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"Hell & Back" poses a sharp contrast in quality between the wealth of
its talented voice cast and the sheer pedestrian mediocrity of its
screenplay. It's amazing that a barrage of talented and proved comics
from the likes of T.J. Miller, Mila Kunis, Bob Odenkirk, and J.B.
Smoove, would subject themselves to something so bland and ugly. From
its choppy stop-motion style of animation, its lack of real creativity
in its jokes, and its miserable color palette, there is a striking
joylessness present in "Hell & Back" that is only highlighted by the
film's lackluster writing.
The story opens in a failing theme-park, largely run by slacker employees Remy (voiced by Nick Swardson), Augie (T.J. Miller), and Curt (Rob Riggle). When Curt borrows a mint from Remy, taking a blood oath to pay him back before reneging on his promise shortly after, the three are sucked into a vortex that takes them to Hell, where they are seen as "mortals" awaiting sacrifice. While Curt is the only one who is set to be sacrificed, for breaking a blood oath, Remy and Augie are also planned to be executed simply because of their presence in Hell as mortals. As a result, they team up with a demon named Deema (Mila Kunis), who is searching for Orpheus, a famous spirit who is said to have saved countless mortals who's souls were doomed to perish in Hell in time before the Devil (Bob Odenkirk) decides to sacrifice the three men.
Despite the high stakes, the film feels like a constant array of tired stoner jokes written by a gang of adolescents that still find using at least two curse words in every sentence is hilarious. Admittedly, however, the film did get some laughs out of me when the small-scale, background jokes took over. Consider the scenes that involve the demons of Hell tempting the souls by having a Taco Bell/Pizza Hut counter. When one of the souls requests a pepperoni pizza, the demon informs him that they only have the Pizza Hut sign up as decoration and they are only a Taco Bell. "Welcome to Hell," the demon says whilst giggling, upon informing the poor soul. This happens a couple of other times in the film and works because of how simply outlandish and ridiculous the scene plays out, in addition to a few scenes of demons looking up the sins of the souls to see what constitutes their presence in Hell.
These scenes are few and far between, however, as the bulk of the film has Remy and Augie bumbling on to random setpieces in Hell, witnessing some crass display of juvenile gags all captured in some of the most visually ugly scenery I've seen all year. With all the lame jokes occurring and the setting feeling so dim and dingy, there's simply very little positivity in this film to keep an upbeat frame of mine. Comedies set in underworlds or places of little hope obviously have difficultly meriting this constant stream of upbeat humor in contrast to the setting, but when both elements fall apart here, "Hell & Back" doesn't have a leg to stand on, frankly.
Finally, there's a real cheapness to the animation here. The stop-motion animation is evidently rushed, as characters, especially when walking or moving very quickly, show a peculiar jerkiness to their motions that indicates that figures' poses were shifted too quickly, and thus, don't appear fluid. This doesn't occur frequently, but when it does, it makes the whole film seem off balance, and, much like the writing, poorly conceived.
I remember hearing of "Hell & Back" earlier in the year and thought it would be something of a box office surprise; we rarely get adult animated films, and if we do, they are usually so obsessed with the idea of being vulgar and animated ("Cheech and Chong's Animated Movie" and "Jay and Silent Bob's Super Groovy Cartoon Movie" to name a few) that they wind up being throwaway projects of little merit. I felt that the talented cast of this particular film would crush that stereotype and lift it up to certain quality. Unfortunately, with the startlingly silent marketing for the film and the quiet release, "Hell & Back" will likely join other contemporaries as an experiment that failed largely because of its worst tendencies.
Ridley Scott's new film "The Martian" does not mess around with buildup
or anything in the way of expository drama; it gets right to the point
and recognizes why you came to see it. It opens with Ares III, NASA's
manned mission to Mars, experiencing a treacherous storm upon arriving
on the red planet. Debris is flying and visibility is next to nothing,
and before the astronauts (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, and Kate
Mara) can take off, fellow astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck
by a flying antenna and presumed killed. The group takes off with the
notion that Watney is dead.
Following NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) making the announcement of Watney's death, we see that Watney is indeed very much alive on Mars, albeit slightly handicapped after being impaled in the stomach by the antenna. Watney now has to essentially operate on a field of landmines whilst acting as a scientist MacGyver to try and sustain life on Mars, a place where presumably nothing grows and anything can go wrong at any time. In addition to monitoring water reclamation, oxygen, and atmospheric levels, he winds up growing an array of potatoes with the help of the feces of him and his crew and makes a small home for himself. It will over four years for another manned mission to rescue him, but NASA headquarters, comprised of Sanders and assistants like Vincent (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Annie (Kristen Wiig), is determined to bring him back home in a timely fashion.
Headquarters is also struggling with the idea of telling the surviving members of the Ares III mission that Watney is alive, which ignites a fiery ethical side to the film's story. With that, "The Martian" is essentially a gigantic teamwork exercise where everyone feels human, which is a pleasant attribute for Scott, whose recent films have really lacked in the filmmaking craft and humanization elements. Scott's visual effects and grandscale directing usually never fail, but when these become the focus and human characters and the little touches (the science, the cause-and-effect relationships, and the narrative interest) become secondary or gravely shortchanged, then there's a real issue with his films on a macro level.
"The Martian," even with its nearly two and a half hour runtime, remains consistently interesting because it's a generally optimistic film, surprisingly enough. Watney is a wisecracker a lot of the time, even in the face of certain doom, and seeing NASA's constant efforts to bring him home show a certain diligence on their behalf (though I take every Hollywood film based on true events with a grain of salt) works to make this film surprisingly hopeful. Then there's the roundtable of rich performances here; aside from Damon, who does solid work being the only actor on-screen in his scenes for his sheer honesty mixed with vulnerability, Daniels and Ejiofor work off of each other incredibly well together here.
Consider the scene following Ares III's escape from Mars during the storm, when Watney is still presumed dead; the two consult one another about what to do with Watney's remains whilst subsequently trying to find a way to turn it into a more positive, caring PR display by sending another mission out to recover his corpse. This is a perfect scene in the way that it shows the way corporations and organizations balance humanity while considering their bottom-line, and who better to play figures in those pivotal positions of power than Daniels, who's work on "The Newsroom" has gone on to be acclaimed, and Ejiofor, who, much like David Oyelowo, will likely win an Oscar in the next ten years.
Aside from a reliance on montages instead of actual exposition, "The Martian"'s biggest problem as a film is the fact that we simply do not get enough time with Watney alone. The audience can never get a strong grasp on a relationship with this character simply because we're never allotted enough one-on-one time without the intrusion of mission control. We needed more scenes with Watney ostensibly helpless, trying to farm, or simply trying to get by on what little he has to surround himself and the film doesn't do that.
"The Martian" also makes fairly strong use of its 3D elements, using it as a tool of immersion rather than a gimmick that works to add a surcharge to already high movie ticket prices. Consider the storm scene, which completely floods the screen with indiscernible debris and disarray; the scene is only emphasized with the benefit of 3D and makes the experience that much more horrifying, being that, like the characters, we can barely see a thing.
Above all, this is a film destined to please a crowd; in addition, it also keeps its pathos down considerably, doesn't do a whole lot of pandering to a crowd anxious to see action, and never loses sight of its deeply human and remarkable story. It also reaffirms the value of logical problem-solving in the face of a truly unexpected, and granted unprecedented, time of tumultuous uncertainty. It's a low-key triumph made on a nine figure budget.
Land Ho! is an endearing comedy-drama, marketed to the pensioners/AARP
crowd, which normally gets left out of the Hollywood/mainstream buzz.
It emerges following a very similar film, The Best Exotic Marigold
Hotel, which, in a way, proved to American audiences that you can make
a film involving elderly people that isn't so fixated or concerned with
imminent death. That film gave life to the senior citizens crowd,
invigorating audiences with the idea that just because you're a senior
citizen doesn't mean, in turn, you must stop living life. As common
sense of a statement as that seems to be, I feel many people have
forgotten that and feel something of an obligation, or perhaps a lack
of desire, to refuse to live their elder years past three meals a day,
the newspaper, and excessive quiet-time.
The film revolves around ex-brother-in-laws Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) and Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson), who reunite after years of lost contact to spend some time reclaiming their youth by visiting Reykjavík nightclubs and taverns. The two geezers are polar opposites, as you'd expect, with Colin being very mild-mannered and reserved and Mitch being quick to tell you what body part of a woman he'd make use of the most. The two spend much of their travels inciting aimless conversations about women and sex, eventually picking up two women and going drinking with them one night, along with trying to leave the ills of the past as someone else's responsibility. They weren't necessarily responsible for the demise of the marriage, and they simply want to enjoy some element of adventure and companionship before their inevitable fate.
This kind of life-affirming cinema for elderly people is a beautiful and honest way to paint the picture for people that glory days aren't always the days of your youth. Colin and Mitch engage in some activities I'm sure no one expected them to, and while they weren't the youngest at the nightclubs, or the souls with the quickest wit on the street, they still no less had a pleasant time with one another and found more happiness in that moment than if they would've spent it alone.
Land Ho! is a relatively low-stakes film and it operates on a very safe playing field. Much of it is predicated off of these aforementioned conversations that feel like talk of momentarily horny old men who haven't had sex since the last solar eclipse. It's meditative and humble style of filmmaking, in addition to the frequently beautiful photography of the Iceland region, is reminiscent of David Gordon Green, which makes it no surprise that he appears as one of the film's producers. In addition, the way cinematographer Andrew Reed decides to capture Iceland, through beautiful, wide-angle shots sets to melodic tunes of yesteryear, makes Land Ho! is a decidedly peaceful movie-going experience, even with all the camaraderie occurring.
With that, the writing/directing team of Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz craft a film that works because of how real it feels, although it misses the opportunity to have the two characters engage in more heartfelt discussions about topics of a little more sustenance. However, its evasion of that is also part of its charm. This is a film about embracing one's willingness to continue celebrating life even when society says that you should simply sit down and live your life in solitude. By going out, drinking, smoking, and engaging in their own adventures, the characters of Colin and Mitch beautifully rebel against societal conventions and their own eccentric personalities make for a slight, well-made little doodle of a film.
Starring: Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson. Directed by: Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz.
Ben Whitaker (Robert De Niro) is a retired man in his seventies,
working for a phonebook company for decades and as a marketer for a
larger firm. His talents and old-fashioned state of mind kept him
employed for many years, and though he has found retirement relaxing
and mentally freeing, he is still antsy in his every day life. He wants
to do something big, but can't figure out what that something should
He decides to apply on a whim for a senior internship program at About the Fit, an e-commerce fashion company run by Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). Upon getting the job, he accepts a position as the intern for Jules, even though she states that she will have little for him to do. As a result, Ben begins helping around the office and eventually catches the eye of Jules, who notices his outgoing, selfless personality, his gentlemanly ways, and his talents as an everyman. With that, Jules begins using him as her driver and an assistant scheduler, but despite this, Jules is juggling an immense amount of responsibilities. Her company has hit its five-year-growth-plan in a matter of nine months, and even with a staff of two-hundred and twenty people, they are struggling to keep up with orders and hold on to this exponential productivity and growth. Jules, who is also a wife and mother of a young girl, is told by one of her assistant mangers that they are thinking of bringing in a CEO to help Jules make managerial decisions and run the company, something she fears will rob her company of its core ideology and grassroots plan. Stressed and out of options, Jules utilizes Ben's versatile traits to help her in a time of need, and the two strike an amiable chemistry.
Nancy Meyers's "The Intern" ranks up alongside Noah Baumbach's "While We're Young" for one of the year's strongest comedy-dramas, and it's interesting to note how both films pose telling insights as they portray the post-World War II/baby boomer crowd clashing with the millennial generation. Ben's choice to dress dapper, even for a casual job, in addition to his age-old wisdom are thing that startles the youngbloods who work at About the Fit, and even his ideas throw the young crowd for a loop. His refreshing honesty and common sense approaches to conflicts are something a generation raised on the impersonal communication devices of email and Twitter find so preposterous that they're brilliant. Instead of portraying the newer generation as stupid and incompetent, writer/directress Meyers shows them as people victim to convenience instead of directness.
With that, the thoughtful, sociological examination of men and women here is something I didn't expect with this film. Consider the scene in a bar, which has been shortened to the scene of Jules questioning her employees about how, in the span of one generation, men have gone from guys like Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford to "boys," as she puts it, in the trailer. I found the scene trivial and grating in the trailer, because the same argument could be made for women in a different light, but upon seeing the entire film, or the entire scene for that matter, Jules brings up an interesting observation about men and women in the current generation.
Jules states how women have been nurtured and taught (not coddled) to be empowered and determined to strive above society's gender roles, which is why you see women starting companies, becoming the breadwinners, and proving they are more than submissive housewives. In the process, she asserts, men have lost the kind of individualist determination of fitting into the box of masculinity, which is why you are seeing more men do things like playing video games and accepting less laborious forms of work. They were the ones previously schooled to believe in hard work and leadership, but seeing that role shifted has allegedly created a new contrast. Agree or disagree, or contemplate it, as I have been, this is a profoundly big concept for mainstream Hollywood film to make and this idea is carried through the film in a way that's not condescending, but enlightening.
Even take it a step back and look at Robert De Niro, an actor who was said to have lost his way in the early 2000's with easier, less compelling roles, only to rise and accept a whole new breed of roles in films like "Silver Linings Playbook." Now look at Anne Hathaway, a rising star in the 2000's who subsequently found a way to fade from the public eye, perhaps showing the contrasting longevity of an actress to an actor. It goes without saying that their performances and chemistry here is simply remarkable, as Meyers predicates it off emotionally honest conversations.
Finally, Meyers structures the film in a way that has its focus shift from being very broad to very specific by the latter half of the narrative. In the beginning, we see the grandscale setting of the About the Fit office and all its employees, before slowly but surely settling into focus on the two lead actors in a seamless manner. This smooth concentration allows for a nice narrative shift that doesn't make for jarring unevenness and it's something that editor Robert Leighton will get far less credit for than he deserves.
"The Intern" is a pleasant surprise for a drama, as many dramas boasting big actors fail to impress and audiences are left with the optimism that independent films will pick up their slack. It's truly amazing to see a mainstream film tackle so much in the way of the generation gap, sociological commentary, and strong narrative structure in a film as unassuming as this. Minimize the level of outrageous situational humor (which, despite being a bit strangely placed - the scene with the email specifically - does indeed work) and this film could easily something Alexander Payne would make.
Edward Zwick's "Pawn Sacrifice" concerns American grandmaster Bobby
Fischer (Tobey Maguire), a man who sky-rocketed from a humble chess
prodigy in Brooklyn to a globally recognized name. Bobby grew up
modestly, but was constantly burdened by nobody other than himself. He
had a very low tolerance for loud noises and persistent distractions;
all he wanted to do was to play chess in peace and, in turn, be the
best player in the entire world. Ironically, what he got was deafening
noise and an audience of the entire world.
After making the rounds as one of the youngest up-and-comers of the American chess world, Bobby voices his desire to beat all the chess greats in the Soviet Union in the 1970's. To earn the title of the world grandmaster, Bobby would have to beat the Soviet's greatest player, Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), in the 1972 World Chess Competition. Bobby makes clear that he is not a political man; he simply wants to win and to accept all the glory that comes with being the greatest chess player of all time.
The problem is that Bobby, who already seems to be teetering on the very edge of a mental breakdown every two minutes, spends more time practicing - going as far as to practice with one of his coaches by having a verbal game of chess - than trying to cope with his mental illness. At one point in the film, Bobby is said to be suffering from a form of paranoid schizophrenia, which makes sense seeing as how, during scenes of stress or extreme concentration, Bobby begins embellishing every little background noise (a flickering camera, the tapping of a pencil's eraser, lips smacking, etc) as if it were loud music at a house party. During these scenes, Zwick smothers us with these sounds as if we're Bobby, victim to hearing every noise as if it were right next to our ears. These particular scenes feel very authentic and do something cinema rarely does, which is attempt to make us feel how our protagonist does in the present.
With that, Maguire gives his best performance since "Brothers" in a role that challenges him in a similar manner. In "Brothers," Maguire played a war-torn veteran suffering from post-traumatic-stress-disorder and, upon returning home, encountered an entirely new battle with his wife. His performance in that film was incredibly strong, especially the last twenty minutes, where Maguire displayed some of the most violent and unbelievably convincing acting of his career. Here, his Bobby Fischer character is burdened with the same albatross; he suffers from something he has no control over that slowly eats at him until he is entirely unable to focus. His illness handicaps him throughout his quest to defeat the Soviet chess players, and when we see how badly Bobby wants to win, in spite of himself, there is an extra layer of sadness to his struggle.
The problem with "Pawn Sacrifice" is it feels a bit too much like a film stuck on fast-forward. Zwick, writer Steven Knight, and editor Steven Rosenblum conduct the film with a great deal of montages, especially during the chess games, that creates an appalling lack of investment and suspense. It seems to be a sign of insecurity over the material, as if the audience that was already attracted to the material would grow bored over watching a simple chess game. The concern is logical, but when we see how Zwick handles the more crucial games we get to see Bobby play in certain detail, it's only perplexing to wonder why Zwick decided to confine most of the game to a montage. The result, when we do get to see the cause-and-effect relationship with the players and their pieces, even if we know nothing about chess, is surprisingly gripping and naturally suspenseful, something I didn't see happening.
Unfortunately, too, we also don't get much development on the Soviet players, and for how great Spassky is said to be, and how assured and commendable Liev Schreiber has been as an actor over the last few years, it's almost criminal that we do not see him nor his character shine at any point in the film. Much like Bobby's other opponents, they are cold shells that walk around in dapper clothing and with an unfazed smug on their faces.
"Pawn Sacrifice" can be a great many things; sometimes an engulfing thriller about dealing with one's self, a suspenseful sports film, and a nicely edited and acted biopic, it sadly suffers from a presumable lack of confidence with its source material, in addition to a lack of development. It's a film to watch, digest, and to try not to forget on bigger terms than just its singularly strong performance what with the multitude of great film surely upon us in coming months.
In September 2014, our theaters and favorite video-on-demand platforms
were supposed to be graced by Eli Roth's heavily hyped cannibal film
"The Green Inferno." The film was said to be an homage to the
genre-classic "Cannibal Holocaust," guided by the same man who brought
us the bloodbath "Cabin Fever" and the torture porn-pioneer "Hostel."
Everything was set to go until weeks before the cross-platform release,
the production company Worldview Entertainment, a company that has
produced everything from "Birdman" to "The Sacrament," reported
financial difficulties and had Open Road Films pull the plug on the
release date and delay the project's release indefinitely. This put the
fate of the film and its planned sequel in a bout of uncertainty, with
no clear plan of when or if the film would ever see the light of day.
What I fully expected to happen with "The Green Inferno" was the unfortunate circumstance that has happened to a lot of films that get delayed indefinitely; they receive a low-key release directly to DVD or video-on-demand to little buzz and, regardless of quality, come and go with barely a whimper. However, when I saw an muscled ad campaign for the film over the summer, including various trailers in the theater, TV spots, and billboards, I was quite proud. Let the marketing guys and production companies for "Green Inferno" be commended for not letting a project simply die when the future seemed grim; this is how you promote a film that looked to be down and out.
With that, "The Green Inferno" is a nasty, downright sick film, heavily reminiscent of the 1970's Italian gorefests that found their ways into seamy grindhouse theaters and drive-ins. It's such a bleak and uncommonly gory picture that the way it demands your attention is almost narcissistic. As wretched as it was, as bloodsoaked as it got, and as downright horrifying as it progressed, I simply couldn't shake the entire experience and probably won't for the remainder of the weekend.
The film concerns a group of college activists, led by the bossy Alejandro (Ariel Levy), who travel from New York City to the Amazon to save a native tribe that is rapidly growing extinct. They plan to attack a construction company looking to bulldoze over the natives' land by assembling a protest before everyone on social media, launching their organization's popularity and message virally. Justine (Lorenza Izzo) gets wind of this plan and impulsively decides to attend. When the group is traveling over the Amazon, their small plane crashes and plunges deep into a jungle, populated by violent, cannibalistic natives that take them hostage in their small village.
A film like this can't entirely rely on the violence of the cannibals to carry itself, which is why it's nice to see Eli Roth and Guillermo Amoedo pen some characters that are equal parts amusing and satirical. Roth and Amoedo more-or-less make these characters thinly draw caricatures of your run-of-the-mill, liberal collegiates that think their presence alone, protesting actions that they think are morally wrong, will change the actions of corporations, natives, and a million dollar operation. The two poke fun at this notion by making these characters wise, but cutely naive, at one moment speaking about their willingness to do good, and another moment, having one character proclaim she will make her next tattoo a new animal she discovers. The result is a genial nudge-in-the-hip to those who feel that everyone in the world would be better off if they just followed their own set of rules.
The characters here, with the exception of one, are all likable in their own way. We have Aaron Burns' well-meaning, affable Jonah character, who tries to relax Justine when a situation goes awry and even Daryl Sabara of "Spy Kids" fame playing a goofy stoner, who's problems start and end at where to score potent Peruvian marijuana.
The real attraction, however, is the gore, and there's plenty of it, so much so that I feel people who have grown accustomed to largely bloodless paranormal affairs will wince and grow nauseous at the liberal display of blood here. This is a brutally violent film, capitalizing off of the ability to go from calm to immediately bloody (consider the scene when a certain character's fate is finally revealed and how another character responds to it) in the same twenty seconds. This makes "The Green Inferno" incredibly unsettling and suspenseful, as it relies on these momentary instances that could completely alter a characters' fate as a method of grabbing you in and taking you for a ride.
Admittedly, "The Green Inferno" is marketed as a bloodbath, and on that note, it does what it sets out to accomplish; it's a nasty, unrelenting piece of horror, made to make you squirm and uncomfortable at nearly every turn. All things considered, it holds up and makes for a great piece of late-night entertainment; Eli Roth throws caution to the wind here and makes one of the goriest mainstream American films since the remake of "Evil Dead," and, surprisingly enough, succeeds at making this film interesting on more levels than just the bloodshed.
The year of 1984 was a huge year for Christy Canyon, starring in
several low-budget adult pictures and making a name for herself through
ubiquity and dashing looks. Christy Canyon had the charisma and
appearance of the girl next door, big-breasted, unbelievably perky,
boasting curly brown hair and a cheerleader look that only made her a
winning hit with any porn fan. Her sex scenes were pleasantly explicit
(not filthy) and her acting talents seemed to evolve with each project.
The same year as Kissin' Cousins was released, Canyon starred in the
funny and entertaining On Golden Blonde.
Needless to say, despite Canyon's presence, the pictures surrounding her didn't always occupy the same level of talent and Kissin' Cousins proves to be another adult film that unsurprisingly got lost in the shuffle. There's nothing truly distinctive about this film, as it bears the scuzzy videography typical for the era (and to add to the naturally cheap aesthetic, even the DVD version of the film includes the classic, fuzzy VHS lines, showing evidence of being a copy of a copy), the lack of a coherent storyline, showing evident distancing from The Golden Age of Porn, and a supremely tame look at the topic of incest, especially judging from the time period when this was made.
The film revolves around one big family moving into a beachhouse amidst an unfortunate divorce, leading to numerous cousins (including the likes of Canyon, Scott Irish, Tony Martino, Misty Regan, and Summer Rose) to experiment with one another in a variety of different ways (positions). What should be an innocuous family vacation quickly descends into a nasty amalgamation of hormones coming together to create a wild summer orgy amongst cousins.
By the mid-1980's, the taboo of incest had been played out with the installments of Kirby Stevens' Taboo franchise alone, meaning that if another series or film wanted to tackle the subject, they were going to need to go beyond the unmatched arousal of having Kay Parker play a lonely, single mother begging for fulfillment in order to even be compared to the likes of the 1980 masterpiece. Sadly, Kissin' Cousins cops out at familiar positions and indifferent, sometimes indistinct directing, with Dena giving the impression that she doesn't always know where to point the camera to get the best shot (one ordinary missionary scene turns into an off-kilter shot of the woman grinding on the male in a way that makes the camera shake and feel simply out of place).
Kissin' Cousins isn't all bad, though, for it covers the basics of what a pornographic film needs to be entertaining, thanks largely in part to Canyon and Rose's chemistry and Herschel Savage's always welcomed humor. An arousing threesome in addition to some marginally passable setups make this film a bit more memorable than it should've been, and thanks in part to being one of Canyon's early efforts, this one earns a place at least as a footnote at the bottom of a page in the unwritten compendium of classic porn.
Starring: Christy Canyon, Summer Rose, Misty Regan, Herschel Savage, Scott Irish, Tony Martino, and Heather Wayne. Directed by: Dena.
"Every f---ing day of my life," Wendy Maldonado told the 911 dispatcher
when the woman asked how often did her husband hit or abused her. This
call came almost immediately after Maldonado bludgeoned her husband
Aaron's skull in with a hammer, aided by her seventeen-year-old son
Randy, before his bloody carcass was picked up and transported to a
hospital and Wendy taken away in handcuffs. Her murdering her husband,
while costing her ten years in prison, was a release of twenty years of
unconscionable, unforgivable violence and abuse that was not an
irregular or infrequent occurrence, but an every day tribulation for
the middle-aged mother of three boys. Every F---ing Day of My Life, the
edited and re-cut version of a film called One Minute to Nine, aired on
HBO in 2009 and told the story that was so often silenced in the wake
of beatings and inconceivable torture.
Upon Wendy and Randy's arrest and subsequent acceptance of a plea bargain on manslaughter charges, with Randy arrested a week after Aaron's death, both souls were given four days before their sentencing hearing. Those four days are the focus of Tommy Davis's documentary, which is a collection of home movies revolving around what life was like in their Grants Pass, Oregon home. Wendy, who looks like any other woman you'd see in the supermarket or living on your block, details twenty years worth of trauma in just sixty minutes, showing us the grapefruit-sized holes in her walls, now concealed by drawings from her children, that were made by her head, bruises and cuts that were inflicted by her husband, and a wealth of broomsticks, knives, and flyswatters that were boxed away in the basement, out of reach from an unpredictably violent man of ostensibly no conscience.
Randy speaks on the incident through a phone in the jailhouse, behind a thick sheet of bulletproof glass. He states that he was ready to murder his father when his mother voiced her desire, which came only minutes before the bloody death. He states how he can recall several nights sleeping with his shoes on, atop his covers, not underneath them, waiting for something to happen that needed his immediate action. He even recalls him and his two younger brothers forced to sit on the couch as they watched their father kick, beat, and terrorize their mother, a reaction I couldn't even begin to fathom watching passively unfold, even as a young child.
A recurring moral of the documentary is the instillation of fear and helplessness. What made Wendy endure twenty years of abuse before finally acting, albeit in an extreme manner? She states that she could've ended it all ten years ago or even put up with it for another decade, but some impulsive instinct forced her to act and, in turn, bash her husband's brains in with a hammer one faithful evening, with the assistance of her older son. The act is recounted in horrifying detail, with gruesome crime scenes to boot, with both Randy and Wendy remarking how they saw Aaron hyperventilating and struggling to maintain irregular breathing after being struck so many times. When Wendy was being taken away by the police, she feared that her husband was still alive and that this incident would most definitely lead to a beating that she wouldn't survive. Sure enough, a coroner arrived and Aaron was pronounced dead soon after, an irreparable result to a drastic action that ended two decades worth of unjustifiable domestic violence.
Most films show domestic violence as momentary spouts of violence, often impulsive and quickly apologized for, even in the most sinister dramas. Here's a documentary that holds the issue up to a magnifying glass, forcing the viewer to reap at the ugliness and unfathomable cruelty of the situation. I'm reminded heavily of Frederick Wiseman's lengthy documentary Domestic Violence, which concerned a battered women's shelter in Florida, the victims, and the treatments the women underwent in order to try and better themselves. Here's a documentary that zeroes in on perhaps a unique situation; a neverending display of brutal violence towards an innocence person that was tolerated for twenty years before something was done.
However, at the end of the day, Wendy Maldonado and her son Randy are still killers, guilty of homicide, regardless of what the victim did to them or for how long he did what he did. Randy was eventually sentenced to six years with a release date set for August 2011, while Maldonado would serve ten years with a projected release date in March 2016. Upon being released from jail, I guarantee it will be the most liberating moment for Maldonado, if said moment hasn't already occurred.
Every F---ing Day of My Life is one of the most frightening documentaries I have yet to see. It's a film that reminds many of us that we don't know domestic violence outside of films, news articles, and soap operas, and shows the real physical and psychological ugliness that burdens these situations. I end with the simple, but imperative statement for all to simply respect and cherish the people in your lives because nobody deserves to go through this kind of insufferable pain.
NOTE: The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233; you know who you are.
Directed by: Tommy Harris.
Kirby Dick's latest documentary, The Hunting Ground, is destined to be
one of the most important documentaries of the year; I'd be seriously
surprised if a Best Documentary Feature nomination at next year's Oscar
wasn't all but confirmed at this point. Continuing off of Dick's last
film, The Invisible War, which looked intimately at the military's long
list of sexual assault cases, The Hunting Ground turns the camera just
a little bit to in the other direction to focus on the rape epidemic on
America's college campuses.
Before I could even set foot on campus last year, at my private liberal arts school, for my first year of college, I was required to take an online course in sexual conduct and sexual violence. The entire course took roughly an hour and a half (and, no, you couldn't skip through the videos and, yes, you were pervasively quizzed), and even to this day, it's rare I walk around campus for a full day and don't hear something about a campaign to raise awareness about sexual violence or how my college boasts a zero tolerance policy. I have no doubt it still occurs, but as far as I've seen from my school, I think we've got it handled a lot better than many other schools (also because we're not so concerned about our athletics empire, being a school with a Division III football team).
Dick explores how many top tier schools, such as Harvard Law School, Yale, University of North Carolina, Duke, and others have had well over one-hundred cases of sexual assault reported in the span of a decade, but how just about less than two percent (sometimes none) get any form of punishment, be it suspension or expulsion. We learn from clinical psychologists, attorneys, and other professionals that colleges, in order to protect their brand because they are, indeed, selling a product, have made it gravely difficult for sexual assault victims to make their case heard. Colleges also discourage victims from going to law enforcement with their cases, for that increases the chances of the public learning about the assault, which can't be risked in order for the school to protect their brand.
Between a rock and a hard place, with nobody taking them seriously and school administrators asking them morally bankrupt questions like, "how many times did you say 'no?'," "how much did you have to drink?," and even one administrator equating rape to a football game, asking the victim "what would you have done differently?," Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, two rape victims from University of North Carolina, decided to fire back and seek justice. They wound up filing a Title IX complaint against their school, working around the clock by reading court cases, examining past Title IX lawsuits, accusing them of perpetuating an unsafe environment by letting the rapists walk free without any kind of punishment whatsoever. Pino and Clark even wound up taking their movement across the United States, forming an online support group for victims, unifying those who had not only been exploited but unsupported by schools that were allowing this to happen.
One of The Hunting Ground's biggest accomplishments as a film is the fact that it works to expose the great lie and deception of college fraternities. Fraternities, for decades, have been nothing other than a haven for raping, hazing, drugging, and horrible mistreatment of women. Consider Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), one of America's largest domestic fraternities, which is known as "Sexual Assault Expected" by numerous people on university campuses; also consider the fact that this is the same fraternity that, during welcome week, displayed lovely banners on their front lawns thanking parents for dropping off their daughters and informing them that they would teach them things that high school couldn't. These places have been cult-like hellholes for many years and Dick and Ziering don't sugarcoat the vile and disgusting behavior that runs rampant at these places.
The Hunting Ground doesn't stop there either; it works to be an all-encompassing documentary by including male victims of sexual assault, as well as showing how athletes that commit sexual assault are the ones that most frequently come out unscathed. We are acquainted with Erica Kinsman, who you may remember as the Tallahassee college student that came forth saying that Florida State Seminoles star freshman Quarterback Jameis Winston had raped her at a party. Despite going to the administration shortly after it happened, Kinsman found her case lying dormant for far too long, until it finally appeared in the headlines right as Jameis Winston was questionably going to go the NFL and almost a lock to win the Heisman Trophy as a freshman, making it appear that she simply wanted to smear his name. We see the exhaustive process of Winston and the Florida State administration denying comment and failing to come thru during hearings, resulting in a dizzying legal battle that eventually amounted to, you guessed it, nothing.
This is another seriously commendable documentary by Kirby Dick, who's camera always seems to go where few or no cameras are at the present time. He's one of documentary's greatest muckrakers now, making documentaries on the epidemic of sexual assault in places where it's far too easy to cover it up, in addition to other problematic industries like the film ratings board and the Catholic Church. The Hunting Ground is a terrific documentary because, not only does it shed light on this important issue, but it explores the hypocrisy in which colleges handle the issue, drowning out negativity by asserting that schools take this matter "very seriously," in addition to exploring the problem from a variety of different angles. Where it could cop out and focus solely on emotions and emotional manipulation, it forces you to learn, confront, and at the end of it all, make an attempt to act.
Like Sunday, Like Rain, at first, focuses on the lives of two separate
individuals in Brooklyn, one of whom, a twentysomething woman named
Eleanor (Leighton Meester) who breaks up with her obnoxious, rock-star
boyfriend (Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong) and moves in with her
friend, and the other, a cynical, twelve-year-old prodigy named Reggie
(Julian Shatkin), who, despite so young and full of talents, is
skeptical of all aspects of life. Their paths cross when Eleanor's
boyfriend costs her the only job she's ostensibly ever held down, a
barista position at a local coffee shop, leading her to accept a job
babysitting Reggie while his mother is out of town.
Reggie is about as cynical as a sixty-five-year-old war veteran is about the current state of America and that's putting it mildly. Still largely treated like a child by his own mother and only finding temporary companionship in his maid, Reggie spends his days in his castle-of-a-home playing the cello, composing, or simply indulging in his own thoughts, all things he taught himself how to do. Reggie's misery doesn't stem from any one certain circumstance; he's adopted cynicism as the religion of his life, remaining skeptical of most people he meets in addition to writing things off immediately without trying anything new.
Eleanor is the first soul in a long time to really resonate with him, mainly because she finds him interesting despite all the bottled up frustration he holds inside. Thankfully, Eleanor has the privilege of being played by Leighton Meester, a lovely and often overshadowed young actress in the face of similar actresses like Brie Larson and Rosemarie DeWitt. Meester's strengths here largely stem from her ability to be a natural screen presence, never asserting her character in a dramatic light, and Shatkin - in one of his first film roles - has the exquisite ability to perform long, sometimes complicated, monologues about his opinions that would even make a seasoned performer stumble over their words.
The film was written and directed by Frank Whaley, a solid character actor and an even better director; this is his first film since the unseen and unfairly bashed New York City Serenade in 2007. This particular effort seems to catch Whaley in a more contemplative mood, one that features the complications and insights of the world being defined by a prepubescent teenager that feels he has figured the world out. With that in mind, one can tell this is less a realistic film and more a "what if?" kind of film. Reggie doesn't speak nor act like any twelve-year-old I believe to exist (maybe sixteen-year-old, but not a twelve-year-old), and it's hard to believe these kind of profound bouts of cynicism in life would begin earlier than high school or college.
Yet, Whaley himself might even recognize that Reggie's cynicism is a bit premature for his age, and with that, might want us to focus more on the chemistry or the smooth flow of the dialog in the film. Consider the scene where Eleanor and Reggie lie on the grass, with Reggie doing something he probably doesn't do with people too often and that's open up about his true feelings towards Eleanor on a friend level. Whaley makes it so these scenes of chemistry and a young man coming to terms with how his attitude polarizes people make it so that the lack of dialog-realism doesn't become such a distraction.
Like Sunday, Like Rain doesn't appear to have the kind of long-term effect Whaley's other films have, such as the somber effect I had for days upon seeing The Jimmy Show or the incorruptible cheerfulness I had upon seeing New York City Serenade. However, this reminds me that I'll never know exactly what Whaley will make next or how he'll approach his subject matter; he has now made four directorial efforts, each different from the last and all capable of producing different thoughts and emotions. It's hard enough to do that, let alone remain relevant for decades when you mostly have supporting character roles in films.
Starring: Leighton Meester, Julian Shatkin, and Billie Joe Armstrong. Directed by: Frank Whaley.
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