The Marvelous Brie Larson — #1

And here we go! Welcome to a brand new edition of Actor Profiles — with a slight twist. Whereas my previous features focused on well-established actors, this time I am drawing attention to a star on the rise — the marvelous Brie Larson. I suppose you could make the argument she has already arrived, having been validated by the Academy in 2016 for her heartbreaking turn in Room, and she is about to be the new face of the MCU when she becomes Captain Marvel this March. Still, even with those achievements she still isn’t quite a household name.

The idea behind this feature is to bring attention to a specific performer and their skillsets and to see how they contribute to a story. This probably goes without saying, but I will be focusing on how they POSITIVELY affect an experience. It would seem counterintuitive to feature roles in which they weren’t very good, were ill-fit or the movie overall was just plain bad. Of course, there is always that rare occasion where a great performance can single-handedly improve a fundamentally poor movie, so I won’t rule out that possibility.

Luckily that isn’t the case here, as the first installment features Brie Larson in her very first leading role. The movie is an absolute knock-out and Larson’s complex, emotionally vulnerable performance plays a major factor.

Brie Larson as Grace Howard in Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Drama/inspirational

Premise: A 20-something supervising staff member of a residential treatment facility navigates the troubled waters of that world alongside her co-worker and longtime boyfriend.

Character Background: As part of the staff of Short Term 12, a shelter for troubled and neglected youths where they can stay up until the age of 18 (at which point they “age out,” being legally recognized as adults), Grace Howard is a kind, empathetic supervisor always willing to listen and someone who is able to deal with a variety of delicate, sometimes literally life-and-death situations. Outwardly Grace seems like a complete, well-adjusted young woman — she lives with her loving and supportive boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), with whom she is expecting her first child, and she both enjoys her job and is good at it. But two key supporting characters along the way help us get to know Grace on a much more personal level and what motivates her to take on such uniquely challenging and exhausting work. One is Marcus, one such resident about to turn 18 and who is struggling with the prospect of leaving the facility. While Marcus (brought to life by a brutally honest performance from Lakeith Stanfield) proves to be a litmus test for her abilities as a professional, it is really the newcomer Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) — a tortured soul because of her violently and sexually abusive father — with whom Grace identifies the most and causes her to look inwards in ways she hasn’t before. The writing and character development gives her a strong foundation, true, but it is Larson’s dignity, naturalism and staggering confidence that makes Grace fully human and in that way unforgettable.

Marvel at this scene:

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):


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

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

The Belko Experiment

Release: Friday, March 17, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: James Gunn

Directed by: Greg McLean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated: R

Running Time: 88 mins.

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

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 

Hush

'Hush' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 8, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Mike Flanagan; Kate Siegel

Directed by: Mike Flanagan

What you don’t hear definitely can hurt you in Hush, Mike Flanagan’s second consecutive exploration of the human sensory system and how much we depend on it, especially in stressful situations.

In 2013 Flanagan emphasized, even obsessed over visual stimuli, how one’s mind has the ability to play tricks on the eye when it comes to seeing things that may or may not be there. The title Oculus should ring a bell, even if its vaguely silly plot about a rogue antique mirror that kills people, does not. Flanagan now seems poised to be taken a little more seriously, cutting a nifty slice of indie horror based around auditory senses, or the lack thereof.

Hush pits a young mute woman named Maddie (Kate Siegel) against a psychotic stalker (John Gallagher, Jr.) that appears at her back door late one evening. We find ourselves in an unnamed and unidentified location, some thickly wooded area better off not named. Here Maddie’s been living a quiet life in isolation, one that she claims she didn’t choose but rather was forced upon her since complications from a surgery many years ago rendered her permanently deaf. She seems to be getting along well despite being completely on her own, and despite her struggles to complete a second horror novel. (She’s already published one.)

Flanagan wastes preciously little time propping up the pieces that will hold the conflict in place. In hindsight, introductions could have been a little less mechanical — we see Maddie chat with a neighbor briefly about that book — although there’s really no reason to dilly-dally since the premise is so pure and uncomplicated. But during this fleeting calm we get to know and care about our protagonist. Siegel’s committed performance, including some emphatic signing, reveals much about her personality, Maddie’s intelligence and passion for writing evident above all but we can tell she’s still trying to recover from something emotionally. She seems vulnerable and distant. That vulnerability takes on an entirely new meaning when we first see her tormentor, a chilling shot that demonstrates why her lack of hearing is a potentially fatal disadvantage.

Let’s talk about the home invader, shall we, because he’s something of a nightmare. Armed with a compound bow and a facemask, Gallagher (credited simply as ‘The Man’) feels like he just sauntered over to the next house after the events of You’re Next (I guess he’d need an animal mask if he was really wanting to fit in). The change of pace seems to be a good thing for the up-and-comer, even if his iciness is a trait that takes some time getting used to (maybe it’s the lack of a beard and a shaven head that does it). Even if his character’s backstory is nonexistent — where is he coming from? why is he doing this? just who is this guy? — his psychosis isn’t to be questioned. Here is a man whose depravity knows no bounds.

Plus, that aura of mystery that first seemed like lazy writing comes back to haunt us later. We want to go digging for answers, any lame justification as to why this man might want to make Maddie suffer, but that’s a fruitless effort. Some people are just no good. That there doesn’t appear to be any kind of personal vendetta means there’s little reasoning with the guy and without reason there can be no comfort. To Maddie’s credit, she does try.

To Siegel’s credit, who also co-wrote the script with Flanagan, her resilient performance is destined to hush the skeptics, those who write off contemporary horror as lazy cash grabs utterly disinterested in offering up intriguing characters (to be fair and as a skeptic myself, they have a valid point with a great many releases). Hush works primarily because of its characters; it’s certainly less ambitious in other aspects. Too often there comes a pause where you think ‘what the hell is the guy doing right now? Why doesn’t he come in and end this now?’ Indeed, the mind is going to wander where it shouldn’t, and that’s an unfortunate result of the story focusing so intensely on how Maddie reacts to a situation that goes from bad to worse. If we’re assuming events are unfolding in real-time, there’s a lot of downtime and that fact becomes quite the distraction.

But this game of cat-and-mouse is too compelling, too tightly-wound to worry about nitpicks like that. You could poke enough holes in the script to make it look like swiss cheese before writing it off as something you’d rather not watch. Hush is so impressive in the way it integrates an atypical character into a more familiar narrative. Not once do you feel bad for Maddie simply because she can’t hear — you fear for her life when that fact actually becomes a threat to her safety, but never do you pity her. She’s a strong and independent woman willing to do what it takes to overcome her terrible situation, willing to do anything other than lay down and die.

What kind of an ending is Maddie going to be able to write for herself? The answer can be found if you’re willing to sit through some seriously uncomfortable silence.

Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 12.26.48 AM

Recommendation: Hush offers the jaded/casual fan of modern horror another reason to give the genre another go; it’s a character-driven piece with some crucial sound design and editing that rewards more often than not and while there could have been some more substantial development early on, the great performances and unique circumstances are enough to overcome a few shortcomings. If you liked Oculus, you should definitely Flanagan’s latest a shot. Exclusively on Netflix.

Rated: R

Running Time: 87 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

10 Cloverfield Lane

'10 Cloverfield Lane' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 11, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Josh Campbell; Matthew Stuecken; Damien Chazelle

Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg

Dan Trachtenberg’s suffocating and impossibly intense monster movie arrests viewers with a power few thrillers in recent memory have had. 10 Cloverfield Lane is an early contender for biggest surprise hit of 2016, delivering a story that’s conceptually simple, emotionally complex and psychologically perturbing.

Produced by J.J. Abrams, 10 Cloverfield Lane pits Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle against John Goodman’s doomsday prepper Howard, an ex-military man who claims he saved her life having rescued her from the wreckage of an accident and brought her to his underground bunker. The film is told primarily through her point of view as the cameras hover within an inch of her face, gauging her reaction as she awakens in a cold, bare room chained to a pipe. We’ll remain close to her throughout as the film brilliantly plays with that concept of perspective. Michelle believes she’s been kidnapped. Howard, despite himself, insists he is showing her hospitality. Further complicating things is the presence of a third party, someone whom Howard apparently has known for some time, a younger man named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.).

The cast is undeniably one of the film’s strengths. John Goodman hasn’t been this good in years and Winstead shoulders the task of carrying the movie with such grace, while Gallagher Jr. remains a fairly warm presence, attempting to lighten the mood whenever possible. With all due respect to their work, arguably the film’s greatest asset is its cramped setting. Small rooms filled with all the resources you’d expect to see in a fall-out shelter (note the shelves filled with Fruit-by-the-Foots)? Check. Maguffin-esque technology that justifies how they are able to breathe clean air? Check. Drab colors and dim lighting? Check. A sense of sterility overriding Howard’s best efforts to make the place feel cozy? Big, big check.

The claustrophobic set essentially means the interactions between the characters will be intense and susceptible to volatility, and their actions and reactions will be scrutinized appropriately. Even without knowing specifically what it will be, we know something is going to happen that will forever alter the dynamic and shift proceedings into an entirely new and even more uncomfortable paradigm. Call it fate. I’m going to call it the product of an excellent script collaborated on by Damien Chazelle, writer/director of the sensational jazz drumming drama Whiplash.

And while all of this is taking place underground, we’re left wondering . . . where are the monsters? 10 Cloverfield Lane is an exercise in restraint in that regard, depending on how you define what a monster is and is not. The concept of perception and how it can be so easily skewed extends well beyond what we think of the characters we’re stuck in a room with. It goes beyond the reaches of the bunker and out past the cornfields that surround forebodingly; it ventures deep into the unknown. Perception is everything here until it is nothing at all; in other words we have to absolutely trust in everything that’s being presented and thanks to the craftsmanship, that’s not much of a challenge.

It might be too early to call it a genre mainstay, but suffice it to say films like this, films in which suspense is established early and at a high level and only increases exponentially as time pushes on, are somewhat of a rarity. The stress here is real and it is relentless. Perhaps part of the shock of the experience stems from the nature of its release date. We only have to wait two more weeks until Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice drops, and here in the annual post-Oscars malaise we actually have something to chew over in a period where films typically are released without any fanfare because, well, they don’t deserve it. But the spiritual successor to Cloverfield does. Oh boy, how it does.

Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 4.07.12 PM

Recommendation: In the vein of a sci fi thriller classic (still too early to say for sure but I already feel pretty comfortable saying it), 10 Cloverfield Lane is a film for adrenaline junkies. When all is said and done the buzz that it leaves you with is kind of cathartic. Excellent acting, gut-wrenching reveals and a brilliant narrative structure all work toward creating a film that is doggedly determined to do what it’s label suggests: thrill. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 103 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 

Short Term 12

short_term_twelve_ver3

Release: Friday, August 23, 2013 (limited)  

[Theater]

If you’re anywhere near the local indie theater in town, then your first priority suddenly just became to see this little independent production called Short Term 12, the follow-up film of director Destin Cretton’s I Am Not a Hipster, which was released in January of this year. Now, granted, this recommendation and appraisal might mean a good deal more had I actually seen his first release, but given how profound this picture was I somehow doubt I’ve received an improper introduction. I plan to go back and see Hipster, though this will more than suffice for the time being.

Cretton has cobbled together somehow a beautiful reflection of lives less propitious than many others; an inspirational story which focuses on a facility that looks after at-risk youths for brief periods of time — anywhere from a few weeks up to a year; a few stay longer. Short Term 12 is the name of the place, and its staffed by some rather incredible people. At 96 minutes in length, this theatrical release is actually an expanded version of Cretton’s original, a thirty-minute short titled the same.

The film opens with an engrossing little conversation amongst the staff out front of the building. A girl joins a few minutes later on a bike. This is Grace (Brie Larson), and the other three are Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) — who also happens to be Grace’s longtime boyfriend — the newest addition to the staff, Nate (Rami Malek), and finally Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz). We know zero about these folks at the time of this particular conversation. . . . . . .something about Mason shitting his pants while trying to help a kid. Come the end of the film, we will have felt like we have walked miles in their shoes.

One of the miracles of this little-known gem is how it manages to immerse the viewer in the rawness and intimacy of its world. . . .and in the personal affairs of all who inhabit it. A tightly weaving, at times humorous narrative strings together scenes that alternate between campus and the outside world, though its really more concerned with the goings-on in the halls and rooms that comprise Short Term 12. Within these small, unassuming buildings resides some of the most amiable staff you’re likely to ever see portrayed in movies. Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. are wonderful here and their characters are instantly lovable — the kind to completely restore one’s faith in humanity. Their easygoing nature and willingness to express honest feelings indicates how much they care about their kids and their jobs and the positivity radiates powerfully from the screen.

Fortunately the script, also penned by Cretton, is just as unselfish as the lead characters, as it provides ample time for a few of the residents to develop into memorable characters, some of which are as significant as those strong leads.

A few who stand out include Marcus, played by the mesmerizing newcomer Keith Stanfield — he’s one of the older residents who’s being forced to ‘graduate’ since he’s turning 18, and finds it daunting to leave the comforts of campus behind. Then there’s the newest resident who possesses a history of violent behavior, a girl named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who’s perpetually stand-offish and hard to communicate with; and lastly, the film is bookended with scenes showing a very strange boy who tries multiple times to flee  from the scene but is never quite successful. There are a couple of other strong roles as well, but this trio of characters truly punctuates this film with an exclamation mark.

Given the unsettling subject matter, it’s quite a wonder how uplifting Short Term 12 winds up becoming. And especially after a summer of blockbusters, destruction, mayhem and decidedly darker/bleaker atmospheres in general, it’s nice to experience a film that’s this concerned with the preservation of humanity. . . and not the loss of it.

st12-1

5-0Recommendation: Do you enjoy leaving a movie feeling just a little more hopeful about whatever situation you currently face in your own life? Are you an optimist? A fan of man? If the answer to any of those is ‘Yes,’ then I absolutely recommend it. This movie is remarkable.     

Rated: R 

Running Time: 96 mins.  

Quoted: “You are the weirdest, most beautiful person I’ve ever met.”

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