Escape From Tomorrow, directed by Randy Moore

Escape From Tomorrow (2013). Directed by Randy Moore. Starring Roy Abramsohn, Elena Schuber and Katelynn Rodriguez. Currently available on Netflix streaming.

Escape From Tomorrow (2013) is a strange, low budget indie film that shows Disneyland as a sinister place with dark forces lurking just beneath the cheerfulness. What makes the film especially interesting is that it was filmed, presumably unauthorized at Disneyland, which is an accomplishment in itself. It’s almost surprising that a dominant brand such as Disney didn’t prevent this film from being released. Perhaps they concluded that the negative publicity of a high-profile lawsuit would outweigh the benefits of letting a low-key indie film that relatively few people would see anyway.

Jim (Abramsohn) finds out that he’s been fired from his job just as he and his family are on vacation in Disneyland. He begins bickering with his wife Emily (Schuber) and struggles to maintain his sanity as he takes his two kids around the park. He becomes obsessed with two French teenage girls, who he repeatedly sees. As the couple becomes increasingly estranged from each other, events in the theme park become more and more sinister and surreal. By the final scenes, we are in the realm of dystopian sci-fi. That’s about all I’ll say about the plot, which is confusing and open to interpretation anyway (how much is in Jim’s mind and how much is real?).

While I found Escape From Tomorrow interesting, I have to admit that the actual movie never quite lives up to its promising concept -athe deconstruction of an American cultural icon. I’ve never been to Disneyland but have always found the whole Disney empire somewhat creepy. The theme park’s very nickname, “The happiest place on earth” even sounds like a slogan that belongs in dystopian fiction.

That Moore managed to film this black and white film in the actual theme park and turn the Disney mythology on its head is impressive. On the New York Times review of the film, you can see an interesting clip where Moore describes some of his techniques.

As for the execution of the film, the results are mixed. it only runs about 90 minutes but it seems quite long as there really isn’t much going on. The style and genre  of the movie  towards the end, shift from Jim’s unhappy and possibly unreliable psychological state into something resembling the German expressionism of  Metropolis. Even the ending is not without interest and suspense, but it doesn’t feel like it’s from the same film we started watching.Jim’s pursuit of the French girls is something that could have been inserted in any film about a disaffected middle-aged guy.

Jim’s pursuit of the French girls is something that could have been inserted in any film about a disaffected middle-aged guy. Disneyland, meanwhile, is such a specific target and so deeply embedded in modern American folklore that it deserves a more thorough expose. Moore managed to infiltrate the theme park to film the movie, but his subjective vision ends up missing the mark and collapsing into a generic mishmosh of unhappy family dynamics, repressed sexuality and, ultimately, dark sci-fi. By the final scenes, the film could have taken place on a distant star  or in the Twilight Zone just as easily as Disneyland.

All the same, Moore does deserve credit for his efforts. He does succeed, for much of the film, at revealing the possibility that the kind of “happiness” promised by Disneyland is not only fake but hides something truly dark and frightening. We’ve seen hundreds of movies (and TV episodes) where a serial killer has a pleasant smile and a happy-go-lucky facade. We can also read insightful but dry critiques of Disneyland as a tool of modern corporate capitalism.

I admire the way the film  imbues iconic images such as Mickey Mouse, the Disneyland castle and the ubiquitous song “It’s a Small World After All” with existential dread. Had it been a little more focused, Escape From Tomorrow might have done for that song what David Lynch’s Blue Velvet did for the song his film was named after.

Entertainment (2015) -directed by Rick Alverson

The title Entertainment is ironic, as it’s about someone who calls himself an entertainer but is anything but. Director Rick Alverson, whose previous work includes another darkly comic film, actually named The Comedy (2012), here attempts the thankless task of presenting an unlikable, often repulsive protagonist as he alienates everyone around him and eventually loses the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

I have a certain admiration for this film even though it’s not very enjoyable (nor is it meant to be). Gregg Turkington plays the nameless comic who performs in mostly empty rooms in desolate towns. Apparently, this is a character that Turkington plays regularly in stage performances. Having never seen this, however, I can only comment on the movie.

The “comic”  alternately insults the audience and delivers offensive jokes with no punch lines. At first, I found the movie funny in a perverse way; the comic’s bizarre idiosyncratic sense of humor, or what passes for that, has elements found in some of the work of Jim Jarmusch (e.g. Stranger Than Paradise) or the Coen Brothers (e.g. Barton Fink).

As the mostly plotless movie meanders along, however, it goes from dark comedy to something more like surreal tragedy -closer to David Lynch territory. As the comic leaves messages for his estranged daughter, we start to wonder if the daughter is even real. Similarly, when he witnesses a woman giving birth in a public bathroom, it’s uncertain whether this is reality or a hallucination.

John C. Reilly, the best-known actor in the film, plays a kind of straight man role here as the comic’s cousin. Tye Sheridan plays a clown/mime who performs along with the comic at various desolate venues. The clown’s performances are similarly bizarre, though the crowd at least responds to him while they ignore or heckle the comic.

I have a high tolerance for mumblecore as well as lightly plotted and even absurdist films. But this one didn’t quite work for me. There’s just not enough to grab onto either intellectually or emotionally. There is no backstory or context here, so we have no clue how or why the comic has reached this state. I also wondered how an unfunny comic with no fans could have gotten so many bookings, but I suppose you’re not supposed to ask such questions.

As the comic’s behavior gets progressively more bizarre, it’s like watching a random insane person mumbling to himself on the streets of a large city. Perhaps that’s not far from what Alverson is going for here -to compel you to look at one example of what a cold and uncaring world has done to one person, without providing any of the details. Watching Entertainment is definitely not a pleasant experience, but the movie is  interesting and well acted if ultimately obscure and pointless.

Doomsdays: Dark Comedy About Antisocial Slackers

Doomsdays (2013), written and directed by Eddie Mullins, is an original, low budget independent film with a truly anarchistic spirit. Quietly released in 2013, it is now available on Netflix, where it will gain a wider audience.

The film is, on the surface, a kind of slacker comedy about a pair of drifters, Fred (Justin Rice) and Bruho (Leo Fitzpatrick), whose way of life consists of breaking into people’s vacation homes and living off the food and, even more so, booze that they find. Fred is a pure hedonist and nihilist, who is mainly interested in consuming alcohol and having sex. Bruho is an angry idealist who is obsessed with the impending end of civilization due to oil running out (also known as peak oil). To express his disapproval of modern bourgeois existence, Bruho vandalizes every automobile he encounters. He also has a tendency to hit people who get in his way.

The pair aren’t criminals in the ordinary sense, they aren’t very interested in money or valuables. They are, rather, expressing their own version of a Robin Hood fantasy, feeding off the excesses of those who, in their view, possess way more than they need. Along the way, they pick up a couple of other misfits -an overweight teenager named Jaidon (Brian Charles Johnson) and a young woman named Reyna (Laura Campbell).

Complications ensue when Fred and Reyna become romantically involved and Jaidon tags along. However, the movie is really about the daily lives of the characters and the plot meandering and incidental. There is virtually no backstory to Doomsdays -Fred and Bruho do what they do, reveal portions of who they are, but there is no explanation of how they met or ended up choosing their improbable existence. Jaidon’s past or reasons for following the pair are never mentioned. Reyna, the most superficially normal of the group, is the only character whose past is revealed at all.

Doomsdays is a darker film than it first appears. The duo first appear like clownish slackers who harmlessly prank middle class homeowners. Yet, unlike most movie slackers, these two are not especially likable or sympathetic. Fred is a casual liar and possibly a narcissist, while Bruho is a sullen character whose anger at the system seems like an excuse to avoid facing his own personal demons. Mullins doesn’t try to romanticize these characters; they are neither heroes or villains, but, at best, fledgling anti-heroes.

There is mostly low key violence throughout the film, reminding us that even supposedly non-violent acts of theft, vandalism and trespass can easily lead to bodily harm. When a more serious act of violence occurs, it is treated rather casual way.

The film this most reminded me of is a fairly obscure German film from 2003 called The Edukators, about a group of young anarchists who break into people’s homes and rearrange the furniture.

I also detected an underlying similarity to a much darker film, A Clockwork Orange. Though not nearly as violent or shocking, Doomsdays has a similar tone in some ways. Both films deal with characters who are completely alienated from society and who regard normal people as intrinsic enemies to be preyed upon. As the title suggests, these are people for whom society has already collapsed and are just making the best of its remnants. Only Bruho has anything resembling a cause, and for him it’s far too late to save the world so all he can do is strike out against those he blames for its downfall.

I could even recognize shades of Larry Clark’s style of nihilism, as revealed in films such as Kids, in Doomsayers. Yet Mullins’ style is more quirky and low key than anything by Clark or Kubrick’s style in A Clockwork Orange.

The above probably makes Doomsdays sound heavier and more depressing than it actually is. Most of the film’s tone is light and there are more than a few laughs –mainly at the sheer audacity of the group’s actions, especially when they encounter disbelieving homeowners.

Doomsdays is an interesting, entertaining, quasi-political film that is certainly more compelling and original than 95% of what’s being released these days. To his credit, Mullins doesn’t make any attempt to explain, justify, glorify or demonize his little band of thieves. We just get to see them in action for a while and get to make of them what we will.

Glass Chin: Postmodern Boxing Noir

Glass Chin (2014), directed by Noah Buschel and starring Corey Stoll and Billy Cruddup is an interesting hybrid of a film and one of the most interesting and entertaining offerings I’ve found on Netflix in some time. It combines characteristics of Rocky with older (as in 40s and 50s) films about washed up boxers with some 70’s-style Martin Scorcese and 90’s style Quentin Tarantino thrown into the mix. The result may not be seamless perfection, but it’s engaging, intelligently written and has a story that’s actually compelling rather than a mindless sequence of action scenes that you usually find in this type of genre.

Stoll plays Bud, an ex-boxer who is torn between training a promising young prospect and working for a sinister bookie named J.J. (Cruddup). He and his girlfriend Ellen (Marin Ireland) live in a working class New Jersey neighborhood but discuss philosophy as they sit in diners. Even the film style of Glass Chin is a hybrid, between old school gritty and extremely stylized shots of city streets, more like you’d find in a French film. The effect, however, is always interesting. I especially enjoyed the dialog, which takes up a good part of the time, a fact that will no doubt bore some viewers.

This is mainly a character (and dialog) driven film with a rather simple plot. It contains not one but two outlandish psychopaths, J.J., a very up to date thug who admires Steve Jobs and owns an art gallery and his volatile assistant Roberto (Yul Vasquez). Bud is hired to collect money from gamblers who owe J.J. money and accompanies Roberto on these shakedowns. During one of these incidents, Roberto commits a murder and Bud is framed, all so that J.J. can compel him to fix a fight.

Glass Chin is full of contradictions. It’s a boxing film with no fight scenes (save seeing boxers train in a gym). It’s a gangster film with no on-screen violence. It’s an old school, noirish film with very stylized scenes more reminiscent of European cinema. It also ends on an inconclusive note that is somewhat frustrating.

The title refers to Bud’s own glass chin, as he was infamously knocked out to end his own boxing career (in what may or may not have been an honest fight). Yet it refers equally to his moral weakness, how easily he gets sucked into J.J.’s corrupt world due to his own dissatisfaction with his ordinary life.

This is actually one of the film’s central themes –the conflict between the ordinary and the glamorous. J.J., who owns a snow leopard, shuns the ordinary at all costs, while Ellen, a student of Buddhism, embraces it. Bud is a tragic character caught in the middle and doomed by his inability to choose.

Oscars vs. BBC Critics

Many serious, and even not-so-serious fans of cinema have long taken the Oscars with a grain of salt. Personally, I haven’t watched them for decades. Academy Award winners tend to be sentimental and pop culture-friendly choices. Just a couple of examples point this out; in 1989 the old-fashioned feel-good Driving Miss Daisy, about a black chauffeur who is loyal to his rich white employer, won Best Picture while Spike Lee’s hard-hitting but disturbing portrayal of race relations, Do The Right Thing was not even nominated.

Spike Lee Still Mad at 1989 Oscar Snub

Similarly, in 1995, the clever but basically insipid Forrest Gump swept all the major awards, beating out the far more groundbreaking Pulp Fiction. Another great contemporary films that were never even nominated for Best Picture was Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), while another, far more simplistic and heavy-handed L.A. ensemble piece, Crash, did grab the award, in 2006.

Now, a BBC list of the 100 Greatest American Films challenges the relevance of the Oscars.

Oscar Shamed as BBC List of 100 Greatest American Films Largely Ignores Academy Awards Best Picture Winners

Personally, I like the BBC list more than most Academy Awards selections, but only up to a point. To me, for example, there is something rote and unthinking about putting Citizen Kane at the top of the list (as the BBC list does). It’s a great film, to be sure, but the almost universal assumption that it’s The. Best. Film. Ever. seems more like a shared myth than an objective fact. It’s similar in this way to the Great Books canon, where we repeat the list of the greatest authors and books so often that we no longer have to give it much thought. Obviously, every cultured person knows that the works of Homer, Shakespeare, Melville, Austen, Fitzgerald, etc. are superior to anything written in the last 50 or so years. Although this point of view is now controversial and politically incorrect, the mystique around the Great Books remains mostly intact. It’s similar with certain movies from the black and white era.

Of course, no one is going to agree with all choices made by any awards ceremony or any critics lists. In our decentralized age, such “Best of…” lists are quickly becoming obsolete. Ironically, the very ubiquity of such lists on the internet is evidence of their silliness and subjectivity; who’s to say your clickbait 10 best list of the year’s greatest films is any less valid than the Oscars or the film critics of the BBC, New York Times or Variety?

The Oscars is one of those dinosaur institutions whose relevance fades with each passing year (or, maybe more to the point, with each passing tweet). The age of renowned critics, whether the late Roger Ebert or the BBC reviewers whose opinions comprise the aforementioned list, has also passed, as today any movie fan can spout opinions on his or her fledgling blog (e.g. the one you’re reading now), on Netflix, Amazon, Rotten Tomatoes and hundreds of other places. Still, it can be interesting to use the experts’ opinions as the starting point for discussions about movies.


Hits: Satire Misses the Mark

Hits (2014), directed by David Cross, has the appearance of a low budget indie comedy, yet features some serious talent -Jason Ritter, Amy Sedaris, Matt Walsh and Julia Stiles even makes a cameo appearance. This is the type of film that I found on Netflix and approached with low expectations. At first, I was pleasantly surprised to discover what seemed like a sharp and original satire. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite hold together and derails completely in the final scenes.

Hits refers to “hits” on sites like YouTube, not contract killings, a more likely guess for a movie title. It seems that with Hits, Cross is trying to do a Tom Wolfe-like satire for the internet/reality show age. The targets, however, are a few too numerous and the tone uneven. We have several distinct characters inhabiting separate universes that intersect uneasily and in an often contrived manner.

Walsh plays Dave, the type of continually outraged populist misfit who listens to talk radio, writes angry letters to the newspaper and gives long-winded tirades at town board meetings. All places, especially small towns, have characters who are very similar to Dave, and Walsh nails this part very well. The problem is, Hits tries to tack on too many other elements and personalities. Dave’s daughter Katelyn (Meredith Hagner), is a young woman obsessed with becoming a reality TV star and who is willing to do just about anything to achieve fame, despite being rather limited in the talent department. Hagner is quite good in this role, but by now satirizing reality TV and the obsession with fame is a fairly worn out cliché. While Hits tries to be original by combining the stories of Dave and Katelyn, they don’t really mix.

Further complicating matters are a trio of Brooklyn activist-hipsters who decide to take up Dave’s cause. This is a fairly contrived and unlikely scenario, but since this is a comedy we can give the film this much. The hipsters travel from the city to Liberty and immediately experience culture shock. It’s worth noting that there is a town called Liberty in upstate NY, but certain elements are changed in the film (e.g. the real town is in Sullivan County; in the film, it’s called something else).

The most troubling aspect of Hits is that it can’t make up its mind whether the characters are misguided but sympathetic misfits we should root for or completely contemptible losers deserving our disdain. This is most true of Dave, who, for most of the film, rails harmlessly against potholes and the lack of snow removal services on his block but, inexplicably, turns into a raving racist in the last ten minutes.

There is also an implication that the whole town consists largely of ignorant racists, as when another character tells the hated hipsters to “go back to Jew York.” This comment, apart from its offensiveness, misses the mark culturally,as this is supposedly a town in New York State and only two hours from the city. The real Libery, NY happens to be located in the middle of what used to be called the Borscht Belt, with a large Jewish population. The cultural contrast between Brooklyn and Liberty is just too exaggerated to be credible, even for a satire. The conflict between rednecks and hipsters would have been more believable if the film were set in rural Texas and the hipsters were from Austin.

In addition to making derogatory remarks about Obama, blacks, Jews and Muslims, Dave says “I know its true because Alex Jones says so.” Apart from the fact that well known conspiracy theorist Alex Jones isn’t known for making racist remarks, this type of quote just makes Dave sound like a complete idiot, which undercuts the sympathy he garners in other scenes, such as his interactions with his daughter.

Katelyn is similarly ambiguous. Is she sweet and naive or a manipulative bitch? This ambiguity comes to the surface when a sleazy recording studio owner attempts to convince her to have sex with him in exchange for a reduced rate when she can’t afford his services to make a demo tape. Katelyn, like Dave, is alternately sympathetic and contemptible. As for the Brooklyn hipsters, they are mainly just over-the-top ridiculous, if amusing at times. At one point, the film is on the verge of making a valid and interesting point -that liberal, left-leaning urbanites have more in common with populist, conservative small town folk than you might think at first. However, by the end, everyone is cynically skewered, and not in a way that’s especially insightful or funny.

If Hits were a dark satire along the lines of, say, Citizen Ruth, which succeeds at lampooning both sides of the abortion argument, its cynicism would be justified. But this film manages to be ambiguous and slightly offensive without being especially insightful. It’s just funny enough to be entertaining -at least until the last few minutes -but it could have been much better if it had a more targeted objective. For a film that aims for hard-edged social satire, Hits, despite some strong performances and promising early scenes, misses the mark in too many areas.

The Longest Week Review

The Longest Week (2014), directed by Peter Glanz, is an unapologetically derivative comedy/drama that attempts to mimic the genre once dominated by (arguably created by) Woody Allen –the world of affluent yet neurotic New Yorkers. Glanz also picks up stylistic gimmicks from directors such as Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums) and Walt Stillman (Metropolitan, Swingers). Unfortunately, The Longest Week falls far short of anything created by any of these directors, even some of the latter Woody Allen entries.

In a roundabout way, this film reminded me of some of the films that came out in the late 90s and early 00s. Following the success of Pulp Fiction, there was a glut of instantly forgettable Tarantino-influenced films that attempted to mimic that director’s distinctive use of dialogue, violence and time manipulation. Most of them were dismal failures. In a similar way, The Longest Week throws together many of the elements of the best Woody Allen films: impressive décor, wealthy and sophisticated intellectuals suffering from existentialist crises, wayward romances, witty banter and the inevitable sessions with a psychoanalyst -yet it doesn’t add up to anything meaningful or even entertaining.

The film opens with the lead character, Conrad Valmont (Jason Bateman) in a session with his long-suffering analyst. There’s even an Allen-esque Jazz soundtrack in the background, so there’s no doubt what type of film this one is attempting to imitate/pay homage to/rip off/satirize. Another gimmick is a retro atmosphere in the middle of an apparently contemporary New York City. People all seem to use landline rotary phones rather than smartphones.

The entire premise of The Longest Week seems contrived and unbelievable. Valmont, heir to a family who owns a luxurious hotel across from Central Park, has suddenly been cut off from his cozy and idle lifestyle. Somehow, his parents getting divorced means that at almost 40 years old, he is being kicked out of his suite and is suddenly broke. Not only does this seem unlikely, but Bateman himself is unable to convey any real concern here. When he tells a sympathetic chauffeur that this will all soon blow over, the audience cannot help but share this sentiment.

Conrad spends this “longest week” mooching off his equally dissolute friend Dylan (Billy Crudup) and a woman named Beatrice (Olivia Wilde), whom both men are romancing. Despite numerous scenes of angst, arguments and betrayal among these three, nothing is really at stake here. Dylan is a character very similar to Conrad; a successful artist who lives in a huge hipster loft. Beatrice is a model with a likewise cushy New York City lifestyle.

Much of the dialogue that is supposed to be witty is actually quite tedious. Having much of it delivered by an invisible narrator (Larry Pine) is a pointless and overused device that doesn’t help matters here. It only drives in the fact that the characters are unable to convey many things on their own. For example, the narrator has to tell us how irresistible Conrad is to Olivia. Otherwise, how can it be explained that they meet on a subway, when he merely glances at her and she hands him her phone number?

The Longest Week also uses the postmodern device of self-criticism that is designed to make its flaws forgivable. It’s as though Glanz was hedging his bets. If we don’t find the story and characters as charming as they find themselves, we can at least see that the script is clever enough to critique itself. There is even an acknowledgment that Conrad’s “pseudo intellectual” conversations are tedious. The most blatant example of this, however, is towards the end of the film, when Conrad is reading from an autobiographical novel. Someone in the audience delivers a pointed criticism of the book (and hence the film we’re watching), saying that the supposed transformation the protagonist undergoes is trivial.

On a similar note, a minor character (unfortunately) named Jocelyn (Jenny Slate) who is a student of postmodern literary criticism at one point ridicules the banality of the world Conrad, Dylan and Beatrice inhabit. The problem is that Jocelyn, while apparently dismissed as an annoying buzzkill, is actually right on the mark and is actually one of the more likable characters in the movie. If The Longest Week was created as a parody of the kind of films it’s imitating, this type of device might be effective. There’s not, however, enough humor here for it to be considered parody or satire. Much of the supposedly witty dialogue in this film, as well as its many literary references, lack any substance. It’s as though words and references are dropped just to remind us that we’re in sophisticated company.

Dylan, for example, is introduced as an “anti-social socialist.” Whether this is a clever bon mot or not, nothing in the film suggests he is any type of socialist. We meet Beatrice reading a Jane Austen novel. She is supposedly trying to model herself according to the standards of Victorian literature; yet nothing in her manner or actions lends credence to this.

Conrad at one point draws an analogy between his relationship with Beatrice and Pygmalion. Another high-brow literary reference, but one that has nothing to do with the story. Beatrice runs in the same social circles as Conrad and Dylan; she’s not someone who needs to be educated and introduced to high society. Other authors, such as Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald are similarly mentioned without purpose -other than to elevate the mood. The same way B action movies throw in pointless car chases, fights and explosions, this film sticks in literary references, impressive architecture and lots of classical music.

Watching The Longest Week actually gives me more appreciation for directors such as Woody Allen. A film like this reveals that it takes more than throwing in a bunch of cultural references and self-consciously witty repartee to create a compelling story. If there is a contemporary director who has managed to take up where Woody Allen left off, it’s probably Noah Baumbach. In his film, Greenberg, for example, Ben Stiller (in one of his best performances) creates the kind of immature, overeducated, underachieving misanthropic character that is somewhere between hero and antihero.

Bateman as Conrad, though he is aiming for something similar here, never manages to pull this off. He is not particularly likable or charming, but he’s not blatantly unlikable either. He just seems like a decent actor doing his best with material that is pointless and futile.

The Voices Film Review

The Voices (2014), directed by Marjane Satrapi, who is best known for her 2007 animated Iranian film Persepolis, is a strange film that’s difficult to categorize, love or hate (at least for this reviewer). It can be seen as an original, very dark comedy about a superficially likable guy named Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) who happens to be schizophrenic and turns into a serial killer. It can be appreciated for its absurdist humor or criticized for its gory scenes, portrayal of mental illness and for the seemingly lighthearted way that it depicts violence against women.

Apart from anything else, I did find aspects of The Voices quite funny. Specifically, the way Jerry hears his cat and dog talking to him, playing the parts of angel and devil (with the cat, naturally, being the latter). Reynolds himself does a moderately good job of doing these voices, with the cat having a Scottish brogue and the large bull mastiff speaking in a cartoon-dog southern drawl. We actually see the cat’s mouth moving as he “talks” to Jerry and urges him to commit all kinds of hideous crimes.

There is nothing realistic about The Voices, even apart from talking pets. Jerry is a man with a history of mental illness who, it seems, has recently been released from an institution. He sees a therapist regularly, played by Jacki Weaver. He lives in a depressing industrial city called Milton that is somewhere in the middle of the country. Jerry inexplicably inhabits an entire building, a former bowling alley. While this makes for a convenient headquarters for a serial killer, it is hardly credible that a man who works in a warehouse is able to rent out an entire building all by himself.

Jerry’s workplace is similarly bizarre and off-kilter, with employees who wear pink uniforms and, at least in one scene, dance in musical style numbers around the factory. There is even a local Chinese restaurant that features unlikely Elvis and Bruce Lee impersonators. One feature of The Voices is that we are meant to notice a large gap between reality as perceived by Jerry (when he is off his meds) and the real, far less colorful and hopeful world.

Jerry’s descent into complete madness begins when his romantic advances towards attractive co-worker Fiona (Gemma Arterton) are not reciprocated. Despite this, the scene in which he brutally murders her does not really make sense, even given Jerry’s mental state. He is clearly infatuated with Fiona and she is actually being nice to him, albeit in a dishonest way, up until the point when things go wrong. After they hit a deer, Jerry inexplicably turns violent against Fiona.

The most complex relationship in the film involves Jerry and another co-worker, Lisa (Anna Kendrick), the only character who genuinely likes Jerry. The begin a romance, but Jerry’s evil cat Mr. Whiskers, along with Fiona’s head (which Jerry now keeps in the freezer) are urging him to continue his killing spree. Funny, sick or just plain bizarre stuff, depending on your tastes.

We get quite a few glimpses into Jerry’s back story; his mother was also mentally ill and also heard voices. However, as any mental health advocate will tell you, most schizophrenics are not violent, especially not in the premeditated way that Jerry’s actions ultimately unfold. Perhaps they were thinking of the real life infamous killer Son of Sam, who supposedly followed orders given by his dog when he went on a killing spree in the 1970s.

It’s hard to say what director Satrapi and writer Michael Perry were trying to achieve with The Voices. The focus on Jerry’s tragic childhood and the absurdly upbeat and surreal ending set in heaven with a dancing Jesus, seem to be urging us to sympathize with this unlikely but not entirely unlikable serial killer. At the same time, it’s impossible for any remotely sane person to justify anything Jerry does in this film.

Critical response to The Voices has been interesting and extremely conflicted. I read one review that called the film “perfect,” which seems like excessive praise. On the other hand, I think it’s worth reading a vitriolic but insightful feminist critique of the film by Maryann Johanson, on The Flick Philosopher. I’m not sure if I agree with her conclusion that the film is thoroughly misogynistic, but it does bring up some salient points about the way violence against women is trivialized.

I’m not a big believer in quantifying films with stars (or, even worse, using a binary, absurdly simplistic “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” system), which is why I don’t use stars on any of my reviews. However, just to put things in perspective, if I were rating The Voices on Netlfix or Amazon I’d give it 3 out of 5 stars. It’s a film that’s darkly funny, interesting, disturbing and extremely uneven.


Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

Boyhood is one of the most impressive films in the career of Richard Linklater, a director known for making innovative and captivating independent films -e.g. the Before Sunrise trilogy, Waking Life and Dazed and Confused, to name just a few.

Most of the publicity around Boyhood comes from its gimmick -the fact that it was filmed over a 12 year period, in which we get to see the characters, especially star Ellar Coltrane, grow older. This certainly adds something to the movie and makes it truly unique. The only films it has been compared to in this regard are the Up series, which follow the lives of characters every 7 years. Those, however, are documentaries, which are a different breed altogether. It is indeed fascinating to watch the protagonist Mason (Coltrane) grow from a 6 year-old to an 18 year-old college student by the end.

Boyhood, however, should ultimately be judged by its merits as a film, not by the method used by the director. And in this regard, it succeeds triumphantly. What I admire most about Linklater’s films is the way he blatantly violates the cliches of formula filmmaking and nevertheless manages to end up with movies that are so much more compelling than the paint-by-the-numbers efforts of his more conventional contemporaries. At the same time, his style is down-to-earth and doesn’t make you feel like you’re watching a performance piece that’s being clever and artistic just for the sake of it.

For this reason, a film like Boyhood ends up being far more interesting that it sounds like from the description -which is the exact opposite of most movies. A kid grows up; his parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) split up; his mother makes some questionable choices for replacement fathers; Mason dates a girl who ends up disappointing him…none of this is very noteworthy on the surface. Yet, with Linklater’s script and direction, there is scarcely a moment that’s not fascinating.

Boyhood has some of the philosophical, somewhat trippy dialogue found in other Linklater films, especially Slacker and Waking Life. Characters manage to convey intelligent and existentialist mindsets without coming off like people in a 1960s French New Wave film (not that there’s anything wrong with that -just that it could come across as pretentious and unlikely when the setting is 21st century America).

Creating dialogue-centered movies without having them sound like stage plays is a skill Linkater has perfected. In the Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight series, he avoids this (mostly; the final entry does get a little melodramatic towards the end) by the diverse settings. In Boyhood, there are similarly a multitude of settings, from backyards to wooded areas to the colorful streets of Austin.

Boyhood is a major cinematic achievement, both for the way it was created and, more importantly, the final result.

Blue Jasmine Review

In Blue Jasmine (2013), Woody Allen recovers a little of the brilliance his films from the 70s and 80s displayed, while at the same time reminding us that his outlook is dated. Cate Blanchett, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2014 for her role as Jasmine, is what really turns an interesting idea into a truly compelling movie.

Many reviewers have focused on how heavily Blue Jasmine borrows from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Indeed, the film follows the basic trajectory of that play quite closely, though changing the setting and dates. This is especially apparent when you consider that Cate Blanchett actually starred in a version of A Streetcar Named Desire only several years ago.

As the film opens, Jasmine is a formerly wealthy New Yorker who is forced to move in with her far less affluent half sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. As we meet Jasmine, she is the picture of decayed elegance as she mutters her life story to a stranger on the plane. Jasmine is alternately condescending and pathetic as she is forced to accept charity from someone she clearly feels is beneath her.

Much of the film consists of flashbacks that reveal Jasmine’s life with her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), a wealthy but corrupt financier who is eventually arrested. Not only has Hal ruined Jasmine’s life, he has also wreaked havoc on Ginger and her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) by getting them to invest in a crooked real estate scheme that bankrupts them.

While Blanchett’s performance, along with all of the other characters is brilliant, it’s hard to overlook some of the ways that Woody Allen is out touch. At the time Jasmine and Ginger meet up, Ginger is living in what is apparently the last non-gentrified block in the city of San Francisco. She is raising two boys and working as a stock clerk in a grocery store.

These details illustrate how Woody Allen does not understand how the other half lives. At a time when even white collar workers must share housing in cities like San Francisco, Allen’s notion of poverty is having Ginger inhabit a spacious, bohemian chic apartment that she and her boys have all to themselves (at least until Jasmine shows up).

On a similar note, Jasmine laments how she was forced to move out of Manhattan and into Brooklyn after her husband’s empire collapsed. Allen, as usual, is still living in the 80s, when Brooklyn was still considered a remote “bridge and tunnel” borough that only housed the less fortunate (at least from the insular Upper East Side-centric view of Allen).

Still another example of cultural myopia occurs when Jasmine takes computer classes so she’ll be able to study for an online interior decorating degree. This is, admittedly, a rather minor plot point, but we are supposed to believe that a sophisticated forty-something woman from New York City doesn’t know how to use the internet in the 21st century. This is more a symptom of someone from Allen’s generation rather than Jasmine/Blanchett’s.

The blue collar characters who revolve around Ginger are all borderline anachronistic stereotypes. Fortunately, the actors who play them succeed in making them actual human beings. Andrew Dice Clay, never especially funny as a self-consciously un-PC standup comic in the 80s, has just the right blend of menace and pathos to play Augie, a contractor who allowed himself to be swindled by Hal in a weak moment.

By the time Jasmine arrives, Ginger has begun dating another unstable blue collar type, played by Bobby Cannavale, a possessive, hard-drinking type prone to fits of weeping. As if this wasn’t enough, Ginger has yet a third suitor, played by another (more popular and successful) standup comic, Louis C.K., who infuses his character with just the right amount of nuance.

Jasmine, for her part, is also not lacking in admirers. First, an overly amorous dentist who she works for and then, more promisingly, a suave diplomat who she promptly lies to about her past, which everyone but she can see can only lead to disaster.

Blue Jasmine is certainly not an uplifting film, which is not surprising coming from Allen, who has been more influenced by European cinema than the feel-good Hollywood rom-com tradition. This film, however, doesn’t provide the kind of comic relief that, in many of his earlier works, balanced out the dark existentialism and nihilism. Jasmine is presented as a tragic and irredeemable character who is doomed to live in a world of self-delusion. The film, as much as any other Allen has directed, reveals the director’s cynical view of human nature, one that recalls the ancient Greek truism that “character is destiny.”


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