Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Movie Review: MUD



There are filmmakers in this world that make their job look like cake. I consider Jeff Nichols among that rare breed of working directors who make the filmmaking craft seem effortless. Storytelling is clearly a natural ability for Nichols; Each new work proves him that much stronger of an auteur. The stories he chooses to tell are wholly unique, in that, the framework of each film is heavily grounded within a believable story with characters that feel absolutely authentic. But, in addition to that, there's always this tinge of whimsy, or playfulness that sneaks its way into his work, and 'Mud' may be Nichols' most illusive trick to date.

The film centers around two boys, Ellis (played by Tye Sheridan, TREE OF LIFE), and Neckbone, (played by Jacob Lofland) who frequently venture out to a secluded island together on their motor boat not far from their homes. The island contains an abandoned boat that's wedged high-up into a tree and the boys frequently visit this boat to hang out in. During one particular visit though, they discover a homeless man, simply named Mud (played by Matthew McConaughey), living in the boat now, and quickly liken to him. As the relationship between the three of them develops, the boys quickly discover the truth behind Mud's reasons for living in the abandoned boat and decide to assist him in his troubles.

What is with McConaughey lately? He truly has re-awakened. Like DALLAS BUYERS CLUB or THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, Matthew again astonishes. This isn't the same person I watched in SAHARA or FAILURE TO LAUNCH; This is someone else entirely. I didn't see a movie star going through the motions, I witnessed a terrific character being brought to life by an exceedingly gifted actor.

Matthew is wonderful from opening to closing frame and, if he wasn't already receiving recognition for DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, I'd be in arms over his performance being overlooked here. There's a particularly iconic moment later in the film that cements Matthew as one of the iconic actors of this generation. In the scene, Matthew's standing by a telephone pole waving to another character across the street and what his eyes communicate says everything the audience needs to know. It's that unspoken communication with the audience that you so rarely experience in a cinema and that moment is attributed to both Nichols' assured direction and McConaughey's masterful abilities.

Every performance, particularly from the two boys who befriend Mud, are note-perfect. Truly astonishing, more specifically, is the performance of Tye Sheridan as Ellis. While I'm a fan of Tye's previous work in TREE OF LIFE, I feel his acting chops are truly on display here. There's a scene early-on where Ellis defends a cute girl, which leads to his first date. Later in the film, however, Ellis experiences severe rejection from this same girl and when that pivotal moment occurs, he encapsulates everything that's painful about being rejected without saying a word. It nearly feels like having the experience for the first time yourself all over again!

Other cast members come to mind such as Ray McKinnon as Ellis' father, Senior, who genuinely creates a real person without falling prey to the distracting number of clich├ęs that could've sunk his character. Not only the writing, but the precision in his performance keep it from feeling old-hat. It's a rewarding performance. Michael Shannon, who plays Galen, Neckbone's uncle, has a brief but welcome appearance. His relationship with Neckbone showcases extremely sweet moments throughout. Galen keeps a sharp, protective eye on the boys; One wonderful moment particularly where Galen asks Neckbone to hang out with him while his friends and him play music together but when Neckbone declines, Galen mumbles, acting slightly hurt, "Whatever…" This moment precedes another moment where Galen warns Ellis not to involve his nephew in "anything he can't get him out of" and it isn't threatening in any way. Galen is simply protecting who he loves and it's refreshing to have Shannon as a warm presence in one of Jeff's films for a change!

If I could describe the experience of watching MUD in a singular word, it would be: butter. I can't recall a moment in the movie where the camera or lighting drew attention to itself. Or a showy line of dialog distracted from a scene. And despite the fact that you're watching Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey, arguably two of Hollywood's most beautiful working actors, portray characters in the deep south, you believe every moment of it.

MUD is butter, that's all I'm trying to say.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Money

It's not a coincidence. Degradation is profitable. There's no steady cash-flow in proper functionality. New vehicle models are ideal in this context. Their outside may improve in appearance as time progresses (although that's a matter of taste) but I fear internally the quality degrades significantly. There's no money in a motor vehicle that doesn't require frequent maintenance. I'm not well-informed within the world of motor vehicles and I won't pretend to be but, within this framework, there's something to be said about the nature of money and what it ultimately leads to.

Perhaps we should revert back to bartering. I watched a program on Netflix the other night with some friends that suggested this idea. It was called 'Extreme Cheapskate'. Each episode contained 3 to 4 segments focusing on individuals who were obsessed with saving money, often times, to a fault. This, of course, is American television, so that's putting it mildly. One of the segments in the episode centered around a skinny white flamboyant 25 year-old who would negotiate his way out of having to pay for a variety of things by doing tasks ranging from reciting poems aloud to performing hard labor.

I found the show insightful. You're initially judgmental. The man is wasting some people's time in line at a donut store, for example, when he's reciting a poem to the entire cafe and you immediately think him obnoxious and inconsiderate. But then my friend made a remark as the show cut to a shot of the skinny kid victoriously feasting on a white-powdered jelly donut and a cup of joe that he'd successfully apprehended for no cost:

"Hey, he's eating that for free... so fuck them."

He said this as the show displayed various b-roll footage of nosey spectators, no doubt talking about the show's subject and making the same judgements about him that I did upon first watching him barter. And my friend was right.

"Fuck them."

I wasn't in any position to judge. Nor was anyone else in the joint. He was sitting there eating the exact same product as the people around him and he was eating it for free. Because he worked for it. Although I found his efforts admirable, I couldn't imagine him having many friends. At least anyone who'd be willing to go out with him frequently. Regardless, this opened up an idea as a real possibility; The idea that we don't need money. Though it isn't a new idea obviously, it was nonetheless revelatory to witness the usage of old bartering techniques in a contemporary American setting. Like watching documentaries about diabetics or victims of cardiac arrest reversing their symptoms with strict, healthy diets, watching those different people improve their lives with hard work and clean living without the aid of pharmaceutical drugs was extraordinary in a similar fashion.

I was always under the impression that prescribed medication was a necessity but, in fact, I discovered they were more often a conduit for gradual, prolonged death. This isn't true in all cases obviously, but hospitals thrive financially on suffering. As I said, there's money in degradation. There's money to be made in your slow demise. Or your car's. Lots of it. And the vultures will come for everything you're worth. But my question is this: would the number of vultures diminish without the need for money as a means of survival? Would greed, in fact, dissipate along with money, if it were to vanish?

I don't know. Personally, I doubt it. But I do know this: there are gargantuan amounts of money to be made in fucking people over. And cousin, business is a boomin'.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Random Netflix Review: FRANCES HA

Greta Gerwig's an oddball but she manages to carry a considerable amount of presence on-screen. I'd have to see other roles (I haven't seen the Russell Brand-remake of ARTHUR, for instance) to judge her abilities in terms of variety but from what I've seen of her performance in Noah's previous effort, GREENBERG, and now this, I can safely say I've become quite the fan. Greta gives a whole-heartedly honest performance as the title character, Frances. When she's having to endure extremely awkward moments, which she herself is often to blame, we're experiencing every cringe-inducing second right along with her and that's a testament to Greta's abilities as an actress. It doesn't hurt that she seems to be a wonderful individual to be around, so it's impossible not to like her the moment she appears before your eyes.

The film's story is simple. It centers on a 27 year old aspiring dancer named Frances, who is forced to find herself other living accommodations when her best friend and roommate announces that she's moving in with her long-term boyfriend. Frances doesn't like the guy and she's clearly hurt. You can tell she really loved her roommate, Sofie, and had the utmost enthusiasm about renewing a lease with her to the point where I was wondering whether their relationship would escalate beyond a friendship.

There's no overriding plot or agenda here. We're simply following an ordinary girl who's trying to find her way in the world. We experience Frances' rejections and awkward experiences in equal measure and yet you're still completely in love with her. She's adorable but refuses to settle for anything less than what she wants. You find yourself admiring Frances all the more for her persistence in chasing her dreams as a dancer as well as her resistance to settling.

Various men pass through her life in the film but none of which she seems to share a genuine connection with. She meets a screenwriter while crashing on a friend's sofa and their interaction was so playful that I had instantly set up expectations as far as the outcome of these two character's relationship but it surprisingly doesn't have any of those romantic aspirations. Frances Ha adeptly handles human relationships and presents them in a very mature, adult-minded fashion that isn't judgmental about another characters decisions but rather inquisitive about it. We're trying to make sense of life as much as Frances is and, again, I think much of the film's ability to keep you attached lies in Greta's very honest, and real performance.

She gave a similarly frank performance in Noah's previous film, which I actually didn't enjoy for all the reasons that I enjoyed this. In GREENBERG, you dislike the title character portrayed by Ben Stiller. Or, at least, you aren't sure whether to like him or not. But Frances is enduring from the moment she's on screen.

Director of Photography Sam Levy's work is simple and effective. They shot this on Canon DSLRs and I'm relieved they opted for the black and white color palette. Having the monochromatic palette helps absorb you into Frances' world that much more. Clearly the film was made on a shoestring budget and a dolly probably wasn't always readily available but I'm glad for the final product as a result of the limitations. I think Sam chooses very simple and effective frames that don't need to be fancier than they are.

Noah shoots his scenes like a quiet observer in the corner of the room. There isn't much camera movement unless Frances herself is running amuck. The pacing of the edit is also very deliberate, a common trait amongst Baumbach films and another reason I look forward to seeing his work.

Often times, if Frances is speaking with someone at the dinner table for example, the camera would remain in a Medium Shot (waist-to-head) over the shoulder with Frances being the focus of the frame and whoever she was speaking with would fall out of focus in the foreground. The film wouldn't cover this bit of conversation in any traditional sense, meaning there isn't traditional coverage. Where in a Hollywood romantic comedy or anything with a budget, you'd have your wide, your two-shot and then cut between various single shots of your two characters. But here, the camera would remain on Frances, giving us time to study all her quirks and watch her squirm in moments of intense awkwardness.

I don't know if the lack of traditional coverage had to do with time and budget constraints but it works for the movie. Ultimately, it forces the filmmakers to trust their lead talent to carry the audience, and she successfully does just that. Everyone will come away with something different in regards to the meaning behind some of Frances' relationships in the film but most of us will agree that we enjoyed the hour and a half that we got to spend with Frances.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Immunity Project HIV/AIDS Vaccine

I found the non-profit group, The Immunity Project, through Reddit.com. For those unfamiliar with what Reddit.com is, it's a social media news site and the Immunity Project conducted what's known as an AMA, which stands for "Ask Me Anything". Select Immunity Project staff answered numerous questions prompted by random users and, after hearing what they were trying to achieve, I had to get involved. They're attempting to crowd fund an HIV/AIDS vaccine that they can distribute on a global scale for absolutely no cost to the patient. On top of that, the vaccine is administered through the nasal cavity, which forgoes any dangers concerning sterile needles, etc.

I've spent the better part of the last two years applying whatever skills I have to projects and production companies that have no meaning or value. Not all, but many and, while I appreciate that those jobs are what allows me to survive, as soon as I saw Immunity Project's goal, I saw it as an opportunity to apply what skills I had as a filmmaker to do some good. I shot and cut this short piece for them at the DiscoverMe conference in Beverly Hills in January. My hope is that this video will have some measure of effect on this wonderful group's ambitious goals.

Please take a look and I hope you enjoy!

New Foster Dog: Cici



Cici is a temperamental but extremely loving pure-bred Chihuahua. She's a mother of eight, who had her offspring taken from her and given up for adoption. When Cici was initially put in my care, she displayed highly aggressive behavior towards me specifically. The two volunteers who transported her, however, were both female and Cici reportedly had shown no signs of this aggressive behavior until she was given to me. Suffice to say, Cici and I didn't exactly hit it off from the outset.

She was biting at my hands the moment I motioned to gently pet her head and this aggressive behavior carried on for the first two days or so. I still have a few scabs from her biting actually! Once I felt confident that she'd calmed down, I brought her over to my neighbors apartment and the instant she was re-introduced to a female presence, she scuttled up to my best friend's girlfriend. I've had Cici for two weeks now and the cuddly nature that exudes from her in the presence of females, I'm thrilled to announce, is evident in the presence of males too.

As of now, the nipping and biting is non-existent and Cici has made a drastic improvement since I received her. She's eating regularly and consistently doing her business outside, but now we're working on getting her to be more social with other animals. At the moment, she's a grumpy old woman towards my playful year and a half old pup and she barks at very specific dogs, like yorkie's, but she's gradually making progress in that area as well.

If you have any interest in adopting Cici, you won't be disappointed. She has so much love to give.

Monday, November 11, 2013

THOR: THE DARK WORLD



You know that song on the radio (or Pandora or Spotify or whatever the hell it is you listen to) that doesn't make you feel or think of anything? You don't hate the song, and you don't love it; You could really care less if you do or don't ever hear it again. I'm talking about that song who's existence is meaningless outside of filling the void on your commute home until the song you want to hear plays. Today we're going to refer to that track as THOR: THE DARK WORLD.

I kept asking myself throughout the movie why I was watching what I was watching. From the opening frame it's as if the filmmaker's were telling the audience, "Hey, we're not here to rattle the cage too much, we're just going to play it by the numbers, so shut your brain off and enjoy the pretty computer-generated establishing shots." The opening of the movie proceeds to cram mountains of exposition down the audience's throat concerning our film's antagonist but none of it feels believable. It never has a moment to breathe. It all feels dutiful. There's no feeling in this movie except that it feels like the editors are going down a checklist.

These aren't movies anymore. Maybe the first IRON MAN was a movie, but THOR: THE DARK WORLD isn't a movie. It's a mediocre Saturday morning cartoon disguised as a feature-length film.

The film proceeds from setting up it's main villain to re-introducing us to Jane Foster, who's scouring the Earth to find Thor. Foster is played by Natalie Portman, who clearly doesn't give a rat's ass about anything of what's happening; Nor should she. They attempt to involve Foster into the plot by having her stumble onto a dark matter belonging to the film's central villain, Malekith, (who's played by Chris Ecceleston by the way, but it could've been anyone, and you wouldn't have noticed), and it somehow attaches itself to her. From everything I've told you thus far, you could probably accurately predict what is going to unfold for the remainder of the film's runtime. But, long story short, some angry dark elves that want to end the universe randomly show up, start a bunch of shenanigans and Thor has to fight them off.

The appeal of this movie confuses me. I felt almost no emotion the entire way through. There were maybe three moments scattered throughout this mess of a movie that elicited some kind of emotion but they were very few and far between. And even when you get the moment, the power of the moment is lessened by some uninspired narrative turn later on. I'm still trying to wrap my head around just how completely and utterly boring this movie was. Nothing happens. Nothing.

With AGENTS OF SHIELD, Marvel broke an enormous rule and, in so doing, took away the stakes. They brought back a character that had died and not only died, but died for a very important reason. I was afraid this trend would somehow continue because, after all, actor's contracts and salaries are far more important than telling a compelling story. Why should I care about anything that happens in these giant-sized 110 million dollar Saturday morning cartoons anymore? They don't mean anything. They don't even mean anything to the universe they take place in.

THOR: THE DARK WORLD didn't even have anything to say about it's lead protagonist or the world he lives in- nothing. Thor doesn't change; He's the same exact dude as he was at the beginning of THE AVENGERS. He was a complete bore from beginning to end. What am I talking about- everyone was boring in this movie. Even Idris Elba, who delivers probably the most thrilling bit of action in the whole film, seems completely bored out of his mind. The dude that watches the gate delivers more thrilling action than Thor ever does. Anthony Hopkins is terrible and obviously phoning it in. Rene Russo is just awful. Even Hiddleston doesn't seem on-point here.

Marvel is purely in the business of making money, clearly. They didn't make THOR: THE DARK WORLD for any other reason than to make money.

Everyone in this seems off. Disinterested. The scenes feel flat. The cinematography feels bland and lacking any sort of real energy. I wasn't a big fan of what they did with the first THOR in terms of photography but after experiencing this, I started to miss Branagh's dutch angles. The scenes between Loki and Thor or Thor and Odin or anyone, really, are sorely missing Branagh's touch. Branagh understood the emotional beats and transitions and how to deliver that dialog in a believable way to modern audiences… But Alan Taylor, I must say, has shown to be completely inept at it.

The word 'seamless' comes to mind when describing Taylor's transition from television to film. At times I felt like I was watching an episode of GAME OF THRONES and I don't mean that as a compliment. I'm talking about late GOT where there's an alarming number of scenes of people walking to places we don't know where and talking about really "important" things. The whole film left me as tired and bored as the people on screen… Looking back on THOR and comparing the cinematography to the sequel, I think I understand why Branagh made the choices that he did because this whole movie kinda felt like a giant, soulless commercial for a bigger movie.

I hate that my favorite bits in the film almost all involve cameos of other characters from other movies that have no importance to the central story that I came to the theater to see... And shit man, that sucks. I paid $11 for a trailer. It's a well-framed, poorly-scripted, blandly-acted, poor excuse of a feature film. I can't believe what I just watched could be considered a movie and what's worse, it's generally liked! I'm more in the minority here it seems but I thought this was blatantly bad. It isn't interesting... at all.

It is so boring.







Monday, November 4, 2013

12 YEARS A SLAVE



It's admittedly more fun to pick apart the negative aspects of a movie more so than it's positive ones. Writing negative reviews is a far more comfortable endeavor than writing about something that you unabashedly adore. It's easier to pick apart something you don't like because you're not emotionally stimulated by it. You aren't invested in a bad movie by the time it ends, but when you see a movie that you love, it's tough to find anything you don't like about it. It isn't dissimilar from being head-over-heels for a girl or guy; You think they're perfect and can do no wrong.

That's inherently the problem with Steve McQueen's 12 YEARS A SLAVE; There's nothing wrong with it and I can't foresee that opinion changing. I'm too close to the movie and too emotionally invested to form an adequate opinion about anything outside of how much I loved this film. This movie is pure magic as far as I'm concerned. Transportive from beginning to end.

It's difficult for me to delve into the review without it becoming another gush-fest amongst the multitude of glowing reviews already out there, but this was an experience. There are a number of shots that continue uncut for extended periods of time and it creates an incredibly visceral experience, in that, everything feels real. It's as if McQueen refuses to let his audience escape the harrowing nature of whatever situation is unfolding and this goes a considerable distance in making you believe that you are experiencing the life of a slave from 1841 to 1853. And yes, it is true. it isn't an easy film to sit through but it's so damn important that you do.

McQueen doesn't present the violence in a gratuitous manner. It just... is. That's the best way that I can describe it. McQueen doesn't shy away from revealing the kind of atrocities that a whip to the back can cause to a human being but he also doesn't show you this in massive close-ups over and over either. However, he does give you enough to justify the horrified reactions from the surrounding spectators. It makes it that much more involving and, therefore, harder and harder to endure.

The trailers had initially given me the impression that voiceover would play a role in moving the narrative along but thats definitely not the case and it's among the many reasons why I'm an enormous fan of McQueen's work. He is easily one of the best communicators that I've ever seen in film. In other words, I felt like I was I read a book that contained every thought the characters had but, McQueen delivers that information with almost no dialog required. He possesses a particularly unique ability to find the perfect harmony between performance and camera.

I've heard complaints regarding Fassbender's performance, with some describing it as over-the-top but, in my opinion, he puts in another stunning performance. The other big complaint is Brad Pitt. He has a bit part towards the end and, while I like his role, many, however, have reported being taken out of the movie due to his star presence. There's a little truth to that but that really isn't any fault of his own and he does a perfectly good job with the role. I don't necessarily put much stake in the Academy awards anymore or their pertinence over the quality of a film but if Chiwetel Ejiofor doesn't receive widespread recognition for his performance here as Solomon Northup then it will further institute my beliefs that the Academy awards or any such ceremony mean absolute dick. Then again, Michael Fassbender saw no recognition for his performance in McQueen's SHAME and I was saying these same words a few years back about that film.

McQueen is a master storyteller and he doesn't make films solely to pay the bills. Clearly this is a filmmaker with purpose. This is someone who has honed their skills in an impressive way and has chosen to tell stories that are important and that have something to say about the world we live in. Yes, Northup's story took place in the 1800s but McQueen's film presents this subject matter in such a way that makes it feel more relevant than I thought possible. If McQueen is worried about having done justice to Northup and his story, he should sleep easy.

This didn't feel like I was being given bullet-points of someone's history, but rather I felt I was experiencing Northup's journey right alongside him. It's the difference between reading historical facts and reading historical stories. Although the movie moved along at a tight pace and covered the twelves years that Northup spent in slavery aptly, it still took the time to have scenes of Northup during moments of reflection. The camera would stay on Ejiofor's face sometimes without cutting for extended periods of time and not for a moment did you think you were looking at Ejiofor, the actor- you were undoubtedly watching Solomon Northup take a moment of introspection from his harsh journey.

Ultimately, what I'm getting at is that I've seen slavery portrayed on film before many times and it's been done effectively but McQueen is among the few to truly make the audience feel it. The very last scene of the movie leaves a lasting impact that I'm still replaying in my head even now... The movie theater was a time machine tonight, pure and simple. Hell of a movie and easily my favorite so far this year.