May 28, 2015

unfreedom Greetings again from the darkness. Societal mores are always slow to change, but the slow acceptance of new cultural ideals pales in comparison to the evolution of religious beliefs and traditions, which can take multiple millenniums for even the smallest revisions. First time director Raj Amit Kumar co-wrote the script with Damon J Taylor, and they seem anxious to point out the out-of-step status of Muslims in regards to both pacifism and sexual orientation.

The structure of the film can be a bit tough to follow as a viewer since there are two seemingly unrelated stories, along with the corresponding flashbacks for character perspective. One story follows an angry idealist has he accepts his assignment for terrorism and travels from Pakistan to New York City. Mohammed Husain’s (played by Bhanu Uday) mission is to coerce (a word much too nice for his actions) pacifist Muslim scholar Fareed Rahmani (Victor Banjeree) into admitting on video that he is a fraud and not a true Muslim. The other story has Leela Singh (Preeti Gupta) as a frustrated lesbian woman in New Delhi who has refused ten marriages arranged by her devout father (Adil Hussain), and finally runs away to meet her choice of lover … artist Sakhi (Bhavani Lee), whose current boyfriend finds Leela’s passion comical – right up until he doesn’t.

A running theme for both storylines, as well as the numerous sub-plots, is specifically stated as “It’s the choice we make when we are most cornered in life that define us”. Solution through violence and torture is consistent through both stories, and as disgusting as the actions of terrorist Husain are, it’s the actions of Leela’s father that are the most stomach churning and confounding. There are a few shots taken at the power of Wall Street, but the actions of greed don’t compare to the more severe and unforgivable actions driven by religious beliefs. The film was originally entitled “Blemished Light”, but it’s difficult to find illumination in this well-acted film that exposes clouded thought processes.

watch the trailer:




May 28, 2015

aftermath Greetings again from the darkness. Watching someone whose life has crumbled due to guilt, grief or drugs makes for an uncomfortable movie to view, but when one character has been crushed by all three, it results in the ultimate downer. Director and co-writer Tim McCall subjects us to life in the proverbial gutter – despite lead character Sonny’s distorted hope.

Sam Trammell (“True Blood”) plays Sonny, a messy drug-addict living in a seedy motel and rummaging through the underbelly of his town. Sonny is trying to arrange a face to face meeting with his estranged wife on their wedding anniversary, so that he can apologize for his behavior during the marriage and during marriage counseling. The problem is that she won’t return his calls, and her family understandably blocks his efforts to make contact. Heck, seems to only own one shirt and he’s not even sure what day it is!

His plan involves stealing the necklace he bought for her during better times – when he owned a business and they had a beautiful home in the suburbs. He later pawned the necklace, which leads to the burglary. Of course, as viewers we quickly gather that his efforts are without hope, though we assume it’s due to his disgusting appearance and inability to stay clean.

Sonny’s wife is played by Trammell’s real life girlfriend Missy Yager, and Vanessa Ferlito (Grindhouse: Death Proof) has a key role as a tough lady who recognizes an opportunity when she sees it … an, though this could never be mistaken for a nature documentary, she teaches us a difference between farm geese and wild geese. But this is Sam Trammell’s spotlight much like Trainspotting belonged to a young Ewen MacGregor. He tears into the not-so-sympathetic Sonny with abandon and a total lack of ego.

Director McCann and Mr. Trammell team up for a gritty and grimy look at the tragic fall from society of a man who made mistakes and refused to own up to them. Filmed in Alexandria, Louisiana, the title describes what we see (outside of the flashbacks), and the musical choices are very fitting – especially Marian Anderson’s “Poor Me”.  Don’t expect joyful moments or a story of redemption … life isn’t always like the movies.




DEEP WEB (2015, doc)

May 28, 2015

deep web Greetings again from the darkness. Even those of us who consistently obey the law have a general idea of how criminals work: robbing banks, stealing cars, kidnapping people, even hacking websites for personal information. Additionally, the vast majority of us have at least a rudimentary understanding of how the internet works, and the steps we take to increase security. Documentarian Alex Winter combines these two topics as he takes us inside the deep web … specifically Silk Road on the Darknet.

The Surface Web vs The Deep Web – the film exposes what most of us have very little knowledge of. The simple explanation is that the “surface web” is what we use on a daily basis: Facebook postings photos of our latest meal and YouTube video sensations showing cats fighting their mirrored reflection. The Deep Web is what lies beneath. This is the (mostly) untraceable technology where the underground marketplace site known as Silk Road exists. To be clear, most of the ongoings on the deep web are legitimate and in good faith – used frequently by journalists. However, the other side is how it obtained the nickname “ebay for Heroin”.  Yep, untraceable transactions for illegal drugs definitely happened (and still do). It turns out that Bitcoin is the ideal underground currency for this commerce, as it can be as untraceable as the drug orders.

You might recognize the name of director Alex Winter as half of the classic movie duo in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). Mr. Winter released a documentary a couple years ago entitled Downloaded, where he explored the rise and fall of Napster and the effects of downloaded music. This current topic is much more dangerous and secretive, and he wisely brings along his old buddy Keanu Reeves as the narrator. Winter’s approach here is initially a bit confusing, as the focus seems uncertain – is it a tell all about the deep web, or is it a profile of Silk Road, or is it an analysis of the arrest and subsequent trial of possible Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht?

Most of the attention goes to Ulbricht, better known as the Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR), a pseudonym snatched from the classic movie The Princess Bride. Is/Was Ulbricht the DPR? Winter is content to leave that mystery unsolved, but the real story here is how the government put the case together against Ulbricht – fabricating charges (later dropped), circumstantial evidence, and a probable breach of privacy.

The general belief is that we should have a free and open and secure internet, though most of us never stop to think what a ludicrous demand that really is. It’s the lack of privacy and ease of breach on the surface web that led to the development of the deep web – an anonymous and mostly secure environment. At least it was until the government went hard after Silk Road. Shutting down the non-violent drug transactions justified the law enforcement and political attention that the drug wars along the border never have. Is this a good thing? Is Ulbricht the DPR? Does it matter that after his arrest, his void was quickly filled by other opportunists? Do you believe you are secure on the web? Winter presents an exceptional amount of information that deserves even more discussion and explanation. That alone makes it time well spent.

watch the trailer:



May 25, 2015

surface Greetings again from the darkness. Survival movies come in many shapes and styles. There are classy ones like All is Lost (with Robert Redford) and Life of Pi (Academy Award nominee). There are thrilling ones like The Edge (with Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins). And of course there are the kinda trashy ones that usually feature beautiful and clueless people stuck on an island somewhere like in Turistas (with Josh Duhamel).

What we rarely see are survival movies that just don’t have much going on. Open Water is about the closest to this latest from director Gil Cates, Jr and writer Jeff Gendelman, but at least that one offered the constant threat of a shark attack.

Sad sack Mitch (Sean Astin) visits his Alzheimer’s-stricken mom in the nursing home before heading out to the middle of Lake Michigan in what he plans as his final voyage in life. At the most inopportune time – given his goal – it’s his boat that is rendered lifeless thanks to the scattered pieces of a plane crash. Mitch drags the survivor Kelly (Chris Mulkey) aboard and the two fellows proceed to prove that their philosophizing and reminiscing are no match for the conversational skills of a boy and his tiger (Life of Pi).

Flashbacks are the key to us understanding the reasons these two crossed paths in such an unusual manner. We see Mitch’s guilt and inability to be a worthy partner in a relationship, and we see pilot Kelly’s desperation in trying to making ends meet for his family and regaining his confidence as a man.

There are a couple of funny “guy” moments (the poet comment made me laugh), yet somehow the conversation of these two men in a life-threatening situation pales in comparison to the exchanges of two gents over a meal in My Dinner with Andre. Where is the danger?  Where is the stress?  Where is the soul-searching?  It’s unfortunate that the extended periods of two guys in a boat just don’t have much to offer for the 86 minute run time, because the stage was set for much more than melodrama.

watch the trailer:



May 25, 2015

preggoland Greetings again from the darkness. Understanding women is an unrealistic goal for most men, though we never stop trying. The past couple of years have brought numerous indie films from female filmmakers (writers and directors) and despite all of the new insight, the level of understanding has not really improved … rather it’s become clear that there were many things we men didn’t know that we didn’t know.

Along comes a script written by Sonja Bennett that shines a spotlight on a mid-30’s single woman who is being left behind by her group of friends as they move on to motherhood and family life. Ms. Bennett also stars as Ruth, the party girl whose drunken behavior at a friend’s is not just inappropriate, but also injures a child. Her group of long-time friends decides that Ruth no longer fits in their circle and they inform her that she would be happier in a different social environment.

Ruth’s steady stream of booze and cigarettes, and the fact that she still lives with her dad (James Caan), set her in stark contrast to her “perfect” sister Hillary (Lisa Durupt) who has just announced she and her smartphone-bound husband are working on having a baby. This makes the grandfather-to-be VERY happy. Not long after, in a quirky unfolding of events, Ruth is mistakenly identified as “with child”, and rather than nip the misunderstanding in the bud, the fib is allowed to fully blossom … setting the stage for the entire story.

What follows is a combination of dark humor and slapstick that never quite clicks. By nature, the premise makes the ending somewhat predictable, but there are moments of brilliance in the script. However, it’s the comedy portions that never really bring the laughs … except for one pretty startling site gag sequence involving more Jello than even Bill Cosby has ever seen (is it Ok to make a Cosby reference these days?).

Most impressive is that the vast majority of scenes are between women, and about women. Yes, there is a love interest (Paul Campbell), a demanding dad (Caan), and comedy relief in the form of Danny Trejo, but these are mostly minor players in this perspective of how women treat each other once the “bun in the oven” comes into play. It’s also a commentary on what happens when a little oops is allowed to snowball into a no-win situation.

Director Jacob Tierney’s film has had success at film festivals, and that’s understandable since it’s a nice change of pace from the vast majority of ultra-serious films populating the lineups. While the education effort of female filmmakers continues … most of us men will appreciate the Jello catastrophe, but still end up right where we started – with a glazed-over look, hoping we don’t say the wrong thing.

watch the trailer:


REALITY (2015)

May 25, 2015

reality Greetings again from the darkness. For those who found last year’s Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) to be too linear and overly coherent, be sure to track down the latest from writer/director Quentin Dupieux. You might recognize the name from his films that have developed cult followings – Rubber (2010) and Wrong (2012).

Dupieux seems obsessed with the blurred lines between the conscious and sub-conscious, so one can only imagine what he means by titling his movie “Reality”. To ensure that we remain in a constant cloud of confusion, there is a key character who is a young girl (Kyla Kenedy) acting in her own movie. Her name is … what else? … Reality.

One can’t really use the term plot when describing the film, but what follows is my best attempt. Jason Tantra (played by the always terrific Alain Chabat) is a camera man on a locally produced TV talk show about cooking that stars a rat costume-wearing host Denis (Jon Heder, Napoleon Dynamite). Jason wants to make his own movie starring a reluctant Denis (who suffers from eczema on the inside), and pitches his sci-fi idea of human-killing TV sets to film producer Bob Marshall (played by Jonathan Lambert). Marshall agrees to back the movie if Jason can come up with an award-winning perfect groan of pain within 48 hours. Meanwhile Reality (the girl) is being filmed by avant-garde director Zog (John Glover), and she finds a blue video cassette inside the gut of a wild boar killed by her father. In the process of trying to watch the tape, she spots a cross-dressing Eric Wareheim (from “Tim and Eric” fame) driving a military jeep through town. In one of his many dreams, Jason pictures himself at the awards ceremony where he wins for best groan … the award is presented by Oscar winning director Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) and Roxane Mesquida (who was in Rubber). The topper of all sequences involves Jason having a phone conversation with producer Marshall while at the theatre watching his unmade movie while Marshall simultaneously has an in-person meeting with Jason. If you follow any of the above, this movie is made for you. If you didn’t follow any of it, congratulations on your continued socially acceptable level of sanity.

Inside jokes abound here, and Dupieux takes a few shots at the filmmaking business, and what constitutes creativity. Fellow French filmmaker Michel Gondry (The Science of Sleep, 2006) may be the closest comparison to Dupieux, but the latter seems more focused on pushing the boundaries of lunacy and yes, Reality.

watch the trailer:





May 25, 2015

soul boys Greetings again from the darkness. Director George Hencken’s biopic on the British band Spandau Ballet provides not just an in-depth look at the band’s roller-coaster history, but also a timeline of musical changes beginning in the late 1970’s.

The film begins not with the formation of the band; but rather with each bandmember briefly discussing their childhood, family life, and original inspiration for a life in music. The photos and interviews provide insight into each of the gents, and is a terrific way to begin telling the story of a band that would go on to experience the greatest highs and lowest lows.

Best known for their huge international number one hit “True” (1983), Spandau Ballet went through numerous name changes and musical style changes in their early years – experimenting with influencers ranging from the Blues to Sinatra and Ella to Glam Rock and The Kinks. This was a group of working class Brits searching for their place during the rapid changes that included Punk Rock and Disco. Mostly, they wanted to be “Pop Stars”, and they became one of the beneficiaries of the Dawn of Music Videos. The band was a mixture of fashion, graphic arts, video and music, and never lost sight of the need for glamour.

Their musical rivals during this era were Duran, Duran and Wham!, though obviously there was plenty of airtime and plenty of fans for all. This group of school buddies leaned heavily on Gary Kemp for their songwriting. Things went along very well until 1990 when Gary and his brother Martin (also a band member) were chosen to star in director Peter Medak’s movie called The Krays.  It was soon after that the band played what most thought would be their final gig.

The Krays was successful, and both Gary and Martin pursued acting careers, while some of the other band members tried to make a go of it musically. However, a nasty lawsuit over royalties further divided the band, creating apparent irreconcilable differences. In a remarkable turn of events, the band members put the past behind them and in 2009 … after almost 20 years apart, they reunited for a tour and album.

Mr. Hencken fills the screen with some terrific clips – live shows, home movies, news reels, and interviews. It’s a detailed timeline and history of a band that literally took their name right off a bathroom wall, and enjoyed the heights of popularity playing Live Aid in 1985 (2 billion people watching) and the depths of a nasty band breakup, replete with publicly-reported lawsuit. It’s a very well documented and well presented history of band and the music culture of an era.

watch the trailer:



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