February 21, 2017

The Fall (Season 1 & 2)

Allan Cubitt, 2013 & 2014
There is certainly a variety of serial killer related dramas across the Television landscape. A lot of them are quite good: Dexter (until the awful final season), Hannibal, first season of True Detective, first season of Fargo. But there are of course some duds - like The Following.

The Fall, created by Alan Cubitt, is an offering set in Belfast Ireland. The film focuses on both sides of the spectrum. Gillian Anderson (widely known for her role in the iconic X Files) plays Stella Gibson, the reserved but dedicated investigator leading the hunt. Jamie Dornan plays Paul Spector, the man they are after. Paul is a family man who moonlights as a serial killer. He seeks out a particular type of woman and plans a meticulous strategy to sneak into their home and kill them. He is a man living two lives. During the day he is employed as a grief counseler. He gets his two kids ready in the morning and sends them off to school. He kisses his wife goodbye. It's not until his family is in bed that his nocturnal murderous side comes out. He has his wife convinced that he is working a suicide hotline when he is out filling his savage needs.

One interesting feature right off the bat with The Fall is the fact that you are introduced to Paul quite quickly. Once you are introduced, Paul and Stella get equal screen time. You learn quite quickly that Stella fits into the workaholic investigator trope that we've seen so many times. Strong-willed female. Sleeps at her desk, never really taking any time off, married to her job. Completely wrapped up in whatever case she's on. She's that person that can get into the mind of the serial killer. She knows how he thinks. She can predict his behavior. This concept is nothing new, we've seen it many many times.

This is where the series gets conflicting for me. You have two central characters, neither of which are very likeable figures. Stella is a very cold woman; she doesn't offer much in terms of vulnerability and openness. Paul is equally cold, and the lack of history provided just has you spending time with a distant man with no real sympathy for his evil compulsions. So it becomes a situation where you can tolerate Stella because she is dedicated to hunting down a guy that you just don't like because he continues to kill beautiful women for whatever reason. This decision to not reveal much of Paul's backstory may have been a deliberate decision by the show's creators, but that doesn't mean it was the right choice.

We discover more about Paul's past in Season 2 which does shine some light onto his dark proclivity. But this could have been done in the first. They could have even had some flashback sequences to provide more of a complete illustration of Paul. The lack of these elemnents were something that constantly troubled me watching the first season, but the series clearly was doing something right because I couldn't resist watching more even with those frustrations noted. The series without a doubt is better in the second season. Most notably the extended-length season 2 finale. That is without a doubt the best episode of the series thus far. Multiple story threads come together so remarkably and the balance of tension and delivery is outstanding.

February 17, 2017


Denzel Washington, 2016
Adapted from the August Wilson play, Fences is a limited storytelling piece set in Pittsburgh in the mid-1950's. Directed by and starring Denzel Washington, its main focus is lead character Troy Maxson - a struggling sanitation worker. Troy struggles with the cultural racial divides, regrets about his past baseball career, his role as a husband to his wife Rose (Viola Davis), and his role as father to his son Cory (Jovan Adepo).

Like many men in the 1950's, Troy is an authoritarian figure in his household. His is stubborn, arrogant, eager to discipline. Set in his ways. It's actually upsetting to think about how many people grew up with this dynamic in their households. These families were largely patriarchal with the wife staying home and doing the household duties during the day while the father worked to generate income. When the father would come home his precense would be felt throughout the house. Troy was this type of guy. Denzel is the perfect type of actor to play Troy. Because with all of the personality flaws that Troy possesses, there is still some charm that comes through and Denzel is so adept at channeling that type of energy. Troy is really an exhausting character, going off on long dialogue without ever taking a breather. We see the layers of the onion unpeel as the movie progresses. Troy's character continues to be draining - even as his character unravels. What was a pretty fortified routine is challenged by Troy's inability to resolve some of his conflicts. And as frustrating as Troy becomes, watching Denzel and Viola play off each other is absolutely compelling.

Hacksaw Ridge

Mel Gibson, 2016
Mel Gibson probably doesn't get the credit that he really deserves from his work directing films. Most people probably praise him for his work directing Braveheart, which was really the closest thing that we had to Game of Thrones in the mid-1990's. Then there was the controversial Passion of the Christ, Gibson's violently honest offering to his Christian faith. But I will come out and say it was his next film Apocalypto that had me convinced that he is a solid filmmaker. Apocalypto still didn't get nearly the same amount of eyes on it as the previous two films did. Probably never will. It's not necesarilly a film intended to please the masses, being a quite brutal depiction of the Mayan civilization.

Hacksaw is another tribute to Gibson's Christian faith. It tells the true story of Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield), a Seventh Day Adventist Army Medic who saved the lives of 75 soldiers in one night and was awarded the Medal of Honor without ever firing a shot. Doss, because of his devout faith, intended on going to war but never had any interest in even holding a rifle - considering it to be a killing machine and going against his principles. This didn't go over well early on, with much of the first act focusing on the adversity that Doss was up against. He refused to engage in basic rifle drills in basic training - causing tension amongst his peers and ultimately causing him to become court martialed. I personally had my doubts about Garfield in a leading role going into this film. That's not to say he isn't a good actor - he certainly is. For me his standout performance was as Eduardo in David Finscher's The Social Network. But after seeing what kind of actor the Doss character would require, I could see why Garfield was cast here. There is a softness for the Desmond character thats required for it to be authentic, Garfield is able to deliver that. I still have no intention of seeing the Spiderman reboots but Garfield was totally capable here.

There is a defining moment in his film, and it's in the second act when they enter the battlefield. Uncomfortable silence erupts into complete pandemonium in a way that I've never seen. Gibson is able to create a World War II battle sequence that not only looks original, but will probably go down as one of the best ever. Right up there with the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan. It's done in a way that feels authentic and doesn't glamorize war. You get a sense of the desperation and shock on both sides. It's the first battle sequence that really punches the gas pedal. From that point on the film doesn't really change. It becomes more intense, more magnetic, more gripping. This movie should only continue to reinforce Gibson's ability to really direct a film. He's told very different stories at this point, it seems like there's no topic that he really can't manage.

February 14, 2017

Blair Witch

Adam Wingard, 2016
The original Blair Witch Project seemed to create two camps. One camp was the people who bought into the movie. They were terrified, they admired the innovation involved in making the movie with little resources. This camp probably continues to watch the Found Footage genre and explores what it has to offer. Then there's the other camp. The camp that didn't buy into the original. Didn't have the effect. These people probably complained about all of the shaky cam. They will tell you the original is overrated, a whole lot of nothing. I will say with no hesitation at all that I am in the camp that was totally on board with the original Blair Witch Project. It scared the living shit out of me. I was a sophmore in High School when I saw it in the theater. I happened to live a mile deep in the Connecticut woods at the time. That movie was in my brain for years, made me afraid of those woods. I remember being too freaked out to even step out onto our backyard patio to smoke cigarettes for a while. I am also someone who believes that the found footage genre is a legitimate genre that has provided many other good films (REC, Willow Creek, Paranormal Activity, Grave Encounters) - mostly due to the Blair Witch Project inspiring them. That being said, when it was revealed that upcoming movie "The Woods" was actually a secret sequel to the Blair Witch Project, I was certainly excited.

Blair Witch does exactly what a sequel is supposed to do: take the original and build off of it. Expand upon it. This could mean expanding the universe that the original exists in. Which this movie does do. The original Blair Witch Project was known for it's subtlety, it was one of the defining characteristics. This film completely discards all of that subtlety and still manages to create a product that generates real tension and terror. What were faint noises in the woods are now loud bangs with tree limbs collapsing. What was the absense of a real figure but simply your mind playing tricks on you is now a ghastly figure hiding behind a tree that jumps into sight. What was a couple minutes inside a terrifying dilapidated house is now 25 minutes of pure tense horror inside of the same building with absolute chaos unfolding. The film maintains a certain found footage quality without that complete indie feel of the original.

I am not going to sit here and say that Blair Witch is without its flaws. There is a tree-climbing moment that is the modern day equivolent of running into the house with a killer at the front door. The whole forced connection to the original film with having James (James Allen McCune) be original Blair Witch project lead Heather's brother is unecesarry and weak. Why can't it just be a group of curious college students who are shooting a documentary? I would think that if there was a familial connection to the original disappeareance of Heather, they wouldn't want to go back to the very place that she disappeared and expect to find her. After all, its 20 years later. The thread with Ashley having an infection on her foot also seemed unnecessary. But what happens with Talia about halfway through the film with the stick figure was shocking and unforgettable. Wow. One thing that we don't get that would have been really powerful would be a cameo from one of the original cast-mates. Like if we saw Mike or Josh staring at a wall. Or even Heather.

The expectations are so unreasonably high for a sequel to waht is probably the most divisive horror movie ever made that it's impossible for there to be a scenario where this movie blows everyone away and wins over both sides. The skeptics are going to go into this movie and come away unsatisfied just like they were with the orignal. The question is, why would they see the sequel to begin with? They shouldn't. They should move on to something else because the Blair Witch movies are clearly not for them. But for the people who did buy in to the original, they should come away from this feeling satisfied. Because it brings you back to those all too familiar woods. The memories will come back to you. That might not be a good thing. There were actually a couple of minutes during this viewing where I was thinking to myself: "Why the hell am I continuing to do this to myself at this age with horror movies? I don't think I can handle this kind of tension anymore". But I appreciate this sequel having been made. Thank you Adam Wingard. I am just happy I was able to leave those Burkittsville woods when the credits rolled. Blair Witch lies somewhere between Willow Creek and Grave Encounters, and that's not a bad place to be.

February 10, 2017

La La Land

Damien Chazelle, 2016
After seeing La La Land it isn't surprising that it's an Oscar front-runner and exists virtually critic-proof. It checks off all of the things that Academy voters pine over: Musical elements, a love story, and a love letter to Los Angeles and particularly the golden age of Cinema. It might be THE movie to watch at home with your wife. And at least in my marriage, it's a movie that offers separate things for the two of us. She happened to be more emotionally connected to the romantic component of the film. For me, I found myself more invested in the variety of technical achievements made. Like how did Chazelle pull off that introductory sequence on the LA highway? What about the pool party segment? Or how did they create that planetarium sequence with the stars?

Jazz plays a large role in La La Land just as it did in Chazelle's last film Whiplash. Both have a sincere appreciation for the genre. Whiplash approached Jazz from more of a strict academic standpoint and La La is definitely more of a romantic standpoint. But there's a clear sense that Chazelle likes Jazz. Beyond that, Chazelle is someone who also seems very fond of classic cinema. And now after watching his last two contributions to film it's pretty clear that hes absorbed so much of what he's clearly passionate for. Chazelle is a pretty masterful filmmaker, that's quite clear.

One notable thing about La La Land is also the way that it depicts modern Los Angeles. Instead of making it an unforgiving landscape like last year's Tangerine, it approaches LA with daydreaming eyes. There is a deliberate attempt to paint Los Angeles as this fantastical place - as Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) navigate their way through scenes in the Griffith Observatory, Watts Towers and Chateau Marmont where a million classic LA films have been made.

It's interesting reflecting on La La Land. Because when personally evaluating this film it's not about whether or not it's a good film or a bad film. It's without question a GOOD film. Well made, well acted. Emma Stone will probably get an Oscar for her performance and she totally deserves it. She's unbelievable here. Gosling is great, the only real criticism you can make about him is maybe his singing chops aren't completely up to par but it's really not distracting at all. This is one of those films I have to judge on the impact that it had on me. Years from now will I be thinking about La La Land? That's the thing, I really don't think I will be. I will most certainly remember Whiplash, which clearly had more of a personal impact on me. Whiplash is one of the best films made in the past 10 years. Ten years from now I will probably look back on La La Land the same way I look back on The Artist - a well made movie that wasn't necesarilly made for someone like me. Something I can respect for what it is but something that isn't going to permanently reside in the depths of my memory.