THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK is a Focused Thriller That Demands Your Attention

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek could be compared to Quentin Tarantino’s breakout 1992 hit, Reservoir Dogs. The setup is similar: dangerous men are brought together in the wake of a crime – in this case, a mass shooting at a public event that should remain unnamed – each one suspecting the other of being the guilty party, and nobody willing to give an inch. Beyond basic comparisons, however, director Henry Dunham’s film (which he also wrote) is decidedly its own thing, a daringly minimalist thriller that spends 90 minutes tightening its grip.

There’s no release in The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, no catharsis, there is only screw-tightening tension between an impressive collection of character actors, all working with laser focus and never showing us too much. This story is as real as it gets. It respects and challenges the audience’s ability to pay attention and read between the lines, and leaves you in moral knots as it dives into the motivations and potential madness of both Militia and police. Everyone is a suspect and anyone can be guilty, depending on the circumstances.

James Badge Dale is our entry into the story. He’s Gannon, a former cop who serves as a sort of clean storefront to the local Militia to which he belongs. Gannon lives an isolated existence in his motor home, and he’s sitting down to cut into a fresh deer steak when he hears the gunfire. It’s from an automatic weapon, far away, but not far enough. Gannon knows something has happened, and he knows authorities will set their sights on the nearest Militia.

Gannon arrives at a remote lumber yard where a handful of Militia members and potential suspects arrive in short time. The leader of the team is Ford, played with serious authority and flippant sarcasm by the great Chris Mulkey; Brian Geraghty, Patrick Fischler, Robert Aramayo, Gene Jones and Happy Anderson make up the rogue’s gallery, but the less you know about each of these characters going in, the more satisfying the collection of twists and turns will be. Rest assured that each and every participant is emotionally self-contained, dodgy, and absolutely perfect in playing in their appropriate key.

The mass shooting is the catalyst that kicks the film into gear, and as the catastrophe outside intensifies in surprising ways, we are let into the lives of each and every member of the group. All of them live a life of isolation, and the film attempts to try and exhume the demons that can fester inside a person who would find solace in something a paranoia-fueled Militia. Except Dunham’s screenplay does not demonize or mock these characters and their intelligence. They aren’t fools or rednecks, and they each have their reasons for being in this predicament. Dunham is attempting to understand the world these men inhabit with an honest approach to them as human beings, and the result is a film that breaks down any reluctance you may have towards its characters and locks you inside this lumber warehouse right along with them, digging for answers.

This is a dark film, often lit with harsh flashlights, or fluorescents, or a clicking, buzzing security light setup around the lumber yard perimeter, or a patrolmen’s wandering beam. We are given a glimpse inside a what feels like an authentic Militia, where a carefully-manicured arsenal and a warehouse full of survival gear is handled responsibly, that is, until one of the members snaps. These Militia men have radical views, and they prepare and protect their own, and they are isolated, but are the criminals? Typically, they aren’t criminals until they are, and that’s the confounding chasm where this story unfolds.

There are reveals in Sparrow Creek, and a substantial twist that lays everything you’ve just seen out on the table, open for discussion. Here is a film that exists in the greyest of areas, forcing the viewer to pick a side, neither of which are desirable. It’s a slow-burning moral puzzle that feels unsolvable in the end, and it’s the confident arrival of a strong new voice in Henry Dunham.

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Resist the Hate: GLASS is a Terrific Dose of M. Night Shyamalan Indulgence

As the early reviews for Glass, M. Night Shyamalan’s much-anticipated third piece of his Philly superhero trilogy, began to trickle in, I was hit with a sinking feeling. I believed the reports, and bought into the claim that Shyamalan had gone off the rails again, and that Glass was a failure.

It always seemed like a possibility with this sort of ambitious project. Big ambition has gotten the better of the polarizing filmmaker over the years in some fascinatingly bizarre ways. Shyamalan typically shines when his films keep the focus small like Unbreakable and Split, the previous entries in this story, but Glass is something different. There are expectations to this world that didn’t exist until the final shot of Split last year. It made sense, sadly, that the early narrative around Glass was tepid to poor; Shyamalan had stubbed his toe again.

Fortunately, none of that narrative is true, at least it shouldn’t be true for any devotees of the wild and unwieldy rollercoaster that is the career of M. Night Shyamalan. Glass is big in ideas about people and superheroes and trauma and empathy, with a sumptuous visual palette that carries through every perfectly manicured scene. Every frame here could be pulled from the movie and put on the pages of a comic book.

Glass is also corny as hell, but it’s not ashamed to be. Shyamalan’s grasp on pop culture has always been suspect – his references don’t quite land the way someone like Tarantino’s do – and that’s the same here. But this is a comic book world, bathed in bright solid colors and fully committed to the story at hand, so the hokey dialogue, not to mention the effort Shyamalan puts into tying his cameos from the previous movies together, is all part of the charm. It’s surprising that anyone would expect anything different at this point.

As for the story, well, it’s as basic as the visuals are indulgent, but it allows Shyamalan to throw tremendous amounts of energy into rationalizing his own admiration for comics and his own beliefs about hero mythology through his three leads: James McAvoy, who plays the murderous Horde (a.k.a. 24 separate personalities), Bruce Willis as David Dunn, the hero of Unbreakable, who is now hunted by the law, and Samuel L. Jackson as the brittle, diabolical villain Mr. Glass. These characters are so fully realized, and the performances so endearing, that Shyamalan is able to meta-textually deconstruct comic books, while simultaneously creating a singular comic genre vision, and anyone willing enough to buy in will enjoy the ride.

The film is off and running early, buzzing with a nervous ticking-clock score and showcasing both Willis and McAvoy as their paths eventually diverge. The midsection is where the heavy exposition comes in, and it may lose some casual viewers, but the ominous tones and tense camera work add significant weight to whatever ostensible hypothesizing these characters are working out.

There’s no need for plot details; part of the fun of a Shyamalan film is seeing what sort of weird detours it will take. In fact, the setting is virtually inconsequential as the story progresses, merely a vehicle to combine the trio with a terrific supporting cast including a terrifically chilling Sarah Paulson, Spencer Treat Clark back as David’s son, Joseph, and Anya Taylor-Joy returning as Casey, the surviving victim of McAvoy’s spree at the end of Split. Casey’s arc in the story is particularly inspired for a small but crucial performance.

Willis and Jackson are fine in their roles, comfortable and serviceable, but the heavy lifting James McAvoy is doing here is spectacular. Every tick and switch from one person to the next is earned, and he is pulling this off dozens of times through the film. From his show-stopping physicality to his sincere embrace of Shyamalan’s words, McAvoy goes all in and puts on scenery-chewing clinic that belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of over-the-top performances.

The climactic showdown manages to be a commentary on everything Glass has been about up to that point, and yet it may alienate viewers who’ve been conditioned to expect certain things from their superhero movies over the years. There should be no expectation that Shyamalan was going to take the film down an expected path, and the decision to finish the story in this way, on that location, speaks volumes as to the type of specific story Shyamalan wants to tell.

I feel I can say with some certainty that Glass will be reevaluated in the public forum sooner rather than later. This almost always happens with Shyamalan’s films, and while I may not be the best judge of whether or not they’re good for everybody because I am a philistine who loves the Village, I know that this is the director absolutely nailing every one of his intentions with goofy jokes and heady ideas and style and thrills and excitement and suspense.

It’s a relief to see, at least through the fog of my undying support for the guy, that Shyamalan has not flown off the rails the way it’s being described. If you’ve learn to stop worrying and love The Shyamalan, Glass is right up your alley.

Scenes I Love: Percy Serenading Lydia in THE FISHER KING

Of all the wonderfully bizarre and idiosyncratic Terry Gilliam films we’ve gotten over the years, none have been accompanied by as much heart, as much earnestness, and as much expertly calibrated saccharine emotion as his 1991 urban fable, The Fisher King.

The film, written by Richard LaGravenese, was the first time Gilliam, a member of the legendary Monty Python troupe, didn’t direct something based on his own writing. The Fisher King is a grimy melodrama, an adventure, a deep dive into the poisonous fruits of fame, and the LaGravenese touch adds a layer of emotional depth that was never really a major tool in Gilliam’s bag.

Jack (Jeff Bridges) is an arrogant talk radio DJ who is absolutely lost inside his ever-expanding ego. His flippant dismissal – and subsequent stirring up – of a disturbed caller one night motivates said caller to walk into a nightclub with a shotgun and open fire. The tragedy sends Jack into a spiral of self hatred and depression, and into the arms of Anne (Mercedes Ruehl). One night after some heavy drinking, thoughts of suicide, and being mistaken for a homeless person by a gang of kids looking to literally burn away the city’s destitute, a self-proclaimed knight of the streets, Parry (Robin Williams), steps in and saves the day.

The connection between Jack and Parry is apparent early: Parry was an educated member of high society whose wife was murdered that night in the nightclub, and the tragedy fractured his mind. Now, he is a man on a quest to find the holy grail – on the upper west side, no less – while fending off the Red Knight, a manifestation of his trauma and his past life that drives him mad. Jack feels it’s his duty to help.

Not only does Jack help Parry with his seemingly fruitless quest, he also has an idea that will potentially help Parry get his life back in some sense of order. That involves Lydia, a bumbling loner who doesn’t really walk to work every day, so much as she is pushed along sidewalks and through train stations by a wave of indifferent humans who don’t even realize she’s there, like driftwood down a river. Parry realizes she’s there, however, and he is absolutely smitten, in love with every little crazy tick and pratfall. Jack, with the help of Anne, set up a date based on false pretenses involving a phony video rental contest, and a suit with plenty of staples along the hem line.

Lydia is strange, and guarded, but Parry can see through her aggressive exterior. The setup of the date is chaotic and buzzing with nervous energy; the dinner at a Chinese restaurant is awkward and clumsy, and Plummer is doing some marvelous physical work. And then, on a dime, it’s beautiful:

What begins as a terrific bit of improv and physical comedy, Williams’ strength as a comedian, Parry’s rendition of “Lydia” breaks all the energy and emotion of the scene down into one touching moment. The song captures the mood of the table, and for the slightest moment, Parry is normal again.

It’s a devastating moment, given what happens later that night when Parry’s psychosis manifests itself as the thunderous Red Knight. Despite the tragedy that follows in the wake of this dinner, it’s the turning point of the picture, where Jack realizes the feelings he has for Anne go beyond self-loathing, and where Parry and Lydia connect on another level.

It allows the end to happen the way it happens, and it’s a scene I absolutely love.

THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT is The Work of a Busy, Unsettled Mind

The House That Jack Built is a glimpse inside its creator’s busy and troubled brain.

Lars von Trier is arguably the most infamous provocateur in cinema; he’s certainly the most high-profile provocateur, a comically brash personality with an unsettled upbringing, who can somehow secure major talent for all of his whacked out stories of extreme psychosis and depravity. All of his films, in some form or another, are a look inside von Trier’s busy head, where memories of his mother’s deception, manic depression and alcoholism, his fascination with Nazis, and his early days directing hardcore porn all crash into one another and spill out in harsh examinations of tragedy (Antichrist), existentialism (Melancholia), and sex (the Nymphomaniac films).

It should be no surprise to anyone willing to watch The House That Jack Built that it is depraved and deeply disturbing in a few scenes. That’s what you’re getting when you push play on a von Trier joint. But this film is, more than any of his other films, Lars von Trier purging himself of all the shortcomings and failures he sees in his career and, ultimately, his life.

Jack, our nebbish, bottled-up serial killer with some serious OCD, is played by Matt Dillon. Dillon has been out of the spotlight for what feels like more than a decade, so it’s nice to see him in a substantial role he can sink his teeth in. And his knife blade. Dillon is in every scene, and gets the opportunity to play seemingly different characters throughout.

The film is broken up into five “incidents,” which is what Jack calls them when he’s telling his tale to a mysterious older voice in act breaks and tangents, sometimes accompanied with animation. The first incident is the one most have seen in clips, with Uma Thurman, but other victims include the terrific character actress Sioban Fallon Hogan, Danish star Sofie Gråbøl, and Riley Keough. The early scenes are violent, but fleeting and manageable, nothing too intense. But it’s all a setup. If you can make it past the shocking sequence at right about the halfway point, a stomach-churning scene involving a “family” and a hunting rifle, you might be able to hold on and make it through the harrowing second half. No warning here can be strong enough.

Jack gets more brazen and takes more risks as he continues killing and butchering his victims. He smashes in their faces, strangles them, shoots them, hits them with cars… all just to see if he can. He has a freezer where he keeps the bodies, and he treats each incident as a canvas for which he can paint his art. Every murder is photographed and manicured to look like something specific for Jack. This is all von Trier, commenting on his own tumultuous career as a provocateur, and he’s incredulous that it keeps going no matter what he tries.

Over his career, Lars von Trier has kept pushing the limit of what he will try in a film, and he keeps getting away with it. Each of these incidents is von Trier confessing something, like how he’s been cruel to women (which stems from his mother), or how his obsessions have ruined his personal relationships – and his family, as exemplified in the nightmare scene in the middle – and how he’s seemingly gotten away with producing these sorts of movies for three decades.

Time and time again, Jack is able to stammer himself into a woman’s home, to stumble out of suspicion with police, to move frozen bodies in and out of an apartment complex undetected. A fortuitous rain storm washes away a miles-long stream of blood and brain. He keeps getting away with it, so he keeps trying, getting stronger. All the while, Jack’s attempts at building a home are thwarted by his dissatisfaction and crippling OCD. It’s easy to see the metaphors spraying blood all over the screen, or visualized by a house that fails to come together because murderous obsession steals all of Jack’s time.

Like most of von Trier’s films, The House That Jack Built is a little bloated and a little cluttered, and it goes on far too long. It’s a metaphorical journey through hangups most people already knew about the filmmaker, but it’s still interesting to see how the creator sees his own creation and embraces his own psychological issues with a furious ego dump. Lars von Trier seems like the sort of person who will corner you at a party and tell you insane theories about the darkest corners of the human soul, and about Nazis and his mother and porn, beating you senseless with insufferable ramblings until you can fake a phone call or have someone stealthily rescue you from his clutches.

That doesn’t sound appealing, and The House That Jack Built is, like most of von Trier’s films, not a lot of fun. But it’s a it of morbid fascination to see what sort of insanity he can cook up from picture to picture, and there is no denying the immaculate craftsmanship on display. As long as he wants to keep trying to make these insane movies, and get terrific unfettered performances from greats like Matt Dillon, it’s worth a shot to see if you can push play and make it to the end.