Saturday, October 26, 2013

Movie Reviews-Sunlight Jr., The Conjuring, Pacific Rim

Sunlight Jr.
directed by Laurie Collyer
This movie is extremely well acted, written and directed. It's Oscar bait. It also takes a left turn (pun definitely intended) to put itself firmly on one side of a social question. This happens in the film's denouement. I was blindsided but some other people who saw the film thought that the twist was incredibly obvious and that I evidently simply hadn't been paying attention to earlier events. Either way afterwards I felt a little manipulated. But sometimes those are the feelings that a good writer/director brings forth right? YMMV on the ending. It made clear poverty's cost. It also might make you think just how far are you from a much reduced standard of living? This is a pretty bleak film that doesn't pull punches on what impoverishment does to people. There are choices that people make that are informed or rather deformed by lack of money. 

Anyway.

Melissa (Naomi Watts) is a convenience store clerk who lives in a motel with her boyfriend, former construction worker Richie (Matt Dillon- who seems somehow not to have aged at all over the past twenty years-good genes and clean living or deal with the Infernal Powers?). Richie is permanently crippled and lives off his small disability check. Richie's got a good heart. He is mechanically handy but also likes to drink. He hasn't fully accepted that he can't do the things for his girlfriend that he'd like to do, and no I'm not talking about sex as Richie and Melissa have a pretty active intimate life. I'm talking about simple things like buying his girlfriend a working umbrella or leaving the motel. Richie doesn't like that Melissa is the breadwinner or that his car runs out of gas as he drives her to work. Richie never feels sorry for himself and refuses to let anyone else do so.

This film, much like Collyer's past work (Sherrybaby), examines the lives of the working poor. These are people for whom a $800 unexpected bill might as well be $80,000. They don't have the money. Low wage jobs are all they have. They obtain food from food banks and store rejects and buy clothes at secondhand stores.


Melissa claims to be interested in a company college scholarship program and occasionally nags her officious and callous boss, store manager Edwin (Antoni Corone) about the opportunity but he's not interested in helping her succeed. His primary interest is in keeping the store staffed. The store is open 24-7. His second interest is in bossing Melissa around. He's the sort of low class person who really enjoys exerting power over other people. And his third interest, though he rarely makes this too obvious, could be in Melissa herself. It's close to sexual harassment. He says things to her that he would not say to a woman at his level precisely because he knows that Melissa has little choice but to accept such verbiage. 

Melissa's previous boyfriend, the volatile, abusive, and cunning Justin (Norman Reedus),a small time drug dealer, decides that he wants Melissa back (his restraining order has expired). Her nos don't matter to him. He certainly doesn't think a wheelchair bound Richie can stop him. This frustrates Richie as Justin is exactly the sort of punk he would have (and may have) beat the dogs*** out of before his accident. And wheelchair or not Richie is still game to throw Justin a beating. Justin's harassment of Melissa is also complicated by the fact that the entrepreneurial Justin is Melissa's mother Kathleen's (Tess Harper) landlord.

You can watch this movie and consider the differences between the ideals of masculinity and femininity and the real way in which men and women live their lives. If masculinity means providing and protecting, something which Richie has trouble doing, how does his "failure" impact his relationship with Melissa? And if femininity means being protected and having the ability to be soft, how does poverty impact Melissa's views of herself and Richie, since with few exceptions she has to be hard and brusque to protect herself as Richie can't quite do that. I liked the camera work here. You rarely felt that you were watching a film. It was almost like a documentary.

The way the film was shot brings home the claustrophobia and diminished expectations of everyone in the movie. Whether it's Melissa ruefully noticing that Kathleen's home/foster care is infested with roaches and bedbugs (which have hurt the children) or Kathleen attempting to bond with her daughter by awkwardly pointing out that at least Richie was never physically abusive, you get the consistent feeling that everyone here has a very very low bar for what they consider success. Richie and Melissa do have one sweet moment that hints at future happiness. There are some relatively explicit sex scenes, some extremely intense emotional moments and a few physical fights. You may know people in Melissa's and Richies's situation or even be in their situation. Hopefully this film will help lower the contempt for the poor that seems to be almost de rigueur in some circles. No black people were stereotyped in the making of Sunlight Jr. though the movie still can't resist throwing in a streetwise Latina who is Melissa's co-worker and best friend. Kathleen's husband is black and only wants some peace and quiet when he gets home.
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The Conjuring
directed by James Wan
Although I am certainly not opposed to explicit gore or sex in horror films, usually I find that the best horror films, the ones that really scare you don't always go over the top with explicitness. Some films do so quite well, like the infamous scene in Reanimator with a doctor who's lost his head but many of the classic films are more famous for what they don't show than for what they do. Curse of the Werewolf had a lot of erotic appeal for both genders though no actor or actress was ever shown naked. Horror is in the mind and the terrors or delights the mind can dream up are far more fantastic or frightening than another gallon of spurting blood or another starlet du jour taking her top off. Ironically the director of The Conjuring, James Wan, is someone who is equally adept at both styles as he directed both the so-called violence porn in Saw and the quiet frights of Insidious.
The Conjuring then is a definite throwback to the less is more school of thought regarding horror movies. There's no explicit sex. The obvious special effects don't make an entrance really until the final third of the film and even then they're quite subdued. Despite the scarcity of blood, this creepy little film is something which is both engaging and frightening as hell.
And it was frightening even as it mostly hewed to the normal processes found in movies like this. Supernatural evil attacks people who must find someone to help. The heroes have some issues of their own around their job but when the evil attacks someone close to them it becomes personal!
I don't mean to dismiss the movie because I enjoyed it but once again I found myself asking what would Supernatural's Sam and Dean Winchester do in a situation like this? This movie is understated and claims to be based on a true life story. This is a great film to be watched in the dead of night when you're all alone. You might think differently about that noise you heard on the steps or wonder what did the dog really see that made it bark so urgently. The next morning, is that knife on a different kitchen counter than where you left it? If you hear something but your significant other or children swear they didn't say anything are you okay?


Roger Perron (Ron Livingston), his wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters move into an old home in Harrisville, Rhode Island. Perron is a truck driver. He has put almost all the family's money into a home large enough for his family. But almost from the start there are some odd occurrences. The family dog flatly refuses to enter the home. Birds crash into the side of the home and die. The family finds a boarded up entrance to the basement and re-opens it.  Carolyn starts getting strange bruises over her body that can't be explained by vigorous sex while her daughters hear or see things that aren't there. Once the dog dies, things get even worse, culminating in a seeming poltergeist experience, which Carolyn sees for herself. I'm sure that fictional dogs are tired of trying to protect or warn their humans. Just ask Sounder, Old Yeller or Grey Wind.
The family gets in contact with Ed (Patrick Wison) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren, seasoned paranormal investigators, demonologists, researchers and psychics. Lorraine is the psychic of the couple. She's often frustrated by her husband's attempt to protect her after an exorcism that went very bad for her. If you're a movie or paranormal buff you may also recognize their names from The Amityville Horror phenomenon. They investigate the home and find (or in Lorraine's case) see evidence to convince them that there is a supernatural presence therein. After some research of local history and property records they even think they know what the presence is and what it wants.


The next step is to get a Catholic priest to do an exorcism. But the problem with discussing your plans in a haunted house is obviously that the presence which haunts it now knows all your plans and how to counteract them. So that sets up an epic knock down drag out fight between the Warrens, Perrons and their allies on one side and an unclean Satanic spirit on the other.
Great work, occasionally chilling, and always weird. Whether it's a sleepwalking daughter banging her head into a chest of drawers or a creepy doll that has a mind of its own this film brings the thrills with judiciously used special effects and lots of old fashioned camera work. If you avoid horror movies because you can't let go of your disbelief, this might work for you as it is quite grounded in realism. The sense of impending dread permeates this film. It is the scariest movie I've seen in a while. Even though Wan is using techniques that have been parodied by other movies and which we've all seen a million times before, in his hands they still manage to give the viewer a jolt. As mentioned this is based on a true life story. YMMV. But the Warrens strongly believe in heaven and in hell. Their statements and their real life pictures (shown at film's end) add to the seriously disturbing verisimilitude. The music is suitably creepy. It helps maintain the sense of unease that this film draws forth. Livingston does a great job as a young father who's just trying to protect his wife and family.
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Pacific Rim
directed by Guillermo Del Toro
This is an extravaganza of a film directed by someone who really knows how to do such things. It could be described as the thinking man's Transformers in some aspects I suppose. It's an action movie, loud and full of macho cliches, but under Del Toro's direction these work a lot better than in Bay's hands. There are no slow motion or down blouse shots of Megan Fox but there's also no irritating Shia LeBoeuf. So I guess that's a fair deal. Also despite some surface similarities, it's a completely different movie. The macho cliches work but on a different level they're also reversals of those cliches. At over 130 minutes Pacific Rim runs a little long but like all good movies you hardly notice it. I was surprised after watching it that that much time had elapsed. With only one small exception I didn't think the movie dragged at any point in time. 
In the year 2013 an interdimensional portal opens up in the floor of the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately however humans don't have the time to examine the physics of something that until recently was only theoretically possible or wonder about the question of why didn't all the water fall through the wormhole or what is the impact on the earth's gravity or tides of having what is essentially a black hole inside the planet. No, see the film is unconcerned with those questions because you see gargantuan monsters called Kaiju come through the portal and start wrecking everybody's stuff. These things are like Godzilla, if he was on steroids and crank and in an even worse mood than normal. The Kaiju have come to kick a$$ and chew bubblegum. And they're out of bubblegum. The usual weaponry like fighter planes, artillery, tanks and such take too long to work against the Kaiju, are cost-prohibitive in terms of lives or money or just plain ineffective. And throwing nukes against them would obviously get rid of too many humans. 


So being nothing if not inventive humanity comes up with something called Jaeger (German for hunter) machines. Jaegers are massive humanoid machines that have the mass and strength to go toe to toe with Kaiju and physically beat them down and rip them apart. Jaegers are also outfitted with oodles of cool weaponry including but not limited to howitzer autoguns, rockets, flamethrowers, and most memorably, swords. Jaegers are operated by a two man crew. Jaegers are generally too powerful and complex for one man to operate. And even two people can only operate them by linking their brains together in something called the drift. While in the drift the human will is greater than the sum of its parts. The drawback to the drift though is that you have immediate and permanent access to all of your drift partner's memories, fears, secrets, their entire conscious and unconscious, going back to birth. There is no privacy or separation or ego in the drift. Obviously most people can't tolerate this so drift candidates tend to be people with EXTREME self-control and/or people who are already emotionally intimate with one another on a primal level: siblings, spouses or parents and their children.

Got all that? Good. Because the Kaiju are coming in faster and larger than the Jaeger teams can kill them. Increasingly it's the Jaegers who are on the losing end of battles. In fact the human civilian command team thinks it's time that the Jaeger program was shut down while humans experiment with massive walls to keep the Kaiju out. Note the symbolism of the walls here because it's important, if a little overt. Separation doesn't work. Integration does.
The military commander of the Jaeger program Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba in a extremely Alpha male role) doesn't think closing the program is a good idea. Deprived of public resources he takes the program private. He's looking for good Jaeger pilots and thinks he's found one in Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam). Raleigh is a former pilot who's now working on building the wall. He used to work with his brother before his death and isn't sure he's got the stuff any more. He's nonetheless intrigued by Pentecost's challenge to his masculinity and more so by Pentecost's adopted daughter Mako (Rinko Kukuchi). Mako oversees the pilot training program and wishes to participate in the war herself though Pentecost forbids it.
The film's resident eggheads are Dr. Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Dr. Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), two rival scientists and Kaiju experts who have competing theories about the best way to defeat the Kaiju and what the Kaiju even are. They provide most of the film's laughs. They also get to play against the Hong Kong gangster Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), one of the sources of funding for Pentecost's program, a dealer in black market Kaiju organs and someone who, according to Pentecost, should never be trusted. Clifton Collins Jr., Robert Kazinksy, Max Martini, and Ellen McLain also star. This was a really fun goofy movie. Leave your skepticism behind and just have a good time enjoying the flick.
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