Review: Easy as ‘Pi’. Not really.

Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky

Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky

I am pretty certain that most people who enjoy certain movies entertain the notion of repeat viewings for those movies. Most people don’t say, “Wow, that was a fantastic movie, and I am never going to watch it again!” Anyone who has seen a Darren Aronofsky film, however, knows exactly what I’m talking about. Pi (1998) is Aronofsky’s first feature-length film, and his least scarring one.

Still a little scarring. It wouldn’t be Aronofsky without psychological scarring.

Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) is a mathematician obsessed with finding the key number that will unlock all the secrets of the universe, from nature to language to the stock market. Inspired by the Fibonacci Sequence, Max consults his friend, mentor, and former professor Sol Robeson (Mark Margolis) on the existence of this key number. Max encounters a mysterious number while writing a program to predict stock market fluctuations, which causes his computer’s motherboard to shut down completely. While delving deeper into this enigmatic number that seemingly holds so much power, Max meets Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkmen), an Orthodox Jew and fellow mathematician. As Max discovers more about his mystery number, he also realizes that he is not the only one who wants their hands on the number.

Aronofsky is one of several apt masters of the psychological thriller genre. He is talented at viewer confusion, and a downright genius when it comes to stretching our minds to the breaking point of both logical understanding of the film’s universe and our internal sense of imagination. If you had to reread that sentence (like I did to make sure it was grammatically correct), a repeated view of Pi might be part of your near future.

Don’t be discouraged! This is not admittance of intellectual defeat or of stunted psychological cognition. It is merely evidence that Aronofsky is a fantastic storyteller in both writing and direction. Before the Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) revolution that created the demand for twist endings in movies, not very many films were gritty in nature, nor did they offer viewers the luxury of having their minds blown. I have talked about this before, but I love films with ambiguous endings. I love movies where I go “What. The. Hell”, get mad for a week, go into a theory/analysis research spree, and then accept that the movie was fantastic.

My favorite reaction to movies ever.

So the plot is a tad bit hard to follow at times. What about non-narrative aspects of the film? Well, my dear internet friends, there is not much luck in the cinematography/color/lighting areas if you are looking for clarification. The film is shot in high-contrast black and white, a telltale sign of Aronofsky’s inspiration of German Expressionist films. In each shot of the film, the frames are both over- or under-exposed, casting harsh shadows and mostly eliminating detail from the characters and their surroundings. Although this can be frustrating at times, it allows the viewer to focus a little more on the plot.

Aside from Mark Margolis, who most notably (to me and other Breaking Bad fans) portrayed Tio Salamanca, the cast consisted of actors I am not familiar with. For many of the actors in Pi, this was their first major role in a feature film. Retrospectively, I think this was another good move on Aronofsky’s part; placing actors in the film who were recognizable in 1998 would have adversely affected the narrative flow by distracting viewers.

Pi does not necessarily have a distinct message meant for the viewer. It is not a clean ending by any means. However, it is a testament to the quality of independent and low-budget films. It is also a testament to quality thrillers in general. For those about to have their mind fried: it’s a glorious feeling. Embrace it.

I SAID EMBRACE IT.

Rating: A-

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Review: ‘Friends with Kids’ is the child of predictability and occasional humor

Written and Directed by Jennifer Westfeldt

Written and Directed by Jennifer Westfeldt

I’ve been watching a lot of films lately that have been written and directed by the same person; that person may even have placed themselves in a starring role in their film. In my opinion, this usually leads to the director/writer/actor becoming a bit sparse in all areas of the film. Friends with Kids (2011) is no exception. Although overwhelmed with a talented and recognizable comedic cast, I think director/writer/actor Jennifer Westfeldt had her hands full, and was not able to pull off a clever and original romantic comedy as she intended.

Jason (Adam Scott, Parks and Recreation) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) have been inseparable since fourth grade. They are intelligent, entertaining, and successful professional adults, and their biggest attribute is that they are both unattached in the Significant Other department. They have two sets of couple friends; Missy (Kristen Wiig, SNL) and Ben (Jon Hamm, Mad Men), and Leslie (Maya Rudolph, SNL) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd). Both couples are married and eventually have children. Jason and Julie decide that they want the best of both worlds – to have a child, but to also be unattached to find ‘The One’. They have a child together, while remaining in the dating pool. As they raise their child, things become muddled and they must find what relationships are truly made of.

Progressiveness is the emphasis of the film. By emphasis, I actually mean The Glaring Obviousness of Attempting to be “Open-Minded”. The audience is treated to the gloriously character-defining scene of Jason’s cell phone ringing on a copy of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I will admit one thing – I am openly religious. There you go, Internet! I will watch as all my readers slowly shake their heads and vow to never read a Broke Student Review again. I am not admitting this because I disliked Jason’s blatant anti-theist character; in fact, I didn’t mind it at all. I am admitting it because at the very beginning of the film, the framework of the plot flashed before my eyes in these few frames of the book’s visibility.

Am I supposed to know the climax so early into the movie?

Maybe this was Westfeldt’s intention: to present a progressive portrayal of modern relationships in order to make a satirical statement on their superficiality. In that case, Westfeldt did a fantastic job. If this was not her intention, then the film is disappointingly predictable.

Even if the film could have done better if Westfeldt left at least one thing to someone with less on their plate, I still enjoyed the movie because of the casting. The cast had incredible chemistry. Four of the actors (Hamm, Rudolph, Wiig, O’Dowd) had worked together before in the film Bridesmaids (2011) and again were able to prove their harmonious diversity. All of the actors were able to move fluidly from comedic to dramatic execution. The film was entertaining if only to watch the relationships of all the characters unfold.

If you, like Jason and Julie, are someone who considers themselves a progressive or open-minded individual, then Friends with Kids might be a pleasant and surprising cinematic endeavor for you to embark. However, if you are like me, then this movie will leave you will a furrowed brow and many exasperated sighs of “uh…duh!”

When you’re a proponent of traditional relationships and watch this movie.

Rating: B

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Review: ‘Take This Waltz’…actually, please don’t take anything at all.

Written and Directed by Sarah Polley

Written and Directed by Sarah Polley

Have you ever had that moment where you start something you think is going to be great, and you plough through the entire thing believing that it’s going to get better, and then at the end you wish you could have gotten that time back?

No? Well I have.

That is the essence of Take This Waltz (2011). If I have ever been so sure of something in my life, it’s that I don’t want you to waste one hour and 55 minutes of your life. It’s hard to find someone who can take talented actors like Michelle Williams and Seth Rogan and make their performances so terribly awkward that it’s hard to sit through one minute without wanting to gouge your eyes out.

Margot (Michelle Williams) is a pamphlet writer for national and historic parks and is (allegedly) happily married to cookbook author Lou (Seth Rogan). On a business trip, Margot meets an attractive man Daniel (Luke Kirby) who was at the same park and sat next to her on the plane ride home. Daniel happens to be Margot’s neighbor. He is also a rickshaw driver and an artist who is afraid to showcase his work. Geraldine (Sarah Silverman) is Lou’s sister and hangs out with Margot. Margot falls in love with Daniel over the course of the film and must figure out her life.

I honestly felt I missed something about the movie because I dislike it so much. I think the overall message of the film, if approached in at least a neutral manner, would be that life is fleeting and you need to appreciate it for what it is, and live in the present. However, the way that director Sarah Polley approached this message was that you need to be as selfish as humanly possible, and you need to be a despicable human being.

When nothing about the movie makes sense.

I love Michelle Williams. She has been a fantastic actor in every film I have seen her in (Brokeback Mountain, Blue Valentine, Shutter Island), not because she is a powerhouse actor, but because she is so subtle and understated in her performances. Seth Rogan is also a surprisingly talented dramatic actor; 50/50 is a great example of his versatility and ability to handle comedy and drama with ease. Even Sarah Silverman has the ability to switch between her rough humor and a sense of seriousness.

For some reason, when these actors are all put together on one set, the resulting product is a nightmare. The actors had no chemistry with each other; the “quirky” romance going on between Margot and Lou was forced and uncomfortable. The supposed passion between Margot and Daniel was nonexistent. Every time they were together, I was left squirming in my seat, praying that the scene would end.

The director’s idea of passionate romance, apparently.

The entire film was a neurotic mess. The dialogue was extremely non sequitur; the actors seemingly did not realize how to effectively deliver their lines, or rather, the screenplay was merely a poor writing job and had dialogue that didn’t make sense. Whole scenes could be eliminated and the plotline would have been the same. Sarah Silverman’s character didn’t even need to be in the film. There was entirely too much color in the movie as well. This seems like a trivial complaint, but the cinematographer’s use of color was overwhelming and made every scene confusing and muddled.

Most of the film was pointless. It merely told the story of unremarkable people who only wished to live for themselves; like Seinfeld but not funny or clever. I can appreciate a film that poses realist situations, but Take This Waltz created a series of events that could have made a compelling story, and instead turned it into a sequence of actions performed by self-serving, artificially creative people.

If you’re the kind of person that enjoys the allure of car wrecks – that feeling of disaster But You Just Have To Watch…watch Take This Waltz. For the rest of you who don’t like train wrecks, my advice to you is to just avoid it.

Rating: C-

Official Trailer

 

 

Review: ‘Tiny Furniture’ justifies twentysomething angst

Written and Directed by Lena Dunham

Written and Directed by Lena Dunham

The one thing I cannot accuse Tiny Furniture (2010) of is a lack of sincerity. Although not stated explicitly, the film is most likely based off of writer, director, and lead Lena Dunham’s (Girls) life after graduating. I can’t say that I agree with everything the film presents, but I can say that the controversy portrayed in the film exists with purpose, and I can trust that Lena speaks with experience on the topic of young adult struggles.

Way to go, all people with ages starting with 2 and ending with numbers 0-9!

Aura (Lena Dunham) is a recent college graduate and aspiring filmmaker who moves back home so that she may figure out a career plan. She is both supported and intimidated by her successful artist/photographer of a mother, Siri (Laurie Simmons, Lena’s actual mother) and her accomplished and ambitious high school sister Nadine (Grace Dunham, Lena’s actual sister). As Aura attempts to reconnect with old friends, she meets her old British friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirk, Girls), and a fellow filmmaker Jed (Alex Karpovsky, Girls) who she recognizes from his distinctive Youtube videos. At her job as a day hostess, she meets the sous chef Keith (David Call) who she connects with over drugs. Lena makes and breaks friendships through literature, art, drugs, and sex as she tries to sort what she wants to do with the rest of her life.

This film is a precursor to Lena’s Girls sensation; it hosts many of the amateur actors that will star in her show, but the film also covers a few of the same topics that Girls discusses. Although I have not witnessed the controversial content of Girls’ Holy Grail of Crazy Things Young People Do, I can imagine that this film and the television show have the same feel. What I’m talking about is the feeling that could only come from a creative director who was in the moment of the experiences she depicts; you can be sure that every choice, from the dialogue to the cinematography to the editing, was the choice that most purely highlighted the mindset of a confused and directionless 22-year-old.

I enjoyed the film more for the dialogue than for any other major aspect. Lena is a talented young screenwriter, in my opinion. Although the literary and cultural references peppered throughout the film were ham-handed (to put it modestly), and there was enough character pretention to indulge in seconds, I found the dialogue’s lack of closure to be completely refreshing. Oftentimes, my generation can be fooled into believing and expecting there to be a great sense of conclusion with almost anything, most specifically in films. Rarely does the twenty-something crowd gravitate towards ambiguity; we most appreciate resolution – a sense of clean finality that does not leave us craving.

Contemplate the meaning of the film, and of this amazing GIF.

Tiny Furniture serves a dual purpose: to show us that what we know is extremely influential and not always beneficial, and that what we don’t know is not to be discouragement. The greatest problem that Aura faces throughout the film is that she is trying to figure things out. Although sometimes she feels like a failure for this, it is not so. She will shape her own character through her experiences; the audience is allowed to share in Aura’s mistakes and accomplishments in the journey to finding herself.

Lena Dunham is not an amateur filmmaker, although she is still young. As an aspiring filmmaker myself, this is of great relief to me. This film, in my opinion, is a great resource for young people in that the character of a filmmaker is not masked by the final outcome of the film. Our adolescent experiences and sufferings are not blotches on our otherwise admirable track records; instead, they can be used as a most unadulterated form of artistic expression.

Rating: B-

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Review: ‘The Giant Mechanical Man’ is not quite a giant of a film

Written and Directed by Lee Kirk

Written and Directed by Lee Kirk

 

There is a certain quote from the film that I believe forms my reaction to the movie: “I never believed in you, Tim. I just thought you were charming.” This seems harsh, I know. Let me explain myself.

Yeah, I said it!

The Giant Mechanical Man (2012) is about thirty-somethings Janice (Jenna Fischer, The Office), a recently fired temp, and Tim (Chris Messina), a street performer, as they struggle to find direction in adult life. Both Janice and Tim find jobs at the local zoo; they are desperate to find a job so that they can prove to the people in their life that they are on the right track. Janice and Tim connect with each other because they both feel lost in a world that assumes that by their age, they have their life figured out.

The framework for a good movie is all in place. The premise of the film is pretty interesting – they’re both directionless zooworkers, Tim being the title character – the Giant Mechanical Man. There is even a good assembly of a cast – Chris Messina, in my viewing experience, is a rather versatile actor. Jenna Fischer is great as the soft-spoken love interest. I even liked Topher Grace, who plays the douchebag motivational speaker Doug (a little too well…). The actors had good chemistry together, most notably between Chris and Jenna. This was not the problem.

The movie, which is a quirky indie romantic comedy, definitely has the faux-indie feel. Think ‘poor’ people living in spacious loft apartments and a soundtrack that would have all the vinyl-loving kids in coffee shops swooning. I’m not sure if this was a poorly researched attempt to make a rom com attractive to the art house crowd, or if director Lee Kirk actually believed that the kinds of life portrayed in the film are actually real.

I think the problem was mainly in the screenplay. The dialogue between characters seemed as though it was written by a fifteen-year-old who was trying to put themselves in a deeply mature existential crisis, but didn’t quite have the words to describe their feelings.

Basically the entire movie.

 

I don’t have a problem with the premise of the movie. Finding direction in one’s life can be very difficult at times, especially when society is so fast-paced. The film is a good reflection on the arrested development of Western society’s young adults – we are told at such an early age that we have to have a definite syllabus of our life, and when we question our blueprint, we feel like outsiders in a world that seems to have it all together.

The audience identification in the film is very accurate, I admit. I am not in my thirties, but I know that my lack of a five-year-plan for myself sets me apart from my peers. What will I do with my life? The Giant Mechanical Man makes the point that there is no strain to know exactly what you want in life, but that you know what you don’t want. That is what experiences, mistakes, and being alive are for: to learn. That is not a cheesy message – that is reality.

Rating: B-

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Review: ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’, but your roller coaster of emotions are

Directed by Colin Trevorrow Written by Derek Connolly

Directed by Colin Trevorrow
Written by Derek Connolly

Since the popularity of Juno (2008) propelled the quirky indie genre into the mainstream, there has been a difficult distinction between truly original and merely mediocre. Many films cranked out by the ‘indie’ factory claim imagination, but instead are reproductions of the same “weird is the new cute” formula (cough, Zooey Deschanel, cough), which purely cause an oversupply of Manic Pixie Dream Girls who teach faux-hipster boys that all girls need to be loved is a Smiths mix tape and left-over teenage angst.

Diane Keaton did it best in Annie Hall (1977); however, and I declare this with upmost sincerity, Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), is a truly unique endeavor by director Colin Trevorrow. Darius (Aubrey Plaza, Parks and Recreation) is a college graduate/magazine intern with a difficult past. The magazine receives an advertisement reading “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.”

One of the magazine’s writers, Jeff (Jake Johnson, New Girl) suggests investigating the story. Jeff brings along Darius and another intern Arnau (Karan Soni) to do the actual work, while he searches for an old high school love. Darius, who herself is extremely curious about the ad, meets the supposed time-traveler Kenneth (Mark Duplass, The Mindy Project), and is immediately fascinated by him. The film follows Darius as she tries to determine what is true; with Kenneth, with time-traveling, and with her own future.

This movie is truly fascinating in so many layers. There is enough going on throughout the entire film to keep you entertained; no minute is unnecessary, and every minute is spectacular. The acting is solid and understated – I really appreciated how the entire cast seemed to step back from trying to make a big deal of their own performances, so that the film as a whole could succeed.

We officially approve of subtle acting!

We officially approve of subtle acting!

I admit, I am a total fan girl of Aubrey Plaza. Not many pretty girls can successfully pull off deadpan, but Plaza does it so fantastically; she is the anchor that keeps the bizarre happenings throughout the film grounded in a hilariously sardonic reality. Jake Johnson, although I am not familiar with his television talent, pulls off raging-douchebag-with-secret-deep-emotions extraordinarily well. Mark Duplass is just plain cute as a crazy guy obsessed with martial arts and science fiction.

I was wary of underground references and burger-phones at the beginning of the film, and save for a scene where every character is wearing horn-rimmed glasses (an apparent requirement for all indie films), the dialogue was extremely natural and genuine. The screenwriter, Derek Connolly, realized a clever script does not equal a gratingly hipster script. I was thankful that this film was not part of the contest to cram as many 90s TV show references or underground bands as possible into two hours.

Safety Not Guaranteed is like the perfect girlfriend (or boyfriend, because duh): laid-back, intelligent, unique, and the perfect balance of exciting and insightful. I’m not the kind of person that tries to guess the plot before the film is over, but I can say that this one had interesting twists that were unexpected and refreshing. I’m also the kind of person that is really discriminatory with movies, and I am so glad that I was not disappointed with this one. The movie depicts an ambitious adventure, and the viewing experience itself was a fantastic and whimsical journey.

Rating: A

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Review: ‘Manic’ in both content and execution

Manic (2001)

Directed by Jordan Melamed
Written by Blayne Weaver, Michael Bacall

It’s hard to believe that most all of the young actors in Manic (2001) are just that – actors. It would so naturally seem like director Jordan Melamed walked into a juvenile psych ward and documented its day-to-day-happenings. Although this low-budget cinema verite hosts many famous actors now, as young people, they seem to understand mental illness hauntingly well.

The film follows Lyle Jensen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he is admitted into a juvenile psych ward for a vicious assault on a fellow member of his baseball team. The ward’s doctor, Dr. David Monroe (Don Cheadle), is determined to help the teenagers in his ward cope with their emotional problems so that they can live in the ‘real world’. A host of behavioral and psychological disorders are introduced in the typical circle-discussion-therapy of movies set in hospital or psychiatric wards. Kenny (Cody Lightning) is Lyle’s roommate, and is a barely-thirteen-year-old child molester. Chad (Michael Bacall) is a manic-depressive who soon becomes Lyle’s best friend in the ward. Tracy (Zooey Deschanel) has low self-esteem and terrible nightmares, and connects emotionally and romantically to Lyle.

For those who have trouble with motion sickness, this movie will not be your cup of tea. Each scene is shot completely with a handheld camera, and a lot of shakiness and lack of focus is the result. The videography, though occasionally headache-inducing, gives a good look into the emotional impulsiveness and chaos of the teenage patients, as well as the uneasy feeling of being in a constant state of psychological upheaval. There is no still moment throughout the whole movie, and it keeps the viewer on their toes, wondering what the impulses of the young patients will be, and also the entailing consequences of those impulses.

Dave Monroe is the only true tie that his patients have to the outside world, and he constantly encourages them, not through bribes or sugary falsehoods, but by using his own emotional turmoil as a grasp to relate to the teenager’s struggles. He asks questions like “What gives your life meaning?” in order to encourage progress, but also as a demand of the viewer: What gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment? Why are you alive?

For this movie, I live for the subtle and magnificent performances of most all of the characters. Levitt conveys his feeling almost exclusively through his body and facial expressions; whether the camera captures his whole body or just his eyes, the intense undercurrents of his past struggles surface, almost in an uncomfortable manner. Cheadle, too, was fantastic. Although he is an acting giant in his own right, he provided a solid foundation that allowed his younger counterparts to find their acting niche.

Manic opened up an uneasy Pandora’s box: one of adolescent psychological disorder that, for most films, is used merely as a throwaway explanation for why characters act the way they do. It delves into the history behind each character’s disorder, not in order to make light of their struggles, but so that the viewer and the character can understand them, but so that they may both embrace them.

Melamed accentuates the importance of freedom throughout the film – for the teenagers, freedom is primarily a release from the ward, but it is also the freedom from their emotional distress and seeming societal limitations. For the viewer, Manic is the freedom to experience a raw sense of uninhibited feeling, and to actually be okay with their discomfort. It is the freedom to experience not only acting or film as an art, but pure emotion as its own art.

Rating: B+

Official Trailer