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Dr. George Hardy, DDS, flashes a wide, squinty grin as he adjusts the chair of his latest patient at his dentistry practice in Alexander City, Alabama.  George is universally loved in this small town.  When his patients can’t pay for their dental work he treats them anyway for free and even his ex-wife has nothing bad to say about him.  He’s a jovial, friendly man who bares a striking resemblance to Joe Biden, and takes great pride in letting every patient who climbs into his chair in on his favorite secret:  he was the star of the worst movie ever made.  That movie is the infamous TROLL 2, an unintentionally hilarious debacle of a film which was never released in theaters but developed a cult following of devoted fans who caught it on late night HBO airings.  The cable showings led to underground gatherings, workplace parties and eventually public screenings in which the largely non-professional cast was suddenly being given standing ovations for their work.  TROLL 2 stars Michael Stephenson as Joshua, a 12 year old boy who is haunted by the apparition of his Grandpa Seth warning him to keep his family from departing on their planned vacation to the Goblin-infested town of Nilbog.  Stephenson, now 32, decided to make a documentary about the resurgent sensation of TROLL 2 on a recommendation from his therapist.  He thought it would help him come to grips with having starred in such a disaster.

The result is BEST WORST MOVIE, a fascinating look into an odd film with an odd cast that turned into an odd phenomenon.  Stephenson travels the country, reuniting with the film’s cast and documenting the sold-out screenings that have kept the film alive for 20 years and counting.  I had the privilege of experiencing one of these screenings last night at the New Beverly Cinemas with Stephenson and Hardy in attendance.  They were greeted like rock stars.  Hardy, who had been drilling teeth the night before he caught a plane to LA for the screening, always wanted to be an actor but opted instead for the job security and comfort that dentistry offered.  Still, the acting itch and love for applause call to him.  He embraces his TROLL 2 performance, attending screenings and genre conventions with a warm smile and an eagerness to shake hands with each fan.  Though the film often plays to rabid, standing room only audiences, Hardy is shown at one convention where only a handful of people show up for his TROLL 2 panel and nobody seems to have heard of the film.  He moans about having to deliver his signature line from the film for the umpteenth time yet never misses an opportunity to deliver it with a smile.  For the cast of TROLL 2, the shame of being a part of the film and the joy of being recognized often co-mingle.

TROLL 2 was directed by an Italian filmmaker named Claudio Fragasso, a prickly man with a permanent scowl and a propensity for being defensive about his work.  While filming TROLL 2 in 1990, the cast of American actors could barely understand what he was saying due to his thick accent.  He speaks English in BEST WORST MOVIE yet is still accompanied by subtitles.  Claudio still believes genuinely that he made a great film and delivers a long soliloquy explaining how deep its themes are and how groundbreaking the storytelling was.  Stephenson recruits him to attend some of the midnight screenings and a confused Claudio is heard wondering aloud to his wife why the audience is laughing.  Claudio grumbles and heckles the fans who mock his film, yet stands with his arms spread open when the crowd applauds.  Even if they’re making fun of his movie, he’s not going to miss his curtain call.

Other former cast members are introduced including Connie MacFarland (who played Holly Waits), one of the few people in the film who has continued an acting career.  She does not list TROLL 2 on her resume.  Margo Prey (Diane Waits) is a shut-in with glazed bug eyes and a Phil Spector fright night hairdo.  Don Packard (General Store Owner) recounts filming his role in TROLL 2 while on leave from a mental institution.  Stephenson’s strength is in never looking down upon or exploiting these people.  His standing as an original cast member gives him a compassion and understanding that allows him to sort through his feelings about being in the film without judgment on anyone involved.  The scarlet letter of TROLL 2 is something they all wear, for better or worse, whether they embrace it or run from it.  He is a talented documentarian who should have a bright future.

BEST WORST MOVIE is an engaging documentary that takes an insightful look into the conflicts of shame and regret coupled with the desire to be appreciated and recognized.  Hardy, Claudio and the cast will speak of TROLL 2 as if it is a burden they can’t escape, but enjoy it as a source of acclaim, even if that acclaim is of the mocking variety.  Claudio has a moment where he seems to understand that his film is being mocked, but recognizes its enduring value.  The film has touched an audience, even if it was their unintentional funny bone.  How many films can be shown to packed audiences 20 years after their release?  TROLL 2 may not be regarded for the reasons that Claudio and the cast intended, but it is regarded nonetheless.  And hey, that’s something.

Review: Inception

Christopher Nolan is a tightrope walker, always stepping cautiously along the line between art and commerce.  He’s a big director who makes big movies with big stars but nobody will mistake him for Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich or Brett Ratner.  Since his breakout hit MEMENTO, Nolan has continued to grow, challenging himself and his audience.  Nolan is said to have begun penning the script for his latest effort INCEPTION ten years ago and it’s easy to see why it took so long.  It’s a narrative labyrinth which once again sees Nolan on his tightrope, navigating this multi-layered world of dream space.

Nolan’s other works have all explored weathered male protagonists who attempt to reconcile their grief, guilt and tragedies of the past.  MEMENTO’s Leonard Shelby is tortured by the murder of his wife and his endless search for resolution.  INSOMNIA’s Will Dormer cannot escape the guilt of an accidental shooting on the job.  THE DARK KNIGHT’s Bruce Wayne is haunted by the death of his parents and the city that he sees gradually consumed by darkness.  INCEPTION features Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb, the leader of a team of thieves that travel into the subconsciousness of people while they dream in order to steal information.  While inside these people’s dreams, Cobb is often visited by his dead wife Moll who exists within his own subconscious where he is unable to suppress her.  Cobb is crippled by guilt for the circumstances surrounding Moll’s death, and her continuous appearances in their heist missions begin to trouble the rest of the team.

Cobb and Co. are commissioned by a man they tried to extract secrets from named Saito who wants them to perform the difficult task of inception, or to place an idea into someone else’s mind.  This requires multiple layers of dreams, dreams within dreams, and dreams within dreams within dreams.  They commission the talents of a young college student named Ariadne to be their “architect” in designing the dream world they can slip their victim into so he will be most vulnerable to their mind manipulation.  One of the film’s biggest strengths is the visual language of Nolan’s dream worlds.  There is a great scene in which Ariadne is first introduced to being conscious in her own dream world, as she navigates the shape shifting urban landscape like her own personal playground, twisting and bending her surroundings into Escher-like mazes.  Nolan and his cinematographer Wally Pfister have put a lot of thought into the world they’ve created, where dreams can alter perspective, gravity, movement and time.

The third act of INCEPTION is an exhilarating trip down the rabbit hole of Nolan’s dreamscape, through layer after layer of subconscious.  This is a very tricky thing to pull off, with Nolan comfortably keeping track of multiple timelines and layers of dream simultaneously.  Hans Zimmer’s pounding soundtrack elevates the tension and suspense as Cobb finds it increasingly difficult to keep Moll at bay.  In a summer that has offered us CLASH OF THE TITANS, TWILIGHT ECLIPSE, THE A-TEAM and weekend after weekend of sequels and remakes, Christopher Nolan has offered an inventive and original thriller about the environment of our dreams and the loved ones who occupy them.

The Wire

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There has never been anything as good as The Wire.

The Wire is a sprawling, penetrating look at American life that pulls the curtain back to reveal what few, if any, have been willing or capable to explore.  HBO’s groundbreaking series, which aired from 2002-2008, uses the city of Baltimore as a microcosm of the American experience as a whole.  The show’s creators, former Baltimore Sun journalist David Simon and former cop-turned-schoolteacher Ed Burns, inhabit the city with flesh and blood human beings.  Do not expect characters or typical archetypes.  The show is constantly shifting your perceptions of who these characters are.  We see the good and bad in everyone.

The Wire deals with the inner workings of a modern urban landscape, its power structures and institutions so susceptible to corruption and the casualties of this broken enterprise.  The main focus of Season 1 is “the game” which is the term used to describe the drug trade in West Baltimore.  The rules of “the game” and the pervasive American ideals that span all the classes are laid out in the first scene of the show:

Avon Barksdale’s organization sells drugs in the high-rise projects, feeding off the misery of the underclass.  On their tail is a special police detail headed by Lieutenant Cedric Daniels as well as the defiant Jimmy McNulty and the methodical Lester Freamon.  Both the drug trade and the police department are two sides of the same coin.  Intractable institutions with unrelenting power structures.  The Wire exhibits that by and large, we are part of a particular institution and that advancement or escape is all but futile.  This is eloquently explained by drug dealer D’Angelo Barksdale as he describes the game of chess to Bodie and Wallace, two lower level drug dealers:

One of the recurring themes of The Wire could be best explained by Michael Corleone:

“Just as I thought I was out…they pulled me back in.”

The problems of drugs, crime and poverty in the urban environment are not easily or simply explained, yet each institution is culpable.  Even the “legitimate” players in the game, the lawyers, judges, cops and politicians all have blood on their hands.  Slimy lawyer Maurice Levy, who defends the drug dealers in court, contributes just as much, if not more, to Baltimore’s urban decay as the pushers on the corner.  Nobody explains this better than Omar, during a scene in which Omar testifies against one of Levy’s clients.  Omar is a rebel, a parallel to Det. McNulty, who robs drug dealers with his trusty shotgun and lives by a strict code of behavior (he refuses to curse).

Season 1 also focuses on the Barksdale drug organization headed by the ruthless Avon Barksdale and the business-oriented Stringer Bell.  Stringer is another character who attempts to emancipate himself from his system.  His desire is to become a legitimate business man, running the drug trade in a more professional manner and eventually leaving it behind to become a land developer.  Barksdale and Bell certainly represent two different management styles, with one of them being more suited for operating a major drug trade (it’s not who you think.)  Bell is clever and thoughtful, but eventually gets played when he tries to move to the other side of the board to become a Queen.

Inside the police department, real police work is stunted by crippling bureaucracy and political posturing.  Det. Jimmy McNulty in particular (along with Omar) is the most individualistic member of the cast, constantly at odds with his superiors about their lack of interest in pursuing high profile cases.  Why spend time, money and man-power on a time consuming case when they can think small and pad their crime stats?  McNulty’s frustration only grows when the hierarchy of the police department changes, yet the results remain the same.  One of the prevailing themes of The Wire is the idea that the institutions are so ingrained that removing a single person, even one at the very top, will do nothing to change it.  There will always be someone else to take their place.

Season 2 of The Wire shifts the focus of the show onto the stevedores union working the docks of Baltimore’s harbor.  It’s in this season that The Wire explores the struggles of unions to stay alive amid a myriad of outside forces.  The introduction of the dock worker’s union is yet another power structure in the show, and it is soon revealed how it is connected to the other structures within the city.  The stevedore’s union serves as a model for a class of blue collar workers left behind by an economic system that no longer needs them.  It is hard to watch this clip of Union President Frank Sobotka and not think of our recent market collapse and the derivatives that were traded:

Frank himself, like many other good-natured characters on the show, is corrupted by the institutions that demand the sacrifice of values and morality.  This is similar to Bunny Colvin’s creation of a drug-free zone in Season 3 and McNulty’s crime-scene tampering in Season 5.

Season 3 returns to the streets and introduces the politicians as players on the chess board.  Idealistic Councilman Tommy Carcetti is portrayed as a young, cocky and ambitious politician who takes his time to assess the core issues facing Baltimore, but ultimately discovers the same pratfalls as the politicians before him.  For a young politician like Carcetti, the future of his career must always be regarded.  One of countless ironies on the show is the advancement of Carcetti’s political career in tandem with his failure as a leader.   The Wire suggests that while the drug dealers and murderers of the corners are dangerous, perhaps those holding legitimate power do the most damage.

On the law enforcement side, Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin participates in one of the major themes of The Wire: juking the stats.  In order to manipulate the statistics of crime rates, Colvin concocts a strategy to simply mask the problem of crime and drugs.  The Wire explores “juking the stats” in several ways throughout the series, always letting us know that institutional statistics can be downright fraudulent, and serve only the politicians and players who can use them to boast.

Season 4 of The Wire has to be considered the best season in the history of television.  Simon and Burns again shift their magnifying glass and focus it on the school system in West Baltimore.  It is in this season where the origins of the street culture begin, where the system fails these bright kids and forces them out onto the corners.  Classmates Namond, Dukie, Randy and Michael each have absentee fathers and familial issues to begin with but each are relatively unmolded by the time they reach Edward J. Tilghman Middle School.  The school system in Baltimore is portrayed as chaotic, understaffed, underfunded and unsuccessful in educating the children who attend.  Still, politicians have to be able to show improvement through statistics and thus, the stats are juked.  The power of Season 4 comes from witnessing the slow erosion of the youth and the way that kids born into poverty get swallowed whole by the system.  The kids aren’t stupid, nor do they suffer from a lack of ambition.  They just happen to have the misfortune of belonging to a system that is designed to keep them exactly where they are while the power stays with the powerful.

When these parentless children have an issue they can’t deal with themselves who do they turn to?  How do they solve it?  Where does the economic opportunity lie for them?  What kind of help does a standardized state test offer a middle schooler living in a crack house?  Perhaps nobody on the show has as realistic and sharp of a viewpoint on the situation as Colvin, who re-emerges in Season 4 in a different capacity.  He explains some of these problems to the school Principal:

The 5th and final season of The Wire concentrates on the media, specifically the inner workings of The Baltimore Sun.  As I write this, newspapers across the country are going bankrupt, circulation is down and op-ed personalities have taken the place of true journalists.  The newspaper industry had no idea how to make money with the internet and gave their content away for free.  We join The Baltimore Sun staff as layoffs are taking place and they are asked to do “more with less.”  After 4 seasons of investigating corruption, crime, drugs, poverty, schools, unions, and all the elements of the rigged chess game, Simon and Burns explore how the media, the institution with the responsibility to inform us of all this, fails to fulfill that promise.  The Sun begins to desire stories with human angles, referring to hard hitting journalistic pieces as “dry.”  They probably had no idea when they aired this season that Glenn Beck was right around the corner.  Or maybe they did.

This doesn’t even begin to explain how complex, compassionate, thoughtful, cynical and brilliant this show is.  The Wire is a monumental achievement for showing how oligarchical systems fail the underclass while the powerful stay in power.  For obliterating the line between cop and criminal, junkie and politician, drug dealer and judge, student and administrator.  For exposing the circulatory systems of our cities, how they breathe and how they remain stagnant.  The Wire represents the potential of television fully realized.

Review: A Serious Man

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In The Book of Job, one of God’s most gifted creations has his faith tested by the big man himself.  Forced to suffer a deluge of hardships and agony, Job must grapple with the existential quandary of why this is happening to him.  What is the cause of this misery?  Didn’t he live a good life?  Wasn’t he a respected member of his community?  Didn’t he try to be a serious man?

Such is the difficulty of human existence.  We inhabit a space in which its origins cannot ever be made clear to us and throughout time we’ve had to debate philosophies that attempt to make sense of events that could possibly make no sense at all.  The Coen Brothers’ excellent new film, A SERIOUS MAN, opens with a prologue that introduces some of the spiritual elements of the film.  Staged entirely in Yiddish, a Jewish couple encounter a man who may or may not be a dybbuk, which in Jewish folklore is an evil soul dislocated from another body.  Whether the man is or isn’t is unclear, and the Coen’s aren’t interested in definitive answers.  The answers, in this film, are less the focus than the questions.  

We soon turn to Larry Gopnik, a math professor on the verge of tenure living in 1960s Minnesota.  His wife is leaving him for a family friend (the scene-stealing Fred Melamed), his son doesn’t pay attention in Hebrew School and gets high while preparing for his Bar Mitzvah and his brother is occupying his sofa while constantly draining his sebaceous cyst and refusing to look for a job.  In addition, a student that Larry is failing attempts to bribe him for a passing grade and even threatens to sue him.  Larry has a difficult time addressing these problems or finding adequate reasons why they are happening to him.  Much like Job consulted his three friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, Larry looks for guidance from three distinctly different Rabbis.  The Rabbis offer wise, but seemingly useless advice which is of little help to Larry’s immediate pain and larger philosophical questions.  Even when Larry climbs his roof in order to manipulate his TV antenna to get better reception, he is literally looking to the skies for some clarity.  

As always with the Coens and cinematographer Roger Deakins, A SERIOUS MAN is impeccably filmed and composed.  Close-ups of the ears and mouth pull us literally inside the characters.  The Coens alter the contrast to give the film’s color palette a drained look which works well in the setting of 60′s Minnesota suburbia.  The film also employs interesting uses of perspective, typically when a character is high on pot.  Sleight of hand is employed with certain dream sequences which allows the Coen’s to keep the audience continuously questioning the film’s ideas of morality and consequence.  

A SERIOUS MAN is the Coen Brothers’ 16th film to date and they remain powerful and uncompromising artists.  This is not an easily digestible film, nor does it have much chance for mainstream success with its cast of unknowns.  They remain in the elite class of today’s filmmakers with this strong dark comedy of existential dilemma.  Just as The Book of Job ends with the emergence of God’s voice in the form of a whirlwind, A SERIOUS MAN ends with its own whirlwind which audiences will be forced to contemplate long after the final credits roll.

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Love him or hate him, Quentin Tarantino is an uncompromising filmmaker.  His films exist in a special Tarantino universe that looks a lot like ours but is re-imagined and inspired by a great love of the cinema.  Characters in this universe don’t talk the way we do, but the way Tarantino wishes we did.  With his 6th feature film, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, Tarantino rewrites history by giving World War II the kind of ending only he could write.  I must say I like his version of WWII better than the actual one.  

While watching INGLORIOUS BASTERDS I was reminded of a quote from Francois Truffaut who said “I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between.”  Tarantino’s films are always about the celebration of cinema.  He has often been called a collage artist, ripping off other artist’s styles and slapping them together on celluloid.  Those who make such criticisms fail to see the joy and exuberance in his pastiche.  Tarantino is first and foremost a lover of films and film history.  It’s no coincidence that the climax of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS takes place in a movie theater or that the primary weapon in the film is a collection of old, flammable nitrate film prints.  If the power of the cinema can’t take down the Third Reich then nothing can. 

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS opens with a masterful scene that ranks among Tarantino’s best.  For such a hyperactive person, watch here how patient a filmmaker Tarantino is.  A farmer in the French countryside gets a knock on the door from Col. Hans Landa of the SS (Christoph Waltz) who believes he may be hiding Jews somewhere in his home.  Tarantino takes his time with this sequence, slowly ratcheting up the tension.  Waltz has been the source of all the buzz coming from this film ever since it premiered at Cannes where he snagged the Best Actor prize.  Waltz lives up to the hype by creating a unique screen villain who is equal parts charm, mystique, brilliance and evil.  

A teenage girl named Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) manages to escape Landa’s clutches, eventually becoming the owner of a French movie theater.  She catches the eye of German war hero Frederick Zoeller, who is the subject of Goebbles’ latest propaganda film.  Zoeller takes a shine to Shoshanna and suggests to Goebbles that they move the premiere of his newest film to her theater.  In another part of France, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is leading a squad of Jewish-American soldiers on a killing spree of Nazis who will use German double agents to try to sneak into the big premiere themselves.  

Tarantino takes his time letting these story-lines converge, including several extended scenes designed to slowly build the tension.  Waltz has a great scene in a restaurant with Shoshanna in which eating strudel has never been more menacing.  Look for the extreme close-ups in this scene that highlight Shoshanna’s heightened sense of awareness and fear.  Waltz’ Landa walks a perfect tightrope in this scene.  He is at the same time pushy and polite, charming and evil, intense and relaxed.   Another scene takes place at a German tavern where the Basterds and the double-agent meet to discuss their plans.  The tavern serves as a lion’s den, where the slightest slip-up could mean death.    

It would be impossible to discuss a Tarantino film without discussing its soundtrack, since music plays such an important part in his work.  Who can hear “Little Green Bag”, “Stuck In The Middle With You”, “Misirlou” or the whilstling ladies of the 5,6,7,8′s without immediately thinking about Quentin Tarantino?  The soundtrack to INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is another perfect example of Tarantino’s melting pot of a vision.  What other WWII film features songs by Billy Preston and David Bowie?  Like in KILL BILL, Tarantino turns to the master, Ennio Morriocone, for several cuts that fit seamlessly despite being used originally in Spaghetti Westerns.  The Bowie song upon first listen feels out of place until you realize that lyrically it fits Shoshanna’s story perfectly.  The film also features the most insidious version of “Fur Elise” I’ve ever heard.

INGLORIOUS BASTERDS has been a source of high anticipation for years.  It is a different film than the script I read a year and a half ago, when Adam Sandler was set to play The Bear Jew and the French portion of the film was in black and white.  There are flaws to INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS but the occasional silliness can be forgiven.  This is an exciting, exuberant retelling of World War II by a unique and talented filmmaker.

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Vampires are big business these days.  Walk into a Barnes & Noble and you’ll be greeted with the sullen emo kids of TWILIGHT.  Ditto for the multiplex which churned out the film version of TWILIGHT to the tune of $384M worldwide.  Flip on the television or simply drive through the streets of Los Angeles and see nothing but TRUE BLOOD advertisements.  The entertainment industry has tapped into a demand that it has been more than happy to meet.  Whether it be vampires disguised as a Harlequin Romance Novel (TWILIGHT) or a hyper-sexualized blood orgy (TRUE BLOOD) the entertainment spectrum is not starving for un-dead material.  Amid the torrent of vampire tales came 2008′s LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, a Swedish film based on a book of the same name.  Do not mistake LET THE RIGHT ONE IN for the aforementioned Vamp flicks though.  

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is the story of Oskar and Eli, both around age 12 (we’re not sure about Eli).  Oskar is ruthlessly abused and mocked at school by a pack of bullies.  At night Oskar takes a stroll outside his apartment complex to indulge in revenge fantasies by attacking a tree with a knife.  Oskar’s world is one of isolation, thrust into the rigors of adolescence with no friends to lean on.   Soon, his lonely nights exploring his building’s courtyard are interrupted by Eli, who immediately informs him “we can’t be friends.”  However, unlike the relationships typical of the genre, their bond is not one of lust but of need.  

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN works as a human story so well that it would have made a great coming-of-age film even if we never found out that Eli was a vampire.  Though Eli is sweet and tender with Oskar, Director Tomas Alfredson does not hold back in showing how violent she can be when she has a hankering for blood.  Eli attacks several times in the film and each time is sudden and brutal.  Horror fans will be pleased with the masterful direction in these scenes as the film is able to take a character we’re fond of and make us terrified of her.  Eli breaks the vampire movie mold by being neither one-dimensional or hyper-sexualized (in fact, she may not necessarily be a woman at all).  Killing for blood is not something she relishes in.

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is also gorgeous to look at.  Each shot feels meticulously constructed.  The lighting is extreme, featuring harsh bright lights during the day and stark blacks at night.  The climax of the film is a stunner, shot brilliantly using the rule of showing us less to give us more.   The baron landscape allows Alfredson to focus in on the two 12 year olds who give wonderful performances.  Alfredson pulls off a remarkable feat in balancing the touching moments between the two kids and the terror of the vampire attacks.

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN isn’t a “big” film.  I recall only one scene that contained CGI, but it is forgiven due to its use of demonic cats.  As usual with classic foreign films, Hollywood has already begun production on an American remake to be directed by Matt Reeves (CLOVERFIELD).  They’ve already changed the title to “LET ME IN” and it’s likely the soul of the film will be ripped to shreds.  Whatever abomination that film becomes (I predict Nicolas Cage and Megan Fox will be cast as the two 12 year olds) it will not tarnish the greatness of the original, which I believe is the best vampire film of all time.  

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is available on DVD.  

Review: PRIMER

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PRIMER is the ultimate challenging film.  It requires the viewer to deeply focus and observe something that is difficult to digest.  I cannot say I completely understand everything that happens in this movie.  I have ideas and theories that undoubtedly contain some truth and some gaping holes.  If one were so inclined, they could dedicate their life to piecing the puzzle together.  After searching some message boards, it appears some people have already done this.

The film surrounds two engineers who appear to be in their late twenties/early thirties.  They are dressed at all times in slacks and a striped tie, though the ties have different colored stripes.  So much for individuality.  They’re the kinds of low level employees that send out envelopes containing their work to big companies that never write back.  The men are building a machine in their garage but they’re not entirely sure what it does.  After all, the microwave was invented by accident.  It begins to secrete protein at a rate that suggests either a miracle or that perhaps time is measured differently inside the box.

The men speak as engineers do.  They theorize out-loud,  scribble notes on a legal pad and discuss their discoveries in a technical jargon that we’re not intended to understand.  After all, we are observing minds powerful enough to discover time travel.  How could we expect to understand it?  In BACK TO THE FUTURE, Marty McFly asks Doc Brown how time travel works.  Doc points to a Y-shaped formation of Christmas tree lights called the Flux Capacitor and Marty accepts this and moves on.  There are no convenient explanations in this film.  We are asked to observe the events as they unfold and these geniuses are not going to dumb down their conversations to spell it out for dummies like me.

The men discover that they can turn on the machines, then immediately go to a hotel room where they will unplug the phone and TV, eliminating any issues of causality.  6 hours later, they can go climb into the machines where they will wait for another 6 hours to travel back in time to earlier that morning when they turned the machines on without worrying that they will run into themselves since they will be in the hotel room.  If that’s confusing to you, trust me, I explained it a lot easier than the film does and it doesn’t get any less complicated from there.  The men eventually do what we would all do if we made this discovery: play the stock market and bet on basketball games.

Things get foggier.  During one trip through the box, the men emerge bleeding from the hands and ears.  Did the box make them bleed?  Or are they not the original versions of themselves?  Time travel can’t ever hope to go smoothly given the endless variables to calculate.  The film hurdles forward at a frenzied pace and given the techno-jargon, you’ll be lucky to keep up.  PRIMER is a fascinating puzzle that will drive some viewers crazy and completely engage others.  Consider me the latter.

Shane Carruth wrote, directed, edited, composed the score and stars as one of the two men.  He made the film for an astonishing $7,000 and the film later went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004.  Carruth, a former engineer with a mathematics degree, has yet to make a second film and perhaps he only had one in him.  What he created was a fascinating mind-bender that will have geeks like myself pouring over it for years to come.

PRIMER can be found on DVD and is currently in rotation on IFC.

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