Horror Review: Hold the Dark (dir. by Jeremy Saulnier)


Hold the Dark

Jeremy Saulnier, writer and director of Blue Ruin and Green Room, invites the brave and the curious to experience his latest creation steeped in the dark, foreboding Alaskan wilderness with a hint of the supernatural and folklore mysticism.

One could never accuse Saulnier of being timid when it comes to on-screen violence. While there’s countless other filmmakers who can and have put on the screen much more dynamic and violent sequences, Saulnier is more of the Peckinpah school of film violence instead of the Michael Bay. His films portray violence at its most unglamorous. His study of the sort of violent means man can inflict on another man are neither titillating or exploitative.

He sees man’s tendency towards violence as primal and something inherent in every man with the veneer of civilization the only thing holding it back. Man, in how Saulnier sees him, is not a civilized species but one playing at one and who feels more at home practicing such violent means.

Whether it’s as an itinerant caught up in an old school blood feud or a hardcore punk band fighting to stay alive against some Northwest backswood Neo-nazi skinheads. They all dig down deep to find that inner primal self that revels in the bloodletting even when they try to hold on to that small slice of civilized behavior they’ve been taught was necessary to survive.

With Hold the Dark, Jeremy Saulnier veers away from the much more straightforward narrative of his last two films and more like an ambiguous campfire tale that may seem obtuse for some. The very ambiguous nature of the plot will definitely confound some viewers who prefer their thrillers to be easy to follow with well-defined roles of protagonist and antagonist. While Hold the Dark veers from that very linear narrative focus of Saulnier’s last two films, it does share those films study of the blurred lines of who is good and who is bad.

The film starts off with retired naturalist Russell Core (played by Jeffrey Wright) being summoned by grieving mother Medora Slone living in a remote village in the northern reaches of Alaska. She’s just lost her young son to what she says are a pack of wolves who have also taken two other children prior to her own. She knows that he is also a wolf expert and has hunted and put down wolves in his past. She wants the animals who killed her son found and killed in order to have an answer and closure for her husband who is currently deployed in Iraq.

From the moment Russell arrives in Medora’s village of Keelut, Alaska the film slowly,  but surely moves from being a man-vs-nature story to something that’s more a dark fairytale whose ending will definitely not be happily ever after. This is where Hold the Dark will either grab a viewer and tell them to just hold on and experience the violent, albeit sometimes confusing, happenings in this grim and dark corner of the world or they will fail to hold on and remain confused to what’s transpiring. Wanting to know whats going on in concrete, by-the-numbers facts and story beats.

Like Saulnier’s previous two films, Hold the Dark doesn’t shy away from showing how brutal man can be when it comes to inflicting pain and damage on another human being. The violence comes sudden, brutal and horrifically efficient in how a body can fall apart.

The screenplay, this time written solely by fellow collaborator Macon Blair, does bring some very interesting questions as to whether violence (or darkness) is inherent in man that is held at bay by the “light” of civilization or is it something that is learned, picked up like disease and passed on from generation to generation. Is violence a natural cycle that is just part of what makes humanity human or is it one that can be broken and left behind and cured of. These are some questions that sometimes has no easy answer and that lends the film’s obtuseness that may frustrate some viewers. Yet, it’s the film’s very ambiguousness that allows the viewer to marinate on the questions and ideas proposed. Whether there’s an answer to these questions will be up to the viewer.

Where the film’s story may frustate, the performances by the cast is excellent from start to finish. Whether it’s Jeffrey Wright’s Russel Core who is the stand-in for the viewer and one who also shares some of the viewers befuddlement at the situation he has found himself in but unable to break free from. Then there are Riley Keough and Alexander Skarsgard playing the Slone’s. One the grieving mother and the other the husband away at war whose reaction to news of his son’s death pushes the film’s narrative from a whodunit and straight into horror territory (some would say slasher film trope with creepy mask included).

Hold the Dark may not be a straight progression from what Jeremy Saulnier has done before with Blue Ruin and Green Room, but it is one that shares similar themes and ideas. It’s a film that allows for Saulnier to dabble in the more esoteric but nonetheless still keep his signature style as an auteur of raw, primal violence. There’s nothing light or hopeful in this latest dark fairytale from Jeremy Saulnier, but then again fairytales were never happy and hopeful to begin with, but tales to try and explain the encroaching darkness and something to help one hold it at bay.

Film Review: Bridge of Spies (dir by Steven Spielberg)


Bridge_of_Spies_poster

I saw Bridge of Spies last weekend and I’m a little bit surprised that I haven’t gotten around to writing a review until now.  After all, this is not only the latest film from Steven Spielberg but it also stars the universally beloved Tom Hanks and it’s currently being touted as a possible best picture nominee.  (Mark Rylance, who plays an imprisoned spy in this film, is also emerging as a front runner for best supporting actor.)  The screenplay was written by the Coen Brothers.  (Oddly enough, films scripted by the Coens — like Unbroken, for instance — tend to be far more conventional and far less snarky than films actually directed by the Coens.)  Even beyond its impressive pedigree, Bridge of Spies is a historical drama and by now, everyone should know how much I love historical dramas.

And the thing is, I enjoyed Bridge of Spies.  I thought it was a well-made film.  I thought that Tom Hanks was well-cast as an idealistic lawyer who stands up for truth, justice, and the Constitution.  I agreed with the pundits who thought Mark Rylance was award-worthy.  It’s become a bit of a cliché for Amy Ryan to show up as an understanding wife but it’s a role she plays well and she made the most of her scenes with Tom Hanks.  Steven Spielberg knows how to put a good film together.  This really should have been a film about which I rushed home to rave.

And yet, at the same time, I just could not work up that much enthusiasm for Bridge of Spies.  It’s a good film but there’s nothing unexpected about it.  There’s nothing surprising about the film.  Steven Spielberg is one of the most commercially successful directors in history and the American film establishment pretty much orbits around him.  He’s good at what he does and he deserves his success.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a subversive bone in his body.  Bridge of Spies is a lot like his previous Oscar contender, Lincoln.  It’s very well-made.  It’s the epitome of competence.  But there’s not a truly surprising or unexpected moment to be found in the film.

And I have to admit that, even as I enjoyed Bridge of Spies, I still found myself frustrated by just how risk-adverse a film it truly was.  After all, we’re living in the age of Ex Machina, Upstream Color, and Sicario.  Bridge of Spies is a good movie and, in many ways, it provides a very valuable history lesson.  (The film’s best moments were the one that contrasted the U.S. with the cold desolation of communist-controlled East Germany.)  But, overall, it just didn’t make a huge impression on me.  It was just a a little bit too safe in its approach.

Film Review: Inherent Vice (dir by Paul Thomas Anderson)


Inherent-Vice-poster

One of the best things about Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, Inherent Vice, is that Doc Sportello, the private detective played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a real stoner.  He’s not one of those weekend smokers, who gets high on Saturday, brags about it on Sunday, and then spends the rest of the week interning at Vox.  For the entire 2 hour and 20 minute running time of Inherent Vice, Doc is stoned.  From the minute we first meet him to the end of the film, there is never one moment where Doc is not stoned.  Most stoner comedies feature a scene where the main character shocks everyone by turning down a hit because he’s dealing with something so important that he has to “keep his mind straight.”

Not so with Doc!

And, in Doc’s case, it definitely helps him out.  Inherent Vice tells a story that is so full of paranoia, conspiracy, and random connections that only a true stoner could follow it.  Much like Doc, the film often seems to be moving in a haze but occasionally, out of nowhere, it will come up with a scene or a line of dialogue or a detail that is so sharp and precise that it will force you to reconsider everything that you had previously assumed.

To be honest, if you are one of the people who watched Inherent Vice this weekend and could actually follow the film’s plot, then you’ve got a leg up on me.  (That said, I’ve still got pretty good legs so it all evens out.)  But, that’s not necessarily a complaint.  As befits a film based on a novel by Thomas Pynchon and directed by one of the most idiosyncratic filmmakers around, the twists and turns of Inherent Vice are deliberately meant to be obscure and confusing.  Characters appear and then vanish.  Clues are discovered and then forgotten.  Connections are hinted at but then never confirmed.  Inherent Vice ultimately serves a tribute to stoner’s paranoia and, as a result, the plot’s incoherence leads to a certain contact high.

The film takes place in California in the 1970s.  Doc is both a hippie and a private detective. His current girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon) works for the district attorney’s office and doesn’t seem to like him much.  His ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), reenters his life and asks him to help protect her new boyfriend, real estate developer Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts).  Mickey has disappeared.  Shasta disappears.  As Doc investigates, he wanders through a psychedelic Los Angeles and deals with an ever growing collection of eccentrics.

For instance, there’s Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), a former heroin addict who now runs a group that aims to promote “responsible drug use” among children.  She believes that her husband, Coy (Owen Wilson), is dead but actually Coy is a government informant who keeps popping up in the strangest places.

There’s Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), a decadent dentist who may or may not be responsible for all of the heroin entering California.

There’s Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro), Doc’s lawyer who specializes in maritime law.

There are Nazi bikers, new age doctors, a formerly blacklisted actor turned right-wing spokesman, a black revolutionary whose best friend was a member of the Aryan brotherhood, three FBI agents who keep picking their noses, the decadent rich, and, of course, the endlessly clean-cut and bullying officers of the LAPD.

And then there’s Detective “Big Foot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a celebrity cop and occasional television extra who seems to admire Doc, except for when he’s trying to frame Doc for everything from murder to drug smuggling.  Bjornsen is probably the most interesting character in the entire film and Brolin plays the character perfectly.  His scenes with Phoenix crackle with a comedic energy that bring the film to life.

As for the movie itself, it’s not for everyone.  A lot of very smart people are going to dislike it, much as many of them did with The Master.  In some ways, Inherent Vice truly is an endurance test.  Speaking as someone who enjoyed the film, even I occasionally found myself saying, “Okay, does everyone have to have a silly name?”  Inherent Vice is a long, rambling, and occasionally frustrating film but, for me, it still worked because of the strong cast and Anderson’s attention to detail.

Unbroken is a film that seems to take place in an entirely different world from Inherent Vice but these two films do have one big thing in common.  Both of them have been victims of the expectation game.  Many of the same people who thought Unbroken would be a surefire Oscar nominee also assumed, sight unseen, that Inherent Vice would be right there with it.  Much as how Unbroken has suffered for merely being good as opposed to great, Inherent Vice is also suffering for failing to live up to the expectations that were thrust upon it.  Inherent Vice is not an awards movie.  Instead, it’s a fascinatingly idiosyncratic film that was made by a director who has never shown much concern with playing up to the audience.  While Unbroken is enough of a crowd pleaser to still have a shot at some Oscar glory, Inherent Vice is the type of film that will probably never get nominated.  (I do have some hope that Brolin will get a supporting actor nomination but, even there, it appears likely that Brolin’s spot will be given to The Judge‘s Robert Duvall.)

Well, no matter!  Flaws and all, Inherent Vice will be a film that people will still be debating and watching years from now.

Trailer: Inherent Vice (Official)


Inherent-Vice-poster

The arrival of a new Paul Thomas Anderson film seems to always be a time for excitement. P.T. Anderson’ films can never be called boring. They’re all entertaining on some level for even those who don’t quite get Anderson’s quirky-style of storytelling.

I’ve admired all of Anderson’s films. Have I liked all of them? Not really, but I can understand why many anticipate each and every new film he releases like it was the second coming.

I have no idea what’s going in just going by the trailer, but it does have a noir vibe going for it. Plus, it has Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin.

Inherent Vice is set to premiere on October 4, 2014 during the New York Film Festival before going wide release on December 12, 2014.

Back to School #47: School Ties (dir by Robert Mandel)


School Ties

For the past two and a half weeks, we’ve been reviewing 80 of the best, worst, most memorable, and most forgettable high school films ever made.    We’ve been going in chronological order, starting with two films from 1946 and then working our way through the years that followed.  After 46 reviews, we are now ready to enter the 1990s.

And what better way to kick off the 90s than by taking a look at a film from 1992 that very few people seem to have ever heard of?

School Ties takes place in the 1950s, which of course means that everyone dresses like either James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause or Troy Donaue in A Summer Place.  It also means that the soundtrack is full of the same songs that tend to turn up in every film about the 1950s.  David Greene (Brendan Fraser) is a working-class teen from Pennsylvania* who wins a football scholarship to attend an exclusive prep school in Massachusetts.  At first, David struggles to fit in.  Not only are all of his classmates rich but they’re also extremely anti-Semitic.  However, David wins them over by playing hard on the football field and hiding the fact that he’s Jewish.  However, when the jealous Charlie Dillon (Matt Damon) discovers that David is a Jew, he reveals his secret and David is forced to confront his prejudiced classmates.

School Ties is one of those extremely well-intentioned films that’s never quite as good as you might hope.  With the exception of David and Charlie, the characters are all pretty thinly drawn and there’s more than a few subplots that really don’t really work.  For instance, Zeljko Ivanek shows up playing a sadistic French teacher who harasses one of Fraser’s friends (played by Andrew Lowery) and, as I watched Ivanek drive Lowery to the point of a nervous breakdown over proper verb conjugation, it occurred to me that I knew Ivanek was evil as soon as he showed up wearing his little bow tie and his beret.  (It’s also interesting how French teachers are always evil in films like this.)

That said, the message of School Ties is still a timely one.  On the surface, the message of “Don’t be an intolerant, prejudiced prick,” might seem pretty simplistic and self-explanatory.  However, every day we’re confronted with evidence that there are still people out there who don’t understand this simple concept.  As such, it’s a message that can stand being repeated a few times.

(Seriously, don’t be an intolerant, prejudiced prick.)

When seen today, School Ties is mostly interesting for who appears in it.  For instance, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Cole Hauser all show up here, 5 years before they would all co-star in Good Will Hunting.  One of the anti-Semitic students is played by Anthony Rapp who, a year later, would appear with Affleck and Hauser in Dazed and Confused.  Fraser’s sympathetic roommate is played by Chris O’Donnell.  As for Brendan Fraser himself, it’s a bit odd to see him playing such a dramatic role but he’s convincing and believable as a football player. It’s a good-looking cast and yes, you better believe that there’s a fight scene that takes place in a shower.  If you’ve ever wanted to see Brendan Fraser and Matt Damon wrestling each other while naked — well, this is the film to see.

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* Interestingly enough, David’s family lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania so I guess David could very well have gone to elementary school with Joe Biden and he may have family working at Dunder-Mifflin.

 

Film Review: Lincoln (dir. by Steven Spielberg)


I am a history nerd.

If you’ve read my previous reviews here on the Shattered Lens, that’s not necessarily a major revelation.  Still, before I talk about Steven Spielberg’s latest film, the sure-to-be Oscar nominated Lincoln, you should know where I’m coming from as a reviewer.  Cinema may be my number one love but history, and especially political history, runs a close second.  To me, there is nothing more fascinating than learning how those in the past both viewed and dealt with the issues that we still face in the present.  Whereas some people take pride in being able to name every player that’s ever played for the Dallas Cowboys, I take pride in the fact that I can not only name every President and Vice President in order but I can also tell you exactly who they had to defeat in order to serve in those offices.

I love history and therefore, it was hard for me not to feel as if Lincoln was a film that was made specifically for me.  Covering the final four months of the life of the 16th president, this film tells the story of Lincoln’s struggle to pass the 13th Amendment and to bring an end to the U.S. Civil War.  The film also documents Lincoln’s troubled marriage to the unstable Mary and his son’s decision to enlist in the Union Army.  Even though Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner don’t include any vampires*, there’s still a lot going on in Lincoln and it is to their credit that the film remains compelling despite the fact that everyone already knows how the story is going to end.

Daniel Day-Lewis is getting a lot of critical acclaim for his performance in the title role and, for once, I actually have to agree with the critics.  Abraham Lincoln is one of the most iconic figures in American history.  He is such an icon that, at times, it’s hard to believe that this larger-than-life figure, with his stove-pipe hat and his homely face, was an actual human being who lived and breathed and died like any other human being.  It’s easier to think of him in the same way that Jesus Christ used to be represented in films like Ben-Hur, as an inspiring character who is always standing just a little bit off-camera.  The brilliance of Day-Lewis’s performance is that he makes us believe that this legendary figure could actually exist with all the rest of history’s mortals.  For lack of a better term, Day-Lewis humanizes Lincoln.  His performance contains all the bits of the Lincoln legend: the fatalistic melancholy, the steely resolve, the quick humor, and occasional flashes of self-doubt.  The genius of the performance is the way that it takes all the legendary pieces and arranges them to create a portrait of a very believable man.

Though the film is dominated by Day-Lewis’s lead performance, the film’s supporting cast does a good job at bringing to life the people around Lincoln.  Whenever one film can manage to find roles for Hal Holbrook, David Strathairn, Jared Harris, James Spader, John Hawkes, and Jackie Earle Haley, you’ve got good reason to be optimistic about what you’re about to see.  Probably the film’s showiest supporting role goes to Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the firebrand abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.  Admittedly, Tommy Lee Jones gives a standard Tommy Lee Jones performance here but, especially when paired with Day-Lewis’s more internal acting style, the end result is still fun to watch.  Also giving a good performance is Sally Field, who plays Lincoln’s mentally unstable wife.  Historians have rarely been kind (or fair) to Mary Lincoln but Field makes her into a difficult but sympathetic figure.  Finally, even though the role of Lincoln’s son is not a challenging one, I’m always happy whenever Joseph Gordon-Levitt shows up onscreen.

Ultimately, however, Lincoln is a Steven Spielberg film.  Spielberg is a very good director but he’s also a very safe one.  The same can be said of Lincoln as a film.  The film’s cinematography, art design, and costume design are all brilliantly done and award-worthy but it’s still hard not to occasionally wish that Spielberg would have enough faith in his audience that he wouldn’t feel the need to have John Williams provide constant musical cues to let us know what we are supposed to be feeling about what we’re experiencing.  If you’re looking for hints of moral ambiguity, an unflinching examination of the rivers of blood that flowed on the Civil War battlefield, or for an in-depth portrait of Lincoln’s personal demons (and most historians agree that he had a few), you might want to look elsewhere.  This is not Martin Scorsese’s Lincoln.  This is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.  This is a film that is meant to be inspiring (as opposed to thought-provoking) and, for the most part, it succeeds.

I have to admit that I went into Lincoln expecting to be disappointed.  Ever since the film first went into production in 2011, websites like Awards Daily have been hyping this film to death.  Before many of them had even seen the completed film, online critics were announcing that both the film and Daniel Day-Lewis were the clear front-runners for the Oscars in 2013.  As anyone who has read my previous reviews on this site knows, nothing turns me off more than the bandwagon mentality of the critical establishment.  Often times, when a film is embraced as vehemently and as early as Lincoln has been, I feel almost honor-bound to be a hundred times more critical of it than I would be of a film like Step Up Revolution.

However, Lincoln is a rarity.  It’s a film that, for the most part, actually lives up to all the hype.

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*I imagine that little joke will cause a lot of confusion to anyone who, ten years in the future, happens to stumble across this review.  To you, future reader who has forgotten all about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I can only apologize.