A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

By Marc S. Sanders

If Michael Corleone had kept his promise to Kay to go strictly legitimate, he’d probably have become Abel Morales, the protagonist of A Most Violent Year, played exceedingly well by underrated Oscar Isaac.

Writer/Director J.C. Chandor sets his story in winter 1981, on record statistically recognized as what the film’s title literary suggests.  Therefore, it is a challenge for Morales to successfully bring his heating oil enterprise to a capital success when his competitors don’t play by the rules and hijack his product while threatening his able staff of truckers and salespeople. Then there is the stigma Morales must endure by being married to a reputed mob boss’ daughter, searingly played by Jessica Chastain, ready at a moment’s notice to call on her own family for help or to just pull a trigger herself.  Morales tried his hardest to keep her in check.  Furthermore, the industry he’s chosen is riddled with suspicion of fraud, embezzlement, racketeering, and underhanded tricks. All this warrants the DA to bring an endless array of indictments against Morales and his business, despite all the cooperation and legal activities that have been accomplished so far.

So why go through with this at all?  A lifetime has been invested.  Time of money and work to fight for an opportunity.  Abel knows this more than anything, and he will not surrender to deals from the DA or the mob.  He will not compromise despite the challenges.

Chandor’s film is well done.  It had been on my radar to watch since its release and yet it was not what I expected.  I was waiting for Abel’s widely seen beautiful camel overcoat to end up soaked in blood.  It never came to be.  That observation only suggests that A Most Violent Year does not promise on its descriptiveness.  On the contrary, it offers the setting so that we understand Abel’s conflict.  

A good story piles on one problem after another to keep a viewer compelled. Maybe one primary problem is wrapped up a little too neatly here, but no matter.  I also would have preferred better camera positioning from Chandor on occasion. Some characters who are being introduced for the first time are heard speaking off camera only to then be shown a close up of them with no more to say.  Happened more than twice and I can’t understand why.  I’m sure Chandor artistically intended it to be that way.  Yet, I didn’t like it.

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are great.  These are two actors rarely seen in the gossip rags.  So, they are more well known for selecting smart roles and stretching their flexibility for the parts they agree to take.  It’s refreshing. It’s why A Most Violent Year can be capably made with a great script (better than the film) amid all of the tentpole blockbuster sequels.  

It’s worth it to check out.

GONE GIRL

By Marc S. Sanders

David Fincher is best when he builds tension in dark cinematography. It’s eerie and moody, but it all seems to make appropriate sense.

A skilled director like him proves that even with Lifetime television soap opera material, if delivered with care for detail and with genuine acting he can hold on to the attention of a scrupulous movie going audience. Haunting filmmaking, like Fincher is known for with movies like Seven or Panic Room, can also work in sensational material that at first might draw the attention of lonely housewives pigging out on Rocky Road ice cream while watching hours upon hours of scorned victim gossip material on the WE Channel. Gone Girl adapted from the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay, is a thrilling cinematic piece even if the story’s ending is a little disappointing.

Ben Affleck plays Nick Lowe who discovers a broken glass coffee table in his home and realizes his wife of 5 years is missing. Rosumund Pike is Amy, who seemingly vanished without a trace.

Fincher closely shoots Flynn’s story with developments you might expect or have experienced with various news stories and documented investigations by sensational legal journalists like Nancy Grace. Nick, with Amy’s parents (Lisa Banes, David Clennon), initially form a united front for the press but that falls apart when it’s uncovered that Nick has had an affair. Amy had a close neighbor who expresses tearful concern that cameras latch on to for ratings. The cops (Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit) grow more and more suspicious of Nick. Nick eventually hires a high-priced lawyer (Tyler Perry). Nick is eventually considered to be an abusive husband as well. It all adds up.

These are the steps you’d expect from a missing persons case. You might also suspect murder, but no one can claim that out loud if there’s no body to be found. So, toe the line carefully detectives, journalists, & gossip mongers!

What is not expected in Gone Girl are the surprises that open up midway through the picture, and the book. Flynn is a really inventive storyteller, and Fincher as director gives ample opportunity to answer for every surprise up the writer’s sleeve. Gone Girl plays with a lot of internal character thought to process its details.

I had read the novel long before the movie was even cast, and I couldn’t put it down. That being said, I was frustrated when the conclusion arrived. I can say the same for the faithful film adaptation. It’s an ending that could happen but, wow, is it a long shot.

Rosamund Pike was Oscar nominated as Amy, the complicated wife in this marriage. She’s good at occupying the complexity of her past shown in flashback. She’s likable in many moments, but then Amy is also a character that we are reluctant to trust based on her relationship to Nick, as well as her own parents.

Affleck remains a good actor with this picture. I think it takes an honest actor, writer and director to accurately show a man who might not be responding to this crisis like a general public expects. I think much of Affleck’s personal issues of infidelity and alcoholism in the public eye lend credence to how genuine he makes Nick out to be. Could this guy be handsome enough to think he could harm or actually murder a woman as beautiful as Amy; the “Amazing Amy” as she’s widely known in her mother’s series of best-selling children’s books? Is Nick that good at hiding his evil side? On the other hand, is Nick simply innocent, despite all the skeletons that are gradually uncovered? That’s a fair question as well.

Again, Gone Girl is superb in its delivery. It’s ending, though, is the setback. At least I felt that way. For every reader, like me who considers it dubious, I’m sure there are readers who applaud the inventiveness of Gillian Flynn’s gripping and modern mystery.

I guess if a good story prompts a group discussion on a Saturday night, then a really good novel or a great movie has achieved its purpose. At the very least, I consider that a great compliment for an outstanding cast, director and writer.

MALIFICENT

By Marc S. Sanders

The wagon train of live action adaptations of Disney animated classics reached its pinnacle with 2014’s Maleficent. Much credit going towards Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of the title character. However, the visuals cannot be dismissed either. It’s a gorgeous film directed by Robert Stromberg.

Stromberg brings his wealth of experience in visual effects (Avatar and Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World) to his directorial debut. The fantasy world of Maleficent’s forest, as well as the looming castle on its outskirts are dressed in gorgeous colors and vast dimension of pathways and caverns. The magical spells wafting in greens, golds, blues and reds, wielded by the characters, including the three protective fairies (led by a strong Imelda Staunton) is hypnotic and blends beautifully with the live actors’ performances. It’s as bold in the visual department as anything cropped up by Peter Jackson or James Cameron.

What makes this brisk 90 minute film special is a different point of view from the classic film Sleeping Beauty. Is there justification to a villain’s actions? Stromberg and Jolie certainly make a case for it. It’s a reminder that there are two sides to every story. Anyone ever consider that maybe Maleficent might have been betrayed at one point? I’ll be damned. At least that’s what I thought, after watching this film.

No one in life is born evil. I like to think people are made evil or perceived as evil. This film is a great example of that, much like the musical Wicked or the recent hit film Joker.

Jolie offers up the frightening aspects of the fairy dressed in black that we’ve been familiar with all these years. However, she’s fortunate that the capable script from Linda Woolverton offers up opportune moments to consider her soft, sensitive side. There are moments of no dialogue as Maleficent observes Princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) grow, and she develops a reluctant (it’s hard to resist calling her “Beasty”) affection for the child. Maleficent will even participate in a playful mud fight. There are more than just evil machinations going on here.

Unlike the other Disney live action iterations, Maleficent shows something new and unexpected. It harbors my appreciation for the film whereas Beauty And The Beast or Aladdin did not because they just churned out the same old thing.

If Stromberg’s film suffers from one weakness I’d say it could have used a stronger performance from Sharlto Copley (The A Team film adaptation) as the antagonist, Aurora’s father and Maleficent’s first love; the eventual king. There was not much threat from this guy. He was no match in character much less performance against Jolie.

Still, Maleficent is a great character film with lots of fun, whimsical visuals to explore.

WILD TALES

By Marc S. Sanders

Humans were meant to be distressed.  It just goes with the territory.  It’s in our nature to distress one another and respond with another layer of distress.  It’s also a cosmic element of practically any environment we find ourselves in.  Within our journeys of life, when we are striving to be better as a spouse, a parent or worker, it takes an acceptance of stress to get to where we want to be.  It’s only when we die that we can truly rest in peace.  Wedding planning or road rage or airline travel can be overly taxing. Your car could get towed, a person from your past could turn up or you can even become unreasonably extorted when faced with extenuating circumstances.  It all seems so unfair or inconvenient or intrusive.  So, I find it interesting that director Damián Szifron would provide the credits of the cast and crew for his film Wild Tales against a backdrop of wildlife animals.  Humans may be the dominant species, but even they have animal instincts that can spiral wildly out of control.

With writer, Germán Servidio, Szifron offers up six different short stories in this Argentinian film that was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Oscars.  Each story focuses on an opportunity for revenge or an experience of high stress where people come in contact with other people.  Granted, some of the stories are so outrageous in circumstance, response and outcome that I’d find them hard to believe they truly happened if someone vouched for it.  For example, you likely never saw a wedding reception like the one staged in this film.  I don’t care who you are.  YOU NEVER SAW A WEDDING LIKE THIS!!!!  Still, this is a very entertaining film that left me curious with how each story was going to play out.

A truly engaging airline experience prologues the credits when a beautiful model strikes up a conversation with the elderly gentlemen across the aisle.  When a woman in the next row can’t help but eavesdrop on their exchange, a most unexpected event occurs.  Doom awaits!!!  More importantly, though, why does it await?  It’s a brilliant opening, likely never to occur in real life, but altogether unexpected and humorously shocking.

Following the credits, a question of morality and revenge plays out in an after-hours diner when someone from a waitress’ past enters for a late night meal.  This is the most incomplete vignette of the bunch, but the narrative remains interesting. 

Listed below the airline tale, my next favorite tale involves a road rage incident between the driver of a beautiful black Audi and someone who drives an old jalopy of a car.  Likely, it is the most relatable of all the stories.  We’ve all either experienced some form of road rage, or read about it, or have committed or been tempted to engage.  There’s a strong lesson to be learned from this story and it is rather incredible how this encounter between two descends into madness.

Stories of extortion and unfair city policies fill out the other slots, before finally closing on a wedding from hell.

What’s interesting is that while the stories may rely somewhat on their dialogue, I believe I could watch Wild Tales without knowing much of what is being said.  The cast is phenomenal in expression and response.  Szifron quickly sets up the scene and then has his various token characters react to what faces them.  We see the extremes a bride goes to when an unexpected guest appears at her reception.  We are the lone witness to how a driver will seize an opportunity when another driver is stranded on a lonesome highway with a flat tire.  We can understand the persistence a man will uphold in order to prove he did not commit a parking violation.  Wild Tales does not depend on crackling dialogue.  Instead, the visuals and the performances do a lot of the work.

Too often, I hear that people will not watch films with subtitles.  They cannot stand to “read” a film.  Come on!!!!  You have to allow yourself the opportunity to uncover amazing documents of cinematic escapism beyond the American fare.  No film hinges on the subtitles that flash across the bottom of the screen.  Like any movie, the primary element is the photography of the piece.  Since I am not much of a traveler, domestic or international, it is so refreshing when I’m reminded that cultures, behaviors and customs outside my comfort zone of the United States, are not any different from me or the people I surround myself with.  We are all capable of love, drama, humor, sacrifice, crime and an innate possibility of flying off the handle in very, very extreme ways, whether we are justified or not. 

I am not familiar with many foreign pictures.  Honestly, I don’t get motivated enough to seek them out.  I need to lighten my reluctance.  It is fortunate that my colleague, Miguel E Rodriguez, provided this entertaining, mischievously fun collection of devilish short thrillers to our Cinephile movie group for a Sunday viewing.  Damián Szifron has crafted a film that you can’t take your eyes off.  The photography is striking with amazing camera angles such as a point of view from inside an airplane luggage compartment or from the sidewalk ground level where an automobile owner discovers that his car has been wrongfully possessed.  Miguel says moments like these are Tarantino inspired.  Maybe.  I like to think I’m watching a film by Damián Szifron, an insightful and skilled director at the top of his game.

SELMA (2014)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Common, Tim Roth
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 99% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A chronicle of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.


In one of the special features on the Selma Blu-ray, Oprah Winfrey, one of the film’s producers and co-stars, says that Selma is the first feature film with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the central figure.  (She is presumably not counting TV movies or miniseries.)  There have been one or two other films where King appears as a “side” character, but never as the star of the film.

I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I found that tidbit of information fascinating, especially after watching Selma, which carries all the cinematic heft of any Oliver Stone biopic.  For example, I never knew there were two previous attempts to make the iconic march from Selma to Birmingham, some fifty miles away.  The first attempt, at which King wasn’t present, was violently turned away by local police with batons, tear gas, and honest-to-God bullwhips.  The second attempt, this time with many white participants, mostly clergy, was aborted by King himself after he had second thoughts about asking people to potentially lay down their lives for the cause.

That right there is indicative of far more conflict than I ever thought existed in the mind of Dr. King, played with poise and pent-up energy by David Oyelowo.  In my mind’s eye, King never wavered.  He was always 100% sure of his actions because his cause was just.  But, surprise, he was also a human being who was clearly affected by the injuries – and fatalities – sustained by the folks who were marching for that cause.  Selma brought that dimension home to me in a potent, well-made film.

The beginning of the movie sets the tone poetically and tragically.  After a scene with Dr. King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his civil rights activism, we are shown the truth of the situation in the American South in the mid-60s.  A black woman tries to register to vote in Selma and is turned away by a racist registrar.  In Birmingham, a bomb goes off at the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young girls.  When King arrives in Selma to organize a protest, he is greeted in a hotel lobby by a friendly-sounding white man who proceeds to punch him in the face.  King even meets opposition from a separate civil-rights group in Selma who are uncomfortable with how most out-of-state protesters march for King, not necessarily for the issues.

Nor is King portrayed as the perfect husband to his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo, who incidentally also played Coretta Scott King in a 2001 HBO movie, Boycott).  Their home life is troubled right from the get-go.  That’s a factor that I learned about years and years ago, but it’s still something that takes a little getting used to.

No one likes to hear that great men were human, too.  We want our heroes, whomever they might be, to be spotless.  Selma doesn’t shy away from the less flattering, more human side of Dr. King.  After the FBI taps his phones, they send an audio recording to Coretta with the sounds of two people having sex.  Martin listens in dismay but insists to Coretta that’s not him on the tape.  She agrees with him (“I know what you sound like, Martin.”), but you get the idea that she’s still upset that this kind of thing would be an issue.

I loved the scenes where King is invited to the Oval Office to speak directly to then-president Lyndon B. Johnson, who desperately tries to get King to back off Selma.  Johnson wants what every President in history has always wanted: a second term.  King reminds him that, if he would simply pass a law removing any and all voting restrictions, he would win a second term in a landslide…thanks to the black vote.  Johnson urges King to wait, King urges Johnson to act, and they make little progress for most of the film.


I am no historian, but I have no doubt that Selma is at least as accurate as Nixon or JFK or any other big-budget historical film.  That is, mostly true.  When it comes to film, I’m a big believer in the credo: “Don’t let facts get in the way of the truth.”  If Selma were to show each and every incident that led to that march, I’d still be watching the movie because it would be 10 hours long.  I feel that the movie captures exactly what needed to be captured and did it in such a way that not only was I entertained, but I also learned some things I didn’t know.  (I never knew about the death of a white protester, for example.  Or about the “night march” that occurred somewhere between the first two attempts, and which also resulted in someone’s death.)

After having just watched movies like Whiplash or The Prince of Egypt that got me genuinely emotionally invested, so that their finales had me floating a few inches above my sofa, I must be honest and say that the finale of Selma did not quite inspire that same reaction in me.  It was compelling to see the march finally taking place, especially when intercut with shots of the actual marchers making their way to Birmingham.  I enjoyed King’s speech on the steps of the capital building (although I learn from IMDb trivia that director DuVernay allegedly reworked some of the speeches to make them more cinematic).  I thought it worked well as a climax to the film.  But honestly, I wanted to see a little more of the march itself.

I suppose it could be argued that the march was not quite the point of the film.  Selma highlights the struggle more than the victory.  It demonstrates the terrible hurdles and living conditions faced by black Americans during those dark days.  Have things improved since then?  Well, I’d say things have evolved into something different.  Some things change more easily than others.

The struggle continues.

WHIPLASH (2014)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 94% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A promising young drummer at a prestigious music conservatory is mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.


That’s right, I finally jumped on the bandwagon and watched Whiplash after no fewer than eight years of prodding by my fellow cinephiles.  Not only can they finally get off my back about it, but they all now owe me one.  Hope you all enjoy Wild Tales when next we meet.

I was hesitant to watch Whiplash because it was released and gained notoriety at a time in my life when I was yearning for some positivity after getting psychically beaten down by some really depressing foreign films.  Why, I asked myself, would I want to subject myself to ninety minutes of watching J.K. Simmons verbally abuse some poor kid just so he could play the drums a little better?  I’ve seen this movie before.  The abusive mentor sees the light, the victimized student either turns his back or excels like never before, etcetera, etcetera, blah blah blah.  I had the whole plot written out in my head from start to finish.  (I used to do that a lot, I’m realizing…kinda stupid, in most cases.)

Having just finished watching it, I can say, without reservation, that Whiplash belongs on the short list of the best films ever made about the drive for artistic perfection along with The Red Shoes, Black Swan, and Amadeus.  And it manages to have its cake and eat it, too, when it comes to the ending.  Tragedy and triumph walk hand in hand, though not necessarily in the way I would have ever imagined it.

Andrew (Miles Teller) is a talented young jazz drummer who has just started his first year at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music.  He is anxious to gain the attention of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the leader of the school’s prestigious jazz ensemble, The Studio Band.  Fletcher is a piece of work.  To say he engages in mind games is like saying Bill Gates dabbles in computers.  He recruits Andrew for his own band in the middle of someone else’s music class.  On his first day with the Studio Band, Fletcher berates another musician for playing off key.

Did I say “berates?”  Fletcher belittles, humiliates, and degrades the poor guy with a stream of profanity that would have made the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket envious.  He fires the guy on the spot.  When the guy leaves, Fletcher looks around and confesses that he wasn’t really out of tune, but he didn’t know he wasn’t, which is just as bad.  Accurate?  Technically yes.  Does that kind of teaching method belong anywhere outside of a military unit?  I’m going with “no.”

Andrew is willing to go along with this because he doesn’t just want to be good, he wants to be GREAT.  He wants to be remembered in the same breath with Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich, and he believes, like Fletcher, that greatness is not achieved without struggle and sacrifice.  Again, technically true.  Would Rembrandt have painted half as well with both ears?  Would Beethoven’s Ninth be remembered today if Beethoven hadn’t been totally deaf by the time it was finished?  The rolls of the Screen Actors Guild are littered with actors from broken or abusive homes.

There’s a revealing scene when Andrew eats a meal at home with his father and uncle and his two cousins.  The table conversation rings with praise for the two cousins who play football at their school and scored a long touchdown, etcetera.  When Andrew talks about being a “core” member of the best conservatory jazz ensemble in the country, he’s met with polite congratulations and that’s about it.  No one seems to think he’s going to make it as a musician, not even his own father.  “I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was.”  Like Charlie Parker.  Like Amadeus.  Andrew’s only goal is to be great.  If he has to give up friends, romance, even family to achieve it, so be it.

But at what cost?  Fletcher pushes Andrew so hard that his hands bleed during rehearsals.  He demotes Andrew, then puts him back in the core, demotes him again, then basically makes him re-audition for the core spot against two other alternates until 2 am.  In one excruciating scene, Andrew actually tries to play in a competition after being in a freaking car accident.  It’s a truly desperate act from someone who is so afraid of being anonymous that only a body cast will stop him from taking his shot.

Make no mistake, the rehearsal scenes and the verbal and mental abuse from Fletcher are not pleasant.  They’re emotionally engaging, but they were also off-putting.  In a strange way, I was reminded of Requiem for a Dream and its disturbing subject matter that was nevertheless compelling to watch.  When we get to what happens to Andrew after the car accident, I was getting thoroughly depressed, despite the powerful emotional beats of what came before.

But then the movie enters its final act, and that’s where Whiplash finds another gear story-wise.  Andrew and Fletcher meet in an out-of-school setting, and Fletcher has an interesting speech where he says, among other things, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’”  He admits his tactics were brutal, but he devoutly believes in the necessity of pushing people beyond what is expected of them.  “Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong.”

Fletcher convinces Andrew to play for a new jazz ensemble one last time.  What happens at that concert is so horrifying that I watched most of it through my fingers.  I kid you not.  But then the screenplay transforms that situation into something magical, almost religious.  You get the sense that all of the horrible and despicable things Fletcher did and said during the whole film, all misery we had to endure with Andrew, during which time I wondered, “Why am I watching this??” – all of that unpleasantness was just the setup for the finale.  And that finale only means something because of everything that came before it.

In other words, just like Andrew, I was only able to experience that tremendous cathartic moment at the end because of the suffering I had experienced in the movie’s first 90 minutes.

…which leaves me feeling torn because that’s exactly the kind of thing that Fletcher believes in, but which I feel is unnecessary outside of a boot camp.  Ideally, yeah, I think that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.  I’ve directed my fair share of community theatre productions, and I’ve never had to resort to yelling or humiliation as a method to get what I’m looking for.  But then, I’m directing community theatre, not a multi-million-dollar film that may live or die on the performances I’m getting or not getting from my star.  Nor am I a drill sergeant training men to become soldiers.  It seems there is a line, but apparently to get certain kinds of results, it must be crossed.

It’s this dichotomy that will likely keep me awake the next couple of notes.  That and the senses-shattering finale.  I mean…I did not see that coming.  (And man, I am a jazz fan, so to me it was like eating a perfectly-cooked steak.)  It was not a pleasant road to get there, but it had to be unpleasant.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been great.

LEVIATHAN (2014, Russia)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Cast: Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 97% Certified Fresh

PLOT: In a rugged coastal town in northern Russia, Kolya fights against a corrupt mayor to keep his house from being demolished.


The coastal town in Leviathan might be considered beautiful in some other film.  The crashing waves on its rocky shores are reminiscent of Norway or Iceland.  But in this movie, behind every exterior shot of a stupendous mountainside is a sense of dread or gloom.  No doubt there are people in this town who celebrate things like birthdays or holidays or weddings.  Not in this movie.  In Leviathan, the atmosphere seems to prohibit any kind of celebration that isn’t preceded by consuming large quantities of vodka.

Kolya is a husband and father who lives in a house he built (he says) with his own two hands, along with his wife, Lilya, and son, Romka.  He’s currently locked in a legal battle with the corrupt mayor, Vadim, who wants to bulldoze Kolya’s house to make way for what Kolya assumes will be yet another mayoral mansion.  Like all the men in his circle, Kolya drinks a little too much vodka at times and is a bit of a hothead, which is a strike against him whenever he tries to reason with the authorities about his problems.

Kolya calls an old lawyer friend, Dmitriy, in Moscow for help.  Dmitriy does some digging and shows up at Kolya’s house with a folder full of damaging information against the mayor.  We get a good sense of how the mayor operates in a scene where he shows up drunk at Kolya’s house and demands that Kolya learn his place in the grand scheme of things.  He has power and he knows it, but in this scene, and in others where he flexes his power, he’s never far away from a bodyguard or a henchman or three.  He’s a mean little man.

Not that Kolya is a saint himself, either.  He doesn’t shy away from giving his son a sharp smack on the back of the head for sassing Lilya.  When he drinks, he’s more given to insults than jovialness.  But he really does seem to love his wife, and we feel for him when we see his efforts to get the mayor off his back through legal means, when what he’d REALLY like to do is just shoot him and be done with it.

The movie establishes this basic plot relatively slowly.  It’s a great example of a slow burn.  The first few scenes seem unconnected as we see Kolya and Lilya interact with Romka, and Kolya picks up Dmitriy from the train station, and they have a meal, and so on.  It isn’t until we reach a scene in a courtroom where the whole plot is spelled out for us in an astonishing rapid-fire speech from a judge who reads out what sounds like twenty pages of legal findings in about three minutes.  It was almost like listening to a Russian version of a Micro-Machines commercial.

As the story moves on, that sense of dread escalates.  It’s that kind of feeling you read about in books where a storm is approaching.  There’s no rain, but the air is a little sharper, the wind just a tad heavier.  The whole first half of the movie is like that.  Small things happen here and there that point subtly towards impending disaster.  In one shot, Kolya cradles a shotgun in his lap.  In another, we discover that Dmitriy and Kolya’s wife are a little more than just friends.  Kolya is detained by the police for making a scene in a police station.  We see his capability for violence even though it is never truly demonstrated.  That simmering anger underneath everything he says makes any conversation with Kolya a little edgy.

At one point, the corrupt mayor comes down on his cronies, telling them to do their jobs and get Kolya and his lawyer friend off his back.  After that, in a remarkably tense scene, Kolya, Lilya, Dmitriy, and some other friends go out shooting by a small lake and waterfall.  It’s all friendly enough, with a little portable grill and the wives making kebabs and the vodka flowing freely.  But as they set up the targets (empty bottles on a log), and each of the men take their turns with their rifles, I was inexplicably on edge.  I felt, I knew that something was going to happen, I just didn’t know what.  Their children run off to play by the water…is one of them going to drown?  One of the shooters has brought, not a rifle or a shotgun, but a freaking AK-47.  (He makes short work of the target bottles.)  Was this guy going to turn the gun on Kolya?  It’s a masterful bit of suspense that culminates in a completely unexpected direction.

There are other twists and turns in the story that I won’t reveal here, but what is this movie really about?  It’s about nothing more or less than how some men seem to be born to suffer.  Kolya is one of these men.  He has a teenage son who tolerates him, but can’t stand his wife, who is actually the boy’s stepmother.  A powerful man will stop at nothing to seize his house and land, and there doesn’t seem to be anything he can do about it.  The circumstances of how and when he discovers Lilya’s infidelity are traumatic, to say the least.  And for almost two-and-a-half hours, Kolya suffers the trials of Job.  Lilya gets her fair share of grief, too.

And yet, somehow, it was still an entertaining watch.  What separates this film from another movie about human suffering (say, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) is HOW this movie was made.  Rather than presenting the story in a documentary fashion, Leviathan looks and feels like it was shot 100% by a Hollywood crew with Hollywood production values.  It rather looks and feels like a high-end Coen brothers movie.  The story is about suffering, true, but the movie itself is slick and well-constructed.

I liked how the corrupt mayor, Vadim, visits his local Orthodox priest with his woes, and the priest, who seems to be more than a little involved in Vadim’s business dealings, advises him, “All power is from God.  As long as it suits Him, fear not.”  Basically, he’s telling Vadim to use his power to do what’s necessary, and because God is also powerful, He will be on Vadim’s side.  A rather self-serving interpretation of the power of God, but there you have it.  And then, later in the film during a sermon to his congregation, he does a complete about-face, talking about how God sees everything, but he is not honored by a show of force.  Here’s a man who tailors God’s will as it suits him.  If the mayor is a mean little man, this priest is an enabler.  I’m not sure who I disliked more.

(For the record, Leviathan has one of the most interesting and surprising “payoff” scenes I’ve ever seen in a film.  When I saw it, my jaw dropped a little…it almost redefines the movie like a Shyamalan-esque twist.  Almost.  Not quite.  But it’s interesting in that kind of way.)

Earlier, I Googled “famous Russian movie comedies” and found a page that listed ten “essential” Soviet comedies.  None were made before 1984.  I tried again and found a list of fifteen great modern Russian comedies stretching from 1995 to 2018.  I have never heard of a single one of these movies and have no idea how I would go about finding a copy were I so inclined to actually watch one of them.

I mention this because, after watching Leviathan, I needed convincing that Russian directors could direct anything other than deep dramas about the human experience in one way or the other.  Of the six Russian films I’ve seen, three are Soviet era (Come and See [1985], Mirror [1975], Stalker [1979]), and two of those are by the same director, Andrei Tarkovsky.  The others are this film and two silent classics, Battleship Potemkin and Man with a Movie Camera, which doesn’t qualify as a deep drama, I guess, but I include it for the sake of thoroughness.  The best Russian films are well made, to be sure, but light-hearted they are not.  I’m not a film scholar, but I would guess it has to do with the inherent toughness that comes with growing up Russian.  Those crazy winters, the bloody history of the place, the financial hardships, etc.  It would be interesting to see a Russian comedy, if for nothing else just to see what might make a Russian laugh.

(P.S. The IMDb trivia page reveals that, for many of the drinking scenes, the actors chose to drink real vodka. As a result, many of the takes of those scenes in the film are the 8th or 9th take, where the actors are genuinely drunk. Maybe THAT’S what makes a Russian laugh…?)

CITIZENFOUR (2014)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Laura Poitras
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 96% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Documentarian Laura Poitras captures the first week or so of Edward Snowden’s leaks to the press and the ensuing aftermath.


Over the last month or two, I have watched two stirring documentaries (Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Nostalgia for the Light) that redefined my idea of what a “good” documentary should be.  Instead of being passive observers, those filmmakers documented what they saw and then commented on it with definite viewpoints and biases.  Narration was used heavily.  That’s not normally my favorite kind of documentary, but they were clear exceptions to my rule.

Tonight, I finished watching Citizenfour, a documentary about the first week or so of the Edward Snowden whistleblowing controversy.  In direct opposition to the other documentaries I’ve seen recently, this film steadfastly avoids narration and simply presents the facts as they happen.  As I was watching, I was simply absorbed in the storytelling, and after it was over, it occurred to me that this documentary captured something incredibly rare: the first few days of a national scandal, behind the scenes with the actual person blowing the whistle, BEFORE the story breaks.  It was captivating.

But that sense of being a fly on the wall is nothing compared to the revelations Snowden made.  If you’re politically-minded, Citizenfour is not just revelatory; it’s chilling.  If one-tenth of what he discusses just in this film is true, the ramifications are vast.  I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but the secret surveillance programs Snowden describes are exactly the kind of tools needed to create a dictatorship.  When a government is using a program/algorithm/whatever that can follow your movements via phone calls, emails, e-payments, cell phones, laptops, etcetera…that’s a police state, empirically.

Snowden’s revelations are so mindblowing and voluminous that paranoia is the rule of the day.  He contacted Poitras and a reporter from The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald, via encrypted emails and air-gapped laptops and arranges to meet them in a Hong Kong hotel.  He makes a quick call to room service, then disconnects the phone.  Why?  Because, according to Snowden, the NSA has technology to listen in on conversations via a telephone handset, even when it’s hung up.  Later, the hotel’s fire alarm starts going off sporadically.  Snowden reconnects the phone and asks the front desk what’s going on, and he’s told it’s a scheduled test.  “Nice of them to let us know,” Snowden says.  Random event?  Who knows?  It’s a mark of how well the movie is constructed that seemingly innocuous events are transformed into, “They’re listening…”

The film follows the story, including the publication of the reports that eventually resulted in Snowden being forced to live in Russia for the better part of a year after his passport was revoked.  We meet Julian Assange as he organizes Snowden’s legal strategy along with a squad of ACLU attorneys, all working pro bono.

The genius of the film is how it simply presents the facts and allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions.  Is Snowden an attention-seeking charlatan?  Or was the US government actively spying – spying – on American citizens without their knowledge?  After a while, without really trying to, the movie takes on the air of one of those classic paranoid thrillers from the 1970s like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor.  At one point, Snowden logs into a laptop while covering his upper body with a blanket like a tent, presumably to make sure no one would be able to tell where he was by using the camera on his laptop.  Or something.

(Admittedly, we only hear snippets of opposing viewpoints, one from then-President Obama where he agrees that Snowden created a much-needed discussion but declines to call him a patriot because of his methods.)

But surely some of this stuff is a little too sensational, right?  The cynic in me wants to believe that’s the case.  But consider: The material in Citizenfour was so sensitive at the time that the director, Laura Poitras, had to move to Berlin because she kept getting detained by border authorities when trying to re-enter the US.  All the film footage was kept on encrypted drives to prevent access from…whomever.  In fact, she edited the movie completely in Berlin so the FBI couldn’t serve a search warrant for the drives.  Just in case.

At one point, Snowden and reporter Greenbaum carry on a conversation about another whistleblower, apparently inspired by Snowden, who seems about to release information about drone strikes and watch lists under Obama.  They are careful to censor themselves by not saying certain words and phrases out loud.  Instead, they write key phrases on pieces of paper and hand them back and forth.  And then the paper is torn to pieces.  Normally, this kind of thing would reek of paranoia, but considering what has come before, it seems perfectly reasonable, in light of what they’re discussing.

I gotta say…in all honesty, I may not be the best person to review this movie.  I think it’s well-made and eye-opening and informative, but is it going to make me change my online or cell phone habits?  Probably not.  I’m in my 50s, and I enjoy the convenience of Amazon Prime and paying my bills online and using my phone to pay for things when shopping.  Am I worried I’m being spied upon?  I suppose I should be.  But I’m not.  I guess I’m willfully ignoring facts, at least the ones based on this documentary.  I’m not saying I like it.  I’m definitely against it.  But is it enough to make me change my behavior?  If I’m being honest, no.  (And if I can’t be honest in an online review, where CAN I be honest?)  But, bottom line, Citizenfour is one of the finest documentaries I’ve seen in recent years. If you’re running short of things to be outraged about, look no further.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

By Marc S. Sanders

Forgive me! I’m going into the woods or, rather, outer space a little on this review.

Director James Gunn brings new perspective to Marvel Studios’ Guardians Of The Galaxy, by recognizing the one instinct that every person possesses but is not acted upon often enough…the instinct to dance.

I love to watch characters (not part of a standard song and dance musical) break out into dance. It comes out of nowhere while it humanizes the person. I write my own plays that way, and I award my characters the opportunity to dance as well. I love it when I see it because it’s always a surprise and always welcomed with a smile. Think of that great moment in John Hughes The Breakfast Club, when the five kids let it all out after they’ve let it all out among themselves in confidence. Look at Eddie Murphy boogie in a night club in 48 hrs and Beverly Hills Cop, and look past the crappy script of Footloose for one of the silliest and most fun dance soundtracks to bop your head to. That last bit offered some inspiration for James Gunn especially. Dancing is needed in life. Dancing brings a surge of security as we shed our inhibitions for a fleeting moment. James Gunn reminds his audience of that. If you can’t smile and tap your toe to at least one fresh minute of GOTG then I worry for your soul.

Try not to smile when you first see lead hero Peter Quill aka Star Lord shake, slide and lip sync out by himself on a marooned, wasted planet to the melody of Come And Get Your Love by Redbone. Yes. Don’t deny it! Your head was shifting and your foot was shaking when you first saw this moment.

Gunn hit on all the right notes with a film that could have torpedoed straight to B class junk in another director/writer’s hands.

GOTG focuses more on the humor than any of the zippy outer space special effects. Everyone is having a good time, even the bad guys.

The story more or less focuses on the pursuit and take away/get back of a MacGuffin. Because that’s so simple, Gunn doesn’t have to concern his script with logic and over plotting. Instead, he can offer time for great naive one liners from brutish Dave Bautista as lovable Drax The Destroyer (do I really need to explain this character? ) and Rocket Raccoon (do I really need to explain this character as well?). There’s a giant tree named Groot who will happily tell you “I am Groot” in case that wasn’t clear to you, and a tough as nails, green skinned Gamora played by Zoe Saldana. She, along with Chris Pratt as Quill, have great chemistry together as they develop a caring friendship amid their competitiveness and wacky action. A pause in the play to allow a sway and flow dance for Saldana and Pratt to Elvin Bishop’s Fooled Around And Fell In Love is hypnotic as Gunn stages it against a gorgeous purple galaxy sky with random yellow sparkles raining down. I could stay in that scene forever.

Main focus goes to Quill who pirates the galaxy while not knowing much about his father and keeps the memory of his Earth mother alive with her “Awesome Mix Tape Vol 1.” He’s a lone pirate with no allegiance, and happily scavenges items for pay from the highest bidder. Pratt has fun with his breakout cinematic role. He laughs, he teases and yup, he dances.

On a first viewing, GOTG can leave you a little bewildered as you try to comprehend what weird name belongs with what weird character and what is everyone talking about. Your next viewing will feel like an invitation to a night club because you’ll realize whatever exposition Gunn’s script offers is really not significant.

James Gunn offers a pleasure piece of sights and musical sounds. One motif I like about his fictional galaxy is that no two characters look the same. It reminded me of George Lucas’ first Star Wars film. The famous cantina scene never shows two of the same species of alien. That’s all that’s needed to imply the vastness of the population. Unlike the Aquaman, James Gunn doesn’t feel the need to show you every inch of this universe to prove just how big it all is. He adopts the means of many extras all with their unique look.

The villain is Lee Pace, a guy who’d make a great Bond villain actually. He’s hidden behind a lot of costume and makeup as Ronan, and maybe he could’ve been given more to do. There’s not much one on team time between him and the Guardians.

Other fun moments abound though, including a ridiculous daylight chase through a busy planetary downtown, and a ridiculous prison break led by Rocket and Groot that reminded me of a lot of the Zucker brothers humor from their Airplane! and Naked Gun films.

James Gunn manages the biggest and bravest departure from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it’s oh so right and necessary to keep the franchise alive and fresh.

Guardians Of The Galaxy is Marvel Studios’ answer to Looney Tunes and The Muppets. The great Mel Blanc and Jim Henson would have applauded a ridiculous film like this for years on end.

THE BABADOOK

By Marc S. Sanders

The Australian psychological horror film, The Babadook is a very unsettling piece, and I hate my colleague, Miguel E Rodriguez for subjecting me to a viewing. It’s so unnerving simply because it is so good.

Jennifer Kent writes and directs an eerie film about a troubled mother and her young son (Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman) named Amelia and Samuel Vanek. Samuel’s father passed away in an accident while taking Amelia to the hospital when she was in labor. Seven years later, Amelia endures much sorrow and loneliness while Samuel has social issues in school and resorts to crafting barbaric weapons out of wood. I just played with action figures. This kid puts sharp knives on a sling. Other mothers and children keep their distance from them. Samuel’s school is concerned of his presence with other first graders, and Amelia opts to not even celebrate the boy’s birthday on the actual day, also known as her husband’s date of death.

One evening, Samuel pulls a book known as “Mister Babadook” off the shelf for bedtime reading. Opening the book is their first and most regrettable mistake. Haunting images of a dark shadow are shown in “pop up book” form with promises of death and so on in a cute, yet sinister, Dr. Seuss like rhyme. This is the evil “Cat In The Hat.”

Like most creepy horror films, there’s pounding on doors and floors, open doorways to find nothing there, disturbing phone calls, shadows, surprising sound editing and so on. That’s nothing new. What makes Kent’s debut film so special though are the performances from Davis and Wiseman.

As I watched the film with Miguel, I told him after about a third of the way through that I hate that annoying little kid. I think that’s the point though. Noah Wiseman plays his part with great hyperactivity who can never be satisfied or calmed with any variation of attention. Essie Davis plays Amelia as strung out and exhausted. You can’t help but feel for her inescapable circumstance of being trapped in a home with no other family and no friends who seem willing to help, much less tolerate her crazed son.

Later, long after the disturbing children’s book is read, Jennifer Kent’s script turns on a different perspective. It’s not so much that the character’s have changed. More so, the aftermath of reading “Mister Babadook” has altered the mother and son’s behaviors. What caught me by surprise was that my own perspective gradually changed on the two players.

You will need to watch the film to truly uncover the mystery of the book’s power. However, it’s a very frightening exploration. Kent is very good with the sensory overload; which really is a necessary tool in horror, particularly in what you hear and what you see. Kent mixes up what sense is alarmed first though, with each passing sequence. It makes it hard to relax as a viewer, while it’s also hard for the mother and son to sleep at night. That’s what keeps the hairs on your body standing up and believe me, mine were standing at full attention.

Kent covers much psychologically. Insomnia, depression, aggression, night terrors and trauma are all given attention as they manifest into this disturbing unrecognizable character know as The Babadook.

I also observed an interesting aspect in use of color. Namely that Amelia is dressed primarily in faded pink and yellow while Samuel is adorned in dark grey or charcoal like the two story home they live in. The contrast in colors left me guessing who was the real source of fright in this film because at times the contrast seems to flip. I risk sounding vague here, but I’d prefer not to spoil what’s presented.

Again, The Babadook left me feeling shaken like the best of Stephen King’s adapted films including Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and especially the latter half of Brian DePalma’s Carrie. I’ll even go on record and say this film is better or more effective than those two films. It’s sharper and more mysterious.

I’m not sure I was entertained with The Babadook because I was always feeling disturbed and unsettled. Good horror films do that to me. Forgive me. I can’t help that.

On the other hand, Miguel was quite entertained at me cursing him out and loudly expressing my seething hatred towards him as I watched. What can I say? Mig had it coming for introducing me to The Babadook.