Friday, November 27, 2015
I have never been to a strip club. I recall numerous opportunities to do so with friends who were lining their pockets with singles with smiles plastered on their faces, but I just couldn't muster up the desire to be involved for two reasons: 1) I have always valued wasting my money on something tangible, a movie to add to the collection, a video game to entertain me for weeks and so on. The idea of coming home broke and with nothing more than memories of nudity seemed absurd to me. 2) the concept of faux attraction driven by financial means has always been a massive turn off for me. No matter what a pretty girl might say to me in that situation, I would always know in the back of my mind that if you removed the dollars and the circumstances from the equation, she would have no interest.
The original Magic Mike is a film that I have defended repeatedly as I get sideways looks and judgmental laughs from those that invoke a homophobic inner fear whenever they consider watching men dance shirtless, all the while expecting the women in their lives to take in countless hours of similar content involving their own gender and never thinking twice about it. Despite being a fan of the first film, I had severe doubts about a sequel that was sans Steven Soderbergh as director (although he did return as cinematographer and editor and I always welcome the crisp brilliance of his frames). Those doubts were extinguished with a glorious blast of energy and sexy fun as I witnessed a film that has actually gotten better and better in hindsight with each passing hour.
I haven't read a lot of reviews for this film prior to writing my own, but I would imagine a common criticism is the lack of stakes in the story as it doesn't follow a traditional Hollywood narrative of leveling the characters with the highest of highs or the lowest of lows along their journey. Somehow a story of male strippers, or male entertainers as they like to be called, going on a road trip to put on one last show together has a natural, honest and refreshing flow to it, a breezy cinematic experience that doesn't feel the need to be phony with a hard impact punch to the gut or a trumped up feel good romance angle. Magic Mike XXL feels really fucking good because it's really well made and fantastically entertaining.
We are following these perfectly sculpted men driving in a food truck across state lines. They take drugs and bounce dance routine ideas off each other and while the occasional bit of conflict arises regarding all too real life issues involving going in different directions and leaving the past behind, the overall theme of Magic Mike XXL is that their duty to the world is to make people feel good. They do, and that includes the audience of this picture as long as we are willing to let them in. While Soderbergh gave their world a crisp yet steely cold chill in the first Magic Mike, somehow here he manages to top himself by making absolutely everything in the frame feel vibrant and stunningly gorgeous. Every man and woman, no matter their age, body type or race, look equally beautiful and free from a world that otherwise constantly judges everyone by those very things. Magic Mike XXL exists in a world that doesn't discriminate a woman for being too old or too big or by the color of their skin, and these male entertainers are there to remind them all that they are beautiful inside and out. It's a rare and wonderful thing to find in cinema.
By the time the moment of the big show arrives, I was so ready to be a member of the audience and witness what they came up with. My sexual orientation was irrelevant and why should it be? I never once thought, this would be so awesome if it were gorgeous women dancing instead of dudes. The primary cast of Magic Mike XXL are exactly what they strive to be, male entertainers, and their clever concepts and movements to the music were wonderfully realized and exciting. It was the show they had hoped for all along, the last hooray that made the room explode with joy, and I was hooked.
After taking some time to reflect on what seemed like a mindless but exuberant experience, I realized that I may finally understand the appeal of strippers, besides the obvious nudity factor of course. These men found a way to make every single person they came across along their way feel really good, and not just in a brief sexual way. Whether it was one girl working at a convenience store or a gigantic auditorium of screaming women looking for a night to let loose, these men managed to connect with every single one of them and make them all feel sexy regardless of who they are and what they were feeling earlier that day. Whether or not the actual physical feelings between the paying customer or the man on stage bringing her close are in any way real or profound is meaningless. It's that in that moment, for that one night, everyone will feel beautiful and alive.
How many films have that kind of heart or optimism or open-mindedness?
I may not be headed out to drop a pile of cash at a strip club anytime soon, but I will gladly drop a few dollars in order to head out on the road with Magic Mike again.
Monday, November 23, 2015
My daughter, under the weather on a Sunday morning, stumbles out of her bedroom and lays across the couch, her head resting on my leg.
"What are you watching?"
The puzzled look on her face when I responded with the full title was priceless.
"A movie called A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence."
As soon as I answered, I knew what game I was about to play. It's a common one for an 8 year old, even one who has already been exposed to as much bizarre cinema as she has. It's the take a title literally game.
"Oh, so it's about a pigeon on a branch?"
To be fair, this isn't a game that is only played by single digit aged children. I once had a rousing round of it take place with a 16 year old coworker who didn't care for the film Million Dollar Baby because he thought it was going to be about a baby that was worth a million dollars. It's just a far more predictable and anticipated experience with a tiny mind still trying to make sense of this world.
My initial reaction to her question was to respond no, because it isn't as if every dour yet fascinatingly comical vignette featured throughout involves a literal pigeon. Yet a part of me thought, yeah, it is kinda about that. Every frame is so perfectly assembled and shot and the camera is constantly static, scene after scene after scene, and we are witnessing a bleakly humorous and sometimes shocking take on humanity. Is this what it would be like to see the world if viewed through cynical, inhuman eyes? A pigeon sitting on a branch, reflecting on our existence?
Written and directed by Roy Andersson, this uniquely deadpan Swedish comedy is the third and final piece of a trilogy of sorts, although it's quite clear that they don't cohesively work together in terms of plot in a traditional sense. This film alone doesn't follow such guidelines, and thus that seemingly simple question my daughter asked opens the door to a far more complicated follow-up: what,exactly, is the film about? What's the point?
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is about us, more specifically the inability for so much of humanity to see the whole picture and give a shit about anything besides ourselves and our personal plights. One of the earlier sequences in the film involves a man alone in the street having a banal phone conversation, and while he is the dominant subject in the frame the only real emotion taking place is behind him through a window, a conversation we can't hear that ends in painful tears. When we see that level of private anguish, do we care? Do we feel anything, or are the other cold, vapid faced people in this frame a semi-realistic look at who we are?
What is remarkable about this film is how such seemingly dull set pieces can be so nuanced and in their own way beautiful to look at. Everything we see feels so real and by never once moving the camera during a shot, Andersson portrays a sort of fly on the wall experience that makes A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence feel strangely voyeuristic even if it's quite evident that we are watching absurd fiction. While labeled a comedy, one should not enter this extremely original cinematic journey expecting to laugh out loud often throughout. In fact, it took an entire scene reaching its conclusion a few times for me to completely appreciate how amusing it all was. Each frame demonstrates so much patience and intelligence that a single screening of the picture will leave so many untouched layers to peel back with a revisit.
It's also tough to make that comedy label stick with much strength because behind the zombie-esque faces and surreal imagery there is a point to the whole experience that is soaked in seriousness. A wholly original deadpan dramedy with depth and a work that literally made me reflect on existence a bit myself. Sign me up.
July 30, 1991 - September 10, 2010.
Take a second and really let that sink in. Her name was Lizzy Seeberg, and she was a beautiful and bright young woman. She was born in 1991. She died a teenager.
If you have followed my reviews before now, you probably know I have a daughter. I write about her a lot. She is my best friend. She is the love of my life. Before she was born, I thought I knew what it meant to be afraid. I had no idea. I just want to keep her close, keep her safe.
Tom Seeberg had a daughter. Her name was Lizzy Seeberg. She was sexually assaulted by a member of the Notre Dame football team and no one from the school listened to her. No one cared. After being not only ignored but threatened for accusing the man of rape, Lizzy took her own life. 19 years old. Gone forever.
Few subjects make me as nauseous and angry as sexual assault and the victim blaming that goes along with it, so when I heard that CNN would be broadcasting the new documentary The Hunting Ground, I grabbed the remote and set the DVR to record instantly. I knew the content would hit home because I already knew the content. I was familiar with practically every case that is covered and the staggering statistics of rape on college campuses and the obvious agenda of those institutions to sweep the accusations under the rug. I had no expectations that this film would prove to be eye opening because my eyes were already open.
Despite this, I still feel like I have been punched in the gut. Even when you already know the story, hearing it all over again still hurts. As a film, The Hunting Ground is extremely well made and I have a lot of trouble with complaints that it is one-sided in its portrayal of the subject. What other side is there to tell? These schools and the students that were accused of the crimes had opportunities to speak, to tell their sides of the story. They either said nothing or they tossed the victims under the bus. We are subjected to the gross reporting of what the victim was wearing that night, as if an outfit makes it impossible to say no. But they were drinking, they say, and why else would they go back to their room? As if intoxication is an excuse. As if someone isn't allowed to change their mind. Think of the accused, they tell us. Think of the damage done to them.
It's shameful. It's a disgrace.
There will be better documentaries released this year. I have already seen a couple actually, but The Hunting Ground may be the most important work of the bunch. It brought more than a single tear to my eye, and I tremble at the thought of my beautiful little girl being the one that is hurt, that is ignored, that is shamed.
A recent study indicated that 23% of women will be sexually assaulted while on a college campus. Lizzy Seeberg was one of them.
Remember her. Remember all of them.
Saturday, November 21, 2015
I was born on April 19th, 1984. The world and I, together for 11,538 days. Memories of long ago come and go from my mind constantly, moments of joy, the dread of regret, the seeming minutiae of a mostly forgettable day that still lingers in my subconscious. Decades of decisions ranging from the silly and small to those that have proved to be critical, but it is one that I have never had to make which polarizes others politically, religiously and emotionally to this day: the gender of who I love.
I still remember my first real crush. I was in elementary school and she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I bought her a Lion King themed present for her birthday, and her reaction to said gift would make or break the potential for romance. She liked it but she loved what my buddy gave her more. Their week long relationship flourished. I never had a chance.
Tom is feeling a different level of heartbreak, the kind that cuts deep and leaves a scar. The kind that matters. Tom was born, he lives and he loved. There is no asterisk next to that word, no qualifier to establish that his love is different. It isn't. He loved.
The devastation of losing that person. I can't imagine it. I watched as Tom drove through the beautiful countryside on the way to his boyfriends funeral and I wondered how profound that sort of pain is. These sort of thoughts are commonplace whenever I experience the remarkable work of filmmaker Xavier Dolan because he may deliver fiction but he does so in such a factual, honest and personal way. He plays a key lead role in four of his five features (the lone exclusion being Mommy) and his ability to perform his own vision with such precision and intensity is vital to the success of his work. Success is the appropriate word, as at the ripe old age of 26 Dolan is already responsible for 5 films ranging in quality from good to excellent. Tom at the Farm flirts with the latter frequently but it eventually settles for somewhere in between.
His scenic drive eventually concludes when he reaches his destination, and there he discovers that his love may have been real but it was hidden from his late boyfriend Guillaume's mother. To share something so powerful but be afraid of the ramifications of honesty, I cannot comprehend. The opportunity to take a breath and live a single day on this planet is miraculous. To be able to look into the eyes of another person and feel true happiness, the chance to form that bond renders characteristics like race and gender meaningless. How lucky we are to love.
The mother, played absolutely perfectly by Lise Roy, was lied to by her son who spoke of a girlfriend that never existed, shielding her from his truth. Not everyone at the farm was kept in the dark though. An older brother, Francis, knew all too well of his sibling's sexuality and the homophobia inside him raged. He takes all of this anger and awfulness out on Tom, but within the machismo and the hatred demonstrated by Francis it is quite clear that he is a lonely man haunted by his own personal confusion. The private exchanges between Francis and Tom, whether kind or violent, were when Tom at the Farm excelled the most.
Where the film went ever so slightly off the rails for me was when it seemed to battle some level of genre confusion, as it played masterfully as a disturbing psychological drama yet felt like it was trying to force a thriller vibe into the fold and it simply didn't play right. Rather than flow naturally like a vast majority of Dolan's work does with grace and elegance, a booming musical score would suddenly blast us into submission and it felt more like manipulation than genuine storytelling.
The thing about Dolan though, even when he missteps it ends up feeling minor rather than egregious. Tom at the Farm isn't perfect cinema but it still manages to punch you in the gut and make you think. It still manages to feel passionate and important. While I watched Roy steal the show playing the devastated mother, I kept thinking about my daughter and how I would never want her to keep her honest self from me. The idea of her not feeling comfortable enough to show me her truth is heartbreaking.
Be who you are. Love who you love, as long as you have the courage to love and be loved.
Tomorrow will be my 11,539th day since I was born. I don't want to take it for granted and I don't want to lie. I want to live. I want to love.
Perhaps you haven't seen the 2010 film Monsters directed by Gareth Edwards. You should. Utilizing a production budget that never even came close to sniffing seven digits, the cast and crew literally worked out of a single van, filming in locations without permission and asking actual citizens to participate as extras on the spot. It is a project crafted shockingly well out of sheer passion for their work, and it delivers its themes with a bit of subtlety and intelligence. Where as some movies resonate short term but fade when analyzed in the rear-view mirror, Monsters continues to linger long after the final frame. The chemistry between the two leads (play by Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able), the awe-inspiring visual design of the monsters, and the imagery of the setting and the majestic creatures that rise above it all work so well in the moment and remain impressive in hindsight.
Unfortunately, I have very little positive to say about it's ill-advised sequel.
Monsters: Dark Continent is the debut feature from director Tom Green and rather than build on what worked so well years ago with Edwards film, the material is instead regressed into an all too familiar and uninspired war picture. Ten years after the events from the original Monsters, the 'Infected Zone' that resided on the border of the United States and Mexico has now spread across the globe, including the Middle East which is already enduring the effects of military conflict. The story focuses on four buddies who left their homes and families behind to serve their country, and all of the tired cliches of modern military narratives are ever present and accounted for. The dialogue and performances are stilted, the barren and arid landscapes do little to make any of the photography or imagery stand out and that thematic subtlety and intelligence I admired so greatly from Edwards vision has been completely abandoned.
A critical take on our ethical behavior fighting recent wars that asks the question, who really are the monsters after all? It's not that the themes aren't worth exploring, although one could argue we have been down that road far too many times already. It's that if you want an audience to dig the same hole even deeper they must be inspired to do so by something compelling and richly rewarding. Monsters: Dark Continent is neither of those things. It's a bad film, an unfortunate sequel to a piece of independent cinema that is fascinating and worthy of your attention.
Gareth Edwards has moved on to much bigger things, having since helmed the new Godzilla film and currently working on the first installment of the Star Wars Anthology series titled Rogue One, due out by next Christmas. I'm thrilled he parlayed his undeniable talent into both personal and box office success. I only wish they could have left Monsters alone, as perhaps his name garnering further attention would have had more viewers seeking out what got him started. Now a terrific little film has been forever tied to a turd.
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
I have been looking forward to Crimson Peak for quite some time. The very notion of Guillermo del Toro crafting his own original old school Gothic haunted house horror film had me absolutely giddy, and even just the first batch of still promotional images released made me melt at the delicious visuals. Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain. This was guaranteed to be special cinema.
Turns out it was a shaky, kinda sorta, I guess so guarantee.
Those delicious visuals? Scrumptious. Sumptuous. Remarkable. Crimson Peak is an absolutely sublime experience for the rods and cones, with award worthy production and costume design filling every frame. If I were merely critiquing the movie for style points, it would be a surefire masterpiece.
The problem is the story. It's not that it is poorly written or performed, it's just that it felt familiar and stale, like a film I had seen numerous times before only rehashed in 2015 with a spectacular aesthetic to modernize it.
The picture takes place in 1887 and revolves around a young lady named Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), who as a child is visited by the ghost of her mother who delivers a strange and ominous warning: "Beware of Crimson Peak." A number of years later Edith meets a man named Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) who has come to the United States from England in search of investors for a new clay-mining invention he has designed, and he has his eye on the money of Edith's father, Carter Cushing. Problem is, Carter isn't interested in investing, and things become even more heated when he finds out Thomas has become romantically involved with his daughter.
Safe to say the timing is interesting, then, when a short time later Carter Cushing is found dead. Without her father in the way anymore, Edith and Thomas marry and return to his home in England, a creepy yet beautiful mansion that also goes by the name of, you guessed it, Crimson Peak. There they live with his cold and off-putting sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), but it becomes clear to Edith that the three of them aren't alone inside those walls.
A part of me wonders if I am being too harsh on del Toro due to my predetermined expectations on this being an original film, and the key word there is original. For months I had assumed I would be lost in wonder not only because of the technical craftsmanship but also on a narrative level, and frankly the actual events taking place on the screen did little to conjure up excitement. Still though, had this been an older film I would be lavishing it with praise over the atmosphere and the lighting and the set designs and the performances and I probably wouldn't have given the familiarity concerns of the story a second glance. I sat watching Crimson Peak unfold and I couldn't help but think of del Toro's masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth, a film that while inspired by Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive still managed to ooze a unique and awe inspiring vibe from the first frame to the last. It was like nothing I had ever seen before, and perhaps I unfairly held Crimson Peak to that lofty standard.
Still, I feel the way I feel and no matter how much I try to talk myself out of it, my gut isn't budging on this one. Crimson Peak is part masterpiece and part underwhelming, a film that I will gladly revisit just to be able to live inside the mansion again, see the gorgeous snow falling from the ceiling one more time. I'm simultaneously thrilled and disappointed, as strange as that sounds.
My gut is also telling me this is a definite candidate to be enormously more enjoyable with a revisit. Sometimes all you need is to refocus expectations and understand what a director was going for all along and see the work through a different lens, perhaps dig a little deeper for some of that thematic richness I just know is hiding in there somewhere, underneath Crimson Peak.
Monday, November 16, 2015
The flash bulbs. Paparazzi right there to document her, even at her most vulnerable times. People are so often envious of the rich and the famous, and perhaps I can get on board with the wealth but not the fame. I'm not interested and honestly, I don't think I could handle it. I thrive because of my privacy. I embrace every quiet moment I can find. I can't imagine the flash bulbs.
Somehow even now, despite everything we know, despite all of the knowledge and information available at our fingertips at a moments notice, we as a society still make light of mental illness and drug addiction. When it is someone we know and care about, it's a heartbreaking problem. When it is somebody famous, it's a punchline. When her whole world was crashing down around her and those closest to her recognized that she was giving up, that she had an appetite for destruction despite knowing the consequences, she was a punchline. I'm not laughing though. It hurts.
It would be easy for me to judge. I rarely drink a drop of alcohol and I sure as hell never do drugs. I love my life though. I thrive because of my privacy. I embrace the silence. I can't imagine the flash bulbs. I couldn't do it. I don't understand how people do it. I choose not to judge because who am I to? Am I better than her or anyone else walking in her shoes because the demons I battle aren't quite as loud or damaging? Is my life more valuable? Would you shed a tear for me during my downward spiral, or would I just be a punchline? I never want to be a punchline.
A lot of documentary filmmaking feels monotonous, even when the subject matters are strikingly different. Faces staring back at you telling a story from their point of view, over and over and over and over. Just interviews with the occasional cut away shot, the static camera begging for a fascinating topic just to hold our interest. Even when it does, even when captivating, many docs fail to stand out among a sea of innovative cinema. A temporary journey that ends when the frames do. They rarely linger beyond that point.
Amy is different. It's an extraordinary film that I finished watching but it has not ended. I can't shake it. Directed by Asif Kapadia, this is a work that almost feels prophetic or even fictional because it is carried not by giant faces painting pictures with words but by the actual art instead. So much footage of Amy Winehouse living her life, a backstage pass into her troubled but all too true world and it is touching, haunting, and powerful stuff. When a friend or family member grabs the paint brush they do so merely to enhance the already gorgeous portrait we have in front of us. Delivered in voice-over while we constantly see Amy, at times beautiful and full of life and at other times wasting away, fighting a losing battle against herself and her pain, this is a film that is pieced together spectacularly. I have watched so many documentaries over the years but nothing has ever felt like Amy. The tears that welled up during the final, devastating images stand alone.
Truly one of the most brilliant pictures of 2015, I was going to sleep on this one but I couldn't. I literally couldn't. When I closed my eyes I kept thinking about how a human life can go so off the rails when they were so talented, had so much to give. One day her voice could fill a room and the heart of a listener, so soulful and unique. The next day she is carried out of her home in a bag, never to be heard from again.
Amy wasn't perfect. Far from it. She was human though. She was a person who loved and was loved in return. At her darkest hour, the flash bulbs were still there, surrounding her, consuming her. While her mother and father and friends and lovers and colleagues and fans wept, she was a punchline. It hurts.
Friday, November 13, 2015
Imagine The Hangover and the second season of True Detective became intimate together. I'm not entirely sure how anyone would be able to picture a feature film and an HBO series fuck, as it is obviously impossible, but go with it for a second and hear me out. You have the brotastic buddies all hanging out in some nice place banging chicks, only instead of a humorous tone it takes on a brooding, cold and unlikable vibe that makes me want to cut myself and listen to Papa Roach albums on repeat.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Loft.
Starring Dredd, Prison Break, Cyclops, Cam from Modern Family and Matthias Schoenaerts, The Loft tells the story of a group of shameful men who are totes buddies and share a loft together in order to bring women who aren't their wives there so they can engage in secretive intercourse. The dialogue is awful, the chemistry between the characters is non-existent, the storytelling is messy and I never once gave a shit about what did or did not happen, who did or did not do it and why. It's just this glossy turd of a film that tries to be sexy and mysterious and provocative and edgy, but simply writing Latin in blood next to a naked dead women isn't enough to pull me in. The rest of the picture has to actually be, you know...good.
The screenplay really did a fantastic job of handling female characters too. Really empowering and interesting women all over the screen. What exactly did the casting call say? Must be willing to play vapid, meaningless creatures that are in the frame merely to follow strange men back to their weird group sex loft and spread their legs for their pleasure? Can't wait to show a film like The Loft to my daughter, show her that the world is her oyster. Inspiring.
I absolutely love dark and ominous murder mystery stories. They get my blood flowing in ways that might be deemed unsettling to many. Despite this, I was about as flaccid and unmoved while watching The Loft then I have been in quite some time during any movie. By the time they got to the big "shocking" reveal I was numb to what was going on and I will be totally honest, I was barely paying attention.
Tuesday, November 10, 2015
Roughly a third of the way through the film Mistress America, I paused it, got up and used the restroom. Actually scratch that, it's important I am completely accurate here: I got up, got a fresh drink from the fridge, placed it on the end table and then went and used the restroom. My beverage was out of my line of sight for probably a full minute.
I bring this up because it is entirely possible Noah Baumbach snuck into my home during this one minute with some Ethan Hunt maneuvers and put something in my cup. Some sort of potion that made everything with his recent film suddenly click, the magic of the picture suddenly washing over me when just a few minutes earlier I felt a tad cold to the experience.
Early on Mistress America felt strangely artificial, the dialogue and the delivery a bit phony for my liking. Trying too hard to be funny and only hitting about half the time. It isn't as if I wasn't familiar with the man and his style, as just a couple years earlier I completely bought what he was selling with Frances Ha. This time it just felt...weird.
Until it didn't. After that short aforementioned break, the soda wasn't the only thing that tasted really fucking good.
The film tells the story of a college freshman named Tracy (Lola Kirke), a girl who envisioned a far more exciting life when she first went off to school. Her mom is getting married and suggests that perhaps Tracy should seek out her soon-to-be-stepsister Brooke (Greta Gerwig) and hopefully spark a friendship. Brooke is everything Tracy needs at this moment. She lives in Times Square, she is energetic, she is full of life and always looking for the thrill of an adventure. It's intoxicating for Tracy and they form a deep bond quickly.
When I used the words artificial and phony before, I was mainly referring to the character of Brooke played by Gerwig. The thing is, I still feel that way now but I have spun it from a negative to a positive. Brooke seems to constantly be in a whirlwind, almost suffering from a form of ADD that derives from hope and optimism and the belief that all of her dreams will come true, most specifically the one in which she opens her own restaurant. Initially Brooke seems to have it all together, but it becomes clear that all of her plans, her vision for her life is unraveling before our eyes and yet she keeps delivering the humorous quips and maintains that joyful smile on her face, but if you look closely the artifice behind it feels authentic.
This is when I really started to fall in love with the performance by Gerwig. While it is a heavily comedic role, what really got me was the layers she portrayed the character with as the film went along. Sure, Brooke is a bit phony, but ironically because of this she becomes real and honest and believable. When Mistress America started I thought "No one is really like this.". As the story unfolded, I stopped looking at her as a fictional character. Brooke is really like this, and she hides pain with all the flash and fun.
The screenplay from Gerwig and Baumbach, who have formed both a collaborative working and romantic relationship, is truly top notch and does a brilliant job of keeping its themes subtle. I recently wrote a review of the new film We Are Your Friends and I took issue with how predictable and familiar the coming of age tropes played out in that one, and I was begging for a similar story that someone could craft in a way that felt wholly original and actually give me something to chew on. Mistress America is that film. I wasn't on board early, but by the time the brilliantly paced 84 minutes flew by I wanted more. I still want more. I want to watch it again.
I will watch it again, and hopefully soon. When I do it will be with open eyes and without bathroom breaks. I will observe that first act of the picture and try to figure out what felt so wrong early on, because in the end it all felt so right.
Monday, November 9, 2015
The beats are all there, and no, I'm not referring to the music. This is a typical coming of age story, not one in the vein of a film like Boyhood where we are watching a transition due to age but rather one of maturity and opening ones eyes to what matters in this world. Cole Carter (Zac Efron) is 23 years old and spends his time hanging with friends and taking any gig he can, hoping his music will get noticed. He just needs that one hot track that will intoxicate the ears of every person in the area, that one song that will put him on the map.
Everyone dreams of a door to success opening in an almost miraculous way, and that happens with Cole when he runs into James Reed (Wes Bentley), a DJ who has already found his fame and is willing to take a young man with promise under his wing. Cole finally has his chance to leave his mark on the music industry, until predictably things get complicated thanks to a beautiful girl.
Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski) was standing in the club one night and Cole spotted her from across the room. He couldn't look away. Gorgeous. Unfortunately she is also dating his new mentor. He falls in love but by doing so he risks the new opportunity he lucked into thanks to a friendship.
We Are Your Friends is reasonably entertaining and oozes a palpable energy that makes it impossible to lose interest, but frankly it's painfully predictable and familiar, tripping over every trope you could imagine along the way to the conclusion we all knew was coming. We know it won't always be smooth with his friends. It isn't. We know James will find out about Cole and Sophie. He does. We know how the love story will end and we know whether or not he will eventually write that one sexy track. It's been done before and to death, albeit sometimes featuring slightly less aesthetically pleasing characters.
The film is directed by Max Joseph, making his fictional feature length debut here, and it wouldn't be fair of me to shit all over the story without also giving the movie credit for packing a stylish visual punch. While the arc of the characters and their emotional plights and slight to say the least, I have no doubts that if Joseph were relegated to solely the directors chair and given a strong screenplay to work with, I bet it could result in a hell of a film. Unfortunately with the box office failings of this picture, something tells me his gig as the co-host of the television series Catfish will be his focal point for some time going forward.
If you enjoy watching beautiful people framed by a director who knows how to film them, We Are Your Friends is more than good enough to be a pleasing 90 minute experience. I would sum up my overall thoughts on this one with yeah...I kinda liked it. Just don't go in looking for anything fresh or challenging, because we have all been down this road before and it's not all that exciting.
Wednesday, November 4, 2015
"I'm twelve. But I've been twelve for a long time."
The whole world is afraid of getting old. I won't lie, I am too. Even at only thirty-one, I find myself envious of those younger than myself.
I don't envy twelve though. Fuck twelve.
Twelve year old me discovered what it meant to wake up in a hospital bed, confused and scared, hours after suffering a massive seizure. My condition only reared its ugly head at night. Twelve years old and scared to fall asleep.
Twelve year old me gained weight. Just another reason to get picked on at school. I tried my best to hide my tears, releasing them during private, quiet moments. I was too young and thus too ignorant to have any perspective, to recognize that my problems, as serious as they might have been, paled in comparison to what so many others dealt with on a daily basis. Twelve year old me didn't worry about anyone else. Twelve year old me was constantly looking in the mirror, and he didn't like what stared back at him.
Oskar is twelve. He is bullied but never fights back. Neither did I. Eli is twelve as well, although she has been for over 200 years. Unbeknownst to Oskar, Eli is a vampire. Forever twelve. Fuck twelve.
Eli is odd, sure, but she is pretty and kind to Oskar. A boy accustomed to isolation suddenly forms a bond with a girl his age. Oskar falls in love. She encourages him to stand up for himself. He does. It feels fucking good, and this is demonstrated with a brilliant upward camera angle of Oskar after his moment of triumph, a weak and timid boy suddenly on top of the world.
Oskar eventually discovers Eli's dark and literally bloody secret, but he is in love. He is empowered. He is twelve.
Let the Right One In is a Swedish film that is so gorgeously crafted and brilliant that no matter how many words I put down right now, they won't do it justice. Directed exquisitely by Tomas Alfredson, I had this picture pegged incorrectly prior to pressing play as I expected it to merely be a gore fest vampire movie as all I knew about it was the genre label of "horror", and yet what I actually experienced was a totally unique and bizarre coming of age story about the bond of true friendship and love. I am left thrilled with how deeply I connected to this film. I never could have anticipated it, which actually made the experience all the more special.
What else can I gush about? Oh, how about the photography of Hoyte Van Hoytema, a dark and cold aesthetic that somehow manages to feel warm thanks to the unlikeliest of love stories. The performances from these young actors, Kare Hedebrant as Oskar and Lina Leandersson as Eli, are absolutely on point and they share a chemistry that shines so brightly. When they are together in front of a snow covered backdrop, it's about as beautiful a frame as you can find anywhere.
Just when I thought Let the Right One In couldn't get any better or more wonderfully realized, one of the final scenes that takes place at a swimming pool happened and I couldn't stop smiling. I wanted to bathe in that moment forever. I will be replaying it over and over and over again in my mind.
I don't envy twelve. I don't miss twelve. Fuck twelve.
I bet life would have been a lot easier, though, if I would have had an Eli by my side back then.
Tuesday, November 3, 2015
"I got something to say."
2015. The year of the resurgence of biopics. Despite the award acclaim they received a year ago, I wasn't buying what they were selling. Others fell in love with their stories. I was bored.
First it was Love & Mercy, the story of Brian Wilson from The Beach Boys. That film worked so well because it didn't abide by the typical tropes that get this sub-genre in trouble. That film told its story from a unique perspective, looking at two separate crucial moments at very different times in his life. I was praising the absence of the traditional passage of time, point A to point Z predictable method of illustrating a life.
Now it's Straight Outta Compton, chronicling the birth of the group N.W.A and documenting the lives of its members. Why does this film work where as other biopic style cinema makes me want to take a nap?
Because it's god damn electric dynamite, that's why.
F. Gary Gray crafts a story that many are already familiar with in a way that feels fresh and exciting and alive, with a mood that pulses from the music and the performances and the nuance found in the relationships. There is a beautiful rhythm to the flow of this film, but it isn't all evenly paced which actually works to its benefit. There are plenty of moments that take their time and allow us to breathe and realize that we are focusing on real people with real and sometimes mundane issues, which makes the frenetic power of the concert sequences and the palpable tension between the police and the massively popular group loudly declaring their anger and frustration towards them feel like a blast of energy rather than the status quo.
Sure, the story omits some pretty big details from the true story of the rise of N.W.A. and I am sure many will be turned off by Straight Outta Compton not painting with a perfectly honest brush, but to be blunt, I just don't care. I don't. At a different time in my life I may have found a reason to express frustrations at a true story not being completely bathed in facts, but I have come to accept that liberties have been and will continue to be taken with these type of works. Just give me the most authentic possible vision that results in the best film, plain and simple. If including every detail meant the pacing would have been off even just a slight bit or the characters plight would have lost even the smallest bit of power, then I'm thrilled with the choices that were made.
If you didn't think Straight Outta Compton would appeal to you because you didn't care for their music or just don't really care about the people involved, I may not be able to convince you to check it out. I understand, it happens. For me though, it all comes down to the screenplay and the filmmaking, not the subjects being focused on. I didn't think a film about Mark Zuckerberg and the birth of Facebook would be interesting, yet The Social Network is one of my favorite films of all time because of Sorkin's words, Reznor and Ross's score and Fincher's taut, incredible direction. I thought the stories of Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking would grab me and never let me go and yet I felt sleepy and disinterested through most of The Imitation Game and a fair amount of The Theory of Everything.
Straight Outta Compton did grab me and it still hasn't let me go. A hell of a film.