July 31, 2016

Mountain Men

Cameron Labine, 2016
The relationship between siblings can be complicated and volatile over the course of a lifetime. When we are children, we spend so much time together because we all live under the same roof and will take what we can get in terms of company. Whether we are sharing a bunk-bed with that particular sibling or they live across the hall, we have a live-in playmate that may have different interests but for the most part we overlook the difference at that age and will be flexible for the other person. Then we get older, we grow apart. Sometimes years go by before we see each other. Sometimes it takes more than the holidays to bring everyone together. Sometimes its a wedding or, in this particular story, a death in the family.

Toph (Tyler Labine) and Cooper (Chace Crawford) have lost touch over the years. Coop has built some success on his own, living in New York disconnected from the family. Toph is more of a burn-out, living in his hometown. He is quick to say he's a professional DJ but the only actual income he has is from selling weed to the local pot-heads. Their mother gets remarried shortly after their father's death. While at the wedding Toph manages to convince Coop to venture to the family cabin to evict a squatter rumored to be residing there.

The get stranded in the snow-covered mountains and have to rely on each other (and their fathers wisdom) to return to safety. Mountain Men manages to capture some of the nuances of brothers. Abrupt fighting. Preying on weakness. Bringing up embarrassing memories of childhood. Part of the built-in authenticity of the film is probably due to the fact that director Cameron Labine is real-life brother of star Tyler Labine (also the stand-out role in the film). Mountain Men succeeds because it focuses more on the brother dynamic and less on trying to be a purely unique film. It's a predictable movie, and that's okay. The chemistry between Labine and Crawford feels real and that's enough to make it an entertaining watch. Crawford's Coop character is clearly the more introverted type and it contrasts well with Toph's goofy but likeable personality. The funniest most memorable shot of the entire film is the sudden jump to the cabin burning down. That's something that I will be laughing about inside for some time. Mountain Men is a nice little film, a fun watch.

The Last Days on Mars

Ruairi Robinson, 2013
On paper, The Last Days on Mars is a movie that I probably should have liked more than I did. A group of space explorers, led by Vincent Campbell (Liev Schreiber), stumbles upon an organic microbe on Mars that infects the astronauts and basically turns them into space zombies. Just the idea of space zombies is great. Not done a lot, a variation from the saturated horror sub-genre.

But Last Days is a film that's just lacking. Definitely not from a production standpoint. It's always amazing how, even bad space movies, always seem to have really elaborate production design. The spaceship and it's surrounding areas looks and feels authentic. You never are thinking that it's just a group of actors in space-suits sweating their asses off in a desert in Jordan (where it was actually filmed). You discover that their clock has basically run out on their mission, leaving them with an experience but with nothing really tangible in terms of a monumental discovery. This displeases them, particularly Kim (Olivia Williams). She was clearly hoping to be one of the explorers to really find something to bring back to planet earth. Something that would give them immortal status in the science world. When Marko (Goran Kostic) discovers microscopic life in the lab, he secretly dips out to get more samples. At this point the film really has you locked in, eagerly awaiting to see what is in the petri dish.

But the film becomes a far cry from Alien. Weak script is really to blame. This is a group of scientists, and nothing that ever really comes out of their mouth feels very scientific. When Vincent is lowering himself into a sinkhole, he sees some stalagmites. You would think his assessment of the organic matter would solicit some intelligent response, but instead he says something along the lines of "whatever it is, it's alive". Oh wow. Even Avatar managed to provide significantly more sophisticated dialogue when you were in that alien world. The film never manages to carve out it's own niche. It just becomes another horror film of the scary thing picking everyone off without any twists and turns. The film does manage to weave together an interesting conclusion. This is definitely a film that could be added to a list called "Bad movies that could have good sequels".

July 26, 2016

The Wave

Roar Uthaug, 2015
The Wave does something that a lot of American disaster movies rarely do. It develops the characters to the point where you have a genuine investment in them. In this sense, the Wave doesn’t pile on the budget on CGI effects of landmarks getting destroyed by Mother Nature. The Day After Tomorrow, Armageddon, Volcano. They all leave you remembering some of the visual elements involved but don’t leave you remembering any of the characters really. The Wave is more generous. Because of its restraint, and it’s carefully executed construction, it gives you more walking away from it. It gives you some really memorable visual elements but also provides some characters that you will remember as well. And with the synergy of both, the actual disaster has more of an emotional impact and less of a simple feast for the eyes popcorn fodder. 

We discover quite quickly that main character Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) is in a transition in his life. About to leave a geology position that he is very personally invested in to take on a high paying gig with the oil industry. You realize that he is doing this as a sacrifice for his family, to try and give them an upgrade. Likely a giant sacrifice for him that he still struggles with. He finds himself not able to easily walk away from his position, and he couldn’t started the move at worse timing (or best depending on how you would like to frame it). In a perfect situation, Kristian leaves during a really boring period where there is no activity on the computer monitors. But up until the very last minute of him about to get on the ferry boat out of town, there is activity in the mountain. And he physically cannot turn his back on it. This makes sense, someone so passionate about their job, not being able to turn their back on something they spent so many years obsessing over. Even with the conflict that it puts him in with his own family, as shown when he leaves his kids in the car to embark on a helicopter survey of the mountain. He is a man who thinks of work first, and family second. Like a lot of fathers and husbands of course, but not many have the same type of position as Kristian. But it’s a juggling act for Kristian. He undeniably loves his family very much. It’s an internal conflict for him, never really able to balance it effectively.

The big event doesn’t occur until close to the halfway point of the film. The ten minute clock ticking is a terrifyingly short window to find a safe place. When things unfold at this point, it’s completely tense and gripping. There are lots of interesting things going on at this point too. The things they are doing with water and light are so remarkable here. Some imagery that I can still easily bring up in my mind, and probably will for some time to come.

A unique and thorough production, The Wave is one of the best disaster films to be released in the past 10 years or so without question.

July 18, 2016

Killer Joe

William Friedkin, 2012
Two years before Matthew McConaughey wowed audiences with his Rust Cohle character in HBO's True Detective, he got some reps playing the morally obscure man of law enforcement in title character Killer Joe. Joe is a Dallas police officer who moonlights as a hit-man.

Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is in debt to some shady characters and he has reached the end of his rope with time to pay them back. He hires Joe to kill his mother to collect a $50,000 life insurance policy which would be split among himself, his father, and his sister after paying Joe off.

Killer Joe is a film filled with despicable figures. There is really only one redeeming person, that being sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Dottie is sort of written off by her other family members because she is of inferior intellect so she therefore gets some special treatment. But Dottie is surrounded by chaos. Their father (Hayden Church) is a heavy drinker / low-life. Brother Chris is just an untrustworthy dirtbag. Their mother is virtually out of the picture. Joe comes into the situation and it's interesting because while is slightly above them in terms of the social hierarchy, he is not too far above them in the sense that he gravitates to Dottie for companionship. You get a sense that Joe, while he may be a capable hitman, really doesn't have much going on in his own personal life.

It all ends up being a tornado of malevolent deception, with Dottie unfortunately too close to it all. It's an enticing story not because you are so concerned with the characters well-being but you just want to see how it all plays out. It's pretty clear early on that it's not going to work out well for everyone involved in the whole assassination scheme. One of the things I had heard prior to seeing this film was "you'll never look at fried chicken the same again". I had to bring that up, because they were so right. You won't.

Green Room

Jeremy Saulnier, 2016
Jeremy Saulnier certainly creates an environment that viewers would not have any interest spending time in in real life. A rural white supremacist rock club where blaring punk rock is played to crowds of aggressive skinheads. But that’s one of the best things about cinema; that it can transport you to places you would otherwise never visit. And he transports you in the company of a group of young punk kids that are struggling to make ends meat, living out of their van. Scraping by, taking any gig willing to pay a meager wage. They find themselves driving into the backwoods of Oregon to take an ambiguous gig given to them by a shady promoter. After their set one of the bandmates forgets a cell phone in the green room. Upon opening the door to the green room, Pat (Anton Yelchin) quickly discovers there is a woman’s dead body on the floor. Realizing that a murder has just taken place, he panics and attempts to call for help. They are soon trapped inside this claustrophobic green room, as the club owner and his aides attempt to cover up the whole situation.

Saulnier carefully plays with stylism and tension in this limited storytelling thriller. Basically the entire film takes place in this rock club, which is a glorified industrial corrugated metal shed in Bigfoot country. Saulnier is committed to his environment his builds; the Neo-Nazi imagery is strewn across every nook and cranny in the building. Stickers, graffiti, Sharpie doodles. The tension sets in from the second they get out of their rinky dink van and are quickly escorted inside the building. What follows is a violent display of a group of rather innocent punk kids trying to escape the worst gig of their short-lived music career. Outside the building, club owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart playing one of the most unexpected roles of his career) attempts to delicately clean up the situation rather than kicking the doors down and massacring them. But you realize that Darcy is totally capable of this. The fact that he doesn’t do this almost makes him more frightening.

The movie ends and you will be happy to leave this horrible universe you spend 95 minutes in. But Saulnier creates some unforgettable images, very much like he did in his last film Blue Ruin. He finds new ways to shed blood. People will probably remember this film as being one of Anton Yelchin’s last projects, as he tragically died in 2016 after the film was released. He was good in this film, although he was guilty of doing something Stewart also did a little too much of, whispering. I don’t know if it was the audio track or just the hardware I was viewing the film on. At times it was so difficult to hear the dialogue. Yelchin was often mumbling to the others. Patrick Stewart spent a lot of time whispering orders to his cohorts, and it was also very difficult to make out what he was saying when he was on the other side of the metal green room door. But the technical complaints aside, this is a film that should be seen. And surprisingly, even with such disturbing imagery, it’s a film that I will want to rewatch sometime soon.

July 13, 2016

Cold in July

Jim Mickle, 2014
Any fan of Dexter probably believes that Michael C. Hall has paid his dues enough to give his future work a shot. Even those (I among one of them) who gave up in the final season on the mostly great series. That wasn’t his fault. Dexter showed he is a guy who has range, constantly having to shift from the unassuming blue collar guy to the struggling-to-keep-restrained serial killer. And although in tone Cold in July is a dark film, it’s quite a departure from his work on Dexter. His character Dane is an everyman character, mullet and all, living in Texas as a picture framer working out of a mom and pop storefront. Awoken in the middle of the night by an intruder in his home, he impulsively takes action to protect his family and finds that his life is immediately turned upside down. What transpires is an attempt to return his life to it’s normalcy, but he soon finds that the disruption in the routine has shaken things up to a point that he can’t help but venture into the depths of the mystery surrounding that intruder.

This pursuit leads him to the company of two men, Russel (Sam Shepard) and Jim-Bob (Don Johnson), men who are living the complete opposite life as himself but men that he can’t seem to distance himself from. And while there are moments where your eyebrow is raised, wondering why Dane doesn’t just move on with his life and let sleeping dogs lie - it sort of makes sense. It sort of makes sense that he is hungry for some disruption from the routine. And also a sense of closure on everything. Cold in July is an ultimately satisfying film, not without it’s flaws. You are introduced to Russel quite abruptly without much explanation, you really have to do the quick work yourself to realize who he is. But the movie is well shot, sounds good (especially with the period-fitting synthwave soundtrack). And the chemistry between the three men are enough to fuel your engagement. When does Sam Shepard NOT deliver?