★★ / ★★★★
The first kill in director David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” left a strong impression on me. It isn’t because the kill cannot be seen from a mile away nor is it due to the brutality of it. It is because the type of murder victim is new. It shows that not even children are safe from Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle), the boogeyman known as The Shape who went on a killing spree in Haddonfield, Illinois in 1978.
In the original, not one child is harmed physically. They could have been but we get the impression that it is the killer’s choice not to. And so perhaps it is a part of Michael’s behavioral profile given that he himself was only a child when he committed his first murder. The restraint gave depth to the character. Here, once the victim’s final breath is released, I caught myself feeling excited at the prospect of a back-to-basics slasher flick. Notice the kill is without blood. No weapon is used. It is over just as soon as it began. There is a ruthless efficiency to it. However, I regret to report it does not live up to its potential.
If anybody could have successfully put “Halloween” back to its original form, it ought to have been Green. With impressive movies like “George Washington,” “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow,” “Snow Angels,” and “Joe” under his belt, he has shown that he has the ability to strip his stories of plot complications and focus solely on the human drama. Now, that may sound strange given that a horror film is in question, but since the plot of this picture revolves around how Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has dealt—or not dealt—with the trauma of her encounter with Michael forty years ago, the screenplay demands that it has a thorough understanding of human psychology, particularly how a traumatic event can not only alter but actually shape a person’s life. It is clear Curtis could have done more with the character had the screenplay given her more of a challenge.
While some effort is made, it is all so… ostentatious. We observe Laurie shoot a number of guns, wield hunting knives, and stroll across her panic room. The script makes a big deal of Laurie’s broken relationships with her daughter (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak) because the former’s intense preparations—just in case Michael escapes the mental facility and returns to Haddonfield—have taken over her life. Nearly all of it comes across rather superficial, tacked on, unnecessary. Greer is not fit for the role while Matichak does not command a strong enough presence to be memorable. Subpar performances aside, these characters are so underwritten, I did not care whether they would or could survive the night. A part of me actually wanted them to get killed because they felt more like decorations rather than natural extensions of our iconic survivor.
In the middle of it, I wondered if it would have been the braver choice to make a horror film with a running time of only fifty minutes to an hour. Instead of plot or character contrivances, the focus is on the meeting of predator and prey—only we do not know which is which any longer since forty years have passed. After all, it is the filmmakers’ decision to ignore all sequels. It is only appropriate to just go for the jugular, so to speak.
Green’s interpretation of “Halloween” is surprisingly loud given that he excels in the quiet. I’m not simply referring to the school dance scenes or guns being used excessively. (Do not get me started on the generous use of score—especially during the most inappropriate times.) I also refer to the images. There is excessive display of gore and sharp weapons piercing through body parts. There is even a man whose head is split open and we see it front and center. There are moments when violence is implied, but these are few and far between.
There are those who are quick to say that this is pretty much a remake of the original. I think these individuals are not observant enough. While Carpenter’s 1978 classic is more interested in building suspense and breaking it at the perfect moment, Green’s attempt leans toward evoking thrills through homage. Carpenter employs light and shadows to imply violence while Green hoses us down with gore. And that makes a whole world of difference.
Prince Avalanche (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch) must paint traffic lines on a long stretch of highway that was once consumed by wildfire. While the former thinks that the job is an excellent opportunity for him to be one with nature and further get to know himself through solitude, the latter finds himself unable to deal with loneliness. With the weekend coming up, Alvin decides that he is going to stay in the woods while Lance plans to go home, attend a party, find a girl, and have his “little man squeezed.”
“Prince Avalance,” a remake of Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson’s “Á annan veg,” is consistently beautifully photographed, especially for a comedy about two men who are sort of losers in their own way, but I found the languid tone of the picture to be inert and soporific at times. Just when we are about to slip into a coma, it turns up the soundtrack to jolt us into paying attention until once again our eyelids start to get heavy.
The picture is not without core strengths. The script has such a good ear for dialogue, a three- to five-minute scene that mostly consists of the camera staring at a face inspires us to paint an entire story in our minds. Particularly memorable is the conversation between Alvin and an older woman (Joyce Payne) who is going through the rubble of her former home. I wondered if the performer on screen had experienced losing her house in fire because it does not feel like she is acting at all. Instead, she seems to be sorting through the memories of her former home and then telling us what she is feeling through her body language. Unfortunately, the scene that comes right after, in which Rudd is allowed to act silly with his body language, dilutes the power of what we had just seen.
Furthermore, director David Gordon Green makes good use of wide shots as he is able to show nature in its rawest form, from a group of desolate old trees which reflects the physical isolation of the subjects to animals in search of food or shelter. He appears to have an eye for which behavior is worth putting in the final product and against which complementary color or specific texture. I will be very interested to see the result if Green decided to make a nature documentary.
The humor is, for the most part, quite understated. There are times when Lance and Alvin are unaware they are funny. However, I was unable to buy into the chemistry between the two leads completely. Instead of being convinced that Lance is forced to put some effort into liking Lance because one just so happens to be dating the other’s sister, much of my energy was put into trying to convince myself that I was supposed to be observing characters rather than actors playing their respective parts.
There is a difference between minimalism and plain. To its credit, “Prince Avalanche” dares to walk along that line. It is understandable why a select audience will be drawn to some of the poetry of the material, but it lacks a certain energy that allows it to stand above other comedies that share similar bloodlines.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Every once in a while a movie comes along and manages to hit all the right notes without ever hitting a wrong one. One waits for the film to stumble somehow—whether it be a performer stepping outside of his character for less than a second or a shot that lingers for a beat too long—but it never does. David Gordon Green’s “Joe” is that kind of film.
Based on the novel by Larry Brown, the premise sounds like a cliché: a teenager who is abused at home finds a role model in an ex-con. But the keen screenplay by Gary Hawkins eradicates the expected trappings by focusing on the specificities of the characters. Because we are emotionally invested in who they are, what they have to say, and what they will do next, we are left unguarded when it comes to just about every turn of event. It is a rural drama with a powerful gravitational force and once one is caught up in it, the claws of suspense is deeply embedded in our spines.
It is unflinching in its violence. We see a grown man punching a kid in the face, a skull being struck repeatedly using a rusty tool until the head is concave, people being shot from afar and point-blank. Violence becomes another character in the picture. It makes the case that everyone is capable of thinking it and thereby executing it. At one point, the title character says, “I know what keeps me alive is restraint. It keeps me out of jail. Keeps me from hurting people.”
Nicolas Cage plays Joe with an intensity of a grenade moments from going off. Beneath that hardworking, seemingly calm exterior is a man capable of so much rage. Most interesting is that he is aware he is not a good person when he sees red. The picture spends a good amount of time during the first act showing how people work with their hands. It is like attempting to distract a shark from attacking. It is only a matter of time until the distraction is unable to mask the scent of blood. It has been years since I have seen Cage being so effective in a role. I respected his character’s restraint and yet I feared his inevitable meltdown.
Although not as dynamic as Cage, Tye Sheridan is more than capable of holding his own against the veteran performer. He is required to summon not just anger for Gary being abused by his father (Gary Poulter—a real-life homeless man who passed away shortly after the film has wrapped—delivering a performance, though I am not sure if that is right word, that I will remember for a long time) but also a sense of possibly being permanently wounded, emotionally and psychologically, for living in such a destructive household for so long. Sheridan and Poulter’s scenes are difficult to watch because of the abuse and yet they are also the highlights of the picture because we convince ourselves we will not flinch once the violence occurs. It is a challenge not to be caught off-guard every time.
The picture is beautifully and astutely shot, very raw in its depiction of destitution. For instance, in scenes that take place in Gary’s home, especially at night, notice that there is no electricity. The shelves are empty. There are junk on the floor. Each member of the family’s clothes appear unwashed. Look at their unkempt hair. Feel the fear in their eyes as the father enters the room. I was amazed that I was able to absorb these things despite near darkness. Lesser films would have had dim lights or something of that sort just so we would notice how dirty everything was. I was impressed by its courage to show things as they would look like in real life.
“Joe” is moving but never sentimental, tough but never gratuitous. There is a vulnerability here that many pictures of its type attempt to reach but never do. Though the subject matter is dark and uncompromising, I relished every single beautiful, scary, heartbreaking, hopeful moment in it.
Sitter, The (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Noah (Jonah Hill), a college dropout with nothing much to do except hang out, decided to babysit the three children of his mom’s friend (Erin Daniels) because he figured his mom (Jessica Hecht) could use a fun night out. Who knows? Being a single parent, she might even meet a man who could make her happy. The three youngsters, Slater (Max Records), Blithe (Landry Bender), and Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez) were, to say the least, a handful of troublemakers. It didn’t help that Noah was far from a responsible adult, accepting to pick up cocaine for his girlfriend (Ari Graynor) in exchange for sex in the middle of his babysitting. Written by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, as “The Sitter” unfolded, the gnawing question of who it was aimed for could no longer be ignored. Even though it contained kids, it certainly wasn’t for children given their mean-spirited natures, especially Rodrigo’s predilection for putting homemade bombs in public restrooms. And yet it wasn’t for adults either. At least not those who preferred their comedy distilled of sentimentality. The screenplay couldn’t help but make Noah into a brother figure for the kids, so unconvincing that in select scenes where the mood was supposed to be serious, like when Noah confronted Slater of the young teen’s homosexuality and self-hatred, though a great topic of conversation in a mainstream lens, I was relatively unmoved because I couldn’t see past the hokum. Since the sensitive moments didn’t feel earned, I was offended that the film so willingly crossed the line. I wish that the writers acknowledged the reality that some people, even babysitters, are just not good with kids. They certainly wouldn’t change their deeply-rooted tendencies overnight. However, the picture did have one very funny scene that took place in a store. Blithe had a bodily accident in the car so Noah had to take her underwear shopping because she had no change of clothes. Observing from a couple of feet away, a Kid City employee (Alysia Joy Powell) had mistakenly believed that Noah was a pedophile and Noah’s nervous explanation about what he was doing in the little girls’ underwear section didn’t help the situation. Hill and Powell mirrored each other’s energy so strongly, their exchange had crackle and pop. I wish other confrontations between Noah and another character were just as effective. In contrast, the scenes between Noah and Karl (Sam Rockwell), a drug dealer, were so lackadaisical and nonsensical. At times it was downright offensive. Karl was supposed to be gay. His sexuality was strictly utilized as a source of comedy. If the drug dealer had been straight, he’d just be another unfunny, incompetent thug. Would it have been too much to ask for the writers to make their villain a little bit more interesting without relying solely on the character’s sexual orientation? To me, mean-spirited gay jokes are just as offensive as gay jokes that insidiously try to pass as progressive thinking. “The Sitter,” directed by David Gordon Green, needed a writing overhaul in order to make room for adventurous and funny moments that have range. There was no sense of adventure here, just a series of poorly executed sketches.
George Washington (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by David Gordon Green, “George Washington” tells the story of a group of friends (Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden, Curtis Cotton III, Damian Jewan Lee) who lived in small rural town whose lives changed forever after a tragic accident. That may sound like any other coming-of-age film but “George Washington” was much more complex than that because it was told with such a delicate touch and poetic lyricism. Being familiar with Green’s later projects, I was impressed that this was his first movie because he allowed his characters to speak to each other, to themselves and to us via narration. The characters expressed themselves like real people to the point where I thought at times that it was too naturalistic (but in a good way). I loved the fact that the characters evolved over time but the evolution didn’t come hand-in-hand with big realizations and deafening score. Their growth came in the quiet moments when they would just sit around and express to each other what they felt at that moment compared to how they were when we saw them in the beginning. I guess what I loved most about the picture was it didn’t go out of its way to impress and simply told the circumstances surrounding the subjects’ lives. A common theme I was most interested in was the suffocation both the adults and children felt living in that one particular town. One way or another, they expressed how they wanted to leave their homes to learn more about the world or possibly meet someone who could inspire or challenge them yet accept them for who they were. I’ve read some reviews claiming that not much happened or that the movie was too slow. On the contrary, I thought it was dynamic because even though the outside remained more or less static, there was so much struggle and hurt and questioning going on inside the characters. In a way, it reminded me of my childhood, especially during the summer, when all I would do was hang out with my friends or with my cousins all day. Our biggest worries almost always concerned our parents’ disapproval or someone getting hurt when would play games. So I thought the film was honest and painfully real and I was captivated by it. The final twenty minutes or so really pushed to reach a new level of imagination specifically the scenes about the boy yearning to be a hero. I thought it was symbolic of a person wanting to be someone else but not just to be any regular folk–someone who was worthy of fantasy and who everybody looked up to. “George Washington” is definitely for patient viewers who strive to look and feel beyond the surface. In the end, even though it had so much sadness in its core, I couldn’t help but feel hopeful.
All the Real Girls (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
This very earnest and honest love story between a virgin (Zooey Deschanel) and a womanizer (Paul Schneider) may have been difficult to swallow but it was rewarding. Written and directed by David Gordon Green, the style of storytelling of this film was at first distracting because it constantly made quick cuts from one scene to another. But as the picture went on, I realized it was effective because the characters had to quickly say what they wanted to say even if the words that came out of their mouths were not exactly the truth. The first scene was very cute so I was instantly hooked. The romance between Deschanel and Schneider reminded me of the chemistry of the lead characters in “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” That scene was funny, and best of all, it felt real–like a conversation that I might overhear while waiting at a bus stop. I also liked the supporting actors such as Shea Whigham as Deschane’s older brother who did not approve of the relationship and Patricia Clarkson as Schneider’s mother. Although Clarkson was not the focus on the movie, she made the most of the material she was given. That is, a mother who worked as a clown to provide his son and as a mother for was concerned and frustrated with where her son’s life was heading. She played her character with such grace because she balanced sadness and strength really well. Lastly, I enjoyed the picture’s autumnal feel and its use of symbolism. Its complexity might easily be overlooked because of its initial distracting style but once one really gets into its rhythm, it really is quite keen when it comes to what it means to fall in love and be loved. Just when I thought the picture was borderline turning into a syrupy romance, it changed gears and commented on the relief and pain that comes hand-in-hand with being honest with one’s self and wanting to change so bad to be accepted by someone. It also had a chance to tackle issues such as the breakdown of communication when distance is involved, the dynamics of friendship and what it means not only to love someone but also respect them. This is a smart sleeper film that doesn’t give us the easy and sugary answers we want to hear. But it is the kind of film that assures us that it’s alright to be confused and to question what and how we really feel toward someone important to us.