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.

Predestination tells the story of a temporal agent (Ethan Hawke) who jumps through time at his bureau’s behest, stopping major and tragic crimes before they can be committed. The film opens with a short, action-filled prologue before settling in to a simple story of a bartender (Ethan Hawke) chatting with a one of his patrons, John (Sarah Snook) – a cynical, yet fascinating man who offers to tell him a wildly unbelievable story. The bartender agrees, and off we go.

John begins his story by revealing that he grew up in an orphanage, as a girl named Jane. Jane was a lonely, isolated child; she always knew that she was different, in some way, from the other children. Fighting and space travel interested her, and she always experienced a difficulty functioning in society and making connections. A lonely childhood segued into a difficult and often tragic adulthood thanks to a few very specific events.

Eventually, points A and B connect, and we jump back into the time travel story, with John’s past and future finally becoming one with the action-filled prologue we saw early in the film. John has had a great wrong done to him, and the nature of Hawke’s time travel bureau is the ability to set wrongs right again. And he offers John an opportunity that is just too good to pass up.

The thing that I have always loved about the Spierigs’ films (Undead and Daybreakers) is their ability to construct narratives within a fascinating premise. This is science fiction that, while not always super-polished, injects something unique into the landscape and offers up intriguing stories and engaging characters. And Predestination is no different. Sure, there are plot wrinkles that never quite get ironed out and a few bumps along the way, but they never derail the story or take away from the experience. Here, we have an examination of time travel itself, coupled with an incredibly fascinating character that the audience immediately (and gladly) empathizes with.

John’s story is compelling and grab’s the audience’s attention from the get-go. The awesome thing is that, even though you know this is a time travel movie, and even though it opens with an exciting segment before we settle in to storytelling at the bar, you are completely fascinated by John simply telling his story. The time travel component eventually picks up again, and it is equally fun, but even if it didn’t you would still be on board with the film, just on the basis of John laying his life out on the table for all to see. You connect with
his emotions, with the events of his life, with the person that he has become over the course of his journey. 

Sarah Snook plays the role brilliantly, portraying both the younger Jane, as well as the older, more cynical John. She fantastically gives a performance that conveys the individual aspects of each side of the character, each at a different point in a life, while still retaining a common core that connects each time period into the same persona, defying the boundaries of gender, while making the character(s) at once unique and united.

Predenstination is a shot of sci-fi that plays with the rules of time travel in an entirely new way. Your mind is going to bend in ways you didn’t think possible, and each new turn and revelation is another new and exciting moment. This is much more than a time-traveling Minority Report. There are moments and aspects of the film that you will be turning over in your head long after the credits roll. Predestination is a film that examines not only the nature of time travel, but the nature of personhood and of what makes us who we are.

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.
The approach taken by writer Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay doesn’t span the entirety of King’s life as is typical in biopics. Instead, they wisely choose to hone in on one very specific event – the march in Selma, Alabama, to protest the unfair and unreasonable voting restrictions that kept Black residents away from the polls and unable to exercise their constitutional right to cast their vote.
The approach is fantastic, allowing the audience ample opportunity to understand the character, persona and historical importance of MLK and other pivotal leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, but not going so broad so as spread itself too thin and take away from the impact of the story itself. 
One of the things that really makes Selma shine is the way it takes Martin Luther King, Jr., a monumental historical figure, and humanizes him. Not by making his deeds and contributions less important or by tearing him down, but by letting the audience see him as a man, rather than as a legend. We see his fear, his doubt and his sadness. We see him facing impossible odds and working the situation to the best of his ability, understanding that he didn’t have all the answers, much like anyone would. 
David Oyelowo is stunning in this role, giving King all of the grandeur and energy that we have come to know him for, lighting up a room and engaging his audience with his powerful and compelling powers of speech. But Oyelowo also imbibes him quiet moments where, though there might not be much dialogue, we get a small window into his soul and his humanity. The rest of the cast is equally incredible, with great performances Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson, Wendell Pierce and Keith Stanfield. 
The thing that really struck me when watching Selma was the fact that watching this film gave the events more of a realistic, relative place in history for me. Which isn’t to say I was unaware of them, but more that the film gave them a greater sense of context. Like all of us, I grew up learning about Martin Luther King, and the Civil Rights Movement and all of the good that those brave men and women did. But it always felt as if they had transpired long ago. Though the events of the Movement were only about 25 years old, give or take, they, along with King seemed much bigger than something that could possibly be that recent. But because I was a kid, and these were events that I had not seen myself, in a time and place completely foreign to me, it seemed much much farther away. It didn’t seem as relatable. It didn’t seem as real. It was a chapter in my history text book, and could very well have happened 100 years ago, rather than 20-something or even 30-something.
Watching Selma, I was astonished as it finally dawned on me just how recent these changes were made. Which isn’t to say that the events of the Movement or the people involved were forgotten – just that by the time that I was learning about them, they had already grown impossibly big. 
Selma gives them a grounded context, but also a humanizing factor, reminding the audience just how recent and important these events were, and that their ripples are still being felt today. Specifically when coupled with the too recent memory of the events in Ferguson, in New York, and across the country. Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and others are reminders that, as far as we have come from the 1960s, the fight isn’t yet over. 
It is impossible to watch Selma and not overlay the events of recent months, and that is a good thing. Though the events depicted in the film are historical, they are still completely relevant. Watching the crowds scatter in the film under the overly-forceful weight of an angry police mob, you immediately call to mind the Ferguson footage that you were watching on the Internet just months ago. Selma serves as a beautiful portrayal of a great man and the important, life-changing work that he and his colleagues did to make the world better for thousands, and reminds us that the job is not yet done. It is a beautiful film that informs, educates and speaks.

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. 

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.