The Skeleton Twins

I know it’s only October, but I can safely say this is one of my favorite movies of 2014.

Usually I would include a trailer here so you could get a taste of the film, but I honestly cannot stand the trailer for The Skeleton Twins because I think it gives away some key comedic moments. It’s a trailer that is trying to pitch this film to you as a moody romp with Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, but The Skeleton Twins is much more than that.

Image respectfully borrowed from ew.com

On the same day that Maggie (Kristen Wiig) decides to end her life with a fistful of pills, she gets a call from a LA hospital saying that her twin brother, Milo (Bill Hader), had been found in a bathtub with his wrists slashed. But he’s OK. Ah, the connective powers of twins.

Maggie and Milo haven’t spoken to one another in ten years but in an effort to reconnect with her brother Maggie invites Milo to live with her and her husband Lance (Luke Wilson) in upstate New York. Returning home shakes both of the twins up in different ways. Milo faces his first love, Rich (Ty Burrell), and tries to find his place where he’s never felt accepted. Maggie then has to stare down the facade of domestic bliss and figure out what she really wants from life. Together, the twins take a stab at repairing their relationship and themselves, but ten years is a long rift to mend.

The Skeleton Twins is a darkly funny drama that will tickle your funny bone one minute and then ask you to take it seriously in the next. But it works.

The balance between humor and seriousness is finely honed by writers Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson.

For example, the lip-sync scene is one of the best scenes in modern cinema. The balance and humor and subtext are all there. It’s a funny scene, yes, but what you read into it is what makes the sequence amazing.

Image respectfully borrowed from imdb.com

At a Sundance Q&A panel, director Craig Johnson, said that sometimes the hardest part of making this film was in reeling in Wiig and Hader’s natural instinct towards comedy. Johnson said that their comedy would feed off one another’s making a scene larger than life, but that wasn’t always the goal for The Skeleton Twins. Johnson skillfully directs his stars so that the comedy and hard-hitting drama ebb and flow in a way that feels true to life.

Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are perfect in this film. Both of them are giving what may be the best performances of their careers to date.

After years of playing a caricature of a gay man on SNL (don’t get me wrong I love Stefan), Hader steps up to portray a genuine and complex reflection of a gay male. Hader’s Milo is a heartbreaking character that charms you in heavy doses as well as small measures. Wiig is Hader’s ideal counterpoint; she plays Maggie with the quiet desperation of the bored and disengaged.

Image respectfully borrowed from indiewire.com

The Skeleton Twins is also a film that deals with the lies we tell one another (and ourselves) in order to get by. A great deal of the poignancy of this film comes from the awareness of these lies from the characters as well as the audience.

The whole film is populated by blatantly imperfect people who you quickly come to love. Luke Wilson utterly disappears in his performance, and I mean that in the best way possible. Wilson makes Lance look like a regular guy they pulled off the street and gave lines to: his manipulation of awkward silence is Wilson’s greatest asset in this film. And Ty Burrell manages to be endearing in his role as Milo’s closeted former lover/ high school teacher.

If you live in an area that plays independent films regularly, try to track down The Skeleton Twins before it leaves theaters. There’s a tonal quality to the film both in visuals and content that makes it ideal for fall.

I give The Skeleton Twins 5 movie bubbles.

The One I Love

Charlie McDowell’s Sundance feature debut has managed to preserve its air of mystery into its theatrical release. The One I Love (2014), on the surface, appears to be a romantic comedy of errors. Yet, the film unfolds like a Rubik’s cube: seemingly simple at first and increasingly complex to solve.

Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) are trying to save their marriage, both equally bewildered by how they’ve changed. Their therapist (Ted Danson) sends them on a last resort weekend trip that he promises will change their marriage for the better. When Sophie and Ethan arrive at their idyllic retreat, they are charmed by the sprawling grounds and seem to be connecting once more but the shadows of their former selves may continue to drive them apart.

Fans of “The Twilight Zone” will feel right at home with this film. It has the same tonal quality and mysterious air that made the TV show compelling.

Image respectfully borrowed from yahoo.com

Throughout the film there is this building tension for  scarier, more horror-driven actions and ending, but that tension successfully drives the story forward even when the expected violence does not appear. No, the strength of The One I Love lies in the fascinating oddities presented as fact, as in another Duplass brothers collaboration, Safety Not Guaranteed (2012).

Cinematographer Doug Emmett creates beautiful warm and hazy tones that add a surreal yet comforting quality to the film. It’s Emmett’s use of light and washed-out color that keep the film from feeling too threatening, which would have lessened the contemplative moments in the film and those are not to be missed.

What is perhaps most impressive is that you don’t realize that there are only three principal actors driving the film until the credits roll, because The One I Love feels so full of character and talent.

Image respectfully borrowed from flavorwire.com

Elizabeth Moss sells this film. Duplass is good but Moss is better. Her shy inquisition into the unknown, her brimming hope, her depth of sadness all radiate from Moss, though her movements are controlled and precise. Duplass’ power is in creating a convincing duality, and The One I Love would have floundered without this skill.

Danson only appears in the film for about ten minutes, since it is truly Ethan and Sophie’s story, but he plays his part as catalyst well. Writer, Justin Lader, shows his mastery of story by successfully weaving a complex tale that does not require an abundance of actors. Not an easy feat.

Neither is wit. And The One I Love is smart and funny: not in a laugh-out-loud way but in the snort-and-chortle sense.

Image respectfully borrowed from variety.com

This film left me with lots of logistical questions that will tangle your brain in knots, but I mean that in the best way possible. I’d have loved some more answers from the filmmakers,  but I cannot stop thinking about this film and there is something compelling in that puzzle quality.

I need to see The One I Love again. To consider other angles and catch hints previously missed. It has been awhile since I’ve felt this twitchy or haunted by a good film and that is exciting!

The film is rated R for language, some sexuality, and drug use. This is a crock. Content-wise this film should be PG-13.  It’s probably an R for dropping the f-bomb, but the “strong language” does not stand out.

Overall, I’d give The One I Love 4 movie bubbles.

Second Thoughts On Snowpiercer

I first saw Snowpiercer at the Busan Film Festival this past October. Rumors were already flying about Harvey Weinstein’s desire to cut twenty minutes from the film, and people were clamoring for tickets to this premiere. Seeing the film in a packed theater, in Korea no less, made the entire experience more exhilarating. Every plot twist and dab of horror seemed heightened. I felt like I was seeing something wholly original. Then too there was the opportunity to hear Bong Joon-ho speak about his film. He was such a great speaker: humorous and humble but really engaged with his audience.

Me being a happy camper in Korea for the Busan Film Festival.

Me being a happy camper in Korea for the Busan Film Festival.

I left Busan floored by Snowpiercer and very confused as to where any cuts could be made. If you’re not familiar with Bong Joon Ho’s other films (The Host, Memories of Murder, Mother, etc.), he’s a concise filmmaker with every scene having some kind of narrative purpose. The idea of the film being cut was more horrifying to me than the contents of the film, which is filled with a good bit of gore and society driven dread.

So when Snowpiercer was released in America, I knew I had to see what had happened to the film. And I had a totally different experience as a movie goer from my time in Korea. There were maybe eight people in the room and while they were responsive, nothing compares to the high of a packed theater with everyone’s emotions fueling the crowd. I also felt that all the twists that were so shocking the first time around seemed rather obvious the second time. So here are my thoughts on Snowpiercer after two viewings, a lot of feels, and a bit of distance.

*Spoilers ahead. Watch your step.*

Bong Joon Ho’s first English film is a new kind of apocalypse tale a la chaos theory. Remember Jurassic Park? Ian Malcom? Ringing any bells? Basically it’s anything that can happen will happen. A highly controlled system like the life-giving train in Snowpiercer will inevitably find a way to disrupt the “natural order” of things. The film is set in a 2031, where humanity has frozen the planet in a botched attempt to cure global warming. The only survivors are the precious few that boarded an entirely self-sufficient train that circles the globe; its constant motion preventing its deep freeze.

Inside the train, a class system based on initial ticket purchase is highly enforced. The Head lives in luxury while the Tail live stacked upon one another in squalor. Whenever someone from the Tail steps out of line, they are punished in a brutal frozen fashion with the removal of limb. Despite the environment of fear, unrest continues to grow and a rebellion is brewing with Curtis (Chris Evans) as its reluctant leader. At his side are his second in command, Edgar (Jaime Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), whose child has been stolen by those at the Head, and the wizened guru of the Tail, Gilliam (John Hurt). Together with an untutored but dedicated army of Tail members, Curtis storms up the train in order to confront the mysterious engineer Wilford (Ed Harris).

The story is based on a French graphic novel Le Transperceneige. Some of the artwork from the novel even appears in the film as the sketches of the tail’s Painter (Clark Middelton). The graphic novel aesthetic is strong throughout Snowpiercer and you get the sense that some stills could have been pulled directly from a comic panel. Not in the showy way of Sin City or 300, but the comic book effect is still there.

Image respectfully borrowed from indiewire.com

Bong Joon Ho has said that he also wanted the film to feel like a video game in that there were levels and boss fights. Each car that Curtis and his crew progress through is shocking in its increasing luxury and full with gruesome challenges. In particular the scene where the Tail warriors take on a car full of masked, leather wearing butchers. While that may at first seem like a comical description, the sequence is bloody and terrifying and so unique to Korean cinema right now. If you were at all a fan of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, the butcher sequence is akin to the hammer in the hallway tracking shot in its brutality and slight humor.

The key to enjoying this film is to not question anything. Don’t question the train car  that replicates the ocean. Don’t question the rave car right before the engine room. Don’t question the polar bear. You have to give yourself over to the world of Snowpiercer or else the logic of the film quickly starts to falter. The first time, that unquestioning attitude is easy to immerse yourself in. On repeat viewing, it gets harder to ignore the logistical gaps. My ultimate feeling on this film is that it’s exciting and pulse-suspendingly good, but it does not hold up well to repeat viewings.

Seeing it a second time, you catch more small details that give away the ending, which kind of drove me nuts while making me feel like a smarty-pants for catching them. For instance, the little hand gestures that reveal the horror of the train’s mechanical survival. They’re all over the place!  And the second time around the horror and tears  of some of the dramatic plot points were missing for me. The first time around, I cried when Edgar died and when Curtis confessed that he had killed Edgar’s mother. Big fat tears too. The second time all of that drama seemed like a natural conclusion (i.e. Curtis asks Edgar about his Mother way too much for it to be casual) and my eyes remained dry.

For all the rumored angst over cutting the film down, I don’t recall much missing. Maybe a snippet of dialogue here or there, but I’m not even sure that any cuts were made. So that’s the good news, because you need all the information you can get to keep up with this film. Yet it’s a two-hour movie that does not feel overly long because of its fast pace.

Image respectfully borrowed from kotaku.com.

Putting aside the potential narrative issues, you need to see this film at least once for the acting alone. If you’re not aware of Song Kong-ho–a truly phenomenal Korean actor–this movie is a great introduction to his skills. Another gem of his is The Good, The Bad, and The Weird, which is another great one for those just dipping their toes into foreign film. Chris Evans shows off a grittier edge to his action star capabilities, and Octavia Spencer is at her sassy best. Then Tilda Swinton throws down a standout performance as Mason, the obsequious, rat-like steward of the train. Total side note, but I love that that woman is not afraid to get ugly. She can be breathtakingly beautiful in an almost alien way and then turn around and blow an audience away with an abominable looking character. Mini-tangent over.

Having seen many of Bong Joon Ho’s films, I think Snowpiercer is my favorite. It’s a transnational production with financial backing from South Korea, US, Czech Republic, and France. The actors are also from a variety of countries, but most of the key players are either American or British. Still the core of this film is Korean in that it feels like the exciting stuff that’s coming out of Korean cinema right now, just slightly adapted for more Western palettes.

I would definitely recommend this to viewers who are a little intimidated by foreign films because 95% of Snowpiercer is in English but you get a taste of a different cinematic style. If you like what you see then there are other excellent entry points to Korean cinema out there and they’re easy to get a hold of. I’d also recommend seeing Snowpiercer in theaters because it is stunning on the big screen. But I’m not sure I would add this to my personal collection of DVD and Blu-rays. So take from that what you will.

Conflicted Americana in The Steel Helmet

Before The Steel Helmet shows any hint of location or character, the words, “Dedicated to the U.S. Infantry” appear on the screen. Such sentiment gives the initial impression of shiny patriotism, but the film reveals itself to be gritty and complicated in its approach to Americana. The Steel Helmet was the third directorial effort from former soldier Sam Fuller, and exemplifies Fuller’s favored use of controversial themes such as isolationism, atheism, and racism. Despite difficulty with the U.S. Army over perception of the military in his film and accusations of communism from critics, The Steel Helmet would launch Sam Fuller’s career.

The vehicles for Fuller’s success as a writer/director are his characters. The Steel Helmet follows an unprepared group of American soldiers who are tasked with holding a Buddhist temple against a large Communist force during the Korean War. Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans) is the crass, wizened veteran who stumbles upon the untutored patrol and reluctantly commits to helping the unit in hopes of shore leave. Within the troop are Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo) and Cpl. Thompson, whose presence as minorities launch Fuller’s dialogue on racism in America.

The Communist Korean Major (Harold Fong) attempts to divide the troop by pointing out the racial injustices in America to Tanaka and Thompson. Both men respond with a blind patriotism—my country may be flawed but it’s my country—that illuminates the issue without properly dealing with the conflict. Even the young Korean boy, known only as Short Round (William Chun), participates in his own from of blind patriotism as he belts out his national anthem, which ironically sounds like “Old Lang Syne.” Fuller seems more interested in pointing out issues in the military and society than having his film offer a solution.

Sgt. Zack is the mouthpiece for all the –isms Fuller brings forward in The Steel Helmet. Zack isolates himself from the group, uses racist phrases like, “gook” or “buddha-head,” and openly mocks any form of piety. He also furthers the idea that drafted men are not of the same quality as men that enlist, which brings him into conflict with the drafted group leader, Lt. Driscoll (Steve Brodie). On paper, Sgt. Zack is reprehensible and impossible to connect with. Yet actor, Gene Evans, brings out vulnerability in the character that makes the sergeant the ultimate anti-hero.

If anything, Sgt. Zack’s helmet is the main character for Sam Fuller. Just like Sgt. Zack, it is standard issue but damaged. When Lt. Driscoll asks for the honor of wearing Zack’s hat, Zack denies him, saying he is not worthy of the trade. After Driscoll dies in the final battle, having saved Sgt. Zack from debris, Zack willingly trades his battered helmet to lie over Driscoll’s grave. While the trade seems symbolic and moving, it resolves nothing. Sgt. Zack and the decimated troops are forced to join a new patrol, on a new mission. They continue and leave their comrades buried in foreign soil. While the film opens with Fuller’s dedication, The Steel Helmet closes its narrative with the director’s somber reminder that, “There is no end to this story.”

The Art of Storytelling in Short Term 12

It’s post-midterm time in my film reviewing class, which means that our word limits get bumped up to a max of 575. This class has forced me to watch several emotionally driven dramas that I had spent last year avoiding because I knew they might clobber my psyche. Each one has proven to be a well crafted and, yes, emotional experience. So without further ado, here is my first review with the new word limit.

With all the spectacle and grand capabilities of blockbuster films since the advent of computer generated effects, it is sometimes easy to forget about the quiet stories. And in a number of unfortunate cases, storytelling—the crux of the film medium itself—is being sacrificed for these extravagant digitized images. Independent films these days are akin to The Little Engine that Could churning up a narrative mountain. Stripped of a studio’s monster budgets, independent filmmakers are given the chance to hone the craft of weaving fiction. A prime example of the independent market’s grasp of strong narratives is writer/director Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 (2013). As a writer, Cretton frames his film with acts of storytelling, which then furthers Short Term 12’s larger narrative. As a director, Cretton coaxes his actors to live and breathe their character’s stories. The combination of these two abilities is what makes Short Term 12 a quiet story with a loud impact.

As mentioned, Short Term 12 begins with the charming tall-tales of Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who is sharing his exploits at the residential treatment facility to a new co-worker, Nate (Remi Malek). Mason’s story functions on two levels: one it introduces humor into what the audience comes to understand as a difficult environment and; two it acts as a framing device for the film itself. As the climax of Mason’s story nears, a kid comes bursting out of a building, screaming, and running for the exit. Mason, Nate, and Grace (Brie Larson) catch the errant child and hold him as he calms down. The true function of these social workers is revealed; they are to be anchors in the storm for these young adults with no mooring and very turbulent emotions. This scene also subtlety suggests a theme of the film which is that escape is not always the best way to handle pain.

Despite Mason’s engaging introduction, it is Grace who is the lead protagonist of this film. She is quiet, yet confident in her professional life in ways that she cannot manage to bring to her personal life. Grace’s strained romantic relationship with Mason runs parallel to her remarkably open interactions with the troubled teens of the film, which serves to illustrate her own personal scars. In particular, Grace’s connection with Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) provides a jagged mirror to Grace’s past that she is not ready to look at. As an actress, Larson is in command of her performance, providing emotional distance and depth that she allows the audience to gradually sink into. The young Kaitlyn Dever shows promise as she throws herself into the role of an angst ridden teen. Dever and Larson both had supporting roles in The Spectacular Now (2013) and are given an opportunity to play to each other’s strengths as reluctant equals in Short Term 12.

Overall the film deals expertly with the large-scale issues of abandonment and alienation as every character is allowed a voice at some level, and Cretton’s biggest achievement is that he respects these multiple voices that reflect real conflicts for troubled teens. The hand-held quality of the cinematography further contributes to that sense of reality as if Short Term 12 were a series of moments that Cretton and cinematographer, Brett Pawlak, just happened to capture. In short, the film is a natural, nuanced piece of storytelling. No effects needed.

Why Gravity Keeps Me Down

With a grand total of seven Oscars this year, Gravity has been labeled the best of the best by those in the know. Believe me, when I first saw it on the big screen in 3D, I was captivated; held at the edge of my seat by a raw anticipation and chest hammering fear for Dr. Ryan Stone. The further I got from the movie theater’s glow though, the more issues I began to see with the film. There seems to be a push-pull of good and bad with Gravity that, for me at least, unbalances the film overall when I look back at the experience. Here are what I think are the central problems…

Problem #1: Gravity is a cinematic experience. At first glance that sounds like a mighty fine compliment, and if you’re sitting in a plush theater seat then it is absolutely a good thing. Here it means that the film just does not translate as well to a smaller screen. Once upon a time, movies were formulated to be seen on large screens only and then the television and home viewer markets emerged at pivotal moments in the 50’s and 80’s respectively that changed movie-watching forever. Movies now have to think about making profits on the big screen and many kinds of small screens. That glorious immense feeling of space that Gravity does so well lacks its overwhelming quality on any other screen but a theater. Unless you’re one of the lucky few that have a full size movie screen in your home, this one just won’t feel the same.

Problem # 2 Ah, ah, AHHHHHH. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that roughly 80% of the dialogue in this movie is Sandra Bullock screaming. And who can blame her? She’s drifting in space! While Sandy B (as I affectionately call her) is a phenomenal actress and makes the meager dialogue in Gravity feel like it holds emotional weight, if you think about the dialogue it is bland and sophomoric. It’s a credit to Sandra Bullock that she made such empty dialogue feel full, which leads me to…

Problem # 3 Poor story points. The father-son Cuaron duo wrote a story that is bare bones, leaving the technology to fill in the gap. I’m not really sure what Dr. Stone’s job is on Earth or why she ended up in space. There are throwaway answers to these questions given by the film but deeper answers might have connected me more to Stone’s character. She’s a little too aloof and off-putting when we first meet her and it takes a good long while for that distance to close. Then there is the random inclusion of Stone’s dead four year old daughter as a central story point, which is an obvious emotional ploy. How do we make a panicky, inept astronaut likable? We’ll give her a dead loved one. Oh, even better that loved one is a young child who died traumatically. Let me be clear: movies are made to manipulate our emotions, but when the moves are too blatant they don’t work.  As a viewer it felt like a smack in the face. Not OK.

Problem #4 It’ll look old in ten years or less. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when one places technology in one’s film, the piece is already dated. Unfortunately, this is a constant problem for movies. There are already scenes in Gravity that look too computerized and are painfully unreal. Much has been said about what Cuaron and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, have accomplished with this film, and I’m not denying that they did wonders with CGI but I don’t think this film will age well. This may be a thought for a different post but I think the Academy needs to have an award for successful use of CGI, because I’m not 100% willing to call what Cuaron and Lubezki did cinematography. Think about Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993): the tech was wondrous for its time but now looks a tad dated. Jurassic Park used CGI but did not overly depend upon it; there is still storytelling that does not need the dinos in every scene, which is why it’s still a classic. Gravity’s lack of narrative flair only emphasizes the technology, which will make the aging process more apparent.

Problem #5 Heavy thematic material makes the audience out to be stupid. Holy cow, can we hammer the theme of rebirth home any harder? Stone’s fetal position in the space station with an umbilical-like tether floating around her. Stone’s scream of “I want to live!”  And then her crawling out of the water and relearning how to walk in the end. If I’m sitting in a theater thinking about how obvious the theme is, that is not good storytelling. Let me reach for it, for goodness sake! Themes are amazing elements in stories both on the screen and on the page, and part of the fun of themes is sussing them out. Subtlety is key. Treat your audience like they’re intelligent and they’ll treat your film the same way.

All of these issues  lead me to the conclusion that Gravity is only watchable once. That is not to say that Alfonso Cuaron has not achieved something special and of the moment, merely that I do not think Gravity will stand the test of time. Perhaps I will be wrong, but we’ll have to have that conversation in another ten years or so.