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All reviews - Movies (204) - DVDs (1)

Restless

Posted : 5 years, 9 months ago on 19 November 2011 02:57 (A review of Restless)

Some directors know exactly what makes me tick. Gus Van Sant is one of them. He specializes in unconventionality of the fresh and interesting variety, rather than for the sheer purpose of being artsy. Also, in each of his films, he does a seemingly effortless job at making transitions from light to dark material, and vice versa. Take, for example, his newest film, the achingly beautiful Restless, which is permeated by the inevitable sweetness of young love, yet it's all against the backdrop of a delightful dollop of dark humor. Van Sant has no interest in saying any of the things that have already been said dozens of times in other independent romantic dramas (and if you feel like hearing those things again, you can go watch Like Crazy, currently playing at the nearest indie theater). The stages that the two lovebirds in Restless go through as their romance develops are completely different than what we're used to seeing in other films, but the great thing is that this doesn't feel off-putting - one doesn't get the feeling of "Oh, please, two young people would never act this way around each other," but rather, one gets the feeling that this is how two quirky souls would go about connecting with each other if they were fortunate enough to have their paths cross. Add to that a hilariously nonchalant attitude towards the prospect of death, and you've got the perfect recipe for a nimble, original and thoroughly engrossing romantic drama.

We're not immediately told why, but Enoch (Henry Hopper) likes crashing funerals, despite not knowing the person who died or any of the other participants. One day, it looks like he's totally about to get caught in the act by a guy who's been watching him and noticing what he's doing. As soon as the guy starts questioning Enoch about his presence at the funeral, someone intervenes. It's Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), a girl who's right around Enoch's age, and who pretends to vouch for Enoch, claiming that he definitely knew the person who passed away. At that point, Annabel "introduces" Enoch to the guy who was getting ready to kick him out, and Enoch (who obviously decides to play along) wryly says: "Pleasure is all yours, I'm sure." You should be ready to continue hearing comments like that, because Enoch is the opposite of the standard-order male in a romantic drama who knows all the right, cute things to say in order to make the females in the audience swoon helplessly - he's quite the dark soul. Enoch and Annabel quickly start getting acquainted, and we're immediately informed that Annabel has a terminal disease, which serves as the tacit explanation for why she goes to funerals. But her attitude towards the prospect of death is very carefree and accepting, and Enoch is only happy to oblige by joking around about the situation, rather than moping and saying "Oh, no, no, I love you, I don't want you to die!".

Yes, this doesn't seem very realistic. But let me ask you this. Which do you prefer: yet another film in the long line of straight-edge, syrupy tearjerkers that feature one lovebird dying and the other lovebird suffering and grieving, which doesn't feel realistic anyway because it's too obvious that the film is manipulating us to make us shed tears, OR a movie that takes a refreshingly unorthodox view towards death and, in the process, offers off-the-wall hilarity of the best kind? If you've read my reviews in the past, I've taken jabs at films for being unrealistic... but I've only done it in cases of films that AIM to be realistic yet fail at it (I'm looking at you, Crazy Stupid Love). If a film is clearly not aiming for realism, then it's not something I'm gonna hold against it, and in fact, there are cases in which it's the right choice, as with Restless. Now, the crazy thing is that, as much as the attitudes towards death of these two characters may not seem in tune with reality, their romantic interactions are never short on authenticity. These are two people who obviously relish each other's wackiness, and I'm glad that the film is great enough to manifest their emotions to the point that I, as as viewer, was able to relish their wackiness just as much, not just because I was able to relate to it, but because it feels so tangible and organic to their personas. And, as you'll ultimately find, Enoch and Annabel's nonchalant and jokester-oriented attitude towards death isn't really that unrealistic. Since death is arguably the worst thing that can happen to you (directly or indirectly), it's not unheard of to use humor to deal with it. Enoch and Annabel both have their reasons for trying to assuage their situations with humor: Annabel has known for a while that she's gonna die, and she's accepted it, and Enoch's reasons are revealed later on in the proceedings, but they're just as understandable. Even the subplot involving Enoch's ostensible imaginary friend (which is the type of thing I'd normally pounce on as a flaw) works well, because it isn't over-used in the film - the romantic relationship retains its center stage. Also, the fact that the imaginary friend constantly beats Enoch at the games they play (Battleship, in particular) is an effective way of capturing Enoch's self-deprecation and inner demons.

I've stressed the comedic aspect of the film because there's no denying the truth: I haven't smiled more or laughed harder with any other film so far released this year. If having a dark and twisted sense of humor is a crime, I declare myself guilty as charged. The scene in which Enoch meets Annabel's mother will go down as one of the funniest scenes I've ever seen in which a guy interacts with a parent of a girl he's dating. The line "Nothing like public transportation to set the mood" had me in stitches, and I hope it has the same effect on you - if it doesn't, then you'll know that Restless probably isn't your kind of film, and that's perfectly fine, but I fall decidedly in the group of people who find this sort of thing more than merely amusing. Later on, there's a scene in which Enoch and Annabel are at a morgue staring at the wall in which cadavers have been put away, and when they're caught, the two lovebirds' comments and reactions to the people who catch them are simply uproarious. There's a scene in Restless that I was watching with a sense of growing concern and disappointment, as it seemed like the movie was taking a drastic turn towards sentimentality and over-the-top tragedy. The line "Oh God!" made me cringe in pain at how falsely it was being delivered. But then... well... it turns out it wasn't what it looked like. :) And I sighed in joyful relief, as the film immediately veered back to its brilliantly dark tone.

It came as no surprise when I heard that Henry Hopper is the son of the late actor Dennis Hopper. This is one of those cases that would bolster the argument that solid acting skills are hereditary. What I find incredible is how easily young Hopper manages to make a character who has such twisted, nihilistic views towards life still be charming and uber-pleasant to watch and listen to. There's a moment in which Enoch serves as an intermediary in a conversation between Annabel and his imaginary friend, and Hopper is freaking terrific during this entire scene, not to mention hilarious. While I've only seen two of Mia Wasikowska's films, the fact that her character here is so clearly distinguishable from the one she played last year in The Kids Are All Right says oodles about her abilities. One problem that afflicts a lot of young actors is that, as good as they may be, it often feels like they play the same character in every film, because of getting typecast into a particular role (case in point, Amanda Seyfried, who's a decent actress, yet I can't help but feel like I'm watching the same person in every film she appears in). Wasikowska displays an ability to inhabit each discrete character she immerses herself in, and her work here makes me at least flirt with the idea of watching the otherwise unappealing version of Jane Eyre that was released earlier this year. Dramatically effective as she is, she's not far behind Hopper in the comedy department, particularly in the scene in which Annabel discusses the possibility of donating her body to "science" (haha) after she dies.

I'm not sure if comparisons to Harold and Maude are appropriate. Before I even go into that, you should be aware that, if I were forced to pick my favorite comedy of all time, I'd have to answer Harold and Maude, and perhaps that makes it easier to understand why I fell so in love with a film like Restless. Both films start out as being about a young guy who likes crashing funerals, and who meets a female who does the same for different reasons than him. But Harold and Maude is more about giving one person a reason to live and to learn to appreciate everything that has been given to him, whereas Restless is much more bleak, because it's strictly about two people coping with death in its different forms (whether it's dealing with the loss of a loved one, or dealing with one's own impending death). One thing that can't be denied, though, is that both films feature romances of the darkest variety, and I absolutely love them for that. I love them for finding humor in places that most movies would normally not dare to go, let alone use them to elicit laughs. I much prefer a film that does things that are seemingly awkward and inappropriate to tickle the funny bone, rather than a film that does things that are corny and manipulative to make me shed a tear - it's just a matter of taste. What ultimately makes me view Restless as an awesome work of cinema is that its quirkiness feels so organic to the characters and to the soul of the film. As much as I really liked this year's earlier Submarine (which also toyed with death-related issues and at times used them to garner humor), there were times at which that film's quirkiness felt a bit aggressive and in-your-face. Not so in Restless. The balance between sweet-natured romance and twisted, dark humor is way too good here to be dismissed, and I thank Van Sant for being someone I can always rely on to get that.


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The Ides of March

Posted : 5 years, 9 months ago on 14 November 2011 10:00 (A review of The Ides of March)

It's common knowledge that the game of politics is as dirty as a sewer. In the current climate of economic strife and uncertainty, you'd be excused if you felt even angrier than usual upon hearing about the backroom wheeling and dealing that occurs between those in charge of creating, executing and tweaking the laws that govern us. The Ides of March is a reflection of that anger. There isn't anything new to the film's comments about political corruption. We know that this sort of thing happens. The film is more of a reminder than a piece of insight. Films like that can still be effective as long as they're compelling and entertaining, which can be said for most of the film. The first half is a brisk, brilliantly accurate portrayal of the dynamics of life on the Hill - as someone who spent a college semester working at a congressional office in D.C., I can tell you that all the details are captured perfectly. The second half of the film, while equally as entertaining as the first, consists more of contrived, trashy drama - it's never boring, but it does make the film lose points in the respectability department, considering that this is supposed to be a serious political film, rather than a potboiler.

All you need to know about the plot is that Mike Morris (George Clooney) is running in the Democratic primary for U.S. president, and that the following guys (in order of importance) are the ones in charge of handling his campaign: Paul (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Stephen (Ryan Gosling) and Ben (Max Minghella). But that order of importance in which I listed them may or may not stay that way throughout the rest of the film, as The Ides of March is very much interested in capturing the jockeying for positions that characterizes the political arena. The story focuses mainly on Stephen, who's young and obviously very intelligent, perhaps good enough to run for office on his own some day. Things get complicated once his relationship with intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) goes beyond the professional realm, and once Stephen is approached by the opponent's campaign manager, Tom (Paul Giamatti), who apparently thinks that it'd be a great idea if Stephen jumped ship and joined them. A lot of temptations, some of which may even be practical and beneficial. What to do?

The dynamics of Washington office life are portrayed with spot-on accuracy here, particularly in the sense of who's assigned to do what, who interacts with whom, who receives orders from whom, who is ignored by whom, etc. The fact that these details are captured so perfectly yet the film never loses its way as far as providing entertainment to those who either don't care or don't know much about the inner workings of the political realm is a great credit to the film. The fact that The Ides of March was released more than a year before the U.S. election is also a good sign that this film isn't at all meant to be an influential statement or commentary, but rather, that it just wants to entertain and perhaps inflame a bit as well. It's too bad that, in the final act, it all devolves into entertainment of the shameless variety, which will literally make it impossible for me to ever consider The Ides of March a serious political film, as much as that may be the intention. It wouldn't be far-fetched to at least say "bordering on ludicrous" when describing the stream of betrayals and last-minute decisions and changes that take place as the film starts tying everything up.

If that were it, I think I'd still be a little bit more generous to the film, but the problem is that there's something else - something truly unforgivable - that happens during one of the film's most pivotal scenes in the climax. I'll give you an idea without spoiling it for you, because it's only right that you're as outraged as I was when I experienced it. The film wants to point out the irony in terms of how there are certain acts that political leaders have been cruficied for, whereas there are other (clearly more heinous) acts, for which other political leaders haven't been held accountable. Yes, the insight is great. The film is absolutely correct. But holy fuck, it doesn't even try to be subtle in its delivery of that point. It doesn't even make the slightest of attempts at concealing its evident references to Clinton and Bush. When I heard that line, I was flabbergasted by how it was even possible that no one read the script and thought it stuck out like a sore thumb in terms of how obvious it's making its point. The fact that the line is delivered by an actor of the caliber of Ryan Gosling simply makes it even more off-putting. I've said this a million times in other reviews, but I have no problem repeating it: the fact that I agree with what a film has to say is of no importance. It's all about HOW it says what it says. If I agree with a film's point, but it delivers said point to us as if we were 5-year-olds who need everything spoon-fed to us, then the point is absolutely worthless. And that's because, when you try super hard to jam a point down someone's throat, it's never effective, because you lose any sense of credibility. I'm sorry to say it, but as much as I recognize The Ides of March for being an engrossing way to spend 2 hours in a movie theater, it's a film that had the potential to be much more than that, and it isn't.

Give credit to George Clooney for playing someone who's closer to a villain than a hero. As was the case with Good Night and Good Luck, though, it was obvious that he preferred to have a more supporting role here, in order to give himself more time to dedicate to his directing duties. The true lead of the film is Ryan Gosling, who's predictably very good at displaying all the swagger, stress and emotionally conflicted persona that would characterize a young talent on the Hill who may still have a thing or two to learn about the truly filthy nature of all the double-crossing that takes place in that world. That said, he has no business getting an Oscar nomination for this performance, and if that's indeed what happens, it'll be obvious as hell that the Academy simply chose to nominate him for the "safer" movie, despite the fact that his hypnotic performance in Drive is on an entirely different level. Evan Rachel Wood, whose performances I usually absolutely adore, is unfortunately stuck playing the character who's saddled with the most contrivances and hard-to-believe emotional shifts in the final act. The true standouts in The Ides of March are the serpentine Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, both of whom are magnificent at spewing the quick-witted bile that comes from men who've been on the Hill long enough to know all the tricks and to know that you can go up as easily as you can go down. Hoffman and Giamatti are perfect at playing the "I screwed you over, but it's obviously nothing personal" part. Oh, and someone apparently watched The Social Network and liked Max Minghella's rendition of a preppy douchebag well enough to ask him to show up on the set of The Ides of March and play the same character, and even wear the same suit. I guess there's no need to fix what isn't broken.

The Ides of March doesn't contain any new insight on politics or on the campaign process, but then again, one may argue that there isn't much more to say about it. It's all about bullshit and connections. For that reason, the film doesn't even offer up solutions on how to deal with political corruption: it just reminds you that it exists, and that you need to deal with it, and if you're one of those who simply doesn't care about the subject, that's perfectly fine (since you're under no obligation to like it), but don't forget that these people are severely affecting your life, and that some day, when something actually happens to you, you really might care. The film still had the potential to achieve greatness thanks to its authentic portrayal of the dynamics on the Hill and to its entertainment value, but in its latter half, it degrades itself too much for me to consider it anything more than a time-passing diversion.


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Take Shelter

Posted : 5 years, 9 months ago on 9 November 2011 03:37 (A review of Take Shelter)

"It's hard to explain, because it's not just a dream. It's a feeling."

Forget about Martha Marcy May Marlene and its impossible-to-remember title. If you're interested in watching a 2011 film that delves into the most obscure depths of a character's ostensibly paranoid mind and goes further than just TOUCHING on the difficulties experienced by someone who may or may not be losing his mind, it's as easy as saying "One for Take Shelter" at the ticket counter. This is one of the most layered, profound and wholly satisfying dramas that I've had the pleasure of experiencing this year, complete with three-dimensional characters, breathtaking performances and an absolutely masterful final 20 minutes or so. Take Shelter combines kitchen sink realism with dark psychological undertones, and manages to give all of that a slow-building sense of tension that leads to a searing, cataclysmic finale.

Curtis (Michael Shannon) and Samantha (Jessica Chastain) live in a modest house with their deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). It quickly becomes obvious that the couple's efforts are very much concentrated on working as hard as they can to give their disadvantaged daughter the best life they possibly can (as Samantha points out, Hannah has a hard time "fitting in" with the other kids, as a result of her condition). Curtis comes across as a dedicated provider who loves his wife and daughter. But something starts happening to him. He starts having a variety of dreams, all of which involve him and Hannah being in situations in which physical harm may come to them. He sees storms and tornadoes coming. He even has a dream in which their own dog attacks them. Paranoia naturally ensues. Curtis locks the dog away and starts taking measures to build a tornado shelter. We find out that Curtis' mother had suffered from schizophrenia right around Curtis' age. Does this mean that Curtis inherited the mental condition, or is there something darker going on in the gallows of Curtis' mind?

Contrary to Martha Marcy May Marlene, this film doesn't limit itself to saying "Hey, look, the main character is paranoid and he's suffering and having a hard time dealing with this!" for 2 straight hours, without saying anything beyond that. Take Shelter is not only interested in exploiting the mystery as to where Curtis' dreams are actually coming from, but it also wants to explore the emotional impact of these dreams, and to make things better, it's a multi-layered impact. You see, the fact that Curtis starts taking extreme measures such as building a tornado shelter has devastating financial circumstances for the family (which is supposed to be saving money for an operation for little Hannah). Anyone who's dealt with financial strife and who has argued with a close friend or family member over poor money-related decisions will instantly relate to Samantha's plight here. In addition to that, though, once Curtis starts manifesting his paranoia while he's not sleeping, the emotional effect on the family becomes too much to take. One gets the feeling that Curtis may snap at any moment, and since we've come to care about both him and his two girls, there's an inevitable sense of tension and concern that something terrible may happen at any moment.

Michael Shannon gives an earth-shattering lead performance. It's the kind of work that the Oscar was made for (if, of course, Oscar wins were based more on merit than on campaigns and publicity). Shannon doesn't coast on the fact that he was given an easily exploitable Oscar-bait role. Instead, Shannon displays incredible skill at capturing all the nuances and mannerisms of someone who's not all there. This skill was already more than hinted at in 2008's Revolutionary Road, and I'm glad that someone actually took note of it and realized that it'd be a waste not to milk his skill by having him play a character as amazingly complex as Curtis. Considering the large amount of buzz surrounding newcomer Jessica Chastain this year, it's common knowledge that the Academy will reward her with a nomination - we just don't know for which movie. Sadly, if Take Shelter continues to be as under-the-radar as it has been, her nomination may not be for this film, even though (now that I've seen all four of her 2011 performances), there's no doubt in my mind that this is the film for which she should be recognized. She was appropriately angelic in The Tree of Life and equally resolute in The Debt, and she did a great job at mixing comedy with sadness in The Help, but none of these performances is on par with her extraordinary work in Take Shelter. She could've relegated herself to playing a shrewish wife, but instead, she perfectly displays her emotional conflict over wanting to help her husband overcome his mental strife, yet at the same time, protecting her daughter's livelihood. I can't imagine that there's another 2011 film lurking out there that features a more interesting, relatable and at times hard-to-watch portrait of a couple dealing with troubles of both the physical world and beyond.

Yes, there are times (especially during the first act) in which Take Shelter moves at a bit of a slow pace, but the reasoning behind the filmmakers' decision for that becomes readily apparent as the film's bone-chilling final 20 minutes get under way. We realize that it was absolutely necessary to start off with a quiet sense of dread in order to escalate into a finale as monumentally devastating as this. We've seen dozens of movie characters in scenes in which they're getting ready to physically open a door, but they're unsure as to whether or not they should do it. Horror movies do this all the time, and they often use it as a cheap gimmick more than anything else. Take Shelter goes in the opposite direction of that. It's the most suspenseful moment I've sat through in a theater this year, and it's made a million times better by the fact that it's so emotionally-charged and by the potential consequences of what may (or may not) be behind that door. The film's final scene is an absolute beauty. And as I watched Chastain's face during the movie's last moments, I couldn't help but think: "This is the type of film that The Tree of Life should've been." That's because Take Shelter isn't artsy for the sake of being artsy, and it doesn't limit itself to a glossed-over, superficial analysis of family dynamics and emotional difficulties. It digs deeply into all of those issues, and makes them concrete and palpable, which in turn, makes audience members be able to relate to them very strongly. Add two of the most passionate and heartfelt performances of the year, with Shannon's turn capturing madness and brokenness better than any actor in recent memory, and you've got one of the finest dramas of the year.


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Martha Marcy May Marlene

Posted : 5 years, 10 months ago on 25 October 2011 02:15 (A review of Martha Marcy May Marlene)

Paranoia is one of the most harmful emotional states that one can have the misfortune of falling into. When you're constantly worried about the possibility that something terrible might happen, and you're constantly looking over your shoulder, it's impossible to find any sort of peace. Sure, if you tell someone about your paranoia, the person might tell you "Just chill out, don't worry about it." But you might be so consumed by whatever it is you're worried about, that the advice may prove fruitless. Even worse, what if the thing you're paranoid about is something you just don't feel you can even share with anyone? You might be in desperate need of help and consolation, but some secrets are so dark and disturbing that it's impossible to find the will to tell other people about them, even if you know they'd be able to help assuage the paranoia you're experiencing.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has been living in a commune of sorts, in which she shares one house with several men and women. It's one of those places that they refer to as "cults," as these people are entirely separated from the rest of society and live a pretty unconventional life. We don't immediately find out all the details about what Martha went through during her time in this place. All we see in the film's beginning frames is that the men eat before the women, and that there seems to be a quietly sinister air going on here. Within the first few seconds of the film, Martha is fleeing from the house and running through the woods, with one of the cult members apparently following her. She manages to make it to a phone booth, and calls her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who comes and picks her up. Martha moves in with Lucy and her husband. It soon becomes apparent that Martha's having a difficult time adjusting back to life in the real world. As soon as we notice that, the film starts cutting back and forth between scenes of Martha's re-adjustment to normal life in Lucy's house and scenes of Martha's time at the cult. We discover that, as soon as she arrived at the cult, the group's leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), changed Martha's name to "Marcy May," because he thought it seemed more fitting for her. Of course, since the film's title is Martha Marcy May Marlene, you may be wondering how the "Marlene" fits into all this, but that'd take me into spoiler territory.

Martha Marcy May Marlene continually intercuts between the scenes of Martha's return to an ostensibly normal life with her sister and the eerie scenes of her life at the cult. No, it's not as cut-and-dry as saying that she's happy now that she's back in the "real" world and that suffering is all she did while she was living under Patrick's tacit dictatorship. We find out that Martha and her sister had actually not seen each other for two years, and that they had a lot of unresolved emotional issues with each other. In fact, when Lucy goes to pick Martha up at the phone booth, their reunion isn't of the "Oh my God, I'm so glad you're back safe and sound!" variety. It's a lot more detached than that. It becomes disturbingly evident that Martha's conception of sexuality became severely warped during her time at the cult, which means that she doesn't adhere to social norms when it comes to things such as nudity in front of others and of understanding that sex is something that's supposed to happen in private. The film will often show a particular difficulty that Martha has dealing with something that is "expected" of her in the normal world, and then immediately transition back in time to a scene in the cult that depicts why her mind works the way it does. To make matters more complicated, Martha is constantly paranoid about the possibility that someone from the cult will suddenly appear and try to wrestle her back to the commune. Even worse, we suddenly start wondering about how accurate the scenes of what happened at the cult actually are: "Do you ever have that feeling where you can't tell if something is a memory or a dream?" Suddenly, that line makes us question how much we can rely on the veracity of the flashbacks that we're being exposed to.

The film is naturalistic to a fault, and it touches on highly disturbing subject matters... but I stress the word "touches." You see, as much as I appreciate the film's realistic feel and the seamless editing in the transitions from the scenes in the present to the scenes in the past, I can't help but feel that this film wasted the opportunity it had to be an absolutely devastating piece of cinema. Since it's supposed to be an examination of Martha's coping with what happened to her at the cult, I find it very strange that the cult scenes feel so mechanical. Save for Martha and Patrick, all the other characters who populate the cult feel like robotic stock figures who are there merely to convey an air of eeriness without ever getting even slightly fleshed out as characters. The same can't be said for the scenes between Martha and Lucy, during which the film does a terrific job at examining the difficulties of the relationship between these two sisters, subtly touching on their past without ever revealing absolutely everything. But unfortunately, since the main thrust of the film is supposed to come from the impact of her experiences at the cult, it's hard not to experience a sense of detachment here. This becomes worse when, much to my surprise, in its attempt to exemplify Martha's struggle to adjust to life back in the "real" world, the film chooses to bring to the table the age-old debate as to whether one should be concerned with money/material possessions or whether one should simply live life without any of those preoccupations - of all the cult-related cliches, the film apparently couldn't think of a less obvious one to exploit. The scene at the dinner table in which the issue is discussed doesn't feel organic to the film, but rather, it feels like something that the filmmakers wanted inserted into the running time no matter what. The more serious problem that I have with Martha Marcy May Marlene, though, is that it doesn't go beyond telling us that "She's having a hard time adjusting to life after the cult." The film starts delivering that message 15 minutes into the running time, and when we get to the final scene (effective as the scene may be in terms of the room for interpretation it leaves), it's still delivering that EXACT same message rather than having gone even deeper into the depths of Martha's paranoid psyche. Again, I suspect this is a consequence of the fact that those scenes at the cult are so mechanical - it makes the film incapable of making Martha's fears more specific, and that's a detriment.

As much as I feel like the cult scenes don't go as far into the depths of hell as they should, there's one visual flourish that I did highly appreciate. There are two particular scenes in which a newly-inducted female cult member is being "prepped" to be sexually abused. In both cases, the "prepping" is done by one of the other girls who lives at the commune. Both scenes take place at night in the same dark room in which a few rays of light manage to enter. The face of the girl who's being "prepped" to be abused, who still has her purity intact, is lit entirely by the white light, whereas the face of the girl who's doing the prepping is also lit by the same light, yet there's a streak of dark right across her face, to signify that her innocence has already been dashed. Truly a brilliant touch. If the cult scenes were characterized by more instances of this, if the people who populate the cult had more than one dimension to them, and if the film were less mechanical in terms of depicting the experiences undergone by the characters at the commune, my reaction to the film as a whole would be much more enthusiastic.

Elizabeth Olsen has all the flair of a young Vera Farmiga. It's a quietly raw performance. Those piercing eyes are damn powerful especially in some of the quieter scenes. Olsen is forced to negotiate a lot of emotions here, and she doesn't miss any of the beats. Standing out as well is John Hawkes, who can be menacing without saying a word and without even doing anything. If he earned an Oscar nomination for his work last year in Winter's Bone, I don't see why the Academy wouldn't follow suit here in recognizing him for his work as the cult leader. The fact that his silent killer persona in this film works so well is a sign of how great Martha Marcy May Marlene would've been if all the other cult-related aspects had been handled with just as much grit and expertise. Sarah Paulson is terrific: Lucy never comes across as a simple shrew who wants Martha to adhere to social conventions no matter what. Instead, she's more conflicted about how to deal with a sister with whom she's had no connection for a long time and with whom she has a difficult past. Louisa Krause, who was so great in last year's underseen Toe to Toe, shows similar shades of greatness in this film as one of the girls whom Martha connects with at the cult, but once again, since the cult members aren't as fleshed out as they should be, she doesn't get the opportunity to shine that she deserved.

Despite its missteps in handling the cult scenes, Martha Marcy May Marlene deserves credit for its realism, flawless editing, strong performances, creepy aura, and towards the end, for how nicely it plays with the line between what's real and what isn't real: it's not unwarranted to suspect that Martha's paranoia towards the possibility of being stalked by some of her former cult mates has at least distorted one or two of the events that we've witnessed during the film's running time. The movie has an ambiguous and jarring ending that works well, because people will likely have entirely different interpretations of it. If only the material that came before the ending had managed to exert a more devastating effect, I'd be calling this the Oscar-worthy masterpiece that other people will probably call it. Alas, I can only go as far as saying that it's an effectively eerie piece of cinema, and that I welcome its decision to at least touch on subjects so dark and potentially haunting.


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Paranormal Activity 3

Posted : 5 years, 10 months ago on 21 October 2011 03:15 (A review of Paranormal Activity 3)

The experience of watching the Paranormal Activity films one after the other is like watching a story's layers gradually being peeled away, as more and more elements of the narrative are slowly revealed to the fervent fans who have been following this franchise from its beginning. I completely disagree with people who think that this franchise is an exercise in "rinse, repeat." That would be the case if, like so many other horror franchises, the Paranormal Activity films each consisted of entirely different sets of characters, all of whom went through the same motions of having their houses haunted. But this particular franchise offers the story of a family with a particularly eerie history of being stalked by an ultra-persistent demon. The fact that all of these films have focused on gradually expanding the story of these two sisters makes it much easier for one to get engrossed in it and to be curious as to what will ultimately happen to them. In fact, the only strong objection I have towards Paranormal Activity 3 is that, while it does an effective job in the first five minutes at tying what happened in the first two films to what's going to happen in this one, the same can't be said for the last five minutes. The ending of Paranormal Activity 2 was brilliant because it picked up the first film's storyline right where it had left off, showed us what happened next, and THEN established yet another hook for us to look forward to. But sadly, as I'll discuss a little more later, Paranormal Activity 3 simply ends, without tying its conclusion to the events of its two predecessors, and without continuing where they had left off. As unsatisfying as that ending may be, though, there's no denying the fact that the 80 or so minutes that precede it are bone-chilling as hell. It has been a long time since I've wanted to cover my eyes during a horror film NOT from being disgusted by the blood and guts spewing all over the place, but rather, from being morbidly afraid that something will suddenly show up on the screen and scare me to death. Not unlike the two films that came before it, Paranormal Activity 3 is a terrifying motion picture and an expertly crafted exercise in subtle build-up of tension.

Kristi (Sprague Grayden) is in her late twenties and she recently became pregnant. It's 2005, and she's moving into a house with her husband, and her sister Katie (Katie Featherston) is helping them move in. When they start unloading some of the boxes, Kristi and Katie find some home videos of when they were little. They had no idea that these videos had been conserved. Some time later, Kristi's house gets mysteriously ransacked, with no valuables stolen, EXCEPT for those home videos. As we learned through the events of the first two films, a demon starts haunting the house soon after the ransack takes place. Reference is made to the fact that there's the possibility that the demon is interested in taking "the first-born male" of this family, which would be the case with Kristi's baby boy. Eventually, Kristi gets possessed by the demon. In a desperate state, Kristi's husband seeks help as to how he can get rid of the demon, and unfortunately, he discovers that the only way to do it is by transferring the demon over to a blood relative of Kristi's. Since he wants to save his wife, he goes through with it, and soon after, Kristi is perfectly fine, but the same can't be said of her sister Katie, who has now been taken by the demon. In her state of possession, Katie goes to Kristi's house, kills both Kristi and her husband, and steals Kristi's baby. Paranormal Activity 3 focuses largely on showing us what was in those tapes that mysteriously disappeared from Kristi's house. The tapes date back to 1988, when Kristi and Katie were little girls (now played by Jessica Tyler Brown and Chloe Csengery, respectively). The two girls live in a house with their mom, Julie (Lauren Bittner) and her boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). During the first two films, we always heard bits and pieces about how Kristi and Katie remember having been haunted by something when they were kids, and there was also mention of the fact that their house burnt down at one point. But the impression one got during the first two films was that these two women either didn't remember those events very well, or that they simply didn't want to talk about them. At one point during the second film, the two of them were alone in a room, and Kristi tried to start engaging Katie about the subject, but Katie responded "I don't wanna talk about it" and that was that. Paranormal Activity 3 is the opportunity for us to find out about these horrific, ostensibly forgotten events.

If you've seen either of the first two films (or both), you already know whether or not you have the patience for this. The scares in Paranormal Activity 3 emerge slowly, but surely. Yes, it's the same formula of having cameras set up around the house, but this particular movie adds a few nifty touches, not least of which is the utterly brilliant idea of having one of the cameras attached to a fan, which means that the camera will gradually move from one side to another. This is milked to perfection in several scenes in which you'll literally be on the edge of your seat wondering what you'll see the next time that the camera moves towards a particular side of the house. The room in which the two girls sleep has one of those miniature doors that leads to one of those cavernous little rooms in which toys are generally stored, but, as you'll imagine, in this movie, that small, dark room proves to be a lot less inviting. As I had said in my reviews of the first two films, the horror you experienced from the first movie came from the gradual development of tension, whereas the second one banked more on jump scares. I dare say that this third movie does a nice job at coalescing the two. It makes terrific use of situations in which one person is walking through hallways or walking down stairs with the constant threat of something terrible emerging at any moment. Scary as hell.

Something that surprised me a lot about Paranormal Activity 3 is how good a job it does at actually inserting humor into the proceedings, without letting any of it become ridiculous. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments to be found here, either during or after the scares. There's a scene in which, much to the chagrin of the two characters involved, a nice round of foreplay gets interrupted. There's a hilarious moment in which, after a fake-out scare, a character laughs at himself for having gotten scared so easily, sits on the toilet, and another character makes a remark about the appropriateness of the spot he chose to sit on. After playing a game of "Bloody Mary," one character's attempt to "keep his cool" in front of a kid (so as to not look weak) is worthy of a heap of laughs. Oh, and then there's the line "She got blown in the face" (lol), which you'll definitely understand better once you hear it in the context of the scene. One scene that seemed to combine scares and laughter perfectly (at least for the audience with whom I saw the film) is one in which a character's hair suddenly gets pulled upwards; the moment may initially cause you to jump because of how unexpected it is, but it'll be hard not to laugh at the ridiculousness of it once it's over. These are all good things - one needs relief after being so deeply stung by a moment of horror.

One objection I'd had towards the first two films (particularly the first one) was that it felt a little unrealistic that these people didn't just get up and leave and head over to a hotel or a relative's house. The films made it clear that the demon would continue to hunt these people no matter WHERE they went, but it seemed like it was important to actually show that. The makers of Paranormal Activity 3 took note of that issue, and came up with a terrific way of resolving it. During the final act, the family heads over to a different house, but... well, let's just say the level of creepiness and tension just becomes even worse. The final few minutes, in which a character is walking through the labyrinthine house, slowly discovering things that nobody would ever want to discover, are horrifying, and reactions along the lines of "Please make it stop already" aren't unwarranted.

As I said, unfortunately, as scary as the last act is, the way it ultimately ends won't necessarily prove satisfying to those who have been following the franchise from the beginning and are interested in knowing the fate of the characters who were still alive in 2006, at the end of the second film. This won't prove to be a problem for people who haven't seen the other movies (or for people who've simply gone to see all of them, and just want the scares, without really caring about the chronology of these people's story), but it doesn't satisfy the rest of us. When Paranormal Activity 2 ended, I wanted to start clapping immediately at how brilliantly these filmmakers had tied the first two films and how amazingly well they had set things up for the next film. It's too bad we can't say the same here. To make matters a little more disappointing, despite the fact that the first two films made plenty of references to "the fire" that had taken place when Katie and Kristi were little girls, we don't see that plot line come into play here. Of course, this all leads one to assume that perhaps a fourth film is being planned, but even if that's the case, that doesn't stop me from feeling quasi dissatisfied with how this particular entry concluded. Oh, and we've also lost the captions that usually appear at the beginning and at the end (the captions at the beginning always had Paramount Pictures "thanking" the families of the deceased, whereas the final captions always established the hook for the next film - but it doesn't happen here).

All in all, though, the conclusion to be drawn is that the first two films were companion pieces that complemented one another, whereas Paranormal Activity 3 is a prologue that, unfortunately, doesn't end up being more than that. The great news is, though, that, prior to making that disappointing decision, it's a decisively terrifying prologue. I don't see a lot of horror movies nowadays... it's not because I don't like the genre. I love it. It's because I prefer being scared rather than being grossed out, and unfortunately, most of the recent output has provided the exact opposite of what I'm looking for. My appreciation for the Paranormal Activity films doesn't have so much to do with how "realistic" or "unrealistic" they may be. Anyone who's not an idiot knows that, as much as they're being dressed up as "found footage" films, these things aren't real. But that doesn't stop the approach from having a profoundly frightening effect on me. The effectiveness of the horror genre shouldn't depend on how easily someone can be shocked by cheap images, but rather, it should hinge entirely on how well the film can penetrate the mind of the audience member and awaken his/her fears. The Paranormal Activity franchise may not be perfect, but I'm not ashamed to tell you that, for three years in a row, no other cinematic effort has come even close to making me lose any sleep at night.


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50/50

Posted : 5 years, 10 months ago on 30 September 2011 11:48 (A review of 50/50)

I should start this review by telling you that I have a strong dislike towards Terms of Endearment. I consider it to be one of the worst films to earn the Best Picture Oscar. It's been several years since I last saw it, but "shrill, forced and manipulative" comes to mind when I try to remember my impression of it. Two years ago, I felt the same way about My Sister's Keeper, which was a syrupy tearjerker to the max. But because of the Oscar glory it enjoyed, Terms of Endearment probably serves as the frame of reference for people when it comes to "cancer movies," so it's no suprise that, at one point during 50/50, a character mentions the 1983 Oscar winner. Obligatory as the mention may be, there's no sense in comparing the two films, because the delightful and heartfelt 50/50 is devoid of all the manipulation and nauseating schmaltz that has characterized dozens upon dozens of "cancer movies," including the ridiculously overrated Terms of Endearment. It may be because it's inspired by a true story, or because the filmmakers here manage the incredibly tough task of balancing comedy and heartbreak so perfectly, or it may be because of both of those reasons, but 50/50 offers a refreshing reprieve from the tearjerking falsity that characterizes most "cancer movies."

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 27-year-old who seems to be doing everything he needs to do to lead a nice, comforting life. He's really amiable. He exercises in the morning. His girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) has moved in to live with him. He has fun hanging out and getting coffee with his friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), who is more extroverted, and therefore, he brings out Adam's more extroverted side as well. In fact, the only thing currently wrong with him is a backache, and since Adam is so good about taking care of himself, he goes to the doctor to get it checked out. Much to his devastation, though, the diagnosis is bad news: Adam has a large tumor in his spine. A google search reveals that someone with this type of cancer has a 50% chance of survival. He decides to reveal the situation to his mother, Diane (Angelica Huston), who reacts exactly the way my mother would in this situation: alarmed and emotionally devastated, yet quick to take action, rather than wallow in mawkwish melodrama (you know, like all those other "mothers" in cancer movies). As part of coping with his treatment, Adam goes to see a therapist, who turns out to be much younger and appealing than Adam would've expected - it's Katherine (Anna Kendrick), who is THIS close to getting her doctorate. Adam is only her third patient, as she's still in training, which means Katherine is basically just as apprehensive about this as Adam is, as much as she may not want to show it. As you may expect, these therapy sessions are permeated by awkwardness (of both the funny and serious variety) and by the inevitable potential for something more than a mere therapist-patient relationship to start brewing here.

If I hadn't yet seen 50/50 and I had read the above plot description, I would've probably rolled my eyes at all the cliche alerts that are scattered in that paragraph. And if you've read my reviews, you may have gotten the impression that I'm quick to be dismissive of cliched material, but that's not entirely true. It's all about what is DONE with the cliches. The problem is that cliches are generally handled poorly, and they stick out like sore thumbs. In order to avoid the possibility of something feeling too conventional, all a film has to do is ensure that the event feels ORGANIC to the film, rather than like something one has seen countless of times. 50/50 does a terrific job at that, and it's even more admirable because of the tough tightrope it has to walk. The film is about the usage of humor as a healing agent, which means that, at any point during the running time, there could've been a disastrous collision between the comedy and the difficult subject matter, and everything would've come crashing down. This film could've been tonally awkward as hell, but that rarely registers throughout the running time (save perhaps for the scene in which the doctor reveals the disease to Adam - the amount of indifference that the doctor displays is too exaggerated, even if the film is making an accurate point about how impersonal physicians can be).

There's a sequence of scenes in which one character catches another character in an act of deception, and so, the first character goes ahead and decides to expose what the other character did. The scene in which this takes place is brilliant, because the "Ha! I caught you!" aspect of it is handled hilariously (it's one of the scenes in which Seth Rogen's comedic chops are milked to terrific effect). But the other reason why the scene is so great is that it also knows when to have Rogen's character step aside and go off screen, so that the more painful dialogue that needs to take place can happen without there being a confounding collision between comedy and drama. As the film's final act gets underway, there's a moment that seemed on the verge of making the film go way over the top, but once again, 50/50's sense of restraint saves it from that. It's that typical moment you've seen before in which the main character reaches a breaking point and can't handle the frustration anymore and decides that he might as well do something life-threateningly stupid. You've seen the scene before: the frustrated character gets in a car, and decides "fuck it," and starts driving at 120 miles per hour, not caring about the fact that a close friend is sitting in the passenger's seat, because he's no longer thinking straight enough to care about anything. These scenes are generally ridiculous and cringe-inducing in other films, but that isn't the case in 50/50, because it handles it much more authentically: the reckless act lasts all of five seconds, which is exactly as long as it would last if somebody in real life experienced similar temporary derangement. And it's understandable to have a bitter taste left in one's mouth after a scene like this, which is why 50/50 has the good sense to punctuate it with a really sweet and heartfelt telephone conversation, in order to wash that away. I'm not the type to say "Awwww" very often, but when the line "I bet you'd be a good one" was delivered, I had a hard time holding it back.

The therapy scenes between Adam and Katherine probably won't work for some audience members. They'll be turned off immediately by the awfully convenient fact that Adam is being counseled by an attractive girl who is even younger than him, and perhaps they won't take well to the fidgety way in which their conversations unfold. I loved the scenes, but for very personal reasons. First of all, I believe that, in keeping with its great ability at sustaining a healthy balance, the film does a good job of not allowing the romantic tension to get in the way of the most important issue, which is Adam's musings on how he feels and on how he's handling the situation. The potential for romance doesn't really come up until much later, when it actually feels right. But more importantly, the scenes worked for me because, aside from sympathizing with Adam (which is inevitable), I was able to relate to Katherine very strongly. She's on the verge of finishing a difficult academic career, and therefore, she's training for the real thing, and that's causing her a lot of stress. She's very tentative and insecure when giving advice to Adam and when trying to come up with solutions for him. I loved her tentativeness and her insecurity because I know exactly what she's going through. So, while some people may only sympathize with Adam's situation and not be thrilled with the other aspects of the therapy scenes, I have to admit that I ate them up, because I was deeply engrossed in the situation faced by both characters. Watching them speak to each other was an absolute delight, and it didn't ring false for a second, despite how easily that could've happened. Sure, it gets a little bit more contrived once their relationship moves outside of the confines of the hospital and Katherine makes an all-too-convenient decision to drive Adam home, but by that point, we're sufficiently interested in the dynamic that these two have going on that we can overlook the problem and keep moving forward with them.

Then again, I shouldn't be thanking only the filmmakers for how well those scenes worked for me. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anna Kendrick's performances are stupendous. The former actor will inevitably earn more praise because he has more difficult material to deal with, but if we were assigning performance grades here, both would deserve an A+. Gordon-Levitt continues to exude an uncanny ability to shift effortlessly from one emotion to another, while making it all feel seamless; he plays a character who continuously tries to take his situation in stride and find humor in what is happening to him, but the transition he makes towards the end when the frustration is too much is played out perfectly. He's started to achieve mainstream fame recently (because of Inception, which isn't really the best movie to see him in first), but anyone who has seen Mysterious Skin and Brick has been well aware of his supreme talent for years now. For the second time in a row (the first time being her work in Up in the Air), Kendrick plays a character that I can relate to on several levels. The fact that she plays it with such a refreshing amount of zest and energy, and that she can still display apprehension as well as she does, just makes it even better. As for the other actors, Seth Rogen predictably adds a great amount of comedic flavor to the proceedings, while still keeping his poise during the movie's heart-breaking moments. The only flaw regarding his performance is the same one he's had in past performances (particularly Pineapple Express and The Green Hornet), and that's when he tries to be forceful and funny at the same time, such as during his line delivery when he takes Adam aside and tells him "Dude, come on, we have a chance to fuck these girls tonight!". I normally hate Bryce Dallas Howard's performances, though she fares reasonably well here. Then again, since 50/50 is so good about never going overboard in terms of ANYTHING, the film only features just the right amount of her (we don't see as much of her after a certain point in the film). Oh, and it's an absolute pleasure to see Phillip Baker Hall in the type of supporting role that he always plays so fantastically well.


**SPOILERS BELOW**


Terms of Endearment and My Sister's Keeper both ended tragically, but their tragic endings existed exclusively for the manipulative purpose of eliciting tears and deceiving people into thinking they watched something emotionally nuanced. I'd rather watch something that feels more genuine and affecting, regardless of whether a character dies at the end or not. Any filmmaker can have a character die - you just put it in the script and then shoot it. It's easy. What's not easy is to make the journey towards the character's fate resonate emotionally with audiences. The marvelous thing about 50/50 is that the protagonist's survival isn't treated as a way to give the film one of those ultra-triumphant happy endings in which everyone jumps into each other arms' at the end. In fact, in keeping with its approach of exposing the healing effect of humor, the post-survival scenes focus a lot on the fact that Adam is still high from the anesthesia, which leads to plenty of hilarity. The film's final scene is reminiscent of the ending of Adventureland, even if it isn't quite as flawlessly played. It's one of those endings that's more interested in displaying a potential for happiness, rather than just feeding us a full-on happy ending with a prolonged kiss and a zoom-out. Once again, that's a testament to 50/50's great sense of restraint. For its ability to be funny and heart-breaking without ever confusing the two, and for the greatness of the work done by both Gordon-Levitt and Kendrick, 50/50 is easily an early frontrunner for my favorite dramedy of the year.


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Drive

Posted : 5 years, 10 months ago on 26 September 2011 04:19 (A review of Drive)

Those of us who live in the shadows, who sit back and let other people take the front seat and be extraordinary, can't really be faulted for enjoying that lifestyle. There's a certain comfort in being ordinary: much less risk of getting hurt or of running into trouble. But then there are times in life that something will happen to you or you'll meet someone, and you'll suddenly feel like maybe you're worth it, damn it, and you'll feel motivated to at least consider the possibility of shining brightly as a person and kicking ass. That motivation will usually be sparked by someone for whom you develop romantic feelings. Friends and family are nice, but let's face it, they usually just validate who you are as a person, and thus, they make you feel like it's okay to remain the way you are. But when you meet someone who awakens unknown passions in you, that event by itself is usually powerful enough to make you want to get out of the shadows and actually do something that matters with your life.

Driver (Ryan Gosling) is known only as "Driver" because he's as secondary a person as one can be. He doesn't have primary billing in any aspect of anything he does in his life. His various jobs include working as a stuntman for films, as an employee at an auto shop, and as the driver who is in charge of picking up people who have just committed heists and of taking them to designated locations. When he meets his new neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), she asks him whether he recently moved to LA, and he says "No, I've lived here for a while," though, of course, nobody has noticed it, because he's just another scattered shadow in a city filled with a bunch of people who are much more important than he is. But Irene does something to our protagonist. No, there's nothing sexual going on here. It's more like Driver develops a protective instinct over Irene and her son, Benicio (Kaden Leos). These two people finally give Driver something worth caring about.

Of course, when we find out that Irene is married and that her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is about to get out of prison, it's easy to start making predictions as to where this will go: "Oh, the husband's getting out of jail, so he's probably gonna be a real badass, and he's gonna start wondering if Driver's been screwing his wife, and he's gonna get all pissed off, and then it's gonna be an awesome love triangle, and then Driver is gonna kick the husband's ass and get the girl in the end." All wrong predictions, because Drive isn't the least bit interested in conventionality. Our main character continues to be driven by the desire to protect Irene and her family, so when he finds out that Standard needs to carry out a heist in order to pay off some favors that were done to him in jail, Driver is more than willing to oblige in helping Standard. Everything that happens in Drive from that point forward is completely unexpected. The discovery that Driver makes is one that Hollywood films constantly refuse to let their characters make: that being a hero and fighting for something or someone you care about is an often frustrating, heartbreaking and downright dangerous endeavor. Driver gets a rude awakening in discovering that taking center stage isn't quite as glorious as those movies he stunts for make it out to be.

Here's the shocking thing about Drive. Very little actually happens in the film. In fact, I basically told you what happens in the entire film in the above two paragraphs. "Wait, so you spoiled everything?" No, not really. Because Drive isn't so much about the events that happen during it as it is about the atmosphere that permeates throughout every scene. I didn't watch Drive - I experienced it. It has been a long time since I haven't looked at my watch once while viewing a film in the theater, and the fact that Drive, a movie with so many quiet and somber moments, managed to do that is a testament to the expertise with which it's been crafted. I was engrossed beyond belief. If you watch the movie and then watch the trailer right after, you'll realize that the trailer basically gives you a full narration of everything that happens in the movie... but it's not really spoiling anything, because it's impossible to spoil a film that works as tremendously well as it does thanks to the FEEL it has, and not to its events. Something extremely rare happens during the entirety of Drive's running time: the film is allowed to breathe. The pacing is perfect. Those quiet and somber moments are being derided as boring by impatient people, but my eyes were glued to the screen during them.

Consider a scene that takes place in an elevator occupied by Driver, Irene and a likely villain. If you've seen the trailer, you know exactly what happens during the scene: you know that Driver and Irene share a quick kiss, and that Driver then starts fighting the guy. But if you don't watch the movie, you won't be able to experience it at the pace that you're meant to experience it. The scene is a beauty. Before the kiss even occurs, the camera emphasizes the white lighting in the elevator in order to give the moment an angelic aura (because angelic is exactly what Irene is, as played by Carey Mulligan and as captured by the camera). The relationship between Driver and Irene is of the innocent variety because, like I said, the film concerns itself more with the fact that Irene is an emotional catalyst for Driver, rather than with any romantic or sexual details. The fact that this is conveyed so perfectly by the white lighting and by the briefness of the kiss is, in short, mesmerizing. The intensity of the white light wanes as soon as Driver switches to fighting mode, as he continues descending into the unexpectedly dark depths that one encounters when trying to be a hero for real.

Indeed, despite the impression you may get from my description of the ethereal elevator kiss, Drive is an incredibly dark motion picture. The violence and gore are quite graphic. Since some of the marketing for Drive is making deceptive use of Ryan Gosling's sex appeal, part of me wonders what the response of women who go see the film exclusively for the actor's looks will think during a scene in which he menacingly stands over a female character with his fist ready to strike, demanding information. I thought the moment was gloriously well-played, but wouldn't be surprised if people with different expectations were offended by this, or by the truly awesome, um, blood-spurting implosion that takes place in the bathroom a few seconds later.

Offended or disappointed as someone may be by this, the reality is that Gosling's sex appeal has absolutely nothing to do with anything that Drive wishes to accomplish through the actor's rendition of the reticent protagonist. Impressive as his work was in the likes of Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl and last year's Blue Valentine, what he does with Driver is an entirely different animal. Gosling communicates a million things during a scene despite having little to no dialogue to help him say them. In the early scenes during which he begins interacting with Irene and Benicio, there's clear evidence in the look in his eyes and in his half-smiles that something new has sparked within him. Later on, Driver is telling someone to shut his mouth, in one of those moments that could've easily felt straight out of a hammy scene starring Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jason Statham... except that the look on Gosling's face is so haunting and diabolical (like nothing I've seen the actor do before) that it's impossible to put him in the same league as those other two. That's because Drive isn't interested in making a wooden action figure out of its lead character. Those of you who want that can go look elsewhere. I prefer broken characters whose demons aren't afraid to come out, and I give Drive and Gosling high praise for providing that. Carey Mulligan also deserves her share of acclaim for being so effective at capturing the purity of Irene, and for forming the base for the refreshingly tame and innocent bond that forms between her and Driver.

The technical aspects of Drive are handled masterfully. As far as cinematography is concerned, Drive actually reminds me of this year's earlier Last Night, in terms of the hypnotic effect achieved by the camera in how it captures nighttime city exteriors (although the two films couldn't be more different as far as plot and amount of dialogue are concerned). Drive does with Los Angeles what Last Night did with New York, which is taking a city that has been used, abused and whored out in dozens of mainstream motion pictures and giving it a completely different feel. In both films, I felt as if I was transported somewhere entirely different than the Los Angeles and New York I'm used to seeing. I felt as if in a trance-like, engrossing daze. I dare say that the atmosphere and soundtrack in Drive are characters all on their own, considering how strongly they both resonated with me throughout the film. There's a piece of editing towards the end that borders on brilliance, as two characters are sitting across from each other at a restaurant table and the film suddenly starts inter-cutting between their reactions to one another and the events that would take place a few minutes later (and Gosling is way at the top of his acting game during this entire sequence).

I don't want to say this, because I wish it weren't true. But Drive doesn't belong in multiplexes. It belongs in arthouses. It belongs in a place in which the majority of audience members actually realize that the reason why the titular verb isn't something we see much of during the film is due to the fact that the title also refers to the drive that overtakes the main character as soon as Irene and Benicio enter his life. When I say that the film belongs in arthouses, I'm not being pretentious - I'm being realistic. Truth be told, if Drive had been released only in arthouses, it may have been months before I had the chance to see it, so on a strictly personal level, I'm certainly GLAD it was more accessible. The problem is that releasing Drive in multiplexes leads to the dispiriting consequence that we've already seen happen. The movie disappoints people because it isn't what the masses expected, because they feel like "nothing happens in it," because the masses can't get beyond the fact that movies can be about a lot more than just the things that physically happen during them. This ridiculously conformist desire to always get "exactly what one expects" from a movie, and for the reaction to ALWAYS be negative when one doesn't get that, is exactly what has led Hollywood to go on a spree of remakes, reboots and sequels: "Hey, if we do something that people are already familiar with, they'll know EXACTLY what they're getting." I can understand being surprised because a film didn't turn out to be what you thought it was, but I can't understand the automatic dismissiveness towards the film solely because of that, and I certainly can't understand the inability to get past the surface of films by focusing only on what happens during them rather than also allowing yourself to be enthralled by what it has to say. The fact that Driver's fate is left unresolved shouldn't be cause for dissatisfaction. It's the type of ending that leaves room for interpretation, which hopefully means that when you walk out of the theater, the discussion you'll have with the person who saw it with you won't be limited to 10 seconds of talking about the coolness of that scene in which a character's head was blown to pieces.

I don't believe that there will be any Oscar nominations for Drive. The Academy tends to go for two types of film: (1) movies that have been liked/loved by critics and absolutely loved by audiences of all ages, races and social groups (such as the undeserving The Blind Side two years ago, and the slightly-better-but-still-undeserving The Help this year), and (2) movies that, despite dividing critics and not scoring with audiences, resonate deeply with subjects that Academy members care about and can relate to (such as A Serious Man two years ago, and definitely The Tree of Life this year). Drive doesn't fall into either of those two categories. The box office returns were predictably dismal, and it's only September, which means it will have faded from most people's minds come the end of the year. (Oh, and Gosling is eminently nominatable, but he's already been snubbed in past years, and he's got two other films this year.) Forgotten as though Drive may be at the end of December, it'll be impossible for this thoroughly hypnotizing work of cinema to have faded from my memory that quickly. Drive is a beautiful, glorious exercise in style and atmosphere, and its audacity in exposing the disheartening truth about what can really happen when one is suddenly driven to fight for something one cares about is deserving of the highest of accolades.


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Straw Dogs

Posted : 5 years, 10 months ago on 25 September 2011 04:16 (A review of Straw Dogs)

I have to admit that I'm appalled at what passes for horror/suspense nowadays. Straw Dogs is 110 minutes long, and it's divided into 90 minutes of boring exposition to wildly uninteresting characters, and a final 20 minutes of violent scenes that hold no logical or emotional relationship whatsoever to anything that took place in those initial, dull 90 minutes. It's as if the film drives on neutral the entire time, and then suddenly realizes it needs to amp things up so that audience members don't feel like they were robbed of their money (which they were), but the problem is that the sudden spurt of violence at the end is purely random and nonsensical, which means that the boring set-up ends up also being pointless. Even worse, because it's so random, it was difficult at least for me to determine whom to root for, which totally took out any possibility for tension - I didn't care which characters survived and which ones died during the last-minute scuffle.

David (James Marsden) is a preppy Ivy Leaguer who now lives in California with his wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth). He works as a screenwriter, and feels like he needs to go somewhere where he can get away and concentrate on his writing. So, Amy decides that they should go to her hometown to get away from the city life. They decide to go for it, but when they arrive, they find that Amy's old house is pretty busted up, so they contact some of Amy's old high school friends to come help fix it. Much awkwardness ensues as a result of David being such a fish out of water in this situation. Things get worse when Amy starts dressing more provocatively than David would want her to, and her old high school friends start staring at her perhaps more creepily than your average red-blooded straight American male normally would.

The synopsis may give you the impression that this is ripe for potential, but the execution is awful. There are dozens upon dozens of wasted opportunities here, thanks in large part to stilted dialogue and an inability to generate tension. We've seen plenty of films before that start off very quietly and eventually implode, but the ones that succeed greatly at that are the ones that know how to handle the ESCALATION of the tension and that guide the film effectively towards its explosive conclusion. Straw Dogs consists entirely of James Marsden looking helplessly jealous, Kate Bosworth failing at using blank stares in a desperate effort to make her character as ambivalent as possible, and the rest of the actors acting as slimy and stereotypically redneck as possible.

There's one moment of fleeting greatness in Straw Dogs that I thought would take the film in a fantastic direction... but it lasts all of five seconds, and is then completely discarded. You see, early on in the film, it's revealed to us that, ever since she moved to California with David, Amy got rid of her Southern accent and started talking like a city girl. So, there's one scene well into the movie in which David and the other guys are in the living room, and Amy suddenly emerges to bring them drinks, and she's suddenly speaking with a Southern accent. Here I was thinking "Finally, there's gonna be an interesting, psychological level to all of this," but the film simply quits exploring that potential theme once the scene ends.

It's not hard to guess that the filmmakers here simply had no idea what event to use in order to motivate the violent showdown that begins when there are about 20 minutes left, considering that they use an event involving two minor characters of the film that somehow (and don't ask me how) connects to the film's central characters. If the showdown at least had some suspense to it, I may have felt more satisfied once the credits started rolling, but no - this consists entirely of characters yelling at each other, throwing things at each other, and finally, getting killed in the most uncreative of ways. I'm shocked to say this, but I found the final showdown to be even more sleep-inducing than the pointless and overlong exposition that we got before it.

Straw Dogs apparently thrives on the fact that people are generally forgetful and have short attention spans. I'm seeing dozens of comments and reviews that talk about how unabashedly violent the movie as a whole is, when in truth, the only unabashed violence comes at the very end, and it feels more like a way of rushing to make sure people walk out of the film "knowing" that they watched something intense and forgetting about all the worthless (and totally unrelated) monotony that came before it. Horror/suspense, my ass.


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Red State

Posted : 5 years, 11 months ago on 9 September 2011 03:16 (A review of Red State)

The first 30 minutes or so of Red State are terrific. The experience during the first act is similar to that of getting a spectator's seat in the gallows of hell. The portrayal of religious fanaticism during these initial scenes is so hard-hitting, and the scenes reek with delightful malevolence and intensity. If Kevin Smith's ONLY aim with this film had been to criticize Christian fundamentalists who take their faith to the unspeakably low lengths that the characters in Red State do, the events of that first half hour would've gotten expanded into a full-length motion picture, and I'd probably be telling you that this is one of the boldest, most savagely great pictures of the year. There's no doubt about Smith's mastery at criticizing extreme religious conservatism. Unfortunately, there's another target at which Smith chooses to aim his arrows here, and he fares considerably less well at it. The remaining hour of Red State consists of depressingly unenticing scenes that take aim at how poor a job the U.S. government and its uniformed forces have done at handling situations of terrorism. There's no doubt that it's an extremely relevant and interesting subject for purposes of criticism, but the caliber of Red State's commentary on that subject feels like straight out of the brain of a 13-year-old. Add to that an unnecessary amount of annoyingly staged shoot-out sequences and a TERRIBLE penultimate scene in which U.S. officials explain everything away in order to hit you over the head with the film's message as hard as possible, and you've got the very definition of a film that goes way downhill after having gotten off to an amazing start.

It's another day at school for Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun), Jarod (Kyle Gallner) and Travis (Michael Angarano). Sure, there's a thing on the news about "some gay guy" who was mysteriously beat to death, and there's a group of Christian fundamentalists who belong to the Five Points Trinity Church and are doing a lot of protesting and calling all the heathens out for their sins, and yada-yada-yada, but since they're teenage boys, they don't really care much about any of that - they're more interested in sex. In fact, they're using a Craigslist-type web site to see if they can find themselves a woman who's willing to let them all bang her, and what do you know, they find one who lives in their same county. There's some apprehension, but obviously, the desire to get laid trumps it, and they head over to the woman's house. Turns out it's Sara (Melissa Leo), who's definitely older than they thought, but they tell each other that she's still "better looking than they expected," so they'll settle for it. Sure enough, though, it's all a trap - and soon, the three guys are taken into a place of horror in which they're to be judged for "the sin" that they'd been gearing up to commit. Gone is their earlier indifference towards those religious nutjobs whom they saw protesting earlier, as the three teens are now prisoners of the Five Points Trinity Church, which is led by Sara's father, Abin (Michael Parks), whose idea of how to punish the "sinners" he captures is as teeth-chattering and vile as it gets.

I can't say enough about the greatness of the sequence of scenes during which the boys are physically captured in the church while listening to Abin speak to his congregation. If there's one aspect of Red State that never, EVER ceases to be great, it's Michael Parks' amazing, bile-spewing performance. You see, his Abin may not believe in "peddling the soft faith" that other churches do, but as he says the horrific things that he says during his sermon, there's not a moment during which he fails to ooze the level of conviction that we're used to seeing from a real-life, enthusiastic church minister. Of course, Abin says things that, to any reasonable human being, are absolutely AWFUL, but what's amazing about Parks' performance is that he absolutely makes us believe that those sitting in his congregation fervently believe in him. Credit also has to go to all the actors sitting in the congregation (mostly playing members of Abin's family) whose reactions to Abin's words are perfectly executed. Any time that the three boys cry for help, Abin's followers react the way a farmer would react towards an animal's yelps of pain while it's being slaughtered. It's all executed very, very well. But while Parks' performance is astounding all the way to the end, I can't say the same for the rest of the film's aspects.

A filmmaker who decides to take aim at how American forces have dealt with religious fundamentalism and terrorism is definitely making a bold and respectable decision. But for me to commend the actual EXECUTION of it, it would need to be handled with a level of intelligence higher than that of a pot-smoking college kid. The over-extended and unnecessary shoot-out sequences are bad enough on their own, but when Red State finally poses the question of WHY the U.S. has decided to go about things the way it has, the line it uses to explain it is so incredibly simple-minded and juvenile: "What do you think this is? September 10, 2001?" I find it very difficult to believe that the person who wrote that line is the same person who wrote all the terrific vermin that Abin spoke during his sermon earlier in the film. The ultimate message that American response to terrorist threats has been that of simply doing what they deem fit (even if it's morally or legally wrong) is something that one can easily have gathered from watching the news during the last 10 years. Therefore, it's a message that lacks insight and only scratches the surface of something that's a lot more complex. Aside from the never failing greatness of Parks' performance, the only other good aspects to be pointed out about the film's last hour is that there are a few well-executed and well-shot chase sequences, and that there are times at which certain characters are killed when you don't expect them to, which gives the whole thing a flavor of unpredictability. Nevertheless, unpredictability doesn't really taste that good when you're still trying to get over the disappointment of the film's early greatness vanishing as soon as it shifts gears at the half-hour mark.

I'm a strong believer in the philosophy that, if people are going to present a critical assessment of a subject, they should definitely have something more than layman's knowledge of it. I get the feeling that you could have a terrific conversation with Kevin Smith about the evils of Christian extremism, but not so much about the evils of the Homeland Security Department. Since Smith doesn't have enough to say about the latter subject, he exposes us to painfully long scenes of gunfire that offer nothing in the way of interest or insight, and start leading to the downfall of Red State. If all you have to say is "Man, the government is corrupt," then as much as I may agree, it's not something that's really worth saying - people know it already, and it's also something that has already been said more effectively in plenty of other films. I'm as liberal as can be, and I agree completely with every message that is delivered in Red State, but unlike other people, I can't give credit to something ONLY because I agree with it. It's very shallow to do that. The more important consideration, especially when it comes to cinema, is not WHAT is said, but HOW it is said. In the case of Red State, there's a magnificently impetuous ardor to the way in which Smith communicates his first-act musings on the hellish depths that can be reached by God-fearing lunatics. It's too bad I can't say the same for what comes after that. If the people behind Red State had all realized how great the material of the first act was and had simply continued on with it, the film would be an absolute winner and the great Michael Parks would be in line for an Oscar nomination. I won't forget his performance come the end of the year, but unfortunately, I also won't forget the fact that his brilliant rendition of God's wrath deserved a much better film.


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True Adolescents

Posted : 5 years, 11 months ago on 1 September 2011 04:10 (A review of True Adolescents)

If you're either gay or a hippie, or if you're someone who resents the idea of seeing either of those two groups of people ridiculed on film, you'd do well to stay away from True Adolescents. Come to think of it, the only people who may have potential to enjoy this movie are those who think they may be entertained by 90 minutes of homophobic jokes and 5 minutes of a hippie couple portrayed as cartoonishly as possible. If the movie I'm presently reviewing were one of those dozens of teenage slapstick comedies that get dumped into mainstream multiplexes, this wouldn't be surprising to anyone. Jokes of that variety are to be expected in that kind of film. But the fact that the film I'm referring to here is meant to be a serious independent drama is highly dispiriting. The title's intention is to describe the characters who populate the film, but it's hard not to get the feeling that it describes the writer-director as well.

Sam (Mark Duplass) is a 34-year-old failed musician. Because he's been kicked out of his house by his ex-girlfriend and makes no money, he seeks shelter in his aunt's house. She has two teenaged sons, Oliver (Bret Loehr) and Jake (Carr Thompson). Since Sam has never done anything to pay his aunt back for all the times she's helped him out, she forces him to take the two teenagers on a camping trip.

It all has the potential to be a terrific coming of age tale. Unfortunately, it's nothing but an elongated gay joke. I'm not kidding: for nearly the entirety of the film, these people are calling each other fags. I'd imagine even people who find that funny will grow weary of it after a while. In my case, it was pretty insufferable. Of course, those behind the film will argue that the reason why the three characters spend the film speaking to each other that way is that they're immature, but that the journey they experience leads them to change. I'd be willing to accept that, if the film's final act at least did a somewhat decent job at offering redemption to its characters and portraying how they actually grow into something else, but that's far from the case. What we actually get in True Adolescents is a total cop-out. The film's final act needed to focus on conversations that showed what these characters had learned and why they learned it, but instead, it uses the easy plot device of having one of the three characters get physically lost. The other two struggle to find him for a couple of minutes, and once they find him.... Ta-da! They've all come of age! To make matters more offensive, the film features one of those annoying sequences in which, as soon as the missing party is found, the main character makes a run to embrace him. The music that's attached to this sequence is also particularly dreadful. In the midst of all this, there's a brief appearance by a couple of hippies, and my gosh, does the film try hard to portray these two as one-dimensionally as possible. The film is so painfully obvious in portraying these two as blissfully ignorant that the portrayal never even comes close to hitting a note of honesty.

If there's one positive thing to be said about the film, it's that the performances are good. The problem is that all that does is make me even more disappointed, because it means that, had the film had SOME clue about how to portray characters evolving emotionally, it may have been at least a decent indie effort. It's particularly sad that Mark Duplass went from starring in terrific films like The Puffy Chair and Humpday to doing this. He acts every bit as naturally here as he did in those other two films, but his character in True Adolescents is twenty times less interesting. Also unfortunately, the magnificent Melissa Leo has way too little screen time, but as usual, she does everything right in the few minutes she gets on screen.

If there's something I hate, it's when films cheat or take an easy way out. True Adolescents is guilty of both of those things. For most of its running time, it has characters who call each other "gay" and all its offensive synonyms, and we're fooled into believing that this is all because the film is just portraying characters who have maturity issues. But once we realize that the film doesn't ultimately have any emotional intelligence to show for itself, it becomes obvious that those gay jokes were actually all that the screenwriter was ever able to come up with. The fact that the film uses an event as dumb as the momentary disappearance of one of its protagonists in order to get all of its characters to suddenly become better people is absolutely ridiculous and incredibly simple-minded. It's an insulting way of avoiding the complexity that needs to be present during the final act of a film like this, in order for it to work. I'm a supporter of this type of film, and you'll find evidence of that in the fact that my year-end top 10 lists generally contain at least one dialogue-driven indie drama, but I'm not a supporter of shallowness on the part of a filmmaker, regardless of whether the offender is Michael Bay or some 22-year-old recent film school graduate working on a shoestring budget.


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