A Ghost Story

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I sincerely regret not seeing A Ghost Story while it was in theaters. I mistook it, as I think a lot of people did, for something trying to be a bare bones horror story, which I wasn't interested at all in seeing. Only months later did I stumble across a page for this movie and see the cast, and begin to be interested. Rooney Mara has been showcasing her talent in recent years fairly well, and I've always been a great fan of Casey Affleck's, so if for the cast alone I became interested. Now that I've seen it, I truly am sad that I missed out on the theater experience. Going to a movie theater, for me at least, is a chance to isolate oneself, to shut out every distraction, to concentrate everything on only the movie, so that you may get a fuller experience. A Ghost Story is the kind of movie that benefits greatly from a viewer's full concentration.

Among other things, the first thing that anyone will notice about A Ghost Story is it's numerous bold artistic choices, principle among them being the frame that accompanies the entire movie. It's narrower than normal widescreen, with odd rounded edges, as if every moment is an old-timey picture. I think that this is an intentional comparison, as it gives the film a difficult to describe nostalgic feeling, as if we're watching something painfully familiar, a memory that lingers in the back of our minds. This aspect ratio, along with the soft lighting, gives the movie it's ethereal atmosphere that helps fuel the rest of the film. Numerous long takes are another tool used by the director here. Not the technically impressive sort of show-offy long takes that we sometimes love to gawk at, but very uncomfortable ones. Minutes are spent watching M (Rooney Mara's character, who we only know by her first initial) sitting on the floor eating a pie as she silently cries, with the ghost of her husband watching the entire time, unmoving and out of focus. It lends a vulnerability and honesty to the film, and gives an uncompromising look at the pain infused in every frame. It holds you and doesn't let go, it doesn't give you the relief of looking away from the raw hurt, you're forced to face it and deal with it. It gives you time to process exactly what you're watching and time to understand the realness of it. This also ties into the fluidity of time the film, and how even a single take can seem to take place over a several day, week, or month long period. The titular ghost wanders through the home as life takes place around him. He simply watches, observes his wife deal with her grief, live her life, and eventually move on. Time passes in leaps and bounds, seasons change, people come and go, even the landscape itself changes, but the ghost remains.

The ghost is perhaps the most unique component of this movie, one that has a chance to completely polarize viewers. Casey Affleck spends about 90% of the movie underneath a bedsheet, with only two perpetually black eye holes in it. This is perhaps the most interesting part of the movie to me, how a viewer approaches such a character, one that rarely displays emotion, has no real dialogue to speak of, and barely even has a face to emote with. We tend to project our own feelings onto such a character, or maybe it's in their very subtle actions that one can truly read emotion. Perhaps it is the blankness of the ghost's face which is what we're supposed to be seeing here, the hollowness of grief and how it wordlessly follows us wherever we go. The ghost is driven by obsession, decades after his object of affection has left. His feelings have surely faded, but all he knows of himself anymore is his desire, his obsession, his pointless search for closure. Depression, pain, hopelessness, all expressed in a blank slate of a face, two bottomless black wells where eyes should be. 

A Ghost Story is the kind of movie that's sure to frustrate some. There are many that prefer the films they watch to have real stories, to have solidified characters, plot lines, etc. I think this is completely fair, and although I disagree with this assessment, there are plenty of people that find movies like A Ghost Story to be pretentious and far too meandering to be of any merit. People who dislike this movie are completely entitled to their opinion, because movies like this aren't meant for everyone. Since Last Year at Marienbad, dreamlike, ethereal movies without concrete plot structures have polarized critics and audiences alike, because different people simply want different things from the movies they want. However, I think that as an artistic endeavor, as a movie-going experience, A Ghost Story excels in what it attempts to do. It may not be the first film to express the ideas that it does, but it tackles them with a unique enough way that I feel it has more than justified it's existence and it's merit.

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Martin McDonagh is well known at this point for his love of dark humor and absurd situations. Both In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths were full of moments that were absolutely insane, and would quickly and suddenly transition into more serious moments, which could then in an instant go back to a terribly dark, and terribly funny joke. His movies to me always have this core to them that shows the decency of man in situations that are anything but decent. Good people do very bad things to each other, but they try their best not to. Every character has a spark of humanity within them, there are no caricatures or villains, just people. People who have reached their wits end, have found themselves in a situation where they must commit atrocities to continue on, and so they do so. This is embodied perfectly in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It is his most serious movie yet, full of funny moments, but with a much sadder and more relevant message than his previous films.

Three Billboards starts off with a scene that lets us know what kind of film we're watching. Mildred Hayes (Frances Mcdormand in what is certainly one of her best ever roles), is renting out the titular billboards, cursing like a sailor the entire time, and finally the advertising agent realizes who she is. "You must be Angela Hayes mother" he comments. Angela Hayes was a seventeen year old girl, who was raped and burned to death in this little town of Ebbing, not 7 months prior. This is serious subject matter, and the film always treats it as such. Fun is had at the expense of all other characters, but Angela remains a centering tragedy, reminding us constantly why the things that happen, happen. Mildred is on a crusade, tired of the police department's inability to solve the murder of her daughter, and she rents out these billboards in order to keep people from forgetting. The town has tried to move on, but Mildred cannot. Her heart is hardened, as she specifically calls out the Chief of police who is dying of cancer. She has accepted her role in this, she has accepted that she must become hated in her home town, if only it means maybe leading to closure over her daughters death. Time and again we're shown that Mildred is not a bad person. She has multiple scenes showing how much raw, unfiltered sadness lives inside of her at all times, how deeply she is hurt by both the death of her daughter and what she believes she has to do. Don't get me wrong, the things she does are awful things, such as setting a police station on fire and assaulting high school students, but as we're shown more and more of her life before and after the death of Angela, we can't help but be sympathetic towards her, as we see what exactly has shaped her into who she is now.

Although it is his most serious movie, Three Billboards is still wickedly funny, just like McDonagh's other films. He really specializes in the kinds of jokes that make you cover your mouth in shock and laughter, as you can't believe someone would actually write that joke, but damn if it isn't funny. Mildred's antics are the center of the movie and the center of the comedy, but the ridiculousness of all the other characters obviously helps things along quite a bit. You get used to the whiplash you get jumping from gut-busting laughter to dead serious delivery, and it only adds to the whole experience. It made me think a bit of Burn After Reading, another terribly dark comedy starring Frances McDormand in a key role, but in that movie she's much more ditzy and outrageous in a fun way. Here, she is funny, but like everyone else in the cast, she has demons, she has a past that has influenced who she has become, and it is a past that is not always pretty. This lends itself to the comedy though in a way, it makes everyone's ridiculous actions seem a bit more believable, and a bit funnier. Everything can be played in both directions. The cop living at home with his mom who got in trouble for assaulting a black prisoner is both sad and funny at the same time. We can see the reality of such a situation, but the way that we're led to laugh at it is a laugh that recognizes the reality of the situation, and the simply ridiculousness of it. We laugh because we empathize and understand, and we see the familiarity in the silly moments. McDonagh truly shines here in this respect, as this is his most realistic movie yet, with his previous two being about In Bruges being about hitmen hiding in Belgium, and Seven Psychopaths  being about well...seven psychopaths. Three Billboards is about a grieving mother in a small town. With almost any other director, that would be a straight up drama. McDonah understands though, that even in tragedy there is comedy, there's always the other side of the coin just waiting to be flipped over.

The performances of the other actors besides McDormand are worthy of note as well, with Woody Harrelson being the chief of police that Mildred is calling out on her billboard, and Sam Rockwell being a deputy underneath Harrelson who looks up to the man like a hero. Sam Rockwell in particular has always been one of my favorite actors to see in a movie, as I've always thought he's been very underrated. Here, he lets his talent shine, transitioning from a silly racist mid-western cop stereotype to a man in deep pain who despite everything he's done, has a sense of justice in him that drives him. He goes from a side character to the main stage in the second half of the movie, and god if I didn't see a deeply tortured man when I looked at his face. There are so many things that I wish I could put into words, his character is one that is so subtly complex, and has so much going on under the surface that makes him easy to almost ignore in the beginning. But the justice that lives inside of him becomes his driving force that may sometimes lead him to the wrong places, but ultimately shows that he's a truly good man.

That to me is what this movie is about, this core that everyone has that is an essential part of them. We spend years, decades, building up walls around it, constructing a personality to hide it away so that others can't see the thing that really makes us who we are. But no matter how much we try, it drives us. Mildred Hayes on the outside is a hard, ruthless cynic who will hurt whoever it takes to get what she wants. But underneath all that, she is a woman who has lost her daughter to an incredibly violent crime, and a woman who despite everything, still has hope that the killer can be found. All of her actions are those of a woman with hope inside of her heart. Why else would she pay for these billboards and risk the scorn of the entire town? She knows the chief of police, and she believes in his ability to find the killer, she thinks just maybe all it'll take is getting them investigating again, and she'll finally get closure. Rockwell's character is one that has been lead to believe that he's a stupid, incompetent loser that can only try to get the approval of his superiors, but when he's left to his own devices, he truly has a fierce sense of justice that cannot rest no matter what gets in his way. This movie is about the goodness in every human heart that we try to bury as deep as we possibly can to protect it from the world, because every one of us knows what it feels like to show your true self to someone and get a negative reaction.  All the cynicism and hatred and fear has a starting point in the human heart, and that is hope.

Hard Boiled

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The Hong-Kong classics seem to rarely receive the respect that they really deserve in the west. Most people know of them, some people enjoy watching them, but because of their sometimes over-the-top action, I think people don't take them very seriously as movies. Action movies in general tend to be seen more as escapist entertainment instead of genuine entries into film canon, as if they are somehow below the more dramatic pieces. While I do understand this mindset, I feel that it is one that leads to classics like Hard-Boiled being completely looked over. Not only is it an action movie, it's a Hong-Kong action movie, even more difficult to stomach for western audiences who are allergic in every way to having to read subtitles. This film has great depth to it though, and some of the most entertaining action sequences I've ever seen in any movie.

The basic plot of the movie is a somewhat familiar one. An undercover cop has infiltrated the Triads, and a loose cannon cop in the department butts heads with him early on, which leads to them attempting to work together in the second half. The main character is played by none other than Chow Yun-Fat, one of Woo's favorite actors to work with, and as Inspector "Tequila" Yuen, he becomes his most well-known persona. The opening scene starts us off with a gun fight in a crowded restaurant, as Tequila attempts to break up an arms deal in the middle of public. Woo alternates between chaotic, wide shots that are nearly impossible to keep track of, and closer, slow motion shots to emphasize a kill or a close call. This sounds somewhat obnoxious, drawing comparisons with exactly the wrong kinds of directors, but Woo is in a different league than them. It's difficult to write about action scenes, especially ones like Woo's, but if I had to use a single word, it would have to be this: stylish. Hard Boiled is a movie that seemed crazy exciting at the time, but it's influence has been so widespread that we may tend to see it as similar to action movies we watch today. Movies have completely embraced the style of gunplay that Woo popularized, still showing up in movies like John Wick to this day, but Hard Boiled still has something that none of these copies or homages have. It is simply, just impossibly cool.

This style is shown off best in the latter half of the movie. From the moment they enter the hospital to the very ending is pure fun in cinematic form. There's plenty of set-up, with Tequila and Long (the undercover cop) finally working together as they discover the information that the hospital itself is simply a front, and the entire Triad's store of arms is in the basement. I'm glossing over the plot details here, but I do need to mention that the plot in this movie is part of it's exhilarating charm. There's nothing wrong exactly with a movie being nothing more than a vehicle for action scenes (as 2011's The Raid shows us very clearly), but part of a Woo flick is the plot being a perfect build-up for the action. The crazy, balls to the wall, 40 minute long action sequence taking place int he latter half of the movie is that much more fun because at this point we're invested in these characters and we know exactly how cool they both are. Tequila and Long working together is that much more fun because of who they are, and because of the satisfaction of seeing them finally together, working towards a singular goal. Even without that though, the hospital scenes in this movie are a non-stop adrenaline rush. Our protagonists use everything in their environment to their advantage, sliding along on rolling hospital beds, gunning down everyone they see, taking the bad guys outfits to blend in before unloading on a group of unsuspecting Triad members, diving through windows guns blazing, you name it. Woo isn't afraid to embrace the pure movie-ness of it all, and that is where his strengths lie. Some directors do their best to make the audience forget that they're watching a movie with their camerawork, but here, we're reveling in the unrealistic cinematic flair, the slo-mo shots, the tracking shots, the pure action thrill.

Even as a member of a modern day audience, I found Hard Boiled to be a blast. It wasn't the revelation that it was to audiences of the time, since movies like The Matrix have been released since then, but on it's own merits, Hard Boiled is an instant classic. Any time you're looking to just have a great time watching a movie, this should be your pick.

 

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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 Yorgos Lanthimos is not a director that I thought I would ever be seeing so much of. Dogtooth, his big breakout film, got nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009, and it truly is a great movie, but it's also very brutal, very odd, and very cold. There's definitely not any mass appeal in it, in fact it does a fantastic job at alienating viewers with it's incredible weirdness. I saw this movie, then a few years later, I was suddenly seeing trailers for an English language movie by Lanthimos, The Lobster, which is also an incredible film I think about constantly. And now here I am, having seen yet another one of his movies, also in English, with a third coming next year. I couldn't be happier that Lanthimos is getting these opportunities, and a chance to go see a movie of his in theaters is a chance I relish.

I will preface this with my opinion upfront: The Killing of a Sacred Deer is the weakest of the three Lanthimos pictures I've seen so far. It is still a great movie, but I can't help but feel it could have been even better than it was. The movie seems to move at first with a near glacial pace, with several seemingly normal scenes being presented with music denoting the fact that something scary or tense is happening. This is all on purpose, and I appreciate it, because the movie holds a near constant pace, with the horror ramping up slowly, but non-stop. You're eased into it in a way that helps it to suddenly catch you off guard, because you barely even realize the frightening world you've entered into. Lanthimos' first foray into (mostly) straight psychological horror really highlights some of his strengths as a director. His ability to make the audience feel tense about seemingly innocuous things through devices like framing is impeccable as it always is, and his other movies always contain elements that are in their own way, horrifying, but never have they been straight up horror. His characters signature cold, robotic, detatched dialogue works both for and against him here as well. Martin, the primary antagonist to Steven's (Collin Farrell, in his second Lanthimos picture) protagonist, is a terrifying character through his uncanny calm throughout circumstances that should be emotionally trying even for the person causing them. Steven is essentially the only character in the movie to express any strong emotion, which while I appreciate in a way since we are tied to the protagonist more than the other characters, I still feel might have been a small mistake. Some actions lack the emotional punch that I feel they should have because none of the other characters react very strongly to them. Their lack of response is part of what drives the horror forward, but at the same time makes the horror seem a little bit too detached.

The plot here is incredibly strong and very inventive, the story of this movie was never uninteresting or boring (though as I said, it did seem slow at times). Martin inflicts terrible pain on Steven and his family through means that seem supernatural. How he does what he does is never explained, which personally I'm very glad about. Part of what made the film so horrifying and bizarre was this inexplicable disease ravaging the family that Martin seemingly had complete control over, able to make the symptoms disappear and reappear as he saw fit. Initially poisoning could be suspected, but as the movie goes on, it becomes apparent that whatever is happening is not something that can be explained by science. Martin at one point, when threatened with a gun, makes a comment that if he dies, Steven's whole family will die with him, saying "It'll be as if you killed 4 people with a single bullet". There is something otherworldly going on here, but just as in Lanthimos' other movies, the exact nature of this device is not important. It is simply the driving force behind the decisions that the characters have to make, and in that manner, it excels wonderfully. The soundtrack aids this feeling, sometimes striking like a physical blow, sudden and loud and chaotic to the point of being unnerving all on it's own. It even a few times overwhelms the characters and drowns them out mid-sentence, underlining the terror taking place. I would be remiss if I didn't mention it, because it very much adds to the uncomfortable atmoshpere that is built so expertly throughout the film.

My progression through this movie went from "This seems kind of odd" to involuntarily covering my eyes during the final scenes, not wanting to watch the outcome of this terrible tale, but being too curious to look away for more than a moment. Horror seems like something I would very much like Lanthimos to explore again sometime in the future. He has a knack for this kind of movie, and I think I view The Killing of a Sacred Deer as something of an experiment for him, seeing what does and doesn't work. As I said, it's a great movie, especially for any fans of Lanthimos like me, seeing him get a little out of his comfort zone is really interesting. As I left the theater, I felt slightly dissatisfied with the ending and it's suddenness, thinking back to the deep impact that the final images of The Lobster had on me and still have on me to this day. But as I think about it more, as I remember my visceral reactions to the final, climactic scene in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I'm coming around to the idea that Lanthimos may have constructed yet another ending that will haunt me as his other seem to do, forever sticking in my mind.

Hunger

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It's always interesting to go back and see the early days of a director or actor, before they hit it big, while they were still struggling to get recognition and work. Hunger is the film that put both Steve McQueen (director of the Best Picture winning 12 Years a Slave), and Michael Fassbender (who these days needs no introduction) on the map. It is a grueling picture, difficult to watch at times, but it is exactly that fact that makes it so interesting. You can feel both the director and actor pouring everything they have into it. Fassbender in particulardropped down to 125lbs at one point, and you can definitely tell. The dedication from both actor and director is something to be witnessed.

From the beginning, you can tell that the film is one that speaks with it's visuals more than with words. There is a short text introduction at the beginning of the movie about the basic plot, which revolves around a series of prison protests in the late 70s from Irish Republican prisoners who want political status, but after that, there is very little speaking. The first real back and forth conversation doesn't happen until at least 10 minutes in, and after that, not until the 30 minute mark. Primarily we come to an understanding about what the prisoners are doing by simply watching it, seeing the disgusting conditions that they live in and the vulgar things they do to protest against their treatment, such as not wearing uniforms and not bathing. An early scene involves Fassbender's character, Bobby Sands, being brought out naked from his cell, beaten by guards, dragged through the prison to the bathroom, and forcibly being bathed and having his hair cut before he is dragged back again. It's shocking to see, the kinds of things that these men were willing to go through to protest their treatment, and it's communicated extremely well through the visuals and the setting. 

That is what I get most out of this movie, McQueen's ability to communicate through strictly visuals. Many movies and TV shows are guilty of using exposition dumps to communicate information to the viewer, so that they can understand what's about to happen, or what has happened. Here, we get the exact opposite, with spoken dialogue being almost nonexistent or inconsequential, with the visuals being the key to knowing what's going on. He shows us that time is passing by healing a prisoners injuries, he tells us that their negotiations have been working through showing us improved housing. But we also understand the hatred that the government still has for them, as a SWAT team is called in to beat the prisoners nearly to death as cavity searches are forcibly performed. All of this is a wonderful feat to pull off for a directorial debut, and the actors, particularly Fassbender, help with this immensely. Acting is noticed when it's taken to it's extremes, but sometimes it's truly in the nuances, the small things, that an actor can succeed the most. Fassbender uses everything he has to be Bobby Sands, down to the little things that matter, like the small smile pulling at his lips even as he lays in his cell, bleeding and defeated. Where he really distinguishes himself though, is in one of the movie's most memorable scenes, a single, 17-minute long take of a conversation between Sands and a priest brought in to dissuade him from his hunger strike. It truly is an amazing scene, I never thought that a camera sitting perfectly still, watching two men talk for nearly 20 minutes straight could be such an enthralling thing. It has more dialogue than the rest of the movie combined, and serves almost as a break point between the beginning and ending of the movie. It's that dense, that it could be regarded as the 2nd act almost all on it's own, it's a powerful, exciting, well shot and well acted scene that completely deserves the reputation it has.

Afterwards, his hunger strike begins in earnest, and it is a sight to behold. Watching Sands as his body becomes more and more emaciated, diseased, and frail is quite an experience. It's almost terrifying seeing how far he's willing to go for his cause, which again Fassbender gets across with stark clarity. McQueen in unflinching in showing us the excruciating pain of starvation, as Sands body deteriorates, the camera becomes looser, less focused, and less steady. We feel as though we are experiencing it to some degree, with his hallucinations sometimes overlaying the screen, and his eyes unable to focus on anything due to his bodies complete breakdown. The director is careful to not make this a political movie, neither side are particularly displayed as good or bad, and Sands isn't made into a heroic figure. We just watch the facts, the intense pain that he and 9 other men put themselves through, and can't help but marvel at it even if we disagree with it. This is what men are capable of when they are utterly committed to a cause, they can willingly starve themselves to death to get their message across. I can't think of a single thing that was said out loud in the entire 3rd act, and maybe that's because there really are no words. There's nothing that any one of them could have said that would have added to the spectacle, what we see is projecting strong enough of a message that there is absolutely no need for words. Watching Bobby Sands slowly die of starvation is a cinematic experience that is going to stick with me for a very long time.