April 26, 2015

Code Black

Ryan McGarry, 2014
One of the doctors interviewed in this graphic documentary makes a very important statement. He said that “most people see us on the worst day of their lives”. Most trips to the hospital are not joyous occasions. And on top of that, most people realize that even in those times of emergency, there is going to be a long wait in the Emergency Room. Unfortunately at the L.A. County Hospital, it’s no different. Desperate, suffering and often impoverished, these people sometimes wait up to 18 hours to see a doctor.

The doctors who work in the unit are undoubtedly doing god’s work. They describe the traumatic events in their youth that led them to want to help the sick. They were drawn to the level of intimacy in the County Hospital’s C-Booth. The C-Booth itself looks like a complete clusterfuck. In one memorable scene in the film we witness a gunshot victim in the hands of many medical hands in C-Booth. The crowd of people surrounding him and cutting him open is almost something out of The Walking Dead, the only difference being that these people are trying to keep the poor man alive. We witness many more of these tense moments, where life and death is in the hands of the medical staff that are working in tandem to try and save the person.

A large part of the film is the medical staff venting about their frustrations with the evolution of their hospital. They are nostalgic for the days that they were shoulder to shoulder in C-Booth in the old building. But because of earthquake building standards, they were forced to vacate the old building and move into a modern one. The modern hospital, while aesthetically pleasing, is bigger and creates more distance between the doctor’s and the patients. There is also some figurative distance in the sense that the doctors are now flooded with paperwork. Because of the bureaucratic hurdles they have to cross to actually treat a patient, they lose a lot of the adrenaline and drive that they once had. There is also some macro-political venting about social classes and government funding of county hospitals like the one depicted. Many of the patients do not have health coverage for a variety of reasons. But the doctor’s do not judge anyone who comes through their door, and they express their wish for everyone to feel the same way. The indictment on the state of healthcare in our country does get a bit wearing, sometimes it feels like some of the time spent on the grumbling would have been better spent on the micro-level inside the hospital. The strength of the film is certainly in the machine elements of the staff and working as a team, the day in and day out grind. The weak point is definitely focusing too much on the political grievances. The truth is, the bureaucratic bottlenecking is present in so many aspects of our lives now. One of the more unfortunate parts of our sue-happy and over-litigated society.

It’s a sobering look inside a hospital, a part of the world that many of us wish we do not have to visit. But it’s inspiring and encouraging that we have people like the doctor’s in the film that want nothing more than to help those in need. It's important to remember that these places are part of life. There are ebbs and flows to everything in life. One day we are healthy, the next day it may be the complete opposite where an endless amount of things could happen that are completely out of our control. The idea of an objective place that exists, a place that doesn't judge us based on our economic status, is comforting. Some people may accuse that idea of being over-idealistic and naive, but they are the same creatures breathing in the same air and pumping the same blood. If you walk away from this film feeling even a little more compassionate, they have succeeded with their mission. 

April 25, 2015


Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig, 2014
One of the redeeming qualities of Ethan Hawke is he will take on a wide variety of roles. He will jump into low-key indie performances as he has done with his with his many collaborations with the great Richard Linklater. But he will also venture into more unique roles, occasionally in the Sci-Fi genre, as he has done in vampire-themed Daybreakers or space-themed Gattaca.

Out of his 56 acting credits listed on IMDB, the variety is obvious as he has played everything from an LAPD cop to a plane-crash survivor to a leading Hamlet role in a 2000 adaptation. The thing with Hawke is he always brings a certain familiarity to his roles. He has a real distinctive energy in most of his work. But his barkeep character is for the most part a serious one. As a time traveling agent he attempts to save lives by preventing disasters. Frustrated by his inability to successfully catch up to a terrorist dead-set on racking up fatalities, he is seemingly in eternal pursuit through time.

The tone of the film changes when he are introduced to the “Unmarried Mother” character (Sarah Snook). It seems as if we are supposed to be fooled, but most viewers probably will not be. This doesn’t fully take away from the direction that the story goes. The Spierig Brothers go on to lay out a pretty engaging story that is complex and unique. But it grows complicated, becomes a bit convoluted. By the end of the movie it feels like they are attempting to cram in exposition and it feels rushed. At this point in 2015 we have seen so many time travel films. Some are good: Back to the Future, Looper, Groundhog Day, Donnie Darko, Primer, Timecrimes. Some are not-so-good: Black Knight, Terminator 3, Terminator Salvation, Click. When you think of the good ones, there’s always some memory that you carry with you that you can always come back to. With the bad ones, like most bad movies, don’t give you much to come back to mentally. That’s the big question here. Is there any memorable element in Predestination to come back to? Predestination certainly has some brains behind it but it just doesn't leave you with much to talk about afterwards. Sometimes movies need to be more than just smart. Sometimes audiences need something more impactful. It's probably in the imagery, and we just don't have enough of it here.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Bryan Singer, 2014
The first X-Men film came to screen in 2000 with the original self-titled feature. Since the original there have been 7 films total including this, but it almost feels like there’s been 14 of them at this point. Maybe it’s because they strangely seem to focus on Wolverine a lot, giving him two origin-type films. Hugh Jackman is certainly a good fit for the Wolverine role, but it just seems like they revisit character an awful lot. Bryan Singer has now directed 4 of the films, arguably the best of them. He seems to really understand the true depth of the comic, and how to get the best out of everyone involved. He really delivered the goods when he decided to take a prequel/origin approach with First Class in 2011 and managed to get an ensemble cast that included Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence. Of course the big worry now will be whether or not they are able to wrangle in everyone for the next film. Moviegoers certainly don’t want to get comfortable with James McAvoy as Charles only to have someone like Josh Hutcherson playing him in five years.

But out of all of the X-Men films, this is certainly the best without question. The seamless visual effects that seem to perfectly blend in without seeming gimmicky. Singer manages to juggle an intricate plot with well-constructed pacing. The time travel elements are great. There is a lot of wrong to right, especially after the not-so-great X3: Last Stand film that left a lot of fans of the franchise disappointed. It’s a great example of how if implemented correctly, CGI can be a useful tool for cinematic storytelling. They never use it as a crutch. It feels like we will be able to look back on this in ten years and it won't feel cheesy.

The X-Men storyline one of those vicarious ones that lets your imagination go to work wishing you had some of the abilities. What kind of things you could do if you could slow down time like Quicksilver. Or if you could have the invincibility abilities that Wolverine has. The possibilities are endless. But the story draws upon it much more, and it's evolved to the point in which within the X-Men universe lies a society in which endless variations of superpowers cause a true geo-political divide between the un-afflicted and the outcasts. The story draws parallels to real-life controversies like anti-gay groups, racism and gender issues. Unfortunately we are living in a world of not-great superhero franchises (*cough* Fantastic Four, Spiderman reboots). At least the X-Men franchise seems to be back on the right track.

April 21, 2015

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

Andrew Jarecki, 2015
Andrew Jarecki is a filmmaker who isn’t afraid to venture into the darkness. He doesn't appear to be affected by the fact that you may be disturbed by his work, perhaps even put off. His 2003 documentary Capturing the Friedmans captures the unraveling of the Friedman family whose patriarch is charged with child molestation. He has a unique vision in the way that he approaches the Friedman family. He doesn't just lay out an indictment on a family accused of some of the worst acts you can be accused of. He lets you decide for yourself. With his HBO docu-series The Jinx, it’s not much different. Many of us, probably mostly Northeast Americans, are familiar with the Durst family. Most of us have at least heard of Robert Durst, wealthy eccentric man who is accused of slaying his wife and possibly others. We often convict public figures subconsciously, sometimes simply based on appearance. Sometimes people look guilty. Sometimes people look creepy. Durst is certainly a suspicious figure. He doesn't express emotion. He doesn't smile, he doesn't kid around. He doesn't appear to show a longing for his missing wife.

Jarecki has already explored the Durst family in his 2010 feature film All Good Things, starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst. The film is very much based on the real life events surrounding the Durst family. That film, while okay, was clearly not the right vessel for Jarecki whose strengths are really apparent in the documentary realm. But the one thing the film did is land him his interview with the real life Durst who saw the film and felt it gave him fair treatment. This is probably the opportunity of Jarecki's career, and this documentary series will certainly be the most talked about piece of work of his for years to come.

The series explores the insulation of wealth. It examines class structure in our country. It's a study on our imperfect judicial system which sometimes doesn't get it right. Episode one grips you, episode 4 shocks you. Episode 6 has you on the edge of your seat with your jaw dropped. You have to sit there and spend some time with this enigma of a person. Jarecki took a controversial mystery and put his artistic touch on it. Recreation of crime scenes, interviews with frustrated friends and family members, ex-police officers and investigators. He does some true investigative work. He can be accused of being predatory and baiting, but he also needs to be credited with giving Robert more of a benefit of a doubt than most filmmakers would be willing to do. He also is in front of the camera quite a bit, at times very uncomfortably. Confronting Douglas Durst and asking for an interview on the night of a big dedication dinner is a ballsy move. It’s almost like walking into Trump Tower and interrupting the Donald’s dinner and asking for a job. Even the interviewing process with Robert must be an uncomfortable one. The tension spills off the screen. Even if you are already aware of the outcome of the series from what you have seen in the headlines, it’s still worth the complete viewing. Your jaw will drop. Your eyes will be open wide.

This series broke some new ground. Instead of someone like Michael Moore placing pieces in an order that fits his ideology, Jarecki does some real investigative work that spans several years. The headlines and the finale are a little conveniently timed, there must have been some behind-the-scenes orchestration and collusion. It’s hard to debate that Jarecki ambushes Durst in the end for some self-serving reasons, but he had to do it right? And when all is said and done, we need to remember that at the very foundation of all of this is a medium of entertainment. And the trade off is closure for some of the family and friends of the victims. So a cold case finally gets some real answers. And that is worth it, right?

April 8, 2015


Leigh Janiak, 2014
The Sci-Fi/horror genre has become so offensively saturated with mostly copycat knockoffs of past classics, reusing old tropes and beating them to death. Regurgitated themes. Re-purposed cliches. Sometimes when you watch something that feels like a huge waste of your time, making you think that maybe its all been done before. That maybe there aren't any new ideas in this genre. But then every now and then, something will float to the surface. Something will stand out. Films like The Conjuring, The Cabin in the Woods or Insidious will appear and it gives us all hope. It gives us hope that maybe there can be new things done with the seemingly forlorn genre.

Unfortunately, Honeymoon doesn't fall into this category of refreshing and unique horror films that are trying new things. Instead it falls into that category of pretty good acting spoiled by an awful script and amateur direction. Janiak tries to make too much with too little here. This one can be filed under the category of predictably stagnant alien films. It's a bit irritating too, because you are likely delighted to see Rose Leslie on screen after seeing her in Game of Thrones or Downton Abbey. She has already proven herself a good actress while working with good material. But she doesn't have a whole lot to work with here. In fact, her Bea character and husband Paul (Harry Treadaway) characters are actually quite annoying. You spend the first 20 minutes of the film watching them groping each other like a couple of spider monkeys. To be expected on ones honeymoon. But we aren't going into this movie hoping to spectate a weekend of lovemaking. That's another kind of movie that we can watch some other time. That one will probably be better directed as well. Because you will have two minutes of foreplay and casual dialogue and they will get down to business. Honeymoon takes a lot of time getting to where it wants to, when most of the audience will probably know where it's going the entire time. The decision making on the parts of Paul's character are frustrating. The most obvious of them all is his inability to get Bea in the car and away from the cabin. Her condition continues to decline, his solution is to fondle her more and tell her how much he misses her. His character seems to be desperately horny, like he should have been in Deadgirl and not Honeymoon. Honeymoon feels like a weak ripoff of a Stephen King story with too much build-up and an insufficient reveal.

April 2, 2015

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Alex Gibney, 2015
Anyone familiar with The Church of Scientology likely has preconceived notions about it. It’s certainly been a force, at times a prominent one, in our modern American culture. Some don’t want to call it a religion, immediately dismissing it as a cult. Most people associate it with Tom Cruise, one of the more outspoken celebrity members. Some people may recall Isaac Hayes quitting his role as Chef on South Park after they decided to create an episode ripping it apart. With Cruise specifically, his involvement with the church has caused many to judge him differently, to question him. And would they be wrong to look at him differently? To question his judgement? After all, it is a “religion” created by the late L. Ron Hubbard, a controversial science fiction writer who spent a portion of his life hiding from the U.S. government because of tax debt. The religion discounts the field of psychology. It promotes the belief that we are all immortal beings, forced to carry the weight of past life trauma. 

We learn in this documentary, it’s an organization with a lot of secrets. A lot of secrets that were concealed quite well for a long period of time. That may be the surprising element with this documentary, the magnitude of dark shit that has gone on for so long without being exposed to the public. The film interviews past members. These past members, which include screenwriter Paul Haggis and Sylvia Taylor, are not just low people on the totem pole of the Church. The interviewees are former high ranking members. Some of them even worked alongside Hubbard before his passing and even worked alongside now-leader David Miscavige. Because of this, you assume much of this is the truth. Child abuse, neglect, abusive labor, tax dodging, threats, larceny, harassment, greed, the list goes on. Even if you go into this film having a low opinion of Scientology, it’s sure to sink even lower. Even if you have heard some horror stories in the past, you are going to discover something you hadn’t known already. What does this film say about us as humans? Are we weak? Are we vulnerable? At times, most definitely. History shows that that the cults of the world prey upon the weak. There is always a charismatic, idealistic leader that tells everyone things that they want to hear and through elaborate and well-orchestrated manipulation he is able to gain followers. It's very difficult to discern The Church of Scientology from a cult. If they weren't able to weasel their way into tax-exempt status, where would it be now? If they weren't clever enough to pick up a few of the high-profile celebrity pitch-men would it even be in the dialogue? Is the organization now filled with members who, sort of like Christians, don't subscribe to all of the ideology but choose to just trudge ahead and turn the skepticism off in their minds? 

It will be interesting to see if this film has the same damaging effect on the organization that Blackfish had to Seaworld. It wouldn’t be surprising. This is the power of documentary film-making, when an expose can show you unforgettable things. Much kudos to HBO, it was certainly a bold decision to get behind this film. They must have been flooded with phone calls and legal threats from the church. Instead of hiding under their desks, they decided to green light a doc under their name that says a lot of things that people had been afraid to talk about for a long time.