Saturday, September 29, 2018

100 Words on Jeremy Saulnier's Hold the Dark (2018)



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SkarsJoy

By Thomas Puhr

In his fourth feature film, Jeremy Saulnier applies his interest in elemental storytelling (simple motifs of darkness vs. light, revenge, etc.) to a much larger narrative canvas. Famous wolf tracker Russell Core (an understated Jeffrey Wright) travels to Alaska for a job and is embroiled in a sometimes overstuffed plot that tackles parenthood, Native American identity, mysticism, and war in the Middle East, among other things. Perhaps a bit overambitious for its own good, Hold the Dark (2018) nevertheless has its fair share of mesmerizing sequences, especially a remarkable shootout that showcases all of the director's compositional and tension-building finesse.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

100 Words on Joachim Trier's Thelma (2017)

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By Thomas Puhr

Joachim Trier’s Thelma (2017) adds a supernatural twist to his usual humanistic technique. It opens intriguingly enough, with a booming, Scanners-esque score by Ola Fløttum and a startling scene in which a father contemplates killing his young daughter, Thelma (played as an adult by Eili Harboe). The girl, we learn, has dangerous powers, which reemerge when she becomes attracted to a college classmate, Anja (Kaya Wilkins). The relationship between these two women is the film’s strongest element, but Trier instead focuses on the origins of Thelma’s psychic powers in the film’s latter half, which spoils some of the premise’s mystique.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Berlin 2018: 100 Words on Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson, and Guy Maddin's Accidence



Photo Credit: Six Shooter Records

By Thomas Puhr

Accidence (2018) immediately demands multiple viewings. Presented as a single shot that merges live action and unobtrusive animation, the short chronicles the goings-on of an array of apartment building tenants whose paths intertwine in unexpected and surreal ways. The stories on dollhouse-like display range from the banal (a man sleeping on his balcony), to the dramatic (a murder), to the bewildering (a man investigating shadows through a window). Maddin, Johnson, and Johnson merge the beginning and end (a clock in the central room proves key) so that the film, like a mesmerizing ambient album, could seemingly repeat itself into eternity.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

100 Words on Maurice Haeems' Chimera (2018)


By Thomas Puhr
Like its conflicted protagonist, Maurice Haeems’ Chimera (2018) suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. On the one hand, it is a cerebral piece of speculative science-fiction: Henry Ian Cusick (playing it straight) is Quint, a scientist who freezes his children while searching for a cure to their life-threatening illness. On the other hand, it is a gleefully over-the-top ode to B-movies: Kathleen Quinlan (hamming it up) costars as Masterson, a mysterious woman funding Quint’s experiments in hopes of reviving her husband. Some wild shifts in tone make Chimera uneven yet unpredictable. Its final third packs an undeniable punch.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

100 Words on Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread (2017)


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By Thomas Puhr
 
Daniel Day-Lewis gives a quietly intense and vulnerable performance as Reynolds Woodcock, an obsessive fashion designer, in what will be his final film. There is much to admire here, from the sumptuous costume design, to a hedonistic, almost surreal New Year’s Eve party, to some beautiful footage of Woodcock’s reckless nighttime drives (Anderson is the uncredited director of photography). The film’s second half, detailing the protagonist’s unconventional relationship with his muse/wife, Alma (Vicky Krieps), is its most engaging, especially when the writer-director dips ever-so-slightly into supernatural territory. Ultimately, like its central character, Phantom Thread remains aesthetically fascinating but emotionally remote.  

Thursday, December 7, 2017

100 Words on Olivier Assayas' Personal Shopper (2016)



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By Thomas Puhr

Maureen (Kristen Stewart, in an eye-opening performance), a part-time clairvoyant and full-time personal shopper for a spoiled celebrity, obsessively searches for a sign from her deceased brother in Olivier Assayas’ enigmatic Personal Shopper (2016). Though the film does showcase some supernatural imagery, it is most intriguing as a character study. As Maureen stalks the empty rooms of what was her twin’s house, tiptoes around her perpetually-absent boss’ lavish apartment to update it with the latest couture and jewelry, and has an increasingly-disturbing text dialogue with an unknown number, one realizes she is just as much a ghost as her brother.



Saturday, October 21, 2017

100 Words on Joe Ahearne's B&B (2017)


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By Thomas Puhr

A gay couple (Sean Teale and Tom Bateman) staying at a bread and breakfast play a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with its homophobic proprietor (Paul McGann) and another guest (James Tratas), who they suspect is a “basher.” Writer-director Joe Ahearne takes this premise, which initially feels like a setup for some gore-fest, and moves it in some unexpected directions; think of a DePalma-esque psychosexual thriller crossed with a tragic morality play. Once the final twist has settled in, one is left with the bleak impression that those living double lives may sometimes be more imprisoned than those literally behind bars.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

tiff 2017: 100 Words on Justin Harding and Rob Brunner's Latched (2017)


By Thomas Puhr
Within its crisp 17-minute runtime, Justin Harding and Rob Brunner’s Latched (2017) pulls off an impressive feat. Deftly combining elements of drama, folklore, and all-out horror, this short follows single mother Alana (Alana Elmer), who retreats to an isolated cabin for creative inspiration only to find herself the unwitting harbinger of a murderous fairy from the surrounding woods. The conceit behind the fairy’s reawakening is both perverse and darkly humorous, and the practical effects for the creature are top notch. Vivien Villani’s sweeping, orchestral score helps create a gothic-tinged atmosphere for what could have been a tasteless exercise in gratuity.    

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Oaxaca Film Festival Roundup: 2017



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Amy Miller’s eye-opening Tomorrow’s Power (2017) begins with a shocking hospital scene in Gaza, wherein surgeons are interrupted mid-operation by a power outage. All they can do is wait in the dark and hope the lights return as soon as possible. This emergency, we learn, is a common occurrence in Gaza. Miller’s globe-trotting documentary further chronicles the energy crisis in terms of oil exploitation in Colombia and coal plant deforestation in Germany. Most engagingly, she discards the usual voiceovers, academic commentators, etc. in favor of having those actually affected by these crises tell their own stories, in their own words.

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A cocktail of screwball comedy, coming-of-age drama, and family mystery, The Song of Sway Lake (2017) perhaps tries to be too many things at once. Its first third is its most lighthearted and successful; audiophile Ollie (Rory Culkin) and his wayward companion Nikolai (Robert Sheehan, who delivers some creative one-liners with gusto) crash the former’s family estate in search of a priceless, nearly-mythical record. These early misadventures provide many genuine laughs, but director Ari Gold’s detours into darker family drama feel abrupt and unnecessary. Nevertheless, the film has a big heart and undeniable charm (not to mention a lovely soundtrack).

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An unnamed man and woman (Todd Bruno and Aniela McGuinness) abduct and torture a suspected rapist (Mike Stanley) as part of an ill-conceived plot to extract a confession. Writer-director Lou Simon’s 3 (2016) takes what at first seems a straightforward premise and cleverly shifts the character dynamics so that each person, at one point or another, seems to be both the hero and villain. The small cast and spare setting lend the film a theatrical atmosphere, and Simon wisely avoids excessive gore in favor of psychological tension. The twist ending, though unexpected, doesn’t mesh convincingly with the film preceding it.

By Thomas Puhr
 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

100 Words on Alexandre Aja's The 9th Life of Louis Drax (2016)

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By Thomas Puhr

Despite an unconvincing performance by Aiden Longworth as the titular character and a glaringly-obvious twist ending, Alexandre Aja’s The 9th Life of Louis Drax (2016) is still noteworthy as a phantasmagoric cocktail of genres (it mixes elements of feel-good family dramas, creature features, psychosexual thrillers, police procedurals, and [naturally] graphic horror-shows in its story of the mysterious circumstances surrounding Louis’ coma-inducing fall from a cliff during a family picnic) and as an opportunity for the director to display some genuinely-startling imagery; consider, for example, an extended, dreamlike hypnosis session, or the del Toro-esque monster that guides Louis through his subconscious.  

Thursday, August 10, 2017

100 Words on Jim Jarmusch's Paterson (2016)


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By Thomas Puhr
Things repeated in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (2016): circles, symbols of repetition, painted on curtains; twins, both literal and figurative (the titular Paterson [Adam Driver], an aspiring poet, encounters a Japanese doppelganger at a crucial moment); the daily routines of Paterson and his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), the small variations of which feel like different drafts for the same, universal poem; word-filled pages replaced by empty pages, which must be filled again; and water, indicative of both life’s transience and endurance. Paterson, recognizing these cycles, continues his life’s work; to paraphrase his “twin,” an empty page sometimes presents the most possibilities.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

100 Words on Lorcan Finnegan's Without Name (2016)

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By Thomas Puhr

As its title suggests, Lorcan Finnegan’s Without Name (2016) addresses nature’s inscrutability. Eric (Alan McKenna) and Olivia (Niamh Algar) are land surveyors working in a remote Irish forest: a setup that allows for some eerily-beautiful nature shots. In one scene, Eric vanishes in the forest; while Olivia frantically searches for him, Finnegan’s clever camerawork makes the surrounding trees appear to shift and warp her (our) perspective, like a naturally-occurring hall of mirrors. A stroboscopic sequence reminiscent of A Field in England (2013) adds to the visual experimentation.  “Communicate!” Eric shouts at a phantom-like figure roaming the forest. Nature remains silent.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

100 Words on Sean Byrne's The Devil's Candy (2015)


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By Thomas Puhr
Sean Byrne upends the clichéd association between heavy metal music and Satanism in The Devil’s Candy (2015). Though shaggy-haired and covered with tattoos (a characteristic of many a villain/henchman), metalhead/artist Jesse (Ethan Embry) emerges as a sympathetic hero who resists the devilish presence threatening his family’s new, countryside home. Byrne largely favors suspense  over gore (a sequence in which Jesse’s daughter struggles to escape a killer’s bathroom is particularly nail-biting) and incorporates some vivid imagery, such as an arresting montage of Jesse’s frenzied painting with a killer’s frenzied cleaning of a murder scene. Who says heavy metal can’t be subtle?