Tag Archives: Film

Film Review: This Is Where I Leave You

Dir. Shawn Levy
Score: 3.8

God lament the Hollywood family ensemble. Of late, these films seem to take one of two divergent paths: Extreme melodrama, bordering on pathological (August: Osage County); or weak-minded, simpering comedies, which strive to be equal parts mirthful and heart-felt. Shawn Levy’s limp dramedy is clearly in the latter category, pulling together a bunch of wacky siblings along with their outspoken mother, to sit Shiva for their dearly departed father for the requisite seven days. Such is the nature of this film that only two of the sibs even seem remotely like they could be related, and all their accumulated emotional baggage gets washed away in a giant wave of well-meaning platitudes. Wade through this muck at your own peril.

As typical of the genre, the filmmakers have at least cobbled together an impressive cast. There’s Jason Bateman as Judd, in the kind of role he has perfected over the years: a peace-keeping middle brother who tries desperately to keep his more wild sibs in check as they rail and fight and crash against each other. He also may still be harboring longings towards a beautiful childhood friend, Penny (Rose Byrne), who’s living in the area. There’s Tina Fey, playing Wendy, the lone sister in a squadron of boys, a mother of two young children, a wife to a flatly unemotional type-A workaholic (Aaron Lazar), who has exactly one scene where his phone isn’t pressed to his ear.

There’s also Paul (Corey Stoll), the fiery oldest brother, whose wife (Kathryn Hahn) and he can’t conceive a child, despite their ever more desperate attempts. This leaves Phillip (Adam Driver) as the young wildcard brother, who shows up for his father’s funeral late, careening down the cemetery road in a black Porsche, blaring out dance music, with his much older former therapist (Connie Nielson) in tow as his new near-fiancé. And holding the whole nutty clan together, Hillary (Jane Fonda), the author of a popular tell-all memoir about the raising of her family, and who has a propensity to speak openly about her late husband’s sexual prowess in unconventional settings because her character needed something to do.

Naturally, everyone has a problem at the beginning of the film: Judd has just found out his wife has been sleeping with his boss, the tiresome radio blowhard Wade (Dax Shepard); Wendy has a contemptible husband and a still-yearning love for Horry (Timothy Olyphant), their across-the-street neighbor, permanently brain damaged after a car accident back when they were madly in love as teenagers; Paul has infertility issues; Phillip sleeps with everything that moves, and so on. Just as naturally, each and every one of these matters is addressed and brought to a close, ad nauseum, by the end of film in a series of ever-more unendurable scenes of denouement. Director Levy working from a script by Jonathan Tropper, based upon his own novel, is determined to leave no stone unturned, and no ham-handed symbol not fully realized by the closing credits.

It’s the kind of film that inexplicably keeps the candles on a birthday cake perfectly alight despite being whisked all across a large apartment until such time as the man holding the cake — in this case Judd, who has walked in on his wife and boss physically bonding in his marriage bed — sees fit to dutifully blow them as a last paean to his eviscerated marriage. And that’s not even the worst the film manages to conjure up: In the course of things, we’re treated to an impressive array of totally hackneyed symbols and totems. Judd, ever risk-averse, laments that he’s never swerved off the interstate to head up north to Maine, even though he’s often wanted to try it (and when this moment does indeed come to pass — and God knows, it’s coming — the interstate signs have been changed to read “New York” and “Maine” as your directional options, just to hammer the incredibly obvious point home with one last suplex); the house has a faulty fuse box that serves as a kind of magic conduit between Judd and his dead father, who insisted on doing all the electrical wiring himself.

Even if strong casting is the one thing the film firmly establishes for itself, you have to question some of the production’s tactics. The siblings bear no resemblance to one another, in their physical nature as well as their emotional dealings. Tina Fey, while a phenomenally gifted comic writer and limited performer, still isn’t, technically, an actress, so giving her a deeply emotional roll that forces her to emote through several tearful scenes is absolutely not playing to her strength. Nor is giving Olyphant, a handsome, charismatic man given to quick deadpans and jolting energy, the thankless roll of emotional mascot, the one who suffers irrevocable loss and still can’t remember what to do with the wrench he just got out of the toolbox.

In fact, as derided as the aforementioned August film might have been, I would personally take its take-no-prisoners venom and family vitriol over this kind of simple-minded “Modern Family” style pabulum in a trice. Neither one is particularly much good, but at least one isn’t insulting your intelligence with the most blandly uplifting possible outcome in every scenario, all while “challenging” its main protagonist to change up his game and avoid the too obvious and safe approach to life. Of the two, I’ll gladly take the film that (at least up to its dreadful, tacked-on ending) stuck to its formidable guns and at least attempted to practice what it preached.

Film Review: The Raid II: Berandal

Dir. Gareth Evans
Score: 6.5

One of the unexpected side benefits to the strict gun-control laws in Indonesia is the creative ways in which action films there must portray their hyper-violence. You don’t get the heavy artillery scenes of American shoot-em-ups, instead you have martial arts masters wielding everything from crescent blades to twin hammers, whaling away at one another in balletic fashion.

And never more resplendently than in Gareth Evans’ follow-up to his much-heralded The Raid: Redemption, a film with a simple premise — a group of Jakarta special tactics police invade the high-rise stronghold of a drug baron and, over the course of two bloody hours, fight their way to the top floor — with unexpectedly vibrant style and verve (and a star-making turn by the young Iko Uwais), and a rash of memorable, if non-traditional villains, including the pint-sized but utterly ferocious Yayan Ruhian.

The new film is as complex and far-reaching as the first one was simple and brutal. Evans, who wrote, directed and edited both films, has seen fit to expand his film to include several meaty themes amidst the incredibly well-paced carnage. He has taken many of the characters of the original and placed them in a much larger and more connected world of crime, savagery and betrayal.

A short while after the events of the first film, we find young Rama (Uwais) in an even deeper bind than before: In order to protect his wife and child, he is forced to go deep undercover to infiltrate the crime network of Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo) by becoming close to Bangun’s hot-headed son, Uco (Arifin Putra), who, naturally, is in prison. Rama gets arrested and sent down to Uco’s prison, helping the smooth gangster survive a chaotic assassination attempt. Once out, several years later, he gets taken in by Bangun, only to see the flammable relationship between the capo and his son go from bad to worse, which draws the attention of Bejo (Alex Abbad), a half-Arab operator from a rival faction, looking to rise up the ranks with the impressionable Uco’s support. Naturally, all hell eventually breaks loose, and Rama is left to his own devices, fending off different rivals and the internal strife of the Bangun clan.

Working with gifted DPs Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono, Evans’ film has the look and feel of a classic drama. The film opens with a static long shot of the countryside outside of Jakarta, the lush green fields shimmering under a menacing and overcast sky. As the eye follows the narrow patchwork of dirt roads that criss-cross the land, you finally land on a squared-out grave, freshly dug by a group of Indonesian cartel thugs. Cars eventually pull up before the mound of dirt, and it is only then that Evans’ camera gets close up with its subjects.

It’s a trick that Evans repeatedly uses to maximum effect. The film is dense and convoluted, but his action sequences — some of which are absolutely stunning in their elegant viciousness — are paced with precise deliberateness. Before the film’s first major fighting sequence, begun in a small prison toilet stall no less, Evans lets the scene build in intensity and drama, slowing down the film’s pulse even as it threatens to go into cardiac arrhythmia. He focuses his lens on the pounding on the stall door, the screws loosening under the barrage, and Rama’s growing fury, before finally letting the door explode in under a cavalcade of bodies and letting Rama run roughshod over them. In a later scene, mostly shot inside a cavernous bar — where Ruhian’s diminutive Prakoso must fight his way out of a massive ambush — we suddenly switch tableaus to a narrow alleyway outside the bar, covered in a peaceful spread of virginal, white snow. The shot holds for a long beat or two, just to the point where you begin to wonder what it is you’re seeing, before the back door suddenly swings open and Prakoso, bloodied, badly wounded and still under pursuit, emerges, stumbling into the once peaceful setting.

Evans is also smart enough to realize how important it is to have noteworthy villains for Rama to have to face. An entire extended sequence of the film is devoted to showing a trio of assassins (a deaf girl deadly with the aforementioned hammers and her brother, equally as efficient with an aluminum baseball bat and another master martial artist), hard at their craft, such that when Rama finally confronts them, the stakes have been raised considerably.

That the film also displays admirable thematic linkage through the course of its superior battle sequences is also an unexpected glory. It’s littered with fathers having to make very difficult decisions in order to protect their families, from Rama’s young son whom he doesn’t get to see for years at a time to Prakoso’s ex-wife keeping him away from their child because of her shame at his choice of employment, to Bangun’s difficult relationship with Eco, a situation that powers the film’s breathless action climax.

It is not without fault. As good as it often is, and with a surprising dedication to its more expository scenes, the film still feels too long by at least half an hour. You can appreciate Evans’ desire to get everything he can up on the screen, from fantastical fighting sequences, to wrenching emotional moments between Rama and his wife, but it still would work better slimmed down ever so slightly. But this is essentially a minor quibble for an epic action flick such as this. After all, the nature of the action genre is indulgence, and it’s safe to say, with this fantastically satisfying film, Evans earns our lenience.

Film Review: Out of the Furnace


Dir.
Scott Cooper
Score: 5.0

Here’s a helpful tip for all you burgeoning film directors who would dearly love some big names for your next low-budget indie: Just make sure your last film — an equally small affair — features a beloved actor who wins an Oscar on the strength of his performance. If you scope out the names in Scott Cooper’s first film after making the Academy-endowed Crazy Heart which won star Jeff Bridges the little gold statue, you’ll go quite a ways down the cast list before you don’t recognize someone. There’s Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana and Sam Shepard; hell, even Forest Whitaker makes an appearance in a pretty small role.

The problem with all this high-power gloss is, the film is desperately trying to be anything but Hollywood glossy. The story centers around a pair of brothers, the good-natured, stand-up older brother Russell (Bale), who works as his father did in a small town steel mill somewhere in rural Pennsylvania; and the squirrely, PTSD-afflicted Rodney (Affleck), who returns from his last tour of duty in Iraq with twitchy instincts and a sizable debt he desperately needs to pay off to local power broker John Petty (Dafoe). After Russell does some time for a drunk driving accident, he returns home to find his unstable bro has taken to loosely organized bare-knuckle beat downs as his new vocation.

Naturally, things go from bad to worse, and before too long, Rodney convinces Petty to take him up to New Jersey for a potentially big-money fight that unfortunately requires them both to become involved with the preternaturally amoral and hyper-violent Harlan DeGroat (Harrellson, in full skuzzbag mode), the patriarch of an inbred clan of drug dealing mountain low-lifes. When things go horribly awry, it’s Rodney, having learned his beautiful, loving girlfriend (Saldana) has taken up with a local constable (Whitaker) in his absence, who has to try and make everything right again.

Shot in a baleful small town as it is, the film works very hard to convince you of its veracity, both emotional and physical. Bale, with long stringy hair and a hang-dog balbo mustache, can almost pass, but one look at the stunning Saldana, or baby-faced Affleck and that delicate authenticity begins to bleed out. By the time Whitaker shows up, the town feels like a low-rent, cold-weather version of what it must be like to stroll through Supperclub in L.A. on a Friday night, with a recognizable face behind every corner.

An embarrassment of riches for a cast list is hardly a death knell for a film, of course, even one that purports to be about hardscrabble, blue-collar towns such as this (just take a peek at the upcoming August: Osage County), the script, however, penned by Cooper and Brad Ingelsby, is another matter. You can feel how much Cooper wants his scenes to crackle with life and energy, but when even such luminous talents as these are forced to perform scenes that feel altogether obligatory, the results aren’t much better than if you stocked the frame with amateurs.

Very little happens here that you don’t see coming a mile away — two miles away, to be more accurate — and by the end, when we finally have our explosive last confrontation, Cooper seems to have really lost his sense of what he wants the film to be about.

Along the way, there are certainly some good moments — a tearful scene with a miserable Bale and apologetic Saldana is nearly good enough to ward off a good deal of the film’s other foibles, and Harrelson, determined to bury his once cute and harmless affect once and for all in films such as Seven Psychopaths and this one, is movingly heinous, a dope-injecting lunatic with absolutely no regard for anyone else — but even these are buried under the grinding churn of Cooper’s forced melodrama.

One of the pleasant surprises about Crazy Heart was the way it refused to fall into convention for the sake of crowd-pleasing. Cooper seemed happy to let Bad Blake dictate his own terms in how the story was to go, which gave the whole enterprise a jolt of naturalism. In this failed story of violence and heartbreak, natural comes packaged in a plastic baggie.

Interview: The Alternative Story of Mumia Abu-Jamal

Bringing up the name Mumia Abu-Jamal in a room full of people will certainly spark up a conversation. The discussion in that room might range from topics like black activism to radical journalism to murder. For decades, these conversations have led us back to revisiting the case that led to Mumia Abu-Jamal being sentenced to death (and much later on amended to life without parole) for the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in December of 1981.

Recently, a voice has emerged that is urging the public to redirect their attention from the case and onto the importance of Abu-Jamal’s life as an American journalist, intellectual, and influential public figure, who was forced to face the unforgiving life of death row and imprisonment.

On February 1, 2013, Director Stephen Vittoria released the film documentary, “Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary”, which introduces viewers to an alternative view of Abu-Jamal’s life that the public hasn’t yet been offered.

We were given the opportunity to speak with Vittoria about his relationship with Abu-Jamal, the story behind the film, the history of racism, and how this film challenges the mainstream press:

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Two.one.five magazine: What fueled your interested in Mumia Abu-Jamal?

Stephen Vittoria: I was working on another documentary about six or seven years ago and moving into a new project about the historical look on the growth of the American empire. I asked [Mumia] to record twenty-five answers to twenty-five questions that I had regarding the subject.

He’d been an incredibly sharp critical voice on the exploits of the subject matter. I’ll tell you – it’s some of the best stuff he’s ever written. I ended up pulling the plug on the film for various and practical reasons but I had these twenty-five incredible pieces from Mumia that had created a strong connection and relationship between us both politically and socially. I began to focus my eye on his life as a writer, journalist and revolutionary. That was the spark for the film.

I made a decision early on not to deal with the case. One of the reasons I didn’t focus on the case was because the narrative, which has been told from December 9, 1981, has always focused on the case.  There are people that are in favor of Mumia’s guilt and in favor of his innocence. Every film, article, book, video, and live event that has ever been produced has focused on the case.

I thought it was more interesting to portray the side of a fourteen to fifteen year old young man in Philly who was feeling the oppression on his race from his city and country. Also, how he began to grow and mature with the Black Panthers and into his journalism career.

215: Why do you think Mumia’s story still resonates with people over 30 years later?

SV: This is a great question. I think that his story is many people’s story. It’s hyper dramatic because of the conviction of the murder of Officer Faulkner – many believe wrongly convicted. Thirty-some years on death row in solitary confinement has elevated his story.

His story is the story of many people that have struggled against oppression and human rights violations; in this country specifically civil rights. I think he has always fought for others. When you look at his writing, he rarely talks about his own case. Prior to incarceration he was known as the voice of the voiceless. Mumia’s journalism and historical work have always focused on the point of view of victims. People realize that he has always fought for them.

The Q+A’s after our screenings, so far, have been extraordinary. They love to tell [their stories] and connect with Mumia. I love seeing the connection between two people. It’s why I made the film.

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215: The Newark Theater canceled your film screening, without giving you much (if any)  information on why. Why do you think certain people are scared to show this film?

SV: I think any time a person tends to shed some light into the darkness or tends to question the status quo, they are usually attacked by the mainstream press and people who want to keep things the way they are. It’s why the mainstream media gets away with what they do.

The media doesn’t look into the actions of the US military or law enforcement. They tend to accept stories that they get from the government as the news, and alternative voices are just not given an equal share of that stage. When you have news organizations around the country making millions off of ads, you don’t want to show footage of people dying in Iraq when two minutes later you have to show a toothpaste commercial. You want to keep that safe.

From the very beginning of his career Mumia has questioned authority. Whether it was Richard Nixon on Lyndon Johnson with the Vietnam War, or Frank Rizzo and the forces in Philadelphia just completely installing a police state, especially in the black population, Mumia shined a light there.

People just don’t want to hear the truth in America. Gore Vidal called the U.S. the United States of Amnesia. You have a country that was founded in genocide, nurtured in slavery and perpetuated by war.

The Newark Theater probably just made a decision based on what they got from the ownership – which includes Shaquille O’Neal. It was not an economic decision. They originally embraced it warmly and we’ve had no problem filling seats, our numbers have been high.  They gave us nothing. When we found out that they weren’t going to show the film I didn’t ask Mayor Cory Booker what he thought about it as a business decision, I asked him how he felt about the citizens who he represents and how he felt about them not being able to see this film.

They were expecting pressure from groups that they just don’t want pressure from.

The African American groups in Newark get screwed over once again by not being able to see a story about their history.

215: Your film discusses racism in America, which is a very sensitive topic for many people.  Upon completing the film, how did you feel about releasing it to the public?

SV: I was very excited. In many respects, it’s a very unfortunate and ugly subject. It’s unfortunate that we even have to talk about it. I don’t mean in 2013, I mean over the last four or five hundred years. I’m not someone that believes that when Jefferson died, as someone who had slaves, that he was just a product of his time. He, James Madison and Washington have been given a pass on slavery.

These were enlightened men who knew a good deal when they saw one. It was ugly and barbaric and they were making a fortune off of it. [They] built their fortune with an unpaid work force which [they] had enslaved.

That’s where Mumia’s story begins. That is where many peoples’ stories begin.

I think he’s speaking for the ancestors who are crying out from their graves for justice. Mumia understands that that enslavement still survives in this country, regardless of the fact that we have an African American president.

It’s something that has to be told. I was very happy with the review in the New York Times. They made a point that very rarely do you hear strong, inventive, unintimidated voices from the far left fighting for this kind of justice. You definitely hear it from the right with their griping and wetting their pants.

The film is a journey with Mumia because it’s his story and I wanted the voice to be as strong and as uncompromising as he is.

Taking on the subject of racism in the US and also around the world is really important. There needs to be an honest discussion. We’re never going to have peace without justice.

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215: What kind of relationship have you developed with Mumia from working on this film?

SV: It has quite frankly been a very joyful relationship. In many respects we share a great deal when it comes to political and social ideas. When we visit, we have an incredible time together.

The fact is that we mostly see Mumia and his words as very serious (and he absolutely is) but he’s also kind of goofy and nerdy. He admits that. He’s somebody that loves to laugh and he loves to have fun. We usually end up spending 5-6 hours together on the visit. More than half of the visit is talking about current events.

It’s not always about heavy racism and world peace. There are other subjects and other people that we discuss. One of the first conversations that we had was when Mel Gibson had a meltdown. I remember another one about what happened last week on the Walking Dead. He’s recently been allowed television privileges. He’s always kind of been a sci-fi nerd. He still reads comics and things like that.

I pretty much see him whenever I’m back East. I’m going by this week. I try to go once every three months.

When they moved him off of death row and to SCI Mahanoy, Chris Hedges and I went in and he loves Chris so that really meant a lot to him.

When he was at SCI Greene they were non-contact visits for thirty some odd years. He couldn’t hug his family or shake hands with associates, it was terrible. When I would visit him, they would take him out of solitary confinement and then strip and cavity search him. It was the prison and guards’ way of telling him to think twice about talking to people or the media about what happened to him.

Now it’s a little bit more normal.

215: What outcome are you looking for from having people view this film?

SV: Some people hope it gets him out of prison. I’m not the Wizard of Oz, I can’t fix this by waving my magic wand.

As a film maker the first thing you want to do is tell a really good and complete story. The other thing you want to do is look at history and look at the mainstream narrative that’s been told which has been a combo of myths and lies. I wanted to write an alternative narrative to invoke and write the history of Mumia Abu-Jamal from the point of the victim. He doesn’t act like a victim. He has transcended prison. His spirit is as strong and alive as it can possibly be. That’s what I want people to understand.

I also want it to offer audiences an alternative to the options that they’ve been offered. They are offered a constant menu of war, zero health care, poverty, and environmental destruction to the planet. If you listen and read and get into the works of Mumia, you will find out that we’ve made (in this country) the unthinkable normal, which is how a power structure keeps control.

This offers peace over war, healthcare over no care, and education over ignorance. If you keep a society scared the way [the media] does with terrorism and war, and you keep people uneducated, and the 1% continues as they are.

This film says there is another way.

There is this guy from a dark, dank hole on death row and this offers the truth.

Mumia’s words should be taught to schoolchildren. He’s an alternative from a very unusual source, who continues to call out the empire on their behavior.

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“Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary”, will open in Philadelphia on May 3, 2013 at Landmark Ritz at the Bourse. Along with Abu-Jamal, the film features an array of influential voices including Cornel West, Alice Walker, Dick Gregory, Angela Davis and more.

Being that Philadelphia is the apex of this film’s theatrical release, it’s advised that you purchase your ticket now to experience the film’s Philadelphia debut as the event that it deserves to be.

View the powerful trailer here.

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Interview: Fede Alvarez, Director of ‘Evil Dead’

For many would-be directors, the prospect of having to remake something so beloved as a cult classic would be considerably daunting. To have that same project be one’s first foray in feature films would seem to be almost insurmountable, but here we have callow Fede Alvarez, the 35-year-old Uruguayan, whose first big assignment was to remake Sam Raimi’s beloved gore-fest classic The Evil Dead. To ramp up the pressure still further, the studio marketing team came up with the tagline: “The Most Terrifying Film You Will Ever Experience.” We sat down with the charming director to talk about that tagline, the shame of CGI, and what it was like to step into the footsteps of a legend.

So, did that tagline add any undue pressure on you to produce? I mean, there have been a lot of really scary movies over the years.
No, it was great because this is how the studio feels about the movie. Those things come from the studio and the producers. You can’t put that tagline on every horror movie, you know? You can only use it once. At the end of the day, that was our goal. The only point of making a horror movie, it has to be the scariest movie ever. That’s the game of the horror movie. You want to top whatever’s been done before.

Did you ever have the notion to make the film more darkly comedic, like Raimi’s original sequels?

Sam wasn’t trying to be funny. He told me ‘I went off to the woods to shoot the scariest movie I could do — the scariest movie ever.’

I couldn’t be totally sure, but the vast majority of the film’s effects seemed to be practical, which I thought was great. Did you consciously want to shy away from CGI?

Everything you see is real. Even at the end, it’s [actress] Jane [Levy’s] face. That’s real footage of her face, just painted on someone else’s face. It’s real textures that come from real life. It’s not a computer-generated anything, so in the end, the movie has a very organic and realistic feel. Horror movies have to be that way. I’m not scared by CGI. If you compare 28 Days Later to I Am Legend28 Days is terrifying and Legend is like a good adventure, but it’s not scary. That’s why it was important to me to make it practical, but even so, we’re making an Evil Dead, part of the saga of classic and beloved films that people still watch today, so you don’t want to make a film that disappears two years from now. If you use CGI, it may be great today, but then five years from now it might look weird; ten years from now people would say ‘what?’; and twenty years from now people would say ‘what were you thinking?’ That’s how CGI hurts movies in a way, that’s the shame of the last 20 years. It was very important not to use CGI so to make sure the movie can last long. There’s nothing that’s going to date this movie. We did it quite timeless: There’s no cell phones, there’s no technology that really says 2013. We didn’t want to date the film on any level.

I was interested that you included the ‘forest rape’ scene from the original that was absolutely the most controversial aspect of the film — the thing that got it banned throughout Europe for many years. Was there ever a time when you weren’t going to include it? Did you feel it was too much a part of the original to leave out?
When I wrote the script the first time, I didn’t include the scene. The scene was there but not the rape. She would just get caught in the woods, but there wasn’t any penetration going on, if you want to put it that way. But then when we were in pre-production, Rob Tapert, who created the original scene, came up with the idea for the tree rape in the original film, and when we were in pre-production he said ‘You know what, we have to include that scene, we have to do it.’ The hard part of the original is it seems like she’s enjoying it. And that’s what makes it completely wrong and very offensive to women. At least in this new version, you can see the pain. She’s not enjoying it at all. We were convinced the MPAA would have never let us get away with that. But when we brought it to them, they didn’t say anything about it.

It would seem as if one of the hardest legacies of the original to live up to would be recreating some of Raimi’s original, outrageous camera work. How did you approach that aspect of the film, knowing his creativity with lens placement and shot creation were such a big part of the original’s success?
That was the toughest part, because I knew part of the reason why the original is so classic is because of Sam Raimi’s camera movement, Sam Raimi’s style. That was kind of a challenge. I just wanted to make sure I didn’t fall for the shortcuts, you know ‘let’s do the same thing because that worked in the past’. That’s the doom of a lot of remakes, you know, they just take the short cut. So I just decided to shoot this movie the way I want regardless of how they shot the original. The evil force in the woods, even though it’s different, it’s more fluent. It’s faster, if you compare it to the original. This one is more powerful, but that was a way to almost have a Sam Raimi cameo in the movie. Just quoting very specific moments. It was very important to keep shooting my way, because Sam would never have wanted me to just copy anything. He was always encouraging me to do it my way. He never would have allowed me to do something to imitate what he did just to be closer to the original.

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.

Finding the Silver Linings: A Conversation with Matthew Quick

Matthew Quick  had a very secure life as a high school English teacher in Haddonfield, NJ, with a nice house and a good pension. He was a well-liked, active member of the community. In many ways, he was the picture of normalcy. But then he decided to take a chance.

Quick, who earned his Bachelor’s in English at La Salle and his Master’s from Goddard College, left his job as a teacher, choosing instead to pursue his dream of being a novelist. Moving into his in-laws house, Quick drafted, and subsequently scrapped, five novels before he finally wrote The Silver Linings Playbook. Managing to sell the film rights before he was even finished with the novel, Quick started to generate a huge buzz in the literary world pretty early on. While sales for The Silver Linings Playbook were good after the book’s publication, they became great after the release of the film in September 2012 – it’s been a New York Times Best Seller for several weeks.

The film adaptation – starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro – is up for eight Oscars. Just as the film has won scores of accolades and acclaim, so too has Quick. Readers and critics have taken to the novel’s loveable, if highly flawed, characters. Despite their unhealthy obsessions and their various forms of self-medication, there is a common thread woven throughout the story that ties these characters together: they yearn for a human connection.

Surely one of the brightest young stars to emerge from the Philadelphia area – a place that seems somewhat starved for artists, despite its size – in quite some time, Matthew Quick is bringing the national spotlight back to The City of Brotherly Love. I had the opportunity to talk with Matthew, where we touched on everything from mental illness to Chip Kelly:

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two.one.five magazine: What impact did Philadelphia and New Jersey have on you as a writer, specifically with The Silver Linings Playbook?

Matthew Quick: It had a huge impact. South Jersey and Philadelphia, I know, is one of the main characters of the book, if not the main character of the book. All of the characters – how they think, what they say, what they care about – is largely influenced by the area that they live in. I live in Massachusetts now, but every book that I’ve published has been set in or around Philadelphia, be it a fictional town or a real town. Like with The Silver Linings Playbook, it’s set in Collingswood. So it’s in my blood; it’s who I am. The people that raised me are all Philadelphians. I’ve got deep roots [there]. My grandfather grew up during the Great Depression, when it was all over Philadelphia. We’re proud of it. Very proud to be from Philly.

two.one.five: Is there something specific about Philly that you think makes for such a great setting for your novels? Or is more just that you’re so familiar with it?

MQ: The people that raised me – especially the men that raised me – were hard men. They worked hard. They had a blue collar mentality. They were extremely loyal. Those were the types of people that I grew up with. Philly has a little bit of a chip on its shoulder. People call it ‘Baby New York.’ I don’t like that term at all, because I think Philly is a beautiful city in and of itself. It doesn’t need to be compared to anything else. But we always have that kind of underdog attitude.  Even our most famous, iconic fictional character, Rocky Balboa – he’s an underdog, a guy that nobody cares about. I think largely that’s the type of people that raised me. My grandfather came from abject poverty. He didn’t even have enough to eat when he was growing up. Then my grandfather went to World War II. He fought hard, he came home, he worked his whole life to put his kids through college.

And I think that type of story is so common, especially in South Jersey where I grew up. Most of the fathers grew up poor in Philly, and moved to South Jersey when they got enough money to move to the suburbs. They weren’t always the best-educated men, but they were good people, and they were wise. So I think those are the types of characters that you find in The Silver Linings Playbook. They don’t speak like they went to Harvard, but they’re good people, and they have wisdom. And they’re doing the best that they can. I think that’s what Philly is all about.

two.one.five: And who did you read growing up? Who were your big influences?

MQ: Going to Collingswood High School, people didn’t read novels, fiction particularly. My father read a lot of nonfiction, and my friends didn’t read a lot. So largely I would read the books that people gave me in school. So, Dickens and Hemingway, Twain and Shakespeare. When I found Vonnegut, I started to say, ‘Wow, there’s other books out there that my teachers aren’t giving me that I can delve into.’

I found a wider reading list when I went to La Salle. All of my friends at La Salle were English majors, so they loved reading. In high school, none of my friends read books. They weren’t into reading or writing at all. It was a radical shift when I got to La Salle, and was surrounded by people who read books for pleasure, rather than just for school. And that’s when I found Camus. I was way into Camus. I was a big Edward Albee fan. And it went from there.

two.one.five: It’s now a pretty famous story, how you were working as a school teacher, when you decided to quit and move into your in-laws basement to focus on writing. Was there a particular moment where you knew your now-previous lifestyle wasn’t working?

MQ: Living in Haddonfield particularly, where I was teaching… I wasn’t able to write because I was working so hard as a high school English teacher. Haddonfield is a phenomenal school, and they demand a lot from their teachers. And the kids are phenomenal kids.

I felt very trapped. At the time I had tenure and a house. And yeah, I do think that I was seduced for a little bit in my 20’s by the security of suburban New Jersey life. Again, my grandfather fought his whole life to get that. So, when I left all that behind, it was really hard. My grandfather, who was alive at the time, he didn’t understand it. Growing up in the Great Depression, you did not leave a good-paying job with a pension and health insurance. That was unfathomable to him. But it was something I had to do. I’ve also talked a lot about how – like Hemingway was always moving away – I think authors live on the fringe. And I think I had to leave Philly to write about Philly. When I was there, I was kind of too close to it. When I moved to Massachusetts – largely because my in-laws are the only people that would let us live with them – I really missed Philly. And writing The Silver Linings [Playbook] was a way to go home, and be around the types of people that I was missing.

two.one.five: Fast-forward a few years, when you were writing The Silver Linings Playbook. Was there a moment when you realized that you were really onto something?

MQ: I wrote The Silver Linings Playbook during the 2006 Eagles season, pretty much in real time. The book follows the season. About halfway through the season, and halfway through the writing process, I started to realize that I had something that felt more complete, more polished, more salable than I ever had before. And, to be honest with you, it kind of scared me a little bit: that moment, you go from ‘I think I might be able to do this in the future,’ to ‘I might be ready right now.’ In some ways that was kind of terrifying.

Sometimes I look back at that time of writing The Silver Linings [Playbook] – when nobody knew who I was, and there was no media to do, and I didn’t have to maintain a website… sometimes I feel like I really romanticize that time. And I tell young writers, before you’re published, that’s your time to experiment and really figure out who you are, before it becomes so public.

two.one.five: And what about Pat [, played by Bradley Cooper in the film]? Where did the inspiration for that character come from?

MQ: Well, there’s a lot that goes into it. But the story I tell is that I had been writing for almost two-and-a-half years, living with my in-laws, hadn’t gotten a job, was really depressed. And I went for a run, which I often do when I get depressed. And it was a cold winter day. And I looked up one day and there was this beautiful cloud silhouetted in silver in front of the Sun. It was just gorgeous. And I thought, ‘Maybe it’s an omen that I’m going to make it as a writer.’ And then I immediately thought, ‘That’s ridiculous. You can’t think that. That’s delusional thinking.’ And then as I was running I thought, ‘What if I had a character who believes in delusional thinking, and omens, and silver linings?’

I got home and I started to craft Pat. Of course, I wanted to write a story about my obsession with the Eagles and father-son issues. And I have a background in mental health – I was struggling with depression at the time. But when I was writing, I didn’t think about all that; I just wrote. Pat’s this guy who comes home and says, ‘The old Pat isn’t me. The guy who you thought you knew isn’t me. I’m this new guy.’ And that’s exactly what I was doing, as a writer. I was saying, ‘I’m not a high school English teacher; I’m a writer.’ And there were people who made me feel like that was a crazy thing to say. Pretty much everyone in my life was like, “What are you doing in the basement?”

I don’t know if I could have verbalized all of that when I was writing The Silver Linings Playbook. But now, looking back, I definitely think that I was using the story as a metaphor to figure out all of the strange feelings that I was having. You know, the book is fiction, absolutely. But metaphorically, there are a lot of issues that Pat is going through that are similar to what I was going through.

two.one.five: What about the process of seeing it made into a film? What was that like?

MQ: It was surreal. I didn’t have anything to do with the screenplay or the casting, and I was only on the movie set one day. The thing that shocked me the most was how worried [director] David O’Russell was about my reaction. He called me the night before I saw the film, and we talked for about an hour. He was worried that I wouldn’t embrace the film. Storyteller-to-storyteller, he really wanted me to see that he took great pains to be careful with my subject matter.

When I saw the film, I walked into the screening room at Tribeca, and my heart was pounding. My fists were clenched. I was thinking, ‘What’s going to be on the screen? How’s it going to effect my career?’ About a half hour into the movie, I noticed that my hands were open, and I was laughing. I was enjoying seeing some of the dialog that I had written being performed by famous actors. At that point, I realized that we had something special. I gave myself over to the story.

It’s been really interesting to travel around the country promoting the film for [distributor] The Weinstein Company; doing interviews with David O’Russell and talking with Bradley Cooper at the Katie Couric show. Things like that are new to me, but it also let me very quickly see that all of these famous people are real people. They care about the subject matter of mental health as much as I do, and they care about storytelling as much as I do. Of course, Hollywood is Hollywood. There’s a lot of fame and glamour and all that, but at the core of it are just people who are trying to tell stories – which is exactly what I’m trying to do.

two.one.five: What are your future plans, after all of this simmers down?

MQ: Well, I’m going to keep writing. I have a novel coming out in August called Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. That is coming out with [publisher] Little Brown. It’s about a kid who takes a gun to school on his 18th birthday, intent on killing himself and his best friend. So that’s a very serious book. But there’s a thread of hope that runs through it, and I’m very excited about that. In 2014 I have an adult novel coming out called The Good Luck of Right Now, which is with [publisher] HarperCollins. And we sold the movie rights to Dreamworks. And I’ve actually sold my last novel after that, which I haven’t written yet. So it’s pretty busy for me. I’m thrilled to have all these opportunities; I’ve come a long way since the basement.

two.one.five: With all that success, do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

MQ: Absolutely. Number one: write about what you love, and not what you hate. Because if you hate something, it won’t sustain you. If you love something, you’ll write about it forever. Number two: surround yourself with people who make you feel like you can make it. Anyone who’s a hater, or tells you that you can’t, get as far away from them as possible. And number three – and I think this is the best advice: if you want to be a writer, don’t be a critic. Don’t blast people on the internet, don’t write negative reviews. When you see a movie or read a book, try to find what works in that book or movie. Don’t try to find what doesn’t work. If you go blasting everyone on the internet, nobody is going to want to work with you professionally. And if you practice being a critic the whole time, you’re never going to see the good in your own work. You’ll only see the negative, and you’ll never get anything finished. You’ve got to figure out what works, not what doesn’t work.

two.one.five: Now that everyone knows that you’re an Eagles fan, can we get your prediction for this upcoming season? 

MQ: I would lie if I said I wasn’t nervous. But, you know, I’m an Eagles fan through and through. I’ll be at every home game. I’ll be rooting on the Birds. I think a lot has yet to be determined. We don’t really know how the new system will work. The coaching moves are curious, so we’ll see. I want to be optimistic. I think we’ve got to give Chip Kelly a shot, to see if he can pull it all together. I like Nick Foles. I was a little surprised at that restructuring of Mike Vick’s deal. But, maybe he’ll be trade bait. I hope we don’t have another quarterback controversy. That would not be good. So we’ll see.

two.one.five: Sounds like you’re trying to see the silver linings there.

MQ: [Laughs] I’m trying.

two.one.five: Well thank you so much for talking with me.

MQ: My pleasure. Thanks again, and my best to everyone in Philly.

Film Review: Argo

Dir. Ben Affleck
Score: 7.3

About the only way a yarn as good as the true story of the freeing of the six Americans holed up in the Canadian embassy amid the Iranian uprising back in 1980 could be completely unheard of is if it had been classified by the C.I.A. Which is precisely what it was, up until 1997, when then President Clinton finally declassified it, allowing the amazing truth to come out.

The only truly surprising thing, then, is how long the story took to get made into a Hollywood prestige picture. It pretty much has everything you’d want in an international thriller — intrigue, danger, a cockamamie plan that very nearly goes belly up, an American hero of an intelligence officer, and, best of all, a chance to give props to the Hollywood machine itself, even as it tweaks the inanity of the movie making industry along the way.

Ben Affleck wouldn’t seem the most automatic choice to helm this production, either. True, he’d made two pretty well-regarded features previously (Gone Daddy Gone and the vastly superior The Town), but they’d been based in his Boston-area comfort zone and had suggested precious little of a world outside that clam chowder cocoon. But I’m here to say Affleck has done this amazing story proud and come out with a crowd-pleasing, nervy thriller that will absolutely have something to say come award season.

After the U.S. Embassy was swarmed over back in ’79 — a response to America’s shameful extradition of the Shah, who fled his country after the uprising — there was pretty much chaos in the building, with foreign service officials frantically trying to destroy classified documents in the last few minutes they had, and people scrambling to safety. The only people to actually escape, however, were six officials who thought to sneak out a back door and look for safety amongst the other embassies in the area. The only embassy to heed their call was Canada, whose ambassador (Victor Garber) and his wife (Page Leong) were pivotal to the Americans’ survival.

The six Americans — played by Tate Donovan, Rory Cochrane, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Joe Stafford, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishé, respectively — were then unable to leave their little bunker for fear of being recognized. It was only a matter of time before the Iranians discovered a discrepancy in the number of people in the office accounted for. Working then with very little time, Tony Mendez (Affleck) a C.I.A. agent expert on “exfils” hatches a complicated scheme that calls for the six to pretend to be a film crew, on location in Iran to shoot a Star Wars ripoff sci-fi flick, called, you might have guessed, “Argo.”

Before he can get to Iran to pull off his caper, however, he has to travel to L.A. and enlist the aid of a couple of movie industry veterans, John Chambers (John Goodman) an award-winning monster prosthetics artist, and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a fast talking Hollywood producer whose best years, it was thought, were behind him. Together, the three men produce a script, movie poster, storyboards and even a little buzz from Variety to authenticate the experience. So armed, Mendez heads to Iran to try and convince his group of prisoners to believe in him enough to pull the scheme together in just several days.

What director Affleck has done is slip past much of the laboriousness of the mission, including the depth of politics involved, and cut right to the suspense thriller aspect of the predicament. Once on the ground in Tehran, the tension continues to mount, and the Americans attempted escape in the airport — with multiple parallel elements, including Iranian security officials finally identifying the missing hostages and U.S. government officials frantically trying to re-engage the operation after it had been deemed too dangerous and shut down — plays like a well-tuned orchestra of tension. Each jangling phone or grinding bus gear only adds to the nerve-wracking anxiety, a point Affleck seems almost gleeful to exploit. He also gets a lot of mileage out of the late-’70s era soundtrack (“When the Levee Broke,” being just one prime example) on top of Alexandre Desplat’s taut Middle-Eastern-tinged score.

If the final product is, perhaps, a bit too light on its feet — so much of the politics are left unexplored in favor of the orchestrated exposition — and too quick to glad-hand all comers rather than explore even tangentially the real roots of the uprising, it is, at least a no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners thriller, the likes of which real Hollywood stopped churning out shortly after the era this film explores.

More impressively, Affleck shows a good deal of restraint, intentionally downplaying his own character to better set up everyone one else. Mendez, with his Kris Kristofferson beard, his estranged wife, and his penchant for fast food and cigarettes could have been much larger than life, but Affleck wisely keeps him mostly to the sidelines of the twisty narrative, guiding it without taking a lot of center space. Goodman and Arkin, by contrast, have an enormous amount of fun chewing up their scenes together and spouting lines such as “You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day.” While that might well be true, even an extremely seasoned and well-learned monkey would have had difficulty putting together a thriller as distinct and sharp-edged as this one.

Film Review: V/H/S

Dir. Various
Score: 6.2

As far as low-budget, whacked out experimental horror films go, this offbeat collection of shorts hangs together reasonably well. Especially, if you like your footage found and grainy, your women fiercely attractive and oft-nude, and your entrails bloody and fully exposed, this might be just the thing.

The mass of writers and directors, including indie-horror icon Ti West and mumblecore stalwart Joe Swanberg, have divvied up the duties for the individual sections, all held together by the not-entirely-convincing frame of a group of young vandals breaking into a house to steal a video tape someone has hired them to acquire. Once in the creepy house, which features a dead body slumped in an easy chair in front of a bank of static-lit TVs, they conveniently keep finding tapes to pop in and check out.

In this way, the film works almost like the dreaded clip shows that sit-coms have been serving up for years as a way of avoiding writing/producing full episodes, with many of the same sorts of inherent weaknesses in the form.

The individual stories on these found tapes go something like this: a group of frat boys (Mike Donlan, Joe Sykes and Drew Sawyer), one of whom wired up with a pair of video spy glasses, attempt to pick up some chicks at a local bar in order to film them having sex, but instead end up with a blood-lovin’ succubus (Hannah Fierman) who wants nothing more than to tear them to pieces; a young married couple (Swanberg and Sophia Takal) go on a road trip to the Southwest together, but after the husband refuses a young woman a ride, she keeps breaking into their hotel room at night to film them sleeping; four college students (Drew Morlein, Jason Yachanin, Jeannine Yoder and Norma C. Quinones) go off for a weekend at a remote woodsy cabin, but once there, encounter a peculiar shimmering apparition that wants very much to stab them in the head; a young woman (Helen Rogers) in a long-term distance relationship with man (Daniel Kaufman) she’s known most of her life, tries to show him — ingeniously via a Skype chat — the haunting child ghosts that are plaguing her; a group of young revelers (Chad Villella, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, and Paul Natonek) attend a Halloween party, but find instead a house filled with ghosty goings-on and a woman (Nicole Erb), tied upstairs in the attic with a group of cultists.

Each piece has its own resonant feel within the strict context of the whole, surprisingly difficult to pull off in an anthology piece, but each also suffers from the same limitations: It’s pretty damn hard to really sink into an atmosphere, no matter how well conceived, when we only get fifteen minute increments. A few of the pieces work more effectively than the others — David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night” manages to cram just enough hateful details about it’s brutish male protagonists to make the succubus’ revenge on them feel sweetly satisfying (even if one of them appears to have a bit more of a conscience than the others); Ti West’s “Second Honeymoon” allows just enough give with his couple to add an element of eerie normalcy before things go to hell; and Swanberg’s “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” effectively uses it’s Rear Window-like set up to give us a technologically updated take on Hitchcock’s most enduring thriller.

As a plus, the film’s adoration of gore, violence and nudity are nearly as impressive as the production values are lovingly shabby. Even if it doesn’t entirely fire on all cylinders, it’s a worthy effort, one you can surely expect to find at many a retro-midnight movie screening for years to come.