Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

Evil on this Train: A Review of Murder on the Orient Express

In Uncategorized on November 18, 2017 at 12:07 pm

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by Matt Boyd Smith

There aren’t many changes to the core elements of this classic Agatha Christie story, but Kenneth Branagh’s stately, gorgeously-designed and exciting take on the quintessential locked-room murder mystery manages to remain entertaining and filled with interesting variations on a well-worn genre.

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Atomic Blonde: A Review (Spoilers)

In Uncategorized on August 11, 2017 at 9:29 pm

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When Atomic Blonde debuted at SXSW last year, it was greeted with resounding enthusiasm. Its marketing showed a stylish, bone-crunching action-thriller that put a strong woman at the center and featured similarly mind-bending action sequences to John Wick, the current action film high water mark. The final product is not quite the female John Wick we’d been lead to believe, but it gets very close with its intense fight choreography and stunts that pile up amid a neon-drenched spy film set in 1989 Berlin.

“We Do What We Can to Endure”: A Review of David Lowery’s _A Ghost Story_

In Film, Reviews on August 7, 2017 at 11:16 am

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By Eric Plaag

My wife and I live in a house that was built in 2014. Several weeks ago, as we were drifting off to sleep, we were both jolted awake by the clear and unmistakable sound of a disembodied man muttering things in the space of our bedroom. We asked each other, “Did you hear that?” We turned the lights on. We explored the house. And of course we found nothing. And what followed were the questions that we all ask about such phenomena: Who was that? What does he want? Did he live on this property before we did? Is he connected to something in our house or in our room? Or is it someone from the past or the future or a tangential universe trying to warn us of something?

A Ghost Story, the new film written and directed by David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon) confronts similar existential questions through a soul-crushing journey that is mostly devoid of dialogue, filled with mostly nameless characters, and devoted to helping its viewers fully appreciate the immense and indifferent nature of time, both within the small moments of our lives and across the millennia. In the truest sense of the phrase, this is the story of a ghost, and as such, Lowery’s masterpiece leaves us pondering the same, largely unspoken fear that I suspect we all carry—the fear of being left utterly alone and forgotten to the ravages of time.

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The film’s story is anchored in the relationship between two unnamed characters, referred to only as “C” (Casey Affleck) and “M” (Rooney Mara) in the credits, who inhabit a run-down, mid-century ranch house somewhere in Texas. Lowery allows us to see a handful of moments of intimacy between them, the first of which occurs after they are awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of something falling onto the keys of the piano left behind by the previous tenants of the house. They explore, as my wife and I did, and they find nothing. They crawl back into bed, unsettled and seeking comfort in one another. The intimacy is genuine but tense, as if the two are unsure of one’s place with the other, even as they crave comfort and reassurance that all will be okay. The scene lasts far longer than it seemingly should, prompting the viewers in our theater to shift uncomfortably in their seats.

We learn that C is a musician and M has spent her entire life moving from place to place. M is tired of their old, rented rambler and its lingering piano. “What is it you like about this house so much?” she asks C. “History,” he says. M tells C that she likes to leave notes behind when she moves away from a place, “just things I wanted to remember so that if I ever wanted to go back, there’d be a piece of me there waiting.” The restlessness and unhappiness are palpable between them, even though they clearly love one another deeply. Unwilling to discuss their future, C immerses himself in the song he is composing (represented hauntingly, gorgeously, and oh so painfully in the film by “I Get Overwhelmed” by Dark Rooms), which is in fact the note he will leave behind for M.

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We see the crumpled, head-on wreck of C’s car, just yards from their driveway, then M identifying C’s body in the morgue. We see C’s body rise from the slab after M leaves, two eyeholes cut into the sheet covering him. The Great Beyond gives him a way out, but he stays, unready, afraid, just as uncertain as he had been in life. And so he walks home to wait for M. And wait. And wait. And wait, long after M leaves the house behind for a new life, her inevitable note tucked into a crack in the molding of a door frame, inaccessible to C’s ghost sheet fingers, C clawing at it helplessly, interminably, until there is no longer a door frame at which to claw.

This is the only set-up for the story that you need to determine if this film is for you. Much has been made, irrationally so, of another part early in the film, in which M returns home from the morgue and eats nearly an entire pie over the span of five minutes of wordless screen time, while C’s ghost stands nearby, helpless to comfort M. Composed of only two shots, the scene is emotionally crippling but also so uncomfortable that a viewer could be excused for screaming at the screen to make it stop. Yet this is exactly Lowery’s point. Lowery asks us to sit still for just five minutes with this gut-wrenching pain, grief, and loneliness. Imagine doing so for lifetimes on end.

“A writer writes a novel. A songwriter writes a song. We do what we can to endure,” an unnamed occupant of the ranch house (Will Oldham) says to his fellow party guests as C looks on silently, unnoticed. And then the party guests and Will Oldham’s prognosticator are gone, as fleeting as their time in the house had been. And so C must endure, through the complete transformation of the space in which he is trapped for what seems as though it might be eternity, pondering what his legacy is, vainly trying to grasp M’s legacy to their relationship that is trapped in the door frame, even long after that door frame has disappeared to history. “I’m waiting for someone,” a ghost in the neighboring house signals to C’s ghost at what he thinks in the moment is the nadir of his despair. “Who?” C signals back. “I don’t remember,” the neighbor ghost replies.

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The trailer for Lowery’s film is glorious and gorgeous and heartrending, so much so that I feared it would rob the film of its best moments and all of its impact. It does not. Filmed in a square format with rounded corners, A Ghost Story persistently evokes Instamatic memories of the 1970s and in this sense feels simultaneously nostalgic and intensely voyeuristic, which of course it is—the viewer watching C’s pain quietly and helplessly as C watches the lives of those who follow in occupying what remains his house. The crumpled, sagging outline of C’s ghost sheet may be the most forlorn character I’ve ever seen on screen. Framing is everything, and Lowery knows it, too. Rarely is C’s ghost not lurking in a corner of the shot, a silent and impotent witness to the vastness and power of microseconds and eons.

Lowery has acknowledged the influence of numerous artists and creators on this film, among them Virginia Woolf, from whose story “A Haunted House” Lowery pulls a quotation to open the film. Far more present, though, is the influence of Terrence Malick’s astonishing Tree of Life, prompting some simplistic reviewers to suggest that Lowery is merely parroting Malick. While there are similarities in the two men’s work (see Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), Lowery instead seems to be signaling to Malick that colossal themes require neither a heavy hand nor the gauzy appearance of an Estée Lauder commercial, which Malick’s most recent work (To the Wonder, Knight of Cups) has exhibited, much to my wife’s annoyance. Where Malick has tended toward the overwrought of late, Lowery achieves emotional devastation with measured nuance and a spartan palette.

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A few years ago, I found myself standing once again in a space where I had once been profoundly unhappy, overcome with grief, and certain that my world was coming to an end. “Hold strong,” I said through the ether to that earlier self across the expanse of time. “It turns out far better than you can imagine now.” Lowery’s A Ghost Story reassures us, too, that even in the most indelible, everlasting grief, time wraps upon itself and gives us a way out of that grief. I can think of few films that have simultaneously reaffirmed my worldview while also leaving me to reassess all of it, all that has occurred thus far and is still to come. As spare as it is, this is not an easy film, and true to its title, it is so enormous in its philosophical scope and spiritual significance as to haunt you until your end of days.

5 out of 5 Stars