling but struggling through. It’s the end of the ’60s and their careers are on the decline as the times they are a’changin’ in the land of Broken Dreams. Once Upon a Time does not skimp on capital-C characters and is quite possibly his most purely enjoyable entry to date.

My review of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood 

It’s not often you see Mark Duplass in a bonafide tear-jerker, so if nothing else Paddleton proves his versatility as an actor. Don’t worry though, this movie is still very quirky. He plays Michael, a man in his early 40s dying of cancer and who chooses to forego chemo in order to spend his remaining days doing the same things he’s always done with his upstairs neighbor and best friend in the whole wide world, Andy, played by a heartbreaking Ray Romano. Over the span of a very well spent but not always easy 90 minutes we wrestle with the philosophical ramifications of someone choosing to end their life on their own terms, contemplate the possibility of the afterlife and, of course, watch kung fu, eat pizza and learn the rules of this pretty cool game called Paddleton — think squash/racquetball played off the side of a building. Beyond the controversial subject matter, Paddleton offers one of the more tender and honest portrayals of male friendship I saw all year. And that ending . . . wow.

My review of Paddleton

Thanks to a random visit to my local Walmart Redbox I got to catch up with this ingenious little chamber piece from Swedish filmmaker Gustav Möller. It opened in America in October 2018 but I didn’t see it until March 2019. I was so impressed with the set-up and eventual payoff I just could not leave it off this list. The Guilty (Den Skyldige) is about a recently demoted cop working the phones at a crisis hotline center near Stockholm. He clearly doesn’t want to be there. His day livens up when he fields a call from a woman in distress. As the situation deteriorates we learn a great deal about the man and the officer, who finds himself calling upon all his resources and his experience to resolve the crisis before his shift is over. The only other main characters in this fascinating drama are inanimate objects. It’s the kind of minimalist yet deeply human storytelling that makes many Hollywood dramas seem over-engineered by comparison.

My review of The Guilty 

Without a doubt one of the feel-good movies of 2019, The Peanut Butter Falcon is to some degree a modern reinvention of classic Mark Twain that finds Shia LeBeouf at a career-best as Tyler, a miscreant with a good heart living in the Outer Banks and trying to make ends meet . . . by stealing other fishermen’s stuff. When Tyler encounters Zak, a young man with Down syndrome who has found his way aboard his johnboat after having eluded his caretaker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) and the nursing home in which he’s been placed by the state, the two embark on a journey of discovery that — yeah, you know where this is going. TPBF may be predictable but this is the very definition of the destination not mattering anywhere near as much as the journey itself. That destination, though, is pretty great. Especially when you come to the realization that it’s none other than Thomas Haden Church who is the vaunted “Saltwater Redneck.” I haven’t even mentioned Zack Gottsagen as the break-out star of this movie. He’s nothing short of fantastic, and one of the main reasons why I’m such a fan of this little indie gem.

My review of The Peanut Butter Falcon

Two words: Space Pirates.

And I’m talking about legitimately lawless assholes running amok on the dark side of the moon — more the “I’m the Captain now” type and less Captain Hook. The escape sequence across no-man’s land is like something out of Mad Max and even better it’s one of the most obvious (yet compelling) manifestations of Ad Astra‘s cynicism toward mankind. Of course we’re going to colonize the Moon. And there’ll be Wendy’s and Mickey D’s in whatever Crater you live closest to.

But this (granted, rare) action scene is merely one of many unforgettable passages in James Gray’s hauntingly beautiful and melancholic space sojourn about an emotionally reserved astronaut (Brad Pitt) in search of his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones), an American hero thought to have disappeared but now is suspected to be the cause of a major disturbance in deep space. My favorite thing about Ad Astra is the somber tone in which it speaks. This is not your typical uplifting drama about human accomplishment. Despite Hoyte van Hoytema’s breathtaking cinematography Ad Astra does not romanticize the cosmos and what they may hold in store for us. I loved the audacity of this film, the near-nihilism. I understand how that didn’t sit well with others though. It’s not the most huggable movie out there.

My review of Ad Astra 

James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari almost feels like a response to the vocal many bashing Hollywood for not making movies “like they used to.” The ghost of Steve McQueen hovers over this classic-feeling presentation of a true-life story. Ford v Ferrari describes how the Americans went toe-to-toe with the superior Italians at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a brutal endurance race that takes place annually in the namesake French town and tests the very limits of mechanical integrity and driver performance. It’s truly remarkable how the director and his team juggle so many moving parts to make a movie about a fairly esoteric subject not only cohesive but endlessly entertaining. That’s of course in no small part due to the performances of Christian Bale and Matt Damon in the leading roles, and a strong supporting cast who are a lot of fun in their various capacities as corporate executives, passionate motor heads and supportive family members. The movie this most reminds me of is Ron Howard’s Rush, which was about Formula 1 racing. As great as that one was, Ford v Ferrari just might have topped it. Not only are the racing sequences thrillingly realized, the real-life sting at the end adds an emotional depth to it that I was not expecting.

I’m going to be blunt here: The Academy screwed the pooch by not inviting Todd Douglas Miller to the party this year. Forgive me for not really caring what the other documentaries achieved this year, I’m too upset over this one right now. Assembled entirely out of rare, digitally remastered footage of the successful Moon landing in July 1969 — the audio track culled from some 11,000 hours of tape! — and lacking any sort of distractions in the form of voice-over narration or modern-day interviews, this “direct cinema” approach puts you right in the space shuttle with the intrepid explorers Neil Armstrong (whose biopic First Man, which came out the year prior, makes for a killer double-feature and also what I suspect is to blame for Apollo 11‘s embarrassing snub), as well as Buzz Aldrin and the often forgotten Michael Collins (he orbited the Moon while the kids went out to play). Just like those precious first steps from the Eagle lander, Apollo 11, this time capsule of a documentary is a breathtaking accomplishment.

Waves is the third film from Texan-born indie director Trey Edward Shults and in it he has something pretty extraordinary. Set in the Sunshine State, Waves achieves a level of emotional realism that feels pretty rare. It’s a heartbreaking account of an African-American family of four torn apart in the aftermath of a loss. The cause-and-effect narrative bifurcates into two movements, one focused on the athletically gifted Tyler (a phenomenal Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and how he struggles to cope with an injury that may well derail his life plans; the other on his neglected sister Emily (an equally moving but much more subdued Taylor Russell) and how she deals with her own guilt. Beyond its excruciatingly personal story Waves also has a stylistic quality that is impossible to ignore. As a movie about what’s happening on the inside, very active camerawork and the moody, evocative score — provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — work in concert to place you in the headspace of the main characters. It all adds up to an experience that’s felt more than just passively taken in, and by the end of it you’ll feel both rewarded and exhausted.

This was a brutal thing to do, putting Parasite at #2. It’s sooo good. It’s actually my very first experience with a Bong Joon Ho movie and I feel like I have caught him in peak season. True, the application of metaphor isn’t very subtle in this genre-bending, history-making thriller (its nomination for an Oscar Best Pic is a first for Korean cinema) but then not much is subtle about the rapidly industrializing nation’s chronic class divide. The story is as brilliantly conceived as the characters are morally ambiguous, with a few twists stunning you as just when you think you’ve nailed where this is all going, the movie turns down a different and darker alley. Sam Mendes’ 1917 is going to win Best Pic this year, but you won’t hear me complaining if some-crazy-how Parasite ends up stealing the hardware.

My review of Parasite

Nothing else 2019 had to offer immersed me more than the sophomore effort by Robert Eggers, the stunningly talented director behind 2016’s equally disturbing The Witch. The Lighthouse is seven different kinds of weird, a unique tale about two lightkeeps stranded on a remote New England island and running on dwindling supplies of booze and sanity while trying not to die by storm or via paranoid delusions. It’s got two firecracker performances from Willem Dafoe (whose career to date has arguably been just a warm-up for Thomas Wake) and Robert Pattinson, who are expert in selling the desperation here. Beyond that, the story put together by the brothers Eggers is bursting with metaphorical meaning and indelible imagery. Best of all it becomes really hard to tell what’s real and what’s fantasy. Man, I tell ya — this movie cast a spell on me that still hasn’t worn off.

My review of The Lighthouse


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

Photo credits: IMDb

Mission of Honor (Hurricane)

Release: Friday, March 15, 2019 

→Netflix

Written by: Robert Ryan; Alastair Galbraith

Directed by: David Blair

David Blair’s World War II film arrived on American shores earlier this year as Mission of Honor. It was originally titled Hurricane. Just to be clear this is not an account of violent weather but instead one of heroic actions taken by a cadre of mostly Polish and a handful of Czechoslovakian fighter pilots who joined the British RAF in August of 1940, united in the cause to stop Hitler and specifically motivated by their love of their own country.

Mission of Honor isn’t exactly destined for the Library of Congress for its contributions to cinema or society as a whole, but it’s too well made to ignore and the story it tells is equal parts inspiring and devastating. Director David Blair is a patriot but he isn’t afraid of exposing some uglier truths. He’s made a suitably grim movie about an utterly thankless assignment. He directs a story loosely based on real events by Robert Ryan and Alastair Galbraith.

Mission of Honor follows the exploits of a group of hardened fighter pilots led by the stoic Jan Zumbach, played by Iwan Rheon (you might recognize him as the psychopathic Ramsey Bolton in Game of Thrones), who escape the oppression in Poland and enlist with the British RAF. They want to do whatever they can to help. They are to be overseen by Canadian RAF pilot John Kent (Milo Gibson). The sixth son of Mel Gibson is graciously provided one of the few moments of levity the film can muster, shown having an amusingly difficult time corralling the troops. It gets a bit silly through here, but trust me — you’re going to want to stuff some of that comic relief into a flask and take it with you from here. Impassioned, steely-nerved and at times combative, these are well-qualified, highly skilled pilots who, as time progresses, become increasingly distressed by the reality of what’s happening back home.

The drama depicts multiple battles being waged. The dogfights between the Hawker Hurricanes (hence the film’s original title) and the enemy Messerschmitts comprise most of the action. These sequences are fairly engaging but are somewhat undermined by poor computer renderings and some awkward tight zooms that insist we really notice the actors “in” the cockpit. When it comes to demonstrating skill, emphasis is placed upon ace pilot Witold Urbanowicz (Marcin Dorociński), who was single-handedly responsible for 17 confirmed kills, while in stark contrast to that deeply religious Gabriel Horodyszcz (Adrien Zareba) is shown grappling with the philosophical ramifications of killing.

On the ground at the Northolt Base we have the internal clashing of culture and personality, the Poles often at odds with the refinement of the British RAF. Language barriers and emotionality generate a lot of tension within the ranks. The actors bring an everyman-like quality to proceedings, though these good-old-boys are ultimately overshadowed by the quietly raging Zumbach, the striking Welsh actor using his piercing green eyes to convey something about war that words cannot. Meanwhile battles for common decency are being waged as women fight their way into positions previously occupied by men. Blair examines the working lives and social environment for women at the time, using Stefanie Martini’s (fictitious) Phyllis Lambert and her uncomfortable interplay with Marc Hughes’ boorish CO Ellis as a less-than-subtle nod to #metoo.

During the Battle of Britain, No. 303 Squadron RAF had more success than any of the other 16 Hurricane squadrons, downing as many as 126 Messerschmitts. They were officially operational August 2, 1940 and disbanded December 11. Of course, the movie cuts off before we can actually get there (although it offers an acknowledgement at the end with some text) but fate — and the Western Betrayal — looms large on the horizon and is constantly foreshadowed by the way the British characters in this movie routinely wrinkle their right honorable noses up at the scrappy underdogs trying to make a difference.

But it wasn’t just governments failing to uphold their military, diplomatic and moral obligation to their besieged Eastern/Central European neighbors. An opinion poll showed that 56% of the British public wanted the Poles and Czechs to be repatriated. Their efforts are considered significant factors in turning the Battle of Britain in Churchill’s favor. And yet they returned home, many to face persecution, imprisonment or their own death. It’s this darkness toward which Blair’s war film treads a weary path. It’s not an uplifting picture, and he’s pretty brave in the way he candidly describes his fellow countrymen in what history tells us is their finest hour.

Checkmate.

Recommendation: Mission of Honor gets a firm recommendation on the basis of the true-life story it depicts (with an apparent loose interpretation of events), and some solid if far from awards-worthy acting and a suitably bleak milieu. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 107 mins.

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 

Under the Shadow

Release: Friday, October 7, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Babak Anvari

Directed by: Babak Anvari

For the better part of the 1980s tension between Iran and Iraq had been escalating into large-scale armed conflict, an eight-year period of violence recognized today as the Iran-Iraq War. Then-president Saddam Hussein, hoping to pounce on Iran in post-Islamic Revolution turmoil, invaded without warning in September of 1980. Cut to four years in: Iraqi forces, at best at a stalemate on the ground and increasingly on the defensive, began strategically targeting Iranian cities and civilians in a series of concentrated air strikes, but not without opposition.

This ensuing chaos, dubbed ‘The War of the Cities,’ serves as the backdrop against which Babak Anvari sets his directorial debut Under the Shadow, a quietly disturbing horror film that tells of a mother and her daughter defending themselves against malicious spirits in their apartment as the outside world crumbles around them. The film takes place in war-torn Tehran, the Iranian capital and one of the heaviest-hit areas during the conflict. This nightmarish reality meshes with aspects of ancient Arabian mythology to form a uniquely chilly, claustrophobic atmosphere.

The film opens with Shideh (Narges Rashidi) being denied an opportunity to resume her medical studies given her pre-war affiliation with politically active students. This is devastating news for her, especially since her recently deceased mother had been so supportive and had given her books to study. She returns home to an unsympathetic husband (Bobby Naderi) who bluntly tells her to get over it. Being a doctor himself, he is soon called away by the military, and advises Shideh to leave the city with their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) for his parents’ house in a safer part of the country.

Embittered by her husband’s reaction, Shideh of course doesn’t take the advice. She’d prefer to weather the storm in the comfort of their home, often taking to the building’s makeshift bomb shelter along with several other terrified tenants. After a particularly close encounter with an undetonated missile that lodges itself in the upper part of the building, the exodus begins in earnest. But Shideh and her daughter are still hanging back when young Dorsa’s favorite doll, the thing that is supposed to keep her feeling safe, goes missing.

Once Anvari guts the film of its extraneous parts he allows the true horror to settle in. A sudden ghost town turns into a breeding ground for the menacing “djinn” — supernatural creatures of Islamic theology believed to have the same capacity for good and evil as man, though in this context it’s plain to see what kind we are dealing with. Especially as their presence begins to have adverse effects on both mother and child. Nightmares, visions, inexplicable behavior — many of the hallmarks of the classic American supernatural thriller Poltergeist are on display here.

All throughout Anvari’s approach treads a fine line between being economic and becoming tedious. Under the Shadow is an understated horror that will likely frustrate viewers who demand more stimuli. Regrettably, Anvari seems unwilling to, maybe even incapable of committing to his high-concept vision all the way through, resorting to the Rule Book far more often in the waning moments. It’s not enough to completely undo what the rest of the film manages to accomplish, and yet it’s enough to make Under the Shadow just that much more forgettable.

Recommendation: A lot of buildup for minimal payoff makes Under the Shadow a little underwhelming. That said, the combination of social/political commentary with supernatural elements compels me to suggest this to anyone looking for a horror film that’s just a little different. (The version available on Netflix is an English-language overdub, which I need to mention because the incongruity of the character’s mouths with the words being spoken also considerably impacted my experience.) 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 84 mins.

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 

Your Name.

Release: Friday, April 7, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Makoto Shinkai

Directed by: Makoto Shinkai

To say Makoto Shinkai’s massively acclaimed anime is ambitious would be an understatement. Your Name. seems to be an opus on everything from teen awkwardness to the relationship between time and memory to astrology. At its core it’s a grand romantic tale but fastened to that are numerous other bells and whistles that make the prospect of caring more of an ordeal than it ought to be.

Your Name. tells of a country girl named Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) who’s grown tired of her adolescent life in the hills and yearns to live the life of a handsome city boy, perhaps someone like Taki (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) who lives in Tokyo. One morning Mitsuha awakens to find she has body-swapped with this boy and he with her. Dismissing the phenomenon initially as a dream, both are soon corrected with reminders from their own friends of how strange they have been acting recently.

That they seemingly can’t control when this happens, or even explain why it’s happening, is disconcerting to say the least. But as they experience the switches over and again the pair learn to establish “ground rules” so as to not leave too much of a footprint in one another’s daily lives. The opening third of the film is spent playing in this esoteric sandbox, approaching concepts like astral projection (or something like) pragmatically so that all of this, merely the set-up for the film proper, can feel both whimsical and “believable.”

Indeed, Your Name. doesn’t really get going until the body swapping stops and the perspective switches to that of Taki, who has once more become fidgety in his mundane existence. Determined to find a way to actually, finally meet this mystery girl, Taki begins exploring all his options. Understandably, his friends become concerned over his obsession. Armed with only a drawing and his rapidly fading memories, Taki makes the trek out to the fictional town of Itomori, only to find it destroyed in the aftermath of a comet that fragmented and collided with earth three years ago. For Taki, distance seems to be no object to finding true happiness. But traveling through time, well that’s another prospect entirely. Will they ever find a way to reunite?

More importantly, will anyone care by the time they do? I still haven’t really addressed the proper, metaphysical significance of that cosmic event, but at this point I’m starting to mimic Shinkai’s worst habits, I’d be stuffing more …. stuff into an already exposition-heavy review. Not that a more complete examination of the plot would rob potential viewers of the surprises in store, because quite frankly there are too many twists and turns to remember, much less ruin. Perhaps this is me not doing my due diligence here, but there’s so much about the film that I just don’t understand and have come to accept as that which I never will. Like how we make the leap from Mitsuha wanting to BE Taki to her actually falling in love with him. Or how each can forget the other’s name seconds after learning what it is.

The mental gymnastics that are required to keep up with everything ultimately make this romantic epic a chore to sit through. And it’s not enough to have a labyrinthian plot to sort through; we have to try to make sense of it alongside two prototypically “annoying” and angsty characters. It is all a little too precious and pretentious. But, to damn with faint praise here, at least the photorealistic animation makes all that mental taxation somewhat worthwhile.

Recommendation: I’ve often described my reactions to anime as something like binary code: there are ones and zeroes. I either love these films — like, really, really love them — or feel totally turned off by them. Alienated. If you are anything like me in that regard, you might do some research on the film before you buy a ticket. Shop around for similar films, maybe things you’ve seen before and make an informed decision. There’s a ton of stuff to absorb here. I can’t even say Your Name. is a “bad movie;” it’s just a little overwhelming, especially for those of us who aren’t devotees. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 106 mins.

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

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

Divines

divines-movie-poster

Release: Friday, November 18, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Uda Benyamina; Romain Compingt; Malik Rumeau 

Directed by: Uda Benyamina 

Divines provides a bleak but brilliant look into the lives of two teens in the Parisian banlieue. It follows Dounia and her best friend Maimouna as they seek out ways of making quick money so they can one day break free of their oppressive environs, an urban sprawl so neglected it almost looks post-apocalyptic. Small-time hustlers turn big-time drug pushers in this searing indictment of the socioeconomic climate of modern France, where the rich get richer “because the poor aren’t daring enough.”

Powerful female performances dominate but the French-Moroccan Uda Benyamina in her feature debut stops just short of making a film explicitly about female empowerment, and in so doing she creates a film that’s a little more open to interpretation. The narrative is more concerned with economics and how simply the lack of money so often coerces good people into making poor decisions. It just so happens to feature two impressionable young women going to extreme measures to realize a dream. Along the way Benyamina also examines the prominence of religion in poor communities. It is no accident the film opens with a sermon.

Dounia (Oulaya Amamra, the director’s sister) comes from a broken family, her mother an exotic dancer who sleeps around and is more often drunk than sober. There’s no real father figure as such, aside from a cross-dresser who hangs around for casual sex and to feign giving emotional support to the quietly angry teen. Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena) comes from a more well-to-do family, her father a prayer leader at a mosque. The film’s major themes — poverty and religious devotion — become increasingly apparent through the perspectives and conversations had between the two girls. They are first seen peddling whatever items they have been able to thieve from a shopping mall on the streets to whomever will give them cash. When Dounia discovers a potential fast-track to success she starts cozying up to a drug dealer named Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda).

Divines is hardly the first film to filter the political and economic turmoil of Western Europe through the experiences of young and naïve characters — in this case, young women from a Parisian ghetto. It will not be the last. That doesn’t mean Divines is a predictable or insignificant affair. Quite the contrary, actually. The story revitalizes tropes and breathes new life into expected character arcs, patiently building toward one of the most punishing endings you are likely to see. Julien Poppard’s cinematography, a heady combination of gritty realism and ethereal experimentation, forces viewers to acknowledge Paris as something other than just the City of Lights. This is a city of darkness. It’s worth noting the juxtaposition of these slums against iconic landmarks like the Arc de Triomphe. Poppard often frames the city in a contradictory manner, imprisoning the characters within a crumbling square betwixt decaying buildings while tossing in plenty of romantic stimuli to assure viewers are where the street signs say they are.

While the edifices certainly could use some attention, Dounia in particular is desperate for it. Or at least some sort of positive influence. As the narrative expands she is shown a door to an altogether different life with a dancer named Djigui (Kévin Mischel) whom she has been spying on from the rafters of the theater she and Maimouna frequently break into. (Initially I was put off by their ability to sneak in so easily but then I realized the set-up was quite intentional, that perhaps the motif is microcosmic of Benyamina’s frustrations over the French government’s failure to protect and look after all its citizens, as any good government should.) Djigui seems an odd sort, if only to the girls who don’t envision men as dancers. His commitment to his craft is what could lead him to better things. Dounia becomes fascinated by his devotion.

Divines is at its most heartbreaking when it offers the wayward teens a choice. As is the case in reality, they are forced to make decisions over the course of an hour and forty-five minutes that no teenager should have to make. The economics that have outlined her past as well as determine her future make Dounia an utterly tragic character (the less said about Maimouna’s fate, the better). Yet she’s far from an entirely empathetic person. She carries a lot of anger inside of her, and she often makes the wrong choice when it is plain to see there is a better one. She is seen in the film’s opening in temple with her best friend. By the end she couldn’t seem further from salvation. That contrast is not only heartbreaking but wholly convincing. It is the world we live in.

divines-2

Recommendation: Richly textured, occasionally symbolic and often breathtaking cinematography and some artistic but not distracting stylistic choices — some portions of the film are created such that we are “receiving” Snapchat videos — make Divines a physical beauty to watch. The story is dark and saddening and a conclusion that’s nothing short of devastating makes this a noteworthy film for the politically minded and the socially conscious. And fans of unorthodox directors need to add this to their shortlist. Good for Uda Benyamina for getting this film made. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 105 mins.

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.variety.com

Cemetery of Splendor

cemetery-of-splendor-movie-poster

Release: Friday, March 4, 2016 (limited) 

[Vimeo]

Written by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul 

Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul


My  first review of a Thai film is brought to you courtesy of Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. James is the guy running the show over there and he graciously made this incredibly unique and moving film available to me. Please check out his site if you have a few moments. 


The transition from movie back to reality is rarely as jarring as when you are forcibly removed from the most recent effort of (judging by one film) cinematic poet Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Cemetery of Splendor (Rak ti Khon Kaen), the Bangkok-born filmmaker’s eighth directorial credit, plums the depths of the soul in a meditative and meandering narrative that simply defies categorization.

Let’s get one thing clear: if you’re searching for the literal, the low-hanging fruits of traditional storytelling — a conflict that arises that must be resolved, barriers to that attempt to overcome, resolutions that, tidily or not, seal the deal in one fell swoop — you’re probably going to hate Cemetery of Splendor. I mean hate it. On top of that, patience is absolutely key; this is a very deliberately paced production. At times it can be testing. It might be evident how radically different an experience we’re in for judging merely by the way Weerasethakul starves us for the very first image in an unusually protracted cold open — heavy machinery digging a big hole adjacent to a hospital in the Thai village of Isan — and how deliberately the vast majority of his shots remain static, filmed at a distance such that viewers must pick and choose what it is in the frame that interests them most.

This makeshift hospital is where our journey begins. We’re not traveling far and wide; rather we’re delving into the human consciousness, into the dreams of a man who has been struck with a mysterious sleeping sickness and who gains the friendship of a kindhearted volunteer named Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner). In this hauntingly quiet space we see several cots lined up with bodies in each one, all on the drip and seemingly lifeless. They’re soldiers but they’re not dead, nor do they seem like they’re suffering from physical ailments. Instead they’re sleeping — all day and all night. The camera eventually settles on one man all the way in the back corner, a man named Itt (Banlop Lomnoi) who has had no visitors. Jen decides she will take care of him.

This seemingly innocuous facility — a school that has been converted into a temporary clinic — has been said to possess ethereal power, having its foundations built directly upon the graves of ancient kings. The juxtaposition some believe is the very cause of the soldiers’ sickness: their strength in the real world is being manipulated by these kings who remain engaged in an eternal spiritual war. The clinic’s staff, housewives who are volunteering perhaps for no other reason than out of the goodness of their heart, have taken numerous approaches to ease their suffering. The most striking and perhaps most abstract method is their light therapy technique in which vertical tubes of neon light are placed beside each bed, the colors ever so slowly transitioning between red, green and blue.

Theoretically each color holds some sort of cultural and/or political significance (red symbolizes national pride; green represents Thailand’s military forces and blue indicates royalty and privilege), though if anything their application in this film contributes most apparently to the physicality of the experience. As Cemetery of Splendor opens up, these colors begin bleeding into the film reel itself, affording a psychedelic quality to proceedings. Even more experimental than this technique is Weerasethakul’s bold decision to have his actors reenact the process of communicating with the spiritual world. Early on we are introduced to a young woman named Keng (Jarinpratta Rueangram), a medium who helps visitors reach out to their loved ones — those soldiers imprisoned by silence. She decides to use her extraordinary gift to help Jen interact with Itt.

In one of the film’s most ambitious sequences, Jen and Keng take a walk about the quaint village, through a wooded park that’s more like a relic of a forgotten history than some place families go to take a stroll. And so develops a scene in which words simply do not do justice; in fact to actually detail what happens here would be ultimately to spoil its essence. Suffice it to say the moment is seized brilliantly by all involved, the actors bravely trusting in their director that they won’t look silly demonstrating what could arguably be the most complicated and most abstract concept any filmmaker could imagine recreating.

Here we have our best shot of actually witnessing the spiritual and the physical world colliding, at least thematically speaking. The young soldier, vicariously through Keng’s gentle mannerisms, “reveals” to Jen — whose American husband, by the way, has been intentionally kept out of sight throughout most of the narrative to give the impression Jen’s personal life is a wee bit complicated — precisely what he’s experiencing in his sleep. It is also in this protracted scene where we find out the devastating truth behind Jen’s physical deformity. One of her legs is significantly shorter than the other, which has prompted her to get around on crutches and with a specially-fitted shoe to help her balance. Heretofore the issue has gone unaddressed, but Weerasethakul has patiently waited for the right moment to drop the bomb.

In the name of hyperbole, words will inevitably fail me when a friend asks what this movie is all about. I’m of a mind to tell them that it’s about everything. That’s simultaneously the least satisfying and the most accurate (and most concise) way of putting it. Unsatisfying in the sense that it’s hardly a descriptive response and it seems cheaply broad; accurate in that Cemetery of Splendor opens up so many doors for viewers to walk through and interpret things as they see them. This is going to be a different film to different viewers. Or I could be completely wrong and Weerasethakul actually has a much more specific, narrowed focus. I, a Westerner, might just be the guy who came before King Arthur who tried to wield Excalibur.

mv5bnty1odu4ndq4ml5bml5banbnxkftztgwmtawmte2nte-_v1_sy1000_cr0017731000_al_

Recommendation: An exquisitely complex, psychosomatic kind of experience that I am hesitant to say is one of the best films of 2016. I hesitate only in the sense that not everything in this Thai film will translate well (if at all) for international audiences. But Cemetery of Splendor is undoubtedly one of the most unique and entrancing films I’ve yet seen. Even if I don’t personally fully grasp it. This is nevertheless an incredibly profound piece and further confirmation that some of the most original works really do stem from foreign markets. If I were pressed to make comparisons, Terrence Malick and Nicolas Winding Refn come to mind.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “I’d prefer a European husband. Americans are too poor. Europeans are living the American Dream.”

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

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

Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (Taxi Tehran)

jafar-panahis-taxi-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 2, 2015

[Netflix]

Written by: Jafar Panahi

Directed by: Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi is an Iranian filmmaker seemingly undeterred by the consequences of his actions. Those consequences have, as a matter of fact, formed the basis of some of his oeuvre, such as his acclaimed 2011 documentary This is Not a Film, wherein he captured a day in his life under house arrest. Presently the writer-director is serving a six-year sentence and is not allowed to leave his country for perceived propaganda disparaging of the Iranian Republic. Despite such restrictions, which also include a 20-year ban on filmmaking, his latest is available to stream in many countries not his own.

The dissemination of Taxi is in itself a minor miracle. The particulars of how it has come to surface in international streaming services like Netflix remain unclear but if the hula-hoops he had to jump through just to get the aforementioned 2011 piece submitted to the Cannes Film Festival is any indication — allegedly he had to stuff a thumb drive containing the film inside a cake which was snuck across international borders — you can safely assume distributing Taxi was no easier.

While Panahi’s directorial limitations are immediately evident, he gets creative by posing as a cabbie while filming via dashboard cam his interactions with ordinary Tehranis. A few recognize the man while others, such as the opinionated first passenger who goes on a rant about upholding stiffer penalties for lowlives who steal from the poor, remain oblivious. Each patron that gets in this cab offers some small window into life in a less tolerant society, and while the narrative device is a little contrived — I can’t imagine every taxi driver having such interesting interactions with all of his customers in a single shift — it certainly works, and it works incredibly well for a director who is essentially giving the middle finger to the Iranian government.

Some of the people he picks up are more forthright than others — a woman selling roses, for example, even breaks the fourth wall with her candid commentary about life in Iran as a woman and how she feels about the punishments that have been forced upon Panahi as a filmmaker. She even advises her friend on the segments of this film that he should probably get rid of because of their blunt honesty. Clearly Panahi didn’t feel the need to censor himself, which, of course, is the point.

Panahi’s niece also features prominently as an aspiring filmmaker attending arts school. Even though she’s telling her uncle all about the rules her instructors have delineated about the kinds of subject matter they can and cannot film — more often than not they regard the latter, specifically anything that would cast an unfavorable light on life under Sharia Law — she’s really informing us. An intelligent young girl becomes the conduit through which Panahi expresses his own outrage over being censored.

Taxi, a slight but intriguing documentary, leaves plenty of food for thought. Panahi’s creative abilities allow it to be something more than just a childish tantrum, it’s a quietly righteous political statement that deserves our undivided attention, one that makes this reviewer feel fortunate for all the privileges he has living in a nation where movies about porno stars, civil rights dramatizations and less flattering portraits of presidents (both past and present) not only can exist but allow us to evaluate what is going right and what is going wrong in our society.

jafar-panahi-in-taxi-tehran

Recommendation: An intriguing film that sheds light on both the state of the Iranian film industry as well as the larger culture surrounding it. There’s probably nothing in here that will surprise anyone but what might surprise you is just how effective Jafar Panahi makes a film with such limited resources (plus the fact he’s not even supposed to be filming at all adds an extra layer of tension to proceedings). It’s an important film that I believe many people need to see and it has certainly whet my appetite for more from a director who has proven he won’t be ignored. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 82 mins.

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

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

Embrace of the Serpent

embrace-of-the-serpent-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, February 17, 2016 (limited)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Ciro Guerra; Jacques Toulemonde Vidal

Directed by: Ciro Guerra


This  review is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. I would like to give a shout-out to James for allowing me to talk about this unique cinematic experience. 


Embrace of the Serpent (El Abrazo de La Serpiente) was Colombia’s entry into the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 88th Academy Awards, proving that for director Ciro Guerra the third time is the charm. His first unsuccessful submission happened to be his very first feature, the 2004 drama Wandering Shadows, and the second in 2009 for The Wind Journeys. Guerra of course lost to Son of Saul director László Nemes, but he shouldn’t have. In fact this is the kind of experience that just begs the question, why can’t foreign language films also be eligible for Best Picture?

Guerra’s epic excursion through the beautiful but harsh Amazon rain forest is not just last year’s best picture (and by a mile), it’s one of the most raw, most vital experiences you are ever going to have. It’s a religious experience (quite literally in some senses) — an unforgettable journey whose spiritual and cultural pulses are so tangible the film ceases to be a film and instead becomes a snapshot of a reality many of us have conveniently forgotten. Though the account is fictional, portions of the narrative have been inspired by the experiences of early 20th Century western explorers and their encounters with the indigenous peoples of Colombia. The drama is so authentic it induces pangs of despair that only documentaries on harrowing subjects like genocide and other forms of persecution are able to. Of course this film, at least tonally, isn’t quite as heavy as something like Son of Saul, but it touches upon a subject that is just as heartbreaking: the devastation of native populations in the wake of western expansion.

Embrace of the Serpent, shot in a seductive grayscale, follows two stories set roughly 30 years apart. The first finds German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) searching for a cure for a serious illness he’s come down with having spent many years in the Amazon. The scientist’s actual journal entries form the basis for Bijvoet’s outstanding performance and they also play a prominent role in the narrative itself. Said diaries are filled with illustrations and scribblings he fully intends to bring back and use as a communicative tool between vastly different societies. In his quest to avoid dying a miserable, jungly death Theo seeks the help of Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and the last of his own tribe. As a younger, more hostile man he is portrayed by Nilbio Torres in a performance you simply must see.

That a white man has encroached upon his territory unsettles Karamakate deeply and he’s unwilling to help until Theo makes it clear he isn’t here to profit like most westerners have by extracting the rubber from rubber trees, a practice that has led to the enslavement, torture and eventual diminishing of “savages” across numerous western outposts. Theo has been traveling by canoe with a more westernized local, a twenty-something named Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) who is constantly chastised by Karamakate for betraying his own people by adopting western customs like wearing a tee shirt and pants. Everyone is on edge and it is in this state of utter distrust we beat a path through the dense jungle, in search of the (fictional) yakruna plant, whose hallucinatory powers are considered Theo’s best chance for survival.

Guerra entwines this saga with Karamakate’s experiences in 1940 with American explorer Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis). He’s hoping to continue Theo’s work by similarly documenting his travels. He too holds an interest in the yakruna plant, only Karamakate claims he can’t remember where it can be found. Thirty-one years older and that much further removed from the customs and rituals of his people, he is portrayed as an impossibly lonely and broken man by Antonio Bolívar. His lowest moments confirm that sometimes the most powerful evocations of human emotion come in the form of the quiet sob.

There’s a brilliant symmetry to the way Guerra has chosen to structure the piece. The earlier timeline firmly establishes the tenuous trust-building process while the latter proves specifically how that trust can be so easily violated (there’s something we don’t quite buy into with the American explorer; Theo somehow seemed more genuine). The split narrative also affords the internal conflict churning inside Karamakata room to breathe and become an almost unbearable weight. He doesn’t give the outside world direct access to all he holds dear just the once; he goes against his better judgment twice. Embrace of the Serpent, then, becomes more about his resilience and his perspectives. He’s not exactly a man without flaws and his occasional misgivings about the white man can sting deeply (not all of us are monsters). Even so, the way the film concludes leaves little doubt as to where our sympathies should ultimately lie.

Guerra’s vision is distinctly his own. Embrace of the Serpent is an entirely immersive experience that taps into primal human behavior, one that is as cerebral as it is physical. One of the main concerns of the older Karamakata is not being able to recall his ancestral history because of past actions he himself has taken, while Schultes laments not being able to dream because of his work. But it’s not all about suffering. There’s a lot of beauty to be found as well, particularly in the visual aesthetic. Crisp black-and-white photography lends a sense of timelessness and an ethereal quality to the jungle. It’s an artistic flourish that contributes immeasurably to the sense of insulation we feel as we make our way towards the striking round domes of the Cerros de Mavecure, where the yakruna can be found.

Of course this would not be a proper review without discussing the serpent itself. Guerra restrains himself impressively in terms of how he allows the serpent’s mythological symbolism to influence his narrative. Derived from Latin (‘serpens’), the most obvious metaphorical application is the duality of good versus evil. In truth, you can apply it as metaphorically or as literally as you like: Guerra uses the birthing of a snake in an early scene to remind us that snakes are indeed a very real and dangerous entity, while Karamakata later describes the birth of creation as the descending of a serpent from the skies.

Spiritual connectedness also features prominently. At one point Karamakata is shown a picture of himself and, rather than recognizing the image as a moment frozen in time, he believes it to be his ‘chullachaqui,’ a hollow spirit form. Throughout we’re reminded once and again of a complex belief system thought to maintain order in this otherwise hostile and unpredictable environment. We’re never asked to embrace it but we are challenged to respect it. Karamakata believes Westerners are limited by their own ignorance (scientists can only think in terms of facts and observable phenomenon; those who seek riches can only think in terms of money and material possessions, etc.), whereas the native inhabitants of the jungle are much more attuned to the grander hierarchy of existence. This in and of itself is enough to open the flood gates for lively debate.

Embrace of the Serpent isn’t just a memorable watch, it is a significant cinematic achievement. Guerra’s assured direction and the mesmerizing performances from his small cast combine to form a visceral, challenging experience that simultaneously defends a dying way of life and homages some great survival/adventure films. Flavors of The Jungle BookLord of the Rings and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo — even Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto — are all sampled, but a part of me feels that this particular film reaches some psychic level that none of the aforementioned quite managed. It reaches far higher than the vast majority of Best Picture nominees have in recent years.

el_abrazo_de_la_serpiente_2

Recommendation: Utterly compelling stuff and hands-down one of the most extraordinary things this reviewer has ever watched. (Interestingly, in a year that has given us a lot of disappointments . . . A LOT . . . I have also been able to find two films that might make my all-time greats list, the other being the delightfully bizarre indie Swiss Army Man.) Embrace of the Serpent is a film whose dialogue is delivered primarily in native tongues but eight other languages factor in as well. Don’t let the subtitles scare you out of this. You simply just have to get your hands on this.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 125 mins.

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.vox.com

Bølgen (The Wave)

'Bølgen' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 28, 2015 

[Redbox]

Written by: John Kåre Raake; Harald Rosenløw-Eeg

Directed by: Roar Uthaug

Norway’s official submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards failed to garner a nomination. While I would like to say it was their loss for turning away a disaster film that puts most Hollywood efforts to shame, it’s actually more like everyone else’s loss as well. Bølgen might have made waves (sorry) if it had been given the chance to take the stage along with the other international selections.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

Though Roar Uthaug’s direction largely adheres to blueprints used in natural disaster staples from the ’90s like Deep Impact and Dante’s Peak, he separates himself considerably with a dedication to creating characters that matter in a place that feels lived-in and entirely authentic. He stands to look even better thanks in no small part to Kristoffer Joner’s durable and oh-so-likable lead. The production carries a palpable sense of raw, visceral danger and the dramatic backdrop doesn’t hurt either.

Bølgen is a dramatization of a very real, Mt. Vesuvius-esque worst-case scenario facing the quaint fjordland community of Geiranger. It suggests what could happen should Åkerneset, a particularly unstable mountain looming over the town, ever collapse into the water below. He envisions an 80-meter-high tsunami that spells the end for everything standing in its way. Locals would have ten minutes to get to higher ground. Into the drama he inserts an obsessive geologist who tries to sound the alarms before it’s too late.

There’s an element of predictability and sensationalism to Uthaug’s approach but it’s not of the bombastic variety you come to expect from the likes of Roland Emmerich. You won’t find many cheesy one-liners here that smack of screenwriting-by-committee, or overly sentimental speeches designed to impress audiences with their longevity, or romances that develop out of nowhere that go through hell and back before the second date even happens. The only thing Bølgen really borrows from big budget Hollywood is visual grandeur —  vertigo-inducing aerial shots and sweeping pans that expose audiences to one of the world’s best-kept secrets. And even then, it’s the natural environment that does most of the work.

The  film plods along at a fairly even keel, deliberately skimping on major drama before emphatically revealing its hand, after which we’re left to pick up the pieces of a shattered community. The first half starts off slower than the second. Kristian (Joner) has been a dedicated geologist in Geiranger for many years. Now he’s accepted a big job with a prestigious oil company in Stavanger, a major Norwegian city that will surely offer a stark contrast to the family’s peaceful days here. His wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) seems to be on board; his son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro), not so much. Daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande) is too young to care.

We watch Kristian and the family preparing for their last day and saying their goodbyes. Kristian has a hard time leaving behind his fellow geologists, unable to shake the feeling that Åkerneset is about to cause problems. His former colleagues scold him for his obsession. He needs to stop acting like he still works here. Things might seem like they are moving slowly during the protracted introductory scenes in part because Uthaug dedicates a healthy chunk of the narrative to the perspective of Kristian’s former colleagues, each of whom show varying degrees of skepticism towards his claims that catastrophe is imminent. Bølgen may get a bit too science-y for some but genre geeks are going to appreciate the little things.

The film is universally well-acted with Joner leading the charge. He, along with Torp’s Idun, provide strong characters who are almost equal in their problem-solving abilities, a quality that largely lacks in many American disaster films. Watch Torp take action in getting the hotel guests out to safety, or the gut-wrenching fight she engages in with an aggressive man who’s just lost his wife, and more recently, his mind. All performances are treated with a sense of intelligence and respect that is far too lacking in movies, period.

Uthaug may not have been appreciated by a faceless committee but his somber and extraordinarily effective natural disaster thriller — the first in Norwegian cinematic history — is a force to be reckoned with and it is sure to find a spot on any genre enthusiast’s list. It’s certainly high up there on mine.

Recommendation: If you seek a disaster film that doesn’t treat you like you’re brain-dead, you might check out a little wild ride called Bølgen. (I suggest watching in Norwegian with English subtitles as it adds to the authenticity and I find that more often than not something is lost in the English overdub.) Filled with interesting developments, heartfelt performances and some impressive visual effects, this film never breaks free of genre tropes but it doesn’t have to when it handles them so well and brings more to the table besides. Highly recommended. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Trivia: Norway has about 5 million inhabitants and the film sold 801,232 tickets until the 4th Nov. 2015, therefore nearly every 6th Norwegian saw The Wave in a cinema.

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 Purge: Election Year

'The Purge - Election Year' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 1, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: James DeMonaco

Directed by: James DeMonaco

I am convinced the French marketing for the third Purge film (see above) is the most responsible form of it we have. The Purge: Election Year manages to be as inane as it looks and here is a movie poster that pulls no punches when it comes to revealing the truth. Cheap-looking and tacky the movie may not be, but it is unconvincing. Often hilariously so.

Though there are no Donald Trump masks involved (surprising, given writer-director James DeMonaco’s affinity for being overt) there is no doubt that the third Purge is intended as his own State of the Union address as it applies to a country being torn apart from the inside by mass shootings, gang and race-related violence and other forms of 21st-Century-friendly terms like ‘terrorism.’ Election Year is now, it is eminent and it is, supposedly, urgent. And so the French movie title starts feeling apropos.

Previous installments — one which took place entirely within the confines of an upper-middle class suburban abode and the other upon the streets of Los Angeles — worked tirelessly in addressing the growing divide between the have’s (the one-percenters of this fine country) and the have-not’s (everyone else in comparison) by creatively demonstrating the rage that festers within a 12-hour period one night out of the year. We’ve come to understand that purge night, rather than being a means for the American people to cleanse themselves of any sort of violence, is just the government’s way of shedding the nation of its burdens: the weak and the poor. A third installment hypothetically could add depth to this bleak, dystopian portrait of government-sponsored terror but what eventuates are just echoes of the themes it has hastily carted out on a dolly since the first round.

Once again we’re set in the near-future and purge night is upon us. Wait, let me back up a little bit. We first witness the events that inspire a young Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) to become a Senator for good. Eighteen years after watching her entire family get murdered at the hands of a lunatic purger, she’s campaigning for the Presidency, vowing to eliminate this terrible night once and for all. Such a devastating loss drives the woman’s powerful but dangerous idealism. She has to win the election and wrestle control of the country away from the New Founding Fathers, but she also refuses to use murder as her path to victory as that wouldn’t make her any different from those who purge.

Frank Grillo returns as former police sergeant Leo Barnes. Once he’s in the picture, the film picks up in both the excitement and intensity departments. After surviving the horrendous events of Anarchy, Barnes has signed on as part of Senator Roan’s security detail and finds himself this time protecting a highly valuable asset as the New Founding Fathers have decided to take a firmer stance against opponents of the purge. They do so by revoking high-level official’s security Level 9 million-whatever clearance, a.k.a. their immunity to the lawlessness of the night. The Senator of course would prefer to wait the night out in her own home. Leo doesn’t think that’s a smart idea; it’s not. Soon we’re back out on the streets after a betrayal. Ya know, the usual.

Leo once again is surrounded by a group of citizens of indeterminate firearm-wielding skill and whose political leanings essentially boil down to “F**k whoever believes in the purge.” Meanwhile, a resistance group is forming somewhere in downtown Washington and there begins to breed a new kind of morality to the violence. But Leo’s gang ain’t like that; they’re comprised of proud deli owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson), his assistant and Mexican immigrant Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), and a tough-as-nails EMT named Laney played by a fun Betty Gabriel — she’s arguably the film’s best offering beyond Grillo.

Election Year finds the city center of Ridiculous soon enough. We’re slowly pulled into the world of anti-purgers gathering in secrecy at some undisclosed (even in this review) location, preparing to wage war against the NFFA, namely Executive Douchebag Caleb Warren (Raymond J. Barry), the ring leader whose vileness must be measured by how many nasty words he can fit into one monologue. That’s the kind of lazy writing that has become a frustrating pattern in this franchise. DeMonaco’s creation has this fascinating psycho-social science dynamic that routinely gets left behind in favor of tired genre tropes and subpar acting (and directing).

The major offense here though is that three provides entirely too much déjà vu. DeMonaco attempts to expand the scope of the narrative by including a terribly ill-advised subplot in which ‘murder tourism’ has become a thing. Apparently it’s not enough that everyone in America is out in the streets killing each other to death; now we have an influx of South Africans (sorry Zoe; Natasha . . . ) coming stateside just to kill people. Don’t laugh (it’s okay, I almost did). The fact that the purge has caught on internationally and is now being marketed as a tourist package is just silliness defined.

Come to think of it, much of this franchise has been just that. Take a look at any number of those peculiar seance scenes in which small groups of well-dressed caucasians gather and either make a sacrifice or just repeat the phrase “purge and purify” ad nauseam (actually, it’s usually both). I look to those moments for an encapsulation of everything The Purge has been: pure nonsense and half-hearted attempts at profundity. Excuse me while I go purge all of my disappointment from memory.

Frank Grillo and Elizabeth Mitchell in The Purge - Election Year

Recommendation: Gee, I wonder what the director’s stance on gun control is. The amount of mileage you get out of The Purge: Election Year (or as I prefer, American Nightmare 3: Elections) will depend on how much you enjoy just being stuck in this particularly dark universe. There’s no doubt DeMonaco and his cinematographer have crafted a unique visual identity but in terms of story they simply never even try to attain the heights their unusual, intriguing premise(s) suggest. You can always count on Frank Grillo though and paired up with Elizabeth Mitchell’s Senator he is better than ever. The rest though leaves a lot to be desired and I don’t know if I want to sit through more.

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “Good night, blue cheese!” 

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