Review: Glassland

Glassland concerns itself with John (Jack Reynor), a Dublin cab driver like his estranged father, who is struggling to keep his life together and care for his mother (Toni Collette) who is fighting a losing battle with alcoholism. As things come to a head, he has difficult decisions about how to raise money to make.

This is a film that relies heavily on visual storytelling and strong edit that moves the story along. It never says too much until it has to. It sounds counterintuitive but to have a film communicate this visually is rather unusual in this day and age where video equipment nears ubiquity and dialogue is still as cheap as its ever been.

To paint your story in moving images requires sumptuous cinematography with tremendous framing, and in seeking to dramatize reality make lighting and compositional decisions that are as visually compelling as they are unobtrusive. That’s what Piers McGrail brings to this work persistently for 93 minutes.

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A close second to visuals in terms of priority in Grassland are the characters who have to be fully understood and conveyed by the actors playing them, and they succeed in spades. While there can be a debate on the merits of a story-based monologue as a useful tool for actors, there’s no question, however, that Collete’s monologue of the story of her life is one of the most memorable in recent memory; and a standout in a supernova of a performance.

Jack Reynor is more than a worthy adversary and provides a star-making turn of his own, which in my estimation means I will also sit up and take notice when I see him in another film from hereon out. He is convincingly the conscience of the film whom feels the burden of the oldest child to care for his mother when she can’t seem to care for herself. His journey is his own, but being selfless is invariably tied up in the fate of others.

One tricky maneuver this film navigates well is that that it does not genre-shift when criminal activity becomes more involved in the plot. Grassland persistently subsumes the criminal element remaining focused on characters, decisions, and visuals rather than explosive set-pieces.

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Also taking part in this ensemble is Will Poulter, one of the finest young actors the world over who never fails to deliver. In this film he adds another weapon to his arsenal blending in seamlessly with the local actors with his own Irish brogue, which also acts and a warning to those who may need subtitling assistance.

Glassland presents all its characters at a crossroads. It doesn’t offer easy solutions or even closure per se, just a close to a chapter but there is a glimmer of hope in some of the third act developments, and at times, in life as in drama, that’s all that remains.

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Best Films of 2013: 20-16

The easy question to ask is: “why do a list at all when you already have an awards slate on your site?” It’s a good question and I finally may have formulated the best response to it yet. Basically, it’s a less comparative discussion on each film that you feel marked the year fro you. In writing a list you discuss each film and a only every few numbers or so get bogged down in discussing placement.

I will try my best to avoid redundancy and will link and self-quote where I deem necessary but it was in re-watching something that I came upon the aforementioned truth. Awards with their winners and fellow nominees and then snub-ees can be read as a slight, though that is never the intent. A list as celebratory, if not more so because of the insularity of conversation.

Now 30 is a high number and I could’ve increased it. I saw the most eligible titles ever this year, but I wanted to further honor these films by having the percentile they represent be a smaller fraction than prior lists.

Let us continue with 20 to 16…

20. Philomena

Philomena (2013, The Weinstein Company)

This year, perhaps more than others, had some great surprises in it. I think that always has to play a role. And by surprises I don’t just mean exceeding expectations but really I mean coming out of nowhere unexpectedly. This film did that for me.

Based on the commercials you knew the basic premise: an elderly woman seeks to discover the fate of the child she put up for adoption 50 years prior. It plays it up like it’s going to be all giggles and a heartwarming “human interest story” as Steve Coogan’s character would’ve derisively put it at the beginning of the film. But much like that journalist we are treated to, yes, some laughs, quite a few surprises (both good an bad) and some tears. The film has some touches to it like its montages of home video that foreshadow the child’s life being learned about and the weaving through time Philomena’s memory occasionally does. Judi Dench is positively marvelous, as is Steve Coogan who plays against type and wore many hats to help make this film happen.

19. Mud

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Every so often I seem to with no great pre-meditation happen upon a double-feature, one entirely of my and my viewing partner’s own devising, that really stands out. This year it was viewing Mud and Disconnect back-to-back at Philly Landmark Theatres.

Here Jeff Nichols strikes again with another great film. The scary thing is that he really makes it look fairly easy when we all know it’s not. There’s a lot more to Mud than meets the eye such as coming-of-age, a classic tale of unrequited love, a southern Gothic tale of river-life with just an allusion to recent realities treated in nearly a magical realist way. It’s a film that just may grow over time both with myself and in the public consciousness.

18. The Counselor

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If there was one prediction I had going into Awards season, and “List Season”, it was that I’d see The Counselor on a Best and a Worst list. I did. This is one of those films where I get the arguments against it. It’s one of those films where you either go along for the ride and appreciate it or you can just never get into it for any number of reasons. It certainly settles itself into the world its building eschewing getting over-concerned with the intricacies of the illegal activities being planned, and also builds a world prior to more firmly entrenching its characters. It’s got a unique brand of dialogue you’ll love or loath; all that and more are things I too as part of why enjoyed this film. Aside from the stories within the story that matter and the introspective, philosophizing criminals.

I’ve seen quite a few of Ridley Scott’s films and he never tried anything like this and it’s worth looking in to for that fact alone.

17. The Way, Way Back

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I like to send out a one tweet reaction to almost all the films I see. Part of why that is, is that I’m attempting to succinctly encapsulate my thoughts and preserve them for later reference.

Here’s what I said with regards to The Way, Way Back:

“The Way, Way Back” is quite exceptional. It’s hilarious, heartfelt, dramatic and full of wonderful performances by a spot-on cast.

In many ways this is a film that’s traveling well-trod ground, not that most of it isn’t at this date and time. However, there is a freshness and a truth to it. You have at the center of it Duncan (Liam James) who faces many familiar influences a first love, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb); a mother (Toni Collette); an over-bearing new pseudo-stepfather, Trent (Steve Carell); and an adoptive father figure, Owen (Sam Rockwell). It’s the way these things blend, how the film achieves the aforementioned superlatives that make it stand out.

16. The Old Man

The Old Man (2012, Kazakhfilm)

This film is a testament to quite a few things: seeing films on the big screen (which I didn’t get a chance to), the power of cultural specificity and transliterating a story and the universality that can be found in such specificity. It’s a Kazakh version of the Old Man and the Sea that works brilliantly well.

This film is called Shal, when transliterated from its native language. In English it’s just referred to as The Old Man. In short, the sea does not apply to this tale instead the film is landlocked and tells the tale of an old shepherd. The wilderness he battles is the Eurasian steppe rather than the sea, which brings wolves into play. Thus, aside from the source material it brought to mind the recent film The Grey. However, I feel this film excels far more than that one did in its man versus nature elements because it’s defenestrated to a greater degree. There are fewer affectations of traditional action films and more human drama, more philosophy, more searingly gorgeous imagery and even further respect for the beasts of prey as there is the added element of the old man protecting his herd.

This is also a generational tale wherein quietly the Old Man’s grandson who he tongue-in-cheekily calls Sheitan-bek, translated as “dickens,” comes to a newfound maturity and shows his respect for his grandfather, and thus his elders. The setup of the generational divide is well-executed and though very steeped in indigenous culture and religious mores does have a universal quality to it. One example of it would be that though in rural Kazakhstan the grandfather’s passion for football knows no borders and he struggles with poor television reception to watch Barça and names all his sheep after members of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup team.

Shyamalan Week: BAM Best Picture Profile – The Sixth Sense

Introduction

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

Here’s another one where I’ve decided on a different tact as opposed to the pre-existing text I’d written. I don’t recall what the assignment was but I originally wrote a comparison between The Sixth Sense and American Beauty as they were best picture nominees. I’ve decided to edit that such that I only discuss The Sixth Sense and why it won the BAM Award for Best Picture of 1999. As I recently stated in the site’s first official piece on Django Unchained all the Best Picture winners should have write-ups and to that end, those that do not yet will get their due in December. However, since I decided to focus on the work of M. Night Shyamalan this week, I may as well post it now.

Overly-Cautious Warning: If you’ve never seen this film stop what you’re doing right now and go see it. I do spoil it eventually in this analysis.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

When I first saw the trailer to The Sixth Sense I knew I wanted to see it. I thought it was going to be one of “My Movies,” meaning no one but me would like it. There was a sneak preview a week before the nationwide release. My family and I got our tickets early via Moviefone. Thank goodness we did because there were many people walking up to the box office wanting to see it and being turned away because it was sold out. That was a good sign.

The film spent five weeks at #1 at the box office. I then started to hear the Oscar buzz stirring. After the Golden Globes and SAG Awards it didn’t seem likely it would do much at the Oscars. It didn’t. That doesn’t make it right, though. However, that’s why I had started the BAM Awards in the first place.

The Sixth Sense starts slowly but builds upon detail, one thing that give it a boost is amazing ensemble acting. The role of Cole’s mother is played by Toni Collette, an Australian actress. She had her Philly accent down so well I believed it was authentic at the time. She’s a very caring, playful mother but there’s also anger, fear and worry in her performance.

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

If you want character development this film is definitely for you, it’s not a concept-only piece. It has a strong and fairly high concept, but there is a lot of character to it. You are thrown into the life of Malcolm Crow (Bruce Willis) immediately. There is a confrontation in the first few minutes. This confrontation ends up being pivotal in the rest of the story. Then a year later he meets a boy named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment). From that moment forward there is rarely a moment when one of them isn’t on screen.

Films of a supernatural nature like this one often have underlying messages and present real questions. These movies, like horror fiction, are generally frowned upon. This may be another reason it didn’t win at the Oscars. If that’s so, it’s not justified.

In my estimation, Haley Joel Osment is not a supporting actor in this movie, he is the lead. Just like Joseph Cross wasn’t a supporting actor in Shyamalan’s previous film Wide Awake. Bruce Willis like Rosie O’Donnell prior sold the film. While Crow starts and ends the movie, a vast majority of it is dealing with Cole and his issues. You can argue Crow is a lead based on perspective, but if you’re talking screen time and, more importantly, who faces and ultimately overcomes their obstacles it’s Cole.

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

Osment’s performance is incredible. The best acting is when you believe it’s happening and he sold it to you and you bought it because it’s real. He’s genuinely afraid. He’s shy and awkward when necessary and his suffering reaches off screen and wrenches your guts. In one scene when the thermostat drops and his breath vaporizes, I felt cold. Osment’s performance would not have been so amazing if not for the brilliant script. The script is nearly Hitchcockian in both its detail and the way Shyamalan is seemingly tossing elements up and plucking them down at exactly the right moment. The ways Shyamalan got everyone to believe Bruce Willis was alive then allowing hindsight to show he definitely wasn’t is both amazing writing and directing.

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

The Sixth Sense has subplots, even aside from the obvious ones which are the tales of the spirits that Cole sees. One example is the characterization of a secondary player: Tommy Tommasimo, played by Trevor Morgan, isn’t just a bully. His performance is typical of a bully when it has to be, but in his character’s cough syrup commercial it’s commercial acting and satirical. It also gives the audience good comic relief. Tommy in the end of his narrative is comedic and dejected. He becomes and inside joke between Cole and Malcolm. Another storytelling interlude goes as follows: In a classroom scene where the school grounds were the sight of hangings. His teacher denies the fact. Then Cole starts to yell calling him by his boyhood nickname. It’s very intense and serves as momentary comic relief as well. We empathize with Cole for it, and who wouldn’t want to know their teacher was called ‘Stuttering Stanley’? We see the hanged bodies later and perceptive viewers are awed, those who miss the connection will be frightened regardless. It works on two levels.

That’s what most of the brilliance of the script and the film is: connection. Cole’s mother is cleaning and she notices some spots shining in the pictures. All we see her do is questioningly look at it. Later, when Cole tells her his secret she believes him deep down. The proof is given after. That too is a subplot. It’s a movie of such intricacies but it works because of its intimacy. There aren’t too many characters in it. The movie deals realistically with the supernatural. There is a psychologist involved with the boy. Cole at one point is in the hospital and the doctor questions his mother about the bruises on his body. This is a societal critique, but a subdued one and a welcome one. Both her and the therapist are in the room and disgusted by these accusations. They don’t see each other. We don’t know that though.

The crumbling marriage of Malcolm Crow is also a pivotal part of the puzzle. This also works brilliantly as an illusion. The best illusions are the ones we believe to be true. He and his wife never speak to each other anymore. She is with another man and Malcolm never quite chases him down. What’s crucial is when Malcolm comes to the restaurant late. She signs the check says “Happy anniversary” and leaves. This is so key because we think she is talking to him. She wasn’t and what’s best is the way all the pieces fit together and nothing is really out of place.

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

The film also expertly foreshadows after re-viewing The Sixth Sense you see how it was set up all the way through the movie and you wonder how everyone took the bait, but we did. The ending was a shock. Nothing in The Sixth Sense seems forced or out of place. It all comes together in the end and it moves me. Cole asks, “Grandma says the answer is ‘everyday.’ What’s the question, Mama?” His mom is on the brink of tears and puts her hand on her chest, “Do I make her proud?” This is something we can all identify with. I got teary-eyed just thinking about it. I went to see it again with my cousins in Brazil. They all loved it. It’s truly a universal movie and now fourteen years on this films has not waned in my eyes, not in the slightest. It’s tremendous.

The Awards

The Sixth Sense was nominated for 10 BAM Awards, and won seven.

The wins were in the following categories:

Best Picture

Best Director

Best ActorHaley Joel Osment

Best Performance by a Child Actor – Haley Joel Osment

Best Supporting Actress – Toni Collette

Best Score – James Newton Howard

Best Cast

The Other Nominations were for:

Best Original Screenplay – M. Night Shyamalan

Best Cinematography – Tak Fujimoto

Best Supporting Actor – Bruce Willis

Review- Fright Night (2011)

Imogen Poots and Anton Yelchin in Fright Night (DreamWorks/Disney)

Here’s another case of full disclosure is necessary, there are two things that bear mentioning with regards to Fright Night: first, I am in no way a fan of the original Fright Night, it has some strong elements but overall I was not entertained in the least. Therefore, I walked into this version with an open mind as it with this remake I actually felt there was a need for it.

This incarnation of Fright Night does absolutely wonderful things with the aspect of disbelief in the horror genre. Typically and you get very weary of this if you’re a fan of the genre. You are therefore used a long struggle were characters doubt the supernatural elements of the story. The modern notion respects the audience enough and is just reflexive enough that this part of the story is quickly addressed but sped through. Never has it been so quickly and intelligently handled as in this film.

This, of course, lends itself to much comedy. Comedy in a horror film can be a precarious thing. Many people do need that release valve for their nervous energy but many horror films veer too heavily towards comedy. This one does something odd in as much as it keeps the horror subsumed and allows it to bubble to to the surface and take over when necessary.

Not to say that those who like their horror in a more classical style will necessarily walk away disappointed from this film. You get in this film very well-done gore and perhaps what I was most grateful for good, old fashioned scary vampires. The horror elements are there in spades.

Another way in which this film is a kind of throwback is that its a horror property that was able to attract talent to it. First, you have your protagonist in Anton Yelchin, who may not be a household name yet but has certainly done his fair share of films and should be recognizable to most. You also have the ever-versatile Toni Collette as his mother. Then there’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse as his friend. Then perhaps the most important duo is the vampire (Colin Farrell) and the vampire hunter (David Tennant).

It’s truly a shame that the 3D backlash came at a time when good films with effective 3D work was released. This is one of them. Yes, there is an over-saturation of 3D but this film should not have fallen victim to our general malaise with it.

The pace of this film as intimated earlier is fantastic. Due to the fact that it deals with the niceties quickly, effectively with great dialogue it allows the film to move quite quickly and still manages to build suspense while doing so. There are quite a few memorable sequences in this film.

It’s quite easy to look at Fright Night and say “Oh, look, another remake and another vampire movie at the same time,” however, this one gives both a good name and is worth seeing.

9/10