Tag Archive: Indie Movies


Room

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When I was reading Robert McKee’s Story months ago to help with my screenwriting (that book can really only teach you structure; it can’t teach you to be a writer), he went off on a long tangent about how modern independent cinema has forsaken plot for mood and atmosphere and stylistic window-dressing. I bet Robert McKee would have really hated 2005’s experimental indie drama Room. Here is a film that is all atmosphere, and when it attempts to have an actual plot or conversations between its characters on screen, it falls completely apart. But when it focuses on atmosphere, there’s something hypnotic about this film.

As an experiment in free-associative storytelling (and masterful post-production on a limited budget), Room‘s plot is not nearly as important as the way the film makes you feel though there is the skeleton of a story here. Julia Barker (Cyndi Williams) is a desperate and exhausted married mother of two. Her life consists of dealing with her delinquent eldest daughter and being yelled at by her boss at the bingo hall where she works in addition to being some type of delivery woman. Julia’s life is a monotonous grind of work and an unfulfilling home life. And there’s no way it will ever change.

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But, Julia’s life does begin to change when she starts to experience blackouts accompanied by visions of a massive empty room. The visions are muddled and unclear at first (and never really clear up that much), but the room appears as a giant loft, the kind you’d find in Brooklyn these days going for exorbitant rates. And so, Julia steals the deposit from her bingo hall’s safe and runs off to New York City desperately trying to find not only this giant room that she keeps seeing in her head but to find change and meaning in her life for the first time in years.

I almost feel like that last sentence of that paragraph is a spoiler for this film because ultimately, the emptiness of our lives is the point of the film and what I believe the empty room that Julia sees symbolizes. I don’t think that the film is remotely subtle in trying to get that point across. And, honestly, that’s okay to an extent. As a meditation on the desperation of impoverished working women in America and the idea that a family isn’t the only key to female satisfaction, Room is surprisingly powerful, and the interludes where there’s no dialogue and we just see Julia’s frantic search for anything in her life are fresh and evocative filmmaking.

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And the film’s sound design and editing match the disorienting feel of Julia’s existential crisis. With industrial droning and a schizophrenic cutting rhythm, Room (when it does what it does best) places the viewer right in the mindset of a woman on the brink. It’s a shame then that the sections of the film that focus on Julia’s interactions with others or dialogue seem so stilted and unnatural. Perhaps the director was attempting to make a statement on the mundaneness of Julia’s existence. But it didn’t make it any less dull and difficult to sit through.

Room isn’t like a lot of films you’ve ever seen. The only comparison to spring immediately to mind is Inland Empire although Room is decidedly less ambitious or mind-screwy. For casual film-viewers, Room will not be a rewarding experience and you will likely leave it angry that you sat through it all considering the film’s denouement (which to be fair, I enjoyed), but at 73 minutes, Room is worth a watch from fans of experimental cinema looking for something that truly follows its own rules and doesn’t bow down to the logic or structure of conventional cinema.

Score: B-

 

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Wanda

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A couple months ago, I read one of the bibles of screenwriting, Robert McKee’s Story. Though I don’t necessarily believe in everything that McKee says in the book (ultimately his rules are mostly interesting for structure and his opinions become more questionable the further you move away from structural concerns), there was something he understood that is germane to the film I just watched. Cinematic storytelling (with the exception perhaps of documentary) can not simply be portraiture. It doesn’t matter how true your presentation of life is if there ultimately isn’t a story arc there, even if its the barest bones of a story.

The Italian neo-realists understood this. Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief is a no-frills portrait of post-war poverty and despair, but the movie also had a heartbreaking story of a father and son’s quest to rescue their livelihood at its core. Terrence Malick understands this as well. Yes, the story of The Tree of Life or To the Wonder is secondary to the emotions that Malick evokes with the film’s imagery, but there’s still a compelling story there. 1971’s Wanda from Barbara Loden (wife of director Elia Kazan) is a seminal “classic” of early independent cinema, but it’s lack of a compelling story or even compelling characters made it a nearly unbearable chore.

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There is the bare bones of a story in Wanda. Unfortunately, it’s not one that’s worth the two hour investment of your life this film asks of you. Wanda (Barbara Loden) is, to quote Mumford & Sons, a hopeless wanderer. She’s abandoned her husband and her kids but not for any reason that makes sense. She just refuses to settle down. When the film begins, she shows up late for the court hearing for her husband to officially take her children, and she doesn’t put up any fight once she gets there. And, afterwards, Wanda drifts from one meaningless event to another until she takes up with crook, Mr. Dennis (Mike Higgins), who finds himself with a companion he never really asked for.

I actually feel like there could be a good movie here. A somber meditation on female dissatisfaction with the limited options women had in life in the 1960s and 70s. Of course that movie exists; it’s called Rachel, Rachel from Paul Newman starring his wife Joanne Woodward. That film is one of the saddest and most powerful that I’ve ever watched because Rachel was a haunting and powerful examination of repressed feminine yearning. Wanda on the other hand seems to have nothing to say other than that Wanda’s life has no meaning, but you don’t get any looks into why or what would push her down the absurd path she follows.

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None of the performances in the film were memorable either. Barbara Loden’s performance was particularly wooden which is astounding considering who her husband is. I don’t know why he didn’t come around the set and tell her that everyone in the film felt stiff and unnatural. Mike Higgens performance would rapidly flip from hilariously campy to occasionally appropriately moody and intense. No other characters were on the screen for more than a couple scenes, and most of them were even worse than Loden and Higgens, and I suspect they were grabbed right off the street, Bubble-style.

I’d rather work on my screenplay than devote any more time to discussing this film. Here’s the bottom line. Do not waste your time with Wanda. It has  a reputation as being one of the first great independent films, but give me a John Cassavetes film any day. The characters are flat, the performances are unnatural, and the story goes nowhere even if it ends on an obvious climax. The film is only an hour and a forty minutes long, but it felt like I was sitting through Lawrence of Arabia again. There are few sins in film-making worse than that.

Final Score: C-

(P.S. This film is so obscure that there is no trailer for it on Youtube.)

 

Well, long-time readers, I’m excited to announce a new addition to Hot Saas’s Pop Culture Safari and a new project that I’m really looking forward to diving into in the weeks to come. I, along with my cousin Trevor Saas, have created my very first podcast, The Saas Perspective. In The Saas Perspective, every week we’re going to dig deep into Hollywood’s hidden gems. My cousin and I will discuss some under-appreciated treasure that I’ve reviewed from this blog, although it’s possible that it will be an under-rated film that I saw before I started this blog. And for the first edition of the podcast, that means we’re talking about one of my favorite films that I’ve discovered thanks to running this blog, 2005’s Conversations With Other Women.

We will also have a segment where discuss something that’s capturing the nation’s attention for that week, so movies, television, and music that are the definition of the public zeitgeist. And, for regular readers, it should be easy to predict that our first discussion for that segment of the podcast was, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. And, to close the podcast out, we have a more free-form jam session where we look at what mine and Trevor’s current pop culture obsessions are, which is Buffy the Vampire Slayer for him and Star Trek and Sherlock for me. If you’re a reader of the blog, I think you’ll greatly enjoy the ability to hear me talk more in depth about the films and shows that I love and the added presence of my cousin brings an entirely new perspective to the series beyond mine. Enjoy everyone!

UPDATE: Apparently, Firefox and/or WordPress doesn’t want to show the embedded audio player from Soundcloud of the podcast so I’m also going to provide a hard link to the episode in case you’re having trouble seeing the player (which a lot of people are. Here you go: https://soundcloud.com/don-saas/the-saas-perspective-episode-1

Spring Forward

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The moment when human society surpassed “mere survival” as our primary life’s activity and developed culture and civilization instead is more of a mixed blessing than you’d think. We were finally able to find pleasure in our own existence and life ceased to be a never-ending struggle to not starve, but with that time to relax and ponder our place in the universe, we were struck by the existential questions that have defined modern human life. Why are we here? What’s the point of it all if we’re just going to die someday anyways? How do I find purpose in my life?

And though such philosophical quandaries are the bread and butter of the upper crust and the intellectual who have the leisure of devoting significant parts of their lives to introspection, these are questions that every person faces. And the cultural divide between the academics and professionals from the working class and uneducated makes it too easy for the former to think that the latter doesn’t think about these same issues. The only difference is where the meaning in our lives is derived. And whether that’s God, family, love, or intellectual pursuits, before we die, every man and woman must find their answer to that question.

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1999’s Spring Forward isn’t so much an attempt to answer the great questions of life (look towards The Tree of Life for that type of film) as it is an examination of men who are desperately seeking some meaning and some stability to grasp onto in their lives. And by placing the film squarely on the shoulders of two blue-collar but intelligent guys, Spring Forward avoids the potential snares of intellectual pretension by showing vividly crafted and realistic figures attempting to wrestle with ideas that have eluded the philosophers for millennia. About the only complaint one could lodge against this film is that all anyone does in it is talk, but when the conversations are this good, who cares?

After spending 18 months in prison for committing an armed robbery when his life went to complete shit, Paul (Liev Schreiber) gets a job in the Parks and Recreation department of a tiny New England town, and it’s his last chance to get the pieces of his life back together. When he was in prison, Paul was introduced to spiritual writings from the great minds of all of the major religions, and for a guy that dropped out of high school, Paul is able to find parallels in the writings of these men and the life he’s living right now. But it isn’t until he’s paired with the old Murph (Toy Story 3‘s Ned Beatty) that Paul finds the steady footing he needs.

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When the film begins, Murph is one year away from retirement, and he and Paul couldn’t be more different. Murph hasn’t strayed from the path a day in his life (or so you think at first), and the foul-mouthed, explosive Paul is set up to be a thorn in his side. But Murph’s gay son is dying from AIDS (never explicitly stated as such in the film) and we soon learn that Murph is as much of an emotional mess as Paul is because of his guilt of not giving his son enough love. And over the course of one year, Murph and Paul confide their deepest secrets to one another as they become the father and son they both desperately need.

Spring Forward is structured more like a play than a traditional film and it is broken down into clearly recognizable acts. Each scene is much lengthier than your average movie (they can be nearly twenty minutes a piece) and each time (with the exception of the final scene), the scenes are centered around a conversation between Murph and Paul as the year has progressed and their friendship has gotten deeper. They open themselves up to each other, and in the process, they voice their concerns and philosophies about the nature of the world as they dance circles around one another trying to determine if the other is worth the trust and affection they both need to give.

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Though I was enjoying the film, it finally cohered into a great picture halfway through when its theme and goals were made clear. It’s the beginning of fall and Paul and Murph are cleaning up leaves at a baseball field when Murph has a breakdown about his son. The pair get stoned together and all of Paul’s philosophical jabbering through out the movie finally adheres into a meaningful outlook on life and Murph tells a deeply personal story about an event at his brother’s funeral (which leads to one of my favorite lines in the film where Murph talks about how in a certain Indian tribe, the words for “breath” and “poetry” were the same).

Spring Forward is a beautifully acted and emotionally subtle film that proves to hold an emotional wallop when all is said and done. I’m hard-pressed to name a better performance in Ned Beatty’s career than as Murph, particularly as the layers of his character are slowly peeled away as the film progresses. He starts out as the sage father figure Paul needs, but Beatty makes it clear just how fueled by regret and guilt Murph really is. And though Liev Schreiber’s accent was comically unplaceable, he captured the simmering tension and desperate earnestness of Paul masterfully. And the naked emotional intimacy the two men shared was a wonderful display of masculine vulnerability.

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That the plot of this film is propelled almost entirely by conversations is going to be a turn-off for some. There are exactly two scenes where a major event occurs that isn’t almost entirely an extended conversation (and even then, there’s plenty of talking). So, perhaps writer/director Tom Gilroy (Girls Town) could have done a better job of externalizing these revelations and conversations, but the point of the film was watching men from a very specific walk of life wrestle with these incredibly tough questions. And from that perspective, it is a great film and a worthy heir to the My Dinner With Andre-legacy of existentialist, conversation-fueled cinema.

Final Score: A-

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Shane Carruth is a demanding filmmaker. Like David Simon, Charlie Kaufman, and David Lynch before him, Carruth refuses to hold audiences by the hand and offer simple solutions and recognizable tales. If you’re willing to devote the intellectual resources needed to comprehend one of his stories, Carruth rewards you with mind-bending science fiction unlike anything else out there. And, if you won’t…, well it’s clear that Carruth isn’t interested to catering to the Michael Bay audience. And, his total refusal to make anything other than the art he wants to make is what makes him such a special and valuable artist.

2004’s Primer took inaccessibility to new heights with its graduate-level physics technobabble, but if you pierced its thick veil, you were taken down a recursive rabbit-hole and got to engage in Olympian mental gymnastics. And, because of the intricately complex nature of Primer‘s plot, it’s become the very definition of a modern science fiction cult classic even if I bemoaned the film’s almost total lack of an emotional context. But, by taking a cue from a fellow Texan, Terrence Malick, Carruth has answered all of my complaints about his debut feature by revealing the marvelous Upstream Color, which is quite possibly the best science fiction film since Children of Men.

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I bring Terrence Malick up because, despite the labyrinthine nature of his plots, Shane Carruth is proving himself to be a master of minimalism. Going beyond the fact that Primer was shot for $7,000 and Upstream Color was rumored to be made for somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000, Carruth is a master of stripping away the non-essentials of his storytelling. Although Primer got by on occasional expository speeches, Upstream Color is the closest thing to The Tree of Life in modern film-making to almost totally eschew exposition. The plot occurs, often not even on screen, and Carruth requires you to pay attention and put the missing pieces together yourself. And it is magnificent when that happens.

Much like Primer, much of the fun of Upstream Color will be trying to piece the plot together for yourself so I fear spending too much time discussing the story on the off-chance that I spoil something. But, even a cursory introduction of the plot should entice viewers to lose themselves in the mystery at the heart of this tale. Kris (Amy Seimetz) is a young professional that finds her laugh destroyed when she is kidnapped and drugged by a thief. But her captor doesn’t have her under the sway of any ordinary drug. This drug, distilled from orchids and the worms in their soil, allows for the brainwashing and control of anyone in its thrall, and the Thief (Thiago Martins) steals every last penny of Kris’s savings.

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And when the Thief has taken all he can from Kris, he leaves her without a second thought, but her troubles are only now beginning. With no memory of what happened to her, Kris loses her job (for missing work for so long with no explanation), loses her home (the Thief took out equity against her house), and the life she’s known and loved, and she simply thinks she’s going crazy. And that’s when she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth). The two are immediately drawn to each other, and Jeff has gone through what neither of them can remember happening. And all the while, a mysterious man, the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), seems to be toying with his power over this pair.

And, that’s all I’ll say about the plot of Upstream Color except to add that just when you think you know what’s going to happen next, you’ll be shocked to discover just how wrong you are. Like Synecdoche, New York and Primer, it’s clear that Upstream Color will only grow in power with repeated viewings as the subtle implications you may have missed on your first go will suddenly make sense when you see them a second time. Carruth is a big fan of “Chekhov’s guns” and he has them laying all over the place. When it comes to tightly scripted stories that emphasize masterful foreshadowing, Carruth may only be bested by Robert Towne’s Chinatown.

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Minimalism isn’t the only area where Carruth is clearly inspired by Terrence Malick. Somewhere between 2004 and this year, Carruth learned a thing or two about cinematography, and Upstream Color is a stunningly gorgeous film to behold. There are numerous, lengthy swaths of the film where dialogue is at a minimum, and the story is conveyed through hauntingly beautiful shots and creative editing. Shane Carruth did virtually all of the major technical jobs in the film (directing, editing, writing, cinematography, music), and not for a second do you get the impression that he was stretched too thin.

My biggest complaint about Primer was that I had virtually no reason to care about its protagonists. While the puzzle aspect of the film was deliciously complex, I could never emotionally invest myself in the world of the film. And it’s a testament to the tightness of Carruth’s time-travel plot that it didn’t bother me more. Upstream Color obliterates that concern. Though Carruth isn’t capable of a Sunday Bloody Sunday-style of character depth, it’s not his goal, and through strong writing (and even stronger performances), I found myself enticed and enveloped by the trials of Kris and Jeff.

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If it wasn’t clear from all of the surprisingly accurate (despite the technobabble) engineering and physics at play in Primer, Shane Carruth loves science, and though Upstream Color may not seem as immediately high-concept and as directly sci-fi as Primer, it tackles an equally esoteric (but fascinating) field of science as Primer did with time travel. Without wanting to spoil too much, for anyone interested in quantum entanglement theory (but played from a psychological perspective rather than quantum physics) should find plenty to love in the nuts and bolts of Carruth’s story.

Science fiction this smart comes along so rarely that when a director with Carruth’s vision and intelligence comes along, he must be prized. Ten years is a long time to wait to follow up a beloved debut feature, but the wait was well worth it for Upstream Color is an undeniable science fiction masterpiece. Although I hope we won’t have to wait this long again for another Carruth picture, I suspect it will be years and dozens of viewings later before I’m finally able to piece together every part of the Upstream Color puzzle. And it’s a guarantee that at least the attempt will be made.

Final Score: A

Gayby

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Well, I have new go-to example of how a terrible movie title (and a bland and unappealing plot description) can ward me away from watching a movie that is, in reality, absolutely delightful. I have a special interest in LGBT fiction (I mean, A Single Man is one of my favorite films of the last five years), but when your film is called Gayby and it’s about a straight woman and a gay man trying to have a baby together, my mind starts to wonder somewhere along the way. I can admit when I’m wrong though, because Gayby is a comedic breath of fresh air. A fast-talking, constantly witty that would have been right at home with the classic screwball comedies (though clearly not with its subject matter), Gayby marks Jonathan Lisecki as a smart and fresh new voice in indie comedy and his film is a beautiful display of modern friendship and modern dating.

The basic plot description of the film is deceptive and hides the many layers running throughout this film. Jenn (Jenn Harris) is a thirty-something yoga instructor who realizes her biological clock is ticking when she hears about her younger sister’s plans to adopt a child. Matt (Matthew Wilkas) is a thirty-something comic book store clerk and aspiring graphic novelist who hasn’t been in a serious relationship in six months after the dissolution of his seven year last relationship, and all of the men he meets won’t respect his physical boundaries. One day, Jenn texts Matt asking if they want to have a baby together like they’ve talked about since college, and in a moment of desperation and loneliness for both of them, Matt agrees. There’s only one catch. Jenn wants to make the baby the old-fashioned way. She wants Matt to have sex with her.

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That turns out to be one of the more minor obstacles in the film. With a little self-revving of his own engines, Matt can get himself to the point where he can attempt to inseminate Jenn though their sex is about as unsexy as you can get. And as the pair are trying to conceive a baby, they’re also trying to put their own shambled lives back together. Jenn wants respect at her yoga clinic where her only friend is her other gay best friend, Jamie. With some prodding from his own gay best friend, Nelson (director Jonathan Lisecki), Matt finally gets his feet back in the dating game when he starts seeing a nerdy father and divorcee who more or less comes out to Matt in a passionate moment in the comic book store. But, sex complicates every relationship, and Matt and Jenn’s path to parenthood is as rocky as their screwed-up lives.

Matthew Wilkas is a natural performer (he’s currently in the Broadway Spiderman musical) and bears an absolutely freakish resemblance to Michael C. Hall back on his Six Feet Under days. It was kind of uncanny. When at all possible, the Wilkas character subverts practically any and all homosexual stereotypes (he’s neither a twink or a bear). He’s more like what Jack called in one episode of Will & Grace, the “hot gay nerd.” A lot of the dramatic weight of the film rests on his shoulders, but he also delivers plenty of great one-liners. Jenn Harris is less capable of carrying the dramatic scenes, but when she lets loose either in a hilarious yoga lesson where she’s hopped up on a libido-enhancing herbal medicine or calling herself a “hag from birth,” she scores several of the film’s biggest laughs.

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My only complaint about the film is that it seemed like too many of the gay characters fit into the overly feminine, campy Jack McFarland territory, but since it was written and directed and performed by one of the me in that camp, it wasn’t malicious or stereotyping. I just wanted to see more characters along the Matt line. If you have even the slightest patience for (i.e. you’re not a homophobe) and interest in LGBT storytelling, you should watch Gayby. It’s currently on Netflix instant, and it was thoroughly delightful. It’s definitely a specifically New York hipster LGBT comedy, so it probably appeals to a pretty niche audience. I mean, there’s an Antony and the Johnson‘s cover of “Crazy in Love” in the film if that tells you anything. But, if you fit into the niche the movie will work for, it’s worth your time.

Final Score: B+

 

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(A quick aside before I write this review. I watched this film Saturday. I apologize if this review is deficient in any way)

The difference between reality and what we perceive  has proven fruitful ground for many storytellers over the years. The film was excellent for a variety of reasons, but 2007’s Atonement struck a tragic and powerful course by following the misunderstood visions of a little girl to their heart-wrenching conclusion. When someone gives a false account of something they witnessed firsthand, malicious falsehoods aren’t necessarily their intention. It’s just how we see things, and, occasionally, we create lies as a coping mechanism. In the Southern Gothic coming of age story, Eve’s Bayou, director Kasi Lemmons fashions another tragic vision of what happens when the filters of childhood warps the real world. And had the film not been peppered with supernatural elements that seemed terribly out of place, it could have been an even more powerful tale.

In the swamps of 1960s Louisiana, Eve Baptiste (Jurnee Smollett) is a ten year old African American girl that believes she is the direct descendant of French general Jean-Paul Baptiste and a Haitian slave. Along with her 14 year old sister Cicely (Meagan Good) and their 9 year old brother, Eve lives with her mother Roz (Lynn Whitfield) and her father, Louis (Django Unchained‘s Samuel L. Jackson). Louis is the most successful and prominent black doctor in the South, and the Baptiste’s live a life of relative luxury compared to most of their peers, though Louis’s psychic sister Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), does alright for herself as well as a counselor.  But, Louis is a pathological womanizer, and when Eve catches her father about to make love with a married woman at a family party, the Baptiste family is set on a crash course with heart break.

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The film’s greatest asset is its surplus of wonderful performances. Child acting is generally a mixed bag at best, but Meagan Good and Jurnee Smollett hit all of the right notes as Cicely and Eve Baptiste. Meagan Good is particularly effective as the know-it-all older sister who is consistently proven to not know nearly as much as she thinks she does, and without wanting to spoil the plot of the film, she handles particularly adult subject matter very well. And Jurnee Smollett captures the growing disillusionment with adults that any sensible child eventually faces in their life. But, the two best performances of the film were Sam Jackson as the rakish but oh-so charming Louis and Debbi Morgan as the psychic aunt whose male lovers always seem to die violent deaths. She should hang out with Maggie from Northern Exposure.

However, I could never get behind the pervasive supernatural elements that were omnipresent in Eve’s Bayou. At it’s core, it’s a tale of the end of childhood innocence due to exposure to the sexual realities of growing up and how our parents aren’t the perfect protectors we want them to be. That’s great. That’s a great movie right there. But, Eve’s Bayou layers on pervasive element after pervasive element of Cajun voodoo and Southern Gothic supernatural nonsense that seem like superficial window dressing to the story at hand. Unlike, say, the magical realism in Like Water for Chocolate, the psychic stuff (which the film firmly establishes as being real within the movie’s universe) never drew me deeper into this movie’s world. It mostly drew me out of the experience as I scoffed at the ridiculousness of it all.

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I want to watch one of the movies that I have home from Netflix right now so I’ll draw this review to a close. Ignoring the supernatural elements of this film, Eve’s Bayou is a tightly wound coming-of-age story that shatters the illusions and misconceptions of childhood in the way that only the best coming of age stories can. It suffers from some pacing problems, and the movie can be distractingly unfocused, but it finds the moments where its visions of the pains and trauma of childhood are so powerful that it hurts to watch. The sympathy it generates for Eve and her sister (and then steals away in the most tragic of ways) is a marvel. I only wish that the entire film had entrenched itself in the realism of its depiction of childhood. Had it left the Louisiana ghost stories at the door, it could have been a truly great film.

Final Score: B+

 

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Among many people of my generation, what I’m about to say may not sound particularly controversial, but for older readers, it may shock. I consider the greatest piece of popular fiction ever made to be the fourth season of The Wire. By examining the myriad ways that bureaucratic institutions (but, specifically, the schools and city hall) fail our most at-risk children, The Wire crafted one of the most tragic, heartbreaking, and painfully honest stories ever told, not just on television but in all of fiction. Honestly, The Wire begins to transcend fiction and becomes a sociological survey of the dying American city but that’s an essay for another day. 1997’s indie drama Squeeze traverses some of the same thematic territory as The Wire, by focusing on young children on the verge of manhood trying to survive urban poverty and urban decay. Obviously, it isn’t half as good as The Wire, but, what is?

Squeeze‘s political ambitions aren’t nearly as broad and far-reaching as The Wire or even a John Singleton film, but by narrowing the focus to the external pressures bearing down on three teenage boys, Squeeze makes a statement of its own. The film doesn’t comment on why urban poverty exists or the moral failings of political institutions that have allowed the drug trade to destroy the inner cities or the cyclical nature that turns our nation’s inner city youth into “criminals.” Instead, Squeeze is content to let those phenomena simply exist without showing why they do. And, instead, it shows how the nature of violence and crime tear apart the lives of people at individual levels and that while there may be hope for people to escape that senseless cycle, seemingly insurmountable obstacles must be overcome to make it happen.

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Squeeze is the story of three young friends who have tried to stay out of the crime tearing their neighborhood apart. African-American Tyson (Tyrone Burton), Puerto Rican Hector (Eddie Cutanda), and Vietnamese Bao (Phuong Duong) work at a gas station begging for change to pump someone’s gas until a local gang intimidates them and runs them out of their job for no other reason than spite. In a moment of frustration with their lot in life, the boys attack a lone member of the gang and rob him, permanently earning them the ire of the gang and the knowledge that at any moment, the gang could kill them for revenge. The boys get a job working with a local youth group as an attempt at protection but when they far it isn’t enough, they seek the help of a Boston drug dealer who will offer them protection in exchange for them becoming dealers.

The performances of the three leads are a mixed bag. Phuong Duong can’t act, and the most consistently grating aspect of the film is having to listen to him laugh. Thankfully, then, he has less screen time than the others. Eddie Cutanda’s performance varies from surprisingly effective to emotionally wooden, often within the course of the same scene. A perfect example would be a moment shared between Tyson and Hector right after Hector’s mother shoots herself. At first, Hector seemed so sad it hurt, but then Eddie Cutanda lost his groove half-way through the scene. Thankfully then, Tyrone Burton’s performance was mostly fantastic for a child actor from beginning to end. He had some missteps as well, here and there, but mostly, it was a fierce and haunting performance from a kid’s debut film performance.

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I’ll keep this review short. It’s my day off and I want to actually enjoy as much of it as I can. I just started playing Max Payne 3 last night, and I can already tell that I’m going to love that game, and I want to play more of it tonight. So, here’s the low-down on Squeeze. It’s ending is a little too upbeat, to the point that it borders on disingenuous. And not every sequence in the film hits the right marks, but when the movie taps into something raw and powerful, it can be very difficult to watch. And that’s the sign of of realistic urban cinema. It presents truths that you would rather not face. Squeeze has those moments (though it takes a while to get there). It’s not as masterfully pulled off as a Spike Lee film or a John Singleton movie, and clearly, it isn’t The Wire. But if you have an interest in independent urban cinema, you should give Squeeze a chance.

Final Score: B+

 

Tape (2001)

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I’m a fan of what my friend Jen calls “verbal volleyball” cinema. Though I haven’t reviewed a film in this vein since My Dinner With Andre, I’m in love with films that are just two (sometimes three) characters talking for more or less the entire film’s run time. In fact, one of the first films I ever gave top marks to, Conversations with Other Women, fits perfectly into that genre. And I’ve highly enjoyed other similarly structured films including the Steve Buscemi-helmed Interview and the early Robert Downey Jr. movie, Two Girls and a Guy. While 2001’s Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused) film Tape isn’t quite Conversations or My Dinner with Andre, it’s an intellectual mind-game that provoked a visceral emotional reaction.

I suffer from slight social anxiety that usually only manifests itself when people behave in ways so removed from polite social expectations that it begins to make me uncomfortable. My anxiety in these situations manifests into a legitimate sense of physical pain and a shortness of breath, and weirdly, this carries over to fictional situations. So, when I say that there are moments in Tape where the film elicits such a pained, uncomfortable reaction that I nearly had to turn the film off, it should speak volumes to how honest and brutally dark the subject matter can get. Tape may only be a 90 minute long conversation in terms of its plot, but at its core, it’s a gritty and mature look at harrowing topics.

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Shot on a very cheap home digital camera, Tape is the conversation between two (and then a third) friends who haven’t seen each other in ten years. Vince (Reality Bites‘s Ethan Hawke) is a drug-dealing, assistant firefighter with violent tendencies that has just lost his girlfriend and has no plans for his life. He’s in Lansing, MI (we believe at first) to support his best high school friend, Jon (The Age of Innocence‘s Robert Sean Leonard), whose self-produced film is in a small, local film festival. But as the two drink beers and talk in Vince’s cramped hotel room, it’s clear that Vince has ulterior motives as he tries to get Jon to admit to some indiscretion in his past with a girl they both dated, Amy (Kill Bill‘s Uma Thurman), and it isn’t long before startling admissions and explosive accusations are made.

And if that plot description sounds dull as hell, sorry. That’s what the movie is. Based off of Stephen Belber’s play (I highly suspected that it had been a play first while watching it), Tape is a forty-five minute conversation between Vince and Jon that gets increasingly darker until finally Amy shows up and then it’s an even darker and more uncomfortable conversation between the three of them as they explore their pasts and aspects of their lives they all wish they could just leave forgotten. Other than one minor tussle between Jon and Vince, there is no action. Just conversation, and thankfully, after a bit of a slow start, the conversations really take off.

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One of the many reasons that Tape is able to be so fascinating despite its simple execution is the terrific performances from its three-person cast. I’m continually astounded by the fact that Ethan Hawke isn’t one of the biggest stars in Hollywood today because not only does he have classic leading man looks, but he is also a supremely talented actor. His turn as Vince is simply feral. Vince is a hyperactive bundle of misdirected energy and anger, and Ethan Hawke creates as much tension as the writing by tapping into the audience’s understanding that Vince is just seconds away from exploding. It’s a marvelous performance from a consistently under-rated actor.

Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard were both good even if neither of them were able to live up to the impossibly high standards set by Ethan Hawke. Uma doesn’t show up until much later in the film, and it’s a while before you realize the darkness lurking beneath the surface of Robert Sean Leonard’s apparently squeaky clean film director, but once they have the chance to display the complexity and darkness of their own characters, Thurman and Leonard deliver much of the emotional power of the film. In fact, Amy and Jon’s verbal sparring when they finally go head to head later in the film provided the moments that made me so physically uncomfortable that I worried I might have to turn the film off. Thankfully, I powered through.

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It’s  a shame then that Tape is so completely hideous to look at. It’s not an exaggeration when I say that Tape ranks up there with Border Radio as one of the most aesthetically unpleasing shot films I’ve ever watched for this blog. The handheld digital camera Linklater uses makes the film look like a poorly made home film, and the man had already made Before Sunrise and Dazed and Confused at this point, so you know he could have afforded better equipment. It was a stylistic choice and one I felt was ill-suited to this movie. It didn’t do much to enhance the intimacy of the picture which I’m sure was his intention.

But, if you’re a fan of the “verbal volleyball” subgenre of film, you should certainly give Tape a try. When it first begins, you may be at a loss for what the point of this movie is, but take my word for it when I say that the pay-off is worth it. Ethan Hawke is positively spell-binding, and though it takes a while for the others to find their footing, they provide the perfect counterpoint to his simmering energy. If you find yourself experiencing physical discomfort in awkward situations, Tape has them in spades and the sheer torture that it’s climactic confrontation caused me is the best commendation I can give to this film’s emotional veracity.

Final Score: B+

 

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As someone who’s now written two (unpublished) screenplays that attempt to honestly capture what it’s like to be young and truly fallible, let me just say, it ain’t easy. To find that perfect mixture between painful honesty, humor, and well-crafted characters that are more than just archetypes that have been done to death is as tricky a proposition as they come. For every Fast Times at Ridgemont High (that movie is way darker than you remember it being) or Superbad, you get twenty vacuous teen dramas/comedies like American Pie or something starring Zac Efron. Being young is full of life but it’s also incredibly painful and consistently tragic, and finding the mix between those two realities is the ultimate balancing act. Stephen Chbosky’s self-directed adaptation of his own novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, successfully navigates those waters.

After his best friend committed suicide the previous year, the depressed and socially awkward Charlie (Logan Lerman) is starting his freshman year of high school. Very intelligent, Charlie is so shy that he can’t even answer his English teacher’s (Paul Rudd) questions although he clearly knows the answers. After respecting his brazen behavior in their shop class, Charlie befriends the gay Patrick (Ezra Miller) and the beguiling Sam (Harry Potter‘s Emma Watson). Patrick is secretly dating a deeply closeted high school football player while Sam is in & out of a continuing series of destructive relationships with exploitative older men. Charlie’s depression and anxiety begin to subside as he grows closer with Sam and Patrick (as well as their circle of friends), but when Charlie begins to fall in love with Sam and realizes that even his fun-loving friends have their own problems, his own past and tragedies threaten to derail his new life.

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Taking place over Charlie’s freshman year, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an episodic collage of an often brutally honest portrayal of high school life. Though it’s set in the 1990s, the film/book is as relevant to young people today as it was when it first took place. A refreshingly truthful and non-judgmental look at teenage drug use, sexuality, and partying, Perks removes any filter of sentimentality or the 20/20 of hindsight and truly captures the beauty and hellishness of being young. If you were an awkward or sensitive high school student and you don’t recognize part of yourself in this movie, you’re clearly not watching the same film I did. From the way that the kids lose themselves in good music, party both for fun’s sake and also to escape ugly truths, the way that we justify our own fear to tell people how we really feel, Perks can just be devastatingly “true” and that’s probably the best compliment I can give the film.

Stephen Chbosky’s script, direction, and source material all contribute to the film’s veracity, but a significant portion of the credit must also be given to the film’s wonderful cast and it’s three principal leads. I was only familiar with Logan Lerman because of his work in Percy Jackson (which I’ve never actually “watched” but we used to play it in the DVD player at work when it was released), and I’m now hoping that he can prove himself to be a promising top-tier young talent. At first I was thrown off by how fidgety and just plain awkward his Charlie was, but that was true for the character and it mostly disappears as the film progresses. Charlie is suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, and Logan  Lerman captures the deepness of his depression and anxiety, but he also taps into his charm and intelligence and warmth. Charlie is a complex, fully realized young figure and Logan Lerman can take a lot of the credit for that.

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Emma Watson should finally put aside any concerns that her post-Harry Potter career wouldn’t take off because Sam rivals Charlie and Patrick for tragic complexity, and Emma rises to the occasion with aplomb. Although she might be struggling with an American accent just a little bit, it’s not distracting, and the simultaneously wounded but full of joie de vivre Sam becomes one of the film’s emotional centers. Emma’s maturity into an exceptionally talented young actress over the last ten years or so has been a true delight to behold, and her performance in Perks becomes the peak of her career to date. In fact, Sam is such a compelling character that you almost wish that you could have seen more of her and what it was in her character that led her to make so many poor life decisions while still being so clearly intelligent.

To me though, Ezra Miller should become the break-out star of the film, and if I were a casting director, I think he could write his own check as both a comedic and dramatic actor. He is a serious double threat in that department. Although I’m sure Patrick was a nuanced and subtle character in the book and script, Ezra Miller resists any urges to make Patrick into a flat gay stereotype. In fact, remove the literal fact that Patrick was gay, and he could have easily been an especially theatrical hipster. I probably related to the Patrick character more than anyone else in the film. Perhaps more than anyone else in the film, Patrick proves to be such a rollercoaster of emotions from spectacular highs to rock-bottom lows, and Ezra Miller never misses a beat. A real life bisexual, Miller’s performance and the Patrick character should become a landmark role in the younger LGBT community.

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I think it’s fair to say that The Perks of Being a Wallflower has the best soundtrack of any film I’ve reviewed since Dazed & Confused or Almost Famous. There’s a scene where David Bowie’s “Heroes” is being played (guess what my Song of the Day is going to be today) that rivals the use of Regina Spektor’s “Hero” (I didn’t even make the name connection until literally just now) in (500) Days of Summer as one of my favorite uses of music in a movie. With a collection of great 90s indie rock and seminal 80s post-punk music, Perks has, after just one viewing, joined RushmoreGarden State, and (500) Days of Summer as having one of my favorite soundtracks ever. The music selection is perfect from the Smiths to Sonic Youth to L7 to some great uses of numbers from Rocky Horror Picture Show. Perks is proof of the power of a great soundtrack (and it makes sense within the context of the film considering how important music is to its characters).

I’ll stop now and just say that for a first feature film, Stephen Chbosky really hit a home run with The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Few people can hope to have this kind of success right out of the gate, and it gives me hope that he can go on to write other great novels that become superb films. I am actually willing to go so far as to say that Perks is now tied for the best film I’ve seen from 2012 (with Liberal Arts) although I should probably reiterate the fact that the only Best Picture nominee I’ve seen so far is Beasts of the Southern Wild (the others haven’t came out on Netflix yet). That should be changing soon as those films are slowly dripping out of the Netflix DVD/Blu-Ray rental gate. If you want a charming, insightful, witty, heartbreaking, and uplifting look at high school, it’s hard for me to think of a better film than The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Final Score: A+