February 22, 2015

The Hustler

Robert Rossen, 1961
Skilled Pool player Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) is dead-set on defeating notorious player Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). 

The Hustler is a throwback piece. To a piece of time. A timepiece. No, a grainy timepiece. To a period in time, in the early 1960's, where men wore suits and not flip flops and shorts. A period in time where cigarette smoke filled the air, along with smell of daytime whiskey drinking. A period in time where men slapped women for getting out of line, and when it was an eyebrow raising thought of a 30 year old attending college classes. Okay, so not all of it was something to be proud about. While The Hustler focuses upon Eddie and his pursuit of financial success with Pool gambling, the film is more of a character study on Eddie. His relentless pursuit of winning. Self destruction, sacrifice, pride. Self doubt. Personal torture. Eddie is a complicated character. He proves quite early on in the film that there is more to his motivations than pure victory. If this were the case, he could have taken his winnings and called it a day when he was up $18,000 against Minnesota Fats (which is $142,000 in today's dollars if you were wondering).

He meets fellow complicated person Sarah at the diner while he is attempting to put himself back together again. They are two peas in a pod because of their questionable pasts. They don't want to disclose it all to each other, at least not right away. Sarah works her way into Eddie's heart, but it's quite obvious that it's still not as close as his beloved Pool game or his gambling tendencies. You could easily say the film is a film on gambling addiction. It explores some of the layers of an addict, some of the ambiguity of what its going to take to feel complete. Eddie certainly doesn't feel complete, and he is unable to enjoy his success even when he's right in the middle of it.

It's a really nice film to look at. The Ames Billiards, Eddie and Sarah's apartment, the bus station. Exceptionally well-shot. Certainly deserving of the two Oscars for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography. The lingering cigarette smoke and paint-peeling apartment walls may remind you of films like Lumet's 1957 courtroom drama (or back of courtroom drama) 12 Angry Men. Plot-wise they are completely different from each other, but there is a similar visual quality to the two. They are also timeless treasures beautifully preserved in black and white. Both are enjoyable to come back to 40 or 50 years later.

February 16, 2015

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring

Ki-Duk Kim, 2004
Situated in a remote valley in the middle of dense forest, an old monk raises a young boy on his floating monastery.

Ki-Duk Kim's Spring is kind of a difficult film to write about. Various people will likely interpret it in different ways. It relies on more visual cues to tell the story rather than a lot of dialogue. But in its most simple description, it's a story about a boy growing up in a secluded Buddhist monastery with his master who took him in as an infant. Or you could make the argument that the film is really about the monk. Isolated from society, he tries to insulate his kin from the outside forces that are destined to corrupt him. He warns that lust leads to the intent to murder others. Seems a bit extreme, but we soon learn that although his methods of instruction may be unconventional, he is much wiser than he lets on. There are many different sects in the Buddhist religion. Like the Trappist monks in the Roman Catholic church who do not speak, there are Buddhist monasteries where the monks and students take vows of silence and spend their days meditating or praying. That is basically the daily routine for the master and the boy, who spend most of the day in the vicinity of the floating monastery. They either pray, meditate, or collect resources in the surrounding forest. The outside world plays a very small role in the film, serving as sort of an exterior realm. People leave that exterior realm and enter the free-standing doors (alluringly built without walls) that open to the monastery's pond. Or, as we see in the film, the master has to occasionally go to the outside world to gather some supplies that he is unable to obtain on his own. But the film is limited in setting, staying in and around the floating cloister. It's like a self-contained floating temple of peace and wisdom.

The seasons bring not only physical change to the surrounding area but the emotional tone of the story. It also brings passing time, adjustment, growth, knowledge, new lessons, new experiences. The film reinforces the notion that just like the seasons, life itself is recurring. Every new year brings the new natural cycle. The plans are born, they grow, they die, and there is a rebirth in different form. The same could be said about life itself, or as anyone who subscribes to the Buddhist faith believes. The movie is a meditation of the cyclical nature of life. It makes the simple story feel much more important, and really gives you a lot to come away with.

February 11, 2015

Druid Peak

Marni Zelnick, 2015
After involved in an incident involving a teenage death, Owen is forced to move in with his absentee father Everett. After learning that his father works with wolves as a park ranger, he soon develops an affection for the animals as well while also forming a bond with a man that hasn't been around his whole life.

People say that Disney's Bambi caused a whole generation of kids to not hunt deer. Perhaps you could say the same thing about Druid Peak, that it could stop a whole generation of kids from hunting wolves (if that’s even a thing?). Druid Peak is sort of like a less Disney-fied version Simon Wincer’s 1993 film Free Willy. Both stories follow a conflicted human character that finds solace in the animal world with a specific creature. Druid Peak even has that similar signature shot of the kid running alongside the animals very much like Jesse did in Willy. But it stops there. Just so you know, there isn't an over-dramatic shot of the wolves jumping over a pile of rocks. Druid is much more transformative, much more thorough. Owen is a very troubled kid. He resembles someone that we all went to high school with. Lacking the male role model, he takes out various forms of aggression on everyone around him. In this case, it’s grabbing a pencil in the class from the kid in front of him. Or it’s throwing a beer bottle in a fire knowing that it’s going to upset someone nearby. He is a true ticking time bomb. He's walking down a very predictable path that ultimately ends behind bars.

The film is guilty of being a bit formulaic. You get a sense early on that the wolves are going to help rehabilitate Owen.  Of course here has to be an injected conflict after he forms the affection for the animals, so of course we input the ranchers who are hungry for wolf blood after losing their cattle. You can also see the romantic elements coming a mile away between Owen and rancher daughter Zoe (played by Harmony Korine’s wife Rachel Korine). And the fellow rangers seem a bit too accepting of Owen. You would think in a real-life situation, they wouldn't necessarily be singing kumbaya by the fire within the first couple of weeks. You would think people would feel a bit threatened by the newcomer who is flying around their park with his father and calling some of the shots. Maybe things are different up there in Wyoming. But none of these elements are really all that distracting. The movie still manages to be quite touching. A lot of this has to do with Owen specifically. You really see an arch in his character. You don't really want to spend any more time with him than you have to when he is still living with his mother. But the good qualities in him really do come out, and they feel authentic. The missing voids are filled, giving him a sense of purpose but also some guidance by his father. The good cinematography in the film feels much bigger than the $100K budget they were working with. The great indie-folk soundtrack blends in perfectly with the beautiful Wyoming backdrop. You come to a movie like Druid Peak wondering if they are going to do anything different with the man-loves-animal theme, and fortunately here they really do.

February 8, 2015


David Gordon Green, 2014
Like he did in previous film Prince Avalanche, Green drops you into the heart of the south in rural Texas. It's a different Texas though this time. This one is a more menacing blue-collar landscape, with dark red-lit brothels, dive bars and rust-laden pickup trucks. Lots of folks living check to check, hour to hour, struggling to make ends meet. Drunks that wander through the streets like slow zombies, scraping to get any buck in their hands so that they can feed the beast sip by sip. Although there are many shifty figures in the story, the film is largely about the relationship between ex-con Joe and drifter-kid Gary. Gary is clearly looking for someone to fulfill a father role while his cannot even gather the balance to walk on his own two feet from his heavy alcoholism. Joe feels responsible to take care of Gary, presumably seeing a younger version of himself in him and also probably feeling guilt about his own negligence in his personal life. Throughout the film he struggles greatly with restraining himself from seeking justice against the dark forces around Gary, mostly his dirt-bag father.

Joe is one of those movies that it almost feels strange you say you enjoyed, because there are so many elements that aren't enjoyable to see. Drug / alcohol addiction, child abuse, animal abuse, violence. It's certainly a negatively charged piece. But what makes Joe good is what makes television series like True Detective good, or Jeff Nichols films good - like last years Mud that Sheridan also appeared in. It gives you the opportunity to see some of the darkest sides of humanity. The Joe character is certainly more of an anti-hero. You root for him to help deliver some come-uppance to the horrible figures in the story, but he is not without his flaws either. He is an absentee boyfriend and father that is slowly killing himself with cigarettes and alcohol. He seems to be a good boss, but not really a good guy. His actions are largely impulsive. His occupation consists of poisoning trees one axe-swing at a time. You wonder if it feeds into his self-destruction, as if he is one of the trees in the forest. Or are the trees themselves reminders of his past, and it's his duty to expel them from the earth? He does take care of his employees and attempts to take care of Gary to a certain extent, but Joe is a work-in-progress that still has a lot of work to do.

Nicholas Cage finally takes on a role that isn't intended to just be another back-tax payment. Instead here you can tell he puts a lot of effort into his performance with his Joe character. He balances retrain and rage so well here, almost like he's redneck version of Bruce Banner. Tye Sheridan is amazing; showing that he's one of the best up and comer actors working today. Sheridan should have a long career ahead of him. He's already been fortunate enough to work with Terrence Malick, Jeff Nichols and David Gordon Green in his first three features, who happen to be some of the best filmmakers working today. Gary Poulter creates one of the most despicable characters ever on screen with his Wade (Gary's dad) character. The film itself is almost like a freaky fun-house of crazies. The town itself is almost a character in the film, with a constant feeling of uncertainty, structures falling apart piece by piece. At the end of the two hour run you are probably happy to get out of the story, but some of the imagery at least shows you some sense of rebirth after a rather destructive climax.

The Overnighters

Jesse Moss, 2014
Williston is a town of 20,000 that is at the center of the North Dakota oil boom. The area has been enjoying an enormous amount of economic growth due to the discovery of the Parshall oil field in 2006. The boom has given the state of North Dakota the largest unemployment rate in the United States and has also helped the state maintain a billion dollar budget surplus. And because of this, people are flocking to the state for job opportunities in the energy sector as they hear of people getting hired on the spot and some getting six figure salaries. People who have failed with other ventures in other states look to North Dakota as a second chance. Pastor Jay Reinke is one a harbinger of second chances. There aren't many people like him. He has an ability to look past people’s faults, their mistakes, past crimes. He is a pure Christian, willing to open the doors of his church to provide shelter to the homeless who have arrived in droves. 

The film is an honest look at a piece of the American experience. It’s a film that puts things in perspective, makes you grateful for the roof over your head. These people are not just running from their past. They are attempting to recreate a different future, and they struggle to do it without the Pastor’s help. Some of them are true bottom-dwellers of society. The gravel, litter-riddled parking lot providing space for them to sleep in their car is an upgrade from the status quo. 

The film is also very conflicting at times. Pastor Jay lets everyone into his Church and personal home. This includes sex offenders. Most people, including myself, would draw the line there. But he looks at sin on an objective, more universal scale. He makes statements along the lines of us all being sinners. He doesn't discriminate the differences of them. That is probably the most conflicting part of Pastor Jay. The townspeople, his long-time veteran congregation members, they are all against him opening his doors to the sex offenders. You get a sense that if he himself drew the line there, he would be able to maintain some type of compromise with the city and would be able to continue to provide shelter to the other people who are needy. But he can’t. He digs his heels in deeper when he encounters adversity. The community turns their back, the congregation dissolves. And what is he left with? Nothing but his principles. You have to wonder if that’s worth it. Because of him NOT drawing that particular line, not budging, everybody who was relying on his support ultimately suffers. Is it worth losing everyone because of the stubborn act of not turning away a few? Besides, Jay can't save them all anyway. You see some people work their way through the church system and come out the other side. You see them gain employment and attempt to move on to the next chapter. But then there are people like Alan who create a facade of a success story, only to completely unravel into the same old dirtbag as soon as he is challenged about his past. It's a really interesting look at a portion of the North Dakota population of the North Dakota during a rather unique period in American History. There are clearly a lot of success stories coming out of the state, but there are also a lot of failures as we see here.

February 7, 2015

The 2nd Annual Coopies! The 5 Best Films of 2014

The Poopie Coopie (Most Disappointing Film of the Year): Guardians of the Galaxy
This is probably a sign of things to come. A paint by numbers approach to adapting comic book to film. Hits the predictable beats and reaps big profits. Just because a movie makes a ton of movie does not make it good. What is this movie other than an space-age version of The Avengers that basically just rips the oddball soundtrack off of Reservoir Dogs? Unlikely friends who come together to defeat a common enemy. The Avengers just did it better. I know its sacrilege right now in early 2015 to criticize anything that Chris Pratt stars in, but this one needed more. A lot more. The only memorable moment in this film is when they fly into the city with Bowie playing.

5. Edge of Tomorrow
We only seem to see Tom Cruise pop up in the Sci-Fi genre these days, and that's fine. This hybrid of Groundhog Day & Starship Troopers was really entertaining.

4. Force Majeure
Force is one of the more enduring and unique films to be released in 2014. Hard to say if its the family dynamics, the dark humor, great performances, or the great film-making. Or all of it.

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Possibly Anderson's best work since Rushmore.

2. Whiplash
Such a well put-together film. Great outlet for Teller and Simmons. They work off of each other brilliantly. A really tense piece about pushing ones own limits, and the personal cost of success. 

1. Boyhood
A true cinematic masterpiece. One that people will be talking about for a long time, and for me, and easy choice for the best film of the year. The second viewing was even more enjoyable than the first. A touching coming of age drama that spans 12 actual years. So risky hoping to retain a cast for more than a decade, and somehow it all worked out better than anyone could have expected. Linklater explores his fascination with time that he's done so often through his career. Hopefully the widespread acclaim of this movie sets up a "Manhood" sequel like he did with the "Before" trilogy. It would be so great to see Mason experience life through his twenties.

Here is a list of the 2014 films I watched:

After the Dark
Awful Nice
Blue Ruin
Burt's Buzz
Captain America: Winter Soldier
Cheap Thrills
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead
Edge of Tomorrow
Gone Girl
Guardians of the Galaxy
Happy Christmas
Last Passenger
Mistaken for Strangers
Obvious Child
Only Lovers Left Alive
Print the Legend
The Battered Bastards of Baseball
The Fault in our Stars
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Heart Machine
The Lego Movie
The One I Love
The Purge: Anarchy
The Theory of Everything
Under the Skin
Willow Creek
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Starred Up
Force Majeure

February 6, 2015

Burt's Buzz

Jody Shapiro, 2014
The image of Burt on the Burt's Bees product line is arguably as identifiable as Colonel Sanders, Mr. clean, or perhaps even Ronald McDonald. We see the bearded etched face when we check out at the grocery store, where the Burt's yellow circular lip balm container is placed below the latest gossip mag telling you about the most recent celebrity divorce or plastic surgery mishap. And while the innocent face of Burt contradicts the face of a Kardashian sister, the company itself is not without its own drama.

Burt Shavitz,  a reclusive Hippie from Maine, started his business on a very small scale by managing a handful of beehives upstate and selling honey by the gallon on the roadside. It wasn't until he met fellow hippie / earthchild Roxanne Quimby that the company branched out into the personal care realm. Burt exposed Roxanne to an old book about the many benefits of using honey and beeswax, and she took the ball and ran with it. Unfortunately as Roxanne took on more of a role in the company, things between her and Burt turned sour. Burt was pushed into selling his stake of the company in 1993. Burt wasn't able to benefit from the future purchase of the company by a private equity firm that made Roxanne a multimillionaire.

Burt's Buzz is similar to the 2010 documentary Candyman about Jelly Belly Jelly Bean creator David Klein. Klein, another quirky innovator, had a naivete when it came to business and was pushed out of his company and not rightfully compensated for it. In Candyman Klein doesn't come off as a completely bitter man, spending every waking second trying to get his revenge. Nor does Burt. Burt sought a lawyer after the purchase of the company, hoping to get a piece of the pie but was too late to the party. You get a sense this was more on principle rather than greed. Burt isn't a person very interested in money. He is not a man built for the 21st century corporate culture. He is more inclined to spend his time out in the field with his dog. And Shapiro doesn't set out to paint Roxanne as a calculating villainous figure set out to cheat Burt out of his business. It's just a part of the Burt's story that you kind of have to mention. A lot of business relationships are complicated and often don't end particularly well. Roxanne possessed the ambition that Burt just doesn't have, and basically admits to. You could easily see that if Roxanne never scaled the Burt's brand to the mega-company that it ultimately became, we wouldn't have the shampoo in our shower or the lip balm in our pockets. The movie doesn't have big moments and doesn't take many risks but it does paint an interesting portrait of the man on the package.

February 1, 2015


Denis Villeneuve, 2014
Adam discovers that he has an exact double of himself and is tortured by the discovery, unable to resist locating his twin.

Villeneuve sets the tone immediately in the film, setting up a dark and menacing piece. He doesn't hold anything back really, using a tense score similar to Jonathan Glazer's 2014 Under the Skin and going heavy with muted color palette, with golden glows similar to The Assassination of Jesse James but without the radiance. Perhaps a bit too over-stylized, as that very color palette gets a bit wearing after a while. Villeneuve's world that he puts Adam in isn't a very inviting one. In a sense it's like a version of the futuristic urban landscape shown in Her but with a heroin needle sticking out of the arm. Gyllenhaal's Adam character (kudos to Gyllenhaal for another quite good dark performance here) is one who immediately appears jaded from the monotony of his daily grind. He teaches at a local university, returns home to his small apartment with a small window of time to have sex with his apathetic girlfriend, wakes up and does it all over again. Discovering the clone-like version of himself in the indie movie doesn't invigorate him but disturbs him. He begins his pursuit of Anthony AKA Daniel St. Claire, but it's a confusing one.

As the scenes play out of him attempting to connect with Anthony, there was a lot of internal dialogue going on in my head saying things like wait, why wouldn't he say this or that or why is he acting like that. These actions and reactions only contribute to the confusing tone of the movie. The spider symbolism is forced upon you. The film works with themes like identity and one's perception of reality, but these themes are juggled with imagery that falls into disorientation. The premise is intriguing, but the psychological thriller elements would be better in the hands of someone like Hitchcock who can really get into a general audiences head, and not just a pocket of niche but forgiving cinephiles.

Villeneuve is certainly a creative auteur, there are nods to Salvador Dali's Les Elephants with the image of the spider walking over the city. Some of the dream sequences are reminiscent of David Lynch's work. But the fault is that he gets a little too ambitious with it and doesn't maintain organization. Ultimately things get lost in the abstraction. Villeneuve makes bold decisions with the material in José Saramago's novel The Double (which the film is adapted from)but he goes a bit too far into the abstract realm. The ending of the film isn't very satisfying as it's very eyebrow-raising. It would be okay if there was a bit more construction on getting there, but he confuses the audience with contradictions and vague illusions. Enemy feels like an incomplete product with an ending that is meant to wow without having to fully answer WHY.