The Witch (2016)

The Witch, or The V V itch as the opening title reads, starts with a family on trial in front of their fellow plantation workers. They are banished from their home for incorrectly preaching God’s word. Headstrong, the father moves his family away and starts farming to survive on their own. They seem to be successful until something goes wrong. The infant goes missing and the family is wrecked with grief when they are unable to explain their loss. They can’t reconcile their misfortune with their religious beliefs and the loss creates cracks in the foundation of their lives.

The strength and originality of the film comes from its focus on relationships and beliefs rather than the supernatural. Living in the 1600s in a puritan, extremely orthodox family, the characters have deeply held beliefs about God, Original Sin, and the Devil. To them, Witches are as real as droughts and famine so when bad things start happening, they look for someone, or something, to blame. The Witch uses this finger pointing to create an atmosphere of distrust. Much like the horror classic The Thing, the question isn’t “who’s going to die next?” but rather “who will they believe?”. This adds a moral complexity to the storyline that elevates it well above other similar movies.

4/5 Stars.

Love (2011)

What matters most in life? What can we truly not live without? These are the questions Love, made in 2011 by director, cinematographer, and production designer William Eubank and produced by music supergroup Angels & Airwaves, attempts to answer. The movie follows both a civil war soldier searching for an unidentified object found in the west and Lee Miller (Gunner Wright), an astronaut in the International Space Station.  How they connect is revealed much later. Miller is by himself in the ISS with the intent to return to Earth soon until his mission control informs him that they do not have the resources needed to bring him back. He later sees explosions on the surface of Earth as all communication ceases. Alone with no idea what happened or why, Miller spends the next years coping with his solitude. Intercut between these storylines are what appear as interviews with regular people sharing their perspectives on life. These short interludes offer simple, but insightful comments on the human condition from varying perspectives.

Shockingly, the movie was made for only $500,000 with most of the sets built in the backyard of Eubank’s parent’s home. Despite what that would imply, the cinematography, particularly the lighting, is exceptional. Eubank uses the blinding light of the sun along with the colored switches of control panels to great effect, at times coating his lead in extreme shadow and contrast.

Love makes overt references to both Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris. The structure reflects parts of 2001, but the themes, thankfully, draw more from SolarisLove can even be viewed as a spiritual successor to Solaris. I say thankfully because I am not a fan of 2001. While I can’t give it enough compliments for it’s visual design and special effects, like many of Kubrick’s films, it’s emotionally empty. Solaris and Love instead focus on longing for a human connection. As the isolation continues, Miller starts hallucinating and imagining others to reduce his solitude. Eubank uses this longing—the need to connect with another—and applies it to all of us. This is what makes Love resonate. It’s setting is extraterrestrial, but it’s interests, as evidenced by the ending, are human.

Even though it will leave many confused or unsatisfied, the ending is true to Eubank’s goal. He is not interested in the details of a single story, he’s interested in the feelings that drive every story. The emotions that make people continue in life. Viewers that can focus on his goal rather than their own plot resolution needs will leave the movie smiling. Combined with a pulsing electric score, also provided by Angels & Airwaves, the ending carries Love to an inspiring, thematically-appropriate conclusion and makes a firm statement on the value of human connection.

4/5 Stars.

Best Movies for Valentine’s Day

Well, it’s that time of year again, so here are some movies to watch with your significant other. Or by yourself. No shame in that. You can view this as “Best Valentine’s Day Movies” or more accurately “Best Romance Movies”, a genre that is too often overlooked because of the swaths of formulaic rom-coms you have to filter through to find the hidden gems. Fortunately, I’ve done that work for you.

In the Mood for Love

The overwhelming atmosphere of romantic melancholy of In the Mood for Love will envelop you to the point you never want to leave. While not a fast movie by any means or a film of action, it draws you in through the looks in the eyes of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. The restraint in the direction and acting make this film. Unlike other movies that rely on melodramatic professions of love in the rain to get a point across (guess what movie I’m talking about here), this movie uses a tension that suffuses every frame. The hues of red, the ornate textile patterns, and the sultry sound of Nat King Cole’s voice coalesce into something greater than any other romance I have ever seen. There is something in the air and the conflict between desire and duty, passion and propriety, are entrancing. Likely my favorite movie ever, romance or not.

[Available to stream on FilmStruck]

The Before Series (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight)

The Before series captures so many aspects of romance. The first movie, Before Sunrise, is about the initial spark of love. The infatuation that comes with connecting with someone on a level you didn’t think was possible. Before Sunset, picks up 9 years later with the characters reuniting. This movie still contains the connection of Sunrise, but adds in the regret that comes with age. What if things had worked out? Where would they be now? Do they still have a chance together after all these years? Finally, Before Midnight takes place another 9 years later. Unlike almost any other film franchise, the Before series has improved with each iteration. Each new movie retains the allure of the previous while adding new complexities and Before Midnight takes this to a new level. It is the funniest, best written chapter but also expands into new territory as it explores the difficulties of long term relationships. Your own personal ranking of the films may vary, but you’ll never regret spending time with Jesse and Celine. Here’s to another film 9 years after Before Midnight. I don’t know how they could improve on it, but that’s also what I said after Before Sunset.

[Available to stream on Amazon]

3-Iron

Director Kim Ki-Duk is well known for the extreme violence of his films. 3-Iron represents a departure from that trend. The story follows a young man who breaks into people’s houses while they are out of town that ends up rescuing an abused housewife. She becomes his partner in (mostly harmless) crime. The two move between empty houses each night, never taking anything and instead doing household repairs or chores in exchange for their uninvited stay. They never speak a word and their relationship slowly develops through the actions they take to look out for each other. The movie has an otherworldly, almost ghostly quality to it and indeed the latter half of the film shifts into the ethereal. If you follow the film to where Kim wants it to go, you will be rewarded with a haunting, understated romance.

[Available to stream on Amazon]

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman were at the height of their careers with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film is about a couple that decides to have their memory of each other erased after a messy end to their relationship. Gondry’s arts-and-crafts practical effects make the transitions between the real and surreal found in Kaufman’s writing seamless and allow the characters to explore their true desires. Eternal Sunshine succeeds based on its ability to convey the emptiness that can be left by someone. Erasing their memory may have removed the dissolution of their relationship but it couldn’t fill the hole left by each other’s absence. The film shows the lengths people will go to preserve their memories of love, even if they come with memories of heartbreak.

[Available to stream on Amazon]

Notting Hill

Yes, it’s a Hugh Grant film, but you know what? It’s the best Hugh Grant film. Grant is at his most likable here as the average guy owner of a used travel book shop who mistakenly bumps into and starts a relationship with a world famous actress (Julia Roberts). Is it a little cheesy? Yes, but the schmaltz is sincere and always endearing. The interactions between Grant and Roberts are sweet and the problems they face, despite the crazy scenario, are eminently relatable. Notting Hill is a statement that, no matter their station in life or related complications, all relationships are just a connection between two people, in this case, “just a boy” and “just a girl”.

[Available to stream on Amazon]

About Time

Also written by Richard Curtis and this time directed by him too, About Time features many of the standard Curtis tropes, but with a slight sci-fi twist. Domnhall Gleeson plays the Hugh Grant character, but is able to put his own goofy charm into the role. At the age of 21, Tim (Gleeson) learns that the male members of his family can travel in time. His initial actions are what you would expect of a man his age. He goes back in time again and again to undo the mistakes he makes as he dates Mary (Rachel McAdams). But soon About Time transforms into something more. It shifts its focus from romance to family. There is a reason the movie isn’t called About Love. Curtis expands his scope to examine the value of familial bonds, the consequences of actions, and the joys overlooked in everyday life. If you are a stickler for plot holes, you will hate this movie. About Time sets up and then proceeds to ignore every one of its rules about time travel. I can’t fault Curtis for this though. He understands that sci-fi was never really about aliens or space ships, it was about using a premise to explore emotions not encountered in regular life. If you can look past the plot holes and instead look to the emotions experienced by the characters, you’ll find a deep, surprisingly life-affirming adventure.

[Available to stream on Amazon]

Chungking Express

Chungking Express, also by In the Mood for Love director Wong Kar-Wai, approaches love from a different perspective. Composed of 2 stories of Hong Kong cops coming off of breakups, the film is looser and more improvisational. Unlike the characters of In the Mood for Love, these people are in their early twenties and the film’s style reflects their point in life. Their future is uncertain, but hopeful. Wong’s signature longing is still present here, but more optimistic and sprinkled with affectionate humor. The characters may not know what is in store for them, but they’ll keep trying for love regardless.

[Available to stream on FilmStruck]

Brooklyn

The newest entry on this list, Brooklyn, is a period romance about finding a sense of belonging through a relationship. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), an Irish immigrant, moves to the US only to find herself horribly homesick until she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a young Italian-American. The two have instant chemistry and their magnetic performances make you root for the characters as their relationship faces struggles. John Crowley directs his actors to gentle, intimate interactions. In particular, Eilis’s articulate educated speech contrasts with Tony’s stumbling dialogue for adorably awkward moments. Their soft-spoken demeanor combined with the polite manners of the time make for an incredibly charming courtship.

[Available to stream on HBO Go and Amazon]

Pure Pwnage Teh Movie

When I first saw the trailer for Pure Pwnage Teh Movie, I was nervous. Having grown up with the web series and later watched the Canadian TV show I was worried not that the movie would be unfaithful to the spirit of the original works, but rather that the original show was now outdated.

For those unfamiliar with Pure Pwnage, it was a webseries launched in 2004 (pre-Youtube) about a “pro gamer” named Jeremy (Jarrett Cale) filmed in a documentary style by his brother and total noob Kyle (Geoff Lapaire). Most of the humor was tied to gaming culture at the time and some of it wasn’t what we would now consider politically correct. I was afraid that the movie continuation of the series I had fond affections for would appear crass and outdated, much like the 2011 release of Duke Nukem Forever. Thankfully, I was wrong.

The movie picks up a few years after the web series (the less well received TV series is now non-cannon) with Jeremy and his best friend FPS Doug (Joel Gardiner). I won’t spoil the details of their current situation, but suffice to say that the film manages to stay true to the characters while completely subverting your expectations of them. Jeremy and Doug decide to enter a tournament to win money and now have to learn League of Legends, the current hottest multiplayer game. To their dismay, LoL is a team sport meaning they have to learn to interact with other human beings which doesn’t come naturally to Jeremy. The film follows them as they form a team, train, and compete in the tournament.

The best part of the film is just how effortless it seems. The actors know the characters so well that they always feel believable, despite the silliness of their antics. As they progress, we get various callbacks to the webseries and, dare I say it, even character growth. BBC film critic Mark Kermode has a “6 laugh rule” for comedies. The idea is that if a comedy can make you laugh at least 6 times, it is worth your attention. While watching Pure Pwnage Teh Movie, I probably passed 6 laughs within the first 5 minutes. The film actually plays on the outdated nature of the original series and mines the differences between gaming in 2004 and gaming in 2015 for an endless supply of jokes. That being said, there are some major caveats. In order to fully enjoy the film you need to have seen the web series and be at least somewhat familiar with video games. But if you meet that criteria, you’ll spend the 90 minutes with a huge grin on your face and leave with a sudden desire to run with a knife or spank your monitor. GG guys, GG.

5/5 Stars.

Teenagers in Film

[BS Note: This article was originally written in Fall 2013]

This summer the film The Spectacular Now released to critical acclaim. However after watching the trailer I was not impressed. Everyone seemed like a stereotype or cliché and the emotional depth that critics praised was not apparent to me. I complained to a friend about how everyone looked like dumb characters acting dumb and he had an insightful comment. He said “Real teenagers look like ‘dumb characters acting dumb’. If anything, teenagers in films are too smart.” This made me look back on the teen films I’ve seen and reflect on how I behaved while in high school.

I was pretty dumb in high school. I’ll be the first to admit that and I think that most people would feel the same way (about themselves, although I’m sure others would say that about me as well). After seeing The Spectacular Now, I understand why the reviews are so positive. Yes, the characters do dumb things, but the key is that their mistakes feel sincere and relatable. Their stupidity is really authentic to the experience of being a teenager. They make wrong decisions even though the right decision seems obvious to us, the viewers, but they do it because they are coming from a place of uncertainty, both of themselves and of their futures.

Many movies feature teenagers that are insecure or uncertain. In Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean’s character acts out because of his parents’ marital troubles. In Superbad, the main characters are all awkward social misfits. So what separates the characters in The Spectacular Now from those other films? For me, it was the way the characters’ actions don’t seem driven by a plot. In both Rebel Without a Cause and Superbad, it feels like the characters make their bad decisions to move the narrative to a climactic plot point (the shootout in Rebel and the party in Superbad). In The Spectacular Now, the narrative doesn’t seem to force the characters to do things. It feels more like characters making honest mistakes that cause a particular narrative to occur. This “accidental” plot is what makes the film authentic and memorable. It elevates the characters beyond the archetypes they fill and makes them feel honest and relatable.

Top 10 Films of 2013

[BS Note: This list was originally written in early 2014]

With the Golden Globes behind us and the Oscars coming up this weekend, it is a great time to celebrate some of the year’s best films. 2013 was a great year for film-making it was difficult to bring this list down to ten entries, but these are the films that resonated.

10. In a World…

Lake Bell (No Strings Attached) makes her feature writing and directing debut with In a World…, a comedy about a vocal coach, Carol (Bell), failing to find a place in the male dominated voice-over industry. Bell smartly mixes humor with the realities of attempting to break the glass ceiling, elevating the film from lighthearted comedy to sharp societal commentary.

9. Gravity

Gravity, like other films on this list, is about survival. Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side) plays a medical engineer on her first trip to space when a catastrophe occurs. Enough cannot be said about the way this film looks. The computer generated visual effects are stunning and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s (The Tree of Life) long takes with precise direction from Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) make the Gravity a gripping thrill ride in space.

8. 12 Years a Slave

It would be easy to look at the story of 12 Years a Slave and think that it is Oscar bait. A film based on a true story about a free man kidnapped from the North and sold into slavery in the South? The Academy should love that. But the movie is directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) and he has no interest in the sentimental. The films depicts the horrific realities of life as a slave. What is most frightening is how common these acts were. Each brutality is accepted as a part of the natural order. The film’s traumatic imagery ensures that this period of US history and the film itself will not be forgotten.

7. Her

Set in a slightly futuristic Los Angeles, Her follows Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) playing Theodore Twombly, a man who writes heartfelt letters on behalf of strangers unable to do so. He is separated and lonely until he falls in love with an artificial intelligence named Samantha played by Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers). Director Spike Jonze (Adaptation) uses Samantha’s lack of a body to emphasize the emotional connection craved by Theodore. He lives in a crowded city but feels isolated from the people around him. The film shows each phase of their relationship and how Theodore changes as it progresses. Her succeeds by making a romance with a disembodied voice feel remarkably human.

6. The Hunt

The Hunt is probably the most aggravating film of the year. In a good way. Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) plays a kind, well-liked preschool teacher falsely accused of a terrible crime. The film follows him as he is ostracized out of every part of his small town. Because of the nature of the accusation his former friends and colleagues immediately abandon him. Innocent until proven guilty? Not for this crime. His descent continues as the film shows just how easily even the strongest relationships can shatter when someone cries wolf.

5. The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines is really a triptych: three stories linked by one key event. The first story is about a stunt motorcyclist turned bank robber played by Ryan Gosling (Drive). The second is about the cop that tries to catch him played by Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook) and the third is about the sons of the two. Directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), the film is at its best during small moments. The character interactions have a raw intensity that make them feel honest and real. The film shows that each action has its consequences and how each generation deals with the aftermath of the pervious.

4. The Past

The Past is a companion piece to Asghar Farhadi’s previous Oscar-winning film A Separation. Both films are about a divorce, but The Past is about characters dealing with the ramifications of their previous actions. It is a film that presents a relatively simple situation, a long separated couple finally filing the paperwork for divorce so the woman can marry her new boyfriend, and peels back layer after layer revealing the complicated, morally ambiguous chaos underneath. Farhadi manages to do this without creating “good” or “bad” characters. Everyone acts in a realistic, understandable way but also commit tragic mistakes that make the situation even thornier and his even-handed direction causes your sympathies to shift with each new revelation.

3. All is Lost

All is Lost is a demonstration of how great acting can carry a film. Robert Redford (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men) plays a nameless man on a solo voyage through the Indian Ocean whose boat springs a leak. His performance, under the direction of J.C. Chandor (Margin Call), expresses feeling through subtle actions. A grimace or sigh conveys the struggles of the protagonist more than most voiceovers in other films. Despite containing no dialogue and only a few spoken words, it commands attention. The continued determination and resourcefulness of an elderly, but experienced sailor in the face of possible death make the film a tense and affecting adventure.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis

With Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men, True Grit) have made yet another excellent film containing their signature dark humor and sardonic wit. Starring Oscar Isaac (Drive), the film has something unusual for the Coens: sincerity. The film is about a folk singer, Llewyn Davis, who wanders from gig to gig trying to find a record deal. He is mean to most of his friends and dismissive of other singers as sell-outs, but his quest for artistic purity gives the film an earnestness that elevates it above most of the Coen brothers’ works. Despite him being more or less detestable, the film creates empathy for the character because he is unwilling to compromise his beliefs even if that means he is never successful.

1. Before Midnight

The experience of watching Before Midnight is like reconnecting with two friends you have known for decades. Friends that will squabble, joke, and ramble about anything and everything. But that’s the best part: listening to them talk. Set 9 years after Before Sunset and 18 years after Before Sunrise, the Before series continues its tradition of charmingly garrulous dialogue, yet it surpasses its—already excellent—predecessors by confronting the struggles of long term relationships. The warmth of a perfect connection from the previous films is still present but so are the cracks of reality that affect even the best relationships. This allows the film to continue to feel new and fresh while retaining the affection built up in earlier installments. The series, like love at its best, has grown stronger over time. Before Sunrise is great, Before Sunset is even better, and Before Midnight is incredible. It is, in my opinion, the best example of a sequel done right and easily the best film of the year.

 

Honorable Mentions: Enough Said, Nebraska, Captain Phillips, The Wolf of Wall Street.