Star Tribune: “MSPIFF 2015 Highlights” – Kristin Tillotson 4/9/15
“★★★½ out of four stars
Minneapolis artist and filmmaker Charlie Griak’s first live-action feature is a moody, absorbing and sophisticated surprise, lent instant cachet by Jonathan Demme, who signed on as presenter and executive producer after seeing a rough cut. Stuck in a mind-numbing job with no support or encouragement from his mother and sister, young Ryan (Matt Cici) is ripe for the plucking by a Scientology-like cult led by platitude-spouting Vincent (co-producer Judd Einan). Griak’s greatest achievement in the locally shot and cast film is Ryan’s utterly convincing slide into the seductive, sinister group.”
Mercury News: “Cinequest 2015: 6 Films You Need to See” – Randy Myers 2/23/15
“The Center”: Nab a ticket for Charlie Griak’s gripping, beautifully shot feature-length debut. Griak is a promising new talent who delivers a tight cautionary tale chronicling the experiences of a wannabe writer (Matt Cici) with a cult. The dramatic feature is ominous and surreal and makes you nearly taste Ryan’s depression as he seeks relief from a cult fronted by a self-help guru. The film is executive produced by Jonathan Demme.”
CANDID MAGAZINE: “East End Film Festival: The Center” – Steven Brown 6/7/15
‘Make the best of what you have’. This direct quote from The Center reinforces the first point to make about filmmaker Charlie Griak’s feature debut which was executive produced by The Silence Of The Lambs‘ Oscar winning director Jonathan Demme.
The film follows fresh college graduate and aspiring writer, Ryan (Matt Cici), who is looking for a way to change his life. Coming from what seems to be an unloving home, he puts his own dreams on the side in order to help but becomes entangled in a cult-like organisation that attempts to empower those on the side lines.
Reading the synopsis, there is a linear structure to the film but after watching, there is a clear distinction between The Center and other American films in the same genre. There is no clear ending but nevertheless the film doesn’t need it. It seems that Griak was focused on creating a deep and memorable piece of filmmaking filled with empowering quotations, including the one above.
Hollywood has made film viewers around the world expect some dramatic or twisted ending but The Center goes against that, yet keeping throughout some sort of expectation of what could happen. There is a battle when watching an independent film between Hollywood expectations and the reality of what actually happens and this notion seems to come to the surface here.
There are many scenes where we see Ryan wanting to achieve something but he’s immediately thrust back into reality and in turn, the viewers are not having the escapism that is automatically given by mainstream Hollywood.
Does it work? I would say so. The unusual, non-linear narrative is accompanied by eerie and slightly hypnotic music that is constant throughout. A film’s score is a tool that builds up the tension, gives more narrative to certain characters and helps audiences gain a sense of genre.
The eerie music in The Center keeps the audience on their toes, suggesting something dramatic or out of the ordinary will happen as the narrative progresses. Yet the transition from loud, dramatic music through to the more slow and eerie pieces doesn’t give away the narrative.
Independent films are not for everyone and it is hard for them to keep the attention of their audiences. The Center does however makes you think about your own life and about things that you should have changed or could change at that moment and it does bring into account the notion of ‘what if…?’
Despite having limited character development, there is still an identifiable aspect to Ryan. On a personal level, I was able to relate to his writing ambitions and other characteristics which is rare for me as I struggle to connect and identify with Hollywood characters that have been usually manipulated to suit that film.
And yet the main theme throughout the film is indeed manipulation. Ryan is manipulated into not pursuing his writing dream by his family and in turn he gets manipulated by the cult-like organisation.
Cults have been around for centuries and the film shows how people can be drawn into something and forced to behave in certain ways.
The Center has a quasi-meta quality to it: despite its short running time you’ll feel like you’ve been bombarded with deep and meaningful quotations for a whole hour and a half.
KQED: “For Independent Thinkers, San Jose’s Cinequest Cracks the Code” – Michael Fox 2/23/15
“Groupthink For Yourself: Cinequest generally prefers under-the-radar American indies to star-strewn Sundance entries, to varied effect. A winner making its world premiere, The Center eerily and believably conveys the steps by which an unformed twenty-something (a very good Matt Cici) with more frustrations than self-confidence becomes increasingly involved in a self-actualization outfit with resemblances to est, Scientology and you name it. I wouldn’t compare startups to cults, but The Center (Feb, 27, Mar. 1 and 3) will play like gangbusters at CQFF. This well-written, stylishly directed and efficiently lean (72 minutes) film is the work of Charlie Griak of Minneapolis in collaboration with a tight circle of friends and family.”
The Movie Gourmet – Scott Strickland 2/24/15
“The ever-absorbing The Center explores how someone of sound mind and normal disposition can be completely enveloped by a cult. The Center is writer-director Charlie Griak’s first feature, and it’s a very impressive debut.
We meet Ryan (Matt Cici), a talented guy with low self-esteem. He is highly functional and ultra-responsible, but it seems like nobody is in his corner. The first six minutes of this screenplay paint a detailed portrait of a guy who is crapped upon more than Job. No one encourages Ryan to do anything for himself, and he ends each night alone, with a beer and late-night TV. Then someone else shows personal interest in the hang-dog Matt, and he gradually slides into what at first seems the appreciation of his potential, but which is revealed to be a web of exploitation.
The audience recognizes some red flags before Ryan does, but every step in this story is credible – and there isn’t a cliché in sight. The keys to The Center’s success are the crafting of the Ryan character and the believability of the story. Ryan’s journey is compressed into a taut and compelling 72 minutes.
Matt Cici, who is in virtually every shot, is perfect as Ryan – a guy with plenty to offer, but whose lack of self-confidence sets him up for exploitation by everyone else. The acting is strong throughout The Center. Ramon Pabon is especially memorable as a twitchy loser who has been sucked into the cult. With piercing eyes, Judd Einan nails the role of the uberconfident, emotionally bullying cult founder. Annie Einan is excellent as Ryan’s world-weary sister, so burdened by their mother’s care that she can’t be there for Ryan until she spots the crisis in his life.
This spring, HBO will premiere documentarian Alex Gibney’s (Taxi to the Dark Side, We Steal Secrets, Client 9, Casino Jack and the United States of Money) expose of Scientology – Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Going Clear will be a big deal, and will beg the question, “How can smart, able people fall into this stuff?”. The Center should become the perfect narrative fiction companion to Going Clear.
One more thing – The Center was shot in St. Paul, Minnesota, a city that I’m not used to seeing in a movie. The Center’s sense of place (a place fresh and unfamiliar to many of us, anyway) adds to its appeal.
With The Center, Charlie Griak has shown himself to be a very promising filmmaking talent and has left a serious professional calling card. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Cinequest will host the world premiere of The Center on February 27, and it will play again on March 1 and March 3, all in Camera 12.”