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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Thoughts on Gloria

I enjoyed watching the Mexican movie Gloria yesterday, about the pop singer Gloria Trevi and her life with her abusive manager, who exploited teen girls and used them like his personal harem of sex slaves. I had heard of Trevi years ago via a book about her (she was a huge pop star in the 90's in Mexico, like Madonna-level famous), and she went to prison for four years as an accomplice to her manager's exploitation of young girls who idolized Trevi.

From the book, I thought Trevi was a deceitful person who enabled her manager's crimes and lured girls in with promises of celebrity and glamour, like being friends with their idol. In the movie, she is portrayed more sympathetically, as a victim of her manager and manipulated by his emotional abuse and mind games as he rotates her around his group of girls. It made more sense why she would defend him, feeling she owed him for her career success and being her first (first love, first lover). I am not sure what exactly to think, but I do think she was a victim of him while also enabling his crimes to please him.

The acting was really good in this. The actress who played Trevi was excellent, bringing out the wild side of Trevi's celebrity persona while also the vulnerability and fear in her private life with her manager and friends. The actor who played the manager was excellent in playing him as an abusive and slimy predator who saw himself as a god amongst these girls. I also felt for the other girls, especially since they looked really young and brought out their immaturity and childishness amidst trying to act sexy and "adult."

I watched a video afterwards of Trevi performing one of her early hits on TV, and the movie was dead-on in capturing her pop star/rock n roll attitude of tearing up the stage, being unpredictable, and full of heart and passion for her music. It was just really cool to watch, and I could see why she thrilled Mexican audiences at that time.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Thoughts on Roman Holiday

I really enjoyed watching Roman Holiday this morning. I saw it years ago, but rewatched it on Netflix because my friend Michael saw Trumbo and told me that Dalton Trumbo wrote it and went uncredited because he was blacklisted at the time. (The movie's title sequence now has his name restored under a story credit, and it looks as authentic as if it were originally there.)

The film still holds up very well as a fun movie about a princess (Audrey Hepburn) escaping from her palace to live as a "normal" person while visiting Rome, and Gregory Peck plays a journalist who meets her by chance and is charmed by her while secretly trying to write a story on her on a bet, not letting her know that he knows her real identity.

They are really sweet together, Rome looks like a fantasy version of Rome but is nice in the movie, they ride on a Vespa around town, Hepburn gets a cute haircut and has a gelato, the Mouth of Truth scene is still funny over 60 years later, and I like that the love story is unrequited but still has a good ending.

It was a very pleasant movie, and there aren't many good "prince/princess escapes to be normal person in the world" movies. Coming to America is one of the top ones. I just watched a terrible TV movie called A Prince For Christmas, where a British prince escapes his upcoming arranged marriage nuptials and goes to a small American town, where he meets a waitress who wants adventure in her life, and they fall in love while he pretends to be an average person. They are bland as hell, the prince is way too much of a romantic fantasy to be believed, the waitress' ex-boyfriend is portrayed as a jerk because he wants to live a small town family life and doesn't trust the prince, and the town looks like a 1950s postcard come to life. It was bad, and Roman Holiday was much sweeter and more joyful to watch.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Thoughts on Bridge of Spies

I really liked Bridge of Spies. I am fascinated by Cold War politics and spy movies (not the Bond kind, more that are dialogue-heavy and based on real events), so I indulged my nerdy interest in this. Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance both excelled in this, and the depiction of the origins of the Berlin Wall, the nuclear threats, and fears of spies was fascinating to me. Steven Spielberg excelled with making the spy drama Munich more about talk and strategy than just violence, so I was sure he would succeed with this as well.

Thoughts on The Night Before

I saw The Night Before a few weeks ago, a Christmas comedy directed by Jonathan Levine and written by Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, Levine, and Ariel Shaffir. It starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, and Anthony Mackie as friends who want to have one last fun night of Christmas Eve (following 14 years of traditional partying on the Eve), trying to get to a secret party via mysterious instructions, before they settle into their adult life changes. I thought it was decent, and the guys had really good chemistry together, which made it better to watch their scenes together than their individual ones.

It was good at doing some sophomoric comedy (puke scene, drug trips) without getting too crass. The characters had depth to them, and I liked that they were well-rounded and dealing with maturing in their 30s while being afraid to leave behind their tradition for new life changes (fame, first child, breakup). The movie had a really good supporting cast: Lizzy Caplan, Mindy Kaling, Jillian Bell, Michael Shannon, and Ilana Glazer. I felt like the movie felt too wrapped up at times, like it missing some kind of element that would make it memorable, but it was decent to watch for its talented cast and good writing, and I did laugh out loud a few times.

Thoughts on Creed and Spotlight

I saw two new movies recently, Creed and Spotlight.

Creed was really good, very well-written and well-acted. It followed the plot beats of the original Rocky (underdog boxer coached by mentor and fights a famous boxer), but it still felt fresh anyway. Michael B. Jordan gave a really strong performance as a guy who really had to work hard to succeed, and to check himself whenever he got too cocky or hotheaded. I liked how his relationship with Rocky wasn't just a father/son thing, but more about friends motivating each other to keep going and pushing through adversities, and finding a purpose in their lives instead of just giving up when things seemed hopeless. It made the film feel more well-rounded, and less overly predictable. It was a solid mainstream movie by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), written by Coogler and Aaron Covington, taking a film in the Rocky franchise and making it grow more in maturity. Plus, I loved the one-take 360 panning shots, especially in the fight scenes, where the actors were doing their own stunts in one take, that was badass to see. The cinematography was done by Maryse Alberti.

Spotlight was great. It is a very dialogue-driven talky movie, directed by Tom McCarthy and written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, with journalists chasing a story, doing interviews, taking notes, looking at government records and newspaper archives in libraries, and being fully dedicated to their work. As an archivist, I loved seeing all the researching scenes, it fed my inner nerd and love of looking at data and records. Plus, this film had an insanely great cast: Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, and John Slattery. I was just amazed the movie got so much solid talent in one film. The film was sad sometimes (it is about reporters at the Boston Globe in 2001 trying to break a story about child abuse by Catholic priests), but it was still an amazing movie about journalism.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Stray Dog - A Film Review

I really liked the 2015 documentary Stray Dog a lot. It was directed by Debra Granik (Winter's Bone; Down to the Bone) about a man named Ronnie, who is a Vietnam veteran and biker. He is dealing with his own brutal memories of the war and talks with fellow vets, opening up about conflicted thoughts on their experiences and life afterwards, as well as traveling with his biker crew to the Vietnam Memorial to pay respect to fallen brothers.

At home in Missouri, he owns and runs an RV park, where he lives with his Mexican wife Alicia. He is learning Spanish to become more bilingual, teaching himself through a computer language program and practicing with her. He is fond of his four little dogs, and it is really sweet to see a burly biker dude shearing his poodles or feeding his daughter's kitten via an eye dropper.

Alicia is adjusting to living in America (she speaks English, but is obviously more open and comfortable in Spanish) and living in a trailer park with Southern poor white folk. She has her twin teenage sons who she is bringing over from Mexico to live with them, and the boys don't speak English and need to learn it from Ronnie in order to work as adults, which does include some funny moments regarding American slang. The film is her story, too, and Granik gives her a lot of screentime to speak about her life as an immigrant and adjusting to a new life.

Alicia worries about Ronnie's mental state, especially when he watches war movies and just goes into his own world, tuning everything else out. She is trying to be supportive of him, but still worries about him having PTSD.

I thought this was a great documentary, and I liked seeing how multi-faceted Ronnie was beyond his initial appearance. He is a biker who is open and caring, loves animals, taught himself Spanish, and is dedicated to improving his mental health as well as the health of fellow vets.

The film can be found on PBS' website.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The German Doctor - A Film Review

I watched a historical drama this morning that, while not classified as a horror film, was still pretty terrifying. It was called The German Doctor, and it is an Argentinean film from 2013 about a family in 1960 who take in as a house guest a charming and friendly German doctor who turns out to be Josef Mengele under an assumed name. Mengele had committed atrocious acts against Jewish people in the Holocaust, believing in a "pure" genetic race and conducting genetic experiments on them. He gains the trust of the family (though the father is often suspicious of him), especially their 12-year old daughter, and convinces the family to allow him to give them "medicine" in order to help the child grow and the pregnant mother to carry her twins. He also funds the father's creation of handmade dolls, but Mengele has them designed to look like Aryan children with blue eyes and blonde hair in braids.

The film's story was horrific because the doctor seems so trusting, and acts really kind and caring, and he would be trusted as a doctor to know best for the family's health. The film has a slow but suspenseful pace, and it is terrifying to watch this person, who committed atrocious acts against humanity, continue the same pattern in a new place while evading authorities. A personal highlight for me was that it was an archivist who uncovered his identity through her research.

The actor who played Mengele (his cover name is Helmut) was phenomenal. He didn't do any bad guy cliches, just playing a man who absolutely believed in a "pure" race and did what he thought was right, but with no consideration towards other people's pain or protests. That is a much more difficult role to play, a villain who sees themselves as the hero in their own story and that they are in the right.

The film is fictional, but Mengele really did run away to Argentina post-WWII and evaded authorities while continuing to experiment on children and pregnant women. He drowned in 1979 off the coast of Brazil, sadly never brought to justice like other captured Nazis.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne - A Film Review

I really enjoyed watching the 2013 documentary The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne, directed by Kirk Marcolina and Matthew Pond. It is a documentary about 85-year old Doris Payne, a black woman who is a career jewel thief, and has stolen jewelry from high-end stores all over the world for 40 years, and has been convicted several times, but rarely did serious prison time.

She is very charming, likable, funny, and smart as hell, but also really manipulative and a remorseless sociopath, often arguing her way out of situations by complimenting people or confusing their recollection of events so that she is always in the right. She often had really slick ways of tricking people when she did her robberies, either coming off as trustworthy (palming a diamond, dropping it on the floor, letting the jeweler get confused where it is, then she picks it up and presents, making herself appear trustworthy so that she can steal for real when the jeweler isn't looking) or having white rich-looking accomplices while she played the role of a servant or nurse or someone unassuming.

She brags about her European adventures, though I think she romanticizes her tales to sound like a Hollywood glamour movies. She is a fascinating character, and just got arrested again for stealing from Saks, though I doubt she will actually go to prison, she is too old at this point.

She grew up really poor with an abusive father, and stole jewelry first as a rebellious act against a racist jeweler, then stole again to pawn a diamond so she could fund her mother's escape from her father. She saw her life as a thief as a way of attaining glamour, getting back at racism by stealing from rich white people, and gaming the system. I don't agree with her being a thief, as I think she is very selfish and criminal despite her charming exterior, but I have sympathy for her initial reasons. I know that there was talk years ago of a movie made about her life starring Halle Berry, but now I can see Kerry Washington playing her, too, as she can play very glamourous and slick as Olivia Pope, and can bring that to playing Doris Payne.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Thoughts on A Few Horror Movies

I watched four horror movies yesterday on Netflix. These are my thoughts:

Honeymoon: 2014 horror movie directed by Leigh Janiak, co-written by Phil Graziadei and Janiak, and starring Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway. It is about a newlywed couple having their honeymoon in a cabin in the woods, and the husband finds his wife sleepwalking naked in the woods one night, and afterwards, it seems as if she is a different person under the shell of his wife. I liked the slow burn of their happy newlywed life slowing turning into terror as the husband is suspicious and confused by his wife's strange behavior and mysterious marks on her body. Leslie and Treadaway were good and kept the story compelling, and even though I felt the reveal for her changes was pretty weak, I still liked the movie anyway.

Pontypool: 2008 Canadian horror movie directed by Bruce McDonald, written by Tony Burgess (adapted from his novel Ponty Changes Everything), and starring Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, and Georgina Reilly. It is about a few employees in a radio station who are trapped inside while a virus infects people and causes mass murders and suicides. It mostly centers on a shock jock DJ, a manager, and a station assistant becoming slowly aware of the chaos outside, and trying to understand the virus and protecting themselves. I think Canadian horror is really good, and there is this style that can either be really good horror comedy, or horror that is grounded in reality with likable characters. McHattie and Houle really excelled in this, and it was an interesting movie to watch.

Haunter: 2013 Canadian supernatural horror movie directed by Vincenzo Natali, written by Brian King, and starring Abigail Breslin and Stephen McHattie. Breslin plays the ghost of a teen girl who is trying to understand why she and her dead family are haunting their old house and reliving the day of their deaths over and over again, on a time loop of sorts. It reminded me of other movies (The Others, Groundhog Day), but was well-acted and had a good, suspenseful pace to it. It feels made more for a YA audience, but I still liked it anyway.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: 2014 Iranian-American horror romance movie written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, and starring Sheila Vand and Arash Marandi. The film can be described as an "art house vampire spaghetti western." It is about a young woman vampire who stalks the streets at night in her chador and preys on her victims. At home she listens to 80's post punk music and chills out. She has this penetrating stare that makes her really intimidating, especially when she stays quiet for an extended period of time before striking. The film is beautifully shot in black and white, is a cool mix of genres, and feels like a really badass art film.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Thoughts on Open Windows and The Babadook

I watched two horror thriller movies yesterday, Open Windows and The Babadook.

Open Windows is a 2014 Spanish suspense techno-thriller written and directed by Nacho Vigolondo (Timecrimes), starring Elijah Wood as a guy who wins a contest to have dinner with a popular film actress (Sasha Grey). But after she unexpectedly cancels the contest and the date, he ends up becoming the pawn in a mysterious computer hacker's quest to destroy her life via hidden cameras and often goads Wood's character into hacking and invading her privacy and doing morally questionable things to get to her. The film is shown from POVs of webcams, phone cameras, security cameras, etc., and I thought it made the film look more creative, and helped to bring a lot of suspense to it. Wood was really good in this, I like that he has chosen a lot more adventurous indie movies to act in, like this and Maniac. Sasha Grey was good, too, she got to show more acting ability beyond just her sexuality. It had a third act with some bad twists in it, but I was hooked into most of the film.

The Babadook is a 2014 Australian-Canadian horror film, written and directed by Jennifer Kent, starring Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman. I had dismissed it before because I thought the title sounded dumb, but it was really good. The film is about a single mother and her son, both dealing with grief from her husband's death in a car accident on the way to her giving birth to their child. The boy is having behavioral problems, seems to be on the autism spectrum, and claims to be haunted by a monster from a children's book called the Babadook. The mother is socially isolated from her peers, and gets upset whenever her late husband's name is mentioned, or when her son's unruly antics makes her look bad in front of others. The monster takes control of their lives, stalking them and terrorizing them, especially as prophecies from the book begin to come true.

I liked that the film had deeper meaning to it, about trauma and grief and denial of the dark side of life. Both the leads were very good in this, and the sound design played a huge part in amplifying the fear and isolation of the mother and son. The monster was more a symbol than a typical boogeyman, and I emphasized with both mother and son. So I highly recommend it.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby - Her - A Film Review

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is a 2013 three-film series written and directed by Ned Benson, starring James MacAvoy and Jessica Chastain. The films are split into three perspectives: Him, Her, and Them. The films are about a married couple struggling with grief over the death of their son and their relationship falling apart. This review is about Her, which focuses on Eleanor (Chastain) after she has left her husband to figure out her life on her own while grieving.

Chastain excels at bringing emotional vulnerability and rawness to Eleanor, a woman who has undergone a major loss in her life, trying to remake her life. She attempts suicide by jumping off a bridge, moves back in with her parents, cuts her hair, enrolls in a college course, and develops a friendship with her professor, Lilian Friedman (Viola Davis). She remains distant from her husband, and only really confronts him when he has been watching her from afar, trying to make a connection with her again.

It is an interesting and complex look at a woman trying to survive after the loss of her child, and being wracked by depression and anger. She either lashes out at her parents (William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert) or keeps herself secluded. It is her own path to recovery, and she must go through it while learning how to connect with people again.

Some of the most effective scenes in the film are the ones where Eleanor is building or re-building trusting relationships with close ones. Eleanor finds a friend in Lilian, who has a non-maternal attitude towards life, and has accepted loss and handles it with grit and humor. Eleanor re-builds her relationship with her sister Katy (Jess Weixler), who is a single mom with anxieties about dating again. And Eleanor and Conor’s relationship, which is shown in both playfully romantic flashback scenes and in emotionally wrought present-day scenes after her disappearance.

Chastain is a fantastic actress who highly excels at drama and playing complicated women, and her star has risen far since her breakthrough performances in 2011. She continues to shine this year in films like The Martian and Crimson Peak, and is coming into her prime in her late thirties. She is really interesting to watch as an actor, and I like seeing how she continues to excel in a variety of films.

Similarly, James MacAvoy is an acclaimed actor who still seems to fall below the radar in some ways. Perhaps it is because he looks boyish in his late thirties, or he maintains a private life with his family and doesn’t go for celebrity. Still, he is an extremely talented and versatile actor who is always intriguing to watch onscreen.

These films are an ambitious experiment in presenting two POVs of a relationship after trauma, and with a great script by Ned Benson, a talented supporting cast, and solid performances by MacAvoy and Chastain, it is definitely worth a watch.Andrew (Starr), an affable and laid-bac

Thoughts on Room

Room is one of the best movies I have seen this year. It was directed by Lenny Abrahamson and written by Emma Donoghue, based on her novel of the same name. It is a really intimate drama about a young woman keeping her son safe while they are held captive in a shed by an awful man. Brie Larson was just incredible as Joy, a woman who got kidnapped at 17, had a child of rape, and keeps her 5-year old son innocent by convincing him that the whole universe is their one room that they live in, and that outside is outer space, and TV is just full of fictional things. She is trying to keep a happy front for him while dealing with her captor and planning an escape, and she brought a lot of rawness, strength, and vulnerability to this role. She was excellent.

As was Jacob Tremblay, who played her son, Jack. For such a young actor, he was superb in playing a difficult role, and props to Abrahamson and the casting director for getting a little kid who could play a mature role while likely keeping him unaware of the more disturbing aspects of the story, and maintaining his innocent view of the world. Tremblay carries the movie, and was just great.

I felt really moved by this film, and feel it is a really well-researched story about a kidnapped sexual assault survivor and her struggles to maintain her sanity while protecting her child and keeping hope alive for an escape. I highly recommend it.

Save the Date - A Film Review

Save the Date is a 2012 romantic comedy-drama directed by Michael Mohan and written by Mohan, Jeffrey Brown, and Egan Reich. The film stars Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, Martin Starr, Geoffrey Arend, and Mark Webber. The film focuses on two sisters (Caplan, Brie) who are in relationships with two guys in a rock band (Starr, Arend), and their romantic frustrations and anxieties.

The movie opens with a really sweet title sequence of cartoons of the main characters in their typical relationships, “drawn” by the film’s lead character, Sarah, an artist. They illustrate the characters’ personalities in a fun and relatable way, and match the hipster L.A. vibe of the film.

Sarah (Caplan) is dating Kevin (Arend), but has trouble being in a serious and committed relationship. She moved in with him, but is hesitant about settling down with him, while he wants to marry her quickly. Against his friends’ advice, he proposes to her at his band’s show in front of the audience, and she dumps him, gets her own place, and begins dating Jonathan (Webber), a customer at the bookstore she manages.

Caplan delivers a very complex and interesting performance as a relatable yet unlikable person. While her anxieties are understandable, she is often selfish and inconsiderate, pushing away other people when she feels too emotionally vulnerable or too open beyond her snarky guard.

Beth (Brie) is more traditionally romantic, and is planning her wedding to her boyfriend Andrew (Starr), an affable and laid-back guy. She is dealing with anxiety over the fact that her boyfriend doesn’t care about the wedding or planning details, and is just leaving it to her to manage. She wants an ideal relationship like her parents, and is easily miffed whenever something doesn’t go according to plan.

Brie plays Beth with kindness and sincerity, and Beth has the flaw of trying to fix her sister’s life while trying to keep a happy front for her upcoming nuptials.

Starr is likeable and sympathetic as Andrew, the solid voice of reason amongst the love pathos. He is just a good guy who wants to see happiness amongst his friends, and dreads that Sarah will break Jonathan’s heart, just as she did to Kevin.

Arend brings a heartbroken quality to the dumped Kevin, who mourns the loss of his relationship throughout the film. He isn’t presented as being pathetic, more just emotionally wrought and unable to move on. Kevin isn’t a bad person, but he isn’t too bright, and wasn’t able to tell that his girlfriend wasn’t into marriage or heavy commitment.

Webber plays Jonathan well as a nice guy, but his personality as a self-aware “dorky” hipster is annoying. Jonathan seems too self-aware and tries too hard to be funny. However, he is willing to be emotionally open and grow past old hurts, whereas Sarah distances herself when things get too close, repeating the errors of her relationship with Kevin. Jonathan is good for her, but she doesn’t seem deserving of him.

The film is enjoyable, and is fairly light for its plot. Melonie Diaz is really underused, a talented actress stuck to playing Sarah’s best friend in a few scenes. Diaz showed a lot of charm and talent in Raising Victor Vargas, The Itty Bitty Titty Committee, and Be Kind Rewind, and it is a waste to see her in a throwaway role. Also, the film throws in a couple of subplots in the last third that seemed unnecessary and didn’t add anything special or interesting to the film. It can be a little too hipster for its own good sometimes (the L.A. indie rock scene, twee music, Sarah’s drawings), but the lead performances by Caplan and Brie make the film really strong and enjoyable to watch, as two actresses who deserve to be in well-written and interesting roles in their careers. I would recommend this film as a casual watch for those interested in indie romantic comedy-dramas. Andrew (Starr), an affable and laid-bac

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Thoughts on The Voices

I watched a weird but interesting dark comedy, The Voices. Ryan Reynolds plays a factory worker who hears voices in his head, manifested by his pet cat and dog, acting as his bad conscience and good conscience. He refuses to take his medication because the hallucinations allow him to hear the voices and deny reality. The story gets really twisted as he pursues his work crush with horrible results, and it gets more disastrous from there.

Reynolds is really good in this. He is very convincing as a socially removed guy who prefers to see a fake happy version of the world than reality, and after being in a lot of crap for years, it is good to see Reynolds take a chance and be in an interesting movie finally. Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, and Jacki Weaver are in this, and the film was directed by Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and written by Michael R. Perry.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Thoughts on The Intern and The Martian

I saw The Intern and The Martian this weekend. I liked both movies a lot.

The Intern, written and directed by Nancy Meyers, was a nice movie about a 70-year old widower named Ben (Robert DeNiro) doing a tech internship for fun and productivity, and a 30-something year old woman named Jules (Anne Hathaway) trying to handle running a very successful online shopping business and trying to a good family life at home. I liked that it was about a platonic friendship between two very different people who taught each other a lot (morals in life, tech world vs. old-school business, importance of family). And Ben was open to new technology and new experiences and not romanticizing the past, while Jules was not a cold, icy workaholic, but a successful businesswoman who loved her family, but had trouble handling both sides of her life. I didn't like her husband because he looked like a douchey hipster and had a wishy-washy wuss excuse for some of his behavior in the story, but the girl playing their daughter was adorable. I would recommend this movie as an enjoyable movie about friendship.

The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott and written by Drew Goddard, was really suspenseful and interesting to watch. It reminded me of Apollo 13, in that it was an epic space movie, that the story was about a mission to save an astronaut, and the story often volleyed around a triangle of settings: the astronaut (Matt Damon) on Mars, the spaceship crew that had left him when they thought he was dead due to getting hit by debris during a storm on Mars, and the crew at NASA, who were a fun mix of straight-laced old-school types and younger and enthusiastic. nerds. There is a lot of comedy in it, as Damon's character keeps his sense of humor while making video logs and communicating with NASA about his survival tactics, but it still gets suspenseful anyway as people discuss the best options to save him and weigh the pros and cons, as well as in the spaceflight scenes. I liked that there weren't any villains in the movie. The spaceship crew weren't at fault for leaving him there, as he was presumed dead and they had to save themselves; there isn't anyone against saving him (now a Saving Private Ryan in Space joke occurs to me), and people are often problem-solving using science and figuring things out intelligently (even if there are a couple of methods that would likely kill someone in space in real life). I really enjoyed the movie, and would watch it again, it was a good mix of science, humor, suspense, and a talented cast (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara).

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Thoughts on Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas

Yesterday I felt like watching Anna Kendrick in movies, so I watched Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas. I liked Drinking Buddies, more so for Olivia Wilde's performance. It is a romantic comedy centering around Wilde and Jake Johnson as best friends who work together in a Chicago brewery, and deal with drama in their romantic relationships. Kendrick is good as Johnson's girlfriend, she adapts well in small movies.

I think Wilde has found her stride in indie films lately (Butter, Better Living Through Chemistry), she had been bland for many years before that in mainstream movies and T.V. I liked her in interviews way back from 2006 because of her parents' illustrious background in journalism and her wit, but that charisma was often lost onscreen. She is just much better in indie films that allow her to be funny and multifaceted.

Happy Christmas stars Kendrick and Melanie Lynskey, and Kendrick plays a person trying to get her life together and avoid her addictions (alcohol, weed) while living with her brother and his family, Lynskey plays his wife who is a novelist and stay-at-home mom. She loves her son, but is bored and creatively frustrated while being a SAHM, and wants to go to a retreat to write her second novel. Kendrick's character is likable and sympathetic even while messing up, and the movie stays fairly light, it has a hopeful feel of her turning out OK. She is just good at playing relatable characters, and seeming normal while having immense Broadway talent and huge fame. It is just nice seeing her bring that likability in smaller films and fitting into them as well as in big movie musicals.
Both movies are directed by Joe Swanberg, and are pretty good. Lena Dunham has a supporting role in Happy Christmas, and is surprisingly not annoying.

I am biased to not like indie hipster directors because I grew to despise them while working at Filmmaker, but Swanberg is good, and Ti West makes some good horror movies. I however, can't stand the Duplass brothers, and I cannot stand Mark Duplass. I disliked him in Safety Not Guaranteed, and cannot watch anything else he stars in. I think Greta Gerwig can act, but I cannot stand Noah Baumbach movies (though I liked Gerwig's performances in Frances Ha and Mistress America), and their cutesy partnership turns me off. So, yeah, I like indie movies, but not insular hipster twee stuff.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Rubble Kings - A Film Review

Rubble Kings is a 2015 documentary by Shan Nicholson, and narrated by John Leguizamo. It is a really good documentary, and goes into a lot of interesting history of the racial politics and socio-economic backgrounds that led to gangs starting in the 1970s Bronx. Between the government neglecting neighborhoods and allowing people to starve in poverty without utilities or educational resources, corrupt landlords kicking people out and burning buildings for insurance money, and the government allowing heroin to come into the ghetto and destroy black and brown communities, it was a rough place to survive in.

I really liked how badass and peace-loving The Ghetto Brothers were, as a Puerto Rican gang devoted to social activism and improving their community, and how they had an awareness of the futility of the gangs fighting each other instead of against their government oppressors, and refusing to enact a "gang war" so the media can call them savages and killers. The gangs eventually settled peace with one another, coming together to form collectives that focused on social activism, and developing hip-hop as a positive and creative force, showing the world that they wouldn't be killed or marginalized, and can create art out of their poor and rough surroundings, that they would not die.

It is a really powerful story, and so great to see stories of gangs eventually trying to be peaceful and work together, instead of fighting over turfs and colors and being abused by the system overlords who want them to fight and kill each other. I highly recommend this documentary, it can be found streaming on Netflix.

Grandma - A Film Review

I enjoyed seeing Grandma yesterday, an indie movie written and directed by Paul Weitz and starring Lily Tomlin as Elle, who is helping her teen granddaughter Sage (Garner) raise $600 in a day to pay for her abortion.

Elle is a lesbian poet whose partner died after 38 years of togetherness, and she just broke up with her girlfriend (Greer) of four months. She is a miser who pushes people away, isn't on speaking terms with her daughter (Harden), and has a mean and bitter attitude towards people. Yet Tomlin's performance is brilliant, and her love and feminist actions for her innocent granddaughter make her sympathetic. They raise the money through visiting various contacts of Elle's, getting the money through favors or collecting debt, and Elle often has to confront the effect that her bad attitude has had on her loved ones, and own up to her life's mistakes and show compassion for others.

I liked that the film is very woman-centered, and has an ensemble cast of talented actresses: Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, Lauren Tom, and Elizabeth Peña. John Cho is in a cameo, and Sam Elliott appears in a notable sequence as Elle's ex-husband, but the movie is largely dominated by women. The movie is interesting and well-written and well-acted, and was refreshing to watch.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Fool For Love - A Theater Review

I saw the Sam Shepard play Fool For Love yesterday on Broadway. I liked it a lot, I loved the raw Western vibe in it, with two on-and-off lovers in a nowheresville motel room in the Mojave Desert tangled up in their tumultuous relationship, yet still attracted to one another amidst tearing each other apart. More so, May is tired of Eddie playing head games with her for 15 years, and Eddie comes to the motel room to insist on taking her back, like she is his property to retrieve. I had seen the 1985 film version about ten years ago, and really enjoyed seeing the story revisited in live theater.

Nina Arianda was excellent as May. I knew of her as a Broadway star, but thought of her from Born Yesterday, a perky upbeat type. She was really good in playing a Southern woman who had nothing and was on the edge of losing it when her ex shows up. She had a lot of fire in this role, and played her character with a lot of grit and rawness. Like in her gestures of pushing back her hair, holing herself up in the bathroom, packing her suitcase quickly while her ex is out of the room, and fixing irritated stares.

Sam Rockwell was really good in this as Eddie, totally getting into the cowboy part and bringing some menace to it, like swinging his lasso while singing "Clementine" in a quietly threatening way in front of his ex. He even shoehorned some dancing and a split in this, because Rockwell dances in almost everything he is in. He does use his physicality to his advantages, like sliding along the floor, scootching himself under a bed, or reclining against a bed while getting half-drunk and mocking his ex's new suitor.

The other two actors did well, too. Tom Pelphrey did really well as the hapless, confused suitor Martin, who is nice but kind of dim, and easily believes whatever story he is told, which often sparks a debate of truth vs. fiction. Gordon Joseph Weiss as the old man did well too, but I preferred Harry Dean Stanton's performance from the movie.

I am happy I saw it, and the two women next to me said they met Arianda by chance at dinner before the show, as she was having dinner with her parents. I shared my stories of me and my sister meeting Rockwell (my sister actually talked to him, I just saw him but was too shy to approach him), so it was a fun exchange.

The play will have a limited run, from now to December 6th, and I highly recommend it for the solid acting, intense drama, and the Western motif.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Mostly Martha - A Film Review

Mostly Martha is a 2001 German romantic comedy written and directed by Sandra Nettlebeck, starring Martina Gedeck, Sergio Castelitto, and Maxime Foerste. It is a quiet and enjoyable film about a workaholic chef (Gedeck) who, through hardship and tragedy, learns how to open her heart and enjoy life more through the influence of her family and friends.

Martha Klein (Gedeck) is a chef at a gourmet restaurant in Hamburg, Germany. She is a perfectionist and dedicated to her cooking as an art, but has poor social skills, loses her temper with a picky customer over an undercooked foie gras, and only gets away with her attitude by being the second-best chef in the city. Her boss makes her go to a therapist to improve her social skills, but she spends the therapy sessions avoiding discussions about her control issues, preferring to discuss her philosophies on cooking and cooking meals for her therapist as a way of “talking” to him. At work, she handles her stress by taking brief trips to the kitchen’s walk-in refrigerator for breathers.

Tragedy strikes when her sister is killed in a car accident, leaving behind her 8-year old daughter Lina (Foerste). Martha is now her guardian, and struggling to balance her high-powered career with parenting. Lina is a reserved young girl who is grieving her mother’s death, becoming withdrawn and depressed and refusing to eat. Lina’s father is an Italian man who has been absentee in her life, and Lina only knows his first name and nationality. Martha and Lina aren’t close, and Martha prefers to let Lina grieve on her own while she focuses on her career.

But just as Martha is trying to adjust to a great change in her personal life, her professional life takes a hit too: her boss has hired an easygoing and charismatic sous-chef named Mario (Castelitto), who Martha sees as a threat to her position as head chef of the kitchen. She says of him to her therapist, “Two chefs in one kitchen is like two people driving a car. It’s impossible.” She is possessive of the hard work that it took her to be chef in the kitchen, and is fearful that Mario will usurp her. Mario, meanwhile, admires her talent and drive, and chose the restaurant to work for her. His relaxed attitude and love of jazz turns Martha’s kitchen from a precise factory of fine food into a light-hearted environment to work in, and the shake-up to her professional life scares her.

As Martha and Lina’s relationship slowly gains trust, Martha brings Lina to the kitchen to learn the basics of cooking. Lina takes to Mario’s warmth and playfulness, and opens up from her grief to enjoy Italian food and find joy in life again. Martha begins to trust Mario too, by seeing his genuine care and concern for her niece, and a romance blossoms forth, though not without complications in Martha’s life.

The film has a good, slow, and quiet pace, as the scenes unfold to allow the audience to get to know the characters and be in their world. Whereas it is the rhythm of the kitchen, jazz music, the classic Italian song Volare, or Martha’s transformation from a tightly-wound workaholic to a more giving and openly loving person, the film has a beautiful simplicity to it. Gedeck plays Martha with gritty honesty, with a life well-lived on her face, in a stunning performance. Foerste is natural and realistic in her performance as a grieving and reserved child, and Castelitto is warm and likable as the loving Mario.

The film had an American remake in 2007 as No Reservations, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Abigail Breslin, and Aaron Eckhart, but Mostly Martha is the superior film. It isn’t hackneyed or contrived, the film is not only focused on the romantic comedy genre, and the film is centered around an accomplished and intelligent woman learning to open herself up to the pleasures and joys in life beyond her single-minded career ambitions. It is really a wonderful film, and I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Take Care - A Film Review

Take Care is a 2014 romantic comedy written and directed by Liz Tuccillo, and starring Leslie Bibb and Thomas Sadoski. The film is a charming and offbeat romantic comedy, about a fairly simple story about an injured woman who gets her ex-boyfriend to care for her out of payback for her nursing him during his cancer.

Frannie (Bibb) is a woman who is recovering after getting hit by a car, with a broken right arm and left leg. She is house-bound, stuck in a fourth-floor walk-up, and while she has her friend and sister for occasional help, she is often struggling on her own to make a meal, go to the bathroom, or just get around her home in general. She says of her friends’ appearances to help, “Sure, here and there, when they can fit me in. But I’m not anyone’s priority.” She can be childish, and is described as “dramatic” by her ex-boyfriend, but Bibb is likable and charming in her performance, so that overrides the immaturity of the character.

Frannie often feels lonely in her home and needs more consistent help, so she resorts to contacting her ex-boyfriend, who her friends have called “The Devil” for dumping her after Frannie took care of him for two years while he had colon cancer.  Thomas Sadoski as Devon delivers a good performance, but Devon is an unlikeable character like Frannie. He is bland and dull, and often has a wishy-washy attitude when it comes to both Frannie and his jealous girlfriend Jodi (Betty Gilpin). While he knows that he “owes” Frannie for what she did for him, he often seems awkward and unsure of himself throughout the movie, and doesn’t have much of an attractive personality to justify why either woman would be interested in him.

Through this arrangement, Devon regularly comes to Frannie’s apartment to buy her groceries (he had recently gotten $6 million for a software deal with Yahoo), cook her dinner, take her to the doctor, wash her hair, and spend time with her watching T.V. Her favorite show is Law & Order, and there is a fun running joke with Frannie and the reruns. “I can see the murder in the first minute and I know who did it . . . it calms me somehow.” Those moments are some of the highlights of the film, which has an otherwise thin script.

There is an entertaining subplot with Frannie’s neighbor, a guy who blasts dance music in his apartment and does CrossFit. He often is dragged into Frannie’s life, whether it is carrying her up the stairs or her making him come over to make a sandwich for her, and so forth. He is a normal guy who wants to be left alone, and doesn’t want anything to do with her problems. “When someone asks me to do them a favor, it feels like they’re sucking air out of my lungs, like they’re trying to steal my life.” His aggravation with Frannie’s self-involved drama is often a funny diversion from the main plot, and showing an entirely different life outside of Frannie’s world.

Jodi is often made the villain of the film, and her jealousy and own neediness often makes her more of a caricature, rather than a woman who has every right to be uncomfortable with her boyfriend spending a lot of private time nursing his ex-girlfriend back to health. Gilpin delivers a good performance, but her character is definitely made to be over-the-top in her whininess.

The movie is light and fun to watch, mostly because Bibb and Sadoski has a nice chemistry together as exes and burgeoning cordial friends. Even though the outcome of their relationship is predictable, the scenes where they are bonding over his cooking and her love of Law & Order are warm and nice to watch, like seeing old friends reconnecting. It is a movie that would work as a one-hour play, as most of the action takes place in Frannie’s apartment, and the actors seem mostly suited to working in theater and television. It is a nice movie, not great, but pleasant to watch for an offbeat romantic comedy.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Mistress America - A Film Review

Mistress America is a 2015 comedy-drama directed by Noah Baumbach. It stars Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke. It is about the friendship between two soon-to-be stepsisters, one who is a sheltered college freshman (Kirke), and the other an older charismatic party girl (Gerwig). I haven’t liked Noah Baumbach's movies (both Kicking and Screaming for its pretentiousness and Margot and the Wedding for its depressing mood), but I thought a comedy would be different, and it wasn't.
Tracy (Kirke) is beginning her freshman year at Barnard in NYC, and is having a hard time adjusting to living away from home (New Jersey) for the first time, as well as making new friends. She has awkward fumblings with her classmates during group discussions; submits her story to the school literary society and scampers away like a scared kid when spotted dropping her story in the submission box (only to be later rejected as a candidate); begins a charming and blossoming relationship with a classmate(Shear), but is disappointed when he begins dating someone else; and eats alone at lunch, putting both a slice of pizza and a bowl of cereal on her tray, and avoiding sweets in order to fit in with her elite peers.
To combat her loneliness, she takes her mother’s advice and calls her soon-to-be stepsister Brooke (Gerwig) (after scrolling through a list of contacts on her iPhone with a broken screen), who is 31 and lives in the city. Brooke is a whirlwind of big-city chicness, a bon vivant Holly Golightly type who lives in a studio space in Times Square, sings in a band, hobknobs at parties, teaches spinning classes, and speaks of her romantic visions of what NYC should be, all while frequently talking about herself in one breath and captivating the starry-eyed Tracy, who takes notes and writes a story entitled “Mistress America,” starring a carefree and glamorous heroine based on Brooke.
Brooke was an obnoxious character to watch. Gerwig delivered a good performance, but she didn’t have the charm to pull off this selfish and bubble-headed bon vivant. Her character constantly talked at a busy pace that was irritating, like she wouldn't take a breath and let others speak, and she was grossly narcissistic and immature, especially in her 30s, which was pathetic. Although there is a revealing moment where Brooke shows emotional vulnerability while talking to her dad on the phone, it is a brief moment before she returns to her exasperating self.
In addition, there is an awkward and uncomfortable scene where Brooke is confronted in a bar by a former high school classmate who had been bullied by Brooke, and to see Brooke frequently dismissing the former classmate by innocently claiming she didn’t know her and insulting her for still being upset about this bullying was maddening to watch, as Brooke seemed entirely selfish to the point of not having empathy for anyone else and living inside of her own self-made bubble to protect herself from hurt.
Lola Kirke’s performance as Tracy was one of the most realistic in the film, and it was wonderful to see her character gain confidence in herself throughout the film and slowly realize that she is much smarter and much more together than anyone else in the room. Kirke previously excelled in playing a small but memorable role in Gone Girl as a thief, and was virtually unrecognizable in this film. So that is a testament to her versatile acting ability that she succeeded at playing both a college freshman seeing Brooke’s world through rose-colored eyes and a street-smart Louisiana thief who figures out Amy’s deceptive personality much more quickly than others. Tracy was a very identifiable character for anyone who has been a college freshman, for when she was feeling lost at school and trying to navigate the social scene and missing home, those were some of the most honest parts of the film.
The story escalates when Brooke, who dreams of opening a restaurant that is a trendy neighborhood hangout called Mom’s (“So that people can say, ‘Let’s go have dinner at ‘Mom’s’”), goes to Greenwich, CT to take care of unfinished business, namely to confront her former friend and her husband over a money dispute, and along with Brooke comes Tracy and her classroom crush and his insanely jealous girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones), who arrive at the house, and the screwball comedy antics begins. People are coming in and out of rooms, doing callbacks to earlier lines, there are misunderstandings, and old issues from the past are dredged up. The sequence is an obvious attempt at screwball comedy, but the execution felt rushed and hammy, as if the characters knew what kind of movie they were in. It felt very fake and predictable, and got old and tiring to watch very quickly, especially since very few of the characters were interesting or had depth to them.
However, an enjoyable highlight of the film was the soundtrack by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips. It sounded like authentic 80's synth-pop, but it was original music composed by them, and it added a special quality to the film, like romantic and happy and excitement over new adventures.
The film has mixed qualities. Baumbach has an eye for talented actors, comedic one-liners, and self-aware depictions of urban and upscale creative types. But the attempt at screwball comedy by both him and Gerwig came across as heavy-handed and obvious, and did not flow as naturally as it did in the films that they said was their inspiration, After Hours and Something Wild. The film is just under 90 minutes, but the premise and characters wear out their welcome within the first hour, and it gets tedious to watch from then on.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Short Thoughts on Magic Mike: XXL

Magic Mike: XXL was a lot of fun to watch. It cut out the melodrama from the first movie, got rid of Matthew McConaughey's creepy self, and put the focus on a group of friends taking a road trip to dance at a stripper convention, with awesome dance sequences along the way. Jada Pinkett Smith was really good as the emcee friend of Mike's, and I was happy to see more talented dancers added in, like Twitch and NYC voguers. And a woman choreographed the dances, which I was surprised but happy to see.
I could have done without the stripper dances by Kevin Nash and Michael Strahan, those were just creepy to watch. But everything else was good, and Joe Manganiello was surprisingly really funny in this. Tatum's dance scene early on was like a Flashdance/Footloose homage with a reprise of "Pony," it was awesome. I was happy to see a fun dance movie that cut unnecessary crap out of the way and reveled in itself.

Short Thoughts on The Angriest Man in Brooklyn

Last month, I watched The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, and missed Robin Williams. Besides his stellar career in standup and Hollywood films, he was really good in indie dark comedies, like this one and World's Greatest Dad. He could downplay his star self to play ordinary characters in offbeat, smaller films, and really was a unique talent in standup and comedic and dramatic films. It wasn't a major story, more about appreciating life while getting to be angry about death at the same time. It was enjoyable and touching and interesting.

Short Thoughts on Beginners

I really enjoyed watching Beginners last month. I thought it was a really good film about starting over in life, dealing with life changes, forming new relationships, and re-examining one's attitude in life. It just struck me as a special film and very touching and moving. It starred Christopher Plummer, Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent, and a cute little dog. Bonus: my uncle Mike had a small part in the film as a priest.

My Most Influential Movies Growing Up

  • Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (it introduced me to absurd humor, and I loved the variety of characters during Pee-Wee's quest to get his bike back)
  • The Professional (it was the first "adult" movie I had seen when I was 12, and I thought the dialogue was fascinating, and I fell for the lead characters and their complexity)
  • Angus (one of the most real movies about high school that I have seen)
  • Beauty and the Beast (gorgeous animation, beautiful songs, and a female lead who is bookish and brave and smart)
  • Big (it made me want to grow up and join the adult world)
  • Clueless (sharp, funny dialogue that was quotable to me as a kid)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie (it was one of the first "dark, gritty" movies I had seen, and it made me love movies in that style, as well as appreciating the maturity in the story when I was 7).

Until the End of the World and The Unbelievable Truth - Film Reviews

This past weekend, I enjoyed seeing two movie screenings for free.
One was a press screening of the Director's Cut of Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World, his 1991 sci-fi road trip epic. The theatrical version was nearly three hours long, but Wenders didn't like that version, calling it the "Reader's Digest" version. So in 1994, he released his five-hour version, with more extended scenes, more background on the characters, more comedic moments, etc. even with an intermission, it was long as hell to watch, but excellent. It was like a miniseries edited as one long movie. I could see why some parts were cut out (scenes that do not have to with the major plot, exposition scenes, silly comic scenes), but I still loved it, and think it is an amazing movie. Plus, the soundtrack is spectacular. smile emoticon
The other movie I saw was at BAM, from 1989, called The Unbelievable Truth, starring Adrienne Shelly and Robert John Burke, and directed by Hal Hartley. It is about a morbid teen girl and an ex-con who find kinship with each other in a close-knit working class Long Island town. I really liked it, and it was a lot funnier than I expected. It was a cool movie, with really good performances, and I was happy to see a really good indie movie from much maligned Long Island.

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: