Month: February 2015

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1: All Sides of the Story

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Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 is a documentary I knew would be depressing and perhaps unveil truths regarding issues that I hadn’t acknowledged, but that still didn’t prepare me for the heartbreak I felt while watching the Oscar winning short for 2014. Nor did I expect the adrenaline rush that kept me anxious with anticipation for more than half the film. I didn’t realize until now I was either on the brink of tears or nervous about the outcome of the featured hotline phone calls.

Yes the documentary has viewers thinking, feeling, sympathizing with veterans who reach the crisis hotline with a literal cry for help, but what I think of during these intense conversations are the victims on the other side. One of the featured responders explains to the camera, “Talk to any Vietnam veteran. Their orders were to shoot anything that moves.” He then poses questions: can you imagine what that must be like? To get that order and try to fit in with your unit and shoot anything that moves, but then it’s a family? These veterans are in a pain we can’t imagine, but this is the first film I have seen that focuses on the guilt veterans experience during war/postwar, although it’s seen slightly in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty when innocent children are found in Osama bin Laden’s home and are surrounded by their family’s dead bodies. These phone calls made me think about those in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Vietnam who saw their loved ones killed. Who do they get to call for help? Is there anyone to soothe their vivid memories? The documentary invites us to think about the PTSD that may triumph veterans’ lives, but also the realities of the other side that often go unnoticed.

What’s most interesting about this short is the absence of a narrator or even filmmaker. Documentaries usually end with a call to action and in some cases have the creator in the lens, pointing the finger, telling you how they feel, what is wrong and what needs to change. Instead, the camera is floating either outside the hotline headquarters with the American flag waving in the wind or indoors where the counselors tell a one sided story by answering hotline phone calls where most of the conversations featured are not men who just want to talk but are about the end their life and need someone to convince them otherwise. This comes with a lack of talking heads, which I didn’t necessarily mind. The counselors seldom sit down in front of the camera and tell us how it feels to hold such responsibility. We see it as their eyes gloss over when they hang up the phone or when they rest their head in their hands and wait for another coworker to help them cope with the contagious sadness.

Like most documentaries, there’s a lot said here. Much more that only 40 minutes worth, but the positive thing about the length is it gives us the chance to infer what issues need to be recognized without being too redundant. And it’s clear the issues are not only regarding veterans who need mental assistance and stabilization, but also about war, youth, America, and what this country means to so many people, especially those who have served in the military. The film doesn’t hit us over the head with a message, but creates many and injects us with compassion by the only visible people in the documentary: the counselors. Their occupations and entire beings reveal a humbleness and quiet emotion which contraries the film’s loud truths.

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The Other Woman: Extreme Female Fiction

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I have not seen a truly funny female comedy since Bridesmaids. Every time I hear of one or a friend tells me, ” You have to see it, it’s as funny as Bridesmaids,” I get too excited for my own good. This happened when someone told me The Other Woman was even funnier. Not only did I compare the comedy the entire time, but over analyzed the three women the movie is based around whose ultimate goal is to get revenge on the one man who dammed them all. It is a silly film, one that’s obviously not meant to be taken seriously, but I couldn’t help looking closer and taking things personally.

What bothered me most was not that the movie didn’t live up to the humorous expectation, but that I saw a similar film years ago, John Tucker Must Die that too involved a group of females getting back at a guy who played all of them one way or the other. But they were high schoolers which made more sense and was an actual funny movie that’s lessons in the end revealed how insignificant it is to manipulate another person’s life and how revolving happiness around one man doesn’t do anyone any good. However, Leslie Mann’s character is the most frustrating aspect in The Other Woman. She plays Kate King the wife of womanizer Mark and once she learns of her husband’s affairs and all the lies in between she weans herself off him at first, participants with friends Carly (Cameron Diaz) and Amber (Kate Upton) to make his manhood dwindle, but then melts back into a relationship with a man she truly doesn’t know and never really did. It’s not her actions that upset me, but the lack of realistic emotion Kate must be feeling. Her husband is a real gentleman for one evening. Places her on the highest pedestal during his work party. Showers her with compliments. Promises her he will never leave. And bam that’s it—the childish games are over—Kate is going to stick beside her husband. Of course we see this coming, as we do with Brittany Snow’s character (who also plays a Kate) in John Tucker Must Die when she too has a moment of weakness and calls off the games. We also see Kate’s major epiphanies coming soon after when she realizes her friends were right and her judgments were wrong in The Other Woman. But in the real girl world, would Kate’s insecurities only consist of crying in her wedding dress, confiding in her husband’s mistress, and drowning her sorrows with alcohol? Or would she pick at her husband until he finally revealed the truth.

At the same time, the film does not hesitate to reveal Kate’s flighty personality or should I say stupidity. But it’s not for the reasons you may be thinking. In the beginning of the movie, Kate signs papers her husband tells her to without reading them over as he nonchalantly tells her he already reviewed them. Of course she trusts this man at the time being but it’s her comments afterward that make me cringe and mostly make me sad to see movies representing women in such ways. Kate tells Mark that just by looking at the forms makes her want to go to “Brain Camp”. She continues by explaining what exactly Brain Camp is: “You know, Brain Camp to get smarter.” Kate proceeds to admire her husband’s intelligence because he read and understood an entire document on his own. This is supposed to be comedy. It’s a chance for audiences all around the world to grasp how incompetent one woman is, sit back and laugh.

Carly reveals the killer confidence and knowledge that perhaps compensates for Kate’s. And their female bond is what made me keep the movie playing because a message is hidden through their friendship. Don’t choose one person to be with for eternity, but many. A husband, friends, animals, family. If you invest in one person, they are guaranteed to let you down. Although the friendship evolves into something real, believable, the cheesy and incongruent ending when the three women finally triumph Mark is so outlandish, it only made me see one thing: this can never happen. Kate’s prior unintelligent moments flip when she proves her husband wrong, but the trio is completely fictionalized as the ending so apparently plays out. I guess a closing where women are viewed in another way would take too much effort.

Boyhood: Synthetic Storytelling

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Boyhood is one of my favorites this season. Part of the reason is because there is so much to talk about. It’s like a Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman film—you always discover new angles every time you watch.

I wrote about Whiplash being a different kind of coming-of-age film this year, but Richard Linklater has fabricated a work of art that goes beyond all boundaries. Of course the main reason for this is the 12 consecutive years it intentionally took to make the film. Because of this persistence, Boyhood has a unique truth. Take for instance the soundtrack. The music paired with the film wasn’t the director researching and choosing a song that was popular during the time. Instead, I image Linklater when these scenes were filmed knowing what music at the time was popular and what corresponded well with the moment. There is this unbreakable authenticity because it brings viewers back, especially for someone around the same age as protagonist Mason (Ellar Coltrane). We remember the music, the styles, the fads, and the uncomfortable growing moments that come with childhood. And Mason’s childhood is one of my favorite parts about Boyhood. He has such cherubic features that the camera focuses on repeatedly and the innocent questions he asks along the way again correspond perfectly with his look. Like when he lies on the couch beside his father and asks if elves are real or when he asks his mother why she remarried when they had a perfectly fine family to begin with. The way Mason looks at the world is peculiar, but I also remember feeling the same way and wondering the same things as a child.

One of the fascinating juxtaposing ideas involving Mason’s innocence is yet the amount of maturity this child, boy, and teenager has. From the start, we realize Mason is extremely intuitive. He continuously watches his mother and her potential lovers from the corners of different rooms and in the next take—as time jumps ahead—Mason’s observations become reality. Mason’s maturity is seen mostly when he is older and in his last few years of high school. He talks passionately about the social media world and how it has come to control us and shows once again how differently he sees simple things like football games and college education. With this maturity, though, comes a boy whom his ex-girlfriend points out can be overbearingly negative. However, Mason’s attitude isn’t unbearable to me. There are qualities we may be annoyed with, but the young man he molds into is one we understand and experience firsthand. We don’t have to imagine what Mason went through when he was younger that causes his changing attitude. We simply experienced them simultaneously.

Boyhood shows typical life lessons that start off small and evolve over time—but there are also moments and feelings the characters surprise us with. For example, recent Golden Globe winner Patricia Arquette plays Samantha and Mason’s mother Olivia, and even though we see a survey of her love life and all the downfalls, she always keeps it together and finds a way for her family to move forward. Yes the family relocates a lot and her choices aren’t always excusable, but I find myself rooting for her the entire time. However, one of these surprising moments comes when Mason leaves for college and Olivia breaks down at the kitchen table. Olivia has had a thick skin the entire time, but is now ghostly pale, sobbing and sits broken hearted before her son. This scene also brings about a darker side of the film. It reveals life’s expectations we often feel fall short which rings true for Mason’s mother as she reflects on her life in a series of events and tells Mason, “ I just thought there would be more.” It’s such a sincere, complicated moment and the last time we see and hear Olivia.

I once had an interesting conversation with my sister. We wondered what it would be like if we could watch our lives and all we’ve done and what we’ve become. Would we be happy with the outcome? What would we see that we had forgotten about? We can only imagine this from watching films like The Truman Show and Boyhood reminds me of this idea as well. I’m not Mason nor do I look or act like him most of the time, but by experiencing this film I feel in a way I am watching part of myself love, hurt, and grow. Most of all, I am watching one of the most entertaining aspects of life: a journey of the human condition.

The Skeleton Twins: Irresistibly Flawed

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Whenever I hear about a movie featuring Kristin Wiig I think of Bridesmaids and her irresistible humor. Hence the reason I make an effort to see her movies. How come it feels like she chooses films to be in rather than the other way around? Her humor doesn’t falter in Skeleton Twins—but there’s a twist and it’s an absolute treat: Wiig’s character has a dark, strange humor, but a sad and serious side that reveals the film’s maturity as well as her own.

And Wiig’s not the only one who gives a new performance. Bill Hader plays her gay twin brother Milo, who at first seems like a total downer. His negativity eats up the scenes at first, but he slowly puts a positive twist in his sister Maggie’s life. The duo is also off balance at first. The siblings haven’t seen each other in ten years and what they used to have in common or what connected them in the first place is lost. There’s a shot sequence in the beginning of the film that reveals this humor, and at the same time the depressing realization that this family has grown so far apart. After Milo’s suicide attempt Maggie tries to comfort her brother who lies in the hospital bed, but even her touch seems cold because she doesn’t know what he’s been through. The next shot she does the same by convincing him to stay with her for a while. Milo uses his quick sarcasm to make his sister feel uncomfortable and also to remind her they have years of catching up to do. But like all of us who have the blessing of experiencing special sibling bondage, they are fused together once more. After all, we can’t choose our family and Milo and Maggie come to terms with this again and again—making the most interesting and entertaining film companionship I’ve seen in awhile.

What we can’t understand throughout the film is Maggie’s pure unhappiness, until her mother comes along and we get an inside look at the selfish actions that have haunted the family. However, Maggie also has positive reinforcements in her life that you think would make this human change, appreciate, and move on from her past. Her enthusiastic husband Lance (Luke Wilson) like Maggie says more than once is extremely kind, patient, understanding. The definition of love. Except the feelings are not reciprocated, even if she tries and pretends. This situation is frustrating, but Milo puts it so simply during the film’s climax that makes the most sense it is going to ever make when he tells her, “Maybe good isn’t your thing.” And these are the simple perspectives that make the story so compelling: we are hard wired the way we are and there’s nothing we can do about it. We can choose to suffer in self-denial like both Maggie and Milo or we can face the truths that hide in these dark places and finally accept our flawed fibers.

The gaze the film projects on the siblings is not judgment either. The strange moments they share are both hilarious and heartfelt and show an enchanting yet raw relationship. There is a special humanity in this film: the featured lives are nowhere near perfect but the issues are realistic. And I also enjoyed the creative motifs represented throughout that prove this unbreakable connection. The movie opens with Maggie underwater in a pool as a child and the same is seen when she’s older, but her motives in the water this time are different. Milo is present in both scenes—Maggie’s constant even through the depths of her sadness. For Milo, he holds onto tokens that represent the love he cherishes and needs. He gets rid of some. A plastic whale that represents Moby Dick but others like a skeleton keychain he keeps forever. Just like the relationship with his twin sister that’s more than rocky at times: it’s there, twisted, comforting and permanent.