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2012/05/27

You Can Count On Me

By Jenny Bootle

To describe something as a modest, family drama hardly sounds like a recommendation, but You Can Count on Me (2000) is a remarkable film.


The story opens with a car crash and the sudden death of a couple, the parents to two young children, before we leap forward twenty-five years to see brother and sister, Terry (Mark Ruffalo) and Sammy (Laura Linney), now grown-up.

Sammy is a hard-working single mother, living in the same house in the small town she and Terry grew up in. She goes to church, has a job at the local bank and focuses on providing stability for her solemn 8-year old son, Rudy (played by Rory Culkin). When Terry, a well-meaning drifter, just out of jail, comes back to visit, she is delighted. Terry begins to bond with his nephew until his irresponsible actions compel Sammy to ask him to leave.

The plot of this film could be the description of a made-for-TV movie but writer and director Kenneth Lonergan’s graceful script elevates it into something significant, offering a compelling portrait of two siblings driven in different directions by the shared events of their childhood – one who doesn’t care and one who cares too much – and the deep bonds that still leave them unable to properly connect.

Sammy adores Terry and has a faith in him that he doesn’t have in himself. Their different life philosophies are beautifully expressed when they meet again for the first time in a restaurant. Sammy tries to persuade Terry to start going to church and questions the direction his life is going in. Terry responds with: “I’m not really looking for anything, man. I’m just trying to get on with it.”

Terry and Rudy on their disastrous fishing trip

One of my favourite scenes of the film shows a conversation between Terry and Rudy, when Terry, just back from the local bar, crashes into Rudy’s room late one night. They talk about Terry’s dislike of the town and Rudy’s absent father. Terry, still in some ways childlike himself, speaks to Rudy as if he were his peer, in an earnest and funny exchange.

The film won a ream of awards, including the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and nominations for both Academy Awards and Golden Globes for Best Writing and Best Actress. Linney and Ruffalo are both amazing actors and truly shine in these roles.

Sammy (Laura Linney) and Terry (Mark Ruffalo) 

The movie never makes the mistake of straying into melodrama; one of its triumphs is in what it chooses not to show. In the opening scenes we see Sammy and Terry’s parents chatting in the moments before the truck hits their car and the following scene of the policeman knocking on the children's front door, ends with his open-mouthed pause as he struggles for words to break the news of the accident. Finally, in the film's closing scene - one that manages to be simultaneously heartening and heart-breaking - the concluding line is given to Terry, who asks Sammy a question. As the audience we never get to hear the answer but, precisely how some things between family members remain true but never spoken, we don't need to be told what it is, we just instinctively know.


For more information visit You Can Count on Me's official IMDB page: www.imdb.com/title/tt0203230

2012/05/20

Take What You Can Carry

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

Kevin C. Pyle is an accomplished illustrator, having done work for The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, and many other publications.  He’s also played in a band, produced puppet shows, and has been part of art installations.  But wait---there’s more.  Pyle also co-edited a comics anthology, teaches, and is currently working on a non-fiction docu-comic.  In between all of this, he has three graphic novels to his credit: Blindspot, published in 2007, Katman, published in 2009, and Take What You Can Carry, published this year.

Kevin C. Pyle
I ran across Take What You Can Carry a few weeks ago.  The cover immediately caught my eye, and was what compelled me to pick up the book.  It’s visually striking, and piqued my interest so that I did what most authors hope a reader will do: flip it over, read the synopsis, get hooked by said synopsis, and decide that it should come home with you to be read.  Whomever chose the title was spot on too; it evokes a sense of urgency that adds to the “must read“ feeling.  Inside, the panels are either shades of brown and black, or shades of blue with black and white accents, highlighting the lines and details of the illustrations.


Being a writer, I’m so immersed in using words to drive a story that it took me a while to get used to the graphic novel format; I'm used to creating pictures in my own mind, based on the text an author has written.  Here, that experience was reversed.  Take What You Can Carry tells the stories of two teenage boys, decades apart.  Ken is caught up in the US’s relocation of Japanese Americans, in the months just after the Japanese air force attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in 1941.   Kyle, a teenage boy in 1978, has recently moved to Chicago and is propelling himself down a path of increasingly destructive behavior.  The two boys’ stories leap frog throughout the novel, then weave together towards the end.  The back and forth of the stories wasn’t what gave me pause though; it was the lack of any dialogue and minimal written words in the section that tells Ken’s story.  It was a different experience to let my mind rely solely on the illustrations to get the story across, but one that I definitely enjoyed, lingering over the details of the pictures once I got into the flow of it.  Since the Japanese American relocation camps are such an emotionally charged part of US history, the lack of words is profound and a powerful storytelling device.  It allows for more freedom in a reader’s own interpretations, without text to complicate one's thoughts about what you‘re seeing on the page.


Kyle’s part of the story, in contrast, is where the words are put to use, mostly as dialogue and in narration from Kyle himself, giving us a glimpse into his thoughts, feelings and motivation.  Though it’s an effective juxtaposition against the sparseness of Ken’s part of the story, I would’ve liked Pyle to give just a little less explanation, and to let the illustrations speak for themselves more.  His style of drawing is expressive and lively, so the emotions come across quite clearly regardless.


As the novel came to a close, I was especially drawn to the second to the last panels of Ken’s story and the metaphor within them.  The novel ends with a section of historical notes at the back that help to explain some of the nuances you might not catch unless you’re well versed in this part of history; helpful to enrich the overall experience of the novel.

The "entrance" to Pyle's clever website
Take What You Can Carry is truly a case of something better left seen rather than explained, so if you’re a fan of graphic novels, I’d recommend it.  And if you don’t usually read the genre, I’d recommend it even more.  You can find more information about the book, Kevin C. Pyle and his other work at www.kevincpyle.com.

2012/05/13

Cube

By Dave Best

Cube (1997, Dir. Vincenzo Natali) is the sort of film that you don’t watch unless you accidentally stumble across it on late night TV or have a geeky friend who badgers you relentlessly to watch it. Several years ago, after returning home in the early hours of the morning, I put it on for a few minutes to fill the void while I drunkenly demolished my fried chicken, and I have been hassling friends to watch it ever since. “Oh you like horror? You should check out Cube.”,  “You love independent cinema? Have you seen Cube?”,  “You’re feeling paranoid and insecure? Well, you should definitely watch Cube!”


As you can see, not only am I a crappy friend but Cube is, ironically, not a film that fits neatly into a box. Apart from the genres mentioned above it also contains elements of sci-fi, mystery and psychological thriller but it shouldn’t be classified solely as any of those individual things. It probably falls closest to independent horror though. In a similar vein to the seminal Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or Blair Witch Project (1999), it was made on a shoestring budget  (almost literally in this case as shoe laces become a pivotal plot device) which forced the filmmakers to rely on ingenuity and resourcefulness in order to create an effective and chilling piece of cinema. 

Cube has a deceptively simple narrative which follows seven people who all wake up to find themselves in a sterile, futuristic maze comprised of identical cubic rooms joined to each other via a hatch on each wall, floor and ceiling. The characters have no idea where they are, why they are there or who has put them there. Nor do they have any prior connection to one another. They soon discover that some of the rooms are booby-trapped with lethal mechanisms and the rest of the film revolves around their attempts to escape the maze whilst also chewing over the bigger question of “what the hell is going on?”.

Sleepovers at Bill Gates' house - not as fun as you would imagine
The entire film is shot on one 14’ x 14’ set, reused to represent each new room they enter and altered in only very slight ways. It is a massive credit to the team behind the film that this never once becomes boring or repetitive. In the true spirit of independent cinema they utilise the limited facilities they have available in such a manner that rather than being detrimental to the film, it becomes one of its biggest strengths. It is no insult to the cast to say that - for the first half of the film at least - the set is the star of the piece. It quickly becomes claustrophobic and cloying not only for the characters but also for the audience. 

The fact that the audience are in almost the exact same position as the characters themselves is one of the reasons this is such an effective film. We essentially become an extra (albeit mute and passive) character. The camera never leaves the labyrinth and we don’t have any more information than the characters themselves. When they relate their back stories to one another we feel the same doubts and paranoia they do about whether the truth is being told. When a character starts to mentally unravel or become increasingly irritating we are equally as affected as the other characters because we are stuck in that same confined space, unable to distance ourselves from them.

Mechagodzilla's prostate exam is a five man job
This is a film of two halves in that the first half of the film focuses on the cube being the driving force of the narrative, and the second half turns into more of a character study of the human condition. Elements of "Lord of the Flies" come to the surface as the characters, exposed to such a stressful and incomprehensible situation, start to turn on each other and crumble mentally.  By the end of the film it is hard to place who the true "villain" of the piece is: the cube or human nature. This is not a film that will spoon feed you, nor will it resolve every question which it poses and because of this it can be quite frustrating at times but in a positive and engaging way. It’s the sort of film that has you on the internet thirty seconds after the credits roll trying to unravel certain plot points.  

I’m not going to pretend that this is a film without faults. Although the overall concept and story are inspired, the actual dialogue is often clunky and clichéd to the point of being unintentionally funny. This is not helped by the fact that at times some of the performers themselves seem more suited to background roles in TV movies rather than starring roles in a feature. However, this is part and parcel of independent cinema and rather than slating it for these reasons I prefer to celebrate it. Embrace the fact that it is funny when these cheesy lines of dialogue come up, and if a character is really getting on your nerves then hold on to the possibility that they may come to a horrific end in the next room they enter. This film is almost nihilistic in its method and it could even be argued that it is best enjoyed if you are in a bit of a bad mood.

Spoiler - Ice Cube does not appear in this film
Cube is a film which proves that a big concept can often be worth a lot more than a big budget. The bare-bones production techniques, unhindered by scene stealing superstars or over the top special effects, produce genuine chills and scares. Despite utilising only a fourteen foot square set, often clunky dialogue and actors that reflect the limited budget, it still manages to have you in the nervous, clammy palm of its hand from start to finish; give it a try!   


For further information visit Cube's IMDb page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0123755/

Suggested further viewing: Alien (1979), Hellraiser (1987), Dogville (2003)

2012/05/06

Futurama

By Jav Rivera

Welcome to the world of tomorrow...today!  In 1999, creator Matt Groening (The Simpsons) unveiled his latest series, Futurama.  Set in the year 3000, the story begins on New Year's Eve 1999 when pizza delivery boy Philip J. Fry gets frozen in a cryonic tank.  He wakes up a thousand years later to find a new world populated with aliens, robots, and sewer mutants.  It's the classic tale of a fish out of water, except of course that Fry was more out of place in his time than he is in the future.  In his time he was only a pizza delivery boy but in the future he's a delivery boy 1st class for his distant nephew's carrier company, Planet Express.

Fry, Bender, Leela
For years, the show has gathered a huge fan base ranging from hardcore nerds to casual appreciators.  And it's because of Futurama's wide sense of humor that the show is so universal.  Personally, I fell in love when it first aired but audiences were a bit standoffish during its first season, unfairly comparing it to Matt Groening's first series, The Simpsons.  Little by little, people started to clue in.  I was so happy when a friend reluctantly admitted to his appreciation during its second or third season.  Another friend (ten years older than I) fell in love with the series during its syndication.  And few years later, I turned my nephew onto it.  And even more years later I turned my other nephew onto it.  I literally witnessed the show win the hearts of new fans with huge generational gaps.

And as the years went by, the series grew stronger with the addition of new characters and ground-breaking episodes.  Animators, and fans of animation, were quick to notice Futurama's innovative style, using 2D animation with a 3D look.  This technique is hard to explain but very obvious to the eye when viewing any of the episodes.  Keep an eye out during the show's beginning title sequence or whenever they show an exterior shot of the Planet Express building.

Planet Express Building
The series' main cast includes: Philip J. Fry (Billy West), Bender Bending Rodríguez (John DiMaggio), Turanga Leela (Katey Sagal),  Prof. Hubert J. Farnsworth (Billy West), Hermes Conrad (Phil LaMarr), Amy Wong (Lauren Tom), and Dr. John Zoidberg (Billy West...again).  More characters were introduced and integrated within the series as important and hilarious core members to the show.

Futurama's Extended Characters, circa 2010
The series has gained notable attention by science fiction nerds everywhere (that's not an insult by the way; I proudly include myself in that group).  References can be found in nearly every episode, ranging from Star Trek to historical to everything in between.  In the Season One episode, "Love's Labours Lost in Space", we find Leela waking up in Captain Zapp Brannigan's room (within his ship, the "Nimbus").  A portrait hangs behind Zapp that strangely resembles John F. Kennedy's official white house portrait.  It's a small detail missed by many but makes repeat viewings of the show essential to fully appreciate the writers' and artists' devotion to quality.

Zapp Brannigan and his JFK-esque portrait
Official White House Portrait of John F. Kennedy by Aaron Shikler 
The show thrives on other kinds of silly historical references as well.  Ron Popeil, the inventor of several "As Seen On TV" products, for example, is featured in an episode as the inventor of the "Head in a Jar" technology.  Heads in jars frequent Futurama episodes, from former President Nixon to Conan O'Brien.  Even Matt Groening and David X. Cohen have their heads in jars.  (Cohen helped develop the series with Groening.)

Lrrr (Ruler of Omicron Persei 8), Leela, and Fry talk with Orson Welles' head.
Notice voice actor, and Futurama cast member, Frank Welker on the top row.
Just as amazing as the historical and geeky sci-fi references and award-winning scripts are the silly jokes.  Fry wooing in court like a 1980's sitcom is one of the most ingenious moments.  It's the clip that made my 10 year old nephew start watching the show.  It's even made my brother imitate it for days on end, and he doesn't typically watch animated shows.  That's the power of Futurama.


But inside jokes aside, the show's bread and butter are the characters.  We care about the show because we care about Fry and the gang.  A memorable episode, entitled "The Luck of the Fryrish" in Season Three, showcases Fry's life back in his time and the rivalry between him and his older brother, Yancy.  In the last few minutes of the episode, Fry discovers how much Yancy actually loved him in one of the most heartbreaking moments of the series.

Another episode, entitled "Jurassic Bark", brings a tear to any animal lover's eye.  The episode features another flashback to Fry's former life and a dog he befriended while working as a pizza delivery boy.  To avoid any spoilers I'll avoid writing more details but I will say that I get choked up every time I think about that episode.

Fry and his dog Seymour
The audience is given opportunities to witness most of the characters' back stories and essentially their motivations.  Throughout the series we learn of Leela's orphan upbringing, Bender's birth (and that he's Mexican), and in a recent episode, the bond between Dr. Zoidberg and Prof. Farnsworth.  The characters are flawed but genuinely good.  Even the bad guys such as Lrrr, Ruler of Omicrown Persei 8, has some decency in him.

It's no surprise, then, that the series has won a multitude of awards, including an Emmy for their time traveling episode, "Roswell That Ends Well".  The episode features the Planet Express crew accidentally time traveling to 1947 where Fry meets his great grandfather, and more importantly, his great grandmother.  The episode has been referenced in later episodes as well, connecting several elements introduced in "Roswell..." to future events within the series.

The surprise is more in the fact that show was unofficially canceled by FOX during its 2003 season.  FOX, never a supporter of the show, aired Futurama erratically during its first season which, of course, didn't help to create a strong following.  Fortunately for fans, Comedy Central bought both the syndication rights as well as newer episodes.  This new life began with four straight-to-DVD full length feature films including: Bender's Big Score (2007), The Beast with a Billion Backs (2008), Bender's Game (2008), and Into the Wild Green Yonder (2009).

And then there's Hypnotoad.  All glory to the Hypnotoad.

Hypnotoad
For many, there's a special place in their hearts for Futurama.  Whether it's because the show was the little engine that could, or because the series has been such an innovative force over the years, or simply because of Hypnotoad, Futurama truly is one of the greatest animated series.  And with new episodes due out this coming June (2012), who knows what the future holds for Futurama.

L-R: Amy Wong, Bender, LaBarbara and the head of Hermes Conrad, Leela, Dr. Zoidberg, Prof. Farnsworth, and Fry
For more information visit Futurama's official IMDb page: www.imdb.com/title/tt0149460

TRIVIA: Fry's first name, Philip, is a tribute to actor Phil Hartman, who was originally cast to do the voice of Zapp Brannigan. After Hartman's murder, Billy West decided that the voice of Zapp Brannigan should be reminiscent of Hartman's own voice.