GREEN ROOM (2016, Jeremy Saulnier)
Saulnier’s style is focused and lean, supported by ace editing from Julia Bloch (who cut R.E.M.’s terrific video for “It Happened Today” and was an AE on THE TREE OF LIFE) — one terrific cut early on signals the kind of movie this will be: the band drops the needle on a record to begin an all-night rager and one frame later the record is skipping at the end the following morning. Who needs to see the revelry? We get the idea. Let’s move on.
Quick, dirty, and over in a minute, GREEN ROOM feels much like the hardcore punk songs its protagonists play on stage: it’s a bloody little firecracker of a thriller that can infuse you with adrenaline during its all-too-brief runtime and speak to subjects like injustice and inhumanity. Those who incite carnage may never be punished, and innocence can be snuffed out in the blink of an eye.
Saulnier’s sophomore feature BLUE RUIN was a harsh, bloody revenge thriller intent on showing its audience that real-life violent crime isn’t as easy as one might think. The devil is in the details. It was a good idea with some fatal flaws, notably poor supporting performances and comical villains that devolved into Cletus-The-Slack-Jawed-Yokel caricatures. GREEN ROOM is a major step up in that its villains are neo-Nazi drug dealers who must be smarter than the inbred rednecks Saulnier was mocking before. It also has no weak links in the cast — even the tiniest bit parts ring true. And while we get more of this thesis that the type of violence we normally see in movies would be uglier and messier if it were depicted realistically, there’s now some metaphorical value in that it seeps into character details as well. This is a hardcore band who plays anarchist songs and defiantly, intentionally antagonizes its audience, and who each select obscure punk bands as their desert-island choices. But when push comes to stab, the pain is real, they cry when they’re cut, and it turns out their desert-island band might be Prince.
The message here is so well-delivered visually that we really don’t need the conversation Pat has with Amber about the difference between pretend killing and real war; that felt like Sundance Screenwriting Lab dialogue meant to feed anyone not paying close enough attention. But fortunately, misfires like that are quite rare in these electrifying 100 minutes that shred you like a punk riff and keep your armpits sweating. Ironically, for the brief time we do see a hardcore stage performance, the music drops out and turns to a swelling, beautiful score as the mosh pit stamps in slow-motion and the images become poetic. This is because it’s the one time — the only time — things are working just as they should be and everyone’s happy.
HARDCORE HENRY (2016, Ilya Naishuller)
The first-person shooter gimmick provides plenty of adrenaline for the film’s first 20-30 minutes, but wears thin quickly, as the narrative can’t sustain itself or provide any variety to the aesthetics. Exceedingly violent and overwhelmingly nihilistic, this roided-up video game plays with conventions of the genre (not that I have much experience playing them, but I get the idea) and has a few mildly amusing jokes both at the expense of the premise and just for humor’s sake, but it also misfires a lot in the tone. Misogyny and homophobia are sadly expected, but the lack of real storytelling wonder is the real downfall. The tease of Henry’s memory never pays off, and we never get a decent explanation of the villain’s superpowers. It’s just a half-built sci-fi world set up as an excuse for a lot of special effects and gore. This is like giving someone a virtual reality helmet but telling them they can only stab people in the neck.
EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! (2016, Richard Linklater)
The worst period pieces are those that derive jokes or mockery from earlier eras. Movies that wink at how silly and old-fashioned things used to be; how we didn’t know then what we know now. But filmmakers get no points from me for being alive today and able to make fun of how slowly fax machines ran or how heavy computers were. What Linklater does in his period films is far more difficult and way more admirable: he coats a nostalgic picture book with a real sense of these scenes existing in the present for all people involved. And the audience feels like they’re right there with the characters.
The jocks of 1980 Texas have the requisite mustaches and short shorts, dancing to disco and talking on corded rotary dial phones. But they’re just living their lives, and the utter sincerity on display makes all your cynicism and critical distance disappear. This is what it means to have just come to college: a priceless, ephemeral age after childhood and before adulthood. Anything is possible. You can drink all night and not get hung over. You have stamina and optimism. You find new friends. New crushes. New interests. You take risks, because there’s so little to lose and so much to gain. No filmmaker understands this better than Linklater, and his pack of loutish dudebros become an endearing example of that passing snapshot of life you might never have fully appreciated until it’s over.
A brief scene shows the teammates leaping off a swinging rope into a lake. There’s little dialogue aside from the ribbing and showboating, but the imagery of young men in flight as they let go of something and plunge into the waters below is a beautiful encapsulation of how we dare to explore, fearlessly, at this time in our development. Another great scene is when our hero Jake initially tries to shed his bros in order to go to a party alone in pursuit of a girl, but then realizes how selfish he’d been, turning 180 to charmingly implore his friends to come along — even though there’s nothing more out of place than a dozen jocks at a party full of theater kids.
But there’s a sad side too: one athlete thinks everyone else is going to end up lame in a dead-end job, either failing to realize or choosing to deny the fact that pro sports has no longevity or security. There’s a melancholy to the difference between how wide-eyed and eager these kids are, and how cruel and disappointing the world they’re about to enter will be to them. But Linklater isn’t admonishing them for this optimism: he’s embracing it, because we all end up dead and alone but it’s how you handle the way there that matters. As in his best films, BEFORE SUNRISE and BOYHOOD, there’s a streak of humanistic existentialism to EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! that is nearly tear-jerking. When Jake ultimately does imagine Sisyphus happy, there’s no surprise at all that that’s when Beverly finally kisses him.
HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS (2016, Michael Showalter)
With a trailer that recalls the toxic Robert De Niro-starring travesty from last year (called THE INTERN, and it doesn’t help that this is based on a short film called “Doris & the Intern”) and a similar premise of old-person-working-at-hotshot-Manhattan-fashion-company-amongst-Millennials, this movie seemed dead in the water. But whereas De Niro was one of the greatest actors on the planet 40 years ago, when Field was just The Flying Nun, it’s pretty clear now that Field has aged way better. She owns this movie through and through, and has a couple scenes that pack a major punch.
Ingenious comic talent Michael Showalter (of The State and its many offshoots) has only directed one other feature film, the brilliant rom-com satire THE BAXTER. And while HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS is far more straight-forward and sincere, the hints of satirical intelligence are here in Showalter’s rhythms and script (which he co-wrote with Laura Terruso, auteur of the Doris short). Peter Gallagher’s self-help guru, for example, is a cliché now (making fun of these guys is shooting fish in a barrel), but Showalter delivers some zings only he could dream up. And Jack Antonoff’s cameo as a pretentious hipster electropop artist delivers the laughs too. But mostly, the script feels like a padded-out version of a short story, following some obvious beats and going nowhere too unexpected. Still, Field makes everything go down easy — she turns a clownish character into a three dimensional human being with a lifetime of pain. Like Lily Tomlin did with GRANDMA, Field proves that Hollywood’s insistence on keeping its male stars around forever while ignoring their female counterparts is a policy that’s costing us myriad terrific leading roles.