Thursday, December 12, 2013

Film Review: Upstream Color (2013)

by Pelham Giroux

An important question surrounding "Upstream Color" has become: Should the film be applauded just because Shane Carruth attempted it? Carruth did not only direct, write, and star in the film (his second picture, released a decade after his first), but he is also credited as producer, composer, and editor. Carruth's effort and determination is definitely ambitious. But the film itself is a gimcrack vanity trip.

The main character, Kris, experiences severe trauma, which involves her being kidnapped, drugged (the drug contains some metaphysical worm), and hypnotized. When she comes out of her stupor she is penniless and, unable to explain her absence, loses her job.

A man named The Sampler (a separate person from the kidnapper) lures Kris to his farm by using a low-frequency sound. He removes her worm and places it in a piglet. Kris is released, and later meets Jeff, who has been through a similar frightening ordeal.

The piglet carrying Kris' worm is somehow psychically connected to her. When that pig gives birth, The Sampler puts the piglets in a sack and drowns them. At the same time elsewhere, Kris is suddenly panicked (but doesn't know why) and begins searching frantically. Jeff is equally upset. Very scared, the two lock themselves in a bathroom, hiding in the bathtub with a gun and supplies.

Carruth says he chose not to have a relatable trauma happen to the two protagonists because he was worried that if it was too specific, people would believe the commentary was an indictment of whatever that thing was. For example, if the drug used in "Upstream" was a pharmaceutical drug (as opposed to the worm capsules), it could easily be perceived as a comment on pharmaceuticals. This is wrong.

Look at a film that does use a specific subject to communicate a universal message. "Brokeback Mountain" deals with a taboo relationship between two cowboys. But the film's themes extend beyond homosexuality, as is obvious to anyone who has viewed the film.

By trying to make "Upstream Color" more relatable, Carruth does the opposite, and alienates the viewer. How are real-life trauma survivors, or anyone else, supposed to empathize with the victims of pig mind control? And the dreamlike, abstract quality of the film further distances it from reality.

After thinking about it, the similarities between Kris' in-film trauma, and some victims of real-life trauma, became clearer: financial and personal ruin; being endlessly dazed, and frightened, and hopeless, just a general mess. But even when these connections become clear, they lack impact. By generalizing the trauma the film isolates itself; it would have done better to use one specific, tangible trauma. As it is, "Upstream" creates a muddled, imprecise portrait.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Film Review: Red Obsession (2013)

"Red Obsession" makes the viewer appreciate the true artistry involved in wine making, and the asomatous beauty involved in wine tasting (ordering wine at the Olive Garden is not wine tasting.) Drinking a good wine can be an orgasmic physical experience, as well as a genuinely spiritual one. Some of the interviewed eloquently describe an exquisite wine as an enduring experience.

The scenic views of French countryside and century-old vineyards are astounding. "Red Obsession" has some of the most spectacular cinematography this reviewer has ever seen. This alone is a very good reason to watch.

The film eventually moves into the current politics of the luxury wine industry. The epicentre of this business is currently China, which is now the largest importer of Bordeaux wines in the world. The rest of the film can be summarized in a sentence spoken by one of the commentators: "When [the Chinese] buy the wine, they buy the wine as a symbol of their status." The film's content, which includes exploration of the shifting market, and the changing production and consumption of premier chateau wines, was very informative and interesting to this uncultivated viewer. But the film is as untroubled as the well-off Chinese in it, who think nothing of dropping tens of millions of dollars buying wines, creating connoisseur clubs, or purchasing antiquated French chateaus.

Overflowing with conceit and extravagance, "Red Obsession" turns out mostly shallow and pretentious. The film doesn't ask any questions, or challenge conventional thinking, or break any new ground. Yes it is a documentary, but it is not constructive filmmaking.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Film Review: Blackfish (2013)

*** Valuable Film ***

The film "Blackfish" is shocking, and traumatizing. And it should be mandatory viewing.

The documentary opens with former SeaWorld orca trainers describing how they got their job at the park. Apparently, it is not as difficult to become a trainer as one might think. While mesmeric music plays in the background, and orcas swim through sky blue Seaworld waters, the former SeaWorld trainers remember meeting their first orcas. The creatures, they reminisce, were humongous, inspiring, and beautiful. While working at SeaWorld, the trainers formed relationships with the animals (for some of them, this is the reason they stayed as long as they did.) The information that comes after this affectionate introduction is unimaginably horrific.

Among the tragic fatalities explored is the death of top SeaWorld orca trainer Dawn Brancheau, who died in 2010 after the orca Tilikum pulled her into the water. Many of the interviewees had known Dawn personally, and had great respect for her.

There is one part of the film that I dislike, and that is the reverence toward Dawn Brancheau. Dawn's job, her livelihood, was keeping these animals in unspeakable conditions, causing unfathomable psychological and emotional torture. Dawn proudly and vocally profited from these animals' suffering. She was either ignorant of the horrific agony caused to the captive orcas, or simply ignored it. But Dawn was one of the top trainers at Seaworld... so could she really have been so ignorant? Did she think that kidnapping and imprisoning the orcas was nurturing? When the baby calfs were ripped from their mother's side, and the mother fell into a visible, catatonic depression, emitting screeching cries day and night, trying to communicate with her child... How exactly did Dawn interpret that?

The following quote is from the Dawn Brancheau Foundation's website:

"In addition to her work as a trainer, Dawn also became the face of SeaWorld. Over the years, she appeared on billboards around the world, a large mural at the Orlando International Airport, on a Budweiser beer bottle, and on many other promotional materials. She also appeared live on House Hunters, Wheel of Fortune, and FETCH! with Ruff Ruffman. Dawn was always willing to share her knowledge and love of the orcas with new audiences."
I just wonder why "Blackfish" commends the memory of a woman who was, literally, the face of orca torture. The former SeaWorld trainers interviewed were saddened by Dawn's death; so by the same hand, they're protesting orca imprisonment, while commemorating the warden? "Blackfish" beautifies Dawn Brancheau, just as SeaWorld glamorizes the lives of the captive orcas.

I was also bothered by the end shot, which shows four of the former trainers on a boat, watching wild orcas swim in their natural habitat. This is unnecessary, contrived, and redundant. (Perhaps the director was aiming for a sentimental Hollywood-ish ending.)

These two things only slightly dampened the otherwise very strong film.

Some of the messages in "Blackfish" not only apply to the orcas in captivity, but are more universal; such as how marketing can completely indoctrinate us. And especially the idea that people believe what they want to believe, and that it's always easier to turn your head away, than to take action. The orcas at SeaWorld were and are subjected to heinous physical and emotional torture. The former trainers in the film talk about how on some level, at the time of their SeaWorld employment, they understood what was happening. But externally, consciously, they ignored the warning signs. It is all remindful of the old wisdom, that if one is not part of the solution, than they are part of the problem.

"Blackfish" is a sensational documentary, magnificently enunciated and skillfully crafted. It is also one of the most horrific films I have ever seen. Within the current rating system, there is no question that "Blackfish" should have an NC-17 rating. And yet (paradoxically), this is a film that should be mandatory viewing in schools. Everyone needs too see this film, especially young people. It is a tough movie to watch, and so perhaps appropriately, it is also an extraordinarily important one.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Film Review: Room 237 (2012)

"One can always argue that Kubrick had only some, or even none, of these in mind; but we all know from postmodern film criticism that author intent is only part of the story of any work of art, and those meanings are there regardless of whether the creator of the work was conscious of them."

Premise: In this documentary, various interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's film "The Shining" are explored.

Director: Rodney Ascher

Featuring: Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner

Technical: 102 minutes

Room 237 background

The people interviewed for "Room 237" offer various interpretations of Stanley Kubricks's 1980 film "The Shining". We only hear the voices of the interviewed, and the film's visuals are a mix of "Shining" clips, as well as relevant photographs and video. Some of the most prominent theories presented include "The Shining" being a metaphor for the Holocaust and the genocide of Native Americans. It's also theorized that the film is a confession of Kubrick's involvement in the Apollo 11 moon landing hoax. These ideas might sound slightly bizarre, but the theories are presented in an unbiased, intriguing, and sometimes convincing way.

Aside from being genuinely unsettling, the film really exercised my imagination, and stimulated my curiosity. The theories, fair and far-reaching alike, were interesting, and I was thinking hard the entire time. The film is all speculation, and yet still mentally riveting. One shouldn't go into the film expecting any definite answers, because there are none. "Room 237" is refreshing in that it forces the viewer to come to their own conclusion. The film is filled to the brim with theories, in an avalanche of information, but the running time flies by.

The commentary is a mix of thoughtful intelligence, clever observation, blurry guesses, and obvious stretches, but there is a good balance of it all. I think the only stinker among the interviewees is the smug Juli Kearns, the lone female, and annoyingly idiotic.

The music was terrific; eerie, frightening, and bizarre. The score is wonderfully different, and suits the film perfectly.

My only complaint (and it is a minor one) is that the film could have had more visual clarity. At the beginning of the film, the interviewed individuals' names come across the screen when they first speak. We never actually see the speakers, and their names are not shown again until the end credits. Aside from Juli Kearns, I was never quite sure who was speaking. It would have been helpful if the speaker's name was shown on-screen whenever they spoke. Because the film moves so quickly, and is so full of information, the speaker is next to impossible to identify.

I have never read Stephen King's novel "The Shining", nor have I seen Kubrick's film. This didn't affect my viewing experience at all. In fact, "Room 237" has inspired me to visit these two works.

I don't think "Room 237" fits into the classification of a documentary. This film is of the kind that defies classification, as it is neither objective nor subjective, but rather a conglomeration of ideas, theories, musings, factoids, and questions. In this way, the film is quite unique.

"Room 237" was a definite success.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

(Unproduced) Screenplay Review: When The Street Lights Go On

"Becky and I became friends again during that Midwestern winter. We cruised around in my car beneath newspaper skies and smoke stained snow, listening to the Beach Boys."

Premise: In the 1980s, after a double murder in a small town, those close to the deceased try to go on living.

Written by: Eddie O'Keefe & Chris Hutton

Technical: 108 pages. June 29, 2011 draft.

The town of Colfax, Illinois. It's the summer of 1983.

Chrissy Monroe, seventeen, is secretly dating her school's young hip English teacher, Mr. Pulaski. One night they are in his car, and Pulaski is telling Chrissy that he is going to leave his wife, to be with her... when a man enters the back of the car, pointing a gun to Pulaski's head. He forces them to drive into a secluded forest, and then murders them.

Chrissy and Mr. Pulaski's bodies are found by fifteen year old Charlie Chambers. (An older Charlie is also the narrator.) The other main characters are Becky Monroe (Chrissy's younger sister), Ben Kirchhoff (star of the school football team; he was Chrissy's boyfriend), Detective Hoffman (he's investigating Chrissy's murder), and Casper Tatum (the town rebel, and lead suspect in the double homicide). The script follows these individuals, and their friends and family, as they try to make sense of the murders, and move on with their lives.

Casper is in a gang called The Hillbilly Wolves (ugh). Charlie writes for the school paper. Hoffman investigates the Monroe-Pulaski case, himself a sickening agglomeration of verbal-abuse, homophobia, deficient social skills, and perposterous behaviour. Becky and Casper - sister of the murdered girl, and lead suspect in the murder case - begin dating. But Ben developes feelings for Becky too, and has a serious rivalry with Casper. During it all, no one seems very bothered by the loss of Chrissy and Mr. Pulaski.

The first three quarters of the script is a sewage-quality wreck. The flashbacks, the voice over, the flashbacks with voice over.... it's all a mess. (Most of the time the narration just telling us.) It's way, way too overwritten. And it couldn't get any more trite:
The SOUNDS of July play over the following string of images: 
I. A group of CHILDREN play on a Slip-n-Slide. 
II. Two teenage GIRLS sunbathe on the hood of a newly washed Trans Am. Journey BLASTS from the radio. 
III. The high school FOOTBALL TEAM practices drills under the sweltering sun.
And talk about on the nose (here is one example):
I was taking notes on football
practice for the newspaper.
Charlie’s Father flips a page in his book. 
Shame you can’t be on the field
like I was instead of reporting on
the drills.
I know, Sir.
Hoffman's dialogue is nonsensical, inappropriate, and unrealistic. For example, the way Hoffman speaks to the Charlie (who discovered the murder scene) doesn't make any sense. The first thing he says:
Alright Chambers, why’d you leave
your bicycle?  
I dunno, Sir. I forgot about it. I
just ran home.
Or what about when Hoffman is questioning Chrissy's boyfriend, Ben:
How do you feel about the fact that your girly was tap assing with that faggy English teacher.
Or Hoffman at the PTA meeting:
Why have no arrests been made?  
Because there is no one to arrest.  
And what is the likelihood of the
killer striking again?  
Low. Murderers very seldom strike
the same place twice. We also have
cops patrolling the town up the

"When The Street Lights Go On" seems like it was written by guys who haven't had a lot of experience, who aren't very mature, who have never felt loss, and who have read too many Hollywood screenplays. Needless to say, the treatment of the subject matter is insensitive and puerile.

And it is just so poorly written. For example, Charlie's introduction:
Charlie looks like a young Spielberg. He wears an old bomber jacket and a pair of Coke bottle glasses. Thoughtful. Boyish, but cool. The kind of kid who’s had character since he could walk.
Our town was put under a dark spell in the summer of 1983. I observed it all from my Schwinn Sting-ray. It began with a fire and didn’t end until six months later when the Monroe sisters were finally dead--
--robbing us of our juvenescence and spreading unshakable anxiety like cyanide in the minds of those who remember.
A lot of the writing, especially the descriptions, just don't make any sense:
Ben leans against the Mustang parked in his driveway. He looks as cool as a drunk high schooler can.
Another example:
In their moments of solitude each
yearned for the other. They counted
down the days till they could
reunite on a slate black chalkboard
in the back of their minds.
And people's reactions don't make sense. Like Charlie; for some reason he really wants to cover the murder of Chrissy Monroe for the school paper. He doesn't seem affected by the fact that he was the first to stumble across the murder scene (there are only, literally, two lines hinting at any sort of trauma, on page 22, when Charlie envisions Chrissy's dead body in the bottom of the school pool. But he doesn't freak out; he just wipes his goggles?)

No one in Colfax (that we see) really cares about the murders, except maybe Chrissy's parents. But other than that, the town isn't affected.

I have many more complaints, but I will just add this last one, because it is so bizarre: why, for no reason, do the characters sometimes became aware of the camera?
The hallway is now empty. We rapidly push in on Ben who is in
the distance chucking a tennis ball at a locker bay.
As we get closer, he turns to the camera and throws the
tennis ball straight at the lens.
The glass SHATTERS.
The bottom line is that the writers don't take the script seriously, and it is tremendously lazy. Really, the carelessness is shocking. It doesn't seem like the writers put an ounce of effort in. Much of the script is unintelligible, and the writers are either unable or unwilling to clearly, concisely articulate their ideas. Any fleck of potential is lost amongst the deluge of weak writing.

Around page 80, Casper murders Ben in front of the entire town at the halloween carnival, Becky drops out of high school, and the quality of the screenplay improves dramatically. Like from an F grade to a B grade kind of improvement. Past this point it feels like a different script altogether (a great compliment and a great insult to the writer).

Whether you should read "Streetlights" depends on yourself. As usual, one cannot just skip to page 80, and read from there to the end. There will only be impact if one reads through everything prior to that. If you are really dedicated, the final 30 pages are, for the most part, quite spectacular.

O'Keefe and Hutton come off as jerks that are not writers, but just type the words for the money; the kind of guys who want to get as much as they can from as little effort as possible. Do not associate the names O'Keefe/Hutton with passion, integrity, intelligence, or sensitivity. They're children of Hollywood, but instead of being pimped out (as Hollywood's children usually are), they're prostituting themselves out, for as much money as they can carry.

About: "Streetlights" placed 2nd on the 2011 Black List.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

(Produced) Screenplay Review: Mud

"Mud’s a born liar. That’s what makes him so likable. He makes people feel good about themselves."

Premise: Two boys befriend a homeless loner in hiding, who's trying to reunite with his girlfriend.

Written by: Jeff Nichols

Technical: 132 pages. Shooting script.

The Mississippi River (at Neely's Landing)

One day Ellis and Neckbone, both fourteen years old, are boating along the Mississippi river. They end up on the shore of a small island, and eventually find a 26 foot boat in a tree. They go inside it and discover that someone has been living there. They then meet that man, who calls himself Mud. The boys bring him back some food (as requested) and Mud tells them that he's waiting for his girlfriend, Juniper. He describes her to the boys, mentioning a nightingale tattoo on her hand.

One day at the store in town, Ellis spots Mud's girlfriend. Later, Ellis and his mother are stopped on a highway roadblock. And the state troopers are handing out pictures with Mud's photograph, looking for him. Ellis and Neckbone confront Mud, and he tells them that he killed a man that was abusive to Juniper.

Mud wants to get the boat stuck in the tree back into the water. He thinks it's his best chance of escaping, since he can't go by land, because everyone is looking for him. Ellis and Neck agree to help him get the boat down, in exchange for Mud's pistol.

But complications arise. The boys find Juniper, to give her a note from Mud, and walk in on a man beating her. Ellis tries to intervene, and gets hurt. Mud explains that the man's name is Carver, and he's the brother of the man Mud killed. Mud says that if Carver is nearby, then more men will be coming. Bounty hunters.

"Mud" is one of the worst screenplays I have ever read. It takes a person of a special calibre to write something this bad. It's absolutely soulless, and the very definition of artificial. "Mud" does not contain one moderately interesting or real character, nor an ounce of emotion. I despised it on every level.

Don't get me wrong: reading "Mud", I could very much see it being a movie. I could see the script being filmed and making money and attracting star talent. I could see it getting positive reviews. (The vast majority of reviews nowadays are so zanily inane and make so little sense, could one call them reviews? No, most of the dribble written has everything to do with ego-stroking, people-pleasing, job-advancing, and money-making, and nothing to do with cinema. They are not unbiased, brainwash-free opinions. Or if some are, than they are from individuals who should not be informing the public. The film "Mud" holds a 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Oh, and go look who's starring in it.)

The only genuine moment in the screenplay is the scene near the end, when Ellis confronts May Pearl, as well as the scene that immediately follows it. After this "Mud" switches gears, speeding into the most mindless, illogical part of the entire screenplay. The rest of the script is the usual unadulterated Hollywood dribble. The sappy, fake, contrived ending reads like it was written by the screenwriter's L.A. secretary. I lost count of the number of nonsensical cliches, and there are also about two dozen "payoffs" from earlier "set-ups". And of course the whole thing ends with shotgun-wielding hitmen closing in on Eliss' now-happy household (where a concerned Mud is visiting the bedridden Eliss). Mud joins the shootout, kills the bad guy, and fakes his own death. It all felt like "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" meets "Kindergarten Cop". I am still asking myself: did the ending actually happen? Forget jumping the shark; the ending of "Mud" jumps across a line of sharks, with rocket jet packs attached to the water skis.

Save yourself the time and don't read this script; nothing can be gained from it. "Mud" is a ludicrous, imbecilic, degenerate disgrace. A writer can't get much lower than "Mud", and damned if they try.

About: "Mud" was released in 2012, directed by Jeff Nichols, and featuring Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Sam Shepard, and Reese Witherspoon.