Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Tree of Life / *** (2011)

Five years ago during a brief moment of inspiration, I sat down at a computer keyboard and pounded out the following words about Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”: as ambitious as it is pretentious, the movie is as much a statement about the arrogance of its director as it is about one’s place in this world, which seems to be all about behaving childishly as a response to strict parenting rather than, you know, anything as profound as the images that surround it. That essay was never finished – among many others in the quietest writing period of my life – which may have been a blessing in some oblique manner. If hindsight is the tool that changes the way we look at things, then it became a valuable asset during a recent revisit of said opus, many moons after I had made a point never to see it again. Had I been wrong in my observations? Or just na├»ve? Perhaps the definition of my reality had given me cause to question what the director’s obligations were to his own thesis. For me, the broad context of the universe meant more than the idea of a mere kid moving in between attitude problems and parental persecution. But now I see that our little space is as relevant as we make it, and to deny the small things that make us who we are is to negate the point of asking the broader questions.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Blair Witch / *** (2016)

And so once again I find myself confronted by the unnerving horrors of the Black Hill Forest, the site of a fable that haunts visitors who wander in for a glimpse of the evil hidden between trees. That legend is of course the notorious Blair Witch, a cursed demonic entity that rose to infamy in the whispers of superstitious townsfolk over two centuries and then gained added footing when three young filmmakers disappeared in search of her existence. It’s been over 20 years since those famous events transpired in the frames of a documentarian’s handheld cameras, but little has dissuaded the curiosity of outsiders – including the brother of one of those missing three, who comes of age and decides, perhaps justly, that there is still validity in wondering about the strange events. What happened to his sister all of those years ago? How come her footage was found, but not a trace of her or her two peers? Is she really dead, or does she remain in the woods as an eternal slave to the demonic energies of the witch? You’d think that nearly two decades worth of time would calm the turbulence of those suspicions, but I guess some malevolent spirits never lose their potency when they know cameras might be rolling.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings / ***1/2 (2016)

One of the lost pleasures of the movies is going into a theater and gaining the sense that you have been absorbed in the far reaches of a new imagination. Just 16 years into a century of technical breakthroughs and creative dexterity, so few endeavors ever deal with concepts as novel as they are thorough. But “Kubo and the Two Strings,” a new stop-motion animated film from Laika Entertainment, is the antithesis of that belief, a film of nourishing visual insights and visionary storytelling that inspires as thoroughly as it dazzles. And that’s a surprise worth noting when one becomes aware of how taxing the endeavor must have been on its visual artists, who logged countless hours on building elaborate sets and crafting intricate details for a story set in medieval Japan. What inspired them to take the route they did, especially when the premise they were working with felt tailor-made for the styles of Hayo Miyazaki? Helmed by Travis Knight (who was among the skilled animators of “The Box Trolls” and “Coralline”), what pulsates on screen is nothing short of a remarkable artistic achievement, willfully empowered by clever facets in the edges and characters that have the adventurous spirit of some of the classic Disney heroes.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Watchmen / ***1/2 (2009)

A single character in “Watchmen” sits above the procedure of a superhero plot, and when he speaks the dialogue reflects a self-awareness that treads deeper waters than what is expected of these sorts of cinematic excursions. Known by his colleagues as Dr. Manhattan, he is the byproduct of an experiment that inadvertently liberated his spirit from the constraints of flesh and bone, and throughout the movie he is seen hovering through space like an ethereal body builder: sculpted, naked, trapped in a glow, never seeming to be more than an apparition in a fantasy version of reality. Perhaps it is his destiny to rise to the status of deities, or transcend the common knowledge of the race he was born from. But there is a wisdom in his observations that seems derived from more than the mere philosophies of Arthur C. Clarke or Stephen Hawking. When he speaks of walking across the surface of the sun or regarding the death of the human race as nothing to the context of a vast universe of possibilities, some part of us shrivels down to our bare defenses, sensing the painful truth of the statement. So elusive is the opportunity to extract such morsels from the fabric of a populist vehicle that they hit hard and swift, ultimately changing the trajectory of our embrace when most might have considered this little more than an ambitious and colorful – if pessimistic – story about masked crusaders attempting to function in a rather bleak human society.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins / *** (2016)

The blessing of talent is a wonder undermined by self-doubt, while those created from a strong work ethic tend to discover the tenacity not often afforded to their peers. “Florence Foster Jenkins” is a movie about a woman who loves musical theater so dearly that she rises to notoriety because of her loyalty to the industry, far beyond the realization that she is also can be a rather bad singer. Friends and loved ones have shielded her from that reality out of an unconditional loyalty that stretches past the mere acceptance of great vocal range; everyone allowed in the room knows what they are hearing is tone-deaf meandering, and yet her impassioned confidence on stage silences critical ears and earns unanimous praise. But how does no one (at least up to a point) take a moment to be honest with the kind and gentle soul standing in front of the piano? Couldn’t she only benefit from the wisdom of a good ear instead of being crushed by it? Not all souls can easily escape the fragile nature of their history, and the context of Ms. Jenkin’s blissful ignorance is best summed up in a pair of scenes involving the reaction of a feisty female audience member, who in an early moment laughs hysterically at the performance and then in a later one silences countless others doing the same – “At least she up there singing her heart out!”

Monday, August 15, 2016

Ghostbusters / *** (2016)

Dialogue was one of the key strengths of Ivan Reitman’s immortal “Ghostbusters,” and when contrasted against special effects that were destined to become dated paradigms of the past it resisted the contextual erosion of most mainstream comedies. To hear the characters discuss their problems now is to sense two certainties: 1) the thorough skill of its writer, Harold Ramis, who was perceptive of human behavior beyond the momentary jabs of a punchline; and 2) the realization that the characters were responding to the material exactly as they needed to, regardless of how funny or whimsical their approach may not always appear. That’s because they were smart and had the foresight to explain themselves in the logical circles they routinely found themselves trapped in, where most would ordinarily be reduced to shrieks of terror or displaced from coherence. No one – least of all the Ghostbusters themselves – knew exactly how to regard a world where they were being consciously haunted by a series of bizarre specters, but to lose your sense of humor in the thick of all things weird might have been more damaging to one’s focus. No satisfactory resolution would have occurred with this sort of premise if those at the helm weren’t driving through it with a keen sense of awareness.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Embrace of the Serpent / **** (2015)

A shaman stands fixed at the edge of a river embankment, his posture denoting tireless confidence. The forest behind him rests as a blur of deep vegetation and ominous noise – a towering portrait of natural order. Closed within that image is the soul of a man at war with the ideology of others; as the last known of a tribe thought slaughtered by missionaries, his skin is hardened by encounters with foreign tradesmen that seem interested only in exploiting the treasures of the Earth. Then a canoe carrying two passengers drifts in nearby, containing a pair of friends from different worlds (in his eyes, a civilization built on destruction). One is a former being of the forest who has abandoned the embrace of nature in favor of more sensational influences; the other, born in a world far beyond the trees, has wandered into it seeking adventure and discovery, no doubt with some level of misplaced elitism. But he has fallen ill amidst the search for a legendary item, and this lone warrior of the jungles – known as Karamakate – may possess the key to both its whereabouts and his own recovery from an ominous fever. But does the native have any sympathy to offer in this man’s hour of desperation, much less the basic desire to help?

Friday, July 22, 2016

Into the Abyss (2011)

There are two decisive moments towards the beginning of Werner Herzog’s “Into the Abyss” that left me in the inertia of sobering contemplation. The first involves an interview with a prison warden who oversees the comfort of death row inmates during their final minutes; as they are strapped to the table and prepared for lethal injections, his is the face that they will see last, looking down on them with only the offer of empathy in their transition to another plane. Some are grateful for the opportunity of a kind gesture in those moments, and in a confessional monologue he suggests a sense of complicity in their executions; these are human lives regardless of their misdeeds, and doing a job that contradicts those beliefs reduces the value of his soul. Herzog seems to echo these sentiments in the following scene when he comes face-to-face with Michael Perry, a death row inmate in Texas who is just eight days away from his own fatal punishment. “I don’t’ have to respect you or even like you,” he warns his interview subject. “But I don’t believe in capital punishment. I don’t believe you should be killed.”

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Conjuring 2 / ***1/2 (2016)

When the mode of creating a horror film must involve some level of imitation, a director sometimes takes comfort in calling on the suggestion with shrewd wisdom. “The Conjuring 2” begins with a prologue in which the famous Warrens, Ed and Lorraine, are asked to descend upon a haunted dwelling to investigate the source of fright, previously held responsible for causing a disintegrated family to rush off in desperation during the middle of the night. Though it is never directly stated (it doesn’t need to be), dialogue and camera shots indicate that this site is the famous house in “The Amityville Horror,” and the fallout related to the exact same family that was featured in said film. Why did James Wan, the impassioned director of this ambitious series, go the route of creating such a connection? Perhaps it has just as much to do with setting a tone as it does emphasizing his own admiration. The original “Amityville” picture is frequently elevated as a benchmark in the rebirth of modern haunted house stories, but its most influential detail amounts to the realization that mere ghosts or malevolent spirits are nothing if there isn’t an instrument in the human world pushing their schemes. Like that film, here is a series that assumes a weakened soul is easily seduced by the evil in alternate plains of existence, no matter how strong an offense to it may become.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Jaws / **** (1975)

The key image in Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” is not the first time we see the shark toss its head above water but one in which a little boy named Michael is seen settling into shock, just having witnessed a nearby swimmer swallowed by the mammoth predator. That moment, by all facets of an effective thriller, is the bridge that joins the terror unfolding to the relatability of it: suddenly the movie is no longer just about a horrifying danger lurking beneath the dark waters, it has become a working laboratory of personal fears projected into situations that could happen to us. A less farsighted movie would have ignored the inclusion of such a moment, or shamelessly tacked it into the crevice of a minor subplot. But even as a novice in the scene of Hollywood’s evolving machine Spielberg had the stimulus of a well-trained emotional conductor, and the plight of his young star – the son of the movie’s heroic center – was a shrewd maneuver that reverbed powerfully in the tense hearts of the audience. The clarity of an intention had seldom been so strong in the thick of so much ambiguous fright, and here is a man who made the moment seem as effortless as the delivery of a mere musical cue or establishing shot.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Shallows / *** (2016)

“The Shallows” taps into that persistent fear of being in the ocean waters just as a ravenous shark swims nearby, and in doing so creates a space where predator and prey (in this case, a lone woman) engage in a bout of scuffs that is among one of the more taut excursions of recent thrillers. The early scenes work in disruption to that suspicion, mind you; colorful and optimistic, they seem edited together as if highlighting a travelogue of Caribbean memories. The heroine, an adventurous woman named Nancy (Blake Lively), engages the locals with enthusiastic formalities, although there are moments interlaced with pathos – she has come to this hidden beach isolated from family, who are still grieving the loss of her mother to terminal cancer. Why would she make suck a trek at such a pivotal time? It was a treasured vacation spot of her deceased parent, and surfing the turbulent blue waves is her device for grieving. And from the vantage point of the beach an important image emerges: a collection of rocks resting off shore that resembles, to Nancy’s eye, a pregnant woman about to give birth. “I don’t see it,” one of the natives chimes in upon her observation. Of course he feels that way; this is more a conduit to her deepest feelings, many of which will empower her sense of survival as the movie turns more menacing corners.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Secret Life of Pets / ** (2016)

A dog finds happiness by merely being in the company of his owner. When that person walks out of the front door, it becomes a lonesome game of waiting until he or she comes back through. “The Secret Life of Pets,” a new cartoon about that mysterious slog between the departure and return of an owner, suggests there’s much more for canines to do in the meantime, not the least of which is get swept up into a city adventure where they are chased and hunted after they wander too far away from the comforts of their routine. Others – perhaps more busy with trivial matters – are inclined to join them out of loyalty. Sometimes that also includes encountering other animals during their venture, including those that have been discarded by owners; they thrive in the sewers of New York as a faction of four-legged gangsters, eager to recruit others in their scheme to rid the world of selfish and cruel pet owners. Much of this sounds rather exciting and whimsical when you paint a portrait in a movie review, but replace the dogs and cats with inanimate childhood objects and what you basically have is “Toy Story.”

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Purge: Election Year / **1/2 (2016)

On the eve of my viewing of “The Purge: Election Year,” news headlines were flooded by reports of another police officer gunning down a black man during a traffic stop, reportedly because he was concealing a weapon. Cameras caught footage of the killing and a wave of protest swept over social circles, and with good reason: it was yet another in a growing list of offenses in which legal authorities had applied questionable judgment against a civilian of color (the second in the same week, even), and another in which the victim had been injured fatally. I bring this issue to mind not in any way to make light of it in a movie review, but essentially to highlight the relevance of present culture paradigms at the cinema. In a volatile genre like horror, where the degree of considerations usually amount to the depth of axe wounds or the consistency of a murderous rampage, it can be a rare thing for a modern scare-fest to build its foundation on current political ideologies. Eli Roth used it implicitly in “Hostel” at a time when anti-American sentiment was widespread in foreign countries, and James DeMonaco has echoed that call in a trilogy of films about government-supported holidays devoted to massacre. This third entry, certainly the most direct at connecting to the trend of the times, is the tipping point of a thesis that feels all too familiar in the world we live in – because we are living it with each new tragedy against the oppressed.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence / ** (2016)

Roland Emmerich was once a name synonymous with the loud and ambitious blockbuster trend of the late 90s, but in today’s movie climate his is a reputation diminished by a generation of technical wizards that have fully upstaged him. That prospect (not a minor consensus) weighs heavily as we descend head-first into the fatalistic “Independence Day: Resurgence,” a rather strange phenomenon of an endeavor: arriving exactly 20 years after its predecessor was a box office heavyweight, the wonder of a collective audience is interlaced with befuddlement, as if out of sync with the notion that this story was ever worthy of a follow-up. Emmerich has certainly made a career out of gargantuan catastrophes causing generational slaughter (his two most recent end-of-the-world vehicles, “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012,” took that theme to the edge of catastrophe), but when it came to an Earth that faced off against an alien race that sought planetary destruction, where else could the concept go when the villain faced a clear defeat? Better yet, in a movie realm where the remaining population seemed to consist of just a few wisecracking cynics and emotionally scarred invalids, who would even want to go back?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Black Christmas / *** (1974)

Well before the homicidal tendencies of horror movie villains fell on ominous men wearing masks at Halloween or during summer camps at the lake, they were tucked away in the attic of a sorority house. Any aficionado of the slasher subgenre knows exactly what that phrase implies, but those less inclined to study the history have probably never even heard of Roy Moore’s notorious “Black Christmas.” Those are unfortunate sorts, many of whom have no doubt had their tastes molded by the trivial antics of lesser showmen in the crowded onslaught of scary movies. The irony of that proclamation is that the fanbase, usually quick to source benchmark origins for many of the ideas they hold dear, has been nowhere near as vocal in their respect of Moore’s film as many of the other key genre pictures from the past. Does that have to do with the continued obscurity of the endeavor, or the questionable reputation that slashers endure when held up against their more celebrated cousins? Whichever way you slice it, the resurgence of interest that came so long after its theatrical debut has been a muted affair, causing only ripples amongst those seeking knowledge of their favored field while others create more resounding echoes.