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“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

Capitalist Impulse: A (brief) Review of THE BELKO EXPERIMENT

In Film, Reviews on March 18, 2017 at 11:02 am

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by Matt Boyd Smith

The Belko Experiment opens just as the employees of Belko Industries are coming in to work. Their massive office building is a gleaming glass and steel structure that is conspicuously out of place in the middle of nowhere outside the city of Bogotá, Colombia. When they arrive at the office, protagonist Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr.) notices something is off: there is an extra level of security screening outside, and cars are backed up for some time as they are searched by men in military-style uniforms. The process is a lot more like attempting to gain access to a military base than simply getting into work for the day. And when Mike asks desk guard Evan (James Earl) what’s going on, all Evan knows is that there’s some sort of security risk they’re looking into, which means they’ve also sent all non-American employees home for the day. That leaves 80 people in the office, and their day gets very bad very soon.

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“The green growth is gone from the hills, Maggie:” a review

In Film, Reviews on May 11, 2015 at 12:20 am

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by Matt Boyd Smith

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s post-Governator career has been comprised of films that are at least interesting and worth your time even if they haven’t been particularly great. The Last Stand, the benign action-thriller from Korean director Jee-woon Kim (I Saw the Devil), gets by on its imported Asian action stylistics and pure adrenaline, the long-awaited team-up with Stallone, The Escape Plan (Mikael Håfstrom) is fun but forgettable, and last year’s Sabotage is an otherwise standard dirty cop yarn with some inventive twists and high-energy direction from David Ayer. But now with Maggie, a slow-moving and surprisingly emotional zombie tale from first-time director Henry Hobson, we have a film where the action superstar has ventured into uncharted waters and maybe discovered some long-dormant acting chops that got buried deep in Schwarzenegger’s pectorals somewhere around the time he was cast in the first Terminator and began playing emotionless killing machines in nearly every film from then on. Buoyed by some rather poignant moments with co-star Abigail Breslin as his viral daughter and the heretofore-unseen tears of Schwarzenegger himself, Maggie still isn’t the great film he’s bound to make in this period of his career, but it reaches far beyond its generic roots and mostly succeeds.
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Biting My Lip: a review of Fifty Shades of Grey

In Film, Reviews on February 13, 2015 at 7:04 pm

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by Matt Boyd Smith

The first thing you should know about me and Fifty Shades of Grey is that I haven’t read the books. I don’t care if you have or haven’t. I don’t even care if you like them. This is not a review of the books or even a judgement about how absurd they may or may not be. I’m much more interested in the film version anyhow, because it will no doubt be a major event film for 2015, with box office tracking as of today (the film’s first day in theaters) pointing toward a probably $85 million haul over the weekend. But beyond the numbers, I’m interested in whether or not it’s any good (it’s okay) and whether or not it fulfills on any of the promises non-readers of the books would expect given the media attention (it doesn’t).

By now the story is well-recounted in the media. Mousy college graduate Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) meets incredibly wealthy Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) whilst interviewing him for her roommate’s article in the college newspaper, a college of which he is an alumnus. During the interview and over the course of the next week, Ana and Christian become enamored with one another. Eventually, Christian proposes a relationship, bound by a contract, which makes Ana his submissive, he the dominant. Then things get kinky. Or so we’ve been led to believe.
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C. Tate’s Amazing Space Skates: a review of Jupiter Ascending

In Film, Reviews on February 7, 2015 at 9:47 am

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by Matt Boyd Smith

When a movie opens with a line like “Technically I’m an alien” delivered in voice-over you should probably expect that what you’re about to see is either going to be a lot of fun or monstrously tedious. Know going into Jupiter Ascending that it’s mostly the latter. This movie’s a mess, has a godawful performance from the amazingly pale walking old-man-corpse Eddie Redmayne, and somehow manages to derail the Channing Tatum love train we’ve all been on the past couple of years. It’s that bad, really and truly. Even the special effects—SFX we’ve been told the movie had to be delayed (twice) so as they could be adequately completed—look like utter garbage. There’s not a lot here to like, though there is one really brilliant moment about a third of the way into it. More on that later. First let’s focus on where this thing goes wrong.

Really, the story is this movie’s biggest problem. There’s too much of it, and most of it is a poor knock-off of obvious source material like Star Wars as well as more cult texts like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Starchaser: The Legend of Orin. The Wachowski Starship are obviously attempting to build a sci-fi epic in the vein of those films (along with the many callbacks to the sword-and-sorcery genre albeit via genetics), but the attempt doesn’t quite come together as a cohesive whole. A lot happens very quickly, and there are some really nice attempts to build a universe without being too obvious about all of its intricacies, but whereas the Star Wars films built its mythology around three films developed and made over six years (and with the benefit of hindsight and fandom completing that world building process), Jupiter Ascending attempts to do it all in a single film, and to cram it all into just over two hours. Granted this is a blessing when compared to recent bloated blockbusters which push the three hour mark, there are still far too many plot threads which develop too quickly and don’t seem at all logical.
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A Most Illogical Thriller: a review of Preservation

In Film, Reviews on February 6, 2015 at 8:50 am

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by Matt Boyd Smith

Take hints of The Most Dangerous Game, Deliverance and A Perfect Getaway, remove all of the plausible characterization and logic of their actions and what do you have? Probably something close to Preservation, a competently made and acted thriller with some really poor scripting. It’s a shame really; I was hoping for a great thriller and what I got was a poorly-paced mess that wears all of its ideas right on the surface.
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Into the Deep: a review of Black Sea

In Film, Reviews on February 2, 2015 at 5:20 pm

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by Matt Boyd Smith

I’m a fan of sea-faring adventure in general. I like a salty U-boat tale, I think Master and Commander deserves to have a much higher cultural standing than it does, and Moby Dick is one of the Great American Novels which is actually deserving of the title. My favorite American author is Hemingway, and I am constantly fascinated by treasure hunting at sea. One of the best comic books out right now is The Mercenary Sea by , an epic tale of submarine adventure set amidst the backdrop of the Pacific leading up to WWII Kel Symons and Mathew Reynolds, that follows a crew as they search for a lost island filled with gold. In short, I’m telling you that series is a must-read. All of this is just to set you up for this revelation: I pretty much loved everything about Black Sea in spite of some glaring problems.

Unceremoniously dropped in the middle of January – the doldrums of the theatrical release schedule even in these days of increasingly risky moves away from the three summer months for blockbusters and tentpole pictures – Black Sea is actually worth a look. It’s not perfect, but it is exciting, intense, and is buoyed by a top-notch performance from Jude Law, who has finally entered the phase of his career where he’s returned to acting instead of ill-fated attempts at mainstream stardom.
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Group Sex: a review of The Loft

In Film, Reviews on February 1, 2015 at 7:54 pm

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by Matt Boyd Smith

The Loft is ostensibly a thriller for adults, though I think it’s probably more accurate to say it’s a an adult thriller for teenagers. Nothing wrong with that approach – teenage males need to become acquainted with movie plots outside of transforming robots from outer space and the endless parade of superhero flicks at some point, after all – but the filmmakers may want to at least acknowledge this with a glimpse of actual T&A every once in awhile. Sadly and disappointingly, The Loft not only fails at being a film adults will want to see, but also at being the kind of erotic thriller a high schooler would even be interested in.

Early one morning, Vincent Stevens (Karl Urban) finds a dead woman in the bed of the secret high-end fuck-pad he shares with his four friends Chris (James Marsden), Luke (Wentworth Miller), Marty (Eric Stonestreet), and Philip (Matthias Schoenaerts). He calls them all in to find out what happened, and it quickly becomes apparent that one of them is responsible. Moving back and forth between their showdown in the loft and the events of the previous year while they were all carousing with mistresses and falling in love with call girls (yes, that happens, for real), the film slowly reveals the mystery of the woman and her killer. Honestly, writing about the general plot makes the film sound much more interesting than it actually is.
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In the Wake of FURY: War Cinema and Audience–A SplitScreen Discussion

In Film, Film Theory, Reviews on December 21, 2014 at 7:03 pm

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By Matt Smith and Eric Plaag

Earlier this fall, we saw the release of David’s Ayer’s harrowing World War II tank epic, Fury. The film rattled both Eric and Matt, and it seems destined to appear on both of their soon-to-be-released Top Ten Lists for 2014. In this TheSplitScreen discussion, Matt and Eric wrestle with what makes a good and meaningful war movie, why audiences sometimes fail to connect with the embedded meanings of those films, and how cultural perspectives on war are often at odds with the war films that are contemporary to those perspectives.

Matt: Fury is a World War II movie unlike any other I can remember. By its very nature as a war film it shares many hallmarks of the best films in the genre, but it uses them to fairly stunning affect. The film has done moderate though disappointing business at the box office, and this is no doubt partially due to the difficulty of watching it, particularly the way it treats what is commonly thought of by Americans as a “moral” war and the last “good war.” In Fury there is nary a hint of nostalgia, and the sense that World War II was any more noble an endeavor than Vietnam or either of the Gulf Wars is thrown damn near out the window. Sure, the characters, particularly Brad Pitt’s Don Collier, know who the SS is and what they’ve been up to, but more time is spent with the weight of the war in all its horrific glory and its effects on the men who fought it than on any moral grandstanding outside of the savagery enacted by Collier on members of the SS. As an article over on the fantastic blog War is Boring put it, the movie is a great war film as well as an extremely dark and heavy psychological horror.

It is this horror that most interests me (surprise, surprise).

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As Above, So Below: Found-Footage Alchemy

In Film, Reviews on September 15, 2014 at 11:49 am

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by Matt Smith

Aside from the standard digital handheld the party is also outfitted with four cameras embedded in their headlamps. The cameraman informs them of the cameras’ existence when he turns on the lights which will be so vital to their survival as they navigate uncharted areas of the catacombs deep under the streets of Paris. As they go deeper into the tunnels, the cameras and lights become an extension of our reality—as viewers, we are permitted to see through mediation, we are arranged within the aesthetics of the film as observers who can verify the truth of the image. This is the central conceit of all found footage horror. We must bear witness to the liminal spaces encountered by our protagonists. The movie I’m describing is the new horror film As Above, So Below, an exercise in equal parts creepiness and endurance that works most of the time, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats. The mythology built up within the story is simple: Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), a young scholar and historian, is searching for the Philosopher’s Stone, a pursuit which years earlier had caused her father to go mad and take his own life. Scarlett, along with her ex-lover George (Ben Feldman), the aforementioned cameraman Benji (Edwin Hodge), and three Parisians who will guide her through the catacombs, enter the tunnels under Paris in order to find the hidden chamber containing the stone which is also rumored to be the gateway to Hell.

The first two-thirds of he film are quite strong, though the final act is a bit of a letdown as it falls victim to many familiar problems with the found-footage format, namely the propensity of characters to run wildly to/from different locations while being pursued by monsters which tend to pop up out of nowhere. Since the film spends quite a long time indulging in very clear mythological construction based on occult alchemist beliefs and building an atmosphere of dread anticipation and madness, the later sequences in which Scarlett runs through the mystical realm of Hell while encountering numerous jump-scares just don’t work. The mood set by the quiet build-up to the group’s entrance into the netherworld is abandoned outright, and the descent into shaky-cam and near-constant screaming and shapes jumping out of the darkness is tired and brings the whole thing to a grinding halt. This stoppage is only slightly improved upon in the film’s final shots, which bring back the head-tripping moments of the middle third, when our protagonists first cross the threshold into the mystic realm as described by old alchemist prophecies.

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