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Saturday, July 4, 2015

Faults - A Film Review

Faults is a 2014 drama written and directed by Riley Stearns and starring Leland Orser and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The film is about a deprogrammer (Orser) who is working on de-brainwashing a young cult member (Winstead).  The film is a serious drama, though has moments of black comedy that break up the tension, and give it a sharp and critical look at the nature of manipulation and brainwashing.

                Ansel Roth (Orser) is a famous cult specialist who had written a successful book about cults and deprogramming cult members to live healthy lives as their previous selves. His career and life was ruined by the death of a cult member he tried to save, whose demise the media blamed on him for both not saving her and exploiting her for book sales. He even is so pathetic as to reuse a voucher found in the garbage to get a free meal at a hotel restaurant, and is tossed out, later leading a speaking engagement at that same hotel. At the speaking gig, he has fallen from his former glory, and just pushes his book on the audience, requesting purchases of $15 per book, plus an additional $5 for signatures.

                A middle-aged couple (Chris Ellis, Beth Grant) approach him after one of his gigs, asking him to help them with their daughter, who has been brainwashed by a cult. He is reluctant, saying he doesn’t care anymore, but ultimately agrees to the job, in part because he owes a great debt to his manager. He kidnaps Claire (Winstead), using the help of a couple of hired goons, and holds her hostage in a motel room, giving himself five days to deprogram her. After that, if he cannot cure her, she is free to go wherever she pleases.

                Claire is a very self-assured and calm woman, and doesn’t believe herself to be brainwashed, seeing herself as “reborn” and “Claire” as her former self, who was weak and stupid, and is now her “true” self. She explains the cult Faults as “from the faults comes a change.” Orser and Winstead share an electric rhythm with one another, as Ansel prickles with nervous energy and desperation, while Claire speaks with a serene calm and a convincing manner of her cult’s teachings.

Winstead delivers a performance with depth and intelligence, as a perceptive woman who has been brainwashed by a cult, yet speaks of it with clarity and poise. Winstead is a talented and versatile actress, who often flies below the radar of mainstream Hollywood, yet is one of its underrated talents. Orser’s performance is solid, as a failure of a man trying to hide his desperation with an insistent tone of voice, employing his methods to cure Claire and absolve himself of his previous failures.

Faults is an interesting film that, while not perfect, is a unique blend of thriller and black comedy, with two commanding performances that carry the story into an interesting slow burn of a film. It is streaming on Netflix, and I highly recommend it.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Rounders - A Film Review

Rounders is a 1998 drama directed by John Dahl (The Last Seduction, Red Rock West), written by David Levien and Brian Koppelman, and starring Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Turturro, Famke Janssen, Gretchen Mol, Martin Landeau, and John Malkovich. It is an excellent drama set in the seedy poker card game underbelly of NYC, with gamblers, loan sharks, Russian gangsters, and shady characters. The film feels like an inside look at a subculture that is very macho, of alpha male types and streetwise cats trying to outsmart each other in poker games. The film did modestly when it was released, but has become a cult favorite with the rise in popularity of poker tournaments. I saw it in theaters when I was 14, because my father recommended it based on the high caliber of talented actors, and I thought, "It's about poker, and I don't know anything about it. Why would I be interested in this?" But I saw it, and loved the gritty noir vibe of it, and the stellar cast that rounded out the film.

Mike (Damon) is a gifted poker player, who uses his earnings to pay his law school tuition, and plays poker as a hobby and secret obsession. When he misses a shot in a game against Russian mobster Teddy KGB (Malkovich) and loses all of his $30,000, he is shaken up, and quits right then and there. He builds his life back from the ground up over the next nine months, working as a part-time delivery truck driver and dedicated to his girlfriend Jo (Mol) and succeeding in law school.

His childhood friend Worm (Norton) has just been released from prison, and is ready to get back into the poker game, despite Mike's reluctance. Worm owes a large debt to Teddy KGB and Gramma, another criminal associate, and needs Mike's help in paying it back. Mike and Worm have always been friends, but Worm has often pulled Mike into trouble with him, and has a habit of running away to let Mike take the heat for his actions. They get back into their cycle as "rounders," making a living playing underground card games around New York City, playing against tourists, mobsters, bar staff, prep school graduates, and whoever else they can find. As Mike would say, "If you can't spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, you are the sucker." It is a dangerous and risky game that Mike is playing, as he knows Worm's habits of letting his big mouth get out of hand and running away, but the lure of the game is too great for Mike to ignore.

Mike is torn between his loyalty to Worm, his loyalty to Jo, his loyalty to finishing law school, and his loyalty to his love of the game, following his gambling addiction. Mike is a good person who can straddle the worlds between the seedy side of NYC and the upper-class world of law school, but can't make a decision as to which world he should stick to.

The performances are solid. Damon and Norton work great together, and the contrast of their characters' personalities is palpable and electric: Mike is trying to live a straight life while being addicted to the mind games of poker, sizing up his opponents and waiting for the right move; while Worm is impulsive, wriggly, and goes with his impulses, not thinking about the future or the whole picture. A lot of their scenes are of them arguing together, but in more of a ying and yang way, trying to work together to fit as one piece in order to pay their huge debt within a week. The characters often talk in poker terms as analogies, or casually dropping poker jargon into their speech. It is a unique and interesting way of speech, and adds to the unique elements of this film as a noir piece.

Another contrast with Mike and Worm is Mike's friend Joey Knish (Turturro), who plays to make money for rent, alimony, child support, and not for the rush of the game or for winning a large pot. He has managed to keep a secure sense of himself within this dangerous world, and is positioned as a likely role model for Mike to follow.

Famke Janssen has a small but memorable role as a friend who works in an underground poker club. Janssen at the time was known as a Bond Girl in Goldeneye, and was building her acting skills in small roles in independent and lower-budget films, as not to be typecast by her stunning looks. She is a gorgeous woman, but has this sultry, laid-back air about her, like a woman who knows how to read men and not get caught up in the dangerous games of mobsters and hustlers. She has a warm and low voice, and keeps an intriguing presence in the film, a mysterious person who was one of my favorite characters in the film.

The only fault that I have with the film is Malkovich's over-the-top performance as Teddy KGB. Luckily, he only appears in the prologue and the finale of the film, but his exaggerated accent and scenery-chewing performance is distracting, and takes away from the gritty noir of the film into someone ridiculous and cartoonish. His character is important to the film, as his name is mentioned many times as a dangerous figure, but Malkovich's performance is garish, and takes what should be a menacing and dangerous character, and turns him into a joke. The casting of Malkovich is the one misstep in an otherwise great film.

Rounders is one of my favorite films, and is overlooked when Matt Damon and Edward Norton's careers are discussed in the media, as I believe they give some of their best performances in this film. John Dahl excels at noir, as seen in the brilliant The Last Seduction in 1994. I highly recommend this film, and it is currently streaming on Netflix.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Long Rail North - A Theater Review

The Long Rail North is a play that premiered at the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity this past week in New York City. It was written by Michael Hagins, and directed by Emily DeSena. The play stars Xavier Rodney, Morgan Patton, Michael Rehse, Natalie Ann Johnson, and Sam Lopresti. The play is set during the Civil War, and is about the relationship between an escaped black slave/AWOL Union soldier and a white daughter of a plantation owner, and their struggle to survive while travelling North as stowaways on a train.

Thomas (Rodney) is an escaped black slave who also left his regiment in the Union army due to finding that the North’s attitudes towards black people weren’t any better than the South’s attitudes. The South’s attitudes are more blatant and violent, whereas the North’s attitudes are more subtly insulting and condescending. He has rescued a 12-year old white girl named Molly (Patton) from the burning of her family plantation, in which her family and slaves were killed in the ambush, and is trying his best to be patience with her ingrained racist attitudes, all of which she had inherited from her father. Rodney commands the scenes with an intelligence that makes Thomas the smartest person in the room, on his own journey and trying to manage as a drifter and being split between allegiances and not belonging anywhere.

Molly frequently begins her sentences with “My daddy says that . . .” and often uses the n-word to address Thomas because she doesn’t know any better about addressing black people by their given names. Patton excels at playing a scared and confused young girl who doesn’t know what to think when her racist attitudes conflict with Thomas’s gentle actions, contradicting her father’s ideas about black people. While Molly needs Thomas a lot more than he needs her, he has dedicated himself to getting Molly to safety by hitching a ride on a train car going North, the full reason for it being revealed in the third act.

Along the way, they encounter a drifter/train robber named Cassie (Johnson), known as a fugitive by the name of “Coal Car” Cassie. Johnson delivers a fun performance full of charisma and adventurous spirit. Cassie stands up against the racist attitudes of the day, both out of kinship with black people and out of having nothing left to lose as a disenfranchised white woman.

The three stowaways are being targeted by both Union and Confederate soldiers, played with sinister relish by Sam Lopresti and Michael Rehse. They are both predators, not only looking to capture Thomas, but also to capture the child Molly as a “traitor” and to hang Cassie for her crimes.

                The play is heavy subject matter, and given the heightened recent media coverage of race relations and racially-motivated violence, it is a perceptive drama, though it was written nearly two years ago.

                DeSena’s direction and Hagins’ writing allows for the scenes to unfold naturally and deliver introspective character development without rushed exposition or filler moments. The five-person cast gives captivating performances that deliver the heaviness of the situations at hand, and transport the audience to an ugly time in history that has reared its head since then in many different forms.

The play will run through July 11th in the Planet Connections festival at the Paradise Factory.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Advantageous - A Film Review

Advantageous is a 2015 dystopian sci-fi drama directed and co-written by Jennifer Phang and starring Jacqueline Kim (also co-writer), Freya Adams, James Urbaniak, Jennifer Ehle, Jennifer Ikeda, Samantha Kim, and Ken Jeong. The film is a feature film expansion of Phang’s short film, produced for the sci-fi short film anthology web series FUTURESTATES. The film is a feminist sci-fi look at aging, identity, the female place in modern society, and wealth in the late 21st century. It is a fascinating film about technology and modern selfhood, especially as it comes to the price of using technology to become a better person.

Gwen Koh (Jacqueline Kim) is a middle-aged single mother who has been the public, yet underpaid, face of the seemingly innocent corporation that she works for, until she is demoted on account of her age and not being youthful or marketable enough for their faster technology-based future. She is struggling to support herself and her daughter Jules (Samantha Kim), and wants to send Jules to an elite prep school where a successful future would be guaranteed for her.

 Gwen hustles to come up with the money through egg donation, job interviews, and checking her bank balances, but is at a disadvantage in a society that celebrates youth and wealth. The class differences are stark in this world, with examples such as stunning visuals of grand, opulent city life contrasted with lonely poor neighbors crying in their apartments and news reports on teen prostitution.

Gwen and Jules share a vital relationship, especially with a single mother and only child. They share a close and loving bond, and need each other for love, family, and human connection in a tech-driven world. It is not only their financial future that is important, but their loving bond that is crucial to maintain as a family.

In order to ensure a future for both herself and for Jules, Gwen decides to use herself as a test subject for a new and experimental procedure developed by her company, where her identity would be placed inside of a younger body, as a chance to live life anew. The procedure would raise her advantage in the industry as a youthful and valuable member of society, and would allow for her daughter to have the best in society. Gwen justifies her procedure, saying, “I can’t let her become one of these women so desperate that they would do anything.” It is a risky move that Gwen takes in undergoing the procedure, and the third act of the film is a heartbreaking twist, as the real cost of the procedure is revealed, and is a sad and painful look at how women are valued in society based on beauty and social worth.

Advantageous stands out as not only one of the best science-fiction films of the year, but as one of the best films of the year, period. The film has an inventive story that touches to the core of human identity, aging, and mortality. The film won the Sundance Jury Prize for Collaborative Vision in January, played to a sold-out audience at BAMcinemaFest and is currently streaming on Netflix. I highly recommend this film.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Short Thoughts on A History of Violence

I watched A History of Violence last week, and really liked it. It had a good slow, anticipatory pace to it, like violence was always simmering beneath the surface way before it happened. I loved seeing the build up to the diner scene, it set up everything in motion. And the way that Tom (Viggo Mortensen) kept laughing off accusations that he was a criminal made him look even more suspect.
I am a fan of David Cronenberg, so I figured I would like this film. And it made me like the Archer/Bob's Burgers scene even more, as it was very clever with Archer and Bob's individual histories and mirroring it from the movie:

Thoughts on Dope and Breaking a Monster

I saw two movies at BAM yesterday as part of their film festival BAMCinemaFest. The first was Dope, directed by Rick Famuyiwa which, is showing in both indie and mainstream theaters. Dope centered on a teenage black male nerd named Malcolm (Shameik Moore) who was a 90's hip-hop head in present-day Inglewood, CA, and dressed like a cross between Dwayne Wayne and the Fresh Prince. He has nerdy friends and works to maintain his identity while mingling with local street folks. He gets involved in a drug-dealing scheme through a convoluted set of circumstances, and uses his nerdy image as a cover to avoid detection.

I was mixed on it, liking the characters and style, but not so much the story. I liked the throwback hip-hop soundtrack; the heroes being black nerds; the story being influenced by Superbad and Friday; an awesome shout-out to the underrated coming-of-age movie The Wood; a funny performance by model Chanel Iman as a cokehead rich girl; Zoe Kravitz' performance as a young woman studying for her G.E.D. and dealing with both her drug dealing friends and the nerd protagonist, caught between wanting to be seen as more than just a sexy hookup but not leaving her past behind; and the nerds gaming the drug dealing system through their tech and science skills. The characters were complex and I liked the depth that was given to their personalities and attitudes. However, I didn't like the slapstick, silly parts; the gratuitous female nudity, the heavy-handed, melodramatic final monologue that was an anvil spelling out everything that was already shown in the film earlier, and the hero becoming a drug dealer, even if he had clever ways of distributing it. It isn't a bad movie, but it felt shallow sometimes.

The other movie I saw was Breaking a Monster, directed by Luke Meyer, a documentary about three adolescent black boys from Brooklyn (Malcolm, Jarad, Alan) who were a metal band called Unlocking the Truth. They started out as street performers, got discovered and got a major Sony record deal, but kept struggling to understand the music business while being barely 13 years old themselves. They just want to play music, make an album, and get paid, while their manager is trying to handle the business end and get the boys to act more mature in meetings and showcases. The movie was really funny (often due to the boys' frank honesty and lack of a filter), and they are really talented, like guitar-shredding, drumming talents who have since opened for Metallica, Motorhead, Guns 'N' Roses, Queens of the Stone Age, and Marilyn Manson. There often was talk about the boys standing out as black kids playing metal, and being accused of being a gimmick or a token act. The kids have serious metal influences, and already so skilled at 13, they will likely just get better with more life experience and training. It was really cool to see.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Prophecy - A Film Review

The Prophecy is a 1995 fantasy-thriller film written and directed by Gregory Widen, and featuring a stellar cast: Christopher Walken, Eric Stoltz, Elias Koteas, Virginia Madsen, Adam Goldberg, Amanda Plummer, and Viggo Mortensen. The film begins with a prologue of the First War between Heaven and angels, where fallen angels who refused to accept God’s elevation of mankind above all others were cast out and lost His love; the creation of Hell and Lucifer’s fall from grace, and the angels who have remained loyal to God and are protectors of mankind, and trying to be brothers again. It’s a fascinating film about faith, Catholicism, and questioning God’s presence and love, as both the angels and mankind have felt abandoned by His voice and feel lost and confused without Him.

                The film’s story begins with Thomas Dagget (Koteas), who is about to be ordained as a priest, but receives horrifying visions of angels warring with each other, and is traumatized. He loses his faith, and several years later, has become a police detective with the LAPD. Meanwhile, two angels have fallen to Earth. Simon (Stoltz), is an angel on mankind’s side, and warns Dagget of coming events. The other angel, Uziel (Jeff Cadiente), is described as having the “strength of God” and is a lower soldier angel and Lt. to the archangel Gabriel (Walken).Uziel tries to kill Simon, but Simon overpower him and destroys him. His body and death is investigated by Dagget, triggering his memories of the Church and a missing passage from the Book of Revelations about a second war Heaven by the fallen angels, and a prophecy involving the use of a “dark soul” that will be used as a deadly weapon. The dark soul to be used is the soul of a recently-deceased Korean War veteran named Hawthorne, who had a dark and disturbing past from the war. Gabriel wants to use his soul to fulfill the prophecy, but Simon has stolen it, and is determined to keep Gabriel from reaching it, in any way he can.

                Stoltz gives a great performance as Simon, portraying as an angel who is good-hearted, but tired of fighting the battle constantly with the fallen angels. He plays him more like an actual person than like an ethereal figure, and combined with his long dark coat and shaggy hair, looks more grunge than angelic. When he is injured and hiding in a school, he meets a little girl who finds him while she’s playing with her friends. When he asks her name and she states, “Mary,” he repeats her name to himself with a sarcastic tone of voice to himself, as in, “Of course, out of all the girls in this town, I meet the one with the same name as her.” It’s a wry and funny moment, and all coming from Stoltz’s knowing delivery.

Christopher Walken plays Gabriel with a mix of menace and dark humor. He is often impatient with people, and treats people like they are gnats in the way of his course, through knocking humans out with a light touch to the forehead or ripping out the hearts of angels trying to stop him. His dark humor mostly comes from him teasing humans for being naïve, innocent, or immature, and not worthy of the unconditional love that God has bestowed upon them. He uses suicide victims (Goldberg and Plummer) as his human helpers, keeping them in limbo between life and death, and a lot of dark and sick humor comes from their interactions and the helpers being in obvious resentment of this angel keeping him alive just to drive him around and do his errands.

In Gabriel’s exchange with Simon during a battle scene, he speaks of the pain and anguish that he has felt since God has cast him out, and wanting to return to paradise:

                Simon: I’m so tired of this war.
                Gabriel: Reject the lie, Simon. Join us! Help make it like it was before the monkeys. You remember? We cast out Lucifer’s army, you and I. We threw their rebel thrones from the wall.
                Simon: They wanted to be gods.
                Gabriel: I don’t want to be a god, Simon. I just wanna make it like it was, before the lie. When he loved us best.

                Although Gabriel has a cold demeanor about him, in that moment, he does become a sympathetic character, a person who is devastated about being banished and not hearing God’s voice anymore. Simon says to him, “Oh, Gabriel. When was it that you lost your grace? I’d like to help you, but I’m not sure who’s right or who’s wrong. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes you just have to do what you’re told. That’s who you are.” It is a powerful scene full of loss and regret of losing friends and the love of one’s creator, and Walken and Stoltz play the scene magnificently.

                Dagget has been struggling with his Catholic faith and being abandoned by God on the day he needed him most, so his loss of faith and confusion parallels with Gabriel’s need to reach Heaven and win back God’s love. It is prevalent through the film, as he is emotionally exhausted, and searching for answers. Koteas delivers an understated and heartfelt performance in this film, as he often looks drained and worn-out in trying to understand why he has been brought back into confronting his faith and overcoming his past struggles to re-gain his faith. His faith is what makes him human, what makes him have a soul. And at the same time, the angels have faith too, yet they do not have souls like humans. Koteas doesn’t play the role like a macho hero, nor is he jaded about life. He is just understandably confused about why God’s voice wasn’t there for him, and why the angels need him now. There’s a great moment where he is speaking with Katherine (Madsen) about the real purpose of angels outside of their innocent and holy image:

                “Did you ever notice how in the Bible, whenever God needed to punish someone, or make an example, or whenever God needed a killing, he sent an angel? Did you ever wonder what a creature like that must be like? A whole existence spent praising your God, but always with one wing dipped in blood. Would you ever want to really see an angel?”

                It is a fascinating take on the stories of angels, and seeing angels not as innocent guardians but as warriors sent to do God’s bidding on missions that may involve punishment and murder. Dagget also states that in a verse from St. Paul, there was one line that always stuck with him: “Even now in Heaven there were angels carrying savage weapons.” It is a haunting line that carries resonance with the film.

One of the best performances in the film belongs to Viggo Mortensen, who appears late in the film, with only three scenes as Lucifer, but delivers a scene-stealing and mesmerizing performance. He is calm, collected, and captivating on-screen. He plays Lucifer like a beast, with lowered, glowering eyes, predatory stances, and a low, intimidating purr in his voice. Even him just plucking a flower while speaking shows an utter disrespect for life. He doesn’t give a damn about any of the humans, he is only getting involved because Gabriel wants to turn Heaven into another Hell, and that is Lucifer’s domain. Mortensen’s performance is brilliant, especially in delivering lines like, “Humans – and how I love you talking monkeys for this – know more about war and treachery than any angel,” or “God? God is love. I don’t love you,” said with cold eyes and a hiss.

                The film, while not well-remembered today, was a box office success, earning twice its budget in revenue, and mixed reviews from critics. It has a stellar cast, and is an interesting story about angels warring with each other, and the humans that get caught up in the crossfire. I highly recommend it.