Titane

Release: Friday, October 1, 2021 (limited)

👀 Theater

Written by: Julia Ducournau

Directed by: Julia Ducournau

Starring: Agathe Rousselle; Vincent Lindon; Garance Marillier; Bertrand Bonello; Adèle Guigue

 

 

 

*****/*****

Really the best way to follow up a critical success is to make another, while further pushing boundaries to see what you might get away with. Titane certainly tests some limits. This is a potent, unpredictable and morally challenging exhibition that will either have you recoiling or marveling at the audacity of the artist.

A story involving cars, sex and violence sounds pretty mainstream but then this is Julia Ducournau, far from your garden variety director. Thus, gearheads and Fast & the Furious fans need not apply. For the moment, Ducournau seems enamored with transformative narratives that fixate on the body and alienate her protagonists from their own skin. But where her cannibalistic début feature Raw was more literal, in Titane it’s more about skin as one’s interiority, their sense of self. Though vaguely thematically related I suspect not even Raw‘s hard-to-stomach content would serve as adequate prep for the wild and uncomfortable ride she offers with her follow-up.

Titane deals with a young woman named Alexia who we first meet as a child (chillingly played by Adèle Guigue) in the jolting opening sequence — a car crash caused by her distracted father (Bertrand Bonello) which leaves the little girl with a titanium plate in her skull. Jumping forward in time Ducournau’s camera shadows older Alexia (Agathe Rouselle) as she heads in for another shift as a sexed-up model working seedy auto shows. When not writhing around suggestively on top of shiny hoods she’s signing autographs for desperate dudes . . . and murdering them when they try to get cute.

Indeed, it doesn’t take long to appreciate Alexia’s wired differently than most, the scar on the side of her head a kind of red marking to warn off her prey. And her prey turn out to be alarmingly susceptible. Acts that begin in self-defense become upsettingly random. We also quickly learn her sexual preferences are in constant flux and, uh, exotic.

There’s a girl, Justine (Garance Marillier), and a steamy moment where you begin to believe the movie is about to course-correct into a more familiar drama about being lost and desperately hoping to be found. However all bets are off when lovemaking with a car turns out far more productive than with her coworker, the former leaving Alexia pregnant and the latter devolving into a multi-room, multi-victim bloodbath that forces her to go into hiding by committing to an elaborate ruse that will have profound physical and psychological impacts.

Though the surreal, foreboding atmosphere never relents and disbelief and discomfort remain constant companions, Ducournau’s monstrosity (a term of endearment, in this case) evolves as a tale of two measurably different halves, distinguished not by quality but rather purpose as well as a noticeable shift in tone away from something fiercely feminine and toward brute masculinity. All the while this moody, bathed-in-neon head trip also morphs into something that for awhile seems out of reach; it becomes relatable.

French screen veteran Vincent Lindon provides a crucial link and the sledgehammer performance needed to match his co-star. He plays an aging fire chief who continues to mourn the disappearance of his boy Adrien ten years ago while blasting himself through with steroid injections, often to the point of collapse. When Adrien seems to reappear in police custody joy is soon replaced by concern over his son’s mute, sullen behavior. He attempts to integrate Adrien back into society, with mixed results.

In only her second film the 37-year-old provocateur is a rising star in her own right. The fact that she manages to turn so many negatives into a small but notable positive takes serious talent. But let’s not get things more twisted than they already are. There are many aspects that help inform the off-kilter vibe she’s going for — the rattling, industrial score and disturbing make-up work loom large — but not one thing, not one person commands your attention like newcomer Agathe Rousselle, an androgynous actor who burns up the screen, leveraging her lack of A-lister conspicuousness into one of the most compelling characters and performances this year has to offer, one that’s hauntingly human-adjacent.

The Palme d’Or winner at Cannes 2021, Titane might be memorable for timing alone, winning in a year in which the pomp and glam returns to the French Riviera after the event’s first hiatus since World War II. But Ducournau has the bizarre content and undeniable confidence to justify the strong reaction. Titane isn’t a crowdpleaser, it’s a crowd shocker, designed to start a conversation or quite possibly end one.

Not quite Titanic

Moral of the Story: I stop short of saying best movie of the year because ‘best’ is such an awkward term to apply to something so uncompromising and unusual, a movie touting a very challenging character to root for, no less. So to be more accurate Titane sits comfortably among the most unique cinematic experiences you are going to have in 2021. For all that is bizarre and unpleasant, I put it in the category of must-see-to-believe (or not). A stunning effort from a name already making noise in the industry. Spoken in French with English subtitles. 

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “My name is Alexia!” 

Strap in and hold on for dear life in the Official Trailer from Neon Productions here!

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; www.chicago.suntimes.com

Earthquake Bird

Release: Friday, November 15, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Wash Westmoreland 

Directed by: Wash Westmoreland 

I spun the Netflix wheel on a Saturday night and landed on this thing called Earthquake Bird. Turns out, it was the caliber movie that rewards in kind the minimal effort I put in to finding it. This slow-burn of a psychosexual thriller has reliable commodities on both sides of the camera, with Wash Westmoreland, one half of the duo behind such well-received dramas as Quinceañera (2006), Still Alice (2015) and Colette (2018) directing and Oscar winner Alicia Vikander in the lead. Unfortunately the end result is nowhere near the sum of its talented parts.

Earthquake Bird is an adaptation of a 2001 novel of the same name by Susanna Jones. I haven’t read the book but it’s not hard to imagine it’s better, even just by browsing through a couple of critical blurbs. This desultory drama revolves around Vikander’s Lucy Fly, a Swedish expat living in Japan circa the late 1980s who gets swept up into a dangerous love triangle and is named a suspect in the disappearance of the other woman, a young American named Lily Bridges (Riley Keough). Written and directed by Westmoreland, the movie incorporates thriller, crime and “romance” elements but fails to make a good, frothy stew out of any of them.

It begins with Lucy being hauled away from her cubicle where she works as a translator — currently on subtitles for Ridley Scott’s 1989 thriller Black Rain (a cute little nod to him serving as producer here) — and to the police station where she vexes the authorities with her evasive answers and soon thereafter the audience with her complete lack of personality. You get these movies all the time where the narrator is an unreliable messenger, but Earthquake Bird steps it up a notch by providing an unreliable narrator in an unreliable framing device. What begins as a focused (if not harsh) police interrogation soon gives way to an ocean of flashback. Any sense of narrative structure or cohesion gets abandoned in favor of pure mood and atmosphere, qualities emphasized by Atticus Ross’ foreboding score.

Lucy traces her steps back to the day she met the mysterious and oh-so-handsome Teiji (Japanese dancer Naoki Kobayashi in his first English-language role), a noodle shop employee who hobbies, somewhat obsessively, as a photographer. His fascination with puddles is soon replaced by a fixation on her pretty visage in black-and-white. She becomes his muse, they enter into a relationship wherein honesty and openness are valued above all else. Physical intimacy is much lower on the list. Their dynamic carries the emotional conviction of a stapler. Yet there’s a symmetry between their worlds of quietude and isolation that makes them kindred spirits. There’s logic to them being together but no feeling in the togetherness.

Enter Lily, who wastes no time ingratiating herself in the lives of these two lovely-looking and lonely people. Thank goodness for Keough, who kicks the movie into a higher gear with her energetic presence. Her character is also more interesting. She’s introduced at first as a nice but needy new acquaintance, then a romantic foe and possibly even destroyer of worlds. Lucy is in a very delicate place, her life a constant shuffle as she seems always to be outrunning something. She has this weird relationship with death, the grim reaper always trailing her. Initially the tension between the two women isn’t purely adversarial; there’s something free and uninhibited about Lily that Lucy wants and also envies. When the trio embark on a weekend getaway to the scenic Sado Island, the sexual tension builds. A strange development further destabilizes an already awkward situation.

Ever since the Swedish dancer-turned-actor blew up on the scene in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina in 2015 I don’t think I’ve seen a performance of hers I haven’t liked. Lucy Fly isn’t exactly vintage Vikander but I blame more of my apathy towards her on the writing rather than the acting. This is a very restrained performance that’s more technically impressive than emotionally resonant — her Japanese, at least to my untrained ears, sounds perfect. Her thousand-mile stare is unsettling. Still I find it pretty terrible that her most interesting, defining trait is the black eye she carries around. And her backstory, when it’s finally barfed out in a much-delayed expositional sequence toward the very end, isn’t nearly as interesting as one hopes it would be for such a protracted build-up.

As if to remind us the title means something, periodic earthquakes rumble through the story in a kind of motif. In the immediate aftermath, a shrill birdsong alerts the town the coast is clear. It very well could be my brain shorting out but I didn’t find any relevance between this and the story at hand. Undoubtedly there’s some deeper metaphorical meaning behind it but the movie doesn’t do near enough to warrant the amount of effort it takes to decode that. Never mind its human Rubik’s cube of a leading lady.

“Tell me all your secrets, like, yesterday.”

Recommendation: What starts out as a kind of Lost in Translation meditation on loneliness and isolation (d)evolves into a run-of-the-mill, Girl on the Train-type murder plot that really doesn’t go anywhere. The characters, save for Riley Keough’s, are totally uninteresting and not worth the effort it takes to understand what drives them. That’s really disappointing when you’re talking about Alicia Vikander and the very interesting-looking Naoki Kobayashi. Le sigh. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: ““If every time I took a photo it took a piece of your soul, would you still let me?”

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

Photo credits: IMP Awards; Polygon 

Month in Review: October ’19

(Flicks a cockroach off keyboard) God! Leave me alone, Wounds!!!!

October was certainly bloody and gutsy. I made a conscientious effort to increase the posting frequency while keeping the reviews tailored to the genres of horror/psychological thriller/gross-out (is that a genre? It feels like it should be a genre.) It was a risky approach, because while I did find a film or two that were quite fun and things I would return to again, I certainly didn’t find any horror ‘classics’ through the avenues I chose — Hulu and Netflix. I’m tempted to join Vudu, though the fact it’s currently owned by Wal-Mart makes me wanna Shudder (rate that pun in the comments below). However, that might be changing.

There have also been a few additions to the site here, and I’ll draw attention to them below. Without further waffling, here’s what went down on Thomas J for the past month.


New Posts

Streaming: The Perfection; Wounds; Fractured; Little Monsters; In the Tall Grass; In the Shadow of the Moon

Alternative Content: 30 for 30: Rodman: For Better or Worse; Short, Sweet and Screamy: Huluween reviews


New Additions to the Blog

Given that this entire month featured nothing but streamed content, I decided to create a menu/page titled Reviews By Streaming Service. Hopefully this will be a more convenient way for readers to find those sorts of things, all in one place. It’s a work in progress so as of this posting I only have Hulu reviews accounted for. But look out for a LOT of Netflix reviews in there as well. Of course, you can always scroll through my Film Index for all titles.

On a less important note, if you’re ever browsing through the main page you might notice a few new banners have been added into the mix. I currently have 38 rotating banners, the likes of which I’m just going to guess most people haven’t noticed. I realize most of my traffic is here because of specific links, not so much to peruse my Main Page (and if you do — cheers to you!) If you’re curious, there’s at least 8 new ones added this past month, many of them instantly recognizable, big-time movies. Though I did make a conscientious effort to select scenes from them that are perhaps “less recognizable.”

I have also recently joined the Letterboxd community and have provided a link to my page on the right sidebar. Come see what’s going on there, and if you have an account, feel free to add me/let me know what your handle is so I can add you!


It’s not a horror film, but for Halloween this year I sat down with Dolemite is My Name — what a fantastic experience! 

The Perfection

Release: Friday, May 24, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Eric C. Charmelo; Nicole Snyder; Richard Shepard 

Directed by: Richard Shepard

Thanks to Twitter, The Perfection will be remembered more for its gross-out moments rather than what it’s actually about. The notorious Netflix horror/thriller certainly does get messy and intense, but it is more skin-crawling in terms of its thematic content. The outpouring of “I’m physically ill” tweets has you believing it’s a new Tom Six offering (of The Human Centipede infamy), when really this is closer in spirit to Kill Bill — only with cellists, meat cleavers and gorgeous dresses instead of assassins, katanas and yellow-and-black jumpsuits.

So, what is it about? The Perfection, directed by Richard Shepard and written by himself, Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, is essentially a revenge tale about two exceptionally gifted musicians who come to terms with what they have had to sacrifice for the perfect performance and embolden themselves to seek justice against those responsible for ruining their lives.

Charlotte Willmore (Allison Williams) was once a promising talent; in fact she was the very best cellist the Boston-based Bachoff academy had to offer. She withdrew from the program to take care of her terminally ill mother. After her passing Charlotte reconnects with the academy’s leader Anton (Steven Weber) in Shanghai to help him and his wife Paloma (Alaina Huffman) select a new student. There she meets Lizzie (Logan Browning), a prodigy who apparently “replaced” Charlotte, and two shooting stars collide. A night of passion begets a seemingly genuine friendship, with an insanely hungover Lizzie insisting Charlotte join her on a trip through rural China to clear her head.

(Here’s where Twitter goes berserk.)

The admittedly pretty unpleasant bus ride scene is where the writers really begin playing with the fabric of reality, where we learn something new (and again in seemingly every other scene henceforth) about the central dynamic binding Charlotte to Lizzie, and the two to Anton. Where the tango between admiration and jealousy begins. Where, depending on how critical you are of a moment or two of histrionic performance, you either lose your trust and/or interest in the narrative completely or dig into its sordid twists and turns with fervor. The dueling performances of Williams and Browning are the best things about The Perfection, though they’re not perfect.

Though that might be debatable in a psychological thriller that increasingly becomes about the message. As the hysteria leads to an impressive amount of body parts being sliced and diced Williams and Browning ratchet up the intensity to match the environment. Your sympathies are constantly — and compellingly — reconfigured on one side or the other. The subtext is of course less about the historical significance of music than it is about men controlling, dominating and abusing women, and their subjugation to if not irrelevance then Second Place (it is no coincidence — at least, I hope not — that the movie samples/references Mozart, Bach and Handel as opposed to Kassiani, Mendelssohn or Schumann).

In The Perfection a woman’s gotta go to some pretty gnarly extremes to break free of her literal shackles. This is not a subtle message movie, but given its timeliness perhaps we are well past the point of being subtle. However the stylistic flare is sometimes laid on too thick, particularly with the tape literally being rewound to update you on specific developments. Triumphing over the flaws is the intensity of the protagonists’ rage, specifically born out of the roiling, woke wake of serial sexual harassers Harvey Weinstein/Bill Cosby/Larry Nassar (anyone else I’m forgetting feel free to add — and curse as you see fit — in the comments below). For all of its narrative gimmickry and occasionally OTT acting, it would be me lying bald-faced to say the violent comeuppance isn’t perfectly satisfying.

Silence is golden.

Recommendation: So the hysteria surrounding the film itself proves to be, once again, ridiculously overblown. Yeah, it features some gross-out moments in the beginning but more so at the end but I wouldn’t say the aesthetic punishes without purpose. The Perfection is very entertaining, and disgustingly timely. 

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “I made a mistake.”

“Yes, you did.”

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 

Fractured

Release: Friday, October 11, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Alan B. McElroy

Directed by: Brad Anderson

There’s something inherently off-putting about hospitals and treatment centers. Anyone who has spent some time in them (not to mention contend with their bureaucratic ways) can attest to just how much stress they can bring out in a person. They might even be worse than airports in that regard.

These places inspire angst, distrust and even outright fear, elements apropos of a psychological thriller. To that end, maybe it’s not surprising a great many of these “it’s all in your head” movies set up shop in mental institutions and psychiatric wards. Nine years ago Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island brought us to the Alcatrazian equivalent of an asylum for the criminally insane. Just last year Steven Soderbergh provided a reality check as Claire Foy steadily unraveled in a mental care facility holding her against her will (check out my review of Unsane here). In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched, one of cinema’s all-time great villains, gave us one of the most legitimate reasons to fear the institution in a way that is, nearly 45 years later, still waiting to be challenged.

Brad Anderson’s psychological thriller Fractured can’t help but encourage a little déjà vu in terms of the way it messes with your head. It’s perception-skewing plot mechanics and unreliable protagonist aren’t things you haven’t seen in better/more expensive movies. Shutter Island is definitely invoked, but the plot this movie steals the most from is undoubtedly the 1938 Hitchcock classic The Lady Vanishes. However there are some nuances to this environment that help Fractured gain its own modest standing. For one, the super-sketchy way organ donations seem to be handled here at America’s most uncooperative hospital — a familiar place that increasingly feels like a madhouse based on the way everyone, including our everyman “hero,” seems to act. Plus it’s just cool to see the amiable English actor Sam Worthington in a lead role.

Fractured is born in an air of anxiety that makes you feel unnerved from the very beginning. The filmmakers manage to further intoxicate it with strange characters and mounting aggression. The Monroes are driving back home after a lousy Thanksgiving gathering. Stress levels are through the roof of their blue Ford Explorer. However many hours they’ve been on the road you can bet Ray (Worthington) and his wife Joanne (Lily Rabe) have been fighting for the duration. Ray, a former NASCAR driver and recovering alcoholic, is not the man his wife married — a shell of his former self. Their six-year-old daughter Peri (Lucy Capri) minds her own business in the backseat. Soon though she has to pee. And the batteries in her music player are dead. Ray pulls over at a suspect gas station in the middle of nowhere to kill two birds with one stone.

A pivotal event occurs there, an unfortunate accident bad enough for Peri to need immediate medical attention. Ray recalls passing a hospital not too far back and puts his experiences as a professional driver to good use. When they arrive at Kirkbride Hospital his good intentions are rebuffed by an unfriendly staff and an interminable sit in the waiting room. Ray is coming in a little hot with his need-to-know interrogations, yet something’s clearly off about this place. Unusual questions are being asked. Suspicious looking people are coming and going at the back door. A Dr. Berthram (played by prolific character actor Stephen Tobolowsky) insists on taking Peri to the Lower Level to be evaluated for head trauma even though it’s just a broken arm — you know, just to be safe. The family gets separated, as only one visitor is allowed at a time and Joanne goes with her.

When Ray awakens from a nap in the waiting room the drama goes to work in earnest. No one in the hospital has a recollection of Joanne or Peri, only that Ray checked himself in for a head injury. Shift rotations and front desk assistants unapologetically in dereliction of duty only compound the headache. As his behavior intensifies — there’s a really entertaining confrontation in that ominous elevator — Alan B. McElroy’s screenplay tosses into the mix local cops, overzealous security guards and psychologists, building a case against Ray that you, the surrogate couch detective, must either dismiss as a sophisticated conspiracy or embrace as the ugly truth.

Technically speaking this isn’t a flashy movie; the drab interiors and equally blue exteriors are exceptionally unexceptional. I’d argue that the elementary design to some degree works in the movie’s favor. The un-showy style keeps the focus on what matters most, and that’s the human element, the details regarding what’s really fracturing this man who would do anything for his family. Some creative editing allows the mystery to expand and deepen, even as the feeling of “Been here, done that” tugs at the back of your mind. This otherwise generic prescription for low-key horror is given its biggest shot of adrenaline thanks to Worthington’s performance, a convincing evocation of a man clearly dealing with more stress than he can bear.

He’s going down.

Recommendation: Fractured is a by-the-numbers thriller that gets by with a strong performance from Sam Worthington. Despite the number of weird developments that encourage us to draw our own conclusions throughout, ultimately it’s that final frame that will leave viewers talking. The sum totality of the experience isn’t what I would call a Netflix “original” (that feels like a misnomer) but there’s enough going on here to keep you involved from the comforts of your favorite recliner. Kick your feet up and bring your expectations down. 

Rated: TV-MA

Running Time: 99 mins.

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

Top That! My Ten Favorite Films of 2018 (plus something extra!)

So it has been at least a year since I came up with one of these, but there has never been a better time than now, after another Oscars has come and gone.

2018 was a slower year for me in terms of movie consumption and posting, with 32 reviews total, including two 30 for 30 sports docu’s — down from 57, including my Blind Spot series, the year prior. I still managed to see a pretty diverse range of movies, from the breathtakingly ambitious, big-budget spectacle to daringly original science fiction adventures; riveting directing débuts to established filmmakers continuing to hone their craft or in some cases making brave/contentious career moves. Let the record show that theatrical releases were heavily favored, with just two (!) reviews resulting from streaming/On Demand — yipes!

Before we break down my favorites, a few thoughts on this year’s Big Show (the “something extra!” from the post title — sorry if I got anyone overly excited). I did find a few things to cheer about, despite my general apathy towards the selections this time around (though I am relieved to know I have been far from the only one in that regard).

Tell me something boy . . . who did your tan?

I enjoyed the acceptance speeches by Best Actor/Actress winners Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody) — this before he apparently fell off the stage — and Olivia Colman (The Favourite). They were extemporaneous and maintained an air of genuine surprise and appreciation. Personally, I would have gone with Bradley Cooper and Melissa McCarthy, but I never did see the Queen biopic and I can’t really disagree with Colman winning either. She killed it in The Favourite

Spike Lee winning for Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman was satisfying and appropriately applauded. It isn’t as prestigious as Best Picture but that is a long overdue win in a still significant category for a guy who has been snubbed as much as anyone by the Academy. I could have done without his thoroughly awkward acceptance speech, though. I’m not sure if that was poor penmanship he was combating or what.

I find it funny and kind of ironic that the once-near-reclusive Alex Honnold is now the star of an Oscar-winning movie. Yes, it’s a documentary but Free Solo took home the trophy! 

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s live rendition of their embarrassingly obvious winning number (Original Song — Shallow) was arguably better than the version in the movie. I admit to not being a big Lady Gaga fan but this song is pretty great, and, not to keep beating a dead horse here, so is Brad Cooper’s voice. 

Poor Julia Roberts getting caught in that awkward position of being the last presenter at an awards show where there is no host to make closing remarks — however redundant those are. I missed the first half hour of the show but of what I saw this was the only time the absence of some kind of unifying thread was really felt. “Well, it looks like this is the end of the show!” Provocative. Profound. Poetic. Always good to end on a strong note. 


Speaking of ending on a strong note, as promised, here are the ten movies I enjoyed the most in all of 2018. 

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a six-part western anthology film soaked in the Coen aesthetic. Its narrative style offers up a variety of experiences that range in tone from silly and farcical to achingly romantic to macabre. And therein lies its greatest strength. If one part doesn’t quite grab you, you won’t have to wait another year or two for something better; sit tight for 10 to 20 minutes and you might find yourself more at home. No two stories feature the same characters and each present unique conflicts. Each have their own charms and quirks. It isn’t among the Coens’ most thematically daring or memorable but I am having a hard time not calling it one of my favorites. Review here.

Talk about a movie that doesn’t let you sleep well afterwards. A stunning first effort from Ari Aster, Hereditary offers a challenging story rife with disturbing imagery and over the course of two very stressful hours it plunges headfirst into a deeply personal exploration of grief and what the grieving process can do to us. Sure, mourning can be channeled into positive, healthy activities; grieving can actually strengthen bonds on an emotional level. But it just as easily can rip relationships apart and alter perception in some rather profound ways. As a bona fide horror film, Hereditary takes us down a road where the pain of a loss becomes utterly overwhelming. Aster’s shocking vision is brought to life by a committed cast (led by a spectacular Toni Collette) who do a heartbreakingly good job reminding us that when death hits home, nothing can ever be the same again.

Five barks out of five for this predictably charming stop-motion animated film from Wes Anderson. The presentation style is actually a rarity for the King of Quirk (this is his second animated movie following 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox) but the storyboarding is familiar — the only real complaint I had with Isle of Dogs. This is essentially a lost-until-found retread of Moonrise Kingdom but with canines being ostracized from society instead of precocious pre-teens deliberately running away from it. But familiarity doesn’t really hold the film back from being a genuinely enjoyable adventure from minute one. Voice work is provided by several Anderson regulars plus a few inspired newcomers in Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Greta Gerwig and . . . what’s this, Yoko Ono? Review here

Fans of The Office‘s Jim Halpert always suspected the actor who played him of having strong, wholesome family values — but I doubt any of us realized that man, John Krasinski, had a knack for scaring audiences too. His third directing gig finds him in completely different waters, not just from the TV role that made him famous but as well his previous directing efforts, comedy-dramas Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2009) and The Hollars (2016). The story fixates on a family trying to survive a post-apocalyptic world overrun by creatures that hunt not by sight but by sound. A Quiet Place was simply robbed of a Sound Editing Oscar this year — no offense to the guys behind Bohemian Rhapsody — because while the well-crafted characters and deft performances help us emotionally connect, it’s the brilliant use of sound and just as often its absence that creates and sustains an almost unbearable atmosphere of dread and uncertainty. You could cut the tension with a knife in the screening I attended. A Quiet Place is an example of an experiment in visual/aural relationships that never becomes a gimmick. Review here.

I had my reservations about Free Solo, because I wasn’t sure how the inner workings of someone as athletically elite and boundary-pushing as Alex Honnold could be translated into something understandable or identifiable by a broad audience. Quite honestly I didn’t expect much in the way of humanity or humility from a climbing documentary. I did anticipate some great scenery, based on Jimmy Chin’s accolades as a world-renowned climbing photographer. I assumed because of who the subject is — a dirt-bagger who has made a living climbing more often than not without protective gear — the film wouldn’t be able to find a responsible angle when it came to presenting his climbing/life philosophies. Then I saw the movie. The best thing about this documentary for me was not the obvious. It wasn’t the spine-tingling, vertigo-inducing cinematography that suspends us above the Valley floor for excruciating minutes at a time, it wasn’t the calculus of filming certain crux moves or capturing the flow of any given pitch on the big wall without being a distraction to the climber. Instead it was the very unexpected way Honnold invites us into his headspace — the most holy of places for a free soloist — and shares with us revelations that feel like they are being shared for the first time. Review here

Finally, a vehicle to showcase Melissa McCarthy’s under-appreciated range as an actress and comedienne. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is decidedly more drama than comedy, yet as despairing as life is presented here — not to mention the character herself — there is always a misanthropic chuckle to be found in this wonderfully acted, sympathetically directed film about an author who turns to forging literary items as a way to make ends meet. Lee Israel was once a famous writer but she became even more infamous for stealing letters written by deceased playwrights and other writers and passing them off as her own, even embellishing them to increase their value. The mischievous comedy becomes more pronounced when we get introduced to her old drinking buddy Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who gets swept up in the misdeeds because, well, he’s a bit of a miscreant himself. A deeply human story and McCarthy’s ability to win me over made this one of the biggest surprises of the year. Review here

Three Identical Strangers really sent my head for a spin. It’s the remarkable true story of three brothers who meet for the first time in their late teens/early twenties. It turns out to be an emotional rollercoaster, with director Tim Wardle able to package a wealth of material into a fairly streamlined, three-act narrative with some inspiring highs and gut-wrenching lows as we learn about the true nature of their family history and the circumstances of their births. As I wrote in my review: “There is a reason he considers the triplets the ‘single greatest story’ he has ever come across. The structure of the film is critical. The upswing in the first half has a power only matched by the crushing revelations of the second.” Review here

A Star is Born is a classic heartbreaker for a new generation. Bradley Cooper proves himself ever more the leading man (and a singer to boot!) while co-star Lady Gaga is an even bigger revelation, turning in a nuanced performance that also tells us something about her real-life experiences rising up the charts as a pop superstar. This may be the fourth time a star has been born but there is an undeniable emotional vulnerability to Cooper’s version, a rawness both in the character work and the creative process as it is depicted throughout the film. A familiar tale where confident execution makes a world of difference. I loved this movie. Review here.

Whether this is the epitome of what comic book movies should feel like and be about is something that can be debated until the cows come home. For this outsider, Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse is just one of the most consistently enjoyable and immersive experiences I had in all of 2018 and it is my favorite of all the Spider-man movies that have been featured on the big screen. For me it offered the perfect escape, all major elements present and accounted for: a fun story, spectacular visuals (really, I could have written a piece just on that alone), interesting characters (I’m still not sure who my favorite was, Spider Gwen, Ham or Noir), rich emotion, exciting action, and music that was both modern and not objectionable, with Post Malone’s Sunflower instantly becoming one of my go-to tracks whenever I sit down to write. Review here

Alex Garland’s new film is the epitome of what makes science fiction one of my favorite genres. I can never get enough of the kind of imaginative, big-idea storytelling science fiction often invites (Interstellar; 2001: A Space Odyssey) and especially movies that challenge us to think about what we are being shown. Some people don’t like putting in effort to understand a movie and I can appreciate that perspective. If that describes you Annihilation is 100% not a movie for you. From the talented writer/director of 2014’s Ex Machina, and the writer of 28 Days Later comes a truly original story (okay, so it’s technically an adaptation/condensing of a series of novels by Jeff VanderMeer) about a group of female military scientists who enter a quarantined area of marshland to investigate its origins and to get possible answers as to what happened to all the other previous missions who went in but never returned. When they enter, a series of strange events occur that transform both their mission and their bodies. Of all the things that can’t be forgotten about this movie — strong character work, some bizarre and often indescribable imagery — it is the atmosphere in which the mystery sits and stews that really makes a lasting impression. Annihilation is the reason why I love not only going to the movies, but writing about my experiences with them as well. Review here.


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Photo credits: http://www.time.com; http://www.hollywoodreporter.com; http://www.indiewire.com; http://www.slashfilm.com; http://www.variety.com; http://www.slashfilm.com; http://www.socialnews.xyz; http://www.irishtimes.com; http://www.themarysue.com; http://www.electricliterature.com

Unsane

Release: Friday, March 23, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Jonathan Bernstein; James Greer

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh is to date the most recognizable filmmaker to have publicly touted the virtues of making movies using your own smartphone. We aren’t talking Instagram videos of course, but full-length feature films. In this case, a gritty horror film about a young woman who can’t get away from her stalker. The director behind popular, lavish productions like Ocean’s Eleven and Traffic has now come to embrace the increasingly popular backpack-style approach to filmmaking as a means of avoiding unwanted financial headaches and focusing upon that which matters most — the actual making of the film.

Unsane was filmed entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus. Unfortunately the final product ends up being an indictment on that particular choice of tech. Much like our possibly mentally unstable protagonist, the film simply does not look well. The color scheme is pallid, almost sick-making in light-starved environments and the claustrophobic spaces into which we are forced do nothing but bring attention to the inferiority of smartphone cameras. I’m no expert on photography or cinematography, but as I understand it the iPhone does not give the user the option to adjust aperture (the hole in a camera lens that determines how much light will be let in) and Unsane‘s ugly aesthetic attests to these limitations. The story itself is not all that engrossing, but the entire enterprise suffers on a technical level to the point where the low overhead becomes very difficult to ignore, much less defend.

Unlike Sean Baker, who found great success in his 2015 street drama Tangerine, interestingly among the first few feature films to dabble in Apple, Soderbergh’s implementation tends to draw attention to style and like the worst of found-footage (which this film mercifully isn’t), ends up more as a gimmick than the product of creative budgeting. That’s an issue made more apparent by the fact that Unsane doesn’t move us the way it should, particularly in post-Harvey Weinstein Hollywood. The performances are strong, especially that of star Claire Foy, but Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s screenplay doesn’t develop into much more than a fairly standard psychological horror in which the viewer’s perception of reality is constantly being challenged. Only, it isn’t constant. In Unsane, we are only for a brief moment unsure whether to trust the ‘hero’ or the needle-wielding orderlies against which she constantly rebels.

The British actress plays a driven businesswoman named Sawyer Valentini. The promise of a new, less complicated life awaits her in a new city, some 400 miles away from her hometown, her mother (Amy Irving) and her ridiculously maladjusted man-child of an ex, one David Strine (Joshua Leonard). But when one of her first attempts to truly move on turns south thanks to unwanted and repressed memories rising up at a most inopportune moment, Sawyer finds herself turning to a local mental health facility for answers. During the course of a promising discussion with one of the experts, Sawyer confesses she has contemplated suicide in her past. The next moment she is being admitted as a patient, apparently against her will. Her privileges and personal items are quickly forfeited at the door to some decidedly unsympathetic staff.

Unsane starts strong, but the disorienting effect created by a series of personal invasions quickly disintegrates like a pill in water. Chalk that up to how impatient Soderbergh is in steering the film to its bloody and predictable conclusion. The best part of the film is simply getting settled in at this really creepy, depressing joint. A 24-hour watch becomes a weeklong stint as Sawyer’s aggressive self-defense mechanisms are used against her as proof of her instability. In that time she meets a few of the patients, many of them wretches, like Juno Temple’s Violet. But then there is also Nate (Jay Pharaoh), who appears to be the only person willing to listen. More importantly, she also begins experiencing what may or may not be hallucinations of her ex, which sends her into more apoplectic fits that in turn send her into solitary confinement.

Sawyer’s descent is undoubtedly disturbing, even difficult to watch at times for reasons beyond the fact it is literally difficult to see what’s going on. The film touches on certain disconcerting realities of the social media age in that invisibility and anonymity are precious commodities, especially when you are the target of a stalker. (And not to keep pouring it on, but I really wish this dynamic wasn’t introduced by a needlessly distracting cameo.) Foy is a force to be reckoned with in her character’s darkest moments — and I hope this is what we are witnessing; I don’t know how it gets any darker than what goes down in the rubber room. And the fact she isn’t an entirely sympathetic individual gives Unsane more of an edge. There is such a lack of comfort everywhere you turn.

Indeed, those anticipating a Soderbergian take on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or even Shutter Island would be better off re-watching those films and just imagining what they would be like with someone else at the helm. In fact they would be even better served going back to Side Effects, a film that spun a similar tale of corrupt institutions in cahoots with special interest groups — another in which we couldn’t ever be sure who was telling the truth. That film may have been convoluted and ultimately confusing, but given that both films deal in issues of mental health and the real-life nightmares pharmaceutical companies often induce, Unsane gives us the ability to compare. And it is the weaker film, even ignoring Soderbergh’s attempt to thematically merge grainy footage with his character’s fraying mentality.

And in case you want to know, I have a Samsung Galaxy S7. And I love the way it makes me feel like a pro when I take pictures.

Recommendation: Familiar B-horror filtered through a rather off-putting visual aesthetic makes for an iffy recommendation. If you support everything Steven Soderbergh has ever done there is a great chance you’ll like this more than me. I’m not subscribed to the thought he is a particularly original filmmaker, and that may have hurt me here. With all my issues with the way the film appears, it is still impressive what these guys are able to do in 10 days with a phone on what basically amounts to a selfie stick. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 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

Stronger

Release: Friday, September 29, 2017

→Theater

Written by: John Pollono

Directed by: David Gordon Green

David Gordon Green’s tribute to one of the survivors of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing is a cathartic experience. Though it treats its subject with respect and dignity, the film holds nothing back in its depiction of a life suddenly and violently interrupted. Technically, Peter Berg beat Green to the punch by breaking cinematic ground on the event with his Patriots Day late last year, but it’s the latter whose film leaves the more lasting impression.

Stronger manifests as the cinematic memoir of Jeff Bauman (played by a mop-haired Jake Gyllenhaal), based upon his written account which was published on the one-year anniversary of the bombing. As such, Green is given the freedom to tell the story like it is. His direction remains sensitive but above all committed to telling the blunt honest truth. As the movie ratchets down into an intensely personal journey that brings audiences through a turbulent period in a young man’s life, it also poses some difficult questions about what it means and how it feels to be considered a real-world hero.

As we come to appreciate, surviving trauma is just the first step. Moving on is like learning to walk again — and in some cases, it literally is learning to walk again. The best of Stronger, much like Patriots Day, unfolds in the aftermath rather than in the anticipated verisimilitude of the carnage that turned sidewalks into MASH units (though there’s much less ‘action’ in the former than the latter). The crux of the drama revolves around attitude and how it shapes one’s perception of reality. Bauman became an overnight hero to the people of greater Boston when information he provided helped the FBI bring one of the two Tsarnaev brothers to justice. His detailed description of the man he saw near the finishing line came only hours after waking from surgery which required the amputation of both his legs above the knee.

Bauman’s journey to find his best self necessarily means having to endure his worst. The film doesn’t try to pretend the hero always does heroic things, and that kind of honesty tends to move you, and not to the concessions stand either. But the story wouldn’t be as effective without performances to carry the weight or the bravery to tell that truth. Gyllenhaal‘s trademark commitment to the craft makes so many of the images down the road to both physical and mental recovery simply unforgettable. This could be career best work (from an actor I keep saying this could be career-best work from, every time I see him in a movie).

But really, I mean it this time. Maybe.

As Bauman, he’s a potential front-runner for MVP of the early Oscar season — once an ordinary Bostonian, a humble deli-counter worker at Cahstco who, like so many in this great American hahbah town, prioritizes his Red Sox over everything, especially his actual socks and even Sunday service. The character may be less flagrantly strange than many of his fans are accustomed to the actor portraying, but that doesn’t stop Gyllenhaal from throwing himself headlong into the role. His Zest for Life Meter is 100% into the green when we first meet him, an upbeat and outgoing young man who enjoys social commitments, even though he’s not so much of a fan of the capital-C commitments life often requires.

Just ask Erin (Tatiana Maslany), his many-times-before ex-girlfriend whom we meet at the bahh early on, to which Jeff defects early from work to catch a game. There we witness a demonstration of his gregariousness, as he convinces the entire room to donate to the cause for which Erin will soon be running in the upcoming race. But if clothes really do make the man, his natty attire says at least something about where he is in life. He vows to start changing his priorities by showing up at the finishing line and cheering on Erin the next day, though Erin will only believe it when she sees it.

The cruel twist of fate that intervenes reestablishes personal connections in ways that are both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Family comes together, but more often than not it’s in a physical, bodies-filling-the-room sense. The pros and cons of instant celebrity are meanwhile examined as Bauman’s right to privacy vanishes in the same overnight period. The sacrifice comes largely at the behest of his opportunistic mother, who increasingly embraces the spotlight on behalf of her son. Ma’s portrayed by Miranda Richardson in a performance that rivals both Maslany and Gyllenhaal in terms of intensity and emotional complexity. She rounds out the trio of most compelling performances, but support also comes from Clancy Brown as an emotionally distraught father overwhelmed both by what has happened to his son and what is going on with the Red Sox at the time (that season they’d go on to win the World Series, FYI).

The thing about the Jake Gyllenhaal Effect is that it makes neglecting other meaningful contributions too easy. A rising Canadian actress, Maslany turns in a performance that truly stands toe-to-toe with her male counterpart. She’s to Gyllenhaal what Felicity Jones was to Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Her portrayal dives well below the surface of what is flattering and pretty; her version of Erin comes equipped with her own set of ambitions, fears and flaws. As we watch a relationship once again sour, we’re offered a window into the past. We learn that sometimes emotional healing is more challenging than the physical. The neglect Erin suffers is proof positive that moving on is one process that does not occur overnight.

It’s also a reminder of the devastating, pervasive and often long-lasting effects psychological ailments like PTSD can have, and not just on the person directly suffering from them. Screenwriter and playwright John Pollono reinforces the message by including a scene that honors the good samaritan who ultimately saved Bauman’s life on that fateful day, whose efforts were captured in a now iconic photo — one of the triggers for millions to become emotionally invested in Bauman’s recovery. Though the man was presented on news networks as ‘Carlos,’ the guy in the cowboy hat, he appears in the movie as a beacon of hope — a broken man whose life story is something Bauman needs to hear.

Even if listening doesn’t change his day, much less his outlook on life, the simple act of listening is what is crucial. It’s a big step forward in trying to understand what it means to be “Boston Strong,” and nowhere is this evolution better illustrated than in the contrast drawn between Bauman’s two public appearances. His first, at the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals, is presented as a claustrophobic confrontation that does nothing other than provide shell-shock. At this point in time he’s unable to hear what’s being screamed at him. By the time he’s throwing out the first pitch for the Sox’s 2014 home opener — and maybe it’s something about the cool spring air — something has changed, something beyond the rich cinematic textures. Something pretty profound.

Turns out the hero doesn’t need a cape. A simple thumbs-up has the same effect.

Recommendation: Arguably career-best work from Jake Gyllenhaal makes Stronger the movie about the Boston Marathon bombing you need to see. Both this and Berg’s films are worthy of your time, but because of the intensely committed performances it is Stronger that becomes the more impactful, more enlightening experience. I love a good story about a modern-day, real-life hero and this is one of the best we’ve had lately. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

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

It Comes at Night

Release: Friday, June 9, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Trey Edward Shults

Directed by: Trey Edward Shults

Trey Edward Shults’ sophomore feature It Comes at Night is a psychological horror film that traps the audience along with two families in an abandoned house in the woods that, over the course of a slow-burning 90 minutes, turns into a cauldron of fear, mistrust and paranoia as they try to survive an unnatural threat that is terrorizing the world.

In his 2014 debut, the critically-acclaimed comedy-drama Krisha, Shults kept things in the family by casting several of his own relatives, including his aunt in the lead. It was an inspired decision that rewarded Shults with both the Grand Jury and Audience Award at the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival and plenty of post-festival buzz. His preoccupation with the family dynamic continues here, with the story centered firmly around a patriarch, Paul, played by Joel Edgerton, who must negotiate a tricky situation when he, his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) are discovered by another survivor.

In 2017, Shults is keeping things brutally real. It Comes at Night is a punishing, indie-esque horror/thriller hybrid that proves to err is indeed human, except during the apocalypse, where it becomes pretty much fatal. The story remains a simple and grim portrait of survivalism. Shults spares not one second in establishing a tone of solemnity as the movie opens with the euthanasia of an older family member who seems to be in the final stages of something awful. Gone are the days of hospice care; now when they get sick we simply dump our loved ones in a shallow grave and light them on fire. Forced to take part in these unpleasantries, Travis starts to have recurring nightmares.

Preexisting tensions get ratcheted up another notch when a young man named Will (Christopher Abbott) stumbles upon their remote outpost. While being interrogated by Paul, having spent the night gagged and bound to a tree, he explains he has come looking for water, that he didn’t know the house was occupied, and that he’s legitimately desperate. After some thoughtful beard-stroking Paul decides that at the very least, the newcomer doesn’t seem sick. He will travel with Will to trade for supplies as Will claims to have an abundance of food. Sarah suggests they bring Will’s wife and child back with them so they can increase their security against any future break-ins. (Plus, you know, it’d be nice having company around other than the Grim Reaper.)

Details of what caused the catastrophe remain sparse throughout the film. We don’t even know much about what it is that ails us, other than it’s contracted through physical contact. And that it’s bad. Really bad. There’s something distressing about the unknown and Shults exploits that fear to extreme effect, accumulating all of the film’s miseries and supposed lesson-learning into one spectacularly devastating finale from which you will need days to recover. It’s an admonishment for our predictable behavior, for when we, even in the most desperate of situations, just can’t help but try to fuck each other over. The nihilism on display is both tragic and refreshingly honest.

Recommendation: To be perfectly blunt: if steamy sex scenes as rewards for characters who have endured the impossible are what you seek from your movies, you’re standing in the wrong line. But for those who appreciate horror that doesn’t condescend or stoop to the lowest common denominator, and that is harsh as all hell, they’ll find much to latch onto with this beast. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 91 mins.

Quoted: “If they’re sick, then I am too.” 

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

They Look Like People

tllp-movie-poster

Release: Friday, February 26, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Perry Blackshear

Directed by: Perry Blackshear

They Look Like People is the debut feature from Perry Blackshear, a quietly unassuming hybrid of horror and psychological thriller elements built on a shoestring budget. The film, which revolves around a young man who has visions of an impending apocalyptic event, premiered at the 2015 Slamdance Film Festival where it won the Special Jury Prize.*

Paranoia-induced tension is channeled through the film’s impressive use of limited, urban environments and largely unaffected craftsmanship. Absent are a great many genre tropes in favor of a more natural approach, an approach that slowly brings humanity to the fore rather than special effects and other forms of trickery. Jump-scares and caterwauling violins have no place here.

In his second feature Macleod Andrews plays mentally disturbed Wyatt, who manages to track down an old friend in Christian (Evan Dumouchel) while passing through New York City. When Christian offers for Wyatt to stay with him for a few days he bears witness to his friend’s increasingly strange behavior resulting from a steadfast belief that everyone around him is being infected by a sinister, possibly alien entity.

Christian spends his time engaging in more mundane activities, like working up the courage to ask out his boss (Margaret Ying Drake), motivating himself by listening to self-help tapes on his morning commute, and working on his physique. The dude-stuff is apparently him turning over a new leaf. This is a new Christian, he tells Wyatt over a game of hoops. In response Wyatt asks if “anything scary has happened to him,” as if evaluating how much change he’s willing to accept in his longtime friend before starting to worry about, well . . .

They Look Like People isn’t a consistently compelling package and obvious limited funding has an adverse effect on the film’s ability to convince us it knows what it’s doing at all times, but the leads are really quite likable and their rapport is authentic and enjoyable. While the ending leaves something to be desired, Blackshear’s vision proves a satisfactory treatise on the nature of friendship and how that fundamental bond cannot be broken in spite of changes, both subtle and significant, perceived or real.

* The film went on to receive limited distribution in America in February 2016, thereby making it eligible for review on this blog, wherE ANYTHING RELEASED within a year to the date is fair game.

macleod-andrews-in-they-look-like-people

3-0Recommendation: Quiet, subtly disturbing indie horror/thriller boasts some spooky scenes and a great atmosphere. For fans expecting a lot of ‘stuff’ to happen though, They Look Like People may prove disappointing. But there’s enough here for me to say I’m excited to see what Perry Blackshear does next. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 80 mins.

Quoted: “You are a mountain. You are a hundred miles high. You are invincible. You are forever.”

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

Photo credits: http://www.usa.nownetflix.com; http://www.theylooklikepeople.com