LITTLE MEN (2016)

August 25, 2016

USA Film Festival 2016

little men Greetings again from the darkness. There is a lot going on in this latest from writer/director Ira Sachs, and every bit of it provides some commentary on the basic everyday life struggles faced by normal folks. There is also a continuation of the ongoing NYC vs Brooklyn “friendly competition”, as well a reminder of the downside of gentrification.

Mr. Sachs and his frequent collaborator and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias kick off the story with Greg Kinnear’s Brian awkwardly exchanging greetings with Paulina Garcia’ s (so terrific in Gloria, 2013) Leonor while the son’s of these two share an equally awkward meeting. Leonor is the long-time tenant in the dress shop located below the apartment where Brian’s recently deceased father resided.

Jake (Theo Tapitz) is an aspiring artist who doesn’t easily make friends. Tony (Michael Barbieri) is a brash, fast-talking kid who is a bit more street wise and outgoing. The two boys quickly bond … while at the same time, the parents begin a quiet battle. Brian’s sister (played by Talia Balsam) demands her fair share of their father’s estate through higher rent on Leonor’s dress shop. It turns out their dad never raised the rent despite the number of years and the developing neighborhood. Kinnear’s wife Kathy (the underrated Jennifer Ehle) tries to play peace-keeping negotiator so that the boys’ friendship is not affected. As is often the case, the kids handle the situation better than the adults.

The film’s best scenes feature the two young boys … a blossoming childhood friendship that is all too rare on the big screen. If the boys weren’t so severely impacted, the adult interactions could almost be white noise. Themes of money vs love, greed vs emotion, as well as recurring and various instances of rejection, all play a part in this multi-faceted story. Examples of rejection include a girl rejecting a boy, Brian’s rejection as an actor, and the multiple rejections in the negotiations for the shop. Mr. Sachs has a real knack for putting real people in real situations that result in difficult decisions.

All of the acting is top notch, including Alfred Molina in a small role as Leonor’s attorney and advisor. But it’s the boys – Tapitz and especially Barbieri – that elevate the film. Watching the boys grow closer despite the all-too-close conflicts reminds a bit of the friendships in Rob Reiner’s classic Stand By Me. Young Mr. Tapitz already has a few short films under his belt as a director, and Mr. Barbieri is certain to get many more opportunities to flash his on screen talent.

watch the trailer:

 


IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE (2016)

August 25, 2016

In order of disappearance Greetings again from the darkness. “The Count” versus “Papa” should not be mistaken for a new cartoon featuring Sesame Street battling The Smurfs. This Norwegian film from director Hans Petter Moland and writer Kim Fupz Aakeson is oddly entertaining, often funny and plenty violent.

Stellan Skarsgard stars as Nils Dickman, a quiet, keep-to-himself snow plow operator who is being recognized as his town’s Citizen of the Year. We see Nils clearing what appears to be the same roads over and over with a snow blower that looks like some type of NASA moon vehicle … the mundane life having a rhythm that seems to deliver a kind of peace. Nils’ untroubled world is rocked when his son is murdered under suspicious circumstances. It kicks off his mission for revenge … and in the process, this snow plow operator accidently initiates a mob war between the Norwegians and the Serbs. This might have you wondering where the humor comes in. It could be compared to a Charles Bronson movie – if Bronson was an otherwise meek fellow who was laser-focused on revenge for his son’s murder (actually, that sounds like the synopsis of quite a few Bronson movies).

The film is divided into chapters named after the dead bodies … and it’s a rapidly changing scoreboard. I counted 14 chapters and 24 victims, but I’ll admit it’s quite possible I missed one or two. The always interesting Bruno Ganz plays Papa, the cold-blooded leader of the Serbian mob who rarely needs to speak. Pal Sverre Hagen plays “The Count” … the first vegan movie gangster I can recall, and certainly a memorable character who at times seems like a poser, while at other times proves he is ruthless.

The three main characters all have sons who play a major role in both the story and their motivation, and there is a certain symmetry in the ending as two ride off into the proverbial sunset (though the sun evidently rarely shines in this town). And even if you didn’t enjoy the subtle humor (both situational and dialogue-driven), you are likely to find a least a chuckle in one of the main character’s final words for his ex-wife.

Coen Brothers influence permeates the frosty air – maybe I didn’t mention that it’s snowy and beyond cold in every scene. The snow is a character here and the real characters fall into one extreme or the other … subdued on the surface or eccentric and desperate for attention. These conflicts bring humor to situations that would otherwise offer nothing but gloom. It’s an unconventional and stylish film and one that will probably find a loyal and appreciative audience.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE INTERVENTION (2016)

August 25, 2016

intervention Greetings again from the darkness. Clea DuVall: Actress/Writer/Director/Producer. No one who has followed her outstanding career (especially as a standout in many independent films) can be surprised that she is spreading her creative wings into all aspects of filmmaking. Her directorial debut can best be described as a contemporary version of Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983) for today’s thirty-somethings.

Casting is key for an ensemble project, and it’s especially difficult for a serio-comedy exploring the insecurities and inherent unhappiness that corresponds to the closest relationships. The premise here is that four couples meet at a beautiful and isolated lake house just outside of Savannah. The motivation for this meet up of old friends is a “marriage intervention” for one of the couples … something that must have seemed better in theory than it plays out in reality.

The couple whose marriage is in the target zone is played by Cobie Smulders (The Avengers, “How I Met Your Mother”) as exhausted mother of three Ruby, and Vincent Piazza (“Boardwalk Empire”) as the long-ago-gave-up-trying Peter. The others are played by Melanie Lynskey (“Two and a Half Men”) as Annie, who has continually postponed her wedding to super nice guy fiancé Matt played by Jason Ritter; Natasha Lyonne (“Orange is the New Black”) as Sarah, long-time partner to Ruby’s sister Jessie (Clea DuVall); and Ben Schwartz (“House of Lies”) as Jack, who brings his free-spirited, much younger girlfriend Lola (Alia Shawkat, State of Grace).

We quickly witness the bitterness and lack of caring that has poisoned the marriage of Ruby and Peter, and of course, it doesn’t take long to spot all the cracks in the relationships and personalities of the others. Annie is a control-freak who appears to be a full blown alcoholic, while Matt is such a nice guy, that he refuses to stand up for himself and have some pride. Sarah and Jessie avoid any serious discussion regarding why they aren’t living together yet, while Jessie’s weakness for younger girls plays a role – as does Sarah’s secret. Jack is obviously avoiding dealing with some personal issue (which we later learn) as he plays kissie-face with the no-strings-attached Lola (not Lolita).

The script tries to tackle an enormous number of issues, sub-plots and characters, and while we pretty easily get a feel for each, we never understand how these people ever agreed that a group attack was the best strategy. No amount of charades, barbeque or kickball can hide the messes that define each of these folks … whether married or not.

The actors have tremendous comedy timing and handle these moments much better than the ultra-dramatic moments. Cobie Smulders and Ben Schwartz are real standouts here, which is quite a compliment given the tremendous on screen talents on display. It’s a group that can gracefully pull off a Subaru joke while also playing cut-throat charades and dodging thrown peaches.

Ms. DuVall will undoubtedly go on to make better films than this one, but as a first project it offers some terrific moments. Sara Quinn (of Tegan and Sara) scores the film, and though some excellent tunes are included, the music was at times disruptive to the flow of the story. The film will probably hit home with a great many who fall into the thirty-something age group, though older viewers will likely prefer to re-visit The Big Chill from more than 30 years ago.

watch the trailer:

 

 


STAGECOACH (1939) revisited

August 21, 2016

stagecoach Imagine you are 25 year old Orson Welles, and you are obsessed with creating cinematic history with your next film. You have spent hour after hour studying the best and most creative works of the finest filmmakers from all over the world. You come across a particular John Ford western, and are so inspired by its technical precision that you watch it at least three dozen times while working on your masterpiece … Citizen Kane (1941). Such is the influence of Ford’s Stagecoach. It may or may not be the greatest western film of all-time (a matter of preference), but it’s inarguably the most influential.

More than 75 years later, it’s difficult to imagine a time when John Ford and John Wayne were not joined at the swaggering hip making movies together. By 1939, Ford had won an Oscar for The Informer (1935) but had not directed a western in more than a decade, while John Wayne’s career to this point consisted of bit parts and B movies. The “firsts” here include: John Ford’s first movie with John Wayne, the first movie filmed in Monument Valley, Ford’s first talkie-western, and the first starring role in a major motion picture for John Wayne

It’s difficult to think of a more iconic star-making screen introduction than that first shot of John Wayne twirling and cocking the rifle as the camera zooms in on his face (see photo below). It should be noted that The Duke (as he was often referred) was 32 years old in the film and is wearing his own cowboy hat – one he would wear in many movies over the years (until it finally was in such bad shape, it was placed in a glass display case at Mr. Wayne’s home).

The film hit while the industry was still experiencing some of the pains of leaving the “silent” world behind and taking advantage of “talkies”. Additionally, the technology of color film was just beginning to be used more frequently, but many studios and directors were clinging to the traditional black and white look. As a genre, westerns had never been able to make that step into the mainstream … that is, until Ford and Wayne came stampeding to the forefront with Stagecoach.

Dudley Nichols (Oscar winning screenwriter for Ford’s The Informer) adapted the original story from Ernest Haycox (a prolific writer who helped elevate westerns from dime story pulp to respectability and box office profitability) into a screenplay that examines the early attempts at transitioning the “wild west” into a more civilized society. Social commentary abounds as several characters from disparate background are crammed into a confined space (the titular stagecoach) for an extended period of time. Some viewers may complain about the use of clichés, but in fairness, what we have come to label as cliché, was anything but at the time.

Adding their own special touch to the wide range of characters were some of the finest actors of the era. Claire Trevor was the best known star in the cast at the time, and she plays Dallas, the good-hearted woman whose past/profession causes her to be treated as an outcast by most in the group. Ms. Trevor would go on to accept the unofficial title of Film Noir Queen, win a Best Supporting Oscar for Key Largo (1948), and have the School of Arts at UC-Irvine named for her. Donald Meek plays the meek (yes his name often fit his character) travelling salesman ironically named Peacock. Contrary to what one would guess given his diminutive physical stature, Mr. Meek fought in the Spanish-American War. John Carradine is perfectly cast as Hatfield, the elegant gambler carrying a secret. Mr. Carradine is the father of the acting Carradine brothers (including David and Keith), and enjoyed a 65 year career with more than 350 projects. Drunken Doc Boone is played by Thomas Mitchell, who many will recognize as memory-challenged Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life. He also appeared in such top shelf films as Gone with the Wind, High Noon and Lost Horizon. Louise Platt plays Lucy Mallory, the pregnant wife who is on a mission to reunite with her soldier husband. The villainous banker is played with gusto by Berton Churchill, and the only thing he’s missing is a twirly mustache. Mr. Churchill was a co-founder of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in 1933. Law Enforcement is represented by Marshal Wilcox, played by George Bancroft, and the stagecoach is driven by the great Andy Devine (as Buck). Mr. Devine manages to create a bit of comedy relief by the use of his trademark high-pitched raspy voice, as well as his underrated physical acting movements. Other notables making an appearance are Tom Tyler (once known as the strongest man in America) whose initial shaky transition from silent film to talkies is readily apparent in his few scenes; Woody Strode (one of the saloon patrons) who is known best for his fight scene in Spartacus; and Tim Holt who brings the charging Calvary to the rescue, and is best known as one of the prospectors in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Of course, it’s John Ford and John Wayne who draw most of the attention when this film is discussed. Born Marion Morrison, The Duke played football at USC before turning his full attention to acting. Here he plays bad-guy-with-a-heart Ringo Kid, and gets to show a pretty full spectrum of machismo, humanity, dignity and sensitivity. His extraordinary physical screen presence led him to the top of the film world with roles in some of the most popular films over the next 4 decades, capped by a Best Actor Oscar for True Grit (1969). John Ford, who was 45 years old at the time of Stagecoach, won 4 Best Director Oscars (plus two special Oscars for his WWII documentaries): The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green was my Valley (1942), and The Quiet Man (1952).

Two others deserve special mention. Stuntman extraordinaire Yakima Canutt (a World Champion rodeo cowboy) was seemingly involved in just about every risky stunt in Hollywood during the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. Stagecoach provided the opportunity for what may be his best and most daring stunt – leaping onto the moving stagecoach and its 6 horse team and then sliding down under the carriage and out the back … all at breakneck speed! It’s fascinating to watch, and in this age of computerized special effects, it demands a level of awe and respect. While this film provided the first on screen glimpse of Monument Valley, it was Cinematographer Bert Glennon who figured out the best ways to take advantage of this breathtaking setting. Mr. Glennon was nominated for 3 Oscars (including Stagecoach), and was a frequent collaborator with both John Ford and Cecil B DeMille. The second half of his career was devoted mostly to TV series, rather than movies.

Stagecoach received 7 Oscar nominations including wins for Thomas Mitchell as Best Supporting Actor and Best Music (score) for Richard Hagerman, W Frank Harling, John Leipold, and Leo Shuken. The other nominees were for Best Picture, Best Director (Ford), Best Cinematographer, Best Art Direction and Best Editing. While it might seem implausible that such a ground-breaking film could only win two Oscars, it’s a reminder why 1939 is considered by many to be the best ever year for movies. Check out this list of other releases that same year: Gone with the Wind; Mr Smith Goes to Washington; Wuthering Heights; Goodbye, Mr Chips; Ninotchka; The Wizard of Oz; Of Mice and Men; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Young Mr Lincoln.

Despite being the first movie to feature the “dead man’s hand” – a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights (the hand Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was gunned down), this film continues to live on in cinematic lore. Often included in the discussion of the best westerns of all-time – along with High Noon, Shane, Unforgiven, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch, The Good The Bad and the Ugly, and The Searchers – it was a joyful experience to finally get to see this one on the big screen in a theatre setting (thanks to Dallas Film Society and Chris Vognar). It’s clear how this film elevated the western genre, and it certainly deserved recognition by the National Film Registry in 1995.

stagecoach2

 


KAMAPI! FOR THE LOVE OF SAKE (2016, doc)

August 21, 2016

kampai Greetings again from the darkness. No matter your country of origin, drinking in a social setting inspires a unifying call for the group. We Americans proudly bellow “Cheers”. In Spanish, it’s “Salud”, while the Germans say “Prost” and the French “Santé”. You might have guessed from the title of this documentary … the Japanese say “Kampai!” as they toast their cohorts and raise a glass of Sake, also known as Japanese rice wine.

Filmmaker Mirai Konishi promises a look at the fascinating and somewhat mysterious world of brewing sake. His approach is to gain insight from three different individuals who hail from quite disparate backgrounds and are now fully immersed in all things Sake. John Gauntner is a U.S. born writer/educator/researcher whose publications are world renowned as the best available on the subject. Philip Harper is a British gent who is Oxford educated and the first non-Japanese master Sake brewer (Toji). He spends roughly 60% of a year in a dark, dank environment perfecting his own label of the drink. Kosuke Kuji runs an inherited century old Japanese Sake brewery that has been in his family for multiple generations.

We are informed that Sake is the national beverage of Japan and has been around for many centuries, creating historical and cultural significance. Unfortunately, the film offers little historical perspective, so we don’t learn how and why Sake became so ingrained in the fabric of Japan. Instead we focus mostly on the three fellows noted above and how their passions and commitment to Sake helped drive not just their own interests, but that of the industry. One other segment offers a glimpse inside the North Carolina based brewery looking to capitalize on the growing Sake trend. Unfortunately, per numerous reports, Blue Kudza went out of business shortly after this segment was filmed.

A cursory description of the process – gathering ingredients, preparation, fermenting, tasting, etc is interesting enough, and the personal stories add enough heft that we don’t realize the missing historical perspective until the movie ends. We are left anticipating a Sake tasting party, yet no more educated on the true significance of the chilled, warmed or room temperature beverage (it can be served all three ways) being hoisted as the patrons exclaim “Kampai!” and the screen fades to black.

 

 


HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)

August 16, 2016

hell or high water Greetings again from the darkness. A good guy doing bad things for a good reason. A bad guy doing bad things for a good reason. A good guy whose make-up doesn’t allow for bad things by anyone for any reason. Director David MacKenzie (Starred Up) and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) serve up a quasi-western featuring a crusty old Texas Ranger doggedly pursuing two bank robbing brothers. If not for the numerous destroy-the-flow screaming political statements, this could have been a near instant classic – just a tick below No Country for Old Men.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers Toby and Tanner Howard. Details eek out slowly about each … most importantly that Toby is a divorced dad and Tanner is an ex-con. Toby has meticulously planned out their bank robbery spree. The goal is to save his family ranch so his boys can escape the “disease” of poverty. Tanner is along to support his brother … and probably because he enjoys the adrenaline rush.

Soon enough, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is on the trail of the boys, and his highly developed instincts and gut feelings annoy his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) almost as much as Marcus’ incessant and insensitive racial teases – a reminder of the days when buddies would verbally jab each other without the risk of class action lawsuits.

The performances are all excellent. Pine is the quiet guy resigned to a life without happiness, but refusing to give up on his boys. Foster is the wide-eyed trouble-maker who long ago realized he would always be one careless moment from the end. Bridges literally becomes the Ranger being forced into retirement (age) but intent on remaining somewhat relevant. Additional support work is also quite colorful in a west Texas kind of way. The wonderful Dale Dickey gets an early sequence with the boys, the great Buck Taylor is always a pleasant presence, Margaret Bowman adds yet another memorable character to her resume as the T-Bone waitress, and Katy Mixon (“Eastbound and Down”) gets to stand up for the little people.

West Texas is a character unto itself with massive poverty, oil pumps on the horizon, dusty streets, rickety fences, and gun-toting citizens everywhere. Each of these elements is beautifully captured by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Dom Hemingway), as are the actual bank robberies and the quiet moments between brothers and Rangers partners. To cap it off, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis add a nice score and even better soundtrack … the best of which is an opening song from Townes Van Zandt .

Mixed in with the impending gloom are some terrifically witty exchanges and some downright funny moments. Exceptional acting, a spot on setting, wonderful photography, and superb music are only slightly offset by the previously mentioned obnoxious and too obvious shots taken at big banks and oil companies. Sometimes a good story can be just that … and not a political statement.

watch the trailer

 

 

 


THE LOST ARCADE (2016, doc)

August 13, 2016

lost arcade Greetings again from the darkness. Webster’s definition of “arcade” is how director Kurt Vincent chooses to start his documentary. While video arcade is the most widely used version, it was the alternative description of the word “passageway” that caught my eye.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, video arcades were seemingly everywhere … peaking in 1981 with 24,000 locations throughout the United States, with the largest venues being in Times Square. Rather than take on the collapse/transformation of an industry, Mr. Vincent instead focuses on one particular NYC arcade – Chinatown Fair. The video footage shot inside the arcade prior to its closure offers up an intimate look at the atmosphere; a racially diverse group of youngsters bonding and socializing within an ecosystem that the outside world didn’t understand (or care much about).

Placing your “next” quarter in line on the cabinet may have guaranteed you an upcoming time at the controls, but this can be viewed as the Land of Misfits with the gamers flocking to groups of their kind. These were the folks who didn’t fit in with the more physically active groups at rec centers and on playgrounds, but instead thrived on the late night gatherings amidst the electronics beeps and flashing lights.

We meet Sam Palmer, the immigrant from Pakistan, who owned Chinatown Fair for decades. This father figure often hired his most loyal players to help run the place, and we hear the personal stories from a couple of these – one (Akuma Hokura) who was rescued from a life on the streets, and another (Henry Cen) who later opened his own competitive arcade in Brooklyn. It’s perfectly accurate to describe this as a social community, and maybe not a stretch to call it a society unto itself.

Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Frogger and Street Fighter are just some of the most popular arcade games that finally gave way to home gaming – beginning with the 1986 introduction of Nintendo home systems. This development made gaming much more convenient for the masses, but also destroyed the social community of the local arcades.

We meet the guy who tried to re-open Chinatown Fair as a knock-off of Dave & Busters with an emphasis on family entertainment. However, as someone in the film states, “nostalgia is not really all that profitable”. Mr. Vincent’s film is a time capsule look at what made arcades work, and it’s very interesting to learn that Chinatown Fair played a role in a DeNiro/Streep film, an Old Dirty Bastard music video, and even an episode of David Letterman’s show. Going back to the opening definition, it’s easy to see how a generation used the local arcade as a passageway to finding a social life and interacting with others … something that had previously been more challenging for them.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 197 other followers