American Honey(10/15/2016)

One of the most common title formats in cinema is the “American [fill in the blank]” format, which as far as I can tell goes back at least as far as 1973’s American Graffiti and has been used dozens of times.  It may or may not be as common as the “[fill in the blank] Story” format be it’s certainly the more loaded of the two.  It’s not a titling convention that’s often used for mellow movies with modest intentions, rather it’s used when you want to make it clear that you’re not merely making a movie about a hustle, or a psycho, or a gangster, or beauty, but are instead making a bold statement about America.  The latest film in this tradition is Andrea Arnold’s American Honey which refers not to delicious substance created by bees but to “honey” as a term of endearment to refer to a woman or girl and is also borrowed from a country song that plays late in the film.

The film is set in modern America and centers on a girl named Star (Sasha Lane) who at one point says she’s eighteen but who I sort of suspect is actually supposed to be a bit younger.  Star starts the film living in a pretty grim living situation with two rather awful looking parent/guardians.  When by chance she runs into a band of other young people traveling through her town she is given the offer to join them and takes it immediately.  These young people are part of a “magazine crew” which travels across the country going door to door in various neighborhoods selling magazine subscriptions, often by falsely claiming that the proceeds are for charity.  Along the way to these various sales the crew resembles a sort of gypsy convoy of millennial debauchery and partying as the kids spend a lot of time sitting in a van smoking pot and listening to a lot of trap music.  The group’s manager is Krystal (Riley Keough), who is slightly older than the rest of the bunch and is initially distrustful of Star and who may or may not be sleeping with her most efficient salesman Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who is also seemingly getting a bit too old to be doing this and has been selected to train Star in the ways of doing these sales.

American Honey is in many ways something of a companion piece to another recent movie, Hell or High Water, in that it’s the work of a British director working in America who is perhaps a bit more interested in doing a cultural/sociological portrait of the American lower class than they are in the story at hand.  The difference of course is that Hell or High Water does have a concrete (and somewhat clichéd) crime story to rest on while this film doesn’t have a genre basis and is a lot looser and more episodic in nature.  The film was directed by Anrea Arnold, who broke onto the stage of finer filmmaking with her 2009 film Fish Tank, which seemed to place Arnold into the tradition of British Social Realism of the Ken Loach/ Tony Richardson variety with its focus on the under-privileged and its use of non-actors.  American Honey would seem to be an attempt to transpose that way of working into an American setting and Arnold reportedly took an extended road trip across the South and Southwest in order to find the “real” American before making the film.  On those journeys she found non-actors to cast in her film, including the film’s star Sasha Lane and presumably some of the film’s other actors, who manage to mingle pretty seamlessly with more experienced performers like Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough.

Another recent movie I might be inclined to compare this to is Everybody Wants Some!! in that it is essentially a hangout movie about observing bunch of dumb kids act like dumb kids, albeit very different kids from a different time and without the same nostalgic hindsight. The film is about group of teenagers and early twenty somethings who were clearly not born into privilege and don’t appear to collectively have a lot of education and can seem like rather tacky people from the outside looking in and they can be really wild at times.  These people are basically the opposite of what I was like when I was that age given the studious buttoned down lad that I was, in fact they were the kind of people I tended to actively avoid and unlike the dudes in the aforementioned Linklater movie I don’t know that I’d find much common ground to discuss with them if I let my prejudices drop and tried to strike up a conversation with them.  And yet, watching them from the safety of a movie theater they aren’t necessarily unpleasant to observe and you do almost start to see something in their youthful energy as they’re setting off fireworks or spontaneously dancing to a Rhianna song.

Andrea Arnold films all this material with conviction and does inject the movie with a lot of energy.  I do wish that Arnold would move on from her peculiar obsession with framing her movies in the Academy ratio, but otherwise her work behind the camera does a great job of feeling controlled and kinetic without smothering it.  However, the film’s episodic nature will test a lot of viewers and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t start to lose some patience with it as well.  As the film goes on you keep expecting the central character to go through more of a conventional arc and at times it starts to look like her relationship to the Shia LaBeouf will give the film a bit more of a recognizable shape in its back half, but whenever the film seems to be going in more of a plot driven direction it retreats back into slice of life territory.  I don’t know that I begrudge this approach exactly and I enjoyed it to a point but I maybe would have liked some sort of slightly more concrete example of what this whole journey means for our protagonist and where she’ll end up as a result.  In short, I would have liked an ending.  But, as they say, the journey is more important than the destination and this is certainly a solid work of filmmaking any way you cut it.

Home Video Round-Up: 10/25/2016 (Halloween Edition)

Hush (10/5/2016)

Going into Hush I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  On one hand it was directed by Mike Flanagan, who made the fairly solid horror flick Oculus, on the other hand the movie went “straight to Netflix” and that’s definitely a bad sign.  Netflix may have some great original programing when it comes to TV shows and documentaries, but outside of Beasts of No Nations it’s been little more than standard VOD platform when it comes to regular movies.  Between this, Green Room, and Don’t Breathe it’s kind of becoming clear that the whole siege/home invasion sub-genre just doesn’t really do it for me, but I think I might have actually preferred this one out of the three in its simplicity.  There are no convoluted plans to make wholesale massacres look like self-defense cases here, and the film doesn’t try to make the disabled person defending her home into the villain either.  Instead it’s this bare bones thriller about a deaf woman trying to survive the night when, for reasons that are unexplained, a crazy person with a crossbow and a big knife tries to break into her home with murderous intent.  There’s not a whole lot more to it than that and little to distinguish it from other similar movies, so it’s not likely to go down as one for the ages, but lead actress Kate Siegel does an admirable job of getting the audience involved and the few unexpected tricks the movie does try generally work.

*** out of Five

The Shallows (10/7/2016)

I’ve never really truly thought of Jaws as being a horror movie, in part because it’s mostly set in bright summer days and in part because I don’t really consider it all that “scary” per se.  Still, it’s certainly created a whole sub-genre of B-movies about shark attacks, the latest of which is a movie called The Shallows, about a woman stranded on a small bit of land off the shore in Mexico with a great white shark circling her location and waiting excitedly to devour her and any poor soul that tries to come to her rescue.  One of the amazing things about Jaws is that it works even though it has a profoundly ridiculous premise, which is a testament to Steven Spielberg’s profound skill as a filmmaker.  The Shallows is directed by a guy named Jaume Collet-Serra and needless to say he’s no Steven Spielberg, but he does make a stronger case for his stupid premise than most people making shitty shark movies do.  The behavior of the shark in this movie is beyond ridiculous.  The extent to which it seems intent on eating this one woman makes very little sense and the fact that he spends so much time just hanging around her rock is not very believable.  The movie’s visual effects are also pretty inconsistent with some of them being enjoyable to too many of them just being pretty crappy.  The film is pretty well shot overall though and it has moments that definitely work, but the film as a whole feels pretty insubstantial and as a pure work of tension decent but hardly special.

**1/2 out of Five

Darling (10/10/2016)

Darling is a movie that has had a lot of commercial constraints, in no small part because it’s a psychological horror movie called “Darling,” but also because it takes a stylistic approach that is decidedly not designed for the masses.  The film is clearly a homage to Roman Polanski’s most paranoid works, particularly Repulsion, but also has shades of Pi and The Innkeepers.  The film depicts the mental collapse of a young woman after she’s hired to be the caretaker of an old brownstone in New York.  The film employs an unconventional filming style: it’s in black and white and employs a number of quick momentary cuts that reflect her mindset’s deterioration.  If I have a problem with the movie it’s that the main character’s decent into madness seems really fast.  It feels like she’s a full-fledged loon almost from the minute that she enters into the house and we never really get that arc of her losing her mind over time as either the ghost or her own personal demon takes over.  Also I can only support the movie’s crazy cutting to a certain extent, it’s interesting and effective, but at a certain point you do need to admit that some of these edits are basically just jump scares in the grand scheme of things.  I don’t think this movie is terribly deep or original in the grand scheme of things, but for the most part it does work and it’s certainly a bold film to make in this particular genre.

***1/2 out of Five

The Neon Demon (10/13/2016)

Nicholas Winding Refn is a filmmaker who is… interesting.  He reminds me a lot of Brian De Palma in that both of them are bold stylists almost to a fault and also in that both filmmakers’ tastes run towards the seedy and both filmmakers are very willing to fill their movies with unbelievably reprehensible characters and rather stilted dialog.  That’s certainly the case with his latest provocation The Neon Demon, which is about a young starlet who travels out to Hollywood to become a model only to find that the models that are already there see her as a threat and proceed to wildly over-react.  As one would expect from a Winding Refn movie at this point, the film is really well shot and has atmosphere in droves but its story is just nutty.  Clearly the film is supposed to be making some sort of point about the male gaze and about the obsession for fame and beauty but its message about these issues is muddled and ultimately feels more like a pretense for Winding Refn’s aesthetic obsessions.  The film is more original than Winding Refn’s overrated Drive and slightly more coherent than Only God Forgives but it would be fair to say that it’s very much of a piece with both, and I really would like to see Winding Refn move on and make something a little less unhinged like Bronson again.

**1/2 out of Five

The Conjuring 2 (10/16/2016)

The original The Conjuring was to my eyes incredibly over-rated.  When it came out people were going nuts over it but I was a bit bearish on it in part because it just didn’t seem to be adding much of anything to the very familiar “haunted house” format that has been dominating contemporary horror.  I feel like the world is coming around on this because that film’s sequel was not seen as much of an event so much as just another movie where ghosts jump out at you and go “boo!”  Indeed, this is basically a complete retread of the first movie which was itself a retread of a pretty common formula.  It’s a series of jump scares and haunting clichés one after the other with nothing making it stand out aside from the fact that it pretends to be based on a true story with more conviction than most.  That having been said, my expectations were in the right place this time around and in some ways I actually enjoyed this more than the first movie because of it.  I guess it’s because I do see an end in sight to this goofy trend in jump scare movies and if they’re going to keep making them for another couple of years I’d rather they get someone like James Wan to do them because he does do it better than most and that does kind of make the Conjuring movies the king of a dumb fucking hill.

*** out of five

The Invitation (10/25/2016)

Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is a horror movie of the “is this really a horror movie or is the protagonist being paranoid” variety and focuses on a bougie L.A. dinner party that may or may not be hosted by people with malevolent intent.  Our protagonist is a guy mourning the loss of a son who is attending a gathering hosted by his ex-wife, which is hard enough, but is made even more complicated by the fact that this ex-wife has started indulging in some freaky New Age Self-Help philosophy and everything about the way the night has gone just feels kind of weird… or maybe it isn’t, maybe he’s just making up paranoid nonsense out of a misplaced suspicion of his ex and her new friends.  The movie is pretty cagey about what exactly it’s going to be, certainly signaling that it will be some sort of thriller through its tone and occasionally its score, but perhaps that’s all a red herring meant to place you in the head of someone who’s delusional.  Personally, I’m in kind of a strange place with the film as I get what they were going for but I still don’t exactly know that I was down with it.  It spends a lot of time just being a movie about yuppies doing as yuppies do and minus the tonal trickery that is not something that would impress me, also when it finally does show its hand I don’t necessarily think it becomes a particularly interesting example of the kind of movie it becomes.  All that having been said I kind or really liked the reveal at the very very end and that kind of pushed the movie just into the “liked it” column for me.

*** out of Five

The Birth of a Nation(10/7/2016)

It doesn’t happen too often but every once in a while there’s a situation where two movies that aren’t remakes of one another or anything will share a title for one reason or another.  For example, there are two movies called Twilight, not so much because one movie was leeching off another but more likely because Stephenie Meyer just hadn’t seen or heard of that 1998 Paul Newman/Gene Hackman thriller when she named her YA series.  Other times it’s less a matter of not knowing about a previous work so much as it’s a matter of not caring.  For instance, when Ridley Scott is making a mega-budgeted movie about Roman gladiators he’s probably not going to give up on his preferred title just because there was already a somewhat obscure boxing movie called Gladiator just eight years earlier.  Occasionally I’m sure this practice leads to some video store confusion (god help the people who got more than they bargained for when they tried to rent the Oscar winning race relations drama and went home with a David Cronenberg movie about car crash fetishists) but for the most part only the most anal of people tend to even notice this sort of thing.  Of course every once in a while the reuse of a title isn’t an accident and isn’t meant to be something people aren’t going to notice, sometimes it’s a deliberate comment on the previous work and that very much seems to be what’s going on with the new film The Birth of a Nation, which appears to be a rather intentional attempt to “take back” the title of D.W. Griffith’s infamously racist / highly innovative 1915 epic of the same name.

Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is not a retelling of that now one hundred year old film and is actually set a good thirty years before the events of that film (which starts with the Civil War and goes through reconstruction).  Rather, this new The Birth of a Nation is set more or less from the beginning on the 19th century up through 1831 and focuses in on the life of the famous slave rebellion leader Nat Turner (played by Nate Parker himself).  The film begins with a young Nat Turner learning how to read, despite his owner’s reservations, and having this buoyed on by his owner’s wife/future owner’s mother Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) who has Turner study the bible extensively.  Twenty years later an Adult Nat Turner now acts as a preacher for the slaves on the plantation while working on the cotton fields otherwise, and eventually his current owner Samuel (Armie Hammer) devises a scheme where he’d have Nat “tour” other plantations and preach subservience to the various slaves on each of them.  As he sees plantation after plantation and witnesses more and more suffering on his own plantation Turner becomes increasingly angry about the constant suffering that he’s surrounded by and begins to plan for a violent rebellion for freedom.

Making a movie about someone like Nat Turner certainly takes balls.  Turner was not a figure like Martin Luther King who managed to achieve great change through something as noble as passive resistance, but then again he was also completely cut off from all the “civilized” channels resistance.  He couldn’t pass around a petition, he couldn’t write a letter to his congressperson, he couldn’t boycott anything, and he couldn’t march on Washington.  Parker however seems less interested in wrestling with the gray areas of this situation than in viewing Turner’s rebellion into an act of heroic martyrdom.  In its structure and outlook the film has been compared to Braveheart but the closer analogue may actually be Kubrick’s Spartacus which actually was about a failed slave rebellion, albeit in a very different time and place.  Parker’s film lacks the epic scope and substantial production values of those two movies but it’s similar to both in the way it builds up its protagonist as this uniquely strong and noble figure whose very passion for freedom propels the people he leads into the fray of battle.

For all the film’s passion, I don’t know that it makes a particularly ironclad argument for Nat Turner’s heroism or for the importance on the rebellion he started.  It’s not that I have any qualms about the fact that this slave army killed white slave owners (fuck those people, they can burn in hell) or even that his rebellion killed women and children along the way (war is messy, what are you going to do), but I do think he bears some responsibility for the fact that his actions got a lot of innocent slaves and freemen killed both in the rebellion itself and by the white retaliations that occurred after the fact, all in service of a rebellion that failed within 48 hours and didn’t really accomplish much of anything directly other than an immediate sense of cathartic vengeance and maybe a little bit of “died with their boots on” bombast from the rebellion’s participants.  Perhaps that makes him the perfect hero for the Jill Stein/Bernie or Bust fringe of this political moment but is this really a victory in the grand scheme of things?  The ending of the movie would suggest that Turner’s ultimate victory was in his legacy, in the way he inspired future generations of black men to fight for their freedom, but that argument strikes me as a bit tenuous.  Parker would perhaps have been better served arguing that Turner was fighting less out of a belief that his rebellion would succeed and more out of a desire to strike fear in the hearts of slaveholders and show that there’s a price for holding people in bondage… but that combined with Turner’s religious fervor would arguably make him a terrorist, and that is a level of complication that the film probably isn’t too interested in exploring.

Of course when I watch the aforementioned Braveheart and Spartacus I certainly don’t spend this much time pondering whether or not the failed rebellions in either were “worth it,” why is that?  Well part of it may simply be that those rebellions lasted well over 48 hours and in the movies didn’t feel like such doomed enterprises from the beginning.  Also, those movies didn’t really claim to be smart social commentary so much as they were excuses to stage epic battle scenes.  On that point I’d also point out that both of those movies are well made enough to distract from such inconveniences and while The Birth of a Nation isn’t badly made per se it certainly isn’t the work of a master filmmaker.  Elliot Davis’ cinematography is functional, but looks a bit cheap and not overly confident, as if it doesn’t know whether it’s trying to be stylistic or natural and I really couldn’t stand the movie’s score by Henry Jackman, which overplays the movie’s uplift in all the most cliché ways possible. The performances are also all fine but unexceptional.  I feel like everyone in the cast is being asked to play a lot of their roles with rather broad strokes, none the least Parker himself who is never quite able to capture his character’s gradual transformation from “loyal servant” to violent rebel and seems generally unwilling to explore some of the less noble aspects of the character’s religious fervor.

Having finally seen the movie I kind of think the critics at Sundance maybe did the movie a bit of a disservice by hyping it up so much.  The movie is certainly a fairly noble effort but it’s hardly the first or the best movie about slavery and I don’t think it holds a candle to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.  That movie was the real deal and deserved every bit of the praise it got in 2013, I think it’s a lot more mature than this and also just generally a better made in every way.  Then again I can also see why this would have stood out amongst all the movies about mumbley Brooklynites that were likely circulating in Park City and it also stands out among the action movies and comedies that are getting wide releases more often than not.  It’s a movie that’s worth seeing both to be part of the conversation and to see a lot of the clear passion on the screen, but the Oscar buzz was premature.

*** out of Five

Crash Course: Misguided Horror Sequels

For Halloween I decided I wanted to do a special horror movie crash course, but rather than seek out movies that are like, good, this seemed like a decent opportunity to indulge in some crap that I’m perversely curious about.  Even more than most genres horror movies seem to be astonishingly sequel prone.  Hell, outside of the occasional Stephen King adaptation I can hardly think of a moderately successful horror movie in the last forty or fifty years that hasn’t been wrung dry by multiple sequels and/or remakes.  Even horror movies that didn’t seem to do that great in the first place somehow end up with numerous direct to video sequels.  What I intend to look at here are the sequels that seem particularly egregious either because they were sequels to movies that seem like should be above such treatment or they seem like movies that really left very little room for the story to continue.

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

If ever there was a horror movie that probably never should have been revisited it was probably The Exorcist both because it was an Oscar nominated classic and also because its ending was very specifically supposed to have this aura of ambiguity.  However, the fact remains that the movie was a huge box office hit and the franchise was a potential source of revenue that was not going to go untapped even if William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty wanted nothing to do with it.  To their credit, they didn’t just rush out a cheap sequel; they brought in John Boorman, a director who was pretty close to being on William Friedkin’s level and also managed to hire Richard Burton to star and Ennio Morricone to compose the score and also brought back Linda Blair and Max Von Sydow to reprise their roles (the later in a couple of flashbacks).  Someone really wanted this to be a worthy follow-up, unfortunately they really had no idea where to steer the story and the resulting movie is both kind of insane and also rather boring.

The movie starts off somewhat promisingly with a moderately interesting scene where Burton uses a hypnosis device to get into Regan’s head and watch a sort of flashback to the first movie that’s shot in an interesting way.  From there though the whole thing just gets really weird and the rules of demonic possession get increasingly confused.  The mere fact that the demon Pazuzu (whose name is said out loud a lot in the movie) is still buried somewhere deep down in Regan kind of contradicts the ending of the original movie and seems to suggest that Father Karras’ death was in vain.  Then there’s the finale which involves doppelgangers coming out of nowhere, magical car accidents, and a whole lot of locusts for some reason.  I guess the movie’s biggest sin though is that it seems bizarrely unconcerned with being scary at all and spends more time trying to tell Father Merrin’s backstory than build actual suspense.  I’ve heard that The Exorcist 3, which was made by William Peter Blatty and ignores this movie, is actually pretty decent so maybe the very concept of making a sequel to The Exorcist wasn’t completely DOA from the get go, but this movie certainly does it wrong.

Psycho II (1983)

Psycho II is a little different from the other misguided horror sequels I’m looking at this month, in part because it didn’t come out hot on the heels of the success of its predecessor and in part because the movie it was following up was already seen as stone cold classic by a titan of filmmaking when someone dared to continue the story of Norman Bates.  Made about 23 years after the Hitchcock classic and directed by a guy named Richard Franklin (who had earlier directed the Quentin Tarantino approved Ozploitation film Patrick) and seemed to be an attempt to use the newly popular language of the slasher horror film to revisit the film that some would say helped to invent that genre.  This version was of course in color and had more graphic violence and nudity, but the film did maintain some ties to the original, namely that it was shot on some of the same sets (the Bates house apparently still sits on the Universal lot to this day) and most importantly the producers were able to get Anthony Perkins to reprise his most iconic role.

From the outside everything about this project seemed to be a rather ridiculous cash grab, but I will say the actual movie does feel a little more respectful than I expected.  The recreated sets are cool to see and the actual murder scenes are fairly inventive at times and do maintain a sort of Hitchcockian ingenuity at times.  However, where the original film is in many ways timeless the sequel feels very much like a product of its time, especially when it comes to most of the supporting performances.  The bigger problem though is the script.  The story here is that Bates has been released from the psychiatric institution after twenty years and has returned to his original home/motel (which is kind of ridiculous given that this home would be all kinds of triggering) only to see people suddenly getting murdered and the movie plays with the question of whether Bates has returned to his murderous ways or if he’s being gaslighted by someone else.  I’ll give the filmmakers credit for actually coming up with a new story rather than simply doing a retread of the first film, but what they’ve given us is rather convoluted and messy.  Still, I must say, if you’re going to make a sequel to Psycho you can probably do a whole lot worse than this.  Maybe it’s ridiculously low expectations at work but the mere fact that this is a fairly watchable movie that more or less works seems like quite the achievement given everything working against it.

Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)

The original Poltergeist is one of those movies that was a pretty big hit from the get-go but which has only become bigger and bigger in the years since, especially now that it is clearly one of the top five movies that influenced Super 8 and “Stranger Things.”  Its sequels on the other hand… are movies that a sizable number of the original film’s fans might not even know exist.  Poltergeist II actually made decent money when it came out, or at least it made back double its budget and was considered successful enough to warrant a second sequel but I feel like very few people remember or care about this movie.  While the movie has close to double the budget of its predecessor it definitely has the feel of a cash in.  Most of the cast has returned with the obvious exception of Dominique Dunne (who had already become the first victim of the supposed “Poltergeist Curse”) but the talent behind the camera was much different.  The original Poltergeist was very much the product of the collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper (despite the many efforts to deemphasize the contributions of the latter) and it’s that tension between family movie uplift and hardcore horror that made it so special.

For the sequel neither Spielberg not Hooper have credits either as directors or as producers.  In their place is some guy named Brian Gibson.  If you’ve never heard of that guy it’s because you have little reason to.  He directed What’s Love Got to Do With It and about a half dozen other movies that no one cares about and as far as I can tell none of them are horror movies and none of them have very high production values.  You can tell the drop in talent because this sequel clearly seems to know the elements that people liked in the original but has none of the skill and rhythm necessary to make those elements work.  The family has managed to become a whole lot less interesting this time around, in part because their character arcs were all resolved in the last movie and they had nowhere to go.  There are two new characters (played by people who would be victims two and three of the supposed Poltergeist curse) who at least seem promising at first but are both kind of wasted as the film goes on.  One is a creepy reverend guy who sort disappears half way through and the other is a Native American shaman and the depiction of him is… I’m not going to use the “R” word and I’m not even going to drop “problematic” because I do think everyone involved had good intentions but there’s definitely some “noble savage” stuff going on and the whole thing just seems inaccurate and weird.  Then of course there’s the finale which consists of some very bad green screen effects and really an abundance of bad visual effects combined with no grasp of tone or atmosphere can be blamed for a lot of what makes the whole movie decidedly not scary.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

Out of all the movies I’m looking at for this series The Texas Chainsaw Massacre probably makes the most sense as a film to make a sequel of given that it was essentially a slasher film (the horror sub-genre most prone to sequels) and also because the original film ended with its iconic killer alive and well and ready to cause more chaos.  What’s more this is the one sequel I’m looking at which has the privilege of having been made by the original film’s director: Tobe Hooper.  And yet, this still seems like a rather crazy film to be making a good decade after the fact, in part because that original film seemed to almost be a happy accident born of a production so cheap that it almost had to have a certain gonzo realism to it.  It’s the kind of thing you just can’t recreate.  Tobe Hooper seemed to understand this as well, so in many ways he actually didn’t try to make another film like the original and instead went in something of a different direction.  Where the original film was grim the sequel is darkly comedic, where the original was made on a shoestring the sequel is actually a decent sized production (as these things go), and where the original film wasn’t nearly as gory as its title would imply, this sequel is a total gorefest that needed to be released unrated when it came out in 1986.

The film picks up some time after the ending of the original movie with the cannibalistic family from the first movie having escaped police investigation and having relocated elsewhere.  The heroine of the first movie is nowhere to be seen and in her place we follow a radio DJ who has gotten involved in one of their murders and become a target of their wrath.  One of the major ways in which this sequel differ from the original is that it has a movie star in it in the form of one Dennis Hopper as a former Texas Ranger hunting down the cannibals and he seems even more unhinged than usual.  1986 was a big year for Hopper, it saw him earn an Oscar nomination for Hoosiers and earn a lot of cinematic street cred for his prominent appearance in Blue Velvet, and this performance is somehow even bigger and crazier than his work in that movie.  The film also features Bill Mosley playing a character not unlike the hitchhiker from the first movie via a performance that almost certainly inspired the general tone and attitude of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, in fact this movie may well have had more of an influence on Zombie than the original.  Whether or not you consider this movie to be “good” will probably depend in what you’re looking for in it.  If you want a credible horror film likely to actually scare anyone, maybe stick with the original, the sequel by contrast is meant to be this insane romp filled with ridiculous images and ideas and for what it is it’s actually pretty well made.  Put it this is a movie that has Dennis Hopper pulling out a chainsaw and using it to fight Leatherface as if the two are swordfighting with chainsaws, then lodges said chainsaw in Leatherface’s stomach and pulls out two smaller chainsaws which he proceeds to dual wield… if that sentence sounds appealing to you give this movie a watch… possibly while a little drunk.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

This deservedly ignored and forgotten sequel to The Blair Witch Project was made over a decade after all the other “misguided horror sequels” I’m looking at for this series, which probably reflects how devoid the 90s were of horror movies that were special enough to seem like they shouldn’t be crassly exploited.  It is of course a uniquely insane movie for someone to try to make a sequel to given how minimalist and unique the first film was: to try to make something bigger and better would go against everything that made the first film work.  Original directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez were reluctant to rush out a sequel, so Artisan Entertainment instead hired Joe Berlinger a documentarian best known at the time for the “Paradise Lost” films, which is an interesting choice except that this sequel completely eschews the mockumentary style of the original film.  Instead the filmmakers here have decided to take a rather meta approach.   In the reality of the events of the original film did not happen and The Blair Witch Project exists as the fictional movie that it was and the film deals with a group of fans of the film who travel out to the woods where it was filmed when weird stuff starts happening to them.

I had held out some hope that this sequel would have been some sort of misunderstood gem that was unfairly criticized for trying to do something different… but no, this really is a debacle.  If I squint hard enough I can maybe envision a scenario in which the basic premise of this movie could work, but it’s clear that in the studio’s rush to get the movie out before the buzz around the original wore off they did not give it anywhere near enough time to cook and we’re left with a rather muddled movie.  Beyond that, this is just poorly made in all the usual ways that half-assed horror movies are bad.  The movie has approximately 250 times the budget of the original movie and yet still looks incredibly cheap and unlike the first movie it doesn’t have a good reason to look cheap.  It’s also got an incredibly unlikable cast of stock horror victims played by a bunch of nobodies who give generally terrible performances.  Honestly I’m shocked that this thing even got a theatrical release.  Everything about it screams “direct-to-video” and the whole thing suggests that Artisan Entertainment (who reportedly took the film away from Berlinger and made it worse than it probably would have been) had no idea what made the original thing such a special phenomenon.

Snowden(9/25/2016)/Sully(9/26/2016)

Every so often Hollywood will manage to put out a pair of movies so close to one another that one can’t help but look at them side by side.  One such instance seemed to happen this month when two film’s went into wide release within a week of one another that are so different and yet so very similar.  Both films are ostensible biopics about ordinary-ish people who became news stories within the last ten year for actions they took more or less over the course of a single night.  Both films were directed by veteran filmmakers who have become associated with opposite sides of the political spectrum and both films have the challenge of expanding what are ostensibly brief “moments of truth” into feature length films.  Hell, both films are named after surnames that start with “S.”  And yet, what links the two films on a deeper level is that both films more or less exist to ask one simple question: “was this guy a hero?”  The two movies I am of course talking about are Oliver Stone’s Edward Snowden biopic Snowden and Clint Eastwood’s Chesley Sullenberger biopic Sully.

To summarize these movies would almost be to simply recite the news headlines of a couple years ago, but I’ll do it just the same.  Snowden depicts the life of Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levit) leading up to his decision to leak multiple government surveillance program to journalists Glen Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson).  We see his time working in the CIA in both a direct capacity and as a contractor as well as his relationship with his longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).  While Scully chronicles the day airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) was forced to land an Airbus A320-214 in the Hudson River after losing two engines and the immediate aftermath of this incident including his time he and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) spent defending his actions to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Both of these movies come with their share of baggage; Sully needs to make a feature length film out of an incident that took something like thirty minutes in real life and Snowden has similar issues while also having to contend with the legacy of the critically adored documentary Citizenfour, which covers a lot of the same material.  Both movies address these weaknesses by adopting non-chronological structures.  Snowden probably does this in a more traditional way by making Snowden’s Hong Kong meeting with Greenwald and Poitras (the centerpiece of Citizenfour) into a framing story from which we flash back to most of Snowden’s adult life leading up to that moment.  That’s not terribly original but it does serve to solve one of the bigger problems with Citizenfour: the fact that that documentary did not really have an ending.  Where Citizenfour set up this Hong Kong meeting as the beginning of something (namely a vigorous public debate), Stone’s Snowden instead sets this meeting up as the end of something (namely its main character’s arc).  Sully by contrast begins after “the incident” and spends a majority of its runtime focusing on Sullenberger as he reacts to his sudden fame, experiences post-crash jitters, and defends his actions to the investigators.  It does of course eventually flash back to the crash, but the post-crash material is more the main story than a mere framing narrative.

The post-crash material in Sully showed some real promise in its early sections, in part because it seemed to be interested in getting into the head of its protagonist and exploring his self-doubt.  At times it almost felt like a sort of companion-piece to American Sniper in that Sullenberger almost seemed to be going through a sort of post-traumatic stress as he contemplated what happened.  I was especially interested in this notion that maybe Sullenberger had spent so much time considering worst case scenarios that once he finally found himself in an actual crisis he maybe, just maybe, over-reacted and tried to pull a hero move that may not have been necessary.  The movie seems somewhat interested in tackling these issues during the first act but it quickly becomes clear that Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki are less interested in these nuances than maybe they should have been.  Once the inquisitors from the NTSB come into the picture they feel less like professionals trying to do their jobs and more like smarmy villains who seem dead set in hurting our hero.  I get the impression that these NTSB hearings have been condensed to the point of ridiculousness, all the parts where the questioners are being fair and professional is cut out and the few spots where they ask questions that prove baseless are emphasized.  All the interesting self-doubt and second guessing of the first half is completely thrown out in favor of this bizarrely abrupt ending where the movie hits and incredibly smug note and then just cuts to credits rather than even bothering with the obligatory coda where our hero is reunited with his wife or something.

Given that Sully brings this controversy up just to drop it, I can’t help but feel like the movie was creating complexity where there may not have been any in the first place.  Most people going into the movie already think Sullenberger was an unambiguous hero and the movie perhaps only sows doubt about this in order to give the film something do with its runtime.  With Snowden Oliver Stone does not really have this luxury as his subject was a highly controversial figure from the moment he entered the public consciousness and in many ways Stone’s movie is interested in mounting a defense of his actions.  As such there isn’t a whole lot of nuance in his movie either, but at least it doesn’t bring up the specter of nuance just to take it back and say “never mind.”  The movie does do a pretty good job of showing exactly how the invasive government programs that Snowden blew the whistle on worked and how extensive their operations were.  That’s something that Citizenfour was never really able to do and the movie also gives the viewer a better idea of how extensive Snowden’s CIA/NSA career was.  On the other hand the fact still remains that the life of Edward Snowden, computer nerd extraordinaire, was never exactly the world’s most exciting person outside of his eventual whistle blowing and while seeing him slowly grow his convictions does have some interest it does not exactly make for the world’s most thrilling movie.

Both movies have at their centers a pretty strong performance.  Tom Hanks is solid as Sullenberger as you’d expect given that playing likable everymen is his specialty.  It’s hardly his best work but maybe it’s not that fair to dock points from the guy for his consistency.  Joseph Gordon Levitt could also be said to be a pretty obvious casting choice for Edward Snowden but we’re slightly less used to seeing him play these kind of roles.  Both movies sort of suffer a little just because their stars feel like movie stars playing dress up as commoners, but to some extent that’s just something you need to accept in Hollywood movies like this.  Sully is probably the more obviously cinematic of the two movies given that it has a special effects scene at its center and that crash re-enactment definitely delivers on what its audience is expecting form it and I particularly liked the way it was able to successfully depict this crisis as a perfect fusion of different people working together to pull off a really unlikely save.

Beyond that the movie is tonally more or less what you’ve come to expect from a Clint Eastwood movie, albeit with a slightly lighter center given that the subject matter is fairly uplifting and Tom Hanks’ general presence adds a touch of levity as well.  Of course Oliver Stone is also a pretty skilled filmmaker and while he’s been floundering as a filmmaker for the last couple decades he has always maintained a pretty good grasp on the fundamentals of filmmaking.  There’s nothing in Snowden that’s as adventurous as what Stone was doing in something like JFK or Natural Born Killers but there are at least a couple of neat touches like a scene where Snowden is having a Skype call with his CIA mentor and rather than filming a computer screen Stone superimposes the image of this guy in the entire background of the screen with Snowden looking on in the foreground as if the CIA guy were Big Brother giving orders to one of his subjects.  Stuff like that is relatively rare in the movie though and Stone generally plays things really safe, possibly to the movie’s detriment, and while this is better than most of the stuff Stone has made recently it still isn’t really the return to form that we’ve been waiting for from the guy.

So, in a direct contest between the two movies I’m not entirely sure which I’d choose.  The actual plane crash scene in Sully is probably better than anything in Snowden but then again Snowden leave you with a little bit more to chew on and nothing in Snowden pissed me off as much as the way Sully ended.  Really though I’m not sure I can say either of these movies rose above the level of “average.”  Of the two Snowden is probably the bigger lost opportunity as I feel like something a lot better could have been made either by a younger and more adventurous Oliver Stone or someone else who just had a more creative approach.  Sully on the other hand probably wouldn’t have benefited from a less conventional approach so much as it could have used a few more re-writes, possibly by someone with a slightly more thoughtful approach.  Ultimately I think both movies probably do justify their existences, but just barely and while I would say both will work well enough for people who are already interested I’m not sure I’d recommend either as movies which people who are on the fence should go ahead and take the plunge on but I’m sure both would satisfy if caught on HBO or Netflix some day.

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Our Little Sister(9/17/2016)

Japan, what happened to you?  During the 50s and 60s Japan seemed like an international force on a par with France and Italy in the world of fine cinema but everything just seemed to go to hell in the 70s.  As far as I can tell this was mostly due to television taking a bigger toll on cinema in their home market than it did elsewhere but they’ve really fallen behind other nations, especially if you’re talking about the kind of non-genre arthouse fare that wins Oscars and respect.  One of their great hopes is a writer/director named Hirokazu Koreeda, a filmmaker who’s been around for about twenty years but has risen to greater prominence abroad in the last five or ten years.  Koreeda (whose name is sometimes spelled Kore-eda, I’m not sure which is correct) is known for making small scale intimate dramas, often about families.  In this sense he could be compared to the second most famous of all Japanese directors, Yasujirō Ozu, but Koreeda has a bit more of a sentimental streak and obviously doesn’t have the same signature formal style.  I haven’t seen a lot of Koreeda’s movies at this point, pretty much just his last movie Like Father, Like Son which certainly had its moments but which never quite worked for me, but I’ve been meaning to catch up with more and his latest movie Our Little Sister seemed like a good place to start.

The film is set in modern day Kamakura (a small coastal city known as something of a vacation destination) and revolves around three sisters in their 20s whose father left the family when they were younger and ran off with another woman.  Their mother has also been out of their lives for a while but they seem to have landed on their feet and have good jobs.  All three of them still live together in a family home (I’m not sure how unusual that is or isn’t in Japan, but this mostly seems to be by choice) and generally get along with each other.  They hit a turning point of sorts though when they learn that their father, who had long since moved to a remote town in the North of Japan, has passed away leaving their fourteen year old half-sister without a blood related parent as her mother is also out of the picture.  The sisters meet this teenager for the first time at the father’s funeral and extend an offer to have her stay with them in Kamakura for a while and she opts to take them up on this offer.

Describing the appeal of this movie is not always easy, in part because Koreeada makes a lot of what he does seem quietly effortless.  In many ways it shouldn’t work.  It’s a movie with very little conflict and no traditional three act arc, and yet it still works through the almost voyeuristic thrill of looking in on the lives of a handful of ordinary yet interesting and likable characters who are very well drawn and believable.  This isn’t a revolutionary concept exactly.  Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is a similar movie that comes to mine and Richard Linklater has been known to do similar things in his own chilled out way, but it is still something that’s relatively rare to see and rare to see done this well.  Our four main characters each have distinct and believable personalities between the mature and driven eldest sister who is perhaps a bit addicted to being needed, the slightly wilder younger sister, or the middle child who is… well, the middle child.  Then there’s the much younger half-sister who initially seems to just be a simple good kid, and who is a good kid, but who occasionally reveals a sadness beneath the tough façade.

Through all this Koreeda’s direction is careful and confident but also unobtrusive and unpretentious.  It’s easy for these sort of observational movies to get a little too obsessed with realism and authenticity to the point where they become a little hard to watch but Koreeda is not above using the traditional language of dramatic filmmaking and doesn’t get carried away with filling his movie with mumbled dialogue or other such silliness.  It’s all a pretty tricky balancing act and I think Koreeda mostly pulls it off, though I do think this is a movie that you need to be in just the right mood to enjoy.  Seeing it in a theater probably helps with that, I can definitely picture someone watching it on DVD, pausing it a bunch of times, and missing some of the interesting nuances of the performances and seeing the movie as kind of pointless.  I don’t want to oversell the movie too much as I do think there are definitely movies out there that have pulled off this sort of trick better, but at the same time I do think this is worth considering and makes me want to look a little deeper into Koreeada’s career.  Above all I like the movie for how gosh darn pleasant the whole thing is and that’s a rarity in the world of well made artistic world cinema like this.