Bug (11/9/12)

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In Bug, after a woman is introduced to a friend during a night of hard partying, the two spiral into a world where they may be infested with bugs.

Agnes White (Ashley Judd) is a waitress living in a shoddy motel room, receiving strange phone calls from someone she believes to be her abusive ex, Jerry Gross (Harry Connick, Jr.). After a night of partying with her friend, RC (Lynn Collins), and Peter (Michael Shannon), a drifter, Agnes and Peter form a bond and together being to descend into delusion. One morning Peter wakes up claiming to have been bitten by bugs, aphids, specifically. He convinces Agnes of the bugs, among other things and the two become dependent on each other, each feeding into the madness together. When its discovered that Peter may be mentally ill, the line of reality and delusion becomes even fuzzier.

Bug is quite a mixed bag. On the one hand, every performance given is spectacular; Judd and Shannon, especially. Even if you have complete disinterest in the plot, it’s hard to look away when either character is on screen. Since most of the film takes place in a tiny hotel room, it makes their performances all the more huge. However, I found Bug to be almost completely nonsensical at times. Obviously, Bug is supposed to be schizophrenic but there is a line that needs to be drawn so that the plot still makes sense. When Judd or Shannon are ranting it’s easy to tune out and just watch them.

William Friedkin, who has given us many great movies over the years like The Exorcist and Sorcerer, does his best to make Bug an interesting affair. Though the set piece of the motel is small, there are a few tricks visually that make it seem unnatural, like black lighting outside under the eave, and the unusual green tint that permeates much of the film. We are taken for a wild ride through insanity and Bug doesn’t really let up, though it stumbles over itself at times.

In thinking what would have helped Bug be a better film, I’m honestly not sure. The performances were great, the story is ambiguous and gives a sense of insanity the main characters struggle though, and the setting is claustrophobic. Maybe that all makes Bug sound like a horror movie but I never thought to classify it as such, except maybe when Shannon is pulling out his teeth. It’s a film that tries not to be bound by genre and in doing so fails to really be anything. Bug is not a bad movie, just a sloppy one with great actors in it.

I give it 2 crazed Michael Shannon in blue light out of 5.

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Shotgun Stories (10/5/12)

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In Shotgun Stories, a feud erupts between two groups of half-brothers after the death of their father.

Son Hayes (Michael Shannon) is getting dressed and we see the pockmarked scars of a shotgun blast on his back. He goes to meet his younger brothers, Boy and Kid (Douglas Ligon and Barlow Jacobs), who are living outside in a van and a tent, respectively. Son invites them to move inside since Son’s wife, Annie (Glenda Pannell), has left him due to his gambling. One night, the boys’ mother stops by informing them that their estranged father has passed away. The boys visit the funeral, where we see that their father had another family, a family that seems to hold him in high esteem. When Son speaks at the funeral and belittles his late father, the other Hayes boys take offense and a lifelong feud between the two sets of siblings boils over.

Shotgun Stories is the debut film by Jeff Nichols, whose sophomore release, Take Shelter, was one of the best movies of 2011, in my opinion. Shotgun Stories has a similar feeling to it, and also has Michael Shannon, one of my favorite actors. Where Take Shelter had a throbbing sense of despair and tension to it, Shotgun Stories is more of a dull ache. Take Shelter has the events unfolding at a rapid pace, much like Curtis’ break from reality, whereas Shotgun Stories introduces things slowly and with care, since much of the pain of the characters is long gone and scarred over, both physically and metaphorically. There is still a distinct level of tension to Shotgun Stories, it’s just a much slower, more deliberate build.

That slow build is something that I could see putting some folks off of Shotgun Stories so I have a difficult time recommending it to anyone. Jeff Nichols creates a great slice of Arkansas culture here, but the movie seems to crawl along in places if you aren’t looking at character development. The three main Hayes boys the film follows, Son, Boy, and Kid, all have their own things going on throughout the movie, most of which we only get cursory glances at instead of having them fleshed out. I know this sort of narrative doesn’t jibe well with everyone, but fans of indie cinema should know about what to expect out of Shotgun Stories and should appreciate the intricacies built below the surface.

If there’s one positive takeaway for Shotgun Stories (there are many, but if I could just pick one), it is Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon make a fantastic pair. While I love watching Shannon on-screen, his performances in Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter are some of my favorites of his. The actor/director team also have a new film coming out soon entitled Mud that I’m greatly looking forward to. As for Shotgun Stories, it may not be a film I revisit again anytime soon but it has certainly stayed with me long after the credits have rolled and I consider that a hallmark of a good movie.

I give it 4 I didn’t mention there is a character named ‘Shampoo’ out of 5.

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Ebertfest Day Four – Take Shelter

Take ShelterTake Shelter is a film I waited to see once I knew it would be at Ebertfest and I’m so glad my first experience with it was on the big screen. We were joined by writer/director, Jeff Nichols, and actor, Michael Shannon for easily my favorite Q&A session of the entire festival.

Take Shelter is a hard film to describe. In presenting the film, Jeff Nichols said that it is very much a snapshot of the state of the United States economically which took me by surprise at first. After watching it, I very much agree.

Curtis (Michael Shannon) and his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and their young, deaf daughter live in a blue collar town in Ohio. Curtis works at a quarry, or something like that, and Samantha sells pillows at flea markets to make ends meet. The film begins with Curtis having a dream where there is a storm rolling in and the rain is thick, like motor oil. His dreams get more and more bizarre, and he takes them as being prophetic. We soon learn that his family has a history of mental illness, so we are left wondering what is really happening.

With the mindset of America’s economic turmoil over the last 5 years, it’s very easy to connect some dots to certain things in the film. Even without having that seed planted, you can easily side with Curtis as he worries about the future. While Curtis’ dreams are extreme, they are easy to relate to in most ways.

During the dream sequences, the entire theater of 1600 people was holding their breath. After reality picked back up there was always an audible sigh because the dreams are incredibly tense, verging on a horror movie. In fact, Jeff Nichols would go on to say that The Shining was one of Take Shelter’s main influences. I cannot recommend this movie enough and it likely rewards multiple viewings. In fact, as soon as the lights came up, I got on my phone and ordered a copy of the Blu-Ray on Amazon.

As for the Q&A session, it’s very hard to do justice in describing it. Jeff Nichols is new to directing, but I truly believe he is the next Christopher/Jonathan Nolan wrapped into one. He has huge potential, and I am going to be tracking down his first film, Shotgun Stories, very soon. Michael Shannon, who is one of my favorite actors currently working, was surprisingly profound and funny. If there is one Q&A session that you stream, please let it be this one (the link is below), but be warned there will be spoilers if you haven’t seen the film yet.

After the Q&A session, we stuck around to try and meet Michael Shannon…and we did! Please ignore my half-smile (I’m on the left) and Julian’s look like he just woke up. I guess we were both so excited that we couldn’t control our facial expressions.

Us with Michael Shannon

Michael Shannon is a very nice guy considering there were about two dozen of us following him around trying to get pictures with him and the poor guy was just trying to leave…But I regret nothing.

As for Take Shelter

I give it 5 out of 5.

Some interesting Ebertfest links:

The festival’s main site: http://www.ebertfest.com/
Stream the interview sessions for free: http://ustre.am/JauL

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