Friday, January 26, 2018

Lost in the Woods: Lee's Best Movies of 2017

Lost, indeed. I think a lot of us felt that way this past year. Every time we watched or read the news, outrageous and horrifying events were taking place, affecting so many in ways they never thought possible. And never wanted to. It's why I have the day job that I use the privilege that I have, that so many others are denied, to help knock down these barriers that have been built between us. It's tough. I lose sleep over it, although I cannot imagine how it is affecting those marginalized by it. If there was ever a year that movies were a perfect escape, it was in 2017. The best movies of the year, I think, reflected our current anxiety...the desire to be loved, accepted, trusted, and to survive. Outside of that, the need to be remembered and that we mattered. There were some fantastic many, in fact, that for the second year in a row, I have made a Top 30. So, read on, agree, disagree, and let's discuss. I'll catch you on the flipside.


Notably Missed: BPM (Beats Per Minute), Nocturama, Princess Cyd, Thelma

Dishonorable Mention: Alien: Covenant, All Eyez on Me, The Circle, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Kong: Skull Island, Sleepless, Snatched, The Void

Wish I'd Loved: Baby Driver, Colossal, Dunkirk, Good Time, I, Tonya, Ingrid Goes West, It Comes at Night, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Okja, The Shape of Water

Honorable Mention: The Assignment, Beatriz at Dinner, The Big Sick, Brad's Status, The Disaster Artist, I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore., IT, Landline, Last Flag Flying, Logan Lucky, The Lure, Maudie, Most Beautiful Island, Song to Song, Split, Wonder Woman


30) Call Me by Your Name dir. Luca Guadagnino
29) The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) dir. Noah Baumbach
28) Marjorie Prime dir. Michael Almereyda
27) John Wick: Chapter 2 dir. Chad Stahelski
26) Personal Shopper dir. Olivier Assayas
25) Logan dir. James Mangold
24) Raw (Grave) dir. Julia Ducournau
23) The Beguiled dir. Sofia Coppola
22) First They Killed My Father dir. Angelina Jolie
21) Coco dir. Lee Unkrich


20) The Blackcoat's Daughter (February) dir. Osgood Perkins
19) The Lost City of Z dir. James Gray
18) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri dir. Martin McDonagh
17) A Quiet Passion dir. Terence Davies
16) Star Wars: The Last Jedi dir. Rian Johnson
15) Brawl in Cell Block 99 dir. S. Craig Zahler
14) Mudbound dir. Dee Rees
13) Rat Film dir. Theo Anthony
12) The Work dir. Jairus McLeary, Gethin Aldous
11) The Florida Project dir. Sean Baker


10) Get Out dir. Jordan Peele

Film critic Walter Chaw accurately described it as a documentary. Smart, subversive, terrifying. With each viewing, the remarkable performances of Daniel Kaluuya and Betty Gabriel reveal even more layers.

9) A Cure for Wellness dir. Gore Verbinski

Gore Verbinski is our gutsiest genre filmmaker working right now, and his latest swings for the fences like no other movie this year. If its stunning visuals were not enough, the movie also manages to be a bracing commentary on wealth, power, and healthcare. Kudos to a major studio for backing this project. Hopefully its box office failure will not keep other movies this bold from being made.

8) Faces Places (Visages Villages) dir. Agnès Varda and JR

Two brilliant visual artists travel through France, sharing the importance of memories while creating new ones. Everyone deserves to be a piece of history.

7) Murder on the Orient Express dir. Kenneth Branagh

The happiest surprise of the year for me. Not just sweeping and epic in scope, the movie also compellingly explores guilt and redemption. That the next volume has been greenlit makes me absolutely giddy.

6) Lucky dir. John Carroll Lynch

Small town life perfectly realized while also being a sharply observed meditation on mortality. I am a bit saddened that more people aren't talking about how lovely and wonderful this movie is. Thanks to his incredible body of work, Harry Dean will always be with us.

5) Dawson City: Frozen Time dir. Bill Morrison

Film is a powerful tool, as it has the ability to preserve and understand our past, present, and future. An endlessly fascinating and eye opening documentary.

4) A Ghost Story dir. David Lowery

Does so much with so little, and profoundly so. Its only misstep is in a heavy dialogue scene, which speaks volumes to the potency of its images.

3) Columbus dir. Kogonada

Architecture provides comfort, sparks conversation, gives us common ground. A familiar setup is made strikingly new due to Kogonada's exquisite use of space. We get a real sense of how the atmosphere affects his characters as we see how they affect each other.

2) Phantom Thread dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

Shades of Hitchcock and Cronenberg are woven into this tapestry of creation and obsession, the latter of which has become a PTA specialty. He's crafted an elegant work, full of surprises, rich performances, and unexpected laughs. Daniel Day-Lewis is fantastic, as expected, but the real MVP here is Lesley Manville. She says so much by saying very little.

1) mother! dir. Darren Aronofsky

This movie burrowed its way into my brain and refuses to leave. Its images haunt me, its layers astound me, its tenacity disturbs me, its very existence excites me. It is equal parts brilliant and pretentious, unapologetic and audacious. I have had longer conversations about it and spent more time unpacking it than any other movie I saw in 2017. There's not question about encapsulates what I love about the movies. The fact that it explores artistic expression and creation and makes them living, breathing entities is just icing on the cake. And that doesn't even scratch the surface of what mother! is about. Love it or hate it, it will demand you discuss it and you will not soon forget it (I never will). Another masterwork from one of our bravest directors.

Thank you for visiting Hell and Beyond!

(c)Hell and Beyond, 2018

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Finding the Truth, Ruth. My Complex Journey with Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing


In the summer of 1991, as I was preparing to enter the ninth grade, my parents decided to send me to a boarding school in Newport, Rhode Island. I was not a good student, you see, as I preferred to daydream, write stories, and watch movies as opposed to studying. I was raised in an upper/middle class household where I was basically spoon fed everything I could possibly ever want and need, so why should I care how well I did in school? I was the poster child of white is a lawyer, mom stayed home, and we had an African American housekeeper. Yep, I was that kid. Anyway, due to my bad grades, my parents felt that sending me far away with other equally privileged screw ups would whip me into shape. While that summer certainly did not improve my grades, my blinders were removed to reveal an existence I had no concept of until then: racism. Up until that point, the only hateful acts I knew were when boys, all white, got in fights on the playground or called each other "stupid." All of that seemed so small in retrospect to what I was about to witness during my time away from home.

My first day on campus, one of the kids referred to the Asian students using a slang term I was not familiar with. There was only one, yes one, African American student in the program, and my roommate had told her she couldn't sit with us at lunch because it was a "segregated" table. Once she left, another kid called her the "n" word, which I'd heard but never knew what it meant. I was pretty shocked. Why were these kids so angry? The idea of different races had never even crossed my mind before, let alone that you wouldn't like another person because of their skin color or nationality. How had I been so unaware? Interesting then, that at this school with so many white kids who didn't like other races would be the first time I saw Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Since I'd been movie obsessed since about the age of eight, I'd heard of it, the controversy around it, and because of Siskel & Ebert, I knew it was supposed to be great film. Most of the movies shown up to this point had been goofy comedies or balls-to-the-wall action movies...we'd just left the '80s after all, so I was not even close to being prepared for what I was about to soak in that day.

The TV room in our dorm was small, and there were a limited number of chairs available. By the time I wandered in, right as the opening credits were beginning, it was already packed so tight that I had to stand in the corner behind the door and hope it stayed shut so my view would not be blocked. Two hours later, I was absolutely mesmerized, as my senses had been overloaded as they never had before by a movie. Or any piece of art, for that matter. My body was numb and I was boiling hot, partially from the room being overcrowded, but more so because Ernest Dickerson's exquisite cinematography made me feel, even seeing it on a tiny TV screen, like I was truly living that day in Bed-Stuy. If I recall correctly, I was the last one out of the room. It was the first time in my life a movie experience had left me literally paralyzed as I tried to process it. I was exhausted, overjoyed, exhilarated, sad, and angry, all in equal measure. The difficult part was going to be sorting through it.

I lied awake that night, constantly replaying the movie's climax in my head, wondering why Mookie threw that trashcan through the window at Sal's. It didn't make sense. I was so perplexed. Sal didn't start it. And he didn't kill Radio Raheem. So why take it out on him? It would be another decade or so before I finally understood. But we'll get back to that. Aside from challenging me as no movie ever had, I'd never seen a movie with so many diverse characters, each so distinct and memorable, even if they weren't all likable. I would study the movie from a technical standpoint for many years to come. I became a fan of Dutch angles and begin to use them in my high school shorts whenever I was attempting to create tension. I got Do the Right Thing on VHS that following Christmas, and I watched it as often as I could. If film can be a religion, Do the Right Thing had become my Bible. I always anticipated the climax with fear because it always struck a nerve and I couldn't figure out why. I tried to get my friends to watch it, but they didn't want to see a "Black" movie (unless it was I'm Gonna Git You Sucka!). As my teenage years progressed, racism and prejudice became more present in my life, not just around me but directly as well.

My friends and I were the equivalent of Pino, Sal's son, when it came to people of other races. If you were a celebrity we admired or someone we went to school with, you were just like us. Everybody else was lumped into whatever stereotype had been created for them. If a bike was stolen, it must have been a Mexican. If someone was cheap, they were labeled as a Jew. If you didn't have a girlfriend, you were automatically Gay. A best friend's mom used to tell him if he didn't make good grades, he would have to go to a public school with all the poor Black kids. That was my life and as far as I knew, it was normal. I had been led to believe that other races were inferior and a threat to me, especially Black people. My friends and I had a whole collection of racist joke books. And yet, because of Do the Right Thing, I was beginning to expose myself to more Black culture. At this point, all the art I had sought out was created by white people and only focused on white experience. I got my first CD player the same Christmas that I got Do the Right Thing, and one of my first purchases was Public Enemy's Apocalypse '91: The Enemy Strikes Black (which I had to keep hidden from my parents or they would take it away as "propaganda"). At first, it was difficult for me to follow the lyrics, but one thing was certain...these guys were pissed off. But why? You couldn't understand the lyrics to angry music by white artists either, mainly because it was a bunch of screaming. However, when you read the lyrics, it was just a bunch of trivial bullshit. Not so when I read the lyrics for Public Enemy or even N.W.A., who I had listened to in junior high and thought it was hilarious that they cussed so much. Looking at it in a different context, thanks to Spike's movie, I realized that what they were saying was no laughing matter. But was it right? Could these guys really justify all this rage? Surely it was all their fault that their lives and the lives of other Black people were under such scrutiny. After all, even the characters in Do the Right Thing, straight down to the one Spike plays, were openly racist. I was still missing a key piece to this puzzle. When I went to college several years later, I would finally see firsthand that racism was not the casual joke my friends and I had made it out to be.

I spent my freshman year at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and it felt like the largest place on Earth. Outside of my summer in Rhode Island all those years ago, this was the longest I had ever been away from my sheltered and privileged life, a life that I was naively expecting to continue once I left home. I pledged a fraternity, which was a decision I would grow to regret long before the semester was over. Many of the members were the first exposure I'd had to honest-to-god "rednecks," and they proudly wore that title in everything they said and did. If it went against being straight, white, and male, it was an offense. I wore a purple shirt and was told never to do it again because it meant I was Gay. I had to take a survey during pledge week, and one of the questions asked if I believed lynching was an "old tradition" or "good fun." I was taking a class called American Lives, and one of my assignments was to read Malcolm X's autobiography. When the fraternity saw me reading it, a powder keg went off and the only reason I didn't get the crap beat out of me was because it was for a class. I'd always thought making fun of other races was harmless as long as you kept it among friends. These guys were living proof that it wasn't and never had been. If the other pledges came to my dorm room, I hid my copy of Do the Right Thing. Spike Lee actually came and spoke on campus shortly after Clockers was released, and I made sure no one knew I was going to see him. It was the first time I ever had the experience of being "star struck." So much so that I couldn't even work up the nerve to ask him a question, which in the long run didn't matter because I was in awe just to be in the same room with him. In hindsight, it was for the best, as the questions I so desperately wanted to ask had answers I needed to figure out on my own.

Needless to say, I quit the fraternity and was hazed the rest of the year for it, mostly with messages left on my answering machine that are too vulgar to recreate here. At this point, I had never considered how someone must feel when being called one of the names I'd so casually thrown out at my white friends in the past. But now that someone was doing it to me, and it was obvious they were not joking, I had my first true moment of clarity. I left Alabama after that year grateful that I had learned something about how cruel people could be, for no other reason than to make themselves feel bigger than they really were. Once I got home, I began to see it existed all around me...I had just been naive to it before because it was something I had not taken seriously. Do the Right Thing does such a brilliant job mixing the funny bits with the sober ones that often it was tough for me to find the line, at least until you get to the climax. I now had a new way to examine it. And I did.

Everyone in the movie is prejudice, to be sure, but Spike Lee carefully reveals it in layers throughout. The "heat" has always been under the surface, but it takes a scorcher of a day to cause an actual eruption. What's most honest in the way the movie portrays its racism is that none of the characters feel they are wrong for being prejudice. It clearly is the other race's fault. Look at when ML rants about how the Koreans opened a business in a Black neighborhood before he was able to. Or Radio Raheem getting aggressive with the Koreans because they have trouble understanding English when he needs new batteries. Or Sal's stubborn refusal to put any pictures of Black people on the wall in an Italian owned business. Or on the flip side is Buggin' Out's insistence that he do so (I debated for many years who was on the "right" side of that argument). Or how the white man driving through the neighborhood arrogantly assumes the Black kids will pour water on his car...and then the police assume they will strip it clean. Or, in the movie's funniest instance, when the sole white man who lives on the block accidentally steps on Buggin' Out's new Air Jordans. There are many more examples, but what makes the movie so powerful is that no one is innocent and in some cases, such as the one I just cited about the police, and we'll see it again at the end with the death of Radio Raheem, it's hard not to hold prejudices when the world is constantly holding them against you. While it may not be right, sometimes it's the only defense one has. This is particularly telling during the climax when, after Sal's has been burned to the ground, the Korean store owners fear their store will be next. Sonny swings a broom while yelling, "We're the same!" in hopes he will not be attacked. ML responds by putting his hands on his chest and exclaiming, "Black!" He wants Sonny to understand that no, they're not the same, because if Sonny had attacked Sal for destroying his radio, he would have been put into the back of the cop car alive. One of the movie's most arresting images is of Radio Raheem dead, on the ground, his brass knuckle reading "LOVE" visible in the bottom corner of the frame.

The movie is very clever in the way (almost) all of the characters are as likable as they are unlikable. They all have at least one moment where they are on the defensive. They all prove to be as selfish as they are sincere. And some of them even prove that their kindness is not as genuine as it may have appeared. In other words, they're real people, and Spike Lee wisely does not play favorites (his Mookie is a lazy employee and a bad father). I am still taken aback when five different characters, each of a different race, stare directly at the camera and spit racial slurs at the audience. We, the viewer, get to see how it feels to be insulted from multiple perspectives, the result of each equally numbing due to how specifically hateful they are. Most movies that tackle the subject of racism (just look at Crash, which inexplicably won the Oscar for Best Picture where Do the Right Thing wasn't even nominated) are about going down a checklist and having all the characters recite painfully overwritten speeches and learn valuable lessons that are supposed to make us nod our heads in agreement that racism is bad but in the end, we'll shake hands and ride off into the sunset. The approach of Do the Right Thing proves why it is still as relevant today as it was when it was released almost 28(!) years ago...because it shows our inability to take responsibility for our prejudices. The line between "right" and "wrong" is blurred and always has been. Instead, we continue to point fingers and the result is a finger being pointed right back. It's having to listen to truths we don't want to hear and admit that yes, there are people out there who are not treated as people because they don't fit into the original vision of "The American Dream." And that, I finally discovered, is why Mookie throws the trashcan. If the American Dream can't belong to everyone, it should belong to no one. Sal's feeling of entitlement ("You gotta do what you gotta do.") for a man's death shows a sense of superiority that was never his, even though he believes this simply because the people of the neighborhood "grew up on my food." Originally, Mookie and Sal had a more civil resolution to the burning of the pizzaria, which would not have stayed true to the movie's message. Instead, they have to agree to disagree and go on with their lives. Yes, a new day begins, as hot as the last, and whether or not the right thing has been done will depend on the eye of the beholder. Spike Lee cleverly confirms this by presenting two quotes before the end credits, one by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the other by Malcolm X. Both would have applauded Smiley's triumphant moment of taping their picture to what's left of the Wall of Fame at Sal's...the bigger question is would they have applauded what it took to make it happen.

I have seen Do the Right Thing at least twenty times since 1991 (I watch it at least once a year, most recently on Spike Lee's 60th birthday). While I began to seek out art (mainly film and music) from other cultures while I was in high school but even more so after my time at The University of Alabama, my understanding and empathy of the world that existed out of my white bubble comes from Do the Right Thing. The more I watched it, the more my preconceived notions evaporated. After I got home from that eye opening first year of college, I still had plenty of exposure to prejudiced conversations with white friends. And I must admit that when I began condemning the behavior I had once practiced, there were people close to me who didn't believe I was really serious. They called me a hypocrite. They accused me of jumping on the liberal bandwagon. They told me minority problems were not my problem. Yet, they ARE my problem. They are and should be the concerns of everyone regardless of race, now more than ever. Spike Lee's film educated me and prepared me to open my eyes and ears and listen, really listen, to what others have to say. That their voices matter just as much as mine does, and it is my responsibility to face the heat instead of going inside where it's cool and comfortable. Prejudice will always long as there are multiple races, cultures, religions, etc., there's no way around it. But how do we get to a place where we no longer have to use it as a weapon against each other? Where we don't automatically judge people because they look or love or worship a certain way? What makes Do the Right Thing so incredibly timeless is that it is able to ask these questions in challenging, thoughtful, uncompromising ways, provide no easy resolution, and also manages to be one hell of an entertainment at the same time. It is the movie that not only changed (and still changes) the way I look at movies, but managed to change my life as well. I don't know if there will ever be another quite like it. If so, I doubt it could achieve the grace, power, and humanity of Do the Right Thing.

Thank you for visiting Hell and Beyond!

(c)Hell and Beyond, 2017.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Turning Off the Blinders: The Best Movies of 2016

2016 is the first year I can recall that most of us are eager to forget. It was filled with loss, deep division, and the most controversial presidential election of my lifetime. In addition to dealing with the discomfort of reading the news, I experienced a midlife crisis that led to a relationship ending and resulted in the most severe battle with depression I have ever tackled. There was no one to blame for any of the pain but myself, as I was collectively bottling everything up as if preparing for a disaster of epic proportions. But then one morning, a book showed up on the front of my car that offered a new perspective and caused me to send my stress stockpile out to sea. I realized that I had been approaching life from a toxic angle and that, no matter what I was faced with, I could deal with it in a productive and positive way.

As has always been the case in times of turmoil, I knew I could rely on the movies. And not only were they there for me throughout this endlessly soul sucking year, they brought with them much to admire, to unpack, to smile about, to cry about, to be scared about, to be thrilled about, and to reflect upon. Movie after movie left me exhilarated in ways familiar yet completely new, as filmmakers, seasoned and novice, brought their A-game as I have not seen in years. I was overwhelmed by the number of movies that found a way to leave a mark. So you can imagine my surprise when 2016 came to an end and there were critics that complained about it not being a "good" year. Huh? Surely they are mistaken, or they only went to the movies during the summer season, or...

It got me wondering if the dark cloud hanging over 2016 had somehow tainted the way people looked at the movies they saw. It certainly makes sense, but is also makes me sad, because the crop of movies that appear on the list below expanded my passion for the medium in an epic way. So much so that for the first time, I had to create a Top 30! Film critic Walter Chaw did his Top Ten with 50 movies, 5 in each slot. Although I applaud him for that, it felt like much too daunting of a task for me. As we enter into 2017 and an uncertain era for the United States, here's hoping our cinematic art finds fresh and exciting ways to challenge and entertain us. Because you never know...when it's all said and done, the movies may be our only escape. See you in theater!


Notably Missed: Fences, Right Now, Wrong Then, Toni Erdmann

Wish I'd Loved (in alphabetical order): The Accountant, The BFG, Captain America: Civil War, Free In Deed, La La Land, Nocturnal Animals, Rogue One, Sully, Triple 9, Under the Shadow

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): 20th Century Women, 31, Blue Jay, Donald Cried, Don't Breathe, Everybody Wants Some!!, The Fits, The Handmaiden, Hell or High Water, Hush, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Lobster, The Love Witch, Loving, Moonlight, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, The Shallows, Sing Street, Zootopia


30) Midsummer in Newtown dir. Lloyd Kramer
29) 13th dir. Ava DuVernay
28) 10 Cloverfield Lane dir. Dan Trachtenberg
27) Love and Friendship dir. Whit Stillman
26) Swiss Army Man dir. Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
25) Krisha dir. Trey Edward Shults
24) De Palma dir. Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow
23) Cemetery of Spendor (Rak ti Khon Kaen) dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
22) Don't Think Twice dir. Mike Birbiglia
21) Green Room dir. Jeremy Saulnier


20) The Edge of Seventeen dir. Kelly Fremon Craig
19) Manchester by the Sea dir. Kenneth Lonergan
18) Elle dir. Paul Verhoeven
17) Midnight Special dir. Jeff Nichols
16) The Invitiation dir. Karyn Kusama
15) Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids dir. Jonathan Demme/
Lemonade dir. Kahlil Joseph, Beyoncé Knowles
14) Hail, Caesar! dir. Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
13) Little Sister dir. Zach Clark
12) Tower dir. Keith Maitland
11) The Nice Guys dir. Shane Black


10) The Wailing (Goksung) dir. Hong-jin Na

Police procedural thriller, slapstick comedy, and chilling supernatural horror gracefully collide in one of the few movies that earns its comparison to The Exorcist. Uncompromising and unforgettable.

9) Knight of Cups dir. Terrence Malick

Existential musings have never been this dreamlike and carried such a heavy burden. Malick continues to age like a smooth whiskey.

8) Little Men dir. Ira Sachs

Understanding the decisions of adults is hard...especially when you're a teenager. Sachs adds pathos to an overcrowded genre.

7) Jackie dir. Pablo Larraín

A haunting and visually lush portrait of grief. Natalie Portman mesmerizes as her Jackie fights to be not just a First Lady, but a strong and capable woman.

6) The Neon Demon dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

Femininity examined through a prism of colors, as Refn unflinchingly explores the way beauty is gazed through the eyes of both genders, and the ugliness that can result. Horrifying, intoxicating, and dazzling.

5) The Witch dir. Robert Eggers

The second of three movies in the top ten dealing with a struggle of faith, this one standing out for how it shows the sins of the father becoming the sins of his children, particularly a daughter at the age of womanhood. Harrowing in execution and undeniably tragic in its conclusion, there's never been anything quite like it.

4) Cameraperson dir. Kirsten Johnson

A career retrospective that carefully reveals itself as a snapshot of its creator. We are invited to see through Johnson's eyes as she connects us (and herself) with the lives of others, known and unknown. It's a remarkable achievement.

3) Silence dir. Martin Scorsese

A passion project that was well worth the wait, Scorsese has crafted a movie that effectively questions the necessity of suffering on behalf of a God who does not directly answer our cries for help. The filmmaker's life long search for answers translates to the screen with true conviction.

2) Arrival dir. Denis Villeneuve

Clever, thoughtful, and emotionally wrenching, Villeneuve has finally found a narrative that fully compliments his distinct visual style. It's a rare blockbuster that asks big questions and doesn't portray extraterrestrials as hostile. Amy Adams gives a performance for the ages. We are with her every step of the way, even when we're not sure which direction the movie will take us.

1) Paterson dir. Jim Jarmusch

The first time I saw it I greatly admired it. The more I talked about it and the more I thought about it, the more I loved it. Seeing it a second time only solidified what I already sensed...this movie is a masterwork. Jarmusch, a filmmaker always deeply connected to his characters, fully envelopes the audience into the life of Paterson (Adam Driver, perfect in every way), a bus driver who finds the magical moments in his job, appreciates his surroundings, and even takes time to write poems about them when he has free time. He lives with a dreamer (Golshifteh Farahani) who has different passions but still supports his as he encourages hers. Daily routine is portrayed as something to savor; all you have to do is open yourself up to the world to discover why. Like the poetry Paterson writes and reads, every moment of this movie flows through us, bringing with it a sense of calm and quiet happiness. This is Jarmusch at his wisest and funniest. The movie places us in a reality we don't want to ever leave. What an incredibly rare gift that is.

Thank you for visiting Hell and Beyond!

(c) Hell and Beyond, 2017.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

IMFF '16: Sophia Takal's Always Shine

The cinematic tropes of DePalma and Bergman appealingly collide in Almost Shine, a mostly successful thriller that examines competition between friends and the pressures women face in the entertainment industry. The sly opening scene focuses on a close-up of Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) as she auditions for a film that sounds strangely like it might be a porno due to the male voice offscreen calling her "sweetheart" and the constant reminder that the role will require lots of nudity. It feels like her willingness to remove her clothes is how Beth keeps getting roles since it becomes clear early on that she lacks confidence in her own talent. Enter best friend Anna (Mackenzie Davis), who is less lucky getting work even though, even as Beth claims, she is the better (and more aggressive) actress. The two don't communicate much anymore, so they decide to take a weekend getaway to Anna's family home in Big Sur for long overdue bonding. Or so they think.

The movie sets up the tension that divides them early on by showing that Anna is jealous of Beth's success even as she criticizes the roles she takes. The unease escalates first during a bar visit where a man flirting with Anna has ulterior motives involving Beth, inevitably leading to painful secrets being revealed, and the next morning when Anna helps Beth do a script read that turns increasingly uncomfortable. Director Sophia Takal cleverly intercuts all these sequences of build up with quick flashes of chaos that give a nasty glimpse of a future confrontation. Adding to the tautness is the playfully suspenseful score by Michael Montes, which pays a striking homage to Hitchcock and the already mentioned DePalma. The latter's influence can also be seen in how Takal teases us with nudity. The slowly tracking camera occasionally emerges on someone in the shower, but always stops just short of showing anything but a bare back or staying above the chest.

I became even more involved with Always Shine once it pulls a switcheroo during the last third by blurring the lines. While there are some inventive reveals during this section, Takal gets perhaps too on-the-nose as the conclusion approaches and the energy that was so effectively built during the first part begins to leak out. And if the ending feels inevitable, it is also a bit disappointing. I was hoping to see the wonderful opening scenes bookended to bring the movie full circle. Despite this, there is plenty to admire here, from the believable dynamic between FitzGerand and Davis, to the appropriately isolated and unsettling atmosphere, to the slow burn deterioration of this already damaged friendship. Even without a thoroughly satisfying conclusion, Always Shine is a memorable portrait of female power struggle.

Thank you for visiting Hell and Beyond!

(c) Hell and Beyond, 2016.

IMFF '16: Joshua H. Miller and Miles B. Miller's All the Birds Have Flown South

I saw quite a few debut features at this year's festival, but none of them opened as intriguingly as All the Birds Have Flown South. Through a dialogue free series of events, we follow Stephen (Paul Sparks) as he wanders aimlessly around the home of his recently deceased mother. The place obviously hasn't been updated in many years, and looking at Stephen's suit and grooming, it would appear he has never moved out mom's house and was stuck in a time warp with her. This sequence does an exceptional job building atmosphere and creating a sense of mystery, continuing to do so once Stephen finally leaves the house and goes to a diner.

At first, it might seem as if Stephen is just trying to get away, but all that changes once a server named Tonya (Joey Lauren Adams) catches his eye. He offers her a ride home, which leads to taking her sick husband Jimmy (Dallas Roberts) to the doctor. Tonya is appreciative but suspicious of why this strange man would want to help her, as we get the sense that she hasn't seen a lot of charity in her life. Jimmy is verbally abusive and probably would be physically were he not bed ridden. With nothing else to do now that his mother is gone, Stephen shows back up at Tonya's home, a cheap motel, the next day to see if he can assist again. It is from here things really begin to spin out of control.

Up until this point, I was totally on board with All the Birds Have Flown South because it was emerging into a character study of these troubled, disconnected lives. But then it veers into directions that are excessively unpleasant without any real purpose. There are numerous scenes of Stephen and Tonya being verbally assaulted by Jimmy, though they hardly compare to the scenes of Tonya using drugs and eventually being beat up and raped. I'm not saying this subject matter cannot be used effectively in a movie but here, it feels like a devise to shake the audience. Stephen is the most fascinating character in the movie, so when he is offscreen the movie loses steam.

There is certain to be some debate over the ending. During the Q&A following the screening, the writing/directing team said they felt the climactic events were inevitable, although I'm not so sure I agree with them. The reasoning behind what happens does leave some questions for the audience, and that's not a bad thing, but I don't feel like Stephen was developed enough to justify them. It's a real shame too, because I found the movie to be very well acted and technically made, with some original and memorable visual touches. Had the movie stayed focused on Stephen and not become so concerned with Tonya's downward spiral, this could have been quite a movie. I will look forward to seeing what these brothers, Joshua H. Miller and Miles B. Miller do with a more focused screenplay.

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(c) Hell and Beyond, 2016.

Monday, November 7, 2016

IMFF '16: Jim Jarmusch's Paterson

Jim Jarmusch has made a career out of creating delightfully offbeat characters, many of who are on an existential journey of sorts. What's most astonishing about him as a writer and a director is how he manages to always keep the vibe, even when it feels on the brink of pretension or hipster overload, unbelievably cool. There's a rich sense of poetry in the ways his characters act and look and speak, making it a delight to spend time with him. I often don't want his movies to end. They have a relaxed feel to them, but I can't think of one that's ever been as chill as his latest, Paterson.

Jarmusch has achieved something quite remarkable and rarely seen here, that being an observation of daily routines in an ordinary life where the person going through it is...happy. There are various points throughout Paterson where we wonder if the monotony of the cycle will have an unexpected effect on the main character, though it never does. This is one of the most original and intriguing slice-of-life movies I have seen in quite some time. A lot of credit for the movie's success belongs to Adam Driver's performance in the lead role. He plays a character named Paterson, which also happens to be the New Jersey town where he lives.

The movie chronicles a week in the life of Paterson, beginning with when he gets up in the morning and often ending as he stares into a glass of beer. He is a creature of habit, his internal clock waking him up at around the same time every day and his breakfast always consisting of a small bowl of Cheerios. From there, it's off to work as a bus driver, which might look like a boring and thankless job, but not for Paterson. Despite his quiet demeanor, he takes pride in it, and even seems to enjoy the conversations of some of the passengers. The biggest pleasure of his day is during lunch when he can focus on writing poetry, with subjects ranging everywhere from the print on a match book to his love for his wife.

Paterson's wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), spends her days at home dreaming of new creative ventures. She likes to paint, but also wants to become a country singer and have a cupcake business. There is a blissful innocence to her approach to these many interests, although that does not get in the way of her encouraging Paterson to let others read his poetry. Despite her pressing and him agreeing to make copies of his "secret book," Paterson doesn't want to share his poetry with the world. The writing is the one thing that is truly his; it's a way to escape and express himself on the page in a way he cannot do verbally.

Jarmusch gives the movie a compassionate all-the-world's-a-stage feel. He creates in the city of Paterson a tranquil sense of community, in which even the potential threats turn out to nothing even close to that. Like most of his work, Paterson is refreshingly multicultural. The best scenes in the movie occur during Paterson's nightly after dinner visit to a corner bar owned by an elderly African American man named Doc (the wonderful character actor Barry Shabaka Henley) who chats with him about the famous people from the city. These are the moments that best reflect Jarmusch's signature deadpan sense of humor, thanks the gallery of characters who interact with Paterson as he sips a beer. Another great example is his reaction while eating a Brussels sprouts and cheddar cheese pie that Laura makes for dinner.

And such is the comfortable pattern of Paterson. It is not a movie of deep revelations or surprises, but a modest snapshot of the benefits and comforts of a simple life, joyfully fulfilled. Paterson might not say a lot or show much enthusiasm, yet it is evident, especially through Driver's magnificently understated performance, that he is happy and doesn't have any desire to change (he does not have and does not want a cell phone). There's something very satisfying in this, not just as a concept so much as by how Jarmusch presents it. This is a mature and confident piece of filmmaking, one that embraces the gift of living combined with the importance of recognizing the undeniable beauty of the details that shape life. Sometimes we take the latter for granted. Paterson is a thoughtful reminder of why we shouldn't. I more I think about this movie, the more I love it.

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(c) Hell and Beyond, 2016.

IMFF '16: Nicole Lucas Haimes' Chicken People

Viewers walking in to Chicken People expecting a real life version of Best in Show will be either disappointed or pleasantly surprised. I was the latter. That's not to say the movie does not have its fair share of big laughs, as it is about people who breed chickens and enter them into competitions. But there's a surprisingly tender side too. Director Nicole Lucas Haimes has genuine empathy for her subjects and by the end, so do we.

The movie focuses on three people in different parts of the country for which chickens are a true obsession. After meeting each of them, it becomes clear that chicken breeding is a way to cover deep internal wounds. In the case of the two men, both named Brian, their passion is a mask for them to cope with loneliness. For Shari, a housewife and mother, the obsession developed to overcome alcoholism. We spend equal time with each as they prepare their chickens for the upcoming Ohio National Poultry Show, learning about their breeding techniques, competition requirements, and what types of chickens they love the best. This proves to be surprisingly interesting since they each have completely different approaches to breeding, and their methods seem to stem out of their individual personalities.

We get a lot of insight about who they are and the key relationships in their lives, which adds an extra dimension to the movie I was not expecting. By the time Chicken People reaches its climax at the competition (in Knoxville, TN instead of Ohio due to a breakout of Avian Flu), I was rooting for all three of these people. Haimes has effectively gotten us acquainted with them to the degree that we know how much a win will mean, and how much a loss will sting. We walk out of the theater hoping they will each continue to perfect their chickens and that a future of victories lie ahead.

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(c) Hell and Beyond, 2016.