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Can't Stop the Movies

The Phone Call (2014)

Heather works at a crisis center where those who are depressed and suicidal call in for help and guidance.  At work she receives a call from the inconsolable Stan, who may have already taken the steps to end the life she works to protect.  Mat Kirby directs The Phone Call from a screenplay written by him and James Lucas, starring Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent.

The Phone Call is currently available for digital purchase at Amazon.

Please stay on the line with meI've been recently intrigued by the excerpts and reactions from a book called Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.  The premise is that we've been so focused on treating aging and the end of life experience as another medical problem which can be rendered moot so long as the right advances in treatment and application are in play.  This may be something of a foolish hope, because ultimately we have limited time on this earth and no feasible increase in medical technology is going to save everyone.  So the last days of people's lives are filled with constant tests and checking of vitals when the overall situation is hopeless - all that time and energy to save or extend someone's life when we could be using it to make someone more comfortable.

The Oscar-winning short film The Phone Call is a cousin to this idea, imagining an encounter between a lonely crisis center volunteer and an old man who has called in one too many times before deciding this is the moment he has chosen to die.  As someone who has done some hospice and crisis center volunteer work, this is both a routine and nightmare scenario.  How do you react to someone so inconsolable that no matter what you choose to say they are going to die?  The Phone Call answers this question with breathtaking compassion, showing one human doing her best to save and then comfort a man who has chosen to go into the dark than weather another day without his beloved.

The Phone Call is a mere 22 minutes long, but director Mat Kirby knows this is precisely the amount of time needed to tell this story and wastes no frames in saying exactly what he needs to.  It helps that he is joined by Sally Hawkins, that amazing actress whose performance in Happy Go Lucky is one of the few treasures of the last decade, and is able to suggest a life of loneliness with just a few glances.  Watch her cold face as she reads her book without pleasure on the far corner of a bus stop, only to have that stony façade melt into longing when she sees a coworker she has a crush on sitting in the opposite end of their office.  So near, but so far, as the saying goes, and Hawkins' skill at expression will serve her well in the coming fifteen minutes of conversation.


Code Black (2014)

Today might be the day

Code Black is a documentary feature about the doctors of C-booth, an emergency room which sees the most patients out of any hospital in the country, and their growing pains when forced to move to a new facility.  Ryan McGary directs.

You can rent or purchase Code Black from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, or Google Play.

Today might be the dayI normally don't pay attention to who the producers of a movie are but as the credits rolled on Code Black I snapped to attention.  There's the usual list of financiers but what struck me were the number of doctors who put up their money for this film.  Director Ryan McGary's project, which documents the evolution of and frustrations work in an emergency room known as C-booth with a specific reputation, is an important one for these physicians.  "More people have died in that square footage than anywhere else in the United States," says one doctor early in Code Black, and if the stakes weren't made clear by the dialogue they are by the grainy footage of a 21-year old male with multiple gunshot wounds being flown into the hospital.

These moments are brief, but I thought we were going to be watching something like Leviathan for a moment and Code Black would be a documentary about the experience of an emergency room doctor in a visceral or surreal way.  The introduction, with the hazy greens and blues of the hospital rushing with the camera to pick up the wounded patient, was an exhilarating experience.  But those moments of intense subjectivity were quickly gone, replaced instead with a camera that makes easy sense of the chaos going on in C-booth and moments where we cut to talking heads as they tell us why they chose this life.

Code Black is not a great documentary and McGary proves himself a capable director in telling this story, which he claims is non-partisan, and filling in the cracks in his talent with sincerity and pain.  I can't imagine anyone on either side of the aisle watching Code Black and thinking that they have the right opinion on health care.  Even my own preconceptions were challenged when they discuss the bill which forced emergency rooms to treat critical patients, something I've considered a good thing for long, then bringing in doctors which question that decision when someone has to pay for it in the end.  But even then another doctor, shortly afterwards, points to the curious problem where we're willing to sign legislature which protects these emergencies (a leftover of the Regan administration of all things), yet isn't willing to create a program which could have prevented those problems with a few cents worth of medication a day.


Maps to the Stars (2014)

David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars presents a semi-sprawling satire of Hollywood, focusing on aging actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), her enigmatic assistant Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) and his wife, and their son, child actor Benji Weiss.

It's available to rent now on Amazon, Google Play, and VUDU.

David Cronenberg's Maps to the StarsKyleDislikeNew

I have generally been a fan of David Cronenberg’s lauded post–A History of Violence shift away from raw sci-fi body horror (which really started with Spider if you want to get picky about it). Aside from Eastern Promises I haven't loved any of these films, but they've all been varying degrees of successful and interesting—those two criteria not always intersecting at the same point on the vertical axis, as with 2012's Cosmopolis. So I came into Maps to the Stars curious, if not altogether enthusiastic, and then added two points for Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska. John Cusack isn't discerning enough in his role choices, so for pre-release anticipation his casting ends up being a zero-sum move.

The results surprised me a little bit—Maps to the Stars may be a better representation of the world it's trying to satirize than any of those involved realized or intended. This is a wonderfully shot, great-looking movie filled with excellent performances at the service of a story designed to suggest depth where none exists. Sprawling casually across three intersecting groups of characters who inhabit various stages of the rickety Hollywood success ladder, writer Bruce Wagner's screenplay has novelistic ambitions—fitting, as the movie is based on his novel Dead Stars, itself supposedly based on earlier versions of the script—but it lacks the patience to develop its characters in any truly meaningful ways. It's a curiosity for a director like David Cronenberg, falling surprisingly flat despite a few inspired moments. Even when discussing his failures, I'd have never imagined Cronenberg capable of “flat.”


Stan Brakhage: Chinese Series (2003)

Chinese Series - 2003

Many of Stan Brakhage's films are available for viewing in multiple venues.  You can watch Chinese Series here.

Chinese Series - 2003Chinese Series is a struggle. The closest analogue I have for it in the other Stan Brakhage films I’ve watched is Rage Net, that magnificent film which kept tearing itself apart in frustration before finally cutting to black. But while Rage Net had Brakhage dealing with his divorce from his first wife and the subsequent self-loathing which followed, Chinese Series was made when Brakhage was facing his mortal demise.

Whether Chinese Series exists in a “finished” state or not is up for debate because he was still working on the film when he passed away in 2003. I question that because the cold hand of finality is not something which touches Brakhage’s work often. The most notable example was The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, but in other films dealing with death he abstracts the concept in such a way that his films make death seem like one drop in an infinite plane instead of a cold end.


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

Following the events of Catching Fire, Katniss Everdeen finds herself at the mercy of a rebel alliance who want to turn her into a symbol of their resistance of the capital.  President Snow, also not one to waste an opportunity for propaganda, puts the capture Peeta Mellark in front of the camera's to denounce Katniss and the rebels.  The symbol of the mockingjay spreads wide, as does the insurgency, and the fight for control of the 13 districts begins.  Francis Lawrence directs Mockingjay - Part 1 from a screenplay written by Danny Strong and Peter Craig with stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Julianne Moore.

White savior complexRereading my review of Catching Fire again, it's a wonder the Hunger Games film series could bounce back from the dull and morally hypocritical depths of the second chapter.  I finish this first part of Mockingjay not with rage, but boredom, a bit of admiration, and a question about whether the final film will have any surprises.  Truth be told, Mockingjay - Part 1 is just as hypocritical as the first chapter, but the change in scenery at least helps the pill go down a bit better.

The Hunger Games films work best when they're dealing with the way media and government collude to produce a narrative which makes the populace easy to control.  It's been my position that the Hunger Games franchise, by dragging out its narrative and doing its best to keep the audience from the violence, is betraying the class-rooted rage which made the books so popular.  What makes Mockingjay - Part 1 intermittently effective is a certain self-awareness in the visual exchange this time around.  Mockingjay - Part 1 is almost entirely a battle of propaganda with the actual ground war mostly kept off-screen, but the distancing effect makes us question the motives of the resistance and whether any real change will come of this.