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Film Review: Beyond the Hills

Dir. Cristian Mungiu
Score: 8.5

Filmgoers lucky enough to have seen the brilliant 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days might well have wondered about the film’s out-of-nowhere wunderkind Romanian writer/director Cristian Mungiu, and just how this man had come to make such a masterpiece with his first feature. They might also have wondered if Mungiu would be the kind of one-hit wonder that litter the cinematic landscape, or if they were witnessing the beginning of a dazzling new auteur.

Now, with the release of his second full-length feature, we can safely say it’s the latter. Many of the same sorts of elements that made his debut so striking are back in play: the long, seemingly languid scenes, impeccable composition, extraordinary performances from his actors and indelible emotional confrontations.

Also like his first film, the central relationship is between two dearly devoted female friends. Alina (Cristina Flutur) has just arrived back in Romania from Germany in order to reunite with Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), who has joined a simple Orthodox convent on the outskirts of a small city, a series of farmhouses without running water or electricity. The two women met as very young children marooned in an orphanage together and, we are too infer, were lovers. Alina has come back in order to take Voichita and head away together as might have been their shared plan some years ago, but Voichita, now finding peace and solace at the convent, is reluctant to leave, and has transferred her more physical love for Alina into a sort of deep maternal care.

Rough, anti-social and deeply resentful of the way the convent has changed her friend, Alina violently strikes out against the priest (Valeriu Andriuta) and the other nuns with such fury, they fear she is inhabited by demons, which they eventually try to exorcise out of her with utterly damning results.

As careful and scrupulous as he is as a visual filmmaker, Mungiu is equally adroit with his screenplay. The film could have played as an anti-religious screed, yet another maverick running afoul of an all-powerful institution, Cool Hand Luke set in an Eastern European convent rather than a Florida prison, but Mungiu has a much different and more nuanced vision. He avoids that kind of big picture Hollywood deckstacking, and instead presents a much more complex and realistic story, in which everyone is slightly to blame and no one emerges with much solace.

For one thing, Alina, strong-willed and fierce as she is, is certainly no traditional heroine, not someone an audience can exactly root for. She’s there to steal away her lover by any means necessary, even over her lover’s own, perfectly legitimate, objections. Blunt, dull and myopic, it’s clear that all Alina has in her life is her relationship with Voichita, but that is at least somewhat by choice. As much love and encouragement as she receives at the convent and by her friend’s tender hand, she repels them entirely, and goes on fits of rampage, striking out against them, setting fires, deliberately undermining the basic tenets of their faith, in an effort to renounce the change in Voichita, who has found a place of meaning and hopefulness in her faith.

In other words, she’s deliberately hateful, even to her friend, cut off from any other emotion other than rage and obsessive desire. Voichita, for all her tender love and support of her troubled friend, never acknowledges the simple truth of their former relationship with any of her fellow nuns or the priest, who becomes increasingly embroiled in Alina’s psychic distress. Shamefully, she keeps that secret, even as it might have explained a great deal to the bewildered community of the convent.

And the simple faith behind the church itself, its blind devotion to ancient scriptures and practices, is also very much in Mungiu’s crosshairs. The sense of security and bliss the women feel based not so much on a widening of their emotional sensibilities but a closing down around them, blinding them to the ways of the world around them (at various points, Alina rails against Voichita to “talk normally” and not as some blissed out cult member).

Mungiu’s delicate virtuosity is best summed up in the seemingly simple way he shows us the inner workings of his characters’ psyches. Time and again, he uses long, unadorned long shots of people sitting around a dinner table, conversations swirling around, and keeps his cameras focused not on what anyone is saying, but on the faces of his protagonists, their every twitch and turn offering a direct connection to their state of mind. His is a subtle, richly rewarding aesthetic that yields a phenomenal amount of emotion and pain with the most understated and subtle of touches.

Film Review: On The Road

Dir. Walter Salles
Score: 5.2

It’s not that I’m entirely unsympathetic to director Wallter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera and their largely ineffectual adaptation of the Jack Kerouac beat manifesto. In much the same way young male writers would do well to put off their reading of Hemingway until after they’ve already established their own voice, it’s all too damnedably easy to fall into the literary wormhole of Kerouac’s loose, scatty, be-bop prose.

Kerouac’s novel captures the essence of a very particular time and outlook in one’s life, questioning everything of convention, constantly brushing up against the most elemental existentialities and responding to the overwhelming meaninglessness of it all by hitting the open prairie and pouring a good-sized dram of diesel fluid with your best mates, putting the heavy lifting off for another day and instead pondering every nook and cranny of the great, vast openness around you.

This, as you might imagine, is not impossible to examine cinematically, and it’s where Salles’ film achieves its best moments. Where the film goes wrong, where any simple adaptation of Kerouac’s novel falls flat, is in the perspective of the narrator. Kerouac’s novel is clearly set in the past, not from decades away, but far enough removed from the giddy energy of self-discovery that the entire book is soaked in regret and nostalgia, it’s less a giddy travelogue and more of an extended epigraph, a eulogy for beauty lost. Kerouac wasn’t just writing about his wild, mad friends and their adventures together, he was writing about a kind of paradise that can only exist for a very short time and leaves you forever after regretting that you can never return.

Instead of nostalgia, though, we get an endless parade of zoom zoom. When we meet him, Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) is a young writer in Queens burning for something he can’t quite put his finger on. When he meets the unbridled Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) through his good friend Carlo (Tom Sturridge), he recognizes a star at last to which he can affix his trajectory. In tow with Dean’s 16-year-old wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart), Sal and co. travel the countryside on an endless blitz of east/west wanderlust, stopping only occasionally to get menial jobs in cotton fields or freight trains, and, in Dean’s case, having to appease one beautiful paramour or another he’s left in a bad way in his endless travels.

Through a steady stream of side characters – including Dean’s other wife (Kirsten Dunst), the spurned wife of yet another road warrior (Elisabeth Moss), and the William Burroughs stand-in Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen) – Dean and Sal’s world is expanded and contracted like a cornerstore on a busy thoroughfare, but nothing, it seems, can keep the boys away from one another for terribly long, or from the endless stretch of highway forever in front of them.

It’s fine in concept, but the film suffers from two kinds of malaise: It’s either too earnest (“My mind is a veritable echo chamber of epiphanies,” the Ginsberg stand-in Carlo squeals to Sal as they hit the town one night), or too scattershot (as the scenes of Sal and Dean begin pile together, they somehow become more – not less — opaque) to be anything much more than tedious. It’s like hearing a particularly self-congratulatory colleague recount the details of their childhood summer camp experiences, all set to a showy jazzed-up soundtrack. The film is filled with scenes of the boys going to wild jazz shows, getting lit up under a sheen of sweat and smoke, and then writing furiously early the next morning, perched on rotted out rooftops overlooking the city, but you rarely feel any of their joy and effusiveness.

There are a few scattered highpoints: Hedlund offers up some kind of approximation of Dean’s hedonist charisma; Mortensen’s slow Burroughs’ drawl is pretty much spot-on; the beleaguered Stewart offers up one of her better performances as the spunky, sharp-witted chanteuse Marylou; and there’s an effective scene with Sal desperate to write but out of paper, resorting to using almost any kind of flat surface, which speaks eloquently to his feverish resolve; but so few of these good pieces fit together, the film still falls shockingly flat.

It’s all too easy to turn the beats into their own iconic caricatures, that’s a good deal of what Kerouac was attempting to do with the novel in the first place, but whereas the film seems only preoccupied with the experiences he and his crew embodied, in his original novel, he understands just how much he and his friends have lost in the aftermath.

Film Review: Stoker

Dir. Chan-wook Park
Score: 4.4

It’s not often that a team of sound designers is asked to carry the majority of the story in a feature film, but Chan-Wook Park’s peculiar gothic thriller relies so heavily on Chuck Michael and John Morris and their skilled team of sound technicians, it’s almost as though they should be getting top billing in the credits.

Sound is integral to the film, both because the main protagonist, 18-year-old introvert India (Mia Wasikowska), has nearly super-human hearing, but also because left on its own merits, the film’s story hangs together about as well as a bowl of cream left out in the sun all day.

India, normally recalcitrant, is especially down because her beloved father (Dermot Mulroney) has just been found dead in his car, after what appears to be an accident. Left in their mansion-like property with her bizarrely impassive mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), India is also surprised to find, at her father’s funeral, that she has an uncle she never knew about. Charlie (Matthew Goode) suddenly appears at their house, and immediately begins to creep India out.

He’s slick and well-mannered, but he seems totally unaffected by his brother’s sudden death, and wastes no time making inroads with Evelyn, whom, to India’s horror, shows immediate interest. Before too long, of course, Charlie begins to turn his attentions over to his niece, who is also not entirely repulsed, even as scads of her acquaintances suddenly go missing.

Things sort of escalate from there, with plenty of curious psycho-sexual nuances and blatant visual metaphors permeating the proceedings. Indeed, Chan-Wook and his longtime DP Chung-Hoon Chung, can’t resist cramming nearly every frame of the film with oddities — smoking birthday cakes, spiders crawling up legs, shimmering figures, mysterious keys — there’s a sense that the filmmaker and his team want to throw as much as they can at the audience in the hopes that something will resonate. Some of the imagery is creepily effective, some of it is so on the nose (a fly trapped in the back of a car taking a young boy to an insane asylum, for example) that you find your teeth involuntarily grinding.

And then there’s the sound surrounding India at all times. Whispering voices, crickets, the whirring of a fan, the subtle crackling of an egg shell being rolled on a table, the ticking of a metronome, everything gets noted and highlighted, which has the opposite effect it desires: By making the sound so blatant, so obvious, it draws attention to itself as a thing separate entirely from its environment. Instead of sinking us further down into the narrative (a la Barton Fink), it pushes us away and makes us all to aware of what desired effect the production team is hoping for.

This is more or less in keeping with the rest of the film’s many faults. The script, hacked together by Wentworth Miller and Erin Cressida Wilson, feels as if it’s been run through Google translator before being shot. Almost nothing makes much sense or hangs together particularly well. We’re never asked to question why Eveyln takes all of half-an-hour before wanting to jump her brother-in-law’s bones, or why she seems incapable of any emotion other than self-pity and loathing of her daughter (“I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart,” she says helpfully). Equally poorly drawn, India comes across as moody and apathetic, a cold-hearted, ultra sensitive kid who dearly misses her father, but falls for the man who might well have killed him.

Some of this is no doubt Chan-Wook’s imitable style. The revered director of Oldboy and Thirst often revels in these kinds of peculiar emotional configurations, but here, in his first English-speaking film, everything feels amped up as if he were desperately trying to impress us. Southern Gothics are melodramatic almost by definition, but they are really just hyped-up emotional responses that you could otherwise find in the natural world. Not trumped up outbursts from space aliens.

Kidman always does good work, and Wasikowska, given the lead role, can convey an incredible amount with the smallest movement of her mouth. But it’s as if the actors all received the instruction to speak as affectless and banal as zombies. An early dinner table scene, with the three of them all trying to under-emote each other comes across as quasi-satire, not, I strongly suspect, what their director was hoping.

Stuffed with a steady stream of dream-like sequences and absurdities, the film traffics in improbabilities in such a way that we never get anchored down by any of its endless visual and auditory tricks. They can use all the advanced sound-scaping they want, but Chan-Wook and his team can’t entirely drown out the sound of a colossal emotional misfire.

Film Review: The Gatekeepers

Dir. Dror Moreh
Score: 6.6

Dror Moreh’s Oscar-nominated documentary opens with an aerial view of a maze of city streets somewhere in Israel from high above, through what appears to be a (simulated) military satellite camera, a simulation absolutely appropriate for a country which is forced to see almost everything through the prism of a crosshair.

As with any polarizing issue, there are those who would say the Israel/Palestinian occupation is a simple, black-and-white case of good vs. evil, wrong vs. right and oppression vs. the oppressed (just which country would fit on which side of the margin would, of course, be very much open to the interpretation of the speaker). But if anything can be gleaned from the conflict since the six-days war back in 1967 allowed the Israelis to take command Gaza and the West Bank, it’s that there are more shades of grey here than could be imagined on the palette of a colorblind painter.

If ever that were in doubt, Moreh’s film looks to add some more dialogue to this already richly covered political quagmire, by interviewing the living former heads of Israel’s super-secret intelligence agency, Shin Bet. By utilizing individual interviews with these six men, and intercutting with other mixed media, including video, photographs and computer graphics, the historic incidents they discuss in detail, Moreh strives to offer a sense of the kind of muddled morality and stubborn convictions of the Israeli military since occupying the Palestinians.

As you can imagine, it’s anything but clear and concise. To the contrary, several of the former security heads seem to contradict themselves from sentence to sentence, as is the case with one of the more notorious Shin Bet leaders, Avraham Shalom, who lead the agency from ’80-’86 (each serves up to a six-year term), now old and grandfatherly rotund, with pudgy pale fingers that don’t seem capable of independent movement. One moment, he’s discussing his extremely controversial decision to have the Army brutally beat to death a pair of young terrorists who had hijacked a bus (an incident observed by an Israeli journalist, who naturally filed a story that night), the next he suggests the best way to achieve peace in the region is to talk with “everyone” — even despised terrorist leaders — and continue an open forum.

He’s not alone amongst the former Shin Bet commanders. Carmi Gillon, who abruptly resigned his post only two years after then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, having recently signed the potentially peace-bringing Oslo accords, was assassinated by a radical Israeli right winger, seems particularly wistful about the lost opportunity when his leader — who finally seemed to be within hailing distance of a genuine, groundbreaking peace accord — was lost.

But, there are also much darker turns. Yuval Diskin, the most recent of the leaders having served a term from 2005-2011, speaks of the terrible “power” of the position, calling it “unnatural,” as if wielding the authority to wipe someone — or entire families — off the face of the earth could be anything other than a horrible burden. More chillingly, Shalom refers to the first major Arab uprising in Gaza, and subsequent successful terrorist attacks as a good thing in that it gave him an excuse to get back to work, taking prisoners, leading interrogations and crushing the Palestinians where they lived. Put simply as Ami Ayalon (’96-’00, completing the term after Gillon’s resignation), “with terrorism, there are no morals.”

Aligned together in this way, you begin to understand just how complex and deep-seated the conflict becomes. After all, it wasn’t Palestinian terrorists who killed Rabin, after a series of scalding riots and uprisings of religious Israelis (who believed that peace would never be an answer with the Arabs), it was one of Rabin’s own countrymen. And when Israelis themselves complied with the will of their leadership, merciless splinter groups such as Hamas were always quick to create discord and further muddy the waters with brutal bombings and further acts of violence.

Not to mention the deep divisions between the military/security wings of the government, dedicated to preserving Israel and its citizens at almost any cost, and the elected politicians, who always needed to cover their collective backsides against bad press and international condemnation. This is what Shalom means to address when he says of the government’s policy, “There was no strategy, just tactics.”

To make matters even more morally confounding, the film touches on the rise of the Jewish Underground, a non-sanctioned Israeli terrorist organization that sought reprisals to Palestinian aggressions by systematic assassinations, demolitions, and — most horribly — a plan to blow up the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s most sacred shrines, in Jerusalem, in order to bring about total warfare in the Middle East. Captured by the Army, the leaders of the Underground, many of whom were well-placed members of Israel’s upper class, were eventually let go by Knesset and were free to resume their former positions in society.

Still, it would seem as if all hope weren’t completely lost. At least in the aftermath of having this “terrible power,” many of the former Shit Bet commanders seem thoughtful, even reflective, in their advancing years (“when you retire,” one of them says, “you become a bit of a leftist”). Even Shalom, considered even by his fellow Shin Bet brethren to be a “bully,” speaks to the nature of an occupation on the soul of a nation, likening it to, of all things, the German army during WW II. This analogy, startling in its stark honesty, almost has to be seen as a sign of hope — a form of progress that can’t so simply be taken away.

DVD Splurge: March, 2013

A smorgasbord of cinematic treats, now available on home video.

The Ballad of Narayama
The Skinny: The retelling of an evocative Japanese folk tale, Keisuke Kinoshita’s elegant production — about a woman in a remote mountain village facing the end of her days with determination and grace — is beautifully rendered and nearly hallucinatory in its power.
Studio: Criterion
Linkage: The Ballad of Narayama: Blu-ray Edition

The Skinny: As the title might suggest, the film is a documentary following both the migration of strange and wondrous birds through Manhattan’s Central Park, and the equally strange and affable bird aficionados who follow their movements with near-obsessive attention.
Studio: Music Box
Linkage: Birders: The Central Park Effect: Blu-ray Edition

Celeste & Jesse Forever
The Skinny: As a romantic couple, it doesn’t get much cuter than Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg, even as they undergo a divorce they strive to make as painless as possible for them and their multitude of mutual friends. Co-written by Jones, the film makes the concept of a rom/com almost completely bearable.
Studio: Sony
Linkage: Celeste and Jesse Forever: Blu-Ray Edition

The Skinny: The marriage of David Cronenberg and Don Delilo would seem as perfect as strawberries and cream, and the film does not disappoint. Bonus: One of the more peculiar and cringe-inducing proctology exams you will see this — or hopefully, any other — year.
Studio: Entertainment One
Linkage: Cosmopolis: Blu-ray Edition

Chronicle of a Summer
The Skinny: The very source of the term “cinema verité,” the film is essentially a series of interviews with Parisians during the summer of 1960, about their lives and political views, each starting with the essential (and eternally confounding) question: Are you happy?
Studio: Criterion
Linkage: Chronicle of a Summer: Blu-ray Edition

The Skinny: A big-picture documentary about the small things you begin to notice in a dying city, this acclaimed piece from Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, captures the essence of the dying American dream, even as its being sold and shuttled out to other, cheaper markets across the world.
Studio: Docurama
Linkage: Detropia

Downton Abbey: Season 3
The Skinny: The third season of this seminal Masterpiece drama finds the Crawley family once again the lightning rod of political and emotional upheaval, with the world around them changing by the second.
Studio: PBS Distribution
Linkage: Downton Abbey: Season 3: Blu-ray Edition

Holy Motors
The Skinny: At the top of a lot of critics’ best of 2012 lists, Leos Carax’s hallucinatory narrative is vibrant, absorbing and wildly unpredictable. Ostensibly about a single day in the life of a man named Monsieur Oscar as he rides in a limousine through Paris, the film concerns identity politics, narrative chicanery, and the transformative power of filmic melodrama.
Studio: Indomina
Linkage: Holy Motors: Blu-ray Edition

How to Survive a Plague
The Skinny: Another of the Oscar-Nominated documentaries of 2012, David France’s moving portrait of the birth of ACT-UP and TAG as responses to the world’s criminal inaction in the early years of AIDS manages to be both galvanizing and essentially heartbreaking at the same time.
Studio: MPI
Linkage: How to Survive a Plague

Keep the Lights On
The Skinny: A one-night stand between two men develops into a full blown relationship of sorts, with the all requisite emotional crescendos and craters inherent in the form.
Studio: Music Box
Linkage: Keep the Lights On

The Kid With a Bike
The Skinny: The Bros. Dardenne return with another one of their seemingly small stories that somehow go on to employ much larger reverberations, this involving a deserted child, his bike, and the woman who is desperately trying to connect with him.
Studio: Criterion
Linkage: The Kid With a Bike: Blu-ray Edition

Killer Joe
The Skinny: William Friedkin’s trailer-trash black satire is chock full of scenes that make you wince a lot more than smile. You will never look at a bucket of KFC the same way again.
Studio: Lionsgate
Linkage: Killer Joe: Blu-ray Edition

Peter Pan
The Skinny: The timelessly whimsical story of a boy who refuses to grow up and the kids with which he surrounds himself gets the full-bore, multi-media treatment with this release, including BD/DVD and digital, as well as a storybook app that let’s you try your hand at flying.
Studio: Disney
Linkage: Peter Pan: Diamond Edition

The Skinny: German auteur Wim Wenders takes a long, loving look at the late, spectacular modern dance choreographer Pina Bausch. A documentary that feels much more like an homage to a lost friend and artist than a cold examination of the form.
Studio: Criterion
Linkage: Pina: 3D Blu-ray Edition

Rust and Bone
The Skinny: Off-beat and slightly disconcerting, this French love story of sorts from Jacques Audiard is also so full of memorably beautiful imagery and impressive performances from leads Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts, it sticks in your head for weeks after you see it.
Studio: Sony
Linkage: Rust and Bone: Blu-ray Edition

Searching for Sugar Man
The Skinny: Unbelievably shot largely on an iPhone (how’s that for product endorsement?), this Oscar-winning doc tells the story of a remarkable musician and a group of die-hard fans that refused to let him go.
Studio: Sony
Linkage: Searching for Sugar Man

Sex and Lucia
The Skinny: Truth in advertising. There is plenty of both Lucia and Lucia having carnal encounters in Julio Medem’s thought-provoking cypher of a film, but there is also a strong element of fantasy, dreamwork and subconscious sublimation as well. One woman’s escape from a horrible tragedy becomes an elusive, oft-confusing tale of multiple realities all coming up against each other.
Studio: Music Box Films
Linkage: Sex and Lucia: Unrated Director’s Cut

The Tin Drum
The Skinny: Günter Grass’s novel about a little German boy who refuses to grow up past the age of three throughout the Nazi movement and subsequent world war, as imagined by Volker Schlondorff. Absurdist and often surreal, the film still strikes a significant chord about the nature of societal pressures and our lemming-like ability to cease individual morality.
Studio: Criterion
Linkage: The Tin Drum: Blu-ray Edition

Two Lane Blacktop
The Skinny: A thoroughly American document of alienation and driving faster than you can think, Monte Hellman’s ground-breaking 1971 film features two nameless characters (played by James Taylor and Dennis Wilson) whose only allegiance is to the open road and the next race off in the distance.
Studio: Criterion
Linkage: Two-Lane Blacktop

The Skinny: A feel-good documentary about a high school football team that nevertheless has to earn its positive message. This rag-tag group of underprivileged kids from Memphis prove to have enough heart to power their entire school with their success.
Studio: Anchor Bay
Linkage: Undefeated: Blu-ray Edition

Wreck-It Ralph
The Skinny: A charming, witty animated film more or less about finding your place in the world — in this case, the world of aging video games. Does for pixalated video game characters what Toy Story did for cowboy dolls.
Studio: Disney
Linkage: Wreck-It Ralph: Blu-ray Combo Edition

Galentine’s Day is Better: Alternative Ways to Recognize Valentine’s Day

So, it’s Valentine’s Day. It’s the one day of the year where people feel compelled to buy things covered in hearts, pink, red, and chocolate. Oversized teddy bears and expensive dinners are also highly sought out. People even go insofar as to purchase diamonds (engagement rings…gag), cars, electronic equipment, and trips around the world. It’s kind of crazy, if you ask me. I’m all for buying someone you love nice gifts here and there, but just because it’s Valentine’s Day does not mean you are required to go crazy. To be perfectly honest, I think Valentine’s Day is kind of dumb. I actually have never been a huge fan of it. Mostly I’m just not a fan of the way people feel the need to celebrate it. I think people take it WAY out of context and go over the top.

The main thing that bums me out about it is that it makes single people feel lonely and sad as if they are missing out on something really, really important. They get all down on themselves because they don’t have that “special somebody.” I may be hurting some feelings, but people, really, Valentine’s Day isn’t that big of a deal. I find more people get upset because of Valentine’s Day than get excited. It’s the one day every year that makes a lot of people feel like a loser or an old spinster and that’s just silly.


I am engaged to someone who I love a whole lot (blah blah blah), so yes, you may think I have no right to be writing this article. Yes, I have a “valentine,” but I don’t buy him gifts or do nice things for him just because it’s V-Day. I do those things for him throughout the year. I also have friends and family who I love and have known well before I knew my fiance. They even knew me when I was single and, even then, I didn’t give a flying frack about V-Day. While I’m with someone now, I still really don’t care all that much about this “special day.”

But I still do something on Valentine’s Day every year.

Yeah, after all of that being said, I still recognize it as a “different” day of the year. Mostly because it’s really hard to avoid it. It’s sort of like any other holiday, you know? You go out somewhere and there’s decorations everywhere. The T.V. show you like to watch always has a Halloween, Thanksgiving, some winter holiday, Valentine’s, St. Patrick’s, Easter, and/or Fourth of July Day special, etc. It’s like no matter what you do, you really can’t go without recognizing these year round traditions in some way.

So, if you’re like me and you don’t make huge plans for V-Day but you still like to do a little something something, here are some last minute, fun ideas for EVERYONE (single, taken, or whatever).

Galentine’s Day

I hope everyone who is reading this watches Parks and Recreation because it is an amazing show. If you don’t watch it regularly, I at least hope you have seen or heard about the Galentine’s Day tradition that the women of Pawnee enjoy celebrating on the 13th of February each year. “It’s like Lillith Fair minus the angst.”

Essentially, the idea is girls getting together for breakfast, lunch, or dinner and having a good time. According to Leslie Knope, it should be a national holiday (then she immediately begins writing congress to tell them why).

I participated in a Galentine’s Day gathering a week or so ago and had a great time. We went and had a nice dinner at Opa in Center City then went to Duel Piano Bar and had some drinks. And that sounds like a pretty great night, right? It definitely was.

Galentine's Day/Leslie Knope

When you go out with a group of girls who genuinely just want to hang out with each other, it’s a great way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. It doesn’t matter what your relationship status is, the whole point is V-Day is the excuse to have G-day, and G-day is the excuse to go out with your girlfriends.

You can even have a Friend-entine’s Day, too. Just get a big group of friends, girls and/or guys, and just go out together. It’s also nice to be inclusive and invite friends who may not know everyone else there. The idea is to get a good group of people together, celebrate the people you care about, make some new friends, and have a great time. Really, this can be like any night of the year except you’re doing it because you want to recognize that it’s Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day At Home

If you’re trying to watch your spending and you’re not into the idea of going out for Valentine’s Day, just do something fun at home. For example, you could do Galentine’s/Friend-entine’s Day without leaving the house. Just cook dinner and watch a movie with a good group of friends. Here’s a list of anti-Valentine’s Day movies you could watch. Buy a bunch of wine and chocolate and gorge yourselves. Whatever you and your friends think is fun, do it in the great indoors of someone’s home.

Just don't watch The Notebook on Valentine's Day. That's stupid.
Don’t watch The Notebook on Valentine’s Day. That’s just stupid.

Or, if you do have someone in your life, just stay in and cook a nice meal together. My fiance and I usually cook and drink wine together, but there are some things we don’t prepare/drink all the time. Tomorrow night, we’re making an Italian beef dish called tagliata, something we’ve never made before and is fancier than our usual evening meal. We’re going to serve it with some broccoli rabe and the garlic potatoes featured in the recipe I linked. We’re also making some homemade coffee ice cream. So yeah, it’s nicer than our usual evening in but it’ll be a lot cheaper than a night out. And a lot less awkward. I think it’s so weird that people like to go out to fancy restaurants and have a cliché Valentine’s Day experience. But that’s just me.

Retail/Arts and Crafts Therapy

Another great idea is to go shopping. For/by yourself, for/with your friends or family, or for/with your coworkers. Any excuse to go shopping is a good one, am I right? Sometimes just getting little gifts for people you love (which should include yourself) or like even a little bit is enjoyable. But, as I said in my opening sentences, don’t feel obligated to spend a ton of money. Honestly, you really shouldn’t feel bad if you can’t dish out the dollars for super crazy nice gifts for loved ones. This is kind of my general rule about gift giving: only invest in nice things if you feel strongly about it and can financially do so.

Again, if you’re really trying to save money and you’re actually counting pennies, just make something. A card, a baked good, a mosaic of someone’s face made out of the crushed pieces of his/her’s favorite diet soda bottle, whatever. Tap into your inner Martha Stewart if you want to. Just making a little something to show you care is generally a hell of a lot nicer/cuter than buying something extravagant. If your boyfriend/girlfriend/friend/family member is expecting something crazy then you just need to tell them to Summer Donna, i.e. “SIMMA DOWN NOW!” As long as you say it with love, you’ll be fine.

Aubrey Plaza

My interpretation of Valentine’s Day has always been that somewhat snarky one where I’m all like, “It’s just a time of year where Hallmark and candy companies make a lot of money.” I do think that’s totally true (because that is a fact), but I still kind of enjoy recognizing this weird holiday of sorts.

Overall, we all should celebrate love and the people who are important to us throughout the year, not just on V-Day. I don’t think anyone should feel obligated to go nuts over gifts or feel lousy because he or she is single. Really, it’s just a day like any other. Props to those who can dodge it entirely, but, in my opinion, it’s okay to give in just a little bit.

Film Review: West of Memphis

Dir. Amy Berg
Score: 6.6

So, let’s go back to 1993, in the small Arkansas city of West Memphis (which could also be called Far East Arkansas for where it’s positioned in the state). On a warm evening in May three eight-year-old boys went missing and were later found dead thrown into a small creek, beaten, sexually assaulted and hog-tied. The police, in a frenzy to find the killers, eventually alighted upon three hapless teens (“white trash” as one of them refers to themselves), who had in the past shown a propensity for satanic imagery and speed metal music. These three quickly got railroaded by the police — with the unfortunate help of a coerced confession by Jessie Misskelley, the slowest-witted member of the three — into heavy prison sentences for two and, for Damien Wayne Echols, considered the brainy leader of the pack, death row.

The case eventually became a cause du celeb with the help of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofky’s excellent, groundbreaking documentary trilogy (known as the “Paradise Lost” films), and Echols’ unflinching charisma during the case. His penchant for iconoclasm and his refusal to kowtow to the authorities even as he was being wrongly persecuted drew the attention and devotion of an impressive array of activist celebs, including everyone from Henry Rollins to Eddie Vedder (a point the film happily uses to bequeath a lot of facetime to its commiserating cast of famous folks). Fortunately, the boys also garnered attention from filmmaker Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh, who helped finance numerous DNA tests that many years later ultimately proved to exonerate the trio, even as it pointed a significant finger in the direction of the one of the victim’s stepfathers, Terry Hobbs.

So what is it, exactly about these boys that got such world-wide attention? Rollins, the venerable punk prototype might have put it most succinctly when he suggested Echols sneering attitude towards authority and dark, deadpan sense of humor reminded him exactly of a kid like himself. But I suspect there’s more at work here.

As a companion piece to Ken and Sarah Burns’ The Central Park Five, the films more or less augment each other’s main argument: Mob justice, as meted out by the media in giant, rating-bonanza bonuses, is every bit as corruptive and misplaced now as it was when it was small groups of disaffected cowboys formed lynch parties to mete out justice as they saw fit.

We are all conditioned to drink deeply from the careless shorthand of hysteric media headlines and facile stereotypes: “Teens Go on Wilding Rape Rampage,” “Satanic Blood Rituals Used to Murder Children” and so forth. It’s all too easy for those of us who live in fear of unknown, pervasive evil to believe adolescents — the ultimate unknown for people over 30 — are entirely capable of crimes and attitudes we never dreamed possible when we were their age.

The case against the Memphis Three initially comes off as a slam-dunk: The teens were into satanic rituals, as evidenced by the chillingly detailed journal of Echols, whose rebellious attitude did nothing to sway anyone’s first opinion of him; much of the initial circumstantial evidence against the boys appears to be damning, including testimonials from peers that they, too, took part in these evil rituals. Worst of all, Misskelley actually “confessed” to the crime. As is so often the case with trials such as this, the huge body of evidence seems to suggest an unassailable tidal wave of guilt. The thrill of the film, if it can be called that, is to watch this seemingly automatic case get ripped to shreds when the individual pieces of evidence against the trio gets an in-depth analysis. The supposed Satanic desecration of the young victims’ bodies turns out to be nothing more than the gnawings of a particularly hungry band of turtles; the “confession” turns out to be absolutely coerced by the police; the testimonials turn out to be utter fakes put together by the police, and so forth.

Most significantly, by the end, when it is all-too-clear the boys got screwed by the swampy southern justice system, our outrage comes at a bitterly ironic price: After all, before the film makes it strong case in the teens’ defense, it lays out the overwhelming stack of evidence against them, and most of us — if not all, to a person — would have probably come to the same utterly wrong-headed conclusions everyone else did at the time.

We are all equally conditioned by the preponderance of media hyperbole — a trend that has only dramatically increased with the advent of the ubiquitous and insatiable Internet, where we only read the first twenty words of every news story before moving on to the next one, assuming we can get the rest later — and are as prone to overreaction and misinformed opinion as all those terrified, incensed people in West Memphis twenty years ago. This case happened to take place then and there; the next one could very easily be in our own neck of the woods.

The Best (and Worst) Films of 2012

The Top Ten Films of 2012

10. Clip
A searing Serbian teen drama from writer/director Maja Milos that plays heavily on the lurid and graphic, the film is never less than brutally honest in its depiction of its lost and callow young protagonists, never more so than with Jasna (Isidora Simijonovic), a beautiful, utterly lost young woman finding solutions to her angst in the worst of ways. The film, which played in this year’s Toronto festival, would almost certainly have to be heavily re-cut in order to play in the U.S. — though a helpful disclaimer at the end of the credits flatly states all the graphic bits were filmed with of-age stand-ins — but a great deal of the film’s power lies in its unflinchingly explicit gaze.

9. Argo

Much cyberink has been utilized in describing Ben Affleck’s tension-infused thriller, more or less recounting a true story in the annals of the CIA about a daring hostage rescue, but the bottom line is it’s one of the more fun rides of the year. In a peculiarly meta way, it’s sort of fitting that a Hollywood flick about a fake Hollywood crew coming into hostile Iran in order to rescue a group of trapped Americans was, itself, goosed into becoming even more suspenseful and dramatic than the real-life situation. Don’t take it as gospel, but have a great time anyway. (Full review here.)

8. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Predictably, this indie-darling from Benh Zeitlin (read our interview with him) got hit with a significant web backlash eventually, but the film’s diminutive protagonist, six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a fierce, imaginative child who has to fight for her and her father’s survival on a remote Louisiana coast island during Katrina, is one of the more indelible cinematic characters of the year. Shot beautifully by DP Ben Richardson, Zeitlin’s film finds a great deal of physical beauty in an otherwise hostile natural world. Full review here.)

7. Moonrise Kingdom

Fine, Wes Anderson movies tend to have their own, very specific, artistic aesthetic. You know who else has a really specific and identifiable aesthetic? Picasso. Monét. Bergman. Mozart. Just about every brilliant artist in human history, in other words. I’m not trying to place slight and skinny Wes in their direct company, but I do think the public outcry against Anderson for making movies according to his vision is reductive and silly. Case in point, this brilliant, funny and oddly compelling film about young romance blooming on a small island off the New England coast and the terrified adults who try to mitigate it, is never anything less than completely charming. Full review here.)

6. Killing Them Softly

Andrew Dominik’s long-awaited next feature (after 2007’s brilliant The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) met an untimely demise at the box office, but that’s mostly because it was marketed as some kind of simplistic revenge beat-down with Brad Pitt as a kickass hitman. Instead, Dominik’s film (based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins) is a crazy-quilt invective of corporate politics infiltrating even the most basic wiseguy operations such as looting and retribution. As a bonus, James Gandolfini brings his heavy mouth-breathing expertise back to the screen as an over-the-hill hitman who has more interest in booze and whores than getting a job done. The film is tightly acerbic and visually stunning. Mark my words: Years from now, it will get its proper due as people will catch on to its saucy satire. Full review here.)

5. Lincoln

Forgive me for bringing several large dumptrucks full of doubt to this film, but in my imagination, the combination of one of our more iconic and revered presidents cut short in his time and one of our most iconic and syrupy directors was very likely to lead into something unwatchable (the worst elements of Amistad and the dreadful coda of Saving Private Ryan blended together into an undrinkable mess), but to my shock and awe, the film was anything but obvious and blaring. With a brilliant script from Tony Kushner and an absolute barn-burner of a performance by Daniel Day Lewis (amongst others), Spielberg’s film fairly crackles with intellectual drollery and political fury. Eschewing the obvious career plot points (the assassination isn’t even shown on screen), the film instead focuses very deeply on Lincoln’s most dramatic and controversial victory, the passing of the 13th Amendment. One of the very few moments in my lifetime where I felt like openly cheering for a Republican.
(Full review here.)

4. Amour

Michael Haneke is known for his chilling portraits of inhumanity, but this film — written we are to understand as a loving ode to his own aging parents — is anything but heartless. Two absolutely captivating performances by the elderly leads (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) propel the simple but compelling story about a doting husband forced to take care of his ailing wife, but what’s truly remarkable about the film is the way in which Haneke is able to instill his own, uncompromising aesthetic into the fabric of this sad love story. He doesn’t dumb down his material: The characters aren’t facile or crudely drawn; they exhibit all the contradiction and irascibility of fully-realized adults.

3. Beyond the Hills

Cristian Mungiu is a brilliant Serbian writer/director with a burgeoning reputation as an auteur of the highest order. His follow-up to the dazzling 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days is another friendship drama between two young women. Two old friends from a Serbian orphanage have gone in totally different directions: Beautiful, careful Alina (Cristina Flutur) has joined a convent far away from the rest of civilization; and brassy, overwhelming Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) comes to visit her in order to whisk her away (and back into her arms). Mungiu has developed a style that rewards the patient, attentive viewer, constantly cramming his frame with important details set off deep in the background of his scenes. His talent for exposing his characters’ inner feelings despite their determined efforts to stow them away, and his delicate touch with the nuances of human communication are as impressive as his gorgeous compositions.

2. Footnote

An Israeli film whose wit, subtlety and persuasive captivation are done absolutely no favors with some simplistic plot summary (a father-son academic rivalry heats up when the underappreciated father thinks he’s finally received his long-suffering academic due by winning a prestigious award, that, in actuality, was meant to go to his grand-standing son). Despite what could have been dry-as-stale-saltines material becomes, in the hands of writer/director Joseph Cedar, an enthralling meditation on familial relationships, the nature of jealousy, academic skullduggery and Middle-Eastern politics. Shlomo Bar-Aba, who portrays the patriarch, an egocentric and wounded man whose career has never amounted to his aspirations, should be given full Oscar consideration, as should Cedar.
(Full review here.)

1. The Master

A jazzy scramble of a picture, filled with potent scenes, utterly convincing performances and deft directorial flourishes, Paul Thomas Anderson has cemented his pole position amongst other American directors with this thespian tour-de-force about a hugely damaged alcoholic named Freddie Quell (memorably inhabited by a totally immersed Joaquin Phoenix) in post WWII America who becomes entwined with a powerful, quasi-religious orator (Philip Seymour Hoffman), just beginning to build his flock. Impeccably rendered and outrageously beautiful, Anderson’s film is more austere story-wise than even his previous film There Will Be Blood, but it’s no less powerful. Phoenix and Hoffman’s performances — along with Amy Adams, playing Hoffman’s wife — are absolutely the best of the year.
(Full review here.)

Other Worthy Mentions: A Royal Affair, Zero Dark Thirty, Compliance, Room 237, The Queen of Versailles, Searching for Sugar Man, The Kid With a Bike, Arbitrage, The Innkeepers, Damsels in Distress, The Central Park Five, The Raid: Redemption
The Bottom Five Films of 2012

5. Lockout

Look, I know this isn’t meant to be particularly well-made, or even coherent, but this lazy-ass action flick — a sci-fi affair about a rogue government agent (Guy Pierce) being forced to save the president’s daughter (Maggie Grace) from a space-station prison uprising — from James Mather and Stephen St. Leger (and exec producer Luc Besson) utterly dispenses with what makes action flicks even remotely enjoyable. I suppose the point is just to have as much bang-bang and insouciance as possible in its 95-minute runtime, but the cynicism of the filmmakers — action fans don’t care about anything other than blood, babes and boom-boom– is pretty insufferable. It’s just stupid enough to think it’s a lot of fun, when in actuality it’s a screaming bore.
(Full review here.)

4. Total Recall

Let’s just cut to the chase: A bland, nonsensical mess of a remake that offers exactly none of the dopey, campy fun of the original, Len Wiseman’s CGI-choked action flick goes through the motions of a sci-fi action thriller, but seems largely disinterested in its own conveyance. This is a film that, on top of everything else, asks us to believe that 50-something corrupt career politician (played by Bryan Cranston) can physically take on a young, trained government super-spy (Colin Farrell), and have it be something of a stand-off. And that’s probably not even in the top-ten of most ludicrous howlers in this picture.
(Full review here.)

3. The Words

A wretched film that purports to be about the love and magic of the written word but itself seems inspired from literary canon culled out of cribbed Cliff’s Notes of inferior Hemingway novels. The whole misbegotten enterprise — which ultimately is a fictional film about a fiction writer who writes a fictional novel in which a fiction writer steals the novel of a much older writer and purports it to be his own — is far more of a headache than is warranted. I actually felt sorry for Bradley Cooper here, an intelligent, thoughtful actor who is desperately trying to cash in on his Hangover fame to make far more interesting and challenging material. He either needs a new agent or should thoroughly read through the scripts he’s being sent with a more watchful eye.
(Full review here.)

2. Prometheus

I’m going to take a deep breath and try to not go on another rampaging rant here, but Ridley Scott’s would-be prequel to his absolute masterpiece Alien, is almost everything the original is not. It’s dull, shrill and incoherent, and also fails the most basic moron test — if any of the principle characters acted in any way other than complete dipshits, there would be virtually no film to speak of. I know I get particularly incensed about this being that Alien is my single favorite movie of all time, but I wish with all my heart Scott hadn’t gone back and tried to spoil all the most terrifying things of the original by giving us this ludicrous backstory. In my mind, at least, I will regulate this turgid mess right along with the execrable Alien vs. Predator franchise.
(Full review here.)

1. The Impossible

Here’s all you need to know about this tone-deaf mess based on “actual events” surrounding the terrible Indonesian tsunami of 2004. At the very end of the film, which follows the plight of one rich, white family as they lose each other to the flood waters and desperately try to reconnect, the family gets air lifted to the safety of fully functional hospital after wading through a killing field of scattered bodies and hopeless suffering, on a plane with plenty of empty seats. (Full review here.)

Other Dishonorable Entries:
Silent House, The Raven, Dark Shadows, Red Dawn

Bonus Round

Inexplicably Overrated: Silver Linings Playbook, The Dark Knight Rises (tie)

Biggest Welcome Surprise:
Lincoln, Spring Breakers (tie)

Most Bitter Disappointment:
The Place Beyond the Pines

Film That Critics Got Wrong:
Prometheus, Flight (tie)

Film I Totally Whiffed On:
The Deep Blue Sea, The Bourne Legacy (tie)

You Tube Review: Dr. Dog Comes Home

It must have been a bummer missing a concert by one your favorite band’s back in those dark and dreary days before the advent of YouTube. In the case of this past weekend’s Dr. Dog shows, I missed two concerts by one of my favorite bands and I can’t imagine what 15 year old Ryan would have done in that situation. Luckily, present day Ryan is able to sit in front of a computer and troll through YouTube clips of a show he missed. And lucky for you, present day Ryan then writes about it for this website.

The concerts in question are the coming home shows for Philly’s own Dr. Dog, who just wrapped up their first tour in support of their new album Be the Void. What better way to celebrate a nice jaunt around the United States than with two sold out shows at the Electric Factory? Of course we at would have liked to review the actual shows in person and not grainy and occasionally wobbly YouTube clips. But what can you do? People don’t reply to emails, you make lemonade out of lemons and hit the Interweb. You know- the one with the email.

From the sound of it, Dr. Dog opened with “Shadow People” a tune off of their last album Shame, Shame. Scott McMicken mumbles “good evening everyone. It’s so damn good to be home” and the show begins. The sing-a-long begins and it sounds like all thousand or so people in the joint are singing along. I can’t blame them- “Shadow People” is catchy as hell. Yet for me the most interesting part of the whole clip is watching bassist Toby Leaman kill time before his part starts. He paces, walks in circles, does a fist pump or two, occasionally sings along to himself- all before coming in at the chorus. I still don’t know why it was so mesmerizing.

While I sincerely doubt Dr. Dog endorse many products, I would strongly suggest they look into endorsing one of these two items: pom pom winter hats, plastic Ray Ban sunglasses. They seem like a band favorite; might as well get them for free. That’s my thinking at least and the reason why I’d want to endorse blue Gatorade and Life cereal. By the way, if anyone from Gatorade or Life is reading this, I am totally serious.

Speaking of serious, “The Beach,” a tune off of Fate has a seriously downtrodden vibe to it and if I was at a Dr. Dog show and they busted this tune out (which they did on both nights,) I’m not sure what I would do with myself. Get a beer maybe? I don’t know. It’s a tough one. Great song, just a confusing live one.

“That Old Black Hole” is my favorite song off of the new album, Be the Void, and I wish there was a better video of it somewhere out there. However, watching this clip, you do get a fascinating idea of the massive wall of sound Dr. Dog create- between two guitars, bass, keyboards, drums and well-populated group harmonies. It also makes you think that, you know, that looked like a super fun show and I’m bummed that I missed it.

Finally there is this video of “These Days” off of Be the Void, a song which also holds the distinction of being one of the rare up tempo tunes Dr. Dog play. If I was in a band, my goal would be to incite a positive response from the security guards up front. Judging from this video, Dr. Dog failed in that area- at least during this song. If that security guard in the video is anything like me though, he probably got really stoked for “The Rabbit, the Bat and the Reindeer.”

I’m not sure when Dr. Dog will play in town again. But when they do, let’s just hope they email us back. That’d be awesome. I shouldn’t be watching all this YouTube at work anyway.

photos by Eric Ashleigh via WXPN’s the Key.

You Tube review is a regular feature, where quite honestly, we review shows we weren’t able to get to via You Tube.