August 31, 2015

Snow On Tha Bluff

Damon Russell, 2011
One of the first thoughts that you will likely have when watching Snow and being introduced to the Curtis Snow character is “this reminds me of The Wire”. You aren’t alone. Even The Wire’s Omar Little himself, Michael Kenneth White, discovered the film and felt so connected to it that he hopped on in an executive producer role.

In a sense it’s a more raw film than the Wire. Perhaps it’s because The Wire had so much structure, with significant character build-up over the course of its five season run. Snow is completely absent of structure, a quality of the found footage genre but also because the movie is built around the premise of a drug dealer stealing a handheld camera from a group of college kids and filming his life. Because of that foundation, the movie has such a realness to it, an honesty to it. Curtis is not really a good guy in any sense. It’s very difficult to extract any real redeeming qualities from him. He’s a absent father, showing up to be a spotty father when he feels fit. When he is forced to spend time with his child, he exposes the toddler to all sorts of drugs, alcohol and firearms that no child should be in close proximity of. Actually, while we are on that, that’s probably the most disturbing element in the entire film. He also takes pride in the street violence that he was a part of. He talks about fallen friends that died in the streets as though they were soldiers that died fighting honorably. To him a short life expectancy is just a given where he comes from. He is vengeful, using guns / force as a first resort. He demonstrates leadership qualities which is why he is able to surround himself with some thugs. Probably because when he does succeed in ripping off a group of dealers, he does share the rewards. It’s another film with a rather despicable central figure that still somehow pulls you in.
The rawness and lack of structure is one of the best attributes because it is able to create a 90 minute docudrama that feels unique stylistically. But it’s also what separates it from pure quality street-crime pictures like the Mesrine films or City of God.

August 30, 2015

A Most Violent Year

JC Chandor, 2014

Chandors follow-up to 2013’s great / under-rated All is Lost is a New York Crime drama starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. The two of them are enough to get any cinephile on board. Isaac stars as Abel Morales, a successful business owner that runs a lucrative fuel-oil delivery business but has fallen victim to a lot hijackings of his vehicles. While the pressure builds for him to make changes to reduce the risk of his delivery-men in the field, he is focusing all of his energy into pooling together the funds to close on a neighboring property that would allow him to expand his operation.

The film could be considered a mild character study in the sense that you find yourself trying to get a read on Abel throughout the film. His actions are perplexing at times. He is very ego-driven, not so consumed with the money so much because he has enough of that. He seems to be another character completely focused on power, making that step to the next level. He is not very willing to let anything get in the way, even if it involves putting his employees and family at risk. His stubbornness becomes very frustrating in the story. You can feel the pressure mounting through the story while he stands back in his brown trench-coat staring at the walls thinking.

For a film to be called “A Most Violent Year” and have it be based on the most crime-filled year in the Big Apple, you would actually expect the film to be more violent. A more fitting name for the film would probably be a “A Most Non-Violent Movie”. Not that you NEED violence to fuel a film, but the rather unhurried rhythm of the film never really picks up and maintains that pace throughout the entire 125 minute running time. There isn’t a lot of chemistry between Isaac and Chastain. At times the script even feels quite weak. To the film’s credit it tries to explore some different avenues in the New York crime category by focusing on an entrepreneur rather than a group of gangsters, but it is ultimately too fruitless. Unfortunately Chandor’s followup to the great All is Lost is A Most Unmemorable film.

August 27, 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd

Thomas Vinterberg, 2015
Madding Crowd can be simply described as a love story, but it's a story that doesn't really have simple love. It gets complicated. Based on the Victorian novel written by Thomas Hardy, it's a story that is centered around young heiress Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan). Bathsheba is surprised to find herself the recipient of a large inheritance part of which is a large farm plantation.

Carrie Mulligan is a pretty good fit for the role, possessing that adorable Carey Mulligan-like charm coupled with a confident seriousness that she has shown in Drive and Steve McQueen's under-rated Shame. Bathsheba is a independent character by nature, quick to break tradition as shown early on when she admits that she's resistant to become another man's "property" and eager to get her hands dirty on her farm. While she is on the receiving end of good fortune, the men that surround her are victims of misfortune. Shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) loses his entire flock in heartbreaking fashion early in the story. Neighbor and fellow wealthy person William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) has become lonely to the point of desperation in his life. He's been able to accumulate large wealth while poor in his pursuit of lasting romance. Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) is still licking his wounds over a wedding disaster.

Vinterberg is skillful in creating a compelling adaptation of the classic novel. Mulligan is engaging in the lead but still leaves the question hanging of whether or not she is the type of actress really fit for leading roles, or better in more secondary supporting ones. The film gives you a lot of the beautiful English countryside to gaze at. Vinterberg, as he also shows us in the still under-rated and exceptional The Hunt the he loves to shoot scenes in churches. It's interesting, there are subtle similarities in style in Madding and The Hunt, even though they are completely different types of stories. Madding Crowd is a hearty film and builds up to an emotionally tense climax that will certainly leave you reflecting on the events that occurred. 


Justin Benson, 2015
Through skillful camera-work and intelligent storytelling, Spring resembles a love-child of Before Sunrise and Let the Right One In, if there ever was one. A genre-clash, it's a horror/romance film that mainly focuses on the lives of two people. Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci), a grieving drifter who impulsively decides to hop on a plane to Italy. And Louise (Nadia Hilker), a mysterious beauty who tries to capture Evan's heart quickly and doesn't want to wait until the next night for a date. Evan immediately comes off as a sympathetic figure, having to endure the final moments of his mother suffering from cancer and watching her fade off. His misfortunes mount as he gets let go from his bar-tending gig at the local dive which clearly serves as the last straw for him before he decides to get out of dodge.

Evan can probably be called the every-man in the sense that he's just a young guy willing to jump into the unknown looking for adventure. He's confident but self destructive. Aggressive but also vulnerable. The most impressive part of the film is in the sudden twist, when the entire construct of the picture radically shifts into different form. It's something that isn't done enough, and hopefully a film like this can inspire other filmmakers to make the bold jump into genre-bending. It's here when everything changes. It works really well, and if anything the film falls a little to in love with its new form and ends up running about a half hour too long. Other than that, it's a pretty engaging story between two completely different people. 

August 18, 2015

You're Next

Adam Wingard, 2011
In an age of mediocre horror films about the group of people stuck in the house with the attacker outside, You're Next fits right in without standing out a whole lot. It starts off by playing with the oh-so-common dysfunctional family dynamic and instead of doing something artful or unique with it, it just decides to keep it simple. It's guilty of relying on slasher conventions and ultimately comes off as an uninventive, wasteful affluenza story. It's dumbed down, it panders to the popcorn-gobbling horror audiences. It's a shame, because indie-lovers see mumblecore harbinger Swanberg on the screen and hope for something creative. But it's just an odd placement for Swanberg, where he is confined to playing the douchey brother consumed by bitter exchanges with his brother. To be fair, the camera work is actually quite good. The performances are just okay, acceptable and probably above-average for the genre. The story is the real destroyer. It even disappoints in the final moments of the film, where the credits could roll right after a phone pickup, and instead of doing that the story drags on for another ten minutes. Movies like this almost feel like a group of twenty-somethings found a bag of unique masks in a flea market somewhere and decided to make a horror movie. If this movie gives you anything to walk away with, it's a reoccurring song that will be stuck in your head for hours.

These Final Hours

Zak Hilditch, 2015
Having an apocalyptic film set in the land down under feels immediately different. Dealing with the already rough and rugged country that is the continent of Australia, then letting all hell loose adds a different dynamic to the typical sense of sheer panic that we see in the American apocalyptic genre.

Bad guy but deep down good guy James (Nathan Phillips)  rescues young girl Rose (Angourie Rice) from a couple of psychopaths who have taken her prisoner. This is all while guys are running around with axes killing people, while others are looting and others are hiding out in the darkness. Complete insanity. The clock is ticking, where in a short period of time the world will presumably be over. Early on the specifics of the impeding doom are vague, but the inevitable is pieced together for you over the course of the film.

Final Hours is really a story about human morality, what's important in the final hours of your life. Is it about spending the final few hours with the people who want you there? Is it about spending the final hours with the woman you love? Or is it about doing the right thing, what's right in the eyes of universal judgement. Of course all of this depends on what you believe might happen after you die. James doesn't necessarily seem to believe that there is any kind of afterlife, let alone a heaven that is going to open it's doors for him because he has saved a young girl's life. In fact, the world that is about to burn seems like a world quite absent of spiritual divinity. When James arrives at Freddy's countdown party, it's a modern day Sodom and Gommorah showcase of sinful behavior. Sex, drugs, death. Watching that scene triggers an inner philosophical dialogue too. Is what they are doing really that wrong? They are attempting to enjoy the final moments of their lives.

This film gets you thinking, in a moral sense sort of like how Deep Impact made you think. What would you do? How would you react? Nobody really knows. You don't really know until it happens, and you see what your circumstances are. These Final Hours are really a single man's circumstances laid out before him.

The Skeleton Twins

Craig Johnson, 2014
Any fan of the Wiig/Hader era of Saturday Night Live probably has an open mind when it comes to cinematic projects that they collaborate in. Some would argue it was the best SNL cast ever. A controversial opinion, one that I actually agree with. They have boldly left the comfort-zone of SNL in search of success in the movie world. It's worked out really well particularly for Wiig who has had commercial success with Bridesmaids but to her credit has taken risks with independent roles that clearly test her range in films like Girl Most Likely and 2013's Hateship Loveship. They are both undoubted balls of talent, and when working together one assumes that they have a level of comfort with each other that will show on the screen. That's certainly the case here, as the duo plays brother and sister who reconnect under not-so-great circumstances after spending many years not having contact with each other.

The most surprising element of the film which comes quite immediately is the dark tone of the story. It's not something that you would expect the two to be involved in, a story of suicide, loneliness, adultery. You realize very quickly that it's a black comedy in it's purest form. The laughs are there, but they are layered. But the film is rooted in good performances by the two and good writing. In a sense Skeleton is the the portrait of the modern American life. A disconnect between two siblings because of all of that life stuff, the baggage and avoidance. Depression, the self-consuming mother, marital distractions, homosexual frustrations, hypocrisy. It's all there, and although it's not an easy swallow, it's still an interesting film.