July 28, 2013

Battle Royale

Kinji Fukasaku, 2000

Part of an effort of controlling students during extensive social unrest, the Japanese government creates a program to counteract the rebellion. Every year, a single class of Japanese students are put on a remote island and forced to fight each other to the death.

This blood-splattered Japanese blockbuster by Fukasaku immediately draws comparisons to The Hunger Games. The comparison is fitting, however, this picture lacks all of the glitz and glamour of The Hunger Games and that's not a bad thing. In fact, the novel that this film was adapted from was actually published in 1996, 12 years before The Hunger Games novel was even published - making this the true original. This is a colder piece, much less forgiving and much more gory and violent. There's no Elizabeth Banks with white makeup caked on her face here, but a cold-hearted schoolteacher eager to see vengeance played out before him from past students who mistreated and disrespected him when they were under his schooling. 

The blood packets burst early in the film, with the plot laid out rather directly and efficiently. From there, it plays out in a video-game like formulation similar to The Raid Redemption or Kill Bill with progressive difficulty. The classical music playing in the background throughout the film is chilling but fitting. This is because while these students are killing each other off in brutal fashion, there is an artful touch to it. Each kill is unique, and while disturbing, there is something to appreciate about it. Sometimes the students are able to call back on past bullying, or jealousy... but sometimes it's just about having to kill their fellow student so that they them self can survive. It's not a perfect film, some of the gunfights are rather cartoonish in the sense that they are shooting each other at close-range and not hitting their targets. Some of the delayed killing is very much like a cheesy 80's film with the stretched dialogue (ie. "You know I should kill you right now, but I'm going to give you this long speech about how much I hate you first") which inevitably leads to some kind of reversal. In the end though, it's very well done and certainly makes an impression. And it really makes The Hunger Games look VERY derivative. Fukasaku was working on a sequel to the film but unfortunately died of cancer in 2003 after shooting one scene. His son completed the rest of the project and released Battle Royale II: Requiem shortly after. 

July 27, 2013


Woody Allen, 1979

Woody Allen directs and stars in this classic black and white film about a writer who is torn between two relationships. One relationship is with a young seventeen year old girl named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), and the other is with his best friend Yale's (Michael Murphy) mistress Mary (Diane Keaton).

The heavy-hearted dialogue is filled with intellectual grit and witty humor. The film explores the concept of opposites attracting. When Allen's character Isaac meets Mary for the first time, he acts as if he can't stand to hear her talk. The attraction grows, after lots of pigtail pulling. The highlights of Keaton's career are certainly her roles in Woody Allen's films, and she really provides an exceptional performance here consistent with her performance in Annie Hall two years earlier. Her confidence on screen is obvious. Hemingway is alluring as the innocent, introverted, culture-hungry high-schooler. Her character is a good example of the younger girl attached to the older man for what might possibly be the wrong reasons. She has no long-term relationships under her belt, and her lack of experience makes her vulnerable to Isaac's wise charm. Isaac successfully channels Allen's neurotic charm and quick banter. It's Woody Allen's love poem to one of his earliest muses - his dear hometown. So many beautiful images that could only be shown in black and white. The planetarium scene, the rain fall in Central Park, and the carriage ride also in Central Park. The skyline shots of with the array of illuminated squares. The classic shot of the bench in front of the Brooklyn Bridge. The deep blacks and the grainy grays are mesmerizing and effectively capture the Big Apple in the late 1970's. It's certainly one of his more inviting films. Romantic comedies are certainly his wheel-house, and he's effective at telling a story of a group of people completely preoccupied by their pursuit of love in his beloved Manhattan. 

July 22, 2013

Touching the Void

Kevin MacDonald, 2003

Using first-hand interviews interlaced with accurate reenactment footage, this docu-drama covers the story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, a pair mountain climbers who run into trouble when one of them falls and breaks their leg while attempting to climb the west face of the Siula Grande in the Andes mountains in 1985.

It is undeniably a story worth telling. Using the technique of reenacting the journey, it certainly puts you in the action. The camera is not just fixated on the side of the mountain either. Unique locations like elevated above the climbers, down at the base of the snow where you see chips of ice falling on the lens. It makes the work much more cinematic, more entertaining than if you were just sitting watching two veteran climbers reflect on their journey. When the heavy snow is pinning them to the sides of the cliff at night while they look above with miner's lights on their helmets - you really get a sense of the comradery involved. Connected by a piece of rope, their lives are really in each others hands. The sudden decision made by one of the climbers is made in a few seconds but is clearly a life-changing one. It certainly presents a moral dilemma to the film that leaves the viewer wondering what he or she would do in the same situation. When the film makes a shift into a more survival-based theme, its very reminiscent of the struggle in Danny Boyle's 127 Hours. Like that story, there is a focus on the resilience of the human body. The film certainly explores the concept that perhaps there are parts to this world that are not meant to be accessed. But that wouldn't be human nature would it? We are curious creatures, bound to take risks. We are eager to put our foot in virgin soil. We want to make our mark.

Shotgun Stories

Jeff Nichols, 2007

Son Hayes learns of his fathers death. Reflecting on years of abuse by the man, he decides to make an appearance at his funeral. When he describes the man that he knew, his father's children from his second marriage defend his character which creates a feud between the half brothers.

Nichols directs a truly heavy piece here. These complicated but reserved characters, placed in front of a bleak industrial landscape, surely have years of history - most of which is not pleasant. The sounds of their father still resonate through the barren fields behind their asbestos-sided shack. Michael Shannon is perfectly cast as the ambiguously named Son Hayes, older brother of Boy Hayes (Douglas Ligon) and Kid Hayes (Barlow Jacobs). The brothers' lack of formal names only adds to the mystique of their past, and the years they try to forget. The sudden quarrel between the half brothers feels authentic, and the build up of tension and the growing conflict feels very real. Almost too real. Certainly a study on ones lack of control, of feeding into a particular impulse, not really thinking of any consequences. The rival Hayes boy's, who were raised by a sober Father Hayes, saw a different man. A man they were proud to have his blood pumping through their veins. A man they were proud to defend. There is a certain sense of sympathy for these boys too, because they don't know the person that Son Hayes describes. They were treated to the upgraded Father Hayes. Unfortunately all Son Hayes can see is his father in every one of his half brothers. Like they are a living ghost. You wonder if they could possibly bury the hatchet, could they connect with each other? Or is the town too small for all of Hayes boys? Perhaps there isn't enough farmland in the rural town to bury the memories.

There is a noticeable sense of maturity to the film by Nichols. The acoustic guitar riff echoes through the film and only augments the melodrama. It finally plays out at the ending credits, serving as a catharsis to the long constructed angst. While not a happy piece to watch by any means, it's a compelling drama that makes an impression. 

Orange Is the New Black (Season 1)

Jenji Kohan, 2013

Netflix continues to release original programming, which will ultimately prove to be a solid competitor to premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime. This series is as good as any series that would be appear on those networks. This series is a dramedy based on the memoir of Piper Kerman. It's the story of Piper (Taylor Schilling), who is sentenced to Litchfield women's prison in Upstate New York. Sort of like a comedy version of HBO's Oz. It examines themes of homosexual romance, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, reflection and ingenuity while incarcerated. The series is directed by Jenji Kohan, who has a long resume of past television credits that include Mad About You, Sex and the City, Weeds and the Girlmore Girls.

Taylor Schilling is perfectly cast as Piper. Piper is about to enter prison to service a 15 month sentence for her involvement with her ex-girlfriend's drug ring. Now engaged to new love Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs), she's pulled back into her past despite the fact she's tried to move on from the period of her life when she was involved in a lesbian romance with Alex Vause (Laura Prepon). Piper has a well defined emotional range. She initially feels like a bad stroke of luck put her where she is. She brings her outside self in, seeking acceptance and trying to make friends quickly - perhaps too quickly. It certainly takes time to become jaded like the others. With a prison filled with rough & tough women, her vulnerability sticks out like a sore thumb.

Fans of The Wire will be delighted to see Pablo Schreiber (who played Nicky Sobotka in Season 2), who plays a prison guard in Orange. He's one of the few guards, most of which are drunk with their power. They verbally abuse the inmates on a regular basis, causing you to wonder when they are going to get their comeuppance. It's also refreshing to see Jason Biggs and Natasha Lyonne far away from the god awful American Pie series. One of the most positively distinctive features of the series is the larger than life personalities that the cast provides. They all have a story, and the creator cleverly peppers in back-story to paint the picture.

There are plenty of laughs and most, if not all of them hit. There's clearly a talented writing staff behind the series, and the casting director deserves some serious praise because there really doesn't appear to be one miscast character in the entire series. Netflix already renewed it for Season 2, which is good news. With House of Cards and Arrested Development in their belt, they are clearly going to become a big player in the television world.

July 20, 2013


Andres Muschietti, 2013

Directed by Muschietti and produced by notorious nightmare-inducer Guillermo del Toro. Lucas is eating through his life savings to find his long-lost nieces who were abducted years before when his brother abducted them after killing his wife and business partner. When they are finally found, he learns that they have become feral after being in the wild for so long. What he doesn't realize, is that they had some help with their survival. 

Mama is an imaginative effort with an original story. It pays tribute to some of the films in its category (Insidious, The Grudge, The Ring) while standing out on its own. The initial unpredictable nature of the two feral girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) almost create a second and third villain early in the film when they are discovered. You don't really know what they did to survive, or what skills they learned from "Mama". You know that with del Toro on board, you are going to be treated to some good visual features and this film does not disappoint in that department. There are some dream sequences where some really beautiful filters are used that almost give the shot a negative-like effect.

Good performances by most of the actors on board. Nikolaj Coster-Waldeu (Game of Thrones, Headhunters, Virtuality) is effective as the struggling artist uncle who takes the girls in. His girlfriend Annabel, played by Jessica Chastain, was clearly a miscast. Anyone that has seen her in Zero Dark Thirty knows she can act. She just needs to be in the right role, and that is not as the self-serving, rough around the edges Goth-girl. The film drags a bit in the end, and the final scene felt a bit imitative. But overall, the film supplies some good scares and is paced quite well. 

July 18, 2013

Top 5 Dark Comedies

5. The Cable Guy (1996)

Not loved by many. Saw this film for the first time when I was in 8th grade. It made such an impact on me that I watched it repeatedly until I memorized the entire script. The quirky humor made an impression, and probably molded my standards for what I look for in comedies to this day. Jim Carrey at his best.

4. Raising Arizona (1987)

3. The Big Lebowski (1998)

Struggled with labeling this one a dark comedy but I suppose it can be placed there. One of my favorites of all time. The Coen Brothers are so good at making films that are virtually impossible to pigeon-hole. They transcend genres, and almost every one of them has made an impact on me.

2. Groundhog Day (1993)

1. Defending Your Life (1991)

Albert Brooks really displays his genius writing abilities in this film about what happens after you die.

Honorable Mentions:

So I Married an Axe Murderer
Lost in America
American Psycho

July 17, 2013

Top 5 Horror Films of All Time

A particularly personal list, because this is a genre that affects everyone so differently. The common theme of all of the selections here is that they have all seemingly found a place in my mind - permanently. My standards for horror are also going to differ from someone else's. The horror films that are excessively gory become caricatures. there's a certain conditioning effect. You watch anything because you want it to affect you in some way. Horror plays on fear, and that's a good thing. Life would be bland if all you ever watched were Pixar movies. It's good to explore the entire spectrum of human emotion. And to take you out of your comfort zone. To play on your imagination. The best ones do just that, and they do it well.

5. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

It was also so groundbreaking and inventive. It created the found footage genre, and holds up. It seems that people who didn't live in the woods and saw this weren't really affected by it. I was living deep in the Connecticut woods at the time, and didn't go in them at night for a while. Never fully recovered either, I think I would still be thinking about some of the aspects of this film if I were alone in the woods even at present day.

4. Let the Right One In (2008)

Watching this film for the first time was such a treat. It would probably be the #1 Vampire film of all time (if I made that list). The American remake Let Me In is also really good, but not quite AS good as the original.

3. The Ring (2002)

The Ring obviously uses a lot of horrific imagery to make its point, but it does so effectively. 

2. Paranormal Activity (2007)

Probably the most controversial selection. For some reason this one gave me this lingering fear every time I got into the shower for about 2 years. It's strange, because there are no Psycho-like shower scenes in the film - and Psycho never really affected me in that way anyway. I suppose it's because it plays on the concept of the invisible entity. I even had unrealistic thoughts that it may have spoiled my own house, because there were similarities in terms of the layout of the one in the film (mainly the bedroom). I also have not and CAN'T see any of the sequels. That scene where the door opens, and then all of a sudden the menacing footsteps run out will be ingrained in my mind forever. Like the Blair Witch, this one was either hit or miss with people it seems.

1. The Exorcist (1973)

The classic. This one speaks for itself. Probably wouldn't get much of an argument from anyone here. That staircase scene.... damn. To this day I can't watch anything with an exorcism theme. 

Honorable Mentions:

Rosemary's Baby
Child's Play
A Nightmare on Elm Street

July 15, 2013


Clive Barker, 1987

Larry (Andrew Robinson) and Julia (Clare Higgins) move into Larry's childhood home to get away from the city. When moving in they discover that his long-lost, not-really-missed brother Frank had been staying there some time ago. What they don't realize, is that he's actually still in the house in some form: just trapped in an alternate dimension with demonic torturers.

The campy film runs on some quality editing and surprisingly good effects. At times some of the visual effects are similar to those in The Fly. Other times they appear to almost be on par with Alien. The only time this becomes distracting is when you see that horrible, much forgotten 80's electricity effect. The only part of Back to the Future I do not welcome with open arms. The only part of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure that does not bring a smile to my face. The progression of Frank from slime to mobile zombie is quite entertaining. Other features of the film are feel very dated (fashion, humor, sound). The deterioration of Julia feels far-fetched and forceful. Larry's character feels like a caricature of 1980's Dad. Their daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) is the quintessential frightened female who doesn't know which door to run into. In the end, while there may be a mildly surprising twist in the final act, the film feels anachronous and predictable.  

Spring Breakers

Harmony Korine, 2013

Harmony Korine (Trash Humpers, Gummo, Mister Lonely) directs this raunchy crime drama about a group of girls (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine) who take desperate measures to travel to Florida to celebrate their spring break from college. When they arrive, similar measures continue when they encounter local drug thug Alien (James Franco).

Korine is no stranger to filming provocative subject matter, and he certainly provides some disturbing imagery here. The opening segment of the film is an array of drunken frat boys, bare boobs and beer bongs. The opening sequence, shot in slow motion, is an obvious examination of the crude behavior of America's youth. This examination is very much similar to the analysis of the deplorable behavior of teens in Kids (written by Korine). The obvious difference is that in Breakers Korine doesn't bother to observe much more than their hard-partying and drunken impulses. They are obnoxious, another villain in the film.

The actual story begins when following the group of girls trying to scrounge up the money to make the trip down to Florida. They look at this trip as if its going to be some kind of defining journey, one that will change their lives. Their innocence is evident, but overshadowed by their disgusting obsession with American materialism and pop culture. This obsession would continue to be examined for the remainder of the film.

James Franco delivers a noteworthy performance, probably the most chameleonic of his career as Alien. Alien is Korine's fictional Joe Francis, an impulse-driven manipulator preying on young women like a corn-rowed Vulture. He seeks them out when they are vulnerable, and goes in for the kill. His limited rants make him seem like Samuel L. Jackson's character Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction if he had dropped out of high school his freshman year. He takes pride in his material possessions, which are an obvious byproduct of the drug sales. His "Look at my sheeeit" rant is still echoing in my mind along with him whispering "Spring Breaaakkk" sort of like the "If you build it they will come" cornfield whisper in Field of Dreams. He has his wall of weapons, his Scarface on repeat.

Franco's character is certainly the highlight of the film. The other highlight of the film is Korine's use of color and sound. It's a very nice looking film, with a very applicable soundtrack. The duality of Dubstep to the slow-motion drunk-fest certainly makes an impact. Definitely style over substance, but the lack of depth in the story department certainly leaves much to be desired. While Franco's performance is very memorable, it isn't enough to carry it all. I personally saw Kids around the time it was released. I was young, probably 14 or 15. There are elements in that film, some imagery that still haunts me to this day. That was one of the first dark films I saw at a young age. It's probably why I gravitated to the more disturbing films later on in life - because of that profound impact that they can have, whether good or bad. Harmony Korine clearly had a lot to say back then. With Spring Breakers, he obviously has a lot to SHOW - I just wish he had more to say.

July 14, 2013


Ben Affleck, 2012

Past Oscar-winner Ben Affleck directs this Period piece about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. After the United States grants asylum to cancer stricken leader Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the streets of Iran erupt in chaos. Demonstrators storm the U.S. embassy demanding the U.S. return the Shah. Most of the State Department workers are held hostage but 6 manage to escape to the Canadian Ambassador's secured home. Without a lot options, they decide to send Tony Mendez (Affleck) into Iran as a Canadian filmmaker who will be scouting locations with his 6 cast-mates for a Sci-Fi film titled Argo. This will give him an opportunity to get the hostages out of the country with fake Canadian passports.

Affleck's film-making abilities really shine in this taut Thriller, with a lot of help from Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Babel, 21 Grams, Brokeback Mountain). It's a very nice looking film that plays on tension and shifting viewpoints to keep things moving along. Remarkable Cinematography combined with a Time-appropriate soundtrack, the transitional shots with the 70's rock (such as Van Halen's "Dance the Night Away" playing as actors in costume prepare for a table read) are well-placed and give you a break from the tensity.

I've always said that Affleck is better behind the camera than in front of it, but he is effective as Tony Mendez because its a character naturally calm and collected that really doesn't call for a lot of range. Some of the tense moments are reminiscent of fellow political thriller Zero Dark Thirty, but Argo ultimately stands out on its own. Those who may be skeptical that the story itself may feel dull will be surprised. Ample time spent on the protests, to the State Department contemplating their next move, to the Hollywood prep, and then ultimately putting the mission into action. The multiple perspectives only add to the detail. You're seeing things through the eyes of the Iranians, hostages, Argo production staff, State Department, and the American citizens. All of which come well-placed with adequate time spent with each.

Probably my favorite scene in the film is the scene with the VW bus moving through the crowd. It's so tense and well shot; you are literally sitting in the vehicle with them with your heart beating in unison as the Iranian hands pound on the glass windows in a symphony of anger. Some of the comedic elements also give you a nice break as well. Alan Arkin as Lester Siegel, the vocal foul-mouthed producer, and John Goodman as John Chambers, the talented Hollywood make-up artist. The clouds of cigarette smoke and bad eyeglass frames only add to the authenticity. Keep your eyes peeled at the end credits for photographs of the actual people involved with their Hollywood counterparts which was very interesting to see. "Argo f$%# yourself"!

The Man from Earth

Richard Schenkman, 2007

Professor John Oldman (David Lee Smith) suddenly decides, after 10 years of teaching, that he is going to move to an undisclosed destination. His colleagues are perplexed, and confused. During a going-away party at his cabin, he decides to tell them that he is actually a caveman from the Paleolithic age that never died. They assume he's lying, or trying to consult with them on material for a book he may be writing.

The film, set in the southwest, is fueled by good acting and sharp writing. Substance over style, it doesn't need much more than its provocative dialogue and desert country backdrop to move the story along. As they arrive at the his remote cabin, they immediately start asking questions. You get a sense that he was a very well-liked individual who made a lot of friends on campus. As they open a bottle of Johnny Walker Green, he begins to open up a bit about the reasons for his departure. His colleagues are other professors, well-versed in subjects from Psychology to Anthropology to History to Christian Studies. Instant skeptics, the layers of the onion are peeled and the colleagues begin to try to find cracks in his story. John, a reserved but kind man, continues to recount tales of hunting, looking at the stars thousands of years ago and questioning god, to the rise and fall of the Roman empire. The emotions of the colleagues become unsteady as the story continues. In their eyes, they are hurt that a good friend is leaving for an unknown reason and they are angry that he's playing with their emotions on his way out of town. At times, they assume he has manipulated them by putting them all in the same room hoping to pick their brains. As night falls, the stories continue. Angry and confused, they still cannot get up and walk out. They must hear more. YOU must hear more. You, the audience, basically serves as another body in the room sitting around the fireplace listening along. John's story is engaging and ultimately becomes entrancing as the sun sets and you sit around listening, and gazing at the hypnotic flames of the fire.

Jerome Bixby, who wrote the script, has a background in the sci-fi genre. With Star Trek and The Twilight Zone episodes on his resume, he's clearly someone with a sharp mind that has some interesting ideas. While the film is noticeably low budget, it doesn't call for much more. It's not necessary. This film would also presumably do well on the Broadway stage.

July 7, 2013

Everything Must Go

Dan Rush, 2010

Nick Halsey returns home from a not-so-good day at work to find all of his possessions on the front lawn of his house, with all of the locks changed. Realizing that his wife has left him, he decides to stay out on the front lawn continuing to drink beer hoping that the answers will come to him.

A lot of familiar faces and distinct P.B.R. product placement in this dramedy that is a nice change of pace for Will Ferrell. As one of the better comedic actors of this generation, it's refreshing to see Ferrell in a dramatic role. I've always had a theory that comedy actors do well in dramatic roles because of the built-in range they already possess. It's why Jim Carrey was so successful in the transition in dramatic roles like The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and why Bill Murray also succeeded in films like Lost in Translation. 

Rush is effective at creating a film that has doesn't trip over itself with unnecessary story. It mostly focuses on Nick re-evaluating his life and wondering what got him to this point. Rush makes a statement about ones tendency to cling to material objects. Nick soon realizes that in order to move on, he has to let go of the Vinyl records and the George Foreman grill. Part of the letting go is aided by young neighbor boy Kenny Loftus (Christopher Jordan Wallace), and the dynamic that is created between the two is heart-warming and clearly therapeutic for both of them. The gorgeous Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona, The Town) appears in the film as Samantha, the new neighbor moving across the street, providing an ear to Nick during his outdoor stay. The belongings on the front lawn can also be a statement about the Surburbia gossip mill: window peeking and speculation over neighbors unhappy marriages. Nick fittingly makes a statement in the film about how everyone hides their baggage behind closed doors, hidden from the world. He claims that he is more honest because his baggage is out on the front lawn, for the world to see. The film doesn't try to be anything other than a hit rock bottom & pick yourself up piece, and although the twist at the end is a bit unnecessary... it's still an entertaining 90 minutes.

Upstream Color

Shane Carruth, 2013

Kris (Amy Seimetz) gets abducted and gets put into a state of hypnosis from a mysterious plant extract. When she finally comes out of it, she attempts to piece her life back together. She encounters Jeff (Shane Carruth), who has endured a similar experience, and together they both try to make sense of their changed world.

When I watched this film for the first time, I made the mistake of taking periodic breaks from it. BIG mistake. While you may get away with that with some other films, this is a film built for one sitting. There's just so much there. It's just not going to be beneficial taking yourself out of Carruth's vision and stepping back in when you please, hoping to immediately reorient yourself. Therefore, I gave the film the honor of re-watching a second time and boy was I happy I did.

The film possesses qualities similar to Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It's a wonderfully shot film, which really gives the impression that Carruth has evolved with much of his film-making abilities since making the gritty low-budget sci-fi time travel thriller Primer. The visual elements of the film are excellent, at times very dream-like. Detailed interiors, blinding white light, molecular shots of the blue extract taking hold. Impressive editing. Carruth (deservedly) won the Special Jury Prize for Sound Design at Sundance. The soundtrack reinforces the hypnotic sensibility, with a resonating cadence similar to the soundtrack of The Assassination of Jesse James or the aforementioned Eternal Sunshine.

It's not just a film about an abduction, drugging and the recovery. It's about way more than just Kris' abduction. It's about way more than whatever trauma Jeff has also experienced. It examines a particular life force, and essence of being, a certain vein of existence. A frequency of sound, or many sounds. A connection with the animal world. A communication system one has with nature, similar to the plant system in Avatar but much more complex. I was guilty of thinking too abstractly the first time seeing the film, when the concepts of the film are actually much more literal. Shane Carruth is clearly a high-IQ filmmaker, capable of making intelligent films on par with Christopher Nolan, David Lynch or Darren Aronofsky. It will be interesting to see what kinds of films he continues to make, presumably with growing budgets.

July 6, 2013

Venus and Serena

Maiken Baird & Michelle Major, 2012

Baird and Major direct this documentary about the Williams sisters that follows them through their 2011 tennis season, but also peppers in archival footage dating all the way back to their youth in Compton, CA.

It's an interesting film that catalogs a truly American story. Two sisters grow up in the rough neighborhood of Compton. Their overprotective father really wants whats best for his daughters, helping them cultivate their skills and carve a niche for themselves so they can elevate their lives to the point that they can get out of the rough neighborhood. The early footage of them as two little girls really shows the long road they've traveled to get to where they are. The innocence of the two standing on the sun-cracked courts in Compton is captivating. Of course the confidence builds at an early age, and their success is known. The documentary does a good job of capturing them behind the scenes, in some intimate moments. Serena struggles through injury and the film does a good job of capturing the frustration and anticipation. You see the competitive nature of the two sisters, but also the comradery and support of each other. They may defeat each other on the court, but there is no jealousy or animosity. While Richard Williams may not have been the best husband, its without question that he was and still is a good father to Venus and Serena. He raised them with a sense of pride and integrity that they have refined over the years. He raised them to have a healthy sense of competition. He also raised them with a religious foundation - as Jehovah's Witnesses. The absence of traditional American holidays only reinforced their all-in mentality with Tennis. Venus even stated herself in the film that they missed out on a lot of things growing up, but she has no regrets. Richard Williams surely draws a lot of comparisons to Earl Woods, father to Tiger Woods. The comparisons are very fitting. Both fathers wanted their kin to make an impression in a mainly Caucasian-dominated sport, and pushed them to do so from an early age. Both fathers also maintained a presence as a mentor/coach into their professional careers. Unfortunately the dilemma the two sisters face is a problem felt by many professional athletes: Father time. As they've become older, they've been reminded of their own mortality. Their 30-year-old bodies are not as agile as their 20-year-old bodies, and they are constantly reminded of that. Issues that didn't exist before are now in the foreground. The film itself is edited nicely, with a fitting soundtrack. There are some interesting interviews (ie. Chris Rock, Bill Clinton, John McEnroe) that reinforce the sisters effect on popular culture as well as their effect on American sports. It's an entertaining film that follows two sisters whose tennis careers are certainly not over, but have certainly passed some important milestones.

Straight A's

James Cox, 2013

Black sheep Scott (Ryan Phillippe) arrives on horseback to his wealthy brother's house to try to make amends after having a vision of his deceased mother telling him to do so. Old tension resurfaces, mainly due to the fact that Scott's brother William (Luke Wilson) is now married to Scott's high school sweetheart Katherine (Anna Paquin).

Like so many of the romantic dramedies that get churned out these days, Straight A's attempts to run on bad writing combined with run-of-the-mill acting. The final product feels unpredictable and uninspired, and director Cox (Wonderland) and writer David Cole are to blame. In the end they make a film that is bearable but unadorned. Ryan Phillippe pulls off a good southern accent, one of the few redeeming qualities of the film. Wilson and Paquin clearly didn't have a lot to work with, and they fall flat here. Anna Paquin's stone-faced performance feels one-dimensional and she's yet to shine outside of the Sookie Stackhouse comfort zone. There's one point in the film where she blows up, showing that she can cover both sides of the emotional spectrum but nothing in between. The mature son who wears the suit all of the time feels like a direct rip-off of Augusten Burrough's character in Running with Scissors but without any of the charm. Powers Boothe is in what almost feels like a throw-away role, and somehow Cox even made him seem dull. The only really good acting in the film was provided by Gracie (Ursula Parker), who some will recognize from the television series Louie. The dialogue is completely elementary, and the story is even more predictable. The transitions feel forced, and lack any kind of organic feel. The "surprise" twist in the end really feels like they needed to quickly tie up loose ends so they wouldn't be late for lunch that day. In this world of over-used premises and other rom-com low-hanging fruit, this film gets lost in the forgettable crowd.

July 5, 2013

Waste Land

Lucky Walker, Karen Harley & Joao Jardim - 2010

Vik Muniz, world-famous artist, decides to travel to his home country of Brazil for a large art project set in the vast Jardim Gramacho landfill in Rio de Janeiro. What follows is a well-detailed film about the less fortunate people of Brazil who finally get some well-deserved attention.

An inspiring, thorough documentary that really captures the evidence of deep-rooted poverty in Brazil. At times emotionally moving, Muniz decides to try and capture a more ignored side of humanity. There is a large group of poor people that pick through heaps of unfiltered garbage in the land-fill in an effort to separate the recyclables to redeem them for what adds up to about twenty dollars per day. Muniz informs the people that he would like to profile them in an art exhibit, sell the artwork, and give 100% of the revenue back to the people. As Vik starts the interviewing process, he starts to see the similarities with the pickers and his own past - where he grew up poor conditions himself. There's a wide spectrum of personalities at Jardim Gramacho - from the mother who lost her son at age 3, to the uneducated elder who has been picking for 26 years. They all have a story, and they have a sympathetic quality to them. It's inspiring that although they may be waist deep in society's waste day in and day out, they have a sense of integrity and pride in their work. You see that these people, while uneducated, have a real hunger for knowledge. They scour through the trash, and when they find books they clean them off and bring them home. One of the men has even read War and Peace. The pickers have a sharp eye. By examining ones trash, they realize you can find out a lot about that person. Their social status, their occupation, their overall health condition.

One memorable point in the film is when Vik has a group of pickers in his studio. He describes the person at the museum - the person who stands back from the wall and looks at the art, and then bends forward to look at the material up close. As you get closer to a painting, it begins to lose its appeal when you see the detail. As you move away, you see the beauty. It's an important concept, because it can so accurately portray these people and their conditions. From a distance (such as when Vik is viewing the landfill from Google Earth at his Brooklyn studio), they appear to be desperate trash-dwellers. You get closer, as he does, and you start to see the qualities of the people. Vik Muniz selflessly changed the lives of the people of Jardim Gramacho, and it's really inspiring to see him give back to his hometown.