Tuesday, August 13, 2013

FILM REVIEW: Upstream Color (2013) - Shane Carruth - "All emotion, some substance"

I was hesitant to write this review so soon after I finished watching this film (I watched it yesterday), because I still have a lot of mixed feelings about it. Upstream Color is Terrance Mallic- excuse me, Shane Carruth's second feature, that deals with a couple trying to reassemble their lives after they've been affected by a complex parasite. 

This is a film that deserves multiple viewings if you wish to fully understand all the imagery and symbolism. I had difficulty just following the plot, because while it is linear, nothing is directly explained, and is instead left up to speculation. I typically like films like this, but I'm on the fence on this one. On one hand, Carruth does an excellent job creating evocative imagery, and blending his score with what's going on with the characters so the audience feels something - but the question I have is, "Is what the audience is feeling substantial to the plot or forced out of them by the score?" This is where I feel Carruth delves into Mallick territory, because I've always felt that Mallick can create feeling without substance, and I don't particularly like that. 

I was also having difficulty following the plot, because it starts as the main female character, Kris, is being attacked and injected with this parasite, and being told what to do. Later on, Kris meets the male protagonist, Jeff (played by Carruth), who I thought sounded similar to Kris' attacker, so throughout the film, I was expecting this big secret to come out of how Jeff attacked Kris (possibly so they'd wind up together). Lo and behold, I check out the wikipedia after I finish the film, and Jeff is a completely different person, who was also attacked and injected with the parasite. 

There's repeating imagery of pigs, orchids, and a heavy focus on sounds that accompany nature. I wish the film took the path of being a full on surreal experience, and focused more on these things, instead of going back and trying feebly to make sense. The funny thing about this film is there's some sequences I absolutely love, and I think are beautiful, but then there's others that I despise and think are trying too hard to squeeze feeling out where there is none. One sequence I love is where Kris is swimming underwater in an indoor pool, and she begins seeing orchids in the water, and when she grabs onto them, she has these visions of rocks and parasites and it's really interesting. 

A sequence I hate is Carruth emulating Mallick where he has three characters walking in circles around each other in a room, staring each other down while swelling, uplifting strings play in the background. There is no subtext (at least that the audience could grasp) to get out of these sequences, and are large in part, why I can't stand most Mallick films, they're just people filled with angst staring at each other. 

Carruth does deserve praise, however, for the fact that he was basically the leading man on both this film and his debut, Primer, on both of which he directed, wrote, acted, produced, filmed, edited, and scored. That takes quite a lot of work.

A review I had read of Carruth's work stated that he was the love child of David Lynch and James Cameron, and I actually think that's offensive to both Lynch and Cameron. Carruth has beautiful imagery down to a T, there's no doubt about that, but where he falters is having the clarity of Cameron or the poignancy of Lynch. As an experiment in film making, however, on it's own, Upstream Color is a very intriguing film. I don't know if I'll ever watch it again, because while it's a film that asks to be viewed multiple times, I'm not sure it's a film that deserves to be viewed multiple times.

Monday, August 12, 2013

FILM REVIEW - Fruitvale Station (2013) - Ryan Coogler - "Are you sad yet?"

This is by far and away my least favorite film of 2013 thus far. I went to see it from a recommendation I got from some friends, and, similar to my experience with 2011's 'Drive' I foresee this being a movie that a lot of my fellow film buffs love, but I despise.

The film is based on the true story of Oscar Grant, a young man who was shot fatally by police on New Years Day 2009.

I'm going to compare this film to a film that is starkly different (and much better) than Fruitvale: Lars von Trier's Melancholia. Both of these films show you how the film ends at the beginning. This works great in Melancholia, because it doesn't play on the audiences feelings of knowing that the world is going to end, because that's not what the story is about. It shows you how the film ends at the start, because Trier wants you to focus on the characters - the characters are the story (which is why many found themselves bored with the first half which didn't focus on the impending apocalypse at all). 

While the film does focus on Oscar's character, it spends the entirety of the film trying to make you feel bad that you know he's going to die, and they do this by using all film cliches. He starts off as a real low life - a cheater, a repeat offender, a drug seller, a sloth, and by the end of the film he's... well he's made up with his girlfriend, who doesn't bring up the fact he cheated on her for the rest of the film, even after he screws up multiple times and loses his job. Seriously, the reasons they give for you to care for Oscar are just really... strange. You see him play with kids, he obviously cares about his daughter, and he lets a pregnant woman use the bathroom even though a shop is closed and she really has to go. That's legitimately one of the plot points. He then has a conversation with the pregnant woman's husband about marriage and how he should propose to his girlfriend (again, shoving it in your face that you know he's going to die). At one point he even goes on and on to his daughter, who tells him he shouldn't leave, about how he's going to come home and they're going to do all these things together (again, shoving it in your face that you know he's going to die).

The film spends most of it's time telling you how to feel instead of just letting you feel. It feels like a contrived set of circumstances that Coogler wrote in that have nothing to do with Oscar's true story, and instead, are shoehorned in to make the film more depressing, even when they don't make sense. I felt like Coogler was above my shoulder throughout the entire film, whispering incessantly into my ear, "Are you sad yet? How about now?" Instead of manipulating real events to make the story more interesting, Coogler is manipulating events to try to make you give a shit about a story that really did not warrant a film adaptation.

Coogler writes that he wanted the film to show that each human life has value and that if people understood Oscar's background, it wouldn't be like they read it in the paper, it would show that every human life means something. If that was his intent, it didn't come through. Instead of being inspired, or seeing the purpose in Oscar's life, all I saw was a mistake that ended in a tragedy. Coogler tries to force a relevant "police brutality," message at the end that instead comes across as just an ignorant mistake on an officer's behalf.

Even though the film features strong acting performances, and intriguing cinematography, at the end of the film, I had to ask myself, "What do I take away from this film?" and "What did I learn of the human experience?" and it really taught me nothing. It felt very nihilistic, and I personally felt very numb leaving the theater, because I was given no proper reason to care. 

I think people who are into social justice films, or people who are easily roused by cliched depictions of police brutality will enjoy this film, because they will feel validated, even if it's only for the ten minutes that police are actually on screen. For those who live in the real world, you'll be able to see that this is a film poised to force emotions out of people that just aren't there, which is a pity given it's potent cast.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

FILM REVIEW: The Way, Way Back (2013) - Nat Faxon/Jim Rash

Alfred Hitchcock talked many times about the importance, not on story, but on execution. He said that he didn't care how "good" the story was, because if the execution was well done, it would be engaging all the same. A similar belief is that "it's not what you say, it's how you say it." These concepts hold true for a film like The Way, Way Back, which ventures into familiar waters (didn't intend that as a pun) within the coming-of-age dramedy. While it is a predictable film, the familiar conclusion is made incredibly impactful by the stellar direction of Jim Rash and Nat Faxon. 

The story tells the tale of Duncan, a 14-year old boy who finds himself trapped at a summer home with his recently divorced mom and her domineering boyfriend, Trent. Being an introverted person doesn't help the fact that he's surrounded by adults he can't relate to, and fellow peers who find his behavior stand-offish. Duncan eventually finds friendship in Owen, the owner of a water park nearby, through which Duncan begins to finally understand his place in the world. 

Being from the studio that made Little Miss Sunshine, Steve Carrell and Toni Collette are both phenomenal in their roles, but what really makes this film tick is the gradual transition you are able to see in Duncan, played by Liam James. For most of the film, Duncan is this very socially awkward kid. He's very fearful of this new world around him (both literally and emotionally, with the divorce). You really cringe for him at times when he's first attempting to flirt with the girl next door, but as that falls back and becomes the B-plot, there's this natural joy that James exhibits when he's with Owen, and you really believe him when he says that Water Wizz is the only place where he's happy.

This isn't to belittle the other cast members, as Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell, and Maya Rudolph do spectacular jobs as well. Their characters really help to provide the comedy center, and allows the film to avoid being too much of a downer, as it tackles very tense, almost too relateable problems (I felt similarly about Crazy, Stupid, Love... maybe it's just dramedies about divorce). 

I've been actively searching for a film that I could point out and say, "That's my favorite film of 2013," because while I've seen some pretty great films this year, there hasn't been anything that has wowed me as much as Moonrise Kingdom last year, or Melancholia the year before, Or Black Swan the year before, or Slumdog Millionaire the year befo- you get the idea. Mud, The Way, Way Back, and The Conjuring are all very high on my list, but I'd have to say that if I'd have to give one the top contender currently, it'd have to go to The Way, Way Back. 

If you get the chance, definitely check this out.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


With their debut album dropping in September, I thought I'd review a group that's already become an instant favorite of mine. Coming in fifth on BBC's Sound of 2013, a list of artists to watch out for, the Scottish electropop group released a series of singles and an EP. With a sound that mixes both a modern sound that hearkens to the 80's, Chvrches have already seen moderate success with their single, "Recover."

Check out some of my favorite below, and pre-order their debut, The Bones Of What You Believe, coming out September 23rd, 2013.




Tuesday, July 23, 2013

GAME REVIEW: Heavy Rain (2010)

In anticipation for Quantic Dream's next game, Beyond: Two Souls (releases in October), I've decided to review their previous game, which happens to be one of my favorites in the past few years, Heavy Rain.

You play as a loving father, a private detective, an FBI agent, and a cunning journalist all attempting to solve the mysteries of The Origami Killer, a serial murderer who uses extended periods of rainfall to drown his victims.

The game is molded after noir films, and behaves (as do most Quantic Dream games) like an interactive movie. One of the innovative parts of the game is that while you play as four separate characters, it is impossible to get a 'GAME OVER' screen. If you screw up, or get a character killed, they stay dead, and the storyline adapts to your choices. Because of this, each character has several different endings ranging from getting married to the love of their life to shooting themselves after becoming overcome with depression. So, yeah, don't screw up.

And I really mean that. The story, by itself, is depressing enough as is, but it can become heart-breaking very fast if you're not careful, and it makes you feel even worse, because your choices brought about their pain. Think of it like a modern version of a "Choose Your Own Adventure," book, but instead of being able to go back a few pages and choose to go over the bridge instead of under it, you get to watch your character writhe and suffer, and then be forced to start the entire game over again if you want them to get a better ending. What makes this even more difficult, is that, often, when you're deliberating over a movement or what to say to another character, you are only given a short amount of time with which to respond. Especially once you get attached to some of the main characters, the action sequences are stressful enough to provide aneurysms.

If you get a chance, definitely check out this game. I'm very much a supporter of this movement that's been happening within games to make them more cinematic, and focus on character development more. As long as they're not pieces of shit like Metroid: Other M.

Monday, July 22, 2013

FILM REVIEW: Star Trek III: The Search For Spock - Leonard Nimoy

The third film in the Star Trek franchise sees cast member Leonard Nimoy (Spock) at the helm for the first time (he would later direct the sequel The Voyage Home). After Spock's death, the crew return to Earth, where they find that Spock's "spirit" is held within Dr. Mccoy. Kirk steals an Enterprise ship to travel to the Vulcan home planet, but is stopped by a Klingon ship (led by Christopher Lloyd) that is determined to steal the secrets to the Genesis Project. 

It is the continuation of a story arc that began in II, and ends in IV. It features a lot of comedic relief with Bones near the beginning, probably because without Spock/Nimoy in it for the majority of the film, there was significantly less opportunities. While I enjoyed the film, it suffers from the illness that all franchises with planned story arcs suffer from - transition films. It's easy to see that the writers clearly had a point A and a point B for the beginning and ends of this story, but they didn't really know how to space it out long enough to get there. 

While Christopher Lloyd did a fine job in his role, I always find his voice distracting, because I can't stop myself from hearing him say, "1.21 JIGGA WATTS?!" And even with that said, as a villain, his character feels shoe-horned in for conflict, but that's not Lloyd's fualt. 

That all being said, this film does have one of the best one-liners at the end of a battle I've ever heard: 


Sunday, July 21, 2013

FILM REVIEW: The Conjuring (2013) - James Wan

The horror genre is one that suffers from weight issues. It's a genre that is difficult to find craft and balance in. Many of the films take themselves too seriously or not seriously enough. A tinge to the left can have the audience laughing at it's disingenuous, while a tinge to the right can have them groaning in disgust. In essence, in the horror genre, it's very easy to break the diving board.

Now, I've been a fan of James Wan's since his career began. As anybody who knows me knows, I am an avid fan of the Saw franchise, in particular, the first three films (the first directed by James, and the original trilogy all written by his longtime partner in crime, Leigh Whannell). With his second film, I thought Dead Silence took itself a little too seriously, but it established an almost vaudeville voice in horror for Wan that separated itself from Saw.

Wan's fourth film, Insidious, saw Wan finally being taken seriously outside of his Saw fame. While lightning doesn't strike twice, it was Wan's second horror film (the first being Saw) to be made for under $2 million and making back around $100 million. One of the selling points of Insidious is that it tries something new with horror, and where that is concerned, I give it all the credit. Personally, I felt Insidious lost it's traction in it's third act, mainly because of the decision made to CGI the demon, and the amount of horror that was lost to the imagination. 

James Wan's balance is perfected in The Conjuring.

While The Conjuring isn't the perfect horror film, it is by far and away one of the best in the last few years, and definitely the best in Wan's history to date. It continues to feature Wan's vaudeville-type demons that started in Dead Silence, but it doesn't go overboard by showing them too much, and it has just the right amount of humor to balance out it's darkness.

The film follows the story of the Warrens (portrayed by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), real-life paranormal investigators who researched several famous "hauntings" (The Amityville Horror, and The Haunting In Connecticut being two other media pieces based off their cases). In The Conjuring, they come to the assistance of the Perron family, who begin experiencing disturbing things at their new home in Rhode Island.

While I don't praise many horror performances, I have to continue to give Vera Farmiga (Orphan, Up in the Air, Bates Motel) the credit she deserves. She has been one of my favorite actresses of the past decade, and she definitely doesn't disappoint here. 

In contrast with Insidious, and for the sake of argument, The Conjuring isn't anything new. But where some see this as a detractor, I see it as a perfection of approach to styles and tropes within the horror genre, similar to how Alfonso Duralde defended the film with, "...but Fred Astaire didn't invent tap dancing," James Wan did not invent the ghost/demon/exorcism style, but he damn near perfected it. 

While James Wan is now moving on to doing bigger budget films (Insidious 2 comes out in September, but Fast & Furious 7 is next on his production list), I personally cannot wait to see what else he comes up with in the horror genre. I would love to see him move outside of ghosts and try a thriller, as he is quite on point with his techniques in building suspense. 

Go see this film and support well-done horror films. Or be stuck with remakes of When A Stranger Calls.