THE MIDNIGHT SWIM Review: Choppy Waters

Minight Swim PosterI’ve always been fascinated by horror-themed urban legends.  Although the details change from retelling to retelling (and surely each varies greatly from its original incarnation), the core sense of fear is always present, whether borne from the ramifications of saying “Bloody Mary” in a mirror three times, the terror of an impending impalement by a man with a hook for a hand, or the panic of learning the mysterious call is coming from inside the house.

A horror-themed urban legend is not necessarily at the heart of The Midnight Swim, but it is certainly present throughout this weighty and mysterious drama from first-time director Sarah Adina Smith.

Dr. Amelia Brooks (Beth Grant) was an experienced diver, but after one particular dive in Spirit Lake, she was never seen nor heard from again.  Her three adult daughters reunite and return home to get their mother’s affairs in order.  Annie (Jennifer Lafleur) is the practical daughter and the alpha-female of the trio; Isa (Aleksa Palladino) is the free spirit who reads palms and believes in reincarnation; June (Lindsay Burdge) is the introvert.  In fact, June is more than introverted; she is socially averse to the point that she won’t even eat a meal with her own sisters.  She is also an amateur documentarian filming the entire event.

On their first night back home, the sisters (along with local childhood friend Josh, played by Ross Partridge) recall the ghost story of The Seven Sisters.  In short, seven sisters drowned in Spirit Lake but the seventh’s body was never found; at midnight, the seventh sister’s spirit can be summoned.  At midnight that first night, the sisters attempt to summon the seventh sister’s spirit and … nothing.

Or was it?  Mysterious things start to happen as the trio works to settle their mother’s estate and come to terms with the woman she was and the women they are.

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On the surface, The Midnight Swim, which Smith also wrote, is a by-the-numbers drama about estranged sisters coming to terms with the loss of their mother and attempting to manage their own fractured relationships in the process.  It contains all the standard moments you would expect to see, including the old bit with the high school stud who still lives back home, is divorced from his high school sweetheart wife, and gets involved with one of the protagonists.  And it has one of those scenes where the sisters bond while lip-synching a song.  Sure, the structure is tired, but the mysterious elements (more on that later) help it along, Smith never lets the film get sucked into melodrama (although at times you should check for a pulse), and the chemistry of the three actresses is an unstoppable force.

There is also the mystery of the missing mother.  Little time is spent on the forensics of it, but it’s the catalyst for the reunion, so it’s duly addressed, with the most interesting part being a visit to their mother’s old lab.

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Beneath the surface, though, the film is something of a metaphysical mystery.  Fueling that is the Seven Sisters story, which is actually two stories: one, the legend that took place at the lake; the other, a reference to the Pleiades of Greek mythology.  (It seems the former may have been inspired by the latter.)  I use the term “metaphysical” because even though the Seven Sisters tale has certain key elements, calling the present-day mystery one of “horror” isn’t quite right, although the film wants to dabble in that at times.  There are plenty of mysterious goings-on in the wake of the attempt to summon the spirit of the seventh sister.

There is a lot going on in the creepier parts of the film, and this is where the film is its most interesting yet its most confounding.  Smith has a lot of good ideas – everything from a haunting song stuck in the sisters’ heads, to mysterious footage on June’s camera, to a local old townswoman who knows the history of the Seven Sisters, and much more.  Smith just doesn’t develop enough of any of these to carry the suspense needed to get the film to the next unsettling level.  It’s almost as if she is afraid to fully commit to the supernatural aspects of the story; hers is a suggestive spookiness that never has you squinting for fear of what might be lurking around the next corner.

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Even the technical execution is a blessing and a curse.  Smith’s cinematographer, Shaheen Seth, has some serious game.  So much of this film looks so good.  That said, the documentary-style approach grows tired so quickly.  There is a lot of looking into and playing for the camera, and while that might be what “regular” people do when a camera is in their faces 24/7, it’s a major distraction here.

The film’s resolution leaves something to be desired as well.  It’s tidy, but it doesn’t feel earned.

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With The Midnight Swim, Sarah Adina Smith makes a formidable first impression, but with so much happening you get the sense she used her directorial debut to swing for the fences lest she not get another chance to bat.  Still, it is undeniably hypnotic, leaving plenty to ponder, both visually and thematically, and I suspect a second viewing might offer a different experience – one full of little clues that may have been missed the first time.  Regardless, Smith is a filmmaker to keep an eye on, and one who deserves another film.


INSIDE OUT Review: Emotional Rescue

Inside Out PosterOnly three animated films have made me cry (as an adult).  The first was Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, a film from 1988 that I didn’t see until a home screening around 2001.  The other two were Pixar films I caught in the theater: Pete Docter‘s Up (2009) and Lee Unkrich‘s Toy Story 3 (2010).

Inside Out, as directed and co-written by Docter, produced by Pixar, and loaded with emotions, has the potential of earning the four-spot alongside those other tear-summoning pictures.

Eleven-year-old Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) is a girl who has it all – great parents, a terrific best friend, and all the hockey she can play.  She has led a charmed life, and for the most part it has been a happy life thanks to Joy.

Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), is Riley’s primary emotion.  She is part of a group of five, along with Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust (voiced by Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, and Mindy Kaling, respectively), but those others know that Joy is the Alpha Emotion.

When Riley’s parents (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlen) move the family from Minnesota to San Francisco for dad’s business venture, Sadness tries to take over, but Joy refuses to allow it, wanting to maintain the perpetual happy.  Instead, chaos (not a character) ensues and Joy and Sadness find themselves unintentionally whisked away from Headquarters and lost in the cavernous recesses of Riley’s longterm memory.  On the outside, Riley begins to feel the effects of her emotions slipping away as her charmed life withers.  Joy and Sadness must find their way back to Headquarters or risk losing Riley forever.

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Inside Out is a tale of two films – one that takes place inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl, and another that takes place in the world that girl inhabits.

The film that takes place inside Riley’s mind is a dense, rich work, and like other Pixar films before it, this one offers a grand – but never overbearing – sense of nostalgia.  (It’s a terrific companion to Toy Story, really, in that Pixar’s first film is about nostalgia tied to the trappings of youth, while this is tied to the feelings of youth.)

Docter and his co-writers Ronaldo Del Carmen (story), Meg LeFauve (screenplay), and Josh Cooley (screenplay) begin by constructing an amazing world inside Riley’s head, using as their foundation five “core memories” from Riley’s life.  Those five memories are the basis of five “islands” that are the essence of Riley’s personality: Family Island, Friendship Island, Goofball Island, Hockey Island, and Honesty Island.  The conflict comes when the Joy/Sadness confrontation causes the core memories to be inadvertently relocated to longterm; Joy and Sadness need to return them to their proper place in Riley’s mind to make everything right.

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The filmmakers then supersaturate the mind around these islands with every conceivable childhood memory, and the glory of how they do it is a wonderful blend of moments that are specific enough to define Riley yet generic enough that they could define each of us as well. Fears of basement stairs and birthday clowns are stored alongside epic peewee league highlights and imaginary boyfriends.  (An imaginary boyfriend has one of the smartest jokes in the film, too.)

The islands aren’t the only “places” in Riley’s mind, either.  Also visited by Joy and Sadness are the child’s Abstract Thoughts (one of Pixar’s smartest scenes in their history), Dream Productions (built like a movie studio, it’s where her dreams are made), and of course her subconscious, where some scary things are stored.  Joy and Sadness, with help from an imaginary friend from Riley’s very young days – Bing Bong (voiced by Richard Kind) – travel to these places and around Riley’s mind on the child’s … wait for it … Train of Thought.

Yes, it’s all THAT clever.  And like other Pixar films before this one, it isn’t just that they get it right, it’s how right they get it.

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The film that takes place in the real world, the world outside Riley’s mind, and particularly how that world connects to Riley’s psyche, is where the story struggles.  The problem is a cause-and-effect disconnect between the two worlds.

The threat that Joy and Sadness face is the collapse of the islands, which signifies not only the loss of those memories to Riley’s “memory dump” (yet another clever conceit), but the loss of those things that make Riley who she is.  It makes for a compelling adventure inside Riley’s head, but outside, Riley behaves the way any preteen would behave when uprooted from the only home she’s known and taken away from her friends.  She’s sullen and withdrawn one moment, sassy and combative the next.

The suggestion is that without the emotions of Joy and Sadness, Riley is unable to properly cope with her situation, but her behavior seems relatively normal given that situation and its newness.  So, is Riley out of sorts because of the peril going on inside her head or because of the tumult going on outside?  The filmmakers want to have it both ways but the two worlds don’t quite mesh, and the superficiality of the external undermines the sincerity of the internal.

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The filmmakers are also guilty of trying too hard to summon the audience’s tears.  An early moment of memories being lost is genuine and incredibly impactful, but later attempts feel contrived, with one moment in the film coming off as downright mawkish.

Still, there is a lesson to be learned here, one that makes a great talking point for kids: not only can Joy and Sadness coexist, all emotions, when properly balanced, make us who we are.  It’s okay to feel one emotion heavily at any given point in time, but everyone should feel all of the emotions all of the time.

The animation is top-notch, of course, and the cast is terrific.  Amy Poehler summons her über-Leslie Knope to great affect and Phyllis Smith is the foundation the film needs.  Lewis Black, though, is the secret weapon.  He is perfectly cast as Anger, and his voice and performance are so spot-on, he joins the likes of Tom Hanks-as-Woody and Tim Allen-as-Buzz in terms of an actor forever being the only ones who should portray their characters in Pixar history.

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As a father of two girls who were once 11 years old (five years apart, thankfully), I speak from experience when I say delving into the mind of a pre-teen is no easy task.  While the execution might not be perfect (and while it didn’t make me cry), Pixar gets so much right with Inside Out, it will forever be a solid entry in their canon and a film worth revisiting at home.


THE TRIBE Review: Sleight of Hand

The Tribe PosterSometimes it’s hard to avoid getting over-enthused about a film.  Watch enough movies and follow enough about the film industry on social media and something is bound to whip normal interest into a serious lather.  Such was the case for me and The Tribe.  A unique combination of factors worked together to make this happen: it’s a Ukrainian film (I’m Ukrainian), it found great success on the festival circuit, and it has a clever conceit in that the film is shot entirely in sign language and without voiceover or subtitles.

This last bit was doubly exciting for me because I love a film that presents a viewing challenge, and the last time a dialogue-free film challenged me, it was J.C. Chandor‘s sensational All Is Lost, a film that ranked high on my Best Of 2013 list.  It’s no surprise the Ukrainian film has been my most anticipated of the year.

Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) is the new kid at a boarding school for deaf teens. As is the case with any new kid, regardless of school or physical challenge, Sergey is put to the test by his new classmates in ways that are so familiar they seem almost comforting – like rites of passage. He’s denied a bunk his first night. He has his lunch taken from him in the cafeteria. He’s tricked into entering a dorm room where he surprises an unsuspecting pair of half-naked girls. He’s ganged up on in a fight (but he more than holds his own against the other boys).

Having passed all tests, Sergey is welcomed into the school’s fold – a fold he quickly learns is rotten with theft, violence, and prostitution (those two half-naked girls). Sergey does well in the fold, though, unflinchingly contributing to the criminal cause run by a corrupt teacher.  He does well, that is, until love enters the picture. That’s when things change.

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As debut features go, writer/director Myroslav Slaboshpitsky swings for the fences with The Tribe.  It takes an incredible amount of confidence (audacity?) for any filmmaker, let alone a rookie, to write a story about tragically corrupt youth, set it in a deaf community, and present it on film without dialogue, voiceover, or subtitle.  If only swinging for the fences guaranteed clearing those fences.  Slaboshpitsky might take a mighty cut, but he barely makes contact.

The heart of the problem hits about 15-20 minutes into the 92-minute film – right around the time the viewer settles into interpreting the motions and emotions of the characters: there isn’t much of a story to it.  There are a few loose threads – the crime operation led by a teacher and staffed by students, the relationship between Sergey and teen prostitute Anna (Yana Novikova), and Sergey’s rise and fall (grandiose terms, but still) in the criminal organization – but they aren’t nearly developed enough to sustain the film once the wow-factor becomes familiar.  Instead, these threads only act as threadbare excuses to repeat shocking actions and gradually increase the shock value of those actions.  The physical violence becomes more intense, the prostitution becomes more graphic, and Sergey and Anna have something going on so they are shown getting it on (several times).

The ending is so stunning, the escalation of violence so shocking, it strains credulity and feels like it doesn’t belong.

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From a technical perspective, Slaboshpitsky has a filmmaking style that is a patience-tester.  He’s a fan of long, fluid, edit-free shots of (no closer than) medium range.  This approach allows the viewer to be something of an “ultimate observer” – always close enough to the action but never in it, with the added realism of having no multiple angles or quick cuts.  It’s very much a “you are there” experience akin to first-person POV video games.

The problem is that the perpetual distance prohibits any chance of a connection between the viewer and the action onscreen; only the most shocking of moments create that connection, but that degree of intensity can’t be maintained, so ultimately the link is lost.  The long, cut-free shots also ensure the viewer sees everything that happens within the line of sight – even if most of that everything is tedious.  How many drawers must we watch Sergey open and dump as he looks for a victim’s cash, or how many semi-truck windows must we watch Sergey knock on before a driver responds and takes a hooker, and so on?  The answer is “so many, it feels like all of them,” which makes for a laborious watch.

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The film is not without merit.  It takes skill to execute a sign language-only film.  Also, the absence of subtitles makes for a better viewing experience; subtitle text can be distracting as part of the greater filed of vision, and subtitles can specifically draw eyes away from important action or details on the screen.

These things, plus one harrowing scene late in the film involving a surgical procedure, prevent the film from becoming a complete loss.

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A feature film with no traditional dialogue or subtitles might be a technical and artistic feat, but it is still a film that is missing a critical component.  The lack of that component all but demands compensation in another area of the film.  In this case, that area would have to be story, and the story here simply doesn’t work.

Feeling like an acting class was challenged to make a student film with no dialogue, The Tribe, in less than two hours, went from my Most Anticipated Film to my Biggest Disappointment of 2015.