Indie on Fire

Bellflower (November 15, 2011*)     5/5

Written & Directed by Evan Glodell (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Allow me to be blunt, Roger Ebert style.  I am undoubtedly in love with Bellflower.  It’s unlike anything I’ve seen for quite awhile, or will likely see again for years.  In terms of emotional association, such vivid memories arose of the first time I saw David Fincher’s Fight Club.  Is this a better film?  Probably not.  Will it win any major awards?  Absolutely not.  Is it one of those indie films that blows us away so unexpectedly that we immediately overrate it upon our first viewing?  Exactly right.  No, Bellflower is not a perfect film, but it is one I will treasure in this period of my life.  And isn’t that what movies are all about?  Evan Glodell’s first film will not be seen favorably by many, but for my own purposes, I consider it a creative tidal wave.  Or more appropriately, a time bomb that explodes when we least expect it.

Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson) are two childhood friends whose pilgrimage from Wisconsin to California has resulted not in employment, but of constant drinking and inventing.  The Mad Max-loving buddies spend their time making flamethrowers and and attatching them to muscle cars, so that just in case a global apocalypse occurs in the near future, their imaginary gang, Mother Medusa,” will be in complete control.  But soon, activity on Bellflower Street takes a complete detour.  Woodrow quickly falls in love with a fun young woman named Milly (Jessie Wiseman), failing to realize the harmful implications she could have on his impressionable heart and mind.  Woodrow and Aiden then find refuge in Milly’s social group, including her best friend, Courtney (Rebekah Brandes).  Soon, Woodrow becomes distracted from “the project,” and the fantasies of all involved collide, melding an cataclysm far more intense than any adolescent fantasy.

Glodell writes dialogue so naturalistic that you almost feel uncomfortable watching his character state it.  This is not a bad thing.  The purpose of this movie is to get in your face.  And when Glodell trumps up the visuals, the action on screen bursts into flame; it feels so vividly real.  In fact, Glodell basically custom-made his own camera, a digital contraption so sensitive to light and flare that you can’t keep your eyes off it.  It provides you an excuse to stare at the Sun.  Evan and friends also manufactured all the contraptions seen onscreen, and with a nothing-budget, were somehow able to make this movie and get it into Sundance.

The film has the style and smarts of early Tarantino, and never ceases to remind us that we are witnessing the origins of a real talent.  This is basically a love story, but as the tagline suggests, it has “apocalyptic stakes.”  Young manhood often comes with disillusionment and regret, which is summed up so knowingly in Bellflower.  Apocalyptic fantasy is the only way Woodrow and Aiden can fulfill the void in their lives, but is threatened as the more tangible fantasies of others interfere.  Woodrow is soon faced with real-life apocalypse, in the form of a destructive relationship.  Challenges to masculinity and rampant self-hatred ensue.  Although these are not expertly crafted characters, we root for Woodrow in the film’s fiery final act because we want him to escape the chaos; we want him to find the loyalty he has always had in his best friend.  It is all quite moving … and very, very awesome.

Keep Evan Glodell’s name in mind; I doubt it will simply fade away.  I know Bellflower won’t, at least from my own memory.  We’ll see how it holds up during a second viewing.  I’m gonna guess quite well.  It surely has the craziest, college-circuit vibe of any film this year, and it will find its loyal fans; not just us filmmakers in college.  There’s relatable stuff going on here, and I’d prefer to think we’re not the only ones who are just a bit insane.

*Video Release Date

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When Worlds Collide … Depression Sinks In

Melancholia (November 11, 2011)     4.5/5

Written & Directed by Lars von Trier (Magnolia Pictures)

Ladies and gentlemen, the end of the world – Lars von Trier style.  The Danish director caused quite a fuss at Cannes this year with his misunderstood Nazi comments, reflecting a man with a sense of dark humor that not everyone finds all that funny.  He is a truly fascinating figure, often suffering from various phobias, but never losing his reputation as a fairly kindhearted guy, even amongst the various, disturbing images he places onscreen.  I regret that he will never do another interview.

His latest vision involves the contrast of a marriage between Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) with the incoming “end of the world as we know it.”  In other words, a planet named Melancholia has been hiding behind our Sun, and will soon crash into Earth, despite the claims of scientists that it will simply be a “flyby.”  This is not a spoiler, considering the film’s opening sequence, a poetic, slow-motion symphony of destruction, basically sets this up for us.  We are then taken to the wedding a couple days earlier.  It starts off well enough, but with such characters as Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), Justine’s boss (Stellan Skarsgard), and of course, the bride’s unruly parents, things are bound to go wrong.  The planet keeps coming closer, and Justine soon feels the weight of “melancholia” upon her soul.

Von Trier, strongly influenced by German romanticism, has crafted something of a dark, unforgettable, beautifully flawed masterpiece.  The apocalypse has never quite looked or felt like this in any film, and the result is hard to remove from your dreams.  The visual effects, while not packing the punch of one such Tree of Life, never cease to be haunting as we hear the surging notes of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.  Meanwhile, Dunst gives a sensationally bizarre performance as Justine, a woman who slowly loses her mind and heart, but may be becoming closer in spirit to the universe itself.  Gainsbourg, as her more down-to-Earth sister, is also terrific.  She also had a major role in von Trier’s Antichrist, a film I have not yet seen, but can keenly imagine has stylistic similarities to what von Trier does in his psychological, sci-fi opus.  Dunst won the Best Actress Award at Cannes, and rightly so.  This is a performance that drives the film, and stays with you even when there is nothing left but ash.

The film, broken into two parts, basically presents a reversal of emotion.  Justine, upon influence from her marriage-hating mother (Charlotte Rampling), and failure to connect with her loving, near-polygamist dad (John Hurt), begins to fear death like a disease; so strongly that she becomes nearly a messenger for death itself.  Justine may not be able to avoid the collision of the planets, but she may be able to avoid the collision with the man she once thought she loved.  After all, that was simply an Earthly matter.  Justine becomes nearly catatonic, and soon requires the care of Claire and Jack Bauer.  In the film’s second act, however, Claire becomes so paranoid about saving her little boy from any possible danger that she, amongst all others, requires the help of Justine.  The bride, so enamored in despair, is able to cope with the end of time, and help others cope.  She understands there is no divorce from death.

Melancholia is clearly rich and fulfilling, but at two hours and ten minutes, is slightly overlong.  Many scenes, particularly those at the wedding, could have easily been trimmed with little narrative impact.  However, the film is meant to be long and dreamlike, and for that, I respect its initiative.  Von Trier also uses many of his trademark techniques to help provide the film its unique tone, although I do wonder if he employs some attributes only for the sake of maintaining his reputation as a class-A weirdo.  The unnecessarily jerky camerawork, for instance.  Is this a generic attempt at realism, or a satiric element of independent American cinema?  The frequent nudity.  Breasts for the sake of breasts, or a clear, reflective influence of artistic romanticism?  It’s bittersweet to never know.  From now on, our favorite Dane will keep his mouth shut.  It’s easy to feel sorry for Lars von Trier, whose words and films are often misconstrued.  But it’s even easier to feel sorry for us.  If one person were able to warn us of a soon-approaching apocalypse, I’d take one guess as to who it could be.

The Westboro Baptist Armada

Red State (October 18, 2011*)     3/5

Written & Directed by Kevin Smith (Lionsgate)

It should come as no surprise that comedic director Kevin Smith’s attempt to reinvent himself is as interesting as it is ridiculous.  When Red State premiered at Sundance in January, studio reaction was quite mixed, resulting in Smith’s decision to distribute the film himself.  This prompted a very limited release, one that basically brought the movie straight to video.  Generally, it is difficult to get any film distributed that deals explicitly with religion, such as The Passion of the Christ.  Yet that film was a testament of faith, arguably a triumph of Catholicism through the realm of cinema.  Red State … not so much.  Smith’s film, while attempting to demolish horror film conventions, also presents a satiric outlook on the likes of the extremist, genuinely hateful Westboro Baptist Church.  Our humble director has something in mind here, but Red State never means half as much as it probably should.  More enjoyable are the moments of wry, hilarious dialogue that Smith manages to slip through the cracks of his experiment.  They remind us that we are indeed watching a film by the same guy who made Clerks, which despite that being a less “serious” film, is the greatest joke of all.

Three teens, Jared (Kyle Gallner), Travis (Michael Angarano), and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun) show up at the trailer home of Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo – yes, the one who won an Oscar!), an older woman who they have been chatting with on an online sex site.  Little do they know that Cooper is a member of the Five Points Church, the group who holds protests all across town with signs sporting phrases like “Anal Penetration = Eternal Damnation.”  The cult is led by publicity-stealing “prophet” Abin Cooper, played by Tarantino-favorite Michael Parks.  Cooper’s plan to ritualistically torture the boys is disrupted as the law gets involved, including a sheriff with demons of his own (Stephen Root), and ATF Agent Joseph Keenan, played by none other than John Goodman.  From there, the film basically turns into one giant action sequence, its insanity transcending cinematic sense in every way possible.

The film is never very scary or funny.  It never provides us characters to root for.  It basically fails on all fronts that make for a great film.  What it does provide, however, is a gleeful send-up of modern film convention, not just in the genre of horror.  Red State eventually dissolves into a relatively well-photographed shootout, Smith’s jerky, digital cameras never failing to capture a drop of maroon.  Even more interesting is Parks, who provides quite a domineering, spot-on parody of your everyday extremist.  Goodman is also quite fun to watch, his character serving as a hilarious No Country for Old Men homage.  Or at least I think that’s what it is. I don’t really know, because a lot in Red State doesn’t make sense.  But it is also hard to care.  Kevin Smith, while not an expert artist by any stretch, is a great guy to have in Hollywood.  He seems genuinely fun; and his exceptional love for film never appears to cease onscreen, even though Red State is a structural mess.  However, it would be a lie to say there aren’t glimpses of brilliance.

Red State is ballsy to say the least.  I’d say it could offend just about everybody.  But most importantly, it backs it all up with a theological suggestion; the idea that blind faith, without any doubt or questioning, only leads to sin in the never-ending pursuit of purity.  We are all sinners, and the sooner we realize it, the easier it will be to acknowledge our faults, receive forgiveness, and pursue our ideals the right way.  Kevin Smith sometimes makes crappy movies.  And although some aspects of Red State are mediocre, this is clearly not one of them.  For better or worse, I believe Smith fulfilled his own ideals with this film.  After all, Westboro protested the film’s release at Sundance.  If you listen closely, you could probably hear laughter all the way from New Jersey.

*Video Release Date

Twists More Than Your Tongue

Martha Marcy May Marlene (October 7, 2011)     4.5/5

Written & Directed by Sean Durkin (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

It takes less than five minutes of Sundance favorite Martha Marcy May Marlene to establish itself as a film of the unspoken.  In silence, we are shown the daily activities of a cult of farmers in the Catskill Mountains.  Nobody says a word, and as a result, we are given the impression that on the scale of cults, this one can’t be all that bad.  And then somebody speaks.  He shouts “Marcy May!” as a woman, played by Elizabeth Olson, runs into the woods.  We then begin to understand the underlying terror of the situation.

This woman is soon taken in by her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), who refer to her as “Martha” (don’t worry, “Marlene” will be explained later).  Their lakeside home is said to be approximately “three hours” from where Martha was the day before, a measure of distance that we can see the young woman ponder.  Meanwhile, Martha has trouble adjusting to the customs of normal society, and on the rare occasion that she does speak, it is often the wrong thing to say.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the best films of 2011, a slow-burning product compiled with brooding tension, accompanied by a powerhouse performance by the lost Olson sister.  Accompanying her onscreen is John Hawkes, the supposed leader of the cult, who was nominated for an Oscar last year for his performance in Winter’s Bone, a film of similar tone.  That inherent darkness is established through possibly the greatest editing I’ve seen all year, fluently traveling between time and place, reality and possible dream.  Editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier also incorporates slow zooms and fades to add his own form of continuity to the foreboding series of events, while first-time writer and director Sean Durkin composes his shots with such eerie perfection, that we cannot help but be enthralled.

Olson’s facial expressions are haunting, and the film does quite an exquisite job of getting inside her head.  Martha soon believes that the cult is following her, a theory that becomes more intense as current occurances drive her memories of what happened on that farm.  But are they really memories?  Or are they fabrications designed to help her feel even more sorry for herself, given the unfortunate events that have occured in her life?  These events, presented rather vaguely to us, are what drive Martha to join the cult in the first place – an act that will lead to a divided life; one in which Martha not only has multiple identities, but has become completely displaced from time and space.  And as Lucy and Ted become more peeved by her “insane” behavior, her paranoia only becomes worse.  You would be scared too if you thought John Hawkes was watching your every move.

Martha may owe a lot to Polanski’s Repulsion or Aronofsky’s Black Swan in the way it examines a woman’s mental deterioration, but it is amazing how Durkin stages the events with such simplicity, yet with an undercurrent of depth and emotion.  The score by Daniel Bensi and Zachary Stuart-Pontier is also chilling to the bone.  The whole film is subtle, yet it has so much to say.  To help convey its message is Elizabeth Olson, who like Natalie Portman last year, should receive an Oscar nomination.  This is her film debut, and wow, she sure knows how to dominate the screen.  The level of nuance she puts into this performance is amazing, and I can’t wait to see how she tops it in her lineup of future films.

Olson accomplishes much through simply not speaking, and so effective is her line delivery when it does occur.  The character of Martha has come from a troubled past, and this has provoked her to become secretive; to not share her thoughts or feelings.  Yet the cult provides an alternative view of life.  They share everything, and although she feels at home for quite awhile, “Marcy May” cannot cope with their extremism.  She must escape again.  But her divided identity follows her, and Martha soon learns that there is no such thing as escape. Paranoia simply follows her until the final shot.  And Lucy, despite trying to help Martha at her most vulnerable, is no match for a relationship that cannot be healed, in addition to a life that has provided Martha no cohesive way to share it healthily.  Yet Durkin’s film is surely a cohesive piece of art, one that is hard to shake mentally or emotionally.  A lot like our own memories and dreams.  This is his, and like the life of his protagonist, it displays a world that is so hard to escape.

The Queens of Comedy

Bridesmaids (September 20, 2011*)     4/5

Directed by Paul Feig (Universal Pictures)

Allow me to begin by making two bold statements.  Statement 1 – Bridesmaids is not a chick flick.  And yes, I do know that it is a movie about women.  Statement 2 – Bridesmaids is just as funny as The Hangover, and in fact, is probably the better film overall.  I am also aware that The Hangover is the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time, the winner of the 2009 Golden Globe for Best Comedy, and is beloved by a good proportion of teenage boys.  It is therefore key to note that Bridesmaids has become the biggest success that raunchy-comedy-with-heart guru Judd Apatow has ever had, grossing approximately $287,585,379 worldwide. But what does this have to do with the quality of the movie, you may ask? Nothing, really. But it does convey what the film has done properly. 63 percent of Bridesmaids‘ audience was over 30, and about 33 percent were men. So in other words, it consisted of very few teenage boys.

Annie (Kristen Wiig, who also co-wrote), is a single 30-something who has recently lost her own bakery, and is now working in a jewelry store.  Meanwhile, her childhood friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) has just become engaged to her boyfriend, Doug (Tim Heidecker), asking Annie to become her maid of honor.  Annie loves her best friend, and it is fair to say that Lillian helps sustain her happiness.  Yet she is slightly jealous of Lillian getting married, especially when caught in a flimsy relationship with obnoxious Ted, played by Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm.  To make matters worse, Helen (Rose Byrne), the wife of Dave’s boss, seemingly wants to take over her role as Lillian’s best friend, an act that drives Annie up the wall.  Sparks fly, complemented by the shenanigans of her fellow bridesmaids, including those played by Melissa McCarthy, Wendi McLendon-Covey, and Ellie Kemper.

The friendship between Annie and Lillian is one of the most genuine relationships between two woman I have seen onscreen in a long time.  I am clearly not a female, but this appears to be how woman talk to each other, fight and make up, rely on each other, and share their feelings with the only ones who appear to understand.  At least, the movie convinced me that this is realistic.  If not, it seems to have fulfilled its purpose anyway.  The most interesting situation Bridesmaids portrays is how Annie feels she must hide her pain for the sake of Lillian’s happiness.  It is not until friendly police officer Nathan Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd) comes along that Annie begins to realize that she too deserves to be happy, and if she wants to claim that happiness, she must take control over her own life and dismiss the envy and self-sorrow that sometimes plagues friendships, as well as life itself.  Only in this case would she be ready to obtain what Lillian now has.

Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph, both associated with Saturday Night Live, are two VERY funny actresses, as are the rest of the cast.  Wiig and Byrne’s frequent attempts to outdo one another are both relatable and hysterical, two adjectives the film accomplishes in equal doses.  In fact, Bridesmaids has so many ridiculously hilarious sequences that you could count them on both hands.  Basically, you’ll have to peel yourself off the floor.  Melissa McCarthy, who now stars on the CBS sitcom Mike & Molly, is by far my favorite bridesmaid, stealing the best lines and often delivering the most gapingly funny moments in the film’s ever-so-raunchy segments of comedy.  Because of the film’s gross-out humor, Bridesmaids should appeal to far more than the older female demographic.  Yet the fact that it has been so successful within this group is a sign that the film has accomplished something fairly special.

Bridesmaids is a film that understands women and the lives of women, yet still has the courage to embrace the free-flowing, dirty hilarity that not only men enjoy.  Yet plenty of dudes also love Bridesmaids.  This is a great thing; a film that is so genuinely funny and well-written can appeal to both sexes, as well as be marketed to a demographic that is not often targeted for movie-viewing.  Bridesmaids may be overlong and lack a well-executed conclusion, but it also makes a star out of Kristen Wiig, as well as fully displays the talent of so many young, female comedians.  The Hangover was a great comedy, but the ladies in Bridesmaids do more than hold their own.  They make modern comedy universal.

*Video Release Date

Just to Clarify…

To any who are familiar with the concept of film reviews, it becomes obvious that they are completely subjective to the writer. Taking this into account (and with 2/3 of the year down), I decided to clarify regarding the format of mine. So here’s the basic layout…

 

Title (Date of film’s RELEASE*)     Rating out of 5

Director (Film Studio)

—–REVIEW—-

*The date I posted the review is ALWAYS at the bottom. I usually try to see films in the order they are released, so that they may be posted in that same order. It’s worked out pretty well so far, mainly because I just started this site in September, whereas my reviews for 2011’s films have been archived since the beginning of the year. So expect some discontinuity as Oscar season approaches. In the meantime, if I see films from this year on DVD, Blu-Ray, digital copy, whatever – I will likely post the date of that home video release, just to make things seem a little more relevant.

 

And although I’m having a great time reviewing current releases, I do plan to upload more miscellaneous film pieces VERY soon! So please enjoy … and always feel free to comment!

 

Yours Truly,

Corey Koepper (CKep)