This is Us and We Are Terrifying

I was six years-old in 1986, and I have a vivid memory of the Hands Across America initiative. We were visiting my aunt’s house on the day it was to happen, and I thought that people were actually going to step out of their houses at the designated time and literally hold hands across the entire country. How disappointed I was when I eagerly ran out of my aunt’s house onto her front porch and saw no one holding hands. Jordan Peele must have had a similar memory, and he uses that sense of disappointment in hope as a set-up to his newest complex and fitfully terrifying horror opus, Us.

There’s a palpable sense of dread in the film’s 1986 prologue where a little girl wanders away from her parents at a Santa Cruz fun fair and has a harrowing experience in a house of mirrors. Later, as an adult, that same little girl finds herself back on that beach during a family vacation that leads to a home invasion by a red-suited, scissor-carrying family of shadows. Dopplegangers brood throughout Peele’s sophomore effort as a writer and director, and with a larger budget, he casts his net of ideas broader than he did in the succinctly satirical Get Out. There’s a lot going on here, and Peele has clearly found his groove in setting a unique mood, cutting tension with his now signature sense of humor, and then going all out in turning modern horror film tropes on their head. Bunnies and beaches, social commentary and mass killings, ballet and butchery…it’s all on the table, and it’s gripping, fascinating and sometimes confounding. Peele leaves no horror cliché unturned, including the twist ending, which I assumed during the first sand-tray therapy scene. In lesser hands, it could have become a bloody mess, but Peele shows complete control of his runaway train wreck. Continue reading

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Is this Hell in Transit?

In ways complex, subtle and surreal, Christian Petzold has crafted another enthralling think-piece / thriller with Transit. When troubled opportunist Georg (Franz Rogowski) agrees to deliver papers to a writer looking to flee the fascist take-over of France and quickly finds the writer has committed suicide, a sea of events take place leading to Georg to Marseilles where he becomes entangled in the stories of a multitude of refugees, including the dead writer’s wife, Marie (Paula Beer), who knows not her husband is dead and has fallen into the arms of an altruistic doctor (Godeheard Giese) who passed up a passage to Mexico to stay with her while she still pines for her husband to join her.

While this bizarre love triangle (or is it a square?) built upon stolen identities and pining for those already passed on (both literally and metaphorically) is enthralling enough on its own, Petzold layers in side stories to enrich Georg’s tale. When he first arrives in Marseilles from Paris, he has to deliver bad news to the wife and young son of his traveling companion who died in transit, and he quickly becomes immersed in their loneliness. The woman (now widowed) is mute and deaf, and the boy (now orphaned) is just looking for someone to play soccer with, and both had been waiting in Marseilles for the boy’s father who was to help them all flee to the mountains. Meanwhile Georg gets distracted by his own conflicting drives to flee and stay. His feelings for the boy (who has an asthma attack after Georg takes him to an amusement park) are what lead him to the doctor and Marie, and when he falls for Marie, too, his feelings and anguish only become more twisted. Meanwhile other refugees come and go from his stage (a sickly conductor, an architect stuck with her client’s abandoned dogs), all longing for someone to listen to their story, just as Georg ends up telling his story to the proprietor of the restaurant where he, Marie, and the doctor frequent.

Based on a novel by Anna Seghers, whose original context for the story was Nazi-occupied France, Petzold makes a bold choice in assigning no definitive time period to the story…it could’ve been told then…it’s certainly potent now. Continue reading

Widows: What Went Wrong

Steve McQueen’s Widows opens with the tense inter-cutting sequences of a heist gone horribly wrong and shows us in a few propulsive minutes how four women became the widows of the film’s title. It’s a cracker jack set-up to what promises to be an emotionally explosive thriller…but what follows is two hours of slow-burn that goes nowhere thanks to an undercooked screenplay and woefully underdeveloped characters. While McQueen shows us in brilliant brevity how these women became widows, Gillian Flynn’s screenplay gives us no insight into how they became wives of criminals or why their husbands were criminals in the first place. And when the women bond together for a heist, there’s nothing in them (except for Viola Davis’ natural fierceness that comes more from her as a performer than anything evident in Flynn’s limp writing), we have no emotional investment in the outcome or belief that they can pull it off.

Widows is one of those crime thrillers full of endless, clichéd scenes designed to show us how a character is one of three things: tough as hell, corrupt as hell, or trapped in hell. McQueen does his best to eek something out of the story with crisp, perfectly framed shots of environs and exquisite camerawork. Chicago, in a grim visual poetry, arises from the ashes of this junk heap of a story as the best written character. One scene where a corrupt politician (Colin Farrell) is being chauffeured from the bad side of a neighborhood to the posh side in just a few blocks is a minor masterpiece of sociopolitical commentary on gentrification and wealth inequality. Sadly, nothing else in the film elaborates on this in any insightful way. Continue reading

My Favorite Film Scores

It’s been two weeks since I experienced it in the theater, and I still can’t get Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk out of my mind.  It’s the best film of 2018 and one of the best of the decade, by the way.  I encourage you to see it in a theater with someone you love and then tell everyone you love about it.

One of the big reasons it continues to haunt me is Nicholas Britell’s extraordinary score.  The themes he created (especially “Eros” and “PTSD” and “Hypertension”) ear-wormed their way into the ever-present background music of my mind, and when they work their way to the forefront…Barry Jenkins’ images, James Baldwin’s characters, the performances, and most importantly, the feelings all come rushing back.  When I first heard “Eros” in the theater in the context of a poignant love scene, I instantly thought, “This might be one of the best film scores of all time.”  Then there was “PTSD” like a hammering heart building up to a panic attack in the background of that scene where Fonny’s friend, fresh from prison, slowly reveals his thoughts on his brief stint in prison and the worst part of it…the fear.  It’s echoed later in “Hypertension” when a racist cop harasses Fonny and Tish outside an Italian market.  You feel the fear not just through the characters, but through Britell’s music.  I knew right then, indeed, Britell had composed something for the ages.

My favorite film scores often mirror (and elevate) my favorite films.  They can’t be extracted from the context of the film they help breathe deeper life into.  When I hear the music in my head, images and feelings from those beloved films rush through me.  Memories from my life at the time I first saw the film, or from ensuing years where thoughts of the film or revisits punctuated pain, joy, and transitions often mix with the memories of the film.  All of it forming a rich tapestry or sound and images and feelings. Continue reading

Happy 2019 and 2018 Year in Review

Well, it’s 2019.

Looking back, 2018 was the most life-changing year of my life.  Though not without its share of heartbreak and struggles, I’ll focus on the positive here.

In February, I again changed the course of my career at the company I’ve been with for almost fifteen years, this time with a promotion into a different department with new mandates.

In July, I became a father when my wife and I welcomed our bouncing, baby boy.

And in November, I published my Depression Era noir novel, Then Came Darkness.  Which, as a New Years gift to my readers will be available for free download to your Kindle from January 1st through January 5th (after which it will return to its normal Kindle edition price of $4.99.  Paperback edition is always $11.99).

Here’s a quick recap of films, books, and travel at The Spin in 2018: Continue reading

Unbow Your Head in If Beale Street Could Talk

How does one even begin to unpack the layers of brilliance on display in If Beale Street Could Talk?

How does one even begin to unpack the impacts of hundreds of years of institutional racism on African-American culture, and society as a whole?

“Unbow your head, sister,” Tish’s older sister (Teyonah Parris) tells her after the revelation that Tish (Kiki Layne) is pregnant…by Fonny (Stephan James)…who is in jail…unjustly awaiting trial for a rape he did not commit. There should be no shame when amongst family, when you are in love, and when a cruel world has stacked the deck against you. Tish should hold her head high because that child was born out of love, and she and Fonny would’ve been married had he not been unfairly accused. The epic emotional confrontation that happens next, where Tish reveals this to Fonny’s parents (his mother a spiteful holy roller), is a masterclass in directing, editing, and acting, with Tish’s loving family fighting fiercely in her (and Fonny’s) corner.

If Beale Street Could Talk is above all a love story, but not just a love story between Tish and Fonny. It’s also a love story about parents (Regina King in a crowning performance, and an equally unforgettable Colman Domingo) who always believe in their children. It’s a story about love, romantic and familial and communal, in the face of the most extreme adversities.

Barry Jenkins fulfills the promise of Moonlight and takes all of his artistic elements to the next level in his gorgeous adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel. Continue reading

The Flow of Life in Roma

There’s something paradoxically both achingly intimate and frustratingly passive in watching Alfonso Cuaron’s quasi-autobiographical familial drama, Roma.  There are few, if any, close-ups, and his famous tracking shots display a gleeful chaos bubbling up as we flow in and out of the everyday life of an upper middle class family’s nanny/maid named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) in Mexico City (and later the countryside and then the coast).  The first two-thirds of the film are intermittently fascinating (in an “oh, look at how amazing that shot, or that framing, is!” kind of way) and meditatively boring (in an, “oh, huh, what just happened and who is that?” kind of way).  We’re just kinda there, floating along with his camera (Cuaron epically does his own cinematography here – and it is astounding), awash in heavy water symbolism.  It drips, drips, drips, much like the scattered details of these people’s lives.

But there’s an external political chaos brewing in the background, Cleo gets pregnant by a martial-arts loving deadbeat, and the family’s patriarch flakes off and never comes home after a business trip to Quebec.  Suddenly there’s a political riot while Cleo is shopping for a crib, and all emotional hell breaks loose.  The last third of the film is an engrossing, unforgettable revelation, and the water that once merely dripped or washed away dirt is now swelling (literal ocean waves) and washing away regret and grief, simultaneously threatening and bringing loved ones closer.  The quietly thrilling beach sequence involving Cleo and her young charges is one of the most beautifully shot enthralling pieces of emotional suspense ever captured on film. Continue reading

Sympathy for Queen Anne in The Favourite

Emma Stone in the film THE FAVOURITE. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Well, that was interesting…

In many ways, The Favourite (detailing the competition between a Duchess and a would-be “Lady” to be Queen Anne of England’s right-hand woman in the early 1700’s), is the best kind of historical drama.  It made my wife and I want to google and research the facts of the matter as soon as it was over, and indeed all the key players were based on actual people, but liberties were taken with timelines and how they related to each other for dramatic effect.  The film is also blessed with amazing lighting (giving Barry Lyndon a run for its money when it comes to candle-lit naturalism, especially in the breathtaking nighttime palatial scenes), exquisite costumes (a work of art in their own right), transporting sets, and award worthy acting.

But, it’s also a Yorgos Lanthimos film, the man who directed one of my most loathed films of recent memory, The Killing of a Sacred Deer.  So there is a tone of satire, moments of gleefully wicked farce, and well, just plain weird moments.

There are duck races, debauched feasts, and one of the best royal ball dancing sequences I’ve ever seen that’s so offhand in its anachronistic absurdity one can’t help but think, “Wait…What? I kinda liked that!”  Though the Queen apparently hated the funky moves. Continue reading

The Art of Storytelling in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a strange thing.  Originally conceived by the Coen Brothers to be a series for Netflix, something happened along the way, and the result is this over 2 hour film made up of 6 vignettes.  Side note: to get a sense of how this might’ve played as a series, check out the beautiful to look at, pondering, and pompous The Romanoffs on Amazon Prime Video.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a ponderous thing, too.  But it’s more silly than anything, at least at the onset, as the first vignette is so ridiculous (where the titular Buster Scruggs, played by Tim Blake Nelson, merrily goes on a singing and killing spree) I almost turned away from the rest.  The second vignette wasn’t much better and equally absurd, though at least we get to watch James Franco get hung…twice.  One wonders why they chose to show the weakest vignettes first, but patient viewers will be rewarded with the gold in the middle. Continue reading

The Resilience of the Kids in Lean in Pete, Leave No Trace, and Love Simon

Be forewarned, Lean on Pete might be the name of a horse, but the film, a startling bit of gritty realism about the tough times of a nice kid, is about Charlie. Think of it as a modern-day country song version of Oliver Twist.

Slowly paced, beautifully photographed, and utterly devastating, Lean on Pete starts off as a “lonely boy and his emotional support horse” story that you think is going to turn hopeful and sentimental, but instead takes some shockingly dark roads into tragedy and suddenly morphs into one of those films about the resiliency of children and survival by equal parts misplaced grit and dumb luck. It does reward the empathetic viewer with a satisfying conclusion and sliver of hope…but all along I was riddled with fear that poor Charlie would be eaten up and spit out by this cruel, cruel world.

The early portions of Lean of Pete take place in Portland, and the Pacific Northwest setting reminded me of another film from this year about the resiliency of children, the meditative and earthy Leave No Trace. Continue reading