Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Midnight Special Review (2015)

Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special” is an ambitious amalgamation of different genres and styles of film. It’s constantly changing shape and evolving, making it difficult for the viewer to determine where its heading. The movie is mainly grounded in the mundane here and now, though it eventually pivots towards epic, awe-inspiring Sci fi. It’s a father-son drama and an “on-the-run-from-the-government” thriller. It’s a family friendly adventure flick with the same sense of mystery, wonder and excitement found in early Spielberg (think especially of “E.T. and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”). It’s faith based but not in a heavy-handed, patronizing or even scathing way. In fact the faith aspect doesn’t have to do with a particular religion, but more that there are things in our world and the universe that are beyond our understanding and can’t be explained logically.

That sounds like a lot for one movie, and it is, but Nichols manages to weave all those ingredients (for the most part) into a cohesive narrative. It helps that he uses the road-trip/quest structuring device, which keeps the film moving at a snappy (but not too snappy) speed and from meandering too far off track. The characters are always on the move; they know where they need to go and what their objective is, although the audience doesn’t always know. More importantly, Nichols keeps the picture’s focus primarily on the father-son drama; their relationship is the guiding force through this wild, tense and emotionally poignant adventure.

“Midnight Special” gets going right away, beginning in aftermath of a child kidnapping. The two kidnappers Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are holed up in a motel with the kid, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). Roy and Lucas are dangerous and determined. Later, on the road, Lucas shoots and kills a state trooper. Getting caught and giving up the boy are the last things on their mind. We find out that Roy is Alton’s father and he’s taken him from a cult that worships him. Without going into much detail, lets just say Alton possesses extraordinary powers. Roy and Lucas meet up with Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), Roy’s ex wife and Alton’s mother. The ruptured familial unite has been temporarily restored and they continue on the run, while the cult and the government attempt to track them down.

That’s all I want to say in terms of plot because the mystery as to what exactly is going on (what’s up with Alton’s powers? Where is the family going?) is one of the most captivating things about “Midnight Special.” The picture is remarkably paced; the screenplay never reveals too much information at any one moment. Nichols keep the viewer in a consistent state of suspense; just when you think you have the film figured out it takes a left turn and throws you off its scent. There’s rarely a stagnant moment.

Yet, as exciting and tense as the film can be, it wouldn’t count for much without the strong emotional core brought on by the bond between Roy and Alton. Shannon is known for playing menacing, sometimes scene chewing, characters. He has a daunting physical appearance: an intimidating six foot three build, a rough looking face and a thousand yard stare that could melt ice. Here, however he’s appropriately low key and gentle, playing a father who would do anything to protect his son. At the same time, he’s still trying to full understand Alton and what he’s capable of doing. Ultimately, Roy has to do what’s best for him, even if it ultimately means letting Alton go, letting him go out into the world and find his place in it.

The young Lieberher is also quite strong (understated without becoming robotic) and I found his character’s growth to be one of the most emotionally resonant pieces of the movie. He begins as just another weird child with special abilities that we’ve seen a thousand times before. He’s an animate macguffin-- a living prop, objectified by those around him and misunderstood. To the cult, he’s their prophet; to the government he’s a weapon (he’s neither). In whatever context, he’s a valuable commodity. Though gradually, Alton transitions from object to subject, gaining awareness of himself (including his powers) and the world around him. Eventually, it’s Alton who confidently guides the family where they need to go. In this regard, “Midnight Special” is also a coming of age story; Alton’s evolution is handled with authenticity and tenderness.

Not surprisingly, “Midnight Special” can feel cluttered at times and certain intriguing aspects of the narrative are neglected. For example, the cult, lead by an old man named Calvin (Sam Shepard), plays a prominent role at the beginning of the film, but part way through Nichols abruptly tosses them to the side (after a somewhat superfluous scene involving a shootout at a motel) and we never hear about them again. It would have been nice had Nichols either kept them in or found a less sloppy way to write them out of the movie. Their bizarre devotion towards Alton’s make them a compelling antagonistic force, in addition to the pursuing government.  

Even so, “Midnight Special” is a fantastic movie, managing to be an exciting mystery/adventure/Sci fi and a poignant father/son drama. It gets better the more I think about it.


Remember Review (2016)

Atom Egoyan’s “Remember” is frustrating, not because it’s necessarily bad but because it wastes an intriguing premise and a great performance by Christopher Plummer and settles for mediocrity. What could have been a superb drama/mystery about denial, repression and confronting the sins of one’s past is ultimately an instantly forgettable thriller with a twist ending.

Plummer plays Zev Guttman, an elderly former Auschwitz prisoner with Dementia. A few weeks after the death of his wife, Guttman breaks out of his nursing home and with the help of another former Auschwitz prisoner Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau), who also lives at the rest home, he searches for the Nazi responsible for the death of his family. “Remember” is essentially a revenge/mystery picture--Guttman buys a handgun and travels to Cleveland, Canada and Boise. Egoyan handles the film with restraint and a deliberate pace and it isn’t dominated by excessive action or violence. Egoyan maintains a consistent atmosphere of suspense.

Is it somewhat ridiculous that an old man with Dementia could escape from his nursing home, visit multiple states, cross the Canadian boarder, threaten two innocent old men and draw next to no outside attention? Absolutely. In fact, Guttman’s son Charles (Henry Czerny) is somehow unable to get any leads on him. Yet, the narrative remains compelling enough to distract us from these logistical issues.

This may be the first revenge thriller where the protagonist is frail and suffering from Dementia. He forgets who he is and where he is, so often that you wonder if this guy even has the desire for this kind of vigilantism in the first place. Adding more intrigue is Rosenbaum who’s orchestrating this whole trip. He makes travel accommodations for Guttman, provides him the names and addresses of the potential Nazis, and a lengthy handwritten letter so Guttman can remember who he is and what his mission is. Rosenbaum is a manipulator and since we don’t know all the details of what went on all those years ago, it’s unclear as to whether Rosenbaum has any sinister/ mysterious motives or if he simply wants to help him. He spends practically all of his time confined in his room, looking through old historical documents and photos and frequently talks to Guttman on the phone. Hey, Charles…maybe go and question this guy?

Plummer is in top form. Even at eighty-six the legendary actor shows no signs of quitting--giving a fully engaging and enveloping performance. Guttman may be old and frail but he’s persistent, never letting his aging body keep him from going on his journey. I was getting tired and older just watching him.

But then, that twist ending happens and the movie jumps off a cliff. There’s nothing wrong with the content of the twist, which involves a major revelation about Guttman’s past (one he had forgotten). It’s a substantial, earth shattering revelation. It just shouldn’t have been contained in a twist ending. The revelation should have come sooner and the rest of the movie should have been about the aftermath-- how it impacts Guttman and the other characters. Instead, Egoyan treats it like the big twist at the end of a bad horror movie, saying “gotcha!” to the audience and abruptly ending the movie. When the end credits rolled I thought: “OK, and then what?” By not exploring revelation and the major dilemma it creates for Guttman in greater depth, Egoyan trivializes it and the whole movie, leaving the audience unsatisfied.

Furthermore, the supporting characters are frustratingly underdeveloped. As it turns out, Rosenbaum plays a rather substantial role in the final twist (hence his mysteriousness) but that doesn’t all of a sudden make his character three-dimensional. Meanwhile, Charles is basically superfluous; he’s given hardly any substance and we don’t get a sense of his relationship with Guttman. How does he feel about the revelation? How does he feel about his father’s past? We’ll never know. Both he and Rosenbaum are given scarce screen time.

In the end, “Remember” isn’t a bad movie; it’s just disappointing and leaves a lot to be desired. Christopher Plummer (and Landau) deserve better.


Thursday, March 24, 2016

Krisha Review (2016)

Trey Edward Shults’s debut feature “Krisha” is a raw, passion project about addiction and the damage it can inflict on a family. Based partly on Shults’s own turbulent family life, the film was made for around fifteen thousand dollars and shot in the director’s family home over a period of nine days. In addition, while Shults plays a supporting role in the film, his aunt Krisha Fairchild plays the titular protagonist, his mother Robyn Fairchild plays Krisha’s sister, and his own grandmother plays his grandma. In this regard “Krisha” quite literally a “home movie” (that went on to gain overwhelming critical acclaim at the 2015 South by Southwest film festival), giving it a layer of authenticity and intimacy it wouldn’t other wise have.

“Krisha” can be uncomfortable to watch and it certainly doesn’t build to a neat and happy conclusion, which is somewhat foreshadowed by the film’s ominous, surrealistic opening scene: a close up of a disheveled Krisha surrounded by black, staring intensely off into the distance, while Brian McOmber’s eerie and unnerving electronic score flairs up in the background. After that, we cut to a mundane residential neighborhood and watch as Krisha arrives at her sister’s (Robyn Fairchild) house for Thanksgiving. Krisha hasn’t seen anyone (her sister, her brother in law, her nieces and nephews or her grandma) in ten years due to drug/alcohol troubles and is hoping to make amends with everyone, especially her estranged son Trey (played by Shults himself).

At first things start out warm and peaceful—Krisha is welcomed with open arms and pleasantries are exchanged. Krisha even takes on the important job of cooking the turkey, showing initiative on her part to rejoin the familial circle. Yet, this familial tranquility is not meant to last; past demons are brought up and cracks begin to reappear in the foundation.

Ultimately, “Krisha” is less about substance abuse and relapse and more about the long term negative affects addiction can have on those around the abuser. Even after a period of ten years (which feels like a lifetime to me) internal wounds may still be fresh as and no matter how hard one might try in making amends they are still looked at as an outsider (a negative and destructive force) in the eyes of their loved ones. For Krisha, the obstacle isn’t necessarily drugs and alcohol but the pressure, the embarrassment and the terror of confronting the ones she loves.

Not exactly an uplifting picture but to his credit Shults’s doesn’t resort to any cheap melodrama or manipulation when dealing with the film’s big moments. Most of the time, he lets the tender, heartbreaking interactions between Krisha and her various family members unfold without any bells or whistles. On top of that, at a brisk eighty minutes, Shults keeps the film moving at a steady, unhurried pace. He’s not in a hurry to tell his deeply personal story; the transition from tranquility to chaos is gradual and organic as opposed to sudden and forced. And all of this is anchored by the sixty five year old Fairchild who gives a powerfully understated performance that draws both sympathy and frustration from the audience.

In terms of appearance, “Krisha” primarily uses a minimalistic Cinema Verite style, consisting of lengthy uninterrupted shots (that can sometimes last up to three minutes), allowing for maximum authenticity. During these scenes the camera is often at a distance, making the audience feel like visitor/voyeur and emphasizing the emotional and mental distance between Krisha and her family members as well. Along with the realist style are fast, trippy montages (that carry the same ominous, surrealistic tone found in the opening scene) interspersed throughout, intensifying as more familial turmoil is brought to the surface.

In the Cinema Verite style sequences the camera is usually still and only diegetic sound can be heard, signaling a sense of calm. In the montages, the camera is frantically gliding and zipping around the house and characters, with the electronic score becoming increasingly unhinged and intrusive, reflecting the internal tensions between Krisha and her family. While things may appear to be calm and tranquil on the surface, chaos and pressure is mounting just below, waiting to explode onto the surface. “Krisha” successfully blends the realist presentation of a John Cassavetes movie with the surrealistic style of Darren Aronofsky’s drug drama “Requiem for a Dream.”

In the end, it’s better to perhaps look at “Krisha” as a form of therapy for Shults and his family. Watching the film and reading interviews with him afterwards it’s clear he’s working through some deep seeded issues. And what better way to heal from family turmoil than to channel it into a creative endeavor? As is the case with most directorial debuts it’s a solid feature but doesn’t cut as deep as it should. Now, this is partly due to production constrictions—a micro budget and an extremely short amount of time to shoot. While the ending is intense and hallucinogenic, it’s also abrupt, leaving me somewhat unsatisfied. I’m not saying the movie needed to neatly resolve itself but it practically cuts off mid sentence, as if Shults ran out of time.

There are other issues. I wish Shults had fleshed out some of the other family members, particularly his own character Trey. Being Krisha’s son and the main person she’s trying to make amends with, he should have played a much larger role. Aside from an early conversation between him and Krisha, he stays curiously off to the side most of the time. Additionally, we’re given very little information in regards to Krisha’s time as an addict. While we’re clearly supposed to feel sympathy and pity towards Krisha, we’re also meant to sympathize with the family and be aware of all the damage Krisha caused them. Therefore, it would have been beneficial to give us some idea of what Krisha was like at her very worse, just so we can better see the situation from their point of view.

Despite these issues, “Krisha” is still a worthwhile and intimate feature, showing that Shults has potential to become a great filmmaker. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice Review (2016)

Zach Snyder’s “Batman v Superman” is the latest superhero extravaganza, this time courtesy of Warner Bros and DC. It’s a follow up to Snyder’s 2013 Superman reboot “Man of Steel” and Warner’s attempt to jumpstart a DC superhero universe (ala the Marvel Cinematic Universe) that will eventually lead to two “Justice League” movies. Unfortunately, Warner Bros is trying to establish this universe too quickly (the “Justice League” movies, as well as a few other standalone DC hero movies are in varying stages of production) and as a result this latest picture suffers dearly. Simply put: there’s too much going on in “Batman v Superman.” Snyder adheres to the “quantity over quality” philosophy. The picture is a disorganized, unfocused, overstuffed and emotionally stagnant mess that turns into a nonstop barrage of mind numbing action.

It’s a shame because the concept at the center of this mess is somewhat compelling. I know I’m in the minority in saying that I’ve grown tired of all these superhero movies, primarily because most tend to follow the same derivate cookie cutter plot involving a one-note villain and a major city being leveled. So, the idea of two superheroes having a scuffle is far more interesting to me than a superhero having to face yet another super villain hell-bent on world domination/destruction. Yet, because so much is crammed into the movie (including cameos from additional superheroes. In terms of the main narrative, they serve zero purpose. But hey…Aquaman!) the conflict gets lost in all the noise and commotion. I guess it’s not enough to simply have Batman and Superman fight.

As far as plot is concerned…there’s a lot of it (and it adds up to squat). We’ve got Batman in Gotham City and Superman in Metropolis…both in the same universe! Batman, aka Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, unshaven and grouchy) is older and more cynical this time around; his senses are dulled, he’s tired of fighting crime that never seems to end and he’s a cold blooded killer. He’s also been directly affected by collateral damage due to Superman’s silly tendency to destroy buildings during his fights with baddies in Metropolis. For what it’s worth, Affleck’s jaded, washed up Batman is by far the best, most refreshing thing about the movie because it’s at least distinct from other onscreen incarnations.

As for the Kryptonian himself, Superman (Henry Cavill) is…there too.  He’s still flying around in his red cape and blue tights, at times resembling a wax figurine and posing as a reporter for the city newspaper by day, doing a lot of intense staring and brooding either way. That’s pretty much it. He’s the same old Superman. Cavill was so charming and funny in last year’s spy comedy “The Man from U.N.C.L.E,” but here, he has about as much personality and charisma as a block of Kryptonite. The conversations about him (by various supporting characters and Batman) are far more interesting: is Superman a god? Is he the savior we need? Or is he a false prophet? All thought provoking questions, except the movie only grazes the surface. We get Holly Hunter as a Metropolis senator giving heavy-handed speeches in front of committees and a media montage where various commentators discuss the “Superman Question.”

What else? Well, Superman’s main squeeze and fellow reporter Lois Lane (the lovely Amy Adams, doing the best she can with thinly written character) runs around in a pants suit doing some investigative journalism and needing rescueing from Superman (seriously, she gets captured like three times). We have the mysterious Lex Luther (Jesse Eisenberg, essentially doing an exaggerated version of his standard fast talking/wise ass persona with a smidge of The Joker thrown in. His performance feels forced most of the time and the character never quite cuts deep enough) that wants to get his hands on some powerful Kryptonian artifacts. There’s also Batman’s faithful confidant Alfred (Jeremy Irons) and…Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is also shoved into the narrative, only because she’s got her own movie coming up soon (don’t worry, she was shown front and center in the trailers. No spoilers here). I guess it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t fit in with the central narrative. But one thing’s for certain: she has a neat costume.

OK…I’m exhausted.

“Batman v Superman” is overkill in practically everyway. There are too many characters and too many plotlines, which causes the first twenty-five minutes of the movie to be nothing but tedious exposition. It has to tease plot lines and characters for future movies. There are multiple glowing objects that are recovered and/or change hands throughout, a bizarre dream/simulation sequence that feels like it was left over from a first draft of the screenplay, and powerful beams of energy that shoot out of various facilities (powerful beams of energy have become common place in superhero movies for some reason). The movie even manages to go overboard on symbolism and social commentary. We get some 9/11 imagery, lots of Christ symbolism (it is Superman after all), allusions to bitter and disillusioned war veterans, all handled with the subtlety of Superman’s fist and shoddily inserted into the rest of the proceedings. There’s even an homage to “King Kong” near the end because, why not? In other words, the picture tries to cover so much material that it can’t really explore any of it in any real depth or nuance. It has to keep chugging along to shove in even more stuff.

What’s most frustrating is that, despite the convoluted plot and overabundance of material and characters, it adds up to virtually nothing.  Like most other superhero movies, it all comes down to a dull final clash between heroes and a power hungry super villain (again, apparently, Batman fighting Superman isn’t good enough) in a climax that goes on for what feels like an eternity. There are about four fight scenes crammed in to this single sequence, a surprise bad guy, ticking clocks, two damsels in distress and lots of city damage.  Seriously? Was there any sort of editing, either at the script stage or in postproduction? It’s the cherry on top of this chaos sundae.

Even from a technical standpoint the movie is a dud. The action sequences are horrendous--poorly shot using a mix of shaky hand held cam and disorienting crane/dolly work. The editing is muddled and nonsensical; we constantly lose track of what’s going on. And of course, there’s too much action. The cinematography by Larry Fong is simply atrocious, using dull, murky tones of grey and muddied, phony-looking CGI backgrounds. Meanwhile, Han Zimmer’s thundering orchestral score is overbearing and obnoxious. It’s used much too frequently and occasionally drowns out the dialogue.

The bigger issue here is that “Batman v Superman” wants to be big and epic in every scene, as if the filmmakers were worried they would bore the audience (well, they bored us anyway). Rarely does it settle down and let quiet, more intimate moments between characters play out. The few romantic scenes between Superman and Lois feel cheesy and forced. As is the case with most of Snyder’s movies, “Batman v Superman” is ultimately more committed to style and spectacle rather then character and narrative substance.

The longer “Batman v Superman” went on (and the more stuff it introduced) the more I grew to despise it. I walked out of the theater seething with rage, angry that I had to sit through such a long, hollow, bloated mess that wants so badly to be about everything that it’s not much about anything in the long run. It’s one of the worst superhero movies to come out in a while and I never want to see or think about it again.