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The relationships that exist between people – and the motivations that drive them – are often the best fodder for storytelling. The reasons we do the things we do and the people for whom we do them can be the purest distillation of our character.

Novelist Donald Ray Pollock has a knack for evoking the dark side of that equation; his books are packed with the brutality and evil that people do even while feeling utterly justified in doing them.

That sense of physical and emotional violence is omnipresent in “The Devil All the Time,” an adaptation of Pollock’s 2011 novel of the same name. Directed by Antonio Campos from a screenplay he co-wrote with his brother Paulo, the film is set in midcentury West Virginia and Ohio and follows a sprawling collection of different characters through narratives whose connections – both overt and subtle – constantly ebb and flow toward one another.

It’s a story of sin, of the evil that even the pious are capable of if they can convince themselves of the righteousness of their acts. It’s a striking representation of the time and place, to be sure, while also featuring an incredible collection of talent in the cast. But that unrelenting representation of the dark side of human nature, the ongoing parade of terrible people doing terrible things for terrible reasons – it’s a lot. The bleakly entangled constancy of sex and violence and power and religion is frankly exhausting, though the excellent performances and quality filmmaking make it worth the undertaking nevertheless.

Published in Movies

Genre filmmaking has long been used as a tool for social commentary. The trappings of sci-fi or horror or what have you give cover for filmmakers to deliver messaging that might be met with more resistance other arenas of expression. The extrapolation and/or exaggeration of typical mores can say a lot about the world.

“Antebellum” – currently available via VOD – certainly TRIES to say something, though whether it is ultimately successful is debatable. The movie, written and directed by first-time feature filmmaking duo of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, attempts to bring together the past and present of racism and white supremacist ideas in service of a horror story. Unfortunately, using real-life horrors as the basis for fictional ones requires a delicacy and sophistication that “Antebellum” can’t quite manage.

It’s a well-made film, with good performances. It just doesn’t deliver on the underlying ideas; instead, it reads as using historical atrocities as simple horror fodder, largely content to stay on the surface of the overt rather than diving fully into the ideological depths. This means that “Antebellum” feels more exploitative than it ought; it seems unlikely that that was the intent, but it rings wrong regardless.

Published in Movies

It’s tough to argue against the superiority of streaming services and the like versus the old days of physical video rentals. The vast selection and ease of use are certainly huge plusses. That said, there’s something that we’ve lost with the disappearance of the Blockbusters of the world.

Specifically, that evening stroll through the aisles to browse through the lurid and garish covers that marked the many low-rent horror offerings. There was something delightful about examining the over-the-top box art, knowing full well that the contents would be barely reflected (if at all) by those images, and picking one up anyway.

Those kinds of lo-fi thrills are a bit tougher to come by these days, which is why it is such a joy to discover a movie like “Rent-A-Pal,” currently available through VOD outlets. It’s a throwback, a period piece set in 1990 that is wonderfully evocative of that specific time and place. Written and directed by Jon Stevenson, it’s a retro thriller that digs into the power of loneliness and the lengths to which we will go in order to alleviate that feeling of isolation.

It’s a film that wears its influences – narrative, aesthetic and otherwise – proudly, with a look and feel that perfectly captures that classic video store seediness while also providing a much more compelling and competently-made product.

Published in Movies

You never quite know what you’re going to get with a Charlie Kaufman project. Well … that’s not ENTIRELY true. You know that you’re going to get something unconventional and bizarre and challenging, but you don’t know what specific flavor of unconventional/bizarre/challenging you’re going to get.

Kaufman’s latest is “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” a film he both directed and adapted from the Iain Reid novel of the same name. It is typically atypical, a difficult-to-define work of psychological not-quite-horror that is unsettling to watch even while requiring the viewer’s close attention.

The film is marked by the fluidity and flexibility we’ve come to expect from Kaufman; even while watching, one can never be quite sure what they are watching. Reality and fantasy blur together, reveling in the active and deliberate narrative inconsistency while also painting a compelling portrait of a relationship that is not at all what it seems to be. It is smart and well-crafted and unrelentingly weird – classic Kaufman.

Published in Movies

It might seem that writing a thriller is relatively easy. You could be forgiven for thinking so – there certainly are a fair number of them populating bookshelves out there. And there’s a tendency to underplay their merit, to consider them as somehow less than because of their subject matter.

Rest assured – writing a book, any book, is a monumental task. And writing a thriller that works, that puts the pieces together in a way that viscerally clicks? That takes real skill.

Skill like that possessed by Jen Waite.

Waite’s new book “Survival Instincts” (Dutton, $26) offers precisely the sort of well-crafted tension that we seek from a thriller. This story of three generations of women – daughter, mother, grandmother – isolated and endangered for reasons that none of them understand is engrossing and tightly paced. It captures the fear that springs from a danger that feels both predestined and utterly random while also engaging with the courage that comes from the desire to protect our own, no matter the cost.

A good thriller is a high-wire walk, one that requires an author to maintain complete control at all times. Finding the ideal balance between character and conflict requires both delicacy and bravado – and Waite pulls it off. We move from present to past and back, shifting perspectives from timeframe to timeframe and person to person, all in service to a chilling, haunting tale.

Published in Style

Every once in a while, an unanticipated confluence of circumstances results in a piece of art inadvertently becoming representative of a moment in time. That isn’t to say that the book/movie/song isn’t resonant on its own terms, but that outside factors can impact how a work is received.

“She Dies Tomorrow,” written and directed by Amy Seimetz, is just such a work. It’s a visceral and hallucinatory ride through a woman’s inexplicable epiphany regarding her own mortality and how that epiphany transforms everyone that she encounters. It is vivid and raw, a roiling collection of colorful confusion, the kind of movie that would be memorable in any environment.

But in THIS environment – in a world where a raging pandemic has left us isolated and exhausted – this film hits like a sledgehammer. This movie is an exploration of metaphysical contagion, of how fear and paranoia and sadness and fatalism can infect us. It wasn’t made with the current moment in mind, yet it could not be a more apt representation of that moment.

Published in Movies

Creating tension – genuine tension – is one of the most difficult things to effectively do in a film. It’s about finding the right buttons to push, yes, but also about discerning the best manner in which to push them. It comes down to the choices made by the filmmaker. When those choices don’t work, the result is flat and leaves the viewer disinterested and disengaged. When they DO work, however, the sky is the limit.

The new film “7500” is very much the latter – both literally and figuratively.

The film – currently streaming and available for free on Amazon Prime Video – is the story of a pilot confronted with an attempted hijacking. Taking place almost exclusively within the confines of the cockpit of an airliner, it is a claustrophobic and taut piece, a bundle of exposed-nerve tension that is rendered all the more powerful by the limitations of its setting.

Anchored by a phenomenal performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “7500” is a story about a man being pushed to the breaking point – and beyond – by circumstances outside of his control. His survival and the survival of his passengers are reliant on his making the right choices at the right time. And thanks to the efforts of Gordon-Levitt and first-time feature writer/director Patrick Vollrath, we’re there right alongside him – muscles tensed, breath held – until the bitter end.

Published in Movies
Saturday, 20 June 2020 21:08

End of life - ‘Exit Plan’

Who decides when a life ends?

It’s a complicated question, packed with moral and ethical nuances. Should a terminally ill person be permitted to choose the manner in which their existence ceases? And should the state allow outside actors to participate in that process? How can anyone know that a person is truly, fully committed to the idea?

“Exit Plan,” a new Danish film from director Jonas Alexander Arnby currently available on demand, initially looks like it could be prepared to wrestle with the complexity of those questions. However, it never quite manages to find its footing, with Rasmus Birch’s script failing to maintain any kind of real consistency. It is chronologically jumbled and tonally confusing, never quite finding the sweet spot where everything clicks.

There are moments – largely driven by the legitimate talent of leading man Nicolaj Coster-Waldeau (of “Game of Thrones” fame – but they are far too few for the film to fully work. That said, the film’s aesthetic is compelling and again, Coster-Waldeau is great. Still, it’s clear that there are some big ideas bubbling away under the surface, but the languid pacing and scattershot timeline don’t allow those ideas to be fully realized.

Published in Movies

We’re all searching for something. The problem is that we don’t always know what that something is.

Our quests for understanding – internal, external or both – aren’t always defined solely by ourselves. Oftentimes, particularly when we’re young, our personal journeys toward knowledge are unduly influenced by the people and places with which our lives are entangled. What we seek becomes conflated and even replaced by the pursuits of those close to us – sometimes without our even knowing that it is happening.

This confusing, convoluted search is central to “The Lightness” (William Morrow, $26.99), the debut novel from Literary Hub editor Emily Temple. It’s a fractured, fascinating look at a teenage girl’s pursuit of understanding – understanding of her circumstances and understanding of herself. Structurally daring and prosaically deft, the narrative moves back and forth across time (though all is past from the perspective of our frank and forthright narrator), capturing the fluidity and futility of memory.

It’s also a story of the complex sociological minefield that is friendship between teenaged girls, delving into the eggshell-stepping delicacy that can come from the deep and not always fully conscious desire to connect with those who may or may not have your best interest at heart … and are perfectly willing to co-opt your journey in order to advance along their own.

Published in Style

When we think of sci-fi movies today, we tend to think of big, effects-driven events. We’re thinking about nine-figure budgets aimed mostly at either advancing franchises or originating them, the odd name director standalone project notwithstanding. These films allow for grand visual, visceral representation of the futuristic/alien/whatever worlds of their stories – and that grandness can cover up a lot of flaws.

But there’s a whole other tradition of cinematic sci-fi, one that can tell a commanding story without the bells and whistles. These films are the one that convey science fiction narratives through ideas, finding ways to engage and entertain without the trappings of spectacle. They are smaller films, with far less room for error – there’s no massive effects budget to distract from any missed choices. These indie offerings are much more warts and all.

“The Vast of Night” – newly streaming on Amazon Prime Video – falls very much into the latter category. The film, directed by first-timer Andrew Patterson from a script by James Montague and Craig Sanger, is a retro sci-fi delight telling the story of a fateful night in 1950s New Mexico where two young people find themselves in the midst of a mystery unlike anything anyone in their small town could ever have imagined.

The film leans heavily into its lo-fi high-concept underpinnings, going so far as to use a “Twilight Zone”-esque TV show called “Paradox Theatre” as a framing device. This isn’t about visual flourishes – though Patterson shows his clearly considerable stylistic talent in a few spots – so much as density of storytelling. The dialogue is thick and the pacing is deliberate, all in service to a narrative that unfolds in enigmatic quietude. It is atmospheric and creepy – and very good.

Published in Movies
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