November 30, 2013


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

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

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

November 29, 2013

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

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

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

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

November 28, 2013

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

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

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

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

Marc Maron: Thinky Pain

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

November 27, 2013

Top 5 Films Set in New York City

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

5. Midnight Cowboy

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

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

2. Taxi Driver

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

November 23, 2013

Love Actually

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

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

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

November 21, 2013

Frances Ha

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

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

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

November 20, 2013

Announcing the Coopies!

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

November 19, 2013

Top 5 Imaginative Films

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

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

3. The Fifth Element
(Luc Besson, 1997)

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

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

Honorable Mentions:

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

November 17, 2013


Jon Wright, 2012

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

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

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

November 14, 2013

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

5. Black Swan 
(Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

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

4. Chained
(Jennifer Chambers Lynch, 2012)

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

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

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

2. Irreversible 
(Gaspar Noe, 2002)

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

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

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

Honorable Mentions:

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

November 12, 2013

All is Lost

J.C. Chandor, 2013

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

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

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

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

November 11, 2013

12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen, 2013

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

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

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

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

November 10, 2013

Miller's Crossing

Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990

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

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

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

November 7, 2013

Prince Avalanche

David Gordon Green, 2013

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

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

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

November 4, 2013

Y Tu Mama Tambien

Alfonso Cuaron, 2001

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

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

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

November 3, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Peter Jackson, 2012

Bilbo Baggins is surprised to find his normally quiet home suddenly filled with dwarves, at a dinner organized by Gandalf. He learns that his presence is requested on a journey to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their home that has been overtaken by the dragon Smaug. Hesitant and not so ready to leave his peaceful life, Bilbo realizes that it's a once in a lifetime opportunity that will provide him with a fascinating tale to tell.

Well, it's been ten years since the last film. And Mr. Jackson, you did it again. You once again bring everyone into Tolkien's world. As the camera flies over the Shire, you look down and pick the dwelling that you would want to occupy. When the dwarves surround the thick wooden table with drink in hand and ready for song, you wish you could be there to join in. It's interesting that Tolkien's world becomes so inviting, because when it comes down to it - it's quite volatile. Even Bilbo himself can't escape the conflicts outside of his small community. This film feels largely consistent with the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and Peter Jackson has a proven track record of meeting and beating expectations with the films. It's more of a micro story than the very macro feel of the Rings films. Martin Freeman seems like he's born to play Baggins, never missing a cue and delivers a great deal of energy. The film is of course a feast for the eyes. The saturated greens of The Shire, the endless plains, the shadowy forests that are just exuding bewilderment. You venture below ground, to the firelit crevices where the Orcs dwell. Everything feels so elaborate. There's some familiar faces, and of course some new ones. CGI Porn at it's best. There is a sense of refinement to the effects. Perhaps it's because of the advances in technology, or perhaps it's been a while since the last viewing of the Trilogy. The sudden shifts in perspective that the camera makes are so fluid and they never take you out of the moment. There's of course not one bad shot in the film. The Lord of the Lord of the Rings does it again, and why wouldn't he? He's had practice. It's just another great story of the underdog. Themes of loyalty, courage, companionship. Not looking back, pushing forward - even if you're homesick. The universal clinging to materialism. Old grudges. Honor. Drunkenness and dwarf songs. It's all there. And it's put together so nicely.