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“Blood on the Plain” Review

February 5, 2012 Leave a comment

I thought I’d take a break from the insanity of the awards season to provide a little spotlight on an outstanding short film to come out of the Chicago area. Having spent six years in film school, I can both understand and relate to what it’s like to be an unrecognized talent, attempting to make a standout film with practically no budget. With that being said, to this little endeavor in moviemaking, I say “bravo.”

The story is set against the backdrop of small-town life in Kansas on the day of the high school homecoming dance. A tribe of people, thought to be extinct for hundreds of years, have returned, evolved into a form of creature never before seen or imagined. Seeking revenge for the sins of the town’s ancestors, the demons strike at what is most precious to them, prompting the residents to band together and put a stop to the evil, once and for all.

Director Mac Eldridge (helmer of “Chemical 12-D,” which played at last year’s Fantasia Fest in Montreal), has gone above and beyond in crafting a fantastic, cross-genre experience: a horror-western. Imagine, if you will, the ominous, wayfaring overtones of “No Country for Old Men” meeting the gruesome action and thrills of “Predator.” The film packs some genuinely philosophical vibes that, while not reaching fruition, raise its caliber a notch or two above what a short like this could normally offer, and yet never skimps on its level of pure excitement.

For a movie in which the characters are not usually the main draw, the actors really hold their own. Otis Fine does a remarkable job of anchoring the ensemble as the thinking-man’s bartender. Richard Alpert, meanwhile, nails the film’s climax, encompassing everything you could hope for from a hard-nosed, eyepatch-wearing sheriff who can still handle a Winchester rifle. The emotional core of the film, however, is held by Joey Bicicchi and Dani Wilkin, the two star-crossed high school lovers who bear witness to the town’s tragedy. Caught in a whirlwind of horror and carnage, we see the massacre through their eyes, and it isn’t pretty.

The above-mentioned storm pertains to the horror element of the film, which will likely draw a large amount of viewers and they will not be disappointed. First off, the creature design is stellar. The makeup team created a lean, mean, savage superhuman with plenty of unique touchups and details that add a distinct element of character. They meet all the necessary criteria to be added to the long list of things you would not want to run into in a dark alley. Meanwhile, the title of the film really lives up to expectations with some outstanding gore. There’s enough stabbing, throat-cutting and general slaughter to keep any self-respecting horror fan glued to the screen.

It’s worth mentioning that much of the film’s success would not have been realized without its fabulous technical qualities. This film, which was made with a minuscule amount of money, looks, sounds and feels like a movie that should garner envy from any big-budget Hollywood producer. The cinematography, crafted by the young Chicago phenom David Wagenaar, is top notch. The film’s warm color palette help heighten the authentic western vibe, while Wagenaar’s staunch, high-contrast lighting during the massacre greatly elevates the level of terror. The film’s production design team successfully pulled off transforming suburban Chicago into rural Kansas (not an easy feat). Finally, the sound mix by Rob Davis adds a quality to the film that absolutely cannot be beaten.

Perhaps the greatest compliment one can give to “Blood on the Plain” is how well it works as a short film. Some may argue that the movie lacks a solid build-up. Yet, all in all, what more could you want for your twelve minutes? The film wastes not a second of its running time and delivers more scares, thrills and raw emotion than any other short that I’ve seen this year. The filmmakers wish to soon expand this film into a feature, and I can only hope beyond hope that it happens. When you see this short you will know what I mean, because, by the time the credits roll, the only thing you will want is more. You’ll be begging for it.

“Blood” is about to start its international festival run and is not yet available for streaming. However, you can go to the film’s website and can find all sorts of ways to see it. The DVD is on sale for ten dollars and is packed with all kinds of great extras. Or, if you’re as self-conscious about blind buys as I am, the film is also available for download in a stunning 2k (a quality higher than HD) transfer for only four dollars. Trust me, this film is worth your four dollars. Help support these phenomenal young indie filmmakers.

Below is the film’s official trailer and a link to their site:

Blood on the Plain’s Official Site

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“Hanna” Review at The DePaulia

April 11, 2011 Leave a comment

I had attended an early screening of this film a few weeks ago, but had to embargo my review until opening weekend. The review got published in The DePaulia today. Once again, here’s a short excerpt:

“Joe Wright, the young director of such films as “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement,” goes far out of his usual element to direct this fantastic thriller. It’s as though the man has suddenly started using artistic steroids or been abducted by aliens. Whatever the reasoning, Wright’s new style is not necessarily an improvement, but a welcome change. The pace and tone that he brings to the film create a sensation that I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced from a film.”

This is film honestly still has my head spinning. I have no doubt that it’s already in contention for my eventual Top Ten List of the year and I had a lot of fun writing this review. Check out the full article through the link, below:

“Director, actress take a thrilling break from the norm”

 

“Win Win” Review at The DePaulia

As some of you know, I recently started writing for The DePaulia, DePaul University’s official newspaper. It’s not the Chicago Tribune, but it is a highly respected student publication and is a big step for me in building my reputation in the Chicago area. I recently published my first review for them and it is available online. Here’s a quick excerpt:

“Over the last decade, writer/director/actor Tom McCarthy has championed himself as a voice for the underappreciated. His pair of independent features (“The Station Agent” and “The Visitor”) stands as an ode to those ordinary people we see on the street and don’t give a second thought to, despite them having interesting stories to tell. With “Win Win,” the director crafts a true modern parable of contemporary middle class life and it’s a treat to behold.”

I was very pleased with the film, as well as my own review. I’m still not sure about the ethics or permissions of posting the actual reviews on my blog once they’ve been published in the paper. Meanwhile, below is a link to the full review at The DePaulia Online. Hope everyone enjoys it and wishes me luck on this new venture.

“Win Win” is a Victory for the Common Man” (DePaulia)

“Battle: Los Angeles” Review

March 21, 2011 3 comments

As Jim McKay once said at the Munich Olympics, “Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.” Well, my greatest fears have certainly been realized as of now. The film that I have been following, intently, through its entire brilliant publicity campaign and have been anticipating greatly…well…pretty much blows. I suppose it could have been worse, but I prefer not even to think like that.

The story is what it is, although I was really hoping there would have been some more to it. Aliens from another world in the form of meteors crash into the shorelines, interrupting surfing season, for sure. Once the military figures out what’s going on (which takes about two minutes of plot and character development), they mobilize to combat the threat. However, go figure, they’ve underestimated their foe and soon, its up to a tiny group of surviving soldiers to put those pesky aliens in their places and somehow take out practically an entire army which is bigger, better and smarter than they are. Look at what I’ve gone and done. I couldn’t even get through the plot synopsis without tearing into this movie.

What a mess. What a big sorry mess. This movie is trite and incompetent on so many levels, that its shortcomings are the scariest aspect of it. It wants to be so many things: “Independence Day,” “Black Hawk Down,” “War of the Worlds” and “District 9.” None of them does it even come close to. There is so much that could have come out of this film and so many directions the creators could have taken it. Instead, the simplest measures were taken and the result does not even qualify as second-rate.

Aaron Eckhart isn’t horribly cast as the fearless leader. Him, and the rest of the cast, are simply pegged into cliched character roles. There’s the fresh, young officer with a pregnant wife. There’s the fearful rookie facing combat for the first time. And who could live without the courageous soldier trying to live up to the memory of a fallen family member who also served? Finally, there is Eckhart’s Staff Sergeant Nantz, as gung-ho and red-blooded a hero as one can find, in other words, probably the least humanistic individual to be found in the film.

The script is one of the worst I’ve seen portrayed on screen in a long time. It is chock full of so many war movie cliches and stereotypes that it could even make Samuel Fuller laugh out loud. There is poor character development on all fronts. The characters might as well have been titled “Soldier #2” or “Helpless Little Girl #1.” Actually, let me rephrase. With the stories given for these characters, they’d have been BETTER OFF being given anonymity. The writing also features what is potentially the corniest, most laughable speech ever given by a leader addressing his troops, and that tops quite a long list.

The technical aspects of the film nearly equal to, if not surpass, the content’s horrid taste. The cinematography is lazy and uncoordinated. I’m as big of a fan of handheld realism as the next man, but when used with a purpose. This film looks like someone handed  a camera to a two year-old and let them run around and shoot the apocalypse. It’s hard to believe that any storyboarding or preconception was taken when planning this film out and the result is nearly a complete lack of memorable shots. The sound design is less a supportive tool to the film and more of a sensual assault on the viewer. Finally, the music is a sloppy concoction of boring tones, alternating between either exciting or not, without a single original theme to be heard, throughout. I guess some credence must be given to the production design and CG teams for successfully tearing the city apart, but after a while, it just becomes routine and uninteresting.

Without a doubt, the biggest flaw of the film, and a good note to end on, is the film’s refusal to take an in depth look at its main topic: an alien invasion of the planet Earth. Say what you want about films like “Independence Day,” “War of the Worlds” and “Signs.” They at least had the creative perception to give a bit of insight into just what such an event would really mean for the world. “Battle: Lost Angeles” lacks any kind of nuance pertaining to the inevitable societal ramifications of another race colonizing the planet. In a movie like this, I want to see more than Marines being deployed, crumbling buildings and a few dead civilians in the street. I want to feel the pangs of sheer terror at the thought of our world being irreparably torn apart. Not addressing the socio-emotional factors that come into play during a story such as this, quite frankly, relieves the film of any true form of interest, entertainment, or most importantly, credibility.

GRADES:           D            * / * * * * *           2.2 / 10.0

 

“Rango” Review

March 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Granted that last year was a phenomenal one for animated features (“Toy Story 3,” “How to Train Your Dragon”), I have to say that I didn’t give animated fare enough of my time through the course of the season. Therefore, I thought I’d get things started early this year. However, while Gore Verbinski’s “Rango” is certainly not a bad film, it doesn’t set the bar very high, in the same way that Lee Unkrich’s masterpiece did almost a year ago.

“Rango” is a simple story of an unlikely hero. The before-nameless chameleon (Johnny Depp) is stranded hopelessly in the desert. He is half-rescued by a local lizard (Isla Fisher) who brings him to her water-deprived township. Through a series of mishaps and good luck, the iguana wins the respect from the townspeople, their job of sheriff and the title-name “Rango.” Yet, when all that’s left of the people’s dwindling water supply is stolen and the town’s most ominous figures are suspect, Rango realizes that he might be out of his league. The chameleon must find the courage that he never thought he had and prove himself to a group of people who have nothing left to hope for.

The story itself certainly isn’t anything in the realm of high art. It’s a standard tale of a seemingly weak individual thrown into extraordinary circumstances and forced to become the person, or chameleon, he only dreamed that he could. That structure isn’t a bad one. It’s worked time and time again in phenomenal films, but only when there’s an added element of creativity, which this film lacks…other than all the character’s being cowboy-animals, which is a little more preposterous than it is creative. However, we’ll get into that later.

The voice cast does great work. One can tell, right off the bat that the title role was directly written for the talent of Johnny Depp. From the soft-spoken quips to random outbursts, it’s really difficult to imagine anyone else reading these lines. Bill Nighy and Ray Winstone use their sinister tones to great extent as a few of the film’s many antagonists. The only actor I could do without is the ever-growing-more-annoying Abigail Breslin. Her entire cute, mousy, adorable relief could be done away with, entirely, in my opinion.

There is one aspect of this film that is a monkey I just can’t get off my back. Some people will call me unimaginative or argumentative, but I’m sorry, this just bugs me. I’m put off by the absence of any effort to have the setting, characters or events make logical sense. This is a world in which desert animals wear Hawaiian shirts and cowboy hats. They drink out of shot glasses, sit under ceiling fans and play mean riffs on the guitar. It just doesn’t compute for me. The film takes whatever liberties it wishes and stretches the boundaries of reality however it pleases. Just because a film is animated does not mean that there are no cinematic guidelines that should be respected.

To further illustrate my point, certain other animated features have a fantastic premise, while keeping their roots firmly planted in reality. “Finding Nemo,” “Happy Feet” and all of the “Toy Story” films create improbable plotlines, but never escape the boundaries of logic. The animals in “Finding Nemo” and “Happy Feet” have a defined society, talk to each other, and in some cases, sing and dance. Yet, they don’t build auditoriums to do their routines. All of the animals basically exist the same way they do in nature. And in the case of “Toy Story,” obviously toys are inanimate objects, and yet in their world, they don’t escape the realm of possibility. They create tools out of accessible household items and their environments are their owners’ bedrooms and toy boxes.

It’s this creative sense of plausible fantasy that not only make the plot and setting of said movies easier to entertain in the mind, but funnier and ultimately more entertaining. And it’s not just the lack of logic, but the unmitigated disregard for it in “Rango” that really knocks it down in my book. It puts up as a nicer-looking version of “Sponge Bob Square Pants,” so, congratulations if you like that kind of thing. It’s that same ode to ridiculousness that ruined Pixar’s “Up” for me. The first act of that film, and especially the opening ten minutes, are absolutely extraordinary and heartbreaking. However, once the talking dogs (that could fly planes, no less) came in, I checked out.

Speaking of nice-looking, one positive note that I must leave this film on is just how incredible its appearance is. An impressive amount of detail was put into all of the visual aspects, from the fur on the chin of the hedgehog to the shine on the drinking glasses. One can definitely tell that Roger Deakins had a hand in this, being credited as a visual consultant (just as he was on “How to Train Your Dragon” and “WALL-E”). Every shot is incredibly predetermined, framed and orchestrated. It’s a real shame, in fact, that the quality of the story could not match the film’s astounding look.

GRADES:           B-            * * * / * * * * *           5.8 / 10.0

New Additions: “Battleship Potemkin,” “The Fourth Kind,” “Of Human Bondage”

January 20, 2011 Leave a comment

“Battleship Potemkin” (Sergei Eisenstein) – 1925

A film that definitely needs no introduction. One of the great Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature films, “Battleship Potemkin” tells the sort of true, yet highly sensationalized story of an uprising on a Russian warship during the Soviet Revolution. One really has to look beyond the fact that this is a blindingly strong piece of propaganda to realize that it is probably one of the ten most influential films in history. The film was perhaps the first to really use editing as not just a means to advance from one scene to the next, but to actually create and manipulate the tension and overall movement of the story. The Odessa Steps sequence is as incredible now as it has ever been, and the actual uprising and its aftermath is nearly its equal. Putting aside the editing, for a moment, the film also contains some of the most brilliantly realized shots I’ve ever seen, including a dolly shot of a woman, carrying her dead child, pleading with the soldiers on the steps as she stands in their shadows (featured above). So many elements combine here to create an incredible and vital film experience.

GRADES:           A            * * * * 1/2 / * * * * *           9.4 / 10.0

 

“Of Human Bondage” (John Cromwell) – 1934

Bette Davis is easily one of my top five favorite actresses of all time. Therefore, I was really looking forward to finally see the film that really catapulted her into both stardom and acclaim (which back in that time period were basically the same thing). I was quite disappointed with the result. John Cromwell’s film is somewhere between being to sappy and two melodramatic, if those two aren’t one in the same, as well. The interpersonal relationships between the characters seemed largely superficial. Leslie Howard’s performance was flat and boring, while the direction was, for the most part, repetitive and lacking any kind of pacing to keep the viewer hooked. There were a few technical elements that helped advance the story, such as close-ups emphasizing the main characters physical disabilities. And as far as Bette Davis goes, her acting and emotions are as spot-on as ever. Yet,my God, this must have been before the job of dialect coach became one of the highest paying in Hollywood, for Davis uses one of the most absurd British accents I’ve ever heard.

GRADES:           C+            * * 1/2 / * * * * *           5.4 / 10.0

 

 

“The Fourth Kind” (Olatunde Osunsanmi) – 2009

Okay, all joking aside, this is one of the worst movies ever made. Put aside from the horrible acting,  terrible writing and absurd direction for a moment. This film’s idea and its conception are absolutely laughable and really quite insulting to any audience’s intelligence and time. The movie, about alien abductions, begins with a fourth wall breaking monologue by Milla Jovovich explaining that everything in the film is real and is supported by actual video-recordings. The film uses this “actual” footage through achingly irritating and distracting split-screen throughout the entire film. And yet, the kicker is that this actual footage completely fabricated. They use fake footage on the right to recreate fake footage, and all of it is terribly done. This movie actually pulls off a pretty fantastic feat in its ability to be two different horrible movies at the same time. I mean, really. What’s the fucking point? Either make a straight-up narrative movie, or a hardcore docudrama. Don’t try to do both as this colossally atrocious farce attempts. An epic fail of a movie.

GRADES:           D-            1/2 / * * * * *           1.4 / 10.0

 

“The Fighter” Review

January 6, 2011 2 comments

Every year, there seems to be a film that I go into not expecting anything from and not really looking forward to, whatsoever. Then, I see it, and my opinion of the film couldn’t shift more radically. This year, that film is David O’Russell’s “The Fighter.”

There were many aspects that I had stacked up against this film before viewing it. One was, let’s face it, it’s a boxing movie, and not since “Raging Bull” has a film about that particular sport ever come close to blowing me away. Boxing films are also usually a bit too sentimental for my taste. Also, I wasn’t sure if maverick director David O’Russell would be able to hold on to his originality for this venture, or if he would effectively sell out in the face of potential box office success. All of these questions would be answered.

“The Fighter” tells the very true story of Mickey Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg, a street cleaner from Boston with dreams of being a boxer. However, his career has been managed, or rather mis-managed, his whole life by his over-bearing mother (Melissa Leo) and former boxer turned crack-addict brother, Dickey Ward (Christian Bale). One day, he meets his golden ticket in the form of a sexy bartender (Amy Adams) who convinces him to ditch his dysfunctional family in order to succeed at his dream. However, his loved ones refuse to go quietly and the odd group must find a way to work together to achieve any hope of victory.

This film is phenomenal. It had me from the opening shots of Dickey air-punching Mickey from a POV approach. It had me from Mickey calling his father a silverback gorilla after he chases down his stoned son through a backyard. It had me when it literally made fun of me, and other film snobs, when Mickey tries to show off by taking Adams to a snooty, French arthouse film. This film had me for nearly the entire film.

David O’Russell (“Three Kings,” “I Heart Huckabees”) has never quite made a movie like this before. Even when his former fare occasionally gets serious, it never loses its quirky, tongue-in-cheek essence. Here, the director is not necessarily fearless or even experimental, in a word, but not beholding to expectations of what this should be like if he made it. It’s somewhere between a crowd-pleasing, fist-pounding extravaganza and a subtle character study into the depths of family, addiction and self-worth.

One thing’s for sure about both the writing and direction of “The Fighter.” It’s all heart. Despite a few hitches in regard to how Mickey’s motley crew of an entourage comes together, the film almost never feels superficial or forced. The characters and their relationships all feel real and this family dynamic is one that will not soon be forgotten in the world of cinema. Another important note pertains to the setting. It seems that everywhere one turns now, there is a “Boston-themed” movie. “The Departed,” “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” and “Mystic River.” Many of these are phenomenal films. Yet of all of them, it’s “The Fighter” that truly uses the community atmosphere of Boston as not only a setting, but a character in itself. The streets and their people breathe the material and give it new life.

If the Oscars had ever got around to creating a “Best Ensemble Cast” award (they won’t, but there’s always wishful thinking), I don’t see how any film could possibly be more deserving of such an honor this year than the one in question. Every performance pulls its weight and is worthy of recognition. Even the bit parts, from Ward’s half dozen sisters, his rebellious father and a charismatic cop-turned-trainer whose character actually played himself in the film. Wahlberg is obviously the weakest link, and yet it is still one of his best turns.

Amy Adams, who has never had a more rebellious or fiery part, makes the audience fall head over heels for her. Meanwhile, the other female performance is one for the ages. I remember back when Melissa Leo had a much smaller and unrecognized role in Alejandro Gaonzalez Inarritu’s “21 Grams,” and I was the only one who was noting her performances as one of the highlights. Now, she’s two steps away from potentially winning an Academy Award. To go from obscurity to recognition this late in life cannot be the easiest feat, and yet Leo has more than proven that it can be done.

It’s no joke, however, that this film belongs to Christian Bale. Bale has had a long career with ups and downs and some very fine performances dating all the way back to his incredible childhood role in Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun.” Fans of his have long wondered when he would finally come across the role that would land him an Oscar nomination. I have a feeling that with this role, the buck won’t stop with just a nomination. This is the crowning jewel of Bale’s relatively young career. He walks a thin character tightrope between an overbearing, drug-addicted older brother whom the audience loathes and a sympathetic, washed-up father and former boxer who can’t seem to catch a break. Both elements of the role he has nailed down to a “t” and his work makes the audience await his every emotion with eager anticipation.

Probably the biggest question on my mind when entering into this film was whether it would be a “Rocky” or a “Raging Bull,” as it seems that nearly all boxing movies are in one way or another. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the answer: neither. “The Fighter” is an almost wholly original concept for a boxing film, or any film. It’s as gritty as it is lofty and as exciting as it is dramatic. It’s as much an in-depth character-study as it is a gloriously narrative-driven journey of hope and adventure. Throw in a few phenomenal performances, and you’ve got one of the best films of 2010.

GRADES:           A-            * * * * 1/2 / * * * * *           9.0 / 10.0