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.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Drinking Buddies

Friendship and Sex                         
by Mark Dispenza

Drinking Buddies is a very different kind of buddy film.  A genre that goes back to the beginning of cinematic history, the buddy film has been done almost every imaginable way.

We've had buddy cop films and buddy comedies.  We've even had bromances.  Although most have been from the male perspective, recently we've seen women get their due in films like Bridesmaids and The Heat.  But rarely do the sexual lines cross, and when they do we get When Harry Met Sally, which fulfills the accepted wisdom of mainstream society.  Men and women can't really be just friends.

Drinking Buddies is scheduled for theatrical release on August 23 but is currently available for advance screening on VOD from iTunes.  It's a slow weekend for good indie films if you've already seen Fruitvale Station and The Way, Way Back, so I took the advice of an online reviewer and stayed home to download Drinking Buddies.

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson

Set at a craft brewery in Chicago, the story follows Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), two coworkers who are inseparable, so close they can finish each other's sentences.  They eat lunch together; they tease each other relentlessly; they hang out with coworkers for a brew after work.

Kate is in a relationship with Chris (Ron Livingston). Luke is in the middle of a six-year relationship with Jill (Anna Kendrick), and the two are talking a lot more about marriage these days.  Although it's obvious that Kate and Luke care deeply about one another and are sensitive to the other's emotional states, they have never been intimate in the biblical sense of the term.

When Kate and Chris hit a relationship crisis, the sexual tension between Kate and Luke begins to heat up.  Her emotional state deteriorates, forcing a very concerned Luke to push the boundaries of intimacy to keep her from making stupid decisions, as she begins to take solace in drink and even casual sex with the boss.

Olivia Wilde and Ron Livingston

Drinking Buddies is billed as a romantic comedy, although I found it to be light on comedy.  The title of the film suggests slapstick or even raunchy laughs, but you won't find either here.  This is a definitely a fresh take on the buddy film genre, and it explores a subject that hasn't been addressed much at the movies - the concept that men and women can develop close friendships that don't lead to marriage or sexual intimacy.

I found the film to be on the light side in terms of entertainment, with the twist on the genre as the primary reason to recommend it.  It's definitely an actors' film, giving its cast ample opportunity to engage conversationally and emotionally, without the need to play against a green screen.  I feel that the film would have been more enjoyable if the filmmaker, Joe Swanberg, had written more effective dialogue for the cast instead of relying entirely on improvisation.  The lack of subtext in the actors' lines becomes apparent as the story unfolds.  This results in conversation that are just a cut above the uninteresting reality of on-the-nose dialogue, but not interesting enough to challenge the audience.

Jake Johnson and Anna Kendrick

Luke comes across as a man content with his life, and although he's certainly capable of making mistakes or letting his temper get the better of him, he's a level-headed sort who won't get into too much trouble.  On the other hand, it's clear from Kate's very first scene with boyfriend, Chris, that she hasn't found what she wants.  In fact she may be seeking escape from deep-seated emotional issues using alcohol and sex as enablers.  Her friendship with Luke may be the only thing keeping her grounded.

The accepted wisdom of society is that sex will always keep men and women from being true friends.  The apparent appeal of this film to younger reviewers may indicate that expectation is changing.  I've been fortunate to have very close female friends in my life, whom I love dearly and with whom I've never been sexually intimate.

I recognize that, like the friends of my own sex, there are mutual interests and viewpoints that connect us, but there are also differences that would lead to disaster if we crossed the line into the close quarters of day-to-day intimacy.  Sometimes addiction is the problem.  Sometimes we are temperamentally unsuited for prolonged regular contact, and sometimes we share a love of certain things but little interest or even patience with other interests.

The appeal of this film is a hopeful message that our capacity for love can grow to include a whole world beyond our own families and intimate partners.  In other words, love and friendship can be about more than just our own neediness and insecurity.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Fruitvale Station

A Life Unlived                               
by Mark Dispenza

Fruitvale Station is not your typical social justice film. Its message is not steeped in populist outrage, but is all the more effective in its subtle focus on promise unfulfilled.

Ryan Coogler could not have picked a better time to release his first feature, a story about a preventable tragedy that resulted from the escalation of violence.

Michael B. Jordan and Melonie Diaz

Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle) is stellar in his depiction of Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old man who was shot dead on New Year's Day 2009 by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer.  He and his friends were detained following a scuffle on one of the train cars.  Grant was unarmed and face-down on the ground when one of the officers inexplicably drew his pistol and fired a shot into the young man's back.  Doctors were unable to save him, and he died later that morning.

Witnesses on the packed commuter route recorded the scene on their cell phones, so there was never any question of what happened.  The officer later claimed that he intended to grab his Taser, but drew his gun by accident in the heat of the moment.  He was charged with first degree murder but convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months of a two-year sentence.

The public was outraged and the incident became a cause celebre for black activists and others who work in the cause of social justice.  It continues to resonate today.  Coogler's film concludes with footage from a vigil held this past year on the anniversary of the incident at the Fruitvale BART Station.

Octavia Spencer

Although the shooting incident is the climax of the film, the story shows little of its aftermath, especially the politics of it.  Instead it largely follows Grant for the 24 hours immediately preceding his death, treating the audience as voyeurs, witnesses who observe the action but are not led in any obvious direction.  I say "obvious" because this is not a documentary.  Coogler, who also wrote the script, has taken the liberties of a storyteller to frame Grant's life.  In using that approach he allows the audience to get to know Grant as a man, and not as anybody's political symbol.

The camera follows Grant as he alternately argues with and demonstrates his love for his girlfriend, his mother, his sister, his young daughter, and even his closest friends.  Octavia Spencer plays Grant's mother in a way that leaves no doubt she loves her son, even if she has to be tough on him at times. The audience is introduced to Grant as a man - imperfect, impetuous, temperamental, loyal, loving and struggling to make his way in a world that often stymies him.

Many of the best films have a scene in which the audience sees the hero in a  moment alone, safe from the intrusion and the judgement of others.  In that moment the hero's true character emerges.  There is such a moment in Fruitvale Station, when Grant encounters a stray dog.  The dog provides the opportunity to see Grant as he truly is, and it also serves as a metaphor for the tragedy to come.

Michael B. Jordan and Ariana Neal

Even though I watched the video of the incident at the Fruitvale BART Station, as did many others, I can't tell you what went on in the mind of the officer who shot Grant.  It's plausible that he did draw his pistol by mistake.  It's also plausible that in that moment, he reacted in the heat of his anger and fear, and whether consciously or not, he intended to fire that fatal shot.  Witnesses to the actual incident recalled his horror and emotional distress at the results of his action, as his rational mind caught up with his emotion.

And that brings us to the real cause of the tragedy.  Cool heads did not prevail on either side, and the incident was allowed to escalate until the unthinkable occurred.  The debate about the root cause of the tragedy will continue, with all sides claiming the exalted status of victim, and minds will become hardened and entrenched deeper in their opinions.

Each side will escalate and perpetuate the cycle of conflict, just as they do everywhere in the world today - nation against nation, race against race, religious sect against religious sect. We don't talk about the tragedy of what is being lost . Instead we selfishly seek status as the most aggrieved and then profess outrage when the others don't see it that way.

But when all is said and done, there is a hole in the world that Oscar Grant once occupied.  There is a daughter who will never again laugh and play and share secrets with her father.  There is a mother who lost her son, and there aren't many losses in this world equal to that.  Only a mother can cherish a child so deeply, despite all of the trials and tribulations he puts her trough.

There is a sister who will never again be able to depend on her brother to cover her own shortcomings, and a girlfriend who lost a cherished lover and will never know what happiness the future might have brought or what pain.

There are friends who will never again be able to count on him to have their back when times get rough, and there are strangers who will miss his everyday acts of kindness in days yet to come.

And that's the kind of conversation we should be having.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Europa Report

Into the Abyss                                  
by Mark Dispenza

With space exploration at low ebb in the USA, fans can reinvigorate the excitement of venturing into the unknown with Europa Report.

One of the few hard science fiction films to come along in recent years, Europa Report is a unique blend of science fiction with documentary-style filmmaking by Ecuadorian director Sebastian Cordero, a master of the contained psychological thriller.  The film was made by unabashed true believers in humankind's destiny to explore the universe and designed to appeal to fans of the films that inspired it, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010 and The Abyss.

Cordero and his director of photography, Enrique Chediak (127 Hours), positioned eight cameras inside a spacecraft mock-up to create the illusion of witnessing the live feed from an actual space mission.  The effect brought me back in time to my childhood, watching Walter Cronkite's coverage of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon.

Daniel Wu and Anamaria Rinca

The story revolves around a private enterprise space mission by Europa Ventures to send humans to explore the vast liquid ocean below the thick ice of Jupiter's large moon, Europa.  They hypothesize that there is some type of rudimentary life to be discovered there and assemble a crack team of the best astronauts from around the world to pull it off.

The mission is a long shot and fraught with peril, as once the crew covers the vast distance to Europa and achieve orbit, they will be called upon to land on top of the ice and drill beneath it to detect what is hidden below.

The dangers are obvious and the story doesn't miss any of them, borrowing a little too heavily from the films it pays tribute to, namely 2001, 2010 and even The Abyss, the latter of which doubtless inspired the edge-of-the-seat tension through much of the film.  

The lack of originality was my biggest problem with the story, but it was not enough to preclude my enjoyment of it or appreciation of its cinema verite approach to narrative.  I'm one of those space exploration fans who grew up with Star Trek, and with Hollywood going off the deep end of pushing the action and special effects envelope, I enjoyed the illusion that I was witnessing something that could truly happen at some point in the future.

Writer Phil Gelatt did a lot of research to inject reality into the storyline, including interviews with NASA scientists and engineers.  "One of my favorite moments in pre-production came out of a conversation with Steve Vance at JPL," he said.  "I asked him if a manned mission to Europa was possible today, and he said, 'Yeah, just give me a couple billion dollars.'  It was a reminder that many of our limitations are simply about a lack of will."

One of the other things I loved about this film was its embrace of a positive future for humanity.  The media loves to go for the ratings these days by concentrating on stories about hatred and killing among different ethnic groups and nationalities. I don't think there was a single member of the crew on this spaceship from the same country, and yet there was no tension at all based on their differences.  In fact, I cannot recall a single line of dialogue addressing which country a character hailed from or tension arising from the crew's diversity.  This is a crack team, and they have each other's back.

It also didn't hurt that the cast was assembled from some of the best actors from around the world, including Sharlto Copley (District 9) and Embeth Davidtz (The Amazing Spider-man) of South Africa, Michael Nyqvist of Sweden (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Karolina Wydra of Poland (Crazy, Stupid, Love) and Romanian Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) and Chinese-American Daniel Wu among others.

Europa Report is currently available in pre-release download from iTunes, and will be distributed theatrically beginning August 2. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Way, Way Back

Stuck in the Back Seat of Life               
by Zac Ryan

The Way, Way Back makes coming-of-age less traumatic and a whole lot more fun. 

Adults over a certain age may remember those old station wagons with the two front bucket seats and a row in the middle, and another row of seats in the back - the way back.  It's a spot typically relegated to the youngest member of the family, who is forced to sit facing the road behind him, seeing what has already passed, not what is yet to come.

When we first meet Duncan (Liam James), he's been relegated to the way back while his mother's (Toni Collette) new beau drives. Trent (Steve Carell) keeps a keen eye on Duncan, who doesn't make eye-contact with the man he loathes, the man who has stolen his mother's heart with his slimy used-car sales tactics. Trent thinks he's doing well, but when he asks Duncan how he would rate himself, "I don't know, a six", Trent quickly pipes back, "a three." It is crushing to be with a man who thinks so lowly of him. 

Steve Carell and Toni Collette

When the family arrives, they're quickly greeted by neighbor (and constantly tipsy), Betty (Allison Janney). She's got a mouth like a sailor and a sharp tongue that constantly berates her son and his lazy eye. She's an embarrassment to all who meet her, but she doesn't see it that way. This is her time away, and more importantly, she must host the best fourth of July party in town. While Betty tries pawning her visually-challenged son off on Duncan, he's more captivated by her blossoming daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). Yet he keeps his eyes to the ground and doesn't make a move.

Soon Duncan finds his escape at the local water park. After sneaking in through the employee entrance, Duncan is befriended by Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager and man-child of the establishment. He spins yarns about legends on the slides, flirts with Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), and never seems to do any work. But this is his home, a place for Owen and his friends to continue being children and never take responsibility in life  They return year-after-year and just can't move on to greener pastures. 

Liam James and AnnaSophia Robb

Owen takes a liking to Duncan and offers him his first job.  During his short tenure he quickly grows into his own personality. Duncan takes on his short-comings and his insecurities about girls, and finally makes moves, including standing up for himself and his mother.

The Way, Way Back isn't inventive and it feels familiar, sort of like the old station wagon, but it's the performances and connections that make this film a must-see.  Written by Oscar winners, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Descendents) in their directorial debut, the film delivers a potent mixture of comedy and drama, never feeling heavy-handed or too light. Liam James delivers a wonderful lead performance, propped up by a wonderful ensemble cast. In the end, Duncan and company are not a six, but closer to a 9.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Some Girl(s)

It's Really Not You                          
by Mark Dispenza

A smart story and outstanding cast make Some Girl(s) a bold exploration of relationship trauma.

The screenplay is written by Neil LaBute from his stage play of the same title.  Since he debuted with In the Company of Men, LaBute has established himself as a perceptive and no-holds-barred chronicler of the ugly side of human nature.  Perfect casting and the superior direction of Daisy von Scherler Mayer make Some Girl(s) a more accessible and entertaining story than it otherwise sounds.

This film is a bold experiment by Vimeo into the new paradigm of indie film distribution.  Unless you caught the film's premiere at South by Southwest in March, you're not likely to see it on the big screen unless you live in New York or Los Angeles.  In concert with its release this week in those limited markets, the film is available as a download from Vimeo on Demand, as the first major release of what the online video content provider hopes will be a very successful foray into the future of film distribution.

As big screens are increasingly reserved for Hollywood's mega-budget experience films, the last remaining outlet for indie films will be delivery directly to your electronic device or television.  I applaud Vimeo for the boldness of the move and what I believe is a fair pricing model for both producers and viewers - $5.00 for the streaming rental or $10.00 for the download.

Adam Brody is spot-on as Man, a character so shallow and commitment-phobic that he's not even given a name.  Boyishly handsome, he's the type of guy who sounds so earnest that he may actually believe the lies he tells.  His charm makes him likable in the early scenes, as he comes across as a well-meaning but immature klutz more than a villain.  But as the story progresses his character reverses the normal protagonist's arc, as he devolves in perception from harmless, narcissistic man-child to emotional marauder.  By the end you'll hope he gets run over by a car.

As the story begins Man is about to get married.  He contacts five women with whom he had intense relationships in the past, telling them that he feels the need to make amends for past wrongs before he can move on.  He arranges to travel to the cities where they now live and meet with them one last time.  However, as the story progresses it becomes obvious that his real purpose is less apology than repetition of a familiar pattern.  By the end of the story, I was gratified that this protagonist doesn't get what he wants from these women, but they are able to achieve a measure of closure and put a painful chapter of their lives behind them.  In a sense he does manage to do some good, despite the fact that it's not in the way that he intended.

Jennifer Morrison

The first rendezvous is played mostly for laughs, with Jennifer Morrison as Sam, Man's high school flame.  It's clear that she was badly hurt after he deserted her, but somehow she put it behind her and moved on with her life.  Now he's re-opened that wound, and she's puzzled as to why.  His repeated attempts to apologize keep turning into barbs directed against her, making the meeting more awkward and surreal by the minute.  By the end of the meeting, she's grateful just to make it out of the room.

Tyler (Mia Maestro) is Man's next stop. She is sexy and playful, enjoying life minute-by-minute and letting the chips fall where they may.  For her it's all about the experience and having fun with life.  She makes it seem that he's going to get off easy at this stop, but that's not really the case.  As the scene evolves to its conclusion, she reveals that she was badly hurt by his abandonment.  And now the fun's over.

Emily Watson

The story takes a more serious turn during the reunion with Lindsay (Emily Watson), the professor with whom he had an affair while a student at the college where her husband is dean.  The older woman/younger man relationship exploded after Man deserted her when their affair was publicly outed, leaving her to endure the subsequent humiliation alone.  It's clear from the start that Lindsay has been nursing a lot of anger over the years, and she has no intention of hiding it.  No small measure of that is clearly self-loathing.  She should have been wiser.

Even here it's possible to have some sympathy for the poor young man, clearly outmatched as he is by a far more intelligent and resourceful woman scorned.  Watson delivers what is arguably the strongest performance of the film.

Adam Brody and Zoe Kazan

From there the story descends into darker territory with Reggie (Zoe Kazan), little sister of Man's former best friend.  He was a bumbling hormone-crazed teen when he seduced Reggie.  She was only twelve years old.  Kazan is another example of perfect casting.  Even as an adult, she telegraphs a precocious quality that makes it difficult to separate the child from the woman.

This is a scene that sneaks up on you without warning, and it's all the more effective for doing so.  Mayer has reported that one of her crew, who suffered an experience much like Reggie's when she was young, was so affected by it that she had to leave the set while it was being shot.

Adam Brody and Kristen Bell

Finally Kristen Bell brings it all home as Bobbi, who more than any of his past loves is "the one" that he let slip away, or more accurately, deserted like all the others.  Like Lindsay and Reggie before her, Bobbi takes some delight in getting her revenge through psychological torture, all the more effective because she can play off of her status as one of identical twin sisters whom he cannot tell apart.  This is a more clever and less obvious device than it might first appear.  The significance of that physical attraction, and what it says about their relationship, continues to resonate after he leaves Bobbi, all the way through to the very last scene of the film.

I'm excited to see that Bell is still delivering great performances and continues to grow stronger as an artist.  Truth be told, I'm a big fan of her Veronica Mars TV series, and I'm excited about the feature film version currently in development, thanks to all of the show's fans who supported it on Kickstarter.  If you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor and rent the three seasons on Netflix.  It was one of the best-written series on TV, and if you come from my generation, you'll find it to be a smarter and more contemporary version of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew teen sleuth mysteries I loved to read when I was a child.

Although I give it my recommendation, Some Girl(s) is not a film that you'll want to come back to for subsequent viewings, unless you're an actor, director or writer.  In the latter case I particularly recommend viewing it for it's great casting, smart story and wonderful dialogue.  It's power comes from the first viewing, and it may hit a little too close to home to inspire a desire to visit it again.