Monthly Archives: October 2013

‘I’m not sure I agree with you 100% on your Weekly Recap there, Lou.’

10/13: Fargo (1996)

Fargo Coens Margie frozen body Frances McDormand

By now, Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and her you betcha midwest accent have become synonymous with the state of Minnesota Minneesohta. Marge is stuck investigating three seemingly related roadside murders and (eventually) tracing their twisting connections to twitchy Twin Cities car dealer Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy). William H. Macy plays Jerry as a flustered hole-digger, delightfully one step behind it all with his patience bursting at the seams of his tailored beige suits. Marge and Jerry — really anyone outside of Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare’s hired goons — and their hyperbolized shticks occasionally become tiresome in heated back-and-forths, but the Coens are mindful that the frozen playground they grouse in is sometimes in need of a cathartic laugh or two — especially amid Jerry’s ill-planned (and downright awful) plan to kidnap his own wife (Kristin Rudrüd) and extort his stingy DIY-er father-in-law (Harve Presnell) for the $750,000 he won’t loan Jerry to start his own business.

Coens Brothers regular Carter Burwell taps into an old country quality with his “Fargo, North Dakota,” and while this wildly successful crime drama probably doesn’t have a “theme song” per se, its as close to a title track as we’re going to get. With its processional, Scandinavian jangles, Burwell’s piece begins almost as a funeral march, building to a violent burst of melancholy through Brainerd’s snowfall. And oh, that snowfall. Characters stand transfixed against snowy backdrops and waddle, dejected, across empty parking lots.  Disappointment peppers Fargo but there’s also the sense that this is all ensconced in some larger routine. Norms are to be respected — those of habit and those married to Chief Gunderson (John Carroll Lynch). Norm Gunderson insists one making Marge breakfast before her shift. Jerry’s father-in-law parks in front of the Gopher hockey game with a tumbler glass. Even whole conversations have a rhythm to them. (this is where that you betcha crap comes in handy.) The Coens bracket their dialogue with oh yahs and ah gees like sandwiches; its a handmade mechanism to drive along a faux-hostage ransom that’s remarkably similar to what would ensue (or not, I guess) in The Big Lebowski just two years later. The version of the midwest the Coens have crafted in Fargo doesn’t just feel lived in. It’s time-honored. Tradition.

On an episode of the excellent Auteurcast podcast, Rudie Obias and West Anthony interpreted a seemingly out-of-place scene between Marge and an old classmate as a spark in her character’s realization that people can bullshit. Ebert makes a similar observation in his first volume of The Great Movies, and Marge’s swift return to Jerry Lundegaard seems to confirm as much. But Marge’s inevitable conclusion doesn’t lead to vengeance or even anger in her suspects. Instead, she’s mildly despondent. When she bears witness to one crook’s unfortunate end via wood chipper, her reaction isn’t one of disgust but of a tepid disappointment. It’s not unlike a mother’s firm moral lectures to her child in the backseat. Of course, that’s just what Marge does as the snow falls in the rear window.

10/14: Blackfish (2013)

blackfish documentary 2013 tilikum whale

Blackfish gets its name from an American Indian term for the orca whale, one that expresses the animal’s power and majesty. On those qualities alone then, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary on the sordid inconsistent history of violence in captive killer whales is appropriately titled. Cowperthwaite bookends biological histories, legal cases, and eye witness accounts with an acknowledgement of the beast’s deeper spirituality, but it’s a quality she can’t fully reconcile with the brutal, inhumane realities behind several very real SeaWorld tragedies.

Those tragedies, however abbreviated by edits and the understandably limited availability of footage, make Blackfish an incredibly unsettling series of rises and denouements. One moment, which stops before the SeaWorld orca ‘Tilikum’ kills SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, is particularly chilling. Not only is the understanding between a trainer and her animal an uncomfortable one, but Brancheau, who died at 40 years old, was a seasoned instructor at the marine park. Cowperthwaite enlists talking heads — OSHA key witnesses, former instructors, marine biologists — to field several hypotheses that may explain seeming acts of random violence from the animals, but the mystery remains inevitably perplexing, especially given the killer whale’s reputation as a calm, even empathetic species. Blackfish can’t round out its Free Willy moments with a convincing indictment of the animal’s ferocious potential, but one expert’s “hands in the air” reaction over just how little has been learned about Tilikum’s psychosis in the past two decades is eminently frightening.

10/16: Captain Phillips (2013)

captain phillips movie paul greengrass review

Paul Greengrass’ latest thriller begins with an awful dramatic fumble, but then rarely takes its finger off the bright red TENSION button. That fumble, an obnoxious airport ride between Catherine Keener and Tom Hanks’ Captain Phillips, clumsily lays out the film’s preoccupations with changing markets and a globalized economy. Escalation, really, and it’s escalation that drives Captain Phillips — both from where it’s coming and to ultimately where it leads.

While overseeing a cargo route from Oman to Mombasa, Richard Phillips’ U.S. cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, is overtaken by four pirates in a speedboat; their small crew is highlighted by a wonderful breakout performance from Barkhad Abdi as Muse. For the better part of two hours, Phillips attempts to outsmart, outwit, and outlast his captors through a series of clever tricks, distracting conversation, and secret communication to the Alabama‘s stowed away crew. Apart from strong communique with Shane Murphy’s first officer, Captain Phillips’ relationship with the rest of his crew is never unpacked. The hijacking happens so swiftly, hints of Phillips’ “hard ass” approach to managing crew and resources become standard, no-nonsense emergency protocol.

Greengrass, screenwriter Billy Ray, and, really, the “real-world” deserve credit for shirking the American “Hoo-ra” mentality when a mass of Naval forces descend upon Phillips, now trapped and held for ransom inside the Maersk Alabama‘s lifeboat. What began as a battle of wits between Phillips and Muse’s captain de facto flips to Muse against the might of an entire nation. And however awkward those first minutes are, the dire straits of Muse’s crew, desperate to repay an indebted warlord, speak volumes about economic disparities and a shifting table of global politics and third-world escalation.

Again, “escalation” is key here, but in the subtext and disappointingly less so in Greengrass’ direction. The directors two Bourne efforts hold up as popcorn entertainment because of their hyperactive qualities. In both films, Greengrass engineers a controlled level of mild panic that erupts in citywide car chases and rooftop rundowns. With Captain Phillips, a pursuit across the sea is tense enough with infinitesimal shot lengths and a generic throbbing score, but the open waters leave Greengrass’ style is left wanting without those pulse-pounding Matt Damon set pieces. The lump in one’s throat doesn’t go away, but Greengrass (admirably) tries for broader moments with the same mechanics. He’s superb at twisting your arm, but at heart, he doesn’t throw punches.

10/18: Re-Animator (1985)

Dr Herbert West Re-Animator fluid needle

Stuart Gordon wasn’t just cribbing from H.P. Lovecraft with 1985’s Re-Animator. Dr. Herbert West’s (Jeffrey Combs) pursuit of the re-animated man has an undeniable waft Mary Shelley, and Gordon engineers a kind of “Dr. Frankenstein” cult of personality around him. West’s antisocial, even downright mysterious presence is filtered through the perspective of fellow med student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) and his girlfriend (Barbara Crampton). At first little more than dull moral canvas, Dan’s begrudging acceptance of West’s radical research corrodes into outright lab assistance. It’s a choice that wreaks (ridiculously) disastrous consequences on Dan’s academic aspirations, inciting the erasure of his medical scholarship and, more essentially, the dissolution of ethical inhibitions.

With gore as vibrant as West’s bright green “re-agent” fluid, body horrors occasionally reach high enough peaks of grotesqueness that the ensuing shocks become humorous. A re-animated doctor’s eyeballs bulge from his sockets only to burst with blood. Dan’s “accidentally” killed tabby cat throttles its resurrector with the farcical ferocity of a Princess Bride rodent of unusual size. Key to these tonal balances is Combs’ surprisingly accomplished performance as a cool obsessive. Despite his insane ambitions, West still privileges human life, albeit to monstrous extremes. Combs rarely shies away from the character’s egotism, a man possessed by a drive to discredit the “brain death” research of Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), research West believes to be horribly outdated. As close of an antagonist as the story allows, Hill is cold and regressive, but he still harbors a secret desire for Dan’s girlfriend — a desire that carries over into a delightfully campy scene of seduction between the two. Er, between the one and a half. For all of its collegiate rigidity, Re-Animator‘s characters have an undeniable amount of passion left in them.

10/19: All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)

all the boys love mandy lane amber heard review

After playing at several festivals in 2006 and 2007, Jonathan Levine’s horror (?) film All the Boys Love Mandy Lane sat on the shelf. Those waiting on bated breath to see Levine’s indie release finally got their chance outside the festival circuit when the film earned a limited theatrical release and video on demand this past October.

I drone on about Mandy Lane’s production history because it’s quite frankly the only interesting thing about it. Cut from a mold of generic summer slashers (signaled through its high school hedonism and seasonal choice, notably I Know What You Did Last Summer), Levine privileges personal high school relationships — namely filtered through an effectively mean-spirited high school mentality. Stoners and jocks alike toss around “faggot” and engage in douche bag bro humor, all vying for the affections of one, Mandy Lane (Amber Heard).

The ensuing machismo circus that plays out on a weekend trip at a classmate’s cabin — and then the murders start ahappenin’, meandering between spontaneous barn romps and jarring jump scares that ache with the director’s visual palette. That any critics might compare Mandy Lane’s incongruous visual language to early Malick is absurd. Levine’s sunny “magic hour” shots at dusk make for a telling precursor to his camera work in Warm Bodies, but the combination of Instagram-lite filters and telephoto lenses resembles a Trace Adkins music video before Days of Heaven.

From muddled half-thoughts on feminism to Mandy Lane’s clumsily-handled friendship with social outcast Emmett (Michael Welch), Mandy Lane’s nadir is an absurd final act reveal. Levine trusts we haven’t caught on to who’s behind it all, but what’s meant to be a gut punch is more of a “fuck you” to those still paying attention.


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10/6: Escape From Tomorrow (2013)

Escape from tomorrow movie

Escape From Tomorrow’s swooping opening, that of a roller coaster diving in and out of tunnels, immediately sells the expected whimsy — that is, until a decapitated head jars one awake. Was that real? Did that person just lose their dome to a low-hanging tunnel? It’s the stuff of sick, urban legends, and such an abrupt shift is par for the course in Randy Moore’s demented depiction of Disneyland. Or, to overreach with an obvious simile, this is Sleeping Beauty if Aurora awoke in the midst of the worst acid flashback ever.

Both inherently fascinating and eminently constricted by its surreptitious production history, Escape From Tomorrow sees to the veritable disintegration of Jim (Roy Abramsohn), a sad sack father struggling to enjoy a final family vacation day at Disneyland after losing his job. As filtered through Jim’s unfairly bitchy wife, Emily (Elena Schuber), his two children, and a litany of both real and imagined human cartoons, Moore goes for the jugular in attacking the impossible promise of every child’s dream vacation. The constant exchanges of child supervision between Jim and Emily feel too much like small vignettes, made all too obvious by the production’s clear limitations on keeping an average shot length over two seconds while avoiding park security. Escape only allows itself space between conversations when characters are positioned in front of green screen backgrounds, post-production adjustments that while never fully immersive, aid the more hallucinatory elements of Jim’s day-long trip, with the devious grins of animatronic critters and mysterious spells of middle-aged temptresses.

There’s a whole lot of weirdness going on, most notably in Jim’s pervy fascination with two underage French girls, an appropriately inappropriate recreation of Disney’s sexualization of its “nymph-ier” icons: its army of Disney princesses, Pinnochio’s Blue Fairy, and as it’s bitch-slapped across the audience’s face in the end, Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell. At one point, a character even wonders aloud at what age it becomes weird to hug women dressed as animated characters while the appropriate age for imagining lustier fantasies is left unsaid but clearly on Moore’s mind. Jim’s scattershot pursuit of the girls and the resulting subtext remains muddled, and that exact cut-off — between childhood fantasy and adult perversion — is never specified, but there’s a safe bet it’s well under 45.

There’s a case to be made that the psychotropic trappings eliminate a need for any overarching coherence in Jim’s “day at the park,” but Escape From Tomorrow grasps for humor so much that it weakens the indictment when its auteur is two doses deep. The French girls also handcuff the male gaze as filtered through Disneyland’s surfeit of endless commercialism, but for all his drinking and ogling, Jim remains a creepy slob and a pretty negligent father — only an occasionally pitiable one. Moore seems lost inside his own indictment, and as an IndieWire production story suggests, at least one pivotal scene was corrected on an apparent whim. The shadow of Randy Moore’s Walt Disney may be one of a broken, male enterprise, but it’s a silhouette the director only bothers to pause on in between gettin’ freaky.

10/7: Carrie (1976)

Carrie 1976 Brian DePalma pig's blood prom Sissy Spacek

Carrie is a cruel, cruel story, but Brian DePalma may in fact be more of a bastard than even Stephen King was in his original novel. Following the girl’s locker room’s collective shaming of Sissy Spacek’s title character and her first period, the well-meaning Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) punishes the girls for their abhorrent behavior. But the cruelty isn’t just in its narrative’s meanness; DePalma propels along a bitter classmate’s (Nancy Allen) elaborate prom prank through Carrie’s oblivious interiority. A volatile score careens through heartfelt sitdowns with Miss Collins, awkward but genuine “firsts” at the senior prom, and inevitably, Hermann-esque bursts of Carrie White’s telekinetic fury. The sick joke is that the soundscapes are falsely comforting in their foreignness — it’s DePalma’s insistence that this story may have a happy ending when there was never any chance.

Taking its cues from Piper Laurie’s deranged Margaret White, Carrie also packs in the twisted Christian imagery: Mrs. White frozen in a Christ-like pose; a statue’s wild, glowing eyes; prom decorations soaked in bright pinks and yellows, a cruel harbinger of the fires that await Bates High School’s student body; blood galore, etc. The not-so-subtle aesthetic however occasionally proves a bit much when paired with some of the larger performances. As Carrie’s abusive mother, Piper Laurie towers over her daughter with “fire and brimstone” angry speak that’s borderline camp, but she’s a far more terrifying presence in her quiet, restrained moments. Nancy Allen and her blockheaded boyfriend (John Travolta) share a cheesy exchange at a drive-in, with the scene’s unintentional humor undermining the nastiness to come. Even Spacek herself plays the infamous shower sequence too “big,” incorrectly coming off as a legitimately mentally disabled young woman rather than a mentally disturbed one. To her credit, she grabs hold of Carrie’s slow decline into apparent normalcy with aplomb thereafter, making Carrie’s thread of vengeance all the more spiteful.

Yet despite DePalma occasionally losing his grasp of style and the bigger effects shots not holding up (a fireballing car wreck, the collapse of the White’s dilapidated home) Carrie is a deliciously mean piece of horror cinema, one that uses characters’ incessant “tug of war” on its main character and a wicked aesthetic to incite cold-blooded vengeance. Of course, the true terror lies in how much catharsis one can find in the entire immolation of a high school prom.

10/11: Gravity (2013)

Gravity movie crash space

Above all of its critical hullabaloo, I feel confident saying this much: Gravity is an intense filmgoing experience, especially in three dimensions. The disagreement seeps in when assessing Alfonso Cuarón’s artificial inflation of stakes.

Gravity’s neorealistic elements are (more or less) hugely successful in their immersion. Cuarón’s “camera” — for all intents and purposes here, consider this an acknowledgment of the digital effects’ influence — floats in and then out of Ryan Stone’s (Sandra Bullock) helmet before continuously panning a circle around the NASA scientist. As the opening titles clumsily relate, crashes and explosions are rendered mute because there is no sound in space. It’s a starkly different depiction of space in pop culture, and despite Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s protestations of its scientific validity, remains a refreshing and far more accurate vision, especially by comparison.

Gravity’s fatal sin is that it fails to blend its impressively engineered mechanisms with a fairly wrote narrative; for all of Cuarón’s visual innovation, the director isn’t slick enough to organically propel this story, one he co-wrote with his own son. Judging from his incessant mic chatter, George Clooney’s astronaut Matt Kowalski is a seasoned vet of space exploration, and though both Dr. Stone and mission control are quick to deride Kowalski’s garrulous qualities when under pressure, but Cuarón too frequently piggybacks on Clooney’s gravely vocal chords for exposition. “Where are you from?” hardly seems like a natural question to ask a rookie astronaut, especially one in the midst of a panic attack. Kowalski’s coolness is pure Clooney, but the character, like a number of Gravity’s plot contrivances, seems better suited for Apollo 13.

In spite of Mr. DeGrasse Tyson’s factual objections, he found himself a fan of Gravity in the end, presumably setting aside any scientific quibbles. The bumper sticker optimism slapped onto Stone’s grieving mother is satisfying enough, but calculated story elements fly in the face of nature’s terrifying improbability and the cold vastness of space.

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10/1: The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

hudsucker proxy tim robbins for kids

The Coen Brothers are drawn to narrators in their comedy: Hi McDunnough in Raising Arizona; Sam Elliott’s “Stranger” in The Big Lebowski; and in 1994, The Hudsucker Proxy. Tim Robbins plays a flustered simpleton who’s placed as a patsy head exec of Hudsucker Industries following its former CEO (Charles Durning’s) hilarious, majestic demise on the New York City pavement. Hudsucker begins with the country rasps of Bill Cobbs’ magical black man, Moses, waxing sentimental on the rejuvenating celebration of New Year’s Eve, even as Robbins’ Norville Barnes trembles outside his office window, seemingly ready to fall to his demise.

There are a number of extra-textual moments in the Hudsucker, even outside of its cribbing of 30s and 40s Hollywood classicism — again, see: magical black man. Titles furiously flip off a job agency’s board, flying toward Norville as literal title cards, overwhelming both the new business school graduate and the screen itself. Newsreel footage, narrated by Coens stalwart John Goodman, lapses in and out of Roger Deakins’ black and white cinematography with an elasticity that blends its chronicling of Norville’s serendipitous success story with the booming American industrialism and entrepreneurship of Goodman’s inflections. Norville’s partly broken rise to fame is, in part, a grand ruse via Paul Newman’s Sidney J. Mussberger, but it’s also owed to the jaw-dropping simplicity of Norville’s creative wellspring and of course, sheer dumb luck. The American Dream isn’t dead in late 1958, but the Coens seem to be joking that the straight and narrow path really ain’t all that straight and narrow.

As if its reflexive commentary weren’t enough, Moses becomes a literal player in Norville’s fate, too, solidifying a guardian angel presence as he duels with a nefarious custodian inside the Hudscuker building’s gargantuan clock tower cogs; it’s a hilariously on the nose deus ex machina, one that gels with the weighty Gothic noir production design, reminiscent of Tim Burton’s early Batman films.

Carter Burwell, in no surprise, proves his immense worth once again with a wonderfully sweeping score, swirling melancholy and romance in a ornate melting pot of melodrama. It’s that deliberate melodrama that works in spades in the background, but decidedly less so in the fore. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s spunky reporter is cut from a Howard Hawkes mold, but her machine gun tongue and broadly classical delivery feel like an act in the worst way. When compared to the woefully underused presence of Bruce Campbell, who eats cheese for breakfast, Leigh looks like she’s enjoying a vacation here.

As for Hudsucker’s intent, the Coens don’t exactly make that clear. At times, Norville’s a sympathetic patsy, a flummoxed dolt, and an infuriating man caught up in the trappings of corporate decadence. Covering an outwardly ambitious man in flop sweat raises issues, though. Amy Archer’s flighty presence as both investigative journalist and faux secretarial assistant to Norville is stowed away and then redrawn whenever the story requires a relationship beat — or a reminder that Norville’s getting played. Still, the lively quality and undeniable “size” of Hudsucker Proxy win out in the end. The Coens and co-writing partner Sam Raimi tackle grand drama and comedy in equal heaps, like a cynic’s answer to Giant.

10/4: Drinking Buddies (2013)

drinking buddies olivia wilde jake johnson

When it comes to “mumblecore,” I don’t adopt the position of Devin Faraci, who famously fought (and lost to) Joe Swanberg in a boxing match as part of a crusade that the director and his subgenre sandbox had little to offer cinema; that’s quite the exaggeration. That said, too often films of this ilk exude a kind of laziness, more a “devil may care” indifference and less a French New Wave modus operandi. Thankfully, Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, dubbed by some to be his breakout romantic comedy, instills enough confidence in its actors that the entire affair feels authorial and deliberate, even when breaking in the midst of intimate conversations.

Olivia Wilde plays Kate, a jittery employee of a Chicago brewery, stuck in a dead end relationship with her cultured boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingston) and engaging in shaky workplace flirtations with friend and co-worker Luke (Jake Johnson). When Chris and Kate invite Luke and his girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick) to share a weekend  at his cabin home, everyone’s uneasy relationships get all shook up.

Swanberg seems intent on setting up Kate and Luke as equally messed up characters, good friends operating on a juvenile “will they/won’t they” relationship switch. But Wilde, who’s legitimately great here, plays Kate as the far more flawed character. Kate masks problems in her love life by continually faking flights of spontaneity and misguided quick decisions. As hard as it may be to believe given his status on New Girl, Johnson’s the stoic party, capturing Luke’s cut to the chase frankness inside of light horseplay and a magnanimous grasp of craft beer. If only the beginning of Swanberg’s affair felt as natural rather than deliberately unfaithful.

10/5: Kwaidan (1964)

Kwaidan the black hair

The UW Cinematheque screened Masaki Kobayashi’s ghost movie anthology to kick off their “International Horror Classics” series this month, and judging by the number of walkouts in between each vignette, pitching this collection as “horror” may not have been the best marketing tactic to employ.

Kwaidan, in any of its stories, isn’t particularly frightening, though it continually draws from unsettling atmosphere. Its central thesis — that memory itself is as haunting an apparition as any — isn’t a novel suggestion, but each story revisits that notion with deeply personal twists. “The Woman of the Snow” equates memory with the tacit implications of a marriage vow while “Hoichi the Earless” channels memory’s resurrecting qualities through epic storytelling.

Kwaidan’s strongest story, “The Black Hair,” drapes memory in regret when an ambitious samurai makes the misguided decision to leave his wife and marry up in social status. Having abandoned his first wife, the man is met with pangs of remorse and traumatic flashbacks of his old home, as Kobayashi’s camera slowly floats through its hallways. The man’s memories have been stained with that of his true love, just as her black strands of hair seemingly remain untouched upon his return home. It’s a quality that bleeds into the vignette’s set design, with silks and leaves hanging from walls, mimicking the sable locks of the wife the man can’t seem to forget. In less capable hands, the story’s haunting apex would ring ridiculous, but Kobayashi’s grasp is a steady one, mastering long takes, offset sound cues and then finally, raw silence in meeting a sublimely cinematic end.

10/6: Prisoners (2013)

Prisoners Hugh Jackman Jake Gyllenhaal

Cinema Blend’s Katey Rich observed on a recent Operation Kino podcast that Prisoners is rife with religious symbols, and while the crucifixes and icthys tattoos are certainly present in Denis Villeneuve’s procedural, the images evoke very little. That’s really indicative of Prisoners’ problems as a whole, though.

Its plot is basic enough in its initial Law & Order: SVU setup: two girls go missing on Thanksgiving, and it’s up to family man Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) to take matters into his own hands when the detective assigned to the case (Jake Gyllenhaal) proves inadequate — “taking matters” here serving the place of “kidnapping and torturing your daughter’s suspected captor,” played by Paul Dano. Naturally.

Like the triggering of a handgun, Keller’s missing daughter signals a slow crumbling of his family structure, with grief, anger, and substance abuse corroding the enamel of the nuclear model. Jackman’s plenty fine in a (slightly) softer departure from steelier typecasts (see: Wolverine, The), but Prisoners jam packs its premise with two-second notes on guilt, faith, and paternal responsibility as if it were crossing items off a “Great American Values” grocery list. Its thematic territory feels almost as scattershot as the baffling investigative logic of its characters. Almost.

Side note: The comparisons to Fincher’s masterful Zodiac are as informed as Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, which is to say to an embarrassingly small degree. Swap out the Detective with Tom Hiddleston doing Loki shtick for two and a half hours and Villeneuve would’ve had me.

10/6: Short Term 12 (2013)

short term 12 brie larson

Blending disarming melancholy and hopeful lightheartedness, Short Term 12 isn’t the sappy white guilt drama it seems poised to be. Those intentions are quickly dispatched with an early gag involving Rami Malek’s newbie mistake of calling the foster home’s kids “underprivileged.” Brie Larson plays the head supervisor of a short term foster home and as her character adheres to, neither parent nor therapist to the children who come and go.

Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) is one such child who shares a great deal with Larson’s Grace. The two come to an uneasy truce after a rocky introduction, bonding over freehand sketches and similar histories of abusive parents. Grace’s typically firm authoritative hand is offset by boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) as the foster home’s intuitive goofball and occasional beat machine, but when Grace’s connection with Jayden spirals out under the weight of her own personal baggage, her actions are handcuffed by the shackles inherent in the foster care system. To paraphrase Grace’s boss, ‘I see these kids that come in and the parents who did these things to them and I wish I could hunt every one of them down and beat them half to death.’ Like her complacent supervisor though, Grace can only do so much within the system.

Short Term 12 never twists into idealistic fantasy, and Grace never has all the answers. What she does have is a genuine connection with Jayden, and that pays dividends for both characters during emotional low points. There’s rarely an easy fix, no matter how much experience these foster-care employees have been steeled it. What Short Term 12 offers is empathy, whether it comes by way of drum beat or a smashed windshield. There is no finish line to trauma.

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9/24: The Rock (1996)

The Rock Nicolas Cage

The Rock’s Criterion commentary — featuring Michael Bay, Nicolas Cage, Ed Harris, Jerry Bruckheimer, and a former Navy SEAL/technical advisor — is nothing short of fascinating. Some recent revelations:

  • Michael Bay has considered marketability and audience demographics since *at least* 1996
  • Sean Connery does not like getting wet
  • Someone really ought to write an essay on the influence of 50’s rockabilly on Nicolas Cage’s acting — I’ll get on that right away

Bay never truly capitalizes on the mobility of his camera to explore the robust textures of Alcatraz, but much like Armageddon, The Rock‘s action benefits from Bay’s do-or-die cataclysmic direction.

9/25: The Grey (2011)

The Grey Liam Neeson sniper rifle Joe Carnahan

The Grey loses points in the convenient slow reveal of its side characters, and any human struggles are shoved aside when it’s “wolvin’ time.”

That said, this is likely Joe Carnahan’s strongest film, a gorgeous, haunting, and (amazingly) moving piece of pop cinema — one that holds up even after subverting its wildly misleading marketing campaign. It’s all too rare that a moody character piece advertised as “no holds barred” actioner doesn’t avoid tying up all loose ends. It rises above them completely.

9/26: Hunger (2008)

Steve McQueen Hunger

It’s clear Steve McQueen is fascinated by the persona of the late IRA volunteer Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), so Hunger begins decidedly off kilter, delaying a face-to-face meeting by first broaching the confines of this loyalist prison with the shocking acclimation of an overwhelmed newcomer (Brian Milligan).  McQueen’s roundabout introduction however, affords the opportunity to ease into these confines, such that Fassbender arrives on screen with veteran status, a regular to the prison as much as the guards who commute daily to their shifts.

Hunger’s 17+ minute long take is impressive and gratuitous, with McQueen exhibiting oodles of confidence in Fassbender opposite Liam Cunningham, but it’s the director’s uncanny knack for visual storytelling that provides far more impressive results. McQueen blends bodily function with architecture, structures synthetic and natural forming a bloody, fecal, unholy bond: Fassbender’s bloodied mouth against his cell floor; shit-covered prison walls; inhaling a snot-rocketed bit of clandestine instruction; bloody stains from bed sores on hospital sheets. McQueen’s eye hones in on a single elbow, bathed in grey sunlight as it pokes through a cell window. Cinema.

9/27: Drug War (2012)

Drug War Johnnie To Milkyway

Johnnie To employs a remarkable reversal of perspective in Drug War. In one moment, pieces of information are relayed to captured drug dealer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo). The next, Inspector Zhang (Honglei Sun) is taking the next three pieces and forming  his mode of attack in a sweeping drug bust of a Hong Kong meth ring. There’s a density and complexity to a lot of its setups, and little time is wasted in Drug War. Police officers, including the intrepid  Zhang, are solely defined by their work, never shown going home or calling significant others. Instead, they eat and nap in police vans during late night stakeout. Choi’s family, as UW-Madison’s David Bordwell notes in his excellent piece, takes a main stage in the character’s psychology — that is, before ultimately falling by the wayside like Choi’s other tenuous allegiances. Choi may be a snake, willing to betray anyone and everyone to further his survival, but his dedication, mirrored by Zhang’s fastidiousness, forms a symmetry between the two — singular forces of criminality and justice, and equal lengths of dedication.

In one of several breathtaking sequences, Drug War features a double fake-out meeting between two arranged parties, a fast one pulled over by the police squad’s drug investigation unit. Much like an Ocean’s Eleven heist or a similar setup in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, the exchanges between one drug dealing party and a disguised officer, and then another are gripping, but To never talks down to his audience. Rather than lay everything out in advance, he shows snippets of cops preparing for the faux dinner meeting  before allowing both confrontations to unfurl naturally. It’s a difficult balance to strike, that of an organic crime thriller, but To does so quite spectacularly here.

9/28: The Lords of Salem (2013)

Rob Zombie Lords of Salem cross

Rob Zombie manages to mess up a premise that’s roughly Hocus Pocus meets The Cremaster Cycle — only the worst parts of both.

To his credit (?), Zombie puts the spotlight on his wife, Sherri Moon Zombie, a Massachusetts DJ who falls under the gaze of three servants of Satan, but much of the film’s attention eschews dialogue for elongated arthouse imagery. Mercifully, so, as Sherri Moon Zombie’s line deliveries range between wooden and godawful. The promise of a predominantly visual effort from this director seems enticing on a surface level, especially after playing in the Halloween mythos with his two previous efforts. The visuals vacillate from moderately horrifying — holy shit, what’s that in the corner of your kitchen?! — to ridiculous hilarity. 

Lest anyone confuse erratic, wafer-thin plotting with “story” and three wasted, overqualified actresses with a nefarious cabal of spinsters, The Lords of Salem little more than Zombie testing the budgetary waters. This is a game of chicken between studio and director, one with possessed LPs, goat rodeos, and impregnating tentacle babies. Fer rizzles.

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