Movie Review – The Alchemist’s Cookbook

The Alchemist’s Cookbook (2016, dir. Joel Potrykus)

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A man named Sean lives in a trailer home deep in the woods outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan. At first glance, it would be easy to mistake his set up as a meth lab, but after further observation, it is revealed he is an amateur alchemist. His only constant companion is Kaspar, his cat, but he does receive erratic visits from Cortez, a cousin, who brings supplies. Cortez is unaware of just what his Sean is up to and that his cousin is close to making contact with demon Belial, whom Sean believes will provide him with incalculable wealth.

It’s hard to classify this film as any one thing. There are touches of drama and of horror and a little comedy. It never settles on one thing, and some reviewers have taken to calling it a “punk” film more than anything else. Director Potrykus has a track record of making films in this off-kilter, low-fi style. I personally don’t connect with much from the punk genre, and that would likely explain why this movie left me frustrated. I can’t see any reason I’ll remember this film.

There is so much here in the ingredients list that should have guaranteed I’d love it. The rural setting, deep in the woods, always an excellent location for horror. I definitely have an affinity for stories about the demonic and humans who are a little too arrogant in their abilities to deal with a summoned entity. There is a sense of danger and tension from the first moments of the film. However, that feels undercut as the tone shifts from chapter to chapter. Or worse yet, the tone goes with a distant documenting of a man pouring substances into various vials without informing the audience of what is going on.

The biggest problem I had with Cookbook was the lack of character development. There is only one real presence on screen, Sean. And with an hour and a half, I ended the film feeling like I still didn’t know much about him. I never needed anything explicit, but some reasons could have been hinted at as to why he was driven to the wilderness and devoted himself to this pursuit of gold. Lots of scenes give us the sense of what this world feels like and Sean’s mannerisms, but never a good sense of motivation. The entire picture seems like a tedious exercise in improv where nothing really bubbles to the surface in the end.

There are great moments throughout, though. Sean and Cortez’s interactions are funny and entertaining, though they mess with the tension. There is a sense of some sort of structure through the chapter breaks and the progression of day into darkness that some key scenes touch on. As a whole, Alchemist’s Cookbook sadly failed to meet my expectations. I was honestly, excited to sit down and watch this one after seeing it’s great trailer. In the end, it feels too insubstantial to recommend and won’t really satisfy any fans of the many genres it touches on.

Movie Review – Always Shine

Always Shine (2016, dir. Sophia Takal)

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Two friends, Beth and Anna, are headed to Big Sur for a weekend getaway. Both women are actresses in Los Angeles with a big difference: Beth keeps booking bigger and bigger roles while Anna is passed over regularly. Anna believes this is rooted in their personal demeanors. Beth is perfect for the sexy but non-threatening female roles. Anna is “aggressive” by simply being very clear and direct about what she wants. Over the course of this weekend the friendship between these women will be strained to the breaking point with horrific consequences.

It’s no surprise that Always Shine is thematically about women existing in male dominated spaces. Our main characters are archetypal depictions of women in cinema, or in Anna’s case women that are marginalized in cinema. Director Takal shows a ton of skill in layering that theme under the story of this friendship and the psychological breakdown of one character. What could have been didactic and ultimately turned into a philosophical abstraction ends up being a visually engaging psychological thriller that isn’t exploitative.

The challenge in a film like Always Shine is making sure the audience doesn’t view one character as the bad one and the other good one. Beth is your traditional Final Girl and the film opens with her auditioning for the role of such a character in a horror movie. The producers inform her that the role will have “extensive nudity” and Beth is unaware of this fact, her agent didn’t tell her of that detail. Our introduction to Anna is a direct to camera monologue when she picks up her car from the mechanic. A repair was made without her consent and she unloads. Both of these scenes set up how these women are perceived by the men they interact with, but they are also subverted for the rest of the film. In particular as we get to know Anna better, we learn she is not a sweet, kind person. In many ways, she is playing a role to her own advantage.

Mackenzie Davis’ performance as Anna is the core of the film and, like in everything she appears in, she knocks it out of the park. It’s likely Davis experienced the struggles as she was developing her career and likely faces the problem of being offered roles that would force her to take on this behavior that is so antithetical to who she is. There are a number of compelling character scenes between she and Caitlin Fitzgerald who plays Beth that are beyond just awkward but painful. One scene has Anna learning about Beth’s casting as the lead in the horror film from the opening. Anna pushes to do a read through with a hesitant Beth and the scenes plays out like a competition or challenge. Anna is adamant that she’ll show Beth her prowess. The film is intelligent enough to not overtly talk about male perceptions shaping these women, but the subtext is there, buried beneath all the tension.

The structures and the themes of identity working in the film reminded me of Nicolas Roeg’s Performance. In that movie, the traditional macho archetype meets a counterculture sexually liberated almost sorcerer and their persona’s begin to meld and split. Always Shine leaves the final outcome up to the viewer. We see police. We see an ambulance. But one character’s fate is left in question. Will she disappear into the woods, invisible or will she step out and make herself heard?

Movie Review – The Fits

The Fits (2015, dir. Anna Rose Holmer)

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Toni, an eleven-year-old girl, is very focused and determined when it comes to working out with her brother at the local community center’s boxing gym. She even stays after to help him wash towels, replace water cooler jugs, and get a little extra training. However, she’s recently been intrigued with a competitive girls’ dance team that trains in the larger gym at the community center. Slowly, Toni begins to be torn between these two worlds and witnesses girls on the team seemingly falling ill to strange trance-like seizures.

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Movie Review – The Eyes of My Mother

The Eyes of My Mother (2016, dir. Nicolas Pesce)

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The A.V. Club said of The Eyes of My Mother as “If Ingmar Bergman helmed Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and I couldn’t think of a more apt description. The film is a coming of age story centered around Francisca, the daughter of a much older husband and wife. Her mother is an immigrant from Portugal who was a surgeon there and is very direct with her daughter about the intricacies of anatomy. A chance encounter with an extremely twisted individual begins Francisca’s journey down a dark, tragic path. The film is segmented into three chapters (Mother, Father, Family) and ends on what is an inevitable note.

The Eyes of My Mother captures that quiet, uncomfortable tone that you see in a lot of European horror films. It never shies away from the blunt horror of what people do, except in one very cleverly cut sequence. It’s not a film with a straightforward villain. A character appears early on and seems like they will be the villain but this is quickly subverted, and the story goes down an arguably darker route. Throughout, there is a dreamlike sense to the film. Its setting is a rural farmhouse, and the events are so far removed from the sight of civilization you can’t help but sink into the impending sense of hopelessness anyone who comes to the house faces. Something felt very familiar about the hushed tone of the horror in Eyes, and after some further research I found out director Pesce came from the Borderline Films production company which are also responsible for the similarly toned Martha Marcy May Marlene and Afterschool.

The plot of the film wouldn’t work so nearly as well without all the tonal elements in place. If the score had been more melodramatic or, performances were emotionally heightened all the horror would have dissipated. Instead, we are forced to linger in moments of horror. We see Francisca standing over a table working a hacksaw through a human body without revulsion, just a stoic sense of hard work. A character walks in on a brutal murder and, without a sound, deals with the killer. A mother runs after her stolen child only to receive a knife to the back and quietly cry out and squirm in pain on the floor. My personal favorite moment is the least explicit and involves the audience understanding information conveyed through a jump cut. An argument is going on between two characters, probably the most emotion at any point in the film. The tension is building, it’s well understood how this is going to end and then CUT. We see Francisca cleaning up the aftermath, and we immediately know what has happened between those scenes.

The Eyes of My Mother is not interested in pinpointing Francisca motivation. There is a possibility it is triggered by the inciting incident in the first act, or it is connected to things her mother taught her. Some reviews have been critical of this fact, but I personally feel that missing piece is essential to establishing horror. The best horror comes out of an inability to understand what is happening. Disorientation inspires a sense of fear in humans and by not having a long winded speech about why Francisca kills the audience is forced to contemplate why the events of the film occurred. In horror, it is what is unsaid and unexplained that haunts us the deepest.

Movie Review – At the Devil’s Door

At the Devil’s Door (2014, dir. Nicholas McCarthy)

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A teenage girl caught up in a new relationship plays a dark game where she barters away her soul. Decades later, Leigh, a real estate agent gets a new property with a dark history. At the same time, her angsty younger sister Vera is busy at work on her upcoming gallery show. Woven throughout these women’s lives is a demonic presence that seeks to use one of them to bring itself into the world through a vessel. Where this story ends up is surprising and how it gets there can be incredibly frustrating.

The work I saw from director Nicholas McCarthy was his 2011 short film The Pact and then his subsequent feature film adaptation of that short. I was very impressed with the surprising direction that movie took, the way it subverts audience expectations while telling a story from multiple perspectives. McCarthy’s most recent work was the Easter short in the Holidays anthology which was one of the more enjoyable pieces in that incredibly flawed collection.

At the Devil’s Door is an interesting concept that ultimately fails in its execution and commits the worst crime a horror film can: it’s so boring. Conceptually we have a very ambiguous demonic possession story that doesn’t hit all the familiar tropes. There were moments where I was genuinely hooked and the film did a great job reeling me in, only to plod on with dull and shallow characters for the next 20 minutes. The idea of a fragmented narrative could work in the film, but it’s handled in a confusion and ultimately distancing manner. We never get enough of a sense of who any of these characters are so it’s hard to care. I saw a comment that summed it up, this is a trilogy that has been compressed into one film. As a novel with the ability to get have an omniscient narrator the story would be something I’d eat up. It just fails as a film.

The positives are that McCarthy knows how to frame a shot. He loves to evoke and build atmosphere and the film is dripping with it. The atmosphere just doesn’t have a strong enough plot to take it anywhere. McCarthy has a love of suburban homes and lights them in ways that play up the creepiness of hallways and bedroom corners. The demon is very obscured and we get two glimpses of it throughout that are masterful. Once it is in the background, out of focus and the second is a quick glimpse as it hides in a cabinet. The design isn’t what you would expect.

At the Devil’s door biggest problem is that it doesn’t understand how to make a good ambiguous horror film. You need details in the world while the horror is kept ambiguous when you don’t have those world and character details the story never feels alive.

John Wick (2014, dir. Chad Stahelski, David Leitch)

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I remember seeing the trailer for John Wick a couple years ago and thinking “You can’t be serious. Because they killed his dog?” Now that I’ve seen the film, I sit here thinking…well, I’m not sure. The film tells the story of retired assassin John Wick, played by Keanu Reeves. His wife died suddenly and not long after he receives a dog that was her last gift to him. The dog is brutally killed by Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), the son of a Russian crime boss, and this pulls Wick back into the game he thought he had left behind. Throw in supporting roles from a bevy of character actors: Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, Lance Reddick, and David Patrick Kelly (Warriors! Come out and play-ayyy!).

This film felt like a comic book. That is it felt like I picked up the collection of “John Wick Returns”, a mini-series wherein a popular crime comics character was brought back after an absence of a few years. The way we were introduced to the world and its inhabitants without tons of exposition to explain themselves, made me feel like this was a world I could go back and read about in other titles. Of all the places and characters the world was peppered with, I enjoyed the Continental, a hotel that caters exclusively to assassins and paid killers, the most. I also loved the sense of history John had with everyone. We have no idea what the details are to these connections, but it felt like there would be dozens of stories to tell. Marcus (Willem Dafoe), John’s mentor, held a lot history in his interactions with John and, like any good comic book universe, I am sure the equivalent of “John Wick Begins” detailing his training under Marcus would be amazing.

I would never say I was a huge action movie fan so I was not the target audience of this film. Not being an expert on the craft and technique behind movie fights, I thought everything felt realistic. Nothing John did was too incredibly unreal. If you’re used to more hyper-stylized fighting you might think this was a more toned down version, but it looks like the way someone like John Wick would really fight. It’s funny now that I think about it; the action which you would expect to be the exaggerated element is played fairly real while it’s the world building that goes over the top.

There’s definitely some nods to classic action directors: The shooting out of the glass walls made me think of John Woo. Wick is your archetypal silent, stoic killer along the lines of a lot of French noir crime films.The acting is fine. I didn’t see any performances that blew me away, everyone sort of knew who they were playing and did that. I always love seeing David Patrick Kelly in anything and I did really enjoy the mannerisms he brought to his “clean up crew” character.

There’s a sequel on the horizon and I’m interested to see what they do. This film really plays like “the final John Wick” story and the stakes used to pull him back into action are about as intense as they get. Something taking place before this would work but I would like to see this older, broken Wick continue however they decide it might work. This isn’t going to be one of my favorites of the year, but it is an enjoyable film that kept my attention the whole run time. If you enjoy films with sense of a deep, developed world then I definitely think John Wick will deliver.

Cinematic Immersion Tank #1: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, dir. Sean Durkin)

Purchase Martha Marcy May Marlene on Blu-Ray
or Rent on Amazon Video

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This is my first stab at the Cinematic Immersion Tank, so I decided to go with doing a write up after each viewing. In future, I may do something more comprehensive, more of a critical analysis that isn’t as fragmented, but that would take a little more time. In the meantime, please watch Martha Marcy May Marlene *before* reading over this. I hope you find as much beauty and sadness as I did in this amazing film. My biggest take away from this film is the power of Elizabeth Olsen’s acting (she has some of the most powerful eyes) and the amazing supporting cast that surrounded her in this film. Every actor pulls so much depth out of their role.

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The Lobster (2016, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

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I knew I had read literature that fell into the genre of magical realism, but it wasn’t until I read One Hundred Years of Solitude the summer of 2004 and followed that up with a ravenous consumption of Jorge Luis Borges’ short fiction that really came to understand, and in turn fall in love with, the genre. Magical realism is a style of storytelling that presents a normal world where there are extraordinary occurrences that the populace views as simply mundane. This is often used as an extended metaphor to be dissected and explored,usually a commentary on our own perspectives of the world. There are many everyday practices that to alien eyes would pop out as bizarre and unreal, but for us it’s simply life.

The Lobster falls strongly into the category of magic realism, without it become a “cute” gimmick. The film tells the story of David (Colin Ferrell), a divorced man who must stay in a hotel for singles for 45 days and find a partner. If he is unable to find a partner he’ll be transformed into the animal of his choice. In David’s case, he chooses a lobster (They stay fertile their entire lives). There is an eclectic cast of characters that we watch interact, with moments of brilliant dark comedy and painful heartrending tragedy. The film has a very defined split as David makes a drastic decision about his place in the Hotel as well as the society midway through.

This is the second film I’ve viewed from Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director. His breakout film, Dogtooth, explores the nature of family units focused on a couple who have kept their adult children locked up on the property for their entire lives. It balances the same comedic tones and horrific violence, but I think The Lobster elevates that to a masterful level. It also continues the director’s work examining the cultural norms of Western society, in this instance the concept of falling in love in the modern era.

Personality is absent from every character in the film. Conversations are monotonous and devoid of emotion. A character is violently punished for self-pleasure and his reaction is fairly muted for what happens. Characters fall in love and barely crack a smile. Characters die and are killed and everyone essentially walks away with a shrug. There’s no room for sentimentality in the world, dating, marriage, and having children are like business transactions. It is expected and frankly demanded of everyone in the world of the film. David is faced with a choice of severe sentimentality at the film’s conclusion and as I simmered on it afterwards it struck me that by not committing this act he would show the strongest sense of individualism in the entire film. So while, the culture around him is unsentimental he would possibly conform to it in the end.

What is most interesting are the “rebel” group in the woods, whose leader (Lea Seydoux) imposes a system of rules between the other loners, especially no physical or romantic contact. We see the bloody results of a simple kiss and worse is implied. While the Leader believes she is shirking the status quo of required relationships, she is actually creating a parallel system of dogmatic social norms that are punished with the most extreme methods. This leaves us to wonder if individualism is even a workable concept in this world.

The couples that do end up together are driven by the requirement of a match up of defining characteristics. David is nearsighted and seeks out a partner who shares that trait. Another character is saddled with a limp (the result of trying to find his mother who was turned into a wolf after a failed matchmaking attempt). Yet more characters present themselves this way: She has chronic nosebleeds, he has a pronounced lisp, she is emotionally distant, she loves butter cookies. Even in the film’s credits a multitude of characters are named by their defining trait. Almost the way, when filling out an online profile for a dating service, you would highlight aspects of yourself that you want to present, aspects that are intended to provide others with a definition of you.

Lanthimos is exploring the way people form romantic relationships in our current era. If you look at the business of matchmaking, whether it is OKCupid or speed dating or Match.com, people are boiled down to their essentials. Personality is near imperceptible and a person’s true nature is impossible to convey through these methods. But Lanthimos isn’t happy to simply comment on technology’s relationship to our relationships, he goes deeper, to the very core of why anyone ends up with anyone else. Characters lie about their defining trait in desperation to end up with someone else. The Hotel guests routinely arm themselves with tranquilizer guns and hunt the band of guerrilla Loners in the surrounding forest. And the Loners in turn sneer at those foolish guests who stupidly pursue companionship. All of these characters are deluded and define themselves based on cultural expectations, whether in conformity or opposition to. The Lobster ends on a suspended note, blatantly letting us stew on what happens next. Is their any way to succeed in this world, or is the best you can hope for to become a lobster?

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.

Film Review – Red, White, & Blue

Red, White, & Blue (2010, dir. Simon Rumley)
Starring Noah Taylor, Amanda Fuller, Mark Senter

British director Simon Rumley seems intent on shredding every last ounce of emotional energy I have. As you can read in my review of his 2006 film, The Living and The Dead, he is able to present a psychological horror film unlike any you will ever see. Here too, in Red, White, & Blue, Rumley takes the revenge/gore film made popular in 1970s and still alive and strong today, and goes down avenues no mainstream picture would ever think about. The result is another film that hammers itself into your mind and squeeze every ounce of composure from your soul. The last fifteen minutes left my heart pounding and my head feeling dizzy, shocked at the level of physical gore and psychological torment.

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