Monthly Archives: February 2016

58 of 366: I Smile Back

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As a comedy nerd who listens to podcasts as much as I can, I often hear interviews with comedians discussing the transition for comedic actors into dramatic roles and vice versa.

It’s known in Hollywood circles to be harder to transition from comedy to drama and Sarah Silverman mastered it with her performance in I Smile Back.

Silverman plays a suburban wife and mom with two kids who struggles with addiction and infidelity in the film based on a book by Amy Koppelman. The film was a long time in the making and Silverman signing on as the title character made it complete. Her performance has earned the most praise for the film and I agree it takes the story to a higher level.

I Smile Back needed a strong female lead because the film focuses so much on the character of Laney with her husband Bruce (Josh Charles), kids and friends more in the background.

Unfortunately, even after time in rehab, Laney’s struggles are bigger than her family and their love for each other. Laney says in the film that she wonders why anyone would fall in love and have a family and that she often tries to protect her kids from going through the same thing.

Laney’s destructive path is hard to watch and another unfortunate turn is there is not much resolution after it is done.

As I said, Silverman’s performance brings it all together for the film and shows her range between comedy and drama and more importantly to fully embody a character while bringing her own influence to the role (as described in this Huffington Post interview.)

Silverman helped translate the story to the big screen and, while I am more interested in reading the book now to study its origins, it is overall an admirable project her fans will appreciate.

 

 

 

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57 of 366: Creed

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Full disclosure, I was in tears from round 11 of the final fight in Creed until the end of the film. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve cried during a movie at the theater but my chin even started quivering by the end round 12 of in the fight, at which point I had to exercise a little self restraint so as not to make a scene. I heard some other sniffles in the theater, but I really don’t know what came over me.

I went in to watching Creed expecting a sports movie with critical acclaim, but it’s just so much more than that.

More full disclosure, I’ve never seen Rocky but it’s evident where director and co-writer of Creed Ryan Coogler paid tribute to the original film while expanding on the story.

In addition to Stallone’s amazing reprisal of Rocky Balboa, the film is set mostly in Philadelphia and uses its score, supporting characters and locations in the city to tie to two movies with 40 years between them together.

Coogler wrote the screenplay with Aaron Covington and their final result is so impressive for new-ish filmmakers in Hollywood, I can wait to see what they do next.

Back to the story itself, Michael B. Jordan stars in the title role as the son of Rocky Balboa’s former rival and friend, Apollo Creed.

The younger Creed, under the name Adonis Johnson, tries to establish his own legacy and keep his familial ties to the star boxer under wraps as long as possible. After a rough childhood and trying to make a go of his boxing career fighting in Mexico, Adonis heads to Philadelphia to pursue fighting full time and train with Rocky.

They develop a fast bond and friendship, with highs and lows along the way, and Jordan and Stallone on screen together for two hours definitely influenced my emotions as the film ended.

I know seeing Creed in the theater also added to the experience. If you have the chance (it’s still at some second-run theaters in Minneapolis) I definitely recommend seeing Creed on the big screen.

Aside from the acting, writing and directing, the editing style and camera work are impossible to look away from — even during the more violent scenes toward the end.

The mixes of sounds from Johnson’s punches –whether training or in the ring — with Rocky’s voice in the background coaching him along were so impressive (I know I keep using this word) and added to the overall picture and display of the relationship between the two main characters.

There are plenty of smaller, quieter moments in film including between Johnson and his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) as well as with Rocky that balance out the action and drama and further show the dynamics and drive for each character.

I hope I have sold this film enough here and really have no more words other than, love or hate sports movies, Creed expands on the genre and a historical film on so many levels and you must see it.

“When you get to the top, you think you can fly.” — Rocky Balboa

 

56 of 366: Laura

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I welcome any excuse to dust off my film textbooks from college, today’s being Laura. The film, (1944), has a reputation as a film noir with a few twists and style points that take it away from being a full display of the genre.

Based on a novel turned play from Vera Caspary, who reportedly wasn’t happy with the film adaptation by Otto Preminger and writers Jay Dratler, Elizabeth Reinhardt and Samuel Hoffenstein, Laura is on the surface a story about a mysterious murder with the themes of love, loneliness and jealously in the background.

Laura (Gene Tierney), well established in her career at an advertising firm and social life, is a sought after woman by Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), her mentor of sorts, and Lt. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) after she goes out of town for a weekend and is supposedly murdered upon return to her apartment.

Lydecker, a well known, self absorbed columnist and radio show host, is enamored with Laura not long after she sees him at lunch and asks him to endorse a pen advertised by her company.

Many of the men in Laura’s life are enamored by her presence. McPherson, having never met Laura, feels the same way as he works on her murder case and spends most of his time her apartment with her portrait on the wall in nearly every scene there.

Laura won an Oscar for best cinematography after its release, an award that probably carried more meaning in that era, as the film effectively uses light and shadows and fade-in and outs to move the story along.

Some of those styles are characteristic of film noir, but in Laura, for example, the shadows are more often cast of individual characters on a wall or street rather than onto each other.

Laura as a character, while the central focus of the film, is also there to show the inner workings of the other characters and their true personas, motives and desires.

Thus the use of individual shadows stresses paying attention to each character alone rather than their relationships with each other. In one scene, however, as McPherson interrogates Laura at the police station, his shadow is cast on her face — showing they do perhaps have more of a connection than meets the eye.

That is one of the few scenes where I noticed a change in the use of shadows, and I found it to be one of the most telling moments in the film.

Overall, I think love is also one of the most prominent themes in Laura through the very end. Characters, whether it be between Carpenter, Lydecker or McPherson and Laura are often asking each other if they love her or if they think she loves them.

Laura mostly switches from the point of view of Lydecker and McPherson and in the end Lydecker, speaking on a radio broadcast, says it best to exemplify the meaning of love in the film.

“And thus, as history has proved, love is eternal. It has been the strongest motivation for human actions throughout centuries. Love is stronger than light. It reaches beyond the dark shadow of death.”

— Waldo Lydecker

 

 

 

 

55 of 366: 99 Homes

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Not long into 99 Homesdirector and writer Ramin Bahrani sets a tone and pace for the film that is unsettling, gripping, dark that lasts through the length of the story.

Michael Shannon, as realtor and businessman (on the surface) Rick Carver, and Andrew Garfield as Dennis Nash find themselves connected when Carver evicts Nash from his home.

Carver’s company owns homes on behalf of the bank and he regularly shows up at families’ doors (almost mafia style) to deliver the bad news with a posse of workers and the police force in tow.

Most of the time Carver leaves any contact with families on the street with all their belongings, but not Nash.

Nash is in need of work and starts helping Carver — out of true desperation to support his family — under the guise he will be doing home repairs and construction.

But Carver is far too powerful to have that be it and does make it clear early on that he “owns” those who work for him.

From there, Carver and Nash’s dynamic and relationship fluctuates as a result of Nash’s own struggles contributing to people losing their homes like he did and the ultimate why reason Carver is on a power trip in the realty business. Carver only gives a small glimpse into why he is the way he is and in his line of work, but it is telling.

Shannon’s performance continues to show his range as a dramatic actor,  as a lot of his roles present characters with a duality between good and bad, and it is effectively balanced by Garfield’s character in this film also trying to decide between doing what’s right and wrong.

Stylistically, 99 Homes has little camera work and effects that stray away from keeping the lenses focused on the characters that drive the story as it builds to the deciding moment between Nash and Carver.

99 Homes keeps the suspense going until the very end of the film and creates enough unknown in the characters’ motives to conclude in an effective unexpected way.

I have a hard time finding quotes that directly relate to the movies I watch,  or it’s subjective, but here are some thoughts from Dana Gould from The Dana Gould Podcast Happysad episode. It is in the last 10 minutes or so as part of a conversation with April Richardson.

“To live is to suffer. Suffering is inevitable for all human beings as long as they labor under the delusion that things can be permanent, when in fact nothing is permanent. Your life is composed of a series of systems. Your culture, your relationships, your physical body, they’re all systems. Systems all have one thing in common they all begin, grow, flourish, decay and die. Everything, without exception.”

 

“Zen is when you abandon the concept of the past and the future and embrace only the moment. If you can free yourself from the events of the past, which is dead, and your expectations of the future, which is fantasy, and embrace only the moment in which you are alive by freeing yourself from the tyranny of all of those wants that you have … you can achieve a state of zen consciousness, which leads to bliss. But of course, by it’s very nature, it won’t last.”

54 of 366: Teen Witch

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I think the page on Teen Witch in 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die is missing, at least in my copy. This week’s episode of How Did This Get Made featured the 1989 movie as its subject matter so I decided to give myself a pass and watch it again. It’s been ages since I’ve seen Teen Witch and I knew it would be a welcome trip back to the end of the 1980s and that era of films centered on high school drama.

Teen Witch may very well be a combination of the hits from the 1980s, Pretty in Pink, Can’t Buy Me Love, Sixteen Candles, etc., and closes out the decade of film with perhaps the best mix of dance numbers, dream sequences and ill-fitting clothing for teens (ahem, the leotards) in existence.

Plus the main character Louise Miller, (Robyn Lively), is blessed with the powers of witchcraft on her 16th birthday so she can channel all her teenage problems into casting spells on other people.

Of course like any plot point in the 1980s teen angst film genre, such as successfully faking sick to get out of school or winning the affection of the most popular girl (even if you have to pay her), Louise’s powers and new social status are a little too good to be true and her one real friendship is pushed aside.

Louise has her fun with casting spells to seek revenge against unfair teachers and her annoying little brother, but in the end she realizes she doesn’t need those powers and can date Brad and keep her old friends all while performing a well-choreographed dance number to Shana.

I started listening to the How Did This Get Made episode about the film, which Paul Scheer had never even heard of, and it’s clear it stands the test of time even for people who didn’t see Teen Witch as the 1980s came to a close.

One thing, similar to Labyrinth, that I didn’t remember about the film was all the musical numbers outside of the famous Top That routine. There is I Like Boys and Most Popular Girl and of course the final scene at the Moonlight Magic prom with “Louise Mania” going on in the background.

Teen Witch is stereotypical for the 1980s, but it still works so well and I am glad I revisited it tonight.

I’ll watch it in another 20 years when I have quit the writing business, other than this blog of course, and run my own fortune teller shop.

“You have the power to make anything you want happen.” — Madame Serena.

 

 

 

 

 

 

53 of 366: Heavenly Creatures

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I like making lists and then making them again and then editing them. My downfall is I am often adding new tasks or ideas to a list before I finish anything on it, and then I make more lists and the madness continues.

This could be why I have 327 titles on my Netflix DVD queue and a list of another 243 I removed to save for watching next year … or probably never considering how long they were there before without ever arriving in my mailbox.

I still occasionally get stuck in the pattern of browsing through my instant queue for way too long before picking a movie, but I didn’t have that problem tonight when I spotted Heavenly Creatures.

I knew the film (1994) by Peter Jackson is a 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die recommendation and introduction to the acting careers Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey.

It is also an early film for Peter Jackson before he embarked on his path to bring the Lord of the Rings stories to the big screen.

I haven’t seen those films (I know, I know), but those who have may identify some small connection between Heavenly Creatures and the trilogy in that Jackson brings a bit of fantasy style into the true-crime based story set in 1950s New Zealand.

The platform for visual storytelling is there through the presence of the main characters’, Pauline (Lynskey) and Juliet (Winslet), diary entries expressing their teenage angst and struggles with their families trying to keep them apart.

Lynskey and Winslet’s characters are based on the lives of two girls who formed a fast friendship in their New Zealand school in 1952, much to the dismay of their parents.

They bond over music and movies and being somewhat outcasts in society with no harm done, that is until their relationship and connection progresses too far for their families to handle.

Juliet and Pauline come up with the perfect crime to escape their families and particularly Pauline’s mom, who they think is trying to keep them apart the most.

Jackson and screenwriter Fran Walsh, who is his wife and writing partner on many films, effectively mix the realism of Juliet and Pauline’s world with the fantasies they have through use of visual effects such as digital clay figures, colors and dream sequences.

That is certainly an interesting style to take with a film based on true events and a crime not expected of two teenage girls, but it works all together as a haunting and beautiful character-driven story that set the stage for Winslet, Lynskey and Jackson.

I haven’t been on McSweeney’s site in a long, long time (they have a lot of lists there to bring it full circle), but I also found a funny essay by Harris Mayersohn. 

“This was the last straw. I’m over you. My bedroom is full of bad memories and I must cleanse myself of you.

First go the pillows we once nuzzled. They smell too strongly of your Suave Ocean Breeze-scented conditioner. My tears only amplify their stench. So out the window they go and into the dumpster they’ll stay.”

 

 

 

52 of 366: The Look of Silence

 

 

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I thought The Act of Killing was a dark and disturbing first-hand depiction of the genocide in Indonesia in 1965, then I watched The Look of Silence.

The Look of Silence is a sequel to Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, which focuses on the perspective of murderous leaders asked to tell or re-enact how they killed many people suspected to be communists.

The second film in the series turns the tables as one of the families victimized by the killings seeks to find those responsible, in particular for the death of their brother and son, Ramli.

Seeking the truth and a sense that the killers feel any responsibility and regret for what they did, Abi interviews many death squad leaders and those who ultimately took his brother’s life.

Abi’s mother fears they will take her other son’s life as a result of his questioning, but Abi will stop at nothing to get the answers he needs.

You can tell the effect hearing what happened from those who did it has on Abi, especially in scenes when he silently watches Oppenheimer’s past interview footage, and the pain it all causes.

Without the visual elements used in The Act of Killing, as the subjects made their own movie about what they did, The Look of Silence is a raw glimpse at one family’s life, heartbreak, sadness and fear that you only wish could have some resolution.

 

 

 

51 of 366: Touched With Fire

 

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“We’re not from here, you and me,” Marco in Touched With Fire.

Touched With Fire felt like an extremely personal story told on screen, which makes sense knowing now that writer and director Paul Dalio based the film on his own struggles with bipolar disorder.

Dalio chose just the right pace in the film to bring together the separate stories of poets Carla (Katie Holmes) and Marco (Luke Kirby) by building to the point when they both are in a psychiatric hospital for treatment of bipolar disorder and manic episodes.

Carla and Marco have influences over each other that are good and bad as Dalio brings to life their illness as well as artistic talent and understanding of each other against all odds.

Stylistically, Dalio uses strong color themes and music (which he wrote) to further tell the story as Marco and Carla are both artists and believe their illness even contributes to that.

Marco’s love for art and studying artists is introduced early on, especially his study of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night painting known to be from his view of the sky out an asylum windown.

The visuals in the film and scenes with Marco and Carla — even down to the clothes they are wearing after they meet — are heavily saturated with blue and yellow to mirror Vincent van Gogh’s painting and the focus on art as an expression of self.

Dalio also uses psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison’s book, also titled Touched With Fire, as a backbone of his film through Marco’s reading of it while in the hospital and beyond. Redfield Jamison also suffers from bipolar disorder and has a role in the film.

Marco and Carla eventually move out of the hospital to live on their own, at which point the film loses a bit of its artistic style and transitions into realism with the use of darker tones and music.

That transition is not a fault of the film as overall it is a visually exceptional love story with performances by Holmes and Kirby that seem to perfectly match what Dalio wanted to portray about his own life.

I listened to an interview with Craig Ferguson on Nerdist last week and this quote seems fitting after seeing Touched With Fire.

“If one tries to practice self acceptance, treat yourself like you’re somebody that you like and live in the present. I do believe that (it’s not easy to do) … but really the meaning of life is to live each moment as it arrives and if you can do that you win whatever can be won.”

Craig Ferguson on Nerdist. 

5o of 366: 9 to 5

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“Tumble out of bed and stumble to the kitchen, pour myself a cup of ambition and yawn and stretch and try to come to life.” — 9 to 5, Dolly Parton.

Things got a little weird in the plot of 9 to 5 as far as the lengths the characters go to in order to combat the misgivings of their boss Franklin Hart (Dabney Coleman),  but it does stand out for its comedic dynamic between Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton and underlying message on gender issues in the workplace circa 1980.

The film, by Colin Higgins (Harold and Maude – another title on my list), centers first on Tomlin’s character, Violet Newstead, as she fights stereotypes and gender discrimination in the workplace that prevents her from moving her way up the ladder like her male counterparts.

She is joined by Doralee Rhodes (Parton) and newcomer Judy Bernly (Fonda) who have their own issues with Hart and form a friendship over their struggles at work and in other areas of their lives.

That part of the film starts to show their on-screen chemistry, the development of comedic styles still used in movies today as well as the commentary on societal injustices.

Each character has a fantasy about revenge against Hart until he is taken out of commission as a result of Violet accidentally putting rat poison in his coffee (or so they think.)

Violet, Rhoda and Judy go to extremes to cover up Hart’s time away from work and they’re not even responsible. As a result they have the run of the place and can finally break away from Hart’s controlling management style and male bias to implement workplace equality.

Outside of its strange turns at times, I did appreciate the overall comedic tone of 9 to 5 and the saving grace of Tomlin, Parton and Fonda’s acting.

If nothing else, unless you get up very early to watch the movie before work, the song 9 to 5 is a good way to start your day.

In other news, I’m continuing to read Emily V. Gordon’s book Super You and find her advice to be thought-provoking and sometimes inspirational, even taken out of context.

“One of the scariest things in life is realizing how little control you have in this world.”

–Emily V. Gordon.

 

49 of 366: The Act of Killing

This may not be a fitting introduction to a post about a very dark and hard to watch documentary, but Doug Benson mentioned my movie challenge progress during one of his Doug Loves Minis episodes this week. I heard it this morning and had an extreme geek-out moment when he mentioned my Three Kings post and how that is his favorite David O. Russell movie.

I don’t expect that he has read my blog, but I was happy to make it into the mix of other fans he has mentioned for their movie challenge status and want to say that so far this challenge has been very positive in my life as a goal I know I can accomplish this year and who knows where it will take me. So thank you, Mr. Benson.

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There really is no proper segue from that to The Act of Killing, so I am just going to get into it. I rented the film so I could ultimately keep up with seeing the Oscar nominees this year, including the follow-up to The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence.

The first of the two focuses on Indonesia in 1965 after the government is overthrown by the military and anyone who challenges the new leaders was considered a communist and ultimately killed.

The killing came from gangsters in the country with a reputation for violence and who willingly formed death squads to execute the supposed traitors. They killed more than a million people and their leader, Anwar Congo, did many of the acts with his own hands. They used inhumane, brutal practices and supposedly felt no wrongdoing or remorse. They used violence they had seen in the movies and when The Act of Killing came about were tasked with reenacting or retelling what they did in 1965 as they saw fit.

The result in the film by Joshua Oppenheimer is an open look into their madness translated into of movie of its own to show how they plotted the deaths. Throughout the documentary and making of Anwar’s movie,  I just kept trying to uncover or analyze what they really felt about their acts.

Did they have to do it? Did they deep down think it was wrong or struggle with taking so many human lives using extreme violence?

For the most part I thought it was hard to tell, but Anwar was left with nightmares and some struggle with it — on what level is unclear.

Of course it’s never even close to the point where you feel bad for them, and you wonder if participating in the new film was just a push for more attention on what they did, but in the end how the story was told was effective. Other than that, it leaves many unanswered questions. My manager at work, no spoilers here really, told me there was some controversy about the final scene of the film and that the timing of when it happened  was not consistent with its placement in the story, causing some over-dramatization.

My first reaction was I wanted to read more about the controversy, but then I decided I would rather not know. It is unsettling, to say the least, that what the death squad members did  was allowed and how they have carried on in their lives since then.

It’s important to see The Act of Killing and come to your own conclusion. It’s as much educational about that point in history as it is disturbing and heartbreaking on all sides.

I will leave it at that and, even though I am sure it is equally if not more dark, I look forward to watching The Look of Silence. From what I know it focuses on the victims’ side of what happened and I am trying to go into watching it without any more details.

Maybe it will complete the picture of The Act of Killing, or present more questions, but from what I have seen so far both films are new accomplishments in storytelling worth seeing for that reason and so many more.