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By Govindini Murty. Locke may just be one of the best films of 2014. Superbly written and directed by Steven Knight and featuring a dazzling performance by Tom Hardy, Locke is a must-see for anyone who believes that human character is still the most compelling subject of the cinema. I saw Locke earlier this year when it played to rave reviews at Sundance, and spoke with Knight about his innovative and deeply personal film which is expanding this week to theaters nationwide.

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In the film, Tom Hardy plays construction engineer Ivan Locke, a man who takes as much pride in the firm foundations of his buildings as he does in his unshakeable code of personal responsibility. One night, Locke leaves a construction job to drive from Birmingham to London to fulfill a mysterious promise. Along the way, he makes and receives a series of wrenching phone calls that bring his sense of personal duty into conflict with everyone and everything he loves.

I’m a big fan of films that use new digital tools to experiment with the traditional structure of the movies. , Locke succeeds at being both formally inventive and emotionally gripping. The entire movie, with the brief exception of the opening and closing shots, takes place in the interior of a car and features only one actor on-screen, Tom Hardy. At the Sundance premiere of Locke, director Steven Knight told me that he and his talented team used Red digital cameras to shoot the film continuously from beginning to end each night, like a stage play.

Stripped down to the bare essentials as a result, Locke focuses on what matters most: character, emotion, and story. The film proves that even in the contemporary cinema, with its obsession with surface visual effects, movies can still delve below the surface and capture something essential about human nature in much the same way literature can.

In Locke this is largely done through the power of the close-up. In the best movies, the close-up serves to bring emotional transparency to a film, whereby the candor of an actor and the attentiveness of a director work together to draw out the inner life of a character onto the big screen. And it’s there on the big screen that the human face takes on mythic qualities, elevating specific human experiences into universal truths. On the big screen there’s no place to hide as an actor – but if one is as talented as Tom Hardy, one doesn’t need to. Hardy sensitively pulls off Ivan Locke’s volatile and heartbreaking mixture of machismo, passion, humor, anger, and doubt – depicting Locke like a bear trapped in a cage of his own making.

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From "Locke."

I spoke with Steven Knight (Academy Award nominated screenwriter for Dirty Pretty Things) at the Sundance premiere of Locke and asked him how he pulled off such a technically complicated and emotionally wrenching film. The interview has been edited for length.

GM: I’d like to ask you about the innovative way you made the film. Why did you choose to do such a tight character study and film it in these continuous takes? Tell me about your process.

SK: I just finished making a film with Jason Statham the conventional way [2013's Redemption]. And two things occurred. One was: anything we shot from the car at night was beautiful, and I thought the thing to do would be to make an installation of that – make it as a piece of art with just the moving traffic patterns.

And then, I also asked the question of myself: the basic task here is to get a lot of people into a room, turn the lights off, and get them to look at a screen for 90 minutes. That’s the basic job you’re doing. [But] are there other ways of doing it? So I thought that maybe that beautiful frame of the moving road could be the theater. And … it would need to be one man, and if you’re going to get one man, it better be Tom Hardy. So I approached him and I said I want you to do a play, effectively. I want to shoot it as a play, but in the environment of a car. He was really keen, read the script and the next weekend we were shooting it. The whole point all the way through was to shoot it in sequence so that it’s an actor’s performance. Don’t split it up, don’t turn it into a conventional way of shooting it. And I think the rewards are immense, because the actors feel like they are in control of their own performances. Continue reading »

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From "Viktoria."

By Joe Bendel. She drinks Coca-Cola and uses a Statue of Liberty cigarette lighter. Obviously, Boryana’s heart is not in Bulgaria’s glorious effort to build Socialism. It is in Venice. Unfortunately, her unplanned pregnancy will stymie her secret immigration plans. It is one reason why a Cold War rages between mother and daughter in Maya Vitkova’s Viktoria, which screened at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Life in late 1970’s Bulgaria is pretty depressed and dehumanized. Even a trip to the OBGYN is a humiliating experience, conducted in an examination room with windows open for any passerby to observe. Boryana previously used traditional methods to induce miscarriage (a lot of jumping and the like), but to no avail this time.

In addition to putting the nix on Venice, the infant Viktoria perversely becomes a propaganda tool for the state. Not only was she born on Victory Day, she has no navel. Therefore, she is a portent of the new Socialist man of the future. No longer must women take time away from their labor for the sake of childbirth, because babies like Viktoria will surely be incubated outside their mothers.

When it comes to entitled little monsters, none can match a Communist princess. A personal favorite of Bulgarian Party secretary Todor Zhivkov, Viktoria is chauffeured to school each day, where she is given carte blanche to bully her teachers and peers alike. She even has a red phone connection direct to Zhivkov. Then one day in 1989, she becomes an ordinary kid, who nobody likes.

Despite the surreal interludes and mild magical realism, Viktoria conveys a vivid you-are-there sense of life under Communism. There is a ring of truth to it, precisely because of the absurdity. Young Viktoria’s special midriff make-up also looks quite realistic. However, the post-1989 narrative largely loses both its bite and its focus. It seems like it takes Vitkova forty minutes to never really figure out how to end it all. Still, considering the running time is over two and a half hours, there is a good feature’s length of material that works.

From "Viktoria."

While the third act might have problems, it is hardly the fault of Kalina Vitkova, who is hauntingly expressive as the twentysomething Viktoria. Likewise, her younger sister Daria is a remarkable force as the imperious and then chastened grade school Viktoria. Yet, it is Irmena Chichikova’s Borynana who will really get under viewers’ skin, depicting a persona forced into itself by circumstances and a totalitarian state.

For the most part, the sexually frank Viktoria has the vibe of a more Spartan Unbearable Lightness of Being, with trippy flights of fantasy thrown in to convey the characters inner angst. Highly recommended, it is a challenging film in terms of subject and style, but it is worth grappling with, especially its more consistent initial two hours. The first Bulgarian film selected by the Sundance Film Festival, Viktoria turned out to be a sleeper at Park City, so it is certain to have a long life ahead on the international festival circuit.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on February 4th, 2014 at 12:43am.

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By Joe Bendel. Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach at public schools. So then, what are the chances of a misfit Ft. Chicken Elementary summer school faculty member surviving a juvenile mutant attack? Not great, but at least there will be plenty of gory humor in Jonathan Milott & Cary Murnion’s Cooties, which screened at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Failed novelist Clint Hadson has moved back to his mother’s house in Fort Chicken and accepted a position teaching English at his old elementary school. To make matters more depressing, his old high school crush and her jealous gym teacher boyfriend are also on the Ft. Chicken faculty. Hadson wants to be the cool teacher, who lets his students call him by his first name, but these kids are real hellions—and that is before contaminated chicken nuggets turn them into rampaging zombie death machines.

These little monsters like to bite and they are definitely contagious, but their viral brain rot only affects those who have not yet gone through puberty. In no time at all, the rabid kids have overrun the school. Hadson, his maladjusted colleagues, and a handful uninfected students hole-up, hoping help will come at 3:00, when parents start arriving to pick up their brood.

If you enjoy humor derived from splattered brains and guts then Cooties is in your power zone. Co-writers Ian Brennan and Leigh Whannel keep the shameless gags coming at a regular pace. However, the conspicuous narrative similarities between Cooties and Return to Nuke ‘Em High are distractingly awkward. Cribbing Troma—get your head around that one.

From "Cooties."

Elijah Wood’s nebbish everyman shtick works well enough for Hadson and he delivers some amusing lines here and there (partly redeeming his role in the dour travesty of Maniac). Whannel probably gets the biggest laughs as the socially inept sex ed. teacher, but nobody tries harder than Rainn Wilson, unleashing his inner Will Farrell as the past-his-prime P.E. teacher.

Horror movie fans will chuckle at Cooties, but there is nothing here they have not seen before, even if they have not yet revisited Nuke ‘Em High. For epic gross-out humor, it cannot compete with its fellow midnight selection, Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead, but both were picked up for distribution, so they were both winners at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

LFM GRADE: B-

Posted on January 31st, 2014 at 1:47pm.

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By Joe Bendel. In 1994, Siskel & Ebert helped launch Hoop Dreams towards its Sundance success with an unprecedented early review that aired during the first weekend of the festival. Twenty years later, Sundance regular Steve James returns again with a documentary tribute to his frequent champion, Roger Ebert. An affectionate profile produced with the cooperation of the Chicago Sun-Times critic during his final days, James’ Life Itself, which screens today as part of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Taking its oddly uncinematic title from Ebert’s memoir, Life focuses on Ebert, but his longtime co-host Gene Siskel naturally figures significantly throughout the film. Frankly, many viewers may well feel like the two critics should have had equal billing, but perhaps Ebert finally got one over on Siskel in that respect.

As the editor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign student newspaper, Ebert was not shy about expressing his left-of-center opinions. It would also help him fit in at the Sun-Times upon graduation. Like many entry level journalists, Ebert started out doing utility infield work at the paper, such as death notices and crime reports. When the movie critic resigned, he was assigned the beat rather off-handedly, because it was not considered a high profile gig. Pre-Kael newspaper film criticism often used generic bylines to accommodate multiple anonymous contributors. Of course, Ebert and his Pulitzer Prize for criticism would help change matters.

James devotes a fair amount of time to Ebert’s cub journalist years (which are reasonably interesting) and resolutely faces up to his naughty collaborations with sexploitation pioneer Russ Meyer (that are downright fascinating). He also intersperses the biographic business with footage of Ebert’s slow decline during the early months of 2013.

However, most viewers will be interested first and foremost in his years co-hosting movie review programs with Siskel. While James does not skimp on clips from the various incarnations of their show and prominently features the reminiscences of Siskel’s widow, their contentious partnership arguably could have been even higher in the mix. After all, it is through their television appearances that most viewers would have come to know Ebert.

From "Life Itself."

In fact, it is a wistfully nostalgic experience watching them argue and dispense thumbs. Life indeed reminds us what a comfortable presence S&E were on our idiot boxes. The influence they exercised over movie-going tastes and preferences will probably never be replicated.

Granted, James handles the scenes of the failing Ebert with tremendous sympathy, but they threaten to overwhelm the celebration of his life with uncomfortable hospital scenes. We come to understand why Ebert wanted to be so forthcoming about his health, but all the details do not have to be on-screen.

If you are wondering, Ebert’s in/famous North review did not make the cut. Maybe it will be on the DVD. Regardless, it is rather nice to see a movie that considers film criticism a worthy endeavor. Recommended for those who can never get enough movie nostalgia, Life Itself screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on January 27th, 2014 at 4:15pm.

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From "Calvary."

By Joe Bendel. Whenever we see a picturesque Irish village with a curmudgeonly priest we are conditioned to automatically think quaint little comedy—the kind in which old people might get naked. This will be a much darker affair. Reuniting with Brendan Gleeson, The Guard helmer John Michael McDonagh offers a sober meditation on faith, sacrifice, and forgiveness in Calvary, which screened as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Father James was called to the priesthood late in life, after his divorce. Considered a good man by those who know him, he is completely innocent of the church’s abuse scandals. Yet, that is precisely why a grown victim announces in confessional his intention to kill the upstanding father. Murdering a compromised priest simply would not have the same jarring effect as killing Lavelle. With the one week deadline looming, Lavelle sets out to find the disturbed parishioner amongst his shockingly jaded flock.

Perhaps fortuitously, Father James will also have to deal with his twentysomething daughter, who has come to recuperate from another suicide attempt. They will have some unusually serious and heartfelt discussions throughout the course of the film, even though Father James never reveals the death threat hanging over his head. However, McDonagh does not use the confessional seal as a thriller device. Since the mystery man never asks for absolution, Father James is free to seek the counsel of his bishop and the local dodgy police inspector. Yet, for various reasons, Father James is determined to handle the matter personally.

Given the title and the clock ticking down to Sunday, the symbolism of Calvary is almost crushing at times. Nonetheless, its exploration of religious conviction is exceptionally mature and thoughtful. Father James is a good man, but hardly a saint. In contrast, the village is almost shockingly contemptuous of his relative virtue. If the Church’s problematic response to the notorious rash of abuse scandals is the lighter fluid that ignites Calvary, the moral bankruptcy of the increasingly agnostic village is the kindling that keeps it ablaze.

From "Calvary."

Throughout the film, Brendan Gleeson is pretty much perfect as Father James, delivering gruff one-liners, while facing a series almost Biblical trials with palpable dignity and resolution. It is a salty yet mostly understated turn that might represent a career pinnacle. Likewise, Kelly Reilly is absolutely devastating in her big scenes as his daughter. They are backed up by a diverse supporting cast, including the likes of M. Emmet Walsh and Orla O’Rourke, who always convincingly look and act like members of the dysfunctional provincial community.

At the halfway point, Calvary seems rather overstuffed with subplots and side characters, yet nearly each and every one pays off for McDonagh. It might sound like an opportunist broadside launched at the church, but its depiction of the good priest is remarkable sympathetic and nuanced. In fact, McDonagh maintains a tone much more in keeping with Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest or Jean-Pierre Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest than the churlish score-settling of Philomena. Highly recommended (especially to those most inclined to be suspicious of it), Calvary screened as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on January 27th, 2014 at 4:12pm.

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By Joe Bendel. It only takes one family to launch a feud. By the same token, an emotionally damaged drifter hopes it will only take one family member to end it. Revenge is indeed the gift that keeps on giving but never fully satisfies in Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, which screened at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

After the murder of his parents, Dwight Evans’ psyche just disintegrated. In recent years, he has survived hand-to-mouth, often living uninvited in the homes of vacationing families, until they return. Then he resumes crashing in his beat up blue four door sedan. His anaesthetized existence is interrupted by a sympathetic police officer, who informs Evans the man who killed his parents is about to be released from parole.

Will Cleland is a member of the thuggish Cleland clan. Even though they own a successful limousine rental company, they are more comfortable with back hills living. Vengeance is definitely the sort of thing they are better at, but Evans shadows Cleland from prison to his roadhouse celebration nonetheless. He is clearly an inexperienced killer, as we see firsthand when he confronts Cleland alone in the men’s room. From there, one darned thing leads inexorably to another, generating a whole lot of angst and bodies, but also threatening to engulf Evans’ estranged sister and her family.

At its essence, Ruin is equally akin to classical tragedy and hillbilly exploitation films. Saulnier’s execution is wickedly effective, showing all the awkwardness of killing and the messiness of the resulting aftermath. Frankly, some of the most inspired scenes in Ruin are the bits most films gloss over. Yet, the tension never flags, notwithstanding the occasional punctuations of gruesome humor.

From "Blue Ruin."

As Evans, co-executive producer Macon Blair is one of the most intense sad sacks you will ever see on screen. He is a palpably haunted presence, but shows flashes of inspiration, making it impossible not to root for him, despite his alarming tendency to make mistakes. He commands the film, but Devin Ratray adds some welcome attitude and general humanity as Evans’ well armed high school friend, Ben Gaffney. Eve Plumb (a.k.a. Jan Brady) is also all kinds of fierce as the ruthless Kris Cleland, thereby guaranteeing Ruin a sizable cult following.

They won’t be disappointed either Blue Ruin is a taut and evocative thriller that utilizes its southern gothic violence for comedic and elegiac purposes. It is a cooker, recommended for anyone who enjoys payback cinema. With a theatrical and VOD release coming from Radius-TWC, Blue Ruin will also screen at the SF Indie Fest on February 16th & 20th, following its Spotlight selection at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on January 27th, 2014 at 4:09pm.

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