October 27, 2016

King Jack [2015] – A Hardened Teen finds Self-Worth & Tenderness

                                              Felix Thompson’s independent feature film “King Jack” (2015) is a very familiar coming-of-age tale. On paper, it seems lean and could be termed as a ‘cliché’. But, on-screen the performances are delivered with gravity and the lyrical frames emit youthful despair and exuberance in a balanced manner that we can’t stop ourselves from getting impressed. The film doesn’t have anything spectacularly memorable to make it standout among the hundreds of coming-of-age movies released in the past five years or so. It is unmistakably predictable; it’s definitely lacks the contemplative nature of recent coming-of-age indie films “Hide Your Smiling Faces” or “The Fits”. Nevertheless, “King Jack” held a power over me because it was very relatable and heart-warming. Since, I am the kind of cinephile who cherishes a close-to-heart, home-grown cinema than a blockbuster film, I would definitely recommend it. And, there’s one simple significant reason to watch “King Jack”: Charlie Plummer – the amazing performer who instills a distinct individuality to the central teen character.

                                               Felix Thompson has written the script based on the crazy, personal experiences of growing up. We all would have experienced the crazy & lovely things when growing up – from getting bullied to feeling anxious around the opposite sex. It’s the time we learn that we are not the center of universe or even the center of our family. There would have been the endurance tests to harden our exterior & interior. We all would have faced some rough weekend when our parents or siblings aren’t around for us to seek help. So, despite unfurling in some remote part of America, the narrative resonates with universal emotions. The script does falter in the way it ticks off the narrative beats with superficiality. The opening scene, however, is so unflinching and unexpected. The protagonist Jack – referred with a cruel nickname ‘Scab’ – is seen spray-painting the word ‘c-u-n-t’ in gigantic letters on someone’s garage doors. This vandalism by the lanky teen protagonist later brings some context as the sadistic older bully Shane (Danny Flaherty) catches Jack for the vandalism and sprays paint on Jack’s face.

                                            Within the first few minutes, Thompson lays out what’s troubling Jack and what fascinates him: he takes picture of himself and sends it to a girl named Robyn; he is insecure and endlessly bullied by Shane & co; he lives with his working mother and elder brother Tom (Christian Madsen). The dilapidated houses, rusting playgrounds, and over-grown weeds pass off the hardships of living in small town America. The absentee father brings extra affliction to the internal wounds of Jack. Mother and brother love Jack but none of them seems to be look at his potential for doing things (except for girl classmate Harriet). A voicemail announces the arrival of younger cousin Ben (Cory Nichols), whose mother – Jack’s aunt – has had an ‘incident’ (referring to nervous breakdown). Ben is a quiet kid who has also earned a cruel nickname ‘schizo’. Mom asks Jack to look after Ben for few days. It’s the first time Jack has received the power and responsibility to look after someone. Although he is initially reluctant to allow Ben tag alongside him, after a game of baseball and little talk, Jack finds out they are not all that different. The boys have one crazy day as they are hunted down by the bully Shane (after another violent confrontation), while also playing a bittersweet truth-or-dare game with couple of friendly girl classmates. Will Jack stand up to his abusers and strengthen his bond with Ben?

                                              What drives the material away from its pitfalls is the gritty and richly-detailed direction. The bullying scenes are filmed in a realistic manner which passes off the physical pain experienced by Jack. Director Thompson stands up to the challenge of visualizing the violent scenes by making us feel the weight of each punch without being exploitative. The final confrontation scene was extraordinarily filmed because a slight stretching of the violence on-screen would have totally affected the chilling effect. Some of the cliched resolutions don’t bring the feeling of irritation due to the director’s low-key approach. When Tom asks Jack, “When was the last time you did somethin’ for somebody else?” we know that Jack is going to suddenly change his ways, but the naturalism in the staging and performances doesn’t annoy us. Apart from very good character sketches, the only time we could feel the presence of thematic richness (in the script) is when Jack painfully explains the nicknames he lost and earned. The sequence where Tom terrorizes Shane was also brilliantly realized. Both these scenes vividly present the perpetual cycle of abuse (physical as well as verbal), eventually leading to brutal bullying.

                                             The fluidity in the conversations and the tougher games played between Jack and Shane reminded me of Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age movies. The hazy summer atmosphere & sunlight-drenched frames (cinematography by Brandon Root) exhibits the characters’ yearning. Felix Thompson has filmed it on Kingston, New York (exudes the Americana beauty), but he wisely chooses to keep the town’s name out of the narrative to suggest the universal nature of it –could be felt by all angst-ridden teens from any small town. The young performers are uniformly great. They add incredible depth to some of the scenes which might look pretty flat on-paper. Plummer is spectacular as Jack. The mixture of bravado and vulnerability he brings on to his character keeps our eyes glued to the screen. Flaherty’s Shane is written in a very one-dimensional manner, but he brings out the fear & insecurity, lying beneath Shane’s aggression. 



                                            “King Jack” (80 minutes) is diffused with all the recognizable narrative beats of a coming-of-age drama. But, still the lyrical direction of first-time film-maker Thompson and the thoroughly immersive performances delivers a fine impact. 

October 26, 2016

All the Way [2016] – Blistering Politics Behind Closed Doors

                                          Bryan Cranston plays Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), the 36th President of United States -- in Jay Roach’s adaptation of Robert Schenkkan’s play “All the Way” (Cranston played LBJ in the stage too for which he won a Tony Award) -- with a verve that’s more than a brilliant imitation of the man. He takes us beneath the commanding stance of the President, seen in old TV news clips to embody the heavily weighing private hours. We see those deepening furrows as people see LBJ as ‘accidental president’ after the assassination of John F. Kennedy (in November 1963). We see his crafty side as he plays the political game with Southern politicians, while also navigating the Civil Rights Bill. We see the President’s impatience, rants, vulgarity, unbridled charisma, and firm nature. Cranston wears a perfect prosthetic, giving him the bushy, thick eyebrows, reducing hairline, and sharp nose, but what stands out in his performance as Lyndon B Johnson is the manner with which he adds meat (without being flaccid) to the bones of made-up LBJ figure. This performance is what makes “All the Way” (2016) an important & must-watch political drama, but on a little lamentable note, I must say that only Cranston’s presence makes it a memorable movie.  The other vital characters of the period lacks the shades or facets imbued on LBJ (Hoover’s obsession over Martin Luther King Jr. is the only pithy aspect) and despite a speedy narrative, none of the dramatization of the real events is dealt with a profundity.

                                     Jay Roach's “All the Way” is not a traditional biopic of LBJ, but more a study of American politics in the 1960s. On one hand, it reiterates the historical perspective by showing us the President, who doesn’t give a damn expect for the passing of Civil Rights bill; a President who doesn’t want to fine-tune American South population’s prejudice and he wants to bring South out of its scarred past. On the other hand, Jay Roach and Robert Schenkkan takes us behind the close doors to exhibit the conniving and threatening things the men in power performs to realize their grandiose public declarations. ‘Politics is war’ declares & believes LBJ, who is as recalcitrant as a freedom fighter and also engages in cajolery like a salesman. Some of the conversations (based on what’s said to be real transcripts) are so raw, arcane and racist that we get the slice-of-real-politics. It is well known that how Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a watershed moment in American race relations, but the drama surrounding the Act also suggests how the American political arena was gradually shifting into a more cunning phase. However, despite such scattered nuances, it is the stagey limitations of the narrative that halts it from being diffused with more depth. The film definitely works as a brief, shrewd history lesson for the uninitiated, while others may feel something is lacking in its presentation.  

                                     An emotionally resonant tone is set in the opening scene as the camera ambles past JFK’s blood soaked backseat of the limousine, sad faces in the hospital corridor to rest on a small room, occupied by weary Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird (Melissa Leo). The next few scenes convey how LBJ didn’t want to be perceived as ‘accidental president’ and was so dedicated to dismiss any such description by immediately announcing the Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill. Writer Schenkken tidily punctuates each phase of Lyndon’s political journey between November 1963 and November 1964 through a confidential voice-over [“It’s only a matter of time before they haul me up into the light where their knives gleam” says LBJ], giving us a bearing of what kind of a man he is and where does he come from. Schenkken’s LBJ is neither a cynical politician nor a heroic as history book teaches us. The use of some of the very crude sexist remarks by LBJ to coax an ideal historical figure like Martin Luther King Jr. humorously notes on how political compromises are attained through ribald talks than well-meaning nudges.

                                    Like “Lincoln” the main story-line concerns the procedural, which makes President Johnson to lock horns with his mentor Senator Richard Russell (Frank Langella) – whom he calls Uncle Dick (Senator Russell previously defeated the passing of Civil Rights Bill when President Harry Truman made an attempt). Johnson, the southern man, is well aware that the passing of the bill will make Southern Democrats to bolt away from him in the 1964 Presidential elections. Johnson wants the African-American votes and also knows that the passing of the bill is the ‘right thing’ to do. Mr. King knows Johnson could only deliver the bill as his Republican Party opposer Senator Barry Goldwater is not a supporter of civil rights. What follow is Johnson’s stern, calculative political strategies to win over the volatile situation and rein in the polarized Congress. Nevertheless, the overview of political power scattered in the film brings to mind the more intricate present political structure (and Mr. Goldwater’s campaign proclamations could be related with Mr. Donald Trump’s).

                                    There isn’t much juicy material for the other historical characters involved in the narrative, even though the actors transcend the limited room given to them. Anthony Mackie and Melissa Leo turns out a dignified performance, while the impeccable acting comes from Langella as Russell and Stephen Root as J. Edgar Hoover. The way Russell decries on Civil Rights bill while a black man shines on his shoes and the manner with which Hoover showcases his hypocrisy through the loathsome investigation of Martin Luther King makes up for the fascinating parts of the narrative, which otherwise reiterates history through a shallow perspective. The vital problem for me is the small time allocated to the arguments presented in Congress against and for the Civil Rights Act. The 1964 Democratic National Convention is also pieced only through archival footage. As I mentioned earlier, what transcends the limited quality one could expect from TV movie based on a stage play is Cranston’s steely presence. As he did in Jay Roach’s previous venture “Trumbo”, the renowned on-screen Meth-King once again makes a nuanced interior journey.      


                                     “All the Way” (132 minutes) deserves praise for zeroing-in on some of the still at-large disquiet in the American political stage. The generalist overview makes the film less emotionally involving, although Bryan Cranston as LBJ is superb throughout. 

October 25, 2016

They Look Like People [2015] – An Engrossing Indie Psychodrama

                                           New York based independent film-maker Perry Blackshear’s micro-budget psychological horror/thriller “They Look Like People” (2015) could be best experienced without being well-aware of the plot. Like recent small-budget horror movies “Absentia” and “Babadook”, Blackshear combines character-driven drama with few genre elements. So, if you are interested in watching a man’s extreme psychological experience (that’s devoid of blood lust) and don’t want to hear more details, just go in blind. And, within a short span of time, I had come across two debut feature films – “Krisha” & “Kaili Blues” -- from aspiring film-makers, who took over technical jobs and involved their friends & family in the production. Similarly, in “They Look Like People”, Blackshear takes over the cinematography, editing, and sound design jobs along with writing & direction. He booked a ticket for his LA-based actor friends to come to New York and prepared a script, derived from the difficult, personal experiences of some of his friends. Evan Dumouchel and Macleod Andrews who play the central characters also share ‘co-producer’ credits.

                                            Director Blackshear cites Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” as his inspiration to make this film. Jeff Nichols’ film dealt with the story of a family man who thinks that an apocalyptic storm is coming. He gives into his schizophrenic visions to starts building a bunker near his house. Michael Shannon’s protagonist knows that he might be going crazy, but at the same time he doesn't easily yield to his paranoia. This conflicted personality is resonated in the actions of Blackshear’s protagonist Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews). The film opens on one of Wyatt’s recurring nightmare: he lies sideways facing his partner, whose face is cloaked in dark, resembling a phantom. Wyatt shows up in New York City at the doorstep of his old friend Christian (Evan Dumouchel). Wyatt’s long relationship with a girl has recently come to an end. And, after considering Wyatt’s damaged looks, Christian allows him to stay few days in his one bedroom flat. At night, Wyatt gets a call on his broken phone. A cryptic, mechanical voice tells him that the people around him are monsters and he’s one of the gifted ones to see this truth. The voice also warns him about a impending war between the monster species and humans.

                                       Wyatt wants to save his friend Christian before the monsters take over him too. But, Wyatt is not the only one who’s hearing voices. Christian hears a different kind of voice – a motivational audio. He is working on a big, marketing firm and desires to gain a positive, dominating attitude. He feels that the soothing, encouraging female voice he hears in the earphone gives him the boost to become a hunk. Like Wyatt, Christian has also recently broke-up with his long time girlfriend, but he has worked up courage to ask out his boss Mara (Margaret Drake). Both have a tenuous grasp on reality: one listens to nightmares; the other to affirming messages. While Christian has got a better leash to control his internal struggles, Wyatt becomes a great danger to those around him. He gathers arsenal for the alleged doomsday war -- from axes, knives, and nail guns to sulfuric acid. Will Wyatt and Christian pair up to ‘save’ humanity from demonic invaders? Or will they come clean without succumbing to their rocky emotions? 

                                        “They Look Like People” works, thanks largely to the two central performances and due to the engaging chemistry between Andrews and Dumouchel. The insecurity, self-doubt, the fear of getting cold-shouldered, loneliness, and the frailty are expressed with wonderful nuance. Their argument over sock war, singing together an old song, and playful, mundane conversations are very relatable and poignant. The friendship between Wyatt and Christian adds a brilliant emotional weight, which escalates the tension at the narrative’s breaking point. MacLeod Andrews plays a typical ‘wacko’ role, but he imbues his character with a humanity that makes us feel for him, even when he’s slipping into erratic behavior. He marvelously showcases the pain of trying to be normal as the hallucinations threaten to discern his reality. A small mistake from the actor playing Christian would have turned him into an insipid, annoying character. But, Dumouchel does an amazing job in juxtaposing Christian’s earnest and silly behavior. A minor study of narcissism and over-ambition could be found in the way Christian’s character is written.

                                          Director/writer Peter Blackshear doesn’t pretend to circumvent the genre trappings. He just makes the characters stronger and engaging so as to ratchet the tensions even from a predictable narrative arc. Despite a definitive conclusion and message, he’s able to withhold enough ambiguities. Wyatt is shown to be internally bruised without providing details of what ‘really’ happened. We find ourselves within Wyatt’s nightmarish visions despite the suggestions of schizophrenic behavior. We don’t whose car Wyatt has stolen (in the end) and what happened to Margaret. The director might have portrayed those afflicted with mental instability in a respectful manner, but still some may find fault in the depiction of schizophrenic behavior. The faults could, obviously, be overlooked since this film is an examination of trust and friendship rather than study of mental illness. It’s about two fragile souls, constantly under attack. It’s about an emotionally unstable individual grasping that the powerful weapon to eradicate his internal struggle is trust and friendship; not the arsenal of acid & knives (“It’s really scary to trust you right now. But that's what this is, so... trust me. Because I trust you”, says Christian to Wyatt in the film’s most vital moment). The emotional bruises we experience in this film are so real that we can relate it with our own existential quandaries. Technically, the film couldn’t shed that amateurish, home-made look, but it’s a minor quibble (the climax is filmed in a vibrant manner which is absent in many better-budgeted horror films).


                                               “They Look Like People” (80 minutes) is an unsettling and poignant tale of people with fractured mindscapes. The enriching humane elements add depth & unusual interest to its oft-explored horror-movie material. 

October 19, 2016

The Quiet Desperation of ‘Certain Women’

                                           Writer/director Kelly Reichardt believes in the cumulative power of the subdued aesthetics. Her shot seems to be going on and on, showcasing nothing but desolate space. Nothing important seems to be happening in the characters’ lives; none of the startling epiphanies and no hope for transformations. But as I said, the muted visuals gradually accumulate a power to make us profoundly understand the internalized pain of  the written characters. The title plus the story line of Reichardt’s latest movie “Certain Women” (2016) may give some idea to the viewer. Of course, the film-maker’s intent was to comment on the strong, but undervalued women. But Reichardt is more interested in designing a refined visual language than hurriedly shove in her themes. The result is that she doesn’t weave just another feminist or girl-power cinema. “Certain Women” is certainly about the quiet desperation of four independent females trying to carve a place for themselves. These women face the terror of getting cold-shouldered. Something dramatic happens in each of the film’s chapters, although the director concentrates on the multitude of inexpressible sorrows than on the possibilities for drama. The film-maker keeps her camera on these dejected women, not only capturing their words, but also studying the space around them, their silences, and awkward pauses.    

                                          Based on the American writer Maile Melloy’s short story collection, “Certain Women” tells three very loosely connected tales of four women, living in the oft-forgotten American Midwestern region.  Each story is moody and very quiet. The four women live in and around the small town called ‘Livingston’, in Wyoming. The film opens with series of outdoor shots, presenting the vastness of the picturesque landscape before settling in on the main street of the small town and three majestic mountain ranges hovers in the background. But, despite the land’s vastness, the strong-willed women of the town aren’t able to find their footing. In the first story, personal injury lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern) mulls over that “It would be so lovely to think that if I were a man, I could explain the law and people would listen … that would be so restful.” Laura has a raging, needy client Fuller (Jared Harris) who treats her more like a girlfriend & therapist than as a lawyer. He repeatedly ignores her legal advice on his lawsuit, but accepts with a simple ‘okay’ when an old male lawyer gives the same advice. Hence, Laura makes the aforementioned statement. In fact, that’s the only time the characters speak about their frustration. For most part, when reality chews them over, the women just grit their teeth and move forward.

                                        Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) is a successful business woman with an unaffectionate teenage daughter and an unfaithful husband (James LeGros), who is having an affair with attorney Laura Wells. Gina plans to build an authentic household for her family using old sand-stones. The family is camping out in a tent, while laying the plans for their new home. Gina’s husband stands by her plans to ease some of his guilt. The search for sand-stones brings Gina to negotiate with an elderly widower Albert (Rene Auberjonois). His yard is piled with sandstone that belonged to a schoolhouse, torn down long ago. The negotiation incites Albert to launch into a hushed monologue, stating what it means for him to give away these sand-stones. In the negotiation, Gina gets slighted just like Laura got slighted while offering her counsel. May be the unmindful nature of Albert is due to his old age, but then he could just hate her for asking something of a symbolic value. It’s left ambiguous. The film’s final, long segment is set in town called Belfry, a four hour drive from Livingston. A preoccupied law school graduate Elizabeth Travis aka Beth (Kristen Stewart) travels twice a week between Livingston and Belfry to give evening classes for those interested in school law. A lonely ranch hand named Jamie (Lily Gladstone), in search of some human contact, follows people into the class. She forms an instant connection with Beth and after each class they run down to a local diner. They both don’t make any big speeches, but Jamie’s measured gaze and warm smile conveys a yearning for connection with Beth. However, Beth is too exhausted to teach the class, let alone understand Jamie’s yearning.

                                          Director Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy & Lucy”, “Old Joy”, “Meek’s Cutoff”) with her delicately restrained visuals and nebulous narrative is gradually turning out to be an auteur of sorts. She wonderfully studies helpless individuals (mostly women) who come to terms with life’s uncertainties. Most of her characters are lonely who look at each other from a vantage point, unable to help or at least make a connection. Her women characters are also not exemplary and working towards an agenda. The women aren’t representatives of something. They are just part of the whole human race with the same existential angst like us. By slowing down the time and listening to their haunting silences, Reichardt powerfully captures their inner pain. The beauty in her movie is that the women don’t bawl like a child. They just keep moving through the mundanity and disappointments.

                                        The most affecting of the three segments in “Certain Women” was Jamie’s unrequited love. The lonely girl from the ranch is conscious about the unstable nature of her connection with Beth. The introverted girl comes up with a grand gesture of taking Beth on a horseback ride. But she doesn’t know that it is a gesture that’s lost on preoccupied Beth. Jamie follows it up with grander gesture, which only bewilders the other girl. The final scene between Jamie and Beth was very hard to look at because we see little escape of emotions in their hardened faces. In the ride back to town, we expect Jamie to break down ad cry aloud, but the sequence unfurls in a magnificent manner. The soft crash of her truck into a fenced cornfield may be indicating that it was only soft thud to her heart. Later observing the mundanity of her life in the farm, we can’t help shed a tear or two for ‘certain women’, subtly divided by class and kept at a distance. Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt precisely capture the rugged naturalism of the atmosphere. The way she keeps the frames still for an extra 10 or 20 seconds creates a larger world rather than fleeting snapshots. The understated performances are totally enthralling. Lily Gladstone makes an excellent debut as Jaime. Look at how she expresses hope, despair, shame, and agony. She takes the power of the restrained aesthetics to whole new, affecting level. 


                                       “Certain Women” (108 minutes) is a remarkable and ambiguous study of gritty and gumptious individuals, cold-shouldered and unheard by the alienated community. Since director Kelly Reichardt’s camera only watches and listens to the existential threat faced by the characters without ever escalating the dramatic quotient, it demands a contemplative mindset to watch.