Archives for October 2016

Carnival of Souls (1962), a.k.a. Why Do I Put Myself Through This? Halloween Edition

First off, Happy Halloween Night, guys and ghouls!

Secondly – as the title of this post indicates – why do I do this to myself?

Mind you, I really do like watching scary films, but usually in mixed company where my sheer terror can be diffused by the enjoyment of watching the film with a group of people.

Well, not this time – this time, I flew solo in a weekend binge of scary movies on TCM and arrived at Carnival of Souls. Actually “re-arrived” – I have seen this film before, but a time ago, which means fragments of the plot specifics slipped through my sieve of a memory; I did recall a sketch of the outline: shortly after surviving a car crash, Mary Henry (played by Candace Hilligoss) embarks on a trip westward to Utah, where she is set to start a new job as a church organist. Along the way, she encounters a creepy apparition (the film’s director Herk Harvey) and is drawn to a long-ago abandoned pavilion by the lake.

Once settled into her new life, Mary continues to have episodes which she cannot explain, including continued reappearances of the apparition, all leading up to a frightful conclusion.

Made for an estimated $33,000 and produced by industrial filmmakers, Carnival of Souls is a brilliant example of how to scare your audience with simple yet effective “tricks,” tricks which left me peeking through my hands:

  • foreboding, suspenseful organ music
  • dispossessed movements of characters
  • character movement toward the camera (= camera is the 1st person POV)
  • cutaways which yield the occasional (and effective) jump scare

So yeah, it was enough to put the frighteners on my this past Saturday night. And with that, I highly recommend this cult classic, which is available on Criterion disk (DVD/BluRay) as well as in the public domain. When accessing make note of the running time. There is a 78-minute theatrical version as well as an 84-minute director’s cut.

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Kicks (2016)

Kicks (2016) has been out in cinemas for around a month, but I think it is worth a mention as it is an inspired feature film debut from of one Justin Tipping (who was also the film’s co-writer alongside Joshua Beirne-Golden). With a cast that combines newcomers as well as emerging talent (Kofi Siriboe, Mahershala Ali), Kicks is an entertaining and sometimes trippy journey around the Bay Area featuring teenage Brandon (Jahking Guillory) in the central role.

Film still from KICKS.

Film still from KICKS.

Brandon longs for a pair of Air Jordan 1 sneakers and through his ingenuity, finds a way to procure a pair. Of course, that is not the story … it just sets into motion a series of events which leads our young protagonist, along with best friends Rico (Christopher Meyer) and Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace) traversing the urban landscape of the Oakland/Bay Area in search of recovering his now-lost treasure.

Kicks is not so much a statement of “sneaker” culture, although it is there around the edges. Instead, it feels like another film in a trend that I can only describe as being the “atypical” (by Hollywood standards) story centering on young black men in the inner city. These young men are not the now trope-ish “urban” characters that we often see on the silver screen. This idea even extends broadly to the less than virtuous characters, who are given additional character layers that allow the audience to connect with them in a refreshing way. In other words, these are simply kids and people trying to get by in the world the best way they know how to. It just so happens to be a world that may a bit unfamiliar (in the cinematic and real sense) from the average teen coming of age drama we are used to seeing. The story of Kicks and its characters is yet another example of why the diversity pipeline in our entertainment is so important.

In fact, in reading the production notes it is worth citing that as Tipping was working on his screenplay, he found inspiration from many of the films he grew up with – The Goonies as well as the films of the 1980’s, courtesy of John Hughes and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. And in many ways, I do see that – the days-long journey or quest to a yet to be determined destination, which ultimately leads our main character and his cohort to realize that there is more to them and the world around them than they had anticipated.

Kicks is not a perfect picture – for example, there are a lot of messages to process packed into its 87-minute running time (is that really a problem?) – but it does not take away in any way from the good work that Mr. Tipping has put together as a start to his career in feature films. In fact, his next credit according to IMDB is as the screenwriter of Lowriders a film for Universal Pictures starring Demian Bichir, Eva Longoria and Melissa Benoist.

In addition to the limited cinematic release, audiences have the opportunity to catch Kicks on digital via Amazon, OnDemand, iTunes, GooglePlay, etc., with a DVD/BluRay release on December 6th.

NYFF54 Feature: I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Ken Loach‘s brilliant I, Daniel Blake is a scathing portrait of a welfare system drowning in a sea of bureaucracy.

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Our way into this story is through “everyman” Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old Geordie (hailing from Newcastle). Recently disabled by a medical condition and unable to work, Daniel is getting nowhere in his efforts to get relief from the government services, which are allegedly put in place to help someone in his situation. He finds himself in a nightmarish, Groundhog Day scenario that involves an endless stream of paperwork, ambivalent government officials and roads that lead absolutely nowhere. It feels like a scene out of some far-flung dystopia – but no – it is this world,  this England, circa now.

During one of his fruitless expeditions to the Benefits office, Daniel meets recently-arrived-to-Newcastle single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two young children, Dylan and Daisy, who were forced north due to affordable housing shortages in her London hometown.

Through the tears, there are still those precious nuggets of joy and the occasional laughter to be found in the film. But overall, this is a story about an extremely vulnerable segment of modern British society which by and large has been (cynically) left behind.

There is one moment involving Katie that absolutely took my breath away. Even as I recount it now, my eyes are welling up. In a scene that can’t last more than 15 seconds (if that), I was overcome by an avalanche of emotions. Kudos to Ms. Squires for her performance, which doesn’t feel like a performance as much as a channeling of the plight endured by many women who are struggling to make a way for themselves with some dignity and self-worth.

And that is the thing – not for one moment do you see these people as taking advantage of a social safety net or being “skivers,” as they are often portrayed in much of the press. They are people that through circumstances (i.e. LIFE) find themselves in a place where they need a helping hand to get through a rough patch. Thanks to a script from long-time Loach collaborator Paul Laverty, I, Daniel Blake subtly keys the audience into the fact that the system in place seems to be doing quite the opposite of helping those in need. By hassling and creating unbelievable obstacles in their path, the establishment succeeds in stripping away as much of individual’s self-worth as possible, to the point of making many resign themselves to their lot in life, ultimately and simply giving up. It is a powerful message to be presented in such a gentle manner.

Even as the film came to an end and I could sense where it was going, the tears continued to fall down my face. Life is not a fairy tale and even when given a cinematic treatment, it can deliver the most painful of punches to the gut.

That said, it is clear why I Daniel Blake took home the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It is a memorable film that must be seen.

I, Daniel Blake is scheduled for release in the UK this Friday (October 21). And after making a few more film festival stops on this side of the pond, the US will get a limited release starting on December 23rd – just in time for major awards consideration.

NYFF54 Spotlight: Moonlight (2016)

You may have noticed that recently I have not posted with the frequency I once did. Several reasons – chief among them – I am just a tad busy lately (or maybe I have stated that before). But almost more importantly, 2016 has been an odd year for me cinematically. I have generally enjoyed the films I have seen to date. But if I am honest with you, my awesome readers, nothing has really gotten me overly excited. In the back of my head, I felt/hoped that come fall, the tide would change and we would enter my moviegoing sweet spot. Dear friends, I think we have arrived at that place.

This past weekend, I ventured to the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Lincoln Center to attend the 54th annual New York Film Festival. My Sunday was spent watching Moonlight (which we will discuss below) and Ken Loach’s latest (more on that later this week).

Moonlight marks the follow-up to writer/director Barry Jenkins’ previous feature, 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy.

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Based on a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, this is a narrative told in three chapters which are chronicling the life of Chiron as he proceeds on his journey from young boy to young man in a Miami blighted by drugs and violence. But that is not the thing that worries him most – throughout all these stages of his life as portrayed on screen, we see him dealing with and ultimately coming to terms with who he is and what that means to truly embrace his sexuality.

It was refreshing to see such an emotionally raw drama amidst this setting. All too often when portraying communities of color in such a landscape, the story is fraught with what I can only characterize as a tale of hypermasculine “urban strife and turmoil.” And sure, those are important stories to tell, but it is equally important for there to be a representation that also allows this to fall to the periphery for the sake of telling a simple, beautiful story of a young man and his life and times.

Funny enough because of the structure of this film, I reflected on another recent film that similarly explored a young man’s “evolution” and coming of age (I will let you guess which one I am referring to). And while I enjoyed that film, I feel like Moonlight takes that idea and reaches new heights; it really captures those pivotal chapters of the young man’s life in a more controlled, economical and easier to process manner.

And while this is Chiron’s story, Moonlight is a film that is truly an ensemble piece where each of the principle characters – regardless of their station in life – have in them a strain of humanity which allows the audience to connect with them. Credit (of course) goes to the wonderful cast, which includes Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Alex R. Hibbert, Jaden Piner, Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome. They all bring this story and its characters to life.

There is so much more I want to say about Moonlight but I want to leave it to you to see what Barry Jenkins has beautifully constructed.