Tuesday, January 2, 2018

THE SHAPE OF WATER Is A Sumptuous, Heartfelt Fairy Tale

THE SHAPE OF WATER (directed by Guillermo del Toro, 2017)

Anyone can CGI a merman. Guillermo del Toro builds the dang rubber suit.

That kind of personal touch from the renowned cowriter/director - leaving one's fingerprints on the final product instead of outsourcing it - is emblematic of all that makes "The Shape Of Water" special. A movie not afraid to be brazenly grotesque in one beat and brazenly corny in another, it exudes a tactile love for the magical possibilities of cinema, wearing its heart on its sleeve. And like movies as varied as "E.T.," "Singin' In The Rain," and "Titanic," it taps into something primal and urgent, the belief that we're special and our desire for someone else who sees us that way.

The time is the Cold War, circa 1962. The place is a mysterious government research lab in Baltimore. A mute custodian (Sally Hawkins, never more enchanting) dutifully mops its floors every night, after a regular and rigorous masturbation session in her apartment's bathtub. Her only two friends are a fellow janitor (Octavia Spencer) and a closeted gay artist living next door (Richard Jenkins).

One night, a colonel (Michael Shannon) suddenly arrives with some merman-type creature captured in the South American jungle ("worshiped like a god" by the locals, we're told). He's got marching orders to study the creature and eventually destroy it, but Hawkins secretly forms a friendship and eventual romance with it, partially through their shared outsider status, but also through universal decency. With the aid of Spencer, Jenkins, and an empathetic Soviet spy (Michael Stuhlbarg) posing as a scientist at the lab, Hawkins hatches a plan to free the creature and release it to the ocean.

Why set "The Shape Of Water" in the Cold War, when a few cosmetic changes could so easily transfer it to the present? Part of it boils down to the movie's fairy tale structure, where something happening a long time ago comes with the territory. There's also the inherent sci-fi elements, monsters and secret labs, that meld so well with the era of G-men in skinny ties.

But there's something deeper, something fundamental, that which lends the movie its power. A corrosive meanness pumps through the undercurrent of "The Shape Of Water, which practically everyone in the movie either actively engages in or implicitly allows while kicking up their feet. We hang a drape over the magical. We slap down those who threaten to speak up. 

By setting his movie in the Cold War and surrounding his mute protagonist with a black woman and a closeted homosexual, del Toro focuses on three people in a world where they don't have a voice. And when they fight back, they do so not with violence or hate, but with base human kindness. They gaze upon a creature sent from the gods and say that it deserves a place here too. 

Much is made in "The Shape Of Water" of the past versus the future, and it's as if del Toro is saying this is where we start as a society, but this is also where we could be. He casts a warm lens on the world, blending moments of grace, tenderness, terror, and hope with aplomb. 

Just as "The Shape Of Water" is a B-level monster movie, it's also, as mentioned, a fairy tale, and you can feel the glee of production designer Paul D. Austerberry as he's given the task to merge the two. In one scene, an advertising executive explains to Jenkins how green is the future, and true to the movie's heart, Austerberry bathes Hawkins' apartment in the color, suggesting it's her generosity of spirit that will ultimately act as our beacon. A visit to Shannon's traditional family home, on the other hand, casts it in drab yellows and browns, ensconced firmly in the past.  

Meanwhile, del Toro and cinematographer Dan Laustsen walk a fine line between the mundane and fantastical, between drab and cinematic. By opting for the flat aspect ratio, they seem to purposefully reign in the scope of the movie even as wondrous sights unfold. Our world holds such beauty, even as others attempt to box it in. 

That's not to say they don't also indulge in flights of fancy. Jenkins and Hawkins live above a movie house, and the magic of cinema permeates through "The Shape Of Water," such as an ethereal underwater sex scene between Hawkins and the creature where time seems to stand still and a brief black-and-white dream sequence that I won't spoil except to say you'll either roll your eyes or stand up and cheer.

Personally, I don't have much patience for those who would do the former.

As the mute janitor with only her face to do the talking, Hawkins embodies this kind of wanton open-heartedness. She throws herself into the role with gusto, capping scenes with quick dance steps or a glimmer in her eyes that stay just this side of twee, instead radiating a woman who's all life and love and won't give up the only creature in this world who sees those sides of her. It's a marvelous, incandescent performance. 

"The Shape Of Water" stumbles only slightly in the last act as the chase between Shannon and Hawkins takes over and it becomes a typical race against time. But by the end, I didn't care. This is easily the best of all del Toro's English language movies, doing so many things that it's a bit stunning to look back and realize how many of them it did so superbly.

Lyrical and lovely, macabre and moving, "The Shape Of Water" transcends in ways that only cinema can. It grants outsiders the dignity that comes from being outsiders. It gives us hope in the better angels within ourselves. It's a work of utter magic.

Friday, December 8, 2017


(directed by James Franco, lover of Japanese body pillows, 2017)

Never trust anyone who calls a movie "so bad it's good."

A movie can be so bad, it's fascinating. Or so bad, it's educational (as a case study in what NOT to do). Or so bad it was just a waste of your time. There's a certain arrogance, though, in calling something so bad, it's good. You assume superiority over a work of art you profess to hate, but then insult the artist by welcoming it into your life anyway. 

Hundreds of decisions spread over months, or even years, lead to a finished movie. That one even exists is an act of divine intervention. That some are genuinely entertaining, though, is a direct result of those conscious choices. And if a director you've never met helped you enjoy yourself, keep the scorn at bay. To bring complete strangers a sense of joy means something.

Made on a self-funded $6 million budget and wackadoo delusion, Tommy Wiseau's "The Room" is widely considered among the worst films ever made - the title that launched a thousand midnight screenings and plastic spoons to be swept up later by an irritated custodial staff. Scenes drift out of focus. Subplots are raised and discarded at random. And the green screen. My god, the green screen. 

Such a movie might normally vanish to the ether. But what makes "The Room" special, which director/star James Franco acutely understands in "The Disaster Artist," is Wiseau's willingness to put himself OUT THERE. Why let pesky details like zero talent or experience stand in the way when you have to-the-marrow passion? For great art to work, you gotta mean it. Wiseau meant it. And so does Franco.

As a chronicle of the making of "The Room," one can imagine "The Disaster Artist" veering in a dozen wrong directions. A mockery of Wiseau and his merry band of misfits, pointing and laughing with a cruel sneer. A laundry list of famous movie clips you know from YouTube, reenacted by A-list Hollywood stars. An elevation of Wiseau to some kind of misunderstood, messianic genius. 

Instead, guided by Franco as director, "The Disaster Artist" finds the most welcome of grooves: a full-throated howler of a comedy that also hides a real, beating heart. Yes, "The Room" is a ridiculous gotdang mess. Yes, Wiseau probably had no business near a movie set. But there's something to be said for the corny notion of recognizing your dream and pursuing it. Through such a silly foundation, Franco crafts a sweet, hilarious, and improbably moving study of the redemptive power of art.

One key choice made by Franco and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber is to ultimately tell the story not through Wiseau's eyes, but his friend and "Room" costar Greg Sestero, basing their screenplay off his memoir of the same name. Opening in 1998 San Francisco, Sestero (younger brother Dave Franco) is just one of thousands of anonymous, wannabe movie stars, dropping money on acting classes. It is there he meets the mysterious Tommy Wiseau (elder Franco) going for broke on a scene from "A Streetcar Named Desire." Nothing about Wiseau resembles a rational human being, from the garbled speech to the copious number of belts. In any case, Wiseau and Sestero become fast friends and eventually move to Los Angeles with starry-eyed dreams of making it big. When the leading roles just don't come, Wiseau writes his own script, and history, against all odds, was born.

The easiest, and not unwarranted, companion piece to "The Disaster Artist" is Tim Burton's "Ed Wood," down to their shared DNA of gentle but loving lampooning of cinematic hucksters. But while Burton's movie filtered everything through Wood's perspective, "The Disaster Artist," relegates Wiseau to an enigmatic shadow. How old is this man? Where is he from? How did he earn his seemingly bottomless pit of wealth? What gave him the gall to make a movie in the first place?

Franco doesn't answer these questions because he's not even interested in asking them. One of the great pleasures of watching "The Room" is its vast, murky mystery, wondering how much, if any of this, was done intentionally. Franco leaves these mysteries unsolved, and I've read some criticisms of "The Disaster Artist" that by keeping Wiseau a cipher and not delving into what makes him tick, the movie loses its emotional wallop. This seems to miss the point. By framing the story around Sestero - his meeting and subsequent encounters with Wiseau, his experiences on the set of "The Room, his increasing frustrations with this unknowable friend - "The Disaster Artist" sidesteps how an accidental work of art happened and instead shows how an accidental work of art can come from anywhere (to paraphrase "Ratatouille). 

No, we don't learn much more about Tommy Wiseau than when we started. No, we don't gain any insight in how he conceived his masterwork, although Franco does take a definite stance on whether or not he intended "The Room" to be a comedy. Instead, "The Disaster Artist" serves up something sweeter: two friends coming together in shared ambition to bring something into the world that wasn't there before.

While most of us are content in repeating the same pop culture references to define ourselves, there's something to be said for a drive to CREATE.

Despite these ambitions, make no mistake, "The Disaster Artist" is also one scorcher of a comedy, delivering some of the heartiest belly laughs of the year. Some come from side-eyed callbacks to "The Room" itself, although you don't need to be an expert on that movie to enjoy this one. Others come from the ridiculous portrayals of Wiseau's movie set, from his insistence to shoot everything simultaneously on digital and film to constructing a private bathroom for himself hidden only by a curtain, despite there being a working one already in the building. 

But mostly, the laughs and the power come from the yin and yang performances of the two Franco brothers. As Sestero, Dave Franco is all smiles and heart, never quite understanding this new person dominating his life, but being bowled over by his enthusiasm just the same. Dave's strength, especially compared to his brother, has always been his open-faced sincerity, and "The Disaster Artist" plays that to its advantage in the final scenes as "The Room" debuts to rapturous scorn and Sestero reminds Wiseau that, intentional or not, he created something that made a lot of people happy.

Meanwhile, as Tommy Wiseau, James Franco is a flat-out force of nature, summoning all his strengths as a comedian, performance artist, and Oscar-nominated actor capable of generating real pathos. From the moment he bellows, "Stella!" in acting class during the film's opening moments, it's clear that this is James Franco SHOWING UP. The slurred, mumbled speech, the loopy mannerisms, the omnipresent lack of eye contact with most other people. These are not sets of quirks, and they're certainly not Franco doing a mere Tommy Wiseau impression (he could probably do a better one, but what would be the point?).

Franco builds a character here from the ground up, diving into the role with heedless abandon and unflappable commitment, but also a quiet tenderness. Take a moment in the park near the end of the movie when Sestero requests - DEMANDS - that Wiseau reveal one thing about himself that's true. Wiseau sticks to the lie that he's in his 20s and from New Orleans, but watch the crinkle in Franco's eyes as the rehearsed words come out for maybe the hundredth time. Sestero is offering genuine human connection, and because of the person he built himself into, Wiseau either can't or doesn't know how to accept.

That's a complete performance, the best of Franco's career.

As a crowd-pleasing comedy, "The Disaster Artist" is an absolute showstopper. As a how-the-sausage-is-made portrayal of a movie set in chaos, it's a hoot. But ultimately, it's a treatise for not only the importance of art, but the importance of all art. The sublime and the ridiculous. The high and the low. People far too often bind themselves with irony in how they process art. It's easier to make fun of something than to love it. It's easier to hold something at a distance than to invite it into your life.

"The Room" might have inspired scores of hate screenings around the world. But "The Disaster Artist" reminds us how that doesn't mean it doesn't matter.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Real Losers Of BATMAN V SUPERMAN Are Our Wallets, Our Time, And Us

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE: (directed by Zack Snyder, 2016)

 [WARNING: There may or may not be spoilers below. You're an adult. Do what you feel is best.]

Who woulda thought a movie could make us yearn for the nimble storytelling prowess of Joel Schumacher?

"Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice" (referred henceforth as "BvS") is a failure of a movie, flat-out, full stop. It's a failure as the launching pad for an extended cinematic universe. It's a failure as a match between arguably comic books' two most iconic characters. It's a failure as a collection of lines and scenes using characters.

At no point did I believe I was watching a movie about people. At few points did I believe I was watching a movie made by people. This is a Hollywood cash-grab at its ugliest and most cynical, built on a story disregarding wit, soul, or coherence knowing that, like a grimacing caped crusader in the shadows, the Warner Bros marketing team will swoop in to save the day. When you describe moments to your friends the next day, it will be with the stony detachment used when talking to a police detective. You're not even sure what happened. You just want to put the pieces together and move on with your life.

What follows is a plot summary mostly stitched from Wikipedia, because god help me if I know. Roughly two years after the ridiculous carnage of "Man Of Steel," the world is still unsure if they need or want Superman (Henry Cavill). A junior Kentucky senator (Holly Hunter) leads an investigation into the legality of his actions during terrorist stuff in Africa, I think, where Lois Lane (Amy Adams) was reporting some story. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) harbors resentment because his daddy hit him or wants to take over the world or just wants to see Superman and Batman slap it out. Either way, he takes steps to pit them together, which isn't hard, because Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) still holds a grudge against that other dude for destroying his Metropolis office building during the climax of that first movie.

Buried in "BvS" are at least half a dozen nuggets worth exploring. Is Superman worth anointing as our protector if his amazing power also wields the chaos of "Man Of Steel"? Can his old fashioned "truth and justice" ideals still exist in today's world of ambiguity? Meanwhile, what if Batman grew some grey hair around his temples after fighting crime for 20 years and decided he's tired of it? Could we still justify his brand of vigilante justice when he abuses it for personal vengeance? 

I'm not saying these concepts aren't present in "BvS." I'm saying they're blended with the finesse of putting Oreo crumbs in a McFlurry, and honestly, I'm not sure who to blame. Certainly one must look at director Zack Snyder, responsible for bringing all elements together in a package that ideally should be intelligent but accessible, thoughtful but entertaining. And what of writers Chris Terrio and David Goyer, whose clumsy screenplay juggles so many storylines that none get the chance to breathe? Or maybe it's ultimately the fault of Warner Bros and their feeble attempt at launching a DC Extended Universe. At every turn, you can practically feel them tying Synder's hands behind his back, blocking the movie he likely wanted to make for the sake of the movie they needed him to make.

Or maybe it's everyone's fault, and that's the problem. "BvS" is a lifeless product, strung together by committee and brandishing no true personal stamp. In this era of extended superhero universes, any individual movie will always further a brand. We know this. Usually we accept this. One of the greatest feats of Marvel Studios is convincing us in the moment that mere competency can be something greater. We know we're being manipulated by cinematic capitalism, but that doesn't matter if we're having fun now.

"BvS" can't even accomplish that much. No doubt the gross domestic product of a small country was thrown at the screen, and it shows. That can't hide what a ponderous and dull affair this is, one that's incoherent to an almost surreal degree. We're not talking advanced level stuff. We're talking about the basics. Character and story and motivation. The soil from which all must grow.

Characters in "BvS" don't behave like individuals. Plot points don't evolve organically from previous ones. Everyone and everything happens because the movie needs it to, because the pieces on the board game need to be assembled just so. "BvS" is not only an advertisement for the DC Universe, it's an advertisement for itself. It's a haphazard mishmash of its own reasons for existing without ever justifying why.

And what a shame, because for all his faults, Snyder is a visual artist capable of moments of poetic grandeur, and you can sense, sniffing around the frames, an urge to tell the epic story of Greek gods brought to the modern day. Instead he crumbles under the weight of franchise filmmaking and caves to his worst impulses. He doesn't adjust his style scene by scene, asking what this moment requires and what's the best way to film it. Everything adheres to the same grand but glum tone, offering no shortage of splendor but little in the way of perspective.

We don't know what we're supposed to think because even Synder doesn't seem to know what we're supposed to think. Everything just kind of dutifully trudges along, waiting for that finish line. 

That sort of bland consistency explains why he so thoroughly botches the title fight. And really, when you ruin a battle between friggin Batman and Superman, I can only summon the immortal words of William Hurt in "A History Of Violence," - how do you fuck that up? Lets examine. What does a battle between these two characters really mean? Beyond the iconography, why is it powerful? Because, I think, of the contradiction. Superman represents goodness and faith and decency - the classical American Way. Batman, on the other hand, is the darkness and hazy morals of the real world. The pain and anger and fear we all house within us. When they fight, it's meant to be a clash between the two extremes of American superheroes.

But "BvS" essentially paints them as the same person. The same morose, brooding figures. The same dark, grim personalities. Without that contrast, all thematic weight of the moment is lost, and what are we left with? Ten meager minutes of mindless, indiscriminate CGI hurtling through walls and windows. Loud crashes and punches and grimacing that quickly loses its novelty once we realize Snyder isn't taking it beyond the first level.

Then just like that, it stops and the movie picks back up to where it was before. The clash of the titans to end all clashes, and in Snyder's hands, it wields the power of that moment in every "Teletubbies" episode when they show a short film on one of their bellies.

If there's anything good to be said for "BvS," it's that Snyder and Warner Bros assembled a heckuva cast that do what they can to rise above the dreck. Affleck in particular creates a Batman not quite like any we've ever seen before, a little more cynical, a little more weary (although the branding of his captives to ensure they're killed in prison is comically overdone). Well-performed hogwash is still hogwash, though, and if this is what they're cooking up for the impending Justice League movies, count me out.

Christ. What a humorless, joyless slab of work. What levels of arrogance and pretension it takes to pretend this is thoughtful, then what a lack of vision and clarity to execute it so blandly. "BvS" will go down as one of the great missed opportunities in comic book movies, a baffling collection of nearly every possible wrong choice.

If I wanted these kinds of philosophical ramblings about good vs evil, I'd listen to a teenage employee at Hot Topic who just enrolled in a freshman seminar.

Monday, February 29, 2016

DEADPOOL - Come For The R Rating, Stay For The Heart (But Mostly The R Rating)

DEADPOOL (directed by Tim Miller, 2016)

Never say that "Deadpool" doesn't keep you on your toes. It's a surprise the movie got greenlit, a shock that it's not a disaster, and an ordained, gotdang miracle that it's actually pretty good. I walked in the theater with decidedly muted expectations. I walked out with the kind of grin earned by a movie's sheer force of will. Isn't it fun being won over by something that normally wouldn't even be on your radar?

Even a normally unbiased Magic 8 Ball would not be on this movie's side. Lets examine the ingredients. Ryan Reynolds in prime, abs-to-his-neck douchebag mode? Check. Cheeky, R-rated sense of humor that could easily mistake cursing for cleverness? Check. The hacky concept of superhero "deconstruction," as if making the antihero our protagonist qualifies as edgy? Double check.

And yet, what could have been a lame joke, laughed at by frat boys on a night of crushing it, becomes something more - something genuine and heartfelt - and I think that comes down to good old-fashioned spirit. The movie wants us to have a good time, and it doesn't carry the arrogant musk of thinking it's smarter than us, or that we're somehow dumb for caring. It's laughing with us, not at us.

The more superhero movies I watch, the more I become convinced of a simple truth: It's not the story they're telling, but who's telling it. Eventually you must accept that a studio investing this much money (and even the $58 million "Deadpool" budget is small potatoes compared to Marvel's big guns) will be averse to risk. You can push the audience, just return them to where they started. When you want to strike magic, you need a unique vision applied to this decidedly non-unique format.

Break down "Deadpool" and it's shockingly simple, even by origin story standards. We open in the middle of the movie, Deadpool the character (Reynolds) fully formed and outfitted, engaged in a fight with multiple baddies on a bridge. Through flashbacks and fourth wall breaking, we learn how he came to be, involving a terminal cancer diagnosis and mutant experimentation. Then his best girl Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) is kidnapped. Then he faces the big bad in the customary climatic battle (although I appreciated its small scale and intimacy compared to the usual world-at-stake bluster). And that's it. That's the entire movie, basically three main sequences and flashbacks, all clocking in well under two hours.

One easy way to criticize "Deadpool," then, is to say it does nothing more than hang a new frame on an old painting, that it offers style as a consolation prize for a fairly pedestrian story. True enough, I guess, and do we really need any more origin stories? Instead I'd rather approach it from the opposite direction, that first time director Tim Miller and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick take a seemingly constricting tale and find a way to make it seem fresh.

The origin story isn't the destination. It's simply the vehicle for this one director and this one team of writers to unleash their vision.

As said, with the onslaught of superhero movies and superhero spin-offs and superhero worlds invading multiplexes these days, fewer approaches send my eyes rolling faster than "deconstruction." At a point, it feels necessary to bring a popular genre down a peg. Then arrogance sets in, the points become obvious, and it feels like being clever for clever's sake. The guy who still thinks he's cool because he doesn't watch TV and wants to tell you why.

"Deadpool" is a prime example of deconstruction done right. Instead of excessively mocking the genre, it gently pokes its ribs while at the same time reveling in playing in this sandbox. What little action sequences the movie has are pretty straightforward. The fun lies in the personality, the exuberance, the Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever" swagger.

If Deadpool the character sarcastically breaks the fourth wall to essentially ask, "Can you believe we're doing this?", "Deadpool" the movie instead gleefully asks the audience, "Can you believe we get to do this?".

Aiding to no small effect is Ryan Reynolds in peak star mode. A great movie star is different than a great actor, but they both require the basic skill of knowing your lane, and after a string of career missteps, Reynolds finally realizes his potential as a star who knows what he does well and plays to it. Deadpool might be a wiseass and even flat out unlikable at times, but it's Reynolds who reigns him back when need be and unleashes him when need be.

An unabashed antihero with quips to spare, Deadpool could easily become insufferable - the grown man who still thinks Spencer's Gifts t-shirts are funny. Reynolds imbues him with the perfect cocktail of wit, smarminess, and a weird but genuine humanity. There has never been a more perfect role for his particular skill set, and he nails it.

Clever without being obnoxious, intelligent without being obvious, and brazenly adult without being shallow, "Deadpool" announces itself as a fresh new voice in superhero movies. A voice that knows its audience, speaks their language, and at the same time invites outsiders to the party.

If "Deadpool" were a presidential candidate, it'd be the answer to the cliche question of who you'd most like to join for a beer.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Unnerving THE WITCH Is A Slow Burn Until It Boils

THE WITCH (directed by Robert Eggers, 2016)

Seeing "The Witch" is like being suffocated in your sleep. You aren't fully aware of what's happening until you're gasping for breath. 

This isn't a horror movie that announces itself. There's no grandstanding. No jump scares. No easy moments of silence followed by the inevitable crashing piano chord. Instead, writer/director Robert Eggers lures you into his lair and subtly wraps his talons around you, creating a fully realized world precisely so he can bring it crashing down. Horror doesn't work simply because of tricks. It works because of the fundamentals. It works when it lays the groundwork of character and time and place. That's the difference between a cheap scare thanks to editing and a genuine scare thanks to investment.

For any genre movie to work, it must first and foremost respect its genre. And Eggers approaches horror like he's asking Don Corleone for a favor on the day of his daughter's wedding.

His trick is to build "The Witch" not as a horror, but as a psychological family drama. It's 1630s New England, and a family is excommunicated from a Puritan village for their extreme religious beliefs, which seems like tossing a Green Bay Packers fan out of the stadium for excessively painting his chest, but I'm no historian. After days of aimless travel, they settle upon a patch of land in the forest to build their own self-sustaining society. Months pass, and their crops are dying, their newborn son inexplicably goes missing during a game of peek-a-boo, and the family is methodically torn apart. Bad luck runs deep, so you know, witches, right?

To the movie's credit, and key to its success, that last assumption plays completely reasonable in context. Eggers cut his teeth as a production designer, and he doesn't simply show us this world, he plunges into it. The cramped rooms, the dim lighting, the dirty clothes, the religion. It all grows from scratch, from the opening frames onward. We learn and feel what it takes to survive in this place, in this time. We're participants, not witnesses. When the family theorizes that a witch must be the root of the unexplainable, it not only feels acceptable, but logical. 

Eggers keeps us further on our toes, though, by never going all in with this notion. His method recalls "The Shining" (not a small or baseless comparison) in its resistance until the final act to accept an otherworldly phenomenon. Despite its title, "The Witch" holds back as long as possible to confirm the titular figure, not only building the terror, but amping our suspicions. 

A lesser horror movie might take the easy route. Introduce a witch in the first act, terrorize the family in the second, watch them fight back in the third. Thankfully "The Witch" never met a convention it couldn't shatter. The family knows there's a witch out there. They feel it in their bones. But they can't confirm it, and as a result, they quickly turn on each other. Instead of being about a scary figure in the shadows, this structure brings the terror home, echoing "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" from "The Twilight Zone." By the time Eggers plants his feet in the ground and makes a choice about the reality of the witch, he doesn't create fear as much as heighten the fear already there.

In our hearts and our brains, we know witches aren't real, so we can't truly feel threatened by them. But the family you love and trust accusing you of witchcraft, and there's no escape for miles? There's some nightmare fuel for you. 

Throughout it all, from the quiet moments to the explosive ones, "The Witch" carries an ever-present and ever-growing dread. Not the dread of what's around the corner followed by a quick reward. No, it's that deep, unnerving, unsettling dread. The dread that claws at your core and that feels almost too personal and too visceral to watch, captured by Eggers in a compelling argument for digital photography. Film, by nature, might give an added richness and texture to this world. Eggers' digital lens, however, brings a coldness to even the brightest daylight hours. It's not inviting. It's harsh and flat, and in portraying a family terrorized by an unknowable force, we sure don't feel like home.

That tone and the ending payoffs make "The Witch" technically a horror movie, but it also raises the fundamental question of what is a horror movie? One key scene in the middle of the story finds the older son seemingly possessed by...something, be it a witch or mental illness, as he launches into a truly unsettling monologue, impeccably delivered by young actor Harvey Scrimshaw. Watching this moment, it's impossible not to be reminded of Linda Blair in "The Exorcist," but Eggers stays just this side of the chaotic, never pushing too far, epitomizing the approach of "The Witch."

So what do we demand from our horror movies? Scares? Jumps? Just like we demand laughs from comedies? Those answers aren't necessarily wrong, but in requiring base reactions, it's not far removed from pornography. Make no mistake - if you let it, "The Witch" will scrape the skin from your spine. But it also argues for horror as a vehicle. A vehicle for ideas, a vehicle for character, a vehicle for story. 

Those final 15 minutes of "The Witch" reward your patience, but Eggers wants to take you on a journey before you arrive. Go in to a picture like this with the appropriate expectations and cherish the ride.

If nothing else, it gives us that damned black goat.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

THE REVENANT Is At Least Twice As Fun As A Bear Attack

THE REVENANT (directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2015)

Like one of those indoor skydiving places, "The Revenant" offers a visceral recreation of something without much satisfaction. The wind blows against your face and it certainly feels exciting, but there's nothing except a few feet of air below you and a comfortable walk to the parking lot.

That's your expectation checker. Now that it's out of the way, how many people really leave an indoor skydiving place disappointed? Movies are the most transportive artistic medium, and like Werner Herzog taking us down the river in "Aguirre, The Wrath Of God" or Alfonso Cuarón floating alongside Bullock and Clooney in "Gravity," "The Revenant" writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu and star Leonardo DiCaprio create a stunning transference of feeling. We're there in the muck. Crawling through the snow. Scrounging for food and water. 

What's the golden rule of screenwriting - show, don't tell? "The Revenant" is all show and no tell. It's one of those movies like "Apocalypse Now" that's also an incredible chronicle of its own making, and when we return home, safely under our electric blanket and surrounded by four walls, we're not only grateful for what we have now, but feeling like we've experienced something we didn't understand before.

It's 1823, and Amazon Prime is years away. A group of trappers hunt for pelts in the Dakotas, still largely unsettled after the Louisiana Purchase. When Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a member of the group with unique knowledge of the terrain, ventures alone into the woods and is viciously mauled by a bear, his companions assume him to be at death's door and leave him with John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, only slightly more understandable than in "The Dark Knight Rises) as they venture ahead, lest he die alone. Fitzgerald, never trusting or liking Glass in the first place, steals his supplies and abandons him, but not before murdering Glass' son. Despite the extreme wounds and no food or water or weapons, Glass manages to slowly crawl back to civilization, seeking justice.

If "The Revenant" has a major fault, maybe it's Iñárritu's. A man, near dead in the uncharted wilderness, literally crawls home inch by inch, and if he cares about surviving, it's only because he hasn't found his vengeance yet. There's a juicy pulp story buried here, beneath the grit and grime, but Iñárritu seems preoccupied with the grander capital letter themes of Man vs Nature, the Will To Survive, the Birth and Foundation of America. Even that would be tolerable if I felt a steady hand at the wheel. "The Revenant," however, clocks at a needlessly bulky 156 minutes, and there's only so many long takes of DiCaprio crawling through the snow we can take.

Too often throughout "The Revenant" I felt the movie slip away, clearing its throat and announcing its themes without delivering on any of them. It's an exercise in its own creation, and despite the majesty of this exercise, that's ultimately what it remains - emotionally stunted and underdeveloped.

Viewing the movie through this lens, though, maybe the fault is my own, respecting it while not loving it. Too often while watching movies that don't meet our exact hopes, we get too caught up in the hypotheticals. The director shoulda done this, the writer shoulda done that. We confuse choices with faults, and in judging a movie for what it's not, we don't always enjoy it for what it is.

So lets appreciate "The Revenant" for what it is -  an arduous, dizzying, and occasionally insane work of cinematography and acting, made by people steadfastly committed to the endgame and willing to see it through. If nothing else, even if Iñárritu directed a script written by and starring Tommy Wiseau, the movie is a visual stunner, capturing vistas rarely matched in the movies.

A more traditional filmmaker might indulge in panoramic wide shots, emphasizing landscapes. Iñárritu instead throws those in sporadically, creating with Emmanuel Lubezki the world we're inhabiting, then opts for mostly extreme close-ups. First the place is established, then we're thrown deep in the thick of it. There's no observation, no ease of distance. Whatever the characters are experiencing, we're there with them, sometimes no more than a few inches away. It's a jarring effect, but that's the difference between understanding a moment and feeling it in our bones.

If nothing else, "The Revenant" is a movie to feel deep in your core, and no small credit must be paid to DiCaprio. Truth be told, it's far from his most interesting work. "The Aviator" and "The Wolf Of Wall Street" both had more compelling, three dimensional characters, drawing on his skills as an actor in a complete way; Tom Hardy plays the juicier role here as Glass' adversary. If those movies were his best performances, though, "The Revenant" is his most performance. This is DiCaprio unhinged, primal and volatile, matted hair and chapped lips, hurling himself into the work with the passion of an artist who wants to take his audience somewhere new.

When he wins his now-inevitable Oscar, it will be for the onscreen experience more than the uniqueness of the performance. But you don't see Eddie Redmayne eating raw buffalo liver.

Ultimately "The Revenant" is a gorgeous, epic shaggy dog story, with not a whole lot to say but a real knack in saying it. It's a ravagement of the senses, a case for the widescreen theatrical experience, while sporting a single-take bear attack that makes you understand why Werner Herzog in "Grizzly Man" warned Timothy Treadwell's mother to never, ever listen to the audio of her son's death.

When a movie imposes a vision this powerful, sometimes you're allowed to not look beyond.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The STAR WARS Franchise Is Perfectly All Right Now, It's Fine, It's All Fine Now, Thank You...How Are You?

(directed by J.J. Abrams, 2015)

Nostalgia can be a powerful thing. Buzzfeed offers countless listicles for toys we recognize if were grew up in whatever decade. Nickelodeon launched a late night TV block reviving its classic 80s/90s programming. Any Republican running for office is virtually required to win one for the Gipper. Nostalgia blinds our better judgement, bathes us in a warm pool of familiarity, and strokes our hair as it reassures us, "You're not mistaken - things really were better then."

It's a cynical tool, for sure, wielded by those hawking what they want us to buy. But in the right hands, it's also a noble one. Enter "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," which preys on fans to a calculating degree, tweaking our impulses and desires and memories like it's scanning a car radio. And it's not only enjoyable, it's kind of inspiring.

I've always thought pop culture plays a crucial role in our lives, more than filling the silence before bedtime. Pop culture serves as a great uniting force, piercing through our veil of differences and giving strangers something to share in our dumb, random lives. Watching "The Force Awakens" with a sold out IMAX crowd at nearly one in the morning drove that home. As a movie - and ultimately that's what it is - the gears of the machine churn exposed. You can sense it laying franchise groundwork here. You can feel it hitting the obvious emotional buttons there. And yes, you can see it essentially remaking the original "Star Wars" all over the place.

But is that a problem? As noted by Matt Zoller Seitz, "The Force Awakens" is the movie writer/director J.J. Abrams was put on this planet to make, and sure enough, it's nimble and sure-footed, whip-fast and brazenly entertaining, modern yet boldly retro, with just the right amount of heart and brimming with confidence, announcing itself from the iconic opening title crawl as a movie that knows what it wants to do and how it wants to do it. Tapping into the power of nostalgia, it doesn't create a new world as much as it plugs new, dynamic characters into the one we fondly remember, and through that, Abrams makes an artistic statement that's both powerful and surprisingly personal. 

He does so by populating "The Force Awakens" with new characters consumed with looking back. Swaggering pilot for the Resistance - the good guys - Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) opens the movie on a quest for the map leading to now vanished Luke Skywalker. Villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), young leader in the First Order - the bad guys - models his look, attitude, and very existence on the legendary Darth Vader. Farmgirl Rey (Daisy Ridley) and stormtrooper-regretting-his-decisions Finn (John Boyega) know the legends of the original trilogy by heart. And then there's Han Solo (Harrison Ford having his most onscreen fun in ages) and Chewbacca returning to the series hunting for their treasured Millennium Falcon, which they lost years prior. 

Look. I get it. Abrams and Disney don't exactly reinvent the wheel in "The Force Awakens." At best, they're like the kid with an old-timey tire and a stick; if the tools aren't new, we still marvel at how well he's spinning it. George Lucas' original "Star Wars" felt radically fresh - throwing everything he loved about samurai pictures, westerns, Saturday morning serials, and California car culture in a blender - while the resulting mishmash served a structure as old as storytelling itself, the hero's journey. He used the new to reframe the old.

For "The Force Awakens," the old is the "Star Wars" series itself. Abrams wields these familiar tropes and beats of the series as a weapon, and without being too cleverly self-referential, he transports us to where we were in our lives when we first fell in love with these movies. Judging "The Force Awakens" for aping other "Star Wars" movies might be valid criticism as far as criticism goes, but that doesn't see the forest for the trees. The very soul of Abrams' script with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt is people chasing faded glory or people whose glory was never realized. People facing aging, failure, lack of purpose. People trying to atone for the past and people hoping there's something better on the other side.

Unlike the "Star Wars" prequels that became consumed with mythology, "The Force Awakens" cuts right to the core. And even when I didn't understand broader missions of the characters, I understood their specific motivations and why they're doing what they're doing now. Sometimes that's all you need from storytelling.

That's why Abrams' much ballyhooed return to (mostly) practical special effects is more than a stunt to draw cheers at ComicCon. Beyond a movie purist's love for the tangible, it signals the technical wizardry in service of an old-fashioned story, and not the other way around. Joy palpitates off the frame with the world "The Force Awakens" creates, and Abrams captures it not with the detached gaze of the prequels, but with a kind of boyish reverence. His camera moves and flows, but it remains steadily fluid, ensuring we soak in everything.

We're not held at arm's length by the cold technical prowess sometimes brought by modern special effects. We're invited to live here for a couple of hours.

"The Force Awakens" rarely zigs when it can zag. Truth be told, you can step out to check your online dating profile and comfortably guess what you missed. What it offers instead is whip-sure confidence. The dialogue crackles with wit and soul, allowing for unique, individual personas. The action sequences create clear stakes so we're invested in them when they arrive. The sets feel aged and lived in, like they existed before the movie started and will exist long after it's done. And it's a testament to the depth of the new characters that I'd pay to see a movie exclusively about them with nary a Han or Luke or Leia cameo in sight.

A little late to the party on this, I know, but "Star Wars" is back. I'm not talking the merchandising or the extended universes. I'm talking that fundamental feeling of seeing a movie you love and talking to others who say they love it too. That power of movies as a time machine, taking you not only to a galaxy far far away, but to that place where a great movie is all that matters.

"The Force Awakens" is what we talk about when we talk about blockbusters.