April 27, 2013


Jaume Balaguero & Paco Plaza, 2007

          Television reporter Angela (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman Pablo are filming an episode of their show While You Were Sleeping at a firehouse where they plan on tagging along to film some calls. After patiently waiting all night, they finally get a call at an apartment building. Unfortunately for them, its a call that quickly turns into a chaotic night for everyone involved.
          If Cloverfield & The Blair Witch Project had a zombie baby, it would be [REC]. This Spanish-subtitled film is certainly in the Zombie Found Footage category, and there isn't a lot of company there. If you're NOT a fan of Found Footage, you might as well pass on this one. It's contains all of the typical themes (night vision, shaky cam, quick cutting, lights out). But if you're a fan of the genre, you're going to be treated to all of those themes executed perfectly.
          The film starts off with Angela rehearsing the intro to their show. She begins to walk through the firehouse interviewing various firemen. This gives you a false sense of security because you know what's on the horizon. The film is guilty of hitting a bit of a slow patch in the beginning but when it finally takes off, you're in for a ride. These are probably the most terrifying zombies I've seen on film. They are reminiscent of the Rage-virus zombies in 28 Days Later but are more threatening and bloodthirsty. The tension is reinforced by the claustrophobic conditions of shooting the film with a handheld camera in a historic apartment building. The entire film is basically shot in either the hallway of the apartment building, or in the various apartments within. Dark entryways, white paint cracking from the blood soaked walls. There were some really innovative techniques used in this film and with it being made on a budget of just under $2M, the minimalist story-line and progressive tension didn't need gratuitous gore (although you'll get your fair share of blood). They apply the Blair Witch technique of compounding tension to a point of climax, but doesn't hesitate to bare its teeth along the way. A day later some of the shots are really sticking with me - aiming the camera down from an upper floor and seeing the zombies on lower floors looking up, Pablo placing the only camera on the floor to help subdue a zombie in the hallway & then picking it back up again, and of course the final scene in a penthouse apartment. When this film grows its legs it really takes off, and comes together in the end. The final scene had me on the edge of my seat.

30 for 30: Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?

Michael Tollin, 2009

          Take a step back in time to the early 80's when the NFL actually had some competition, albeit short-term. Michael Tollin examines what specifically caused the sensational USFL to come to a screeching halt even though they had some big names on the field and big money in the front office.
          These 30 for 30 documentaries are very well made, and I've yet to see one I do not like. This is a particularly interesting examination because its hard to even think of any organization competing with the NFL, which is clearly the biggest sport in the U.S. and is a behemoth in television ratings. That wasn't always the case, and at one point America was looking for something different. The USFL offered a league with more edge, less regulation, and a more intimate connection between the players and the fans. It seems that the two biggest faults that were made that led to the demise were 1) expanding the league from 12 teams too early and 2) Donald Trump's push to move the league from the Spring to the Fall much too quickly. Trump is not painted well in this film, and is the scapegoat from all of the people involved in the league who felt wronged in some way. Ultimately, I think its a fun idea to think of a Football league played the Spring - but I don't believe it would remain sustainable in today's climate. The modern day equivalent to this is the Canadian Football League. There are of course some talented players in the CFL, but the National Football League is the mecca of the sport and sits high on top of its mountain. At one point there may have been room for some competition in the football market, but those days are clearly over.

April 25, 2013

Jeff, Who Lives At Home

Jay & Mark Duplass, 2011

          Jeff (Jason Segel) is running an errand for his mother, who he still lives with (surprise) when he gets caught up in a chaotic whirlwind of too-real marital drama involving his brother Pat (Ed Helms) and his wife Linda (Judy Greer).
          This comedy is directed by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass (The League). In the beginning of the film, they do one of those introductory scenes where you see photo-shopped photos of all of the actors in the film at various points in their lives. I wonder if there is a GO TO graphic designer in Hollywood who excels at making these. While the film at times feels like paint-by-numbers comedy, there is a noticeable sense of smart writing and impressive acting. Segel and Helms fit into their roles really well as brothers, and the real moments between them feel authentic. Segel is particularly impressive in his role as the introspective loner who is on his own path to enlightenment. His eyes are open, and he's looking for answers. Susan Sarandon really displays her natural acting chops - there's a hypnotic effect to her acting that I have really come to respect. That being said, although she provided some veteran acting to the film, I wondered while watching: was her character even necessary? Shouldn't the film just be focused solely on the dynamic of the two brothers? The film effectively examines an interesting concept of a brother who hasn't left the nest, and is living life on his own terms and own pace is ironically the one who is together mentally. The brother who is out of the house and married may live up to society's standard but is actually impulsive and not in touch with his own emotions.
          While the writing and acting are the most impressive elements of the film, the cinematography is not. Jas Shelton's camera work is guilty of having too much shaky-cam and erratic close ups. I think the scenes would have been better served by medium shots where you can see the two parties conversing. In a film where there doesn't seem to be an emphasis on style, there should have been room to let the actors breathe in the shot.
          I wonder how much of the relationship between Jeff and Pat is loosely autobiographical of the two Duplass brothers. With the over-saturation of horrible comedies out there nowadays, there are refreshing features to this film and I am curious to see what the Duplass brothers do in the future.

April 21, 2013

Killing Them Softly

Andrew Dominik, 2012

          Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is hired to come in and clean up after three amateurish criminals decide to rob a local back-room poker game. Until that mess is cleaned up, the criminal economy cannot thrive out of fears of another hold-up. Dominik wrote and directed this style-over-substance crime drama, and it's a departure from his previous film The Assassination of Jesse James. Its basically an observational crime piece with no real "good guys". You sit back to watch criminals interact in their rain-drenched underworld. You get to see good performances by Ray Liotta (very Liotta-like which is always fine), James Gandolfini (who is basically Tony Soprano with a drinking problem), and Scoot McNairy who provides the best acting performance in the film with his evident street-grime and dead-on suburban Boston accent. I must credit Dominik on his use of Brad Pitt's character. Although Jesse James has become one of my favorite films, my ONE reservation with it was buying into Pitt as Jesse James. While he covered James' complicated character structure and unpredictable nature, I felt Jesse James would have been more of an intimidating force. In this film, I felt he had breached that gap. He was believable as a sociopathic hit-man who has no hesitation pulling the trigger to get the job done quickly. The downside of the film is that you are pulled into the tension of the Poker game robbery very early on, but after that it never really gains much ground. The lack of story forces you to admire beautiful camera-work but leaves you wanting more from the power-list of actors involved. The political narrative that echoes in the background is intended to reinforce how the economic downturn has affected even the criminals of America, but I found that message repetitive and it served as more of a reminder of the film's setting. With more subtlety and sub-plot structure, this film would have been more memorable and have a bigger impact.

April 20, 2013

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Seth Gordon (2007)

This documentary follows Steve Wiebe - an unemployed father of two who is down on his luck. He happens to have a Donkey Kong Jr. machine in his garage, and decides that beating the World High Score is within his abilities. This high score is currently held by notorious and respected gamer Billy Mitchell (who reminds me of Tom Cruise's character in Magnolia), who set it in 1982. This film is in the same category as Special When Lit: A Pinball Documentary and Word Wars in the sense that they follow avid players who play these games to the point of obsession. Playing the games becomes an all-consuming affair that inevitably spills into other sectors of their lives. In this case, Steve Wiebe is just looking for that eventual break. He's sick of being the runner-up, sick of letting his family down. This could be his one big shot to stand out. Wiebe is no doubt talented, during the film he sits down at his child's drum set and performs a well-crafted drum solo while Donkey Kong footage and white pencil sketched overlays provide some eye candy. He is accused of being obsessive compulsive, but you're left wondering if people like this are more of a highly-functioning autistic. Every movie needs its bad guy. Billy Mitchell at first comes off as a likable figure but that degrades quickly when you begin to peel the layers of his personality. You soon see that he is a ego-maniacal  arrogant, bitter man. Billy Mitchell is clinging to that Donkey Kong score like its a high school football trophy that he still brags about 30 years later. He appears to be in a better financial situation than Wiebe, but money doesn't buy happiness. You never see any children on Mitchell's lap. While Steve Wiebe's life appears fulfilled and rich with family ties, Mitchell has only his trophy wife and his low-paid minions to do his dirty work. Regardless of what that silly Donkey Kong score is, Steve Wiebe is the real winner because hes the better guy.

April 18, 2013

Side By Side

Christopher Kenneally, 2012

          Keanu Reeves has a narrative and interviewing role in this documentary which examines both the qualities and deficiencies of film and digital-based film-making  With interviews with many mainstream directors (Martin Scorcese, David Fincher, James Cameron, George Lucas, and more) you really get an objective exchange. This film is going to entice any film enthusiast. You are treated with well produced archival footage, organized analysis, and thorough examination. Personally, I am a purist when it comes to film-making. While I enjoy many of the films that have been shot digitally, I continue to hold film in high regard when it comes to authenticity and overall feel. The fact that so many great modern films continue to be shot in photo-chemical format only shows that the loyalty still exists. I was particularly impressed by the concept of film itself being a viable backup solution because of hard-drives questionable shelf-life. While I agree with many of the subjects in the film in that eventually film is going to fade away, that time is clearly not now. We're not quite there yet. We obviously will be, nobody can deny that - but for now, there's room for both. I really enjoyed Reeves interviewing style, he comes off as unbiased and friendly, and while he may be mono-tonal at times, he feels interested and passionate about the subject matter. I really appreciated how the film really dissects the various technology that is available in today's market. I came out of the film mirroring Chris Nolan's purist mentality while also appreciating Cameron's passion for technological innovation.

April 13, 2013

Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino, 2012

          Django is a slave surprised to find himself suddenly freed by a bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Chistoph Waltz). He joins up with Schultz to assist in pursuing outstanding warrants, specifically a familiar trio, while also on a quest to find and free his shackled wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). 
          After watching this I was wondering two things. One, am I outgrowing Tarantino? Is the gore, violence, verbose dialogue becoming too passe for me? Two, is Tarantino himself trying too hard now? At age 50, is he still trying to be cool? This is a departure from Inglourious Basterds, which I now believe is Tarantino's BEST FILM. Basterds gave me the feeling that Tarantino had grown-up. That film seemed so refined while still maintaining the themes of violence, tension and gore that you've grown accustomed to seeing in Tarantino's films. In fact, the tension in Basterds was applied perfectly. But in Django it feels like he took a step back. Tarantino wanted to put his name on the spaghetti-western, with enough blood and gore to make Sam Peckinpah smile in his grave. And he probably did. But what happened to the tension? I can't think of one scene in Django where I was on the edge of my seat like I was in that farmhouse scene in Basterds. The close-up of the beer in the Saloon had the level of intimacy that a Budweiser commercial would, while the closeup of the dessert in Basterds had me so in the moment that I felt I could taste it. Is history going to prove me wrong? Are we going to look back on the dinner scene at Candieland like we do with the Big Kahuna Burger eating scene in Pulp Fiction? I don't think so.
           There aren't several sub-plots or much back-story like Tarantino usually serves you in his films. The story felt basic. There were cutaways to past events that took me out of the moment. The sudden hallucinations of Broomhilda (taking a bath, on the roadside) were supposed to reinforce some kind of abstract thought but I found it to be empty. The best part of the film was certainly in the final hour, but even that had its flaws. Tarantino had to have his cameo, which I never would have a problem with. I loved his cameo in Pulp Fiction and in Reservoir Dogs. But what was that accent? I suppose it was supposed to be Australian? 
          I don't think its fair to be negative about every aspect about this film. There were certainly some admirable qualities to it. Great cinematography. Beautiful shots of the southern landscape... willow trees, beautiful mountains, authentic western towns. Great sound - the score added some flare and took risks. I liked the use of hip-hop during a couple of the scenes. History should be kind to that decision. Most of the acting was great. Cristoph Waltz, Quentin Tarantino's biggest gift to cinema, clearly deserved his Oscar for this performance. The only criticism I'll make about his role is the template itself seemed awfully similar to his role in Basterds. The second best performance, in my opinion, was by Samuel L. Jackson. I didn't even see him coming. It took me a couple minutes to realize it was him. Jackson, who usually plays a caricature of himself, delivered the best performance I've seen from him in years. Dicaprio was fine in his role as Calvin Candie, but I was left wondering if someone else could have better served the role as the younger plantation owner. Someone, like Tom Hardy, perhaps?
          Django Unchained is a Tarantino film that FEELS like a Tarantino film. I suppose my expectations were high, and they weren't met. I haven't given up on him, and I'll be sitting here excited for what he's going to do next.

April 10, 2013

Flirting With Disaster

David O. Russell, 1996


          Neurotic Mel Coplin (Ben Stiller) welcomes a baby into the world with his beautiful wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette), but while deciding what to name the baby, struggles with the fact that he has never met his biological parents due to the fact that he was adopted as a baby.
          I like David O. Russell's films. He taps into a psychological component that I identify with. I don't know if it's the awkward confrontations, the abrupt chaos or the quirky humor. This film possesses those qualities but also shines with a sometimes reckless skill-set that Russell clearly refined as his career progressed.
          A heavily loaded cast fuels this film. Stiller is effective as the introspective, non-threatening intellectual guy. His overt 90's attire is at times distracting, but he fits into his character really well. Seeing Patricia Arquette in this film really makes me want more Patricia Arquette. Where has she been? Shes so beautiful, her acting ability is so natural. She's clearly the most talented out of her family. Is that even up for debate? I didn't realize until now that she kind of reminds me of Kristen Stewart. Tea Leoni delivers the best performance I've seen from her. While her character had her flaws, she provided a sense of vulnerability and impulse that was delivered effectively. Richard Dawkins and Josh Brolin also provide great performances, which is expected from those two, but its definitely in a different light than you are used to.
          Act 1 had me feeling had me lingering on liking/disliking this film, but it wasn't until Act 3 that I was captivated and convinced. Act 3 settled into a rhythm that reminded me of Raising Arizona. It possesses the same intellect and comedy but it lacks in warmth and organization. Flirting has its flaws, and most of them are evident in the first act. There are elements that are certainly far-fetched such as Mary Tyler Moore's cartoonish overacting early on, or the unrealistic car swap later in the film. The early scene with the van on the highway was unfunny and unnecessary. But to the film's credit, there is a snowball effect. You are served with bits of smart writing early on, but it's not until the climax that you indulge in a lunatic coagulation of chaos at a dinner table in New Mexico. Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda talent is immediately evident and they take you on a journey. The third act of Flirting is so smart and so well-crafted that it redeems itself and you overlook some of the deficiencies that are in the first half of the film. Flirting with Disaster feels dated, but its interesting to see Russell's early work and some of the familiar elements that appear in his later films.

April 3, 2013

The Walking Dead (Season 3)

Frank Darabont, 2013

Season 3 is a consistent continuation of the series. Predictable levels of gore, bleak camera filters, augmented audio effects, and slow pacing that at times feels sluggish. The living conditions are more turbulent compared to the comforts of everyone living at Herschel's Farm. All of this season is set at the Prison that they had discovered at the end of last season, but those living quarters are threatened by not only the outside survivors, but the walker's living within the prison walls. It's probably the most well-crafted season so far, but unfortunately with head show-runner Glen Mazzara now gone I have doubts about future seasons. Word is that Mazzara's shoes will be hard to fill, and that he was quite the presence on set.

I am convinced that because the pacing on The Walking Dead is so restrained, I don't believe the show is best viewed on a weekly basis. It may be best served in large sessions, where you watch 3 or 4 episodes at a time or the entire series at once (if you can). I may try doing this next year. I find its a series where its particularly difficult to judge each episode individually. If you're able to step back, look at the big picture and judge it based on character development, story-line & plot twists, and visual aesthetics, you can see how brilliant the series really is.

April 2, 2013

The Imposter

Bart Layton, 2012

A 13 year-old Texas boy disappears suddenly, presumably abducted. After three years of the family hearing nothing, they suddenly receive a phone call from a man telling them that they have surprisingly found the boy in Spain.

This one is DARK. It's a parents worst nightmare that just gets worse. You're "treated" to a first-hand account from a criminal. Also, instead of your cheesy re-enactment footage that documentaries typically feature, this film uses crisp imagery that really shows high production value. There's a scene with a bus stop on a sandy desert road. All of a sudden I'm hearing "Queen Bitch" by David Bowie playing... and I'm thinking to myself how the hell did they afford the rights to this song? The interviews with the parties involved are edited well, and they provide a multi-dimensional perspective.

so-ci-o-path: A person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience.

This film features a sociopath. This man is has a quick-witted craft that he executes without any sense of consequence. I always wonder if these people used these skills for good rather than evil how productive they could be. This person sees names of people on a list, and that's it. Doesn't see that there are lives connected to every one of those names. The person on the other end of the line has endured unimaginable loss. The objective part of me wonders if there is any sympathetic side to this criminal. After all, he is a product of the system himself. But what about accountability, personal responsibility? This is someone I wouldn't want to have a beer with, and would NEVER want him to have my phone number. Also you can't help but question the integrity of this family, who is clearly rough around the edges (ie. when the mother says "When I heard he was in Spain, I thought, wow, that's on the other side of the country"). In the end, there are subsequent twists in this story that will pull you in, and leave you wanting more when its over.

April 1, 2013

Candyman: The David Klein Story

Costa Botes, 2010


This documentary captures the genesis, growth, and corporate buyout of Jelly Belly Beans according to the creator himself, David Klein. Klein is a real-life Willy Wonka, who has all of the idiosyncrasies of a genius who lacks self-defending business tactics. His story is tragic. He was the brains behind the creation of the very popular confection, only to get bought out by the very people that closely watched him build his company from the ground up. His eccentric behavior is inviting, and you get behind him early on in the film. He fought tooth and nail to give the Jelly Bellies legs, legs that eventually made their way to the White House when Ronald Reagan needed to kick his cigar habit.

Every documentary needs its bad guy, and these are the typical white collar corporate bad guys. These people are not the innovators, they are not the creators. They sit there strategizing, seeking out that one vulnerability that will make it easy to put the company in their hands. Your first thought when you are introduced to David Klein is "why is he living in this tiny house? Shouldn't the creator of Jelly Belly be in a mansion? Shouldn't he be wearing better clothes?". The answer is yes. But perhaps that's irrelevant. If David Klein WASN'T bullied into selling his trademark, and he had the money... he probably wouldn't be living in the big house. He probably wouldn't be wearing the fancy clothes, or driving the fancy car. He would just be Dave. And that's what makes him better than the "other guys". We need more people like David Klein in the world, but I won't go as far to say we need more attorneys. He just needed one in the room with him that day.