7/29/2014

Blu-ray Review: Sabotage (2014)


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Since I’m usually so focused on the task at hand, typically there are only two reasons I’ll move my eyes from the screen to the clock when I’m viewing a film I’m planning to cover.

Obviously the first reason is the most relatable one of potential boredom as we can’t help but eye the watch on our wrist or the ticking clock on the wall to see not only how much time has gone by but also how much time we have left to endure.

But much more specific to the job – the second reason I find myself sneaking a peek at the advancing numbers on my TV, Blu-ray or computer display is to check the plot points, new inciting incidents, or other obvious remnants of the Syd Field lectured three-act formulaic screenwriting structure that’s been around for decades. For while a good film hooks you regardless, it’s amusing to see just how many writers still follow those age-old rules so closely that you can darn near predict what the clock will read before your eyes even leave the frame.


Every moviegoer can relate to the first conundrum of wondering (at least a few times in their lives) whether they should just walk out of a film or gamble that the boredom will subside. However, as someone who started out writing movies and enjoyed breaking down the expected narrative approach to creatively illustrate everything from the passing of time to employing a constantly shifting point of view (vs. using an extraneous character or overt exposition to tell us the exact same information), the second is a secreenwriter’s habit that I can’t seem to shake.

Yet although I’m normally very open-minded and wholeheartedly stand behind artistic freedom of expression, upon watching David Ayer’s Sabotage, I discovered a third reason to clockwatch.

An accurate title given the way that Ayer seems intent on purposely sabotaging his own film, Sabotage is filled with gruesome visuals that rub salt in the eye of the viewer as well as entire conversations comprised of profanity laced weirdly sexual verbal “dick measuring” where anatomically obsessed scatology and hyper masculine homophobia is king.

Needless to say, among other effects, the biggest impact of such a sabotaged sensory overload is that it overwhelms anything of importance that Ayer was trying to say as a writer as well as a director.


Bringing a script to life that must’ve been typed with venom rather than ink, I actually found myself losing a little respect for the talented cast members who gave in to the promise of a big payday instead of immediately walking right off the set.

Loud, vile, repugnant trash – Ayer managed to do the impossible in turning this ordinarily open-minded viewer into the “content police” wherein absolutely bored by the shots of excrement, disembowelments, and the degradation of its female characters, I began keeping a tally of how much excess Ayer and his co-writer Skip Woods could fit into the film in the margin of my notes.

Alarmingly, I lost track of tally marks within the first half hour and realized that if someone did the same and substituted a shot of liquor for each tally to turn it into a drinking game, they’d be in dire need of an emergency room by the time that Sabotage reached its halfway point.


And it’s a damn shame too for while a friend jumped ship within fifteen minutes and left me to fill her in, I found that against all odds (and their bizarre attempts at self-sabotage), Ayer and Woods had some truly clever twists in store that finally started to reveal themselves in a genuinely surprising penultimate showdown.

While otherwise bookended with revenge genre predictability, the twist before the finale illustrates how much potential Sabotage actually had as a police thriller that had been buried beneath the filthy rubble and squandered somewhere along the way from initial script to final cut.

Unfortunately as it stands, Training Day scribe Ayer’s Sabotage is a mind-numbingly misogynistic, misanthropic, uber-masculine mess. In what has become a through-line in Ayer’s oeuvre of cynical, corruption-heavy portraits of those along the thin blue line that live in a permanent state of gray, Sabotage once again makes every one of its characters seem like degenerate creeps while perpetuating an insulting law-enforcement stereotype that he’d at least started to change in his earlier End of Watch.

Yes, Watch was gritty but more importantly it was still humanistic as a grandly plotted ode to what it truly means to not only protect and serve but live with the constant stress level of adrenaline, caffeine, and the unknown waiting on the other end of each call.

Sadly, this film takes a thousand steps backwards not only simply in its portrayal of anti-heroic leads but mainly because those who populate Sabotage are nowhere near as realistically three-dimensional as the men and women of Watch.


Essentially walking cutouts that would be interchangeable if not for the talented stars embodying each role from Mireille Enos and Terrence Howard to Sam Worthington and Olivia Williams, the film revolves around ethically challenged, mostly militarily trained heavy-hitters who work for the DEA task force that’s run by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s angry widower Breacher Wharton.

After seeing his wife and son slaughtered before his eyes on the video that opens the film and sets the stage for the brutal battles that follow, the aptly named Breacher breaches the rules, ripping off ten million dollars in drug money with his loyal team of diehards after an undercover sting before the loot promptly disappears.

What could’ve been a taut heist film turned thriller as in the aftermath the members of the squad start losing their lives in a series of strange and shockingly graphic slaughters (driving a wedge into the depraved team as they wonder if one of their own is to blame) instead is shortchanged by its emphasis on all the wrong elements.


While one of the ultimate reveals is a humdinger of a misdirect, instead of keeping us on our toes with red-herrings and new revelations, Ayer and Woods are content to focus purely on the blood red attacks derived from the potential promise of green cash rather than a character driven plotline.

Hindered by wooden line reads from Schwarzenegger and a dubiously crafted character for Williams, the chemistry between the two is so embarrassingly absent that Sabotage’s editor Dody Dorn simply cuts a scene in half rather than even attempt to see them romantically connect on a human vs. hardass level.

When you couple this with the men’s insistence to turn Enos into a bizarrely forceful sexual aggressor along with their overreliance on forced locker room talk to establish male camaraderie, Sabotage comes off like a secretly closeted gay guy who laughs a little too loudly at his own juvenile homophobic jokes. And indeed, from Arnold Schwarzenegger's phallic cigar to the boyish haircut of his love interest, it's a borderline parody of Top Gun proportions.


A film that’s better off ignored in favor of watching the minutes tick by on your wristwatch, Ayer’s one-trick Training Day shtick has grown old after a decade of retreads like this work which couldn’t look murkier if the film was actually dragged through the mud.

Instead of Sabotage, opt for another viewing of Ayer’s End of Watch to appreciate the level of talent he is capable of and then follow it up with an old classic work of Film Noir's heist subgenre from those who did it right in The Asphalt Jungle or The Killing or go on a French crime spree with Rififi or Bob Le Flambeur.

Ultimately spending more time to study the good and less time looking at something this bad will then inspire you to contemplate just how good Sabotage could’ve been with a much stronger script.

And rather than continue the sabotage by mindlessly manufacturing more of the same, I can only hope the otherwise gifted Ayer will look to past filmmakers for inspiration instead of focusing only on the films of his own past in order break new ground.

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Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

7/28/2014

Blu-ray Review: Blue Ruin (2013)


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He may be working in the overcrowded genre of revenge but Jeremy Saulnier has us from the first frame of his remarkable Blue Ruin.

It’s the little touches that make all the difference, which is evident early on given the film’s opening sequence and the way it establishes a tonal motif Kieslowski-style with the clever placement of blue objects that help foreshadow the mood of the story that's about to unfold.

With a state of heightened realism, the emphasis on blue seems nearly accidental – so much that it might go unnoticed to the average eye but the cumulative effect reaches a fever pitch once we see the blue tarp over the car that our antihero will take on his journey of revenge.


Likewise, the little touches are what make Ruin stay with you long after it's evolved from a simple tale of vengeance into something far more complex altogether.

Namely, it's in a pitch perfect ending that the film comes full circle by harking back to a scene in the first act that most editors would’ve been tempted to leave on the cutting room floor since the action it covers is referenced in the dialogue (making it "repeated information" and as such, normally the first to get axed).

Yet because it comes back later, the effect is lyrical and heartbreaking in Saulnier’s taut, efficient work where not only is no shot wasted but Blue Ruin is that rare production that only grows stronger with each passing moment, regardless of the fact that he’s working in the revenge genre where thrills are expected.

An economically executed yet organically intricate sophomore effort from the writer/director, upon its debut as part of 2013’s Cannes Film Festival Director’s Fortnight series, it received the FIPRESCI Prize that helped launch a word-of-mouth campaign that spread like wildfire up through its official 2014 release.

Now available to own on disc and demand one year after Cannes, Saulnier’s Ruin is as silent and driven as its nearly silent antiheroic lead (played by Macon Blair) who’s driven to avenge the murders of his parents upon learning that their killer copped a plea and will be released from prison early.


As darkly violent as it is, Ruin is also surprisingly beautifully both due to the film’s naturalistic cinematography (such a priority given the filmmaker’s extensive background working in that field that he lensed Ruin himself) as well as its embrace of simple, straightforward storytelling.

With the thematically similar, strong undercurrent running through the work which brings the truth behind the sins of the fathers that are inherited by his sons to the forefront, Ruin is reminiscent in heart, soul, blood and spirit to Shotgun Stories.

One of the most mesmerizing homespun revenge tales I’ve seen since Stories (which was the 2007 feature filmmaking debut of Jeff Nichols), I only hope that Saulnier will be as productive and prolific as Nichols in what I expect will be a promising future.

Although Blue Ruin is a distinctly American thriller that would make for a fitting selection to play in a festival program alongside not only Stories but also fellow bare-bones efforts including Sling Blade, Frozen River, and Winter’s Bone, Ruin would also be right at home in a double bill opposite Walter Salles’s underrated cautionary tale about generational grudges via 2001’s Brazilian period production Behind the Sun.

Of course, there’s certainly no shortage of sagas surrounding the younger generation’s efforts to alter the sins of the past with more permanent measures in the present in what from a narrative standpoint owes a lot to literary tragedies whether Biblical, Greek or Shakespearean.


Nonetheless, Ruin essentially plays best as a modern day western about a mostly silent man (who might as well have no name), setting out first on the offensive attack. It's only after the first body falls that he realizes there's no such thing as blood simple, since all two wrongs do is lead to a nasty ricochet that creates a new war with multiple targets as history repeats itself once again.

Featuring a standout turn by Blair who must convey so much with a mere look or gesture, Saulnier allows us to go along with him in the passenger seat on what we fear will most likely be a one-way trip.

Even more impressive for choosing not to drag out the moment of collision and inevitable confrontation, Saulnier holds the camera close as the messily brutal, frightening first kill goes down in the first act without fanfare, effect or musical applause.


While most would’ve emphasized the event with a musical counterpoint or given his antihero a speech to read, the filmmaker knows there’s nothing uplifting about this moment and he opts to focus on the ugly grit versus glamorizing the action like a music video with slow motion cinematography, an operatic refrain, or John Woo's white doves. And by daring to play his hand so early on, we realize that Ruin has much more up its sleeve than a Charles Bronson-like Death Wish fight.

Discovering one of many twists that follow, Saulnier turns Ruin into something that tests the very definition of revenge movie.

On what becomes a personal quest, Blair comes face-to-face with the people from his past who’d all left him for dead, learning the hard way that you can’t go home again… even if you’re already there.


With a terrific supporting role by Devin Ratray as a veteran who lives alone on land he protects with a rather large collection of guns, Ruin invites you to speculate on the dynamic and personalities of the two former friends – both whose “history of violence” has shaped into the outsiders they’ve now become.

From the blue objects in the beginning of the film to scenes that build tension precisely because of what isn’t shown rather than what is, there’s much more to the people, pervading themes, and main plot-line that populate this successfully funded Kickstarter  picture than what initially meets the eye.

A modern day western tragic Noir with a bit of the Southern Gothic literary tradition tossed in despite the fact that it’s set in the Northeast, much like a dish of revenge best served cold (that has become as American as baseball, Fourth of July, and apple pie), this satisfying multilayered cinematic slice from Saulnier will definitely have you going back for seconds.


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Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

7/18/2014

Movie Review: Northern Light (2013)


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Like an object in the rearview mirror that might be closer than it appears or the blurry image you don’t recognize as an obstacle until your snowmobile is only a half a mile away, initially Northern Light tricks you into thinking it’s one film before a few miles and thirty minutes go by onscreen and you realize that it’s something different altogether.

Centered around three hardworking families in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula who live and breathe snowmobile racing and put their heart and soul into preparing for each annual competitive season, Northern Light may be described as a sports documentary but it has less to do with sleds flying around in circles on a frozen lake than it does with bringing us into the everyday lives of the people who call the community home.

A true "window on the world" observational documentary in every sense of the word, the American studies infused slice-of-life has an old-fashioned Albert and David Maysles or Barbara Kopple inspired home movie feel to Light that both helps and hinders what is essentially a work of cultural anthropology masquerading as a competitive nonfiction film.


Needless to say, for those uninitiated in the experimental filmmaking style, the absence of formal introductions to our subjects (including everything from names to character relation), lack of traditional interviews, or even a race-centered structure does take some getting used to.

And even for those of us who’ve seen our fair share of observational works (from the post-Italian neorealist movement that picked up momentum in the ‘50s and ‘60s), even though we find ourselves easily lost in cameraman/director Nick Bentgen’s lush, naturalist cinematography, we have a hard time getting into the rhythm of the opaque Light because of its confusing structure.


Thus we're left using context clues and guesswork to try and figure out just who the film is intending to focus on and what subtextual points (if any) that Bentgen and producer plus credited co-director Lisa Kjerulff are trying to make with the juxtaposition of Yoonha Park’s intriguing edits.

With the exception of, say, D.A. Pennebaker’s controversial Don’t Look Back, traditionally this nonfiction subgenre attempts to paint as objective of a picture as possible before incorporating only the bare minimum of artistic interpretation in the post-production process.


And in addition to Park's intriguing post-discussion worthy edits, the partially Kickstarter funded production (newly released on DVD) boasts a tremendous orchestral score from Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi.

Of course, observational filmmaking is a quite stylistically different from some of the subjectively analytic investigative documentaries that have become particularly popular in the last three decades with journalist helmers such as Michael Moore, Errol Morris, Morgan Spurlock and others using the medium to inform as well as inspire action and change.

And although I appreciate the director’s observational anthropological approach to the Upper Peninsula, there are some vastly more fascinating narratives left unexplored by Light’s method than the snowmobile related through-line allows.


For example, the film touches on but never truly delves into issues of economic hardship, child welfare, governmental assistance, gender dynamics, and more to create a surface level tapestry of what could’ve potentially been a much deeper film.

Refreshingly humanistic and unapologetic, the filmmakers challenge stereotypes by leaving in some of the saltier conversations of Light’s subjects that are occasionally sprinkled with homophobia and racism while relishing in the complexities of its characters by showing all sides of their personalities.


At its best when it celebrates the everyday heroism of the film’s quietest and most easily overlooked characters, Light’s generosity of spirit is on full display when we encounter a hardworking mother struggling to complete her GED, a caring couple who takes in their daughter’s friend to save her from an abusive situation despite their own limited resources, as well as youngsters who dare to dream.

Unfortunately with so much footage captured over the two year production, there are a lot of small vignettes that get lost in the shuffle of the film that meanders more than it creates a completely complementary mosaic.


From characters we wish we could’ve seen more of including a young boy who wants to become a dancer along with a number of contrasts between the genders and a complicated dynamic between a young couple that are in full support of one another’s (non-snowmobile) dreams, moving moments of life beyond the periphery sneak into frame every so often and leave much too quickly.

One of the purest examples of observational documentary filmmaking served up since its heyday, while it doesn’t glide nearly as easily as one of the snowmobiles seen far too fleetingly in a film that’s purported to be centered around racing season, Northern Light nonetheless burns bright as a moving anthropological portrait of small town American life.

 

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Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

7/17/2014

Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: All That Heaven Allows (1955)




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“In Douglas Sirk’s movies, the women think. I haven’t noticed that with any other director. With any. Usually the women just react, do the things women do, and here they actually think. That’s something you’ve got to see. It’s wonderful to see a woman thinking. That gives you hope. Honest.” 
– Rainer Werner Fassbinder is quoted as writing these words in an excerpted essay on Douglas Sirk (originally published in the February 1971 issue of Fernsehen und Film) that’s been translated from German and reprinted in this luscious new high definition collection of what very well might be the filmmaker’s strongest yet most deceptively simple masterpiece All That Heaven Allows.


Arriving in theaters in 1955, Heaven was sandwiched in between the releases of his sudsy smash hit remake of Magnificent Obsession (which also starred Heaven leads Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson) and his technically audacious epic soap Written on the Wind.

On the surface Heaven might seem anticlimactic (even underwhelming) due to its lack of a far-out twist or high concept hook as utilized in the other two films.

But in retrospect, it's his emotionally purest and likewise most relatable picture in a prolific 1950s run that would later include the '59 remake that closed out his string of hits by way of Imitation of Life's remarkably bold, racially complex meditation on mothers and daughters.

And long before Robert Redford studied suburban dysfunction in Ordinary People and Sam Mendes did the same with the Alan Ball penned satire American Beauty, Sirk took a very different approach.


Instead of fixating on the point-of-view of sensitive teenagers as they did in the two later Oscar winners and continue to do so today in contemporary Hollywood to sell tickets, Sirk centered his oeuvre on middle-aged-women who had yet to be given an authentic, intelligent cinematic voice or identifiable screen representation.

Usually relegated to serving as the supportive “yes” (wo)men to their gray flannel suited husbands or doting after children like June Cleaver on the small screen, Sirk’s films put women front and center for the first time since World War II saw a rise in Bette Davis-stylized women’s weepies or Barbara Stanwyck Noir.

Critiqued and dismissed at the time as a merely sentimental director of “women’s pictures,” even Sirk was once quoted as philosophically saying that art was close to trash.

Nonetheless, his previously overlooked works have been reassessed in new light decades later by legions of fans (including film buffs, filmmakers, and feminists alike) that are now able to see with repeat viewings just how much Sirk packed into his picture perfect frames and emotionally charged mise-en-scenes.


Revered by everyone from Woo to Haynes (whose gorgeous Far From Heaven is a Sirkian love letter of epic proportions), even Martin Scorsese dedicated a number of fascinating show-and-tell breakdowns of Sirk’s ‘50s era Universal Pictures in his film-school like DVD miniseries A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.

It was in Scorsese’s documentary that I was first introduced to Sirk’s ability to layer each one of the twenty-four frames that comprised a second’s worth of screen-time with sophisticated subtext so that it would hit the viewer on an intellectual, emotional and intuitive level simultaneously.

Sirk’s painterly usage of light and shadow along with his masterly understanding of frame composition invites you to hit the freeze frame (and step-by-step) buttons on your remote again and again, pulling any shot out to evaluate it like an illustration in a storybook or a work of art in a museum that adds to the film’s overall meaning.


In fact, Sirk’s ability to make viewers think right along with his female characters is so legendary that the Criterion Collection has been honoring his work for over a decade. Therefore, in preparation for this review, I took a look back at Criterion’s recent Magnificent release.

Two of Obsession's most dazzling extras took us behind-the-scenes where acclaimed female helmers Kathryn Bigelow and Allison Anders both offered unique perspectives of the man that once again celebrated the impact he had on giving women a voice in an era where very few women were in any kind of position of power to impact Hollywood filmmaking.

Serving up personal and academic observations that widen our appreciation of Sirk’s body of work in two interviews that are well-worth watching, one quote referenced by Bigelow helped sum up the Sirk's technical perfection.


The top director at Universal at the time, although Sirk understood that Hollywood required a happy ending, he was insistent that the studio would not interfere with his camera or his cuts as Laura Mulvey’s Heaven essay reveals.

Yet according to Bigelow, he took it further in his belief that “the angles are the director’s thoughts. The lighting is his philosophy,” and that’s exactly what comes through in all of his films.

But perhaps due to its lack of a showy plot or gimmicky hook, this is particularly apt with regard to Heaven, which tells the story of a lonely widow (Wyman) who falls in love with the much younger Emerson/Thoreau incarnate gardener and tree grower named Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson).


Kirby is perhaps not too much older than her two spoiled, insufferably solipsistic college-aged children that consist of a pre-feminist Freudian-focused female psych student (who grows compassionate to her mother’s plight far too late) as well as her Oedipal minded older brother who’d much rather his mom marry an old fuddy-dud friend of their deceased father than be passionately in love.

While age is never that much of an overt issue as it undoubtedly would be in a modern movie (thanks to the abhorrently sexist hot-button slang terms of MILFs and cougars), Sirk builds up conflict in clever framing including his favored motif of objects and mirrors as barriers to help divide a person and signify the choices they’re facing.

(Note: It's a method that Antonioni utilized five years later and it's an intriguing coincidence that his 1962 film L'eclisse arrived on Criterion Blu-ray on the exact same day that Heaven did as well.)


Instead of age – conformity of ‘50s suburbia is the main wedge that threatens to split Heaven's couple apart as Wyman’s compassionate Cary is damn near ostracized by the entire town of gossiping women and philandering men who want to punish her for trying to break away from the cold (even in springtime) air of main street U.S.A.

Adding in another intertextual layer, Cary's children opt to get their mother a television set as a sort of human surrogate offering comfort for the lonely citizens of the world.

In addition to arguing for the Walden’s Pond like purity of life with Ron Kirby over this artificial world of small town judgment and keeping up with the Joneses that haunts Cary, the fact that this luscious widescreen Cinemascope film depicts television as a tiny box of phony punishment serves a dual purpose.

Though it means one thing on the screen, subversively it informs audiences that when they do seek out entertainment, there is only one true dream factory as you certainly aren’t going to see Sirkian worlds of Magnificent technicolor artistry on your 1955 black and white living room television.


Of course, to be fair even sixty years of endless homage (from Tarantino to Wong Kar Wai) later, there’s still no substitute for the sensory overload found in a subtextual soapy Sirkian portrait of American beauty.

Undoubtedly influenced by his European background along with his love for the woman with whom he fled Germany to keep safe – more than just float gracefully from room to room, Sirk’s women think, feel, and invite you to do the same as evidenced in this newest celebration of his 1955 exploration of love, life, and the pursuit of Heavenly happiness here on Earth.

   

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Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

7/16/2014

DVD Review: So This Is New York (1948)


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Sardonic satirical version of the novel The Big Town from F. Scott Fitzgerald friend and witty scribe Ring Lardner that was tailor made to play up the acerbic wit of radio humorist Henry Morgan in his feature film debut, So This Is New York is best appreciated for the cross-section of talent that collided in what is an otherwise experimentally uneven picture.

The cinematic brainchild of ambitious newcomer producer (and future director) Stanley Kramer and soon-to-be-blacklisted future High Noon and Bridge on the River Kwai scripter Carl Foreman (who adapted Town alongside Herbert Baker), New York marked the feature-length debut of Richard Fleischer who was unafraid to employ adventurous techniques in his first time at the helm.


Although the decision to serve up subtitled translations of New Yorker “dialect” for its Midwestern out-of-town characters was modern for the time, perhaps the most inventive contribution Fleischer made was as an early pioneer of extended freeze frames in what can arguably be considered a mainstream Avant-garde work.

In addition to trying to find new opportunities to convey information and punctuate Morgan’s humor, the extended freeze frame technique offered his lead a chance to riff as a comedic narrator similar to the way that audiences had gotten used to hearing him over the air on the radio (before Morgan would subsequently embark on a career in television).

Though Fleischer took each approach merely to the tip of the iceberg, later more New York filmmakers like Woody Allen in Annie Hall and Martin Scorsese in Goodfellas would really break the ice and explore what both methods could do, turning them into an art-form to read a character’s internal thoughts in Hall and contrast visual and auditory information in Goodfellas.

Overall as it stands, there’s not much to take away from the rather episodic narrative structure of the film designed to appeal to the same viewers who appreciated the sweet and sour flavor on display in Preston Sturges’s sophisticated comedies. And while the energetic cast tries their hardest, the sitcom-like feel of a pre-sitcom era script is ultimately to blame.




New York tells a comedic fish-out-of-water tale about Midwesterners who venture to the Big Apple only to discover that the grass is greener back home in Indiana where life moved at a slower speed and everybody wasn’t out to hustle them for a quick buck from horse-race fixers to a comedian looking for a foolish investor to back his dramatic Broadway debut.

Hoping to keep an eye on his scheming wife (Virginia Grey), Morgan travels along as a chaperone when, following their inheritance from a recently deceased relative, his wife decides they’re going to head to the hustle and bustle of the big city in order to find a rich cultured husband for her newly rich, beautiful younger sister (Donna Drake).

Unwilling to let her sister marry the loyal but unexciting Indiana beau pining away for her back home, the women soldier on as Morgan schemes on his own, trying to keep them from losing every cent until predictably they do just that.

Repetitive and formulaic, each new incident in New York is strung together like a different short story rather than a new chapter from the same book.

And while it’s entertaining enough for a lazy afternoon, despite its auspicious and technically creative merits it’s best remembered more as an early stepping stone taken by the cast and crew to get to the next phase of their career (which is par for the course of the theme of this grass-is-always-greener comedy).


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Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

Movie Review: Underwater Dreams (2014)


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In his book On Directing Film, David Mamet sings the virtues of the Kiss method, which he explains stands for “keep it simple, stupid.”

Stressing that the most natural and straightforward approach you can use to convey whatever it is you’re trying to say trumps overcomplicating matters every time, Mamet takes Kiss to heart as one of the most important rules he follows whether he’s crafting a script on the page or bringing it to life on the screen.

And even though he was referring to film, Mamet’s philosophy can extend to any number of fields. How many times have we struggled to do things the hard way only to realize that instead of taxing our brain, the best and most practical solution was the simplest one all along?

In a way, it’s similar to any number of adages that we’ve heard (regardless of culture or background), including that old test-taking theory to always trust your gut rather than second guess yourself into an error.

And in documentary filmmaker Mary Mazzio’s uplifting underwater underdog story Underwater Dreams, she chronicles the role that real world problem solving can play in making people without the access to “out of the box” supplies use “inside of the box” tools in completely unexpected ways.


Recounting the stunning victory of students at Arizona’s Carl Hayden Community High School who beat out the legendarily complicated thinkers at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities via Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in a 2004 underwater robotics competition sponsored by NASA and the Office of Naval Research, Mazzio celebrates the differences that translated to strengths which set them apart.

In a series of highly entertaining interviews, we discover that it’s this elegantly simple thought process – the result of necessity regarding their limited resources and the strength of their background as students that have to think on their feet multiple times a day to make lightning fast yet effective decisions – that helped give the underdog team the edge of unparalleled success.

Using PVC pipe in primary colors purchased on a budget at Home Depot and a whole lot of pungent pipe glue that – when mixed with the Phoenix sunshine and a small enclosed space – inspired the four boys on the team to call their robot that could “Stinky,” the group managed to do the unthinkable.


A school where 92% of students live below the poverty line and most have memories of crossing the border with parents in search of a better life and a brighter future, the students who joined the (then) fledgling robotics club were cheered on the whole way by two dedicated teachers.

In doing so, they managed to achieve dreams most in the area (including some parents with mere grade school educations) never thought possible. And this is doubly impressive when you consider that in addition to not having access to a body of water in their desert location, they built Stinky on an estimated $800 budget vs. the Exxon and big name sponsored state-of-the-art vehicle produced by MIT.

Recounting the incredible journey from the inception of the club all the way up through present day to follow the path taken by the students who won the competition that their ambitious teacher advisers entered simply on a whim for the experience, Mazzio has created a passionate, gripping and at times heartbreaking tale of highs and lows.

Intriguingly contrasting the path taken by the talented students at MIT in her chatty interview-heavy feature, Mazzio’s real thesis is soon revealed in the final act while the socioeconomic differences and the opportunities for the bright Carl Hayden students are cut short after a proposition passed in Arizona to cut off funding to illegal immigrants seeking higher education.


Impressively keeping her focus even when Underwater veers away from the narrative of the competition to channel the difference a decade can make, Mazzio works in humanistic advocacy while always steering it back to the students of the school as opposed to taking the film in an overly political direction.

With the burgeoning marine biology department and underwater robotics team now flourishing with a new generation of gifted thinkers who dream of futures in a wide variety of scientific fields, we’re also shown the flipside to that reality thanks to an increasingly hostile and reactionary political climate that’s incongruous to the academic growth and goals of Carl Hayden’s best and brightest.

A timely documentary, while Mazzio’s movie is especially topical in my adopted state of Arizona, it’s likewise important throughout the country given the rare access viewers have to these socioeconomic, sociopolitical narratives that might encourage advocacy, involvement, more teachers, and social change in other regions.


While Dreams begins with a simple hook to reel us in, it definitely stimulates thought on a deeper level by the end.

A great companion to other similarly themed next-generation competition and education-centric documentaries including Mad Hot Ballroom and Spellbound, Underwater is a cautiously optimistic portrait sure to inspire and influence as well as grow into a greater word-of-mouth hit as more people track it down.

A moving work with so much to say in its succinct running time and one where the film’s memorable voices (including the words spoken by its narrator Michael Pena) will linger long after it’s over, Dreams is an example of Mamet’s Kiss done right.

What it lacks in flashy edits and big budget production specs, it more than makes up for in its celebratory chronicle of an underdog team who dared to dream and had the courage not to let anyone or anything stand in their way of their right to try and make it come true from students to MIT to an unorthodox use of tampons that might have saved the day.

 


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Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

7/14/2014

Film Movement DVD Review: Tanta Agua (2013) -- aka So Much Water


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Alternate Titles: So Much Water; Tanta agua

A feature filmmaking debut that adheres to its English translated title phrase, Tanta Agua makes good on the promise of So Much Water while likewise taking the connotative extremes of the middle word to heart, which the co-writers/directors use as a cinematic maxim to highlight the highs and lows of not so much coming-of-age as simply being an awkward teen.

A visually impressive if ultimately flawed work of stylized neorealist slice-of-life, Agua serves up so much water and so much beauty with so much silence in a fly-on-the-wall approach they use as a diversionary tactic to fill so much empty space and screen-time where something resembling a plot would normally be.

Tragically rather than add to the motif, all this technique does is accentuate the fact that despite so much potential, Tanta Agua is about so very little and doesn’t have all that much to say... at least in the format of a feature film.


Of course, it isn’t necessarily true that you need a rather large amount of plot to tell a story as Sofia Coppola proved in her Oscar winning chronicle of two lonely strangers who connect to one another out of loneliness, cultural confusion, marital dysfunction, and coming-of-adult-age angst in her Antonioni and Wong Kar Wai inspired Lost in Translation.

Sadly for the two award-winning short helmers who make their long form debut in Agua, while their gorgeous picture seems thematically and visually influenced by Coppola’s game-changing work, the story they’re trying to tell in Agua would’ve been a much better fit for their previous succinct storytelling medium of short filmmaking.


Nonetheless as it stands (or crawls) in its tale of divorced father trying to bond with his children on a rain-drenched and bad luck filled vacation, Ana Guevara and Leticia Jorge’s Agua is still far more relatable and affecting than Coppola’s out-of-touch Somewhere, which centered around an apathetic, privileged movie star father attempting to do the same in an emotionally cold work.

While Coppola relied on Vogue magazine layout-like visuals and a trendy soundtrack to try to distract us with the moodily cool ambiance of her surface-level effort, Guevara and Jorge wisely chose to highlight the natural beauty of real, everyday life in their Uruguayan production.

Yet in spite of its universally identifiable set-up that everyone in the world can appreciate regardless of age, language and gender, Agua begins to get lost at sea by the end of the first act.

Structurally sitting on the sidelines – much like its characters – they filmmakers are content to let us watch the rain, assuming like a delayed baseball game, once the weather cooperates, surely something will happen. How wrong we were, it turned out.


Perhaps viewed by his children as an effort he’s made that’s too little too late, the divorced middle aged father of an eleven year old son and a perpetually sour-faced fourteen year old daughter brings them to a resort where they’re inundated by inclement weather and stuck inside in their rundown motel room from day one.

Though it boasts all the ingredients for a family-bonding film or a coming-of-age summer vacation story (which Film Movement’s back-cover summary description makes you assume it will eventually embrace), Guevara and Jorge’s film takes a half-hearted last act shortcut to embrace these themes with a handful of scenes that feel completely contradictory to the tone established earlier on.


All in all, it's a disingenuous penultimate sequence that might've paid off much better if we’d seen more than a spark of a connection between the three unlikely relatives earlier on.

Unfortunately, up until that point, we’ve had to infer way too much about the past and present of its characters (that seldom speak during the film’s first full hour) over a series of awkward exchanges that take place across the lazily episodic narrative that a friend likened to the excitement of watching paint dry.

Never attempting to build an audience attachment to its main characters, Agua divides up the screen time unevenly between the father and daughter and leaves some of its most important details (including a bike accident etc.) offscreen, breaking multiple basic storytelling rules from start to finish.

 

While on the surface it's about that difficult time in your life when everything your father does embarrasses you mostly because you haven't found your way, again, this point is made within the first act alone of what feels like a feature-length filmed pitch movie that's been made to sell the "idea" of a better film.

A disappointing debut that’s all the more upsetting because of how much promise and talent was wasted, Agua may have played much better as a domestic anthology comprised of three short films spliced together with each one told from a different point-of-view just to capitalize on the filmmakers’ backgrounds and strengths.


In an intriguing coincidence, I viewed the work right after Filmmaker Magazine posed a discussion-worthy question in an article that asked whether or not short films were still important or worthwhile given how easy it is to make a feature today on everything from a phone to a webcam if you’re so inclined.


However, just because you can make a feature, it doesn’t mean you necessarily should. Namely, despite its success at film festivals of audiences that were perhaps as taken in by the beauty of the film as I was more than the actual movie, Tanta Agua is proof that it’s still a vital and necessary art-form.

For in addition to offering filmmakers tremendously valuable experience, it also makes screenwriters question just how many pages (or scenes for editors) are really required to bring the most effective version of the story they want to tell to life. Unfortunately, Tanta Agua takes 102 minutes to deliver a film that might’ve  been best brought to life in the span of a twenty-minute rainstorm.

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Collage by Jen Johans 

Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.