It Follows(3/28/2015)

3-28-2015ItFollows

I’m not exactly sure when it happened exactly but the walls between the world of horror cinema and the world of more respectable indie fare seems to have largely collapsed at some point.  Well, maybe the walls were pretty porous to begin with.  Given the general disrespectability of the genre combined with low costs involved in their production horror films have long been made independently, but they rarely feel like quote unquote “indies,” because they’re “low” populist productions that so often catch on with the “wrong kind” of filmgoers.  However, in the last few years we’ve seen a sudden surge in filmmakers who seem just as willing to make splatterfests as they are to make dramas about the relationship travails of ill-spoken twentysomethings.  It’s a trend that’s been so prevalent that it’s even earned a nickname: “mumblegore.”  The latest (and perhaps most successful) example of this crossover is It Follows, which was directed by a guy named David Robert Mitchell, whose last film was a dreamy meditation on youth called The Myth of the American Sleepover.

It Follows is about a college aged girl named Jay Height (Maika Monroe) who has been seeing a guy named Hugh (Jake Weary) who has been acting a little strange.  After Jay and Hugh consummate their relationship in the backseat of a car one night Hugh suddenly attacks her with chloroform brings her to a secluded spot and ties her to a chair.  He explains that he isn’t doing this to hurt her and that she would be released soon but that he needs to warn her that he’s just passed a curse on to her.  This curse passes from person to person through sexual intercourse and that the only way to rid herself of the curse is to pass it on to someone else.  Until she does this she will be stalked by a slow moving ghostly figure that could look like any number of people to her but who will not be seen by anyone else and will kill her if it ever catches up to her (at which point the curse would fall back onto Hugh).  He then drives her away, leaves her at her doorstep and promptly disappears without a trace.  Jay is skeptical about the story he told her of course, but as you can probably guess this supernatural stalker does eventually show up and begin to make her life a living hell.

Trying to find underlying social messages both intentional and unintentional is certainly something of a pastime among horror fans, and one doesn’t really need to dig too deep into It Follows in order to find some themes to chew on.  It is certainly no coincidence that this curse is passed through sex rather than, say, a haunted VHS tape.  It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to view this as an allegory for a sexually transmitted disease but given that one is allowed to fuck this curse into somebody and then leave them with the consequences would actually point more towards an allegory for an unwanted pregnancy.  Of course it could be that the allegory is actually for both STDs and pregnancies at the same time while also more broadly representing the full spectrum of physical and emotional baggage that people push onto their sexual partners during casual hookups.  Beyond that there is sort of a moral quandary at the film’s center as Jay is forced to decide whether or not she wants to escape her problem by transmitting the curse into someone else, which would be a somewhat coldblooded act, especially given that it isn’t exactly a guarantee.

Of course the other great pastime of horror fans is to hold an incredible reverence for the genre’s past and to expect new entrants in it to show their horror fan credentials.  This movie certainly shows its admiration for past horror film, more specifically it displays a deep indebtedness to the films of John Carpenter.  The film’s widescreen shots to teenagers running scared through suburban streets are highly reminiscent of Halloween and the film also has a very Carpenter-esque ambiguous ending.  The biggest Carpenter nod though is almost certainly Rich “Disasterpeace” Vreeland’s synth score which has all the distinctive stings you would expect from a John Carpenter score.  Vreeland’s ability to mimic Captenter’s style is admirable but his score is laid on a bit thick at times.  It works well during the suspense scenes but it can be a little distracting during the quieter moments so overall the score is a bit of a double edged sword.  The movie is also set in a strange sort of temporally ambiguous world.  One character has a cellphone/tablet thing, but the characters all seem to have CRT televisions and old cars and most of the time the film could easily be mistaken for an 80s period piece.

To David Robert Mitchell’s credit, this movie isn’t purely a Carpenter derivative.  I haven’t seen Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover but between the trailers and the reviews I do have a pretty good idea of what its general tone was like and I do recognize it in this to some extent.  The movie has a number of quiet spells that you wouldn’t expect from a studio horror movie and a certain melancholy over the characters’ lives.  His interest in the lives of young people and their awkward friendships does appear to be genuine and he doesn’t fill his movie with airheads who exist to be killed off.  This indie movie tone pervades the film, but the visual style does pick up when it counts and the movie is able to pull some really accomplished shots out of its back pocket at certain key moments.

It Follows exists in a horror cinema environment that has been in something of a rut for the last five years or so.  It seems like every horror movie since the decline of torture porn and the release of Paranormal Activity has been a slow burn haunting movie where ghosts stalk people and jump out and say “boo!”  Boiled down to its base horror elements the same could more or less be said about It Follows.  Like last year’s The Babadook this isn’t so much a revolutionary game changer as it is an interesting twist on a current trend.  Its stylistic flourishes and its moderately interesting subtext do elevate it above its competition and definitely make it a must see for horror aficionados, but it still wasn’t that that bold new step for the genre that I was hoping for.

***1/2 out of Four

DVD Round-Up: 2/16/2015

Life Itself (1/25/2015)

 

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The death of Roger Ebert was a great loss to film culture, and I know I personally felt it given how much of an influence Ebert’s film reviews and television show were on my formative years as a budding cinephile.  And yet, I oddly wasn’t all that excited to see the new documentary about Ebert’s life, in part because I kind of felt like I already knew everything there was to know about the guy.  I had even read his memoir (also called “Life Itself”) and found it a little disappointing.  It’s not a terrible book, but it wastes a lot of pages going over the mundane details of Ebert’s childhood family life and seems to omit major parts of his career like, say, Richard Roeper.  In this film version Roeper still kind of gets the shaft but director Steve James has done a good job of re-prioritizing the biography.  I still don’t feel like I learned much of anything about the guy that I didn’t already know, but watching it all I did start to see value in having all the information gathered in a more visual medium, espeicially given that it’s the same visual medium that defined his career.  All in all I’d say I can’t really think of much that could have been done to improve on this, it just wasn’t really what I needed given my previous expertise in the subject of Ebertology.

*** out of Four

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (2/3/2015)

There’s nothing quite as annoying as a documentary that very clearly wants to sway you to a certain set of beliefs but so utterly fails that you end up drawing the exact opposite conclusions from what the filmmaker clearly wanted you to think.  Such is the case with The Internet’s Own Boy, a film that tries real hard to make a young computer programmer named Aaron Swartz into some kind of martyr to cause of internet somethingorother, but the more I watched of the film the less I liked the character at the center of it and the mindset he represents.  I usually get real defensive whenever people of my generation are criticized for feeling “entitled” but some people are guilty as charged, and that especially seems to be the case whenever you start hearing certain members of the tech cognoscenti talk about copyright law.  Long story short, there are a lot of people out there who think they can take whatever they want, are enabled to do so because of technology, and then make up a lot of bullshit in order justify this to themselves and make themselves into rebels fighting against the system which refuses to just give them everything they want for free.

Case in point: Aaron Swartz, a young man who used hacking techniques to covertly download thousands of journal articles with the intent of distributing them for free online. Swartz was plainly guilty of this crime and was charged for it.  One could argue that the penalties he could have faced from this prosecution were excessive, but the likelihood of him having been given the maximum sentence were nil and the fact that he turned down a very generous plea bargain out of sheer hubris kind of makes him hard to sympathize with on that level, at least for me.  Swartz’s only real defense seemed to have been “I don’t like this law, so I don’t have to follow it” and I suppose that brings me to the agit-prop documentary at the heart of all this: The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. The movie starts with a quote from Henry David Thoreau which is pretty indicative of how “fair and balanced” the movie is.  Now, this isn’t to say that I hate this movie simply because I disagree with it; rather it annoys me because it actively seems to flee from the nuances and complexities that could have made it a lot more interesting.  True tragedy, in the literary sense, is rarely caused entirely by outside forces conspiring against the tragic figure, rather it’s almost always caused by an inherent (tragic) flaw in their own personalities.  I think that was definitely the case with Aaron Swartz, but the movie completely ignores this in order to make its point, and frankly it doesn’t do much to make that point to anyone who isn’t already in the choir.

*1/2 out of Four

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The Last Days of Vietnam (2/7/2015)

2-7-2015LastDaysinVietnam Most of the documentaries that break out these days are the ones that either tackle some sort of social issue or the ones that take on some kind of human interest story.  What you don’t see so often are documentaries about historical events, which makes the relative success of The Last Days of Vietnam interesting.  As the title would imply, the film looks at what went into America’s pulling out of Vietnam and specifically the attempts to evacuate the Vietnamese collaborators who would face persecution after the fall of Saigon.  This is an important story and it’s interesting that it doesn’t really get talked about very much, for most people it pretty much begins and ends with that photo of the helicopter on top of the building with a line of people going to it.  This film addresses that photo by the way, and it isn’t quite what it looks like, but the story that picture tells is not far from the truth.  As a film, I wouldn’t say that this is an overly innovative or artful production.  It has a very straightforward “talking heads and archival footage” visual style and it doesn’t take many unexpected left turns.  The film is eventually going to air on PBS as part of their American Experience series and it will probably fit in well there, but the story is still pretty interesting and I honestly don’t know that it would be better served by adding more frills.

***1/2 out of Four

Keep on Keepin’ On (2/14/2015)

I like to think I’m moderately knowledgeable about jazz but I have to admit I don’t think I’d really heard of Clark Terry before I saw this documentary filmed during his twilight years.  That’s odd because he was by all accounts a highly influential trumpet player who was a major influence on Miles Davis himself.  This may well have been because Terry had one of the less… dramatic… lives of all the jazz greats.  That’s probably a big part of why he lived to be 94 but it isn’t necessarily going to make you an ideal documentary subject.  As such this film doesn’t spend a lot of time going over Terry’s life story and mostly focuses on what life was like for the veteran musician when he was in his 90s.  In particular the film focuses on the mentor relationship he forms with a young blind pianist named Justin Kauflin, a relationship that couldn’t possibly be more unlike the one depicted in Whiplash.  This is a movie about kind and decent people making the most of bad situations they find themselves in… it’s a great way to live but not necessarily the best way to make an interesting movie.

*** out of Four

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The Green Prince (2/16/2015)

2-16-2015TheGreenPrince The Green Prince is a documentary about a young Palestinian man named Mosab who was the son of the one of the founders of Hamas but who was secretly working as an undercover agent for Isreal’s Shin Bet.  Mosab is alive and well today and much of the runtime is dedicated to a talking head interview he gave for the film.  I feel like this story works a little better in the abstract than in the details, write a newspaper article about it and it will be fascinating, but were there really enough twists to make a feature length documentary?  Maybe, but the film doesn’t really do a lot to present them in a way that really makes them flow in a super interesting way.  There is enough there to make for a fairly interesting watch, but I don’t see this being a documentary that stick out in my memory for long.

*** out of Four

American Sniper(1/24/2015)

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I’ve was told that Clint Eastwood was a Republican, and while I never really doubted this, it was something you wouldn’t really know by looking at the great films he made through much of the politically fraught 2000s.  He started his comeback of sorts by making a movie which starred two of the most outspoken liberals in Hollywood, moved on to a movie that takes seriously the idea of a right to die, then made a pair of World War II movies that questioned flagwaving patriotism and gave a sympathetic platform to one of America’s former enemy.  In short, he was willing to look at serious subject matter with the kind of sober open mind that would seem to be the opposite of what one would expect from a post-freedom fries conservative movement.  So imagine my surprise and disappointment when Eastwood came out on the Republican National Convention stage and make a complete ass of himself while talking to an empty chair.  This was a stark reminder of the Clint Eastwood who played Dirty Harry and who was in many ways the inheritor of John Wayne’s role of the conservative Hollywood action hero.  It was certainly a misguided appearance (from my perspective at least), not the least because it cast a bit of a shadow over his latest project American Sniper, a film about the Iraq/Afghanistan conflict that I would have given Eastwood a lot more of a benefit of the doubt about before his RNC performance.

American Sniper looks at the life of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a fairly typical Texas man who joined the military after the 1998 U.S. Embassy Bombings and was quickly tapped to join the Navy SEALS.  As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq progress, Kyle quickly earned the reputation for being one of the deadliest snipers in the military and started to be called “the legend” amongst soldiers, who get a boost of confidence when they know that he’s watching over their urban battlefields and can pick off insurgents who are planning ambushes.  After a few tours of duty Kyle is assigned to take part in the hunt for al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, his vicious second in command called “The Butcher” (Mido Hamada), and an elusive Iraqi sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik).  At the start this pursuit is simply business, but as Kyle starts losing fellow soldiers the hunt begins to consume Kyle through one tour of duty after another as his constant absence becomes more and more of a burden on his wife Taya Renae Kyle (Sienna Miller).

American Sniper has largely been sold with a bold trailer in which more or less lets an early scene play out in which Kyle spots a woman and child who may or may not be holding a bomb approach a group of soldiers. He radios in to report the movement and is told it’s his call to make as to whether or not to fire and his spotter tells him “they’ll fry you if you’re wrong.”  As the pressure builds you start to hear a heartbeat and are given flashes of the rest of Kyle’s life with each beat.  It’s a damn good trailer which sells the film as being viscerally exciting not just because of the way it uses military procedure but also because it would analyze the pressure of not really knowing the right thing to do and having to decide in an instant whether or not to pull the trigger.  The trailer ends on a cliffhanger and you can’t help but want to go to the movie just to see how Kyle would handle situations like that and what effect it would have on him… it’s also kind of misleading.  Spoiler alert, he shoots the living shit out of that kid, and rather than being put into an existential crisis he is almost immediately told in no uncertain terms that he did the right thing, saved his brothers in arms, and he accepts this assessment without much hesitation and never seems to think of it again.

That’s the thing about this movie, there’s endless room for introspection and complexity but the movie largely fails to really explore these things because the character at the center of the film is largely incapable of introspection.  The Chris Kyle of this film is not a very relatable character, at least not very relatable to a blue state liberal like myself.  The movie doesn’t necessarily come off as a piece of flag-waving jingoistic propaganda but Kyle is a single-mindedly gung-ho “patriot” who sees the world in terms of black and white, good guys and bad guys, and willfully ignores any of the complexities around him and the movie mostly reflects this worldview rather than challenge it.  There is not a minute spent stepping back and questioning America’s role in Iraq and there’s not a single sympathetic Iraqi or Afghan in the film.  Kyle simply decides there’s evil there, enlists, and never looks back and neither does the movie.  When he’s finally questioned about whether or not he regrets the hundred plus people he kills from afar he basically just says that the shots he took were to protect the people his targets were going to shoot, which is more or less the same reasoning that Gary Cooper’s character gave seventy some years ago in Sargent York.  I suppose that’s an accurate summation of the real Chris Kyle’s attitude but there’s no reason that the real the film itself couldn’t have been a little more thoughtful than its protagonist.

The more successful parts of the film are probably the ones relating to Kyle’s homelife and his marriage.  I’m generally baffled by the phenomenon of servicemen re-enlisting for tour of duty after tour of duty and most movies don’t do a very good job of explaining why people do this (yes, even the ones which show them being bored at supermarkets).  Here it makes a little more sense, in part because the protagonist is this legendary soldier who actually would have a good reason to believe that his presence would make a real difference in the war.  It helps that Bradly Cooper really does a great job of portraying Kyle.  Cooper put on a lot of weight to play the part and dramatically changes his demeanor.  He’s pretty far removed from both the somewhat douchey yuppie persona that made him a star and also from the slightly unhinged characters he played in the David O. Russell films that really signaled that he was an actor worth keeping an eye on.  This and The Place Beyond the Pines are probably the first entirely un-comedic roles where he’s really knocked it out of the park and at this point I’m probably ready to admit once and for all that I misjudged the guy on my first impression.

I could have easily gotten past any political misgivings about the film if it had really been a uniquely compelling experience otherwise, but at the end of the day it just felt like a kind of average war movie to me.  At the very least I expected the movie to be an interesting look at what goes into being a military sniper, but Kyle spends less time actually sniping in the movie than I expected.  Most of his sniping exploits are established in a single montage and afterwards he takes a more conventional soldier role in this central mission where he’s hunting an Abu Musab al-Zarqawi lieutenant and an elusive Iraqi sniper.  Even if Kyle’s military career did take the form a cinematically structured mission (and no, it didn’t) this would still feel a little too convenient to be believed.  Otherwise this kind of felt like the Iraq war by numbers.  I’m not really sure why the Vietnam movies of the 70s and 80s could be as stylistically varied as Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and The Deer Hunter while every Iraq/Afghanistan movie of our modern era just kind of looks the same (Desert Storm, by contrast, has provided some much more adventurous cinema).  That said, this is a Clint Eastwood production so it’s nothing if not competently made.  There are some interestingly rendered action scenes here and the storytelling is mostly clean and well rendered.

So what do I ultimately have to say about American Sniper? Well, it could have been a lot worse but it also could have been a whole lot better.  The movie never quite dips into Act of Valor levels of pandering and troop worship, but it still could have done a lot more to explore the rather tricky morality that surround both the act of sniping people for a living and the nature of having to live up to being a living legend.  As such the movie just kind of feels oddly non-committal and middling.  In fact I probably preferred last year’s surprise hit January war movie Lone Survivor, which at least committed to an ideology and ran with it while also having much more exciting combat sequences.  Still, I can’t really dismiss this movie.  It has some a lot of strong moments and Bradly Cooper’s performance really carries it.  Clint Eastwood has been stuck in a weird dry spell ever since he made the solid but oddly forgettable 2008 film Changling, and while he actually had made movies in that stretch that are probably better than American Sniper but none of them had the same impact or relevance.  Then again we are talking about the man who made one of the greatest war movies of all time in Letters for Iwo Jima and given that this movie is a pretty big disappointment.

*** out of Four

Leviathan(1/23/2015)

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We critics like to think that we are able to watch things in a vacuum and that we can give pretty much anything a fair shake at any time, but the truth is each viewing experience is influenced by a number of tiny factors that can play into your impression of a given film.  Very rarely will something happen at a theater which will make a great film seem bad or a bad film seem great, but distractions can certainly screw with you mood and make it harder for a film to cast its spell on you.  My experience going to see Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is a good example.  Now, normally I can blame bad movie going experiences on inconsiderate audiences, but that wasn’t really the case this time.  There was a snafu at the theater which resulted in a light being left on towards the front which created a bit of a disturbance on the lower righthand side of the screen, but most of my distractions were all in my head.  I’d been embroiled in a job hunt in the weeks leading up to this screening, and that was in my head as I watched the film… also, on the way to the theater this song called “Prayer in C” by Lilly Wood was playing on the radio and god dammit, that groove got stuck in my head.  I bring all this up because there has to be some explanation for why this film, which I intellectually thing is awesome, never was never quite able to bowl me over with its awesomeness.

Set in a small town in modern day Russia, Leviathan follows a man named Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov) who is fighting a legal battle with the town’s corrupt Mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov), who wants to seize Kolya’s land through eminent domain in order to build himself a “palace.”  To help fight this Kolya invites an old army friend named Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who is now a skilled Moscow attorney, to come and represent him.  Dmitri has some early successes, but it quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t going to be like one of those Hollywood movies where people are people are rewarded for standing up to the system.  Instead the film slowly turns into a sort of downward spiral where Kolya is punished over and over again both by the system and by his own flaws.

The story of Leviathan has been called Job-like, which is true insofar as a series of unfortunate events befall someone, but there are some key differences.  Most importantly, the film’s Job figure is not a righteous man arbitrarily chosen to endure difficult acts of faith.  Rather, he’s a stubborn guy who did sort of provoke the force that would come to ruin his life.  That force is not god of course; it’s the town’s corrupt mayor.  The mayor is an interesting character because he doesn’t come across like some kind of Frank Underwood mastermind so much as a drunken fool who’s weaseled his way into a certain amount of power and has been emboldened to act ruthlessly by a number of yes-men he’s surrounded himself with.  Beyond the more universal despair at the film’s center, the film could also be read as a sort of comment on Russian society as a whole.  I’m not going to pretend I know enough about Russia to spot the specifics, but it’s pretty clear to me that the film is commenting on some very specific issues with that country’s crony-politics and heartless bureaucracies.

Leviathan was directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, a filmmaker whose previous films all seemed exceptionally well made but which never quite had the drive to really stand out as complete triumphs.  The same could also be said of Leviathan I suppose, but it seems a bit more substantial just the same.  His earlier films had very minimalist stories, they were slices of life that had a certain understated power but never quite had a full arc.  This film is a bit talkier than those films were, has a slightly more involved story, and a bit more of a political edge.  Actually, it might be more accurate to call it a subversive edge than a political edge, there’s no call to action at the heart of this, just a lot of despair and a lot of sadness.

When Leviathan debuted a the Cannes Film Festival it made a pretty big splash.  The jury only ended up giving it the Best Screenplay award, but a lot of people thought it was a legit contender for the Palm d’Or that eventually ended up going to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep.  Having seen both movies, I do think the jury made the right choice but I can definitely see why this movie gave the eventual winner a run for its money.  And yet, I still didn’t quite love this movie.  I don’t know, maybe it was just all the distractions I outlined in the first paragraph, maybe it was just fatigue from having seen a half dozen award season movies in something like three weeks, I don’t know, but something was just “off” about this movie going experience.  I still admired the hell out of the movie just the same.  It’s a really strong effort if you’re in the right mood for it, but as I’ve learned, that mood needs to be pretty damn stable because if you’re out of it this can be a tough film to love.

***1/2 out of Four