About Grant

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New York, NY, United States
Film director and screenwriter. Cinephile since birth. Director of DREAMS OF THE WAYWARD (2013). Film Studies MA student at Columbia University.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Film Review: The Witch (2016) by Robert Eggers 4/5

     Robert Eggers' directorial debut, The Witch (2016), is a well-crafted horror film set against the terrain of colonial New England in the 1600s.  Though there are plenty of scares and a tense presence that permeates throughout the film, but the strength of The Witch is in its family drama and authenticity to the period.  Thematically, the divide between Godliness and that which is natural is at the heart of this film, and that split manifests itself in wicked ways.
     Opening on the face of a teenage girl, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), we hear from off screen her father's thunderous voice as he defends himself against accusations that he is a religious heretic in their community.  Her father, William (Ralph Ineson), recommends that his family be granted permission to settle outside of the village to make it on their own.  This request is approved, and with arms extended giving a prayer to God, William and his family look upon the expanse of land beside a forest that will become their home.  From this moment, the forest begins to take on a threatening presence as it looms over the horizon.  
     Several months pass, and the family's harvest is proving fruitless as rotting shucks of corn litter the fields.  Regardless, hope is not lost... not yet.  Everything goes awry though when the youngest of the family, Samuel, vanishes during a game of peek-a-boo with Thomasin.  Samuel's disappearance is unsettling, and the hands at which he is taken are revealed to be far beyond the desires of a Puritan family – a Satanic presence that resides in the neighboring woods.  
     As the film progresses, several tenants of the horror genre arise, but they appear fresh as a result of the milieu of The Witch.  Puberty is a particular occurrence that takes shape in the life of Thomasin's younger brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), as he becomes aware of his sister's developing body.  It's never incestuous, and is presented as a guilty curiosity of Caleb's, but it sets the stage for future events and creates an interesting parallel with the role of nature in the film.  
     Nature, as a whole, is presented as evil – an implication, but there's nothing worth embracing about the forest here.  The staunch Christian beliefs that the family holds are at odds with sin, and sin is natural.  When Samuel disappears, a theological concern is raised that Samuel's nature as a human means that he was innately sinful.  Has little Samuel gone to Heaven by God's grace, or has he been damned to Hell?  It is human nature to do wrong against God and one's fellow man, and the forest embodies all that cannot be tamed by God and his followers.  Even the farm animals that the family relies upon, specifically a goat known as "Black Phillip", are not to be trusted for their contact with the natural world.
     Beyond the elevated approach to theology on a thematic level, contributing to this film's status as more than just another horror film (or another period piece) is the casting.  Ralph Ineson gives a riveting performance as the father of this household, a man defeated by his fellow man who finds strength in his God.  His quiet stoicism is only enhanced by his fiercely natural physicality.  The dialogue is rich and true to the speech of the 17th century, and when Ineson speaks it's mesmerizing and rings true.  Similarly, Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw have the bulk of the film's narrative on their shoulders, and yet they manage to deliver their dialogue without a false note.  
     Visually, there's one scene in particular that isn't as effective as it could've been involving a woman that seduces Caleb to her cabin.  Wardrobe is largely responsible for this misstep, as the woman wears a dress with a corset revealing her cleavage to tempt Caleb into joining her.  This scene works on a narrative level, as Caleb's sexual awakening is beginning, but the woman's dress felt more like a cheap contemporary allusion to the time rather than a recreation of an alluring outfit a woman may have worn in the 1600s that would be consistent with the faithful production design exhibited in the rest of the film.  
     Ignoring that scene of seduction, The Witch is very aesthetically pleasing.  The lighting has a natural quality, and the flickering of candles and fire during nighttime interior scenes is particularly striking – almost hypnotic.  Even during the day, the approach to lighting and color correction is highly in favor of naturalism, which really shines during scenes that take place at twilight as a greyish-blue hue overtakes the subjects on camera.
     Taking a few cues from the depiction of witchcraft in Roman Polanski's adaptation of Macbeth (1971) and sharing some thematic and atmospheric elements with Lars von Trier's Antichrist (2009) in which the line "nature is Satan's church" was uttered, The Witch is a fascinating approach to a time period and subject largely understood through historical texts and Arthur Miller's 1953 play The Crucible.  Even then, those are merely points of comparison, and The Witch is a film that stands firmly on its own as an unconventional genre film that has substance beyond gimmicks and scares.

My rating: 4/5
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4263482/?ref_=rvi_tt

Film Review: Son of Saul (2015) by László Nemes 4/5

     The heavy iron doors leading to the "showers" are unlocked, so Saul (Géza Röhrig) and his comrades get on all fours to quickly scrub the blood from the floor so that the room may be used again when the next "shipment" arrives in a few hours.  Saul is a Sonderkommando (a Jewish prisoner forced to work for the Nazis at concentration camps under threat of death), and that narrative vantage point dictates both the look and feel of Hungarian director László Nemes' directorial debut, Son of Saul (2015).  Morality is the primary source of conflict in this bleak film, and though it's filled with death, life and a respect for the dead is what makes this film move.
     Uncompromising in its approach to narrative, Son of Saul begins with Jews being unloaded from trains and then herded by Saul and the other Sonderkommandos to the showers.  "The water is too cold to drunk, but there will be tea afterwards," says a Nazi to a Jew inquiring about the showers.  History allows for a contemporary audience to understand that there will be no tea, as there will be no shower.  Once the hundred or so Jews are all undressed and have filed into the "shower", the doors lock and we remain outside with Saul as the innocent people on the other side of the door begin screaming and banging on the doors.  A few minutes later, the doors are opened, and everyone – excluding a single boy – has died.  With every breath he takes, it's apparent that he's in pain.  Watching as a Nazi commander places his hand over the boys mouth and nose until he suffocates to death, Saul then takes it upon himself to try to give this boy a proper burial – a difficult and dangerous task that puts every Sonderkommando's life on the line.
     Trapped into a life of servitude to the Nazis, Saul and his fellow Sonderkommandos have no desire to deceive the living and then burn the bodies of the dead, but they must.  Saul's efforts to give the dead boy he salvages from the gas chambers a different fate goes against the traditional mindset of the Sonderkommandos, which is to distant one's self from the humanity of the dead.  The cinematography reflects this moral dilemma, as it puts us not in the shoes, but rather in the mind of a Sonderkommando.  
     First of all, Son of Saul is filmed in the classic 4:3 Academy ratio, effectively making it less a cinematic experience, and more of an experience in general.  The limited frame of a 4:3 composition contributes to the limited perspective of the film.  Throughout much of the film, the camera floats over the shoulder or just behind Saul.  Daringly, the lenses used provide an intensely shallow depth of field which often makes the back of Saul's head the only thing readily in focus.  The mounds of unclothed Jewish corpses appear as blurs as Saul lifts a body from the floor of the gas chamber and adds it to the growing pile.  Remaining visually in focus, Saul and his struggle is the focus of the film.  Everything that he sees would be better off ignored so that he can live with himself, so the shallow depth of field allows for the audience to struggle with Saul's own distance from what he has to do at the Nazi death camps every day.  
     In the same way that the cinematography limits our view of the atrocities committed at the concentration camp, the dialogue in the film reflects that as well.  Undoubtedly true to the time and setting, the dialogue is a string of euphemisms to separate the Sonderkommandos from the innocent dead.  "It", as an inanimate pronoun, is frequently used to refer to the dead body of any Jew, as to disassociate the person's humanity – to objectify them.  Giving the body a gender would be too personal, and the line between victim and accomplice to murder is something that is at the heart of the conflict in Son of Saul.
     Further complimenting the aesthetic and dialogue is the sound design, which is grounded in reality.  Excluding the closing credits, there is no soundtrack in this film.  Occasionally, a touch of music can be heard from a radio, but it's not an emotional cue as a non-diegetic score would've been.  Without a soundtrack, the sounds of labor, the screams of those dying, and the breathing of our protagonist and those he comes into contact with make the sound one of the more directly engaging elements of the film.  The look of Son of Saul distances us from the surroundings, but brings us closer to the protagonist's role at the death camp.  Sound is unavoidable though, as it confronts us with the reality that Saul would rather not see.  
     Unlike Roman Polanski's The Pianist (2002) or other notable Holocaust films, Son of Saul is a film that is stripped of conventional cinematic technique in favor of providing a more engrossing experience.  The environment that Saul is surrounded by is not conducive to sentimental moments or likable characters, and it doesn't have to (nor should it, anyway).  On a perspective level alone, Son of Saul is formally in tune with the atrocities committed at the camp, so the responsibility to feel anything is placed on the audience (whatever emotion that may be) rather than on the characters.  Even then, Saul feels for his fellow man, and it's beautiful to observe a man with convictions do everything in his power to do something right for one person as a gesture for the millions of others who could not be given the same respect.

My rating: 4/5
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3808342/?ref_=rvi_tt

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Film Review: Hail, Caesar! (2016) by Joel and Ethan Coen 3/5

     Contract actors, extras, ego-driven directors, production hands, and gossip columnists all inhabit the studio lot that Hail, Caesar! (2016), the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, is set within.  Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the man in charge of all of those moving parts, and he's at the heart of this film as he does his best to keep productions moving while protecting the reputations of a slew of film stars at the fictional Hollywood studio Capitol Pictures.  
     It's the Golden Age of Hollywood and film production is booming.  On the lots of Capitol Pictures, the Biblical epic "Hail, Caesar! A Story Of The Christ" is the biggest picture currently in production, with the renowned actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) in the lead.  Although he works in Hollywood, Eddie Mannix is a Godly man who cares deeply about his purity and walk with the Lord.  Solving the daily problems on set at the studio is a nonstop job that is beginning to clash with his life back at home with his wife and kids.  When a job offer from outside of Hollywood presents itself, he's attracted to the possibility of having some more stability in his life that his studio job can't give him.  Naturally, Capitol Pictures needs Eddie most as he ponders leaving the studio when Baird Whitlock is kidnapped. 
     A few backlot doors down from "Hail, Caesar! A Story Of The Christ", DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is starring in a Busby Berkeley-esque film with choreographed circles of swimming girls and a live orchestra.  Meanwhile, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is about to wrap up production on a Western that will allow for him to be trusted to star in a prestige picture entitled "Merrily We Dance" by the renowned director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).  All of these stars will find themselves in their own quandaries and need Mannix's expertise to turn things around.  
     Hail, Caesar! never manages to reach its full potential, as these stories fail to successfully come together.  By proximity alone at Capitol Pictures, the stories are all neighbors (and Eddie Mannix is generally the figure that bridges the gap between each story), but they all start and fizzle out without impacting the overarching narrative.   In addition to the close-quarters that these stories take place in, the film occurs over the span of two days, but one forgets that quickly with the lack of control over the scope of the narrative and the relatively slow pace that the action moves at. 
     Defining the disparate wings of the narrative further, the Coen brothers seem to be more concerned with establishing the colorful work these fictional movie stars are making, rather than what they could be doing outside of their acting work.  The action of the narrative is pleasantly interrupted by scenes of on-set activity, the viewing of dailies, and film premieres where we get to see the work of Hobie Doyle and others, but they are merely scenic routes that go around the plot rather than crossing through it.  At times, they're used as introductory devices, but beyond that, these scenes do little to support the narrative – aside from their effective addition to the film studio milieu.  These moments, particularly Hobie Doyle's introduction in a shoot 'em up Western and Burt Gurney's (Channing Tatum) sailor tap-dance musical number (that could've been a lost scene from Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's 1949 film On The Town) are quite exciting and deliver some of the biggest laughs of the film as physical comedy is blended with whit and charm.  
     On the other end of the spectrum, the shooting of one of the films within the film had great potential to be hilarious, but it feels under-edited.  The whole scene is a lengthy distraction from the plot, and it drags on with no end in sight.  Only making it worse, long stretches of silence suck the life out of the entire scene, but long stretches of silence go on to plague the entire film.  Sure, the scenes of actors being directed and the scenes where we get to see their film work are interesting, but that's primarily because they are more interesting than the actual plot of Hail, Caesar!.  By the end of the film, no one has changed or experienced anything particularly life changing.
     Not lending the weak narrative much of a helping hand is Roger Deakins' cinematography, which is stiff and lacks invention.  Even a variation of style for the many films within Hail, Caesar! is nowhere to be found.  On a more practical level, the cinematography is even unaccommodating to the hot Hollywood sunlight, as faces are occasionally washed out and backgrounds are bright blurs.  Sure, much of the film takes place on soundstages or at night, but ignoring one particularly stunning scene in which images layer on top of one another and beautifully dissolve as Hobie drives in pursuit of someone he believes may be involved with Baird's abduction, Hail, Caesar! is visually as empty as the silent spaces between lines of dialogue in this film (though, we can attribute much of the quality of this scene to the editing).  
     Part of the initial appeal of a film like this is its self-reflexive quality, which is the strength of Hail, Caesar!.  Being able to observe cameras getting pushed by dolly grips, matte paintings adorning the walls of studios, and actors being directed is a delight in this film, but it's a shame that the plot isn't as intriguing.  Even outside of the main plot and the supporting scenes that show Baird Whitlock and Hobie Doyle acting, some of the most interesting scenes revolve around theology and Eddie Mannix's faith.  Faith, as in spirituality, is an integral aspect of the theme of Hail, Caesar!, but it's disappointing that the plot doesn't deserve a theme of that nature.  

My rating: 3/5
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0475290/?ref_=nv_sr_1