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I really enjoyed Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, but seeing it at the Toronto Film Festival with director Peter Sollett in attendance only made me want to see his debut, the acclaimed Raising Victor Vargas, more. This fact slipped my mind for the next couple years, though, until HBO came out with a new show called “How to Make It in America” starring that film’s leading newcomer Victor Rasuk. The itch to check it out came back as a result and I am so glad it did. Sollett’s second film is fun and endearing, but it is his first work that shows the amount of talent within him. A true indie with all unproven actors—how great is it that the end credits actually start with ‘Introducing’ and all the names follow—it is heavily reliant on their performances and the script behind them. Vargas is a true gem; so authentic, naturally funny, and both heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time.

What struck me by Sollett during his Q&A session after Nick and Norah was the exuberance he expressed for his hometown city of New York. The man lives and breathes within that metropolis, using music from the bands he goes to see and filming it all on location. So, it did not surprise me to find out that Vargas’s cast was all born and bred there as well. He plucked them from the neighborhood and let them inhabit a world they were familiar with, letting the acting come after the real life experience. All artifice is stripped away because we are allowed to believe these performers are the characters they are portraying—without question. The film takes us onto the streets of the Lower East Side and we become privy to the goings on of the Latino youth culture. These kids are in their element at the local pool, walking to adjacent apartment buildings and just calling up to get a friend’s attention, and passing by the miscreant lotharios as they attempt to pick up women in the most obscene ways. This is New York City and that goes a long way towards the absolute realism of the movie.

Victor Vargas is like so many kids growing up with the constraints of a troubled upbringing. He lives amongst the crime and the ambivalence to humanity, but he is not one of those monsters prowling the street because of a loving, if confused and out of her element, grandmother. She has kept he and two of his siblings—the sister from a different father and the brother from a man that had up to five wives—in a lifestyle formed around love and God. Nino, the youngest, is still a bit naïve to the world and the mama’s boy going to church and playing the piano for the one adult that has ever really cared for him while Vicki is at the cusp of cutting through the façade and seeing the rough and tumble ways of the world away from the couch she so frequently inhabits. Victor, though, is old enough to now be on the streets, making connections and needing to break through and create a life for himself as a man. The boy has a huge heart, but also an ego that needs to be massaged and bolstered, especially after the early revelation he has been having sex with the local fat girl. He so wants to be a ladies man, yet his inherent nervousness and fear of rejection keep him from being the jerk all the others around him have no trouble being.

As a result, the point in life he is at is crucial to how his future is formed. With a grandmother ingrained by the old-school customs of her Dominican upbringing, she doesn’t comprehend the changing tides of society and is unable to see the gray areas between the black and white. Ruling with a strict hand, she has the potential of being the singular cause that pushes her boy to the dark side, without a chance of coming back. Throwing him on the streets due to advice he gives his siblings to help them grow—advice that she believes is polluting their pure souls—can only make this emotional boy break and become defeated. At some point you need to let go of that baby you wish you can have for eternity and trust that the children you raised are moral enough to always have love at the center of their actions. Victor has that, and despite his transgressions and desire to be cool in the minds of the neighborhood boys, he wants to live that way. Perhaps he goes after ‘Juicy’ Judy to recover some credibility after the Fat Donna fiasco, but he is persistent because he really has feelings for her. The image adjustor may be the catalyst to work up the nerve and finally say hello, but the feelings were always there.

Sollett has a deft hand and ability to let his cast take over. There are some stunning moments—shot with static framing—beautiful for what the camera is capturing rather than what tricks it is creating. When the Vargas family goes to church to light candles for a rebirth to their family, you can’t help but feel the power of the scene and the connection they have together. Altagracia Guzman, as the grandmother, is fantastic as this matriarch doing her best in a country with cultures she just doesn’t quite understand. When maternal instincts take over, one has to wonder if she is even acting or really becoming the guardian these youngsters need to stay on the right path. Melonie Diaz has come into her own as an actress at present and it is wonderful to see the innocence and warm grace here from her pure naturalism in front of the camera, and Judy Marte, who plays Victor’s love interest Judy, is very effective as the conflicted young woman, unable to trust men due to father issues that are only eluded to. And that is one strength of the film, its simplicity to allow us to infer things, such as that, without needing to hit us over the head.

The biggest reason for its excellence, though, is from leading man Victor Rasuk. I’ll admit that his charisma almost goes too far in his new HBO show, but watching where it all began here shows how good he really is. Carrying it all on his shoulders, Rasuk must do everything, from being the cocksure smooth-talking comedian to the misjudged and pained young man that still needs the love and approval of his family. Grandma always tells him that she is all he has, but only when he turns the table and lets her know that they are all she has do we understand the real theme to the film as being his becoming the man of the house. She has done all she can to raise him to be a responsible adult. Raising Victor Vargas, due to its star making central performance, is about him realizing that it is time to grow up and do the right thing. Regardless of the missteps along the way, however, he eventually finds his potential for compassion and honesty, traits that will help allow him to rise up higher than the easy ways out an inner city culture can give him, leading to a life of familial obligation and real happiness.

Raising Victor Vargas 10/10

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What’s the best way to get out from underneath your famous father’s shadow? How about write and direct a film about a teenager afflicted with vagina dentata? Yeah, that should do the trick. Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of famed Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, deciding to delve into feature film with the horror/comedy Teeth certainly thought so. It is definitely unlike anything I’ve ever seen and uniquely original, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Besides the premise being inventive and the second half of the film eliciting some genuine laughs, I kind of disliked this whole crazy affair. I’m guessing that the acting was intentionally amateurish, but even so, the story itself is weak and under-developed. It might have been effective as a short film, ridding itself of the very laborious first act that crawled along, unsure of whether it wanted to make us laugh, and therefore seeming unintentionally funny rather than purposely subversive. More uncomfortable than anything else, I never knew exactly how to take what was happening on screen until it was almost over.

Lichtenstein seems to want to give us some back-story into the psyche of Dawn O’Keefe, a young woman who has no idea what makes up a normal vagina. Her school system is Puritanical to the point where a huge starred circle covers the necessary diagram to enlighten her on its page of the Health book and it appears that she almost believes her ‘affliction’ is something all girls go through. Taking a vow, or I should say promise, of celibacy until marriage, it is as if once her plastic red ring is replaced by a golden band, the teeth lying hidden away inside her genitalia will dissolve, allowing her to continue living just like anyone else. Admittedly, the brouhaha surrounding its release in 2007 made me aware of what was actually happening to the lead victim/villainess, so it only took the early flashback of Dawn and soon-to-be stepbrother Brad in a blow-up swimming pool to understand the intricacies of her condition. To then go through forty-five minutes of her being chaste and innocent only made me impatient for the horrors that its billing sold me on. Maybe the exposition is relevant to believe the evolution from naïve schoolgirl to preying mantis, but it doesn’t excuse the plodding pacing used to explain it all.

Then there is the very heavy-handed work in pretty much every facet of the work. It could be the fact I was still wondering whether I was supposed to be laughing or not, but the music cues are so cheesy. On the most innocuous moments that only hold a sense of danger because we know what sort of evil lies between Dawn’s legs, you will hear a menacing percussive note to inflict a sense of horror film dread. Being inside the joke, however, makes the punctuation more tongue-in-cheek joke than any sort of jarring sense of anticipation. As for visually, we are inundated constantly with the visage of two black smoke pumping nuclear power plant silos in the distance. We get it man—the chemicals and radiation mutated her mother’s egg and created the man-eating gene shown very effectively in a fun opening credit sequence. And there is also the unfortunate poor editing transitions. Some are so abrupt you begin to wonder why Lichtenstein even showed the scene before as a few five minute set-pieces do nothing to add to the plot except give one more messed up moment in this demented world.

Once the story gets moving, though, when Dawn finally sees what her weapon can truly accomplish, the laughs become confident and the enjoyment factor increases greatly. It is just a little too late. Jess Weixler is left to languish in mediocrity for the first two-thirds, playing the virgin too over-the-top and very “One Tree Hill” Clean Teen-like, especially being opposite the awkward performance from Hale Appleman as her boyfriend Tobey. When the two are together there is absolutely no sexual tension because their stares and deep breathing and uncertainty overpower any connection. Rather then want the two to be together and see her lash out in fear, we just wait and watch, hoping that she will eventually draw blood. That is why anyone would bother with the film anyway … to satisfy their bloodlust in an interesting way they have never seen before. Josh Pais’s gynecologist helps bring the story into this genre territory with a hilariously funny moment of karmic beauty for the sexual abuser he is and soon Dawn becomes in control of her bodily actions. This is when Weixler shines, the perfect mix of innocent country girl with an edge of malice and a vengeful heart against the male sex. It is this later work that makes me second-guess what I initially thought was horrible acting at the start.

John Hensley’s Brad tries his best to make the beginning tolerable, but even his psychopath can’t do it alone. The first victim of Dawn’s at such an early age he doesn’t remember the incident that scarred his index finger—“I think she bit me,” is all he can conjure up—the guy’s mental instability is fully formed. Adamantly refusing natural intercourse with his girlfriend, we can assume it is due to the deep rooted, subconscious fear of teeth being where they shouldn’t be, even though he appears to tell himself that he is saving it for a long awaited chance at his stepsister. Tattooed, pierced, and very funny in his ability to be just plain mean, his comic relief is all that saves the film to eventually reach its stride with monster unleashed. Only then is the fun sustained with Teeth’s pure absurdity and much more graphic gore moments than anticipated. You do get to see the aftermaths of Dawn’s dentata flourishes, so be prepared. Or just avoid the film completely and hope Lichtenstein’s sophomore effort, Happy Tears, fares better.

Teeth 3/10

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photography:
[1] Josh Pais as Dr. Godfrey and Jess Weixler star as Dawn in comedy horror’s Teeth
[2] John Hensley as Brad with Nicole Swahn as Melanie in Lions Gate Films’ Teeth – 2007

There isn’t really much to say about Eliot Rausch’s depiction of Jason Wood’s final moments with his cancer-stricken dog ODEN. Spanning a short six minutes, the tale shares an emotional voiceover about the owner’s eventual acceptance to end his friend and companion’s suffering. Limping on only three legs, but still as loyal as ever to Wood and his friends, ODEN’s time had come; his job of serving unconditionally was completed.

The film may be emotional and unforgiving in its depiction of the grief death inflicts, even if it is planned for and known, but it is also a stunning piece of art. Shot beautifully by Luke Korver and Matt Taylor, the movie uses stunning angles and composition to stay close in on the details of both the man and the dog. You see the acceptance in the watery eyes of ODEN and the pain in Wood as he bicycles around the city, taking a drag from his cigarette. I loved some of the footage of him biking on the right side of the frame while the camera follows in front as he moves forward.

It’s a pretty straightforward piece that speaks for itself. And, for me, a guy that really never saw the meaning in this kind of loving relationship with an animal, it still resonates with that feeling of uncompromising loss. It definitely shows what kind of a connection man can have with pet, especially seeing this tattooed ‘tough guy’ show his true colors, unable to be John Wayne like he wishes. But really, his breaking down only becomes that much more of a tribute to his friend.

Watch it for yourself:

Last Minutes with ODEN from phos pictures on Vimeo.

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George Lois is my new hero. The guy has confidence and pride to spare, exuding a self-image of Hercules, able to sell anything with a couple hours and a decent budget. While he may rub you the wrong way—full of himself to the point you may rather punch him in the face than want to do anything he asks in fear of inflating his ego more—the man is a genius and understands what it means to sell. You must go for broke, reach for the jugular and pull it out. There can be no apologies and there can be no memories of failures. Wallowing in self-pity will only cultivate an environment of cautiousness, staying safe so as not to fall again. Without that drive to be willing to crash and burn, however, nothing that will stand the test of time can be created. It is the people unafraid to look at the edge of a cliff and jump off with the knowledge they’ll somehow land on their feet that have created the brands and marketing material so ingrained in our everyday lives that the artifice has become invisible. These are the people Doug Pray’s documentary Art & Copy shows us.

The film really is a who’s who of advertising visionaries—men and women who not only changed the game, but who actually recreated the rules from scratch. Working in the industry myself, I cannot imagine a time when the art director and copywriter weren’t in the same room creatively brainstorming. How could anything new, vibrant, or mind-blowing come to life if a sheet of words was just passed up a floor to be designed onto a page with pictures? How could this be an innovation rather than a intrinsic component? Just the fact some upstarts began showing what standing up to the establishment could produce is more profound than initially thought. With a firm like Doyle Dane Bernbach turning preconceptions on their head, advertisers began to realize the amount of power they wielded. By taking the pulse of America, they could see the tides were changing and knew they had to reinvent what works and grabs a person’s attention to sell a product. From Volkswagen’s tiny German car that appeared more a symbol of a country that murdered millions than the stylish, cool vehicle DDB made it with their “Think Small” campaign, to Lyndon B. Johnson himself and his famous “Daisy” ad, marketing would never be the same. “Daisy” makes the opening commercial for Bill Murray’s television station in Scrooged look like a children’s cartoon; and my uncle actually got me into DDB Los Angeles in 2004 for a tour and sit down with creative … boy was I clueless to the royalty to which I was privy.

Pray does a bang-up job showing his audience the eccentrics behind these ad campaigns that we take for granted. A single commercial is no longer a make or break type deal—we are inundated with advertising 24/7 on buses, tv, radio, billboards, and clothing. We can’t escape it. To really succeed in this world, a company needs a brand that people can grab hold of and not let go. It must be shown in the kind of light that makes it indispensable to the consumer, to make him feel like he is a member of the ‘in the know’ crowd by acquiring it, always on the pulse of cool. My new idol, George Lois, knows this fact and he revels in it. No one else would have had the gall to do what he did for Tommy Hilfiger. Here was a young upstart cutting his teeth and seeing if there was a way into the fashion industry. A modest and shy guy, he couldn’t fathom what Lois was telling him he should do. Unless Hilfiger wanted to spend millions of dollars to saturate the market with his name and product, they would have to do something brash and big. Lois came up with the idea of comparing the unknown designer with giants of the field Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis, billing him as the next descendant of their creatively genius family. It could have completely backfired, showing the world that this unassuming man was a self-righteous prick without respect for the forefathers of his occupation. Instead, just like Lois anticipated, the campaign created a mystique around Hilfiger, making him an instant overnight success, causing him to buckle down, work even harder, and prove the attention was deserved. I’m sure putting his posters in taunting distance from his established competitors didn’t hurt in lighting that fire either.

Lois knows how to push buttons and get what he wants—two traits essential to the job. Then there is Mary Wells with a theatrical eye and knowledge of people’s need for new experiences; Hal Riney’s projection of his own idyllic dream world on the masses to look forward to and fantasize of themselves; Jeff Goodby’s ability to realize a phrase like ‘Got Milk?’ may not be correct English, but still could be transcendent; and Phyllis K. Robinson ushering in the ‘Me’ Generation single-handedly, or at least opening her client’s eyes to the changing climate at hand, if she tells the story. But one of the best, the consummate anti-establishment hippie, shirking the system and bringing down the man for quality rebirth of the industry, is Lee Clow. Here is the man behind one of the most famous commercials ever aired—possibly because it only saw television screens once—Apple’s ”1984” Macintosh Super Bowl spot. It may have never showed the product, it may have cost a ton of money, and it may have alienated the company’s board to have it never see the light of day, but founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak saw the vision and paid for it themselves, spawning a new era of advertising and making their new computer the most talked about item of the year. Let’s just say TBWA\Chiat\Day hasn’t stopped since, creating the iPod ads that have become part of our everyday lexicon.

With numerous examples of full commercials, print ad examples, and first-hand accounts from the creatives themselves, Art & Copy is a must-see for any design/advertising person out there. These are visionaries that paved the way for what we aspire to achieve and become. But the film doesn’t only work for insiders to the craft; it is also a very funny and informative account of the birth of the constant assault by corporations and consumer products. With stats finding their way on screen, startling in the numbers of images we assimilate per day, and a minor diversion showing a billboard ‘flipper’, changing out ads of which he has no knowledge of the artists behind them, Doug Pray has compiled a well-constructed piece of filmmaking that documents the one industry we take so for granted, we may not even realize it exists. A billion dollar business that is controlled by very few, you can only truly understand the skill and incomparable genius of those at the top by seeing how they are light years above the drivel we generally experience. The people put on screen here could feasibly be spoken of in the same breath as Picasso or Rembrant, but, unfortunately, the industry carries too big a stigma to give it the credit it deserves.

Art & Copy 8/10

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photography:
[1] iPod Billboard, the work of Lee Clow and TBWA. Credit: Michael Nadeau
[2] Cliff Freeman of Cliff Freeman and Partners, collector of vintage radios and the man who created Where’s the beef? for Wendy’s, in his New York City office. Credit: Chris Glancy.

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I really don’t mind Hollywood remaking films, honestly. If a filmmaker really enjoyed something made overseas, I can’t blame him for wanting to expose America to what resonated so well personally to him. However, shouldn’t he then go the route of Tarantino or Scorsese and bring the actual movie over, helping audiences experience the original? Or have we become so self-righteous and elitist that subtitles cannot be bothered with? Are we really that lazy? To be fair, I haven’t seen the new remake Brothers, so I can’t say whether it is effective or not, but, frankly, I could care less. Susanne Bier has crafted a masterpiece of tone, emotion, and weight that is as close to perfect as be. All that anyone can hope to achieve is something that might be on par with her Danish-language Brødre [Brothers]. I’m a huge fan of director Jim Sheridan, as well as the three principal actors in the English version, yet, if you feel the need to see their film, I plead with you all to see the 2004 release instead. Bear with the subtitles, please—you will not be disappointed.

Hollywood is in the business of making money and after the huge success of The Departed, despite our country’s almost complete ignorance to the film its based on, Infernal Affairs, (which Scorsese remaking kind of counters my argument above; trust me, helps foreign films exist here), the industry will continue to seek material to rework for the masses. Not only will they take the story and most likely water it down, if they don’t just end up re-shooting it shot for shot—in which case they should just dub the original—they will do what is necessary to sell tickets, including hiring A-list stars to perform. But, just like I can’t seriously fault Matt Damon or Leo DiCaprio, as their performances were real good in The Departed, I cannot rail against Gyllenhaal, Maguire, and Portman—especially since I didn’t see their film—although I can wonder at the selection of fresh-faced twenty-somethings in parts previously played by veteran foreigners. Just like Lau and Leung left shoes too big to fill, making Damon and DiCaprio appear as boys versus men, the cast in Brødre is untouchable in terms of effectiveness. Bier’s film is inhabited by thirty and forty year olds, men and women who have experienced life and carry their past with them, etched on their faces and heavy on their shoulders.

It all begins with an auspicious day in the life of the central family. Michael is about to leave for a three-month stint in Afghanistan as a major in the Danish army, but before he ships off, he has the honor of welcoming back his brother Jannik from a three-year incarceration for robbery and assault. While the boys’ father may never forgive his youngest son for his transgressions, nor let him forget how honorable his eldest is, the boys show a bit more compassion despite very differing lifestyles. Jannik is a loose cannon looking to drink away his sorrows and most likely wind up right back in jail, yet Michael will have none of it, not only letting his last night in Denmark be shared by his brother’s first back, but also giving him access to his new car while he’s gone. The story is a continuation of their familial dynamic from childhood, appearing to possibly be the basis of their relationship with each other in perpetuity. This is not to be, however, as a wrench is thrown into the mix when Michael’s helicopter goes down and the army wrongly pronounces him dead. Jannik must now grow up and become the rock his sister-in-law and nieces need, to be the man he always ran away from evolving into. And, at the same time, Michael must survive, not only a prison camp, but also life after it, dealing with the adjustment and guilt of what happened, switching places with his brother, becoming the uncontrollable loose cannon.

Bier and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen have penned what could possibly be one of the best examples of post-traumatic disorder in cinema. Not only does one man leave jail with the need to feel remorse for what he’s done and forgive himself in order to assimilate back into society, another must cope with civilization after being reduced to an animal without rules in war. This juxtaposition makes the portrayals even more authentic by showing how the suffering and abyss of the unknown can affect both those who’ve led a life of destruction and those that have been on a moral path. Events we are put through can have devastating effect on our mental psyche, letting paranoia set in, turning us on those who we should trust implicitly. A person’s hatred for himself can seep out and project onto those we love, pleading with himself that they may also be as broken as him. When rock bottom has been hit, the only comfort can come in the transgressions of those around you; anything to make the horrors you’ve done seem somewhat less unimaginable.

But words in a script cannot convey these emotions and events without the vessels to bring it to us. These three actors—Ulrich Thomsen as Michael, Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Jannik, and Connie Nielsen as Sarah—are absolutely astonishing. Not only do they perform well, but they look the part too. When Thomsen picks up Kaas, we know which is the ‘good son’ and which is the ‘bad egg’. Michael is stern, yet compassionate, while Jannik is rough-edged and short-fused, scowling as he smokes when his brother can’t help but smile that his sibling is home. You believe these initial observations so completely, that when the two reverse later on, it becomes that much more devastating. The most harrowing of all, though, is in both Thomsen and Nielsen’s descent into darkness. Here are two actors that have made a nice living in English-language work—making the recasting that much more absurd—that put on a clinic of pure despair and anguish. Nielsen’s Sarah is trying to live with her husband’s death, confusing the kindness of her brother-in-law, a man she never really liked, for more, and then has to go through the wringer of emotion when Michael is found to be alive. And Thomsen is unforgettable in his scenes of captivity in the Middle East, as well as trapped in his own head back home.

Bier is a pro here, getting all her actors to bring everything they have to the film, even the little girls showing fear for those they love, and creating a beautiful piece of art. I’m not quite sure why so much of the movie is vignetted—at first I thought it was a way of showing sights through a character’s eyes, soon proven to not be the case—but the aesthetic result is gorgeous. With such a soft image, the rough and tumble actions of violence and fear are more memorable when showed in an almost dream-like state. She is definitely a director to keep on your radar and I can’t wait to check out the film she made next, After the Wedding. I hear a remake of that one might be in the works too, but hopefully we in America will one day wake up to the fact we aren’t alone in this world and finally, voluntarily, watch a foreign film, giving their creators the accolades and praise already earned internationally.

Brødre [Brothers] 9/10

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Being given Something’s Gotta Give because of what my friend said were major similarities to Nancy Meyers’s latest film It’s Complicated, I wasn’t prepared for Crazy Town’s ‘Butterfly’ to be blaring amongst a collage of beautiful women using their wiles to gain access to nightclubs and turn heads on the streets at the start. But then Jack Nicholson’s voiceover enters the fray and it starts to make sense being he is a hip hop mogul with a penchant for women under 30—as in he’s never dated someone older. Soon he is shown with girlfriend Amanda Peet as they arrive at her mother’s vacation home for some fun under the sun and the sheets. Then Mom comes in, throwing a wrench into the weekend and all their lives. A heart attack later and he begins to soften up to a fifty year old, the young girl starts looking to a future of stability, and mother and playwright Diane Keaton finds a love she thought was gone after her divorce with both an older man and one twenty years her junior.

Fortunately, Meyers seems to be someone that knows how to get a romantic comedy to have enough story and laughs for the male persuasion to have a good time. So often these types of films are phony and flimsy in plot that if you aren’t a woman looking for romantic bliss or more reasons to despise the crude, cheats men are often portrayed as, you’ll be in hell watching them. Like It’s Complicated, which is better in my opinion, this 2003 film is quite entertaining, showing a slice of heightened life with contrivances that do their best to seem natural instead of blatantly obvious. There is still the problem of setting it with the lives of rich people, though. By creating characters with money, not only are they allowed to have the time to be fluent in French, or own beachfront property, but they can be self-employed writers and producers that never have to go into an office, freeing them from the constraints of actual life. Maybe viewers of this genre like the escapism of seeing how the better half live—going to fancy dinners, vacationing in Paris on a whim, and not worrying about ambulance trips to the emergency room for panic attacks since health insurance is fully covered. To me, I really have to suspend disbelief and accept the lifestyle as a way to make the scriptwriting easier, but once I do, I can finally settle in.

If these characters, Nicholson’s Harry and Keaton’s Erica, aren’t affluent, they could never have the week together to form the main relationship driving the entire movie. She has writer’s block and he is just going through life living fast without worrying about the consequences, so his heart attack keeping him under house arrest with her—a complete stranger more or less—can feasibly occur. And, of course, the opportune meeting of a hunky doctor that is literate in critical Broadway hits, allowing for the inversed courting of young man with senior woman, can only happen on Long Island’s most wealthy end. In fact, I really thought Keanu Reeves pulled the role off quite well, showing his affection for Keaton and his affable demeanor in the hospital. A guy with a California ‘dude’ accent practicing in the Hamptons, however, is a bit of a stretch. These coincidences could be looked upon in two ways, though, as lazy writing using money as a way to conveniently cause chance encounters and lengthy stretches of time together, or as good writing, weaving it all together in way that makes the machinations invisible. I, perhaps surprisingly, turn to the latter, because, honestly, I didn’t necessarily become bothered with the ease of it all until the film was over. So if it worked seamlessly while watching, I’ll give it the credit of being a success.

Truthfully, I enjoyed this film. Both Nicholson and Keaton are masters at their craft, even if the roles they play here might be very similar to their real life personas. We all know Jack is a womanizer and Keaton generally stays out of the limelight, working sporadically, so who really knows how much acting they had to do. Either way, I bought into their feelings of disgust or ambivalence towards each other on first impression, and I completely believed their eventual warming to each other as they caught glimpses of the people behind the facades that have taken over their lives. In fact, I was pretty invested in the story right up until about three quarters in; right when Keaton starts crying for about fifteen straight minutes. I didn’t think anyone could do intense sorrow and tears worse than early Claire Danes, but here I am proven wrong. I understood why she feels this way and why the tears become a catalyst for her creative juices flowing and completing her new play, but I was totally taken out of the story, cringing at the performance, hoping to get back on track soon.

Despite that misstep, the middle third is quite engaging and fun to watch. It’s not giving anything away to say that our two leads eventually do get together, that’s what the movie is about, so I won’t feel too bad talking about the event. It is a very endearing exchange full of realism in their awkwardness with each other. He has never been with an aged woman and she hasn’t been with anyone after her marriage had ended. They are like nervous youths together, sweetly saying and doing things they never would have imagined doing before making love. When else will the woman leave the room to get a blood pressure gauge first, or the answer to his question of birth control be menopause? It was a great scene from start to finish, especially in its display of their two disparate worlds. There is no better way to complete the night than with the words, “I want to try and sleep with you,” after sex is over. Sometimes ‘sleeping’ with someone does mean just that.

At the end of the day, if Something’s Gotta Give has taught me anything, it’s that a film by Nancy Meyers shouldn’t be unjustly disregarded. The work isn’t anything extraordinary, but it does contain enough interest to watch without derision. By getting the relationship aspect correct, whether between young and old or equal ages, she has the knack of rising above the genre’s shortcomings, even relaying some words of wisdom in the process. I may not agree with the very end—ruining what I thought was a perfect conclusion for the feel-good finale you assume will occur before you start watching the film—yet it does follow the words Keaton has for her daughter. She says how she “let someone in and had the time of my life,” then asking, “What are you waiting for?” No truer line is spoken in the film, because that feeling is wonderful and no amount of heartbreak later on can take it away.

Something’s Gotta Give 7/10

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photography:
[1] Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give – 2003
[2] Keanu Reeves as Julian in Something’s Gotta Give – 2003

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I sometimes forget how blatant music was used in films of the 1980s. Let It Ride may have been made in 1989, but it did not leave that trend behind quite yet. Not only do the cheesy rock ballads come through at the start, the montage shots behind the credits are graced with one that has the title in the lyrics. That’s just how Hollywood rolled in the 80s, and the process recalled those films of John Hughes, a man who used song to make a soundtrack for the decade’s worth of angst in America’s youth. The difference, though, is that this Richard Dreyfuss vehicle is an R-rated work that revels in its vulgarity, sexuality, and poverty-stricken characters gambling and boozing. I’ll admit that going in I had no clue exactly what to expect, figuring it was Dreyfuss’s Trotter watching his life go down the toilet. So, to my surprise, the entire story surrounds his day at the track, arriving with a hot tip and riding the wave of good luck until the tension of losing it all becomes too much to handle—for everyone around him.

Literally spanning the course of one day at the horse track, after Trotter’s buddy Looney records, amidst the smut that usually occurs, an exchange between two nefarious dealers in the back of his cab talking about a fix the night before, Let It Ride doesn’t have too much plot to mess with the laughs at its core. Trotter is down on his luck, thinking he deserves more than the life he’s been given, including a set of friends that have all their teeth. Looking to turn things around, he and his wife, played nicely by a comedic Teri Garr, make vows to change the way they treat each other, making plans to reconcile and make love the next afternoon. That event soon gets pushed to the side, though, as he cannot believe the information Looney has brought to him, listening to the tape over and over again until he finally decides to end his ban on gambling and bet the sure thing while Garr waits at home in bed.

And here is where the fun really begins. Dreyfuss is the epitome of smug, the guy everyone likes because he is a loser that never stops, but also despise when winning for the simple fact that they aren’t the ones holding the lucky tickets. Throwing caution to the wind, Trotter makes his way to the $50 Win booth for a bet on the long-shot, after praying to God for the victory inside his favorite bar’s restroom, above the far from pristine toilet bowl. Laughed at by the booth worker, chided by fellow bettor Tony Cheeseburger, and bombarded with pessimism from his best bud Looney about listening to information that was too good to be true, he goes for it anyway, watching his luck turn. One win leads to a chain of events for more; even the dismal moments of owed bookies and false arrests somehow work out for the better. But no matter how much cash he stuffs in his shoes, Garr’s wife Pam slowly moves further and further away, opening her eyes to the cretin her husband really is. That distance, though, and Trotter’s good fortune, only works together to make him finally realize what it is he has at home, despite the ample cleavage of Jennifer Tilly’s Vicki available for the taking.

So, the main point of the film becomes whether Dreyfuss can continue to win. You begin to fall into one of two camps, either the one hoping it doesn’t stop or the one that can’t wait to see the fallout when it all ends. Therefore, the cast of eccentrics weaving in and out of his life start to be the main driving force behind the plot. It is quite the menagerie of losers, rich elite, crooks, and bored track employees. Dreyfuss himself really does put the film on his back and never steps off the gas as he rides the luck for as long as he can. Never afraid to speak his mind, he has the wonderful trait of being able to completely alienate all those that care about him. Feeling that he is better than them all, the cavalier attitude does begin to fail a bit when his friends fall into trouble, realizing that although he wishes they weren’t the people he was stuck with, they are the ones he’s become attached to. This is especially true with Looney, his dimwitted pal that is so unlucky, his demise is actually the catalyst to Trotter’s winning ways. David Johansen’s portrayal is fantastic, complete with childlike facial expressions and the innocence of just talking forever, unaware of the consequences or the definition of tact.

The rest of the cast is pretty hilarious—keeping the laughs coming and disguising the fact the film is just replaying the same event four different times with four different races. Richard Dimitri is over-the-top as the gold chain wearing Tony Cheeseburger, switching his allegiances to whomever has the hot hand; John Roselius is funny as the gruff, peripheral-sighted police officer; Tony Longo does what he does best, standing big and tall as the heavy who cashes in by charging people to stand by the track’s rails; Cynthia Nixon as a young braces-wearing 19-year old turned adamant gambler; and “Wings’s” David Schramm and, a favorite of mine, Richard Edson excel as the bookies hoping they’ll be able to cause some pain as they collect from the days’ losers. As for the most memorable role, that goes to Robbie Coltrane’s ticket taker as a stand-in for the audience with perfect comedic timing. He watches the craziness going on around Trotter, at first dismissing him as the loser we assume he is, but eventually warming up to hail him as his hero, the most fearless man he’s ever witnessed at the track. We go through the exact same progression, eventually allowing ourselves to root for the underdog and think that if he can have a day of absolute success, maybe we can too.

Let It Ride 6/10

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Who else could have the catchy pop beats to lull a trio of mythologically inclined heroes into a trance, keeping them from their task at hand, than Lady Gaga? Director Chris Columbus made the right call on that one as he takes the plunge into yet another popular fantasy series, hoping to achieve the success he had in starting the Harry Potter saga. My main gripe with the first two films there was that he stayed too true to the source material, always playing it safe and never willing to risk possibly angering a massive population of wannabe witches and wizards. If my aunt and cousin have anything to say about Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, it is that those behind the movie definitely took some liberties, mostly maneuvers to help move the plot along and reach the necessary conclusion within two hours. I haven’t read the novels, so I can’t comment myself to that fact, but either way, I had a lot of fun in this hyper-real world, so perhaps Columbus did learn a thing or two about catering to the medium rather than appeasing a community of fans that probably could never be satisfied.

I have always had an affinity for Greek and Roman mythology, so this premise is definitely tailored to my tastes. Even as far back as elementary school, I had been visiting the tales of Theseus, Prometheus, and Pandora; discovering their connections to Zeus, Athena, Poseidon, and Hades. The stories were so universal in their adventure and humanity that they have, and will, stand the test of time. So, when Rick Riordan decided to create a series depicting the illegitimate offspring of Mt. Olympus’ rogue’s gallery, he definitely tapped into a subject that had all the potential of being huge. Not only would those my age and older want to check it out for the simple fact that it expanded on the myths we grew up reading, but it also serves as a vessel to expose today’s youth to these ancient scripts, adding a little flair that they may not see through all the marble statues and togas. I’m actually a little surprised that I never even heard of the series until the film started production, but thankfully the debut here has piqued my interest to continue on with the journey. Hopefully the box office take will be enough to soldier on through the next four books.

The fun starts right from the beginning, introducing us to Zeus and Poseidon conversing about an impending war that would destroy all of humanity. While the lightning God seems to have left all connection to Earth behind, (besides the trysts he still most likely has there while Hera remains in the heavens), the God of sea has not. By keeping two half-humans at his son Percy’s back, protecting him while he cannot, Poseidon does his best to shield the boy, from the dangers that wait due to his heritage, until his true identity is revealed. The moment for the truth isn’t far away, however, as someone has stolen Zeus’s lightning, framing the boy to the point where minotaurs and furies are chasing him down for the chance to possess the weapon’s power for themselves. Percy finds himself swept away into this world of demigods, training for a war that may be closer than they ever could have imagined, and in the middle of a shoving match between the three siblings with all the authority—Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. It all just becomes a surreal dream until Percy’s mother is kidnapped and held in the underworld, snapping the boy out of his stupor straight into heroic mode.

While the Gods are portrayed by some very capable Brits in Sean Bean’s Zeus, Kevin McKidd’s Poseidon, (still underappreciated in Hollywood), and Steve Coogan’s Hades, (letting some of that trademark humor show through in an otherwise serious role), the trio of heroes are, for the most part, newcomers. Percy’s best friend Grover is played by Brandon T. Jackson and is possibly the best thing in the film. He may be almost a decade older than his buddies, and this may be a big tonal departure from the last role I saw him as in Tropic Thunder, but he plays it effectively, both realistic as a high schooler and also as a saytr of unknown age. Definitely the comic relief in words, actions, and expressions, Jackson is the perfect foil to his more earnest companions. Alexandra Daddario comes across as stiff at the start, but slowly softens up as the film goes on. Much more effective when on the quest for Zeus’s lightning, she is most natural when entranced by Lady Gaga and lotus cookies, showing a side of her that is needed to understand the more severe one. And it’s Logan Lerman rounding out the good guys as the titular Percy. He is quite good being at the center of it all, likeable in his modesty and naivety, but also believable as the headstrong warrior he was born to become.

There are a lot of supporting players within the game too, and many are brought to life by some familiar faces. Pierce Brosnan is the sage teacher responsible for getting these halfbloods ready for battle, but is largely wasted here, perhaps in lieu of a more substantial role in subsequent entries; Uma Thurman is having a lot of fun as Medusa, hamming it up at every opportunity; and Catherine Keener once again shows that she has tied up the job of concerned and caring mother for every new film being made. It is also nice to see Joe Pantoliano sleaze his way across the screen as the guy we all love to despise. However, the truly spectacular supporting cast comes from those characters that aren’t really there. Kudos to the special effects team for really going overboard on the creature development. Some instances are obviously fake, like when actors interact with fiction, (grabbing a pair of Hermes’s flying Converses for example), but, otherwise, the rendering of monsters such as Medusa, a Minotaur, Hades in full regalia, and especially the Hydra are quite well done.

Percy and friends have their work cut out for them as they attempt to enter Hell, save Mrs. Jackson, stop a Gods’ feud, and thus save the world. All the elements to appeal to children and adults are included, culminating towards a solid final battle, creating suspense and excitement. Despite that, though, something tells me the stakes will only get higher once these kids return to theatres next time.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief 7/10

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photography:
[1] Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) stands triumphant with the trident belonging to his father, the Greek god Poseidon. Photo credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
[2] Percy Jackson prepares to give a final “heads up” to Medusa (Uma Thurman). Photo credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

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Very rarely does a film meet, let alone exceed, the expectations of the piece of literature it is based upon. With a director like Martin Scorsese, however, you do hold out hope that it will at least come close. But with postponements from the Oscar wheelhouse of a fall release and the move to a dump month such as February, concern weighed very heavy. Maybe the departure in subject matter caused the venerable auteur to falter a bit, unsure of how to handle a thriller such as Dennis Lehane wrote. As it is, it’s a departure for the writer too—previously seeing very successful adaptations with Mystic River and Gone, Baby Gone—delving into suspense/horror where dramatic intrigue used to be. I never read those two books, but I did catch up to this one, enjoying it immensely for its genre qualities and pulp nature. And that is exactly how I felt about the film version of Shutter Island; it’s not classic cinema, but a very strong, taut thriller and a perfect inclusion to Scorsese’s already prolific career.

This is definitely his most stylish work to date—almost overly so. Scorsese has always had a style of his own, but this one seems to be taking some pages from other directors. Perhaps he just wanted to branch out and try something new, keeping Kubrick’s The Shining at the forefront of his mind, utilizing a lot of that film’s tricks to wet his feet in the endeavor. I had heard previous to the screening that comparisons to the classic 1980 film were running rampant and it didn’t take long to see for myself. So much of the beginning is shot from a low angle, looking forward into expository frames. There are a lot of static shots centered, very symmetrically, lulling us into this world of quiet to soon erupt with insanity. Sharp cuts to overhead images, meticulously positioned made me think of the blink and you’ll miss them edits in The Shining, mixed together with quick connectors of close-up banal action, like the locking of a door, bringing to mind Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. And even the music cues recall Kubrick’s horror film—at times abrasively loud, crescendoing to its peak and then disappearing to complete silence, only the natural sounds of what’s onscreen remaining. If this film gets any Oscar love, Sound Editing is top of the list.

The lynchpin that holds it all together, though, comes in the form of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels. By far the lead role here, in front of the camera for the duration, DiCaprio gives a tour de force performance, embodying this haunted WWII vet turned US Marshall, desperately trying to expose a system he sees as corrupt, maybe getting revenge for his wife’s murder in the process. It is a solid portrayal that only gets better as the film goes on, watching this hardnosed and stubborn man slowly unravel at the seams. So many secrets become revealed as the plot progresses, and while their outcomes are somewhat obvious, (I’ll admit to figuring the whole thing out while watching the original trailer last year, before I even read the novel), but I do believe experiencing the revelations firsthand is worthwhile, so I won’t go into more detail. Being such a twist-oriented story could have hurt the film for someone who knew the plot going in, but Scorsese should not be underestimated. The sense of excitement mixed with dread is still palpable because knowing what will happen gave way to not knowing how he’d show it. And if Marty got one thing right here it is the amazing 1950s aesthetic and the visual flair of the events.

To give a little about the plot of the tale, DiCaprio’s Teddy and his new partner Chuck, (played effectively by Mark Ruffalo if only because he doesn’t standout or steal the spotlight), have arrived at Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of one Rachel Solando, a woman who killed her three children years before that has seemed to vanish through the walls. The island is a mental institution for the criminally insane, but something is a bit off-kilter and there is more going on than is being told to the Marshalls. Guns must be removed, personnel files are off-limits, and it’s almost as though the psychiatrists don’t want the woman to be found. While the case moves forward, however, we also become more involved in the psyche of Teddy himself, catching glimpses of his past and nightmares of his dead wife talking to him about her killer being on the island too. Adding to the feelings of dread made real by the acting and stunning visuals is a crippling sense of claustrophobia. Scorsese has trapped us on the island with the two Officers, always showing the gate close behind them, even using torrential rain as a blockade to freedom outside the grounds. And the use of objects ever apparent between the actors and the audience is ever-present. Sometimes it will be a fence, sometimes a literal cage, and at one instance, beautifully, the crackling flames of a fire licking at the faces of DiCaprio and Patricia Clarkson, keeping them far away from us, even in close-up.

Supporting roles like Clarkson help flesh out the film; using well-known faces for bit parts, proving the pull that Scorsese has in collecting superb talent. Elias Koteas, Jackie Earle Haley, Emily Mortimer, and Michelle Williams all come into the fray and shine in their limited, yet integral screen time. Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow round out the cast as the doctors helping the Marshalls secure their island sanctuary, a hospital trying to do some good for people the world has forsaken, but again, they are all just players in the game surrounding Teddy Daniels. The subject of insanity looms large, as well as the pros and cons of medicinal treatments versus lobotomies, but the real topic at hand is what is happening to DiCaprio’s character and the blurring of reality with fantasy. By no means a masterpiece, Shutter Island succeeds within its genre, excelling at providing psychological scares and invigorating revelations. It’s good to see Scorsese have some fun, as well as a popular novel be converted so faithfully, save for the final event. It may be the one change I can clearly point out, but it is also an improvement on the source, in my opinion, leaving the audience with a sense of ambiguity that puts an even darker spin to Lehane’s original conclusion.

Shutter Island 8/10

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photography:
[1] Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a detective sent from the mainland to investigate a mysterious disappearance on an island prison for the criminally insane in the thriller “Shutter Island.”
[2] Ben Kingsley (center) stars as Dr. Cawley in the thriller “Shutter Island.”

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Ever wonder what might happen to your beloved childhood bedtime stories if they were told to you by your bitter, disgruntled grandmother? Wonder no more because director Nicky Phelan has brought the world the experience with her animated version of writer Kathleen O’Rourke’s character in Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty. There is nothing like a theatrical old woman telling a story, doing her best to draw out strong emotions while her own get the better of her. The short film’s granddaughter just wants to go to bed with her stuffed animal, but Granny will have none of it, plopping down to tell one of her famous bedtime tales—starting sweet and normal, yet soon devolving into vengeful diatribe.

You don’t really know what to expect at the start, somewhat disoriented by the fear you see on the young girl’s face once Grandma enters the room. This is not the first time she’s stopped by for the nightly ritual, that’s for sure. The name ‘Grimm’ itself should prepare you for the fact that the fantasy won’t be a Disney-fied version, but I can’t say I anticipated the direction it finally ends up going. Granny definitely has some pent-up rage hidden beneath her sweet, bifocal wearing exterior, ready to be unleashed on all those frowning upon her disintegrating, walker-dependent body. All those pretty little bimbos walking around oblivious to their future of gravity will have their comeuppance, even if it’s only within the constraints of a fairy tale romance—funnily devoid of that one trait the actual Sleeping Beauty is known for.

Rather then watch as Sleeping Beauty grows up and becomes enchanted in slumber until a handsome Prince can rescue her, Granny tells of an elderly fairy not invited to the young one’s party. In her anger she crashes the scene and makes her displeasure known, cursing those in attendance and cackling profusely. The granddaughter desperately tries to shield herself from the scary visage sitting at the side of her bed, hoping for the chance of a happy ending to maybe let her wide eyes find solace in even a wink of sleep that night.

The true success really lies in the performance of O’Rourke in portraying Granny O’Grimm as the two-faced Irish woman. People have thrown fairytales on their heads before, using them for fright rather than hope, so nothing in that regard is new and original. No, the over-the-top theatrics trump the piece’s artistry and story due to its sheer hilarity as the woman goes from soft dulcet tones to loud anger-laced screams—even doing her own foreboding echo to add a little pizzazz. Not to say the animation is bad; it’s actually really good. The use of both computer-generated 3D work for the ‘real world’ and 2D perspective for the fantasy is handled successfully. I also loved the blurred reflection of our two leads in the mirror across the room from the bed. It is a beautiful rendering of depth in the room and a nice detail.

Perhaps the series will expand with more tales we know and love, altered to cause Granny’s little girl to grow up jaded and paranoid—especially if the poster is to be believed, talking about 26 x 11 minute episodes. Will they work now that the premise is revealed? I’m not so sure. That surprise of tonal shift really did it for me. I don’t quite know if the freshness can continue to be sustained on subsequent entries.

Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty 7/10

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Watch the Oscar-nominated animated short at its website: www.grannyogrimm.com

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