Whiplash

WhiplashDamien Chazelle, USA, 2014, 107 min.

Whiplash is really about one idea: what you have to put yourself through in order to become the best at something. Not just good, but the best.

In this case, it’s jazz drumming. A story is told in the film of Charlie Parker who had a cymbel thrown at him during a recording session when he didn’t play up to snuff. He then went on to practice practice practice and become of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived.

Andrew (Miles Teller) wants to be one of the greats. Another Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich. He attends a prestigious music school, struggling to be noticed. In his personal life, he is surrounded by people who don’t understand his obsession and how important it is to him.

He meets a girl, and they hit it off, but things get a little awkward during their first date when they exchange stories about their school and their majors. Andrew wants to be a jazz drummer, and chose the most prestigious school to help him accomplish that goal. She is undeclared, and doesn’t quite know what she wants to do and where she wants to go with her life. He just doesn’t understand. They are in two different worlds.

But someone does understand Andrew, and that is Fletcher, the most feared and respected conductor at the school (J.K. Simmons). Anyone who gets into his ensemble, and makes it out, has a good shot at making it as a musician.

The film does a great job setting up the mythology of Fletcher. Even before Andrew gets chosen to join his group, we can feel the tension and excitement that his appearance brings.

The rehearsal scenes are great. Fletcher is a monster who beleives that to forge the next great musician you need to put them through hell. Does Andrew have what it takes to deal with that? To push himself that hard?

The film answers those questions as you watch, but at the same time it doesn’t answer the bigger one: does someone need to sacrafice so much to be great at something?

But that is what makes this film so interesting. It tells the story of Andrew, his drive to become great, and Fletcher, the person who is helping him or standing in his way. And that story is tight, intense and engrossing. But it doesn’t take a stand on that larger question, instead just let’s you think about it.

There are some small imperfections in the narrative, like some things that just happen in order to push the plot forward. But nothing that took me out of the film. For the most part the film is brilliantly executed. A great blend of style and substance.

The music scenes are edited almost like jazz music. Shots of the people, the instruments, the music notes, and the sweat, blood and gristle that go into the music. All cut to the beat. It was a refreshing way to watch musical performances, especially ones that are so integral to the film.

The film has a great ending, which builds upon some twists that did not feel forced, but naturally flowed from what the characters’ motivations and choices were.

And those characters were well-developed. The screenplay and the acting made them interesting and believable, but Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons made them memorable.  They have proven in the past that they can act, and this movie gives them great roles to make their own.

After watching this film, I felt like just sitting back in my chair and finally taking a breath. Maybe it hit me hard because I wish I could be more like Andrew. Or that, against my better judgement, I wish I had a Fletcher in my life driving me towards my goals. Whatever the case, Whiplash is a win on all fronts, and a movie that is in my thoughts long after its final note rang out.

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Interstellar

InterstellarChristopher Nolan, USA, 2014, 169 min.

Interstellar is a big film. Big in budget and big in scope. Directed with Christopher Nolan’s often heavy-handed style, it isn’t afraid to wrestle with some really big ideas and questions. The fact that sometimes it loses doesn’t lessen its impact.

I won’t go into too much detail of the plot, because the marketing did the right thing by only revealing the basics. Earth is dying, and humanity with it. One option, the last option, is to find another world for humanity to occupy. And since there are no suitable candidates in our solar system, we need to look elsewhere, hence the title.

The surface mechanics of the film are where potential problems lie. The direction, the dialog, the cause and effect that leads one scene to another. Some of it at points is a bit wobbly. Nolan has never been a great director. His directorial style is a bit self-important and scene construction is very basic. But he does manage to keep the film exciting and emotional, as well as set up some rollicking set-pieces.

The film does have some impressive images, too, especially in deep-space. But the IMAX cameras always cut away just a bit too soon, or an unnecessary insert is put right in the middle of the shot. But those are minor issues for a film that is concerned with some major ideas.

Some spoilers will follow from this point on, because the film’s ideas are very interesting to think about and discuss. And actually, that is exactly why the film works. The ideas it explores. The questions it asks. These are big hefty things that are presented in a big hefty large-budget production. That is very rare and very interesting to see. Comparisons made to 2001: A Space Odyssey aren’t far off.

I would break down the film into an exploration of three main questions.

How does humanity react when it’s on the verge of destruction? The Dylan Thomas poem “Do not go gently into that good night” is the oft-repeated backbone of that idea. Both globally, as a species, and on an individual basis, humans are raging against the dying of the light.

Professor Brand (Michael Caine), as the last NASA project manager, knows that the plan to save the current members of the human race is impossible. But he withholds that information in order to give a reason for our last astronauts to go on their final mission. One of whom was his own daughter. It’s described at one point as the ultimate sacrifice: destroying your own humanity in order to trick others into saving the species at the expense of the ones who are still alive.

There is also the story of the stranded astronaut Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), described as “the best of humanity”, who selflessly undertook a mission to explore a remote planet, knowing he would never return. When confronted with his very real demise, which is now a fact and not just an idea, he makes a very deliberate choice to save himself.

And of course the main character, Cooper, who chose to give up his family and everything he cares about for the slimmest chance of saving them. And what would he do if he was given a choice to see them again, or save the species but let them die without him?

It made me think about what I will do when my time comes.

At one point during the film, Professor Brand’s daughter, (Anne Hathaway) one of the astronauts, is given a choice of what planet to explore. They may only be able to reach one, and everything hinges on finding a suitable candidate. They are both promising, but one has an active beacon from a previous explorer. The other, where the man she is in love with had landed years earlier, has good data but no signs that he is still alive.

She wants to go to the planet that he is on, even thought he may be dead. Cooper, wants to go to the one where the data is just as good, but the previous explorer is probably still alive. He asks her, point blank, does she want to go to that planet because her lover might be there?

Yes, she admits, part of her does. Would love to see him again. But maybe that love is a quantifiable thing. Something science doesn’t quite understand yet. A real connection through some variation of space and time that allows two people to connect in ways not yet comprehended. Is that what allows her to feel, to know, that his planet is the right one? Is that connection what makes soul-mates?

The idea is explored more in the climax of film. Is a connection like that what allows Cooper to communicate with his daughter? Or does it just allow them to know that communication is possible? Is it even a factor?

The last idea that intrigued me is related to that scene. Where is humanity going? Where do we end up? In the long, long, very long view of our species, what are we capable of? The film posits that humanity of the very far future are the ones that are helping this generation through the crisis of a lifetime. They have learned how to control time and gravity, to essentially manipulate the fabric of the universe.

They know that our species is at a crossroads and needs help, and seeing all possible permutations of the past and future, they give clues that put the people in the right place at the right time for the breakthroughs to be made. For the right people to discover and understand the information needed to save the species.

Will we ever get to a place like that as a species? It reminds me very much of Clarke’s Childhood’s End, and Asimov’s “The Last Question”. Two thought-provoking pieces that examine the next stage of our evolution.

Interstellar is in good company with those big-idea science fiction stories. The ones that ask those big questions. And even if they are never answered, they are ideas that evoke valuable discussion. I watched the film with someone who did not care for it, but we both discussed the ideas in the film for a very long time afterward. There is a lot going on, as evidenced by the length of this review.

Does that make it a good film? It’s another question that will have different answers, depending on who you ask. I believe it does. That’s what art is there for. To provoke discussion, to make us question ourselves, and to give us hope for what the future might bring.

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Exhumed Films Twenty-Four Hour Horror-thon 2014

 

HorrorThon2014front

I was privileged to have been able to attend the best film event in the world for the seventh time in my life.

This year included fifteen 35mm films, dozens of trailers, vegan ice-cream delivery, prize giveaways, free morning cereal, no sleep and once in a lifetime memories.

Here are the line-ups from previous years:

2013 Line-up
2012 Line-up
2011 Line-up
2010 Line-up
2009 Line-up
2007 Line-up

As usual, we were able to try to guess the films based on the clues below, which was nearly impossible. (I guessed 1 correctly). The winner only guessed three correctly, but he walked away with a mondo poster of The Fog signed by John Carpenter for doing so.

In terms of movie quality, this was another consistent year. Only three films screened that I did not care for. The other twelve films I enjoyed, and a few I would say were stellar.

Now, onto the movies!

#1 – Stylish, star-studded cosmic  horror film worthy of rediscovery

A bizarre cult film based off of the famous horror novel of the same name. This early entry shows Mann applying his signature style to some of the set-pieces, which were really intense. But the film has severe pacing issues and feels like it is missing too much information to make the script comprehensible. I won’t even attempt to summarize it here. Still, it is a film that deserves an impressive presentation and I’m very glad to have seen it in 35mm to get the full effect. Great score by Tangerine Dream, too.

#2 – Influential Asian horror movie that created its own subgenre

I’m not too familiar with the sub-genre to comment on this film’s place in its history. But I can saw that as a stand-alone Shaw Brothers horror/sleaze exploitation film, it was definitely entertaining. 

A woman attempts to get the better end of a love-triangle of sorts by hiring a magician to create a love spell for her. The situation escalates quickly until a death spell (or two) are needed. Soon, a second magician enters the film to battle the first. It’s fun, goofy, over-the-top, and the pace never lets up. Highly recommended for those that appreciate films like this.

#3 – Quite possibly the dumbest giant monster movie ever made

It is quite possible! If you are a fan of the big guy and want to see all his films, than check this out. It’s about a young kid dreaming of monster island, meeting the son of Godzilla, and learning to overcome bullying.

You’ll probably enjoy it for its goofiness. Personally, I don’t have that attachment to the franchise. I hold the philosophy that if you’ve seen three of these films, you’ve seen then all. This print was dubbed, but what do you think it would be like watching this in the original Japanese?

#4 – Earnest entry in an iconic horror movie series that doesn’t live up to its predecessors, but is still infinitely superior to the terrible sequels and do-overs that followed 

Through some good producing, this film manages to get by due to being better than the sum of its parts. The script isn’t special, but it does provide plenty of opportunity for creepy thrills: A young cross-country driving couple run across a family of cannibals in the Texas countryside.

Add in Viggo, Foree, and some solid direction from B-movie studio-horror journeyman Jeff Burr and you have yourself a slick and entertaining horror film. Definitely better than most of the series.

#5 – Fun, rarely screened sci-fi/horror inspired by 1950s-era atomic monster movies

I have never heard of this film before but I’m glad I got to see it. It played really well in the theater due to a variety of factors, but what I liked about it most was it’s adherence to that great style and character set-up used in 70’s disaster films.

This one involves a poisonous plant infecting someone with a parasitic worm. It leads to a full scale monster film set in a quarantined hospital. It has great build-up, good characters, and some impressive effects. The action was very poorly directed, but watching the story unfold was a joy.

#6 – Creepy “living dead” fan favorite

Brutal! I never realized how brutal and viscous this film was until this viewing. Based on the novel by Stephen King, it tells the story of how every parent’s worst nightmare can lead them to do unspeakable things.

Mary Lambert directed the hell out of this. From working with the creepy kid, to perfectly employing flashbacks and dream sequences. The story is a simple idea, but that is why it works so well. The sister with spinal cancer? The funeral scene? That ending? Unforgettable stuff.

#7 – Silly, low-budget horror sequel to the silly, low-budget original which played at a recent Horror-thon

The original is very nostalgic for me, having been one of the scariest viewing experiences of my young life. Without the nostalgia factor, watching it as adult, is is revealed to be charming but forgettable.

That is exactly what the sequel is like, although this one was tinged with a lot more humor. The gate is reopened by a teenager attempting to get wishes out of the demonic lords. But of course, every wish has its price and pretty soon everyone is scrambling to close the portal for good. Cool creature effects in this one!

#8 – Infamous and brutal 1970s gore/exploitation film that lives up (or down?) to its reputation as one of the sleaziest and most disturbing movies of all time; you’ve been warned

I don’t know what the film-maker’s were attempting with this one. Yes it’s graphic and sleazy, but the director/star  really appears to be trying to make art. Not that it works. This tale of a ex-con making snuff films for revenge could have been much more straightforward if they were only trying to tap the sleaze market.

As it stands, the film straddles both worlds: half failed indie early-Scorcese film, half poorly made gratuitous exploitation film. It doesn’t work as either.

#9 – Ridiculously bad, anachronistic “period piece” horror film from a divisive director that folks tend to love or hate… or love to hate

Oh, Andy Milligan, why do people hate you so? I don’t have much experience with the director. I have only seen Blood, which I quite enjoyed, and this one.

It involves an evil priest who gets money for his church by dealing with vampires, corpse robbery, and murder. The low-budget is charming, but the performances are a bit too poor. Blood had something going for it with plot, character, and spirit. This one might have been able to produce that magic for me if it wasn’t 1:30am.

#10 – Goofy, absurd, and yet strangely charming 1970s creature feature

This film seemed to be made by and for an older crowd. No one in the movie seemed to be under fifty years old. In fact, there was a very awkward and funny love scene between two of the elderly leads.

There isn’t much to it. A swamp creature is awakened and starts killing people. The cops and some intrepid civilians attempt to stop it. Poorly made in many ways but stupid and good-natured enough to be entertaining.

#11 – Gruesome, satirical horror/exploitation favorite

This one I unfortunately couldn’t stay awake for. That wasn’t the fault of the film, just a fault of the screening time. (3am-ish?) The first half appeared to be a perfectly serviceable slasher film, with some good character set-up and tension building.

I drifted out for the payoff and awoke to a freeze frame of hairy woman-creature jumping out at the screen and then the credits rolling. I was intrigued enough to want to see this one again in its completion.

#12 – Clever and enjoyable supernatural “sequel-in-name-only” that may actually be a bit better than the original

I have not seen the original, but this sequel was a staple of my pre-teen childhood since I had a copy on VHS that I used to watch. Back then, though, I wasn’t watching it as a film fan.

Now that I’ve seen it as an adult, I can safely say that this story of ghostly possession is a clever and enjoyable film. Mary Lou died at an accident during prom. Now she comes back to possess perfectly innocent Vicki, turning her into a sexy and evil instrument of revenge.

#13 – Obscure, gory 1980s slasher film

Usually I’m not a slasher-movie fan. There has to be some technical chops or interesting twists to keep me engaged. I don’t just like the films of this genre because of the tropes. 

This one definitely has the chops and the twists! The tropes are there, sure, but there is a lot more as well. It’s about twins, where the evil one tricks everyone into thinking that his good brother is the one that has been committing the murders. It culminates in a bloody night of killing and an ending that had me applauding at how off-the-wall it was.

#14 – Totally awesome, totally creepy “Animals Attack” movie

Spiders. Lots and lots of spiders. Tarantulas to be exact. They are invading a small Arizona town. Who could possibly be the only one to stop it? Yes, you are right. William Shatner!

This was a lot of fun, and definitely creepy if spiders aren’t your thing. And it has that great 70’s feel that is comprised of practical effects, energy, and lack of rules. Caution: Hundreds of spiders were harmed in the making of this film.

#15 – Zombie movie fan favorite that should be a fun film to finish the festival

I had just watched this recently, and have seen this in the theater a few years ago. But that doesn’t diminish how much fun it was to see again on the big screen.

Alien slugs land on earth, invade people’s brains, and turn them into zombies. Generic plot, yes, but told with so much humor and talent that the whole things feels fresh. All performances are great, but Tom Atkins is a standout. It’s definitely a classic for a reason.

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The House of the Devil

HouseOfTheDevilTi West, USA, 2009, 95 min.

It’s October, and for me that means it’s time to look for that one really great modern horror film. To that end, I recently watched Ti West’s well-received House of the Devil.

It’s a period piece, taking place in the 1980’s, with a great title-sequence right out of that era. It’s an admirable idea to make a period piece on a low-budget, and for the most part it works. Unfortunately, it is about the only thing that works for this film.

Jocelin Donahue plays Samantha, a college student who is in need of some quick cash to secure her optimal off-campus living arrangement. That leads her to accept a slightly strange baby-sitting job from Mr. Ulman, the always creepy Tom Noonan. Her friend (Greta Gerwig) drops her off at his country home, leaving her alone with her new charge.  Things are not as they seem and eventually the true nature of her employers are revealed.

If you are thinking that the plot seems really thin, then you are correct. There aren’t many more moving pieces than what I already described. The plot or characters do not bring anything new or interesting to the table. Maybe that would have been okay if there was some style to the proceedings, but that is also sorely lacking.

The film is severely padded. Scenes are too long, or not needed at all. Shots constantly overstay their welcome by a second or two. There just isn’t enough plot to fill up the runtime. Maybe Ti West was trying to build atmosphere but there wasn’t much to be had with what he was giving the audience.

Unfortunately, this is poor film-making. The plot is razor-thin. The direction and editing are trying to mask that fact, but instead of distracting us, they just highlight what is missing. This is the third film from Ti West (The Innkeepers, Trigger Man) that I have felt this way about. The one-note plot ideas are just not enough to make a film with, and House of the Devil is no exception.

 

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Tusk

tuskKevin Smith, USA, 2014, 102 min.

Kevin Smith has had an interesting career. Clerks and Mallrats introduced us to his clever dialog, juvenile but fresh humor, and lack of directorial artistry. He has had some great ideas since then, but when Red State rolled around it was clear that things had changed.

Red State was a straight horror film, but it was stylish, had good performances and a knock-out ending that was really interesting even if it didn’t quite work. It had its problems for sure, but it was a step in a new, more mature direction for Smith. At least in my opinion. In Tusk, Kevin Smith moves even more in that direction, and the results, albeit a bit messy, are unique, captivating, and very fun to watch.

The story involves a lewd podcaster (Justin Long, obviously playing Kevin Smith), travelling to Canada in order to meet a famous youtuber who accidentally cut off his own leg on video. When that interview falls through he finds a more interesting subject via a flyer in a bar bathroom. An old man with stories to tell and, as it turns out, some big secrets, too.

The introduction of the old man, played with relish by Michael Parks, moves the film into a strange poetic-splatter-horror zone. Parks carries that section of the film with his considerable talent. But Smith keeps things interesting himself by supplying lots of interesting dialog and stories as well as some odd but affecting directorial choices.

Justin Long’s girlfriend, for example, has a great monologue straight into the camera. One very long take full of emotion that on paper may be out of place but instead adds to the tone. To balance scenes like that out, the third act introduces comic relief from an over-the-top French-Canadian investigator played by Johnny Depp (uncredited). These segments do go on too long, but they add to the off-the-wall feel to the film. And the perfect ending for this film cements the whole thing place.

If any film ever needs the right tone to work properly, it’s this one. It can’t be played too serious, or too goofy. There is a fine line that the film needs to walk in order to pull it off. And Kevin Smith doesn’t just walk the line. He draws his own crazy one that works just as well. It’s a unique experience, which, nowadays, is very rare. Kevin Smith’s immaturity hasn’t disappeared, it’s just matured, and Tusk shows it off perfectly.

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