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Infinity Baby (2017)
Not So Black and White
18 April 2017
Recently screened at the 60th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival, Bob Byington's "Infinity Baby" has all the hallmarks of modern independent film – a quirky concept masking a comment on the modern human condition, crisp (black and white) cinematography, a soundtrack by some hip musician and a cast of indie stalwarts. Combined they make for a film that, at 71 minutes, actually makes you wish it had fleshed out its ideas a bit more.

Set in the not-so-distant future, screenwriter Onur Tukel's quirky concept at play is that through a stem-cell research project gone bad, there are now about a thousand babies running around being "marketed" by a company (Infinity Baby) that never age and can be fed and be expected to poop just once a week. They never grow up. A ha! The same can be said for the film's protagonist Ben, an employee of the company and commitment-phobic guy who dates women just long enough to have his mother disapprove of them and then move on. A side plot involves two other employees of the company looking to make a quick buck by keeping one of the babies for a while, but things fall apart pretty quickly.

The film is on "hold review" so a full critique will have to wait, but there's much to like about this film, beginning with the cast – Kieran Culkin as the man-child, Megan Mullally as his mother, Nick Offerman as the company boss (they're both Executive Producers on the film,) as well as Martin Starr, Kevin Corrigan and Stephen Root.

The film looks good with cinematography by Matthias Grunsky and some retro-editing by Kris Boustedt. The film sounds good with a soundtrack by Aesop Rock. Director Bob Byington has indicated in some interviews that it might be re-edited, so perhaps its interesting premise will be expanded on in future screenings and before its eventual release.
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Brokeback Mutton
16 April 2017
One wouldn't think that Ang Lee's seminal "Brokeback Mountain" would be ripe for a remake already, but damned if first time feature director Francis Lee hasn't moved the action from the American West to the hills of Yorkshire, England and come up with a comparable film. Recently screened at the 60th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival, "God's Own Country" is the tale of young sheep farmer Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor) struggling to keep his family farm going while avoiding coming to terms with his sexuality. Salvation (in many ways) arrives in the form of a Romanian emigrant worker, played by Alec Secareanu.

The film is awaiting a commercial release so a full review isn't possible but let me say that the film is terrifically acted, beautifully shot, occasionally erotic and gut-punchingly emotional. It doesn't skirt away from the realities of the harshness of either farm life or the challenges of living as a gay man in a rural community. Thick accents make the film difficult to understand at times, but a scene between Johnny and his father (Ian Hart) that culminates in two crystal-clear words will make you shudder.

There are some striking similarities to the Lee adaptation of the Annie Proulx story (shirt smelling, again?), but it stands on its own and is, in some ways, an improvement. The ending, in particular, is significantly more uplifting. It also has something to say about the value of immigrants that could stand to be heard in this country.

This is one to look for in a few months at your local independent or art house theater.
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Boulevard (2014)
A Final Bow
9 July 2015
It's been nearly a year since we lost Robin Williams to a long-standing bout of depression that eventually led to his suicide. This led to an enormous outcry of grief all over the celebrity and social media world from those who had grown up on his movies, television and standup and caused many to reflect on this talent that we had perhaps taken for granted. No one can deny that his movies weren't always diamonds, but his work in them was almost always admirable and memorable. The fact that he spent the last couple of years of his life giving great performances in terrible little-seen direct to VOD films ("The Angriest Man In Brooklyn", "A Merry Friggin' Christmas"), with the occasional cameo in something truly awful ("The Big Wedding"), is a rather tragic thought. But fortunately, with Dito Montiel's newly released film Boulevard, Williams goes out strong, if not quite on top. Williams plays Nolan, a man who's stuck in your typical indie-film marriage, i.e. loveless. He's friendly and cordial with his wife, but is clearly missing something vital. One night he's driving home and spots a group of gay hookers on the sidewalk and after nearly accidentally running one over, he befriends him and starts to confront his closeted homosexuality. He gets advice from his friend Winston, played by Bob Odenkirk, who brings all the levity and spontaneity that you'd hope for from the guy who plays Saul Goodman in a role that could have felt a tad superfluous. He's clearly only in the movie to give Nolan a person off which to bounce his thoughts, but with an actor like Odenkirk in the role, it's hard to complain about such matters. If you feel like you've seen this film before, you probably have. We've seen this suburbia set-up many times over the last couple of decades, so when a film goes for this, you really have to count on strong performances and interesting surprises to make it worth your while. Thanks to Williams' tender, vulnerable, aching performance, the film always stays on the side of watchable, and often fascinating. An electronic synthesizer score often tends to call too much attention to itself and distract from the fine performances by not just Williams, but also Roberto Aguire as Leo, the young man whom Nolan befriends. Fortunately though, once the film firmly establishes what it's about, such distracting little director quirks either ceased altogether, or just stopped bothering me. Certainly for someone like me, a huge fan of his work, it's impossible to watch Williams play such a sad, morose character and not be reminded of what happened shortly after this film was finished. It's just unavoidable. But thankfully, that would just be me reading too much into the story. The man was an actor, and an excellent one at that. Remove all of the comedies from his resume, and you're still left with one of the most impressive collections of dramatic performances in recent memory. This film is no exception. Every time he smiles to avoid confronting the pain and confusion that Nolan feels so strongly, we don't question him in the slightest bit. When we see him look at Leo with his expression of sorrow and pity, it's impossible not to feel right there with him. It may not be best film of Williams' career, and it's a real shame that he never experienced the ultra renaissance that I'm sure was on the horizon for him, but as a film for an actor of this stature to go out on, he could have done much worse than "Boulevard". Grade: B
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40 years in 82 minutes? Hardly...
9 June 2015
If you think there couldn't be much more to be said about Saturday Night Live after the three hour long 40th Anniversary Special that aired back in February, you're mostly right. That didn't stop cinematographer (now documentarian) Bao Nguyen from adding more to the mix with Live from New York!, his attempt to capture the social and cultural impact and influence of four decades of the 90 minute late-night broadcast.

Consisting mostly of a series of interviews with former and current cast members and a couple of the "Five Timers Club", the film breaks little new ground and covers familiar territory to anyone who's read Tom Shales's book ("Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live…") or Doug Hill's book ("Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live") or Alison Castle's recent compendium "Saturday Night Live: The Book" or seen any of the ubiquitous "SNL Decade" specials that run incessantly on VH1. There's really nothing new regarding the show's origination, its original casting, Lorne Michaels, etc. It is, however, good to hear Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman counter the usual "boys club" criticism hurled at the show from time to time and for Garret Morris to address his marginalization in the early years.

Current cast members address the recent controversy over the show's "lack of diversity" but, again, if you've read Entertainment Weekly or Rolling Stone or any number of blogs you pretty much know what's going on there. There's also an over-reliance on current cast members for interviews and commentary that gives this film sort of a 'promotional' feel to it and less of a sense that it's a documentary.

You've heard or read about most of the other subjects covered – cast changes, firings, the post 9/11 show, presidential debates, etc. What we haven't seen or heard before is much about the crew and technical artists who've worked behind the scenes, some since the first broadcast. Nguyen gives them their due and they deliver with some insight and humor on the backstage goings-on of a live production. He also shows the late Don Pardo the respect a broadcasting legend deserves.

Running a fast 82 minutes (wouldn't you think the story of a program that's run 40 years might take a bit longer?) , Live from New York! seems more like a DVD extra than a stand-alone documentary.
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Futuro Beach (2014)
A Visually Stunning Snapshot of the Voyage that is Life
12 March 2015
As beautiful a cinematic essay on the subject of fear as I've seen in a while, Karim Aïnouz's "Futuro Beach" manages to cover a plethora of fears common to the human condition - fear of solitude, fear of commitment, fear of rejection, fear of change, fear of death (hell, even fear of water is covered) – and the remarkable human ability to overcome them.

Donato (Wagner Moura) is a lifeguard at a Brazilian Beach who is only able to save one of two German tourists from drowning. Having never had to face death before, he reaches out to the surviving tourist Konrad (Clemens Schick) and soon finds himself in a complex relationship that leads him to question who he is and what he wants from life. Faced with making difficult choices, including the decision to abandon his younger brother and mother and relocate to Germany to join Konrad, Donato finds that his fears have followed him. Eventually isolating himself from Konrad and still unable to deal, he finds himself living a solitary life until he comes face-to-face with his past. Only then can he finally begin the journey of self-acceptance necessary to move beyond the fears that have held him back from experiencing a full life.

Cinematographer Ali Olay Gözkaya's stunning photography captures the natural beauty of the Brazilian and European locations and enhances the story's mood and tone. Performances are strong from the two principals and the two actors playing the younger brother Ayrton, ages 10 and 18 (Sávio Ygor Ramos and Jesuíta Barbosa,) also acquit themselves nicely. The scenes with the two brothers ably capture the special bond often shared between male siblings.

Often jumping from moments of quiet and solitude to scenes with pulsating sounds and action, "Futuro Beach" grabs you from its opening shots of motorcyclists dwarfed by the turbines of a wind farm to its concluding POV imagery of another motorcycle trek down an endless road at dusk. It excels at cinematically and dramatically capturing a snapshot of the often emotionally treacherous voyage that is life.
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Narcissus' Pool is Now a Digital Camera
4 December 2014
"Point and shoot" can describe what you do with a camera in order to capture life. "Point and shoot" can also describe what you do with a weapon in order to take a life. These two concepts collide in filmmaker Marshall Curry's latest documentary, which just happens to be entitled "Point and Shoot".

Curry's film consists mostly of footage shot by its subject, one Matt Van Dyke. Mr. Van Dyke is an excellent representative of the current generation and its incessant need to digitally record each and everything about their lives and then foist it upon the public to provide validation for their existence. Van Dyke, a sheltered (some would say spoiled) individual with mental health issues (he admits to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but this film leaves you with the feeling there may be a whole lot more at play) decides that he wants to undertake a "crash course in manhood" through North Africa via a motorcycle and, of course, a video camera or two.

What might have been a semi-interesting documentary about world travel and the search for meaning in life soon takes a dark turn as Van Dyke ends up fighting on the side of the rebels during the Libyan revolution. Admittedly, there is value in the footage Van Dyke provides that gives us a rare look at a revolution from the inside, but the price we have to pay for that glimpse is more footage of Van Dyke posing and preening for the camera. This culminates in a stomach-churning scene where Van Dyke is pressed to kill a Libyan soldier, which at first he seems reluctant to do, but ultimately accepts – only after making sure his camera is recording it.

To have a film produced based on footage you shot of yourself must be a narcissist's wet dream. Van Dyke probably sees the release of this film as validation for all the choices he made and affirmation of his "manhood". At first glance, Curry seems to have provided this validation. Look deeper and you'll see a trenchant commentary on the voyeuristic nature of society today and how the meaning of "manhood" has changed from personal growth that is reached through a series of challenges and encounters to the filming and public exhibition of said transformation for all to see.

Matt Van Dyke's camera was clearly pointed at himself. Marshall Curry figuratively takes Van Dyke's camera and turns it back on us. As much as we don't like what we see in Van Dyke, when we think about what we watch today, be it "entertainment" or otherwise, should we feel any better about ourselves?

"Point and Shoot" is as frustrating and infuriating a film as I've seen in a long time.
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A Terrible, Terrible Moral Dilemma
7 October 2014
From 1971 to 1975 I lived on the island of Puerto Rico. As my father was an employee of the Federal Government, my siblings and I attended school on a military base. I went to Antilles Middle School on Fort Buchanan from third to seventh grade. I remember two things most clearly from this time. First, our classrooms were WWII era barracks and secondly, every couple of months the entire school was sent down the hill to cheer on various military leaders who were coming in by chopper. On a couple of occasions, we were told that we were cheering for Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland, the former Commander of US Military Operations in Vietnam. Viet Nam was something that I was aware of as a young boy, as I was a voracious reader of newspapers (because they were in English) and magazines. The only time I heard my father, a WWII and Korean conflict veteran, mention it was in the context of him moving his family to Canada if they drafted his sons. Not that any of us were anywhere near draft age, but it gives you a sense of the feeling that the war would never end. Certain images from the front pages of newspapers of that time are burned in my memory, including the image of the rooftop helicopter evacuation of Americans from Saigon. That evacuation is the focus of "Last Days in Vietnam", a new documentary by Rory Kennedy. With archival footage, newly released recordings and interviews with pilots, evacuees, and those left behind, Kennedy tells the gripping tale of the men who did their damnedest to uphold American honor and personal responsibility. This is the story of how they dealt with the "terrible, terrible moral dilemma" (as said by one of the interviewees) of deciding who to evacuate. Devoid of most of the politics of the day, Kennedy focuses on the men who, while not specifically given the responsibility for getting as many people out as they could, took it upon themselves to rescue those who faced certain death at the hands of the approaching North Vietnamese forces. The marines on the ground, the chopper pilots in the air, and the naval commanders at sea are all given their due for the incredible work that they did in evacuating approximately 170,000+ people in an amazingly short period of time. There are no villains in this film. Ambassador Graham Martin, the person responsible for ordering an evacuation, is treated fairly, as questions are raised and answered as to why an "official" evacuation had not begun earlier, and why thousands were left behind. Heroes are plentiful, from the American pilots who flew for 24 hours straight, to the South Vietnamese pilots who did whatever it took to rescue their families and friends. Most telling as to the emotional toll this event took on those involved is the overwhelming sense of regret and sorrow you get from interviews with US Marines responsible for Embassy security, and the images they witnessed as the last chopper departed Saigon – thousands of people left on the Embassy grounds that had been assured they would be rescued. The evacuation of Saigon is probably the least known component of the Vietnam War as it occurred two years after the Paris Peace Accords had been signed and the US had withdrawn all combat troops. It deserves to be better known and understood and the people involved appreciated, and this film goes a long way in recognizing the honor and bravery of those tasked with an impossible mission. It's a tribute to Kennedy's skill as a filmmaker that she manages to take a story to which we all know the end and writes a seemingly new, riveting chapter. While the Vietnam experience is often looked at as the nadir in American foreign policy and military engagement, "Last Days in Vietnam" shows us that, even at its lowest point, there were those who stood tall and went above and beyond the call of duty to uphold American honor and simple human dignity.
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When Intellectualism Was Entertaining
18 June 2014
I was introduced to Gore Vidal by my tenth grade high school history teacher. Mr. D'onofrio set aside one class period for his students to watch a one-hour interview he had taped from a late night TV interview. This was 1980, long before home video recording was the norm and you could still occasionally catch an author, historian, or philosopher on late night television. Most of my fellow classmates were bored stiff, but I was fascinated by the things Mr. Vidal was saying – things I hadn't heard anyone else say about the state of government and how things really worked in Washington.

I searched for material on and by Mr. Vidal, which led me to his play/film The Best Man, which took a decidedly different look at a Presidential Nominating Convention than anything Walter Cronkite ever showed us, and Myra Breckinridge, the most notorious film of its time. (I was too young to see it, and Vidal disowned it anyway.) I sought him out on TV, where had had become somewhat ubiquitous, and always found his interviews thought provoking.

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, a new documentary by Nicholas Wrathall, was a trip down memory lane for me. A decidedly one-sided look at Vidal's life and influence, the film – via archival footage and interviews with Vidal shortly before his death in 2012 – gives a pretty complete picture of who he was, what he thought, and the battles he undertook almost to his last breath. A bastion of the liberal left, Vidal never towed the party line. As harsh a critic of Kennedy as he was of Nixon, Vidal saw the election of Barack Obama as the final indication that the Republican Party would soon go the way of the Whig Party. Would he were around today to see the resurgence of the Tea Party.

Author, politician, atheist, playwright, political commentator, humanist, screenwriter, film actor – all roles with which Vidal undertook with gusto, verve, and the conviction of his ideas. The strengths of those convictions led to two notable feuds that are covered substantially in this film. Authors William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer both had memorable encounters with Vidal and thankfully both are preserved on videotape. Vidal's two runs for public office, once for a New York House seat, and once for the U.S. Senate versus Jerry Brown, gives us a glimpse at a man who was willing to put his money where his mouth was, even though he spent substantially less money than Brown did in the Senate race.

The film also gives us a more substantial look at Vidal's private life, particularly in the long relationship he had with Howard Austen (a man he lived with for over 50 years with whom he claims he never had a sexual relationship) and with the friendships he had with the likes of Tennessee Williams, Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman.

More autobiography than biography, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia is 90 minutes of pure, unabashed Vidal, interspersed with some of his most caustic comments, ie "Our form of democracy is bribery, on the highest scale." or "Envy is the central fact of American life." The film happily reminds us of a time when intellectuals could be entertaining and thought provoking, and unhappily of what passes for intellectual debate today.
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Borgman (2013)
Creepy, Creepy, Creepy
18 June 2014
Warning: Spoilers
There are horror films that make you scream, horror films that make you jump, horror films that make you laugh, horror films that make you wince and horror films that make you sick to your stomach. Then there are horror films that just creep you out. These films leave you with a feeling of uneasiness and a palpable sense of dread. They are the type of films you end up thinking about long after you've seen them and ignite those same creepy feelings all over again. "Borgman" is one such film. This Danish film by director Alex Van Warmerdam creeps you out from the beginning and doesn't let go – even after the end. The film opens with a group of town leaders gathering knives, guns, and pitch forks to go after something or someone that has obviously disturbed them greatly. Turns out it's the title-character, who along with several henchman /women, have taken to living in underground compartments. Flushed from their lairs by the inflamed citizenry, they scatter and Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) ends up knocking on the door of a somewhat affluent suburban family. He asks to take a bath. Refused entry to the home and beaten up by the owner (Jeroen Perceval) after Borgman insinuates he knows his wife (Hadewych Minis), the wife takes pity on Borgman and lets him convalesce in a guest house. Slowly, Borgman insinuates himself into her life. He cleans himself up, gets hired on as the new gardener and is soon joined by his compatriots. Together, they insinuate themselves into the lives of the husband, the children, and even their nanny. What is Borgman's plan? How far is he willing to go to ensure its success? What happened to the old gardener? What is the strange scar that can be seen in the center of Borgman's back and in the same spot on all of his co-horts? What are they doing to the children? Why are they doing what they're doing? Why? Why? WHY? Warmerdam, who appears in the film as one of Borgman's cronies, leaves you with no answers, just a hell of a lot of questions, compounded by some of the eeriest scenes and unnerving imagery this side of Charles Laughton's "The Night of the Hunter". His "Borgman" is the type of film of film that leads to lengthy post-film discussions… and at least one restless night of sleep.
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Don't read this or any other review!
7 May 2014
Well, OK. Read this one.

I just caught this film at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival. It was a last minute addition to the Festival program, and it was probably the best film I saw there (though my attendance this year was, admittedly, limited.) After an evening of seeing two mediocre films, I was seeking out something to end the evening on a high note. Playing at 9:15 was a film entitled "The One I Love" starring Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss and Ted Danson. As there was nothing in the program about the film, I grabbed the ol' smart phone and started to do some research. The first thing I found was a plea to STOP reading about the film and JUST GO SEE IT. Needless to say, I found this very intriguing… so I did just that. And I was glad that I did. I will say little about this film and what I do say may not generate any interest in the film for you, but if you like films with terrific performances and an original thought behind them, then consider checking this film out when it plays in your area.

Duplass and Moss play a married couple whose relationship has grown stale. Seeking the help of a therapist (Danson, whose on-screen time is probably less than five minutes), they agree to go on a retreat and try to rediscover and reignite the feelings they once had for each other.

And that's where I have to stop.

Screenwriter Justin Lader was in attendance and had a great Q&A session with SFFS Programmer Rod Armstrong and the audience but I can't even discuss THAT as it too would spoil your complete enjoyment of this film. Hell, I went looking for a trailer to post for the film before I realized that there isn't one because… well, you know what trailers usually do.

So take a chance. Resist the urge to figure out what I'm NOT trying to say. "The One I Love" is the kind of movie that can generate hours of post-film discussion, particularly with your significant other. If you love movies, then you should respect that.
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The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name... In Spanish
21 January 2014
Warning: Spoilers
It seems like every other day or so there are news reports of the latest state to honor marriage equality, either through the legislative process or through a court rejection of discrimination. The tide has turned quickly in this country on the issue of gay civil rights, and it's obvious to all but the most closed of minds that's in no longer a question of "if" but "how soon" before the gay community is seen as just another fully acknowledged component of our magnificent multicultural society.

In other countries - not so much. Putin's anti-gay crusade in Russia and his counterpart in Uganda demonstrate that simply being gay is still a dangerous proposition in many parts of our world. This global struggle, reduced to the microcosm of two young men in Cuba, is at the heart of "The Last Match" (La Partida), director Antonio Hens' latest examination of the lives of gay youth.

Reinier (Reinier Diaz) and Yosvani (Milton Garcia) are two young men surviving in the barrios of Havana. Reinier, who is married and has a child, supports his family (with the explicit approval of his mother-in-law) by prostituting himself to wealthy male tourists. Yosvani, engaged to the daughter of a black marketer, is living off the largesse of his soon-to-be father-in-law (Luis Alberto Garcia). The two come together on the local soccer field and become fast friends. After a night of partying at a local disco, they find themselves sharing a quick kiss. This initial physical interaction leads into a physical relationship that quickly grows into a deep, emotional bond.

But life in Cuba is not easy, and being gay in Cuba isn't going to make it any easier. Reinier is more grounded in reality, as harsh as that reality may be. One escape for him may be to go back to Europe with a wealthy tourist (His mother-in-law's preferred action. She wants him to go back to Spain and marry the guy – because it's legal there - then send for her and his family.) Another escape may be via joining a national soccer team.

Yosvani wants nothing more than to be with Reinier. He sees money as the solution to their problem. With enough money, they can just leave and go anywhere they want and be together. Rainier's simple, pitiful response – "Where?"

"Where?" indeed. Both young men act on their desire to escape, culminating in a quietly devastating conclusion that is sure to annoy some. Director Hens may be accused of adding another entry to the long line of "gay lovers are doomed" canon, but an honest examination of the story and the circumstances portrayed should lead one to see that it really couldn't end any other way.

As the leads, Diaz and Garcia give affecting performances. While the film has its sexually explicit moments (and there is obviously a level of commitment and comfort required to pull those scenes off) it's in the quieter moments that these young actors really impress. One gets a real sense of the longing and passion these two characters share for each other, and one's heart breaks (as Yosvani's does) as the passion gives way to practicality.

With genuine, heartfelt performances by the two leads (and good supporting work from Luis Alberto Garcia as the menacing profiteer), "The Last Match" is a well written and sensitively directed look at love from a different cultural perspective - the love that, sadly, still 'dare not speak its name' in too many languages and in too many places in this modern world.
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Dumbbells (2014)
Dumberer and Dumberer
13 January 2014
What can be said about "Dumbbells" that hasn't already been said about "Porky's","Losin' It", "Fraternity Vacation", "The Last American Virgin", "Screwballs", "Private Resort", "Hot Dog: The Movie", etc.? Not much, actually. They're all movies aimed at a specific audience demographic (young, horny males) and are filled with the requisite T & A and low-brow humor. They aren't all terrible films, but they won't end up on any AFI "Best" list, either. They set the bar low and, more often than not, succeed at some level.

So it is with "Dumbbells", a new film directed by Christopher Livingston and seeing a limited theatrical release now as well as being available via Video-on-Demand. This low-budget, amiable piece of cinematic fluff tells the tale of one Chris Long (Brian Drolet), art major and superstar forward for the NCAA basketball powerhouse that is LA Tech. (That alone is good for a laugh…) who after wrecking his knee, finds himself working at a dead-end job in a rundown gym. Things look to be going from bad to worse when the gym is taken over by former male supermodel Jack Guy (former male supermodel Hoyt Richards) who has dreams of producing a gym-based reality TV series to be hosted by Fabio. (Yes, apparently in Hollywood people still have dreams involving Fabio...) Things go from bad to worse to worser when Jack discovers a cult he was once involved in has absconded with all his money. Ah, but he has a plan to recover his money and save the gym. And so it goes…

A more interesting film might be made from the story of how star/co-screenwriter/co-producer Richards got some (fairly) well-known faces to appear in this film. Who? Well, comedians Tom Arnold and Jay Mohr (miles away from "True Lies" and "Jerry Maguire") have small roles. The aforementioned Fabio is along for the ride, Jaleel "Urkel" White plays the cult leader, and Hollywood living-legend Carl Reiner does a bit. With all due respect to Mr. Livingston, one wonders what might have been if they had been able to talk Carl Reiner into directing "Dumbbells" instead of appearing in it.

Accompanying Reiner in his bit is Nancy Olson (light years away from her Oscar-nominated role in "Sunset Boulevard") whose appearance so intrigued me I had to immediately try to figure out why. (Check the director's IMDb page for the obvious reason as to why she's in this film.) Also intriguing is the fact that apparently a bit of this film is autobiographical. Richards had his own cult experiences, and I suppose one could give him credit for taking what must have been a very difficult time for him and making light of it.

As low-budget comedies go, "Dumbbells" falls somewhere between complete disaster and rousing yuck-fest. A likable cast helps, and while you could have fun playing "spot the continuity errors", set your expectations as low as the budget and you'll find it a pleasant and surprisingly inoffensive (surprising based on the trailer...) time passer with a couple of laughs.
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Liv & Ingmar (2012)
Scenes from a Marriage - Sort of...
6 January 2014
World Cinema has seen its fair share of long-term director and actor pairings, from Kurosawa/Mifune to Fellini/Mastroianni to Scorsese/DeNiro. (Please don't put Scorsese/DiCaprio in the same list.) Rare has been the director/actress pairing, but there have been a few - Marlene Dietrich and Joseph Von Sternberg to go way back, or Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz to be a bit more current. Perhaps the most celebrated director/actress teaming was Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, and the new documentary "Liv & Ingmar" tells the story of this artistic and personal collaboration.

And what a story it is, as told by Ullmann herself. The film is built around an interview conducted with Ullman at the gorgeous seaside estate she shared with Bergman for five years. From their first meeting when she was 26 and he was 47, through their five year relationship (and the birth of a child) and their continuing professional collaborations, Ullmann allows us a personal glimpse into the man responsible for such classics as "The Seventh Seal" and "Cries & Whispers".

Sometimes it is not a pretty picture, and credit should go to Ullmann for giving us a "warts and all" look at their relationship. Granted, it is a one-sided presentation (Bergman died in 2007) which uses Ullmann's autobiography as its main source, but one can't help but feel Ullmann is being honest, particularly when one looks at Bergman's work. The film is even broken down into "Bergman-esque" chapters, with intertitles such as "Love", "Loneliness", "Rage", and "Pain" to highlight the subject matter.

"Cold", "aloof", and "cruel" are terms often used when discussing the work of Ingmar Bergman, particularly his male characters. His female characters were far more open and emotionally expressive, especially with their sexuality. One leaves this film feeling that a great deal of Bergman's work was autobiographical. The film is populated with clips from their films, and one gets the sense that Ullmann was often playing Ullman, while actors like Max Von Sydow took the "Bergman" role.

But there was real love in this partnership as well. Evidence of Bergman's humanity and affection come from the reading of several pieces of personal correspondence that Ullmann shared with writer/director Dheeraj Akolkar which are effectively narrated, as well as excerpts from Bergman's autobiography. Most telling is Bergman's comment to Ullmann that he considers her "his Stradivarius" - the beautiful, perfect instrument through which he communicates and makes beautiful music.

But make no mistake about it, this is Ullmann's tale to tell. It is a tale told well.
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A Forgotten Disaster Worth Remembering
26 October 2013
Growing up on the East Coast near Philadelphia, I became used to the local news reports of the latest problems with a group call MOVE – a "back to nature", almost survivalist group. What I knew about them came from those local newscasts, which were usually about a police confrontation of one sort or another. What also stood out about them to me was that all the members had the last name of "Africa", and that they occupied a townhouse smack dab in the middle of a blue collar, working class neighborhood. When one thought of communes at the time, one thought of encampments out in a remote forest. Well this commune shared walls with working class homes and families, and their rejection of technology led to no electricity, boarded up windows, and mounds of trash on the sidewalks. I left the area in 1982 and headed for California.

Imagine my surprise three years later to turn on CNN and find them covering the mass destruction of an entire city block in Philadelphia, and that MOVE was at the center of the inferno. After a failed attempt at eviction and after shots had been fired, the decision was made to drop an incendiary device on the roof of the house to destroy a fortified bunker. Things quickly got out hand. The result – eleven people dead, including five children, and 60 other homes burned to the ground. How did this happen? Filmmaker Jason Osder's "Let the Fire Burn" uses archival news footage, depositions and the filmed record of an investigative commission to retell the story of the MOVE clash. Big news at the time, but mostly forgotten today (overshadowed, no doubt by the Waco/Branch Davidian siege) Osder recaptures the feel and mood of the time and allows the protagonists to speak for themselves. His film is not a polemic on government abuse or the evils of racism (the mayor of Philadelphia at the time and the majority of the citizens affected were African-American). "Let the Fire Burn" is simply the filmed record of an event, masterfully edited in a way that, while knowing full well what the outcome is going to be, keeps you engrossed from start to painful finish.

At a time when civility seems to be rapidly diminishing in what passes for political discourse these days, it is good to be reminded of what the real result of extreme action, of any kind or on any side, can be. Just ask the residents of Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia.
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Take My Movie - Please!
2 October 2013
If you recognize the title of this review as a slight modification of the classic Henny Youngman one-liner, then you are sure to enjoy "When Comedy Went to School", a new documentary that examines the roots of American stand-up comedy and the role of one geographic area in particular.

The geographic area I refer to is the Catskill Mountains, located in upstate New York. Developed as a summer getaway from the crowds and humidity of the New York Metro area, resorts sprung up to cater to these usually urban, usually Jewish vacationers. The Catskills by day provided ample opportunities for swimming, fishing, hiking, sporting and the like. But it was at night that the resorts really came to life, via massive quantities of food in the dining halls and the live entertainment provided as part of the dining experience. The easiest entertainment to provide was, luckily for us, comedy.

The death of vaudeville and the crackdown on burlesque led to a plethora of entertainers eager to perform for a large audience. The Catskill resorts provided a stage for veteran performers to ply their trade for an appreciative audience and for newcomers to build the foundation of a successful career. In a world where comedy is performed in chain-clubs, college auditoriums, coffee shops and on cable television, it's easy to forget that not too long ago there weren't many places for a comedian to be "bad" and learn his craft. The Catskill resorts were, in essence, this country's mid-century comedy school.

And what a school it was, with such "students" as Sid Caesar, Jerry Stiller, Jackie Mason, Jerry Lewis, Mort Sahl et al. They all spent time on a Catskill resort stage. Comedian Robert Klein introduces great archival photographs and film footage that take us back to a time and place that really no longer exists. Interviews with the aforementioned students (and others) provide us with an inside look at how the Catskills came to be the place to go for comedy, and how the Catskills came to not be the place to go for comedy. (Three simple reasons – television, the sixties, and Woodstock…)

Clocking in at a quick 76 minutes, "When Comedy Went to School" is a quick refresher course on the fundamentals of American comedy and an examination of the prevalence of Judaism as the starting point for the majority of comedians of this era. It's a rare course in which I would have gladly spent more time.
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Sightseers (2012)
Dark Comedy Doesn't Get Much Darker Than This
28 May 2013
Last year's "Kill List" was one of the creepiest, most disturbing films I had seen in a long time. It's a film that stayed with me long after the screening, and one I encouraged friends and associates to check out. Some still haven't forgiven me.

Imagine the combination of dread/anticipation I felt about the chance to see director Ben Wheatley's latest slice of darkness entitled "Sightseers". Described by some as a "dark comedy", I would say that the only thing possibly darker than Wheatley's sense of humor would be the center of a black hole.

"Sightseers" tells the story of a frumpy British couple off on 'holiday' (as they say,) the problems that come up on such trips, and the unique way they choose to solve them. Saying any more would give too much away. Suffice it to say, may you NEVER come across a couple like this on your vacation.

Is it funny? Yes, it is. But you may hate yourself for laughing. Is it violent? For sure. Exceptionally. But in the context of the story, it has to be. Is it disturbing? Oh, yes it is, but once again Wheatley has made a film that once you've started it, you'll find it difficult to turn away. And, like "Kill List", the ending packs a wallop from which it may take you a while to recover.

Films like "Sightseers" are tough to categorize, and even tougher to recommend. This is not the feel-good hit of the summer. It is a look into the blackest parts of human nature, and how that blackness is often camouflaged by the banality of everyday existence. I wouldn't call Wheatley's films "entertaining", but damned if they don't get an emotional response out of me. So seek it out… but you have been warned.
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Two Hours of Talk, Talk, Talk... and Absolutely Enthralling...
15 May 2013
The 56th San Francisco International came to a close at the magnificent Castro Theatre with a showing of Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight", the third in Linklater's series of "Before…" films. Preceded by "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset", the film continues the story of Jesse and Celine, now a middle-aged, two child couple on vacation in Greece. Things are not quite right between the two, and there is much to be said between them. So they talk. For two hours. And it is absolutely enthralling.

I have to admit that I haven't seen the first two films. I was aware of them, but they just never jumped out at me as something I had to see. I admire Linklater's work ( I thought last year's "Bernie" was one of the best films of the year) but just never had a reason to put seeing those films above others I had more interest in. I attended the screening mainly because it was the closing night film, but had concerns that not having seen the previous two would put me at a disadvantage in appreciating his latest. Festival friend (and "Before…" series lover) Stacy McCarthy assured me the film stands on its own.

She was right. Nothing much goes on in this film but conversations between people, but these conversations are fascinating and have a sense of reality about them often missing from films of this nature. Credit for that obviously goes to director Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who collaborated on the script. It doesn't hurt that the film was shot in Greece, but the picturesque beauty of that country comes second to the riveting portrayal of a couple at the stage of life where the often painful questioning of a couple's future begins.

Two hours with these characters flew by, and as the credits rolled my first thoughts were about how much I really liked the film, and how I need to think more "out of the box" when it comes to selecting films to view. I'm guilty of often limiting my scope, and I'm thankful that Film Festivals force me to widen my film horizons.
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Now You Don't See Him...
11 May 2013
Just caught this it the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival. Jay is one of the more interesting hybrid entertainers (magician/actor/author) of the last few decades so I welcomed the opportunity to get a peek "inside the box".

The film is aptly titled, as you do get a fascinating look at the influences on Jay's career. Their names alone (Cardini, Slydini, Al Flosso – The Coney Island Fakir) give you some of idea of the characters that Jay surrounded himself with early in his career. Lots of archival footage of these masters at work, along with Jay's early television appearances (including a REALLY early live TV appearance in 1953 performing magic) provide much of the back story as to how Jay got to where he is today.

The greatest influence on Jay may have been his grandfather, Max Katz, an amateur magician who introduced his grandson to the art and some of its great practitioners. His passing, and apparently some significant rift in his familial relationships, lead Jay to strike out on his own and go from "Ricky Potash" to "Ricky Jay." This rift is unexplored in the film and may be one of the "mysteries" the film title references. Also left relatively unexplored is Jay's career as a character actor, though David Mamet is one of several folks interviewed. Mamet has directed several of Jay's one-man shows, but I would have liked to hear more about Jay's work as an actor.

The directors were present at the screening, and I asked them if Jay's personal life was off-limits to discussion. They responded that while he didn't specifically forbid the subject, he didn't make it easy on them either. I also asked if there was a story behind his surname change (from Potash to Jay), and whether it had anything to do with the family rift hinted at by the film. Their somewhat weak response was that was "something that performers often do" and I got the feeling it never occurred to them to research the change or its circumstances. A quick internet search indicates Jay is his middle name. Did they not know that?

As a record of some of the history of magic and its early performers, the film succeeds. As an examination of Jay as something more than a magician, the film leaves us in the dark. That may be just what Jay wanted.
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The Giants (2011)
Mark Twain May Be Rolling in His Grave
8 May 2013
Warning: Spoilers
I have been pleasantly surprised by a number of outstanding performances by young actors and actresses on screen this year. Probably my favorite film with juvenile leads is "The Giants" ("Les Geants,") an international co-production of Belgium, France, and Luxembourg. It tells the tales of two brothers (ages 13 and 15) who are basically abandoned by their mother for a summer. Running out of money (and options,) they meet another youngster who gets them involved with a local drug dealer. The boys quickly find themselves over their heads. Don't let the darkness of this premise steer you away from this film. As dark as it may sound, and as unbelievable as the premise may be, I bought into this film entirely and found myself smiling an awful lot. These scrappy kids will do what they must to survive - but - they ARE kids and act accordingly. Their naivety and false bravado ring true. Kudos to the young cast for being uniformly excellent in their roles. You find yourself caring about these kids, recognizing their actions as NOT uncommon in today's youth, laughing at the choices they make (while remembering your own bad choices from years gone by...) and hoping that things work out for them. The film ends with the boys on a rowboat floating down a river and away from their current troubles. I liked the characters in this film so much my thoughts immediately jumped to "SEQUEL!" I'd follow these characters on to their next adventure. It's almost a "Huckleberry Finn" for the new millennium. ( Note - This review, originally posted on May 2, 2012, was deleted by IMDb based on an abuse report filed by another user. Would someone care to identify the "abuse" for me? )
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An Economic Inconvenient Truth
8 May 2013
I just caught this film at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, and I'm glad I did, because the film was one of the most informative and, quite frankly, entertaining documentaries I've seen via the Festival, and most of the credit for that goes directly to the film's "star" Robert Reich.

Reich is a charming and personable individual who is obviously passionate about the sorry economic state of the middle class. He presents facts and reviews history (assisted through some terrific graphics) to make his case that a strong middle class is the bulwark upon which a thriving upper class must balance. Most importantly, this middle class is made weaker by the disparity in incomes and by a tax system that seems to reward "job creators" who don't really create a single damn job or, at best, create jobs overseas.

The issues are pretty damn complex, but Reich and Kornbluth do an excellent job of laying out their interpretations in a simple, forthright manner.

At the Q&A following the film, I asked Kornbluth and Reich if they felt any need to "balance" the film with alternate economic takes on the same facts. The film trots out the usual cartoonish Fox News critics, but I wondered if they thought about heading off the sure-to-come criticism that the film is too one-sided and doesn't present any intelligent alternate viewpoints. While Reich just shook his head "no" (one gets the impression he feels he isn't wrong so why bother,) Kornbluth responded that questions like mine ticked him off, as "there always doesn't have to be two sides to a story." He compared it to the issue of evolution and "intelligent design". Just as intelligent design's complete lack of factual basis has no business in a documentary about evolution, he felt the economic facts presented are facts and they were presented accurately in his film.

This film is a terrific pairing of a passionate filmmaker with a passionate advocate for the working class of this nation. Recommended viewing for anyone with a stake in our country's economic survival - regardless of political affiliation. That means everyone. That means you.
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Yossi (2012)
An Interesting Story Continued...
18 February 2013
Warning: Spoilers
In 2002, director Eytan Fox brought us "Yossi & Jagger, " a film simply described as "a gay love story between two Israeli soldiers." It packed a lot of emotion and feeling in a scant 65 minutes. If you haven't seen that film, please do – and stop reading this review as there are major spoilers to that film contained herein.

It's ten years later, and Fox returns with the even more simply titled "Yossi," which continues the story of the aforementioned character. Yossi (Ohad Noller) is out of the military, a practicing physician, and incredibly lonely and unhappy. (Having your lover die in your arms can lead to such a life.) He spends a lot of time at the hospital avoiding the unwanted advances of female colleagues and his time at home trolling chat rooms and hook up sites. He's ten years older, several pounds heavier and still unable to deal with the truth about who he is. The emptiness in Yossi's life is never more evident then in a particularly devastating scene involving a chat room hook up.

Forced by his hospital administrator to take some time off, Yossi heads off on a road trip (to Gaza?!) and happens upon a group of soldiers who missed their transport. He offers them a lift to the resort they're headed for, and ends up staying there. There seems to be this one particular soldier… And so it goes. Yossi's reawakening begins.

An interesting side note is that "Yossi" also gives us a glimpse of how an openly gay soldier serving his country is treated by fellow soldiers – pretty much how every other soldier is treated. Mind you, gay men and women have been able to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces for over twenty years now and their world hasn't crumbled yet (though it always seems to be on a precipice, for any number of reason.) Coming in at an also compact 84 minutes, "Yossi" is a sweet tale of starting to find one's way back after losing a love - something to which everyone, gay or straight, can probably relate.
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Harmony Korine is a Genius
18 February 2013
Not really, but someone took offense to how I titled this review and had it deleted. Seriously. Someone was offended but what I wrote and not with Korine's contribution to this film? Amazing. So, with the above edit, here's the original review:

"It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." This quotation from Shakespeare's MacBeth (about life) could also serve as a capsule review of Harmony Korine's contribution to the new anthology film "The Fourth Dimension," which had its premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Executive Producer Eddy Moretti, wrote a "creative brief" with over 50 specific instructions to be followed in the production of an original film. Actual instructions included "There needs to be someone wearing tap shoes," "Stray dogs are good. They can be really meaningful" and "The director must direct one scene from the film with a blindfold on over his or her eyes." He found three directors willing to work within these and the other restraints - the USA's Harmony Korine, Russia's Alexey Fedorchenko, and Poland's Jan Kwiecinski. Each produced a 30 minute film and the results have been combined to create "The Fourth Dimension." It is 2/3 of a good film.

Korine's film, "The Lotus Community Workshop," stars Val Kilmer as a motivational speaker named (coincidentally) Val Kilmer. The film is set in a typical American bowling alley where a cross-section of citizens gathers to be inspired by Mr. Kilmer's exhortations - about nothing. Kilmer delivers a series of nonsequitors that occasionally individually amuse, but on the whole deliver zilch. While this may be Korine's point - that people in the motivational speaking business say anything they can and mean nothing they say - it is a point belabored through the entire short film that made it feel much longer than it actually was. It is also a point that has been made by plenty of filmmakers before him. Kilmer's participation in this project isn't really surprising when one looks at this actor's eclectic career path, but one has to wonder if without his involvement whether anyone would be paying any attention to this film at all.

Fedorchenko's film, "Chrono Eye," is a very interesting take on time travel. Igor Sergeev portrays Grigory Mikhailovich, the inventor of a device that allows brief glimpses into the past (and, eventually, the future) but from the perspective of an individual who seems uninterested in the event Mikhailovich's seeks to view. While continuing to work on his invention, he is being hounded by a tax collector seeking to collect on the money he had been awarded for his invention, and by the incessant dancing of an upstairs neighbor. While Mikhailovich fiddles with the past and future, the possibilities of the present are slipping right by him.

While no doubt hampered by a low budget, this film succeeds in getting us to accept its premise (one antenna underground, one antenna in the air, and voila! Time travel…) and feel the frustrations of the main character.

How did Fedorchenko manage to take a story like this and get it to meet so many requirements of the brief? Easy. He just took a script he already had and stuck in the things the brief requested. An economical approach, but probably one of the main reasons this film succeeds.

The last of the trilogy of films, Kweiecinski's "Fawns," follows a small group of Eastern European 'hipsters' as they traipse through an eerily abandoned village. We eventually learn that they are in the path of an approaching natural disaster and seem not to care for their fates. One person then exits, another one enters and attitudes take a drastic change.

This film does a great job of setting a mood of impending doom, and has a lot to say about how, when push comes to shove, humanity can touch even the most jaded soul.

All three directors appeared at a Q&A following the film, and it was interesting to see how the films tended to match the directors' personalities. Kwiecinski was the most verbose and seemed to have a generally upbeat view of things. Federchenko was very precise and methodical in his answers (delivered via translator) and gave the lengthiest responses to the audience's questions. Korine acted like an idiot and gave responses that really didn't answer any questions.

The premiere showing was the first time that each director had a chance to view the others' films. I asked them for a response to each others films within the context of being screened with their works. Kweicinski said he probably needed to think about Korine's film before commenting (Was he just being polite? I choose to think so…) Fedorchenko gave a lengthy response about artists working within the restrictions of the brief. Korine's response? Quote – "Uhh. Yeah. Yeah. Good sh** all around." Brilliant analysis, Harmony...
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Deadfall (2012)
'Tis the Season... or 'Tis it?
21 December 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Someone at Magnolia Pictures must hate Christmas, because for the second year in a row they have dropped a rather dark and nasty little film into your local theater in time for the holiday movie-going season. Last year, it was "I Melt with You" - as dark and depressing (yet somehow exhilarating) a film as they come. This year's cinematic lump of coal (and I mean that in a good way) is "Deadfall," a heist-gone-wrong drama that is actually much more than that trite summation would suggest.

The film opens with a bang (literally) as a trio of casino bandits (Eric Bana, Olivia Wilde, and a guy who ain't around long enough to mention) find themselves having to improvise as their getaway doesn't go quite as planned. Meanwhile, an ex-Olympic boxer (Charlie Hunnam) gets out of prison and starts to head home, but finds himself having to improvise as a visit to his former promoter doesn't go quite as planned. Think these folks might meet up? Of course they will, but not before some rather interesting detours.

Bana is terrific as Addison, the oddly-accented, sociopathic brother who has REALLY strong feelings for his sister Liza (the equally good Olivia Wilde.) Hunnam delivers as Jay, the tainted boxer heading home for Thanksgiving with his disapproving father (Kris Kristofferson) and his forgiving mother (Sissy Spacek.) The film's lone weak spot is in the relationship between a Sheriff's Deputy (Kate Mara) and her hard-nosed, misogynistic Sheriff/father (Treat Williams.) The actors do the best they can with underwritten roles and Williams' character in particular just doesn't ring true.

Where the film does succeed is in doing an effective job in setting up its story and building to the inevitable climax where all parties' paths cross. This film does as good a job in building tension as any I've seen in a while. The setting goes a long way in helping to build that tension. I've long believed that a winter setting enhances the darkness of a film and "Deadfall" affirms that theory. For all the brightness that pure white snow brings, the sense of isolation and bitter cold it brings as well deepens the darkness at this film's core.

Clocking in at a quick 94 minutes, "Deadfall" is a fast-paced, modern day throwback to the great "B" movie crime thrillers of yesteryear. Solid performances, taut storytelling, bleak settings and just the right amount of violence (I hate myself for writing that…) all add up to a satisfying, but dark, really dark trip to the cinema.
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Pasty White Female
8 August 2012
Director Mary Harron ("American Psycho," "The Notorious Betty Page") tackles neo-Gothic horror in her latest film, an adaptation of Rachel Klein's novel "The Moth Diaries."

Set at a remote Canadian BoardingSchool for Girls, "…Diaries" is the story of Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) and Lucie (Sarah Gadon,) really, really, REALLY close roommates who are looking forward to spending their last year at school together. Enter Ernessa (Lily Cole) a suspiciously gaunt, pale, yet dark figure who quickly attaches herself to Lucie. Rebecca finds herself on the outside looking in as Ernessa and Lucie's relationship grows stronger; all the while Lucie herself appears to be getting weaker and weaker.

Hmmm… Life force ebbing… Ernessa never seen during the day… Ernessa never seen eating or drinking… Could she be a… super model? No, no, that's not it. How about a vampire? A ha! Could be. Coincidentally, one of the books being taught by the new hunky English teacher (Scott Speedman) is "Carmilla," a Gothic novel about a female vampire and her prey (that actually predates Stoker's "Dracula" by about a quarter of a century.) Is this a case of life imitating art? Or would that be art imitating life imitating art? Regardless, Rebecca can't get anyone to believe her that Ernessa is a danger to them all, even after students and staff start dropping like flies. What's a good Catholic school girl to do?

Harron does her best with the material, and the film does a good job of establishing an overall mood of dread with several effective set pieces. The ending, however, underwhelmed me. It seems rushed and incomplete, which may reflect the film's apparent low budget more than the filmmaker's intent. Harron has done much with little before, so I found myself let down with this film's conclusion. Solid performances, good location work and moody cinematography can't make up for a haphazard script and the lack of a solid ending.
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Dark Horse (2011)
And Down the Stretch He Goes...
18 July 2012
Director Todd Solondz returns to the land of melancholy with "Dark Horse," his latest serio-comic look at some of life's semi-lovable losers. I say "semi-lovable" because Solondz's characters often contain a dark streak of 'nasty' inside them, and this nastiness often manifests itself in disturbing ways.

Such is the case with Abe (Jordan Gelber,) a thirty-something man-child still living in the action-figure-adorned bedroom of his parents' home. Abe, who passes most days at his father's office avoiding work while trolling eBay for collectibles, finds himself at a wedding seated next to Miranda, an equally socially-awkward and very possibly damaged woman (Selma Blair.) After one date, Abe proposes to Miranda. Her rationale for accepting his proposal is the funniest and most depressing scene in the film. You find yourself laughing, and then quickly wondering how many people end up getting married for EXACTLY the same reasons as Miranda, without readily admitting it.

Abe's troubles mount as he finds himself having to deal with the ramifications of his rash decision. His parents (the marvelously restrained Christopher Walken and the equally marvelously restrained Mia Farrow) may be the original source of his troubles. His father constantly compares him to his more successful brother. His mother just wants him to accept his perennial-loser status, but she does it in the most kind and loving way.

None of this excuses Abe's selfishness and irrational sense of entitlement. Abe's doubts about his actions take the form of imaginary meetings and conversations with the people frustrating him in his life. (The narrative does get a bit muddled here.) His self-centeredness has devastating consequences, for others, but ultimately for himself. This 'dark horse' is not going to surprise us with a win.

Solondz leads this "Horse" well, but he can't make it drink. He doesn't disappoint, but he doesn't really surprise us either. The performances are uniformly fine. Gelber in particular does a good job of walking the tightrope of character between genuinely unpleasant and sadly unaware. Blair gets credit for playing Miranda as something other than a carbon copy or even a reverse negative image of Abe. Miranda is sadly aware of the pathetic nature of her life, and her bluntness in dealing with it is refreshing.

"Dark Horse" won't have you rolling in the aisles. You'll smile some, chuckle once or twice, and wince a lot. Standard Solondz, but that's better than most.
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