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Split (2017)

split_red-692x1024It’s hard to even remember a time when writer/director M. Night Shyamalan wasn’t a cinematic punching bag. He flashed onto the scene with the triumviri of Sixth Sense, Unbreakabale, and Signs, what I’ll call the Early Period Shyamalan. He was deemed the next Spielberg, the next Hitchcock, and the Next Big Thing. Then he entered what I’ll call the Middle Period Shyamalan and it was one creative and commercial catastrophe after another. The Village. Oof. Lady in the Water. Ouch. The Happening. Yeesh. The Last Airbender. Ick. After Earth. Sigh. That’s a rogue’s gallery of stinkers that would bury most directors. The promise of his early works seemed snuffed out and retrospectives wondered if the man was really as talented as the hype had once so fervently suggested. Then in 2015 he wrote and directed a small found footage thriller called The Visit and it was a surprise hit. Had the downward spiral been corrected? With a low-budget and simple concept, had Shyamalan staked out a course correction for a mid-career resurgence. More evidence was needed. Split is the confirmation movie fans have been hoping for. An M. Night Shyamalan movie is no longer something to fear (for the wrong reasons), folks.

Split is all about Kevin (James McAvoy), a man living with twenty-three different personalities in his head. One of them, Dennis, kidnaps three young ladies, two popular and well-adjusted friends (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) and the introverted, troubled teen, Cassie (Anna Taylor-Joy). The girls wake up locked in a basement and with no idea where they are and whom they’re dealing with. Kevin takes on several different personas: Barry, a fashion designer, Hedwig, an impish child, Patricia, a steely woman devoted to order, Dennis, an imposing threat undone by germs. The altered personalities, or “alters” as they’re called, are preparing for the arrival of a new persona, one they refer to as simply The Beast. And sacrifices are needed for his coming.

Right away you sense that Split is already an above average thriller. This is clever entertainment, a fine and fun return to form for a man that seemed to lose his sense of amusement with film. The areas where Split is able to shine that would have normally doomed the Middle Period Shyamalan are in the realms of tone, execution, and ambition.

640Very early on, Shyamalan establishes what kind of feeling he wishes to imbue with his audience, and he keeps skillfully churning those sensations, adding new elements without necessary breaking away from the overall intended experience. You’re meant to be afraid but not too afraid. It’s more thriller than outright horror. There is a level of camp inherent into the ridiculous premise and in watching a grown man act out a slew of wildly different personas populating his brain. Shyamalan swerves into this rather than try and take great pains to make his thriller a more serious, high-minded affair. His camera lingers on the oddities, allowing the audience to nervously laugh, and he allows McAvoy extra time to sell those oddities. It’s especially evident in the introduction of the Patricia alter ego, where McAvoy uses a lot of faux grave facial expressions to great comic effect. Shyamalan no longer seems to fear being seen as a bit silly. Shyamalan even knows in some ways that he’s making a genre picture and an audience expects genre elements or the reversal of those elements. At one point, Dennis insists that two of our girls strip to their underwear because they’re dirty. I shook my head a bit, believing Shyamalan to sneak in some PG-13 T&A. Except it’s just enough for some trailer clips. Shyamalan’s camera doesn’t objectify the teen girls even after they run around in their skivvies. He doesn’t have to indulge genre elements that will break the film’s tone. He also doesn’t have to overly commit to being serious. He can be serious enough, which is the best way to describe Split. It treats its premise and the danger the girls are in with great seriousness, but the movie still allows measures of fun and intended camp. The cosmos themselves don’t have to be responsible for all of time’s events to click together to form his climax. It can just be a young woman trying to escape a psycho thanks to her wits and her grit.

Execution has also been a nagging problem of the Middle Period Shyamalan  (affectionately his Blue Period?). I may be one of the few people that thought 2008’s Happening had some potential even as is if another director with a better feel for the material and less timidity embracing the full possibilities of an R-rating had been aboard. With Last Airbender and After Earth, both movies were exceptionally bad from a number of standpoints, but Shyamalan’s botched execution of them made the anguish all the more realized. You walked away from both disasters and openly wondered why Shyamalan was given such large-scale creative freedom and at what point the producers knew they were sunk. With Split, Shyamalan has pared down his story into a very lean and mean survival thriller anchored by a mesmerizing performance from McAvoy. The story engine kicks in very early, mere minutes into the movie. The man doesn’t even wait the usual ten minutes or so before introducing the inciting incident. This Shyamalan has no time to dawdle, and the rest of the movie lives up to this pacing edict. It’s efficiently plotted with the girls in a position of discovery and learning their surroundings, the different alters, and how to play them against one another. Each piece of info builds upon the last. It’s a survival thriller where you think along with the characters, and their decisions make sense within the internal logic and story that Shyamalan commands. There are scattered interruptions from our subterranean terror, mainly exposition from Kevin’s shrink and some hunting flashbacks from Casey’s childhood with her father. I figured they would show Casey to be similar to the feisty heroine from You’re Next, revealing her as a fiendishly clever and capable survivalist that the villain underestimates to his great peril. It’s not quite that but the flashbacks do serve a purpose, a very dark purpose, and a purpose that could lead to some very uncomfortable personal implications others may interpret.

Film Title: SplitShyamalan’s ambition has often exceeded his reach when it came to his post-Signs oeuvre. The man never seemed like a great fit for the fantasy and sci-fi blockbusters that Hollywood was hoping he’d sprinkle his “Spielberg scion” magic all over. The number of moving parts seemed to overwhelm and his worst instincts took over. To be fair, Shyalamlan is also to blame as his ego became inflated and he started chasing after his cinematic windmills convinced he was creating great works of art. In Lady in the Water, he inserted himself as the writer that will eventually save all of mankind. That’s a step above arrogant. And he reserved time in that fishy-woman-out-of-water misfire to literally eviscerate a crotchety film critic because the man obviously held no grudges. My point is that when Shyamalan’s stories got too big so did his sense of himself. He lost limitations and people reeling in his excesses and wayward plotting. Even Shyamalan’s early successes are smart examples of how to get the most bang for your buck. Unbreakable is his “comic book movie” and that has like one fight scene. Signs left most to the imagination. Shyamalan has always been a better filmmaker when he holds back and embraces the limitations of his situations, finding more resonant creative solutions. Shyamalan has blossomed under the Blumhouse model, a factory for cheap high-concept thrillers in the $1-10 million range. With that kind of minimal budget, it forces Shyamalan to be very economical with his filmmaking and very meticulous with his storytelling. It worked for The Visit and it especially works with Split. This is a movie that emphasizes its strengths, storytelling and performance, and a large-scale budget is not essential for those elements to flourish. You want to know Shyamalan’s cameo this time? It’s a computer tech literally billed as “Jai, Hooters lover.” We’ve certainly come down from savior of the human race, and it’s a welcomed sign (no pun intended).

The movie would be so much less without the intensely captivating performance from McAvoy (X-Men: Apocalypse). A character with multiple personalities totaling twenty-three, with twenty-four on its spooky way, must be an actor’s dream. McAvoy loses himself in the sheer playfulness of the part. The characters are distinct down to his poise, posture, the way he carries his body, subtle facial expressions or movements that he’s keyed into specific altered personalities. It’s a lot more than silly voices. It’s a shame that this kind of performance will never really get the recognition it truly deserves. This is an Oscar-worthy performance from McAvoy as he transforms himself again and again. The man finds several different ways to be creepy and menacing, never overdoing the same note. It’s an astonishing chameleon-like performance and definitely deserving of future awards consideration, and we’re in the general cinematic dumping ground of January. I would like to also call attention to Taylor-Joy (The Witch) and her resourceful and thoughtful performance. She’s playing a scared and scarred young woman but a fighter worth rooting for who rises to the many challenges. She’s a Final Girl you can love.

Split is a solid and atmospheric thriller with a killer crazy performance by James McAvoy. The movie flies by, drawing you into its clutches, and the ongoing twists and turns feel organic. There really isn’t so much a twist ending as a culmination of flashback implications. The end has an uncomfortable implication in its resolution, but that’s the worst of it. As long as his head doesn’t get too big, I could welcome Shyamalan cranking out fun mini-budget thrillers in the Blumhouse model. It could be the beginning of a, dare I say, Shyamassaince. I’m sorry (I’m not sorry).

Nate’s Grade: B+

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The Accountant (2016)

unnamedHow much do I have to pay for Ben Affleck to do my taxes?

Christian Wolff (Affleck) is autistic and one of the top accountants in the world, able to quickly penetrate stacks and stacks of numbers to analyze trends and problems. His clientele varies from an older couple trying to save their family farm to the mob. He’s also a very dangerous assassin who takes out bad guys with exacting precision. As a young boy, Christian’s autism caused great anxiety within his family, and his father was determined that his son would be able to fight back against a world that didn’t accept him. Ray King (J.K. Simmons) is a retiring Treasury agent trying to track down the identity of Christian and possibly bring him to justice for his vigilante status. On the run from hired guns, Christian decides to stay and fight rather than flee and start a new identity because a co-worker, Dana (Anna Kendrick), is also targeted. Together they must stay one step ahead of killers and the ensnaring investigation of Ray King.

It would be easy to dismiss the movie as an autistic Bourne imitation, except that The Accountant is exactly that and takes ownership over its more ridiculous plot turns. The major problem with the Bourne series, which I believe is only now fully coming to light now that Jason Bourne has run out of legitimate past memories to remember, is that its lead character is a bore. Jason Bourne is a pragmatic and resourceful killing machine, but you wouldn’t want to talk to him at a party. He’s a boring character who is only interesting when he’s moving forward and inflicting damage. The Accountant has a lead character with the same set of skills but it also makes sure that he’s compelling even when he’s not killing the bad guys. Christian Wolff is a compelling lead character because he doesn’t fit in, he doesn’t relate easily to others, and he has social and emotional vulnerabilities that make him easy to root for while also serving to ground him. I’m not saying that those on the autism spectrum would make the world’s greatest assassins, though the job does require a dispassionate, detail-oriented mind. I was amused just watching Christian talk to others because I didn’t know how he would respond or how others would respond to him. He acts differently and it makes regular interactions interesting, and that’s before he becomes a superhuman assassin later. He’s leading a double life, and that provides just about every scene with an extra layer of irony, mystery, and intrigue. Christian is an intelligent warrior, working through strategy and improvisation but also luring his opponents into traps. He’s deadly but also efficient. He goes for headshots and dutifully moves along. He doesn’t play around and neither does the movie. When Dana is trapped in her bathroom with a hired killer on the other side, she takes the toilet lid and smashes the guy’s hand. That’s exactly what a thinking person should do in this life-or-death scenario. I appreciated that even with the action thriller heroics that the actions of the characters were still credible to their behavior.

The larger world is also populated with interesting characters and a complex story structure to match. I’ll readily admit that the screenplay by Bill Dubuque (The Judge) doesn’t need to utilize all of the subterfuge it does. We open on one perspective, circle back later with a richer understanding, jump around in time, and then we even sit down with Ray King and the movie takes a 10-15 minute pit stop to explain everything. It’s a strange moment where Ray gives us his full back-story, which is unexpected and unnecessary in the overall big picture but I enjoyed the commitment to larger world building. Another great addition was Brax (Jon Bernthal), treated as a parallel storyline for the first half of the film. In two very effective scenes he’s introduced with menacing efficiency and he’s a memorable foil we know will have to be faced later. I recently watched the atrocious revenge thriller I Am Wrath that was filmed in my city of Columbus, Ohio. There wasn’t one enjoyable moment, memorable villain, or even memorable death. In one scene with The Accountant, where Brax convinces his target the reasons why he should kill himself with an insulin overdose, I had an interesting and intimidating foe. The impression is immediate and unmistakable and in one scene you establish his danger. There’s a level of detail that isn’t seen that often in these kinds of films. There are several storylines and timelines and lingering questions but by the film’s end they’re all reasonably put back together and the audience is left satisfied. There will be some twists that a quick-witted viewer will be able to anticipate knowing the economy of characters but that doesn’t take away from their impact.

Affleck has rightfully earned serious acclaim as a director and screenwriter during his career rebirth but the man deserves his due for his acting as well. By most accounts, he was the best thing about the steaming pile that was Batman vs. Superman, and this is after the Internet exploded in apoplectic fits over his casting. With The Accountant, he gets to play a superhero and a socially challenged outcast, which must seem like the best of both worlds for an actor. Affleck is wonderfully dry and matter-of-fact as Christian. When he jumps into action he has a disciplined sense of purpose that can be fascinating. It’s a great lead role for Affleck and he finds interesting ways to demonstrate various emotions through an unorthodox lens. Christian doesn’t break down and blab his feelings, nor does he necessarily process emotions in the same conventional sense. He commands the screen whether he’s talking or running and shooting bad guys, and that’s all I can ask for.

the-accountant-sniper-rifleAfter leaving The Accountant, I desperately wanted more adventures with this lead character and this world, and I was even dreaming up the idea of adapting this concept into a weekly TV crime procedural. It’s rare that a movie leaves me wanting more, and it’s even more rare when a movie leaves me wanting to watch a weekly variation of Christian Wolff living as whiz kid accountant by day and enforcer of justice by night. Director Gavin O’Connor (Jane Got a Gun) has given me a glimpse of a world that has plenty of shades of moral ambiguity but still dishes out the action thriller goods. It begins like A Beautiful Mind, shifts into a Bourne adventure, and then concludes like a mixture of Haywire and O’Connor’s own Warrior. There is far more action than I thought there would be. It blends the influences and tones without losing its own sense of identity as well as its pinpoint sense of what an audience craves for entertainment value. The movie doesn’t treat those on the autism spectrum as freaks or as “others.” It feels far less exploitative or borderline manipulative with its inclusive message than, say, Rain Man. The reason he’s a super assassin isn’t because he has autism but because his insane father trained him to be Batman to combat his autism. The non-linear narrative doesn’t need to be as purposely hard to follow but it does keep the audience guessing until the climax. The Accountant is a character study, a twisty thriller, an exciting action movie, an overall satisfying slice of good vs. evil, and a world that I need weekly adventures, please.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Lights Out (2016)

lights-out-poster-imageWhen it comes to horror, concept is king, but what’s just as important is fully developing that concept to meet its potential, and that’s where Lights Out succeeds. This is a low-budget horror movie that taps into a primal fear of the dark with a supernatural entity named Diana that can only be seen outside light sources. Thankfully, director David F. Sandberg smartly thinks of fun and interesting ways to play with this concept, like Diana disappearing in bursts of muzzle fire and a frantic, life-saving use of a car alarm. There’s a great suspense sequence where an off screen light from a flickering neon sign, switching off and on steadily, sets up audience expectations and lingers, drawing out the fear. The editing is terrific. There’s also a surprising subtext tackling the issue of mental illness and depression, as Diana, the malevolent spirit tethered to Maria Bello’s character, only seems to appear during the rougher patches of her life, and Diana fights against Bello getting “better” which weakens her existence. Theresa Palmer (Warm Bodies) settles in as a capable heroine that genuinely cares for her younger brother in danger from her mother and her “friend.” I cared about the people in this. The movie also subverts some genre clichés and treats its handful of characters with credibility. While the very end leaves some questionable final statements on mental illness, Lights Out is an elevated B-movie that takes its fun premise and executes it with aplomb. It’s worth 90 minutes in the dark.

Nate’s Grade: B

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Birdman-PosterExpecting a comedy from Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu would have preposterous. The man was known for his cinema verite of suffering, notably Babel, 21 Grams, Biutiful, and his best film, Amores Perros, roughly translated to Love’s a Bitch. Perhaps there isn’t much of a shift going from tragedy to comedy. Inarritu’s newest film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), has been wowing critics and audiences alike, building deafening awards buzz for its cast, Iarritu, and the superb cinematography, but will it fly with mainstream audiences? This may be one of the weirdest Oscar front-runners in some time.

Riggan (Michael Keaton) is an actor best known for playing the superhero Birdman in the early 1990s and walking away from the franchise. He’s still haunted by that role (sometimes literally) and struggling to prove himself as an artist. He’s brokered all his money into directing, adapting, and starring in a theatrical version of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The show is in previews and about to open its run on Broadway but it’s already got a rash of problems. The leading man needs to be replaced immediately. The supposed savior is famous actor Mike (Edward Norton), an undeniably talented but temperamental actor who pushes buttons to find some fleeting semblance of “truth.” Mike’s girlfriend, Lesley (Naomi Watts), is growing tired of his antics and desperate for her own long-delayed big break. Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is Riggan’s “girlfriend” and co-star and may be pregnant. Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan’s personal assistant and also his detached daughter, is fresh from rehab, and spiteful against her neglectful dad. Toss in Riggan’s best friend/manager/play producer (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan’s ex-wife (Amy Ryan), and a feared theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) who is determined to kill Riggan’s show to send a message to the rest of Hollywood polluting the integrity of the theat-tah. Oh, and throughout all this, Riggan hears an ominous voice that alternating encourages him and humiliates him.

hr_Birdman_16It’s an industry satire, a bizarre comedy, a father/daughter drama, an examination on identity and the complicated pulls of affection and admiration, and a stunning virtuoso technical achievement. As a movie, Birdman is hard to pin down or categorize. It’s a movie that you definitely need to experience on your own rather than have described (don’t stop reading, come back…), and that is a reason enough to see the film, a rare aspect among modern movies. It’s an artistically offbeat movie and yet it ultimately is about one has been actor looking back on his career and coming to terms with his own impact with pop-culture, art, and his family. It’s about a man struggling to find his place in his own life, beset at all odds by doubters and traitors and obstructionists. The refreshing aspect about Riggan is that he’s a has-been but not a sad sack; he’s fighting from the beginning, sometimes pathetically and sometimes in vain, but the man is always fighting to regain his dignity, to reclaim his life’s narrative, and to fight for his legacy. Riggan, after all, set the stage for the modern superhero industry that currently dominates Hollywood bean counters. He was too just soon, and the parallels with Keaton (Batman) are superficially interesting but there’s more of an original character here than a reflection of the actor playing him. He’s neurotic, egotistical, hungry, and fighting for respect, like many actors, and the film flirts with the façades people inhabit. Many of the characters are emotionally needy, desperate for validation wherever they can find it.

Another strength of the film is that it finds a moment for each of its talented ensemble players to shine, chief among them Keaton. The actor hasn’t had a showcase like this in some time and he is a terrific guiding force to hold the entire story together. Whether it’s marching in his tighty whities or working through his complicated degrees of neuroses, Keaton is alive in a way that is electrifying. We see several highs and lows over the course of two hours, some moments making us cheer on Riggan and others making us wince, but he comes across more like a person than just the butt of a joke. It’s also just fun to watch him adopt different acting styles when he steps on stage, including one early on where he’s purposely too stilted. It’s so comforting to watch Norton (The Grand Budapest Hotel) get to be great again, not just good but great. Early on, you see the appeal of Mike, his allure, and Norton keeps pushing the audience, as well as the characters, back and forth with his wealth of talent. Stone (Amazing Spider-Man 2) spends most of the film as the sulky daughter but she gets to uncork one awesomely angry monologue against her loser dad. The thawing father/daughter relationship ends up supplying the film with its only degree of heart. Watts (The Impossible) is comically frazzled for the majority of her time but gets a memorable character beat where she breaks down in tears, realizing her dream of “making it” might never materialize. Riseborough (Oblivion) also has moments where he sadness and vulnerability cut deep. The supporting characters aren’t terribly deep but they all have a moment to standout.

It’s a decidedly offbeat film that dips into the surreal though never dives completely inside. The movie is rather ambiguous about whether or not the fantastical flourishes are a result of Riggan being mentally ill, or at the least overtaxed with stress. Is there really a Birdman or is it a voice in his head, a manifestation of his ego or a ghost to remind him of the past when he was a star? Does Riggan really have the powers he seems to believe he does, including the ability to make objects move with his mind? Innaritu playfully keeps the audience guessing, treating the bizarre in an offhand manner reminiscent of magic realism. The bizarre embellishments blend smoothly with the film’s darkly comic tone. It’s a funny movie but one that you laugh at between clenched teeth.

birdman-movie-poster-4Is it all the unblinking camerawork a gimmick? I don’t think so. While the story can engage with its weirdness and surreal unpredictability, the long tracking shots bring a heightened reality to the unreal, they bring a larger sense of awe to the proceedings, watching to see the magic trick pulled off to the end. If anything, it’s an extra thrill to the script and greatly compounds the artistic audaciousness of the film, but I think it also channels the live-wire energy of theater, of watching actors have to walk that tightrope of performance and blocking, weaving together to pull off the ensemble. It makes the film medium feel more like live theater. Thematically I think the style also connects to the anxious mentality of Riggan. In the end, I don’t truly care that much whether it’s a gimmick or not (though I vote it is not) because the camerawork is rapturous. Made to resemble an entire two-hour tracking shot, it is a joyous thrill to watch these technical wizards do their thing, to watch the best in the business perform a visual magic trick over the duration of two hours. Even if you don’t care for the overall movie you can at least be entertained by the imaginative and thoroughly accomplished cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, fresh from his Oscar for Gravity and who should be clearing shelf space for the next bushel of awards he’s destined to win with this film. It’s an intoxicating experience to behold, though the film is structured into 10-minute or so chunks for feasibility. If you want to watch a real cinematic magic trick, check out the film Russian Ark, which is an entire movie, performed in one uncut single tracking shot.

I’m still wrestling with the debate over whether Birdman is an artistically ambitious romp or a truly great movie. Much like the characters in the film, I’m wrestling with whether I have confused my admiration with adoration. It’s a movie that I feel compelled to see a second time, and maybe a third, just to get a handle on my overall thoughts and feelings. That may be a sign that Birdman is a film for the ages, or maybe it’s just a sign that it’s not as approachable and denied a higher level of greatness by its obtuseness. Inarritu’s surreal showbiz satire is plenty entertaining, darkly comic, and a technical marvel thanks to the brilliant camerawork. The percussion-heavy musical score is another clever choice, naturally adding more urgency and anxiety to the proceedings. Birdman is a strange and beguiling movie, one that deserves to be seen, needs to be experienced, and stays with you rolling around in your brain. That sounds like a winner to me.

Nate’s Grade: A

Escape From Tomorrow (2013)

107317_galEscape From Tomorrow built a wave of buzz coming out of the Sundance Film Festival, namely because it was a bizarre, psycho-sexual little indie film shot secretly on the premises of Disney World and Disney Land. Writer/director Randy Moore shot his movie in secret, unbeknownst to Disney and the park employees. He was so paranoid about word getting out what they had done that Moore edited the film in another country. There is palpable fear at the reach and power of Disney’s coffers, enough so that a character mentioning the very D-word is silenced, and so I recall early on that people predicted Disney and its armada of lawyers would never allow Escape From Tomorrow to be released. Rather than get litigious, the Mouse House has decided to simply clam up, refusing comment. It’s a smart move, because besides a passing novelty, no one is going to remember the oh so monotonous Escape From Tomorrow in a matter of months.

The wisp of a plot involves a family vacationing at a Disney park. On the final day, the father (Roy Abramsohn) has been told he has lost his job. The rest of the day follows suit as the father loses his grip with reality, interpreting sinister signs throughout the park. He also keeps running into a pair of French teen girls who enjoy holding hands, being flirty, and singing. After the third or fourth time, the father starts to trail the girls, eerily entranced. They warn him that dire things will befall him if he doesn’t go with them.

131011_MOV_EscapeFromTomorrow.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeTake away the ballsy, surreptitiously recorded angle, the “how did they do that?” factor, and ultimately is there a movie here worth watching? I would definitively say… no. Admittedly it’s interesting to dissect how this guerrilla-style stunt was accomplished, watching scene after scene and figuring out what was shot in the parks unbeknownst to tourists and employees, what was likely shot on a set, where the cuts marry the two, and what techniques the director and his crew utilized to film a movie without blowing their cover. I think many of the scenes had to be improvised, at least the dialogue within the park, because starting and stopping and repeating lines in public, out in the open, would seem suspicious (the cursing would also seem to be courting danger). The Disney theme parks have millions of visitors, so people recording every action would not seem out of the ordinary. Escape From Tomorrow works as a stunt, with the audience picking apart the magic trick simultaneously as it’s performed.

However, a stunt is all that Escape From Tomorrow is because from a thematic, subtext standpoint, this movie is a mess. There just isn’t enough weirdness going on here and whatever small doses of it we get is given precious little connection to any larger theme. It feels like the filmmakers settled on the most facilely subversive idea – Disney Land, the happiest place on Earth, is not. Undercutting all of Disney’s famous family-friendly iconography with the occasional weird thing is not enough. A kid has black eyes. Ten minutes later a stranger makes an offensive comment. Ten minutes later something in a ride that is supposed to be happy looks mean instead. The majority of the movie plays out like you’re watching someone’s boring vacation. You don’t care about the characters. There is no plot to speak of, and that can be acceptable in an atmospheric film that serves as a visual descent into madness. There just isn’t enough madness here. Escape From Tomorrow is far too tedious to be effective. Long stretches are just watching the family traverse the theme park, notably with the father always running into the French teens. There is far too much padding, little connection from scene to scene, and the end is just a confusing muddle groping for a deeper meaning. Midway through, when the father is captured and held underground at Epcot, it looks like the movie is going to take that next step, ramping up the weirdness. Well that conflict is readily solved and then we’re back to the occasional boring out-of-place item. I want to say that Escape From Tomorrow is like David Lynch’s vacation video, but that is giving too much undeserved praise. This is like the deleted scenes of David Lynch’s vacation video.

video-escape-anatomy-articleLargeMy colleague Ben Bailey countered my negative option with the idea that Escape From Tomorrow is meant to be a dark comedy and to view it through that lens; all right then, because as a “comedy” it still is half-baked, meandering, and poorly executed. The incongruous imagery, often sexual or demonic, is rather cheap in the sense that it’s just flipping the staid Disney script on wholesomeness with no more subversive substance than a moody teenager scribbling on his notebook. The Disney princesses double as high-priced courtesans? Okay, now go further rather than just taking a standard Disney character and making it adult in a shallow manner. There’s a scene where the father escapes by squeezing a tube of Neosporin to lubricate his hands out of confines, and oh boy, the white liquid shoots onto hanging pictures of female body parts. What a riot. Taking a cockeyed, perverted look at Disney is not the same as developing comedy, and even that cockeyed view is lame. I think that the father’s lustful pursuit of the French girls is meant to be comedic, but it was only creepy. When he sneaks up to spy on them in their bathing suits, how else should I interpret that? If this is supposed to be a comedy then Escape From Tomorrow is an even larger misfire.

Escape From Tomorrow is a nonsensical, plodding, superficial film, and it adds up to a whole lot of nothing. There isn’t a grander statement or sense of commentary. There is just scene-to-scene weirdness that grows old rapidly. I commend the ingenuity of the filmmakers for being able to secretly record a movie at one of the most heavily trafficked locations in the world. I don’t think the filmmakers had any clear vision of what they wanted to say with their movie, settling on “weird crap at Disney Land,” and then putting all their time and energy into planning how to pull off this coup, never mind the fact that the finished product was not nearly worth the effort. If you’ve ever wanted to be trapped on a bad vacation, then enjoy, movie masochists.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Blue Jasmine (2013)

SONY-JUOS-01_Onesheet_Layout 1With writer/director Woody Allen’s proliferate output, cranking out a movie every year, it’s all too easy to take the man for granted. Critics will argue his halcyon days are long gone, that the man is coasting on his past laurels. Of course when you’re comparing everything to Manhattan, Annie Hall, or Crimes and Misdemeanors, well sure most movies will be found lacking, even Allen’s. And there’s no real forgiving of 2001’s Curse of the Jade Scorpion. But when Allen hits a rich topic with a capable cast, he can still produce knockout cinema, as is exactly the case with the engrossing Blue Jasmine.

Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is experiencing a tumultuous change of living. Her wealthy husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) has been indicted for a Ponzi scheme that fleeced millions. Her posh New York lifestyle has vanished, Uncle Sam has frozen the assets that haven’t been repossessed, and she’s forced to move in with her working class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in San Francisco. Jasmine immediately has her complaints, mostly about the men that Ginger seems to date. She also tries adapting to a life she has been ill prepared for. Much like a domesticated animal, Jasmine’s social skills and pricy tastes do not have real-world transitions into her getting a job and supporting herself. She’s looking for a way to re-enter the shrine of privilege, and that it through a man of means.

blue-jasmine-trailer-1Blue Jasmine is a fascinating character study of a life of self-delusion, denial, greed, and guilt, and it is a marvelous film. Allen hasn’t done something this cutting, this precise in several years and it’s a reminder at just how skilled the man can be at building magnetic, fully realized characters, especially women. This is a rich, complex, and juicy character for an actress of the caliber of Blanchett (Hanna) to go wild with. Jasmine is something of a modern-day Blanch DuBois with a sprinkling of Jay Gatsby; she’s a woman who’s become accustomed to a luxurious fantasy world that she’s still striving to recreate, but she also is a woman who reinvented herself. As we learn in the opening scene, Jasmine left school without finishing her degree when Hal whisked her off her feet, to a world of privilege. She even changed her name from Jeanette to Jasmine at her husband’s whim. She also became particularly adept at looking the other way when it concerned her husband’s shady dealings. Surely she must have known what was happening (in the end, it’s pretty clear) but as long as her illusion of wealth was maintained then it was easy to not ask questions. Why ruin a good thing, even if that good thing is built upon ruining the lives of ordinary people? Two of those people bilked of their money were Ginger and Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), which make Jasmine’s complicity all the more troubling. Every line of dialogue from Jasmine needs to be studied and dissected, analyzing how buried is the real Jasmine.

Jasmine’s declining mental state is also given much attention and curiosity. We are watching in full view a woman go through various stages of a nervous breakdown. She’s medicating herself via booze and a cocktail of prescription drugs, but there are hints that point to something other than substances at play. She hints at undergoing electric chock therapy (does this still exist?) and she may have a touch of mental illness as well, though it’s unclear. Jasmine is given to talking to herself, reciting anecdotes and patter from previous parties with the rich and fabulous. It could be a sign of madness or it could be a desperate attempt by Jasmine to zone out, to return to that former life, to relive her former glory. Personally, I’ve done something similar, recited old conversations out loud to myself, though usually a line or so, not to the degree of recitation that Jasmine engages in. In the opening, it’s revealed that the lady she’s sitting next to on the plane, who we assume she’s talking with, is really just a bystander. She tells her husband she was confused because Jasmine was really just talking to herself. As Jasmine tries to get back on her feet, with delusions of grandeur about reinventing herself again, her world seems to be collapsing around her as she struggles to adapt to the real working world. A receptionist job for a dentist is beneath her as well as far too much for her to handle. She has one real sincere heart-to-heart where she lays out her true feelings, and it’s to her nephews in a pizza shop with no other adult present: “There’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.

An enthralling character study, but Blue Jasmine also benefits from Allen’s precise plotting, folding back into flashbacks to create contrast and revelations. There is an economical finesse to Allen’s writing and directing. Every scene is short and sweet and imparts key knowledge, keeping the plot moving and fresh. It also provides back-story in a manner that feels unobtrusive. Jasmine’s more modest living conditions with her sister are contrasted with apartment shopping in New York City’s Upper West side. The class differences between Jasmine and her sister are put on full display when Ginger and Augie visit New York. However, Allen isn’t only lambasting the out-of-touch rich elite here. Few characters escape analysis. In this story, everyone is pretending to be someone else, putting on fronts, personas, to try and puff themselves up. Once living with her sophisticated sister, Ginger starts seeing her world with new eyes, mainly finding dissatisfaction and a yearning that she could do better. She meets Al (Louis C.K.) at a fancy party and gets smitten, though he’s not what he seems. She dumps her current boyfriend, buying into Jasmine’s theory that she “dates losers because that’s what she thinks she deserves.” She tries to remodel herself into a posh, inaccurate version of herself, a knockoff on Jeanette to Jasmine. It’s a bad fit. The person with the most integrity in the entire film appears to be, surprise, Andrew Dice Clay’s character. Augie is a straightforward blue-collar guy but he has a clear sense of right and wrong, one that comes in handy when he’s able to bust people.

blue-jasmine-trailerThis is much more a dramatic character study than a typical Allen comedy of neurosis, but I want to add that there are a number of laughs to be had, mostly derisive. There is comedy but it’s of a tragicomedy vibe, one where we laugh at the social absurdities of self-deluded characters and the irony of chance encounters. It’s far less bubbly than Midnight in Paris, Allen’s last hit, but that serves the more serious, critical tone. The class conflicts made me chuckle, as well as Jasmine’s hysterical antics and self-aggrandizing, but I was so thoroughly engaged with the characters and stories to complain about a lack of sufficient yuks. Confession: I generally enjoy Allen’s dramas more than his straight-up comedies.

Naturally, the movie hinges on Blanchett’s performance and the Oscar-winning actress is remarkable. I expect her to be a lock for another Oscar nomination if not the front-runner until later. She fully inhabits the character and lays out every tic, every neurosis, every anxiety, and every glimmer of doubt, of delusion, of humanity. She is a fully developed character given center stage, and it’s a sheer pleasure to watch Blanchett give her such life. You’ll feel a mixture of emotions with the character, from intrigue, to derision, to perhaps some fraying sense of sympathy, especially as the movie comes to an end. Blanchett balances the different faces of Jasmine with startling ease; she can slip into glamorous hostess to self-pitying victim to naiveté like turning a dial. I never tired of the character and I certainly never tired of watching Blanchett on screen.

Woody Allen has been a hit-or-miss filmmaker for over a decade, and you’ll have that when the man has the perseverance to write and direct a movie every freaking year. I had a pet theory that, as of late, every three years was when we really got a great Allen movie: 2005’s Match Point, 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, 2011’s Midnight in Paris. Well now my theory has been put to rest, thank you very much, all because Allen couldn’t wait one more year to deliver Blue Jasmine, a truly great film. It’s a tragicomedy of entertainment, an exacting character study of a flawed, complex, deeply deluded woman as her carefully calculated world breaks down. Anchored by Blanchett’s supreme performance, the movie glides along with swift acumen, doling out revelations at a steady pace and consistently giving something dishy for the actors and audience to think about. It’s funny, it’s sad, but more than anything Blue Jasmine is compelling as hell. This is one of Allen’s best films and one I’d recommend even to non-fans of the Woodman. Give Blue Jasmine a chance and you may be surprised what you feel, for the film and the woman, both complex, engaging, and memorable.

Nate’s Grade: A

Side Effects (2013)

1927Steven Soderbergh’s supposed last stop before retirement is another of his genre exercises, but Side Effects feels like a firmer success, albeit modest, for the director to go out on. It’s the story of a woman battling depression, played with terrific cageyness by Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). She gets prescribed a new drug and… does some very bad things. Who is culpable? The doctor, being funded by the drug companies? The woman who was sleepwalking at the time? The industry for blanketing patients with ads to demand their drug? After a rather slow start, the movie gets interesting and starts to try out different genres like hats. It appears for a good while we’re now going to be following her doctor (Jude Law) and his downfall as the industry turns on him and the media coverage intensifies. Written by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion), the movie has that same enticing sense of realism about how all the moving parts of a complicated industry would come into sync and conflict. Then the film tries out another identity, that of traditional thriller, with wronged parties orchestrating vengeance. I was invested until the end and felt sufficiently satisfied with the end results. Soderbergh’s smooth camerawork and cool color palate are well suited for a film about the battles of depression, and for a good while, before the thriller aspects take over, the movie is a fairly mature look at the struggles of depression and the industry that profits off it. Side Effects doesn’t seem like a closing statement for an artist as varied and unpredictable as Soderbergh, but as far as a Saturday afternoon goes, it’ll sure pass the time nicely.

Nate’s Grade: B

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

I am in love. It’s been days since I watched Silver Linings Playbook and I’m still under its spell. It’s a movie that gave me such rapturous emotional peaks, a deeply satisfying crowd-pleaser that doesn’t just nail the big moments, it crushes them. This is a movie that works so well with just about every facet of storytelling, from acting to writing to directing, that you’re liable to be in awe as I was.

Pat (Bradley Cooper), a high school history teacher, came home one day to find his wife in the shower with another man. He admittedly lost it, beating the man bloody, and has been remanded to a state psych ward for the past eight months. It’s determined that Pat is an undiagnosed bipolar case, and the court orders him to stay on his meds and stay 500 feet away from his now ex-wife, Nikki. Having lost his home, Pat is living with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver), both of whom don’t know how to help their troubled son. Pat is convinced he can win back his wife. He starts conditioning by running, wearing a garbage bag to better sweat off the pounds, and meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). She’s been fighting through depression after coping from the sudden death of her police officer husband. She agrees to help Pat get in contact with his ex, passing a letter, but at a price. He must compete with her in a dancing competition. They spend hours practicing their routine, getting to know one another, and stabilizing one another, providing a foundation for healing and success.

The story itself isn’t anything groundbreaking; you could glibly label it as the “bipolar rom-com” and it does adhere to that structure for the second half. But this is David O. Russell we’re talking about, the man behind 2010’s The Fighter, yes, but also offbeat dysfunctional family comedies like Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster. The man has a way of working within the framework of conventions and finding the rough edges, to make stories at once familiar and excitingly new. Is there anything groundbreaking with Silver Linings Playbook? It’s your boy-meets-girl formula at heart, but the execution is so extremely sure-footed, so exceptionally handled, that the movie leaves you buzzy and beaming. Once it ended, I wanted to run around, shouting from the rooftops for people to run out and see this movie. You want others to share in something so special and affecting. I felt a similar passion after seeing the unconventional romance Safety Not Guaranteed, and I’d advise any fans of Safety to certainly check out Silver. Being a rousing, crowd-pleasing sort of movie is not necessarily a yoke to weigh down its artistic integrity. As if enjoyment and creative accomplishment are opposing forces. I freely admit that Silver Linings Playbook is a masterful movie that knows what it takes to get an audience cheering, and I was thrilled to be part of that cheering throng. Here is a movie that just makes you feel good, and when was the last movie you saw that made you feel glowing with happiness?

This in an emotionally rich film; I was so happy after my screening that it felt like a high I didn’t want to come down from. To engineer a reaction that enhanced, that enlightened, that potent, well I must sing the praises of Russell and his actors. I bought into the love story and family drama big time. The payoffs are meaty and numerous, and I often found the film to be sincerely moving. There’s a great satisfaction in watching two oddballs find their special someone’s, and when the characters are this interesting, this human, and so well portrayed, it makes every stop along the journey that much more engaging and emotionally triumphant. It’s got an ending that pulls it all together in spectacular fashion, giving us exactly what we want while feeling earned and on its own eccentric terms. This is a deeply felt and compassionate film, one with as much uplift as acerbic rebellion. You feel like these people really do love one another. Silver Linings Playbook has memorized the playbook on how to win over an audience, but it always comes down to the same Xs and Os: strong characters, a compelling story, and people we genuinely care about, and that includes distaff supporting characters too.

The characters are so interesting and beautifully flawed, and the actors are so in tune with one another, delivering bar-raising performances that take the movie into another realm of enjoyment. When actors are given plum roles about people with mental illnesses or disabilities, it must be very enticing to overindulge in tics and self-conscious mannerisms. That doesn’t happen with Silver Linings Playbook. Beyond an uptick in tempo, the actors portray their parts as characters rather than ailments. If anything, the acting in this movie is practically restrained given the circumstances. What’s more, Silver Linings Playbook is a fine example of what can happen when the cast works in tandem, challenging one another to up their game. It’s like every actor felt revived from all the talent on display. Russell knows how to push his actors like few other directors, and while this has lead to notorious Internet videos of his actors losing their cool, it’s also given way to raw performances that burn in your memory. Russell gets his actors to bring their A-game and then some. The Fighter got three Oscar nods for acting and I wouldn’t be surprised if Silver Linings Playbook gets three as well (I think Lawrence and De Niro are locks).

Cooper (The Hangover) has always had a certain smirking, leering quality about him, a guy used to portraying louts with charisma. I have never seen him tackle anything nearly as challenging as what he does with Pat. He’s unpredictably combustible, ready to explode at any moment, but also empathetic, trying to do better. Pat isn’t meant to be seen as a loveable loser. This guy has serious problems he’s working through. Cooper is simply incredible, showcasing skills and nuance you didn’t know the man had, radiating with an intense outpouring of spontaneous energy that doesn’t ever feel forced. Cooper is not bouncing off the walls here as some wild-eyed loony, playing upon codified ideas of what a bipolar person behaves like. He’s a deeply complicated guy, processing challenging and contradicting feelings in a brain that doesn’t necessarily follow the rules. He has so many impulses leading him in different directions. Pat is obsessed with his goal of impressing his wife, so much that he seems blind to the tangible connection he’s formed with Tiffany, and we yearn that he realizes the catch in front of him. I was won over completely by Cooper’s committed, attentive, anxious, and lively performance.

Readers will know that I harbor a serious crush when it comes to the talented actress, Lawrence (The Hunger Games). I was expecting her to be great in this movie, as this is pretty much my default setting with the actress at this point. I was not expecting what she delivered, a performance that is so enthralling, so astonishing, that you’ll be left stupefied that a woman at only the young age of 22 could be this phenomenally gifted. Lawrence had several scenes that just left me speechless. Lawrence is in elite territory now as far as I’m concerned. Her command of the character is just about impeccable, and you perk up every moment she’s onscreen. She’s a damaged woman recovering from her own powerful grief, but she’s so many things at any one moment. She can be lusty, provocative, angry, sullen, commanding, vulnerable, and hurtful. There are scenes where she will bounce around a plethora of emotional states, but each one gradually shifts to the other, making the transformation genuine and another layer to the character. If she were just some crazy girl we wouldn’t care if she eventually got her happy ending with Pat. With Lawrence’s talents, and Russell’s sharp writing, Tiffany becomes a figure worth fighting for, a bruised romantic that finds her rare kindred spirit who accepts and appreciates her messiness.

The supporting cast from top to bottom may not be at the same level as Cooper and Lawrence, but their output is also impressive. De Niro (Limitless) hasn’t been this good in ages, delivering a few monologues that will hit you square in the gut. Weaver (The Five-Year Engagement) is something of an enabler for the family, but she also gets her moments to shine and reassert her strength and dignity. Chris Tucker (in his first non-Rush Hour movie since 1997) is the least Chris Tucker I’ve ever seen him. He’s downplayed his motor mouth tendencies completely, and he’s a wonderful presence as he ducks in and out. He even teaches Tiffany how to “black up” her dance, a fact that most heterosexual males in the audience will be thankful for this time of year.

Russell deserves serious credit for portraying mental illness in a manner that doesn’t dance around the seriousness of the condition. Statistically one in three people suffer from a mental illness at some point in their life, and I’ll even admit that post-divorce, I too fell amongst those ranks (I’m a statistic!). In the case of Pat, He’s not just some unfeeling jerk who says inappropriate things or has problems reading social cues. He’s a guy going through serious personal struggles, same with Tiffany. These are not jokes. They are not send-ups of mental illness; they are people. At no point does the humanity of these characters get lost. We will laugh at their inappropriate comments, sure, but we are never laughing at them from some cushy sanctuary of superiority. I also think Russell examines an interesting, more socially-acceptable form of mass mental illness, namely the OCD-nature associated with sports superstitions. Smart and capable people can get caught up in the allure of superstitions, and when it concerns sports in general, groupthink overpowers. I consider myself a sports fan as well (I’m a double statistic!) and fully accept the ridiculous nature of fandom, but I thought it was a clever move for Russell to hold the mirror up to our own cracked community and its irrational behavior. And as any Philadelphia sports fan will acknowledge, they take fandom to a whole other level.

At this point, I don’t know what more I can write about this movie without coming across as a complete, frothing madman. Football, mental illness, ballroom dancing! I’m smitten big time with Silver Linings Playbook. I’m completely in the tank for this film. Future viewings (already planning one soon) will probably highlight certain minute flaws I’ve failed to notice the first go-round. And even if those flaws become more apparent (yes the final dance is something of a contrived climax) I simply do not care. The movie’s many virtues far exceed any shortcomings that could potentially arise. It plays to some familiar rom-com elements but it goes about its business with its own funky charm. The acting, writing, and directing are all on such a heightened level of excellence, it’s amazing just to watch all the parts work together so masterfully. I wasn’t just won over by this movie; I’ve become its disciple. I preach the gospel of Silver Linings Playbook. Here is a rapturous feel-good movie that doesn’t feel like it’s pandering or dulling its edge even after it takes some conventional turns. Cooper is terrific, Lawrence is astounding, and together they form the couple you cheer for. Silver Linings Playbook is everything you’d want in a stellar movie. I can’t wait to watch it again and get caught up in its wondrous spell once more. It took a long ten months but The Grey has finally been knocked off the perch. Silver Linings Playbook is nothing short of the best film I’ve seen this year.

Nate’s Grade: A

Take Shelter (2011)

It’s rare that I get to take some local pride and puff my chest about a movie being shot in Ohio. Take Shelter, a small, suspenseful character-piece, was filmed in Loraine County, near Cleveland. Several of the actors in the production are local actors, including Tova Stewart, the adorable seven-year-old who plays the onscreen deaf daughter. The young gal, who is also deaf in real-life, is from Columbus and was in attendance at the theater I saw Take Shelter at. And I can beam with even more local pride at the fact that Take Shelter is unwaveringly magnificent. It’s a remarkably tense movie, deeply realized, expertly crafted, and one of the best films of the year.

Curtis (Michael Shannon) is a working-class family man in rural Ohio. He works as a manager of a two-man drill team, scouring the earth for valuable deposits. His wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), cares for their recently deaf daughter, Hannah (Stewart), and sews pillows and embroidery on the side. They are making ends meet to save up for Hannah’s cochlear implant surgery. This family tranquility is interrupted when Curtis begins having strange visions. He sees dark, ominous storms that no one else seems to see. He hears loud cracks of thunder during clear skies. He feels the dark rain fall on his person. He wakes from frightful dreams detailing friends and family turning on him. What does it all mean? Curtis feels compelled to remodel the storm shelter in the backyard. He even purchases a cargo container and buries it in the yard, collecting some end-of-the-world provisions. Could Curtis just be crazy? His mother has been in a psychiatric home since she abandoned Curtis as a child. She began having schizophrenic episodes in her mid 30s, and Curtis is now 35. Is he being warned of what lies ahead or is he succumbing to the pull of a hereditary mental illness?

This is very likely the most nerve-racking, tense, dread-filled film I’ve watched since 2009’s Oscar-winner, The Hurt Locker. Writer/director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories) masterfully lays out the particulars of his tale. Even the family drama has some nicely constructed tension. Curtis’ family is living paycheck to paycheck, so his backyard project is a real financial setback. By borrowing equipment from his work, Curtis is even risking losing his job, the only way he can afford his child’s cochlear implant. Not only do we dread stormy weather and strange flocking patterns for birds, we dread the everyday struggles of keeping afloat. Curtis following his visions can very likely put his family into financial ruin, but is that a risk worth taking? Nichols nicely creates an authentic small-town setting. There are small, acute character touches that enrich the story, like when Dewart (Shea Wigham) concludes that the best compliment a man can give is that “he’s lived a good life.” When Curtis and Samantha watch their daughter sleep, they share behavior they are still trying to kick in adjusting to having a deaf child (“I still take my boots off not to wake her,” he confides. “I still whisper,” she returns). These people and their troubles feel believable, and their reactions to Curtis’ strange behavior feel extremely believable. Whispers begin to spread and people start to treat madness like it’s a communicable illness. Religion seems like a natural landing zone when discussing anything apocalyptic and/or prophetic, but Nichols sidesteps this discussion. There could have been some interesting theological room to explore here, considering a Biblical prophet would likely be derided as mentally ill in our modern age. Nichols keeps things secular. Curtis is admonished for missing church again, but that’s about the extent of religion in the man’s life. He does not seek out spiritual advice. He seeks out psychiatry, at least if he could afford it he would.

There are some terrific standard thriller moments, like some well-calculated jump scares and many nightmare fake-outs, but the film’s real skill is drawing out tension to the point where you want to shout at the screen. This is a deliberately paced thriller knotted with unbearable tension. We become conditioned to start doubting the onscreen imagery after Curtis’ series of nightmares. Every time there’s a storm now the audience, too, fears the validity of what we witness. What is the significance of these portent signs? There’s a moment toward the climax, where a storm door needs to be opened, and I simultaneously was dreading every second leading up to that door opening and silently screaming in anticipation. Every part of me wanted to see what was going to happen next and I could not guess where Nichols would take us. I was a nervous wreck. The dread was so heavy, so all consuming, and not just from an apocalyptic standpoint. Curtis understandingly thinks he may be nuts, especially since his own mother is a paranoid schizophrenic. The threat isn’t just the strange apocalyptic signs but also Curtis himself unraveling and lashing out. He worries that he’ll become a danger to his own family, and if he cannot discern the difference between reality and fantasy it’s only a matter of time before he jeopardizes his loved ones. He fears he’ll be ripped away from his family. He wants to be better, he wants to be “normal,” but he can’t trust his own senses.

Take Shelter is also so effective thanks to Shannon, a talented actor who always seems to be on the brink of freaking out. The bug-eyed, crazed, monotone actor has played plenty of nutcases in the movies. He was nominated for an Oscar in 2009 for Revolutionary Road for playing such a nutter. He’s a live wire of an actor, simmering, waiting for the final cue to explode. Shannon uses this intensity to his great advantage, wonderfully mirroring the movie’s compounding dread. Shannon’s character is troubled, that’s for sure, and worries about slipping into insanity. His performance is simply riveting, searching for answers amidst the desire to keep his family safe at all costs, even if that eventually means his removal. When he has to confront his central dilemma, the legitimacy of his visions, Shannon is racked with fear, eyes glistening with tears, terrified to go on faith, and your eyes are glued to the screen, completely taken in by the depth of the performance. I hope Shannon gets some due recognition come awards season because I doubt I’ll see few performances more compelling.

Chastain has had quite a breakout year for herself with lead roles in Tree of Life, The Help, and The Debt. She has a remarkable vulnerability to her, radiating an ethereal vibe (no doubt why Terrence Mallick chose her), and both aspects are put to fine use in Take Shelter. She’s much more than the oft underwritten put-upon wife, silently enduring her husband’s foibles. She’s desperate for an answer to explain her husband’s actions and motivations. She’s alert, angry, compassionate, and deeply concerned. Chastain holds her own with Shannon, and the two elevate each other’s performance subtlety, making their supportive relationship even more believable.

Take heed movie lovers, and make sure to find Take Shelter, an intelligent, expertly constructed, suspenseful drama with powerful performances and a powerful sense of dread. Shannon’s coiled intensity nicely fits the mounting tension. Nichols has created a taut thriller, a fiercely felt human drama, and an involving character-piece attuned to the talents of its cast. Take Shelter is a commanding, unsettling film that puts the audience in the unreliable position of the main character’s point of view. You may almost hope for some actual apocalypse just to validate the guy’s struggle. When was the last time you secretly hoped for the end of the world just to give one person a sense of relief? Take shelter from inferior movies and find a theater playing this tremendous movie.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Beaver (2011)

Eerily mirroring his real-life public breakdown, Mel Gibson stars in The Beaver as Walter Black, a man crippled by depression who finds a therapeutic outlet via animal puppet. The beaver is a puppet that Walter chooses to speak through, albeit in a cockney Brit accent that sounds faintly like Ray Winstone (The Departed). Given this twee premise, you’d expect plenty of laughs, but under the prosaic direction of Jodie Foster, also starring as Black’s anguished wife, the movie comes off like a stupefying heart-tugger, a sub-American Beauty style in suburban mawkishness. The comedy and drama elements don’t gel at all, and The Beaver is too tonally disjointed to settle down. Gibson gives a strong performance as a man battling his demons, and the subject matter of mental illness is thankfully treated with respect despite the fantastical premise. It’s the extraneous moments outside the beaver that help to detract and distract. The story of Walter’s son (Anton Yelchin) worrying that he’s already showing signs of mental illness, doomed to end up like the father he hates, is a palpable storyline. But writer Kyle Killen sums up this dilemma with clumsy brevity, having the son jot down post-it notes of behavior he has in common with dad, behavior to be eliminated. The entire subplot involving the son romancing the school Valedictorian (Jennifer Lawrence, sunny and beautiful as always), a pretty gal troubled with grief, never feels authentic. That’s the problem with The Beaver; too much feels inauthentic to be dramatic and it’s too subdued and brusque to be dark comedy. It’s like the strangest public therapy session ever for a fading star.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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