Us (2019) Film: Hands Across America Event Illicits a Strong Time & Place

Hands Across America was a benefit event and publicity campaign staged on Sunday, May 25, 1986 in which approximately 6.5 million people held hands in a human chain for fifteen minutes along a path across the contiguous United States.

Director Jordan Peele uses the time period of 1986 to show a younger version of the main character. Peele utilizes the famous Hands Across America event to bring us into the urgency of the moment.

It’s an oft-used but very solid screenwriting nugget to help flesh out and bring to life a scene: use some sort of promotional material from the recent past, such as when – for example – modern day films sneak in Bush-Cheney campaign posters in the background of shots in order to illicit a certain emotional response or bring up memories of said event.

Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” did this well, utilizing a myriad of tools (including but not limited to presidential campaign lawn signs) to re-orient us into a particular time and place, a much-needed tool given the fact that the story moves through many years (decades) of time.

We remember really impactful presidential campaigns (if we were alive and self-aware enough to consciously live through and experience it). Every audience member isn’t going to have the same response to these tokens as the person sitting beside them but if the filmmaker picks a bold and memorable cultural artifact we should at least be able to recognize it and be able to identify where/when it was born into existence in relation to our lives.

It seems like an easy and super obvious storytelling trick to orient the audience to a time and place, but so often it is ignored, misused or underused as an effective filmmaking tool (especially in horror films). Too many movies go the dull and easy route, simply slapping white text across the bottom of the frame and labeling a time as 1976 or Twelve Years Earlier, as easy to pull off as just simply listing ingredients on the side of a soup can. Try harder…

The Dig – New Short Film & Review

A new short film directed by Joseph Kosinski, the filmmaker behind Tron: Legacy and Oblivion. It’s the first footage shot on the new CineAlta VENICE Full Frame Camera and, as one would expect, it looks fantastic. It doesn’t hurt that they hired Kosinski, who has been criticized for being too focused on creating brilliant, symmetrical imagery and not enough focus on narrative and character. He’s a technical artist, not a traditional storyteller.

I saw Oblivion in IMAX and was pretty blown away by the precision behind each individual shot. He creates sequences like he’s building a high-speed bullet train, not a slower, more bumpy train with twists and turns. It can be temporarily awe-inspiring, but I’ve never had the urge to go back and re-watch Oblivion. It’s an empty shell of a story.

The plot of “The Dig” is somewhat ludicrous. It features two janitors who look like LA models dressing up like janitors. They look totally out of place and their employers should be skeptical of their motives. They look like the type of people who wouldn’t even put on a janitors uniform, let alone actually work as one. As it turns out, they are performing an inside job to steal the new Sony camera (clever!).

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It’s fun to watch, though, as it’s basically just an excuse to show off the mighty prowess of the new Sony camera. Their are plenty of gliding, omniscient aerial shots, and some typical but beautiful helicopter shots of skyscrapers at night. You could count the cop car on the side of the road as one moment of decent tension, but the film is mainly a mystery involving two suspect janitors, not a Hitchcockian slow-burner.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski

Cinematography by Claudio Miranda, ASC.

Starring Taylor Kitsch and Lily Collins

Baby Driver (2017) – Film Review

The opening to Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” feels a bit braggadocios, a bit indulgent, and a bit too similar to a recent Apple commercial. All in one take, the opening tracking shot follows our main character, Baby, played by Ansel Elgort, as he walks freely through the streets, crossing roads, passing murals, and avoiding bystanders. Each set piece he walks by correlates with the words in the song he’s listening to with his signature earbuds, always at hand and usually blaring full volume.

It’s a clever opening, though very self-referential: “Shaun of the Dead” featured one of the greatest one take tracking shots ever with Simon Pegg’s character bumbling through his town, ignorant of the blood and zombies surrounding him as he yawns his way through the vacant streets. The movie slows down a bit after the opening street dance/music video, getting into the reality of Baby’s life as a getaway driver for low-life, high-stake criminals.


The leader of the operation is Doc, played smugly by Kevin Spacey. Jamie Foxx plays the confrontational character, even having a line in the movie commenting about the crazy position being filled already, by him. Jon Hamm plays a more sedated role as Buddy, another member of the crew; he wants to get the job done and get out of town with his girlfriend as soon as possible.

Baby drives as a result of a traumatic childhood experience involving a car wreck and the death of his mother. He has permanent ringing issues in his ears as a result of the accident, hence the constant music. The soundtrack is the lifeblood of the movie: the characters question it constantly, but when the music starts, Baby switches gears and turns into an 11th grade version of Ryan Gosling in “Drive”. He’s slick and intelligent, knowing the routes by heart, able to intuitively escape from seemingly inescapable scenarios.

Lily James plays Deborah, a young girl that works as a waitress at the diner where Baby’s mother used to wait tables. He’s a regular at the diner and soon garners her attention with a few of his songs and some friendly conversation. They have a runaway vibe throughout, though their relationship can’t be entirely filled out due to his responsibilities to Doc as the whiz-kid driver.

The movie has a lot of heart and clearly a lot of passion for the art of fast-speed driving. The coordination that had to happen to clear the roads and perform the spinning, sliding car donuts must have been exhausting. “Baby Driver” is an exhilarating chase movie made by one of the most inventive action directors of the decade.

A Most Violent Year (2014) – Film Review

A Most Violent Year focuses on a few small pixels in a larger, more dangerous canvas of events. Set in New York City in the year 1981, where crime-rates are quickly rising to an epidemic level, the story sets its eye on an immigrant man, Abel, as we follow his bumpy ride up towards his homegrown American dream.

The film stars a stone-faced Oscar Isaac, playing the ambitious immigrant as a mix of quiet intensity and disgruntled vulnerability. It’s hard for him to accept even the most simplest of things. Alongside him is Jessica Chastain as his shady wife. Chastain’s scenes with Isaac’s Abel are absolute dynamite, a constant battle of wits and ego sparking off of each other. Two of the best young actors/actresses working today.

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The films premise is basically a sub-plot from a lot of other sprawling, ensemble mobster flicks. Remember in Goodfellas, when Jimmy Conway holds up a delivery truck, unloads the goods, and drives away? Well, that’s essentially the main problem in A Most Violent Year, only it’s shown from the microcosmic perspective of the driver and the effect such thievery has on that particular company.

There are a few other key distinctions between the two, though. In Goodfellas, the drivers are complicit: they aren’t getting paid enough to risk being shot in the face, and it’s usually made mutually-beneficial for them anyways. In A Most Violent Year, the driver is a young immigrant man whose not complicit, doesn’t want to be robbed.

The face and owner of the company, Abel, doesn’t want his drivers to back down, although he doesn’t want them to be armed, either. So, waxing in an intelligently cyclical manner, he’s essentially explaining to his low-end drivers that they should be willing and prepared for possible injury or death while delivering the many gallons of oil that will one day make him rich; a very morbid pep speech by any standard.

Through the course of the movie, Abel’s character slowly shapes and grows into his true dimensions. With each conversation or argument he has with others, we’re given small chunks of information about his past; the fact that he’d bought the company from his wife’s father, or that he himself used to be a driver.

It’s these small, subtlety placed nuggets that change not only our perception of him as a character, but also the overall tone of the film as well. With each piece of new knowledge, we cast increasing doubt on the legitimacy and honesty of Abel and his business.

With breathtaking cinematography and a handful of brilliantly brooding performances, A Most Violent Year is an unusually intelligent and entertaining mob film.

Bob the Gambler, Bob le Flambeur (1956) – Film Review

bob gamblerDirected by Jean-Pierre Melville

Bob the Gambler was the first Melville movie I’d ever seen, and as most said it was an uncharacteristic piece for him, I was a little sad; I really liked the movie and wanted to dive into other Melville films that were just as quirky and sly as this one.

The film is about a man named Bob, and yes, he’s a gambler; he has a gaming slot machine in his closet, a little taste he indulges in at home for fun, and spends a lot of his time in gambling houses and casinos.

Bob has had one stint in prison and we find out that he’s got a bit of a guardian angel in the form of a cop. He gets picked up in a police car for a generous ride; one of the cops wants to make sure he stays out of trouble. He has them drop him off a couple blocks before his destination though, so as to not hurt his reputation.

Bob has a young apprentice, Paolo, a quasi son of sorts, but without any consent or censoring between them. He tries to keep Paolo out of trouble, or at least out of the hands of hotheads and their criminal schemes. The atmosphere and sense of place is a movie-lovers dream. The misty streets, long, narrow roads filled with high light-posts, and small little bars where people go in as fast as they pour out; ideal surroundings for a man who fancies himself a gangster.

Bob has started to run out of money as a result of his obsessive gambling, and when a friend tells him how much money a certain Casino holds in their safe, he instantly decides he wants to rob it. But he doesn’t act on sudden impulse like a lowly street hood, he tightly plans it out.

He hires distractions, men to hold-up the staff, and a professional safe-cracker; one of the more clever scenes involves the gang standing around the safe-cracker as he uses an amplifier to listen to the small clicks and movements of the combination lock, practicing for the future head-to-head with the real lock, the one that matters. He needs to softly listen for all the right internal whistling gizmos and clicks, while at the same time keeping in mind the need for it to be cracked under four minutes.

Bob      The plan and heist, of course, brings with it some very real obstacles. Earlier in the story, a young hothead, Marc, gets tangled around some trouble and the police subsequently offer him a deal: if he leads them to a bigger, top-of-the-top racket, and said tip results in a legitimately successful arrest, they’ll drop the charges against him.

Paulo, even after Bob tells him never to tell a dame their plans, goes off and brags about their upcoming plans. Then, when Paulo’s girl plays around with Marc behind his back, she tells him this, not thinking Paulo is going to go through with it, and, of course, Marc tips the police. One-by-one, the domino’s fall on top of Bob’s carefully articulated plans.

A heavy dose of irony presents itself towards the end, while Bob’s a bit distracted; his strict schedule for the heist is interrupted once he begins winning considerable sums at the tables, at the exact casino he’s about to attempt to steal eighty-million from. During the entire course of the film poor Bob has the worst of luck: It’s only good when his luck is just moments away from tipping back to the ‘bad’ spectrum.

Hitchcock Films: Dial M For Murder


I was more entertained by ‘Dial ‘M’ For Murder’ than I expected to be. I went into the film knowing that it isn’t considered to be a top-tier Hitchcock film. It doesn’t have the exciting thrills or the grandness of Hitchcock’s Cary Grant movies, but it’s a solidly constructed character piece.

The film takes place in a single apartment loft. It is essential for anyone interested in how to properly stage actors in close quarters for a long period of time: there isn’t a single shot duplicated throughout the run-time of the film.

The pure ingenuity of the camera movement is very apparent, considering that there’s only ten or so feet to work with in a cramped loft.
Hitchcock, his DP and crew discover new techniques to mask the moving camera or dolly, making a small, claustrophobic room feel like a vibrant, perpetually-changing wheelhouse.

It involves a man, Tony, an older ‘Edward G.Robinson’ kind of individual, who wants to execute a plan to kill his wife. His wife is also harboring a behind-the-curtains relationship with Mark Halliday, a younger, more exuberant character. It’s hard to believe that Tony doesn’t know about the cheating happening all around him. Mark is constantly hanging out at the loft, quietly flirting with his wife behind his back.

As the audience, we know who the murderer is from the very beginning: we see him orchestrate a detailed plan, and Hitchcock cares about making us care about the plans details. That way, when a pin drops and the plan doesn’t go as planned, we’ll know and be watching for it.

Tony plans to take his wife’s key to the loft and hide it underneath the staircase rug. He can use his own key to get into the apartment, thus proving he didn’t give away his key.

Tony hires an old friend to retrieve the key, open the apartment, and strangle his wife. The plan goes smoothly, no stains or residue left behind. No signs of a break-in or convenient marks to aid the detectives in their search.

Eventually, through all the grey area and intrigue, Tony’s plan breaks apart completely. He now must race to insure that nobody discovers the man he just recently hired to harm his wife. Among those fighting on the offensive against Tony is, naturally, Mark Halliday, the third angle of the triangle.

The Imposter (2012) – Film Review

The Imposter feels like it was directed by David Fincher: atmospheric, paced with a lunge, and very eerie. I was excited the minute I saw the trailer: so If you haven’t yet, there’s no point putting it in words, here:

Very intriguing, right? Well, It is: featuring a narration by the Imposter himself, Frederic Bourdin, the movie is well put together, and thrives off hiding and obscuring things for the sake of the story. Basically, the movie is fooling you as much as the Imposter.

I don’t feel right going into much detail, and that’s a testament to how well this movie was made: see it blind and you’ll be surprised.

Arbitrage (2012)

Richard Gere stars in this engaging legal thriller, a pot-boiler of a film that takes a look through the arbitrary lens of Robert Miller, a hedge-fund magnate. Gere plows through the film in style, an assured actor with an even more assured character. Confidence is what’s important to Robert Miller, and he embodies it like a club owner, a talent scout, a man pronounced lower than what his age describes. But after an unexpected, self-caused tragedy occurs, a desperate cover-up ensues to protect the intricate life he’s created.

He is a man of several lives, with an adult family and an artistic mistress on the side. The movie has a coherent plot, but mainly it is a character study; during many points in the film, Robert Miller uses his power position as an excuse for what he’s done; that people are counting on him, his paychecks, his advice, and his continuity. There are several moments that reveal his true character, and at the beginning we are left in the dark, first stopping by a family gathering in celebration of his birthday, and then off to his late-night date, a rousing artist with an old man crush.

It’s hard not to like Robert, too. He’s a man who uses people at his disposal, a manipulating con-man whose tactics you can’t help but admire. He’s a free roaming form of Leonardo DiCaprio from ‘Catch Me If you Can’, but he’s evil and a deterrent to society and the values we stage. It’s always known when a man with well-backed finances is convicted of a crime: because the effects of it are so loud. And so, the men at the top are consistently guarded by politicians and other easily bribed figures; but one man, Det. Michael Bryer, is willing to get up on his toes and attempt to push Robert down. Det. Bryer is played by Tim Roth with a sort of Brooklyn go get em’ grit, and it is this hot head energy that ultimately postpones Robert’s demise.

The film boasts excellent performances from Richard Gere, and a much-needed character performance by Tim Roth; the intense energy of Roth’s role as detective Bryer prevents Arbitrage from becoming a grossly overwhelming study of a capitalist. Nate Parker has a side role also, as a young man who takes the fall for Robert’s circumstance, though I feel his acting is as disposable as his character. Too many gasps and cliché notions of loyalty: when all things close, Arbitrage is a movie with definite intelligence, but a few dramatic gaps.

Hard Eight (1996)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature-length film is a testament to his consistency as a filmmaker, admirable in itself. It’s a character-driven movie of confused morals and intentions–the latter remaining unknown for a majority of the film. It features a bravura performance from that actor who you’ve never seen not old and always wondered why–Philip Baker Hall–because this was the movie that introduced him to the world. His name is Sydney, and he seems to be a giving, fatherly character. He finds John, played by John C. Reilly, sitting on the ground in front of a coffee shop, broken down by the thought of his empty-pockets following his departure from Vegas. He offers him some coffee and the opportunity to sit down with him. Like most would, maybe not so many homeless folk, he wonders what Syndey wants from him, stating upfront that he wont do any gay acts.

The relationship between Sydney and John grows into a budding friendship and a personal enterprise for John. Sydney teaches him how to reel in the cash with only fifty dollars, and ever since, John’s been doing fine scrapping cash in casinos. Sydney reveals at one point that he has kids, but that he hasn’t seen them in a long time, very similar to the character of Amber in Anderson’s next feature, “Boogie Nights”. The suppression of emotion from losing their kids, be it emotionally or legally, is replaced by the need to be a parental figure to someone completely unrelated to them; Amber is obsessed with Dirk, Sydney with John, though for slightly different reasons.

The swooping camera pans that are so familiar to fans of Anderson are on great display in Hard Eight. Walking through the flashing casino floors, the main characters present themselves like kings, regardless of the fact that they aren’t Robert DeNiro or Al Pacino. The two leading men, played by John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall, would end up mostly being character actors for the bulk of their careers. And great ones, too. We can see from the beginning that John is not a particularly intelligent person; and the problem doubles once he falls in love with Clementine, an equally witless waitress played by Gwyneth Paltrow. They get married suddenly, very early on in the relationship. After a short time, they end up in a violent pickle of sorts, one of the best scenes of the movie; on the Hard Eight audio commentary, Anderson and Philip Baker Hall talk about the struggle of shooting the hotel scene, or any scene that involves big chunks of dialogue in a constrained area such as a single-bed room. They beg Sydney to help them out, like a child shocked and afraid of the fact that they’ve just spilled milk. They are, through the eyes of Sydney, a bunch of crazy, unguided kids living in an overwhelmingly wild-west world.

The movie is mainly about Sydney: It’s a character study above all else. ‘Sydney’ was in fact the original title Anderson intended for the film, until executives demanded it was changed to the more flashy and marketable title of Hard Eight. The film is essentially split into two acts: Sydney helping John and Clementine; and the discoveries made about Sydney once the two lovers have to run from Vegas. The first act has a confusing, somewhat blank tone. We’re given virtually no clues as to why Sydney wants to help these people, besides the fact of being a bored old man consumed by habitual afternoon gambling. The second half is much more revealing and consequentially more engaging, featuring a pitch-perfect performance from a young Samuel L. Jackson. Once the end credits roll, the movie feels rewarding and contemplative, a story of dangerous desires in an equally dangerous city.

Lawless (2012)

Lawless isn’t a particularly consistent movie when it comes to narrative, but its characters and the actors behind them are always riveting. The main performances from Tom Hardy and Shia Labeouf are dimensional and more than just a showcase for pulpy grit. It has enough mixed personalities in the bag to keep the movie shaking, keep us entertained and unsuspecting, and most importantly, engaged.

The plot surrounds a truth-based story of the Bondurant brothers, set in the ambient and potentially over-done time of prohibition. The movie is not a blown-up picture of the TV show Boardwalk empire: It’s an atmospheric, well-lit movie with enough slow-panning shots to please the people who hated the shaky-cam of 2009’s Public Enemies. That said, the story is a bit slight, featuring nothing but a slow and determined death wish, mainly from younger brother Jack (LaBeouf), who can’t control his young and angry energy. Jack is the one brother who seems intelligent: quiet-spirited, rather small, he stands low in contrast against his two older brothers. At one point in the film, he walks in on his brothers making revenge, a lashing that Jack wanted a part of; when he sees what they are doing, it hits him hard that this isn’t a playground beating, this is a torture cell.

The authorities are obviously the main object in the brothers bootlegging path: mainly, a man from Chicago, Charlie Rakes, played frighteningly by Guy Pierce, who means to take them down at all costs. When he charges into the moonshine factory, after following Jack and his new religious bred girlfriend, Bertha, Jack stands his ground and his partner Cricket leaves with Bertha. When Jack makes it back home, with his brothers, he’s worried about Cricket, yet shows no sense of worry for the girl we spend a lot of time watching him wag his tongue over. He seems to show her a lot of affection, buying her a dress, driving her in his car, yet doesn’t even mention her or show concern if she’s alright.

Of course there is always a lack of dimension and depth when there is only one villain: we have to pour all our energy into Charlie Rakes, and be confident that he is such a snake that he would definitely act the way he is acting. It worked mainly because of Guy Pierces performance, hair parted down the middle in black grease. He was truly sinister man, and creates the often done contradiction where the smugglers don’t seem like the bad guys, but the authority does; and we want him to die, like the brothers. The movie has strong characters and acting, and the setting is enough to entertain despite a pretty limp plot.