Short Film Review: GRAND MORELOS

9 minutes


A Bleeding Gums Murphy type receives word from his doctor that he has come down with an O. Henry of a condition whereby should he continue with his life’s passion of playing the jazz saxophone, he will go blind. “It’s that simple, I’m afraid,” says the doctor, as if his diagnosis makes perfect sense and no further inquiry is necessary. It brings to mind the “brain cloud” from “Joe vs. the Volcano.” But while the “brain cloud” is made-up even in the context of the film, this jazz blindness is completely legit for Grand Morelos. It’s hard for me to say if our protagonist is meant to be talented because I don’t much care for jazz. But it is absolutely certain that music is the most important thing in the world to this guy.

So he decides to process this news “Golden Girls” style, by drowning his sorrows in cheesecake at the local diner. He and the waitress regard each other for a very long time before he poses the biggest question he has presumably ever asked, “What would you do if you were about to go blind?” Now the phrasing here is very important. He doesn’t ask whether he should choose sight or music. He’s already made up his mind about that. Though his doctor implied that this curse-like affliction would not take hold if he stopped playing, a happy ending is just not an option for him.

Since his mind is already made up, it’s not clear why he asks the waitress to weigh in at all. Her answer couldn’t possibly sway him. Perhaps he just needs to hear it out loud. But she wouldn’t have been much help anyway because she answers his question with a question.

Perhaps it’s the symbolic nature of his affliction, but “Grand Morelos” feels more like an allegory than a realistic drama. It follows dream-logic. You don’t realize that it makes no sense until you try to tell it to someone else. I never expected it to end any other way, really. But I think the emotional impact would have been greater if he’d come to the decision some other way.

Originally published on (now defunct).


Short Film Review: DAYBREAK

10 minutes


One hallmark of aging is a shift in generational empathy in media. For instance, even if you grew up watching “My So-Called Life,” you may now find yourself siding with Angela Chase’s parents upon repeat viewings. It’s not so much that we forget what it was like to be young as it is that we now have more information and life experience.

The simple fact is that when you’re a kid, you don’t know anything, but you think you know everything. Sometimes, you can watch a story about youth with nostalgia, putting yourself back in their shoes as they try to figure out what kind of person they want to be. But occasionally, the characters are so bewildering and Id-driven that the only thing you get out of the story is a sense of frustration.

The pre-adolescent kids in “Daybreak” are a frustrating lot. They tool around their suburban Montreal neighborhood, literally looking for trouble. There is a quiet boy in their midst who is also the recipient of quite a lot of ridicule over the time he spends with one of the girls. He seems the nicest of the bunch, but he still voluntarily hangs out with the “recreational strangulation” sort.

Eventually, the kids knock on the door of a house. A scruffy metal kid answers. He wordlessly beckons them in and sets the soundtrack for mayhem (Pantera). All of a sudden, all the children are Fucking. Shit. Up. They’re smashing things, scribbling on the walls, moshing and being generally naughty.

Meanwhile, the quiet boy and the girl he likes wander off to explore the house. They’re not directly participating in the destruction, but they don’t seem too concerned by it either. This chaos will continue to reign until an authority figure arrives to break it up. Who knows what the consequences will be. What would you do if you came home to a child riot? Kids can be real assholes. “Daybreak” seems to suggest that being a shit is an essential rite of passage. That may be true, but I take no joy in it.

I can’t say I enjoyed this short much either. But narrative aside, it’s a nice looking film, particularly during the bike ride scene, which is dream-like and bathed in warm, summery colors. I’d be interested in seeing what else director Ian Lagarde may have up his sleeve, but the climax of “Daybreak” was just painful to watch because I kept thinking about those poor parents and the awful day they were about to have. Perspective can be a bitch.

Originally published on (now defunct).

Short Film Review: THE GREGGS

20 minutes


“The Greggs” is an insane fever dream that hypothesizes about the people who create standardized tests. In this universe, the test scribes live together in relative seclusion, inspired by a cult-like figurehead, The Gregg, represented by an old timey oil painting.

And that’s not the weirdest thing about them. There are two men and two women who refer to each other only as Gregg. They don a genderless wardrobe consisting of brightly colored turtlenecks, short blonde wigs and rosy cheeks. They subsist solely on eggs, delivered to them by the gruff woman who picks up the tests.

This is a lot to establish, and it feels rushed in a short format (not that I would want to explore “The Greggs” at feature-length, necessarily). Things start out batshit and only get batshittier as the Gregg portrait mysteriously vanishes and they feel abandoned by their figurehead. After a while, the scenes start to feel like random irreverence, rather than a cohesive narrative.

This may have something to do with the fact that there are seven people listed as director, and four of them are principal actors. There are also three directors of photography, but only one writer (Bruce Bundy). Call me old fashioned, but while collaboration is great, you should still only have one person steering the boat. Who knows, maybe “The Greggs” did have an unofficial leader, but it does feel like a too-many-cooks production.

In addition to the narrative chaos, there is also a vaguely “Napoleon Dynamite” sense of humor present that will certainly divide audiences. I will give them this much: the actors all commit to this project whole hog. It’s that level of commitment that keeps it from falling apart completely. Twenty minutes is a long time to spend with these characters, but I think you can probably tell by the five-minute mark whether or not you want to stick around.

Originally published on (now defunct).


Short Film Review: THE WALK

15 minutes


I’m still not sure how I feel about “The Walk,” but I’m certain that’s what director Mihaeka Popescu was going for. The third act takes a very unexpected left turn and it happens so suddenly that you don’t really have time to process it before the credits roll.

It’s the snail’s pace set-up that makes it so surprising. The film begins in an old woman’s apartment where she clearly lives alone and has very little going on in her life. It takes the first three minutes of the film for the woman to stand up out of her chair, pour some tea, take some pills and look out the window. The titular walk doesn’t even happen till four minutes, thirty seconds. It all feels a bit unnecessary until you know what happens on the walk and how completely out of the ordinary it is for this woman. Without the lengthy opening, we might not find the contrast quite so jarring.

Popescu would probably prefer I not reveal the “twist” so rest assured this review is spoiler-free. But keeping the secret does make it a bit difficult to write about. I can say that I loved the lead actress, whose weathered face makes her seem like the oldest person in the vibrant city. Her character adopts a perpetual poker face, which makes the implications of the ending ambiguous. It is not clear if it is a happy or sad ending because what happens can be one of the most complicated or simple things in the world, depending on the attitude of the person involved.

One thing that is clear is that “the Walk” is a beautiful looking film, worth a watch just to pay the visit to Central Europe. Regardless of how you feel about the ending, it will be memorable.

Originally published on (now defunct).

Short Film Review: Off Ground

12 minutes


“Off Ground” is less a short film and more a filmed performance piece. But wait! It’s not as insufferable as that sounds. Some stunning visual effects and unusual choreography keep the viewer engaged for the entire running time, even if it’s not always clear what’s happening.

The whole thing is unequivocally a choreographed dance, so all of the action is entirely symbolic. Set to a lovely violin-heavy classical soundtrack, it starts quietly, as a sinewy 50-year-old woman and a 12-year-old boy play tenderly. Their dance increases in intensity and slowly pulls the two figures apart until they are leaping about the room entirely independent of one another.

Eventually, the action comes full circle, but not before it dips into the supernatural. This thing is undoubtedly rife with symbolism about mothers and sons but you don’t need to go there to be entertained. The physical abilities of the two dancers are marvelous enough, and that’s before the levitation and walls turning to water.

Does it need to be 12 minutes long? Perhaps not. I found my mind wandering at certain points. But I was always sucked back in. “Off Ground” is breathtaking and well worth your time.

Originally published on (now defunct).

Short Film Review: PUI

9 minutes


Pui is a little Taiwanese girl who relishes time spent roughhousing with her male friends in order to satisfy her active and imaginative urges. But her traditional mother watches disapprovingly from the window and plots to divert Pui’s interests.

When Pui comes inside, her mother tries to steer her toward more “feminine” pursuits, like making floral arrangements. Pui’s mother is the worst kind of perfectionist, painstakingly examining each flower for ideal length and placement, leaving no room for improvisation or whimsy.

As Pui arranges, her mother corrects her work and lectures her about the importance of adhering to traditional gender roles. It seems a sad state of affairs until we learn that Pui is merely humoring her mother. She’s learning stealth rather than obedience. This is a key moment in every young girl’s life.

Director Rujiroj Thanasankittiwat employs blinding whites in his film. The kitchen scene in particular looks almost blown out at times. The pristine room feels intimidating and oppressive. It seems impossible not to soil it.

There isn’t much dialog in the film, but the scenery tells us enough about how particular, conservative and, well, anal Pui’s mother is. It’s no wonder Pui wants to rebel. The little girl who plays Pui isn’t yet a skilled enough performer to convey Pui’s feelings, but the scenery, and her physical response to her mother’s lecture, tell us everything we need to know. Thanasankittiwat’s light directorial hand lends “Pui” an elegance that it might not have otherwise had given the subject matter.

Originally published on (now defunct).

Film Threat: 2013 Top 10

It was a good year for the ladies, many of whom helmed pictures which had very little to do with fairy tale romance.

Her – Spike Jonez isn’t the most prolific filmmaker, but what he lacks in quantity, he makes up for in quality. His first script is just as rich, unique and thought-provoking as anything Charlie Kaufman or Dave Eggars has written and this late entry into the 2013 ring dominates the competition.
Stories We Tell – Sarah Polley is a brilliant filmmaker with an extremely unique style. Her third film is less a biography about the mother she lost when she was 11 and more a visual poem about memory, perspective and legacy.
The Place Beyond the Pines – Cianfrance assembled the perfect cast (including but not limited to Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes and Bradley Cooper) for his follow-up to Blue Valentine. It’s a gripping meditation on paternal identity and fuzzy morality.
Don Jon – Exceedingly smart script, pitch-perfect performances and the tightest editing this side of a music video. Joe Gor-Lev is a true Renaissance man.
The To Do List – Too long we have settled for either the John Hughes romantic version of adolescence or the horn-ball sex romps like Porky’s in which women are nothing more than set pieces and plot devices. Writer/director Maggie Carey’s vastly underrated debut shines a light on an under-represented female archetype: the intellectual oddball who just wants to get laid already.
The Punk Singer – Sini Anderson’s rock doc is more than just a portrait of Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna. It’s also a feminist history lesson and a passionate polemic on cutting society on its bullshit.
Spring Breakers – Harmony Korine has never been one of my favorites, but his version of Girls Gone Horribly Wild is a fabulous exception. It’s part social satire, part XX chromosomal companion piece to the parental nightmare, We Need to Talk About Kevin. I loved every squirm-inducing minute. Perhaps ironically, this film also passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.
The Heat – Writer Katie Dippold brings the same balance of witty wackiness and heart that she employs on TV’s Parks and Recreation to Paul Feig’s follow-up to Bridesmaids. Perhaps someday, The Heat will prove a mediocre example of female buddy cop films. But seeing as how it’s currently the only entry, it automatically rules.
In A World… – Writer/director/star Lake Bell’s film is the hilariously satirical and well-constructed story of aspiring voice-over actress struggling for recognition in the male-dominated field.
Teddy Bears – Debut black comedy from writer/director Thomas Beatty, co-directed with his wife, Rebecca Fishman with a script that is loosely based on an event in their pre-marriage relationship. Though the plot resembles a broad sitcom premise, the resulting film is anything but broad. A group of extremely capable actors (many of whom have done sitcoms) play it straight, and find the humor in grief-inspired downward spirals.

As usual, I haven’t gotten to see everything on my list. So here are some films I’m 90% sure I will love, even though I haven’t seen them:

Nebraska – Alexander Payne is usually quite competent and I will watch anything Will Forte has had a hand in. Bonus: grizzled old man protagonist!
I Am Divine – It would be hard to fuck up a documentary about John Water’s #1 Muse.
Inside Llewyn Davis – The Coens have only one transgression to their name thus far: 2004’s The Ladykillers. I have no reason to believe this will be anything other than great.

Read the rest of the top 10 lists here!

Film Threat Review: Her

Rated R
126 minutes


The futuristic world of “Her,” Spike Jonze’s fourth feature film and first original script, is so similar to our present that you have to hunt for the differences. It takes place in a Los Angeles that has become as dense as Shanghai (where it was partially filmed). Thus, cars have given way to public transportation and flash traded in for pastels and relaxed-fit clothing. Ambulatory monologues are no longer reserved for hobos and douchebags. (To their credit, it does seem much safer than staring at your Smartphone en route.) Humans have submitted entirely to their mobile devices, using an exclusively voice-activated interface to schedule appointments, send emails, check calendars and make phone calls all while going about their daily business. They only turn off to sleep or bathe. Sound familiar?

The story follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a solitary fellow in the midst of a painful divorce (from wife Rooney Mara seen mostly in flashbacks). Theodore works at, where he dictates the heartfelt sentiments of customers to a computer who then “writes” and prints them (it’s never clear whether the recipients are aware of the charade). Theodore is very good at his job, but he isn’t able to carry that emotional fluidity over to flesh and blood relationships. So it stands to reason that his ideal mate just might be a new sentient operating system called OS1.

Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, the customizable OS1 adopts the moniker Samantha and quickly sets about organizing Theodore’s life, just as she was designed. She goes through his entire hard drive and soon she knows him on an extremely intimate level. As they converse, she reads books that he mentions and absorbs information faster than Johnny Five. But she also cultivates a personality. She can think critically and eventually, simulate emotions so accurately that User and OS find themselves in a full-fledged romantic relationship. Are her “feelings” just programming or somehow transcendent? They certainly seem real to Theodore who reciprocates in a major way. Samantha is experiencing everything for the first time with a sort of omniscient innocence. It takes a relationship with a computer to make Theodore feel human again. And it takes a relationship with a human to make Samantha realize her true potential.

Theodore’s only other emotional sounding board is his old friend and neighbor, played flawlessly by Amy Adams. She too is going through a breakup and embraces Theodore’s relationship with Samantha completely because she just wants him to be happy. Besides, she has heard of other people dating their OS and even one co-worker whose OS is cheating on him. Meet the brave new world: same as the old world.

Ironic that one of the most profound explorations of the human condition heavily features artificial intelligence. The OS1 tag line, “It’s not just an operating system, it’s a conscience,” is more than just a snappy sales pitch. The portrayal of sentient machines in media has thus far been the stuff of nightmares. We assume that if a computer becomes self-aware, it will hate us. But in this universe, it merely wants to understand us better. It learns from us and evolves. It doesn’t want to destroy us; it wants to improve upon us.

Due to the cerebral nature of the story, Jonze chose his visuals carefully. In near-constant close-up, we become almost uncomfortably intimate with Phoenix’s face. My favorite motif is how he lets the camera rest on insignificant objects during difficult conversations, mimicking the way humans avoid making eye contact when they’re uncomfortable. This is especially well executed in a scene in which Theodore goes on a blind date (with Olivia Wilde) that kicks off jovially and devolves into a puddle of insecurities.

Johansson’s performance, on the other hand, rests entirely on her voice. Though she’s often cast for her stunning features, Samantha is her most intriguing character to date. During their love scene, the screen goes black and you hear only voices and breathing (Samantha uses breathing sounds to authenticate human speech patterns). Though you can’t see a thing, it feels as real as any choreographed love scene possibly could.

“Her” is a breathtaking film that is deeply layered and meticulously constructed. Jonze doesn’t just tell you a story; he takes you on an emotional journey. I’m still unpacking it weeks after the screening and I can’t wait to experience it again. Despite the futuristic elements, “Her” barely qualifies as sci-fi. Instead, Jonze employs a Ray Bradbury-esque allegorical tone. His world is not a dystopia. It’s just a more this version of the world we currently occupy. Jonze has crafted one of the most truthful studies of human relationships in cinema, despite one of the characters not being human at all. Sometimes, in the process of improving one another, you become incompatible. And there’s no software in the world that can fix it.

Originally published on (now defunct).

Film Threat Review: Gravity

Rated PG-13
90 minutes


“I hate space.”

So says our protagonist, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) at one of her more perilous moments in a series of harrowing happenings that make up the plot of “Gravity.” I know how she feels – a lifetime of watching movies about the space program has left me with a gripping phobia of that which lies beyond our nurturing, oxygen-rich atmosphere. “Gravity” only fuels my fear. Never have I ever been so relieved to tell myself, “It’s only a movie.”

Alfonso Cuarón’s (“Children of Men”) latest film begins with a couple of terrifying facts about outer space, that all add up to one conclusion: “Life in space is impossible.” We can send highly trained geniuses there in carefully crafted ships and put in place plans B, C and D, but we can’t prepare for everything. Awe-inspiring as it may be, space is also a cold, unsympathetic place. Our mere presence there defies the impossible. We may have been born there, but our mother does not want us back.

While Dr. Stone is screwing in the final bolts of a Hubble telescope repair mission, shuttle commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) laps her on a jetpack joy ride, as he lightheartedly attempts to break the space walk record. It’s literally his last day on the job before retirement so his space suit might as well be red. Minutes after he jokes that he has “a bad feeling about this mission,” they receive a panicked order from Houston to hightail it out of there. A shower of rogue debris from a Russian satellite is heading their way at top speed. But hightailing is another thing that’s impossible in space (a fact that frequently contributes to suspense, as the characters are forced to move in slow motion). Impeded by the lack of (titular!) gravity, they barely have time to formulate an escape plan before they realize it’s too late. The debris destroys the shuttle, kills the remaining crew and sends Stone spiraling into space. The camera spirals with her and we experience her extreme disorientation, with no idea when it will stop. Kowalski’s voice still reaches her, but for all she knows, she’s been hurled miles away from him by a chunk of scrap metal.

And that’s just the first scene! Much of it takes place within one literally incredible shot. You can (and should) read about how Cuarón and his special effects supervisor Tim Webber made this space adventure so realistic. It’s no wonder it took four years to complete. For my money, it’s the most majestic marriage of special and practical effects ever shot on film. Normally, I frown upon films that mandate a theatrical 3D screening because it usually points to a flimsy narrative. But the nature of this film practically requires it.

Such as it is, “Gravity” is more than just a film. It’s an experience, a marvel. The objects floating in space are an easy bit of CG, but the actor’s movements are so fluid and realistic, and the surroundings are so seamless and enveloping, that you feel like you’ve come along for the ride. It sells the story hook, line and sinker. I know the “thrill ride” comparison is overused in film reviews, but after the credits roll on “Gravity,” you really do expect to exit the theater into a theme park.

Auteur that he is, Cuarón’s film is more than just a nail-biter. It’s also a thing of beauty. With the aid of his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, practically every frame makes for a picturesque still shot. There is also quite a bit of visual symbolism both religious and amniotic. But there’s not much time to take it all in before the next terrible thing happens.

Speaking of religion, there are apparently no atheists in space. Miraculously, whether by accident or design, religious references don’t feel ham-handed. Cuarón and his co-writer/son Jonás deftly leave spirituality to the characters without implying any real contribution to the events at hand. There is some form of iconography on every spacecraft dashboard. Stone addresses her loved ones in the afterlife, but she also admits that she’s afraid to die.

Most of the time, Stone is speaking “in the blind” to Houston, hoping to keep them abreast of the situation and half-heartedly wishing for a rescue mission (a clever way to naturalize expository monologues). Bullock plays the shit out of what’s sure to be an award-winning role. She exudes empathetic emotion. Though you’re never able to forget that you’re watching huge stars drift among the stars, you still desperately want Sandy and George to live, damnit!

The bow on this psychological horror package is the sound design, which keeps non-diegetic music to a minimum. Space, as you may know, is chillingly quiet, so for the most part, the only sounds are heartbeats, breath, and ominously beeping machines. Steven Price’s (“Lord of the Rings”) score is used so sparingly, that it’s a relief when it kicks in. It reminds you to take a breath. It snaps you back to the realization that no matter what happens to Stone and Kowalski, your feet are still on terra firma. Thank God.

Originally published on (now defunct).

Film Threat Review: The World’s End

Rated R
109 minutes


This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a bender.

“The World’s End” is the final installment in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s Cornetto Trilogy that includes “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” It’s easily the most British of the three, invoking “Doctor Who” and Douglas Adams into their archetypal genre love letter. In many ways, Edgar Wright is the British Joss Whedon. Along with Pegg and co-star/collaborator Nick Frost, they have an epic cult following amongst the Comic-Con set. Their fans love to compete in Easter Egg hunts, brag about being the first to discover “Spaced” (the TV show that began it all) and work their dialog into their everyday conversation (“Skip to the end”). I’m sure they have casual fans as well, but I can’t speak from personal experience.

Their final act continues the Cornetto tradition of combining emotional truth with a fantastical premise. In this case, it begins with a morality tale about the dangers of letting nostalgia stand in the way of maturity. Gary King (Simon Pegg) hasn’t changed one bit since his “sixth form” graduation (that’s British for “high school”) back in nineteen hundred and ninety. He still sports the same dyed black hair, matching trench coat and Sisters of Mercy t-shirt. He drives the same gremlin of a car and blasts the same Soup Dragons-laden mix from the “tape deck” (that’s old person for “mp3 player”). But despite his youthful exuberance, he harbors one regret: never finishing The Golden Mile – the 12-pub crawl down the main drag of his pocket-sized hometown of Newton Haven.

After regaling his AA meeting with his “best night of my life” tale, he has a breakthrough. He decides that the only way to get back on track is to round up his old mates and recreate that fateful night. Only this time, he will finally make it to the 12th pub: The World’s End.

What Gary doesn’t count on is that the other four members of his gang would grow up in the intervening twenty-odd years. With careers and, in some cases, families, they have put their boozing ways behind them and Gary even further behind. But Gary’s single-minded alcoholic wiles kick in and he manages to round up the whole reluctant lot, including his now teetotaler estranged best friend, Andy (Nick Frost).

If this sounds like a lot of set up, you’re not wrong. It does take a while for the film to come to the point. But that may be because, thanks to the trailer, I knew there was a point to come to. Just as these former mates have just about had it with each other, they are derailed by the discovery that robots have replaced many of their hometown residents. They don’t know what the robots want beyond bathroom brawls, so Gary decides that the best course of action is just to keep calm and carry on until they come up with a better plan. Amazingly, his cohorts agree to this plan, which is either the film’s first plot hole or an extreme example of British politeness.

It’s at this point that the Wrightness kicks into high gear, with the resolution of all the carefully laid foreshadowing, rhythmic editing to a killer soundtrack and plenty of video-game style fight choreography. This is the point at which Cornetto fans begin to soil their knickers. It wasn’t until I meditated on it later that I noticed some cracks in the foundation.

At times, Gary’s antics flirt with Vince Vaughn-level insufferableness. Meanwhile, the members of the posse who aren’t Frost or Pegg all blend together into one bland British man. I know that Martin Freeman is the one with the Bluetooth grafted to his head who used acronyms in place of actual swearing. And that Paddy Considine is the one who fancies the token lady love/female voice of admonishment (Rosamund Pike). And that Eddie Marsan (“Happy-Go-Lucky”) is another guy who is there to tell Gary he’s a prick. But none of these characters are necessary in the grand scheme of things. As per usual, it’s all about the relationship between Pegg and Frost. A pub crawl with only two might look a lot less like a good time and a lot more like alcoholism, but they could have advanced the plot more smoothly without all the extra weight.

Another thing that might hurt its stateside box office performance is it’s aforementioned acute Britishness. The concept of binge drinking doesn’t really exist in the U.K. and all the jokes about pubs being “Starbucked” might not resonate as much with Yanks. It also enters “Hitchhiker’s Guide” territory when it posits that humanity exists, against the odds, through a miraculous combination of hubris and dumb luck.

But for Anglophiles and Cornetto-heads, there is plenty to love from the first sip to “The bitter end… or the lager end.” “The World’s End” is an invitation to the Wright/Pegg/Frost Ewok after-party complete with the smiling ghost of Jedi Douglas Adams. I wouldn’t miss that for the world. Jub jub.

Originally published on (now defunct).