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White Knuckles (2010)
Why don't you give me something to be joyful about?
Love can seem so easy from the outside. Two people: completely enamored with each other, their smiles easy, serene, and unmistakably genuine. But we forget that behind each joyful façade lurks the reality of who we are. A relationship takes work and the longer it spans the more care is necessary to keep it viable. Sometimes, no matter what others see, the stuff that goes on behind closed doors is a tumultuous storm of emotion, repression, and isolation. We clench our fists for so long, pushing back the anger and frustration as patience hangs by a thread, that the release doesn't end in a kiss, but volatility. We begin to erase possibilities with each passing second taking us farther from where we were the day, month, decade before. White Knuckles shows us this state, a marriage all but lost—one looking for a calm long since forgotten.
Writer/director Kevin K. Shah pulls us into the world of Julie (Martie Ashworth) and William (Larry Strauss), a couple we believe we have seen many times in our own lives. Seniors in their Golden Years, the two have very disparate ideas on what constitutes a good day. She yearns for life, digging in her gardens and breathing love into each and every plant; he seeks routine, sleeping in late, watching football, eating his wife's food, and turning off the light to do it all again. But their clash is a symbiotic one, the cause of the rift in this union impossible to find. His depression and unhidden anguish at life making her miserable, her inability to keep that frustration under wraps making him depressed. And so the future of Julie and William loses its shine day by day.
A past trip to the Rocky Mountains, remembered fondly by both, begins to serve as a physical manifestation of their love—a last ditch goal who's achievement will show success. Thus Shah introduces us to trees, a haunting score at their backs, their natural beauty a glimpse of what should be. Whether the bare branches of a forest against the sky or the rolling hills of a hiker's dream from above, this is the promise of love everlasting. And it's all threatened as the film goes on to show just how far this couple has fallen into the depths pure revulsion. These vignettes of trees begin to speed up, the music quickening—the beauty of life about to be consumed by fire. The spark has been lit and the future is helpless from its own destruction. As Julie and William drift further apart, the flames build higher, all chances for forgiveness, life, and hope resting on the failures of two people too eager to place blame than to acknowledge their own roles in this genocide of love.
It's hard for people to change and when you get to the age of these two leads, the lack of desire to do so only makes it impossible. Life was never easy for this family, but they had an understanding; they had tiny moments of warmth to get them through. This ability to survive, however, only existed because they had space, time to live their lives and come together for a night's dinner. Place all these pieces in a small space for an extended period of time with nowhere to go and an explosion is only natural. Add the fact the husband is struggling to keep his head above water emotionally, the testing of his closet bar's strength alluding to his defeat, and the wife barely able to remove her permanent scowl, the loathing of this man's sloth and ambivalence too much, and you can't say her idea to slowly alleviate the pain by poisoning him is surprising.
But it isn't handled in a comic way or with malicious intent. In fact, Shah somehow allows this heinous act to appear as charity. This is the answer for them both—he senses her want for him to be gone and she needs his exit to move on with her life. The progression of their fissure soon evolves into an earthquake, the space between them increasing with each action. And while both Ashworth and Strauss aren't household names or faces, they are nothing short of revelatory. Her suffering is always just under the surface while his forfeiture of life is stamped in the watery drooping of his defeated eyes. Every opportunity for him to understand what's happening to their marriage is shot down, his realization she is pushing him away noticeable in every scene, the deflation of body language seen when a smile turns to a frown and even a frown falling further; every grasp at hope for her buried beneath the fear and agony of God's abandonment many years ago.
White Knuckles is a slow burn with an emotionally resonate—albeit expected—outcome. The visual style seamlessly moves from the trees metaphorically depicting the tempestuous souls at play, routinely shot scenes of character interaction, and extreme close-ups with shallow depth of field disorienting and intriguing in their artistry and carefully chaotic composition. Love is oftentimes depicted as some serendipitous contrivance of fate used as a device to warm audiences' hearts. It's rare to then watch two people with a history together attempt to reconcile the distance grown between them. The mushy, clichéd period of dating is long gone, replaced only by strain. In such a situation, sometimes you must lose everything to once again realize what it was you had. Life kicks you down more times than anyone could ever expect and it is those around you willing to offer a hand that matter. We all have people in our lives we wish ill upon, those we feel we'd be better off without. But instead of blaming God, instead of blaming them, it is most likely ourselves who need to wake-up. Our only solace is in knowing we may be able to do so with enough time to make it count.
Heart of Now (2010)
The bottom line—I don't feel good about what happened
Very near the beginning of Heart of Now, a young girl, Monica (Mary Elise Hayden), makes the quasi-pithy, half-serious/half-joking statement that all women need a man who will give them 'loads of intensity and massive support'. Couldn't this observation expand further to blanket all of humanity, though? Don't we all need that mix of feeling and security to go about our daily lives with meaning? Well, if we are to use Zak Forsman's lead Amber (Marion Kerr) as an exemplification for us all—yes, we do. Hers is a girl who appears to have everything figured out when we're introduced. Pretty, healthy, and active, Amber knows how to have a good time with her friends and beau Tobey (Jason L. Brandt), seeming to balance all facets of life in a way that gives the revelation of pregnancy in the first scene an incalculable sense of excitement and joy. This is the start of the next chapter in her life, one with all the people she loves and a family on the horizon. What we cannot expect, however, is that a short five or so minutes later, this turning of the page becomes much bleaker than originally guessed.
Two scenes into the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival screening of Heart of Now and we've already been whipped through the emotional roller-coaster, basking in a young woman's glow, pulsating to her celebratory, red-hued dancing within the sounds of Airom Bleicher and Deklun, and eventually devastated by the abrupt exit of Tobey, leaving as Amber sits in stunned silence on the couch, immobile to the blur of impossibility moving before her. There is nothing she can do, a last ditch effort to beg and plead leaving her with a shove to the ground, her happiness driving away down the road. So, here she is, pregnant, alone, and without a place to stay. Her friends are there for support as Monica attempts to suggest an abortion so she can move on to forget the jerk while Edwin (Dusty Song) looks to console by taking her out for some much needed fun. Amber needs anything at her disposal to take her mind off of the hard choices she faces, a steady stream of phone calls to Tobey shedding light on her inability to cope and yearning for companionship.
There is really only one person she can truly turn to, though, someone who disappeared without so much as a goodbye years earlier, yet who once gave her the love and respect of a father. It's a hard call to make, but one that her soul needs to cleanse it of all the guilt, pain, and memories of always being left behind that plague her, risking a total descent into oblivion. Gabe (Kelly McCracken) can be her savior, he can be her knight in shining armor, but the question soon expands to what she can be for him. A closed-off introvert who wanders through Los Angeles's surrounding nature filming, his welcoming of Amber after over ten years of absence feels like more of a business arrangement than an expression of kindness. With machine-line precision, he tells her where the rooms of his apartment are, that she can set up in the living room, and how fickle his lock is. Any questions by her are met with silent dismissal—he is the one speaking, these are the rules. Gabe tries to keep his distance, telling himself he doesn't owe this girl anything, but the simple fact he invites her in proves he doesn't believe it.
Their relationship is soon exposed and we begin to understand how they have—although separated by many years of age—come to know each other. Concepts of love, family, loss, and regret crop up to add an even heavier sense of emotional turmoil to the mix. Amber doesn't know what it is like to be alone and Gabe has no desire to give up his love of isolation. But the two have been connected somehow, the fates have brought them back together to reconcile and move on even though they both thought they already had. The unspoken tension between them is palpable and the closely framed compositions refuse escape from the performers' highly emotive faces—strained in pain, contorted in suffering, and forever in need of even a glimpse of hope. Details of their lives are uncovered that infer on their current situations like her sense of not letting go and his of never holding tight enough. She can't see that her ex only starts calling her again to satisfy his sexual needs, not any desire to be with her, and he is blind to his 'sort of' girlfriend's inability to suffer through his cold detachment.
They are who they are because of where they've been and much of that stems from a previous life lived together. Talking to Amber would only open up old wounds that Gabe isn't ready to face. She must take extensive measures to chip away at his defenses, leaving recorded messages for him to know that she cares, despite all that happened. Heart of Now is a gradual build to its eventual payoff; its cathartic climax will leave you devastated by Kerr and McCracken's subtly brilliant performances, their explosion of pain long left buried making way for a chance at redemption in a world often appearing to lack such possibility. Forsman writes a couple exchanges that leap off the page and out these actors' mouths with the type of intensity and longing for safety Monica described. He makes sure we become claustrophobic with their expressions until juxtaposing them against the wide-open expanse of desert at the end—making them seem more alone and vulnerable than ever before. So much is also said in the silence, their story existing on more than words and their future lying in wait to once and for all be taken without regret.
Dark, Stunning, and Contemplative
Much like the short films and feature debut of David Lynch—hell, throw in his last release Inland Empire too—Belarusian writer/director Grzegorz Cisiecki's Dym is both stunning visually and experimental in its story structure and motives. It begins with a young man, shirtless, moving away from the flowing clouds out his window to the corner table of his desolate room, sitting down and pressing play on the old Sanyo tape recorder in his hands. From here it all goes into the surreal madness the film's tagline foreshadows, showing vignettes of a balding man in a car backseat feeding on something juicy with a hint of humiliation once our lead, now dressed in a trench coat, approaches him; a brothel shrouded in a smoky haze of drugs, anonymity, and sexuality; and the brighter, quieter moments of the nameless gentleman and the woman he loves.
Many may ask the question, "What does it all mean?" And to that I reply, "Anything you want." Cisiecki could very well have made a piece so personal that it touches him at his core, but what its meaning is to him is meaningless to how it affects you. The duration may leave you in a state of utter confusion—perhaps even anger at its incomprehensibility or in your own inability to understand—but if just one frame hits you with a powerful blow to your soul, well then the film is a success. For me there were many gorgeous instances burned into my mind, from the mesmerizing beauty of a girl at the end, covering her face with her hands and in turn her hair, sticking in place, seeming to be a shot played back in reverse; the bordello scene of danger and fear on behalf of the lead, with its masks, its brazen edits with malicious intent, and the red-tinted view of a balcony above with the feeding man, this time with hair and a beard, smiling oddly with the girl he's chosen; and the innocent look of the same actor in the car's backseat, the embarrassment of his actions left unpunished.
It is that shame that sticks with me the most in my understanding of the piece. To me, it is a story of the death of love and the tearstained shame of those a broken-hearted soul attempts to capture in order to fill the void left. Here is a man who has lost his soulmate, whether from death, a break-up, or a myriad of other possibilities, that has just awoken from a night of empty passion with a woman he barely knows. Taking his recorder—containing the last remnants of the girl he once spent a day in the park with, lying together, hands clasped, staring at the sky—he tries desperately to remember happier times. But the static we hear play back amidst the haunting score by Aleksandr Poroch and Rashid Brocca, doing their best Badalamenti, mixes together the joys of complete glimpses and the horrors of disjointed darkness from the abyss he has begun to wade in, barely keeping afloat. The surreal moments of blood, sex, and tears are the pain of his soul and his heart—the muscle that I could infer is what the man in the car has been eating, he being the facilitator of his night of carnal pleasure devoid of emotion.
I could be way off base—I almost hope I am so as to take from Dym what is purely mine and mine alone. But this is what I beg anyone who decides to watch to do. Go in with an open mind and discover something about yourself through its visuals—there is no speech for the seven-minute runtime—not for meaning in the pictures themselves. Cisiecki gives us the line that this is "The story of the person who became the captive of surrealistic madness," but perhaps the person he speaks of is you the viewer. All the actors, Grzegorz Golaszewski, Bartlomiej Nowosielski, Oriana Soika, Marta Szumiel, and others, are wonderful, yet, in the end, they are merely vessels for our own demons to inhabit in a story personal to us. The lead is you; the curly haired girl, your love; the new woman, all those that have come and gone, never comparing to the one and only. We all live inside the smoky haze; it's only when it clears that we should ever take pause and take a stand to not let the chance pass us by.
"Rope, Suit, Park, Hang"
The beauty of short films from the comfort of your home is the ability to rewatch them with ease. While I'd love to see everything in the confines of a darkened theatre, the image blown up to an overwhelming size so that the cinematography can engulf you, the under ten minute family of cinema doesn't necessarily lend itself well to those conditions. With so little time to tell its story, the short film must pack in detail upon detail, each frame meticulously composed to show the audience exactly what they need to enter the world and comprehend the actions playing out.
Ian Clay's Rope is no different. A deliberate four-minutes of voice-over juxtaposed with a memorable and affecting score by José Villalobos layered over a man, (played by Jason Britt), in the woods—lost and relegated to taking his own life—this film begs for precise attention. I'll admit, after my first go-round, I appreciated the look of the work, the acting, the music, and the economy of information, but I didn't quite know what was happening. Why is this man 'crushed by the unbearable weight of the way things are' as the plot line shares? What is the significance of needing time to be just right, peering at his watch when the nerves of waiting prove daunting? Don't we all have something to live for?
And then I went back to watch it again. As soon as Britt's voice began to speak, I could feel the click of understanding as my internal switch flipped. Those first moments in his car are crucial to going on the journey to oblivion set forth. It was a phone that drove him to the edge of existence, words over a wire bombarding him in sequence to share the news no one ever prepares to hear. You'll put the pieces together later on when, choked up, Britt recalls something broken—shattered remnants of his life forever gone; love taken without notice, so quickly that the world assumes business will go on as usual. His entire being has been planned out, written, checked, and crossed off his daily planner. Ritualized and exacting. One can deal with a canceled meeting or a forgetful client, but this no one expects an emptiness to rest where once was life.
I'd be doing Clay's well-crafted script a disservice by going into any more detail, risking to ruin the feeling of heartbroken epiphany I discovered in watching the film devoid of preconceptions. His cuts break in staccato with the score—a character in itself, especially with its well timed rests once Britt's mantra is tripped over by the discovery of a visitor watching—and the frame's depth of field keeps what's crucial in focus while leaves or obstacles between remain blurred. There is always an obstruction in the corner, covering a piece of the activity beyond, whether foliage, a tree branch, or the actor's own shoulder and head bent over, hands working with purpose. And Britt himself is fantastic, doing it all with facial expressions, blinking eyes, and twitching cheeks, the voice-over expounding on the actions even though I think it could work silently as well.
Just remember to pay close attention to what's on screen while viewing. Look at the planner for completed tasks or ones that will never be; take notice of the disjointed words, relayed as though in a Beat poem, more coherent and telling than initially assumed; and know what is in focus and what is not. The watch counts down to 10:00, but once it finally arrives, you'll see that while the clock becomes a blur of color, something else has takes over as Britt's main focal point. Hope exists in every second; it's a matter of letting the pain go long enough to see it. Life is all around us.
Copper Penny (2009)
She's the only woman I've ever been with Copper Penny
Some films not only necessitate a second viewing to wrap one's head around the subtle intricacies, but also cause you to beg for the opportunity to watch again. Writer/director Jay Pulk's short film Copper Penny is one of these. Screening at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, I am almost glad I wasn't able to catch it. Had I been able to, I would have been completely distraught at the knowledge I might never have a chance to watch it again with the knowledge only seeing it beforehand can deliver. Being happy I missed it is seriously bestowing my highest praise upon this gem. Thankfully, having made Pulk's acquaintance at the festival, I was able to secure a copy of the film so I could view it on my own time to enjoy and review. Yeah, you guessed it; as soon as those credits began to roll I hit the menu button on my remote and quickly hit play to take the journey again.
Copper Penny is tough to talk about without ruining the well-conceived plot line. Pulk has crafted the film in such a way that the audience only becomes privy to pertinent information at the last possible moment—causing the knowledge to effectively work in the context of what you thought was happening and also subvert it all to reveal underlying facts that make the truth different from what you originally had thought. One could argue its construction is gimmicky and a ruse eliciting a reaction the filmmaker manufactures in us with a double twist, but I disagree with this assessment. The first 'twist' is in fact the end of the story. The film's first moment of full disclosure is the natural progression for what's happening. An unnamed gentleman escorts a female companion into a motel room in order to wrap his head around the shattered mess his life has become. Needing consoling and help in order to reconnect with his wife, the prostitute he has followed can no longer be of assistance since the physical contact he needs is with the woman he loves. The hidden truth of her role in his life becomes the logical and fitting end, hitting you hard before the real twist occurs, bringing every action and word back into your consciousness for a second evaluation.
But the film is more than just it's ending, no matter how effective. Pulk's directorial success is seen with the meticulously framed imagery, angling the camera from the motel bed, oftentimes softening one character's focus while the other becomes the main focal point. Even when both actors (Michele Messmer as the woman and Norm Roth as the man) are seated together, the shallow depth of field is utilized—this broken man constantly fading away into his ocean of emotions. And their performances show how much exposition and character development can occur from just six-minutes of body language, seemingly inconsequential facts about their lives and motivations for why they are in that room together, and an ability to embody the pain (him) and the empathy (her) necessary to make the culmination of their random meeting so beautifully tragic in its result. Messmer cannot help Roth; she can't get his life—lacking a job and a wife to love—to make sense again. Even so, after you find out who she really is, you'll still ask the question of whether the choice she makes could have ultimately changed things.
Pulk recently told me that he had come up with the idea to expand on these characters and create a film series depicting more of their world. I am both excited and worried about the prospect. The ultimate achievement of Copper Penny is a direct result of the carefully unraveled truth at its core. Knowing everyone's role for sequels, or perhaps prequels as well, not only makes his job of writing more chapters as hard-hitting as this difficult, but also could belittle the original's reveal. That said, I am very interested to see where he goes next and with whom he continues to follow. This piece is a memorable work that deserves each and every festival inclusion it has been receiving. The strength of its story alone gives me faith that if anyone could expand a universe so perfect in its singular encapsulation, Jay Pulk is the one to do it.
The Beneficiary (2008)
Go to bed darling The Beneficiary
You never know who is watching or recording your daily moves. Theodore Mali's The Beneficiary, a short film screened at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, expresses this idea both in its storyline and visual flair. While we watch the characters move along through the days this movie spans, the screen regularly cuts to different surveillance cameras showing another vantage point, recording common activities that seem like nothing, but could be hiding a crime when pieced together. The entire plot hinges on such an electronic record of a seemingly innocuous phone call, a random stranger that was the victim of a mild case of road rage on behalf of a trucker passing him. Little did this man know his call would be the final straw to get the driver fired, causing Roy Vidrow to look up the complainant's number for payback.
From the start, the film gets you somewhat disoriented by throwing you into the action as Julie Ann Emery receives the life insurance policy of her recently deceased husband. The 'eye-in-the-sky' camera on the ceiling records the exchange and leads us into the credit sequence, finishing on what we would assume to be the start of what this beneficiary will do with the money. Instead, however, we are rewound back in time to see how the husband dies and the events leading up to the event. The husband, Roy, (having a volatile disposition coated with a smile like most of John Kapelos' roles), is the kind of guy you may think the world would be better off without. His temper definitely frightens his wife and risks spilling over into abuse if it hasn't before. So, upon losing his job, you aren't surprised to see Emery risk her own paycheck to go through company files and find the person responsible.
The Beneficiary is a dark story of deception, fear, and death. Collateral damage occurs everywhere, weighing on people's conscience whether they tell themselves it was for the greater good or not. No one could anticipate that a phone call complaint would resonate so tragically, bringing a handful of strangers together for the ride. Vidrow's bloodlust for vengeance and having nothing to lose—showing you how much he truly cares for his wife and their future together—snowballs into one murder and soon the attempt of another. But through it all, you can't help but look at Emery and wonder how she could have prevented everything. It may be Roy's temperament and anger that directly inflicts the horrors on screen, yet when looking back, his wife is definitely not an innocent.
Without mentioning her accidentally retrieving the wrong number at first, or her warning Joe O'Neil, (Matt Shevin, who also wrote the short), that someone was coming for him, Emery was the person that fielded the complaint over the phone. She could have erased it from her memory and saved her husband's job, but she wanted to see him suffer, not to keep the streets safe, but for selfish satisfaction. Therefore, this simple tale of revenge and murder makes way to expose a much deeper sense of naming responsibility. You don't always have to be the one pulling the trigger to actually commit the crime. And to have that level of contemplation for a 15-minute short, one can't help but realize its power and success.
The Teacher (2010)
Maybe a scotch would be better The Teacher
Conquering your fears—I think that is as good a description of what Lisa Ford, (and her son Zack Ford, who co-directed), was looking to express with in her short film The Teacher. Screening at the Buffalo Niagara Film festival, the piece is an interesting mix of reality and fantasy, showing many of the activities for which Hermes is the patron God of. A stand-in for orators and literature, (the teacher), as well as thieves, liars, athletics and sports, (the student); this God arises from the water at the start of the movie to watch how both Marian and Conner interact. It seems at first to just be your run-of-the-mill relationship between teacher and student, especially learned professor and under-achieving kid, until we start to understand exactly where Marian is coming from, and how much more complex her character is.
The first collision between these two occurs during a test in her Classics class. She discovers him cheating and throws him out of the room. Unable to admit his wrongdoing, the boy's knowledge that an F could cause him to be ineligible for the swim team is all that is on his mind. The bitterness clouds his judgment and instead of understanding her side to the problem—how could she let someone get away with blatant deception in front of the rest of the class—he selfishly confronts her with malice, refusing to help as she drops her groceries in the street, even kicking a piece of fruit before he leaves. And this is how so many people live their lives, running around without regard for the others co-existing in close proximity. Marian is so much more than just some teacher collecting a paycheck, uncaring if her students do good or not. She had to fight to go to college against a father that thought it a waste of time and money; she gave up her dreams to travel in order to study and succeed on her own. These days sees a different generation, one of entitlement and laziness.
Full of regret and questioning exactly what she has done with her life, Marian arrives at a bar, spills her troubles to the one person who will listen and decides to give Conner the chance no one gave her. But it's too late at this point. While the kid may forgive her now and be thankfully for her compassion, her help was only relevant if it worked towards his swimming goals. She tries to become a figure that he can trust and lean upon, but he wants nothing of it. So here she is again, worthless to the world and empty from the opportunities she let slip away. Tried and worn down—I won't say her character might have been contemplating suicide, maybe just retirement—everything changes when she believes Conner is in danger. Putting her own fears aside, she does the most selfless thing one can do; it's an opportunity to start her life fresh and with purpose, a message sent by Hermes that she receives with open arms.
Ford's film is very lyrical and makes sure to place Joyce Feurring's face (as Marian) as the core image, seeing the defeat in her eyes where so much optimism once resided. The performance is central to the success of the story, pulling off the role of strict teacher at the start while also the compassionate educator who understands the job description more than her contemporaries who only looking at punks like Conner and dismiss them rather than reach out a hand to help. Marian sees so much of her past in this boy; she notices all the promise that made her who she is, only it's trapped within him. Andre Diniz does a wonderful job showing Conner's ambivalence towards the future, that huge chip on his shoulder preventing him from opening his eyes to what really matters. If the end of both their trajectories shows us anything, it's that it is never too late. Whether you were just born or a day away from death, it is up to you to seize the day and make of it what you will, despite any fears or obstacles standing in the way.
BNFF 10: All I can do is drive Cadillac
The eight-minute short film Cadillac, by Nathan Lewinski, is a sentimental portrait of the memory of a man who has left this earth. Beginning without dialogue, an older gentlemen turning on his Caddy while still in the garage, I thought that maybe my cynical mind was playing tricks on me. The first reaction I had to the scene was that this man was committing suicide, especially as the sequence blurs out into black for the next act to begin. Only when I read the press notes in the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival's program was I validated, feeling that Lewinski portrayed the scene exactly as planned instead of thinking I needed to start watching some more uplifting films to shake the ever-present initial interpretations of death and depression I obviously harbor.
Cadillac then becomes the antithesis of a small plot line used in Rain Man. Whereas that Cruise and Hoffman film used a vintage car to stand-in for the love the boys felt they deserved—a machine that was shown more compassion than their father's own flesh and blood—the car in question here is the last visage of a man our lead Bryan cannot easily forget. Once the prologue ends, Bryan Lillis' character arrives at his father's house, (played by Richard Derwald, Forever Young's own Mr. Fitness—shameless plug for the paper I layout every month), entering the garage that houses the car that embodied the man's essence as well as what killed him. Emotions run high and what is first a rough roller coaster of pain and anger towards his father's action soon evolves into acceptance. The only thing left for Bryan is to turn the key and honor the man's life with one more drive.
Shot well and utilizing an intriguingly composed sequence that starts in letterboxed super-widescreen, eventually adjusting to fill the theatre screen's frame, Lewinski definitely has a good handle on making sure to only show exactly what the audience needs to see in the short timeframe on display. His use of focus and cropping in the prologue alludes to the suicide in progress and his ability to let Lillis grieve without the distraction of camera movement or unnecessary flair shows a level of restraint not always seen in this era of quick cuts and kinetic pacing. If there was one aspect that I was unsure of, it was the choice of music. However, while the Beach Boys song used seemed too obvious in its tone, I did grow to accept it as being effective and warranted. It adds to the Cadillac's era and the use of a dreamlike reunion between father and son—giving the boy the goodbye he wasn't allowed in reality.
St. Gertrude (2009)
A bitch named Leroy Brown St. Gertrude
By far one of the highlights during my first day at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, Emily Johnson's senior film project for the Savannah College of Art and Design, St. Gertrude, is a gorgeous little film. Right from the beginning, during a sequence that sees a family in mourning, as the grandmother lies dying in bed, you can notice the strong sense of composition and quality of visual aesthetic. The credits then run above a static shot of young Gertrude on the floor of her room, angel wings superimposed onto her back, foreshadowing the conversation about to take place in her Catholic school with a couple of bratty girls asking where her halo is. All angels need a halo, so perhaps Gertrude hasn't done enough good deeds. Let's just say the one taking her juice box under the false pretenses of karmic action doesn't do anything to get her closer to heavenly status.
It is a moment like this that brings St. Gertrude out of the family film tropes it could have easily fallen into. While the moral of the tale is solid and worth being told to the younger generation, the film itself definitely leans more towards adult viewers with its cursing and strip club locale. Gerty wants to do right and earn the halo she desires, but after watching her bus drive away, she begins a journey home that leads to places she really shouldn't be. All those around her are selfish, from the girls at school, the bouncer at Heaven—a local drag queen strip club—who is too ambivalent to the world to notice an eight year old entering the establishment, and even Gertrude's own mother, finding it easier to yell over the phone, make racist comments, and blame everyone else but herself, rather than get out there and actively search for her daughter.
Only one person has the kindness and maturity to reach out a helping hand for the girl. The most unlikely of sources, it is Ms. Leroy Brown, the star of Heaven's drag show, dressed as an angel, who finds it in his heart to treat Gerty as an equal. Rather than shatter her dreams of earning her halo, Bryan Anthony's Leroy keeps the ruse going by adapting his own life to the fantasy. When the girl asks how he earned his halo, the response of, "you really don't want to know," hits home with a big laugh as we adults in the audience can imagine what sexual act he might have performed to get the job at Heaven, and therefore the costume, but also because he diverts the conversation without being inappropriate or pandering to the girl. Not only does he keep the possibility of angels existing alive, but even extends the charade to say that Gerty might in fact be a Saint—just as holy and kind as an angel, yet without the need for wings and halos.
Here he is, her real life guardian angel, bolstering her spirits and showing that other people in the world strive to be just as good as she. Again, though, the film itself has another message, one more inline with the gritty, inner city locations and the people who inhabit them. It's the bigotry that still exists in the world with Teresa Arnold-Simmons' portrayal of Gertrude's mother that soon comes to the forefront. She is a woman who's narrow-mindedness is so ingrained within her that no matter how happy she is getting her daughter back, the prejudices cause her to forsake the one person willing to help because of the color of his skin and the sexual ambiguity of his wardrobe. Young Stella Sauers is absolutely transcendent as Gertrude, keeping her sense of innocence throughout the adult situations and scary scenes, but it is the final reaction through the window of her home that resonates the most. Watching the interaction between her mother and Leroy finally tears down the rosy sheen that had filtered her world. You just have to hope the influence of an angel such as he will have more of a lasting effect on the girl's psyche and character than the closed-minded, bitter woman who is her mother.
Now show me yours Teeth
What's the best way to get out from underneath your famous father's shadow? How about write and direct a film about a teenager afflicted with vagina dentata? Yeah, that should do the trick. Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of famed Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, deciding to delve into feature film with the horror/comedy Teeth certainly thought so. It is definitely unlike anything I've ever seen and uniquely original, but that isn't necessarily a good thing. Besides the premise being inventive and the second half of the film eliciting some genuine laughs, I kind of disliked this whole crazy affair. I'm guessing that the acting was intentionally amateurish, but even so, the story itself is weak and under-developed. It might have been effective as a short film, ridding itself of the very laborious first act that crawled along, unsure of whether it wanted to make us laugh, and therefore seeming unintentionally funny rather than purposely subversive. More uncomfortable than anything else, I never knew exactly how to take what was happening on screen until it was almost over.
Lichtenstein seems to want to give us some back-story into the psyche of Dawn O'Keefe, a young woman who has no idea what makes up a normal vagina. Her school system is Puritanical to the point where a huge starred circle covers the necessary diagram to enlighten her on its page of the Health book and it appears that she almost believes her 'affliction' is something all girls go through. Taking a vow, or I should say promise, of celibacy until marriage, it is as if once her plastic red ring is replaced by a golden band, the teeth lying hidden away inside her genitalia will dissolve, allowing her to continue living just like anyone else. Admittedly, the brouhaha surrounding its release in 2007 made me aware of what was actually happening to the lead victim/villainess, so it only took the early flashback of Dawn and soon-to-be stepbrother Brad in a blow-up swimming pool to understand the intricacies of her condition. To then go through forty-five minutes of her being chaste and innocent only made me impatient for the horrors that its billing sold me on. Maybe the exposition is relevant to believe the evolution from naïve schoolgirl to preying mantis, but it doesn't excuse the plodding pacing used to explain it all.
Then there is the very heavy-handed work in pretty much every facet of the work. It could be the fact I was still wondering whether I was supposed to be laughing or not, but the music cues are so cheesy. On the most innocuous moments that only hold a sense of danger because we know what sort of evil lies between Dawn's legs, you will hear a menacing percussive note to inflict a sense of horror film dread. Being inside the joke, however, makes the punctuation more tongue-in-cheek joke than any sort of jarring sense of anticipation. As for visually, we are inundated constantly with the visage of two black smoke pumping nuclear power plant silos in the distance. We get it man—the chemicals and radiation mutated her mother's egg and created the man-eating gene shown very effectively in a fun opening credit sequence. And there is also the unfortunate poor editing transitions. Some are so abrupt you begin to wonder why Lichtenstein even showed the scene before as a few five minute set-pieces do nothing to add to the plot except give one more messed up moment in this demented world.
Once the story gets moving, though, when Dawn finally sees what her weapon can truly accomplish, the laughs become confident and the enjoyment factor increases greatly. It is just a little too late. Jess Weixler is left to languish in mediocrity for the first two-thirds, playing the virgin too over-the-top and very "One Tree Hill" Clean Teen-like, especially being opposite the awkward performance from Hale Appleman as her boyfriend Tobey. When the two are together there is absolutely no sexual tension because their stares and deep breathing and uncertainty overpower any connection. Rather then want the two to be together and see her lash out in fear, we just wait and watch, hoping that she will eventually draw blood. That is why anyone would bother with the film anyway to satisfy their bloodlust in an interesting way they have never seen before. Josh Pais's gynecologist helps bring the story into this genre territory with a hilariously funny moment of karmic beauty for the sexual abuser he is and soon Dawn becomes in control of her bodily actions. This is when Weixler shines, the perfect mix of innocent country girl with an edge of malice and a vengeful heart against the male sex. It is this later work that makes me second-guess what I initially thought was horrible acting at the start.
John Hensley's Brad tries his best to make the beginning tolerable, but even his psychopath can't do it alone. The first victim of Dawn's at such an early age he doesn't remember the incident that scarred his index finger—"I think she bit me," is all he can conjure up—the guy's mental instability is fully formed. Adamantly refusing natural intercourse with his girlfriend, we can assume it is due to the deep rooted, subconscious fear of teeth being where they shouldn't be, even though he appears to tell himself that he is saving it for a long awaited chance at his stepsister. Tattooed, pierced, and very funny in his ability to be just plain mean, his comic relief is all that saves the film to eventually reach its stride with monster unleashed. Only then is the fun sustained with Teeth's pure absurdity and much more graphic gore moments than anticipated. You do get to see the aftermaths of Dawn's dentata flourishes, so be prepared. Or just avoid the film completely and hope Lichtenstein's sophomore effort, Happy Tears, fares better.
Let It Ride (1989)
This is just taking advantage of an extraordinary business opportunity Let It Ride
I sometimes forget how blatant music was used in films of the 1980s. Let It Ride may have been made in 1989, but it did not leave that trend behind quite yet. Not only do the cheesy rock ballads come through at the start, the montage shots behind the credits are graced with one that has the title in the lyrics. That's just how Hollywood rolled in the 80s, and the process recalled those films of John Hughes, a man who used song to make a soundtrack for the decade's worth of angst in America's youth. The difference, though, is that this Richard Dreyfuss vehicle is an R-rated work that revels in its vulgarity, sexuality, and poverty-stricken characters gambling and boozing. I'll admit that going in I had no clue exactly what to expect, figuring it was Dreyfuss's Trotter watching his life go down the toilet. So, to my surprise, the entire story surrounds his day at the track, arriving with a hot tip and riding the wave of good luck until the tension of losing it all becomes too much to handle—for everyone around him.
Literally spanning the course of one day at the horse track, after Trotter's buddy Looney records, amidst the smut that usually occurs, an exchange between two nefarious dealers in the back of his cab talking about a fix the night before, Let It Ride doesn't have too much plot to mess with the laughs at its core. Trotter is down on his luck, thinking he deserves more than the life he's been given, including a set of friends that have all their teeth. Looking to turn things around, he and his wife, played nicely by a comedic Teri Garr, make vows to change the way they treat each other, making plans to reconcile and make love the next afternoon. That event soon gets pushed to the side, though, as he cannot believe the information Looney has brought to him, listening to the tape over and over again until he finally decides to end his ban on gambling and bet the sure thing while Garr waits at home in bed.
And here is where the fun really begins. Dreyfuss is the epitome of smug, the guy everyone likes because he is a loser that never stops, but also despise when winning for the simple fact that they aren't the ones holding the lucky tickets. Throwing caution to the wind, Trotter makes his way to the $50 Win booth for a bet on the long-shot, after praying to God for the victory inside his favorite bar's restroom, above the far from pristine toilet bowl. Laughed at by the booth worker, chided by fellow bettor Tony Cheeseburger, and bombarded with pessimism from his best bud Looney about listening to information that was too good to be true, he goes for it anyway, watching his luck turn. One win leads to a chain of events for more; even the dismal moments of owed bookies and false arrests somehow work out for the better. But no matter how much cash he stuffs in his shoes, Garr's wife Pam slowly moves further and further away, opening her eyes to the cretin her husband really is. That distance, though, and Trotter's good fortune, only works together to make him finally realize what it is he has at home, despite the ample cleavage of Jennifer Tilly's Vicki available for the taking.
So, the main point of the film becomes whether Dreyfuss can continue to win. You begin to fall into one of two camps, either the one hoping it doesn't stop or the one that can't wait to see the fallout when it all ends. Therefore, the cast of eccentrics weaving in and out of his life start to be the main driving force behind the plot. It is quite the menagerie of losers, rich elite, crooks, and bored track employees. Dreyfuss himself really does put the film on his back and never steps off the gas as he rides the luck for as long as he can. Never afraid to speak his mind, he has the wonderful trait of being able to completely alienate all those that care about him. Feeling that he is better than them all, the cavalier attitude does begin to fail a bit when his friends fall into trouble, realizing that although he wishes they weren't the people he was stuck with, they are the ones he's become attached to. This is especially true with Looney, his dimwitted pal that is so unlucky, his demise is actually the catalyst to Trotter's winning ways. David Johansen's portrayal is fantastic, complete with childlike facial expressions and the innocence of just talking forever, unaware of the consequences or the definition of tact.
The rest of the cast is pretty hilarious—keeping the laughs coming and disguising the fact the film is just replaying the same event four different times with four different races. Richard Dimitri is over-the-top as the gold chain wearing Tony Cheeseburger, switching his allegiances to whomever has the hot hand; John Roselius is funny as the gruff, peripheral-sighted police officer; and Tony Longo does what he does best, standing big and tall as the heavy who cashes in by charging people to stand by the track's rails. As for the most memorable role, that goes to Robbie Coltrane's ticket taker as a stand-in for the audience with perfect comedic timing. He watches the craziness going on around Trotter, at first dismissing him as the loser we assume he is, but eventually warming up to hail him as his hero, the most fearless man he's ever witnessed at the track. We go through the exact same progression, eventually allowing ourselves to root for the underdog and think that if he can have a day of absolute success, maybe we can too.
With the help of God Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty
Ever wonder what might happen to your beloved childhood bedtime stories if they were told to you by your bitter, disgruntled grandmother? Wonder no more because director Nicky Phelan has brought the world the experience with her animated version of writer Kathleen O'Rourke's character in Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty. There is nothing like a theatrical old woman telling a story, doing her best to draw out strong emotions while her own get the better of her. The short film's granddaughter just wants to go to bed with her stuffed animal, but Granny will have none of it, plopping down to tell one of her famous bedtime tales—starting sweet and normal, yet soon devolving into vengeful diatribe.
You don't really know what to expect at the start, somewhat disoriented by the fear you see on the young girl's face once Grandma enters the room. This is not the first time she's stopped by for the nightly ritual, that's for sure. The name 'Grimm' itself should prepare you for the fact that the fantasy won't be a Disney-fied version, but I can't say I anticipated the direction it finally ends up going. Granny definitely has some pent-up rage hidden beneath her sweet, bifocal wearing exterior, ready to be unleashed on all those frowning upon her disintegrating, walker-dependent body. All those pretty little bimbos walking around oblivious to their future of gravity will have their comeuppance, even if it's only within the constraints of a fairy tale romance—funnily devoid of that one trait the actual Sleeping Beauty is known for.
Rather then watch as Sleeping Beauty grows up and becomes enchanted in slumber until a handsome Prince can rescue her, Granny tells of an elderly fairy not invited to the young one's party. In her anger she crashes the scene and makes her displeasure known, cursing those in attendance and cackling profusely. The granddaughter desperately tries to shield herself from the scary visage sitting at the side of her bed, hoping for the chance of a happy ending to maybe let her wide eyes find solace in even a wink of sleep that night.
The true success really lies in the performance of O'Rourke in portraying Granny O'Grimm as the two-faced Irish woman. People have thrown fairy tales on their heads before, using them for fright rather than hope, so nothing in that regard is new and original. No, the over-the-top theatrics trump the piece's artistry and story due to its sheer hilarity as the woman goes from soft dulcet tones to loud anger-laced screams—even doing her own foreboding echo to add a little pizazz. Not to say the animation is bad; it's actually really good. The use of both computer-generated 3D work for the 'real world' and 2D perspective for the fantasy is handled successfully. I also loved the blurred reflection of our two leads in the mirror across the room from the bed. It is a beautiful rendering of depth in the room and a nice detail.
Perhaps the series will expand with more tales we know and love, altered to cause Granny's little girl to grow up jaded and paranoid—especially if the poster is to be believed, talking about 26 x 11 minute episodes. Will they work now that the premise is revealed? I'm not so sure. That surprise of tonal shift really did it for me. I don't quite know if the freshness can continue to be sustained on subsequent entries.
A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008)
Curse that prevailing southwesterly Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death
Even though it debuted on British television in 2008, Nick Park's newest installment in the (mis)adventures of his claymation pals Wallace and Gromit finally hit the States last year, just in time to be nominated for an Animated Short Oscar. I never had any interest in checking the work out, no matter how fun it appeared, but relented when Curse of the Were-Rabbit was released as a feature length film. Suffice it to say, my first foray into the world was not very good as the film fell flat for me and plodded along to its end. However, now having experienced A Matter of Loaf and Death, seeing how the material works in a condensed medium, I have to admit that the result was much better. By compacting all the humor in less than thirty minutes, the warm-hearted antics of naïve and imbecilic Wallace with stoically intelligent dog Gromit really do excel.
The premise is pretty stripped-down, concerning the duo in their new bakery, right in the midst of a serial killing spree of bakers. There have been twelve deaths thus far and no evidence in sight to find who is behind it all. To be honest, it doesn't take very long to discern who is the culprit, so the fun really becomes watching Wallace bumble through life and Gromit do his best to save him. Once the Bake-O-Lite singer enters the fray, the plot continues on at a quick pace, never feeling slow or unwelcome. An ex-commercial model for the brand, Piella just happens to be bicycling down the road our titular bakers are delivering bread on, door-to-door like newspapers. She loses control and speeds down a hill where Wallace puts caution to the wind to save her, eventually beginning a budding relationship that never quite seems right—especially after Gromit inspects the bike post-accident.
What really makes this work succeed, besides the endearing voicework from Peter Sallis as Wallace and Sally Lindsay as Piella, are the massive amounts of sight gags. Sure it is always entertaining to watch Gromit work in his silent, but very expressive way, however, I hadn't known how subversive the comedy really was. I don't think a lot of that mature subject matter traveled across the Atlantic when the feature film was released, probably needing to tone it down a little to make it palatable to a broader audience. Being that A Matter of Loaf and Death was created specially for English television viewers, Park and company was able to keep their subtle innuendoes intact. Even those seemingly simplistic instances of bread rising and oven temperatures increasing become so much more than sheer bakery visuals when inter-cut with the blossoming romantic courtship of Wallace and Piella. It isn't as though the references are too obvious for a younger audience, but they do make it a tad more fun for the adults watching. The inclusion of a Ghost homage definitely put a smile on my face too.
Completely deserving of a nomination—even though I believe it should have come last year, dealing with actual release dates rather than whenever Hollywood decides to allow us Americans to watch—Park seems to be back in the swing of things after the devastating fire that destroyed much of his clay constructed worlds at Aardman Studios. I would never suggest that he stay away from features and stick specifically to shorts, but I do believe something can be said on the subject. Perhaps Were-Rabbit just didn't have the depth to succeed, and maybe it originated as a short and later was wrongly expanded, I really don't know. Unless a plot is fleshed out that can handle the extra length, hopefully Wallace and Gromit will continue on with their adventures in small increments—staying relevant and always working their somewhat family-friendly magic.
When in Rome (2010)
This marriage has a shelf life of a banana When in Rome
Here is my call to arms people
go visit the Guggenheim Museum and donate money. After The International last year shooting up Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural wonder, New York City decided to get some more cash influx by allowing it to be showcased in this year's rom-com crazy flick When in Rome. This film is by no means good—at all. However, that said, I laughed a whole lot. Once you leave the plot behind and start to just let the absurd supporting characters wash over you with their eccentricities and obnoxious foibles, you'll find the smile you were looking for. I did some reconnaissance before my screening and was surprised by the multiple comments about it being one of the funniest movies the viewer had ever seen. Now, I know hyperbole when I see it, but I had the glimmer of hope that maybe I'd at least be entertained. While the beginning twenty or so minutes went by in an excruciatingly painful manner, once Josh Duhamel and magically entranced kooks entered the fray, I was able to sit back and have a good time.
Where are we, though, in terms of world creativity when this plot gets green-lighted? Beth has been spurned her whole life where love is concerned, instead diving into her work as a crutch disguised as coping mechanism. Once her younger sister finds love and marriage in only two weeks, she must journey over to Rome for the wedding—while in the midst of a huge exhibit at the museum for which she is curator—to also be kicked by amore once again. This latest effort, at the hands of Duhamel's Nick, or so she thinks, leads her to pick out five coins from the fountain of love, keeping their wishes for everlasting romance in her purse. It is at this point where hilarity begins, ushering in the rogues gallery of Will Arnett, Jon Heder, Dax Shepard, and Danny DeVito to fawn over and stalk Beth back to NYC. It is both their desperately insane attempts at wooing and Nick's authentic courting hampered by clumsiness and bad luck that make this film worth watching. Admittedly, I can only watch an actor slapstick his way into light posts or down openings in the street so many times before becoming bored, but something about Duhamel's affable demeanor kept it fresh despite the repetition.
The story itself really is atrocious. Just the fact that Roman mysticism and folklore is behind it all makes me roll my eyes, so feeling any sort of connection to Beth's plight is unattainable. I did, however, really like Kristen Bell in this role, and that says something coming from someone who has never been a big fan. She gives the part much more than it deserves and tries her best to let us care for her even though it is her troubles that we are enjoying. Full of clichés and gimmicks, When in Rome's setups fall flat across the board. Her job being in peril and Anjelica Huston's mean boss are predictable, watching her newlywed sister in Rome cooking naked with her new husband unoriginal, and the lame attempt at making us think that somehow the two romantic leads won't end up together in the end is pandering. But all the little things in between, the tiny adventures that could have been skits on a comic variety show excel on their own, even if they seem out of place in the story at hand. What can be out of place, though, when your four stalkers are a street magician, a vain model working on spec, a wannabe painter, and an older sausage magnate? With a mix like that, anything goes.
Before getting into the big name bit parts, I want to mention a couple unknowns. Why both leads needed a sidekick with insanely wide-open eyes is beyond me. Kate Micucci is cute as Stacy, but also kind of creepy with that blank stare, while Bobby Moynihan, playing Puck, (a not so subtle nod to Shakespeare's jester), is pretty darn funny. Using "Roots" as a punchline and really just playing the goof opposite Duhamel's star-crossed lover, I hope to see more of this guy. But that's enough of the newbies; let's get onto the veterans. Each of these four suitors is completely two-dimensional, trying their best to bring some laughs while trapped in thankless, cheesy parts. DeVito is a tad overzealous going after a girl more than half his age, yet the completion of his arc worked for me, although he is the throwaway of the group. Arnett's fake Italian schtick gets old, but I can't get enough of that innocent, stupefied look whenever he does something wrong; Heder is annoying and strangely humorous in his costume alone, allowing a Napoleon Dynamite guest star be his role's finest hour; and Dax Shepard never ceases to amaze in bringing laughs with his characters' gigantic egos in everything he does.
I'd like to tell director Mark Steven Johnson to stick to comic book superhero films, yet that didn't work out too well for him either. The only real thing I can fault him for here is the fact that he took on the project to begin with. There really is nothing original in the script besides some funny moments that hit hard due to the joke, not its relevance to the plot. Without an extended sequence of dining in the dark that contained the always-wonderful Kristen Schaal, a clown car gag that was much funnier than it should have been, and Keir O'Donnell's knack for playing very odd characters, I wouldn't have been able to find anything redeeming. A few effective parts cannot make up for the lackluster whole, no matter how hard I did laugh at times. I do think both Bell and Duhamel have what it takes to make a good romantic comedy together, knowing how to play the charming, romantic couple. Sadly this isn't quite it.
Big Fan (2009)
We came all the way from Staten Island Big Fan
Don't underestimate the talent of Patton Oswalt. Playing a 36-year old man that lives with his mother, works a dead-end minimum wage job, and lives only for the New York Football Giants; this comedian delivers the goods on dark depression. It is always a pleasure to see an actor that has been pigeon-holed into one genre branch out and show the possibilities of range that have never been discovered. With Big Fan being written and directed by the former editor-in-chief of The Onion, I guess it makes sense. Himself originally at the head of a satirical news source, Robert D. Siegel has found himself as the screenwriter for the acclaimed drama The Wrestler and now at the creative center of his own feature debut. We may say he took a chance at an unproven dramatic talent, but perhaps he knew something we did not, some semblance of that inner suffering and inability to care about self-worth beyond the happiness of the one thing always there for him—football.
Oswalt is Paul Aufiero, an uneducated yet passionate man. All facets of his life have had their growth stunted except for his die-hard fandom for the G-Men. Attending every home game—in the parking lot with a TV rigged to the car—owning Giants memorabilia from clothing to cell phone case, and calling into the local radio station each night to prove his faith in the team, Paul lives and breaths the blue and red. Looked upon by best friend Sal, another fine performance from the unheralded Kevin Corrigan, as an intelligent and quick-witted guy, the truth is that he is indecisive, lonely, and scared. Every 'eloquent' diatribe that he calls in with has been written down in his notebook first, rampant with spelling errors and incorrect verbiage, then edited and rewritten. Attacking a faceless 'Philadelphia Phil' who participates in the show to rile up the New Yorkers listening in, Paul imagines that he lives the high life, adding something to the winning ways of his team and being the absolute biggest fan they have.
But it all comes crashing down one night in an evening that could have been a dream come true. Standing across the street while eating pizza, the two Staten Island residents see Paul's favorite player, five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Quantrell Bishop. These are two grown men, however, now looking at a man they idolize from afar. A lifetime of disappointment and insecurity has left him unprepared to approach a celebrity figure, let alone show appreciation without coming off as stalkers. Following him all the way to the city for over an hour does not help matters, but accidentally admitting the fact to Bishop is even worse. The star athlete feels violated and, in his drunken state, beats Paul up to within an inch of his life. So, now we have an over-exuberate fan destroyed mentally and physically by his hero—possibly left with brain damage from the fight and now made to watch his Giants play without their star, sending them off onto a prolonged losing streak. Paul must then face the social and judicial consequences of the incident, wrestling with the fact that if he sues or presses charges, his team might lose all hope of making the playoffs.
Oswalt's character goes from superstitiously carrying his team on his shoulders, just by being in the parking outside while they play, to literally being at the center of their current implosion on the field. He plays the role so well, a childlike naivety consistently on his face as he laughs through the pain. His family, including a lawyer brother, doesn't understand his thought process or how he can seriously put the wellbeing of the team above his own. They watch as he slowly hides from the problem, hoping it will go away. Paul feigns amnesia with the police and self-righteousness with his family, but the anger continues to build up inside, boiling for its eventual release. We see that it will all have to come out sooner or later with uncontrolled outbursts leaving his mouth left and right. His scripted radio call-ins become weak and incoherent, his speech with Sal hostile. There becomes only one thing for him to do, but I feel as though Siegel took the easy way out in regards to that conclusion and didn't quite live up to the pitch-black horror his plot was progressing towards.
I do believe that Big Fan deserves to be seen for Oswalt's performance alone, hopefully proving to be only the first of many serious roles for him in the coming future. All the acclaim thrown his way is warranted, but the film itself may be a tad too weak in its resolution to be an unequivocal success. Perhaps it was the need to infuse humor or the fear of alienating his audience, I just wish the end had more gravitas, something that could easily have been rectified, excising the twist thrown in for the event we imagine will happen. Siegel does undeniably show signs of talent, though. Getting the performances here speaks wonders for that fact, but certain sequences help the cause as well. The entire part in Philadelphia's Sharkey's bar at the end is beautifully shot in chaotic close-up, commencing with a stunning entrance for Oswalt in slomotion, the lights and reflections shining through. Michael Rapaport's integral supporting role also becomes fully realized here, finally pitting the two antagonists of the radio war together, face to face. Paul needs retribution and he does so in the only way he knows how. I just wish the stakes were higher; elevating the finale to a resounding crescendo rather than the quasi-meaningful whimper it delivers.
Youth in Revolt (2009)
You sweet angel of the lavatory Youth in Revolt
Wow, never underestimate the drawing power of Michael Cera. This kid is the most awkward looking and acting actor on the planet, destined to be relegated to one-trick pony status unless he stops letting himself be typecast, but my God does he have comedic appeal. The screening I attended for Youth in Revolt was sold out almost an hour in advance, something unheard of and definitely worthy of mention. You'd think people would be sick of him by now—I know I am—but the glimmer of hope that his character Nick's alternate persona Francois could grow some hair on the chest of his boyish innocence was too strong to resist. And you won't be disappointed in that department; Cera's creepily wide eyes, prepubescent moustache, and uninhibited actions are a laugh riot. Unfortunately, too much of his nerdiness still comes through the façade of cool, not enough to make this otherwise pretentiously dialogued, long-winded tale without merit though—it's deserving of a look for sure.
Miguel Arteta has had his hand in creating some very good subtle comedy, oftentimes pairing with Mike White's talents as writer, actor, or both. Arteta was behind the camera on The Good Girl and a brilliant short film Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody?, not to mention some episodes of the dramedy "Six Feet Under". In other words, he knows how to get laughs while remaining poignant and reserved. So, seeing him involved with Revolt was a bit surprising to me, especially since they had billed the trailers to be an uproarious comedy with "that dude from The Hangover", (hate to break it to you, but Zach Galifianakis is only on screen for about ten minutes). However, the actual film is a nice hybrid of styles, definitely the most purposeful comedy he's done, yet still retaining indie sensibilities and artistic flourishes. I forgive the overzealous use of slomotion—especially since it's utilized so cautiously, not too slow that it's added for dramatic effect or big laughs, but just slow enough to be noticeable and beg the question why—because I actually enjoyed the charmingly crude animation sequences, as well as the humorous quasi-splitscreen of pitting both Ceras in frame together, distinctly dissimilar to one another.
On to the film itself, the main plot concerns a soft-spoken, too nice 16-year old that has just met the girl of his dreams. Thanks to the deadbeat boyfriend of his mother, frightened by the three sailors he sold a lemon car too, the trio go to the woods to camp, causing fate to allow for the stars' alignment and Nick meeting Portia Doubleday's Sheeni Saunders. She is cut from the same cloth as he, in love with French New Wave while he Italian cinema and playing Serge Gainsbourg records to his Frank Sinatra—they are soulmates of the intellectual elite. Even their parents are similar in the fact their children are aliens to them; Nick's are borderline trailer trash and Sheeni's are religious kooks, neither quite the breeding ground for stimulating, unbiased discourse. But, while their delicate tastes are congruent, their lifestyles are not. Sheeni wants an adventurous future with a man full to brim in confidence and strength, two things any Cera character is lacking in immensely. Francois Dillinger is therefore introduced into the fold as the man Nick never had the guts to be. He's an unruly juvenile delinquent and sexual deviant, a perfect combination for some good fun.
I really liked the supporting cast going along for the ride, despite their limited involvement. Jean Smart has been playing the unbalanced, aging beauty queen to perfection for years now; Steve Buscemi seems to be filling out the loudmouth, hard-nosed parental figure this year, which is weird considering his own gawky build; and Fred Willard is brilliant with the laughs, that voice of his with its ever-fluctuating volume made for comedy. Adhir Kalyan is starting to make a name for himself of late, here playing a Brit and kindred spirit of Nick's, helping him get into more trouble; Erik Knudsen, as our lead's best friend Lefty, is the perfect amount of awkward obsessive; and, frankly, it's just always great seeing M. Emmet Walsh in front of the camera. As for our leading lady, I thought Doubleday did quite the job pulling off that wiser than her years' attitude, the muse behind the destruction that's definitely worth the effort. She is a little Lolita, casting her spell on Nick in such a way that it wouldn't surprise you if she pulled the rug out and crushed him for his troubles. Quite the enigma, she seems to also be caught under his spell boy would I like to know how he manages that one.
And that brings us to the indispensable work of one Michael Cera. It never ceases to amaze that he can play the same role over and over again, but do it so well that you sometimes forget you've seen it before. No one can deliver the lines he is given with better timing or biting sarcastic wit. It also doesn't hurt that he is so natural in his actions and expressions. He can get away with stuff like oddly crossed forearms or goofy, free-form arm-flailing when at a run, even eliciting a laugh rather than a scowl at is unoriginality. There is a sense of empathy with him, memories of a time when you yourself were that strange and introverted. I absolutely loved his reaction to getting kissed post-dog smooch by Sheeni, but I enjoyed Francois's oneliners and idiosyncrasies more. Just the way he smoked his cigarette, putting it to his mouth cupped in his palm and than out again, gripped between his ring and pinky finger is mesmerizing. The addition of the pinky ring and carefree attitude make this imagined miscreant my new hero. As for the pinky itself, well I won't mention where its other adventures lay—animated hilarity.
Taking Woodstock (2009)
Like ants making thunder Taking Woodstock
Truthfully, I believe that the thing so many detractors point to concerning Taking Woodstock is my favorite part of the whole endeavor. I thought that the trailers did a very good job of explaining that Ang Lee was telling a story about the behind the scenes construction of the festival, using Elliot Tiber's story of saving his parents motel and putting their sleepy little town on the map. If you want to see the concert and the music and the artists, rent Woodstock the documentary. Even when the show is in full swing, you never get closer than a glimmer of light at the center of a sea of people because it is not about the music. This is peace, love, and disharmony, showing the partiers, the hippies, the moneymen, and the international melting pot mixing together for an event the world had never seen. It is the reawakening of two elderly Jewish immigrants who have been waiting to die and the sexual awakening for Tiber himself, finally able to toss the suit aside and figure out who he truly is. The music is just the catalyst for all the human intricacies to come out.
It begins with Tiber's return home, attempting to save his parents from having the bank foreclose on their livelihood. The motel is in shambles—dirty sheets, an empty pool, and towels are an extra buck to use. By being the new town commerce department president, Tiber works his way towards a permit to have his annual music festival, or evening of record playing outdoors, and a new information booth to be erected and drive traffic in to stay at the motel. Here is the prodigal son returned, getting hellos and welcome backs from everyone in town, glad to have a young person with vision in Bethel. Money is tighter than ever, though, and his friends from the city are moving to San Francisco, so the sober realization that he has locked himself into a season made of a slow death makes him pay extra attention to the fact that the Woodstock Festival just got run out of town close by. With a permit already signed for music, a willing neighbor in Eugene Levy's dairy farmer Max Yasgur to supply land, and a surprising past friendship with the show's organizer Michael Lang, the stars appear to be aligned for Tiber to work some magic. The townsfolk no longer feel too happy to have him back though.
Demetri Martin doe a real good job at showing the shy and reserved Tiber, slowly discovering the man he wants to be. By watching his parents break out of their funk—Imelda Staunton is fantastic as the old woman manufacturing anti-Semitism to guilt her way to what she wants and Henry Goodman shines as the father finally able to express himself to his son, having more than just his wife to spend time with—he starts to envision a future. They now have the money to hire help with the mortgage paid off; he can move along and create a name for himself somewhere knowing they will be okay alone. But, of course, things are not that cut and dry. Secrets are uncovered within the family that cause what should be a joyous time to be sadly unsatisfying, yet their discovery allows for a move towards the future. And through it all we see the concertgoers arriving, organizers getting details ready for the show, and just a plethora of unique individuals passing by and interacting with Tiber as he journeys through the mass of humanity.
All the real moments of clarity come from these people periodically entering and exiting the film. There is Emile Hirsch's Vietnam veteran, ravaged by flashbacks and an unsympathetic brother in Jeffrey Dean Morgan, that allows the harmonious joy to wash over him, bringing back memories from before the horrors overseas; there is Paul Dano and Kelli Garner as tripped out hippies, adding some entertainment despite being involved in the most unnecessary scene of the movie with the prerequisite drug-induced colors and movement of static objects; and there's Liev Schreiber's cross-dressing, ex-Marine, head of security, doubling as the sage-like voice of reason for the Teichberg family, seeing the love they have for son Tiber as well as Elliot's blindness to that expression. I would actually compare the film to something like Bobby, not as good mind you, but a similar film using a historical event to show intertwining stories occurring on its outskirts. Even though everything revolves around this young man, it really is the characters that resonate rather than the story they are taking part in.
Ang Lee appears to really enjoy the split-screen, bringing it back from his Hulk days, but in much better use here. Whereas the gimmick back then was to give a comic book feel, showing the exact same thing three times from different angles, the current utilization displays the numerous activities going on, the comradery, the nudity, and the enjoyment of a weekend away from the constraints of capitalism as collage. This film is a slice of life, a sprawling epic about the people instead of the event itself, and that's exactly why I enjoyed it as much as I did. Everyone is crazy in some respect and watching them act insane is a lot of fun amongst the details of the time. The mudslides are in full use, every piece of metal is electrified come day three, and the chocolate milk is delicious. Taking Woodstock may not be some profound tale that needed to be brought in front of cameras, but it is a piece of history and nostalgic look back to a time when rock and roll could enrage a town and unite it. You don't have to look farther than good ol' Annie played by Bette Henritze, loving the yoga classes and the no longer vacant hotel rooms at her establishment. Sometimes you just have to let loose for once and live.
A film by a lot of people Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
I knew right after the above review title quote flashed across the screen that Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was going to be a fun time. Sony Pictures Animation did not let me down, keeping me enthralled and smiling for the entire duration. Based on a children's book from 1978, the film follows the exploits of a young scientist and his dreams of changing the world with his inventions. Up to adulthood, however, he has achieved little more that a 'menace to society' label from everyone in his small island town of Swallow Falls, where the staple of sardines has become there only source of food now that the world has realized they're gross. Small and subtle jokes such as this statement as a newspaper headline are sprinkled throughout to keep the audience's sense of humor on its toes while the feel-good story in the background continues on, reaching forward to the inevitable nerd-to-hero transformation wherein Flint Lockwood grows up and into his full potential.
The invention that becomes the final straw for Flint's disturbing the peace shenanigans is a machine that converts water into food, giving the people of his hometown something to eat besides the overabundance of sardines. Its baptism to the world is a disaster, ruining the mayor's asinine use of government money on a new theme park, soon becoming a happy accident of epic proportions. A malfunction due to too much power—I guess connecting the machine to an electrical tower wasn't the best of ideas—sends it into the atmosphere where it hovers above, taking in the cloud moisture and raining down hamburgers for all to enjoy. Let's not get into details about how that burger will be hot enough to be appetizing because there is a lot more to worry about, such as newfound fame in the community and the world. Flint is the toast of the town and fresh face of newly renamed Chew and Swallow, usurping the monopoly 'Baby' Brent had on the market after posing for sardine tins many years before. Even the cute weather girl intern sent to broadcast it all seems to be falling for him, she herself hiding nerd tendencies and a strong grasp of the scientific beneath her flighty, blonde facade.
Mutations are never an exact science and soon the food falling from the sky becomes too large and dangerous to contain. It becomes up to Flint and his friends to risk it all and save the town before the invention—named with a crazy acronym that has about six consonants and one vowel—takes over the world. The mayor wants nothing to change, except his ever-expanding waistband, and in an accidentally villainous role makes things even worse, using the 'like a son' card with the lad, made more meaningful by the lack in ability to express love from his real Dad. So, amidst the chaos, we meet a plethora of kooky characters all voiced by some great comedic actors as they try and help our lead regain control over the one invention that actually works. Well, that statement is a bit harsh considering that everything he's created—from a young elementary student until now—has worked. It's just that they all had minor problems turning that success into hazard or worse. Spray-on shoes is a great concept if you can ever remove them; monkey thought converters would be groundbreaking if a monkey ever could string together more than one loud word at a time, (great Neil Patrick Harris as Steve); and rat-birds would solve wait, what was he thinking with that one? I did like when one swooped down and snatched a child to which his friends screamed, "Just play dead!" The animation is really crisp and vibrant, utilizing a cartoony feel rather than a need for realism. Each character is an elongated caricature of a human, adding a sense of style that allows an audience to enter a new world and bask in the creativity. I do kind of wish I had seen it in 3D, though, because multiple instances appear to play to that technology's strengths. There are a few chase sequences that have us following the leads as they run and jump through obstacles flying out at our faces. But, the biggest compliment I can pay to the film is the fact that I enjoyed myself thoroughly without the gimmick. Every joke hits and the story is fun enough to succeed on its own merits. There is definitely something to be said about absurd comedic set pieces existing for the sole purpose to make you laugh. Oneliners abound, sometimes said in the distance so keep your ears open, and sight gags enhance the hilarity, oftentimes reminding me of the humor found in "Family Guy", only much cleaner for the young audience targeted here.
Bill Hader is great as Flint, with a sort of crazed innocence coming across, so sure of himself in the scientific world, yet completely unconfident in the realm of real-life relationships. Both James Caan and Anna Faris, as his father and love interest Sam Sparks respectively, are casting perfection. Faris is a riot; using that bimbo voice she pulls off so well to great use, especially when she has to talk about something brainy and genius-caliber smart. Samberg is a hoot as Brent and Bruce Campbell is channeling a bit of William Shatner in his portrayal of Mayor Shelbourne, but it is the venerable Mr. T as Officer Earl Devereaux that shines in the supporting category. It is such a treat to hear his voice—a wonderful complement to the overzealously athletic policeman. Everything is working within Phil Lord and Chris Miller's film, from the heart to the jokes to the visuals. It may not stand a chance against Up for awards glory, but it definitely sets itself apart as a film to be seen.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)
Like your job; love your wife Planes, Trains & Automobiles
Being the first John Hughes film I have seen since the writer/director's passing, I feel that I need to speak about the man's oeuvre along with the movie itself. I think many could make the argument that Planes, Trains & Automobiles is his best work. He wrote a lot of scripts, even into the years before his death, but as far as the ones he directed, you won't get one that resonates on an adult level quite like this. The Breakfast Club will always hold a special, nostalgic place in my heart, but, looking at his filmography, this 1987 entry is the one that doesn't deal with teenage angst. Not even speaking about the swearing—we are talking hard-R for one rental car rant alone—the subject matter is more buddy comedy dealing with serious heartache on the holidays than high school cliques and growing up. The consummate Thanksgiving film?
I'd say so. One of the best comedies ever made?
I think one could argue that statement as well.
It is weird how many comedies of this kind deal with a marketing/creative executive—the underrated Nothing to Lose comes to mind—but we open with Steve Martin's Neal Page watching his boss hem and haw about an advertisement, desperately needing to catch a plane home to his family in Chicago. The film quickly becomes a race against time to make it to the airport before 6:00, soon finding one man as a large adversary to this goal—John Candy's great Del Griffith. This character is the epitome of what made Candy such a great comedic talent. His jolly appeal sucks you right in, making you feel for him despite his obnoxious talent at talking unceasingly. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, smiling wide when he is happy and pouting darkly when being chastised for being himself. For anyone that wonders whether they need to change who they are to keep relationships should take a good look at most of Candy's roles, but especially this one, to see that all it takes is self-confidence and a love for yourself to succeed. If someone doesn't like you for who you are, well then they aren't worthy of knowing you anyways.
These two men find their lives to be intertwined for the next couple days, trying every way possible to get home. Between flight delays; inclement weather; a smoking and immobile train; a combustible rental car; awkward evenings in motel rooms; and just being two of the most opposite personalities to be put together in close quarters, the laughs are big and many. There are so many oneliners to be remembered and repeated—just ask my cousin who was quoting the film the entire day before we watched it—showing the talent that was Hughes. His ability to write how people speak was unequaled. He characters were real and very much based on people that we all have in our lives. Everyone has, or is, a stoic, serious, and cold Neal Page or an overbearing, kindhearted, loudmouth Del Griffith. No matter which they are, there is always something that makes them irreplaceable in your life; no matter their shortcomings, they are trustworthy, compassionate, and will risk their own lives for yours.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles is full of set pieces and physical comedy too, but you cannot deny the writing and how it weaves all the parts to make a cohesive whole. This odd couple could make any situation gold, so pitting them against each other in heightened circumstances, let alone so many in such a short time, will allow them to excel. Tragedy upon tragedy can easily become too much, be seen as contrived plot devices that are utilized to advance the story artificially rather than a natural sequence of events. For some reason, though, and I think it goes back to Hughes, it completely works here. The transitions are seamless and instead of dreading the "I wonder what will happen next" question, you begin to anticipate the next unfortunate mishap, relishing the comedic genius that will follow. Both Martin and Candy are at the top of their games here, honing the elastic zaniness that made them so effective in earlier years to complement the seasoned professionalism that their careers had taken on. Martin, of course, has continued to evolve and succeed even now, more than two decades later, so we can only imagine the great unforgettable roles we've missed since Candy passed away in 1994.
Again, though, no matter how important these leads are to the film, Hughes is the wizard behind the curtain. All the things he is known for, the final freeze frame, the schmaltzy music cues, (which somehow work effectively every time), and the reality of how humorous heartache can be are included. They are little trademarks, proving the auteur Hughes was, and make you wonder how different some of his scripted works would have been if he was behind the camera on them. There is also something to be said about his supporting characters—well written and integral despite the lack of screen time they are given. Someone like Kevin Bacon makes his villainous part three-dimensional while having no lines, emoting strictly from body language; Dylan Baker embodies backwoods hick like no other; and Hughes regular Edie McClurg takes the f-bomb laced rant from Martin like a champ, adding the perfect footnote to the sequence. And I think this is why his films are so cherished and unforgettable; they do all the little things right, making them masterpieces whether you feel their subject matter deserves the praise or not. They have all stood the test of time and will continue to do so for years to come, extending his legacy and securing his place in cinematic history.
Four Christmases (2008)
That's not a boy named Bjorn? ... Four Christmases
Perhaps I was in an overly good mood before bed, or maybe I was just so tired that I'd laugh at anything, but Four Christmases ended up being a pretty good time despite my trepidation and warnings to steer clear by friends. It was cute, somewhat innocuous, and had its fair share of big laughs. By no means is it great cinema, nor intelligent storytelling—its sub 90-minute runtime shows us only the craziness spending time with the four parts of two divorced marriages and nothing else—it does its job well. The characters don't evolve, no matter what you think at the end each person is really as selfish as they were at the start. A little dialogue and "talk" about the future does nothing to change that. However, that is what makes the movie fun. We don't want them to be kind or gentle, we need them to be cruel and hurtful because that is what makes it funny. We laugh because no matter how bad our own families are, they, hopefully, don't come close to the circus on screen.
Our leads, Vince Vaughn's Brad and Reese Witherspoon's Kate, are the biggest culprits involved. They like to tell themselves that they want to stay as far from their parents as possible, not get married, and not have children, because they'd only continue the cycle of dysfunction. Really, though, they are being as selfish as their elders, in the opposite way. Rather than grow to hate each other and separate to hopefully give the children a chance, they stay as close to each other as possible by not letting anything else in to ruin their equilibrium, even withholding facts about their childhoods, like being named Orlando or going to fat camp. One could even say that this duo is worse than the misfit parents/siblings, at least they want to see each other and celebrate Christmas amongst other life events, it is Brad and Kate that forsake all to share a boutique joy that is more of the moment than anything lasting.
The story basically is told in the trailer, our couple is grounded from their yearly tradition of lying to the family, (you can't spell families without "lies"), and going on tropical holiday. While bickering with the airline attendant, a camera crew comes over to ask their opinion about the fog ruining holiday plans, and the next thing you know their phones are ringing and the jig is up. Now they must stay in town and visit two mothers and two fathers separately, along with the motley crew of blood relatives. They discover their love for each other may not be as strong as previously thought and that maybe family is more important to them after all, whether it be theirs together or with the extended lot. Blah, blah, blah, they find things out that make them see each other for who they really are. But, honestly, none of that matters, the plot is thin at best and serves only to loosely connect all the comedic skits together. It is in the supporting roles where this film shines.
Don't get me wrong; Vaughn can make even the most inane script entertaining with his seemingly improv-laden schtick. His sympathy pukes are hilarious and his rendition of Joseph at Witherspoon's mother's church a knockout performance, but it is what the families do to him that brings the biggest laughs. Between his UFC-trained brothers beating him up every opportunity or the henhouse consisting of her mother and female-centric clan hitting on Vaughn and touching him whenever they can, his resulting facial reactions ultimately shine. Jon Favreau, as usual, steals most scenes he is a part of. Built of testosterone and machismo, his tearing down of brother Brad is pretty hilarious. And the scene with the game Taboo, it being a staple with my friends and I, just rung true—the sequence is orchestrated to perfection with the nuances to playing and how frustrating it can get. The other brother, however, is great too, played by a very underrated singer turned actor in Tim McGraw. He is able to express this sense of vulnerability that surprises me every time once I remember who he is.
Everyone else is memorable too. It's nice to see Kristen Chenoweth getting more roles and I always enjoy a good Dwight Yoakam bit part. Mary Steenburgen has seen a sort of renaissance in the past few years of comedy, not disappointing here as Witherspoon's mother, and Robert Duvall plays his crotchety best as deadbeat Dad to Vaughn. Sissy Spacek was entertaining as Vaughn's mother, a bit of a hippie and out of touch with the times, which adds humor to her use of the buzzer in Taboo, and even Jon Voight does an admirable job with the smallest role of the film from a name player. What's Christmas without the true meaning of the holiday being relayed through that guy's mouth? There are moments from them all throughout that got me laughing pretty hard; and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Nothing reaches the level of the opening scene, though, Vaughn showing Witherspoon's Connecticut sexual being how they grow men in the mountains of North Dakota. It's a great piece of role-playing that got me interested real early, making me forgive the weak story that I knew was to follow, by loosening me up for some laughter.
The Fourth Kind (2009)
Even with hypnosis, it's black The Fourth Kind
I don't care if The Fourth Kind utilizes real footage or not, it's a very powerful film. All the marketing materials allude to the fact that filmmaker Olatunde Osunsanmi interviewed psychologist Abigail Tyler and, by using actual footage of her hypnotizing patients and herself, recreated scenes to give the audience the full story of what is happening in Nome, Alaska. The technique is very effective—excising names, showing the actors' names and who they are playing, (mostly changed to withhold identities anyways), showing the "real" Tyler in split-screen with Milla Jovovich's representation of her, etc, etc. I will admit to doing as little heavy digging as possible, going into my screening with the absolute belief that it was true. Do yourself a favor and do exactly that if you want to take a gander. It may play like an episode of "Unsolved Mysteries" but boy does it pack a punch. You will be doing yourself a disservice by debunking it all first, if in fact it is debunkable, (which I think unfortunately now that it is). Go in blind and be riveted, frightened, and made into a believer.
You have to give Osunsanmi credit on orchestrating all of this. The detail put in is quite astonishing. His subject is a woman that witnessed the death of her husband Will Tyler, one that when in a trance appears to be a murder, stabbed to death while she watched. Hoping to finish his work in what is causing multiple disappearances in Nome, Abigail goes back to her job and discovers many residents of their sleepy little town have been experiencing the same late night traumas. Waking up around 3:00 am, they appear to confront a snow owl. But this is not an owl they see through their window every night, it is looking them in the eye from above their bed; it's in the room staring at them, making them feel uneasy. Only when they are put under hypnosis to recall the suppressed thoughts do they realize the owl was never there, it was just a manifestation to hide what truly occurred. Whether you believe in extraterrestrials or alien abductions is superfluous, the events shown will resonate and knock the wind out of you. The tears are real, the fear incalculable; these people have seen their worst nightmare and once you see that, what choice do you have but trying your best to never see it again? But it isn't just a document of the events; it is also reenactments of footage we are seeing as well as moments not caught on camera to fill in the spaces. Again, it can be looked upon as a bigger budgeted television special made to excite and question. You can't question the talent involved, though, with a cornucopia of journeyman talent. I think Jovovich acquits herself quite nicely and really delves into the psyche of a broken woman with Abigail, one who's world is dissolving around her as her mental state gets called into question. However, it is in the casting of Elias Koteas as her colleague and friend; Will Patton as Sheriff August, a man in need of hard evidence and truth; and Hakeem Kae-Kazim as a Sumerian translator who believes the doctor when no one else will, that excels.
Like the TV shows, though, the acting pales in comparison with actual archival footage depicting the real events. Whether or not it is fact or fiction, you cannot discount the effectiveness of these clips. If they are real, my God are they harrowing to view I'm still thinking about them even now, my eyes tearing in the pent-up anxiety they cause. If they are faked, these uncredited actors are pretty fantastic. The mix of amateurism and true feeling is too real to ignore. If they aren't real people on film they need to get some more parts in Hollywood because they blow their "professional" counterparts out of the water. Abigail Tyler is a force to reckon with in expression and sorrow and hope that answers will soon come. Her life is an exercise in futility as her actions are inconsequential motions against an immense, yet invisible force. When the creature/demon/whatever inhabits the body of a patient and tells her that prayer isn't necessary, he is already here and Abigail Tyler should end her study, I felt the confused fear in the pit of my stomach just as she must have been feeling it.
And how about "Scott" and "Tom" in their discoveries of their abductions. Between the murder/suicide and the demonic possession/levitation, the distorted footage is jarring. When Jovovich, as herself, explains at the start that some imagery may be disturbing, she was not kidding. Enter this film at your own risk. I don't know if going in under the assumption it is fake will cause the illusion to dissolve completely, making the "real" footage appear staged and horribly shot or not; what I do know is that if you go in believing, you will be punched in the gut a few times. Even though the camera goes on the fritz when an otherworldly manifestation appears—whether in Sumerian tongue or UFO spacecraft—what is deciphered through the skipping and fuzz is horrifying. Mouths opened wider than humanly possibly; deep, raspy voices of "God"; audible door creaks and the screams that follow, this stuff stays with you my friends. It may recall films like Blair Witch Project or the new sensation Paranormal Activity, but it's handled differently and as a result affected me more. By acknowledging that half the film is "fake" and only showing the "real" stuff when necessary or relevant, the truth factor becomes more believable. Call me gullible, call me stubborn, call me whatever you want; I say believe it all and let the story speak for itself. Whether it all comes out as a hoax or not, I cannot deny the physical reaction I had to it and that in itself makes it a success.
Last Chance Harvey (2008)
Are you trying to get me to buy you a new dress? ... Last Chance Harvey
It's the little film that could, Joel Hopkins' Last Chance Harvey. I remember it getting a limited run locally and then being surprised by Golden Globe nods for both leads, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. If the feel-good praise didn't get me to want to check it out, the award accolades did; however, it's not necessarily the type of film that I'd seek too ambitiously. But, when I had an hour to kill and Starz On Demand with a widescreen copy, I figured I could do a lot worse. The start was a bit off, very heavy-handed and kind of obvious, yet once the bottom falls out completely for Harvey and the inevitable meeting of he and Thompson's Kate occurs, the film finds its voice and really excels as a result. It may be sleight, it may be overtly romantic, but it also resonates emotionally and shows how it's never too late for redemption, love, or acceptance in oneself.
With a start that resembled another "father in turmoil" theme with Mrs. Doubtfire, we are introduced to Harvey Shine at work, seeing the technological advances in computerized tones taking over his craft at composing jingles. The job is a tenuous one at best with younger, cheaper, and inventive kids coming up behind him, and his daughter's wedding in London doesn't help matters, actually seeing his boss tell him to stay longer—basically confirming that the writing on the wall is true. His work has always come first, leading to a dissolved marriage and estrangement from his child, constantly on the phone as soon as he lands, attempting to solidify one last deal for the morning after the wedding back in the states. We see the awkwardness as he wanders through the rehearsal dinner seeing people he has never met—including the groom—and a family that has seen his wife's new husband completely take over his role as father.
Intertwined with all of this, as Harvey is the true star of the film, is some background for the love interest still to enter his life. Kate Walker is middle-aged and single, watching over her bored mother during her free time or attending a writing class with mostly people much older than her. It's not necessarily the life of someone actively seeking to find a man. She has gotten used to disappointment and almost expects and accepts it as the norm. Only when happiness seems to creep in does she start to feel nervous or anxious. We see it firsthand during a blind date setup from her airline coworker with a younger man, getting her hopes up that maybe he is interested in her only to watch as he meets some friends, invites them over to the table, and all but ignores poor Kate. She could cry and feel sorry for herself, but instead decides to move on and go back to her life of work, literature, and constant calls from her mother—who, by the way, is really a treat, played by Eileen Atkins, spying on her Polish neighbor whom she thinks is a serial killer.
And then comes the chance meeting—after two failed ones—in a coffee shop after both have been driven to the lowest points of their lives. After comparing sob stories and cracking a smile from the other, they continue to walk and spend the day together, brightening spirits and pushing the sorrows away. When Kate tells Harvey he has to go to his daughter's reception, after not planning on going to make a flight he missed earlier, the story truly picks up to become a very sweet and soulful tale. They get ready and rush over to the banquet hall, once a fun dress hunt montage completes, adding some trepidation about whether Harvey will be the embarrassment he has been known for or the father he has always wanted to be. It is a heartfelt sequence that makes the somewhat boring events of the night before relevant. I remember thinking how much more enjoyable Thompson and Hoffman together was compared to them apart in mundane situations that went nowhere, but attending the reception shows how exposition sometimes is necessary for success. Even James Brolin as the stepfather shows some nice emotional range, adding humanity to the "villain" Harvey has always seen him as. It really is a very memorable, in a genuine way, wedding night of family and fun.
Thankfully, though, it doesn't all end there; we do have to see the relationship of our older, star-struck couple through. Contrivances mount and it appears as though perhaps their love is not meant to be. It is not for lack of trying on Hoffman's part, surprisingly since he has always been known to put himself first, ruining any relationship he has ever had. But something about the British frankness of Thompson has refreshed his fervor for life and love, making him not only be his best, but also do his best to find her again. I guess one could say that the fact of this itself is selfish, trying to make him happy, but the script isn't looking to be studied that hard, it's only attempting to put a smile on the audience's faces, warming their hearts and instilling hope for all that good things do happen in this world, whether planned or by chance. And it really does the job, starting and ending with these two leads at the center, deserving of all the praise showered upon them. It may not be the best film ever made, or exceptional throughout its rather short runtime, but it is a solid tale that affected me emotionally and succeeded in what it set out to do.
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
Will you keep out all the sadness? Where the Wild Things Are
The movie is rated PG, but I will say that its dark overtones could be a bit much for really young children. Is it to the point where rumors swirled that it might have been completely re-shot due to Jonze's vision being too scary for its target audience? I don't think so, but buyer be warned anyway. Sendak's book shows a glimpse of temper and anger, a child acting out after not getting what he wants, soon becoming the king of a band of giant monsters looking for direction much like him. These beasts are the manifestations of our sorrow, our frustration, and our demons; they are the voices living within us, kept down by self-control and overcome by happiness and love. However, when those emotions are brought to life, unchecked, the end result can be nothing short of war, retribution, and malice. It becomes the duty of young Max, the creator of this imaginary world, to not only discover the love he has waiting back at home, but also to defeat the anger that has been bubbling to the surface, allowing him to even bite his mother in this cinematic version. We all need some time to let loose and run wild—howling to the moon—it is what we do after the burst of energy subsides that counts. Sometimes looking into a mirror is the only chance we have of becoming the people we should and hope to be.
Eggers and Jonze add so much depth to the tale, creating a world and life for Max, (Max Records), to take for granted. His father is, assumingly, deceased; his mother, (Catherine Keener), is busy supporting the family when not trying her best to cultivate Max's imagination and court a new boyfriend, (Mark Ruffalo); and his sister is at the age where acting cool for her friends trumps any remorse or sibling bond with a lonely and tossed aside brother. As KW, (Lauren Ambrose), says later on in the film, "It's hard being a family". Everyone is trying their best and working hard to stick together, but as Judith, (Catherine O'Hara), ponders, "Happiness isn't always the best way to become happy". Loneliness is a huge theme here, and we all face it, even when surrounded by people we live with and cherish. To be able to accept others, one must always be able to accept oneself. This becomes the biggest obstacle for Max to overcome, right alongside his fantastical equal in Carol, (James Gandolfini). The two are kindred spirits, wanting to stay in the past where they remember happier times, throwing tantrums and fits if they don't get their way, unknowingly pushing those they want closer, further away as a result.
It is some weighty stuff to deal with for both children and adults alike; a parable that spans all ages with its intrinsic focus on compromise, sharing, and seeing what is right in front of us for the pure gift it can be. Kudos to the filmmakers for never shying away from the darkness that inhabits each and every one of us; when the world begins to crumble, characters get angry, cause destruction, or cower in fright at what may happen next. We all fear the unknown, we all get scared when we see someone we love in trouble, but sometimes we forget that those by our side fear for us too when it is we who are lost. The true success of this story and film lies in the little things, like Alexander, (Paul Dano really adding some feeling to this ram-like beast), and Douglas, (the always wonderful Chris Cooper), knowing the game going on with Max, but trying their best to let the others be happy, even at the detriment of their own joy. Here are the two unselfish creatures in a land of egos. The other "wild things" prop up the film as well, however, in their vocal performances as well as puppetry. If you ever thought that costumed monsters from Jim Henson Studios couldn't make you cry, or at least feel something, you will know they can before the end credits roll.
Where the Wild Things Are needs these fantastical beings to have the emotional range of a human being in order to succeed. It also needs young Max Records to bear a large portion of the weight on his shoulders; he is alone on screen with the "wild things" for about eighty percent of the film. I will admit to being pretty confident on the first point, but a bit skeptical on the second after watching the trailer, (how beautiful is that mini-movie with Arcade Fire playing in the background?). However, I was completely wrong about Records, because his innocence is what keeps this tale pure. His childlike expressions of joy and fright are utterly realistic, taking him on a journey inside himself, discovering what it is to grow up and accept responsibility for oneself and those around him. As for the wild bunch of half animals/half humans—they are absolutely brilliant. The art direction is phenomenal and the use of practical effects meshed with CGI, (mostly in the faces), provides a sense of realism that fully computerized beings never could. Heck, even that Karen O soundtrack that I was so disappointed in last week became a magical score that breathed life into this classic story. I truly believe this film will become the treasured piece of art that its source material has. It deserves all the praise it gets for its ability to touch each audience member to the core, without ever preaching. It will touch you on a level so pure that you won't know what hit you, and you'll be remembering it hours afterwards, wanting to find that person you love so as to give them a hug to let them know how important they are to you.
It Might Get Loud (2008)
Total commitment It Might Get Loud
It Might Get Loud, a documentary about the beginnings of three prolific guitarists and how they use their instrument—Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White—won me over and finally showed me that attraction people have to rock 'n roll. These dudes are badass. Directed by Davis Guggenheim, he of The Inconvenient Truth as well as a slew of great television show credits, the story not only uses historical footage and interviews with the trio separately, but also puts them in the same room, with a plethora of their own axes, to converse, both verbally and rhythmically. Watching them play a song together is a real treat, seeing the pure joy they have of making music, catching a glimpse at the boyish wonder they have for each other, constantly looking to see what the others are doing, and comparing their styles. Page has not lost a step as he grooves and moves the entire time he is playing, lips pursing and expanding, the music taking control of his body; The Edge is the consummate professional, stoic concentration, standing straight and playing with determination; and White sits or stands casually and at ease, the guitar high and close, showing a bluegrass feel just like his voice and chords.
You may be wondering—as I did before going in too—what White is doing in this mix. Page produced the film, he got the group together to play, and so he must have seen something in the youngster. Maybe he needed juxtaposition with The Edge, a stripped down raw sound against the U2 man's heavy use of effects and computers, (when you hear the actual chords he plays without the digital enhancements, you won't believe it). Either way, it does not take long to see that the driving force of The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather belongs. The film does open up to him making a guitar out of a Coke bottle, plank of wood, and a single string after all. Who needs to buy a guitar? And his knowledge of the craft is extensive, with a childhood story that goes against odds to have gotten to the point he is at today. The youngest of ten children, never wanting to play the guitar, apprenticing at an upholstery shop, and having to force his sister to go on stage with him for their first gig, it all began with the exposure to a song by Son House, his favorite piece of music still to this day.
We know about Page and his days in the Yardbirds before Led Zeppelin. Heck, some may even know he was a session guitarist before that, playing on anything that came his way before finally needing to get out and create his own sound, to use a loud crescendo without recourse. However, did you know that The Edge would never have met Bono and company, U2 may never have been, if not for a flyer on his school's cork board looking to start a band? The foursome from Ireland were, admittedly, not that good at the start, but they continued on, finding their voice and politics as the years went. Only when Bono told him to take some time off and experiment by himself did he discover he could write. One may think these superpowers of rock music just got together and the rest was history, but no, they all had their "breastfeeding" moments, as captioned in the movie, instances where they had to work and keep going. It's a world based on hard work, no matter what your occupation, to resonate and reach the masses means earning it.
No matter how enthralling the background stories and early footage of the three—through video, stills, whatever they had available to share—it is the electricity seeing the trio together that caught my attention. I'd love to see the unedited reels of just that meeting in January of 2008. What is shown is wonderful, but too brief. Sure, the moments of jamming are wonderful, but the conversations are always cut short. I wanted to see them pick each other's brains. You get a little of that with Page asking The Edge if he was sure the one note was supposed to be a C, or when The Edge relays to the others during the credits that he had been playing the wrong note the whole time they covered a song, but that's just correcting each other and having fun. There had to have been questions like, "how did you do that?" or "how was it doing that?" or even "how high were you when you wrote that?" Maybe the DVD culls some of those moments; it would be well worth the purchase I'm sure.
It's a rare thing to see artists interviewing artists, or just being in close proximity and watching what occurs. The more straightforward documentary parts are even narrated by them alone; only a few instances bring in an outside source, presumably Guggenheim, to pass on a query. One of the most memorable scenes is just Page in his home library full of vinyl, wall to wall. He takes a 7" out of its sleeve and puts in on the player so he can show us the power of "Rumble," a rock instrumental by Link Wray. The legend just stands in front of the camera giggling like a little boy, face full of unadulterated joy. He starts to mimic the hand movements, playing air guitar to the song, as he explains the distortion progression as the song continues on. We are experiencing a piece of history filmed live, watching one of the greatest guitarists on the planet show his cards and lift the curtain to what inspired him. And that is what these three men are: inspirations. They touch people young and old, hit them emotionally and create change, either large or small. They are living the dream and looking cool doing it.
The Road (2009)
I don't want to just survive The Road
Despite a trailer that was cut to bring in disaster film audiences, Bobby was safe from my wrath because it appeared his brother and he let Hillcoat's vision stick, creating one of the best films of the year thus far. Please do not take the preview as gospel, because it does a terrible job marketing the movie. This is an independent production with very dark tones—one scene with a basement full of people held captive, thin and missing limbs, as food storage for the monsters living above is just one example—as well as a riveting story dealing with life, death, family, and sacrifice. The make of a father is tested when the world is at an end. If it is between putting a bullet into the head of your child rather than allow him to be eaten, one must come to grips with mortality and pride. If the world around you is disappearing, burning, becoming a land of criminals, is it good enough to just survive? When you get away from whatever trouble is in your backyard, is it enough when you just have to continue running with a new test awaiting you? There is no safe haven; no piece of earth hidden from the horrors that have taken over
to live is to run.
Don't be surprised when the big names you heard were in the film don't appear until late or show up for very brief stints when they do. Some are seen only in flashbacks, others are blips on the radar as "The Man" and his "Son" journey, day by day, to live for the next. The Road is all about Viggo and young Kodi Smit-McPhee, (who is great—many are hailing him as a revelation, but I think time will tell on that one), as they come across allies as well as their share of villains too. Small roles notwithstanding, both Garret Dillahunt, as a hick trucker looking for red meat of any kind, and Robert Duvall, as an old vagabond trying to mind his own business in the wasteland, are outstanding. Especially Duvall, who I'll admit has been phoning in some performances of late with too much gravitas. His "Old Man"—can you sense a theme with the character names—is subtle and real, wrinkles and crags making up his face, dirt and grime coating it all. Hillcoat knows how to let an environment consume his viewers, leaving nothing to be pretty for pretty's sake. Like his Australian western of two years ago, the lack of showers and clean, running water is noticeable throughout.
There aren't any explosions or big time battles between good and evil; all those shots of news footage used in the trailer as though our central family watched them on television do not exist. One day a husband and his pregnant wife were enjoying their lives when disaster struck. It doesn't matter what the cause was or where it started, all we need to be aware of is that the destruction was all encompassing, worldwide, and unstoppable. The morality of letting a child be born into a life of fear and death becomes an early theme, the birth of Smit-McPhee's character a question mark in his first days. Going through so much for that son, Mortensen lives for nothing else, his own life expendable as long as when he goes he knows the boy has a chance. What chance that is, no one knows. The next day could bring the discovery of a hidden bunker full of non-perishables; it could bring a loner vagrant passing by while they sleep to steal all they have accumulated; or it could mean seeing the enemy over the hills, on the verge of discovering them, causing their lives' worth to be left in favor of a rapid getaway. The real beauty of the film is how it never lulls or takes a shortcut. You will be on the edge of your seat for the duration, waiting to see when the moment will come that they can't get away.
A story of hope, it is also one of hardship and sacrifice. Some risk everything for another; some risk themselves in order to survive. When the choice becomes finding a man to eat or take from an unsuspecting child, sometimes you have to do the lesser of two evils no matter how much of your soul it takes with it. Mortensen embodies these sentiments, but so do others along the way. I must mention Michael K. Williams as "The Thief", a man so lost on his own journey of survival that he just can't help himself. You know that he is a man of honor and kindness that had no choice, but then you must think of the fact that he did, he could have allowed himself to die rather than take from innocents. But that's the rub, no one is innocent, not even "The Boy" as evidenced when Smit-McPhee yells at his father to say that he also must face what's going on each day. Viggo isn't shielding him from the terrors around every corner; just because he is young doesn't mean he hasn't grown up quick; it's all he could do to stay sane and move along with all the pains of his past and knowledge of those still to come. It's a tough watch, but well worth the time and effort to see a true masterpiece of tone and humanity—the good parts and the bad.