Saturday, July 07, 2012

Thunder Soul (Mark Landsman, 2010)

Let's get one thing out of the way. If you have ever remotely enjoyed documentaries, you should see Thunder Soul immediately. There are only a handful of reasons that a person shouldn't see this film, and all of them have more to do with self righteous than they actually do with the quality of this film or the story it has to tell.

With that out of the way, let's move on. Thunder Soul is the story the Kashmere High School Band, and the reunion that would become Kashmere High School Alumni Band, and their band leader, Conrad "Prof" Johnson. They became the best high school band in the country, and one of the best funk bands in the country, high school, amateur, professional or otherwise.

The great thing about Thunder Soul is that it isn't the kind of cloyingly sweet feel good tripe that so many documentaries of it's ilk become. Is it "feel good"? Absolutely. Does it have something positive to say about it's subjects and their experience? Yes. What it doesn't do is reach for some kind of overarching metaphor about the human condition and beat the audience with some kind of positivist message. It tells the story of these people, the context in which the events it portrays take place and it always lets them speak for themselves. In that way, it becomes something the viewer can digest in their own time, and in many ways, find their own meaning in. There's a whole lot that can be culled from the experience and actions of the Kashmere High School Alumni Band, but it's up to the audience to decide what exactly about those things are most worthy of being given that time and thought. Mark Landsman has enough respect for both his subjects and his audience to leave all of that up to them.

Without doubt, this is one of the most vibrant and human music documentaries I've ever seen. Because it's not weighed down with trying to debunk or uphold a band or scene that is already enshrined in the popular imagination, it has no need to deal with the kind of sensationalism that is unfortunately is a part of the music industry to such a degree that very few music documentaries are able to tell a complete story about their subjects without contending with it. It's a warm film, without shearing off the warts of the subjects in order to present some fantasized ideal that could never exist.

This is going to be one of the shortest reviews I've ever posted. The reason for that being, that so long as you don't find good funk music offensive somehow (and I'm hoping that the number of people who still fall in that category is infinitesimal at this point), there's absolutely nothing about this doc to dislike. It's a vibrant film, celebrating the art of musicianship, community, education, and the kind of disciplined hard work that comes with doing anything as well as this band played funk music. More than being worth the time it took to watch it, I felt I didn't want it to end, which is an extremely rare quality for a documentary.  If you have any taste for documentary film, see this one A.S.A.P.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Red, White and Blue (Simon Rumley, 2010)

Let's get something straight from the very beginning. Red, White and Blue is not, at all, what it's synopsis might lead you to believe it is. It's not that the synopsis is in any way wrong or misleading, but more that writer director Simon Rumley has found a way to take that basic story and turn it upside down, inside out, then stuff the viewer inside of it and shake it all up with unremitting fury.

In mainstream studio cinema, there are certain tropes everyone recognizes and understands. Good guys make sarcastic remarks, things blow up, the bad guys get their due. It is what it is, we all know this.

Independent cinema has it's own tropes, but since most of us have spent the majority of our lives becoming intimately familiar with them, we don't always recognize them as readily. The idea of a story being built around a coincidental "intersection of lives" is indeed one of the independent film communities favorite tropes. The lives intersecting here are the "Red", "White" and "Blue"on the poster image. The result of that intersection is what the movie is about, and it goes through a few phases before it reaches it's climax, a third act that was distressing and engrossing.

This had to be an independent film. I rarely say that, but in all honestly, I can't see this film ever being made by a major studio and actually succeeding in finding it's way to release. For any audience which is easily offended or is sensitive to many of the cultural taboos that studio films purposely avoid, they wouldn't make it through the first third of this film, much less to the point where that degree of "indecency" in the films first act begins to make any real sense. The first act contains a few scenes of relatively graphic sex. It's hard to say much about it without giving too much away, but it's definitely meant to provoke a response from the viewer. It's not graphic in the violent sense, but it does present sex in a non-traditional way and it's really frank about the degree to which sex is kind of awkward and visceral, and not at all the glamorous act so often portrayed on screen. There are three different sex scenes in the first fifteen minutes of the movie, and that number of them, combined with their overall tone and atmosphere make them extremely discomfiting to watch.

Credit should be given to Rumley on this though, it's a bold decision. The majority of films (and basically any class or text about writing fiction will tell writers to do this) begins in a way that is designed to make the central character(s) sympathetic. It's supposed to get the audience to root for the protagonist or at least to see them in some light that will make it possible for the audience to root for them, to like them and sympathize with them as the film or story progresses. Rumley more or less ditches that whole idea immediately. Amanda Fuller's Erica (the red in the poster) is not an immediately likable character, to put it mildly. Fuller succeeds in making her character completely believable, and ultimately understandable by the end of the film. It's a role that definitely took some courage for any young actor to tackle, and she pulls it off extremely well. In those first few minutes there is the threat of Rumley being a condescending jack-ass who hates his characters and has constructed an obvious, hammer the audience in the head with the message movie. I was getting close to bailing out and turning it off. There isn't a variety of film I dislike more than that one, whether I agree with the general idea or message being put across or not.

Thankfully, Red, White and Blue changes tracks when the second central character is introduced, and those first few minutes of the film begin to fall into what appears to be another context. It's a genuine evolution of the relationship between these characters that begins to show Amanda Fuller's character, Eric in a new light, but also succeeds in presenting Noah Taylor's Nate (the blue in the poster) from a few different perspectives as well. What's clear as that relationship begins to emerge is that these are two extremely, tragically damaged people. Having succeeded in creating those first fifteen minutes of uncomfortable viewing, Rumley takes the discomfort in a different direction completely here. It begins to touch on and realistically portray the kind of interpersonal dynamics that these two characters would necessarily have in the evolution of that relationship, and it's hard to watch because of just how badly they navigate it. Noah Taylor is an actor many people would recognize, having had smaller parts in a number of well known films, but he's unrecognizable here. On top of that, he's fantastic. I didn't connect him with his other roles until I sat down to write this review, and when I did, I was honestly blown away. It's probably good that he isn't recognizable, because few people would probably guess the actor in those parts in those other movies was capable of what he pulls off here. The depth of intensity he portrays here is a thing of beauty. Like John Hawkes in Winter's Bone, this could be a real emergence for an actor that has been criminally overlooked. As the relationship between Nate and Erica progresses, it began to look as if the film was going to start relying on the well worn cliché of damaged people wandering an ugly, unsafe world and finding safety, comfort and love in each other. It doesn't. This isn't that movie either.

Just when it seems the film has settled into becoming the kind of recognizable story most audiences seeing it are going to expect, it changes track again. This time, it changes it's focus almost entirely, and begins to follow our third character, Marc Senter's Franki (the white in the poster). It's questionable as to whether or not Franki is quite as damaged as Nate and Erica certainly seem to be, but at best, he's a bit of a slacker and kind of lost. As his story progresses though, we're seeing him become the kind of damaged person that Nate and Erica are, and probably even more so. Senter does a good job with Franki's journey, and he conveys a combination of both vulnerability and a vague aire of being just about to reach the edge of complete desperation.

Fifteen minutes into the movie, I had no idea where it was going. Forty-five minutes in, I still could not have predicted it was going to come to the climax that it does. The thing worth respecting about all of that though, is that by the time the film does actually end, it doesn't seem false. It's not a "trick" or "gimmick" ending. By the time the film ends and the credits start to roll, it makes perfect sense. It's also not the kind of "perfect sense" in which it all just seems too neat and simple either. There were a number of different places where this story could have gone in a completely different direction.

Probably the most interesting thing about the film though, is that it ends up where it does, and all of that makes as much sense as it does because this isn't a film about people who are achieving some kind of victory at it's climax. It's a film about the mistakes very broken people make, and how those mistakes play out in their own lives and the lives of others. There is no hero here. There are three protagonists, and all three of those characters are also the antagonists. All of it makes logical sense in the context of who the characters are, and with the narrative this film is telling, that's quite a feat.

In a strange way, even as the last twenty minutes of the film are the only depictions of violence (some of which takes place off screen, and that which takes place on screen is actually both a part of the characters and integral to the overall success of the story), it's a film that really is about the question of how exactly we decide what we call violence. Why do we refer to one thing as violence, and a different act that is as damaging to a human being (in a way that is physical, but not in the conventional understanding of how we discuss physical violence) isn't called violence? All three of these characters do things that are beyond the pale of what is considered acceptable human behavior, and those acts all have serious consequences for other people. While definitely not being the kind of behavior the audience is going to condone, in the context it's presented, all of their actions make sense given what we know about the characters as well. The beauty of it being that because they are three dimensional characters, not just one dimensional caricatures, it never comes across as an empty attempt at shock or a necessary plot point to drive the story forward. It makes sense because of who they are, and from that perspective it makes it harder to judge them quite as harshly.

Red, White and Blue isn't a film for everyone. It's bleak, uncomfortable journey into the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the very understandable mistakes of three people who are damaged in tragic, heart breaking ways. What it is not is predictable tripe that any well tread movie goer is going to have a solid handle on in the first twenty minutes. It's both an extremely unconventional horror film and a deeply unsettling drama, without the normal melodrama so often found in films that try to achieve that synthesis. It's an unexpected little gem that manages to subvert expectations in ways that are completely organic and true, and to also be a deeply human story that succeeds in asking intelligent questions without being paternalistic, preachy or patronizing. Simon Rumley has succeeded in creating a very strong film with a subtle hand at storytelling and sure hand at the technical aspects as well. He'll be someone to watch in the future. You can catch this one on Netflix "Watch Instantly", but if you decide you want to own it (as I think I have), come on back and use the link. It's deeply appreciated.