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Oscar Isaac Heads Into Chaos & Corruption: ‘A Most Violent Year’ Review

Oscar Isaac Heads Into Chaos & Corruption: ‘A Most Violent Year’ Review

Oscar Isaac Heads Into Chaos & Corruption: ‘A Most Violent Year’ Review

A Most Violent Year begins with a driver for Abel Morales’ (Oscar Isaac) Standard Oil Co. being robbed of his truck for fuel and beaten to the point of a broken jaw. This has been a frequent occurrence for Standard, leaving Abel to ponder whether he can continue to play it straight in a corrupt New York in 1981. With the mob, law enforcement and even his own wife (Jessica Chastain) serving as potential rivals to his methods, Abel may have to stand alone while risking his entire savings in trying to close the most important deal of his career in the next month.

Writer-director JC Chandor brings Year to life by placing a good guy in a nefarious environment. Abel tries to buy a property he can’t afford that is critical for Standard’s expansion while balancing a life in complete chaos. The violence is as much inner as outer for him. He must track down the money he needs and discover why his company and family are being harassed before the deadline. Balancing big business and a family can be tough when you are trying to play it straight.

The violence referred to in 'A Most Violent Year' is often within Abel.

The violence referred to in ‘A Most Violent Year’ is often within Abel.

Isaac first raised my eyebrows in Sucker Punch. In a role not worthy of being noticed, he stood out and remained etched in my memory as a talent to look out for. Here he plays to his strengths, acting like a pot of water on boil. He holds in rage with occasional bursts that indicate the pressure that weighs on Abel and the severity of the circumstances he’s in. His work is such that I wouldn’t be surprised if his name is at least thrown in a hat come awards season.

Chastain’s wife shows sex appeal, strength and vulnerability at apropos times. Her collection of credits continues to impress. Throw in Albert Brooks and nice work from relative unknown, Elyes Gabel and you have the makings of a fine, brooding piece. Chandor shoots the film in dark shadows to convey the sense of struggle building upon Abel. Fresh off of Robert Redford’s All is Lost, Chandor remains a talent worth checking on. His diminutive body of work is diverse and off to strong results.

Where Year stumbles is in the aftermath of its conclusion. There are many questions left unanswered about where the characters go from here and what is still to come. While the film brings satisfactory resolution while you watch, my thoughts quickly turned towards what happens next. In some ways, that can take place with almost any film. It’s fine when the beauty and the nerd decide to have a relationship and we cheer at the end but do they really have staying power? In this case, the questions are more realistically tied to the events we just witnessed which caused me a bit of head scratching. Still, A Most Violent Year is an interesting and telling title; it’s a film that simmers with rage and deserves to be seen.

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AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Korea’s Best Foreign Film Oscar Submission ‘Haemoo’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Korea’s Best Foreign Film Oscar Submission ‘Haemoo’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Korea’s Best Foreign Film Oscar Submission ‘Haemoo’ Review

On his 2009 stand-up album, “Midlife Vices,” comedian Greg Giraldo has a running gag using “…but in this economy” as the punchline. He talks about how thankful Americans were at the time if they were still employed, no matter how much they may have hated their jobs. It then devolves into a guy who gets anally raped while all his possessions were torched, “but in this economy” he was happy to even have stuff to burn.

The 2008 economic crisis has been covered by many American films, such as Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story,” J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call” and Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” All those movies happen to focus completely on, well, Wall Street. In 1997, the Korean government was in a similar situation, requiring $55 billion in bailout money – mainly from the International Monetary Fund – in order to restore financial order. The entire country felt the brunt, as unemployment within the nation’s borders nearly tripled. “Haemoo” takes place during the heart of this economic climate. Though it has nothing to do with anyone who controls the money, it’s about how such hardships can warp moral character.

While things on land are in a state of disrepair, things at sea aren’t doing much better for Captain Cheol-joo (Kim Yoon-seok). His fishing vessel is old and broken down, but more importantly the fish just aren’t leaping into the nets at any rate which would allow him or his crew to provide for their families. In order to make ends meet, Cheol-joo agrees to smuggle a large group of Korean-Chinese immigrants from China into South Korea. The crew is not particularly excited about the idea, but with their financial fate in their captain’s hands, money is money.

Anxiety is high on the seas, with the illegal activity and constant threat of being caught by the coastal authorities, added to the general nature of the ocean making its inhabitants sick, both physically and mentally. When an unforeseen disaster occurs, all the characters cope and react in different ways.

If Michelangelo set "The Creation of Adam" in Seattle.

If Michelangelo set “The Creation of Adam” in Seattle.

The title of the film translates literally as “sea fog,” and co-writer/director, Shim Sung-bo (the other co-writer is “Snowpiercer”’s Bong Joon-ho), makes this natural element just as dangerous to his characters as John Carpenter or M. Night Shyamalan managed. The “haemoo” (I’m going to assume I’m using the word correctly) infects the seaman aboard the floating coyote transport to the degree where when bad things happen, bad choices are made.

Like a mixture of “Titanic” and “Lifeboat,” Shim’s film contains a forbidden romance in the midst of tragedy, which grounds some of the more reprehensible actions which take place with something a little more relatable. Though it’s Shim’s first time in the director’s chair, he’s no novice within the medium, having written Bong’s great serial killer drama, “Memories of Murder.” The writing is where the film stands out like a light amidst the fog of other dramas. It’s a beautiful marriage of a fictional concept tied to a true-to-life event, which still happens to retain a bit of that beautiful Korean bloodletting.

As Giraldo has proven, tragedy plus time equals comedy. Though there’s nary a laugh in “Haemoo,” it proves an equation just as potent: tragedy plus time plus Shim Sung-bo equals fantastic filmmaking. Though I wish ill on no one, if something terrible befalls South Korea, like an economic collapse or a crazed serial killer, it may be worth enduring to later experience Shim’s spin on the subject.

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AFI Fest Movie Screenings: The Amazing One Shot Movie ‘Fish & Cat’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: The Amazing One Shot Movie ‘Fish & Cat’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: The Amazing One Shot Movie ‘Fish & Cat’ Review

The majority of American states just transitioned from daylight savings to standard time. Everyone got some extra sleep because we set our clocks back an hour. This’ll usually be done prior to going to sleep or after waking up, but the time switch technically happens at 2:00 a.m. when most people are asleep. But what happens during that hour when knowing it’s necessary to know the exact time? If a doctor pronounces someone dead at 2:01 a.m., he can also pronounce someone dead at 2:02 a.m., but their deaths can actually be an hour apart. There’s a 60-minute period where time is a Mobius strip, repeating itself. Now imagine that Mobius strip of time lasts for 2:15 and there are about eight different strips in one. That’s “Fish & Cat.”

Written and directed by Shahram Mokri, “Fish & Cat” is an Iranian film which takes place near a fairly-secluded lake where college-aged students meet up each year for a kite festival, showing off their colorful models while camping and hanging out with their friends. The film begins with a warning to set the scene with a true tale. There is a restaurant near the lake which was shut down for serving non-animal meat. The movie opens just outside the establishment in question and follows the couple of restaurateurs as they meet a couple of lost students looking for directions to the kite festival. If you think this sounds like the set-up of another teen slasher flick, you’d be right. But it’s not. At least that’s not the way it’s executed. Either way, the film is not necessarily interesting for what it’s about, but for how it’s about.

I now know how “Shawshank’s” Warden Norton felt (“I’d like to think the last thing that went through his head, other than that bullet….”), as my mind was blown. If this film was directed by Michel Gondry, it would finally serve as the cinematic encore we all wanted him to make after taking the leap from his improbably gorgeous music videos to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”  Alas, Gondry’s name is not in the credits as the man behind the camera. Those accolades behind to Mokri. Allow me to explain.

We’ve touched upon the art of the one-shot film before for “Silent House” and “Rope,” and the technique was most recently just deployed again in “Birdman.” Whereas Alfred Hitchcock had to make cuts in “Rope” as film reels were only so long and “Silent House” and “Birdman” had hidden cuts in them preventing a true one-take flubbed-line-loses-all style. “Fish & Cat” is the real deal. Mokri set up his camera, made a movie for two-plus hours and he was done. Though this sounds impressive enough, shooting something in one-shot isn’t necessarily all that challenging (after all, you could conceivably set up a camera in front of a stage, have a play performed in front of it and that could be called a “one-shot film,” too), it’s what Mokri does with that initial concept that expands the creativity and ups the difficulty factor to an almost unbelievable level.

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What are the preferable contents of that bag? Borat-style poo or human flesh?

Similar to the Doug Liman-directed “Go,” “Fish & Cat” tells the same story from different points of view. How does it do that with no cuts? Are you saying that only each point-of-view story is done in one take? No. That’s where the brilliance comes in. At times, the camera follows a set of characters having a conversation as they walk along the bank of the lake, they’ll encounter another character and follow that person’s journey. That person’s journey will loop back around to where the camera first picked up those initial two characters. Confused? This is where the Mobius strip analogy makes the most sense. It’s largely all one big loop, just with multiple diversions within it.

I’ve never encountered this type of storytelling trickery on a large scale outside of a time-travel film. Duncan Jones, the director of “Source Code” had to create a diagram to figure out the time-twisting storyline of that film. I can’t wait to watch “Fish & Cat” multiple times in order to draw such a diagram for myself to determine if what I saw truly worked in the way it was presented. It’s like the end of “The Sixth Sense.” M. Night Shyamalan understands you probably don’t trust his twist ending, so he goes back and does a quick recap of the film, showing you how he pulled the wool over your eyes. “Fish & Cat” can’t do so due to its technique, leaving it up to you to trust your eyes.

Outside of perhaps “Primer” (which is a time-travel film, so there’s obviously an insane logic to it), Mokri has created the biggest brain-bending “how did he do that?” since Michel Gondry’s video for Cibo Matto’s “Sugar Water.” It’s an awe-inspiring achievement which elevates the somewhat blasé story and it’s one that truly needs to be experienced. A lot of “challenging” films don’t completely connect the dots, “Fish & Cat” traces through all of them. For his latest feature, Mokri learned how to bend time. For his next trick, he might be able to stop it. He already left me breathless.

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AFI Fest Movie Screenings – Korean Thriller ‘A Hard Day’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings – Korean Thriller ‘A Hard Day’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings – Korean Thriller ‘A Hard Day’ Review

If there’s one genre which stands above the rest as having the best chance to connect with me, it’s a thriller. It’s why Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most enduring cinematic figures in my life. The rules of the genre handed down by “The Master of Suspense” are still alive today. Hitchcock broke down his definition of the words “surprise” and “suspense” to Francois Truffaut in the book of interviews between the two directors, “Hitchcock/Truffaut.” “Surprise” is when two people are sitting at a table and a bomb underneath it blows up. “Suspense” is when the audience knows the bomb is there, but the characters don’t. Right now, no one is making thrillers as taut and gripping as the filmmakers of South Korea. They come in the form of the twisted and depraved, like Park Chan-wook’s seminal “Oldboy.” They can be more sick and more depraved, like Kim Jee-woon’s “I Saw the Devil.” Or they can be comic-adapted sci-fi fantasies like Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer.” Either way, they all seem to center around a flawed detective. You’d think this could get to be as tired and stale as a man continually put on a cape to save the world and you’d be right, unless excellent craftsmanship differentiates it from the others. Director Kim Seong-hun’s “A Hard Way” does just that.

Ko Gun-su (Lee Seon-gyun) is a detective whose mother has just died. He stops for a drink on the way to her funeral to try trapping some of his emotions inside. It seems to have impaired him in the desired way, but with that comes unintended effects, too (as Homer Simpson once told Marge, “remember when I took that home winemaking course and forgot how to drive?”). Detective Ko swerves out of the way of a stray dog in the middle of the street (that’s good!), but hits the dog’s owner, instead, killing him (that’s bad!). As if losing your mother isn’t hard enough to handle on a given day, imagine being the reason someone else will join her in the grave.

Ko is not a righteous character. From the outset, its’ extremely difficult to root for a guy who accidentally kills someone and mourns the loss of life by shoving the body into his trunk. He also happens to be a corrupt cop, responsible for distributing ill-gotten cash to his law enforcement cohorts. However, Lee plays Ko as if Pusha T from the Clipse went solo – no Malice. Lee is apparently a star known for his turns in romantic comedies. His natural likeability and his previous onscreen reputation (though likely unknown to American audiences) provide Ko with an endearing quality, regardless of whether or not the camera is following him around.

Detective Ko strikes his “deer-in-headlights” pose.

In addition to focusing his narrative around a character with which audiences may not identify, director and co-writer, Kim, pulls a trick even most Korean films of this type don’t truly manage. He imbues it with comedy.

The first third or so of the film is hilarious. Though it’s certainly not a comedy (in so much as you probably wouldn’t classify Quentin Tarantino’s films as “comedies” – although Q.T. himself would), the movie knows it’s funny. It just doesn’t reach for jokes. Everything is completely organic in that the humor never undercuts the suspense. Instead, it lightens the mood just enough to let the audience know it’s okay to root for Ko. Then, before the laugher fades and smiles wear off, it puts you right back on the edge of your seat.

Kim follows the Hitchcockian tenets of both surprise and suspense beautifully. The reason you, dear reader, are only getting one paragraph of plot from me is because I don’t want you to know where the bombs are hidden. Kim knows how to set them off just right. The structure of his script and placement of this camera are so finely tuned, you are fully prepared to give yourself over to his visual orchestra.

I mentioned earlier three films from Korean auteurs I happen to love. I also know those aren’t necessarily for all audiences. Though “Snowpiercer” is an English-language film and “Oldboy” was remade to the dismissal of American audiences (though I still loved the story) and “I Saw the Devil” is slated for remake, “A Hard Day” is almost certainly more accessible for a broader audience than any of the three. Hell, there was at least one child at the AFI screening I attended (whose parent I prejudicially loathe) and it didn’t seem to be an issue. Though a Hollywood reinterpretation may seem like a great compliment to the film, the best one I can give is, “A Hard Day” is a movie which anyone can watch and enjoy. It’s a complete crowd-pleaser, requiring zero pandering to get there. It can be the gateway to discovering more Korean gems. Might I suggest starting with thrillers?

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AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Cannes Grand Jury Prize Winner – ‘The Wonders’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Cannes Grand Jury Prize Winner – ‘The Wonders’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Cannes Grand Jury Prize Winner – ‘The Wonders’ Review

The younger you are, the bigger your dreams. The realities of life haven’t shown themselves in full to you. You have ambition and drive. You know what it is you want, although you have no idea what kind of effort, work and luck needs to be put forth in order to achieve it. And when an authority figure dares to spit truths into your face, you lash out with defiance.

“The Wonders” is an Italian film about dreams. Not the kind of dreams where your teeth fall out, but dreams of achievement and dreams of escape. The heart of the film is a young girl named Gelosmina (Maria Alexandra Lungu). She’s about 14 years old. She lives with her family of famers in a tiny Italian village, making honey. She’s the oldest child and good enough within the family business that she’s her father’s number two (no, Gny. Sergeant Hartman, that doesn’t mean she ended up as a brown stain on the mattress), even granted the enviable task of wiping off the stingers from her father’s back after each encounter with the producers of their product. Although Gelsomina seems happy enough with her current situation, she pangs for more.

Her family is isolated to a degree to where they don’t particularly have neighbors. She doesn’t really have friends. She has a couple younger sisters.  When the family runs into a commercial being filmed for a local contest called “The Wonders,” where laborers get to talk about their product and perform a little show for cameras to get a small chance to leave their lives behind for a second, she is enraptured in the possibilities. The dad wants no part of entering the contest, as he doesn’t want visitors around. Ironically, he takes in a German foster child, Martin. His motives are not altruistic. They’re for having another working body to help with the business and for the additional money the government will pay for providing a home for the boy. Although winning “The Wonders” comes with a cash prize, Gelsomina’s father shuns the idea of receiving it by way of entertainment in the same way my dad would be furious whenever he’d hear the Jeopardy theme. Gelsomina can continue to dream about life’s little approved entertainments or take the big swing against her father’s wishes.

This plot sounds weird for a “Candyman” remake, doesn’t it?

The trope of the forbidden pursuit is a familiar one. Whether it a star-cross’d love or something the character is right to be forewarned about. What makes “The Wonders” unique is its miniscule scale. Gelsomina’s yearning is so meager, because her world is so small. The hashtag #firstworldproblems serves as a reminder of people like Gelsomina who have so little. A little brat is upset at not being given an XBOX One for Christmas; Gelsomina just wants one chance to have fun. As an audience member, it’s a small thing for which to be asked. This makes it all the more frustrating for it not to be granted.

The film reminds me of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 “classic,” “The Bicycle Thief.” Their country of origin makes them easy bedfellows, as well as the accolades each film has received. “The Wonders” won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes. I already labeled De Sica’s film, though the quotation marks were meant to be facetious, but it’s not an opinion shared by many. Where the true similarities between the films lie is their frustration for the viewer. In “The Bicycle Thief,” the unemployed and desperate protagonist is given a job which requires the use of a bicycle. His bike is stolen almost immediately. He spends the rest of the film in pursuit of his bike for fear of losing this job his family depends on. It’s a film with a fatal question at the heart of it: why not just borrow a bike? This type of frustration runs the course of “The Wonders,” though it’s not a plot hole gnawing at you. It’s that the film’s ambitions may be even more limited than Gelsomina’s. A character having a limited scope is understandable, but Gelsomina is not behind the camera.

That job belongs to writer-director Alice Rohrwacher. Her vision for the film is as tiny as Gelsomina’s is for herself. There are certainly small pleasures to be found in the film. “Delightful” is a word that would describe it in parts. However, the film compares favorably to an unsalted cracker. If you’re starving, you’re happy you received anything to eat, but would it kill you to add a little flavor? Though not particularly a children’s movie, perhaps younger viewers would get more pleasure out of “The Wonders.” Again, they’re the big dreamers.

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AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Read About Mary Elizabeth Winstead in ‘Faults’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Read About Mary Elizabeth Winstead in ‘Faults’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Mary Elizabeth Winstead in ‘Faults’ Review

As anyone who likes movies knows, there are times when what you enjoy differs far from the rest of the populous. With a film festival, rarely do you have other opinions to go on. You have to just scour the descriptions and maybe see a trailer in order to determine which films to see. In choosing to see “Faults,” I was not hamstrung by such little information. I did have a recommendation. It was from the same person who drove me to see “Wild Tales,” which I loved. “Faults” was supposed to be a thriller about mind control. It happened to star one of the biggest names (in an independent film) in the festival, Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The cast spoke during a Q&A afterward, one of them being Lance Reddick (Cedric Daniels from “The Wire”), all waxing rhapsodic about how urgently they wanted to be involved based on the script. To be honest, it knocked my respect down for him a peg. At least with Winstead, she has built-in excuse of being the writer-director’s (Riley Stearns) wife.

Winstead is not the problem at all here. Nor is her co-star, Leland Orser. In fact, they’re commended for doing yeoman’s work with the material. Orser plays Ansel Roth, a pathetic and broken down mind control “expert.” At least that’s how he passes himself off. He’s written a couple of books and used to have a TV show, but has fallen into such a downward spiral (perhaps caused by an unfortunate incident with a subject years beforehand) that he performs seminars at hotels for crowds of less than twenty people (if you can call less than twenty people at a seminar “a crowd”; some people think three is enough). He has no money to pay for food, attempting to reuse a free-meal hotel voucher he cashed in the day before. He wears the same lifeless brown suit on a daily basis. And he owes a financial debt to his manager under the threat of physical force doled out by Mick (Reddick).

Ansel is given life when, during one of his seminars, he is approached by a couple who feels they’ve lost their 28-year-old daughter, Claire (Winstead), to a cult called “Faults” (put an article like “the” in front of their name and be verbally beheaded). Ansel is hired to find her, deprogram her warped mind and restore the child her parents know and love. They’ll pay handsomely enough to remove Ansel from his underwater finances. However, the stress of his past failures entangle him with Claire to the point of where it’s no longer clear whom is controlling the mind of whom.

“Are you seriously asking me to give my best for this thing?”

The pity prize of the day is that at least the film looks good. Thanks to the progression of digital cameras, no longer are film festival indies reduced to looking like as ragged as Kevin Smith’s “Clerks.” But, that hasn’t been the case for a while now.  Visuals need to be supported by other storytelling elements. I mentioned acting was not the issue. In fact, I would say it’s superb. Stearns was smart enough to turn the camera toward his wife and let her give a performance she’s not often afforded the luxury of being able to give. A big hand should be given to Orser, too, whom I only recognized from a line or two in “Saving Private Ryan,” but has the leading man qualities actors normally given those roles lack. I’d be very pleased to see him have another starring turn.

As for the film, I’d be just as pleased to never see it again. Stearns said afterward that he was obsessed with cults and mind control when he was younger. Obsessed-over subjects turned into movies tend to go just a couple of ways. They can excel as a labor of love or the filmmaker can assume the audience knows just as much about the subject as they do, barring the viewer from ever actually stepping into their world. It’s certainly more the latter than the former. Although the cast raved about the life the script had, it appeared stillborn when committed to screen. The experience was devoid of little suspense or tension, just a few bouts of weirdness and a twist about as shocking as a little hand buzzer you might encounter at Spencer’s Gifts for a dollar. Someone please send Ansel Roth to deprogram this movie from my memory.

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AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Penn State Football’s ‘Happy Valley’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Penn State Football’s ‘Happy Valley’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Penn State Football’s ‘Happy Valley’ Review

I have no love for Penn State. They aren’t my college’s biggest rival, so there are schools and teams I hate more, but unless Penn State is playing one of those schools, you’ll never see me root for them. If those first two sentences didn’t spell it out completely, I’m a big college sports fan. And when sports scandals arise around a team I don’t root for (I strangely become uninterested when my team becomes embroiled), I’m hooked. In 2013, when the Miami Dolphins had a locker room bullying scandal, I was all over it. I read every word of the 200-page report that was issued. And I read every character of every text message exchanged between Jonathan Martin and Ritchie Incognito. It provides an inside look at something I love, even if I’d prefer the seedy underbelly didn’t exist.

The 2011 Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal that emerged at Penn State was no different in terms of attracting my attention. I remember listening to pundits on the radio and driving around aimlessly in the car just to completely capture their take.

For the uninitiated, Jerry Sandusky, a longtime Penn State assistant football coach (and Jesus to legendary head coach Joe Paterno’s God, as one interviewee in “Happy Valley” puts it), was accused by multiple victims of sexual abuse when they were children. Sandusky was the founder of a youth sports camp and used this foundation to lure young boys.

An artists removes Sandusky by painting him out of a mural, as a jury removes him from society by sentencing him to prison.

Naturally, none of this was supposedly known by Penn State officials until 2001, when a graduate assistant and former Penn State quarterback, Mike McQueary, reportedly saw Sandusky fondling a boy in one of the Penn State showers. McQueary told Paterno what he saw. Paterno in-turn told his “boss” (in title only, as again, Paterno was “God” in State College, Pennsylvania) and no one ever did anything about it in terms of reporting the incident to law enforcement.

Paterno, who for years was deified, was, all of a sudden, vilified. He was fired after more than 60 years on the job. He died of cancer soon after and a bronze statue of his image was ripped from the campus ground. Penn State had to look itself in the mirror and consider the character of the man they revered.

The director, Amir Bar-Lev (who apparently likes sports-related documentaries, as he had currently directed “The Tillman Story”; he is to documentary-making as I am to documentary-watching), presents complete objectivity throughout “Happy Valley,” as it’s clear he has no answers for the actions that played out regarding the aftermath of the scandal. What he does is present the complex facts of what took place and allows the viewer to draw their own feelings toward the events depicted and issues raised.

I’ve already had numerous discussions about what happened at Penn State, which have essentially been dormant for two years, but the film makes me want to rekindle those talks. Not just about what I think those involve should have done, but what I would have done. I want to  try concocting scenarios that would be analogous in my life and determine if I would have acted any differently.

Bar-Lev does something wise in not making “Happy Valley” a crime film. What Sandusky had done carries no filmic requirement. Instead, Bar-Lev presents how the criminal accusations facing Sandusky affected State College. It’s a document of the time surrounding Penn State and its carries a journalistic integrity, putting the viewer in opinion’s driver’s seat.  It will provoke discussion, which is largely the goal for any documentarian showing “this is the world in which we live.” My feelings regarding what took place after the Sandusky charges are still very much mixed. I do know one thing though. I’m still not going to root for Penn State.

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AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Hot Director Damian Szifron’s ‘Wild Tales’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Hot Director Damian Szifron’s ‘Wild Tales’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Hot Director Damian Szifron’s ‘Wild Tales’ Review

Anthology films seem to have made a bit of a comeback in recent years. These have mainly been in the horror genre, with franchises like “V/H/S” and the “ABCs of Horror,” but even the Farrelly brothers combined with other comedy directors to create “Movie 43.” Perhaps that’s the problem with these anthologies. They’re all written and/or directed by different people. They’re truly just short films slapped together in an attempt to make one cohesive whole. A skit or short film is usually what they should have remained, but under the guise of a feature film, they’ll almost certainly attract more eyeballs than the alternative.

Enter Argentinian filmmaker, Damián Szifron’s, “Wild Tales.” It’s an anthology film written and directed all by the same man. There are six segments varying in degrees of humor and tension with no real connective tissue other than a loose theme of “the joy of losing control” and their uniform excellence.

The individual parts making up the film are: a plane of crazy coincidence, a restaurant where revenge is the dish-of-the-day, a “Duel”-like tete-a-tete gone wrong (probably redundant as “Duel” itself went wrong), a “Falling Down”-esque frustration with societal norms, a negotiation gone haywire and a wedding where love truly conquers all. Providing any more details about individual plots would spoil the fun.

It’s “Duel.” It’s “Breakdown.” No, it’s “Wild Tales.” And it’s great.

Though the characters and storylines don’t connect and only an actor or two crosses over, all shorts feel of one piece – as they came from the same mind – both structurally and visually. Each story is lengthy enough to flesh out its initial premise, so the viewer never feels short-changed or wanting. Where Szifron’s storytelling skills excel is in his ability to pile on and escalate situations. One kernel of an idea will expand upon itself, snowballing and gathering more debris in its wake until it finally bursts apart for all the audience to enjoy.

As previously mentioned, all shorts have some degree of humor to them. However, Szifron’s comic sensibilities are certainly different from any segment from the likes of “Movie 43.” While that film deals in the comedy of the ridiculous, “Wild Tales” takes reality and spins it just slightly in the direction of the absurd. It’s as if “Curb Your Enthusiasm” had a bit of Latin American bent. Though each short has a similar theme in mind, they aren’t so wildly similar that any segment feels like a retread of another. Each is wholly original and as the film progresses, each new installment is met with rapt anticipation.

Like his story structure, Szifon’s visual style is not cookie-cutter basic, either. He places the camera in some unique places, providing scenic delight. However, it’s the combination of both his writing and directing skills (and admittedly, his Latin American heritage) which causes one to believe he could be the next Alejandro Gonazalez Inarritu or Fernando Meirelles, as the film brought to mind the debuts (“Amores Perros” and “City of God,” respectively) of those filmmakers. Though Meirelles has failed to live up to the extremely lofty standard he set out of the gate, Inarritu just made “Birdman.” Szifron is one to keep an eye out for, but “Wild Tales” shouldn’t be overlooked on its own. It’s, without question, one of the most enjoyable watches of the year.

 

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