December 31, 2013

The Spectacular Now

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

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

December 29, 2013

Top 5 Plane Crash Scenes

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 27, 2013


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

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

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

December 23, 2013

American Hustle

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

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

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

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

December 18, 2013

Stories We Tell

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

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

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

December 16, 2013

Boardwalk Empire (Season 4)

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

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

December 10, 2013

Top 5 Scenes Involving Food

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

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

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

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

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

December 8, 2013


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

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

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

December 5, 2013


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

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

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