December 31, 2015

The Visit

M. Night Shyamalan, 2015
There were probably many people who saw the trailer for The Visit, and when they saw the name "M. Night Shyamalan" on the screen they chuckled. They chuckled, because at this point, after many disappointing attempts to wow audiences like he did with The Sixth Sense - he has failed. Some look at Shyamalan as a punchline in Hollywood. And that's probably not fair. Sure, The Sixth Sense is one of the best horror films ever made. He made a really spectacular early in his career. When you do that, expectations are built. But his next two pictures, Unbreakable and Signs, were not poor offerings at all. That one quick shot in Signs of the kid watching a news broadcast on TV and seeing the alien pass by the alleyway is a frightening image stuck in my mind for eternity. I've also stood up for the film that followed that two - The Village on many occasions and was genuinely surprised with the big twist. But Shyamalan is also guilty of giving us The Happening, Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender and After Earth. That string of films created this crater in his filmography that for some people (not me) is unforgivable.

So the big question on many cinephiles mind is - Is Shyamalan BACK? The answer is, well MAYBE HE IS. The Visit is a good film. In terms of where it's ranked in his filmography, it's probably somewhere below Signs but above The Village for sure. It's not going to be forever cemented in the minds of film-lovers like some of his other work in the genre, but it's a formidable piece of work that even has a signature twist in the latter moments.

Shyamalan experiences with the found footage genre by putting cameras in the hands of the two main characters / siblings Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould). Becca is an aspiring filmmaker, hoping to shoot a documentary that captures spending the week with their grandparents who they had never met before. Tyler is a wannabe rapper, constantly breaking out into annoying rhymes. Tyler's character is interesting in the sense that he will probably annoy lots of viewers. It's sort of that annoying kid trope that has the ability to draw some of the energy from a good film. But his constant rapping isn't enough to pull The Visit off of the tracks.

This is probably because there is so much mystery built up around the grandparents, who continue to act stranger and stranger. When they are told that their grandmother has "Sun-downing", a dementia-based condition that causes the elderly to act unpredictable and energetic at night, the curiosity only grows stronger. But it's when the behavior starts to spill into the daytime, and progressively gets worse and worse along with the diminishing niceness of the grandfather character, that you are on the edge of your seat wondering what's next. You can feel the progression as the days continue on, and you are reminded of what day it is in front of each segment. It adds a small element, making you assume that things are going to get pretty bad leading up to the final day of their trip.

Shymalan is able to successfully use the found footage technique to his advantage. It causes you to have that first person POV, and when you are under a porch and your grandmother starts swiftly crab-walking toward you - that's only going to add to the tension. You just aren't going to be able to have the same effect if the camera is fixed. There are a lot of jumpy moments, a lot of them bound to stick with you. In a genre that is desperately lacking in originality, The Visit provides some fresh story and unique circumstances. Now lets see if the studio will leave it alone and doesn't attempt to create a sequel with new production staff and beat the whole thing to death.


Lenny Abrahamson, 2015
In terms of modern day literary adaptations, Room is certainly pulled from dark subject matter. Told from the perspective of main character / five year old boy Jack (Jacob Tremblay) , in structure it resembles similarly disturbing adaptation “The Lovely Bones” which was adapted to screen by Peter Jackson in 2009. Bones was told by an abducted teenage girl slain by a serial killer. While Bones dives a little deeper into the darkness, Room definitely puts you in an unsettling place. Actually, it immediately puts you in it. The film opens up inside the small shed / tiny prison where mother Ma (Brie Larson) and her little boy are laying in bed. The film doesn't jump into the past, showing you what circumstances led to their captivity. Nope, just right to the shed. It goes on to show you that Ma has created a routine for him, clearly trying to maintain some kind of stability while housed in such a small space under horrific circumstances. Not only does it show her dedication as a parent but it shows her patience as well. When Jack erupts into small tantrums, she has no choice but to stay close to him and take a deep breath and try to let it go. Tough work as any parent realizes. Walking away, leaving the room (or "Room" as they call it) is not an option. An early success in the film is how quickly you become invested in their characters. Larson is no stranger to playing a troubled female lead, as she did remarkably in Short Term 12. Larsen and Tremblay are really the shining performances of the film, easily outshining veterans Joan Allen and William H Macy. Macy's talents don't really feel used properly in the film. He just sort of passes through quickly, and sort of fades away insipidly.

Room is a very different movie from Abrahamson's work last year in Frank. Although he does have a way of blending black comedy elements into a dark drama as he does in both pictures. Room is really a heart-wrenching story, uncomfortably tense at times, about a mother and her son forced to try and endure unimaginable circumstances. It's a provocative & unique drama, certain to make some kind of impression on you. 

December 25, 2015

The Revenant

Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, 2015
Watching The Revenant reminds you of how good our modern civilization has it. Not having to scavenge for fur in the wild to sell to get by. Not having to endure unforgiving weather in some rinky-dink shelter, cold wintry wind blowing at the thin walls. Living in the early 1800's involved you trying to avoid frostbite while also trying to avoid arrows piercing your skull from a Native American ambush.

Survival is a constant theme in the film. What it takes to survive. What you are actually living for. Or who are you living for. Do you have anything worth living for. These questions circulate through the Hugh Glass character, played by Leonardo Dicaprio. He had fallen in love with a Native American woman, had a child with her. The Pawnee people were able to give him love, skills, and happiness. He then had to watch so much of it being stripped away from him. As if his lost love wasn't enough hardship for him, he is then brutally mauled by a bear in the woods while trying to guide his fellow men. It's hard to think of a character in a film that has to bear so much misery as Glass, who really spends most of the movie being treated like a rag-doll hanging on by a thread. Dicaprio is really impressive with the Glass character. Instead of being a voiceless crawler through the film, he does a really good job of playing out all of the aches and pains as if you were able to feel some of it yourself. Tom Hardy is just as good as John Fitzgerald, the man who abandons Glass and leaves him to die. It's hard to even see Hardy at first through the thick beard and layers of clothing. Soon after discovering it's him you forget again.

What plays out in The Revenant becomes a duality of survival and revenge, all painted on a cinematic canvas that Inniratu and Co. clearly was trying to perfect - and maybe did. The nature pillow shots. The snow floating across the screen. There's even a scene where Glass is laying on the ground breathing onto the camera lens, and there's a seamless transition to some mountain mist and grey clouds. Credit must be made to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski, who worked with Innaritu on last year's Oscar Winning Birdman but has a career filled with working with skilled directors like Terrence Malick and Alfonso Cuaron. It's interesting because from a visual perspective, The Revenant feels a lot like a blend of Children of Men and The Tree of Life (which Lubeski was DP on) in terms of harsh erratic exterior elements mixed with abstract dream-like flair. The rumors were running wild during the production of the film, having you think it was going to be Innaritu's Apocalypse Now. Perhaps it is, as the entire film was shot chronologically over the course of three months, and Innaritu was adamant about only using natural light in the film which gave them only a few hours to shoot every day. Apparently there was production turnover from people who just couldn't handle the conditions. But The Revenant feels like one of those films that is going to be talked about for decades to come. Innaritu is clearly at the peak of his career, and those lucky enough to work alongside him are probably not going to regret enduring the harsh conditions during production.

If anything The Revenant feels a bit lengthy, partly due to the dream sequences and some of the more abstract elements, but nothing in the film feels unnecessary or dragged out. It's a movie that is bound to have more fruit to bear on multiple viewings, and I certainly plan on seeing it again as soon as I am able to. Undoubtedly one of 2015's best.


Denis Villeneuve, 2015
A common theme in Canadian-director Villeneuve's films is uncertainty. Particularly uncertainty about a person, if that person is the person that you think they are. It's certainly a theme in Sicario, Villeneuve's seventh feature film. When it comes to the Mexican cartels, finding someone you can actually trust is a rarity. With the Mexican State Police on the Cartel's payroll, the CIA working covertly underneath the nose of many other government agencies, the list of people you really know is very short. So it isn't unusual for Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) to be suspicious of why she is thrown into the middle of the fray. She is told by her higher ups that she will be helping them "shake things up" and "make noise". She is told that it's a thing that they do to force Cartel members to act impulsively and make mistakes. Kate is definitely the moral force at work in the film, never really comfortable with the circumstances she is put in and the decisions that she is forced to make. Blunt is a proven acting force at this point and holds her own alongside Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin. 

What transpires is skillful filmmaking in line with good storytelling blended with skilled acting, which one comes to expect from Villeneuve at this point. He has yet to make a disappointing picture. While none of this films are as impactful as the very much under-rated Incendies, you see constant improvements in his craft. At times Sicario is reminiscent of the night vision sequences of Zero Dark Thirty. Certainly up there with some of the intensity fueling everything. The story certainly doesn't hide it's comparisons to the Mexican Cartel and the U.S. Government, and whether or not they are actually that different from each other. One interesting consideration is how you notice the Cartel members are family men, or at least have people to go home to. The American characters are more career-focused, married to their jobs.

Sicario certainly blends elements from films like the aforementioned Zero Dark and even some of the southern border bloodshed of Breaking Bad. But it feels like a movie that might be too stable, too uniform. His other work leaves you with images and story-threads that you will never shake. Sicario feels like a solidly made film that won't leave you with the same memories.

December 8, 2015

Tell No One

Guillaume Canet, 2006
Francois Cluzet (The Intouchables, Little White Lies, French Kiss) leads this French murder-mystery thriller as Alexandre Beck, a pediatrician that is desperately searching for answers 8 years after his wife was murdered. On screen, you see two different Alexandre's. The first one is the guy who is in deeply in love with his wife. Spending time in the French countryside, they consume wine and laugh and swim in a local swimming hole. The second Alexandre is the guy who has endured years and years of grief. Constantly seen on screen with a cigarette in his mouth, he is a man that is not willing to give up on his wife. Not really interested in moving on, sort of stuck in this phase of non-existence. Zombie-like, floating through the day to day routine.

Then, suddenly, on the 8th anniversary of her death he is surprised by a mystery email in his box. This email opens a Pandora's box of sorts; between himself, the police, and a group of criminals connected to her murder. What transpires is an intense story, where you spend most of the film alongside Alexandre as he searches for answers.

Tell No One is a complex, suspenseful thriller that has you feeling unsettled for a good portion of the film and provides some solid climactic twists. Along the ride it causes you to become uncertain of everyone involved in some way, especially with the themes of corruption and influence that are involved. Just like every great foreign film, as of Fall 2015 it is getting an American remake that will likely not be as good as the original. Disappointing, but not surprising. Hopefully it won't cause this one to slip away. At the very least, hopefully someone like David Fincher picks it up because it feels like something in his wheelhouse.


Sean Baker, 2015
Somewhere between the grittiness of Larry Clark's 1995 Kids and the unrestrained three-trans-female comedy To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything lies Tangerine - a micro-budget indie picture, produced by the always ambitious Duplass brothers, shot on 3 iPhone 5’s. Visually, it’s a luminous piece that has you immediately forgetting that it was created on something that’s in your own pocket. But it’s a character unraveling piece combined with a revenge drama, all taking place over the course of a single day. Sin-Dee (played by scene-stealer Kiki Rodriguez), is fresh out of jail and eager to unleash her fury on pimp Chester after discovering he had been sleeping with someone else while she was locked up. Aided by companion Alexandra, she promises her “no drama” and goes on to give her nothing but drama as she scours the back-alleys and decaying streets of Los Angeles looking for the guy. You get a sense that nothing very violent will happen when Sin-Dee reunites with Chester, that it’s more about the journey and not the destination.

It’s really a film about the lost souls of L.A. Most of the characters depicted are misfits just trying to find their place in the world. Some of them are not even looking for much either, maybe just some stability and a roof over their head. Sin-Dee, clearly the most short-tempered, is looking for security in a life filled with nothing but turbulence. Alexandra aspires to be on the stage with genuinely engaged faces watching from the crowd. Armenian Taxi Driver Razmik is stuck in a marriage that he is not interested in and looks elsewhere. But because of their jumbled place in society, they end up continuing to live their lonely lives that involve them roaming through the dirty streets. They are people that want to be acknowledged. Acknowledged by someone more than a random traveler willing to throw them a few dollars.

As mentioned before, Rodriguez is the stand-out performance of the movie. But there is much to remember about this film that can be accused of being aimless but is undeniably honest. It’s a well-crafted film that balances comedy with sadness. Focusing on some interesting people that have some real struggles in the world. Where having a dollar for the bus and having another dollar for a donut is a good day. The fact that it was all done on such readily available equipment just shows that anyone can make a film, and hopefully Tangerine inspires a generation of young filmmakers to do just that.