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  • Jeff Marker


    husband, dad, teacher, filmmaker, writer, film geek, musician, DIYer, vegetarian, Bulldog, Buckeye, Nighthawk

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Little Light Bulbs

I’m currently on holiday break and have set a goal of starting to exercise again. I did great for the first ten days (possibly the longest streak of my adult life, btw). With the exception of Christmas Day, I ran every day, did light weightlifting every other, and each time finished with physically deep, mentally grounding stretching every day. Then starting on the 29th I failed to get myself in gear. Didn’t exercise for five days. This morning I finally exercised again, largely because I was inspired by seeing my wife exercise last night.

This experience reminded me of a few things.

  1. I hate exercising. I am doing this for my own health and for my family. My job is not at all physical but it is highly stressful, and I need healthier ways to alleviate that stress. I also want to experience as much of my son’s life as possible, so I’m doing my part to live longer. I am a happier person when I am healthier, which makes me a better husband and friend to my wife. Finally, I am now in a leadership position and my mood has an effect on scores of people. I need to improve myself internally in order to be more supportive externally. But there’s no pretending I enjoy any of this.
  2. Getting back into shape is such a rollercoaster. I had to psych myself up for the first few days just to get started. However, I was motivated by a desire to shed stress that had built up over the past several months at work and by observing how crooked my grandmother’s and father’s spines are becoming when we visited family over Thanksgiving. I’d love to prevent that happening to my own back if it’s possible. By the sixth day, I felt quite good about myself. Felt really great when I got myself up out of bed on the 26th and exercised again. Then my motivation declined precipitously, shall we say. On the 30th, I convinced myself it was okay to take a day off. ‘I am on holiday break, after all!’ Then it was New Year’s Eve. ‘Come one, it’s New Year’s Eve!’ Then it was New Year’s Day. ‘Come one, it’s New Year’s Day!’ But then, yesterday was plain old January 2nd. We didn’t have any plans. It was a Saturday. No way to rationalize it, I just slacked off. The internal monologue became, ‘I suck.’ And I didn’t get up early this morning to exercise, which had been my routine at the beginning of the break. I slept in. I had half of a cup of coffee. The prospects for exercising today were slim. And I felt like shit about myself, because I was failing to reach my goal of developing an exercise routine over the break. No way to deny it, the progress I had made was slipping away. Then I thought about Alicia exercising the night before. She also bought me a pretty good supply of Kind bars, which I like to eat before exercising. She has helped facilitate this whole plan, and I was letting it fall apart. So I made myself do it. I set up the treadmill and laptop so I could watch Making A Murderer while I walked/ran, and I did it. I once again feel pretty good about myself mentally, and my body feels so much better, especially after the big stretch at the end of the workout. Speaking of…
  3. The stretch is my favorite part of any workout, and that’s coming from a former high school football player who for a couple of years fell in love with weightlifting during the off-season. Lifting still feels pretty good, but these days the stretch is the best. I am comically inflexible by nature (seriously, I haven’t touched my toes since my twenties), and I carry stress in a handful of places, making my legs, lower back, and neck even stiffer than they are by default. I take my time to stretch and now throw in some yoga poses because I’ve found they stretch certain places that really need it – and because I’m trying to use stretching as a means of becoming more balanced and grounded mentally.

(Quick side notes: For the early part of my adult life I did physical labor, so I recognize that I’m writing about white-collar, First World Problems here. My early twenties self would be mocking me while reading this, and if certain of my friends are reading this, they are too. Don’t blame you, fellas.

Also, I am guilty of skepticism when it comes to the whole body-mind-spirituality-new-age realm of thinking. I know I aggravate my wife when I don’t buy into it. So she has got to be LOVING the fact that I’m using phrases like “balanced and grounded.”)

This morning’s stretch is actually what made me sit down to write this. I laid out the yoga mat on the floor (Mrs. Marker prefers that I not transfer sweat from my back to the living room rug, and I do not argue with that position) and did my little bit of weightlifting, then I commenced stretching. As I said, I use the stretch these days for both physical and mental ends. It’s a time to find a healthier frame of mind and get grounded for the rest of the day (there I go again). This morning, though, Alicia was bustling around the house doing a few chores at once, the dishwasher was running, the clothes dryer was running, my son was playing Minecraft on the television complete with background music, and the dog, as she always does, was under my feet on the mat eating and rolling around. In other words, if one were to try to create a meditative, introspective atmosphere, the house this morning was pretty much the polar opposite of what that would look like.

But in the midst of a tree pose (like I said, fellas, laugh it up), it occurred to me how perfect it all was. I was surrounded by my family. We were all safe, healthy, and together. It’s the beginning of a new year, and we had time to just be together. For a moment, I thought about what it would be like if I could no longer hear and sense my wife’s presence in the house. Or hear my son’s voice as he played. Or see that the dog was trying to take over the yoga mat.

That kind of solitude doesn’t sound peaceful or meditative at all. All of these things passed through my mind, and I felt enormously grateful for all that I have. And I suddenly realized I felt grounded. Huh, so that’s how it works.

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Best Films of 2015

It wasn’t a particularly deep year for quality films. Some of my colleagues disagree, but some of the movies being touted as awards contenders (“Trumbo,” for example) didn’t live up to the hype for me. The top three films on my list stand far above all others, the next five are all outstanding, then there are several good films that wouldn’t be strong enough to make best-of lists in many other years. Still, the best things about year-end movie lists is they might encourage folks to seek out lesser known movies or debate those they have seen. Hopefully this list does both.

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Image courtesy of epk.tv

  1. Room

Seven years ago, a young woman (Brie Larson) was abducted and confined to a one-room shed by her captor. This room is the only world her five-year old son (Jacob Tremblay) knows – until mother and child attempt a perilous escape. Lenny Abrahamson, who for two years in a row has produced one of my favorite movies of the year (do yourself a favor and see Frank) focuses on the mother’s will to protect her child and the young boy’s discovery of the world outside the room, and leaves us with a deeper appreciation of the bonds between mother and child. Larson should walk away with the Best Actress Oscar, newcomer Tremblay should be nominated, and Abrahamson damned well better be nominated for helping the actors achieve these performances.

beasts

Image courtesy of Netflix via The Guardian

  1. Beasts of No Nation

Cary Joji Fukunaga (“True Detective”) adapted Uzodinma Iweala’s novel about an African child soldier into a harrowing, empathetic, brutal, and unforgettable viewing experience. Idris Elba towers through the film in an outstanding supporting role, but new discovery Abraham Attah gives a mind-blowing performance in the lead role. This is also a significant moment in media history, since Beasts is Netflix’s first theatrically released motion picture. It did very poorly at the box office in terms of dollars, but this is the first feature film produced by a streaming service that has a real shot at winning Best Picture.

Ex machina New Poster

  1. Ex Machina

This thought-provoking, sexy, stylish science fiction thriller is so stunning I watched it on an airplane yet was still enamored. Three brilliant actors (Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac) conduct a cinematic Turing test amongst themselves and with us. Vikander, as an AI so human-like and charming she seduces Gleeson’s character and us, continues to establish herself as one of the most charismatic actresses of her generation. The content is timely, yet the film is timeless, the sort of science fiction (not science fantasy) I wish we saw more often.

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Canadian poster (why not?) courtesy of epk.tv

 

  1. The Big Short

I would call this an essential movie, but people tend to resist must-see recommendations. I would tell you it provides the best explanation yet of the Wall Street collapse, but that description is far too academic and won’t get you to the theatre. And I don’t dare tell you it predicts impending economic dangers. Instead, I’ll just say it’s a hilarious, witty comedy featuring a world-class cast (Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall). Incredibly, all of those descriptions are equally accurate. Director Adam McKay pulls a brilliant bait-and-switch, selling us with the comedy in order to give the best assessment yet of what led to the economic recession.

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  1. Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is less a biopic than a virtuoso enunciation of classic American themes (like The Social Network, this movie owes an enormous debt to Citizen Kane). Drawing on a typically polished Aaron Sorkin screenplay, Danny Boyle directs an exquisite quintet of Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who are occasionally joined by other outstanding players. I don’t even care if the film gets a lot of details wrong or unjustifiably glorifies Jobs. It is a joy to watch perfectly executed filmmaking.

Image courtesy of epk.tv

  1. Spotlight

The next great journalism movie has arrived. Writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) and a stellar ensemble cast (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Billy Crudup) dramatize the true story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into the child molestation scandal and subsequent cover-up that forever altered the stature of the Catholic church. It’s an inspiring reminder of the social role only the fourth estate can fill.

Image courtesy of epk.tv

Image courtesy of epk.tv

  1. Love & Mercy

You might not believe this, but John Cusack is outstanding in this Brian Wilson biopic (I kid, I kid). But his performance isn’t as strong as Paul Dano’s. The two actors play Wilson at different stages of life, and both capture the genius and torturous mental illness that defines the legendary composer and musician. Love & Mercy is an unconventional biopic and a fitting tribute. Elizabeth Banks, in a nomination-worthy supporting role, does what she always seems to do – quietly elevate the film with each scene in which she appears. The glaring weakness here is Paul Giamatti’s garish performance as the psychiatrist who possibly saved Wilson’s life yet definitely infantilized him for years. I believe the real Dr. Eugene Landy was this evil, I’m just tired of seeing Giamatti play this character. Everything else compensates, though.

Image courtesy of cinemavine.com

Image courtesy of cinemavine.com

  1. Sicario

An idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) goes on a covert mission into Mexico with a shadowy task force as part of the “war on drugs.” But she discovers there is much more going on than she initially recognized. Director Denis Villeneuve uses the scenario to say some things about the narcotics trade and the government’s battle against it, but mostly he delivers a taut, fever pitch action movie that, along with Prisoners, places him in a whole new class of filmmakers. Blunt again proves she can do action, and Benicio del Toro is chilling and pitch perfect. I am professionally required to claim Mad Max: Fury Road is the best action movie of the year, but if you like your action grounded in reality, Sicario beats Max.

Image courtesy of Forbes

Image courtesy of Forbes

  1. Inside/Out

This was inarguably Pixar’s best movie in years, but that’s no longer saying much for a studio that has churned out formulaic sequels since being bought by Disney. Honestly, I think this one is a bit over-rated, but I’m including it here mostly because of the superb animation. (I’ve never seen skin textures like those created for the emotion characters!) There is also much to be said about a family movie willing to tackle pre-teen emotions and let kids know they should accept their sadness, fear, and anger, and therefore cope with them in healthier ways.

Image courtesy of blastr.com

Image courtesy of blastr.com

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road

I’m including Fury Road for three reasons. One, people like lists with ten entries. Two, George Miller’s revival of the legendary Australian post-apocalyptic science fiction franchise elevates the car chase to a thing of beauty. Stunning cinematography captures impeccably executed, acrobatic battle sequences taking place on wheels. Miller’s film reminds us how much more thrilling and cinematic practically achieved stunts are. Three, I hope it angers men’s rights activists, a group for whom Fury Road sparked the most pathetic outrage of the year (and in 2015, that is really saying something). Max is not made weak because Furiosa is made strong. The moment when Max recognizes Furiosa is a better shot than he and hands her the rifle is already being cited as a minor landmark, and it’s just one of many ways the film inverts the gender power dynamics typical of the genre. Surprisingly, this balls-out action opus captures gender equality circa 2015 perfectly.

Others worth seeing:

The End of the Tour, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, The AssassinCarol, Amy, Finder’s Keepers, Best of Enemies

small, beautifully MOVING PARTS and Annie Howell

Sometimes I really love my job.

My Gainesville State College colleague and friend, David Smith, and I are co-hosting South Arts’ Southern Tour of Independent Filmmakers with The Arts Council for the third year in a row. Last Thursday, we had the great pleasure of screening the indie comedy/drama small, beautifully MOVING PARTS and having a Q&A with the movie’s co-writer and co-director, Annie Howell.

It’s funny – these events always end up being scheduled during weeks when my schedule is already packed. I lead the Q&As, and I always struggle to find time to research the filmmakers. Our screenings are always on Thursdays, and by that point in the week I’d much rather just go home after work and crash. But nearly all the time, I end up energized afterward. The films are always at least interesting – in this case it was damn good – and the people are usually as friendly as they are fascinating. Annie was especially so.

I was extremely impressed by the film’s writing, acting, and directing. The story has techno-geek Sarah Sparks (Anna Margaret Hollyman) dealing with an unexpected pregnancy. Sarah has a natural affection for all things technological. Even while she is waiting for the results of the pregnancy test, she marvels at how the device functions. Sarah has a bit of trouble with human relations, however, which seems to stem largely from having a mother who left the family when Sarah was rather young.

David Smith, Kevin Eagleson, and Casey Fronek preserving the evening

Discovering she is going to become a mother dredges up a lot of complex feelings and the desire for a maternal role model. So Sarah embarks on a road trip to make contact with her mom, with whom she hasn’t spoken in some time.

Annie and her co-writer/co-director, Lisa Robinson, use Sarah’s tech fetish in creative ways, and the movie charts growth in Sarah without ever saying too much (my primary screenwriting peeve) or beating us over the head. Hollyman gives an outstanding performance, playing the situation realistically and believably at all times. Hollyman understands film acting and uses her face in expressive yet restrained ways. It seemed a very mature, accomplished performance for someone in her first starring feature film role.

Annie and Lisa also use an impressive number of locations for a modestly budgeted production. Annie told some hilarious road stories about the production. During most of the shots of Sarah in the car, the rest of the crew were crouching silently in the back of the van while the cameras rolled. They filmed some scenes on the streets of Las Vegas, which I assumed would be a nightmare, but Annie said it all went very smoothly.

David Smith, Annie Howell, Gladys Wyant, Me

The evening left me rooting for the film and for the filmmakers. small, beautifully MOVING PARTS will become available for streaming on Netflix in the near future, but it needs to be in a certain number of queues before Netflix will order it for DVD distribution. I urge you to add it to your queue. If you’re not on Netflix, look for it via other home video services.

Annie also has a really interesting body of short films. There is a DVD compilation of her shorts available, and one of her shorts, “Tia & Marco,” has been used as an episode of the ITVS series FUTURESTATES. “Tia & Marco” can be viewed here.

Rosemary’s sketch

We had a standing room only crowd, and they loved the movie. To give a sense of how taken the audience was with the movie and with Annie, a local artist named Rosemary Dodd did a sketch of Annie during the Q&A. Several people stuck around afterward and talked to Annie about things that had little to do with the movie.

It was a great night. You can read Annie’s blog about the night here.

TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE review

It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to say this: the new Clint Eastwood film is a great date movie.

Trouble with the Curve comes billed as a sports movie, but baseball serves merely as a backdrop and a source of conflict for two intertwined stories, one about a father and daughter bonding and the other about two opposites falling in love.

Click here to read the full review

END OF WATCH review

End of Watch is the most intense cop drama to hit wide release in quite some time. Considering its writer/director’s past work, that shouldn’t be surprising.

David Ayer wrote the screenplays for U-571, Training Day, Dark Blue, and S.W.A.T., among others, and directed Harsh Times and Street Kings, which was based on a James Ellroy story.

With the release of End of Watch, it’s time to recognize Ayer as one of the heavyweights of tough guy cinema.

Ayer brings an extreme realism to this exploration of life as an L.A. cop on a beat, which is both the best and worst quality of the movie.

Brian (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike (Michael Peña) are the hotshots of their precinct. They’re young, tough, and smart. They believe in their mission to protect the people while also respecting the rules of the street.

They are not cliché rebel cop characters (they bear no resemblance to Dirty Harry or Popeye Doyle), but they are willing to violate regulations if it means saving a life.

They are also played by two exceptional actors. Let’s face it, a lot of action movies are undone simply by a lack of acting talent. When the movie needs a dramatic scene to give it a sense of gravity, the actors fail.

No such problem here. Gyllenhaal’s acting chops are beyond question by now, and Peña has become one of the best character actors in the business.

Their chemistry together makes it absolutely believable that these two are not only partners but blood brothers.

The movie pits these tightly bound partners against some of the deadliest criminals in L.A., and every story beat is delivered with exacting plausibility. The most disturbing thing about End of Watch is that all of these crimes do happen in real life, often even more brutally than how they are shown in the film.

The movie spends a great deal of time veering away from the main storyline, though, to give us a sense of the daily lives of two cops on one of the most dangerous beats in America.

Gyllenhaal and Peña are surprisingly funny together as they banter between calls, but then they provide the punch the movie needs when those calls turn out to be horrific situations.

The action sequences are all outstanding, too. Ayer paces them perfectly, ratcheting up the tension and holding us there until Brian and Mike resolve the situation.

Unfortunately, all of these winning qualities are undercut by Ayer’s decision to film the movie in a way that blends reality television and found footage styles.

Brian is taking some college classes, one of which is a filmmaking elective. So he totes around a camcorder and wears a lapel camera as part of a class project. The conceit of the movie, then, is that everything we’re seeing was captured on amateur video.

Aside from being a tired style at this point, the movie has to strain beyond believability to stick to it.

Ayer periodically shifts away from Brian and Mike to a local gang who will play a major role in the main story. It’s necessary and effective to show us these scenes with the Curbside gang, but in order to maintain the amateur video style, Ayer has one of the gang members wielding a camera the whole time just like Brian.

So, for instance, while the gang does a drive-by shooting, we’re supposed to believe that the gang member would still be filming. But Ayer also uses other camera angles that couldn’t possibly be caught on that amateur video camera, so he doesn’t stick to his own stylistic rules anyway.

And as great as Gyllenhaal and Peña are together, the movie spends far more time than necessary establishing how close Brian and Mike’s bonds are.

The visual style of End of Watch is hugely flawed, but its story is told with such urgency and authenticity that action fans should be willing to forgive its stylistic crimes.

Bottomline: A must-see for action fans

Father-Son Debates About Really, Really Important Things

A friend recently posted a facebook comment about her husband obsessing over the minutiae of children’s productions (things like, which of the Kratts has the most creative control, etc.), while their son couldn’t care less. The comment was so familiar, it inspired me to share.

My son and I regularly get into discussions about these sorts of things. More accurately, I regularly start such discussions with him. For instance, we don’t get cable but we subscribe to a few on-demand streaming services, which affords us the luxury of picking watching tv episodes in any order we choose. I have tried to convince my son, though, that we MUST watch episodes of a series in the order in which they originally aired – at least the first time we watch them. I have honestly gotten into disagreements with my seven year old that go something like this:

Me: Which episode of Avengers do you want to watch?

Kid: Number 15.

Me: But we haven’t watched episodes 11-14.

Kid: So? I want to watch the one with Hulk.

Me: But what happened between Hawkeye and Black Widow? She betrayed him in episode 10. Did she really become a traitor or was she going undercover?

Kid: I don’t know.

Me: Then why don’t you want to watch the next episode?

Kid: I don’t know.

Me: What if Black Widow shows up in number 15? We won’t know what happened! We won’t know what their relationship is in this episode, and it might ruin an earlier episode. Number 15 might give away what happened between Hawkeye and Black Widow in one of the episodes we haven’t seen. Then when we go back to watch that one later, it’ll be spoiled!

Kid: Da-ad! I want to watch number 15!

And thus we stumble into episode 15, completely blind, with no sense of long term character arcs and with diminished context and subtext.

Now, none of these disagreements are serious – although I do think I annoy the heck out of him sometimes, and it always reminds me of something I love about kids, particularly my own (I’m assuming we all feel that way).

Kids don’t place boundaries on imagination like adults do. When my son is playing and making up stories, he feels free to combine magic, technology, myths, and all the rest of it. In our house, Harry Potter has teamed up with Superman to fight crime – with Mr. Filch playing the villain, which reveals quite a lot about what kids view as villainous. Ben 10 has fought alongside my son’s Lego Heroes. Iron Man has fought Lex Luthor. It doesn’t matter to him that the backstories don’t mesh in a logical way, it’s all just free creation.

That freedom stretches into how he views movies, tv, and books. While I constantly impose the rules of good storytelling and fictional story world logic, my son just wants to watch a good yarn play out among characters with whom he can identify.

In academic and critical terms, I know a lot more about film and tv aesthetics than my son. But frequently it occurs to me that I could learn a lot from him.

UNKNOWN A Pleasant Surprise

“Unknown” is a movie about redemption, both behind the camera and on screen.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s last movie, “Orphan,” was morally repulsive — a creep-fest that exploited its young actors shamelessly for nothing more than shock value. There was no point to it, the writing was bad, and I hope Collet-Serra is appropriately ashamed of his work on it.

But I am a forgiving fellow, and “Unknown” is a respectable penance.

Click here for full review

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