Thursday, March 26, 2015

Review: It Follows

If you haven't yet caught up on the buzz surrounding It Follows, get on it. The film is well-paced, thoughtful, well-acted, and really damn scary.

The premise is fairly simple: This thing (ghost, demon, monster, curse - take your pick) is transmitted through sexual contact. You sleep with someone carrying it, it gets transferred to you. You are pursued, slowly but surely, until this creature catches up. It can take the form of anyone it wants, familiar or unfamiliar. If it catches up to you, you're dead. The only way to get rid of it is to pass it along to some one else. But not so fast - you're not done. Because if that someone else dies, it circles back to you, and so on down the line.

Its latest recipient is Jay (Maika Monroe). Her new relationship is getting serious,and when she decides it's time to take it to the next level, she winds up with much much more than she bargained for.

The film stands out for many reasons, but partly because writer/director David Robert Mitchell avoids many of the classic pitfalls of horror writing - particularly when it comes to characterizations. Jay and her circle of friends are all written believably as teenagers - no broad stereotypes, no flat, under-developed personalities. They are likable and we understand their motivations and their place in the world. They're more like the real people you grew up with and less the Hollywood facsimiles that you all wished you could be. They're fantastic.

This could easily have been a jump-scare fest, and while those flicks can be fun, this one resonates much more deeply, eschewing the cheap scares and instead inspiring an intense sense of dread. It really makes for a more hard-hitting and engrossing experience. Mitchell crafts something here that is an intelligent, well-paced piece of horror, building gradually and never cashing its chips in too early.

When your antagonist is a creature that walks fairly slowly, and can look like anything it wants, everyone is a suspect. And I mean everyone. As the film progresses, you become more and more aware of the fact that the characters are only ever so safe, and that somewhere offscreen, this being is slowly, steadily making its way toward them. I've never been so fearful of the extras in a film in my entire life. Anyone in the background, anyone simply walking through a shot could be coming for us. There are some deliberate fake-outs, but even more moments where you find yourself just scanning the shot to eliminate possible threats.

By the time we roll into the third act, you are positively white-knuckling it in your seat. The theme and dreadful nature of inevitability gradually wear you down until you are completely on edge. It hits you in much the same way Romero's Dead films do. One zombie is nothing, several are manageable, but there is a tipping point at which suddenly "I've got this under control" becomes "Oh, fuck." Same thing here. Something walking toward you isn't terribly threatening, until it starts closing the distance and you run out of room to escape.

It also works because it leaves everything so unexplained. At its core, the set-up is blissfully
simplistic. We don't know what this thing is, and we don't know what rules it follows, outside of what we experience through these characters. We don't know its origin, or its purpose, and frankly, we don't care. The only relevance here is Jay and how this thing is impacting her. The drama and the constantly increasing tension lie in watching these characters react and cope with this undefined Thing that is relentlessly pursuing them.

It Follows is a thoughtful and terrifying film, and one that delivers something complex and intelligent. It’s a dread that grows over the course of the story, and stays with you as you leave the theater, watching every person you pass on the street and checking every dark alley for something (or someone) out of place.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Review: The Lazarus Effect

Sometimes a horror movie comes along that defies your every expectation. Sometimes, you are surprised, and instead of getting the drab, by the numbers film that was advertised, the film you walk into is considerably more intelligent and interesting that you were initially expecting to give it credit for. Sadly, The Lazarus Effect is not that film. Instead, it's a film that makes a lot of interesting promises at the outset, and then devolves into an unoriginal, barely coherent mess by the time its 90 minutes are up.

Mark Duplass and Olivia Wilde play Frank and Zoe - scientists developing a serum to regenerate brain tissue and give medical professionals a bigger window in which to safely bring patients back when they die on the table. An initial experiment on a dog cadaver not only brings it back to life, but they find that it is regenerating cellular and brain activity at a very fast pace, and even activating new parts of the brain. When they try to replicate the results, Zoe is electrocuted and killed. Naturally, the best course of action is to try the serum out on her, and naturally, she doesn't come back quite right.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Review: Predestination

Predestination offers up everything I love about low budget sci-fi. An intriguing film that doesn’t really have the luxury of relying heavily on crazy CGI shots, so instead, has to rely on the substance contained within its premise. Developing worlds and characters and letting them exist within the confines of their own reality, while It is within these confines that some of the most fascinating stories are told: Primer, Sound of My Voice and Take Shelter are just a handful of recent films that have captured the imagination despite a limited budget. These stories are made all the more rich by the fact that the story is front and center, and Predestination happily stands among them.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Review: The Incredible Selma

Selma is a pivotal film - one that records a vital moment in American history and the importance of a movement. A film that has particular cultural significance and relevance given recent events in this country, and a story that serves as a reminder of how far we have come as a society, while also whispering just how far we have yet to go.

Somehow (and I don’t get it), this is the first theatrical film we have seen based on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The fact that he has been portrayed in minor roles in hundreds of films and has been the subject of television movies, yet has not yet been the subject of a feature himself, is baffling. But now that it is finally here, it is a brilliant piece, and one that you should be viewing as soon as humanly possible.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Farewell to the Harvard Exit

The Harvard Exit Theater has officially closed its doors. Set in a century-old building that started out as a women's club, there were really few theaters like it. Ballrooms had been transformed into auditoriums, concessions set up in the building's lobby, and nightly viewings of some of the best offerings independent film was putting out.

My first screening there was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I was a recent transplant to Seattle, still getting to know my way around. The theater was a magical place - nestled on a little corner just off Broadway on Capitol Hill. Beautiful old building, two screens, and great experiences.

Many more films would follow. Take This Waltz, a double feature of The Spectacular Now in the upstairs auditorium, finishing just in time for me to sprint downstairs, grab a soda, and settle in for Blue Jasmine, the astounding, gut-punching experience of seeing The Act of Killing when it played there for Seattle International Film Festival. Too many films to remember, really.

The Harvard Exit was one of my havens. I spent time living in the Capitol Hill and Eastlake neighborhoods, and it was the perfect pop-in stop on my way home from work. So easy to grab some popcorn and hit the 5:00 show. Though I always did think it was terribly unfair that it didn't serve the same awesome vegan cookies as its sister cinema The Egyptian, about a mile away. Despite that minor flaw, it was the perfect neighborhood getaway.

Even if I wasn't particularly jonesing for whatever they happened to be showing - you know how sometimes you just want to go to the movies, and you don't really give a rat's ass about what you see? The Harvard Exit was one of my go-to venues for when that urge struck. Because it fed that need, they were always showing something interesting, and whatever I saw would rarely be a waste of my time. Good old Cinema Healing at its finest. 

I was in the audience on Thursday evening for one of the theater's final shows (The Theory of Everything). The theater was as full as it was on any opening weekend, with people seated on the main floor and in the balcony. Congregating one last time to get lost in a story as you can only do within the confines of a darkened movie theater. 

An era has ended, but many fond memories remain. As much as this theater will be greatly missed, I'm glad we were all there to give her a proper send-off together. 

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Favorite Stuff from 2014

As we bid a fond farewell to 2014, it is obviously natural to reflect on the year behind us. And as common as it is, I've never been much into making year-end lists. It always seems like a good idea, and I might even plan to do it, but at the end of the day, I have a really hard time sitting down and deciding the top 10, top 20, top whatever things in exact, precise order in which I liked them. It's a great idea, but it is just not in my DNA.

So instead, I slapped together a list of stuff that I was excited about over the past year. Films that I was so excited to see and that I am happy were part of the year and are now a part of film history. Not your standard top 10 list, but my way of celebrating everything that we got to enjoy this year.

So here we go - in no particular order, because ordering them would have made my head explode:

Only Lovers Left Alive – Jim Jarmusch’s contribution to vampire fiction is one for the ages – much like the love affair of the characters that he created, and that Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton brought to life. The film is beautiful, hypnotic and charismatic, and with two of the best performances of the year. A favorite topic of vampire fiction making its inhuman characters feel all the more human, and this film achieves this brilliantly.

Guardians of the Galaxy – If 2014 brought us nothing else, remember that this was the year that saw James Gunn, the guy who wrote Troma films and made Slither, RULE the summer with the impossible-sounding story of a group of outcasts (that included a tree and a talking raccoon) take on untold evils and save the galaxy. One of my very favorite Marvel films to date, Guardians upended everyone’s expectations and delivered a fantastically fun movie. Great characters, hilarious writing, and some really great moments. James Gunn forever!

The Babadook - One of the most genuinely frightening horror films that I have seen in a long time, The Babadook definitely holds the title for Most Frightening of 2014. And with good reason. It earns its scares through character development and and emotionally driven plot, and expertly builds tension over the course of the story. I love horror that centers on an emotional core, and the relationship between Amelia and Sam is a perfect focal point around which to craft this story. Jennifer Lynch delivered something that is not only scary, but deeply compelling. She is a welcome addition to the horror scene, and I am certainly looking forward to seeing more from her. 

Snowpiercer – This ones one of the best surprises of the year – not because it was great (we had already heard that), but because TWC decided to release Bong Joon-ho’s cut of the film, instead of butchering it for American audiences as they had originally intended. I was so happy to have the chance to see the full cut of the film, which was brilliant. Great story, thoughtful themes, and incredible performances. Chris Evans, John Hurt, Allison Pill and especially Tilda Swinton contributed greatly to what was an instant sci-fi classic.

Frank - Michael Fassbender gave a stunning performance in this film, despite doing it from behind a gigantic fake head. The story of an aspiring song writer who crosses paths with a unique band that he believes to be destined for stardom, Frank explores themes of creativity and inspiration, and what it takes to make something truly great.

Cheap Thrills – This flick blew my mind in a very “What the Fuck” kind of way. It’s crazy dark, over the top and heart wrenching, and all in the span of about 90 minutes. The story of just how far would you go for money has never been told like this before, and the result is nothing short of jaw-dropping. Insane, surreal, highly inappropriate, hilariously dark – Cheap Thrills is so wrong in all of the right ways.

Chef – This film was a welcome surprise. For a story with relatively little conflict, it really manages to convey a lot about creation, art and the satisfaction that comes from doing what you love. Jon Favreau got back to a very personal place on this one, with the story of a chef who decides to burn it all down and start again, finally getting back to the root of why he came to love his art in the first place. John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale turn in some great supporting performances

Under the Skin – This film was a perfect marriage of sci-fi and art film. Telling a familiar story in a very unique way, this film is one that stayed with me long after I left the theater, and impacted me tremendously while I was watching it. The stunning visuals, the hypnotic use of sound came together to enhance the story and make it come alive in a unique, stylish and mesmerizing way. Utterly beautiful.

Boyhood - If I were a numbering person, rest assured that Boyhood would be in the top spot (but I’m not, so it’s kind of in the middle, for no good reason). I can't make a damn decision about the rest of the list, but this was, by far, my favorite film experience of the entire year. Boyhood was a marvel. A cinematic wonder. Not just for the way it came together over the course of twelve years, but for the way it quietly and elegantly contemplated life. The events we go through that will shape our lives and who we will grow into, regardless of whether or not we understand their significance at the time. Boyhood reflects so quietly on a great many things - memory, parenting, growth and development, the modern family unit - and it does so in a very timeless way. We watch this film and remember what we were like when we were Mason's age, but we also reflect on where we were in our own lives when this story was taking place. Music cues and world events cast the story in a specific and relatable light. And moving forward, future viewers will still be able to connect with the enduring legacy of just what it means to grow up and become that adult version of yourself. Few films have ever captured the human condition quite like this one.

Obvious Child - This film was a welcome addition - to 2014, to romcoms, to the face of women in cinema. Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate took the shattered pieces of many stories that have come before this one and crafted something completely different. Something honest, something real, and something much needed. The beauty of Obvious Child is the fact that it allows the abortion issue to exist free of the issue itself. It is distilled down to its real essence, which is simply a woman making a choice. And this film allows that woman and that choice a place in the cinematic landscape. It doesn't have an agenda, it has no interest in trying to tell anyone what to do or to preach its point. Instead, it elegantly and gracefully allows this character to exist, and simply to be. And this perspective is something that has been really lacking in cinema, so to have it included to eloquently is a welcome change.

Nightcrawler - Another stunning performance. I never Jake Gyllenhaal could be so damn creepy! Holy shit!

The Raid 2 - I didn't think it was possible for a film to come close to kicking as much ass as
The Raid, but Gareth Evans proved me wrong. The Raid 2 was a worthy successor in almost every regard. It in no way eclipsed the first film, but brilliantly expanded upon it, taking a simple premise and unfolding it into a monumental crime epic. With a ton of ass kicking, stabbings, broken bones, etc. The film was incredibly stylish, character driven, action-packed, and so much fun.

Delivery: The Beast Within – Though not the scariest film I saw all year, Delivery packed in some great moments and a phenomenal ending. But more than that, it found a way to take found footage – a concept that is on the brink of running its course – and use it innovatively to tell a story in an engaging and realistic manner. Against all odds, it is easy to fall in to this story and to connect with its characters. The cast is great, and the filmmakers took extra pains to make the found footage approach a well-integrated part of the storytelling mechanism, rather than just a gimmick wedged in. Highly recommended for horror fans.

Whiplash - J.K. Simmons deserves all of the praise being heaped upon him for playing the teacher from hell. It is a brilliant performance in a stellar film. The final scene is worth the price of admission alone - fast-paced, well constructed, brilliantly edited.

Jodorowsky's Dune - Sad, inspiring, unbelievable, creative, mind-blowing – Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary on a film that never happened, yet a film that has lived in the minds and hearts of its creators and fans everywhere for years. A failed adaptation that came so close to being, only to slip away in the final stages. For decades, fans of Dune, of Jodorowsky, of sci-fi have wondered just what that film would have looked like, had it actually come to fruition. This documentary is as close as we will get to seeing that piece of magic, but its existence and its story is magic in and of itself. Hearing Jodorowsky discuss his plans and share his vision and seeing his excitement grow as he discusses his ideas is inspirational and magic.

Grand Budapest Hotel - I'll take any opportunity to dive into Wes Anderson's weird little world, and visiting the Grad Budapest did not disappoint. It was fun to see him playing in a more comedic setting, and the story was wonderfully captivating. Someday, I hope I can use a gigantic ladder to break out of prison.

We are the Best! - A tiny film from Sweden about a group of teenage girls who decide to start a punk band from scratch resonated with me in amazing ways. I loved these girls. I wanted to be these girls. I wish I had figured out all the stuff I figured out later when I was their age. They possessed an awareness and bravery that was absent from my adolescence, but that made them heroes in my eyes today. For every moment where you felt wrong and lost, We are the Best! reminds you just who you want to be.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

On The Interview, Notoriety and Expectations

Dear World,

Stop shitting on The Interview. It might not be your cup of tea, and that's fine, but let's cut the snarkfest, shall we? Here's the deal:

It has been a fascinating couple of weeks. While the cyber attacks on Sony were reprehensible and have caused significant damage to the company and the people who work there, the results have, no doubt, been interesting. And I don't mean the gossipy crap found in emails between executives. Fuck that shit. No, I mean Sony's reaction to the hackers' demands. A Seth Rogen comedy suddenly had the power to start an international conflict. It's absurd, and watching the past couple of weeks is almost the stuff of a satirical comedy itself - a series of stranger than fiction moments that, until they actually became a reality, you would only expect to see onscreen.

The fact that in the face of unfounded threats of violence, the chain theaters balked, and Sony made the idiotic decision to pull the film. In the aftermath of being called out as idiots and weenies by all of Hollywood, the President of the United States, and the entire Internet, they reversed their decision, working with small, independent movie houses (a moment of applause for them, please, because those guys are the heroes in all of this) and a handful of VOD services to bring The Interview to viewers on Christmas Day.

The Interview now finds itself in a difficult position. What had started out as just another film being released on the Holiday slate now has importance. Significance. Weight beyond being the latest in a string of comedies from a pair of successful filmmakers. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have now made something that people are clamoring to see on more than just the basis of trailers, stars, or their track record in film. The Interview is now a cultural touchstone in our history.

This position of significance is an exciting one, for sure, but also a daunting one. As moviegoers and critics alike are finally able to see the film that has caused so much fuss, opinions are varying widely. Understandably so - it's a silly comedy and it's not going to be for everyone. Had it been released without causing an international incident, it would have had fans and detractors, just like This is the End, Knocked Up and Superbad.

But the frustrating part of watching this unfold is that now, this innocuous film that, until recently, was just another holiday ticket, is now being held up to an impossible standard. I am seeing more and more snark circulating as people fail to see what all the fuss was about.

"Blagh, blagh blagh...and it wasn't even that good."

"<fart noise> really isn't even that funny."

"Whaaaaaaaaa....wasn't even worth seeing!"

You're certainly entitled to your opinion, and you are, of course, not required to like the film. But let's keep it in perspective, okay?

The Interview should be evaluated like any other movie, free of the craziness that surrounded its release. This film is an important and fascinating chapter in history, and we will all be able to look back years from now and remember that Christmas all when all of that insane shit when down with North Korea over a silly movie where Seth Rogen put something up his ass.

Which isn't to say the film failed - I enjoyed it. It was well acted and funny and topical and I had a good time. I look forward to seeing it again. And that certainly isn't going to be everyone's opinion - nor should it. The beauty of art, and specifically of comedy, is that it is never going to appeal to everyone. We all have our own tastes and different pieces will appeal to some, but not to others. It's the way it goes.

But keep it all in perspective. This was never about the quality of the movie. Hackers didn't get all pissy over The Interview being such a powerful and amazing film, and movie goers didn't defend it because they expected it to be a particularly enlightening piece. This was about being able to make the decision to see and judge the film for yourself, and not have our art censored by masked assholes on the other side of the world. 

The fact that it was controversial doesn't in some way guarantee an impossibly brilliant movie-going experience. The Interview is what it was always going to be - a fun comedy mocking two world powers in a fun and juvenile way while I laugh and sit there and eat Junior Mints. And really, that's all it needs to be. The explosive situation surrounding it is its own story, so please leave it there when you walk into the theater, or bring up the VOD service. And whatever you think of the film, be happy that you had the opportunity to watch it and to form that opinion, as you always should have.