A Trip To The Movies – “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” 2.28.15

I’ll just flat-out start by saying this was probably the most highly original, inventive, and exciting film I’ve seen to have come along in a while. In fact, had it of come out last year, it wouldn’t most likely have, it would have, landed a coveted spot on my “best films of the year-end” list. What’s so interesting about this film is that it kind of came out of nowhere. In fact, I don’t even remember how I heard about it. Since I really don’t read any film news/review anymore that’s not where I took notice of it. I do however somewhat regularly look at cumulative scores and saw that this one was graded rather highly. Then I saw the name of the title and it piqued my interest. And merely based on that and that alone, plus seeing a tagline that it was “the first Iranian Vampire Western”, I thought to myself well at the very least this sounds interesting. What I “didn’t” know while watching it is that it’s an American film. Even though all of the characters in the film are Iranian actors who speak in the Persian language and it’s written and directed by an Iranian-American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour who has lived in America for practically her whole life. Which is ironic because the film feels totally foreign, and different from just about any other American film I’ve seen, bringing us into a poor desolate land known as “Bad City” which feels like a world far, far, away when in actuality it was shot right here in the States in Bakersfield, California.

The film opens with an old man, Hossein, a heroin addict who seems to be at the end of his rope in terms of his addiction. The only saving grace in his life is the assistance of his son, Arash, who is at his father’s beckoning call because like most sons (at least that I know) does just about anything to save his father. Anyways, Hossein owes quite a bit of money to the local town drug dealer, Saeed (whose look seems to be taken straight from Ninja of the rave/rap African group Die Antwoord). Saeed takes one of Hossein’s prize possessions much to the chagrin of Arash. Saeed seems to be the focus of the story, at least for about the first quarter of the film, along with his hooker, junkie, drug partner Atti. But one night Saeed happens to stumble across a young woman, called simply “The Girl”, that follows him to his apartment, which in that point in the story it shifts gears completely and this “girl” or young woman of whom I speak of becomes the central focus of the story. What’s even more notable is that said woman is a vampire, who goes around town wreaking havoc but does so with a conscience. She seems to only prey on the weak, sick, and degenerate members of society. It is by this chance encounter between the town drug dealer Saeed and the girl whom Arash crosses paths with, which involves the major subplot of the story, one that mirrors the one from “Let The Right One In” (2008) and the American version “Let Me In” (2010). But don’t be fooled, besides the reference, it’s undeniably unique enough (not to mention they’re adults and not children) to separate itself from those films. It is through their relationship that the rest of the story unfolds, and all of the characters previously mentioned are reintroduced back into (or out of, depending on how you want to look at it) the story.

As you can probably already tell by my comments at the beginning of my review I absolutely loved just about every aspect of this film. There is just so much I want to talk about that I feel like I would be doing it a great injustice to leave any of them out. But for the sake of not writing a novel, I will try to keep it to just the key elements of the film in which I really liked. First off was its stunning black-and-white cinematography. I’ve always thought a film is better when shot in black-and-white. As it takes the viewer away from the color palette and allows the images to speak for themselves. In this film this approach works brilliantly as it’s maybe the best looking black-and-white film since as far back as I can remember. This format also gives this chilling, noirish tale a look of authenticity that works perfectly given the content of the story. It’s also about as stylishly shot from a design angle and has a look and sometimes feel of an old Jim Jarmusch film (especially in the hipster department). The cool, sleek, and cold feel and tone matches the images on-screen magnificently. Another thing I think is important to point out, is that for a movie with this much style (Quentin Tarantino came to mind for me at times) it’s also loaded with substance. The central story and the many shifts in character arcs make it completely and utterly compelling from start to finish. There’s also a great “meta-ness” to the whole affair. While it certainly is a horror film at heart it also combines elements of film noir, westerns, comedy, drama, and romance. All genres that are balanced quite well considering how dense of a film it winds up being. The last thing I think that’s important to point out is that there is scene after scene of sheer beauty that seem like they have the potential to be iconic movie history (an example would be the dancing scene between John Travolta and Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction” (1995) – but imagine not just one but several scenes like that). Which had me looking up the screen with a shit eating grin for practically the entire film, so engaged by the style, story, and characters that I had to pass up a bathroom break in fear that I was going to miss whatever was next. This is hands down the most unique, stylish, and fresh take that breathes new life into what is otherwise a tired genre, that being the vampire film. It’s only two months into the year and this one has already secured a spot on my top 10 list of 2015.

[A-]

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A Trip To The Movies – “Citizenfour” 11.22.14

I chose to take a trip out to the movies to see this for a number of different reasons. First, was that it was executive produced by Steven Soderbergh. Which who anybody that knows me well enough knows that anything he gives his stamp of approval on is an automatic must see. Second, was the aggregate score ratings that I was seeing on websites like imdb.com and metacritic.com. What struck me about this film in particular was that usually when a film is weeks away from its release, its aggregate score is much higher only to then drop considerably a few days prior when it’s screened for all critics. In the case of this film I saw that scores were actually rising weeks after its release. Which is both unusual and incredibly rare, that I figured what I was witnessing here was a film that was slowly building an audience by mere word of mouth. At that point I decided to go ahead and make plans to see it. Lastly, I had noticed that Oscar winning composers Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails and British composer Atticus Ross, fresh off their string of David Fincher films (“The Social Network”, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”, and this year’s “Gone Girl”), wrote the music for it. I thought that maybe I was on to something truly special here. But with something that was slightly shrouded in mystery since like I do with most films, including documentaries, I rely solely on who the director is for feature films and aggregate scores/ratings for documentaries. Not really knowing anything about it, even the topic or subject that which it chose to focus on, this was yet another film that I pretty much walked into with a blank slate hoping that I would be surprised.

The films opens with Glenn Greenwald, a British journalist for The Guardian, who’s comminicating with a man via the internet in a number of emails about potentially covering a story about one of the biggest news scandals of the 21st century which he hopes to expose. We then meet the second and single most integral person in covering the story, documentarian filmmaker Laura Poitras. After a series of instructions on where to find said source who hopes to expose the story both Poitras and Greenwald wind up in Hong Kong. It is there that we meet 29-year old Edward Snowden, a former NSA (National Security Agency) intelligence officer for the United States who has fled with numerous files of information showing the government’s role in breaking the law by setting up illegal wiretaps on almost every big telecommunication conglomerate in the United States. Which also happens to be one of the biggest human rights and civil liberties violations in the history of this country. Certainly that of the 21st century. Through a series of interviews in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room where he is hiding Poitras, Greenwald, and another journalist strategically plan out how they are going to leak this information to the rest of the world. As each day passes more and more information is collected, as is with each interview we listen to Snowden reveals more and more information about the shocking abuses of power of national security. While preparing himself for the inevitable witch hunt that is sure to follow once the information comes out.

This is an extraordinary documentary that resembles just as much of a non-fiction feature film that it does a conventional documentary. What I mean by that it seems to change the criteria of what we expect from the documentary format as a medium and includes elements that seem like they are straight out of a feature film. Unlike a conventional documentary, we are presented with evidence based facts coming straight from the subject himself, as it plays itself out in real time. Usually more conventional types of documentaries either talk about the subject post-humously with a serious of interviews from people who either know or knew about them thereby creating an agenda or a subjective opinion that sometimes is forced upon the viewer. This documentary is entirely different than almost any one that I’ve seen because we are shown the trajectory of the leaking of information exactly as it happened. That and we are given complete access to the whole proceeding, as the obviously very talented director Poitras is one of 2 sources; Greenwald being the other, who spend every hour of every day documenting the incredibly brilliant 29-year old Snowden. Something that is so rarely seen in documentaries. Particularly political ones that has this much riding on the line. This leak of information about illegal abuses of power by the NSA and other counterintelligence agencies is baffling. Because we are given unprecendented access to all of the information straight from the source we start to really understand how huge the whole thing really is. The interviews and access to information that Snowden provides us with is very well presented and pre-calculated. As the story unfolds and the information is leaked, the situation gets more and more desperate for Snowden, as almost every counterintelligemnce agency from America to Japan starts to target him as the main suspect, and pretty soon neither the director Poitras or the journalist Greenwald are allowed contact with him. As the entire counterintelligence world starts to slowly inch closer and closer to locating him. You yourself as an audience viewer experience the same (well, almost) level of fear and paranoia that everybody who’s involved with the whistleblower seems to be experiencing. Which is the film’s greatest strength, to put you right there in real time and acts as an almost emotional rollercoaster as the events before you take place. There were times that I was so engaged, with my mind’s light switch on tracing the story as it unfolded, that I literally had a physical response to it in that I felt my body temperature getting colder and just about every hair on my body raise up. Like something out of a psychological thriller or borderline horror movie. The last third of the film where the news starts to go viral and the tension surmounts to such a high level was probably the first time I had feelings similar to that since Soderbergh’s “Contagion” (2011). Another film that explores how fast something can spread (in the case of that film a disease) since we are all wired in technologically on a global scale. Regardless of how you felt about Snowden at the time this information was exposed, or are like me and were a Snowden “novice” before seeing the film. This is an essential piece of cinema that practically reinvents the documentary format, and bridges the gap between that of it and feature film. All the while presenting us with one of the most shocking revelations of the violations of civil liberties that’s taken place in post-9/11 America. This is a brilliant documentary that is one of the year’s best behind the Steve James Roger Ebert documentary “Life Itself” and is sure to please both feature film moviegoers and fans of documentaries alike. This is one that is sure to pick up a Best Documentary nomination at the 2015 Oscars. See it and I can assure you with no doubt in my mind that you won’t be left disappointed.

[A-]

Review: ‘Finding Vivian Maier’ 8.3.14

I had been wanting to see this for quite some time as a couple people I know had seen it (where it’s still showing in theaters even despite it having just been released on DVD). Apparently people have been coming out in droves to see it. Anyway you, like me, probably know very little (if anything at all) about the film. As is with many documentaries, there’s only a select audience that relies heavily on word-of-mouth because it gets little to no publicity or advertising. This was and is one of those rare gems that come along every once in awhile. A documentary that takes you on a journey of self-discovery while reliving a life of another’s. The bare bones synopsis of the film, is that it focuses on the life and work of Vivian Maier, an incredibly fascinating character and one of the most important “street” photographers of the 20th century. What’s so interesting is that like so many great artists, her work was not discovered until after her death, for reasons that were very personal and intentionally done by her. What amazed me so much about this documentary, was its ability to tell one story, only to switch gears halfway through. Building steam and momentum along the way, and surprising me at every corner. This is a compelling character study of a genius who is celebrated in death, more than she could ever (or better yet wanted), to have been in life. Right up there with ‘Life Itself’ with this year’s best documentaries. And one that I would be VERY surprised if we don’t see on the list of nominations for Best Documentary Film at next year’s Oscars.

Grade: B+

Review: ‘Life Itself’ 8.12.14

This was an unbeliveable documentary into the life and death of Roger Ebert. The man who one could say “invented” film criticism, or at least brought it to the masses. I had been waiting for this one for awhile now for a couple of different reasons. One, as a student of film, there’s not a more fascinating subject than that of Ebert. The guy lived for movies. His entire framework for how he viewed the world was imprinted by the thousands (I think they say in the movie 10,000) movies he saw in his lifetime, and that was particularly interesting to me. The second reason is I grew up as a kid watching both Siskel and Ebert and the movies as well as Ebert and Roeper and the movies. Each week tuning in excited to see which films they were going to be reviewing, the back-and-forth of opposing opinions (which I try to encourage with both of you), as well as the “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” grading system which was his/their trademark. Lastly, being a big fan of Steve James, who I couldn’t possibly think of a better documentarian to cover the subject. Seeing as Ebert (as he did with a lot of filmmakers, including Martin Scorcese) put James on the international film community map with his glowing reviews of his 1994 ‘Hoop Dreams’ (and who eventually went on to provide the DVD commentary for). So I looked at it as the ultimate tribute/testament for James to be able to give that back.

As for the documentary itself…I liked so many different elements of it that it’s hard for me to sum up even in lengthy email format such as this one. I enjoyed learning about what I didn’t know, specifically how he got his job at the Chicago-Sun Times, his battle with alcoholism, and the fact that he stayed single until the age of 50, at which point he met the love of his life (and ultimate savior), Chaz. I also thought another plus of it was how they didn’t shy away from the end of Ebert’s life, which as Ebert even said “it wouldn’t be a real documentary if you didn’t show this part”. Which is unbelievably heartwrenching to watch him go through surgeries, to losing his jaw, to not being able to speak and who’s only way of communication was through gestures and speaking through a computer. Though whereas some people might fall into despair or depression, Ebert found ways to spin his unfortunate situation into a positive thing. Like starting a blog for example where at one point someone says he was doing some of his best writing on. This is a guy that was going to perservere and not hang the towel. Which I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for.
I also enjoyed the focus on his relationship with Gene Siskel, which was a very turmultuous one. These guys came from 2 different walks of life which greatly impacted the way in which they interacted with one another, especially when it came to film criticism. There’s some great archival footage of them between takes on their show bickering at one another. Yet for all of the ups and mostly downs in their relationship. It was obvious they had nothing but the utmost mutual respect and admiration for one another. That, and Siskel’s death had a very profound effect on the way in which Ebert faced his own adversity later in life.
The only omission in the film that knocked it down a point or 2 for me was no archival footage, not even a mention, of Richard Roeper. I thought about it and to me that would be like making a Michael Jordon documentary and totally exluding his foray into baseball. Why the decision to omit Roeper from the documentary entirely will always remain a mystery to me.
Still, a compelling, thoroughly engaging, thought provoking, emotional roller coaster of a ride, of one of the most important figures in the history of film, and one that is sure to pick up a nomination at next year’s Oscars for Best Documentary.
Grade: A