Saturday, September 28, 2013

I Declare War

More Than a Game                           
by Mark Dispenza

The Lord of the Flies meets The Hunger Games as a preteen contest of Capture the Flag devolves into something darker in I Declare War.

Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson directed the film from Lapeyre's own script.  The end result is an effective story based on Lapeyre's typically dark and allegorical social themes, enhanced by Wilson's low-budget action and horror sensibilities.

The story opens in the middle of a preteen war game.  Kwon (Siam Yu) is excited to be on the team led by his best friend, PK (Gage Munroe), a master strategist who has never lost a game of war.  The stakes are higher this time, because for the first time they are up against Quinn (Aidan Gouveia), a general who is PK's equal in the field.

In previous games the kids have followed the established rules to the letter, but the nature of the game changes when Skinner (Michael Friend) launches a coup d'etat against Quinn and takes over the opposing team.  This is more than a game to Skinner. It's personal.  For reasons not fully revealed until the climax, he is engaged in a personal vendetta against PK, and he's going to win this game at all costs.

Siam Yu and Gage Munroe

In a bid to lure PK into his trap, he takes Kwon as a prisoner.  The helpless youngster becomes the object of whatever torture Skinner can conceive, as he channels his anger for PK against Kwon.   As Skinner ups the stakes by dispensing with the rules of the game in his obsessive bid to dethrone PK, the rule of law begins to break down among the other members of his team.

Without clear rules or a goal that makes sense to them, the other soldiers degenerate into an orgy of betrayal and vindictiveness that dramatically raises the emotional stakes and sends the game into a free-for-all, with no one in real control.  Personal insecurities and suppressed resentments are unleashed as the kids turn on each other, including members of their own team.

Michael Friend

The story is told from a viewpoint of hyperreality.  The characters sometimes behave like children and other times improbably like adults.  PK speaks about military strategy with knowledge far more befitting a West Point cadet or graduate student than a child of 13 years old.

Although the actual weapons of battle are sticks and stones, the audience viewpoint is filtered through the imagination of the kids, who see their weapons as submachine guns and hand grenades.  The result is disconcerting as the kids appear to fire on each other with live ammunition.  The loud explosions and gunfire add to the chaos.

It's an interesting way to make a point.  My mind told me I was watching a real life and death battle before my rational mind kicked in to remind me that it's all make-believe.  It's an innovative technique to underscore the point that this is an allegorical tale, and the kids are really us - adults.

This is a clever film that had me hooked from beginning to end.  With emotions running high and so many separate agendas in the mix, the story continues to take unexpected turns and keeps the suspense taut until the very end.

Each of the actors gets a moment in the spotlight as their personal demons are exposed one-by-one, which makes the film a terrific vehicle for its young actors.  Mackenzie Munro plays Jess, "the girl" who manages to crash the all-boy club in her single-minded pursuit to win Quinn's heart.  She impresses him with her abilities, so that he allows her to play on his team.  Once he is ousted in the coup, Jess assumes a more destructive agenda.  Her secret plan is to avenge Quinn annd impress him simultaneously by undercutting Skinner and taking the flags of both teams by herself.  As she becomes more aware of the sexual tension she arouses in the adolescent boys, she begins to use that as a weapon, too.

Mackenzie Munro

These kids look painfully like us, and it's easy to see in their characters Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama and especially our coworkers at the office.  The story channels The Lord of the Flies in its pessimistic view of the human race, and does not offer the same hope of redemption found in similarly-themed films, such as The Hunger Games and Battle Royale.

If you like well-told allegorical tales about the human condition, I highly recommend this film.  I found it very thought-provoking, as well as stimulating from a cinematic standpoint.  By the way, if you are not aware of the aforementioned Battle Royale, I highly recommend that you rent it.  It's a controversial Japanese film that was ahead of its time in 2000.  The film was too hot to touch by US theatrical distributors at the time of its release, due to its depiction of kids in lethal combat.  It's interesting that The Hunger Games, which appears to be a retelling of the Japanese story, became a hot property for these same distributors after the novels on which it was based achieved best-seller status.  I guess they don't know their audience as well as they think.

My only disappointment with I Declare War is the pervasive pessimism of its storyline.  Although there is much truth in it, I prefer to believe that despite our shortcomings, we are better people than the baser instincts that we sometimes allow to consume us.

Unfortunately in this story, the hapless Kwon learns that if you want a true friend, get a dog.

I Declare War is currently in limited theatrical release in the USA, but it's available for VOD at iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu and VHX.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Crystal Fairy

In Search of a Magical Elixir

by Mark Dispenza

The quest for a hallucinogenic cactus unites an odd, charming cast of characters in this Chilean road film.

Chilean writer-director Sebastian Silva (The Maid) has created a film that, much like the character of its title, grows on you as you watch it. The film stars Michael Cera (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) as Jamie, an obnoxious young American on an extended visit to Chile to stay with his friend, Lobo (Silva).

Jamie enlists Lobo and his two brothers, who are played by Silva's real-life siblings, on a quest to the desert to find the elusive San Pedro cactus, which is said to have hallucinogenic properties when cooked and ingested. Before the trip gets underway, Jamie and Lobo go to a party and meet an odd young woman who will give her name only as Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann).

Sebastian Silva (left) with Michael Cera and the Silva brothers

Jamie gets high and asks her to join their quest, which he doesn't remember the next morning when Crystal Fairy takes him up on the invitation. Reluctant at first, Lobo insists that she be allowed to join the expedition because Jamie did in fact invite her.

It's not long before Crystal Fairy's new age sensibilities, such as tantric exercises, open nudity and belief in the power of crystals, begin to wear Jamie's patience thin. But she has the opposite effect on the Chileans, who find her charming and become protective of her, much to Jamie's consternation.

It's only after ingesting the cactus and descending into an alternate reality that Jamie really begins to see Crystal Fairy as someone deeper than he first thought. Crystal Fairy is not the ditz she appears to be. In fact, she is hiding a terrible pain, which she masks with her mystical beliefs and maternal concern for the boys.

Michael Cera and Gaby Hoffmann

I found this film hard to get into at first, but the interesting characters that populate it kept me glued. Before I knew it, I was hooked all the way to the end. All of these characters appear shallow and one-note when we first meet them, but Silva manages to imbue them with a humanity that grew on me as the story progressed.

The cast spent a lot of time together prior to the commencement of principle photography, which probably explains the chemistry they all share. Cera moved to Chile and lived with Silva for a few months before the project began, and the dialogue of the film is improvisational. I'm normally not a fan of improvisation, but it works well here, even though I thought it caused the film to drag a little.

Michael Cera

Crystal Fairy had that effect on audiences at Sundance as well, where it quickly became an audience favorite. The film is currently in limited release, but is available widely in VOD on platforms such as iTunes and Google Play.


Saturday, September 14, 2013

20 Feet from Stardom

So Close and Yet So Far                             
by Mark Dispenza

They mesmerize us on stage and in music videos.  We imitate their sound with our own voices.  Yet we don't even know their names.

In one of the year's best documentaries, Morgan Neville shines the spotlight on pop music backup singers in 20 Feet from Stardom.  Their voices are critical to the sound that makes pop music legends, yet the lives of backup singers are a mystery to the public.  This is in spite of the fact that they are highly regarded within the music industry itself.

Music fans may not know them, but rest assured they are well-known to the likes of Chris Botti, Sheryl Crow, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Stevie Wonder.  These pop superstars are among those interviewed for the film, and they are unanimous in naming names and expressing their gratitude for the contributions of these divas from the shadows.

Darlene Love, Tata Vega, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, Lisa Fischer

Neville begins by visiting the height of the backup singer phenomena in the '60s, '70s and '80s and examines the careers of some of the most talented, such as Merry Clayton and Darlene Love.  Then he takes us to visit them and see where they are today.  It's a mixed bag.  

Most of them started as gospel singers in their local church, and the praise they received there encouraged them to audition for record producers.  As they discovered the reality of the music business, both good and bad, some continued to pursue the dream of becoming a solo recording artist.  For reasons that remain a mystery, none of them ever made it into the spotlight at the front of the stage.  

It's possible that they did not get much love from record label promoters.  It's also possible that they were victims of their own success.  By contributing to the sounds of the pop stars they supported, they rendered their own unique voices as just more of the same to the record-buying public.  

Merry Clayton

Some of them stopped aspiring to solo success and reveled in the attention they received from the stars they backed, becoming comfortable in their roles as members of the band.  They had found a new family and loved being a part of it.  Others became discouraged and walked away.  

As much as I enjoy a good story about talented artists, particularly a great music documentary like this one, I found its appeal to go beyond pure entertainment.  In many ways these backup singers are us.  We may work hard in our jobs and make the people who employ us look good, all the while remaining in their shadow.  Sometimes we feel valued and enjoy the warmth of being a member of a successful team.  It becomes our family, sometimes the family we never had.  Other times we feel under-valued and under-appreciated.

Darlene Love

Many of us dream of more.  We want the recognition of being the best in our field, even if it's just among the people who occupy our own limited world, and we put everything we have into achieving that success.  A lucky few of us make it to the top, but most of us don't, often for reasons that have nothing to do with our talent.  Sometimes success is more than that.  It's also being in the right place at the right time.

The singers profiled in this film have had a lot of time to think about their careers and their days in the sun.  If they ever felt bitterness that the music industry didn't treat them better, time has mostly healed that wound.  They have reached a point in their lives where they're grateful for the experience they shared and understand that their contributions brought joy to many, even if music lovers never knew their names.  Most of all, there was the pure joy of doing what they loved.

20 Feet from Stardom is currently in theatrical release in the USA.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

And While We Were Here/ Adore/ A Teacher

Cougars Go Indie                           
by Mark Dispenza

This month features the release of three different takes on the older woman/ younger man romance by three different women filmmakers.

I don't know what cougar zeitgeist could have compelled these women to this material at the same time, but the resulting films are distinct and thought-provoking.  The stories are also much less about sex and more about the emotional journeys of the primary characters.

All are in limited release (read New York / Los Angeles) or available on VOD platforms such as on-demand cable, iTunes or Amazon Instant.

And While We Were Here

Kat Coiro, a multi-hyphenate who acts, writes and directs, delivers her best feature yet with And While We Were Here.  It is also the most accessible and conventional of the the three films.  That being said, the plot points that underscore the film are mostly subtle, which means the viewer has to pay close attention to grasp the nuances of the main character's emotional journey.

That's a bit more challenging than it sounds.  The film moves at a slow pace, and one gets the feeling that Coiro was most concerned with the look of the film, which was beautifully shot on location off the Amalfi Coast of Italy.  That combined with the well-developed acting chops of Kate Bosworth, mostly carries the movie.

Kate Bosworth and Jamie Blackley

Bosworth plays Jane, a woman in a relatively young marriage, who recently suffered a miscarriage.  The incident also left her physically damaged and unable to have children, a terrible sentence, as children figured prominently in the young couple's plans for the future.

Her husband, Leonard (Iddo Goldberg), is a classical musician with a new gig on the island of Ischia.  As the couple arrives there, the tension in their marriage is evident.  Leonard tries to be the dutiful husband and support the emotionally devastated Jane, but she sees through it and realizes that he's just going through the motions.  A childless future was not what he had in mind.  What makes matters worse is that the two of them truly love each other, as evidenced by their feeble attempts to withhold their emotional pain from the other. The problem is that it isn't working, and Jane has begun to realize that.

While Leonard is off playing with the orchestra during the day, Jane transcribes an interview with her grandmother for a book she is writing about her hardships during World War II.  She finds inspiration there - a mixture of hope amid great pain.

She also begins to explore the island and encounters a college-aged teen named Caleb (Jamie Blackley).  Caleb is smitten with her and relentless in his pursuit of her attention.  Jane becomes charmed by his youthful enthusiasm and sense of adventure, and despite her initial resistance, begins to fall for him.  He enables her to recapture the wonder of her own earlier years and sense of endless possibility.

She will face a choice.  Does she escape her pain and leave with Caleb to join him on his travels to explore the world, or does she return to the dutiful, loving Leonard and continue to face the pain of his disappointment?


The premise of Adore is bound to raise a lot of eyebrows, as it did during its premiere at Sundance this year.   The story, based on a novella by author Doris Lessing, is about two lifelong friends who fall for each other's sons.

The screenplay by Anne Fontaine, another multi-hyphenate who also directed the film, is a remarkable take on a very challenging subject.  What makes the script so interesting, other than careful plotting and very good dialogue, is that it offers a compelling window onto its subjects, without moralizing or drawing obvious conclusions.  Every time a new plot point develops, you expect the story to turn in an obvious way, but the beauty is that it rarely happens like that.  The viewer's expectations and opinions are challenged every step of the way.

You'll feel you should be revolted by the choices made by Robin Wright, as Roz, and Naomi Watts, as Lil, but somehow they seem strangely acceptable within the world these characters inhabit.  The film was beautifully shot on location on the Australian coast, and the two leads make very sexy cougars.

Robin Wright and Naomi Watts

As I pondered the meaning of the story, I kept coming back to the insularity of the primary characters.  They live in a small town hours from the big city, and it's an idyllic existence.  They want for little, have the beauty of the ocean right in their backyards, and their relationships with each other are lifelong and comfortable.  When each character is offered the opportunity to leave and pursue something bigger and better, they can't do it.  They live in a comfortable world with few challenges.  Why risk it?

In real life I know a lot of people who live lives of similar insularity, but that doesn't make them bad people, and none have taken it as far as Roz and Lil, at least as far as I know.  It's an inbred existence but is it wrong?  You have to decide for yourself.

A Teacher

There's much less beauty and lot more emotional tension in A Teacher, Hannah Fidell's character study of a high school teacher's demise after she chooses to pursue an illicit relationship with one of her male students.

Lindsay Burdge does an outstanding job of depicting the changes that occur in her character's emotional state at each step of the way, often relying more on body language and facial expression than dialogue.  it's certain you'll be seeing a lot more of her in future films.

Lindsay Burdge

It's clear from the start that the teacher, Diana, has emotional issues.  She lives a lonely, predictable life, yet finds it extremely difficult to relate to adult men when offered the opportunity.  As she digs herself deeper into an emotional well, she is tempted to act on fantasy with one of her students.  Eric, played by Will Brittain, offers a perfect opportunity.  He's a sexy, good-looking young man who is already popular with girls his age. A hot young man like that should find Diana to be but one more sexual conquest, and he's less likely to get entangled emotionally with her.  But there are flaws in Diana's logic, and they come from a place she hasn't been looking - her own damaged psyche.

A few close calls spook her, and suddenly the risks inherent in their relationship become primary in Diana's mind.  She can lose her job, suffer terrible humiliation and even go to prison.  She decides to break it off.  The problem is that she has already become dependent on the relief that emotional drug provided.  It won't be as easy as she believes to go cold turkey.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Spectacular Now

Breaking the Mold
by Mark Dispenza

The Spectacular Now reinvents the teen coming-of-age film with a harder look at the challenges faced by today's youth.

Sutter (Miles Teller) is the class clown who perpetually lives in the moment. His actions are dictated entirely by what feels good to him at the time, without thought of possible consequences further down the road. He thinks he has it all, until his beautiful girlfriend (Brie Larson) dumps him because she sees that he has no future. She trades him in for the class president and star athlete. Getting dumped is a shock to Sutter. After all, he's a funny party guy who loves everybody, and everybody is supposed to love him back. It doesn't help that he's also an alcoholic.

Miles Teller

Aimee (Shailene Woodley) is the good girl who does think about her future, but she feels trapped by her mother, who has been emotionally despondent and helpless since her father died several years back. In direct contrast to Miles, who eschews any responsibility, Aimee has more than her fair share.

After Sutter is dumped he goes on a drinking binge and passes out on a lawn, where Aimee finds him while delivering newspapers on the route her mother is supposed to be covering. The unlikely pair begin to see more of each other, and because each has what the other needs, a close bond develops, much to everyone else's surprise.

Shailene Woodley

Sutter's relationship with Aimee also awakens in him a desire to discover who he really is, and that involves tracking down the father who deserted his family and hasn't contacted them since. Sutter's mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has always avoided talking about her ex-husband and won't tell Sutter how to find him. When Sutter does find him, he'll discover it's like looking in a mirror, and he'll be terrified by what he sees.

The screenplay written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, from the novel by Tim Tharp, is a brilliant exploration of how parents influence us, even in their absence. It's also a young man's cathartic journey to discover the past that molded him and face the choice to make himself a better and more responsible human being.

Director James Ponsoldt (Smashed) gets a lot of the credit for creating the canvas that allows two fine young actors to excel in their roles. Teller and Woodley are called upon to portray a wide range of emotion, often expressing state of mind with little more than facial expression. It is a near-certainty that both will come off of this film with considerabe acclaim, much as already happened with Woodley following her turn in The Descendants.

It's little wonder that The Spectacular Now has generated such positive buzz among critics and was an audience favorite at its Sundance Film Festival debut.



Saturday, August 24, 2013

Blue Jasmine

The Harder They Fall                        
by Mark Dispenza

Woody Allen's latest film is short on laughs and long on social commentary. A departure from Allen's usual shtick, Blue Jasmine is a well-constructed character study of a socialite's fall from grace.  

I haven't heard it yet, but I won't be surprised if Cate Blanchett's performance as Jasmine generates an Academy Award nomination.  Perhaps this late summer release date was targeted to bolster her chances.  It it comes to pass, it will be an honor she richly deserves.

Jasmine is a Hamptons housewife-type whose life has been shattered by the arrest, conviction and suicide of her once super-wealthy husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin).  The problem was that Hal's wealth was built upon a giant ponzi scheme that netted many victims over the years he kept it afloat with creative financial and legal maneuverings.

Among the victims were Jasmine's sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and her now ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay).  Ginger  did not share her sister's financial good fortune in marriage.  She barely gets by as a checker in a neighborhood grocery store.  Augie is a small contractor who came into good luck after he acquired a winning lottery ticket.  Unfortunately Jasmine and Ginger talked him into investing the money with Hal, rather than pursuing his dream of starting his own business.  

Sally Hawkins and Andrew Dice Clay

After years of avoiding contact with her working class sister, Jasmine, now financially destitute and recently released from a psychiatric hospital, is forced to seek her assistance to survive.  But Jasmine can't accept her new poverty, and she spends much of her energy seeking out creative ways to restore her life of privilege, whether through her own entrepreneurial efforts or by marrying back into it.

As the story unfolds both in real-time and in flashback, it becomes apparent that Jasmine is an expert at looking the other way.  Although she professes to be yet another victim of her husband's deception, she is not the air-headed socialite she affects.  It was her choice to turn a blind eye as evidence mounted of Hal's financial machinations and his serial betrayal of their marriage.  

Cate Blanchett and Alec Baldwin

Intentional or not, Allen has created a powerful parable of how the blind pursuit of wealth for its own sake corrupts the soul and destroys all it touches.  Although in many ways, Allen's script comes across as a European intellectual's smug parable about the demise of American privilege in the world, and good riddance to its exploitative origins and corrupting influence, it would be a mistake to dismiss the film so readily.

This is easily Allen's smartest and most serious work to-date.  Whether or not you agree with the film's pessimistic tone, it is an insightful view into the nature of the wealth-obsessed.  Despite Hal and Jasmine's generous support of charities, nothing they do will make up for the evil upon which they built their ultimately fragile opulence.

Jasmine is toxic to everyone she comes in contact with.  Despite Ginger's humble life she is happy and fulfilled.  That changes every time Jasmine attempts to remake her in her own image.  The scorecard for Jasmine's interference is a failed marriage, a lost nest egg and the disruption of Ginger's new relationship with grease monkey, Chili, played by Bobby Cannavale in one of the film's most entertaining performances.

Self-deception is Jasmine's greatest forte.  The illusions upon which she based her life are fracturing, and so is Jasmine's mind.  She dulls the pain with alcohol, but there will never be enough booze or money to repair what is broken inside of her.  

Cate Blanchett

Blanchett's performance is a key component of what makes the film work.  Although it's easy to loathe her superficial values and condescending dismissal of working class people, Blanchett somehow manages to convey the psychological underpinnings of fear and vulnerability that drive Jasmine.  In spite of everything she's done, it's hard not to feel sorry for her and hope that somehow she gets her values straight and her life back in order.

Allen doesn't hold much hope for that.  

Saturday, August 10, 2013

I Give It a Year

Sometimes It's Better to Wait             
by Mark Dispenza

I Give It a Year is a romantic comedy that breaks the mold.  We've all seen it in real life.  A close friend or family member falls madly in love with a partner who is obviously - to everyone else - ill-suited.

It reminds me in tone of my favorite anti-romantic comedy, 500 Days of Summer, although I believe the latter to be the better film.  The humor from writer-director, Dan Mazer (Borat, Bruno) is hit and miss, but when it hits it's both hysterical and original.

Rafe Spall and Rose Byrne

Nat (Rose Byrne) marries Josh (Rafe Spall) after a whirlwind 7-month courtship. None of their friends and family see the match and go as far as to predict the union won't last beyond one year.  As the marriage progresses, and attractive rivals both old and new come into the picture, it becomes harder and harder for the two to remain faithful.

Nat meets Guy (Simon Baker of the TV series, The Mentalist), a new client at her firm, and the attraction is immediately both mutual and powerful.  Much of the comedy from that point on revolves around Nat's weakening resistance to Guy's aggressive romantic overtures, one of which involves the release of white doves in a private dining room at a swanky hotel.  The presence of a ceiling fan leads to unanticipated complications.

Josh is tempted by the return of old girlfriend, Chloe, played by the delightful Anna Faris (the Scary Movie franchise, The House Bunny).  In a classic case of bad timing, the two are forced to confront the lack of closure in their previous relationship and face their unresolved feelings of love.

Simon Baker and Anna Faris

Although I enjoyed actors, Byrne, Baker and Faris in their respective roles, I felt that Spall was miscast.  He is much too handsome and earnest-looking to successfully pull off a character with an inner idiot dying to get out.  It's not that he's a bad actor, it's just that he stretched the suspension of disbelief too many times in that particular role.  The experience was akin to watching Prince William attempt an impression of Jim Carey.

All in all, it's not a bad way to spend an evening if you are a fan of romantic comedy and British humor, with a twist of social farce.  The film is scheduled for a limited theatrical release later this month, but you can download it and watch it now with iTunes.