Green Room (2016)

Green Room

Grungy, gruesome, and way more fun than it probably should be, Green Room joins the ranks of culty arthouse thrillers like Funny Games, The Mist, and Drive that flagrantly glide back and forth over the line between high- and low-brow entertainment. But while most films of this type ultimately fall into one of those categories or the other, Green Room keeps the audience on their toes, never showing its hand and continuing to offer up surprises and thrills right until its final moments.

The film’s plot is both simple and bizarre. It follows a young punk band called The Ain’t Rights, who, after getting shafted on a gig while on tour, wind up being given a compensatory show playing to an aggressive crowd of Nazi skinheads in rural Oregon. After their set, things take a turn backstage and the goal then becomes simply to make it out alive. And thus, we have our movie.

Our protagonist is Pat (Anton Yelchin), the band’s quiet bass player, who is joined by guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), drummer Reece (Joe Cole) and lead singer Tiger (Callum Turner). Back in the eponymous green room of horrors, the band also meets Amber (Imogen Poots), whose allegiances are murky, but who becomes an ally by necessity. Though we don’t get much in the way of backstory or character development, our main group of “good guys” feel wholly believable, unveiling more about themselves in the ways they respond to the insane situation unfolding around them. Particularly effective was how Cole’s quietly sturdy presence is laced with an undercurrent of rage from the start, making it feel natural how Reece boils over once stuff really starts hitting the fan.

The film’s primary focus is thrills, which are in no short supply. It’s pretty much a perfectly paced film, holding back on its violence through much of the film to make it even more impactful when it does erupt. But Saulnier is clearly interested in creating more than just an action-packed thriller. He sticks to his signature aesthetic and careful camerawork throughout, right from the misty, pastoral opening scenes through to Green Room’s most horrifying scenes, including one involving some …creative… use of a box cutter.

On that note, one could probably spend a long time debating whether or not Green Room qualifies as a horror film. At most, I’d say it falls into the category of “survival horror” – films that aren’t necessarily “scary” in the traditional sense, but whose “horror” stems from the seemingly insurmountable situations the characters face (usually in some sort of isolated environment). And indeed, Green Room probably won’t seem groundbreaking unless you haven’t already seen some of the staples of this subgenre (Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, the aforementioned Funny Games, etc, etc.) But Saulnier’s riff is so self-assured and gripping that it doesn’t really matter. Whether you’re enjoying the artistry, the plot, or both, Green Room is a completely compelling 90-minute ride.

How to Be Single (2016)

HtBS

How to Be Single immediately brought to mind a couple of other recent films that take a “real” look at love through the lens of an impossibly attractive ensemble cast. You know the ones. He’s Just Not That Into You. Valentine’s Day. Prom. Probably a few others that I’ve either already forgotten or never saw. But while How to Be Single is riddled with problems of its own, it does get points from me where those other films don’t: it’s sometimes funny, and occasionally real.

The set-up is almost too cliched to bother explaining. Alice (Dakota Johnson) is coming off a four-year relationship with Josh (Nicholas Braun) and moves to New York in hopes of “finding herself”. She moves in with her control freak older sister, Meg (Leslie Mann), and befriends her wild new colleague, Robin (Rebel Wilson). This all tenuously links into another side plot concerning Tom (Anders Holm), a lothario bar owner, and Lucy (Alison Brie), his supposedly “charming” and “wacky” upstairs tenant who loiters in his bar for the free wi-fi. Single people. New York. Hijinks.

After a rather dire first half hour spent establishing all of this, the film settles into something a little more interesting as the various relationships start to intertwine and the comedy starts to kick in. Yet, even though both the comedy and drama of this film are intermittently effective, they also never really stop feeling at odds with each other. One minute we’re forced to endure physical comedy gags about somebody dropping their laptop out a window and the next minute poor Dakota Johnson is trying her best to accurately portray the feelings of emptiness and confusion that plagues so many 20-somethings. The film mentions Bridget Jones’s Diary multiple times, which is clearly a strong influence, yet it doesn’t have the wit or the genuinely felt emotional punch to land within the same realm of that rom-com high-water mark.

Before I get too down on How to Be Single, though, I would like to say that it got a few things surprisingly right. It’s not reinventing the rom-com genre by any means, but it DOES semi-boldly reject some of the genre’s most tightly-held tropes. I did like how much emphasis it put on being your own independent person, rather than reinforcing the idea that you need to fall in love and find your “other half” in order to be complete. Especially towards the end of the film, it felt like they were really fighting against some of the traditional values of the genre, and it was refreshing to see a film that champions female friendship and independence over traditional romantic love. (I was pleased to see that two of the three screenwriters are female, and their perspective was very much welcome in a medium where the female voice is usually depressingly absent.)

However, if you’re looking for some great feminist message, this still isn’t going to be your film. I thought the Alison Brie role was especially problematic and just unpleasant, presenting Lucy as a borderline insane person who strikes one note over and over again. We learn nothing about Lucy other than that she’s love-obsessed, and her only two purposes in the film are 1) represent the butt-of-the-joke cliches that they didn’t want to saddle their other female characters with and 2) serve as the catalyst for change for one of the male characters. There are also some definite problems in the way they represent Rebel Wilson’s character in terms of her weight (though they’re certainly not the first film to do so), but Wilson is funny enough that (for better or worse) I found myself forgiving those issues more easily.

Most of the cast here deserves better. (Particularly Jake Lacey, who is given a thankless and bland “love interest” role but somehow still turns in a hugely charming performance.) However, How to Be Single at least tries to explore some different ideas, even if it doesn’t fully succeed at articulating them. I’d rather this kind of movie be moderately ambitious and fall short instead of skating by on the status quo. If you’re looking for a bit of light fun, you could do worse.

Citizenfour (2014)

Citizenfour

Perhaps less a truly great documentary than it is a capital-I Important one, Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour offers the kind of thorough behind-the-scenes look that we never see of most major news stories.

We all know about Edward Snowden, the NSA employee who leaked classified documents to the press and revealed the U.S. government’s deception regarding surveillance. But Citizenfour offers insight into Snowden the person, showing his surprisingly cool-headed approach to leaking the documents and, subsequently, dealing with the immediate fallout from his actions.

A lot of what makes Citizenfour so remarkable is the extremely unusual amount of access that Poitras is given to a situation in real time, as everything is unfolding; because Snowden has “gone rogue”, there’s no red tape holding Poitras back. What results is an uncensored and unforgiving expose of the government’s surveillance tactics, which Snowden himself describes very concisely through much of the film. Snowden’s eloquence simultaneously makes him an interesting subject and damns the NSA more by the minute.

Speaking of Snowden, Poitras paints an interesting and complicated portrait. As a filmmaker, she isn’t shy about making her own biases known in regards to surveillance, even evoking her own personal experiences. (Though I wouldn’t say that this bias overwhelms the film.) However, she takes a more even-handed and human approach to Snowden, showing a few different sides of him that were surprising. For example, while the film overall paints a flattering portrait, scenes where Snowden is crafting his next media move and even openly embracing the fact that he’s headed for international notoriety are fascinating to watch unfold.

Citizenfour loses some steam in its second half after the classified documents have started to be published, as some of the tension built earlier on starts to dissipate. Of course, being a documentary, Poitras can only manipulate things so much in the name of dramatic effect. Maybe all I’m really saying is that I’m looking forward to the fictional retelling of the story (which is, of course on its way courtesy of Oliver Stone). But in terms of storytelling, I just thought that things could’ve been structured more deftly.

Nonetheless, Citizenfour is illuminating, shocking, and vital. The fact that someone was there to capture that moment in time is incredible, and it’s just a bonus that the central figure is charismatic and surprisingly likeable. What results is a compelling and well-made film that proves the power of documentary.

Best Movies of 2015

It’s January 2, but top ten lists are still cool, right? Here are my favourite films of 2015.

The Keeping Room

10. The Keeping Room

I was surprised how much The Keeping Room stuck with me after seeing it at TIFF 2014, since it is in some ways not much beyond a standard home invasion thriller. But something about the setting, the actresses, and the tone left this one lodged in my brain all year. Director Daniel Barber creates a tense thriller that also manages to be a slow-burner, which is always a combination that I admire. Meanwhile, screenwriter Julia Hart crafts a script more nuanced and revealing than the film’s plot-driven story should allow. Combine all of that with the film’s absolutely gorgeous use of lighting and you’ve got an atmospheric and unforgettable cinematic experience.

LA

9. Little Accidents

I watched Little Accidents relatively early in the year and really enjoyed it. I was surprised to find how much it stuck with me as the year progressed, from Boyd Holbrook’s breathtaking performance to director Sara Colangelo’s delicate handling of material that could have become very melodramatic. I really don’t understand the largely negative reviews.

Peace Officer

8. Peace Officer

I saw documentaries about Amy Winehouse and Janis Joplin this year (both of which were excellent), yet the most captivating and charismatic non-fiction subject of 2015 for me was easily Peace Officer’s William “Dub” Lawrence. (Dub is pictured above in his younger days.) The hook of Peace Officer is that Dub is a former sheriff who instituted Utah’s first SWAT team… and then 30 years later watched that SWAT unit kill his own son-in-law. However, the film spends relatively little time on that incident, then branching out to explore the drastic increase of police militarization in the United States. It’s a captivating and extremely timely exploration, and also extremely strong as far as documentary filmmaking goes. I personally left the theatre shaken, and I can only hope that more people will check out this vital film.

Sils Maria

7. Clouds of Sils Maria

What a wonderfully beguiling film from the great Olivier Assayas. I’m not sure there’s another working director this good at exploring the process of aging and what it can do to a people at any stage in life. Clouds of Sils Maria covers that territory more obliquely than Summer Hours or Something in the Air, but it’s no less captivating. It may be his best film yet.

Eden 2015

6. Eden

One thing that struck me about Mia Hansen-Love’s Eden, having seen it over a year ago at TIFF 2014, is how difficult it is to represent out of context. None of the publicity stills from the film do it justice (luckily I found the website of the film’s still photographer, Carole Bethuel, for some lovely images that do capture the tone of the film), and the trailer seemed to be hinting at some sort of Greta Gerwig-driven romance film that just doesn’t exist. And indeed, listening to the synopsis about a drug-fuelled DJ from the ‘90s, nothing about Eden sounds spectacular. But with her third film, Hansen-Love crafts something that feels both sweepingly epic in its timeframe and achingly intimate in its scope. This is not a movie about the ‘90s house scene, but rather a love letter to the music from one (fictional) player within in the movement.

Far From the Madding Crowd 2015

5. Far from the Madding Crowd

Can all period pieces be directed by Thomas Vinterberg? At face value, Far From the Madding Crowd seems like it fits the costume drama formula, but Vinterberg offers his own subtle flavour. I loved everything about the film’s visual style, and it’s so much less stuffy than this adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel could have been. Romantic, dramatic, and smart.

Tom at the Farm

4. Tom at the Farm

This Xavier Dolan film has been kicking around for a while, but finally got a U.S. theatrical release after the success of his last film, Mommy. It’s funny that this is the one Dolan entry that struggled to find distribution, as it’s arguably his most accessible film yet. It’s my personal favourite of all his work, combining his visual flair with a Hitchcockian slow-burn thriller. The atmosphere makes it an edge of your seat psychological thriller, despite the fact that not all that much is happening. Whether you’re a Dolan fan or decidedly not a Dolan fan, don’t let this one slip by.

Mustang 2015

3. Mustang

I’ve already written about Mustang at length, but Deniz Gamze Erguven’s debut feature is one of the year’s absolute best. It also makes an interesting companion piece with Crystal Mozelle’s documentary, The Wolfpack, also from this year, as both films explore groups of siblings coming of age in an oppressive household. Both movies are worth checking out, but despite being fictional, Mustang is the one with true, haunting emotional resonance, as well as a sly sense of humour.

99 Homes

2. 99 Homes

It seems that a running theme of this list is “unlikely thrill ride”, and 99 Homes follows that trend. From the intense eviction sequence early on straight through to the end of the film, director Ramin Bahrani crafts so much genuine tension from what is essentially a human interest story. The way he sets up the cat-and-mouse dynamic is so taught that I felt like I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. With Michael Shannon deservedly scooping up some Oscar buzz for his performance, hopefully 99 Homes will gain the audience it deserves.

The End of the Tour

1. The End of the Tour

This film is in no way a “thrill ride” in the traditional sense of the word. In fact, it is virtually plotless and mostly is about two neurotic men having a few conversations with each other. However, I didn’t have a more captivating and ultimately moving film-watching experience in 2015 than I did with The End of the Tour. I could write a few thousand words on why I liked this movie so much, but for the sake of keeping things relatively brief, I’ll just say that everything – from Jason Segal’s revelatory to performance as David Foster Wallace to the film’s little gut-punch of a coda – is perfect in my eyes.

Best Movie Posters of 2015

For all of the poorly photoshopped or just plain lazy movie poster we saw in 2015 (as we do every year), it was perhaps a particularly strong year in terms of poster design. (Even this year’s hot poster trend seemed a little more creative than some of the previous trends we’ve seen.) Now, as I do on a sorta-annual basis, I’m going to take a moment to look back at some of the poster designs I’ve spent the year admiring.

TFA  InsurgentLost River  HKW

When done well, nothing evokes excitement like a busy, bold movie poster. The marketing behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens certainly understood this and offered up a gorgeous update on the franchise’s iconic one-sheets of days gone by. This one gets everything right, including putting the film’s kick-ass female protagonist, Rey, front and center. Insurgent took a similarly bold approach with this striking exercise in symmetry, making for by far the strongest entry in the long, long line of posters released to promote the film. One the other end of things, the arthouse also got bold with their poster designs this year, and perhaps none more so that Ryan Gosling’s ill-fated directorial debut, Lost River. The warped carnival imagery in unforgettable and ominous, offering up a perfect colour palette to boot. It almost makes me want to watch the movie. Heaven Knows What also embraced in-your-face poster imagery, which makes sense for a scrappy film about heroin-addicted street youth. The deep, muddy pinks of Arielle Holmes’ sideways head clash beautifully with the bold title font, as though evoking a fever dream just within it poster.

Assassin  CarolFFMC  Keeping Room

Next we come to an unlikely (and probably unintentional) trend of 2015, which is earth-toned, stately posters for films about fascinating women. The Assassin’s watercolour-like aesthetic and Carol’s dizzying moment of recognition both create a woozy, gorgeously dreamy image of their respective films. Far From the Madding Crowd’s poster, meanwhile, is an almost overly simple still from the film. However, the image is captivating and the chemistry between Carey Mulligan and Matthias Schoenaerts is palpable even within this still. I love this poster, partly because it is such an accurate representation of the film and partly because it’s just beautifully composed. Finally, The Keeping Room’s poster is moody and magnificent, offering little information about the film itself but enticing the viewer with Brit Marling’s rock-solid stance tinged with a hint of feminine allure.

TFA 2  No EscapeFaults  Queen of Earth

I’m a sucker for a great illustrated poster, but I’m also picky about what I like. Luckily, Star Wars: The Force Awakens came around with a pair of absolutely stunning illustrated alternatives for the film’s IMAX release. The other, Rey-centric one is also amazing, too, but something about the rich turquoise and the composition of this one tips it over the edge for me. And speaking of striking, the clever one-sheet for No Escape proves that an unremarkable film can be elevated by a great poster. (Or, in the case of this one, a series of enticing illustrated offerings.) From the use of perspective to the colours to its double meaning, this one is a real winner. I also give a lot of credit to Faults for going with an unconventional approach to a poster. This looks more like a frame out of a graphic novel, but it perfectly captures the off-kilter tone of the movie and begs for further consideration, which is one of the best things that art can achieve. And speaking of emotionally rich work, this poster for Queen of Earth is artsy and intriguing and just plain lovely.

Maggie  MartianScorch Trials  Spectre

With all of the lush and busy posters we’ve looked at, maybe you’re looking for a palette cleanser. In so, you’re in luck — minimalism was all the rage this year. All four of these movies were high concept, star-powered affairs, so it’s refreshing to see these stripped-down images crop up in their marketing. (Sadly, though, it is worth noting that none of these were the primary poster used to represent their respective films.) All four are arresting, simple images that perfectly represent their respective films, from the ominous glow of Maggie’s one-sheet to the isolation that The Martian instantly evokes. (Much better than being bombarded with Matt Damon’s giant face, no?) In terms of The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, this is the one thing I’ve ever seen that makes me sort of want to watch this series, so that has to count for something, right? And a special tip of the hat goes to marketing team behind Spectre, which, despite numerous attempts, never got it even close to as right as they did with this first teaser poster, which combines the dark tone of the film with the eerie octopus imagery of the titular Spectre organization in a way that somehow isn’t silly.

These are just a few of the posters that made an impact on me in 2015. Feel free to share any of your personal favourites in the comments.