Category Archives: Drama

The Argument – Director’s Cut


A fantastic short film about a man and his baby…and diapers. I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but “The Argument” really was a unique experience for me. It amplified my fear of the responsibility of children, something I’d like to avoid. The story is about a man whose spouse is frustrated with him (we only hear her at the beginning, never see her) and is left alone with his baby when it needs to be changed and there aren’t any clean diapers.

There’s a great tracking shot, cut up into several segments, but all following the father from behind as he carries his baby through the streets and into the grocery store. The baby is crying as he rocks him slightly. There is a distinct lack of music throughout, only the sounds of the crying and the dialogue from the various characters.

After grabbing a pack of diapers recommended by a nearby customer, presumably a mother, he gets in line to buy them. He gets a few looks from other customers; we really feel like we are peering through the eyes of a desperate father scrambling to keep his domestic life together. He ends up finding out that he doesn’t have any money on him. The clerk is stubborn and doesn’t budge despite his pleas.

The clerk says herself, “It’s not my store”, so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that she then goes on to chase after him through the parking lot, almost getting run over by an oncoming vehicle. She could have simply yelled out, “thief!”, and the manager wouldn’t or at least shouldn’t have put any blame on her. Maybe there’s a sign in the employee lunch area stating the requirement to physically chase any thief by foot; I don’t know.

A great ‘day-in-the-life’ short film; simple, but powerful in its depiction of the anxieties of parenthood.

Written & Directed by Clara Aranovich

Starring Melvil Poupaud and Naomi Collier.

 

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Baby Driver (2017) – Film Review

The opening to Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” feels a bit braggadocios, a bit indulgent, and a bit too similar to a recent Apple commercial. All in one take, the opening tracking shot follows our main character, Baby, played by Ansel Elgort, as he walks freely through the streets, crossing roads, passing murals, and avoiding bystanders. Each set piece he walks by correlates with the words in the song he’s listening to with his signature earbuds, always at hand and usually blaring full volume.

It’s a clever opening, though very self-referential: “Shaun of the Dead” featured one of the greatest one take tracking shots ever with Simon Pegg’s character bumbling through his town, ignorant of the blood and zombies surrounding him as he yawns his way through the vacant streets. The movie slows down a bit after the opening street dance/music video, getting into the reality of Baby’s life as a getaway driver for low-life, high-stake criminals.

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The leader of the operation is Doc, played smugly by Kevin Spacey. Jamie Foxx plays the confrontational character, even having a line in the movie commenting about the crazy position being filled already, by him. Jon Hamm plays a more sedated role as Buddy, another member of the crew; he wants to get the job done and get out of town with his girlfriend as soon as possible.

Baby drives as a result of a traumatic childhood experience involving a car wreck and the death of his mother. He has permanent ringing issues in his ears as a result of the accident, hence the constant music. The soundtrack is the lifeblood of the movie: the characters question it constantly, but when the music starts, Baby switches gears and turns into an 11th grade version of Ryan Gosling in “Drive”. He’s slick and intelligent, knowing the routes by heart, able to intuitively escape from seemingly inescapable scenarios.

Lily James plays Deborah, a young girl that works as a waitress at the diner where Baby’s mother used to wait tables. He’s a regular at the diner and soon garners her attention with a few of his songs and some friendly conversation. They have a runaway vibe throughout, though their relationship can’t be entirely filled out due to his responsibilities to Doc as the whiz-kid driver.

The movie has a lot of heart and clearly a lot of passion for the art of fast-speed driving. The coordination that had to happen to clear the roads and perform the spinning, sliding car donuts must have been exhausting. “Baby Driver” is an exhilarating chase movie made by one of the most inventive action directors of the decade.

It (2017) – Film Review

“It” wasn’t supposed to garner the biggest September box office opening of all time. “It” had been in development turmoil for awhile, swapping directors, dropping Will Coulter as the actor to play Pennywise, and generally being bogged down by a bad streak of Stephen King movies. The Dark Tower was a disaster both financially and critically. But despite all of the doubts, the team behind “It” moved past it through great casting, a distinct visual palette, and a star turn from Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

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Finn Wolfhard, the main character from Netflix’s Stranger Things, plays the wise-cracking Richie in “It”, a change in tone from his earnest TV persona. He swears and brags about sex he’s never had. He brings a great comedic lightness to the movie, an important glue character that ties the group of troubled kids together.

Bill, played by Jaeden Lieberher, is the stuttering older brother of Georgie, the infamous victim of Pennywise’s sewer tricks. He has an emotional arc surrounding his brother that’s very intense and heartfelt. It’s made all the better by the filmmakers choosing to focus only on the characters as children, not flashing back and forth between their adult years. That will be the sequel, apparently.

Sophia Lillis plays Beverly, the tomboy girl with both an undeserved reputation at school and a hostile relationship with her heated father. She’s looking for someone to latch onto, and the losers, the main group of kids that hangout together, including Bill and Richie, a sympathetic fat boy and a home-schooled outsider, are the first she finds. She is more mature and even looks three years older than all of them. She fits in within their little squad very quickly.

Pennywise isn’t just a scary killer clown; he’s a monster capable of transporting and morphing into different entities. His mouth can shape-shift into a long, wide black hole filled with a hundred spears of teeth. But the natural physical gestures performed by Bill Skarsgard are plenty creepy enough.

An “It” producer said in a press interview that they consciously created a strategy to keep Skarsgard out of the late night circuits and press junket interviews. By doing this, the producer explained, the viewer would see Pennywise the monster first and Skarsgard the actor second. His piercing eyes and odd lip movements are huge aspects of the performance, and his real-life interviews don’t mask these intense features/expressions that landed him the role in the first place. If his face were all over magazine covers, the mystique of the Pennywise look wouldn’t be as immediate or as thrilling. Viewers would look at the clown and be able to point out the quirky gestures of the Swedish actor.

Bill Skarsgard made some sort of comment comparing his performance as Pennywise to Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight. I don’t know the context of his actual statement, but if he was saying that he had taken inspiration from Ledger’s Joker, it’s very apparent within the film. He shakes his head and laughs hoarsely at the kids, mimicking their state of absolute terror in the same way Ledger laughed as he was beat down by Batman while being interrogated. The reckless, unfiltered joy in the chaos and violence. They share a lot of common qualities in their performances, though Ledger’s makeup was dried and peeling and Pennywise’s face has been intricately painted and adjusted with CGI effects.

The new Stephen King adaption is a definite success on a long checklist of big-screen failures. “It” is a classic, well-known story with a tantalizingly creepy, enduring villain. If you’re worried about “It 2: The Adults”, be reassured that Pennywise will return and be as welcome as he has been in 2017. He’s a timeless character that will always hold some sort of grasp on audience’s fears.

Get Out (2016) – Film Review

Get Out is a marvel of a movie in an age where explosions and VFX are the main magnets that pull popular audiences out and into a comfy multiplex armchair. On the surface, both in the trailers and in the first act build-up, it’s a story about characters and social interactions. It plays off cultural stereotypes and commonly misused/abused racial phrases, contrasting some very real and at times shocking attitudes without pulling any punches. Yet it all seems too on the button, too hyper-focused and self-aware to be a movie that’s just about a family not accepting their daughters black boyfriend. And it’s not just that; there’s much more to it.

Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, an excited but hyper-nervous boyfriend. He leans on his girlfriend, Rose, played by Allison Williams, helping to ease her worries through cute jokes and quips. Rose’s innocent, red-cheeked demeanor feels like a sort of android or human replicant that acts exactly like a stereotypical white college girlfriend acts. She’s way too accommodating to him; there isn’t any real drama between the two of them, only love and kisses, smoke and mirrors.

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The films marketing campaign focused heavily on the concept of a white young woman bringing her dark-skinned, African-American boyfriend out to the families farm estate.

The advertisements didn’t reveal much about the intricate plot details. With a very reasonable budget of 4.5 million, the producers of Get Out were hoping that, as a hybrid 2017 horror movie, the film would work best as a word-of-mouth product as opposed to releasing it in a more traditional manner through relentless TV marketing.

The studios certainly didn’t need to buy big TV ad spots in the end. As of mid-April, Jordan Peele’s horror film has grossed an impressive 184 million.

With overwhelming critical approval and praise, as well as the instant name recognition stemming from Peele’s hit show, Key & Peele, the film’s producers had very good reason to take a step back and let the quality of the movie speak for itself.

Director Jordan Peele has always professed a love for horror films, good or bad or atrociously bad. He has also expressed his fairly unique perspective on race. Peele is a half black man raised by and growing up alongside a predominantly white family.

A major part of Get Out involves small interactions between Chris and Rose’ parents’ white, country-club friends. These encounters are sometimes staged bluntly for comedic effect or in a more subtle manner to help build ambiguity and mystery.

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At times, the social satire veers towards being a bit too transparent, such as when the father, Dean Armitage, played by Bradley Whitford, insists to Chris that he would definitely vote for Obama for a third term, if he could.

A white man complimenting an African-American man on his “prowess” or “muscular strength” may appear to be a compliment at face-value, but those on the receiving end of the compliments clearly feel uncomfortable. They feel like they are being evaluated. It’s as if their body and entire being are being mentally measured and weighed for current or potential value, similar in a way to the extreme scouting tactics used on young, pre-teen athletes.

The story arc comes and goes without any lingering moments dragging down the fast-paced narrative. The first half introduces us to the characters and scenarios, giving the audience time to think about the direction of the story, to ponder about the potential twists and turns. Peele buys himself enough time in the first half of the movie to convince the audience that we know what kind of movie we’re watching, only to have the rug firmly pulled out from under us in the final act.

Some of the plot points don’t entirely add up, though I won’t go into spoiler territory. I think It’s important, though, to think more about the social and cultural messages rather than the labyrinthian, complex narrative.

The story details don’t 100% hold up upon multiple viewings, but the entertainment value remains the same. There’s plenty to talk about, and part of the fun is seeing it with someone for the first time and helping them fill in the pieces to the puzzle. Compared to the multitude of uninspired and unoriginal horror films being punched out these days, Get Out should get an oscar nom.

Overall, Get Out is a thoughtful look at race relations in America. It’s both funny and bleak in the way that it shatters stereotypes that people still commonly use to this day. A piercingly bold and occasionally frightening ride through the eyes of a young African-American man.

Whiplash (2014) – Film Review

 

“Whiplash”, a deservedly praised, knockout hit, is the first feature film of Damien Chazelle, a clearly talented young director. It follows a college-aged drummer, Andrew, played by Miles Teller, as he struggles to achieve his highly ambitious musical goals.

Young and consumed by equal parts doubt and confidence, Andrew ends up in the crazed hands of a vulgar, extremely intense composer and instructor, Terrence Fletcher, brilliantly played by a wide-eyed, spit yelling J.K. Simmons.

The film explores the pressures put upon those who participate in elite, highly-competitive orchestras. The writer/director, Damien Chazelle, has had direct experiences within the field of musical performance.

The movie has a very specific idea that it poses to us on an even narrative strand throughout its running time. And that is: how far should a person be pushed and pressured towards absolute perfection? Is there such a thing as too far? Is  being healthy but lesser better than being great but maniacal?

These aren’t easy questions to answer, and that’s what makes them compelling to both ask and watch unfold, as Andrew is humiliated and berated by his teacher in order to come out the other side as the best drummer he can possibly be (which he would never know, the film asserts, if he wasn’t pushed in the first place).

The screaming dialogue fiercely performed by J.K. Simmons must have been a riot to sit down and actually write. It seems like such a contradiction to see a man teaching beautiful and archaic symphonies one minute, and then violently screaming imaginatively-worded obscenities the other.

Andrew walks into a bar late one night after recognizing his old instructors name plastered on the marquee outside. We witness Terrence actually performing, his face calm, his eyes closing slightly in an unusually serene expression of peace.

The feisty former instructor seems very much at ease as he plays the melodic piano music. But what does the man love the most? The literal sound of the music or the sense of perfection felt from hitting all the right keys? Does he cherish his abilities in contrast to all of the cues his students fail to hit?

A Most Violent Year (2014) – Film Review

A Most Violent Year focuses on a few small pixels in a larger, more dangerous canvas of events. Set in New York City in the year 1981, where crime-rates are quickly rising to an epidemic level, the story sets its eye on an immigrant man, Abel, as we follow his bumpy ride up towards his homegrown American dream.

The film stars a stone-faced Oscar Isaac, playing the ambitious immigrant as a mix of quiet intensity and disgruntled vulnerability. It’s hard for him to accept even the most simplest of things. Alongside him is Jessica Chastain as his shady wife. Chastain’s scenes with Isaac’s Abel are absolute dynamite, a constant battle of wits and ego sparking off of each other. Two of the best young actors/actresses working today.

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The films premise is basically a sub-plot from a lot of other sprawling, ensemble mobster flicks. Remember in Goodfellas, when Jimmy Conway holds up a delivery truck, unloads the goods, and drives away? Well, that’s essentially the main problem in A Most Violent Year, only it’s shown from the microcosmic perspective of the driver and the effect such thievery has on that particular company.

There are a few other key distinctions between the two, though. In Goodfellas, the drivers are complicit: they aren’t getting paid enough to risk being shot in the face, and it’s usually made mutually-beneficial for them anyways. In A Most Violent Year, the driver is a young immigrant man whose not complicit, doesn’t want to be robbed.

The face and owner of the company, Abel, doesn’t want his drivers to back down, although he doesn’t want them to be armed, either. So, waxing in an intelligently cyclical manner, he’s essentially explaining to his low-end drivers that they should be willing and prepared for possible injury or death while delivering the many gallons of oil that will one day make him rich; a very morbid pep speech by any standard.

Through the course of the movie, Abel’s character slowly shapes and grows into his true dimensions. With each conversation or argument he has with others, we’re given small chunks of information about his past; the fact that he’d bought the company from his wife’s father, or that he himself used to be a driver.

It’s these small, subtlety placed nuggets that change not only our perception of him as a character, but also the overall tone of the film as well. With each piece of new knowledge, we cast increasing doubt on the legitimacy and honesty of Abel and his business.

With breathtaking cinematography and a handful of brilliantly brooding performances, A Most Violent Year is an unusually intelligent and entertaining mob film.

Birdman (2014) – Film Review

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I really liked this movie, especially the first experience of it, the whirlwind of energy and movement rushing you into the middle of this man’s world. I don’t like to sum up a film with this sort of overzealous simplicity, but there are just so many brilliant touches in this story that make it so relatable and real. Birdman’s plight into obscurity is a fall everyone and anybody can relate to. He’s frustrated that nothing, even the most important something, according to his inner self, doesn’t last, leaving him alone, not knowing how to react to not only the journey itself, but the conclusion of it. What’s next?

Michael Keaton stars as the titular “Birdman”, or Riggan, and he gives an incredible performance, shifting and wiggling around all of the unique supporting and supportive characters, though none of them can outshine his tweaked-out body spasms and off-kilter, narrow expressions that are his trademark. A certain parallel that I as a viewer noticed that an actual stage performer might just think about on the daily: the backstage dramas feel much more authentic and compelling than the acting onstage. The relaxed, spontaneous feel of the actors after a scene reading has a lot to do with the amount of great acting talent in “Birdman”.

Emma Stone plays Sam, Riggan’s daughter, fresh out of rehab and working as his assistant; Naomi Watts plays Lesly, a slightly thin-skinned but ambitious Broadway actress sexually tied with the new hotshot actor, played by Edward Norton, who’s hired following a set “accident” that calls for a hasty replacement. Zack Galifianakis plays Riggan’s press agent and sort-of friend, Jake. Though this isn’t entirely the case, as the onstage goofs provide a lot of great tension and some very exhilarating moments, I think this idea is one of the main overarching themes in the film.

The idea that the best drama happens in reality, when the lens is capped and the lights are off; to not only act like the actor, but also feel as they would. Mike, played by Edward Norton as a dry and dauntlessly crude theater purist, is a believer in this theory, in this whacky form of method acting. He drinks actual gin for the drinking scenes, and he’s got an actual boner right on cue for the sensual, under-the-sheets scene with Lesly, who had complained earlier that he hasn’t been able to get it up in months in real life.

Riggan actually seems to come around to Mike’s acting philosophy towards the end, even if he may not be entirely aware of it. Standing in his dressing room with his ex-wife, played by Amy Ryan, he randomly spurts out that he regrets videotaping Sam’s birth, that he would’ve rather been actively present for the moment.

Keaton’s filmography is easily comparable to his character in “Birdman”, an aging actor famous for once playing a superhero, but I wonder if this could potentially pose as a distraction from the story itself; instead of focusing on the showering of ideas about self-worth and creative egoism, one might be spending most of their time pondering the parallels between the character and the man, Keaton himself. A constant back-and-forth dialogue between a real actor’s filmography and personality, the character’s filmography and personality, and the line the audience chooses to draw between the two.

I’ve wondered if the director of “Birdman”, Alejandro González Iñárritu, is trying to express some sort of meta-critique of the media by casting Keaton in the role. Was he trying to show how comfortable we are as a society to sum up a person’s career in such a shallow, conclusive manner, comparing and rating all that has come before and consider it less than the sum of its parts, that this one single film anchored his sagging legacy back to shore? Because from all the press and news articles I’ve read, sometimes from only scanning the headlines, the answer to such a question is a definite ‘yes’.

To say that this film is a ‘comeback’ for Keaton or ‘the best Michael Keaton movie in years’ sort of does a disservice to all of the work Mr. Keaton’s done in the last ten or so years; it’s the sort of complimentary-insult that the actual character of Riggan would probably obsessively struggle and wrestle with; maybe in the sequel, Birdman Again: For Dignity’s Sake, we’ll find out how he conquers his self-esteem issues.

 While Riggan is being interviewed about his career-saving play, he’s snobbishly questioned about the merit of a spandex-star like himself actually helming a real, live stage performance. He responds in the standard circular non-talk of a public person that doesn’t want to upset or imply anything that could negatively affect themselves or their cause; or, he’s just been out of the game for so long, he forgot how to go through the motions and produce the gaseous, breezy movie star charm.

It’s a unique type of audience involvement, a new layer to contemplate in the intricately woven tapestry of it all. It’s not the first time a movie juxtaposed an actor’s real-life or career with a film’s story, but it will certainly go down as one of the best and most conclusive of this most likely nonexistent micro-genre.

From a technical point of view, “Birdman” soars as much as the characters and storytelling. Consisting mostly of a single continuous take, the camera darts in and out of rooms, rising slowly upwards to the tops of buildings, trailing, following. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki uses clandestine cuts and convenient object placement to momentarily cloud the camera, cut, and resume in the same fixed, object-blocked position, supporting the illusion of a never-ending sequence. It’s a basic cinematic technique in most cases, but yet the simplicity of it depends on the scope of the camera movement.

With aerial shots and multiple characters to track alongside with, the setups had to have been as calculated and choreographed as a hundred-million dollar battle sequence. Compared to Hitchcock’s one-shot, single location film, “Rope”, “Birdman” is quite groundbreaking in its uncut use of so many different locations. The entire movie was filmed in a swift thirty days, and similar to the great director Sidney Lumet, Iñárritu prepared for the shoot far ahead of time, setting aside several weeks for rehearsing and perfecting the scene layouts with his large ensemble cast.

If anybody tries to knock a movie for a quick shoot, they most likely just don’t understand how it works, and how a shorter shoot simply means lower production costs. Any amount of time that can be cut off of the shooting schedule is time well-spent, as many more experienced than I would confirm.

Using the one-take structure for this particular story can be reasoned many different ways, all of them, in my opinion, being very defensible. As Edward Norton’s character says to Riggan’s daughter, Sam, “This is the theater, don’t be so self-conscious.”

The constant scrutiny of the omnipresent camera heightens the pressure on the characters, and increases the tension and urgency for the viewer. We won’t be saved from awkwardness or intense outbursts by a fade-to-black or a sudden cut to a future moment in time.

We are with these people completely, sharing, in a sense, the same vantage point, the same rambunctious moments leading up to the big opening night. It adds to the rolling impact of it all, which, by the end, we can see and understand it to be the embodiment of what the millennial generation allegedly wants — completely unfiltered and exploitative videos, devoid of any dignity or logic.

Spoiler warning:

The ambiguous, cut-short ending leaves something to chew on, and yet at the same time, not really all that much at all. The bandages wrapped around Riggan’s nose seem to intentionally evoke a bird’s beak, long and pointed. But the deep, hoarse voice is completely absent as he lays quietly alone on the hospital bed.

All of the moments Riggan’s Birdman ego had previously voiced its opinion, Riggan was in a similar situation as his current one at the hospital: interior silence, not being directly near any of the films other main characters.

So has Riggan transformed following this shocking, traumatic ordeal? He’s a changed man, right? His two combating personalities are seemingly done with the banging-heads routine, but who surrendered? The “God” of a man, The Birdman himself, or the aged, apologetic father, regular-old Riggan?

The act of hurling himself out of the window destroys half of his dual self; if he’s not truly Birdman, he’s Riggan the mortal, in his new pavement-splattered form. If he’s Birdman, he’s zooming around in circles in the air outside. And if he’s flying up above the hospital, as his daughter Sam, leaning out of the window and smiling proudly up towards the sky seems to be indicating, then has he transformed into the full-blown manifestation of Birdman?

My best guess:

Riggan lives and continues his life as a born-again cultural icon, a walking statue, now gladly willing to reap the benefits of his gloriously remembered years of youth, cheerfully posing for family pictures, attending Birdman retrospectives and Comic-cons. He’s retired from the constant stress of showmanship, and feels fine continuing on the remainder of his days talking about the thing, even if the thing is still just the thing, and not whatever it is that he or they say the thing is right now at this moment.