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

This is a Land of Wolves Now in Sicario

Sicario Poster

In Roman ruled Judea, Jewish zealots used daggers hidden in cloaks to kill their oppressors and were thus dubbed in Latin…”Sicarious”…or dagger men.  Though most of the killing in Denis Villeneuve’s latest master class in vexatious suspense is done with machine guns, there’s a climax building scene where cinematographer god Roger Deakins photographs the character Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) descending into the purple-hued darkness of a drug tunnel as he unsheathes a dagger that will make your skin scrawl.

Alejandro is man of mysterious motives and origins who with the aid of another “DOD consultant” – an eager and smiley Josh Brolin – is determined to ruffle some feathers of a cartel based in Juarez that’s been wreaking havoc as far north as Phoenix, where kidnap retrieval field agent Kate (a tense Emily Blunt) has been recently recruited for these clandestine missions after uncovering a cartel body-dump on her home turf.  Meanwhile on the other side of the border, mild-mannered and weary cop Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez) tries to balance playing football with his adoring son with the unfortunate mechanics of working for the cartel from hell. Continue reading

France, Je T’aime – Part Five: Versailles

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Our epic French adventure ended with an overnight stay in Versailles before flying back to the States.

Versailles is everything you dream and fear it could be (it’s as crowded with tourists as the Louvre), but the grounds are so expansive, if you take the right turns you’ll find yourself in quiet gardens and pathways.  Even lovelier than the grand chateau was Marie Antoinette’s Petite Trianon and Estate – a country oasis still full of grape vines and livestock living an idyllic existence away from the hustle and bustle of the main palace.  It actually makes you feel a bit sorry for the famously beheaded queen – as its rustic design and graceful grasps at tranquility render it clear that poor Marie was in way over her head and simply wanted to escape the madness of the royal court.  It makes for a beautiful walk (the hidden grotto is especially hidden) that was a perfect way to end our epic tour.

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France, Je T’aime – Part Four: Colmar et Strasbourg

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After five days in Paris, we needed an escape from the big city and wanted to experience more of France.  After a comfy, three-hour train ride from the Paris Gare de L’est we found ourselves in the heart of Alsace at Colmar.  Here we made our home base for three days, the middle day of which included a quick jaunt (just a 30 minute train ride from Colmar) to Strasbourg.  Both “cities” boast amazingly quirky rustic architecture, great country-style food, and fantastic wine influenced as much by France as Germany (the region has been a historically hotly contested border territory between the two nations – and when you indulge in it, it’s easy to see it’s worth fighting for).  There is also a more laid-back vibe in Colmar and Strasbourg while still offering up plenty of art and history.

Without further adieu – here are some photographs from Colmar et Strasbourg.

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France, Je T’aime – Part Three: Le Paris Macabre

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Ou est elle la mort toujours future ou passée Apeine est elle presente que deja elle n’est plus – one of the many thought provoking and haunting quotes found deep in Les Catacombes.

One of the most romantic things about Paris is that it will make of anything art – even death.  The underground Catacombs (possibly the most creative urban space repurposing in history – former quarry caves turned into a massive human remains dump/art installation project) are unlike anything you’ve ever seen and boast millions of lost stories and souls (over six million to be kinda exact – in skeleton form and stacked and designed like hell’s Legos!) while the cemeteries still above ground revel in their gorgeous, macabre monumental splendor.

What else is there to say?  Let the ghosts behind the photos whisper their secrets and history to you.

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France, Je T’aime – Part Two: Paris – Musees et Monuments

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Paris was a museum displaying exactly itself. – Jeffrey Eugenidies

Is there a city with more museums and monuments per square-foot than Paris?

I don’t know, but if you find yourself in Paris, you can’t help but stumble into a museum or monument (both historical and religious) while walking her beautiful streets, and the super-savvy Museum Pass will help you stumble into as many as possible in as little time for as few Euros as possible (just be sure to make time for a leisurely lunch with some wine at a street café/brasserie in between).

As Eugenidies states, the entire city is a museum.  And as lovers of art, my fiancée and I couldn’t help but devour as much of Paris as we could.

I won’t ramble about the obvious (the Louvre, the D’orsay, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, etc…) where pictures have always spoken for themselves but I will gush about a fabulous “off the beaten track” museum dedicated to a single artist who I will now claim as one of my favorites.  The intimate and astounding Gustave Moreau Museum at 14 Rue de la Rochefoucauld in a quiet residential neighborhood, housed in the beautiful townhouse he and his mother once called home, is possibly the best example of an artist’s home/studio turned into a museum.  As you ponder his personal artifacts and fascinating works, its impossible not to be swept up into his vision.  But I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking here as well.

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France, Je T’aime – Part One: Paris – Rues et Jardins

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A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of Life. – Thomas Jefferson

Paris is a moveable feast – Ernest Hemingway

I don’t believe I could’ve picked a more perfect period in my life to experience Paris for the first time after having experienced other European capitals (the infinitely more laid-back Amsterdam and Dublin) to ease me into the overwhelming moveable feast that is Paris.  It helped that my fiancée had been to Paris twice before, as while together we came to it with the wide-eyes of outsiders (it’s easy to see why so many ex-pats holed up in Paris for a spell have written some of the kindest words about the city of lights), her tourist knowledge kept us from going mad while wandering the streets and the metro.  Paris is best experienced by walking, and this first post in an epic five piece series capturing our French adventure through pictures will focus on the maddeningly beautiful, confusing streets and the resplendent parks and gardens of Paris the burst with life, secrets and the profound.

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The Spin on the Most Anticipated Films of Fall 2015

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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

Random Places I Have Been in 2015

When I originally conceived this annual feature, the idea was to link pictures of the places I visited with ideas for stories, favorite movies or strange/funny anecdotes.  Well, have I got one for you folks this year.

While spending some time at Big Bass Lake in the Poconos Mountains, jaunts through Gouldsboro to grab provisions were inevitable.  It was on one fateful evening when we first got a glimpse of this saucy mannequin gracing the roof of a house like a pin-up model atop a Corvette’s hood.

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We laughed, but then noticed that mannequin was not alone, and a whole family of mannequins were strewn about the yard in various poses, like they were a family.

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We laughed nervously now, and then on the way back I tried to convince the others to stop so we could grab some pictures.  Suddenly, to our horror, a man (who looked like he walked off the set of True Detective Season One) was coming out of the side of the house (likely for the nightly inspection of his Mannequin Family) just as we were passing…prompting us to keep on passing (praying he didn’t see how slow we passed, with our shocked gawking), only to  pass a few moments later an abandoned double-wide trailer in the high weeds out of which came stumbling three tottering, torn-up, turned-out characters who looked like they wanted to hitchhike if only they could find the road five feet in front of them.  I imagined the trailer as part of the same Mannequin Cult Compound where meth-heads and drunks were lured by the Yellow King of Carcosa to be murdered and turned into mannequins to join the family.  The next morning I forced my significant other to pass by the site again, and this time we noticed another shop that had a creepy mannequin in the window (clearly the other boundary of what I was now referring to as The Poconos Mountain Mannequin Murder Cult Compound).

This time we got some pictures (like the ones above) – and narrowly escaped by the skin of our teeth (alas, no shots of the double-wide trailer were taken for fear of our lives).  And one day, a screenplay will be written.

Oh, and there were also more mundane, relaxing, less horror-movie-like trips to Saratoga Springs, NY (which included a stop at the lovely Yaddo Artist’s Retreat); Washington DC; and as always Cape May and Wildwood.

With a big trip to France next month (and an excursion to Chicago already in the past), it’s been a wonderful, weird and wild traveling year, with the best hopefully yet to come.

Enjoy the photos (presented in chronological order of trip):

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