Friday, June 20, 2014

Netflix Review: SUPERHERO

The 2011 HBO documentary, "Superheroes", is a fascinating film without actually being a particularly good documentary. Based on the title alone, one would likely assume they were about to watch a documentary centering around the comic book superhero culture and how it’s progressed to the giant empire it’s become today; However, that’s not what this is about. This is about superheroes in the “real world”. Real people who wear costumes and masks to fight crime.

From the opening moments, I was fascinated for all the wrong reasons. The moment the documentary begins, they show us a montage of comic strips, which is accompanied by voiceover from one of the many superheroes in the documentary, and they essentially tell the audience how they managed to corner a criminal and work harmoniously with the police department to jail the perp. Immediately before they’ve shown you a single shred of footage, they’ve already said, “Hey, being a superhero has worked.” The opening moments are almost an attempt to squash an argument or thought before the thought can be had.

This voiceover originates from the superhero who supposedly accomplished all this, which means you need to take every piece of information you receive from this documentary with a grain of salt. It may claim to be dealing with superheroes in reality but it romanticizes vigilantism in the same way that comics and superhero movies do. Later in the film during one particular hero's patrol through a park, the film reveals that one of the cameramen of the documentary has involved himself directly with the patrolling. As soon as this occurred, it became clear what direction this documentary wanted to take, and it became significantly less interesting for it.

It’s wonderful to see people giving out food or toiletries to the homeless, even if they are wearing kevlar body armor and a horrifying mask, but that’s the problem with this documentary; The closest they ever get to showing an “ugly” side to all this is during the times they show certain character’s living situations. One of the heroes lives in an extremely compact one bedroom apartment, which he makes feel that much more compact by hoarding random items. Every square foot is covered with everything from stacks of paper to bottles and spray cans. This same hero proceeds to show us his fighting skills against a rubber sculpted torso and it’s one of the few times the documentary starts to get at something. We watch this guy fight the sculpted man thoughtfully and then suddenly, as if forgetting the camera is present, lets loose a multitude of sloppy slaps, punches and eye gouges. It’s easily the most effective scene in the documentary and the final shot made me laugh quite a bit.

Unfortunately, majority of the documentary spends it’s time glorifying the exploits of these random people who are all seeking to somehow make a difference. It never becomes personal or intimate. When asked why they do what they do, almost every superhero explains that they are trying to put a stop to corruption, but like the protestors at occupy LA, they don’t quite seem to know exactly who or what they are fighting. The documentary shows them prevent people from driving drunk or selling drugs in the park but their answers when asked why they fight crime behind a mask are all juvenile. No one has a personal story, like their parents were murdered and they became an orphan; Everyone just seems to enjoy wearing a snazzy outfit and stopping people from being assholes. Another member admits to the superhero patrol being his only substitute for alcoholism, so for many of these people it's an escape from reality, not necessarily a stop to corruption.

There’s a group of around 9 individuals who roam the streets at night in their costumes, looking out for any trouble, and one of these men wears a black outfit underneath a piece of red armor. On this armor is a pentagram, the same one used for Satanic rituals, etc., accompanied by a mask that could easily haunt your dreams if there were red glowing eyes in the sockets. His name is Devil’s Knight. The other 9 people that Knight walks the streets with wear equally horrifying masks. In other words, imagine every member of Slipknot taking a leisurely stroll together at 2 am in full costume through the park and that’ll give you a good indication of how absolutely fucking terrifying these people can appear to be.

I can’t consider this a legitimately good documentary. I think it’s opinion of these guys and what they’re doing is extremely skewed in the hero’s favor and, as a result, it makes for a particularly boring second half when all they focus on is hero team-ups and their nightly exploits. The first half seems interested in finding out exactly what made their subjects tick but later on, they become preoccupied with how much good they’re doing. I think it’s also important to mention a specific superhero with the symbol, 'SH', on his chest; It literally stands for Super Hero. He wears a tight red shiny top and blue shorts that ride up past his knees. While all that may sound wonderful, he also drives a 1970s burgundy Corvette with his logo on the front and his license plate inscribed with: “SUPRHERO”. The most troubling aspect of this man’s entire outfit was the button clipped to his left breast: a yellow smiley face with a spot of blood. This is a symbol most of you will know from Watchmen and if you know the context and meaning that comes with the symbol, then you, like I, would probably feel uneasy if a man like Super Hero were patrolling your streets.

The final sequence encourages the audience to follow in these people's footsteps, and while one of them resides in New York City, these heroes don’t live in East Los Angeles or Compton; Most of them live in Central Florida, San Diego or Canada, so I can’t say the stakes are at exceedingly high levels where they're fighting crime but, then again, that's probably what will keep them from having their brains plastered on the pavement.


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Review: EDGE OF TOMORROW



EDGE OF TOMORROW may not itself represent the definitive summer blockbuster of our time but it does clearly define what an enjoyable summer blockbuster entails. With working filmmakers such as Michael Bay normally dominating the summer schedule, you forgive certain lacking aspects of the bigger-budgeted movies, whether it's nonsensical screenwriting or terrible performances or racist robots, you cope with these flaws. You, as a movie-goer, want to sit back and comfortably enjoy something that required a lot of time, money and resources to create.

More often than not, however, these flaws overwhelm the movie-going experience and ultimately refrain you from fully engaging with the story and characters. Believability can’t be restricted to how terrific your special effects look; It has to be established with how convincing your story and characters are, otherwise you’re left with a fairly numbing experience at the cinema. I enjoy Bay’s work for what it is and there are far worse filmmakers I could mention but his personality is as front and center as the stars of his movies, no matter what the content. While I consider Bay's films to be their own experiences, a big-budget studio film with a good old-fashioned well-told story without a superhero or a number after it's title is rare and missed these days.

Doug Liman’s EDGE OF TOMORROW is a welcome change-of-pace even though the nature of it's story is confounding. An officer (Tom Cruise) is demoted and forced to fight in the front lines of a massive invasion against an alien-threat without any formal training (he can’t even turn his safety off). During the invasion, Tom’s character manages to kill an elite member of the aliens, covering himself with the alien’s blue plasma-like blood, which gives Tom the ability to reset the day. Every single time Cruise’s character meets his demise, the day resets. The same circumstances surrounding your character’s death in a video game are essentially implemented in the story’s structure.

In a video game, you can restart the level and try again once you’ve died. Much like a video game, Tom makes different choices which have different outcomes, avoiding pitfalls that lead to his previous deaths and in the process, he improves his abilities as a fighter. However clever this story mechanism may be, I found that it provided me with the same apathy towards whatever video character I’m playing as it did towards all the characters in the movie. That isn't to say that the performances aren’t terrific across the board, because they are, but more so to make a comment on what it does to a person emotionally when they’ve watched the same person die over and over again. It’s brilliant in a way because by the film’s end it’s a subjective experience in that you feel as the characters do about death and their own lives, but at the same time, I noticed myself being less and less emotionally involved with the movie altogether. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy myself but I wasn’t emotionally compelled by the time it ended. To be honest, the moment I left that auditorium, I started forgetting about the movie, which brings me back to my earlier point.

EDGE OF TOMORROW isn't Oscar bait but it does represent the best kind of summer popcorn blockbuster; The moment it begins establishing the dire circumstances of the world the story is taking place in through believable, relevant imagery, there’s a warm feeling of comfort that sweeps over you; That’s the feeling of knowing you’re in good hands or hands that you’re okay with being in for the next two hours. That is what a summer blockbuster is all about: ultimate comfort and immersion. Not once during the film’s brisk two-hour runtime did something about the script or the performances or anything, really, distract me from the world and characters I was experiencing. And that is what I expect from a good summer blockbuster: two-hours of pure escapism, which is what Liman and crew have delivered with EDGE OF TOMORROW.

Doug Liman did his goddamn job.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Current Foster Progress: Lulu (Brown_Chi-mix)

May 19th, 2014.

Lulu is my tenth foster. She's easily the most frightened of the dogs I've cared for. She's a short brown Chi-mix (picture attached) who's almost always curled up in the corner of the room, napping. Her age is unknown to me but I'd guess she's about three or four. She has an underbite that favors the right side of her mouth; It's endearing. One of her ears is bent while the other is always erect.

Over time Lulu has come to look forward to activities like walks but approaching her is a different story entirely. Anyone, male or female, that approaches Lulu is instantly met with fear. The first objective Lulu accomplishes upon realizing that a human being is approaching her vicinity is search for the exits. I've managed to get her to warm up to me by lying on the ground and allowing her to cuddle but otherwise, she's generally a timid, anti-social little Chi who's clearly been through a lot.

One of the many scenarios I tend to force my new fosters through is being left with two new humans. I have two very close friends that live two apartments down and they don't own a pet, so it's the perfect opportunity for the foster to have an entirely different experience. The entire fostering experience is about gradually unleashing these scenarios upon the foster so that they can be equipped to deal with the real world and this one is especially important because I want my fosters to be social with not just other dogs, but other people too. According to my neighbors, Lulu responded quite well to being left alone with them. During her stay, she roamed around and played with my friends more so than she did when she was over here.

The fault primarily there lies within the presence of my own brown chi-dash mix, Leeloo. She's a hyper, dominant little year-and-a-half-old pup and not every foster that I have come through takes kindly to Leeloo. She likes to play constantly so she's great in the sense that she truly forces my fosters to be social with other dogs, however Lulu is a tough case. In the two weeks that I've had her she hasn't made as much progress as I'd hoped. She made a good amount the first four days or so but since then her progress has been stagnant. She still goes to the corner of the room everyday. She still has a tendency to pull on the leash every so often. She has a tendency to freak out during walks when she hears loud noises. There are many things Lulu has to work on before she's truly ready to be adopted.

I'm taking a vacation with the friends I mentioned earlier. Lulu is currently staying with a temp foster so if she isn't adopted before I get back then we'll see how she reacts when she sees me again.

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!