Two of my favorite films of 2016 so far.
I came home from Green Room and put on Age of Quarrel right away. I’m probably a pretty biased viewer for this film. It’s a thriller with good punk rock and dogs. What’s not to love?
I liked Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin a lot, but Green Room is a next step up. A bunch of punks witness a murder at a skinhead club and get trapped inside.Saulnier’s definitely an old punk. The mosh pits here feel real (great slow-motion moment in one), there’s a perfectly used Dead Kennedy’s cover, and the fictional punk band – the Ain’t Rights – is actually really good (Callum Turner would make a good for-real punk lead). There’s a lot of great attention to detail with language (red laces, for example). If you grew up listening to punk and going to shows then this will feel authentic to you. There’s also a recurring “desert island band” theme. It’s telling that the kids switch from bands like the Cro-Mags to Simon and Garfunkel and Prince: this was definitely made by someone who once was (and probably sort of still is) a punk.
I don’t want to say much about the dogs in the film, but there’s a moment – the last time you see a dog on-screen – that is so heartbreaking. It’s perfect for three reasons: the misdirection that precedes it; the awful sweetness of it; and the sense of closure it brings.
The film is really, really tense. And it’s beautifully photographed by Sean Porter. I enjoyed his cinematography in Kumiko The Treasure Hunter as well. The hazy greens and fluorescents play big in this film.
Green Room is violent (there’s a really brutal box cutter moment and another with a hand) and the performances are great, but Saulnier’s blocking is also on-point. I wish I had a particular scene to show. So much of the film takes place in the small green room at the back of the punk club. There’s a moment towards the end of the first third where Saulnier pans and tracks left to right (and I think slightly circularly, too) as the four band members all come to and from camera. I don’t know that that’s a great description, but the blocking is so natural and the camera is so fluid on a tight lens. It’s perfect. The way they come to and from could feel stagey, but here it feels real and tense – their nervous energy coming through. I’d like to find this scene and use it later for another post because it’s so strong.
Some of the action blocking is awesome as well. I’m thinking of the scene where Daniel (Mark Webber) goes behind the bar, or when Pat (Anton Yelchin…a very talented, interesting actor) and Amber (Imogen Poots) come through the woods. These two are really different and both strong.
Embrace of the Serpent
I think Ciro Guerra might be a genius. His Wind Journeys is so underrated, and Embrace of the Serpent is even better. This is to me sort of what The Tree of Life wanted to be. But it’s its own film. There are going to also be the inevitable Aguirre or Apocalypse Now comparisons. None of these are Embrace of the Serpent. Guerra’s film is about so many things. It’s about the erosion of culture and colonialism. It’s also about the circle of life and demagoguery.
On the surface, the film is sort of simple. Theo (Jan Bijvoet) is a white man in the Amazon traveling with his friend Manduca (Yauenku Migue) who he freed from slavery in the rubber trade. They meet Karimakate (Nilbio Torres) when Theo falls ill and ask the man for his help. Their journey is cross-cut with that of an older Karimakate (Antonio Bolivar) and his travels with a naturalist named Evan (Brionne Davis).
One of my favorite parts of Embrace of the Serpent is when Theo and company try to leave a tribe with whom Theo has struck a friendship. Theo finds his compass is missing. The chief has it and doesn’t want to return it. Theo gets angry and laments to Karimakate that the compass will ruin their culture of celestial navigation. Karimakate retorts that it isn’t anyone’s right to control and distribute knowledge.
This scene so perfectly sums a major theme of the film. There’s the struggle to preserve culture, the presumption of other cultures, and the catch-22s that these interactions lead to. It’s a complex situation .
Guerra’s camera moves a lot, but in chaotic scenes it tends to be fairly static. It moves often by necessity – the men are on boats – and often as push-ins. But within the chaos its reservedness lends an eerie kind of calm to everything…when it should be anything but.
The film is in black and white but color crops up suddenly in here. I almost didn’t notice it. It’s placement in the film is amidst an odd sequence that rides a thin line of pretentiousness (and comes out the better). I wonder if I was so wrapped up in the narrative to immediately miss something as obvious as the change to color; or if the palette somehow made for an easier transition. I’ll look for it again on a second watch.
The film is gorgeous. Maybe it was largely shot with natural light. I’m not sure. It must have been a battle to shoot. There are a lot of elongated set pieces like in The Wind Journeys, and Guerra once again shows a fondness for lensing animals.
I love Embrace of the Serpent for its challenging narrative, the amazing acting, and the camerawork. But I also love it because of the journey itself. These guys meet a cast of characters along the way and they delve into things like modernism (guns and a record player), other encroaching cultures (“the Colombians are coming!”), god complexes, and myopic missionaries.