Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Cinema Soul

Life as I know it began in the fuzz of an old television screen. Through it I gazed into what felt like projections of dreams, images frozen in a procedure of motion that meant we were free to imagine, to wonder, to long for adventures outside of the monotonous grind. Sometimes those realizations came out of old cartoons, other times sitcoms, and other times old Atari video game cartridges. But movies were something more. They seemed to withstand the erosion of time, of earthly cruelties meant to wither and decay all that was necessary to inform our futures.

I sensed this the first time I saw “The Wizard of Oz,” probably the most important live action film of my youth. For me it was as current as the visual of my schoolmates running across the playground, and made more profound by the belief that those peers could sprout wings and take off midflight if they felt inclined. That, I believe, is one of the primary strengths of a timeless picture: if its images could reach you in a way that blurs the lines between worlds, then they slip past the notion of mere escapism and become extensions of personal experiences. For what seemed like years after I would often reflect on Dorothy’s adventures – in film and in book – and how my own would seem had that cyclone come and carried me away instead. And Oz, as whimsical as other worlds come, felt like the hidden fortress of a backyard daydream that could become tangible with just the right squint of a young eye.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Hell or High Water / **** (2016)

The opening scenes of “Hell or High Water” establish the broader intentions of this story: a failed system against its most hardened victims. The latter are a pair of brothers, aged beyond physical measures, forced into personal decisions that reflect a cynicism birthed by grief and poverty. They arrive at a local bank in the heart of small-town Texas wearing ski masks and holding pistols, but undertake a robbery of unorthodox specifics: they will only steal small bills, allowing them avoid the obligatory tracing as they repeat the dangerous routine over a series of unsuspecting stops. As they progress, so do the confrontations; nervous sorts quickly become replaced by more audacious observers, leading to shoot-outs that acquire the attention of the Texas Rangers division. What are they doing this for? What is their destination? The sarcastic but perceptive Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) has a good grasp on the situation but not much of an understanding on motive – no doubt because in the barren isolation of the Texas desert, motives become incidental to the authorities that are after them.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Manchester by the Sea / ***1/2 (2016)

A good hour of somber exposition passes before the most important emotional current reveals itself in “Manchester by the Sea,” invariably setting us up for a stampede of dramatic traumas. Until those events of the past are unearthed, our perceptions are measured by fascination in the more literal realities, where characters seem to pass through spaces in a removed context of their existence. This knowledge is reflected further by the strange, almost distant relationship the camera shares with its locales. Nearly every shot of the film is staged in static fashion, usually with the subjects standing a few paces away or on the edges of the frames. The interiors of houses, hallways and public settings are all muted and sterile, as if to imply others only use them to house the sleepwalking vessels they use as bodies. And then a key memory drops us into the deeper crevices of this story, and suddenly we are jarred awake from the more outlying observations. What we are experiencing in those moments is not an attack on the senses or even a point of clever manipulation, but a testament to the power of deeply rooted stories of ordinary people. These are characters we would scarcely keep company with beyond a few fleeting moments of intrigue in the real world, but what they have gone through behind closed doors is a pain too unfathomable to turn away from. Their struggle becomes a test of questioning one’s own personal endurance: on the long road of paralyzing realities, do you ever regain consciousness from the waking nightmare of grief?