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Person to Person (Sundance 2017)

19 Aug

New York City has been an integral part of American cinema for decades. One only has to look through the films of Woody Allen, Jim Jarmusch or Martin Scorsese to see how powerfully the historic and iconic city is put on display – sometimes even becoming a character within itself. In Dustin Guy Defa’s new film Person to  Person, the city provides a backdrop where a colorful bunch of characters are let loose. An impressive ensemble piece, we first are introduced to Bene (Benne Coopersmith), a music enthusiast and record collector who is tipped off to connect with someone selling a limited edition vinyl.  Then there is Wendy and Melanie (Tavi Gevinson and Olivia Luccardi respectively), a pair of high school girlfriends who talk about weather their romantic flirtations with men collide with their feminist ideals. Claire (Abbi Jacobson) and Phil (Micheal Cera) are a pair of journalists who are investigating what is either a murder or suicide, and then Ray (George Sample III) is suffering the repercussions of having just broken up with his girlfriend (the reasons being are too good to be spoiled here). There are an assortment of other characters as well who come and go, providing the narrative surprises that coalesce over a single day in the city.

Dustin Guy Defa has a real talent for dialogue, and the characters he creates all feel so fresh and genuine. Shot on stunning 16mm, Person to Person looks stunning, and paired with the groovy jazz and neo-soul soundtrack, the film feels like it was lifted straight out of 70’s television. Luckily, the film never leans too hard into nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, and the interconnected stories are interesting enough to keep us invested without the vintage aesthetic.

Seamlessly edited from one moment to the next, Dustin Guy Drefe creates the type of experience that seems directly aimed at anyone who has ever watched an older Woody Allen film and thought “man, they sure don’t make movies like this anymore.”  Well – now they do.

Bottom Line: Taking the form of a vintage love letter to New York City, Person to Person is a beautiful cinematic examination of the intricacies of various human relationships.

Rating: 8/10 

Film Recipe: Coffee and Cigarettes + Magnolia  

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Eddie The Eagle (2016 Sundance review)

3 Mar

The “secret screening” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was a biopic about Michael Edwards, the famous British ski-jumper who earned the moniker “Eddie the Eagle“.  Young Michael (Taron Egerton) had always dreamt of becoming an Olympian, even when doctors discouraged any kind of competitive sports at an early age due to leg braces.  As Michael grew, the dangerous sport of ski-jumping captured his attention, and he set his sights on becoming Britain’s first ski-jumper in over 60 years. Soon, he crosses paths with a retired American jumper Bronson (Hugh Jackman) who reluctantly serves as his mentor after a series of unsuccessful attempts at jumping the 40 meter ramp.  Even though the British Olympic Committee is against letting the unorthodox athlete compete for safety reasons, the misfit duo of trainer and trainee soon prepare for a bid at the 1988 Winter Games. The rest is history.

From the first scene of Eddie The Eagle, we know what we are getting into. This isn’t serious, Oscar-baiting affair, but rather a family-friendly underdog story with a good helping of comedic touches. Directed by Dexter Fletcher and written by Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton, Eddie The Eagle is a delightful combination of quirky characters and earnest storytelling. However, the film is given to us in an extremely tired and overused package, and it’s hard not to see Eddie as anything more than a well meaning but dressed-up cliche.

Still, Eddie is incredibly charming in its earnestness. Edgarton is perfectly cast here as the sheepish and innocent athlete, while Jackson fits his role like a glove playing Bronson, the cowboy renegade who always has a whiskey flask in hand (emblazoned with an American flag, of course).  Both give great performances and the quick-witted, dry-as-a-desert remarks between the two characters are some of the film’s finest moments. It becomes clear that Fletcher knows his story well, has a specific audience in mind, and (like any good director) caters towards what the audience wants to see. Thematically and aesthetically, Eddie excels with flying colors and manages to be entertaining throughout its runtime thanks to a combination of solid editing, music, and photography choices. Much more sophisticated than it’s cartoonish nature would imply, I was surprised how much I found myself rooting for Eddie The Eagle.  

Bottom Line: Though it takes the form of a conventional sports drama, light-hearted Eddie The Eagle is playful enough to stand out with an overdose of British wit, ingenuity, and charisma.

Rating: 7/10 

Film Recipe: Cool Runnings (1993) + A Walk In The Woods (2014) + Rudy (1993) 

 

The Witch (2015 Sundance)

18 Feb

Zombies and Vampires may come close, but no horror archetype has been represented and caricatured in cinema quite like that of a witch. From The Wizard of Oz to Harry Potter, to Monty Python, we have been enchanted by the mysterious figure. I walked into the “The Witch” thinking I had seen just about every form of witches out there. I was so wrong.

Directed by Robert Eggers, and based of the real-life accounts of 16th century New England puritans, The Witch tells the story of a small puritan family who have recently been banished from their immigrant village on account of religious blasphemy.  William, Katherine, Thomasin, Caleb, Jonas, and Mercy must now fend for themselves by raising a farm in the middle of a forsaken (and possibly haunted) swampland. Without the aid of any nearby villagers, the family is faced with a terrifying ultimatum: either grow food or starve to death.  When crops fail to sprout however, William (Ralph Ineson), the family patriarch, suspects his children have been involved with witchcraft and dabbling in occult affairs. Members of the family then begin one by one to descend into a terrifying spiral of religiously-fuelled madness and savagery.

Part supernatural horror, part paranoid thriller, The Witch is a genuinely spooky take on the occult and the terrorizing effects religious devotion can have on one’s psyche. Thankfully, it is a meticulously crafted as it is terrifying, making The Witch the most artistically minded horror since 2014’s Under The Skin.

The Witch is one of those rare films you just don’t watch but experience; you can feel the sense of impending dread seeping out from the screen as you watch characters slowly peel back the mystery and evil that exists within the nearby woods. Boasting an immaculate production design that effectively recalls the early 1600’s, the film accurately recalls a time and place when religious paranoia fueled all aspects of life.  The film’s dialogue is even written word-by-word from historical transcripts and rendered by the actors in heavy, old-english accents. This kind of attention to detail might throw some viewers off (especially those with an aversion to period pieces) and the slow timing during the film’s first act ensures only those with a bit a patience will brave the film’s nightmarish climax.

This film is dark – extremely dark – figuratively and literally, (I doubt some scenes will even be visible when screened in a lightened room) which adds immensely to its haunting quality. Dimly lit landscapes covered in impenetrable greys add a surreal and menacing atmosphere. With one hell of an unsettling score, The Witch creates subtle psychological tension from the things we don’t see onscreen rather than relying on tiring jump scares.

 

Bottom Line: The Witch is a throwback to the great horror films of the 70’s, but delivered in such a visceral fashion that the ultimate effect is hard to shake off; I literally had dreams (nightmares?) about this thing weeks after seeing it.

 

Rating: 8/10 

Film Recipe: The Wicker Man (1973) + The Shining (1980) + The Exorcist (1973)

Anomalisa (2016 Sundance)

28 Jan

What does it mean to be human?

Perhaps no other question has plagued writer/director Charlie Kaufman throughout his work than this age-old existential dilemma. Co-directed with Duke Johnson, Anomalisa marks the first animated film from Kauffman, with all the characters taking the form of stop-motion puppets. It’s a brave choice to render a deeply human artistic vision with inhuman objects, but somehow it all works so well. These characters feel and look familiar enough to be incredibly relatable while still maintaining their foreign and still-life properties through the wall of puppetry.  Anomalisa unfolds itself in a sort of hallucinogenic, dream-like state, with each scene blending into the next until a narrative starts to take shape:

The film focuses on Thomas Stone, a sort of well known cheerleader for customer service reps nationwide, as he has been summoned to speak in Cincinnati Ohio for a business convention. Unfortunately, Stone seems to be suffering from some sort of psychological breakdown, one that makes him inept to connect with others around him – despite their obvious love and adoration for him. Stone sees everyone else in the world as “the same”; simple replicas of one another without any depth, feeling, or emotion. Stone is miserable man, plagued with the mindless existence of others, until he meets someone who, by chance is “different….. a real person.” This prompts Stone to reconsider his options, in order lead a fulfilling life of love and authentic connection.

Johnson and Kaufman pay special attention to the small details in the world of Anomalisa; it doesn’t matter if they are the physical details of the production itself (every set piece was painstakingly crafted and animated by hand) or the subtle character details that make these puppets spring to life and take on the personas of real people. Financed entirely from funds through fans from Kickstarter, Anomalisa is one of those quiet films that makes an impact through its many smaller parts. It plays like a short film actually, with a only a few interior set pieces being used, but it’s incredibly powerful in its message and, ultimately, hauntingly truthful. Though there are some jarring and awkward moments (one particular scene featuring puppet sex drags tragically for too long) it’s intimate ideas about loneliness, desperation, self-consciousness and connection somehow become incredibly poignant as the film progresses, and even more so after the credits roll and you are left to reflect on what you have just seen.  It might not have the towering ambition of Synecdoche New York, the meta, self-awareness of Adaptation, or the Inception-esc surrealism of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but Anomalisa is singularly Kaufman’s most restrained and intimate work.

Bottom Line: A labor of love from directors Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa makes a profound statement about humanity through its many small (and sometimes painfully truthful) charms.

Rating: 9/10 

Film Recipe:  Happiness + Her + Being John Malkovich

The Lobster (2016 Sundance)

25 Jan

There are films. There are movies. And then there is The Lobster. Written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the film is set in the not-too-distant-future where single people are turned into animals if they remain without a significant other for too long. Yes, you read that right – these unfortunate and lonely folks are literally are transformed into another species.

Our hero is a nameless university professor (Colin Farrell) whose wife has just vanished – presumably with another lover. Faced with the possibility of turning into an animal, he enrolls into a hotel that specializes in matchmaking, in hopes that he will soon connect with another love before it’s too late. It’s at this mysterious hotel where he meets an unusual assortment of characters, from a woman with chronic nosebleeds (Jessica Barden), to a man with a lisp (John C. Riley) to a powerful huntress who may or may not be a complete sociopath (Angeliki Papoulia).  Other interesting characters are thrown into the mix during the film’s second half, (which takes place outside of the hotel) including performances by Ben Wishaw, Rachel Weiz, and Lea Seydoux.

In the world of The Lobster, every human is miserable, awkward, and desperately lonely. The resulting interactions between these odd characters are painfully hilarious.  Like Lanthimos’ previous Oscar-nominee DogtoothThe Lobster contains a richly distinct tone that relies on deadpan humor with an absurdist touch. It’s a strange film, with each moment building awkward tension from the previous. Contrast The Lobster with the nihilistic and disturbing Dogtooth, and you see Lanthimos has turned down the gritty, Haneke-esc violence in favor of something more subtle and charming. Though it’s wildly unpredictable and completely absurd, everything in The Lobster feels like it has purpose and meaning, and the layered themes Lanthimos brings up about companionship, love, and connectedness become surprisingly touching.

Boasting an ensemble cast, immaculate cinematography, and a stunning score, The Lobster is a near-masterpiece. Though its artsy weirdness and irrational sensibilities might not be for everyone, Yorgos Lanthimos has no doubt defined himself as a unique and exciting storytelling voice.

Bottom line: Brilliantly crafted with a good amount of dark humor, The Lobster is thoughtfully bizarre and joyously unpredictable; it’s the rare kind of mind-melter that’s both cognitively stimulating and emotionally touching. 

Rating: 10/10 

Film Recipie: Moonrise Kingdom + Borgman + A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence 

Most Anticipated Films of 2016

30 Dec

Another day, another list. Today, I’m looking at what’s cooking for next year and give a rundown of what I’m most looking forward to seeing. For whatever reason, some of these have bounced over from last year’s list, but all are currently expected for a release sometime in 2016.

 

10 – The Witch 

Who’s attached: Robert Eggers, Anna Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie

Why it’s anticipated: OK – I may have cheated here by listing something I have actually seen…. but I really am dying to marvel at this thing again – this time in a theatre with friends.  It’s a masterful, atmospheric-based horror that must be seen in a darkened room more than once in order to be fully appreciated.

Release Date: February 25 

9 – It’s Only the End of the World / The Life and Death of John F. Donovan 

Who’s attached: Xavier Dolan, Lea Seydoux, Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassel / Dolan, Kit Harrington, Jessica Chastain, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates 

Why it’s anticipated: It’s been awhile since we have heard from prolific wunderkid Xavier Dolan. And by “awhile” I mean 8 months or so. The gifted young French Canadian has been busy with two films on his slate and both sound incredibly promising.

Release date: Unknown at this point, but it’s highly likely that we shall see at least one premier sometime next year. It’s Only the End of the World seems like the likeliest candidate as it is allegedly finishing up in post.

 

8 – Hail Caesar! 

Who’s attached: Joel and Ethan Coen are writing and directing so you can be assured a starry ensemble. This time it includes George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum and Alex Karpovsky. 

Why it’s anticipated: The intriguing, darkly comedic premise of a Hollywood actor being held for ransom sounds right up the Coen’s alley. Hopefully we will see the sibling duo return to their element and do what they do best.

Release Date: February 5  

 

7 – The Light Between Oceans 

Who’s attached: Derek Cianfrance, Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander 

Why it’s anticipated: Simply because I loved Cianfrance’s last effort The Place Beyond the Pines and Fassbender and Vikander are two of the best actors working today.

Release date: Unknown but rumored for sometime in September.

 

6 – The Lobster 

 

Who’s attached: Yorgos Lanthimos, Colin Farrell, Lea Seydoux, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, Rachel Weisz

Why it’s anticipated: If the absurd dystopian sci-fi premise isn’t enough (people literally turn into animals if they are single for too long), then just remember Lanthimos is the guy who directed Dogtooth. Enough Said.

Release Date: March 11 (I’ll hopefully be catching this one at Sundance next month)

 

5 – Knight of Cups 

Who’s attached: Terrence Malick, Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Antonio Banderas, Cate Blanchett 

Why it’s anticipated: I’ve been waiting for this one for a while now,  and Terrence Malick seems to be on a role with his elusive and mysterious projects. If it’s anything like Tree of Life or even To the Wonder, then it will be well worth the wait.

Release Date: March 4 

 

4 – Neon Demon 

Who’s attached: Nicolas Winding Refn, Keanu Reeves, Jena Malone, Christina Hendricks, Elle Fanning 

Why it’s anticipated: He may be divisive with his films (I personally thought Only God Forgives was massively underrated), but Refn is always one to challenge the conventional.  The casting of Reeves is a bit unexpected, but I think Refn might have another cult hit on his hands.

Release date: Unknown 

 

3 – Silence 

Who’s attached: Martin Scorsese, Adam Driver Andrew Garfield, Liam Neeson. 

Why it’s anticipated: Because it’s Scorsese directing a religious drama – though I doubt he will get preachy.

Release date: Unknown 

 

2 – Green Room 

Who’s attached: Jeremy Saulnier, Imogen Poots, Patrick Stewart, Alia Shawkat, Macon Blair. 

Why it’s anticipated: It received rave reviews at Cannes and TIFF, and after the huge success of Blue RuinJeremy Saulnier’s latest looks like another white-knuckle thriller. It’s got Patrick Stewart playing against type as a Neo-Nazi leader – what more can you ask for?

Release date: April 15 (but you can bet your butt I have my ticket for its Sundance screening)

 

1 – The Greasy Strangler

Who’s attached:  Jim Hosking, Sky Elobar, Michael St. Michaels 

Why it’s anticipated: Because it’s called The Greasy Strangler. And Jim Hosking is the brilliant writer/director behind the short RENEGADES. (NSFW) and CRABS (more SFW). Could this be the absurdist mindfuck of the year? Only time will tell. One thing is for sure: things are about to get greasy.

Release date: Unknown (yes, I’m seeing this at Sundance too)

The Nightmare (2015 Documentary)

30 Oct

The most universal aspect of horror is its power to make us realize that evil might be a lot closer – and a lot more unpredictable – than we want to acknowledge.

Few films have tapped into that mysterious and terrorizing aspect of the great unknown. Alfred Hitchcock managed to do it with the masterful Psycho. In the 70’s, William Friedkin and Tobe Hooper did it with The Exorcist and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the late 90’s a group of students were able to tap into that primal fear on a fraction of the budget with The Blair Witch ProjectAnd now in 2015, director Rodney Ascher (The ABC’s of Death, Room 237) taps into that same terrorizing instinct (this time in documentary format) with The Nightmare. 

The documentary consists of eight interviews with people who suffer from a bizarre condition known as sleep paralysis. This night time phenomenon literally forces its victims to be lucid and awake while experiencing an unconscious nightmare – without the ability to speak or move a muscle.  Personal accounts have described a sort of demonic figure or unwelcome intruder entering the room and peering over the side of the bed, conveying thoughts and feelings of death, hell, and pain. It’s literally the stuff of nightmares, and so far modern science has shown no lasting treatment or cure.

Through a combination of Q&A sessions, dramatic recreations, surreal computer imagery and voiceover narration, Ascher creates a mesmerizing, want-to-close-your-eyes-but-can’t look into this rare but troubling phenomenon. Somehow The Nightmare summons that banal and instinctive fear of the unknown better than any other film this year – if not this decade – providing a conduit for audiences to conjure up their own demons and proving that the scariest things in life are indeed those things we create out of our own head.

As in the Stanley Kubrick tribute/conspiracy film Room 237, Ascher is most interested in hearing what other people have to say, and the personal retellings of sleep paralysis from those who have suffered through it make up the backbone for the film. Without much of a story or dramatic arc to follow, The Nightmare often ends up repeating itself more than once, though it avoids anything close to boredom by adding a new and visceral layer of terror with each person’s story. The Nightmare might seem repetitive on the surface, but always terrifying nevertheless while in the moment (and the film does an excellent job of making sure those moments of terror make a lasting impression on its audience).

Once you’re under it’s spell, The Nightmare becomes absolutely enchanting, horrifying, and captivating in equal measure. With superb attention to rhythm, the editing cuts in and out between recreations and talking heads relating first hand experiences. Ascher avoids most of the medical and scientific explanations behind sleep paralysis, instead focusing on each person’s accounts of terror. The end result is a numbing but deeply personal shock to the system, which gains tremendous authenticity due to the fact that we are watching a documentary and not a work of fiction. Though having a more solid narrative trajectory would have been welcome, The Nightmare adequately describes the horror of being paralyzed during your most fearful moment, doubting whether or not you will ever make it back to real life again.

Bottom Line: By digging straight through the psyche and exploiting each fearful moment to the limit, The Nightmare is an authentically terrorizing, hypnotic documentary – one that’s best experienced rather than watched. 

Rating: 9/10 

Film Recipe: Room 237 + Nightmare on Elm Street + a bad acid trip