Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: A Year of Controversy & Innovation

By Mark Dispenza & Zac Sanford

2011 was an exciting year for independent film, as filmmakers broke new ground, and the marketing and distribution model for the indie world began a seismic shift away from brick-and-mortar theaters and into downloadable formats that will ultimately make them more accessible to audiences worldwide.

Like the years before it, 2012 will begin with the first US screenings of exciting new films at venues like Palm Springs, Sundance and Santa Barbara.  We'll be wowed by the new work of the masters, and we'll feel the rush of excitement from being among the first to see groundbreaking new talent emerge onto the scene.

At the same time, there will be the usual rush of awards and retrospectives for the films that moved us in the previous year.  In that vein, Indie Film Guru is pleased to share with you our favorite films of 2011.  We don't claim that these were the best films, or that we even saw all of the most deserving foreign and American independent films, as there are now thousands of them.  Even among the most generous reviewers, so-called "best lists" are subjective, so we'll just call this what it is.

Here they are--the top five favorite films, by categories of American Independent and Foreign, of contributors Mark Dispenza and Zac Sanford from the year 2011:

AMERICAN INDEPENDENTS                                                                                 

Mark's Favorites

1.  The Descendants (Alexander Payne) - Like we said, it's about "love, loss and doing the right thing," and figuring out how to raise two independent girls as a single male parent.  George Clooney and Shailene Woodley shine as a father and daughter coming to terms with the loss of a wife and mother, and discovering, as she lay dying, who she really was in life.

2.  Beginners (Mike Mills) - A father at the end of his life, and a son who's afraid of living his, discover that it's never too late to open your heart to love in this funny and poignant story about wounded souls who learn to heal themselves.  Mills broke new ground with actor Ewan McGregor in bringing an introverted character to vibrant life.

3.  Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen) - It's been a long time since I listed a Woody Allen film in my top five and audiences apparently agree.  Midnight in Paris was Allen's highest-grossing film of all time and topped the box office for American indies in 2011.  Not as heavy on social commentary as Allen's more recent films, it was nonetheless a smart and delightful romantic romp through Paris the way we imagine it was and want it to be.

4.  Amigo (John Sayles) - Chances are you missed this latest gem from the master of American indie film, because Sayles practically carried the video from theater to theater himself in a case of distribution the hard way.   Get it on download.  Joel Torre delivers the goods as a head man fighting for the survival of his village, caught between clueless American occupiers and the guerrilla fighters who oppose them during the Philippine-American war.  The players may look different, but in every war they're the same.

5.  Win Win (Tom McCarthy) - In tough economic times an attorney (Paul Giamatti) makes some bad choices to get by, and ultimately has to own up to the unintended consequences his actions bring down on the people he loves most, especially the troubled and gifted teen his family takes in. This is truly a story for our times.

Zac's Favorites

1. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)  - Many will find this film oddly paced, too violent or tonally all over the place, but as a total package it works for me on each of those levels. From the opening chase in downtown LA to the relationship between Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, and the violence that goes over the top, this is one of the few films of the year that has the rewatchable factor that so many films lack these days.

2. The Descendants (Alexander Payne) – In the hands of any other writer/director, The Descendants could have easily veered off into the land of melodrama. Payne, along with co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, walk the fine line of a father struggling to connect with his daughters as his wife lies in a coma following an accident. Not only must George Clooney deal with drastic life changes, but he also must confront the man who was sleeping with his wife, all the while trying to handle the extended family’s pending sale of ancestral land.

3. 50/50 (Jonathan Levine) – Based on the real life experience of screenwriter Will Reiser50/50 delivers a wonderful balance of comedy and drama as Joseph Gordon-Levitt deals with his cancer diagnosis. While most twenty-somethings are concerned with the beginnings of a career, starting a family and looking forward to many years still to be, Adam must deal with the fifty-fifty shot he’s given at surviving into the next year.

4. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick) – Melancholia and The Tree of Life are probably two of the most polarizing films of the year within the film community. While Melancholia bored me to tears, and I didn’t care one iota about the outcome for the characters, The Tree of Life gave me the exact opposite
reaction. I was transfixed by the opening shots, the voiceover delivered in a melancholic whisper, the breathtaking “creation” segment (yes, even with the dinosaurs), to the ending. Did I understand it all? No, but I will give the film a second look to grasp the deeper message that Malick was trying to deliver.

5. Like Crazy (Drake Doremus) – Coming-of-age stories are a dime a dozen, but the characters, their actions and the voyeuristic feel of the direction made this film stand above any of the genre's predecessors from this year.  Doremus’ first film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and its star, Felicity Jones, was honored with the Grand Prize Award for Acting in her star-making performance.


Mark's Favorites

1.  Attack the Block (UK, Joe Cornish) - Teens in the hood battle invading alien monsters in this funny, scary and downright excellent cross-genre mash-up. You're starting to see this film on a lot of critics' best lists for 2011, and you're probably wondering how you missed it.  This was another case of a small-budget film getting lost amid the big buck promotional extravagances of Hollywood's summer offensive, but it's destined to become a classic in its second life on DVD and download.  Be the first on your block to get a piece of the action.  Believe!

2.  The Artist (France/Belgium, Michel Hazanavicius) - Silence has never been so golden in this wonderfully entertaining tribute to the bygone era of Hollywood before talkies, and a timely story about a once successful man facing career obsolescence and economic ruin.  Trust me on this.  Even if you hate reading subtitles, you'll love this film.  There's a reason you're hearing a lot more about it as awards season gets underway.

3.  Melancholia (Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany, Lars von Trier)  - A triumph of the surreal that must be seen on the big screen to gain a full appreciation of its beauty, Melancholia was arguably the most polarizing film of 2011.  Since its debut at Cannes, filmgoers have been divided into two groups--one that loves Melancholia and the other that loves The Tree of Life--and never the twain shall meet.  See Zac's list if you doubt.

4.  Submarine (UK, Richard Ayoade) - An amusing coming-of-age story about a teen's first love, Submarine is really an adult film about the challenge of sustaining love over the long haul and in trying times.  You'll laugh.  You'll see yourself in it... and that's really the point of it.

5.  Tyrannosaur (UK, Paddy Considine) - This directorial debut by an accomplished British actor is a raw and unflinching look at a social problem that defies boundaries.  Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman turn in riveting performances as a violent and self-destructive man who gets an unexpected chance at redemption from a woman battling her own demons.  Note the word "raw." This is not a film for the squeamish.

Zac's Favorites

1. We Need to Talk About Kevin (UK, Lynne Ramsay) – Ramsay’s first film in nine years, an adaptation of a novel by the same name, is sure to have its fans and detractors. In an award-worthy performance, Tilda Swinton deals with emotional struggle after her son goes on a wild killing spree at the local high school. But it is Ramsey’s use of non-linear storytelling and expertly paced directing that makes this one of the top films of the year.

2. Attack the Block (UK, Joe Cornish) – Attack the Block doesn’t follow the Hollywood mantra of taking the first ten to fifteen minutes to set up the characters before anything happens. From the beginning our characters are thrown into the storm of an alien invasion. Instead of running away, they decide to protect their block by any and all means necessary. The stakes are constantly ramping up, no character is safe, and we learn the back-story of each of the characters as the film moves along.  And these aren’t your normal aliens, but black-haired beasts with blue, glowing teeth. Attack the Block is a fun ride from beginning to end, even if you can’t understand the British teen slang thrown around by the boys from the block.

3. The Artist (France/Belgium, Michel Hazanavicius) – In the day and age of explosions, fast-paced action and quick cuts in the editing, it was a breath of fresh air to be taken back to the golden age of cinema. Hazanavicius’ love letter to film deals with the major shift in the industry when the talkies first gained traction, sending many of the famous silent stars to the unemployment line. Even without the use of dialogue, the stars of the film are able to radiate and hold the audience’s attention from beginning to end, and the score swells and dips in all the right places.

4. Submarine (UK, Richard Ayoade) – If I had to put my foreign films and indie films on the same list, Submarine would end up higher than Like Crazy.  While Like Crazy covers the post-adolescent years of love, Submarine delves into what most would consider the more simple times of high school. Ayoade’s coming-of-age dramedy puts Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) in that awkward stage between being a child and becoming an adult. He covers a perfect range of optimism, mixed with the angst-filled snark, every teenager goes through.

5. I Saw the Devil (South Korea, directed by Jee-woon Kim/written by Hoon-jung Park) – A cat and mouse film that sends a secret agent on the trail of a serial killer after his wife becomes the latest victim.  Kim’s Korean revenge film allows his main character to walk the fine line between good and evil, as he inflicts pain upon the man who killed his wife, only to let him go free until the next round of revenge is unleashed. Just like Dexter, the moral question of what is right and wrong should create much debate among those who watch it.

That's a wrap for 2011!  

We at Indie Film Guru wish you much happiness and joy in 2012 
and a very indie new year.  

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Margin Call

Now on DVD:                                                                                                                         
As Wall Street's Universe Collapses      
by Lisa Pease

What would you do if you had knowledge of imminent catastrophe and no power to stop it? That was the question that inspired the new film Margin Call from writer/director J.C. Chandor.

Based on the financial crisis of 2008, the film is a tightly paced, highly suspenseful look at the first 36 hours of a meltdown from the viewpoint of a few key people in a Lehman Brothers-like investment firm. The damage has already been done, and there’s no way to reverse it. The characters are faced with Hobsian choices that leave little room for moral concerns.

Indeed, that’s the fascination with the film. While some have decried it, claiming that it makes the Wall Street crooks who stole our money sympathetic characters, that’s not what I saw at all. I had no sympathy for any of them, but I found them fascinating, nonetheless.

Here are a group of people who have uncritically bought into a way of life destined for failure, and suddenly that failure is upon them. How will they deal? What will they do? What can they do?

During the course of the escalating-by-the-minute meltdown, each character finds out, in his or her own way, what they are — and are not — made of.

The story opens with the layoffs of a large number of people in the firm. It’s a scene that unnervingly takes us all back to those first few weeks after the financial crisis.  When Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a 19-year veteran of the firm, is cut (with a paltry six-month’s severance for his 19 years), he leaves a warning and a thumb drive of data with one of his junior associates and warns him to “be careful.”

Something is terribly wrong, and Eric hasn’t quite figured it out yet.

Zachary Quinto

His bright younger associate Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) pulls up the model, tweaks a few numbers, and suddenly sees the future is already here, and it looks bad from every angle. One by one, superiors are brought in to deal with the crisis, played by actors Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Simon Baker, and ultimately Jeremy Irons.

You know these people. You’ve worked with some of them. In a few broad strokes, you see the uptight manager, the handsome if shallow braniac, the quiet genius, the get-by-on-his-charm kid, the company man, the disconnected man at the top who readily admits he didn’t get there because of his brains, and more. That the characters seem so specific despite the lack of background data in the script is a tribute to the talents of a brilliant cast.

Jeremy Irons

I think we all want to better understand what happened. How could the system get so broken so quickly? In that sense, the movie offers little direct information. This is not history or documentary.

What this is, however, is sheer drama. I truly felt glued to the screen. My thoughts never wandered, a rarity in the movie theater these days. I really wanted to know, at every second, what would happen next. Of course, we all know what happens, eventually. But watching these people in the moment was incredibly compelling.

Kevin Spacey

Kevin Spacey is particularly interesting as Sam Rogers, the head of the trading group that is going to have to do the most to deal with the coming crisis. He’s torn by the results of past choices that leave him only two choices--both wrong. We learn over the course of the film just how much his devotion has cost him.

After viewing the film, I was reminded of Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, in which he demonstrates that short-term thinking and, particularly, cultures in which the elite separate themselves too far from the working class, lead inevitably to disaster and collapse of any given society.

The real issue is not how to deal with crises as they arise, but to see them coming and change course early enough to entirely avert them. When the elite are more closely tied to the workers, they feel the pain sooner and make appropriate course corrections. The further the elite get from the workers, the more insulated they are, preventing them from seeing genuine problems until it’s too late to solve them.

Margin Call reminds of the importance of our decisions in a given moment and to look a little further down the road to the long term.

Margin Call is now available on DVD and VOD.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

The “King of B’s” Gets the A-List Treatment
by Zac Sanford

After over sixty years and almost four hundred films, Roger Corman may be one of the most influential filmmakers to grace the silver screen. But it isn’t necessarily his own films that have given him the title. Nor is it the honorary Oscar bestowed upon him in 2009 by the Academy. Instead, it is the countless filmmakers and stars that he has had a hand in influencing over his long career.

In Alex Stapleton’s documentary, Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, the filmmaker’s prolific career is remembered by those who he helped give their first big break in Tinsletown. Martin Scorsese waxes poetic about Boxcar Bertha from his state of the art screening room. Ron Howard recounts his experiences with Grand Theft Auto while taking a casual stroll. Peter Bogdanovich, who got his start in Corman’s exploitation films The Wild Angels and The Trip, claims the filmmaker was always ahead of the curve. But it is the intimate interview with Jack Nicholson, hired by Roger when no one else would cast him, that shows the most heart, even bringing the A-list actor to tears.

While many of these filmmakers and actors went on to bigger, and many would say better projects over the years, one must wonder why Roger never achieved the critical acclaim of his peers. The film touches on the subject of his passion for film, and one of the most ambitious projects of his career, The Intruder. Shot in 1962 and starring a young William Shatner, The Intruder dealt with the racial tensions of the South at the beginning of desegregation in the school system. But the film was a failure at the box office, and one of the only films Roger claims to have ever lost money on in his long-standing career. If it had been a success, who knows what trajectory Corman’s career would have taken, but he quickly settled back into his B-film shtick.

Through Roger’s career, the many shifts and changes of the industry are well documented. From the campy sci-fi films of the 50s, to the exploitation flicks of the 60s and 70s, followed by the summer blockbuster taking over the multiplex in the late 70s and early 80s, Roger found a way to succeed and persevere. When filmmakers like Antonioni and Fellini could no longer find American distributors, Corman’s New World Pictures stepped in to give them domestic distribution.

The quality of his films may have never given him the respect he deserves, but those who were influenced by his indie sensibilities have entertained us many times over. Those who currently work with Roger on his latest SyFy opus may end up becoming the next Scorsese or De Niro, so I plead to you Mr. Corman, never stop making films.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

My Week with Marilyn

The Other Side of Marilyn                     
by Zac Sanford

Michelle Williams seamlessly slips into the role of former sex-symbol Marilyn Monroe with ease and comfort. It is a natural and layered performance.  One can sit back and forget that they are watching an actor play a part, but instead Marilyn brought back to life from the past. Williams covers a huge emotional plane, from bright-eyed and focused to insecure and co-dependent, shifting on a dime.

While Williams is great as Marilyn, this isn’t just her story. Partially over-shadowed is a coming-of-age story about a boy, his first job and his first love. Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) is the “My” referred to in the title, and the film is loosely based on his two memoirs about his time working on the production of The Prince and the Showgirl. As luck would have it, Colin’s family was friends with Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and his current wife, Vivien Leigh (Julie Ormond). Sir Olivier hires the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Clark to work as his third director’s assistant, or in other words, a glorified errand boy.

Before the first frame is shot, Olivier is at war with Ms. Monroe. During a table read, Marilyn is unsure of her motivation and can’t find the truth of her character. Instead of taking advice from the director, she confides in her sole confidant, Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), the wife of the late acting guru Lee Strasberg. The two have opposing views on how to get to the truth and Laurence doesn’t like having a second director on the set.

Once the film starts rolling, it isn’t Marilyn’s own ego that further alienates her from the director and some of the cast and crew, but her insecurity in her ability to deliver a great performance. She is constantly late to set and flubbing lines. But when she’s on, she shines. She radiates on screen, showing the modern day audience why she’s been able to stand the test of time.

During production of The Prince and the Showgirl, Marilyn was accompanied by her third husband, the playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott). While they’ve only been married a short time, the honeymoon phase is already over, which sends Miller high-tailing it back to the States to be with his kids. He professes in his writing that he can’t stand the constant mood shifts perpetuated by her cocktail of prescription pills and insecurity. He, like many other men of the time, was in love with the idea of Marilyn, not who she was below the surface.

Alone and deeply insecure, Marilyn confides in Colin. He becomes her one true ally as they spend a week together away from the set and any obligations. Colin’s puppy-dog love for her is apparent from the beginning, but he’s forewarned to keep his feelings at bay. Marilyn knows she will end up hurting him like so many other men in her past. During this week we find out who Marilyn really is, what makes her tick and a little of what makes her aim for perfection. During a rendezvous out on the town, she sees some adoring fans and asks “should I be her,” before turning on the charm of Marilyn and posing for pictures in a typical Monroe pose.

While the week is short, the film opens up the audience to a side many have never seen. While most biopics are bogged down by an over-encompassing look from birth to death, the shortened window into the star’s life is refreshing. Williams shines above the rest of the cast in her portrayal of the title character, but she isn’t alone. Branagh is great, even if he does jump into a caricature at times in the film. The rest of the cast is filled with notable British actors Judi Dench, Toby Jones and Emma Watson.


The Beast Within                                  
by Mark Dispenza

The terrible consequences of uncontrolled rage and abuse are presented in vivid detail in Tyrannosaur, British actor Paddy Considine's debut feature as writer-director.

Not since Lee Tomahori's brilliant depiction of domestic violence within New Zealand's Maori community in Once Were Warriors has a film so effectively captured the complex emotional interplay of perpetrator and victim that is a universal human experience transcendent of culture.  This is an impressive debut behind the camera for an actor who has achieved considerable international acclaim for his roles in films such as In America, Cinderella Man and The Bourne Ultimatum.

Actor Peter Mullan captures both the horror and the humanity of Joseph, a self-destructive man prone to outbursts of cruelty and violence.  On the run following an altercation in a bar, during which he severely beats a young man, Joseph ducks into a Christian charity shop managed by Hannah, played by Olivia Colman.

Despite his obvious ferocity, Hannah reaches out to Joseph and offers to help him.  In typical fashion Joseph cruelly rebuffs her, but later he finds himself drawn to her and returns.  Perhaps it's her apparent lack of fear despite her own vulnerability, or perhaps it's her simple act of kindness that draws him.  But soon enough it's revealed that there is another dynamic in play here.

Olivia Colman and Peter Mullan

Hannah lives in terror of returning home every evening to her abusive husband, James (Eddie Marsan).  As her meetings with Joseph become more frequent, Hannah is unable to hide the scars and black eyes James inflicts on her.  Her encounter with Joseph was fortuitous, as both of them have reached rock bottom and resolved to conquer their demons.  As they draw ever closer, they discover that there is no greater tormentor than the one that lies within themselves.  

Be warned that this is not an easy film to watch, as its depiction of cruelty and violence is raw and unflinching.  In the first minute of the film, Joseph beats to death his faithful dog for the simple act of barking too loudly.  One may grow to sympathize with Joseph and root for him to find salvation with Hannah, but the film never allows us to forget the terrible cruelty he has inflicted on others, and hints at even worse atrocities in his past, particularly those against his beloved and now deceased wife.  

Ultimately this is a story about the trans-formative power of love and its ability to tame even the most terrible of beasts.  

Tyrannosaur won a World Cinema Directing Award for Considine at Sundance and Special Jury Prizes for actors Mullan and Colman.  It went into limited release in the USA on November 20.  

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Artist

SILENCE IS GOLDEN                                   
by Mark Dispenza

One of the year's best films has very little to say, and it's shot entirely in black and white.  The Artist is a homage to the silent film era, but it has decidedly modern sensibilities.

In The Artist French director Michel Hazanavicius takes on the very timely story of a man coping with a traumatic career transition, using the allegorical tale of a silent film star struggling with career obsolescence at the advent of talkies.

The film opens at the 1927 Hollywood premiere of "The Russian Affair," starring George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin with dash and a cheery bravado that channels Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino and John Gilbert, a lesser known actor upon whose life the film is actually based.  Valentin is always accompanied by his co-star (played by Uggie), a Jack Russell terrier with lots of personality.

While clowning for the press in front of the theater, Valentin literally bumps into Peppy Miller, played by Berenice Bejo, a delightful young woman who Valentin quickly discovers to be a natural talent in front of the camera.  Valentin is smitten with her, and as her career climbs to new heights, he particularly delights in their dance scenes together.

Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo

But there are clouds on the horizon for Valentin.  A new technology that allows films to "talk" has become popular, and while Miller's career soars to new heights, Valentin's goes downhill fast.  Hollywood doesn't believe that Valentin is a fit for the new talkies.  John Goodman plays well to-type here as a cigar-chomping Hollywood producer and bearer of the bad news.  

The star goes out on his own, but his films have lost their audience and Valentin finds that he is now a has-been.  His marriage falls apart and he is forced to sell everything he owns just to survive.  All of the bling and flash of his former existence is gone.  His only friends are his trusty canine companion and a loyal chaffeur (James Cromwell) who steadfastly refuses to be fired.  Valentin becomes depressed and even suicidal.  

It's in that state that Miller rediscovers her former mentor and resolves to rescue him from despair.  Unfortunately it's a big job that even the perennially upbeat Peppy will find to be the greatest challenge of her career.  

The Artist is an immensely entertaining film with a big heart.  Seeing it was the most fun I've had since Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, and it's becoming just as popular with audiences.  Dujardin took home the Best Actor award at Cannes, and The Artist quickly became a favorite on the film festival circuit.  

The first half of the film is pure entertainment and will delight you with its very effective tribute to all that was magical and wondrous about movies in the silent era.  I found the downfall sequences in the second half to be overly long and tedious, and it would have certainly benefited the film to have ten minutes or more of those scenes cut.  It's one thing to have Valentin's decline vividly depicted and quite another to experience his torment in excruciating detail.  

Don't be fooled into thinking that The Artist is simply a good silent film that brings to life the nostalgia for a long-lost era in Hollywood.  Although it is that to some degree, this is a complete reinvention of the silent black and white film.  I can't tell you much more than that.  You know... spoilers and all.  

The Artist has Best Picture Oscar buzz, and you'll just have to see it to understand why.   It went into nationwide theatrical release on November 23.  

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Descendants

Love, Loss and Doing the Right Thing                                 
by Zac Sanford

George Clooney heads a terrific ensemble cast in Alexander Payne's new film exploring life and death, love and loss, and the sacrifice of doing the right thing

After bringing several unlikable characters to the screen, Payne returns to the helm after a seven-year hiatus with his most accessible film to-date. It isn’t that Payne makes stereotypical art house fare that is slow and brooding in its undertones. It's just that his characters are at a point in their lives where they come across as bitter, almost to the point of being unlikable.

In The Descendants, Matt King (Clooney) is an overworked, well-paid real estate lawyer living in the paradise of Hawaii. Matt’s voice-over tells the audience that the islands are just like any other place in the country. The locals have the same health problems,and they still have a homeless epidemic.

Matt has every right to be bitter in his assessments. His life is thrown into a tizzy when his wife is sent into a comatose state after a boating accident. He’s always seen himself as the “backup parent, the understudy,” when it came to being a parent to his two daughters. Young Scottie (Amara Miller) is acting up in school and bullying other students. 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley in a star-making role) is off at boarding school like many other rich kids who have acted out during their teen years.

After picking up a drunken Alexandra at her school on the big island, she confesses the reasons why she has been so bitter to her mother in the past, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) has been cheating on Matt. Not only is his wife dying, but now he’s left with questions for which he has no answers.

George Clooney and Shailene Woodley

So in typical Payne fashion he brings the troops together to go on a journey. Not only must they tell the family that they will be pulling the plug on Elizabeth, but Matt has it in his heart to find Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), the man who slept with his wife, so he can pay his final respects. This is where the bond grows between Matt and his eldest daughter, who transforms from the angst-filled teen to his closest confidant and ally.

The script, co-written by Payne and Jim Rash, and adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, constantly shifts in tone, never allowing any scene to go too heavy on the melodrama. When things start to get heavy-handed, the tension is interrupted by a bit of humor, usually at the hands of Alexandra’s friend Sid (Nick Krauss). While he is mainly used as comic relief as the dim-witted surfer, he’s actually given one of the better scenes with Clooney.

The rest of the phenomenal ensemble cast includes Robert Forester as the grieving father of Elizabeth, Beau Bridges as the money-hungry Cousin Hugh, who is pushing for the big sale of land, and Judy Greer in an astounding dramatic turn as the wife of adultery-prone Brian Speer. Each are given their moment to shine, especially Judy Greer, who in the past has been relegated to the love interest's best friend in countless romantic comedies.

Judy Greer and Mathew Lillard

My only complaint about the film is the amount of time dedicated to the selling of the biggest untouched land parcel on the islands. The King family are descendants of one of the first royal families of the islands, allowing the parcel to be passed down from generation to generation in a trust. Now the time crunch has kicked in, forcing the family to make a decision on whether to sell the parcel off to a developer, who will turn it into yet another tourist destination. Since Matt is the executor of the trust, he is faced with the dilemma to either sell the land to one of the two interested parties, or to eventually bequeath the land to the state. There are a couple of contrivances that bog down this storyline, and the screen time could have been better used elsewhere.

Ultimately The Descendants is one of the stronger films to come out this year. While the advertising campaign has leaned a little too heavy on the comedic aspects, the film should have a long run as word-of-mouth allows expansion past the typical art house markets. Come awards season several of the supporting players, along with Payne and his writing crew, should grace the stages of award ceremonies for some well-deserved kudos.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


A GUIDED TOUR OF THE DARK SIDE                             
by Mark Dispenza

Incredibly beautiful and cinematic, Melancholia is an allegorical tale about depression by a filmmaker who suffers from the disease. However, before I go any further I must offer a disclaimer, because this film is not for everyone.

Lars von Trier is a genius, but his bouts with depression are legend, and they inform the subject matter of his films across the board (Antichrist, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville).  That is why his work will remain confined to art houses, and that's why his big, undisciplined mouth will continue to create headlines that overshadow the brilliance of his work.  Melancholia was a favorite challenger to The Tree of Life for the Cannes Palme d'or this year until von Trier made a flippant, smartass remark in a press conference that was interpreted to mean he's a serious admirer of Adolf Hitler. That got him negative headlines and banned from the festival. 

I haven't talked to anyone who is lukewarm about Melancholia.  They either love the film or hate it passionately, and those feelings are duplicated across the board in the critical reviews.  One woman who attended a screening at the New Orleans Film Festival tweeted afterward that "Melancholia was two hours and fifteen minutes of escalating tension I could have done without." 

People who MUST SEE this film: artists who don't suffer from depression (doesn't leave many of you, does it?), fans of surrealism, true cinemaphiles, fans of von Trier, people who study the science of the human mind, wedding planners.

People who SHOULD NOT SEE this film:  astronomers, anyone who suffers from clinical depression, teens with an IQ less than genius, people who want to see a "feel good" film, science fiction fans who are expecting an apocalyptic disaster movie that follows genre rules, fathers who are about to pay for their daughter's wedding. 

Kirsten Dunst, Alexander Skarsgard, Kiefer Sutherland & Charlotte Gainsbourg

If you do see Melancholia, you absolutely should see it on the big screen. This is the most beautiful film I've seen in a long time.  If you are a fan of surrealism like me, the opening sequence alone will make you giddy.  Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, a young woman who has issues.  She professes to have premonitions of the future, and the film opens with one.  Justine experiences the end of her life and everyone she loves as a giant planet collides with the Earth and swallows it.

It is the day of Justine's wedding, and we are introduced to her as a happy bride on the way to her wedding reception with the perfect groom, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard).  It is a bright sunny day, and her storybook wedding is taking place at a lavish resort.  Yet everything is not as perfect as it appears.  We soon learn that they are two hours late to their own wedding party, and those guests who are not having a wonderful, inebriated time are getting very upset.

Particularly angry are her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and Claire's wealthy husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), who Claire has convinced to shell out more money than the collective income of an entire city on this wedding of the century. 

As the wedding party goes on late into the night, Justine's depression kicks in and the perfect wedding shatters like a broken mirror.  Udo Kier provides comic relief as the wedding planner who watches helplessly as his masterpiece is systematically destroyed by the ultimate Bridezilla.  "She has ruined my wedding.  I will not look at her."

By the time the evening is over, Justine's wedding party, her storybook marriage and all of her relationships, except for the long-suffering Claire, lie in shambles. 

A few months later, Justine's mental condition has seriously deteriorated, and Claire convinces John against his better judgement to allow her into their perfect lives (fabulously successful husband, lavish estate, perfectly adorable little boy, not a care). 

But something else has intruded on their world.  A giant planet called Melancholia has emerged from behind the sun and taken off on a collision course with the Earth.  Can you imagine anything more allegorical than a huge threat that hides behind the sun and is named after a term for clinical depression?  For those of you that took this seriously and judged the film based on real world science, I implore, "get a grip."

As Melancholia looms larger in the sky, Justine watches her rock, Claire, begin to panic and deteriorate into anxiety.  Her husband John's faith in the precision of science has betrayed him, and there is nothing they can do about it.  On the other hand, Justine becomes the calm center of reason.  After all, she knew this was coming.  She was proved right, and Claire might as well accept their unavoidable fate.

I wish I could share with you the final scene of the film, but I don't want to break my own rule of minimizing spoilers.  Its symbolism is genius and it is terrible and beautiful at the same time.  It continues to haunt my mind.

Dunst won Best Actress at Cannes, and unlike the film, has been the subject of glowing critical reviews.  After many career misfires like Marie Antoinette, Dunst has finally landed a role that stretches her as an artist and displays the range of professional excellence she is capable of.  

Like von Trier himself, I believe this film has been widely misunderstood and misinterpreted.  As a journey into the mind of someone who is clinically depressed, its brilliance rivals Akiva Goldsman's depiction of schizophrenia in A Beautiful Mind, although tellingly, this story is not even remotely as uplifting.  In future years when cinema historians look back on this film, I believe Melancholia will be judged in retrospect as the cinematic masterpiece it is.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Like Crazy

A Modern Day Romance                            
by Zac Sanford

Young lovers struggle to hold onto passion against the challenges of career, distance and Homeland Security in Like Crazy. The tightly constructed scenes feature mostly improv dialogue that give this Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize winner an air of authenticity that is a refreshing deviation from the typical blueprint of Hollywood romance films.

Anna (Felicity Jones), a journalism major from the UK, falls for Jacob (Anton Yelchin), but instead of professing her love for him, she leaves him a four-page note proclaiming her feelings. In the end, she hopes that Jacob won't think she's crazy, which brings a slight smile to his face. Over the course of a couple months, the two fall madly in love and seem perfect for one another, but the looming end of school, and the expiration of Anna's student visa, quickly throw the first kink into their relationship.

Instead of heading home, Anna decides to stay with Jacob through the summer, ignoring the rules of her student visa. After Anna returns home from a holiday with her parents, she is refused re-entry by US Customs. She calls Jacob, who is awaiting her arrival at the airport, and tearfully informs him that she's being sent back home. He promises he will do whatever he can to get back together with her.

This is only the first of many bumps that plague their relationship over the years. No one is sure how much time passes between scenes and the times in which they can reconnect as the film flawlessly jumps in time. Eventually work gets in the way. Anna lands a promotion that keeps her in the UK, while business is booming at Jacob's furniture design company. But they do whatever they can to be together, mainly leaving Jacob to make the jaunt across the pond as Anna's immigration privileges are being appealed by her family attorney.

Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones

As more and more time passes between each and every trip, jealousy and new relationships begin to blossom for both of them. It is only the reconnection and being in the presence of one another does their true love spark fully once again.

Writer/director Drake Doremus doesn't allow the film to follow the stereotypical formula of the Hollywood romance. The handheld camera gets in close and gives the film a voyeuristic feel. The script (co-written with Ben York Jones) was assembled more as an outline, leaving the actors to improvise their lines, giving the film an aura of authenticity.

The stars have a real chemistry that shines through, especially Jones. She brings her character to life with the understated delivery of her lines, allowing a look or a smile to deliver more than words ever could. It is not a surprise that she won a grand jury prize for acting at this year's Sundance Film Festival.  Like Crazy also features Jennifer Lawrence (Oscar-nominated for Winter's Bone last year) as Anna's rival for Jacob's affection.

This is a modern day romance that shows the highs and lows of being in a long distance relationship. The stars shine and should receive many more kudos as the awards season kicks into high gear.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Rum Diary

Mad Men in Paradise                                
by Mark Dispenza

     Hunter S. Thompson's first novel is brought to the screen in an entertaining gonzo-lite story that chronicles a writer's journey from alcoholic slacker to socially-conscious crusader.  .Although written early in his career, following a wealth of nonfiction output, Thompson's novel was not actually published until 1998.
     Johnny Depp, who plays protagonist Kemp in the film, has been interested in bringing this story to the screen since he played Thompson himself in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  At one time "Fear" co-star, Benicio Del Toro, was even attached to direct.  After many false starts, Depp finally succeeded with writer-director Bruce Robinson at the helm.  Robinson, who is best known as writer of 1984's The Killing Fields, had not directed a film since 1992.
     Although the film is opening with some positive audience response, its reception from critics has been lukewarm.  Don't worry about it.  This is not Oscar material and certainly not a highlight of Depp's acting career, but it is an entertaining film filled with beautiful location scenery, a Mad Men-era setting, and great character actors doing what they do best.  The stellar cast includes Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins (with toupee) and Giovanni Ribisi.  Fans of Thompson and Depp will find the film particularly delightful.

Amber Heard and Johnny Depp

     The film opens with Kemp's arrival in Puerto Rico to work for a newspaper on the brink of going under.  It is a match made in heaven, as Kemp's propensity to overindulge in alcohol and parties has left him barely employable.  Neither Kemp, nor publisher Lotterman (Jenkins), have a lot of choice in the matter.
     A local real estate promoter (Eckhart) soon latches onto Kemp, believing that his money and Kemp's desperation will be enough to pimp Kemp's writing ability to push a huge multi-million dollar resort development.  Forced to sober up enough to do the job, and smitten by his new employer's girlfriend (Heard), Kemp begins to feel a bit dirty and eventually rebels, threatening to publicly expose the secret deal behind the development.
     There are a number of Thompson-like digressions along the way, including Kemp's first-time experiment with LSD, but there is a coherent story here and a lot of very entertaining characters to hold your attention.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Ties that Bind

Martha Marcy May Marlene                                              
by Mark Dispenza

     A young woman suffers the chilling aftermath of life as a member of an abusive sociopath's communal family in Martha Marcy May Marlene.
     The film opens with a young woman's escape from a communal farm in an undisclosed backwoods location in upstate New York.  Known to her real family as Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), and to members of the commune as Marcy May, she is frantic to get away and calls her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), to pick her up.  With their parents now dead, Lucy is Martha's only surviving family member.  Lucy has not heard from Martha in the two years since she ran off and disappeared without further contact.
     Happy to have her back, Lucy and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), take Martha into their home.  At first they are puzzled by her weird habits and strange way of speaking, but as she becomes increasingly paranoid and violent, they fear that she is becoming a danger to herself and everyone around her.
     The scenes of Martha's acclimation to normal life with Lucy and Ted are broken up with flashbacks to Martha's life on the commune as Marcy May.  At first she is happy to find herself in a new family headed by charismatic leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), but Patrick's love comes with a price.  He demands complete obedience to a code of his making, and of course, primarily to his benefit, and he is able to rationalize and justify every act of abuse and violence he commits. Things come to a head when Martha becomes party to a terrible crime, leading to her break with Patrick and frantic early morning escape.

John Hawkes & Elizabeth Olsen

     But has Martha really escaped?  She is deteriorating psychologically and imagines (or does she?) that members of Patrick's deranged family are watching her, ready to reclaim her at any moment.
     Writer-director Sean Durkin won Best Director at Sundance for this film, an impressive feat given that it's his first feature.  There is already Oscar buzz surrounding Durkin and star, Olsen, who effectively embodies the emotional complexity and deterioration of her character in a subtle and effective performance.  John Hawkes, who excels at playing complex characters who defy easy stereotype, makes Patrick both appealing and chilling.
     This is a complex psychological thriller, with a number of ambiguous story elements left to the interpretation of the audience.  That certainly won't make it attractive to the masses of the movie-going public, but if you like this kind of mind-bending, thought-provoking story, you're going to have a great time wrapping your brain around this one.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Just Because You're Paranoid...

Take Shelter                                                                                              
by Mark Dispenza

     That dreaded feeling you have that the world is teetering on the verge of socio-economic disaster is given cinematic form in Take Shelter, in which writer/director Jeff Nichols poses the question, "are you just letting irrational fear rule your mind, or do you really have something to worry about?"  And the answer is, to quote an old saying, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean there isn't someone out to get you. 
     Curtis, a working man and father played by Michael Shannon, finds his sleep disturbed by apocalyptic visions of the near future.  The persistence of the visions are powerful enough that he feels he must act on them.  He begins distancing himself from everyone except his young deaf daughter, whom he feels he must protect, and he starts to build a costly and elaborate underground shelter. 
     His wife, wonderfully played by Jessica Chastain, grows more and more worried, not only because they cannot afford the cost of the shelter and he is placing his job at risk, but because Curtis may be losing his mind.  He is now the same age as his mother when she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and committed to an institution, where she remains today. 

Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain

     At first Curtis tries to rein in his own excesses, and becomes unsure of himself to some degree, although not enough to put a stop to his apocalyptic preparations.  He takes sleeping pills to get through the night, but that only makes the visions bleed into daylight reality, and Curtis begins to have waking hallucinations. 
     This is a very well-made film, although frankly I found the story to be predictable and did not feel as caught up in the suspense some of my fellow audience members seemed to feel.  The pace of the story is very good and the visuals are masterful.  Take Shelter did very well among both critics and audience members at Cannes and Toronto, and two weeks ago it took home Best Feature at Zurich
     I have little doubt that the film will do well as it goes into wider release this month.  This is a masterful second feature from a young director who is hitting it out of the ballpark again, with the first time being the critically-acclaimed Shotgun Stories in 2007, which also starred Shannon.  The depth of character and realistic performances from actors Shannon and Chastain will keep you riveted to the screen. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

A New Evil Gets the Horror Treatment

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil                                                 
by Zac Sanford

     In Tucker & Dale vs Evil writer/director Eli Craig flips the backwoods horror film on its head, playing against the tropes that have plagued the genre for far too long.
     Just like with many horror films, a bunch of beautiful and sexy college co-eds are on their way to a weekend of camping in the woods. As they trek along the winding road the first big scare to our campers is that they are out of beer. They all scream, but at least it will be an easy fix. As they stop at the last gas station for miles, the annoying college kids stock up on beer and other libations.
     Before they can set off and arrive at their destination, Dale (Tyler Labine) sees and is instantly smitten by the beautiful Allison (Katrina Bowden). Tucker (Alan Tudyk) persuades Dale to go up and talk to her. His self-esteem may be low, but he's a lovable guy. Dale waddles his way up to the group, scythe in hand, and barely mumbles his words of passion.
     This is just the beginning of a string of misunderstandings by the "evil" college kids. With stereotypes and preconceived notions of hillbillies, they never give Tucker & Dale the benefit of the doubt. As they drink and partake in other illegal substances, Allison is "saved"' by Tucker & Dale, but with a slanted view on our heroes, the college co-eds led by Chad (Jesse Moss), go on a quest to save their friend.

     From here on the movie stretches a single joke through the remainder of the film. As each of the campers accidentally off themselves in ever increasing over-the-top situations, Tucker and Dale feel they must protect themselves. They see the kids on a suicide pact and must protect the lovable Allison from her friends, who want her dead.
     Any fan of the slasher genre should be able to appreciate first-time director Eli Craig, who does a great job of blocking shots to play off the notion of misunderstanding between Tucker and Dale and their evil counterparts. The film plays heavily on the tropes fans have grown to love and eventually bore of. And since you can't help but love the two leads, you have no problem cheering them on as they avoid the evil college co-eds.
     Tucker & Dale vs Evil is currently playing in limited release and can be viewed on many VOD platforms.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Five Must-See Indies Now on DVD

by Mark Dispenza

     As another season of film festivals and Oscar campaigns begins, it's time to catch up on the must-see indies you missed this past year.  The Toronto International Film Festival is now over, and we are officially in the rush to the 2012 Oscars, or closer to my heart, the Independent Spirit Awards.  New American indies will be out in force over the next few months, screening at top film festivals across the United States from AFI-Fest to Palm Springs, Sundance and Santa Barbara
     You probably saw the films that took the major awards in 2011--127 Hours, Black Swan and The Kids Are All Right, but chances are you missed some real gems that swept through your town like a tornado before you even knew they were in the neighborhood. 
     Looking over my top five list of "the other indies," I can't help but note that they all have the same recipe for great dramatic film--a powerful story, a director of unique vision and extraordinary insight, and a cast of talented actors who went the distance to create characters of unusual depth and complexity.  Available on DVD and your choice of download service, here are my favorite American independent films of the season past...

     Debra Granik's sensitive yet gritty, noirish journey into the impoverished world of the Ozark Mountains made then 17-year-old Jennifer Lawrence a star.  Supported by an ensemble of acclaimed performances, particularly by John Hawkes and Dale Dickey, Lawrence dominates the screen as Ree Dolly, a teen from a poor family in the Ozarks who must find her drug-dealing father before his bail is forfeit, causing the loss of the family home and putting Ree, her invalid mother and her two younger siblings out on the street.  The screenplay was adapted by Granik and Anne Rosellini from the novel by Daniel Woodrell.  Granik showed real genius in drawing audiences into this forgotten community within our own country by combining a core of top Hollywood talent with local cast and crew, giving the film an unusual feel of authenticity.  Maybe this wasn't the best film of 2010, but it was pretty darn close. 

     Chances are you avoided this film out of fear that it would take you to the depths of emotional despair.  After all, it's the story of a couple coping with the loss of their four-year-old son following a tragic auto accident.  But this is not a story that dwells on tragedy.  It's about the hard journey to recovery. Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play the traumatized couple, and Miles Teller plays the teenaged boy who was driving the car on the fateful day of the accident.  Several months after the tragedy the three are brought together again in the desperate search for elusive closure.  Director John Cameron Mitchell's beautiful visuals are a fitting frame for a wonderfully insightful story by David Lindsay-Abaire and an outstanding cast. 

     If you are a fan of actress Annette Bening and you missed this film, shame on you!  Largely lost in the massive marketing hoopla surrounding her appearance in The Kids Are All Right, this film showcased what I believe to be Bening's best performance of the year.  Written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, Mother and Child is the story of three women and their complicated relationships with children.  Bening plays a 50-year-old woman still unable to come to terms with the loss of the baby her parents forced her to give up following a teen pregnancy 35 years earlier.  Kerry Washington plays a barren woman who seeks to adopt a child of her own, and Naomi Watts plays a troubled young woman with a traumatic past who refuses to have a child.  The lives of all three come together at the end in a powerful climax that I won't spoil here.  Also noteworthy is a fine supporting performance by Jimmy Smts, who demonstrates that his acting talent is adjusting very well to middle age and a few more grey hairs. 

     In my humble opinion, Philip Seymour Hoffman's directorial debut was the best romance of the past year.  Written by Robert Glaudini, this is the story of working class love between two people who are not the typical beautiful couple that ordinarily lead Hollywood love stories.  Amy Ryan delivers the goods as the object of Hoffman's romantic interest.  This is a couple with real world challenges who discover that love is indeed transformative.  John Ortiz shines in a supporting role as the best friend whose own marriage is on the rocks.  This is a story about love at its best--freely given and unconditional. 

     It's become a foregone conclusion that any film starring Robert Duvall is worth seeing, and Get Low is no exception.  Supported by wonderful performances from co-stars Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray and Lucas Black, Duvall introduces us to the character of old hermit, Felix Bush, who one day shocks everyone by coming into town and arranging his own funeral--while he's still living.  Although the story opens with the type of curmudgeonly humor we've come to expect from Duvall and Murray, it eventually turns poignant.  It turns out that the funeral is an excuse for Bush to come clean about what really happened during the terrible tragedy years before that led to his exile.  Director Aaron Schneider's background as a cinematographer does much to enhance the look of the film.