Monthly Archives: August 2016

‘Krisha’: an astonishing meta-memoir

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I’m thrilled to have finally caught up with ‘Krisha.’ This debut feature from Trey Edward Shults needs to be heralded as a new classic of American cinema. Its themes and storytelling devices are bold, daring and original. The lead actress, Krisha Fairchild, is superb. It is a work of genius that will leave your head spinning and your eyes teary.

‘Krisha’ could have only been made by someone as personally invested in the material as Shults was – along with his entire family. The titular character is played by his aunt, and is written as an amalgam of his relationship with his father and the whole family’s experience with his cousin, an addict who passed away shortly after a rough visit.

Raw and uniquely observant, Krisha’s Thanksgiving visit is masterfully communicated through delicate insert shots of various family members in candid moments (we’re meant to be wondering whether or not Krisha is spying on them) and propulsive, merry-go-round style montages of Krisha’s inherent tensions with domestic life. She seems to be doing as well as could be expected until she talks to her son, Trey (the director playing a younger version of himself), and realizes that no matter how hard she tries, she may never, in her words, “make up for lost time.” This sends her into a downward spiral involving her addictions that becomes more and more unsettling to watch.

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If you’ve ever had a black sheep in your family, the fictionalized trials of the Shults family will feel all too real. During the film’s festival run, audience members were seen running out in tears at certain traumatic parts. At one question-and-answer session, a man wept at the feet of the cast, most of whom are just members of Trey Shults’ extended family.

I consider myself lucky that I have never had to witness a family tragedy like the one depicted here. But even though I could not relate to the film on that deep of a personal level, I found the artful exploration of domestic life to be extremely relatable. And during the most tense scenes, the performance of Krisha Fairchild buoys the movie and elevates it to something more extraordinary than painful. She manages to be totally charming even as we know the depths of the darkness bubbling underneath.

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To match Krisha, Shults cast her actual sister, Robyn Fairchild, as the younger sister desperately trying to help her wayward older sister. They have a heart-to-heart near the end that is as devastating and as memorable as any of the greatest film scenes of the past decade. By the very end, that whole scene is bravely called into question, admirably continuing Shults’ challenging trajectory.

This is not a crowd-pleaser. This isn’t something that everyone is ready to see. But if you can handle its darkness and can comfortably – or perhaps uncomfortably – go to the places this movie asks you to go, it is a rewarding experience worthy of your time. And it follows in one of my favorite cinematic traditions: clocking in at one hour, twenty-two minutes, it leaves you wanting more.

-George Napper

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‘Krisha’ is rated R for language, substance abuse, and some sexual content.



Two Thumbs Up for ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’

“If you must blink, do it now,” proclaims our eponymous hero at the start of ‘Kubo and the Two Strings.’ His exhortation is right on the money, because this is the latest work of art from Laika, the stop-motion animation studio behind the indelible ‘Coraline’ and the visually stunning ‘ParaNorman’ and ‘The Boxtrolls.’

‘Kubo’ is Laika’s new masterpiece. Each frame is filled with such beauty and technical brilliance that the movie stops you dead in your tracks and leaves your jaw on the floor. Not only do the hand-crafted landscapes and groundbreaking effects stun you from the start, but the incredible detail in the character animation keeps the story grounded in an emotional strength that runs concurrent to the visuals.

Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson) and his mother live in a cave high on a mountain above a small village in ancient Japan. He visits the village often to tell stories using a magical shamisen and enchanted origami. The stories are adapted from tales told to him by his mother about their magical extended family. The endings of the stories are always a bit fuzzy: mom is a bit distant; withdrawn because of a traumatic event in her past. Kubo is dying to know how her story ended, but as he is swept into a fantastical quest he never could have seen coming, he realizes that he is the inciting incident to end the entire tale.

Family is clearly the larger theme explored in Kubo’s adventure. But the first act feels as obtuse as it is charming because, like most great stories, nothing is spelled out for you at the beginning. We’re putting things together about the back story of the magic just as our hero is, and that proves to be a very effective storytelling device.

Because we can’t worry about the plot during the first act for lack of information, we’re almost immediately endeared to the personalities of the three main characters because they’re all we have to hold on to. Usually this would be a negative thing, but in this case it works very naturally in order for all of the thematic material to converge in the finale. We care about the characters so much by that point that there is no point complaining that the plot is a bit convoluted and slightly more conventional than one would think given the first act. The film also makes up for this by having a truly surprising denouement to its last action sequence.

Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey voice a monkey and a man-beetle, respectively. They are mythic protectors for Kubo once a calamity spurs him on his quest. Theron’s is definitely a type-A character, dutiful and almost militaristic. McConaughey’s is a type-B whose jokes and asides are initially a thorn in the monkey’s side, but the the two begin to grow on each other, and with Kubo’s innocence and admirable bravery, the three of them are a wildly entertaining trio to watch.

Also wildly entertaining are the action sequences, which rival ‘The Incredibles’ and ‘Samurai Jack’ in terms of eye-popping and heart-pounding animated action. You forget you’re watching animation during these times because it seems as though a kung fu master advised and co-directed these fights. They are just staggeringly impressive.

Director Travis Knight has been a lead animator in CG and stop-motion departments at Laika for a number of years. With ‘Kubo and the Two Strings,’ his leadership and artistic vision come to the fore in a big, big way. In a year with vastly different marquee animated films in terms of tone (‘Zootopia,’ ‘Sausage Party,’ ‘Finding Dory’), ‘Kubo’ falls nicely into the category of unexpected artwork. It will sneak up and floor you – just don’t blink.

-George Napper

‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ is rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril

Why James Schamus’ ‘Indignation’ is a surprisingly relevant masterpiece

Quite a few recent high-profile films have gone out of their way to hit us over the head with a timely message. For as much as I love ‘Zootopia,’ ‘Captain America: Civil War,’ and ‘Sausage Party,’ when it comes to their taking sides in political and cultural issues, I do admit they could be a little more subtle.

‘Indignation’ takes political subtlety to a whole new level. This is mostly out of necessity, since the Philip Roth novel the film is based on isn’t incredibly focused on activism. Instead it dutifully follows Roth avatar Marcus Messner (portrayed on screen by Logan Lerman) as he navigates his freshman year at Ohio’s Winesburg University (a nod to Sherwood Anderson) in 1955.

Marcus is a fairly sheltered kid; a no-nonsense, straight-A student and an only child. He works part-time at his father’s kosher butcher shop. His Jewish heritage is a point of pride for his parents (Linda Emond and Danny Burstein), but not so much for Marcus. He’s a severe introvert; tightly wound and feeling more and more confined in the freedom adolescence brings. He also demands his personal space and that his parents not worry about him. So it follows that when he leaves Newark to attend Winesburg, he eventually finds himself in trouble.

Marcus immediately takes a disliking to most of the social life of the school. His one savior is the gorgeous Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), who gets very intimate very quickly in a way the inexperienced Marcus is not prepared for. This leads him to cut her off, but the more she continues to pop up in his life, the more interesting their connection becomes.

A dispute with his roommates leads him to find another room where he can be alone and not hassled by the school’s small Jewish contingent. As an audience, we wonder why Marcus is so high-strung about everything. Then in a long, remarkable confrontation about this with the school’s Dean (Tracy Letts), we start to understand.

The irony of the story is that in the most intellectually charged moment, that is when we see the quiet, sullen Marcus go from introvert to total extrovert. When his secret atheism is challenged by the Dean, that’s when Marcus seems most comfortable going on the defensive. And although he aggravates a bad medical condition in the process of arguing with the Dean, his bravery in this moment could serve as a lesson for a lot of us shy introverts in this awful political climate.

See, Marcus is a textbook overthinker. He’s also starting to mold himself into an empath by being around Olivia and hearing about some of her hardships in life. Logan Lerman delivers a magnificent performance that allows into all of this, but not in a showy way. First-time Director James Schamus, a longtime screenwriter and producer, allows not one scene without Marcus in it, thereby forcing the audience to confront his mental process.

By only providing us with only Marcus’ side of this story, we can’t write off his personal problems as unimportant, even while the Korean War and the aftermath of World War II loom heavily in the subtext of almost every conversation. And because Lerman is so good at being charming while still not all smiles, he’s magnetic, and it’s fascinating to watch him finally come into his own as an actor.

Sarah Gadon is mysteriously beautiful as Olivia. Even while not on screen, her presence is deeply felt from the electric chemistry she and Lerman have when they’re together.

Lastly, Linda Emond gives what can only be described as a powerhouse performance as Marcus’ mother. She provides us with a deeper sense of the lovable, smart, and kind – if somewhat sensitive – kid inside of him. And she does it by virtue of an incredibly understated monologue that has almost nothing to do with Marcus’ problems.

By exploring all of this by way of one iconoclastic character, Schamus provides us with a new lens through which to see our hopelessly depressing 24-hour news cycle. The issues and tensions we face today aren’t so new, and if Marcus Messner teaches us anything, it’s that worry warts who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

In other words, a mind is a terrible thing to waste on being afraid of life.

-George Napper