Hammer to Nail Review: Circle

(The 2015 Seattle International Film Festival started May 14 and ran all the way until June 7. HtN was on the scene and a festival wrap-up is coming later this week. In the meantime, check out this review of Circle, the latest from filmmakers Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione).

Circle is the most fun you can have watching a diverse group of strangers get systematically executed. Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione crafted a shrewd script for their Twilight Zone inspired morality tale about fifty people who are forced to stop being polite and start getting judgmental.

It begins with everyone returning to consciousness after a blackout, to discover that they are standing in a circle, facing each other, in a dark room. They soon learn that they cannot move too much or try to step off the red dots under their feet, lest a machine in the middle of the room electrocutes them. And that’s not even the bad news. Every two minutes, the machine also kills one person at random. They can’t stop the death, but they do have the power to choose the next victim by popular vote. There are other rules and nuances that they ascertain along the way, all of which play into their harrowing discussion about who should be the next to die and if “winning” this sadistic game is even an option…

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Hammer to Nail Review: Sleeping with Other People

(The 2015 Seattle International Film Festival started May 14 and runs all the way until June 7. Keep an eye on HtN for several reviews like this one, the latest from Writer/director Leslye Headland).

Writer/director Leslye Headland’s Sleeping with Other People is a Rom-Com that exists in the space between sincerity and satire. It’s hard to top Headland’s own description: “When Harry Met Sally for assholes.” But if you were truly an asshole, you’d be annoyed by the film’s frequent moments of earnestness. Moreover, fans of that saccharine, genre-defining film might have trouble empathizing with Headland’s deeply flawed protagonists. With its sexual implicitness, casual swearing, and unabashed recreational drug use, Sleeping with Other People is more akin to the films of Judd Apatow and Nicholas Stoller than to Rob Reiner…

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Hammer to Nail Review: Glassland

(The 2015 Seattle International Film Festival started May 14 and runs all the way until June 7. Keep an eye on HtN for several reviews like this one, the latest from Irish filmmaker Gerard Barret).

Irish filmmaker, Gerard Barrett  follows up his acclaimed first feature Pilgrim Hill with Glassland, another peek into the hardships of life in working-class Dublin. John (Jack Reynor, Transformers: Age of Extinction) is a young man struggling to hold his family together thanks to his mother, Jean’s (Toni Collette), full-blown alcoholism. She drinks like it’s her job and so it becomes John’s job to keep her alive and the family above water. He occasionally attempts to blow off steam in the company of his best friend, Shane (Will Poulter), who is going through some heavy stuff of his own regarding his estranged newborn son. Glassland is an incredibly bleak and intense 90 minutes that haunts you for days after. The lasting impression it leaves is especially remarkable considering the budget and time constraints under which Barrett worked…

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SIFF REVIEW: 9 Full Moons

2013 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
103 minutes

****

It doesn’t matter if your personalities are different, so long as your souls are compatible. When Lev (Bret Roberts) and Frankie (Amy Seimetz) meet at a bar, they are instantly drawn to one another. At first, Lev resists Frankie. Or at least it seems like that’s what’s happening. But Frankie soon learns that Lev is a hyper-introvert and she becomes even more determined to make him a part of her life. They know each other immediately, without needing to reveal themselves in words. But two broken people do not necessarily become whole just by falling in love.

Writer/Director Tomer Almagor’s debut film is an uncommon love story that is driven by complex characters that need each other more than they realize. The odds are certainly stacked against them. Frankie has a bit of a drinking problem, driven by insecurity. She is a gregarious, empathetic and creative person but she thinks so little of herself that she shrugs off an acquaintance rape as if she had it coming. Lev is a free spirit who loves Frankie but isn’t used to considering the feelings of another with his every day decisions (i.e. getting a drink with co-workers instead of coming home for dinner). They also don’t have any cheerleaders on the sidelines. Lev’s supposed best friend dismisses Frankie as a “Train Wreck” and all but tells him to break up with her.

Frankie doesn’t seem to have any real friends outside of Lev either. She occupies her time fixing up junk that she finds on the side of the road and then selling it, yard sale style. When she tells Lev that she does this to stave off the loneliness, he earnestly responds that she shouldn’t be lonely since she has him, despite the fact that he is constantly at work. Granted, his work is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to produce the comeback record for hipster country legend Charlie King Nash (Donal Logue). But he doesn’t see how much she needs him until an irreparable tragedy has torn them further apart.

Amy Seimetz was the perfect choice to play Frankie. She’s beautiful, but she has a relatable quality and isn’t afraid to be truly vulnerable. If “It Girl” is still a thing, it definitely describes Seimetz, who has been popping up everywhere both in front of and behind the camera. Despite her youth, she currently has 48 IMDb acting credits including “The Off Hours,” “You’re Next,” TV’s “The Killing,” Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” and “Upstream Color.” She also wrote and directed her first feature, “Sun Don’t Shine,” to much critical acclaim. She has shown an incredible amount of versatility in her roles and she deserves to be a household name.

Bret Roberts is equally at home with his character. Lev is a tortured musician, but it’s not just a façade. It’s probably not a coincidence that Lev is a Jim Morrison doppelganger (though Roberts did portray the Lizard King in another film). Though neither Frankie nor the audience can always tell what is going on in his brooding head, Lev’s love for Frankie cannot be concealed. It’s not anything he says. It’s all in his eyes. The man is a Mumblecore director’s dream.

“9 Full Moons” is full of complex characterizations, which is part of what makes it so special. You can’t sum up Lev or Frankie in a couple of words. They are real people who are trying to stay true to themselves whilst attempting to figure out how to navigate a stable relationship. Though their love is pure and simple, their lives certainly are not. Almagor has stated that the script is based off of his real-life relationship. Though the details are fictionalized, he has managed to keep all of the nuances that make up two people struggling to find their place in the world. It’s a beautiful film and I look forward to seeing what else he can do.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

SIFF 2013: One Critic’s Overview

The Seattle International Film Festival is the largest film festival in North America, and it lasts for four weeks (six for press). It boasts over 450 features and shorts from over 70 countries so attending it is basically running an independent film marathon (only with a whole lot more sitting). Of course, I don’t get to anywhere near 450 films, but I do my best. This year, I caught about 2-dozen films. This year, I was excited about more films than usual, and there were still 4 or 5 that were on my list that I didn’t make it to. Here is my SIFF experience in a nutshell.

BEST:

“9 Full Moons” – A refreshingly realistic romantic drama about two artistic messes who understand each other in a way that no one else can. Amy Seimetz rides further down the track toward indie darling status.

“An Evening with Kyle MacLachlan” – Not a film, but this local legend has been in plenty of great ones. In addition to a Q & A with the actor, the evening included a screening of the two-hour “Twin Peaks” pilot, which looked more beautiful than ever projected on the big screen. I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of the audience is now knee deep in a series re-visit.

“Byzantium” – Finally making up for the fun-in-a-bad-way debacle that was “Interview with the Vampire”, Neil Jordan re-invents the vampire drama. No longer is it a metaphor for sex. This beautiful film is about the shifting relationship between mothers and daughters as well as a commentary on the difficulty women (particularly working single mothers) face inside a violently patriarchal system. Social messages aside, it fulfills the long-overdue triumphant return of vamps with (both literal and figurative) claws instead of glitter and ennui.


“The Punk Singer” – Pitch-perfect music documentary about musician and feminist icon Kathleen Hanna. It’s the kind of film that makes you want to go record shopping immediately.

“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. “Teddy Bears” proves that it is possible to make an artistically proficient film about anything, so long as you write from a truthful place.

WORST:

“Il Volto di Un’altra (Another Woman’s Face)” – This over-the-top Italian comedy misses the perfect opportunity to break the record for most liquid feces in a movie.

“Last I Heard” – “Sopranos” copycat starring Paul Sorvino and Michael Rapaport as they attempt to steer a sinking ship of a film about a former mobster who has outworn his welcome and his usefulness.

“Papadapalous & Sons” – You would expect this sort of feel-good family drivel from an American film, but the Brits usually have more class. One good performance (Georges Corraface, as a surprisingly endearing Pollyanna of an uncle) kept me from clawing out my eyeballs while I waited for this film to be over.

WORTH MENTIONING:

“Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” – This paint-by-numbers documentary about the brilliant but ironically named 70s rock band that toiled in obscurity until it was discovered by the indie music scene of the late 80s. The film is a little too thorough and occasionally dips into over-reverence. But Big Star is a band worth gushing about.

“The Bling Ring” – A terrific companion piece for Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers”, Sofia Coppola’s latest hipsterfest tells the true-ish story of a gang of dangerously bored middle class high school students who enjoy a brief stint as burglars to the semi-stars.

“Cockneys vs. Zombies” – It’s “Shaun of the Dead” meets BBC’s “Misfits”. While it never quite lives up to its influences, it’s still jolly good fun.

“Here Comes the Devil” – Very much in the Hammer Horror spirit, this Mexican film uses more “just cuz” sex scenes and quick zooms than you can shake a Satanic stick at. The characters behave nonsensically quite often and it takes a lot longer than necessary to get from point A to point B, but it’s certainly never boring.

“I Declare War” – I’m still not 100% sure what to make of this film that many have accurately described as “Lord of the Flies” meets “The Room”. A group of friends take their after-school Capture the Flag games a little too seriously, quoting Patton and occasionally bordering on real violence. The script could easily be re-shot with grownup actors to become a standard “war is hell” drama, save the odd moment where their reality bleeds into the fantasy. My favorite such exchange: “You can’t stop a war for juice.” “Watch me.”

“Mutual Friends” – This New York City based romantic comedy is sure to please wide audiences with its idealistic take on modern relationships and how you don’t always fall in love with the person you think you need. Director, Mathew Watts co-authored the script with five others, giving each character their own unique voice and perspective. Filled with one-liners and emotional observations, “Mutual Friends” is poised to become a breakout indie hit and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Watts become a household name within the Romantic Comedy genre.

“Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” – HBO Film’s documentary catches you up on all that nasty business involving three members of the Russian punk band who were tried and put in prison for staging a 40 second non-violent musical protest inside a Catholic Church.

“The Wall” – This almost-great intellectual horror film is beautifully acted but suffers from an overdose of expository voiceover.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

SIFF Review: Last I Heard

2013 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
101 minutes

*

In the tradition of “The Sopranos,” “Last I Heard” goes for a realistic take on mob life. But unlike “The Sopranos,” which was a cinematic television show, David Rodriguez’ second feature is uncomfortably clunky and, at best, feels like a made-for-TV movie. If it takes us anywhere that we haven’t been before, it’s because we wouldn’t have wanted to go there in the first place.

Joseph “Mr. Joe” Scoleri (Paul Sorvino) has just completed a 20-year stint in the federal pen for his generally mob-like criminal activity. With nowhere else to go, he returns to his old stomping ground in Queens, NY to live amongst his daughter and their like-family next-door neighbors. Mr. Joe’s lawyer (Chazz Palminteri) breaks the news that his client cannot and should not attempt to pick up where he left off, leaving the emotionally and medically unstable former Big Deal in limbo.

I honestly feel bad giving a negative review to a movie that tries so hard to be something special. But it just falls so short that I struggle to find a single redeemable quality to it. Writer/director David Rodriguez clearly set out to make something that felt truthful, but he doesn’t seem to know a light touch from a punch in the face. He doesn’t trust his actors enough to convey the appropriate pathos or his audience enough to assume they’ll “get it” unless several characters spell out the themes over and over again.

Michael Rapaport plays Bobby, the devoted neighbor who now drives around the sad old man he used to look up to. Bobby must have said some variation of “he used to be such a big deal and now he’s just a sad old man” ten times. He drops it into nearly every conversation. Rapaport seems to be trying his best, but he just isn’t hitting the notes. I will forever find a degree of charm in every Rapaport performance because of his role in “True Romance,” but it’s also because of that character that I will always think of him as Dick Ritchey: earnestly awful actor.

Still, Rapaport comes off as classically trained compared to some of the other guys. I think Rodriguez must have been going for authenticity when he cast the film, but it didn’t have the intended effect. Maybe these really are the guys you would find in a deli in Queens, but acting is more than just being like the person you’re playing. You still have to seem natural on camera. You still have to recite scripted lines as if they are your own thoughts. This hardly ever happens in “Last I Heard.” And it can’t possibly just be the pedigree of his performers. Rodriguez managed to score faces from numerous legendary crime films (“Goodfellas,” “Scarface,” “A Bronx Tale”), yet half the time, the actors perform as if they have an off-camera gun to their heads.

Fortunately, the most competent performance belongs to lead actor Paul Sorvino. But perhaps he does too good of a job making his neutered mob boss character believable, because you don’t feel sorry for him at all. This is a man who was most certainly behind many murders, if not a murderer himself. He was and is a terrible father, friend and a bigot to boot. So why should we care if he’s having heart problems or struggling to find his place in a world that has moved on without him?

I’ve made only a passing reference to a female presence in “Last I Heard.” That’s because it’s half-assed at best and insulting at worst. Bobby’s wife (Andrea Nittoli) is basically just there as a sounding board for Bobby or to tell other people how much her husband works. Mr. Joe’s daughter, Rita (Renee Props), has a little bit more meat, but she mostly comes off as a selfish nag. I prefer to have a film devoid of women to one where they are clearly just there to meet a quota.

But even if Rodriguez had all his other ducks in a row, he still got screwed in the editing room. The mark of a well-cut film is one in which you don’t notice the editing at all. With that in mind, Rodriguez needs to fire his editor, because it is a week-one film school failure. Scenes frequently lag with too much action-free time on either end. It gets so bad at points that you expect to hear someone say, “cut.” It makes the whole thing feel amateurish.

I’d say, “Don’t quit your day job,” but filmmaking most likely is David Rodriguez’ day job. Better luck next time, Dave?

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

SIFF REVIEW: THE WALL

2013 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
108 minutes 

**

An apocalypse movie comes in many forms. Some are of the action-packed, Will Smith variety, and some are quiet intellectual horror films like Julian Roman Pölsler’s film “The Wall.” Though I do consider the latter style superior to the former – seeing a real person experience apocalyptic solitude is so much more interesting than when it happens to a borderline superhero – I would rate “The Wall” and “I Am Legend” about the same. This is due entirely to Pölsler’s excessive use of voiceover.

Pölsler adapted “The Wall” from the 1962 identically titled book by Marlen Haushofer. While it may be necessary in a novel to have your character narrate every second of the story it is not the case with a movie. It’s not that Pölsler should have eliminated Haushofer’s words altogether. Some of her sentiments are florid and insightful. But he should have kept it to abstract thoughts not evident from the action or lead actress Martina Gedeck’s (“The Lives of Others”) incredibly effective performance. That would have been a 4 or 5 star film.

The story concerns a nameless woman on vacation in an Alpine hunting lodge who awakens one morning to find her companions not yet returned from their previous day’s excursion into town. When she, along with her friend’s dog Lynx, goes looking for them, she discovers that she is trapped behind a vast transparent barrier. The woman makes a cursory attempt to figure out what’s going on, but gives up once she spots some neighbors on the other side of the wall seemingly frozen in time. Whatever has happened out there, she assumes, has left no survivors. So rather than to try and find a way around the wall or search for another person on her side, she accepts what she believes is her fate and sets about living off the land.

An urban gal, it takes her some time to find her agricultural groove. But she is fortunate enough to find a pregnant cow, stocked pantry, and basic farming and hunting gear. Eventually, the woman settles in to her approximation of civilization along with Lynx (now utterly devoted to her), the expecting cow, and a couple of cats. She insists on keeping track of the days, despite noting that it no longer means all that much. We know from the narration, which comes from a “report” she is writing several years into the future, that Lynx eventually succumbs to a horrific end. But that information is just one example of many such unnecessary or redundant passages blanketing the film from start to finish.

I find it incredibly frustrating when I see a film that is so close to touching greatness but for one or two egregious errors. The voiceover does such a disservice that I’m tempted to recommend watching the film on mute. Pölsler should have had more faith in Gedeck and his own ability to tell a visual story. The type of audience who would be interested in seeing “The Wall” is not stupid. They can tell from the woman’s changing face that the story flashes forward and backward in the timeline. The woman from the beginning of the story is frail and fair skinned, wrestling with the morality of the food chain. The woman from the voiceover is the one with the short hair, confident gait, utilitarian wardrobe and steely expression. They don’t need her to tell them when she is having an emotional breakdown because they can see it in her body language and the tears streaming down her face. They certainly don’t need her pointing out when the stars are out or a hawk circles above her. For someone leading such a solitary life, she sure does go on.

The voiceover isn’t completely unwelcome. Some of her philosophical musings are intriguingly insightful. Toward the end of the film, one passage in particular seems to suggest that she finally knows where she stands.

“I pity animals and I pity people, because they are thrown into this life without being consulted. Maybe people are more deserving of pity, because they have just enough intelligence to resist the natural course of things.”

Lines like that are likely what inspired Pölsler to make the film in the first place. That she’s keeping a record at all does serve as a bit of unspoken characterization. This is a woman who claims to have lost all hope, yet addresses a reader other than herself. She is a poet and philosopher who wants to remain connected to her humanity through her self-aware accounts. She occasionally theorizes about what may have happened beyond the confines of her pastoral prison, convincing herself that it’s as simple as everyone being dead, despite having seen evidence of something more puzzling. To follow the wall would require more courage and survival skills than staying put in an attempt to keep things as normal as possible until things resolve themselves one way or another.

Of course, there’s always another solution. She admits that she considered suicide but for the animals. She writes about being humble, but it takes a tremendous ego to think these creatures couldn’t survive without her. They are more equipped to deal with a back-to-nature scenario than she is. Sure, dogs love people, but it may have a lot to do with how much people love dogs.

With a cerebral premise, stunning cinematography, a punch-in-the-gut performance from the Gedeck, and some of the most suspenseful miming ever put to celluloid, “The Wall” has such tremendous potential. I hope Pölsler comes to realize that less is more and gets it right next time.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).