The Death of the American Dream in 99 Homes

99 Homes

Michael Shannon’s character Rick Carver spouts some great lines in the tense and heartbreaking new film from Ramin Bahrani, 99 Homes.  At one point he tells his morally conflicted protégé in crooked evictions and house flipping, Dennis Nash (played by Andrew Garfield, raw but with a somewhat questionable Southern accent), “America doesn’t bail out losers.  America bails out winners.  It was made of, for and by winners.”  Yeah, eff the People!  No…what?  Wait a minute.  It was moments like that, where sitting in a near empty theater on the weekend of this indie’s wider release into multiplexes, I thought that a savvier studio would be playing the line in endless teaser loops and marketing this as the flip side to Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street.  Maybe that would’ve gotten more people into the seats.  But the wounds 99 Homes pours salt on are too fresh… and as successful as it is from a tactical perspective (well-written, well-acted, well-directed and timely), I don’t know if this could ever be a financial hit.

In the fall-out of the housing crisis, Florida-based construction worker/everyday handyman Dennis Nash suddenly has no new homes to build and loses the one he shares with his part-time hairdresser Mom (Laura Dern – the epitome of lower-middle class optimism and angst) and young son (Noah Lomax) to foreclosure.  Into his life steps the non-nonsense, slick-talking, worn down but looking up real-estate agent, Rick Carver, who evicts default homeowners and then runs crooked deals to flip the houses where he screws the banks and the government (and anyone else who he crosses paths with).  Carver offers Nash a helping hand, but it’s akin to making a deal with the devil, and he keenly warns Nash, “Real estate should never be personal.  Don’t get sentimental about a house.  It’s just a box.”  But it’s a box that represents the American Dream for so many, who through predatory lending practices, got screwed out of their homes after the housing bubble crash of 2008 that sent the US and the world tumbling into the Great Recession. Continue reading

The Night of the Hunter and The Tree of Life Essays for Wonders in the Dark

I recently had two essays published on Wonders in the Dark as part of their monumental Countdown on the Top Films about Childhood where I put fresh eyes on two beloved films, The Tree of Life and The Night of the Hunter.  Readers might recall I published the ballot I submitted to WitD not too long ago.  And while my personal rankings and choices might differ from the final results after all was tabulated…these two fine films still made the cut as follows:

The Tree of Life - Submerged

Coming in at #38 was The Tree of Life and here’s an excerpt of what I had to say at WitD:

And by weaving the life of an ordinary family (and the childhood of an ordinary man) into the grand story of the cosmos, Malick shows that every life is as insignificant and as a monumental as we want it to be.  We provide meaning to what we want to provide meaning to.  If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, did it make a sound?  Our observing of a thing gives it meaning, changes its definition.  For a film where characters frequently talk to their god in one-sided prayer, Malick’s thesis points to both the meaning and meaningless of it all.  We answer our own prayers.

Click here for the full essay and to join the conversation.

Night of the Hunter 2

Coming it at #6 was The Night of the Hunter and here’s an excerpt of what I had to say at WitD:

The singer in the opening of Charles Laughton’s 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter invites viewers to dream along with its young protagonist, John Harper (Billy Chapin), but what transpires in the film is a pure nightmare where religious fanaticism begs us to treat everyone like children and envision a world where everyone is fair game for evil.  He’s just a poor kid whose dad was just hung for murder (but not before entrusting his son to hide his stash of money), whose mother (Shelly Winters) is helpless, and whose little sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), needs minding.  Into his life steps the world’s most vile step-father, Harry Powell (the magnificently monstrous Robert Mitchum) – a widow-killer and money-hungry would-be preacher who wows the simpletons of the small towns he invades with his fire-and-brimstone rhetoric.  But John is on to him from the get-go (he knows this jack-ass just wants the cash), and John rails against the man and his worldview.

Click here for the full essay and to join the conversation.

Written by David H. Schleicher

The Spin on the Most Anticipated Films of Fall 2015


While the best film of 2015 may very well have already been released (haven’t seen Phoenix?  well, you must), it doesn’t mean Hollywood won’t be crowding the autumnal multiplexes with high-end genre pieces and prestige flicks stacked like fallen leaves piled up at a suburban curb.

Here’s my Spin on the most anticipated films of Fall 2015:

10.  Spectre – d. Sam Mendes – November 6th – It’s the latest Bond after what many feel was one of the greatest Bonds.  I’m tired of Craig, but Mendes is a force to be reckoned with. And with Blofeld added to the mix finally, this one should set off like a Molotov cocktail.

9.  The Witch – d. Robert Eggers – Wait, this isn’t until 2016 maybe? What the hell, this screams Fall! – Exactly…what in the hell is this?  First time director Eggers displays a style in the trailer that answers the question, what if Terence Malick directed a horror movie?  Well, I’m intrigued.

8.  Beasts of No Nation – d. Cary Joji Fukunaga – October 16th – This will be an interesting one to watch, as this tale of child soldiers in Africa is Fukunaga’s first stab at cinematic greatness coming off True Detective, and it’s the first original film released by Netflix who will be playing it in limited theaters and streaming.  This could change the game on multi-platform releasing (especially of independent films), or it could be met with a shrug.

7. Suffragette – d. Sarah Gravon – October 23rd – Buzz is good, the cast is great, the story is powerful and the trailer is strong.  It would be hard to imagine this one going wrong, but stranger things have happened.  Wanna see Mulligan in another great part?  Check out this year’s earlier Far From the Madding Crowd.

6. Black Mass – d. Scott Cooper – September 18th – Johnny Depp tries to erase bad memories of Pirates, Tonto and Transcendence (oh dear lord what in the world was that piece of crap supposed to be apart from a cure for insomnia?) in this movie that has the right look and swagger to be a mob genre classic.  Will Cooper finally knock one out of the park and join the big boys? Continue reading

And Now It’s Dark with Amy Winehouse


In David Lynch’s seminal classic Blue Velvet (which thematically shares with Amy a tortured dark-haired chanteuse manipulated by her own internal demons as well as the vile men in her life), the line, “And now it’s dark…” is used as a secret password into a nightmarish world lurking underneath white picket fences.  Later in Mulholland Drive, Lynch meditated more deeply on the tortured female soul, the flickering white lights after a failed actress’ suicide eerily like the flashes of the paparazzi’s cameras.  Asif Kapadia briefly muses on the cameras that blinded Amy Winehouse’s soul as well, but his humanist documentary is so much more than just a portrayal of the archetypal tortured artist.  Amy was a tortured soul long before the celebrity-obsessed cameras devoured what little was left of her.

Watching her meteoric rise and subsequent crash and burn play out in the media as it happened, I had this notion of Amy Winehouse as some meta-dramatist (with a killer voice, sassy attitude and old-school jazzy vibe) who was hell-bent on living the stereotypical hard-drinking lifestyle of a musician.  I baked in my head a stale soufflé of her as someone who wanted to drink because she thought it brought out the best in her art, because she thought that’s the way a real jazz musician had to behave, and that harder drugs were just a doorway to another level.  I couldn’t have been more wrong about poor Amy, who in her own words and rare archival footage, makes it clear she was most brilliant when she was sober and wrestling her demons through music, and that all the drinking and drugs were self-medication for when she couldn’t find her voice, not necessarily her literal voice, but her hard-fought catharsis in pouring out her soul through songs that filled the voids that had existed in her life since childhood (which was not so much Grand Guignol, but ordinarily sad in its universal familial strife).  I had no idea her lyrics (always noted for their cunning wordplay that lent itself so beautifully to her signature annunciation, lilt, rises and attitude) were so literally literal.  They often deceived a listener into thinking they were metaphors, but they weren’t.  She was not one to mince words.  Her albums were her autobiographies.  And they painted a tragic tale. Continue reading

A Shark Tank of Suitors are Far From the Madding Crowd

Far from the Madding Crowd Carey Mulligan

The heroine of Thomas Vinterberg’s intoxicating adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s literary classic, Far from the Madding Crowd, Bathsheba Everdene (an effervescent and headstrong Carey Mulligan) reminded me of one of those cocksure entrepreneurs on Shark Tank who comes in, lights the sharks on fire, instantly gets an amazing offer from one of them, but then hesitates to close the deal because they want to hear all of the offers from the other sharks.

The filmmakers want you to think modernly about Bathsheba, a woman ensconced in patriarchal 19th-century British countryside social mores but waaaaay ahead of her time in thoughts and actions, because otherwise this would be another run-of-the-mill period romance where a woman is swept off her feet.  Bathsheba is a truly independent woman (she’s inherited a farm from her uncle, runs it herself, and proudly has no need for a husband) and Mulligan plays her with equal parts girlish coyness and womanly confidence, all sly smiles and looks with a twinkle of her nose, her loose impetuous strands of hair filtering the drunken sunlight splashed across the gorgeous Dorset hills.  It’s no wonder every man wants her, and she could command any many she wants. Continue reading

Ex Machina

Ex Machina

Is Ex Machina yet another in a long line of Promethean caution tales?  Or is it a misogynistic nightmare about the evil extremes of genius?  Or wait…is it in actuality a crypto-feminist manifesto?  Or…is it like Dave Eggers The Circle or Spike Jonze’s Her a satire of a somewhat scary, occasionally lovely “watch out or we’ll be doomed in a split second if we aren’t careful” future just around the corner?  With its slick production values and blank slate aesthetic, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is all of these things and none of them.

When a young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) working for a Google-gone-mad-like company gets chosen to spend a week at the founder’s (the ever chameleon-like and always engaging Oscar Isaac) hideaway estate to work on a secret project, and it turns out to be the testing of new AI (the weirdly alluring and borderline creepy Alicia Vikander), it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where this is all going.  Continue reading

While We’re Young


Was it really that smart of Noah Baumbach to open his latest “comedy” by making us read a scene of dialogue from a play?  Even if it is an Isben play…and even if it is pertinent to the film’s major theme…which is essentially beware of the young?  Hidden beyond this stroke of semi-alienating pretension is an almost accessible, quasi-mainstream comedy, Baumbach’s most enjoyable (though far from best) yet.

Well, at least it immediately lets you know you’re in Baumbach territory.  Our main characters are a documentarian/professor (Ben Stiller) and his producer wife (Naomi Watts).  Only in movies, especially movies made by people like Woody Allen or Noah Baumbach (just like in any Franzen-esque pseudo-literary novel where everyone is a writer) is everyone involved in movies or the arts.  This once seemingly hip middle-aged couple have lost their mojo, and they try to get it back by befriending a couple who came to one of his classes, an aspiring documentarian (Adam Driver) and his pretty, young artisanal ice-cream making wife (Amanda Seyfried).  I balked at what the film was trying to make me believe…that Adam Driver (one of the most unlikable actors gracing the horizon of stardom) was supposed to be this generous, non-ironic, admirable seeker of truth and drinker of life.  Ah, but alas…(spoiler alert!) things are not all what the seem…or in Driver’s case, turn out to be exactly what I suspected…this hipster douche acting like a hipster sage was in actuality…a hipster douche!

As is always the case, Baumbach peppers the film with sharp observational (sometimes judgmental) comedy and sound-bites amidst his odes-to-Woody conversational set pieces.  Continue reading

Spotlight on The Independent Arts: The Better Angels

Better Angels 3

A. J. Edwards, a student and artistic son of Terrence Malick, opens his debut film with cold, haunting shots of the Lincoln Memorial.  A crackling Malickian voice-over of a backwoods fella talkin’ bout being Lincoln’s cousin and having lived with him for a spell when he was just a boy in Indiana begins to shape the story as the image moves to a rambling creak.  Water is transporting us back in time, back into a dream, and we’re suddenly there watching young Abe make his way in the world.  The film ends just a brief 90 minutes later with a chilling bookend…a nicely appointed cabin in Illinois (a clear step-up from the backwoods cabins of his father) where that same warbling cousin waxes about the moment Lincoln’s beloved stepmother (Diane Kruger) learns of his passing.  It’s the grand beautiful stuff of myth.

Watching The Better Angels and comparing it to the work of Malick is akin to comparing painters from the same family.  One can’t help but think of the generations of Wyeths or Renoirs.  Edwards does something Malick never did – he films in black and white – but the movements and framing and pacing and focus are eerily the same.  A low shot panning up to an open gate…or door…or window.  The actors and actresses moving about as if in interpretative dance.  Beautiful music.  Ethereal cinematography of nature.  There’s one shot of Lincoln’s mother (Brit Marling) on her death-bed where Edwards actually photographs her last breath…you see it hang in the air after her exhale, and its captured in a perfect light.  Dust and smoke and light…the black and white photography does wonders for all that Edwards and Malick love to capture.

Continue reading

There are a lot of Assholes at the Bottoms of Hills in Leviathan


A corrupt mayor of a remote Russian fishing town (Roman Madyanov) waxes bluntly that “there are a lot of assholes at the bottoms of hills” but if his character proves anything, there are even bigger assholes at the top.  He comes across like a Russian version of Toronto’s own Rob Ford – only without the charm.

Another character, the gruff fish-mongering wife of a cop (an excellent Anna Ukulova), muses on men while watching her rambunctious young son, “At first you’re pretty and then they kill you.”


Andrey Zyaginstev’s Jobian melodrama, Leviathan, is full of these Russian-isms.  Bookended by bleak but beautiful seaside photography from Mikhail Krichman shown in perfectly framed shots scored by Philip Glass’ tense minimalist music, the film tells the tale of Koyla (Aleksey Serebryakov – who looks ripped from the stone-cold misery of a Ingmar Bergman film), a man who the mayor, the system, and the church demand be put in his place.  His ancestral home has been seized by the government at an unfair price.  His wife (a seductively sad and emotive Elena Lyadova) is sleeping with his lawyer and friend (Vladimir Vdovichenkov ).  His teenage son (Sergey Pokhodaev) is surly and depressed.

The characters in the film drink, eat, go shooting and screw each other in more ways than one. Continue reading

The 9th Annual Davies Awards in Film


A Look Back at 2014:

Cinematically 2014 was a long, bizarre year that seemed like it would never end, much like many of the runtime-be-damned films we watched.  It’s hard to pinpoint a defining theme as filmmakers were all over the map and seemed to be throwing everything and the kitchen sink at viewers, though time travel (in fantastic terms in Interstellar and The Edge of Tomorrow while in more realistic terms in Boyhood) and biopics (especially at the end of the year) seemed to make the most compelling cases.

Strangely I found myself disconnected from many of the overly praised but still very high quality “independent” films (Boyhood, Birdman and Selma) while I found enormous entertainment value in the smartly crafted mainstream masterpieces (Interstellar and Gone Girl).

Early in the year we were treated to some of the strangest and most unnerving independent fare with the cold Canadian entry Enemy and the ever-odd Under the Skin, both slow-burn psychological thrillers that could make David Lynch squirm and swoon.  At the end of the year, when it came to the biopics, The Imitation Game showed us how it should be done even when going by-the-numbers, while The Theory of Everything showed us how wrong by-the-numbers can go.

When it came to up-and-coming directors, Jeremy Saulnier (with Blue Ruin) and Jennifer Kent (with The Babadook) left us on the edge of our seats begging for more, while Ava DuVernay basked in the glory of being the first to attempt a MLK biopic with the noble Selma.

On the veteran auteur front, David Fincher delivered a dark comedy for the ages with Gone Girl while Christopher Nolan aimed for the stars with the year’s most ambitious and memorable effort, Interstellar.  Meanwhile in a tale of two Andersons, Wes Anderson delivered his best yet with The Grand Budapest Hotel while Paul Thomas Anderson delivered his least yet with Inherent Vice…which was still a pleasing effort and a notch about Wes’ best. Continue reading