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This is late so my list will look a lot like many others. That just can’t be helped. So either you only seek your movie recommendations by waiting for my annual list and these will all be brand new to you, or these selections will simply reaffirm that most of the same movies you’ve already heard about really are good. Still, I hope a couple of these will be surprises.

Either way, as always, these are my favorites and we all know how subjective these lists are. If nothing else, it’s a list of movies I highly recommend you see and make up your mind about on your own. Enough with this. On to the-

Wait, another thing. These aren’t in any particular order because everyone who knows me how much I hate to do ordered lists.

On to the

Wait! One last thing, I promise: I haven’t seen all the movies I wanted to before compiling this list since there just wasn’t enough time. I’ll get around to it, but I’m pretty confident that these that I’ve picked as my favorites would remain there regardless.

And now on to the

FAVORITES

12 YEARS A SLAVE

12yearsaslaveIt’s hard to offer enough praise for director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley’s singular cinematic achievement. Never before has American slavery been depicted in such an unblinkingly honest way. It’s beyond long overdue for American audiences to face our tragic heritage. You can count on your hand how many films have truly tackled this subject, compared to the number about WW2 or Vietnam, it’s rather surprising. Yet somewhat understandable. Clearly our nation’s deepest and most complex blemish, it’s taken quite some time for African-American filmmakers to make up enough political ground in the filmmaking world to put forth something like this. But finally we have it, and it’s truly a stunning work of art.

This is a nightmare of a film, filled with the dread that I’d only last felt as a kid having dreams of being kidnapped away from my family. Despite all the incredible performances in other films this year, I imagine we’ll look back in the near future at Chiwetel Ejiofor and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o's heartbreaking performances as some of the best of the decade. A must-see for everyone. I’d even say it should become required viewing in standard high school history curricula.

SHORT TERM 12

shortterm12Movies about troubled kids tend to veer toward the melodramatic. Which is why writer/director Destin Cretton deserves all the lauds he’s been receiving for his triumph based on his own short film. About a 20-something woman who’s going through her own life situations while guiding teenagers at a foster care center, SHORT TERM 12 hinges on the magnificent performance of Brie Larson. It’s the kind of star-making role that means she’ll likely become a household name in the vein of Jennifer Lawrence before too long.

In fact, Kaitlyn Dever and Keith Stanfield both would surprise me if they don’t both break out in big ways over the next couple years, since their heartbreaking, nuanced performances as troubled teens are so solid. An indie darling that lives up to its hype and doesn’t fall victim to the common tropes associated with the genre.

THE WAY WAY BACK

thewaywaybackThere’s definitely a theme here: all of these movies have incredible performances that take the material to the next level. This one is no different. In this case, it’s the relationship between Sam Rockwell’s water park manager and Liam James’ awkward teenager dealing with a summer staying at his mom’s jerk-boyfriend’s summer house. It’s a pretty standard coming-of-age flick, but it’s just full of such heart and charm that you can’t help but love it. I literally walked out of the theater with a smile on my face — and sometimes that’s exactly what you want out of a movie.

GRAVITY

gravityIf you haven’t seen this yet, stop what you’re doing, go online, and see if it’s still playing in a theater in your state. If it is, drive there and watch it. I’m serious. I don’t care if it’s hours away. This movie is pure cinema magic, a film created specifically to be seen on the biggest screen possible. So go do that. Now. In IMAX 3D if that’s at all possible. Visually, it’s the closest thing most of us will ever get to being in space. It’s cliched to say but it’s also true: we’ve never ever seen a movie quite like GRAVITY.

But what elevates this above other technologically groundbreaking films (ahemAVATARblech), this has a solid if simple story and fantastic acting by all of two people. George Clooney is his charming self but it’s really Sandra Bullock’s show, and she knocks it out of the stratosphere… (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). Seriously, though, she’s incredible. Especially if you read about how they had to film it to achieve the unprecedentedly realistic zero-gravity scenes.

BEFORE MIDNIGHT

beforemidnightAt this point if you haven’t seen BEFORE SUNRISE and BEFORE SUNSET, what have you been doing with your life? But if you haven’t, just knowing that this movie exists essentially gives away some of the wonderful surprises from its two predecessors — but I suppose you could watch this one as a standalone film and still have a great experience. I just wouldn’t recommend it. Do yourself a favor and watch all three in order.

Suffice it to say that somehow, someway, defying all cinematic odds, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and cowriter/director Richard Linklater have managed to create a perfect third entry to one of the more unlikely film trilogies (please, make it a quadrilogy or just keep going) of all time. I didn’t think that anything could top SUNSET, and truth be told, most movies will never hold a candle to that ending, but MIDNIGHT offers not just a continuation but the most brutally honest portrayal of forty-somethings in marriage ever. It’s not always pretty. In fact, it’s downright rough at times. But that’s life. Hollywood loves to depict relationships as happily ever after, meaning the hardest part is somehow finding and getting “the one.” Sure, that is tough, but the challenges are really just beginning. We shouldn’t feel like we’re the weird ones simply because we’re lead to believe that this part is all cake.

THE CONJURING

theconjuringEasily the scariest movie I’ve seen in years. Watch it alone, at night, in the pitch dark, and just try not to freak out. Sure, the plot is pretty much standard haunted house fare but the performances (yup, again) and the solid directing by James Wan manage to take common scare tropes and make them fresh and downright scary by always showing just enough to get your imagination rolling before eventually revealing the beastie. I thought about throwing this one down into the Honorable Mentions list but it’s rare that a horror flick jumps into the best-of conversation so I gave it the benefit of the doubt.

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES

theplacebeyondthepinesGosling. Cooper. Liotta. Yup, strong performances aplenty in a film, but the bold narrative choices by writer/director Derek Cianfrance elevate this one from being a run-of-the-mill crime drama. Challenging to a typical Hollywood audience, PINES offers twists and turns that aren’t simply there for shock value, instead adding to the overall impact of the various stories spanning multiple generations in upstate New York. The kind of movie that makes you think afterward, not just about the different characters and their circumstances, but what it says about our society and ourselves as a whole.

UPSTREAM COLOR

upstreamcolorBy far the most difficult film in this list to explain, I’m not really going to try. Writer/director/star Shane Carruth hit the indie scene with PRIMER almost 10 years ago. His cinematic absence created a cult following behind not just his film, but around himself. Fans couldn’t wait to see his followup, which ended up being UPSTREAM COLOR. With expectations as high as this, disappointment is always more likely than not.

Well, Carruth beat the odds. In a major way. Completely different from PRIMER – other than Carruth remaining in the lead role – this is unlike any movie you’ll see this year. Part sci-fi, part love story, part grief examination, part silent film, it’s all cinematic brilliance demanding multiple viewings.

FRANCES HA

franceshaI avoided this one for a while. The cover, the black-and-white, the actress and director all screamed pretension — the type of film that turns “indie” into a four-letter word. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach fashion a charmingly honest tale about a twentysomething dancer not only finding her way in NYC, but taking that next step in adulthood as her best friend moves closer to marriage. It was so refreshing – and beyond overdue – to see a film about a woman, trying to grab a hold of something to steady herself in the maelstrom of life, not find an anchor in a man, but rather within herself. An excellent message for both genders, FRANCES HA treads familiar territory while blazing its own confident new path.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

insidellewyndavisThe way the Coen Brothers churn out classic after classic makes their two-film stumble of INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and THE LADYKILLERS that much more shocking. Thankfully that’s way off in the rearview. One of the smallest films the Coens have made, DAVIS might be their most intimate. There’s none of the heightened reality like in BARTON FINK, the hilarious hijinx in THE BIG LEBOWSKI, or the suspense of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.

And that’s perfectly fine, because in their place, there’s Oscar Isaac’s endearing yet assholish folk singer, Llewyn Davis, mooching his way through 1961 New York as he tries to find his place after the death of his musical partner. Plot is eschewed in favor of compounding personal conflicts, which are numerous when you’re a bit of a jerk like Davis is. But he’s not so much so that we aren’t able to identify with him and his plight. Full of wit, of course, but the surprise is how tender it gets — which is something new and welcomed coming from the Coens.

HER

herWho knew that the most touching film of the year would be able a guy falling in love with his computer. But it’s true. It hinges on the chemistry between Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson’s voice, yet it’s Spike Jonze’s masterful filmmaking that turns it into something truly special. HER speaks to the concept of love in ways that we rarely see portrayed so honestly in Hollywood, or any cinema for that matter.

What could’ve been a high-concept movie that collapsed under its own cleverness 30 minutes in, HER turns into one of the most heartbreaking and heartwarming experiences at the movies this year. Between this and FRANCES HA, I’m left optimistic that, while we’ll never lose the rom-com entirely (nor should we), we’ll be seeing more realistic portrayals of single 20/30-somethings of all genders going through life, and that they don’t need to be so black-and-white.

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

thewolfofwallstreetWhat a masterwork by one of the best filmmakers of all time. That Martin Scorsese cranked this flick out at the spry age of 71 is just one reason he’s a national treasure. That he made this at all shows just how much of a command he has with the language of film. Based on a true story, Leonardo DiCaprio is spellbinding as ever portraying the despicable Jordan Belfort, a stock broker who rips off his clients to amass a giant fortune and basically get away with it because white collar criminals are treated differently than everyone else.

And it’s entertaining as all hell to watch. Which is what has brought a bunch of negative attention, most notably the Christina McDowell article making the social media rounds, because some confuse making a ridiculously fun movie about a bad guy with glorifying and condoning his behavior.

Badass Digest writer Devin Faraci nails it in his own review of WOLF with his analysis that this is the third film in Scorsese’s thematic trilogy starting with GOODFELLAS and continuing with CASINO. The inarguably classic first entry depicts crime as an organized yet underground syndicate, while the middle installment portrays how the criminals have crept into legitimacy. WOLF takes it that final step, with organized crime going mainstream, Wall Street bankers being the gangsters of the present. An important and masterful late-career film from one of the best to ever get behind a camera.

 

Now, I want to delve more into WOLF and its polarizing response in relation to Harmony Korine’s SPRING BREAKERS. You must not misconstrue as being a member of my Favorites list, but it’s still an important piece of cinema worthy of discussion. My other lists will continue after so if you want to skip this essay, I understand. But first:

Satire, Glorification, and an Understanding of SPRING BREAKERS and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

 

I love what SPRING BREAKERS does by showing the ugly, real side of the misogynistic American concept of “Spring Break” but the film experience itself is unpleasant, oftentimes boring, and meandering. Then again, that’s the point. Our nation’s annual rite of passage isn’t the amazing experience that its been hyped to be, reaching its decadent nadir on early-2000s MTV. In reality, it’s a place for predatory males to take advantage of drunken young girls, for those same girls to think that’s a good thing, and for society to reinforce the notion that women are merely objects.

Both BREAKERS and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET are satires; one of our male-gaze sex-fueled concept of post-adolescent “fun” and the other of the new American Dream, a scorched earth approach that means taking everything you possibly can from everyone else for as long as you can get away with it. Both showcase elements that some might find titillating: owning yachts, 20-something girls in tiny bikinis (or less) gyrating in slo-mo, the fun of doing drugs, getting away with murder literally and figuratively, the downside of doing drugs. And both are held up to us, the viewers, not as instructions on how to act, but rather to force us to confront these notions and rectify our conflicting feelings on our own.

Yes, we love the idea of having so much money we can buy a huge home with all the frills, but are we okay with the moral and collateral costs both to our own souls and to the financial livelihoods of strangers — sort of the whole moral quandary of if someone somewhere on the planet you never met died would you “blank” question, but in much more real terms. And, yes, young physically attractive women are physically attractive, but are we okay with the emotional and physical costs associated with the dehumanizing element that is part and parcel to these escapades.

The difference between the two, and one of the reasons why more people are currently discussing WOLF more than BREAKERS, is that the latter is unpleasant to sit through. It’s not fun. It’s pacing is uncomfortable. The plot thin. The characters grimy. The situations a bit far-fetched. It’s a satire, but also a parody. Not of another movie, but of our own culture. It so thoroughly eviscerates the illusion of the pleasure in the hedonism found on the Beach (and on college campuses all over the country) that it’s not fun for the viewer. It’s so clearly depicted as a morally filthy exercise that there’s no question as to what we’re supposed to feel. And while there will still be people who identify and glorify James Franco’s Alien, most viewers can sleep comfortably imagining that type of person and sleeping easy knowing he’s already a marginalized figure in our society.

Not so with WOLF. It’s a ridiculously entertaining ride. It’s paced like the hits of cocaine the characters regularly snort. It’s plot so jam packed that it’s dumbed down so as to not slow down the roller coaster ride. The situations fetched far enough to be audastic but not unrealistic. It’s a satire, but not a parody. If anything, it’s more like a mirror.

And here’s where the trouble comes in. Mirrors aren’t subjective; they reflect back exactly what looks into it. But things get murky and subjective the minute what you’re looking at is yourself. It’s up to the person in the mirror to decide what they see. Most of us give passes to our own imperfections in ways that we never allow for others’ because they’re ours, we’re used to them, we know them, we’ve learned how to live with them over years of accruing a concoction of denial and acceptance. Most likely, it says more about the character of those who find Belfort a sympathetic figure than the intentions of the filmmakers themselves.

For me, I’ll take WOLF over BREAKERS for repeat viewing any day. For better or worse, I simply find it to be a more entertaining film. And for those who have scorned the WOLF filmmakers for their alleged glorification of a white collar criminal, I get it: more people will see WOLF for that very reason, and since it’s more ambiguous (in that it’s not overly subjective; I think for any discerning moviegoer it’s plainly obvious that the filmmakers are not remotely condoning any of Belfort’s behavior) more people will likely take away the wrong message, possibly making for a net negative to our cultural progress. That’s what happened with WALL STREET and all those idiots glorifying the villain, Gordon Gekko. But, that’s not right either. That wasn’t Oliver Stone’s fault because the “greed is good” mantra was already the new national motto even if it hadn’t yet been memorialized so eloquently.

Ambiguity leads to tough conversations, and those tend to include lots of blaming. At least with WOLF there’s an easy direction for the real blame: the widespread corruption of money in politics that allows for massive money laundering criminals to be given minuscule sentences compared to minor marijuana infractions (for example) that allows for the wholesale liquidation of the middle class to the top .1%. With BREAKERS, it’s not so simple. You can blame the girls, you can blame the boys, you can blame drugs, you can blame guns, you can blame parents, you can blame MTV, you can blame godlessness. You can blame reality TV but you also have to blame the brain-numb millions who watch it. Realistically you need to blame culture in general and the overall hyper-sexualization and objectification of women. But blaming culture is too amorphous. We are culture.

Neither film is perfect. Both films approach their satire differently. Both filmmakers clearly are critical of the events and characters they’re depicting. But where Harmony Korine judges blatantly onscreen, Scorsese leaves it up to us.

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I hate best-of lists. Loathe them. Which is why when I compile my year-end list of movies, I simply pick the flicks I enjoyed the most, the ones I would highly recommend to people, and then lump them together into one unsorted group.

Perhaps you agree. Perhaps not. I care not, because this is just my one opinion and it makes no difference to either of us if we didn’t have the same experience.

My goal is that, if you haven’t seen one of these movies, its inclusion here piques your interest into giving it a look. Enough about me.

On with the non-best-of list!

HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE

How To Survive A Plague

A masterfully constructed, devastating, and yet surprisingly uplifting documentary that chronicles the rise of Act Up, an activist organization that battled the FDA to get AIDS patients more access to potentially life-saving drugs during the deadly epidemic of HIV in the 1980s and 1990s.

Told mainly through archival footage and occasional voiceover from those who lived through the plague, I haven’t been moved by a documentary like this in quite a while. Incredible to see how, a mere 20 years ago, HIV was a death sentence. And it’s unconscionable that while a disease was spreading like wildfire throughout the country – and the world – our leaders were justifying their inaction (or minimal action) on the fact that this illness was different because your life choices were potentially instrumental in causing you to catch it.

Infuriating, sad, but thankfully, it has a happy ending.

ZERO DARK THIRTY

Zero Dark Thirty

Now, this one is a power keg of controversy.

While the filmmakers have been taking it from all angles, it’s got to be an artist’s dream to have such discussion and opinion about your work. You don’t make a film about the decade-plus-long search for Bin Laden unless you want to jump into the highly charged conversation of torture, terrorism, and American foreign policy. That so many people have opined on the film goes to show how top-notch it is; you sure didn’t hear this much conversation when ACT OF VALOR or SEAL TEAM SIX: THE RAID ON OSAMA BIN LADEN came out.

It’s thrilling, tense, and suspenseful, when, by all accounts, it shouldn’t be considering we all know how this one turns out. Of course, it helps to also have a fantastically well-structured script, compelling performances, and stellar direction.

But what everyone seems much more interested in talking about isn’t the craft, instead focusing only on how the film addresses torture.  As someone who found the torture regime implemented at the very top of the Bush Administration, and disseminated through much of the U.S.’s military and intelligence agencies, absolutely repulsive and reprehensible, ZERO DARK THIRY approaches this in a way that has troubled many with my similar point of view: it shows that torture was involved in finding Bin Laden.

The problem is that it wasn’t. Unless the findings from the Senate inquiry and the responses from numerous high officials including Sen. John McCain and acting C.I.A director Michael J. Morell aren’t to be believed.

However, from the way this line of criticism (coming from both film critics and political writers alike) suggests, you’d think ZERO DARK THIRTY has a Liam Neeson-in-TAKEN-style scene where, after a bout of brutal waterboarding, the terrorist finally blurts out that crucial nugget of real information that gives the authorities exactly what they need to find Bin Laden. The problem is that’s not how it happens in the movie. (Likely much of the criticism came because overzealous reviewers were dropping their scorn on the film before even having seen it.)

Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal craft a far more ambiguous way of having the prisoner deliver the information; there’s no direct one-to-one connection showing torture itself produced a viable lead. But what’s even more nuanced – and troubling to some – is how the filmmakers avoid placing a moral judgment on anything that happens in the film, which could be construed as being sympathetic to the torture regime. But this is highly unfair. By not taking a firm moral stance, the filmmakers do what more films should: leave it up to the viewer. It’s up to us to decide our own feelings on torture, on the years and resources and techniques we spent on combating terrorism, and on the travesties that took place over the past decade. And for many people, that leaves them extremely uncomfortable.

It’s much easier to have a film spoon-feed you what to want to hear. Rarer, and superior, is the film that makes you come to your own conclusions.

The reality is that ZERO DARK THIRTY is not a documentary. And given the response by the C.I.A. recently, it’s hard to say just how factual this account really is. (Would the C.I.A. really give these Hollywood filmmakers the exact rundown of what happened? And why should any reporter or filmmaker take this as the truth?) It may be based on some real events and some real people, but anyone who takes this as total fact needs a refresher course in the difference between fact and fantasy.

Besides being both thrilling and thought-provoking, I’m just glad that people are making movies commenting on the wars of the past 12 years. Some of the best films about Vietnam came a decade or more after that conflict ended, so I’m hoping this just the beginning of filmmakers reflecting on our generation’s conflicts. We could definitely use the introspection.

THE IRAN JOB

The Iran Job

For too many Americans, Iran is a bogeyman, identified simply by the radical regime running the country rather than by the average Iranians living there. It’s not entirely our fault; our conflict-focused media combined with the poor relationship between our two governments doesn’t leave many windows through which to see the real Iran.

Here’s a glimpse.

It’s the true story of Kevin Sheppard, an instantly likable African-American athlete who moves to Iran to play professional basketball. The documentary crew of one (director Till Schauder) follows him around for the better part of a year as he trains with his Iranian (and one Serbian) teammates, gets accustomed to a decidedly foreign culture, makes friends, and deals with the distance between him and his girlfriend.

Schauder wisely wraps his social commentary around the exciting framework of a sports movie, coaxing you into getting caught up in the basketball tournament, while learning about real Iranian people and not seeing them as evil caricatures. Ideally, THE IRAN JOB just might make a few more people realize that dropping a bomb on the entire Middle East is not the way to deal with the political conflicts in the region, by exposing the light from a world still dark in many people’s minds.

TEDDY BEAR

Teddy Bear

Think of a cross between THE STATION AGENT and THE WRESTLER, only not nearly as depressing as the latter. This little foreign flick follows Dennis, a socially inept, aging professional bodybuilder, still living with his cripplingly dominant mother, who craves escape and romantic love.

When his similarly unlucky-in-love uncle comes back from Thailand with a wife, he decides to give it a shot himself. What ensues is a funny and touching tale anchored by the fantastic performance by real-life Danish bodybuilder Kim Kold. I caught this a film festival so hopefully it will get distribution at some point.

THE INVISIBLE WAR

The Invisible WarThis was an absolutely amazing year for documentaries and I put this one near the top for exposing the number of rapes and sexual assaults in the military that get covered up by the government. The same power structure that keeps units in line also has a tragic flaw that allows women – and men – to be violated in the worst ways, and then blamed – sometimes even punished – for what was completely out of their control. All the while, most of their perpetrators get away scot-free, or even promoted.

Even better than simply opening our eyes to these horror stories, the film offers solutions that could help curb this epidemic.

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD

Beasts of the Southern WildIf I had to pick one favorite, this one could be it. It’s beyond magical, unlike anything you’ve seen and offering one of the best female performance on screen in 2012. By a nine-year-old, no less.

Director Benh Zeitlein sets his debut feature film – co-written by Lucy Alibar, based on her play – in the depths of poverty on islands off the coast of New Orleans called The Bathtub. Here is where Hushpuppy, and her dad, Wink, endure natural disasters – personal, natural, and supernatural. To say more still wouldn’t convey how truly moving and visually spectacular this film is. If you only see one movie on this list, see this one.

DETACHMENT

DetachmentThis one didn’t get a wide release, and when it hit Netflix, I thought it looked like a movie-of-the-week. And it could’ve easily gone into that territory had it not been done so well. Directed by Tony Kaye, who did AMERICAN HISTORY X, this film is an admittedly melodramatic and overly bleak look at our inner-city schools.

Still: it’s moving, the performances are solid (lots of familiar faces in here), and I found it quite an important film since, as much advancement we’ve made as a society, it’s thoroughly unacceptable how poorly (pun intended) we handle schools in impoverished areas, the children who attend them, and the teachers and administrators who run them. Definitely don’t watch this if you want reassurance that things are mostly good in the world.

While I do like to focus on the positives, sometimes we do need to be reminded that The Secret is upper class fantasy bullshit. This one will linger with you for a bit.

ELECTRICK CHILDREN

Electrick ChildrenIf it weren’t for BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, this would be my favorite indie flick of the year. As it is, it comes in as a not-too-distant second. Based off the plot alone you might roll your eyes and think that you were about to dive into an overly pretentious mess. That was my initial reaction. But, to my great surprise, I was wrong.

Instead, this tale of Rachel (playing by the going-to-be-a-huge-star Julia Garner), a teenaged, Mormon girl  growing up in a fundamentalist community in Utah who, after believing she was inpregnated by listening to a rock song, goes off to Vegas to find her unborn baby’s father, is impressively honest and tender. That this is the first feature by writer/director Rebecca Thomas makes the film even more of a success.

Also, the fertile song that Thomas chooses to use for Rachel’s conception is beyond perfect — it’ll be in your head the rest of the day (in a good way).

JOHN DIES AT THE END

John Dies At The EndA completely bizarre acid-trip from the filmmaker of PHANTASM and BUBBA HO-TEP, this one is frantically entertaining and ridiculously hilarious. Honestly, I can’t remember half of it other than it involves these friends who get hooked on some new drug called Soy Sauce that causes absurd, NAKED LUNCH-style hallucinations that may or may not actually be windows into another dimension. I think.  With awesome practical effects and a plot that keeps going off in unpredictable directions, here’s a straight-up fun flick that could become one of those oddball cult classics one day — if it hasn’t already.

CLOUD ATLAS

Cloud AtlasHaving just finished reading the David Mitchell novel on which this movie is based, I had no idea how they were going to pull it off — especially in under three hours. But somehow the writer-director hydra of Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer crush it. I have no idea how they pulled it off.

That said, I’m not sure what the experience would be like for someone who hadn’t read the books, because I used the movie in my head to help me along with what I was watching on screen. And there’s a ton going on. Dozens of characters in several different spacetimes speaking varying dialects all centered around the theme of the cycle of life?

No wonder this was a tough cinematic sell, but the brilliance of this film is that even though you most likely won’t catch 95 percent of what’s going on underneath the surface, these filmmakers know how to tell a damned good story, so that the 5 percent you do grab will still knock your socks off. And have you wanting to watch it again and again to catch the rest.

DJANGO UNCHAINED

Django UnchainedMore brilliance from Quentin Tarantino, who seems to be getting better with age. This one-two punch with INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS could be the best mid-career output of his generation — even more impressive given that he started with the modern classic combo of RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION. Really, having one ending too many is the only major criticism I could level at DJANGO, which has likely already landed in my top 3 Tarantino flicks (here I go making best-of lists…).

The story is pure Tarantino: a freed slave (the excellent Jamie Foxx) and a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz, outdoing his own classic Hans Landa) team up to find Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) in the pre-Civil War South. However, the filmmaking itself displays a new maturity and confidence (as if the guy needed any more). While still full of genre-specific references, they’re not so on-the-nose that they pull you out of the movie you’re watching – which can be an issue with his previous flicks (especially KILL BILL, which, at least in the first volume, felt much more interested in paying homage to a bunch of other films he loved than creating something of his own in service of a story). He also opts for a traditional narrative structure, eschewing his usual method of telling the story in chapters and out of chronological order. All solid choices for a film whose subject matter is already so controversial and compelling that the simplest form of storytelling suffices.

What’s truly impressive is how masterful Tarantino is at manipulating the audience, lowering our guard while making us belly laugh at ridiculously inept white supremacists and then turning around and smashing us in the face with a not-remotely-funny and brutal scene of a slave being ripped apart by dogs. The brilliance of his social and racial commentary is how he so fluidly elicits such varying responses from what we’re watching on the screen: at moments hilarious, others scary, and usually an offensive combination of both. We’re forced to laugh at the absurdity of the whole concept of owning other human beings because at some points it’s the only reaction that we can have to such atrocities. And yet, Tarantino doesn’t at all shy away from making sure we see and feel the visceral horror that slavery was. That he pulls all this off while also telling an endlessly entertaining tale makes this another triumph in a career full of them.

THE TURIN HORSE

The Turin HorseHaunting and hypnotic, this bleak, slow-moving drama doesn’t feel like it was made last year. Its long takes, minimalist dialogue, and black-and-white cinematography lend itself more to its narrative’s late-19th century time period than our own.

Honestly, I don’t imagine many people who are accustomed to traditional movies – even indie flicks – will find THE TURIN HORSE their cup of tea; but, for those who do, it’s an incredibly powerful film that accomplishes so much through showing so little. Capturing the monotony of impoverished rural life by subjecting us viewers to those long, boring daily rituals places us directly in that world in ways most movies wouldn’t bother to attempt.

Hungarian director Bela Tarr tests the limits of our attention and patience, but rewards us handsomely, with a film has much going on under the surface than you’d think. Seriously, someone please watch this so we can talk about it. You’d be surprised what questions arise from a film that is set in a one-room stone house and has maybe 30 lines of dialogue total during its two-and-a-half hour runtime.

NOTABLE MOVIES I HAVEN’T SEEN YET BUT HEARD ARE FANTASTIC

RUST AND BONE, HOLY MOTORS, THE HOUSE I LIVE IN, SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN, ROOM 237, THE MASTER, OSLO AUGUST 31ST, AMOUR, TAKE THIS WALTZ, SLEEPWALK WITH ME, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, NOT FADE AWAY, THE SESSIONS, WEST OF MEMPHIS, THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE

HONORABLE MENTIONS, OR MOVIES THAT WERE SOLID BUT COULDN’T QUITE CRACK MY FAVES LIST

THE HUNTER, LIFE OF PI (mainly for the visuals in the middle, which were mindblowing), GOON, THE KID WITH A BIKE, INDIE GAME: THE MOVIE, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, KILLER JOE, COSMOPOLIS, HEADHUNTERS

MOVIES I WANTED TO LIKE MORE THAN I DID, BUT DIDN’T

ARGO, LOOPER, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, LAWLESS, ARBITRAGE

MOVIES THAT WERE WAY BETTER THAN THE SHIT THEY RECEIVED

JOHN CARTER

MOVIES I WISH I HADN’T SEEN ONCE, MUCH LESS EVER AGAIN

MOONRISE KINGDOM, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, TED (realized this upon second viewing), PREMIUM RUSH, THE CAMPAIGN

REQUISITE SPIELBERG HATE

I love me some Daniel Day-Lewis. I also find the historical figure of Lincoln fascinating. What I still have no interest in seeing is Spielberg’s (inevitably) schmaltzy handling of both in the creatively titled, LINCOLN. I’m a hater so it very well could be a solid flick but Spielberg’s run of mediocre December Oscar bait continues to annoy the shit out of me. (Seriously? WAR HORSE? That trailer alone has turned me off to his movies even more than I had been before.)

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My Last Word on the 2012 Election

There’s nothing more to say.

Honestly.

With 40 days until the election, we’ve all heard everything we could possibly hear about the two presidential candidates: incumbent Democrat Barack Obama and challenger Republican Mitt Romney. Of course, this isn’t entirely true: nearly a month and a half is plenty of time for more revelations about how Romney’s disgusting wealth makes him out of touch with most Americans and how every single policy Obama enacted (or failed to enact) made the economy/freedom/ national security/deficit worse than ever before in history.

But, we’ve heard it all already, just not necessarily in the same words. What’s there left to say at this point?

Based on polls, something like 235 people 2 to 8 percent of likely voters are going to determine the election because somehow, for some unknown reason, they just haven’t been able to make up their minds about which guy to choose. In a political climate this polarized I find this truly baffling. Not only does everyone I know seem to have had their mind made up since The Day After Election Day 2008, they all feel extremely strong about their choice, as well.

The only people I know that I could possibly put in the “undecided” category are people who hold strong opinions but either feel that Obama isn’t liberal enough or that Romney is just running a terrible campaign. That’s not undecided so much as it’s hating the choices and not even wanting to pick the lesser of two evils — but it’s clear that they swing one way or the other and it’s not as if they’re seriously contemplating voting for the other guy.

Regardless, with so few voters left to convince, all this money being spent gets blown on everyone, plunging us all further and further into the miserable, family/friend-wedging, social media-clogging, email-inundating political ad onslaught that is the election cycle. You can’t escape it. It’s everywhere.

And next week brings us the final wave of planned new developments: the debates. Supposedly this will truly give one of the candidates a commanding edge but I just don’t see it happening. At this point, unless one of them truly melts down (and even then), those who are planning to vote for one of them (which is an overwhelming majority of us) won’t be swayed to the other side as they reiterate the talking points we’ve already heard ad nauseum. Hell, most of the polling shows how, save for an unexpected surprise, most of the states will vote, leaving the swing states Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida to decide for the rest of the country who will be helming the executive branch.

So, with nothing more to say on this, everyone already knows where I stand and I’m sure I know where most of you stand, as well, given months and months and months of Facebook and Twitter posts designed to boil genuine issues down to simplistic, absurd rhetoric, I leave you with just one, nonpartisan request:

GO VOTE.

 

That’s it. I assume that most of you will because what’s the point of being as politically vocal online if you’re not going to exercise your civil duty to realize those opinions. But, don’t forget, don’t slack, don’t assume anything.

  • Make sure you’re registered.
  • Double check that you’re registered.
  • Make sure you know where your polling station is.
  • Double check that you know where the station is.
  • Apply for an absentee ballot if you’re not going to be around.
  • Make sure your address is correct so that you can receive your ballot.
  • If you have to bring an ID because you live in one of those states enacting new laws, do whatever you can to get that ID.

Whatever you do, for whichever candidate you feel will do the best job, cast your vote. And don’t forget about the local and state elections going on, too: many congressional seats are up for grabs, as well, and the legislators are as important if not more so than the president.

That’s it. That’s all there’s left to say about it all.

VOTE.

Photo courtesy of Sydney Lea Steele.

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Movie Review: COSMOPOLIS

We’re still only four years removed from the cataclysmic financial meltdown that nearly destroyed the entire global economy, so it shouldn’t be surprising that there have only been a handful of movies so far that address this timely topic. The best Vietnam War movies came out in the late 70s-slash-early 80s — Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Platoon — and by then that Southeast Asian conflict had already been going on for nearly two decades.

Cosmopolis joins the thin, yet thankfully growing, ranks of films exploring this post-bailout world, and does so in the most unique fashion yet. While others like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Margin Call, The Company Men, and HBO’s Too Big to Fail, focus on dramatizing the actual events that either led to or immediately followed the crisis in 2008, Cosmopolis - based on the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo – takes us on a surrealistic voyage through Manhattan where, with director David Cronenberg at the helm, the line between reality and fantasy becomes deliciously blurred as we follow a 28-year-old billionaire money manager on his way to get a haircut.

Watching Cosmopolis is an experience. And I can’t say that it’s an entirely enjoyable one, either. It’s staged more like a play, with characters entering and leaving for just their one short scene, centered around one main location, and much of the time it feels like work. It’s slowly paced at the outset with hardly any music (which you don’t realize is pervasive in cinema until you see a movie where it’s so quiet save for people talking). There are moments when you can hear the dialogue but you still have no idea what’s being said. There are other moments when you’re not entirely sure if we’re supposed to be even paying attention, and you hope that whatever it is these people are talking about – whether it’s server security or the theory of the future being more important than the present (I think) – won’t end up playing a major part in understanding the plot because, if so, it’s completely lost me. Yet, Cosmopolis is never sloppy or incomplete; rather, it’s supposed to be this way. In fact, if you’re trying to catch every line of dialogue as if it’ll all come back as major elements of the plot, you’re missing the point.

Whereas other Crisis ’08 films do their best to explain highly complex economic and political situations that caused the mess, Cosmopolis goes the other route: making you feel the hollow, sterile nothingness that accompanies seeing the world in merely dollars and cents. And it wouldn’t be remotely as successful at achieving this without the solid performances all around, but especially and surprisingly by Robert Pattinson. He’s in every scene and nearly every frame, and goes toe-to-toe with ease against other thespian heavyweights like Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, and Paul Giamatti. I avoided the Twilight films like the plague but still it’s impossible not to see his face and immediately think of that wretched series. Somehow, though, Pattinson rises above that here with his portrayal of Eric Packer, simultaneously eliciting zero empathy or surprise at any of the outrageous events going on during his jouney through the Big Apple, while also showing faint hints of humanity at just the right moments to make you wonder. Packer isn’t supposed to be this fully realized person necessarily – that’s the point of his character. Still, Pattinson rides that line between the real and the absurd that Cronenberg so deftly loves to examine.

Speaking of Cronenberg, the Canadian filmmaker known for body horror classics of the 80s like The Fly and Videodrome has masterfully kept his own visual style in place while branching out into new, perhaps more accessible, material of late, most notably with A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. Essentially: less gaping holes growing out of people’s bodies, more people putting holes in people’s bodies with guns and knives. But, compared to his more recent films, Cosmopolis is the most 80s-style Cronenberg of them all. From the apartment with a port-o-potty inside that could easily have housed a telepod, to the incredible news footage showing a TV news guest attacked by a man with a knife, to the way we experience most of the film from the inside of a limousine, Cosmopolis was released in 2012 but could’ve been right at home in 1987.

Still, Cosmopolis isn’t for everyone. I know of two people for sure: the couple who walked out of the screening last night about 30 minutes into it. I’m sure they’re not the only ones who have done that, either. While I am not eager to sit down and watch it again, part of me feels that I’d get even more out of it if I did. Not that there are plot points needed to grasp — the film doesn’t work that way. But that perhaps I’d catch even more nuances and allusions and moments between the actors, all of which were far more integral to the experience than a sensical storyline. Regardless, I’m just glad that a bizarre, challenging film like Cosmopolis even got made, and that a director like Cronenberg chose to put his unique stamp on one of the most affecting events in the past decade.

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We can’t have any political conversations anymore without them immediately devolving into hyperbolic, apocalyptic catchphrases that instantly render the person on the other side of the discussion defensive.

Just pick your talking point:

  • War on __________
  • Worse than (insert traumatic event here)
  • _______ is the end of freedom as we know it
  • … the destruction of (insert traditional institution here)
  • He’s a (insert absurd -ism here)
  • ______ media bias
  • ______ is un-American

We literally cannot debate how to fix our serious problems that are currently plaguing us because we’re too busy arguing about shit that doesn’t even exist. We can’t even agree on the terms and facts of the debate to even bring it to a debate. And even then, instead of tackling more of these issues with real-world solutions, our politicians spend more time voting to not bring legislation to a vote than actually doing something about the myriad problems we face today.

And since the parties are so polarized, the electorate is equally as polarized, meaning everyday people like you and me find ourselves defending some team as a knee-jerk reaction because neither side seems to respect the other (although it sure does come from one side much worse than the other, and no matter what your political view, you’ll agree with this, won’t you?) — making it impossible to agree on anything without feeling like you’ve just lost some cosmic battle between good and evil, where if you concede one point you’ve given in to every single thing on the other party’s platform. How is that at all helpful? How can one side truly be completely wrong and the other side always completely right?

There’s simply no rational, logic-based factual discussion anymore. It’s all just regurgitated talking points. And for those who don’t simply glaze their eyes over when hearing the other side refusing to acknowledge a single point, and then simply repeat the rote words heard over and over again on one’s chosen news or “news” outlet, it’s futile because if you’re talking to someone who is like that, you’re wasting your breath. For them, politics is a religion and they’re true believers. For them, Fox News, The Blaze, and the GOP are scripture and Obama, Pelosi, Reid, and the Democrats are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. For them, our political parties are engaged in a good versus evil battle where not only our economic future rests in the balance, but also our existential direction — which could lead us straight to political hell if we go the wrong way.

What makes this all even more maddening is that things are bad enough that we could have fairly grim conversations about how things are going in this country without all the hyperbole. Does Obama seriously need to be a radical, socialist dictator in order to prove that we should elect someone else? Why can’t the actual data be enough? I mean, it’s not like there aren’t enough sane reasons out there to argue for a different direction — unemployment is over 8 percent, the housing market is still in the dumps across most of the country, the middle class is disappearing at a dangerous rate, health care costs a fortune, drone attacks are morally questionable, the indefinite detaining of American citizens is extremely disturbing… The list could go on and on, surely. These realities are scary and horrible enough for a lot of people that we don’t need to resort to truly insane rhetoric about how Obama is a Muslim or that he’s the most radical president in history or that he’s raised taxes on everyone or that he’s ballooning the debt more than anyone in the history of the world or that he’s going to take away all of our guns or, the real kicker, that he’s un-American and wants to destroy the republic to unleash a global Islamic caliphate.

Seriously?

This isn’t some 1970s Alan J. Pakula film, you guys.

Our problems are big enough if we just look at them on their face and then talk about ways to fix them without declaring that a birth control mandate to private insurers is the end of religious freedom as we know it or that it’s akin to 9/11. Just look at the latest government “heresy” where the USDA has simply suggested that Americans refrain from eating meat one day a week on Mondays in order to marginally assist in what is the worst US drought in over 60 years. Honestly, this is merely a symbolic gesture because even though “a pound of animal protein requires, on average, about 100 times more water than producing a pound of vegetable protein,” it’s not going to cure the truly disastrous problem plaguing the midwest right now — and will affect all of us when food prices skyrocket because of it. And what’s the Republican response? Some are pledging to eat more meat on Mondays to compensate. Why? Why? And with this their hyperbolic response to a simple suggestion, what are the odds that Congress can actually muster the votes to pass any drought assistance with some real teeth?

When I asked someone why it “irks” them that the USDA suggested it, they said that it was because government makes too many suggestions — even though they agreed that we should be eating less meat. So it’s not about the validity or worth or general cost/benefit evaluation of the suggestion/law/bill/recommendation/idea/talking point; it’s simply that government is suggesting we do too much; that it’s irksome when the government even makes a recommendation on how to solve a national crisis, not that the recommendation itself was wrong, misguided, or straight up bad. This isn’t rampant government control of our freedom; this is a pragmatic response to a real problem. If anything, this is a rather conservative response since the USDA isn’t requiring everyone to stop using water on Mondays or suggesting raising taxes to fund some water relief program or something, you know, real. But if we’re not even going to look at each case individually and judge them by their own standalone merits, then what are we even doing here?

The most frustrating part of it all? Those brainwashed people – the ones who religiously believe what they’ve decided (or been told by the right people) is the truth in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary – think you’re the one who is deluded if you attempt to look at things outside of the designated partisan prism.

Yet, I still think there’s hope. It comes down to choosing to look at specific issues for what they are and accepting that perhaps your side doesn’t always have the best answer. Or at least, to acknowledge that the other side’s idea might have some merit if you could get rid of the ugly sheen of the other side’s packaging of said idea. This is for everyone, regardless of which party you’re affiliated with. But, let’s not kid ourselves: one party is far more egregious and unreasonable in perpetuating this stalemate than the other. Now, that doesn’t mean that the Republican Party is always wrong on everything; it doesn’t mean that the Democrats are always right. It just means that when the House GOP votes 33 times to repeal the ACA, continuing to vote against it even after it passed through every single branch of federal government, instead of even bringing forth a jobs bill or even writing an ACA replacement plan, it’s evident that the only goal is to take back the presidency by any means necessary — and that our politics in general is simply about obtaining power in order to adjust the rules to better suit those who helped fund them (but that’s the topic for another blog post.)

The truth is that we have problems that need answers and the only way we’re going to actually be able to deal with them is to focus on the actual issues rather than these paranoid delusional fantasies that simply aren’t based in reality. There’s no shame in accepting that Obama and the Democrats aren’t evil incarnate. It’s not traitorous to acknowledge that Obama and the Democrats’ ideas aren’t instituting anti-American socialism. You’re not a liberal just because you understand that to tackle the debt we may need to raise taxes an iota. The sooner we can move past the sensationalist hyperbole, move away from buying into everything our selected parties’ leaders say without even a modicum of questioning, the sooner we can deal with our national issues.

Because, trust me: they’re scary enough on their own.

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Movie Review: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN

I‘ve had the disc for months now. It’s just been sitting on top of the Blu-ray player waiting for me to be in the right mood since obviously it wasn’t going to be a real uplifter. Now, just days after the tragic Aurora movie theater shooting, I thought, maybe, now was the right time. Rather than get mired in the endless political debates that attempt to prevent the how, perhaps this movie could shed some light on the why.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is absolutely devastating. And, like life, offers very little comfort or answers.

Writer/director Lynne Ramsey’s masterful film follows Tilda Swinton’s Eva, an emotionally crushed woman going through life’s motions two years after her 15-year-old son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), slaughtered his fellow students in a high school massacre. Ramsey boasts a cinematic skill set unlike most in the industry, and she uses her considerable talents to craft a gorgeously lyrical and non-linear film that is heavy on motif, low on exposition, and highly affecting.

Much more Rosemary’s Baby than Elephant, Ramsey’s film is far less interested on the logistical build-up to the shooting, instead much more focused on the troubled family dynamics starting from the minute Kevin was conceived juxtaposed with Eva attempting to eke out some semblance of a normal life in the brutal aftermath. Flashbacks are woven into the narrative in such unsettlingly seamless ways, oftentimes using subjective sound design to keep you off balance even when watching seemingly inane actions, like when you hear the ultrasound for in-utero-Kevin while Eva makes copies at her strip-mall travel agency job. Or during a tense scene where Eva suspects teenaged Kevin is up to no good and goes snooping through his room while scored to the Beach Boys’ “In My Room.”

Even though Kevin gets his name in the title, this is decidedly Eva’s film. Actually, this is Tilda Swinton’s film. She delivers a staggeringly powerful performance that, along with the brilliant visual design, completely makes it all work. Her Eva is not the best mother in the world, but she’s also not horrible; she’s just human, like the rest of us. And while the film doesn’t blame her – the film doesn’t blame anyone, really, for Kevin being who he is – it’s evident off the bat that this mother-son relationship isn’t quite right. Unlike the other women in her Lamaze classes, Eva seems happy to be pregnant. And things don’t get better once Kevin is finally born. To make matters worse, Kevin is an extremely difficult baby, not just crying, but screaming at bloodcurdling levels constantly, to the point where Eva stands next to a jackhammer to obtain peace from his incessant wails. Icing on the cake is that Eva’s husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly), just doesn’t see Kevin in the same way. At all. Around Eva, Kevin is a devilish combination of Problem Child, Damien, and Macaulay Culkin from The Good Son. But as the years go by, no matter what the age, Kevin’s dark side seems relegated for Eva’s eyes only. That is, of course, until Kevin’s final, terrible act unveils his true, demonic colors to everyone.

We Need To Talk About Kevin has two main recurring motifs: the color red, and the concept of focus. Red is everywhere: from the overstuffed jelly sandwiches that Kevin makes, to the vandalizing red paint splashed onto Eva’s rundown house that she spends the entire film cleaning up, to the unsettling tomato rave that looked like everyone was covered in human viscera, and to the bloody dénouement. There are so many moments where we see Eva’s hands covered in red, scrubbing her fingernails to get it off; the figurative blood on her hands for which she bears responsibility, both due to her own guilt and from the townspeople who mostly treat her like a leper.

Ramsey’s camera also frequently plays with depth of field, especially in the earliest flashbacks, perhaps recognizing the haziness and unreliability of our memory the further back we try to remember. Or maybe all of our memories are that hazy only we think of them otherwise. Perhaps it’s not just about memory: maybe, it’s also about how we can miss something that’s right in front of us if we’re too busy, or in denial, to see it. In giving us only enough narrative pieces for us to put everything together, Ramsey allows us to come to our own conclusions about memory and myopia, both for Eva and Franklin, of course, but also for ourselves and our own lives.

It’s amazing what Ramsey conveys in her film by using the least amount of narrative exposition as possible. When she learned that old filmmaking trope of “show, don’t tell,” she took it to heart because this movie – especially based on its title – could easily have gone the whole Good Will Hunting route, using the storytelling crutch of a therapist character to coax out the emotional story elements between two talking heads sitting on opposing couches. Ramsey thankfully avoids this entirely, instead crafting what ends up being much more of a 70s style, psychological horror film more than a modern drama.

Approaching it this way puts the onus on the viewer to make the connections. It’s challenging, and in forcing us to be active participants, we’re broken down along with Eva as the film builds toward the inevitable climax. By then, we just don’t have the energy to keep our emotional guard up anymore, making the final moments of We Need To Talk About Kevin some of the most emotionally shattering put to celluloid in quite some time.

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Now that I’m working from home most of the week as a consultant, I decided it was time to make my workspace exactly how I wanted it. And that meant jumping aboard the latest office rage (if there can be anything of the sort): the standing desk.

Really quick: why a standing desk? For a while now there have been numerous reports indicating that even if you exercise regularly, when you sit most of the day at work, you’re cutting years off your life.

Since most of us can’t avoid the fact that our jobs require us to be in front of a computer, welcome to the new fad of raising desks higher so that you stand at them instead of slouching in your $700 ergonomic chair.

Enter the Fränkkjenstÿn.

While I’d like to say this is truly “homemade,” all I did was grab a bunch of different Ikea parts that aren’t designed to go together and, well, put them together. And I customized this desk to my needs but it’s essentially a hybrid of these two other concepts. But as far as building things in your apartment with almost no tools goes, this is as advanced as a lot of us will get.

To build the Fränkkjenstÿn you will need a Phillips screwdriver, an adjustable crescent wrench, and a drill with a half-inch drill bit. 

Another caveat before we get into the specs (if you haven’t already skipped ahead I like would’ve): I’m just shy of six feet tall, so if you’re much taller or shorter than me, this rig probably won’t work for you as it’s got a fixed leg frame rather than being adjustable. Don’t quote me on this, but I bet it would be ideal for someone between 5’9″ and 6’1″. I did a lot of measuring to figure out what my ideal height range would be for the desk before I put this plan together so I recommend you do the same.

Okay, so here are the specs:

1 Vika Amon Black-Brown Table Top. $33.99. I didn’t want anything too huge as this is going in the corner of our living room. It’s about 47″ wide and 24″ deep which is plenty for me. If you have a big computer monitor or a need for tons of desk space, you might want to go for something like this.

1 Utby Stainless Steel Underframe. $109.00. This comes in two sizes. I went for the 41″ tall model. It comes in a shorter version, too, so again, customize as you need. Despite not being at all made for a desk (it’s a kitchen table frame, apparently), it’s the ideal width to match the Vika Amon table top. And being stainless steel, it’ll go with whatever color top you go for — but looks especially sharp with the black-brown table.

1 Lack Wall Shelf. $14.99. This is key, especially if you have a laptop or a smallish monitor. Combine this with-

1 Capita Bracket. $14.99. And you have a second tier to elevate your laptop or monitor up to eye-level. You want to be able to stand up, looking straight ahead while you type to protect your neck and back from hunching. This will do just that.

1 Stig Barstool. $19.99. Since we’re doing this on the cheap, instead of being able to lower the desk to normal level, we’re just going to bring ourselves up to the new desk’s level with a $17 bar stool. It’s not overly comfortable which is fine since you don’t want to slouch anyway and you bought a standing desk to stand at it, right? Right. But you’ll want to sit sometimes – especially the first week or two as you get accustomed to standing. This will suffice.  (There’s also cheaper, shorter model that would work, too, if you’re customizing for a slightly less tall standing desk.)

And now here are the instructions:

  1. Build the Utby frame as designed.
  2. Use the screws that come with the Utby frame to attach the Vika table top.
  3. Measure out where the two Capita brackets will go on the table. (Roughly 31″ from either edge and about 5″ from the back of the table, in my version.)
  4. Drill that 1/2″ drillbit into the table.
  5. Put the brackets into the holes but don’t secure it tightly.
  6. Put the Lack shelf on top where you want it.
  7. Draw around the brackets so you know where you screw them into the shelf.
  8. Then, screw the brackets into the shelf.
  9. Then put it back on the desk.
  10. Use the crescent wrench to secure them and bam! You have yourself a standing desk.

I‘m no carpenter by a long shot so if you have a better way of doing this, by all means: do it. For example: I didn’t have the right sized drillbit so the holes I made were less than symmetrical. Luckily the bracket covers this up nicely. You’d have never known had I not just admitted it here.

One more tip for those of us who loathe going to Ikea: Write all these names down, head to Ikea, go in the exit so you skip having to walk through all the crap. They have these computers there where you can punch in the item and find the exact aisle and row. Write those down, grab a cart, and fly through there getting only exactly what you need to build your standing desk. You can be in and out in 30 minutes. It’s glorious.

And all for under $210.

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Movie Review: SAVAGES

For a movie full of Mexicans, Savages couldn’t be more American. You’ve got your perfectly toned pot-smoking surfer dudes. A golden-tanned blonde bikini babe.  The seemingly idyllic paradise of Southern California. And Hawaiian-influenced steel guitar-tinged sounds bursting through in the soundtrack at the oddest times. All of this in service of a fucked-up foray into the age-old tale of don’t mess with drug dealers. (Seriously, this genre is getting more predictable than cheap horror flicks.)

Next up, you have Oliver (Born on the Fourth of July) Stone both behind the camera and penning the script — along with co-writer/producer Shane (Aliens vs Predator: Requiem) Salerno and Don (Savages) Winslow, who also wrote the eponymous book upon which the film was based. Luckily Stone has bounced back from his unnecessary Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps fiasco and digs back into his U-Turn/Natural Born Killers repertoire with his multiple film stocks and styles peppering the screen. (Although, while he had artistic reasons for doing that in the former, here it’s more like he’s forging his own work.)

But really what makes Savages so decidedly USandA is how the film pulls no punches when it comes to depicting the rancid violence that Mexican drug cartels have become notorious for exacting on anyone who gets in their way, yet goes out of its way to show that all women fornicate fully clothed. Eye hanging from a bloody socket while getting slave-whipped? No problem. Anything more than glimpses of side-boob, which you can see plenty of on ESPN’s ode to the Olympic body without even getting blocked by your I.T. guy’s firewall? No chance.

Wait, I’m wrong. There’s a truly pointless five-second topless shot of a woman who has one line and bears no importance to the story whatsoever. I suppose in that sense the nudity is more gratuitous than the violence in Savages, since at least the impromptu ocular removal procedure involved a character that was pertinent to the plot. Still, you get my point. And while it’s in no way surprising, whether or not Blake Lively shows any real skin isn’t a valid rubric with which to judge the film. Luckily, Savages offers other reasons to be slightly underwhelmed.

Although, let me skip ahead to the good stuff, first: the supreme cinematic beast that is Benicio Del Toro — who takes a healthy dose of Fred Fenster to mellow out his inner Dr. Gonzo in order to bring his Mexican drug henchman, Lato, to life. He munches up the scenery, easily stealing scenes from the rest of the sub-par lot of actors, save for Salma Hayek and Aaron Johnson. You’ll notice that I’ve left Taylor Kitsch off that list which pains me because I’ve been rooting for this guy ever since I heard he was making the jump to movies. Somehow he used his one-note delivery to achieve incredible nuance and depth in Tim Riggins; sadly, the same can’t be said for his Afghanistan war vet, Chon. (Sometimes it sounds like they’re calling him “Sean,” or “John;” other times they use a hard “cha” sound; I have no idea, but that’s just how they do things down in Laguna Beach where the kids are rich and the parents are absent.) And to be fair to Kitsch, Johnson had much meatier role of Ben: a Berkeley graduate with a double major in business and botany who starts off being a pacifist Buddhist who works with impoverished African children to… well, you can guess what his transformation looks like from the plot, can’t you?

Oh right, the plot.

So, Ben and Chon sell some seriously high-grade pot throughout California. Chon’s the brains; Ben’s the muscle. And they also amicably share the same girlfriend, Ophelia — or O, as they all call her. Things take a turn for the worse when the leading Mexican drug cartel (led by Salma Hayek’s Elena) gives them a non-negotiable offer to partner up with them and let her skim 20 percent off everything they sell, to which the guys say no deal. Instead Ben and Chon give her what they think is an even better offer: to straight up give the business over to the cartel rather than deal with the headache anymore. Unfortunately Ben and Chon’s dope is so dope that Elena needs the guys to stick around and make this stuff, so she has Lato kidnap O to force their hand. Hijinx ensues.

Scratch that. Tedium with moments of hijinx ensues. The biggest knock on Savages isn’t the Puritanical treatment of sex and violence or the eye-rolling gotcha! ending or the passive tell-don’t-show storytelling mechanism of O’s voiceover narration; it’s the pacing. Like the incoming Pacific tide that Stone’s camera so lovingly leers at regularly, Savages has moments of excellent story-building followed by dull swaths of exposition-laden scenes that lack any sense of urgency. It tests our patience off the bat by waiting a solid 40 minutes before O even gets dragged away. And then the stakes just never live up to their billing because O never feels truly in danger. Even the semi-unreliable narration by O herself doesn’t help this when she warns us that just because she’s the one telling us the story that we can’t assume she’s alive at the end. Sunset Boulevard, this ain’t. Since this is based on a novel, I’m sure they had trouble fitting everything into a two-hour runtime and likely the herky-jerky pacing stems from them shoving as much story into it as they possibly could. That’s what can happen with adaptations. And honestly it could be worse; better this than making it into a trilogy.

As the extreme violence escalates in Mexico, spilling over into the border states due to failed American war on drugs, stories like Savages will continue to be told. And they should be. The Wild West is wild yet again only now the cowboys don’t just shoot you down in a gentleman’s duel; they horse-whip you and then cut your head off with a chainsaw. Despite its flaws, I have to commend Stone for continuing to make films – good or bad – that say something. He’s not reducing himself to making toothless rom-coms or generic action flicks. Whether it’s atoning for the “greed is good” lifestyle that truly permeated Wall Street or casting his light on the absurd drug war, Stone hasn’t lost his need to comment on present-day America. We need more (preferably younger) filmmakers like this since it doesn’t look like he’ll ever capture that magic that he put on celluloid back in the 80s and 90s. But at least he hasn’t given up the good fight.

And what’s more American than that?

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This week will likely be when the Supreme Court decides on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Signs point toward the end of the individual mandate but that the rest of the law will stay intact. We’ll see.

All I know is that the ending of being denied coverage based on pre-existing conditions is absolutely vital to remain part of any health care reform. People are quick to blame freeloaders for their lack of personal responsibility for going without health care until they’re sick, at which point it’s their fault (so the line of thought goes) they can’t get coverage. That’s a nice black/white story to tell but it’s far from the reality out there for most people, like myself.

Despite being in my 20s and healthy, I was fortune to have had my own personal insurance policy (subsidized by my employer at the time) when I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. It wasn’t great coverage so when I later got a new job that offered fantastic company benefits, I ended my personal policy for theirs. It seemed like a no-brainer at the time. But I had no idea that, given the status quo at the time (and what we’d be returning to if the entire ACA gets struck down by the Court), with that ending of my own policy I gave up any ability to be my own boss since now I have a pre-existing condition that denies me coverage outright. I’ve looked into it: I literally can’t buy my own personal insurance policy even if I wanted to pay super-high premiums. I just turned 30 years old and I’m now completely dependent on working for a large employer that offers group benefits. So much for economic freedom.

The ACA has eliminated pre-existing conditions from being used to deny people coverage — but it only kicks into full effect in 2014. Right now, if you’ve gone six months without coverage and have been denied by insurers during that time, there is a pre-existing plan available courtesy of the ACA. That didn’t happen before; you were just screwed unless you lost everything and were then eligible for Medicaid.

This is just one of the elements of the ACA that people don’t know about. It’s the fault of the Administration and the previous Congress for not explaining this to people better, instead letting those opposing the law focus on “death panels,” the liberty-infringed individual mandate, and other pseudo-issues used to scare people into sticking with the devil they knew rather than opting for the devil they didn’t. I wouldn’t know about the six-month waiting period for the pre-existing condition plan offered via the ACA if I hadn’t looked into it on my own out of curiosity. To be honest, I thought pre-existing conditions were already off-limits — yet another way politicians completely failed to educate the American public on this law. It’s no wonder public opinion is so low for the overall package, yet relatively positive for the specific elements within.

But those who say we should just repeal the whole thing and go back to the way things were, are clueless as to the realities that plagued many people, through no fault of their own, with the previous system. I keep hearing “repeal and replace” as the new slogan from those opposed to the ACA, yet there’s no official plan with which to replace it. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has made it clear that, if elected, he’ll immediately issue waivers to all the states to opt out of Obamacare and his plan will then leave it all up to the states to decide how to handle their own health care. That’s not so much a plan as a total lack of one.

I checked out Romney’s own campaign website and found this graph about negative facts about Obamacare:

Note that the first two issues relate to the length of the legislation: nothing to do with the actual substance of what’s in those pages, merely asserting that the length itself renders the law bad. The number of bureaucracies again don’t explain at all what those roles will be or why they’re there or what they’ll be doing on behalf of the American people. Perhaps they’re useless, perhaps they’re beneficial. But to simply state how many there are as if that number itself means that they’re unnecessary and bad again lacks any substance; what those programs do specifically should determine whether or not we need them. It seems that if Romney had more confidence that those programs were truly worse for America than better, he’d point them out by name and description instead of lumping them all together into one group that, by Republican definition, is bad: bureaucracy.

And then the next two. Tax increases are anathema to the Republican Party so even if people knew where those taxes were coming from or going toward it wouldn’t even matter. Also he doesn’t say over how much time that $500 million is collected — if it’s over 10 years that makes a big difference than if it were over 2 years — but that’s likely the reason that no date is given: it’s a huge number and without context feels even huger.

And then the final stat: $500 billion taken from Medicare to pay for Obamacare. Talk about misleading and hilariously hypocritical. Here Romney is accusing one government program of taking money away from another government program. It’s also not explained why this would be the case, only pointing it out in an effort to scare seniors into thinking that their program is getting slashed. The reality is that the ACA actually adds money to Medicare in some cases: namely closing the Medicare Plan D prescription doughnut hole. And the $500 billion is more of an estimate at cost savings that we just wouldn’t have to pay due to the provisions in the ACA rather than what it sounds like, which is simply taking from one pot of resources and putting it into another. Should the cost-cutting measures in the ACA work (and there are reasons to think that they might not), they should be touted as being beneficial that the $500 billion will be removed from the existing national debt (something that the Republicans are all about) rather than pointed at as being a defect in the law.

There’s also the general fantasy that before the ACA, Americans didn’t have to pay for other people’s health insurance, with a common thread being that if someone chose to eat terribly and ride a motorcycle without a helmet, then that’s fine because that’s that person’s problem if they want to risk it and not have insurance. But this is our problem because if that person goes into the emergency room with a coronary or a terrible motor accident, they’re not going to be denied health care simply if they don’t have insurance. They’ll be treated. And if they can’t pay? Either they go bankrupt and the costs get absorbed by taxpayers or the hospital eats the costs and raises their prices on other paying people (us) to compensate. Either way, we pay. At least with ACA everyone pays for coverage in an effort to keep costs low since we know that using the emergency room as the “insurance” for those who don’t have any is extremely expensive. Of course, this doesn’t matter. The illusion of having the “economic freedom” being impeded upon us by the individual mandate is just far too evil to even look at it from a less partisan, less ideological angle.

Health care is more nuanced than many would paint it as being. It’s not cut-and-dried. But it’s doesn’t really matter since it’s all far too late to look at the benefits of the law and the facts of just what it provides versus what it’s been demonized as doing. It has always been a highly politicized law in one of the more highly politicized eras of our time and it seems unlikely that’ll end any time soon no matter what the Supreme Court decides. It’s hard not to feel completely powerless. This long screed won’t convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with me so I’m just preaching to the choir. What a waste of breath. And nothing I say will influence the Supreme Court, who has already made their decision. And nothing I do will change the political climate because politics are so influenced by money now and I have none. And all of ten people will even read this so what difference does it make.

But I can’t just sit here and not say anything. I have to hope that this does something, something even miniscule. Otherwise it’s just all a bit too much to handle. Here’s hoping I’m incredibly surprised by the result this week on the constitutionality of the ACA. But I’m not holding my breath.

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Typical of our current decrepit state of media that pundits would resort to the “But, he was doing it, too!” defense of Rush Limbaugh’s vile, misogynistic rant against Sarah Fluke. If it was wrong for someone else in the past but they were never called on it, then it’s still wrong for Rush now. I thought we learned that early on in elementary school.

Besides, there’s a big difference between Louis C.K. cracking wise on Twitter and Rush Limbaugh pontificating for hours a day on the radio. Because one is a comedian who spares no one from his raw style of humor (love it or hate it), and the other is the voice of a political party.

The reality is that people are going to say a bunch of shit that could offend us. Fine. Good. Free speech. So, if you’re going to defend Limbaugh, you shouldn’t be blasting others for having made the same infraction as justification for Limbaugh. That makes no sense. If anything, Van Susteren should be praising C.K. for being free to say what he wants and demanding the same respect of the first amendment from people who are angry at Limbaugh.

But, the real issue is that Limbaugh isn’t seen as the shock jock radio personality just-out-to-say-whatever-to-get-ratings that he is. He’s seen as a conservative prophet who, until this recent episode, was untouchable by Republican politicians, even when he said extremely inflammatory, racially-charged or misogynistic statements in the past (of which there are plenty).

The less influence Rush Limbaugh has on the political establishment, the more the defense that he’s just an entertainer can be realized. Until then, it’s different when Rush calls someone a “slut” (and he went far beyond just that) than when any number of comedians do so. Context matters. Of course, he’s still free to say whatever he wants but the reason that C.K. didn’t catch as much flak is because he’s understood to be an entertainer, not someone with massive political influence. No one thinks that C.K. speaks for an entire political party when he spouts off his crass humor. The same can’t be said for Limbaugh.

At first I was on the side of the people who were calling for boycotts of Limbaugh’s advertisers in order to put pressure on him to apologize, or just to punish him for being a flat out dick. I can’t say I blame people. But I end up on the same side as Andrew Sullivan and Bill Maher with saying that it’s never good to suppress free speech, even when we vehemently disagree with it.

The better course of action is to call out the reason why Limbaugh’s statements were considered to be so inflammatory, to question the relationship between Rush Limbaugh and the Republican Party establishment, and to continue to raise our own voices, to use our own free speech to bring attention to this and encourage a positive change. All of that will be better than simply attempting to quiet someone’s voice. I wouldn’t want that to happen to me. Surely I shouldn’t then ask that for someone else, especially when I completely disagree. What better defense you can give to someone if instead of arguing back you simply do everything you can to stop them from speaking?

Even if it means more voices that disgust us, it’s better in the long run to win the battle of ideas. Because when the cacophony is against you, you become the dissenter. Would you want to be argued against or simply silenced?

Photo courtesy of Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office via Wikimedia Commons

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