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Chûgakusei Maruyama (2013)
Wonderfully heartfelt family movie (despite the awkward premise)
The titular Katsuya Maruyama (Takuma Hiraoka) is a typical 14-year-old boy who thinks about, and attempts to do, what most teens (and older males, certainly) try to do at least once in their lives, if not every day. It takes some dexterity and a limber body. That's not all the movie is about, of course. It's a multi-layered narrative, essentially a sincere coming of age film, with a lot more going on than this youngster's home project. Still, there's no way to avoid discussing its central idea, so I've been conflicted about how to describe it without being vulgar. However, if the Japanese people don't see anything unusual about it, it would be hypocritical of me as an American to dance around the topic and try to come up with euphemisms and polite ways of discussing what he does. But hopefully you get the picture. And the camera does not shy away from showing his clumsy attempts to accomplish this feat, just in case you don't.
And this wonderfully sweet movie has oh, so much more going on. Besides Maruyama's intense passion for wrestling class, the four main story lines include the mother who's obsessed with a Korean soap star and spends her afternoons fantasizing in front of the television, the enigmatic grandfather with dementia who wanders off aimlessly, and the mysterious neighbor who's either a secret government spy or a pedophile the high-rise apartment complex residents love to gossip who takes a special interest in the youngster. Then there are bikers, bullies, dead bodies, girlfriends, boyfriends, and superheroes. Oh, and there's dad's obsession with fresh fruit. Once you get past the creep factor, "Maruyama, The Middle Schooler" is alternately a joyous and painful look at the world from inside the mind of an adolescent. But his on screen, occasionally graphic flexibility exercises are not coming from a place of prurience. This is a story about innocence more than vulnerability, desire more than obscenity, and curiosity more than shame.
Like many Japanese filmmakers, Kankurô Kudô is a multitasking man of many talents on both the big and small screens. He's primarily an actor and writer with over 200 television shows and features to his credit. "Maruyama, The Middle Schooler" (Japanese title "Chûgakusei Maruyama") is his third feature directorial effort.
The movie's authenticity rests on the diminutive shoulders of 14-year-old Takuma Hiraoka (now 15). He's a relative newcomer with just a few projects to his credit. This is his first time on the big screen and there's no doubt he's got a long, successful career ahead of him. The ensemble cast features standout performances from Tsuyoshi Kusanagi as the puzzling neighbor Tatsuo Shimoi, Toru Nakamura as fruit-loving dad Katsuyuki, Maki Sakai as soap-obsessed mom Mizuki, Yang Ik-June as Korean TV idol Park Hyeon-Hun, Kenji Endo as the senile grandfather with revelatory hidden talents, and Hiroki Miyake as the gruff but inspiring wrestling coach Umeda.
"Maruyama's" Fuji Television-backed budget allows for noticeably high production values, highlighted by outstanding visual effects, along with creatively eclectic cinematography from Kazunari Tanaka. His signature style produces an image oversaturated with bright, candy store colors, a palette typical of many Japanese motion pictures, especially kid-oriented titles. The teen's fantasy sequences are distinguished by soft focus and a delicate score to match. There's a perfectly balanced ebb and flow to the narrative, from long, poignant melodramatic scenes (e.g., heartfelt discussions between odd neighbor Tatsuo Shimoi and Maruyama) to rapid-fire editing in the film's many exciting action sequences which dominate the third act.
The fact that a story about a boy who has autofellatio at the top of his wish list was funded by and intended to be shown on Fuji Television to the country's 127 million people speaks volumes about cultural differences. Maruyama thinks nothing of dropping his pants when the mood suits him and working on his exercises, even in public in full view of passersby and classmates. It's uncomfortable, yet hilarious and utterly endearing. Conservative parents' groups here in the US would likely call it kiddie porn, which would be a darn shame. Audiences will love it, although I imagine it might be awkward for a boy to sit and watch this movie with his mother.
This is a wonderful family film, especially for young people. Many might look at the synopsis and wonder how in heck this could be considered a kids flick. Yes, it's about a middle schooler, obviously. But the subject matter is easy to misconstrue. "A movie about a boy trying to pleasure himself orally?" (Not the words one might use but I'm being polite.) "No thanks." Unfortunately, those who can't stomach that idea will miss out on of the best family films I've seen recently. Despite its provocative themes, "Maruyama, The Middle Schooler" is hilariously entertaining and a richly rewarding way to spend two hours. If you can find it...take the kids, find some seats, then split up and move to the back row. They'll be glad you did.
Exit Marrakech (2013)
Rich coming-of-age tale & a colorful postcard from Morocco
Set in Morocco, this rich coming-of-age picture stars Samuel Schneider as Ben, a German teen whose father, Heinrich (Ulrich Tukur) is on the road staging theater productions. On summer break, Ben travels to Marrakech where his dad is directing a show. Ben has been living with his mother while his estranged father has been pursuing his career (and other carnal interests). In a common theme for the genre, the boy is torn between two worlds, the one he's comfortable with in his native country and that of his father, a man he hardly knows yet is a magnet for an impetuous youth whose sense of adventure (and own carnal desires) will draw him to this colorful land. It's a classic story done with a passionate attention to detail -- a boy on the cusp of manhood placed into a strange world where anything is possible.
This is only the sixth narrative feature for writer/director Caroline Link, yet the acclaimed German filmmaker already has a slew of honors to her credit. She won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2003 for Nowhere in Africa. Five years after her last film she's back with Exit Marrakech (AKA Morocco).
The film's success rests largely on the shoulders of young Schneider. Just 17 at the time, his casting was a bold move, as the teen was essentially a non-professional actor with just one feature to his credit along with several television productions. There's certainly no paucity of German talent, yet Link smartly took a chance on a relative newcomer for a demanding role that carries the picture from start to finish. It was tailor-made for him, to some extent, as the original script called for an awkward 14-year-old. Schneider is anything but, testament to how enamored she was with his charismatic presence and natural talent. Just a typical German schoolboy, the level of authenticity of his performance is central to the movie's rise above what could have been an all-too-familiar storyline. He's destined for stardom.
Tukur is an award-winning legend in Germany, having successfully crossed over into the international market in films like The Lives of Others (2006) and The White Ribbon (2009). Still, his character is secondary to Schneider's, and the older actor's experience shows in his on screen generosity. Basically a two-character study, Exit Marrakech feels unscripted as the natural bond between Ben and father Heinrich develops in sync with that of actors Schneider and Tukur. The growing affection between the two is palpable, although a great deal of patience is required on the part of the viewer as the layers are slowly peeled away.
Ben's love interest Karima, played by Hafsia Herzi, is a young French actress who won France's equivalent of the Oscar in 2007 as Most Promising Newcomer. She's simply delightful in her portrayal of a girl spotted by Ben along the way, a local whose traditional ways cast an exotic spell on the boy. The time Ben spends with Karima are some of the most thoughtful, heartfelt sequences in the film.
Link smartly sticks with the same creative team that gelled so well on her previous projects. Cinematographer Bella Halben also shot her last movie, while both composer Niki Reiser and editor Patricia Rommel worked on her previous four titles. The unspoken language of experienced collaborators translates into a beautifully orchestrated production that's magnificent in its execution.
Exit Marrakech has a foreign film sensibility from the start, with a look and sound honors the local culture, amounting to a polished family travelogue. Production values are high but stray from Hollywood slick. Natural lighting is used in scenes where villages have no electricity and the action is lit by candlelight and lanterns. Halben's camera-work is simply stunning, a loving video postcard from Morocco. Marrakech is full of life, and one can almost smell the marketplace where Ben begins to discover local treasures. As the narrative moves from the city to the mountains to the dunes, we can feel the dust rising from the desert floor. Many scenes employed guerrilla filmmaking, eschewing permits, as the camera captures real life, literally, and local residents not actors throughout Ben's journey. Halben often relies on hand-held camera, with numerous intimate closeups of the young man as he's lit like a Greek (German) god. The camera loves him, and the audience's emotional relationship with the boy is key to the film's effect on the viewer.
Reiser's score is a mashup of traditional Middle Eastern music and contemporary styles. The plaintive, haunting strains of Moroccan songs match the changes that take place in the protagonist's persona.
Coming-of-age films are ubiquitous at festivals and tend to be somewhat formulaic. The often predictable character arcs are filled with mild tension, both psychological and sexual. In this case (as in many), the parents split because of a cheating husband, leaving the boy to grow up without a father figure. The estranged dad makes repeated feeble attempts to bond with his adolescent son. Vacation comes along and the boy makes the decision to go to his father's place abroad, which he sees not so much as a chance to reconcile with his dad as much as an opportunity to wander off and find himself. What happens next is believable or not in direct proportion to the credibility of the son's performance, and that's where Exit Marrakech departs from the norm. The initially brooding Ben endears himself to the audience through playful interactions with the local kids. That Ben is surprisingly sweet is something we see coming, but it reveals itself slowly, as his guard comes down and he opens up to the possibilities presented by this new world. These are themes we've seen before, but not done with this much cultural richness and grace.
At just over two hours, Exit Marrakech is a Cinemascope widescreen mini-epic that's sure to be an audience-pleaser. Put it on your radar. You'll be glad you did.
Intriguing and enjoyable as long as you don't take it too seriously
Writer/director Rian Johnson's third feature ("Brick," "The Brothers Bloom") is another mashup, of sorts, in a season full of genre hybrids. On the face of it, "Looper" brands itself as a time travel tale smack dab in the classic science fiction tradition of films like "The Butterfly Effect" (in which Ashton Kutcher goes back to the past to change the present), "The Jacket" (in which Adrien Brody goes into the future to change the present), and "Donnie Darko" (in which Jake Gyllenhaal, well, we're never quite sure where he goes or why, but he looks good doing it). Of course, there's the iconic (and quite dark for its era) "The Time Machine" and the (much lighter) "Back to the Future" franchise, both of which send the protagonists forward or backward in time to escape an unexciting and, possibly, dangerous present.
"Looper's" premise (laid out in the opening narration) is that time travel has been, or will be, invented at some point in the future. Bad guys can, thus, be sent back in time to be exterminated in the present, thereby eliminating them before they can get to be the bad guys they are to become. "Loopers" are the assassins in the present (well, 2044) who've been given the lucrative assignment of preemptively eliminating these to-be-bad guys (from 2074, follow?). As it always has been, and always will be, ethics are trumped by dollars. It's a tough job but somebody has to do it. As the movie opens, we see "Joe" (the always-dependable Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as the somebody in the process of carrying out this mission as future felons pop into view, only to be blown away seconds later in the middle of a cornfield. A Field of Nightmares, as it were. But Bruce Willis appears and, as he is wont to do, throws a major monkey wrench into the production and the story barrels off from there.
Rian Johnson's project benefits from a stellar cast, including Emily Blunt, Paul Dano. Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, and Jeff Daniels, all turning in intriguing performances that confound at every turn. Look for little Pierce Gagnon as Cid, a Damien/Omen meets Haley Joel Osment's "I see dead people" Cole as a sweet but creepy kid who steals every scene he's in, no easy task in this sea of veteran talent.
Cinematographer Steve Yedlin (who also shot Johnson's previous features) maintains a consistent style throughout, making the present day settings somewhat indistinguishable from the future, adding to the delightful confusion of the audience. The music is never obtrusive as composer Nathan Johnson's original score serves the narrative without being showy. The pace is on par with the typical thriller, as editor Bob Ducsay ensures that the action flows at a steady rate without extended periods of introspection, as the filmmakers foil every attempt on the viewer's part to calculate the machinations and solve the riddles appearing on screen.
Sci-fi morphs into action-adventure and psychological thriller as the viewer attempts to fit the puzzle pieces together. The identity of many of the characters, present and future, is a mystery -- and, as it turns out, that's really the point of it. There's plenty of eye candy, to be sure, but figuring out who's who and what they're really doing occupies most of the brain throughout "Looper." Johnson had a choice here. One option was to make the narrative so confounding that, a la "Inception," people would be scratching their heads afterward, at the risk of them becoming disgusted at what they view as self-indulgence on the part of the filmmakers. The other option was to push the movie ever so slightly in that direction but, with a bit of humor and well placed tongue-in-cheek, not take itself so seriously as to annoy the audience into writing it off as a lost two hours (and it is long at 118 minutes). "Looper" walks a fine line between the two but, in the end, is more feast than famine, putting it in the category of films that must be seen again to be appreciated.
Grupo 7 (2012)
Based on actual events, a gritty, gripping action thriller that runs on all cylinders
Flash back to Seville, Spain, in the late 1980s as the city prepares to welcome millions of visitors to Expo '92, The Universal Exposition of Seville. In order to present a modern, safe image to the world, the government wisely decides to try and rid the downtown area of its rampant drug crime. "Unit 7" is created, an elite group of narcotics officers with a mandate to use whatever means necessary to wipe out drug trafficking. Just make sure it's legal and, if not, that nobody finds out.
Based on actual events, the original story was penned by Rafael Cobos and Alberto Rodriguez. Cobos developed the screenplay and Rodriguez directed. This is their third collaboration.
The four team members, Ángel (Mario Casas), Rafael (Antonio de la Torre), Mateo (Joaquín Núñez), and Miguel (José Manuel Poga), are predictably thrown together with the typical rookie vs. veteran, family man vs. womanizer dynamic that sets up what could be clichéd character arcs. The fact that they're not owes much to Cobos' taut script, to be sure, but the narrative's spark of authenticity is mainly due to the heartfelt performances and obvious on screen chemistry of the actors.
Despite its ensemble setup, the star of the film, in reality, is Mario Casas. With his adoring wife, newborn baby, and, of course, a sweet doggie at home, Ángel is the soul of Unit 7, and the story is told primarily through his eyes. He's lit like an angel in a stained glass church window and behaves like one, to boot. It's established from the start that the appropriately and not coincidentally named Ángel, as the most sympathetic character, is the one to watch.
His transformation from baby-faced naif to wannabe Clint Eastwood is what the audience expects, and Casas delivers, yet still surprises at many turns. He's a worthy protagonist in an otherwise Central Casting narc squad. Poga, Núñez, and de la Torre do an admirable job as contrasting characters and in comic relief. But without Casas, while this would be a fine project, it would lack the humanity he brings to the story.
Technical elements are superb with big budget production values. Single-point lighting is favored in the officers' homes, with soft shadows and a warm color palette bathed in amber, reflecting the safe, comfortable environment they have to look forward to at the end of the day. Stark street exteriors are cold and pushed blue, mirroring the vulnerability and harsh reality of the workplace where there's little safety and notorious drug gangs lurk around every corner.
Julio de la Rosa's incessantly pounding score perfectly matches the brutally fast-paced action. When the "drug bust theme" kicks in you know there's some major whuppin' about to go down.
Cinematographer Alex Catalán sticks to stationary tripod shots in the characters' "safe places," at home and at the police station. As the action moves outdoors and into the streets, the camera-work phases into Steadicam and hand-held. The action sequences are filled with heartstopping crane and helicopter shots, along with a copious amount of hand-held closeups, coordinated to the throbbing drug bust theme. There's a grainy grindhouse feel to these scenes which is evocative of the thrilling police dramas of the 70s. Never lost is the breathtaking landscape of the city and its beautiful surroundings, captured elegantly in Catalán's lens as a loving postcard from Seville.
This Spanish entry in an otherwise well-worn genre could have been formulaic but, with passionate performances and Cobos' smart and witty script, it remains focused and compelling. "Unit 7" is a gritty, gripping action thriller that runs on all cylinders.
The movie for jaded horror fans who think nothing can scare them
Directed and scripted by Scott Derrickson ("The Exorcism of Emily Rose," 2008's "The Day the Earth Stood Still") from a C. Robert Cargill story, "Sinister" is an exquisite realization of an original paranormal theme. The movie debuted in this same town's SXSW Film Festival in March.
Ethan Hawke is Ellison Oswalt, a true crime author and devoted family man with a what-have-you-done-for-us-lately fan base and editor anxiously awaiting his next blockbuster. Wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and youngsters Ashley (Clare Foley) and Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) are tired of constantly moving from town to town as Oswalt is wont to plant temporary roots close to the subjects of his ripped-from-the-headlines novels. As the film opens, the Oswalts are moving into yet another new house, but Ellison swears this is the last time, and selectively informs his family of his intentions.
In the process of unpacking, Ellison discovers a box of the previous owner's old home movies in the attic. Thus begins the odyssey into the unknown. Let it be said at the outset that this is not "just another found footage film." In reversing the role of viewer and protagonist, to some extent, it's Hawke's character who discovers the reels while we see his story played out on screen. We don't spend two hours watching shaky 8MM footage. They are integral to the narrative but aren't the sum of its parts.
In his horror debut, Hawke turns in a striking tour-de-force performance that rivals anything I've seen recently ("Insidious'" Patrick Wilson comes close). Rylance is delightful as the patient but exasperated wife who's barely willing to stand by her man for one more moment. Foley (Abby in "Win Win") and D'Addario (Josh in "People Like Us") are frighteningly authentic as the glue that holds this tight-knit family together. Fred Dalton Thompson ("Law & Order's" D.A. Arthur Branch and former U.S. Senator) does a star turn as the stubborn sheriff who will have nothing to do with outsiders tarnishing his town's already-shaky reputation. Welcome comic relief comes from underrated character actor James Ransone ("Ken Park," "Inside Man," HBO's "The Wire").
This is Ethan Hawke's first foray into this genre, a simple consequence of his passion for the material. "He said he'd never do horror," paraphrasing the filmmakers in the Q&A following the screening here, but he fell in love with Derrickson's script. The casting of Juliet Rylance as his wife was also done at his suggestion. Their on screen chemistry is undeniable.
The technical team doesn't miss a beat. Top-notch visual effects are always key in a film like this, but the common flaw in this genre lies in overdoing it. CGI and post-production trickery can certainly advance the narrative where appropriate but "Sinister's" old school in-camera effects, done while shooting, enhance the believability of the action.
Cinematographer Chris Norr eschews hand-held for stationary tripod shots and Hitchcockian slow pans, with POV tracking shots that allow the audience to sense the protagonist's growing paranoia. The occasional subjective POV angle, where the character looks at the camera, effectively places the viewer into the scene.
Lighting in the Oswalt home, where most of the action takes place, is appropriately subdued and rife with interplays of light and shadow. Hawke is often seen in silhouette, masking dark corners hiding secrets, literally. Terrifying night scenes beg the question, "Why are you going up into the attic?" Christopher Young's original score blends perfectly with needle-drop songs from some of the filmmakers' favorite indie bands. In a typical production, where third party songs will be inserted, the actors work to a temp track -- music that plays in the background until the company can obtain licensing for the tunes they want for the finished product, usually unknown (although often hoped for) during filming, that are then added to the soundtrack in post-production. With "Sinister," Derrickson and his team were able to purchase the rights prior to shooting so the cast members performed to a playback of the songs that would actually be used in the final cut. It does make a difference, especially when seasoned professionals like Hawke are "acting" in sync with the same music the audience hears in those scenes. It creates a symbiotic ambiance that links viewer to actor.
As a reviewer, I try to keep expectations out of my thoughts and writing. After all, it's only fair to the filmmakers (and me, and my readers) to judge a movie on its merits. Fortunately, it's not too much of a challenge to be as objective as possible when entering the theater, especially if it's a premiere and no other reviews are out there (and you haven't watched a trailer). But Fantastic Fest is a genre festival, after all, and one would not attend, theoretically, without being a fan of same. So expectations are placed on the film simply by virtue of the fact it's even being shown.
That's why I'm happy to report that "Sinister" was all I hoped it would be. Yes, this is why I attend Fantastic Fest and movies like this make it worth the trip. This is the flick for jaded horror fans who think nothing can scare them. This one does it. "Sinister" will give you nightmares.
How far would you go to own a piece of your celebrity crush?
Brandon Cronenberg's auspicious debut feature is a visually stunning, compelling science fiction story that asks the question, "How far would you go to own a piece of your celebrity crush?" Directing from his own script, the young Canadian takes a decidedly cynical view of the cult of personality in this sci-fi paradigm shift -- "Antiviral" isn't necessarily showing us what will be in the future but what could be now as it appears to be set more in the present day.
The film opens in a pristine medical facility where a desperate young man, Edward Porris (Douglas Smith in a too-brief but important establishing role), is about to be injected with a live virus taken from his favorite superstar. Being bedridden with the same illness infecting the woman of his desire is the ultimate autograph. The shot is administered by Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), a strictly professional, unemotional clinician who knows not to take his job home with him. Of course, everything is not as it seems and March becomes embroiled in a mystery that pulls in the viewer like a syringe drawing blood.
The cast is focused on a small handful of characters. 22-year-old Caleb Landry Jones (Sean Cassidy/Banshee of "X-Men: First Class") is in virtually every shot, undergoing a total physical and emotional transformation that's almost painful to watch, reminiscent of the award-winning performance turned in by Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia." His masterful characterization of Syd's downward spiral is breathtaking and central to the picture's potency. The iconic Malcolm McDowell is satisfyingly engaging as Dr. Abendroth, in a role that stands proudly with anything he's done. As Hannah Geist, the gorgeous object of men's desires, Sarah Gadon is a heartbreaker. Naive diva one minute, vulnerable victim the next, Gadon provides much of the heart and soul of "Antiviral" in a film otherwise devoid of color, literally. Joe Pingue and Nicholas Campbell are notable in support.
"Antiviral's" narrative is curiously fascinating, to be sure, but this is a film to examine more on the surface the way an old-fashioned family doctor can tell what ails you by looking at your skin. The highly stylized production is best appreciated by those enriched by a leisurely walk through an art museum. Every frame is like a painting, with lush cinematography and score that can only be effective when director, DP, composer, editor, and the entire visual team work in lockstep, resulting in a brilliant vision executed with highly disciplined precision.
Much of March's day is set in the clinic and his home, which mirrors his workplace in its cold sterility. The color palette is nothing but black and white. Lighting is oversaturated with characters bathed in bright white, giving the outward appearance of good health that belies the reality of what literally lurks beneath the skin. The outside world is like a parallel universe, where dirt and grime cover a worn out, used landscape as if diseased itself.
Cinematographer Karim Hussain ("Hobo with a Shotgun," one of my 2011 Sundance Film Festival Top 4) goes against the hand-held trend with stationary camera throughout much of the movie. These tripod shots often feature perfectly centered props and sets following the rule of 3s -- left, center, and right objects perfectly balanced with the action in the middle of the field of view. Many frame-within-a-frame shots continue this classic visual style as the viewer peers through doors and windows, with straight lines and rectangular shapes filling the screen. It's a refreshing break with tradition although, ironically, it's a look established long ago in sci-fi classics like Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." Much is owed to editor Matthew Hannam for the patient pace of the picture. E.C. Woodley's haunting electronica score is filled with biologically-inspired rhythms that reflect the throbbing hearts and mechanical drone of a scientific setting.
Viewers are cautioned not to underestimate the profound importance of the camera-work and visual effects. The look of "Antiviral" is as much, or more, responsible for the film's impact than the script, a notion which may be lost on those simply trying to figure out the plot and following the dialogue. This is a feast for the eyes and ears, not just the mind.
Brandon Cronenberg proves himself a welcome and worthy addition to the cinematic stage with "Antiviral," a delicious visual showcase and emotionally satisfying, albeit scathing look at one of the perils of modern society.
I Declare War (2012)
What happens when innocent fun gives way to danger? Classic theme well-executed.
In the tradition of "Stand by Me" and "Lord of the Flies" comes a poignant dark comedy that puts a timely spotlight on the games kids play and the consequences of seemingly innocent actions when fun gives way to danger.
Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson co-directed from a Lapeyre script. Wilson is an accomplished producer -- this is his second feature directorial effort (he serves as a producer on this as well). This is Lapeyre's followup to his first narrative feature "Cold Blooded." The movie had debuted as a work-in-progress print at ActionFest in North Carolina in April, where it took home the jury prizes for Best Film and Best Screenplay. It went on to a triumphant premiere at last month's Toronto International Film Festival. It took top honors here in Texas, winning the Fantastic Fest Audience Award.
The premise of "I Declare War" is deceptively simple -- a group of kids gets together on a regular basis to play war games in the woods, challenging each other in mock battle with harmless paintballs and tree branch bazookas. We used to play cowboys and Indians with water guns and toy pistols. Some of us graduated to Civil War reenactments. We turned out okay. So when these youngsters choose to head out into the forest and get a good physical workout trying to steal the opponents' flag from their home base, while most of their peers are engrossed in role-playing games on their computers, this looks like a marvelously healthy alternative.
But boys will be boys, as they say (okay, there is one girl), and the situation inevitably turns sour. Rivalries turn real as jealousy, love, and loss come to the fore, and some players take the game one menacing step further. The timely topic of bullying suddenly rears its ugly head as we see its root causes on display before having the chance to look away. As in 2004's "Mean Creek," one of my all-time favorite indies, innocent joy turns to potential tragedy as the line between fantasy and reality blurs both on screen, for the viewer, as well as in the minds of the youngsters.
What the kids begin to see in their minds -- a stick of wood is suddenly a rifle, a paintball is a real grenade -- is reflected in the film itself. This is just one of the many masterful strokes that sets "I Declare War" apart from its brethren and makes it such a powerful cinematic experience in its contribution to a rich cinematic tradition, the classic morality play writ large when the protagonists are vulnerable adolescents.
This character-driven study on the limits to which a man/boy can be pushed rests on the abilities of this age-consistent ensemble cast to make these characters believable. Without that the narrative would fall apart like an army facing mutiny. Standouts include Gage Munroe as PK and Michael Friend as Skinner. Both turn in frighteningly genuine performances that may draw a tear or two. All team members are on somewhat equal footing in significant roles with few in background support. Kudos must go out to Siam Yu, Aidan Gouveia, Mackenzie Munro, Alex Cardillo, Dyson Fyke, Spencer Howes, Andy Reid, Kolton Stewart, Richard Nguyen, Eric Hanson, and Alex Wall. Another bold choice -- there are no adults in this tightly-focused production.
The movie's authenticity also stems from its unscripted feel, as the youngsters were encouraged to insert dialogue using their own teenage vernacular and improvise where it was agreed the young actors would best know how to behave in a certain situation. The language is raw, to be sure, not unlike my 2012 SXSW Film Festival favorite "Funeral Kings," with F-bombs galore and enough obscenities to make their parents blush. But it always effectively serves the plot and is never gratuitous or overtly offensive.
Production values are well above the typical indie or foreign film. The entire picture was shot in one exterior location, a seemingly simple task made much more difficult by the limited hours allowed for underage actors and inability to avoid shadows no matter how well lit. Still, it always appears to be magic hour with the kids awash with the stunning beauty of nature, bathed in sunlight, their angelic innocence filling the screen.
Composers Eric Cadesky and Nick Dyer have crafted an intricate score that's surprisingly heavy, serving as a perfect dramatic counterpoint to the child's play in the great outdoors. The action dictates the viewer's emotions, not the clichéd tugging of heartstrings with violins and cellos, and that's as it should be.
The camera-work is virtually all Steadicam, affording cinematographer Ray Dumas the ability to maintain fluid motion throughout, despite the natural obstacles inherent in shooting on a forest floor. The combatants often move with the frame and not through it, as though we were running right alongside them. These tracking shots bring the viewer right into the action, allowing us to feel as if we're part of the game. But we're playing both sides -- but they don't know that -- and that's part of the fun of I Declare War. Spies abound, and you're one.
"I Declare War" also works because we've all been there, more or less -- every audience member will see a bit of their golden youth in one or more of these kids, for better or worse. If painful it can be cathartic. If pleasant it's sweetly evocative of a time past to which many wish we could return.
Cloud Atlas (2012)
Look up "epic" in the dictionary and you may see the poster for "Cloud Atlas" staring back at you
Based on the David Mitchell novel, "Cloud Atlas" boasts a triumvirate of writers and directors. German Tom Tykwer and the sibling team of Andy and Lana Wachowski served as screenwriters, producers, and directors. Tykwer, an accomplished composer, also wrote original music for the movie along with Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek.
It's incredibly challenging to write about this enigmatic film without giving anything away. While I still won't reveal details of the plot or actions of the characters, "Cloud Atlas" cannot be reviewed without some discussion regarding what it's about, and that's no easy task.
Pigeonholing a film into a specific genre is something I generally frown upon. After all, it's Hollywood that loves catchy terms like romantic comedies, spy thrillers, and murder mysteries. In the indie world within which my sensibilities lie, movies mirror real life -- funny, sad, tragic, poignant, mysterious and puzzling and absurd, often within the same scene. That's the kind of authenticity that can set the heart racing.
"Cloud Atlas" unfolds as a historical narrative set in the 1800s. Suddenly it morphs into a 20th century period piece. It's at turns a pensive drama, detective potboiler, action/adventure flick, political thriller, dark comedy, and pure sci-fi. Then it cycles back again. The plot continually interweaves all the above -- six multiple story lines, all set in different eras with different characters. The only thing connecting these apparently disparate narratives is one curious conundrum that stares the viewer in the face, "What does it all mean?"
The cast is an ensemble within an ensemble, with many stars playing multiple roles across various story lines. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, portraying three to four characters each, are clearly the names which dominate the scoreboard but every actor went well above and beyond for this production. Most play more than one role, even different sexes at times. This is the stuff of awards. But just mentioning what their roles are would reveal more than I already have, or am about to, so it will be left to the astute viewer to discover who's who.
The production values on this omnibus cinematic achievement are stellar. That this is an independent film and not a Hollywood movie is incredulous at times. Each of the half dozen narratives has its own lighting scheme to match the era and mood, with a color palette befitting their respective landscapes -- earth tones in the early pre-industrial periods, primary colors in the present-day segments, and grayscale in the future, back to earth tones again in the great beyond.
The camera-work is also story-dependent. Small wonder it "only" took two cinematographers, not six, to shoot this film. Frank Griebe and John Toll are staring Oscar in the face with this superior display of visual genius. Every possible photographic technique is used here, capturing extreme closeups and sweeping landscapes, often in the same shot, yet the work is never self-indulgent art for art's sake.
As literate as it is, the script doesn't take itself as seriously as many viewers will. While filled with platitudes and truisms, there's also quite a bit of comic relief at much-needed intervals.
Despite the multiple parallel narratives, each piece has its own distinct mood. "Cloud Atlas" is triumphant in its ability to integrate every inch of the emotional continuum. There are overt tonal changes across the story lines that, on paper, would appear to be an almost insurmountable task. Yet the filmmakers accomplished this by carefully sliding from comedy to dark comedy to drama to historical drama to mysterious present-day curiosity to scientific achievement leading to the wonders of the future and science fiction, cycling back again, never shocking with abrupt awkward transitions that would require some severe mental adjustment on the part of the viewer.
This subtle ebb and flow is not unlike the composition of a symphony, literally echoing that being written throughout the course of the movie itself -- the "Cloud Atlas Sextet" -- which also happens to form the basis of the soundtrack. It's an original piece composed for the film and its creation is the subtext for one of the story lines. Life imitating art imitating life. These movements, to continue with the musical metaphor, are accomplished by editors Frank Griebe and John Toll through long dissolves whenever possible, blending one narrative into another, a useful device that, again, relieves the viewer of having to put together the puzzle pieces ("Where are we now?"). This frees up the mind to contemplate the overall messages being imparted by the action instead of straining to understand the visuals (a la Inception).
"Cloud Atlas" is one of those films that you think you get...then you revise your thinking...again, and again, and again. It's about slavery! No, wait...it's about the Holocaust! Or is it both? Aha, it's about prejudice through the ages -- against dark-skinned people by whites, against Jews, homosexuals...that's it, yes. It's about discrimination, bigotry, racism. But wait, no...there are themes of past lives and reincarnation here. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. That's it! No, wait...what's going on here? Aha I get it now...it's about love! The next decision we make changes the future. You come to a fork in the road...do you build? Or destroy? Will your next act be of criminality or kindness? This choice can change mankind. Yes, that's the idea. Everything that occurs is the result of individual decisions. The ocean began with one drop. Is that what "Cloud Atlas" is about? In the end, the answer is...all the above. But it can all be summed up in two simple words: Eternal Recurrence. That's it. (Really, that's it.)
Look up "epic" in the dictionary and you may see the poster for "Cloud Atlas" staring back at you. Quite possibly you'll also find it under "M" for "masterpiece."
A family-friendly entry-level feature into the world of Tim Burton and an evocative experience for viewers of all ages
The latest animated feature from auteur Tim Burton, the black and white "Frankenweenie" is, on its surface, a classic "boy and his dog" story. A tale of a tail, as it were. Sure, it's been done before -- many times. But eye-popping state of the art stop motion animation, combined with a loving homage to the great movie monsters of the past century, makes this film a unique joy to watch. Add into the mix a message about the importance of science education, a pitch in favor of under-appreciated teachers, and a healthy dose of schmaltz.
The story and characters were first developed for a 1984 short, directed by Burton and scripted by Leonard Ripps. This full-length version was co-written by John August and Burton, who directs and produces.
"Frankenweenie" opens with a "film within a film" as the Frankensteins watch appropriately cheesy home movies of son Victor (the voice of Charlie Tahan) and their devoted dog Sparky. They're viewing Super 8MM film -- the picture is set, roughly, in early 60s suburbia although deliberate anachronisms abound. A tragedy befalls the family and it's up to the boy to use his love of science to make things right.
The voice cast showcases talented newcomers and familiar icons. Charlie Tahan, most recently Zac Efron's little brother Sam in the tearjerker "Charlie St. Cloud," turns in an understated and heart-tugging performance as young Victor. Landau's Rzykruski is the audience-pleaser who brings down the house again and again. As the naif Elsa Van Helsing, Winona Ryder is the perfect schoolboy crush with her sweet innocence. Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara excel at several roles, including Victor's well-meaning but (of course) bumbling parents. In a worthy homage to Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant, Atticus Shaffer (Brick of ABC's "The Middle") steals the show as Victor's classmate Edgar E. Gore.
As in many animated features, the characters were modeled after the actors voicing them. While in the recording booth, the performers mimed the action of the puppets, not only to give themselves some context, but also because it enhances the emotional believability of what ends up on screen.
If you haven't recently experienced the filmmaking method of puppetry with stop motion animation you'll be amazed at what can be done. Burton's attention to detail is legendary, and fully on display here.
Viewers may be familiar with the term "magic hour," typically the first and last hour of sunlight when just the right visual balance is achieved. Animation affords filmmakers certain luxuries. Magic hour can happen 24 hours a day. The interplay of light and shadow in "Frankenweenie" is wondrous.
Peter Sorg's cinematography features dramatic crane and dolly shots with a liberal amount of slow pans that effectively mimic a live action production. Co-editors Chris Lebenzon and Mark Solomon get special credit for seamlessly integrating poignant flashbacks and witty dream sequences at the most unexpected moments.
Audiences will immediately be aware of composer Danny Elfman's magnificent score. It flows superbly from opening to closing credits and serves as a critical element in advancing the narrative.
But the real fun is in spotting the homages...from early-mid 20th Century classics like "Frankenstein" (and his bride), "Dracula" (Martin Landau's depiction of science teacher Mr. Rzykruski is dedicated to Boris Karloff), and "Godzilla," to more recent faves "Gremlins" and...hmm...is that "The Mummy?" "ET?" Well, that's the point. Some see monsters that even Burton swears weren't intended. (I spotted more on my second viewing, truth be told.) Burton's latest foray into animation is truly a delight. It's a highly accessible entry-level feature into the world of a director whose previous work may have been a bit too quirky and mature for families with small children. "Frankenweenie" is an evocative experience for viewers of all ages.
Tower Block (2012)
In a well-worn genre, a classic trapped ensemble piece that exceeds expectations
The "tower block" drama has become a sci-fi/horror subgenre in itself. Known as high-rise apartment buildings in the West, they are especially ubiquitous in Europe where they provided cheap postwar housing in countries which didn't have the large tracts of land or economic and political hubris that "allowed" us to build highways and expansive suburbs on this side of the pond. In America, they were primarily constructed in cities as public housing for low income residents displaced by interstate highway construction and leveling of aging dilapidated neighborhoods in the name of "urban renewal." Many of these large projects were built in Eastern Europe by the Soviet regime and have begun to fall apart and be abandoned, mirroring the actions of their government overseers. But everywhere, including Western Bloc countries like the UK, they've fallen into disrepair and are rife with rampant crime and crippling poverty. This is fertile ground for writers of mystery, sci-fi, and horror -- hence the proliferation of films set in these often enigmatic structures.
"Tower Block," the first feature for UK co-directors James Nunn and Ronnie Thompson, focuses on the last remaining residents of the ironically-named Serenity House, a rundown building which is slated for demolition and has been abandoned save for its top floor. Eviction is on the horizon, no authorities are present to ensure anyone's safety, and a boy is brutally attacked with impunity. What happens next will challenge everyone's sanity and sense of moral judgment.
Nunn is an industry veteran, serving as First Assistant Director on two dozen titles prior to this directorial debut. Writer James Moran scripted "Severance," which I saw at my first Toronto Film Festival in 2006 after an auspicious Cannes debut. It was one of the biggest hits on the 2006-07 festival circuit. He also penned "Cockneys vs. Zombies" which played here at Fantastic Fest immediately following my "Tower Block" screening.
Every actor gets kudos for the movie's emotional punch, making it hard to single anyone out. But, as Kurtis, Jack O'Connell provides much of the heart and soul of the film, as well as its dry wit and comic relief. He was clearly the audience favorite here. Sheridan Smith, Jill Baker, Ralph Brown, Loui Batley, Russell Tovey, Steven Cree...all are affecting and outstanding.
Cinematographer Ben Moulden's appropriate reliance on hand-held camera with extreme closeups is crucial in capturing the dangerous confines in which the protagonists attempt to survive. Rapidfire action sequences are ratcheted up by the astute, sharp editing of Kate Coggins.
Lighting serves the narrative perfectly. The typical look of these buildings is cold, with a color palette that pushes the blue and pulls life out of the towers' public spaces, and "Tower Block" doesn't disappoint. Hallway lighting is dim and subdued with shadowy cold spots that often frame the actors in silhouette, almost giving the film a black and white appearance. Apartment interiors are warm with an amber glow, safe spaces where the innocent can find solace, at least for awhile.
Certain genres demand a soundtrack that helps build tension and enhance the desperation of the characters. Owen Morris' original score accomplishes this admirably. Sound design is spectacular and creates a character unto itself. Rarely have sound effects been used so effectively as a plot device in ways the viewer will discover.
This is a classic trapped group in peril piece, set in the narrow, claustrophobic hallways that define the titular tower block. As a familiar subgenre film, we have a general idea where the narrative will take us, so the key to the story lies in the ability of its ensemble cast to arouse audience empathy. Whether old or young, male or female, rough or sweet, mean or compassionate, including parents and children, victors and victims, and those who inevitably transform via dramatically satisfying arcs, there are sympathetic characters for every viewer. We can all relate to one or more of the residents, making palpable their fear and confusion. We become invested in who survives or not, and one thing I can guarantee: you will not be able to predict the outcome. In the end, that's why "Tower Block" exceeds expectations.
What makes the high-rise building fodder for freaky films? Perhaps it's simply the sight of these structures, haunting hulks of concrete and steel that beg the question, "What goes on behind those hundreds of windows?" "Tower Block's" answer? Don't go in. You may never get out.