Documentary Dossier: CARTEL LAND

Cartel Land
spends most of its runtime with the men and women on either side of the US-Mexico border, but it opens amidst the men working for the cartels, gathered under cover of darkness to cook their drugs and appeal to the camera—they are people, and people have to work. After all, if God minded their little cook op, he’d smite them down right quick. And that would be that. Their peculiar bookends – given by tertiary characters with a direct hand in “polluting the populace” – provide an extra shade of depth to a documentary at first intent on chronicling the horrors perpetrated on the Mexican people in the name of the cartels that is then mixed up – like acetone, sulfuric acid and antifreeze – with the morally gray mater of self-righteous vigilantes taking up arms to protect their gente.

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Documentary Dossier: AMY

Early on in the documentary Amy, Nick Shymansky, friend and one-time manager of the titular soul singer, reflects upon a time before her fame when she was very nearly forced into rehab. There’s a sorrowful, what if tone to his recollection, as he imagines that just maybe if she had been treated for alcoholism before fame took hold of her life, things could have been different. Read More


A Century of Skin: Nudity’s Eruption into American Cinema

With Magic Mike XXL (our review here), America’s favorite male stripper sequel, hitting theaters on July 1st, we break down just how nudity has become so ingratiated with American cinematic norms. From the barely provocative titillation of the late 1800s (mmmm, ankles) to Channing Tatum wagging his shtick (sadly, not in 3D), we ask how we’ve come so far and wonder how hard the journey has been.

Nudity has been a part of American cinema for over a century. When motion picture cameras were invented, they were immediately used to film people taking off their clothes. Many early films featuring male and female nudity have been completely lost. Early films with nudity were destroyed or censored. More often, like other films of this era, early films with nudity simply chemically disintegrated over time. Read More


Out in Theaters: THE FACE OF AN ANGEL

At the halfway point of Michael Winterbottom’s The Face of an Angel, Thomas Lang, a film director in the process of adapting a book about a high-profile murder case, is sitting at lunch with his collaborators on the project. The murder case involves Jessica Fuller, an American student accused of killing her study-abroad roommate in Italy, which the viewer will recognize as a story based on the real-life Amanda Knox case, which made headlines in 2007. When prompted to speak about his angle for the story, Thomas says: “The story is that there’s no such thing as real truth or justice. It’s just a popularity contest.”

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A Last Dance With EX MACHINA: Deconstructing Modern Surrealism

A barber’s straight razor cuts through the membrane of a young woman’s eyeball to reveal the gushing fluid inside. Ants crawl out of a mysterious hole in a man’s hand. Neither of these disturbing images have context, nor do they need it in the pure insanity of Un Chien Andalou, a 15-minute short directed by Luis Bunuel in 1929 with participation from fellow Spaniard and avant-garde artist Salvador Dali. It was a monumental stepping stone for cinema; one that represents one of the earliest depictions of surrealism in film. Read More


Girl Crush of the Week: Lisa Rowe

There are certain female characters in certain movies that makes us all sparkly-eyed with love–and not for their cleavage, their tans, or their LiteBrite smiles. These aren’t your blonde bombshells and your Standard Hollywood Love Interests. No, these are the women in film that women adore–for their spunk, their sass, their I-just-DGAF attitudes. Sometimes they’re “hot,” and sometimes they’re “not,” but what they’ll always be is memorable. These are our Girl Crushes of the Week.

I don’t remember the first time I saw Girl, Interrupted, the 1999 psychological drama based on Susanna Kaysen’s memoir of the same name, but I do remember that it came, for me, in a time of great Winona Ryder obsession. This was around seventh grade, and while part of me definitely hankered for bedazzled Abercrombie jeans and a T-Mobile Sidekick like all the popular girls, there existed a small yet ardent flame inside me that ignited whenever I watched Winona onscreen. Her dark, emotive eyes, the secondhand clothes, the insistence on shunning both what was trendy and what would give you a tan–this was an actress who spoke to the weird girls, the shy ones, the artists. Like a vegetarian dog offered raw meat for a change, my soul immediately perked up for Winona and proceeded to go crazy. I was a goner from my first Winona film, Beetlejuice, a grand slam for fans of Tim Burton, but which was a little too oddball-horror for my emo-teen aesthetic.

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Out in Theaters: THE LUNCHBOX

“The Lunchbox”
Directed by Ritesh Batra
Starring Irrgan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Drama, Romance, Comedy
104 Mins


Sitting in the theater for a screening of Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, I overheard someone comment that it was a “nice little movie.” I would agree with that assessment, however, this is a very well done “nice little movie.” Being my first modern foreign film experience in a while, I found excitement in telling myself what would happen if this were a Hollywood movie and was delighted to see Batra subvert those expectations. The result is a subtle, layered, and realistic film about a lunch delivery service in Mumbai, famous for not making mistakes, making a mistake.

A neglected housewife, played by Nimrat Kaur, in the midst of trying to woo her distant husband through her culinary excellence, realizes that through a mix-up her lunch is being sent to a nearly retired, lonely, man, played by Irrfan Khan. Sharing their loneliness, they begin to write back and forth in lunchbox notes. This plot immediately calls to mind that cheesy, technologically outdated rom-com from the 90’s with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, but unlike the shallow clichéd musings of their e-mail’s, The Lunchbox’s messages give us an entirely human view of aging, fear, hope, and quiet disappointment. Our characters alienation is played up by a dingy, crowded, Indian backdrop, where they are slowly beaten down by repetition and tedious monotony.  

While this description makes the film sound incredibly dark, it just goes to show that a film can contain authentic humanity, and still be comfort food. Instead of non-stop unrealistically happy moments, the moments of joy feel earned, as nothing is handed to anyone.

This script is beautiful in its simplicity. Outside the main characters, the only characters serve to enhance those main two. Saajan Fernandes (Khan) shows positive growth from his slump as a retiring introvert, while training the man who will take up his job. Ila (Kaur) gets advice from an upstairs neighbor who we never see, while occupying herself with her daughter. The notes they exchange give them simple pleasure, a pleasure much more relatable than the grand gestures of most love stories.

What I found brilliant, as someone who is completely jaded over Hollywood conventions, is how The Lunchbox doesn’t go for the easy drama. When Ila becomes suspicious of her husband’s infidelity, there is no confrontation – no fight. We just watch her grow to live with her suspicions, realizing that she is now more invested in this mysterious stranger than her own husband. Her passivity is a clue to how he has treated her, even though the film only shows them interacting a few times.

Our two main actors do a tremendous job, especially Saajan Fernandes. With hints of Ikiru’s Kanji Wantanabe in his portrait of alienation, he is completely convincing. Even as a young man, I related to his insecurities over aging. As more of his story is filled in, and we learn the source of his early bitterness, he portrays his character growth in a completely convincing fashion. Nimrat Kaur’s performance was heartbreaking, but slightly more monotone. For her character, however, it worked.

Rom-com conventions tell us that this story must end with a bang. When it doesn’t, we are brought to earth, reminded of how limited in scope this is, how insignificant our personal troubles are to the world around us. And that becomes the thing our characters must accept. Saajan is no different than the aging men he sees sitting on the bus, no matter how much he craves the adventure that Ila brings to his life. Ila relates to a woman driven to suicide by isolation, but realizes she must choose her own way, free from the ties of others. Nothing is defined in the simple black and white terms. There are no life and death struggle, just slight growth and simple pleasures. Even with its open-ended conclusion, it is immensely satisfying.   

The Lunchbox is as good as a film of its ambitions can be. It is not a perfect film though. It’s a “nice little movie.” Still I struggle to think of anyone who would take nothing away from it or derive no small joy from it. The film in itself is much like one of the two protagonist’s notes. But like one of those notes, it will not change a life in any grand way. It’s hard to diagnose any flaws, because it is quite effective for a film of its scope. However, it will never be anything more than a “nice little movie.” Comfort food at its finest.  


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Out in Theaters: GRUDGE MATCH

“Grudge Match”
Directed by Peter Segal
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Alan Arkin, Kevin Hart, Kim Basinger
113 Mins


If Grudge Match could stand on its own, the casting of Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone would be a mistake, since it would never be able to shake itself of Rocky and Raging Bull’s iconicism. Grudge Match doesn’t want to stand alone, though. It rests itself on the assumption that, because they have boxing in them, Raging Bull and Rocky are alike, which is falsified by anything but the most shallow reading of the films. For Rocky, this may be acceptable, because the series long ago devolved into steroid-addled workout porn and ridiculously silly fights, the excellent Rocky Balboa excepted. But for Scorsese’s classic, the winks and nods are a sin. Jake LaMotta is not a Marvel superhero. And this crossover is something that was best left in the minds of late night, drug-fueled conversations – conversations that, like this film, don’t survive a dose of sobriety.


Opening to audience groans, with a CG fight between Stallone’s Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp and De Niro’s Billy ‘The Kid’ McDonnen. (Note that this was not supposed to be some kind of simulation. Peter Segal actually thought using CG to make them younger would be a better choice than leaving the fight off screen.) We learn that they are two undefeated fighters who have only ever lost to each other. ‘The Kid’ wanted a rematch, claiming he was not in shape for their second fight, but ‘Razor’ left boxing in his prime, for personal reasons. After an altercation in their old age, Kevin Hart’s character seizes the opportunity to put them in the ring again, for a sum of money that Stallone can’t turn down due to losing his job.


Any good sports film is not so much about the sport as it is about the turmoil of those who play. Grudge Match follows this model, but the stories it brings in are so trite that you will find yourself rolling your eyes again and again. De Niro must reconnect with his son, who he had after a one night stand with Stallone’s ex-wife, while Stallone must reconnect with said ex-wife (and they somehow neglected to stick in a referential “You fucked my wife?”). Their stories operate in parallel, not leaving enough time for either to really shine. While the ex-wife serves as the intersection of the stories, the plot structures don’t really interact. Instead, they opt to have two mini-movies, side by side, even going as far as having the predictable early third act struggles happen back-to-back, leaving no impact. We watch something bad happen to Stallone, right before we watch some other, entirely different, bad thing happen to De Niro. The consequences of these “bad things” last about five minutes. Tear jerking stuff.

In these parallel stories, however, it is De Niro’s that is far and away the most entertaining, as he doesn’t take himself too seriously and has an ability to make the clichéd material fun. As a result, the Stallone story is a chore. His character’s similarities with Rocky stop at egg drinking and meat punching. Gone is the light-hearted sense of humor and optimism that make Rocky such a beloved character. We are left with a brooding old man and a flat performance.

Obviously, these are new characters and we should not expect them to conform to the exact same traits of their previous ones. But when they are so clearly trying to draw from the classics, why not draw enough to make the film watchable? This becomes a problem, because Grudge Match relies on us liking the actors and their former characters, rather than building its own. We don’t have anything invested, but the movie wants us to. Any investment stems from our fandom of Rocky and Raging Bull, but the similarities are only skin deep, like everything else in this farce.


Without spoilers, that is about as much plot as I can say. Second chances are given, people once thought bad turn out to be not so bad, character growth occurs, Alan Arkin delivers crotchety one-liners, and Kevin Hart is stoked to be in a movie. There are some laughs, but they aren’t worth it.

This may sound like the ramblings of a film snob, which it is. But I have to plead that no one spends money on this. Every ticket purchase for this film sends a message to the chumps in charge of this poop feast, saying, “This is acceptable.” It cheapens Rocky. It cheapens Raging Bull. It cheapens film. And it cheapens its audience. Exploitation, exploitation, exploitation. Attending the theaters on Christmas day takes far more effort than it did to conceptualize, write, plan, and shoot Grudge Match. Since this is being marketed as a movie to see on Christmas, here are some better choices: The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, Inside Llewyn Davis, Anchorman 2, staring at a wall, Rocky, and Party at Kitty and Stud’s (the Stallone porno). If you are a fan of these two, you may find the premise of this pseudo-crossover enticing. Resist.


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Paul Rudd Is ANT-MAN

One of the lesser known Marvel heroes is shaping up to have the most exciting movie, with Edgar Wright directing and Joe Cornish writing Ant-Man. These two’s already incredible chemistry will now be enhanced by Paul Rudd, who has reportedly taken up the title role. The distinction between good and bad superhero movies tends to be what happens when action is not on the screen. This is why Iron Man was so successful. Everyone involved in Ant-Man are people that understand this, so some optimism for this project is definitely warranted.


Marvel is aiming for a July 31, 2015 release, pitting it against Marvel’s own The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Zack Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman. Since they are not aiming to rush it out, so Ant-Man can appear in the new Avengers, we will probably have to wait a few more years to see Rudd appear alongside Robert Downy Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, and friends, in an inevitable third Avengers installment. Either way, the summer of 2015 is looking to be pretty stacked, when it comes to superhero blockbusters, but Ant-Man certainly has all the ingredients (besides a more popular superhero) to lead the pack.

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