Penelope: A Tale of Discovering Self Worth

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by Sarah Leong

Penelope is a story of discovering and creating one’s identity. The plot follows Penelope Wilhern (Christina Ricci), a young woman who’s born with a curse upon her wealthy family—that the next girl to the line would be born with the nose of a pig. The only way for the curse to be lifted is by “one of their own” to accept her, which her parents interpreted as someone of Wilhern descent accepting her hand in marriage. The movie follows her story of trying to find a suitor in order to lift the curse and involves multiple interactions with people from the outside world.

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The characters followed suit of a fairy-tale story, with a sheltered female protagonist, parents with old values, a charming romantic interest with deep, dark secrets, a meddling villain, and a happy ending. Penelope grew up hidden from the world because her parents didn’t want other people to see her pig-nose and make fun of her for it and make Penelope insecure. As a result, when Penelope was old enough, the parents set up private meetings for suitors to visit their home and meet Penelope. The suitors would freak out and try to make a run for it, but the family forced them to sign a contract of secrecy. Lemon (Peter Dinklage), a nosy reporter, hears about Penelope through a suitor that had seen Penelope and escaped the castle before signing the contract. As a result of desiring a juicy story, Lemon tracks down Max Campion (James McAvoy), who was discovered as a descendant of a wealthy family. Max was a son cut off from the family because of his gambling problem, so Lemon knew he would be able to hook Max into going through with his plan.

eli477_3Through an animated narrative voice-over thanks to Penelope herself, we get a great idea of the intelligent, curious, and thoughtful girl that she is. The viewer cannot help but to empathize with her desire to be free of her parents’ adamancy (primarily her mother) of getting the curse lifted. Ricci does a brilliant job bringing Penelope’s wanderlust character to life through a dynamic range of facial expressions around her nose as well as a character within her tone of voice to portray the endearing protagonist. In this way, Penelope proves relatable to many viewers who have a wide-eyed wonder about the world outside of their comfort zone.

penelope-03 Penelope’s father (Richard E. Grant) is the passive parent; therefore, most of the drama comes from Penelope’s high-strung mother, Jessica (Catherine O’Hara). Jessica is absolutely convinced that she’s doing what’s best for her daughter and going about it the right way. Unfortunately, she cannot see that Penelope is suffering because her mom is so bent on fixing her, that she completely misses the hardship Penelope is enduring. Viewers can relate to Penelope’s relationship with her mother because many people have felt frustrated or oppressed by his or her parents at times. The child feels the parent is completely blind to his or her suffering, and that simple miscommunication on the child’s part and failure to recognize the child’s misery on the parent’s part results in the tension that Penelope and Jessica encounter. 

Initially, Max Campion is a sketchy-looking character, but once the viewers see him interacting with Penelope, we witness him develop genuine interest in her, rather than the reward. Max is a complex character with a deep backstory that is touched on but not elaborated nearly enough in my opinion. He stands as the anticipated “saving grace” for Penelope, which turns out to be a flop. I found this to be an excellent salute to our tendency to believe we can help any situation, but soon realize that we cannot always play white knight.

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The film’s production utilized a time-period/modern setting, wide angles, and swelling music to emphasize the wonder and adventure Penelope experiences throughout the film. The castle-like home she lives in is very extravagant and had a very old-English time-period feel (similar to the setting of movies such as Nanny McPhee), whereas the world around her seems much more modern day London, with cobblestone roads and pubs and bustling bars. It was a fantastic balance between old and new in terms of fashion, culture, and dialogue. The shots included many bright colors and soft lights to enhance the entire magical feel to the film, which the music assisted as well.

Joby Talbot composed the score originally for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005; Arctic Tale, 2007). I was very pleased with the orchestration, consisting of strings in the high register, which always symbolizes either magic or love—or in the case of this movie, both. With dynamic swells and themes, the viewer can experience the emotions with the characters. During the scene of Max playing the piano, Talbot had composed a beautiful piano instrumental that was used in the theater showings of the film, but unfortunately replaced with a soundtrack song in the DVD release. This disappointed me because there was a lot of dimension in the piece, backed by a string section, emphasizing the emotions Max was experiencing from leaving Penelope, as well as paralleling the wonder Penelope experienced by riding around town and seeing the world for the first time.

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In my experience, recommending Penelope to my friends has proven to be difficult because I struggle to summarize the movie without giving away too much about what makes it such a feel-good film. It appears to be yet another damsel-in-distress film, and it’s not until the final plot twist at the end of the film (SPOILER) that it is revealed all she had to do was accept herself.

Families can pull lessons for discussion from the movie, although the topics may be too deep for younger children to engage in. I appreciate the message that emphasized on how, many times, we search for ways to fix our flaws, when all we really need to do is accept them and find ways to live with them. Unfortunately, our flaws cannot be whisked away as if they were a magic spell, but it may definitely feel that way when we feel alleviated by the things we once considered our “curses.” Ultimately, we are capable of finding our identity and happiness on our own without needing the approval of others around us.

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Basic Rules for the Background Artist

by Carrie Specht

Background-ExtrasThe background artist, or extra is the most thankless and overlooked position on any production.  In a sense, it needs to be.  After all, if you’re paying more attention to what’s going on with the people in the background than you are to the main actors then someone hasn’t done their job right. Although, there is a lot of time and energy spent on making sure this important contributing factor to the atmosphere of a production is just so, it is vital that it not draw any attention to itself.  This result is virtually the definition of a classic “catch-22” otherwise know as, “mutually conflicting dependent conditions”.  Welcome to movie making!

There are some important basic guidelines that will help the background artist achieve the goal of aiding production to their fullest ability, while at the same time making the most of the experience.  The following are just a few of the more obvious points.  As your experience grows, so will your understanding of what is expected of you and you’ll be able to achieve every one of these goals without thinking about it.  That’s when you’ll know you’re a pro.

18367358_SABe on time.  Punctuality is important for any job.  Yet, there seems to be a popular misconception that tardiness is the norm in the entertainment industry – that it’s no big deal if you’re a few minutes late.  This is perpetuated by the well-publicized antics of name actors.  However, unless your name is used as a tool to promote the project you’re working on you better be on time and ready to work.  This means you are dressed, made up and have already eaten and gone to the bathroom by your set call time.  Period.  There are literally thousands upon thousands of people ready to take your place, so you really don’t want to give those responsible for hiring you a reason to replace you.  Many Assistant Directors (the crew members to whom you answer directly) are jaded by bad experiences with background artists, and they don’t have the inclination to deal with someone who is going to be difficult in any way, shape, or form.  They simply don’t have the time.  So, start off on the right foot by being on time, early even, but not too early.  Someone who is ridiculously early can be as much trouble as someone who is late.  They just get in the way.  Fifteen minutes is early enough.  If you have to, wait in your car before arriving at the designated check in point.  Otherwise, you may be considered a nuisance.

539wBe prepared.  If you have been instructed to bring a specific type of clothing or item such as a backpack, purse, etc., then do so.  And make an effort to match the request as precisely as possible.  If you’ve been requested to appear in cocktail attire, country club casual or some other description with which you are unfamiliar then “Google” it.  There’s no excuse in today’s world of instant information for not knowing what is meant by a particular style of dress code.  Also take the time to make sure your items of clothing are presentable.  Do not show up with a couple of quickly selected items that barely meet the description and are obviously in need of ironing, cleaning, or worse.  Remember, you have been asked to bring a specific selection for the purpose of speeding up the process of preparing you for camera, not slowing it down.  This means you should definitely not answer a call for something you know you cannot fill.  If you don’t have a tuxedo, don’t take the job that requires one, thinking you can show up and have wardrobe fit you for one.  It is highly unlikely that will happen and you will be sent home without pay.  The same goes for make up and hair. If the scene you’ll be working on requires extra care in grooming you need to check in with that already done.  That goes for men too! Particularly if you are informed ahead of time that you will be playing a cop or other uniformed position.  Your sideburns and facial hair (let alone the hair around your collar line) is expected to be appropriate to the role.  If it isn’t, then do not be surprised when you are asked if it’s okay to cut your hair or shave your face.  If it is not okay with you (which is absolutely your prerogative) then you should not have taken the job.

inflatable_movie_extras_640_09Be flexible.  If you are booked to be a doctor in a hospital, but upon arrival are asked to switch to being a patient, please be gracious enough to do so without hesitation.  Similarly, if you are given one set of instructions for your on screen business, and then someone else comes along and gives you an entirely different set of instructions, simply and quickly inform the second person that you have already been “set” and by whom.  They will either leave you with your first set of instruction or tell you that your instructions are being changed. Both results happen all the time.  The first because the second person did not know you had been “set”, and the second because things change quickly on set, and you need to be ready to change with them.

background-actors-with-johnBe attentive.  Please use your common sense here.  If a person of authority is talking, do not be paying attention to anything else but that person.  If you are on set, do not be doing anything other than standing by to do your business, whether that’s what you’ve been informed to do or waiting to be informed what to do.  It is most aggravating when someone has very little time to set the background and the background artist isn’t paying attention.  You need to know what you’re doing as well as what others around you are doing, because often times your cue is motivated by the actions of another background artist.  You do not want to be the person who says, “I don’t understand.  Who am I waiting for?  When do I go?  Can you say that again?”  More than likely, you will not be asked back, let alone included in the more complicated setups, thus reducing your screen time.

Be alert.  If something around you changes you need to be aware of it.  However, these changes are not always directed at you so you need to be able to notice them.  If you’re working on a scene where the cue of one background artist is dependent on the next and so on, and one of those cues is changed then there is a domino effect.  So if you’re alert enough to pick up on this whether or not the Assistant Director has told you directly that person will be in your debt for being on top of things.  If in doubt, ask.  This is a good question and your alertness will be appreciated.

s04_e0407_01_136191849957Be polite.  Smiles and good manners go a long way.  I was once told that I looked upset and unapproachable.  After reviewing several pictures of myself I saw that I did indeed look angry in many of them even though I know that I was not.  As it turned out, my face in its natural relaxed state was a scowl.  It took some time and a lot of practice but I trained myself to smile no matter what.  I’m not saying that if a devastating accident occurred right in front of me I wouldn’t respond appropriately, but I now smile when relaxed.  Most people now find me pleasant and approachable.  I don’t think you have to be insincere, but things generally go a lot smoother when those involved make the effort to be pleasant.  Yes, it may be a very long day of repeating the same actions over and over. But remember, the same will be true for everyone else too, so you might as well make the most of it.

Be in the moment.  Don’t be watching the clock.  Your day will go much slower if you do, I guarantee it.  Instead, take every opportunity to learn from what’s going on around you.  It may be a long day, but it will be a much fuller one that goes by surprisingly quickly when you strive to make every moment an opportunity to grow in your knowledge and skills as a member of the on set team.  You never know what you might learn from the every day experience if you pay attention.

20150328_142733-e1427725021475-620x349Be professional.  Do not take anything personally, and take the good with the bad.  Sadly, there will be times when you are treated unfairly and with a manner that may seem disrespectful if not out and out so.  That’s just the way it is.  But more than likely when this happens it will have nothing to do with you.  On the other hand, when you are treated with exception it will likely have a lot to do with you and your ability to go with the flow.

Be willing.  Do not moan about doing the work.  It’s not as if it will change anything any way.  Remember, most people on set are not performing their dream job.  More than likely all most everyone (cast and crew) is looking to move up in one way or another.  Everyone will have something to complain about, but the one that works time and again is the one who is smart enough to keep it to him or herself and readily pitches in when called upon.

Be safe.  I cannot stress this point hard enough.  Sets can be dangerous places.  Watch out for cables, water spills, protruding light stands, etc.  It is important to always pay attention to where you are going.  If you see something that you think may be a hazard then tell someone with production (a PA or AD).  Hazards can’t be attended to unless someone says something.  And don’t do anything that may make you uncomfortable.  If you are asked to do anything that makes you uncomfortable then simply say so.  Don’t make a big deal about, and don’t make a scene, just simply say you are uncomfortable with the request. Don’t feel the need to explain yourself.  In fact, it’s less time consuming if you don’t.  It Selma Filmingdoesn’t matter if you feel unsafe making a cross amid traffic, would rather not lift a heavy item, your reasons are your own and should in most cases be respected.  After all, you need to be able to work on your next job and you don’t want to do anything on this job that will physically prevent you from taking the next one.

Be smart.  If you end up being called out for your work because in someone’s eyes you made a mistake, don’t throw the blame on anyone else by saying something like, “But the AD told me to do that”.  That’s considered “throwing someone under the bus”.  Just listen to what they want you to do differently and do it.  And if you realize you’re about to collide with another background artist (or worse, a lead actor) use your best judgment to adjust your timing.  You can pause, change your pace, hesitate longer at your start mark, but be sure not to cause a distraction that will pull the focus from the main action.  The ADs will thank you for it.

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Be tolerant.  Not everyone around will have the same attitude about the work.  Do not let them bring you down, and be patient with them.  The Assistant Director who is currently being less than charming may have just had a bad run in with the Producer or Star of the show.  Their bad mood will pass; so don’t give them any reason to associate that previous bad experience with you.  Nor should you let the jaded background artist contaminate you with their negativity.  Take what the complainers say with a grain of salt and consider the source.  You’re also going to have to deal with those who have dominant personalities and strong opinions.  You may vehemently disagree with someone you are forced to work with, but the set of a movie or TV show is not the place to debate anyone.

Be positive.  This is probably the most important thing to do.  The set of any production is a great place to learn about your craft, about the behind the scenes needs of the business, and about dealing with all types of personalities, so be sure to take advantage of the opportunity.  You may not be working under the best conditions, nor be treated with the greatest respect but you can’t let that effect you.  Remember all of the positive aspects of the job.  After all, you have a job in a clean and safe place where you don’t have to dig ditches (unless of course you’re cast you as a ditch digger).  You’re attitude will make all the difference in what you get out of every experience, so do your best to make each experience an enriching one.

 

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Ned Rifle Completes Hal Hartley’s Trilogy of a Messed Up Family

 

by Carrie Specht

1388785480-dothis_lectores_010214-hal-hartleyThe Cinefamily’s Hal Hartley Film Retrospective runs April 2nd – 4th. This is the first-ever West Coast retrospective of the works of the iconic film auteur, but don’t worry if you miss it because there will be additional Saturday matinee screenings throughout the rest of the month featuring eight career spanning films. Although, Hartley is only in attendance for the April 2nd through 4th screenings, you still have the opportunity to see the rest of the films on the big screen, including the Los Angeles premiere of his latest feature, NED RIFLE. The film’s stars, including Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), James Urbaniak (American Splendor, Henry Fool) and Liam Aiken (Fay Grim, Road to Perdition) are expected to make appearances. This highly anticipated retrospective is the kickoff of a weeklong Cinefamily run of NED RIFLE April 3rd through April 9th.

Liam Aiken as Ned Rifle in NED RIFLE, directed by Hal HartleyNow it’s no secret that Hartley’s filmmaking style can be an acquired taste. However, his deadpan “dramadies” filled with taut dialogue and offbeat characters defined classic American independent filmmaking of the 1990s. And it was Hartley’s films that offered breakthrough roles to Parker Posey (The House of Yes, Waiting for Guffman), Edie Falco (The Sapranos, Nurse Jackie), Adrienne Shelley (The Unbelievable Truth, Waitress), and Martin Donovan (Insomnia, Weeds). It’s hard to believe, but NED RIFLE is Hartley’s first feature film in eight years. It premiered at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, and recently screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival, marking the triumphant completion of the trilogy that started with HENRY FOOL and continued with FAY GRIM. Although these films were made over a period of fifteen years, Hartley used the same actors to play the same characters in three different films over the course of a generation (if this sounds familiar it’s because recent Best Picture nominee BOYHOOD accomplished something similar but very different shooting one film over the corse of twelve years with the same actors). Each film in Hartley’s trilogy includes Parker Posey, Thomas James Ryan, James Urbaniak and actor Liam Aiken. Aiken was just seven years old in 1997, and in 2014 he returns in NED RIFLE as a teenage born-again Christian convinced it is his duty to hunt down and kill his father. This is most definitely not your typical family saga.

201503077_2_IMG_FIX_700x700 This beautifully shot film has an overall somber tone and pace that accentuates the personality of the characters. The matte color palate is undoubtedly the trademark of a low budget film, however in this case the desaturation of the world in which these characters live is pitch perfect and accentuates the muddled thinking of each. Those unfamiliar with Hartley and his approach to character may mistake the even keel performances as bad acting or misguided “helmsmanship”, but they would be mistaken. Hartley and his actors know exactly what they are doing, and the result is quiet rich and satisfying. These are real people, not movie people. And real people who behave in un-dramatic ways give punctuation to their actions when they stray from the norm. These are fine performances marked by the nuances of character that know what they need to do. And even though everyone’s quest is a serious one, there are never any high dramatic moments until absolutely necessary, and even then there is a quiet acceptance of events. 

cdn.indiewire-1Undoubtedly, NED RIFLE holds a greater impact for those who have seen the first two films. However, it is not necessary to see the first two to understand and enjoy the third. Like any well-made sequel, NED RIFLE has an impactful story of its own. In fact, the original film was never conceived as a three part series. It was not until FAY GRIM that Hartley decided there was to be a third film to complete the story. But that doesn’t even matter, because the story is a basic one. It is clear from the very beginning that Ned has issues with his parents and is determined to resolve the matter by avenging his mother for the wrong his father has done her. And thus the journey of a young man begins, but before all is over he emerges as a man. Although he is not the man he expected to be. How could he be with no one else being who he expected them to be? SPOILER – His presumed suffering mother seems to be enjoying prison life, his lovely companion appears to be a nymphomaniac bent on a twisted kind of revenge, and his father whom he has always envisioned as a son of the devil turns out to be a type of modern day sage. And it all fits together in a beautifully crafted tale without a single car chase, explosion, or computer-generated effect. NED RIFLE is just plain old good story telling. It’s definitely unique, very original and certainly twisted, but solidly good at its very core. 

cdn.indiewireOf course Parker Posey provides a solid performance as Ned’s mother, and the rest of the Hartley stable of actors (Aiken,Urbaniak,Thomas Jay Ryan and Martin Donovan) are just as reliable. Amazingly enough, it is the young television comedy star, Aubrey Plaza who stands out by fitting in so nicely with this well-established group of Hartley veterans. Her signature droll delivery is perfectly in step with the world Hartley has carefully established over the years. Her’s is a performance that straddles dry comedy, mystery and intrigue. It is a screen characterization that will propel her in directions we have not seen her attempt before, and the opportunities that are about to come her way are well deserved. Although the image above (used in many ads) depicts Plaza in a very sensational pose, her performance is far more subtle and complicated than implied. Much like a Hal Hartley film. You always get more than the sensational, there’s also depth.

The Hal Hartley Retrospective screening schedule includes the Friday night premier of NED RIFLE, the Saturday presentation of TRUST and THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH, the Saturday April 11th screening of SURVIVING DESIRE, followed by the Saturday, April 18th afternoon show of SIMPLE MEN, finishing up Saturday, April 25th with THE BOOK OF LIFE. All screenings will take place at The Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre, 611 N. Fairfax Avenue, LA 90036. Tickets and Screening information can be found at the Cinefamily’s official site: http://www.cinefamily.org/films/the-films-of-hal-hartley

 

 

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ShortsHD The Short Movie Channel Releases 2015 Oscar Nominated Short Films in Theatres

by Carrie Specht

THE_BIGGER_PICTURE_still-e1422561119223-625x375Following the tradition of ten years, the world’s only short movie channel, ShortsHD is responsible for the theatrical premieres of films in the Live Action Short, Animated Short and Documentary Short categories of the Academy Awards. This year’s Oscar Nominated Short Films opened in Los Angeles theaters and across the country on January 30. The Live Action and Animated shorts began their run at The Nuart in West L.A. and the Documentary shorts stepped things off at the Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills. All three programs opened in Orange County at the Regency South Coast Village.

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Not to confuse you too much, but the Live Action and Animated programs are separate programs with individual admissions, whereas the Documentary shorts are separated in to two programs due to length but have only one admission price. Got it? Don’t worry, either way it’s worth the price to see these inspiring, innovative and thought provoking mini films. I’m particularly found of the animated ones, which show an unusually high caliber of quality. In past years there has been a clear stand out in the competition making it seem as if the other nominees were included just to round out the field. Not so this year. Each animated short is a true gem and could capture the coveted statue come February 22. I can’t help you out with your Oscar pools here, but I will tell you I’m leaning toward The Dam Keeper.

THE_DAM_KEEPER_stillI honestly got caught up with each and every short, believing I’d seen the winner after each one had ended. Which is particularly notable since most of these little wonders are very short – I mean really short. A Single Life is just two minutes long! I suppose it’s unfortunate for the filmmakers to be nominated in such a truly competitive year, whereas each could easily win had they been eligible a year earlier or a year later. But the situation is a blessing for those who enjoy animation at its best. 

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The entire program of animated films is 77 minutes in length and includes entries from Canada, the US, the UK, and the Netherlands. The styles (as usual) are diverse and the stories tend to be on the sentimental side with plenty of comedy thrown in to keep things from getting too heavy. After watching the five nominees (and four additional honorable mentions) I was elated. With most of the films running under seven minutes the program has a crisp pace that will keep your attention, and likely have you wanting more. A terrific program for all ages, this is a day at the movies the entire family can enjoy. So I encourage you not to miss this once a year experience and expose yourself to the art of animated short films. After you try it once you may discover that this could be a tradition worth continuing year after year.

Check your local listings for theaters and times. Tuesday, February 17 at 7 p.m. there will be a screening of the shorts at the Academy, hosted by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sean Astin. Come Oscar eve, Saturday, February 21 at 9:30 PM you can catch these spectacular shorts at the historic Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, located just blocks from the site of Sunday’s show. 

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American Sniper: American Masterpiece

by Jonathan Davidson

Gilbert Chesterson once remarked, “I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees,” implying that humanity’s greatest accomplishments seldom arise from collaboration, but are the product of singular, enlightened minds. In light of this quote, it’s a wonder that any film relying on the effort of hundreds of individuals could prove itself a masterpiece. Yet each year, two or three films are blessed with just the right constellation of talent, producing an experience so compelling one couldn’t help but call it a masterpiece. 

American Sniper Movie

American Sniper is such a film. Directed by Clint Eastwood and featuring a precise, emotionally gripping performance by Bradley Cooper, this true story about Chris Kyle, the most deadly sniper in American military history, works on every level. Stunning cinematography and tactically accurate battles offer up all the excitement and suspense expected in a war film, yet its true power derives from examining the full spectrum of Chris’s experience as a warrior—how the all-consuming experience of combat can put “lighting in your bones” yet just as easily eviscerate the soul. It also shows how he must choose between being present for his family or his brothers in arms, and the nearly impossible task of coming off the extreme highs of combat and re-assimilating into the emotional flat-line of civilian life.

Bradley Cooper works through a grueling bootcamp workout on the set of American Sniper in Los AngelesThe film’s portrait of Chris Kyle begins early in his childhood. After beating up a bully for hurting his younger brother Jeff, Chris’s father congratulates him for “finishing it” and tells him that there are three kinds of people in the world: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. Sheep allow themselves to be victims, sheepdogs protect the weak, and wolves prey on the weak. It’s clear from an early age that Chris sees himself as a sheepdog, ready to use violence to fend off the wolves. But what’s not so clear to Chris is that, even though a sheepdog appears to have noble motives, he’s being raised to be an animal, one who acts off of the base instinct of violence. Subtly, Chris’s upbringing makes the audience wonder, when does the sheepdog become a wolf? Where does the line fall between protecting the weak and becoming a monster? How long can he live by the sword?

detail.de524157Even though Chris never asks these questions of himself, they develop into the underlying themes of the film. In his book What It Is Like to Go to War, Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes says, “Once we recognize our shadow’s existence we must resist the enticing step of going with its flow.” Throughout the film, we see Chris becoming sucked deeper and deeper into the vortex of war, volunteering for multiple tours of duty despite the objections of his wife, who can tell he’s being enticed to follow his shadow into total darkness. On top of deep and rich themes, this picture excels in balancing action and story. Many high-budget films rely heavily on CGI action; hoping excitement can make up for a weak story. Recently I watched Captain America: Winter Soldier and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. In both movies I was appalled to see twenty minutes of story followed by two hours of chase sequences and combat. Thankfully, the makers of American Sniper understand that action can quickly lead to emotional fatigue, causing the audience to quit caring about what happens to the characters.

maxresdefaultInstead of relying on action, American Sniper focuses on Chris Kyle’s personal journey. The screenwriter Jason Hall, who also wrote Paranoia and Spread, recognizes that the audience connects to a film’s hero only after discovering the hero’s strong desires, for strong desires are universal and highly sympathetic. We see Chris’s desire to protect his younger brother as a child, and we like him. We see Chris working hard to become a cowboy, and we admire his dedication. We see his intense desire to defend his country, and we’re touched by his willingness to sacrifice on our behalf. We see him pursue a beautiful woman until marriage, and we’re charmed. And before long we have so connected with Chris’s desires that we can feel his anguish at having to choose again and again between staying with his family or returning to Iraq to hunt down the sniper—a Syrian Olympic medalist in sharpshooting—who has killed his comrades. Once ensuring we understand and empathize with Chris, the filmmakers put him and his buddies into a few gritty, frighteningly realistic engagements and an incredible climactic battle near the end, but never let those action sequences detract from the real story.

Another area in which American Sniper adds to its richness is through exploring the politics of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Politically, Chris observes the war in stark white and jet black. When asked by fellow frogman Marc Lee if their presence in Iraq is a waste of time and lives, Chris blows off his friend’s concerns by saying things like, “There’s evil here. We’ve seen it. Would you want these f***ers in San Diego or New York?” Yet Marc and other characters in the film have a better appreciation for the complexities and vagaries inherent in the business of war, adding just enough counterpoint to Chris’s hyper patriotism to prevent the film from feeling like a raw-raw pro-war cheerleader.

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 What really surprised and pleased me about this film was its portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder. So many films focus on the heroic, cinematic battles of war, yet neglect to convey how, for many of the veterans, the battle rages for years after the bullets have stopped flying. In his book On Killing, Dave Grossman says, “Some psychiatric casualties have always been associated with war, but it was only in the twentieth century that our physical and logistical capability to sustain combat outstripped our psychological capacity to endure it.” Each time Chris returns from a tour of duty, the audience can see how modern war ravages the minds of those who fight. Each time his PTSD has grown worse, and its effects on his family prove the true costs of war even for those who are fortunate enough to have “survived.” 

For all these reasons and many more, American Sniper is an important, must-see film. By the end you’ll be thoroughly entertained, emotionally depleted, and will have likely gained significant insight into the lives of our most highly trained warriors.

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Interstellar: Destined To Be A Classic

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A great film requires creativity, imagination and above all, a moving and relatable message. Interstellar fits those criteria perfectly. The essence of its story is simple yet intricate. It may take more than one trip to the theatre to fully understand the meaning of the movie, but its well worth it. With its pleasant fusion of science fiction and human relationships, Interstellar has become a must see of 2014. Its cinematography, soundtrack and characters will undoubtedly place it among the classics in cinematic history.

interstellar There is no question that the cinematography of the movie is absolutely extraordinary. It is one of the first feature films to have most of its footage shot in 15/70mm IMAX cameras, which allows the audience to get a better glimpse as to how majestic our universe is. In recent years, CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) has primarily been the source to create unreal scenarios, but director Christopher Nolan understandably prefers the effect of practical illusions instead. The practical illusions used in the movie create more realistic imagery by using miniature spaceship models and matting techniques instead of developing those images on software. Watching the film, you’re not distracted by poor CGI work but you’re paying closer attention to the story, due to the fact that everything surrounding the actors seems real. There are great segments where all we see is the edge of the spaceship as it flies through different locations in space. By showing this imagery, there is little confusion as to where the characters are in that very scene or where they are headed. Everything from the color pallet to camera angles make Interstellar what it is, an epic.

interstellar-skip-cropThis picture would not be what it is if Hans Zimmer was not responsible for the beautiful soundtrack of Interstellar. Nolan has worked with him several times in the past, but for this particular film he decided to do something different; something that greatly paid off. Nolan simply told Zimmer about the relationship between a man named Cooper and his daughter Murph. He was unaware of many crucial aspects of Interstellar, including the fact that it was a science fiction thriller. Even with such little insight, Zimmer was able to take the audience on a ride and enhance the film with what he created. His intelligent use of tone and knowledge of human emotion was evident throughout the movie. The film had much to do with a passionate will to survive and the soundtrack was guiding us through many of those emotional moments. If you felt on edge watching Interstellar, it was not only the cinematography and the believable visual effects doing the job; it was the combination of a powerful score and a beautiful picture.

Zimmer has composed musical scores for Divergent, The Dark Knight Trilogy, Man of Steel, and several more chart topping blockbusters. It’s no mystery that he is partly responsible for the glory of these films. The soundtrack of a film will always be an essential part in creating a moving and mind-boggling motion picture. The music that joins the beautiful images of interstellar space travel completes the film. Another factor that made this feature film so majestic is the placement of different sound effects. Nolan films are known for suspense and its common to periodically see scenes where the sound is unexpected. This surprising audio makes a sequence more powerful and intriguing, leaving the mind excited for more to come.

Interstellar-05Matthew McConaughey, who played Cooper in the film, had many moments that can be considered, “Oscar worthy.” He captured the emotions of a brave spaceman but most importantly those of a loving father, wanting what is best for his family and his planet. His brave heart was the core of the film, as we were led through his eyes to the many wonders of space exploration. We begin the film with little information about Cooper’s past but McConaughey was able to act well enough to make us understand Cooper’s will to make a better life for his loved ones. We were on his side through the whole film, even if at moments we questioned his decisions. He shared the screen with Anne Hathaway, who also gave an “Oscar worthy” performance. She played a determined Dr. Brand who put all her motivation and time into completing the mission her father had been working on for several years. Hathaway is a phenomenal actress because she knows how to make the character her own. She was able to make us grow to love Dr. Brand throughout the film. As the movie progressed, we learned that she had a soft side, one we could all relate to. She was driven by her own heart and not by anything else. The cast of Interstellar is filled with several more Academy award winners and nominees including: Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Jessica Chastain and a cameo from another beloved Oscar winner that you don’t want to miss.

INTERSTELLARInterstellar was made to leave the audience thinking, questioning and trying to find their own conclusion for the film. Entering the theater you’ll think you’re going to watch a film about space and its benefits to the human existence, but once the credits roll, there will be so much more that you have learned than that. This movie is about love. It’s about how humanity saves itself through passion for survival. The film is three hours long yet there were no dull moments. I was so intrigued by all the visuals, sounds, music and exquisite acting that I never checked my phone once for the time. I thoroughly enjoyed Interstellar, as will you when you experience it for the first time.

 

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MOST – What Does Love Really Look Like?

by Theresa Patterson

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I was first introduced to this thirty-minute film whilst a Junior in high school and between then and now, I’ve admittedly watched it less times than I’ve liked to; this, in itself, is a phenomenal feat for someone who rarely considers watching a movie twice. MOST is one of those films that’s best watched alone. It’s not a horror picture where you require the company of your friends to feel safe. Nor is it a feel-good comedy where these same friends – through their exuberant laughter –seem to make every punch-line of Adam Sandler’s punchier. Unless your friends can consistently partake in reverent silence, this film should only be experienced on a rainy day in the privacy of being curled up by the sofa with a hearty plate of your favorite food and a hot cup of tea. This film warrants your undivided attention – more than anything (or anyone) else – for a sincere and fulfilling encounter.

Cliché as it may sound, this Czech movie is a powerfully moving account about love. Unlike contemporary counterparts however, it manages to bridge the gap between fanciful infatuations like Twilight and realistic relationships, creating a love that is at once singular and universal. Moreover several different types of love are observed, including: the time-tested bond between sisters; the heartbreak of a severed romance; the indifference of unrequited love; the fun of less entitling friendships; the sacrifice of a soldier husband; and even the carefree obliviousness of lust. Together, these stories serve as somewhat of a foil to the main narrative, which revolves around a doting single father and his equally-doting son, Lado.

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Now, I’ve heard of the stereotypical single mothers who dutifully raise their kids but rarely did I come across a situation where the father was also mother. Directed by Bobby Garabedian, this particular father-and-son chronicle is set in the bleak winter of the Czech Republic. Despite the coldness however, the affection and chemistry between the two is more than enough to inspire the necessary warmth, in both themselves and audience-members alike. Garabedian perfectly captures the essence of their relationship, as well as the many relationships sprawling about them, in concise, sincere moments that don’t include any superfluous dialogue; and even though every encounter is straight to the point, nothing ever feels remotely lacking. The scenes are fleeting – and often interspersed by glimpses of related but distant memories and stories – although they are unrelentingly tear-jerking in their inherent purity and humanity, whether that involves an endearing hug, a generous gift, a deeply-felt goodbye, or a morally-grey decision. To this end, the credit must also go to the actors themselves, especially Lada Ondrej who flawlessly conveys the animated spirit of Lado, and Vladimir Jarvosky who plays Lado’s benevolent father.

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Additionally, credit must be given to acclaimed music-composer John Debney, whose scores can be heard in films like The Passion of the Christ (of which he received an Academy Award nomination), Iron Man 2, The Princess Diaries as well as the upcoming remake of Disney’s The Jungle Book, which is set to be released in early October. In MOST, Debney uses his talents to structure accordion crescendos and diminuendos against a backdrop of elegant violin strings and soft piano melodies; what you then have is a peculiar mix of drama and buoyancy. Not to perplex you any further but did I also mention how this film was Christian? One more reason that makes this film palatable and well-worth the watch – even to the dismissive secular – is how successful it’s been in exploring biblical themes of unconditional love, perfect grace and new life; it does so in beautifully poignant details without ever making an explicit reference to religion, or even to God. This story delivers a cosmically significant message through a personal resonating event – that I have painfully tried to avoid disclosing – and it is for this singular reason that I’m going to watch it again.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel Shines

by Leif Erik Harty

GBH_Title_meteormermaidIn Wes Anderson’s latest cinematic adventure Ralph Fiennes stars as M. Gustave, the concierge of a hotel in the fictional European nation known as the Republic of Zubrowka. Joined by his newfound lobby boy, Zero (played by the relatively unknown Tony Revolori) he seeks to avoid detainment for the “theft” of his rightly inherited property. The movie follows their escapades across fictional alpine Europe in a time period designed to mirror that of World War II. And the effect shines like pure Anderson gold.

Grand-Budapest-Hotel-Actors-Talk-About-Director-Wes-AndersonFor the longest time, I have been wrestling with the issue of my favorite movie. It’s one of those questions that people ask pretty frequently, but I’ve always had trouble answering. The main reason I’ve struggled with it so much is that I thoroughly enjoy so many movies. I decided the best way to finally make a decision was to approach my thinking from two directions, effectively creating two sets of favorites. The first method revolved around how the movie made me feel, while the second method focused on my admiration for the mechanics of the moviemaking process (use of lighting, quality of editing, cinematographer’s preferences, etc.). Then it happened. I sat down to watch The Grand Budapest Hotel for the first time earlier this year and discovered a movie that hit both criteria out of the park. The narrative follows a grandiose and ever-winding path, but tells the majority of its story (like most good movies do) through exceptional visuals. I’ve walked away from each subsequent viewing with a continued sense of this movie’s masterpiece quality.

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Despite its fictional nature, it’s really quite an experience taking the 100-minute vacation to the Republic of Zubrowka. Any good movie will draw you in, but few movies transplant you quite the way Grand Budapest Hotel does. The hotel and all of its guests live a regal lifestyle, even through some very dark moments. In complete honesty, the hotel is a den of pomp and lavish living, but it never feels quite that way. The goal appears not to be to create a feeling of disgust within the viewer, but rather a feeling of fondness, which is exactly what happens. Throughout the ups and downs of the plot, there is always a fanciful touch to everything, which is part of the comedy. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but a large portion of the amusement comes from the persistent elegance in the face of blatant misfortune. In addition to its comedic value, the atmosphere is also just downright pleasant. However, it isn’t innately well done. The atmosphere is successful because of several technical aspects that work well together.

The Grand Budapest HotelCinematography is the first of these aspects that I’m going to touch upon. There are a few visual qualities that really set The Grand Budapest Hotel apart, the most pervasive being its thematic color. While it’s not necessarily unique for a movie to have a color theme, it is unique for that color to be primarily pink. Within the bulk of the movie, there are shades of pink everywhere. For the brief parts of the movie that take place in the late 60s and mid-80s, the thematic color is orange. Both colors are rather unusual, but they do a great job of constantly reminding the audience where things are in the overall timeline. The pink adds to the flowery feel of the hotel’s heyday, while the orange adds to the dull feel of the hotel’s declining years. The system works very well, but never makes itself overly present.

GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL_426.jpgThere is also another visual achievement that succeeds by making its presence known. Films need establishing shots. They really do. It can be very disorienting to the audience if the narrative lacks any visual encompassment. I admire the way that Wes Anderson’s team decided to tackle such a standard element. There are a good number of typical wide shots, showcasing the outside of a building or something along those lines. However, there are also many wide shots composed in such a way that they take on a Charlie Chaplin-era feel. They’re actually rather hard to describe, but the most accurate description is that they make the scenery look like high quality backdrops. These shots, combined with slides separating acts and the occasional vignette, ingrain a golden-age-of-cinema feel within the movie. Visuals aren’t everything, though. The Grand Budapest Hotel would fall flat on its face without the aid of some excellent dialogue.

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Keeping in line with the elegant feel of the hotel itself, much of the movie’s language is quite fanciful. The narrative is full of metaphors and figures of speech too flowery for the average Joe to come up with, but it never becomes stuffy. In fact, things progress quite differently. In the same way that the film creates comedy by contrasting pomp with turbulent situations, it also contrasts the linguistically proper with the linguistically crass. The elegant language of the upper class is often broken up by a cruder, but equally colorful, way of speaking. Part of the movie’s R rating can be attributed to its crude language, but it isn’t overdone. It’s present just enough to create a very nice contrast and provide some variety, which is something this film has in abundance, especially in the casting department.

budapesthtelCatPeople don’t pay enough attention to casting. I have to admit that I fall into that group. Fortunately, this movie woke me up. The array of actors is pretty unique and it creates an interesting setup. For one, the list of notable actors is pretty lengthy. Ralph Fiennes, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, to name just a few. The thing that particularly sets The Grand Budapest Hotel apart in the realm of casting is that many of the big-name actors receive only a short amount of screen time. At first, it’s a bit strange to see them in minor roles, but ultimately, it’s a nice twist on typical expectations. On the flip side, one of the leading roles is the lobby boy, Zero, played by the no-name Tony Revolori. The genius in having the unknown actor play such a key role is that he brings no baggage with him. The audience gets to experience him in a completely fresh way since he has no past characters for which people to connect him. The freshness of Zero’s character and the celebrity casting contribute to the film’s pleasant, but unique feel. 

In short, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a fantastic movie. It tackles many familiar conventions with new thinking, makes great use of contrasting realities to tell a funny story, and pulls the audience into a world with more strength than many films could every dream of. I highly recommend it.

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is now Extended and on Blu-Ray in 3D

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by Carrie Specht

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second installment of the epic The Hobbit trilogy arrived on Blu-ray 3D and regular old Blu-ray in a new “Extended Edition” on November 4th courtesy of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. The Extended Edition features a 25-minute longer cut and more than nine hours of new special features on two separate DVDs. That’s a whole lot of middle earth bang for the buck. The most ardent fan will be thrilled with this extremely thorough presentation package, and the less enthused admirer of the series (although I can’t imagine who these people are) will be impressed with the behind the scenes look into the production of the three most ambition films of our times. Now is the time to own it on Blu-Ray.

HBT1-fs-304358.DNGThe 25 minutes of extra film footage is spread out, extending individual scenes, adding coverage that was previously unseen through out the known movie. So, don’t expect a surprise ending or anything like that. But instead, enjoy the welcome extension of your favorite moments that now have a little some extra. For fans such embellishments make this the must-see, definitive version of the film. And that goes for both the 3D and the regular Blu-Ray presentations. The more than nine hours of new bonus features offer exactly what you would expect and more, truly enriching the experience of the Trilogy. All this comes at the perfect time as fans restlessly gear up for the December 17 theatrical release of the third and final film, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

gandalf-the-hobbit-dos-ee-620x330The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug continues the adventure of the title character Bilbo Baggins as he journeys with the Wizard Gandalf and thirteen Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield. Their’s is an epic quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor. Having survived the beginning of their “unexpected journey”, the company travels east, encountering a skin-changer and a swarm of giant Spiders in the treacherous forest of Mirkwood. Their luck holds out as they escape capture by the dangerous Wood-elves as they journey to Lake-town. Finally the troop (for the most part) make it to the Lonely Mountain itself, where they face the greatest danger so far, a creature more terrifying than any other; one which will test not only the depth of their courage but the limits of their friendship. This creature is of course the title character of the dragon, Smaug.

The-Hobbit-desolation-of-Smaug-dragon-photo-close-up Among the many new special features are an audio commentary with Peter Jackson, the film’s director/producer/screenwriter, and Philippa Boyens, co-producer/screenwriter. The two-disc “Appendices” are really a multi-part documentary focusing on various aspects of the film and the Trilogy showcasing an immersive multi-part history of the filming of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The scope of which includes pre-production in the various departments of the film in the months leading up to the start of principal photography, the extensive training required of the many actors, and the work done on set and in the world of digital effects. Of course, you can’t talk about the making of The Hobbit without giving due respect and attention to New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth. I’m telling you this is an all out effort to give the fans what they really want, and that’s to get as close to the action as possible, and this package delivers just that.

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Special note: Another bonus that comes along with the purchase of specially marked Blu-ray discs is the inclusion of Digital HD with UltraViolet . THis is pretty cool, because Digital HD with UltraViolet allows consumers to instantly stream and download movies and TV shows to TVs, computers, tablets and smartphones through UltraViolet retail services like CinemaNow, Flixster, Target Ticket, VUDU and more every day (this is a wonderful world we live in). For more information on compatible devices go to wb.com/ultravioletdevices. Consult an UltraViolet Retailer for details and requirements and for a list of HD-compatible devices. 

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUGAnd you can have all that goes with the purchase of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Extended Edition on Blu-ray 3D for $54.98 and Blu-ray for just $35.99. That’s a pretty awesome price, especially when you consider that Warner Home Video Blu-ray Discs offer resolution six times higher than standard definition DVDs, as well as extraordinarily vibrant contrast and color and beautifully crisp sound. I watched this on an 80″ screen and it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen on it. No kidding. I know I sound like a print ad, but it’s true that the format also provides a higher level of interactivity, with instant access to extra features via a seamless menu bar where viewers can enjoy features without leaving or interrupting the film. Why hasn’t someone thought of this sooner!

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Carrie, Randy and Ruben Are Back Rambling About Movies

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Carrie, Randy and Ruben like to talk about movies whenever and where ever. Sadly, Randy couldn’t be with us so Dick Hollywood is filling in for him for this quick (8 minutes or so) revival of a once grand plan.

We roam from topic to topic pretty quickly, and Carrie is a lot louder than her subdued counter parts (Dick can be such a wallflower, poor thing). We’ll be sure to iron out the technical difficulties for our next submissions, but for now give us a listen and let us know what you think. Is Carrie an insufferable know-it-all? Is Ruben an obstinate jerk? Is Dick Hollywood the coolest guy in town who just knows everything about films on the edgier side? You tell us.

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