Friday, April 22, 2016

Green Room (**)

Written and Directed by Jeremy Saulnier


If you were lucky enough to see Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin in 2014, then you had the pleasure to catch one of the more captivating thrillers of that year; a film that had a refreshing, direct approach to violence and suspense. His follow-up, Green Room, is a much more standard genre piece, a brooding gore-fest with a much more recognizable cast. In one corner, you have the punk band The Ain't Rights, four broke, pretentious rockers touring the South by the skin of their teeth, siphoning gas from other cars when need be. In the other corner, we have a malicious group of white supremacists who happen to be running and populating the Ain't Rights' latest venue. When their bass player, Pat (Anton Yelchin), witnesses something he shouldn't have, the whole band is held in a terrifying hostage situation in the venue's green room, along with a young punk girl named Amber (Imogen Poots) who is the only one in the room familiar with these radicals' capabilities. Things get more intense when the club's owner - and movement leader - Darcy (Patrick Stewart) arrives and puts into place a complicated plan to eliminate each band member without risking culpability. At Green Room's most sensational, the film works as a chamber drama within the green room, with frantic scheming happening on both sides of the wall. Macon Blair, the star of Blue Ruin, makes an appearance in this film as well, as Gabe a Darcy confidante and worker at the venue, who is unsure of the actions of Darcy and his fellow Neo-Nazis. His moral dilemma is the closest thing the film comes to a heart, and Blair brings the same kind of hangdog sincerity, despite the absurdity of his character. Where Blue Ruin mixed aspects of noir with startling character study, Green Room seems only interested in carnage, and the violence in this film is much more creative and diabolical. It's a slasher film aspiring for the prestige of the Great American Indie. I'm not quite sure it gets there. Despite its simple premise, Saulnier's script is surprisingly dense, but it only makes the story more convoluted than necessary. Supporting performances from Alia Shawkat, Kai Lennox and Joe Cole are strong, but there isn't a whole lot a wit here. Just an extended sequence of extreme violence that adds up to little but cheap thrills, but Saulnier's version of cheap is still an interesting thing to watch.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Louder Than Bombs (***1/2)

Directed by Joachim Trier


Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier has already shown that he's an unmatched talent in film right now. His third feature, Louder Than Bombs, is his first one in English. A plot description might suggest a limp novel adaptation, a maudlin tale of tragedy befallen by manipulated emotions - a much too common occurrence when great foreign directors try their hand at American stories. Instead, what we get is the kind of devastatingly effective familial melodrama that too many American filmmakers fail to make these days. It's stark, melancholy attitude is backed up by heartbreaking performances and a script that has a novelist's eye for details. Like his first two magnificent films, Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, the story's focus is minute, but its themes are expansive in a way that reflects the sadness of the human condition while maintaining that balance of honesty and romanticism that makes his films so wonderful. Transitioning from Norwegian to English (and from Oslo to New York), doesn't defang Trier; he still dwells in meditations of depression and loneliness, and Louder Than Bombs has a touching fondness for its characters' grief. In all three of his features, Trier explores sadness as an influential, sometimes even exhilarating experience. Creative people are undone by their inner turmoil, and Trier creates these universes where creation and tragedy work together in a cyclical enterprise that produces the beauty that humans depend on. That he's able to make these films while avoiding the cynical bleakness of his fellow Scandinavian filmmakers (like the infamous Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg) sets him apart. There is a value to humanity, but it doesn't mean we're all happy about it.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Demolition (**)

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée


After Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, director Jean-Marc Vallée completes his trilogy of lost souls with his latest film, Demolition. Much like Wild, the film is a histrionic meditation on grief through the point-of-view of someone who mourns self-destructively. Vallée is working with Jake Gyllenhaal here, and for a filmmaker who seems to adore visceral visualization of emotion, Gyllenhaal seems like a perfect match. The 35-year-old actor has spent the last few years abandoning the concept of himself as a heartthrob, and revealing himself to be an incredibly immersive character actor. His performance here is strong, playing an exorbitantly wealthy finance man who's never worked hard for anything in his life who suddenly finds himself saddled with an array of unfamiliar feelings after the sudden, tragic death of his wife. Some may remember Gyllenhaal also starring in the 2002 film Moonlight Mile which pretty much had the same premise (in that film, it was a fiance that died). That film was sentimental - and was one of those early 00's indies that felt more like the director's Spotify playlist than a complete film. It took the usual course of action where these kinds of stories are concerned, containing a kind of mushy, heartfelt-ness that was a bit too sweet for the few who actually saw it. Both films concerned an ambivalent love upended by tragedy, but Demolition does not mince words about the behavior of its protagonist. It's hard to think of a more unlikeable character in which the audience is asked to expel so much empathy for.

Podcast: Is 'Chicago' Better Than Jurassic Park?

New podcast episode! We're talking about Chicago with Bill Magee. Our first musical. Is it better than Jurassic Park? Listen and find out. It's gotta happen sometime.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Krisha (****)

Written and Directed by Trey Edward Shults


When's the last time an American filmmaker had as strong a debut film as Trey Edward Shults' Krisha? The movie is so confident, so breathtakingly beautiful, so vulnerable with its feelings and situations. Shults made the film with the help of family and friends (and a successful Kickstarter campaign) but this does not have the dollar-bill indie-ness of a Duplass brothers movie. No, Shults is actually audacious enough to make Krisha as cinematic as possible. The film is a chamber drama about family, addiction, regret and redemption; its pain is palpable and scathing. It's a tight but fluid hurricane of a film. The allusions to other filmmakers are there - amongst others, Paul Thomas Anderson and Ingmar Bergman are very present - and yet, Shults still manages to make this film so very much his own. Based on his one film, we can say that a great director has arrived, one who understands both the importance of strong narrative and visual composition. Starring mostly his friends and relatives (nearly all of the characters share the names of the actors who play them), Shults is fascinatingly blurring the lines between fiction and docudrama - the seeds of familial strife being exorcised by cinema. Crafting this steaming of a drama is difficult, and only works if the pain is acutely felt. The strain that family puts on you is real, and Krisha puts that strain on full display.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Podcast: Is 'The Terminal' Better Than Jurassic Park?

In the latest episode of Is It Better Than Jurassic Park? we get a visit from two drunken April fools, David Danby and Omar (ne Borney, neé Scott Volz), who sit down to decide if Steven Spielberg's The Terminal is better than Jurassic Park. The conversation quickly downturns into 9/11 conspiracies, how to pronounce the word "jaguar" and a handful of unkind things are said about Richard Gere. It's our most unlistenable episode yet.