The Witch(2/20/2016)

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The 2010s have, on balance, been a rather frustrating decade for horror so far.  2009’s Paranormal Activity did a real number on mainstream horror and have ushered in a truly frustrating era where seemingly every horror flick has been about invisible ghosts banging doors and rattling chains for 90 minutes with maybe an exorcism or something at the end.  This isn’t to say that there isn’t some fun to be had from such movies and that I don’t enjoy the best of them, but they seem particularly cheap and uninspired on balance.  At least during the Saw/Hostel era of hyper-violent “torture porn” you could at least have fun pretending that the movies were allegories for Abu Ghraib or something, but this new crop is pretty much just an exercise in how it’s kind of fun to have things jump out at you sand say “boo!”  In the last two years we were given two movies that rose above the fray and seemed like they were finally signs of change: The Babadook and It Follows.  I liked both of those movies a lot, but I also thought both of them were a little less revolutionary than they seemed.  The Babadook in particular was actually a lot closer to the “people haunted by spectral being that shows up and goes boo” formula that I’d long gotten sick of.  It was really well made and cleverly used psychology rather than religion as the basis of its creepiness.  It Follows, was slightly more original in so much as the ghost behaved differently from usual but it had its own baggage, namely that it’s style aped a little too much from John Carpenter.  It’s a new year now and with it comes the new “next great hope” for the horror genre and one of the most promising yet in the new film The Witch.

The film is set in late 17th Century New England, and focuses on a family of puritans who have been banished from the main puritan city for having unspecified theological differences with the village orthodoxy and have ventured out to start their own farm away from civilization.  The movie picks up a year or so later when this farm has been established but is not exactly prospering.  The patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson), is not a particularly good farmer or hunter and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) has increasingly come to suspect that providence does not look kindly on their endeavors.  Things really start to go awry when their infant child seemingly vanishes into thin air while their eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is watching him, leading to grave suspicion that something is amiss either in the woods or in the house.

Obviously the first thing that jumps out to the viewer about The Witch is its unique setting.  There have not been many movies about the puritans outside of a few adaptations of The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible and it’s readily apparent that writer/director Robert Eggers has done his research.  The film uses what sounds like period accurate dialogue that gives the film a needed verisimilitude and also makes the film distinctive from other horror movies.  There’s kind of a widespread problem in cinema, and especially in genre cinema, where filmmakers are so obsessed with film that they end up drawing all their inspiration from other movies rather than the wider culture.  There’s certainly a place for that (e.g. Tarantino), there’s really something refreshing about seeing a filmmaker come around who seems like he’s read a lot of books and has a wider base of knowledge to draw from.

To some extent this is still a haunting film of sorts but the feel is so radically different from the Insidiouses, Sinisters, and Conjurings out there that it’s barely noticeable.  For one thing, the movie is largely devoid of “jump scares” and instead uses creepy images and ideas to fuel its thrills.  I’m not going to say that this is the scariest movie one is likely to see and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to anyone as such, but it taps into the roots of the genre and uses interesting imagery and ideas to create unease in his audience but he also taps into some very human psychology to examine the paranoia of the situation.  The film never plays coy about the fact that there is real and literal witchcraft plaguing this family, but it’s never clear to the family what’s plaguing them and they quickly begin to turn on each other in much the way things played out in Salem during the witch trials.  This works in part because the film has done its work to build and develop the four main family members in the film and give each of them a fully fleshed out set of motives and conflicts.

The Witch is the first film from its director and its one hell of a debut at that.  There’s a wonderful maturity to the film and a great uncompromising spirit to it.  It doesn’t feel the need to dumb itself down for a mainstream audience and doesn’t pander to the whims of the hardcore horror audience.  I began this review by pondering if The Witch would be the movie that would finally knock us out of this rut we’re in where every horror movie feels like a variation on Paranormal Activity.  In the short term the answer is probably “no.”  I don’t think this movie is going to be a box office smash and I don’t think studios are going to be rushing out to make clones of this.  However, I do think that this movie is going to make a lot of noise in the greater film world and I do think it will have influence down the line.  At the very least I’m hoping it will influence a few other directors working in the genre space to aim a little higher and give them the courage to aim a little higher and compromise a little less.

4.5

A War(2/28/2016)

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The Academy Awards do a lot of things to the film release schedule, but one of the more useful things it does is bring a handful of foreign films stateside each year because they end up in the Best Foreign Language Film category.  The Academy has a strange and sometimes infuriating process for picking the nominees in that category which involves countries submitting films to be considered by a committee of Academy voters (often elderly ones with time to watch all of them) that often has very different ideas of what belongs among the nominees than the critical community.  I used to hate this, but lately I’ve kind of come to terms with it in that it does occasionally lead to some interesting discoveries that the festival scene didn’t bring attention to and every once in a while a gem slips through (see 2002 winner Nowhere in Africa).  This year two of the five nominees (Hungary’s Son of Saul and Turkey by way of France’s Mustang) were fairly popular with critics and arthouse audiences and I liked both of them a lot, the other three come a bit more from the fringes.  Two of them (Columbia’s Embrace the Serpent and Jordan’s Theeb) have not had a theatrical release in my area yet but one of them did manage to open near me so I thought I’d check it out.

Denmark’s A War is about a platoon of Danish soldiers in Afghanistan and specifically about their commanding officer Claus M. Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) who is known to go out in the field more than most people of his rank.  The film cuts between his military exploits and those of his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) back in Denmark who is raising his three children.  As the film begins it seems like a fairly straightforward “tour of duty” movie where stress builds and horrors of war and uncovered, but then it takes a turn about halfway through when a mission goes wrong and Pedersen makes a decision under duress that leaves a number of civilians dead.  Pedersen feels fully justified in his action but is soon investigated and charged with a war crime.  He returns to Denmark to face these charges that could end his career and land him in prison.

A War was directed by a guy named Tobias Lindholm, who rose to prominence a couple of years ago with a film called A Hijacking (the guy is clear a fan of indefinite articles).  That movie was often compared with the film Captain Phillips as both films covered a similar situation but Lindholm’s movie took a notably rawer and less “Hollywood” approach about the sometimes banal realities of hostage negotiation.  Given the reputation of that film I was almost expecting A War to be almost a Dogma-95 take on the war film and was actually surprised to find the film’s style to be as palatable as it was.  The film is certainly lower budget than a Hollywood war film, but it doesn’t look like it was shot on a shoestring either and Lindholm isn’t using any sort of minimalist handheld aesthetic and his screenplay isn’t filled with artistic pauses or meta-elements.  In other words, the filmmaking is straightforward and isn’t really in opposition to the usual rules of how to film a drama.

So it would seem that Lindholm is interested in giving the film a simple style so as to get out of the way and let the ideas play out, but those had better be pretty damn interesting ideas and I was actually kind of disappointed at how simple the court case at the center of the film was.  In the moment the decision that Pedersen made seemed pretty simple: terrorists were shooting at his men, he didn’t know exactly where they were, so he calls in an airstrike to clear out everything in the vicinity of the gunfire.  In essence his sin was to value the lives of his men (people who signed up for this dangerous adventure) over the lives of innocent bystanders.  That’s an interesting quagmire.  That is not, however, what is the question at the center of the court trial.  The issue there is quite simple: was there PID (Positive Identification) that the shots were coming from the building he ordered the airstrike on.  If he did have PID on the building and there were still civilians in it that is immaterial, if he didn’t have PID on the building and there weren’t civilians that would still be a breach of protocol (albeit one that likely wouldn’t have gone to trial). So, most of the debates that happen in this courtroom end up being factual rather than moral in nature, which to be fair is probably truer to life, but it still seems like a not overly dramatic case to hang a film on.

So, what we’re left with is a moderately interesting case told in a moderately interesting way and… that just doesn’t seem like enough to really make a movie like this stand out.  It lacks the heightened drama of something like A Few Good Men or the institutional critique of something like Breaker Morant.  The point is, I suppose, to present something a bit more real and down to earth than those movies but if that was the plan I’m not really sure that Lindholm went far enough.  This seems less like some kind of radical work of realism and more like a conventional drama that simply isn’t very dramatic.  It’s certainly not a bad movie mind you, it’s decently well told and does leave you with a few interesting things to think about. The acting is good, there are certainly some well rendered scenes, but it definitely isn’t the best of what world cinema has to offer.  Of course sometimes straightforward movies told in simple ways about seemingly important subject matter is sometimes what the Academy goes for (just look at this year’s best picture winner) but it usually isn’t what makes your movie something people remember after a while.

Hail Caesar(2/14/2016)

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The Coen brothers have been on such a great winning streak for the last 10+ years that it’s almost hard to remember that they were in some pretty dire straits in the early 2000s.  In 2003 and 2004 they released two films, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, which were considered back to back failures both commercially and critically.  In the grand scheme of things I wouldn’t call either of those movies terrible and actually kind of enjoy Intolerable Cruelty for what it is, but it certainly looked like the Coens were losing their touch and were perhaps on the outs.  Fortunately they were able to take a three year break, regroup, and come out with their Academy Award winning triumph No Country for Old Men.  Since then they’ve everything they’ve put out has at least been a critical triumph and some of them have even made pretty decent box office.  All good things do come to an end however, and there were a lot of signs pointing to their latest movie Hail, Caesar being the film that broke the winning streak.  The film’s early February release date was certainly a bad sign, but really it’s the trailer that had me worried as it had exactly the same retro celebrity driven tone that those early 2000s failures had.  I’d like to say I was wrong in my suspicious, but alas I think they’ve turned out to be correct.

Set in 1951 Hollywood, the title Hail Caesar refers to a film that is being made at a fictional movie studio called Capitol Pictures which is being overseen by an executive named Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who is pondering whether or not to leave the movie industry to get a cushy job at Lockheed.  While deciding this he finds himself juggling a bunch of crisis all at once.  One of his leading ladies (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant and he needs to find a way to either conceal this or find someone for her to get into a sham marriage with fast in order to avoid a scandal.  Meanwhile he’s trying to convert one of his B-western stars (Alden Ehrenreich) into the leading man of an upscale comedy of manners despite his thick Texan accent, much to the consternation of his director (Ralph Fiennes).  Worst of all, the star of his titular huge budget Roman epic (George Clooney) has disappeared from the set and appears to have been kidnapped by a communist cell called The Future, and a pair of sibling reporters (both played by Tilda Swinton) seems to be on to all this trouble.

Though it has a very different tone, Hail Caesar actually has certain structural similarities to the Coen Brothers’ 2009 film A Serious Man and their 2012 film Inside Llewyn Davis in that all three films look at men who are in the midst of spiritual and/or personal crises and are trying to decide what the next direction in their lives will be.  Where A Serious Man was plainly Jewish in its outlook and Inside Llewyn Davis had a sort of Buddist quality in the way it cycled in on itself, this one would seem to be looking at aspects of Christianity or at the very lease gentility.  It is notable that Eddie Mannix is a practicing Catholic in the movie, especially given that most studio executives in the 50s were Jewish.  Additionally, the film that he’s making is clearly modeled after 50s sword and sandals movies like Quo Vidas and The Robe in that it was openly dealing with the Christ story, but doing so in a very superficial and cynical way in order to sell it to middle America.  I am not, however, sure exactly what the Coens were trying to say about Mannix’ Catholicism as this film is a bit muddled and easily distracted.  Mannix certainly seems sincere in his beliefs as he seems to go to confession every day, possibly because he’s constantly dealing with the tawdry scandals that his movie stars get into but he also feels he needs to assemble holy men in order to know whether or not his film is theologically sound.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into the spiritual elements of the film and should concern myself more with what the Coens are trying to say about 50s Hollywood, namely that it probably wasn’t the golden age we all like to think it is.  It’s notable that every one of the fake films within the film looks awful.  The title movie is a bloated and empty expensive tentpole, the Alden Ehrenreich character goes from being in a moronic B-western to being in a pretentious drawing room movie that only feigns at sophistication, and elsewhere we see people making cookie cutter musicals that only exist because other similar movies made money.  What’s more, the film shows that celebrities were just as capable of being vain and scandal-ridden in the past as they are now and that people were as vapidly obsessed with tabloid stuff then as they are now.  Of course this is far from the first movie to point any of this out and I’m also not exactly sure where the sub-plot about the communist cell comes in, firstly because this sub-plot kind of suggests that Joe McCarthy had good reason to be worried about Hollywood and secondly because it hardly seems to play into Mannix’s inner conflict at all aside from the fact that it gives him another crisis to clean up.

So ultimately I can’t say I got a lot out of Hail Caesar thematically, but that would have been alright if it simply worked as a comedy.  Unfortunately I can’t say I found the movie all that funny.  To be fair, very few of the Coens’ pure comedies have really been on my wavelength, pretty much the only ones that have really made me laugh all that uproariously in the past have been The Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading while others like Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy have at best left me with a certain dry amusement.  “Dry amusement” probably describes what I felt during the better moments in Hail Caesar.  There were certainly some scenes and moments in the movie I enjoyed.  The film’s parodies of old Hollywood films are certainly fun, especially an innuendo laden musical number featuring a cameo by Channing Tatum, but the film would have benefited greatly from an injection of faster screwball pacing.  So, what we’re left with is a movie that is simply not deep enough and not fun enough to really be a satisfying Coen Brothers product by any measure.  Having said all that, a Coen Brothers movie is a Coen brothers movie and even their misfires are going to be a little watchable but this is definitely one of their worst.

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2015 in Review and Plans for the Future

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We’re about a quarter of the way into 2016 and I’m finally ready to finish up with 2015 (thanks a lot work ethic!).  As I do every year I’ve put together a top ten list and a set of Golden Stake Awards, and I’ve finally gotten around to posting them in the special pages section.  Both can be viewed here:

2015 Golden Stakes

Top Ten films of 2015

Now, on to the next announcement.

For the last nine years (wow, nine years of this)  I’ve reviewed every movie I’ve seen in theaters (and a number I’ve seen on DVD/Blu-Ray/Streaming) and there’s been one constant throughout: the four star rating system.  It’s a rating system I more or less stole from Roger Ebert and I’ve long thought that I understood it and it worked, but last year I became rather disillusioned by it.  I’m not a professional critic and I don’t make a habit of seeing every movie that’s out there and because my viewing is so heavily curated most of the movies I opt to see are some shade of “good,” which makes them hard to fit into a four star scale.  Because anything that’s two and a half or less is a “thumbs down” it means that a large majority of movies are going to be either a three, three and a half, or four star review and given that I’m stingy about giving out four star reviews that means that damn near everything has been a three or three and a half star review.  Meanwhile, in the last year or two I’ve been in the habit of posting reviews and ratings on Letterboxd.com, a site that let’s you review and rate movies which works entirely on a five star scale.  Doing my ratings there has given me a pretty good feel for how freeing the five star scale is over the four star scale.  The movies I would have given two and a half or less to will still get those ratings, but for anything higher I have more freedom.

A three out of four can be converted into either a three or a three and a half out of five depending on how passionate I was and a three and a half out of four can either be relegated to three and a half out of five or be bumped up to a four out of five.  And the movies that I normally  would have given a four out of four can be converted into either a four and a half out of five or a full five out of five depending on how passionate I am.  These ratings will be more robust and clear, and I want to be using them going forward starting in 2016.  To make this transition more clear I’m going to be using these graphics to illustrate my star ratings  rather than using the old asterisks.

5  4.5  4 3-5_zpswmhmrc3s 3_zpsyxg7shxf 2-5_zpsn9coif22 2_zpsouqiyr54 1.5 1 0.5 0

45 Years(1/31/2016)

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When you stop to think about it, it really is kind of crazy how many great actors the United Kingdom has produced and continues to produce.  I don’t know if it’s that Shakespearian heritage or what but they clearly take the craft of the actor very seriously and they have a very deep bench they can draw from, and they also have no shortage of veteran actors.  The surplus of dames and sirs in that country is such that need to produce more movies about septuagenarians than most countries do.  Sometimes that means they get middling crap like The Exotic Marigold Hotel or Quartet made in search of that “grey dollar” but sometimes it means that quality films come out that explore aging in interesting ways that feel unique and insightful.  One example of this is the new movie 45 Years, which features two of the less appreciated veteran British thespians: Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay.

45 Years focuses in on Kate and Geoff Mercer, an aging married couple played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, who are planning a celebration for their 45th wedding anniversary.  The two of them have been living a very quiet middle class life on what appears to be a rural property just outside of a town.  All seems to be going well for both of them when Geoff gets a letter from Swiss authorities telling him that they’ve discovered the body of his ex-girlfriend, who died in an accident while the two of them were vacationing in the Alps in the 60s and whose remains had never heretofore been discovered.  This development puts Geoff into a bit of a funk as it seems to make him contemplate the life he could have lived and reflect on what he didn’t accomplish.  This is distressing to Kate, who begins to feel threatened by Geoff’s reflections and suddenly begins to ponder her own decisions in life.

Whenever you hear about a couple that’s been together for decades its generally assumed that it’s because they have everything figured out; that they’re so comfortable together and so mature that they’re going to be living in harmonious bliss (or at least comfortable contentedness) until one of them dies.  By contrast 45 Years suggest that aged married couples are just as prone to same insecurities and communication breakdowns that the rest of us struggle with.  The particular situation causing all the trouble here probably could have been averted if the two principals had maybe been a bit more attentive to what their partner was going through.  On one hand Geoff probably could have realized that he was causing his wife distress sooner and adjusted his behavior more quickly, but honestly I kind of feel like more of the blame for this one is on Kate.  Reminiscing about an old flame and letting that distract you is probably not the most considerate thing for a guy to do, but as mid-life crises go this behavior is not that far out of line.  If Kate had just given Geoff a bit of space for a few weeks while he went through his existential reflections instead of trying to make the whole thing about herself she might have gotten out of the whole thing a bit better off.

The film was directed by Andrew Haigh, a relatively young filmmaker who made his breakthrough a couple years ago with another small mostly dialogue driven film called Weekend.  In the time since he made that film he’s evolved a bit as a visual stylist, though this is still by and large a film about dialogue performed by actors and there are two great ones here.  Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtney both have the challenge of having to convey a sense of deep internal struggle that’s masked by polite outside manners.  Rampling in particular needs to really convey a lot just with facial expressions, particularly in a number of scenes where she’s alone and can safely express certain emotions that she holds back in other scenes.  Tom Courtney hasn’t gotten as much attention as Rampling, but don’t let that lead you to think that he isn’t doing great work here as well.  In some ways he actually has a more challenging role because his character is kept more at a distance and doesn’t have those solo scenes where he can put his cards on the table for the audience.

The highlight of 45 Years is almost certainly its final scene, which I won’t discuss in too much detail here.  I’ll just say that it ends on a deliciously abrupt and ambiguous note that’s executed perfectly.  You leave the theater not quite sure what is to become of both of the characters and that could provide a lot of fuel for discussion afterwards.  As a whole, 45 Years is a quiet and interesting little character study.  The film certainly shows that Andrew Haigh is one of the most interesting filmmakers working in the British cinema and not the fluke one hit wonder that a small indie like Weekend could have turned him into.  I wouldn’t say that it does anything that’s particularly new or revolutionary but for the type of thing it is it’s very well made.  I’d recommend seeing it in theaters while you can because this is not the kind of movie that would really work if you watch it with all the distractions that are pretty much inherent in modern home viewing.

***1/2 out of Four