December 28, 2014

World's Greatest Dad

Bobcat Goldthwait, 2009
High School Teacher Lance (Robin Williams) is surprised at the reaction of the school after his son's suicide.

World's Greatest is a uniquely dark piece of work bordering on ridiculousness at various points. Goldthwait manages to channel some energy that is challenging enough to resemble Todd Solondz while also making it absurd enough to resemble John Waters. But he still manages to mold it into something with some real charm. Goldthwait is comfortable making films about some controversial subject matter, and doesn't seem to care if you can't handle it. The subjects of suicide, hardcore pornography or auto-erotic asphyxiation don't sit well with everybody. Bobcat doesn't hesitate to explore this realm here. The film is filled with great performances, anchored with a really familiar warm performance from Robin Williams. His teacher character is much different from past teacher roles like his legendary performance in Good Will Hunting. While he had a sense of callused confidence there, here is more of a sweet doormat just looking to have a positive accord with the people in his life. Lance sips from his World's Greatest Dad coffee cup that he quietly cherishes because of it's ironic value. Probably the only nice thing that Kyle has ever done for Lance. Most of his exchanges with Kyle (Daryl Sabara) are one-sided - where Kyle says something dismissive to him and he simply walks away with his head down. Williams' Lance character draws the sympathy early when you see how horribly Kyle treats him. After a few exchanges you are begging for Kyle to get his comeuppance. The surprising reaction from everyone mourning Kyle's death is a familiar feeling. Quite often we see despicable people pass on only to draw a surprising amount of grief from many. They forget about the horrible things the person had done over the years. The person becomes a saintly figure. World's Greatest Dad is a look at death through an uninhibited lens. Sudden luck, a dramatic shift in life after a traumatic event. It's a really singular picture by Goldthwait that impressively balances the tragedy and comedy elements. 

December 27, 2014

Beware of Mr. Baker

Jay Bulger, 2012
Basically any fan of Rock is aware of Cream, appreciates them on some level. They certainly made their mark on the world of 60's Psychedelia. Their run was short lived - they were only together for two years before breaking up at the peak of their success. Their body of work is very recognizable, from Strange Brew to White Room to Sunshine of your Love. People constantly talk about Eric Clapton's contributions to the band, but many are unaware of drummer Ginger Baker. Baker was a very present drummer with a background in Jazz. Red headed, bearded and fueled by sort of a manic energy. His eyes stared menacingly as his arms would hammer away. The film is a study on Baker the person, during his time with Cream but also with his many other bands that he performed with. Undoubtedly a complicated figure, his unpredictable behavior combined with the fact that he was constantly under the influence of various drugs made him a liability. Many of the stories about him involve some dialogue about how much of a talent he was, but how the many relationships in his life never really ended well. The story of the troubled genius drummer is told through some amazing stock footage, multi-perspective interviews but also with some beautiful illustrations reminiscent of other good doc Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. Comparisons could also be made to other great music doc The Devil and Daniel Johnston, also about a mentally-ill but proficient musical genius. The film reinforces the concept that someone can have such unique talent and musical abilities, but also be a difficult person to maintain any kind of relationship with. Eric Clapton comes off as pure class in the film, providing many compliments about Baker and only mildly hinting at some of his personal avoidance of Baker and his turbulent personality. But Ginger Baker was a destructive force at times, and while he is in a reflective state for much of the film, he doesn't want to dedicate a lot of energy or attention to many of the mistakes he has made. He is certainly not an easy interview. Reclusive, agitated, vulgar. While Baker is a person with many flaws, he is undoubtedly one of the greatest rock drummers of all time and worthy of a documentary. Beware of the man, but be AWARE of him.

Gone Girl

David Fincher, 2014
Adapted from the popular book written by Gillian Flynn, the film is about husband Nick Dunne (Ben Afflect), suspected of murdering his missing wife Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike).

Fincher sets the tone early in the film with his distinctive style. A starkness, Reznor's ambient score echoing in the background. A low grade tension is present. When we are introduced to Affleck's character, he is already a man of questionable morals. Affleck seems to always be just tolerable enough in front of the camera in terms of his range when it comes to his acting abilities. He's never going to be a energetic force. Fincher seems to get the most out of Affleck with the Nick character, always making you feel suspicious of him. Gone Girl is largely a meditation on America's obsession with killer culture and celebritizing the monsters. We live in a culture where actual wife killers like Scott Peterson get a plethora of media attention. Men like Peterson, or Charles Manson, go on to receive love letters while sitting on death row. We also live in a culture where questionable suspects are tried and convicted by the court of public opinion before actually having set foot in an actual courtroom. These themes are at play, but it's not simply a straight-up satirical piece like Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. It's a blood-soaked mind-game that looks at relationships and the roles we play. The head games some are forced to engage in. The way the people around us look at us, judge us. The conclusions we jump to with such conviction. If the film were in other hands, it probably wouldn't have worked out so well. And although by the conclusion it feels like the film had multiple endings already, Fincher manages to keep everything in control.

December 24, 2014


Mikkel Brænne Sandemose, 2014
Archaeologist Sigurd (Pål Sverre Hagen) deciphers an ancient rune that leads him to a remote island on the Russian border. He believes it will guide him to a Viking treasure, but instead leads him to something completely different.

Steven Spielberg is a master craftsman of timing and suspense when it comes to human and beast. He masterfully keeps you on the edge of your seat, with calculated sensory manipulation. Sometimes he's only playing with one of your senses. Sometimes you're just hearing something. Sometimes you're just seeing a shadow, a faint image of something. Sometimes you are just seeing someone else's reaction on their face. Sandemose certainly draws some inspiration from Spielberg's playbook here. Ragnarok provides enough thrills with adequate build up. It combines elements of Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Lake Placid (and okay... Sharknado too, kind of) all in the backdrop of lushly wooded & rainy Norway. There is family conflict; Sigurd being the single parent father who lost his wife, now married to his job and trying to kill two birds with one stone by having his kids tag along with him on his trip while hopefully getting credit for a vacation. His daughter would rather go to Spain like the other girls at her school. But she has to settle for the remote woods so her daddy can track down what he thinks is a trove of Viking booty. So many times we see the broken father who lost the wife who spends the movie licking his wounds. Sigurd doesn't do this, presumably because he is so obsessed with his work. When they arrive at their destination, it's really when the best pieces of the film are laid out. Ragnarok is a nicely-packed, adventurous monster movie with enough suspense and CGI production (without ever leaning on it too much) to keep you engaged.

December 21, 2014

Last Passenger

Omid Nooshin, 2014
Lewis Shaler (Dougray Scott) is on traveling with his son Max (Joshua Kaynama) on a commuter train in London when a hijacker takes control and compromises their trip.

Last Passenger has something going for it for during the first half to three quarters of the filmAt the beginning of the story you sit on the train with several strangers. There are the quintessential loud folk, talking and shouting. There is the drunk guy who won't put out his cigarette. There is the silent older guy. Quite typical characters. But things zero in on Lewis, his son Max and pretty woman Sarah (Kara Tointon) early. They strike up conversation with each other, Sarah obviously impressed with the fact that Lewis is a doctor on his way to the hospital. If you are aware of the plot going into the film, as you likely are, you are looking at everyone around them as potential villains. Maybe that silent old guy is going to slip away. Maybe that drunk guy with the cigarette is going to get himself worked up, and make an impulsive decision to take over the train in outrage. Or maybe they are just red herrings. The mystery element is enough to get the story moving and get you engaged. And as Lewis goes on to have the best (if accidental) first date ever with beautiful Sarah, the conflict soon begins.

What transpires is a Speed-like action thriller, but without the charm. To it's credit, the film builds on some characters that you grow to appreciate, but (unable to avoid the obvious pun) it doesn't even go off the tracks at the end. That would involve more action than what you get, and at that point in the film you are hungry for it. Instead, it's an anti-climactic conclusion that leaves you wondering if you missed something. But you didn't.


Richard Donner, 1988
On paper, Scrooged seems like a pretty good idea. Create modern version of the classic Christmas Story and add Bill Murray, and infuse it with some meta elements of making a staged classic Christmas Carol television special during the updated retelling. Sprinkle in some campy zombie makeup, give Murray the obligatory 80's mullet, and of course add Bobcat Goldthwait. And although it carves out its own little niche in the Christmas genre, there isn't a lot of warm fuzziness to Scrooged. You won't really come away with it with a good feeling like you will with some of the other versions of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol". Instead there's more of a prolonged icy blackness that mostly just subsides over the latter moments of the film. Perhaps its the gaudy contemporary aesthetic to the corporate atmosphere in much of the film. Murray's character does arch, but it's not a complete moral makeover like you would see in Groundhog Day. But to give him credit, he has only had a few days to gain a different perspective and not hundreds of years. In a sense it's probably because his character is just downright bitter. There's not a lot of nuance to Frank Cross the person. Instead, he's just a nasty man who by the end of the film has you convinced he has had a moment of clarity. But is it really that convincing that it will stick? In a sense it doesn't really matter. Because the journey is still entertaining, witty enough, dark enough when it needs to be, and cheery enough when it needs to be.  (with some good meta elements involved), dark enough when it needs to be, and cheery enough when it needs to be.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorcese, 2013
The true story of Jordan Belfort, a young stock-broker that gets rich from scamming his investors.

Wolf doesnt feel like a movie made to be taken seriously. It doesnt feel like a film intended to drum up so mich controversy. The rags to riches to rags story is Scorcese going out of his out of comfort zone (along with screenwriter Winter), almost doing his version of a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. His Hunter S is Jordan Belfort, eager to indulge in his excesses. It ultimately comes off as a Fear and Loathing / Wall Street / Scarface black comedy hybrid that even has notes of Raging Bull (a broken man that attempts to reestablish himself in the world). And like Gordon Gecko, his luxuries never feel cemented. When you are living such a lifestyle, combined with the fact that you are admittedly dependent on a particular prescription to maintain such mindset- it eventually reaches a tipping point. Add the fact that you are taking advantage of loose financial regulations in a realm of rapidly increasing regulations and of course its momentary. You get a clear sense that you will witness the rise and fall of a rather despicable figure, and the humor creates such levity that you don't need it to be a sophisticated character study of an anti-hero like PT Anderson's There will be Blood. There are brilliant, lewd LUDE moments. Scorcese's comedic experiment pays off and the result is provocative, overindulgent and hilarious. 

December 13, 2014

The One I Love

Charlie McDowell, 2014
At the suggestion of their couple's therapist, Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) venture to a secluded retreat in an effort to rekindle their love for each other. But soon after arriving to the beautiful property they realize that the guest house has supernatural powers.

The One I Love is a smart little movie that someone could probably convince you was written by Charlie Kaufman and not Justin Lader (Bottom Floor, Errand Boys). Some of the mind-bending romantic elements are something out of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The layers of confusing exposition are something out of Adaptation. Some of the comedic imagery is something out of Multiplicity. Both Moss and Duplass are good together on screen, with Moss being the sensitive and emotional type and Duplass being the more cynical detached type. Both are struggling to keep the romance alive. They have reached a point of staleness in the relationship. The honeymoon phase is long gone. They are left with fading memories of what once was great, the more recent memories not being so favorable. Regardless, they decide to give it one last shot. The two manage to juggle the heavy mind-load of the movie, while also juggling their own multiple personalities. It fails to tie up some of the loose ends in the end, but it goes far enough into the abstract realm that it gives you quite a bit to come away with.

December 7, 2014

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

Chris Columbus, 1992
There is something different about revisiting films from your youth. Many of these revisits come around the holidays, when you can put up with that joke you've heard a hundred times. That comfortable predictability of a familiar premise. The Hughes’-penned Home Alone films certainly provide comfort. I remember being a kid and seeing this film in the theater in New York. I was 9 years old. I remember eagerly anticipating Kevin Mcallister's trap setting. I remember the movie going on and on and me sitting there thinking “when is it going to happen?”.. “Now? Now?”. And then it happened and I sat there in cathartic bliss.

Home Alone 2 builds upon the first film by of course recasting Culkin (which is absolutely critical to the franchise, the sequels after this do not exist). He’s grown a little older, but still has the innocence and charisma that he had in the prior picture. He’s the low kid on the totem pole. If he mouths back to his elder relatives, he gets put in the bed with bed-wetting cousin Fuller. The movie is very anti-authority, or at least pro-kid and pro-independence. It certainly spawned a whole generation of 90’s vicarious youth who were desperate to be put in similar circumstances. It puts a lot of faith into the kids of the world. Oddly enough, one of the antagonists is the hotel concierge played by Tim Curry. The concierge is immediately suspicious when he sees young Kevin walking confidently through the Plaza Hotel. He follows Kevin, explores the room, hoping to expose him as a little con artist or some kind of thief. But realistically, he’s not a bad guy. If it were real life he would probably have been praised for being so investigative. But the world of Home Alone isn’t real life. In real life, antagonists don’t get hit in the head with bricks from four stories and have a square imprint on their head. In real life, they have brain bleeding. But that’s the appealing element to the Home Alone movies. They are non-threatening, cartoonish, fun, nostalgic. They exist in a Hanna Barbara created universe where you can sustain serious injury only to be quite okay in the next scene. This film is good if only viewed as a time capsule. A preserved version of New York. A preserved style of 90's comedies. 

December 6, 2014

Funny Farm

George Roy Hill, 1988
Andy Farmer (Chevy Chase) and his wife Elizabeth (Madolyn Smith) decide to get out of New York City and pursue a more peaceful life north in Vermont. But when they arrive in the town of Redbud, it's not the tranquil paradise that they imagined it would be. 

There was was once a period of time when Chevy Chase was a comedic force in Hollywood. Coming off of the success of such iconic films as Caddyshack, Fletch and a couple of the National Lampoon's Vacation films, he was one a few go-to comedic actors of the period (Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Dan Akroyd, John Candy among others). Chase's style is certainly distinct, and ultimately quite two dimensional. The oblivious but sentimental thirty-something. The guy who has some heart to invest in a situation but doesn't necessarily have the grace to see it follow through properly. Funny Farm is an under-appreciated film, and probably one of the best outlets for Chase's dry humor. Though undeniably flawed, there are certainly some memorable elements to the movie. Paying the town’s residents $50 a piece to emulate a Norman Rockwell painting so that they can turn over their cursed home and get the hell out of dodge. Excitedly going home with the new dog, hoping to further reinforce the country living they are so desperate to do - only to have the dog IMMEDIATELY run away. Realizing that the phone you had installed in the new home is a pay phone. It's forgivingly corny and worth a look around the holidays.

December 1, 2014

Print the Legend

Luis Lopez & J. Clay Tweel, 2014
Anyone familiar with the emerging technology known as  "3D printing" has a sense of its impending impact on the world. What will we actually be able to print of use in our own homes? Footwear? Vinyl LP's? Home manufacturing material? The possibilities are quite endless, really. But right now it's in its infancy. At this point if you are an early adopter of a 3D printer, you are limited to something more along the lines of action figures or trinkets.

Print the Legend is kind of two films, really. In one sense it's an exploration into the world of 3D printing in it's early days. It focuses on the big guys with the bigger market share and the little guys desperate to get their piece of the pie in the sector. The big guys are companies Stratasys and 3D Systems. The little guys are MakerBot and FormLabs. The former have the operating capital to build cutting edge machines with a high price tag. The latter are cut from more of a hacker/engineering cloth, looking to disrupt the sector by making more reasonably-priced consumer-available machines. But the doc is also a study on the sharp minds of the tech startup world, as much of the film focuses on MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis, FormLabs creator Max Lobovsky and anarchist/controversial media figure Cody Wilson. The film effectively covers the evolution of Pettis, from ambitious genius to guy who sells his soul to the devil CEO. And everything about the film is geeky, interesting, crafty. It really provides some real excitement for what's yet to come in the world of technology.