Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Breadwinner / ***1/2 (2017)

Everything we know about animated films has been a lie. Years of hands-on education has perpetuated the illusion of simple childhood fantasies, where plucky characters become caught up in whimsical adventures full of color, laughs and catchy music. Their greatest architect, Walt Disney, powered that device so relentlessly that it has fueled nearly all his successors – including the Pixar brand, whose recent “Coco” brilliantly mimics that tradition. But now comes “The Breadwinner,” the closest a cartoon has ever come to removing the barrier separating childhood wonder from the deafening tragedies of the real world, and what its creators find is a power in conviction that challenges all we know about the medium’s elasticity. More akin to “Pan’s Labyrinth” than a mere yarn about goals or quests, the movie throbs with a confidence that is as alarming as it is heart-wrenching. Rarely are such stories aimed at the politically aware, and even more tenuous is the candid insinuation that storytelling can be the key to facing down the nightmares of a world designed to destroy our agile hearts.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Disaster Artist / ***1/2 (2017)

The first scene implicates the arc of the story: the underdogs versus the professionals. One of the former is seen in an environment he is clearly a novice in, acting out dramatic scenes in a classroom where stiff delivery suggests blatant disinterest. Greg (Dave Franco) says he wants to become a big movie star but is too caught up in the doubt of his material, and others look on with curious boredom as he mutters dialogue with robotic accuracy. Then emerges from the shadows of the back row a mysterious figure named Tommy (James Franco), who shows others that it is possible to be just as bad on the opposite end of enthusiasm – he reenacts a key emotional moment from “A Streetcar Named Desire” that is so painfully shrill that others cannot wait for the ordeal to end. Yet Greg, sensing his fearless nature, gravitates towards him with curious allure. He admires the audacity, the ability to be so caught up in a performance that everything else – including the judging gaze of the audience – is superfluous. Does it matter that he is untalented, tone-deaf or oblivious? Not in the least. Behind those eyes is a focus that most aspiring thespians would be envious of, regardless of what any of it might amount to.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Copycat / *** (1995)

There is an ideological disconnect between those who study serial killers and those who are assigned to prosecute them. For the latter sorts it’s all about procedure, about connecting dots in a maze of riddles to identify a source that can be seen, touched and ultimately punished. Anything beyond those mechanics fall to deeper thinkers, who inhabit the underlying psyche as a means to find answers to the more probing questions – namely, what drives a person to the methodical precision of committing murder on a mass scale? “Copycat,” a thriller that borrows much of its structure from “The Silence of the Lambs,” features two such characters at the forefront of this descent. One is a psychologist specializing in serial homicide played by Sigourney Weaver, the other a deadpan police inspector played by Holly Hunter. Both lack the patience to work cooperatively with the other, and yet somehow they must, otherwise a recent surge of murders in the San Francisco area mimicking those of famous serial minds from the recent past could continue without interruption, even though they might be occurring with a critical pattern between them.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Coco / **** (2017)

Any number of recent mainstream cartoons that find their way to theaters are in some way about the importance of family values, but Pixar’s “Coco” is the first in a while that is truly sincere about the concept. Never is there a sense while watching it that artists or filmmakers are weaving an illusion that is at the service of a shallow impulse, nor does it inspire the urge in us cynics to pick apart the formula in secondary exercises (a behavior, I willingly admit, that I used in Disney’s recent “Moana”). Like a drill plunging to the depths of a rich reservoir, here is a wonderful little film that finds a powerful source of inspiration while others barely scratch the surface of their wisdom, allowing many of us to forget we are hardened adults diminished by experience. For a precious few minutes I was not merely a movie enthusiast – I was a kid entranced by a spell, in a place of splendor and sensation, joining characters on a quest that felt created by magic rather than the pens of ambitious scribes. And if the feeling remains true that the studio’s output is as rewarding for adults as it is for children, their latest strikes an even more elusive chord: one that transports the oldest of codgers back to a time when our innocent young eyes were starved for exciting adventures.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Room / zero stars (2003)

Among a cluster of eccentric personalities that found their way behind movie cameras in the recent years, few have developed the notoriety of poor Tommy Wiseau. His is an identity that seems like it might have been invented in a laborious, almost masochistic imagination; soft-spoken in what could be a muddled Polish accent, here is a man of suspicious origins (not to mention independent wealth) who found success in San Francisco as an entrepreneur, possessed fragmented visions of grandeur and went on to fund his first movie entirely out of pocket in a time when independent cinema ebbed high in public demand. That result, “The Room,” has earned infamy as one of the most legendary aberrations of recent times, inspiring eventual cult status and ongoing obsessions in the minds of those who gravitate towards the common fodder of midnight movie revivals. Their reasons are not difficult to decipher; the mess before them was so utterly miscalculated in its inconsistent spontaneity that one could only laugh at the result, however uncomfortably. Even Ed Wood only went so far in his ridiculous indulgences. But is anyone who experiences Wiseau’s passion piece really admiring the disaster before them as some kind of audacious endurance test, or are they laughing at the expense of someone who doesn’t appear to know better?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Devil's Rejects / ***1/2 (2005)

The space inhabited by the characters in “The Devil’s Rejects” is a laboratory of unconventional challenges, of ambitious morality tests not ordinarily reserved for an ensemble of would-be horror movie casualties. Its existence comes down a tricky gimmick seized by Rob Zombie, the writer/director, who finds an interesting platform to stage the events on – one in which homicidal maniacs are hunted by a legal authority who seems driven by the same barbaric tendencies as those on their own killing spree. Driven earnestly by a mission he refers to as the “cleansing of the wicked,” this maniacal force – a Sheriff known as John Wydell – strikes a chord in others that clouds the certainty of a horrible act with that of a deserving retribution, and both sides of the equation meander in the outskirts of their inevitable confrontation like they are hoping to avoid the central point. That is not to say the movie itself is evasive about the issue it raises, but more to suggest the discomfort from asking the difficult question: when you castigate those who have committed heinous crimes with the same level of depravity, are you any better than those you punish?

Friday, November 10, 2017

Shame / **** (2011)

We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.

When the observation is made by his sister late in Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” Brandon’s pride restricts him from reflecting on their relevance. Perhaps that’s because he is dealing with a sibling whose own caustic tendencies are far more obvious, displacing the necessity to contemplate his own. Perhaps he has no mirror to gauge a comparison. Maybe he lacks an understanding of them. Or maybe, just maybe, he has descended so deeply into his own precarious indulgences that he can’t make the distinction between self-respect and personal destruction, especially when it comes to a thinly realized addiction like sex. Then the point is further layered by the implication of the statement: what, indeed, was the catalyst in these two lives that allowed them to become lapsed versions of themselves? Should we be allowed to know, or would that only be superfluous? It is somewhere in this narrow emotional passage where this sad and powerful little film finds its devastating center, in a story where getting off is not so much a physical pleasure as it is an escape from a life that is otherwise directionless and isolated.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Belko Experiment / *1/2 (2016)

I may be going out on a limb when I suggest that “The Belko Experiment” has been manufactured by motivated filmmakers. Clearly molded in the image of the recent “Purge” series – where the scares are brought on by social and political unrests – here is a film that so agonizes over the effort to marry its violent nature with discussion-worthy contexts that there is little reason to contemplate skepticism. Someone high up, be it Greg McLean (the director) or James Gunn (the writer), was tapping into the most pointed trend of the times. But if I was paying attention to, say, a random soliloquy in one of the great Shakespeare tragedies, does that also mean I’m a fluent practitioner of the language? Can I turn around and recite the famous words of Hamlet while understanding the metaphorical nuance behind the conviction? A horror movie may not be in the same league as Shakespeare, of course, but there’s just about as much divide between those comparisons as there is between the concept of this movie and reality of those it imitates. A greater genre endeavor about the political ramifications of its terror will drive the point down to the guts of an issue, leaving one to contemplate the argument as their senses recover from an assault. What goes on in the frames of this film plays like an understanding of procedure but nothing of soul.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

It Comes at Night / ***1/2 (2017)

All that stands between them and the unknown is a red door. It is the sole entry point to a house isolated in in the wilderness, presided over by a man obligated to protect his family with obsessive conviction. What he – and therefore the others – fear beyond the boarded windows is referenced in whispers but never certainties, creating ambiguity when the narrative restricts their movements to a small space beyond the danger. Then, just as they lay to rest their grandfather after he contracts what appears to be a contagious disease, a stranger emerges in the darkness. Who is he? What is his agenda? How did he find their home, so far off the beaten path? A stand-off ensues, leading to an unnerving test that might reveal a critical detail – namely whether he, too, is afflicted with the sickness they dread. “It Comes at Night,” one of the more profound of recent horror films, contemplates a conclusion only out of necessity; it is about how fears blind us to the truth, the lengths we go to protect those we love and how compassion becomes lost when the horrors of a silent world lead us astray from the value of human grace.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Irreversible / No Star Rating (2002)

Gaspar Noé’s “Irreversible” breathes the misery of its characters with the relentlessness of a voyeuristic conviction, invariably setting the audience up for a rather complex moral test: can you defend any film, artistic or not, that extends no restraint in the violence imposed on the living? Fifteen years after it pierced the membrane of our comforts, we remain distant from the possibility of consensus. Not one to shy away from the more volatile experiments of the modern cinema, I first shared in that journey with a handful of film enthusiasts who, too, could not initially process what they had seen. But in those early days of the movie’s notoriety I was also rattled by another noteworthy detail: a strange, throbbing murmur of a synth that loops over the critical second scene, during which a man’s skull is destroyed with a fire extinguisher. Is he the depraved individual responsible for the rape of another earlier that night? Is his victim now in a coma because of his deplorable actions? Do the responses of her friend and lover become necessary as vigilante impulses? Somehow my attempt to reason with the material was blurred further by this single chord of noise underlining the violence; it has a grizzly, chilling effect on the moment that haunts me even now, long after the senses have reconciled the horror and my mind searches for a thesis.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Sleepaway Camp / *1/2 (1983)

Of a plethora of tenacious relics that persist with some level of notoriety in the dead teenager formula, few have been as puzzling (or as maddening) as Robert Hiltzik’s “Sleepaway Camp.” Cut from the same blood-soaked cloth that gave birth to the “Friday the 13th” and “Prom Night” franchises, here was a picture heralded in the margins of filmgoing as an audacious blend of macabre visuals and social underpinnings, inevitably casting it in a light that far exceeded the expectations of its class. Others were content to regard it as harmless (if violent) fun, and those sorts might have been the first to develop long-term hindsight; better films would eventually come along to inform their palettes and diminish the lesser pleasures. But like an open wound with a relentless sting we are forced to consider this thing in the sweep of horror film history even now, despite that far more ambitious movies have drifted deeply into the annals of cinematic myth and legend. Its strange endurance, at best, emphasizes the dichotomous standards of the populists, who usually sneer in protest at a standard that freely robs the ideas of the masters while displacing their tonal conviction.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Annabelle / ** (2014)

One of the most exhausted devices of supernatural horror is a creepy-looking doll with murderous tendencies wreaking havoc on its owners. Long before Chucky there was a homicidal clown in “Poltergeist,” and before that was Talking Tina, one of the prominent menaces of “The Twilight Zone” – their commonality was that the victims always were oblivious to dangers until far too late, perhaps because no one involved could really believe a small toy had the capability of causing great harm to others. That is the first mistake of the characters in “Annabelle,” who are given enough warning signs to facilitate the dread: the emphasized arrival of said doll, its strange facial expression, an ambush by satanic cultists who die with it in their possession (one of them bleeds into the doll’s eyes), creepy noises from around corners, and rocking chairs that come alive by themselves even when no one is nearby. Then there is a moment where the husband, granting suspicion to his paranoid wife, throws the doll away in a garbage can. Shouldn’t it amount to something startling, then, when it then appears packed away in a box, as if no such decision transpired? If there were a persistent sentiment amongst the demonic spirits that inhabit them, it’s that you always have a chance to endure if you find yourself in the home of flyweight suburbanites with only a dozen functioning brain cells between them.

Friday, September 15, 2017

It / ***1/2 (2017)

At some point an adult ceases going to horror movies to be scared and simply accepts the ride as a gesture of showmanship. Our hope for the elaborate psychological exercise is replaced by a voyeurism for technical skill, and what once caused an emotional recoil becomes a sensational exhibit kept at arm’s length, however unconsciously. Those are not necessarily pessimistic observations about films themselves, but more about the desensitized nature of an aged mind; the attitude reflects a hardening of the soul brought on by greater horrors in the real world, where they undermine the more elaborate gimmicks of filmmakers seeking to penetrate the core of individual resistance. Consider this insight thoroughly when it comes to “It,” the new film adaptation Stephen King’s famous novel, and you may be surprised to discover a contradiction to that sentiment. Certainly our attendance may be dictated more by the neurosis of current horror trends than by mere nostalgia, but what occurs here is in the milieu of a long-forgotten attitude – namely, the idea that a menacing force lurking plausibly in the shadows can cause great harm to those ill-equipped to confront it. This is a film in complete isolation of the modern standard, passing beyond the conventions of aesthetic and fashion to exploit what is left of our deepest nightmares.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Black Dahlia / 1/2* (2006)

In the murky fringes of old Hollywood glamour are the faint whispers of the forgotten and exploited, of ambitious young faces who came to find their calling amongst a generation of would-be entertainers and instead discovered a world designed to devour them. Though some lived to tell the sad tales of their experiences, others were less fortunate (although their names were usually buried in the annals of historical footnotes, a consequence of knowing more than they could keep to themselves). The hardest of pills to swallow was perhaps necessary to endure: the fact that heads of studios and their most prestigious stars rubbed elbows with dangerous mobsters, whose money influenced as many of the early industry trends as the expectations of eager moviegoers. And somewhere in the chasm created by the cognizant and the naïve is the mysterious legend of the Black Dahlia, a woman whose enigmatic presence looms like a painful reminder of the cruelty of the hills, where big dreams often suffered the irony of nightmarish deceit.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Fifty Shades Darker / * (2017)

“Fifty Shades Darker” descends thoughtlessly into a web of intrigue spun with blender-like accuracy, primarily to move its characters, yet again, from one orgasm to the next with minimal interruption. More perceptive romances, even the more vulgar ones, might at least see this as a ploy to harness some level of plausible dramatic tension, however thin. But for the people behind the latest in a growing fad of seductive literary cheese aimed at the lower end of the payoff pool, it plays like a clothesline for the writers to hang their one-note fetishes on, concealing them from the greater realities of chemistry and foreplay. Is this what the concept of movie eroticism has come to? Have we finally abandoned the almost cheerful adolescence of human behavior and turned it into a cold scheme to reach climax? Centering on four primary catalysts to frame the impending affairs of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, the minds behind this highly-anticipated follow-up prove, if nothing else, that a lack of understanding in conflict resolution means squat when all one shows up for is the lust. After watching it I imagined Catherine Deneuve sobbing quietly in a dark room for the future of adult fantasy.