Movie Review – Lost River

Lost River (2014)
Written and Directed by Ryan Gosling

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In a rundown neighborhood of Detroit lives Bones, his mother Billie, and his little brother Franky. Bones is focused on stripping abandoned homes of copper so he can buy replacement engine parts for his car. The ultimate goal is to get the car running and get out of town. Billie, on the other hand, is concerned about holding onto her mother’s house, one of many decaying homes on a nearly deserted street. This involves her entering into a dark deal with a banker and taking a job at a macabre nightclub. Bones, meanwhile, has started a relationship with his next-door neighbor Rat and is attempting to avoid the vengeful wrath of Bully, a man who believes himself a sort of overlord of this neighborhood.

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Book Review – The Shadow Year

The Shadow Year (2008)
By Jeffrey Ford

shadow yearIt’s the mid-1960s on Long Island, New York, and an unnamed preteen narrator is beginning a year of his life he will never forget. This is his last year in elementary school and he, his brother Jim, and little sister Mary become embroiled in a mystery that no one else in their neighborhood seems to take note of it. It starts with the disappearance of a local boy and then rumors of a peeping tom carousing the backyards at night. The narrator spies a strange white car driven by a man dressed all in white whose presence seems to correlate with the prowler. Then his sister Mary, an odd one who allows her imaginary friends to speak through her, begins to show the possibility of clairvoyance, knowing where neighbors are at precise moments when she should not be able to. This shadow year will linger for our protagonist and what he learns will haunt him decades later.

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TV Review – American Gods

American Gods Season 1 (Starz)
Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman
Written by Bryan Fuller, Neil Gaiman, Michael Green, Maria Melnik, Bekah Brunstetter, Seamus Kevin Fahey, and David Graziano
Directed by David Slade, Adam Kane, Vincenzo Natali, Floria Sigismondi, and Craig Zobel

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Shadow Moon is a convict about to be released from prison following a failed robbery. He finds himself in the midst of personal tragedy as soon as he re-enters the outside world. However, a strange man named Mr. Wednesday crosses paths with Shadow and offers him a job to drive him around the country. Shadow beings to learn about the growing tensions between the transplanted gods of the Old World and the increasingly powerful new American Gods. With each stop, Shadow’s fundamental understanding of the universe begins to change.

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Movie Review – Okja

Okja (2017)
Written by Jon Ronson & Bong Joon Ho
Directed by Bong Joon-Ho

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In 2007, Lucy Mirando, heir to the problematic Mirando Corporation announced the discovery of a new animal, superpigs. These miracle animals appear to be the world’s answer to the problem of hunger, and the 26 best are sent around the world to be raised by varying farming cultures in a bid to figure out how best to raise them. One of these superpigs, Okja ends up in South Korea raised by an old man and his granddaughter Mija. Jump to ten years later, and Mirando is calling in all the pigs for a contest that will kick off superpig meat coming to a store near you. These means Okja will be taken away, sent off to New York for “processing.” Mija is having none of this and sets off to reclaim Okja, unaware she is about to uncover the dark secret behind the Mirando corporation.

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Movie Review – Quest for Fire

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Quest for Fire (1981, dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud)

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Set approximately 80,000 years ago in the Paleolithic Era, Quest for Fire tells the story of the Ulam Tribe, early Homo Sapiens who struggle to master control of fire and improve their lives. Their camp is invaded by more primitive ape-like Wagabu and the Ulam’s flame is extinguished. Naoh (Everett McGill) is charged with finding fire somewhere in the world and bringing it back home. He’s accompanied by Amoukar (Ron Perlman wearing disturbingly little makeup to play primitive man) and Gaw (Nameer Al-Kadi). They cross treacherous mountains, confront ferocious saber-toothed tigers, combat the cannibalistic Kzamm tribe, and eventually encounter a group of humans who are progressing towards an advanced future.

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Movie Review – Girl Asleep

Girl Asleep (2016, dir. Rosemary Myers)

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14-year-old Greta Driscoll has just moved to a new town and like many adolescents is having trouble fitting in. She makes friends with the kind, but awkward Elliott and quick enemies with Jade and her mean girl crew. Things get worse when her mother decides to invite everyone at her school to Greta’s 15th birthday party. Greta is crushed after being humiliated by Jade during the party and ends up slipping away into a magical world just beyond the woods of her home.

From the first moments, there is a strong Wes Anderson vibe to the aesthetics of the picture. But I knew there was something slightly different I couldn’t put my finger on. After a few more scenes it was apparent, this film has much more overt warmth than your typical Anderson fare. Don’t get me wrong, I love Wes Anderson, but I have rarely had a strong emotional reaction to any of his films. Girl Asleep has all the quirky characters and the style, but with a sense of life and energy, Anderson’s films intentionally refrain from. It is not a perfect movie, though, and while characters are warm and full of life, they are still painted in broad strokes.

Another piece of inspiration appears to the British television series The Mighty Boosh. The magical land of the woods and its inhabitants are presented in the style of a young child’s imagination. One central figure is clad in a banana yellow rain slicker with pink and blue crayon tones across their masked face. There’s a high similarity to the costumes seen in Moonrise Kingdom but with zanier, more fantastic visual accents.

The performances in Girl Asleep are excellent and capture the specific traits each character needs to present. Greta (Bethany Whitmore) is vulnerable and fierce, able to balance the many facets of her character going through a period of tremendous growth and change. Elliot (Harrison Feldman) is one of those actors who makes performance look easy. He is effortless and funny, awkward and genuinely charming. Greta’s parents, played by originators of the story on stage, Matthew Whittet, and Amber McMahon, are entirely exaggerated parents without being unsympathetic.

Girl Asleep won’t be my favorite film of the year, but it does take a very well-worn genre, coming of age, and adds some freshness to it. The magical aspects of the story make it something different. The performances, particularly Bethany Whitmore, are very charming and endearing. I could see this being an excellent film to introduce a neophyte film geek to art cinema and non-American films.

TV Review – The O.A.

The OA (Netflix, Season 1, created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij)

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A young woman is caught on camera jumping off a bridge. She doesn’t die, and an older couple watching television coverage recognize the woman as their daughter, Prairie who has been missing for seven years. The biggest shock comes when they find she has been miraculously cured of her blindness. Prairie hunkers down in the unfinished subdivision her parents live in while meeting an eclectic assortment of young people and a high school teacher. This group becomes her greatest friends, the ones whom she confides the secret of what happened to her in the last seven years and why she no longer goes by Prairie but The O.A.

For the majority of the pilot episode, I wasn’t too keen on the series. Nothing stuck out as particularly interesting. There was a slightly intriguing mystery in The O.A. losing her blindness, but all the pieces felt very spread apart, and nothing was a great hook. Then the last fifteen minutes started. Out of nowhere a powerful musical score swells, the credits begin (which I hadn’t noticed did not play at the beginning of the episode), and we found ourselves in a place very different than where we started. This is where I was hooked. As The O.A. tells her story, it was pretty impossible for me not to become engrossed.

The series hits a note very reminiscent of Lost. Lost was and is one of my favorite television shows of all time. When I reflect back on the first season, I have realized that the mysteries (polar bears, smoke monster, the hatch) while intriguing were not the primary factor that caused me to come back week after week. The relationships between the characters and how they were revealed one piece at a time are what still resonates with me. So many Lost clones got that part wrong and overloaded their pilots with too many bits of strangeness and mystery hooks. They forgot that characters are the core of a good piece of fiction.

The O.A. is a show that is nothing without its characters and their relationships. The obvious center of the show is The O.A. and Homer, two captives who have been to the same places beyond most people’s understanding. Their compressed seven-year relationship is full of trials and struggles and an ending full of beautiful frustration, yet the hope that the story is not over yet. My personal favorite relationship was that of Steve and Betty. Steve begins the show as an incredibly unlikable teenage prick. He is a drug dealer, obsessed with the physical over the spiritual, quick to anger and jealousy. He assaults a fellow student for no particularly good reason. He is someone we should naturally root against.

Betty is a teacher at the local high school who has suffered a loss. None of her colleagues actually know about it, but through a series of circumstance, she and The O.A. meet to talk about Steve. Our protagonist’s supernatural empathy allows her to see beyond the strict authoritarian teacher and seek to understand. The way Betty changes and the way she sees Steve by the end of the series is beautiful. Playing Betty is the remarkable Phyllis Smith, who you may know as Phyllis from The Office. She is one of those wonderful character actors who endear themselves to you. It is easy for an actress like Ms. Smith to be typecast after a long run on a popular network series. But in The O.A. she breaks away from our preconceived notions. She portrays a regular person process a tremendous grief and coming out on the other end an incredibly empowered woman.

This is not a show for everyone. Another similarity it has with Lost is that it features a nebulous type of supernatural. Science and new age philosophy weave together to present ideas that ludicrous so to enjoy the show you have to suspend your disbelief. I would argue that the character development being done is heightened by the more fantastic elements of the show, so they are valuable parts of the overall piece. The O.A. ends on a cliffhanger and a second season has been announced. I am intensely eager to see where the series goes next because it spent its first eight episodes flipping my expectations around at every turn.