Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Perfect Angel

Schmoo always had a soft spot for cat food. It's just so meaty and delicious and those jerk cats get it so why not him?

We were never around to witness these capers (this happened a couple times), but as best we can figure Chewy initiated the plan and Schmoo seized the opportunity to capitalize on it when he saw his opening - his forcefulness banishing her to some dark corner to skulk...and wait.

On these occasions his midsection really would balloon up to twice its normal size. We never really had the heart to scold the little guy. His subsequent discomfort was enough punishment, I suppose. Schmoo was an opportunist and waving our arms around, raising our voices at him wasn't going to stop him from doing it again. He knew what he'd done was wrong - he'd known while he was doing it - but that wasn't going to stop him from doing it again once we let our guards down. This approach might seem a touch indifferent, but Schmoo was gonna be Schmoo. His physical limitations afforded him few opportunities for any real mischief, so why begrudge him these small victories over routine?

In the end, all we could do is laugh and shake our heads in embarrassment when forced to take him out into public while we waited for him to shrink back to his normal size. With the ensuing diarrhea, that typically took about three days.  

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Schmoozer: Nemesis

“A man with no enemies is a man without character.”
- Paul Newman

He howled. Howled right in Schmoo’s face for what seemed like an hour straight – longer and louder than what could be deemed acceptable in the kingdoms of man or animal. All this time, Schmoo just stood and stared – Duke’s grizzled, old hound face burning more and more into the portions of his brain reserved for hate with each obnoxious bellow. In that first meeting, the relationship of these two dogs was set – their minds made up. Duke had his opinions and Schmoo had his, which I believe could be summed up simply as “fuck this guy”.

This introduction of Schmoo to my parents’ dogs was necessary and one I was looking forward to. This was my first official dog meeting the dogs I'd grown up with. How everything would go down was arranged according to my Mother’s advanced animal acumen. He was introduced slowly and met by cordial-enough greetings from Loomis, a wolfy-mutt with her own behavioral quirks and Peewee, the mush-brained puggle no one had to worry about. Schmoo had showed signs of dog-aggression, so I was more worried about how he’d react to this motley pack than how they'd react to him, but I think he was taken off-guard by Duke’s actions, which I’m sure were embarrassing to all the animals and humans present that day.

Duke was my family’s beagle, a ridiculous animal deserving on his own collection of tales. When he passed away in early 2013, I remarked that he wasn’t the kind of dog you mourned with sadness, but more appropriately with an Irish Wake or Viking Funeral. He was a bastard – loud, misbehaved, foolhardy – but damned if he wasn’t entertaining.

When my family adopted him, he was just a pup, with vibrant hound coloring and a sweet little face. He looked like a young beagle should. As he grew older, he grew into something less-so. His colors faded to gray early in life (to almost exclusively white in his later years), his frame became large and bulky and his ears hung far past the breed standard.

One of Duke’s most frustrating tendencies was to rush out the door when unsuspecting visitors entered our home and to chase around the subdivision howling at nothing for hours (and sometimes days) at a time. His transformation over the years was such that we joked that our sweet Duke had run away for good during some misadventure and some beastly stray has returned in his stead.  

Though he certainly didn’t have to, Duke lived much of his life hard and on the edge, which is sort of commendable. During one of the many times I was tasked with hunting him down, I watched on in horror as he came within a few short moments of being run over on the busy road that ran behind my parents’ property (to his indifference). When I eventually caught him, with no leash in my possession, I was forced to sling him over my shoulders, where he fought, fussed and wailed the whole walk home. 

Another time, he returned home from a brief sojourn in the woods with a small hole in his haunch. What could have caused this injury is up for debate, but, judging from the size, a BB was the likely culprit. I wouldn’t have put it past some of our more “rural” neighbors to take a shot at him. While I’m sure he was fun and worthy target-practice, I doubt he even felt the pellet land while in the throes of his smell-driven fit. No mere BB (or box of BB’s) was ever going to take that dog down.

By the time Schmoo came into the picture, Duke was getting old and surly. It’s too bad about first impressions because I think the two could have been friends if history had unfolded differently. I can imagine Duke uttering the hackneyed go-to of the action-movie antagonist “we’re not so different, you and I” during one of their private moments. Both were particular dogs, with big personalities and untold but vaguely decipherable codes of conduct. Both were food motivated, fond of human comforts and prone to grumbling. Both were strong-willed, stubborn survivors who out-foxed their respective illnesses longer than they were meant to.

It’s the above-mentioned codes of conduct that seemed to stir trouble between the two more often than not. Schmoo had what we liked to call his “Corgi Rules”. What those rules were only Schmoo knew, but they consisted of outlawing behaviors that he deemed obnoxious or untoward. Being too obvious while begging during human-dinner time? – Inappropriate! Trying to lick the plates and kitchenware while the masters loaded the dishwasher? – Unacceptable! Groaning and writhing on the coach in an effort to soothe one's aching old bones? – How undignified! Such behaviors, which Duke was prone to, often resulted in reprimands from Schmoo – a sharp bark and whale-eyed stare. Occasionally, Duke responded in kind with a “fuck off” bark of his own coupled with a crazy “go for it” gaze through his cataract-ridden eyes.  Despite the animus, such altercations never came to blows.

Until one day, they did.

Duke had had enough. While congregating in the kitchen, sniffing for scraps and pestering my Mother, Schmoo scolded Duke as he turned a corner – probably for the crime of being a sour sonofabitch who was undoubtedly up to no good. This was the straw that broke the old hound's back. Duke lunged at him and the snapping and howling began.  

When those unmistakable wails rang out, I ran in from the other room to help break it up. Those who’ve witnessed such altercations know how awful they can be, even with smaller breeds. There’s very little calculation to a dog fight – chess it is not - just an explosion of teeth, snapping jaws and bad intentions propelled by instinct and ancestral ghosts. Due to our intervention, the bout only lasted a few moments, but, to my surprise, Schmoo seemed to have gotten the better of things, for it was his jaw that needed to be removed from Duke’s fleshy throat.

I gathered up my dog and hurried him into the living room to cool down. I was shaken up by the incident, but when everything calmed down and it became apparent that no one was injured, I couldn’t help but laugh a little. I was proud of Schmoo – not for fighting, but for holding his own once the fighting started and for taking it to the bigger dog. He’d proven, as he continued to prove for the remaining years of his life, that the frailty I’d used as an excuse to coddle him was an illusion.

Even though Duke’s death came at the end of long stretch of failing health, it was a tough one to take. The bigger a dog’s personality, the bigger the hole they leave in your life once they’re gone. Besides Schmoo, I’d say there was no greater dog I’d ever known.

I wouldn’t say Schmoo enjoyed Duke’s absence during the visits of his final years. I wonder if he noticed. I think I would be underestimating him (and the species as a whole) if I said he didn’t. I know I’m ascribing a human spin to their relationship, but there’s something poetic and eternal to the idea of the rivalry – Magic-Bird, Ali-Frazier, Duke-Schmoo - these stories are for the ages. These men and dogs made each other better, alternating between whetstone and blade to make each stronger, sharper. Schmoo was stimulated by Duke’s presence; his “Corgi Rules” written in antipathy to the behaviors of the beast who greeted him so rudely; his confidence bolstered by the time they went mano a mano. Without Duke, Schmoo's life wouldn’t have been quite as full.

This past July Julie, Schmoo and I moved back to the Midwest from Colorado. While spending some time at my parent’s house, Schmoo did something very out-of-character. He wasn’t the type of dog to run off, so I took him out for a brief jaunt in their backyard without a leash. However, down on the edge of the woods lining their property he spotted a rabbit and took off into the overgrowth to find it. Without proper footwear I couldn't follow, so I had to wait for my Mom to bring me my hiking shoes. In the time that elapsed, he’d disappeared. I ran after him, chasing back and forth around the woods like a madman, crying out for him to come back. His hearing was mostly shot at this point and he’d never been in these winding thickets before, so I was deeply concerned about the possibilities. More troubling than the thought that he might be found injured or killed was the thought that I might never see him again or know his fate – a reality I would have probably met with a nervous breakdown.

As it turned out, all my fear and frantic energy was for nothing. While we were all out searching for any sign of him, he’d wound his way through the rough terrain and back up the hill to my parent’s backyard. He was hot and probably a bit tired, but no worse for wear. He’d thrown caution to the wind and chased the rabbit into the woods – Duke’s woods. That day he traveled the same road as his nemesis, smelling the same permanent smells of the land, crossing the same trees and avoiding the same dangers – their adventurous spirits another common ground they failed to stand on in life.

Though this was an isolated incident for Schmoo and a regular occurrence for Duke, I’ll still think of them both and their exploits whenever I look upon those trees and tangled brambles. While they were not friends in life, in my memory they can haunt the land and its rabbits together. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Schmoozer: Origins

Schmoo - The King of Kings

When it comes to Schmoo, so much of what is at the forefront of our minds is his recent struggles – or, more accurately, his triumph over those struggles. In 2011, he broke his back, was surgically repaired and paralyzed for several weeks before regaining the use of his back legs. In 2013, he was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma before undergoing chemotherapy and ultimately surviving another eighteen months. I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic in saying that a lot of people found his seemingly indomitable spirit during these years to be inspiring. The story of the down-on-his-luck pup who surpassed expectations and carried on defined him in his final years and was a big part of what made him such a special dog.

But Schmoo was with us long before that. It all began when the trajectories of our lives collided back in May of 2007.

We like to speculate about what Schmoo’s life was like before we adopted him. I’d like to believe his life before us was a pleasant one, filled with the love and adoration such a dog deserves, but the evidence is to the contrary. This is definitely one of my highest-priority time-machine scenarios. I imagine I’m not alone in day-dreaming about what benefits I could reap if gifted with the ability to traverse time. If such a scenario arose, one of my first missions would be to go back and find Schmoo as a puppy. Just to see him would be enough - as he was probably the cutest creature that ever lived – but I’m also so curious about the circumstances of the first act of his life. Where did he come from? What were his parents like? (was his momma a Corgi or his dad? Or were they both mixes?) How many siblings did he have? (I wonder if any of them are out there now. Does he have any nieces or nephews?) What kind of circumstances was he brought up in? And what stroke of luck brought him to us?

What we do know is that he was a corgi-mix, shipped up north from an overflowing shelter in Kentucky. The Humane Society said he was just a year-old, though I now suspect they were underestimating that by at least a couple years. He had a rip in his ear, a scare on his nose and roundworms in his heart. These clues lead me to several possible backstories: 1.) He was street dog. Eating trash and sleeping in garbage cans. On the run from bumbling dog-catchers and sadistic fashionistas who’d have him for a coat. 2.) He came from a puppy mill, where cruel and idiotic breeders strived to answer the question of "how to create a mutt with largest ratio of back length to leg height imaginable?". Or 3.) He had an owner and belonged to a household, but they didn’t care a whole lot about him.

What he was even called before arriving at the shelter is a mystery, though they bestowed upon him the most regal of appellations – Chester.

Around the time that the-dog-who-would-become-Schmoo was on the bumpy road from the Bluegrass State to America’s Dairyland, talk in my college household had turned to the prospect of getting a dog. This talk was not spurred on by myself or my two life-long friends who actually resided in the house. No, this topic was almost exclusively broached by my girlfriend of 7-months and dorm-resident, Julie. Initially, this was an idea to which I was resistant. Don’t get me wrong, I always loved dogs, but I also understood what a serious responsibility they are. I’d grown accustomed to sleeping late whenever the opportunity arose and pinching my pennies as hard as I could. A dog could bring ruin to the cheap and sluggish existence I was comfortable in! And besides, if I wanted to get my canine-fix, I could just spend the weekend at my parents’ house with their vast-menagerie.

Julie, on the other hand, had never owned a dog growing up – just some gerbils and a six-toed cat. I was sympathetic to this as it’s not a life I could imagine, but it wasn’t enough to have me rushing down to Wisconsin Avenue to pick out some random mutt. What if they bark? What if they bite? What if they’re destructive? What if they’re a distraction and inconvenience to my lazy existence? But persistence won the day. I could never bring myself to fully put my foot down and Julie is not one to drop a subject.

Soon after spring semester had ended, we finally made our way over to the shelter to check out some of the pound puppies in person. While making our rounds, we came upon a sturdy, little Chihuahua-mix. I’ve never been too big a fan of the breed, but this guy seemed like a stout fellow – confident, playful – not the cliché ankle biter. We wanted to take him home and we wanted to call him Taco. It being a weekday evening, we didn’t have a whole lot of company at the shelter, so the wait wasn’t going to be long to get in a room with him – just one matronly woman was on the list ahead of us. This wasn’t anything to panic about. She had probably 20+ other dogs to choose from. Surely, she wasn’t interested in our little Taco as well.

She was.

Well, just because she was looking at him doesn’t mean she was going to adopt him. There was bound to be some deliberating on her part.

It did. There wasn’t. Our would-be Taco was going home with someone else – pretty much the only other person in the whole facility – the matronly woman. She seemed happy. What an asshole, we thought. On the ride back to Maryland Ave., tears were shed and many nasty things were said about a woman who was probably, in reality, a decent person. I sometimes wonder how their lives unfolded after that day. She probably loved him and he probably loved her. He was a young dog, so odds are he’s still with her. I hope so anyway. I don’t know what obstacles lead to her beating us to the punch that day - It could have been a singular instant of a slow driver causing us to miss a green light, or some miniscule chain reaction from earlier in the day that delayed our leaving the house. Whatever it was, I’m so thankful for it, just like I’m thankful for the matronly woman, who swooped in like an angel to make sure we got the dog we were truly meant to. I don’t really believe in fate, or destiny or the pre-ordained, but sometimes life is random and strange in ways that are so fortuitous that you can’t help but wonder.

I’m sure I would have been happy to go home with that Chihuahua-mix and I’m sure I would have loved him very much. I was ready to get a dog that day, but I honestly don’t think I was sold on it. As much as I was fine adopting a dog, I would have been just as fine not getting one. However, the aftermath of the Taco-incident showed me just how much Julie wanted this. When she went to work the next morning with tears still in her eyes, I hatched an ambitious plan – the kind of plan that typically never works out. Over the course of the next eight hours, I was going to find the perfect dog, adopt it, and have it waiting for her when she finished her shift.

The whole plan hinged on that first part. Where was I going to find the perfect dog? We were just at the Humane Society twelve hours earlier and only one dog really stood out for us and he was gone. I checked their website that morning not expecting much and rightfully so, their roster was pretty much the same except one blank spot where a picture should be. The disclaimer said something to the effect of “I’m camera shy”, but the breed caught my eye – “Corgi-mix” – and above that – “Chester”. 

Though I’d never owned one, I’d been a corgi-guy for some time. I worked at a Humane Society when I was in high school and on one of my first days, I happened upon the saddest-looking dog in the world sitting in a cage in the back area – a corgi. We sat together for a spell, enjoying each other’s company, but when duty called, I bid him farewell until later. But there wasn’t to be a later. For some reason (I never did ask why) he was put down. I was heartbroken to hear this. I wished that I had been his owner and that he’d be spared such sadness. I don’t think I ever did see another corgi during the four years that I worked there. I had to imagine that his case was a rarity, that if you were lucky enough to end up with such a breed, you held onto them. “Chester” was only a mix, but that was better than nothing. Odd are Julie was going to be into it.

Though I was going to be the one doing the adopting, this dog was still going to be the “house dog”, so my roommate Matt tagged along to go get a look at him. When we arrived at the shelter, I immediately asked to see him, not wanting a repeat of the night before. As it turned out, I was the first person from the public to see him. He was still in the back of the facility, waiting to be moved up to the viewing floor. He’d been there the night before, while we were fawning over Taco, probably scared and confused, possibly wondering what was next from him.

We sat on the floor of the interview room as they lead him in. He was corgi-esque, sure, but quite different too, with flopped over ears and a square snout. I’m not sure I knew what to make of him off the bat. I’d been a part of so many adoption interviews in the past that I had certain expectations for them. I’d imagined a young, spry pup, running into the room to greet us before playing with the toys that littered the area. Chester walked in slowly, cautiously – not scared, but not particularly excited. He walked straight at us, but when we tossed balls and rattled trinkets at him, he just stared back and forth between us with a look like he was going to cry. I remember he eventually walked over to Matt and kind of halfway crawled into his lap.

When it came time to decide “are we getting him?”, I don’t know if I’d really made up my mind to say “yes”, but when Matt asked, I said “sure”. I wish I could say I was madly in love with this dog from the moment I saw him, that I was so excited to have him be my dog, but that’s not really true. I didn’t want to rush it. I wanted to be discerning about this big decision, but there was some force - a momentum to my actions that day – that told me this needed to be done. I just couldn’t say “no” to this little dog (a feeling that would remain with me for the next seven and a half years).

I’d assumed there’d be some sort of approval process and maybe I’d be able to take Chester home the following day. This shelter did not operate that way. I could put a hold on him, but for only an hour, before he went back up for adoption. I was still operating without debit or credit cards at the time and I didn’t come with cash in hand because I wasn’t sure it would be needed. I had to race across town to my bank, withdraw the adoption fee and return before he slipped through my fingers. With minutes to spare, we returned and were allowed to commence with the adoption process.

The adoption counselor struck me as a bit of a burnout, but an amiable Shaggy (of Scooby Doo) type. When he asked why I’d decided to adopt a dog, I cringed when Matt mentioned something about him being a gift for my girlfriend (a half-truth). As that’s not something shelters typically look fondly on, I assured him that was not the case. Ultimately, he didn’t really seem to care either way. After signing a few papers and purchasing a few items from the shelter store, I was allowed to lead my new dog out to the parking lot. He was much too short and unwilling to jump in my car, so I reached down to scoop him up – at which point he tried to bite me. Startled, but undeterred, I rolled up my sleeves, wrapped his leash around his muzzle and tried again. It was immediately apparent that he didn’t care for car rides. He acquitted himself of the back seat and tucked his frame on the floor behind the driver’s side and shook.

I couldn’t blame him for being a little shook up, but all this uneasiness made me a little apprehensive. What kind of dog was going to emerge from this? Upon arriving home, he was able to get more comfortable. Remembering the campus-proximity home I shared with two other young men, I’m certain there was no shortage of interesting smells for the little guy to investigate. So, soon after introducing him to his new home, I left him in Matt’s care, while I went to visit Julie on her lunch break. I had a ruse to keep up.

I’m not a very good liar and I’m extremely poor at keeping secrets, especially when I desperately want to tell you. If I get you a good Christmas present, I’ll tell you weeks in advance. If I play a prank, I will giggle and squirm until it plays out. This doggy doozy was the hardest secret I ever had to keep. I wanted to tell Julie, who was still mourning the missed opportunity from the night before, and I’m sure she would have been super-psyched to learn what I’d been up to, but the allure of the surprise was just too good. When she asked what I’d done that morning, I told her I watch Apocalypto, that Mel Gibson flick about the fall of the Mayans. When pressed for details about it, I said it was “okay”. To this day, I’m pretty sure I’ve still never seen that film. That half-hour outside Beans and Barley seemed excruciatingly long, but I kept a straight face and remained convincing. I probably even said something consolatory like “other dogs will come along” without breaking character.

I returned to the house and hung out with my newly-acquired ward for a bit before having to finally pick Julie up at the end of her shift. He was still a little uneasy, but the small comfort of the loveseat and the smell of Matt cooking hotdogs in the kitchen perked him up a bit. I can’t speak for Schmoo, but I imagine some relief was starting to wash over him after his long, stressful journey and subsequent ordeals. His big, expressive eyes looked up at me with curiosity, seemingly scanning the essence of my soul or, perhaps, just wondering if I was going to fetch him one of those hotdogs.

When the moment came to go fetch my girlfriend, I was vibrating with excitement. The surprise and payoff were going to be massive, but I reached down deep into the well of my high school drama training and put on a morose veil. Shifts at Beans didn’t typically improve Julie’s mood and this day was no exception. When she got into my car, a cloud of depression and disappointment followed. Great! I thought to myself.

When we arrived back at the house, “Chester” was waiting, still comfy on the loveseat. Sitting with him were my housemates and some random visitor – a high school acquaintance who happened to be in the area. Julie asked, “whose dog is that?” – assuming he belonged to the random visitor. “He’s your dog”, I replied. Her response was one of disbelief. She seemed happy, but I didn’t want to misread things. “Do you like him?” I asked. She responded with tears and an “uh huh”.

The three of us spent the following days getting acquainted with one another – in our respective roles as owners and pet. I began to warm to my new buddy very fast who, at this time, was going by “Lou Reed” and “Wiggum” and probably a few other monikers. He didn’t bark. He didn’t try to bite me a second time. He didn’t get into any trouble. I liked that. I remember taking him for a walk one of those early days and thinking – okay, I’m committed – but not exactly relishing all the duties that went into pet ownership.

Over the years, Schmoo graduated to different levels of comfort for nighttime sleeping; dog beds, a series of chairs designated solely for him; and occasionally a spot at the foot of the bed. But in those early days, Schmoo slept on a pillow on the floor. I don’t know why I thought that was appropriate, but he didn’t seem to mind.

During one of those first nights – Julie and I squished together on my old twin bed – we were met with a surprise. Around 2am, I woke up confused and startled by a very peculiar sound. Sirens blared past our house on Maryland Ave. nightly, so I could sleep through those. But this night, in concert with those sirens, was Schmoo’s howling – a sad, pathetic, hilarious noise unlike any other. Up until this point, we hadn’t heard him make a single peep and here he was singing such a mournful song.

Julie and I both sat up, not at all bothered by the interruption to our sleep, and laughed hysterically. I think it was in that moment that I was finally, completely sold on the little guy. The voice in my head said I love this dog and, from then on, my new responsibilities, and the many other ones that evolved as life rolled on were my pleasure and an honor.

NEXT UP - Schmoozer: Nemesis


Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Golden Schmoos (2013 Edition)

Welp, it's about that time again. I skipped over doing this award business last year because I lacked the time and really wasn't that blown away at the cinema in 2012. I've seen a lot of different films this year - enough to be comfortable doing a year's best thing, but there are still a few notable movies that I just never got around to watching for one reason or another. For full disclosure, those that come to mind are: Nebraska, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Her. I have my doubts that any of these are going to unseat my following picks, but in the event that they do, I'll be sure to amend them.

Anyway, giving out ten awards this year. Let's begin.

 Best Score:
1. Pacific Rim - Ramin Djawadi
2. Upstream Color - Shane Carruth
3. All Is Lost - Alexander Ebert
4. Only God Forgives - Cliff Martinez
5. Gravity - Steven Price  

WINNER: Shane Carruth for Upstream Color

This was really a great year for film scores. Lots of other films made my list of notable soundtracks, but these five stood out. The fact that Carruth wrote, directed and co-edited his film in addition to scoring it is beyond impressive. However, the music itself is remarkable, haunting and unique. Easily one of the best pieces of cinematic music in years, possibly ever.  No matter how many times I listen to it, it always evokes great feeling.

Best Cinematography: 
1. Upstream Color
2. 12 Years A Slave
3. All Is Lost
4. Aint Them Bodies Saints
5. The Hunt

WINNER: All Is Lost

Just a truly beautiful film, filled with beautiful imagery and impressive shots. 

Best Editing:
1. Upstream Color
2. Blue is the Warmest Color
3. Gravity 
4. All is Lost
5. Inside Llewyn Davis

WINNER: Upstream Color

Some people say that Upstream is hard to follow. I wouldn't say that. I'd call it challenging. A lot of it jumps around in time and between things that aren't obviously connected, but every bit of it is deliberate and full or purpose.

Best Screenplay:
1. Upstream Color
2. Aint Them Bodies Saints
3. Frances Ha
4. The Hunt
5. The Wind Rises

WINNER: Upstream Color

There is a lot of stiff competition in this category, but again I have to go with Upstream. It's just too unique and beautiful of a piece of cinema to deny. For all of its nebulous plotting, there's a very specific and mind-blowing bit of philosophical science fiction at its core. 

Best Supporting Actress:
1. Lupita Nyong'o - 12 Years A Slave
2. Jennifer Lawrence - American Hustle
3. Scarlett Johansson - Don Juan
4. Rooney Mara - Aint Them Bodies Saints
5. Lea Seydoux - Blue Is The Warmest Color

WINNER: Lea Seydoux - Blue Is The Warmest Color

See "Best Actress".

Best Supporting Actor: 
1. Jared Leto - Dallas Buyers Club
2. Michael Fassbender - 12 Years A Slave
3. Bradley Cooper - American Hustle
4. Ben Foster - Aint Them Bodies Saints
5. James Franco - Spring Breakers

WINNER: Jared Leto - Dallas Buyers Club

Leto returned to the acting scene in a big way this year with his role in Dallas Buyers Club. This might be the only category that the Schmoos and the Oscars overlap. I know critics are almost too eager to laud performances requiring drastic physical transformations and Leto does pull off a dramatic one, but that's not the heart of the performance. His character, Rayon, is layered, tragic and one of the film's greatest assets. There one scene that will continue to haunt me: At a particular low-point, Rayon is being escorted to the hospital by a friend and she utters, "I don't wanna die". It was maybe one of the saddest and uncomfortably real things I saw on screen all year.

Best Actress:
1. Amy Seimetz - Upstream Color
2. Greta Gerwig - Frances Ha
3. Amy Adams - American Hustle
4. Adele Exarchopoulos - Blue Is The Warmest Color
5. Brie Larson - Short Term 12

WINNER: Adele Exarchopoulos - Blue Is The Warmest Color

The performances of both the female leads in Blue Is The Warmest Color were on another level from what I saw in 2013. Emotion pours out of these roles, especially Exarchpoulos' Adele, who shows range and an ability to play vulnerable and confused just about as well as anyone I've ever seen.

Best Actor
1. Robert Redford - All is Lost
2. Chiwetel Ejiofor - 12 Years A Slave
3. Mads Mikkelsen - The Hunt
4. Matthew McConaughey - Dallas Buyers Club
5. Tom Hanks - Captain Phillips

WINNER: Mads Mikkelsen - The Hunt

I already praised Mads heavily in my review of the film itself, but I'll re-iterate here: Mikkelsen elevated this solid film to something of greatness. His performance as a man falsely-accused of sexually abusing a child, evokes such pathos, rendering The Hunt the emotional roller-coaster that it is.

Best Director:
1. Thomas Vinterberg - The Hunt
2. Shane Carruth - Upstream Color
3. JC Chandor - All is Lost
4. Abdellatif Kechiche - Blue Is The Warmest Color
5. Steve McQueen - 12 Years A Slave

WINNER: JC Chandor - All is Lost

My instinct is to pile more praise on Shane Carruth here (and it's well deserved), but something needs to be said for Chandor's achievement as a director in All is Lost. From what I understand, the final product is the result of a 30-page screenplay. Therefore, the film's excellence strikes me as the result of quality direction, communication and vision. Never did All is Lost's lack of dialogue (or a cast beyond Redford) feel like a hindrance or a gimmick and that also says something about the quality of director that Chandor is.

Best Picture: 
1. The Hunt
2. All is Lost
3. Blue Is The Warmest Color
4. Upstream Color
5. 12 Years A Slave
6. Frances Ha
7. Aint Them Bodies Saints
8. The Wind Rises

WINNER: Upstream Color

What more can I say about Upstream Color? When I started writing this "Best Of' post, I wasn't sure that it was truly still my favorite film of the year. It made such an impression on me when I saw it earlier in 2013 and I was pretty sure it would be almost impossible to unseat. I watched it another time when it premiered on Netflix Instant and loved it even more, but it's still been awhile. However, when I watched the above-trailer, the images and music reminded me once again of how Upstream effected me as a viewer. Shane Carruth is a genius and the fact that we have someone with his level of talent working in the medium today is very exciting.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

What I Loved In 2013: The Hunt

Vinterberg's Jagten is getting a lot of attention this awards season - nabbing a Golden Globe nomination for "Best Foreign Film" while making the shortlist for the Academy Awards' same category - and rightfully so. It's a very good film elevated to even greater heights by the performance of its lead - Mads Mikkelsen.

Mikkelsen, with his foreign charm and unique look, has made a career taking on interesting roles. In the case of American audiences, these are oftentimes villainous parts - he was one of Bond's primary adversaries in Casino Royale and he currently fills the shoes of the infamous Hannibal Lecter in NBC's fantastic "Hannibal" series. While this might seem a bit like typecasting, it's not for a lack of range.

In The Hunt, Mikkelsen plays Lucas, one of this year's most sympathetic characters, whose journey from mild-mannered daycare worker to wrongfully accused town-pariah is put on display with a full spectrum of emotion from the actor. Initially Lucas is sensitive, loving and funny and, in the wake of the accusations levied against him, he becomes vulnerable, mystified and finally indignant and irate.

Vinterberg smartly focuses the plot on the mob-mentality of the tight-knit Danish town where Lucas was once a well-liked and respected member of the community. The nature of the crime lands the protagonist in an impossible situation - no substantial proof can be brought for or against his innocence. Lucas stubbornly remains in town resolute, but an island. Even as inconsistencies in the stories of his accusers surface and the signs of mass hysteria become more evident, the existence of that sliver of doubt still poisons the community against him.

A steady stream of crushing and emotional scenes build The Hunt to a point where almost no satisfying conclusion seems possible - either Lucas dies or the town inexplicably and unbelievably has an about face on the matter. What we end up with is something in between, something the viewer can live with, but not without a tense and haunting final moment before credits.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What I Loved in 2013: Upstream Color

Upstream Color – Shane Carruth’s long anticipated follow-up to Primer isn’t going to be an awards season darling. It’s too peculiar, it’s narrative too nebulous, it’s participants too unknown, but it challenged me while viewing and moved me emotionally and intellectually for days after. It’s the type of film perfectly suited to my tastes since my transformation from film buff and amateur critic to part-time philosophical mediator on entertainment media (I know that sounds crazy-pretentious but, whatever, I’m half-joking).

I wasn’t one of those rabid fans impatiently waiting nine years for Carruth’s sophomore feature. I’d always heard great things about Primer, but wasn’t compelled to watch it until the night before I saw Upstream Color. I was still on the fence about seeing the latter and I was using the former to make the case for it. Even knowing about and handicapping its impressively low budget, Primer, with its amateur feel and acting wasn’t exactly easy to get in to, but Carruth’s ominous score hinted at something to be anticipated and 30-minutes in, I was captivated by the ideas present in the film and by its ability to elevate itself well-above its monetary restrictions. It’s a thinking man’s time-travel flick and everyone else be damned. Overall, Primer is a very good film and an unbelievably auspicious debut. Carruth’s follow-up, is a great film and a down-payment on what is likely to be a very promising career.

In between films, Carruth became a hot commodity, being approached by Spielberg and Soderbergh and Rian Johnson. He worked for years on a sci-fi epic called A Topiary that never garnered the necessary financing and so a smaller film was born in Upstream Color. The plot is essentially a love story about two people who’ve unknowingly undergone brainwashing and financial /personal ruin at the hands of the same people, whose method of control (a worm that feeds on a flower, which grows in a river, where piglets were drowned, which come from a farm owned by a man…) is as much a part of the film as anything. There are elements of science-fiction to the story, about impossible connections between man and woman and man and god and everything and everything, but they don’t obscure the genuine elements of the story, they enhance them. They make the feelings and relationship between the two main characters seem even deeper and spell them out in a creative way that most romances lack and can only hope to intimate. Upstream Color too is a thinking-man’s film, but at its center is not a tangled, mystery of mechanism that can be plotted and, with great diligence, found out. Instead, at its core, is a fairly straightforward film, with ideas and nuance that appear superficially initially but come into greater focus with intense reflection and repeated viewing.

In addition to writing and directing the film, Shane Carruth also co-edited, scored and starred in the feature. It has sat atop my “Best of 2013” list since I saw it back in April, and so has many of its individual components - like the haunting score and beautiful cinematography. Carruth’s acting, which is very good, is still the thing he’s least impressive at, especially when compared to his remarkable co-star, Amy Seimetz, whose performance is among my favorite of any this year.

Apparently (and hopefully), we won’t have to wait nearly as long for Carruth’s next film, tentatively titled The Modern Ocean, which is expected to film soon (maybe).