Internal, quiet, and a film that’s constantly searching for answers, Breathe In is a wonderful, heavily improvised drama that places a strong concentration on mood and atmosphere and the lingering moments after a conversation ends, while endlessly stressing the emotionally suspenseful moments of its character’s lives. This is a very different film from writer/director Drake Doremus after his no less accomplished debut Like Crazy, which for me, still ranks as one of the best c…ollege/long distance relationship movies that I’ve seen. He’s again delivered a serious and dreamy look at relationships with Breathe In, but this time, instead of college students, Doremus’ tale centers on the possible May-December romance of a married man and a high-school exchange-student whose sudden presence in a suburban family’s home shakes everyone to their core. Using off the cuff dialogue to propel the plot forward was an interesting way to have the actors confront the highly complex situations that the characters find themselves in, and even if the final act isn’t as perfect as the previous two, the performances, especially those of the consistently excellent Guy Pearce and the continually alluring Felicity Jones make up for any potential shortcomings in the story department. This is a very good movie, extremely well observed from almost every angle, and further demonstrates Doremus’ inherent interest in people and their emotionally fragile states (Like Crazy did this sort of thing extremely well; it’s such an underrated film). The probing, expressive cinematography, classical music score, and the overall sense that “anything can happen” keeps you engrossed, and it can’t be said enough – Guy Pearce is one of our absolute best actors currently working, and he turns in an exceptionally challenging performance as a man driven to mental madness over his shortcomings as an individual and the knowledge of the pain that he might be capable of inflicting on those who love him. And Jones is every bit his equal, hitting all her notes of guarded sexuality and emotional vulnerability, creating a woman who is very much in control of her surroundings but still doesn’t quite grasp the ramifications of the scenario she helps to create. Amy Ryan and Mackenzie Davis offer excellent support. Doremus is clearly a filmmaker to look out for in the future.
Make no mistake — Kurt Russell is Snake Plissken — there’s just no need to recast the role with some young flash-in-the-pan actor who could never, ever possibly replicate the steely-eyed gaze and incredible anti-hero flavor that Russell brought to his iconic performance. Because the film was made on a low budget, much of it is set at night, yet the darkly photogenic cinematography by 80’s master Dean Cundey has a perfect, rough around the edges feel which takes full advantage of the scuzzy production design and down-home-grubbiness of the entire film. And then there’s Carpenter’s fantastic original score, with that trusty theme music popping up in all the proper spots. The premise is simple: an ex-soldier/convict has 22 hours to find the President (Donald Pleasance) who has been stranded on the prison island of Manhattan after the crash of Air Force One. If he’s successful, he’ll be pardoned. If not, he’ll be killed.
With stripped down efficiency and an attention placed on violent spectacle laced with black humor, Carpenter moves from one sequence to the next with hard-core conviction. Co-written by Nick Castle of The Last Starfighter fame. Escape from New York has certainly become a cult classic over the years, but it’s interesting to note that the film was well reviewed and actually became a theatrical success ($25 million vs. a $6 million production budget), which sort of bucks the traditional definition of a “cult” movie. And let’s not forget endless Ernest Borgnine POWER and Harry Dean Stanton EXTRA POWER. Isaac Hayes, Lee Van Cleef, Tom Atkins, and Adrienne Barbeau are also all extremely memorable in supporting roles, and James Cameron worked on the cool matte paintings(!) and also served as an additional director of photography. Shout! Factory’s somewhat recently released Special Edition Blu-ray is a smashing success, featuring a transfer that retains the grit and grain of the original photography, and lots of special features to make any fan of this film grin ear to ear.
Watching a director’s first feature after you’ve seen the rest of their work is always interesting, because rather than seeing their natural progression as a storyteller and filmmaker, you view the debut with a different lens because you’ve come to know the artist through other efforts. Getting a chance to see Lynn Shelton’s We Go Way Back was one of those situations – I’ve become a massive fan of her work over the last six years, but only recently had the chance to see her confident, heady, and introspective first film that when viewed in retrospect, feels like an obvious and natural start for her as a creator of filmed stories. Yes, there are some first time filmmaking stylistic ticks that pop up here and there, but I’m all for formal experimentation – film is a visual medium first and foremost so I’m always down for jump-cuts and elliptical editing and stylish fades and transitions. Not that this is a Tony Scott film or anything, but Shelton definitely played with style more than most first time filmmakers who are crafting a low-key and completely character driven piece (i.e. no guns, car chases, explosions, for fancy vulgarity), and it’s within the expressive nature of her then emerging aesthetic that you can see how she’s arrived at a comfortable current spot with her overall style and intent as a moviemaker.
Shelton’s engaging and at times unnerving narrative pivots on a young woman named Kate (the excellent Amber Hubert, with a face of limitless possibility in terms of conveying angst), a fledgling Seattle actress who has just been offered her first starring role (under the direction of a possibly insane local theater director), but begins to essentially have an existential crisis and comes into contact with the physical manifestation of her 13 year-old self. Or so she thinks. This is a stream of conscious type film, with the opening scenes containing jumbled dialogue that mixes current day activities for the 23 year old Kate and the audible memories of her as a teen, with an Altman-esque sense of overlapping in an effort to immerse and quickly confuse. There’s also the recurring motif of Kate reading question filled letters that she had written to herself 10 years previous, all of which reflect on the various behaviors we see her engaging in during the story. The seemingly naïve questions that she has asked herself come to inform the decisions (some poor, some promising) that she makes during the narrative.
Not content to just make a “point and shoot” debut effort, Shelton infused the relatively brief runtime (75 minutes) with enough emotional pathos and cerebral questions to leave one with a rich cinematic experience, rather than a slight experiment with film school pretensions. Shelton’s sense of place is firm from the outset, using the physical surroundings as a character to a certain extent (a theme that’s been carried on in every feature since), while never losing sight of the dramatic task at hand – how to take the viewer through a personal, hopefully cathartic ride through the mind of a young woman who doesn’t know herself as well as she might like. And when viewed as a warm up to My Effortless Brilliance and then Humpday, We Go Way Back feels even more understandable and interesting within Shelton’s naturalistic if pensive worldview. The film won awards at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2006, clearly marking the arrival of a major new talent in American independent cinema, and will finally be available on DVD and Blu-ray later this year.
Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt and Rosemarie Dewitt are all terrific in this dramedy of errors (so to speak…), and the way that all three get to have their own satisfying arcs without any of them feeling shortchanged is a testament to Shelton’s economical storytelling skills and her deft way of building flawed, three-dimensional characters who are all suffering, in some way, from their own crisis of conscience. Released in 2012 after premiering the previous year at the Toronto International Film Festival, Your Sister’s Sister centers on a woman named Iris (Blunt, refreshingly de-glamourized, nervous, edgy) who invites her best friend, Jack (the wonderful Duplass, hitting all the perfect notes of scruffy machismo), to stay at her mountain cabin so that he can “find himself” and just get away from all his troubles, as he’s still recovering from the sudden death of his brother a year previous. Once at the secluded cabin, much to his surprise, he discovers that Iris has a complicated sister, Hannah (the amazing DeWitt), who also happens to want to use the cabin has her escape from the pressures of the outside world. Before you can say “meet cute,” they two lost souls are doing shots, and then getting hot and heavy, but what Jack doesn’t realize is that Hannah is a lesbian, and there’s more to the story than he could ever know. And of course, in classic Woody-esque fashion, men and women can’t just be friends, and the mutual attraction between Jack and Iris bubbles up the surface in the final act, when all sorts of painful revelations are shared and discovered. And then there’s the sister connection that this film provides, and in the scenes between DeWitt and Blunt, Shelton demonstrates an inherent understanding of the complexities that two female siblings often times share with each other.
Your Sister’s Sister never misses a beat. For 90 perfectly calibrated minutes, Shelton brings you into a dramatically conflicted world for three compelling characters, and by keeping the location work insular and cozy, the viewer is able to quickly latch on to Jack, Hannah, and Iris, so as a result, the audience’s understanding of the character’s various faults and desires are all the more attainable and relatable. Duplass is spectacular in a tricky role, one that requires you to root for him AND to understand his faults, and as always, it’s an absolute joy to watch him on screen in anything he pops up in (he and his brother are also supremely accomplished filmmakers in their own right). DeWitt, who feels like a natural for Shelton’s easy-going style, creates a maddening portrait of anxieties and uncertainty, taking on the role of a confused woman who has a few morally questionable tricks up her sleeve. And while Blunt has taken on a lot of ass-kicking roles of late (Looper, Edge of Tomorrow, the upcoming Sicario), she brought her usual brand of sexy, sultry charm to the role of Iris, creating a person who feels very grounded and honest (this and her work in the underrated Sunshine Cleaning with Amy Adams feel like her most personal performances). And then there’s the ending, which for me, was the only possible way to finish up this contemplative movie; there are no easy answers in life, so why should Shelton have to tie a bow on the final moments of her story? Without spoiling anything, the film closes on a note of hopeful optimism, but considering all that has come before the denouement, I’m reluctant to say that there’ll be a big red bow on the top of life for all of the parties involved. Your Sister’s Sister is a fantastic movie that knows exactly how to play its cinematic hand.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark is one of the rare vampire films that I truly love, and that fact is mostly due to the awesome cast and the fantastic script co-written by Bigelow and genre master Eric Red that operates as a sly contemporary Western that just so happens to involve nomadic blood-suckers. Bigelow’s visceral camera style was in full effect, as the action sequences pop with gusto, while Red’s usual brand of dark humor spiced up the already sharp screenplay, creating t…he perfect mix of humor, emotion, and scares. Bill Paxton is absolutely live-wire terrific in this movie and Lance Henriksen got a chance to be extra nasty and awesome due to the unique shadings of his character and how the story used familiar tropes but freshened them up so you’d constantly be surprised by what unfolded. Adrian Pasdar and Jenny Wright were solid in the “lead roles” but they were unavoidably outmatched by Paxton’s sleazy charm and Henriksen’s penchant for being casually menacing and entertainingly despicable. Red works in his love for big-rig tractor-trailers, Bigelow got to flex her muscles with some awesome shoot-outs and classically staged, non-CGI enhanced explosions, and the final 10 minutes or so have got to be some of the most intense stuff in the cinematic vampire realm, made all the more effective because we truly care about the characters and their situation. Twilight this is not! Tangerine Dream’s score is moody and sinister and all sorts of late 80’s genius, and because the subject matter is treated in a realistic fashion, the ending carries an emotional punch that you don’t get with every horror movie. I love looking at Adam Greenberg’s stylish nighttime cinematography, as he consistently played with shadow and perspective, and then you’d get an incredible day-time set-piece (such as the finale) where he’d subvert your expectations for the genre (something I’m always a fan of). And another thing — this movie is lean and mean — Howard E. Smith’s tight-as-a-drum editing leaves no fat on the filmic bones, and clocking in at a taut 90 minutes means there’s not one wasted moment. While a box office non-starter, the film was warmly embraced by critics, and has found a huge second life as a cult favorite in the years since its initial theatrical release in 1987. This is one of those vampire movies that has it all — great performances, terrific violence and gore, narrative themes which add heft to the overall scenario, and a definite love for blood and fangs and sequences of vampires going wild with angry, devilish delight.
Pathfinder is a fun, gory, beautifully photographed hybrid-movie from genre specialist Marcus Nispel, and it shows a clear affinity for the action beats and nature aspects from the films of Terrence Malick (The New World), Michael Mann (The Last of the Mohicans), and Mel Gibson (Apocalypto). Released in 2007, this is a unique item, a film that balances horror elements, sword and shield historical fiction, and Native American mysticism in an effort to conjure up something startling and different within the context of the period action film genre. The effectively blunt narrative sets up the action right at the outset, with Karl Urban’s monosyllabic performance in clear debt to the hulking bravado of Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian (which Nispel would later update in 2011), and while the screenplay from Laeta Kalogridis typically jettisons surprise in favor of sturdy if clichéd dramatics, the star of the film is clearly the visually talented Nispel and his incredible cinematographer Daniel C. Pearl, who shoots in moody, highly textured widescreen, combining an almost monochromatic look to go along with the crimson red swaths of blood that fly all over the screen. This is a film in love with its violent spectacle, and the barbaric sights that are offered up take full advantage of the R-rating (and are even more intense in the unrated edition out on disc). Nispel clearly went to rigorous physical ends with this production (Herzog would blush at the mountain footage), which looks and feels twice as big as its reported budget ($30 million). And in this day and age of watered down, neutered action films, there’s a refreshing honesty to the carnage and bloodletting, all of which feels intensely cinematic; it’s an area that Nispel wonderfully excels at. And though his films have mostly done strong business worldwide for the last 12 years, he’s still waiting to deliver his BIG blockbuster film, and I have a feeling that his upcoming sea monster film (which has apparently been inspired by Nordic myth) might be that movie.
The 2001 drama In the Bedroom is, to my eye, a flawless movie. Maybe you can pick it apart on some level, but I can’t find any major issues. I can just imagine writer/director/actor Todd Field to be extraordinarily intense. He was the piano player during the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut for Kubrick and then made two films that the master would have greatly approved of (Little Children in 2006 being the other). We need more from this guy and fast. Tom Wilkinson is devastating in this film, Sissy Spacek kills her scenes, Marisa Tomei is heartbreaking, long lost Nick Stahl was extra effective, and this was easily William Mapother’s crowning achievement as an actor. The finale stings with violent force and amazing impact, and there’s both a touch of Malick and a dollop of Kubrick from within the aesthetic that renders the viewer helpless for just over two hours. This film focuses on love, revenge, family, and how people from within a close knit unit come together after tragedy in an effort to make sense of sudden loss that feels overwhelming to the key players in the story. Field nails the small town details, the sense of community, and the overbearing power of grief that can hit someone when they’re least expecting it. This isn’t an easy film or one that offers simple answers to a series of events that are both inexplicable yet rational, which, when you think of it, is often times what life adds up too. I’d really, really like it if Field would make another film and fast.