December 31, 2013

The Spectacular Now

James Ponsoldt, 2013
Sutter (Miles Teller) is a high school senior who decides to get drunk after a break-up with his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson). Suddenly awoken on a stranger's lawn by paper girl Aimee (Shailene Woodley), he helps with her deliveries while he attempts to locate his car. Love blossoms between the two and Sutter attempts to live in the moment while also at the same time is constantly reminded of the approaching future.

2013 was an interesting and great year for movies. It brought us several apocalyptic (and post-apoc) films (Oblivion, After Earth, The World's End, This is the End) but it also delivered a handful of coming-of-age films (The Way Way Back, The Kings of Summer) including The Spectacular Now. Directed by James Ponsoldt (Off the Black, Smashed) and written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer), Spectacular stands out from the others because of one discernible difference: they were able to effectively capture young love in it's purest form from synthesis to progression. That point in a teenager's life where it's an all-consuming thing. When it appears during strange coincidences, with surprising people, and sometimes to the surprise of peers. They are able to capture the innocence and vulnerability of it with much help from the two stars Teller (Project X, Footloose (the remake) and Woodley (The Descendants). Sutter's character is conflicting at times but that may be because he's identifiable. He has this pseudo-alpha never-take-anything-too-seriously approach to everything but at the end of the day he's terrified about the future, unsure of who is going to become while feeling pressured by the people around him. Terrified of repeating the same mistakes of his parents. When he opens his eyes and sees Aimee standing over him, the new chapter is immediately opened. And while parts of his past may linger, things have already changed and will continue changing. Sutter has to live through some of the defining moments of his life. He needs to have his heart broken, needs to meet his estranged father, needs to question the deficiencies in his mother's parenting. The camera is there to capture it. Shailene Woodley nails it with her outstanding performance as the insecure bookworm, surprised to find herself in the eyes of the popular Sutter. You buy into their connection immediately and the rest of the film plays out really well with the necessary ebbs and flows of a romantic drama with some sudden and difficult turns along the way. 

December 29, 2013

Top 5 Plane Crash Scenes

Plane crash scenes bring you to a place your mind really doesn't want to go. Fear of flying is one of the most common phobias with humans. Although your odds of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 20,000, 25 million people in the United States suffer with a fear of flying. Realistic plane crash scenes on film certainly don't make it any easier, but they surely touch on something visceral. When judging the quality of a particular crash scene, there are certain ideas to consider. Is it more than just pure terror or did the filmmaker do something different with it? Has it become a part of your normal life (like memorable scenes tend to do), if you fear flying do you picture that one crash scene in your mind?

5. Fearless (1993)
The orchestral music selection is a risky artistic choice from Weir but the right one, making the scene almost beautiful in a way.

4. World War Z (2013)
The 2013 zombie apocalypse behemoth's plane crash scene is as relentless and rapid as the rest of the film.

3. Alive (1993)
The early 90's classic. Marshall needs to be commended for pulling off this scene so remarkably well given the limited resources available in terms of effects in 1993. The joyous mood of the passengers on board only adds to the tension, giving you a false sense of security.

2. The Grey (2011)
A surprisingly good scene from a surprisingly good film starring Liam Neeson. The short dream sequence is very well done as well.

1. Cast Away (2000)
This one is permanently embedded in the memory of anyone who hates to fly. So horrifically well-done. Cast Away is an interesting film too; seems to have gotten better with time.

December 27, 2013


Denis Villeneuve, 2013
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) are spending some time with their neighbors Franklin (Terrance Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis). Their girls ask to go play at their house. They return home not long after only to find the two girls missing. With a suspicious RV in the neighborhood the police act quickly. Not feeling that the police investigated the initial suspect thoroughly, Keller loses faith in the police and decides to perform his own investigation for the girls independently, knowing that with each hour passing without their return the hope diminishes.

Prisoners is a tough film to get through. Not because its a poorly made film, it's quite the opposite. It's an exceptional film. It's just disturbing at the same time. A film that could have easily made this blog's Top 5 great films I don't want to see againIt's a difficult two hour ordeal involving child abduction, one of those horrific scenarios that everyone fears and doesn't want to think about. And it plays on that theme so well. At times it's likely to remind you of similarly themed kidnapping films Gone Baby Gone, Ransom, Taken or even Mystic River. But Prisoners stands out on it's own. Notes of desperation, suspicions of all of the shady characters embedded in the community (and there's no shortage of shady characters here), degradation of hope, loss of spirit. Even the small, rural town of Conyers Pennsylvania is bleak. It rains a lot, and when it's not raining or snowing the sun doesn't really resurface - it just sort of stays miserably overcast. This is no mistake by Villeneuve, who clearly wants the town of Conyers to have a more dreary air to it. The mechanics of such a film wouldn't work so well if the parents woke up to a sunny sky, almost hinting that things are going to get better. Instead, Keller and Grace don't really wake up because they hardly sleep. And when the daylight hits the windows, it's just another day that they spend every waking moment trying to find their daughter Anna. Next door there's no shortage of grief either as the well-off Birch family holds out. But the film has more of a focus on the Dover's. Their characters are more layered. Not financially stable. Their struggles feel identifiable, more realistic. Keller struggles to find carpentry work while also doomsday prepping in his well-organized basement. His son asks for some financial support in purchasing his first car and Keller almost immediately states that it's an impossibility. Clearly things can always get worse. And of course they do.

Jackman puts his Wolverine claws in the closet and delivers what's arguably the best performance of his character, full of nuance. A religious man, a recovering alcoholic who has already been to hell and back in the past. A man who likely at a certain limit only to have it pushed further. His morals become compromised, he makes drastic decisions, but you understand. He maintains conscience, at times even feeling desperate for a church confessional. Jake Gyllenhaal's performance as the twitchy Detective Loki is a bit restrained but his determined yet calculating demeanor is interesting. Keller unfortunately doesn't see how hard Loki is on himself. Character actor Paul Dano nails it as peculiar loner Alex Jones. Melissa Leo is the chameleon she always is. Maria Bello so perfectly demonstrates the complete collapse of one's character. The years that a trauma can put on someones mind and physical attributes, like that person you know in your town who lost a child years back that everyone feels so sorry for when they see her at the gas station while she hides her face. From beginning to end the cast performs like a gloomy symphony of melodrama. The final moments of the picture play on some of the notes of Silence of the Lambs, perhaps making more of an impact on you as you watch the the credits roll. Prisoners will without a doubt stick with you, for good or bad. 

December 23, 2013

American Hustle

David O. Russell, 2013
Russell's latest work is actually a difficult film to explain to someone when they ask you to describe the plot. "Okay.. so there's this con-man and his lover who cheat desperate people out of black market loans who then get caught and have to assist the FBI in taking down some politicians while also at the same time try to handcuff the investigation to the mob by promising Middle Eastern financial backing in rebuilding the Atlantic City casinos. You got all of that right?"

Scorcese gave his keys to Russell and told him to bring it back in one piece. He did, and he took it for a nice long spin in this con-artist crime drama/gangster story/quirky comedy/period piece. The nod to Scorcese is blatant: the narrative, the tracking shots, MOS sequences set to music, the gangster motif, the Big Apple backdrop. The casting office even called for a couple of Boardwalk Empire's guys. But it's also very David O. Russell. At times the film solicits laughter reminiscent of his comedic style in Flirting with Disaster. Russell puts on his Sounds of the 70's compilation and plays with one of his signature elements of taking that classic song you've heard a million times and putting a visual component in there that makes it seem like you're hearing it differently. 

Christian Bale morphs into his role as chubby con-artist (hair piece included) Irving Rosenfeld and continues to prove that he's one of the best actors working today. If his character didn't possess the nuance that Bale was able to bring to the role, it just wouldn't work. Jennifer Lawrence takes her already great performance in Silver Linings Playbook and goes off her meds, taking it to another level as a vindictive hot mess. Her distorted reality from being confined at home. The manipulative tendencies. Seething jealousy. Bradley Cooper's character is similar to his character in The Place Beyond the Pines in the sense that he's a government worker trying to make his mark. He's always been overlooked. He can almost smell success, it's so close. He wants it so badly. Amy Adams plays the classy Sydney Prosser, who wants nice things and is willing to trade her morals for companionship. Renner's performance as Camden Mayor Carmine Polito is more subtle but it has a certain plangency to it. You know whats going to happen to him. And it should bother you even after the film is over. Some surprising faces even turn up - one of which is un-credited.

Enough can't be said about the performances in the film. The cast deserves much praise, as well as Russell for being able to collaborate with such a pool of talent. It's especially impressive to discover that 20% of the film was improvised which again speaks well for the Russell's confidence. But outside of the great performances, the film feels too elaborate. While Russell's The Fighter and The Silver Linings Playbook had a more youthful feel -  American Hustle seems to be a film made for the older crowd. Probably the crowd who grew up the 1970's. It's surely a subjective movie (aren't they all), likely to be lauded by many and not so much by others. But either way you're bound to feel satisfaction on some level because the acting gives you your money's worth an hour into the picture. 

December 18, 2013

Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley, 2013
Sarah Polley (Splice, Dawn of the Dead, Go) turns the camera on her family in this creative and honest docu-drama which uses immersive recreated footage along with personal interviews with her family members. Polley is very curious about some of her family's past, and wants to get their individual accounts as they dig into their memory banks. Interestingly, they have varying interpretations of various family events. Some of the memories are vivid, some vague, some just aren't there. But the Polley family is colorful. Not without some pain, some surprise, some secrets. But it's those provocative elements which make it very human.

The film opens with the arresting falsetto song "Skinny Love" by Bon Iver. The various siblings casually take their seats in consecutive cuts and ask how they look in front of the camera, providing a casual behind-the-scenes approach to the traditional interviewing style of a standard documentary. Polley continues to re-imagine the standard doc with her recreated family footage. The footage is interlaced with authentic footage, the result feeling surprisingly seamless. Quite a bit of the footage shown is of her late mother Diane Elizabeth, who died of cancer when Sarah was 11. Diane is very natural on screen, constantly singing or dancing. The physical resemblance between Sarah and Diane is obvious, and it's very moving at times to see her mother singing to the camera.

It's not really until the second half of the film that Sarah begins to dig deeper into some of the family secrets, looking for answers. Some of the less favorable topics come up: infidelity, divorce, abuse, dishonesty. And while some of the subject matter is emotional, it certainly never crosses the line into the disturbing realm (like similarly constructed doc Capturing the Friedmans). The film shifts back to Sarah interviewing her father while she sits at a mixing board in a sound studio. She asks him to stop and repeat himself during his ongoing narrative on the other side of the glass. When he does, the camera focuses on a side profile of Sarah listening - with those words clearly affecting her emotionally. You get a sense that there is a catharsis happening. This is a film Polley is seemingly making for herself. She asks some very personal questions and receives some poignant answers. But to her credit, she is more than willing to put it all on the screen. She maintains a certain composure, an honesty, and vulnerability through it all. In the end you realize that while the Polley family may not be perfect, very few families are. There are always some scars. Life is very finite and love comes in many flavors, many of which can be complicated. You can spend the rest of your life blaming your relatives for some of the not-so-great things that have happened, or you can lick your wounds and move on. You look around and see what's surrounding you. In this case it's a lot of people who clearly care about each other and aren't ashamed or embarrassed of their heritage.

December 16, 2013

Boardwalk Empire (Season 4)

Terence Winter, 2013
Any fan of the Boardwalk series by now has come to expect a certain level of consistency. In the first three seasons, you learn a great deal about what happens. Authentic set pieces, comprehensive character structure, period music, short life expectancy. Terence Winter clearly has no problem developing a character and ending his or her life suddenly. It's one of the more gripping parts of the series. Swift bloodshed. Because of the historical element to the show, you are already aware of the fate of some. Some of the legendary names we've heard echo through American culture since we were children. But for others that's not the case. Other characters are more shrouded, but with large stories. Along with the consistency that the series provides, there's a real sense of accuracy. You are literally standing in the time period. There are so many ongoing story-lines, all equally alluring. It's difficult to find a flaw in Boardwalk. Perhaps there isn't one. The twelve episodes are constructed so perfectly. The season finale delivers and makes an impact. This series sits high on the shelf. It's hard to compare it to some of the better series to come out in the past ten years, probably because it's really carved out a nice niche. And it doesn't seem to be losing any steam either. And perhaps the only flaw of this amazing series is the wait time until the next season.

And so the series progresses on to the fourth season. Nucky continues to build his empire, and this season decides to expand to the Florida for assistance in efficiently importing his product. Al Capone is feeling like he is growing up and feeling like a big fish in a small pond faster than his boss Johnny Torrio would like him to, and begins to grow resentful. Van Alden is continuing to make new friends in surprising places, and in season four he finds himself getting the attention of the Capone's. Margaret is attempting to move on with her life, outside of the criminal world and in a more legitimate setting. Chaulky White is now running Nucky's old nightclub, an acquisition he made after his huge favor to Nucky last season. Gillian, struggling with her heroin addiction, finds new love that appears to be promising. We are introduced to new characters. The federal agents, led by young director J. Edgar Hoover, appear suddenly and are hungry to uncover the prospect of possible organized crime family. Dr. Narcisse is a new face to New Jersey, bringing with him a ominous energy that doesn't appeal to some, including Chaulky. The finale is heartwrenching and satisfying. It will stick with you. Or at least it should. 

December 10, 2013

Top 5 Scenes Involving Food

5. Hook - Imaginary Dinner (1991)
A childhood classic for anyone born in the early to mid-1980's. Not loved by all, making it a controversial selection. But if you admire this picture and someone begins to describe this scene you will immediately remember it. We wanted to live in this scene. We all wanted to fill our tables with what looks like bowls filled with liquified Play-Doh.

4. Annie Hall - Lobster Scene (1977)
This scene is important and memorable because it so perfectly embodies the spirit of Allen's neurotic comedy. Forcing himself into situations (like eating Lobster on a weekend in the Hamptons) that he knows are socially normal, but it's just one many struggles for him.

3. Goodfellas - Prison Food (1990)
One of the biggest components of this film is the reach of the mob, the influence. That reach extends behind bars. Seeing the prison administrator hand-delivering the lobsters is comedic and sadly honest at the same time.

2. Pan's Labyrinth - Feast (2006)
Chilling. Imaginative. Haunting. Possibly the best scene in the film.

1. Pulp Fiction - Big Kahuna Burger Scene (1994)
If you mention this film, and you mention food, a lot of people would think of the $5 milkshake scene. And that's fair. The dancing scene with Travolta and Thurman is most certainly notable. It has it's place. But the Kahuna scene is so great because it just oozes Tarantino. The build-up of tension. You know what's coming. You know where he's going. But getting there is just so artfully done. Big Kahuna Burger doesn't even exist. And after watching this we all want it to.

December 8, 2013


Marvin Kren, 2010
Michael (Michael Fuith) has recently broken up with his girlfriend Gabi (Anka Graczyk). He shows up at her apartment unannounced to return her key and hopefully convince her to stay with him. His bad timing is proven when the world outside of the apartment is hit with a rapidly spreading virus, and Gabi is nowhere to be found. He seeks refuge in the apartment with a plumber's apprentice who happens to be working there.

It's hard to convince anyone to watch a new zombie picture. It's a very much over-saturated genre. Most of the zombie films that are released are poorly made, no question. Most of them steal certain attributes from their predecessors. Been there, done that. So someone convinces you to put on the new one, and you sit there hoping to be surprised. And honestly, the odds are against you. But alas, a German zombie film. Perhaps the Europeans have different standards? Perhaps they don't see a Romero film and say "Hey, I can do that! Perhaps they have never seen an episode of The Walking Dead. They probably have. But rest assured, there is a decent one here. It's hard to make a zombie picture nowadays and have it be COMPLETELY unique.

But this one is done pretty well. It's a zombie film that's short and sweet. The film opens up and you are immediately introduced to Michael, who is really the every-man character. Balding and not in shape. He fantasizes about getting his girl back. He shows up to her apartment with an image in his mind of her opening the door and immediately hugging him, telling him it was all a huge mistake. Instead, he is faced with an unforeseen obstacle. A zombie pandemic. Who could see that coming? That premise is so over-used, but to Kren's credit he draws out his story effectively and with some unique touches. And in the end, it could be considered a clear limited storytelling piece. Muted colors. A sense of urgency. Erratic camera work that puts you in the narrow passageways. He sets his time clock short. You have about ten seconds to remove yourself from the room, or you are screwed. And you removing yourself from the room may mean throwing yourself in the next room, much smaller, with no exits. Walls become smaller, claustrophobic. Simplicity is the strength of the film. Kren knows he isn't breaking new ground, and he is not trying to.What he does offer is good camera work, impressive acting, and a beautifully constructed love scene in the final act that is certainly him signing his name on his love letter to Jaume Balaguero (REC).

December 5, 2013


Vikram Gandhi, 2011
Vikram Gandhi is a filmmaker who wants to study Americans' obsession with the concept of a Guru. As an experiment he attempts to impersonate a yoga guru hoping to generate some humor. What he ends up getting is something he did not expect; real followers. Loyal, committed followers. He's suddenly faced with the challenge of being honest with these people who suddenly look up to him for spiritual leadership. Can he come clean?

Kumare is the kind of documentary that sneaks up on you. Vikram Gandhi is quite honest about his intentions. He wants to out the false prophets of the world with a well-crafted social experiment. Snake oil salesmen. Smoke in mirrors. And he does this. But he gets more than he bargained for. When you start to hear the stories of the people that begin following him, your heart aches. These are real people. These are people with real issues, who struggle with real issues. People who have a certain pain that makes them particularly vulnerable. The fascinating thing is that they all have different flavors of vulnerability. But it's all very authentic. There's certainly a message here. People are insecure. People are desperate for guidance. Sometimes it's as simple as companionship. Sometimes it's validation. And because of that desperation, there is a certain accessibility that forms.

The cleverly constructed doc defies you to hold back the tears when you see the pictures on the wall of the family members who have moved away from their mother. When you hear about past drug abuse, and a new-found sense of purity. Broken promises to oneself, and the intention to finally fulfill them. Kumare accidentally becomes a real guru to them, a pseudo-father figure. The joke gets lost in the humanity. Without the humanity, the film would be a cheap laugh in the same vein as Borat. Without the humanity, the film would come off as deviously predatory as Punk'd. But that's the thing. The humanity is there. On both sides. Kumare's placebo effect has a lasting impact. The emotions are laid right out there. Brace yourself for the reveal.

November 30, 2013


Jason Wise, 2012
The Master Sommelier examination is one of the most difficult tests to pass in the world. It has been running annually since 1969 and there are less than 200 Sommeliers in the world. It involves knowing virtually everything about wine. The geography of the wine. The history of the vineyards. But most importantly you have to be able to sit down in front of four current Master Sommeliers, drink six glasses of wine (3 red, 3 white) in twenty minutes and tell them everything about them including

This documentary follows a group of men with sophisticated palettes that are studying for the Master Sommelier examination. There is a nice opening segment as you are introduced to the characters, Ian Cauble, as he describes the importance of wine. Living in the moment. Drinking a glass of wine and attempting to experience the most of that twenty minutes. You get a sense early on that this is no hobby for them. It's very much like the Donkey Kong gamers in The King of Kong or the Scrabblers in Word Wars where it's an all-consuming obsession, but without the emulous bitterness toward each other. These men stay up all night, enduring long tasting sessions together while they attempt to pinpoint every attribute about what is in their mouth. When they aren't together, they are Skyping each other with flash cards for hours on end. At the end of the night they leave their exhausted but patient wives with a spit bowl to empty, only to be filled the next night when they do it all over again. The Master Sommelier's interviewed make it clear that the light at the end of the tunnel is a lot of open doors in the world of wine. Not only that but they hope that they can return to their normal lives again, return to normal sleep and hopefully spend time with their loved ones who have inadvertently been ignored.

The film is effective in getting you engaged in the characters. Wise provides multiple perspectives in the film which really helps to establish the challenge. To the wives' credit, they come off as sincere and supportive. When they send them off at the airport you get a sense that they are eagerly sitting by the telephone waiting to hear if they passed or not. The existing Sommeliers in a way come off as the men's trainers. They are attempting to prepare them the best they can. They see the potential, but they also make it clear that come game-day, they need to be ready. There is no real margin for error. While the Sommeliers are sage-like and at times demanding, there's more of a motivating tone giving you a sense that they want to see these men join their ranks. And perhaps that is the flaw in this doc. While the aforementioned King of Kong had a clear-cut villain in the story (in fact one of the worst villains ever), this film is for the most part devoid of one. Who is the enemy? Themselves? Their misleading tastebuds? Their determination is inspiring, and by the end of the film you are truly rooting for them. And while there are certainly some surprises come examination day, the film is guilty of wrapping things up a bit too nicely. Maybe it's a film where loose ends aren't the worst thing in the world. That being said, it's still an entertaining piece that might make you thirsty.

November 29, 2013

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

Jeremiah S. Chechik, 1989
There is probably nobody in Chicago that gets as excited for Christmas as Clark Griswald. He imposes his holiday traditions on his close family who are for the most part supportive, while also putting up with his annoying in-laws and his own parents all under his own roof as one big dysfunctional family.

In 2011 Forbes did a list of the top ten Christmas films. Christmas Vacation didn't crack the list. Is that fair? It possesses a lot of the qualities one is eager for when it comes to a holiday film. Tradition, laughs, positive energy, reinforcing the importance of family. When looking for a satisfying Holiday film, one looks for familiar elements that are relatable and engaging but also light-weight. One would hope that the film makes an impact that becomes repeatedly triggered come Christmastime and become ingrained in our memories.

Does Christmas Vacation get better with age? Actually, not really. In fact, it appears to have grown a bit stale. We need to be honest with the fact that Chevy Chase is not a remarkable actor. He has a limited bag of tricks, which to his credit he does put to use here. But he is more effective as an actor when he a bit more restrained but still goofy, like his role in Funny Farm. It's mostly slapstick here, with a sort of innocent imprudent approach to fulfilling his holiday rituals. His imposing family staying with them for the holidays come off as largely caricaturish. The animation at the beginning of the film seems very out of place. There's not a lot of depth to the characters. But perhaps it's not fair the judge this film so harshly. For what it is, it's good, right? What will history be kinder to? Come twenty years from now, will we all be more inclined to put on Christmas Vacation or Elf? You know what? It will likely be Elf. Although a more modern story, it's one that is more generic and heartwarming with some timeless laughs. Perhaps Christmas Vacation is one of those holiday films that is hard to let go of, but maybe its time to after 24 years. Maybe it's time to put it up in the attic for some time and see what the next generation thinks of it. 

November 28, 2013

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

John Hughes, 1987
Neal Page (Steve Martin) is a marketing executive rushing to catch a plane from New York to Chicago two days before Thanksgiving. Struggling to flag down a taxi cab, he has to pay a stranger off quickly to take theirs only to have it abruptly stolen from him by shower-ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy). Little does he know his confrontations with Del would continue to become unavoidable as an unlikely friendship forms over the bad circumstances that he continues to fall into.

A heartfelt picture, light on story but carrying comedic weight. Made in a time when Steve Martin was making crowds laugh, and not making them listen to him playing banjo. You are hit with the stick of the time period early on with the very present synthesizer sounds. You continue to be constantly reminded that you are in the 1980's with the automobiles, clothing, vibrating beds, primitive credit card machines with paper carbon slips, smoking indoors. Bad karma has struck Neal. His misfortune continues to mount, as Chicago continues to feel further and further away. Opposites attract because they have to when you are unavoidably stuck with the other person. Interestingly the sense of the film being dated is felt with the evident homophobia when they wake up in bed with each other and have to force a Chicago Bears reference to prove to each other, you know, that they aren't into that kind of thing.

The obvious concept quite early on is that they are living in very different worlds. Not only from a social class perspective. When any little conflict may arise in Neal's day, his whole world is shaken up. Not a good way to live your life, as it only sets you up for constant disappointment. Your flight is cancelled? Big deal. You can get the next one. Car broken down? Big deal, it can be fixed. It can always get worse. And it will. Life is not about stepping over everyone around you to get to your destination. It's about community, living in the moment, savoring the experience - regardless of how horrible it can be. While Del Griffith's character is an exaggeration of the annoying heavy-set guy (the coughing in the motel room is a bit much), he is likable nonetheless because of his obvious sense of optimism. He's been in the run down motel rooms before. He knows how to make the best of a situation. Neal is so caught up in his own life that he barely gives Del's life experience any thought. By the time that he does during a reflective state, Hughes has to wrap up the film quite quickly. And while the final moments of the film are played out effectively, they do feel a bit rushed and ultimately predictable. So clearly the film is not without it's flaws, but to be fair it was not made to break ground. To it's credit - the story opens up, delivers consistent laughs, and wraps it all up nicely. Perhaps it could be credited with influencing later slapstick films with stranded pairs like Dumb and Dumber or Tommy Boy. It's an amusing Thanksgiving story with a lot of situational comedy. Loaded with characters like a lot of Hughes' other work. And it certainly makes you miss the late great John Candy.

Marc Maron: Thinky Pain

Lance Bangs, 2013
Marc Maron performs in front of a small crowd in an intimate setting in this made for Netflix special. Any fan of Marc Maron's very popular WTF Podcast or his recent Television series on FX is familiar with his personality. He is an open book. He is experienced but he has work to do. He is reflective but neurotic. Intelligent. While he is admittedly not a religious person, he certainly channels some of the neurotic Jewish comedic chords in the same vein as Woody Allen, Richard Lewis, or Mel Brooks. Maron is not a set-up to punchline guy. He is proud of his lack of preparation. He comfortably sits on the bar-stool and throws the unnecessary notebook to the floor. He is taking it moment to moment, reading the crowd. He knows that it can go either way, and that's fine with him. Brilliant deconstructionism. Breaking down his method as he shows chicken scratches on hotel stationary. His act at times comes off as more of a cathartic therapy session. It becomes an outlet to confess some childhood fears. They are all going to get through it together. He doesn't hesitate to let you in. Some frustrating elements of his relationship with a much younger female. Possible damage to the body from past drug use. Psychologically damaging moments in childhood sports. Frustration about having to deal with alpha males in childhood and in adult life. The hypochondria created from having a doctor for a father. The food guilt with being a fat kid from with an anorexic mother. And while it all comes from real place, it's all funny. The highlight of the special is when he pinpoints a childhood moment on a baseball field. He confesses that his life would have gone in a completely different direction had he caught a baseball. And while there is clear trauma and a bit of tragedy associated with the story, it's relatable and the vulnerability makes it pure. You get a clear sense that he's done a lot of the hard work, and while some of it was done on a stage, most of it was done inside himself. The honesty of the evolution is inspiring. He's come a long way and he wants to talk about it, or perhaps talk THROUGH it. It's thinky pain, and it's real.

November 27, 2013

Top 5 Films Set in New York City

This list is not going to be based specifically on the film's impact on cinema, but rather the specific impact that the film may have had on it being set in New York City. Does the fact that it's set with the backdrop of the Big Apple augment the film's qualities? Would it have been an inferior film if it were set in, say, Cleveland? Could it not exist if set in Kansas City? Of course there is a constant theme in the films that make this list. These films tend to be set in the old New York. Tribute to a past time. A less forgiving City that Never Sleeps. Before Times Square was Disneyfied. Mean streets. Dirty. Loud neighbors. Everyone has a past, and maybe they don't want to talk about it. Grimy. Dog eat dog. Thankfully they helped to preserve that gritty period of New York.

5. Midnight Cowboy

4. Wall Street
Quite possibly Stone's best film behind Platoon. Back when he still had it.

3. Ghostbusters & Ghostbusters II 
These two come up a lot on the blog. At some point they will both likely be retired to the Coop's Sanctum where they can no longer be mentioned on a Top 5 . But for now, it must be included. The city itself is very much felt in the film. It could be argued that the city itself could be considered a character in both films. "Being miserable and treating other people like dirt is every New Yorker's God-given right."

2. Taxi Driver

1. Annie Hall
Woody Allen's masterpiece. Possibly the best work of one of the best. Deeply rooted in New York.

November 23, 2013

Love Actually

Richard Curtis, 2003
This romantic comedy is a collection of very different lives. Very different lives all searching for the same thing. Love. As the Christmas holiday approaches, the pressure to have someone by their side is felt by everyone involved.

It's a film that carries a light load with a lot of star power. Love is the clear theme shown early on, and it's delivered in various flavors. Billy Mack (Bill Nighy), the aging punk rocker who just recorded a Christmas album and is feeling the loneliness of being a musician. A political aide who catches the attention of a freshman Prime Minister (Hugh Grant). Harry (Alan Rickman), a husband who has a flirtatious secretary that he hides from his wife Karen (Emma Thompson). A writer (Colin Firth) who employs a woman at his country retreat that he grows a fondness for. A pair of nude stunt doubles who spend a lot of uncomfortable time together (Martin Freeman and Joanna Page). A child (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) who has a crush on a classmate who seeks the love advice of his widowed father (Liam Neeson). A woman (Laura Linney) totally in love with a co-worker but doesn't have the courage to confess. A hodgepodge of different lives, intertwined. You get it. Lot's of stories. Almost like Crash without the drama and a lot of mistletoe, Christmas lights and ecstasy pills.

It's an ambitious film that's positively charged, but it's also very frustrating film at times. You would think that with such an ensemble cast that it would be a cakewalk. And they aren't to blame, the acting is actually quite fine. You feel yourself getting pulled into the emotional tone of the moment only to have the rug pulled out on you. You think to yourself, "this won't happen again" and then it does. Again and again. The erratic direction of each story-line never slows down enough for you to savor it. That and there's really just too many ongoing story-lines to begin with. You continue to feel starved for some kind of dilemma, while a lot of the characters get their happiness served to them on a silver platter. Clearly Curtis wasn't looking to settle into any dramatic moments, probably hoping to maintain a more light-hearted overall feel. But that makes it feel evasive. In the end the picture is as clumsy as an elementary school Christmas play.

November 21, 2013

Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach, 2013
Frances Halladay (Greta Gerwig) is a 27 year old aspiring dancer who is having a difficult time moving forward. She feels comfortable in her small apartment with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), where they make childish plans for their future, but there are a forces in her life putting pressure on her to progress.

Baumbach's piece is clearly a nod to Woody Allen's Manhattan, but spares a lot of the classic elements for more of a youthful hipster vibe. It's a smart film; heavy on the dialogue but also carrying a lot of sincere weight. Frances could easily come off as annoying, and she does at times. She also comes off as frustrating, but so do a lot of the characters in the film. You get a sense that there is a number of New York's artist community largely dependent, spouting off unenlightened opinions while they sit in their $4000 brownstone apartments smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey paid for on loans by their wealthy parents. Non-contributors. Frances is guilty of being opinionated herself, but her charm is in her honesty. You wonder if a girl like her ever "turns it off", and perhaps she doesn't. She is immature yet energetic. Reliant yet loyal. She is a nervous intellectual who has two drinks too many and can't seem to stop talking. And sometimes you don't want her to stop talking. When she delivers a brilliant "love dimension" speech, you see that while her dreams may be misguided - there's a sense of pure optimism inside. When she does manage to pull it together to some extent, it almost feels like it all comes too quickly. Was she closing one chapter or was it simply ending the movie? That's not necessarily a knock on Baumbach's story. It's still a rather entertaining experience getting there. She's a square peg of a woman in a round hole of life, effectively and humorously displayed in the final moment of the film.

Greta Gerwig certainly deserves praise for her performance in the film, you get a sense that she did put a lot out there. All in all, Baumbach does a good job of putting it all together nicely with organization and good music but the film doesn't have the lasting impact of The Squid in the Whale or the raw vulnerability of Greenberg. 

November 20, 2013

Announcing the Coopies!

I am happy to announce the Coopie Awards! The five best films of the year. This no popularity contest. There have been no payouts, at least none that I will disclose here. But seriously. The Oscars have become over-bedazzled glam-porn. A mershy popularity contest. We don't care who you are wearing. The battle of the blow-hards. There is already talk of Redford getting Best Actor this year because he hasn't won one yet and he's on the wrong side of 70. Scorcese finally got his overdue Oscar for The Departed, mostly due to the fact that the Academy was apologetic for not giving it to him for Goodfellas. There will be no horrible performances here. No fat. Just the five awards for the five best films of the year. And one award for the worst. The soon-to-be-famous solitary Poopie Coopie. Take that, Razzies! 

November 19, 2013

Top 5 Imaginative Films

5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
(Michel Gondry, 2004)

4. Back to the Future
(Robert Zemeckis, 1985)

3. The Fifth Element
(Luc Besson, 1997)

2. The Matrix
(Andy & Lana Wachowski, 1999)

1. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
(Steven Spielberg, 1982)

Honorable Mentions:

2001: A Space Odyssey - A must mention, but it would be a cop-out to have it on the actual Top 5. 
Pan's Labyrinth
The Cell - An underrated film
What Dreams May Come 

November 17, 2013


Jon Wright, 2012

A small Irish community is is shaken up when an alien creature lands in the sea. As residents begin to vanish, a newly-paired Guard duo tries to find its weakness. Upon discovering that it feeds off of blood, they attempt to poison their own blood by consuming large amounts of alcohol at the hometown pub.

In this silly beer-soaked sci-fi horror, Grabbers possesses some of beats of similarly-themed Attack the Block but also has some of the laughs-in-the-middle-of-chaos of Shaun of the Dead. The lead characters are easy on the eyes newbie good-girl Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley) and jaded lonely sad-sack Ciaran O'Shea (Richard Coyle). Nolan can't wait to fulfill her duties as Guard while O'Shea can't wait to wade through the monotony of his day, so his liver can do the bulk of his daily work at the local watering hole. When the two are assigned together early on there's a bit of tension between the two that makes you anticipate the predictable shift to romance. It doesn't take long to introduce the antagonist alien sea-beast (the first scene actually). Introduced at first using the effective what you don't see is more scary technique, when you it does finally show itself it's not disappointing. As the town bands together to fight it off using their best tool, their ability to put down the pints. The normally quiet town gets a shot in the arm when the beast arrives, and the sense of inebriated community between them all is inviting and amusing. Although the film may push the Irish stereotypes, as soon as "The Irish Rover" starts playing in the pub you wish you were right there with them singing along, Guinness in hand.

A film that could quickly become distracting with lame CGI and poor acting really isn't at the end of the day. There's impressive camera work involved, a fitting score, and a medium-sized cast that really deliver satisfying performances. The lack of a back-story and rush to create a romance between the two Guards feels a bit far-fetched, but then again its a movie about a giant alien squid who pukes up drunkards so who is really judging it on that level? Besides, there are moments in the film where it could venture down over-used roads and it actually pulls back. For what the movie is it's good. It knows what it is, and what it needs to accomplish. 

November 14, 2013

Top 5 Great Films I Don't Want to See Again

5. Black Swan 
(Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

It's hard to say exactly why this makes the list, but it just does. There's something haunting about this one.

4. Chained
(Jennifer Chambers Lynch, 2012)

David Lynch's daughter certainly inherited some of the directorial chops from her Dad, but she has a different vision that isn't necessarily bad... just different. Vincent D'Onofrio is good (like always), and also more warped than his serial killer character in the under-rated The Cell.

3. Requiem for a Dream 
(Darren Aronofsky, 2000)

A film likely to be on most people's lists. A film that can't be UNSEEN. There are a handful of scenes in this one that quite often pop up in my mind.

2. Irreversible 
(Gaspar Noe, 2002)

Gaspar Noe's best work. So good. But so disturbing.

1. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father 
(Kurt Kuenne, 2008)

It's a really moving piece. Directed by Kurt Kuenne, the film is an ode to his murdered friend after his ex-girlfriend announces she is expecting his son. Although filled with heartbreak, it's ultimately one of the most gripping documentaries you'll ever see. You need to make the time for this one if you haven't seen it. And of course, once you see it... you won't want to see it again.

Honorable Mentions:

The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)
Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)
Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis, 1995)
Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004)

November 12, 2013

All is Lost

J.C. Chandor, 2013

A man (Robert Redford) is alone at sea, is startled when a shipping container collides with his yacht. He is quick to mend the situation, but it's the beginning of a series of events that tests his ability to survive at sea.

It's sure to solicit comparisons to similarly-themed survival at sea films like Open Water or Cast-Away. But it has so much more heart and substance than the former and less outrageous and hefty than the latter. You could say it's simply a story about a man and his boat. A man looking for some solitude, some peace, perhaps at a refectory period in his life. And some things just get in the way. Some things like, say, a forgotten Chinese shipping container filled with knock-off sneakers. And other things, like Mother Nature displaying her fury on the sea, turning a beautiful day into a grayish hell. Perhaps it's a lesson in life, that you can't run away from your personal conflicts, because conflict can find you anywhere in the world. How you deal with them when they arise, is possibly the true test of character.

Redford, cast as "Our Man", brings his veteran acting chops to the table as a veteran yachtsman. And he does a damn good job of doing it. There's a lot of things you don't know about the man, and you're left to put a lot of the pieces together. He's used to being at sea. That's quite clear. He appears to take comfort in being alone. Why he's alone is not clearly explained. You hear his narrative early on, and you see his wedding band on his finger so you know he has a family somewhere. He's a man who likes a cocktail (or two), and perhaps that's why he's alone at sea in the first place, especially given the apologetic tone set early on. At first when the metal shipping container pierces the side of the boat, he doesn't panic. He quickly improvises, clearly putting a certain skill-set into action and improvising. Even when the storm comes, he remains collected. But he is an effective hero, because although he doesn't tell you much, you are right there with him on that boat rooting for him.

The minimalism is what makes this film so great. No dialogue, one cast member. That puts a lot of pressure on Redford, but he handles it remarkably. It seems like Chandor must have gone through 100 cameras making this film. As far as the sound goes, the score isn't so pronounced nor does it need to be. Sometimes you just hear the sound of the fierce wind blowing. But when he's in the brunt of the unforgiving storm, there is an ambient resonance that is so perfectly haunting it gives that one particular scene so much more power. That scene, without revealing what happens, is the most memorable of the film. That synergy could be the best attribute of the film, other than Redford's acting. The creaking as the boat rocks back and forth. It becomes such an integral part of the film. You sit in the cabin with him, wondering what could be coming next. The schools of fish gather below the boat, and it may as well be a clock ticking. They grow in number and size. The impending doom. A story of a man's misfortune. A reminder that water can be the basis of one's survival, or one's peril. A tale of time, or the proper use of it. Especially when every minute counts. A test of one's personal fortitude. The possibility of breaking a man.

November 11, 2013

12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen, 2013

Solomon Nothrup is a free man living in Saratoga. A skilled fiddle player, he is convinced by a couple pf men to travel to Washington to perform. Soon after he arrives, he is Shanghaied and sold into slavery. His requests to be freed on the account of being a free man from the north fall on deaf ears.

McQueen's adaptation of the Solomon Northrup memoir is an honest one. A true account of a tragic story. A very raw display of one of the true American horrors. McQueen is a skilled filmmaker and the technique involved in this picture is very deliberate. A lot of close to medium shots. Long takes, a lot of hanging on a shot, longer than one would expect. It's all intentional. He wants to enslave the audience, and he is effective at that. The tendency to cringe at what you are seeing, amd you do. The urge to look away, and you try to. It is also a film that wants to be heard, with Hans Zimmer providing the score. And so the pieces come together and the result is an ominous construct of deception. And the film is not over-stylized like Tarantino's very popular Django Unchained. That makes it feel more personal. While there is plenty of disturbing imagery in the film (possibly some of the worst you'll ever see), what makes the film truly upsetting is the truth behind it. You are seeing what your fellow man is capable of doing. What humanity is capable of. That's what makes it truly horrific. Manipulation, deception, betrayal, heartache, loneliness, theft. And not just theft of a person's livelihood. Not only a theft of a man's name. Theft of the human spirit. Northrup is living an honest life in Saratoga. A threat to no one but a set of fiddle strings. A family man, one who pays his taxes, has an honest job. The separation of North of South feels quite skewed when there is a threat of a southerner making their way up only to double-cross an honest man only because of his skin color. And so he is Shanghaied. He is not stripped of his freedom but his existence.

Great performances throughout. Chiwetel Ejiofor is well equipped to play Northrup. He will likely earn an Oscar nomination, and the praise is well-earned. Paul Dano plays the chilling Tibeats. Avenging after being undermined, he holds a grudge and doesn't value any real principles. Paul Giamatti plays a horrible slave trader Freeman, pawning off humans as if they are livestock, even if it involves separating mother from child. McQueen once again works with Michael Fassbender, who has appeared in all three of his feature films. Fassbender is so wonderfully despicable here. Hidden under the false charm of his Southern regalia, he puts the slaves in strict competition over cotton volume and on lonely nights forces them to dance to his own amusement while he stands around in bare-feet and loose garments. His temper is short and can be triggered by his repellent wife (played by the great Sarah Paulson). 

A story of perseverance, personal fortitude, but also one of shame. Germany may have the scar of Nazism on its face but we will always have slavery on ours. While the title of the film may give the ending away, it's not only about whether or not Solomon Northrup is eventually freed. There is no happy Hollywood ending to this piece. Taking 12 years away from a man not only strips him of time he cannot get back, it strips him of a certain freedom for the rest of his life. And what justice can be made for such time? Hard to quantify it. That's what makes it such a true American tragedy.

November 10, 2013

Miller's Crossing

Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990

Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne) is a right-hand man to a crime boss. When tension mounts between his boss Leo and rival boss Johnny Caspar, he finds himself in the middle and his loyalty comes into question.

The Coen Brothers jump into the 1930's mob world in this Prohibition-era Period Piece. With elaborate set design and heavy dialogue the film is ultimately more refined than Goodfellas but had the unfortunate timing of being released the same week in 1990. History seems to have been more kind to Scorcese's piece, or at least pushed Miller's Crossing into more of a cult status (not a bad thing). And there's no Eric Clapton playing in this picture. A classical score echoes throughout the film. Lots of wood paneling graces the scene reflecting dim light by fancy green lampshades. Backroom booze consumption and gambling. Double crossing. Political relationships. Long standing Irish and Italian feuds. Egos getting in the way of business. Sudden subtle humor puts the Coen Brothers mark on it (Caspar's blowups, Caspar's fat kid, Drops Johnson's screaming). But in the end they also don't hold back on the firepower. When the Tommy guns let loose they light up the screen like fireworks, and you're left with bullet-riddled storefronts and engulfed Ford Model A's.

The primary focus of the film is on Byrne's character Tom Regan. Regan is restrained, aimless. At times he feels almost nihilistic. He talks less and listens more. He doesn't really watch his back, and never feels he needs to. He is a cool head in a crowd of hot ones. He gets himself into a lot of situations that leave you on the edge of your seat wondering how he's going to get out of them. It's guilty of dragging a bit at times, like some of their work tends to do. But in the end, it's a film that's artfully done with polished characters that make an impact.

November 7, 2013

Prince Avalanche

David Gordon Green, 2013

Responsible and self sufficient Alvin (Paul Rudd) and unsophisticated Lance (Emile Hirsch) are two road workers who tediously paint the yellow lines on the Texas pavement after wildfires ravaged the state. At night they camp on the roadside, and they occasionally have the opportunity to travel to town to socialize and gather supplies before they have to get back to the grind.

David Gordon Green pushes the quirk in this minimalistic limited storytelling piece that at times feels like a love letter to Wes Anderson. There are points in the film where it almost feels like a car may pull up and Bill Murray may get out. It's a piece that's largely filled with abstraction and vulnerability. Some may not be so satisfied with images of a mustached Paul Rudd dancing by himself with a fishing pole in hand. Others may credit him for taking a risk with another independent role. He certainly puts himself out there as the dorky outcast just looking for some validation. He doesn't hide his love for Madison, and continues to write her letters like he has gone off to war. And perhaps he has, in his mind. But strangely there's not much urgency to finish his work and return to the general population. Without her presence she feels very imaginary. Alvin is searching for something while he is isolated in those woods. Perhaps he is rebuilding like the world around him. And Lance is fighting his own kind of war as well. Hormones raging, he returns to town seeking short term flings and without which leaves him feeling empty. Emile Hirsch delivers a particularly impressive performance as the inexperienced oafy hand to Alvin. The humor in his character is subtle but memorable. The dynamic between Alvin and Lance is unstable, and why wouldn't it be? Basically opposites stuck together in the middle of nowhere. At times hating their job, other times indulging in the freedom. But at the end of the day their companionship is going to be more fulfilling than their monotonous daily grind. They both have something to offer one another.

Green took a risk with making the film as it won't appeal to all crowds. The fortunate thing is it feels like he succeeds in what he set out to do. The theme of self-discovery while slowly walking the Texas pavement almost gives it a Wizard of Oz feel. At times the film drags very much like the painting machine they push slowly through the day, and at times it feels like it circles in one spot. It could certainly be a better film if there was more meat on the bones. But there's certainly something here worth watching.

November 4, 2013

Y Tu Mama Tambien

Alfonso Cuaron, 2001

Set in Mexico, privileged teens Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) encounter a beautiful older woman named Luisa (Maribel Vernu) at a prominent family wedding. They attempt to impress her by telling her their plans to travel to a faraway beach. When she surprises them by showing interest in tagging along with them, they scramble to put the trip together. Little do they realize the impact this road trip will have on the rest of their lives.

Alfonso Cuaron's coming-of-age, hormone-driven road-trip film runs on a much traveled road (no pun intended) but certainly takes its own original path. At times very raw and offensive, but also very authentic and honest. To simply call it a road trip film would be unfair. It's about life experience. Growth. Love. Being young. Living in the moment. Indulgence. Change. Consequences of past actions. The barren, destitute Mexican towns and villages give way to serene coastal views. The abandoned road-sides give way to sand-floor Cantinas. The run down motels give way to a welcoming tent on the white beach. Julio and Tenoch, moderately wide eyed and innocent, give way to experience and life lessons. Their relentless sex-drive is quite evident early on. In a way it could be the most exaggerated feature of the film, but its clear that it reinforces the overall theme. At times they come off as selfish and lazy, but there are snippets of generosity and kindness here and there (they never turn away a beggar or anyone holding a cup out). They are loyal friends, for the most part. They are young, thrill-seeking, and unaccountable. And then enters Luisa. They ascend on her at the family wedding like hungry wolves. When she jumps at the idea of going to the ocean with them, they are surprised. Little do they know she has her own agenda. But regardless, she becomes instrumental in changing them forever. Maribel Verdu brings a lot of vulnerability and experience to her performance.

The film has a memorable visual elements but also has a fitting score along with interesting narration peppered in throughout. Although there are hints of danger and political unrest in the film, Cuaron's Mexico appears to be actually quite kind. When there's a breakdown on the side of the road, there are helpful hands that will help tow via tractor. When the group sit down for a meal during their travels, there's less of an emphasis on monetizing and more of an emphasis on community and enjoyment. There's an obvious disparity of wealth, but there's no judgement present. The film has a story that grows and goes. And who knows, by the end of the trip maybe you'll be changed too.