Who has a more intimidating face than Michael Shannon? This is an actor who just breathes intensity. He twitches and sneers with scary effect, often appearing as though he can barely hold his rage in. Heck, this guy just recently proved he could recite a simple email with awesome effect. Clearly, he knows what his strengths are, and capitalizes on them. He is almost always the most interesting actor in a scene, because he has such an unpredictable delivery that we wonder what he’s going to do next. His talents are on full display in Ariel Vromen’s crime film The Iceman (2012). Here, we get to see Shannon at his best: constantly on edge, nearing the breaking point, chewing scenery as if it’s bubblegum. In a vacuum, this is some of Shannon’s finest work. It’s unfortunate the film isn’t as good as he is.
Ron Morales’s Graceland (2012) is a mostly effective thriller hailing from the Philippines. Being Filipino myself, I’m glad to see films from there making their way to the States, because at this point (at least in the mainstream) they are still few and far between. Even better is how Morales gives us a story that doesn’t simply paint the country in any manipulative way. I’ve seen too many works from other countries that solely try to show their culture in the most positive fashion imaginable. Here, these are real characters in tense situations. No one is perfect, everyone has their secrets, and the moral line between right and wrong is clearly blurred. This makes the film—imperfect as it is—much more thoughtful than your random, run-of-the-mill crime story. If anything, this is a good stepping stone, showcasing what the country has to offer to world cinema.
There are few films that have legitimately left a chill down my spine. The Act of Killing (2012) is one of them. This is a haunting, disturbing, and eye-opening documentary that looks into the minds of mass murderers. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (and co-directed by Christine Cynn and a source listed only as “Anonymous”), this story goes to places and reveals information I was shocked to see access to. This is like a real life nightmare, where the bad guys have won and are now in control. They freely admit responsibility for the bloodshed they caused, and do so with an enormous sense of pride. And to make matters even more unsettling, these men are actually considered heroes in their native country. Dealing with themes of morality, righteousness, and government control, this is a film that will burrow itself in your mind long after you’ve seen it.
Ahh, the summer movie season. This is the time for big spectacles, epic stories, and plenty of action and excitement. The buzz is never stronger during the year than it is right now. And nothing says “Summer Blockbuster” like…The Great Gatsby 3D? Sure, the idea may seem a little strange, but let’s think about this for a moment. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s well-known novel is a story of excessive indulgence—of bright lights, fancy clothes, and lots of money. If anything, the surface level extravagance fits right in with the movie season. And who better to bring this to life than one of the more excessive filmmakers around: Baz Luhrmann? While we’ve seen films tackle this material before, none have done so the way that Luhrmann has. He’s taken this classic story and molded it into a very contemporary piece.
The 100 Hour Project (2012, 45 min.)
It’s a tough thing, being an artist. Sure, you get to live in a world of creativity and imagination, but very few fortunate people have the opportunity to carve out a career. Many artists spend years struggling to make ends meet; some even have to take up side jobs to do so. And that’s where we enter director Brian Nunes’s short documentary, The 100 Hour Project. Following Seattle-based singer/songwriter Carson Henley, we get a glimpse into the struggle of a musician to both stir his musical aspirations and make a name for himself in the constantly growing musical industry.
One of the most fascinating examinations involving the mystery of human connection comes from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy (1993-94). The three films (Blue, White, and Red) signify the tenets of the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. But that doesn’t begin to describe what these stories are like and how they seemingly relate, despite being separate from one another. Kieslowski takes these themes and molds them in a fashion different than what one may expect. These grand ideas are deeply focused toward personal and intimate stories, involving singular characters dealing with tremendous emotional adversity. In setting his films in a more grounded environment, Kieslowski enables us to connect with them in regards to love, life, and the invisible ties between strangers. Life is short, often times beautiful, and—on occasion—hilariously absurd. Kieslowski knew this, and depicted it in arguably one of the best trilogies ever made.
J.J. Kelley and Josh Thomas, documentary filmmakers who last made Paddle to Seattle: Journey Through the Inside Passage (2009), return to familiar territory with Go Ganges! (2012). This time around, instead of kayaking from Alaska to Seattle, Kelley and Thomas take a much more ambitious challenge: traveling to India and following the renowned Ganges River from the glacier-filled source (near the Himalayas) all the way to the ocean (at the Bay of Bengal). A quick Wikipedia search finds that the river is 1,569 miles long, and is the world’s second-greatest river by water discharge. By rickshaw, paddleboat, scooter, and finally by foot, Kelley and Thomas make their way south, interacting with locals and gaining a deeper appreciation for what the river means to the Indian people, both religiously and for basic natural survival.
Coming out of Justin Zackham’s The Big Wedding, I thought it would be nice for us to brush up on our vocabulary skills. Luckily, I’ve come up with a few words that are appropriate for the film in question. Pencils ready? Let’s begin:
Once, a long time ago, I tried my hand at mixing drinks. I bought a book with a large assortment of alcoholic recipes, got all the tools I thought were necessary, and stocked my shelf with ingredients, mixers, liquors—you name it, I had it. I believed I had everything I needed to begin my newly adopted hobby successfully. After one, two, three failed attempts at making drinks, I started to realize that this wasn’t as easy as I believed. After another handful of unsuccessful stabs, my career as a drink maker came to a crashing end, mere hours after it supposedly began. I can’t imagine what it is like to be a bartender—not only do you have to consistently make fine-tasting drinks at a fast pace, you also have to be a people person, making sure the customers you serve want to come back.
The temptation to name off all the films Oblivion clearly lifts from is strong. Yes, as I watched it, nearly half a dozen other titles popped to mind. Director Joseph Kosinski, along with screenwriters Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt, fill this story with visual and plot references that are too familiar to go unnoticed. I will refrain from naming said references in order to keep major secrets hidden. Granted, Kosinski’s direction is apt, the art design impressive, and the performances feel authentic. On a pure surface level, the film is well made, with sufficient entertainment value. The filmmakers come very close to getting away with borrowing recycled ideas, but this seems like it was aimed at an audience that has never seen a science fiction film before. For those that have, I wonder if they’ll be able to shake how unoriginal it is.