30-for-30: Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?

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Release: Tuesday, October 20, 2009

[Netflix]

Directed by: Mike Tollin

When Donald Trump made the ‘small potatoes’ remark it was after he had wrapped up an interview with the director for this very documentary. He was referring to his dalliance with sports team ownership, his dismissiveness hinting at days that were so far in the rearview he couldn’t even see them anymore. He was already over it, the way you get over a summer fling.

In the early 1980s Trump briefly owned a franchise within the United States Football League — the New Jersey Generals — before growing bored with it and selling it to an Oklahoma oil magnate who in turn sold it back because he couldn’t keep pace with the travel schedule required to watch his team play. Trump did agree to speak candidly about his involvement with the USFL so anything seemed fair game. However, at the time of the interview (sometime in 2009), Trump’s magnificent hair was already thinning, evidence that at this point his image was so firmly cemented he no longer seemed obligated to care about his hair. And if he didn’t care about how thin his hair looked, how could he possibly still care about a business venture that fizzled out all the way back in 1986?

Mike Tollin (executive producer of such shows as All That, Smallville and One Tree Hill) seeks multiple perspectives rather than going all Salem Witch Trial as he tries to find out the cause of the USFL’s collapse a mere three years after its establishment. A variety of interviews with former players, coaches and team owners alike — Burt Reynolds even weighs in — are spliced in between segments from the present-day Trump interview.

The USFL was first envisioned by a New Orleans businessman named David Dixon some 17 years before Trump’s acquisition of the Generals in 1983 helped legitimize the league as something worth investing not only money but time into. The establishment of the league was predicated on the notion it would run differently than its older and more popular brother, the NFL, which played its schedule through the fall season, concluding with the Superbowl in February. The USFL, then, would be played in the spring and summer months, capped off with a National Championship game. Following what was known as ‘The Dixon Plan,’ the USFL found the inaugural season somewhat successful though crowd attendance and media exposure disappointing. It was after that first season franchise owners started having eyes larger than their stomachs.

The Dixon Plan had set into place limits on spending and had also helped teams secure prominent locations where they would play their games, all moves which helped make the USFL a little more competitive with the NFL, even if that was ultimately not the intent. Not until Trump, anyway. The advent of legendary running back Herschel Walker, who cost Trump a whopping $4 million, indicated a shift in the league’s priorities — rather than looking towards long-term security team owners began signing higher-profile talent which ultimately broke many a franchise’s bank, with single-player signings often exceeding salary cap space four or five times over.

There were other significant moves made that steered the USFL toward an altogether uncertain and less stable future. With Trump’s business savvy he began poaching NFL talent and even went after collegiate players in an effort to “level the playing field.” This ultimately triggered yet another out-of-control spending spree and further set the league back financially. But that was nothing compared to what the Donald had up his sleeve next. In perceiving the USFL to be an organization that could possibly rival the more institutionalized NFL, Trump advocated for a schedule change so the games could be shown on TV alongside those other “more important” games.

In 1985 everything changed when the league decided to pursue an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL for their monopolization of television markets. It was a disastrous move that all but spelled the end for the USFL. Over the last season many teams had already folded or had merged with other more notable franchises, and Trump’s Generals was still trying to pile on the star talent to make them the team to beat. While the court ruled in favor of the USFL there would be no flags for excessive celebrations. Damages amounted to a grand total of $4 (that’s not a typo — they had a check cut in the amount of $3.67 or something), which is not quite enough to get franchises up and running again. No one, not even Trump’s sexified Generals, would see a fall season of action.

Small Potatoes, for obvious reasons, leans heavily on the business side of things and while that could spell boredom to many viewers, it’s a narrative that only gets more interesting as it goes on. We needn’t live in denial; the real game is played behind the scenes rather than on the field and the competition is far uglier. What had begun as a potentially prosperous and exciting alternative to mainstream football had been decimated by a series of hasty, if not altogether poor decisions that were never actually made in the league’s best interests. David Dixon would be spinning in his grave if he ever knew what became of his idea.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews. 

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Recommendation: Packed with fascinating insight into the inner workings of a fledgling football league, Small Potatoes, one of the very earliest installments, asks that simple question: who’s responsible for the USFL’s sudden disappearance? There’s something bittersweet about this film, about knowing how dominant the NFL has become over the years and realizing that even if the USFL hadn’t folded in the 80s, it almost assuredly would have in the 90s and early 2000s. I also had no idea Donald Trump ever owned a football team, so that was fascinating in and of itself. It’s also funny coming to the realization that apparently he was never good enough to become an NFL franchise owner. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 51 mins.

[No trailer available, sorry everyone . . . ]

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.youtube.com

Deepwater Horizon

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Release: Friday, September 30, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan; Matthew Sand

Directed by: Peter Berg

Peter Berg’s dramatization of the BP oil spill in April of 2010 is a decidedly solid account of human bravery but it is an incomplete picture. Curiously, a film that spends time hashing out all the gory details never manages to open up a dialogue on the ecological damage caused by BP’s alarming two-month long, three-million-gallon whoopsie. Instead it remains a run-of-the-mill survival story that fails to ask bigger, more provocative questions.

Of course, it was probably a conscious decision not to take a firm moral stance on the issue of man’s impact on the environment. That should be a red flag for activists hoping this major Hollywood film will share in their outrage over the largest oil industry-related debacle in American history. In fairness, Berg effectively conveys the terror and the tragedy of being aboard this doomed oil rig and there’s a palpable rage over the recklessness and general interference of Big Business Execs who had grown tired of waiting for results. It’s a distinctly human experience that will be warmly embraced by anyone who enjoyed Berg’s previous collaboration with star Mark Wahlberg in the 2013 war drama Lone Survivor.

Marky-Mark finds himself operating in a similar capacity here as the quiet hero Mike Williams, Deepwater Horizon’s chief electronics technician. He’s the quintessential American good-guy with the big smile and even bigger heart. Williams not only ended up contributing to the rescue efforts considerably but the manner in which he had to abandon the rig apparently was tailor-made for the movies. Wahlberg is perfectly suited for the job — not so much for the (many) physical stunts but for providing the film its stoicism; he’s a stand-up guy who is passionate about his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson), supportive of his precocious young daughter, and well-liked by the crew.

Mike is one of three we see leaving behind their ordinary lives for another stint off the Louisiana coast. Kurt Russell‘s rig manager Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell and Gina Rodriguez’ Andrea Fleytas, rig navigator and the crew’s sole female member, are also seen departing for what might later be described as a bad day at the office. One of the worst, in fact. By the time they would return home, 11 crew members would have lost their lives, many more would be left with horrendous injuries and BP’s would-be profits would have started to leak into the Gulf of Mexico and would continue to do so for the next 87 days.

The bulk of the first half closely follows Williams around the ship as he prepares for another typical shift. As a director Berg seems to really be able to inspire camaraderie amongst his cast, while a collaborative script from two Matthews finds a nice rhythm interweaving the casual conversations with technical mumbo-jumbo. With actors as convivial as Wahlberg and as accomplished as Russell it’s not hard to get the good times rolling. (As good as they can be if you’re working a job like this, I guess.) The initial slow pace engages surprisingly well considering we are watching what can only be described as routine operations proceeding . . . routinely, but it’s not long before tensions are rising and things stop working so smoothly.

A group of BP execs, led by the slimy Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), decides to muscle its way in and Vidrine insists on expediting the process as they are already 43 days behind schedule. He also doesn’t mind overlooking safety protocols, like making sure there’s enough of a concrete base established around the drill to counteract the pressure that comes with drilling at historic depths of 30,000 feet. The experienced TransOcean crew believe the suits are pushing their luck, but of course there’s nothing they can do about it. Soon enough it’s drill, baby, drill — and, well . . . yeah. You know what happens next. Deepwater Horizon goes from 0 to 60 in the span of a minute as bolts and various chunks of metal are converted into missiles as oil and mud come spewing up from below at an alarming rate. The ensuing half hour is pure pandemonium . . . and loud. Very, very loud.

I still find it difficult even today to shake those images of the aftermath, and yet they are notably absent in Berg’s film. Aerial photos depicting a molasses-colored snake slithering through the once-crystal clear blue of the Gulf of Mexico drew an eerily artistic parallel to the smoke rising out of Manhattan in the weeks following 9/11. This disaster was similarly of human design. Deepwater Horizon has nothing but picturesque pans of the wide open water, and only in the latter half of the film do we become consumed by the fireball that was apparently visible from 40 miles away. If there’s anything approaching iconic or even significant about the film, it’s the Michael Bay-esque explosions that light up the night sky, an inferno of orange and red caused by immense pressure surges and greed.

From an entertainment standpoint the film finds modest success, though maybe it’s awkward describing Deepwater Horizon as an “entertaining popcorn thriller.” I’ll stop short of calling it a thrill ride, even though ultimately that’s what this is. This is no message film and it really should have been. Despite how gripping it truly becomes, some part of me can’t help but feel Deepwater Horizon is a lesser film for not considering the sheer scope of the situation. This was much more than a miraculous survival tale, this was a blight on our planet; a disgusting and sticky mess that took far too long to be resolved. Never mind the fact there was no real-world ‘happy ending’ to all of this, the big bad BP guys got off scot free. There’s the reality we should be appalled by, should be moved by — with all due respect to the heroic actions taken by this crew, of course.

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Recommendation: The events of April 20, 2010 get a dramatic and noisy overhaul in this suitably heart-pounding spectacle. It is a film that had much potential to be more and I sound like I’m really down on it but I did enjoy most of it. In the end it is a bit too formulaic and basic and it doesn’t send much of a message but good performances and a sense of panic and doom heightened by some frenetic camerawork help make the strong parts of the film really memorable. Recommended in the big screen format for sure. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “Dad, I want you to get me a fossil. I wanna hold it up and say my daddy tames the dinosaurs.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Magnificent Seven

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Release: Friday, September 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Richard Wenk; Nic Pizzolatto

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua

Try as they might, Antoine Fuqua continues falling well short of the benchmark set by his 2001 smash hit Training Day and Chris Pratt can’t quite make this the Guardians of the Galaxy of the ole wild west. Despite bear-dressing-like-people jokes he is merely one silly pawn in a story that doesn’t deserve them. Not even the all-star roster can lift this generic western crime thriller from the dust of its superiors. The title is The Magnificent Seven, but for me that really just refers to the number of scenes that are actually worth remembering in Fuqua’s new shoot-’em-up.

Here’s all I really remember:

Magnificent Scene #1: The ‘badass’ that is Bartholomew. Billed as a drama, the film opens promisingly with robber baron Bartholemew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) besieging the sleepy mining town of Rose Creek circa some month in the late 1800s. The film’s dramatic thread for the most part sags like a dilapidated tent between two strong points, and the dramatic opening is one of those strong points. Tension is palpable as Sarsgaard’s cold, lifeless eyes survey the room. Haley Bennett‘s Emma Cullen becomes widowed by his murderous spree (or, to be brutally honest but more accurate, her husband’s foolish actions that do nothing but further incense Bartholomew), an act that supposedly establishes the film’s emotional foundation.

Magnificent Scene #2: The Actual Badass that is Denzel. Introducing Denzel Washington is something that needs to be done sooner rather than later and his swaggering cowboy/”dually sworn peacekeeper”/bounty hunter Sam Chisolm walks in at just the right moment (i.e immediately). A fairly typical stand-off inside Rose Creek’s saloon ensues. Everyone in the scene puts on their best ‘Not To Be Fucked With’ face. Rah-rah. Guns. Liquor. Seconds later Chisolm walks out of an empty saloon leaving everyone but a semi-impressed, semi-drunk loner for dead. That loner is none other than Peter Quill Josh Faraday. Chisolm is soon approached and persuaded by a desperate Emma Cullen to gather together some men to take a stand against Bogue and his men to avenge the death of her beloved Matthew and reclaim the town.

Magnificent Scene #3: The Avengers this ain’t . . . but this is still fun. Movies in the vein of Fuqua’s adaptation, those that spend more of their bloated running time assembling rather than focusing on the ensemble itself, are really more about that journey of coming-togetherness than they are about the destination. It’s too bad The Magnificent Seven really only offers one or two strong first impressions. One is a shared introduction between Byung-hun Lee’s knife-wielding assassin Billy Rocks — a name that somewhat confusingly belies the actor’s South Korean heritage — and Ethan Hawke’s sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux, with whom Chisolm shares some history. Billy and Goodnight come as a packaged item, apparently; one never goes anywhere without the other and they are swiftly drafted into the ranks without complaint.

Magnificent Scene #4: There’s always at least one crazy. Vincent D’Onofrio also qualifies as one of those memorable introductions. He plays a vaguely mentally unstable (or perhaps he’s just a simpleton) tracker named Jack Horne, a physically imposing presence who clearly hasn’t had much human contact in a long time. His soft, nervous line delivery initially gave the impression the actor wasn’t comfortable in the role and/or that he was about to deliver a career-low performance but the character really ended up growing on me. Of course it would have been nice if he had more to do but when there are seven actors competing on screen I suppose sacrifices must be made, especially when one of them is Denzel Washington.

Magnificent Scene #5: Preparations not reparations. Heeding the warnings of Chisolm and his band of misfits, Emma and her fellow townsfolk prepare for the return of Bogue and what is likely to be many more nasty men on horseback in an obligatory, if not genuinely fun, fix-it-up montage. Rose Creek becomes retrofitted with all kinds of booby traps and hideouts that are sure to give the enemy fits and a mixture of excitement and dread for the bloodbath that is to come starts to build in earnest. Granted, the end results are all but a foregone conclusion: some will survive the ordeal and others will not. We know almost for a certainty that the Magnificent Seven will be reduced in number after this fight. And we also know that ultimately this last battle is just another good excuse for directors who like to blow stuff up, to go ahead and blow a quaint little set right the fuck up.

Magnificent Scene #6: Say hello to my little friend! For all of the film’s lackadaisical pacing and story development from essentially the 20th minute onward, The Magnificent Seven seems to wake back up again at the very end with a rousing gunfight that will demand every rebel’s sharpest wit and shot. It even comes close to earning our empathy as numerous dead bodies hit the ground à la Fuqua’s goofy assault on the White House. The editing becomes frenetic but remains effective and while Fuqua shies away from excessive blood-splattering the violence is still pretty confronting as a gatling gun makes its way into the mix. Ultimately this is the same kind of joy I get out of watching Macauley Culkin outwit the nitwits in Home Alone every Christmas.

Magnificent Scene #7: The end credits. A movie that runs about 30 minutes too long and that fails to make any real emotional connection is finally over. (Though not for a lack of trying: Fuqua awkwardly asks us to pity the lone woman in the group because she has lost her husband — she’s not there because of her individual strengths and in fact many of the rebels can’t or refuse to take her seriously; likewise Hawk’s last-minute cowardly act feels cheap and fails to make us care deeper about him.) I enjoyed the famous faces in by-now-familiar roles and their natural gravitas cleaned up some of the script’s blotches but there is only so much goodwill I can show towards something that feels so well-trodden, so ordinary, so un-magnificent.

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Recommendation: A superb cast barely manages to keep The Magnificent Seven from being a totally and utterly forgettable and disposable movie. The people who you expect to shine, shine — those on the roster you don’t recognize as much don’t turn up as much. Simple as that. Some delicious scenery to chew on, though, and the soundtrack is hilariously overcooked. So all in all, I don’t really know what to make of this movie. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “What we lost in the fire we found in the ashes.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.esquire.com 

Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (Taxi Tehran)

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Release: Friday, October 2, 2015

[Netflix]

Written by: Jafar Panahi

Directed by: Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi is an Iranian filmmaker seemingly undeterred by the consequences of his actions. Those consequences have, as a matter of fact, formed the basis of some of his oeuvre, such as his acclaimed 2011 documentary This is Not a Film, wherein he captured a day in his life under house arrest. Presently the writer-director is serving a six-year sentence and is not allowed to leave his country for perceived propaganda disparaging of the Iranian Republic. Despite such restrictions, which also include a 20-year ban on filmmaking, his latest is available to stream in many countries not his own.

The dissemination of Taxi is in itself a minor miracle. The particulars of how it has come to surface in international streaming services like Netflix remain unclear but if the hula-hoops he had to jump through just to get the aforementioned 2011 piece submitted to the Cannes Film Festival is any indication — allegedly he had to stuff a thumb drive containing the film inside a cake which was snuck across international borders — you can safely assume distributing Taxi was no easier.

While Panahi’s directorial limitations are immediately evident, he gets creative by posing as a cabbie while filming via dashboard cam his interactions with ordinary Tehranis. A few recognize the man while others, such as the opinionated first passenger who goes on a rant about upholding stiffer penalties for lowlives who steal from the poor, remain oblivious. Each patron that gets in this cab offers some small window into life in a less tolerant society, and while the narrative device is a little contrived — I can’t imagine every taxi driver having such interesting interactions with all of his customers in a single shift — it certainly works, and it works incredibly well for a director who is essentially giving the middle finger to the Iranian government.

Some of the people he picks up are more forthright than others — a woman selling roses, for example, even breaks the fourth wall with her candid commentary about life in Iran as a woman and how she feels about the punishments that have been forced upon Panahi as a filmmaker. She even advises her friend on the segments of this film that he should probably get rid of because of their blunt honesty. Clearly Panahi didn’t feel the need to censor himself, which, of course, is the point.

Panahi’s niece also features prominently as an aspiring filmmaker attending arts school. Even though she’s telling her uncle all about the rules her instructors have delineated about the kinds of subject matter they can and cannot film — more often than not they regard the latter, specifically anything that would cast an unfavorable light on life under Sharia Law — she’s really informing us. An intelligent young girl becomes the conduit through which Panahi expresses his own outrage over being censored.

Taxi, a slight but intriguing documentary, leaves plenty of food for thought. Panahi’s creative abilities allow it to be something more than just a childish tantrum, it’s a quietly righteous political statement that deserves our undivided attention, one that makes this reviewer feel fortunate for all the privileges he has living in a nation where movies about porno stars, civil rights dramatizations and less flattering portraits of presidents (both past and present) not only can exist but allow us to evaluate what is going right and what is going wrong in our society.

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Recommendation: An intriguing film that sheds light on both the state of the Iranian film industry as well as the larger culture surrounding it. There’s probably nothing in here that will surprise anyone but what might surprise you is just how effective Jafar Panahi makes a film with such limited resources (plus the fact he’s not even supposed to be filming at all adds an extra layer of tension to proceedings). It’s an important film that I believe many people need to see and it has certainly whet my appetite for more from a director who has proven he won’t be ignored. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 82 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.filmmakermagazine.com; http://www.imdb.com

Embrace of the Serpent

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Release: Wednesday, February 17, 2016 (limited)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Ciro Guerra; Jacques Toulemonde Vidal

Directed by: Ciro Guerra


This  review is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. I would like to give a shout-out to James for allowing me to talk about this unique cinematic experience. 


Embrace of the Serpent (El Abrazo de La Serpiente) was Colombia’s entry into the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 88th Academy Awards, proving that for director Ciro Guerra the third time is the charm. His first unsuccessful submission happened to be his very first feature, the 2004 drama Wandering Shadows, and the second in 2009 for The Wind Journeys. Guerra of course lost to Son of Saul director László Nemes, but he shouldn’t have. In fact this is the kind of experience that just begs the question, why can’t foreign language films also be eligible for Best Picture?

Guerra’s epic excursion through the beautiful but harsh Amazon rain forest is not just last year’s best picture (and by a mile), it’s one of the most raw, most vital experiences you are ever going to have. It’s a religious experience (quite literally in some senses) — an unforgettable journey whose spiritual and cultural pulses are so tangible the film ceases to be a film and instead becomes a snapshot of a reality many of us have conveniently forgotten. Though the account is fictional, portions of the narrative have been inspired by the experiences of early 20th Century western explorers and their encounters with the indigenous peoples of Colombia. The drama is so authentic it induces pangs of despair that only documentaries on harrowing subjects like genocide and other forms of persecution are able to. Of course this film, at least tonally, isn’t quite as heavy as something like Son of Saul, but it touches upon a subject that is just as heartbreaking: the devastation of native populations in the wake of western expansion.

Embrace of the Serpent, shot in a seductive grayscale, follows two stories set roughly 30 years apart. The first finds German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) searching for a cure for a serious illness he’s come down with having spent many years in the Amazon. The scientist’s actual journal entries form the basis for Bijvoet’s outstanding performance and they also play a prominent role in the narrative itself. Said diaries are filled with illustrations and scribblings he fully intends to bring back and use as a communicative tool between vastly different societies. In his quest to avoid dying a miserable, jungly death Theo seeks the help of Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and the last of his own tribe. As a younger, more hostile man he is portrayed by Nilbio Torres in a performance you simply must see.

That a white man has encroached upon his territory unsettles Karamakate deeply and he’s unwilling to help until Theo makes it clear he isn’t here to profit like most westerners have by extracting the rubber from rubber trees, a practice that has led to the enslavement, torture and eventual diminishing of “savages” across numerous western outposts. Theo has been traveling by canoe with a more westernized local, a twenty-something named Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) who is constantly chastised by Karamakate for betraying his own people by adopting western customs like wearing a tee shirt and pants. Everyone is on edge and it is in this state of utter distrust we beat a path through the dense jungle, in search of the (fictional) yakruna plant, whose hallucinatory powers are considered Theo’s best chance for survival.

Guerra entwines this saga with Karamakate’s experiences in 1940 with American explorer Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis). He’s hoping to continue Theo’s work by similarly documenting his travels. He too holds an interest in the yakruna plant, only Karamakate claims he can’t remember where it can be found. Thirty-one years older and that much further removed from the customs and rituals of his people, he is portrayed as an impossibly lonely and broken man by Antonio Bolívar. His lowest moments confirm that sometimes the most powerful evocations of human emotion come in the form of the quiet sob.

There’s a brilliant symmetry to the way Guerra has chosen to structure the piece. The earlier timeline firmly establishes the tenuous trust-building process while the latter proves specifically how that trust can be so easily violated (there’s something we don’t quite buy into with the American explorer; Theo somehow seemed more genuine). The split narrative also affords the internal conflict churning inside Karamakata room to breathe and become an almost unbearable weight. He doesn’t give the outside world direct access to all he holds dear just the once; he goes against his better judgment twice. Embrace of the Serpent, then, becomes more about his resilience and his perspectives. He’s not exactly a man without flaws and his occasional misgivings about the white man can sting deeply (not all of us are monsters). Even so, the way the film concludes leaves little doubt as to where our sympathies should ultimately lie.

Guerra’s vision is distinctly his own. Embrace of the Serpent is an entirely immersive experience that taps into primal human behavior, one that is as cerebral as it is physical. One of the main concerns of the older Karamakata is not being able to recall his ancestral history because of past actions he himself has taken, while Schultes laments not being able to dream because of his work. But it’s not all about suffering. There’s a lot of beauty to be found as well, particularly in the visual aesthetic. Crisp black-and-white photography lends a sense of timelessness and an ethereal quality to the jungle. It’s an artistic flourish that contributes immeasurably to the sense of insulation we feel as we make our way towards the striking round domes of the Cerros de Mavecure, where the yakruna can be found.

Of course this would not be a proper review without discussing the serpent itself. Guerra restrains himself impressively in terms of how he allows the serpent’s mythological symbolism to influence his narrative. Derived from Latin (‘serpens’), the most obvious metaphorical application is the duality of good versus evil. In truth, you can apply it as metaphorically or as literally as you like: Guerra uses the birthing of a snake in an early scene to remind us that snakes are indeed a very real and dangerous entity, while Karamakata later describes the birth of creation as the descending of a serpent from the skies.

Spiritual connectedness also features prominently. At one point Karamakata is shown a picture of himself and, rather than recognizing the image as a moment frozen in time, he believes it to be his ‘chullachaqui,’ a hollow spirit form. Throughout we’re reminded once and again of a complex belief system thought to maintain order in this otherwise hostile and unpredictable environment. We’re never asked to embrace it but we are challenged to respect it. Karamakata believes Westerners are limited by their own ignorance (scientists can only think in terms of facts and observable phenomenon; those who seek riches can only think in terms of money and material possessions, etc.), whereas the native inhabitants of the jungle are much more attuned to the grander hierarchy of existence. This in and of itself is enough to open the flood gates for lively debate.

Embrace of the Serpent isn’t just a memorable watch, it is a significant cinematic achievement. Guerra’s assured direction and the mesmerizing performances from his small cast combine to form a visceral, challenging experience that simultaneously defends a dying way of life and homages some great survival/adventure films. Flavors of The Jungle BookLord of the Rings and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo — even Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto — are all sampled, but a part of me feels that this particular film reaches some psychic level that none of the aforementioned quite managed. It reaches far higher than the vast majority of Best Picture nominees have in recent years.

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Recommendation: Utterly compelling stuff and hands-down one of the most extraordinary things this reviewer has ever watched. (Interestingly, in a year that has given us a lot of disappointments . . . A LOT . . . I have also been able to find two films that might make my all-time greats list, the other being the delightfully bizarre indie Swiss Army Man.) Embrace of the Serpent is a film whose dialogue is delivered primarily in native tongues but eight other languages factor in as well. Don’t let the subtitles scare you out of this. You simply just have to get your hands on this.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 125 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.vox.com

Hurricane

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Release: Wednesday, August 31, 2016 (Vimeo)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Christiano Dias

Directed by: Christiano Dias


This short film review is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. A tip of the hat to James, who runs the show over there.


Hurricane is the brand new film from Christiano Dias, an experienced short film director who has managed to fit 20 writer-director credits under his belt in the span of a decade. His latest puts a humorous spin on anti-Communist sentiments running rampant in 1950s America.

It tells a darkly comic tale of a couple, Oslo (Corey Page) and Eva Alduars (Lisa Roumain), experiencing some strange happenings during the course of dinner. A tense argument over the meal soon focuses on the radio they have playing in the background, which crackles in and out before eventually going silent. It reminds Oslo of a similar incident that apparently happened at a neighbor’s house, in which a man had discovered a wiretapping device inside his radio. Supposedly that same man had disappeared from the area not long after that. Oslo suspects the Commies got him.

Moments later, a knock at the door. A boy introduces himself as Benjamin Shaw (David Jay), and appears to be selling newspaper subscriptions. But something just doesn’t add up. Oslo begins to think the timing of these events is no coincidence. Meanwhile, a storm closes in on the house outside. Dias challenges us to consider all of the possibilities here, including what seems most unlikely.

What’s most apparent with Hurricane are the production values. Crisp colors and retro shapes and objects transport you back into the Cold War era, a physical sense of time and place conjured from wisely chosen props and set decor, not least of which is that pesky radio — virtually a character unto itself. Thick curtains drawn across large windows occupy considerable space within the frame, a not-so-subtle nod to the Red Scare.

It’s not just visual cues that tip us off, either. There’s a lot of strong eye-acting going on here, whether it’s an accusatory stare from over the top of Oslo’s glasses or the intense look of irritation, borderline anger, in Eva’s. Watch as the look turns from one of disgust to concern as she watches the man steadily come undone. The period details even is evident in the tones of voices used, the cadence with which the characters speak. Paying attention to these little nuances is more important than to the acting itself, which can be pretty shaky.

Those details add up to a unique and at times disconcerting experience that plays with notions of how paranoia and mistrust can lead us to make poor decisions and act irrationally. The set-up is simple but effective, making for a short film that I really kind of have to recommend.

Recommendation: An interesting take on the atmosphere of paranoia, fear and mistrust in the years leading up to and certainly including the Cold War. Juggles comedy with dramatic beats pretty effectively, even if the acting is at times a bit shaky. On the whole, though, these are 14 minutes very well spent. I enjoyed the strangeness of it all and this makes me really want to check out more of Dias’ work. An easy recommendation to make. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 14 mins.

[No trailer available, sorry everyone . . .]

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Snowden

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Release: Friday, September 16, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Oliver Stone; Kieran Fitzgerald

Directed by: Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone tackles one of the most elusive and polarizing figures of the 21st Century in his Edward Snowden biopic, a match made in cinematic heaven given Stone’s penchant for courting controversy with the material he works with. So why doesn’t it work?

Snowden is kind of a snooze when it should have been a gripping, poignant drama. The character is portrayed confidently by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, no spoiler alert there, but the movie that surrounds him feels more like a college lecture on national security rather than a dramatization that could have shown us specifically what made the ideologue’s pursuit of government secrets — namely, the NSA’s tracking and collecting of mass amounts of user data by tapping into cell phones — so disturbing. Or,  interpreted another, more liberal way — so important. Stone has never been one to keep politics out of the equation, and he’d be a fool to do so this time.

Indeed, Snowden sits pretty far out there on the left wing but that’s not one of the film’s weaknesses unless you consider yourself a fastidious conservative. What’s more problematic is how insipid the study of a life less ordinary really is. I shouldn’t be using such words to describe anything related to Edward Snowden, and combined with the almost purely expository nature of the narrative I’m having déjà vu here: wasn’t this the same thing that plagued the Julian Assange picture? Stone’s new film concerns the period between 2004 and 2013 in which Edward Snowden rose meteorically from computer geek to national security asset (and later, threat). It also chronicles his romantic affair with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) and suggests an alternative life for him, one that never quite eventuates.

We begin in the present tense, where a documentary crew is rendezvousing with Snowden in the upscale hotel The Mira Hong Kong. Over the next several days director Laura Poitras (here portrayed by Melissa Leo but whose work can be seen in the 2014 documentary Citizenfour), along with journalists from The Guardian — Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) — are given unprecedented access to what Snowden knows. But before all that good stuff can happen we must first go back to where it all began.

Clunky transitions (“here’s what I did back in this time”) jettison us back to the early 2000s where we get the skinny on Snowden’s young adult life: his brief time in the military, two stints with the CIA and one with the NSA — an impressive résumé if there ever were one. A lack of backstory in terms of what his upbringing was like and who his parents were leaves us with the impression that Snowden was a lone wolf long before he truly became one. We gain access inside top-secret facilities as he makes an immediate impression on fictional CIA recruiter Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), a relationship that eventually sours as Snowden’s awareness of shady government activity increases. There are more innocuous exchanges as well, like the friendship he strikes up with the jaded Hank Forrester (a much calmer, more effective Nicolas Cage) who has been with the agency for too long and an NSA employee played by Ben Schnetzer.

Snowden is another prestige biopic that tentatively skirts around the fraying edge of sanity. Snowden’s romantic life manifests as the framework within which we can compare his  particular stresses to those we mere mortals go through on a daily basis — Lindsay is a free-spirited girl with a flair for photography who understandably tires of his weird work hours, amongst other things. The drama just comes across as obligatory and unearned, a perfectly good performance from Woodley gone to waste thanks to a sloppy, contrived and manipulative storyline. Stone also shoehorns in a sex scene that feels totally out of place. We have all come to the movie to see how well Snowden performs in bed, right?

The intimacy is not necessarily gratuitous but it’s symptomatic of the film’s major issue. It’s perfunctory and sex in and of itself isn’t the best way to add depth to your human characters. It’s a good way to add sex. Snowden owed it to the subject (and to us, natch) to ask tougher questions and to deliver more passion. There should be more outrage, more urgency. Where’s the intrigue here? And what are we getting in this film that we can’t find out on Wikipedia? The answer is absolutely nothing.

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Recommendation: I can’t say this frustratingly routine, safe docudrama is something you have to see unless you can’t be bothered to skim a Wikipedia page on the guy. Or unless you are a diehard Oliver Stone fan. Personally, I’m disappointed with the way this came out even with no particular expectations coming in to it. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “The modern battlefield is everywhere.” 

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The Disappointments Room

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Release: Friday, September 9, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: D.J. Caruso; Wentworth Miller

Directed by: D.J. Caruso

I would be more upset about the way this anti-thrilling psychological thriller turned out but I brought this upon myself. I knew what Rotten Tomatoes had said about it. I knew no one was talking about it. No one was in the theater with me when I saw it. Part of me (the masochistic part of me that really needs help) was curious to see why. Would it be worth the six smackaroonies I put down apologetically at the box office?

The Disappointments Room is a bad title for an even worse film. It references a kind of holding cell that was established by early 19th Century well-to-do families who needed a place to stow away their ‘undesirables’ — their hopelessly disfigured, ugly and otherwise lame offspring they couldn’t possibly bring themselves to publicly acknowledge. Left alone for years on end, these children would ultimately perish in isolation, their spirits left to haunt that room and the house. Ironically that title also represents truth in advertising, when director D.J. Caruso (I Am Number Four; Disturbia) really needed something more . . . misleading, like The So-Spooky-You-Just-Have-To-Watch-It Room.

Young couple Dana (Kate Beckinsale) and David (Mel Raido) have left Brooklyn with their son Lucas (Duncan Joiner) for a fresh start in the countryside after a traumatic event left them reeling. Dana’s an architect and wants everyone in town to know that women are perfectly capable of being architects, and that she is planning to bring her sharp eye for architectural detail to the mansion she and her family have just architecturally moved into. The place is a real fixer-upper, and of course it has an urban legend attached to it, because why wouldn’t it? Blacker Manor, as it is known around this podunk community, is the site of an infamous murder of a daughter by her own father, the prominent Judge Blacker (Gerald McRaney).

As they get settled and Dana the Architect inspects the property for things that need attention, she comes across a locked room in an attic. She’s alarmed this feature wasn’t included in the building schematic and wants to find out what it is, architecturally speaking, of course, especially after she briefly gets trapped inside it — one of several remarkably poorly executed sequences that leaves you scratching the architecture of your head. Dana has a certain history — as all women in horror films must have — that leads her down a path filled with weird hallucinations and disconcerting encounters. Beckinsale’s poor performance doesn’t help matters, but the character is an utter bore as she tries to convince David something is wrong with the house.

There’s no end to the clichés in The Disappointments Room. The execution is ruthlessly rote, a problem compounded by some really clumsy, confusing directing. One can never get a good sense of what is supposed to be “the ultimate terror” lurking in the darkness of that depressing, dusty room because the filmmakers seem to have no faith in their ability to create something fresh from old scraps. There’s a theoretical parallel drawn between Dana’s tragic past and the history of this mansion, but the lack of confidence behind the camera translates to a lack of confidence in front of it. Beckinsale simply could not make me care. Then there’s the subplot involving a local construction worker that fizzles out as though the writer forgot to finish the draft.

The production is, in a word, a mess. I was able to get into the spirit of things early on despite the ache of familiarity setting in almost immediately. There’s an intimacy amongst these characters and I appreciated the understated manner in which this couple tries to adjust to their new surroundings — you know, the kind that often contributes mightily to any given character’s vulnerable psychological state. And Raido has great chemistry with his diminutive co-star, fully selling us on his fatherly bond and thankfully he also carries an optimism that contrasts against Beckinsale’s unconvincing aloofness.

I don’t think Caruso had any pressure riding on him to conjure the next genre classic, though surely horror directors these days have a heightened awareness of the increasing availability of effective, niched independent releases that have necessarily upped the ante for the genre as a whole. There’s nothing really to bash about a film being average and forgettable when it is enjoyable. The Disappointments Room didn’t need to do anything crazy, but it needed to do more than this. The only thing worse than identifying myself as the only patron to see this film that day was the stench of regret that followed me as I walked out of an empty cineplex.

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Recommendation: Considering all that is on offer with the advent of independent horror, I would have to say there is very little reason to go near The Disappointments Room unless you are a completionist. There’s simply not enough interesting material here to recommend. And if you want further proof, the review you’ll find at the bottom of this film’s IMDb page is excellent, and better sums up my thoughts on this rig than my own.

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

High-Rise

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Release: Friday, May 13, 2016 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by: Amy Jump

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Chaos reigns supreme in Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, an adaptation of the 1975 novel penned by British author J.G. Ballard who envisioned a microcosm of society confined within a 40-story-tall luxury apartment building. After nearly four decades and several failed attempts at adapting material many considered ‘un-filmable,’ Ballard’s anarchical dreams have finally found a home on the big screen in 2016.

Despite several familiar trends, the 1970s-London-set High-Rise manages to differentiate itself by presenting an atypical dystopian society. Rather than prisoners of a faceless, nameless system, people are more often than not victims of their own circumstances, organized within the building according to their financial standing: the wealthy live on the top floors while the poor occupy lower levels. This isn’t a prison, for tenants haven’t been forced to abandon the conveniences of modern living nor have they been brainwashed into disassociating with the outside world. Rather, disaffection has occurred naturally, the conveniences of the building allowing those inside to gradually lose interest in anything it doesn’t provide. Additionally, and although it certainly feels like it at times, this isn’t a post-apocalyptic environment; the people who fill the frame represent only a fraction of society, those who we can safely assume actually wanted to come live here.

High-Rise is a movie of striking visual design, at times to a fault. Indeed, the building is a character unto itself, a looming entity with its upper five or ten floors precariously off-set from the rest. One look at this feat of civil engineering and you’re smitten. Even though it’s precisely the kind of physics-defying curiosity that has become old hat in these sorts of movies, the tower looks and feels right at home in our world. The cold, metal-gray interior features all the amenities you could imagine: shopping markets, gyms, pool-and-spa areas; there’s even a primary school. Parties are regularly thrown, often spilling over between floors, necessarily suggesting different economic classes still have the freedom to associate with whomever they so choose.

Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is our way into the building. A 25th-floor resident, Robert is a lecturer on physiology and commutes daily to and from the city. He allows himself some distance from other people until his upstairs neighbor, single mom Charlotte (Sienna Miller), makes her presence known. The two quickly fall into a romance that eventually allows Robert to get to know her young but strange son Toby (Louis Suc). The first third of the film establishes the world inside this place and sees him getting acquainted with a few other eccentrics, including the Wilders, a family whose station in life seems to be being stuck on the bottom floor. Richard (Luke Evans) is a documentarian with a screw loose and more than a few probing questions. His wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) is heavily pregnant and wishes Richard weren’t always out getting himself into trouble.

Robert soon finds himself summoned to the penthouse, where high rise architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) and his socialite wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) live. Well, flourish really. He’s brought up for an opportunity to get to know some of the building’s more prestigious fellows, a networking opportunity if you want to call it that. In some ways Hiddleston’s place within the narrative, especially with regards to his association with such characters, feels reminiscent of Jonathan Pine and his fraternization with dangerous types in the brilliant TV mini-series The Night Manager, a John le Carré adaptation in which a former British soldier is recruited by MI6 to infiltrate the ranks of a notorious international arms dealer in order to bring him down.

While a sense of impending doom is distinctly lacking with regards to Robert’s situation, part of the crux of this story does concern an evolving perception of who the doctor really is, particularly as he begins currying favor with some of the elites. (He even gets to play a game of squash with Mr. Royal!) It’s no coincidence his apartment is almost smack-dab in the middle of the building. The metaphor is almost too overt: Robert’s not like the rest, he plays as though the rules don’t apply and thus finds himself in the precarious position of not caring whether or not he improves his current life. His physical location within this building, like it does everyone else, says a lot about the opportunities he has been afforded.

This puzzling drama is an exercise in random visual stimulation, so it’s fitting that the central conflict arises haphazardly as well. It takes three months from the day Robert moves in for the social infrastructure to fail. Specifically what triggers the collapse isn’t made clear, but basic necessities are the first to go: electricity, clean water, food supplies, proper garbage disposal. A man throwing himself from the 39th floor onto the hood of a car is the most apparent indicator of things starting to go awry. And later: complete pandemonium as the irascible Richard Wilder stages a revolution to take down Royal, who he believes is the one responsible for things falling apart. More perceptive viewers will notice that, while all of this is going on, police are nowhere to be seen.

Lang isn’t exactly immune to the insanity, and it’s in his slow slide into a state of acceptance that maybe . . . just maybe, Royal’s plans aren’t completely sinister, that in some weird way society itself is what has failed him and failed the building. Wheatley ensures our perspective on the matter aligns with Robert’s, a tactic that allows us to remain as close to impartial as possible. And it’s not like Robert isn’t flawed himself. As the level of chaos increases we see his behavior change as well. A scene in the grocery store is particularly memorable, exhibiting a side of the doctor we haven’t yet seen: angry, desperate, and violent. He’s become overwhelmed by the survival instinct, protecting what matters most to him — in this case, a bucket of paint. At this point we are well beyond rules. Society is now left to fend for itself as Royal and his cronies continue to look for a way to improve the facilities.

High-Rise is an intensely visual piece that doesn’t quite resonate as the profound sociopolitical allegory it was clearly set on becoming and that the book has been heralded as. Nonetheless, it approaches a familiar subject with a gusto that allows us to overlook the fraying edges, offering up a hallucinatory experience that is as unpredictable as it is entertaining and thought-provoking.

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Recommendation: Fans of the weird and the dystopian need apply. High-Rise gets carried away with itself every now and then, with some sequences beginning and ending so sporadically you want to believe many of the transitions were done this way to add to the disorientation (and maybe this really was the thinking). Well-performed and even better shot. Cinematography is a high point, while Tom Hiddleston’s performance reminds us why this is an actor who should have more work. He’s too good. So is Jeremy Irons, but this is really Hiddleston’s movie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “There’s no food left. Only the dogs. And Mrs. Hillman is refusing to clean unless I pay her what I apparently owe her. Like all poor people, she’s obsessed with money.”

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Paul G — #8

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Last time we were here, Paul had turned to the dark side in the animated wonder The Little Prince, playing the part of a harsh(ly shaped) Academy instructor who enjoyed scaring children into becoming workaholic machines. This month let’s turn our attention to . . . well, another role in which he’s playing a rather confronting individual. This time, much more so. In keeping with last month’s theme of talking about stuff he’s recently been in, I’m going to be diving into a role that’s hot off the press, his turn as a psychiatrist brought in to help a corporate risk manager decide whether or not a scientific experiment is still worth pursuing or must be shut down.

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Paul Giamatti as Dr. Alan Shapiro in Luke Scott’s Morgan.

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Sci-fi drama/horror/mystery

Plot Synopsis: A corporate risk-management consultant must decide whether or not to terminate an artificially created humanoid being.

Character Profile: Arrogant psychologist Alan Shapiro has an important job to do: he’s charged with evaluating the mental state of Morgan, the brilliant but potentially dangerous end product of an advanced scientific project that has created a human-like being out of synthetic DNA. After a violent outburst revealed Morgan’s capacity for anger, the corporation responsible funding the project orders a psych evaluation. In walks Shapiro, initially taken aback by the fact the scientists at the lab would ever have him try to communicate with Morgan behind a glass wall. At his insistence, they allow him to have a face-to-face in the same room as a potential killer. Shapiro opens a line of communication fairly casually but before long he is diving headlong into an intense interrogation, wanting to know what Morgan actually thinks about her “life” and her living conditions, about being stuck in a holding cell. He challenges her further, asking what she would do if he recommended that she “be terminated.” Still believing he has things under control, the doctor begins to scream at Morgan, borderline threatening her. What will Morgan do?

Why he’s the man: In a film that generally fails to mine the best out of its talented cast, Paul Giamatti shines the brightest here as a rather confronting (borderline chilling) psychologist who manifests as a major catalyst in determining the kind of fate Morgan and her “captors” await. He may not have much time on the screen, and yet it is stunning how quickly his character is able to get under your skin and chill your blood. Morgan isn’t a film with many happy or pleasant characters, and Dr. Alan Shapiro is a particular stand-out, lighting the screen up with incredible intensity, a seething disdain for the government project that sits before him. It’s really strong work from one of the most reliable character actors we have right now.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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