Thank you all for visiting and reading my thoughts on the films I see. I have recently ported this blog over to my parent site of www.jaredmobarak.com and will be posting new reviews and work there from now on. All links from this blog will shortly redirect to their counterparts on the new site, but, for now, feel free to come on over and see what new films have been watched.

Thanks very much for your support,

I never expected to be as entertained as I was after watching Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s very well-acted House of Strangers. It is a story of familial bonds and the blood, sweat, and tears that go into raising a family; how money and power can easily usurp the intrinsic necessity of love. Patriarch Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson in a fantastic role toeing the line of Italian caricature, but never going over) came to America with his wife and lived in a one-bedroom flat above a barbershop, working 16-hour days, 7 days a week to support her and their four young boys. He knew what it was like to be poor and he built his bank and fortune from that poverty. Refusing to use collateral in order to lend money—yet all for charging big interest—he helped the community based on their character. Taking a chance on his neighbors, many began their lives in direct result of his charity. You could even say he treated strangers better than his own, always putting his sons in their place, never giving them anything in order to teach them the lessons he learned the hard way.

But when you take a closer look at this seemingly affable man, bursting into Italian song or ‘making a mistake’ giving a woman more money than asked when needing a loan to pay the hospital, you begin to see through the façade at the selfish man beneath. Gino Monetti lives for only Gino Monetti. He has lifted himself up to God-like status in the community, and no matter how much he tells his family he did it all for them, it was really for the power—to control all those in his grasp. Because of this, his eldest son Joe (Luther Adler) feels slighted, always insulted and relegated to his weekly pittance in the cage, told he will inherit it all; pretty-boy Tony (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) is mocked for his weakness, called effeminate, and never treated like a man; and the youngest, but also strongest, Pietro (Paul Valentine) is called dumb-head over and over in hopes to make him cease boxing and learn something new to be successful. Gino thinks his tough love is leading them to become their own men, but the lessons fall on deaf ears instead, harboring only hatred and indifference to the man who raised them.

Well, all but Max of course. Max (Richard Conte) is just like his father. He decided to take his own path, never letting the family business define him, becoming a successful attorney and a man able to stand tall and talk to Gino by commanding the same respect his father did of him. As a result, his brothers hated him too as he took all affections of the man that left them to slaughter. So when fortunes turned and the government indicted Gino for fraudulent banking practices and unlawful lending, the family becomes strangers, blood bonds dissolved. Those Gino helped demand their money, unable to show the compassion he gave when they needed it most, and his sons walk away, biding time until they’d take over the bank while he went to jail. The only person left to stand by is Max, the only boy who truly believed his father stewarded him to become the great success he had. But we in the audience know better. We see just how alike the two men are, filled with ego, power-hungry, and stubborn to those in their way.

The House of Strangers of the title is therefore a representation of the Monettis, a once proud family torn apart by the American Dream. We see the uncomfortable relationship between the four brothers right at the start, watching as Max enters the bank displaying his name, treated coldly as he pushes forth to see his siblings. Mankiewicz beautifully portrays the tension by pausing a beat as Max enters an office at left with Joe, Tony, and Pietro waiting at the other side. The four look at each other with stern faces in silence before the three bankers break into a forced jubilation, welcoming Max back by offering wine, cigars, and money. Something has occurred to make the attorney miss the past seven years, a time in which his father died and his brothers reaped the rewards. What it was, we don’t yet know. But we soon go into a flashback that lasts a good three quarters of the film’s duration—a look into what brought the Monettis to that moment of time, experiencing how this strong family who ate together every Wednesday night at home could become a group of men completely devoid of love.

Because it is love that plays the most integral part of the story onscreen, the existence or disappearance of it that shapes the actions of each character. None of the players are free from fault; they all have demons. But rather than work together and help each other, the slighted decide to walk away from the family at its time of need, watching it implode to pick up the pieces while Max goes to prison, growing the seeds of vengeance. You see, even in death, Gino held great power over each son, his teachings of such gems as finishing your opponent when he’s down so you never have to fight him again rising to the surface despite how much they wished to cleanse themselves of him. Max has stewed for seven years, waiting to return home and destroy his brothers like they dismantled the family. But he also has Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward) to think of, the love he had to leave abruptly in the night. She being there upon his return is the only way to show Max the truth about his father—his manipulations, his hubris, and his being the one to bring them all down. Tough love only works if there is real love underneath to praise and commend. Joe, Tony, and Pietro never earned that right according to Gino, so they grew more and more distant, soon projecting the man they hated onto Max, the golden child.

So it comes down to him. Max can either play into his brothers’ fear of revenge, becoming the man his father groomed him to be, or he can forgive, finishing his life as he saw fit. For all the autonomy he thought he had, Max was always the one controlled most. Hatred was bred every which way in the family, making it so that even marriage was done out of convenience and status. Only Irene was able to break the mold and instill genuine feelings into the Monetti clan, her own headstrong fearlessness giving Max an equal in mind and body. Hayward expresses this strength as well as an ability to fall in love. We know this man enraptures her, but until he opens up, she won’t let him hurt her. She won’t be his subservient wife and is willing to do the impossible—leave him despite her want. He is Max Monetti; that’s just not done. It is the first time he has ever been refused in his entire life and it becomes the moment that opens his eyes towards the reality of his life and the man his father truly was. This epiphany allows for the brilliant finale to work. Even I, a lover of the dark ending, feel the conclusion here was the most appropriate. Love really can conquer all, even if decades of hate have clouded you for too long.

House of Strangers 8/10

courtesy of www.dvdbeaver.com

The question is, who is Salt? Two years ago she was a falsely imprisoned utilities corporation worker being water-boarded by the North Koreans; an unspecified amount of time after she is a CIA operative who has been saved and traded back to the US, not by her bosses, but by the cover boyfriend who fell for her and started making waves in political circles; and, in the present day, she is accused of being a Russian covert plant—a part of the Soviet Union’s insane plot to destroy America that began with a switcharoo spy taking the identity of Lee Harvey Oswald. Hell, a couple years ago Salt was Tom Cruise. Look at her now.

Director Phillip Noyce has a successful track record for political espionage thrillers, so the material is right on par with previous work. Writer Kurt Wimmer, on the other hand, seems to have reformatted his career trajectory into writing those types of movies for hire ever since the dismal failure of his sophomore turn behind the camera, Ultraviolet, a film I still hope to one day watch his vision of, before the studio mangled it. Unfortunately, I don’t know if he has another Equlibrium in him. We can only hope, because, sadly, this is not it. Salt isn’t a bad film by any means, it just isn’t one brimming with originality. The pieces fall into place and Wimmer injects about three or four twists to shock you, but that method is now the norm. Shock value would be doing what we expect these days.

This is a solid thriller with nice front-to-back action; populated by three actors for whom I have a lot of respect. Liev Schreiber has made a career of being the stoic, no nonsense government guy and Chiwetel Ejiofor the same as the intelligent agent with a side of compassion. So, it was nice to see the archetypes flipped here—or are they—as Schreiber’s Winter becomes the one to rise to Salt’s defense, hoping Ejiofor’s Peabody relents from using fatal means to bring her down. Yes, they have to bring her down. Whether she is a double agent or not, the girl runs once a Russian spy enters their headquarters, divulges her supposed identity, and escapes. Frightened for what the people setting her up might do to her husband—that kindly German arachnologist from Korea—she runs to find him and perhaps clear her name, or maybe assassinate the Russian president like Daniel Olbrychski’s Orlov said she will.

The question, despite anything shown onscreen, remains constant throughout. Right when you think you may have a handle on the real Ms. Evelyn Salt, the answer gets turned on its head. Is she a patriot, and, if so, for what country? Would she kill in cold blood? Was she trained to become an American known as Salt—a girl in the USSR involved in a car crash killing her parents—but in fact was born and raised in Russia, waiting for the chance to sneak into the US? Does she love her husband or is he just a pawn in her game? Surprisingly, while you can correctly guess her true motivations early on, Angelina Jolie—the third actor mentioned in the paragraph before—portrays them all. The ‘who’ may in fact be all of the above; maybe the Soviets underestimated what could happen to someone after decades of undercover work. If Visitors in “V” can form the Fifth Column against Anna and Cylons can choose to fight for the colonies in “Battlestar Galatica”, why couldn’t a Russian spy find the desire to honor her adopted country, despite her original reasons to be there?

Through all the car chases—and there are many—as well as the hand-to-hand combat seeing Jolie/stunt double parkouring on walls to disable her opponent, there is more to it all, hidden beneath the surface. Clues are blatantly left out and shown in close-up, begging us to guess crucial plot points rather than allow us to go back, watch a second time, and have an “a-ha” moment—yes, I’m talking to you Mr. Spider—and Salt finds herself hunted by every agency the US has, but it isn’t all so pandering or full of insurmountable odds that show our government’s ineptitude more than the wiles of a soldier. In the end, this lethal weapon, who unflinchingly uses a knocked-out Secret Service member’s shoulder as a silencer to maim his buddy turning the corner, is ultimately a human being, one who found a yearning for a normal life away from the job. August Diehl’s Mike Krause might have found his way in as a mark to be used and tossed away, but his actions saving her, possibly the first true compassionate gift in her life, made him her reason to keep going.

Audience members will go into the theatres looking for fights, action, gunfire, and writhing metal in crash after crash. They’ll be happy because Salt is above all else a film meant to get the adrenaline pumping. Ejiofor and Schreiber do their job, progressing the way they need to in service of the overall plot; the ending is pure Hollywood, always leaving a backdoor escape route for sequel possibilities these days; and, I’ll admit, seeing someone as attractive as Jolie kick butt for two hours is enjoyable. But what resonated with me the most is that underlying theme of love’s power to change our core. Wimmer is a talented man and he hid that little carrot of humanity in what a lesser writer would have made pure unadulterated kill-or-be-killed cat-and-mouse. I don’t think the film would have been as effective if Tom Cruise, or any male actor for that matter, played the lead. Jolie’s ability to switch from steely-eyed coldness to wavering lip of vulnerability is Salt’s saving grace, giving it a touch more than the normal summer actioner I assumed it would be. I do, however, still hate that her face is off-center on the poster.

Salt 6/10

[1] Angelina Jolie stars as “Evelyn Salt” in Columbia Pictures’ contemporary action thriller SALT. Photo By: David Giesbrecht
[2] Chiwetel Ejiofor as ” Agent Peabody” and Liev Schreiber as “Agent Ted Winter” in Columbia Pictures’ contemporary action thriller SALT. Photo By: Andrew Schwartz, SMPSP

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Say what you will about Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, while both may be great, they simply show Christopher Nolan’s skill at telling a good story with emotion, action, and drama. What sets the auteur on another level of genius than pretty much anyone working in or out of Hollywood today is the imagination let loose in his other films. The ingenuity of storytelling, the intellectual gravitas, and the visionary worlds he leads us through are, quite simply, without compare. But, no matter how fantastic his career-making Memento remains, the revelation that is Inception renders it mere child’s play. Not since his debut Following—a gem in its own right—has he brought a story to screen out of his mind alone. It’s a magnum opus of unadulterated ambition, creating architects of dreamscapes and professionals able to mold those fantasies on at will. Inception questions reality, morality, physics, spirituality, and love, asking us to stop telling the world and ourselves what we think and instead find what it is we believe.

That which we believe makes us. From an early age, whether due to nature or nurture, we cultivate an inner structure of ideals and truths to live by. Each and every person has their own personal rules and regulations guiding all actions—life, death, existence, they are all only real if we give them definition and power. A dream is our subconscious feeding on memory, hopes, fantasies, and horrors, building a construct to test those values within by showing what is, what could be, or what hopefully never ends up. It is a realm of secrets, hidden treasures left vulnerable and free to float to the surface due to the safety of being trapped inside our mind. But what if people had the ability to go inside our dreams; infiltrating and orchestrating every move we make to discover shrouded morsels of information? What if there were trained extractors who create worlds to mirror reality—able to change it to their needs—and they brought you unknowingly inside? Without defenses, without the knowledge to build walls or set filters, we’d be sitting ducks willing to say whatever it was they needed, especially if they could take the form of ones we trust.

Secrets become bought and sold, kidnapping now done while the victim’s unconscious, eventually left to awaken without knowledge of what occurred, the memory fuzzy and fleeting as though a dream. Those with means begin to set up ways to combat extraction, hiring extractors themselves to enter their minds and train their subconscious to be vigilant, cunning, and ruthless to any threat of intrusion. Security literally begins to run around the clock, while awake or asleep. But what really can happen from a secret getting out? Perhaps you lose some money, maybe a little power; it could be the truth uncovered lets justice be served. These truths are there, and always will be. They will more than likely come out by accident anyway, even if coercion fails. The real danger of extraction, then, isn’t what can be taken—it’s what can be put in. Inception, in theory, is possible. By planting the seed of thought, it’s left to germinate into an idea, one so powerful it could alter the subject’s complete intrinsic make-up. If we were to believe that planted thought was our own, it couldn’t only reshape our entire course of self-existence, it could potentially be our very undoing.

And this is where Christopher Nolan’s mind becomes one of the most inventive around. He has not only engineered his own sci-fi dream world of the film’s reality—one where the process of artificial dream creation is possible—he has laid the process out, created the rules behind it, and weaved a mystery to breathe in life, a story of dreams within dreams, dragging the travelers deeper and deeper into illusion, risking their minds to be fractured off in limbo, no longer aware if reality ever existed at all. But he isn’t done with just the suspense thriller of coercing a mark into manufacturing his own 180-degree reversal of action. He also adds in the overlapping tale of another man’s past; a history that has crippled the greatest extractor alive, making the mystery not whether he and his team can prove inception is possible, but instead to see if someone who knows the rules and willingly breaks them in order to reach the only endgame he can fathom is able to find peace. Sometimes the only way to get out is to go even further down.

I know, it all sounds convoluted and impossible to assimilate. And that is why Nolan’s biggest success is his capacity to explain everything simply, not only allowing us to understand what’s happening, but to enter the world as though we knew it all along. Rather than lecture the physics of an infinite loop, for example, he creates a working example—pretty much a manufactured version of MC Escher’s staircases from “Relativity”. The character of Ariadne (Ellen Page) is brought in to not only be the fresh-faced member of a team too trusting of one another, the lone brave soul willing to stand against and fight those in power, she is also our entry point into the entire extraction process. To teach the film’s audience, Nolan teaches the new, young architect. We become this girl, the last visage of comprehending a purity of reality in a community no longer able to easily grasp the edges of a line crossed too often. We are educated with tests and exercises, seeing how the procedure evolves in a controlled state and then its use in the volatile and chaotic realm of live application.

The visceral splendor of the trailer is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the possibilities of bending time and space in dream. With each layer to the mirage comes expanded time. Every motion occurring in the plane above is experienced beneath, (weightlessness or rotating horizons allow for some of the most memorable choreographed fight scenes ever), and that feeling of falling—I know you’ve been jolted awake by it more than once—or ‘the kick’ becomes your only true failsafe of ever waking again. It’s pure imagination inhabited by characters that understand the rules and exploit them. Tom Hardy lends his sarcastic wit to Eames, the chameleon capable of becoming whomever necessary to disarm a subject; Ken Watanabe’s Saito is a shrewd businessman willing to learn the new technology and even partake in the fun; and Joseph Gordon-Levitt breaks through into the mainstream, finally having the opportunity to show the world the immense wealth of talent art-house audiences already know, his Arthur the voice of reason as well as the stoic warrior of strength and intellect, working on the fly to allow all to run smoothly—if that’s even possible.

But besides Nolan’s complete creativity laid bare through both script and frame—a detailed story I glossed over, rather than spoiled, while instead explaining the unique technological process used by the characters—it truly is Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb and Marion Cotillard’s Mal who are the driving force behind everything. Their intertwining roles co-exist at every level, showing how the bonds of love can break through almost every wall set to destroy it. The two greatest architects the world has ever seen, Cobb and Mal are the one’s to have uncovered the dream’s brightest jubilations and its darkest dangers. Once you continue on for too long, the path back to truth becomes blurred as fantasy’s infinite possibilities overwhelm. There needs to be a way to remember what is real and what is illusion, but when all is said and done, does anyone truly know?

Much like you could view this life as a short sojourn before the ever-expansive future of the afterlife—a world we see in our imaginations, beliefs rendering it to our every whim—our dreams may serve the same purpose, an escape before true existence. But if a heaven created by our minds awaits; wouldn’t dream be our reality? The world we awaken to then morphing into the waiting room before our permanent residence beyond? It all becomes a matter or perception and feeling. Whether what we think is real is just a lie or not, if we believe we are truly happy and in love, should we care? Ask yourself this question when the screen cuts to black, lingering on a final image full of meaning and profound answers. The truth is ultimately in us all. Realty is because we say so, nothing else matters.

Inception 10/10

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[1] LEONARDO DiCAPRIO as Cobb in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ sci-fi action film “INCEPTION,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT as Arthur in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ sci-fi action film “INCEPTION,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Stephen Vaughan
[3] MARION COTILLARD as Mal in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ sci-fi action film “INCEPTION,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

With tonight’s win, the FC Buffalo side completed its inaugural season in the NPSL. Finishing third place in the Northeast, Keystone Conference, the Blitzers ended the year with an impressive 6-2-4 record, having been the only team to defeat first place FC Sonic. Personally, my own record was 3-0, each match a clean sheet for the team—so I know I did my part.

The finale had a little of everything from great goal scoring (Rich Wilson earning the Golden Boot with his 6th goal of the season); a little 7v7 rugby from Kenmore East and West high schools; a Chinese raffle; autographed player away jerseys given to random fans; and the biggest turn out yet of supporters, (as well as the most media/photographers out on the field grabbing shots). Buffalo ends their journey from the pitch on a three game winning streak, (outscoring their opponents 13-3), and a positive note to build on before returning quality soccer to the Queen City next year.

Support the sport, support the team, and support your city. The FC Buffalo Blitzers are worth it.

Here are some photos from the game:

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Sometimes you have to be dropped on an alien planet with a bunch of amoral killers to finally discover what it means to be human. The sentiment may be cheesy, but for some reason it works in the reboot/sequel hybrid Predators. I haven’t seen the first two installments, knowing only that Predator is supposedly a classic of the genre and Predator 2 is good for another reason to laugh at Danny Glover. After watching both Alien Vs. Predator flicks, however, I wouldn’t say I expected too much from the Robert Rodriguez produced, Nimród Antal directed version. So, it may be because my expectations were low, but I really thought this thing delivered on all promises. The horror aspects were effective in that the Predators are mostly cloaked for the duration—besides one somewhat silly, yet obvious mano a mano battle between two warriors—so the fear quotient relies heavily on the actors’ expressions; the sci-fi elements show through nicely with great art direction; and the action never lulls—if the human prey aren’t trying to kill each other, some beast is close by ready to pounce.

The trailer pretty much lays it all out plot-wise. Eight people awaken in midair without any recollection of how they could have gotten to the unknown jungle that breaks their fall. Untrusting of one another, they soon learn the environment’s unfamiliarity and the gutted soldier by mysterious means are somewhat more pressing issues. Putting petty testosterone-fueled feuds aside, the group bands together to search out what happened and why they’ve been dropped there together. Everyone is either military-trained or just plain sadistic—see Walton Goggins’s Stans, one more in a long line of believable rednecks on his docket—besides the odd inclusion of Edwin (Topher Grace), a doctor out of his element. No one has a clue about what their next move should be, but the survival instincts of an unnamed mercenary, played by Adrien Brody, plans a course of action based on what he’d do if on the hunting side of things. Acting like the predator he is, Brody begins to mark his comrades, using their strengths and weaknesses to find answers about their mutual enemy, a trio of monsters looking to evolve their skills en route to becoming the universe’s most feared foe.

As you can discern from the admittedly thin story at play, the filmmakers don’t expect anyone to read too far into things, hoping for some award-winning human drama. The series is labeled with the Predator moniker for a reason—it’s about the hunt and whether you have the stomach to defeat the force pushing against you. The screenwriters do a smart thing by bringing history into the fold, making one character aware of the evil lurking in the shadows. Isabelle (Alice Braga) is the lone killer who appears to have kept some form of a compassionate heart intact. She still fights for her country and not the pleasure of the kill, so she’s been privy to certain files and stories, including one from the lone survivor of a 1987 Guatemalan mission that stumbled upon a creature described in detail like the one she sets eyes on here. This seemingly small detail not only helps the characters believe the fact they are on a distant planet since the inhabitants have actually been seen on Earth, but also gives fans of the series something to latch onto. Rodriguez and company aren’t trying to recreate a formula over two decades old, they instead decided to expand upon what worked, bring it into the 21st century, and give their viewers a nostalgic taste of when action flicks ruled the box office.

All that mythology combining the Predator and Alien worlds may be cool on paper, or comics, or fanboys’ imaginations, but it never quite panned out in theatres. With Predators, we go back to its roots, forgoing expository tales of alien origins, instead going primal—man vs. beast, winner take all. They do attempt to go bigger, as any sequel does, by introducing a fun, four-legged animal hunter along with a completely unnecessary Predator sub-species. Expanding one side of the fight isn’t quite fair, though, so the humans increase too, both in numbers, (with familiar faces so as not to tip off who dies first), and intellect. Brody’s mercenary seems to have been bred for this fight, knowing exactly what he needs in order to get an edge and containing fearlessness in doing so, no matter the consequences. Braga is badass as usual, unfortunately becoming typecast regularly now; Oleg Taktarov again excels as the Soviet tough guy who is softer than first assumed; Grace is unsurprisingly neurotic comic relief; Danny Trejo makes his obligatory Rodriguez cameo; Laurence Fishburne shows he can play committable insanity; and both Louis Ozawa Changchien and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali steal the show for me. Changchien’s sword fight with a Predator is a definite highlight.

And while there are plenty of issues to be had with the film—including an unsatisfying conclusion leaving the sequel door wide open—it is well-paced, deftly orchestrated, and never lacking on the blood-pumping urge to watch something get maimed or killed. Everyone’s death is handled with purpose, though, no one is simply a pawn to be tossed away; they’ve all been chosen for a reason and as such serve it. I was with many outsiders who questioned the casting choice of Brody for leader of this ragtag bunch of displaced murderers, but he really does a great job. The guy looks the part, pushes back emotion for a stoic façade of self-preservation, and never falters in his goal for survival. He may not be the biggest of the crew, but he sure as hell would have my vote against any of the others on a straight-up sparring session. He shows how brains, anticipation, and confidence trump bulk, brute force, and strength almost every time. It’s much the same with the Predators, seeing the ‘Classic’ variety next to the newly created, and aptly named, ‘Berzerker’ incarnation. Berzerker may seem the one to fear, but when every single role in this film consists of a person—or thing—that has taken a life, all bets are off. And that’s the movie’s strength, keeping you guessing until the clichéd Hollywood ending stumbles on in.

Predators 7/10

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[1] Royce (Adrien Brody) and Isabelle (Alice Braga) take aim during their desperate battle against the alien Predators. Photo credit: Rico Torres
[2] Laurence Fishburne stars as Noland, a veteran of the human-Predator wars. Photo credit: Rico Torres

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Despite trying really hard to capture the magic of Neil Marshall’s The Descent, its sequel doesn’t come close. The Descent: Part 2 so blatantly wants to mirror its predecessor that there are tons of shots mimicking, frame for frame, old scenes. And that’s when you aren’t watching actual footage from the first film on camcorders or through Sarah Carter’s mind. But other than those rip-offs, all subtlety whatsoever has disappeared as the filmmakers decide to include ten times as much blood and gore, thinking a greater gruesome factor will mask how unnecessary this excursion is. The sole fact it was made subverts one of the most memorable parts of the original; it’s ambiguous final moments making you question whether Sarah got out of the cave or if freedom was just one more hallucination. By allowing her to be discovered and eventually enlisted to return underground with the search party seeking her friends, every bit of nuance is removed and replaced by ‘money shots’ of bashed skulls, puss-like gel squishing, and more bites to the neck then you can count. Oh how I missed the pitch-black frames of mystery, not knowing what may happen next.

Jon Harris, editor of the first as well as a number of good films, was given the impossible task of cutting his teeth on a story no one was begging for. Marshall not wanting to revisit the world himself should have shown those behind it not to bother. What made The Descent so fresh was its cast of all strong, female characters, the darkness enshrouded evil lurking just out of reach, and the human tragedy bonding these six friends together. We learn about Sarah’s husband and daughter being killed; we experience the tears as everyone rallies around her; and we’re made aware of the guilt driving Juno to overcompensate with her kindness. When someone dies, we feel the loss on each face, hearing it with every scream. And our lead is in the midst of coping with her loss, seeing nightmares whenever she closes her eyes, soon becoming unaware of what’s real and what’s not. As a result, we in the audience also have to second-guess what is on screen. Perhaps the nightcrawlers are in her head; maybe she is seeking violent retribution and the creatures are her manifestation of that anger.

Throw that all out he window; The Descent: Part 2 wants none of it. In fact, the trio of writers seems to go in the exact opposite direction for every point. We are thrust into the story as though we’d just watched the last one, so no exposition is given for the rescue workers or police we soon follow into the caves; there are now men involved, unfortunately ruining the dynamic of confident, brave women as they intrinsically become protectors of the girls crying in fear; and instead of dreams drifting into frame, we see flashbacks, only adding to the unoriginality by seeing what happened last time, sometimes right before it occurs again in almost the exact same way. Those surreal nightmares were a huge part of the psychological terror on display with the first, so their exclusion means the new entry can’t be anything more than a run-of-the-mill action/horror. A kill or be killed mentality crops up very early as the blind, bat-looking monsters arrive without a shred of shyness. Evil has a face and it isn’t afraid to make itself known, picking off our heroes one by one, the graphic impalings on full display—blood always finding a way to drip into one of the characters’ mouths.

I can’t even really praise the actors since they all end up running to hide and eventually get killed. Gavan O’Herlihy is annoyingly chauvinistic as Sheriff Vaines, making idiotic decisions crucial to plot progression and therefore rendering the screenplay unrefined; I actually liked Douglas Hodge’s Dan, he was the one man with a head on his shoulders, so of course he wouldn’t last long; Krysten Cummings’s Ellen Rios is adequate, if not conveniently written, as Sarah’s emotional stand-in—being the badass tour guide this time around, Shauna MacDonald needs a frightened victim to save; and Anna Skellern is the attractive Cath, left behind early after a mini cave-in and probably the most effective actor involved, especially when left alone in a cramped space with only a flashlight bulb to illuminate her. I will admit that it was fun to see the actresses who died in the first reappearing as those dead bodies, or maybe the effects people just did a bang-up job making fakes look exactly like them. There is one full-fledged return, however, and the inclusion has me on the fence, both thinking she added to the survival aspect, but also proved to be one more unsatisfying cog helping tie up things left open-ended in the first.

And that makes me so mad. The fact The Descent didn’t pander to its viewers by giving easy answers is its success. It also left certain things to the imagination, keeping images dark and to the side rather than in your face. I understand the need to go bigger and show heads being crunched or jugulars spraying like crazy—the neckpieces are horribly visible, ridding death scenes of any authenticity—but I couldn’t help laugh at the end. When a nest of feeding nightcrawlers corners our three heroines, the girls go off on them. Punching, kicking, slicing, dicing; at one point the camera sharply cuts to three or four obviously rubber heads being hit before compressed as though hollow, gooey material oozing out. I gave the film the benefit of the doubt for poorly executed gore moments earlier, but this one was inexcusable. Two of the performers were even in the original; what must have been going through their heads as it all spiraled out of control into camp? The worst part, though, is left for the very end. Attempting to recreate the stunning finale of the first, this one—guessed about fifteen minutes in—pales in comparison due to its randomness. I’m sorry; you can’t use a throwaway character in a climatic moment, without any motivation, and think it will fly.

The Descent: Part 2 4/10

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[1] Shauna Macdonald (‘Sarah,’ left) and Krysten Cummings (‘Rios,’ right) star in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s The Descent: Part 2.
[2] Anna Skellern (‘Cath’) stars in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s The Descent: Part 2.

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Could anyone have fathomed Stargate spawning a legion of television series and huge cult sci-fi following back in 1994? It came from writer/director Roland Emmerich after all, a man that had a German language feature and four in English, all ill received, behind him. Who knew he’d one day become the guy for big budget Hollywood end-of-the-world scenarios? Well at least a tag team partner of Captain Destruction Michael Bay. My first thought when sitting down to view this modern day classic—at the behest of my cousin—was whether I was just naïve kid back then, unaware of this hack’s ability to bore his audience with computer generated environments and apocalyptic foreboding. Honestly, besides the charisma of Will Smith winning the world over in Independence Day, (and The Patriot, which doesn’t count because there are no aliens or natural disasters to contend with), did he ever actually make a good film? After two plus hours of sci-fi glory, hammy humor that works, and special effects to blow a mid-90s fanboy’s mind, I have to admit, yes, he most certainly did.

I’ve yet to experience the Sci-Fi Channel’s—sorry, SyFy—iterations, although I’m going to begin “Universe” soon, but I can see the appeal and infinite possibilities that go along with a portal between stars. What made the film so fresh, however, wasn’t that a linguist and some marines traveled light years to a world unknown, but that, when they arrived, the beings they met weren’t only human, they were ancient Egyptian era humans. Who writes a film where our present-day stand-ins—complete with clunky, gray metal and lit button computer consoles—are more advanced than the alien planet they visit? It becomes such a simple twist of the coin, (granted deceivingly so due to the true extra-terrestrials who built the stargate in the first place), that the audience is left wrong-footed and susceptible to accept whatever the screenwriters throw their way. With fire being a force from the Gods, the existence of these men having guns and strange language could mean but one thing, they were otherworldly beings as well; perhaps friends with Ra and his pharaohed-out clan of soldiers. They have ruled with iron fists, wielded electricity for control, not technology, outlawing reading and writing so the masses remained slaves.

Unsurprisingly, by knowing the movies Emmerich makes afterwards, the general plot progression here mirrors the others perfectly. It all begins with the meeting of minds between science/linguistics and security/military. The two sides work together with ulterior motives, willing to let the other think they are running the show until the moment presents itself to take over. Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader) is brought in as an expert, eventually cracking the code that remained undecipherable for two years in a few days. His success leads the army to enlist their own secret weapon, Colonel Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell), a man broken as a result of his son’s accidental shooting, someone who only has his job to keep him going. Once the gate is opened, both parties cannot wait to step through, the first looking for signs of life to study and help understand their own past and the second searching for a way to prevent evil from crossing back over to Earth. It’s the age-old human way of always having two sides to the coin—life and death ever battling for supremacy; one having the power to create the other while also the ability to destroy it.

The film then becomes an action/adventure, transporting the leads to a desert world similar to the Middle East of third century BC. All the locals work in the mines, bringing the mineral Ra needs to manufacture his tools of oppression. When out of line, the ‘Gods’ wreak their vengeance with swift justice, shooting electric bolts to set an example of zero tolerance. So, when the strangers arrive with the symbol of Ra on one’s neck, kindness in their hearts, why wouldn’t the people rejoice at their good fortune? The Gods have changed, they wish to coexist and take on human form. Unable to communicate due to the ban on the written word, however, the truth isn’t learned until too late. It becomes more than solely finding the sequence of glyphs capable to return to Earth; these Americans must stand up and fight, showing this world’s people the fallibility of their deities, taking out injustice and finding their own true purposes in life. Jackson is no longer the dweeb behind glasses and ancient scriptures. He is a hero worthy of the most beautiful and intelligent woman in this civilization. And O’Neil is removed from his isolation of wallowing in self-pity and regret. He has found a community of children needing guidance and support; it’s a second chance to be redeemed for mistakes made.

It’s hard to say that Emmerich’s directing is somehow better than subsequent work; in fact it may be just the same. I think the reason Stargate’s quality appears greater is because he is unencumbered by the availability of computer graphics to strip all humanity from the screen. The battle scenes in the sand are filled to the brim with extras, the special effects are creatively done and integrated quite well without shooting on green screen, worrying about everything around the actors later. All aspects of this film needed to be carefully thought out and orchestrated exactingly, allowing all performers something real to act against; I really think Hollywood has lost itself by having people react against thin air. Russell is perfect as the tough guy with a capacity for compassion and Spader is full on neurotic eccentric, the odd leading man type he perfected in the 90s. The rest of the cast consists of familiar faces— John Diehl, Leon Rippy, French Stewart trying way too hard to be badass, and an early Djimon Hounsou—and effective parts from the foreigners in Alexis Cruz’s son-like Skaara and Mili Avital’s love interest Sha’uri. Even Jaye Davidson’s Ra, despite his youthful appearance, holds the kind of malicious ego necessary to fear him. I only wish Emmerich could somehow reclaim this magic.

Stargate 8/10

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When reading the synopsis for 1998s French film Le dîner de cons, I was surprised at how close to the new Americanized version, Dinner for Schmucks, it actually was. Both titles allude to the fact a dinner is involved—one hinging on the invitation of guests with high levels of idiocy. After all, the one to make company owner Fender (Bruce Greenwood) laugh most is awarded a trophy for his/her trouble; a chalice designating the winner as “Most Extraordinary” to his face, but “Biggest Loser” behind his back. You’ve seen the trailers and heard Larry Wilmore speak the words, “Best dinner ever!” so you hope the title describes the setting for the majority of the film, a wild and crazy combination of kooks, suits, and the large chasm which divides them. But then you recall this is Hollywood and its director is Mr. Diminishing Returns himself, Jay Roach, dragging your mind back to reality and the harsh truth awaiting. Our main Schmuck Barry (Steve Carell) may be the lynchpin for some of the biggest laughs and deepest moments of heart, but it is his ever-present ability to drag endearing over the edge to obnoxious that leaves the most lasting memory.

Much like Carell’s role in “The Office”, Barry is the kind of simpleton creature who for some reason remains likeable despite his abject cluelessness. You pity him more than you hate him—although the character here is nowhere near as offensive and completely loathsome as Michael Scott—and hope for the best as a result. To be absolutely candid, with the stunning craftsmanship of the ‘Mousterpieces’, whose creation serve as backdrop to the opening credits, and the possession of not one mean bone in his body, Barry is the kind of guy I could get behind. While Carell is billed first, however, the film’s true lead is Paul Rudd’s Tim, a ‘not so close to a stockbroker at all’ looking to earn a promotion by banking his firm a boatload of cash. He is living the life: great job, nice car, beautiful almost-fiancé, (Stephanie Szostak is drop dead gorgeous as Julie), and a quick wit combined with a cultural knowledge in the arts. Unfortunately, staying on the cabbage-smelling sixth floor won’t sustain such a lifestyle for much longer; he needs to be strong and show Fender what he’s made of. To do so, though, means he must go against the wishes of Julie and find some poor soul to ridicule and join the ‘boy’s club’ he so covets.

Everything happens for a reason—a sentiment overused throughout—and Tim literally runs into Barry serendipitously two days before the event. Almost having the moral fortitude to walk away and risk everything by refusing his seat, the diorama taxidermist/IRS employee’s eccentricities were too much to disregard. If only Tim knew the sort of destruction this strange man’s tenacity could create, the childlike innocence of pure aloofness becoming an avalanche of misfortune and tragedy. Barry pushes Julie to leave, allows Tim’s stalker access to his home, causes his new friend to be complicit in a breaking and entering, and watches the man’s life fall apart, unaware his meddling was the cause. The story becomes that age-old tale of seeing past the surface of an idiot and into the pain beneath the eagerness to please. We soon learn about Barry’s past and the not so mirrored comparison with Tim’s unraveling existence, learning how one must fight for whatever it is he wants. It’s about being the goat willing to do anything necessary for happiness, even if it means eating himself.

Tim’s entire reasoning for going after the promotion is to prove he’s worthy of Julie. He wants to be successful and powerful, unaware of how complete his life already is, her being by his side all he needs. So, the plot turns into an unoriginal journey toward this epiphany, teaching lessons about talking behind someone’s back and cherishing what we love. Sappy sentimentality seeps in and drags the middle third to a screeching halt of monotonous tedium, showing Carell’s Barry making one misstep after another. But these pitfalls are necessary for Rudd’s Tim to hit rock bottom and realize the error of his way. The question, though, is whether we want him to. Tim is a self-centered jerk, quickly proving the ‘man Julie doesn’t know’—capable of doing the things even he abhors to achieve his goals—is his true self. You can’t help but begin to despise the character you should be getting behind, unable to even cheer on Barry because of his ineptitude and the fact his accidental triumphs only bring Tim closer to victory. Dinner for Schmucks therefore ends up less the wanting to see how it turns out than the twisted desire to see how far these imbecilic characters will go.

The dinner itself is by far the biggest laugh of the bunch with Octavia Spencer’s pet psychic, Chris O’Dowd’s blind swordsman, and Patrick Fischler’s vulture keeper. Other memorable supporting cast members include David Walliams’s Swiss billionaire Müeller, Lucy Punch’s bruiser of a stalker Darla, and Jemaine Clement’s rugged art photographer—the work of which is a less effeminate Matthew Barney-type with Francis Bacon’s grotesquery thrown in to fill the void. Zach Galifianakis is humorous too, but for the most part too deadpan, causing the one-note joke to falter, carrying on way longer than is good for it. There are a ton of one-liners, though, and the chemistry between Carell and Rudd is for the most part effective when not cringingly repetitious, so despite my lackluster reaction to the film, most who want to see it should end up enjoying the derivative format and jokes. In all honesty, I should applaud any work this uninspired for making me at least laugh consistently, if not uproariously at any point. Perhaps those reactions lean more towards the source material than what’s been put to script here. I do, in any event, want to now seek the original and see for myself what Hollywood saw to give it the bland remake treatment its known for.

Dinner for Schmucks 5/10

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[1] Steve Carell and Paul Rudd in Paramount Pictures’ Dinner for Schmucks.
[2] Steve Carell and Jemaine Clement in Paramount Pictures’ Dinner for Schmucks.

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While attending the 360|365 George Eastman House Film Festival in Rochester, I was struck by the selection of festival winners screening for its Upstate New York audience. With so many award-winners, I went in blindly to whatever fit into my schedule, experiencing work I wouldn’t have a chance to see in theatres for months, if at all, here in Buffalo. After three straight days of movies, Winter’s Bone, the winner of the 2010 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Drama, ended up being the final film of my tenure there. I was aware of writer/director Debra Granik’s debut feature, Down to the Bone, but mostly for the breakout performance of Vera Farmiga rather than the film itself. Amazed at the realism and drama infused throughout her newest, though, caused me to make sure her name became a fixture on my ‘directors to see’ list. So, when the opportunity to conduct a thirty-minute interview came up, I jumped at the chance.

The whole thing happened out of the blue and scheduled itself just one day after I agreed to participate. Luckily, thanks to Netflix Instant Downloads, I was able to sit down and watch Down to the Bone the night before, getting a better handle on her style by comparing the two films. The interview, however, was to concern Winter’s Bone’s July 27th release in Buffalo, so besides both movies, I also dug up the production notes online, prepared a few questions to lead with, and got ready to let the conversation evolve how it would. Granik proved to be a very passionate woman towards her craft and motivations in subject matter. An MFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts helps to explain her deft handling of the medium, as well as bolster the fact she won Sundance’s Dramatic Directing Award in 2004 for her first film, but a B.A. from Brandeis University in 1985, with a major in politics, shows her desire to instill social change with her art.

Granik’s day had gotten off to a late start thanks to an earlier interviewer, pushing subsequent times back, but she stuck to the line-up and pushed through the Northeast tour. Having already done one session with press from Ohio, Buffalo seemed the next logical choice, especially since she already had a connection to our fair city—more on this to come. Starting things off, however, I wanted to get a little background on her beginnings in the industry, knowing that Down to the Bone cropped out of a meeting with Corinne Stralka and Rich Lieske, the subjects of her short film Snake Feed. The point of the encounter was to follow them and shoot documentary footage—not a fictional narrative—the main impetus of her craft and first step into the industry. But the prospect of leafing through so much film, constantly finding new and interesting tangents and directions for the material to go, proved to be overwhelming.

Debra Granik [DG]: “… in the end, I felt like to take that inspiration and find a way to distill it and organize it into a fiction [was] almost like a happy answer to the situation. The story can be infused, it’s not like a story based on a true story; it’s not that phrase. It’s inspired, inspired by life experiences, you know? And so I felt like there was some way that documentary technique, meaning observation of people and their daily life, could be used, so in the end we could have structure. But I would like to do both [documentary and narrative]. Would I always try and do both? Yes.”

It was that structure that made the novel Winter’s Bone so appealing to her and producing partner Anne Rosellini. Daniel Woodrell’s work made its way to her on the usual circuit of unpublished manuscripts trying to find a cinematic home. Already seeing Ang Lee adapt Woe to Live On for his 1999 film Ride with the Devil, he felt his newest would also transfer well. As far as Granik and Rosellini were concerned, he was right. They contacted him as soon as they finished reading to drop the line of interest and get the ball rolling, turning those wheels to get it into production. The process, she says, was fluid, meeting up with Woodrell and going to the very Ozark community written about to scout locations and begin the conversion process from written word to visual image. And although the finished work may be very close to the source, many changes were made as the script evolved throughout pre-production and filming. But no matter what details were added or excised, the structure that so enamored the filmmakers—the backbone setup by Woodrell—always remained intact.

DG: “It’s like, with a fiction, you can actually add things … you don’t have to stick to only the truth. You can literally add a Godfather figure, or you can add a job the character didn’t do but wanted to do, or tried or failed at.”

These detail alterations came, for the most part, from locals on set. It was those who had lived in the Ozarks their entire lives who relayed things like, “oh that’s not the toy they’d have” or “the language is wrong there, it should be ___”. All these changes added to the authenticity sought by Granik, working towards embodying the world she had become a part of for the past two or three years researching onscreen. No example better illustrates this than the addition of the Dolly family horse. Here is a member of the family that must be fed and taken care of on top of Ree, her young siblings, and troubled mother. Once just one paycheck is missed, they’ll discover how crucial every penny is to their survival. It’s a crushing blow to realize the horse must be sacrificed, Ree taking it to the neighbor’s and asking for them to care for it on her behalf. It’s a sad goodbye illustrating the values and lifestyle we in a modern city might never be able to fathom. The juxtaposition with the later question of whether Ree must give her brother up as well allows us to begin comprehending how dire the need to find her father is.

This wasn’t where the locals’ help ended, though. Not only was almost every set and house filmed in Winter’s Bone an actual home lived in by someone willing to help them, but many also acted in supporting roles and as extras. Granik used non-professional actors on Down to the Bone too—many of the Narcotics Anonymous patrons were real addicts on the mend—so this wasn’t her first time getting people to perform roles with the exact verbiage and mannerisms of someone in that very situation, rather than auditioning people to imitate them. Because she has never been afraid to go in this direction, I had to ask whether she felt their presence helped the ‘working’ actors find their voice and character by playing off someone who knows the life better than anyone. Unsurprisingly, she answered, “I think it does bring out stronger performances, I do.”

DG: “I was just thinking of one of the characters that Vera [Farmiga] dealt with in Down to the Bone, he was the public defender very near the town where she actually lives and we were filming. […] I was a little confused about getting the script right about the B-Class felony and New York State [note: the lead characters are arrested for possession late at night in the film].

“No one ever had to correct his script, he wrote those lines, he knew what a B-Class felony was, he knew what securing X-amount of heroin or whatever it was [meant]; he knew exactly. He dealt with people the likes of the character. He could deal with her frankly, he could tell her what her options were, he was versed in the fact that New York State had just started the drug court, he could explain what that was. I’m just saying, there was this really paltry line there in the script that dealt with what the public defender told her and he took it, he actually made it extremely precise and he dealt with her in the way he would anyone else. He didn’t get freaked out; I just kept saying look in her eyes and treat her just the way you would treat anyone else you’re dealing with at 11PM, you know, because they’ve just been brought in.

“And that same thing happened I think with the Army recruiter in Winter’s Bone. We talked to recruiters and in the end […] this one recruiter was brave enough to say he’d consent to be in front of the camera. And basically, what I had him do was answer Ree’s questions very realistically, by the law, in terms of when a person can actually enter the US military without parental consent. […] What helped him was that Jen [Lawrence] knew the scene; she knew the parameters, so she could keep the scene basically the same every time. She wasn’t going to fling new questions at him; she wasn’t going to disarm him. It wasn’t about [improvising]; it was about [her asking] him the same questions and he honestly answering her. […] But I think that Jennifer did get a lot; he didn’t answer everything exactly the same, his wording would change. In fact, he felt that he needed to be more emphatic, so he would say it a little differently. And that meant she couldn’t just be passively waiting to use his last word as her cue, because it wasn’t going to be the same last word every time. Instead, she had to listen so intently that she could actually respond very precisely. And that added a very important charge to the scene.

“So the answer to your question would be: when it’s working, it can be very enriching for the professional actor.”

There is also one more advantage to using an unparalleled wealth of first-hand knowledge—budgetary constraints. The simple fact of using untrained actors means cast costs will go down. It’s a given and, frankly, a necessity for a small budget film such as this, one going into production with less money than planned for. It’s not just cost-effective performers, however, but also equipment, like the use of the Red One HD camera. Granik spoke to me about how you can’t even compare this piece of machinery with the Sony PD-150 PAL used on Down to the Bone, (pretty much a handheld you could buy at the store); the only reason they were able to use the Sony was that they had a 35mm lens to attach. The Red became crucial to the clarity of picture and even allowed the crew to need fewer people working it. By no means did the camera make filmmaking a ‘cinchy’ prospect, as she coins; it still is very hard work needing an ensemble of dedicated people. The affordability, though, is a boon for sure, especially being able to take multiple angles for the coverage she and her editor—on set and helping inform decisions for the first time in her career—desire.

You also can’t disregard having someone you respect and trust by your side during the journey. For Granik, that person is producer Anne Rosellini. She helped get Down to the Bone made and was there from the start of Winter’s Bone, even co-writing the script. Granik couldn’t say enough about the partnership and how similar their sensibilities are while still containing a large capacity for creative tug-of-war when of separate minds. She says that when you find a relationship, as “mutually beneficial as this one, you don’t look to end it any time soon”, so don’t be surprised if Rosellini’s name connects to her third film and beyond. Granik trusts her to the point that if an actor comes in, seeming to have hit the audition out of the park, and Anne doesn’t quite see it, the process will continue. The director then hopes subsequent testing will turn her producer around, but, if she still isn’t won over, Granik will have no problem going elsewhere for the role. It’s not that she second-guesses her own choices, she just respects her friend’s opinion enough to realize Anne might see something she, for whatever reason, cannot.

The team has seen amazing success, so you can’t blame them for sticking together. Winter’s Bone, as stated earlier, won the Dramatic prize at Sundance, while Down to the Bone won both the Directing Award and the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Performance, courtesy of Vera Farmiga, at the same venue six years earlier. But these accolades haven’t gone to Granik’s head, answering my question about her acceptance into the event by saying, “it’s always a scary prospect”. A firm believer that Sundance is a must for American independents, she realizes the auction aspect has become just as important as the screening opportunity. Filmmakers can stand by their work saying they haven’t compromised a thing and won’t watch someone buy the film for anything other than they believe it’s worth, but Granik knows that mentality will only work for about 12 minutes. You need to find financial backers to continue making your art. It’s not even about turning a profit to her; it’s about covering the startup costs and not finding herself in debt at the conclusion of the journey.

Filmmaking is not easy—she says the only genre that may be is the romantic comedy, due to its template for success and the droves of paying customers who flock to see them—and she is grateful to have been able to make two movies that have gone on to find accepted in the cinematic world. And even though both show a character’s struggle, two more serious looks at the less fortunate—a common entry to the Sundance stereotype—she has no problem with that. While critics may gripe about the festival experience being an auction house for dark subject matter, it’s a fact they need to accept. With the economy where it’s at, Hollywood just isn’t willing to take the chance on work like hers, leaving venues like Sundance crucial to the future of the medium as a means for something other than big budget work making bank and bringing nothing to the art form. One day in the future, Granik makes note, people will even begin to make films on their phones or some other similar technology. But that only means it’ll get harder with over-saturation and competition, making the story that much more important.

Granik wants to help create change when it comes to economic hardship in the world. By portraying it onscreen, she only puts it into the audience’s collective consciousness more. So far she has dealt with heavier material—addiction (Down) and poverty in a society outside the realm of the police (Winter’s)—but if comedy seeps in, it will still be authentic. These stories about being unable to make ends meet don’t solely concern criminals or the unlucky, jobless, and homeless. You can have a minimum wage job and appear to be doing okay, yet still find yourself unable to stay afloat. Humor does become a big part of that, used as a coping mechanism in order to survive the dire situation and keep one’s head. Admitting it is a lofty goal to instill social change with her work, she’s still off to a fantastic start. Not only have these stories been crafted to contain all the pain, suffering, love, and hope in situations seemingly devoid of turning out for the better, they’ve also left their mark on the industry and are being seen by the public.

And some of that is thanks to the material drawing an excellent caliber of performers. Farmiga’s was a career-making role in Down to the Bone, jump-starting her portfolio, eventually leading to an Academy Award-nominated part in Up in the Air, while John Hawkes’ performance in Winter’s Bone can only be seen as another notch in an already accomplished belt. Generally the supporting cohort or eccentric in smaller roles, Hawkes let it all hang out as Teardrop, the dangerous, yet compassionate, uncle of Ree, knowing the truth about what happened to his brother, but also the community’s strict rules in acting on it. Granik uses the word “religious” when it comes to how he treated the character and the script behind it. He came on set with the part memorized and realized in look and action, so exacting in its detail that she was forced to reinstate some monologues had removed; she thought they’d be too hard to act out. It was Hawkes’ passion and knowledge of how crucial those parts were that showed Granik it could be done.

He wasn’t the only bright spot, however, as Jennifer Lawrence really lifts Winter’s Bone on her shoulders and runs with it. The role of Ree went out on a wide casting call—Anne Rosellni in a Q&A after the screening I attended of the film said an Olson twin was even brought in for a reading—but too many young actresses just didn’t look the part. Ree Dolly is an intelligent-beyond-her-years girl, attractive, but also able to appear as though she could be a farm laborer and raise two kids on her own. The part needed someone who looked like they fit in with the hard-edged inhabitants of the Missouri location. Lawrence came in and showed Granik and Rosellini exactly what it was they wanted, embodying the character, heart and soul. It’s a role that could launch her similarly to Farmiga.

DG: “I think [Jennifer will] have a lot of offers to be in a huge amount of films. I think that people will respond to the fact, first of all, that she’s had a very unusual early pathway, which is that she has not just been asked to play an attractive blonde. She has literally—all the films she has been in—been asked to use her mind as well and to show a full-fledged character.

“So, if that can continue, that will be a very unusual trajectory. That will be much more like what happened to Jodie Foster, in the sense that Foster was enjoyed as someone who people could also rely on being a very intelligent person as well as, sometimes when she was young, endearing or cute or whatever. [I mention Bugsy Malone to which she responds ‘Yeah, exactly’.] And, I don’t know, I think that, God, if things had gone right for Tatum O’Neal, I think maybe she could even have enjoyed something similar, if things hadn’t gotten so botched—what happened in her life and whatnot.”

The sheer joy with which Debra Granik speaks about her cast and crew is inspiring. She knows the amount of collaboration involved in the creation of one of her films and is grateful for all the help received. At the end of our interview, I mentioned Winter’s Bone opening on Buffalo, NY screens in couple weeks, and she was excited at the prospect. With a great story, Granik told me about her own visit to the Queen City while casting Down to the Bone almost a decade earlier. Looking to meet Hugh Dillon, (who ultimately won the male lead), she came to the city to watch him perform with his band The Headstones. This tidbit of information surprised me as I had listened to the group’s music during high school and college, the Toronto rock station playing them always my station of choice. Granik couldn’t get over the fervor we Buffalonians showed in a small venue, grooving and singing along to each song, as though “that lake [Erie] means nothing”. I told her that I’d do my best to get the word out on Winter’s Bone, hopefully getting our city to rally around it as they do Canadian bands across the border. The Ozarks are like a whole other country themselves, so it shouldn’t be too far-fetched a goal to realize.

Click for my review of Down to the Bone.
Click for my review of Winter’s Bone.

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Still photographer on both films: Sebastian Mlynarski.
Down to the Bone distributed by Laemmle/Zeller Films.
Winter’s Bone distributed by Roadside Attractions.


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