TCFF 2014 Documentary Reviews: Stray Dog, Flying Paper, Where The Trail Ends & One Good Year

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What I love about Twin Cities lineup year after year is the eclectic variety. Documentary is one of those genres I really need to see more of, so I’m glad there are quite a few of them this year. The past few years, I saw award-worthy docs like A Place at the Table, Bully, Gladiator The Uncertain Future of American Football, The Armstrong Lie, etc. at TCFF. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these would end up in the major award roster next year.


So here are the Documentary reviews …

Stray Dog

A documentary about an intellectual motorcyclist and guilt-ridden Vietnam war- veteran, Ronnie Hall, Stray Dog is a character portrait that ultimately doesn’t delve deeply enough to resonate.

Hall is a fitting subject, and director Debra Granik is adept at stringing together scenes that force us to consider society’s treatment of war veterans. She also reflects on the ways war permanently changes soldiers, often for the worse.

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But it is Stray Dog’s more subtle psychological themes that hold potential for the most emotional (and philosophical) resonance. Can we ever redeem our worst mistakes? What must we do to forgive ourselves? How much altruism overcomes past ethnocentricity and arrogance? Is it possible to adapt to new living conditions, particularly those that do not meet our expectations? And so forth. Troublingly, Granik never completely explores such ideas; take, for example, the question of redemption and altruism. In one powerful moment, easily the strongest in the film, she allows Hall to explain why he labels himself unforgivable, closing in on his face as he details his worst sins. His grief and regret are palpable, as is our own inability to connect the man we’ve been watching with the one he’s now describing. Yet, it is the only such scene in Stray Dog, and so the experience of seeing it quickly fades. Which means the film doesn’t connect to our personal psychological experience.

Make no mistake, though. Stray Dog is not a poor documentary. It is engaging throughout, and it does have intriguing ideas. It just doesn’t linger as powerfully as it might have with more fealty to psychology.

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Flying Paper

Flying Paper is one of the most heart-wrenching as well as uplifting docs I’ve seen in ages. It tells the story of resilient Palestinian youth in the Gaza Strip on a quest to shatter the Guinness World Record for the most kites ever flown. Though it shows the war-torn condition in Gaza, the film doesn’t take the political approach. Instead it shows life as it is for these youngsters, who like any other kid in other parts of the world, just want to play.

Two of the main kids being interviewed are siblings Musa and Widad, outspoken and full of energy as they walk us through their daily lives and planning to be a part of the United Nations’ Kite Festival. Musa is the unofficial team lead of sort, showing a maturity that seems well beyond his 14 years. They show us how they make their kites with flour and paste, testing it and making sure it flies the way they wanted it to be. The kite symbolizes freedom, the one thing people in occupied territories could only dream of, so in a way, they sort of live vicariously through the kites that soar into the sky.

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Directed by Nitin Sawhney and Roger Hill and co-produced with a team of young filmmakers in Gaza. One of them is Abeer, a graduate from Voices Beyond Walls Youth Media Program who wants to be a journalist. She acts as the reporter in the film, interviewing kids in their homes as well as at the Kite Festival. It’s heart-wrenching to hear little girls younger than 10 years old telling stories about how F-16 flying low over their homes and how loud the helicopters are when they fly overhead. Later on Musa also show us pieces from a bomb or rocket/tank that were fired nearby. It’s more telling how they nonchalantly talk about it, as they’ve gotten so used to as that’s all they know all their lives.

As we go through one of the schools, a teacher said that kite-making builds team spirit and help channel their energy. I’d imagine that as they live in such a brutal condition, kite-making would make them forget – albeit briefly – the trauma of war.

The third act of the doc shows the astounding Kite Fest at Waha Beach. There are throngs of kids with their colorful kites and big smiles on their faces. They’ve so waited for this moment for so long and I couldn’t help being so excited along with them. Over 7500 kids were at the festival, 7202 to be exact, which easily broke the world record.

Despite the dark themes of war, there is such a joyful spirit in this film and by the end you truly care for these kids and what this record mean to them. It’s quite astounding how this film got made despite the ongoing blockade in the area, so if you get a chance to see it, I urge you to do so.

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Where The Trail Ends

If there is a documentary that is meant to be seen in the hugest possible screens, it’d be this one. It’s fantastic for adrenaline junkie or anyone who appreciates epic cinematography that captures one of the most breathtaking nature scenes that would truly take your breath away.

There are five main free-ride mountain bikers: Darren Berrecloth, James Doerfling, Andreu Lacondeguy, Kurt Sorge and Cam Zink, who are featured here as they search for un-ridden terrain all over the globe. The first terrain shown was in Utah and boy I thought it was already scary and dangerous enough, but no, it’s deemed too easy for them. And off they go to various locations such as Nepal, China, Argentina and Canada. Each place seems more exotic than the next, and the cinematography by Brad McGregor is never less phenomenal from start to finish. The high-speed camera was often placed on the bikers’ helmet so you could see from their point of view and totally got the adrenaline rush pumping. I was as in awe of these daredevils and their death-defying stunts as I was with the amazing camera work.

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Now, this is no doubt one of the most-beautiful documentaries ever filmed, but at the same time, there’s only so much one’s eyeballs could take in. I never thought I’d say this but there are actually moments where I was yawning and looking at my watch. No, I’m not saying the film is boring, it’s just that this doc is more eye candy than anything else as there’s barely no emotional connection with any of its subjects. At times it felt as if I was watching an hour-long commercial for Red Bull, Specialized, Contour, etc. To be fair though, I was truly amazed that these bikes hold up being used in such extreme ways. These bikers seem like they’ve made out of rubbers too. I mean they get hurt, some broke their collar bones, foot, back, etc. but it’s still a feat it’s not worse!

There is one rather touching moment however. One of the bikers, I think it was Darren Berrecloth, almost lost it when he couldn’t bring himself to pull a certain dangerous stunt because he broke his back doing the exact same thing back in his home town. There he was, with the magnificent terrain sprawled right in front of him, beckoning for him to do it. Yet knowing how horrifying the back-breaking experience was that he simply couldn’t bear it again. His utter disappointment was palpable but in the end, everyone knew he made the right decision.

Director Jeremy Grant certainly knows how to make an exciting ride that’s chock-full of incredible spectacles. Where The Trail Ends is worth a look because the visuals is like nothing you’ve ever seen. Just don’t expect something profound or anything with an emotional depth.

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One Good Year

“One Good Year” tells the story of four family farms tucked in the densely wooded forest of Northern California. Interspersed between shots of emerald green hills and bucolic community festivals, these entrepreneurs show endless dedication to their crop and willingness to be one with the land. Oh, did I mention they are marijuana growers? Humboldt County, the home of filmmaker Mikal Jakubal, is, as David Samuels from the New Yorker put it, “The heartland of high grade marijuana farming in California.”

In this new 80-minute documentary, we meet four farmers permitted to grow the green leaves under Proposition 215 (California’s medical marijuana law) – Jory, Kim, Syreeta and Blossom. The film explores the dedication of this quartet to organically growing “the best weed anyone has smoked” juxtaposed against others in the area who exploit the environment to make a quick buck on the illegal (but more lucrative) marijuana trade.

It’s a topical subject, as Minnesota (home of the Twin Cities Film Fest) passed a medical marijuana bill earlier this year, joining nearly half of the states in the country with similar provisions. Undoubtedly it will offend some people – in one scene Blossom’s preschool daughter wanders through the crop while Blossom proclaims, “My mother taught me how to grow marijuana.” But Jakubal does a good job of showing us a personal commitment to the marijuana trade apart from the hype of drug cartels and stoned hippies.

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The four featured in the film are clearly not getting rich off their crop – Syreeta lives in a worn, treehouse like structure with a rusty old pickup in need of repair. When asked why she does it year after year, Blossom replies, “I think there will always be a market for good organic cannabis. I think they’re fun to grow.” The music in this show is particularly complimentary, including the work of local artists such as the Camo Cowboys, whose tune “Family Felony” provides a fun twang.

At times the film gets a little too technical, such as when Jory is describing her seed crop – “This one is Mexican Columbian crossed with Indica from Thailand…” (Oh, of course it is!) Far more helpful are the explanatory text graphics throughout the film explaining certain growing terms like “sexing,” the art of removing male plants to prevent unwanted pollination (only the female plants produce a smokable bud). Overall, it’s a thought provoking addition to the current debate over legalization in this country.

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Bonus Doc – Health Focus: One Community’s Effort

This doc wasn’t part of the TCFF lineup but it played in the film fest lounge as a free community event

Raise your hand if you want to live in an unhealthy community. Yeah, me neither. “Health Focus: One Community’s Effort,” shown at the Showplace Icon Theatre in St. Louis Park as part of the Twin Cities Film Fest, is a new documentary from Twin Cities Public Television. It covers the creation of “Health in the Park,” a grassroots initiative started last year and funded by The Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota with an aim to increase the overall health and wellbeing of St. Louis Park residents.

A first ring suburb directly west of Minneapolis, St. Louis Park is home to approximately 46,000. “It reminds me of a small town village in an urban setting,” Christa Getchell, President of the Park Nicollet Foundation, says in the video. Out of 50 applicants statewide, St. Louis Park was one of only nine cities chosen, in part because of their level of community engagement. “Our community is known for working together,” says Rob Metz, St. Louis Park School Superintendent. “You don’t see that everywhere.”

Full disclosure: I am a St. Louis Park resident and volunteer for Health in the Park’s Better Eating Action Group. As such, I tend to focus on nutrition but there have also been focus groups and presentations aimed at other aspects of healthy living such as increasing access to sidewalks and bike trails. “Because it’s so multifaceted, you can jump in where you feel most comfortable,” says Susan Ericksen, a St. Louis Park resident and Health in the Park Volunteer.

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Far from being a low level amateur project, “Health Focus” was made by Twin Cities Public Television so the production value in this 25-minute story is high. In many scenes, you see community members in various settings partaking in outdoor and indoor activities the city has to offer juxtaposed against various interviews staged in a way so you see the “City of St. Louis Park” logo in the background.

As the old saying goes, talk is cheap. But with the support and engagement of dedicated community members, St. Louis Park is poised to turn “Health in the Park” into more than just a series of conversations. If you miss it at the Twin Cities Film Fest, you can check out TPT’s website for a schedule of upcoming showings or visit the Health in the Park website to learn more about this initiative.

Not sure if I should rate this one? Admittedly I am biased as a St. Louis Park resident and Health in the Park volunteer.

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Have you seen any of these documentaries? What did you think?

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TCFF 2014 Day 7: Romance Double Bill – Old Fashioned & Comet

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We’re on the final stretch of the film fest and Day 7 is one of the three busiest days for me, with back-to-back screenings. It’s been fun [and challenging too, I'm not gonna lie] wearing multiple hats as blogger/film critic/journalist the past few days. But I’m so grateful that everyone I’ve met so have have been so friendly and gracious, it’s really been quite an exhilarating experience and that’s why I keep blogging for the film fest!

So last Wednesday, I got to see one excellent documentary and two romance dramas of opposite spectrum. Speaking of documentaries, I will be combining all the doc reviews all in one post after TCFF wraps.


And here are the reviews from Day 7 …

Old Fashioned

The idea behind Old Fashioned may seem foreign to a lot people today (including to the filmmaker himself at some point), but depending on your world view, it’s certainly not an improbable notion. The title refers to an antique shop in a small Midwestern college town, owned by a former frat boy Clay Walsh (Rik Swartzwelder). One Autumn day, a young woman named Amber Hewson (Elizabeth Ann Roberts) happens to drive into the town. Apparently it’s [her] tradition that wherever her car runs out gas, that’ll be the town she’ll stay in, at least until she has to move again. And so she ends up renting an apartment right above Clay’s shop.

OldFashioned_AmberClay and Amber couldn’t be more different. Clay with his permanently-tousled blond hair is taciturn and a loner, whilst the beautiful Amber is free-spirited and outgoing. Sparks didn’t exactly fly in their first meeting, but there’s definitely a hint of attraction. As it turns out, Clay has pretty much been living a monk-like existence for the past nine years, much to Amber’s bafflement. When he comes up to her room to fix her broken stove, Clay insists that she stands outside the door with a blanket. “It’s not normal,” she balks at Clay’s unyielding rules and relational theories. Perhaps more out of curiosity than physical attraction, Amber sort of *pursues* Clay by continually breaking stuff in her apartment just so he’d have to come up to her apartment. Eventually Clay agrees to go out with her, but only if she agrees with his terms.

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I gotta admit that I think Clay is a bit extreme in his approach to relationships. In a way, Amber is kind of the voice of the audience as she asks the same thing we would if we were to meet someone like him. So as Amber discovers more about Clay – and vice versa – the film peels the layer of both of their past. Clay had spent his college days sowing his wild oats, whilst Amber had been traumatized by her past relationships that her first inclination is always to run away. For Clay, his heap amount of guilt pushes his ideological pendulum to swing so far the other way that he practically sabotages his own chance at true happiness. I like that the film didn’t paint the protagonist as some high & mighty hero who’s got everything figured out. Clay and Amber are flawed characters we can all identify with and the film shows just how fragile relationships can be without even mixing sexuality into it.

The film doesn’t shy away from the faith elements, showing scenes and conversation about Christianity and the Bible, but they’re not done in a preachy manner. In my conversation with writer/director/star Rik Swartzwelder, he mentioned that he wasn’t interested in a faith propaganda story, but he was inspired by people he knew whose stories become the concept for the film. And so the spirituality element is organic to the characters and intrinsic to the story.

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The film’s beautifully shot on location in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, by David George. There’s a rustic quality to the entire film, the whole vintage look is a nod to a bygone era, both literally and philosophically speaking. Most of the supporting cast feature local actors which adds to the authentic Midwestern sensibilities. My favorite is definitely Dorothy Silver as aunt Zella who’s been trying to get Clay to lighten up and let go of his guilt. LeJon Woods as Clay’s BFF is a lot of fun to watch as well, both of them are the comic relief of the film. But the revelatory star is definitely Elizabeth Ann Roberts who has an effortless screen charisma and sweet vulnerability about her that makes her perfect for the role. I’m glad Swartzwelder ended up casting her after months of searching, and Amber is truly the heart of the story. I think the characters are nicely fleshed out, though it’s a bit tough for to picture such a serene fellow like Clay that he was a reckless womanizer, as the film barely show flashbacks of their past.

The ending is perhaps too fairy-tale-ish, but I can’t help being swept-off my feet by the film’s undeniable charm. I can even forgive some of the schmaltzy moments that drag on a bit, so I think the 115-min running time could’ve been slightly trimmed down. Overall I’m impressed by Swartzwelder‘s feature film debut, it’s an enchanting romance drama I’d readily watch again.

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Comet

It’s interesting to see Old Fashioned and Comet back to back as both deal with romantic themes and both are feature film debuts from its respective directors. Their styles and approach to romance couldn’t be more different however.

Set in a parallel universe, the film bounces back and forth over the course of a couple’s six year’s relationship. Dell (Justin Long) and Kimberly (Emmy Rossum) met as they were lining up for a meteor shower watch at a college campus. It’s kind of a quirky meet-cute, as Kimberly saves Dell from being hit by a car. It prompted Dell to ask Kimberly out right in front of her handsome date (Eric Winter). Dell is honest and verbose to a fault, saying everything that pops in his head unapologetically. The constant bantering is amusing and frustrating at the same time, and the film pretty much consist of monologues and conversations of the two leads.

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The unconventional time jumps employed here feels a bit gimmicky at times, though fortunately I don’t find it as confusing as I thought I would. The bantering alternates turns to bickering and a screaming match in certain period of their lives, and both actors perform their roles wonderfully. Emmy Rossum impressed me in her stunning performance in The Phantom Of The Opera a decade ago, she barely aged a day it seems. Justin Long shows that he certainly has range, and his dramatic performance here is as convincing as his goofy, comedic side. They’re both very natural and believable in their roles, and to me that’s the strength of the film to keep me engaged.

The film plays with meta theory of dream vs reality but yet never quite shifts into sci-fi fantasy mode. I have to say though, the overly-stylized way the film is shot, with its transition and fancy camera angles, feels experimental to me. I’m not saying I didn’t like it, in fact I think the film’s cinematography is gorgeous. But at times it just feels a bit indulgent, it’s as if Sam Esmail is showing off his directing chops when a less edgier style would perhaps work just as well here. The ending also ends abruptly and though I don’t mind open-ended stories, this one just felt half-baked to me. It also doesn’t help that I simply couldn’t connect with any of the characters.

Still, I think the concept is interesting, which makes me wonder why this film was barely promoted by the studio. I mean there’s not even a trailer out yet even though it’s supposedly out in December, and even images of the film is scarce. I’d say it’s worth a rent if you like the cast and in the mood of an unconventional indie rom-com.

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Check out FlixChatter’s exclusive interview w/ Rik Swartzwelder, Writer/Director/Star of ‘Old Fashioned’ discussing the story origin of his film, casting process and going against Fifty Shades of Grey next year.


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Individual tickets are on sale now at twincitiesfilmfest.org


Have you seen any of these films? Would love to hear what you think!

TCFF 2014 Day 5 & 6: Reviews of ‘Evil, Enemies & Aliens’ Shorts Block + Solitude

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I love the variety of Twin Cities Film Fest lineup, year after year. One of the film formats I don’t get to see often is Film Shorts, but thankfully, TCFF offers five set of Shorts broken down by themes. I missed the first set but last Monday I got to see the second set, you can see a sneak peaks of them all in this video below:

Evil, Enemies, and Aliens (Shorts Block)

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Disturbing and deadly conflicts aren’t unique to large scale wars or terrorism. They can be found around us in our everyday lives. This shorts block takes a look at retaliation, murder, fishing, sacrifice, and bare knuckle fighting to illuminate the beautiful, but uncertain world around us.

Films in the Evil, Enemies & Aliens Short Blocks:

  • Gone Fishing
  • Windage
  • Trapped
  • Alone Together
  • Knuckle
  • One Armed Man

I’m only going to do a mini review of the two that I like most – both happen to be under 8 minutes each. I think the rule of thumb for a good short film is that it shouldn’t overstay its welcome. I guess that should be a rule for any kind of film, but most especially for shorts because to me, that’s part of the appeal. Having a shorter time frame forces filmmakers to be more innovative and creative storytellers and I think these two films illustrate that.

Windage – by Dan Delano

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A city is torn apart by war. On the outskirts of town, two lone snipers cross paths and pin each other down.

War is such a universal theme, but so is the concept of kindness and altruism. Windage mixes those themes well and the gritty Winter setting adds to the sense of isolation and abandonment. Both leads, Kari Ann Craighead and Danny August Mason, gave a believable and affecting performance as well, they did a nice job acting with just their eyes and facial expression. The film as a whole is very minimalistic, with barely any word is spoken, yet the ending provokes such a big emotional impact.

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Alone Together – by Blake West

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A man struggles with his past, only to find out it is his present and inescapable future…

Similar to Windage, this film is economical and minimalistic in its approach, with just two leads telling the story. There’s a deep sense of mystery here that is played out nicely right up until the end. Louis Mandylor is the main lead who’s present throughout. I recognize him for some of his supporting work on films and TV, and he has such a melancholic face yet somehow keeps you guessing. I like films that play with our expectation and keep you guessing just who the main character is and the woman who follows him to the ocean. I really didn’t see the twist coming which is always nice when that happens. The film is well-shot and has an eerie feeling that works well for the story.

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Now, since we’re still on the subject of Shorts, I want to give a shout out to filmmaker Conor Holt, who happens to be TCFF’s Social Media Coordinator this year, as his short film A Better Life that premiered here last year. His award-winning film is now out on Vimeo!

It’s one of my fave short films, it’s a well-crafted sci-fi that’s really thought-provoking. Check out my chat with him on the making of the film this post.


And here’s the review from Day 6 …

Solitude

You know how when someone tells you not to do something it just makes you want to do it more? Solitude, the horror flick making its world premiere at the Twin Cities Film Fest, is like that. Spanning 75 years, it takes place in a mysterious town where evil recurs in six segments. Directors Taylor Scott Olson and Livingston Oden are obviously inspired by old movies such as “The Exorcist” and “The Nightmare on Elm Street.” We first meet James Erikson (Armin Habibovich) going through an old storage locker filled with family artifacts after the death of his mother. Five more vignettes follow, shot to appear as they take place in 1939, 1961, 1977, 1986 and 1999, and include odes to “Frankenstein” and “The Blair Witch Project.”

The random clues in a single box found in the locker lead to an old Native American tale of a monster that has been killing those who dare to trespass on this land. A native woman tries to warn each set of intrepid adventurers but of course, none of them listen to reason. That’s about as serious as this movie gets- it’s really just campy fun. (Early scenes reminded me of recent spoofs of the 1936 film “Reefer Madness,” including a musical where a flamboyant Jesus dances around with life size pot brownies to warn teenagers of the dangers of the “evil weed.”) If the cast’s aim in the movie was to spoof terrible acting in old horror films, they succeeded.

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One of the fun things about a film fest is getting to see movies before anyone else. The theatre was packed on Tuesday night and it was clear from the cheering in the audience when people’s names came up in the opening credits that there were a lot of cast and crew present. Afterward, a Q&A with directors Taylor Scott Olson and Livingston Oden revealed that the movie was shot in Minnesota- the “Solitude River” in the movie is actually the Rum River. When asked why they chose the title, Olson said that he originally thought of “Solace” but didn’t want confusion with the upcoming Anthony Hopkins movie. He settled on “Solitude” because when you hear that word you think of a peaceful, serene place- the opposite from what the movie actually is. An entertaining show that doesn’t take itself too seriously mixed with behind-the-scenes insight…I can’t think of a better way to spend a night at the theatre.

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Individual tickets are on sale now at twincitiesfilmfest.org


Have you seen any of these films? What did you think?

TCFF 2014 Day 4: Wild Canaries, Just Before I Go & double reviews of The Young Kieslowski

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Woo hoo! We are already halfway into the film fest… and there are still exciting films to look forward to. Stay tuned for more TCFF coverage here, there’s a dedicated TCFF tab with all the links to articles and reviews.

Here’s what’s in store today for #TCFF14 Day Six


Red Carpet Events – 21st Host – Geoff Briley

5:00pm: To Say Good Bye – Tim Torabpour/Cast/Crew
7:45pm: Solitude – Taylor Scott Olson, Livingston Oden/Cast/Crew


And here are the reviews from Day 4 …

Wild Canaries

Part “Big Brother” and part “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” the new movie from independent filmmakers Sophia Takal and Lawrence Michael Levine amiably mix the relationship problems of a group of 30-something New Yorkers with a madcap whodunit. Wild Canaries, which had its world premiere earlier this year at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, is not only written and directed by Levine and produced by Takal but also stars the duo who are married in real life.

Barri (Takal) and Noah (Levine) live with an assorted cast of characters in a Brooklyn apartment building where someone, amateur sleuth Barri suspects, has murdered their elderly neighbor who lived in a rent controlled apartment. The main plot takes awhile to get started and I began to think I was watching a stream of consciousness tale about the trials and tribulations of young people living in the big city. (“Is 8:30 too late?” Barri asks her neighbor while inviting him over for dinner.)

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Somehow Levine manages to mix a variety of story lines (a failing movie distribution business he runs with an ex-girlfriend, a neighbor’s fight over their daughter with his ex-wife and Barri and their roommate’s plans to rehab a resort are just a few) with a screwball murder comedy- something that can be tricky to pull off without getting too dark or schmaltzy. They incorporate fun tributes to “Columbo” (in one scene, Barri is running around in a tan trench coat, floppy hat and sunglasses) and New York (in another, Barri opens her neighbor’s door using her Metrocard). 

Takal and Levine shine in their roles as the slightly neurotic drama queen and the world weary, put upon husband (“Acting weird is not a crime,” Levine points out after Takal mentions a neighbor’s shady demeanor). I would say they have an easy, natural chemistry (in one scene, Takal scolds Levine while flossing her teeth before bed) but wouldn’t you hope so since they are married?

Levine also incorporates a simple technique some moviemakers forget is important after one has invested 1 ½ hours in your product: he actually tells you what happened at the end. (Yes, I know for some it’s part of their craft to leave an audience guessing… you can disagree with me for preferring a resolution.) Not to say the end is boring – a head spinning explanation in movies such as “Wild Canaries” can also leave you guessing. As Barri and Noah’s roommate Jean (Alia Shawkat) says near the end, “Wow. Some people lead such exciting lives.”

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Just Before I Go

This film is the directorial debut from famous actress Courteney Cox. It centers around a man named Ted Morgan, played by Minnesota native Seann William Scott, who wants to kill himself when his wife leaves him for another man. Ted moves back home to reconnect make amends with people from his childhood before he takes his life.

Scott, who’s known for his comedic roles in such films as American Pie, takes on this role very differently and almost seems like a turning point in his careers as we finally get to see a wider range of acting skills. For most of the comedy in this movie he plays a straight man with the people around him having the funny lines and actions.

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The movie also stars Olivia Thirlby, who plays Greta, who discovers Ted’s plan to off himself and wants to document it and have it be his suicide note. Her character is the voice of the audience as she asks the questions the audience is probably thinking that aren’t addressed in Ted’s narration at the start of the film. Thrilby is great in this film as she is able to balance comedy and heart through her time on screen.

Just Before I Go is about a man wanting commit suicide but it isn’t a movie that makes light of suicide as Ted Morgan isn’t a depressed man he just doesn’t have a reason to live anymore and his journey in this film is about him finding a reason to go on living. So before you decide to skip this film because it is about a man wanting to commit suicide, do realize it really isn’t about that, it is about the people in his life, with very funny moments spread throughout all 95 minutes of it.

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The Young Kieslowski

– Josh’s Review –

A genre-bending romantic comedy, The Young Kieslowski is a quality production, one worthy of full-scale theatrical release. It details Brian Kieslowski’s (Ryan Malagrini) coming of age, both emotional and sexual, during several months of a single year in college. Throughout the film, Brian grapples with his mother’s (Melora Walters, magnificent) pending death, a complicated relationship with love-interest Leslie Mallard (Haley Lu Richardson), Mallard’s unsupportive celebrity father (James Le Gros, even better than Walters), and his own emotional immaturity.

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Insofar as he shoulders much of The Young Kieslowski’s emotional weight and an equal dose of its comedy, Brian is a challenging role for Malagrini, but the young actor proves more than capable, especially in the scenes he shares with Richardson. Of course, that has much to do with Malagrini’s co-star; Richardson’s work in The Young Kieslowski is borderline revelatory, especially when one also considers her turn in The Well (where she is equally good). Why? The two characters are very different. Playing both of them requires range, and Richardson proves she has it.

As does The Young Kieslowski’s writer/director Karem Sanga. Here Sanga proves adept at shifting genres. Early, this picture appears to be a teen-sex comedy, but then it rapidly shifts to rom-com, before changing again to be a coming-of-age tale. From there it cycles between the latter two, never straying too far from either, but also never hewing so closely as to be frustratingly predictable.

That isn’t to say the film is perfect. A fantasy sequence during a ‘key lime pie event’ is out of place. Moreover, the project loses a little energy when Mallard is off screen for extended periods.

But The Young Kieslowski, is very good, even borderline excellent, and certainly worth viewing.

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– Ruth’s Review –

One of my favorite parts about film festivals is that I get to see indie gems you otherwise might overlook. The Young Kieslowski is one of those I’m glad I got to see, and I’m certainly glad to be introduced to such talents as Ryan Malgarini and Haley Lu Richardson, the two young stars of the film.

The movie begins with Brian Kieslowski at the dinner table, getting the bird & the bees talk from his mother who’s battling cancer just before he’s off to Cal Tech. Right from the start, you know that this film imbues difficult subjects such as terminal illness and teen pregnancy, with mirth and humor. I immediately sympathize with Brian, Malgarini has such a quirky & likable quality about him that is fun to watch. But the story pretty much starts at a typical college party, where booze and hormone collides, a tricky combo bound to create tricky predicaments. Brian meets Leslie Mallard, obviously drunk even as she professes that she’s going to save herself for marriage. Alas, the two ended up hooking up, and wouldn’t you know it, Leslie gets pregnant… with twins!

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The story is nothing groundbreaking, yet writer/director Kerem Sanga presents it makes it seem fresh and delightfully engaging. The scene where Brian finds out about the pregnancy is hilarious, but it wasn’t done in a flippant way as it really made you think about how’d you feel if you were in their shoes. Apparently this topic is a personal one for him, as he and his twin brother were born when their parents were in college. He’s done well with casting young talents like Malgarini and Richardson who made their characters so easy to root for that I was quickly immersed in their journey. Oh and what a journey it was! Of course the toughest part is breaking the news to their parents, and the scenarios are played with humor as well as poignancy. Tough subjects such as abortion isn’t delivered with such heavy-handed or preachy manner, but it’s a natural progression of what both characters have to face and deal with. It seems at first that the subject of faith was to be explored, however, it was dismissed as casually as it was introduced.

I also notice how diverse the cast of The Young Kieslowski was, and the relatively inexperienced actors playing Brian/Leslie’s friends actually did a pretty decent job here. Joshua Malina & Melora Walters as Brian’s parents, as well as Minneapolis-born character actor extraordinaire James Le Gross lend a strong supporting cast. The revelatory star is definitely Haley Lu Richardson, who displays the most range as well as strong screen presence. She definitely has leading lady quality and I hope Hollywood notices her soon. Kudos to Sanga for creating such a delightful, funny and poignant story that teens and adults would enjoy. I appreciate that he’s not afraid to go into some dark moments, such as when Brian trembling at the thought of losing his mother, without having to follow that up with some silly humor. The movie also moves along at a nice pace, and at 94 min, this charming comedy never overstays its welcome.

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Check out FlixChatter’s exclusive interview w/ Haley Lu Richardson as she discussed getting her part in her feature film debut in The Well, and tidbits on filming The Young Kieslowski.


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Individual tickets are on sale now at twincitiesfilmfest.org


Have you seen any of these films? What did you think?

FlixChatter Review: FURY (2014)

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Hollywood loves making films about WWII and to their credit they produced some great ones. In my opinion, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line were the last great films about this war. And even though I loved Inglorious Basterds, I don’t count it as true WWII film, if you saw it then you know what I mean by that. This latest one from writer/director David Ayer has an A-list leading man and huge budget, but unfortunately it’s just another by-the-numbers war film.

It’s April 1945 and the war is almost over, as the film opens we see an aftermath of a huge battle and the only people left alive were a group of American soldiers inside a tank named Fury. Its commander is Don Collier (Brad Pitt) and his crewmen are not happy with him since one of their teammates was killed in the battle and they blamed him. After some bickering, they head back to their base camp to get their next assignment. A young recruit named Norman (Logan Lerman) introduced himself to Collier and said he was told he’s now under Collier’s command. Upon seeing the young soldier, Collier was not happy but he has no choice but bring Norman on board. After receiving his next mission from his boss Captain Waggoner (the always great Jason Isaacs), Collier and his men set out to take down more Nazis. As the film moves on, it became pretty generic in this genre, we see big battles, body limbs gets torn apart, the young soldier gets picked on by older soldiers and of course they accept him once he proved himself in the battlefield.

FURY_2014_stillsPitt gave a solid performance as the leader but seeing him in perfect shape and his hair never seem to get messy during the battle scenes really didn’t make his character more believable. When I saw the trailer for this film, I thought he might do another Aldo Raines but thankfully his performance was more grounded than in Tarantino’s flick. The most surprising performance to me was Shia LaBeouf, he’s the man of faith in the group and I thought he was quite good in the role. After seeing him in all those awful Transformers movies, I just couldn’t stand him but here he actually gave a good performance. Unfortunately the rest of the cast members got stuck with clichéd roles. Jon Bernthal is again being cast as the “bad” guy on the team and even though he did a good job, we’ve seen this kind of character many times before. Michael Peña is the token minority character and he’s supposed to be the comic relief guy, in some scenes he’s funny but again we’ve seen this too many times before. Lerman’s Norman is supposed to be the heart and soul of the team since he’s the “innocent” one but he’s not a strong actor so he didn’t really make an impression on me. I think Ayer tried to make his character very similar to that of Charlie Sheen in Platoon but it didn’t work because he’s a supporting character. The film might’ve worked better had it been told from Norman’s perspective and have a better actor in the role.

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David Ayer has been living off the success of his early writing gigs, he wrote the first Fast & Furious film and later that same year another film he wrote became a success, Training Day. As a director, none of his films were successful and here I think he tried too hard to make a “serious” film. There’s a scene halfway way through the film that totally dragged and I wish he’d left it on the cutting room floor, I think I understood what he’s trying to say with that scene but to me it’s just a waste of time since it never really amount to anything significance later in the story. The battle scenes were well staged but seeing green and red laser beams was kind of weird, I’ve never seen a real gun battle in real life so maybe when guns are fired, they shoot out laser beam like that.

Technically Fury is a success but overall it’s just another run of the mill war film that we’ve seen way too many times before. Maybe with a better script, the film could’ve worked better, but there are so many great films out there about this subject that it’s hard to make anything new.
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Have you seen FURY? Well, what did you think?

TCFF 2014 Day 3 Reviews: These Hopeless Savages, 3 Nights in the Desert, The Well and House of Manson

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The festivities continues at Twin Cities Film Fest! Weekends are always super busy at the Showplace ICON Theatres at the West End, but even more so with all the hustle and bustle of the TCFF crowds. A bunch of Midwest Premieres took place last night, featuring Q&A following films such as These Hopeless Savages, Old Fashioned, BFFs, The Well, and a huge cast & crew in attendance for the first of two sold out screening of House of Manson.


The second screening of House of Manson on Monday night at 9:30pm is already SOLD OUT … but, no fret, TCFF will have a RUSH LINE available for every “sold out” screening. We typically are able to accommodate anyone waiting in line. So, before you decide not to come, please do consider the Rush Line! The Rush Line is located across from the TCFF Offices on the Main Level of the Shops at West End, right below the theater lobby.


Now here are the reviews from Day 3…

These Hopeless Savages

Similar to Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013), These Hopeless Savages is a road movie doubling as a relationship drama. In this case, the focus is on Shawn (co-director/co-producer/co-writer/star Sean Christopher Lewis) and Greg (co-writer/star Matt Delapina), childhood friends who have lost touch over the years. Shawn believes he’s won $50,000, which he can claim by traveling from New York to Iowa, and he wants Greg’s help. Though Greg doubts the money’s authenticity, he agrees, for personal reasons, and the two embark in Shawn’s sedan. These Hopeless Savages documents their cross-country journey, along which they encounter several eccentric characters.

In so doing, the film is often funny, particularly in scene’s including Greg’s girlfriend, Nicki (Mackenzi Meehan). Meehan’s deadpan delivery and her chemistry with Delapina are both striking, indeed so much so that she is the film’s greatest merit. Which is saying something, because the cast is universally strong. The picture’s visual style is impressive, as well; directors Kaitlyn Busbee and Lewis use minimalist camera movements and wide image frames to create a realistic tone, one which helps push forward the plot.

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Unfortunately, These Hopeless Savages stumbles at various points. First, we never understand why Shawn believes the $50,000 actually exists. Unlike Nebraska’s Woody, Shawn’s mental faculties are not deteriorating, so what gives him such confidence? It helps that Lewis and Delapina, as writers, hint, at various points, that the money isn’t Shawn’s actual motivation, but the idea is undercooked and then contradicted when the protagonists reach their destination. Moreover, neither of these characters change. They start emotionally damaged, and they end that way. They start with particular character flaws, and they end with the same. Their stories feel unfinished, even in a picture less about individuals than relationships.

For all of that, These Hopeless Savages has enough humor, good acting and quality directing to make it immersive and entertaining. It is far from great, but it is also far from bad.   

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The Well

Though too predictable and too faithful to genre, The Well, is filled with enchanting cinematography and even more atmospheric intensity. The picture, which is written by Jacob Forman and director Thomas S. Hammock, depicts an apocalyptic world fatally short on water. Living in this world is Kendal (Haley Lu Richardson, excellent), who struggles to rebuild an airplane while simultaneously caring for her ill childhood friend, Dean (Booboo Stewart, even better than Richardson) and a youth named Alby (Max Charles, underused), whom she’s found living alone. She must also fend off many rivals, some of them in search of water, and some of them employees of a nefarious company.

In part because of the actor playing her, Kendal makes a compelling protagonist, but she is not the most interesting character here. That is the primary villain, Carson (played empathetically by Jon Gries), who is layered by love for his daughter, Brooke (Nicole Fox) and remorse. When Carson and Kendal finally speak to each other, it is a riveting scene, indeed, one that rewards the viewer with fascinating dialogue between two multi-dimensional characters.

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Hammock’s visuals are just as rewarding, as is his ability to create tension, both through audio and image frames. At times, The Well’s obviously low budget hurts the picture, especially when Hammock uses CGI to create blood or fire, but mostly the director overcomes financial limitations.

A handful of exposition-heavy scenes between Carson and Brooke prove bigger flaws. As does Brooke’s characterization. She is so underdeveloped as to be almost senseless. Finally, during what should be the film’s most impacting moments, Kendal successfully hides from her enemies, but only because Carson doesn’t follow previous patterns of behavior. In another should-be-impacting sequence Kendal behaves differently than she has before. These moments border on character breaking, and thereby disengage the viewer, at least for a time.

Still, The Well succeeds far more than it fails. It deserves a recommendation.

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Check out FlixChatter’s exclusive interview w/ Haley Lu Richardson as she discussed getting her part in her feature film debut, and the challenges of filming The Well.


3 Nights in the Desert 

A middling drama about old friends/bandmates reuniting after several years without contact, 3 Nights in the Desert neither impresses nor offends. It simply exists.

Tax attorney Barry (Vincent Piazza) and musician Anna (Amber Tamblyn) travel to the California desert, where their defunct band’s former guitarist, Travis (Wes Bentley), now lives. Ostensibly the three are fulfilling a long-ago promise to collectively celebrate their thirtieth birthdays, but Travis has a manipulative motive, Anna has personal issues never fully explained, and Barry doesn’t want to admit he pines for the past, even while he also rages at it.

All three actors do well with what they’re given, especially Tamblyn, who makes an underdeveloped character feel almost real. Unfortunately, writer Adam Chanzit and director Gabriel Cowan don’t give them much. First, the characters are sketches, not multi-dimensional figures. Second, the plot is boilerplate, offering a standard love-triangle, and equally standard reflection on idealism versus pragmatism. Some forced symbolism and a repeated metaphor (a supposedly mystical cave) don’t help either.

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Yet, 3 Nights in the Desert isn’t bad. Sure the opening voice over explains relationship dynamics Chanzit and Cowan would have been wise to show us, and sure nothing here surprises or enlightens, but the actors still capture attention, the occasional music is quite good, and the picture’s pacing (a run time just over eighty minutes) is crisp enough to ensure the narrative never grows stale. Plus, the director and his crew skillfully photograph some gorgeous California scenery.

In the end, do I recommend 3 Nights in the Desert? Not really. But it needn’t be avoided either.

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House of Manson 

House of Manson is a film that chronicles the life of Charles Manson and focuses in on the events leading up to and including the Sharon Tate murders of 1969. Unlike other Charles Manson biopics that focus in on the sex or the over the top nature of the Tate murder, this one focuses in Charles Manson’s influence and connection with his followers, the Manson family as they call themselves.

Charles Manson is portrayed by Minnesota born actor Ryan Kiser, who returns for the second year in a row to Twin Cities Film Fest. Last year Kiser co-starred in the horror film Truth or Dare and this year he brings the fest the world premiere of House of Manson. Kiser approached the character in a very serious tone and does a fantastic job conveying the crazy yet brilliant way Charles Manson was able to draw followers into his cult.

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Devanny Pinn co-stars as one of Manson’s followers Susan Atkins and gives a chilling performance as her screen presence is freaky. Pinn truly becomes Atkins on screen as the facial reactions make you think this women is completely off her rocker and has no moral compass at all.  An overall amazing performance by Pinn.

This film does suffer from some technical flaws as the sound isn’t completely smoothed and could use some more attention by a sound mixer. The filmmakers even admitted in a Q&A following the world premiere that some of the sound transitions were going to need to be looked at. The film also has a saturated look that doesn’t look completely intentional. The image doesn’t pop off the screen as some movies do that have a more crisp and sharp look to it.

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Overall, the film is a great portrayal of the events surrounding the infamous Charles Manson. It doesn’t get too crude or violent as previous films about the same subject matter, it takes the source material as it is and conveys the story in a very tasteful matter. With a great cast and direction by Brandon Slagle, House of Manson is definitely worth checking out when it later finds distribution.

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Stay tuned for reviews from Day 4!


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Individual tickets are on sale now at twincitiesfilmfest.org


Have you seen any of these films? What did you think?

TCFF 2014 Day 2 Reviews: Father-Like Son, The Last Time You Had Fun, V/H/S: Viral

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Day 3 is nearly gone and I just finally got a chance to put something together for the blog! It’s quite a whirlwind day for me today. I had a prior commitment in the AM in St. Cloud but we somehow made it back in time for the Actors Panel, one of the educational panels that I always look forward to every year. This year we’ve got three awesome guests whose films are playing tonight: Sean Maher (BFFs), Haley Lu Richardson (The Well) and Ryan Kiser (House of Manson). The panel was moderated by actress Marisa Coughlan (Super Troopers, Space Station 76). It was quite an insightful event as you learn how they got into show business, and the high/low of being an actor, etc.


And here are the reviews from Day 2…

Father-Like Son

Let’s just say the script in “Father-Like Son” doesn’t beat around the bushes. Written by and starring Mac Alsfeld and Andrew Megison and featuring Alsfeld in his directorial debut, it tells the story of Clark, a 24 year old wannabe writer living at home with his widowed mother and her new husband Dan, who happens to be Clark’s age but nonetheless aspires to be a father figure to Clark.

The first line in the movie is Dan popping into Clark’s room - “Hey there dude, you got any condoms I can borrow? Your mother claims to have had a hysterectomy but I don’t buy all that science fiction bull.” And the movie goes downhill from there, resulting in an endless stream of immature, unfunny jokes.

(About 20 minutes into this movie I started thinking, “This is like The Hangover. Except not funny.”) Another scene involves Dan, a self-proclaimed “inventor,” showing off his latest creation – the Okey Dookey, a poop-shaped plastic toy you can hide a key in.

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A subplot involves Clark getting a job in a used bookstore, where we meet fellow employee Emily (Molly Canarro) and Peaches (Peaches Davis), the little old lady who owns the place. Emily’s feisty retorts playing off Peaches’s sweet charm were a breath of fresh air. The movie attempts to turn maudlin toward the end with Clark struggling to come to terms with his father’s death but it was hard to care at that point after a mind numbing parade of juvenile man jokes. (To get back at Dan, one of Clark’s friends suggests that he cut up his dog and leave body parts all over the house.)

It is shows like this that remind me of what critics sometimes say if they really don’t want people to waste their time: I watch these movies so you don’t have to. I understand that I am not the target audience for this kind of show but in my opinion I would suggest you pick another movie to enjoy at the Twin Cities Film Fest.

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The Last Time You Had Fun

Story takes place in a single night, mostly in a limo rented by a guy named Will (Demetri Martin), supposedly to celebrate his college buddy Clark’s (Kyle Bornheimer) divorce. These two buddies can’t be more different from each other, even from the way they’re dressed. Will is a preppy lawyer and Clark is a teacher can’t seem to get out of his sweatpants. As we later learned, Clark’s divorce left him for another woman. Because of his friend’s persistence and his young kids’ insistence that he needs to get out of the house once in a while, Clark reluctantly agrees to go, so long as there’s no strip club involved. They ended up at a wine bar, Clark’s pick, and there they run into two sisters. Will dares Clark to pick up those women and he only agrees to do it just so he could go home.

The foursome end up hanging out together in the bar and later share a limo going as aimlessly as they go about their own lives. The two sisters are Alison (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), who appears to be the sensible one, married with a young daughter. She’s always patient to lend an ear to the drama queen of a sister Ida (Eliza Coupe), who’s in the middle of a nasty divorce.

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As the title says, most of the characters can’t seem to remember when was the last time they had fun. The bickering between four dysfunctional adults are comical in their honesty about how they feel about themselves and each other. Everyone’s got issues, one seems more messed up than the other. As the night wears on, more layers of their personality is peeled off as inhibitions slowly diminish. In fact, they go more restless, bolder and crazier, much to the chagrin of the snappy limo driver (Charlyne Yi) who have to put up with their shenanigans. One of the funniest scenes is when they try to get some weed, resulting in the most bizarre scenario of the entire film. Character actor Jimmi Simpson has one of those faces you recognize in a bunch of films/TV series. The sexual experiment scenario is played mostly for laughs but yet it’s not a throwaway scene as it’s in keeping with the adventurous theme of the story.

The film’s tiny budget shows in the production quality, but the honest, funny and engaging dialog and naturalistic performances from the entire cast make up for it. The two male actors fare slightly better IMO, you can’t help but root for them despite their flaws. There are some slow parts and some of the dialog seem clunky to me, but overall I think Mo Perkins‘ sophomore effort is a pretty good one. I like how the script by Hal Haberman plays with our perceptions/prejudices of the characters as they don’t always behave in the way they predict they would.

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V/H/S: Viral

V/H/S: Viral is the third movie in the V/H/S series that was started in 2012. The V/H/S movies are anthology films made with mostly found footage films that are edited to play together with an overarching plot that sort of works at connecting them all to play after each other. The previous two installments (V/H/S and V/H/S 2) were very enjoyable in their concept and new takes on found footage through the use of spy glasses cam and GoPro cams.

This time, the overarching plot that is seen between each short film, entitled “Vicious Circles”, is about a man on chasing his girlfriend who has been kidnapped by an ice cream truck which is also being chased by the police. This short that is broken up over the length of the film is quite good at showing the environment on how the entire city is on alert and watching this police chase.  Of the three V/H/S films this overarching plot is the weakest at not only connecting all the films together, as well as being a driving force throughout the whole film. It was different to show a bigger environment to connect rather than show people just watching the other shorts on VHS tapes as was done in the first two V/H/S movies.

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The first short is called “Dante The Great” and is the first time that breaks the complete found footage form in the V/H/S series as it is more of a mockumentary about a magician who owns a truly magical cloak. If you have been following the V/H/S series, this short can catch you off guard as it is not completely found footage and features interview throughout it while cutting to found footage. This short works really well and is the easiest to follow and was fun take on the mockumentary form.

“Parallel Monsters” is a short that involves alternate dimensions as a man opens a door to an alternate dimension that seems almost the same to ours but slowly as he explores it and switches with his alternate dimensional double, is not as similar as once thought. The characters in this short only speak Spanish which adds a new cultural flair that is done quite well. This short is the most detailed in terms of showing how weird the alternate world is that is being explored of the 3 shorts in V/H/S: Viral, not counting the overarching “Vicious Circles.”

The final short is entitled “Bonestorm” and shows some teenage skateboarders who venture down to Tijuana to film a skating video with a combination of regular video cameras and GoPro cameras. Things get out of hand when the area they are skating attracts some unwanted pagan worshippers.  This short was very action packed and didn’t have any lull points and used the short amount of time to its full potential. The actors gave great performances and the special effects that are needed later in the short are quite impressive.

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Overall, V/H/S: Viral is a good, not great, addition to the V/H/S series. While it still has a smaller distrubution method due to the studio putting it out, Magnet Releasing, which is limited on its resources on getting this movie to the public. Fans who have seen the previous two entries will enjoy this addition to the series. Those who are new to the series might need time adjusting to its scattered nature of being an anthology film that doesn’t transition easily between the stories it is telling.

V/H/S: Viral will be available on Video On Demand on October 23 and in select theaters on November 6.

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Stay tuned for reviews from Day 3 tomorrow!


TCFFtickets

Individual tickets are on sale now at twincitiesfilmfest.org


Have you seen any of these films? What did you think?

Rental Pick: PIRATE RADIO (2009)

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A period comedy about an illegal radio station in the North Sea in the 1960s.

PirateRadioPosterSo I guess not all *pirates* are bad. This Richard Curtis‘ comedy is [loosely] based on a true story in the 60s era Britain when the then-traditionalist British government deemed it illegal for radio stations to play rock music. I didn’t even know that this actually went on in England, but clearly, making something illegal would only make something even more popular. Kids and adults alike secretly flock to the radio, whether on their own or in a group, hanging on every broadcast and songs played by these pirate radios. The term pirate radio not only refer to the illegal nature of their broadcasts, but there were apparently pirate off-shore radio transmissions in those days. In fact, the original title of this movie was The Boat That Rocked, which I think is a better title.

I had wanted to see this for a while but given that it’s got Philip Seymour Hoffman in it made me want to see it more. He once again displayed his incredible versatility and keen ability to embody a role like no other. Hoffman played the lone American D.J. ‘The Count’ in a group of all-British staff on the Radio Rock station anchored in the North Sea, ran by Quentin (Bill Nighy). It’s quite a rambunctious but lovable bunch, and the arrival of Quentin’s godson Carl (Tom Sturridge) made for an even more interesting dynamic. He’s sent by his mother to spend time on the boat due to his problems at school, as if she thought he’d learn to be a good boy on THIS boat, ahah. The term sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll is really not far from the truth, surprise, surprise.

The arch nemesis of the group is Sir Alistair Dormandy (played with mustache-twirling kind of villain-y by Sir Kenneth Branagh) whose the quintessential hoity toity persona who thinks everyone beneath him has low morals. Branagh is pretty much chewing the scenery here as he instructs his subordinate, appropriately named Twatt (Jack Davenport), to find a way to somehow shut down Radio Rock.

PirateRadio_StillsWhilst continuing to dodge Alistair’s ruthless advances, the boat has its own shares of drama amongst its crews. The arrival of popular D.J. Gavin (Rhys Ifans) increases tension given the rivalry between him and The Count, not to mention his massive celebrity status also cost fellow DJ Simon (Chris O’Dowd) his new bride. January Jones pretty much just strutted around here, I never really liked her as an actress and her role here didn’t exactly change my mind. All the chaos are done in the spirit of fun however, it’s refreshingly not mean-spirited. And for a British film about rock ‘n roll, it’s not as foul-mouthed as one would expect, which is a pleasant surprise for me. It may appear that the filmmaker is demonizing the British government but really the focus is more on the ridiculousness of Alistair’s holier-than-thou attitude even towards his own cabinet members! There is a subplot about Carl finding about his real father that doesn’t get explored as well as it could, but his unabashed naïveté is pretty endearing to watch. His relationship with Nick Frost‘ character is hilarious but also quite moving.

As for the finale, it’s truly the kind of ending that made you want to get up and cheer! Yes, a little mawkish perhaps, but not devoid of wit and charm. The music here well, rocks, which is what one would expect. The who’s who of rock music in the 60s are on display here, from The Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield, The Hollies, Jimmy Hendrix, Buddy Holly, etc. add to the feel-good fun vibe of the movie. There’s also no real protagonist in terms of one specific actor dominating the screen, I think the entire boat is the star and you could say even say the rock music is the protagonist. Though the narrative is far from being perfect, it’s still quite heartfelt and entertaining that I’d recommend this for a rental. It’s another fun one from Richard Curtis‘ filmography.


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Have you seen this movie, well what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: GONE GIRL (2014)

GoneGirlBnrFew films this year got as much feverish anticipation as this one. To be honest, I got a bit worried this film wasn’t going to live up to the hype, but I’m glad to report that I wasn’t disappointed. I’m also glad that since I haven’t read the book, I managed to avoid any spoilers about the plot so it was nice to be surprised by the twist and turns as I’m watching the film.

The opening is quite provocative, as it opens with a shot of a beautiful blond woman, along with a male speaking voice saying how it would be nice to crack open her skull to see just what’s inside her head, to see what she is thinking. There’s an air of mystery around her which sets the tone of the entire film. Now, on a different film, we might chalk that narration up as a figure of speech. But in this case, given the title of the film, it definitely makes you think the worst. Well, Gone Girl definitely keeps toying with our perceptions throughout, and that’s part of the fun.

GoneGirl_Still1In case you don’t know anything about the basic plot, here’s the gist: On his fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) left his home in the morning to a bar he co-owned with his twin sister. When he came back, he couldn’t find his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) anywhere in his sprawling house, and there’s obvious signs of a break in. So he reports his wife missing and before he knows it, there’s a growing media frenzy on his case that puts extra pressure on him on top of the also-growing suspicion from the police that he’s killed her.

Instead of a straight who-dun-it type of thriller, this film deals more about the psychological aspect of the crumbling of a seemingly-blissful union and how Nick & Amy deal with their mounting problems. The issue behind the marriage dissolution itself isn’t at all uncommon, lots of us can relate to the issue of layoffs and growing apart when expectations no longer aligns with reality. But of course, this story takes a sinister turn that leaves you wondering just what the heck happens. The beauty of the film is that, it doesn’t rely on the twist [a la M. Night Shyamalan's films] to shock or entertain you. Instead, it’s more of a character study of a married couple – who probably shouldn’t be married in the first place – as well as a commentary of the worst side of media frenzy that toys with the public’s perception about a given story.

GoneGirl_Still3Despite the dark subject matter, this film isn’t overly bleak or depressing. Thanks to the taut screenplay by first-time screenwriter Gillian Flynn, who happens to be the author of the best-selling author novel it’s based on. I’m glad David Fincher agreed to work with her instead of hiring a more experienced screenwriter. I think having been ‘living’ with these characters on her head for so long definitely help make them more fleshed-out.Apparently Flynn actually studied his films as she’s writing the script which explains the synergy going on here. Fincher’s direction is solid all around, the story is clearly tailor-made for him. I like the timeline marking of how many days Amy has been gone, and the use of flashbacks are seamless and effective. The journal entries from Amy’s diary gives us a bit of insight into Amy’s side of the story, yet it wasn’t overdone that it’d actually grind the film to a halt. Fincher’s almost surgical precision is apparent in how he sets up every scene. Just like any real-life crime investigation, painstaking eye for details is absolutely critical.

Fincher’s longtime collaborator Trent Reznor provides a cool and eerie score to go with that somber color-scheme. At first I felt like his score was a bit intrusive in the first scenes when Nick & Amy met, but I think it might’ve been intentional. In some key moments, the vigorous & ominous score definitely gets your heart pounding! Another longtime Fincher collaborator is cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, whose visual sensibility works with Fincher’s style and therefore helps set the mood. The naturalistic style used here fits the tone of the film and the Midwest setting nicely.

GoneGirl_Still2Bringing the story to life are Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, two beautiful people forming a marriage from hell. For once, Affleck just might get some accolades for his acting instead of directing. I do think he was excellent in Hollywoodland, and in a way there’s some similarities between Nick and George Reeves as he was also at his lowest point professionally. The film however, belongs to the girl in the title role. Pike was nothing short of well, amazing. I’ve seen her in about five films so far, but mostly in supporting roles, and I’ve never seen the kind of range she displayed here. She was perfect as ‘Amazing Amy’, a brilliant ice princess type, the embodiment of her parents perfect image in the book series named after their daughter. At times she reminds me of Nicole Kidman’s character in To Die For, but there’s still a vulnerability about her that keeps you from truly despising her. I knew the British beauty could handle the sinister aspect of her character, but still I was floored by how good she was and her American accent is pretty convincing as well. I so hope she’d get some nominations come award-season, she’s definitely the breakout female performer of the year for me.

The supporting cast includes some rather off-the-wall choices playing against type. Tyler Perry is quite amusing as Nick’s top-notch lawyer, and Neil Patrick Harris as Amy’s creepy ex-boyfriend. The latter threw me off a bit as I somehow didn’t know he was part of the cast. Given Harris’ personal life, it took me a while to see him as a straight guy being obsessed over a girl, but I think he pulled it off. I also have to mention Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens as Nick’s sister and the detective, respectively. Both were excellent playing key roles in the story. Interesting casting of Sela Ward as a TV reporter here given that she played the murdered wife in The Fugitive where the husband was accused of killing her.

GoneGirl_Stills4Spoiler alert [highlight text below if you want to read it]
I feel that Amy might’ve gotten away w/ murder too easily. There’s a moment at the police station when Nick immediately knew she had deliberately killed Desi. “How did she manage to find a box cutter when she’s tied up all the time?” He quipped, but the male cop who’s always disliked him brushed him off. But also there’s the issue about all the blood that was mopped up in the kitchen. If she said she had been hit by her abductor, wouldn’t the cops at the very least try to corroborate her story and find some kind of proof that her story checks out? It’s not a huge quibble but it did bother me after I saw the movie.

So what’s the verdict? Well, Gone Girl definitely lives up to the hype. It’s more entertaining than I thought it would be. This will likely end up in my top 5 favorite Fincher films, perhaps between Fight Club and The Social Network which also have some humorous moments sprinkled throughout. I love it when a movie sparks a lot of discussions and makes you ponder about your own life situation. As I haven’t read the book, I can’t comment if the film is better than that or not, but I think it works in the big screen format. Props to Fincher and Flynn for making a story that might not translate well to film into something cinematic, gripping and wildly entertaining.

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So what do you think of Gone Girl? Did it live up to YOUR expectations?

September Blind Spot: Double Indemnity (1944)

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This is the second Billy Wilder film on my Blindspot [first one was The Apartment] and the fourth film of his I’ve seen, which happens to be the fourth film he directed. It’s also the first Barbara Stanwyck movie I saw as well as my first viewing of Fred MacMurray in the lead role. Ok now that we’ve got the stats out of the way, let me tell you that I LOVED it! Some people say it’s one of the best Hollywood noir films and it’s currently ranked #29 Greatest Movie of All Time by AFI. Well, I’d say it lives up to the hype.
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The story is quite simple and easy to follow, though there are twists as the story goes on that makes it all the more intriguing, even if it’s a tad predictable. The gist of the story is this: MacMurray is Walter Neff, an insurance agent who upon meeting the sultry wife of his client somehow got himself talked into a murderous insurance fraud scheme. Double Indemnity refers to a life insurance policy clause where the payout doubles when the recipient dies of an accidental death. The film begins with Walter going into his office at night and starts talking into a Dictaphone Machine. In the shadowy B&W lighting, I slowly notice he has been hurt and that he’s making a confession of a crime he’s committed. The story then goes into flashback mode that clues the audience into just what has happened to Walter and why he’s confessing it all.

It’s a By the time Walter Neff realizes he’s been ensnared by her deceitful net, it was all too late. In a way, I too felt like I had been played by Phyllis into thinking she had been wronged by her husband. But of course as the story unfolds, we learn that Phyllis has been planning this scheme all along and it’s not the first time she’s done something like this. I have to say that the romance isn’t particularly gripping, though the flirtatious banter the first time they meet is quite amusing. It’s obvious Walter was lusting after Phyllis the second he saw her during his routine house call.

“I was thinking about that dame upstairs, and the way she had looked at me, and I wanted to see her again, close, without that silly staircase between us.”

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The dialog sounds a bit cheesy and simplistic at times, it made me laugh how Walter kept calling Phyllis baby. But both actors fit the role nicely, and they do look good together even if the chemistry isn’t exactly scorching. What I do enjoy is the dialog between Walter and his claims adjuster colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). I’ve only seen Robinson in The Ten Commandments as Moses’ adversary Dathan, but he’s the kind of scene-stealing character actor who lights up any scene. He reminds me of Claude Rains in Casablanca, one of my fave performances of all time. At first Keyes seems to be on Walter-Phyllis side, unknowingly working in their favor when he insisted that Phyllis’ husband’s death wasn’t a suicide. Little did they know soon he became their biggest *adversary* that puts their evil scheme in jeopardy. I LOVE this part when Keyes laid it out on Walter that he isn’t easily fooled… and once he’s on to something, he wouldn’t ever let it go.

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Barton Keyes: Eh? There it is, Walter. It’s beginning to come apart at the seams already. Murder’s never perfect. Always comes apart sooner or later, and when two people are involved it’s usually sooner. Now we know the Dietrichson dame is in it *and* a somebody else. Pretty soon, we’ll know who that somebody else is. He’ll show. He’s got to show. Sometime, somewhere, they’ve got to meet. Their emotions are all kicked up. Whether it’s love or hate doesn’t matter; they can’t keep away from each other. They may think it’s twice as safe because there’s two of them [chuckles]

Barton Keyes: but it isn’t twice as safe. It’s ten times twice as dangerous. They’ve committed a *murder*! And it’s not like taking a trolley ride together where they can get off at different stops. They’re stuck with each other and they got to ride all the way to the end of the line and it’s a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery. She put in her claim… I’m gonna throw it right back at her. [Walter hands Keyes a light]

Barton Keyes: Let her sue us if she dares. I’ll be ready for her *and* that somebody else. They’ll be digging their own graves.

I love how quickly the table’s turned on Walter/Phyllis, it’s inevitable yet the film manages to create some suspense thanks to Wilder’s direction. There are many iconic scenes here, the store scenes where Walter & Phyllis secretly meet and the scene at Walter’s apartment when Barton drops by unexpectedly come to mind. They both are laden with tension despite not having much action going on.

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The story immediately grabs me, just like The Apartment was. It must be Billy Wilder’s gift to create such a compelling intro. Of course it helps having celebrated crime novelist Raymond Chandler co-writing the screenplay. Though it was only his fourth film, I could see why this was regarded as one of Wilder’s best work. The way the story flows, combined with Miklós Rózsa‘s unsettling score and John F. Seitz‘s stunning cinematography, this film is as captivating as its femme fatale. Barbara Stanwyck‘s Phyllis Dietrichson is beautiful and seductive, but there’s still a certain softness about her that somehow camouflages her wickedness. Stanwyck isn’t over-the-top in her portrayal either, the way some of today’s femme fatale might play someone like her. Think of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct for example, or even Eva Green in the Sin City sequel, Stanwyck’s charm and seduction is a lot more subtle, though definitely not less lethal.

I have to mention the cinematography again here as it really enhances the mood of the film. I read in Wikipedia Seitz used a lighting technique called the “venetian blind” which almost gives the illusion of prison bars trapping the characters. Stanwyck later reflected, “…and for an actress, let me tell you the way those sets were lit, the house, Walter’s apartment, those dark shadows, those slices of harsh light at strange angles – all that helped my performance. The way Billy staged it and John Seitz lit it, it was all one sensational mood.” MacMurray was terrific as well, no wonder my friend Jack D. dedicated a post to him as a superb louse. I love the scenes when his conscience is creeping up on him … “I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.” 

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I’m impressed once again by Wilder’s work here. It’s amazing that this is his first ever thriller as it’s now been regarded as one of the most important film in its noir genre. Though there is very little action in this film, but it’s far from boring. It’s the quintessential film noir driven by story and character, not laden with violence but lacking in real suspense *cough* Sin City 2 *cough* Apparently Stanwyck’s character set the mold of unforgettable femme fatale, and signals a noir trend centered on women of questionable virtue.

The trifecta of main actors: Stanwyck, MacMurray and Robinson are all superb. Everything about this film just works, so I’m surprised it didn’t win any of the seven Oscar nominations. I even like the small details such as the lighter, how Walter often lights Barton’s cigarette. It sort of becomes a thing between the two of them, and in the finale, it’s Barton who lights Walter’s cigarette in his moment of desperation. Whilst the film’s main focus was on the unholy romance of Walter & Phyllis, there’s also a story of friendship between the two men. In a way, his friendship with Barton might’ve given Walter his conscience back. I also learned from Wiki that the ending is different from James M. Cain‘s novel it’s based on, but the author was actually pleased with it.

I’m glad I finally got to see it. I could see how this film inspires countless imitation, in terms of story and character development. Few could match the brilliance of Wilder’s noir masterpiece.

4.5 out of 5 reels


BlindSpotSeriesSidebarCheck out my previous 2014 Blind Spot reviews


So have you seen Double Indemnity? I’d love to hear what you think!