A Ghost Story


When I’m left alone, there’s a ghost in the house.

(2017) Drama (A24) Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, McColm Cephas Jr., Kenneisha Thompson, Grover Coulson, Liz Cardenas Franke, Barlow Jacobs, Richard Krause, Dagger Salazar, Sonia Acevedo, Carlos Bermudez, Yasmina Gutierrez, Kimberly Fiddes, Daniel Escudero, Kesha Sebert, Jared Kopf, Afomia Hailemeskel, Will Oldham, Brea Grant, Augustine Frizzell. Directed by David Lowery

 

Life inevitably ends with death. It is a defining factor of our lives; most fear death as the ultimate unknown, the cessation of things familiar. Some, those in pain or those who have lived too long, welcome it. Either way, we all eventually experience it.

This masterpiece of a film starts with a young couple – Affleck and Mara – moving into a single story ranch house. He’s a musician; the two are quietly, deeply in love. There are some strange bumps in the night but they seem content enough. Their happiness in their new home is short-lived; he dies in a car accident just yards from his front door. She goes to the morgue to identify his body, then attendant and wife leave the room. The body sits straight up in a parody of horror film tropes. The ghost, resembling an imagination-challenged Halloween costume of a sheet with eye holes cut out, shuffles out of the hospital, pausing before a bright light and then shuffling on home.

There the ghost observes the grief of his wife, watching her numbly eat a pie a neighbor left, slumping on the floor, tears falling as she eats. Eventually, she leaves but the ghost remains through different owners, even past when the home is leveled and an office building put in. Future becomes past. Time circles in on itself.

And that is all the plot you need to know. This is an elegiac film, melancholy almost to the point of heartbreak. A gorgeous score heightens the feeling. Affleck after the first few minutes must act entirely with body language and one can sense the sadness and longing coming from him despite the fact we cannot see anything of his face or body, he contributes to the emotional tone. Mara gets to put on a more traditional performance and she’s excellent. Everything is filmed in a kind of gauzy sepia with the corners of the screen rounded, like an antique photograph.

Not everyone is going to like this or “get” this. When it debuted at Sundance earlier this year the audience was sharply divided. Among my friends there are those who loved this film and others who didn’t like it at all. Some of you are going to find it boring and confusing. Others are going to find insights that will keep you haunted by this film for a long time to come. It likely won’t make a lot of awards lists this year but even so it may very well be the best movie of 2017 and should be seen, even just to decide whether you love it or hate it.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is beautiful and melancholy. The score is lovely and atmospheric. Lowery lets the audience fill in the blanks. This is more of a cinematic poem than a traditional story.
REASONS TO STAY: The non-linear storytelling method may be confusing to some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as a single disturbing image.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lowery used profits from Pete’s Dragon to make this film. It was filmed in secret and the project not even announced until filming had already wrapped.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: If I Stay
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
A Different Set of Cards

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Baywatch


Ladies, you are most welcome!

(2017) Action Comedy (Paramount) Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Priyanka Chopra, Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach, Ilfenesh Hadera, Jon Bass, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Hannibal Buress, Rob Huebel, Amin Joseph, Jack Kesy, Oscar Nuñez, David Hasselhoff, Pamela Anderson, Clem Cheung, Belinda, Charlotte McKinney, Izabel Goulart, Arian Foster, Vernon Davis, Eros Exarhou. Directed by Seth Gordon

 

Television shows, particularly popular ones, tend to be products of their own era. They reflect the tastes and mores of their times; that doesn’t always make them dated so much as it makes it easily identifiable when they were made. Nobody can doubt, for example, that Welcome Back, Kotter was a product of the 70s, 21 Jump Street was a product of the 80s or that Baywatch was a product of the 90s. When transferring these products to the big screen, a certain amount of updating is necessary for them not to seem hopelessly anachronistic. That generally requires a change in tone from serious to self-mocking.

Mitch Buchannon (Johnson) is not only a lifeguard, he’s the lifeguard. He leads a crack team that includes CJ Parker (Rohrbach) and Stephanie Holden (Hadera). It’s that time of year when new trainees are being welcomed into the program and this year’s group is an odd lot, including the overweight nebbish Ronnie Greenbaum (Bass), the perky but serious Summer Quinn (Daddario) and the disgraced ex-Olympic swimmer Matt Brody (Efron) who is only there because he’s doing community service for a drunk and disorderly conviction.

Affable Mitch and arrogant Matt take to each other like hurricanes and small Caribbean islands, but they are more or less stuck with each other. When a body washes up on the beach, Mitch is suspicious. Eventually the evidence points back to Victoria Leeds (Chopra) a sexy but amoral real estate developer who intends to make the Bay private. Of course that doesn’t sit well with Mitch to begin with and when the local cop (Mateen) expresses disinterest, he decides to investigate on his own with Matt protesting that llifeguards aren’t crime fighters.

Nonetheless the Baywatch team takes on Victoria’s band of thugs and killers and she outsmarts them, leading to the breakup of the team. The only way for the Baywatch family to remain intact is to prove that Victoria is behind the infusion of drugs into the area and the murders that will allow her master plan to flourish.

I expected to really hate this and given the dismal reviews it got, it’s not hard to understand why. I was surprised that it was actually not that bad – not earth-shattering stuff mind you but I don’t think it was ever intended to be. This is, after all, based on Baywatch folks, not Shakespeare in the Park. This isn’t meant to be anything more than entertaining and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

As you might imagine, this isn’t your pappy’s Baywatch. This is far raunchier than the 90s version – I don’t recall ever seeing someone’s junk getting caught in a sun chair on the show – and there is a self-deprecating tone that I’m pretty sure was missing from the original, although I must admit that I wasn’t really a fan of the show; having lived near beaches almost all of my life the sight of buff tanned bodies in skimpy swimsuits really doesn’t do anything for me when it comes to making choices for regular TV viewing. If I want to see that, I just have to drive no more than 45 minutes and I’ve got all I can handle. But I digress…

Johnson is perfect for this kind of role. He has that easygoing persona with a core of “I can kick your ass anytime I feel like it” below the surface. He’s always had a natural comic timing so action movies with a comedic bent have always suited him best, although he’s just fine at straight action also. He’s one of the most charismatic leads working in Hollywood currently, on the level of Will Smith and Mark Wahlberg. This is right in his wheelhouse.

Efron has shown in the two Neighbors films that nobody does snarky like he does. He plays one of those characters here that you can’t stand from the beginning but who deep down isn’t a bad guy. Eventually you just know he’s going to turn it around and he does; Efron has to make the change believable and he also does.

This is in many ways the ultimate summer movie; light, mindless, amusing and utterly forgettable. You can smell the sun screen, feel the rays warming your skin and hear the gulls squawking above the surf hours after the movie is over. If you’re looking for a movie that is going to push the boundaries of cinema, this isn’t it. This was never going to be it. If however you’re looking for something that is going to take your mind off of things for a couple of hours, keep you entertained and maybe even get you to laugh out loud a couple of times, you’ve found what you are looking for and as the fall and winter begin to turn temperatures colder, some of you are going to need this movie to keep you going until the next summer rolls around.

REASONS TO GO: It was funnier than I expected it to be.
REASONS TO STAY: Its welcome is worn out quickly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including crude sexual humor and innuendo as well as brief but graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Johnson and Daddario previously worked together on San Andreas.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lifeguard
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Crown Heights

The Autopsy of Jane Doe


The face of death.

The face of death.

(2016) Horror (IFC Midnight) Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Olwen Kelly, Ophelia Lovibond, Michael McElhatton, Parker Sawyers, Jane Perry, Mary Duddy, Mark Phoenix, Sydney, Yves O’Hara. Directed by André Ǿvredal

 

When we die often the most reliable evidence for how we died is our actual bodies. The things scraped from under our fingernails, the DNA inside our mouths, the lesions in the skin and the damage to internal organs all tell a story. That story not only tells the coroner  how we died but also how we lived.

Tommy Tilden (Cox) and his son Austin (Hirsch) run the Tilden mortuary (in the family for generations) in a small Virginia town. They also act as the town’s medical examiners. It’s just been the two men since Tommy’s wife passed on several years ago, but Austin has a pretty girlfriend named Emma (Lovibond) who unbeknownst to Dad has been urging Austin to follow his dreams which don’t include being a medical examiner in a small town. Austin has been trying to find a way to break the news to Tommy when Sheriff Sheldon (McElhatton) brings in a body that he needs autopsied right away, even though it’s well past business hours.

Jane Doe (Kelly) was discovered buried in the basement of a home where a brutal mass murder took place. What she was doing there is a mystery as is what relation she might have had to the killings; the Sheriff needs answers and is relying on Tommy to give them to him quickly. Tommy agrees to stay and even though Austin and Emma were about to leave on a date, Austin blows her off to help Dad out, not wanting him to be left holding the bag on what looks to be a rough autopsy.

For one thing, the body appears to be pristine – no evidence of external wounds or even a clue as to what the cause of death might be. Once the two open up the body though some unsettling facts begin to come to life; the victim’s tongue was severed, for one thing. Her lungs are black as if she had inhaled smoke. Also her wrists and ankles are broken even though there’s no external bruising.

As they perform the autopsy a bad storm hits town but now some odd things are happening. The radio changes stations on its own. The doors to the storage units for the bodies in the morgue open on their own. And there’s evidence that the dead may be walking around again and no Sheriff Andy to save the day. When things at last get to be too creepy, Tommy decides to get out (which Austin had been urging him to do for some time) but it’s far too late now. They are trapped inside the morgue with a supernatural entity who may have a bone or two to pick with them.

Ǿvredal is the Norwegian director best known for The Troll Hunter, a very different kind of horror film. This one has less of a sense of humor than his last movie and is his first English language film. It’s a whiz bang effort that relies much more on creepy atmosphere rather than over-the-top effects; like that film, there isn’t a ton of character development either.

One of his smarter moves was to cast Emile Hirsch as Austin. Hirsch is an often underrated actor who given some of his performances should at least be in the top echelon of actors but for whatever reason hasn’t gotten that kind of recognition. He plays Austin as a pretty decent guy who wants to do the right thing but has a bit of a backbone problem. Cox is one of the most respected character actors out there with such roles as Hannibal Lecter (he originated the role in Manhunter) and General William Stryker (from X-Men 2). His Tommy Tilden is very proud of his son, a pride that doesn’t allow him to see that his boy is moving down a different path than he. I would have liked to have seen more of the dynamic between them but once the horror action starts basically that element is left behind.

Otherwise, the movie is extremely well-written and creates a mythology that is easy to follow and yet is original. The ending is a bit of a letdown but not much of one; it certainly leaves room for a sequel and I have to admit that there is some appeal in the possibility that this might become a horror movie franchise, although I’ll grant you that to my mind there aren’t a lot of places a franchise can go to with this concept. The concept here – following a corpse through the autopsy process with terrifying results – is a solid one that is unique so far as I know.

The scary stuff starts pretty quickly into the movie but it doesn’t feel rushed. It builds, rather, and it builds fast. Once it gets going even horror veterans are going to find their hearts pounding and their adrenaline rushing through their systems. It’s legitimately scary and those who are sensitive to gore and nudity (the corpse of Jane Doe is naked throughout) are well-advised to consider carefully whether this is the film for them.

There has been a renaissance in horror movies over the past decade or so and Ǿvredal is one of the leading lights of it. We have seen some movies that are sure to be classics of the genre over the past three or four years in particular and this one is likely to be one of them. It’s a great time to be a horror fan and movies like this one are the reason why.

REASONS TO GO: If you love scary movies, this is the one for you. Terrific performances by Cox and Hirsch drive the film.  Ǿvredal creates a terrifying atmosphere that doesn’t relent during the entire film. Ǿvredal doesn’t wait too long to get into the thick of the horror.
REASONS TO STAY: This may be too intense for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  There are some extremely gruesome images, plenty of foul language, graphic nudity and some intense violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  After seeing The Conjuring, director Ǿvredal told his agent that he wanted to do a horror film for his next project and to find him a good script. This is the one that his agent brought to him and Ǿvredal was immediately taken by it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Witch
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Chapter & Verse

Manchester by the Sea


Grief is an emotion best shared.

Grief is an emotion best shared.

(2016) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson, Josh Hamilton, Tate Donovan, Jami Tennille Mingo, Anna Baryshnikov, Liam McNeill, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward, Joe Stapleton, Brian Chamberlain, Christian Mallen, Oscar Wahlberg, Ruibo Qian, Tom Kemp, Chloe Dixon, Matthew Broderick, Quincy Tyler Bernstine. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

 

Joseph Conrad famously wrote that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” but like all aphorisms, it isn’t always true. There are some things, some horrible terrible things, that may not necessarily kill us but they destroy us emotionally, mentally and spiritually. They turn us into the living dead, unable to recover, unable to die.

Lee Chandler (Affleck) is someone like that. He works as a handyman/janitor in several apartment buildings in Quincy, Massachusetts, taken for granted and overlooked – and quite happy in that circumstance. He’s good at what he does, but when he gets guff from the tenants he tends to give it right back. He hangs out in bars, ignoring the come-ons of attractive women and then getting into meaningless bar fights, exploding over the slightest provocation.

His routine is disrupted with the news that his big brother Joe (Chandler) has died suddenly. Joe has had heart problems for years so it isn’t completely unexpected but it is still a devastating blow. Both brothers are divorced but Joe does have a son Patrick (Hedges) that lives with him since it turns out that his mom (Mol) is a raging alcoholic. Lee for whatever reason has been unable to forgive her for this. Lee goes back to Manchester-by-the-sea, a North Shore town where he grew up but he has left for good reason.

To Lee’s dismay, it turns out that Joe in his will named Lee as Patrick’s guardian. It also turns out that Joe has left enough money that will assist Lee in paying for things that Patrick will need. Lee has no intention of taking care of Patrick in Manchester – he wants Patrick to finish out the school year and then live with him in Quincy until he goes to college but Patrick balks. His whole life is there in Manchester – two girlfriends and a truly bad garage band – but he doesn’t want to start over, particularly with his Uncle who is taciturn, grim-faced and possessed of an explosive temper that gets him into trouble.

Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Williams) is seeing someone else but seems eager to re-connect with Lee, which Lee seems absolutely against. There are those in town who seem to have some sort of issue with Lee as well; most seem to shy away from him, as if he’s a bomb with a hair trigger. Bit by bit, we discover why Lee has these walls up…but can anything bring them down?

Most Hollywood movies dealing with a broken man (and Lee Chandler is most assuredly broken) who is forced unwillingly to become responsible for a child (although Patrick is 16 years old) usually end up with the broken man being fixed by the experience. Manchester by the Sea is a refreshing change from that trope as Lee is changed, but not fixed. The pain he is in is still there when the movie ends, and it is clear that pain will always be with him – and understandably so. What he has to live with is not something that people can just fix and forget.

Affleck, who in many ways has always been in the shadows of his brother Ben, has emerged with this performance. Oh sure, we always knew he could act – Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and several other examples are proof of that. Here though he is an odds on favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar and is a lock to get at least a nomination. This is the kind of performance that sears the soul of the viewer and stays there; it is a performance one can view again and again and still find something fresh and new about it. It is the step one takes from being a good actor to being a great one, and it is worth celebrating – we can always use great actors and Casey Affleck has become one.

Much of the movie is concerned with grief and how different people experience it. One point that Lonergan makes is that no matter how together someone seems on the surface, eventually that pain must manifest itself in some way or another, either through tears or walls or both. There are several scenes – a late film encounter between Lee and his ex, the moment when Patrick finally breaks down, the aftermath of a tragedy – that are as important as any you’ll see in a movie this year, or any other for that matter.

This is a movie firmly entrenched in working class values. Hollywood has a tendency to either mythologize those values, or condescend towards them. Lonergan does neither; he simply presents them as he sees them and allows the audience to draw their own conclusions. He doesn’t shy away from allowing people to think either; there are a lot of concepts here worthy of post-movie discussion and while it can be a hard movie to sit through, it is rewarding because of that reason. The subject matter is heavy and Lonergan refuses to take short cuts or dumb things down.

I know a lot of people mistrust Hollywood as a bastion of liberal elitism and there’s some justification for that. Those people who feel that way should see this movie. It is a celebration of life in the midst of pain and death. It doesn’t shy away from the realities of life but it doesn’t wallow in them either. It finds the quiet bravery of just getting up in the morning without making a fuss about it. In short, this is one of the best movies of 2016 and one which you should make every effort to see.

REASONS TO GO: A show-stopping performance by Casey Affleck is one of the best of the year. Grief is looked at in an honest and realistic way. The attitude is completely working class in a good way. This film doesn’t dumb itself down for its audience.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is a little bit on the slow side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language, some sexual situations and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project was originally intended for Matt Damon to direct and star in, but conflicts with The Martian forced him to withdraw.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 96/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Angels Crest
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Vacancy

After.Life


After.Life

Who knew the dead could be so hot?

(2009) Horror (Anchor Bay) Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson, Justin Long, Josh Charles, Chandler Canterbury, Celia Watson, Luz Ramos, Rosemary Murphy, Malachy McCourt, Shuler Hensley, Alice Drummond, Sam Kressner, Erin Ward. Directed by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo

Dead is dead, or so conventional wisdom would have it. Once we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, the party’s over. What happens then is highly up to speculation.

Anna Taylor (Ricci) is a beautiful young teacher who has the world opening up to her on the horizon. Her boyfriend Paul (Long) is about to propose when they go out to dinner but they get into an argument. Anna storms out of the restaurant and drives off, angry and emotional, the rain falling in sheets. Inevitably, she gets into a nasty accident.

When she wakes up, she’s in the morgue, attended to by Deacon (Neeson) who informs her that she’s dead. Deacon has the special gift of being able to communicate with the dead under his care, able to help transition them from this life to the afterlife. Anna finds this difficult to accept. Deacon counters that most of the newly dead find their new situation hard to accept. They always whine that they have so much left to do, so much unfinished business.

Anna feels alive though and nothing Deacon can say or do will dissuade her. She wants to call her  boyfriend to rescue her from this maniac keeping her against her will in this terrible place; but from his point of view he’s trying to help her accept her fate and move on to her final rest. But is she alive as she asserts that she is, or dead as Deacon maintains that she is?

This is an intriguing concept that has a “Twilight Zone”-esque quality to it. First-time director Wojtowicz-Vosloo doesn’t always know what to do with it. Her job, as I see it, is to keep audiences off-balance without giving away the answer to the question “is she or isn’t she” and for the most part, she succeeds. Occasionally though she stumbles, sometimes failing to maintain the inner logic of the situation. Of course, that’s more the fault of the script than the direction but as she also co-wrote the script, she doesn’t really have that out.

Ricci is lustrous here, spending a good chunk of the movie nude (and also a bluish shade which kind of increases the allure) and her trademark gothic waif look is perfect for the role. Her physical charms notwithstanding, she also gives the part a certain amount of emotional wallop, going through stages of grief (denial, anger, fear) while never becoming shrill.

She has some great chemistry with Neeson, who is such a great actor that even a role like this which doesn’t really push him all that much he still manages to imbue with his charisma and invite the audience to get invested. The movie’s main selling point is to make it ambiguous as to whether Deacon is a kindly guide or an evil monster. Neeson pulls it off so that either option is possible.

I’ve mentioned “The Twilight Zone” and that’s not necessarily a bad thing – but the movie here, rather than paying homage to the show tries to emulate it a bit too much. There is not so much a Rod Serling influence rather than an attempt to bring him back from the dead and the corpse doesn’t smell too good to be honest.

That aside, the concept is good and the acting solid enough so that it gets a pass for all its flaws. Sometimes critics such as myself just have to get past what a movie could have been and accept it for  what it is. No doubt this could have been a whole lot better – but it is as is good enough for me.

WHY RENT THIS: Spooky and atmospheric. Ricci and Neeson have some great exchanges.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script should be more ambiguous and let the audience figure out whether or not Anna is dead. Too much Rod Serling here.

FAMILY VALUES: The whole theme is pretty disturbing; there’s also some nudity and sexuality as well as a buttload of bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The prop knife used by Ricci during the film is the same one Glenn Close used in Fatal Attraction.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2M on an unreported production budget; in all likelihood this lost money or broke even at best.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Ides of March