In Above the Waterfall, Les is a sheriff on the eve of retirement just trying to keep the peace…find some peace…in his small North Carolina mountain town. Becky is an environmentalist with the streak of a poet working as a park ranger and taking refuge in the natural beauty of her environs. While high-end resorts push natives (both human and animal) to the fringes, meth poisons the town’s less hardy residents. Ron Rash, while ever vivid in his descriptions of his Appalachian universe, attempts to go poetic minimalist here, alternating POV’s between Les’ fact-based fatalism and Becky’s yearning artistry. This attempt to balance timely sociopolitical commentary (meth came after the 2008 crash) with a timeless aestheticism (one wonders if Rash is working on an Appalachian Poetry side project) threads thin…the polar opposite of the epic gothic complexity of Serena.
Unlike the meth, much of the novel feels undercooked, as if it began as a short story that Rash later fleshed out, and those who enjoy his modern short stories will connect to this more than those who lean towards his period-piece and cross-generational novels (such as Serena, The Cove or his earlier One Foot in Eden). I fall into the latter group, and thus had mixed feelings for this effort, especially as it devolved into a not-so-compelling and seemingly manufactured “who-dun-it” concerning the poisoning of trout.
There were, of course, as is always the case with Rash, moments of genius that leave indelible marks. Continue reading →
It wouldn’t be the summer movie season without franchise entries galore, and although I proudly shirk most, two series I have always enjoyed are Star Trek and Jason Bourne. The latest episodes opened on back to back weekends and both are entertaining, serviceable entries providing escapism that hit all their required marks. But it was interesting to see how one was almost undone by its director’s ambition with action sequences, while the other was so taut and perfectly executed in its action as to take the film to another level. If Justin Lin’s smash-and-grab acrobatic incoherence is the perfect example of what not to do with action sequences, then Paul Greengrass’ intense hand-held location shooting is the masterclass of modern action direction.
Being with the same cast for the third time around gives Star Trek Beyond a nice lived-in feel. We know the characters so well, as these actors have come into their own doing great jobs with Simon Pegg’s scripted witty and goofy banter that harkens back to classic Treks, especially Karl Urban as Bones. The plot is pretty basic. And since it seems like The Enterprise needs to get destroyed every time now, they wisely dispense with this in the beginning when the crew crash lands on an uncharted planet after having fallen into a giant space booby-trap. On hand as the villain, is a growling Idris Elba who seems to be the go-to guy for villains with crazy accents these days. The flick is fun and quick paced, and the special effects (especially the giant space station/city Yorktown) are colorful, bright and dazzling.
I was happy to see J.J. Abrams move on from the franchise, but Justin Lin was not the right choice to replace him. Lin made quite a name for himself orchestrating some of the most gleefully over-the-top car/truck/tank/plane/whatever smash-em-ups in the otherwise brain-dead Fast & Furious franchise. Sadly, his flair for the outlandish stunt doesn’t translate as well into space. Continue reading →
It’s the dog days of summer and the perfect time of the year to hibernate in the cave of air conditioning and explore the stranger side of Netflix. Two weird films deserve special notice.
What is there to say about Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor? I would say you don’t want to go into a Weerasethakul film cold, but one of his somnambulist odes needs to be your first, so why not this? In a rural hospital for injured and comatose soldiers, an elder nurse (Jenjira Pongpas, also from the director’s masterpiece, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) muses on nationalism and the world both seen and unseen. There she befriends a psychic who claims to speak to the comatose soldiers and delivers messages to loved ones (a wife calmly demands to know the whereabouts of her husband’s alleged mistress). Meanwhile, long dead kings wage battles with the soldiers in their dreams…a story told by two young women claiming to be the physical manifestations of the goddesses to whom the nurse delivers offerings. All of this might sound a bit fantastic, but it’s all presented matter-of-factly as mundane discussions about relationships and everyday life intertwine effortlessly with talk of spooky splendors. Continue reading →
Are you a foodie? Do you believe that fine dining is an art form? Are some of your most treasured memories of being in a certain place at a certain time with your favorite people having that special meal? Well, I would answer a resounding yes to all three questions, and here I share with you some of my most memorable dining experiences eating my way through cities abroad and my own backyard of Philadelphia.
The Best Italian Restaurants…Where You Least Expect Them:
Il Piccolino – Paris, France (8th arrondissment). Ah, Paris, it truly is a movable feast. But who knew, on our last night in the city (in September of 2015) the month before our wedding (we honeymooned before, because that’s how we roll), desperate for something other than the overload of French food we had been eating, and upon the recommendation from the concierge at our hotel (who secured a last minute reservation), we would stumble into the best Italian restaurant we ever experienced? There were probably about ten tables inside (all reserved) and a kitchen in full view (that looked like a kitchen in somebody’s house). From the little old man who provided colorful service, to the fresh veggies they walked across the street to the market to procure as you ordered them, to the hand-made sage ravioli with truffle oil drizzle, to the cutesy-translated deserts “in their honey shirts” – this was quite possibly the best dining experience of our lives.
Zeppoli’s – Collingswood, New Jersey, USA. Less than a mile from our new house is this gem of “a hole in the wall” we indulged in just last week after a multitude of rave reviews from friends and coworkers. There’s maybe a dozen tables inside. Reservations must be made weeks in advance. Upon entering it’s all a bit gentrified-rustic-hipster-is-this-a-dump-or-is-this-chic and unassuming. But WOW! The food (which is Sicilian and far removed from the typical Italian fare you find In NJ-PA-NY) was out of this world and full of flavors my taste buds didn’t know existed. The service was both casual and spot-on where the highly competent wait staff tag-teams the tables and walks around as if they are serving family at their house – never missing a beat or a half-filled water-glass. The chef offers up complimentary after dinner drinks (while the place is otherwise BYOB).
Trattoria Toto da Lucia – Amsterdam, Netherlands (near Vondel Park). Was the food here really that good? I don’t know. It was my last night in the city (in October of 2013), this was right around the corner from my friend’s flat off the Overtoom. The atmosphere was comforting. The wine was flowing. The conversation was bountiful. The food was fresh and made from scratch. I think I had a risotto? It’s a place where I’ll never forget the feeling…of being happy where I was in life at that moment…wrapping up my first trip to Europe, sharing my experiences and my hopes for a travel-filled future with a good friend, and feeling like the world was now my oyster.
In Marrakech, a British couple on the skids looking to reignite their stagnant marriage (an always slightly slimy but marginally honorable Ewan McGregor, the professor, and a delightful Naomie Harris, the barrister) accidentally befriend a bawdy yet charming Russian mobster (a smashingly good Stellan Skarsgard) and his brood of children in peril. Wouldn’t you know it that Russian guy is looking to have help delivering a secret bank file to MI6 and get safe passage for his family on the eve of a shady financial deal his boss would kill people to cover up. Once back in London, one British spy (Damien Lewis, nicely against type as the buttoned-up good guy) makes it his mission to use this information to bring down a certain MP (Jeremy Northam) involved in the corruption.
Susanna White’s jazzed up version of a John le Carre film adaptation is far better and more enjoyable than the ho-hum reviews and the movie’s own slickly off-putting first twenty minutes would have you believe. Continue reading →
The Shallows could be easily dismissed as a guilty pleasure if it weren’t so competently constructed and self-serious.
Nancy (a believable and shockingly likable Blake Lively) is a med-student at a cross-roads in life wondering if she will or won’t become a doctor? She’s also still emotionally scarred by her mother’s cancer-related death. Therefore, she does some soul-searching in Mexico where she successfully finds a secret cove and beautiful beach where her mother spent some time shortly after learning she was pregnant with Nancy. There she takes to the surf and stays out in the shallow waters just a little bit too long…accidentally stumbling upon one insatiable shark’s feeding spot.
It’s not often you get such depth in a character leading a monster movie. So when things get silly and over-the-top (especially in the deliciously inane third act), the viewer is invested enough in Nancy to not give a damn about how patently ridiculous her tete-a-tete with one nasty shark gets. I imagine some animal rights activists will not be happy with the unfair portrayal of sharks…though seaguls (in the form of Nancy’s injured companion “Steve”) certainly get a nice image make-over here. Continue reading →
Well, those ever-expanding genre polls over at Wonders in the Dark continue…and next on their docket is the Top Sci-fi films. Below is the list I submitted, and in the coming weeks and months they will be unveiling their list after all the votes are tabulated. I went with a fairly liberal definition for sci-fi, hence some genre-bending monster and horror films made the cut (but alas, no Leprechaun in Space!). Also making the cut are films like Being John Malkovich, as I saw in the film a “scientific” explanation for how people were able to enter the head of John Malkovich…an unnerving “fiction” for sure!
Sci-fi films from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s (along with Universal Monster movies from the 30’s) ruled my childhood as they were shown in endless loops on local television on the weekends…so there are many sentimental favorites here. The list topper, from one Stanley Kubrick, should come as no surprise for my readers, as it is also a film I routinely name in my revolving Top Five Films of All Time. Coming in at number 2, might surprise some, as it’s also a Universal Monster classic…James Whale’s Frankenstein, a great film based on Mary Shelley’s trailblazing sci-fi-by-way-of-parental-wish-fulfillment-nightmare gothic novel.
The best science fiction films typically tap into some disturbed psychology and common fears…hence its natural and seamless blend with horror (see Alien). Satire, both gentle and militant, mixed with science fiction can also be potent (see the works of Jonze and Verhoeven and Miller). At its most noble, science fiction allows us to dream bigger dreams (see the best of Spielberg and Nolan).
I’ll let the rest of the list below speak for itself – links provided to more detailed write-ups and reviews of applicable films provided by clicking the title. Continue reading →
Mild-mannered, well-groomed, high-stakes, period-piece social satire reigns supreme in Whit Stillman’s sharp film adaptation of a “lost” and incomplete Jane Austen novella. Austen simply titled it after her conniving, widowed but still lively anti-heroine Lady Susan (played with perfectly vivacious high-brow snark by Kate Beckinsale), but Stillman plays on Austen’s “Blank & Blank” template and renames it Love & Friendship. The title itself a rouse, much like the import of debutante season in Stillman’s Metropolitan.
As in the most superior of Austen or Stillman works, high society types are on display in all of their entertaining mannerisms and foibles. The two authors separated by centuries seem a perfect marriage, as humor both scathing and dry, bites and blows across the posh manners, country estates and London townhouses where Susan plots to find both her and her daughter (Morfydd Clark) rich husbands to secure their futures. Never do the characters seem aware of their preposterousness, as if all of life is a parlor game, and their scruples (or lack thereof) never are challenged even as gossip and innuendos challenge their lot and plot. Continue reading →
It’s a potent line spoken by Joel Edgerton as Lucas, a lost soul of a man who recently reunited with his childhood best friend, Roy (Michael Shannon, perfectly run-down but not out, as always) and now finds himself in a fine mess, waxing about the nature of people and the world with Sarah (a quietly fervid Kirsten Dunst) in a hotel room hoping that Roy (who “believes in something” Sarah’s fatalist romanticizes) makes it back from wherever he just went with his and Sarah’s son Alton (Jaeden Leiberher), a sick little boy with special powers wanted by the cult from which he came and the US government. They’ve got to get the kid to a very specific place for a very specific reason (to fulfill a destiny?), but they don’t know what or why that is.
Everyone in the film ends up believing in Alton’s powers, but all have their own perverted take. The cult sees him as their chosen one, the government as a weapon. Early on in the film Lucas and Roy hide out with Alton at an ex-cult member’s house (played with perfectly subverted creepiness by David Jensen). In the middle of the night, the whole house shakes and Roy and Lucas run into Alton’s bedroom where Jensen’s character is doing “that eye thing” with the child – perhaps a creative veil meant to symbolize child abuse at the hands of the religious? Later in the film after Lucas and Sarah’s conversation about belief, Roy duct-tapes a Kevlar vest to Alton’s small frame (for his protection, of course) which eerily echoes the images of child suicide bombers with bombs strapped to their chests (they, too, fulfilling a destiny). Yes, indeed, we got people dying (and killing) everyday believing in things. This kind of subtext is becoming Jeff Nichol’s trademark, and where his writing and directing is able to build tension and elicit primal emotional responses from his audience.
In this way, Nichols masterfully uses the science fiction genre as a vehicle to explore modern-day societal fears. Continue reading →
How quickly can things escalate? How much bureaucratic red-tape, coordination with allies and “referring-up” (where the political ramifications are cynically weighed with the moral implications) needs to happen before a decision can be made? What is the human price of preemptive strikes against known terrorists? These are the questions weighing heavily in the razor-sharp new thriller, Eye in the Sky.
Colonel Powell (Helen Mirren), who commands a drone squad surveying Kenya and other spots in the horn of Africa, wakes up one day to find three of the top ten terrorists on the East African most wanted list have gathered in a suburban home in the middle of a militia occupied neighborhood. The original orders from higher up (led by a Alan Rickman in one of his final roles) were to survey and capture (one of the terrorists is a British citizen), but that’s too dangerous with the militiamen around. When a bug-drone confirms they are preparing suicide vests inside, Powell pounds the drums to kill. But when an innocent girl selling bread in the market area outside the house enters the kill zone, things get even more complicated and everyone (and I mean everyone…at one point the British Foreign Minister is rung-up while he’s on the toilet with food poisoning in Singapore) must weigh in before the strike can be executed. Continue reading →