Short Takes: It Follows, Insurgent & Hard to Be a God

It Follows It Follows — Writer/director David Robert Mitchell proves himself a horror movie natural with It Follows, a terrifying “Sex = Death” thriller.  The overwhelming sensory experience on display in this movie is enough to distract from the thinness of its premise, which revolves around a young woman named Jay (the excellent Maika Monroe) being inadvertently passed a curse that has a shape-shifting ghost stalk her.  The curse is transmitted sexually, and whoever is the most recent recipient needs to pass it on before the ghost catches up with them.  It’s the slowness of the specter that is truly chilling, especially when combined with Dissasterpeace’s relentless, pulsating score. The movie initially toys with misogynistic audience expectations, sacrificing a barely-clothed young woman after watching her being stalked and then having Jay’s date drug her and tie her up in her underwear after sex to “warn” her about the ghost.  Predatory men may not be the culprits on screen this time around, but Mitchell’s camera still uncomfortably fetishizes the young female characters’ bodies in those scenes.  Thankfully the movie moves past it, though, and unfolds in ways that are wickedly entertaining and genuinely scary. Grade: B- Insurgent 2 Insurgent — The second entry in the Divergent series feels more alive than the stale, uneven first one.  Insurgent trades in the half-assed, uninteresting world-building of the series debut for a story that is often visceral and compelling, as teen messiah Tris (Shailene Woodley) continues to fight back against the totalitarian, Kate Winslet-led regime.  It helps greatly that Winslet actually looks like she wants to be here this time around, and the distilled chill of her performance blends well with the raw energy Woodley brings to her own role. Much of this installment revolves around Tris assembling a rebel army and completing a self-sacrificing series of grueling challenges for the dictator’s benefit (don’t call them Hunger Games).  Director Robert Schwentke brings an urgency to the action sequences that is more compelling than anything else I’ve seen in a recent teen dystopia movie, though Insurgent’s world ultimately feels just as generic and unimaginative as that of its predecessor and those in The Hunger Games and The Giver. Grade: C+ Hard to Be a God Hard to Be a God — It is a great testament to this movie’s power to say that I now feel desensitized to the grossness of human body fluids.  Hard to Be a God, a decades-long passion project of the late Russian director Aleksey German, is the filthiest feeling movie I’ve seen in years, maybe ever.  Set on Araknar, a planet similar to Earth that is experiencing its own Middle Ages, Hard to Be a God tells the story of scientists from our planet who were sent there to study it and then become deities. If the movie had not explained that in its opening narration, I’m not sure I would have picked that all up, though.  German’s camera is so embedded in the feelings of this world, of its eternal wetness and clogged sinuses, that narrative all but disappears.  Araknar is in the midst of a violent rebellion where all intellectuals are being publicly executed. The movie’s black-and-white images are jaw-dropping and disgusting at the same time; from the get-go, German’s bizarre three-hour epic of depravity is thick with sludge, snot and shit.  It captures human cruelty in a ferociously close proximity and with such an abundance of mind-twisting visual information that it’s exhausting to sit through and process in one viewing.  I’d watch it again in a heartbeat, though. Grade: A-

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REVIEW: Snowpiercer

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Snowpiercer
Directed by: Bong Joon-Ho
Written by: Bong Joon-Ho and Kelly Masterson (screenplay), Jacques Lob, Jean-Marc Rochette and Benjamin Legrand (graphic novel)
Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-Ho, Octavia Spencer and Tilda Swinton

In Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-Ho and his production crew do something that is incredibly important in sci-fi films: they’ve mapped out a vision of their world down to every minute detail.  This is where, for the most part, other recent films that attempt to show the horrors of tomorrow go wrong.  Divergent and The Hunger Games films are competently made and their action sequences are sometimes thrillingly executed, but their generic, uninspired dystopias are almost interchangeable when arrows and bullets aren’t flying.

Snowpiercer is by no means a perfect film, but it is a transporting one.  Its success is in its environment, in its imagining of a  train that appears to be all that is left of civilization after an attempt to thwart global warming ended up freezing Earth and killing off nearly everything.  Here a person’s value in society is, for the most part, measured by how close they are to the engine. (Spoilers ahead) Someone at the tail of the train can have their arm frozen off for protesting when their child is dragged away for work, while those in the front eat sushi and have access to a train car that is a huge night club.

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REVIEW: Fruitvale Station

Picture 11Fruitvale Station
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Written by: Ryan Coogler (screenplay)
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer and Ariana Neal

Even if Fruitvale Station doesn’t end up being the best movie of the year, it is by far one of the most important and powerful.  First-time feature writer/director Ryan Coogler takes an incident in Oakland where a young black man was needlessly shot by a police officer on New Year’s Day 2009, and chronicles his last day leading up to that killing.

Along the way he has created a movie that quietly does what few mainstream releases do: honestly depict black life in America without a white tour guide.  His camera follows Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), often literally, as he buys crab for his mother’s birthday, fights with his girlfriend and picks up his daughter from daycare.

The first half is sometimes needlessly artsy, with contemplative shots of Oscar sitting by the seashore or mourning the death of a pit bull that he sees get hit by a car.  These events in Oscar’s life were made up for the movie, much like many of the bank scenes in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon. Coogler’s artistic license by no means detracts from the movie’s power, but the scenes where Oscar is with his family are much more beautiful then those needless existential detours.

A shadow is cast over all of those happy moments, though, because the grainy footage of police shooting Oscar is shown before the fiction begins.  Fruitvale Station is a movie spawned from YouTube, just the like the protests and riots that followed Oscar’s on-camera shooting.  The lived-in aesthetic reminded me of great working class British filmmakers like Mike Leigh or Andrea Arnold, though Coogler adds more stylistic elements (slow motion, flashback) than those directors often do.

Drawing comparisons to those great directors after only one feature is a high compliment, though, and one that Coogler and his exceptional ensemble cast earn.  Dramatizing every day life is a difficult task, but Coogler’s script gives weight to every interaction without overbearing.  There are moments where the foreshadowing is too heavy (“You should take the train,” Oscar’s mother tells him), but when the incident finally arrives the pacing and abruptness and immediacy of the camera movements is emotionally overwhelming.

Fruitvale has an added impact because of the recent acquittal of Florida neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, who followed unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and shot him following an alleged confrontation.  I have not had the experience of being suspicious simply because of my race, but incidents like that and the one depicted here outrage me.  I grew up in a small town in Michigan where to this day you can still see Confederate flags flying if you drive around long enough.

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Whenever I hear people talk about incidents like this and say that race has nothing to do with it I think about those flags and the way I saw the one or two black students in my high school ostracized.  It is exactly that kind of suspicion that leads to deaths like this.  Black men are seen as inerently dangerous, though it’s the cop or the neighborhood watchman who often has the gun.

Oscar, crucially, is not portrayed as a saintly figure or a martyr.  His death resonates as even more senseless because his life seems so normal.  Had Coogler kept the movie even more embedded in his relationships with people the movie would have been very near perfect.  He avoids melodramatic close-ups or showy camera techniques in the shooting’s aftermath, though Octavia Spencer is still heartbreaking as Oscar’s mother.

When the movie abruptly cuts to black after his daughter asks where he is, the traditional “true story” text updates kick in along with real footage of her and other protestors outside Fruitvale Station.  The cop who shot him was sentenced to two years for involuntary manslaughter and got out in 11 months.  He said he mistook his gun for his taser, though why you’d need to tase a man who’s handcuffed and has another officer pushing down on his head and taunting him is beyond me.

Grade: B+

BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: The Help

The Help
Directed by: Tate Taylor
Written by: Tate Taylor (screenplay), Kathryn Stockett (novel)
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Bryce Dallas Howard

More than anything- its Civil Rights message, its 60s send-back, its self-awareness of both- Tate Taylor’s film adaptation of The Help is more proof that female-driven movies outside the rom-com purgatory are infiltrating the mainstream.   That is the edgiest thing about it by far. As many critics have already remarked, it is a fairly safe movie.  It tackles racism in Jackson, Mississippi in the time period surrounding the assassination of Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy.

Like AMC’s Mad Men, it dresses its stars (or the white ones at least) in irresistibly colorful dresses and tortures their hair into ridiculously smoothed-out contortions.  Unlike that show, it is aware of when it takes place.  This script, written by the director Tate Taylor, anticipates everything it’s going to throw at you.

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2012 Oscar Nominations: Matt’s Picks

I don’t really take the Oscars seriously, though they are interesting to look at and fun to lambast.  This year’s nominees are chock-full of the typical awards-seeking fodder (War Horse, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and the usual pleasant surprises (Tree of Life, Gary Oldman) and snubs (DiCaprio, Dunst).  These are my picks for this year’s ceremonies, though like I said, I don’t particularly care.

Best Picture

Nominees: War Horse, The Tree of Life, Moneyball, The Artist, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, The Descendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Help

Will Win: The Artist.  It’s a cute gimmick that should’ve been a short film, but I was sold on it winning as soon as people started bringing up that if it won it’d be the first silent to film to win since the actual Silent Era.  Blah blah blah.

Should Win: The Tree of Life was the most ambitious and beautiful film to be released last year, though it was lucky to score a nomination.  I also wouldn’t mind seeing Hugo take top honors.  It does what The Artist tried to do so much better.

Left out: Melancholia, A Dangerous Method, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Certified Copy and Young Adult are all more worthy than most of the nominees.

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REVIEW: The Help

The Help
Directed by: Tate Taylor
Written by: Tate Taylor (screenplay), Kathryn Stockett (novel)
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Bryce Dallas Howard

More than anything- its Civil Rights message, its 60s send-back, its self-awareness of both- Tate Taylor’s film adaptation of The Help is more proof that female-driven movies outside the rom-com purgatory are infiltrating the mainstream.   That is the edgiest thing about it by far. As many critics have already remarked, it is a fairly safe movie.  It tackles racism in Jackson, Mississippi in the time period surrounding the assassination of Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy.

Like AMC’s Mad Men, it dresses its stars (or the white ones at least) in irresistibly colorful dresses and tortures their hair into ridiculously smoothed-out contortions.  Unlike that show, it is aware of when it takes place.  This script, written by the director Tate Taylor, anticipates everything it’s going to throw at you.

Continue reading