Rich Hill

August 29, 2014 at 4:34 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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◊ ½

Clayton Dillard, writing for Slant Magazine, referred to this documentary as “poverty porn.” That seems a bit harsh to me. Do we want to suggest that it is not possible for a film to chronicle less fortunate lives without being exploitative? These sorts of films, by their nature, are about audiences observing those who lack something they take for granted and, it seems to me, there is little more that a movie can hope for then to simply open some eyes. If that is gratuitous, then our archives are filled with countless films, both documentary and fiction, that are some form of “porn.” However, that push back aside, I cannot wholly embrace this documentary, either. Taking place mostly in Rich Hill, Missouri, the film follows three boys (Andrew, Harley and Appachey), ages 13-15, over what looks to be about a year’s time. The film cuts back and forth between the three boys’ stories, as told by them and their families. With a brutal, heart-wrenching honestly, they share their hopes, pain and desperation with the camera. In the end, there is far too little hope and far too much pain and desperation. This is where I struggled with the film. Even at a lean 91 minutes, it felt agonizingly long, partly because there is no narrative, no story arc, no movement for any of the characters and, partly because everything is so damn depressing. Their lives were pain before the filmmakers ever started shooting, they were pain the entire time, and they will almost certainly continue to be pain long after the cameras are gone. That is really heavy stuff and, without some sense of hope or movement to ground the audience, it feels like overload. It is deeply saddening to know that so much of America lives with such poverty, powerlessness, rage, drugs and abuse. It reminded me of how disconnected I am from how so many people in this country live. But, what can I do with that? Some films like “Bully” or “Waiting for Superman” can disturb us but also act as a rallying cry for change. But I did not leave this film energized or hopefully or angry; I just left it exhausted. At one point, Andrew says that he keeps praying to God every night but He hasn’t answered yet. He speculates that must be because God is busy with everyone else. He says he will keep praying because, at some point, God has to answer him.  If not, he says, “it’s going to break my heart.” Yeah, well, Rich Hill broke mine.

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Frank

August 27, 2014 at 1:00 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

This odd little gem is hard to describe.  It’s based loosely on the true story of Frank Sidebottom, a character played by singer/musician Chris Sievey.  In real life, Sievey (who died of throat cancer at 55) stepped in and out of the character of Frank (who wore a giant fiberglass head) all the time.  While as Frank, he performed his weirdly perky/disturbing songs all over England, gaining a small amount of fame and an even smaller following, sometimes despite his apparent best efforts to undermine himself.  In the film, Frank never removes the head and nobody knows what he looks like (a particularly sly joke, given that we all know he’s played by Michael Fassbender).  He and his unpronounceable band sit around being pretentious and making wholly intolerable music together.  The film is told from the point of view of Jon, played by Irish actor, Domhnall Gleeson (“Calvary,” “About Time,” best known for Bill Weasley in the “Harry Potter” series and, like every other almost-known in Hollywood, is going to be in the new “Star Wars” film).   He represents Jon Ronson, who wrote the screenplay based on his own experience with Sievey and Frank.  Jon is the audience’s window into the absurdity and he observes it with a sometimes wry/sometimes naive detachment.  Most of the film proceeds from this perspective and is absurdist, silly and oddly funny.  But, during the second half, the movie takes on a darker, more menacing tone that creeps in so slowly that, though I can see the exact moment it began in retrospect, I did not notice it until long after it had descended.  This tone shifts again toward an unexpected sentimentality for the last quarter of the film.  And, while it got dangerously close to becoming a sappy mess at one point, it judiciously pulled back and the final scene, while definitely sentimental, felt well-earned, sweet and effective.  In those moments, Frank appeared to be channeling the late Ian Curtis from Joy Division.  It was a brilliant touch that helped ground Frank in the real world.  Yes, this film is absurd and Frank is absurd but creativity does not come without a price and, for some, that price is their sanity.

Calvary

August 17, 2014 at 4:23 pm | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

It has taken me a week since seeing this movie before I could write about it. It was all just a bit too intense and I needed time to let it digest and to figure out what I thought of it. I warn you all now, this is not the movie for most people. The very first line of the film is, “I was seven years old the first time I tasted semen” and it goes from there. If you cannot stomach the implications of a story starting like that, you best stay away. I must admit, there is part of me that wishes I had. The story is billed as a black comedy but, I warn you, it’s more of a black hole; no light escapes at all.  For an hour and forty minutes, you will be subjected to the bleakest of views of the human condition with, yes, an occasional uncomfortable chuckle along the way.   Taking place entirely in a small Irish town, the story covers 7 days in a priest’s life as he wallows in the misery of the local villagers.  This story is more metaphor than anything else and each person is an archetype of suffering, almost all of it self-imposed.  Our hero priest, played beautifully by Brendan Gleeson (“In Bruges,” “The Guard” and Madeye Mooney in the “Harry Potter” series), bares the suffering of the world nobly enough but one is forced to wonder what for? Calvary is the hill upon which Christ was crucified and it’s clear that Gleeson’s character represents Christ but the takeaway from this story seems to be nothing so much as Christ’s sacrifice was utterly in vain. He should have stayed home in bed for all the good it did. That’s bleak stuff. Now some may wish to debate this interpretation and, fair enough; this film certainly leaves room for much discussion, particularly about the meaning of the ending. And, perhaps, there in lies the conundrum for me. I did not like this movie. On a personal, emotional, level, it was too bleak and, perhaps hit too close to home, for me to judge objectively. Yet, there is something there. Gleeson is superb as the deeply broken, world-weary priest and he leads a fine cast of Irish regulars, including Kelly Reilly (the “Sherlock Holmes” films), Aidan Gillen (“Game of Thrones”), and Chris O’Dowd (“The IT Crowd”), all of whom turn in great performances. The cinematography effectively captures both the grotesque and the graceful and some scenes are beautifully framed in their simplicity, using negative space to great advantage. The script is brutal but almost perfectly written, building tension unrelentingly toward a catharsis that may be more numbing than revelatory but is a release, none-the-less. There is something almost scriptural about this film, as though it could be a modern biblical parable, with all of the same potential to enlighten, confound or infuriate. Are there answers in “Calvary?” I guess it depends on what questions you’re asking and what answers you’ll accept.

 

 

Guardians of the Galaxy

August 9, 2014 at 11:10 am | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

With this summer romp, Marvel has thrown their hat into the sci-fi ring, bringing to this genre the same tongue-in-cheek and referential humor that has helped them make superheroes accessible to more than just adolescent males (of all ages). Science fiction can often struggle under its own weighty self-importance and where “Guardians” is at its best is when it is upending that formula. The film takes its audience through the typical high-paced, effects-ladened thrill ride with enough acumen to appease the standard sci-fi junkie but there is nothing particularly new or interesting there. The visuals are great (all the aliens, ships, cities look cool) but not impressive. There were no “wow” moments on screen (in fact, there rarely are these days). And the plot itself has nothing to recommend it; it’s ridiculously convoluted and ultimately unimportant (other than to set up a baddie for future movies in the Marvel pantheon). Yet, despite all of that, the film is anything but mediocre. It is, in fact, a hell of a lot of fun. Credit goes first to the whip-sharp script by director James Gunn and screenwriter Nicole Perlman (not only is this Perlman’s first Hollywood script but she is the first female scriptwriter that Marvel has ever employed). They manage to create line after line of clever, charming or bitingly funny dialogue. Lead actor Chris Pratt (“Parks & Recreation”) is especially effective at delivering the lines with a world-weary/naive goofiness that is a sheer pleasure to watch. In fact, he is the other key piece to the film’s success. The other actors are solid but their performances do not particularly stand out (though the fantastic Lee Pace– “Pushing Daisies,” “Halt and Catch Fire” — makes a fun and cartoonishly ominous villain). It is Pratt who seems to inherently understand the pacing of the film’s humor; he delivers every line without overselling it. The movie got unfortunately bogged down toward the end with some unnecessary sentiment that felt like it was written more for the audience than for the characters. We didn’t need that and I, for one, didn’t want it. That aside, I enjoyed this film from start to finish. This is what a blockbuster is supposed to be: Fun. And I haven’t had this much pure fun at a summer movie in a while.

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