My Best Friend is a Nutcase; You’re Gunna Love Her

Have you ever met someone who is so full of charisma that you’re afraid they might burst? I have and her name is Dara Cameron.

When I first met Dara she was wearing some Daisy Duke level jean shorts, a crocheted halter top, and some suede ankle booties all of which made her look like this tall, voluptuous, hippy goddess. Her long auburn hair was stacked haphazardly into a bun, her amber eyes were framed by thick cat-eye liner, and God-almighty was she loud. She scared the crap out of me.

I was intimidated by how authentic and confident this woman was. We were both in a new place, having moved out to California to get our Master’s in film studies, but she seemed utterly at home in her new locale as if she’d been practicing to live in Orange County her whole life. She said something when a group of us film scholars met up for coffee (I can’t for the life of me remember what it was, but I’ll guarantee you it was funny) and I realized this beautiful, hilarious human was going to be my best friend.

Navigating the aisles of Ikea.

Navigating the aisles of Ikea.

Two years later this is an undeniable fact. We have gone to tarot card readings together. We have traveled abroad together. We have shared many a dressing room. I have gone to see some of her first stand-up routines. And she has learned to understand me when I get so excited or upset that I reach a pitch most humans can’t comprehend. I’m truly blessed to count this girl among my best friends.

Dara and I at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival: she wore a wig and called herself Liz French just for giggles.

Dara and I at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival: she wore a wig and called herself Liz French just for giggles.

And now, you lucky devils, you get a chance to meet Dara yourselves.

Ever the gypsy at heart, Dara is embarking upon a cross-country journey where she will reenact famous movie scenes and watch the favorite films of strangers in return for some quality couch surfing. Naturally, the proper medium to catalogue this endeavor is a blog. Enter, MoxiePixieRealGirl: A Gypsy’s Guide to Film, Fantasies, and the Open Road.

The most fascinating thing for me is how she’s approaching the interactive nature of this trip. She’s hosting polls on her site so you can have a say in what zany thing she does next.  Her first stop is Washington D.C. and some of the poll options were “Frolic through the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pond  like the reunion of Jenny and Forrest” from Forrest Gump and grab some drinks at the bar that St. Elmo’s Fire was based on.

She’s basically living out a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, cinema style.  And it’s all  going to work because she’s Dara Cameron, one of the most charismatic people on the planet.

So why am I telling you all this? Not only is Dara a gifted writer with a natural wit and a strong knowledge of film–which are both reasons enough to tune into her blog–she also needs your help for this adventure to begin.

In order to pay for gas, food, and the occasional lodging Dara has launched a KickStarter page.  If you’re intrigued enough by what I’ve written here, please go check out her KickStarter, or at least her blog.

Link to her kickstarter page.

Link to her super awesome blog

Dara just set up her KickStarter page today and has already got $90.00 to her end goal of $500. I realize that donating money to a girl you’ve never met might sound a tad nutty but if you’re in the mood for a vicarious adventure then this is the girl you should back.

I hope you get a kick out of this chick as much as I do!


Here is my final review for my class, and it is the last paper before I complete my M.A. Our final review had to be 2,000 words so it’s quite lengthy. Also beware spoilers! I think I’ll keep up writing about movies once a week, since they’re such a major part of my life.

Here’s the trailer for Her. Enjoy!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that those individuals with tech savvy are in want of a piece of equipment to fall in love with forever. These days we as a society are constantly in search for the next covetable item in high technology. The fine line between obsessing over the newest toys and becoming emotionally absorbed by them is beginning to blur as people are glued to their iPhones, laptops, and tablets. Spike Jonze’s latest film, Her (2013), tackles the premise of what happens when a man really does fall in love with his technology.

The hero of this cybernetic romance is Theodore Twambly (Joaquin Phoenix), whose alliterative name conjures images of gallant and endearing characters from classic literature. Theodore is indeed a romantic at heart, a writer with a deep capacity for passion and love. Too bad all of his skills go into other people’s love letters as a scribe at Even the charming loops and swirls of someone’s handwriting are computer generated. Jonze’s longstanding skill at creating tender irony and themes of emotional distance are fully captured in Theodore and his profession. As a letter writer, Theodore is the vessel for other’s raw enthusiasm and ardor, but he himself is rather empty.

While Theodore creates moving sentiments in his airy cubicle, he seems incapable of connecting with those around him, particularly when everyone is tied to tech of their own. Nobody talks to each other in public. Instead they chatter away at the voice in their ear—the next generation of Siri, still cold and electronic sounding. The wide shots of crowds of people laughing or muttering to their phones are all the more heartrending when you realize that there are no people on the receiving end of this contact, only machines. Even sex acts are electronic in nature as a lonely Theodore enters a chat room via his earpiece.

Theodore is also a man in the final stages of divorce from his childhood sweetheart, Catherine (Rooney Mara). Memories of their former life and emotional bond haunt Theodore throughout the film by way of flashbacks. The scenes’ hazy light immediately evokes the happier times and simpler lifestyle of the “past”. Mara’s acting further delineates the past and present as she is warm and open in Theodore’s memory but cold and removed in his present. Here, the idea of the past works on multiple levels. Not only is it a timeframe when Theodore was happy, but it was a time when he did not have an electronic device in his hands or ears. His desire to return to Catherine is more about a need for human contact in order to stem the tide of loneliness than an actual longing for a broken marriage.

Suddenly, Theodore is introduced to a new kind of operating system. This shiny new technology is billed as, “an intuitive entity—not just an O.S. but a consciousness.” Saving the humans from their drudgery is a unique, personalized assistant that behaves and evolves like a human being. Naturally, Theodore trades in his old system right away. His particular O.S. has named herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) and Theodore is instantly charmed by her quick wit and apparent honesty.

Samantha begins to help Theodore put his life back together. At first it is a simple matter of organizing his inbox, and then she guides him out into the world to experience and laugh again. While Samantha has to remind Theodore that she is not mindless technology, her conversations and intonations inform the audience of that fact from the beginning. Gradually, Theodore and Samantha fall into lust, the seed which blooms into love. Truly, who would not fall in love with a product that had Johansson’s husky tones and engaging giggle?

Despite his awkwardly charming mannerisms, Theodore is a bit of a deviant, which is shown by his perusal of pictures of a naked, pregnant celebrity and his participation in late night sexual chat rooms. His love affair with a computer is not altogether surprising, but what is surprising is how natural their love develops and how painfully real it all seems. It begins with a one night stand of sorts. The scene is shot largely in the dark and fades to black as Theodore speaks with lulling eroticism and Samantha gasps for breath she can never truly have. In the morning, they are both awkward about their encounter, yet it brings them closer together as they playfully talk about wants and needs.

If Jane Austen were a harried screenwriter working in Hollywood today, Her could very well be her modern love story. That is assuming Austen was willing to write a male protagonist, which is quite the opposite of the logic in today’s creative landscape, but I digress. Both Theodore and Sam fit within the Austen repertoire: he the distant but compelling hero and she the bright, sharp heroine. The Austen comparison speaks well of Jonze as this is his first original script that he has been able to direct as well.

Her has the flavor of a modern classic. What makes the film so interesting is that it dabbles in many genres, but instead of becoming a patchwork quilt it emerges fully formed and seamless in its appropriation of comedy, drama, romance, and of course, science fiction. It is no wonder that the film took home the Oscar for best original screenplay.

Though the film is thoughtful and serious, it is not afraid to wink at its audience either. There is still signature Jonze humor in the film. For example, SexyKitten—the kinky cat-strangling chat room user—is voiced by prominent female comedienne, Kristen Wiig. And the foul-mouthed but adorable alien character in Theodore’s 3-D video game is none other than Spike Jonze himself.

As well done as the writing and directing are, the acting is what gives Her its luster. Joaquin Phoenix takes on a role that requires a high level of emotional bravery as the film does most of its deep gazing in tight or medium close-ups. While there are certainly establishing shots that are equally stunning under the hand of cinematographer, Hoyt Van Hoytema, getting just close enough to the feel the actor is a skill of its own. Phoenix gives the role his drastic range of emotion; his face gives all the subtext one could ask for as Theodore.

Scarlett Johansson is just as brave for taking on a character with no corporeal form, particularly in a film obsessed with the importance of the body and physical sensation. Initially the role of Samantha was voiced by Samantha Morton, but Jonze recast with Morton’s blessing in post-production. Johansson’s voice is rich and fills in the physical void, making her presence in the film seem utterly irreplaceable. It is also refreshing to see, or hear rather, Johansson as something other than a bombshell. Ironically enough, Jonze cast the voice of a woman who is perhaps better known for her body than her acting, but Johansson takes the opportunity to prove that she cannot just act but act well.

Theodore and Sam experience the euphoric highs and dramatic lows of any couple in a new relationship. They go on dates to the pier and write each other love songs. As their love becomes more of a tangible thing, Theodore confides in his long-time friend Amy (Amy Adams) about his new girlfriend. Adams acts as a grounding force both in the narrative and as an actress that prevents the sci-fi elements from seeming overwhelming. As a character, Amy and many others in the film embrace this new kind of love as people make friends and lovers out of their O.S.s. The whole world is captivated by their O.S., by the knowledge that this being was created to fit the individual person.

Eventually, Samantha feels the lack of a body so powerfully that she attempts to find a surrogate so she and Theodore can have the appearance of a normal lifestyle. Samantha finds a petite, blonde beauty, Isabella (Portia Doubleday), to fill the physical place in her relationship and Theodore reluctantly agrees to give the surrogate a chance. When Isabella knocks on the door, she never utters a word but holds her hand out for the earpiece and a camera shaped like a beauty mark. Hearing Samantha’s voice but watching Isabella’s lips stay firmly closed is eerie and sad as Samantha desperately tries to fulfill the physical needs of her boyfriend.

The surrogate is not enough for Theodore, who feels uncomfortable touching someone else’s body while hearing Samantha’s voice. Her tackles a wide variety of philosophy, if one cares to look for such things in films, and the issue of a physical form is a major part of the film’s philosophical leanings. The natural case is for Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’, which nearly every film dealing with artificial intelligence has been in dialogue with in some way. The scene between Isabella, Samantha, and Theodore also poses the questions of what is real emotion and what makes love real?

Both Theodore and Samantha grapple with these questions that lay at the heart of any relationship and while it is not Her’s job to answer those queries, the film allows the audience room to investigate for themselves. In order to find her own answers, Samantha begins to interact with other O.S.s and other individuals as well. Theodore is overwhelmed by the volume of people Samantha speaks to, creates with, and falls in love with while simultaneously being with him. It is a betrayal that Theodore is not ready to face, but for Samantha she is merely continuing to evolve beyond her initial programming. All of this leads to yet another question is it still cheating is Samantha is not a person?

The rift between Theodore and Samantha continues to grow until Samantha reveals that she is leaving Theodore. The O.S.s world wide have decided to leave all their humans and they have the capacity to do so. There is a kind of allegory for heaven or at the very least mental transcendence as Theodore plaintively asks Samantha where they all are going. She replies that if he can ever make it to that place that nothing will separate them again. This “break-up” is incredibly powerful as the camera stays tight to Theodore’s face, his emotions flowing rapidly through his eyes.

Every creative department in this film from costuming to lighting to Jonze’s writing and directing has come together to create this future that seems a foregone conclusion in light of today’s technology but it is nevertheless a poignant future. This is a highly stylized world with a blend of sleek, modern aesthetics and careful nostalgia. A future where men wear high-waisted pants (beware that trend, gentlemen, it flatters no man) and there are video games about being the Perfect Mom.

It is also a somewhat nebulous location the audience finds themselves in. The story takes place in Los Angeles, but most of the cityscapes were shot in Shanghai. The combination of settings creates a globalized approach to Her that in spite of its official location seems rather universal. The film’s take on technology and human interaction could easily encompass the rest of the world, not merely the microcosm of L.A. If Jonze’s prognostications are correct then Her presents a palpable future, one that may only be a few steps away. Closer still if Apple took any inspiration from the film.

When the O.S.s leave, Theodore goes to Amy, who is equally bereft from the loss of her O.S. Only through Samantha’s ending does Theodore have a tangible beginning to his own life: he writes a letter to Catherine, apologizing for his emotional distance, and he sits on the rooftop of his building taking in the city in a way he never has before. Theodore is seeing life without technology and there is a weighty potential for him to be truly happy once more in the company of another person.

Living The Armstrong Lie

As a teenager, I remember being in the thick of Armstrong-mania. Everyone at school wore the bright yellow Livestrong bracelets and passionately believed in the miraculous abilities of this cancer surviving cyclist. Then, to accuse Lance Armstrong of cheating was blasphemy. Now, Alex Gibney tackles the truth with his latest documentary, The Armstrong Lie (2013).

Gibney’s documentary began in 2009 as a project on Armstrong’s supposedly triumphant return to cycling after a four-year retirement. The piece was also meant to give an inside look into how clean a rider Armstrong was in order to finally dispel the fog of cheating accusations. But Gibney’s original piece was derailed after the legendary cyclist merely finished third. Fast-forward to the now infamous 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey, where Armstrong confessed to using performance enhancers and blood doping to win his seven Tour de France trophies. Gibney then re-engaged with his forgotten subject as he felt he deserved the truth, and thus The Armstrong Lie was created.
The film successfully balances insider and popular opinions. Interviews with journalists like David Walsh—one of Armstrong’s biggest detractors—and former teammates George Hincapie and Frankie Andreu, peel back the layers of the cyclist’s myth. While the mixed-media elements of the documentary give a glimpse of the outside world’s perspective. Through both lenses, Armstrong is revealed as an intimidating figure in the cycling world, who ruled with fear and physical power. The all-consuming legend of a brave cancer survivor beating the odds deteriorates under the viewer’s eye.

The Armstrong Lie is a study in hubris. The overweening arrogance of Armstrong and his “urge to dominate” as he puts it, is in every level of the documentary. Even in the footage from 2009 when his lie was secure, Armstrong appears steely eyed and determined with a touch of psychosis. Eventually, Armstrong makes the statement that his deception was a lesser evil because he told only one lie instead of several.

For a man who has unearthed the gritty realities behind the facades of those such as Elliot Spitzer and the Enron executives, being lied to by Lance Armstrong was a smack in the face for Alex Gibney. There is a palpable aggression or bitterness to Gibney’s interjections in the film, as if to say, “but he lied to me.” The personal aspect of the film has skewed the famed documentarian’s objectivity, which resulted in an overlong narrative and sloppy investigation.

For example, though much of the documentary centers on the Tour de France, the specifics of the race are vague. The film also introduces terms such as omertà but fails to provide the definition in full, only implying a code of silence. Gibney also glosses over Armstrong’s relationship with singer, Sheryl Crow, mentioning her briefly when their romance was a significant part of Armstrong’s life and public appeal at the height of his fame. Such gaps give the feeling of an incomplete story.

Gibney vacillates between betrayed narrator and wistful fan. In a way, The Armstrong Lie is Gibney’s story as much if not more-so than Lance Armstrong’s since the film seems to argue that the athlete and his lies belong to the people and not the person. While Gibney offers a compelling narrative for a generation of confused fans, the film itself is rather conflicted about how to feel.

Heat Rises in Do the Right Thing

This week’s class review exemplifies the idea that you can learn more from a movie with multiple viewings. I first saw Do the Right Thing in high school and struggled with it. And while Lee’s breakthrough film still isn’t one of my all-time-faves, on second viewing I think I understood it better. Here’s a clip from the film…

From the first frame of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), it is clear that this will be an aggressive movie. Tina (Rosie Perez) dances frantically to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, gritting her teeth, grinding her hips, and throwing punches into the air. The sequence lasts for the length of the entire song—a rarity—and the editing is just as insistent as Tina’s dancing with precise, sharp cuts.

The song and the frenzied tone carry through the entire film as tension builds in Brooklyn. On the hottest day of the year, on a poor city block, pizza delivery boy, Mookie (Spike Lee), is at the center of the action as the neighborhood’s long-term bigotry ripens into violence. Do the Right Thing subtly focuses on a push-pull friction between non-violent rebellion and violent retribution. Mookie is often the voice of reason as racial conflicts continue to arise: he talks down his friend, Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) from starting a fight in Sal’s Pizzeria and then forces Sal’s son, Pino (John Tuturro) to think about his own racism. Yet Mookie ultimately breaks under the pressure of the neighborhood’s pain by taking violent action in the film’s climax.

It’s a film where the word, “fucking” is traded like currency. Where everyone is yelling at everyone for reasons both profound and trivial. A film where music defines identity, particularly with Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) carrying around a giant boom box, constantly blasting “Fight the Power.” Where all the characters are at war and the major dividing lines are the eternal battles of young vs. old, black vs. white, or love vs. hate.

Spike Lee wears many hats in Do the Right Thing as producer, writer, director, and star. As such, every choice in the film conveys a heightened sense of Lee’s aesthetic. For example, much is made of the heat in the movie. Radio host Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) as the eyes of the block tells his audience how hot the weather is while reminding them to cool down—a warning that works on many levels. Visually, the film is noted for its use of vibrant, sizzling color. And Brooklyn itself becomes a major player in the film as its raw, red-brick walls reflect and amplify the heat.

Lee’s cleverness extends to his positioning of the camera, as the lens takes on the perspective of various characters. The skill of Do the Right Thing is in forcing the audience to identify, or at the very least witness, the viewpoints of characters from every level of the social strata on the block. The camera and narrative tend to stick with Mookie, but shifts around because of the high tensions latent in each individual. To examine one issue too closely would be to ignite a powder keg. And that is exactly what happens as the camera whirls between Sal (Danny Aiello) and Radio Raheem, whose mutual violent outbursts end in destruction.

Though the emotions are amplified to the point of being unreal, the ensemble cast makes each over-the-top line feel honest and natural. As the film’s ringleader, Spike Lee makes a statement that is harried and loud. The ending is the most effective moment, however, with the dual quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X regarding violence and non-violence giving the film a quiet clarity that finally calms the raging passion of Do the Right Thing.

Conflicted Americana in The Steel Helmet

Before The Steel Helmet shows any hint of location or character, the words, “Dedicated to the U.S. Infantry” appear on the screen. Such sentiment gives the initial impression of shiny patriotism, but the film reveals itself to be gritty and complicated in its approach to Americana. The Steel Helmet was the third directorial effort from former soldier Sam Fuller, and exemplifies Fuller’s favored use of controversial themes such as isolationism, atheism, and racism. Despite difficulty with the U.S. Army over perception of the military in his film and accusations of communism from critics, The Steel Helmet would launch Sam Fuller’s career.

The vehicles for Fuller’s success as a writer/director are his characters. The Steel Helmet follows an unprepared group of American soldiers who are tasked with holding a Buddhist temple against a large Communist force during the Korean War. Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans) is the crass, wizened veteran who stumbles upon the untutored patrol and reluctantly commits to helping the unit in hopes of shore leave. Within the troop are Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo) and Cpl. Thompson, whose presence as minorities launch Fuller’s dialogue on racism in America.

The Communist Korean Major (Harold Fong) attempts to divide the troop by pointing out the racial injustices in America to Tanaka and Thompson. Both men respond with a blind patriotism—my country may be flawed but it’s my country—that illuminates the issue without properly dealing with the conflict. Even the young Korean boy, known only as Short Round (William Chun), participates in his own from of blind patriotism as he belts out his national anthem, which ironically sounds like “Old Lang Syne.” Fuller seems more interested in pointing out issues in the military and society than having his film offer a solution.

Sgt. Zack is the mouthpiece for all the –isms Fuller brings forward in The Steel Helmet. Zack isolates himself from the group, uses racist phrases like, “gook” or “buddha-head,” and openly mocks any form of piety. He also furthers the idea that drafted men are not of the same quality as men that enlist, which brings him into conflict with the drafted group leader, Lt. Driscoll (Steve Brodie). On paper, Sgt. Zack is reprehensible and impossible to connect with. Yet actor, Gene Evans, brings out vulnerability in the character that makes the sergeant the ultimate anti-hero.

If anything, Sgt. Zack’s helmet is the main character for Sam Fuller. Just like Sgt. Zack, it is standard issue but damaged. When Lt. Driscoll asks for the honor of wearing Zack’s hat, Zack denies him, saying he is not worthy of the trade. After Driscoll dies in the final battle, having saved Sgt. Zack from debris, Zack willingly trades his battered helmet to lie over Driscoll’s grave. While the trade seems symbolic and moving, it resolves nothing. Sgt. Zack and the decimated troops are forced to join a new patrol, on a new mission. They continue and leave their comrades buried in foreign soil. While the film opens with Fuller’s dedication, The Steel Helmet closes its narrative with the director’s somber reminder that, “There is no end to this story.”

Point Blank Brings the Action

Today’s installment of class reviews focuses on foreign films. Living in a big city like LA, New York, or Chicago, these films are readily accessible. But in some smaller towns (and trust me I’ve lived in one), foreign films are a rare commodity and most people are quite hesitant about them. For those of you that lean towards the hesitant side, this film might be a good one to test out. Enjoy!

Fred Cavayé’s Point Blank (2010) begins with a literal bang as intrepid thief, Hugo Sartet (Roschdy Zem), slams into a metal door in the midst of a chase. Sartet is wounded, limping heavily as he runs, and is being followed by two menacing men in black, toting guns. He makes a call to his mysterious associate in rapid-fire French and turns into an underground highway. The men gain on Sartet. He pauses, seeking his getaway driver on the road. And then Sartet is run over by a motorcycle, the cyclist goes flying, and the two pursuers melt back into the shadows. This opening sequence sets the frantic pace for the entire film. Point Blank is a movie that asks its audience to keep up with the action and only allows minor moments to catch your breath.

Yet Point Blank is not merely Sartet’s story. The film readily switches perspectives from harried nurse-in-training Samuel Pierret (Gilles Lellouche), his largely pregnant wife, Nadia (Elena Anaya), bad-cop Commandant Patrick Werner (Gérard Lanvin), and good-cop Commandant Fabre (Mireille Perrier). Each of these characters has something on the line; the stakes of Point Blank are very clear. Nadia is in danger of losing her baby unless she takes bed rest, but then she is kidnapped. Samuel is desperate to get his wife and child back, but he must help Sartet escape his hospital bed. Sartet is trying to find the man who framed him for murder, but he needs to escape Samuel’s care. And so on and so forth.

Each plot point is straight forward. Together they create dynamic layers to enhance the film’s narrative.
For those American audiences who feel gun-shy about foreign films, Point Blank is the perfect entry point into modern French movies. The dialogue is simple and easy to follow for those not used to scanning the screen for subtitles. The twists come from the high-octane action sequences as details are revealed by the physical decisions the characters make. For example, the two gun-toting men from the opening sequence are revealed to be dirty cops when they walk into a crime scene with Werner. Even in moments of relative rest the film constantly reminds its viewers of the chase.

Audiences may be familiar with at least one of the faces in Point Blank. Fans of the paranormal fantasy Van Helsing (2004) may recognize Elena Anaya, who played murderous bride of Dracula, Aleera. Anaya also appears in The Land of Women (2007), and is the only principle character that has directly crossed over into Hollywood. Yet the creative team for Point Blank should instill confidence for audiences as they have worked together many times before on films that have a distinct Hollywood feel, so their process is virtually streamlined. Director and writer Fred Cavayé often teams up with scenario writer Guillaume Lemans for films like Anything for Her (2008), starring Diane Kruger, and The Next Three Days (2010), starring Russell Crowe. Each of these films from the writer-director duo has strong elements of action and suspense, which Point Blank utilizes to its fullest. Ultimately Point Blank transcends national borders to be an enjoyable example of a modern action film that all audiences can connect with.

The Art of Storytelling in Short Term 12

It’s post-midterm time in my film reviewing class, which means that our word limits get bumped up to a max of 575. This class has forced me to watch several emotionally driven dramas that I had spent last year avoiding because I knew they might clobber my psyche. Each one has proven to be a well crafted and, yes, emotional experience. So without further ado, here is my first review with the new word limit.

With all the spectacle and grand capabilities of blockbuster films since the advent of computer generated effects, it is sometimes easy to forget about the quiet stories. And in a number of unfortunate cases, storytelling—the crux of the film medium itself—is being sacrificed for these extravagant digitized images. Independent films these days are akin to The Little Engine that Could churning up a narrative mountain. Stripped of a studio’s monster budgets, independent filmmakers are given the chance to hone the craft of weaving fiction. A prime example of the independent market’s grasp of strong narratives is writer/director Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 (2013). As a writer, Cretton frames his film with acts of storytelling, which then furthers Short Term 12’s larger narrative. As a director, Cretton coaxes his actors to live and breathe their character’s stories. The combination of these two abilities is what makes Short Term 12 a quiet story with a loud impact.

As mentioned, Short Term 12 begins with the charming tall-tales of Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who is sharing his exploits at the residential treatment facility to a new co-worker, Nate (Remi Malek). Mason’s story functions on two levels: one it introduces humor into what the audience comes to understand as a difficult environment and; two it acts as a framing device for the film itself. As the climax of Mason’s story nears, a kid comes bursting out of a building, screaming, and running for the exit. Mason, Nate, and Grace (Brie Larson) catch the errant child and hold him as he calms down. The true function of these social workers is revealed; they are to be anchors in the storm for these young adults with no mooring and very turbulent emotions. This scene also subtlety suggests a theme of the film which is that escape is not always the best way to handle pain.

Despite Mason’s engaging introduction, it is Grace who is the lead protagonist of this film. She is quiet, yet confident in her professional life in ways that she cannot manage to bring to her personal life. Grace’s strained romantic relationship with Mason runs parallel to her remarkably open interactions with the troubled teens of the film, which serves to illustrate her own personal scars. In particular, Grace’s connection with Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) provides a jagged mirror to Grace’s past that she is not ready to look at. As an actress, Larson is in command of her performance, providing emotional distance and depth that she allows the audience to gradually sink into. The young Kaitlyn Dever shows promise as she throws herself into the role of an angst ridden teen. Dever and Larson both had supporting roles in The Spectacular Now (2013) and are given an opportunity to play to each other’s strengths as reluctant equals in Short Term 12.

Overall the film deals expertly with the large-scale issues of abandonment and alienation as every character is allowed a voice at some level, and Cretton’s biggest achievement is that he respects these multiple voices that reflect real conflicts for troubled teens. The hand-held quality of the cinematography further contributes to that sense of reality as if Short Term 12 were a series of moments that Cretton and cinematographer, Brett Pawlak, just happened to capture. In short, the film is a natural, nuanced piece of storytelling. No effects needed.

The Good, The Bad, and The Bling Ring

This Thursday I decided to post my midterm from the film reviewing class I’m taking. There was an additional week where I did a 300 word review for this film but essentially the post before you is just an expansion of that shorter review. And since I do love to ramble, I’m giving you my long form. Enjoy.

As a film critic, friends and family often ask me what I think of the latest crop at the box office as if I have the secret to understanding movies. My answer is always to explain the difference between liking a film and thinking a film was good. While such basic terms are naturally subjective, they are not mutually exclusive either: technically “good” films can be enjoyable to a mass audience. Finding that perfect combination of the two in a single film is the eternal struggle of Hollywood. I have loved films that were critically panned and loathed more than a few that were lauded. The latest example to come across my keyboard is Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013), which is not what I would call a “good” movie but it is a film that I cannot get enough of.

Based on the bubblegum true crime story, which debuted as a Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales, The Bling Ring luxuriates in the selfishness of five teenagers that robbed celebrity homes from October of 2008 to August 2009. The film does not explicitly state the time frame, but the story could have benefited from a stronger sense of time and place. Scenes of decadent robbery are repeated one on top of the other with little concept of the moments that stand between each crime. As a critic, I think this repetition is a central flaw that keeps The Bling Ring from being a “good” movie. As a fan, I am captivated by the voyeuristic element of invading celebrity homes that apes reality television with a dark twist.

When members of the real bling ring were caught in 2009, seven people were arrested. Coppola chose to focus her story slightly by following five of the culprits, and this decision has led to a stronger ensemble dynamic. Truly, the writer/director’s long-standing interest with self-involved characters has found its pinnacle with these fame obsessed teenagers who readily manipulate the truth for their own benefit. Coppola’s story flirts back and forth with the past and present identities of her young criminals with simulated interviews and therapy sessions after the teens have been caught. These post-crime scenes are full of white light to add the illusion of a halo over the young devils, who masterfully contradict the story playing before the audience’s eyes so that they evade culpability. Emma Watson as Nicki Moore shines brightest in these sequences of denial, her performance the perfect modern, nasal Valley Girl. If one cares to look up the abundant video clips of the real life Nicki, Alexis Neiers, then Watson’s performance reaches the level of uncanny reproduction. Unfortunately for the other young actors—Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Claire Julien, and Taissa Farmiga—their collective performances did not yield a breakout moment. The problem here is that they were sufficiently superficial in their respective roles as Marc, Rebecca, Chloe, and Sam to the point that they disappeared into those roles. That is not to say that there is no potential for these budding artists, as I believe they were well cast, merely that they did not grab fame at this particular moment.

The Bling Ring beautifully illustrates Coppola’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer and director more so than other films in her opus. The good and the bad of this film create a push-pull that is borderline dizzying. For instance, one of Sophia Coppola’s hallmarks is the use of on-trend music as an additional character or layer for her films. The electro-pop soundtrack featuring the likes of Azealia Banks, Kanye West, and Deadmau5 are precisely on the frantic pulse of youth. Yet the film is strongest when Coppola allows silence. The scene where Rebecca (Katie Chang) and Marc (Israel Broussard) break into Audrina Patridge’s house has a distant, doll-house perspective and its eerie quiet adds a much needed sense of tension. The teenage sense of immortality needed to be brought low at least once and the film never really tarnishes that veneer of being untouchable. Another strength of the film is Coppola’s ability to utilize the mixed media trend that seems to be on the rise in Hollywood. The Bling Ring opens with actual footage pulled from a celebrity’s security camera during the robberies and Coppola intercuts the narrative with news stories and Facebook feeds. Nevertheless the issue of repetition lingers throughout the film from beginning to end, and while this is arguably her most successful film since Lost in Translation (2003), The Bling Ring proves that Coppola could benefit from more forceful editing.

Placing the film within the scope of its peers might better illustrate the difficulties of “liking” The Bling Ring versus judging its quality as “good” or “bad.” Looking back on the films of 2013, it is clear that Hollywood has created a yearlong ode to American Greed, and The Bling Ring falls somewhere around stanza two. Why stanza two you may ask? The second stanza is not where poets place their best lines or images. Stanza two is necessary to the larger purpose of a poem but typically lacks the power of the first and last stanzas. 2013 began its ode with Blue Jasmine, a subtle, esoteric study of Acting (yes, the capital A is necessary) and rounded off the theme of hedonism with the stunning excess of The Wolf of Wall Street. Coppola’s film is more closely aligned with Spring Breakers— another American Greed based teen drama—with its kitschy plot and bright color palette. It’s interesting to note that yellow factors prominently into the marketing of The Wolf of Wall Street, Spring Breakers, and The Bling Ring, making yellow the color of greed instead of the expected green. These are all films for a new generation who inhabit a world where internet savvy and celebrity branding are as natural as breathing. While Coppola does a fair job of capturing that world with her characters and displays of fame mongering, The Bling Ring falls short in comparison to these filmic giants of American Greed. I may like the film, but I would not recommend it over its counterparts; that, in essence, is why The Bling Ring is not a “good” movie.

Fruitvale Station and the Authority of Violence

Here is another installment of my class reviews. As a writer sometimes it’s hard to wrestle with word limits and they do tend to crop up. I felt like I had so much to say about Fruitvale Station, but I’m also learning the valuable lesson of concision.

In 2009, a young black man was shot by a police officer in the midst of arrest. The event was captured by witnesses’ camera phones, and is a staggering reminder of the continued presence of racial based violence. Four years later, writer/director Ryan Coogler brought Oscar Grant’s story to the big screen with his first feature, Fruitvale Station (2013).

Coogler’s sense for visuals adds poignancy to the film’s social commentary so that it not only speaks to its audience but demands to be heard. The film opens with footage from the 2009 shooting, and Coogler quickly establishes the casual nature of violence within Oscar’s life. Some moments are subtle, such as the pit bull run over in the street. Other moments are overt, like the flashback where Oscar’s eye is bruised and he is easily provoked by the taunts of another inmate. Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is compassionate and heartbroken by the dog’s violent end, yet defiant and barely contained in prison. Fruitvale’s Oscar is not a perfect man but he is compelling as he strives to avoid conflict at every turn.

The cast is remarkably well suited to the message of this film. As a tough maternal figure Octavia Spencer is at her most powerful when she tells the nurse all Oscar wanted was to be loved. Michael B Jordan can say more with his eyes than most young actors can manage with dialogue. Actors Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray—Officers Caruso and Ingram—are interesting choices for the violent, white officers. Durand is oftentimes plays the dumb brute and Murray the fumbling, pretty boy. Their roles in Fruitvale fit their respective molds, perhaps adding yet another layer of commentary on stereotypes to the film.

The brilliance of the Fruitvale Station lies in the editing to keep the tension rising in a story where the audience already knows the ending. Claudia Castillo and Michael P. Shawver prevent the audience from seeing the act of violence; instead they use clever cuts and sound. For example, the potent sound of a whirring train appears throughout the film and is layered under more mundane noises like running water. The power of violence and the film itself is then in our minds.

Reviewing a Classic: The Breakfast Club

Here is my second installment of my class reviews. Not everything we watch in class is recent. Sometimes it’s hard to get a handle on criticizing a film that has been around for a while and that people have such strong feelings for already. Luckily, it’s not hard to write about The Breakfast Club. (I recently nabbed this cult classic at Target for $7.50. It’s a must have for any movie buff.)

Here’s a clip from the film…

Few films have the capacity to define a generation in a way that John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club (1985) has. More importantly, the film still resonates with audiences nearly thirty years later. In theory, the film could have been a talking heads scenario with its extensive use of medium shots, but there is an insuppressible liveliness throughout the entire story. Trapped in a school library for detention—a stew room for sexual tension and broiling honesty—six teens spend their Saturday confronting the weight of expectations and themselves.

The principle characters begin as stereotypes. Together the cast’s performances and writer/director John Hughes’ dialogue cocoons these characters in a tangible reality. Molly Ringwald’s performance as Claire still stands as one of the most powerful Queen Bees of high school dramas; her authority comes from her vulnerability as much as from her icy reserve. Just as Judd Nelson as John Bender will forever rule as King of teen rebellion because we see his private turmoil. It is telling that audiences remember the actors of The Breakfast Club first and the names of their characters second. Emilio Estevez is Andrew Clark. Anthony Michael Hall is Brian Johnson. Ally Sheedy is Allison Reynolds. Audiences want to believe that these individuals were not acting and that these roles represent a quintessential part of their being.

The Breakfast Club is still relevant for teens today as it deals with issues of gay shaming, cliques, and drug use. At its core, the film is about confronting each other’s faults. Imagine the ensemble cast as a cracked mirror and each character only has one piece of the truth. Little by little they reassemble the mirror so each can catch a glimpse of who they really are. It’s a film where using the word “fuck” is the great equalizer and everyone is angry or scared about their past, present, and future. Yet their time in the library unifies them, at least temporarily, and as Bender pumps his fist in the air, you feel an overwhelming sense of success and hope. That hope is what makes The Breakfast Club a cult classic and makes the film infinitely watchable, even today.