May 31, 2013

The Endless Summer

Bruce Brown, 1966

          Two all-american surfer buddies (Michael Hynson & Robert August) come up with an ambitious idea of traveling around the world, following the warm summer climate so that they can create an idealistic "Endless Summer", optimized to create superior surfing conditions for them.
          In the late 1960's there weren't Go Pro cameras. If you wanted to shoot an adventure documentary you used 16mm film. Bruce Brown, a surfer himself, puts himself close to the action and captures some really wonderful surfing with the backdrop of various Equatorial paradises. He also narrates the film, and adds a Bob Hope-esque light-hearted comedic tone that really adds to the innocent nature of it all. When the duo travels to Africa, the natives have never even SEEN a surfboard before. What follows is quite heartwarming... literally pulling panels off of their homes so they can attempt to surf along with them on makeshift boards. A good example of cross-culture pollination. It's a very heartening look at humanity, different cultures coming together even in times of political unrest. Most people wouldn't want to travel to Africa in the 1960's, let alone swim in the shark-infested waters. Hynson and August are clearly courageous and obviously in a deep love with their sport. Another notable shot is when the two travel to South Africa, they motivate the hundred native surfers to take the day off of work to go surfing with them. What follows is a memorable shot of several Volkswagen Beetles navigating the rocky S curves, with surfboards tied to the roof.
          It's an insightful look back in time, when the sport of Surfing was completely untarnished. There were no pretenses. It was long before the surfing cliches were established (although I DID hear a "Hang Ten" when they were in Africa). The salad days of surfing are gone. Now, the contemporary surfer-dude cherishes his copy of The Endless Summer like it's a sacred scripture, just like the 300 lb. firefighter locks away his treasured copy of Backdraft in his fire-safe next to his wedding photos. Their nostalgic ode. Paying tribute to the paragon. I suppose you can't fault people for looking back at someone or something and holding it in high regard when it was in its purest form. Surfing is just another example of something that isn't what it was fifty years ago, but fortunately those classic days were captured on film.

May 27, 2013

Side Effects

Steven Soderburgh, 2013

          Emily (Rooney Mara) is struggling through depression. During a hospital stay she meets psychiatrist Dr. Banks (Jude Law) who begins treating her. Part of the treatment is with a new, experimental drug called "Eblixa" which is immediately effective, but it's soon realized that it has surprising side effects.
          An engaging, suspenseful film with an intricate story in the mystery genre by the ever-prolific Steven Soderburgh. Having been disappointed with Soderburgh several times in the past, I go into every film with varied expectations, but found this one to be compelling. More sophisticated than Haywire but less far-fetched than Contagion, it has a more realistic feel to it that makes it particularly chilling. The film is shot in New York City, and somehow Soderburgh makes that feel fresh. Instead of the over-shot New York skyline in view, he treats you to corner angles of a green-lit Empire State Building at night through a contemporary apartment window. Almost immediately you see his signature ambient yellow-glow, clean photography of sharp architecture and precise editing. There's a resonant humming throughout the film that seems to be used by many filmmakers these days but certainly adds a chilling pitch that is very fitting in the moment. A very engaging score by Thomas Newman, especially with the use of dream-like tones reminiscent of "Song for Jesse" in the The Assassination of Jesse James. Rooney Mara is really effective in her role as Emily. She is vulnerable, sympathetic but effectively unpredictable. Jude Law gives a noteworthy performance as the determined Dr. Jonathan Banks. It's the third time that Soderburgh has cast Channing Tatum, and for good reason. He's sharp in his role as Martin Taylor, Emily's stock-trading husband recently jailed for insider trading. Soderburgh is without a doubt an intelligent filmmaker, and while I may not love all of his work, they all certainly possess a common signature that is unmistakably his own.

May 26, 2013


Ivan Reitman, 1979

          Tripper (Bill Murray) is a fun-seeking camp counselor who is trying to make sure all of the kids at summer camp have a good time, including the outcasts. He tries to boost the confidence of quiet Crockett (Russ Banham), while also trying to win the various competitions against the rival Camp Mohawk.
          This is Bill Murray's first starring role and a predecessor to other successful Reitman film's Stripes, Ghostbusters Ghostbusters II. It has the typical high jinks and quirky humor that one would come to expect from Murray, but ultimately falls flat because that's really ALL it has going for it. A good portion of the film feels unscripted, which is fine, but there's just not a whole lot there to laugh at. Most of the film feels very dated 34 years later. While Meatballs clearly influenced future Summer Camp films (Heavyweights, Wet Hot American Summer), it's guilty of not maintaining enough structure as its counterparts. It contains a lot of slapstick humor, combined with a lot of physical comedy that treads common themes (bullying the geeks, poking fun at the fat kids, awkward teen romance, social cliques). Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters and pretty much EVERY Wes Anderson film that Bill Murray has been in proves that he needs to have some framework in order to pull it all off. Seeing him dance by himself to disco music is hilarious, don't get me wrong, but not for an hour and a half. For me the more minimalist, restrained Bill Murray has always been the most effective comedically (Life Aquatic, The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore). Meatballs is trumped by the laughs in Wet Hot American Summer, likely due to the fact it's main energy source is child acting and not Michael Ian Black or Paul Rudd.
          Meatballs pops up on a lot of lists of people's favorite Summer Camp films. This is likely because there really aren't a lot of good films in that genre. That's surprising, because one would think it could be a very manageable type of film to create seeing as you don't need a big budget for set design (you can just shoot at one rural location) and all you really need is good comedic acting and a good writing staff.

May 25, 2013

End of Watch

David Ayer, 2012

          Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) are partners for the LAPD and have to cover the rough terrain of South Central Los Angeles. Young, confident and headstrong - they find that they can quickly get buried in a mess that becomes hard to dig themselves out of.
          The first feature that is evident in the film are the noticeable similarities to Training Day. The comparisons are appropriate not only because of the setting and subject matter, but also because Ayer produced Training Day back in 2001. Ayer must love his bullets, according to IMDB he wrote a script for a remake of The Wild Bunch. Similar to Training Day, you are a witness to the gang violence and unpredictable nature of the L.A. streets. But while the setting is similar, the methods used in making the film are much different. There is a found-footage feel to End of Watch that really augments the adrenaline-fueled situations. Through clever placement of handheld cameras, and a lot of it held by the actors themselves, you really feel like you're in the middle of the action. The film is not entirely found-footage from handhelds. Studio cameras supplement the erratic camera work with stunning urban landscapes at sunset. Gyllenhaal delivers the best performance seen from him in years, perhaps since Donnie Darko. Credit is due to all actors in the film, as everyone feels very authentic. Michael Pena is very effective as Gyllenhaal's partner. The witty in-car dialogue between the two never gets stale and only helps to develop the audiences' investment in their alliance. They are constantly pulling pranks on each other, and their fellow officers. One of the officers and constant recipient of their high jinks, Van Hauser (David Harbour), serves as the elder, jaded cop who has become and numb to the criminal elements and in-house betrayal over time. His Xanax-fueled demeanor serves as a good contrast to the young partners, who still have a fire in their belly when hitting the litter-covered streets on a daily basis. The comradery between the officers feels genuine, as does the affection for their loved ones. The scene with Brian and Janet (Anna Kendrick) singing along to Cam'Ron's "Hey Ma" in the car really hit the mark in displaying the intimate moments between a young couple falling in love.
          There are so many impressive elements to the film from perfect casting, keen writing, clever editing, to adept use of sound. I had a feeling within the last few moments of the film that the ending was going to disappoint, and then it took another surprising turn and in the end became very satisfying. History has been kind to Training Day and I believe it will be even kinder to End of Watch.

Fear X

Nicolas Winding Refn, 2003


          Harry Cain (John Turturro) is a passive mall security guard who is suffering through the loss of his wife, who was murdered in the parking garage of the very mall he is employed at. When he returns home from his security shift, he spends his lonely nights scouring through hours of mall surveillance videos trying to find any clue that may lead him to the person responsible.
          Refn's films are usually a feast for the eyes, but this one is a feast for the eyelids. It's stripped of his common qualities: avant-garde structure, mysterious story-line, pronounced musical score and stylistic visual elements. Instead, this film is audibly bleak, intellectually dull, scenically bleak, and visually empty. It almost feels as if it would better be served as a short rather than a feature film. Refn teases you with a couple of throwaway visualizations that end up looking like primitive circa-1990 lava lamp screen-savers and aren't backed by story. I will always welcome dream sequences with Refn, but in Fear X they just didn't fit in well. Scenically, the film has the same aesthetics as Fargo without any of the flavor. The mediocre writing is evident, and seen early. The story moves at a snail's pace in the beginning, teasing you with build-up of tension in one particular scene (neighbor's house), and never really picks itself up. John Turturro, who is always impressive, feels one-dimensional. It's hard to buy the heavy heart when a cop is questioning the depths of his love for his late wife and he just stares into space without getting on the defensive. Sure, he's a pacifist  I get it. But he seemed to be on the edge at that very moment. Refn got Larry Smith (The Shining) on board for photography, Turturro as the lead (who SHOULD have pulled some serious weight, right?)...momentum should have been created, but it just wasn't. I wonder if this was the result that Refn saw prior to filming. For some reason I don't think so.

May 20, 2013

I Stand Alone

Gaspar Noe, 1998

          The butcher has fallen into some hard-times. His meat shop went under after he had to serve time in jail, and after his release he cannot seem to get back on track. His struggle to find employment is not the only conflict in his life - he is living with a woman he deeply resents and also hasn't seen his institutionalized daughter in some time.
          It's difficult to say that you LIKE a Gaspar Noe film. I don't believe his films are intended on being liked, or disliked. They are intended to be processed, and interpreted in different ways. A Director tied to the New French Extremity, Noe is not afraid to approach taboo subjects such as incest, rape or abortion. At this point I've seen all three feature length films he's directed and they have all left me with the same feeling. That feeling is indescribable in a sense. For lack of a better word, I will just say that I've been affected by them. That being said, these three films all seem to have a certain theme to them. I Stand Alone examines morality. Irreversible examines impulse. Enter the Void examines consciousness. They all perform these examinations with little to no filter. And Noe certainly has a lot to say.
          I Stand Alone, while completely raw and graphic, is a well crafted film. Impressive camera work, such as the gunshot sound effect followed by the snap zoom. The music fueled truck ride when The Butcher hitchhikes. The claustrophobic scenes in the cheap apartments. The pan & tilt Paris street-shot at the end of the film. The narrative dialogue in the film could quite be the most graphic feature. Almost entirely in The Butcher's nihilistic thoughts, you are present for his all-consuming, unfocused anger that is projected toward anyone and anything that has challenged him.
          The Butcher is a proud man. He is an old school, blue-collared orphan who has a passion for his meat-cutting and that only. Nothing can compare, and he refuses to take on any occupation that he considers would be under-employing himself. Not everybody loves Paris, and he is one of them. Not one to hold back his disgust for the city, he traverses the gloomy slums and frequents the smoky dives for his small glass of vino. The Butcher's insurgent philosophical ranting displays Noe's raw but superior writing ability to the not-so-good screw-it-all soliloquies such as Ed Norton's character Monty in Spike Lee's The 25th Hour (over-rated). The Butcher is riddled with so much anger I wonder what kind of person he would be if things fell into place for him. What if he got hired by a prestigious meat-shop? What if he met the love of his life in some strange coincidence? But this doesn't happen. The Butcher seems to be destined for bad luck, and things seem to only get worse and worse for him. In that sense, while he is a man of many mistakes, there is a sympathetic side to his character.

May 18, 2013

Top 5 Documentaries from 2000-2010

5. We Live in Public (2009)

Josh Harris is a dot-com entrepreneur who builds his own fortune in the early days of the digital boom. He creates this voyeuristic social experiment where a group of passionate twenty-somethings live in a sub-society in the NYC underground while under complete video-surveillance. Josh tweaks and manipulates this system to monitor human behavior while also turning the camera on himself for the digital world to see.

4. I Like Killing Flies (2004)

Ironically you are a fly on the wall of Shopsin's, a Greenwich Village cult-dive family-owned diner. Kenny Shopsin is the rambling eccentric owner/chef/artist/pseudo-philosopher who commonly throws customers out if there's too many sitting at a table, and will often make their own menu selections for them. You'll have trouble hearing your own conversation at your table while the Shopsin family shouts at each other in the kitchen. Nonetheless, they maintain deeply loyal customer base and by the end of the film you will be eager to enjoy a meal there or have the honor of getting turned away yourself.

3. Capturing the Friedmans (2003) 

Covering one of the darkest sides of humanity, this film is without a doubt one of the most disturbing films I've ever seen. A biographical documentary, it follows the story of the Friedman family, who had to endure the shock of seeing their father, a long-time computer tutor,  charged with child molestation. They were a close-knit family that always took comfort in having the video camera rolling during the various family functions (dinners, birthday parties, etc), and shockingly the camera wasn't turned off even after the darkness swept over the Friedman family.

2. The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)

Daniel is a conflicted genius that has created some really imaginative and original music, only to fall victim to his mental illness that has plagued him throughout his life. He was able to keep the demons at bay early on in his life but ultimately lost control as time went on. It's surprising to see how influential his work was to so many (Nirvana, Built to Spill, The Butthole Surfers) in the rock scene of the 90's. His music resonates, and I found myself hearing the melodies in my head long afterwards.

1. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) 

The film that made Banksy a household name. A thorough examination of the talented street artists that want their graffiti recognized but also want to maintain the ambiguity of who they actually are in the daylight hours. The filmmaker, "Mr. Brainwash", pursues Banksy in the hopes of befriending him but ultimately surrenders to the artistic lifestyle and ends up becoming a subject of the film.

Honorable Mentions:

Dear Zachary (2008)

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

May 12, 2013

The Squid and the Whale

Noah Baumbach, 2005

          An autobiographical story, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank Berkman (Owen Kline) are pulled into the middle of their parents divorce. Unfortunately this means disrupting everything in their life that they've become accustomed to, while also trying to cope with the stresses of growing up in New York City.
          The film is fueled by remarkable acting. Jeff Daniels, who plays Bernard Berkman (the Father), brilliantly pulls off the self-absorbed, pedantic & frugal father who is more focused on his own id-impulses than the well-being of his children. Daniel's role was originally intended to be for Bill Murray who decided to pass and take a break after filming Broken Flowers. I am never happy to see Bill Murray turn down a role, but an exception is warranted here. Bernard is conflicted. He needs to feel like the smartest guy in the room. His self-perceived intellect puts him on his own desert island in his mind, and while some may visit temporarily - nobody is perfectly fit to live there but himself. A trait of a true egomaniac. Laura Linney plays Joan (the wife) who is making up for lost time as a divorcee after being stuck in an unhappy marriage with the man she hadn't loved in years. She wrongfully kept an affair secret for years and had to confront the disdain and disappointment of her own son after it was revealed. Jesse Eisenberg gives the best performance I've seen him in, The Social Network included. He seems to fit into this niche where he can effectively play the awkward and introspective guy who can turn agitated and abrasive on a dime. Interestingly enough his characters always end up being similar but he somehow changes the flavor just enough. Credit is also due to Owen Kline in his role as the younger brother. Demonstrating odd behavior at the dawn of puberty, he ultimately comes off as vulnerable and confused. Most of his odd behavior could easily be dismissed as a call for help, but its more than that. Even with his undeveloped emotions there is a noticeable sense of anger. He looks at himself in the mirror and is disappointed to see the similarities between himself and his parents.
          There's such a blend of constantly surging emotional elements that you just sit back and observe. There's plenty of drama but a few occasional laughs provide some levity. I would imagine that this film will hit especially harder for people who had to unfortunately endure their own parents divorcing when they were young.

Léon: The Professional

Luc Besson, 1994

          Leon (Jean Reno) is a reclusive hit-man that lives his life with a disciplined, strict routine. He doesn't let any living thing get close, other than his simple apartment plant that he waters meticulously. When his young neighbor (Natalie Portman) gets caught up in the middle of her drug dealing father's police raid, she comes knocking at Leon's door looking for refuge.
          The film opens with helicopter shots of the old New York. The post-Taxi Driver, pre-Giuliani New York. There is a grittiness to the streets, and a grime to the aged apartment walls. Leon's professionalism and attention to detail is apparent. You realize early on that you're not going to be in the company of the typical New York stockbrokers and sky gazing tourists but in the seedy underbelly of the Big Apple.
          Jean Reno is perfect in his role as Leon. You feel intimidated at first but you sympathize with him and soon as you see him sit in isolation in his dirty apartment with the glass of milk. Gary Oldman plays Stansfield, an idiosyncratic crooked cop that pops these mysterious pills moments before a situation is about to turn ugly. Oldman is chameleonic in this film like he is in EVERY role, but this role made me particularly nostalgic of some of his old performances - such as Jackie Flannery in State of Grace or as Drexl Spivey in True Romance. Natalie Portman really displays some young talent, adding another great credit to her early years as she did in Heat. Her character Matilda, inspired by Jodie Foster's character Iris in Taxi Driver, is a disturbed young girl who has endured years of domestic abuse. She is developmentally confused, inappropriately wise beyond her years, and ready to open another dark chapter when she meets Leon.
          The lonely apartment plant provides some noticeable symbolism. Leon dutifully waters this plant and even tells Matilda it's his "best friend". She tells him that he should place the plant in soil and let it grow roots. Leon himself struggles to grow roots, having to often vacate these run-down apartments on a moments notice and move on to the next one. He is also bound to the service of his crime-boss who also serves as his under-the-table bank teller. Ironically, one could argue that Leon will not be completely free until the plant is placed in the ground.
          Leon is guilty of falling into that Scorcesian template, which is not necessarily a bad thing but seems to be a road often traveled. I suppose that it's hard to avoid when filming a crime drama in New York City. In the end you're treated to another well-directed, bullet-fueled story that clearly carves out its own niche. It deserves the praise it receives and sits well in the company of the other films in this category.

May 7, 2013

John Dies at the End

Don Coscarelli, 2012

          Dave encounters a new street drug called "soy sauce" that has some pretty powerful effects. It seems to be taking the neighborhood by storm, bringing on multi-dimensional consequences.
          This is unlike any film I've ever seen. In an attempt to draw some kind of comparison, I'll say if Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Limitless had a baby it would be John Dies at the End. Sort of like if Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World smoked salvia laced with PCP. This film starts off with silly bloodsplatter in the same vein as Zombieland but soon dives deeper into some elaborate visual effects coupled with a demonically trippy story-line. You really won't know what you're in for. I didn't. Erratic quick cutting, good acting (Paul Giamatti providing some veteran acting to the film), impressive visuals, and even some stop motion that is reminiscent of early Tim Burton. There's hints of Beetlejuice for sure. You'll need a moment after watching this to collect your thoughts.

May 6, 2013

The Cabin in the Woods


Drew Goddard & Joss Whedon, 2011

          A group of college buddies decide to venture into the woods for a camping weekend of the typical college recreational stuff - getting high, drinking beer, having sex. When they get to the cabin they discover the cabin has a dark history... and it only gets worse for them from there.
          You will likely hear that plot-line and dismiss this film thinking that is sounds like EVERY other horror film made in the past ten years. And it does. But that's the point. Anyone who is going into this film hoping its a mind-numbing teen-screamer (like Scream, Wrong Turn, Texas Chainsaw Massacre) is likely going to be disappointed. It's smarter than that and deserves more credit. It's one of the most under-rated films of 2011 (and was actually shelved and not released until 2012). It's more of a satirical piece written in a three-act structure that transcends the typically overused horror techniques. It's fresh, innovative, imaginative, creative, suspenseful, surprising. It deconstructs the cliche slasher and brilliantly exploits the predictable twists with the aid of some well-timed comedy. It's masked as an poor man's Evil Dead that really morphs into a clever psychological thriller. It will satisfy the horror purists with some bloodshed and some Friday the 13thesque aesthetic but will also appeal to those who are more dismissive of the horror genre and are looking for something more heady that doesn't just play on freak-factor. At the beginning of the third act there is a scene (and you will know exactly which one I'm talking about) that's so creative, beautifully gory and shocking that I've gone to YouTube to re-watch it several times.

May 5, 2013


Asif Kapadia, 2010

Archival footage fuels this documentary that tells the story of Ayrton Senna, the champion Formula One racer. The film uses a combination of interview footage, in-car camera footage, and news footage to paint a fast-paced, compelling picture. I was guilty of not knowing anything about Senna going into this film, but that only made it better. I am also guilty of not being a fan of racing, but I was on the edge of my seat throughout it. Senna was a talented, humble, reserved figure with a high racing IQ. He was determined to make his mark in the sport, and it didn't take long to do so. Clearly a prodigy-type, he was born to excel at Formula One. I liked the honesty of finding out that Senna came from a privileged background, but never had to make any excuses for himself. He was an intimidating force on the track without having to be an intimidating figure off of it. Some fly-on-the-wall shots of pre-race discussions do a good job of displaying Senna's confidence and ability to assess the conditions of the racetrack. The noticeable sense of animosity from other the other racers really showed Senna's threatening ability.

The method used in making this film is so refreshing. I've never seen a documentary that is made using 100% archival footage, and I'm eager to see more films like this. The wealth of footage provided a perspective that helped to quickly identify with Senna. You literally see the physical evolution of his persona, from a teenage go-kart racer to a confident Formula One racer at the peak of his career. He was not only a racer but an inspiring patriotic figure to poverty-stricken Brazil. The imagery of a nation behind a single figure is quite powerful.

This is a documentary with no faults, at least none that I can think of. Even the soundtrack, done by Antonio Pinto, was perfectly fitting. It was present without being too pronounced and distracting - reminding me of a more ambient Chemical Brothers. This one sat on my Netflix queue for over a year, even after hearing many people raving about it. Wish I had watched it then, but happy I did now.

May 4, 2013

Wet Hot American Summer

David Wain, 2001

It's the last day of camp and the hormones are running high. The camp counselors are in a heated offensive to hook up with a member of the opposite sex before everyone has to pack up and go home. While not everyone may have the same luck in the romance department, they are all pursuing closure in one form or another.
In this satirical take on 1980's summer camp films (written by original staff members of the cult-classic MTV series The State), WHO KNEW that all you really need is some isolation in a camp cabin and a couple sticks of gum? You are immediately served with some familiar faces (Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, Michael Ian Black, David Hyde Pierce, Amy Poehler), and you will continue to see more throughout the film. There is a youthful innocence to the camp staff, and everyone is likable in some way. The stand-out performance is by Christopher Meloni, who plays Gene, someone you rarely see playing a comedic role. Seeing Molly Shannon made me miss Molly Shannon! Be prepared to witness so much tongue-kissing that it leaves you wondering how fast the mononucleosis spread throughout the set. After watching I wondered what I would think of this film had I seen it ten years ago. Maybe I've become jaded... or GROWN-UP - but I feel I would have enjoyed this film much more when I was younger. That was a constant thought throughout: "Okay, that's funny even if I'm not laughing". I enjoyed The State back in the day, so that was a selling point for me here. It's not a perfect film, but its not meant to be. Wain succeeds in exaggerating some the common themes of the 80's summer camp genre (teen love, social stigmas, nerd outcasts, montages). What's admirable about this film is it doesn't take itself seriously. It has its flaws and it knows it does. So what if for every funny scene there is another to match it that trips over itself? While I wasn't amazed by it, nor laughing every second, I have to admit that I was entertained. It's an important film that has its place.