Movie Review – Nina Forever

Nina Forever (2015, dir. Ben & Chris Blaine)

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Holly is in love with Rob. They both work at a local grocery store, and she learns he recently tried to kill himself out of the pain and guilt he still feels from his girlfriend, Nina’s death a couple of years ago. Holly is attracted to the angsty darkness of Rob, and the two find themselves hooking up in Rob’s bed a few days later. They don’t seem to notice the large, bloody stain forming on the sheets but take note when the specter of Nina manifests in the bed. From there we get a unique take on dealing with past relationships while attempting to forge a new one.

Nina Forever could have easily become a farce, but there is a concerted effort to maintain a tone that acknowledges the absurdity but takes the relationships of the three characters very seriously. The concept: a new lover haunted by their love’s old dead partner is not an entirely new idea. It’s been the subject of many romantic comedies, but this story doesn’t take the route you might expect. There is the proper reaction from the two leads to Nina’s arrival, shock and disgust, but after a few days, they begin to accept her. This moment is where the film gets truly interesting in the way it explores the haunting.

Holly becomes incredibly proactive in making Nina a part of she and Rob’s relationship, believing this will heal Rob’s pain and allow Nina to pass on. Her first attempt is to make the best of Nina interrupting she and Rob’s lovemaking by incorporating Nina. The ghost informs her that the only thing she feels is the persistent pain of her injuries from the car accident that killed her. Holly is a very persistent character while Nina seems only concerned with ensuring that Rob remains her property.

I particularly liked the incorporation of Nina’s parents into the narrative. Rob has grown even closer to them in the wake of her death, but his relationship with each is very particular. Nina’s father acts as almost a guiding father figure to Rob encouraging him to return to his Master’s degree in mathematics while sharing his amateur attempts at novel writing. Nina’s mother has a much more intimate relationship with Rob, while not sexual, there is this ever present tension when they speak.

One of the core themes of the film is Holly’s frustration with how others perceive her. One of the first scenes of the film is her boyfriend breaking up with her citing Holly as being “Just so nice.” She is determined after this to embrace her dark side and make sure Rob knows how dark she is. The film never plays this up for laughs and lets us see Holly struggle with shaping her self-perceptions. Where her character ends up may be surprising for the viewer, and it’s played for an interesting contrast with how Rob closes out the narrative.

Nina Forever is a nicely done, independent horror drama. It has plenty of gore for the fans of that, but it also has an engaging and thoughtful storyline. Characters feel fully dimensional, and the directors trust us to disseminate information about them through off the cuff remarks and little glimpses of moments. This is not a feel-good movie where love conquers all. The Blaine Brothers are telling a story about a relationship, and it’s a very honest story that brings us to an inevitable conclusion.

Movie Review – The Blackcoat’s Daughter

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The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015, dir. Oz Perkins)

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A weekend break is here for the students at Bramford Academy, a girls’ boarding in the Northeast. It’s a snow-covered February weekend, and Kat and Rose find themselves stranded with neither of their parents showing up to collect them. The headmaster leaves them under the watch of two sisters that look over the school, but for the most part, the girls are left to their own devices. Kat has been having strange dreams about her parents dying and is convinced that is why they haven’t shown up. Rose has bigger things on her mind, worried about a possible pregnancy from a local young man. All throughout the school, though, there is a strong presence evil. And who is the mysterious young woman Joan who is hitchhiking her way towards Bramford?

I was floored by how good The Blackcoat’s Daughter turned out to be. From the opening frames, there is a concerted effort to build a dark atmosphere, anticipating the coming horror. The director chooses to spend time developing the characters and not through heavy exposition. Perkins understands that often spouted film advice of “Show, don’t tell.” While some reviewers are expressing their dislike of the movie due to its slow burn nature, I see it as the same structuring that made The Witch so lucky. We learn who Kat is, not some facts about her life, but about the core of her character and her values through her actions and interactions with Rose.

The plot of The Blackcoat’s Daughter is not anything beyond a traditional horror film or short story, but it is the way that the aspects of production build that horror through lighting, cinematography, and music that draw you in despite knowing that this story is going to end up in some incredibly dark places. The music, in particular, composed by Osgood’s musician brother Elvis Perkins, is heavy with low strings and the faint pained echoes and chants of humor voices layered underneath the despair.

The acting is quite superb and is a style I personally see as a great litmus test for the quality of an artist’s talents. The performances demand a certain quiet and subtlety and Kiernan Shipka as Kat stands at the front of the cast with a performance that is powerful beyond her years. Having come of age on Mad Men, a show I often cite for cultivating a more controlled and nuanced style of acting, she has definitely learned a lot about what a powerful tool the face can be, with some expressions conveying tons of emotional weight. Lucy Boynton as Rose is tasked with a difficult role, carrying most of the film’s dialogue and could have easily come across as a cliched “cold ice queen/bitch”. Instead, she bring complexity to a character who is going through a difficult time, worried about the possibility of an unplanned pregnancy and what they would do to her life.

The film is not something that will appeal to all viewers and rewards one who chooses to be patient and thoughtful while meditating on images or sounds. When the nature of the horror is finally revealed in the last act of the film, it doesn’t flinch from showing realistic depictions of violence, in this instance with a kitchen knife. The final image of the film is haunting one, a figure in deep psychic pain and someone we are left asking so many questions. Parsing through the events of the picture and asking what was real, what certain gestures meant, and what happens next for this lone survivor of the events who appears to live in an unending nightmare.

Cosmos (2015, dir. Andrzej Zulawski)

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This was probably one of the most French movies I’ve seen in a long time. The final film of Polish director Andrzej Zulawski, the film tells the story of Witold, a law school dropout obsessed with writing a garishly romantic novel. He and his friend Fuchs end up at a rural inn run by a family just as crazy as our protagonist. Mrs. Wojtys is prone to outbursts of screaming only to freeze in place for a few moments after. Her husband Leon is an insane retired banker who is constantly twisting around language. Her daughter, Lena, becomes the focus of Witold’s obsession and comes to despise her pretty boy architect husband. He also holds an obsession with the housemaid, Catherette, who suffers from a lip deformity as the result of a car accident. Throughout the story is the ongoing mystery surrounding a bird found hung by its neck in the garden behind the house. The film meanders through the inn and the group all end up at a seaside cottage for the finale, chasing each other through the woods with lanterns.

To say Cosmos caused major confusion as I watched it would be an understatement. There is very little plot to the film beyond what I described. The majority of the picture consists of Witold exploding in wildly emotional monologues either while typing out his novel or lamenting and pining over the unobtainable Lena. I personally love films that challenge narrative structure and experiment, but moments of Cosmos went so far over the top it lost me. Scenes play as vignettes that don’t really add up to a meaningful whole.

The acting was wonderful due in part to how free and insane the characters were meant to be. Sebastian Genet as Witold did an incredibly convincing job of portraying a comically angsty poet/philosopher. He even made the stranger moments captivating enough to keep me engaged. Early in the film, he has a moment where he faces the camera and repeats the phrase “The savage power of stupid thought” over and over in a Donald Duck voice, looking like he is both on the verge of tears and bursting out laughing. In many ways, that phrase serves as the thesis statement of the film.

The film was packed with references to authors and figures of note in the arts. This becomes part of the word play with Witold referring to Sartre’s Modern Times, only to have Fuchs mistake it for the Chaplin film of the same name and proceed to perform the waddle of Chaplin’s Little Tramp. The crazy old man Leon overhears a conversation about films and chimes in with “Spielbleurgh” (bleurgh being an expression of disappointment) which leads to a sort of pun competition between the man and Witold to plug bleurgh into a litany of other names (Bleurghman). I seem to recall another of Leon’s bizarre turns of phrase being “When an icicle mounts a bicycle it becomes a tricycle”. *Shrugs*

I was never bored by Cosmos but I was pretty strongly confounded for 90% of it. It is a movie that has a very strong forward momentum, that momentum is just leading you to nowhere, but that is on purpose. By injecting things like the hanging bird mystery into the film Zulawski almost seems to be daring you to try and make sense of this absurdity. The film does manage to capture the chaotic nature of creativity through Witold’s mad outbursts of typing as his novel becomes more and more about recording his angst. Most definitely a film that does not have wide audience appeal, but then not all films should. If you are wanting to be challenged and confounded Cosmos is certainly up to the task.

Colonia (2015, dir. Florian Gallenberger)

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Colonia is a film about a fictional people living through a real historical nightmare. In 1973, General Augusto Pinochet led a military coup in Chile and began detaining, torturing, and worse to people who had been loyalists to the deposed President Salvador Allende. Lena (Emma Watson) is a German flight attendant who is in a relationship with photographer and Allende activist, Daniel (Daniel Bruhl). Both end up taken away by Pinochet’s men and imprisoned at Colonia Dignidad, a work camp and cult run by lay preacher Paul Schäfer (Michael Nyqvist). They endure psychological and physical torture as they struggle to find a way out of this living hell.

I am always eager to learn more history about regions of the world I’m foggy on. There’s just so much and our experience in the United States is very narrow. Paul Schäfer was a truly horrible human being who ran Colonia Dignidad for decades before Pinochet was toppled and he was finally brought to justice. It was discovered that Schäfer had been molesting young boys put into his care at the work camp, which the film hints at. The other members of the colony had their connections to the outside world removed and were even drugged to remove their sexual drives.

Colonia is a film about a fascinating topic. But it is an incredible failure in presenting a consistent tone and focus. The story begins as a period piece with a romance overlain. It’s a little cliche at moments and I didn’t feel a lot of chemistry between the two leads. Not sure if it was the actors or the director, but it never feels believable. Then reality sets in hard with Pinochet’s coup and the film starts to take on a more serious focus on the weight of the history happening around the characters. The film appears to be retaining that tone as Lena and Daniel end up at Colonia. However, when Lena has some real moments of peril we have convenient moments of plot occur to spare her the brutality. Almost every character around her is brutalized to a horrific degree, but through sheer luck, she escapes it. The tone undercuts the film again in the third act as the story devolves into a pretty simple race against time, thriller.

The film never felt like it handled its source material with the weight it deserved and came across more like a Lifetime Channel film than something of substance. The film wants to be a romance, it wants to be a documentation of a historical atrocity, and it wants to be a political thriller. It ends up being none of these things and feels embarrassing in many moments. Nyqvist is the highlight as Schäfer but still could have benefited from more development. Colonia does inspire me to want to find a documentary on this subject because I know there is so much more to this very important story.

Mustang (2015, dir. Deniz Gamze Erguven)

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While Mustang takes place in modern day Turkey it is a story that could happen at any time and almost any place. Five adolescent sisters suddenly have their lives changes when their guardians: their grandmother and uncle, decide they are becoming corrupted by secularism. They have everything that could provide them contact with the larger world taken away, from cell phones to laptops to clothes considered improper to makeup. They begin to seek out arranged marriages for the older girls and the imprisonment takes its toll on the girls.

Told from the perspective of the youngest, Lale, the film is made with a lot of confidence and skill. The camera is mostly handheld and conveys the youthful energy of its characters. Sunlight is also used quite effectively to act as a force that still connects the girls to the world. The subject matter could very easily lead to a bleak, hopeless film but director Erguven is able to sustain a sense of hope at the end of this nightmare. Each of the girls experiences the loss of their freedom in different and interesting ways.

When questioned on her wedding night on why she didn’t bleed after sex with her husband, the eldest sister finds it easier to just confess to having slept around with boys when no one listens to her explain she was a virgin. Another sister, seeing that an arranged marriage is inevitable, convinces her boyfriend to ask for her hand as a way to reclaim some of her freedom and choices. Choosing this story to be told through Lale’s eyes is perfect because it puts us at a disadvantage as it relates to the details. Like Lale, we have to try and figure out what is happening in the world as we go.

There have been some comparisons to the Sofia Coppola directed The Virgin Suicides, but beyond the very basics of the story, there is very little similarity. While The Virgin Suicides is told exclusively from the male perspective, Mustang a very intimate look at these young women’s lives. You gain a greater understanding of how each character is processing the experience rather than the broad strokes of Suicides.

The film must maintain a fine balance between the realism of its situation and refraining from despondency. There are moments in the latter half that are a shocking jolt in the midst of Lale’s dreams of escape. If there is a central message here it would be about the power of determination and will. Lale never resigns herself to the loss of her freedom. From the minute the girls are locked away, she is shaking the bars on windows, spying on locations of keys, and plotting an escape. The film has a quite a bit in common with films like The Shawshank Redemption and Escape from Alcatraz.

Filled with humor and joy, Mustang is a timeless story. It transcends any particular religious or geographic specifics and conveys an experience that is felt by women across the globe at varying levels of intensity. Societies seem to have a preoccupation with controlling the will of their female citizens, based on a fear of loss of control. Director Erguven states firmly that this type of energy is impossible to contain and through Lale she tells a story that gives hope to those who may feel like they have no more freedom.

The Boy (2015, dir. Craig Macneil)

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As someone who works with children approximately the age of the title character, watching The Boy is a very interesting experience. It’s fairly well known that during the Victorian Period, the cultural perceptions of childhood changed. Prior, children were seen as small adults and their exposure to hardship and cruelties of life was seen as the norm. In the late 19th century, social justice groups began to criticize the harsh conditions that children were forced to endure and demanded better. Childhood was now seen as a precious, fragile time for these angelic beings to develop. Even Peter Pan was born out of this mode of thinking, along with a myriad of literature aimed at children that approached its material from a place of gentleness. Craig Macneil’s The Boy attempts a character study focused on questions surrounding what happens to a child who has to live through the aforementioned brutality.

Set in 1989, The Boy points its watchful eye on Ted (played with remarkable coldness by Jared Breeze). Ted has grown up at the Mt. Vista Motel, located in some lonely corner of the American Southwest. Ted spends his days collecting roadkill for quarters and wandering the brush around the property. One rainy night, Ted causes a car crash that brings Colby (Rainn Wilson) to the motel for an indeterminate time. Colby is a mysterious figure who avoids the hospital and the local law and this intrigues Ted. At the same time, an anger is growing in Ted that troubles his father (David Morse) and is leading to a violent conclusion.

This is mostly definitely a character study and eschews any sort of heavy plotting towards that style of film making. The camera lingers on Ted and we intentionally view long moments of mundane wandering. As a result, the horror of the film is amplified by the slow burn. I would understand if a viewer became massively frustrated in the first half of the film because it does take its time putting all its pieces in place. Ted’s sociopathy is hinted at and I found myself questioning if there was anything wrong with him, if instead of being mentally ill he was simply a child who was working through feelings of confusion and alienation. The finale of the film removes any doubts yet still holds our lead character in a gray space where his actions could be viewed as justifiable revenge in the mind of an abused child.

The standout aspect of The Boy is the acting. When plot is secondary, a director must have a cast that can develop their characters in organic ways. Jared Breeze is so convincingly cold and distant as Ted, and brings out pathos and emotion only when absolutely necessary. It is incredibly unsettling how well this young actor brings out the complicated psyche of Ted. David Morse and Rainn Wilson, the actors who share the most screen time with Jared, both deliver subtle and powerful performances. Morse, a character actor whose face you know already, is pathetic and infuriating as Ted’s father. He lived the same life as Ted, raised by his father at the motel and admits he doesn’t want this life for his son, but an invisible guilt appears to shackle the patriarch to this place. Even more interesting is Rainn Wilson as the mysterious Colby. We never quite get the gritty details of Colby’s past but so much can be inferred by what we are told. He desperately doesn’t want the police to search his damaged car in the local junkyard and his kinship with Ted is left open for interpretation. Is he actually developing the fatherly relationship the boy doesn’t have with his actual dad? Or is Colby just using the boy to process his own guilt about his past crimes?

The Boy is an incredibly dry and slow film. Don’t expect a campy melodrama pastiche of Psycho despite the setting and themes. The film traffics in one of my favorite element of great art: ambiguity. Lots of questions are left on the table. We never really know “Why?”. And that is okay. So often that’s the question we’re left with in real life, in the wake of tragic violence committed by the grown men Ted might grow up to be. Here, we are allowed a microscope to examine the birth of such evil in detail. What we learn is that the origins of darkness in the soul are more complicated than we would like to think.

Anomalisa (2015, dir. Charlie Kaufman)

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My first encounter with Charlie Kaufman, like most who know his work, came in the film Being John Malkovich. Kaufman wrote the screenplay and it was a truly off kilter, intriguing film. It seemed that more of his work came in quick succession via Human Nature, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. After a brief lull he released his directorial debut: Synecdoche, New York. And now is his strangest visual work, Anomalisa.

Anomalisa is the story of Michael Stone (the voice of David Thewlis), the author of books on effective customer service. He’s come to Cincinnati, Ohio to promote his latest book at some sort of convention (the film keeps those details vague). Michael has a problem when it comes to other people, something I won’t spoil here, that causes him to never fully connect or interact in a meaningful way. He eventually meets Lisa (the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh) and he begins to think things are turning around for him.

Like all of Kaufman’s work, this film has already burrowed itself into my mind and I know it will stay with me for a long time. His greatest talent is his ability to mine such unpleasant and neurotic landscape of our psyche in ways that make it difficult to look away. Synecdoche examined a man’s yearning to find a deeper connection with others, but Michael doesn’t seem to desire a means to overcome his personal issues. He wants the connection, he knows vaguely what is wrong with him, but he inevitably gives up. Everyone around Michael is very pleasant, even when they get angry they sound soothing. This lack of emotion seems drive Michael deeper into need to be separate, while frustratingly want to communicate. It is intentional that the only scenes in the film that don’t have an annoying level of background noise are when Michael escapes to his hotel room.

The choice to make Anomalisa a stop motion animated film might seem like a bit of visual vanity if you’ve just seen the trailers. The filmmakers strive for realism out of the characters, which they truly achieve. It is the context of Michael’s disorder when he views others that makes the animated elements essential. There is no way the film could have been done in live action and get across the alienation that the animation choices provide. A crucial scene between Michael and Lisa in the film’s third act is the ultimate realization of why stop motion was essential to the film.

This is not a “fun” movie to watch, much of Kaufman’s work is not. There was a backlash as the film made its way through the film festival circuit about the unsavory aspects of the Michael character and speculation as to what moral judgments Kaufman was attempting to convey. In my own viewing, I never felt that it was communicated to the audience that Michael was a positive character and I do not believe Kaufman was attempting to make him sympathetic. The director simply wanted to make him a “true” character. What Michael does is what hundreds if not thousands of despondent, aimless, middle aged men do every day. It doesn’t make them right, but the film is not intending to promote an idealized view of the world. At it’s core, this is anti-indie film. When you look at works that exemplify the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” genre you find an absence of real emotion. Kaufman’s response in Anomalisa is to show the truth of those scenarios playing themselves out. Your life will not be saved through a fateful meeting with a spirited young woman who will awaken something in you. Young women are not thresholds through which middle aged men pass to rediscover themselves.

If you allow yourself to view Anomalisa on Kaufman’s terms you will end up with a film experience that will not leave you easily. If you are uncomfortable, then that is good because that was the intent of the film. Anomalisa is about the narcissistic malaise most privileged people find themselves in after achieving a certain level of success. It is about the struggle humanity continually has in forging real connections with others that don’t focus on what emotional energy you can take from them.