June 30, 2014

Meek's Cutoff

Kelly Reichardt, 2010
Set in 1845, a group travels across the Oregon country under the guidance of a man named Stephen Meek. Meek promises to guide them through what he believes is a shortcut over the Cascade Mountains. Their doubts grow as they continue to travel in what seems like endless country with food and water running low. When they encounter a Native American in their journey, they are torn between the guidance of Meek and the guidance of the man widely thought to be threatening to settlers.

Reichardt's Oregon Trail-based period piece focuses on the survival of a group across a very desolate landscape. Scattered clusters of dry grass across the cracked earth. The intermittent sight of copper boulders that provide a small sliver of hope that there may be something bounteous on the other side, only to soon find that it's just one of many disappointments across the steppes. Very unforgiving. While the group moves across the harsh terrain, there is a common theme at work: uncertainty. Uncertainty is a dominant motif at work here. They don't know if they can necessarily count on Meek to bring them to their destination. They are certainly losing faith in him. They aren't sure how close they are to finding water, food. In fact, they don't even know if they will drink any water tomorrow. Because of this, they aren't even certain of how long they will be able to maintain the same company. They aren't certain that the cattle or the wagons will persevere. The wooden barrels roped to the sides of the wagons are running dry like their morale. They don't know if their recent "companion" to join the group is going to be helpful, or dangerous. As the wheels turn on the rickety wagon, the wheels turn in their minds. They tread on, continuing forward. Because they have no other choice. The uneventful days turn to black nights, consisting of Emily scraping together some supplies for some minimal calories.

Unfortunately the story maintains synchronicity in terms of the crawling pace that the group upholds. Devoid of any real bursts, you are left in the company of a fairly two-dimensional group of people who don't ever really pull you in and keep you fully concerned. To their credit, their struggles feel realistic and their fortitude is inspiring. But like them, your thirst builds to the point of pure exhaustion. It's betraying when the score builds in the background, only to have that particular moment deflate and transition to a long shot of the two wagons continuing slowly across the empty plain. It's a bold piece of work for Reichardt in terms of a filmmaker attempting to make something with very little. Sadly that it's just not enough.

June 29, 2014

The Lego Movie

Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, 2014
Emmet (Chris Pratt) is a very ordinary man. He is happily fulfilling his daily duties at the city construction site when he accidentally stumbles upon the "Piece of Resistance". He soon learns that it's an object designed to disengage a weapon called the Kragle, owned by Lord Business (Will Ferrell); a powerful leader of the city dead-set on solidifying strict order. Because he is the one who discovered the relic, Emmet is considered to be the fabled prophet that old mystic Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) said would appear to save the Universe from Lord Business' destruction. He is brought to see some Master Builders, people who are capable of building anything without instructions. When they realize that Emmet himself has no creative abilities, they have immediate doubts about his capabilities to fulfill the prophecy.

It's always nice when a film is produced that not only can appeal to the innocent youth, but it can also cater to adults as well on some level. Like so many of the great Pixar films released over the years, The Lego Movie is fueled by solid writing, humor and detailed animation. It cleverly riffs on The Matrix while also maintaining a splashy visual aesthetic similar to 2012's Wreck-it Ralph. An ordinary man, reluctant to believe he may be the most important person in the world, takes on an insurmountable force. A fun take on the age-old David vs. Goliath premise. An underdog story. A collective desire to break free from the shackles of totalitarianism. And the humor hits it's target. The emo-singing Batman (hilariously voiced by Will Arnett). The constant call-backs to Emmet's double-decker couch idea. Green Lantern's (Jonah Hill) relentless pursuit of companionship with the much-resistant Superman (Channing Tatum), quite ironic seeing as the two are paired up in the Jump Street franchise. Many cultural references that never really get old. Not enough can be said about the visuals of the film. The entire Lego universe depicted in the film is so astonishingly elaborate. The colossal buildings. The waves of the ocean. The smoke emanating from the train as it moves down the tracks. Although all of the animation in the film is done with CGI, it skillfully maintains a stop-motion feel and really gives you the impression that the film was made using 3,000,000 Lego pieces that were animated bit by bit. The film hits it out of the park in the final act with a reveal that catches you by surprise. The Lego Movie is an exciting eye-candy-laced thrill-ride that will have you humming "Everything is Awesome" for hours after watching. 

June 26, 2014

There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane

Liz Garbus, 2011
You probably heard the news story soon after it happened. One of those terrifying headlines about a wrong way driver that crashed on the highway, killing eight people total including herself. Basically anyone's worst nightmare. If you lived in the Northeast, it felt even more personal because those roads are so familiar. Soon after you probably caught the headline about the toxicology reports coming back stating that the female driver of the maroon minivan had alcohol in her system at the time of the crash. The equivalent of ten alcoholic drinks in her system, and also traces of THC. Perhaps you then judged her like the rest of America did. Assumed she was a bad mother that put her own kin in harms way, despite the fact that her husband came forward and with full conviction said that she would not have been drinking that day.

That woman was Diane Schuler, mother of three. On the morning of July 26, 2009 she said goodbye to her husband Daniel at a campsite that they frequented in the Hudson Valley. He assumed that he would see her soon at their home in Long Island. But hours later the family started receiving phone calls from the children in the car, saying that Aunt Diane was driving erratically and seemed disoriented. The fateful day tragically ended after she collided with an SUV on the Taconic State Parkway where she was driving in the wrong direction. She killed herself, her daughter and three nieces, and three men in the oncoming SUV. The toxicology tests confirmed that she was inebriated during the drive home, a fact that her husband Daniel has firmly denied being possible. And just like that, so many lives just stripped from the world. Utter tragedy.

This chilling (and at times difficult to watch) documentary thoroughly examines the events of that horrible day that tore multiple families apart. It attempts to retrace Diane's steps. There are interviews with family members on both sides. It revisits the scene of the accident. The pain is still present, unlikely to ever really go away. You feel it too. The shock. The sense of mystery. Daniel is resolute, completely denying the possibility that Diane would have drank alcohol and attempted to drive home with the girls in the van. And while there is substantial evidence that confirms that she was in fact intoxicated, it does seem hard to believe as the film really explores Diane the person. What's clear is that she was a caring mother. A hard worker. A loyal friend. A loving wife. Garbus effectively paints an elaborate picture of the good person that was Diane Schuler. It's the unanswered factors that make it so agonizing. The lack of closure. But you come away knowing more about Diane. You can't blame Daniel for fighting to defend her legacy. If the film's mission is to humanize a complicated woman who was quickly dismissed as a reckless killer, it certainly succeeds. 

Some additional thoughts on the film...(SPOILERish ALERT)

June 23, 2014

Tiny: A Story About Living Small

Christopher Smith & Merete Mueller, 2013
Smith directs and stars in this documentary that examines a growing number of Americans looking to live in "smaller" living quarters. Described in the film as the "tiny house" movement, some people are deciding to live well within their own means by building smaller homes, much smaller actually - typically less than 100 square feet. These homes consist of the pure basics: a small sleeping area, kitchenette, minimal storage, and and a bathroom. Because of the issues with local building codes, most of these homes are built on trailers with wheels on them which allows them to sneak into the loophole of being a "temporary structure". The doc is also not without some comedic qualities. It's kind of comical to see two grown adults in a tiny doll-house like structure. With some of the interviewing done in the Portland area, you get a sense that at any given moment Fred Armison is going to walk through the door in a wig.

The doc centers on Christopher and his desire to build a tiny home for himself. Christopher is a hippie-ish tattooed long-haired guy with some ink on his arm. He has just turned 30, and very much wants his own version of the American Dream. He recognizes the high cost of purchasing an expensive home, with the obligatory thirty year mortgage, maintenance costs, etc. With the help of his more-reluctant but loyal girlfriend Merete, he decides to build his own tiny home. With limited costs and limited time he realizes that even though they are much smaller homes and less costly - it's more challenging of a project than he originally anticipates. He interviews fellow tiny home owners, all of which are happy with their decision to live more simply which inspires him to tread through. A year drags on. Christopher's wallet empties. Merete becomes unsure of whether or not she wants to be Christopher's cohabitant in such a small dwelling. She has her own dreams of moving to the Big Apple which is basically the complete opposite of Christopher's dream of living in rural Colorado. As you see Christopher labor through assembling the wood framing piece by piece, you continue to be served with images of proud tiny home owners happily sitting in tight dwellings.

The film has two appealing elements. One, it's great that a young filmmaker like Christopher can make an interesting documentary on a small budget. This type of thing should always be encouraged. Two, there should be more people like Christopher that are around 30 years old and don't want to immediately jump into a lifetime of debt. It's an interesting film that may be small but has a bigger message. There is an insatiable desire that a lot of Americans have. A constant hunger for more of something, something bigger. An appetite that is never fully satisfied. Instead of looking at what they have, people tend to focus on what they think they need. This mindset is of course reinforced by the widespread marketing that encourages it. Part of the Western Capitalist culture, really. But the film proposes the idea of possibly looking to live in something more minimal and more essential, on a smaller scale. And there's nothing wrong with that.

June 15, 2014

Willow Creek

Bobcat Goldthwait, 2014
Curious couple Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) venture to the Pacific Northwest to the small town of Willow Creek with their portable video camera, where inexperienced but outdoorsy Jim is casually working on an amateur documentary that consists of him looking for Sasquatch around the location of the famous 1967 Bigfoot footage and interviewing the local townspeople before embarking there.

Bobcat Goldthwait's found footage thriller is a clear nod to The Blair Witch Project in that he places a couple of oblivious people in the middle of the woods and scares the hell out of them. Remove menacing unwelcoming witch lady and install equally unwelcoming giant ape-like monster, hit play. Like a lot of found-footage films the shaky cam takes a bit of getting used to, but after a while your vision settles in. There are believers and nonbelievers in the town of Willow Creek. After a few sloppy attempts at collecting some local anecdotes Jim and Kelly are ready to hit the road. Jim is the clear believer (who makes it clear that this is a childhood dream of his to take the trip) while Kelly is skeptical to say the least. One thing that is for certain is that when they arrive in the small town is the mythos of Bigfoot itself is a living, breathing thing. There are people whose full-time jobs (albeit low-paying and not so eventful) are based on the mythology. Seeing the hand-carved wooden statues and elaborate murals throughout the town is almost enough to make a believer out of anyone. The energy around the town provides a more silly, tongue-in-cheek image of the whole thing despite the few kooks who seem to take it a bit TOO seriously.  

So the couple ventures into the thick lush forest outside of the town. Cue the giggling and the not-so-serious attitude and then the sun sets. Night falls and the fun begins. The tension builds. No punches pulled. Goldthwait employs the device of letting your imagination do the work instead of immediately throwing you a shot of some CGI'd monstrosity. He even gives you something that is basically the equivalent to the terrifying baby crying in Blair Witch. When the camera sits with two people alone in a small tent in a dim light, your other senses are augmented. At the end of the day, The Blair Witch Project's approach worked on some people but didn't work on others. It was a very divisive film. People who happened to live in the woods tended to be more affected than the city-dwellers who brushed it all off as a failed attempt to scare them. But if that movie got in your head, Willow Creek certainly will. Willow Creek is not trying to reinvent the wheel, and by not doing that it hits the mark. 

June 14, 2014

Top Five Car Crash Scenes

There is something about the car crash scene that touches you on a visceral level. Perhaps its because you've been in a car accident yourself. It's very common. Over 30,000 people die from car accidents every year. It's also the leading cause of death for healthy Americans traveling abroad. But there is something particularly terrifying about it. The suddenness of it. Going from silence to the abrupt sound of crushing metal and shattered glass flying through the air. When/if you come out of it in one piece, you feel like you were spared by some universal force. Anyone who has experienced a major accident can describe that feeling where it almost feels like time slowed down for those few seconds. And if it doesn't result in a positive outcome for someone you care for, you blame the universe for stripping that person from your life. Almost as if they were just suddenly pulled from existence, with one loud smash. In just a few seconds, everything in your life can change. Car crash scenes are one of those elements in movies that are quite accurately simulated. Those particular scenes create some lasting images that haunt us for years after. If Jaws made us afraid to swim, some of these scenes made us afraid to drive.

5. Disturbia
Falls into the category of SUDDEN. Quite tragic actually. The modern nod to Hitchcock's Rear Window is not an awful film either. Not great, but not awful.

4. Vanilla Sky
Such a powerful scene in a tragically underrated film. Sets a certain course for the rest of the film.

3. Enter the Void
One of those really surprising scenes in a raw, at times disturbing film by the controversial auteur Gaspar Noe.

2. Adaptation
In the same category as the #3 pick in terms of being a really surprising scene that really comes out of nowhere and really jolts the great Spike Jonze film. Certainly puts things in a different perspective.

1. Final Destination 2
A completely ridiculous, unrealistic, off-the-wall scene in a mediocre film. On a lot of people's guilty pleasures list. But it's so well orchestrated and shocking, and it's at the BEGINNING of the film. The first scene, really.

June 13, 2014

Enough Said

Nicole Holofcener
Enough said doesnt do what a lot of modern Romantic Dramedies do in taking two mid-tier actors and confronting them with a far fetched premise. Instead here they take two great performers who have good on-screen chemistry and give them a far fetched premise. In a sense its like the best Meg Ryan movie shes never been in. The late great Gandolfini plays a version of his alternate dimension amazingly compelling story-thread guy Kevin Finnerty from the immortal Sopranos with his Albert character. He displays his range, and for the most part you never really feel like he is going to get physically threatening. This goes against the notion that after Sopranos he would forever be type-cast as the mob-boss with mommy issues (wow that is a wicked generalization isn't it?). It was ultimately unfair to typecast Gandolfini because he really did have a lot of other weapons in his arsenal. He brought the threatening force in films like True Romance or Killing Them Softly but then he would bring deliver more subdued but more elaborate characters in Where the Wild Things Are and Zero Dark Thirty. Here he is a man still exhausted from a toxic marriage. He is more than ready to move on and put the past nightmare behind him. It's really his wife who continues to beat his idiosyncrasies into the ground, without him there. Sometimes it almost feels like she's still married to him, but a ghost of him, after he's eagerly moved on with the next chapter of his life (not looking back either) and is no longer a physical presence in the house. The one thing that brings the two of them together is the fact that they are both at the same point in their lives: divorced, cynical, and raising college-aged kids.

Julia Louis-Dreyfuses character Eva is a bit more challenging. She has a healthier relationship with her ex, who has his own HBO background with the much short-lived forgotten-but-great Carnivale. But her relationship with her daughter Ellen (Tracey Fairaway) is befuddling and not really well laid-out. You know that there is tension between the two, and then there's a leap to Eva spending more time with Ellen's best friend. There isn't a lot in between that. And there probably should be. But at the end of the day, it's excusable and not really that important. What's more important is the chemistry between Eva and Albert feels real. It's a nice send-off for Gandolfini, even if it's not his last film (two more in post-production as of June of 2014). 

June 12, 2014

Don Jon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 2013
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper, The Dark Knight Rises, 500 Days of Summer) makes his directorial debut showcases him as gym-rat Jon, a serial one night stander who finally meets a girl he falls for. Unfortunately she quickly interrupts his long-going online porn addiction.

Levitt is typically seen playing the innocent type with more of a reticent charm. Here he is much more outgoing, basically playing someone straight of Jersey Shore central casting. A man of much routine. His life ultimately consists of little variation from going to the gym, to the club with the same friends, home with a random girl he meets at the club, and then to church every Sunday to scrub his conscience clean in the confession booth so he can later "enjoy" family dinner with his father (Tony Danza) screaming at him.

While MTV's Jersey Shore showed the world that there are actually people out there like the ones parodied in the film, Levitt's cast are ultimately caricatures of neo-italian New Jerseyians who hang their cultural pride high, they help to examine the concept of sexuality in our culture. The types who have that mythical family member who is "connected" that they threaten each other with over the dinner table while fighting over the last piece of Lasagna. Empty threats that are shouted underneath cheap-cloth Italian flags that they hang wherever necessary. 

The film examines the sex sells marketing concept and the outright hypocrisy that exists in the American culture. It's okay for the girls to watch the improbable, sappy romantic flicks but it's taboo for the men to watch pornography. The film also touches on the idea of the male population becoming less masculine and more metro-sexual. His examination largely works because he keeps it simple. Jon is so addicted to his streaming video in front of him because one, he is an enormous control freak. But more importantly, his impulses had been largely self serving for much of his adult life. And its sort of a collective approach by everyone hitting the bars at night. They are all basically feeding their inflated egos. When they go home with someone they met, its another knotch on their belt, not likely their future wife. As soon as Jon realizes that there is more of a partnership to true lovemaking, it all changes. Levitt could have easily tried to prove himself to the film-making community by biting off more than he could chew. He could have confused his freshman project with too many story threads, too much abstraction, or could have gone in heavy-handed. But he didn't. And the final product felt more confident because of it. Good for him. 

June 8, 2014


Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel, 2013

Two artists associated with Harvard University's Sensory Ethnography Lab, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, create this experimental documentary that focuses on a North Atlantic fishing vessel using several portable waterproof cameras.

The absence of any narrative or any cuts to interviews with crew members really leave you to your own senses with this film. A harsh purity. You realize right away that you aren't simply watching an episode of The Deadliest Catch. The vessel drifting through the black night might as well be a Ghost Ship. The resonating sound of clanking steel. The sounds of chains being pulled up and down. Muffled voices reverberating across the deck. In between the crashing waves on the ships deck you may even see a ring of cigarette smoke appear and quickly fade into the black night. The constant presence of airborne creatures flapping through the air like winged demons. The camera cuts to dead fish sliding across the floor, their eerie eyes staring straight at the camera like they are stuck in a momentary purgatory before they are beheaded. Their discarded parts will soon wash out of the ship's sides, and of course a camera will be there to capture it. Quite often the camera hangs for extended periods of time, creating a certain entrancing feeling but keeping you alert. And yet, in the midst of all of the darkness there is something truly alluring to Leviathan

It's a Hell barge that punishes the open seas. A soul grabber of sorts. The nameless workers gruel through their long shifts, like orange-suited Angels of Death. There aren't any smiles being spread around. They don't need to utter any words to show that their job is demanding. Close shots of the Captain's face show the toll the sea has taken. The other cuts to the various cameras mounted throughout the ship also give you a chance to change perspective. At times you feel like one of the ill-fated fish laying on the metal surface, waiting for the doom-bringers to end it all. Then you become one of the many flapping seagulls desperately trying to get their piece of the pie. Soon after you become one of the ships crew, basically lending a hand to lowering buckets to the belly of the vessel where the catch will be stored. There's a lot of moving parts that feel like a collaborative supernatural flow is at work. In a sense it's just the food chain at work. But even the sea surrounding the men feels unforgiving, almost as if everyone on the boat is stuck in some kind of purgatory. It feels like a ship that may never return to harbor. When the periodic daylight strikes it feels perturbing. Even when it does strike it feels like the sun only shines for a couple of hours before quickly fading to pure black again. Leviathan is a spooky, hypnotic work of art that puts you in a trance, only to leave you with aural memories of metal hitting metal.

June 4, 2014

Top Five Films That Take Place in a Day

Some films take place in a single day, and it actually feels quite evident (12 Angry Men, Clerks). It’s doesn’t necessarily indicate a negative aspect of it by any means. Nothing wrong with a simple story if it works. But there’s also others, ones that are able to develop rich characters in a short period of time, or are just simply loaded with action (Die Hard, Cloverfield, From Dusk till Dawn), or others that take you on an emotional journey. But ultimately there’s those precious few that make such a lasting impact that the the single-day story is just cemented in our minds.

5. Before Midnight (2013)
Linklater’s previous two Before films could have easily made the list, but the third really takes it to a different level. While the first two have a more budding innocence powering them, the third is charged with unfiltered honesty and a comfortable lack of restraint. The final act feels so real that it’s haunting to the married couples viewing it.

4. Dazed and Confused (1993)
Another Linklater film to make the list. Dazed captures the uncomplicated freedom of one’s youth during the high school years. Where minor conflicts feel so big, and little do you realize how small they will actually be when you grow older.

3. Training Day (2001)
Not only a single day film but rookie cops first day on the violent, unforgiving streets of Los Angeles. And hey, what do you know? Two Ethan Hawke films make the top five. Weird.

2. Magnolia (1999)
Magnolia packs an emotional punch and of course, some unforgettable imagery. It’s largely performance-driven from Tom Cruise’s incredible supporting role to Julianne Moore’s manic meltdown. Probably has the most developed characters of all of the films on the list, big surprise (*sarcasm) coming from the extraordinary Anderson.  

1. Groundhog Day (1993)
The ultimate (many, many, many) single day picture. What is left to say about this film? It’s a beloved American classic, easily one of the best films ever made. Certainly not the last time it will appear on a top five list. Ned Ryerson? BING!

June 2, 2014

Out of the Furnace

Scott Cooper, 2013
Russell Baze is struggling to make ends meat while also trying to take care of his ailing father and reckless veteran brother who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder from his tours in Iraq.

You are immediately faced with the paint-peeling working-class rust-colored backdrop of North Braddock Pennsylvania. The obvious sense of blue-collar gloom is evident throughout the picture, as if everyone in the film is connected to the steel mill in one way or another and worried that it can close it’s doors and put set off a domino-effect of depression. Bale brings more of a restrained energy to his Russell character. Instead of a salient effect to his voice there are traces of a Pittsburgh(ish) accent that glints from his marble mouth here and there. Bale’s character Russell is most certainly connected to the mill, where you see him grueling over fire pits covered in grime. He draws an immediate sense of sympathy for his character when you see how he looks out for those close to him and how hard he works to do so. You get a sense that there is inescapable hardship for him, as if he can never leave the doomed industrial town he’s certainly residing in. He’s loyal to his family. He sees the damage that the war caused on his brother Rodney has endured both physically and psychologically and rather than continue to press him on it, he quietly tries to assist him however he can (most of the time being financially). Most of the time it’s just by being loyal to him. But there’s an obvious sense of protection that he feels for him, as if its a promise he made to his father. But more than likely it’s a promise he has made to himself. Although his character is a man with mistakes, he is willing to pay his debts to society and attempt to right his wrongs. He carries his guilt like it’s a ten pound weight strapped to his soul. And even with the unforgivable things he may have done, he has a sense of warm loyalty and Bale manages to keep you engaged in his Russell character and stay on his side. While Rodney takes his hits on the face, Russell takes them to the heart.
Cooper succeeds in developing nuanced characters rather thoroughly than just making a action-packed revenge piece after a character gets wiped out in the first twenty minutes. In one sense it’s a story about a man’s misfortune, but there are many other forces at work and every actor involved in the film really contributes a multi-layered performance. It’s a heavily masculine piece as well. There is an overt lack of estrogen flowing, as you only see one or two female characters. We finally get another taste of Woody Harrelson working on the dark side. He never disappoints as a villain, and his Harlan DeGroat character is something right out of the evil forces his character attempts to track down in HBO’s True Detective. Out of the Furnace is pure drama, providing us with the lasting image of a strained man mired in the melodrama of personal conflicts in a struggling city.