Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Michael Melamedoff: A Question of Representation

Victor Victori shows one of his multiplism paintings
Victori: The Truth Just Can't Be One Thing is the latest feature from filmmaker Michael Melamedoff. It focuses on middle-age, Korean painter Victor Victori and his 25-year-old son Ed Victori who left the finance world to become an art consultant chiefly representing his father's vast works, which include tons of portraits, both of famous people and well-known figures, and Victor's innovative style of multiplism. The documentary pivots around the 2012 New York Art Expo, which Victor decided to attend, showcase and possibly sell his work. I spoke to Melamedoff by phone a week before his movie became available on video nationwide.

Melamedoff is the son of two doctors who met in medical school and moved from their home in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to New York City. Melamedoff was born in 1979. He attended New York University and graduated in 2002 with a Bachelor's degree in Film Production. He worked in a talent agency where he helped young, up-and-coming actors as well as models looking to transition. Notable clients included Channing Tatum and Rachel Nichols.

He did some theater directing at the same time. He left in 2007 to do work in non-profit fundraising. His producing partner and former assistant, Shawn Rubin, was Ed Victori's roommate at NYU's School of Business. Rubin brought Ed and Victor's story to Melamedoff, which he conceived could be a good documentary. The filmmaker said he identified with Ed because both have a father who's an immigrant.

Melamedoff's first feature was Weakness, which he liked making but its release came at a weird time in the rise of digital distribution. Weakness ultimately got lost in the shuffle, which certainly colored his experience and hipped Melamedoff to the problems of artists trying to get their work out into the world in the best way possible. It's similar to what Ed was doing. Ed was trying to get his father's work out into the world in the best way possible.

Melamedoff filmed Ed and the Victoris over the course of six days. He was limited to six days due to budget but also because the director had a singular vision, which was to focus on Ed's trip to the Expo and Ed's takeaway from it. Melamedoff wasn't even sure if this would be enough to make a feature or a short film. Yet, he wasn't bothered because the director believes small scale like this and certain limitations force creativity as a filmmaker.

He said he didn't want his movie to be a Q&A biopic. He wanted it to be more cinéma vérité. However, Melamedoff had to do interviews in order to get an understanding of the Victori family.

It was difficult because Melamedoff describes Victor Victori as a wily subject. In the film, Victor comes off as a honest and direct, no b.s. person, but the director observed that Victor does put on somewhat of an act. For example, the director noticed that Victor backed away from some things he stated in the interviews before the shoot began.

Ed Victori left finance to represent his father's art
Ed Victori was such that off-camera he had heated exchanges, but, on-camera he was very wanting to please. Ed's cool, calm, constantly business-like, professional persona had its somewhat polished veneer broken for one brief moment in the film by genuine frustration or anger, but, other than that, he remains rather steely. A scene of Ed unfurling or trying to unfurl a long, encrusted, Bicentennial painting probably reveals more about him than anything he says up to that point.

Melamdedoff noted that on-camera Ed was particularly defensive and protective of his father. Dutiful, Ed also has more of an eye to his father's legacy. He's also of course concerned about the commerce side, as opposed to the intricacies of the art-making.

Obviously, Victor is more the opposite. Yet, there's a lot that we don't learn about this family. Melamedoff said there were personal things that Victor didn't wish to share. In a movie that's about representation and people trying to control how things come out into the world, Melamedoff was intrigued at the inherent conflicts and contradictions, or what might be considered the multiplism within this family.

Director Michael Melamedoff
Victori: The Truth Just Can't Be One Thing is now available on DVD via Amazon and VOD via iTunes and Vimeo, as of March 3, 2015.

For more information, you can go to the film's website VictoriMovie.com. You can also follow Michael Melamedoff on Twitter @MelamedoffFilms.

His next project is tentatively titled Speed Freak, a black comedy, big-in-scope, that he hopes to start shooting this fall.

Monday, March 2, 2015

TV Review - House of Cards: Season 3 - Top 15 Moments

Robin Wright (left) and Kevin Spacey return
as First Lady and President Frank Underwood
Kevin Spacey returns as Frank Underwood, the crazy and conniving politician who manipulated and even murdered his way into the White House. This third season sees him as interim President of the United States working to implement his plans and hold onto his power.

Robin Wright co-stars as Claire Underwood, the dutiful wife and Lady Macbeth whose limits are certainly tested this season. It may come to pass that she's not as dedicated to doing whatever it takes to maintain the presidency, or else there are other things the childless and ambitious woman values.

Just like with Season 2's first episode, Season 3's first episode entitled "Chapter 27" has an incident that happens that's a bit of a spoiler if told before seeing it. Instead of it being a shocking twist at the end of the episode, this year's spoiler is in fact the entire premise of the episode, which is why I don't feel bad printing it, but spoiler alert anyway!

The end of Season 2, we see Frank's right-hand man, Doug Stamper, played by Michael Kelly, lying in a wooded area, presumably dead. Surprisingly, it's learned that Doug didn't die. He's still alive. In fact, "Chapter 27" is told almost entirely from Doug's point-of-view. From the way that it's shot to Michael Kelly's performance, it's by far one of the best episodes out of the near 40 that have been done.

The entire series, which is sheer political intrigue, is easily the best written series I've ever seen. Head writer Beau Willimon and his team have crafted one of the densest, richly conceived, nuanced, highly-intelligent, quick-witted, scary yet funnest shows on television. Willimon is a genius as far as I'm concerned and his show is amazing.

What's even more amazing is the great characterizations he's given to women. The female cast in this show is fantastic. Not only is the talent top-notch but the material he gives them is absolutely stellar. The only true rival currently is the female cast of Orange is the New Black. There are five women who are outstanding here. Chief among them is obviously Robin Wright who is absolutely superb.

Molly Parker plays Jackie Sharp, the majority whip. Elizabeth Marvel plays Heather Dunbar, the solicitor general. Kim Dickens plays Kate Baldwin, the reporter for The Wall Street Telegraph and Rachel Brosnahan plays Rachel Posner, the prostitute-turned-waitress on the run. All of these actresses are phenomenal in their own ways, even Brosnahan who is only featured in one episode.

The male cast members aren't slouches either. Mahershala Ali plays Remy Danton, the White House Chief of Staff. Lars Mikkelsen plays Victor Petrov, the Russian President and Paul Sparks plays Thomas Yates, the Presidential biographer. All these guys are standout. Even Nathan Darrow who plays Secret Service Agent Ed Meechum and Kelly AuCoin who plays Gary Stamper, the brother of Doug, do a great job whether or not they're prominently featured.

The only criticism of the show is its inability to address current terrorism problems like ISIS and the recent attacks like the one in Paris. I do give the series kudos for tackling Russia's anti-gay law. It attacked head-on and that's very appreciable.

There are a lot of great moments in the third season. I've compiled a list of 15 of some of those great moments. Again, some of these might be spoilers.

15. Former WBOC reporters, Steve Dorsey and Karen Campbell make cameos in "Chapter 27".

14. Frank Underwood is grilled by Stephen Colbert in "Chapter 27".

13. Jackie Sharp shows Remy Danton her diamond-engagement ring in "Chapter 31". Remy says, "I've never seen you this girly." Jackie responds, "It's a f---ing diamond. I'm allowed to be a little girly."

12. Claire Underwood invites the Russian Ambassador into the women's bathroom for some crazy, toilet diplomacy in "Chapter 31".

11. Frank pisses on his father's grave in "Chapter 27".

10. Frank literally spits in Jesus' face in "Chapter 30".

9. Frank meets with a survivor of a drone strike in "Chapter 30" and Kaseem Mahmoud, played by Waleed Zuaiter, tells Frank, "There is a fine line between duty and murder."

8. Doug Stamper slips in the shower and gets a dislocated bone, while totally naked and wet he resets the bone himself and heads to work like nothing happened in "Chapter 27".

7. Pussy Riot, after guest starring therein, does a video for the end credits in "Chapter 29".

6. Claire tries to convince gay activist Michael Corrigan, played by Christian Carmargo, to go against his idealism and ideas of marriage in order to get out of his Russian prison but only ends up going against her own in "Chapter 32".

5. Frank and Thomas Yates hold hands in "Chapter 36".

4. Doug says, "I'm not Peter Russo" where the resonance is that he looks like he's on the same trajectory in "Chapter 35".

3. Jackie and Heather debate in Iowa in "Chapter 37".

2. Frank threatens Claire in the oval office in "Chapter 39".

1. Claire's final moment of Season 3 in "Chapter 39".

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-MA.
Running Time: 13 eps. / about 1 hr. each.
Available on Netflix.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Zach Wheeler: Re-Traces 'The Trail'

Zach Wheeler, director of 'The Trail'
The Trail is a 27-minute film that will screen as part of the Johns Hopkins Film Festival this weekend. It premiered at the inaugural Salisbury University Film Festival in May 2014. It was written and directed by Zach Wheeler who has been a student at Salisbury University since 2012. I talked to Wheeler after screening the short film and after reading the script for the movie. Wheeler hadn't read his script in a while, but he helped me to re-trace the steps of how he put it together.

The Trail is about a man alone on a hike who realizes he's trapped on an endless loop with no escape. Wheeler came up with the idea in the summer of 2011 during his own hikes in the Adirondack Mountains in New York. It's inspired by things like Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone and David Lynch's Rabbits. Wheeler was born in Washington state and has always been a hiker but he says the movie really isn't about hiking. It's about abstract fears and certain anxiety disorders that Wheeler says he's experienced in his own life.

Wheeler was born in 1994. His parents were professors in political science and Middle Eastern studies who moved him to various countries all through his early childhood. His family finally settled in Annapolis where he attended high school. His reason for attending Salisbury U. was because he said that SU was the only school in Maryland where a person could major in film or cinema studies. He said it's surprising given SU's location and size.

His focus was critical and scholarly study of films, learning about film theory and film history, and not production. Wheeler was more about analyzing movies, not making them. Wheeler does draw and paint, so he understands visual storytelling, but he didn't have the practical and technical know-how to create a movie all the way to the end. For that, Wheeler had been coincidentally contacted by Josh Lynch. Lynch is a filmmaker in his own right who currently works at WMDT, the local ABC-TV station, but after reading the script Lynch wanted to assist in this project. Wheeler said he and Lynch were fans of the films The Trail tries to emulate. It's one Wheeler said Lynch might have written.

Wheeler penned the 15-page script in the winter of 2013. There's a lot of detailed description with little to no dialogue. Wheeler called it a written storyboard or like the script for a comic book, making it evident that he had a clear vision of what he wanted to see on screen.

Richard Kidney in a scene from 'The Trail'
It was this clear vision that attracted Lynch but also a cast and crew who were fellow college students, but students who had no interest in filmmaking. The Trail was shot over the course of 9 days with about 11-hour work schedules, which were complicated by heavy snow fall just prior to shooting, making things at times very cold and long.

Wheeler describes his movie as a "interrogative film." It asks more questions or forces the audience to ask questions, rather than give answers, certainly not any direct ones. There's more symbolism in his film than anything else. It's less comical and more disturbing. He also describes it as avant-garde, a thematically-driven story that's more about exuding his fears and anxieties of the unknown.

His next project The Cabin is a spiritual sequel but will be more of a two-hander, a psychological thriller involving a husband and wife. The Kickstarter for it will be online soon. Wheeler plans on graduating this December and then pursuing his Ph.D. with hopes to be a teacher down the line.

The Trail will play at the Johns Hopkins University Film Festival on Saturday, February 28, 2015 at 7:30PM within the collection of short films called Experimental.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Movie Review - Predestination

This is an awful film. I'm not sure what the point was, but I didn't like it. To talk about the plot past a sentence or two is to spoil it, but I don't care. I'm going to spoil.

Oscar-nominee Ethan Hawke (Boyhood and Before Midnight) stars as an unnamed person who is revealed to have been given a new face after losing his when he's burned in an attack. He's burned after chasing a terrorist known as the "fizzle bomber." At first, it's assumed that he's a FBI agent or something, but he's actually revealed to be an agent for a group that are time travelers.

Hawke's character can travel through time by way of configuring a violin case that he carries. It's not revealed that he's a time traveler until after he has a long conversation with a woman he meets at a bar in the 1970's. Hawke's character poses as a bartender and chats up a woman named Jane, played by Sarah Snook.

At first, Hawke's character assumes Jane to be a man. He seems surprised to learn Jane is a woman, or at least she used to be a woman. The long conversation involves Jane explaining that she was raised as a girl. She tells a great story of how she was a backyard brawler and applied to be an astronaut but faced a lot of sexism. She also tells of how she fell in love with a mysterious man who disappeared but not before getting her pregnant.

After giving birth, the doctors tell her she's technically a hermaphrodite who was mostly female, but the birth ruined her female parts, so the doctors had to reconstruct her with her boy parts. She's then told that she has to become a transsexual and transition into a man completely.

Much like in Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In, this movie involves a transsexual, but most transsexual people want to transition. In this movie, Jane doesn't want to transition, and it's ultimately depicted as a sad and painful experience, which is not the experience of actual transsexual or transgendered people who undergo the change. For this film to portray it as a sad and painful experience is somewhat offensive, I would assume.

Once Jane realizes Hawke's character is a time traveler, she goes back in time with him. It's then revealed that Jane is the mysterious man whom got her pregnant years ago. Yes, thanks to time travel, this movie is about a woman who impregnates herself. Her future self who transitions into a man has sex with her past self as a woman. Not only that, it's about how Jane falls in love with herself, so this film is not only masturbatory but it's also rather narcissistic, all without ever showing a single sex scene.

The mystery of who the fizzle bomber is and who Jane's baby turns out to be is then easily grasped. When the mystery is uncovered, it's ultimately stupid. There is an interesting premise here in what happens to Jane regarding the sexism she experiences and how that might be different if she transitioned, or even the idea of falling in love with oneself or trying to kill oneself, but it's all just offensively and idiotically done.

One Star out of Five.
Rated R for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 37 mins.

DVD Review - Young Ones

Kodi Smit-McPhee (left) and
Nicholas Hoult in 'Young Ones'
Jake Paltrow is the younger brother of Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow and he is the writer-director of this modern or rather futuristic western.

There is an underlying premise that a post-apocalyptic landscape has been created based on a significant, if not large loss of water recently. In terms of giving us enough world-building and enough information to understand fully or even feel fully the environment where the characters exist, Jake Paltrow does as poorly a job as Christopher Nolan in Interstellar. He does an even worse job of providing a point to this western masquerading as a twisted and deadly, domestic drama.

Oscar-nominee Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road and Take Shelter) stars as Ernest Holm, the father of two teenagers and the owner of farmland that has since dried up due to the large loss of water. He does have access to a well, a well he will literally kill to protect, but a well that has also dried up by the start of this narrative.

Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road and Let Me In) co-stars as Jerome Holm, the son of Ernest who is somewhat shy and reserved. He's a scrawny kid but he remains by his father's side, hard-working, dedicated and loving.

Elle Fanning (Super 8 and Maleficent) co-stars as Mary Holm, the daughter of Ernest who is many ways opposite. She resents her father. He keeps her somewhat restricted to the shanty-like home where they reside. She does all of the housework, the cooking and cleaning. She wants to hang out and do other things but Ernest doesn't allow her.

Nicholas Hoult (A Single Man and X-Men: First Class) co-stars as Flem Lever. He's one of the things that Mary would rather be doing. Flem comes into conflict with Ernest over a machine that functions basically as a robotic mule. Through some convoluted plotting, this conflict leads to Flem devising a plan to take control of Ernest's land and making it profitable again.

There are things about the convoluted plot that don't make much sense or are totally explained. The whole affair quickly rounds to a revenge tale in typical western fashion.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for some violence and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 39 mins.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

DVD Review - The Good Lie

The title references a line and plot point by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn. It references an untruth that someone tells not to protect oneself but to protect or help someone else. Beyond just the untruth, as depicted here, screenwriter Margaret Nagle also makes it about sacrifice, physical sacrifice, so that people can continue to live or even have it better.

The film focuses on five Sudanese refugees who come to the United States after being orphaned when civil war breaks out in the 1980's in that African country. The five are orphaned when they were children and are forced to walk from their Sudanese village, which is destroyed by rebel soldiers, all the way to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, set up by the United Nations. It's a nearly 800-mile walk.

Not since Peter Weir's The Way Back or Sherry Hormann's Desert Flower has something like that walk been portrayed with such authority or genuineness. Obviously, there's only so much director Philippe Falardeau is willing to show with regard to the horror and even the deaths of the children, but the feeling of terror, pain and even thirst is thoroughly felt. The children trek for a long time through the African desert and we feel their thirst.

Once the children reach Kenya, they are forced to stay at the Kakuma Refugee Camp for 13 years. This fact doesn't feel genuine or is really felt at all. The children, now young adults, are clearly bonded. When they get the ability to go to America, through one reason or another, only three get to be together or stay together.

Arnold Oceng stars as Mamere, the shortest but second eldest. He aspires to be a doctor. Ger Duany co-stars as Jeremiah, the tallest and skinniest. He's also the most versed in the Bible and realizes the parallel to Moses' story in terms of what happened to them. Emmanuel Jal co-stars as Paul who becomes the most cynical, especially in light of him being the most maladjusted to the culture shock. Paul fought a lion and now has a factory job.

Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon has a small role as Carrie, an employment agent who helps Mamere, Jeremiah and Paul find work in Kansas City, Missouri, where they end up. Corey Stoll (House of Cards and The Strain) plays Jack, a friend and boss for Carrie, who also lends a hand in assisting the three Sudanese immigrants. Both Witherspoon and Stoll are great in their brief appearances. Even soap stud-turned-producer Thad Luckinbill is good in his brief appearance.

I thought it was great that the film used actual Sudanese refugees for this movie, which increases its authenticity, but apparently the film is now the subject of a lawsuit, based on the use of actual refugees. Eriq Gardner recently wrote about it for The Hollywood Reporter.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence, brief strong language and drug use.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 49 mins.

DVD Review - White Bird in a Blizzard

Shailene Woodley and Christopher Meloni
in a scene from 'White Bird in a Blizzard'
Writer-director Gregg Araki has adapted the novel by Laura Kasischke. As is the usual tactic, Araki lifts actual prose from the novel and utilizes it as narration. Sometimes this tactic works. Sometimes it doesn't. The tactic doesn't work in this film. Its narration is mostly clunky and obvious, and in one moment it's a horrible spoiler.

Shailene Woodley (The Descendants and Divergent) stars as Kat Connors, a teenage girl who realizes in the fall of 1988 that her mom has disappeared. Kat assumes that her mother has run off or abandoned her and her father. However, the premise is that Kat doesn't care that her mom is gone, given the breakdown of her relationship with her mother. Kat doesn't miss her mother. She has stray thoughts and dreams about her mother, but otherwise Kat is fine to have her mom vanish.

Kat has two best friends. Gabourey Sidibe plays Beth, the big black and sassy friend. Mark Indelicato plays Mickey, the tiny, possibly Latino, gay friend. Neither Beth and Mickey talk about or have their own lives. They exist only to talk about Kat's life, specifically Kat's sex life and at first lack thereof.

Shiloh Fernandez plays Phil, the boy next door. He's the son of a blind woman who is apparently a single mother. He's referred to as garbage and he on his outside seems like white trash, but he's actually sweet. He's cool and he can be fun. He helps to care for his mother, even at the sacrifice of his own personal life. He does develop an interest for Kat and he does take her virginity.

This is now the third film that Woodley has done where we see her play a character who loses her virginity on screen. The Spectacular Now (2013) and The Fault in Our Stars (2014) were her previous films where she played teenage girls falling in love and losing their virginities. However, Kat doesn't necessarily fall in love with Phil.

She's merely a young girl exploring her sexuality. Araki's previous films focus more on a young man exploring his sexuality. He could handle the task, but the most exploration we get is Woodley showing her breasts on screen. Frank conversation between Kat and Beth are clunky as naturally it would be, but therapy sessions between Kat and her therapist don't prove to be any better and fail to deliver on sexual exploration. Oscar nominee Angela Bassett plays Kat's therapist but only ends up being the film's biggest waste.

David Wnendt's Wetlands and Alan Ball's Towelhead are better explorations of a teenage girl's sexuality. There's similarity between this and Towelhead in that Kat has an affair with an older man. It's not a Lolita situation. Here, Kat pursues the detective assigned to the case of her mother's disappearance. Thomas Jane plays the detective.

The film floats along with strange regard to Kat's mom, Eve Connors. Eva Green (Kingdom of Heaven and Casino Royale) plays Eve, an exaggerated and bored housewife. Her depiction of Eve is all over the map. There is some suggestion that Eve is depressed or has some kind of mental illness or problem, but that's never made clear.

Then, at the last minute, the movie rushes through the mystery of what happened to Kat's mom. The film ignores or wants to ignore that mystery predominantly and then begs in hurried fashion to address it. The film has us not care about it for most of its running time and then asks or tries to force us to care and it doesn't work.

When it comes to the mystery, the voice-over narration spoils it stupendously any way. It could have been like Park Chan Wook's Stoker with Araki's use of a freezer in the basement being similar to Park Chan Wook's use of a freezer in the basement, but there is an indifference here, both from the protagonist and filmmaker, that turns off any thrills or horror that could have been present more consistently. Araki over-uses the image of Eve in the snow, which never has the menace, dred or intrigue that it could have.

Christopher Meloni (42 and Man of Steel) co-stars as Kat's dad, a man who seems like he's easily understood and simple. Meloni is good, as he usually is. There's an oddness to him that's endearing. It's sad to see his character veer more toward his character in HBO's Oz. It's not homophobic, but it possesses a kind of internalized gay panic, which comes out of nowhere. There's no foreshadowing. It's meant to be a shock, but ultimately it's a petty shock.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for sexual content/nudity, language and some drug use.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 31 mins.