Monthly Archives: April 2013

‘Just Like Being There’ is 2013’s best doc (so far)

https://i0.wp.com/www.musicfilmweb.com/wp-content/uploads/db/20120327163524-justlikebeingthere.jpgDaniel Danger (left) and Jay Ryan (right) are two of the subjects of Scout Shannon’s new documentary about screen print artists, ‘Just Like Being There’.

If you’re a visual artist of any kind, you’ll probably enjoy this movie more than I did, but that’s not saying much. Director Scout Shannon is a full-time independent film editor, and his latest feature documentary really showcases his editing talents because ‘Just Like Being There’ does a great job of illustrating many interesting lives in the short span of 81 minutes. Take Daniel Danger, whose best friend and probably the love of his life was taken from him at the age of twenty-two, or Jay Ryan, whose young daughter is the source of all his inspiration. The thing these two and dozens of others featured in Shannon’s exemplary doc have in common is that they are screen print artists. They create gorgeous posters for rock and hip hop concerts (and sometimes movies).

The key to this movie is its tone. It’s laid-back enough to introduce you casually to these creative and inspiring people without being obtuse, but also sensitive enough to really dive into some of the artists’ lives and careers while also investigating the divide between film poster screen-printing and concert poster screen-printing. Shannon pulls off an admirable feat to keep a strong sense of tone throughout the film, as the amount of artists and musicians involved is staggering. It doesn’t feel like talking heads because there’s enough art, emotion and music to keep you fully engaged. This is a really enjoyable little doc that I think any creative type will love. (And the nods to some of the greatest alt-rockers of all time like Spoon, The Thermals and Archers of Loaf are really appreciated.)             

An American Classic, ‘Pines’ Puts Cianfrance on Par with P.T. Anderson

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Let me start by saying this: The Place Beyond the Pines is NOT ‘Drive 2.’ Yes, we see Ryan Gosling donning an immortally hip jacket, flashing a switchblade, dangerously riding a motorcycle and robbing banks in the trailer. But Luke Glanton (Gosling) is not the only main character in director Derek Cianfrance’s triptych about the legacies people leave by the decisions they make. It would be a major spoiler to explain exactly who Bradley Cooper and Dane DeHaan (Chronicle) play in the second and third acts of this film, but suffice to say that they are the second and third main characters after each of the narrative shifts the film makes.

Similar to the way Cianfrance explored marital relationships in Blue Valentine, Pines deals with paternal relationships of all kinds. Ryan Gosling’s Luke is a drifter on Skid Row and he tries to provide for the son he never knew he had the only way he knows how: bank robbery. That’s not to say he’s a career criminal when we first meet him – he’s a stunt motorcycle rider in a traveling carnival. When he meets backwoods mechanic Robin Van Der Zee (a terrific Ben Mendelsohn), he learns how to steal properly and get away with it. When the film makes its first narrative shift, Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) constantly goes to his father for advice when he finds himself in a horrible situation. Dane DeHaan’s character, Jason, makes it his mission to discover who his real father is, providing an exciting and intensely emotional climax in a film full of tense moments. Some may criticize Pines for its ambitiousness and sometimes over-emotional atmosphere. While I acknowledge that some points in the film can feel forced, the majority of the film feels truthful and very emotionally resonant.

This is truly a classic film. I don’t use that word often. Films can be masterpieces without being classics, but The Place Beyond the Pines is a winner on all levels – acting (Did I mention Eva Mendes’ strong performance? No? Well, I should have), writing (credit to Cianfrance and his co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder) and direction. You can feel a distinct directorial stamp here while also recognizing the epic nature of the story. Six years after There Will Be Blood, we’ve finally been given the next film that can say it’s the new American classic.

P.S. Extra kudos to director of photography Sean Bobbitt, who accomplishes a level of style and clarity with the dramatic close-up I’ve never seen before.

– George Napper

Theatrical Producers, Take Note: This Could be Your Next Big Off-Broadway Hit (Into the White)

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Into the White has all the trappings of a fantastic stage play: a solid main cast with a few standouts, the use of one confined space as a set for the majority of the piece, and incredible historical importance. The kicker: it’s based on a true story. Directed by Petter Naess, the film tells the story of two British and three German pilots shot down over Norway in a hotly contested oil-rich area during WWII. When their paths cross, they find a remote cabin to take refuge in. Luckily, the building has a stove and beds. Unluckily, they have to face the fact that they’re supposed to be enemies. As the story progresses, however, they decide survival is more important than war. They all become friends somewhat hesitantly, but by the end of the film, their on-screen friendships are so potent that you’re asking yourself ‘where did the party go?’ when the credits begin.

The amazing thing about this story is that they none of them died by the hands of the other four. This is an endearing film because screenwriters Naess, Ole Meldgaard and Dave Mango commit to each character’s arc. Horst (Florian Lukas), the unofficial leader of the German contingent in the film, goes from drawing a line down the center of the cabin and sending Strunk, the heavy (Stig Henrik Hoff), to monitor the Brits’ bathroom breaks, to allowing Englishman Davenport (Lachlan Nieboer) to take care of his young injured co-pilot (David Kross) and singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ with Northerner Smith (Rupert Grint). It’s Lukas and Grint that really stand out here. Their performances are dynamite and they make the movie worth seeing for those performances alone. But that’s not all this film has to offer. Packed inside of an hour and forty minutes is a history lesson, a master class in ensemble acting, and an amazing story of trust, survival, and wartime compassion.

Remake of Horror Classic Pulses with Fear, Excitement (Evil Dead (2013))

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When referring to the recent Texas Chainsaw 3D, the latest in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre saga, Tobe Hooper, the director of the original film was quoted as saying TC3D was ‘Incredible’ and ‘perfectly terrifying’. While Hooper’s comments smack of insincerity given the quality of TC3D, Sam Raimi’s positive reaction to the remake of his horror classic, 1981’s The Evil Dead has to be seen as genuine, because Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead is frightening, extremely well-made, and pays homage to the original in many interesting ways.

Jane Levy plays Mia, a young woman dealing with recurring family drama and her own drug addiction. Her long-lost brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and their friends return to a family-owned cabin to watch Mia throw her cocaine away and to keep tabs on her progress over the first few days off drugs. These efforts are thwarted, however, when Eric (a very funny Lou Taylor Pucci) opens a book found in the cabin’s gruesome basement marked ‘LEAVE THIS BOOK ALONE’. Soon, Mia becomes the victim of demonic possession – along with many of her friends. If you feel like you’ve seen plots similar to this before, you have, but the reason Evil Dead gets away with it is that the original film had barely any plot to it at all. The characters in that film, with the exception of fan-favorite Bruce Campbell as Ash, are basically just kill fodder. There is no motivation behind the weekend in the woods other than to have a good time. The reason the original worked outside of its weak story is that it was the first film to balance horror campiness and intentional comedy with downright terror and a genuine creep factor. That’s also the reason this version works, but with both the gore and campiness amped up to eleven.

I think Alvarez recognized that Raimi’s Evil Dead created many of the tropes that have become so dull and tiresome to modern horror audiences, and so by poking fun at the tropes that are present within his own film, he gets away with using them. But the film also strays away from something that Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods was criticized for, and that’s not being enough of its own solid horror exercise to be allowed to poke fun at the genre as a whole. I didn’t agree with that criticism at the time and I still don’t, but Evil Dead is gory enough and truly scary enough to makes its own mark. Also pleasing to horror fans who want something rightly hair-raising will be the completely practical gore effects, which make the film more terrifying than anything computer-generated blood could ever convey. Levy’s fine performance also contributes to a general eeriness; when she gets possessed, the film kicks into high gear. Alvarez has to juggle several different workloads here: he has to make the film distinctive from Raimi’s version, he has to update the scares for a modern audience, and he has to make the story intriguing enough for us to feel sympathetic towards Mia. At least from this horror buff’s perspective, he succeeds on all three fronts.

-George Napper

Only Negative Side Effect Here is Soderbergh’s Looming Retirement (Side Effects)

Rooney Mara left her mark on the film industry just over a year ago by playing the celebrated character Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, she leaves many marks. Emily Taylor (Mara) suffers from a kind of a multiple personality disorder, going from exhilarated to depressed in a matter of minutes, and Mara pulls off each side of Emily convincingly. Emily’s mental issues are clearly not unprovoked. Her husband, wealthy Wall Street mogul Martin (Channing Tatum) enters her life quickly at a very young age, and almost just as fast, he is arrested for insider trading. When he returns, Emily is noticeably different – and suicidal. As the layers of her life start to crumble and the numerous provocations for a horrible crime she commits are revealed, the film becomes a more and more interesting character study while at the same time become less and less specifically about Emily.

Enter Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), Emily’s psychiatrist, who has had to rebuild his own life after a scandal that threatened his career. He’s tipped off about a new drug that may help Emily by fellow psychiatrist Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and when he learns that the pharmaceutical company who makes the drug is offering cash to doctors who prescribe the product to patients, he’s fully on board. That’s when things really start to unravel. Jude Law’s Banks is reminiscent of the classic Hitchcock characters who become victims of circumstance, and as he tries to unravel this mystery, he becomes the anchor of the film. It’s a good thing for Law, who’s recently had a string of financially/screen-time disappointing films outside of the Sherlock Holmes series (Repo Men, Rise of the Guardians, 360, Anna Karenina), and he delivers a punch of a performance. Near-flawlessly written by Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!), Side Effects works on multiple levels: it’s an investigation of the pharmaceutical industry, it’s a layered and dark thriller, and it’s a fascinating character study of someone on the edge of madness. If Soderbergh is true to his word and the upcoming HBO Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra will be his last movie, then he’s going out on a high note with Side Effects.

-George Napper

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Abbas Kiarostami Wows Again! (Like Someone in Love)

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Certified Copy introduced a wider range of viewers to the talented director Abbas Kiarostami, who has been carving out his place in world cinema since 1997’s Taste of Cherry. With his latest picture, he doesn’t explore his native Iran or the gorgeous landscapes of Tuscany, but the concrete jungles of Tokyo. Like Someone in Love tells the story of Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a part-time call girl whose new client, an elderly professor named Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) doesn’t want to have intercourse. This isn’t a problem for Akiko, who has a class to get to in the morning. She falls asleep in Takashi’s bed after he fails to court her traditionally (he’s prepared dinner for her, but she refuses) and he offers to drive her to her morning class. When he meets her abusive boyfriend (Ryo Kase), a failure to communicate gives Takashi the new identity of Akiko’s grandfather. To avoid confusion and in part to protect Akiko, Takashi remains her grandfather until the end of the film.

If this were a lesser film (or an American comedy – I’m looking at you, The Proposal), the mistaken-identity plotline would have been played up for laughs. Sure, when Akiko re-enters the car and finds both her boyfriend and Takashi there, the face she makes is priceless, but this film isn’t broadly drawn at all. It’s about very specific moments. For instance, while Akiko is en route to meet Takashi, she is listening to voicemail messages from her grandmother (who is oblivious to her daughter’s extracurricular activities) recorded from the bus station as she waits all day for her to meet her. If I see a better silent performance anytime soon, I’ll be very impressed. Rin Takanashi evokes all the heartbreak and apologetic guilt that comes with lying to one’s family without saying anything. In the next segment, when she first meets Takashi, the content of their discussion ties in directly to the film’s thematic content. This is the point where you know if you’re engaged with the film, depending on whether or not you’re picking up on these themes. There are similar moments sprinkled throughout Like Someone in Love, which is truly another mini-masterpiece from Kiarostami. The film isn’t plot-driven; it’s selling you on these characters and what they’re experiencing. If you’re like me, this is one of the most effective ways to tell a story. You’ll be thinking about this film for weeks after you’ve left the theater.

-George Napper