The Witch (2015) (R)

It's really difficult to be original in horror anymore. Pretty much anything that can scare people has scared people. I mean, you can make the same critique of comedy; but no one really cares about recycled jokes or narratives. Horror is scrutinized a little more, mostly because we're looking for something grotesque that we haven't seen before. I'm not sure "The Witch" really delivers on all the hype surrounding its originality; and like many of its contemporaries, it doesn't really know how to end. But all that aside, it does feature some startling visual images and is fairly arresting throughout.
Billed as "A New-England Fairytale", "The Witch" isn't straight up horror. At least, it really shouldn't be considered that. It's more of a period piece and a reflection on the mindset of the first people to travel from England to America for religious reasons. This, mixed with a little fantasy.
Christianity is the backbone of the movie and those unfamiliar with some of the smaller nuances of the doctrine may not cringe as much when the film starts to twist and bend, manipulating characters into taboo situations. It does make you push back against its more visceral and cringe-worthy moments.
William (Ralph Ineson) is somewhat of an outcast. The movie starts with him setting himself apart from the rest of his cohorts as the holiest among them. He accuses them of hypocrisy and blasphemy and, as any good tribunal should, they kick him out of town. Now on their own in the New England terrain (which is both beautiful and eerie) William and his family must set up to survive the oncoming winter (insert "Game of Thrones" comment); but they find that the woods surrounding them may have more surprises than what they first imagined.
"The Witch" is a small movie, in a spatial sense. It takes place mostly on one farm and in one area of woods surrounding the house. The cast is very small and yet we never feel cheated by this. The narrative switches from one character to the next quickly, the scenes cut to black abruptly, and the the conventions of jump-scare horror movies are ignored for the most part. Though it has a screechy score that is more intense than most of the movie, you kind of have to admire what Robert Eggers is accomplishing. With minimal sets, minimal acting, and minimal effects, he's able to crawl under your skin better than some of the "great" horror movies of the last century. This isn't to say the movie is perfect, because it has flaws.
Eggers writes a script that tries to recapture the language in use at the time. In most places it works, to the credit of his cast, but sometimes it just feels clunky and unnecessary. This could just be my opinion, but it feels unnatural coming out of the younger actors' mouths. As William and his wife Kate (Kate Dickie) find ways to manage their children, disaster strikes almost immediately. The film doesn't take any time before charging right into the thick of it. We are treated to brutal imagery right from the beginning which I suppose is a way to weed out the weak-stomached from the 'brave'.
Thomasin, William and Kate's daughter, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, is as much the protagonist as the film can have. She embodies much of the tropes expected of leading ladies in horror movies. The added historical context sort of amplifies the actions and results.
The movie owes the biggest debt to Lars von Trier and specifically "Antichrist". While it attempts to recreate that unsettling and completely unmatched last third, it fails to do so. It isn't surreal enough to be supernatural and is too realist for us to accept some of the conclusions in the film.
While it does creep up and blindside the audience at certain moments, nothing is terribly surprising or shocking in the film. Maybe that's due to the limitations on what can be introduced into the situation without compromising the historical integrity.
At the end, "The Witch" is a gorgeous movie. Its cinematography is wonderful, the score (although too screechy) is effective, and it's genuinely horrifying at moments. I think it's stretching for something further, maybe a commentary on women and religion in this time period; but ultimately adhering to long worn out tropes of horror don't really help its cause.

Score: ★★★

Five Dances (2013) (Not Rated)

I was reading a book on the history of queerness in American recently (because what else would I do in my spare time?) and an interesting critique came up: where are the happy gays? For so long in cinema, the homosexual character served as either the butt of the joke or the recipient of violence for "morality's sake". Then, when gay movies started to be made by more mainstream production companies, we saw something interesting happen: we don't really believe a happy ending. We got past the problem of representation (well, not really, but kind of) and suddenly unhappy endings were being made. These movies are great, look at "Brokeback Mountain" or "Weekend" for examples, but yet they leave something to be desired.
"Five Dances" isn't a masterpiece; but it does rely on a certain unspoken simplicity that very few film makers have the maturity to do. Instead of simply being a movie about two gay dancers, this is a movie about dance. We see five central dances bookmark different moments throughout the film. The drama in between those moments is often what makes the movie more compelling. Alan Brown is keen to show not only the art but the eroticism of dance. Most of how he accomplishes this is with lighting.
The plot is almost offensively simple. Young, 18 year old Chip (Ryan Steele) has moved to New York to be in a very small dance company which is working on a show that will take place in the near future. He is from Kansas and his mother, a horrible bullying voice we only hear over the phone, hates that he isn't with her. She calls him almost nightly and wants to know what he's doing and when he's coming home. This is your typical unsupportive and most likely homophobic parent.
Much of the film isn't cheesy enough to see Chip wrestling with his sexuality, but we get the sense that he does have inner turmoil about this. Being placed in close proximity to another well-muscled, dancer doesn't help the situation either. Theo (Reed Luplau) isn't very prominent in the movie. He's almost a background character for much of it, but he doesn't need to be in the foreground. Brown allows the camera to catch sideways glances and turned heads every so often to keep reminding us that Theo is very much a noticed character.
Chip begins to struggle financially as his housing situation falls through and his co-dancer, Katie (Catherine Miller) lets him crash at her place. Chip is a very awkward person and the film doesn't give him too many moments to expound on this awkwardness, a fact that I'm very thankful for. "Five Dances" doesn't try too hard to be too hipstery or too erotic. It's really neither of those things, but it is essentially romantic.
It's not a long movie, but it doesn't have to be. From its opening shot to the end credits, it feels suspended for a moment. Though it does at times feel too good to be true and maybe too optimistic, I find myself being okay with that. This is an indie movie true and true but it finds a way to answer the issue of happy endings. Yes, we deserve one and yes, we get one. Is it honest? Maybe not. But should that keep us from trying? Certainly not.
"Five Dancers" is beautiful, flawed, poetic, romantic, and joyous.

Score: ★★★½

Beginners (2010) (R)

Oliver is struggling with the history of sadness, not just in his personal life. Though the shit keeps hitting the fan, he keeps plodding, informing the viewer that because this is 2003, he has the ability to be sad. His parents did not have this luxury. They met when racism was rampant, they had to fight in the war, unrest was ingrained in the society, and homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. For much of "Beginners" we notice how Oliver has to navigate his own personal history of tragedy while feeling insignificant in the vaster history of the universe itself.
Mike Mills's "Beginners" is not a work of great quality, but its intimate nature certainly resonated with me. It's the kind of hipster garbage that is pumped out by independent studios again and again where we can watch high class middle ages white people feel things. Yes, this premise has been done so many times that it hardly feels original anymore, but at least in "Beginners" we have likable characters and a fairly interesting plot.
While some may try to claim this movie as a queer film, it's not. Instead, it belongs in a reactionary movement of "normalizing" gayness and queerness in movies. While I'm sure there has got to be a great essay floating around the internet on why we as Americans have to normalize something by making it white and rich, I'm not up for that task. I will ignore the film's potential politics, because it's easier that way.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is struggling with the passing of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). Five years ago, Oliver's mother passed away and two (almost three) months before the movie opens Hal follows his wife. Right after his wife's passing, Hal sat his son down and made a confession about his sexuality. The news that his father was gay rocked Oliver, but not in a very stereotypical and dramatic fashion. Instead, we see him walking around and trying to rationalize it in very small ways. It feels more honest this way.
But the film doesn't really care about Hal. Oliver is the protagonist of the film, Oliver is the one that we follow down corridors and through hotel rooms, and Oliver's emotional trajectory in the film is the one that we should have feelings about.
As Oliver tries to find love in 2003 we see him reliving his last moments with his dying father. These memories spill over into everyday life. Oliver meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent) and begins to fall in love. It's very quirky and kind of cheesy to watch these two interact, but rewarding nonetheless. Platonic, almost carelessly awkward, and never that sensual—this is the ideal that we are told we must achieve in films. I guess it's noticeable because it never feels false. Maybe that's what's rewarding about the movie, that it makes it look easy.
Oliver narrates the movie in a very stylized way, with voice over that accompanies still shots. It plays like a word-association game and its very charming in an innocent sort of way.
For being so "politically forward" the film rarely feels adventurous or brave. There's nothing exciting or new; yet the notes that it hits are strong and they are powerful. The love that went into the filming is evident; yet something more is needed to make this a great movie.
But at the end of the almost plotless movie, we have to ask ourselves if being happy is better than being complex. Maybe it is, and so for that, I like "Beginners". I am also of the opinion that simplicity is monotonous, therefore I probably won't watch this movie again.

Score: ★★½

Paris Is Burning (1990) (R)

One of the most curiously influential documentaries you might not have heard about, "Paris Is Burning" has survived in the canon of film and the scholarly discourse on gender itself due, mostly, to its genuine feel and honesty. It doesn't feel manufactured and doesn't attempt to place words in its subjects fact, the amount of time that an commentary whatsoever overshadows the interviewees and the footage is very minimal. The result is unbiased in a corporatism sense. Of course, as most movies, Jennie Livingston attempts to illicit sympathy from the viewer; but the sense of historical importance also seems impossible to ignore.
In the mid 1980s, ball culture in New York was in full swing. Off the streets, in underground communities, performances would bend concepts of gender performance in balls where they walked on cat walks, danced, and were judged by their peers. What soon ensued was ball culture's overwhelming popularity. One of the first interviewees notes the spaces of public and private and the safety that ball culture provided. For young gay men at least, the balls gave them a place where there was no judgement.
What crosses over is homosexual culture and transgender representation, which blurs and stutters through the film (though, not surprisingly, since this was a time that no linguistics really existed to talk about such issues) and some views that might be callous today are said in genuine concern, whether out of sympathy or ignorance.
Beginning in 1987, the film tracks the culture itself, and its odd inclusiveness. Everyone is welcome to walk in the balls, and suddenly the need for more and more genres of competition are created. One short series of vignettes show multiple performers participate in extremely niche sects of the competition while one of the interviewees explains why it is important.
Race is crucial to understanding the culture of "Paris Is Burning" which all posits the idea that these balls are held so that black queer people of this time period could feel as rich as the white people. Wealth was associated with whiteness and thus, to craft their own existence (or maybe even a copy/parody of the 'original' [damn you, Judith Butler]) they participated in these balls.
Jennie Livingston accomplishes something remarkable in a time period when there was little to no queer visibility in the media. Which is another reason "Paris Is Burning" remains so influential—because it lets its subjects tell their own stories...a rarity even in today's media.
The concerns of the movie are still some of the same concerns shared in today's society: from performance of gender to the concept of 'passing'.
As the movie continues to reveal a sect of society that most people are going to be unfamiliar with, it transitions out of the underground and into the everyday life of these performers. It sees them as humans with hopes and dreams, desires for fame and fortune and we know that, just because of how society is, not all of them will survive to see their dreams actualize.
Instead of just accepting this as a possibility or even an inevitability of life, like one of the 'house mothers' interviewed, the film makes one wish there could be a shift in consideration so that these people could accomplish some facet of their dream instead of being marginalized for being both black and queer.
Here, at the point where the intersections weave together, the film departs and the viewer is left considering life in the past, life in the underground, and life in their privilege watching a documentary that people died making.
This is why it has remained so prominent.

Score: ★★★★