Movie Review – Buster’s Mal Heart

Buster’s Mal Heart (2017)
Written and Directed by Sarah Adina Smith

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Jonah (Rami Malek) is adrift in the sea in a rickety boat. He’s also been given the nickname Buster and is pillage the mountain home retreats of millionaires in Montana. Yet in another life, he was the concierge at a dead end hotel on the outskirts of those Montana mountains. He had a wife and a young daughter, with plans to save up and buy a piece of land where they could be “free.” Into Jonah’s life comes a strange, nameless drifter (DJ Qualls) who claims to be the Prophet of the Second Inversion and starts talking up Y2K conspiracies theories. Something is happening to Jonah that will lead him down a strange path and result in even the very notion of identity coming into question.

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Movie Review – Prevenge

Prevenge (2017)
Written and Directed by Alice Lowe

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Ruth (Alice Lowe) suffered a terrible tragedy and is now a single pregnant mother to be. Something strange has happened though. She’s begun hearing the squeaky whispered voice of her unborn child. This gestating being compels Ruth to go on a series of murders that seem random at first but slowly reveal a methodology. The reason behind the killings and the tragedy that happens before the film starts to lead to a tragic and disturbing finale.

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The Revisit – Frailty

The Revisit is a place for me to rewatch films I love but haven’t seen in years or films that didn’t click with me the first time. Through The Revisit, I reevaluate these movies and compare my original thoughts on them to how they feel in this more recent viewing.

Frailty (2000)
Written by Brent Hanley
Directed by Bill Paxton

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It’s a rainy night in Dallas, Texas when FBI Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) is called into the office to speak with Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey), a strange man who claims to know secrets behind what authorities have dubbed “The God’s Hand Killer.” Mainly, he tells Doyle that his brother, Adam is the killer. The film becomes a series of flashbacks to Fenton and Adam’s childhood wherein their father (Bill Paxton) claims to have been visited by an angel that tells him which people are truly demons in disguise. He brings the two boys along with him as he hunts down and murders these false humans, but Adam grows increasingly fearful of his father’s actions. Their father begins to see Adam as a threat and takes drastic measures.

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Movie Review – Blue Ruin

Blue Ruin (2014, dir. Jeremy Saulnier)

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Blue Ruin opens on the image of a bearded man in a vulnerable state. He’s settled in for a bath when the sound of a door disturbs him. We quickly learn he doesn’t belong in this house and is, in fact, a homeless man. Dwight Evans is living along the East Coast, foraging from dumpsters and sleeping his car. An empathic police officer who knows Dwight lets him know a man convicted of murdering people close to Dwight has been released back home in Virginia. Dwight makes the decision to travel back and get revenge. But, to the film’s enormous credit, this man is not a trained assassin and is not taking into account the disastrous series of events he is about to trigger.

Before Green Room, director Jeremy Saulnier helmed this meditation on the price of retribution. Saulnier did not have many films under his belt, but his technical prowess is already apparent here (and if you have seen Green Room). Light and shadow are used effectively to set the tone, and figures emerge from shadows in a way that adds to their menace. Saulnier shows he has an excellent relationship with editor Julia Bloch (also on Green Room). Together they construct such palpable tension and anxiety through minimalistic cutting techniques. Shots linger for just the right excruciating amount of time and cut to the perfect reaction or follow-up shot. That strength in editing connects to the pacing of the script. The story doesn’t get too heavy too earlier. The dissemination of information to the audience is also heavily controlled. The full details of the crime committed that sent Dwight into a reclusive state isn’t revealed until over halfway into the picture.

The lead performance rests on the shoulders of Macon Blair, a loyal Saulnier collaborator. Blair delivers what audiences might misconstrue as “too subtle” or “non-emotional, ” but there is a density of emotion and history in what he is doing. Dwight is a character who crossed a line of emotional exhaustion years ago. He couldn’t survive in the world if he didn’t pass through the tears and rage. So now Dwight approaches each obstacle with a cold duty. He doesn’t care if he lives or dies anymore, he only feels he has to keep living to carry on an obligation. You might not notice, but he barely speaks for the first 20 minutes of the film, about only one line in that time. So the story is being told in his face, and thankfully Blair has a face, particularly eyes that tell a story.

What hit me hard about Blue Ruin is how relevant its themes are personally and globally. At first, this seems to be a straightforward revenge film, but the revenge comes very early in the movie. I found myself shocked at what the rest of this film would be about. Then both the audience and Dwight realize his first error which compounds into more and more. This compounding of errors leads to Dwight forced into killing more people, and this breaks him down. He seeks out help only to keep himself long enough to try and remedy his errors. When the full revelation of the inciting crime comes to light, we enter a space of moral ambiguity. People Dwight believes are guilty of things may not be the ones who did it. They are not innocent by any means, but the circumstances are significantly more complicated than first revealed.

In a world where we hear the phrase “good guy with a gun” uttered often or people spending hours of their lives attempting to justify an assault on people, they disagree with politically, Blue Ruin, without being didactic, asks us to question this. Someone most definitely harmed Dwight and people he loved, there is no doubt about this. But for every act of violence, he commits he doesn’t honor the memory of the people he lost or bring any peace to himself. Violence compounds violence, as I’ve talked about before in the context of Arya Stark. The film ends with a character who makes a choice not to commit violence. They walk away as others destroy each other. This character’s future, and could end up in the same situation we find Dwight in at the start, but by choosing not to kill they are free of the curse, two families have inflicted on each other for years.

Movie Review – Entertainment

Entertainment (2015, dir. Rick Alverson)

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Entertainment is an anti-film. It is the opposite of life affirming, life refuting. It is a road trip to nowhere, about a man who fails to find himself and instead lost forever. Entertainment is purgatory. This is the intent of director Rick Alverson, who helmed the abrasive 2012 independent film The Comedy. In the same way that Tim & Eric deconstruct comedy, Alverson is breaking down the aimless dreamer in search of their dream.

The focus of Entertainment is an unnamed Comedian (played by Gregg Turkington). While the protagonist may be nameless, fans familiar with Turkington’s stage persona of Neil Hamburger will know that this is a fictionalized version of the performer. The Hamburger persona is an assault on the audience of his comedy shows. His material is exaggeratedly homophobic, misogynistic, grossly sexual, and crude. The concept behind this is a comedian who thinks so little of his audience he believes this is the best they deserve. Contrasted with this is Turkington endlessly waiting between shows. He goes on local tours of industry in the Southwestern United States: an airplane graveyard, an oil field, a ghost town built as part of a mineral boom. The landscapes he walks through are husks.

The Comedian himself is a husk. He’s in his forties, performing at low-end dive bars or worse. The first location we see him at is a prison. His last location is at the birthday party of a spoiled rich, aggressive man (played by Tim Heidecker). That final performance concludes with The Comedian bursting out of a cake and bursting into tears. He ends up spending time with a financially successful cousin (John C. Reilly) who tries to advise him on his comedy act, continually saying it’s great but then talking about making it appeal to “all four quadrants.” As we get to know the cousin we see his misery come to the surface as well.

Two constants refrain throughout the film. The first is Eddie the Opener (Tye Sheridan) a clown/mime who opens The Comedian’s sets. Eddie hasn’t been worn down by the road yet. He shares the cynicism of The Comedian towards the audience but takes joy in the performance. The other refrain is The Comedian’s nightly voicemails to an unseen estranged daughter. He expresses frustration eventually at his inability to get a hold of her, the messages growing more and more desperate.

Both Turkington and Alverson have a keen interest in discomfort and provocation. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Alverson explains his personal view on “positive” cinema:

There’s a common insistence that representations of the positive lift us up and buoy us. I’ve never experienced that. At least not in a prolonged way. The idea of resolution has always seemed weird to me. I think if a movie has any naturalistic pretensions or elements in it at all, it needs to respect and represent the disjointed and difficult nature of the world. You can’t solely promote a fantasy version of the formal experience of living. There’s a necessity for a kind of balance in the field—90 percent of the fare for American audiences operates by those conventions and leaves the viewer satisfied in a very tidy, efficient way. They are unaltered in a way that is so disconnected with our daily experiences. Both The Comedy and Entertainment are in a long tradition of cinema flirting and pushing back against that impulse.

Entertainment is not a film that will appeal to everyone. Because some moviegoers have that expectation of films making them feel good, they are going to react angrily at movies like this. I suspect Alverson would welcome that reaction. The majority of movie studio fare is emotionless, just a series of dramatic formula plot points, but never anything that evokes honest emotion. It’s important that we have films like Entertainment and The Comedy because they remind us that the emotions that rise out of dissonance are some of the most real movies can make us feel.

Movie Review – Spring

Spring (2014, dir. Aaron Moorhead & Justin Benson)

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I began the filming expecting one thing but ended up delighted and surprised with what I got. Evan’s mother dies in front of him, succumbing to a two-year battle with cancer. He feels lost and without purpose, so this leads to a spontaneous trip to Italy, the place his parents wanted to take him before they died. Evan wanders to a small town on the coast where he meets Louise, a young student. The two click right away but there is something mysterious about her, for all her charm and wit she remains cagey about certain parts of her life.

I remember seeing the trailer for Spring before its release and got the sense it would be a dark, horror film. However, it ends up becoming a romance story without any traces of cynicism. It is a dark film, but there is an emotional truth underneath the surface. Early in the first act, after Evan first arrives in Italy there is a sense of Eli Roth’s horrid Hostel films, that creeping sense of dread. We worry Evan is winding his way down into a trap. The filmmakers establish a very gloomy mood. However, I find the film has more in common with Linklater’s Before Sunset. It ends up being lots of conversations about relationships and the nature of love between Evan and Louise. Yes, there is gore and violence, but it never overtakes the film and become the focus. Instead, character work is the meat, with violence punctuating dramatic moments.

Spring is a gorgeous looking film. Directors Moorhead and Benson previously worked on Resolution, a small indie horror flick that did similar genre play. It’s very clear they have developed their technique with some truly beautiful and well-choreographed shots. There is an explosive argument in the streets of the small village after Evan discovers Louise’s secret. It is a single take, but it is a dizzying race through the back alleys and narrow streets. They also make use of drones to produce some stunning, sweeping shots of the coastal town that stand up to an expensive crane and helicopter shots.

The bulk of the film rests on the shoulders of the two lead actors, Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker. I have never been overly impressed by Pucci. I’d seen him in his early work (Thumbsucker, The Chumscrubber, Southland Tales) and felt he was fairly flat and have noticed him popping up from time to time. Here he reaches depths in his character I wasn’t expecting. Hilker was a discovery for me and is a perfect match for Pucci. You get caught up in the chemistry these two genuinely have. That chemistry, more than the horror elements, is what makes the film. While Spring is a definite play on genres, it teaches a valuable lesson that horror is stronger when it relies on the more human and character-focused elements of storytelling.

Spring is a film that benefits from mystery. I would highly encourage you to read as little about it as possible and just know that it’s a movie that is body horror, but also something more. It’s a film about a young man working past grief and aimlessness and the risk of love. Its whole concept is a metaphor about what we give up when we allow ourselves to fall in love, and weighing if that is worth the risk.

Movie Review – Krisha

Krisha (2015, dir. Trey Edward Shults)

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Krisha is a story that could have easily fallen into cliche and melodrama, but the deft hand of first-time feature film director Trey Edward Shults elevates this story and these characters into something transcendent and horrifically beautiful. Krisha is a woman in her early 60s, reunited with her estranged family after an undetermined number of years. It’s Thanksgiving, so her sister Robyn has the house full of siblings, spouses, and children. A niece has just become a new mother, and the baby is a the center of everyone’s attention. Later in the day, even the matriarch is brought over from her nursing home. As most people can relate, there is a tension underlying the joyful reunions happening, particularly on the part of Krisha. She has suffered from substance abuse, and individual family members are not sure of what condition she is in at the moment.

Krisha’s arrival sets the stage for the tone of the film. The camera hovers above and floats down, following her as she goes to the wrong house and then drags her suitcase across the lawn to the right one. In both the aesthetics and details of the performance we are being informed about who this person is. Krisha is overly cheerful but a mess in her action, disorganized and overwhelmed. It’s explained she lives by herself, but it’s more than that. Her sister Robyn raised her son, Trey and the circumstances are never brought to light. It is apparently tied to Krisha’s substance abuse, though.

We’ve all likely met Krisha, either as a member of our family or a passing acquaintance. She just can’t seem to get her life in order, was probably labeled a “free spirit” when she was younger but now it’s worn on the people around her. Some small gestures and details develop her character without the film ever becoming expository. When she is finally reunited with her mother, the elder woman has a strange aside about her mother. She states that the great-grandmother was a gorgeous woman who always seemed ashamed of where she was from. This causes Krisha to step back in shock, and the implication is that this story may be very similar to Krisha’s experience and what led her away from her family.

Shults is powerfully skilled for such a young filmmaker, and it is evident he has influences from the American canon. The tension built with a wandering camera and taught percussion feels at home next to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. The naturalistic exchanges between family members and the overlapping family conversations is very much a stroke of Robert Altman across the screen. Star Krisha Fairchild is undoubtedly making reference to the great Gena Rowlands (A Woman Under the Influence, Gloria) in her performance. This film is a beautiful homage to the great directors of the American independent cinema.

One aspect of the film that may not be readily apparent while watching it is the personal connection it has to the director and actors. This is Shults’ real family. Krisha is his aunt, Robyn is his mom, the home is his mother’s house. In interviews, he’s explained that the central character is not based on any one person but a combination of troubled family members. His father was estranged from the family and died as a result of substance abuse a few years ago. The explosive incidents in the film are drawn from a cousin’s outburst at a family gathering, a cousin who ended their life months later.

Krisha is a tragic and powerful film. It is one of those works of film that embeds itself under your skin. Shults’ next work It Comes At Night looks to be a powerful exploration of human relationships in the face of horror. I am excited to see Shults expand his craft and continue developing this talent of building tension and atmosphere.

Movie Review – Christine (2016)

Christine (2016, dir. Antonio Campos)

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The story of Christine Chubbuck is fated to end in tragedy. To most people, she’s known for the stories of a video of her suicide. During the early morning on 1974, while delivering the news, Christine produced a gun from beneath her desk and announced that “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts,’ and in living color, you are going to see another first—attempted suicide.” She proceeded to pull the trigger and fire a bullet into her skull. Fourteen hours later she was pronounced dead at the age of 29. To the public who heard of this event the most looming question has always been, “Why?”

Antonio Campos’ dramatization of the last few months of Christine’s life begins in a way that might surprise someone who was only familiar with the story of her death. She is an energetic, passionate reporter struggling to tell positive human stories while up against a news media that is learning sensationalism corresponds to higher ratings. She isn’t willing to give up so easily and argue viciously with news director Mike. While she fights for principles on the news, Christine is also experiencing severe abdominal pains that she attributes to stress but seem to be something more serious.

Taking on the task of capturing who Christine was is actress Rebecca Hall. I’ve seen in some supporting roles in various films but never really felt very impressed. Apparently, she had just never been given an active enough role to show off her talents. Her absence from Best Actress nominations at any of the major awards is yet another sign that the mainstream awards are out of touch. It has been a very long time since I have seen a performance that so transformed an actor. Her voice, the way she moves, just watching her hands tense and grasp at objects, so encapsulates a real person. Christine’s pain is real, but even more surprising is her joy at producing stories about people. It’s hard not to get caught up in her passion as she takes the mundane and attempts to transform it into the remarkable.

Surrounding Hall’s central performance is a brilliant cast of supporting actors. Michael C. Hall plays George, the news station’s main anchor who shares the awkward flirtations of Christine. He could easily have been off as a pastiche of Ted Knight’s archetypal pompous newsman from Mary Tyler Moore, but a moment in the third act reveals a layer to the character I didn’t expect and changes the audience’s perception of him. The always great Maria Dizzia plays Jean, Christine’s best friend at the station and camerawoman. Jean sees Christine’s moments of breaking down and is deeply affected in the wake of her suicide. The final moments of the film choose to focus on Jean and they almost wordlessly convey the real emotions and reaction a friend would feel in the aftermath of such a tragic end. There is a numbness in her eyes and a deliberate effort to try and move past this. Tracy Letts plays the role of Mike, the film’s antagonist, who worries over the station’s dwindling ratings and aggressively pushes Christine to change her angle on the news. But even he is given brushstrokes of character development that reveal he does care about the station beyond just ratings.

The film gets across a sense of alienation that is suffocating. Christine continually spirals further down, never giving up her sensibilities that she can find a way out of her problems. But at every turn something gets in her way, kicking the legs out from underneath her. By the time the film reaches its climactic moment it feel heartbreakingly that there was no other way this could have ended. In the larger context of the news media, everything she represented was going down the drain. Throughout the picture news reports about Nixon and Watergate can be heard. Even the opening has Christine shooting footage for her reel, alone on the set, pretending to interview the president. She points out the idea that you can’t really be paranoid if people are actually out to get you. And for Christine, everyone did seem to unintentionally be out to get her.

Movie Review – One From the Heart

One From the Heart (1982, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

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Ambition in filmmaking is a dangerous tightrope. In the 1970s, there was a cascade of filmmakers who were highly ambitious and succeeded. Many of them (Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese) continued their successes into the 1980s. Others were not so successful. Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude, Shampoo) became increasingly addicted to drugs and faded away. Michael Cimino translated his enormous success with The Deer Hunter into the bloated critical and box office failure of Heaven’s Gate. And there’s Francis Ford Coppola. The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II are held is such high esteem and Apocalypse Now has garnered a similar appreciation in the decades that followed its release. But something happened in the 1980s that caused Coppola’s star to dissipate. One From the Heart is widely considered the moment everything collapsed, but it’s more complicated than just one movie.

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Movie Review – Moonlight

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Moonlight (2016, dir. Barry Jenkins)

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Moonlight is an American masterpiece. Of films I’ve seen in the last ten years, I place it up there with The Master or The Witch, as a piece of cinema that is sure of itself on technical, thematic, and character levels. It tells a story that is primarily American, but yet not beyond connecting with people universally.

The film is told in three acts, each one chronicling a pivotal moment in the personal development of Chiron, a black youth living in Miami, Florida. We first glimpse Chiron (nicknamed “Little”) as he runs from school bullies and hides in a boarded-up tenement. It’s here he meets Juan, the head of the local drug sellers and the older man sees something inside this struggling kid. He takes Chiron to his home to meet his wife, Teresa, and they manage to get Chiron to share a little bit about his life. Later, Juan delivers Chiron home, and we meet the mother, Paula who knows what Juan does and attempts to shield her child from him. Later, we learn Paula is connected to Juan, and this knowledge shapes the relationship between Chiron and the man.

The second act catches up with Chiron in high school where the bullying has continued. Throughout both these acts, his one constant is his friend Kevin, a boy who doesn’t treat Chiron with the revulsion and hate the others do. It is made apparent that our protagonist is questioning his sexuality and finds himself attracted to Kevin and that attraction may be reciprocated. Their relationship comes to a painful conclusion in this act, and then we transition to adulthood. Here Chiron has made himself into the person he thinks he should be but is struggling with his past. This all leads to a reunion between himself and Kevin that will bring out their past and hint at their future.

I had to fight back the tears at two moments in this film. The final scene between Chiron and Juan is profoundly painful and the final scene between Chiron and Kevin is a release of emotions and honesty. The element of the film that I want to praise director Jenkins the most for was the refusal to have a villain. No one is the villain, but many people make horrible choices that hurt people. However, Jenkins chooses to reveal layers to these characters that make a reductive judgement of good/evil near impossible. Juan is a strong of example of this, and my overall favorite character in the film. He is responsible for crack cocaine being in the neighborhood and this business ends up having a direct adverse effect on Chiron. Juan is unaware at first and wants to be a father figure to this kid he sees in need of one. Chiron’s mother rightly suspects Juan is attempting to pull her child into the drug trade. But we learn more about her own connection to Juan and that becomes more complicated. Juan is not a villain but he is responsible for great harm in the community. The scene where he comes to this realization and then also has to admit it to young Chiron is heart-rending. This really highlights the idea that as often as we think we are the “hero” in our own story, we can so easily be the “villain” in another’s.

The acting throughout Moonlight is superb. Chiron is played by a succession of three actors: Alex R. Hibbert (Chiron at 9), Ashton Sanders (Chiron as a teen), and Trevante Rhodes (Chiron as an adult). It’s weird to say I was glad Rhodes didn’t get a Best Actor nomination for an Oscar, but that is only because the character is a collective of three commanding performances. The only way to do justice would have been to have a single nomination for three actors. I have not read much about the production and rehearsal process but the synchronicity between these performances is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I have to wonder if the movie was made sequentially so that Hibbert set the foundation of the performance, Sanders studied that and adapted, and finally Rhodes was a culmination of his own thoughts of the character filtered through these two others. As a result, Chiron is one of the most fully realized characters I have ever seen on screen. He is a living breathing person who I feel like I’ve met.

As a public school teacher, I’ve worked mainly in the inner city for the seven years of my career. As a result, I have worked with some young men much like Chiron. I have also worked with young black men who are happy and healthy and have very supportive families. So, I don’t think we should view Moonlight as a universal truth of the “black male experience” so much as it is about how masculinity is framed for so many black men. The scenes where Chiron sits at Juan and Teresa’s kitchen table eating food and refusing to speak has been a part of my life. I’ve sat across from young men who are so tormented inside at such an early age. Food is about the only nurture some of them get. I’ve watched young black men crying because they’ve injured themselves only to have their mother smack them over the back of the head and spit “Stop crying and being a pussy! Men don’t cry!” Even with my current year’s class, I have a young black male student who finds it deeply difficult to verbalize his frustration even when it is just the two of us talking. He didn’t want to say sorry to another student he upset in front of everyone because he’d been taught that would make him look weak and his status among his peers is more important to his livelihood than his conscience. This sort of toxic masculinity is what Moonlight is all about. And it’s why the brief glimpse we get of Chiron being able to stop tensing, stop holding himself back is so emotionally cathartic.

I had seen Barry Jenkins’ previous feature film, Medicine for Melancholy, and while it is a great independent character focused film, he has made a significant leap across all elements of filmmaking with Moonlight. This is going to be a defining American film and is going to resonate for many years to come. The intersection of LGBT people and People of Color can be a tough one. Growing up in the South, I have been an outsider and observer of this intersection, and the deeply religious pockets of the black community can be as brutally homophobic as their white counterparts. At the same time, I have seen same sex relationships between women accepted without much strife. It is when men reveal their nature as gay that fear boils up, across all communities. Power is assumed to be heterosexuality, and Moonlight shows that strength doesn’t come from a particular sexual orientation, rather a personal resolve and determination, aided by people in your life who show you what love can be.