Counting down to TCFF: ‘Ruby Sparks’ Review and Q&A

In about three months time, one of the most exciting event in my neck of the woods is touching down. YES, the Twin Cities Film Fest starts on FRIDAY, October 12 through Saturday, Oct. 20!

For more info, click on the banner to go to the official site and also LIKE TCFF on Facebook!


I’ve always loved a movie about writers. And the premise of Ruby Sparks no doubt intrigues me:

A novelist struggling with writer’s block finds romance in a most unusual way: by creating a female character he thinks will love him, then willing her into existence.

Now, what writer hasn’t dreamed of having this happens to them? Especially when one of your characters has all the criteria of the man/woman of your dreams ūüėČ But as Calvin Weir-Fields finds out, it’s a lot trickier than you think. At first glance, this movie shares some similarities with¬†Stranger than Fiction, but with a few twists on its own. Whilst the Will Ferrell movie focuses on the character who finds himself the subject of narration only he can hear, this one focuses more on the writer.

Paul Dano stars as Calvin, a young writer who’s under pressure to relive his shining moment of having a New York Times best seller before he turns 20, but now suffers from a massive writer’s block. The way he portrays that agony is spot on and I immediately empathize with his character. One day Calvin sort of got his mojo back after having a vivid dream about a girl. Ruby Sparks is the name of that ‘dream’ girl, the protagonist of Calvin’s narration ‚Äď a vivacious, bubbly red head, played with an infectious zest for life by Zoe Kazan. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, there she is! A living, breathing person who looks and sounds just like how he’s imagined her.

The moment Ruby enters Calvin’s life, hilarity ensues. Calvin is downright flabbergasted but Ruby is baffled by his reaction and acts as if she has always been living in his house the whole time. It’s a hilarious and endearing, funny and touching at the same time. Both Dano and Kazan played their part convincingly.

Some of the funniest moments also comes from Calvin’s married brother, Harry (Chris Messina), a stereotypical guy’s guy who thinks Calvin ought to get out more. He’s the only one who’s read Calvin’s unpublished draft about Ruby, so the moment they all meet over dinner is a hoot! They find out that Calvin can make Ruby do ANYTHING he wants, just as soon as he types it into the story. She can speak French, be a gourmet chef, etc. and of course the first thing Harry thinks of is all the um, physical alterations Calvin can do on Ruby, and basically whatever a man would want their dream girl to be and do for them.

Whilst it has plenty of amusing moments, things aren’t always so rosy. In fact, there’s a lot of dark moments here that merits its R rating. In many ways, the tone and themes are similar to Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris‚Äô 2006 debut, Little Miss Sunshine where thigh-slapping humor are seamlessly mixed with intense pathos and emotional anguish. In fact, there is a fight scene towards the end of the film that is so raw, intense and utterly gut-wrenching.

The acting is top notch here. The two young cast, Dano and Kazan, definitely carry the film with aplomb. They have amazing chemistry together, Ruby’s spunky-ness perfectly balances Calvin’s awkward, somewhat socially-inept self. The supporting cast add richness to the story: Annette Bening plays Calvin’s sympathetic, free-spirited mom, Antonio Banderas as her warm, carpenter boyfriend and Elliot Gould as his therapist. Steve Coogan and True Blood‘s Deborah Ann-Woll had bit parts but are memorable despite their brief screen time.

My only issue with the film is the predictable and rather saccharine-sweet ending. I feel like if it had ended just a few minutes before the final scene, it would’ve been perfect for me. I kind of like a little bit of uncertainty at the end, where things are not always neatly tied with a big, red bow. Still, Ruby Sparks is a well-written, engaging love story.

Final Thoughts: I highly recommend this one, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry and definitely enjoy the performances. As Dayton and Farris used to be music video directors, the use of music is also compelling here, I’m sure the soundtrack is equally charming. Props for Zoe Kazan for writing an offbeat love story that feels refreshingly authentic, which is rare to see. It reminds me a bit of (500) Days of Summer, but to me, Zoe Kazan is far more endearing than Zooey Deschanel.

4.5 out of 5 reels


Summary of the TCFF Q&A with the filmmakers and leading cast:

I saw this last Monday July 16, and what a pleasant surprise to see both filmmakers and the two leading cast, Zoe and Paul were in town to promote the movie! I knew TCFF had announced there’ll be a Q&A afterwards but I didn’t think the cast would be there. TCFF executive director Jatin Setia moderated the event.

One question from the audience was about the believable chemistry between the two leading cast. Well, straight from Paul himself, apparently he and Zoe are dating. Zoe is just as bubbly in person as she is in the film, which is cute to see. I realized shortly afterwards that she is the grand-daughter of Elia Kazan! Obviously she shared his talent and I do think she has a bright future in Hollywood.

Paul seems more introverted and shy, and this is the second time he collaborates with the husband-and-wife directing duo as he previously starred as the reclusive, Nietzsche-obsessed teen in Little Miss Sunshine.

I asked Paul how he portrayed the novelist persona so convincingly, especially in conveying the writer’s block with such agony. I told him that though I knew he was an amazing actor, I wonder if he did any extensive research on that, y’know, like following a real novelist for a week or something like that.

Well, apparently he didn’t. Paul explained in his modest manner that he as an actor, he could easily empathize with a writer’s plight as he put it, ‘we’re artists who live and die by their work.’ He said that it can be extremely agonizing for an artist to be required to produce something creative, whether it’s a narration or performance, in a given allotted time in order to meet deadline. I thought that was a cool answer!

One insight I got from the filmmakers on the music was the fact that their experience as music video directors comes in handy in that they’ve become quite efficient in their film productions. They also understand the importance of music in film, so even on a paltry budget of $8 million, they had a 60-piece orchestra for the soundtrack!

Paul Dano complimented the filmmakers in that on top of being musically and visually gifted directors, Dayton and Farris also have a keen talent for story and character, which definitely shows in Ruby Sparks!

What’s next for Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan?

Paul’s been steadily turning up great work in a relatively short career. He’s worked with renowned directors like Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) and Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are). At the Q&A he said that from Minneapolis he’d be off to Louisiana to film Twelve Years A Slave with Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch (wow!) for British director ‘du jour’ Steve McQueen. He’ll also be seen in Looper with equally gifted young actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

This is the first time I saw Zoe Kazan on film, but she’s got almost two dozen TV/movie work under her belt. She’ll be starring with Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe in an upcoming romantic comedy The F-Word.

Ruby Sparks filmmaker/cast with TCFF staff

Thanks to TCFF and Allied Integrated Marketing for bringing such a special screening to Minneapolis!


Thoughts on the movie and/or the talents involved? Let’s hear it in the comments.

Monthly Roundup: March Movie-Watching Recap

Though I’ve been blogging for over 2 years now, I’ve never actually done a monthly movie-watching recap before. But I’ve been inspired by Eric,¬†Andy, Diana and Andina¬†so from now on, I’m going to do this on the first or second day of the month.

Like Diana said on her post, I too feel so diminutive seeing how many more films my fellow bloggers see in a given month! I count myself lucky if I got to see four movies in a week, and this weekend I was hoping to see Carnage or Whistleblower but ended with a big fat zero as I was busy all day Friday and went to an Indonesian Festival at the University of Minnesota on Saturday.

Anyway here are the movies I saw in March:

  1. My Week with Marilyn
  2. Hunger Games
  3. Casablanca
  4. Three Musketeers
  5. Lambent Fuse
  6. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
  7. Senna
  8. Breaking Dawn
  9. Puss in Boots
  10. Contagion

Re-watch:

Favorite March Movie:

I’d say it’s a tie between Casablanca and Senna, they’re two very different films but both made a tremendous impression on me. I still plan on doing an appreciation post for Casablanca sometime this month.

So this month I only saw a total of ten new films [gasp!] with about three that I re-watched, bringing the total to a whopping… thirteen! [wince] Yes I know, it’s VERY low for even a common moviegoer, let alone a movie blogger!! I am hoping to see more movies each month and maybe even add one or two movies on week nights. Well the nice thing is, I was actually able to review most of the films I saw, whilst I still haven’t got around to reviewing a few of the movies I saw around the holidays (December/January), such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse. I’ll do mini reviews of those films I mentioned in the near future.

Well, my goal is to watch 100 new films by the end of the year (by *new* I mean films I had not seen before, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be a contemporary film released in 2021). So far I’ve seen 19 of those this year, which means I have to see an average of 10 films every month if I were to hit my goal ūüėÄ


Well, surely the lot of you saw way more films than I did. So what’s your favorite film(s) you saw in March?

Double Screening Reviews: Jeff Who Lives At Home & Salmon Fishing in The Yemen

Happy Thursday all! Today I bring you two mini reviews that my friend Haley and I saw at an advanced screening this week.

Jeff, Who Lives At Home

Directors: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Stars: Jason Segel, Ed Helms and Judy Greer

Let me preface by saying I’m no writer, in fact a sheer sense of panic set in when Ruth asked me to write a review for her blog. I’m also no film connoisseur, but I am a visual person and movies are stories in pictures, I love that. Also, someone once told me that life begins when you step outside your comfort zone, so here goes…

So last night, I went with a group of 5 to a screening of Jeff, Who Lives at Home at the Lagoon Cinema in Uptown, Minneapolis. I must say, it was a far cry from Steve McQueen’s Shame I saw a couple of weeks prior that left me feeling uncomfortable, dirty and a overwhelmingly unsettled. But this isn’t about Shame…I still don’t know how I feel about that one.

The consensus for Jeff, Who Lives at Home was determined unanimously over post-movie drinks to be “Almost great”. Although it all left us with warm fuzzies and wondering what signs in our lives we may have been ignoring, it certainly wasn’t what we had expected. So many movies these days market themselves as comedies, cause everyone likes to laugh and feel good, but this was a different approach and may very well have been the best way to get people into the theater with a cast of comedians. It was funny, don’t get me wrong, and there was probably even one too many jokes about the unusually large size of Jason Segel, but definitely more of a drama than a comedy.

One of my friends proclaimed “Well, I liked it and I usually hate most movies”, so even with the toughest critics it seemed to hit some sort of chord. Despite not being great and not quite what we were expecting it was good. And as much as the yogi in me wants to trust in everything and have faith in the universe that eventually our destiny will be revealed I also sympathize with the skeptics and realists in the world that have been burned too many times by trusting in their optimism.

So if you are looking to be uplifted, laugh a little and almost shed a tear at the end, then this movie is for you. If you ever find yourself wondering if that little seemingly insignificant thing that happened to you today meant something more, than this movie is for you. If you have ever found yourself searching for meaning in life and know you were meant for great things that just haven’t revealed themselves yet, then this is for you. If you are looking for a naked Jason Segel and toothless Ed Helms then you may be somewhat disappointed. But for all the dreamers and optimists (or wannabes) in search of inspiration and happiness we so desperately need in our lives, this is a flick that shouldn’t be missed. Not to mention, I’ve always secretly wished Susan Sarandon was my Mom.

3 out of 5 reels

Review by Haley K.


Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Director: Lasse Hallström
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Amr Waked, Kristin Scott Thomas

This movie is one of my most anticipated films I listed on this post, so when I got advanced screening tickets from my pal Ted, I was very excited. Thankfully it did not disappoint!

The one thing that grabbed me right away is the bizarre story, based on a novel of the same name by Paul Torday. I mean Salmon fishing in Yemen?? I mean how could the species that thrive in cold water survive in the hot climate of the Middle East??

Well, the protagonist Fred Jones (McGregor), a fisheries expert for the British government, ponders the exact same thing when he receives this peculiar request. His first meeting with a rep for a wealthy sheik (Blunt) at her office is quite a hoot to watch, especially the scene of him illustrating the impossibility of this project and making up some incredibly high amount of money (50 million Pounds!) in attempt to dissuade the sheik. But obviously money is no object and the sheik is willing to do whatever it takes to make this happen.

The sheik (Waked) mentions the notion of faith frequently to the atheistic Jones, challenging him that there’s more to life than ‘facts and figures.’ It’s not so much faith in religious terms so much as a conviction and believing that something could happen against all odds. The Egyptian-born Waked is so darn charismatic and charming, perfectly cast as a kind and wise Arab royalty who actually has a purpose for this seemingly preposterous project and not simply to indulge on his salmon fishing hobby.

This film is quite tricky to categorize, I mean it’s sold as a rom-com but there are elements of environmentalism, foreign relations and even terrorism, though not in a way you’d expect. In fact, it’s a rare film where a wealthy Arab is portrayed in a positive light and breaks the stereotype that not all of them want to blow up the West.

The casting is definitely a strong point here. McGregor and Blunt have a sweet chemistry together, and their slow-burn romance is wonderful to watch. Blunt has a more emotional performance here, which works pretty well against the more deadpan McGregor. I definitely enjoy seeing Scott Thomas in a comedic role as an over-zealous Britain Press Secretary. She’s so sarcastic it’s downright cruel, bossing everyone around including her own boss the Prime Minister. The iPhone chat between the two is pretty funny, but her reaction seeing the Arab guards dressed in Scottish kilts at the sheik’s castle prompted the most laughter, ‘Oooh, happy birthday Patricia!’

Aside from the few surprising twists and the quirky premise, this movie doesn’t really break new grounds. A lot of the scenes are quite predictable, but Swedish director Lasse Hallstr√∂m’s direction made for an enjoyable and heart-warming movie. There are also gorgeous scenery of the Scottish highlands (and the sheik’s sprawling estate) and also Morocco which subs for Yemen.

So yeah, Salmon Fishing in Yemen is a fun catch (pardon the pun). It probably won’t be as fondly remembered as Chocolat, but I don’t even mind renting this again one day on DVD.

4 out of 5 reels


Have you seen any of these? If not, do either of them appeal to you?

Rental Pick: Bride & Prejudice (2004)

This review is part of Impassioned Cinema‘s Romance February¬†Event. Check out this hub page for more romance films’ reviews from other bloggers.

As a fan of the Austen’s most celebrated novel, naturally my interest is piqued when I first heard about this project. I’m actually not a big fan of Bollywood musicals, even though it’s massively popular in my home country, but as Roger Ebert put it, this is not a Bollywood movie, but a Hollywood musical comedy incorporating Bollywood elements. It’s an amusing review as Mr. Ebert seemed to be distracted by miss Aishwarya Rai‘s beauty as he’s writing it, but really, who can blame him??

Former miss Word 1994 Rai lights up the screen as the Indian Lizzy Bennet, she gained 20 pounds to play this role in order to look more ‘plain,’ though like the Keira Knightly in the Joe Wright version of Pride & Prejudice, she is a far cry from being a plain jane. Despite that, I think Rai is able to capture the strong-willed as well as vulnerability of Lizzy Bennet and there’s certain warmth about her in the scenes with her sisters.

I like Gurinder Chadha’s previous work, a soccer rom-com Bend It Like Beckham, which also deals about bending the rules of society. This time Chadha takes on Austen’s classic tale, in which the protagonist’s mother is eager to find suitable husbands for her four unmarried daughters. Chadha stayed pretty closely to the original story, even the Indian names for the characters are somewhat similar ‚Äď the Bennets are now the Bhakshis, Mr. Collins is Mr. Kholi, and Bingley is Balraj, etc., only Darcy and Wickham are the only names kept for the original.

This is the first time I saw miss Rai on film as it’s her first movie done entirely in English and found her to be very charming and stunning beyond belief. I think Julia Roberts once called her the most beautiful woman in the world and it’s a fitting title. New Zealand actor Martin Henderson with dimples to die for is convincing enough as Mr. Darcy though he doesn’t have the charisma of Colin Firth or even Matthew MacFadyen. Still I think the¬†two protagonists have a sweet chemistry.

Another thing I love about this movie is the hilarious supporting cast, especially actors playing Mrs. Bakshi and the Bakshi’s distant relative who’s matched up with Lalita, Mr. Kholi (Nitin Ganatra). Ganatra is especially hilarious as the Westernized businessman who prides himself in his success as a hotelier in L.A. The way he’s trying to woo Lalita will have you in stitches! Fans of the TV series LOST and ROME will recognize Naveen Andrews and Indira Varma playing brother and sister. Naveen is such a charismatic actor and a pretty awesome dancer as well!

One thing that wasn’t done as well is the relationship between the devious Mr. Wickham (Daniel Gillies, you might recognize him as Kirsten Dunst’s fiancee in Spider-man 2) and Lalita. Chadha took much more liberty on that storyline what with the chase that involve the London Eye and scuffle between Darcy & Wickham, but still the essence of the story about him running off with Lalita’s younger sis was there.

The filmmaker doesn’t take things too seriously, silly moments of grandios proportion are done in tongue-in-cheek fashion, such as the scene on the beach when Darcy and Lalita took a stroll, suddenly¬†a ridiculously large gospel choir serenading them, joined by a group of California surfers swaying their surfboards! The hilarious cultural comedy when Lalita’s youngest sister performed the cobra dance that almost gave Darcy a heart attack is a hoot, too!

Any fans of Austen should be entertained by this movie.¬†It’s a classic comedy of manners done in the most jubilant way. The script is skillfully written to account for not only the class systems.¬†If you think the poster looks vibrant and festive, the movie lives up to it. There are quite a few song and dance sequences and characters do burst into song and dances in the middle of the scenes, but they’re balanced by a witty script and a dynamic pace. Incredibly colorful and unabashedly effervescent, no matter what mood you’re in, it’s tough not to be buoyed by the feverish energy of this movie. I like this movie so much that it’s one of the¬†8 movies I’d bring if I were stranded on a desert island.

Check out the trailer below:



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

Classic Flix Review: Bonnie & Clyde

jackdethbanner

Greetings all and sundry! I am pleased to have the opportunity to approach and dissect in my own unique fashion one of  those films that arrives with not a lot of noise and hoopla. Takes the movie going audience by storm and creates a solid touchstone for actors and actresses no one has ever heard of before and plants them solidly in the cinematic firmament.
…¬†

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Directed masterfully with gusto and elan by Arthur Penn, wrapped tightly around the comely Faye Dunaway and roguishly¬†handsome Warren Beatty. The film is an admirable blend of Depression era period piece. Clever doses of French New Wave¬†Cinema. Grainy, washed out backdrops. Sweaty, humid bedroom scenes¬†and good old fashioned Shoot ’em Ups.
The film begins with Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker waking from an afternoon nap due to noises outside her upstairs bedroom¬†window. Only to spy a very nattily dressed Clyde Barrow trying to hot wire the car belonging to Bonnie mother. Bonnie confronts¬†Clyde, who is a sly smooth talker of the highest order. And cajoles Bonnie into the idea that spending time with him beats the heck¬†out of showing up for her shift as a waitress at a local restaurant.
The two head off for a future unknown as Clyde hints at his past and reveals a the butt of a pistol above his belt line. A scheme is hatched as the two roll into a close by town and Clyde enters the bank. Bonnie waits behind the wheel. Clyde returns in much more of a hurry than when he sauntered into the bank. Bonnie drives and the two are richer by just under one hundred dollars.
Bonnie teases and taunts Clyde, The two wind up in bed littered with bills of small denomination and Bonnie decides that she¬†wants to get in on the fun too! A wheel man and mechanic is happened upon. C.W. Moss, by name.Well and dullardly played by¬†Michael J. Pollard, of the¬†perpetual¬†baby face. C.W. may not know how to make or count change, but he does know engines and¬†becomes the third member of the ‘Barrow Gang’.¬†Quickly augmented by Clyde’s older brother, Buck and his wife, Blanche. Well and memorably played by Gene Hackman and¬†Estelle Parsons.
Clyde, Buck and Bonnie get along well enough. Though Blanche grates on the nerves. Not wanting to get in on the fun of being modern Robin Hoods. Then taking out her aggression on Bonnie and C.W. Buck has his work cut out for himself trying to keep Blanche in line as bigger banks are robbed. One ending with a pursuing bank manager jumping on the running board of the escaping getaway car and being shot in the face for his efforts.
The game has been changed and the ire of the law. Local, state and fledgling federal, has been stirred as the gang moves from¬†Oklahoma to Texas between robberies and getaways to banjo picking Bluegrass. One step ahead of the law that relies upon¬†telephone and telegraph lines to maintain pursuit. Bigger and better weapons are sought and¬†acquired after a tete a tete with a Texas¬†Ranger they’d gotten the drop on. Humiliated and photographed. And an impromptu, humorous taking of a car owned by Gene¬†Wilder as a¬†mortician.
Enter a dark, humid and quiet night. When every local lawman in the vicinity and beyond unloads on Bonnie, Clyde, Buck, Blanche and C.W. in their wooded cabin west of nowhere. Windows shatter and holes appear in walls. Fire is returned by Thompson Sub Machine Guns, shotguns, pistols and Browning Automatic Rifles. Bonnie reloads and Blanche panics and screams like a Banshee as she is shot. Buck is shot badly and dies shortly thereafter. Clyde is wounded, Blanche is blinded and captured as Bonnie, Clyde and C.W. get away.
Bonnie tends to Clyde’s through-and-through wound with a willow branch wrapped in gauze. C.W. steals a car and the three make¬†off to the Oklahoma dust bowl. While the Texas Ranger who had been humiliated. Well played by Denver Pyle for his brief time on¬†screen; is brought in to¬†interrogate Blanche. Things head¬†south as Clyde recuperates in a shanty town and the three head off to C.W.’s¬†distant uncle¬†somewhere in Louisiana. C.W is taken into custody¬†without incident by local lawmen, who at first mistake C.W. for¬†Pretty Boy Floyd. With the¬†covert help of his uncle Ivan in a cameo by Dub Taylor.
Bonnie feels the walls starting to close in and pens a prophetic poem while laying low. The two decide to see what the town has to offer and roll up on a car with a flat tire being tended to. Clyde slows and stops. Gets out and notices a preponderance of rifle and shotgun muzzles peeking through a line of vines and shrubbery. Then becomes the recipient of many, many bullets and pieces of buck shot while Bonnie is trapped in the car doing an odd variation of the Funky Chicken in a prolonged, slow motion dance of death.

What Makes This Film Good?

Arthur Penn at the helm. Telling a decent, though highly romanticized story that did not fare well as B Movie with Dorothy Provine a decade earlier. Penn reaches deep into his bag of tricks and amps up the chemistry between Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Who, one moment is a coquette and the next displays a sensual assertiveness that would come to fruition later in The Thomas Crown Affair, Chinatown and Network.
Many early interior scenes are back lit with diffused shadows. Several exterior scenes range from lush to stark and barren with shadows supplied by clouds. In ways reminiscent of John Ford and French New Wave as Clyde chases Bonnie through a fallow corn field.
Set direction and cinematography are far above average. Adding washed out blues, grays and greens to heighten the effects of a well researched and executed period piece. The banjo heavy Bluegrass tracts during assorted chase scenes works very well and started a minor resurgence for a few months afterward. Making the soundtrack something of an anomaly during the second term of LBJ. Which may have created the impetus to double bill Bonnie and Clyde with Bullitt during the summers of 1968 and 69.

What Makes This Film Great?

Watching a young and confident Warren Beatty transition from his television role as spoiled rich kid, Milton Armitage in¬†The Many¬†Loves of Dobie Gillis¬†to play a sly and conniving leading ladies’ man.¬†Opposite another rising talent graduating from doing yeoman work¬†in small television roles and¬†Hurry Sundown¬†and¬†The Happening¬†earlier that year. Backed up by a soon-to-be-noticed Gene Hackman and¬†Estelle Parsons, and veteran character actors Denver Pyle and Dub¬†Taylor. In a¬†film that jump started several careers, ala¬†The¬†Magnificent Seven.
Offered a plum opportunity for Beatty to produce and Penn to direct a character driven film very much of its time. That probably could not be made today without many more chase scenes and explosions!


Check out Jack’s profile page and links to his other reviews


Thoughts on this film? Do share ’em in the comments.

Weekend Viewing Roundup: Margin Call and Another Earth

It’s been almost a month since I’ve last been to the cinema, but it’s customary for January as the new releases don’t interest me. I’m quite surprised to see the raves for The Grey however, Dan over @ FogsMovieReviews gave it a solid A, though Terrence @ The Focus Filmographer wasn’t as enthused about it. In any case, it proves to be quite popular this weekend as it took the number 1 spot with $20 million!

Well, for me it’s a weekend to catch up on recent DVD releases that I’ve been curious about. One of them actually nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. So let’s start with that one, shall we?

MARGIN CALL

Now, this film can be fittingly called ’24’ as the plot takes place over a 24-hour period during the early stages of financial meltdown a few years ago. The story can’t be more timely with the ongoing¬†Occupy Wall Street movement that continue to spread all over the country.

The key players work at a nameless investment bank in New York City.¬†It begins with the lay-off of a veteran risk management executive named Eric Dale (the always excellent Stanley Tucci). As he’s escorted out of the building, he hands over a flash drive to his subordinate¬†Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) with a word of caution, ‘be careful.’

If I were Peter, I’d do exactly what he did, which is find out just what the heck is on that drive. The severe reaction written on Peter’s face after he’s done processing the data that Dale started clues us in to just how significant his boss’ warning really is.¬†What this data tells us is that the firm has been sitting on a large pile of liquid assets that are worth less than they ought to, which means the firm will owe far more than what they own, what they’ll do with that predicament not only threatens the markets stability but also triggers financial meltdown.

I’m glad I rented this movie as I don’t think I’d be able to get all the trading jargons here without using subtitles, though I think the filmmaker did a decent job in presenting them in layman’s terms. At the heart of this film isn’t the financial crisis itself, but how each player in question reacts to this given situation. I think writer/director J.C. Chandor is able to capture the moral compass if you will, of the main characters, which is the main strength of this film.

I’m truly impressed by Chandor’s direction and primarily the shrewd script, considering this is his first feature film. He’s also assembled a top notch cast: Oscar winners Jeremy Irons and Kevin Spacey and nominee Stanley Tucci are all superb in their roles. Spacey is a perfect fit in displaying a range of emotions his character goes through. Irons and Tucci’s screen time is considerably less than Spacey’s but both turn in memorable performance. Irons’ line that’s used as the tagline for this film, “Be first. Be smarter. Or cheat.” is such a chilling reminder just how ruthless and heartless these Wall Street folks are.

The younger cast are equally compelling. Most notably Zachary Quinto (in his signature stolid but sympathetic demeanor) as the rocket scientist (literally) who becomes a trader as the money is too good to pass up, and Paul Bettany as the senior trader who gives us a glimpse of the kind of life these yuppy bankers lead. He tells his colleague on the building rooftops as they’re waiting for the big honcho to arrive just what he spend his $2.5 millions he made in a given year. It’s disheartening to see just¬†how removed these kids are from the real world ‚ÄĒ they’re so occupied with numbers that sincere connection with fellow human beings has no place in their lives. In fact, money is nothing more than means of pleasure or a measure of worth ‚ÄĒ Penn Badgley‘s character’s obsession with how much people make is an obvious sign of that.

Margin Call a solid thriller that relies on a clever script and nuanced performances in place of special effects. The fact that this film had a paltry¬†$3 million budget and was shot within 17 days is all the more impressive. I do think it merits the Best Original Screenplay nod, I’m curious to see how it’d fare come Oscar time.

4Reels


ANOTHER EARTH

This is another small-budget film that delivers a sizable impact. What draws me in about this film isn’t the cast but the unique, implausible-yet-thought-provoking plot.

In a single day, the life of the protagonist Rhoda Williams, a bright high school graduate on her way to MIT,  is turned upside down by a tragic accident that kills a woman and child, and leaves the husband/father in a coma.

Though alcohol is certainly a factor as Rhoda just came home from a party, she’s actually distracted by the appearance of a new planet resembling earth that has moved into our solar system. Earth 2 as it’s called, supposedly contain a duplicate version of ourselves and its inhabitants mirror our earthly existence.

The film then jumps to the time when Rhoda leaves prison after serving her four-year sentence. Before long her path¬†crosses to that of the¬†Yale music professor John Burroughs who lost his family that very night. He’s recovered from his coma but understandably his life is never the same again. Clearly having lost his zest for life, his existence now consists of slouching in his sofa watching TV or playing video games. It’s inevitable that these two broken people end up being involved despite the unorthodox circumstances of their connection.

This is a sci-fi film done as a meditative human drama… there’s no CGI or technical mumbo jumbo, so don’t expect to see an extra-terrestrial creature of any kind, it’s just not that kind of sci-fi movie. The central themes are those of atonement and second chances.¬†Reminiscent to the theme of Joe Wright¬†Atonement, guilt-ridden and suicidal Rhoda has been hoping for a way to atone for her sins. By pretending to be a cleaning lady for John, she hopes that one day, that opportunity¬†will finally come. The fact that she likes to clean is also a metaphor for her attempt to ‘clean up her mess’ if you will.

The film not-so-subtly asks the beguiling question of¬†‘if you get the chance to see yourself as a third person, how would you feel or expect to see?’ ¬†It may not offer a satisfactory answer and the ‘whoa’ conclusion is more of a head-scratcher than anything else, but it certainly is an intriguing concept worth exploring.

Like Margin Call, this film also marks the directorial debut of its director Mike Cahill. It’s certainly a worthy first-time effort though his rather barren style is perhaps an acquired taste. The visuals does have a low-budget quality to it but it’s not exactly a detriment, in fact, the simplicity and starkness adds to its indie charm.

Relative newcomer Brit Marling who also co-wrote the script with Cahill, turns in a pretty affecting performance as Rhoda. She is beautiful in an earthly kind of way, her naturally tousled hair almost becomes a character in itself here along with her melancholy gaze. Character actor¬†William Mapother (Tom Cruise’s cousin) is pretty effective in displaying believable transformation from being morose to one who’s full of hope once again. The scene of him playing the solo musical saw to an audience of one is deeply moving. Thanks to SawLady who plays the saw in the soundtrack for sending me a link to this page, it’s definitely a soulful piece of music with a haunting quality about it.

I highly recommend this if you’re looking for an off-the-beaten path feature film.¬†It’s a slow-burn story done in a mind-numbingly quiet way that makes even¬†The Artist¬†seems deafening. But if you can get past its stillness and allegorical quirks, it certainly is worth a watch.

4Reels


So what did you see this weekend, my friends? Any thought on either one of these films, do share them in the comments.

Classic Flix Review: Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

Greetings and welcome to all and sundry. It’s my great pleasure to offer a Guest Review of a film I grew up with and have seen many, many times on television. With and without commercials. Though only a few times on the big screen. One of the great World War II films.

Winner of two Academy Awards. From 1949. Directed by Henry King. With Gregory Peck, Dean Jagger and stalwart of many 1950s Science Fiction films, Hugh Marlowe the focus of a large cast of seasoned, well versed character actors depicting life in a B-17 heavy bomber squadron attached to the Eight Air Force in the thick of Daylight Bombing Missions in 1942.

The film begins with mild mannered Dean Jagger’s Harvey Stovall stepping out of a post war London Haberdashery after¬†spending ‘A splendid hour and a half.’ selecting and purchasing a Bowler Derby. Satisfied, Harvey passes by an Antiques Shop¬†and notices something in the front display window. A keepsake from a bygone era. Another purchase is made and Harvey rides¬†his bicycle out along far off paths and roads. To what once was USAAF Archbury, home of the 918th Heavy Bomber Squadron.

The scene dissolves into the return of a group of B-17s. Fewer than had gone out. Some flying well. Others damaged and¬†straining to keep in the air. Crash crews and ambulances are scrambled as one bomber bellies in. Slides and grinds and comes to a¬†stop. Hatches open and the crew escapes. One seriously wounded airman is stretchered out and a medic enters the stricken hulk¬†and brings out something wrapped in a blanket. Another bad day after another tough miserable mission for the¬†918th. One of the¬†8th Air Force’s ‘Hard Luck Outfits’.

Arguments ensue during a somber debriefing. While just outside London a newly promoted Brigadier General Frank Savage is¬†in discussions with Generals of even higher rank. It seems that the 918th and other squadrons have hit the point of diminishing¬†returns. Losses on bombing missions are bad to staggering. Unit cohesion is suffering. Savage’s new orders are to relieve the 918th¬†of its Commanding Officer, Colonel Keith Davenport and do whatever is necessary to get the 918th back in the plus column.

Savage arrives with little aplomb to see just how bad things are. Lax security at the front gate. The squadron’s Executive and Air¬†Operations Officer, Lt. Colonel Ben Gately, is Absent Without Leave (AWOL) after Davenport has been relieved. Savage orders¬†Gately be put under arrest and goes over the assigned staff records until Gately arrives and reports¬† for a private dressing down.

Savage demotes Gately from Air Exec to Aircraft Commander and orders him to paint ‘Leper Colony’ on the nose of his assigned¬†bomber. To be crewed by Gately and any complainers, malingerers and those whose work is far below par. Because Gately rates¬†them. The only way off ‘Leper Colony’ is improvement!

There’s a new sheriff in town and the officers and crew discover the next morning as Savage lays down the law. Leaves are¬†canceled. No more combat missions until things improve. So, it’s back to fundamentals. Formation flying. Very tight. Very close.¬†And lots of it! The crews gripe and groan as they are dismissed.

The crews revolt of course, and the Orderly Room is flooded with Transfer Requests. Enter Major Harvey Stovall. A lawyer in¬†civilian life. Magnificently underplayed by Dean Jagger, who’s been sitting on the sidelines and slowly sizing up his new C.O. after having been earlier read the Riot Act. What he has seen, he likes so far. And an important alliance is formed as the bomber crews continue their griping and training.

Improvement occurs slowly but surely. Combat missions are scheduled. The officers’ Club is reopened and the keepsake from the¬†Antique Shop takes its place on the O Club’s mantle. Facing those inside when there would be mission the next day. The missions go out and the crews practice what they’ve learned about tight box formations of eight planes and utilizing each plane’s ten machine guns to keep German fighters away. Military Air Doctrine at work when long range escorting allied fighters were still months away.

The missions go deeper and deeper into France and finally, Germany! By now the crews feel as though they are part of something¬†bigger than themselves. Morale has improved and the squadron can hold its own with the enemy and takes bigger and bigger chances. Peck’s General Savage may still not be loved, but he is respected in spades! Men in unpressurized steel and aluminum¬† bombers will tempt death for him. Which was the overall objective of Savage’s assignment in the first place.

Which sets the table for a strategically important mission to bomb a ball bearing factory in Germany. All parts of the squadron are¬†functioning as a well-oiled machine. The planes are scarred, but are ready to go. The crews board their B-17s and…. I won’t go further than that. Lest we get into Spoiler Territory.

Now. What Makes This Film Good?

Ramrod straight, spit & polish Gregory Peck playing a by-the-book officer, much to the alarm and dismay of his newly-assigned¬†squadron. Who believe they have it rough until Peck’s General Savage shows them what rough really is! Peck’s Savage knows he’s¬†not been given the 918th to be loved. He’s been given it to punch holes in the sky until its B-17s stand a better than decent chance of¬† survival against the Luftwaffe. Then punch more holes in the sky to bomb Fortress Europe. If that means closing the Officers’ Club until further notice. And telling your men to forget about going home or someplace better and consider yourself already dead.

Savage is more than willing to do that. Since Savage understands that he is but one large sprocket in a much larger machine. With even larger sprockets above and smaller ones below which all need to mesh for the machine to operate.

The film’s beautifully lit, B&W photography fuses¬†subtly with the sunlight lit, spartan offices and adds to the overall power of the film. That meshes smoothly with the stock gun camera Dogfight footage of German Messerschmitts and Focke Wolf fighters for the brief times the 918th’s B-17s are airborne and over enemy territory. Some of the best aerial photography in film.

A large and impressive cast of secondary characters and their actors. Specifically, Gary Merrill’s Colonel¬†Keith Davenport, Hugh¬†Marlowe’s Lt. Col. Ben Gately and Paul Stewart’s ‘Doc’ Kaiser. Merrill’s Davenport is near to being burned out as the film begins.¬†Only to return on a later visit to see that Savage starts showing small signs of being where he was before being relieved.

Marlowe’s Lt. Col. Gately is a spoiled, privileged son and grandson of Army generals as the film begins. Though through many¬†weeks of the Savage Method, becomes his most ardent disciple. Even flying multiple combat missions with a chipped vertabra that¬†later results in bed rest and Traction. His transformation is subtle, but intriguing to behold.

Paul Stewart’s ‘Doc’ Kaiser is the quiet one in the group, Watching and discreetly reporting to Savage and later, Air Exec, Major¬†Stovall on the overall fitness of the crews and probably to the Big Brass in London on Savage’s fitness as well. Stewart is a past¬†master of under statement and doesn’t disappoint.

What Makes This Film Great?

Everything that makes it good. Plus Gregory Peck firmly wrapping himself around a figure of authority that will be visited time and again in future films. Particularly Captain Horatio Hornblower and Captain Newman, MD. Though much more rigidly as General Frank Savage. The scenes Peck shares with Dean Jagger are sometimes humorous, though completely believable and a treat to watch. As is the dialogue and Technical Direction. Kudos to the film’s director, Henry King for making parts of Eglin Air Force base in Florida and its Auxilliary, #3, Duke Field, which is in the middle of nowhere, for filling in for USAAF Archbury.

On an historic note, Twelve O’ Clock High has been used for decades after its release as a case study and training aid¬† in countless¬†military and private sector leadership seminars throughout the United States and the world. Specifically used to stimulate discussions regarding authority and respect for the chain of command. The film was nominated for the National Film Registry in 1949 and was selected for the Registry in 1998.
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Have you seen this film? Thoughts are welcome in the comments.