We Are Not Afforded the Luxury of Being Average in #Waves

High school wrestling champ Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) seems to be living his best life. He’s a star athlete with an eye on nationals and a college scholarship, the life of the party, has a beautiful girlfriend (Alexa Demie), plays the piano, and lives in an upper middle class house in a Miami suburb with his successful and very present parents (Sterling K. Brown and Renee Elise Goldsberry) and younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell). But nothing is as simple as it seems on the surface. Everyone has multiple sides, and Tyler is a ticking time-bomb – over-stimulated, over-worked and living in a pressure cooker of unjustly high expectations and toxic masculinity. Harrison is absolutely brilliant in his portrayal, playing for the second time this year an African-American high-schooler who seems perfect on the outside but is just one perceived slight away from blowing his top. In Luce, he was scarily in-control, while here in the emotionally seismic Waves, he’s hanging on by a thread. The tension builds in the first half of the film to shrieking, anxious effect.

I’ve probably already said too much. The less you know about Trey Edward Shults’ Waves, the better. I went in cold, riding high on the festival circuit buzz, and having been riveted previously by Shults’ ode to addiction and family, Krisha.

(POTENTIAL SPOILERS)

Waves is one of those films that takes a sudden turn half-way through and changes POV from Tyler to Emily and her attempt to recover from tragedy by finding love with a refreshingly non-toxic male named Luke (Lucas Hedges). Shults self-analyzes the film in interviews as “a panic attack followed by a hug,” and he couldn’t be more apt. We are right there with Tyler in the midst of his breakdown, our hearts pounding, our emotions unchecked, and then the switch to Emily’s more sensitive POV is like a breath of fresh air. Shults handles the transition exquisitely. But there are no easy solutions on either side of his film of mirrors and psychological undulations. I loved the complexity of the characters and their sometimes tortured and sometimes beautiful relationships with each other. They are not always likable, but in some way they are always relatable. And every single cast member makes you feel their highs and lows, their pain and their joy.

Shults uses camera tricks (some of which I know I didn’t even process – begging for the continuous cineaste visit hoping to catch something new with each re-watch), music, light, and color to transition from scene to scene, character to character, emotion to emotion. Everything physical in the craftsmanship informs, shades, and mirrors the internal struggles of the souls aching to be loved and understood on film.

Did I mention the screenplay? There were so many great, ponderous quotes coming not just from our main characters but from peripheral influences – teachers, coaches, and preachers offering words that both comfort and taint the mindsets of the young people in the film struggling to find their way in the world. I wish I had taken notes, but I was too caught up in the moment to peel my eyes from the screen.

One quote stuck with me though, when Tyler’s father Ronald tells him, “We are not afforded the luxury of being average.”

Shults in anything but an average filmmaker, and Waves is a shattering earthquake of a film whose aftermath will leave viewers with so many troubling, wondrous, humbling things to unpack.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

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

We Got People Die Everyday Believing in Things in Midnight Special

Midnight Special

*WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD*

“We Got People Die Everyday Believing in Things”

It’s a potent line spoken by Joel Edgerton as Lucas, a lost soul of a man who recently reunited with his childhood best friend, Roy (Michael Shannon, perfectly run-down but not out, as always) and now finds himself in a fine mess, waxing about the nature of people and the world with Sarah (a quietly fervid Kirsten Dunst) in a hotel room hoping that Roy (who “believes in something” Sarah’s fatalist romanticizes) makes it back from wherever he just went with his and Sarah’s son Alton (Jaeden Leiberher), a sick little boy with special powers wanted by the cult from which he came and the US government.  They’ve got to get the kid to a very specific place for a very specific reason (to fulfill a destiny?), but they don’t know what or why that is.

Everyone in the film ends up believing in Alton’s powers, but all have their own perverted take.  The cult sees him as their chosen one, the government as a weapon.  Early on in the film Lucas and Roy hide out with Alton at an ex-cult member’s house (played with perfectly subverted creepiness by David Jensen).  In the middle of the night, the whole house shakes and Roy and Lucas run into Alton’s bedroom where Jensen’s character is doing “that eye thing” with the child – perhaps a creative veil meant to symbolize child abuse at the hands of the religious?  Later in the film after Lucas and Sarah’s conversation about belief, Roy duct-tapes a Kevlar vest to Alton’s small frame (for his protection, of course) which eerily echoes the images of child suicide bombers with bombs strapped to their chests (they, too, fulfilling a destiny).  Yes, indeed, we got people dying (and killing) everyday believing in things.  This kind of subtext is becoming Jeff Nichol’s trademark, and where his writing and directing is able to build tension and elicit primal emotional responses from his audience.

In this way, Nichols masterfully uses the science fiction genre as a vehicle to explore modern-day societal fears.  Continue reading

Upstate Royalty

The Proctor Boys are a strange lot – three grizzled old men who have spent their entire lives in stifling isolation on a dairy farm in Upstate New York.  When the eldest, Vernon, winds up dead one morning in the bed all three shared, the youngest, Creed, gets swept up into accusation while the emotionally crippled simpleton (and middle brother), Audie, barely grasps the gravity of the situation.

Jon Clinch’s second novel, Kings of the Earth, was inspired by actual events.  Clearly fashioning himself a 21st century William Faulkner, Clinch spans his book across generations and voices.  Each chapter is titled by a year and a character’s name – with POV’s shifting from 1st person to 2nd person to 3rd person, but never omniscient – eerily reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury.  Those not familiar with the style may find it a challenge, while fans of Faulkner will probably favor it as a nice homage, but it pales in comparison to the master.  This isn’t to say Clinch hasn’t achieved something memorable nearing mythic stature here. Continue reading

Animal Kingdom

In the opening scene of David Michod’s Australian crime saga, Animal Kingdom, a Melbourne teenager named J (James Frecheville) sits stone-faced and clueless after his mom dies from a drug overdose.  After the police drag the body away, he calls up the only person he knows will come through for him, his previously estranged but all too willing to reconnect grandmother, Janine (Jacki Weaver in a performance that deserves awards’ buzz).  Janine just happens to be the proud and perky lioness ruling a family of small time bank-robbers and drug-dealers.  The eldest, “Pope” (Ben Mendelsohn) is a loose cannon on the cops’ most-wanted list.  J quickly gets caught up in the middle of a mess after the cops take out a family friend resulting in a gangland retaliation, and a detective (Guy Pearce) becomes determined to use the impressionable J against his uncles.

Michod weaves an intermittently compelling tale that is part coming-of-age story and part mob flick spun Down Under.  His framing and mise-en-scene is technically sound but sometimes too self-conscious, and the slow-paced editing makes the film seem longer than it is and hinders some of the drama.  Continue reading

A Review of Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”

Do you Mind if I Call you Chico?, 5 November 2007
10/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Two dysfunctional brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) get tired of competing for who is the bigger f***-up and who Daddy (Albert Finney) loves more, so they hatch a hair-brained scheme to rob Mommy and Daddy’s jewelry store so that they can clear their debts and start fresh. Sounds like a great plan except that this is a suspenseful 1970’s style melodrama about a heist gone wrong, and boy, do things really go wrong here for our hapless duo and everyone involved. Lasciviously concocted by screenwriter Kelly Masterson and classically executed by director Sidney Lumet, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” uses the heist as its McGuffin to delve deep into family drama.

Contrary to popular belief, Sidney Lumet is not dead. At age 83, he has apparently made a deal with the Devil to deliver one last great film. Lumet was at his zenith in the 1970’s with films like “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Serpico,” and one of my favorite films of all time, “Network”.  He has somehow managed to make a film that bears all the hallmarks of his classics while intertwining some more modern elements (graphic sexuality, violence, and playing with time-frames and POV’s) into a crackling, vibrant, lean, mean, and provocative melodrama. One can only hope that some of the modern greats (like Scorsese or Spielberg) who emerged during the same decade Lumet was at the top of his game will have this much chutzpah left when they reach that age.

Lumet is a master at directing people walking through spaces to create tension and develop characters. As the cast waltzes through finely appointed Manhattan offices and apartments his slowly moving camera creates a palpable sense of anxiety as we never know who might be around the next corner or what this person might do in the next room. Also amazing is how Lumet utilizes the multiple POV and shifting time-frame approach. The coherent and classical presentation he uses makes the similarly structured films of wunderkinds Christopher Nolan and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu seem like amateur hour.

Of course, what Lumet is best at is directing amazing ensemble casts and tricking them into acting within an inch of their lives. Philip Seymour Hoffman has never been, and most likely never will be, better than he is here. Albert Finney’s quietly searing portrayal of a father betrayed and at the end of his rope is a masterpiece to watch unfold. Ethan Hawke, normally a nondescript pretty boy, is perfect as the emotionally crippled younger brother who has skated by far too long on his charms and looks. The coup-de-grace, however, is the series of scenes between Hoffman and Marisa Tomei, eerily on point as his flighty trophy wife. Lumet runs them through the gamut of emotions that culminate in a scene that is the best of its kind since William Holden taunted Beatrice Straight right into a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in “Network.”

The Devil of any great film is in the details, from Albert Finney’s tap of his car’s trunk that won’t close due to a fender bender, to the look Amy Ryan (fresh off her amazing turn in “Gone Baby Gone”) gives her ex-husband Ethan Hawke at his mawkish promise to his little girl all three of them knows he won’t keep, to the systematic unraveling of a family on the skids, to the dialog begging for cultists to quote it (my favorite line being the hilariously threatening “Do you mind if I call you Chico?”) to the excellent Carter Burwell score. “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is the film of the year. If something emerges to best it, then we know a few other deals must’ve been brokered with Old Scratch.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://imdb.com/title/tt0292963/usercomments-12