The Game – Review

30 Sep

I’m probably not alone in thinking that David Fincher is one of the best directors working in Hollywood right now. If you take a look at his filmography, there doesn’t seem to be a genre that he can’t tackle. His second film (after the entirely mediocre Alien 3), the superb horror/mystery Seven, scared that crap out of audiences, but also kept them guessing up until the very end. His other films like Fight ClubThe Social Network, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo were each a part of a different genre, but were all exceptional character studies. Of course, these are just a few noteworthy examples, which were also quite clear in his third effort, The Game. While it doesn’t quite pack the punch that Seven did, it is still a very fine example of work as a thriller and also provides an excellent mind game for the viewer.

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Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is an investment banker who can’t seem to get a grasp on his life despite his wealth. His wife has divorced him, his brother is estranged, and his house only serves to remind him of just how lonely and empty he is. When his estranged brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), shows up for his birthday, he gives Nicholas a business card as a gift for Consumer Recreation Services, which he claims will change his life. Nicholas decides to give it a try and meets with an associate of CRS (James Rebhorn), who gets him all set up and explains that it’s all just a game. As Nicholas’ game starts, he finds that his life and all of the work that was put into starts to crumble all around him with no explanation or conceivable reason. The only clues he may have lie with a mysterious woman, Christine (Deborah Kara Unger), who may or may not be involved with what’s going on with Nicholas.

A movie with a plot like that leaves a lot of room for some crazy stuff to happen, and believe you me, crazy stuff happens for a good majority of the movie. At first, I felt a little disappointed, because everything that was happening just seemed like another obstacle for Nicholas to get over, and what I was expecting was a movie that was going to toy with my mind and expectations. If only I had a little patience. What I mistook for a wasted opportunity was actually just excellent pacing. The movie starts off a little slow and progressively gets stranger and stranger until I finally felt like I was all wrapped up in this unbelievable game along with Nicholas.

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What actually got me curious about this movie was that I heard how twist turny and mind boggling it is. I love movies like that; the ones that are in the same vein as Donnie Darko and PrimerThe Game is now going to be my new go to example for a movie that takes your brain and shakes it around so much that it leaves you feeling tired by the very end. There have been times where I go into a movie expecting that, and by the end I’m disappointed that it really didn’t make me think out the puzzle all that much. Trying to solve the mystery of a movie like The Game is a large part of the fun. This one did not disappoint. Fincher and screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris lay this movie out in such a way that I at first though I knew what was going on, but as the movie progressed I was left wondering if anything that was going on was real or just part of the game, which is exactly what Michael Douglas’ character was going through. Now that’s clever film making.

Something that seems to bother people about this movie, and rightfully so, is just how ludicrous it is. I’m not the kind of person who gets too upset over a movie that seems completely implausible, because it is a movie after all, but there are some limits. The Game had its moments where I would think to myself that it would be highly, highly unlikely for something like that to happen. A counter argument would be that CRS is just so exact with their work that they would make it happen, especially given all of the tests they give to Nicholas when he starts up the game. Still, it would still be a really difficult task that kind of pushes the limits of what is acceptable with suspending disbelief. The movie is saved though by how believable Douglas plays everything and how twisted the movie can get.

As a mind boggling thriller, David Fincher’s The Game is a prime example of the genre and has gone on to become a cult classic. It would be very easy to pick this movie apart and find all of the flaws, but that would ruin the fun of the story. A story that left me scratching my head and on the edge of my seat until the very end. If you’re able to suspend your disbelief and enjoy movies that challenge you to think, and think quickly, then I can easily recommend The Game. Just be prepared for a wild ride.

Dogtooth – Review

25 Sep

I, personally, have not seen a whole lot of movies from Greece. I know they exist, but we just never seem to cross paths. That is until I saw Yorgos Lanthimos’ film Dogtooth. I got wind of this movie from hearing and reading from different sources and people about how weird it is, but also how well crafted it was also. Then upon learning that it was the first Greek film in years to be nominated for the Best Foreign Film award at the Oscars, I figured that I’d better quick add it to my list of movies to see. Well, I’ve finally gotten around to it and…well…wow…

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In an unspecified time at an unspecified place somewhere in Greece, a father (Christos Stergioglou) and mother (Michelle Valley) work hard to keep their three children (Aggeliki Papoulia, Christos Passalis, and Mary Tsoni) safe from the dangers of the outside world. Of course, this is the job of every parent, but it becomes strange when the children are fully grown and have never stepped foot beyond the gates that surround the house. The parents spend their days teaching the children a bunch of misinformation and scaring them away from wanting to go anywhere outside the gates. The children, knowing only what their parents tell them, are in fact afraid, but their curiosities start to get the better of them when their father starts bringing home a woman, Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou) for his son.

Let me start by saying that this movie is absolutely not what I expected. I went into Dogtooth thinking that it was going to be so weird and surreal that I would pretty much have to shut off that part of my brain that knows what it does about movies and just hold on for the ride. This really isn’t true. There is a clear beginning, middle, and end with actual character development and a story that is as concrete as it needs to be. Without looking at all the symbolism and other jazz like that, this is simply a movie about parents who are holding their children away from ever really learning anything constructive. Of course, that’s not the kind of cinephile that I am. I love looking for what a movie may possibly mean other than the obvious, and let me tell you, there’s quite a message to be had.

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What I really love about this movie is how loudly Lanthimos is yelling his point. What I, and many other people, have taken from Dogtooth is an idea of anti-censorship, and not just on a bug level. Sure, the movie can definitely speak about censorship of art and the stupidity behind the reasoning of not allowing someone to say or create what they want. I’d much rather read this as a satire behind family and the obsessive nature of some parents to protect their children. While this movie is over the top in how the parents and sheltered children are represented, I think everyone can attest that they have met someone that has been overly sheltered by whoever their guardians were. Keeping your children away from experiencing the negative sides of the world can do more harm than good, and that’s what Lanthimos is trying to say with Dogtooth, which i think is a brilliant and altogether unique message.

Going back to the story, this is a classic example of less is more. Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou tell the story of one of the most twisted families in film history by not giving the audience a whole lot of information. We know the father works at a factory, but what kind of factory. There are many instances of technology from the past 20 years, but we never really know what time period it is. The children are taught wrong definitions to words, but we don’t really know why. There’s also a mysterious older brother on the other side of the fence that the children believe exist, but where did that lie ever come from? This is a strange way to tell the story, but it made me as a viewer feel just as disconnected with reality as the children did. That along with camera angles that would make a film textbook self destruct.

Dogtooth is one of those movies that you’re going to want to think about for a few days before you can make a decision on whether or not you like it. Me, personally, it wasn’t a perfect film and it kind of wore on me after a little bit, but it was definitely interested to hold my attention until the end. This isn’t a traditional film with a traditional story, but a story is there and the message is unique and necessary, even if you don’t quite agree with it. This film isn’t for people who are looking for a straightforward film that explains everything clearly, which is totally an ok thing. Dogtooth forced me to put the pieces together and made me feel isolated at the same time, and for that I say it was a good film.

Lincoln – Review

23 Sep

2012 was quite a year for the 16th president of the United States. His first major outing of the year came in the form of the over the top action/horror film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. While I actually thought that movie was quite a laugh, Honest Abe didn’t get quite the treatment he deserved until later on that year with Steven Spielberg’s epic historical drama Lincoln. Now, while this movie is definitely one that revolves around Abraham Lincoln, it is more so the story of his legacy, and finest achievement, passing the crucial 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution.

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In the year 1865, the Civil War was reaching its conclusion, but to many people, it was far from over. While the battles were raging, a different kind of war was going on in Congress with Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) on the front lines. His goal to abolish slavery was met with much hostility, but he was far from giving up the fight. Unable to unofficially speak to many politicians himself, Lincoln required the help of people like Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) to speak for him, while a team of lobbyists led by William Bilbo (James Spader) worked more covertly to secure the vote. This was a difficult time not only for Lincoln, but also his family as his wife Mary (Sally Field) was still grieving over the death of one of their sons and another of his sons Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) decided to leave school and join the army.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that Lincoln is boring, mainly because Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner decided to put the actual battles of the Civil War on the back burner. The war itself acts as a looming presence over the Congressional hearings, which is the film’s focus along with the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s life. Knowing that going into the movie may make it feel a lot less heavy. That doesn’t change the fact that this movie can feel a little overloaded. Unless you’re an expert of the time period, the politics may be a little hard to keep up with at first, but I soon found myself following along with ease. The film also ends kind of strangely, with what felt like multiple endings, a few feeling a lot better than the actual ending. I’ve heard some people say that the real talent behind the movie isn’t Spielberg, but Kushner for creating such an incredibly written and thoughtful screenplay. I’d have to agree with that, although kudos go to both Spielberg and composer John Williams.

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But while Spielberg, Kushner, and Williams have all worked to create something special, I have to say that the man of the hour, or more so two hand a half hours, is Daniel Day-Lincoln… I mean Lewis. The amazing thing about Daniel Day-Lewis is that no matter what role he takes, he literally seems to transform himself into that character. Just look at his acting in Gangs of New York and There Will be Blood amongst other things. Lincoln is his crowning achievement, though, and won him the Academy Award for Best Actor. His Abraham Lincoln is a quiet and nervous man who enjoys telling stories to pass the time and quoting intellectuals to help prove his points. Though he is nervous, he is also a force to be reckoned with which is made clear in scenes where he gets a bit heated. Watching Lincoln was literally like watching history play out before me.

It’s very easy to just get lost in Lincoln. While the story is very important and well told, I could easily go back a second time and turn off the sound and just watch it. Things are recreated so meticulously that it’s almost ridiculous. For example, the sound of Lincoln’s watch is actually recorded from his actual pocket watch. The rooms of the White House are crafted so well and the scenes of battle we do see are gut wrenching and intense. It’s an amazing looking film that wouldn’t have worked so well if it wasn’t so perfectly constructed.

Lincoln is a masterpiece from a master film maker that was scored by a master composer and written by who I now consider a master writer. This is a film that will go down in history as one of the most important American films ever made. While it does feel a bit too heavy at times and the politics move kind of quickly, it’s still a gripping and moving drama about a man who went beyond what was expected of him to change the course of American history for the better. It took me a while to finally get around to watching this film, but now that I have, I can’t quite get it out of my head.

Let the Right One In – Review

19 Sep

Regardless of what people may or may not think, it is completely possible for a film maker with some talent to create a really cool vampire movie. There has been enough tom foolery happening with vampire lore, that it sometimes seems too much to handle. Enter novelist/screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist and director Tomas Alfredson who worked to create what may be the best vampire film of the last decade, Let the Right One In. It’s an outstanding blend of human drama, vampire folklore, coming of age, and romance but also will very likely remain a movie that I consider to be a modern day classic.

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Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a 12 year old boy living in the suburbs of Sweden who has trouble letting out his hostilities caused by the constant bullying he is subjected to at school. Life for Oskar is shaken up when a mysterious young girl, Eli (Lina Leandersson), moves into the apartment next to his. The two children soon become friends, even though throughout the town there are brutal murders and disappearances occurring. As the two children become closer and closer to each other, and a small romantic bonds for between them, Oskar begins realizing some strange things going on with Eli, starting with the facts that she is way older than 12, has an unending thirst for blood, and may be responsible for all of the missing and murdered people around town.

This is a movie that has so much going for it that it’s hard to just talk about it in so many words. I think it’s important to talk about some of the subtext going on in Let the Right One In. First of all, the way they handle Oskar’s character is brilliant. There are plenty of movies out there where a kid gets bullied, but in this one, we focus more on his time away from the bullies and how it is affecting him psychologically. Oskar spends his time clipping news stories about murder and guns before going outside to stab at a tree with a knife he hides under his bed. Much like another movie I recently reviewed, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, this film deals with a mortal side effect to bullying. While we never see Oskar go to the extremes that are shown in Elephant, we do get a look at a boy who is slowly becoming more and more psychologically disturbed, which is just as terrifying, if not more terrifying, than any vampire you will see in any other movie.

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Despite what some people may want to think, vampires are very romantic creatures, even if the romance is in some form of creepy or unsettling way. Just look at Bram Stoker’s novel of Dracula. The romantic qualities of Dracula are certainly creepy, but he still seems to have a sort of power over women. In Let the Right One In, the romance is between 12 year old Oskar and the infinitely 12 year old Eli. This kind of romance is sweet to see and is also combined with a strange coming of age story for Oskar and a shift in the life of Eli. This is a much more interesting story than the murderous consequences of Eli’s thirst, although I can’t deny that this movie as some genuinely creepy moments that are guaranteed to make your skin crawl. This is a horror movie after all, but a horror movie that is devoid of those god awful jump scares. The horror in this movie feels legitimate, and not just something that gets your adrenaline fueled for a few seconds. Anyone who has seen this movie would agree that the climax of the film is one of the best in the history of horror films.

Finally, this is a film that will get people talking. I first saw this movie in school, and pretty much only watched it as an interesting take on vampire movies. Watching it again just a few days ago, I saw how brilliantly written it is. There is just enough information given in the plot for us to know what is going on. I never really had any questions or confusions about what was being revealed, but there is so much happening beneath the surface that is merely alluded to that left me, and I’m sure many people, wondering. Now, I’ve never read Lindqvist’s novel, and from what I hear, a lot is explained. That’s fine for the novel, but for the movie, I love the mystery surround Eli and her past. It adds a whole layer of depth that wouldn’t be there if everything was simply explained.

Let the Right One In is simply one of the best vampire films ever made and a personal favorite of mine in the horror genre. It retains an excellent feeling of terror throughout the whole film but also adds nice moments for the two children to grow closer to one another in a way that only children can. The performances by these kids are also both excellent and surprisingly believable considering who their characters are. I haven’t seen the American remake of this film, but I’m not sure I’m too interested in it. This movie is perfect enough as it is, and one that I could watch over and over again.

Dead Man’s Shoes – Review

16 Sep

Revenge tales are a dime a dozen in the movie business. If were to count how many films were released per year whose main focus was on a character getting revenge, the results would probably be staggering. Luckily for me and everyone else, I don’t have that kind of patience. The point of what I’m trying to say is that if someone wants to make a revenge film, they better make it original in one way or another, because if not, they don’t give anyone a real reason to see it. Enter Shane Meadow’s little revenge flick from 2004, Dead Man’s Shoes. This is a movie that has me torn in every sense of the word. On one end, this is a great story with enough originality to please any film buff, but also some weak writing and plotting that makes the entire movie feel close to wasted.

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Richard (Paddy Considine) is a veteran returning back to his small English town to find it still in the hands of a small time group of drug dealers and thugs. These men don’t pose a serious threat to the community, but that wasn’t the worry of Richard’s in the first place. Richard has come for a much more personal form of revenge after he learns of the torture that this gang put his mentally challenged younger brother, Anthony (Toby Kebbell), through. As Richard’s vengeance becomes much more physically and psychologically violent, the drug dealers become more desperate and we are left to wonder if Richard is pushing things way too far.

To start with what’s really good about this movie, the story, at it’s very core, is actually really good because it caused me to actually really analyze the situation. This isn’t a story of really good guys that we can root for pitted against really bad guys that we love to hate. While Richard is seen as the protagonist, for most of the movie, I felt kind of uncomfortable with how he was acting and the violence that he was doing in order to achieve his mission of revenge. On the flip side, while the gang is definitely a despicable group of punks, they aren’t what I’d call evil. This leaves the story left in a morally gray area where there isn’t good vs evil, it’s actually just one person against other people.

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Where Dead Man’s Shoes fails in a way that hurts my very soul is the way the plot is laid out. I’m such a stickler for plots and narrative structure since the whole reason I love to watch movies is to get lost in a story. A movie can have nothing special going for it visually, but if it has a great story that’s plotted well, I really could care less. Dead Man’s Shoes has a great story that is plotted miserably. I felt like the movie went from A to C and brushed right by B only revealing the littlest but. A movie of this intensity that involves physical and psychological vengeance needs to have suspense, and this movie had very little. Don’t get me wrong, there was a scene or two with great suspense, so it was there, but there wasn’t enough in the movie as a whole.

So yes, the movie is almost spoiled by lack of suspense and a messy narrative structure, but not all of the writing is bad. Being co-written by both Shane Meadow (the director) and Paddy Considine (the star), the movie does have excellent dialogue and scenes. This might also add to the fact that I wanted more movie. The dialogue performed by the actors was so natural and real that it brought a level of realism to the film. That combined with Meadow’s often documentary-like directing in many of the scenes. You can see that the movie was made cheaply, but that doesn’t change the fact that it looks great and has great performances, especially by Paddy Considine who gives one of the most menacing performances I’ve seen in awhile.

Dead Man’s Shoes pulls me in a few different directions. On one end, I’m disappointed at the lack of suspense and the way the story just kinda rushes by, not giving me any time to get really nervous. On the other end, the story is original, the acting is excellent, and the ending kind of blew me backwards. It’s also true that as I’ve had time to think about it, I really want to see it again, and knowing what it’s all about I might like it a little bit more. I do like this movie, but not quite as much as I should have.

 

Slacker – Review

11 Sep

Richard Linklater has recently earned a lot of attention from both critics and audiences for his new film Boyhood, which I have unfortunately still not seen yet. Instead, I’m going to be looking at a movie that was the star of Linklater’s career and also a film that is considered by many to be the quintessential indie film and a modern day classic in its own right. This is Linklater’s 1991 film, Slacker. Being made with a meager $23,000 budget and shot on a 16mm camera, I believe that this truly is the indie film, but it also served as inspiration for film makers of a generation and gave a voice, however silly it may be, to a group of people no one wants to listen to.

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The plot for this film is extremely simple in the sense that there is no plot. This film follows a group of lazy, quirky characters over a period of 24 hours in Austin, Texas. After staying with a character for a few minutes, we segue on to the next one to hear what that person has to say or what they do with the time that they could be using to do something productive. Over this day philosophies are spewed, alcohol is consumed, and life is pretty much just lived, which for this eclectic group of losers, isn’t really all that special. In their own ways, however, they are all totally fine with that.

Slacker feels very similar to a few of Linklater’s other later films, mostly 1993’s Dazed and Confused and 2001’s Waking Life. In both of these films, there’s just a whole lot of talking and hanging around without any really big plot developments, or really plots at all, but in some way, Linklater makes them work. The way he achieves this is by making all of the characters different and interesting. They may talk a whole lot of bullshit, but it’s so much fun listening to them say this bullshit with such confidence and bravado. While Slacker has the youthful angst and mentality of Dazed and Confused, it feels much more similar to Waking Life in terms of style. No, Slacker isn’t roto-scoped, but it is just made up of a bunch of people hanging around and talking, which is exactly what Waking Life is, except on a much deeper level.

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It’s weird even thinking that Linklater wrote this movie since everything sounds so natural. This is a very difficult movie to make, in my opinion, because it all hinges on the writing and the performances to be executed as naturally as possible. There’s no plot for this movie to fall back on. The entire point of it is to hear and see these people go about a moment of their day, and if we don’t believe that that’s what is actually happening, then the whole movie is ruined. Luckily, even amongst all of the oddities, Richard Linklater and his cast pull off all the strange dialogue that you would expect to hear by a group of out of school/out of work youths who have nothing better to do than talk about their theories on every aspect of life.

What’s also really cool about Slacker is that this type of person is neither mocked nor praised. It’s quite clear that they aren’t who you want to turn into, but at the same time it seems like they are having a good time and enjoying the life that they have. It’s a nice middle ground that Linklater found, and it almost feels like he actually did just travel through Austin and go from one person to the next. The segues are also really fun, and they make everything feel connected. One thing I will say is that this movie can sort of start to wear on you. Trimming off 15 minutes definitely wouldn’t hurt it at all. It just seemed that some of the segments were nowhere near as interesting as others.

While Slacker isn’t a perfect film it certainly is a landmark in independent film making and it can not be denied that it has earned a place in film history, even though it was only made in 1991. Hell, this is the movie that directly inspired Kevin Smith to make his now iconic film, Clerks. Even though there is no plot to speak of, Richard Linklater’s Slacker is a movie that I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy, but ended up really liking it. The lack of story may definitely be a turn off to some people, but this shouldn’t deter someone from seeing this movie. Just spending time with this eclectic group of misfits is fun enough.

Elephant – Review

9 Sep

There are many things in life that completely baffle society which leaves us longing for a concrete answer. Many of these things revolve around apparently senseless violence, nonetheless senseless violence against children and teenagers. This is a very difficult topic to make a film about since you would have to walk a thin line between exploitation and dealing with the topic appropriately. Only in the right hands would violence against youth be handled correctly, and thankfully this is the case with Elephant, handled so well by Gus Van Sant. Not only dealing with the violence and horror of school shootings, Van Sant also examines the more microscopic violence and horror of high school and the effects of having so many clashing personalities in so confined a space.

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The morning starts just like any other at Wyatt High School in a quiet suburb in Portland. John (John Robinson) has to deal with being late for school once again because of his alcoholic father. Elias (Elias McConnell) spends his time taking pictures of students and developing them in the dark room. Nathan (Nathan Tyson) and Carrie (Carrie Finklea) worry about something obvious that remains unspoken, and Michelle (Kristen Hicks) worries about fitting in with the other girls. What remains unseen by all of these students are the activities of Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), who are quietly formulating a plan to get revenge for the years of bullying that they have suffered through. Soon, this normally quiet school erupts into violence and bloodshed.

Elephant is one of the most brutal and disturbing films that I have ever seen, and it will probably remain that way until the last movie I ever watch. Many of the films that I have called disturbing certainly still will be, but the realism behind this and the thematic material involved hurts more than most films. This is one of those movies that could literally be sliced from a day of a real, seemingly normal day. This makes sense since Van Sant clearly took inspiration from the tragedy that occurred at Columbine High School. With all of the disturbing content, the most memorable part of this movie in terms of how it’s made, is the amount of really heavy suspense and the way the camera flows through the scenery; a technique that made me feel like I was a character in the movie.

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What Gus Van Sant succeeds at doing with this movie is making the viewer, whoever they may be, feel like they are these active observers in the sense that they move with the characters and see pretty much everything they are doing, but passive in a way that they can’t do anything about it. We follow the characters through the hallways like they are lab rats in a maze who are then faced with variables, Alex and Eric, that completely destroy everything about what they know. We are also never given much information about the characters. We only know just enough about them to know who they are on a basic level. Don’t mistake this for Van Sant turning this into a cold experience. The horror and shock is still felt on a very human level. This is film making at the most excellent.

Another thing that works really well in Elephant are the questions that we are left with. I always like to think about a movie when it’s over, but this one made me want to have a full blown discussion. The title of the movie refers to the famous saying about there being “an elephant in the room,” a saying that is now about the violence that Alex and Eric have, but also about the subject of these events happening in our schools and who to blame. Columbine isn’t an isolated incident, and after each event like it, people are always looking for something or someone to blame. What Gus Van Sant has shown with Elephant is that there really is no easy solution. There are too many things that happen, from the smallest event to the largest tragedy, that can effect someone, especially in this age group. It would be too easy to blame the media or gun control or whatever since there is simply too much to consider.

On every level, Elephant is a success. I believe that this movie should be required viewing, not just to film students trying to learn to hone their craft, but also to a younger generation as a way to show what their actions could do or even to understand the natures of other people. The violence, as disturbing as it is, isn’t senseless and the beautiful camerawork is really something that I could write a whole essay on itself. Elephant is a prime example of a talented film maker showing the level that film as an artistic medium can be taken to, but also how to properly use it as a tool for social awareness.

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