April 28, 2014

The Bicycle Thief

Vittorio De Sica, 1948
Antonio's (Lamberto Maggiorani) sudden excitement from landing a new job putting up posters throughout the city is diminished when the bicycle he needs to complete his work on a daily basis is stolen.

A truly minimalist story in which the plot could really be summed up by saying its a movie about a man looking for his bike. But of course it's more than that. The pursuit of this precious sole mode of transportation is so important. The Post WWII environment leaves a lot of specialized men desperately looking for work. Desperate to the point where they are stepping over one another in an effort to take what positions they can get. When he realizes that the contingency of his new position is that he needs a bicycle to make the rounds, the bicycle becomes more than just soldered pieces of steel with two wheels. It becomes an idol of his livelihood. He NEEDS this job to prove himself as a provider to his family. In that sense, Antonio is the post-war everyman. He has mouths to feed. His son Bruno (Enzo Staiola being the standout performance of the film) looks up to him, often literally looking up to him from a few feet below as he stands beside him. Bruno becomes his mouthy companion as he scours the city looking for the priceless piece. You get a feeling Antonio is fighting for his life. The city around him feels unforgiving. He fiercely searches for the bike, making sudden turns down stucco alleyways and meticulously exploring the local marketplaces. De Sica's simple story plays out on screen as anything but. The well-choreographed scenes literally come to life as the entire city is seemingly involved in the film, of course by no accident and a real testament to De Sica's abilities. A true needle in the haystack story. So much of the film feels ahead of its time, from the clean editing to the tracking shots. This is one of those classics that should just be in the annual rotation from this point forward.

Let the Fire Burn

Jason Osder, 2013
Let the Fire Burn documents the very much overlooked and forgotten 1985 standoff between members of the Philadelphia-based radical political group MOVE and the police. Entirely using archival footage, very much like 2010's Senna, the doc is a stream of mostly news footage and really puts you in the middle of the crisis. Those not familiar with the organization do not really learn a lot about the group's philosophies from this film (but thats why we have Wikipedia). What you do learn is that they are a Christian-oriented group focused on minimalist living standards, crying out against technology by not using electricity and heating their headquarters with wood-burning stoves. They are profoundly anti-establishment, at times antagonizing the city police to engage in some kind of a confrontation. When the film opens with footage of the deposition of child Michael Moses Ward as he recounts the traumatic night, he immediately draws sympathy just knowing that there were children involved in the incident. And there certainly were children involved in the organization, as you see them spouting off parts of the MOVE doctrine as the matriarchal figure stands beside them.

While the MOVE members appear to be educated (successfully representing themselves in court on more than one occasion), at times they come off as very adversarial and threatening to the neighbors around them. These neighbors must suffer with constant political banter over loudspeakers mounted outside the building. They have to endure the eyesore of a boarded up building that basically looked condemned. The tension builds to the day of May 13, 1985 when the Philadelphia police section off and station themselves outside the Osage Avenue row house where a dozen MOVE members are hiding and local government attempts to evict them from the premises. The outcome is a destructive gripping series of events that literally went up in flames, and how the film got its very fitting title.

It's such an interesting style in terms of documentary filmmaking. No cloudy interviews made years later. No reenactments. Just raw footage. It adds a certain purity to it, really puts you in the moment. By watching the look of shock on a news reporters face when they are surprised by sudden automatic rifle fire, you get a real sense of distress as if you are watching it live. There are clear inconsistencies when it comes to the Philadelphia Police Department's handling of the whole event, and the documentary does a terrific job of really laying out the facts. Although the MOVE members are not innocent by any stretch, the film still leaves you feeling troubled and disheartened.

April 27, 2014

Rabbit Proof Fence

Phillip Noyce, 2002
Set in 1931, Three Aborigine girls are taken from their family in an effort to slowly eradicate Australia of its indigenous population. 

Rabbit Proof has some really great qualities, but is ultimately a film that is lacking to a certain degree. The acting and cinematography really stand out, with the young girls showing durability and endurance while encompassed by superior camera work. The barren Australian Outback really invokes a sense of vast despair for the girls as they try to make their way back home. At times the heat radiates from the surface of the dry earth, reinforcing the unforgiving conditions the poor girls must endure. Sometimes the camera is attempting to focus on the silhouettes of the girls as they appear to almost float above the white surface. The actual fence they follow serves as a symbol in a sense, the descendants of British colonists trying so desperately to efface any anterior heritage. Their eagerness to "breed out" the half-castes is similar to that of the Nazi's Final Solution. But with that being said, the film is guilty of dragging when it comes to the story. Wearisome, sometimes almost feeling like homework. It is by no means an un-watchable film, but it certainly is an overrated one based on the wide critical acclaim it receives. The book likely gives the story much better treatment and probably makes more of an impact. That's what is ultimately lacking in Rabbit Proof. The story itself never seems to create a gripping, emotional impression. At the end of the day, the film at least takes you into a chapter of world history not often explored, it's just a shame it lightly glides through it without leaving you with any deep-seated memories.

April 24, 2014

Big Daddy


Dennis Dugan, 1999
Sonny Koufax is a law school graduate aiming low with a job at a New York City tollbooth. When a child belonging to his out-of-town roommate appears at his doorstep, he decides to use the opportunity of fatherhood to prove himself to some of the disappointed people in his life. 

Big Daddy represents a period in time where Adam Sandler was still using his creative energy to star in films that had a simple construct but delivered a fulfilling story. And although it's a flawed film, it sets you up, pulls you in, and leaves you quite satisfied after it's over. He is basically the same character in every film that he stars in. The lazy guy, who has a niche talent with a short temper and manages to overcome an obstacle and surprises everyone in the end. Oh yeah, and he always gets that girl that he didn't stand a chance with early on. Big Daddy is of course no different. In fact, the flaws in this film may be more frustrating than those in Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore. Sonny and Kevin (John Stewart) manage to have this apartment that would likely cost upwards of $5000 a month. Kevin may be able to carry that weight, but he would likely not be willing to carry his college buddy who only can offer a simple tollbooth income. Well, maybe he's the nicest most generous college buddy in the world. Then there's the social worker Arthur Brooks, played by the great Sandler-centric Josh Mostel. Arthur is a bit too facilitating, simply agreeing on a handshake to quietly set up a family for Julian while he can play Dad for a few weeks. Sonny is also this lawyer in hiding who his working friends ask for legal advice at cocktail parties and he seems to know of the one case that they didn't. And there's the bad acting by Julian, played by the McGrath twins. Perhaps it's unfair to judge them harshly. They are kids.

With all the flaws, there is still something not only entertaining but endearing about this film. You like Julian. You're rooting for Sunny. You want to see it work out. If the film was that bad, you wouldn't give a shit. Perhaps that's the saving grace. The one redeeming element. You want Sonny to have this sudden successful evolution. This life-changing, maturity-forcing break. It's one of the last good films for Sandler. After this he seemed to devolve even further, although he ironically went on to deliver the best performance of his career in Punch Drunk Love (of course with the best direction of his career). Real-life fatherhood seemed to change Sandler. He continued to linger on that whole not horrible film, but not really that great trend for a few more films (50 First Dates, Click, Mr. Deeds). But then it really went south. Luckily, some of these not-so-bad films are preserved. At least we can file this one under Guilty Pleasures. 

April 15, 2014

The Vicious Kind

Lee Toland Krieger, 2009
Dealing with heartbreak from a recent breakup, Caleb (Adam Scott) attempts to be protective of his younger brother who is home from college by scaring off his girlfriend, who he surprisingly starts having feelings for.

Set in Norfolk Connecticut, The Vicious Kind is a small New England love story packed with raw emotion. It's the minimalist design that makes the film appealing. You rely on the performances of three very different men and a beautiful girl, all who have their own personal issues that manifest themselves in various ways when in the presence of Emma (Brittany Snow). Caleb is mostly angry and heartbroken. The jet black hair of Emma is a feature similar to his ex-girlfriends, so it's not hard for Emma to actually become the woman who just broke Caleb's heart. Caleb's father Donald (J.K. Simmons) has his own issues with women, a general disrespect for them, which erupts quite quickly at the dinner table when introduced to Emma for the first time. And young Peter (Alex Frost), the most sympathetic character in the picture, is just so innocent and sincere. He hasn't been burned by the world yet.

The film studies the long-existing, never-boring father-son conflict. The brother/brother competitive dynamic. Ones personal destruction after a breakup and the inevitable slow rebuild. The Caleb character is a departure for usually-comedic actor Adam Scott, who has no trouble putting it all on the screen. He is defeated, bitter, resentful. He is unpredictable and impulsive, his mood turning on a dime. One minute he is sobbing to himself, cigarette in mouth. The next he is explosive to anyone around him. The film's best attributes are certainly in the performances and and solid camera work. The myriad of medium shots bring you into the weight of the moment, especially with the often rough exchanges between Caleb and Emma. The film gets a bit sloppy, especially with some of the flashbacks of Caleb with his ex-girlfriend. It makes sense they exist, if anything they give some kind of history to Caleb. But it seems a bit unnecessary. Adam Scott provides enough in the present-day Caleb to really deliver a thorough character without back-story. He shows this from the remarkable opening shot of the film with him sitting in a diner booth with watery eyes. Hopefully he pursues more dramatic roles in the future. He certainly has the chops.

April 13, 2014

House of Cards (Season 2)

Beau Willimon, 2014
If the first season of House of Cards didn't draw you in, you are completely insatiable. If you were putting off watching it as it collects dust on your queue, stop what you are doing and go watch it right now. It's likely better than what you are watching. The writing, acting, cinematography just emanates excellence with every shot. Kevin Spacey is at his best, at a point where its so surprising to see him outdo himself so deep into his career.

The second season dives in deeper. The ante is upped. The stakes are higher. There is an increased sense of suspicion on many fronts. There are more eyes watching. More threats in play. There are more moving parts at work. If the D.C. machine is a well-oiled machine, Frank Underwood is the smart-chip on the motherboard. He paints a picture of a backroom Washington that feels so terrifiyng. Reinforces the idea that perhaps ignorance is bliss. Maybe it's better to have a low profile, be an anonymous citizen, as long as our homeland is safe. And Frank can keep it safe, as long as he gets what he wants in the process. The ghosts of Frank's past continue to collect and follow him. You can almost hear their cries in the empty wood-carved den of his Washington brownstone.

Frank Underwood has become even more powerful, while also somehow growing even more diabolical. He is perhaps one of the most chilling television anti-heroes ever, right up there with Walter White or Tony Soprano. Just give him the Emmy now. Robin Wright continues to be so cold and so completely calculating. They are the true perfect political pair, and their dynamic is almost a nod to Bill and Hillary Clinton (of course way darker), you would expect them to sleep in separate beds because sexual relations would be considered a downgrade to their relationship. Michael Kelly is possibly the most underrated actor in the series (possibly on television in general) as brain-child Doug Stamper. He's just another one of Frank's close loyal aides who will stop at nothing to maintain Frank's towering position in government. Frank will reel you in and take care of you until he doesn't need you anymore. One can only hope that you prove yourself worthy of being considered irreplaceable. House of Cards is unapologetic. Unforgiving. It's so well-written, so suspenseful. It's going to be so interesting to see where this show goes. Frank Underwood is a pure megalomaniac, and his hunger for power seems to be endless. There seems to be no limit to what his character will do to grow bigger, and it seems like the series is going to only provide great story to parallel that expansion.


Michael Lehmanm, 1994
Three struggling musicians sneak into a Los Angeles radio station hoping to have their demo played on the air. Dismissed by the program manager, they impulsively decide to take the station employees hostage.

The 1990's are a period in time where we can look back. We can look back and picture the divisive Brendan Fraser, who seemed to be in every movie at the box office. We can look back and see Steve Buscemi being underemployed way too often. We can look back and see Adam Sandler in his comedic prime. Airheads certainly employs these three features. The story of the not-so-bright every-men Lone Rangers just trying to get their fifteen minutes of fame is the equivalent of the modern struggling musician trying to make their Youtube video go viral. But this is back when FM radio stations meant something. When hearing Nirvana on your crappy car speakers was actually exciting and not wearisome.

It's certainly a flawed picture. At times it feels dated; with its racial humor, emphasis on the grunge scene. There's some pretty awful acting (Amy Locane, Michael Richards, David Arquette). The premise is far-fetched. There are just some downright unbelievable, comical aspects to it. The gun falls on the floor from the overhead vent and seems to shoot off for about twenty seconds with nobody holding the trigger. The LAPD somehow within minutes is able to helicopter in an entire stage, completely assembled. But to the films credit, there are actually multiple ongoing threads going: the struggling band, the inner conflicts between the radio station on the verge of flipping formats, the pissing contest between the two police departments. Maybe its just another 90's guilty pleasure, joining the likes of Encino Man and Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead.

April 8, 2014

The Elephant in the Living Room

Michael Webber, 2010
This documentary focuses on the subculture of exotic animal collectors who recklessly attempt to obtain everything from Bengal Tigers to Gaboon Vipers.

Michael Webber directs a detailed documentary with a topic immediately interesting on paper. The fascination that some Americans have with exotic animals is quite cleverly explained when a doctor being interviewed in the film explains during his missionary trips to Africa he noticed that the residents kept their distance from the poisonous snakes. But some Americans try to get closer to them. They ignore the risks. They even put them in the hands of our children. Obviously its a small fraction of the American population, because most of us are quite happy having a golden retriever. These exotic animal collectors are looking for something more. There are voids to fill. Statements to make. There is a certain irony to it, because a dog has a lot more to offer than a reptile who is really only focused on it's next meal. It's not to say that all of the animals are completely shut off emotionally. The lions shown on Ohio hillbilly Terry Brumfield's property clearly have SOME kind of emotional connection to him. He feels it justifies possessing them. But there's much more to it. He seems to be a very lonely person. He seems to be quite isolated from the rest of society, and when he IS in public he is eager to show off the offspring of his carnivorous pets. There's a sense of entitlement that these people have that is frustrating, irresponsible, and also cruel.

The hero of the film is clearly Public Safety Officer Tim Harrison. He works tirelessly to find homes for the animals that constantly become too much to care for or unwanted, selflessly cleaning up everyone else's mess. Tim's work is like that of an inner-city police officer, no matter how many hours he puts in the problems will never go away. An existential grindstone.

While the film examines the subculture, it doesn't make emotional impression like animal-based documentaries tend to do (Grizzly Man, Blackfish, The Cove). It's difficult to come away from it with anything really memorable like the aforementioned docs. If only Webber could have dug a little deeper. What if he was able to spend more time at the Amish exotic pet auction? Go deeper into the underworld? It would have been worth the risk. The film takes the easy path of demonizing the animal collectors. It ultimately comes off as more of an extended episode of Animal Planet's Fatal Attractions.

April 6, 2014

Big Sur

Michael Polish, 2013
The adaptation of Kerouacs tormented stream of consciousness madness novel is sacred ground for the die-hard fans (like yours truly). A novel that so well cataloged Jack's complete plummet into an alcohol-ridden state of psychosis where he would ultimately spend the tragic final years of his life. The film is set in the beautiful coastal Big Sur region of California. Many years have passed since Jack and Dean Moriarty hit the road in the beloved beat-nick bible "On the Road" (another recent Kerouac adaptation to be reviewed here at a later time). Jack has become jaded, exhausted, fed up with the world around him. The world around him has changed as well, people are more reluctant to pick up the hitchhiker. There's been a suburban sprawl. He finds himself unable to live up to the expectations of others. Seeking isolation, and then becoming frustrated and tormented by that very seclusion. Everyone around him bears witness to his downfall. And amid all of the inner turmoil there remains a certain optimism, a soul searching, pursuit of something. It's that very energy that gives this picture a good construct. Without it, we are just watching a (possibly bipolar?) genius drink his life away. And maybe we are watching that either way, but there is at least some positivism.

The continual narration ensures loyalty to the source material, although there's never a true sense of synchronicity with what is on screen very much due to Kerouac's signature rapid, run-on writing style. There's detailed set design. A dreamy score maintains a certain daydreamy quality, while some great camera work helps to deliver that same feeling throughout. Beautiful shots of the lush, foggy Pacific Northwest forests. Sped-up shots of the mist gliding over the Pacific Ocean. Jean-Marc Barr is impressive as the aged Kerouac, with Josh Lucas and Patrick Fischler also providing noteworthy performances. People may criticize the film for being a bit spiraling, aimless. And perhaps it is. But it hits the desired beats. It should leave the original readers satisfied. 

April 5, 2014

The Other F Word

Andrea Blaugrund Nevins, 2011
This documentary provides a look at middle-aged punk rockers as they explore their own fatherhood, struggling with maintaining their rebellious personas while trying to be good parents.

The film presents the irony of watching an eff-authority punk-rocker hit middle age, but doesn't pack a whole lot of calories doing so and ends up serving you a mixed message. Unorganized. Confused. Lacking. Crude at times without substance. Are we watching middle-aged rebels struggle with inevitability or are we watching a Pennywise reunion tour? The doc is swerving all over the road all-while playing the songs we've grown to hate. Some scenes are just downright irritating. Everclear's Art Alexakis, who has managed to get more mileage out of three top 20 hits than anyone in the 1990s, sits in a room playing "Father of Mine" with an aged voice that isn't anywhere near the quality it was twenty years ago. His involvement in the film is also puzzling in a sense (not to take away from any of the trauma he actually has experienced) because he is not really known as the rebellious punk type.

But to cut the film some slack, there are some redeeming qualities. Jim Lindberg (of Pennywise) provides some honesty, some insight to the struggle of aging, displaying an urge to put his touring life behind him and dedicate his life to his family. He probably opens up more than the other subjects of the film. Flea also really shows some true vulnerability when he tears up gushing about his daughter. This is what you want from the film, a real unprotected side. But you just get too much filler and not a whole lot of consistency. If you come looking for laughs, you will at least get a couple of those. Seeing a 40 year old Rob Chaos stand in his kitchen unwilling to let go of his spiky hair. Mark Hoppus (Blink 182) talk about his reluctance to purchase censored music for his kids. But the F Word is disappointing because its an enticing premise that is just not explored properly. All the makings of a mediocre documentary.