Sunday, September 29, 2013


PRISONERS       C+         
USA  (153 mi)  2013  d:  Denis Villenueve                    Official site

Like Susan Bier, Lone Scherfig, Tom Tykwer, Nimrod Antal, Oliver Hirschbiegel, Wong Kar-wai, John Woo, Guillermo del Toro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and the latest Nicholas Winding Refn effort before him, not to mention countless others, this is another example of a Hollywood flameout by a terrific foreign director, in this case a Canadian from Quebec making his first big budget Hollywood movie with a $50 million dollar budget and what appears to be a terrific cast, and despite the sleek look captured by veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, one of the best in the business, the film starts out with a certain amount of intrigue before taking a nosedive into the kind of sadistic territory that America is starting to represent to the world.  If charges of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were not bad enough, Hollywood churns out even more deplorable violent imagery, where at some point one would have to ask who is responsible for writing this kind of depressing stuff, and who wants to film it and make it into a movie?  While this movie may have earned back nearly half its production cost in the first week, word of mouth is going to kill it, as this is not a feelgood movie, or a complicated whodunit, but it’s a director who knows how to build suspense, but to what end?  Some of the early reviews suggested this was a tense, white knuckles thriller that would have viewers on the edge of their seats, and the story itself, written by Aaron Guzikowski, is a suspense thriller whose interest quickly evaporates, forcing the audience to literally endure nearly two hours of torture that never seems to end.  While it may have been an attempt to resurrect the torture argument before the American public, who felt this was a topic of entertainment, or a subject we need to revisit?  More likely this is the kind of story idea floating around Hollywood, as torture porn has found its way into the mainstream of the movie industry, viewed by audiences around the world, so no one even thinks to question whether it’s a good idea anymore, they just re-use formulaic ideas from existing financially successful films. 

More than a suspense thriller, or even a police procedural, this is actually a vigilante movie, one where Charles Bronson in the 70’s would resort to the same kind of savage brutality as the bad guys, but because he was always on the side of good, avenging his daughter or protecting neighborhoods and families that the police were disturbingly unable to protect, so audiences accepted his vicious overkill, including a hair-trigger temper and near samurai speed and skill with a gun.  Despite heavy obstacles set in his path, Bronson would always kickass and save the day, becoming an avenging angel, much like the perception of Travis Bickle at the end of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), or Clint Eastwood in his 70’s and 80’s American westerns.  But America after 9/11 has become a more divided political landscape filled with moral uncertainty, where Hollywood has resorted to apolitical heroes that include mythical animated strongmen and women as well as futuristic space adventure epics that save the universe, where comic book superheroes make megabucks at the box office.  Even Woody Allen has spent the better part of a decade away from America to make his movies.  The nation as a whole has found it difficult to settle upon likeable heroes that don’t themselves remain morally conflicted, like Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), a fictional TV crime boss who vacillates emotionally from the constant turmoil about being a loving father and family man while having to make a living where he’s forced to commit brutal murders.  Where in the past it was always easy to tell the good guys from the bad, in the post 9/11 era that’s not so clear, where that’s particularly evident in this movie.  Unfortunately, much of what this resorts to are stereotypes that insult the audience’s intelligence and only diminishes the complexity and overall appeal, even as the audience wades through the various twists and turns in the road, as the narrative outcome remains elusively uncertain.  An overall sense of dread is prevalent throughout, easily sustained due to the subject matter, but one has to question the methods used to advance the suspense.

In a weird casting choice, Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a carpenter barely scraping out a living in the suburbs, but also a hard corps American survivalist with fundamentalist religious roots, whose family motto is “Pray for the best but prepare for the worst,” words he takes to heart, ingraining the seriousness of it into his teenage son with a constant drumbeat.  Dover is the kind of driven, no-nonsense figure who takes things to the limit, but is also a self-righteous man that refuses to acknowledge his own mistakes, believing it is his manly duty to remain strong for his wife and children.  The cast is superlative, one of the best ensemble casts seen all year, though only a few stand out, where one of the most egregious crimes of the film is the criminal underuse of some of the actors, especially those of color.  Set in the cold and rainy hills of Pennsylvania, Dover and his family walk across the street to spend Thanksgiving with the Birch family, none other than Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, where the kids would rather play outside.  In the course of the afternoon, two six year old girls end up missing, one from each family.  After an initial panic, it becomes clear they didn’t just run away, that they were more likely abducted, where a beat up RV camper was seen parked nearby but has disappeared along with the girls.  When a police detective arrives on the scene, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), Dover goes berserk, becoming an obnoxiously aggressive, perpetually angry parent that wants the police to be as gung ho as he is, literally intimidating them not to be anything less.  Loki is a dedicated and devoted officer, but his deliberate and methodical methods contrast with the wildly impulsive actions of Dover.  When the police find the RV, they discover the driver is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a mentally damaged young man with a child’s IQ, who is arrested and released, as there is no evidence found in the van linking the presence of the girls. 

Dover, however, hounds the suspect, eventually kidnapping and brutally torturing him, keeping him locked in an abandoned building, absolutely positive that he knows something.  As there are no other suspects, the film is largely about taking the law into your own hands, becoming judge and jury, where the merciless brutality reveals nothing, only more horrific acts.  When the Birch family acquiesces to the gruesome methods, literally aiding and abetting, the moral center of the film is blown to bits, becoming more about the tactics of torture than child abduction.  With Dover representing the fundamentalist conservative, with the liberal Birch family so easily drawn into the fray as well, the film suggests all bets are off on personal ethics when it’s your kid that’s been abducted, where in desperation you’ll do anything, cross any moral line, resort to the ugliest of human impulses short of murder in order to force the victim to tell you what you want to hear.  The rest of the film concerns itself with human depravity, even as it continues to build suspense for the missing girls.  Even as evidence suggests there may be another suspect, Dover single-mindedly continues his personal crusade, refusing to acknowledge he could be wrong, where his arrogance defies reason, yet he continues.  Personally driven in much the same way, but held to legal standards, Loki is equally determined to find the girls, where their overriding obsession dominates the film, while after awhile the series of discovered clues feels like mere afterthought.  This is a picture that may as well have the theme: “This is a man’s world,” as mens obsessions drive the action, where both refuse to break.  The relentlessly dark material clouds any real enjoyment of what is otherwise a well-made thriller, though the film continually bogs down in near misses and misleading evidence, so much of the time it feels like they’re continuously running in circles until the end sequence rolls, where it has the ominous feeling of an end sequence even before it develops, though by the end, one feels like they’re still left in the darkness.      

Saturday, September 28, 2013

And While We Were Here

AND WHILE WE WERE HERE         C                    
USA  (83 mi)  2012  d:  Kat Coiro

Apparently this film went through several transformations, as many of the reviews indicate the film was originally screened at Tribeca in Black and White, but was later released in vivid color.  Written and directed by Kat Coiro, this is what is commonly called a woman’s picture, where the disintegration of a marriage unravels in the picturesque location of Naples in Italy, all seen through the eyes of the wife Jane (Kate Bosworth), who spends her time listening to audio tapes she made interviewing her British grandmother (the voice of Claire Bloom) before she died, listening to her talk about how she survived two world wars.  In this manner, she completely avoids her husband Leonard (Iddo Goldberg), a studious introvert who professionally plays the viola for an orchestra that is spending two weeks touring in Naples.  Fortunately, this leaves him conveniently out of the picture for most of the film, where they only see one another in passing, often wordlessly, like ships passing in the night.  This leaves Jane plenty of free time, which she spends sightseeing.  If this reminds you of another film, it bears a great similarity to Rossellini’s Journey to Italy  (1954) about another bored couple, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, with their marriage similarly on the rocks.  While they unfold differently, Rossellini provides a historical travelogue of the Italian cities of Naples, Capri, and Pompeii while also accentuating the spaces that exist between couples, but both films provide a virtual no man’s zone where neither care to venture, leaving instead a cavernous emptiness of unspoken thoughts.  While this appears to be a studied examination of the nuances of marriage, unlike Bergman’s magnificent effort, none of the performances show even the slightest degree of nuance, where the biggest letdown is the utter lack of chemistry between characters, where none of them can act a whit. 

While Jane is attempting to write a book about her grandmother, she hasn’t figured out yet how to present the material, how to see the war from an entirely new vantage point, so she goes on long sightseeing walks, eventually taking a ferry to nearby Ischia island, one of many islands in the Gulf of Naples.  The on site locations are superb, as Jane runs into a young 19-year old American, Caleb (Jamie Blackley), who immediately starts paying Jane the kind of attention that the more dispassionate Leonard is simply incapable of providing.  The youthful Caleb is much more fun and playful, but there’s more than a decade’s worth of difference between them, and Caleb is still just a kid.  Still, all attempts to find passion in her marriage is met with resistance, as Leonard simply avoids the subject by drowning himself in his work.  While they remain overly polite, what sex they have is dreadfully dull and boring, especially when there’s a young prospective lover waiting impatiently in the wings.  Jane decides to take the plunge, turning this into a fairly stereotypical midlife crisis, where the cloistered and heavily repressed middle aged wife suddenly lets her hair down (literally), where the director fills the screen with a montage of idyllic sunsets over the beach, wine drenched romantic meals overlooking the glistening bay, pictures of the lovers embraced, waking up in each other’s arms by morning, and then conveniently arriving back at her hotel just as her husband is leaving for work. 

When Jane insists they need to talk, Leonard politely avoids all confrontation, but she asserts he’s lost all curiosity about her and no longer “sees” her anymore, as if she’s become the invisible woman.  What we do learn, however, is that they’re both traumatized after losing a baby, as neither has fully recovered afterwards, where despite the love that remains, the intimacy has simply disappeared.  The film never really takes the husband’s concerns seriously, as all efforts to communicate are doomed from the cold and sterile opening images.  In stark contrast, it’s a sunny and picturesque, yet somewhat over-romanticized affair in Italy, where typically if it’s a man having the affair he’s considered contemptible, while if it’s a woman, it supposedly opens the doors to an entirely new world.  Despite dominating the screen time and receiving the upper hand in nearly every verbal encounter, the film interestingly withholds sympathy for Jane throughout, as even though the affair feels badly needed, one never takes it too seriously.  Any offerings of hope, however, get a dose of cold water at the end, as over the end credits Jennifer Warnes rapturously sings Leonard Cohen’s perpetually downbeat “Famous Blue Raincoat” JENNIFER WARNES ~ Famous Blue Raincoat ~ - YouTube (5:34).

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Spring Breakers

SPRING BREAKERS        B              
USA  (94 mi)  2012  ‘Scope  d:  Harmony Korine        Official site

Bikini's and big booties — that's what it's all about.     —Alien (James Franco)

I'm so tired of seeing the same things every single day. Everybody's miserable here because everybody sees the same things. They wake up in the same bed, the same houses, the same depressing street lights. One gas station. The grass, it's not even green— it's brown. Everything's the same and everyone's just sad. I don’t want to end up like them. I really want to get out of here. It’s more than just Spring Break.  It’s searching to see something different.

Why is this happening? This isn’t supposed to happen. I don’t understand. We were just having fun, we didn’t do anything wrong. This is where we’re supposed to find ourselves. This is where we’re supposed to find who we are. Why did this happen? This wasn’t the dream.  It’s not supposed to end this way. It can’t end this way.

 —Faith (Selena Gomez) 

Not since the feverish REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) have American audiences been subjected to such a narcotic induced dream landscape where all moral boundaries have been crossed and the pulsating techno score by Skrillex and Cliff Martinez balances the mood with a trance-like atmosphere.  A film that speaks the language of a youth culture already succumbed to Adderall and Attention Deficit Disorder, this is as much about fantasies as it is a fantasy, something of a mind-altered, subterranean hallucination about a wacked out drug and sex crazed American culture, seen through the candy-colored kaleidoscopic lens of a male adolescent sex fantasy where underage teenage girls publicly expose their breasts and consume huge amounts of drugs and alcohol while dancing around the pool and listening to large doses of pop music blaring.  This is an expression of liberation?  For some, that’s exactly what it is, a week where no one ever says no, where you’re free to indulge to your hearts content, where you lie to your parents back home about abstaining from drugs and alcohol, painting a virginesque picture of meeting nice friends while indulging in every known substance you can find.  The idea of getting wasted and wrecked is somehow appealing to young people who simply don’t know any better, who have continually been fed hypersexualized images from growing up with MTV music videos, and who never questioned the content of what they were spoonfed.  For generations spring break has always held some notion of horny teenage guys hooking up with equally available girls whose sole intention was getting laid, but in Korine’s hands it turns into a bizarre voyeuristic fairy tale of instant gratification given the exaggerated Vegas treatment, shot by Gaspar Noé’s cinematographer Benoît Debie, where it’s all glamorized and choreographed into a sprawling beach party that resembles a teenage boy’s wet dream, with naked girls awash in neon colors that swirl around into different drug-induced figures and shapes, weaving in and out of focus, becoming an intoxicated surreal tabloid fantasy.  Despite the obvious exploitation aspects, the film does have Harmony Korine’s artistic sensibility, though what story there is feels oversaturated in pop reference artificiality that simply engulfs the characters.      

Told out of sequence, the story follows the self-absorbed exploits of four college girls, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), Cotty (Rachel Korine, the director’s wife), and Faith (Selena Gomez, the only one that actually gives a performance), living together in the same college dorm, initially showcasing their shallowness by making ridiculously inappropriate sexual references during what appears to be a history class on civil rights before deciding they need to amp up their hedonistic impulses by taking a party and pleasure vacation to St. Petersburg, Florida during spring break, joining in on the excessive drinking rituals and brazenly crass sexual behavior, an exaggerated display of adolescent debauchery where women are dressed throughout in skimpy bikini’s (even in court!), often seen exposing their breasts which are showered in beer, snorting coke off of one another’s bodies, smoking bong pipes, guzzling liquor out of bottles, giving traffic passerby’s the finger, eventually becoming a comment on the vacuous culture of overprivileged white youth.  Disney girls Hudgens and Gomez only add to the portrayal of a materialistic American culture void of any real ideals, as this is a decisive break from their squeaky clean images, yet so many women in today’s youth culture feel it’s necessary to be seen in celebrity sex tape videos (Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian) on the Internet, as if this kind of exposure is the pathway to fame and fortune.  In many ways, the film bears a resemblance to Sofia Coppola’s equally bored rich kid flick The Bling Ring (2013), where kids feel right at home being part of a celebrity obsessed tabloid culture, where here they’re only following the Girls Gone Wild images that they see on TV.  Little thought is given to the exploitive nature of these images, or the troubling language associated with it, where women are derogatorily called bitches and ho’s, depicted in misogynistic music videos as little more than the exclusive property of male fantasies. 

The girls only exacerbate their inane behavior by robbing a local fast food restaurant for quick cash to pay for the trip, feeling exhilarated afterwards without a hint of remorse, where the only rule they live by is extreme narcissism, living in the moment, whatever feels good, and nothing else matters.  But in the flicker of an eye there’s an existential revelation that changes this perception, where the girls are arrested on drug charges and locked up in prison, where at least one of them, Faith, who comes from a strict religious background, begins to question this “anything goes” lifestyle as being miserable and sadly depressing, A First Look at Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers - YouTube  (33 seconds).  Faith, who is the only real character in the film, has several voiceover scenes where she narrates an overly idyllic world in a phone call to her grandmother, “I'm starting to think this is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been,” while a slo-mo shot captures out of control drinking and rampant drug use.  Faith’s dilemma of blurring the lines between what’s real and what’s imagined becomes a prominent theme, as if something has a hold on their reality.  After they’re released from jail, bailed out by a local white gangsta rapper named Alien (James Franco), the film descends into a hellish nightmare of wish fulfillment, where the girls become obsessed with black gangsta culture and the power it supposedly represents, where thug criminality is the new high, as there’s an adrenal rush identifying with the über macho actions of violent gang enforcement.  Dressed in neon pink ski masks and carrying automatic rifles, the girls gracefully dance around Alien playing Brittany Spears “Everytime” on a baby grand piano overlooking the ocean, Spring Breakers Best Scene - YouTube  (4:21), a beautifully captivating scene where pop music literally transcends the zeitgeist, becoming a poetically transfixing moment that defines the bewildering imagination of the director.  The nihilistic finale goes even further, using blatant absurdism to literally exploit exploitation cinema, turning the genre on its ear, becoming an expressionist statement of how deeply ingrained American youth have become with the excessive violence of video game imagery, where the seemingly make believe horrors depicted onscreen are contrasted by the girls calling home telling their Mom’s, “We’re heading back to school now, we’ll be good now,” becoming an oddly subversive take on the mainstream Hollywood culture that continually projects these soulless images.  Unfortunately, while mocking in tone, the film still feels too stylistically grounded in surface level artificialities, becoming something of a music video anthem for the vacuousness that it rails against. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Teacher

A TEACHER               B-                  
USA  (77 mi)  2013  d:  Hannah Fiddell                Official site

An unusual choice for a first feature, as the subject matter itself is simply never that compelling, and for that reason, the first half of the film drags terribly, as there’s little to hold the audience’s interest.  Why should we care about a smart and attractive high school English teacher sleeping with one of her students, where the idea just seems foreign to most viewers, as this is an area we’re not particularly interested in exploring.  Making matters worse, they’re something of a bore together, as Eric (Will Brittain) has very little personality, yet obviously thinks very highly of himself, if for no other reason than he’s sleeping with one of his teachers.  Due to his maturity level, who knows what he’s saying behind her back?  What is interesting is how little information is provided by the writer/director Hannah Fiddell, where the affair is in full bloom by the time the film begins, with no reference to any begin point.  It’s a bit icky to watch her in front of a classroom knowing full well what she’s doing afterwards.  They communicate via text messages, have sex in cars, or places where no one is at home, always eager to see one another again, setting up their next date, where they both behave like teenagers.  There’s never any clue why this is going on, but the story is told completely through the eyes of the teacher, Diana (Lindsay Burdge), who is on screen for the entire duration, where the audience reserves the right to withhold sympathy for a teen predator who may already be a rapist. 

The film that comes to mind might surprise some, but it’s Peter Bogdanovich’s superb THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971), where Timothy Bottoms as Sonny is a high school football player who has an affair with the coach’s wife, Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper, largely taking pity on her as he feels she’s so lonesome, but he also gets what he’s after in the bargain.  This is an affair that has context, as the film is about the passing of an era, how Texas oil towns like this one are drying up, eventually turning into ghost towns, leaving the jobs elsewhere.  The effect this has on the population is profoundly sad, as people’s lives are as desolate as the empty Texas landscape.  Set in the early 50’s, never once in that film did anyone ever think of rape or pedophilia.  But in A TEACHER, that’s all one thinks about, leaving a bitter aftertaste, where just watching one sexual escapade after another is difficult to watch, where much like Michael Haneke’s THE PIANO TEACHER, making the audience squirm in their seats is the desired effect.   But there is a moment that turns this film around, where the unconscionable suddenly develops a conscious.  When they are almost discovered at Eric’s father’s ranch, Diana freaks out, suddenly aware of the consequences she’s been avoiding thinking about all along.  From that point on, it’s a slow walk into the descent of her own tragic doom, becoming a tense psychological drama where her life starts to unravel before our eyes.  

Thoughtless sex was so easy for this couple, but when she thinks about losing Eric and what might happen if she loses her job, it’s not so easy, and she yearns for simpler times when it came automatically.  Her own emotional dysfunction turns young Eric off, as he’s not getting his way, as she’s becoming a hassle to deal with, all things that complicate the life of an overly pampered and uncomplicated teenager.  The use of percussive drum sounds amassing in her head is quite effective, as she’s emotionally off kilter, unable to stop the madness that’s enveloping her.  She becomes more and more obsessed with having Eric as her own personal plaything, where the tables have turned, and she becomes the pleading child that begs to spend time together, while his indifference only feeds her mental instability.  This section shows some inspired filmmaking, as Burdge’s performance is stunning, where we’re at times sympathetic, fascinated, and repulsed by what we see, as Diana becomes overly obsessed to the point where she becomes a stalker, and still can’t stop herself.  What’s most effective here is how completely naturalistic she makes it feel, as the audience is locked into her mindset, where she makes a beeline into mental confusion and personal despair.  We never learn the source of her return to teenage adolescence, though she’s not close with her family.  She spends all her time on her cellphone, continually checking out photos of Eric on his Facebook page, avoiding all other social contact, isolating herself until he’s the only thing in her life that matters, where what might have been a schoolgirl crush turns into statutory rape territory.  What’s perhaps most startling is the director’s choice to use such quiet restraint as we simply observe Diana when she finally realizes all is lost.  It’s a brief venture into forbidden territory, and by the time it’s all over, none of it seems to matter anymore.   

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Short Term 12

SHORT TERM 12       A-                   
USA  (96 mi)  2013  d:  Destin Cretton             Official site

You are not their friend, and you are not their therapist. You’re here to create a safe environment, and that’s it.              —Jack (Frantz Turner)

The gut wrenching, emotional powerhouse blockbuster of the year, this film is an offshoot of a 22-minute short by the same name that won the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at Sundance in 2009, and later won an Academy Nicholl Fellowship Award for screenwriting in 2010, eventually expanded into a full-length feature film.  Rejected by Sundance earlier this year, the film was chosen to premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, winning both the Audience and Grand Jury awards.  Of particular interest, Keith Stanfield as Marcus, who also performs some of the musical soundtrack, appears in both the short and the feature, while the initial focus in the short was on a male supervisor at a residential foster care facility for “at risk” youth, the feature length film switches this to a female role.  The writer/director worked for several years in a similar facility after earning a degree in communications from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, lending extraordinary insight and authenticity to what’s portrayed onscreen.  From the opening moments of the film, largely understated, using an economy of means, the audience is totally immersed into a completely unfamiliar world, as these are mostly kids society has discarded, living in a cinder block, dormitory style compound where for their own safety they’re not allowed to close their doors, where there’s no place else for them to live as they’ve been too deeply damaged.  Repeatedly beaten or sexually abused by their own families, the deep seeded anger and bitterness is so pervasive that these kids continually retreat from the world, tarnished and wounded souls, becoming cutters or suicide risks, and have an especially hard time expressing themselves, often at a loss for words, yet one can’t help but appreciate the details, especially such natural interplay between characters.  Interestingly, the staff that supervises them are no more than a few years older than the kids themselves, occasionally displaying some of the same behavior based on similar backgrounds.   

The anchor of the film is the lead supervisor Grace, Brie Larson, who is nothing less than a revelation in this film, displaying a range of emotion and a commitment to these kids that is nearly inhuman, as she embraces each and every one of them like a big sister, as if they are all part of the same family, where they all matter.  Of course, these kids have all grown up thinking they don’t matter, as if there’s something wrong with them because they allowed someone bigger and stronger to abuse them, like it’s somehow their fault.  The anger and shame they feel couldn’t be more pronounced, as it’s always there, lying just under the surface, where each kid has a distinct personality which is largely expressed in nonverbal ways, beautifully captured by the restless and constantly roving camera of Brett Pawlak that seems to get into everybody’s face, creating a continually developing series of impressionistic portraits of human intimacy.  It hits you at some point that this isn’t like other films.  Maybe it’s how uncomfortable you become by the dizzying camera movement, or the volcanic eruptions of spontaneous rage, where the staff has to physically hold these kids down to stop them from hurting someone, where they are assaulted by the most venomous, profanity-laced stream of insults imaginable, as if a part of Linda Blair from THE EXORCIST (1973) has somehow managed to infiltrate into the bloodstream of these kids.  And then a short time later, when things have calmed down, they’ve only grown closer, as they helped shelter someone from the storm, becoming comrades in arms, sharing the most inexplicably intimate circumstances, remaining non-judgmental, and still being there for them afterwards.  It’s not easy to understand how in one moment you are being spit upon, hated, and your life threatened in a demonic fury, and a few moments later you are genuinely hugging that same person.  The emotional intensity on display is not what we’re used to, as it’s not make believe or exaggerated for effect, but is heartbreaking because it so accurately reveals what these kids are trying to express.  This is the pain they have to live with every day. 

Part of the brilliance of the film is the way it values personal connections and balances time spent both with the kids and the staff, slowly parceling out bits of information, interjecting humor and lighter moments, contrasting the difficulty of helping these kids with how hard it is maintaining trust in adult relationships, so that the overall effect is accumulated knowledge, where we’re always gaining greater insight into these lives.  We quickly learn Grace is having an affair with fellow staffer Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), both of whom adore working with these kids, as it singularly defines who they are, people with a commitment to being there for those who have been hurt the most, living with and working with the most vulnerable among us, where she can be near saintly in her attitudes about helping others, but often can’t utter a word about her own feelings.  Mason shows extraordinary patience in trying to deal with her, as she blocks him out sometimes, almost always because there’s something else on her mind that keeps her extremely guarded, as 24/7 she’s responsible for continually protecting her charge from huge reservoirs of darkness that always seem to be closing in on someone.  Grace is an employee that doesn’t need to be told what to do.  Working on the floor, she sees instinctively what needs to be done, and she protects these kids like a hovering angel.  The unseen force in the room is being part of a government bureaucratic system, where there must be other short term units just like this one, where they all have to answer to a higher authority, like a doctor, a psychiatrist, an administrator, or a politician who sits at a desk and reads reports but doesn’t get the overall picture of what’s going on in the lives of these kids.  When action is taken that literally shatters the confidence of one kid, Grace will rally to their defense, often to no avail, as she’s told “You are not their friend, and you are not their therapist.  You’re here to create a safe environment, and that’s it…We’re not here to interpret tears.”  But of course, Grace and her staff are the ones comforting these kids during their most agonizing moments, helping them survive their worst nightmares, where they rarely have the luxury to interpret coherent thought, as it’s almost always communicated in tears or unimaginable rage.  One of the key moments of the film is listening to Marcus, the oldest kid on the unit who’s just days away from turning 18, scared shitless about becoming emancipated, bitterly battling the demons in his head as he raps about “The pretty pictures in my fuckin’ head are faded/Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like/ Living a life not knowing what a normal life’s like.”

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Prince Avalanche

PRINCE AVALANCHE           B+                
USA  (94 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  David Gordon Green

True love is like a ghost. Everyone talks about it, but few have ever seen it.    

I reap the rewards of solitude… I write letters to your sister, I read, I paint, I sew, I had a cat, so I used to take care of my pet, before it was killed. I have a lot of prescription medications, but I try not to use them.
—Alvin (Paul Rudd)

Here’s to fire in our hearts. Drink up boys. I love the impurities. Mother may I? Yes I may!      —Truck driver (Lance LeGault)

Thank God in heaven that David Gordon Green is back to making indie movies, and this is a beaut…gorgeously sublime, beautifully shot by Green’s longtime cinematographer Tim Orr, a film about making something out of nothing.  The inspiration comes from the devastating aftermath of a 1987 central Texas wildfire laying waste to 43,000 acres, destroying 1600 homes.  Set in the following year, the trees remain starkly barren, but there’s plenty of growth in the underbrush.  Largely philosophical, yet told in a naturalistic manner, perhaps on the surface this is the most simplistic film Green’s ever made, but filled with implications and moral conflicts.  Adapted from a Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson Icelandic movie entitled EITHER WAY (2011), though one is not exactly sure how this rather awkwardly medieval American title was chosen (though there is a reference to a prince who has been banished from his kingdom), sounding a bit more like one of the Merry Men in Robin Hood, though this film has a modernist 20th century bent to it, feeling more like something out of the existential absurdity of Beckett or Ionescu.  The film is about two poor bastards who are stuck working out in the open on a roadside highway construction crew helping rebuild roads cutting straight through the natural devastation, whose job is to paint the yellow lines on the newly paved asphalt over an endless stretch of highway, then glue street reflectors in between, while also placing reflector signposts along the way.  Living a rustic life in a two-man tent along the side of the road, Alvin (Paul Rudd) is the more serious senior partner, the roadside boss, while his underling Lance (Emile Hirsch) shows little aptitude for living outdoors, behaving more like a kid with attention deficit disorder, claiming he’s horny all the time and can’t wait to get back to the city during his time off on weekends.      

Shot in just 16 days, the film is a minimalist display of an economy of means, opening with an extended wordless sequence where the paramount expression throughout is David Wingo’s superb musical score written for the instrumental accompaniment of the Austin-based band Explosions in the Sky, where we immediately rediscover this director’s natural affinity for poetic expression, beautifully balancing sound and image before a single word is spoken.  Despite occasional retreats back into silence, this is a dialogue driven character study that is haunted by the natural environment that envelops them.  Neither character easily expresses their emotions, both hiding behind a façade of convention, where Alvin pretends to know what he’s doing, as it sounds like he always has a reasonable plan, but he’s undercut by his own lack of spontaneity and fun, while Lance is a happy-go-lucky kid that only thinks about sex, as if it’s the only inner drive that matters, yet he also has a contemplative side that he never admits to, as it has little to do with how to score with women.  As these two guys spend every waking hour together, it’s only natural they’d eventually get on each other’s nerves, which parallels the boredom and monotony of carrying out the same repetitive task over and over again, day after day, where the tedium keeps them on edge as well.  While these are the surface realities, the film actually explores the human drama taking place inside each of their lives, where they couldn’t be more different, as Alvin has to plan his every move, while Lance just goes with the flow, relying on his natural instincts to carry him through.  While their lives are slowly evolving, there are subtle intrusions from outside forces that continually alter the landscape just enough to keep the characters (and the audience) off balance, where in one of the more curious sections, in the ruins of a burned out home, Alvin acts out his imaginary good life with his future wife.          

Perhaps most fun are the surprise visits by aging truck driver Lance LeGault, (who died during the making of the film, receiving a dedication notice in the final credits), who hauls heavy loads through the construction zone, often stopping to hand out bottles of moonshine to the work crew while also dishing out various pearls of wisdom before disappearing into the night.  Most mysterious are the repeated appearances by a ghostlike Joyce Payne as The Lady, an elderly woman pained by the fact she lost everything in a fire that destroyed her home, where all that’s left are quickly disappearing memories.  “Sometimes I think that I’m digging in my own ashes.”  Initially viewed by Alvin, who helps her search for lost belongings in the wreckage of her home, later she has a near apparition appearance with the Truck driver, who refuses to acknowledge her presence, though they are often seen together by Alvin and Lance.  In fact, by the end, they both feel like ghosts in denial of their own existence.  Serving as an unlikely interconnection, symbolic of their own as yet undetermined future, caught in the purgatory of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, an inescapable hell on earth, the aging couple’s fading illusions serve as a reminder that our young friends are heading for a similar catastrophe, as Alvin doesn’t understand what his own girlfriend really wants, while Lance continually idealizes his perfect companion.  The dreams of both are heading for certain destruction unless they drop all pretensions and somehow start to actually care about the lives of others.  Afraid to leave their selfish comfort zones, both couldn’t be more vulnerable and awkwardly naked on display out in the middle of the emptiness of a desolate landscape that somehow retains its illuminating vibrancy.  Through a wall of branchless trees still standing, a thriving forest remains in spite of the apocalyptic signs of destruction.  Similarly, when all hope is lost, these two numbskulls literally rise from the ashes and have the chance to walk upon a new day.  There are no illusions that anything will get any better, but having shared and endured each other’s most tragic flaws, they seem better prepared to meet whatever lies beyond the curve of the road and face the unexpected future. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Canyons

THE CANYONS        C-                   
USA  (99 mi)  2013  d:  Paul Schrader 

Something of a navel-gazing flick, a film infatuated with Los Angeles and voyeuristic window gazing at the supposed good looking people that comprise the latest edition of overindulgent Hollywood youth culture.  With a title that suggests a B-movie television series melodrama of luridly interconnected sexual affairs by vacuous, coke snorting, paranoid driven twentysomethings who all want to be in the sex business, who 24 hours a day believe they are part of the beautiful people that comprise the decadent, high-society world of Los Angeles, filling stylishly modern but sterile apartments that appear to be sets for magazine pieces, where what the characters that inhabit this world have in common is wretchedly horrible acting performances, where like a bad make-up job, they all seem to be intruding into this picture from far more inferior movies.  While Schrader will forever be known as the screenwriter for Scorsese’s monumental 70’s film Taxi Driver (1976), he’s always been suspect as a director, where his choice of screenwriting material from Bret Easton Ellis, the brilliant writer of American Psycho (2000), reads like sleazy and sensationalist TV, where it’s hard to take any of this seriously.  But if the point is to make something so awful that it actually becomes a parody of the sleazy world that it portrays, well, it’s still D-grade material, where people will only laugh at the damage done to Lindsay Lohan’s once promising career, and how at 26, she is now channeling the aged, over-the-hill Gloria Swanson in SUNSET BLVD. (1950), where you can just hear her say to herself,  “I *am* big.  It's the *pictures* that got small,” telling director Schrader “All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.”  In that same picture, William Holden narrates “Sometimes it's interesting to see just how bad bad writing can be.  This promised to go the limit.”  Who knew that the future would hold new challenges in this regard? 

The best things to say about the film are the exquisite Hollywood locations, luxurious homes in the hills, and interior production design that couldn’t be more exact, like the perfect look of a Kubrick film, and there are some interesting camera shots by John DeFazio.  But overall the film plays out like a campy television series that accentuates good looks and gossip, where people are in over their heads on a conceptual project that simply never comes together.  While there are noirish tendencies, this might have played better as a Black and White film noir, as it opens and closes on still photos of old abandoned moviehouses that sit alone in a state of decay, something of an eyesore on a desolate landscape, which may as well be the future of each one of these beautiful people who hope to use their good looks and sexual prowess to guide them to fame and stardom.  While Lohan as the supposedly sexually uninhibited Tara is not the real surprise, as her train wreck celebrity history as a nonstop party girl in and out of rehab centers leaves one with low expectations going in, the real surprise is that the awkward script is so cringeworthy and that these actors take themselves so seriously, as there’s not an ounce of intended humor anywhere to be seen, yet one can’t help but laugh *at* what we are seeing, as it’s basically just a story about people talking endlessly about themselves, where that’s all that matters in the world, nothing else, where they’re constantly worried what others think of them, always on a high state of alert in their paranoia about their relationships, yet they spend they’re lives “acting,” playing nonchalant, pretending that none of this matters, where they try to convince one another that everything’s cool even as they’re unraveling emotionally and freaking out. 

It’s not even appropriate to identify this as the world of sleaze, as it doesn’t do justice to the picturesque meaning of the word, as one thinks of sleaze with a certain old Hollywood charm or Russ Meyer lowgrade style, cheap films often shot in shadowy, Black and White film noir, where it’s a mix of lurid sex, booze, crime, tongue-in-cheek dialogue, and rampant immorality, often peppered with unintended humor, where characters are perceived as over the edge, or certainly willing to cross any moral line.  What’s so startling about this film is just how uninteresting everybody is, as there are only a few characters that appear onscreen, and they are completely forgettable, even as we are watching them, as there’s no hint of personality or screen chemistry anywhere.  Perhaps most memorable is James Deen as Christian, in real life something of a porn superstar making the crossover into legitimate films, playing Tara’s overcontrolling boyfriend, a trust fund movie mogul living on his father’s wealth, whose idea of fun is constantly trolling the Internet with his iPhone in his hand, searching for interested sex partners for himself and Tara, which he then films.  He’s a completely condescending, overstylized, and artificial character that continually mocks anyone that so much as hints of having any emotion, where at times he appears to be a younger apprentice version of Christian Bale in American Psycho.  While he’s obviously just an obnoxious, self-centered creep, Tara has left her real love interest, Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk) and his floundering career as a Hollywood bartender, to live a lavish lifestyle in one of the most beautiful homes in the Hollywood hills.  An while feigning love, the two are about as openly suspicious of one another as deathly enemies, resorting to nefarious surveillance tactics to keep each under their watchful eye.  If any of this mattered, or if there was a spark of life anywhere on the set, there might be a movie, but it’s all lost in a superficial glaze of Hollywood sleepwalking.  By the way, where was Nicholas Cage during the shoot?  He might have provided some well-needed, unhinged energy that is sorely missing.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

In a World...

IN A WORLD…         C+                  
USA  (93 mi)  2013  d:  Lake Bell                    Official site

A somewhat offbeat, thoroughly likeable, but inordinately generic indie film about the competitive world of trailer voiceovers, a traditionally male-oriented business in Hollywood apparently owned by Don LaFontaine, an American voice actor famous for making over 5000 trailers along with hundreds of thousands of television commercials before his death in 2008, opening the door for new talent that includes women, generating a crack in the glass ceiling, a premise that should work a lot better than it does.  While Bell’s ability to do voices is hilariously goofy, especially when she’s seen with her hand recorder tracking down the sounds of people on the street speaking in different accents, literally mesmerized by the diverse inflections of the human voice.  Writer, director, producer, and lead actress Lake Bell suggest a major investment into what must be a highly personalized project.  Often feeling like it wants to be a Miranda July movie, but the plain truth is it’s not nearly as quirky or inventive, feeling more drawn by the numbers despite winning the Sundance Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, supposedly “For its laugh out loud comedic moments, its memorably drawn characters and its shrewd social commentary.”  Outside of the obvious message that women can do equally well what men do in the voiceover business, the material is surprisingly thin, taking a cynically self-centered, dysfunctional family drama and turning it into a gooey and marshmellowy feelgood moment by the end that is the equivalent of a group hug.  Based on everything that comes before, nothing changes, as it takes more than a public thank you to repair a lifetime of permanently undercutting generations of broken dreams. 

Fred Melamed is excellent as the self righteously overbearing but continually deluded father Sam, the man that got his daughter Carol (Lake Bell) interested in doing movie voiceovers in the first place, where she’s following in her father’s footsteps, but he constantly reminds her the industry isn’t ready yet for a woman’s voice.  Yet the film is shown through the eyes of his daughter, who has a ridiculously expressive range of voices, some laugh out loud funny while others express the dulcet tones of a professional announcer.  While her voice range is the most appealing aspect of the film, accentuated in the trailer 'In a World...' Trailer - YouTube (2:27), Bell also tries to write a meaningful drama about people too nervously self-absorbed to connect with one another.  While Sam is about to receive a lifetime achievement award by the trailer voiceover industry, he’s still fuming about being overshadowed by Don LaFontaine throughout his entire career.  And while he’s attempting to pass the mantle of his own success to his filthy rich protégée Gustav (Ken Marino), there remain unresolved family issues in his own life, as he’s got a groupie girlfriend Jamie (Alexandra Holden) who’s twenty years younger than he is, something that makes his daughters gag with disgust, still resentful about the way he abandoned their dead mother years ago.  After kicking his own daughter out of the house to make room for Jamie, she has nowhere else to turn but to her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins), who’s in the midst of a marital crisis with her husband Moe (Rod Corddry).  Everyone’s life seems to be in constant turmoil, all having their own personal issues to deal with.      

Despite Carol’s obvious talent, she’s relegated to the role of a speech coach, amusingly seen helping Eva Longoria learn a Cockney accent for a movie scene while also recording her own trailer, aided by her trusted confidant Louis (Demetri Martin), from Ang Lee’s TAKING WOODSTOCK (2009), who is the recording engineer with a secret crush on Carol, but she is too oblivious to see.  Carol’s sister Dani works as a hotel concierge, where the Irish brogue of Jason O’Mara, one of the guests at the hotel, inflames the desires of each sister, one for the voice inflection, the other for the constant barrage of flirtatious flattery.  When Moe finds out she’s been returning the attention, their marriage is suddenly on fragile grounds.  And when Carol lands a prestigious job, the first women to do so, her father nearly chokes on his food, as this does not conform to his view of the universe.  Being the competitive bastard that he is, he sets his own ambitions over his daughters and attempts to undermine her success by scoring the job through back door contacts.  Little of this is pretty, or funny, but is a scrambled mess of foul intentions and misread motives where the overriding desire to succeed at work clouds their judgment in personal relationships, all of which feeds into an overly somber feeling of gloom hovering over the lighter, more comedic moments.  The feelgood superficiality of the finale will be more than some can bear, where Geena Davis, of all people, rarely seen in movies anymore, offers the cliché’d moment of female empowerment where women’s voiceovers in trailers will make a world of difference in the next generation.  Not sure this repairs the damage of a lifetime of tarnished ambitions, both personally and professionally, but to the confidently assured sound of Tears for Fears Tears For Fears - "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" - ORIGINAL .. (3:11), not to mention an absurdly comic trailer for the futuristic mega million blockbuster The Amazon Games that features an uncredited Cameron Diaz as the masked Amazon leader, rest assured the future is a much better place.