Annihilation

Release: Friday, February 23, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Alex Garland

Directed by: Alex Garland

Annihilation is the reason for many things. It is the reason why science fiction is my cinematic genre of choice — there is something thrilling about breaking the rules and getting away with it, and here is a world in which the laws of nature really don’t apply. It is the reason why in British director Alex Garland I trust, blindly, from here on out.* But Annihilation is as much a disturbing spectacle as it is a confounding one, and so it is also the reason why I’ve been having such strange dreams lately.

Nightmares. They’re called nightmares.

Annihilation‘s poor box office performance is the reason why it won’t hang out in theaters for long, and why it will be making its international debut on Netflix after America is through with it. It wasn’t as though 2016 was anything to shout about for Paramount, but apparently this past year found the American distributor for Garland’s latest cerebral test piece, an adaptation of the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, enduring one of its worst financial years on record. In attempting to avoid yet another financial face-palmer, Paramount decided to restrict Annihilation‘s theatrical run, electing for the old ‘(in)direct-to-streaming’ method to help soften the blow in international markets.

The financial realities facing movies often have no place in my reviews — I find it boring if not depressing to bring up numbers and statistics, and I’m sure I’ve already lost people here — but I feel an obligation to come to the defense of producer Scott Rudin, who said damn the torpedoes and pushed through Garland’s original vision for the film, despite fears from Paramount over Annihilation posing too much of an intellectual challenge for the general moviegoing public. Rudin did this in the face of Paramount’s competitors making money hand-over-fist with Star Wars and Star Wars spinoffs.

Predictably, the studio’s gamble has been rewarded with a net loss worth tens of millions. As much as we I like to be bombastic in my chastising of those same people for trotting out nine hundred Michael Bay movies a summer, they are inevitably not going to receive anywhere near the credit they deserve for taking a financial risk on something a little out of the ordinary. And Annihilation is way, way, way out in left field. You won’t see anything else like it this year.

The story, as it were, focuses on an all-female expedition into the depths of the unknown — it’s The Descent, but instead of spelunking into hell we’re just going to walk there, armed only with assault rifles and PhDs in various applicable fields of study. Natalie Portman‘s Lena, a professor of cellular biology at Johns Hopkins University who has also served seven years in the Army, is recruited into a team led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist, and comprised of paramedics (Gina Rodriguez), physicists (Tessa Thompson) and geologists (Tuva Novotny). Their mission, like all the ones before that have failed, is to find the source of ‘The Shimmer,’ an iridescent bubble that has been slowly encroaching over the marshlands near the American coast after a strange atmospheric phenomenon. They must breach the bubble and prevent it from spreading further, ideally before Wonderland subsumes Manhattan.

Unlike with Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole, however, almost everything inside The Shimmer has the potential to mutilate and eviscerate and — he’s going to say it, isn’t he? — annihilate. The Shimmer is a place where all living things have taken on the DNA of other living things. Genetic mutation has rendered the flora as beautiful as the fauna is terrifying. But the bizarreness doesn’t stop there. Humans trespassing into the unknown themselves begin suffering horrifying transformations, and we know that the last expedition that came here — which involved someone near and dear to Lena’s heart — certifiably went insane. (Anyone else unable to get that footage from the camcorder out of their head?)

The Briton, first a novelist, then a screenwriter and now a director, is one of those storytellers that recognizes that the brain is a muscle and that, like all muscles, it needs to be flexed. This has already been proven true in his directorial debut, a secret-lab-experiment-gone-awry in Ex Machina — a film that took a very scientific approach to proving differences between man and machine. Though far from being the first to broach the subject, Garland fleshed out his drama through nuanced explorations of the human psyche, relying upon established scientific techniques like the Turing Test — a method for measuring a computer’s intelligence and awareness. In the process he created a journey that was both profoundly relatable and distressing.

The best of Annihilation, the spectacular ascension (or descent, if you prefer) into the abstract in the third movement — aptly titled “The Lighthouse” — similarly plays upon the deepest recesses of the mind, opening the floodgates for extrapolation and interpretation. What has created The Shimmer also seems to have exposed the fragility and vulnerability of man — refreshingly represented here by a group of steely-nerved women — in the face of something much bigger, more intelligent, and, unlike in Ex Machina, something entirely unfamiliar. Those climactic moments — wherein Jennifer Jason Leigh vomits a bunch of light in a cave and Natalie Portman dances with a weird duplicate of herself as produced by that same Vomit Light — collectively represent the epitome of why science fiction cinema has such a hold on me.

Annihilation is the reason why I love not only going to the movies, but writing about my experiences with them as well. I felt transformed by this.

* Maybe . . .

Recommendation: A cerebral puzzle left to be deciphered by lovers of smart science fiction/fantasy, Annihilation is what happens when The Thing is cross-bred with the DNA of Predator and The Descent. If you were hooked by Alex Garland’s first directorial outing, get a ticket to this one. In my opinion he has avoided the sophomore slump by producing one of the most exciting and surprising movies of the year. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Can you describe its form?”

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

Life

Release: Friday, March 24, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Rhett Reese; Paul Wernick

Directed by: Daniel Espinosa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

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

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

Before the Flood

before-the-flood-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 21, 2016 (limited)

[YouTube]

Written by: Mark Monroe

Directed by: Fisher Stevens

Oscar-winning documentarian Fisher Stevens won’t change the world with his ambitious but overly familiar and ultimately underwhelming examination of man’s impact on the global environment, but his efforts aren’t completely in vain. Before the Flood uses the immense popularity of bonafide Hollywood A-lister Leonardo DiCaprio to raise its profile as the actor embarks on a three-year mission around the globe to educate himself on the most pressing environmental concerns of our time.

The central thesis is familiar but nonetheless significant, one that’s fundamentally concerned with man’s over-reliance on unsustainable sources of energy such as fossil fuels, a pattern that has for years now been linked to rising global temperatures, rising sea levels and the destruction of the natural world. In pursuit of causality Before the Flood, executive produced by DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese among others, stresses the interconnectivity of our global ecosystem, the politicking that goes into climate change denial (not everyone wants to believe 8 billion people can have such a profound impact on one planet) and how various parts of the world are often left to clean up the messes created by others.

In the process of touring through many devastating sites DiCaprio narrates his experiences via a somber, if not overly pessimistic voiceover. He explains how Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights‘ served as a creative inspiration for the film’s thematic explorations. This stunningly ornate triptych traces the evolution of humanity as it depicts man’s origin in the idyllic Garden of Eden in the first frame, merging into a colorful display of excess, celebration and blissful ignorance in the second before eventually transitioning into a frightening scene filled with death, destruction and suffering in the shocking third panel. DiCaprio elaborates, explaining how man’s current state places us firmly in the center panel and ruminating on how long it might be before we find ourselves entering the third.

What’s most impressive about the film is watching one of the world’s most established thespians mute himself enough so that he is firmly a part of the picture. In other words, while his celebrity status undoubtedly will draw in viewers who might not necessarily watch this sort of thing, his ego is nowhere to be found. DiCaprio is extremely humbled by what he finds, and more than humbled he is legitimately bothered. His perturbation comes across genuine, if not in his pursed-lip/silent nod reactions to what he witnesses in Canada, Indonesia, Greenland and India (among other locales) then in the amount of questions that pour out of him along the way. Some may find his lack of knowledge a barrier but if anything his acknowledgment of that very ignorance opens the film up considerably.

And yeah, you can probably accuse DiCaprio of hypocrisy if you really wanted to. If you’re looking for some way to make his involvement more about Hollywood than the environment, you might note the irony in DiCaprio likely making another film in the coming year(s), in him traveling around in luxury cars and luxury private jets and being involved in an industry that creates a massive ecological footprint, be it the electricity consumed to light sets or the amount of material required to make scenes believable. It’s also not entirely unreasonable to suggest that if the actor truly wants to make a difference, he might have to consider a hiatus from acting, permanently, in order to fully pursue efforts to fix things. And given everything he says in Before the Flood, it seems like Leo really wants to get his hands dirty (in a good way).

DiCaprio’s position in the entertainment industry enables him to speak with some of the most prominent environmental activists and climate-conscious politicians — Senator John Kerry is interviewed and there’s a brief Al Gore sighting. Aside from these figures, he speaks briefly with President Obama and one of the film’s highlights surfaces in a candid chat with Indian environmentalist Dr. Sunita Narain — where he’s met with compelling resistance as Narain argues that meeting the most basic demands of India’s bulging population is a concern that supersedes the need to find alternate sources of energy. He also interviews scientists and specialists who each share their unique perspectives, almost all of which confirm the notion that humanity is indeed reaching a critical point where it needs to learn how to adapt or the damage done will likely be irreversible. With a rapidly swelling global population these concerns are only going to become more challenging in the years and decades to come, and so the urgency of addressing and finding solutions to them in the here and now naturally becomes a big stressor . . . lest we face the reality of regaling our grandchildren about how Alaska used to be covered in cerulean yet crystal-clear icebergs.

Circling back to the contradiction of seeing a major film star touting environmental awareness: Before the Flood is most compelling when we are taken behind the scenes of Leo’s most recent (and Oscar-winning) film, The Revenant, which, aside from presenting one of the most visceral and singular cinematic experiences in recent memory, focused on the impact early settlers had on their surroundings: poachers destroying everything in their path on their journey to make ends meet; settlers slashing-and-burning forest. That shoot was infamously challenging but for reasons other than the obvious. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and crew were forced to relocate hemispheres — from the Canadian Rockies to the Andes in Argentina — in search of snow when they experienced unseasonably high temperatures in the north. Listening in on these conversations gives an entirely fresh and direct perspective.

If that’s not convincing enough, perhaps the fact that Indian farmers watched their crops washed away, leaving dozens of families — children — starving after they received their entire annual rainfall over the course of a day will sober you up. Or that entire, neighborhood-sized chunks of ice in the Arctic Circle are melting faster than you can measure them. Rising global temperatures and the rapid shrinking of the polar caps continue to strain Inuit fishermen’s livelihood as they hunt bears, a population that has been dwindling in response to changing conditions. There are other examples as well, but these are among the most undeniable, the most disturbing.

DiCaprio is a great mascot but ultimately the production he’s passionately become involved in doesn’t give us much in the way of revelation. Fisher likes to dwell on the gloom-and-doom talk seemingly more than he wants to find solutions and the solemnity eventually becomes off-putting. The numbers and statistics and graphics that accompany the vast sea of information we’re provided don’t really add impact. They add to the science, sure, but Before the Flood lacks the actual urgency that its message all but demands. There is, however, a glimmer of hope and human ingenuity when we step inside the Tesla Gigafactory 1, an enormously cavernous space that will house the production lines of millions of electric vehicles and energy-efficient lithium batteries. The latest venture of Tesla founder Elon Musk opened in July of 2016 and, once operating at full capacity in 2020, it will manifest as the world’s largest building. He judges that 100 such facilities spread throughout the world would make a significant impact on energy reduction and would lead to massive curtailing of raw material usage.

Like a great many of the “it’s so obvious” revelations that we’re bombarded with in the face of all this maddening destruction, DiCaprio’s deduction that “[100 gigafactories] seems manageable” is a tad too naive. The intent behind the film is good, it’s sincere, but Before the Flood settles for inciting immediate reaction. It wants to see us flap our arms in panic and despair rather than inspire us into action and perhaps even legitimate activism.

leo-and-the-phant

“Dude, that’s not a prop.”

Recommendation: Activists, behold a famous actor who truly seems to give a damn about the only place we will ever call Home. Only time will tell just how for real he is, but I want to believe in him. I think Before the Flood is a force for good but it should have been more potent than it actually is. Still a decent recommendation from me, and one you should definitely spend time with no matter your political leaning, something that’s well worth tracking down as it is available for free on so many different platforms (at least for now). 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 96 mins.

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

Paul G — #8

Paul G logo

Last time we were here, Paul had turned to the dark side in the animated wonder The Little Prince, playing the part of a harsh(ly shaped) Academy instructor who enjoyed scaring children into becoming workaholic machines. This month let’s turn our attention to . . . well, another role in which he’s playing a rather confronting individual. This time, much more so. In keeping with last month’s theme of talking about stuff he’s recently been in, I’m going to be diving into a role that’s hot off the press, his turn as a psychiatrist brought in to help a corporate risk manager decide whether or not a scientific experiment is still worth pursuing or must be shut down.

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Paul Giamatti as Dr. Alan Shapiro in Luke Scott’s Morgan.

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Sci-fi drama/horror/mystery

Plot Synopsis: A corporate risk-management consultant must decide whether or not to terminate an artificially created humanoid being.

Character Profile: Arrogant psychologist Alan Shapiro has an important job to do: he’s charged with evaluating the mental state of Morgan, the brilliant but potentially dangerous end product of an advanced scientific project that has created a human-like being out of synthetic DNA. After a violent outburst revealed Morgan’s capacity for anger, the corporation responsible funding the project orders a psych evaluation. In walks Shapiro, initially taken aback by the fact the scientists at the lab would ever have him try to communicate with Morgan behind a glass wall. At his insistence, they allow him to have a face-to-face in the same room as a potential killer. Shapiro opens a line of communication fairly casually but before long he is diving headlong into an intense interrogation, wanting to know what Morgan actually thinks about her “life” and her living conditions, about being stuck in a holding cell. He challenges her further, asking what she would do if he recommended that she “be terminated.” Still believing he has things under control, the doctor begins to scream at Morgan, borderline threatening her. What will Morgan do?

Why he’s the man: In a film that generally fails to mine the best out of its talented cast, Paul Giamatti shines the brightest here as a rather confronting (borderline chilling) psychologist who manifests as a major catalyst in determining the kind of fate Morgan and her “captors” await. He may not have much time on the screen, and yet it is stunning how quickly his character is able to get under your skin and chill your blood. Morgan isn’t a film with many happy or pleasant characters, and Dr. Alan Shapiro is a particular stand-out, lighting the screen up with incredible intensity, a seething disdain for the government project that sits before him. It’s really strong work from one of the most reliable character actors we have right now.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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

Sully

sully-movie-poster

Release: Friday, September 9, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Todd Komarnicki

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

The Miracle on the Hudson is a perfect fit for good ole Clint Eastwood’s fascination with heroism and how Americans celebrate heroes. The story of how a commercial airline pilot managed to improvise an emergency water landing in the Hudson River mere minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009 without sacrificing any lives in the process seemed, even at that time, primed for the big screen treatment. It was an event too unique to be left alone.

Sully turns out to be the movie anticipated. It’s confidently acted, noble in its pursuit of the truth, and just somber enough in its paralleling of this particular incident with the horrors that occurred on September 11, 2001. Tom Hanks, playing Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, once again proves he’s one of the best in the business when it comes to portraying decent, upstanding individuals with reputations to defend. The profile contrasts how his decision to land on an icy river instead of return to the airport was perceived by the public, who viewed the act as courageous and necessary, while internal investigations within the NTSB and the FAA sought out all the little details that could prove the difference between human error and legitimate equipment failure.

The film feels natural and self-contained, representing one of Eastwood‘s most focused and disciplined efforts in recent years. Very little goes to waste, be they measured doses of world-building — the mundanity of air travel from the perspectives of crew and passengers alike — or supporting roles fostering an atmosphere of relief and gratitude in the aftermath. Alongside Sully there is First Officer Jeff Skiles (a mustachioed Aaron Eckhart) who provides his unwavering support throughout. He doesn’t have nearly as much to do as his costar but Eckhart is nonetheless effective, as is embattled wife Lorraine Sullenberger (Laura Linney) who can only contact her husband through brief telephone calls amidst media chaos threatening to consume their private lives.

Eastwood’s dramatization of the crash itself is wisely restrained, with moments of peril scattered throughout a narrative that is more concerned with what happens next, specifically how the Captain is supposed to relay what actually happened to those who were not there in the cockpit. It’s a tale of almost two movies — that which occurs on the flight itself, which is staged extremely realistically (almost to a fault for nervous flyers I’m sure), and that which occurs on the ground in the investigation process. Much of Sully broods in a strange psychological state somewhere between reality and surreality, with Sullenberger unable to rid himself of vivid images of what could have happened while grappling with the notion of his instant celebrity. Those flashes of a nightmarish scenario here represent the more striking and unsettling visual parallels to 9/11. It tends to raise the hair on your arms.

In a film that prioritizes achievement over practicality, it’s perhaps not surprising that members of the NTSB — here represented by Mike O’Malley (Nickelodeon’s Global Guts, anyone?) as Charles Porter, Jamey Sheridan as Ben Edwards and Anna Gunn as Elizabeth Davis — are all fictional creations inserted for the purpose of having some sort of antagonistic presence. (Flocks of birds, apparently, only serve as villains when directed by Alfred Hitchcock.) Why Eastwood needed to vilify one group while heralding another is beyond me, and it is a major issue in a film that otherwise dedicates itself wholeheartedly to realism.

Barring Hollywood’s never ending desire to conflate actual, real-world drama with that which can be synthetically created for the sake of perpetuating traditional storytelling models, Sully manifests as a heartfelt “thank you” to an individual who will probably forever claim that all he did was his job.

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Recommendation: I have this feeling actual pilots or aspiring pilots will get a bigger kick out of the stresses endured by this flight crew. Lessons learned by the layperson: 1) being heralded a hero doesn’t always feel as such; 2) the NTSB, despite what Eastwood portrays them as for three-quarters of his film, isn’t really comprised of bloodthirsty, vindictive asses (see the enormously contrived ending scene); 3) New Yorkers are some damn resilient people. If there’s any real lesson to be taken away from Sully, it’s perhaps best summarized by one of the captain’s final reflections: he didn’t save all these people based on his actions alone. It was a real team effort, from the immediate response of Port Authority and NYPD officials, to the actions taken at Air Traffic Control, to the calmness of his entire flight crew and the bravery of the passengers themselves. A true crowd-pleaser. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “This is the Captain. Brace for impact.”  

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

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

TBT: Unforgiven (1992)

Thursdays come around pretty quickly, do they not? It seems only yesterday I was babbling on excessively about Chinatown and now, here we are, forging new frontiers yet again in October. This month is shaping up to be one of the most eclectic groups of films I’ve yet had on this blog, which is kind of cool (or I hope it is, maybe it’s really not. People are probably disappointed that I’ve gone the non-horror route this month. . .). Life is full of grim realities, as is evidenced in 

Today’s food for thought: Unforgiven.

Enforcing that pesky ‘no-guns’ ordinance since: Friday, August 7, 1992

[Netflix]

So I blindly stumbled into 1992’s Best Picture winner, not realizing it had picked up any awards, let alone taken home top honors and garnered several others including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Editing. I’m glad I watched it without this knowledge. I didn’t have my viewing experience tainted by the lofty expectations brought on by Best Picture winners. I did, however, have a sneaking suspicion it was a sure-fire winner for Best Cinematography, for the film’s romanticism for the old west is impossible to ignore. Alas, that was only one of its nine nominations.

Clint Eastwood produced, directed and starred in this harsh, uncompromising vision of life on the frontier, specifically 1880s Wyoming. His last Western, Unforgiven tells the bleak story about a farmer with a dark history who gets roped into collecting one more bounty after a group of prostitutes in the town of Big Whiskey are shaken up by some thugs who get off lightly thanks to the local sheriff. Rather than making the cowboys pay with their own blood for disfiguring one of the girls, Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman, earning his second Oscar) decides they will find a suitable number of horses to give to the brothel owner, a total of seven horses fit for hard labor. Infuriated by the injustice, Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher) announces a cash reward for whomever can find and kill the men responsible.

Decrepit old pig farmer Will Munny (Eastwood) was once one of the most feared men in the midwest, known for ruthlessly killing men, women and children alike. When he met his wife he vowed to change his ways, although she passed away before the film opens, leaving him vulnerable once more to the loneliness and despair of bachelorhood on the prairie. Word about the bounty travels fast and Will finds he could really use the money (I can only imagine how long you could make $1,000 last back in the 1800s . . . ). After telling his children he’ll be back “in a couple weeks” he rides south, headed for an old accomplice and friend’s homestead, one Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman).

On their ride the pair encounter an excitable young cowboy nicknamed ‘The Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) who doesn’t exactly view killing the same way the older and jaded Ned and Will do. Whereas he can’t wait to kill the sumbitches responsible, the other two, haunted by violent pasts, anticipate and to some extent dread what they will soon have to do. Meanwhile in Big Whiskey, a town that strictly prohibits visitors to carry guns on their person, Daggett has to contend with the contemptible English Bob (Richard Harris), who’s come to town in hopes that he’ll get to claim the cash reward. His out-of-town status is made amply clear on the virtue that he believes the superiority of the British royalty is based upon how easy it is for an American president to get shot and killed (the assassination of President Garfield has just made the papers).

Indeed, English Bob is a bit of an annoyance, but he’s all bluster compared to the aggressive sheriff, who takes pleasure in kicking Bob all around the town after he refuses to hand over his firearms to the proper authorities, and subsequently kicking him out of town. In a single scene a couple of things become clear: 1) Big Whiskey is a well-defended and hostile little community; and 2) Gene Hackman deserved that Oscar. His law enforcer is a real bad seed, Hackman’s penchant for intimidating characters culminating in the dastardly Daggett.

Unforgiven is a departure from many western films and violent films in general in that rather than glorifying and exaggerating the violent nature of survival in supposedly simpler times, it emphasizes the personal toll it takes on someone who has killed, be it for survival or in self-defense. Killing just for the sake of killing isn’t the issue here. The difference between the Schofield Kid’s lust for blood (in a fireside scene he boasts about killing five men already despite his age) and the older men’s reluctance to keep pulling the trigger comes under scrutiny as they inch ever closer to their destiny. Eastwood, the director, emphasizes subtlety and ruminates on the extreme nature of killing. “It’s a hell of a thing, to kill a man. Take away everything he’s got, everything he will ever have,” Will says to the deeply disturbed Schofield Kid in the aftermath of a shoot-out.

The delicate treatment of life and death is handled brilliantly in said scene, where the trio come across their targets in a shallow canyon and stalk them out. In a western, it’s all too natural to expect the scene to erupt into a battle of bullets and bloodshed, but Eastwood keeps it contained. As one of the cowboys slowly bleeds out, from around a protective hill Will asks one of his fellow riders to give him some water, an act of compassion that, rather than softening the film, bolsters Unforgiven‘s comity.

As a result, the action that pops up sporadically — this film is also restrained in terms of how often it breaks into fits of chaos and one-upmanship, as these things often do — hits much harder. Because we learn to respect the violence when it happens, it’s that much more difficult to watch Daggett lash out (literally) against those who defy him. This isn’t to say Unforgiving is a bloodless picture, of course, but Eastwood deserves credit for recognizing the difference between effective depictions of violence and simple mind-numbing excess. In a time when civilization was more obviously defined by responses to matters of life-and-death, it’s refreshing to journey back to that time where seemingly more trivial concepts like decency, courtesy and respect have more of a role.

Eastwood’s final journey out on to the frontier manifests as a thoroughly enjoyable, occasionally jarring and often somber adventure that has far more intelligence than the typical shoot-’em-up. And the final showdown between Will and Daggett confirms once again that there is no one more badass than Clint Eastwood.

Recommendation: A restrained picture in terms of how it depicts violence and stages action set pieces, Unforgiven is a unique western that reminds one far more of a psychological drama than anything John Wayne or Paul Newman might have starred in. Well-acted and beautifully shot, this is a trip well worth taking if you haven’t seen it before and are curious about one of the last truly great westerns. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 131 mins.

TBTrivia: Only the third western to ever win the Best Picture Oscar. The other two being Dances with Wolves (1990) and Cimarron (1931).

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

Creep

Release: Tuesday, June 23, 2015

[Netflix]

Written by: Patrick Brice; Mark Duplass

Directed by: Patrick Brice

Creep is Brice’s directorial debut, pairing the writer-director with master of strange Mark Duplass of mostly independent film fame. As with his sophomore effort The Overnight the less I mumble on, the higher Creep‘s potential to surprise becomes. And if I’m not just going crazy, Brice seems to like it creepy. Both features thus far feature a substantial amount of pure, unbridled . . . weirdness. (Though The Overnight might eclipse this clearly more modestly budgeted production in that regard.)

But where The Overnight disconcerted viewers by forcing them to bear witness to a pair of thirtysomethings slowly embracing and then taking social improprieties to a whole new level, Creep has very little, if any, basis upon which one could judge socially acceptable behavior. It has this kind of detachment that sets the film distinctly away from normality. The film starts off in a car with a videographer named Aaron (Brice) headed for the rolling hills of Nowheresville, USA to interview someone for . . . something. He’s hoping his subject is a woman, since the only description of the job given is that “discretion would be appreciated.”

Using his handheld camera as the only means of connecting with us, Aaron soon seems like a saint compared to his subject, a lonely man named Josef (Duplass) who comes across as unstable from the get-go. Creep follows Aaron as he gets to know his subject over the course of a single day, and while the usual nitpicks against found footage are on display — I advise against eating while watching because the shaky cam could have an adverse effect — the device is incredibly effective. In places it’s downright chilling.

Brice may be wielding it more often than not but aside from Duplass his recording device is the real star of the film. It’s a unique conduit of information, and not simply for the obvious. The visuals put in front of us are as important as the things we cannot see — a reaction on Aaron’s part; a physical change in perspective. These help build upon Creep‘s steadily ominous and even darkly comic atmosphere. I’m more comfortable placing a stronger emphasis on the former though.

There are a few moments that reveal the inherent flaw of shooting found footage style of course, like when the camera continues rolling when the user ought to just be . . . well . . . . Let’s just say he’s got higher priorities than guiding us through a particular room at a certain point. But this is an issue easily covered up by the strong work turned in by the epitome of a tight-knit cast. It’s just Brice and Duplass in this one. Suffice it to say, Duplass will be difficult to look at the same way again after watching him take this dark turn.

So there I was at the end of the film, standing in the back of this hypothetical screening, applauding emphatically. Maybe that was me making up for my previous indiscretion for trying to leave early. But thank goodness for Brice, for showing not only his ability to make wise decisions with the style but for realizing opportunities to avoid its many pitfalls. Creep may not last long but it is enough.

Recommendation: Living up to its title spectacularly, Creep is light on runtime but dark in tone and refreshingly original. The found footage genre still has life left in it yet! Pick this one up if you’re in the mood for something chilling, and for a great performance from Mark Duplass. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 82 mins.

Quoted: “Tubby time.”

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

The Babadook

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Release: Friday, November 28, 2014 (limited) 

[Redbox]

Written by: Jennifer Kent

Directed by: Jennifer Kent

It’s official. I’m in love with horror once again.

It’s some kind of feat the hype surrounding Jennifer Kent’s much-acclaimed horror film has gotten to the point where it feels like watching the ‘scariest film in years’ this far into 2015 is, yeah, a little like you showing up to a birthday party a few hours late and profusely apologizing. The apologies are accepted, but the fact is you’re still late.

The Babadook isn’t a particularly original film. It’s a tale of possession dressed in the decay of William Friedkin’s slow-burning and dread-inducing 1973 masterpiece, only this time the beast is somehow of an even more inexplicable nature. It’s about a woman named Amelia (Essie Davis) doing her best to cope with life after the shocking death of her husband Oskar several years ago and having to deal with the increasingly erratic behavior of her six-year-old son Samuel (a young and brilliant Noah Wiseman) who is convinced something is haunting their house. When the two come across a children’s book named Mister Babadook one evening, Amelia isn’t convinced it is appropriate bedtime material but Noah insists she read it to him. Strange occurrences ensue with steadily increasing frequency.

Of its many borrowings from memorable horror of the past, Kent’s nail-biter features creepy shadows, fragile and/or susceptible characters, tense atmosphere and an intimate setting that traps feelings of isolation and paranoia with remarkable precision. And the description ‘haunted house feature’ wouldn’t be too far off-base, either. Goodness knows there is more than a heaping helping of those kinds of horrors out there, and while not all are even close to being legitimate wastes of your time the catch-all term almost seems to automatically dismiss the hype surrounding this Australian phenomenon as overzealous. Even prefabricated.

On a performance basis alone, The Babadook soars above its contemporaries. Wiseman embodies a child with severe behavioral issues so as to confuse the strategy of casting with happening upon an actual child with these kinds of problems on the very streets of Adelaide. His character may well work on your every last nerve but you can be sure he takes a much bigger toll on his mother. And Davis is sublime in the role of a bereaved woman now sleepwalking through life as a middle-aged widow working as an orderly at a retirement home. Because the tandem are so convincing Kent never allows us the luxury of relaxation in her world. There’s no solace in this drab environment, even with kind neighbors like Barbara West’s Mrs. Roach, who suffers from Parkinson’s, or an empathetic colleague in Daniel Henshall’s Robbie.

But Kent isn’t content with settling with a performance-based thriller. Even if this is shot on a relatively minimalist budget you’d never know it because the environment compels — much like the power of Father Merrin’s exorcist rites compels you — to keep watching. Transitions featuring a sprawling tree outside the house reinforce the threat of something sinister lurking in the house; they also distract effectively from the fact that the physical disturbances may not be the worst things Amelia and Samuel have to deal with. Kent’s most impressive feat is the ability to ratchet up the tension in terms of the things we can actually trust in Amelia and Samuel’s surroundings. What is real and what isn’t? What is in their heads and what is actually in the house?

That oft-underutilized technique — the power of suggestion — is employed with devastating yet completely enthralling effect in the the film’s harrowing final twenty or so minutes. It is in this sequence of low light and high anxiety we are exposed not to what that ever-elusive beast really is but rather the stuff that Jennifer Kent is made of. She is a master of horror in the making, teasing imagery from the likes of The Exorcist and The Shining in a way that both elevates her film’s seriousness of purpose and honors the work of the legends of a tenebrous past. Buckets of blood aren’t necessary for creating one of the most chilling finales in recent memory (yes I am encompassing all genres in that remark, and yes I am talking about the moment all the way up until credits roll).

In a time where the genre has begun dabbling in grotesque torture, in animals-as-predatory villains, in real world disasters-as-backdrops in order to entertain increasingly niched audiences it’s becoming harder to find films that like to keep things simple. Stories that speak to our concerns with specific aspects of mundane existence — in this case, the challenge(s) of single parenthood — and slowly modifying that reality until it becomes something truly twisted. That’s the formula for really good horror: making the threat seem real. The Babadook is an unqualified success in that regard. It’s an instant classic.

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4-5Recommendation: Though I can understand that after awhile such lofty praise can become a bit intimidating or off-putting, and it sure seems that the above rave review won’t help quell the urge to disbelieve, I personally am in favor of it. I didn’t think I would be. With incredibly strong performances and a memorable, demented creature at the center of it all, The Babadook should prove to be at least an entertaining 90 minutes. However if you’re strictly anti-horror, there’s probably nothing it can do nor I can say to sway you. But as a former skeptic of horror myself, this has restored my faith in the genre for sure.

Rated: NR 

Running Time: 92 mins.

Quoted: “You can bring me the boy. You can bring me the boy. You can bring me the boy.”

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A Most Wanted Man

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Release: Friday, July 25, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

As all good things must, even A Most Wanted Man comes to an end.

And it’s going to take everything in my power to remain on the conservative side here, what with a possible capstone performance to mark the end of a career as towering as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s. Trust me when I say experiencing the final moments of this film is no easy task; that is, if you hold any empathy for the troubled man at all. That’s not to say we won’t be seeing him around in other things, of course. He’ll reprise his role for The Mockingjay: Part 1 this November, and he’s also turned up in the lesser-known 2014 drama God’s Pocket.

But in A Most Wanted Man, here’s where we are obliged to bid adieu to that more significant part of a once-in-a-generation performer. The celluloid here acts as a time capsule, in which Hoffman seems permanently encased. Selfish for us to try, sure, but it’s such a great performance there’s no way we can let this be over. Eventually we’ll have to.

In a somewhat befittingly stressful turn as Günter Bachmann, the leader of a secretive intelligence operation based out of Hamburg, Germany, Hoffman becomes involved in the (mis)handling of a young half-Chechen, half-Russian illegal immigrant named Issa Karpov (an incredible Grigoriy Dobrygin) who’s fleeing from torture and persecution in both his home countries. Bachmann’s methods are not attuned to those maintained by his peers, particularly the snaky Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock) and his office’s roughneck tactics, and Bachmann holds a particular disdain for the Americans given a situation in the recent past. Pale, disheveled and with a cigarette permanently glued to his lips, Günter is the perfect enigma for Hoffman to decipher.

That the film does not become a sideshow to the real-life tragedy involving one of its cast members is almost miraculous. This will be the last of Hoffman’s lead roles, and while proximate his death, his work still remains relatively unaffected. He does, however, look physically exhausted in a number of scenes. But rather than directly confronting us with his sickly appearance, the film uses it for context, making great use of Hoffman’s tired expressions and measured delivery to express an epic character. His physique immediately conjures a lifetime of struggles.

In Anton Corbijn’s film, perspective taints objective reality. We spend our time with this rag-tag group of German intelligence operatives (whose casting includes the likes of Daniel Brühl and Nina Hoss) but does this mean this is the right side of the tracks to be on? Who really ought to be dealing with this suspected terrorist? Is that precisely what Issa is, a terrorist? What could have become an overwhelmingly complex and dense narrative instead is surprisingly simplified without cutting out critical details — the scarring on Issa’s back is very telling of a dark history and helps cement his nightmarish reality.

Highly compelling material adapted from the novel by John le Carré is distributed evenly and effectively across the film’s myriad talented stars. Willem Dafoe steps in as Tommy Brue, the head of a German bank which may contain funds to be inherited by Issa from his father, a man he claims to have raped his mother in front of him when he was much younger, and when Mother was a mere 15 years old. (Again, despite the crowd-pleasing flavor of the thrill, one thing A Most Wanted Man can’t be accused of is glossing over pertinent stuff.) Robin Wright matches her intensity in House of Cards and continues to affirm her spot in the upper echelons of great thespians with a spectacular performance as CIA Agent Martha Sullivan, who comes to Günter’s assistance when he needs it least. Or so he has determined.

A Wanted Man is a fiercely accurate rendering of real-world events unfolding in a period as hectic as the last ten years have been, both in the Middle East and on a global scale. A fictitious account of one man’s journey through bureaucracy in a desperate investigation into what his real identity is — is he terrorist blood or an innocent civilian trying to escape oppression? — here’s a story that at least demands an open mind.

While we revere this strange German’s effectiveness at his duties, it is safe to say we revere the man behind the man more. If all good things have to come to an end, Hoffman’s story has come to a very good ending indeed. He is hands-down the reason to watch this film, and in a masterpiece such as this, that’s relatively high praise.

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4-0Recommendation: One of the very best films of the year, not just as a genre film or from a performance-standpoint, A Most Wanted Man is an excellent way to spend $10. For the Philip Seymour Hoffman fans (of which I believe there are at least one or two), for the Robin Wright fans, for fans of excellent adaptations of books (supposedly. . .I would now like to read this book). For anyone wanting relevance to the ongoing ideological struggles amongst the myriad countries ensnared in violent turmoil in the Middle East currently, and between them and a United States government that insists on making everything its business, you are compelled. . .nay, required to watch this film. It is that good.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “We find them. When they’re ours, we direct them at bigger targets. It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark.”

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