For Reel

The Whisperer in Darkness (2011)
April 29, 2017, 7:19 pm
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Director: Sean Branney
3 Stars
The Whisperer in Darkness.jpgIn their previous feature film outing, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society crafted an homage to the world of silent film with The Call of Cthulhu and the effect was undoubtedly convincing. In addition to bringing the first truly faithful Lovecraft adaptation to the screen, the project also took great advantage of the tonal qualities relating to the art of silent films. That is, the mystifying and the unknowable seemed tailor-made for the world of German expressionism, which similarly prides itself in forging logical gaps. The Whisperer in Darkness, the production company’s equally ambitious follow-up, mimics the style of 1930s and 1940s horror in the way it uses a melodramatic score and bathes its sets in shadow (complete with the requisite nighttime thunderstorms), but unfortunately the filmmaker’s desire to meet more modern demands breaks the spell. An early lecture scene is quickly-cut, alternating between shots of at least four significant figures as well as the audience while the camera roams throughout the auditorium. If recreating the style of an old film is an unabashed gimmick, audiences will accept it if the filmmakers totally abide by those rules. In this case, however, the bizarre mix of contemporary pacing and old-fashioned aesthetic is a barrier to entry. The middle section, in following Lovecraft’s work faithfully, finally starts to gather steam as it unveils the disturbing implications of man’s sheer lack of knowledge regarding the world he inhabits. Turning the last act into a standard SyFy film translates better than one might think—Matt Foyer’s smug scholar turned action hero heightens the sense of desperation—but an attempt at character building towards the end happens a little too late to be fully convincing or effective (as it is, it plays as so forced that it becomes more than a little creepy). If The Whisperer in Darkness is not as enchanting as The Call of Cthulhu, however, it is equally enjoyable to watch for fans of the author, and the pair of films remain the key faithful adaptations of Lovecraft’s work.

Your Sister’s Sister (2011)
July 24, 2012, 5:37 am
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Director: Lynn Shelton

Until the disappointments of its final third, Your Sister’s Sister is one of the year’s great pleasures. Director Lynn Shelton, whose Humpday found attention several years ago due to its intriguing premise, has a knack for finding emotional honesty using only a loose frame of a plot. Though the dialogue is mostly improvised, it doesn’t suffer from having the rhythmless, meandering conversations of similar “mumblecore” efforts – the actors are so in control of their characters’ emotional states that, natural as they sound, the back-and-forths don’t feel formless and petty. Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Mark Duplass play the three characters who, although broadly defined, are essentially the vessels in which the actors can explore their jealousies, insecurities, and hopes. It comes as little surprise that things fall apart towards the end when the actors stop talking – a heavily-plotted third-act montage is lazy and all-too-predictable for a film otherwise pleasurable for its sense of spontaneity. As with Humpday, Shelton proves to be particularly strong with actors but not quite a great storyteller. Regardless, much can be forgiven, as the scenes between DeWitt and Blunt, especially, stand out as some of the year’s best.

Headhunters (2011)
July 24, 2012, 1:30 am
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Director: Morten Tyldum

Audiences who found The Dark Knight Rises suffocatingly grim won’t know quite what to make of Headhunters, a Norwegian thriller adapted from the book by acclaimed crime novelist Jo Nesbø. Bruce Wayne has it easy compared to the slick, Napoleonic antihero played by the charismatic Aksel Hennie – in the picture’s biggest gross out moment, he must submerge himself completely in a pool of excrement, using only a straw to breath. After sabotaging a job opportunity for the businessman that has been having an affair with his wife, Hennie is relentlessly pursued by his new nemesis, a man no stranger to military tactics and clearly possessing an almost supernatural discipline having persevered through severe Bolivian torture. The chase is absurd, attempting to top itself repeatedly through increased bloodshed and plot twists. That is precisely the point – that corporate bloodthirst has been taken to its carnal extremes. Appealing as Hennie is (one can’t help but root for him after he is subjected to an hour of unrelenting assault), director Morten Tyldum fails in his ignoble regurgitation of Hollywood style. The needless voice-over narration and a persistent score make things feel suspiciously sleek when the material itself is as gritty as can be. An American remake is already in the works, and while it isn’t necessarily a story that merits a revisitation, a satisfying directorial vision might salvage the material in a way that compliments its visceral pleasures with a subtle, unobtrusive telling.

Bernie (2011)
July 5, 2012, 6:36 am
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Director: Richard Linklater

For over two decades, Texan Richard Linklater has quietly been carving out a career for himself that marks him as one of the most versatile American directors of his time. Bernie, his latest, is a reliable detour, showing him experiment with docudrama in a way that mimics the Errol Morris aesthetic. Based on a 1998 article published in Texas Monthly magazine, the picture follows a high-spirited, relentlessly charitable funeral director who was convicted of murdering an 81-year-old woman. As the title character, Jack Black shows an unusual restraint and sensitivity – as much as the real-life man’s femininity could have been mocked, Black instead opts to show the genuinely good-hearted Bernie with sincerity, making the audience consistently empathize with the most unlikely of killers. Linklater, for whom Texas provided the setting of his nostalgic comedies Slacker and Dazed & Confused, similarly doesn’t treat the small-townsfolk as simple-minded, but rather people who can’t fathom how a loved-one could have done something so horrifically out-of-character. That it doesn’t answer the question (beyond the fact that the woman was especially mean) is frustrating but tastefully objective. Frivolous as it seems in the early-goings, Bernie craftily sneaks up on you, with Linklater accenting the underlying sadness of the man and allowing Black a platform with which to produce his career-best work.

Take This Waltz (2011)
July 5, 2012, 5:59 am
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 Director: Sarah Polley

In Take This Waltz – the sophomore directorial effort from Canadian actress Sarah Polley, whose Away from Her was one of the most striking narrative debuts in some time – Michelle Williams and Luke Kirby play a couple of thirty-somethings who have an innocent meet cute in Nova Scotia, only to discover that they’re really neighbors in Toronto wherein Williams lives with her loving husband, played by Seth Rogen. Whereas Polley’s adaptation of an Alice Munro short story showed a remarkable maturity in the way that she depicted a 44-year-old marriage, the emotional truths in her second feature are scarcer to come by, surfacing mostly in the final thirty minutes of a picture otherwise overcome with artifice. The greatest disappointment is that it often feels like a debut feature, rife with needless montages and sometimes cringe-worthy dialogue (Williams’ character explains early on that she’s afraid of connecting flights, as an example). Kirby, handsome and serviceable to the plot but nothing more, helps revolutionize the manic pixie dream boy – a rickshaw-driving artist who playfully teases women during Colonial re-enactments. For the falsity of the details, it’s an easy picture to hate in the early-goings, though Polley often finds momentary redemption with quiet observations similar to the ones that made her first feature so terrific. Williams and Rogen speak almost exclusively in a sort of violent baby talk, and one is never quite sure whether this means that their connection maintains its youthful flirtatiousness, or that they’ve simply lost sight of what it means to communicate. The end, which questions whether Williams has made the right choice and, even if she did, whether it will matter in the end, is enormously satisfying, but it doesn’t entirely overcome Polley’s otherwise disappointing reliance on affectation.

Monsieur Lazhar (2011)
June 30, 2012, 7:33 pm
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Director: Philippe Falardeau

On the surface of it, Monsieur Lazhar looks to be a safe pick for a nomination in the Best Foreign Language category at the Academy Awards. In fact, it seems safe no matter the context – this rooting itself from the “inspirational teacher” genre, in which one remarkable person cultivates a transformation in a room full of scoundrels. Director Philippe Falardeau has much more on his mind than expected with the trope, however. Whereas Laurent Cantet’s The Class was a sort of anti-inspirational teacher movie in that it explored, among other things, an utter failure to communicate, Monsieur Lazhar is not so much a film about grieving, but about the institutions in place that prevent true human connection. In the opening scene, it is revealed that a beloved teacher at a middle school has hung herself in her classroom. The titular Bachir Lazhar, an inexperienced Algerian man applying for political asylum, presents himself to the school’s principle and suggests that he’s the correct man to replace her. In an improbable turn of events, he is given the opportunity to do so. Lazhar’s fullest intentions are unknown, but having recently suffered the death of a loved one himself, it would appear that he is looking to experience a kinship with the students. Of course, however, the administration at the school and the parents of the children are not happy with Lazhar bringing up the suicide, and they are especially stringent about him having any physical contact with the kids, which includes comforting touches and hugs. The setting of the classroom becomes a microcosm for society as a whole, with Falardeau perhaps suggesting that we’ve all become so guarded, so restricted by socially accepted manners that we’ve lost the forum to come together and simply embrace our fellow man.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)
June 28, 2012, 7:09 am
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Director: John Madden

It was an amusing coincidence that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel served as counter-programming for the box office colossus that was The Avengers. The pacing of each film is nearly identical in their developing moments, introducing a number of major stars before bringing them together as a collective spectacle. What appealed to people about the Marvel franchise had much to do not only with the characterizations of the various heroes but with Joss Whedon’s wry sarcasm, however none of such pleasant surprises are to be found in John Madden’s directorial effort. Once the joy of seeing Bill Nighy, Judi Dench, and Maggie Smith occupying the frame together has worn off, one is left with a relatively witless, entirely-too-safe drama, with each emotional note not only predictable but nauseatingly overplayed. A ham-handed line of dialogue and the wildly misjudged symbolism of a bird in flight brings more sighs than genuine tears in the picture’s most sobering juncture. The locale, though well-shot, narratively serves only to reflect the basest of tourist curiosities – the general “oohs” and “aahs” and the unspecific notions about how being in a new place will inevitably prove enlightening. While it earns its laughs here and there (Maggie Smith is particularly delightful, and Bill Nighy is quaint and charming after a series of more treacherous performances in American films), the picture can’t ever quite overcome the fact that it doesn’t contain a genuine moment.

Damsels in Distress (2011)
June 27, 2012, 7:02 am
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Director: Whit Stillman

Since 1990’s Metropolitan, Whit Stillman has been addressing the social elite – that is, characters that would be flattered to be christened as yuppies – with a uniquely stylized dialogue that is heavy on wit. In Damsels in Distress, the familiar artificiality of Stillman’s universe is transplanted into Seven Oaks, an east coast college wherein, according to Violet, a trend-setting blonde played by Greta Gerwig, male barbarism predominates. Violet and her disciples take on a promising new-comer in the similarly florally-named Lily, and together the group seeks men who have not yet realized their full potential in an act that they consider to be charitable. The female cast is impressive – Gerwig is as natural a screen presence as any actress of her generation, and Analeigh Tipton, an America’s Next Top Model alumni with irresistible doe-like eyes, plays the fledgling debutante with a refreshing lack of gullibility. Where Stillman falters is in his men, not exclusively in the way that they’re written (ostensibly as simple-minded brutes), but in the performances, which are too broad for an Adam Sandler vehicle. Whereas an actress like Megalyn Echikunwoke can earn a laugh with her umpteenth delivery of “playboy operator”, the central frat boys seem desperate every time they’re on screen, grinding the picture to an unfortunate halt.

Keyhole (2011)
June 20, 2012, 12:03 am
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Director: Guy Maddin

A naked old man chained in the attic watches over his daughter. Mobsters hole themselves downstairs as the police form a perimeter around the mansion. The recently drowned girl among them is suspiciously cognizant. Such is the world of Guy Maddin’s Keyhole, and to anyone who has previously acquainted themselves with the Canadian auteur’s phantasmagorias, little comes as a surprise. Long before The Artist, Maddin has painstakingly attempted to recreate the look of silent and early sound cinema, drawing much from the likes of F.W. Murnau and Robert Wiene. Keyhole might be his easiest to pigeonhole into any sort of genre – it is roughly a film noir, with a melodramatic narrative as seen through the eyes of a haunted, Humphrey Bogart-like protagonist. Yet other touches are otherworldly sensationalist, such as the appearances of Kids in the Hall veteran Kevin McDonald, who spends much of the film having sex with a ghost in a sort of permanent trance. Although Maddin’s ideas are largely recycled from his previous, better films – voyeurism and other fetishisms, the relationships between overbearing parents and their children, memories from the past resurfacing and further disorienting the sense of narrative – the director has certainly not lost his ability to enchant, fascinate, and confound.

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
May 1, 2012, 9:50 pm
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Director: Drew Goddard

The much discussed meta horror comedy The Cabin in the Woods comes, according to screenwriters Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, as a direct response to the violent, cynical trends that have permeated contemporary horror cinema since the beginning of the century in money-making series’ like Final Destination, Saw, and Hostel. To attack these modern gore films, Goddard and Whedon have constructed a world in which a disposable group of teens are slaughtered by a set of circumstances that are contrived by higher-ups in an industrial complex. When the kids act too smart, for instance, their air becomes polluted with pheromones that will inevitably encourage them to have gratuitous sex. As a piece of genre criticism, the efforts of the filmmakers are astute and, if not necessarily revelatory in the post-Scream world, endearing. The necessity of the Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford characters – not unlike the game-makers of The Hunger Games franchise – is not merely to comment on the audience’s indifference to the violence that they witness on screen, but as self-reflexive substitutes of the writers, directors, and editors of a genre picture. Through them, the contrivances of the typical “cabin in the woods” narrative are directly addressed – the series of types (including the “virgin”, who will most certainly outlast her companions), the ominous gas station attendant who sets the horrific tone, and, ultimately, irrational survival behavior. Several post-modern genre pictures have made knowing quips about their own predictability, but The Cabin the Woods is quite different in that it is an attack on the filmmakers and studios that continue to produce such sadomasochistic monotony. Once Goddard and Whedon have exhausted this exploration, however, what follows in the latter half is an, if visually interesting, ultimately tedious exercise involving Gods, monsters, and the woman behind the curtain. Amidst all of the climactic carnage, it is easy to forget the initial intelligence that was present in the writing.