‘Cloverfield’ Lives Up to the Hype

Cloverfield

The fact that “Cloverfield” is any good is something of a miracle. This movie was released in January, a month where Hollywood tends to dump all their crappy movies because they have no idea of where else to put them. Plus, this is a movie which could have easily collapsed under the height of anticipation and expectation which preceded it with its brilliant marketing strategy. We all saw the brilliant teaser trailer showing the severed head of the Statue of Liberty being thrown down into the middle of Manhattan. We didn’t see the title for the film until months later, and we couldn’t stop thinking about it. This trailer was analyzed like it was the equivalent of the Zapruder film which captured the Kennedy assassination, but now the movie is finally here and has gotten 2008 off to a strong start.

“Cloverfield” takes place in the city of New York which has seen its fair share of destruction on and off the big screen. It starts off with some color bars on the screen and there is a message stating the footage we are about to see is from the area “formerly known as Central Park.” Those are ominous words indeed, and it leaves us in a state of suspended tension as we already know something very bad is going to happen. We first meet Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) as he is filming the apartment of the woman he just slept with, Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman). We see them hanging out in Coney Island throughout, but the movie then jumps ahead to a month or so later when Rob is about to leave New York for a new job in Japan. It turns out Beth and Rob never really hung out with each other again after the great day they had, and the time they had together is always on their minds. But just as they try to sort out their personal issues, the earth shakes beneath them and, of course, all hell breaks loose.

The movie does take its time getting started which is not a bad thing as it takes time to establish the main players and their backgrounds. The script doesn’t flesh them out completely, but they are fleshed out enough to where you do care about them. The big surprise party thrown for Rob is filled with people who look like, at the very least, got a callback for one or more of the shows on the CW network. It would have been nice to see the filmmakers add more ordinary people into this party who did not have the perfect body or such Noxzema clear faces, but anyway.

What makes this monster film particularly effective is how it is told from the ground view. We are there with the people as they experience this disaster firsthand, and the characters are not just simple clichés who look and feel like they belong in a typical watered-down sitcom. This is what drove me nuts about Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla.” Like Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” it is not caught up with the military as they make decisions on how to destroy this enormous beast. It is more concerned with people like you and me and how we might struggle to survive in this situation. The adrenaline keeps running high as Rob and a few others make their way through the decimated city to get to Beth who is trapped in her high-rise apartment.

Another key factor is that “Cloverfield” doesn’t show us the monster right away, and this as a result makes the thought of the monster becomes more terrifying than anything else. We do get to see the monster eventually, but not in its entirety until the latter half. I would love to describe the monster to you, but I’d rather you discover it for yourself as I really don’t want to spoil the surprise. Nothing will compare to the first time you watch this movie.

The movie is also dominated by the shaky cam work which threatens to become an overused method of filmmaking these days. For those of you who have serious motion sickness problems, don’t sit too close to the screen. As for myself, I actually dealt with it just fine. I was starting to think I might have reached my limit with shaky camerawork after watching “The Kingdom,” and it fails in comparison to the brilliant camerawork accomplished in “The Bourne Ultimatum.” But here, it’s fine and it keeps you on the edge of your seat.

“Cloverfield” is not exactly brilliant filmmaking, but it does get the job done and with no real music score might I add. We don’t get to hear a score until the end credits where Michael Giaachiano composed a piece of music which serves a tribute of sorts to the monster movies of the past. Credit, however, should go to director Matt Reeves who directs his first movie here since “The Pallbearer” which was made back in 1996. He keeps the action grounded enough to where we have no problem following the characters even if their situation is not entirely probable. Anyway, we go into a movie like this to have a good time, not to think too hard about everything going on.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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There’s Nothing Like a Hot Summer Day in February

Burbank High School TrackOkay, it has been a very busy few weeks between working and training for the 2018 Los Angeles Marathon. After cutting short a run just a couple of miles before I could have made it to the finish line, I started to wonder if I would be better off running the half-marathon in March instead of the full 26.2 miles. But after forcing myself to do more cardio exercises throughout the week, I came back with a vengeance and surprised my fellow runners with my speed as we ran several laps on the Burbank High School track. Coach James wanted us to work on our tempo and run each mile faster than the previous one. Even with my pronounced belly, I held my own against my fellow Pablove Foundation runners who continue to run at a much faster pace than me. It even got to where I arrived back at the park only a few minutes after the last runner had left for the day.

The following week had us enduring our longest run yet – 20 miles. This took us further out into Burbank and Glendale than ever before, and I think we all ran through part of North Hollywood at one point. The longest runs are always the hardest for obvious reasons, but this 20-mile run had us enduring something more vicious: 90-degree weather. The heat was intense to where I couldn’t believe I allowed myself to continue. Seriously, I felt like Uma Thurman as she walked through the desert on her bare feet in “Kill Bill.”

Kill Bill Uma Thurman walking

We all must have gone through every single electrolyte drink available to us on this run, and it reminds me of how I need to bring some money next time so I can go by the nearest 7-Eleven if I ever need to for Gatorade or its equivalent. Also, I have long since run out of suntan lotion to where I wondered if I would get sunburned for the first time in years. Oh well, at least I got a good dose of Vitamin E… Or is it Vitamin D?

The weather in Los Angeles these past weeks has been seriously bipolar. During the day, it reaches temperatures cities should only experience during spring and summertime. At night, thinks get so frigid to where us Angelinos are suddenly reminded why God created sweaters. Running early in the morning allows us Pablove runners to escape the higher temperatures Southern California typically gives us more often than it should. But despite our best efforts, we still got caught in weather we typically live to avoid. While training for the LA Marathon takes place during the coldest months of the year, we Pablove runners still live in a place which doesn’t always have seasons.

When I finished the 20-mile run, I told Coach James how there is nothing like a hot summer day in February. He got a kick out of hearing me say this, and it’s always great to make your friends laugh. This isn’t even Hawaii, and yet it felt like we were suddenly much closer to the equator than we were ever led to believe. Let us pray things will not be overheating like a car engine when we run 26.2 miles.

This past Saturday had us doing the first of two recovery runs. We stayed in Griffith Park ran up and down the insane hill in the back of it twice. The first time we were told to run at an easygoing pace like we are going to on marathon day. The second time, however, we were to run up it at a much faster pace. This was all about improving our overall marathon time, but just staring at the hill was enough to make me say, “Bitch, please!”

In years previous, the coaches advised us not to wear headphones while running. This was done to keep us safe and aware of our surroundings, and it also allowed us to converse with our fellow runners so we would get to know one another better. But since I have spent more time this season running by my lonesome, I said screw it and brought along one of my two 160GB iPods. I have two of them because one is solely dedicated to containing film scores and soundtracks, and that was the one I brought for this run.

Actually, I did bring this same iPod with me the previous week, but I forgot to charge it up. Upon attempting to use it, the screen indicated it needed to be hooked up to a power source. This is code for, “you idiot!”

American Flyers movie poster

Music really did help me run up that merciless hill. One piece which did wonders for me was the theme from “American Flyers,” a movie about bicycle racing which co-starred Kevin Costner. Truth be told, I have not actually seen it all the way through, but I do remember the music from the movie’s trailers, and it is the kind of cheesy movie music which 1980’s movies typically employed more often than not.

During walk breaks, I kept choosing different pieces of music to listen to like Peter Gabriel’s “The Heat” from his soundtrack to “Birdy,” and the music composed and performed by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth for “Big Trouble in Little China” came in handy as well. Towards the last half of the run, John Powell’s adrenaline rush of a score for “The Bourne Ultimatum” helped me get over the top of the hill. I love Powell’s music for the Jason Bourne franchise as his scores make you feel the character’s desperation to stay alive as his antagonists continue to hunt him down whenever he is in their sights.

The Little Engine That Could

I tell you, every time I go up the hill in Griffith Park, I get reminded of the book “The Little Engine That Could.” You know, the one with the young train trying his best to ascend a hill while telling himself over and over, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” I wonder if anyone considered doing a follow up in which we catch up with that same train when he’s in his forties. Sure, the train may still think he can, but he most likely has put on a lot of weight since his glory days as his metabolism is not what it used to be, and the testosterone his body once thrived upon is now in short supply. I kept going up the hill saying to myself, “I think I can, I think I… Aw shit, I need to walk.” Seriously, we need these hills in our training as they will be part of the marathon course, but it takes no time for me to get winded as I attempt to ascend them. Just looking at it is enough to make me feel like those energy gels I just consumed won’t be nearly enough. Heck, I kept thinking of Roy Scheider’s classic scene in “Jaws” where he tells Robert Shaw, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Well, I did make it back to our starting point in Griffith Park in one piece, and Coach James told me to wait a few days before doing my maintenance runs so my body could have time to recover from the soreness it was already feeling. After indulging in a Sausage McMuffin with Egg sandwich at McDonald’s, I went back to my apartment and took a super long nap as I didn’t get much sleep the night before.

BREAKFAST

This Saturday’s run will be another recovery run before we run the longest one of all – 23 miles. Till then, I need to keep up with my maintenance runs and stay hydrated. Granted, maybe I’ll have to occasional Jack and Coke, but alkaline water should be at the top of my menu along with Gatorade and Pedialyte.

FUNDRAISING UPDATE: I want to thank all of you for donating to my fundraising efforts for The Pablove Foundation, an organization determined to find a cure for pediatric cancer. So far, I have raised $891 towards my goal of $1,500. Be sure to make a tax-deductible donation sooner rather than later. If all you can donate is $5, I will happily accept that. Heck, if all my Facebook friends donated just $5 each, I would be exceeding my goal by quite a margin.

CLICK HERE TO MAKE A DONATION TO THE PABLOVE FOUNDATION.

 

ALSO, CHECK OUT SOME OF THE GREATEST HITS OF THIS PARTICULAR PABLOVE RUN WHICH GOT ME TO THE FINISH LINE:

‘Ant-Man’ Proves to be More than the Average Origin Movie

Ant Man movie poster

Part of me will always wonder what “Ant-Man” would have looked like had Edgar Wright not left the project. Wright has long since proven to be a wonderful talent behind the camera with “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (my favorite movie of 2010) and “The World’s End,” all of which succeeded in giving audiences an awesomely entertaining time at the movies. He left this film after having been involved with its development for several years as Marvel had different plans for it than he did, and this usually spells trouble for any cinematic endeavor. But we can only wonder so much about what could have been until we realize we will never truly know since Wright’s version was never made. When all is said and done, “Ant-Man” proves to be a very entertaining time at the movies. It is yet another superhero origin story, but one which feels fresh and unlike others that just go through the motions.

We come to meet Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) just before he leaves prison after serving a sentence for robbery (but not armed robbery). Scott was once married and has a daughter who thinks the world of him, and he is desperate to make an honest living despite his law breaking past. After a job at Baskin Robbins goes bust for him, he is contacted by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a brilliant physicist who invites him to take his place as Ant-Man, a superhero who can take on the bad guys no matter how big or small he is.

When it comes to superhero movies, I have long since tired of the origin story as it feels like a setup for a franchise Hollywood studios are infinitely desperate for in this day and age. “Ant-Man,” however felt like a fresh and subversive take on the origin story to where I couldn’t remember the last of its kind I had seen. The only thing it did remind me of was the Monty Python sketch about ants which showed how strong they are when it comes to lifting things far greater than their weight. Watching it also had me excited at the possibilities of what one person could do if they are shrunk down to such a miniscule size, and this is even though we would like certain body parts to be larger than they already are.

Paul Rudd is a perfect choice to play Scott Lang as his effortless charisma makes you believe Scott is an ex-con who is ever so eager to turn his life around for the sake of his daughter. This is a role which could have been played either too seriously or broadly, but Rudd manages to find a balance to where this character is not the usual brooding super hero who has occupied many comic book movies to an annoying abandon.

Of course, every superhero movie needs a strong female character, and we get one here with Hope Van Dyne. The daughter of Hank Pym, she is played by Evangeline Lilly whom we all know from the “Lost” and for playing the elf Tauriel in Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy. Lilly’s character has to deal with many conflicting emotions when it comes to her father and Scott, and it’s endlessly fascinating to see how she handles those emotions from start to finish. What could have been an easily disposable role is made all the more unforgettable thanks to Lilly’s committed performance as someone who is still stuck in the past and trying to make a better future for herself and everyone else.

Many of us, including myself, grew up watching Michael Douglas in movies like “Romancing the Stone,” “The War of the Roses” and “Fatal Attraction,” and he has since graduated to playing the role of elder statesman in. His performance as Hank Pym is one of the best I have seen Douglas give in some time as he imbues this character with a lot knowledge and wisdom as well as a lot of heart. Hank is a deeply flawed man who does what he can to protect his family, but he ends up unintentionally wounding those closest to him in the process. Douglas is perfectly cast here as he is great at making us root for someone we almost don’t want to root for, but we end up doing so all the same.

Then there’s Michael Pena who gives a terrific performance in each and every film he is in, and he steals one scene after another as Scott Lang’s best friend, Luis. Pena infuses an infectious energy in his performance which makes you want to be a part of Ant-Man’s plan to get back at the bad guys, and his performance as Luis is another memorable role he can add to his wide variety of roles he has performed to a great extent thus far.

And let’s not forget Corey Stoll who makes for a wonderfully detestable villain as Darren Cross, an ever so bitter student of Hank Pym who looks to go into the Ant-Man business for himself. Stoll has left quite the impression on audiences ever since his role as Ernest (“who wants to fight”) Hemingway in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” It’s nice to see he doesn’t give us the usual one-dimensional bad guy we typically expect in a summer movie, and this makes his character of Darren all the more threatening.

“Ant-Man” was directed by Peyton Reed whose previous credits include “Yes Man,” “The Break-Up” and “Bring it On,” movies I should have seen already, but anyway. Reed does fine work in balancing out the characters here with the terrific special effects on display to where “Ant-Man” never comes across as the usual comic book movie fare. It makes me excited for what will come next.

We can be sure this will not be the last time we will see Ant-Man on the big screen. After all, what’s a Marvel movie without a franchise? You can expect the usual batch of post-credit sequences that will require you to sit through the end credits and appreciate the fact hundreds of people worked hard to make this movie a reality. But for a change, I don’t find myself looking to a Marvel sequel with sarcasm. I look forward to it as a promising continuation of a story which features one of the more unusual Avengers to inhabit this ever-growing cinematic universe.

* * * out of * * * *

If You Liked ‘Captain Phillips,’ Then Check Out ‘Fishing Without Nets’

Fishing Without Nets movie poster

Fishing Without Nets” is the third movie in recent years to deal with Somali Pirates hijacking a ship at sea, and it comes on the heels of “Captain Phillips” and “A Hijacking.” The scenario may be the same, but the perspective is different this time around. While “Captain Phillips” and “A Hijacking” observed the pirates from a certain distance, “Fishing Without Nets” is told from their point of view. While no one is in a position to condone their actions, director Cutter Hodierne gives us an empathetic view of their struggles which have led them to take such drastic actions to ensure their own survival.

The movie opens on Abdi (Abdikani Muktar), a Somali fisherman, loving husband and father, walking through the village he lives in. The place is an utter mess and you get the sense it has been a mess for quite some time to where it doesn’t appear to offer much in the way of opportunities. Abdi has no interest in joining the pirates on their hijacking missions as he prefers to make an honest living through fishing, but he becomes increasingly desperate as his last few times out at sea resulted in no fish being caught. In the process of trying to get his wife and son out of Somalia to a better place, he discovers he needs a whole lot more money to make that happen, so he relents and joins the pirates on their latest hijacking mission with the promise of a huge reward. But once the pirates take over an oil tanker, Abdi finds himself wanting to escape the situation even before it descends into paranoia and chaos.

Watching “Fishing Without Nets” reminded me of movies like “Frozen River,” “Maria Full of Grace” and “Alive” which feature characters resorting to life-threatening methods as the bottom constantly threatens to fall out from beneath them. “Frozen River” in particular was about a mother (played by Melissa Leo) whose husband ran out on her with their life savings, and she is barely making ends meet at a minimum wage job. As a result, she resorts to smuggling illegal immigrants across the Canadian border into the United States which nets her enough money to keep her big screen TV from getting repossessed as well as for the down payment on her family’s new home. In any other instance she would not resort to this law-breaking activity, but when a mother’s livelihood and her family’s are at stake, you know she will do anything to keep them safe.

This is certainly the case for Abdi when he resorts to piracy to keep his family safe, and he even says at one point, “a man is not a man until he can feed his family.” When it comes down to it, “Fishing Without Nets” is about the will to survive, and this remains a universal story all around the world. When pushed to extremes, you can bet no one is going to just lie down, give up and die. No, they are going to fight for their loved ones even if it means breaking the law, so you cannot help but be empathetic to Abdi’s choices even as they put his life in serious danger.

Hodierne went out of his way to cast non-actors for this movie instead of putting known names in it, and this helps to give “Fishing Without Nets” a truly authentic feel which puts you right into the action. While some of the situations are familiar from “Captain Phillips” and “A Hijacking,” he makes this film stand out with its unique point of view, and he generates some serious tension when infighting breaks out among the pirates. Scenes where a gun is pointed at a character’s head are a dime a dozen in movies, but here those same scenes have an intensity which really shakes you up.

Also, Hodierne and his director of photography, Alex Disenhof, capture some amazingly beautiful shots on the ocean which help illustrate just how isolated all these characters are out there. The last shot pulls away from a boat drifting in the ocean, and it’s truly one of the most memorable moments of any film I saw in 2014. Considering how small of a budget Hodierne had to work with, this makes what he accomplished all the more impressive.

“Fishing Without Nets” may not be on the same level as “Captain Phillips” or “A Hijacking,” but it is an action packed and intense movie which would make for a perfect triple feature with those two. After it was over, I could see why the Sundance Film Festival decided to give Hodierne a directing award because it is a truly impressive debut which invites you into a world that is not the least bit safe to be in. Furthermore, it also allows us to understand why Somalis have been resorting to such methods in order to survive, but then again, anyone else might be forced to do the same when it comes to surviving in an endlessly harsh and cruel world. It doesn’t make it right, but it’s a truth which hopefully none of us will ever have to face like these men do.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Cutter Hodierne about ‘Fishing Without Nets’

Cutter Hodierne photo

2013 brought us two movies about Somali pirates hijacking ships at sea: “Captain Phillips” and “A Hijacking.” Both were more focused on the hostages and their ordeal while the pirates themselves were observed from a relative distance. Then in 2014, we got Cutter Hodierne’s “Fishing Without Nets” which is another movie about Somali pirates, but this one is told from their point of view. It follows fisherman and father Abdi (Abdikani Muktar) who, in desperation and for his family’s safety, joins up with a group of pirates to hijack an oil tanker with the promise of a lot of money. But as soon as the hijacking begins, Abdi tries to remove himself from the situation as it descends into increasing chaos and paranoia.

I got to speak with Cutter about “Fishing Without Nets” which originally started out as a short film which received the Grand Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. This led to Vice Films financing the feature length version which picked up the Dramatic Directing Award at Sundance. The movie takes place in Somalia but was shot in Kenya, and Cutter discussed the challenges he faced as well as the discoveries he made during its filming.

Fishing Without Nets movie poster

Ben Kenber: “Fishing Without Nets” started out as a short film. How would you say it evolved from a short to a feature length movie?

Cutter Hodierne: Well, the hope always was to make a feature, and so the short was kind of made in support of that idea. So we wanted to make the short as a way of sort of researching and developing a concept for a feature, and in the process of making a short film we always hope to use it as a tool to raise the money to make a feature film.

BK: That seems to be more of the case these days. You and the makers of “Whiplash” really had a lot of success with that.

CH: Yeah, I think it’s a really natural model if you can end up pulling off the short film because you kind of work out a lot of things with your concept early on that you test things out, and then if you do a good job you can also have a really powerful tool to get the attention to make a feature as well. I think it’s good in every direction.

BK: I have always heard that filming on water is always very challenging. What were the biggest challenges that you had in filming this movie on the ocean?

CH: Shooting on the ocean is a really, really difficult thing. The ground that you’re walking on, it’s not ground but the surface underneath you is undulating all the time, and for the weather to just kind of change out of nowhere suddenly… You’re kind of at the mercy of all those things. It’s really difficult, and if you get seasick at all that kind of gets in the way. The ocean would just turn in a moment and you would have to cancel the entire day’s shoot. It’s really tricky. It’s kind of like outer space. The ocean is not so far from the idea of being in space. You’re way out in the middle of nowhere and it’s endless in every direction and it’s really tricky.

BK: You also went out of your way to use non-actors for this movie. What made you decide to go in that direction?

CH: I think that it was just kind of the only way. The way to do this movie in an authentic way involved non-actors. It was probably also our only option when we were making a short film. I don’t think this movie, our version of it, would have made sense with anybody really recognizable because it would take something away from the story, and I think you get such a great sense of reality from having people you are not accustomed to seeing and who also just inhabit the role in a really natural way. I don’t think there’s any other way to go about it.

BK: I also heard that you set up scenes for them but that you let them come up with their own dialogue. What discoveries did you make along the way with the process?

CH: Well, I discovered that Somalis talk a lot (laughs). You give a couple of these guys a license to talk and make their own lines, so they will go and talk and talk and talk and talk. So what I really learned was that the most important thing that they all needed to have, if they are going to give themselves their own lines, is knowing where the scene needs to end. They have their own lines but they have a very, very structured scene they were playing within. They knew kind of the beginning, middle and end of the scene and I think what we learned as we went along with the cast and myself and the translator was having an ending to the scene was really crucial. Having a defined place where the dialogue would end was really important. I wouldn’t understand the words but I would understand roughly kind of where we were in a scene even though I can understand the language. It’s amazing what you end up starting to recognize in that setting.

BK: You did a lot of research why you were in Kenya where the movie was shot. What surprised you most about your time over there?

CH: What surprised me most? Everything was always surprising (laughs), but I always felt like I was learning something new about how to operate over there. There’s something around the corner that I wasn’t going to be prepared for, and I think what surprised me the most was probably that I never really completely got the hang of it despite how much time I had spent there. You really feel foreign there even when you know your way around and you think you can talk the talk and this is that. Something will happen that will just remind you that you’re not completely at home no matter how immersed you feel. That was probably the most surprising thing. I was always learning something new.

BK: Other movies that have featured Somali pirates, we don’t always get to know them as individuals but in this movie, we do. Their mission in getting a hefty ransom is doomed once the infighting gets more heated, and at its heart this is a movie about survival. Was that what you were trying to get across as a director that people will do anything to survive?

CH: Yeah, absolutely. This is definitely a story of someone’s hope and quest for survival. Even with the new stuff I’m working on now I sort of realize that’s something I’m definitely interested in; how survival as a mentality informs so many other new things that we do in a more complex society today. Just the desire to survive is like a driving force in a lot of things we do, but in this case with Abdikani (Muktar, who plays Khadir) in the story, this was absolutely a show of when desperate times call for extremely desperate measures. The extreme that is piracy is a really clear show of how extreme the situation in Somalia is; that where you end up in desperation is with four or five guys in a speedboat in the middle of the ocean attempting to capture a ship that is 10 times as big or more, and everyone’s life is at risk trying to climb aboard the ship. The situation is so preposterous that to me the question always begged is, what is the preposterous situation that would lead somebody to that point? It’s a really extreme reaction so we wanted to tell the real extreme cause.

BK: One movie “Fishing Without Nets” reminded me of was “Frozen River” which starred Melissa Leo as a mother who resorts to smuggling illegal immigrants across the Canadian border into the United States. She wouldn’t be doing this kind of work otherwise, but her main priority is her kids and that overrides everything else. Looking at that, the story of survival is a very universal one and not specific to one culture.

CH: Yeah, and I also wanted this movie to have a little bit of a feeling like you’re in an action adventure film that is just completely inverted. You’re not accustomed to seeing all these action adventure film elements playing out in a setting that you would normally not be in. I wanted to work in a specific genre, so I think that’s about as an exciting thing to do with it as well.

BK: The opening scenes of the movie show the characters living in this decimated area that doesn’t offer them a lot in the way of opportunities terms of making an honest living or raise a family in. Did you see a lot of that in Kenya?

CH: Yeah definitely, and even in Somalia it’s really much worse. I think everybody like walks through a slum for the first time in their life and are kind of like, “Holy shit this is real. This isn’t just something in pictures.” It’s pretty affecting. It’s hard not to be moved by something like that and I think we really wanted to show, what if you woke up and this is what it looked like every day and this is your situation every day? How far will you get pushed before this doesn’t seem like a good option to go out and try to get rich? Yeah it was definitely intentional to show where he (Abdi) lived and where he came from.

I want to thank Cutter Hodierne for taking the time to talk with me. “Fishing Without Nets” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

‘Silver Linings Playbook’ is One of 2012’s Best Movies

Silver Linings Playbook movie poster

I always wonder about people who have been diagnosed with a psychological problem like bipolar disorder. Some of them have a tremendous zest and passion for life which makes me begin to wonder if it’s even fair to say they are sick. Everyone else gets so beaten up and run down by life to where it robs the smiles off their faces, and yet people like Pat Solitano, Bradley Cooper’s character in “Silver Linings Playbook,” seem so inspired by everything around them. Despite Pat’s problem, I came out of this movie desperately wanting to feel the way he feels as it seems like such a waste to become so infinitely numb to everything and anything in life.

Of course, Pat’s boundless zest for life has come at a huge price for him. “Silver Linings Playbook,” which comes to us from writer and director David O. Russell, starts off with Pat being released from a mental institution after being locked there for eight months. It turns out Pat was a former school teacher who went off the deep end one day upon coming home and finding his wife Nikki in the shower with another man. Pat did not take this well to put it mildly, and he went ballistic on the guy in a way no one will ever quickly forget.

Now that Pat’s been released, he is forced to move back in with his parents (played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) as he has lost his home and job, and his wife has since moved away and filed a restraining order against him. Pat is determined to move his life forward in a positive direction and win Nikki back, but he is still troubled by the discovery he made all those months ago. It also doesn’t help that a certain Stevie Wonder song, the same one played at Pat’s and Nikki’s wedding, was playing on the stereo when Pat found his wife at home but not alone. The song acts as a terrible trigger for him, and you feel his excruciating pain whenever it starts playing near him.

Cooper is best known for his work in “The Hangover” movies, but this role really shows the kind of actor he is truly capable of being. Cooper makes you sympathize with Pat’s sincere intentions to be a better person even when he flies off the handle for unexpected reasons. Just watch him go ballistic after he finishes reading Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” From start to finish, Cooper is a dynamo as Pat, and you relish in the joy he gets from playing this character.

Cooper is also well matched with Jennifer Lawrence who provides a passionate and fiery turn as Tiffany. Now a widow after her husband passed away, Tiffany speaks her mind bluntly and without apology, and it is clear she is still coping with a devastating loss. Lawrence blew us away with her breakthrough performance in “Winter’s Bone,” and her talent as an actress has never been in doubt since. She more than rises to the challenge presented to her in “Silver Linings Playbook” in creating a character who on the surface is not exactly pleasant, and yet she still lets us see the wounded humanity which Tiffany’s tough exterior cannot hide.

The film also features a number of terrific supporting performances as well. Robert De Niro gives one of his best performances in a long time as Pat’s father who is as hopeful for his son’s recovery as he is for the Philadelphia Eagles to win every single football game they play. Jacki Weaver, best known for her Oscar nominated performance in “Animal Kingdom,” also lends strong support as Pat’s mom. There are also some inspired turns from John Ortiz as Ronnie and Anupam Kher as Dr. Patel, and even Julia Stiles shows up as Tiffany’s sister Veronica.

But one supporting performance which really stands out in “Silver Linings Playbook” is Chris Tucker’s as Danny, Pat’s friend who leaves the mental institution only to find he’s not really allowed to just yet. Not only is this the first movie Tucker’s done in a long time without “Rush Hour” in the title, but he also dials down his manic comic energy to give a surprisingly naturalistic performance. Tucker is a lot of fun to watch here, and he fits in perfectly with the rest of the cast without ever upstaging anybody.

“Silver Linings Playbook” is based on the book of the same name by Matthew Quick, and it is the perfect fit for David O. Russell. His films, whether it’s “Flirting with Disaster,” “The Fighter” or even “Three Kings,” deal with complicated characters who are trying to salvage what is left of their souls so they can move on to better things. This one is no different as Pat and Tiffany need each other to get past the traumas which have come to define their lives in the present. Russell presents their story in a way which never feels the least bit formulaic, and he never ever takes the easy way out with these characters.

What I’ve come to love about Russell’s movies is how they feel alive in a way most don’t. With “Silver Linings Playbook,” you are watching lives unfold in front of you, and it is directed to where you experience what’s happening instead of just watching it. Regardless of the problems these characters face here, there is something strangely positive and fulfilling in seeing them overcome all which is holding them back. It is also exhilarating to watch characters so filled with passion and a love for life, and this film is full of them. This is really one of the most entertaining and enjoyable movies I saw back in 2012.

* * * * out of * * * *

Here Comes the Rain Again (and Finally!)

2015 Halloween Run

WRITER’S NOTE: This was originally written back in 2014.

The rain came down hard on Los Angeles Halloween night. The following morning still had heavy clouds hovering in the sky, leaves and branches were strewn all over the street, and my car finally got the wash it had been begging for. Yes, fall has finally arrived in Southern California, and it took the beginning of November for it to finally make its long overdue appearance. Of course, even with all the rain, it still won’t be enough to cure California of its current drought.

Although another Halloween has come and gone, the spirit of this wonderfully wicked holiday remained strong with Team to End AIDS. Then again, every day in Los Angeles is Halloween. Still, October 31st is one of the few days out of the year where we can embrace craziness with an infinite joy.

It was a small gathering at Griffith Park on this particular morning, but it wasn’t because of the weather. Many T2EA runners were out of state preparing for the New York Marathon which will be far stormier and have its participants dealing with headwinds which will undoubtedly slow them down in an incredibly frustrating way. Still, more power to them as this particular marathon, so I am told, is one of the best and most entertaining to run.

2015 LA Marathon cheeseburger costume

This was the annual costume run day which typically proves to be a good one to get people to donate to your efforts. One woman was dressed up as a delicious double cheeseburger, the kind we all see in those Carl’s Jr. and Burger King commercials. Of course, when you get to one of those fast food joints, the burgers never look as tasty as you expect. Still, looking at this costume made me very hungry, and my cholesterol level went up a few points as a result.

2015 LA Marathon hot dog costume

Then there was a guy who was dressed up as a hot dog. Moreover, it had mustard on it. I don’t know why there was no ketchup on it, or maybe I wasn’t looking at the costume closely enough. At one point, I couldn’t help but ask the guy, “Do you relish wearing this costume? Is it ‘chili’ wearing it in this weather?” This comment was greeted with a couple of laughs and numerous audible groans, but I had to ask. My brother couldn’t stop telling me puns when we were younger, so I get it from him.

As for myself, I didn’t bother wearing a costume this time out. After seeing one of my forms of my employment come to a shockingly abrupt halt, I was too bummed to shop for a new costume. I considered putting on my Jason “Friday the 13th” Voorhees costume, but I was tired of wearing it again. So instead, I just put on my usual running gear and a black rain jacket. If I had put on a black poncho and put the hood over my head, I could have said I was Bruce Willis’ character from “Unbreakable,” one of the few decent M. Night Shyamalan movies.

Today’s run had the newbies running four miles while the alumni ran five. Since most of the people in the pace group were new (or so I thought) to marathon training, I figured they would only want to run four, but I was surprised to see the majority were willing to run the extra mile. Was I cool with this? Absolutely! As much as we should be taking it easy, I was getting increasingly eager to rid myself of this spare tire which has formed over my stomach.

We went outside of Griffith Park again, down Victory Boulevard and towards Pickwick Gardens and Disney Animation Studios. We had to keep our eyes out for puddles, but what really made this run especially treacherous were all those broken branches and wet leaves we could easily have slipped on. And just when you thought it had stopped raining for good, it came pouring down once again. Memories of the 2011 LA Marathon went through the minds of its survivors as a result, but we pressed on regardless.

I again kept the group on pace as I remembered to bring both my watches, one of which has interval time and a broken strap. I did, however, screw up at the beginning as I forgot when our first walk break occurred. We ended up running for seven minutes straight as a result, and this forced me to carry my interval timing watch in my right hand to make certain this did not happen again.

I also have to give special thanks to Winston for helping me let the runners know when to run and walk. I did my best to keep my fellow pace group runners on pace, but if they couldn’t hear me, they could certainly hear Winston. It’s always nice to have someone back you up in anything and everything you do.

This 5-mile run ended up making for a nice post-Halloween day. As the run came to an end, the sun started climbing out of the clouds and shone down brightly on us. At the same time, it was still raining softly and the sight of it against the sun was beautiful to take in. It reminded me of when Ron Shelton, in his commentary track for “Bull Durham,” talked about how he used machines to make it rain for certain scenes even though the sun was out and how embarrassed he was by that. Stopped being embarrassed Mr. Shelton, assuming he’s reading this, because it does happen, and it looks as beautiful as it did in your classic movie.

Someone left us some utterly delectable chocolate fudge treats which proved to be completely addictive once you tasted them. I had a couple but eventually had to force myself to lay off them as others had yet to have them, and there is the issue with that spare tire I was talking about previously.

So, it feels like we’re all off to a good start as we survived running five miles in the rain without slipping and breaking a bone in our bodies. Part of me misses the people who I have trained with in the past like Jessica, Annette, Marta and Tom among others, but I know I’m in good company with the ones who have decided to train this time around.

FUNDRAISING UPDATE: It’s now 2018 and I am training for the latest Los Angeles Marathon, and I am running it in support of The Pablove Foundation. My fundraising goal is $1,500, and to date I have raised $890 (this includes donations from my most recent Facebook fundraiser). Please help me in my efforts to lay waste to pediatric cancer. Too many lives are being cut short at far too early an age.

CLICK HERE TO MAKE A TAX-DEDUCTIBLE DONATION.

This ‘Peter Rabbit’ is Far From Ultimate

Peter Rabbit 2018 poster

After watching the trailer for Sony Pictures Animation’s “Peter Rabbit,” I kept thinking of the times when brands like KFC and Planter’s Peanuts among others changed their image in commercials to something more hip which made them look ever so desperate to appeal to a youthful demographic. It was both hilarious and cringe-inducing to see these popular brands reduce themselves to current trends they were never created for, and more often than not, it just revealed to us how tone deaf corporate executives can be in their quest for a profit. Those of you who have seen the “Peter Rabbit” trailer can agree this is not quite the same character we grew up reading about in those wonderfully imaginative books by Beatrix Potter. Now that I have seen the movie all the way through, I can confirm Ms. Potter is rolling over in her grave.

This “Peter Rabbit” is nothing more than a bastardization of those innocent tales as the filmmakers go out of their way to modernize this material to such an infinitely nauseating extent, and it hurt to see everyone trying way too hard to be clever. The harder everyone tries to be hip here, the more depressing this movie becomes as its story becomes increasingly convoluted and eventually turns in a poor man’s version of “Home Alone” as Peter tortures his nemesis in the same way Macauley Culkin tortured Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.

Directed by Will Gluck who previously gave us the ill-advised remake of “Annie,” this movie isn’t so much an adaptation of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” as it is a story which exists outside of it. Even though Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) came close to meeting his maker the last time he invaded Mr. McGregor’s vegetable garden, we see he has not learned his lesson as he continues to steal every single vegetable he gets his paws on. But when a new McGregor moves into town, things will become even more challenging for him and his furry friends.

The opening minutes of “Peter Rabbit” serve to introduce not only Peter, but also a number of Potter’s other creations like Benjamin Bunny (Matt Lucas), Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Sia), Tommy Brock, Mr. Tod and Mr. Jeremy Fisher. Seeing this, I couldn’t help but think Sony Pictures was aiming to create a cinematic universe to rival the one Marvel Studios continues to add to. If this movie succeeds at the box office, we may very well see these characters get their own solo adventures to where they might have their own “Avengers” or “Justice League” movie. Still, I don’t think we should expect “Peter vs. Benjamin: Dawn of Radishes” anytime soon. After all, neither has a mother named Margret.

Peter runs afoul again of Mr. McGregor (a completely unrecognizable Sam Neill), but a heart attack suddenly does the old man in, freeing up the rabbit and his friends to have the equivalent to an endless rave party in his home. But then into the picture comes family relative Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson) who moves in after being fired from his job at Harrods in London, and no time is wasted before he and Peter wage war against one another which involves, among other things, repeated electrocution.

Perhaps it was too much to expect the filmmakers to remain true to “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” with had its main character being portrayed as being very naughty and later paying a price for being recklessly disobedient to his elders. This particular Potter tale was a great one for kids as it taught them the value of being good, something which Peter did not value in the slightest. “Peter Rabbit,” however, defies the tale’s morality and shows how this rabbit’s rebellious ways are something to cheer on instead of lay caution to. Also, Peter’s sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail are shown to be willing participants in his rebellious escapades, something they were not previously.

I was also shocked to see how Neill’s Mr. McGregor was portrayed as a bloodthirsty meat eater who showed no hesitation in making a rabbit pie out of those who failed to escape his clutches. This leads “Peter Rabbit” to have a “Watership Down” scene where we learn how one of his parents became a tasty meal for Mr. McGregor, and this reeks of shameless manipulation on the part of the filmmakers. At the very least, this movie is bound to appeal to vegans as much as it will to children.

Then there is Thomas McGregor, and Gleeson portrays him in a way very similar to his role as General Hux in the recent “Star Wars” movies. Thomas is such an obsessive neat freak to where he wants the toilets at Harrods to be so clean he could drink out of them, and he almost does so with a straw. I expect sick humor like this in “The Human Centipede,” not in a family movie. If you want to see Gleeson in something good, check out “About Time” or the underrated “Goodbye Christopher Robin” instead.

James Corden is a wonderful talent, and I always enjoy watching his late-night sketches which include many unforgettable carpool karaoke episodes. But when it comes to roles like voicing Peter Rabbit, he tries way too hard to be funny and hip. This was the same problem with his work in “The Emoji Movie” which, in retrospect, I gave him too much leeway on. His performance in “Peter Rabbit” is definitely spirited, but seeing him trying to be infinitely clever to where he is desperate to stay one step ahead of the audience becomes painful and exhausting as the movie drags on.

Indeed, the filmmakers try way too hard to make “Peter Rabbit” seem so hip and cool to where they include songs like Len’s “Steal My Sunshine,” a great pop song which has now been officially used once too often in movies. Gluck also includes Big Country’s “In a Big Country,” Rancid’s “Time Bomb,” Vampire Weekend’s “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance,” and The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).” You know, the kind of music Potter listened to endlessly while she wrote. Seeing the animals dancing the latest dance moves here was very dispiriting to me, but at least we never see Flopsy, Mopsy or Cottontail do any twerking.

If there is one real saving grace in “Peter Rabbit,” it is Rose Byrne. As Bea, the McGregor’s next-door neighbor, painter and animal lover, she is so infinitely appealing to where she truly lights up the screen whenever she appears. Byrne gives these proceedings a heart and soul which doesn’t deserve them, and I became infinitely jealous of Peter whenever she picked him up and cuddled him. It’s moments like those which had me wanting to be Peter, but anyway.

The children I saw “Peter Rabbit” with really enjoyed the shenanigans portrayed onscreen, and I am sure many of them will get a kick out of this movie. I, on the other hand, stared at the silver screen feeling dejected as the plot went down a road which filmmakers have traveled thousands of times before. Things get even more ridiculous when Thomas and Peter go from being bitter enemies to much needed allies. Seeing one character attempting to blow up another with dynamite is enough to bring about a restraining order. These two coming together near the end is as ridiculous as the thing which kept a pair of superheroes from beating one another to death in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

“Peter Rabbit” is the first 2018 movie I have watched, and I’m positive many others which have yet to be released will be far better. Parents right now have a chance to take their children to movies which are far more imaginative and thoughtful like “Paddington 2,” but it looks like they will be quicker to get in line for this one instead. Call me a purist, but this is not how a Beatrix Potter tale should be translated to cinema. Of the many rabbits out there, this one is far from being ultimate.

* out of * * * *

 

Exclusive Video Interview with Jonas Carpignano about ‘A Ciambra’

A Ciambra” was Italy’s official submission in the Foreign Language Film category for the 90th Academy Awards, and it was made in the heart of the country’s Romani community. A gritty coming of age story, it follows Pio Amato, a 14-year-old boy who is eager to grow up real fast. Pio spends his days smoking and drinking as well as following his older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato) around town while learning the skills needed for survival in their hometown. While tensions between the different factions, the Italians, the African immigrants and his fellow Romani, remain high, Pio is able to slide through each in a way few others can. When Cosimo is arrested one night, Pio is quick to convince everyone he is more than ready to fill his older brother’s shoes and take care of things. But as the movie goes on, he wonders if he is truly ready to become a man.

“A Ciambra” was written and directed by Jonas Carpignano whose previous film, “Mediterranea” won various awards including Best Directorial Debut from the National Board of Review and the Gotham Award for Breakthrough Directing. What he has succeeded in doing here is giving us a motion picture which makes you feel like you are hanging out with these characters instead of just watching them from a distance. Carpignano combines biographical elements with documentary style filmmaking to give us something we experience more than anything else. There are not many movies like this one these days, and I will take them wherever I can get them.

Carpignano spent his childhood between Rome and New York City, and he currently lives in Italy where he continues his filmmaking endeavors. He was in Los Angeles to talk about “A Ciambra,” and it was a pleasure taking with him about how he went about making the film with non-professional actors. In addition, he spoke of what it was like to work alongside Martin Scorsese who is the film’s executive producer and of the most valuable piece of advice the “Goodfellas” director gave him.

“A Ciambra” opens in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Royal Theater on February 2, 2018. Be sure to check out the interview above as well as the movie’s trailer below.

A Ciambra poster

‘The Shape of Water’ is Another Cinematic Masterpiece from Guillermo Del Toro

The Shape of Water movie poster

“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Blade II” and “The Devil’s Backbone” should be more than enough proof of how Guillermo Del Toro is a cinematic god among directors. If you need further proof of this, then I suggest you watch “The Shape of Water,” his romantic fantasy which is truly one of the best films of 2017. While I tend to scoff at romantic movies as I consider them cringe-inducing exercises in endurance which prove to be even more painful than running the Los Angeles Marathon. Please keep in mind, I have run this marathon seven years in a row, and soon I will be running it yet again.

“The Shape of Water” transports us back to Baltimore, Maryland in the year 1962 when America was stuck in the middle of the Cold War. We meet Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a janitor at a secret laboratory who was rendered mute at a young age due to a neck injury. She follows a daily routine of pleasuring herself in the bathtub while boiling eggs on her kitchen stove, and then she goes to work where she performs her duties without complaint. Luckily, she has a pair of friends to converse with, in a matter of non-speaking, like artist and closeted homosexual Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her ever so talkative co-worker Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) who also takes the time to interpret Elisa’s sign language. But even with friends like these, let alone the luck she has living above a movie theater, there is clearly something missing from her life.

Things, however, quickly change for Elisa when the laboratory she works at receives a creature in a tank. This creature was captured in South America by the cold-hearted Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), and the government officials he answers to want to dissect the creature in an effort to gain a foothold on the space race. Elisa, however, has different ideas as she develops a strong connection with the creature which will not be easily broken.

I guess this might seem like a strange love story for many to take seriously, but considering the seismic shifts in how the world views, and should view, marriage and the rights of others, “The Shape of Water” could not have been timelier. As improbable as a relationship like this one may sound, Del Toro and his cast make it one we quickly become engaged in to where we are swept up emotionally in a way few movies can.

Along with cinematographer Dan Laustsen, Del Toro gives this film a look which is at once suffocating and yet wondrous. We clearly in the world of movies while watching this one, but the while this might seem like a genre picture designed to take us out of reality, it is filled with genuine emotion which is never easily earned. We can always count on Del Toro to give us a beautifully realized motion picture, but this one deserves special recognition as it had a budget of around $20 million, and yet he made it look like cost so much more. I would love to ask him how he accomplished what he did on a limited budget. In any other case, $20 million is a lot of money. But for a film like this, it seems almost too low to work with.

Sally Hawkins has wowed us as an actress in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Made in Dagenham” and “Blue Jasmine,” but she really outdoes herself here as Elisa Esposito as this role takes her into Holly “The Piano” Hunter territory. With her character being a mute, Hawkins not only has to communicate without the use of words (vocally anyway), she has to keep her heart open in a way which we make a habit of avoiding. This actress shows little hesitation in making herself so open and vulnerable to a creature everyone else would be quick to be infinitely fearful of.

Speaking of the creature, he is played by Doug Jones, an actor who is masterful at portraying non-human characters. Whether it’s as Abe Sapien in the “Hellboy” movies, the Faun and the Pale Man in “Pan’s Labyrinth” or even as Lieutenant Commander Saru on “Star Trek: Discovery,” Jones always succeeds in finding a humanity in these characters others would never be quick to discover or find. His performance here as the Amphibian Man is every bit as good as Andy Serkis’ in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” and I put these two actors together because many believe it is the makeup or special effects which do all the acting for them, but it’s their acting which makes their characters so memorable. Jones, like Hawkins, has to communicate without the use of words, but he has an even bigger challenge as his character cannot even use sign language. His work deserves more credit than it will likely get at awards time.

“The Shape of Water” also has a terrific cast of character actors, and they are the kind who never ever let us down. Richard Jenkins is right at home as Giles, a closeted gay man who, when he tries to reach out to someone he cares about, is quickly rebuffed not just by that someone, but also by a society which thoughtlessly excluded many for all the wrong reasons. Jenkins never resorts to giving us a cliched version of a homosexual, but instead makes us see Giles as a man who is kind and considerate but still ostracized to where he is willing to break the rules to help a friend who doesn’t judge him in the slightest.

When it comes to Octavia Spencer, you can never go wrong with her, and she is a wonderful presence here as Zelda Fuller, Elisa’s co-worker who is never at a loss for words. She also makes it clear how Zelda is a force to be reckoned with, and this is something the character’s husband really should have taken into account a long time ago.

There is also Michael Stuhlbarg who portrays Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, the scientist who sees far more value in the Amphibian Man being alive as opposed to becoming a glorified science experiment worthy of dissection. This is a typical role you find in genre films, but Stuhlbarg inhabits the role to where Robert can never be dismissed as a simple stock character. Even as we learn there is more to Robert than what we initially see on the surface, Stuhlbarg makes us see this is a man who values understanding and compassion over greed. You know, the kind of person we would love to see in the White House at this moment.

But one actor I want to point out in particular is Michael Shannon who portrays Colonel Richard Strickland, a man hellbent on putting his country before everything else, including his wife and kids. Shannon succeeds in rendering Strickland into a more complex character than you might expect. As we watch Strickland get berated by his superiors for not doing his job like they want him to, Shannon shows us a patriotic American who wants to serve his country well, but we watch as his spirit becomes as corrupted and diseased as those two fingers of his which were torn off his hand by the creature and reattached with limited success. As the movie goes on, those fingers of his become a disgusting color as they come to represent the corruption of his soul. Other actors would be intent on making you despise such a villainous character, but Shannon makes you see a man whose desperation has forever blindsided his worldview.

Whether or not you think “The Shape of Water” breaks any new ground in the world of motion pictures is irrelevant. All that matter is how it is a beautifully realized film which takes you on an incredible voyage only the best of its kind can. It also reminds you of how valuable a filmmaker Del Toro is in this day and age when distinct voices in the world of cinema are continually minimized and rendered silent for the sake of profit. Here’s hoping you get to see it on the big screen where it belongs before Donald Trump leads us into a war no one in America is prepared to be drafted into.

* * * * out of * * * *