Sunday, January 31, 2016

Live Action Short Film Nominees (Oscars® 2016)

Last night I saw all five of the nominated films in the Live Action Short category. I'll present my reviews in the order they were shown.

AVE MARIA (Palestine, France and Germany)

Of all the things Orthodox Jewish settlers could crash into in the West Bank, a convent of Catholic nuns is unlikely. But that's what happens here when a family trip takes a turn (literally) into one. Problem is: the nuns have taken a vow of silence and due to the Sabbath, the family is unable to use the telephone to call for help. Through a series of comedic events, the two groups together find a surprising solution. The one is light and the story is cute; I just don't think I'd consider this Oscar caliber material.

SHOK (Kosovo and UK)

Amidst the Yugoslav wars two young boys form a deep friendship that is tested repeatedly by the pressures of the time. Instead of making choices about what games to play each night, they're faced with much more grim decisions—some even a matter of life and death. The film is about war, but above all else, about love. Though hard to watch because of the subject matter (these horrors took place not long ago, after all), it's expertly done with two lead actors that deliver on every note.

EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY (Germany and Austria)

A divorced couple shares custody of their young daughter. The father comes to pick the girl up for a routine weekend and the tension between the parents is evident. The father quickly takes his daughter shopping to spoil her with new toys, then makes a trip to the nearby bumper cars for additional fun. Things only go sideways when he tricks her into taking passport pictures at a nearby photo booth. The girl soon realizes they're not having a normal weekend and calls him out on it. Just how far (and how fast) this weekend goes off the rails is what makes this my pick for the Oscar. I don't think I breathed for the last 10 minutes. It was that good.

STUTTERER (UK and Ireland)

There have been six months of flirtatious Facebook bliss for a couple and now there's a chance for them to meet. The man has reservations because he suffers from a severe stuttering problem—so much that he's learned sign language to imply to strangers that he's simply deaf. As the day approaches, he at first hides, then practices his speech, hoping not to disappoint this love of his life. It's a sweet, sometimes funny story with a lot of heart.

DAY ONE (USA)


An Afghan-American interpreter is assigned to an Afghanistan tour of duty with the U.S. military, and on her first day the team is sent to investigate a report of bombs in a nearby residence. As the weapons are found and the man of the house is being arrested, his wife goes into labor—with complications. As the only woman present, the interpreter has to begin acting as a doctor to save the mother and baby. 

This was the only of the five films where people actually got up and left the theater. It was incredibly intense and touched on several sensitive subject matters (religion, birth, war, death, etc.). But I stuck it out and was glad I did, if not only for the life-affirming ending, but the photo of the real interpreter, for which the film was based, that appears at the end.

~~~

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Documentary Short Film Nominees (Oscars® 2016)

Tonight I saw all five of the nominated films in the Documentary Short category. I'll present my reviews in the order they were shown.

BODY TEAM 12 (Liberia)

The 2014 Ebola outbreak in Liberia devastated the country, leaving nearly 5000 dead and over 10,000 infected. In the midst of the chaos, 29-year-old Garmai Sumo is the only female on a team tasked with safely removing bodies from infected locations. In this film, as we watch the horror unfold, she describes what it's like—the fears, the sadness and even the hope. Her commitment and compassion for her fellow people make this otherwise gloomy subject bearable.

A GIRL IN THE RIVER: THE PRICE OF FORGIVENESS (Pakistan)

In Pakistan, men sometimes beat or kill female relatives who they perceive to have 'disrespected' them. They call these 'honor killings,' as they are meant to restore honor to the family. One such attempted murder happened to 18-year-old Saba when she fell in love and her family told her the boy she wanted to marry wasn't rich enough. She defied them by gaining support from her future in-laws, who helped the couple elope. Her father and uncle then shot her in the face and threw her in the river to die. But ... she didn't die. She lived to tell the tale and tells it here, as she's in the midst of a legal struggle in her community. Her path toward forgiveness under pressure is hard to watch, especially considering that her attackers show no remorse, but it's so well done, I conclude that this is the strongest of the five films.

LAST DAY OF FREEDOM (USA)

A man has a younger brother. The younger brother gets hit by a car during adolescence and is never the same. With a middle school education, said brother enters the service. He goes to Vietnam. Bad things happen. He comes home, again a changed man. His PTSD gets really bad. He does a bad thing. His brother turns him in. He gets the death penalty. The brother is sick with guilt and tells his story here, but we only hear him as the entire short is animated. Though the animation is artistically brilliant, I didn't feel it was the right way to tell this story and it distracted me from the core of the emotion. Meh.

CHAU, BEYOND THE LINES (USA and Vietnam)

The effects of Agent Orange are still prevalent today, as evidenced in this documentary focusing on Chau, a disabled Vietnamese boy with a triumphant spirit. We're first introduced to him in the orphanage-like home he's living in, though he's still in touch with his family (and will go back to them briefly before setting out in the world on his own). The staff at the home, which primarily serves children affected by Agent Orange, don't recognize that Chau's a gifted artist with real potential; they discourage him from pursuing what they see as a futile dream. Thankfully, he ignores them and forges on, despite the fact he doesn't have a knee on one leg and his arms and hands are disproportionate to his body. If you're able to stop crying, this is a life-affirming gem of a film.

CLAUDE LANSMANN: SPECTRES OF THE SHOAH (USA)

In 1985, Director Claude Lansmann released a documentary that had consumed him for 12 years: Shoah. Remembered now as perhaps the most important Holocaust film ever made, the creation of it still haunts him this many years on. In this talking-head short—the most traditional documentary of the bunch—we hear from Lansmann directly as he shares stories of the horrors he drew out of various survivors. It's riveting and depressing and makes you respect the classic work all the more, even if his methods for making it weren't always noble.

~~~

Friday, January 08, 2016

My 2016 Golden Globe Picks

Here are my selection and predictions, in order of how they're listed on the official site:

Best Motion Picture Drama

What I want to win: I give this to ROOM. No film has stayed with me more than this can't-look-away nail biter about a kidnapped woman and her son held in captivity.

What will probably win: I think THE REVENANT, which is also deserving, but didn't hit me as emotionally hard as the other.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture Drama

Who I want to win: Brie Larson from ROOM. Earth-shatteringly good.

Who will probably win: Brie Larson from ROOM. She is getting universal praise, for good reason.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture Drama

Who I want to win: Without question, Leonardo DiCaprio for THE REVENANT. He's good in everything he's in, but in this role he got attacked by a bear and had very few lines.

Who will probably win: Leo has terrible luck during awards season, so I think Eddie Redmayne of THE DANISH GIRL will take this one. I liked him in the role, but still think Leo had a more difficult job.

Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy

What I want to win: TRAINWRECK. Amy Schumer. Need I say more?

What will probably win: I have a good feeling about TRAINWRECK and Amy's string of success this year.

Best Performance by an Actress - Musical or Comedy

Who I want to win: Amy Schumer, of course.

Who will probably win: Amy Schumer, of course.

Best Performance by an Actor - Musical or Comedy

Who I want to win: Christian Bale was creepy good in THE BIG SHORT, right down to actually wearing the guy's clothes. He gets my vote.

Who will probably win: I think more people saw THE MARTIAN, and Matt Damon will walk away with the Globe.

Best Motion Picture - Animated

What I want to win: No film had more heart this year than INSIDE OUT. I hope it takes the honor.

What will probably win: Pixar rules. INSIDE OUT it is!

Best Motion Picture - Foreign Language

Shamefully, I have seen none of the nominees, so I will remove myself from weighing in on this race.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture

Who I want to win: STEVE JOBS was held together by Kate Winslet. She deserves the trophy.

Who will probably win: Alicia Vikander of EX MACHINA has gotten a lot of press. I'm guessing if Kate loses, it will be to her.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture

Who I want to win: Mark Rylance was absolutely charming in BRIDGE OF SPIES. I'd like to see his acceptance speech.

Who will probably win: Paul Dano, though probably should have been considered a lead, made an excellent Brian Wilson in LOVE & MERCY. He could be the night's showstopper.

Best Director - Motion Picture

Who I want to win: I go with Alejandro G. Iñarritu for THE REVENANT. Shooting in the wilderness, in natural light, using very little CGI and not a lot of dialogue. The film is a cinematic treasure.

Who will probably win: Ridley Scott and his crowd-pleaser THE MARTIAN will most likely walk away with the prize.

Best Screenplay - Motion Picture

Who I want to win: Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer for SPOTLIGHT deserve the honor for their fast-paced, perfectly crafted script.

Who will probably win: Charles Randolph and Adam McKay had a lot of crackle in THE BIG SHORT. Audiences will remember the dialogue; especially because a lot of it was spoken directly to them in the "how this happened" vignettes featuring famous cameos.

Best Original Score - Motion Picture

Who I want to win: Alexandre Desplat painted a beautiful picture of both the era and the landscapes of the two major European cities featured in THE DANISH GIRL, while managing to convey the emotion of the leads. I loved it.

Who will probably win: Ennio Morricone is the rock star of the bunch, so I'm guessing his work for THE HATEFUL EIGHT will yield the Globe.

Best Original Song - Motion Picture

Who I want to win: When the subject of the movie is also the composer of the song in the movie, it's hard to argue with it. My vote goes to Brian Wilson for LOVE & MERCY.

Who will probably win: Everyone wants to see a Beach Boy on stage. I think Brian Wilson will indeed win for LOVE & MERCY.

Best Television Series - Drama

What I want to win: Funny story: I only started watching MR. ROBOT because when I lived in NY for a brief time last year for work, they filmed it on my Upper West Side apartment's street. It became a fast favorite and it gets my vote here.

What will probably win: I wasn't the only one who loved this show. I'm guessing MR. ROBOT will prove victorious.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Drama

Who I want to win: The intensity she exudes (in the contexts of both sex and violence) qualify Catriona Balfe of OUTLANDER to win, in my book.

Who will probably win: I think Viola Davis, who is the most buzzed-about leading lady, will take it for HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Drama

Who I want to win: Don Draper forever! John Hamm of MAD MEN, please.

Who will probably win: Since MAD MEN has ended and it's Hamm's last chance to win, I think my wish will come true.

Best Television Series - Music or Comedy

Who I want to win: An admittedly recent convert, I'm all about TRANSPARENT.

Who will probably win: I feel like I'm not the only one who loves TRANSPARENT.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Music or Comedy

Who I want to win: Jamie Lee Curtis kept SCREAM QUEENS alive on my DVR. She gets my vote.

Who will probably win: Julia Louis-Dreyfus in VEEP seems to have quite the winning streak (though I hate that show).

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Music or Comedy

Who I want to win: Is it any surprise? I go for Jeffrey Tambor in TRANSPARENT.

Who will probably win: I think the HFP will agree with me and go with Jeffrey Tambor for his role as a trans parent in TRANSPARENT.

Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

What I want to win: My vote would go to the always-interesting AMERICAN CRIME.

What will probably win: The critics can't seem to get enough of FARGO, so I'll bet it beats out the rest.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Who I want to win: Lady Gaga has been fantastic in AMERICAN HORROR STORY: HOTEL, so she gets my vote.

Who will probably win: Though I didn't see it, I hear Queen Latifah was transcendent in BESSIE. My guess is she'll be the one walking away with the win.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Who I want to win: Idris Elba has made LUTHER iconic in his own right, so he's my pick.

Who will probably win: I think voters will award Patrick Wilson of FARGO with the Globe.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Who I want to win: Maura Tierney was nothing short of brilliant this season on THE AFFAIR. She deserves the honor.

Who will probably win: I have a hunch about the always-wonderful Regina King of AMERICAN CRIME.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Who I want to win: Alan Cumming for THE GOOD WIFE. Anything else is a conspiracy.

Who will probably win: I can't see anyone in their right mind disagreeing with me on this one. Alan Cumming, Sir Eli Gold, THE GOOD WIFE.

We'll find out on Sunday if I was right!

-Tassoula




Thursday, January 07, 2016

The Revenant

Tonight I saw The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy.

Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is a fur trapper in the early 1800s (and yes, this character is based on a real person and a real incident, though many of the characters are fictional). He's on an expedition along the Missouri River when he's mauled by a grizzly bear. He survives the violent attack, but can barely move. And winter is coming—so instead of the entire group putting themselves in further danger, they offer cash rewards to those willing to stay behind and either nurse him back to health or give him a proper burial when the day comes. Two men, plus the man's son, volunteer for the duty and the rest leave.

After days of no improvement, one of the men, John Fitzgerald (Hardy) gets anxious and wants to put Glass out of his misery. He's not ready to go and his son attempts to save him. Fitzgerald kills the son and convinces the other man to leave Glass for dead. He even takes his gun.

But Hugh doesn't die. His resolve for revenge against Fitzgerald fuels his will to live and the next 2+ hours are spent battling tribes, nature and his own rotting flesh. Just watching him shiver in the snow is enough to put an extra layer on in the theater. In fact, with the exception of the tender moments Hugh shares with his son, the ghost of his son's mother, the ghost of his son and a friend he makes along the way, there's not much about this film that's pleasant.

It's brilliant, though.

From the stunning cinematography to the horrific, so-real-it-makes-you-squirm bear scene to DiCaprio's almost mute performance that somehow exhibits more emotion than anything we've seen on film this year, it's a triumph.

Visceral, painful, frightening, satisfying, terrifying—all of those things. And if Leo doesn't win the Oscar this year, I will lose all faith in the Academy.

~~~

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Carol

This morning I saw Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

There's a chronic ache one endures when love is unrequited. A pain detected by others only when looking deep into the afflicted's eyes. Carol (Blanchett), the subject of this film, feels this pain. She is on the verge of divorcing her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) and is smitten with a young shop girl she met while searching for her daughter's Christmas gift.

As fate would have it, Carol accidentally left her gloves behind at the department store when purchasing said gift, so the shop girl, Therese (Mara) has them sent back to her. To show her gratitude for the gesture, she treats Therese to a fancy lunch and a new friendship is formed.

Meanwhile, Therese is somewhat confused about where she wants life to take her. She has a solid job at the store, but her passion is photography. She has a devoted boyfriend, but another friend likes her and also wants to be with her. Therese has little interest in either of them.

As Carol progresses with her separation, an ex-girlfriend, Abby (Sarah Paulson), helps her deal. But her association with Abby makes Harge believe she's going back to her—though she's not—so he begins proceedings to keep Carol from seeing their daughter. This drives Carol to quickly seek comfort in Therese's friendship and explore where it will go.

Did I mention it's the early 50s? And it's not okay to be an 'out' lesbian in the early 50s?

The whole film centers around this repression, despite the fact Carol seems very comfortable in who she is and makes no apologies for her feelings. It's one of those films where very little happens, yet everything does change.

If you're looking for a fast-paced love story, this is not the film for you, but if you have the cinema patience for quiet scenes, sexual frustration and longing looks, you may find yourself satisfied by its undercurrent.

Cate Blanchett is fantastic as always, as the cold, yet compassionate Carol. Mara didn't impress me as much with her deer-in-headlights glances and wooden dialog delivery, but Kyle Chandler playing against type as a jackass was fun to see.

I'm glad I checked this one off my list, even if it's not as flashy as competing films in this year's Oscar race.

~~~

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Joy

Last night I saw Joy, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro.

Joy Mangano (Lawrence) is an inventor, entrepreneur and multimillionaire—but it took a lot of work for her to get there.

As a single mom in the late 80s, Mangano was always thinking up ways to make life a little easier. One of those ideas led to her invention of the Miracle Mop; at the time, a revolutionary cleaning device that was self-wringing and machine washable. This film tells the story (loosely) of how she was able to sell her idea to the right entity despite a difficult dysfunctional family and no prior business experience.

Jennifer Lawrence (though a bit young to be playing Joy) dazzles as the headstrong woman who seems to solve all of her family's problems. She has a depressed mother living downstairs and a friendly ex-husband in the basement as she raises her two kids, juggles a crazy sister and works full time. But she manages to do it all as she invents what will become her breakthrough product.

De Niro plays her father Rudy just as you'd expect him to; forcefully, lovingly, borderline annoyingly. Of course, he's perfect. But unfortunately, the film isn't.

Each step taken, each word spoken, each concentrated look delivered is far too exaggerated. The camera whizzes around each scene like a drunk cocktail party guest while us audience members spend more time looking at Lawrence's hair than thinking about the developing plot.

Sure, there are brief "miracle" moments, like every time Bradley Cooper shows up as Joy's business contact. And the story itself (especially for women) is inspiring because the real-life woman went on to be an even greater success (and yes, the Miracle Mop is being re-released with a new spin TOMORROW, so she's obviously still entrepreneurial-minded).

But unlike the sincerity of director David O'Russell's other hits like Silver Linings Playbook, the heart was missing from Joy, leaving us bleached of emotion.

~~~

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Big Short

Tonight I saw The Big Short, starring Christian Bale and Steve Carell.

The housing bubble was building for years, but no one saw it coming. No one, that is, except for a few industry outliers who found a way to bet on it.

Michael Burry (Bale) was a hedge fund manager who simply did the math. He was someone who looked for cracks in the system and understood numbers on a primal level. He called it years before it happened and he was right.

Mark Baum (Carell) is a money manager furious with the world. He's just lost his brother to suicide and as he works through that tragedy in therapy, he discovers that his job in the financial industry has a lot to do with who he has become. Baum listens to the right person and also believes the bubble will burst. He invests wisely as a result.

Financial stories are not typically compelling, but told here in talking-to-the-camera fashion (which shouldn't work, but for some reason does) it becomes riveting. It's flashy and fast and full of f-bombs, but I promise if you see it, you won't get bored.

Bale is so faithful to the actual man he's portraying, he actually borrowed his clothes for the film. And Carell, a comic genius with the skill to bring heavy drama at a moment's notice, also does not disappoint.

The Oscars may come calling for these actors—perhaps even the movie itself. I wouldn't be surprised or sad if they did.

~~~

Friday, December 25, 2015

Concussion

Today I saw Concussion, starring Will Smith and Albert Brooks.

The NFL is a huge, successful organization based on America's Favorite sport. The more interested the public becomes about football, the more money the institution makes, so it's in their best interest to deliver high-intensity, exciting games.

Years ago, Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith), a leading neuropathologist in Pittsburgh recognized a brain pattern in former NFL players who had passed. He pursued and personally funded the study of this pattern, as he'd never seen it before, and determined that it was caused by repeated blows to the head. Concussions.

The condition, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), causes its victims devastating symptoms such as dementia, depression, paranoia and memory loss. Many of those who were labeled with the affliction after death had committed suicide.

This film tells the story of how Dr. Omalu discovered CTE, and the resistance he met from the NFL once he went public with his findings. Though he had nothing against the sport, he did hope they would acknowledge the dangers their players are put in each time they take to the field. They refused to—and to say any more would spoil the film.

So, for non-sports folks like myself: Why should you see this?

Smith's performance, for one, is nothing short of impressive. He disappears into the accent and you forget you're watching The Fresh Prince.

The visceral way in which the filmmakers tell the story is (although gory) very powerful, as you truly grasp the science behind what's going on because they show it to you.

And, well, if you are a football fan... you should see this too. And then think about all of the money you're pouring into an institution that would rather profit from the talent they hire than preserve the health and sanity of those very individuals.

~~~






Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Danish Girl

This morning I saw The Danish Girl, starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander.

Einar Wegener (Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Vikander) were a happy couple living a Bohemian life in Denmark in the 1920s. Both gifted painters, they shared a deep bond of not only love, but art.

One day, Gerda was in need of a live, female model for one of her paintings and her husband stood in for the absent woman. This act changed both of their lives significantly.

Einar discovered a special feeling when he put on the woman's stockings, and volunteered to continue acting as a female model whenever his wife was in need. This soon became a game for both of them—him developing an alter ego, Lili, and making appearances at events and parties around town.

Gerda was surprisingly supportive of this ruse and even encouraged it. Her paintings of Lili were very successful in the industry and Einar was happier when he was behaving like a girl.

Of course, over time, Einar decided he could no longer be Einar. He truly felt inside that he was a woman and the only moments where he felt comfortable were those he had acting as Lili. Gerda accepted this eventuality and they moved to Paris, preserving their unconventional marriage throughout his quest to fully transition to female.

A few years later they met a doctor that said he could perform a series of operations to make Lili fully female and Eniar was enthusiastic about having them. Gerda stood by his/her side for the duration.

This film does an incredible job, through the genius of Eddie Redmayne, of exposing how it may feel for transgender persons discovering their true selves. There are many long looks in the mirror; several examinations of one's own human body; countless instances of touching the sensual fabric of women's apparel. Though none of us who aren't transgender could ever truly 'know how it feels' to be trapped in the wrong body, this film gives us at least a compass that directs us toward the feelings of those who do. Redmayne shows total discomfort in his own skin, and the discovery of his new self is frankly ... inspiring.

As the first person to have gender reassignment surgery, Elbe remains a hero to the transgender community to this day. Gerda did eventually divorce Einar and remarry, but stayed by Lili's side to the end.

The pair's story is told beautifully here, with award-bait performances and classy writing, capturing the right notes for today's progressive world.

~~~

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

This morning I saw The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson.

I'm a big fan of The Hunger Games book series, and I loved the first two film adaptations, but the Mockingjay installments unfortunately leave a lot to be desired.

In this final curtain call, the boy who stole the heart of Katniss (Lawrence), Peeta (Hutcherson), has been brainwashed by the Big Bad Government and instead of wanting to live out his days with her, he wants to kill her. Of course, she still wants him and realizes that he doesn't have control of his mind.

He eventually comes back to the correct side of the war ... kinda. He has spontaneous, violent outbursts aimed at her from time to time, but for the most part behaves himself. They, along with their team of allies, set out to take back the world (and kill President Snow).

Donald Sutherland, as the hated leader, seems to be having a grand time in this one; less evil and more 'mad scientist' in spirit. It would be hard for anyone to think of him claiming victory when he's so jovial and Katniss is so serious.

So—what's wrong with the film?

#1 The pace. It's painfully slow for the first hour. I actually went and got a cup of coffee and when I came back they were still on the same scene.

#2 Wasted talent. Jennifer Lawrence is a gifted, sparkling superstar. She doesn't have much to do here except look sad. Look mad. Look tired.

#3 Anticlimactic action. Of course we know what's coming, but that's not what ruins it. The battle scenes just don't have the magic of the first two films. They're silly.

So—is there any reason to see it?

If you're a completist like me, it's your civic duty to sit through it. Also, it's Philip Seymour Hoffman's last film and just his mere presence—alive and breathing brilliance—is a gift.

~~~

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Spotlight

This morning I saw Spotlight, starring Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton.

When Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrived at The Boston Globe, he thought it could do better. He urged his "Spotlight" team of investigative reporters to pursue a story about a priest accused of multiple counts of sexual abuse. They were hesitant because of their relationship with the church and the fact that the majority of their readership was Catholic. He told them to do it anyway.

Reporter Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo) enthusiastically accepted the challenge. He visits the lawyer that represents several of the church's victims and quickly realizes that they're only scratching the surface. His boss, Robby (Keaton), is supportive, but cautious.

As the investigation continues, they are met with several roadblocks: the interference of the church; the lack of cooperation from a key lawyer; records that are sealed. They work day in and day out to overcome these obstacles, getting to a place where they're almost ready to reveal their findings and then 9/11 happens. The exposé has to be put on hold.

Of course, those who remember the headlines in early 2002 know that they did in fact get to tell their story, and it did instigate a shake-up in the Catholic church.

Though I remember the articles and knew the ending before going in, I was glued to my seat for the duration of the film, riveted by every scene. Like the legendary All the President's Men, following the footsteps of the reporters in what feels like real time really gets the blood pumping. With each new fact they reveal, you wonder what will come next and who or what will stand in their way from sharing it.

The acting is superb—especially Ruffalo, who is so believable as a quirky East Boston journalist, it's hard to remember he was ever The Hulk.

I'll be stunned if this isn't an Oscar favorite come awards season.

~~~

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Trumbo

Today I saw Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston and Diane Lane.

Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) was a successful screenwriter until his politics got in the way. A man of integrity, he stood by his beliefs instead of his riches and was ultimately blacklisted for being a communist.

After a brief sentence in prison, Trumbo had to find a way to feed his family so he returned to his only true skill: writing. He wrote screenplays like Roman Holiday under a pen name and countless other less prestigious titles. He never stopped writing and he also helped other blacklisted friends find 'underground' work.

Though it's a simple, well-documented true story, Cranston injects the late writer with such life it's almost as if he's still with us today. Always a pleasure to watch, Diane Lane is also perfect as his loyal wife, Cleo. The supporting cast is unsurprisingly impressive as well; among them: Helen Mirren, Elle Fanning, Louis C.K. and John Goodman.

So, why should anyone that's not obsessed with writers or communists go see this? Because at the end of the day it's about the very timely topic of endangered civil liberties. The decisions we're making as Americans today will determine our country's future. Films like this remind us that making the wrong decisions can be of great moral cost.

~~~

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Brooklyn

Tonight I saw Brooklyn, starring Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen.

Ailish (Ronan) is a girl who feels she doesn't have a future in Ireland. With the help of her sister and the church, she gets a Visa to work in America and sets sail on the long, lonely journey.

Once she arrives in Brooklyn, New York, she doesn't immediately fit in—she's too shy at the department store where she works, she's too innocent to be part of the girls' club in her boarding house, and she's too plain to get noticed by any Irish fellows.

After a devastating spell of homesickness, a kind priest enrolls her in night school and she begins to come out of her shell, attending the local dances. It's there she meets Tony (Cohen), an Italian plumber with eyes only for her.

They fall in love easily and enjoy the bliss of mutual infatuation until tragedy strikes back in Ireland and Ailish is forced to choose between her life in the U.S. and home in County Wexford.

As someone obsessed with Irish culture, I perhaps had expectations that were too high for this film. I thought we'd see more of Ireland, get to know Ailish's family a bit better and learn why she was so set on making a new life across the pond. Instead, after the initial scenes, we only catch glimpses of her former life and become quite attached to her new one.

Though the acting is superb all around, I can't say I felt much pain for any of the characters. Though sad and bad things do happen, when we arrive at them we're still just observers; not invested.

I was pleased with the ending, so that's something to applaud, and the story undoubtedly mirrors many true-life situations of that era and those cultures. Go see it if you're in the mood for something simple, wrapped up in a nice bow.

~~~

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Room

Tonight I saw Room, starring Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay.

Joy (Larson) was a victim of a kidnapping when she was a teenager. She's been kept prisoner by her captor ever since, and produced a son, Jack (Tremblay), with him.

When we meet Joy and Jack, it's Jack's 5th birthday and the pair are celebrating by baking a cake from scratch. Jack is disappointed there are no candles to blow out, but his mother explains that she can only ask for so much.

After a series of "visits" from the captor, Joy decides it's time to try to make a move to escape, and Jack will have to be her ticket out. That's as much as I can tell you without spoiling the film. So, instead, I'll talk about the brilliant performances from Brie Larson, who is a certain bet for an Oscar nod, and Jacob Tremblay, who may just score a nomination of his own.

Brie as Joy perfectly exemplifies a tortured soul, though she doesn't let her son see it. She compartmentalizes like anyone who has been traumatized and saves her grief for the future, when she's emotionally allowed to show it.

The young Jacob Tremblay displays an equal mix of innocence and anger about his situation as Jack. The moment Joy tells him that there is indeed a world like the one they see on their television is something sure to be studied by future child actors.

The supporting characters are minimal but impactful—Joan Allen as Grandma and William H. Macy as Grandpa. The guilty parents who couldn't protect their own.

The screenplay is also to credit for such a realistic, awful sequence of events. Anyone who has watched television interviews with real-life survivors of such horrors only gets a glimpse of the layers of emotion they're working through when the bright interview lights are shining upon them. Here the writer peels back those layers and lets us experience each one.

I'm not ashamed to say that I sobbed uncontrollably more than once during this film. I hope it gets the recognition it deserves come awards season.

~~~



Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Martian

This morning I saw The Martian, starring Matt Damon and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

There is a NASA mission to Mars that gets interrupted by a terrible sandstorm. Because of the severity of the weather, the commander of the ship, Melissa (Jessica Chastain), chooses to have the team abort the mission. As the evacuation begins, the botanist on board, Mark (Damon), gets hit with debris and is presumed dead. The other astronauts safely continue their mission, mourning his loss.

But he didn't die. He was injured and knocked out, but very much alive.

And there we begin ... the nerve-wracking 2+ hours of seeing if he can successfully grow food, navigate unpreventable disasters, make contact with NASA and keep his sanity. It's a tough ride, but one we've been on before.

Reminiscent of films like Gravity and Moon, the film centers around the solitude of the main character, but at least here we have a balance of scenes with the folks back home. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a fantastic performance as the Mars head-honcho, though Kristen Wiig, as an essential NASA employee seems displaced. Damon is predictably solid, as is the always-badass Chastain.

Sure, it's interesting to watch the scientific process for how to make food if you're ever stranded on a deserted planet. It's undoubtedly enjoyable to see the kinship amongst astronauts rivaling that of soldiers at war. But what keeps it from being a "great" American film is the crime of formula.

We know what's going to happen every step of the way, even if we're not sure how they're going to get there.

The characters were likeable, the situation of the initial accident very believable, but the outcome was terribly predictable.

Go see it if you want a fun ride, but not if you're seeking something new.

~~~




Steve Jobs

Two weeks ago I saw Steve Jobs, starring Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet.

I fully admit that I've always been "a Mac." My first computer was a Strawberry Fields-colored iMac and every computer I've since owned has also been a Mac. I'm a very satisfied customer. I'm also faithful to Apple—owning both iPods and iPhones in my time. Again, having no regrets.

So perhaps I went into this film with a bias in favor of its subject.

That really shouldn't matter because I'll be the first to say it's not a perfect film. The main thing that bugged me was the fact that they really didn't care to stick too close to the truth. The entire film is structured around launches that were important in the tech legend's career, yet most of the situations surrounding them (with the exception of the public-facing moments) never happened. True, Jobs (Fassbender) had a rocky relationship with his daughter Lisa. True, his marketing maven Joanna (Winslet) was one of the few people who could call him on his BS. Not true, business partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan) approached him before each launch and argued in public.

There are other sentimental details that were all the work of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, but I won't mention them here in case you'd like to immerse yourself in the fake magic.

All of that aside, of course the acting is phenomenal. Fassbender and Winslet should do more films together because their chemistry crackles. The writing style is classic Sorkin, meaning it's never boring and always more fast-paced than most people have time to project. It's fun to watch, regardless of what you thought of the man or the myth.

It will come as no surprise that I regard Jobs as a genius, and greatly respect his legacy. Perhaps I'll have to wait for a documentary to see the perspective I'm craving.

~~~



Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Tonight I saw Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance.

In 1957, Rudolf Abel (Rylance) was charged with being a Soviet spy in the United States. His reluctant defense lawyer, James B. Donovan (Hanks), grew fond of him as he worked on the case and fought to give him a fair trial.

Unfortunately, Donovan was unsuccessful and Abel went to prison. Three years after Abel was arrested, a U.S. pilot named Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) was captured in the Soviet Union after his U2 spy plane was shot down (yes, I squeed when they mentioned "U2"). Donovan suggested perhaps the two could be exchanged. The story we see in the film here is that of how Abel was used as a pawn ... and Donovan became the U.S.'s default chess player.

It's admirable how close the film stays to the real events (there are only a few instances of fiction or exaggeration), and goes without saying that the cast is phenomenal. Hanks is sincere, Rylance is endearing, and supporting cast members like Amy Ryan and Eve Hewson add a dose of authenticity to the family unit to prevent this from being "just another spy movie."

Though the true events are easy to snuff out online (and spoil the ending), the last third of the movie is no less heart-pounding as a result. The movie has suspense, heart, drama and a bit of humor.

Very warm for a Cold War subject.

~~~

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Crimson Peak

This morning I saw Crimson Peak, starring Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain.

Edith (Wasikowska) is a girl of privilege, close to her wealthy father, hoping to be a published author someday. She's a feminist before her time (this being the year 1900), who ironically chooses to follow her heart instead of her head when a handsome suitor comes calling, despite the fact she resents having to include a love story in her manuscript because she's female.

That suitor is Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a baronet from England who's struggling to find investors for his steam drill. He hopes Edith's father will come on board, but instead gets met with more rejection. In fact, Edith's father dislikes him so much, he pays him off—on the condition that he leave Edith alone.

Thomas complies, breaks Edith's heart, and sets back to England with his wicked sister Lucille (Chastain). But tragedy soon strikes and Edith no longer answers to the good judgment of her father. She's free to follow Thomas to England, and that she does, soon marrying him and moving into the creepy castle he and his sister have all to themselves.

Things are not as they seem, though, as Edith soon finds out. Her sister-in-law won't part with the keys to the home, and weird visions occur when she's alone. She also doesn't feel so well in her new surroundings, her body growing weaker each day.

This is where the movie starts revealing its secrets and feels like classic Guillermo del Toro.

The horrific images come wrapped in sadness; their visual components so stunning you can't look away. The characters aren't merely one-note horror devices, they're complex, tragic figures who demand you at least care about how they came to be the way they are. And care we do.

We want to believe in the love Thomas has for Edith. We want to believe all of the bad in the home stems from Lucille. We want to believe the doctor back home hasn't forgotten her.

The thrilling ending has a twist this reviewer didn't see coming, and though parts of it were very gory (especially the sound effects), it has a satisfying close.

Perfect subject matter for the Halloween season, delivered with beautiful art direction and a clever screenplay.

Grab a cup of British tea and have fun with it.

~~~


Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Visit

Tonight I saw The Visit, starring Olivia DeJonge and Deanna Dunagan.

Becca (DeJonge) and her brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) have never met their grandparents. Their mother left their house long ago when she fell in love with their father and never went back. Now, years after their father abandoned them, they want to meet their grandkids.

Reluctantly, Mom (Kathryn Hahn) agrees to let them go for a visit while she and her new boyfriend take off on a luxury cruise.

A train ride later, the kids are romping around the house where their mother grew up, asking Nana (Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) about their mother when she was young. It's an understandably sore subject, but is that the only reason they're being cagey?

I can't say more without spoiling (yes, there's a classic Shyamalan twist at the end that I figured out early on), but I will say that this movie was legitimately scary/disturbing. The kids do a great job (though Oxenbould's lisp gets annoying) of not being too exaggerated in their fears, and some clever dialogue helps make it more believable (when you hear "Katy Perry" you'll know what I mean).

Though I'm over the whole, "I'll set up a camera and we'll see what scary footage we get" trick, the elderly grandparents are a pair I'd never want to stay with under any circumstances.

What makes the film more effective is the genuine sentimentality that this broken family displays. Adults were hurt, and in the process kids got hurt, and that's never okay. Their care for one another helps us care about their well-being.

If you need a this-could-really-happen sort of terror this Halloween season, you could do worse than this film.

~~~

Sunday, October 11, 2015

He Named Me Malala

Today I saw the documentary, He Named Me Malala, directed by Davis Guggenheim.

Malala Yousafzai is a normal teenager. Though she occasionally has to remind reporters of this fact, she doesn't seem too annoyed that they tend to forget. Of course aside from being a teenager she's also a global activist, the survivor of a personal Taliban attack and a Nobel Peace Prize Winner.

She hangs out with Bono and Hilary Clinton and Queen Elizabeth from time to time, but she also does hours of homework each night by choice, hard as it is for her youngest (incredibly adorable) brother to process. Her mother is having a tough time adjusting to life in England, and her other "laziest" brother likes to poke fun at her. She's a daddy's girl at heart. Yeah, that's Malala's life.

A crusader for women's rights (as she was just becoming a woman herself), Malala fought for the right for girls to attend school in her native Pakistan. She lived an idyllic life with her family, a mountain pass separating them from the main city, before the Taliban came along. Once the arrived, she didn't feel she should have to sacrifice her education to honor their beliefs, so she kept going to school. One day when she was riding home from school on the bus with her friends, the Taliban shot her (and a few of her pals). Since the main bullet went into her head, it was thought she wouldn't survive, but she fought, and the world's faithful prayed, and she emerged with an even stronger resolve.

Though the left side of her face doesn't quite work as well as it used to (including hearing out of that ear), and she spent days in a coma as a result of the shooting, she has no anger for her attacker. Her father says it wasn't one person who shot her, it was "ideology."

To say that Malala is an inspiration would be an understatement. Many who endure such trauma simply retreat to quiet lives, never to be seen again. She did the opposite—she got better, and she kept fighting.

Award-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim captures her spirit beautifully in one-to-one interviews and visits with her entire family. There are also gorgeous, animated versions of some of the stories from her past as well as actual footage of the days following her attack.

Whether she's meeting with Syrian refugees or giving inspirational speeches to heads of state, the compassion and strength of this miracle girl shines through.

I only hope there's a sequel so we can see what she does next.

~~~


Monday, October 05, 2015

Black Mass

On Saturday I saw Black Mass, starring Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton.

Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger (Depp) loved his mother deeply. He was kind to old ladies. He was a doting father. He even took care of an abandoned cat in the neighborhood.

All of those things are true, as is the fact he was a malicious killer who terrorized the streets of Boston in the '70s and '80s as an Irish mob boss. This film tells of his decades evading justice as he used a childhood friend in the FBI to cover for him.

Spoiler alert: They're both now ending their days in prison.

Before they were caught, they each had a good run, though. Jimmy, defending his beloved Southie territory using whatever means necessary, and John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) climbing the ranks of the FBI by claiming Jimmy was a big-time informant.

Depp is icy cold as the brooding Bulger, always calm and collected even in the most gruesome times of violence. Edgerton is obnoxious and twitchy—apparently incredibly accurate—in his portrayal of Connolly, who in a weird, warped way always idolized Bulger. The attacks are frequent and the blood flows freely, but if you can anticipate when to look away, the other aspects of the movie will keep you glued to the screen.

In addition to the two leads, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Julianne Nicholson and Dakota Johnson all do a fine job in their supporting roles, but the real stand-out for me was Peter Sarsgaard as cocaine addict Brian Halloran. His brief time on screen was so memorable, he was who we were talking about as we left the theater.

The movie (and its real-life horrors) will stay with you for hours, maybe days after you see it. If you're tough enough to see this, be sure to stay to the very end where they show footage of the real criminals.

It's comforting to know that many of the people involved were in fact brought to justice, but the magnitude of the crimes still haunt.

~~~

Friday, September 18, 2015

Amy

Tonight I saw the documentary Amy, about the life and death of singer Amy Winehouse.

We only said goodbye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to black 


I always loved the music of Amy Winehouse. Her lyrics stung the way the best lines of prose attack you—her voice a rare seduction in a sea of trendy, chirpy female voices. She epitomized sexy jazz.

Unfortunately, like so many musicians before her, she died at the young age of 27. This film, crafted together like a scrapbook of home movies by director Asif Kapadia, chronicles her life.

We see a young girl emerge rebellious from her parents' separation (she was 9 when they split), an undeniable gift for music cultivated and a dangerous substance addiction present throughout. At the end of the day she was a junkie. An incredibly talented genius, but still a junkie.

The love of her life was her husband Blake, and the film implies he made a great effort to keep her high (he, also a junkie). Couple that with a battle against bulimia and the pressures of intense international fame and you have a recipe for disaster.

The film captures her spirit well: a painfully shy, wounded little girl mixed with a bold, raw, authentic woman. It's sweet to watch her rise to stardom in the early days when she hadn't yet disappeared into addiction; gut-wrenching to see her staggering around the stage near the end, not fully knowing where she was.

The whole story is simply sad but at least she left us the legacy of her beautiful voice, and now, though this moving portrait of her years, we can see perhaps why she left us the way she did.

~~~

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Trainwrecked

In July, I saw Trainwrecked, starring Amy Schumer and Bill Hader. Unfortunately, I didn't write a review for it at the time. But I loved it.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Ted 2

Last night I saw Ted 2, starring Mark Wahlberg and the voice of Seth MacFarlane.

When we last saw Ted the talking teddy bear (MacFarlane), he had fallen in love with his colleague Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). When this film opens, they're tying the knot.

But just like any other couple, soon there's trouble in paradise and Ted is desperate to save his marriage. On the advice of a mutual friend, Ted suggests they have a baby and Tami-Lynn couldn't be happier. The only problem? Ted doesn't have the appropriate baby-making body part.

After a few attempts to find a surrogate, they decide a smarter route would be to try to adopt, but when they apply they're told it won't be possible because the state of Massachusetts doesn't recognize Ted as a real person. Hilarity ensues.

Actually, the whole movie is funny. It's ridiculous, filthy, and wildly inappropriate, but yes—it's funny. A running Google joke had me in tears it was so good. The delivery of each actor (and some phenomenal cameos) was brilliant. I'm not remotely ashamed to admit I liked it.

On the negative side (if you don't mind the filth) was the continuation of Hasbro villain Donny (Giovonni Ribisi) trying to reclaim Ted. What was supposed to be creepy induced yawns and what could have been the climax (pun intended) was anything but that.

It's okay though, I laughed enough at every other part of the story to forgive it for this sin.

~~~

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Magic Mike XXL

Tonight I saw Magic Mike XXL, starring Channing Tatum and Joe Manganiello.

You know what? This film is what it is. It is what it's supposed to be and it's supposed to be a movie for straight women and gay men to see with their friends and hoot and holler at the screen.

Mission accomplished.

The plot, if you could call it that, finds Mike (Tatum) re-joining his tribe of "male entertainter" mates as they take a road trip to the annual strippers' convention. Yeah, that's about it.

While that's pretty predictable, I will say that they do a better job this time around of fleshing out the characters (Kevin Nash's Tarzan is a budding artist; Matt Bomer's Ken experiments with energy healing), and it's later revealed just why we're supposed to care.

All of the men are charmers, but Manganiello really steals the show with a convenience store scene that can't be missed. His finale was also my personal favorite, but I've always liked Nine Inch Nails, so maybe that had something to do with it.

Jada Pinkett Smith is a perfect addition to the cast, adding a jolt of feminist strength, and the varied sizes of women they entertain throughout give me new respect for whomever cast the film. 

Put simply it's a really fun romp—lighter fare than last time, and that's a good thing. The only thing missing was Matthew McConaughey

~~~


Friday, June 19, 2015

Inside Out

Tonight I saw Inside Out, starring the voices of Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith.

Pixar has done it again. They've gone and created a visually stunning, colorful, magical film that not only pleases the aural senses, but pulls your heart out and presents it to you on a platter.

Riley (Katilyn Dias) is a happy-go-lucky 11-year-old girl living a cozy life with her parents in Minnesota until one day everything changes: the family moves to San Francisco for her dad's job.

She keeps a brave face and tries not to get too upset when the house they arrive to is nothing like the one they left, and the moving van with all their stuff is delayed. The emotions inside of her are fighting the good fight to keep her safe and content, but Sadness (Smith) keeps grabbing her memories and forcing them to change shape. In an effort to keep Riley from getting dismal, Joy (Poehler) tries to rescue those memories and in the process gets catapulted out of "headquarters," leaving only Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) to rule her feelings.

Soon Riley is miserable at her new school, mad at her parents and ready to run back to the Midwest where she can again find happiness. Joy and Sadness have to do whatever it takes to get back inside headquarters to prevent her from going too far down the dark path.

What an amazing metaphor for an adolescent brain!

Didn't we all feel like a crazy train wreck of emotions during those years? Or was it just me because my parents put me through a move when I was the same age as Riley's character? I'm bargaining that most young people—male and female—feel so much uncertainty as their mind and body matures that they're often overwhelmed.

The voice actors here are well-known, but thankfully it's not distracting, because they're so perfectly suited to their assigned emotion (especially Smith, who everyone will remember from the American version of The Office).

I laughed, I cried, I mused, I remembered, I reflected, I hurt, I healed... I loved this film.

~~~


Saturday, June 06, 2015

Tig

Tonight I screened the documentary Tig.

I remember opening my email in October of 2012 and seeing one from Louis C.K. that started like this:

Greetings to the people and parts of people that are reading this. 
Hi. This is Louis. I'm a comedian and you bought a thing from me. 
Well, I'm writing to tell You that there is a new thing you can buy on 
my website louisck.com. It's an audio standup set by not me but 
another comedian named Tig Notaro. Why am I selling someone else's 
comedy on my website? 
 
This film answers that question and so many more. 

It begins with a chronicle of the horrible life events that Tig endured leading up to her cancer diagnosis (which is the news that led to the standup set that Louis C.K. mentioned in that email) and progresses almost to present day as she navigates reclaiming her career and building a family.

Sounds depressing, eh?

Don't think that for a minute. This was the most hilarious, life-affirming, just-what-anyone-going-through-anything-should-see documentary that I've ever witnessed. Throughout death and disappointment—and facing more death—Ms. Notaro sees the funny in everything and can't help but deliver it. That's the entire film. Whether she's in front of an audience or chatting with loved ones, she's making herself (and anyone exposed to her) laugh. 

I enjoyed learning how she endured all of the tragedy, and was inspired by her strength throughout. 

Though I did purchase her routine at the time, and knew of her previous struggles, I had no idea what she has faced since then and I was so (relieved and) thrilled to see her walk into our Q & A after the film, healthy and strong in good spirits.

The film is dangerously raw and heartbreaking .... so basically perfect.

~~~

Tig screened at the 41st annual Seattle International Film Festival. It will be released on Netflix July 17.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The Little Death

Tonight I screened The Little Death, starring Josh Lawson and Kate Box.

There are many ways to participate in and enjoy sex—the couples in this film give several methods a lighthearted spotlight in this story about relationships.

In a suburb of Sydney, a community seems to be plagued by various 'issues' in the bedroom. One pair has tried desperately for three years to conceive, making sex more routine than pleasurable; another sees a counselor for their lack of communication and begins role play as a homework assignment.

Perhaps less conventional, there's a man who wants his wife primarily while she's sleeping and another couple who promises to nurture the fetishes of the other only to discover one of them is horrific.

Add to that a deaf man who asks a sign language interpreter to translate phone sex and a cookie-baking sex offender who has just moved into the neighborhood and you have quite a tale to tell.

I laughed throughout, and so did the rest of the audience.

The way these men and women are portrayed is comical, but not too far-fetched to be real. From their difficulties come real challenges and the absurdity of how they're presented makes them accessible.

I hope to see more from director Josh Lawson (who also stars in the film) because he's found a refreshing new way to tell a story.

~~~

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Our Summer in Provence

Today I saw Our Summer in Provence, starring Jean Reno and Lukas Pelissier.

When Irene (Anna Galiena) takes in her daughter's children for the summer as she navigates a new world as a divorcee, her husband Paul (Reno) is furious. He has been estranged from their girl for 17 years and feels she's dumping her children upon them unfairly.

The children, Adrien (Hugo Dessioux), Léa (Chloé Jouannet) and Theo (Pelissier), are equally unexcited to be there, used to the fast Paris lifestyle. In their eyes, Provence is rural and boring and lacks a strong Internet signal. Plus, Theo is deaf, so only his brother and sister know how to properly communicate with him via sign language.

They all get off to a rough start with Léa's rebelling like her mother, and Adrian's typical teenage laziness acting as a catalyst for frustration from his grandfather. It seems for a while that Theo, who is proud to help with the olive trees on their estate, may be the only one willing to embrace the change.

As the summer continues, a problem Paul is battling comes front and center, and the family reaches a turning point. I can't say more than that without spoiling the film, but it's conventional, yet powerful.

In fact, that's a great way to sum up the whole film: conventional, yet powerful.

Where the main plot and characters are painfully formulaic, their story is redeemed my superb acting, gorgeous scenery and an abundance of scenes that don't take the dramatic too far.

The film made me think of my own family's dynamics and made me yearn for another European summer.

Our Summer in Provence screened at the 41st annual Seattle International Film Festival.

~~~




Saturday, May 30, 2015

All Things Must Pass

Tonight I screened the documentary All Things Must Pass.

Full disclosure: I was a financial backer of this film by way of a Kickstarter donation in 2011 and my name does actually appear in the credits (1st name, 3rd column if anyone's looking). Since I had absolutely no creative control, I don't think it's a conflict of interest to script a review. If you disagree, then feel free to leave this page.

Now that I got that out of the way, let me tell you how much I loved the film (and am relieved/excited my modest contribution went toward making something so great).

The first ten years of my life in Portland, Oregon, I lived directly across the street from a mall, and in the corner of that mall was Tower Records. There was no place more sacred than this store. Because it was open 365 days a year, my parents made a habit of buying Christmas gift certificates for my sister and me, so we would shuffle across the street and spend hours deciding how to use them. They were the only store open on Christmas and we couldn't have been happier. We also had their free calendar hanging on our bedroom door every year. And numerous album flats they would discard into the trash if we didn't claim them first (Millennials: an album flat was a cardboard image of an album cover used to promote new records; like a poster, only more legit).

In high school, on an extended stay in Washington, DC for a journalism workshop, my new friends and I spent afternoons in the Tower Records store that was near our dormitory at George Washington University—a common bond amongst teenagers from different backgrounds.

When I moved to Seattle at age 23, I spent a lot of time at the Queen Anne Tower Records, attending midnight release parties for U2 albums, etc. I wept when it closed a few years later.

This film isn't about just me, though, it's about the millions affected by the collapse of this eternally likeable brand. Director Colin Hanks gets testimonials from those closest to the company (its founder and executive team, who all came up as clerks) and many notable musicians (Springsteen, Dave Grohl) about what the stores meant to them and what its loss meant to the greater community.

It may sound silly to personify a brand so passionately, but Tower was so much more than a brand, it's fitting in this context.

From the joyful beginning that stemmed from the founder's father's drugstore to the international expansion and fame the company got from its celebrity shoppers (i.e. Elton John, who gives a sincere interview about his obsession with the store here), there really wasn't anything like it and because the way we consume music has changed so much there probably won't be again.

For those who remember Tower's glory, the film will serve as a sort of personal time capsule; for those who are too young to remember, it offers a glimpse of the golden years.

An entertaining final verse, sung with a lot of heart.

~~~

Racing Extinction

Today I screened the documentary Racing Extinction.

There are lies, murder and an abundance of history lessons, but this isn't a war movie. It's a documentary about the war humans are declaring on our rapidly deteriorating earth.

Oscar-winning director Louie Psihoyos (famous for The Cove), teamed up with scientists, professors, photographers and technology innovators to deliver this gut punch of a wake up call, urging all of us to take action immediately.

So, what's the problem?

Well, there are a lot of them. Climate change. The market for 'exotic wildlife.' Methane generated by livestock. I could go on.

These are problems we hear about in abbreviated news mentions or headlines we see on articles we never get around to reading, but seldom do we submit to an emotional responsibility for them. Here, we do.

The photographer that is on a quest to take a picture of every species before it dies out especially got to me. Posing a petite frog for a close up or searching deep into the eyes of a tiger, we see the beings crying out for help in their own intimate way. Hearing a type of whale call out for a mate that no longer exists because their gender has been wiped out brought me to tears. Imagine being the last of your gender. Anywhere. Ever.

It's not all doom and gloom, though. We can slow some of these terrible things down if not prevent them completely. The film's official website invites you to take action, even if just one day at a time.

If we don't do something, the food we eat and the air we breathe will be a much different story in just a few decades.

Racing Extinction screened at the 41st annual Seattle International Film Festival.

~~~


Sunday, May 24, 2015

One Million Dubliners

Tonight I screened the documentary One Million Dubliners.

Our final resting place is something most of us try not to think about. At least not until later. When we're old.

But as the years go by, and more loved ones are lost, it's hard to avoid having the conversation about what the wishes we have in the event of the unthinkable.

For much of the residents of Dublin, Ireland, there's only one choice: Glasnevin Cemetery. Since 1828 everyone from the working class to the most famous of political activists have been buried there with the philosophy passed down from it's founder Daniel O'Connell, "To bury people of all religions and none."

Welcoming those of all faiths, as well as atheists and unborn/stillborn children, the cemetery has become such a cultural draw that it is now one of the most visited tourist attractions in Ireland. This film, narrated primarily by employees of the cemetery, tells the story of its history and how it cares so deeply for the dead.

Morbid, eh? Not really. With charismatic tour guide Shane MacThomais leading the charge, the tales told here are sometimes funny, or just merely fascinating. Some of the dead celebrities have "groupies" who visit regularly; some of the workers at Glasnevin have family members of their own there. None of it is boring.

As someone with a fair amount of Irish blood and an unabashed love for the country (and Dublin specifically), I'm ashamed to say I've never visited the site. Surely I have ancestors there—most people with Irish heritage do, because the dead in this cemetery outnumber the living population. After what I learned from this documentary, it will undoubtedly be a stop for me on my next trip to the Emerald Isle.

Anyone with a connection to Ireland should see it.

~~~

One Million Dubliners screened at the 41st annual Seattle International Film Festival.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Monkey Kingdom

Today I saw the documentary Monkey Kingdom, narrated by Tina Fey.

The film traces the lives of monkey families in Sri Lanka as they navigate a year in their natural jungle habitat. The most surprising element for this viewer? The strict class system that the primates adhere to, and for which dictate where they can hunt, eat, sleep, etc.

The heroine of the story is a gentle, "blue collar" monkey named Maya. She's a peaceful, calm girl who knows her place in society... at the bottom of the barrel. She doesn't try to challenge the "white collar" sisters who rule the roost; she merely keeps to herself on the bottom branch, carrying on her affair with a visiting monkey in another part of the forest.

Their love yields baby Kip, an adorable whippersnapper who clings to his mama as he learns the ropes of lower class life in the wild. We see her do what she has to do, like so many mothers do, to keep her little one safe. And yes, the father does run off for long periods of time.

The family survives monsoon season, various vicious predators and even a monkey-napping attack from others in their community. It's scary to watch, but almost comforting to know every species has to work hard to just to exist.

A venture into the city was the highlight of the film for me: monkeys stealing cake from a human birthday party; trying to sleep through the obnoxious street parade and dangling over open-air markets to steal fruit when no one was looking.

The delightful narration by Tina Fey only enhances the scenes, which are slow-paced, but not boring.

If you're a fan of nature and want to catch a glimpse of authentic jungle life, unharmed by our modern society, you could do worse than spending time with this film.

~~~

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

Tonight I attended the North American public premiere of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.

I'll start by saying this: I'm a huge Nirvana fan. I was the "right age" when they became famous, and Kurt Cobain's life and death have haunted me ever since. I knew that I would see any documentary that was ever made about him/the band; I had no idea I'd see one that moved me this much.

Director Brett Morgen, privy to unprecedented access to the Cobain family storage vault, traces the genesis of the grunge genius in this raw, unvarnished, unpretentious series of moments captured by various friends, family members and journalists.

Beginning with Kurt's mother Wendy, his entire life is constructed by memories of those who were closest to him—and by Kurt himself.

When so seamlessly weaved together as they are here, the stages of his soul's progress are jarring. What begins as a picture perfect life for a boisterous blond baby soon becomes a cloud of shame for a child embarrassed by his parents' divorce. His energy—instead of being channeled into the music and art he was so good at—instead turns to mischief and darkness as he bounces from home to home, feeling rejected at each stop.

His family loved him, but he was out of control. Fortunately he found a good girlfriend to float him through periods of unemployment and allow him to perfect his creative crafts: writing, drawing, playing the guitar and singing. Unfortunately, he also learned to self-medicate his chronic stomach pain with heroin. And alcohol, and marijuana, etc.

Then along came Nirvana, and later Courtney Love, and the rest is music history.

The film shows us many things we already knew about Cobain, but what makes it special is how it conveys the things we didn't. Kurt's glorious innocence and sweetness as a toddler; his tender love for his wife; his sophisticated cries for help masked by elaborate artwork; his absolute dedication to being a better father than the one he had.

There was an innate kindness to Kurt that many spoke of in interviews after he passed, but here we get to witness it first-hand, from the little boy trying to feed the ceramic turtle his saltine cracker, to the proud papa throwing himself all over the room to make his infant daughter giggle.

It's painful to think that if his family unit had remained intact or if he hadn't been the victim of ridicule as a teenager that he may not have become an addict and could be alive today.

But there's also the chance that if his young life had been more conventional, he may never have been driven to express himself so deeply, or ever have shared his gifts with the world. And as tragic as it is, his passing brought awareness about the evils of drug use and the senselessness of suicide to the masses.

There has never been a more beautiful sacrificial lamb.

~~~




Sunday, April 12, 2015

Cinderella

Today I saw Cinderella, starring Lily James and Cate Blanchett.

The story of Cinderella is sewn so tightly into the fabric of our collective memories that the plot doesn't need repeating, so instead I'll just highlight the pros and cons of this live action rendition:
  • I missed the music. I like a little Bibbidi-Bobbiti-Boo with my fairy Godmothering and the fact there was only a drop of song here and there was disappointing.
  • I loved the cast of ladies. Lily James was convincingly sweet as the star and Blanchett equally so as the villain. Helena Bonham Carter too.
  • The pace was a little slow. Knowing every step of the story going in is an obvious disadvantage, but it's exaggerated when things don't move swiftly.
  • The costumes and scenery were gorgeous. I loved getting lost in that forest and dancing across that ballroom. 
  • I wish there had been more of the stepsisters. Nasty as they were, they brought great comic relief to the story. But they were hardly there.
  • The overall theme of kindness was well executed. The screenwriter did a beautiful job of capturing the true spirit of the fairy tale, sending the message that good people finish first.
In conclusion, the magic is there if you believe in it.

~~~

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Just realized, a full month after I saw this film, that I never reviewed it. Shame on me, but I think it's too late now to remember specifics and provide fair commentary, so I'll just say this: it was fun, Colin Firth was delightful and if you're looking for something that doesn't make you work too hard as a viewer, you'll probably enjoy it.

~~~

Sunday, February 15, 2015

American Sniper

Today I saw American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller.

Chris Kyle (Cooper) is a hard-working American cowboy who feels moved to fight for his country and enlists at age 30. He trains to become a Navy Seal and soon becomes a legend for his precise sniper skills in the desert.

His wife back home, Taya (Miller), is proud of the man he's become, but tired of playing single mother to their two children while he keeps returning to duty. Each time she speaks with him, she begs him to quit the service and come home.

The entire film, based on a true story, details Kyle's wrestle with his sense of responsibility to defend his country and his genuine love for his family. Much like we've seen in films like The Hurt Locker, when soldiers come home, they have an understandably tough time acclimating back to "real life." They've endured so many horrors in the field, there's perhaps a survivors' guilt for enjoying the basic things that Americans are free to experience. In Kyle's case, he also carried the burden of being "the best in the business" at his particular craft, so he felt no matter who was fighting in the war on our behalf, he would do a better job (and save more lives) if he was there.

Director Clint Eastwood does a predictably great job making us feel as if we're in the war with these Seals. Cooper holds his own with a convincing Texas drawl and pained look in his eye; Miller genuinely captures what so many military wives must endure on a daily basis.

Basically? It's a good, solid, sad, inspirational entertaining film.

I procrastinated seeing it because war is hard to watch, but I'm glad I went because now I'm aware of a real-life hero who I previously knew nothing about. I also understand the Oscar nominations and the box office success, both of which I believe are well deserved.

If you can stomach the violence, and don't mind shedding some tears, you shouldn't miss it.

~~~

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey

Tonight I saw Fifty Shades of Grey, starring Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson.

Those who were able to make it through the not-so-well-written book know the story: a handsome Seattle billionaire becomes enamored with a virginal college student and requests that she become his submissive. There is paperwork and playrooms, and all sorts of kinky toys.

At the heart of the "plot," Christian Grey (Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Johnson) play an extended game of cat and mouse, each giving up parts of themselves in pursuit of the other, while deciding whether or not to stay the course.

The film stays pretty faithful to the book, which means there's really not a lot to it, but that is no fault of the actors, who do the absolute best with what they are given.

Dornan is like a young Colin Firth, endearing and doe-eyed; Johnson just sweet and innocent enough to be convincing. Their chemistry is strong and they sell the love/lust debacle as best as could be expected (though I could have done with less of Johnson's bony rib cage and more of Dornan in general).

But the dialog is ridiculous (again, faithful to the book) and the pace is painfully (no pun intended) slow. The only saving grace is that if you view it as pure camp, it's actually pretty fun.

Go into the film not planning to take one tiny moment seriously and you will laugh sincerely as you blush your way through the (not so) explicit sex scenes. Cheer every time you see a shot of Seattle (the local audience I saw it with did) and chuckle when the pillow talk is nonsense.

You'll have fun with it (and maybe even anticipate the sequel).

~~~


Sunday, February 08, 2015

Two Days, One Night

Today I saw Two Days, One Night, starring Marion Cotillard.

Every one of us can name a time in our lives when we've been at the mercy of others—whether it be due to issues of health, finances or circumstance. The vulnerability that we feel in those moments is gripping.

Take that vulnerability and pile it on top of a woman who has just recovered from a terrible spell of depression and you have our main character here, Sandra (Cotillard). Her horrible boss has just asked each employee at her place of business if they would prefer to get a bonus or keep Sandra on the team. Financially, the business can't do both. Naturally, the majority choose the bonus, but after a confrontation with Sandra (and her supportive colleague), the boss agrees to have a 're-count' via secret ballot on Monday in case some felt pressured to vote against her.

With the eleventh-hour appeal granted, Sandra sets about (with the help of her husband) to visit each of her colleagues over the weekend and convince them to change their vote. This is a humbling feat, to say the least.

Sandra is the perfect hot mess; she wears bright-colored tops that contrast her unwashed hair and ashen face, only intensifying the pain she feels each time she has to 'beg' someone she works with for a second chance. She drinks water almost compulsively (choking down the pills that dull her feelings) and passively admits defeat when some say there's no way they will change their vote.

Marion Cotillard plays her straight, as the directing team of the Dardenne brothers always command. She's clearly the most beautiful person on screen, but you wouldn't know it from her demeanor. She just seems like someone who loves her family and tries harder than most to get out of bed each day.

The entire film is really a series of uncomfortable conversations, but as find ourselves shifting in our seats, we realized we're also glued to them—not even dreaming about getting up until we learn the outcome.

The gift the Dardenne brothers have for making us care about those down on their luck (see: The Kid with a Bike and L'Enfant for further reference) still burns bright.

~~~

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Still Alice

Tonight I saw Still Alice, starring Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin.

Alice (Moore) is a linguistics professor who has just turned 50 when she realizes she's becoming very forgetful. To be on the safe side, she begins working with a neurologist, who slowly rules out strokes, a tumor, etc. leaving her with the diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's Disease.

Alice takes the news as well as can be expected, but harbors horrible guilt over the fact she may have passed the same gene on to her children. Her husband John (Baldwin), is a pillar of support, never leaving her side, never making her feel a burden.

Things are more complicated with her youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), who she has always wished would do more with her life than pursue an acting career. They bicker and battle even after the diagnosis, though they clearly both love one another very much.

It's a solid movie about a horrible ailment with a very authentic fictional family demonstrating how hard it can be in every aspect of the patient's deterioration. Events like this are every person's worst nightmare, but somehow we keep watching films and reading books about them, perhaps to prepare ourselves in case it strikes someone we love.

The performance by Julianne Moore here is predictably phenomenal. She communicates the strength of her character well, while also showing the complexity of her vulnerability as her condition progresses. Baldwin is also great in what is perhaps his most understated dramatic role.

It's not an easy film to watch; nor enjoyable, but will serve as a catalyst for tears if you're in place where that sort of release would be welcome.

A piece of cinema that will be difficult to forget.

~~~


Saturday, January 31, 2015

Live Action Short Film Nominees (Oscars® 2015)

Tonight I saw all five of the nominated films in the Live Action Short category. I'll present my reviews in the order they were shown.

PARVANEH (Switzerland)

When Afghan refugee Pari (Nissa Kashani) attempts to send money home to her ailing father from Zurich, she realizes she can't because she's not of legal age for the wire transfer. A chance meeting with a local shows her that not everything in life is awful; sometimes you just need a friend. I found this story (and its actors) sweet, but I didn't feel it carried the emotional heft of the usual nominees.

BUTTER LAMP (France and China)

A photographer in a remote Tibetan Village makes lasting memories for townspeople and tourists with his inventive backdrops. Yep, that's basically it, and it's as exciting as it sounds. Short of a few charming instances, I was pretty bored throughout.

THE PHONE CALL (United Kingdom)

Most likely the one that the Academy will crown the winner, this is the most traditional of the nominees. A linear story of a sad man (Jim Broadbent) calling a crisis clinic to reach a sympathetic soul (Sally Hawkins). It's a tender conversation filled with expected tension that perhaps goes on too long (although in real life those moments admittedly feel like forever). Hawkins shines, but there's nothing new here to see.

AYA (Israel and France)

The film I'd vote for if I had a ballot, Aya, combines kidnapping and a case of mistaken identity with a happenstance road trip. Did I mention this is also a rom com? I fell for this film from the opening frame and it had me through to the very end. Well-drawn characters, unpredictable dialogue and enough action to make it feel like it was speeding by (though it was the lengthiest of the entries). I couldn't find fault with anything here, except that I wish it had been a full-length feature so I could spend more time with the characters.

BOOGALOO AND GRAHAM (Northern Ireland)

Two adorable children get baby chicks from their Dad as a gift and refuse to part with them when they grow into full chickens. Their pregnant mother is not amused, so they go to great lengths to protect their pets. This sweet scenario happens amidst the contrast of terrorism and violence that plagued Belfast in the late '70s. A tender look at the layer beneath the historic geographical unrest.

~~~

Cake

Today I saw Cake, starring Jennifer Aniston and Adriana Barraza.

Claire Bennett (Aniston) suffers from chronic pain. After a debilitating car accident, she becomes a different woman: bitter, angry, stiff and mean.

Silvana (Barraza) is the sympathetic housekeeper/caregiver who worked for her prior to the event. She does what she can to ease the suffering, and seems to be the only one around who hasn't given up on her (Claire's kind husband has since moved out).

Mrs. Bennett, as Silvana calls her, goes through all the motions of coping with her ailment: she attends a therapy group; shows up for swimming therapy and takes her medicine. Actually, she takes too much medicine, as evidenced by hiding pills behind paintings and forcing Silvana to take her to Mexico for additional prescriptions. Quite frankly, she's a mess. But she knows it and doesn't seem to care.

Her situation takes a different shape when her friend Nina (Anna Kendrick), commits suicide. Claire suddenly has something else to focus on, and that focus manifests into visits to the death site and time spent with Nina's surviving family. The question is: does she want to learn about it so she can build the courage to go through with it herself, or attempt to get better in spite of it?

The journey Claire takes isn't easy, and Aniston is so phenomenal in the role, you'll start to feel your muscles ache as you shift in your theater seat. Her communication of the pain—both physical and mental—is nearly tangible it's so real.

In fact, after seeing this, and remembering Aniston years ago in Friends With Money and The Good Girl, I wish she'd pursue more dramatic roles, preferably with scripts as great as this one.

So let's talk about the writing by Patrick Tobin: the dialogue is authentic, the scenarios believable and the plot's not even close to formulaic. The pace mirrors real life in that it speeds up sometimes and goes frustratingly slow at others. We're never sure where Claire is going, because she isn't either.


At heart, we're asked to examine how we react when confronted with the unthinkable and how that reaction determines how or if we'll recover from it.

Go see the film for Aniston's performance, and be reminded that most of us have it very easy.

~~~