Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Don't Breathe (***)

Directed by Fede Alvarez


The emergence of the prestige horror film this decade has allowed very strong filmmakers to work within a genre that's cheap, prolific and comes with a guaranteed audience. Sam Raimi gave Uruguayan director his commercial breakthrough when he pegged him to direct the 2013 reboot of his Evil Dead franchise. Don't Breathe is Alvarez's follow-up, a brutal suspense thriller with a claustrophobic premise that rattles its audience till its final conclusion. After The Witch and Green Room, Don't Breathe is yet another 2016 horror film that has managed to be both a box office hit (#1 in its opening week, with over $26 million) and a critical darling. But Don't Breathe is the only film of the three to have a strict following of the horror film template, and not aspiring to an art house esteem. My agnosticism towards the horror genre aside, Don't Breathe carries itself with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. The film and its characters engage in such a horrid, violent game composed of the most complex, unforeseen angles of morality and ethics. Alvarez's film works because of its chamber drama-like setup, but a good couple of lead performances helps a lot.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Morris From America (**1/2)

Written and Directed by Chad Hartigan


It never really seems like Morris From America has enough story to fill out its 91 minutes. It's a unique take on the coming-of-age tale, but it never really puts itself into any unique territory. Newcomer Markees Christmas plays the titular Morris, a thirteen-year-old African American who moves to Germany with his father Curtis (Craig Robinson), a soccer coach who's gotten a professional assistant position overseas. Morris' mother has passed and Curtis hopes that the new setting will give Morris - a rap-obsessed loner alienated by his peer group - some perspective of the world as he grows up. Few of the other teenagers take to Morris, who still has trouble picking up the language. He takes lessons with a young student-teacher, Inka (Carla Juri), but otherwise has no acquaintances let alone friends. At a local youth center, Morris meets Katrin (Lina Keller), a beautiful blonde who is the only one who seems to pay any attention to him. Katrin is gorgeous, friendly, and actually takes time to listen to Morris about his interests. Very quickly, Morris falls in love and the young man finds himself sucked into the vortex of infatuation, following Katrin into a totally different, occasionally dangerous social circle.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Hell or High Water (****)

Directed by David Mackenzie


Taylor Sheridan's screenplay for Hell or High Water is amongst the most masterful depictions of a specific, decaying American culture I've seen in a while. It's right up there with No Country for Old Men and The Last Picture Show in terms of resonance and execution. Like those other two films, Hell or High Water takes place in Texas, that hulking sprawl of a state that has come to represent so much of the rest of the country, both commendable and repellent. Sheridan's story has odes to Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde as well as another Coen Brothers film, Fargo, in that its simultaneous obsession and horror at the sight of senseless American crime and violence is showcased as a pendant of this country's society. The speed to which things can turn tragic and deadly in America is matched only by the incessant cycle in which these crimes continue to happen. Hell or High Water is a brilliant document to the very people who stand against it while also helping to perpetuate it. The people who stand for justice and peace, but by their actions enact blood and brimstone. Directed by David Mackenzie, Sheridan's script becomes an epic fable about family, brotherhood, mortality and morality. Backed by a trio of incredible performances, Mackenzie crafts this story with Steinbeck-ian scope, commenting on everything from the cemented racism at the heart of American culture to the crippling power that banks hold over the poor, reinforcing an ever-widening class system enabled by a wealthy few who have no interest in economic balance. Gun violence, predatory loans - the housing crisis, all things so synonymous with the infrastructure of contemporary United States - all manage to make a cameo in this film, and yet Sheridan's script never gets lost in its own ideas, with a tight story about two criminal brothers and the grey dog trooper bent on catching them before they settle the big score.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings (***)

Directed by Travis Knight


If Pixar has stood out amongst animation studios for its unmatched critical and commercial success, than Laika has also stood out, for its dogged dedication to the labor-intensive art of stop-motion animation. Travis Knight has been the lead animator at Laika since 2005, and has been instrumental in the studios recent boost, producing Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls. The studio's latest release, Kubo and the Two Strings is Knight's directorial debut. The film, which borrows heavily from various mythologies interwoven through Japanese culture is able to produce quite a mythical quality. It's also probably their first film to truly attempt the kind of heart-wrenching sentimentality of Pixar. Laika has always stood out to me for its courage to embrace the more grotesque nature of animation. They took the aesthetic of Tim Burton and really expounded on it, didn't allow themselves to get boxed into their own style the way Burton has. The unfortunate fact that Kubo's Japanese characters are almost exclusively voiced by white actors slacks at the film's credibility as a true homage, but Knight fills the film with such wondrously beautiful images. The disconnect between head and heart here is apparent, but Knight knows how to craft a well-made film, and Kubo is amongst the best animated films I've managed to see this year.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Little Men (***1/2)

Directed by Ira Sachs


Ira Sachs' last two films are such a beautiful distillation of everyday life, a peep into the domestic sides of New York City living that is both poignant and direct. 2014's Love is Strange was a wonderful drama about getting old, being in love and overcoming the same prejudices over and over again. His latest film, Little Men, is about two teenagers, growing up in residential Brooklyn, who become unlikely friends. The pair of young actors that Sachs was able to find here is the film's key. Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri show a stunning alacrity for displaying youthful enthusiasm, arrogance, even at times real true sadness. The loneliness of adolescence is oppressive at times, as your world view becomes less solipsistic and more aware of the realities of life and what you'll face. It's a godsend if you're able to find another who can help you understand this challenging period. Little Men is about that moment when you find that one friend who can help you cope with growing up, and how the realities of adult life will always manage to get in the way of the struggles of children. In Love is Strange and now Little Men, Sachs takes a deep dive into the uncomfortable minutia of maturity, responsibility and family, and comes out with a film that has a sense of humor about its own form of tragedy. These lived-in stories have a refreshing tone compared to most films about New York, and with Little Men, Sachs continues to show that he is an exceptional storyteller.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Jason Bourne (**1/2)

Directed by Paul Greengrass


The Bourne franchise isn't nearly as intelligent as it thinks it is. It's suggestion of commentary on our political climate is shallow at best, but that's okay. The original Bourne trilogy was the perfect action series for George W. Bush America, exploring our frustrations and paranoia about our government's competence. It was tapping into a feeling without saying anything truly interesting about it. At its core, these films are about as escapist as a Transformers film, but even if the films aren't exactly as sophisticated as they pose themselves, they are backed by strong screenplays (the first three had strong contribution from the great Tony Gilroy) and they at least tell the story of a very intelligent, sophisticated protagonist. Jason Bourne, and Matt Damon's portrayal of him, is one of the miracles of studio filmmaking this century. It's hard to think of another movie star who could have played this preposterous character so sincerely and yet make it work. The Bourne Identity was directed by Doug Liman, but since then, all of Damon's Bourne films have been directed by Paul Greengrass (the Jeremy Renner-starring The Bourne Legacy was actually directed by Gilroy, himself; he has not come around for this latest film). Greengrass has a style that suggests cinema-verité, heavy on steadicam and smash cutting. Greengrass likes films with political bent, and he's succeeded with United 93 and Captain Phillips, which both managed to translate documentary-style narrative storytelling into commercial and critical success. And yet, I think his Bourne films are the best thing that he's ever done. Is it possible that his true calling is as a smash em' up action director? Jason Bourne certainly proves that to me, and with Damon returning to star, one of my favorite film franchises gets an entertaining boost.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Don't Think Twice (***)

Written and Directed by Mike Birbiglia


Mike Birbiglia's transformation from cult favorite stand-up comic to filmmaker makes a little bit more sense than Louis CK's. Birbiglia's comedy was always more story-oriented, more of a one-man show than a traditional comedy set. Louis CK's brilliance is in his inertness, and his show, Louie, was always at its best (though certainly not at its funniest) when we really dove into the chaos of his mind. Birbiglia isn't as cerebral a storyteller, but his storytelling interests have a broader appeal. He's not knocking around in his own mind, he's exploring the lives of other people. Unlike CK, he doesn't really have to be brilliant to be entertaining, and his second feature film, Don't Think Twice, is probably one of the better examples of a comedian executing the Woody Allen model. One part autobiography, some parts romance, another part funny. When Woody is at his best, he explores religious and philosophical topics with great alacrity, but when he's simply making a fun film (like Love and Death or Sweet and Lowdown), he comes up with something that looks a lot like Don't Think Twice. The film deals with a comedy improv group called The Commune, a New York City collection of comics all locked into the death stare of their thirties, looking hopelessly for a way toward success while also continuing to put on a seriously funny show. The characters within Don't Think Twice are a very familiar New York City figure, and Birbiglia's film is a melancholy ode to the artists who have the talent but not the luck or the breaks. More than anything, his film is a mature dissection of human relationships, the complications that often come up between friends and loved ones, when the paths of our lives don't always go in the same direction.