Indie artsy films where unlikable people never shut the fuck up is commonplace in a movie community teeming with film students armed with HD cameras and MacBook Pros. It takes a magic ingredient to be the standout, watchable experience.
Alex Ross Perry’s THE COLOR WHEEL should blog the recipe.
The film centers around JR, an actress with hopes of being a weather girl for a major market, and her brother Colin who has been solicited to take a short road trip from New York to Vermont to help her move out of the house of the professor-boyfriend that just dumped her.
JR is annoying. Nobody in the family can stand her. Colin is weird and can’t shut up. And in the end, they’re the only people that can tolerate each other in a world full of losers.
THE COLOR WHEEL marks the second time Perry teamed with cinematographer Sean Price Williams to unearth a 16mm film camera for his 2011 sophomore effort. But it isn’t just the grainy, soft, fuzzy (and totally not 1080p) look that sets it apart from other mumblers.
Nor is it simply the appreciated descent from art film sternness to goofball humor, which is sometimes delivered in a dumpy dad way. Although when the jokes stick, it’s hilarious. For instance, the scene where a millennial party goer, confined to a wheelchair due to polio, gives applause by pedaling back and forth on the carpet.
From the second we meet the brother and sister, we cannot stop watching them despite our dislike for them.
Why are we pulled? Not sure. Perry can’t put his finger on it, either: “I’ve still not been able to articulate what it is that I find attractive about someone who is ostensibly unlikeable. It’s just the part of their lives that I want to find them in is the point at which they are really at an ebb.”
“It’s not that they’re bad people,” Perry continues. “When someone’s really hurting, and they’re really doing everything they can to really just push away everyone who’s trying to help them. That’s just a phase.”
The film doubles down on the awkward when we see JR and Colin having to interact with others instead of just each other, ultimately building to the most satisfying ending I’ve seen in recent viewing.
THE COLOR WHEEL may be a movie for hardcore cinephiles; after all, most people don’t even like black and white movies let alone outdated 16mm. And maybe with unlimited streaming options, a movie watcher shouldn’t have to bear takes of young actors fumbling over their lines. Perry’s flaw is that he makes art house movies in a time where art houses don’t exist—where the living room is the theater of choice.
But cinephiles will be understanding of the long error filled takes, the moments of precious time printed to actual film. Knowledgeable viewers will note that the actor playing Colin memorizes his pages of closing dialogue better than the actress he’s opposite of because Colin is played by Perry, the writer and director.
I’m personally thankful for discovering Perry’s movies, having heard him on an episode of The Bret Easton Ellis podcast, where Ellis praises Perry for going against relatability in a time where audiences demand likability from characters.
These days, watching movies can be kind of a lonely and quiet experience. We writhe with Perry’s characters, and in the final moments, our hearts race with anticipation and thump with payoff as we, like the downward transcending siblings rim lit by headlights, grasp to whatever we have left in this existence.
And then, “Is That Loving In Your Heart” by the Lovelites plays as the credits roll at the end of a dark, yet brief moment in time.
“The Babadook” was one of the most talked about horror movies of 2014. The film has a Metascore of 86 and a Rotten Tomatoes fresh rating of 98%. But for me, like a sprinter prematurely celebrating meters before the finish line as he is overtaken by another runner, it fell short of excellence at the end.
Although I feel “The Babadook” was a strong film—not just a fine horror film, but quite a dramatic achievement—I found myself underwhelmed as the credits rolled. Screenrant said, “While ‘The Babadook’ is a well-crafted, insightful, and overall excellent film, it’s not going to be for everyone.” I think this movie would be “for everyone” if it not for the lame reveal and conclusion.
“The Babadook” is the directorial debut of Australian actress-turned-filmmaker Jennifer Kent. The story follows Amelia Vannick (Essie Davis), a grieving mother to a problem child Samuel (Noah Wiseman) as she copes with the loss of her husband, who died in a car accident driving her to the hospital to deliver their son. Their troubles multiply when they find a strange children’s book about a man named Mister Babadook. For the Vannick family, Mister Babadook is more than just a children’s story.
But what the movie is really about, and where it excels in its storytelling, is grief. It is well crafted with multiple layers of meaning. Mister Babadook merely is a physical stand-in for the pain of loss and the coping with grief. And as Sam reiterates, “You can’t get rid of the Babadook.” Indeed, you cannot get rid of loss; cannot permanently do away with grief.
The film’s lead role and one of its biggest achievements is Essie Davis. Davis is transformative as Amelia Vannick. It’s a phenomenal performance by a gifted actor in the hands of an actor’s director (Kent was an actress for two decades, even graduating alongside Davis). She weaves in and out of drastic emotions: exhaustion, hopelessness, groveling, embarrassment, eventually psychosis, and then rage like I haven’t seen in recent cinema. I say this without any sexism: Davis’ outbursts are stronger than any male counterpart’s.
Kent cites “The Shining” as inspiration. This is most prevalent in Davis’ Jack Torrance-like transformation from a flawed but always trying to be a good parent to an extremely aggressive threat to her own child.
Screenrant said, “Where other horror films cast mother figures as strident protectors, Amelia is far less heroic (at times) and, for that reason, significantly more relatable—placing the audience inside a haunted home where the horror isn’t always black and white.”
Kent is an admirable storyteller with a unique understanding of the craft, as both actress and filmmaker. Upon graduating from the National Institute of Dramatic Art in 1991, she worked primarily as an actor for two decades. But towards the end of the 90s, she was losing her passion for acting and reached out to Danish director Lars von Trier, who then gave her a job assisting on the set of “Dogville” (2003). Wikipedia states, “she considers the experience her film school, citing the importance of stubbornness as the key lesson she learned.”
Kent weaves an impressively complex, honest story. At no moment did anything ring untrue to me—and we’re talking about a supernatural monster movie. But then again, we’re not. Because the monsters and the horror elements of “The Babadook” are not other worldly, they’re deeply rooted in the human condition. The monster is grief, the pain is loss, and the decisions are driven by a need to cope with loss and grief.
Kent said that she sought to tell a story about facing up to the darkness within ourselves, the “fear of going mad” and an exploration of parenting from a “real perspective”. In regard to parenting, Kent further explained, “Now, I’m not saying we all want to go and kill our kids, but a lot of women struggle. And it is a very taboo subject, to say that motherhood is anything but a perfect experience for women.”
I’m not a woman, I’m not a mother, and I’ve never wanted to kill my son. But I get, without any sense of morbid irony, why Amelia could contemplate stabbing her son to death. He is difficult, he is problematic, and he does not make her life any easier. The love of her life, the father of her child, is killed driving her to the hospital to deliver the boy. That scenario alone brings up a very tough question with a simple answer. Can a mother feel resentment towards her child because her husband is killed in the process of bringing the boy into the world? Simply, yes. She can. That is a perfectly acceptable emotion to feel in that situation. Kent’s dedication to honest portrayals of taboo subjects is inspiring.
Kent’s storytelling honesty is rightfully heralded. Tim Teeman at The Daily Beast states that the film informs the audience that grief has its place and the best that humans can do is “marshal it”. Egyptian national film critic Wael Khairy concluded that the film is “based on something very real” and “feels unusually beautiful and even therapeutic.”
“The Babadook” is shot by Radek Ladczuk with an Arri Alexa and Zeiss Master Prime lenses in 2.35 : 1 aspect ratio. According to Wikipedia, “The film’s final color scheme was achieved without the use of gels on the camera lenses or any alterations during the post-filming stage.”
In a monster movie, genre fans want to see an interesting visual creature. Kent insisted on a low-fi and handmade approach to Mister Babadook. They favored practical elements, using stop-motion effects for the monster with a large amount of smoothening completed in post-production.
Kent explained to the Empire publication: “There’s been some criticism of the lo-fi approach of the effects, and that makes me laugh because it was always intentional. I wanted the film to be all in camera.”
Kent’s minimalistic portrayal of the Babadook monster might be a wet dream for certain horror fans, but in my personal opinion, I hated it. I wanted more. I’m not someone who needs over stimulation or constant full frontal monster imagery. “Jaws” and “Alien” are more frightening for their forced restraint. But Kent does such an expert job of building suspense, what with the beautiful art in the children’s book, the half-second inserts of the monster in the background, that it demanded some sort of substantial reveal. There is a reveal, I just didn’t like it. When we were meant to climax, we were forcefully restrained. Who likes that?
Kent’s impressive eye for visual storytelling is displayed by Amelia’s moments of slumber. A very early Hitchcock image where she floats down onto the bed is at once dreamy and nightmarish. Later, sleep is no longer a fantastical elaborate camera move but a static image. Through Amelia’s insomnia, we see her barely coherent, almost comatose as she watches television all night. I can feel how tired she is. I’ve been there. It’s a feeling of mental instability. Lack of sleep is real life, real pain, and everyday torture. It’s a major subplot for Amelia’s character.
Kent’s direction and Davis’ performance are flawless from scene to scene on just what a woman would really feel at varying stages of insomnia: at moments she has frustrated outbursts of rage and other times she is in a sort of loopy bliss when she nods off despite her son asking her to make him something to eat. I feel the pain and I feel the bliss of giving up.
On an aside, I was impressed with the design on the character’s hairdos by the hair and makeup department. Early shots of Amelia show her hair unkempt and staticy. So is her son’s. She looks tired and not put together. Later, at her niece’s birthday party, we see a group of mothers the same age as the tired Amelia, but they all look impeccable, well rested, happy, and thematically significant, they have great hair perfectly in place.
My biggest problem with the movie, aside from the monster reveal, is the resolution. I find it pretentious, too on-the-nose, and anti-climactic for a movie that brilliantly builds towards a reveal. The pacing is flawless. The attention to craft and mood is expert. But I find the final series of “monster point-of-view” shots of Amelia literally feeding the beast locked away in her basement (see why I say it’s pretentious?) rather dull. In fact, when the screen cuts to black after a way-too-nostalgic resolution shot of Amelia hugging tight to her problem child, I found myself infuriated as I awaited the first credit title card to confirm my suspicions that yep, that’s it.
Syvology on the MIshka NYC Bloglin said the film’s ending reminds the viewer that such matters continually exists in the “basement” of the unconscious and are “dealt with as-needed.” The “basement of the unconscious” being represented by an actual basement is as subtle as a drunk pervert.
But I digress because certainly I’m bitching about an overall good movie. I recently praised “It Follows” for its personal horror and emotionally fused story. “The Babadook” does this even more masterfully I think. But, “It Follows” had a better ending with its hokey booby trap at the pool hall.
My feelings for “The Babadook” are mostly positive and focused on the craftsmanship of a character driven horror story. But I didn’t “love” the movie. My demand for a big reveal, a real scary moment at the end, is lowbrow. But I stick to it.
I’m a filmmaker so I analyze movies more than most. I can’t always sit back and enjoy a movie the way I did growing up, when I loved whatever my mom took me to see at the Franklin Mills theatre across the street.
“The Babadook” had me gripped and waiting for the payoff the way I used to as a kid in a matinee showing, sitting in the dark and sharing a small popcorn with my mom. I eagerly waited for an inspired closer. Unfortunately, I didn’t get it. Despite all of my appreciation for the craftsmanship, I was still that kid in the movie theatre, a little older, as the credits rolled and the lights went up. I looked over to my mom and asked, “what did you think?” And she shrugged her shoulders and said “it was okay.”
“It Follows” is technically a 2014 movie, but with its wide theatrical release this past weekend (seeing even popular festival movies in my local non-NYC/LA theatre is getting rarer and rarer), it is currently my reigning favorite of 2015.
David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore effort, “It Follows” is an anxious, nightmare logic horror film about Jay Heights (played by the lovely and talented Maika Monroe from Adam Wingard’s The Guest and Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring) doing the deed with an older boy and now, uh-oh, she’s cursed. Mitchell’s movie is not merely about a girl labeled as a “slut” but as someone actually cursed by having sex, someone who is now being stalked by her deed in the form of an amorphous monster that can take the shape of anyone—strangers, or even people she loves. This boogey man stalks her from a distance, approaching slowly at a walk, hoping to grab hold of her and kill her off once and for all.
“It Follows” touches on the anxieties of many virgin (or not quite virgin) teenagers fixing to do the deed, as Nic Cage in “Peggy Sue Got Married” would say, “What, you mean sex? Ha ha, intercourse. You wanna have intercourse?”. Mitchell harnesses this anxiety wonderfully into an expertly crafted genre picture that is nostalgic of movies from the 1970s/1980s (for me, it touches the same nerve as the original “Nightmare on Elm Street”).
“It Follows” looks great. Shot on the Arri Alexa and Red Epic, Director of Photography Mike Gioulakis (“John Dies at the End”) creates a cold, eerie world ripe with pretty colors and people in desolate Detroit.
As Variety put it, “As Mitchell explained at the pic’s premiere in Cannes, ‘It Follows’ marks his attempt to make a ‘beautiful horror movie’ — equal parts gentle and aggressive. At times, his meticulous compositions rival Gregory Crewdson’s ethereal suburban-gothic photographs.”
A friend of mine commented that “It Follows” reminded him of Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 proof-in-digital-filmmaking-excellence “Drive”. I was a little thrown off by this. It took reading Mitchell’s quote on a “beautiful horror movie” to understand the “Drive” reference. Just as “Drive” was a beautifully violent movie, “It Follows” is a beautifully eerie movie.
The movie starts off with a 360-degree camera pan around a Detroit suburban street as a teenager runs out of her house in her pajamas (and high heels), seemingly fleeing for her life from a presence we (and her neighbor) cannot see. The actress does a wonderful job of registering the fear in one frame, then backpedaling when she realizes nobody can see her assailant, playing it off, running back inside, and returning to speed off in the family car.
Filmmaker Magazine on the 360-degree shot: “Unlike dopamine-inducing mood enhancers, the opening sequence of unique hybrid ‘It Follows’ aims for atmosphere, not climax…It is cinematic foreplay, simultaneously tease and microcosm. Over the span of several minutes, David Robert Mitchell succinctly anticipates not only the plotline of the narrative, but also its themes and infrastructure.”
As an avid fan of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights”, I’ve always loved the 360-degree pan. Anderson’s scripted circular shot around Eddie Adams’ bedroom early in the film is both evocative and appropriate. Like the opening of “It Follows”, Eddie’s wall posters of bikini babes and muscles cars, his massive dong squeezed into a tight pair of undies, his practicing kung fu moves in the mirror; all these elements “anticipate not only the plotline of the narrative, but also its themes and infrastructure.”
A similar nod to Anderson would be the use of an extreme close-up of Jay in a hospital bed. There are not many close-ups in “It Follows”. In fact, mostly wide angle Cooke S4 lenses are used for the film’s entirety. Paired with the 2.35 : 1 wide screen aspect ratio, we are constantly looking over the character’s shoulder for the spooky “It”. So when we do get a close-up, it packs a punch. The ECU of Jay’s bloody bandage, with its fine focus and heavy falloff, is reminiscent of “Boogie Nights” many close-ups, shot with anamorphic zoom lenses.
The movie’s beauty is chiefly displayed when Jay has sex with Hugh in the back of his car in an abandoned lot. The shot is used prominently in the trailer and was the main image I remembered other than Maika Monroe in her pink bra strapped to a wheelchair.
Variety said, “If ‘Myth (of the American Sleepover)’was his John Hughes homage, then ‘It Follows’ is the director’s best stab at doing John Carpenter.” The parallel to John Hughes is interesting and isn’t lost on “It Follows”. Particularly, in his regard to sex and how he treats the teenage, sometimes goofy choices of his characters with the utmost respect.
Filmmaker Magazine had an interesting look on the sex scenes: “Her (Jay) enervating encounter with Hugh and Greg’s comforting presence are catalysts for sparks of desire, with Jay at the apex of a triangle including both Greg and Paul. Atypically for teen flicks, sex among the trio is fairly pleasure-free, especially for Jay, who performs like the cold wife in I-have-a-headache jokes.”
Sex is never really shown for pleasure’s sake, which actually makes the sex scenes some of the most interesting to date. Whether it’s Jay riding Hugh in the backseat of his car moments before being chloroformed, Greg eagerly pumping Jay in her hospital bed under the guise of wanting to understand what she’s seeing (a very clever take on the lengths men will go through to get laid), Paul’s awkward attempts to capitalize on bedding Jay finally being fulfilled towards the end of the film, or the intense sequence where Jay strips and paddles out into the water towards a boat full of men, presumably to pass the curse off to one or all of the men aboard.
The sex serves a purpose to Jay that is not pleasure. It aids the plot, so that we’re not merely watching teens bone for the hell of it. As Desiree Akhavan (“Appropriate Behavior”) put it, “To me, the best sex scenes are not about sex. There has to be a reason we’re watching them fuck.”
Mitchell asks the question, “what happens when you have sex?” What stigmas linger after? What have you lost? What stains your soul post-coitus? What happens if you don’t have sex? Since, in his narrative, the only way to get rid of the monster, the curse, like the curse of being thought a virgin in the teen world, is to have sex with someone. Not only do you have to have sex with someone, but now that person has to have sex someone else or “the curse” comes back to you. This is a monster of spreading sexuality without any of the pleasure. It’s not about enjoying it, it’s about getting it over with.
The soundtrack and production design were both winners. The score was composed by Rich Vreeland, better known as Disasterpeace. I love the electronic score that has been playing in Adam Wingard’s movies and now Mitchell’s. It’s very cool and effective and pairs nicely with digital imagery. Electronic music, digital imagery, it’s a match!
In “It Follows”, technology is never rooted in any specific place or time. The TV sets are the old box kind with rabbit ears. There are landline telephones. The cars in the suburbs of Motor City are all outdated. Yet, one of the characters resembles a modern day hipster and is seen regularly reading from a seashell shaped, makeup compact-like e-reader that is not of this world, or maybe futuristic. The effect is that this movie is not a throwback to the 1970s/1980s anymore than it is a modern storyline. It is timeless. It is iconic.
Mitchell on production design in Filmmaker Magazine: “Those were all used to place the film a little bit outside of time, like in a dream or a nightmare, but there are elements from several decades, from the ’50s to now to things that don’t actually exist. When you watch it, you start to pick up on these elements, and it’s a little disconcerting, and in the back of your mind, you’re searching for something to ground you and tell you where you’re at. We were trying to avoid all that. I worked really closely with the production designer, and he did a great job of mixing and matching all these pieces. It leans in the direction of the ’70s and ’80s, but it’s a nice mix.”
Mitchell is an exciting filmmaker because he seems to be going against an idea I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. It’s an idea implanted in my brain by a comment Bret Easton Ellis made on one of his opinionated podcasts. He states that younger filmmakers haven’t lived life enough to make original art. To paraphrase, Ellis says younger artists choose their decisions in their movies based not on what they know about life, but rather what they’ve already seen in movies.
I’m still debating how I feel about this comment but it did get me thinking about movies that I like very much, particularly Wingard’s “You’re Next”. Going further, Wingard’s latest movie “The Guest” is an even bigger throwback to older horror movies, a blend between John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and “The Bourne Identity”. You can throw Ti West’s “House of the Devil” in this mix as well, as the only thing I liked about that movie was its 1980s look and pace.
Ellis got me thinking is nostalgia for old movies I like a reason to like new movies? I’m sure in some ways the answer is yes. But it doesn’t quell the question of where will our new horror movie come from if we spend all our time referencing older horror movies? Then again, this has worked for Quentin Tarantino.
I think Mitchell’s “It Follows” is as close as any to an original horror picture. Although I think his movie is very similar to Wingard’s style (Maika Monroe, electronic soundtrack, 1980s aesthetic), at the heart of “It Follows” is something very personal to the director. And not personal the way I think things are for Wingard, which, for kids who grew up loving movies, references to movies we love are very personal.
But Mitchell taps into something deeper than love for movies, he taps into his feelings.
He taps into his own dreams: “I had it when I was very young, the nightmare. I had it several times and I still remember images from it. I didn’t use those images for the film, but the basic idea and the feeling I used. From what I understand, it’s an anxiety dream. Whatever I was going through at that time, my parents divorced when I was around that age, so I imagine it was something to do with that.”
Mitchell isn’t drawing his horror elements from things he has seen in movies, (although he does know horror movies), he draws them from his own life.
The point here is that if you want to make something new and exciting, something nobody has seen before, something, I believe, like “It Follows”, then you have to break away from pastiche and get back to the roots of art, which is to express whatever you inherently know to be true, the way you know it, and the way you feel it. The way we feel Mitchell’s anxiety in “It Follows”.