Tag Archives: film

Films I watched, December 2015


Last Shift 2015 Directed by Anthony DiBlasi
As others have said, predictable in places, but a great example of doing a lot with very little: one location, bright lighting, very small amount of cast members. Great to have in rookie cop Jessica a female protagonist who is strong and police trained, yet also unnerved as the night goes on. Less interesting are jump scares set up for us, not for the character, like when Jessica leaves an empty room, not noticing there are ghosts there for a few moments. Makes less sense the more you think about it, but smart enough.


Love and Mercy 2015 Directed by Bill Pohlad
The scenes recreating the recording sessions for Pet Sounds are spine-tingling, and for music fans seeing the recreation of the Wrecking Crew and their discussions with the boy genius Wilson…well, you leave the movie wishing there was more, more, more of that. But this is a bio-pic after all, albeit a better one than most, and so we get a living, breathing Wilson from Paul Dano and a touching and wounded older Wilson from the actor who looks nothing like him, John Cusack. Paul Giamatti plays yet another soul- and profit-sucking manager, twice in one year it happens. Terrific sound design from Atticus Ross, who creates an ambient bed of Wilsonics. Good but not great, and frustratingly truncated in its final act.


Room 2015 Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
A tough adaptation by the author Emma Donoghue of her own book, mostly ditching the voice of the five-year-old Jack, who has been raised to only know captivity in a small room. Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, what remains is the survival narrative, first within the room and then SPOILER outside the room, where there are rooms upon rooms and more emotional minefields to traverse. It cries out for a more impressionist, stranger film, one that would tease more out of the metaphors (philosophical, political, psychological) that the Room sets up. Lenny Abramson, who directed the wonderful Frank instead works to get strong performances out of Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. I was disappointed that the music takes the edge off what are the film’s most suspenseful section, opting for major key, piano tinklings. Though impressive, this is a room that I don’t need to revisit.


A Very Murray Christmas 2015 Directed by Sofia Coppola
Holiday piffle directed by Sofia Coppola, once again back in a hotel room overlooking city lights with a sad sack Bill Murray. Wants to have its critique and eat it too, it’s neither too meta, nor too entertaining. But you want to like it because it’s Bill Murray. Take-aways: Miley Cyrus and Maya Rudolph have an impressive set of pipes each.


Phoenix 2014 Directed by Christian Petzold
A slow burner with hints of Vertigo and Teshigahara’s Face of Another, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix is about a woman (Nina Hoss) returning from the concentration camps with a new face and determined to discover if her husband sold her out to the Nazis. Her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) believes that this “new” woman Esther looks close enough to Nelly that she could help him get her inheritance, never suspecting that they are one and the same. Though we see a gun early on in the film, it’s a song that returns in the third act to do the most damage. A film about rebuilding identity after war and trauma, it’s also about memory and how we see each other, and the battle in a post-war environment to write and rewrite history.

And on television:


Marvel’s Jessica Jones 2015 Created by Melissa Rosenberg
While the current Marvel films are bloated punch-’em-ups, Marvel’s television experiments have been more grounded in reality and actual character development. The closest that a film has got to replicating in the viewer the after effects and lingering paranoia of sexual trauma, Jessica Jones gets quite nailbiting as it nears its middle section. It’s also a movie of its time in a culture that still has “problems” with the subject of rape. Krysten Ritter balances strength and vulnerability and David Tennant uses all his charm to counterbalance his villainy. Overlong by about two episodes, its climactic scene just misses the mark.

Film Three-Quarterly: The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)



I watched King of Marvin Gardens many, many years ago, when it was a VHS rental from a video store (remember those?) I had very little memory of the film, apart from Jack Nicholson’s opening monolog and the one he records later in the bathroom, which I used for a mixtape (remember those too?)

So it was a delight to watch this again and see the film for the “first” time. Bob Rafelson had made several films with Nicholson up to this point, most famously two years before, Five Easy Pieces, which, similarly, many can’t remember save the diner scene.

Continue reading Film Three-Quarterly: The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

Film Three-Quarterly: Fargo (1996)



Before Picasso went Cubist, he knew the techniques of the old masters. Before the Coen Brothers became one of the more adventurous commercial filmmakers out there, they knew their genre and structure. Blood Simple is tight as a drum when it comes to plotting. But as they got more confident, they began to experiment with form, character, and structure.

Let’s take their Oscar-winning Fargo from 1996. Like their first film, it’s a crime story where a plan goes terribly awry. But in terms of structure, we are a long way from classic noir. This is the first film we’ve looked at that refutes the three quarter structure that so many films follow. How and why it does that is what we’ll get into.
Continue reading Film Three-Quarterly: Fargo (1996)

Film Three-Quarterly: Up (2009)

For a quick recap of the theory behind F3Q, read this.

If anybody knows structure, it’s the storytellers at Pixar. To kick off Film Three-Quarterly, let’s take a look at this sweet, inter-generational adventure in which the elderly widower Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) takes off in his balloon-powered house to escape the old folks home in search of Paradise Falls, South America. However, he has the ingratiating Boy Scout Russell (Jordan Nagai) as an unintentional stowaway. This is journey narrative and a comedy, so lets look at the three quarter scenes of this film and if they confirm to our theories about narrative structure. This is a 96 minute film, so our major scenes should happen at 1) 24:00 2) 48:00 and 3) 72:00 minutes. (SPOILER: They do.)

The opening 10 minutes is a masterpiece of an introductory sequence that both sets up the future elements of the plot (explorer Charles Muntz, the monster bird he claims he found in Venezuela, and the “Spirit of Adventure”) and condenses Carl’s lifelong romance and marriage to his one true love Ellie. We then catch up with Carl in the present day. Ellie has passed on, he’s depressed, and is threatened with gentrification taking his house and a nursing home as his fate.


Our first quarter scene, then, happens when Carl has taken off in his balloon house and, while in mid-air, opens the front door to find Russell on his porch. Ten minutes earlier in the film, he tried to get rid of Russell. But now they are indeed stuck together, and this scene both illustrates how the Boy Scout will be annoying (he’s a motormouth and doesn’t ask permission) and helpful (he spots the approaching storm clouds). This is the beginning of their journey. One is geographic, to Venezuela. The other, more important journey, is that of emotional growth.

By the time we get to our middle scene, the two have landed near the falls, met both the “Monster” of Paradise Falls (a gawky bird that Russell names Kevin), and Dug (Bob Peterson) one of the best animated dogs since The Triplets of Belleville. We also know that three attack dogs are on their trail. Just like he felt about Russell, Carl wants to get rid of these two animals, but in the middle scene, Carl’s emotional world changes.


The scene takes place in the dark around a campfire under a drizzling rain. After a wonderful, Buster Keaton-worthy visual gag about a tent, we learn along with Carl that Russell has an absentee father and no mother, so when Russell asks as he drifts off to sleep to protect both the bird and the dog, Carl says yes.

Carl has gone from a curmudgeon who wanted to leave society and people to live inside his memories and grief to a man now responsible for three other lives. This decision now sends the film into its second half. And its done in one of the quietest moments in the film. (It also will be important in the film’s final scene.)

By the time we get to the third quarter, Carl has received all he thought he wanted. He’s reached his destination, and met his childhood hero Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), who withdrew from the world in scandal. In essence he’s met his idealistic double. But Muntz is still living with past desires and wants that Monster bird. Muntz and his dogs capture the bird and Carl chooses to save his house from the threat of fire rather than help.


Our final quarter, then, takes place at the lowest point, but not for long. Russell feels sad and betrayed, and as Carl looks around his now nearly destroyed house, he once again thumbs through his photo album, indulging in memories of his life with Ellie. This photo album brings us emotionally right back to the beginning, but a handwritten note from Ellie makes Carl see that he’s been living in the past for too long. This is a comedy with a happy ending, and so Carl makes a decision that to live in the moment. It is beautifully presented in this shot, with Russell’s Boy Scout sash lying over the arm of Ellie’s chair, symbolic of how Carl’s objects of devotion occupy similar places in his heart. That’s masterful stuff, folks.

This choice sends Carl and Russell towards the conclusion of their story, which ties all the emotional threads in a satisfying way. There’s so much more to “Up,” but in this first installment of F3Q, we can see how structure helps carry the emotional back story for both the main characters.

Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson
Written by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, and Tom McCarthy

A Bit of Faith – Local Christian Filmmakers premiere their first feature at Arlington

Melissa Dixon, left, plays Elaine and Crister De Leon plays Alex in the film "Redemption of the Heart Road Less Traveled Pictures
Melissa Dixon, left, plays Elaine and Crister De Leon plays Alex in the film “Redemption of the Heart
Road Less Traveled Pictures

Indie filmmakers work years to see their projects through to the premiere date. They enlist friends, family and co-workers to help. They scrape together funds to start and they further scrape to finish. But it’s all worth it for the love of creativity.

“Redemption of the Heart” ‘s filmmakers, Isaac Meeks of Santa Ynez and Sandon Yahn of Oxnard, have had a similar experience with their film, but the twist here is that they’re also doing it for the love of Jesus and their church, Calvary Chapel.
Continue reading A Bit of Faith – Local Christian Filmmakers premiere their first feature at Arlington

New Filmmakers, New Fest : Pop-Up Film Festival Takes over Arlington for one day

The Arlington Theatre rolled out the red carpet last Thursday night, not for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (that’s later this week), but for a day-long screening of social justice films called the “Pop Up Film Festival.” The creation of filmmaker Daniel Bollag, the Festival was a one-day, 12-hour affair, with a series of seven films screening from noon to midnight with stops along the way for audience discussion, promotional tables in the lobby, a bar on the patio for guests, live music outside, and the aforementioned red carpet, which the Arlington extended out to the street.

“I didn’t really worry about turnout so much,” Mr. Bollag said as he took a quick break from the proceedings. “This is all about giving these films a voice. A lot of these films will not be shown in the normal film festivals.”

Continue reading New Filmmakers, New Fest : Pop-Up Film Festival Takes over Arlington for one day

Film Review: Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary

‘Pages’ mixes ballet, sexuality and bloodsucking
By D.M. Terrace, Special to the Voice

Guy Maddin’s “Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary” is a curious beast, being a meeting of minds: Maddin’s retro-German Expressionism filming methods and the already offbeat Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s staging of “Dracula.” The ballet is at once respectful of the original novel’s narrative and willing to subvert it for pure movement and expression, focusing on the two women at the center of Bram Stoker’s work: Lucy and Mina.

Guy Maddin has led an extremely cultish career, creating films that seem to come from the golden age of silent cinema, with grainy film, intertitles, variable shutter speeds, broad acting, and pancake makeup with black eyeliner. Sometimes, his striving for effect and replication overwhelms the simpler things like plot and character; other times, all his efforts pay off, such as in “Heart of the World,” the brilliant short he made for the Toronto film festival (and shown two years ago at the SB Film Fest).

To film a ballet, then, doesn’t seem too much of a stretch for Maddin; the stylized movements of the dancers aren’t too far from the strange locomotion that often pops up in his films. And the “big” emotion of ballet is also close to his aesthetic. Strange, then, that Maddin seems not that interested in the dancing — he certainly doesn’t film it like he is, preferring close-ups and tableaux to wide shots.

What comes across after a viewing is that Maddin is very interested in Stoker’s novel itself, and saw the ballet as his chance to film his take on the classic. It’s clear that Maddin favors a reading that explores the strange sexuality of the novel. “Dracula” here becomes a sort of anxiety tale about the deflowering of innocent women, with Lucy taken before her wedding, and the mob-like desire for revenge exerted by her ex-suitors, jealous with rage. Blood, and all that it symbolizes to the female in this society, is most important here: in a black and white film, it’s one of the few things that Maddin colors (tellingly, the other thing is green money).

Best performance belongs to Zhang Wei-Qiang as Dracula. Casting an Asian in the role — the ballet company’s choice, not Maddin’s — works well in bringing out the xenophobia that, like the sexuality, lies barely suppressed below the surface of the tale (Maddin underscores the point with clips from a real anti-immigrant WWII film). Zhang is in the film sparingly, but his presence is felt throughout; he’s sexy, threatening, seductive, and cold, a perfect vampiric combo.

Ballet fans will probably get the least out of Maddin’s film, but anybody else into the strange and wondrous will find deep resonance in this most peculiar cinematic beast.