Girl Asleep (2016)

Part satire, part surreal adventure, Girl Asleep is an incredibly original and entertaining feature. The film trades in lots of deadpan humor and the main cast is immediately endearing. Greta (Bethany Whitmore; Mary and Max) is an adorable misfit with her shy demeanor in stark contrast to her relatives. Greta’s family is well developed but the only thing louder than them is the eye-popping 70s color palate. The movie is set designed like a Wes Anderson film with a dollhouse structure but featuring a bright, fun energy. Even the intertitles are creatively inserted. Picture the staging of The Grand Budapest Hotel combined with the energy and aesthetic of Boogie Nights. The entire first half of the film exudes this spirit even though the main character is a self-conscious teenager.

Director Rosemary Myers captures the awkwardness of adolescence. Greta is hypersensitive to how she is perceived and freaks out at the thought of a party thrown for her with all her classmates invited. She’s not ready for all that entails. She doesn’t want to wear a fancy dress, wear makeup, or do her hair. Her mom on the other hand convinces her to go along with the idea.

The party itself is buzzing with energy. Greta’s schoolmates don’t just show up for the party, they make an entrance. Every person saunters and dances into the house like groomsmen or bridesmaids at a wedding reception. These entrances turn into impromptu synchronized dance numbers that are nothing short of exuberant. It isn’t until the “Plastics” (they’re not actually called that but they are basically the plastics from Mean Girls) show up with a humiliating song written just for Greta that things take a turn for the worse. She retreats to her room and gets shocked while opening up her old music box. This is where things start getting weird.

A variety of costumed freaks lie just beyond Greta's backyard.
A variety of costumed freaks lie just beyond Greta’s backyard fence.

In the second half, Girl Asleep becomes a David Lynch film. Like Naomi Watts opening the blue box in Mulholland Drive, Greta enters into a dream world where all the horrors of her imagination live. A strange creature takes her music box into the mysterious woods behind her house and as Greta follows she finds herself pursued by a variety of monsters. Each represents a piece of her current life and is played by one of the existing cast members. Her dad plays a disgusting freak that wants to make fart jokes and the Mean girls are feral animals chasing her.

Myers uses this surreal escapade to explore Greta’s inner feelings. Despite the extreme tonal shift, the second half feels natural. Each of the beings she meets in this alternate reality is a manifestation of her current situation. The monsters, like their real-life counterparts, pose a risk to Greta’s life as she knows it. This is a coming of age story and each one represents the societal and parental pressures Greta faces as well as the remnants of childhood she still holds on to. As she deals with these creatures, Greta learns what is important to her and what type of person she wants to be. Girl Asleep uses deadpan humor and surreal explorations of inner conflicts to create a strange, unpredictable,  and, at times, unnerving examination of one girl’s transition to womanhood.

4/5 stars.

The Age of Shadows (2016)

In the first outing since his Arnold Schwarzenegger starring Hollywood debut The Last Stand, Kim Jee-woon returns with a film set in the 1930s when Korea was under Japanese rule. The Age of Shadows features Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder) as Lee Jeong-chool, a Korean working as a police captain for the Japanese police and tasked with capturing members of the independence movement. In order to succeed, he must infiltrate their group and gain the trust of the leaders. Along the way his allegiances are put into question, both by the rebels and by his Japanese superiors.

The film’s storyline is overly complex. It’s 139 minute runtime is bloated with several back and forths between the rebels and the Japanese police trying to delineate each group’s hierarchy. Unfortunately these scenes are edited like action movies. The rapid intercutting is clearly intended to prevent them from becoming stale but instead limits comprehension and becomes frustrating. Why spend so many minutes on these details only to undermine their impact with the rapid pacing? It’s possible that the film is intended for Korean audiences that may be more familiar with the historical background and may not need the setup explained, but even so, by not letting these scenes breathe, the bulk of the film’s runtime is wasted.

The film's opening is one of its brightest moments.
The film’s opening is one of its brightest moments.

Even with the amount of time devoted to exposition, the film doesn’t develop its characters. The rebels are shown planning their next actions but aren’t given any backstory. They are just assumed to be the protagonists without any time spent convincing us they are worth rooting for. It’s obvious that no country would want to be run by another, but the Japanese characters aren’t proven to be villains. Again, the film may be assuming that Korean audiences will automatically sympathize with the Korean characters, but from an outsider’s perspective there aren’t many reasons to pick a side. Furthermore, certain characters are claimed to be invaluable within the rebel network, but we’re never shown why. As rebel leaders are placed in peril we’re supposed to care, but how can we without understanding why they are important? Only Lee’s character has some growth. His internal struggle with working for the Japanese while being a Korean is understandable, but his path to his current situation isn’t explained. What are his motivations? Was this an easy change decision for him? Without these answers, we are left detached from the main characters and their central conflicts.

Kim is known for his frantic, bloody action scenes but there are too few present here. The film opens with a chase scene that is frenetic occasionally humorous, and features some of the gore he is known for but quickly gives way to exposition heavy beginning. Save for a well staged later set piece on a train, there are no more extended action scenes. Even the violence seems limited compared to most of his work. Neglecting these sequences in favor of labyrinthine plotting was a major mistake. Kim’s greatest strength is his ability to create bloody but playful combat. His direction remains agreeably slick, but the plodding storyline and lack of action make the film feel uninvolving and overlong.

3/5 stars.

The Invitation (2016)

Every once in a while there comes a movie that you want to talk about, but can’t. A couple years ago it was The One I Love and this year it is The Invitation. The movie is best approached with no prior knowledge. No synopsis, no trailer, and even no review. If you’re interested in a film that is more than it initially seems, check it out. If you need more convincing, the review below features some details about the setup and style of the film, but no major plot spoilers.

Will (Logan Marshall-Green; Prometheus) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi; Middle of Nowhere) are driving to reunite with old friends at a dinner party hosted by Will’s estranged ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard; Moneyball) and her new partner David (Michiel Huisman; Game of Thrones). The initial encounters are uncomfortable. All of the guests are clearly avoiding mentioning some previous event and Eden and David are trying to prove that they have moved past it. As Will moves around the house, he sees brief, warped flashbacks of memories he has clearly suppressed. In the end it’s not what happened in the past that is important, but rather what it implies for the future.

The early acting is amateurish. The actors, while laudably diverse, behave like first timers in a student film, poorly attempting to replicate casual conversation between friends. The writing doesn’t do the actors any favors. Each character is painted in broad strokes and can be irritating initially. The one positive side effect is that their clumsy dialogue distracts from the events to come.

The dinner party never becomes comfortable.
The dinner party never becomes comfortable.

Those events take their time to arrive. The Invitation is at its heart a slow burn thriller. Director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body) takes her time creating the setting and establishing the relationships between the characters. The home is an LA mansion that is well lit and eerily perfect in its interior design. It feels like a model home – extravagant, but by its nature sterile. Kusama makes this expansive house feel increasingly claustrophobic. The gated home is confined and the dinner party becomes a microcosm separated from the rest of the world. Every moment of conflict becomes momentous because the home is the only setting acknowledged.

The score and sound design play a key role in the suspense. The soundtrack features screeching violins and subtle white noise that immediately communicate dread. As certain characters become agitated, the sound design reflects their emotional state. Banal noises like the chewing of food or the clanking of utensils against plates become grotesque and cacophonous. Even when the dinner seems commonplace at first glance, the film’s audio always hints at more to come.

As Will’s unease evolves into suspicion, every action is called into question. Who are the two guests that the rest of the party doesn’t know? What is the real reason for bringing everyone together? Even small, innocuous gestures are implied to have ulterior motives. The tension increases and it’s unclear whether Will’s mistrust is warranted. Without revealing too much, the ending delivers an answer and has further implications for the world of the movie. The Invitation grows from a socially awkward dinner party to a paranoid thriller of potentially sinister intentions.

4/5 stars.

Don’t Breathe (2016)

Home invasion films are a well-worn genre, but Don’t Breathe makes  a smart twist on the formula. Imagine Home Alone from the perspective of the robbers, only instead of Macaulay Culkin setting traps it was an old, murderous man.

Alex (Dylan Minnette; Prisoners), Rocky (Jane Levy; Evil Dead), and Money (Daniel Zovatto; It Follows) are three 20-somethings making their living robbing homes and selling the goods on the black market. Alex’s dad runs a home security firm, so they are able to get passcodes and keys to enter and exit houses unnoticed. Rocky and Money have the intention of leaving town if they can get the funds, but they aren’t making enough off each house. Fortunately, they get a tip about an old man (Stephen Lang; Avatar) who won a six figure cash settlement after his daughter was killed in a car accident by a wealthy teenager. He lives by himself in a mostly empty part of town and supposedly has the settlement money inside. The best part is the man is blind, so it’s an easy job…or is it?

Like the recent horror hit It FollowsDon’t Breathe uses modern day Detroit as its setting. Maybe it says more about the economic situation of the city than anything else, but the graffiti covered facades and overgrown lawns of the long abandoned neighboring properties hint at the situation to come. Why would someone, especially someone with a large sum of money, still live in a place like that?

As the team breaks into the house, director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) establishes the setting. It would be easy for the movie to feel like a bottle film, restricted to one main location because of financial reasons not creative ones, but that is not the case. The home has a maze-like architecture and Alvarez uses impressive cinematography early on to explore it. The camera weaves in and out of rooms, rarely cutting, and lingers on objects bound to be of importance later. These shots lay the foundation for the film and inform the audience of the possibilities that exist. In less skilled filmmaking, plot twists feel cheap and convenient, but here each twist is subtly foreshadowed early on. You may have an idea that something will be important, but chances are you won’t be able to guess how.

Lang animal-like behavior is always frightening.
Lang’s bestial behavior is always frightening.

The blind man is not what he seems and the team of robbers soon find themselves in trouble. Lang dominates the screen with his intensity. He becomes animal-like. Lang rarely speaks and relies on his other senses to find the robbers. He sticks his nose in the air and sniffs like a feral wolf searching for prey. Unlike the intruders, he knows his house intimately and takes full advantage of this as he walks through the halls feeling his way across the house.

His blindness makes for incredibly tense encounters. In most home invasion films, the characters are only worried that they will be spotted, but here they have to be wary of a tiny creak of the wood floors setting off Lang’s hypersensitive hearing. It also makes for near misses that come uncomfortably close to confrontations. Lang can’t see his uninvited guests and often moves within inches of them.

Lang’s sheer physicality makes him a terrifying threat. He is revealed to be a veteran whose sinewy arms and fast, focused movements show his prowess. At one point during my screening a woman shouted “He’s worse than the Terminator!” and she was right. Lang’s efforts are unrelenting and the justice he delivers is unforgiving.

In the last act, the film layers on multiple twists that will divide audiences. Some may view them as unrealistic while others will see them as depraved and unnecessary. Each additional wrinkle pulls the story further away from believable and turns Lang from a man to a monster, reducing the credibility the film had established. Yet, Lang is able to overcome these missteps. Even as the third act falters,  the strong setup, creative encounters, and Lang’s presence make Don’t Breathe a film of often unbearable tension.

4/5 stars.

The Light Between Oceans (2016)

Despite its similar naming structure, The Light Between Oceans, shares few similarities to its predecessor The Place Beyond the Pines. Set in Australia shortly after WWI, the film stars Michael Fassbender (Shame) as Tom Sherbourne, a veteran hired as a lightkeeper for a remote island. Soon, he meets and falls in love with Isabel (Alicia Vikander; Ex Machina). After their marriage, they have two miscarriages within three years leaving Isabel despondent until a rowboat washes ashore. Inside they find a dead man and the baby girl that will forever change their lives. Tom attempts to report the incident, but buckles under Isabel’s desire to have a child.

Once the little girl, Lucy, enters the picture, Tom and Isabel’s lives are filled with joy. They play with their new daughter and show her off to their family and friends. The hapiness lasts until her christening where Tom spots a tearful woman, Hannah (Rachel Weisz; The Deep Blue Sea), praying in front of a grave for her husband and infant daughter who were lost at sea the same day he found Lucy. Racked with guilt and unable to persuade Isabel to confess their sins, Tom leaves a note for Hannah letting her know her baby is safe, but her husband is dead. What soon follows is a messy situation. Lucy taken from the parents she knows to the rightful mother she wants nothing to do with as Tom and Isabel face repercussions of their actions.

In its early parts, The Light Between Oceans resembles a Nicholas Sparks movie. The leads only require one picnic before Isabel brings up the idea of marriage so they can spend the next 10 minutes handwriting cliche-ridden professions of love a la Dear John. “I never knew I could talk about the way I feel”, writes Tom. Cianfrance’s films are known for their raw intensity of character interactions. He’s been called an “actor’s director” because he is able to create an original intimacy even in predictable situations, like the relationship in Blue Valentine. This makes the overly simplistic beginning to the central romance especially disappointing. Fassbender and Vikander are a real life couple, but their early scenes of courtship (or rather the single scene) feel forced. It’s like the director looked at the actors and said “Be perfect for each other” and started rolling. Isabel’s optimism doesn’t match with Tom’s taciturn demeanor and it’s unclear why either has developed affection. Fortunately, the romance becomes more believable as the two grow closer during the hardships they face.

The gorgeous scenery monopolizes the early parts of the film. Excessive, but beautiful.
The gorgeous scenery monopolizes the early parts of the film. Excessive, but beautiful.

The Sparks comparison extends to the setting and cinematography. The film is set by the ocean with an overabundance of landscape shots. Granted, the visuals are breathtaking. Ocean waves crashing against the shore and lonely sunsets dominate the first half of the movie. While aesthetically stunning, the focus on the backdrops unnecessarily slows down the film’s pace and has the unintended effect of distancing the viewer from the central conflict. The fading light of the sun seems to carry equal importance to Tom and Isabel’s relationship early on, but Cianfrance lacks the ability to imbue meaning into the natural imagery. He is not Terrence Malick.

In the final act the film, Cianfrance finally delivers on the emotional resonance he is known for. Actions have consequences, and the depth of Tom and Isabel’s relationship is shown, not told, as they take steps to protect each other. Here, the professions of love are earned. In some ways, The Light Between Oceans is Cianfrance’s version of a Merchant Ivory film. Romantic, but deliberately old-fashioned with his natural inclinations muted until the end. Still, not many filmmakers working today can match Cianfrance’s ability to draw out an emotional response. The feelings come like waves hitting the rocks of the island, overwhelming and powerful. While the The Light Between Oceans starts out slow, the scenery is enough to carry the film to its piercing final third.

4/5 stars.