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The Killing of a Sacred Deer – Review

18 Nov

There are certain film makers working right now where it’s pretty much guaranteed that anything they release will be a completely original piece of work. One of these film makers is the one and only Yorgos Lanthimos. My first experience with Lanthimos was with his surreal family drama/coming of age story called Dogtooth. Just last year I had the pleasure of seeing his dystopian romance titled The Lobster, which made me laugh as much as it made me think. Continuing this string of totally oddball films is his latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which almost slipped under my radar. I watched a trailer for it the day before seeing it, but still didn’t really have a sense what it was about. I’m glad I went in that blind because what I saw was one of the most disorienting movies I’ve seen in a long time and I’m thrilled I didn’t miss it.

Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a surgeon that has used his skills to help create a great life for himself. He’s celebrated in the community and has a really nice house with his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and his two kids, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). He’s also taken a teenage boy who is in his daughter’s class, Martin (Barry Keoghan), under his wing since he’s had a hard time coping after his father died during heart surgery. The odd part is that Steven was the surgeon and he’s may or may not be hiding something from Martin concerning that day. When Steven’s children begin to get mysteriously ill and just keep getting worse after many different doctors can’t diagnose what’s wrong with them, it becomes clear that Martin may have something to do with it, and his ultimatum to make it all stop will change the Murphys’ lives forever.

The first thing I absolutely need to touch on is how this movie is written and how it is performed. From the very first line of dialogue, I knew something was weird. Everyone spoke so literally and used such a dull, matter of fact way of delivering these lines. It was very hard to get used to because pretty much no one talks like that. It made for some very cold characters that felt like they were miles away from the reality we are all living in. There’s one scene where Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell both have a break down in their kitchen, and that was really the only time any true honesty or emotion was being conveyed. To many people, this will be a major deal breaker. This isn’t a straightforward narrative with straightforward characters. These characters almost feel programmed to say what should be said in a certain situation instead of saying what they feel. It’s almost sociopathic, but that’s just what this movie needs.

Not only is the acting very cold, but the cinematography seems almost non existent. This film is shot in hues of gray and blue with other, brighter colors coming in rarely. The locations are almost bare of any kinds of decorations, besides what is necessary for the characters to use to live, and this just mirrors their lack of any kind of moral or personal connection to the world they live in. They merely exist, and up until this point, existed free of consequences. The striking score of the film completely clashes with the bare cinematography and set design and succeeded wonderfully at sending shivers down my spine, even if the image was nothing all that off putting. The entire movie is made to make the viewer feel uncomfortable. Finally, and possibly most importantly, the camerawork is disorienting in the best possible way. It flows behind characters, often times going out of focus or losing them in the frame some other way. Zooms end with people on the far side of the screen instead of firmly in the center. It will also often times linger too long on somebody or something, just to add a new layer of creepy that otherwise may have slipped beneath the surface.

Finally, I can’t praise the originality of Yorgos Lanthimos and The Killing of a Sacred Deer enough. We have a film made by an artist that is totally unafraid of controversy and backlash. This movie doesn’t pull any punches and will leave you confused and wanting more. There are things that happen in the world of this movie that would surely be explained in any summer blockbuster, but Lanthimos isn’t interested in answering questions. He’s interested in telling a story that defies all logic, but demands you pay attention to the straightforward way he tells it. This isn’t an easy film and it can’t really be compared to any other film, other than maybe something else Lanthimos has done. He has a style all his own and I can’t wait to dive down this rabbit hole again.

I absolutely loved this movie. I loved this movie more than I thought I would and it’s been sneaking around in the back of my mind since I saw it. It’s hilarious, disturbing, awkward, cold, and ultimately original. When I see a piece of work done by a film maker who isn’t afraid to break any and all rules, I feel a sort of respect that’s rare. The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn’t for everyone, and it is admittedly hard to get into at first, but once you find its rhythm, I dare you not to remain hooked.

Final Grade: A

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Cold Mountain – Review

3 Sep

Civil War movies fascinate me because I’ve always seemed to gravitate towards World War II films so I feel like I’ve missed out a little bit. It’s a really intriguing era with a lot of potential for some exceptional production design with how America looked and functioned in this mid 19th century time. In 1997, a novel called Cold Mountain was released having been written by Charles Frazier. It went on to win the National Book Award, but I don’t really hear too much more about it. In 2003, it was adapted for the big screen by acclaimed film maker Anthony Minghella, who before this won the Academy Award for his directing of The English Patient. I had some reservations going into Cold Mountain, but it actually surprised me. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is a solid Civil War epic that deserves some attention.

With the South talking of seceding from the North, tensions in the small North Carolina town of Cold Mountain are high. Many people want the war to happen, but the new town preacher, Reverend Monroe (Donald Sutherland), and his daughter, Ada (Nicole Kidman) are staunchly against it. Amongst these talks of war, Ada finds peace with a local man she meets named WP Inman (Jude Law), and the two quickly fall for each other. Before anything can be done with their feelings, North Carolina secedes from the Union and most of the men of the town enlist to the Confederate Army, including Inman. As the years of the war drag on and hope for the South seems bleak, Ada struggles to survive in the town and only gets by with the help of a local woman (Kathy Baker) and her new tough talking friend, Ruby (Renée Zelwegger). Meanwhile, Inman is injured in a battle and after receiving a letter from Ada decides to desert and make the long journey home to Cold Mountain. Along the way, Inman sees all sorts of kinds which gives him a perspective of what he’s been fighting for and how the war has torn apart so many lives.

That was a pretty tough summary to write because there’s so much that happens in Cold Mountain. It’s a long movie that clocks over two and a half hours, which was actually one of my main worries. I’m all about watching a long movie that has a grand scope, but I’ve seen some recently that don’t really know what to do with a story of that magnitude. Luckily, this isn’t Minghella’s first rodeo and he knows just how to handle a story like this. I left out a lot of characters and subplots, because there’s no way I’d be able to fit it all in to one paragraph. This is truly an epic film and it’s one that works. Inman’s travels through the different regions is extremely entertaining because he sees so many different kinds of people. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a reverend who gets banished from his town for getting a slave woman pregnant, Giovanni Ribisi plays a man who is using the war to his advantage in treacherous ways, and Natalie Portman is a woman who’s lost nearly everything. It’s a journey that has layers and is at times heartbreaking, touching, and hilarious. This may sound cheesy, but it really felt like an adventure.

While this adventure through the crumbling South, Ada’s own personal adventure in Cold Mountain is just as interesting. It’s a town in utter despair with the casualties of war posted on a board in the middle of town. The town seems to be dying just like the men that went off to fight, and watching it happen can prove for some rough viewing. The Civil War has always been seen as a war where Americans killed their fellow men, and that macrocosmic idea is taken to just one town where the violence of the war bleeds into this area that hasn’t seen any actual battle. It’s a different kind of struggle for survival and even though it isn’t as epic a journey as Inman, it never bored me. This is another surprising thing about this movie. It’s nearly 3 hours but I was never bored.

This is a huge cast so forgive me if I can’t get to everyone. Jude Law and Nicole Kidman both do very good work in this movie and their chemistry is believable even though the amount of screen time they share compared to how long the movie is is very small. A lot of the minor characters really steal the show however. Both Hoffman and Portman are two that really stand out, but I also have to give credit to Brendan Gleeson and Jack White, of all people. The real stand out performance, however, is Renée Zelwegger, who won the Academy Award for her performance, and rightfully so. The only thing that doesn’t always work for me in this movie is the writing. It gets a little too theatrical in moments that require some down to earth dialogue. It’s a very melodramatic movie at times and sometimes it works, but sometimes I found myself cringing.

Cold Mountain was a surprisingly affective movie that I don’t hear too much about. It has an incredible cast that are part of a really entertaining, but sometimes difficult story about how war can tear a nation to shreds. The only thing that didn’t sit well with me was some of the melodramatic writing that just felt forced and was probably only necessary so they’d have a clip for the Oscars. Still, that is a minor issue that doesn’t hurt the movie to bad. It’s an epic adventure that has all the ingredients for a memorable film.

Final Grade: A-

Dogville (2003) & Manderlay (2005) – review

17 Oct

I can’t stay away from the works of Lars von Trier, the self-proclaimed “greatest film maker in the world” and the “Mad Genius of Denmark.” I could continue with all of the nicknames this eccentric guy has garnered over the years, but I’d like to instead look at two of his films that are supposed to be the first two in a trilogy. The trilogy is called USA: The Land of Opportunity and the two films are Dogville and Manderlay. Now, I knew nothing about these movies, other than they were made by Trier, but what I got out of them were two piece of experimental film that I haven’t quite seen the likes of before.

First, let’s tackle Dogville.

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Somewhere neatly tucked away in the Rocky Mountains, near an abandoned silver mine, is the small town of Dogville. Tom Edison, Jr. (Paul Bettany) is the moralist and philosopher of the town who does his best to teach the people of Dogville the proper way to live. Late one night, Tom hears gunshots and finds Grace (Nicole Kidman), a mysterious woman who has just so happened to stumble onto the hidden little village. It turns out that Grace is on the run from the mob for some unknown reason, and a logical place for her to hide is this is hidden town. It takes a while for the townspeople to agree to let her stay in Dogville, and the only condition that she can is that she does labor for all of the people living there. This works well for a while, but soon the residents of Dogville begin to take advantage of Grace to the point of abuse. What they don’t realize is the dangerous secret the Grace is holding behind her unassuming demeanor.

Let me set the scene for you. I put in my DVD of Dogville, grabbed some food, and set myself up for what I thought was going to be a pretty run of the mill movie watching experience. Let me just reiterate that I had no idea what this movie was going to be like. When I saw what the movie actually was, I thought that I wasn’t going to make it through the entire three hour run time. Basically, the entire thing takes place on a stage with very little set design or props. It’s as minimalist as you could possibly get. As the film progressed, I realized that this is really the only way to tell this story, since Dogville isn’t about the the town itself, but more so the residents. Because of the minimal set, we can see into their houses for some of the most private moments and really learn what their characters are all about. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this is one of the most brilliant films that Lars von Trier has ever made.

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Dogville isn’t just about visual flair, though. There’s also a really tricky story filled with memorable acting to back it up. Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany really steal the show as their characters. Supporting actors like Lauren Bacall, Stellan Skarsgård, and James Caan also do great, and let me just say that John Hurt should narrate everything. Sorry Morgan Freeman. As far as the story goes, it’s subtle and effective. It plays out like an interesting character study of the evils that can broil in small towns like this, and the whole thing kind of plays out like some strange experiment in human psychology and morality.

The only thing I really have to add is that Dogville is a fantastic movie watching experience and may be my favorite of all of Lars von Trier’s works.

The sequel, Manderlay, continues Grace’s story not long after the events of Dogville. Even though it’s made in a similar style, my reactions to the film were far from that of its predecessor.

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Now on the road with her father (Willem DaFoe), Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the rest of the travelers happen upon an Alabama plantation called Manderlay. What shocks Grace is that this plantation is filled with slaves, even though at this point slavery has been abolished for 70 years. As soon as Grace arrives at the plantation, Mam (Lauren Bacall), the head of the plantation dies and Grace, angered by the idea that there are still slaves, writes a new contract for the people there. The white people living on the plantation become responsible for the hard labor, while the black slaves are allowed to live a more free life. Grace begins to see improvement, but there are many secrets of Manderlay that she doesn’t know.

While Dogville was a subtle film with a strange story that somehow made perfect sense, Manderlay practically bashes you over the head with it’s preachy morality tale. Even though the set remains similar to the first film with its minimalist style, that is just about the only similarity. Bryce Dallas Howard is nowhere near as affective as Nicole Kidman, in fact she just comes off as ignorant and annoying for pretty much the whole movie. The most interesting characters are the former slaves of Manderlay, with some of the most important of those characters played by Danny Glover and Isaach de Bankolé, but sadly their talents are underutilized and Howard’s played up too strong.

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To me, it sort of seemed that Trier didn’t care about Manderlay as much as he did Dogville. While some people may find this idea very upsetting, some of the main themes of these movies are very anti-American. That’s fine with me as long as I don’t feel like I’m getting preached to by someone who thinks they are far superior than us commoners. That’s what watching Manderlay felt like. It’s true that it is still a visually beautiful movie, but that’s all I can really say about it.

While Manderlay is a pretty rotten movie in my opinion, Dogville is a genuinely fantastic piece of experimental drama. The style of these movies take a little bit to get used to, but once you do Dogville is definitely worth your time, if not just to experience a different style of film making. Manderlay, however, can be left well enough alone.

The Paperboy – Review

5 Oct

I would assume that when people think of the film maker Lee Daniels, there are a few movies that immediately pop into their heads. These movies are Precious and the more recent The Butler, a movie which Daniels seemed to love putting his name all over. I would venture to guess that not many people would think of his mainly under the radar film of 2012, The Paperboy, a film based off of novelist Pete Dexter’s book of the same name. While being nominated for Golden Globe and also competing for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, this film remained relatively unheard of, which kind of seems to make sense after watching it.

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In the small bayou town of Lately, Florida, investigative journalist Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and his partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) are hired by Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) for a rather strange job. The two are to investigate an old crime and hopefully prove the innocence of Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a death row inmate who has been charged with murdering a sheriff and with whom Charlotte has fallen madly in love with. Soon, Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) makes himself part of the investigation, but can’t seem to get past his feelings towards Charlotte, who is becoming more and more obsessed with Hillary. The investigation is met with a seemingly endless run of obstacles including racism, unexpected violence, and secrets that none of the characters are willing to have come to light.

Now, I’ve never seen a movie by Lee Daniels before, but just judging from The Paperboy, I love his style. This movie takes place in the deep south during the 1960s, so there’s plenty of stylistic choices to go with. One way would be to make a film that simply and realistically depicts what this would look and sound like. The other way, or should I say the more interesting way, would be to create a hyper-realistic film shot on 16mm to give it a gritty look, make all of the colors faded, and have all of the actors look like their dying from heat stroke. That is how Lee Daniels makes this movie look excellent. It actually looks like it was produced in the 1960s, so I have to give Daniels a lot of credit there. Not only that, but I could almost feel the heat and humidity that seemed to be radiating from this movie.

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I also have to give Lee Daniels and Pete Dexter credit on the uncompromising way they tell the story. I was actually kind of surprised that the MPAA let this movie fly so easily cut the way it is. Lets just say The Paperboy went places with its story that I was neither expecting it to, but also it went places that it probably shouldn’t have. I like that the film makers liked to take risks, since not taking them can sometimes lead to a boring movie. The problem that it poses here is that the movie got way too distracted and often times took itself way too seriously. It was too often that the plot strayed way too far from the crux of the drama, and too close to the angsty spirit of Jack. By the time we get to the climax of the movie, I didn’t feel like I was all there cause I wasn’t even quite sure how we got there. It would have been much more interesting to focus on the criminal investigation with these over the top characters, but instead we get a sort of twisted, lustful romance that took itself way too seriously and detracts major, major points from the movie as a whole.

What saves the movie from falling too deep into the pit of awful is the performances by each and every one of the actors. Of all the Disney stars that have come out of that hell hole over the past few years, Zac Efron is the one that shows the most potential, and he handles the thickness of this movie well. As it would be expected, Matthew McConaughey owns every scene he’s in, even though I feel like he was a tad underused. John Cusack plays a creep almost too well, and I haven’t been as frustrated with a character as I was with Kidman’s in quite a long time. Going back to what I was saying about the story, I just wish they stuck more with McConaughey and Oyelowo’s characters since I found what they were doing much more interesting and involving.

I’ve heard a lot of negative things about The Paperboy, but at the same time I’ve heard people who’ve loved it. This is one of those movies where you really love it or you hate it, but for me it just isn’t that simple. I didn’t think that this was a great movie, but it was a good homage to pulpy, entertaining trash. I’m not sure if this is what was expected, but that’s just the feeling I got from it. This would have been a really good movie if the story was more concerned with the drama that actually felt important and interesting. Instead, it gets distracted with some random scenes of steamy lust and young adult angst. Just know what you’re getting into if you decide to watch this movie.

Stoker – Review

15 Apr

I feel confidently in saying that when we were all children, we’ve heard a fairy tale in one shape or form. I’m also pretty confident in saying that we’ve probably heard many. For me, it was strange to learn that the fairy tales that I loved growing up were pretty much watered down versions of the original story. This leads me to my review of Stoker. To me, this film is a fairy tale that isn’t watered down, but presented exactly how it should be. Add in a little bit of flair that would please Alfred Hitchcock and that’s exactly what Stoker turns out to be: a twisted fairy tale of repressed psychological issues and a family that can only be described as deeply disturbed.

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India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a teenage girl who was born with senses that are far beyond normal and a personality that leaves her distanced from everyone else except her father. When her father dies on her 18th birthday, India’s mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) is left alone and is completely unstable. Her loneliness is soon appeased with the arrival of India’s mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) who has apparently been travelling around Europe and most of the world since India was born. As Evelyn becomes more and more infatuated with Charlie, India begins to look at him with an increasing amount of disdain and suspicion, especially when people around the house and neighborhood begin to go missing. As the mystery thickens, even India, herself, can not help but become increasingly drawn to Charlie which may lead to India releasing what’s been bottling up inside her for eighteen years.

The collaboration that made Stoker possible is as strange as the plot is. The screenplay was written by Wentworth Miller, who was made famous by being the lead role in the television show Prison Break. In the director’s chair is the Korean film maker Park Chan-wook, known for directing films like Oldboy and Thirst. Composing the music is one of my favorite film composers Clint Mansell, known for his exceptional score to Requiem for a Dream. Finally, producing this film is Ridley Scott and Tony Scott, which is the last movie he ever produced before his death. When I was watching the credits for this film, I really couldn’t believe how strange of a combination this all was, but it was an excellent combination nonetheless.

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While everyone involved makes Stoker what it is, there’s no denying that some of the people involved had more to do with how good the movie turned out than others did. What I’m trying to say is that although Miller’s screenplay is essential to the film, it’s really Park Chan-wook’s impressive visuals that make the film more than an ode to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. What is visually present is, at times, more interesting than the story itself. Park has created a modern day Victorian/Gothic style that is really interesting and works with Miller’s screenplay. As cool and disturbing as the story is, Miller’s dialogue just isn’t very good which means that the times where there were no dialogue had to be extra intriguing, and they were.

Along with Park Chan-wook, major credit is given to the cast for portraying their characters in the eeriest of ways. Mia Wasikowska is quiet and broods throughout the entire movie which really gives us a hint of what she’s really capable of. Nicole Kidman shows us an unbalanced widow in a not very obvious way which makes her character interesting. My personal favorite is Matthew Goode who keeps that shit eating grin on his face the entire movie and makes the audience really love just how smug and secretive he really is. Another star of Stoker is actually someone related to the post-production phase. This person is Nicolas De Troth, the editor of the movie. The editing is so precise and seems so meticulous that it really makes this film one of a kind when it comes to the post-production. The sound design is also spectacular, really keeping with the idea that India’s senses are heightened. Even the smallest sound is heard perfectly, which made me feel like I could really hear what she was hearing. From the sound to the visual cues and cuts, Stoker was just a marvel to watch even though the Academy would go nowhere near something as disturbing as this movie is.

Stoker is definitely one of the best movies to come out in 2013, and it’s really a shame that it wasn’t recognized at all by the Academy. But, we all know that the Academy Awards are all very P.C. and Stoker is pretty much the opposite of P.C. That’s what I love it though. That and just how well made it is. I had no doubt in my mind that it was going to be a darkly beautiful film, but actually seeing it made me realize just how much detail was put into constructing this modern day Hitchcockian fairy tale. That description should be enough to make anyone curious enough to check this movie out.