Thursday, January 21, 2016

Cinematic Voices Unleashed: Lee's Best Movies of 2015






2015 proved to be a unique and unpredictable year, personally and cinematically. The first movie I saw was from one our finest filmmakers, and yet it was plagued with the worst reviews he has ever received. I'm still scratching my head over that. The year concluded with another of our finest filmmakers letting me down for the first time. It was bound to happen, but the impact still stings. In between, there were many surprises and disappointments. Directors I champion disappointed me, others made a comeback and, most shockingly, franchise movies upped the ante and delivered some of the most satisfying experiences of the year. You won't hear me complain. I'm just thrilled to still be around to go to the movies. Cheers!


Dishonorable Mention (in alphabetical order): Avengers: Age of Ultron, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl


Wish I'd Loved (in alphabetical order): Big Game, Burying the Ex, Crimson Peak, Goodnight Mommy, The Harvest, The Hateful Eight, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Results, Room, She's Funny That Way, Tomorrowland, While We're Young


Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): '71, Carol, Clouds of Sils Maria, Creep, Digging for Fire, The Final Girls, The Gift, Grandma, Inside Out, It Follows, Krampus, Maps to the Stars, Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, Slow West, Tangerine, Unfriended, The Visit, What We Do in the Shadows


20-11

20) The Big Short dir. Adam McKay
19) Buzzard dir. Joel Potrykus
18) The Walk dir. Robert Zemeckis
17) Queen of Earth dir. Alex Ross Perry
16) Best of Enemies dir. Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon
15) Creed dir. Ryan Coogler
14) Phoenix dir. Christian Petzold
13) The Look of Silence dir. Joshua Oppenheimer
12) Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation dir. Christopher McQuarrie
11) Mistress America dir. Noah Baumbach


TOP TEN



10) Magic Mike XXL dir. Gregory Jacobs

If Steven Soderbergh's film excelled in showing the joy and struggle of hard work, Gregory Jacobs's sequel kicks things up a few notches by focusing on the thrill one can get from their ability (and desire) to entertain. Magic Mike XXL is about celebrating life, particularly when it pertains to the high that comes from something as simple as making another person smile. When you can achieve that alongside people you love, well, I'd argue there's no better feeling in the world.





9) Star Wars: The Force Awakens dir. J.J. Abrams

If this is a remake of A New Hope, then I proudly prefer this version. While the framework is similar, Abrams's movie is more exciting, has more compelling heroes, and understands the themes of what makes a Star Wars movie special arguably better than Lucas's groundbreaking original (and certainly more than the prequels). Safe to say that I can't wait to see what happens next.





8) Blackhat dir. Michael Mann

Like his similarly under appreciated Miami Vice, Michael Mann's latest exists in an alternate universe populated with people driven by a specific purpose. His framing is as elegant as ever, driving the narrative with a powerful sense of command. The real star of the show, as expected, are the shoot outs, here staged with an urgency that hurtles us right into the center. We FEEL the danger, and it's this quality that still keeps Mann in a class all his own. Look for this one to be re-examined down the road.





7) Applesauce dir. Onur Tukel

Onur Tukel is one of those rare writers who is able to make you laugh, squirm, and keep you on the edge of your seat all at the same time. His latest is the funniest movie of the year, a bizarre and unpredictable cocktail involving secrets, lies, and body parts. It's a truly audacious experience, one I hope to revisit again very soon.





6) Spotlight dir. Tom McCarthy

A splendid example of what happens when you have topical subject matter crafted into a riveting screenplay and combined with a series of magnetic performances (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d'Arcy James, Stanley Tucci...is this really happening??!!). Spotlight doesn't hit a false note. It works not only as fascinating journalism, but also as an empathetic character piece. Roger Ebert would have adored it.





5) Bone Tomahawk dir. S. Craig Zahler

The other 2015 western starring Kurt Russell, which is by a first time writer/director, manages to be quirkier, more beautifully shot, and more effective in its extreme violence than the one directed by Quentin Tarantino. Ouch! S. Craig Zahler introduces himself here as a major new talent. He has a knack for writing dialogue filled with subtle wit, gets stellar performances out of the always engaging Russell and Richard Jenkins, and even manages to make good use out of Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox. Safe to say I have high hopes for his follow up.





4) Spring dir. Justin Benson, Aaron Scott Moorhead

A love story of startling complexity, Spring cleverly examines the lengths to which we will go to be with the one we love. It's about sacrifice, in one regard, and about making that decision to spend your life with someone even if it means dealing with elements that are out of your control or understanding. It's a beautiful and deeply challenging movie, a calling card for its talented directors who only made one feature before this. If their next movie is half as powerful as this one, I might not be able to bear it.





3) Anomalisa dir. Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson

No one writes like Charlie Kaufman, and few writers seem to grasp the human condition as well as he does. His latest, co-directed by Duke Johnson, uses puppets to create a wholly unique world of loneliness. The movie is filled with identifiable moments, both hilarious and achingly sad, each done in a way that is original and often breathtaking. Kaufman is perhaps our greatest cinematic voice. It's wishful thinking, but I hope we get a dozen more movies out of him.





2) Mad Max: Fury Road dir. George Miller

What can I possibly say about this movie that hasn't already been conveyed? Aside from witnessing some of the most explosive action ever put on screen, Fury Road also boasts the presence of Imperator Furiosa, a force of nature played by Charlize Theron. She's the real hero of the movie, filled with hope and willing to fight for it, regardless of the cost. It's not often action can be a narrative drive and build character, but I'll be damned if Fury Road doesn't succeed tenfold. Even at 70, George Miller continues to prove he is one of our most versatile and groundbreaking directors.





1) Chi-Raq dir. Spike Lee

Seeing Do the Right Thing as an early teen changed my life as a movie watcher. From a technical standpoint, it was like nothing I'd ever seen (I became obsessed with dutch angles), but what stood out most was how director Spike Lee was able to effortlessly marry tones of anger and playfulness. It's probably my favorite movie, one that I watch at least once a year. I've followed Lee's career since with great enthusiasm, despite its unevenness. When he hits, he hits hard, but as he approached middle age, it seems as if some of that spark he had early on disappeared. The first time in a long while I found traces of it again was in his criminally underestimated remake of Oldboy, in which Lee staged some of the most furiously charged sequences of his career. Now comes Chi-Raq, which reminds of the brilliance of his early work in almost every way. Like the movies of Lee's we know and love the best, Chi-Raq combines outrage with vivacity. It might not be done as seamlessly as it was before (tonally, the movie is all over the place), but that's a detail easy to overlook due to the fact that this is the most ambitious and lively and purely entertaining movie I have seen in some time. Like Lee's best movies, it is deadly serious about its agenda and feeds it to us with the largest fork imaginable. We don't choke because what he is presenting, gang violence in Chicago, is a serious issue and because the alternative suggested to fix it (Lysistrata by Aristophanes is the basis) is wonderfully absurd. The movie boasts a series of epic performances, the most noteworthy being Teyonah Parris as the leader of the rebellion and John Cusack as Father Mike Corridan (the character is based on a real Chicago minister). I was overwhelmed throughout the entire run time of Chi-Raq, but always confident that I was in the hands of someone who wanted to teach me, challenge me, and entertain me. Chi-Raq does all of those things and is a long overdue return to form from one of our most vital, talented, and gusty filmmakers. I'm so grateful to have him, and I'm overjoyed to have a movie as batshit crazy and alive as Chi-Raq.


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(c) Hell and Beyond, 2016

Friday, November 20, 2015

Indie Memphis Film Festival '15: Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa




I have a hard time writing about Charlie Kaufman's work. His directorial debut, Synecdoche, NY, is a movie that bulldozes me every time I see it. I've been wanting to write about it for the past seven years, and always just end up staring at a blank screen. Part of me is afraid that instead of writing about the movie proper, I'll spend too much time discussing the number of scenes that I could apply to my own life. There's an unflinching cynicism to Kaufman's screenplays, so much so that many are turned off and repelled by them. Look deeper and you'll find buried beneath an honesty that is so raw and true that it's painful to admit how much it resembles staring at yourself in a mirror. As evident as the pain is in Kaufman's world, there is also plenty of rich humor based on the misunderstandings and stubbornness we possess by being human. His insight into what makes us tick is explored in ways that are startlingly fresh.

Kaufman's latest, Anomalisa, which he co-directed with Duke Johnson, features a cast made up completely of puppets created using a 3D printer. This approach has allowed Kaufman to take this material (based on a play he wrote) and explore it with an extraordinary amount of freedom. The result is exhilarating and devastating in equal measure, as Kaufman breaths new life into the power of animation and is able to, in the way only he can, create complex and sympathetic characters despite their strange and somewhat unsettling look. Even with puppets, Kaufman is able to pull off numerous scenes in the movie that are almost unbearably heartbreaking.

I am hesitant to get into the details of Anomalisa. Like all of Kaufman's work, it is best to go in with a limited amount of information and be caught off guard by the endlessly creative ways he is able to develop his characters and their feelings. Watching the movie, there are many cases where a scene could easily dissolve into cheap melodrama and in lesser hands, it probably would. But Kaufman is always one step ahead of us, ready to pull back another layer to reveal something that is as surprising as it is familiar. The method in which he gives his characters their voices is as brilliant as anything he has ever done in terms of how it affects the bigger picture.

Anomalisa is a true work of art, challenging, funny, hopelessly relatable, and sad as only the best works of art can be. The weight of Kaufman's world becomes ours, and while it certainly isn't an easy burden to share, the rewards of doing so are rich and unforgettable. No one else makes movies like this, or really ever has. Nor has anyone else had the guts to try. What I'm saying is that Kaufman is a treasure and we're lucky to have him. Here's hoping that all the positive buzz Anomalisa has generated will keep us from waiting seven more years before his next movie. I don't think I could bear it.


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(c)Hell and Beyond, 2015

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Indie Memphis Film Festival '15: John Crowley's Brooklyn




Visually similar to the work of Joe Wright and invoking the same tone in its early scenes as a Weinstein Company release, John Crowley's Brooklyn avoids the trappings of the latter because it is written, directed, and performed with a genuine sincerity and likability rarely seen in these awards season period pieces. It lacks forced sentiment, in other words, instead earning its dramatic moments thanks to an excellent cast and a relaxed pace. If the screenplay by Nick Hornby is missing a crucial element, it's that the story never has any deep conflicts. There is internal struggle, to be sure, but it's never difficult to figure out what the outcome will be.

Eilis (a remarkable Saoirse Ronan) is an ambitious young woman in 1950s Ireland who gets on the boat to Brooklyn searching for a brighter future. Set up with a room in a boarding house and a job at a department store, Eilis barely has time to transition into her new life, which proves to be intimidating at first and leads to undeniable homesickness. This doesn't last long thanks to night school and the introduction of Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian American who spots Eilis at a dance. Tony is kind and hardworking and before long, he and Eilis have fallen in love. Life is blossoming in ways Eilis could only have dreamed of, but this progress is put on hold when she is forced to return to Ireland due to an emergency. A quick trip continues to get stretched, partially by the family that misses her and also by her own desire to reconnect with the homeland.

As mentioned, even when faced with these tough choices, it is always clear which path Eilis will take. Ronan makes the character so relatable and passionate that I found it near impossible to take issue with the predictable turns of the story. We are constantly engaged by her, and it's a tribute to Ronan as an actor that she is able to make us forget the familiarity of the material. Most of the time, movies like this spoon feed the audience so blatantly that I immediately tune out. I wasn't profoundly moved in this case either, but I did admire that Crowley keeps things intimate and gives the characters room to breathe. Instead of everyone on screen getting overshadowed by the need to make the movie a monster sized epic, this is a case where we actually get to experience the characters getting to know each other and soon realize that we kinda like them. Brooklyn is certain to be a crowd pleaser, and while this is a status many movies attain but don't necessarily deserve, here is a welcome exception to the rule.


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(c)Hell and Beyond, 2015

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Indie Memphis Film Festival '15: Onur Tukel's Applesauce




I found Onur Tukel's Summer of Blood pretty funny, but it didn't prepare me for how blown away I'd be by his latest, Applesauce. Tukel has a gift for making the most uncomfortable situations hilarious, especially when they have no right to be. He will build on a dramatic scene, causing us to squirm and cringe and wait for the shit to hit the fan and then...a joke is thrown in that catches us completely off guard. This type of comedy is attempted often, yet rarely works because the filmmaker is not able to find the right tone. Between this movie and Summer of Blood, Tukel is proving to be a master and one of the freshest voices in comedic (and suspenseful) cinema in many a moon.

The set up is deceptively simple. Ron (Tukel) calls into a radio talk show to confess the worst thing he's ever done (and apparently never told anyone). The opportunity, though, is cut off by his wife (Trieste Kelly Dunn), so when they get out to dinner with best friends Les (Max Casella) and Kate (Jennifer Prediger), Ron finally spills the beans. While confessing might have seemed like the right call, Ron's life becomes a Hellish whirlwind once he starts to receive disturbing packages in the mail. To reveal any more than that would take away the surprise and delight of watching Applesauce. There was never a moment I could anticipate where this deeply twisted movie was going.

Tukel taps into the lowest depths of human nature. His characters are selfish and manipulative people who do horrible things to each other, mainly just to see if they can inflict worse damage than was done to them. It's amazing how even the smallest of misunderstandings can spiral multiple lives out of control and bring out inner demons a person never even knew they had. Applesauce finds original and almost always uproarious methods of exploring this scene after scene. The movie loses a little steam as it draws towards the finish because there are so many disastrous situations packed into the narrative. Even still, Tukel manages to maintain control, leading to a final moment that is as pathetically funny as it is deliciously wicked. Applesauce is one of my favorite movies of 2015.


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(c)Hell and Beyond, 2015

Friday, November 13, 2015

Indie Memphis Film Festival '15: Brian Pera's Only Child




Ryan Parker is the Roger Deakins of Memphis, and his lovely and haunting images are what should carry us through Only Child. They do to a degree, but the movie, written and directed by Brian Pera, also favors heightened drama expressed through dialogue that, for me, comes off as a bit ridiculous and overcooked. David Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie shows up in a very Lynchian role, complete with weird ticks and bizarre outbursts, playing less a character than the embodiment of one. She's Delores, eccentric mother searching for her daughter, Lana (Lindsey Roberts, excellent). Lana is lost not just from her mother but from herself, exiting her job as a hotel housekeeper under mysterious circumstances to go live with bored housewife, Loretta (Amy Lavere).

Loretta's relationship with Lana is a strange one. She treats and dresses her like a child (or a doll), never allowing Lana a chance to speak for herself, which might be why she doesn't speak at all. The movie flirts with ideas about gender roles and obsession, mostly conveyed through the strange relationship between Loretta and her husband, and by her collection of perfumes that are kept closed away like a dirty secret. Everyone has secrets in Only Child, the deepest belonging to Lana, who gives us hints that are effectively conveyed through the visual fabric that Pera and Parker bring to life. The movie screeches to a halt every time there is a conversation. This applies mostly to the scenes set at the hotel where Lana worked and the confrontations Delores has with the staff where she is staying. I mentioned Lynch earlier, and these scenes feel very much like they want to exist in the same nightmarish universe. These characters, however, lack a similar sense of purpose and frankly, they're just not as interesting or compelling.

Only Child has an appealing artistic quality to it. I am not familiar with Pera's background, but from watching this movie, it feels like he has worked in experimental theater. I like the idea of marrying that with film, and Pera certainly has the ingenuity to pull it off. If Only Child had been a silent movie, it would have been incredible. This is not an insult; if nothing else, it only further proves what a brilliant visual story teller Pera has the potential to be. He and Parker have created a chilling and vulnerable atmosphere. Now let's see it applied to a narrative with characters who compliment instead of distract from the richly beautiful world they inhabit.


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(c) Hell and Beyond, 2015

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Indie Memphis Film Festival '15: Sara Kaye Larson and Joann Self Selvidge's The Keepers




I can't imagine how difficult it must be to make a documentary. You've captured hours and hours of footage, many of which are probably interviews, over the course of several years, and now you're forced to shape it into something that will interest and captivate an audience. Yikes. Given the amount of time put in and the passion for the subject at hand, I always feel bad when a documentary does not work for me. Such is the case with The Keepers, a well intentioned but ultimately bland movie about the daily lives of the zookeepers at the Memphis Zoo. We hear them talk about what drew them to the job (many of them fell into it), which animals they like to spend their days with, and the hardships they face (mostly due to being criminally underpaid). Most absorbing to me were the series of interviews with the retired keepers as they discuss the changes they saw over the years and the pain of losing an animal they've been caring for since birth.

The focus of the movie feels scattershot. In between interviews, we learn about a giraffe that is stuck in isolation and needs to be transported to another location, the eggs of a Komodo Dragon, and the life expectancy of penguins. All well and good, except that it all looks like it was randomly stitched together, so we're thrown from one subject to the next and are confused as to what we're supposed to be concentrating on. I'm sure the filmmakers wanted to include as much footage as they could, although I think, to echo my comments on Barge, The Keepers would have worked much more efficiently as a short film.

Maybe I was hoping to see a more in depth documentary about the zoo, with interviews woven into the narrative. That certainly would have provided a richer tapestry and made the movie appear less repetitive (after a while, the interviews start to blend together). I can appreciate what directors Sara Kaye Larson and Joann Self Selvidge were trying to do with The Keepers; the voices of those who care for the animals are rarely heard. But having that as the sole focus of the movie makes for a sadly thin experience, unless you're going to explore the history of keepers at the zoo and how conditions have changed since it opened, for better or worse. When the movie was over, I hadn't gained anything that I couldn't have acquired from a trip to the zoo. I was hungry for more.


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(c)Hell and Beyond, 2015

Indie Memphis Film Festival '15: Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen's Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made




I wish I'd held onto all the movies I (re)made as a child. Armed with a VHS camcorder and more time than I knew what to do with, I would craft my own versions of my favorite movies, usually starring myself, stuffed animals, action figures, and in one instance, nutcrackers. Part of the fun was the drive to be creative and use whatever was lying around, no matter how ridiculous it might look onscreen. To me, it was magic...I had made a movie! That spirit is present during every moment of Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (hereafter Raiders!), an often eye popping documentary about a group of friends who remade, shot for shot, Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark. It took them a whopping seven summers to make the movie, with one particularly difficult scene being left out because the resources were not there.

Spielberg's film became an obsession for Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala, who took on remaking it as a way to cope with personal issues in their lives. Astonishingly, the whole movie was storyboarded from memory, and then friends were recruited for cast and crew (with people taking on multiple roles on both sides of the camera). The best moments of Raiders! involve the behind-the-scenes footage, such as seeing how these guys recreated the famous truck chase. The most amazing feat of this production is that no one died. Or got grounded.

Making a movie is a laborious process, something Chris and Eric learned over the course of their seven years tackling Raiders of the Lost Ark. By the time they hit that last summer, tension was high and it was time to call it quits. But if they thought trying to shoot a movie using around-the-house items was tough, nothing could prepare them for what would happen when they reunited, over twenty years later, to shoot the missing scene. It's fascinating and painful to watch the lengths these former best friends were willing to go, financially and psychologically, to finish what they started. There's a certain amount of exhilaration in seeing grown men living out a childhood fantasy.

In addition to witnessing the production side of the movie, Raiders! also focuses on the phenomenon surrounding it once word got out (thanks to director Eli Roth). It was an immediate sensation to say the least, a chance for audiences to share and embrace the passion these kids had for movies and the art of making them. Raiders! is one of the most inspiring and downright entertaining movies I have seen in a long time, a crucial reminder in the power of ambition and the belief that dreams can come true...even if it takes a while to find it within yourself.

Find out more about the adaptation of Raiders of the Lost Ark at: http://www.raidersguys.com


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(c)Hell and Beyond, 2015