July 28, 2014

Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer, 2014
Set in Scotland, a shape-shifting alien creature is secretly killing young men in an effort to feed a mysterious source. Soon the carefully maintained routine is disrupted when the seductress begins to gain an awareness, suddenly seeing the human race as something more than just lustful meat.

Under the Skin has a lingering quality to it, a quality existent in Glazer's past film Sexy Beast. But while Sexy Beast was simply rooted in great performances, this picture's lingering qualities are more obvious, more impacting, more elaborate. More intriguing. Glazer's cold black predatory piece plays out like a David Lynch created hybrid of Stephen King's Sleepwalkers and M. Night Shyamalan's Signs. The chilling score is noticeable from the get-go as the hum and the heartbeat manipulates your senses. Some of the images dance slowly across the screen, never slowing down to a bore.

Scarlett Johansson's femme fatale creature is calculating, tactical. She's precise in her pursuit. If there is any compromising moment in the hunt, she scraps the moment and moves on to the next attempt. Using sex as bait on young men is just too effective. When you see a black wigged, made-up Scarlett how can you not get into a van with her? The fact that these scenes were filmed using hidden cameras on oblivious walker-bys without making that segment of the film gimmicky only adds to Glazer's skilled film-making abilities. It's a film that almost demands to be re-watched, as you are likely to find little marks here and there that you may have missed. It's the long-awaited true Cinephile's alien movie. And although the film gets lost a little bit in it's own abstraction as the female creature begins to empathize with the human race, the memorable imagery never slips between the cracks. When the two humans are submerged and the one sees the other get "processed", how are you to ever erase that from your brain? There is an artful brutality to this picture that Nicholas Winding Refn only wishes he could have achieved in Only God Forgives. So many aspects that will stick with you for days, months maybe. Mica Levi's score is so much like the background noise we heard in The Master or There Will be Blood, but it's so brilliantly embedded in the fabric of the film that hearing anything remotely resembling the sounds after will trigger your memories and have you looking behind your back for a Dodge Sprinter as you walk down an empty street. As the cold temptress creeps through the Scottish city, Glazer forces you to look at your own race through a different set of eyes. You sympathize with the poor young men that are so unfortunate to fall victim to their own libido. But you soon find yourself sympathizing with the very creature that so mercilessly takes them from the world. Another testament to Glazer's pure brilliance with making this film. Under the Skin is a hypnotic art piece. So cleverly disturbing without being pure gore, and unnerving without using any horror cliches.

July 27, 2014

Awful Nice

Todd Sklar, 2014
Brothers Jim (James Pumphrey) and Dave (Alex Rennie) reunite at their father's funeral and learn that they have both inherited the family lake house located in Americana-riddled Branson Missouri. Jim is hoping to turn over the property to local slimy businessman Jon Charbineau (Christopher Meloni), get paid, and return home to his wife and child. He reluctantly lets Dave accompany him on the trip to Branson and they soon find that the property is not in any condition to be sold that quickly.

The modern slapstick comedy has quite the mountain to climb to achieve any kind of notable status. For every There's Something About Mary, there are twenty bad ones that are probably starring Rob Schneider. Usually it's just a bad story with bad acting with overused premises. But sometimes one can pass through by not trying go over the top and not attempt to break any kind of new ground. Awful Nice succeeds in being a 90 minute junk food comedy session that doesn't require any real heavy thinking. The simple premise pits two highly competitive brothers against each other and lets them duke it out. It wouldn't work if there wasn't some real chemistry between the two, fortunately there is. Their sibling rivalry feels very real, as if they were actual brothers and were improvising their brutal exchanges through the entire picture. From chugging contests, to arm-wrestling, to all-out physical brawls, it's the battles between the two that keeps you engaged. Of course the picture is not absent of any imperfections. Christopher Meloni's attempt at being an Elmer Fudd-sounding crook doesn't really hit the mark. In fact you never really buy into his character and just write him off as Meloni with a hair piece on. He's no Les Grossman to say the least. The Russian crime family that controls the service industry in the city of Branson feels like an unnecessary distraction at times. And there's probably one too many montages of the two brothers engaging in many senseless activities. But when they are busting on each other, the confrontations feel fresh and should pull a few laughs out of you. How can you not laugh at a grown man taking Doggie heartworm pills hoping to get high?

July 21, 2014

Short Term 12

Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013
Grace (Brie Larson) is a staff member at a group home for troubled youth. She struggles to balance the day to say drama while also dealing with her own personal issues that plague her.

The first scene in Short Term 12 really sets the tone for the rest of the film. Staff members Grace and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) are helping to orient new employee Nate (Rami Malek) to life working at Short Term, Mason giving him a detailed recount of an mishap that involved a teen escaping while Mason was struggling with "plumbing issues". The funny story is told with the backdrop of the not-so-funny facility behind them, a preview of the of humor blended with anguish concoction that will flow through the rest of the picture. The door flies open and out runs the predictable red-headed escape artist Sammy (Alex Calloway), and the couple springs into action to subdue him and calm him down. Back to work. The fading white cinder-block structure that houses these troubled teens is rich with authentic, complicated characters. Their struggles feel real. Your heart breaks for them as you are served with pieces of their past, what they have unfortunately experienced or are trying to work through. Abandonment. Neglect. Abuse. They all have a story. It never comes off caricaturish, nor does it feel so heavy that the film becomes a pure downer. You come away knowing quite a bit about the youth even given the short amount of time that you get to spend with them. And the occasional comedic moments are so well-timed, proving that some welcomed decompression.

The film could easily could easily be considered Brie Larson's coming out party. Possessing both natural beauty and obvious talent, she had appeared in other 2013 films Don Jon and The Spectacular Now but didn't really get the opportunity to put it all out there like she does with her performance here. And she really delivers, bringing some honesty and nuance to her Grace character. She carries the weight of her own past and is able to leave it at the door and be there to support the teens who have gone through similar experiences. You see the burden of her past continue to strain her. You are reminded that there are many mistreated people in the world, people who don't necessarily have the best memories to reflect on. But it doesn't make them any less interesting.

Short Term is a little film with big emotions. Touching. Genuine. Impactiong. Moving without being painful. Funny without being a mockery. Cretton is a good storyteller and strikes a great balance here. He should be on everyone's radar for years to come.

July 13, 2014


Joseph Kosinski, 2013
Jack is a Drone Technician that services patrolling drones that defend the remaining habitable portions of Earth that haven't been destroyed by nuclear blasts that won the war for the human race. These drones keep the alien invaders still present at bay while Jack's organization can successfully complete their Nuclear Fusion accumulation mission off of the coast. Jack is told that the work is nearing completion and he will soon join the remaining members of Earth on a moon orbiting the planet Saturn. But he soon finds that the agency that he works for might not have been completely honest with him, and that there may be something more to the visions that he has been having in his dreams.

This Cruise-led Sci-Fi that gives nods to Minority Report, A.I., Planet of the Apes, to the Matrix and Blade Runner. The dystopian landscape is a truly a feast for the eyes, from the Sky-High contemporary pod house that Cruise's character Jack resides in or the multitude of gadgets that they use. These visual elements are the biggest perk of the film, the highlight probably being the spaceship / drone battle about 3/4 into the picture. In fact, the drones could easily be considered characters in the film. You never really get sick of those little sounds that they make as they zero in on a target, and if it's hostile you hear the couple of beeps before the enemy becomes nothing but disintegrated matter. Jack spends the first hour or so of the film showing you the modern planet. Manhattan is submerged under soil, with pieces of classic architecture still protruding from the surface. He even has his little nostalgic shrine that he sneaks off to periodically, where he can listen to rock LP's and read A Tale of Two Cities. Oblivion really feels like it has something going for it, that is until the reveal. At this point, it makes a predictable stroll to the end. By the end you are given a certain amount of closure but wondering why the hell it took so long to get there.

July 12, 2014

Mistaken for Strangers

Tom Berninger, 2014
Underachiever Tom Berninger, the less successful younger brother of indie-rock band The National's front-man Matt Berninger, joins the band's crew as a roadie while also attempting to shoot a documentary about the band with Matt's blessing.

Anyone who has a brother understands the concept of sibling rivalry. There is a sense of relentless competition that never really fades with age. As you get older, you have different successes. As you see these particular successes it's not difficult for you to still envision your brother as the child-version of himself. It's no different in the Berninger family where Tom has seen his brother go from gaunt Ohio boy to the lead singer of one of the biggest bands in the modern Indie Rock scene. Since then, Tom has largely lived in Matt's shadow. While Tom is not without his own artistic abilities (his impressive comic-like work posted alongside his brothers abstract piece in his mothers office), much of his life has consisted of listening to Heavy Metal on head-phones in his parent's basement while attempting to complete several low-budget indie horror films. He is someone that has some interesting thoughts and ideas but never manages to organize them enough so that they materialize into something constructive. When he decides to create a documentary focusing on his brother's band, you don't get an immediate sense that it's a well-thought out production. It could easily become another one of his unfinished projects. You soon see that Tom's documentary is not so much about the band much more about the dynamic between himself and Matt. He humorously interviews the band-mates who find it odd that he continues to press them on questions about Matt and not about the music.

But Tom's experiment largely succeeds because he has a bona fide charm to him, a sense of innocence. While he may be annoying the various staff associated with The National, he is inadvertently capturing some fascinating moments and providing some accessibility to a band that is mostly known for Matt's baritone vocals and melodramatic tones. Tom doesn't ask the typical interview questions. He doesn't let the camera hang on the stage and bore you with an obligatory music video. Peaking behind the curtains as the band is sleeping on the tour-bus. Capturing that moment where Matt loses his temper and pushes over a curtain rack because he is unhappy with that nights performance. He even effectively captures his own inner conflicts and shortcomings with the band's production crew, as he finds himself complicating matters rather than simplifying them. When you see Matt jump off the stage and venture into the crowd with the microphone, you see Tom following him not far behind attempting to grasp the mic cable which is so beautifully metaphoric.

Mistaken for Strangers may not be Tom Berninger's coming out party, but it's certainly a great piece of work that he can hang his hat on. His extraordinary eye combined with his impressive editing abilities manages to create a film that Michael Moore has said is "one of the best music documentaries I have ever seen". Moore is a polarizing figure known to embellish, but is not off base with that particular comment.

July 7, 2014

Stuck in Love

Josh Boone, 2012
Novelist Bill Borgens (Greg Kinnear) has put his writing on hold after separating from his wife Erica (Jennifer Connelly). Instead he spends most of his days reading alone at his beachfront house, and nights in the company of his two kids Samantha (Lily Collins) and Rusty (Nat Wolff) who also happen to be writers themselves.

In a sense, Stuck in Love is the kind of film that sneaks up on you. At first glance, it could be simply discarded as another unconvincing romance piece about a lonely father writer still licking his wounds from his divorce. Not really venturing on any new ground there. When you see Greg Kinnear's name in the opening credits, your skepticism likely elevates. It's not because Kinnear is a bad performer by any means, but sometimes he can be a bit over-exaggerated (*cough* As Good as it Gets).

But if you give this a chance you soon realize that its actually a quite endearing piece by Boone that nails the love thing on many angles. Boone has a lot to say about love, at times the film comes off almost like a literary piece. Powered by a good script and sustained by good performances, by the time that you hear the Bon Iver song playing in the background you're on board with it. Boone really has a good sense of the whole love thing. The introduction with your guard up. Meeting the person who comes on strong, who seems too good to be true. The many attempts to discount the possibility of organic romance and just telling yourself to be a realist. The film also captures some true familial dynamics as well. Sitting with the younger brother on the rooftop, giving advice over a bowl of weed. Boone also effectively captures that very real moment of multiple conflicts colliding between a family as they are about to be stuck in a vehicle together.

Not to say that there aren't annoying aspects though. To be fair, Samantha's complete coldness upon meeting the persistent but genuine Louis (the under-rated young actor Logan Lerman from the similar(ish) picture Perks of Being a Wallflower) is frustrating. Also, when the parents come to Rusty's aid when dealing with a relapsed addict girlfriend it comes off completely like a bad Lifetime channel after-school special piece. But it hits the right beats and should get you out of whatever head-space you happen to be in momentarily. It will hopefully put you that old but familiar state of naive, scary, exciting, heart-beating twenty-something love for a little bit. Or it may remind you of some of the inner-family conflicts of your younger years, which may not be as inviting but at least it's identifiable.

July 6, 2014

Top Five Unlikely Friendships in Film

The unlikely friendship theme is played out in film so often. It's a reliable device that pulls the audience in, a lot of the time playing off of an opposites-attract dynamic. Sometimes it's about two universes colliding. Other times it may be about two people just trying to get through something together. They don't always get through something together either. Sometimes the couple truly engages you for the sometimes short period of time they are together on screen, only to break your heart when the pairing is gone.

5. Chuck and Wilson - (Cast Away, 2000)
Quite possibly the most unlikely based on the fact that it's literally a man forming a connection with an inanimate object. One of Hank's best performances, he really puts it out there in this Zemeckis picture.

4. Red and Andy (The Shawshank Redemption, 1994)
If Andy didn't get wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, he would have certainly never met fellow prisoner Red. But meeting Red changes his life and saves it in certain ways. Their long-standing company becomes eternalized as one of the most meaningful friendships in cinema in this widely-appreciated picture.

3. Philippe & Driss (The Intouchables, 2011)
One of the more heart-warming selections on the list from an under-rated French film. Driss gets hired by Philippe and turns his life upside down.

2. Leon and Matilda (Leon: The Professional, 1994)
Two oddly different people of vastly different ages who share dark pasts come together in this great Luc Besson picture. This film also showcases the very obvious natural talent of a young Natalie Portman.

1. Elliot and E.T. (E.T., 1982
The ultimate sentimental unlikely friendship tale. Elliot finds a creature who becomes his best friend. It's this bond between them that fuels this Spielberg masterpiece.

July 4, 2014

[Rec] 3: Genesis

Paco Plaza, 2012
The lavish wedding of Clara (Leticia Dolera) and Koldo (Diego Martin) turns from complete enjoyment to pure terror when an ill guest suddenly starts attacking those gathered around to help him.

Paco Plaza has already proven himself worthy of making a good zombie film in the found footage genre with the first two Rec films. While those films are very much attached to each other in that one flows right into the next, the third is basically removed completely from that previous story-line. In the third, the found footage shaky cam actually grows tiresome rather quickly so it's happily welcomed when he abandons it early on for more of a traditional style. This is immediately after he drops the Zombie Mento in the Diet Coke Wedding Scene and just lets all hell break loose. What follows is some freaky imagery from what many believe is a worn-out genre. Loved ones quickly shifting to killers. Bloody hands pressed up against frosted red glass, eager to break through. Some particularly gruesome killing moments, to be expected with the sudden introduction of medieval weaponry or electric cookware. Great camera work in a tunnel when the clock is ticking. A simple story of two lovers trying to reunite amid the chaos of their own family members/wedding guests turned-demonic zombies trying to kill everything in their path. Plaza has never tried to reinvent the wheel, but rather carve out his own niche when it comes to style. The [REC] films are underrated and not very talked about when it comes to zombie films, probably because they are foreign and don't have the name Romero attached to them. The third one in the series is worth a watch if you're into this kind of thing, and you don't even have to see the first two and can drop right in to this one.

July 3, 2014

The Hunt

Thomas Vinterberg, 2013
A beloved kindergarten teacher named Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is surprised to suddenly find himself accused of sexually assaulting one of his young students. It doesn't take long for the entire town that has for so long embraced him to turn on him completely.

Vinterbergs's unsettling drama opens up with Lucas on his way to the school where he works. You are immediately presented with a man completely revered by the children and his fellow staff that he works with. The children hide on him, try to scare him as he approaches the school grounds every morning. He even helps them, if needed, with bathroom duties. And soon, when that unfortunate accusatory seed is planted, all of the innocent companionship that he has had with his students is looked at differently.

The world of film has the ability to explore all aspects of humanity. Quite often these are parts of humanity that aren't necessarily comfortable to explore. Murder, rape, suicide, unexpected tragedy, illness, etc. They are all unpleasant and unfortunate parts of our existence. The Hunt examines the notion of someone being accused of a crime they did not commit. The whole idea of being guilty by the court of public opinion long before you have the opportunity to stand trial and defend yourself. We all know the court of public opinion delivers a verdict much more quickly, and much more unfairly. A modern day witch hunt, a hasty jumping to conclusions. Despite the troublesome subject matter, it's a film that grips you and doesn't let go, largely because of the great performances. There's really not one bad actor involved. Strangely, you realize twenty minutes in that there is a uneasy tension that has already been established that doesn't really let up for the remainder of the film. You see that Lucas is a good man. When the fabricated story is quickly conjured up, your heart already aches for what's yet to come. Then comes the inevitable snowball effect. That deplorable mob mentality. Humankind turning vicious. Then comes the complete tear-down of a man that was beloved by the community. You soon realize that there's no turning back. There's no getting back to normal. Those days of drunk singing around the table are over. Mikkelsen provides a stellar performance as Lucas. An introvert that has an affection for people. Still licking his wounds from his divorce, his whole life is the kindergarten that he teaches and the hope that he can spend more time with his own son. When you see it being ripped away from him, it's agonizing.

One frustrating moment in the film is when Lucas is confronted by Grethe at the school. She lets him know that a student has come forward and provided details of some sexual abuse. You would think that Lucas' immediate reaction would be to just outright deny it, quite adamantly and determinedly. Instead, his reaction is far more vague leaving Grethe to further speculate. Perhaps it's because he is so surprised to hear about the accusation. Perhaps it's pure shell-shock to him. The Hunt is a challenging film, and only because of the subject matter. A film that could have easily been a contender for the Top Five Great Films I Don't Want to See Again, but it's so worth that first viewing.

July 1, 2014

The Beach


Danny Boyle, 2000
Boyle is a great film-maker with a lot of memorable titles under his belt. His early career consist of some dramatic gems in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting (possibly his best work). His later career would evolve into a more ambitious stylistic approach with films like Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, and 28 Days Later. But before he made those also great films, he performed experiments and tested the waters with his film-making like he did with The Beach. Adapted from the novel written by Alex Garland, the film consists of main character Richard (DiCaprio) venturing to Thailand looking for unique adventure. While staying at a hostel one night, he begins talking to crazed-neighbor Daffy (played by Doyle favorite Robert Carlyle) who tells him about a paradise-like island that is hidden from the sea. Richard discounts the island as a myth until he finds a map on his door the next day, and Daffy gone. Richard decides to travel to the island to see if the legend is true. He soon finds that not only is the legend very much true, but there is much more to this island than anyone would expect.

Boyle's experiments with the film for the most part fail because he wastes valuable time on them. Time that would be better spent developing the already confusing characters was spent on visual trickery and recklessly abstract narrative. The film also feels experimental for a young Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio had previously starred in films like What's Eating Gilbert Grape and The Basketball Diaries that showed that he certainly had talent but it needed some refinement and evolution. When we are introduced to DiCaprio, its through an odd narrative where Richard comes off as a bit abrasive. He lives up to that same personality soon after when he meets the young girl staying next to him and he is mildly aggressive with her boyfriend. You would think a young traveler would have a more benign, welcoming demeanor. This aggression is elevated soon after when they are aruging on top of the rock ledge, where things seemed a bit over-dramatized and over-aggressive. His behavior continues to be self-serving, and you never really feel obligated to get behind him as a protagonist. The swerving that sloppily navigates the film through the first two thirds of the film eventually leads to the Richard isolation jungle scenes in the third where it just crashes completely. Boyle's Beach experiment fails because it doesn't focus enough on pure performances and story and instead relies on overindulgence and reckless reverie.