May 31, 2015


Glenn Kessler / Todd Kessler / Daniel Zelman, 2015
Bloodline is a very different piece of episodic television. We have now been spoiled by amazing pilots, episodes that completely pull us in upon first viewing. Many years after Lost (possibly the greatest pilot of all time), the standards are basically set and expectations are always high. Honestly, Bloodline's pilot isn't all that great. It's undeniably bold, you have to give it that. Not many writers have the balls to show the final events of the season in the first episode. That sort of tactic exudes confidence in the sense that you feel self-assured that everyone is going to stick with it waiting to see WHY what happened actually happened. And for a couple of episodes, you sit there wondering if you really did see all that you really needed to see. You decided to hang in there because of the veteran cast: Kyle Chandler, Ben Mendelsohn, Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepard. But then, there's a shift. It's actually hard to reflect on the season and determine when exactly this shift is, but it's somewhere around the fifth episode. The amount of character development in such a short period of time is stunning. You get pulled into the dysfunctional family dynamic and you don't want to leave. The series is so menacing and yet so alluring. The dream sequences, past memories constantly resurfacing in their present moments, talking to imaginary figures. All while trying to run a family business and dealing with the same conflicts that many families do in terms of competitiveness and jealousy. Anyone with siblings likely will identify with many of the conflicts that arise, hopefully without the whole murder and criminal elements at play. The series really serves as a coming out party for Ben Mendohlson who is just fantastic in his Danny character. But it doesn't stop with him, the series is perfectly cast. Not one bad performance. Everything is so well executed that by the conclusion of the first season you really don't want to leave the Rayburn Inn. And that's strange because you've spent enough time there by the 13th episode to realize how foreboding the place can be when you get off of the beach and venture inside.

May 30, 2015

Europa Report

Sebastian Cordero, 2013
A group of astronauts are deployed on a mission to Europa, one of Jupiter's moons where there is suspicion of alien life or at least the evidence of past life.

So many films in the found-footage genre use the less is more device when it comes to employing something freaky or creepy. There is an expected build-up of tension, suspense, anticipation. Sometimes, like the foundational found-footage genre-creator The Blair Witch Project (a personal favorite that gets a lot of praise on this blog), it's a device that's used very effectively. There you are getting a gradual increase in the amount of creepy stimuli. At first it's just a little pile of sticks in the woods. Then it's the chilling cries of a baby. And then of course the climax at the house. It's about pacing, accumulation and then release. Structure.

Here, you wait for delivery that just never comes. It starts off as a little flash on the screen that one of the astronauts sees from the ship. Then it's another flash. Then it's another flash with some camera distortion. Then some more camera distortion. You continue to get teased and teased for the duration of the film and by the end it's just not enough. The documentary-style interviewing recounting that events that occurred feels faulty and unnecessary. The set design is impressive in regards to the space craft and it's endless surroundings, but there are points in the film where you just want to get off the damn thing and explore. There are no rules set in stone in terms of a story like this, it can go anywhere. But it's supposed to be a Sci-Fi Thriller. Instead of any thrills it has the mildness of Contact without the quality. Its a film that feels too restricted, too minimal. Upon looking back to some of the much better space movies: Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Starship Troopers, Moon... Europa feels very scant and very forgettable. 

May 29, 2015

Antarctica: A Year On Ice

Anthony Powell, 2014
Antarctica is like Alaska to some of us. An unforgiving landscape, isolated, frigid. One of the last pure, natural territories. And yet, while it does seem like a rather uninviting place, there is something so fascinating about going there. Maybe its the adventurous nature to it. A continent at the bottom of our planet, very difficult to actually get to. In essence, logistically, it's like visiting another planet. Our technological advances have made it possible to stay there for an extended period of time. This documentary is about the people who do just that. These people, all employed by various countries and in a wide variety of positions, spend anywhere from a few months to years on "the ice" (as many of them call it). They basically live in airtight dwellings that resemble space stations. Their occupational duties consume most of their time, but there are gaps here and there where they can engage in recreational activities. With limited resources and restricted mobility, they have to work with what they have to pass the time. DVD's, Emails, reading,  conversation. There are periodic shipments of cargo to Antarctica that arrive in shipping containers that bring goods to everyone there. But its the little things that make this film interesting. What if you want a beer at the end of the day? Is it even possible to get a cold one in your hands? These types of things come up. Not so formally answered, but you do see an annual celebratory dinner event where multiple bottles of red wine fills the tables. We learn that no pets or children are allowed on the continent, so the whole living with your family is out of the question. How is the internet service you might ask? Well, it's there. But it's presumably satellite based, so probably not that good or reliable. You see that although they are completely removed from their families and friends, freezing their asses off, and heartsick over things we take for granted here (like avocados)... They are still happy to be there. So happy that many of them return season after season. It's a very fascinating piece of work filled with some stunning photography of the frozen continent and a lot of interesting people who are bold enough to venture to the bottom of the planet to spend some time there.

May 17, 2015

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

Brett Morgen, 2015
Morgan was able to get one thing that previous filmmakers have been unsuccessful in getting with previous Kurt Cobain pieces: ACCESS. Without the blessing of the Cobain family, this movie doesn’t exist. No film has really ever been able to paint such an elaborate portrait of Kurt Cobain the person. Montage manages to do this, at times even showing you more than you probably would have liked to see. Hearing about Cobain’s early sexual encounters, his dysfunctional family, trouble fitting in to social circles growing up, drug use. Some of it is hard to watch. But you really see the evolution of the man from toddler to modern rock god.

At one point in the film Cobain’s mother tells us a story of when Kurt walked into the room, in his hand the master tape of Nevermind. She urged him to put it on, making a point to say that she wanted the volume up and saying she liked to listen to music loud. She said that she had an immediate emotional reaction where she told Kurt that this record is going to change everything, that this will change everything for him. I call bullshit on the story. The thing is with Nirvana, is they were one of those bands that we all listened to in the 90’s. We knew that they were the harbingers of the grunge movement, that we liked them. But we weren’t able to really visualize the cultural impact that they would have at that point. Of course now everyone looks back and says that they changed everything, that Cobain is a genius and how influential Nirvana was to future rock bands. But when you’re actually living in the moment, you can’t fully realize the historical impact yet. Because it’s not history yet! That being said, the remaining 98% of the interviews feel very honest. And why wouldn’t they be? Courtney Love, the elder Cobain’s, Krist Novoselic… they really have nothing to gain at this point by not being honest in this setting. They might as well be candid, be open. Because it’s quite clear that this is a sincere and respectful study of one of the rock genre’s greatest figures. One thing you realize after watching this is Frances Bean, who was so unfortunate to lose her father at such a young age, was probably able to get to know her father from this vast trove of memories that he had left behind. The 145 minute running time feels like it could have been cut down a bit to a more digestible one-sitting length. There is a good portion of the film that involves animation, where a lot of Cobain’s chicken scratches and notebook ramblings come alive on the screen. While you don’t really want to exclude any of the great interviews that take place, perhaps some of the animation could have been removed.

[REC] 4: Apocalypse

Jaume Balaguero, 2015
[REC] 4 is the fourth installment in what was originally a found-footage zombie horror film. Ever since the first film, they have ventured out of pure found-footage style and into a more conventional approach. In the previous installment REC 3 Genesis, there almost seemed to be a deliberate dismissal of the found footage technique when the wedding cam was ditched and the rest of the film was shot normally. This film makes no effort to pay tribute to it’s found footage roots. It also joins the last film in it’s utter distance from the first two. Yes, Manuela Velasco returns in her Angela Vidal role, but it really feels like a film that has grown substantially from it’s original form and is now feels more unrelated. Almost like a family member that has moved to a different state and then returns ten years to a family BBQ. Perhaps this is because it’s the first in the series not to have Paco Plaza co-directing with Balaguero.

REC 4 might as well be called Zombies at Sea. Balaguero obtains access to a giant vessel where the entirety of the film is set. Dark hallways, constant power loss, loud engine rooms, narrow corridors provide a limited and claustrophobic setting to make things even more frantic when shit hits the fan. The inevitable outbreak is actually well timed, and it manages to work with an engaging energy through the whole movie.

One annoyance in the film is the moment where they are accusing each other of harboring the demonic parasite. We witness a scene very much like John Carpenter’s The Thing with a lot of finger pointing and "no, you have the parasite in you!", but the transfer of the parasite feels forced and wasn't really set up quite well. Sleight of hand would have been an understatement. Of course it needs the exchange to happen to have the obligatory plot twist at the end, but it should have been orchestrated better. Ultimately you know what you are going to get with the REC franchise at this point, and for the most part it delivers. The films have evolved to a point where they are much different than the original. You can assume there will be a [REC] 5 at some point down the road. Maybe they will try to capture some of that original spirit by going back to the found footage style. Or maybe not. Either way, fans of the zombie genre are quite loyal and they will probably keep coming back. We have seen a REC apartment setting, a wedding setting, now a boat setting. What next? REC 5: Lost in the Woods? REC 6: Hospital zombies? For a lot of movie franchises these frequent entries would exhaust themselves quickly, but as long as it continues to hit some of the same beats there should still be some gas in the tank with these.


Lance Edmands, 2015

Edmands directorial debut features a film where the the weather conditions is almost it’s own character. There are films like this that have been made, where there is a built-in sympathy for town’s residents. Fargo, The Shining, Alive, Let the Right One in, The Thing. A portion of all of those titles are literally people just trying to ENDURE the unforgiving weather elements outside, of course all in varying degrees. It’s not much different in the rural blue-collar Maine logging town. The town is filled with people that are trying to get through their day to day life and are also facing the challenge of just trying to stay warm when it is absolutely brutal outside. Edmands is a director who certainly wants to show us some artistic flare. At one point in the film when the Marla character (Louisa Krause) is singing in the bar, it invokes memories of Christina Ricci’s character singing in the bowling alley in Buffalo ‘66. It triggers memories of that hypnotic darkness. Edmands employs some good acting: Adam Driver, John Slattery, Amy Morton. Nothing really falls short in the technical realm and nothing in the performances. Instead, it’s the story itself.

The title of the film is Bluebird, and as we see it’s a recurring symbol at different points in the film. In a sense it feels weirdly used. In Native American cultures the Bluebird represents spring. In the Iroquois mythology it is the singing of the bluebird that drives off the demigod Tawiscaron who represents winter. The Hopi tribes treat the bluebird as a guardian. Ironically, the symbolism of the bluebird, at least in this perspective, is disconnected. At no point does it feel like there is going to be any directional shift. These poor people in the town are starving for some kind of relief. Whether this comes in the form of warmer weather, better employment, better health. Anything. But it never comes. That’s the biggest problem with this film. It NEEDS a charge. Some deviation from the chill. Instead, it is mired in it’s own depression. It’s a story that continues to kick itself while its down. If only it could have provided a positive charge somewhere. And in the end, when there is a final shift, it’s too little too late. Instead we are forced to spend 90 minutes in a frigid town that we don’t want to spend five minutes in. Edmands deserves another shot, and he will get one. It will be interesting to see what he does in the future with a better (and maybe a little bigger) story.

May 3, 2015

The Babadook

Jennifer Kent, 2014
Australian-horror film / Sundance darling The Babadook got the marketing hype-treatment when it first landed in theaters on it's wide-release. Commercials aired showing audiences in night vision screaming, and holding their hands over their eyes. As time went on you would hear people saying things like "it's the scariest movie I've ever seen. Scarier than [insert popular scary movie here]". The problem is that scary is subjective. One element that may scare one person may seem completely silly to the next person.

The first act of The Babadook is mother Amelia (Essie Davis) attempting to control her erratic child Samuel (Noah Wiseman). He gets suspended from school for bringing in a home-made weapon, not the first time. He screams in the car at the top of his lungs. Amelia's sister even wants to keep her distance from the two of them because Samuel is so unpredictable. You actually start to really resent the Samuel character. And you feel total sympathy for Amelia, visibly exhausted from trying to get through her day to day life with the little boy. Oh yeah, and Samuel's father? He died tragically. So Amelia has had her fair share of bad luck.

When Amelia tries to calm Sam to bed one night with a pop-up book The Babadook, things go terribly wrong when the content of the book is basically just threats of a scary guy coming into your room and eating your insides. There are even little tabs that Amelia pulls where knives pop out and blood shoots from the little people's heads. Not exactly soothing bedtime material.

The first half hour to forty minutes of the Babadook are actually pretty scary. Kent skillfully builds things up. When the ghost or monster, or whatever you actually want to call him shows up, it's one of those edge-of-your-seat moments. But then the film really takes a turn. It ultimately morphs into a possession piece instead of a haunted house or haunted book piece that it started out on. This isn't all that bad, but it just gets a bit indulgent. The whole sleep deprivation, withdrawal from social circles mental breakdown period feels long.

To the films credit, it does cleverly shift your opinion of the characters from good to evil and vice versa. But it just doesn't live up to the hype. There is a lesson to be learned, probably already learned by most people who are hard to please when it comes to the horror genre. If there is a huge marketing campaign where you are hearing things like it's the scariest movie I've ever seen, most likely it won't be. The best parts of the movie are when the creators are doing less with more. The unfortunate thing is that's only in the first third of the film.