Where our gaze lies…{Black Mass, Dir. Scott Cooper}

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There is no denying that as film/television rose to its place in the homes and minds of pretty much everyone, one particular trope rose pretty steadily within it: the sympathetic villain. From Dexter Morgan to Walter White to Sweeney Todd, popular characters have pulled audiences in with charm and complexity, even as they commit horrific deeds. Some out there have begun to finger these glorified roles as the culprits of so much corruption in society; we like the bad guys a little too much, perhaps.

Scott Cooper’s Black Mass offers a refreshing antidote to the potential of that disturbing thesis. In Johnny Depp’s gorgeously terrifying return to Oscar Season, this time as infamous gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, Cooper presents to us a dangerous and entirely unloveable villain, a layered yet demonstrably sinister human being.

Whether this biopic, a story for whom many who were well-taken care of by Bulger may prove offensive, is true to the man’s character remains moot here. People will see the film. People will enjoy Depp’s powerhouse presence, his command of each scene. People will label him “bad-ass”. But people will also, if Cooper’s interpretation hits its mark, ultimately find him a terror, the sort of man you’d avoid, not invite in to talk about what makes him great.

To me, the point of such a film, meticulously tracking the labyrinthine rise and fall of men with too much power and not enough conscience, is in the witnessing. Black Mass may be action-packed, but it is by no means a thrill ride. Cooper’s adaptation of the literary historic account simply states: this was a remarkable moment in US history, a story that is worth telling if only to understand where justice takes its place for those characters we sometimes hold dangerously close. This film is not to be missed, nor is it to be simplified. Go bear witness.

Check out the trailer. 

Reflections on…{American Psycho The Musical, The Almeida Theatre}

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Okay, I know how it sounds. And its exactly how it sounds. And its bloody brilliant, pun intended. Director Rupert Goold delivers a tour de force of yuppie disillusionment via the original novel written by Bret Easton Ellis (it should be noted that this play is not based on the 2000 film starring Christian Bale, though it makes references that will please fans).

Matt Smith, British newcomer of Doctor Who fame, takes the lead as Patrick Bateman, 26-year-old Wall Streeter and part time serial killer we can’t help but begrudgingly feel for. Set and costume designers and musical composer collaborated seamlessly to recreate New York circa 1989. The result was chilling and quietly spectacular.

Smith was riveting: from his first entrance, rising out of a trapdoor (naked but for a pair of tight white briefs), he is presented as a picture of rock hard, metrosexual beauty. And Smith’s Bateman is just that: hard. His carefully toned physique is a shell, an armor of vanity. As the deep performance evolves, continuously interwoven with direct address to his audience, Smith proves more vulnerable in a two-button suit and tie than he ever was naked.

To my mind, this was thanks to his grasp of stillness and silence, layered over neuroses that creates an ebb and flow in the action. Smith’s gift is his ability to listen to his fellow actors, lending them those specific character choices, supporting every interaction with consistency.

The cast and ensemble were delightful to watch and listen to. Each actor entirely committed to their personality; their role in the show was humor, and caricatures were created to give Smith something to bounce off. This is not to diminish Smith’s own comic talent: his timing and ad-libbing with the audience balanced the dark and tragic underpinnings of the play’s pathos.

I found the score somewhat lacking: Duncan Sheik’s mirror image of 80’s electro-pop was effective in summoning that decadent decade, but occasionally the original songs fell into ruts, too repetitive to remain evocative. Despite this, the performers rocked the style and the energy. Smith’s final song ‘This is Not an Exit’ (a direct quote from Ellis’ novel) carried a weight that matched its transcendence. One might liken it to ‘Being Alive from Sondheim’s Company, if that show had in fact tracked the development of a psychopath and not a mild-mannered New Yorker.

The visual designs and lighting/projections effectively captured both the indulgence and minimalism of Bateman’s world. The artistic team masterfully dealt with telling a massive American fable in a small space.

On the whole, Psycho was moving, deliciously layered, and terrifyingly close to the heart; an invigorating renewal of a disturbingly poignant tale. The point, you ask? Take a look at Patrick Bateman’s own words on the point of his narrative… “I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning”. Whether that’s a reflection on our own interactions with society or not is entirely up to the audience…

Come Watch with Me! {Jane the Virgin, The CW}

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Telenovelas are nothing new. But Jane the Virgin will certainly convince you otherwise. Its leading lady’s infectious charm, frank and sweet in the form of the well-rounded Gina Rodriguez, keeps this surprise CW hit rooted in reality. At once a parody and celebration of the Telenovela style, the story itself adapted from a piece written in the Spanish-speaking dramatic format, Jane also manages to be something else entirely…

Jane is the inspiring saga of a young woman making her own decisions, (despite the universe’s attempts to the contrary). After being accidentally artificially inseminated, the titular star finds herself pregnant, despite her celibate status. What could be a rather horrifying chain of events tumbles instead into a fun roller-coaster ride through the tribulations of love and family. All this tightly calculated by a team of writers with tongues planted firmly in cheeks.

While I say fun, the show is by no means frivolous; it often surprises, balancing clearly satirical plot points pulled from the writers inspiracion with sweet moments of truthful drama.

What immediately stood out to me as I began watching (thank you, Hulu gods), was the primarily Latina and Latino cast: sure, this is a show based on a telenovela series, but the fact that this version has skyrocketed through the mainstream (and the awards circuit, thank you very much) speaks to our slow but steady inclusion of of-color characters and actors. Its about time.

If you’re still not sure about this little series that could, consider the premise I brought up earlier: here is a story of a girl who, overwhelmed by the accident that seemingly leaves her without the control of her own body, chooses what she believes, what she feels, and what she knows. No little comedy fodder in a “sexy virgin” Halloween getup. Instead, a kind, gracious, and genuine woman with a comic spark as bright as Mexican candy wrappers. She’s a keeper.

Check out the trailer. 

Watch this! {Don Jon, dir. Joseph Gordon Levitt}

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s first foray into writing/directing is like a single red velvet cupcake: deep, rich, a little heavy, but just enough to satisfy. Don Jon pulls no punches in its expressionistic look at a man’s uncertain exploration of true intimacy. When I say expressionistic, here’s what I mean: the film uses lighting effects, motifs, montages, and other visual tools to delve into the experience of its hero, the lovable lothario Jon, who Levitt plays with panache and commitment.

Levitt is to be applauded here. His unique (decidedly non-realistic) approach to cinematic storytelling makes for a film that is both uproariously entertaining and profoundly significant.

It is clear that Don Jon is meant to be a statement piece. And state it does, in big bold-faced letters: the most fulfilling experiences do not exist in any presupposed social expectation/normality. The most fulfilling experiences are conflicted, complex, deeper than a single sense like sight or touch can communicate. Given that pretty heady central theme, the writing is actually accessible, simple yet whip smart. Levitt’s script speaks plainly to our loss of intimate connection in today’s tech-obsessed world, where reality is TV and people view everything through the lens of their camera-phone.

While the opening credits run along with a montage depicting the increasingly ridiculous sexualization (if it ain’t a word, it sure should be) of women in the media, the film doesn’t shy away from a male struggle in Western society either. Men are not without their own oppressions and unfair expectations, and the film meditates on both sexes. It is the central role of Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore, and the dedication that Levitt shows them as director, that demonstrates this equality. (Watch out for a brilliant example of that gender equality in a scene between Levitt and Johansson in the third act!)

Don Jon isn’t about glorifying women or men. The message that Levitt delivers with utmost sincerity is not gendered at all: it is just human. At the end of the day, life isn’t intended for achieving perfection, status, an impossible idea. It’s just about making a connection.

Check out the trailer. 

Smashing Silence {Nirbhaya, Culture Project/Assembly}

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There will always exist those singular productions that shatter the walls of an audiences’ mind and explode our ideas of the purpose of theater. Writer/director Yael Farber’s Nirbhaya is one such production.

The word powerhouse comes to mind, but I hesitate to use it; it simply does not capture the depth and sheer, shocking immensity of this piece. Based on the personal experiences of its cast and a single, world-shaking act of violence, Nirbhaya takes an unflinching and unyielding look at the undeniable presence of violence against women.

The one act play sources its central drive from the act of gang-rape inflicted on Jyoti Singh Pandey, who was hospitalized and died several weeks later after a struggle to live and communicate. As news of the attack spread, thousands of New Delhi women and men flooded the streets, protesting a system and a culture that would allow such acts. Because Indian press will not publicize rape victims’ names, the growing crowds named their symbolic leader Nirbhaya, meaning “fearless” in Hindi.

The play does not simply document and bear witness to this event. Instead, inspired by those protests, the playwright has held up to the light other women’s stories of violence. The resulting message: silence is no longer an option. Shame is no longer acceptable. In a country that has for centuries encouraged the blaming of assault victims, something loud, powerful, and unstoppable has risen.

Farber’s poetic words and direction are at once invigorating, heartbreaking, and gut-wrenching. Each tale is given a voice, finally harmonizing in righteousness. The result is a contained whirlwind of furious energy.

This was not an easy play to experience or think about in hindsight. With each passing moment, the truth and sheer emotion rushing from the limbs of the performers reminded me of Nirbhaya‘s significance and message. We must witness the violence, if only that we may be spurred to change our world by speaking, by sharing, and by transforming our own way of living each day.

Please check out Breakthrough and the Culture Project and add your voice to the chorus. Keep an eye out for this internationally touring production. It has already sold out in box offices across several continents. This was inspirational.

Film Pharmacy

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I’m back! And this post is very happy to see you returning too–it told me so itself…

Well jeez, its been a while. And in the time since my last post, I’ve had a terrific lot of experiences, and discovered so many stories. This is why I’ve decided to shake things up a bit–instead of my usual essay style (I hope I didn’t freak you out with that stressful word), I’ll be posting in all sorts of different formats!

Today, I start with all these new stories I’ve seen in the cinema and at home: a prescription of unique and wonderful films for every mood and ailment you might find yourself experiencing. Here goes nothing…

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For those adventurous days 

Dog Food–written & directed by Brian Crano

Musical accompaniment for this prescription: The Puppy Song by Harry Nilsson

This short film conquered the indie world last year with screenings at 24 film festivals around the world. Hot damn! Dog Food packs 18 minutes and 18 seconds with suspense, honesty, and some curious questions about human kindness…Its a subtle yet stunning example of good story-telling, with an interesting visual palette and a whole lot to say. The small, talented cast heartily commits to the deceptively simple tale of an idealistic young man and his lost puppy.

Minimal is a word I could use to describe this one, but that would betray the incredibly taut quality that Crano and his crew draw out under that quiet surface. There is nothing small about pulling the strings of your heart tenser with every second. Watch this when you’re feeling courageous and want something a little different.

Make note: you can find this one for free on Youtube!

Check out the trailer.

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For those sad and blue days 

Paddington–written by Paul King & Hamish McColl, based on Michael Bond’s book series, directed by Paul King

Musical accompaniment for this prescription: London is the Place for Me by D-Lime

At some point, most of us stop enjoying a kids’ movie–they become silly, simple, or patronizing. This is not that movie. Paddington is a gleaming British gem, the moving and hilarious adaptation of the children’s classic book series. Marvelously designed, impeccably shot and edited, it is as sweet and colorful as the marmalade its hero scarfs down in paw-fuls.

A young but impeccably well-mannered bear attempts to find a new home in London, and has many thrilling and laugh-out-loud adventures along the road to family. Simple, but not basic. Though the film never talks down to its viewers, its message is clear: no matter where one comes from, everyone can feel a little different sometimes, and everyone can be loved for those differences. I think it’s that heart of the story that makes this film accessible to every age. That and the indelible, irrepressible spirit of that adorable little bear. An underdog tale with inventive direction and a familiar cast of British acting vets, this one will brighten your darkest moods with infectious joy.

Check out the trailer.

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For your inspirational ruts

Chef– written and directed by Jon Favreau

Musical accompaniment for this prescription: Hot Hot Hot by Buster Poindexter

Star auteur Jon Favreau took cooking classes from a master chef throughout this film’s shoot, and it’s that kind of earnest and passionate dedication that makes a low-budget love story resonate with honesty. The love in this case is between a father and son, the titular Favreau in a charmingly deadpan role and his little dude, a sweet and brilliant curly-topped kid. When dad is fired from chef-ing after standing up for creative freedom, his much-neglected family relationships get a delicious revival via the fateful appearance of a food truck in their lives.

Star-studded cameos and supporting cast delight and only further prove the irresistible nature of this little movie that could. An infectiously bouncy Latin soundtrack keeps the color and flavor flowing as much as the mouth-watering dishes littering the screen. Watch this film when you need an inspirational boost–let yourself fall in love with the passion, the imagination, and the deep, unbreakable love for food and family. Whatever your creative calling, you’ll see it reflected in the glowing eyes of Favreau, Anthony, and a hilarious John Leguizamo, and you might just feel an awakening to do your best at whatever you love. Best taken with a meal.

 Check out the trailer.

Info blast!

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Hi, my beautiful readers! 

Seeing as my university can’t seem to let me go and move on, I will be taking an online course to complete my degree for good this time. Unfortunately I can’t balance work and the course with writing, so it’ll be about 8 weeks before my next post. I hope you all have a happy 8 weeks worth of reading and writing! 

Ta for now!

 

What I Learned from the Train {Snowpiercer}

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My first impression of this film was the sheer epic nature of the whole thing. Bong Joon-Ho’s grand creation struck me as dark and poetic, a vast portent of humanity’s most hideous failings, and most beautiful heroics. But the more I thought on what I’d seen, the deeper the message grew for me.

Snowpiercer, adapted from a French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, considers the horrific repercussions of a renewed class system, when a failed attempt to slow global warming freezes all life on Earth, leaving the lucky few to scramble aboard a train set on an infinite loop. We plunge directly into the stirrings of a bloody lower class revolt, as reluctant hero Curtis doggedly moves his people forward from the squalid back-end of the train.

After maybe the third or fourth scene, when the war truly began, my roommate pointed out something fascinating: perspective and different shots through the film are almost exclusively lateral. Whenever Curtis makes an important decision, the camera views him in profile looking backward or forward. The push of the rebels to the front of the train enhances this linear constancy. Linear thought, perspective, movement, this is life in a train.

The only exception to this lateral energy is the handful of scenes taking place in the center of the train, where windows dot several compartments, and the scope of each scene seems to widen slightly.

*SPOILER ALERT*

When Curtis finally reaches the front, the walls close in again, and everything becomes a backward/forward negotiation of energy. It was those scenes in the center, moments of clarity lit by the snow outside, that became my “aha!” moment about that deeper significance of the story I mentioned in the beginning of this post before the rambling began. Where I had originally thought of the plot as a parable, a warning from humanity for humanity, it suddenly became all about balance. 

The front of the train, and its inhabitants, are just as unbalanced as their poor, cramped counterparts in the back; excess replaces desperation. First class is crowded with luxury, the tail end is crowded with bodies. There are no windows in either end. Only the middle cars enjoy any true clarity provided by the light of the outside world.

When I recognized this little facet of Snowpiercer‘s tremendous tale, it completely changed my perspective of the piece, and of the world I live in. Equilibrium is paramount–too much of anything breaks the cycle of a healthy, joyful life. If existence is a train, the best spot is the center car, where everything is illuminated.

Battle of the Ages: Ryan vs. Everdeen

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Music for this Post: Resistance by Muse

The best of American-made cinema, in all its many incarnations, has always boasted colloquialism; one would hope, in any case. Discursive topics over the years range from love and life’s meaning, to history and society. Western film often chooses bloodshed and the trauma it forges as two of these major themes. Over the years, violence, particularly the portrayal of battle, has evolved and, as far as interpretive meaning, intensified over time.

While most contemporary action fare seems to give no thought to the violence it espouses, the war film has meditated on the place of violence, sacrifice, and supposed heroism in society quite a bit.This is an action film of a different color, where the action serves these greater themes, rather than just occurring self-indulgently.

I noticed this developing change in two films I’ve seen in the last few years: Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Gary Ross’s The Hunger Games. The fact that one was written 14 years after the other speaks for itself in many ways; naturally, the style is vastly different, but inherently there is something deeper in the differences between them…

When compared back to back, Ryan and Hunger really speak to the changing opinions on the violence…sacrifice…heroism trope in society, something the military continuously exploits to this day. Both films exhibit violence as major centerpieces of their stories. However, Spielberg’s approach to the visual carnage in Ryan holds a vast contrast to Ross’ style.

The retrospective vision of war, based around the storming of Normandy circa WWII, is explicit and unflinching; several scenes are dedicated almost solely to body parts, viscera, and bloody explosions. It’s noteworthy that in the opening scene, the gore gets very close, the spray flies past the camera lens, before panning back to take in the scale of a World War; the violence isn’t celebrated or indulged, but instead bombards you as though you were there. The focus is on the soldiers’ increasingly horrifying experience, and their tireless effort to keep fighting despite the mounting odds. Spielberg tells us that these are brave men, heroes by a traditional standard of patriotic fervor. They’re fighting a generally universal foe here, and its hard not to root for them.

Ross’ Hunger holds a different interpretation of violence–it’s fairly demure in visual execution (no pun intended, for real). There is far less shock value in the way of persistent gory images. Instead, the violence comes in short bursts, or hardly at all. You might catch a spray of blood at the edge of a shot, or a quick cutaway from the use of a weapon. Images are blurred, obscured, and fleeting.

These seconds of brutality have their own brand of intensity. The handheld, docu-drama style of the camera work combined with those brief moments keeps you from ever really resolving what you see; you can’t process it, because it’s already gone, leaving a startling imprint on your eyes. With as much effect as Spielberg accomplished in communicating the scope and terror of a “heroic” war, Ross delivered a more contemporary statement: the sudden and pointless nature of murder.

Though it was written little more than a decade ago, Ryan is already a retrospective, both of our film culture and our societal opinions on war. As I said earlier, WWII was essentially a war everyone could get behind: stop the Nazis from scorching half the world’s population. The entire country banded together to defend truth, justice, and the American way. Ryan reads like a veteran tribute, a hard-hitting but honorable salute to the courageous thousands who gave their lives. While this is certainly an admirable choice for a film, it is no longer society’s focus, as evidenced by films like Hunger…

Hunger Games speaks for today, when rising numbers of citizens in several countries protest the continued waste of human life over international conflicts. We’re numbed by the violence that coats modern media, so instead the film focuses on the effects of violence, and how deeply it can shift a person’s experience.

Both of these films have been very invaluable to me in understanding how they help us relate to ourselves…as historical beings, as patriots, as individuals, and as a culture.