Hammer to Nail Review: Foreveryone.net

(The 2016 Sundance Film Festival is in full swing and we have boots on the ground as well as eyes on screener links for the whole festival! Stay tuned to Hammer to Nail as reviews start rolling in…)

I don’t think I need to explain how essential the World Wide Web is to our daily lives. And yet, as evidenced by the opening of Jessica Yu’s short film, Foreveryone.net, very few people know who is behind it all. That person was a humble genius named Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and he’s perfectly content living in obscurity because he didn’t invent it for notoriety and profit. He did it because it was the right thing to do.

Foreveryone.net tells the story of Berners-Lee and how he came to create something that changed the landscape of the world forever. But it also goes beyond his story, making a strong case for the magnitude of Net Neutrality – that is, keeping the internet free and accessible to everyone in the world, regardless of location or socio-economic status. Berners-Lee knew that the only way to do this was to limit, if not outright avoid, regulation of the Web…

Read the rest on Hammer to Nail!

 

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Film Threat Review: Kaboom

2011 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL EMERGING VISIONS SELECTION!
Unrated
85 minutes

****

Writer/Director Gregg Araki specializes in one thing: Films about attractive young people with supernatural problems boning each other. He’s made this type of film several times (“The Doom Generation,” “Nowhere”, “Mysterious Skin”) and each time he’s improved upon the formula. The young people of “Kaboom” are especially hot, extra supernatural and constantly boning. If you’re on board with this premise, “Kaboom” will not disappoint you. Otherwise, you’ll want to steer clear of this one, as well as the Arakiverse altogether.

Thomas Dekker (“the Sarah Connor Chronicles”) stars as Smith (his first name), a sexually malleable film student on the cusp of his 19th birthday. This erotic romp gets right to the Eros. Nearly every character that meets will have sex immediately, eventually or, at the very least, in a masturbatory fantasy. When Smith finds time to sleep, he has a vivid recurring dream involving his nearest and dearest as well as two strangers. The dream proves prophetic when he bumps into said strangers at a party. One is a lesbian witch named Lorelei who hooks up with Smith’s best friend, Stella. The other is a red-haired girl who is later murdered in front of Smith by some animal masked creeps. (Maybe. Depending on what was in that cookie.) Smith soon finds himself caught up in a cultist conspiracy in which he may play a pivotal role. Who can go to class at a time like this?

Araki really knows how to work a small budget, crafting a teen comedy that both satirizes and celebrates the genre. Every scene pops with candy rave colors and hipster hues. Asymmetrical haircuts and wild clothes beg the question: Is this what young people look like? Well, not exactly. And it’s not really how they talk either. The average teenager does not speak in snappy one-liners. But it is how Hollywood portrays them. And the look comes with a precocious, world-weary personality. Nowadays, kids must go into hair salons asking for “ the 30 Seconds to Mars” the way folks used to ask for “the Rachel.”

Though the mystery is somewhat complex and new characters pop up every few minutes, Araki is on top of it. “Kaboom” is well paced, effortlessly blending the sex and the sleuthing so there’s never too much of one or the other. He makes smart directorial choices that put “Kaboom” a cut above the films it alludes to. Freeze frames and novelty transitions could easily become conspicuous and annoying. But Araki’s use of them only adds to the whimsy.

As in the films it emulates, the characters of “Kaboom” constantly speak in snarky sound bites and custom slang. However, Araki’s take on it feels natural and even clever. Among Stella’s quips: “Nice hat, by the way. Are we in Paris?” and “Dreams are just your brain taking a dump at the end of the day. They don’t mean anything.” Haley Bennett delivers Stella’s lines in a way that lovingly recalls Veronica Sawyer in “Heathers“. I was surprised to see Dekkar play a character that isn’t at all whiny or tedious. It’s difficult to sell a line like, “I don’t believe in standardized sexual pigeonholes”, but it rolls off Dekkar’s tongue with adorable earnestness. Also adorable is Juno Temple (daughter of brilliant rock documentarian, Julian). Temple plays London, a free-spirited, sexually liberated party girl who has “a thing for gay dudes.” These actors do a fine job embodying some surprisingly three-dimensional disenchanted youth.

Incidentally, it’s refreshing to see characters in movies using brand-name internet services. Araki name checks both Google alerts and Facebook. I know Araki wasn’t going for realism or anything, but it always ups the silliness quotient of a movie when they use thinly veiled euphemisms for things people use every day. It’s easier to sell a wacky premise when the normal elements of the story are actually…normal.

For a while, there are so many balls in the air that it seems like the mystery of “Kaboom” might never be resolved. But it does pick up speed and culminates in a hilarious car chase scene that cemented my appreciation for this film. This may have been what Richard Kelly was trying to do when he made “Southland.”

Though I thoroughly enjoyed “Kaboom,” I do have one little request. Can we retire the response; “I just threw up a little bit in my mouth”? Somebody please get on this.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct). 

Film Threat Review: Salim Baba

Originally posted on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

2008 SUNDANCE SHORT FILM COMPETITION!

Un-rated
15 minutes
Two and a half stars

 

“Salim Baba” tells the story of a 55-year-old Indian man who, following in his father’s footsteps, makes a living piecing together film scraps and playing them on a hand-cranked projector in a portable booth for the neighborhood children. And that’s…well, that’s the whole story. It’s kind of neat, but ultimately forgettable.

Salim talks about taking over the business from his father. He explains to the camera how the projector works in an excruciatingly lengthy segment that would be interesting to a fraction of filmgoers. The most interesting part is when Salim talks about collecting the film scraps from movie houses and, essentially, creating his own stories from them. There are many shots of him pushing his cart and many shots of children’s smiling faces. Don’t get me wrong, I like smiling children. But we get it. His films make poor kids happy which is why it’s tragic that he doesn’t know how much longer he can afford to run the business. We understood that at minute 5.

I’m not heartless. Really. And I’m not blaming Salim. He is truly an interesting character but his story, or at least this aspect of his story, could have been told in half the time. Salim says that he edits his film scraps in order to make a condensed, less boring version of the story. The filmmakers should have heeded the advice of their protagonist.

Film Threat Review: In Prison My Whole Life

Originally posted on FilmThreat.com (now defunct). 

2008 SUNDANCE WORLD DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION FEATURE FILM!
Un-rated, 90 minutes
Three and a half stars

“Free Mumia.” Whether or not you know what it means, chances are you’ve heard or seen the slogan somewhere, be it on a concrete wall or in the lyrics to a Rage Against the Machine song. The Mumia in question is an African American man who was arrested for killing a police officer on December 9th, 1981. That was also the same day that William Francome was born. If you’ve never heard of William Francome, that’s hardly surprising. He’s just a guy who was born on the same day that Mumia’s life as he knew it ended. This coincidence of dates is part of what drives Francome’s interest in Mumia’s alleged wrongful arrest and conviction and what ultimately becomes the film “In Prison My Whole Life.” While that connection is, indeed a symbolic one, focusing on it so obstinately plays a part in leading the film astray.

Prior to his arrest, Mumia Abu-Jamal was a political journalist with ties to the Black Panthers. These affiliations, along with extreme examples of racist conspiracy in his hometown of Philadelphia, definitely cast more than just a shadow of a doubt on whether or not he was wrongfully sentenced to death row. In fact, Mumia claims that not only was he defending his brother from a brutal assault by the officer, but that he never even pulled the fatal trigger. The film presents an abundance of evidence suggesting both judicial conspiracy and a fourth man on the scene. By the film’s conclusion, any liberal-voting citizen is going to be convinced of Mumia’s innocence. Unfortunately, it’s effectively preaching to the choir.

William Francome is a twenty-something, politically charged student whose life has been profoundly affected by the Mumia case. He is also precisely the sort of person whom a Mike Huckabee or George Bush Jr., or your average conservative judge would dismiss as a bleeding heart. The same goes for the testimonies of artists like Mos Def and Snoop Dogg. Us card-carrying members of Amnesty International know that the system is broken. We know that racism is alive and well in the United States. We are the people who will watch this movie and shake our heads and maybe send some money to the NAACP. But the people whose minds need to be awakened will dismiss it as liberal propaganda and William Francome as naïve. I don’t know what, if anything, can be done about that. Technically, the film is mostly well done. It does get off topic from time to time (with the aforementioned interviews with musicians) and becomes redundant at other points. Still, it’s something you need to see if you don’t know anything about Mumia or if, somehow, you missed the notion that bigotry is rampant on the police force. Sadly, however, it’s not the sorely-needed red pill for right-wingers. I don’t know if such a thing is possible.

Film Threat Review: A Raisin in the Sun

Originally posted on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

2007, Un-rated, 131 minutes
Three stars

First of all, a TV movie at Sundance? What the hell, ABC? I know that these days the festival is about as far from indie as one can get without actually being a Cineplex, but a TV MOVIE? Second, just because a person is a successful musician (with the notable exception of Mos Def) does not an actor make. Barring that, “A Raisin in the Sun” isn’t bad… for a TV MOVIE.

Based on the 1959 stage play by Lorraine Hansberry, “A Raisin in the Sun” tells the story of a poor African American family struggling to make ends meet in the South Side of Chicago. When the Lena Younger, the family’s widowed matriarch (played by Clair Huxtable herself, Phylicia Rashad) learns that she will be receiving a $10,000 insurance check from her husband’s estate, emotions come to a head. Lena’s son, Walter Lee (P. Diddy), wants to “invest” the money in a hair-brained business opportunity. Lena’s daughter, Beneatha, has hopes of being put through medical school. Walter Lee’s wife, Ruth, doesn’t feel any entitlement to the money, but she certainly feels the pangs of poverty. The youngest, er, Younger, Walter Lee and Ruth’s son Travis, would just like to stop sleeping on the couch.

Lena is faced with a tough decision about how to allocate the money whilst both honoring the memory of her late husband and keeping her surviving family happy. This complicated task is made more so when she controversially purchases a 3-bedroom house in a “white neighborhood”, the residents of whom send a nebbish John Stamos over to try and buy them out.

The film is shot with a hand-held camera and mostly close-ups. I assume that this was done to give more of a documentary-feel. However, dialog, unchanged from the stage script, feels like stage dialog. And there is very little restraint in the performances to change that. The performances also bring up some questions about intent for the characters. For instance, I don’t know if Walter Lee Younger is meant to come off as a whiney, immature, ungrateful cad, but P. Diddy certainly plays him as such. It’s hard for me to believe that a strong character like Lena have allowed such disrespect to breed in her home.

Contrarily it seems to be implied that the idealistic, atheistic aspiring doctor, Beneatha Younger’s outlook on life stems from inexperience and naiveté: an implication with which I took personal issue. However, this may have more to do with the tone of the text than with Sanaa Lathan’s performance.

The biggest element keeping “A Raisin in the Sun” from transcending the cheese of TV Movie Land was the stunt casting. Sean Combs may be an actor, but we all know it’s P. Diddy saying those lines. It may have been 13 years since Uncle Jesse asked people to “have mercy”, but unfortunately, a nebbish hairdo does not free John Stamos from that stigma. Phylicia Rashad may be the only actor who is able to lose herself in her role. Even then, I was mostly thinking “Damn. Clair Huxtable is a good crier”.

The opening monologue from the unmistakable timber of Morgan Freeman does lend the film a little credibility, as does the powerful dialog and a good number of the performances by lesser known TV personalities. However, there are no bones about it: “A Raisin in the Sun” is a made-for-TV-movie, which means that no matter how many inspired speeches about family and rising up from the ashes of oppression there are, there’s still a good chance that Mary Catherine Gallagher will someday be reciting those very lines before falling backwards into some chairs and exposing her underpants.

Superstar.